Friday, March 02, 2012

World Book Day in Bolton

Once upon a time bands would launch their new album in out-of-the-way places and fly or bus journalists in. Presumably the move away from the metropolis would aid concentration. I thought about that yesterday as I headed to Bolton Octagon to hear Gwendoline Riley read from her long-awaited 4th novel, Opposed Positions.

There, of course, the comparison ends - for I've seen her read at the Octagon before, and this wasn't a launch as such - and her and Jane Rogers were reading as part of the Octagon's admirable "Literature Live" series. Still, as one of the best writers to come out of Manchester's writing schools, Riley's absence over the last few years has been keenly felt.

I'm glad I made the short trip north. Compered by short story writer Zoe Lambert, it was a lovely event. Jane Rogers is a writer I've long admired, even if her critical star seems to have waned a little in recent years. Her latest novel, The Testament of Jessie Lamb, a futuristic dystopia was passed up by her long-term publisher Little, Brown, and published instead by the tiny Sandstone press, who were rewarded with good sales and a Booker longlisting. In a world where women die in childbirth ("maternal death syndrome") a young woman is determined to take control of her own destiny. Reading from both the start and end of the book, we get a sense of a very contemporary precariousness thrust into a possible future scenario that is both recognisable for its jeopardy, and imaginative. Keeping the mothers alive long enough to have their children, the women become "sleeping beauties".

If there's a connecting theme between the two writers its about generational shifts and complex relationships between children and parents. For Riley's 4th novel, the Carmel of "Cold Water", a heroine who mixed self-destructivenss with self-awareness, is replaced by a narrator who talks us through the multi-layered complexities of her family past. Speaking of weekends as a child spent with an estranged father, this extract from the start of the novel is a weave of complex emotional memories. The narrator is highly sensitive to the language and emotional landscape around her, mimicking her dad's scouse idiom. I'm reminded a little of the multiple memories of Natalie Ginzburg's "Things We Used to Say", but its also got some of the emotional maturity of American writers like Updike and Moore. Whereas we already know Riley's work for its poetic honesty, here there seems a new confidence in her depiction of complex emotional worlds - lives that are messy and unpredictable, families enclosed and repressive family lives.

A second half sees Rogers' read from the end of the novel - and Riley reads a long short story, a dramatic monologue of searing intensity that was recently published in the Edinburgh Review. Here "Gwendoline Riley" is a character in a story of a dysfunctional relationship with a feral, tactile brutal partner brought to life by the narrator's sardonic retelling of the tale. Great stuff, that one felt a little uncomfortable applauding at the end. Men don't come out of Riley's work well.

Fiction readings are sometimes hard to pull off - as a novel has to be reduced to a few lines - but last night was impressive stuff, at least partly because they are both novels I felt I wanted to read. Riley's is not out till May, but Jane Rogers can be picked up now - though she shared with us a new cover for the 2nd edition.

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