Archive | January, 2019

Van didn’t finish reading… A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride

31 Jan

Sorry, Eimear. It’s an amazing commitment to the form and I really, really wanted to like it.


Van has finished reading… Folk by Zoe Gilbert

21 Jan


It’s taken me a while to get to Zoe Gilbert’s debut novel, Folk, and the only thing that stops me saying it was well worth the wait is the realisation that I could’ve been re-reading it by now. The title is wonderfully pertinent. The Folk of fairy tales, of stories handed down through generations; in the craft of it too, the feel that these are homespun skills; and then in the tales themselves – as with the very best of folk tales – it’s not the supernatural or otherworldly that takes precedence but the folk who inhabit Zoe Gilbert’s words. It’s wonderfully immersive, the sights, sounds and smells of Neverness are rich and vivid from the off, the driving rhythm of Prick Song dragging the reader headlong into a paganish ceremony of turning seasons, death and rebirth.

Zoe Gilbert’s Costa Short Story Award-winning Fishskin, Hareskin has been one of my favourite short stories since I first read it, and there are now chapters from Folk that I can add to the list. Sticks Are For Fire and The Water Bull Bride, along with Fishskin, Hareskin best illustrate, for me, what Zoe Gilbert does so well. There’s the sumptuous lyricism of her prose, the precision of her imagery, the cadence of the narrative that makes an eager, listening child of you, and particularly, though there may be other-worldly elements threading through these stories it’s the human element, the ever-present and recognisable dangers of our own world, our own actions that precipitate a coup-de-grace. (And Sticks Are For Fire gets extra points not simply for using ‘widdershins’, which is quite possibly my favourite word, but for using it very much in context). It’s our inherent fallibility as humans which brings us down. After all this time, the local village signpost might easily have worn away to Everness.

I mention short stories here but don’t get caught up in thinking this is a short story collection masquerading as a novel. While it is possible to read these chapters in isolation, and some of them have been published in the form of short stories, Zoe Gilbert’s Folk is a novel. The sense of place, of both time and timelessness, and of the inhabitants of Neverness shifts and deepens with each chapter. Characters’ appearance are never incidental, albeit they may not be centre-stage for that chapter, and they each carry the inflections of their various histories – just as you’d expect in a novel.

I should also say the ever-so-on-point cover – beautiful, pastoral, quite every-day, with that creeping sense of the sinister the longer you look at it – is quite perfect. A flourish that Mrs van particularly enjoyed are the little illustrations that accompany each chapter – tiny additions, but nicely done and always pertinent.

Zoe Gilbert’s Folk is a thing of beauty, inside and out. Stories to stir your inner child, told with all the depth and subtlety a grown-up needs. Glorious.

Folk was published by Bloomsbury on the 18th February 2018 ISBN:9781408884393

You can find Zoe on Twitter @mindandlanguage or at The Word Factory, or at London Lit Lab, where she runs writing workshops with fellow writer Lily Dunn.

Van has finished reading… Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

7 Jan

friday black

It may be a famous quote, I can’t remember, but didn’t someone once say that when you’re black everything you write is about being black, even when it’s not? If it’s not a famous quote, well, I’ve said it. A white boy in a white man’s world, talking about blackness.

Because that’s never happened before…

With Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s Friday Black you get the real deal. From the overt statements that are The Finkelstein 5 and Zimmer Land to the subtler tones of How To Sell A Jacket As Told By Ice King. There’s an edgy humour in these slices of life but you cannot doubt that you’re being looked in the eye as you laugh, particularly with The Finkelstein 5. The absurdist nature of the comedy element – the defence presented at the trial of a truly heinous crime – quickly pales as the author’s punches hit home: but this is life; this kind of thing has happened; this kind of thing is not the past.

The day after I’d read The Finkelstein 5 I heard a polite ‘excuse me’ while walking in the park. Two teenagers came past on their bikes, both saying ‘thank you’ as they went. Not thanks, or cheers, or ta! or any other informal recognition you might’ve expected from a couple of teenagers out on their bikes. And I genuinely wondered, is that you or are you dialling down for the white people? I hope to God they weren’t, then I also hope to God I’m not one of those people who becomes a caricature around black teenagers, trying to be all matey and street. Yes, Mr Adjei-Brenyah’s definitely right about that. I’ve seen it with my own eyes.

The range covered by the stories collected in Friday Black might at first glance make them seem somewhat disparate but there are threads not so much pulling them together as holding them in close company. The sense of the outsider is there time and again, the desire to belong. Then there’s that febrile striving for justice, not only for wanting to do the right thing but also for others to recognise their errors and see the true path. Whichever way you slice it Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s Friday Black gives you twelve wonderfully immersive and deeply thought-provoking stories to enjoy. It’s well worth adding to your TBR pile.


Friday Black was published by riverrun on the 23rd October 2018 ISBN:9781787476011

You can find Nana Kwame on Twitter @NK_Adjei

My especial thanks to Ana McLaughlin at riverrun for allowing me to review this collection.