In Absurdia is a curious novel. It’s also rather rather on-brand for this blog.
But how did I feel about it?
It’s a dizzying, disorientating piece of absurdist fiction that’s harder to pin down than an otter coated in vaseline. After finishing it, I needed a lie down. Conveniently, it was bed time.
At times it’s touching, sometimes hilarious, and other times, it’s really quite bizarre. I’m not entirely sure what just happened. And yet, I enjoyed the time I spent with Glenn Whalan’s debut novel.
*Disclaimer: I received a free advance reading copy from the author in exchange for a fair and honest review.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is told with a rare understanding of all that makes us human, and shows the power of stories to reveal and shelter us from the darkness inside and out. It is a stirring, terrifying, and elegiac fable as delicate as a butterfly's wing and as menacing as a knife in the dark."
And yet I came away from it feeling perhaps the most conflicted I’ve ever felt about a book before.
On one hand, I think I liked it – or at least the idea of it. It’s well written, and Gaiman has the ability to pull out a lovely turn of phrase. But it just didn’t resonate with me in quite the way I thought it might do. It just bounced off me a little.
That seems to be a trend with my experience of Gaiman’s writing so far. I adore his ideas; perhaps more than the actual execution. Can’t quite put my finger on why!
If you’re a Gaiman fan, do give me some recommendations in the comments.
“I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you!”
A book you’ll always be loyal to
The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger
The Catcher in the Rye is the quintessential marmite novel – people typically love it or hate it depending on how they feel about the teenage protagonist, Holden Caulfield.
For that reason, it’s a novel that you probably need to read at a younger age in order for it to resonate with you.
On the surface, Holden Caulfield is a cynical kid who writes off people around him due to their perceived lack of authenticity, or ‘phoniness’ as he puts it. He’s obnoxious, pretty ‘phony’ himself, and makes it difficult for you to root for him.
That being said, I think that’s there’s a lot more going on with Holden beneath the surface. He’s a genuinely kind soul, who’s suffering from trauma. He mentions his late brother Allie an awful lot, and there are moments when he lays out his pain of loss for the reader.
Loss is present throughout the novel. Loss of friends, loss of family, and an overbearing protectiveness towards young people from suffering the same inevitable fate.
No matter how many times I come back to this novel, it always instills a sense of belonging in me. I can identify with Holden’s protective nature and nostalgia for a lost youth.
I’ll always be loyal to Holden Caulfield because he’s always been loyal to me.
“What about second breakfast?!”
A book you want to re-read
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, J.R.R. Tolkien
Those who know me will know that I am absolutely smitten with Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. I have LOTR jewellery, numerous different editions of the same books, a CD copy of the EXCELLENT BBC radio drama, and much more…
But The Two Towers has a special place in my heart. If you’ve seen the films, the novel of The Two Towers overlaps with the end of The Fellowship of the Ring and the beginning of The Return of the King movies. So, in my opinion, the novel of The Two Towers captures the most iconic moments of the series.
It also contains one of my favourite passages in literature, for example:
“Gollum looked at them. A strange expression passed over his lean hungry face. The gleam faded from his eyes, and they went dim and grey, old and tired. A spasm of pain seemed to twist him, and he turned away, peering back up towards the pass, shaking his head, as if engaged in some interior debate. Then he came back, and slowly putting out a trembling hand, very cautiously he touched Frodo’s knee–but almost the touch was a caress.
For a fleeting moment, could one of the sleepers have seen him, they would have thought that they beheld an old weary hobbit, shrunken by the years that had carried him far beyond his time, beyond friends and kin, and the fields and streams of youth, an old starved pitiable thing.” The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
The turning point for Gollum/Smeagol is really quite touching, and yet so sombre at the same time. It’s what makes him such a wonderful character.
I haven’t read this one in such a long time. Perfect time to plug the upcoming #TolkienAlong Readathon that inspired this book tag!
“You can trust us to stick to you through thick and thin – to the bitter end.”
A book about friendship
Harry Potter Series, J.K. Rowling
How could I not choose Harry Potter for this category? I nominated the series because the importance of friendship is not specific to a single book.
Until he reaches Hogwarts, Harry is truly friendless. His life lacks any real meaning, other than being a punchbag for the odious Dudley.
There’s a huge disparity between Harry’s life with the Dursleys and the magnificence of Hogwarts, and friendship plays a big part in the magic. As a reader, you’re gutted when the term is over, or when Harry is denied the chance to visit Hogsmeade with his friends. You feel that disappointment.
On the other hand, when Harry meets Ron on the Hogwarts Express in The Philosopher’s Stone, the Weasleys rescue Harry from Privet Drive in The Chamber of Secrets, and when Cedric Diggory helps Harry with a clue in The Goblet of Fire, the friendship displayed is so powerful. It’s genuinely touching.
I re-read The Philosopher’s Stone earlier this year, which was a great reminder of how fantastic this series of books is. Rowling’s wizarding series is lightning in a bottle and will easily be remembered as a classic of children’s fiction.
A book with a hero/heroine to swoon over
The Last Wish, Andrzej Sapkowski
The Last Wish is the first book in the now-popular The Witcher fantasy series. It’s a collection of short stories framed within an overarching story in which Geralt – the titular witcher (a monster hunter) – is recovering from wounds sustained in his latest battle.
Somewhat of a Byronic Hero, Geralt is forced into situations by virtue of the society he lives in – and his profession – where he has to make challenging moral and ethical choices. Not least when it comes to taking and sparing lives.
Whereas Geralt is a professional monster slayer, he is almost universally against taking the life of another human for payment. But this code is challenged by the blurring of lines between human and monster, which is a common thread throughout his tales.
Witchers are necessary in order to keep monsters at bay, yet they’re considered outcasts in society.
And despite the hostility faced, Geralt remains charming and a hugely charismatic figure.
“Shall I get you a box?”
A short but fun read
Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Salman Rushdie
Okay, so this one is just over 200 pages, so it depends on your definition of short. I think 200 pages is pretty short!
It’s a novel about a storyteller called Rashid, who loses his ability to tell stories, and the efforts of Haroun – his son – to help him regain his voice.
Set in a fictional magic realism-infused Kashmir, Haroun and the Sea of Stories is a fairy-tale of sorts – and like all good fairy-tales, it’s underscored with some pretty serious themes. An obvious one being the censorship of storytelling, with Rushdie not-so-subtly addressing his enemies.
It’s a brilliant story itself, with a rich tapestry of Eastern culture, but it also includes some great callbacks to stories like Alice in Wonderland.
Haroun and the Sea of Stories is well worth your time, and definitely one to read to a younger person.
“They’ve taken the little ones”
A series you never made it past the first book
His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman
I recently finished Northern Lights by Philip Pullman and was genuinely thrilled from beginning to end.
However, this wasn’t always the case.
When I was younger, I tried to read Northern Lights but it really didn’t capture me. The concept of Daemons seemed quite alien to me – I just could not get my head around it. Plus there’s a lot of discussion around religious institutions. I read about the Magisterium and the General Oblation Board and, as a child, I just switched off.
I have always come back to it though and tried to give it a go. First, when the movie The Golden Compass released in 2005(?), I tried to read it again but – again – I couldn’t get into it.
Recently, I casually watched the BBC adaptation His Dark Materials and decided a couple of episodes into the show that I wanted to give Pullman’s trilogy another chance. I immediately stopped watching the show and got hold of the audiobook.
I’m pleased to say that I absolutely adored Northern Lights.
The audiobook is brilliantly voice-acted, plus Pullman does the narration (he has an excellent reading voice).
I knew that this was a series designed for me. As I’ve matured, I’ve become a lot more interested in theology, philosophy, and the discussions around human existence. But even without all these deep topics, it’s just a really good story.
I’m so disappointed that I couldn’t get into it sooner than I did, but hey – better late than never!
Thank you Philip Pullman for crafting such a wonderful piece of fiction. I cannot wait to read The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass (and beyond!).
“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us”
A book that made you think about your life, the universe, and everything once you finished it
The Plague, Albert Camus
Camus is a phenomenal writer of philosophical fiction and the driving influence behind this blog. It’s also a very quotable book…
Essentially, The Plague is a fictional novel about how the people in an Algerian town called Oran deal with the outbreak of a plague. At first the deaths are low, people are pretty relaxed about it, but it quickly develops into a pandemic and Oran is quarantined from the rest of the world.
Some view it as a metaphor for fascism infecting a population, as Camus was a member of the French resistance during WWII. It’s very much a multi-layered novel and it interested me so much, that I chose to write on it for my Masters thesis.
I view The Plague as a development of Camus’ earlier non-fiction book The Myth of Sisyphus, which is a very lengthy essay on a philosophical stance called ‘Absurdism’.
In brief, Absurdism is the divorce between our expectation of meaning from the world and its capacity to disappoint that expectation. We’re alone in the world and there is no god.
The Plague contextualises the Absurd into a real-world drama in which humanity is forced to confront the Absurd through the lens of its own mortality. The novel poses ethical questions and discusses what it is to be a man (referring to mankind, rather than anything gender-specific).
The novel demands its characters, and the reader, to ask the questions ‘What now? How do we move beyond the Absurd and develop a society in which positive morals and ethics can thrive?’
Beautifully written, The Plague is an incredibly thoughtful novel and definitely reconfigured how I see my place in the universe.
If you enjoyed this Create Your Own Fellowship book tag! If so, please consider making your own and tag me in it so I can read your answers!
* This article contains major spoilers for The Martian.
The Martian, written by Andy Weir, is a fantastic piece of fiction.
It’s well-researched, witty, and – most importantly – entertaining.
But it’s more than that. The Martian is a Humanist story
Weir’s novel is a celebration of human ingenuity. It’s a sincerely touching endorsement of what we can achieve as a species, when we aren’t fighting each other.
So, why is The Martian a Humanist novel?
…a commitment to the perspective, interests and centrality of human persons; a belief in reason and autonomy as foundational aspects of human existence; a belief that reason, scepticism and the scientific method are the only appropriate instruments for discovering truth and structuring the human community; a belief that the foundations for ethics and society are to be found in autonomy and moral equality…”
In brief, Mark Watney – a NASA astronaut – is stranded on Mars following an accident. Presumed dead, his team have no choice but to leave him behind.
With the next Mars mission four years away, no means of contacting anybody, and only a few weeks worth of supplies, Watney’s situation is grim. “So yeah, I’m screwed,” he tells the reader.
Watney’s not wrong. Mars is not designed for human habitation. As situations go, this is probably one of the worst things that could possibly happen to a human being.
And yet his plight is undercut by a dark, rather self-deprecating sense of humour.
There’s a self-awareness to Watney’s attitude. He knows his chances of survival are low but in some ways, humour functions as a coping mechanism. It’s Watney’s way of assessing the landscape, grounding his current situation, and figuring out exactly how he’ll survive.
It’s Watney’s way of rebelling against his precarious situation.
Optimism Against the Odds
Watney is an eternal optimist, with a seemingly unwavering faith in himself.
The novel is told through ‘SOL entries’ (days) by Watney, so the only time we get an insight into his state of mind is if he chooses to log an entry.
For NASA and the reader, it’s telling when Watney’s state of mind breaks down. Often, he’ll go multiple SOLs without checking in. For the reader, nothing really changes. For Watney, that’s 3 or 4 SOLs alone with this thoughts.
Whilst Watney is mostly jokey, this often feels like a performance, both for his sake and the reader of his logs. He’s clearly suffering. Because of course he is – the most likely outcome is that Watney will die on Mars.
And yet optimism in spite of remote odds is a theme coursing through The Martian.
Watney’s trip to the Ares IV MAV is almost a suicide mission. But whether it’s his survival skills, sheer determination, or simply his infectious optimism – both Watney and the reader know that he’ll make it. One way or another.
Man vs Mars – Being and Nothingness
There is a clear absence of the supernatural within this novel.
It’s science fiction, with the emphasis firmly on science.
Weir could easily have introduced some sort of ‘space monster’ in order to create tension and entertainment. Perhaps Watney could be assailed in the night, or whilst repairing the Hab.
But here’s the thing – The Martian doesn’t need this.
The Martian is a tale of mankind facing the great unknown. It pits man against nothingness and the void of space, forcing a confrontation between mankind’s knowledge and absence of knowledge.
Nasa ‘fact-checks’ The Martian
There’s a power in the simple vacuum of space. An absolute nothingness. And told through 1st person by Watney, the reader feels that alienation.
Life is the prize of success, death is the consequence of failure.
Weir places a strong emphasis on human agency. It’s a combination of Watney’s resilience and his crew’s skills that culminates in his rescue from Mars.
This is part of the reason that The Martian is a Humanist tale.
Humanism Over Geopolitics
I think what I appreciate about this novel is the characters’ willingness to do anything, in spite of cost and risk, to save one human life.
When the Hermes crew realise there’s a chance they could save Watney, Commander Lewis holds a vote on whether they should return to Mars – at great risk to their own lives – or continue their course home.
They vote, unanimously, to mount the ‘Rich Purnell’ rescue mission – against NASA’s orders – because it’s the ‘moral’ thing to do.
Back on Earth, people of all nations are invested in Watney’s rescue.
There’s a unity – a ‘he’s one of us’ mentality. And this unity extends beyond national borders.
When NASA’s rescue mission explodes 51 seconds after launch and all seems lost, the Chinese Space Agency lends their support.
After all, there’s a common purpose in this. To preserve human life and expand mankind’s knowledge of the cosmos. Both the US and China want the same thing.
With this in mind, it’s rather sombre reading The Martian in the current political climate, given how divided our world is. Cooperation between the US and China to do anything positive together seems increasingly unlikely.
But this is the greatness of The Martian – it’s fiction, but it’s entrenched in optimistic plausibility. Weir’s novel transcends political boundaries and demonstrates what we can do as a species – as human beings – if we band together in the pursuit of a common principle.
Hi Heidi, thank you for agreeing to this Q&A – it’s a pleasure to host you.
Tales from Absurdia readers will know that I loved The Sound Mirror. It’s a beautifully written piece of fiction!
However, could you please tell my audience a little more about yourself? What’s your background?
Thank you so much for inviting me to chat and for your wonderful review – support from readers and reviewers has been amazing. I don’t mind admitting I’ve been moved to tears by all the generous, thoughtful and really bloody insightful and clever comments and critiques.
I’m from Kent, born into a large extended working-class family. My mum was only 17 when I was born so things were often really tough for us, but there was a lot to celebrate too. It’s fair to say I was wayward/troubled and though I went to a goodish school and was bright I left school at 16 with a handful of GCSEs (NOT my English GCSE though… they wouldn’t let me take it as ‘punishment’ for truancy).
Fast forward through some wild travels, jobs and experiences (including delivering sandwiches on roller skates, acting, exotic dancing and starting my own indie press) to now where I have an MA and PhD, still without that GCSE, any A Levels or an undergraduate degree.
I’ve been very lucky. My life now is very different to my life as a kid – I have been privileged in being offered opportunities not always available to others (and I’m nothing if not obdurate, being told ‘no’ just makes me more determined).
There has always been books and writing though. Always. I learnt to read very young and (too small to reach the light switch) would read my books by the strip of light under the door. I had an amazing headmaster at junior school, Mr Bell, who encouraged me to write and likewise Miss Robson and Mrs Howard at secondary school. It feels important to name them, as they were fundamental to what came next.
Kids from backgrounds like mine need that recognition, that validation, as well as opportunities to succeed. It’s no good offering an opportunity to someone if they don’t believe they are deserving of or talented enough to take it.
So, when 19 years ago Will Self came into the dry cleaners/photo developers where I was working to drop off a camera film, I very cheekily slipped a manuscript into his envelope of photos and he wrote to me with really great feedback and help. It’s amazing what a little bit of audacity can help achieve.
For the benefit of my readers, what is your latest novel, The Sound Mirror, about? Who is this novel for?
The books starts with, ‘She is going to kill her mother today. But she’s no monster. She’s not the villain. It’s a beautiful day for it, winter sharp, the sky an unfussy blue.’
But, it’s not a crime novel, or a thriller. In The Sound Mirror I experiment with time and voice and how trauma undoes time and infiltrates our genetic codes and stories. There are three very distinct voices that reflect their era/background and these articulate four women’s interconnected lives and the consequences of their surroundings, politics and choices on each other.
I’m trying to reclaim and write about women’s lives, domestic spaces, sexual awakenings and desires, motherhood or not, a longing for more fulfilment and so the book pulls in class, colonialism, embodiment and relationships. Ultimately it is about three generations of women showing how they impact and collide with each other; what is no longer and what is not yet. A hauntology.
It moves from the early 20th century; through the war, partition and colonial India, across classes, opportunities and choices to the present day. Though it sweeps through recent history, it’s written in the present tense, to reflect the repercussions and always present consequences of trauma and our decisions. However, not so much consequences as a linear deterministic outcome, but as tremulous and disintegrating resemblances. The silent echo of secrets.
We need more books and art about women’s lives in all their variety and how the world they were barely allowed to participate in affected them. None of the characters are perfect of course, but they are sympathetic, human, flawed.
The novel is for everyone, anyone – except maybe not children!
I’m always very cautious of inserting an author’s life into their fiction, but The Sound Mirror does feel immensely personal. How much of yours, or your family’s, life influenced the novel?
The book is fiction but constructed from ready-made/found stories in my own family.
It is not a memoir, nor based on facts, but a truth best told in imaginings. I know that sounds pretentious, but it’s the best way to describe it. I think sometimes fiction tells a truth more profound than facts – certainly about being a human.
Your publisher – Bluemoose Books is running a campaign this year called ‘#BluemooseWomen2020’. Could you tell us a little more about this and how it came about?
Kevin Duffy, the publisher and head honcho of Bluemoose, saw an article about how many publishers etc were asking women authors to write under a new pen name so they could be ‘re-launched’.
There are many issues connected with this – that authors over 40 especially women find it harder to be published and that books by female authors aren’t reviewed/promoted equitably, especially women of colour.
Bluemoose wanted to contribute to the re-balancing of that. Giving voice to those often ignored.
What challenges have you faced as a female author and as a female author not in her twenty-somethings?Have you ever experienced any inherent biases in the publishing industry?
I’ve been writing since my twenties – and that was when I encountered most biases if I’m honest.
I was told over and over that my work, whilst good etc, was too ‘working class’, too ‘edgy’, that publishers didn’t know how or who to market it to. Editors told me I was wrong about how my characters felt/encountered the world (that was infuriating).
I found my people (my readers and publishers) through amazing online literary magazines like 3:AM; so many of the writers who came up the same way are still friends and hugely supportive (and successful now!).
I can’t speak for others though – I’m pretty isolated and don’t really engage with the ‘industry’ that much. I just write and hope it works, that the words connect with someone.
The worst bias is my own; I have to work against my own sense of not being good enough, of questioning myself all the time. I am my own antagonist and it’s a ridiculous waste of time and energy.
Who inspires you? (Writer, or otherwise!)
That’s a tough one… too many people to list I think, but briefly, I love Jean Rhys, Deborah Levy, Sinead Gleeson, Andrea Levy, Kathy Acker… Mark Fisher’s writings always inspire and confound in a brilliant way.
My family and friends are inspiring. Acts of kindness and empathy inspire me. Birdsong, nature… being alone. I’m inspired by being here, now.
And finally… If you could only ever read one book again, what would that be?
That is an impossible question!
Ermmmmmm… I really don’t know. Maybe an anthology of short stories; one of those giant Norton ones?? Blimey! I’m stumped!
To find out more about the works of Heidi James, check out her Goodreads profile for a full list of current and upcoming projects.
The Sound Mirror is available to order from Bluemoose Books in paperback and hardback.