Return of the natives

Fiction: Can a lifetime be summed up by the books we've read - or failed to finish? A character in At Home with Miss Vanesa …

Fiction:Can a lifetime be summed up by the books we've read - or failed to finish? A character in At Home with Miss Vanesa takes particular interest in the reading material left behind by a recently deceased friend, and decides to complete his unfinished books as a sort of remembrance.

This imaginative gesture, however, is questioned by an ageing professor, who feels it is "akin to tidying, to cleaning up the life" of the departed. Nonetheless, he later scans his own bookshelves, wondering what the many half-read volumes and unfinished tomes will say about him after he's gone.

Literature plays no small part in these loosely-connected short stories of EA Markham, who is currently the New International Writer in Residence at Trinity College Dublin. Professor Pewter, chided for "always quoting Shakespeare", frequently runs through the books he has enjoyed or bought as gifts: a few titles from "the new mini-Penguin series", stories from Gabriel García Márquez, Truman Capote, Albert Camus, Ian Kershaw's "Hitler book" and "a bit of philosophy by our friend Alain de Botton".

The rambling and intellectually superior thoughts of Pewter form one of the recurring and humorous threads in this episodic book, which moves between different points of view and from one location to another. On a Caribbean island a group of returnees gather on Miss Vanesa's verandah and talk about everything from politics to books, to why they left England. One woman decries the way English supermarkets sell two chickens for the price of one because she can never eat both of them by the sell-by-date. "Even if you know your neighbours in England you can't insult them by giving them the extra chicken. They goin' cuss you."


Later, the book turns to the thoughts of Arwell Barnes, the president of the returnees club, who is determined to marry the "tantalizingly single" Condoleeza Rice. Arwell, who fantasises about the US secretary of state playing the dominatrix, is convinced that "every black man wakes up some night screaming for his Condoleeza". We also get a look into the world of Miss Vanesa, a novelist, who can't quite remember which one of her visiting professors she has had an affair with. Later, the book digresses to the somewhat clumsy, selfish existence of Pewter in Kilburn and then Paris.

The fragmented, complex image of the immigrant/returnee experience is perhaps the most interesting element of this book. Markham indirectly explores the issue of status amongst those who left and those who stayed behind, or those who returned and those who visit but will never re-settle. In the snippets of conversation, or the aside thoughts, rank becomes a recurring and often humorous theme. The women are overtly snobby in their debates on eligible members of their returnees club. They constantly remind each other to speak proper English. While the condescending Pewter hopes he can include "a bit of dialect" in his speech to the returnees, he fusses about maintaining his credibility while living in Paris, given that France is "a country which refused to allow you to call it your own".

There are many refreshing, if perhaps uncomfortable moments in this book. One character, for example, notes how the carefully turned-out women and men of Montserrat demonstrate how to survive a natural disaster "in style" - not like the "prideless New Orleans folk after their recent mishap". Markham includes fascinating morsels which touch on pressing issues of socio-political importance, without trying to push the reader to any particular conclusion. Because it flits between various cultural reference points - from Monica Ali and Wayne Rooney to Ms Dynamite and Marks & Spencer - the reader is never quite sure where this book is going. While at times its deliberately meandering style makes for a challenging read, ultimately the sporadic and evasive nature of At Home with Miss Vanesa makes for a clever, witty illustration of the disconnectedness of modern life.

Sorcha Hamilton is an Irish Times journalist

At Home with Miss Vanesa By EA Markham Tindal Street Press, 263pp. £8.99

Sorcha Hamilton

Sorcha Hamilton

Sorcha Hamilton is an Irish Times journalist