With the recent deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, public interest in talking about suicide is hardly surprising – such openness on this subject is frankly a welcome change.
Jen Neale’s Land Mammals and Sea Creatures (ECW, 288 pages, $18.95) is a novel that approaches this subject with both realism and magical thinking. In the opening pages, a blue whale beaches itself, seemingly on purpose, followed by the self-destruction of many more animals, birds and sea creatures, all coinciding with the arrival in town of a stranger who is herself obsessed with self-selected death. The stranger’s arrival inspires fear and resentment in Julie, who deep down knows her father, a Gulf War vet with post-traumatic stress disorder, wants to die.
Although suicide is not common, when we grieve a suicide death, it can feel like suicide is everywhere, that it permeates everything. That is at least my experience, and how I chose to interpret the particular form of grief represented in this novel.
While in Montreal recently, I attended a performance of PME-ART’s The DJ Who Gave Too Much Information.
Lasting between 10 and 12 hours and consisting of stories told around a stack of records, the show might challenge many people’s view of what theatre is. And in that sense, The DJ Who Gave Too Much Information is indicative of what the interdisciplinary performance group PME-ART has been doing for two decades.
Some will come to Jacob Wren’s Authenticity is a Feeling: My Life in PME-ART (Book*hug, 312 pages, $20) for a history of the group, but there is a much wider readership for this book about the kind of self-questioning inherent in art-making of the past 20 years.
“This is how an obsession begins: making almost no noise, like a single off-key note in the middle of a melody. … Never, until the damage is done, is an obsession understood.”
The characters in Andrés Barba’s quartet of novellas, collected in The Right Intention (Transit, 277 pages, $22.95), are obsessed. With running. With not eating. With their young lover’s age difference. And, in the final story, a complex web of obsessions revealed as a family matriarch lies dying.
Lisa Dillman translates these stories of damage done from Barba, one of the most renowned Spanish writers of his generation.
Mark Mulholland’s A Mad and Wonderful Thing (Scribe, 288 pages, $22.95), which received accolades when it was originally published in Ireland and Britain in 2014, concerns the shaping of youthful conviction to horrific ends.
Opening in the Irish border town of Dundalk in 1991, the book tells the story of Johnny Donnelly, a bright teenager on the precipice of first love.
But Johnny has another, secret life as a sniper for the IRA, having been groomed for the role since the age of 12 by his schoolteacher.
Mulholland has stated in interviews that he believes this story is about “why boys go to war” and that in this sense the setting of the Troubles could be changed for more recent conflicts.
During the civil war in Lebanon, Najla Jraissaty Khoury collected Arabic oral tales from women living in remote villages, air raid shelters and Palestinian refugee camps. Alongside translator Inea Bushnaq, Khoury picked 30 of those tales for Pearls on a Branch (Archipelago, 270 pages, $18).
Some of these tales take the form of animal fables or contain echoes of Snow White or Sleeping Beauty, but this book is not intended for children.
Instead, the collection gives a strong sense of the women who passed down these stories through generations: rebellious, ribald and utterly charming.
A runner-up for the Russian Booker, much of Alisa Ganieva’s Bride and Groom (Deep Vellum, 239 pages, $22.95), translated by Carol Apollonio, comes across as a comedy of errors.
Summoned home from Moscow to small-town Dagestan, Patya and Marat both receive a parade of unsuitable matches as their respective parents attempt to marry them off.
This is a story in part about changing values: The young people are not entirely like their Muscovite friends, but are citified to a degree that their hometown’s traditional values now seem absurd. Of course, Patya and Marat are best suited to one another, and when they meet, the novel takes a turn.
What was background now becomes foreground: the corruption, the state repression, the simmering conflict between the two mosques in town, but also the Sufi mysticism that infuses the book.
Briefly keeping with the post-Soviet theme, the title story in Paige Cooper’s debut collection Zolitude (Biblioasis, 248 pages, $19.95) is named after a suburb of Riga “where last year a roof collapsed and killed forty shoppers as they weighed their options for dinner.”
Cooper’s stories all contain similar harsh notes: war, disaster, alcoholism, pedophilia, indentured servitude, police brutality, mistreated dinosaurs. Cooper finds moments of beauty (or maybe it is just truth) in such landscapes.
The surreal, sometimes fantastical worlds of these stories are so wholly realized, stepping into them is a pleasing form of disorientation.