The Mystery of Henri Pick

The Mystery of Henri Pick by David Foenkinos – translated by Sam Taylor

Did a deceased Breton pizza chef, never known to pick up a book nor write so much as a birthday card his whole life, secretly pen a great novel? When a young couple (an ambitious editor and a fledgling author) discover Henri Pick’s opus in an eccentric Crozon library that stores rejected manuscripts, it’s a curious mystery that soon becomes a national phenomenon.

Strewn with references to Brautigan, Pushkin, Proust, Houellebecq and more, and depicting a fickle French publishing industry with bitterness and cheek in equal measure, the comedy here can be enjoyed by any voracious reader or budding writer. You’re never far from a droll observation like “Reading is a completely egotistical pleasure”, or “Writing is the only job in the world where you can stay under the duvet all day long and still claim to be working.”

Writing is the only job in the world where you can stay under the duvet all day long and still claim to be working.

With a wilfully obscure body of artistic work at its centre, a fitful plot and flashes of bluntly described lust, this reminded me most of Paul Auster’s The Book of Illusions. Ultimately, it’s frothier than any Auster, and for me its cuteness wore very thin in the final stretch. But it’s a promising start to this series of translations from TV box set connoisseurs Walter Presents, in collaboration with Pushkin Press — both very reliable curators of eclectic foreign fictions. It’s also, if I’m honest, a small consolation for this struggling would-be author.

Crow Court

Crow Court by Andy Charman

In the Dorset market town of Wimborne Minster, as wedding bells ring through the bright Spring morning, a choirboy is found drowned among the rushes and weeds of the River Allen. Andy Charman’s debut novel connects thirteen more episodes, spread out over more than a decade in the mid-19th century, to that initial tragedy and scandal. Key characters include a bereaved cordwainer who sleepwalks onto his wife’s grave every night, a panicked, lovestruck stablehand making a midnight flit, a young Admiral Nelson fan whose play-acting goes awry, a labourer-turned-sailor rounding the Cape, and many other memorable folk.

Each of their chapters is carefully voiced, totally convincing in its historical texture, and appropriately peppered with Victorian Dorset dialect. That ranges from the self-explanatory (‘proper trimmen crop o’ rushes’, ‘bangen girt wave’) to the more cryptic (‘spindly little gawk-hammer’, ‘dewbit’). But the language never trips up the story, and there’s a helpful Glossary at the back.

Crow Court always keeps one beady eye on the mystery it began with, but is in no hurry to resolve it. Confident that he has a cracking conclusion up his sleeve, Charman takes his time exploring each little narrative thread, finding the humour and humanity in everything. Even the episode most loosely related to the drowned choirboy (Shakespeare’s Thief) is entertaining in its own right. Indeed, some of the chapters have previously been published as self-contained short stories.

This is an impressive, innovative first novel and a piece of historical fiction like no other.

Light Perpetual

Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford

In November 1944, Alec, Vernon, Ben, and twins Val and Jo are being shepherded by their mums around Woolworths when a V-2 rocket drops through the roof. Francis Spufford describes the death and destruction with unflinching precision, millisecond by millisecond, from the combustion of the ‘livid gas’, to the ‘blizzard of metal jags and brick flakes’, to the crater left behind. Then he asks: what lives might these five children have led had the V-2 somehow never reached them, a misguided missile that perhaps ‘slipped unnoticed between the North Sea waves’?

I expected something like the speculative sprawl of Paul Auster’s underrated 4 3 2 1, but the structure here is much simpler. We drop in on the five at regular intervals from 1949 to 2009, for short vignettes, and we learn of the surprising turns each life has taken in the interim.

Spufford evoked 1746 Manhattan with verve in his fiction debut, Golden Hill. He’s just as good at these glimpses of post-war Britain, whether he puts his characters backstage with some Beat craze also-rans in 1964, amongst the skinheads menacing markets, playgrounds and ska gigs in the late 70s, or in a VIP box above Millwall’s Den in 2009.

At first, it’s puzzling whether the wartime what-if conceit was even necessary. If Spufford had just wanted to look at British fascists, or Thatcherite property grifters, he needn’t have fashioned an alternate reality. But there are several beautiful passages that echo that frozen moment of the explosion, and carry with them some nagging sense of how miniature and fragile a life is. They create a theological undertow that is hard to miss.

Spufford has said the novel is designed as ‘a picture with death as the frame‘ and it’s successful in that regard. The main flaw, for me, is that some of the key scenes built around music don’t have the transcendent quality that they aim for. From songs to hymns to operas, music is important to Light Perpetual, but it’s so difficult to do it justice in prose, even for the brilliant Spufford.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk – translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

Though it’s a fine multiple-murder mystery, it’s the narrator who makes Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead such a compelling read. Meet Janina Duszejko, semi-retired school teacher and amateur astrologer, who leads a quiet life on a tough plateau in rural Poland. She’s among the very few who can tolerate the dreadful winters there, and among of the first on the scene when a neighbour turns up dead one snow-laden night.

The early chapters signal Janina’s singular perspective on the world. She rejects most given names for people, preferring labels that sum up her immediate impression of their character or physicality – hence Bigfoot, Oddball, Good News, The Grey Lady, and more. All animals she encounters have their nouns capitalised, and some are granted names (as with Consul, the fox that criss-crosses the Czech border). It’s a clue to her intense respect for the natural world.

She holds a wide range of pet theories (‘Theory’ is also always capitalised), leading to many brilliant digressions: on the ‘testosterone autism’ of middle-aged men, on how weather reports offer a useful typology of all people, on overused expressions, on ‘Lazy Venus syndrome’, on the beautiful art of translation (her buddy Dizzy whiles away hours crafting Polish versions of William Blake), on the power of Anger. It’s a rare protagonist who contains so many eccentric, often contradictory notions, but Janina is somehow totally believable. She’s peaceable and belligerent in equal measure, pitiable and frightening at the same time. Like Drive Your Plow, this earthy thriller full of cosmic thinking, she is unforgettable.

I look forward to reading more of Olga Tokarczuk’s writing, hopefully translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, whose work here is outstanding.

She Come By It Natural

She Come By It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs by Sarah Smarsh

Dolly Parton was born in January ’46 in a cabin on the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains – after which her sharecropper father paid the doctor who delivered her with a bag of grain. Sarah Smarsh’s rural Kansas upbringing involved a different kind of poverty, but in She Come By It Natural, it’s a unique lens through which she can examine her favourite country music superstar – for so long a kind of punchline, but now an icon with an assured legacy as a ‘sex symbol, creative genius, and philanthropic juggernaut’.

Smarsh draws on her own childhood, professional life, and relationships – particularly her bond with her ‘seen-it-all’ grandmother Betty, ‘the real life Dolly’ – to tease out the feminist dimensions in Dolly’s songs and in the way she leads her life. The title comes from Betty’s remark that Dolly ‘come by it natural’ – while Dolly has politely eschewed labels and movements, letting feminist wave after feminist wave pass her by, she in fact has always been a self-possessed woman, leading by example.

Any casual fan knows Dolly has never forgotten her ‘dirt poor’ roots, building her career on songs like Coat of Many Colors, but most will find some new wrinkle to admire here – for me, it’s the enormous energy she has poured into charity work since making her fortune. I liked the observation that Dolly’s cartoonish ‘backwoods Barbie’ look (modelled on the ‘town tramp’ she admired as a girl), so often ridiculed, is as much an expression of solidarity with the downtrodden as Johnny Cash’s grizzled ‘Man in Black’ persona was. “That’s the difference between being a man and a woman making a thoughtful statement with their clothes,” notes Smarsh.

The book is lifted from four articles first published in the roots music journal No Depression in 2017. Although a new foreword offers a cursory roll call of how Dolly and the world have moved on since, it made me wish the material had been reshaped and expanded. As it is, it doesn’t flow as well as it might, occasionally reintroducing concepts in a way that shouldn’t be necessary in a seamless book.

Perhaps in a rejigged version there would’ve been more passages like Smarsh’s perceptive analysis of the 1970 masterpiece Down From Dover. That song, the tale of a pregnant teenager abandoned by the baby’s father and then her family, is Dolly reckoning with ‘the ghosts of women’s fates she has escaped’ and comes from a southern Gothic seam in her early songwriting. I’d have liked more of these close readings of key recordings, which can unlock so many of the ideas Smarsh is interested in, including Dolly’s deep empathy and precious connection to her hardscrabble origins.

Rabbit Redux

Rabbit Redux by John Updike

Ten years after Rabbit, Run, Updike reacquaints us with Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom. He’s weathered the 1960s holding down a printing job and his marriage to Janice, whilst raising his son Nelson (now 13). He immediately seems more conservative and no less toxic than last time around. In a neat flip of the first book’s dynamic, Rabbit now has to come to terms with his wife vanishing and shacking up with another man. If that seems inevitable in hindsight, the rest of the plot does not.

The main disappointment here is that Updike takes much less care over his supporting characters. A rickety middle act is built on two figures who aren’t convincing at all – Jill, a runaway from a wealthy Connecticut family, and Skeeter, a drug-pushing, sermonising black Nam veteran on the lam. A background of the moon landing, Vietnam, Ted Kennedy in Chappaquiddick, Laugh-In, and so on deliberately roots Rabbit Redux much more precisely in time. Although Jill and Skeeter are meant to fit into this, to contain some late 60s wayward white hippiedom and black activism respectively, they ring awkwardly hollow, and only serve to expose yet more ugly sides to Rabbit’s personality. That’s a shame, as other new faces, like the slick car salesman Charlie Stavros, do jump off the page.

The constant in these novels is the precise, ultra-observant voice, and that was enough to hold my attention during the weaker sections – once Updike’s style clicks, it’s very impressive and absorbing. I might have to take a bit of a break from Rabbit, but I remain curious about where Updike takes him next – I gather Rabbit is Rich is many readers’ favourite in the sequence.

Hurdy Gurdy

Hurdy Gurdy by Christopher Wilson

Brother Diggory, a young monk in the minor Order of Saint Odo of Whye, is continually visited in his dreams by some kind of succubus ‘come to steal his innocence and the seed of his generation’. But his troubles, and his sinful thoughts, are only just beginning – soon, the much-rumoured Black Death reaches the monastery, and all but wipes out the brotherhood. Diggory is forced to leave behind everything he has known and make his way in the big, bad world of 14th century England, at which point he renames himself Jack Fox, ‘so I rhyme, face and arse, with the Black Pox’. His wanderings see him duped by a Simon Mostly, a one-handed, one-legged bandit, acquainted with the fairer sex (and, predictably, bonked senseless), and accused of colluding with a Satanic pig. Amongst other adventures.

Much of the humour in Hurdy Gurdy stems from Diggory’s twisted logic, such as his reasoning that the deadly pox prefers to travel north, or the many deceptively pious excuses he comes up with for his newly rampant libido. When he’s left to fill a mass grave, he typically overthinks and arranges the bodies according to Pythagoras’ theorem, to economise on space.

Another seam of jokes is St Odo’s The Great Unhappened, an absurdly prophetic tome that foresees a future age of ‘giant metal birds that held people in their bowels’ and ‘icy cold drinks, in small squat suits of armour, bursting with bubbles that prickled your tongue’. These tangents recall Blackadder and Upstart Crow, even though the historical setting is quite different to those sitcoms.

With its slimness and episodic nature, Hurdy Gurdy is a bawdy, breezy blast to read, so it hits the spot during this grim winter we find ourselves in. Though it was written before the current pandemic, of course it can’t help but invite parallels. Most of the alleged cures for the bubonic plague that pop up – e.g. consuming crushed emeralds or ten-year-old fermented treacle, or smearing the skin with excrement – are about as ridiculous and dangerous as injecting oneself with disinfectant or blasting diseased bodies with ultraviolet light (both helpfully suggested by the leader of free world in April 2020).

Dead Man in a Ditch

Dead Man in a Ditch by Luke Arnold

Following on from The Last Smile In Sunder City, private detective Fetch Phillips continues to navigate the turbulent post-magical era known as ‘the Coda’. This time he must make sense of a brazen murder in a human-only bar that can only have been inflicted by supposedly impossible means – a point-blank fireball to the face.

The Last Smile had an instantly likeable style, cribbing from Terry Pratchett and Raymond Chandler, but transcending pastiche. Occasionally it laboured its scene-setting and backstory enough that the pace dragged – probably a common pitfall in fantasy debuts. Arnold has no such problem here. Even as he reveals dozens of imaginative new locations and characters, and ties up many of the most intriguing loose ends from the first book, he keeps the action going at a confident, rapid clip.

We got to know the squalid, sprawling Sunder City pretty well in the first book, but a flurry of new cases takes Fetch into surprising new corners of town, including the daunting gambling district The Sickle, a defunct ceramics factory and a swanky hat shop. Fetch even finds himself travelling beyond city limits for the first time, leading to enjoyable widescreen glimpses of the greater Archetellos continent.

Without giving away the elaborate final third of the book, there’s nothing timid about Arnold’s plotting – no sense that he wants to tidy up and simply reset the stage for another stock mystery next time around. When we visit Sunder City again, it may be a very different place, but still home to the lovably glum ‘man for fire’ Fetch – and still a delight to spend time in.

Tomten Tales

Tomten Tales by Astrid Lindgren and Harald Wiberg

For her 1960 story The Tomten, Astrid Lindgren drew on Scandinavian folklore and the poetry of Viktor Rydberg to create a classic picture book, following it up five years later with The Tomten and the Fox – both tales are collected here in a handsome hardback from Floris Books. They are about a little gnome who is devoted to a particular farm but never seen by its people. In the first story he tiptoes around in the dead of night, in the middle of winter, reassuring the animals that warmer weather is on the way and otherwise helping them through the cold snap. In the sequel, he skilfully saves the hens from a prowling fox.

Harald Wiberg’s paintings of the piled-up moonlit snow, the gloomy hayloft, the crowded sheep barn, the cosy farmhouse and so on are very atmospheric and will have me expecting to spot a tomten out of the corner of my eye all winter.

A wonderful seasonal picture book that doesn’t mention Christmas — so a perfect one to share during a snowy January.