Saturday, 14 March 2009

19 - 'Songs from the Other Side of the Wall' by Dan Holloway

Reading my latest book was somewhat of a voyage of discovery as it involved several aspects I'm unfamiliar with. Firstly, I'm pretty monogamous with my reading, so reading two books at the same time was an unusual feeling (and as close as I hope to get to adultery). In addition, one of those books was an e-book, and, not wanting to risk losing my job for using the office photcopier to print the whole thing out, I read the story straight from the screen. However, the most novel of the novelties was the fact that the book I was reading was by an unpublished author who had sent me a copy for free.

So how does that happen? No, I didn't get an unsolicited e-mail (although many Nigerians have contacted me recently owing to issues with sending their private funds out of the country; I must get back to them some time soon...), and I didn't find a USB in the street. One day, I was idling my time away on Facebook (as you do), flicking through the contributions on a group dedicated to Haruki Murakami, when I saw a post from someone offering a free PDF copy of his novel (not Murakami's, someone else's. Hope you're still with me). As I like reading a lot (and like not spending money almost as much), I took up the offer, and that is how 'Songs from the Other Side of the Wall' made its way into my life, and onto my Compaq Presario.

Reading two books at a time wasn't really a big issue; I'm a big boy now, and I'm able to keep two ideas in my head at the same time. Reading directly from a PC was more of a challenge as it was difficult to focus for any great length of time. Because of the issues of reading from a monitor (scientific studies have shown that people blink less when looking at a computer monitor than when reading print), I occasionally got a headache when reading, leading me to read in short bursts. Which was OK because I probably should have been having shorter lunch breaks anyway.

It was the unpublished author part which was the most interesting experience though. The whole concept of knowing that the book has not been published affects the way you look at the text; in fact, I found myself becoming more and more critical and analytical than is normally the case when enjoying a book. This was, in some ways, justified: there were several spelling mistakes which (understandably) had been overlooked in the editing process, and there were other errors of language which could be attributed to the fact that the book had not had a professional eye cast over it. As well as these typos though, there were some basic errors (e.g. using 'their' instead of 'there') which seemed a little less forgivable (if anyone finds a typo here, I apologise profusely and blame it on the distraction of my daughter. She's currently asleep, but I'm blaming her anyway).

In terms of the book itself, I found the spread of locations and nationalities a little overwhelming for such a short work and wondered whether it had been over-done a little. While all the places had their own reasons for being included, the story would have been affected very little by condensing the action into just a couple of places. Szandrine is undoubtedly a citizen of the new Europe, but there wasn't really a need to spread her cultural heritage so thinly over 137 pages. I also found the character of Yang to be incongruous and, in some ways superfluous. The book is about Szandrine and her past and future; to me Yang seemed a bit of a side issue (titillation almost?), and the discovery of her role in events towards the end of the novel appeared to be a device to tie loose ends together.

Looking back at what I've just written, my poor blog readers (if, indeed, there are any) must be commiserating with me for the waste of my time and assuming that any such offers will be sent straight to the little green bin on my desktop in future, but that is definitely not the case. Apart from the issues above (which are relatively minor and only my humble opinion), I enjoyed most of what I read in this book. The influence of Murakami, freely admitted by the author, is apparent in many areas. Food and drink (Gulas and Hungarian wine rather than 'Cutty Sark' Whisky, pasta and grilled eel!) are important elements of the novel, binding Szandrine to her Hungarian heritage and providing a link betwen the pre- and post-communist eras. Szandrine herself is fairly Murakami-esque as a character (apart from being female - then again, her sexuality means that her partners can be portrayed in a similar way, and Murakami often describes secondary characters more than the main protagonist); we discover things about her life, but we never really get an insight into who she is and how she feels. One thing we do know is that she is not part of the usual working society, and that she is trying to find a place to fit into. Oh, and there's a talking statue. And a cat.

The charm of this book is the way we start with Szandrine trying to make sense of her life and follow her through, learning about things almost at the same time as she does. It's a voyage of discovery which leads to an open ended finale, and we are left wondering where she goes from here. The way forward is most certainly not clear, just like the start, but in a different way perhaps?

Dan's latest project is a book, 'The Man who painted Agnieszka's Shoes', written incrementally and published on a Facebook group page:

This method of publishing allows members of the group to comment on each short chapter as it appears, thus possibly influencing the progress of the book (which is reminiscent, in the sense of a life being discussed by virtual friends, to Szandrine's blog in this novel: life imitating art or vice-versa?).

In short, give unpublished authors a chance, read what they have to say, appreciate the chance to read for free, and enjoy being part of a small artistic community. Unless, of course, Mr. Holloway gets the shits with me over this review; in which case, feel free to never read anything not bought in 'Borders' again. Your call, Dan :)