Prague 1938 is literary fiction documenting the coming of age of a young man during the turbulent period before the second world war. Written in the first person and using the medium of memoir it explores every aspect of what it means to be Bohemian and to belong. Meticulous research is handled with delicacy and an unapologetic truthfulness that lends poignancy to the text.
To capture something indefinable of a past age is a goal of a good many literary novelists. I can think of any number who succeed in giving us a taste of days lost, and much historical entertainment relies on our complicity in ignoring the edges, the places of poor fit, the styrofoam cups on the table of our enjoyment: long may we continue to oblige.
This is something more. In this novel Dara Kavanagh captures the underlying, sickening, tension and uncertainty as Czechoslovakia fragments, and on this unsteady ground he takes his protagonist through his turbulent teenage years, dancing between a birth of desire and a search for truth. We are trapped as we travel with him, constantly assessing and reassessing relationships, trying to find the right way to be. There are no easy answers here and no ignoring the internal and external pressures. This is a novel of beauty and darkness and one of the best explorations of the young adult mind in recent contemporary fiction.
I’m aware as I write this that the novel could equally be seen as an elegy for home or an essay on the nature of evil, which as Auden states is unspectacular, and always human, sharing our bed and eating at our own table. There is no untangling the human heart. The word which springs to mind is “heft” but I wouldn’t want to give the wrong impression. The prose fairly dances along and – apart from the occasional misstep – it takes us with it effortlessly. I did have a small concern that a novel coming from a poet might have a tendency towards the overblown; it does not. There were passages with Proustian elegance but they recall him to mind like a song on the wind, a remembrance of things past.
We come to the criticisms. I have turned this over in my mind and only the one prevails. There are one or two passages of dialogue where the speakers are not adequately indicated, and these have a tendency to throw the rider out of the race and the reader out of his reverie. This is a shame, but in the scale of things – and this novel is written with some scale – it is almost too little to mention.
Prague 1938 is written by Dara Kavanagh and published by Dedalus books, 2021.
This book is a vibrant and visceral song of India. Part biography and part embellishment, it weaves through the lives of both its narrators, charting a path from pain to acceptance, reflecting on the nature of purpose and calling and what it means to be truly present; truly human; alive.
In the dust and glory of this story there is great peace and hope. The narrative prowls the line between life and death with the sure-footedness of the tiger and all the colours of Maharashtra flood the pages. It is a beautiful exploration of need and man, examining the ties that bind us and the desires which drive us, laying them as bare as the earth before the rains.
In choosing to enter into the life story of Bibhuti Nayak, the writer has found a cause which resonates deeply in the heart of Navi Mumbai. A multiple record holder and tireless worker for the health and welfare of others, Nayak seeks to demonstrate what can be accomplished with perseverance and determination, and he does so for those whose lives demand determination on a daily basis if they are to continue. Nayak takes his place as hope-bringer, perhaps the highest title to which any of us can aspire.
There is foolishness and thoughtlessness, there is great love and great sacrifice, and there is wonderful flawed humanity; it boils from the page in the summer heat.
It is worth reading this book simply for the craftsmanship with which the writer drip-feeds information, gently leading us in the search for purpose, or for the poetry of symmetry with which he balances the plot, making each new revelation startling yet inevitable. It is to his credit that his guidance is always gentle, taking a backseat to the development of character. You should read this story for its richness, its beauty and its stunning sense of resolution. This is a powerful work beautifully written.
Stephen Kelman is the Man Booker-shortlisted author of Pigeon English. His new book Man on Fire will be published by Bloomsbury on 13th August 2015.
He can be found on Twitter @stephen_kelman
This is an emotionally complex, chilling, and compelling read. The author takes the Dystopian genre and the YA Fiction genre and slams them together to produce anything but simplicity. What initially seems to be a first person narrative written by an undeveloped writer, turns out to be an essay in selfishness through the eyes of an extremely broken protagonist. Again and again the world proves to be the author and creator of its own destruction, not least in the creation of its flawed beacon of hope.
This is a disturbing read which will stay with you long after you have read it. The unsettling nature of the work stems largely from the psychological truth in the actions of its characters. We are forced to face the reality of desperation. We are made to ask ourselves if we would fare better. Would we make similar choices? We are made to ask ourselves if we are capable of terrible things. The truth is that under certain circumstances we all are. It’s not an easy thought to take tea with.
I left this book understanding but not liking any of the characters. This is not a bad thing. The characters are extremely well constructed and we have to take into account the inability of the protagonist to make sense of her world. The information we receive is filtered through a shattered looking glass and the struggle to piece it together is evident throughout the story. People will have different reactions and take different things from this tale. I had to take away confirmation of the struggle with brokenness and darkness in all of us. I had to ask myself whether I was disliking people for who they are or humanity for what it is.
The story drives you forward in a bid to gain comprehension. We seek to eat the apple of the tree of knowledge and are damned.
Read it. You won’t forget it.
Michael Daviot is a barely contained explosion of a poet.
He relies heavily on stress and the sometimes pounding rhythm of his poetry drives the meaning forward. He favours strong emotive language and minimal punctuation, allowing the free lines and the consonance to speak for itself. Unusually for a poet versed in performance his work engages shape and contour on the page in a way that supports the intent of his poetry.
The overarching feeling is that of an uneasy intelligence kicking at the bars of conventionality, capable of great frustration as well as great gentleness.
This is well read but not derivative work.
If there is a flaw, and it’s a small one, he can sometimes fall into the feeling of being over studied. But here I am talking about the odd line and the odd occasion.
This is work that shines brighter with performance and if you get the opportunity to hear him read his work I encourage you to do so.
You might want to take body armour.
You can find him on twitter @MDaviot
and he is a regular performer at the Speakeasy in Edinburgh @SpeakeasyEd