THIS WEEK’S NEW BOOKS REVIEWED | FEATURE
Marian Engel (Daunt)
The late Marian Engel’s novel, initially released in Canada in 1976, is classed simultaneously as one of Canadian literature’s most controversial books and one of its best. It won the Governor General Award (like a Canadian Booker Prize) but divides all those that have read it.
Bear is a funny short tale which crosses into the taboo and much-frowned-upon world of bestiality. Yes, I did write the latter in the same sentence with “a funny short tale”. You see, it’s not every day you get offered the chance to read a love story between a woman and a bear. A real bear, not some fairytale-set story, but a real bear. One that has sex with a woman.
The ‘actual’ sexual liaison is trivial in Bear when compared to the grand scheme the novel is as a whole: the bear is, well, just a male bear, whilst the woman, Lou, is a bored and lonely librarian who gets sent to a remote location to catalogue the estate left to the Institute for whom she works. That’s the crux of it, really; the story, just over a hundred pages, does have a feminist spin to it but shifts to tell about how two very lonely creatures are painfully wanting to be with each other, regardless of species or public reaction.
By no means an obscene book condemned to the pits of hell, Bear is – yes – one of the best and most elegant written books that I have read in recent memory. And – no – I don’t condone interspecies relationships!
Price: £9.99. Info: here
words CARL MARSH
THE DANCING PLAGUE
Gareth Brookes (SelfMadeHero)
In detailing the bizarre phenomenon of Strasbourg’s ‘dancing plague’ of 1518, whereby the citizenry of the town was overcome by an irresistible urge to dance until feet bled and bodies piled up, Royal College Of Art graduate Gareth Brookes employs an unusual blend of visual techniques. This is a graphic novel presented in genuinely unique style.
To depict the banal or profane progress of the majority of characters in this medieval tale, Brookes uses pyrography, burning the frames into calico and setting 16th-century Strasbourg in a muted, monotone cast. What makes this visually tolerable is the way that the gloomy frames (and indeed the story) are brought to life by the interruption of demons and miraculous episodes, rendered in glorious colour by Brookes’ use of vivid embroidery, which cuts through his otherwise dreary palette.
For the accompanying narrative, Brookes leans on contemporary interpretation of the reasons for the dancing madness – that it was divine punishment for licentious behaviour, gross inequality and heresy. Despite a few moments of humour, and visual relief provided at times by the stitching, the tale told is a fairly grim one, with little licence granted for levity. Brookes’ world of hermits and anchorites, angels and succubi, feels a bleak place to inhabit and despite his innovative (and doubtless painstaking) approach to bringing it to life, it feels a relief to leave it behind as the tale reaches its sombre conclusion.
Price: £15.99. Info: here
words HUGH RUSSELL
PLEASE / STILL
Christopher Meredith (Seren)
This month sees two brilliant new releases from Christopher Meredith, one of the best and most productive writers working in Wales today. Please is an elegant, funny, and moving novel about love and loss. Our pedantic, pleonastic protagonist, Vernon, is an octogenarian coming to terms with the death of his wife. The novel opens memorably with a typically droll, Vernon-like assertion: “Punctuation killed my wife.”
Following his bereavement, Vernon seeks solace in the other love of his life: language. Having never before committed his thoughts to paper, he decides to trace and evaluate the course of his relationship with his wife, from their initial meet-cute in a shoe shop in the 1960s, to the tempestuous middle-years of their marriage and its eventual sad end. Vernon is complicated, flawed, but not wholly unlikeable company.
What emerges is a story about a man who has hidden behind words for most of his life, and how he learns that not even words can keep the world at bay forever. Please could perhaps be best compared to the work of another writer known for their deft linguistic playfulness and invention, Eley Williams.
As if writing an excellent new novel wasn’t enough, Meredith has also produced Still, a superb new collection of poems that again exemplifies his mastery of the written word. As with Please, the poems dwell on memory and loss, among many other things. But unlike Vernon’s lengthy and digressive diaristic recollections, the writing here is spare and subtle. The unsaid is as important as the said.
These are poems about the ways we occupy the world, or as Meredith puts it, “the shape we make in time”. Despite some moments of introspection, Still is a much less insular piece of work than Please: these are poems that dare to comprehend the sheer vastness of the world. They also consider how we can achieve permanence in spite of our impermanence. One of the strongest poems, On Allt Yr Esgair, suggests that art may be the answer: “Under the serpent galaxy / the motifs of stone hills recur / in scoops and curls across the sky… What else is left for us but this? / With pen and brush to shape our track / like moths and hills and streams and stars / a human shadow on the rock”.
Still is a quiet, contemplative book which offers no certainties aside from the fact that Meredith’s words deserve to outlive his time.
Price: £9.99 each or £15 for the pair. Info: here
words JOSHUA REES
WHERE THE WILD THINGS GROW
David Hamilton (Hodder & Stoughton)
Foraging is, by its nature, one of the quintessential “the first rule of X is you do not talk about X” pursuits. While many edible plants can be found, outside of commercially farmed land, in enough abundance that we can reasonably assume there’s enough for everyone who wants them, others are tied to very particular dates, locations or weather conditions, and may be scarce enough that if an especially dedicated forager knows where to scoop ‘em up, that information is staying classified.
Where The Wild Things Grow is aimed, it says, at “aspiring foragers”; its author is fairly visible as practitioners go, having penned a few books on the topic already and given foraging tips to some people off the telly. Hamilton is an engaging, though utilitarian, writer, happy to drop in a personal anecdote or three without venturing into misty self-indulgence and candid about the culinary value of certain plants (as in: more things than you might realise are perfectly safe to eat, but you might have your work cut out making it taste nice).
Centred on the UK and its geography, although the flora of Europe and North America is mentioned where relevant, the book is divided into four main sections: populated areas such as gardens and urban spaces (there’s a decent chance you’re buying in the supermarket what you could be getting for free in the carpark outside), rural landscapes, woodland, and water-adjacent environs both inland and coastal. An attractively presented hardback, Where The Wild Things Grow probably isn’t built to be carried on expeditions and thumbed through when cross-referencing a species’ vital stats, with only illustrations (and not too many of those) rather than photos. Rather, I think its best function is to spark interest in foraging as a widely attainable habit, which needn’t involve yomping over acres of marshland or setting your sights on some holy grail strain of fungi.
Price: £20. Info: here
words NOEL GARDNER
Susie Wild (Parthian)
The word used for its title makes this collection instantly intriguing. It can mean both fruit blown down in the wind, or a large amount of money received unexpectedly. However, the reader isn’t given a sense, here, of such lottery-like good luck. Where windfalls are specifically mentioned, they belong to other people – to those who don’t realise their abundant good fortune.
In one poem they are “next door’s apples”; in a later poem, those same apples “are still there – / the windfalls, rotting / in garden waste bags”. Other people have their inherited trees full of fruit but, not being gifted such, Wild’s windfalls are of the everyday – of its physical intimacies, its domestic pleasures, and of simply being alive despite life’s many challenges and setbacks.
With its series of poems about boyfriends and lovers past, against a backdrop of bars and “nightclub shadows”, Wild comes across as the poetic equivalent of Jean Rhys: wry, arch, a little world-weary but, unlike Rhys, with a sparkling glint of humour. In the book’s second half, then, Wild is married, and the poems become more about love and life as a couple. However, there are no easy conclusions here – life isn’t suddenly all sweetness and roses. Those rotting apples remain, although they no longer pose a threat – “each apple / a small bomb” – and Wild comes to a kind of acceptance – “We learn to stay still”. A very affecting collection of poems indeed.
Price: £9. Info: here
words MAB JONES