Waterlogged Herons – 9 June 2024

Sometimes it is clear where I ought to begin with the newsletter. In recent weeks, having spent time in a walled garden in Suffolk with Olivia Laing, an Arcadian newsletter grew. Writing down passages from Richard Flanagan’s Question 7 offered abundant chain reactions. And a few trips across the Atlantic between Enniscorthy and Long Island with Colm Tóibín left me happily heartsick, which is always conducive to writing.

Last night found me noting links between the books I wanted to write about. Purity and water; The Flood; tedium of a long apocalypse; what lies beneath; bodies; sigils; rites; flesh; wild cities; blood in a smile; margins of sleep… I appeared to be occupying various dystopias. That I did so to the accompaniment of an extremely loud Take That concert at Ashton Gate added enjoyable absurdity. So, to books that make you shudder, writing that offers the sensation of a spider crossing the inside of your wrist, scenes bathed in red light.

If that’s not your thing, worry not. For I also offer the antidote: Tom Lake by Ann Patchett came out in paperback this week. If you’d rather spend time in a cherry orchard with three sisters listening to their mother tell them a love story, then I present this warm hug of a book.

The three sisters in Private Rites by Julia Armfield are forced to speak to each other on hearing of the death of their father. It’s raining when they arrive in a coffee shop to discuss practicalities. It is always raining. The city is flooded. The house their architect father built to withstand the new landscape (or lack thereof) is one only the very wealthy could afford. None of them want it.

In this torrential world, smokers can no longer be expected to go outside, burials are impossible and the urgency of living in the end times is negated by the reality – it takes a long time for the world to end and meanwhile you are expected to pay your rent.

The novel moves between the perspective of each sister and of the city. At the edges of their vision, there is another story happening. Armfield calls for you to pay attention. Look at the edges. Try not to blink. Not even underwater.

In the short story collections, Purity by Andrzej Tichý and Hungry For What by María Bastarós danger simmers in the everyday.

Hungry For What will burrow under your skin. Don’t eat the food at the carefully laid table in a suburban house. Don’t question fathers presiding over a family meal. And don’t try to leave… The tension will feed your senses even as your stomach turns…

In Purity, characters question what humanity is capable of and our treatment of animals. The title story, in which cleaners carry out their jobs no matter what they are faced with, is almost tangible. One recoils, then must look again.

There is no looking away from A Last Supper of Queer Apostles by Pedro Lemebel. (And I don’t just mean from the cover but oh my it’s glorious.) In this extraordinary essay collection, Lemebel writes about Chile under Pinochet, the AIDS crisis, and the marginalised.

“I could hide away the ire and plumed rage of my images, the violence enacted by violence, and sleep peacefully with my romantic fantasies. But that’s not who I am,” Lemebel writes. “The world is full of writers with fountain pens staining flowers into the miserly buttonholes of their lapels.” Lemebel instead writes from absolute necessity.

From a heady, remarkable chronicle of apostles to a Lutheran hymn, Sleepers Awake by Oli Hazzard is about the noise of our days. It’s a poetry collection about poetry and family and anxieties. There is a great discussion of it here, since my attempts to describe the meticulous language fall short.

Meanwhile, I’ll acknowledge that not everything which lies beneath the surface need cause horror:

  • On land, in Understorey by Anna Chapman Parker, a project which began with drawing the overlooked, things considered unworthy of attention, has become a gorgeous book of writing about and illustrations of weeds and wildness in urban settings.
  • At sea, younger readers will love diving into the darkest of places with Beasts from the Deep by Matt Ralphs & Kaley McKean, a huge and beautiful book about amazing sea creatures and their very weird teeth and eyes…

Next Saturday, as if you need reminding, Independent Bookshop Week kicks off. Get your ticket for poetry with Ralf Webb and Florence Grieve. Sign up to all the activities we are holding with publisher And Other Stories. And, do not fear: the newsletter will take us to Paris with Lauren Elkin, where the rain is more romantic than cataclysmic.

May your Sunday hum with stories rather than Take That,

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