Monthly Archives: January 2013

Bartoleme, The Infanta’s Pet

Rachel Van Kooij

Little Island

9781908195265

September 2012

200pp

Whole book read

Little Island Press is an Irish publisher of quality fiction by Irish and international authors for older children and teenagers. Rachel Van Kooij, as her name suggests, is Dutch-born, but lives in Austria and writes in German. The book being reviewed was first published in 2003 and has only recently become available in an English translation (by Siobhan Parkinson).
This is a wonderfully well-paced and realised story about a young deformed dwarf who, at the start of the book, is growing up in the Spanish countryside with a father absent for long periods working in the royal court in Madrid.
All changes when the father announces that the family is to up sticks and move to the city to be with him. But he does not want to take Bartoleme with them, fearing the boy will only be ridiculed and be nothing but a source of embarrassment for the family. Eventually he agrees that Bartoleme can come, but only if he remains hidden from view at all times.
The first half of the book concerns this hidden life, and Bartlome’s determination to better himself and prove himself to others by learning to read and write. However, when an accident exposes him on the streets he is spotted by the young princess – the Infanta – who mistakes him at first for a dog, and insists on it becoming her pet plaything.
The back of the eye-catching book jacket shows a scene from Valasquez’ painting Las Meninas, the significance of which becomes cleverly apparent towards the end of a novel which is thought-provoking, moving, entertaining, life-enhancing and powered by a dignified narrative momentum. This is a book that takes the reader beyond their present-day experience and presents them with the issues faced by those who have a handicap or are otherwise physically very different from most other people.
The father is insensitive and unfeeling and has a thuggish streak – there is one upsetting scene of domestic violence – but is never depicted as a pure brute.>>

 

Snapper

Brian Kimberling

Tinder Press

9780755396207

May 2013

213pp

Whole book read

There’s a bittersweet feeling that comes when you turn the last page of a really good novel. Often it comes from the emotional power of the story, or an attachment that you have felt as an involved reader with one or more of the characters. Less frequently it comes from the knowledge that the voice of the writer has come to the end of their tale. The story is over. The voice has spoken.
And it is Brian Kimberling’s voice, as much as the story he tells in SNAPPER, that makes this such a startlingly good debut. At just over 200 pages it is a short book (by today’s standard). I read it slowly, savouring the elegantly humorous measure and fluency of its prose.
Nathan Lochmueller, the narrator, and the other characters in the book are vivid, despite there being no high drama or adventure involved in the plot. For much of the first half of the book Nathan has a job collecting bird observations on a reserve in southern Indiana, a landscape and a microclimate described with affectionate and ironic honesty. From this starting point the story unfurls backwards and forwards, involving college friends, inconsequential encounters and, not least, Lola, a free spirit with whom Nathan enjoys an on-off relationship.
Insofar as the book has plot-driven page-turning momentum, the desire to know whether or not Nathan and Lola eventually get together permanently keeps the reader wondering to the end.
I was reading a proof copy. The hardback is published in May and the paperback in August (2013). An eBook will be available in April.
At its conclusion and at its heart it is a coming of middle-age novel that leaves us realising how important it is to stay true to the spirit and energy of our youthful selves. Not all the characters in this book manage it, but it is clear that Kimberling (via his main character Nathan) is made despondent by what time does to some of us.