Question Heron – 2 June 2024

Richard Flanagan’s latest book is breathtaking. I want to write that it is ‘electrifying’ but it is in part about nuclear fission so that may not be the correct term.

Question 7 tells the story of Flanagan’s parents’ lives and deaths, including his father’s internment at Ohama Camp, Japan, during the second world war, of slavery and racism and genocide in Tasmania and of his own near-death experience and why he writes.

All are described at different points along a thread which traces the development of the atomic bomb from H. G. Wells’s imagination to the physicist Leo Szilard’s reading of The World Set Free to the Manhattan Project to Hiroshima.

The chapters are divided into short, numbered sections. This structure offers space to pause, encourages one to re-read and note down sections and enables flicking back to previous ones to puzzle out the chain reaction taking place.

‘Of the many necessary illusions that enable a writer to write, two are paramount – one, the vanity they can write a good book, and the other the conceit that a good book will be read by good readers, people with the insight to recognise what is good within it,’ Flanagan writes, demanding that we be good readers, hoping that he not be misconstrued.

The title is inspired by Chekhov’s ‘Questions Posed By a Mad Mathematician’ and its explanation is offered throughout the book in questions of arithmetic and life.

The intensity of the writing reminded me of Paul Lynch’s Prophet Song, the style of Selby Wynn Schwartz’s After Sappho and the onslaught of ideas plaited into meticulous shape of Maggie Nelson’s books.

Incidentally, Maggie Nelson’s latest, Like Love: Essays and Conversations, a collection exploring criticism and art with her erudite friends,is excellent, though I also found it intimidating. Her interview on Open Book offered another approach and now I am finding joy on each, slowly-read, page.

To more good writing, then, which necessitates good reading:

The Safekeep by Yael van der Wouden begins with the discovery of a buried piece of broken crockery in a garden in the Dutch countryside. Yet the set which the fragment matches is intact. Isabel cannot make sense of this even when her brother notes that their family home was furnished when they moved in, that the plates and many other things were already there. It is the first in a series of disordering events which draws the reader into several obsessions.

Moon Road by Sarah Leipciger follows Yannick and Kathleen, forced to drive across Canada also to deal with something buried, now uncovered. They have not seen each other for nineteen years. Against the grand and imposing landscape, Leipciger depicts the minute and quiet looks and words which shape a once-close relationship.  

The Road to the Country by Chigozie Obioma is another odyssey though a brutal one. When Kunle discovers that his brother has left home for the new Republic of Biafra he rushes to rescue him. Instead, he finds himself captured and then fighting for Biafra, the cause of the civil war and that of brotherhood now bound together.

Spice: The 16th-Century Contest that Shaped the Modern World by Roger Crowley is a fascinating account of journeys and battles too, but this time for cloves, for nutmeg and for control of the global supply of flavour. It’s a transportive, piquant history of clashes which have shaped the world’s economy.

Pitch & Glint by Lutz Seiler is a poetry collection beset by fractures, as Seiler’s home has been – Seiler grew up in Gera, in what was East Germany, as the Soviet Union mined nearby for uranium. The collection, already humming, has new resonance after reading Question 7. I am really looking forward to discussing the poems with their translator, Stefan Tobler, on 20th June as part of our Independent Bookshop Week celebrations. Do sign up for this special event.

Where Pitch & Glint speaks softly, Food for the Dead by Charlotte Shevchenko Knight cries out for a place: the book howls with love, sorrow and anger for Ukraine. The poems are confronting, even down to the stark gaps between words.  

Shaping the good readers of the future:

Astrid and the Space Cadets: Attack of the Snailiens! by Alex T. Smith is a brilliant story for those starting to read alone and/or those who fly off into space on adventures while other six-year-olds are safely tucked in their beds…

The Kingdom Over the Sea and The City Beyond the Stars by Zohra Nabi are the first two in a fantasy adventure series in which Yara discovers that her roots lie in an unexpected place, full of sorcerers and alchemists and rather hard to find on a map. Apologies to all customers in the shop on Thursday morning when Harry and I could not stop talking about it; we may have been a little hyper…  

And, if the final day of half term requires a distraction activity, it is never too early to start learning Ancient Greek with the brilliant puzzle book, British Museum: Going for Gold by Andy Seed. (I will refrain from saying anything about British Museum conundrums but I did find myself addicted to a certain radio programme this week…)

We’ll be trying to ask the right questions, Chekhov- and Flanagan-style at our events and book groups. The long-awaited short fiction and poetry groups have now launched; do sign up. And a reminder that there are two weeks left to enter our flash fiction competition; your 400 words will be read with great care.

May your Sunday be a little spicy,

Featured in the newsletter