“Here, The World Entire” by Anwen Kya Hayward (2016)

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“I hear his heartbeat first.”

If you’ve been lingering around this blog long enough, you’ll know I have a particular fondness for Greek mythology. I’m no expert, but I like to keep my hand in, enjoying the stories of the heroes and gods who live their lives like a historical soap opera with added magic. Anwen Kya Hayward, is someone who knows what she’s talking about. Academically instructed up to the eyeballs in the mythological studies, Anwen and I met through social media several years ago, and I have always enjoyed her passion for her subject. I’m a lazy git, so I can’t claim now that as soon as she was published, I snapped the book up, but nonetheless, here we are. Only six months late.

The tiny novella is based around the myth of Medusa, confined to her cave after being punished by Athena for something that wasn’t her fault. Once beautiful, Medusa’s golden hair has been replaced with a nest of snakes, and anyone she looks at turns to stone. Perseus intrudes upon her quiet cave, telling her that he needs her help, and was sent by Athena to ask for it. If only she would come out and meet him…

The main narrative is interspersed with events from Medusa’s history, primarily the events that caused her to be transformed into this monster, and an incident where she accidentally wiped out a whole village with her powers. Often seen as a villain in modern interpretations of Greek mythology, it is really something to see her here portrayed with humanity, sealing herself off from the world to protect everyone else as much as herself. She knows she is dangerous and doesn’t actively want to hurt anyone else, even shouting through the cave entrance that very fact to Perseus, although acknowledging that he will die if he comes in.

As mentioned, it’s a short book but I consumed it in an hour or so, supine on a sun lounger on one of the hottest days in living memory. Hayward is economical in her language, and not a word is wasted, building up an incredibly rich and beautiful world set entirely in a cave, where neither character can look at the other. Medusa, naturally, rarely describes anything she can see, so much is made of what she can hear, using aural clues to work out what Perseus is doing outside her cave. For something written, it’s incredibly unusual and very well done.

It’s a gorgeous little read, with a real sense of tragedy about it, as we explore the inner workings of a monster’s brain. It seems to tie into my recent readings of Frankenstein and Wonder, which also deal with not judging people based on their appearance or first impressions. Medusa is sympathetic, but if you know how the old myth ends, you’ll know why that’s a difficult thing to have to deal with here. A sublime piece of work, and I look forward to more.

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“The Creator” by Guðrún Eva Mínervudóttir (2008)

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creator“Sveinn hung the last ones out to dry: the hooks pierced the back of the necks.”

I don’t know much about Iceland. In fact, I know three things about it. Firstly, naming conventions work so that parents and their children have different surnames. Secondly, they are the country with the most Nobel Prizes per capita (with 1 prize). Thirdly, every Christmas Eve it is traditional to buy people books, which I think is one of the most wonderful traditions on the planet. Had I got my skates on and finished this book on Christmas Eve, then it would have been thematically appropriate to present the world with an Icelandic novel on my blog on that day. As it is, I’ve been full of alcohol and food for the last few days, so you’re getting it on Boxing Day instead. Cheers!

In the small Icelandic town of Akranes, Sveinn lives a fairly solitary existence. Most of the time, the only company he has are the dolls he makes by hand, but these are far from children’s playthings. Sveinn makes sex dolls, and because of this, most of society seems to have shunned him, except the men grateful for his products, which are regarded as things of beauty and shockingly realistic.

One night, Lóa, a woman who is only just holding it all together, breaks down outside Sveinn’s house. He takes her in, cooks her dinner and fixes her car. Too tired and drunk to drive home, she sleeps in his living room, and when Sveinn wakes up the next morning, he finds that Lóa has gone – and she’s taken one of the dolls with her.

Like so many books that draw me in with some kind of magnetism, this one again deals with themes of loneliness and the struggle of coping without a network around you for support. Given that Iceland could be thought of as being rather a cold and empty island, the sense of being alone seems magnified, and you feel for Sveinn and Lóa in their difficult circumstances. Chapters alternate between their viewpoints, and sometimes the events overlap, giving you slightly different versions of what happened or how conversations went depending on which side you’re hearing. The novel takes place over the space of a week or so, and it is a week that will change them both profoundly.

As ever with translated books, you never really know how much of it is down to the writer and how much to the translator, but the book is full of some very beautiful and meaningful lines. At one point, Sveinn ponders, “There are some days when you are only sure of what you don’t want”, which about sums up my life, and later there’s one of my favourite analogies in fiction: “Sunday was as dreary and discordant as a church choir in a sparsely populated country parish…”

It’s a strange but rather charming book, with likeable, odd characters and a melancholic sense of whimsy. I liked it, and I think I’ll definitely be returning to this most literary of countries for more fiction in the future.

“The Waterproof Bible” by Andrew Kaufman (2009)

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The Waterproof Bible

No frogs were harmed in the making of this book.

“The limousine taking Rebecca Reynolds and Lewis Taylor to the funeral had stalled in the middle of an intersection.”

I discovered Andrew Kaufman a couple of years ago with his novella, now a cult classic, All Of My Friends Are Superheroes. Last year, I encountered him again with another novella, The Tiny Wife. So, when I found his name again in Waterstone’s, I picked up the book without even questioning it. He writes with magic, and his ideas are so beautiful, brilliant and romantic that I can’t help feel a pang of jealousy whenever I read him. I wish I’d come up with some of these ideas, although I daresay I’d be unable to achieve what he can.

The Waterproof Bible is the story of three individuals. The first is Rebecca, who naturally broadcasts her feelings to everyone around her. If it’s a particularly strong emotion, you could be three or four streets away and share in her emotion. However, she’s managed to solve the problem by trapping the emotions into personal objects, although that then leaves her with boxes upon boxes of stored emotions that span her whole life.

The second is Lewis, whose wife, Lisa, has just died. He is finding it difficult to grieve, so skips out on the funeral and goes to stay in the second-best hotel in Winnipeg. There, he gets a very important haircut and encounters a woman who claims to be God.

The third is Aby, short for Aberystwyth, who has stolen a car and is driving across Canada to save her dying mother. She’s nervous, not a particularly good driver and very uncomfortable out of the water. Oh, yeah, and she’s green with gills and has lived in the Atlantic Ocean her whole life, where she reads her Bible and follows Aquaticism teachings.

The three characters stories intersect neatly, although the chronology is a little confusing at times, leaping back and forth to show events from more than one point of view. The oddness of some of the situations within the novel (aquatic humans, tiny women swimming in glasses, a radio that broadcasts advice to the owner) are simply taken in their stride, as they’re so novel and compelling that you don’t have the urge to question them.

In all three of his books, Kaufman writes about romance – a very real romance in very unreal circumstances. Although this is not a love story, there are definitely undercurrents about the power of love, and what it can do to ordinary people. I really do think that the best word to sum up Kaufman’s writing is “beautiful”. There’s a marvellous innocence about it, about people facing impossible odds but never giving up, simply getting on with it.

This book is for anyone who believes in love, or feels that their life needs just a little more magic in it. Therefore, it’s for practically everyone.