Wednesday 26 October 2022

Book Review / Audiobook review: Outlaws by Javier Cercas, translated by Anne McLean, Narrated by Luis Moreno

Outlaws Outlaws by Javier Cercas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Anne McLean the translator has translated many famous authors writing in Spanish including two I have read and enjoyed Isabel Allende and Juan Gabriel Vásquez, so following on my usual 'follow the translator' route I came to Javier Cercas. This is the first book of his I have read. I chose this one to start with because it had an audiobook version. It was narrated by Luis Moreno (, whom I thought did a great job. I liked the tone of his voice and would love for him to record more of Cercas' works and other Spanish author's translated into English but whose books have yet to make it to audio.

As for the book, the story is presented as a series of interviews by an unnamed author writing a book about El Zarco, a teenage criminal from the era just after the death of Franco. These first person narratives come from a number of people each of whom offer different perspectives on life of Zarco - Ignacio Canas, Zarco's lawyer and ex-gang member, Police Inspector Cuenca and Eduardo Requena, Superintendent of the Prison. Their interviews are often rambling and repetitive, but in my opinion this structure works well, their almost monologues are very realistic of how people's memory work, a story unraveling bit by bit, each with contractions and unknowns from this series of unreliable narrators. They flow extremely well and with their slow reveal of the back story really keep the reader's attention throughout. I found it hard to put the book down at the end of the day.

Do we ever get to the whole truth, or just to various versions of the truth, a series of truths, or even only a partial picture of part truths? I was left to wonder what book the author would actually construct from these interviews. Just as Zarco's life and exploits had become something of a legend over time, a myth which for Cañas finds echoes in the story of Lain Shan Po that he (and I) recalls seeing on TV as The Water Margin ( ), the reader begins to consider whether it is ever possible to know it all, to understand how and why it all happened. As Cañas says "even if we find it comfortable to find an explanation for what we do, the truth is that most if what we do doesn't have a single explanation, supposing it even has any" Ca

But what is presented is a very entertaining and well written thriller. Lurking within and behind it, there's a somewhat murky picture of the social deprivation in post Franco times - the impact of poverty, bad housing, drug addiction, AIDS. It's never 'in your face' but it is ever present from the contrast in backgrounds and subsequent lives of Cañas and Zarco, between their opportunities or lack of afforded by between being a poor immigrant to the city a charnegos or being a quinquis a delinquent, small time criminal, life on two sides of the tracks, here a river, again echoing the Chinese story. The sadness of Cañas's continual involvement with Zarco and its impact on his life may not be that he initially became involved because he fancied Tere, a girl gang member with Zarco on Cañas' first meeting, but as Cuenca says the best thing that happened in my life happened to me due to a misunderstanding, because I liked a horrible book (in his case Galdos' book about the siege of Gerona which made him seek a posting in the city) and because I thought a villain was a hero

An excellent read, and highly recommended

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Thursday 20 October 2022

Book Review: Camanchaca by Diego Zúñiga, translated by Megan McDowell

Camanchaca Camanchaca by Diego Zúñiga
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a strange but intriguing little book. I came to it via other works by its translator Megan McDowell who amongst other things translated the marvelous Little Eyes by Samanta Schweblin. This is the first book by Diego Zúñiga and it has been immediately translated into English. He was included in the Bogata 39 list of the best fiction writers under 40 from across Latin America, see

The first thing to strike the reader is that this is an episodic novel of very short passages, 110 in all ranging in length from a short line to almost a full page. My copies rear page says this "A long drive across Chile's Atacama Desert, traversing the "worn-out puzzle" of a broken family - a young man's corrosive intimacy with his mother, the obtrusive cheer of his absentee father, this uncle's unexplained death. The camanchaca is a low fog pushing in from the sea, its moisture sustaining near -barren landscape. Sometimes, the silences are what bind us". This is spot on as a summary and intro.

The text is as fractured, disjointed and distributed as the young narrator's life - he floats from his mother's house, to his father, to his grandfather's house and between childhood memories and the present. It is fully of references to contemporary music, gaming and sport (I particularly related to his excitement at watching the amazing football (soccer) match between Man U and Bayern Munich). The narrator's life is a mess, his family is broken and dysfunctional, his neighbourhood dangerous, and references to those who disappeared in previous generations abound. The fog of the title is metaphorically felt throughout - his memories are vague, they are from a childhood when he was too young to know, to ask to understand, his questions aren't really answered, and the mystery of what happened to his Uncle Neto deepens - both reader and narrator do not know, the past remains unexplainable. Atmospheric, lyrical and quietly addictive. An ambitious structure for a first novel, and it leaves this reader wondering how much is biographical and about what is to come

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Monday 17 October 2022

Book Review: By the Sea by Abdulrazak Gurnah

By the Sea

By the Sea by Abdulrazak Gurnah
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Why had I not read Abdulrazak Gurnah before!

He writes beautifully. His prose is like a luxuriant duvet of baroque damask - rich, poetic, precise and the reader experiences the sublime warmth of a writer who tends to his every word. He leads the reader on a journey of character discovery, of plot illumination. Just gorgeous.

4* only in expectation that he might have written an even better one. I will definitely be reading more.

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Sunday 16 October 2022

AudioBook Review: We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, narrated by Bernadette Dunne

We Have Always Lived in the Castle We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Previously I have only ever read Shirley Jackson's famous short story The Lottery and I promised myself that one day I would read her novels.

The first thing that struck me about Mary Kathleen was her age. 18! Never! She's a child. A child with OCD at the very least. The second thing that struck me was just how well Shirley Jackson showed that character. I loved the touch of humour, its honest craziness was wonderful. 5* on character portrayal. Made my think of the Adams Family. The characters just leap of the page and some of the scenes are incredibly visual eg when Uncle Julian is showing Mrs Wright round the dinning room.

"“Madam.” Uncle Julian contrived a bow from his wheel chair, and Mrs. Wright hurried to reach the door and open it for him. “Directly across the hall,” Uncle Julian said, and she followed. “I admire a decently curious woman, madam; I could see at once that you were devoured with a passion to view the scene of the tragedy; it happened in this very room, and we still have our dinner in here every night.”
"“Alas,” Uncle Julian said. “Then, on either side of my brother, his daughter Constance and my wife Dorothy, who had done me the honor of casting in her lot with mine, although I do not think that she anticipated anything so severe as arsenic on her blackberries. Another child, my niece Mary Katherine, was not at table.” “She was in her room,” Mrs. Wright said. “A great child of twelve, sent to bed without her supper. But she need not concern us.”

The choreography of it is superb. As it is in the scene of the girls escape from the burning of house. I am intending to watch the movie version and I hope it translate well, although I know for me the actor playing Uncle Julian is nowhere near frail or old enough to match my impression of him from the book.

I agree Mary Katherine is not your traditional unreliable narrator because act actually what she sees is she does so with incredible clarity - she sees through Charles immediately. I listened to the audio which was well read by Bernadette Dunne , and I noticed that at the point where she starts the first the narrator slowed down as if to emphasize Mary Katherine's thought process in action. I'm not sure whether if I had just been reading the text I would or would not have put that sway to it. I'd be interested to hear how those of you just reading the text saw that episode - did she do it deliberately or just clumsily?

I am left unsure of why both women are such damaged characters. Was Constance an agoraphobic only after the trial? What caused Mary Katherine to be so? If we believe Mary Katherine did the poisoning knowingly then what caused her to be so disturbed at an age before the deaths? I've listened to the link Dan supplied and still feel she is less a 'witch' than a stumbling child using the burying of trinkets as somewhat of an extension of the "Step on a crack, break your back / step on a line, break your spine" chants we all heard in childhood as a means of establishing order in what she perceives as a chaotic world, establishing her safety zone just as Constance establishes her by never leaving the house.

And why does Uncle Julian keep asking whether it happened or not? It here I suppose is the poisonings nothing anything else. His moments of coherence and moments of incoherence/forgetfulness, staged and not, make him unreliable or more reliable? If anyone is living in an alternate reality it is Constance with her food fetishes, cooking frenzies, and hot flushes for Charles.

The ending needs consideration as well. Here the alienated sisters have returned into their new decrepit half destroyed safe zone, shored up by vines and hidden behind cardboard and junk, seeing the real world only through a peephole. What minimal contact they had had with the outside world dwindles away until they become the ghosts of other's childhoods. It is in many ways a very sad ending - and oh that last phrase "Oh, Constance,” I said, “we are so happy.” The mad women have sequestered themselves away; and they will be happy there until they die; and when they die, no one will ever know.

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