Search

Darker Fables

Writing and reviews. Adventures, maybe? Exciting, definitely.

Review: Kij Johnson’s ‘The Fox Woman’

_20180219_111545.JPG

four-star-rating-black-hi

I believe that multiple narrator novels are difficult to do well, so please pardon my jealousy as I sit here seething over how Johnson makes it look easy. 

The Fox Woman is set in ancient Japan, and follows Yoshifuji, a courtier who decides to retreat into the country after political disgrace, Shikujo, his wife, trapped by her determination to be perfect, and Kitsune, a fox living on their estate.

Anthropomorphism is something which, in my experience, either works very well, or is laughably bad. Johnson definitely fits the former bracket.

“…Art is itself, but also the thing it appears to be… Like the moon and its reflection in a puddle. The puddle does not have the real moon. If you bite it, it shatters, it is just water in the dirt. But every detail of the moon is there, so, yes, it is the moon. What was it of, this reflection?”

“Of us, Grandfather,” Brother said.

There was silence for a long breath. “That is bad.”

There is a long list of things I like about this novel, from its sumptuous prose and magical themes to its fantastic storyline and distinct characterisation of the three protagonists, but the main thing for me was the character development. Yoshifuji starts the novel selfish and blind, Shikujo secretive, vain, and Kitsune arrogant. By the end all are changed.

The story is, at first glance, the story of Kitsune and Yoshifuji. Kitsune’s love for this man, and the terrible things she is willing to do to have him. But I think the true heroine of the novel is Shikujo. Certainly I found her transformation the most compelling, and the truest to what seems to be the message of the book – the difference between being alive, and living.

For this moment, I am wholly myself, unshaped by the needs of others, by their dreams or expectations or sensibilities. But I am also lonely. With no one to shape me, who stands here, watching the moon, or the stars, or the clouds? I feel insubstantial, as if the wind might suddenly dissolve me, like a weak mist.

And the writing. I have already said sumptuous, but that does no justice. Captivating, romantic, rich, dark and lascivious, Johnson’s prose is a literary treat.

My one qualm is that I do feel Yoshifuji started the novel a fool, and though he was a different man by the end, I still felt him to be incredibly foolish, something which made him a little unconvincing as a love interest, next to Kitsune’s burgeoning insight, and Shikujo’s intelligence.

But overall, I loved it. I am looking forward to sampling Johnson’s other work, and based on this (as well as The Guest Cat), I am really in the mood to sample more Japanese-themed literature. Any suggestions will be welcomed!

Life is better lived as an adventure than as a work of art, I think.

Advertisements

Review: Takashi Hiraide’s ‘The Guest Cat’

_20180219_110903.JPG

four-star-rating-black-hi

This novella (just 136 pages!) was recommended to me by a friend. Despite its short length, it took me a long time to get round to it. I think because the premise didn’t inspire great expectations.

The Guest Cat has a loose, inconsequential plot. A Japanese man and his wife live on the grounds of an old estate. The neighbours have a cat who starts to visit.

There are no compelling events in the narrative, and the human characters are shade-like, drifting on the edge of the writing as their lives flow around Chibi and her antics.

When a girl who often passed along Lightning Alley stopped and crouched to gaze at the cat, it did not run away. But as soon as she attempted to touch it, the cat quickly slipped off, avoiding contact at all costs. The cat’s manner of rejection was like cold, white light.

This is a quiet novel. The prose is poetic, but reserved, and the cat at its centre remains enigmatic, physically and metaphorically slipping through the narrator’s fingers.

There is something deeply compelling about this read, however. It expresses the subtle nuances with which animals can enhance our lives, and our lives with one another. I was delighted by it, and though it’s a foray into different territory for me, it’s a venture I’m glad I made.

A concise and muted text, but buoyant, sad, and beautiful, The Guest Cat is a genuine work of art.

I stood there alone for a while. The old man and the old woman were gone. My wife and the cat were no longer there, and I too was already gone.

Back to Blogging

As ever, a lot has happened since I last wrote.

I went on holiday, to Normandy (my first trip away with my boyfriend, henceforth to be known as N), and we crossed the five month mark, which makes him seem strangely new, when in truth I can no longer imagine a future with anyone else.

And there was snow! After making a bid to become the next Atlantis, Paris was then covered in a real blanket. To my surprise, the trains kept running. A few lines have been closed because of the flooding, but for the most part, the systems that hold Paris together are less delicate than they seem.

DSC_0017

At work, with my most challenging four-child all-boy family I was engaged in a to-the-death snowball fight (which did not go well for me), and then another, the next day, with the half-Russians – who, given their upbringing in a land of snow and ice, I am inclined to believe had an unfair advantage.

The snow has melted away now, throwing us back into grey skies and the threat of rain, but I am happy. In a few weeks I am sure it will start to feel like spring, and then I’ll be able to shed my (leaking) boots for pumps, and walk about the city without gloves.

IMG_20180128_161229.jpg

It’s not all good news, since if I am honest I am struggling with university. Getting a distinction at masters is looking increasingly difficult. I didn’t do badly in my first semester, but I didn’t do as well as I’d hoped I would. This threw me into a dismal state of self-loathing, which has been a drain on my inspiration for my new pieces this semester. But I’ll get there, and hopefully with time I’ll learn to be less cruel to myself.

Certainly I’ve had no shortage of experiences to draw upon these past few weeks. Our trip to Normandy was breathtaking (and a topic for another post!), never mind the weather, and Paris is, as Paris ever was, one of the best places a writer can be.

DSC_0013

January Blues

The world can be a dismal place at this time of year, and even the romance of Paris can’t distract from driving rain and howling wind. The grey bricked paths that line the Seine, which I walked along in sandals during the summer, have vanished beneath rising water, and the trees are stark silhouettes against a white sky.

But the year is now well underway, and with Christmas a distant memory, it’s time to look ahead, past this grey season, into the spring to come.

In a little over two months it will be the first anniversary of my moving here, and after that it will not be many more months before I return to the place I came from, hopefully a little more savvy, sage, and chic than I was when I left.

IMG_20180119_103615_edit.jpg

The reality of living in Paris is not as glamorous as the movies might have you believe. This is a city of great contrasts. I have worked in more than one bourgeoisie apartment, and peered into the glowing window of many a boulangerie. I have taken the air on long city strolls, and sunned myself on the banks of the Seine, but I have also seen homeless children sheltering under cardboard. I’ve seen ugly demonstrations walled in by lines of police, and I’ve learnt to watch the pavement for the dog filth and drunken piss.

Paris is not always the wonderful picture photographed for the postcards, I admit, but it has been home to me, and given me a taste of the independence I longed for. I have been changed by this city, undoubtedly for the better, and that I am grateful for.

Whatever happens hereafter, I do know there will always be a part of me that is at home here. I will never be French, but like the house cat, Sasha, I feel comfortable. For now, and the for time left in this particular chapter of my life, this is exactly where I want to be.

IMG_20180118_142301.jpg

Wind Song

Were you singing last night?
Or was it just the rain,
flicking its tongue
at the bolted window?

I’ve never been here before,
to this place like Narnia,
which I love like all the secrets
I’ve ever been told.

For the first time in life,
I feel like a body,
no more a voice,
snatched from the wind.
I am a kite on higher currents,
reeling out and in.

Those little moments
in this darkened room
make me earth beneath flame,
ash and air, or roots with a name.

I can’t see the moon
with my head on your shoulder,
but on these occasions
when darkness pervades,
I sink
in soft waters.

I forget places,
words,
pains.

© Deanna Scutt, 2018

Whiskers

These days it’s
squeezing juice
out from a lemon,
grinding pulp
over plastic
until nothing
means nothing.

We can go
to different houses,
provided shoes
aren’t in the safe,
and the locked
door opens, no need
for crowbars.

I thought…
but that’s besides
the actual point,
which is I came here
to sign, not sigh
over what might
happen.

I know
I squirm, cat-like,
all claw and fang,
but if you let go
my tail,
I might return.

It’s plausible,
one possibility
for my many lives.

© Deanna Scutt, 2017

Review: Kaui Hart Hemmings’ ‘The Possibilities’

IMG_20180110_185641_edit_edit.jpg

three-star-rating-black-hi

Hmm… I’m not going to lie. This wasn’t as good as I hoped it might be.

Last year I read The Descendants, by the same author, and it was one of my favourite general fiction reads ever. Probably, my expectations of this were unrealistic from the start.

The Possibilities is a first-person novel following Sarah St. John, a forty-something shopping channel TV host, and her experiences as a newly grieving mother.

I’ve become stormy and difficult, mean and sad. If I was confronted with someone like myself I’d feel sorry for them. Then I’d get bored by them, and then I’d hate them for their sad, sad story.

She’s not the most likable protagonist. Her thoughts, and not just as a result of grief, are often unkind, and her treatment of other characters is frequently careless. However, I don’t think that’s a failing. She is well-fleshed, complex, and her development through the stages of grief is mature and convincing.

I don’t know though, it just didn’t do it for me. Somehow the delicate undertones of feeling that made The Descendants so strong were muddled here. The tension was uneven, and I couldn’t share in the sentiments, as I felt I could with the other novel.

The plot wasn’t the focus, so I can forgive it for being predictable, and there were moments that hinted at the emotional punch this novel fails to deliver. However, it was all a bit like the smell of next door’s cooking on an empty stomach. Tantalising, but ultimately unsatisfying, and more than a bit frustrating.

It’s a beautiful day, I realize. I live in a beautiful place. The surrounding pines, so impossibly tall, sparkle with snow. I tilt my face up and inhale, willing my surroundings to enter me somehow and to remind me how small I am.

I liked most of the secondary characters, especially Sarah’s father, and I think from an empirical perspective the novel is effective in exploring the different ways people mourn, but there was no one I adored.

The humour, also, is an acquired taste (but maybe that’s cultural – it’s no secret American humour doesn’t always work so well across the pond), and the prose is an inch from average.

But I liked it. I did. The portrayal of female friendships is actually quite exceptional. I just didn’t like it as much as I thought I would.

Review: Sandra Gulland’s ‘The Many Lives & Secret Sorrows of Joséphine B.’

IMG_20180108_122707_edit.jpg

four-star-rating-black-hi

My first read of the year, and I’m pleased it was a good one.

I have been told that long titles are a no-go if you want people to actually read your work, but I would like to object to that. I have been eager to read this book for some time, and it did not disappoint.

Joséphine B. is the first in a historical fiction trilogy, styled as the diary of Empress Joséphine, or Rose, as she was known, up until her fateful marriage to Napoléon Bonaparte.

The historical accuracy is to be praised, and Gulland does an excellent job of covering an extremely complicated time without losing readability.

“You will be unhappily married. You will be widowed… You will be Queen.”

This is not a faultless text, and its diary format suffers some serious pitfalls, by far the least of them the fact that Rose’s writing voice does not noticeably mature between her teenage years and the age of thirty-three.

It is also by nature episodic, and given the number of years covered in 431 pages, the pace is a little manic.

However, Gulland does succeed in evoking the spirit of a remarkable woman, whose life needs no embellishment to make a fascinating story. As a tribute to Joséphine, or Rose, this book stands as a great achievement. Although I know the eventual fate of the characters, I am looking forward to reading the next installment.

‘The woman I saw was a stranger to me. Her gaunt face was lined, aged, without colour. Her teeth were black, her eyes sunken – furtive, fearful eyes.’

One of the great strengths of this book is the way Gulland does not romanticise its protagonist into a Venus-like figure. Rose is written with her bad teeth and wrinkles, and her sufferings affect her, particularly her months of imprisonment during the Terror, after which her own children did not recognise her.

As a character, this woman who was told she would one day marry an extraordinary man is written as kind, ruthlessly intelligent, and utterly selfless in her pursuit of saving others, even at great cost to herself. Gulland’s portrayal of her makes her one of the most likable characters I have ever read.

Also worthy of note is the diversity in this novel. I do think it is sometimes difficult to include ethnicity and sexuality in historical fiction without pushing these characters to the fringe, or denying the unpleasant treatment many were subject to, but Gulland makes an admirable effort. This book features a host of black secondary characters, and allusions to the queerness of many a French noble.

I liked it a lot, basically. I’m hoping the next part is just as good…

Songs for Writing: January

It’s been five days, and when it comes to my resolutions, I’m pleased to report that so far, so good.

I traipsed my way across the city yesterday to visit The American Library in Paris, and withdrew three books. I’m already halfway through The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine. B, and I’ve made another valiant stab at Ivanhoe (this will mark my fourth attempt to finish it).

I’ve also been writing, every day. If I’m going to make it a habit I think I’ll need more than just my willpower, however.

I am often in need of inspiration, so here are some songs I’ve found to write to.

1. Trevor Something – ‘Enjoy the Silence’

It can be a rather controversial thing, to admit you prefer a cover to the original, but damn me as you will. This has a darker sound than the original Depeche Mode release, and, in my humble opinion, the sultry, hypnotic vocals give it added depth.

2. Ryder – ‘Pretty Little Gangster’

This one has been on my playlist for a while, but it retains its position as one of my favourites. I think it’s especially appropriate for orchestrating scenes in which badass female characters do their thing, gangsters or not.

3. Julien Doré – ‘Le lac’

I guess you can’t live in France without getting a taste for French music. I discovered Julien Doré by listening to RTL2. It’s not something I regret.

4. ‘Pookkal Pookkum’ from the movie Madharasapattinam

If you’ve been paying close attention to my personal updates you’ll be able to make a good guess about how this came into my life. I’ve been watching lots of Indian movies lately thanks to a certain someone, and none of them are without songs. I haven’t actually seen Madharasapattinam (yet), but based on this song, I want to. Just don’t ask me for any translations. At the moment my Tamil is basic, to say the least!

5. Rae Morris – ‘Push Me To My Limit’

Surprise! My favourite singer is back! Her new album comes out next month, and based on what snippets have been released so far, my expectations are high.

So, that’s that, and it’s time I was writing my writing, rather than writing about the writing I plan to write… I’ll leave you to figure that out. Goodbye and à bientôt! 🙂

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑