Browser reviews: A divided family during the Spanish civil war

Brief reviews of Uncertainties, The Lockdown Papers, and The Gardens of Mars: Madagascar, an Island Story

In the Dark 
Anamaría Crowe Serrano 
Turas Press, €14
"The world is crumbling – every thought twisted – every word misunderstood – everyone suspect." In the Dark illuminates difficult truths in a divided family, united under one roof during the battle of Teruel in the Spanish civil war. María and her sister Julita remain in the Republican northeastern city, while Franco's rebels surround them. Their relationship is personally tense, politically polarised.

Hidden under the stairs is a deserter, watching through the cracks, someone María must keep a secret. The novel is an ambitious mix of historical, conceptual and lyrical fiction which doesn't disappoint. Language runs through it like light on deep water, ripples of Spanish breaking into a fragmentary, poetic narrative with shape-shifting points of view and philosophical searching. There is something of Captain Corelli's Mandolin in the soul of the book, which far from dark, glistens. – Ruth McKee

Edited by Brian J Showers 
Swan River Press, €25
The Swan River Press is the only publishing house in Ireland that dedicates itself to what it calls the literature of the gothic, fantastic, strange and supernatural. An international anthology collection, each story in Uncertainties is a response to the strangeness of life, an attempt to articulate what cannot be spoken, through the emotion that horror evokes.

We tell ghosts stories because on some level, we want to look beyond the world of the every day, beyond what we can see at a glance. Particular highlights in a collection with no weak entries include Deirdre Sullivan’s Little Lives and Everything We Say and All the Things We Do by Jason E Rolfe. Challenging and uncanny, these are exactly the kinds of stories we need to survive in a world that keeps getting stranger.


The Lockdown Papers 
John Dillon 
Katounia Press, €10.95
This collection comprises mainly articles published in Irish newspapers from the 1980s onwards (the author became regius professor of Greek in TCD in 1980 after teaching in America for some years), but it begins with a couple of articles he wrote while in Ethiopia 1961-63. One is an interview with Jomo Kenyata, the second describes a visit to the exotic city of Harar, once home to Rimbaud.

Most of the articles are “reflections on subjects of the day . . . a sort of commentary on the history of the period” and give us John Dillon’s thoughts on inter alia political scandals (mainly involving Charles Haughey), church scandals, tribunals, and the contraception, abortion and divorce campaigns. These thoughts are sometimes mordant, satirical, irreverent and always leavened by wit, humour and eloquent expression.

The Gardens of Mars: Madagascar, an Island Story 
John Gimlette 
Head of Zeus, £30
Early in this chronicle of the fascinating strangeness of Madagascar, a hotel receptionist expresses appreciation that the author is there to write about people: 'Usually vazaha just ask about lemurs.' Indeed, Gimlette doesn't dwell much on the country's unique wildlife, focusing instead on its baffling human history.

Incredulity, horror and amusement coalesce in Gimlette’s customarily talented narration of the weird, as we read about ritual exhumation, tribal warfare, pirates, large-scale colonial folly, and rulers ranging from a queen devoted to baroquely intricate forms of torture, to the communist Red Admiral, to a 34-year-old DJ. Quixotic futility presents itself every step of the way, from Eunuch City to the Léproserie, and we don’t mind that Gimlette is more interested in meeting the lepers than the lemurs.

Hashtag Good Guy with a Gun 
Jeff Chon 
Sagging Meniscus, £15.99
It was said satire died when Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize. So how do you begin sending up the United States since the age of Trump? Chon's debut has made a good fist of it; clever and ambitious, yet economical, it's a novel portraying the last half decade of the States as though the country had been on a course of whack steroids, which of course was what it felt like some days.

Using the 2016 PizzaGate conspiracies to launch a large cast of interwoven characters in suburbia, Chon shows how reality and morality become warped in the never-ending wash cycle of the web and 24/7 media: ennui brings excess; the credulous spawn mayhem by clicking a button. Modern malaise judiciously captured.

Fifty Sounds 
Polly Barton
Fitzcarraldo Editions, £12.99
This is a glorious set of essays by Polly Barton who is already known for her lucid, clever and accessible translations of some of the most interesting fiction to come out of Japan. This collection is built around 50 onomatopoeic Japanese phrases, each one a prompt for deeper reflection on her relationship with Japan and its language, through which she filters her own evolving sense of self.

The titles include: “hiya-hiya: the sound of recalling your past misdemeanours” and “chira-chira: the sound of the mighty loner and the caress of ten thousand ownerless looks.” The essays are beautifully weighted: erudite without being esoteric; full of discovery without trivialising the language into novelties; and authentically personal without being mawkish. A real gem.