Grey Bees by Andrey Kurkov translated by Boris Dralyuk
Did I say quiet? Well, no electricity means no television, but the village is in the middle of a war zone, no place for his bees. When the snow starts to melt, he loads his hives into his trailer and goes in search of peace, camping first within Ukrainian territory and later in Russian occupied Crimea. In his travels he encounters both the casualties of the conflict and those trying to live a normal life in contested territory.
Having heard of the author's previous novel translated into English, the bestselling Death and the Penguin, I was keen to give this a try. Overall, I was glad to read it, but I found the first hundred pages very slow going. There was humour in the rebranding of street names (which actually reminded me of the repeated rebrandings when I worked in the NHS) but it wasn't until he was on the move that I had much interest in Sergei's character or twigged to the symbolism – as creatures with no sense of national boundaries – of the bees.
His foray into Crimea was especially moving in relation to the racism and rough justice experienced by the Muslim family – particularly interesting to me having virtually visited almost two centuries earlier in the company of Mary Seacole. But I'm not sure I'm an awful lot wiser about this most complex of 21st-century conflicts. Thanks to publishers MacLehose Press for my review copy.
Witch Bottle by Tom Fletcher
Work starts to get dicey also when he risks losing his boss an important contract for turning up late. He also has to cope with harassment from the drivers for Fallen Stock, a company collecting dead animals from the local farms. Daniel can’t understand why there seem to be more of their vans around than usual, or why these old men in tweeds and plus fours drive so aggressively on the narrow country roads.
On a more hopeful note, Kathryn from the baked potato shop seems to like him. As they get closer, he learns she’s a witch. In a good way: the witch bottle she prepares for him banishes the apparition of the giant from his home. When others on his rounds mention mysterious hauntings, he takes witch bottles for them too. But forces with a vested interest in the climate of fear won’t let go without a fight.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from “a literary horror novel” and the prologue, with Daniel’s first sighting of the giant didn’t bode well. But, even with my low tolerance for magic realism, and came to enjoy it enough to stay up past my usual bedtime to get to the end.
Daniel’s traumatic back story makes it easy for the sceptic not just to accept but to enjoy and admire the supernatural element as projections from a deeply troubled mind. Although he doesn’t realise it, our narrator has been damaged since early childhood by his parents’ violent arguments and the death of his baby brother. The latter complicates his adaptation to his own baby daughter, already compromised by his wife’s traumatic three-day labour. Another layer is how horrors glimpsed in childhood, in this case on TV, registered but not understood, can reverberate years later. Not all terrors are pure fantasy.
This gives the novel a political as well as a psychological edge, albeit understated, which I particularly appreciated. Another bonus for me was the setting in the county where I grew up, with lots of familiar place names, and where I’ve set my forthcoming novel, Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home, about a brother and sister separated for fifty years against the backdrop of the longstay psychiatric hospital closures.
Tom Fletcher’s sixth novel also brought to mind Our Fathers, by Rebecca Wait, for a theme of toxic masculinity and corrosive guilt and also The Butchers, by Ruth Gilligan, for a disturbing mystery in a rural setting. Witch Bottle joins those two novels as one of this year’s favourite reads. Thanks to Milly Reid at Jo Fletcher Books for my review copy.
You’ll find another man who goes to pieces when his partner wants children in my second novel, Underneath.
Faces in the Water by Janet Frame
Treatment is arbitrary and brutal: Istina relishes her breakfasts because they signify she won’t be sent that day for ECT. Later, she undergoes insulin coma therapy and, this being the mid 1940s to 1950s, there is an ever present threat of personality-fixing lobotomy.
The other patients are scary, but their eccentricities are tolerated, and sometimes there is mutual support. The genders are separated apart from at the dances, short bursts of normality that leave the patients overstimulated and unable to sleep.
The doctors are distant gods, kept from interfering by the matron; with a hundred patients to a ward, the nurses are both overworked and bored, and intermittent acts of kindness not a source of professional pride but shame. Although attitudes are changing (p210),
the idea still prevailed that mental illness was a form of childish naughtiness which might be cured in a Victorian environment with the persuasion of stern speech
and those who don’t respond as expected an irritation (p193)
for much of living is an attempt to preserve oneself annexing and occupying others
(the unconscious motivation of many in the helping professions).
Like Stoner, Istina is saved by literature, or more mundanely by a doctor’s willingness to let her explore the mobile library. Partly inspired by the author’s own incarceration, this is an inside view of how mental disorder and distress is intensified by harsh and inhumane regimes which only some survive. I imagine Matty in my forthcoming novel, Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home, would have had similar experiences on admission to Ghyllside at the same age of the other side of the world.
The latest flash fiction prompt from Carrot Ranch provides great potential for toiletry horror stories inspired by real-life injustice or dystopian near-futures. I considered crafting mine around the horrors of toilets in some institutions but, in the end, I took my inspiration from a graphic novel published before we had a name for serious stories that look like children’s comics, Raymond Briggs’ wonderful When the Wind Blows.
How dare he? My hand trembles as I slide the bolt across the bathroom door. We are not savages. Yet!
A weekly wash in a bucket of water. Cooking on a fire built from antique furniture. Feasting on food I would formerly have thrown away. But nothing will induce me to shit outdoors.
Grime coats the basin. The stench goes beyond my unwashed clothes. But I have three packs of quilted toilet roll with aloe vera. I refuse to straddle a trench.
Unzipping my fly, I raise the lid. Recoil in horror as a rat leaps from the pan.