We may, somehow, already be a month in to this year, but we have already read some fantastic books. Luckily, the rest of the year looks just as promising where new books are concerned so Paul Burke has rounded up some of his must-read literary fiction releases to start us off in 2021…
First up: A heart felt working class novel from a Scottish author who wealds his pen like a stiletto. Ross is excoriating and wickedly funny by turns but always empathetic. His portrait of an Ayrshire village from ’70s to the ’90s (depression, Thatcherism, neglect), smacks of truth. No reader will come out unscathed, but each will be richer for the experience of reading There’s Only One Danny Garvey. This is a poignant, earthy, unsentimental tale of the brickbats life throws at Danny and the small community he comes from and how they cope with that. He left Barshaw in the seventies and is returning home in the mid-nineties. Fame and fortune in the football world eluded Danny, he could have been somebody but Danny is flawed, and was floored by an incident in the past, so it never happened for him. Still, even now, they believe in Danny in Barshaw; he’s theirs, he is a ‘somebody’. This is a community with football in the blood; not the rarefied Division One stuff, this is grassroots, it’s about local kids, local life and hope. Football is still the working class game in this pre-Premiership era, indelibly bonded to this community because it’s aspirational, particularly for the youth. Working class people dream big too. Perhaps their goals are unreachable, but the fantasy is a distraction from daily life. Danny escaped the village, it looked like he was the one who would make it for everyone else, alas no.
Everyone thought Danny was the special one, not one of the bottle. Alright – before getting carried away with football metaphors and allusions, this novel isn’t about football. The story lives in football but it’s not just, or even, principally, about that, it’s about people, about roots, about aspiration, about the very things we carry with us that make us who we are and the experiences that shape us. It just so happens that football matters, the most important of the least important things, in Barshaw.
Working class novels are not unique, Douglas Stuart’s auto-fiction Shuggie Bain the most recent to make a literary stir, but this kind of book is still rare enough to feel like a breath of fresh air. Let’s face it, there’s a lot of middle class literary novels out there.
“Aul’ Jock Reid” is up on the Barshaw tip again, the kids mock the confused wanderer, thr pensioner in his pyjamas. Jock doesn’t react to their taunts, he just smiles as something shiny attracts his attention. His mind no longer in the realm where his granddaughter disappeared, where his daughter committed suicide, people blamed him for both events. Eventually the police and his wife rescue him. When Louise-Anne Macdonald went missing in 1972 it changed the community, Danny too, he’s never spoken about it but he knows something. The day it happened they found him cowering under the bridge and Danny carried the tragedy with him when he left for football glory, it always weighed on him. In May, 1996, Danny is coming back to Barshaw, to his screwed up family and to finally face the past.
At sixteen Danny scored against Arbroath in the cup and the scouts came knocking. However, his career was troubled, an injury ended it early and then there was the melt down while coaching just three years ago. Danny’s life has fallen apart more than once, he needs a fresh start and so he agrees to a home coming taking the job of manager of his old youth team, Barshaw Bridge. There’s still a lot of love for Danny in the village, but a quarter century on is there redemption or hope for Danny?
Ross is clearly on top of his game with this book – he shoots, he scores; an insightful and rich novel about a community and a man getting knocked down but getting up again.
Orenda Books, paperback,
ISBN 9781913193508, 21/1/21
The premise of Jones Jr.’s novel is pretty straightforward, it’s a love story, an antebellum story that acknowledges America’s queer black history. That in itself is telling, the fact is that something so integral to the makeup of American society has been little covered in mainstream fiction in the past. The author started this novel because of a question that had been troubling him for a long time: why is there no acknowledgement that black queer people existed in the distant past? As a gay black man that lack of people he could identify with before the time of James Baldwin was disturbingly disconnecting. Of course, the truth is, there were gay people living as slaves but their stories hasn’t been told. In the traumatised and traumatising history of America and slavery it has been erased from the record or forgotten. Historians and writers have at best ignored, at worst expunged, gayness from the record, the same way female history has been glossed over, (a point Jones Jr makes here too). Hidden gay sexuality was a matter of shame, not only to the white masters but also the slaves themselves. To be gay was an added danger in the already precarious life of a slave. As Jones Jr. tells it, the dead kept speaking to him until he accepted that he was the writer to tell their story. A loving story of a same sex relationship that challenges the view that homosexuality is a pariah too often associated with rape and paedophilia, deviance and ungodliness. Seen as a ‘way of life’ anathema to Christian religion and faith.
The Prophets is a novel that delves into the dark and brutal history of slavery, which means, at times, it’s an uncomfortable read but, equally, an important one for its unflinching eye and perception of the time. Surely these are stories we need to hear? This a tale of inhumanity that echoes down the generations and is ever relevant in the age of #BlackLivesMatter and the continuing battle for the LGBTQi community for their civil rights to be fully recognised. There are elements of the epic in this tale, many characters at the centre of the story but more than anything it is the individual stories of the two young men, their love story, that is the beating heart of the book – touching, poignant and beautifully told. Jones Jr has created convincing voices for his protagonists, Isaiah and Samuel.
“Yes we, too, have been punished. We all have. Because there are no innocents. Innocence, we have discovered, is the most serious crime of all. It is what separates the living from the dead.”
Ephraim’s mother belongs to Massa Jacob, he was wrenched from her arms and sold away, without a thought for mother or child. The ‘voices’ tell her he will be a good man, but he will never know Middle Anna, his mother, or, Kayode, his father, even though he will forever be missed, forever remembered. In the unforgiving sunshine of Vicksburg, Mississippi, Isaiah and Samuel work as barn-hands, they have been together many seasons now. At the end of the day they tend the horses when the massa and the white overseers come in from the fields, it’s a long backbreaking day. Isaiah arrived here in a wagon as a small child, one of twenty people chained together, naked, dumped on the grass, the dead left among them. This is the Halifax plantation:
‘Perceptive folks called the Halifax plantation by its rightful name: Empty. And there was no escape. Surrounded by dense, teeming wilderness – swamp maple, ironwood, silverbell and pine as far, high, and tangled as the mind could imagine…’
Samuel is the first to show Isaiah kindness, giving him water from a bucket. Now sixteen and seventeen years old the pair share a cabin, their work and an intimacy with each other that has grown out of their closeness. One morning Samuel is slow to rise, Isaiah warns him he’ll get a whupping, but Samuel knows you don’t need to do anything here to get a beating. But this isn’t just the story of the boy/men, there’s Maggie:
‘… She loved herself when she could. She regretted nothing but her limp. The world tried to make her feel some other way, though. It had tried to make her bitter about herself…’
Maggie’s world is the kitchen, except when she sleeps outside with the dogs. The kitchen maid was bought in Vicksburg’s square, the landowner, Paul, deciding she would be a good companion for his wife, Ruth. The white masters are unlucky with their children, only Timothy survived. Maggie has been robbed of her power, but she drags it back, at first, small acts allow her to reassert herself but her rebellion grows. Eventually she takes a terrible revenge on the family for her imprisonment, the beatings, the threat of sexual assault, (others bare that burden), and the daily abuse.
Amos has cared for the boys but he does the massa’s bidding, he believes the farm needs babies, Isaiah and Samuel are of that age but it’s an open secret that the boys are lovers. Amos believes in the scriptures, as told by the Massa, he comes to see their behaviour as unclean. Most of the slaves believe in leaving the boys to themselves, live and let live but when they are taught the Bible and religion things change. Amos begins to turn people against the boys. Essie likes to spy on the boys, it’s an escape, an intimacy away from the abuse of the massa. The Plantation son Timothy is a closet gay man, he tries to befriend the boys but their relationship can never be as equals and is even more fraught with danger than their own liaison. As time moves on the boy/men draw more attention, their situation becomes more and more precarious, there’s tragedy in the making.
There are beautiful passages set in a mythical African state in sharp contrast to reality, a place accepting of homosexuality, a pre-colonial haven. This makes a serious point about the inherited Christian religion and it’s impact on the continent of Africa as well as turning everyone against the boys at Empty. We only need to look at certain contemporary states in Africa and their laws against homosexuality as a consequence of Christian intolerance to see that impact.
This is a dark and poignant story that lives in the experience of slavery, and gives voice to people, even more marginalised, stigmatised and abused than their contemporaries. Jones Jr is a vivid and beguiling storyteller and the empathy he feels for his characters is unsentimental. A raw and powerful read.
Riverrun, hardback, ISBN 9781529410914, 5/1/21
I’ve reviewed far and wide over the last four years but never poetry before this. This contemporary collection from Catalan author Jaume Subirana, translated by Christopher Whyte, is a tonic for cold winter nights. Many of the poems here have the beauty and simplicity of Japanese Haiku; the sharing of one moment, one thought – an admirable brevity and precision. These verses are kindle for the reader’s imagination and spark personal memories. Little encapsulations of emotion that raise a smile, induce a tear or a laugh.
This is Subirana’s seventh volume of poetry, he’s also a translator and professor of literature, and so this is an anthology of mature writing, elegant and yet robust, ever heart warming. Alive with meditations on love and an acute sense of observation, of course, the poet’s art.
Nadir opens the collection, it’s a musing on our place in nature and a reflection on art and ownership, on our relationship to a work of art as beholder or artist. Other poems call for us to pause, to take a breath, savour a moment of joy, be it fleeting in physical terms, to own it, to keep it with you for ever. These are poems about love of art, of life, of another, of home and the acute pangs of exile. They are very personal recollections but at the same time evocative of the same feeling in the reader. Readers will make an intellectual connection but, more than that, gain an appreciation of the romance and power of Subirana’s work. Subirana takes inspiration from a wide spectrum, amongst them: Emily Dickinson, Ungaretti, Josep Carner and Leonard Cohen.
There are two long poems that demonstrate Subirana’s range, sadder pieces but I was struck more by the shorter poems:
BUSON IN VENICE
The gilded splendor of
sun on stones
tired of being beautiful.
Memory and meaning in inanimate objects as reflection on life, time, aging and the artist exposing his work to the world. This is a collection I can imagine retuning to for a moment’s repose every now and again.
I toss away the diary.
while in the street,
leaves fly like pages.
With an afterword by Jordi Galves.
Fum D’Estampa, paperback,
ISBN 9781916293991, 15/1/21
An honourable mention goes to Microbursts, a narrative non-fiction that wades into the grey void that is mortal illness, the shadow land between life and death. This is a celebration of familial love, coming to terms with the death of those closest to us and surviving. New experimental/hybrid publisher Prototype has an eye for original writing from the margins that deserves a wider audience. As this book deals with issues of family relationships and mortality Microbursts is relevant to each of us, this potent reflection on grief will resonate.
The book opens with an image, top of the page, a pencil sketch of a ridge, far off hills, set against an otherwise blank page. It’s an image that hints at the fragmentary nature of the text. These are Microbursts, a memoir unfolding in short passages of prose that express a single thought or examine a moment, gradually the book builds into a meditation on the passage of time, the relationship with our parents and the twilight world between life and death – caring, loss and grief. Similar to Subirana’s poetry these are intensely personal passages reflective of the universal experience. We all feel that grief is unique to us and we get wrapped up in it as if we are the first to experience it and yet we read someone else’s experience of pain and grief we can empathize as we realise we all go through the same emotional darkness to some degree. The first piece Between Places sets the scene, its a musing on the author’s time with her parents as they die. She has uprooted from Scotland to return to Chicago to care for them. The past comes back to inhabit the text and illustrations in the way it does when people have the cause to reflect on life.
“Genesis is a key pressed into butter, wax, something impressionable. It is clear like the bright call of waxwings was they trill from berry to branch in a clutch of days that can never be predicted. The beginning and the remembered. Remove it, cast it, palm it. Wait for the opportunity to put the key to use, and then pay attention as one surface communicates with another.”
The human is recognised in the landscape, the effects of time on the body, the alternative meaning of everything. A musing on the temporary nature of life, questioning the past; decline, care, decisions, emotions and objects, a battered wallet (her father’s), absence, stages of grief, anger, time spent with the wrong people, illness as a failing, death.
Microbursts draws on other writers for inspiration; reinterpreting, personalising, Rebecca Solnit:
“This is to say I don’t know. And I do. I am lost. I know how to be right here, as a daughter. I know this. And again and again I don’t know what to do in the minute, to move us out of that minute and successfully into the next one.”
Elizabeth Reeder, originally from Chicago, now lives in Scotland and is a lecturer in creative writing at the University of Glasgow. She has written two novels exploring the themes that echo so strongly in Microbursts.
Amanda Thomson is a visual artist and writer, also a lecturer at the University of Glasgow. Her work on themes of home, landscape, migration, and the natural world have featured in exhibitions nationally and internationally. Her book, A Scots Dictionary of Nature,