Wednesday, 29 August 2018


When an incident happens in a library, the librarian must fill out a report. Baillie’s novel is a collection of reports that strays into memoir territory.
Incident Report 5, for example, is about morning anxiety. Every morning in the warmth of my bed, as I surface from sleep, fear –small as a cherry stone, cracks open behind my breastbone.
Incident Report 45 is about meeting a young man in the park, reading a children’s novel. If somebody had asked me, I would have said that a young man with a gentle expression and missing a finger, reading a children’s novel, resting before his next shift driving a taxi, was as good a person to fall in love with as anyone, but that I was not interested in more suffering. Yet she falls in love and suffers.
Suitcase Man, one of the regulars at the library, makes his appearance in several Incident Reports: He never borrows books, CDs or DVDs, never surfs the net or nervously taps messages, hunching over the keyboard, as the others do…He comes with one purpose only: to make multiple copies of the documents riding in his suitcase.
Sometimes he leaves behind notes. They all concern one subject: Verdi’s Rigoletto and the death of the hunchback’s daughter. She’s too young to know danger, one of his notes says. Ah, poor hunchback, with no right to happiness. But this time I won’t let any harm come to her. If one of those men should so much as touch a hair on her head, my gorgeous daughter with the freckled hands…I dropped the paper. I closed myself in the bathroom and stared at my hands. They were as they had always been – slim, pale and covered in freckles.

Friday, 24 August 2018


I don’t normally write about short stories, but this one (NYer August 20) got to me. The language is exquisite – ironic since the protagonist is a writer who is having a hard time writing.
To aid the process, he goes cross-country skiing, his skis chattering over the grooves of a snowmobile track. He meets a musher with his team of dogs resting, ears back, with wry grins on their lean faces. Then they range out, zigzagging, negotiating a scent stream. Sometime he goes running. His pounding feet set off the mergansers at the water’s edge, a thrashing mass of windmilling legs and pumping wings.
These timeless observations are disrupted by social science cant that jerks you back into the present: cognitive dissonance, people drawn together by trauma, talk about the refugee crisis with a woman friend who has worked in the camps. They have sex rather coolly, in the no-nonsense way it’s done today or at least the way in which it is depicted in contemporary writing. I kissed her only once, he says, and didn’t really want to kiss her anyway, but I was born in the Midwest, and they teach us there to try to be good people, and to kiss during sex. Is that so?  
But why bother to ask that question? After all, fiction is the most shameless genre. It makes no attempt to avert its lying face.

Sunday, 19 August 2018


This is the coming-of-age story of a boy living through the Rwandan civil war, but also of his personal memories and musing about the marriage of his parents, a French father married to Hutu mother.

The happy couple on their wedding day. What music! On their wedding day, a careless rumba escaped some out-of-tune guitars as happiness crooned cha-cha-cha numbers beneath a sky pricked with starts. But twelve years later the reality of everyday life sets in and their carefree beginnings transformed into a rhythm as tyrannical as the relentless ticking of a clock. Now they had to cope with children, taxes, …growing uncertainty, rampant banditry, dictators and military coups and, the cruelest blow: it turned out they hadn’t shared dreams, merely illusions. True, each of them had nurtured a dream, but it amounted to nothing more than their own selfish hopes, with neither of them ready to fulfill the other’s expectations.

The couple fight. Raw emotion transformed Maman’s voice into a torrent of mud and gravel. A flood of words, a roar of insults filled the night. The noises were moving about our property: I could hear Maman howling below my window, then destroying the car windscreen. After that, silence, until the violence began rumbling again, all around. I could no longer tell what was French and what Kirundi, what was shouting and what were tears, whether these were my parents battling or the neighborhood dogs fighting to the death.

But a party is still a party and makes you forget your troubles: The trumpet was doing its breathless best to follow the rhythm set by the percussion. Prothe and Innocent were hitting the stretched drum skins in unison, their faces strained, a thick sweat sliding down their gleaming foreheads. The guests’ hands marked the beat as their feet hammered out the counter-rhythm, kicking up the heavy dust in the years. The music was as quick as our throbbing temples. The banging and beating swelled as one. The wind swayed the garden treetops, making leaves quiver and branches rustle. There was electricity in the atmosphere, as the smell of damp earth filled the air.

Thursday, 19 July 2018


This is a “nonfiction novel” describing the author’s experience of rape and attempted murder, or rather describing the victim’s thoughts and actions in the aftermath of the ordeal:

After holding back the story for some time, I felt I had earned the right to talk, even monopolize conversation. I told and retold the story even to people who were not close, but bristled if they tried to respond, to empathize or give me their analysis of what happened. At the same time I felt that there was something staged about my telling. Not that the tears were put on. The pain was real. But I also knew I’d have to act the part, or no one would believe me. Telling the story created a distance. I no longer recognized my own memories, when I spoke them out loud…I no longer recognized the outlines of my own experience.

Absurdly, I found myself sympathizing with the attacker, a refugee from North Africa, who described his life in a hostel to me as soul-destroying. It was not the authoritarianism of the manager, the cramped rooms...the lack of place to put your things, or the stench that spews from those toilets as if from the center of the earth (he said), not the insects, the roaches hidden in every crack, every fissure, under the rickety furniture, or the fires that punctuate life in the kitchens because of the faulty wiring. It wasn’t even the sexual deprivation, or the resulting dreams, the obsession with women (or in some cases men) and the erections, hard and damp under the sheets. What made life unbearable for him above all, he said, was the noise which penetrates the body by way of the ear and reverberates in every cell, the noise troubles the silence of the inner organs…the creaking doors, the snores, the shouting in the sleep, the groaning beds, all the misery that comes out in noise.

Is that why he attacked me not only physically but also assailed me with noise? I tried to escape the sound of his shouting, as if there were shouting scattered all around, ready to spring up, as if shouting existed before there were human beings and humans were merely tools invented to give it an outlet. In defense, he whispers to his attacker, trying to calm him down.

After my ordeal, I can no longer stand seeing anyone smile or be happy. I want to slap them, to shake them and spit in their faces, scratch them until I drew blood, scratch their faces off till all the faces around me disappeared. Their laughter pierced my eardrums and stuck in my ears, it echoed inside my skull for the rest of the day, it stuck in my skull, in my eyes, in my lips – it was as if their laughter existed to hurt me.

Tuesday, 10 July 2018


I love Rachel Cusk’s long sentences. How come my editor never lets me get away with that?

The man seated next to her on the plane:
He was somewhere in his forties, with a face that was both handsome and unexceptional, and his tall frame was clad with the clean, well-pressed neutrality of a businessman’s weekend attire. He wore a heavy silver watch on his wrist and new-looking leather shoes on his feet; he exuded an air of anonymous and slightly provisional manliness, like a soldier in uniform.

You could the bells that rang unendingly from the town’s many churches, striking not just the hours but the quarter and half hours, so that each segment of time became a seed of silence that then blossomed, filling the air with what almost seemed a kind of self-description. The conversation of these bells, held back and forth across the rooftops was continued night and day: its cadences of observation and agreement, its passages of debate, its longer narratives – at matins and evensong, for instance, and most of all on Sundays, the repeating summons building and building until it was followed at last by the joyous, deafening exposition.

Journalist and literary critic:
He couldn’t ever imagine writing as the author had written, or indeed, in some cases, wanting to; even thinking about it exhausted him, and he sometimes found himself wishing these prodigies had a little less energy, because every time they wrote something new they also created his obligation to respond to it. The tremendous effort to conjure something out of nothing, to create this great structure of language where before there had been only blankness, was something of which he personally felt himself incapable: it usually rendered him, in fact, quite passive and left him feeling relieved to return to the trivial details of his own life.