Scenes from the Heronry – 27 January 2024

Radio 4 this week have been playing a gorgeous selection of stories from Scenes From A Childhood by Jon Fosse, read by John Mackay. I had not read the book before discovering the adaptation and thus when I did turn to the physical object I found that I read it with Mackay’s voice in my head, which lent itself perfectly to the minimalist tone of the writing. Some of the stories are only a few lines but contain a full and wide-reaching narrative. All of them together build to so much more than the sum of their parts. Yet I thought I must share one of these parts with you:

Asle has never read a book. And then they read a novel for school. Asle discovers he really likes it, because everything that in life only moves back and forth is like music somehow in the novel, so he really likes it, but it’s not exactly the same as music, because he knows what music is but this is a kind of music where everything that goes back and forth stays quiet and nice to think about.

Is this true? Does Jon Fosse think it’s true? I am enjoying wondering about it, which may be the point. His words do not always seem quiet to me.

Perhaps it is an especially odd time to ponder this when I am also preparing for a book group at which we are discussing The Stasi Poetry Circle, which uncovers the story of how the brutal secret police in the GDR, committed to suppression of free thought, also believed that they could fight capitalism with… poetry.

The written word is silent. Technically. The written word is very loud indeed.

Some loud, some quiet, here are just a few of the recently published books which have caught my attention:

Wild Houses by Colin Barrett: Dev is minding his own business, quietly holding onto whatever drugs someone requires him to and looking after his mother’s dog, when Gabe and Sketch Ferdia show up. This time they need him to hold onto something rather larger: the brother of someone with whom they are not very happy. And if that doesn’t sound like the start of a great fun escapade, then I am afraid you are mistaken…
The Gallopers by Jon Ransom: it is 1953 and the North Sea has flooded, washing away Eli’s mother and bringing all sorts of things to the cursed field he lives beside. Eli is mocked for his femininity, haunted by something that happened with his colleague Shaun and lusting after fairground worker Jimmy. At the heart of the book is a play written by Eli thirty years later, imagining a very different version of what unfolds.
Verdigris by Michele Mari: teenaged Michelín spends his summers with his grandparents near Lake Maggiore where their elderly and increasingly forgetful groundskeeper becomes a source of fascination and horror for him. Felice’s more recent memories may struggle to stick but his long-term memory begs to reveal things, things buried in the grounds in which the countless slugs are rather interested…
Christ on a Bike by Orla Owen: an unexpected inheritance is kind of the dream, right? We’ve all watched Ghosts… But for Cerys a sudden windfall comes with strict rules that she must follow; the past seems to be in control of her new home and who on earth is this bearded fellow who keeps cycling past her door?
Your Utopia by Bora Chung: if you read Cursed Bunny, you may know what you’re in for with Bora Chung’s short stories – absurd horror, black humour and something likely to explode. Viscerally. Your Utopia is also a brilliantly fleshy collection, as well as examining where AI is currently taking us… And if you need another haunting short story collection with Shirley Jackson echoes, 19 Claws and a Black Bird by Agustina Bazterrica is delicious and horrific…  

The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World by Bettany Hughes: Hughes takes the reader on a geographical, historical and mythical journey as she uncovers details about these great archaeological feats, what happened to them and indeed whether they were real at all…
The Picnic: An Escape to Freedom and the Collapse of the Iron Curtain by Matthew Longo: on 19th August 1989, a small gathering attended by 20,000 people took place; an amalgamation of Hungarian opposition parties organised the ‘pan-European picnic’ in the militarised zone of the Iron Curtain. Just days later, Hungary opened its border: tens of thousands of refugees were fleeing East Germany and a few months later the Berlin Wall came down. Longo interviews key figures involved in the picnic and sets the events of 1989 in their complex present day context.
All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake by Tiya Miles: in 1852, when an enslaved woman, Rose, heard that her “would-be earthly master” had died she knew that she and her young daughter were likely to be sold and that they may be sold separately from each other. She gathered everything she could into a sack, all that she could give her daughter, Ashley. The sack was still in the family for several generations. It was found again in 2007 and Miles uses this to tell the stories of Rose and Ashley, whose lives have gone untold.

Children’s books (though to be enjoyed any age)
Runaway Cone by Morag Hood: my current favourite picture book, even if roadworks don’t usually spark joy. Digger and Traffic Light are ready to go but Gary the traffic cone is missing… How will they find him? And what will happen when they do?
Paper Dragons by Siobhan McDermott: Zhi Ging has always been a little separate and struggled to make friends so when she is invited to an underwater school where she has a chance of finding her place she jumps at the chance. But the school isn’t quite what it seemed and the trials they must undergo are beset with danger…
House of Hollow by Krystal Sutherland: despite the many years that have passed, the three sisters of the Hollow family are known for the fact that they disappeared without a trace when they were younger. Just when the police were about to arrest their parents for their kidnapping, the girls were found. They had no memory of what had happened. But now, something is trying to pull them back to that time: one sister has gone missing and there’s a rotten stench reminiscent of a certain darkness…    

If you need further proof beyond the books above that literature can change the world (if not bring down capitalism) then may I point you towards the work of Mimi Khalvati, poet and one of the founders of the The Poetry School. I’m reading her book Afterwardness, which explores British and Iranian cultures through sonnets. 

May your weekend be booming with quiet words on a page,

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