Well, I think it is fair to say that my blogging mojo has vanished during February! It’s been a busy month and the effects of Covid are still lingering, so I haven’t had much time or inclination for posting, which doesn’t bode well for Reading Ireland Month next week!
Still, I couldn’t let Lizzy and Kaggsy’s #ReadIndies initiative pass by without taking part, so here are two mini reviews of books I’ve recently read from independent publishers Sternberg Press and Charco Press.
Bedlam by Jennifer Higgie
I first read about the artist Richard Dadd when I read David Seabrook’s odd yet beautiful All the Devils Are Here last year.
Jennifer Higgie’s beautifully produced novella is a fictionalised account of a year in the life of Victorian artist Richard Dadd. In the late 1830s, Dadd was an extremely promising painter who had exhibited with the Royal Academy when he was still in his 20s. In 1842, he was invited by Sir Thomas Phillips – a Welsh lawyer and politician – to join his on a grand tour of Europe and the Middle East to document their travels. Within a year, suffering either from heatstroke or a mental breakdown, he had become a devotee of the Egyptian god Osiris and on his return to England, murdered his beloved father, believing him to be an impostor.
Bedlam follows a year in the life of Richard Dadd, from the beginning of his trip with Sir Thomas, to his incarceration as a ‘criminal lunatic’ in Bethlem Hospital, or Bedlam as it was known.
But why should a son slay a father? Why should a father be slain to make him a god? He was a man, then a hero, then a god… Where is the right and wrong in all of this? Who is right and who is wrong?
Jennifer Higgie, herself an artist, writes in a poetic and engrossing manner. Her prose is fragmentary, giving the reader snapshots into Dadd’s increasingly confused mind. This is a short book, but is to be read slowly, filled as it is with striking metaphors and vivid imagery. Dadd’s mental breakdown is presented in a subtle manner, with clues to what might happen appearing at various intervals. His anger starts to grow in Venice and as their travels continue into the Middle East, the never-ending heat and the shock of such different cultures combine to make Dadd very ill. Higgie’s work also raises very interesting questions about travel, appropriation, language and art.
Sternberg Press is a London-based publishing house of art and cultural criticism, creative nonfiction, and literary and experimental fiction. Founded by Caroline Schneider in New York in 1999, it aims to support both new and established writers and nourish lasting editorial relationships. The press is committed to publishing books with an interdisciplinary focus on contemporary visual culture and related critical discourse.
Brickmakers by Selva Almada, translated by Annie McDermott
Brickmakers is the third of Argentinian author Selva Almada’s books to be translated as part of a series of contemporary Latin American literature published by the Edinburgh-based Charco Press. Its predecessor, Dead Girls, was a non-fiction novel that investigated the killing of a trio of young women in provincial Argentina in the 1980s. Almada used her exploration of these murders to explore the issue of femicide in a country where murders of and violence against women are horrifically commonplace. She shone a light on a society and a political system where violence against women goes not only unpunished but generally unnoticed.
Brickmakers feels like the B-side to Dead Girls, where Almada turns her attention to the nature of masculinity in Argentina. The novel opens with two mortally-wounded young men who are dying in the shadow of a Ferris wheel at a travelling fair. The rest of the novel explores how the two men, once friends, came to kill each other.
If he could choose, he’d choose the two of them on the bike again. The hot wind in his face, the asphalt shining in the clear night. The feeling that they were masters of their destiny.
In stark, rapid prose, beautifully translated by Annie McDermott, Almada depicts a culture where men are conditioned to act in a certain way, women and animals bear the brunt of their anger and grudges pass down from generation to generation never resolving, but always festering. She is a subtle writer, never forcing a point or pontificating on the behaviour of her characters, rather she creates a tragic, inescapable world that has echoes of Faulker and McCarthy in its epic scope.
Charco Press publishes the very best of contemporary Latin American literature in English translation for the first time. Their websites states that ‘We’re changing the current literary scene and making room for a kind of literature that has been overlooked. We want to be that bridge between a world of talented contemporary writers and yourself. We select authors whose work feeds the imagination, challenges perspective and sparks debate. Authors that are shining lights in the world of contemporary literature. Authors that have won awards and received critical acclaim. Bestselling authors.’
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!