Thursday, June 25, 2020

United Kingdom: The Insomnia Museum, by Laurie Canciani

It was the title of this novel which intrigued me. I'm not sure quite what I expected - something a little surreal and quirky, I suspect. In fact the story was something else entirely. Anna is 17 and lives with her Dad who never lets her go outside. Together they build a strange collection of objects made from discarded televisons, old clocks and other junk. But Anna's father is a junkie, and one day he dies from an overdose. Anna must go outside and find her way in the world.

She is taken in by a former friend of her father, Lucky. He is described in some reviews as a "born again Christian" although I didn't feel that was clear in the book. He does, however, believe in God. And he compulsively helps people, believing that there is one person out there somewhere who he has to save.

Lucky lives on a rather grim housing estate full of high rise apartments. His son Tick supposedly has ADHD and wags school to deal drugs. I found the whole scenario of the book rather bleak. The language however is beautiful, and the voice of Anna is unusual and intriguing.

But for all her powers of description, the author needed the services of a good editor as some scenes are muddled and lacking in continuity. For instance, she makes a big deal out of Lucky's flat having bare wood floors. Then, in a scene with Anna and Tick in the living room, it shifts to the kitchen without them actually going there. Next thing, they are back in the living room. A blob of mayonnaise falls on Anna's shoe and she wipes it off on the (supposedly non-existent) carpet.

Other aspects of the story stretched my credibility slightly, although it didn't quite break, because after all, it was set in a community of the underclass, which I am not at all familiar with, so I was prepared, in the end, to believe it was possible. And for all its bleakness, it even felt somewhat redemptive, at the end.

Laurie Canciani suffered from agoraphobia as a teen (like Anna) and was kicked out of school at 16. Later she returned to formal education and earned a Masters in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University. The Insomnia Museum is her first book and was published in the UK by Head of Zeus in 2018.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Singapore: How We Disappeared, by Jing-Jing Lee

Looking at the new book displays in the library seems to be a great way of finding interesting new books. After lockdown ended, I returned a big pile of books (which had had their return date extended while the library was closed) including Hilary Mantel's latest door stop, "The Mirror and the Light". I took an equally large pile home, including this novel by an author I had not encountered before.

The story is set in Singapore both during the World War II occupation of the island by the Japanese, and in relatively modern times - it seems somewhere around the turn of the century, which is perhaps during the childhood of the author. 12 year old Kevin's grandmother is dying. As she does so, confused and believing Kevin to be his father, she mumbles a confession. In the meantime, the elderly Wang Di is grieving the death of her husband, and adjusting to life in a modern high rise apartment since her old home is to be bulldozed for a new development.

Kevin sets about unravelling a family mystery. The story crosses back and forth between his story and Wang Di's in the present, and Wang Di's story in the past. I found it a compelling story, if a little grim in the description of the lives of the "comfort women" who were taken by the Japanese to serve the physical needs of their soldiers during the war.

Ultimately though, it is a redemptive story. One minor niggle I had was that the book supposedly explains why Kevin has no uncles, aunts, cousins and so on - but that is on this father's side, and there is little explanation of his mother's background. True, it would unnecessarily complicate the story to digress to much, but a little casual explanation of his mother's background would have filled out her character.

Jing-Jing Lee was born and raised in Singapore and gained a Master's Degree in Creative Writing from Oxford University. She currently lives in Amsterdam. How We Disappeared was published in the UK by Oneworld Publications in 2019. The edition I read was published in the USA by Hanover Square Press, also in 2019.