Category: Reviewing

Sally Rooney and the brilliance of Normal People (and the danger it poses to the novel form)

IMG_1583I wrote recently about my first exposure to Sally Rooney’s writing, and the dilemma I faced, or conjured, as to whether buy her then-Booker-longlisted novel Normal People in hardback or wait for it in paperback – a debate that wasn’t simply down to price. In the end I was saved my deliberations when a kind student lent me a proof copy of the book. I will certainly be buying it in paperback when it comes out, and I may well be putting it on the curriculum at St Mary’s, Twickenham, where I teach.

The usefulness of Rooney to Creative Writing students – and teachers – is something I will discuss below (and this will involve a spoiler near the end: I’ll give you fair warning) but my general response to the novel is a solid continuation of my thoughts about the extract and early version story I had read in Granta and The White Review: this is a great book, that matches a warm, oblique narrative style to a pair of characters who, while immensely likeable (or ‘compelling’, if you quail at the L-word) are also intensely uncertain about the value or depth of their own qualities: the more time they spend poking and probing at their own selves, the further they get from any definite conclusion, and so they rely on each other – on their relationship with each other – to ground themselves, but seeing as they continually misstep, misspeak and misconstrue, they are always finding that solid ground shifting beneath them.

Thus the warm – we like them – and thus the oblique – they are continually struggling to find the perspective that Rooney offers the reader, from which they can be seen as genuinely likeable.

Again, the first thing to love about Normal People is the characters; the second thing to love is the cool narrative style, that dips into each character’s thought processes, and lets them be themselves, up close and personal, for the reader, but also steps away, and allows the reader to see them at an emotional distance. The mix of this is something Rooney gets absolutely right, and people have talked on Twitter about getting very closely involved in this couple as they read the book. I concur.

A brief introduction, then. The couple are Marianne and Connell, who as teenagers in small-town Ireland develop a secret and passionate friendship that crosses class divisions both in the town (Connell’s mother is Marianne’s family’s cleaner) and in school (where Connell is popular and Marianne is ostracised). The novel shifts locus but not focus when Connell follows Marianne to Dublin to study at Trinity, where they are both high-performing students. The novel is essentially one long on-off/will they?-won’t they? narrative as the two of them repeatedly grow close, sleep together, piss each other off, take other partners and then fall back into each other. The reasons for their separate and individual inability to commit, or trust – each other, and themselves – become clear as the novel progresses, but… Well, I’ll get to the but in a moment.

(If you want to get a sense of how cherished this book might become to future generations of romantically-inclined novel readers, there’s a lovely hint halfway through, when Connell is backpacking around Europe in the summer holidays. In his backpack is “a very beaten-up copy of a James Salter novel”. I think we know which James Salter novel that is, right, people? That’s right, it’s A Sport and a Pastime. People will love Normal People as much as people love that book: take my word for it. Continue reading

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Slow-cooked aphorisms and placid strangeness: Jessie Greengrass’s ‘Sight’

Jessie Greengrass has been longlisted for the 2018 Women’s Prize for Fiction, for her debut novel Sight. I have only read one of the fifteen other books on the longlist, so I can’t give a fair appraisal of the relative merits, but I will say that Sight is one of the strongest new books I’ve read so far this year, and I see no reason why it shouldn’t make the shortlist. I reviewed the book for The White Review. Click below to read it:

SIGHT sets its tone with the decidedly ambivalent opening line: ‘The start of another summer, the weather uncertain but no longer sharply edged, and I am pregnant again.’ What follows comes in three parts, each of which focuses on a significant event in the life of the unnamed narrator – a woman living in London with her partner, Johannes, and their young daughter, and, yes, awaiting the birth of their second child – but each of which also folds in the story of a particular intervention in the history of medicine.

River by Esther Kinsky review – an outsider’s view of London’s edgelands

My review of Esther Kinsky’s strange, seductive book (novel?) River, set up and down and around the banks of the River Lea in East London. It’s not an area of the city I know particularly well, though I do visit it while reading the book. Part of the reason it has never particularly appealed to me as a corner of London during the two-plus decades I’ve lived here is that it is the part nearest Essex, where I grew up. When I came into London, it was to hit the cultural hot spots – Camden, Soho, the South Bank – and the green-grey rural-natural-urban-industrial interstices between Stratford, Hackney and Walthamstow looked that little bit too much like home. Now, though, of course, that feeling is reversed, and the Walthamstow wetlands, with the small commuter trains passing across them, raised against the sky, bring out a grey-green nostalgia. Perhaps that’s part of why the book appealed to me so much: although I didn’t recognise the changes and losses specific to the area that she records, I could bring my own personal losses to bear.

Here, then, is the review. There is one passage from the book that I didn’t have space to quote, but has stuck with me, about a man in an abandoned warehouse forecourt, burning rubbish in a metal bin, that I’ll add to this post.

Read the review by clicking below:

A woman walks around the streets and river paths of the Lea Valley in east London – that fine example of British “edgelands”, where the urban, pastoral and industrial continually overlap and erase each other. She is an outsider and an immigrant, and many of the people she encounters “drifting in the river of the city” are immigrants, too: Katz the greengrocer; the Croat who runs a charity shop for Bosnian refugees; a former circus performer. This last character is from Germany, like the author, who grew up on the banks of the Rhine and has felt drawn to rivers ever since.

Darrieussecq and Becker at Minor Lits

I was offered a copy of Marie Darrieussecq’s book about the German modernist painter Paula Modersohn-Becker by the kind people at semiotext(e), after they had read something of mine on the Les Fugitives translation of Natalie Léger’s Suite for Barbara Loden. It was an excellent suggestion. The two books share a real affinity, a desire to do the now familiar job of recuperating the life and work of unjustly neglected female artists, but to do something more than this: to honour the artists in question by approaching them as equals, as one artist writing about another. I eventually wrote a piece about the book for minor lits, which you can read here. It’s stuck with me thus far, enough to make it one of my books of the year. It sent me back to try Darrieussecq’s fiction again, but I stumbled ten or so pages into Breathing Underwater and haven’t picked it up again. And it’s made me think more and more about Rilke, who is as central to Darrieussecq’s book, as he was to Becker’s creative life. What is it about men like him, that they can be so flaky and end up so lauded, while the women who are his equals (this is a broad statement, rather than an expert judgement) get left on the wayside?

The sad story of the Dutch Book of Short Stories

 

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I picked up Penguin’s Book of Dutch Short Stories with a keen curiosity – in part to see what I could learn about this country’s literature beyond what I know, which really comes down the books of Cees Nooteboom and Gerbrand Bakker. I love both these writers. (Here is my review of Cees Nooteboom’s The Foxes Come at Night, though for me Rituals is the killer text. And here is my review of Bakker’s June, and here (£) my review of the quite stunning The Detour.)

Well, I learned many things, including the reason why I (we) know so little of Dutch literature abroad, so much less than that of other European countries, and I enjoyed many of the stories in the collection, but what I also learned, that took a little digging, was that the saddest story of the collection was not in it, but of its very creation. I reviewed it for Minor Lits. Read on…

Shirley Jackson’s Dark Tales – strange loops and the suburban gothic

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There are worse things in the world, but still I do get riled at the rise of trick-or-treating in the UK. It’s partly the arrant commercialism of the event. I hate the fact that supermarkets cashing in twice over, with the rinky-dink witch and zombie costumes shelved right next to the bags of orange and black themed candy. The now-extinguished penny-for-the-guy, by comparison, offered a simpler, less costly and more direct transaction between kids and adults: handfuls of loose change given in tribute, for the stuffing of old clothes and tights with balled up newspaper.

But it’s also the way that trick-or-treating leaches any real sense of fear from the traditions of Halloween – for the kids at least. They aren’t scared; they’re just in it for sweets. If anyone’s spooked by trick-or-treating it’s the parents, so fearful of the idea of their children wandering around at night that they insist on chaperoning them. You have to hope their kids don’t catch sight of mum or dad’s face, a rictus of stranger-danger hypervigilance and forced jollity. That would give them a shock.

I’ve never taken my kids trick or treating, like the dull dad they insist I am. One Halloween, though, I did take them to the local cemetery to hang out. It didn’t work. London suburbs: far too much ambient light. I’d like to think that the country graveyard on the edge of the village where I grew up would have been a different matter, with its wonky headstones and moonlight-blocking yew trees.

When I think of trick-or-tweeting, I think of E.T., with its mass takeover of the streets by children, producing something like the benign anarchism of a May Day carnival or Saturnalia. There is freedom here, it’s true, but no fear of the dark, no sense of the dead hovering just out of sight, needing to be appeased.

Does this antipathy translate into a bias against US horror and gothic writing? Is this why I’ve never really read Shirley Jackson, beyond her classic story ‘The Lottery’, which is apparently the one story all US schoolchildren will have read by the time they reach eighth grade? Well, perhaps – but then I don’t really read gothic and horror as a genre. (The only book I can think of that gave me sleepless nights is Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs.) A reader of literary fiction, i.e. prose tragedy, I suppose I prefer despair to fear. The world is quite bad enough without ghouls and ghosties.

So it is only right and just that I give my full attention to Jackson’s work, in this new selection of short stories – although quite what decisions lie behind the selection is unclear, as two of the three collections they are taken from are already available in Penguin Modern Classics. And, presumably, all of her tales are ‘dark’ – aren’t they? Continue reading

Some thoughts on Elena Ferrante: the long and the short of it

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Daniela Petracco of Europa Editions (standing) introduces, from left to right: Joanna Walsh, Catherine Taylor and myself. Photo courtesy Richard Skinner

Last night I was at Foxed Books in West London for the London launch for Elena Ferrante’s Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, the third in her ‘Neapolitan novels’ – a projected sequence of four books telling the intense, dialectical relationship between two women over, thus far, thirty years. What with Ferrante being a non-public author, it was up to others to do the promotional duties, and I was asked to join Joanna Walsh, who chaired, and Catherine Taylor to read from and discuss her work.

Walsh has written on Ferrante for the Guardian, while Taylor and I both reviewed the new book, she for The Telegraph and I for The Independent. It was a great evening, with what I hope was an interesting discussion, both for those that already knew Ferrante’s writing and those that didn’t, and some incisive comments from the floor.

As might be hoped, most of the talk was less about the enigmatic Ferrante herself, as about the books. As a critic, I have to say, it is a joy to be able to talk about the writer without the sense that they are listening in, and might stalk up to you at another launch, months hence, and throw a glass of wine in your face. (If it’s true, as the hints would have it, that Ferrante’s decision to absent herself from the public gaze is at least partly down to constitutional shyness, then I guess she doesn’t read her reviews.) Ferrante, so far as the critic is concerned, may as well be dead. Or, as the final two lines of one of her novels read:

Deeply moved, I murmured:
“I’m dead, but I’m fine.”

One theme that recurred over the evening, and that I think worth reiterating, is the highly specific Italian-ness of her books: the overwhelming, overweening importance of family; and, one circle further out from that, of ‘the neighbourhood’. These are facets of the Neapolitan novels that simply couldn’t be successfully transplanted to any other setting, not even really to, say Italian New York. And yet there is nothing foreign about them. The effect on the characters’ lives of ‘family’ and ‘neighbourhood’ in Ferrante’s books is at once universally recognisable and highly localised.

In preparation for the talk I read the two Ferrante books that I hadn’t read before (and, in fact, re-read another, The Days of Abandonment), and this drilled home for me one other aspect of her oeuvre, thus far, that is worth mentioning. Continue reading

January reading: Jenkins, Roth, Bakker, Houellebecq, Iyer, Dyer, Burnside, Masters, Knausgaard

I started the month finishing Elizabeth Jenkins’ The Tortoise and The Hare, a mid-20th century novel reissued in chichi hardback (there’s becoming something of a glut of them, isn’t there?) by Virago, with an introduction by Hilary Mantel. It was a Christmas present, though quite why my wife chose to give me a book about the breakdown of a marriage, I’m not sure.

The novel is one of those (like Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday) that is entirely governed by the formal gesture of its narrative: in this case, the gradual and implacable usurpation of the wifely role to rich, shallow barrister Evelyn Gresham by ‘handsome’, practical Blanche Silcox – to which Evelyn’s floaty, feminine wife, Imogen, can only stand by and watch. Any deviation from this movement (the possibility of Imogen having an affair, the needs and desires of the Greshams’ horrid son Gavin) gets dragged into the slipstream of the narrative and ruthlessly flung aside.

The key moment of the book comes for the reader when they realise that there is nothing organic about the plot’s progress: it is entirely teleologically determined. Jenkins knows exactly where her characters are going to end up: Blanche in Imogen’s place, Imogen cast out. It’s as mathematical as a Pinter short, or Ionesco’s The Lesson. There is something unreal about the bluntness of this reversal, though it’s mitigated by the domestic texture of the prose. (That said, the book does commit a venal sin: “books that include minor characters just to satirise them”)

Here is Karl O Knausgaard on form: “Form, which is of course a prerequisite for literature. That is its sole law: everything has to submit to form. If any of literature’s other elements are stronger than form, such as style, plot, them, if any of these take control over form, the result is poor. That is why writers with a strong style often write poor books. That is also why writers with strong themes so often write poor books. Strong themes and styles have to be broken down before literature can come into being. It is this breaking down that is called ‘writing’.” (From ‘A Death in the Family’ – more on this below.) Continue reading

The never-ending search for the perfect literary journal…

The launch of The White Review, the redesign of The Drawbridge, Areté still going strong, not to mention Ambit. With the sense that Granta, although perhaps a stronger magazine than it was a few years ago, is becoming more international, less distinctly British, the gap is there in the market for a replacement. If I want a literary journal to subscribe to, there is no shortage of options, so which should it be?

It turns out that over the last couple of years I’ve been buying single issues of literary and cultural journals, or magazines, or reviews, or quarterlies, or whatever they happen to call themselves, as if, consciously or unconsciously, I’ve been auditioning them for that very role. It’s time to get off the pot and sign on the direct debit dotted line.

Thinking about the precise elements that I’m looking for leads me to think, too, about what role, more generally, journals play in a reading life. You could go back to Puffin Post, or the NME, or 2000AD, but I suppose the moment that a journal really spoke to me with a genuine intellectual thrill was when in my late teens my parents gave me a subscription to Sight & Sound.

Cinema and I have since had a parting of the ways (it is an estrangement too complicated and bitter to go into here – suffice it to say that I look at a magazine like Little White Lies and wish, wish, wish that cinema and I were still friends) but the memory persists. Today, what I want, what I really, really want is a literary/cultural journal that does what Sight & Sound did then; that makes me feel engaged and informed in a way less parti pris than the cultural sections of the newspapers, and less dissipated and frenzied than the internet-based information channels.

I currently subscribe to Granta and McSweeney’s, and they both still get read, if not cover to cover. They are, though, a resource. (The TLS and LRB get read, from time to time, but I can’t store them – I want a journal that can sit on the shelves, and deserves its space on them; that is a usable resource, in short.) And the McSweeney’s are, of course, fantastically designed – distractingly so, even (as I blogged here). But these are essentially journals pushing new fiction (and, to a lesser extent, reportage and memoir.) Both make a point of excluding critical work. Which is fine, that’s their decision, but for my journal – my dream journal, the journal I want to call home – it is a fault. It somehow loosens them from the thread of history. Granta’s themed issues are often impressively urgent, but issue by issue it doesn’t answer to what I would portentously call ‘the spirit of the age.’

That’s what I’m after: the portentously-called spirit of the age.

So here are the magazines/journals/reviews I’ve bought recently, that I felt might fit the bill: Ambit (#203), Drawbridge (#19), Teller (#1), The Moth (#3), Stop/Sharpening/Your/Knives (#4) and now The White Review (#1), to which I’ll also add Areté, although I don’t have a recent issue.

Let’s rattle though them:

Stop/Sharpening/Your/Knives – this is a poetry magazine, from Norwich, thus I know one or two of the poets. It is impressively though simply designed, with some intriguing black and white illustrations made in response to the poetry. What it does, it does very well, but poetry is not my core interest or concern. So I pass on.

Teller – I blogged about this previously. It is certainly excellent value, especially considering the wealth of colour images, but the balance of text and image isn’t what I want – there is a comparative lack of weight to the prose selections. Moreover, it doesn’t have a spine, so disappears on the shelf. My ideal journal will call out to me as I pass, demand a second glance. A resource must be accessible, retrievable.

The Moth – I had high hopes of this; again it was inexpensive, but again it was stapled, so hard to keep track of on the shelves – in fact I can’t find my copy to write about it now. From memory, though, the fiction, of which there was plenty, was interesting rather than mind-blowing, and the non-fiction was limited to one interview.

Ambit – Ambit comes with a significant pedigree (look at that issue number – it’s been going for over fifty years!) and still upholds its support for the new and untried by refusing to commission anything. Everything it prints is unsolicited. Ambit looks good and feels good in the hand, with some b&w illustration. #203 has one thrillingly good short story (‘The Way We Live Now’ by Paul Goddard) and some equally good poetry, but really it’s the poetry/prose balance that put its out of my sweet spot, plus the only critical pieces are short poetry reviews. A remarkable and admirable publication, to be applauded for so doggedly carrying the torch for experimentation, but it doesn’t tick enough of the boxes for me, right now.

The Drawbridge – Although this is #19 in some ways it’s #1, as this intellectually out-looking journal has just relaunched in a new book-ish format. Previously, it came as a broadsheet newspaper and, I have to say, I preferred it that way. There was something exotic about reading short pieces of fiction and sometimes provocative non-fiction in this format: their length seemed to fit the constraints of the page layout. The new-look Drawbridge is, by contrast, an all-out luxury item – one issue of it costs as much as a year’s subscription to the old – and the artwork is now given proper space, not pressed into proximity with the text like photos and adverts in a newspaper, as previously.

What benefits the visual, however, harms the textual. The size of the page (19x26cm) simply doesn’t suit single column print – there’s too much white space; double column text might work better – and the exuberance of the colour images jumping out between each short stretch of prose seems to dominate proceedings, and suck energy from the words. The great benefit of the photo essay in Granta, by contrast, is that it keeps the visual element strictly constrained.

As for content, The Drawbridge is ambitiously international, with names like David Means, Mario Vargas Llosa, Italo Calvino and Julio Cortázar on the cover of this issue (together with others that I felt I ought to know but didn’t), though two of those are dead, and the Vargas Llosa piece is a squib about fear of flying that would certainly never have got published without his name attached. Such cosmopolitanism does, however, mean that it doesn’t feel particularly British or English – which is not a criticism, just that I’m after something that feels like it’s looking at the world from a particular cultural-geographic standpoint.

The final comment on the journal is that, like Granta, it gives each issue a theme, which to my mind is a demerit. Granta, at least, refuses to limit its themes to a single category (the last four are ‘Aliens’, ‘Best Young Spanish-Language Novelists’, ‘Pakistan’, ‘Going Back’). The Drawbridge sticks to nouns, often abstract (‘Flight’, ‘Ghosts’, ‘Action’, ‘Money’) which often seems like a way of hedging their bets – appearing to be adventurous in their editorial process while keeping things vague enough to let any old thing in.

Areté – Another serious contender for the ideal journal, which I occasionally buy and often consider subscribing to. It is intellectually rigorous, with a pleasing balance between fiction and criticism; definitely British in outlook, though hardly parochial; featuring an impressive list of contributors; and elegantly presented, with a defiant lack of qualms about having no visual element whatsoever. If something has stopped me signing on the direct debit dotted line, it is the occasional snarky tone, with its combative ‘Our Bold’ sections and willingness to enter into internecine literary warfare that, though admirable in some respects, can be tiresome for the general reader.

By now I think I’ve worked out the criteria for my perfect literary quarterly:

  • content should be largely divided between new fiction and new critical/non-fiction writing.
  • visual art and poetry are secondary, and neither is indispensable.
  • good design is more important than artwork.
  • finally, it should situate itself historically and geographically, should look forwards and backwards in equal measure, should consider the portentously-named spirit of the age, and should do all of this from somewhere that feels rooted in the British intellectual heritage.

 

All of which is a preamble to the announcement that I have found what I hope will be the journal of my dreams, although, as it’s only at the first issue, that declaration of love could turn out to be drastically premature.

The White Review is a new British-based journal that fulfils all of these personal requirements. The first issue (170pp, 17x24cm – just that crucial bit smaller than The Drawbridge) contains three interviews (Tom McCarthy, Paula Rego and publisher André Schiffrin – whose name they misspell at one critical point) plus an illuminating discussion about cut-up innovator Brion Gysin, two stories, a handful of poems and prose-poems, one photo section with accompanying essay, and five further essays ranging from the critical to the reportage. That balance feels almost perfect to me.

The artwork, of which there is not too much, is all black and white, which I think in the end is preferable to the distraction of colour. The design is superb, with a marbled bookmark carrying the table of contents and an ingenious cover that folds out to form a poster (though its very origami-like beauty means it’s sadly at risk of damage over time, as it gets put in and out of bags, pulled on and off the shelf). At £14 – roughly the same as The Drawbridge but significantly more than £8 Areté – it’s expensive, but feels worth the money.

I haven’t read all of it yet, but everything that I have read was stimulating and felt like it belonged together with the other pieces. The interview with Tom McCarthy, especially, was a pleasant surprise; he came across as less arch than he has in other contexts, and set me happily scribbling notes and graphs into response to his comments about character and narrative. It’s neat, too, that one of the magazine’s two stories, ‘Beyond The Horizon’ by Patrick Langley, gives a nice echo of ‘C’, with its anonymous short-wave radio transmissions pulsing out through a fractured contemporary world.

The editors of The White Review set out their stall by referring to La Revue Blanche, a Parisian review of a century ago that rode the rising wave of Modernism, which epoque they honour with translations of two poems by Rimbaud contemporary Charles Cros (the translations presented, as they should be, alongside the originals). The names popping up in the other essays – George Steiner, Milan Kundera, Primo Levi – and the views taken on post-War German architecture and contemporary uprisings in India, show a cosmopolitan view, though certainly nothing to frighten the horses. Areté perhaps gives a stronger sense of its own, as opposed to a borrowed, or received identity.

Enough. I want to get back to reading, and to writing, which is the point after all. The upshot of my search? Reader, I subscribed to The White Review – though with a definite intention to do the same to Areté when funds become available.

Occasional mag review: Teller

Picked up a copy of new magazine Teller at the Tate shop a few days ago and now have read most of it. It’s a 64-page stapled thing about the size of a posh Sunday supp magazine. Comes from “London and Berlin” and calls itself “a magazine of stories”, which breaks down to four photo essays (of 16, 9, 11 and 13 images), two short stories, one travelogue, one anecdote and one autobiographical sketch.

Clearly they’re casting their definition of ‘story’ reasonably wide, though for my taste the scales come down a bit too heavily on the visual side – I count 40 pages of visuals against 18 of text, once you’ve taken out the bits and bobs.

Perhaps once you’ve decided to go for a certain quality of production (and the quality is good: photo reproductions work well on the matt pages) it seems wasteful to give space over to words instead of pictures. Maybe not, I claim no knowledge of the production of these things.

As for the content, it’s variable but certainly encouraging. The main story, ‘Potroom Willie’ by Lee Scrivner, is a fresh take on the ‘world through an animal’s eyes’ genre that kept me fully engaged on the post-lunch train ride home.  Potroom Willie, a dog, lives with an old poor couple in back of Texas and has little to his life beyond eating and expelling food:

Then came the jowl machinations of the eating, the most elementary form of mental grasping except for sniffing. And he would suck and vacuum up all that sustenance into his entrails. And he would hork and gulp at the fastest possible rate of consumption. Ravenous, he would devour even the residue of the meaty goop on the sides of the bowl and along the floor, even if it was mixed in with mud and dust and live and Mop-N-Glo.

 You might be given to think that the story’s just going to continue in this lively, blinkered vein, but it does open up in a rather unexpected way – a slack-jawed, damn-you-Lee-Scrivner, staring-dumbly-ahead kind of way that absolutely suits this manner of reading stories: with no foreknowledge, at random, in mags like this, rather than, you know, in a collection, or something.

The other fiction, by former Spacemen 3/Spiritualized bassist Will Carruthers is a tour anecdote that certainly passes the time amusingly (and makes me think: god but former indie musicians will keep coming out with books, won’t they – though personally I can’t wait for James Yorkston’s tour diaries next year). It’s an accolade that I wouldn’t extend to the other prose outings – Thomas Rees’s account of a horse race in the Central Asian steppes made me wince a fair few times. (“Sheep, munching contendedly around the yurt tents, are slaughtered… The race is a siren call to horsemen across the flatlands” and so on.)

Of the photography, the stand-out selections are Flavie Guerrand’s ‘I Slid Across The Floor’, a diary of bohemian parties in France during the 90s, and ‘This Time Tomorrow’, a similar look at posh white people letting their hair down in Kenya in the mid 50s, taken by one Charles Trotter.

The one is dim blurred glimpses of cool people working up to or coming down from vaguely suggested debauchery – people, y’know, kind of like us. The other is crisp monochrome snapshots of awful people behaving awfully in a distant, sheltered little world.

The implication, naturally, being that foul time will take our holy condemnation of those nasty Empire lackeys and smear it across the pages of history to attach it to the cool kids of France that we so admire and approve of. Judge not, etc.

As a whole, it’s an intriguing bundling-up of fiction and fact and, at £3.50, very well priced indeed. I would just have liked more in the way of decent, solid stringing together of words. Yes, it’s true that humans tell stories in all kinds of ways, but some of them (the life story, the anecdote) are best heard over a pint, or over a cup of tea, or just overheard. The printed page makes greater demands. Or I make greater demands of my printed pages.

It’ll go on the shelf, though and – not having a spine – is in danger of disappearing for ever. If I make a mental book mark, it will be more for the photos than the text. And I’ll keep an eye out for #2.

PS Good name, too. Straightforward yet enigmatic. Almost an anagram of Letter. And Relent.