Virtuoso by Yelena Moskovich

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Virtuoso by Yelena Moskovich

Published By Serpent’s Tail

Available from all good Bookshops and Online

What They Say

Zorka. She had eyebrows like her name.

1980s Prague. For Jana, childhood means ration queues and the smell of boiled potatoes on the grey winter air. But just before Jana’s seventh birthday, a new family moves in to their building: a bird-eyed mamka in a fox-fur coat, a stubble-faced papka – and a raven-haired girl named Zorka.

As the first cracks begin to appear in the communist regime, Zorka teaches Jana to look beyond their building, beyond Prague, beyond Czechoslovakia … and then, Zorka just disappears. Jana, now an interpreter in Paris for a Czech medical supply company, hasn’t seen her in a decade.

As Jana and Zorka’s stories slowly circle across the surreal fluctuations of the past and present, the streets of 1980s Prague, the suburbs of 1990s Wisconsin and the lesbian bars of present-day Paris, they lead inexorably to a mysterious door on the Rue de Prague …

Written with the dramatic tension of Euripidean tragedy and the dreamlike quality of a David Lynch film, Virtuoso is an audacious, mesmerising novel of love in the post-communist diaspora.

What I Say

From the beautiful cover, through to the very last page, Virtuoso is a lyrical and ethereal novel, unlike any I have read before. I initially thought it was simply about the relationship between two girls, Zorka and Jana. I was ready to learn about their childhood in Prague, and the subsequent paths their adult lives would take.

Virtuoso is just that, but so much more too. It is a startling commentary on life under the Communist Regime in Prague, a novel about what family is to us, how we search for our identities throughout our lives, and what it means to find our place in the world.

The novel starts with a young woman discovering the body of her wife in their hotel room, and immediately you are pulled into their world as you have no idea why this woman has passed away, or indeed who any of the characters are. It serves to draw you in immediately to the plot, and I was intrigued by it. As the novel moves forward, we are observers to the lives of Jana, Zorka and Aimee, all of whom have their stories to tell, and slowly their lives start to come together as we understand how inextricably linked their lives are.

Jana is a respectful and quiet young girl, who lives a fairly unremarkable existence with her mother and father, until one day Zorka and her family move in to her neighbourhood. From the first time they meet, Jana and Zorka have an immediate connection, a sense that their meeting was pre-destined, and Jana seems to be in awe of this fiery and outspoken girl who is absolutely aware of her self and the innate power she possesses. Zorka seems to be someone who refuses to be categorized or tamed, she is determined to live her life how she wants, and Jana can only stand by and watch. What happens from that point on, is that these two women are entwined forever in a relationship neither can adequately describe.

Right from the start of the novel, you are aware of the confines and restrictions placed on women during this time. They are defined by their roles of wife and mother, whilst living in a world of unspoken subservience and fear. You do not know who to trust, and what you can say, and as mothers sit with each other and swap secrets, the playground benches are apparently the safest place to do so. This is why Zorka is such a revelation to Jana and her family. Although initially Zorka seems to be this problematic child, who pushes everyone to their limits, we as readers learn the troubling relationship she has with her mother, and this defiance is a distraction technique so her mother won’t physically assault her.

Little by little, Zorka realises the only way she can survive her childhood is to escape from it, leaving Jana behind, bewildered and shattered at the loss of this young woman who she had come to depend on. What Yelena captures so perfectly is the intensity of friendship between girls, how they mean everything to you at the time, the shared secrets, the confessions and discussions about your hopes and dreams. To have that taken away from you without explanation can be devastating, and for Jana, she now has to work out how to carry on living alone in the very place that Zorka has deserted.

Aimee is living with her father after her parents divorce and is working for his company, however she seems to be unsettled and searching for someone to love. Her memories of her life with her father come out as a stream of remembrances, but this works as it gives the reader an insight into her thoughts and dreams. Eventually she meets and falls in love with Dominique, an actress. Initially their relationship seems idyllic and gives Aimee everything she thought she wanted, but little by little, she comes to realise that Dominque has issues of her own, and she will again fall into a role of caring and supporting someone at the expense of her own hopes and desires.

The novel as it progresses, seems more fractured in terms of the narrative, and is at times almost dreamlike in its telling. There are short, distinct chapters, a nightmarish scene outside a club where Jana is brutally attacked by strange and disturbing children and the ever present blue smoke that seeps into different chapters and permeates the narrative.

Virtuoso is also an exploration of self and sexuality, and the visble and real relationships between Jana and Zorka and Aimee and Dominique are offset by a relationship carried out in the confines of a chatroom. A thread of a conversation between an American teenager called Amy and an Eastern European housewife whose username is Dominxxika_N39 who is effectively kept prisoner by her husband are presented to us without context. Their conversations reveal that Amy is a pupil known to Zorka, but Amy is determined to travel to this woman and rescue her, which as casual observers on their chat is unsettling for the reader, and we are simply bystanders who are unable to intervene to save Amy from her fate.

As the novel draws to its conclusion, it becomes more surreal and is far from a straightforward narrative that many of us are comfortable with. Did I ‘get’ all of it – no. However, it is impossible to not be drawn into Jana, Zorka and Aimee’s lives, to see how they try to define themselves and their place in the world even when the world doesn’t seem to make sense to us.

In Virtuoso, Yelena has written a brave and uncompromising novel, which has interesting and defiant women at its core. It serves only to remind us that fiction can be whatever it wants to be, as long as readers are open to recognising that not everything can be explained neatly and completely.

Thank you very much to Midas PR and to the Dylan Thomas Prize for my copy of Virtuoso in exchange for an honest review.

I’m one of 66 Bloggers taking part in the Dylan Thomas Prize Blog Tour – do follow Midas PR and The Dylan Thomas Prize to see what my fellow bloggers have to say…

Exquisite Cadavers by Meena Kandasamy

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Exquisite Cadavers by Meena Kandasamy

Published By Atlantic Books

Available from all good Bookshops and Online

What They Say:

Karim and Maya:
[x] share a home
[x] worry about money
[x] binge-watch films
[x] argue all the time

Karim, a young film-maker, carries with him the starry-eyed dreams of the Arab Revolution. Maya carries her own pressing concerns: an errant father, an unstable job, a chain-smoking habit, a sudden pregnancy. When Karim’s brother disappears in Tunis, and Karim wants to go after him, Maya must choose between her partner and her home city, her future and her history…

In a conversation between forms, fictions and truths, Exquisite Cadavers is a novel about a young couple navigating love in London, and a literary hall of mirrors about an author navigating the inspirations behind her work.

What I Say:

I had read and loved When I Hit You, which was the first novel Meena had written. It was an honest and brutal exploration of a woman in an abusive marriage, and one that I thought about often after reading it.

For Exquisite Cadavers, right from the very first page, you are aware that this novel is one that will push the boundaries not only of conventional literature, but will also ask the reader to be much more involved and aware of the form of the novel than ever before. This novel is not a passive experience for the reader, and if you are looking for a book that conforms to a standard straightforward narrative, then this is perhaps not the novel for you.

I am going to be honest and tell you that initially on reading it, I had no clue as to how I could possibly articulate a review.

The novel is short, impactful, and filled with so much information and knowledge that it feels much longer. The format is like nothing I have ever read before. It has one narrative down the middle of the pages – that of Maya and Karim, whilst in the margins, Meena has written copious notes of her personal life, creative process and what is going on for her in her world as she constructs the novel.

The ingenuity of all this in my opinion is how you choose to read it. Do you read the main narrative and refer to the notes in the margins as you go along, or do you read the margin notes first, or the main narrative first? This is a process that made me stop and think – initially I read the main narrative and notes as I went along, but it was too disjointed for me, so I decided to read Maya and Karim’s story first, and then Meena’s notes. The interesting thing I found, was that I was completely immersed in both stories as I read them separately, but also felt a slight disconnection from Maya and Karim as I read Meena’s notes. I was very aware of how they were constructs of Meena’s imagination, and the influences she had imbued them with as she created them – because they are just that – creations of her imagination.

Maya and Karim are young, married and in love, he is a film maker and his attempts to try and document the world he wants to show are frustrated at every turn. His narrative is slowly edited by the tutors around him so that he works on what they believe he should talk about – no matter how contrived or stereotypical it might be, at the risk of him losing his place on the course. Maya works on a newspaper, but she is acutely aware of the domestic world she is now part of, and is energised by the freedom she has, but is also and Karim both have difficult relationships with their fathers too, and have been increasingly getting frustrated with each other as the day to day reality of marriage becomes more prevalent.

As the novel progresses, Meena’s voice also becomes clearer and informs Maya and Karim’s narrative too. When she feels she cannot relate to Maya, she decides that she will make her pregnant- just as she is in real life. I thought this was a very incisive device to ensure that the reader is aware that everything we read in Maya and Karim’s story is a construct of what Meena wants us to read. As Maya and Karim’s story moves on, we learn that Karim has his own way of viewing his wife – his knowledge as a filmmaker imbues the way in which he views her too.

I felt that throughout this novel , the notion of home and belonging was a strong theme throughout- both in Maya and Karim’s story, but also in Meena’s notations too. She references both her own journey to where she has settled today, but also talks about the reality for those family and friends who are in other parts of the world too. There are also lots of references to cultural and political events which, due to my lack of knowledge meant that I had to stop and research them before returning to the text and rereading them – but this time with a sense of awareness.

When Karim decides to return to Tunis to support his brother who has been wrongfully arrested, Maya stands at a threshold where she can stay at home and watch from afar, or she can make a life changing decision to follow her husband, breaking out of the domestic and social confines they have constructed. What I thought was really interesting was that Meena’s notes stop suddenly, bringing the reader immediately back to Karim and Maya’s story, and the stark reality of the decisions they have to make,

Without a doubt, Exquisite Cadavers was a novel at first I was intimidated by. I have to think why that was. I believe it was because it so pushed me out of my comfort zone that my first reaction was to stop. However, isn’t that what literature and reading is all about? To read things that bring new worlds and ideas to us, to challenge our preconceived ideas and to show us the world beyond our comfortable own?

Now I have had time to reflect on it, I think it is an extremely intelligent and thoughtful novel that makes us as a reader really engage with the words on the page, and think about the writer behind them too. The story of Maya and Karim may be the one we are immediately drawn to, as it is what our eye searches for as soon as we open the novel, but for me, the creative process and education I received by taking the time to read Meena’s notes in the margins, are what added the important and brilliant dimension to this work.

Exquisite Cadavers is a novel that demands your full attention at all times. It is breathtaking in its scope, and ambitious in its demands of the reader, but it is impossible to put down. In reading Maya and Karim’s story, we are also gaining a rare and intimate insight into the world of a writer, and for Meena to articulate that so openly and honestly means that we as readers are witness to a world we are all so often blissfully unaware of too.

Thank you very much to Midas PR and the Dylan Thomas Prize for asking me to take part on this Blog Tour in exchange for an honest review.

There are 65 other Bloggers taking part on this amazing Blog Tour for the Dylan Thomas Prize Longlist – why don’t you check out what they are saying too..

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