Monday, 16 June 2014

Short Story: What Happened to Us by Dan Chaon

What Happened to Us by Dan Chaon

The Spring 2014 edition of Ploughshares Literary Magazine contains this gem: A story about Rusty Bickers and the family that takes him in as a foster child. Joseph is the narrator and is eight years old. Rusty is fourteen. We know little of what happened to Rusty before he arrived into Joseph’s home except a few hushed conversations between Joseph’s parents, where we hear that ‘unspeakable things… happened to Rusty in his family home,' and Joseph’s mother's comment, ‘How long does it take to get over something like that?’

Rusty does talk to Joseph about his past at one stage:

‘Do you know what would happen if a kid like you got sent to a foster home?’

‘No.’ And Joseph breathed as Rusty’s eyes held him, without blinking.

‘They do really nasty things to the little kids. And if you try to scream, they put your own dirty underwear in your mouth, to gag you.’

Although Rusty's past was disturbing, we follow his summer in Joseph's home with a little optimism. We are lulled into the meandering narrative, peppered with humour, especially when Joseph’s father dances with his prosthetic arm.

‘After he got drunk, Joseph’s father would go around touching the ladies on the back of the neck with his hook, surprising them, making them scream. Sometimes he would take off his arm and dance with it.'

But this humour is followed by raw understated emotion:

'Sometimes he would cry about Billy Merritt.’

The story contains some great descriptive passages.

‘Rusty…watching Joseph’s family as they ate their breakfast, his shaggy hair hanging lank about his face, his long arms dangling from slumped shoulders, his eyes like someone who had been marched a long way to a place where they were going to shoot him.’

The story gets progressively more disturbing as the summer passes and we sense that Rusty is a deeply troubled teenager.

‘You could kill the little kids first, while they were sleeping. It wouldn’t hurt them, you know. It wouldn’t mattter. And then, with the gunshots, your mom and dad would come running in, and you could shoot them when they came through the door…’

An excellent and enjoyable story.

Dan Chaon is the author of the short-story collection Stay Awake, the novel Await Your Reply and other works of fiction. He lives in Cleveland.

Friday, 13 June 2014

Authors in France: Amanda Hodgkinson

 22 Britannia Road by Amanda Hodgkinson

In the small village of Labatut Rivière in the lovely south west of France a group of readers and writers welcomed Amanda Hodgkinson, author, to talk about her first novel: 22 Britannia Road.
In preparation, I did some strenuous research on my sunlounger...
Here's the blurb:
It is 1946 and Silvana and eight-year-old Aurek board a ship that will take them from Poland to England. Silvana has not seen her husband Janusz in six years, but, they are assured, he has made a home for them in Ipswich.

However, after living wild in the forests for years, carrying a terrible secret, all Silvana knows is that she and Aurek are survivors. Everything else is lost. While Janusz, a Polish soldier who has crisscrossed Europe during the war, hopes his family will help him put his own dark past behind him.

But the war and the years apart will always haunt each of them, unless together they confront what they were compelled to do to survive. 

Amanda read an extract from the points of view of the three main characters and I enjoyed (as she suggested everybody does) being read to in the glorious sunshine with a glass of rosé and only next door’s cockerel to punctuate the silences.
Then Amanda spoke about her motivation for writing the book - her attempt to capture something of  the relationships between families who were separated during the war and, although reunited, are never the same.

The discussion then moved on to her journey to publication: One query letter (I said 'one' there in case you missed that), several bids which led to an auction, and the novel went straight onto the New York Times bestseller list. A dream for many, but good to hear it can, and does, happen.
Amanda's second novel Spilt Milk was released earlier this year and has been very well received:
'Hogkinson's second novel is simply but elegantly written, its subtle charms emerging as her gentle, bittersweet story shows history repeating itself over the generations' Sunday Times

She also spoke about the Grand Central, an anthology to be released in July which sounds very intriguing:

Now, ten bestselling authors inspired by this iconic landmark have created their own stories, set on the same day, just after the end of World War II, in a time of hope, uncertainty, change, and renewal...

 Thanks to Jane who hosted the lunch in her beautiful garden. I returned home with garden envy and road-to-publication envy. But it was an enjoyable day and great to meet so many book lovers.