Friday 17 April 2020

Ghost Wall

I listened to Ghost Wall in January (January 2019! Seems I forgot to post this). I was spellbound. When I finished I couldn't settle on another audiobook to start after it, so I just listened to it again straight away. That was partly the story, but also the wonderful audiobook narration by Christine Hewitt. I loved her Northern English voice so much. It was one of the audiobooks where you sit in car parks after you've arrived somewhere just to keep listening.

The opening words are arresting. 

They bring her out. Not blindfolded, but eyes widened to the last sky, the last light. The last cold bites her fingers and her face, the stones - not the last stones- bruise her bare feet. She stumbles. They hold her up. No need to be rough, everyone knows what is coming. From deep inside her body, from the cord in her spine and the wide blood-ways under the ribs, from the emptiness of her womb and the rising of her chest, she shakes. A body in fear. 
"No need to be rough, everyone knows what is coming." I don't! I don't know what is coming, but I sure want to now... The first page or so sets an incredible scene, and then there is an abrupt change of pace, and I was initially confused by this change, thinking that I'd missed something. And so I started the audio again, but I hadn't missed anything. 

Fifteen year old Silvie and her parents have joined a university excursion in Northumberland in the recent past. The Berlin Wall has recently fallen. Silvie's father is obsessed with Iron Age Britain, and the excursion is an exercise in 'experiential archeology', a reality tv type experience of living as people would have done some 2,000 years ago. Silvie's father is not an academic though, he's a working man, a bus driver, and the Iron Age is his hobby, and he's dragging his family along with him on his annual leave. Because of his passion for it his wife and daughter have become experts in the Iron Age too. 

The group must are wearing scratchy gather their own food, and it falls to Silvie's mother to prepare food for everyone- the Professor, the three university students, and her own family.

I didn't see quite a few of the themes as strongly as many English readers, people I follow on booktube. But certainly Sarah Moss was talking about Brexit and migration and very modern issues in her ancient story. 

Ghost Wall is such a tight compact little book. It is rather tense at times. There is a lot to think about. I have some minor quibbles with the very end of Ghost Wall, but that wasn't enough to diminish my joy in this fascinating tale. 

Sarah Moss on her blog, On Prehistorical Fictions

CBC Interview with Sarah Moss

Tuesday 14 April 2020

Convenience Store Woman

For some reason I've been very drawn to books by Japanese and Korean writers of late. Particularly to books by women writers. I've bought quite a few of them of course, but hadn't got to reading any of them yet. Most of them are tantalisingly short and with my attention span and concentration all but shot by the disaster movie that is 2020 I was looking for a nice short comforting read, and I was hopeful that Convenience Store Woman would fit the bill. I think it mostly did.

Keiko Furukura is 36 years old, she somewhat accidentally started working at a convenience store in Tokyo when she was 18 years old, and she's never left the security that she found there. 
The tinkle of the door chime as a customer comes in sounds like church bells to my ears. When I open the door, the brightly lit box awaits me - a dependable, normal world that keeps turning. I have faith in the world in that light-filled box. 
Keiko has always been unusual. Particularly literal as a child, she becomes quite a loner as she grows up. As a young uni student she finds a part time job at a Smile Mart. 
At that moment, for the first time ever, I felt I'd become a part in the machine of society. I've been reborn, I thought. That day, I actually became a normal cog in society. 
Keiko is comforted by the routines and rhythms of the store. The store training, the uniform, the scripted phrases and preferred facial expressions, all make her more comfortable. "It was the first time anyone had ever taught me how to accomplish a normal facial expression and manner of speech." 
For breakfast I eat convenience store bread, for lunch I eat convenience store rice balls with something from the hot-food cabinet, and after work I'm often so tired I just buy something from the store and take it home for dinner. I drink about half the bottle of water while I'm at work, then put it in my eco bag and take it home with me to finish at night. When I think that my body is entirely made up of food from this store, I feel like I'm as much a part of the store as the magazine racks or the coffee machine. 
I've long held a similar notion, but about the culinary highlights of my life, not the slapdash lunches I eat at work. I like to think that at least a few carbon atoms that I ate for lunch at the Ritz in Paris in 1998 are still rattling about inside me somewhere. The carbon that made up those truffles on the pasta or the Golden Wine of the Jura that I had for lunch that day are still locked away in my cells. I'm sure they are. Better that than thinking the remnants of some chicken nuggets that I scoffed in a car one day are still there. 

I did like how Keiko (Ms Furukura really to me) refers to the many store managers she has seen come and go in numerical order. Currently Manager #8 is in charge. I didn't enjoy the change to the narrative when a new employee Shiraha arrives later in the book. 

On the whole though I did enjoy this quirky tale about an unusual woman. And now not only do I want to read more Japanese and Korean books, I want to go to a Tokyo convenience store on a hot summer day, and have some rice balls (onigiri) or spicy cod roe pasta, and a cold drink, and wonder about the staff working there, and what their life is like.

Convenience Store Woman is the first of Sayaka Murata's ten books to be translated into English.  Translation by Ginny Tapley Takemori.