Archive | August, 2018

Van has finished rereading… Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

30 Aug

giovannis room

That glorious moment when you read a sentence and it seems to encapsulate the whole story.

She smelled of the wind and the sea and of space and I felt in her marvellously living body the possibility of legitimate surrender.

She rather than he – Giovanni – and the wind and sea and space, the freedom; her marvellously living body as oppose to the narrator’s not dead but somehow outside of or denied existence, and that all-too-telling ‘legitimate’.

I tend to get this more with older books, or perhaps it’s that the older books tend to be those you come back to, those that have stood the test of time. And there’s the pressure these days to have that killer first sentence that keys everything in – I wonder how many novels end up robbed of the chance to have their ‘Baldwin’ moment through focusing so exclusively on the first line.

James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, for all it’s a short book – just 150-odd pages – is a giant of a story. David, a white American living in Paris, recounts the story of the time he spent living with an Italian barman, Giovanni. Baldwin covers self-loathing and shame, homophobia, racism and even a dab of what it is to be American, and all in a manner that could well be Henry James. Exquisite.


I wonder how a book like James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room fares today, at a time where it feels we might be on the cusp of a sea-change in attitude. I don’t particularly warm to the distinction as a reader is a reader to me, but would gay readers find David’s attitude incomprehensible? Would straight readers wonder what the fuss is? Would it be too easy to cite ‘a different time’ and so defuse the narrative’s power? Place it alongside Sarah Day’s Mussolini’s Island, written in 2017, with a close point in history (1930’s Italy for Sarah Day against Baldwin’s 1950’s Paris) but much higher stakes; as James Baldwin reminds us, homosexuality is not illegal in 1950’s Paris. The thing that chimes most is that sense of being against the grain, the shame that undermines what could well be the defining relationship in a life. Indeed, these relationships do prove to be defining in both novels, though it’s the tragedy of them rather than the joy, and it seems it’s always the unashamed who become the point of tragedy. Then, you only have to look at Uzodinma Iweala’s Speak No Evil to see it’s as relevant today as it was back when Giovanni’s Room was first written.


For me, James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room is a classic, and one I’m very likely to come back to again and again. If you’ve not read it you should definitely treat yourself. If you have, well, why not treat yourself again!

This copy of Giovanni’s Room was published in 1984 by Black Swan ISBN:9780552990363


Van has finished reading… Testament by Kim Sherwood

17 Aug

testament 2testament

Reeling from the death of her beloved grandfather, Eva Butler discovers a letter among his belongings. The letter, from the Jewish Museum in Berlin, will set her feelings of responsibility for his legacy against her desire to know the truth, her desire to understand her fractured relationship with her father and her understanding of who she is.


Kim Sherwood’s Testament is something more than a novel. There’s a level of investment in the telling of this tale that reveals just how personal, how important its telling is to the author. It’s palpable, that’s how strong the writing is. That it’s a debut novel is a statement of intent indeed and it’s no surprise it won the Bath Novel Award. Ordinarily I would be thinking about the writing and the characterisation and the plot as separate entities but there’s a seamlessness about them here that holds these elements closely together. The characters are each a product of their own story, a story shaped by events but not bounded by them, and that rings true in all they say and all they do and it’s that that is perhaps the most heart-breaking thing about it all. That’s what allows it to be optimistic in spite of everything. In short, it is a thing of beauty.


Any literature that deals with the Holocaust – at least any literature worth its salt – is going to make you feel things. You can’t help but brace for the litany of abuses so that to some extent you’re prepared, desensitised. Wisely, there’s no revelling in the detail with Kim Sherwood’s Testament. Things just happen and the depth of their grisly nature is intensified in her character’s reaction, or lack thereof, to each event. But where Kim Sherwood will really see you undone is in the small acts of kindness that are candles held against a storm. Those were the moments I had to lower the page and take a breath.


There are so many lines in this book that stay with you – not quite the Harvey Effect but rather that you can feel the weight of them and their reach. More than telling the story, these lines speak beyond the bounds of their characters. Of all of them this is the line that really struck me the most. History doesn’t happen in the past tense. It has something of an essential truth about it. Something like a key that if we only used it might just unlock some understanding. So many places in the world are a mess, so many places where the difference between life and death can be unimaginably small and in each of these places there’s history at play, unravelling still. Each side in a conflict, any conflict, stands on the hardcore of their own history and that history is never as cut-and-dried as the opposition would have you believe. If we could only see that, though we disagree we might at least be able to treat each other as humans. We might at least be able to step away from our history’s constraints and move from the present into the future.


Testament was published by riverrun on the 12th July 2018 ISBN:9781786488671

You can find Kim on Twitter @kimtsherwood

My thanks to Ana McLaughlin at Quercus for allowing me to review this book

Van has finished reading… An Ocean of Minutes by Thea Lim

7 Aug

an ocean of minutes

1980, a deadly pandemic is ravaging the world. When Polly Nader’s partner, Frank falls ill there is one thing she can do to save him: time-travel 12 years into the future to work for TimeRaiser to pay for his treatment. He will be cured and they can meet and continue their life together. But will everything go to plan?


Well, it would be a much shorter book if it did, and not nearly as interesting. Thea Lim’s debut, An Ocean of Minutes is a fascinating and enthralling journey into the personal and the political. Imagine your world changing beyond recognition in a matter of days, your only thoughts focused on how to save the one you love. It’s a drastic choice to travel 12 years into the future – but not so drastic if it keeps him alive. And it’s only 12 years – not so big an age gap. You could be together again. Except the future you didn’t have time to imagine isn’t the future you find yourself in. You’re on the wrong side of the lines now, unaware of the rules, no longer a citizen. And the one thing you can’t do is allow yourself to think he might not have made it.

An Ocean Of Minutes is the second book in a row in my reading that stands on the excellence of its world-building (the first being Laura Laakso’s Fallible Justice). Thea Lim’s image of Polly’s future is chilling and its impact, like The Handmaid’s Tale’s Gilead, is all in just how close a possibility that future feels. It’s in the everyday details that we see this (the cost of a toothbrush, the things people value), and it’s in the exercising of power, the withholding of knowledge that we feel it. Misinformation is as enslaving as the bond the time-travellers sign up to and there’s always someone looking for a way around the system. Thea Lim makes some tidy points about race, refugees and politics – there’s a very nicely-put point about assisting international neighbours for one’s own benefit, and you can’t help but draw similarities about America and the situation regarding Healthcare Insurance. Yet despite all this I never felt preached at. It’s all incidental because the heart of the matter is Polly and whether she’s going to find who she’s looking for.

The writing is clean and succinct, allowing the narrative to do its work. Thea Lim doesn’t fuss over scenery or unnecessary backstory but letting the characters work in the moment to show us their nature and their impetus. I particularly like the effect of the shift in tenses between Polly’s past – often told in a mix of present and future – and her present, told using past tenses. It highlights the shift in expectation beautifully so it’s the future that appears black-and-white, the past bright and vibrant.

For all the bleakness of Thea Lim’s subject matter An Ocean of Minutes is quietly hopeful, though you won’t fail to feel the thread of desperation that weaves through all the TimeRaiser travellers’ stories. And when all’s said and done, there but for the grace of God…

An Ocean of Minutes was published by Quercus on the 20th June 2018 ISBN:9781786487919

You can find Thea on Twitter @thea_lim


My particular thanks to Ana McLaughlin at Quercus for allowing me to review this book.