Rebecca Swirsky: Writer

London-based short story writer and critic

Property by Lionel Shriver

Published in The Economist 23rd April 2018

Lionel Shriver’s first collection of short stories explore the nature of generosity, the cost of money and the meaning of worth.

LIONEL SHRIVER’s literary currency is hard, topical fiction. Her 12 novels range—controversially—from school shootings and the Northern Irish Troubles to immigration, demography, terrorism, the American healthcare system, obesity and, most recently, finance. (She is also a former contributor to The Economist.) Thematically resonating with her novel “The Mandibles” (2016), “Property” is the author’s first short story collection. Ten stories flanked by two novellas posit that possessions may in turn possess their owners, while exploring definitions of generosity, the emotional cost of money and the subjectivity of worth.

Drawing on Ms Shriver’s personal interests, including her long-time love for tennis and her 12 years of experience as a journalist in Belfast, “Property” opens and closes with novellas. Each, in their way, negotiate threesomes of sorts. In “The Standing Chandelier”, a tennis-playing friendship in college-town Virginia disintegrates after one of the players becomes engaged and receives a unique wedding gift. In “The Subletter”, an American columnist and her unwanted flatmate, “conflict junkies” both, squabble over Northern Ireland—the third part of the threesome, a contested territory to which neither may lay claim. The shorter stories, set largely in America and Britain, range from the bordered confines of a London garden to the cloying luxury of an overseas paradisiacal resort, from the confiscation of a tube of ChapStick at an American airport to a haunted semi-detached house in London.

Ms Shriver has stated that her writing, like that of her literary heroine Edith Wharton, aims to bridge “the literary and the popular”. Appearing halfway through the collection, “Kilifi Creek”, which won a BBC National Short Story Award in 2014, achieves those aims amply, presenting a springily taut, swooping story of a young girl’s near-death experience on a gap-year in Kenya. “Vermin”, meanwhile, expertly explores the lines between hosting and being invaded, between ownership and being ousted. When a New York, newly-in-love couple manage to buy their rental property, the racoons that came with it swiftly turn from being endearing to being an “infestation”, as the couple experience the diminishing, rather than empowering, effects of responsibility. Gradually, the property is sanitised, and with that its unique freewheeling charm, like the raffish heart of their marriage, is stripped away. Here, the questions raised by E.M. Forster’s “My Wood”—used as Ms Shriver’s prologue—are acutely pertinent. ‘If you own things, what’s their effect on you? What’s the effect of me on my wood?’

Complex and clever, “Kilifi Creek” and “Vermin” testify to the author’s powers. Other inclusions in “Property” are puzzling; “The Self-Seeding Sycamore”, “The Royal Male” and “Negative Equity”, despite their sometimes eclectic lexicon, are neatly droll, erring-on-twee stories depriving the reader of breadth of vista or, indeed, Ms Shriver’s reassuring bite. In “Paradise to Perdition”, the heavy-handed presence of the narrator errs on pastiche, disrupting a story set in a resort in the Indian Ocean. In a story collection there is little room for error, and their presence mars this exploration of an otherwise fascinating, endlessly contemporary subject.


Apr 27th 2018


Ben Okri’s The Magic Lamp first published in New Statesman March 2018

The Magic Lamp is a collection of morally ambiguous tales for our trying times

Pairing 25 original paintings with 25 original stories, the collaboration with his partner, the painter Rosemary Clunie, took five years to write and 10 years to paint.

Ben Okri has been lauded (and sometimes derided) for his oeuvre of dream-logic fabulism. Translated into 27 languages, his poetry, novels, short fiction and essays mesh Western European and African influences, always rooted in a belief in the spiritual truth of our subjectivity – that there are as many realities as people to experience them.

Okri’s 1991 novel The Famished Road, which won the Booker Prize, foregrounded the story of spirit child Azaro (short for Lazarus) in an unknown city in Africa. More recently, there has been a resurgence of interest in Okri’s work following his poem on Grenfell Tower, a stark cri de coeur for the tragedy, including lines such as, “You saw it in the tears of those who survived./You saw it through the rage of those who survived.” (The poem inspired a Shoreditch street mural by graffiti artist Ben Eine and will be republished in Alt-Write, a crowdfunded collection also including Carol Ann Duffy, among others, which aims to “debunk xenophobic myths and… help [readers] discover the natural human quality of empathy”.) An excerpt from a longer poem was published in this magazine in December, tackling Brexit and a world in which it is “Easier to fall apart/Than to stay together.”

Personal experience taught Okri to feel division acutely. Born in 1959 in Minna, northern Nigeria, he travelled to England aged 18 months, so that his father, Silver, could study law. At seven years old, Okri returned to Nigeria – as civil war broke out. Okri’s mother Grace was half Igbo, while his father was Urhobo. Much of the war was spent hiding her. Okri’s memories include the violence of “people shot, kids lying dead in the river, relations… killed”.

A storyteller who builds on Romantic and Renaissance traditions, Okri presents himself – the artist – as a troubled soothsayer, drawing from a lineage that included his father’s library of Aesop’s Fables, Arabian Nights, Dickens, Homer, Tolstoy, Maupassant, the Greek philosophers and African mythology – but also his beloved mother’s multitude of indirect, ambiguous tales, some of which would take Okri 20 years to understand. Speaking at the Word Factory Citizen Festival in London last year, Okri recalled her tale of the frog in the frying pan, which, as a child, fascinated and “freaked him out” equally. As the water beneath the frog heats, it is imperceptibly boiled to death. For Okri, the tale is analogous to how a nation may sleepwalk itself towards catastrophe, or one day discover itself in the middle of civil war (the sleepwalking metaphor is also of interest to the author, having run through 20th-century literature via Kafka and Camus).

Okri has previously published a collection of linked essays entitled A Time for New Dreams; his latest work The Magic Lamp – a collaboration with his partner, the painter Rosemary Clunie – is subtitled “Dreams of Our Age”. Pairing 25 original paintings with 25 original stories, the book took five years to write and 10 years to paint. Dreams appear in Okri’s introduction, which notes, in  typically enigmatic style: “Time is a riddle which the writer and artist interpret in their dreams. And their dreams are coded versions of all our dreams, given the tinge and temper of our mood and spirit.”

Clunie’s use of colour is billowing, rich and dreamlike – complementary to the rhythm of the prose – although, as Okri clarifies, the artworks came first. Snatches of white page, which gleam underneath loosely inscribed birds, buildings and trees bearing stars, resonate with the quality of space in Okri’s compact tales. There are leitmotifs of not noticing value, not acknowledging worth, not seeing clearly (“It is as if everything is here, if we know how to see”) woven through pristine paragraphs. Okri’s writing has a light-as-air elegance, yet its seriousness keeps the stories gravity-bound:

The house that our forefathers and foremothers built on the hill was built with stones from the river… Then we forgot the house that the sun had been building, forgot it in the times that came… Only now when we had long lost it, long forgotten that the river rose from the rising sun, do we see the picture that time has made.

Tales such as this one, titled “City of Enigmas”, are diffuse, morally ambiguous. Might the “house” be welfare? Democracy? The NHS?

Okri’s quirks and quiddities aren’t to everyone’s taste – they never have been. But as economic disparity and climate change escalate, perhaps portention, rather than cynical pretension, is what’s required. Authors are fighting from the page to awaken us. Winter, the recent novel by Ali Smith, was wrought with similar urgency, paralleling Greenham Common with Grenfell Tower (Smith has called Okri a literary and social visionary).

Yet the question of how to recognise the heat in the pan remains challenging. As Okri explained, “If the frog is being boiled slow enough, it’s hard to say, ‘hey, we’re being boiled to death’, because the frog will say, ‘what’s the matter, it’s only summer’ or ‘it’s only room temperature’.”

Rebecca Swirsky’s fiction was included in “Best British Short Stories 2015”

The Magic Lamp: Dreams of Our Age
Ben Okri and Rosemary Clunie
Apollo, 128pp, £16.99


The varied and decorated career of author Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

Published in New Statesman 3 February 2018

The 17 stories in At The End of the Century, drawn from past collections, chronicle Jhabvala’s concern with cultural encounters, dislocation and the immigrant experience.

Few fiction writers can boast a Booker prize, two Oscars, a MacArthur “Genius Grant” and a CBE. Yet the German-Jewish author Ruth Prawer Jhabvala achieved just that, with her novel Heat and Dust (1975) and Merchant-Ivory adaptations of EM Forster’s A Room with a View (1985) and Howards End (1992) – despite casually listing writing film scripts as a “recreation” in Who’s Who.

Raised in Nazi Germany, Jhabvala spent her adolescence in London, her middle years in Delhi (bringing up three daughters with her architect husband, Cyrus Jhabvala) and her final decades in New York. By the end of her life, aged 85 in 2013, she had completed 12 novels, eight collections of short stories and 23 screenplays with Merchant Ivory Productions. A natty ear for dialogue and a sharp eye for social nuance earned her comparisons with Austen, Forster and Chekhov. She depicted the West’s infatuation with India (mainly by pairing affluent older women with charismatic gurus) as well as a middle- and lower-middle-class India seen by few foreigners. Later stories would explore the experiences of immigrant Europeans in New York; for Jhabvala, Europe would forever smell “of blood”.

Born into a comfortable middle-class family in Cologne in 1927, Jhabvala’s apartment overlooked the city’s main avenue and her grandfather was cantor to the biggest synagogue. She fled Germany with her brother and parents in 1939. A few years after the war her father committed suicide, having learned of his entire family’s death (more than 40 in number) in concentration camps. In London in 1949, she met her lifelong love, Cyrus Jhabvala (“Jhab”), a Parsee architect from New Delhi. They married and moved to India in 1951. Jhabvala was smitten by her new country, claiming: “It was like childhood, what childhood should be.”

The 17 stories in At The End of the Century, drawn from past collections, chronicle Jhabvala’s concern with cultural encounters, dislocation and the immigrant experience. Misogyny – and sensuality – bubble up through impeccably constructed prose. In “The Widow”, Durga fails to seduce a teenager – whom she describes as “a young animal full of sap and sperm” – renting one of her rooms with his family. Shamed into spirituality, urged to pray to Krishna “as a son and as a lover”, Durga duly renounces her widow’s fortune and her relatives move in, happily reaping the benefits.

In “An Experience of India”, the narrator, the wife of an unnamed journalist, is questioned by her Indian lovers about how many men she has slept with and if she is ashamed. Whether an adored spiritual guru or somebody else’s husband, at the moment of climax the men are united in shouting “Bitch!” In “Desecration”, the womanising Hindu superintendent of police, Bakhtawar Singh, has an affair with Sofia, a married Muslim woman initially described as “the sort of person who exudes happiness”. In a cheap hotel room, Sofia is told to chant Muslim prayers in time with an unseen guest while being taken from behind. At the affair’s end, Sofia commits suicide and Singh smoothly transfers to a new district.

Jhabvala’s relationship with Ismail Merchant and James Ivory began in 1961 when they suggested she write a screenplay of her 1960 novel The Householder (which she did, in eight days). They continued to work together and in 1976, no longer charmed by her host country but overwhelmed by it, Jhabvala left Delhi to lease a studio above their New York apartment. Their alliance lasted more than 40 years, with Merchant commenting on their confluence of identities: “It is a strange marriage we have at Merchant Ivory… I am an Indian Muslim, Ruth is a German Jew, and Jim is a Protestant American.”

Of screenwriting and fiction, Jhabvala always held the latter in higher regard. On the page, she could forensically explore the hair’s breadth between pleasure and pain, loss and hope. This collection does not offer happy tales – rather, stories in which the acquisition or abandonment of happiness dominate. Characters falsely believe themselves to be happy, are miserable at the cost of being happy, or are unable to account for the happiness of others.

Jhabvala never wrote directly about her past (although she once referred to it in a speech called “Disinheritance”, while accepting a 1979 Neil Gunn Fellowship for literature). Instead, her personal history is told obliquely through the violence, shattered dreams and fatalism within her fiction. The writer JM Coetzee’s words resonate: “All autobiography is storytelling; all writing is autobiography.”

At the End of the Century
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
Little, Brown, 448pp, £20