Every once in a while I find a book so dense that it seems impenetrable. The kind of book that requires research to read. Like Joyce’s Ulysses (I took an entire course on Joyce in college) or Faulkner’s The Sound and The Fury (Cliff Notes provided by my High School English teacher). I’ve always enjoyed information mining. But, the Geography of Rebels Trilogy is next level… I can’t imagine who the intended audience was or is.
It’s not a bad book. I find it fascinating, though I don’t entirely understand it. Llansol plays with language in ways I’ve never encountered, and her translator Audrey Young does an excellent job of conveying this. Pick a page at random – one of the benefits of a book that doesn’t recognize linear structure – and read. There’s always something interesting happening at a sentence level.
Anyone coming to Llansol with any kind of “normal” expectations at all will likely be disappointed. Plot, logical structure, continuity, a sense of linear time and/or space— you won’t find any of that here. At least not in any form that is readily apparent. Instead, Llansol immerses her readers in a shared hallucinatory vision, seemingly fueled by religious hysteria and open to multiple interpretations.
The key into Llansol is provided by Benjamin Moser in an extremely helpful afterword, which I recommend reading before delving into the Geography of Rebels. In it Moser explains that, while in exile with her husband in Belgium, Llansol “discovered an institution peculiar to the Low Countries: the beguinage, medieval hostels that offered refuge to spiritually inclined laypeople.” These hostels were built for women who did not wish or intend to take holy orders but wanted to live a life of religious contemplation and celibacy. They still exist today. And it was after visiting one such beguinage in Bruges that Llansol “suddenly understood that ‘several levels of reality were deepening their roots, coexisting without any intervention of time.’”
This small insight into the author’s history helps to explain the real-life, historical figures she chose to populate the pages of her books——a veritable who’s who of medieval Christian mystics throughout the ages. Saint John of the Cross was a 16th-century Spanish Carmelite priest and mystic, still revered in Spain for his poetry. One poem, in particular, stands out—his Spiritual Canticle, in which he coined the phrase “the dark night of the soul.” Ana de Peñalosa was his patron, with whom he corresponded. (Llansol lifts whole quotes directly from the letters John wrote Ana de Peñalosa). Thomas Müntzer, a German theologian alive at the turn of the 15th century was imprisoned and tortured, as was John, for his faith. In the pages of Llansol’s book all three talk and interact like old friends (despite Müntzer walking around with his severed head in his hands, having died seventeen years prior to John’s birth).
Just when it seems dystopian horror has had its moment, a new iteration emerges. The Water Cure, the Man Booker-nominated, debut novel of Welsh writer Sophie Mackintosh, depicts a distinctly female dystopia and arrives amidst the cyclical tides of the #MeToo movement.
So, what fresh hell this? Three sisters are raised on an island by their Mother and father, a man they all call King. The family lives in isolation, cut off and protected from a world where men carry a fatal sickness which afflicts only women. Or so the sisters have been taught. A lesson enforced by the broken women who stumbled ashore in search of the titular cure all through the girls’ shared childhood. But by the time we, the readers, enter the story, years have passed since the sick women stopped coming.
The women drank the salt water first, their faces pained. They threw up repeatedly into the buckets. Their bodies convulsed. They lay on the floor, but Mother helped them up, insistent. They rinsed their mouths, spat. Then they drank from the second row, glass after glass of our good and pure water, the water that came from our taps like a miracle, the water that the sprinklers cast out in the early dusk like a veil across the garden.
It is not explicitly stated how or why women suffer in this society – whether it is institutional, biological, or the same mundane misogyny of our world assigned greater urgency. The information is conflicting. Do the men carry a virus, or is this just male “cooties” the young women have been trained to fear? Grace, Lia, and Sky are shown a list of symptoms, which include “unexplained bleeding from anywhere, but particularly eyes, ears, fingernails.” But, this story is told primarily from the points of view of the two elder sisters, Grace & Lia, and it’s difficult to determine if they are reliable narrators. With no outside contact and only vague memories of the time before they were brought to the island, the sisters exist in a societal and family construct entirely designed and controlled by King and Mother.
The construct cracks when King fails to return from a supply trip to the mainland and the women believe him drowned. Within days or weeks of his disappearance (because time, itself, is a construct) two men and a boy wash up on the beach, interrupting the women’s mourning and exposing deep fissures in their family unit.
Mother — bereft and the keeper of dark secrets attempts to maintain what passes on the island for normalcy. “‘I would do anything for my girls,’ Mother says, stoic.” The history of her relationship to King is told in short bursts, in a style reminiscent of a Greek chorus and scattered throughout the book. Mother is an easy character to overlook, overshadowed by her three daughters. But it’s an important part of her role in the book, to speak for older women who find themselves invisible because they are no longer deemed desirable — first wives, actresses in their 40’s, stay-at-home moms.
Grace, we quickly learn, is pregnant. There is no question of who the father is because only one option exists. And Lia, as decreed by King’s law, has been designated “least loved” for the year – making her particularly vulnerable to the attention of one of the castaways. Only Sky, born on the island and innocent to the point of vacuity, seems unaffected by the intruders. But, then, we are never privy to Sky’s interior life in the way we are her two sisters’. She is more feral pup than a human girl, and it’s easy to wonder how the story might be changed if Sky had been allowed her own voice.
When we were younger, Grace and I played a game called Dying. It involved folding your body over and wadding your eyes up tight. It involved shaking. I was always the one who died – of course I was – so I lay in front of my sister as she threw salt on me.
‘We told you not to go out in the world!’ Grace would shout in imitation of Mother. ‘What did you wear?’
Just my body. Just the gown.
But even without Sky, Grace and Lia build a powerful and disturbing narrative. Lia, hungry for affection and love, always takes on the hardest tasks to spare her sisters physical and emotional pain. She is desperately lonely. Grace is an entirely different creature. Her interior life is everything. She exists as cold consciousness inconveniently contained within a female form. Grace’s contributions to the tale ring out over the text like the voice of an old testament prophet and, despite Lia being assigned the bulk of the chapters (including the entirety of Part II. Men), Grace’s chapters contain the most shocking revelations.
The three men (even the boy is designated a “man”) — James, Llew, and Gwil — expose the women in ways they can’t and don’t understand. Their rituals and therapies become absurd when performed in the presence of strangers. They are exotic, ever-so-slightly ridiculous creatures who do not know how to behave. And the oddity of their behavior is further exposed when we learn they are older than we believed them, or even they knew themselves, to be. The book’s tension comes from watching as the utopian glamour is stripped away layer by layer from their island sanctuary, revealing the twisted and ramshackle nature of the family’s existence. In some aspects, it is your typical “serpent in paradise” situation playing.
Mackintosh has said in interviews that she started writing with the question, what if masculinity were actually, physically, toxic? So we must accept the premise that the danger men pose in her novel is very real. In all other details, the world she describes is futuristic only in that readers are conditioned to assume all dystopias are, by default, set in a distant future. Nothing these women experience is so far removed from our own world as to be inconceivable. Their daily life is regimented by superstition and odd rituals, but so are the lives of the women trapped in misogynist cults and religious sects. Which is why The Water Cure is so canny. The same quality that makes Margaret Atwood’s work so chilling and seductive – describing a society where more is familiar than is foreign — imbues Mackintosh’s novel with a terrifying prescience. When James tries to convince Grace that “‘the world is not what you have been told… I mean, the world is very terrible, but you have been told a number of things that are untrue’” she, the most clear-sighted of the sisters, understands that “the world has not been kind to him… yet he loves it anyway. It is a man’s place. His survival is implicit, a survival taken for granted.” Readers can recognize male privilege on display.
Reviews in the UK made the inevitable comparisons to The Handmaid’s Tale, but Mackintosh’ sisters possess a fierceness that I don’t remember in Atwood’s handmaidens. Anger and hostility underpin The Water Cure, as does a sense of tangible, feminine rage. Mackintosh is uncompromising in her message: Men are selfish. Men lie. Men manipulate. And so it comes as no surprise that James, Llew, and Gwil are not who or what they seem. Nor King. There can be no good men. Mackintosh goes all in and gives her characters over to their raw emotions. At the same time, she explores the classic female archetypes. Sky the virgin, Lia the whore and Grace the mother. Mother, herself, has evolved into the crone. Always recognizing that these archetypes are also patriarchal constructs and reminding us that each woman, with the possible exception of Sky, is complicit in her own and her sisters’ subjugation.
Three soldiers sent by King Herod to massacre innocent babies experience a moment of doubt, only to have their resolve strengthened (and hearts hardened) by the words of a sinister old man. An urchin boy styling himself King David sacrifices everything to keep his subjects safe. A rich man seeks out healers and prophets, desperate to cure his first-born son of a debilitating stutter. A prostitute searches for the man she loves and finds acceptance and community with a group of strangers. This baker’s dozen collection of short stories by Swedish writer Lars Petter Sveen reimagines the Bible as a work of speculative fiction, freshened up with contemporary prose. Featuring an overlapping cast of lepers, prostitutes, orphans, murderers, and thieves – these stories remind us that Jesus’ followers were often society’s outcasts. Sveen gives voices to the men, women and, children who are mentioned, but not considered important enough to name, in the Christian Gospels.
Children of God is told in the straightforward, character-driven style of a genre novel. There’s a substantial amount of dialogue. The prose does the job, but Sveen is not a stylist and Guy Puzey’s translation (from the original Norwegian) reflects that reality. But if you like fantasy-style novels, and aren’t quick to cry BLASPHEME!, this isn’t a bad read. In “I Smell of the Earth” a dead woman seeks to escape her demon lover. The demon is defined only by his voice, there is no physical description. We recognize him by the sibilants of his speech patterns. The way he hisses out the “s” in Ssssssarah, appearing suddenly out of the darkness, is chilling.
In “Martha’s Story” a young girl plays a game with an old man in which they both must tell stories to Martha’s little brothers and sisters. This old, blind man “stays in the shadows while light falls elsewhere” and connects the material world to the spiritual. He appears throughout the book. More Saruman than Satan (though, of course, we’re meant to recognize him as the latter) he plants doubt and corruption wherever he goes. He will tell the children a story to make them cry. Martha must make them smile or laugh again, or he will take her as a forfeit (one guesses to suffer Sarah’s fate). “Martha’s Story” is formatted differently from the others in the book – surrounded by wide margins which compress the text, giving it the appearance of a children’s book. It’s the second to last story. In my opinion, it should have closed the book out. Without spoiling too much, when it’s Martha’s turn she pulls a character we’ve met before into her tale, allowing him a chance at redemption. It’s a surprising, metafiction moment that had me thinking of another Graywolf book, The Impossible Fairy Tale by Han Yujoo, which touches on the same idea: the performance of author as a god. A strange and unexpected connection.
Discovering how the stories overlap and tracing the connections between the individual characters is a large part of the fun. For that reason, I recommend reading in order. There’s very little world-building otherwise, either historical or genre, and there appears to be the implicit (if unspoken) understanding that the reader brings at least a superficial knowledge of the Bible to the page. Eight years of Catholic school, after which I lapsed hard, stood me well. While probably not necessary, having that foundation did make things more interesting.
Children of God is Sveen’s English language debut. An entertaining, occasionally formulaic collection based on New Testament stories by an author who recognizes that the foundational themes/tenets of Christianity, in which the forces of good and evil battle for the hearts and souls of mankind, lend themselves handily to the genre of speculative fiction.
In Yoko Tawada’s The Emissary the future is, somewhat predictably, bleak. Japanese children are frail and infirm creatures, cared for by grandparents and great-grandparents who remain strong and vigorous well past the hundred-year mark. The two main characters, Yoshiro and his great-grandson Mumei, live in a world recovering from the aftermath of an unspecified disaster. The intervening generations, — Mumei’s grandparents, father, and mother, — are all conspicuously absent. Yoshiro has a vague idea of where they are and what they are doing, but no strong inclination to connect with them. He is entirely invested in, and responsible for, the care of Mumei. Everything and everyone else is of tertiary significance.
There are no cars. English words are taboo. Banks have closed. Higher education has been exposed as a mercenary business that takes students’ money while doing very little to prepare them for finding jobs. The ground has been contaminated and most animals have gone extinct. (Dogs still exist. Yoshiro rents a dog from the Rent-A-Dog store every morning to take on his run along the river). The nation of Japan is cut off from the international community and “closed to the outside world.”
“Why is it closed?”
“Every country has serious problems, so to keep those problems from spreading all around the world, they decided that each country should solve its own problems by itself. Remember when I took you to the Showa-Heisei Museum? All the rooms were separated by steel doors, so if a fire starts in one room it can’t spread to the next one.”
Over the course of the book, Mumei goes from barely being able to walk to being confined to a wheelchair. We learn about his and Yoshiro’s daily routines. We watch as he makes a friend and falls in love. To a certain extent, we’re given hints at the fates of their extended family. But The Emissary poses a lot of questions and is frustratingly short on answers. What happened to isolate Japan? Why are children physically deteriorating so rapidly? Why are the elderly, in contrast, so healthy and long-lived? What is the state and status of the generations in between? What is the role of the reader in this story? Tawada is all about world building on the micro scale, to the extent that this novel contains very little plot and an inexplicable fascination with incidental details. The writing is mesmerizingly beautiful. Emotions are conveyed using fluid and clean sentences. It’s easy to understand why The Emissary won newly re-instated, 2018 National Book Award for Translation. But it a work of fiction that is disconcerting both in its construction and lack of hope.
The two fell silent, both thinking roughly the same thing. Since orchards are actually factories that produce food, working in one all day, cut off from the outside world, might be pretty miserable. The word orchard brings a paradise to mind, which makes people envious. They imagine workers walking in the mountains looking for wild mushrooms, discovering miniature farms made of moss on the forest floor on the way as they breathe in moist air wafting through the ferns… That’s not what Amana was doing, though…
Mumei is a remarkably sweet child for whom eating an orange is a feat of strength. He and children like him, are empathetic, kind and wise far beyond their years. They have a cryptic way of speaking – like Greek oracles – making pronouncements that the adults dedicated to their care accept without question. When the pediatrician asks Mumei whether he likes milk, the child says that he prefers worms. Instead of treating it as the nonsensical statement that we imagine it is, the doctor explains the pros and cons of an insect-based diet and advises sticking to flying insects due to ground/soil contamination.
Yoshiro is perpetually sad. He despairs because of his great-grandson’s failing health and his own helplessness against it. He believes he has nothing to teach Mumei as all the institutions and belief systems on which he based his past life on have proven false… or at the very least, no longer applicable in this new society. This strain of impotence and defeat – the inability to fix or make the world better – runs through the story. Tawada makes a feeble attempt at introducing something else resembling a plot to carry the reader forward. We learn that there is a program to smuggle these wonderful children out into the wide world as emissaries of hope. But the percentage of the book spent on what is, at best, a sub-plot is negligible. Tawada appears barely interested in it as an idea, so why should we care?
This is a book that is defined by the number of unanswered questions it contains. Most important among them being: what is the role of the reader in Yoko Tawada’s The Emissary? Dystopian fiction is seldom written without an underlying message. So that when I come across this type of book I ask myself – a bit like Ebeneezer Scrooge – what does it mean, Spirit? Tawada has incorporated multiple criticisms of our current institutions – distrust in banks, failures in our educational system, the super-aging society of Japan (according to one article, by 2025 “20% of Japanese nationals will be at least 75 years old and 30% at least 65. In other words, Japan will become a super-aged society with no parallel in history”), – but provides very little context. Is this an exercise in immersion? Is it a cautionary tale? An attempt at a genre novel or a reimagining of what a genre novel might be? It’s very difficult to gauge the writer’s intention. And without that…
At it’s best, The Emissary is a remarkably polished and seductive exercise in world building. Tawada plays with and develops the details for what we can imagine eventually becoming a more expansive story – one containing a plot, character development, and a narrative arc. But when she halfheartedly attempts to inject those elements here, adding weak plot elements to pad out her page count, that The Emissary is at its weakest. While not her best book, Yoko Tawada has the ability to submerge her readers into strange, new worlds and The Emissary still accomplishes this feat brilliantly.
But The Embalmer is not a crime novel, though it does feature the occasional victim. Written in the first person, a nameless narrator conducts a series of interviews with her father about his work. He was a mortician — an embalmer. In short vignettes, he describes working with the dead. And she, in turn, describes him. They meet at a diner. The premise is that simple. Except when it’s not. Anne-Renée Caillé manages to convey a great deal with only a few lines of text.
The mother is in the lab, asks for the skates. They are still on his feet, the request is disturbing, then he tells himself she has some ten children, after all.
He unlaces the first skate and pulls gently, but the foot comes off.
In the skate a foot — the mother doesn’t want it anymore, she lets it go.
Parent-child relationships are complicated. The embalmer/father is cautious, trying to protect his daughter (and himself) while still honoring her request and answering her questions. His daughter carefully watches his mannerisms and describes to the reader what she observes. “He thinks and adds…”, “Clearly he saved this for last, put it off — uncomfortable with the stories he tells me two…”, “He moves quickly through the short list in front of him, handwritten, folded, unfolded, refolded, folded, refolded, higgledy-piggledy.” There is love, but also a distance maintained, in their interactions. Though they are only the briefest of sketches on the page, no names or physical descriptions are provided, these two characters gradually solidify in our imaginations. We’ve all been to diners. They could be sitting in the next booth.
If you’ve read Gabrielle Wittkop (The Necrophiliac and Murder Most Serene ) then this subject matter is familiar. A shared fascination with death. But while both writers lay out a veritable smorgasbord of death and decomposition, they are very different in approach and intent. Whereas Wittkop’s work is gothic and visceral, almost cloyingly so, Caillé takes a more practical and moderate approach. She is more respectful. While Wittkop’s narrators are gleeful and gossipy, the embalmer is reticent. He summarizes. The rare details volunteered are unembellished.
Morbid fascination. Macabre. Gallows humor. Black comedy. Horror. We want to look, but only when it’s our choice. When no one we care about is involved. When we have the ability to walk away emotionally unscathed. My sister, who has never lived more than fifteen minutes from my parents, jokes that when they die she will have their bodies stuffed and sit them at her kitchen table. “Dad’s forehead is looking a little dusty, get the Swiffer.” We all laugh until she starts to tear up and leaves the room. This has happened more than once. Our parents, though in their seventies, are in amazingly good health. Our father is retired. He drives a shuttle bus on the campus at the local college because he hates sitting at home. Our mother watches my nieces during the week with more energy and patience than anyone else in the family can muster. My point is, neither is teetering on the brink of the grave. And still, the idea of them not being there is terrifying.
Eventually, the stories told across the table, between father and daughter, become more personal. Caillé writes with emotional vulnerability and a complete lack of cynicism, and yet she still manages to insert a twist which surprises and changes her reader’s experience of the book.
There are dozens of novels written by edgy, young writers. They all seem to be short, with unusual formatting, and truncated chapters. They all seem to be published by small, indie presses. Though no one else has that beautiful, textured, Coach House paper. But The Embalmer stands out. It’s worth your time… and not because of the paper. Anne-Renée Caillé walks you to the edge of a cliff and makes you look down. The ending of her book is abrupt, unexpected, and initially, that bothered me. I thought it was a flaw. But it has lingered with me for weeks now. Regardless of whether I wanted it to or not.