erasing clouds

Book Reviews

by anna battista

Brass by Helen Walsh (Canongate)

It is night outside. We're in Liverpool and while the city centre is bursting with people cruising the streets in search of the next pub or club where to get drunk, everything is silent around the cathedral and in its nearby graveyard. Yet, if you stopped and remained silent for a while, you could hear some voices coming from the graveyard and if you squeezed your eyes you'd also be able to carve out from the shadows of the night two silhouettes lying on a tomb, one on top of the other, first touching, then crudely making love to each other. This is how Brass, by Liverpool-based writer Helen Walsh, starts and this is how we first meet Millie, the main character of the novel, in one of her first sexual encounters with a prostitute recounted in the book.

Millie is a young woman, respected by the local bad boys because of her coolness, but also for the copious amounts of drugs and alcohol she snorts and swallows. Millie is basically more addicted to sex than to drugs, and often wanders the streets of Liverpool in search of prostitutes willing to have sex with her (the title of the book is Liverpool slang for 'prostitute'). The novel, divided in paragraphs written in a sort of stream of consciousness way and attributed to Millie and to her friend Jamie, follows Millie in her night benders, but also at the university where she is unwillingly studying and where she daily tries to avoid her father, a sociology professor loved by all the female students. Through the novel, we discover why Jamie and his friends simply adore Millie, but also why Millie hates her parents, her mum in particular who practically abandoned her and her father (or at least that's what Millie thinks). A twist in the tale and a cathartic end will see Millie looking for the truth in her life and eventually finding it.

Brass contains some very lively dialogues juxtaposed to Walsh's poetic descriptions of the environment in which Millie lives, loves and walks, which resemble Niall Griffiths' style, while the physical structure of the novel reminds the structures of a few novels by another Liverpool writer, Kevin Sampson. This is Helen Walsh's first novel, but she has already been hailed as one of the most terrific new voices of British contemporary literature. You'd better keep an eye on her then.

Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer (Canongate)

Short stories aren't really that much, are they? They can be condensed in a few pages and they can usually be read in less than half an hour. Yet when a story is well-crafted and beautifully written, you usually want to re-read it again and again from the beginning. Or at least this is what happens with this collection of short stories by American writer ZZ Packer.

Winner of various literary awards, ZZ Packer published, in the last few years, most of the works collected in Drinking Coffee Elsewhere in a few literary magazines, but having them all together in one anthology is an absolute joy. ZZ Packer's eight short stories collected here sparkle with witty and comical dialogues, but also with tragedy and heart-ripping moments. The opening story, "Brownies", is about a group of young black Brownie girls who plan to beat the living daylights out of a group of white girls in their camp who have allegedly pronounced the word "nigger"; the title story follows Dina, a young student at Yale University, who's trying to survive the hostile environment she's living in, while memories of her dead mother keep on coming to her; "Speaking in Tongues" is the odyssey of a young church girl, Tia, who runs away from her life with her very religious aunt to look for her mum in the nasty environment of Atlanta where she'll eventually befriend pimps, prostitutes and drug dealers; in "The Ant of the Self", a young man gets his father out of jail before following him in one of his crazy adventures in Washington DC while the Million Man March is taking place.

The main themes at the core of these stories are racism, obsessive religion, human relationships, friendship, love and growing up, and they might not be new themes, but what makes them completely new is the way ZZ Packer writes about them, in a highly crafted style that gives you the impression that each of these short stories are proper novels or rather beautiful novels.

Issue 22, April 2004

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