Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Deborah Levy, Maggie O' Farrell and Harry Wallop.

Black Vodka by Deborah Levy

Alex Clark has high praise for Deborah Levy in the Guardian. She urges the reader not only to explore this “powerful...fragmentary...elliptical” collection of stories, but the rest of its author’s work, which includes the Booker short-listed novel Swimming Home, and offers a “strange, unpredictable journey”. Black Vodka contains a compendium of Levy’s distinctive traits. In "Cave Girl", Cass undergoes a successful sex change from male to female. "[The surgeon] really fiddled with my controls”, she says, and her brother finds himself entranced by the result. In ‘Pillow Talk’, (Clark summarises) “a Czech man living in London is interviewed in Dublin by a Japanese man, before having casual sex with a woman from Cork and then flying home to his Jamaican-born girlfriend.” Clark is continually impressed by these provocative identity games in which “national and cultural identity is used as a prism through which to explore shifts of attachment and belonging”. Even “what constitutes a person” becomes difficult to determine. Clark concludes by noting that “like their protagonists, these stories do not give up their secrets easily”, before assuring us that they are nonetheless “by no means difficult to understand”. Ought we to detect a hint of damning with faint praise here? Perhaps so, but the thrust of Clark’s review is clear nonetheless: this collection comes highly recommended.

In the Independent, Lucy Popescu identifies love as a key theme. In Black Vodka, she writes, love “is mystifying, at worst illusive”. The title story involves a relationship which cannot last, yet its mere “promise of love” unsettles the protagonist, who wakes after a fantastical though personal dream with tears on his cheeks, “transparent as vodka but warm as rain”. But whether depicting love, grief or the collision of cultures, Levy’s “elegantly conceived and executed stories” create “an array of intense emotions and moods in precise, controlled prose”, economic and imaginative enough to propel this hypnagogic collection toward nightmare. Popescu cannot help note a particularly farcical topicality which creeps into one of the stories: “one character recalls eating horse steaks in Paris: ‘It was like eating a unicorn in the 21st century’”.

Black Vodka was reviewed by Catherine Taylor in the New Statesman earlier this year.

Instructions for a Heat Wave by Maggie O'Farrell

“Strange weather brings out strange behaviour...” Maggie O’ Farrell’s latest novel addresses the issue of brittle family structures through a captivating story centered on an Irish family, the Riordans, in London enduring the heat wave of summer 1976. 

O'Farrell examines a family structure that is fragmented by tradition and rebellion, narrating the complex lives lead by each of its members. The Guardian’s Lucy Briscoe describes this as “a brilliant dissection of different generation’s attitudes towards the same predicament”. Charlotte Heathcote, in the Express writes that “weaving through all of these life stories is Gretta [Riordan]'s obsessive Catholicism. None of her three children are religious, much to her despair, but it turns out that she is less ‘holier-than-thou’ than she can even admit to herself.”

Heathcote elaborates on the effect of the heat wave upon the Riordans as they console Gretta. “As Gretta's three children congregate at their childhood home…skeletons are dragged out of cupboards, festering wounds are exposed to the air and the job of Michael Francis, Monica and Aoife is not made easier by a mother who likes her truth whitewashed and sanitised.”

Whilst Heathcote and Briscoe concur in their verdict that the novel does not disappoint, the Independent’s Leyla Sanai is somewhat bemused by O’Farrell’s conclusion, which she describes as a “Hollywood ending.” She does, however, praise O’Farrell’s writing as “deliciously insightful,” acknowledging her abilities in “observing the dynamics of relationships and astutely filleting them to the bone.”

Consumed: How Shopping Fed the Class System by Harry Wallop

Harry Wallop’s humourously written study into British consumer habits reveals the correlation between these choices and the construction of our identities. The Guardian’s Ben East states: “It might be obvious, but buying a 'fabulously British' Jack Wills polo shirt in Southwold immediately marks you out as different from the bling-obsessed young mum who frequents a retail park to buy a bright pink Paul's Boutique purse.”

With labels like “The Asda Mum,” The Middleton Classes” or “The Portland Privateer” (the latter used to describe the wealthy banking population’s preference to give birth to their in this prestigious private hospital), it is no wonder East is quick to conclude that, despite the ”achingly true observations,” Wallop’s book “serves only to reinforce existing stereotypes.”

The Telegraph’s Toby Clements writes that Wallop’s designations have evolved as sub-groups of the older upper, middle and working classes. Clements finds Wallop’s study a “breezy, enjoyable study” reinforced by “arresting research into our shopping habits”.

Deborah Levy with her Man Booker Prize-shortlisted novel Swimming Home (Photo: Getty Images)
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The Sad Part Was: this story collection puts the real Bangkok on display

Thai author Prabda Yoon descends into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters.

In Bangkok’s budding literary scene, Prabda Yoon sits at the centre. Born in 1973, he’s the scion of a well-known family (his father Suthichai Sae-Yoon is the co-founder of the Nation newspaper) and is known in Thailand as not only an enfant terrible of letters but as an illustrator, screen-writer and director (his first film, Motel Mist, was shown at European festivals in 2016).

His reputation rests mainly on a collection of short stories published in 2000 entitled in Thai Kwam Na Ja Pen, roughly translated as Probability, and it is from this early collection that most of the stories now collected in The Sad Part Was are derived. Translated with cool elegance by Mui Poopoksakul, they are among the first modern Thai stories to be published in the UK.

As Poopoksakul points out in her afterword, she and Yoon are the products of similar backgrounds and epochs: upper-middle class children of Bangkok who came to consciousness in the late Eighties and Nineties. Often foreign-educated, fluent in English and conversant in global pop culture and media – Yoon did a stint at Parsons in New York after prep school at the Cambridge School of Weston – this new generation of Thai writers and artists were born into a society changing so fast that they had to virtually invent a new language to transcribe it.

In The Sad Part Was, the result is stories that one could glibly label as “post-modern” but which, in reality, perfectly match the qualities of the megacity where they are set. Bangkok is infamously mired in lurid contradiction, but it’s also a city of subtle and distorted moods that journalism and film have hitherto mostly failed to capture. The whimsical and playful surfaces of these stories have to be read against the high-octane anxieties and surreal dislocations of what was, until recently, one of the fastest-growing cities in the world.

Yoon uses the short form of the ten-page story to descend into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters: a schoolgirl and a beautiful female teacher who form a platonic lesbian infatuation while riding a daily bus in “Miss Space”; a couple making love during a thunderstorm whose activities are interrupted by the dismantling of two giant letters, which fall onto their roof in “Something in the Air”; a young man who meets a mysterious older man in Lumpini Park called Ei Ploang, who forces him to consider the intertwined nature of good and evil. In “Snow for Mother”, a mother waits for her little boy to grow up so that she can take him to Alaska to experience the real snow, which he never knew as a little boy in the tropics.

In “The Sharp Sleeper”, a man named Natee obsesses over losing his shirt buttons and is led into a strange reverie on the nature of dreams and the competing qualities of red and yellow pyjama shirts (Thailand’s political culture is riven by two parties popularly known as Red and Yellow Shirts). The commentary slips into effortless sarcasm:

Natee has proudly worn the red pyjama shirt several times since then, and his dream personality hasn’t altered at all. On the contrary, the shirt has encouraged him to become a man of conviction in his waking life. As to what those convictions were supposed to be, Natee wasn’t quite sure. But it was safe to say that a night shirt so principled wouldn’t drop a button so easily.

Since these stories were written, Bangkok’s political schizophrenia has lost its former air of apathy and innocence, but Yoon’s tone is quietly prescient about the eruption of violent irrationality a few years later. It’s a reminder how precious the subtlety of fiction is when set against the shrill certitudes of activism and reportage.

My favorite story here is “Something in the Air”. Its dialogues are written with hilariously archaic, bureaucratic formality, while delving into the disorientation of sexual and romantic hopes in the present century. After the couple’s love-making is interrupted, the young man suggests insolently to the woman that they resume in the open air, exposed to the furious elements. She agrees. They then notice that a dead body is lying on the roof nearby, crushed by the giant letters.

While waiting for the police to arrive, the woman sits quietly and describes her future, a happily married future in which her current lover will play no part whatsoever. He listens in melancholy astonishment until the couple are called to give their testimonies about the dead man. The officers then suspect that the couple themselves have done something scandalous – and so, stung by shame, the woman considers breaking off the relationship and setting in motion her own prophesy.

The Sad Part Was is unique in the contemporary literature of Bangkok – it doesn’t feature bar girls, white men, gangsters or scenes redolent of The Hangover Part II. Instead it reveals, sotto voce, the Thai voices that are swept up in their own city’s wild confusion and energy, and it does so obliquely, by a technique of partial revelation always susceptible to tenderness.

Lawrence Osborne is a British novelist living in Bangkok. His next book, “Beautiful Animals”, will be published by Hogarth in August

The Sad Part Was
Prabda Yoon
Tilted Axis Press, 192pp, £8.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder