#RivetingReviews: Rosie Goldsmith reviews MY FATHER WAS A MAN ON LAND AND A WHALE IN WATER by Michelle Steinbeck

The cover describes Michelle Steinbeck’s debut novel as a Freudian fairy tale in ‘absurdist prose fluctuating between panic and the comical’. Thank goodness for helpful cover quotes, otherwise I might not have got past the first page of this strange book. I’m glad I did. It’s fresh, funny and disturbing, a terrifying coming-of-age novel and a picture of hell, channelling Hieronymous Bosch and the magical, shiny brilliance of Angela Carter.

Our first-person narrator, Loribeth (Lori), is wading through nightmares on a journey across land and water, with a heavy suitcase. Inside the suitcase is a dead child. Lori meets an old soothsayer in a cemetery stroking a furry lizard, who tells her she must find her estranged father, ‘a man of letters, who writes books’, who is the owner of the suitcase. ‘The father stands in your way, he’s blocking the lucky cards. The highest Fortune card is there, and the Triumph card too! Give the father back his suitcase and you shall be showered with love, fame and gold.’

Poor Lori carting around her suitcase, her head full of horrors. But this is clearly a journey she has to undertake. There are paths and goals, arrivals and departures, decisions and meetings with significant people. As readers we suspect that there is meaning to all this, that struggle is good, battles must be won, obstacles overcome, dragons slayed. It is a highly moralistic tale, psychologically profound and youthfully idealistic.

Such a slim volume and so densely packed with crows, old men with stumps, burning houses, Lori’s constant hunger, markets selling ears and mountains of teeth. And a sense of wonder at Michelle Steinbeck’s ideas and writing, all in the pacey present tense. She loves language and invention but roots her story in enough reality for us to recognise ourselves. Brava Jen Calleja for her sharp translation of complex ideas and juxtapositions. Rendering these and the inside of Lori’s disturbed mind can’t have been easy.

There’s hope as Lori flirts on board ship with a man with spindly legs and red shorts. They discuss the child they might have in the future, although she loathes children. But no, it’s not meant to be; he’s not the one she is searching for. She shuts the suitcase with the rotting child inside and moves on. The ship is caught in a storm and we are soothed with maritime quotes.

Lori meets her father on ‘theisland of fleeting fathers’, and the prose changes, becoming more expansive and sedate, calmly exploring the father-daughter relationship. As characters become older and settle down, the prose settles too. But settles into what? All her life Lori has tried to escape dullness and dreariness: ‘I always want to be somewhere else, never the place where I am. But what good is going somewhere else? I always take myself with me.’

Lori is a restless, demanding narrator in her quest for the meaning of her life. She wants sunshine and happiness, without responsibility or attachments, but at a cost.

This is one of the most audacious, exuberant and thrilling novels I’ve read for a long time, even if it is disturbing and bizarre. It is a modernist, magical mash-up about families, home, identity and, ultimately, happiness.

Reviewed by Rosie Goldsmith


Written by Michelle Steinbeck

Translated by Jen Calleja

Published by Darf Publications (2018)

Rosie Goldsmith is Director of the European Literature Network. She was a BBC senior broadcaster for 20 years and is today an arts journalist, presenter, linguist, and with Max Easterman a media trainer for ‘Sounds Right’.

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Photo of Michelle Steinbeck © Affolter/Savolainen

Category: The Swiss RiveterReviewsDecember 2018 - The Swiss Riveter


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