Saturday 31 December 2016

Review by Annalise Garrett of "The End" ed. Ashley Stokes

It is inevitable that there will be a moment in our lives where we will think the end is near, whether the thought is triggered boarding a plane, watching a loved one die of old age or an accident, or even those close calls that make you question how you survived such an event. Fifteen Endings to Fifteen Paintings is a project by Nicolas Ruston to explore how an art form can operate through different media, as described in the introduction of the book The End, edited by Ashley Stokes. The book consists of fifteen interpretations by writers who have chosen one painting each by Ruston. Each painting is ambiguous with few hints towards the genre of the short story that follows it. 

Every chapter captures the emotional response of its writer, inspired by a black and white etching by Ruston. ‘The End’ is first seen as a large, dominating white text situated in the centre of each painting, and is also the central theme for the fifteen narratives that follow each painting. Fifteen detailed, uncomfortable, thought-provoking narratives present a multitude of emotions. Some paintings are much clearer than others in that they present us with a familiar object, hinting what the story that follows will entail. Each painting is then crafted into words, as it were, to arouse feelings of anxiety, or nostalgia in the reader, or even perhaps to draw the reader into the writer’s paranoia and vision of ‘The End’.

There, of course, are chapters you connect with and are more drawn to than others – paintings and stories that speak to your unconscious mind, your own anxiety and experience with more power than others. There were times where I felt suffocated, uncomfortable when reading certain stories. The stories vary in style and content. The power behind chosen sentence structure and word choice changed my mood and at times I had to put the book down to walk away for a moment before returning to complete the story. Even now I am reminded of the stress I felt on one particular interpretation of a painting. Each story, each memory presented a new thought, a new location, a new passage to the end of something, whether it is life or opinion, whether it is the narrator’s life or someone they are observing. Something ends, even if it is the fictional story itself.

On finishing each story, my attention was drawn back to the beginning of the chapter – the image of ‘The End’. At times the first few lines of a story directly connected image to text, or sometimes it was the final sentence or idea, or even the story as a whole. Back and forth I flicked from painting to word, from chapter to chapter; I sometimes understood the connections, and sometimes I was so caught in the narrative I forgot the painting. There are recurrent themes – such as reference to someone dying, something or someone leaving, or even a habit abandoned. In this way, the reader is teased by the notion of the end throughout. I felt a constant anticipation to find out what will end, who will end and even why.

When each story ended I found myself back to comparing the painting to the words, or the memory, the narrative, the character or setting. Stokes is right in saying the book never ends and you will re-read it: I have read it twice and I want to read it again. When walking in the street or around the house I picture my surroundings like the painting, a black and white etching telling me a story, an end; I text my family and friends more often now than before. The End: Fifteen Endings to Fifteen Paintings made me think about my situation, my thoughts, and I hope others look at these painting by Ruston and their interpreters’ stories. 

About the reviewer

Annalise is a student in her third year at the University of Leicester, studying BA English. She is currently on an Erasmus year abroad at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. Outside of her studies Annalise paints and writes as a hobby, hoping to use her degree to work towards a career within the art industry. 

Friday 30 December 2016

Review by Ariane Dean of "Trysting" by Emmanuelle Pagano

When looking back on any relationship, whether it be with a partner or a much-loved friend, there are small moments that may seem insignificant, or may seem hugely important, but that nevertheless stay with us long after that person has left our lives. Emmanuelle Pagano’s book, Trysting, is a love song to the small moments, whether they are good or bad. Not so much a collection of short stories, but gathered snippets from people’s lives, written first in French and entitled Nouons-nous, it has since been translated into English by Jennifer Higgins and Sophie Lewis. The book is published in English by And Other Stories, and in the original French by P.O.L.

Every passage is short, the longest being around a page and half, the shortest just one line. This approach gives one the feeling of dipping into someone’s memories, exploring their past, and examining the responses that they may not have given at the time. Each piece is beautifully crafted, and even the bad times are recounted in a steady, calm manner, providing reflection and peace to experiences of great emotion.  The little tales are deeply nostalgic, a glimpse inside the mind of a stranger.

What I adored about this book was that nearly all the passages were non-gender specific. The stories are told in first person, and while they reference pronouns for their partner, the speaker tells little about themselves, enabling the reader to easily input their own personality and experiences into the story. Sometimes it feels like a friend confessing something they had long kept bottled up, other times it is something you yourself had half forgotten. Each passage works in a new object, place, or time, and finds new meaning in simplicity.

Although the stories are unrelated, there is a strong sense of them being tied together, with an underlying theme of the strengths and weaknesses of human nature. The people in these stories seem very real – they are dealing with ordinary worries and loves. However, Pagano’s beautiful writing and the incredible translation makes them seem vastly more important. There are lines that stayed with me for a long time after I had finished reading, and sections that I read aloud to my partner that conveyed ideas far better than I ever could.

My final thoughts on Trysting are that it was unexpectedly comforting. I had expected after the first few stories to find them sad, a little heart-breaking. Dipping in and out and reading a few little stories every now and then, I discovered that the book makes one feel much less lonely in traversing the difficult points in human relationships. Emmanuelle Pagano’s calm, measured approach to the uneasy things that could be made dramatic far simpler, and I closed the book feeling surprisingly much better than when I went in.

About the reviewer
Ariane Dean is a third year student at the University of Leicester, studying English. She has written theatre and comedy reviews for Buxton Fringe Festival over the last three years, and is working on editing past NaNoWriMo attempts to try and make them readable.

Thursday 22 December 2016

"Letter to Santa" - a poem by Malka Al-Haddad

Letter to Santa 

Dear Santa,
When you arrive on Christmas Eve could you please bring back our dreams that have been stolen 
My school
my friends 
that became ashes under fire

The roof of our house 
The smell of Mum and Dad

Why they left me without goodbye
there was a green garden, a Ferris wheel, 
ice cream vans 
shadow of lovers 

Nothing left for us ... 
only the stench of death 

Santa - how you can find the smile of childhood 
that has been buried underground 
without shrouds 
without a funeral 
without a farewell.

Please Santa take back your precious gifts and give me back only my home and peace.

Dear Santa, 
sorry that your children are now not here any more 

Sorry Santa 
your children have become men in wartime  
and their toys are guns and their ecstasy is the smell of gunpowder. 

About the author

Malka Al-Haddad is an Iraqi academic who has lived in Britain since 2012. She is a member of the Union of Iraqi Writers, Director of the Women's Centre for Arts and Culture in Iraq, and an activist with Leicester City of Sanctuary. 

Tuesday 13 December 2016

Review by Alyson Morris of "I Had It In Me" by Leonie Orton

(This review is also published on Everybody's Reviewing here).

Leonie Orton’s memoir, I Had It In Me, is an autobiographical account of a difficult upbringing, intertwined with quotations from plays by her famous brother, Joe Orton.

Authors of autobiographies rarely grip readers - unless there are intricate and emotional details of human thoughts, such as those brilliantly conceived by Colm Toibin, or augmented with shattering descriptions of poverty and human survival, such as those created by Frank McCourt. Delightfully, Leonie Orton’s exposés hit hard. They capture the emotional damage caused by a loveless mother-daughter relationship, and define her early life with such disturbing detail and force, that readers will undoubtedly wrap their arms around little Leonie and hold on tight.

As a fan of Joe Orton’s sardonic accounts of life, I can see where all that cynicism came from. Younger sister, Leonie Orton, describes their upbringing with candor, and dishes out multiple servings of pathos for the reader to vividly imagine being right in the thick of it. Their mother, Elsie, who is by far the most dominant and captivating character (in a disturbing sense), is a callous, selfish and downright cruel mother and wife. She may have dished out a morsel of love to her sons, but her wickedness towards her daughters and the bullying of her ‘weak’ husband, will afford no pity from readers. Yet Elsie is a compelling read, and is sadly missing from the second half of the book.

Throughout Leonie’s story you will become increasingly compassionate towards her. You will become exposed to her tragic young life at Fayrhurst Road and then Trenant Road council estates, and watch her struggles with education so that she ends up with little choice but to work in factories. Enjoyably, the author’s memories of this time are highlighted with quotes from Joe Orton’s plays such as Entertaining Mr Sloane and What the Butler Saw. These references demonstrate links between his characters and members of his family, and expose the damaging influences of Leonie’s childhood, which has ignited a cynicism and wit that she shares with her brother.

As the autobiography evolves, you hear how Leonie struggled but succeeded in forcing herself out of Elsie’s template, into education, and finally into love. The second half of the book, triggered by the tragic death of her brother, quickens in pace. It also lacks the references to play scripts and Elsie. Despite the unsavoury depictions of Elsie, her absence is felt. And Joe Orton’s accounts of human behaviour linked to Leonie’s life are also missed. One powerful message in this part of the story is that we grow with Leonie. She moves from higher education into better jobs, and finds love with John Foster. Sadly, the affair ends in another tragic death, this time at the expense of the NHS, rather than Joe’s murder being at the expense of his lover.

As the final section of the book emerges, the pace slows again as Leonie appears comfortable with the re-introduction of brother, Joe. The final chapter is real page-turner, like reading Leonie’s accounts of her mother. The last pages take you on a journey with Leonie while she searches for the missing pages from Joe’s London diary. These pages are said to expose the reasons for his death in 1967.

Leonie now runs the Orton Estate and is often interviewed about her brother. She should now be interviewed as an author. She did have it in her, and I hope that we hear from this author again. I also hope that she now has all the love she can get.

About the reviewer
Alyson Morris is the Course Director for English and Creative Writing at Coventry University. She teaches modules for writing picture books, theatre and radio scripts and travel articles. Alyson writes poetry and short fiction, is Executive Editor of the Coventry Words magazine, and is currently studying for a PhD in creative nonfiction at the University of Leicester.