This week's latest reads, as well as the lowdown on the Emirates Airline International Festival of Literature
Lark & Termite
Jayne Anne Phillips 4/7 Knopf. Dhs102 Available at Magrudy’s Like her now-classic Machine Dreams and Black Tickets, Jayne Anne Phillips’s latest novel tackles the consequences of war, poverty and natural disaster. These themes, and Phillips’s imagistic language, dominate the novel, sometimes overshadowing its compelling characters.
Lark and Termite are the book’s motherless children, a too-responsible girl on the cusp of maturity and her severely handicapped little brother. Given up by their now-dead jazz-chanteuse mother, Lola, the kids live with Nonie, their long-suffering but loving aunt.
Chapters shift in time from war-torn Korea (where Termite’s father, Robert Leavitt, dies in combat) to early ’60s West Virginia, as Phillips, via alternating points of view, gives a roving cast of characters a chance to tell their stories.
If Lark & Termite’sfractured structure recalls Phillips’s short fiction, her plush syntax sometimes reads like poetry. The verbal intensity can be too rich, as each character watches the world through the same sense-enhancing prism. ‘Pale blue divinity sounds like a dress or a planet,’ Lark says about a cake she’s decorating for Termite, who himself describes the treat as ‘a shadow of a taste in the warm room’.
When Phillips turns to sex and death, however, potentially cliched events become urgent and unique. Dying, Leavitt ‘closes his eyes to let the dark go black’. Lark describes a moment of sensual letting-go as a ‘horrible relief’. In an otherwise amorphous narrative, these moments are a jarring – yet welcome – return to reality. Elizabeth Isadora Gold. Scribner.
The Mercy Papers
Robin Romm 5/7 Dhs94 Available at Magrudy’s Fiction writer Robin Romm’s mother, Jackie, was diagnosed with breast cancer nine years before she died in 2004. In that time, Romm, 18 years old when Jackie first learned of her illness, fled her native Eugene, Oregon, in the USA, for Berkeley; went to college and grad school; fell in love; and published her first collection of short stories, .Her new book is a memoir centered on the three agonising weeks leading up to Jackie’s death, which threatens to do nothing short of rip the psychic under-pinnings from Romm’s adult life.
Having decided to abandon her failing cancer treatments, Jackie, accompanied by her doctor husband, her daughter, and Jackie’s two closest friends, awaits death in home-based hospice care. This care comes mostly in the form of a nurse named, aptly enough, Barb, whose pills numb the otherwise fiery patient. Meanwhile, Romm can’t sleep without pills of her own, as she fights desperately to keep her mother from leaving. Jackie is the only one able to accept, if not welcome, inevitable death. All the while, Romm’s new dog Mercy – the inspiration for the book’s title – seems to guard Romm’s fragile heart.
The author suggests that death’s impact is too particular to each individual to be adequately communicated. There is no healing for the bereaved. But this painful and powerful account manages to offer empathy to anyone whose life has been shaped by grief (and whose isn’t?) without condescending to easy consolation. And she captures her own sadness too: this aching book becomes a way of transforming a loved one’s absence into art. Craig Morgan Teicher.
Why a literary festival in Dubai? Literary festivals have captured the public’s imagination globally. Fifty years ago there were three or four in the world. Now in the UK alone there are more than 100. Interest seemed to pick up globally, but not in the UAE. The main issue was how to get people to understand what a literary festival is, to explain to people that it incorporates fun, serious debate, slightly whacky things and that it’s a very interesting and very vibrant place to be. It’s about gathering lots of people together to listen to their favourite author talk about things that matter to them, their ideas and inspiration, to listen to debates.
It’s live and a place where people will connect with other people.Great guest list…For the first year, it’s phenomenal to have got the list of authors and the calibre of authors we’ve managed to achieve. It is like being in a fairytale. They all agreed, they’re all willing to give up their time and are all very enthusiastic, very committed, and they realise how important it is to have a good first year.
How big is the festival going to be? Over the three days we’re expecting upwards of 70,000 visitors to EAIFL. I don’t think that’s optimistic. There’s a finite number of tickets for the main events, but I would say come along even if you can’t get a ticket. We’ll be showing edited versions of the main event, plus there’ll be a mass of other things to do and opportunities for fun and intelligent stimulation.
What’s in it for festival goers? It makes sense to come and see your favourite author, but you have the opportunity to see someone you’ve never heard of or never read their books. Choose some of the authors you wouldn’t necessarily think of straight away. You can discover so many things, so use it as an opportunity to see as many different events that you can. Try and see some of the Arabic authors. We’ll have simultaneous Arabic translation so that could be a great insight. EAIFL starts on February 26. For more details visit www.eaifl.com or call 04 342 0060