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Shots in the dark

Black Vodka - review.

Black Vodka: Ten Stories
Deborah Levy
And Other Stories, 200pp, £12

There is a sexy hauteur in Deborah Levy’s prose reminiscent of the voice of Marianne Faithfull. The rasping, deadpan delivery of these ten new stories emit a dreamy harshness at once jaded and invigorating.

Levy’s Man Booker Prize-shortlisted novel, Swimming Home, made her one of the most feted literary rediscoveries of the past couple of years. Taking a well-worn theme – neurotic, middle-class Hampstead types decamping to the Côte d’Azur for the summer – she transformed it into an unnerving mise en scène that, while evoking early Ian McEwan and F Scott Fitzgerald, remained entirely original; a miniature rendered epic by its scope and profundity. Levy’s use of defiantly short chapters allowed ideas and imagery to startle with their suddenness, hang tantalisingly in the air, then disappear.

Such intense allusiveness is also at play in this slim collection. The transient characters who populate Black Vodka have elements of Swimming Home’s two main protagonists. Aspects of the beautiful anorexic Kitty Finch and the émigré poet Joe Jacobs lurk in the kooky, impulsive femmes fatales of these tales, with their male counterparts racked by violent sorrows and haunted by displaced histories.

In “Shining a Light” a young woman, Alice, visits Prague at the end of summer, only to lose her luggage on arrival. She spends the next few days wearing the same blue dress, which “makes her more reckless, but more introspective too”, and is befriended by a group of Serbian exiles while dancing at an outdoor night-screening of Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Stones documentary. A few brief pages evoke anxiety, elation and something infinitely more melancholy that is Levy’s trademark – a yearning for home, for what is irrevocably lost; whether it is Alice, who wants to see the season change in her own country, or Aleksandr, unable to return to his.

The sensual release of the earlier part of the story prefigures this deeper examination and reflection. Similarly in “Vienna”, a divorced man, separated from his children, attempts to circumvent his unhappiness through nostrings sex with the robotic Magret. He lives in Zurich, but is originally from Russia. She is Mitteleuropa personified, married to an Italian, inscrutable. When he enquires what her first language is, she responds dismissively: “There are so many languages.” Magret’s essential unavailability is constructed in a series of exciting metaphors: “She is spun from money. She smells of burnt sugar. She is snow. She is fur. She is leather. She is gold. She is someone else’s property.” He, on the other hand, is a product of the “wars and famines his parents lived through”. Their connection is orchestrated and fragile, a weary exchange.

There is a more triumphant transgression in the title story, a finalist for the BBC National Short Story Award. Levy works a tongue-in-cheek version of The Hunchback of Notre Damewith Quasimodo as a successful ad man using the words of Victor Hugo to launch a brand of vodka. Routinely mocked for his appearance, he attracts the attention of a colleague’s girlfriend, an archaeologist called Lisa whom he semi-seduces over a vodka-themed dinner at South Kensington’s Polish Club.

In a charged scene that recalls Angela Carter’s erotic masterpiece “The Courtship of Mr Lyon” (itself a retelling of “Beauty and the Beast”), the pair eat and flirt, aware of an initially muffled then resonant sense of the past around them: “a Polish forest covered in new snow in the murderous 20th century”. Twinned with this despair is delight: under Lisa’s tutelage, her companion’s hump seems less an aberration and more a phenomenon awaiting discovery.

Self-realisation and abnegation go hand in hand in the sinister “Stardust Nation”. An employee, Nick, suffers an excess of empathy with his boss, Tom, to the extent that Tom’s suppressed memories of a traumatic childhood become, terrifyingly, Nick’s own. Tom is at first disturbed, then relieved, at this symbiosis and opportunity for a transference of responsibility, even as it leads to Nick’s breakdown. Here a mental health clinic is the perfect setting for Levy’s descriptions of unreality: the strangely glamorous doctors glide by, their hypodermic syringes resembling cocktail cigarettes.

The grey wolves of Europe’s recent history – be it the dislocations thrown up by the Holocaust, or the Balkan wars – shape the narrative into a sequence that feels out of time and timeless. From premonition – as in “Roma” when a woman on holiday in Portugal with her husband foresees, in a dream sequence, his betrayal of her in another city – to the recollections of “Phone Call”, the mood is one of lamentation, yet the stories also carry terrific momentum. “I am thinking about the time we ate horse steaks in Paris,” a bereaved character remembers. “It was like eating a unicorn in the 21st century.” Such sentences encapsulate the wondrous deviation of Levy’s writing.

This article first appeared in the 21 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The A-Z of Israel

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis