“captures the rhythms and nuances of how we live now in a way that has rarely been done better” LA Books Examiner (read full review)
“Holloway’s accomplishment is in rendering a world in exquisite detail and still conveying the universal via the personal.” Emprise Review (read full review)
“a lovely book written in that rare thing: beautiful, lyrical prose.” Jane Smith, The Self-Publishing Review (read full review)
“Songs From the Other Side of the Wall is a *very* good book” Erica Friedman, Yurikon publishing (read full review)
“genuine promise”, Scott Pack, Harper Collins Fifth Estate/The Friday Project (read full review)
“In threads that shimmer like the novel’s central image of petrol-colored silk, what could have been weaves itself into every situation.” Pank (read full review)
In the Top 10 DRM-free ebooks for Christmas 2009 at ebooksjustpublished
After her mother walks out and returns to England when she’s just a week old, Szandi grows up on the vineyard in Hungary that has been in her family for 300 years. Now 18, Szandi is part of Budapest’s cosmopolitan art scene, sharing a flat and a bohemian lifestyle with her lover and fellow sculptress, Yang. She has finally found her place in the world. When she discovers that her father has only weeks to live, Szandi must choose once and for all: between the past and the present; between East and West; between her family and her lover.
Songs from the Other Side of the Wall is a coming of age story that inhabits anti-capitalist chatrooms and ancient wine cellars, seedy bars and dreaming spires; and takes us on a remarkable journey across Europe and cyberspace in the company of rock stars and dropouts, diaries that appear from nowhere, a telepathic fashion mogul, and the talking statue of a bull.
Praise for Songs from the Other Side of the Wall
“You write extremely well – with a wonderful turn of phrase and descriptive abilities which make for an atmospheric read.”
Melissa Weatherill, Simon and Schuster
“Your voice is very fresh and original…Sandrine is an engaging, intriguing narrator…Your writing is extremely good, very lyrical but always with the aim of moving the story on.”
“An artful style, with some very striking moments…The parallelism of a person and a country coming of age; the past’s haunting of the present in both; the hopes and fears of different generations: all these are rich veins that you exploit well, and provide a fascinating core to the book”
All other reviews
I wandered down the corridor towards the student café. A group of people chattered in front of me. The café was behind a pair of blue fire doors with mesh-glass portholes. I swung them open. Inside was the same grey vinyl floor. The lack of colour on the walls surprised me. Eventually, though, among the grey-backed chairs and formica tables, my eye settled on a daub of blue. It was a loose cut T-shirt. Whoever was wearing it had their head in a book.
I was still looking when the book lowered to reveal Yang.
I felt my skin crackle as it drew electricity from her.
She saw me staring and smiled, beckoning me to join her with a flick of her head. Her black hair shimmered as it moved.
I went over. She kicked a chair out from opposite her, and I sat down.
“I remember you from applications,” she said in perfect English.
“You had some sort of neon and Perspex thing, right?”
“This is the moment my life changed.”
“I imagine there’s a story behind that.”
“Sure there’s a story behind it,” I said, and searched around for another subject. “What are you reading?”
“It’s by a Hungarian author, in English.”
“With a Hungarian title.”
“Yup!” She grinned at me. Her face formed tiny wrinkles of suede-brown in her soft skin. I wanted to touch her face and see if it had the texture of cashmere.
“Sounds as fucked up as me!”
She laughed, then the creases fell back into place. Her face was like a pale yellow pool.
“I’m Sandrine. Hungarian. French name, English mother. I can speak all three – in the same sentence if I’m drunk. You can call me Szandi with a Z if you’d rather.”
“Zhang Yang. Three quarters Chinese, but I can’t speak it. Don’t know about the rest, my family moved around too much. You can call me Yang.” She held out her hand.
I took it. A ball of something shot up my arm and into my stomach. I felt my mouth open and a breath escape. I knew if I looked into her eyes I’d faint. I stared at her book instead.
“What’s it about?”
“It’s erotica,” she said. I kept my gaze on the book but I could feel her eyes peeling back my skin, prising it off my flesh and crawling underneath. Their heat came out through my pores. “It’s set in a vineyard in Tokaj.”
“My father has a vineyard in Tokaj,” I said.
“And does anything erotic happen there?”
I watched my hands playing with the strap of my bag.
“Sorry,” she said, and reached her hand across, taking my left wrist and pulling it onto the table. “I’ve said something I shouldn’t.” Her touch spread up my arm and over my body like a fever. The tears I’d bottled up for Claire burst out of me, burning the surface of my skin, and Yang’s gaze burned it from underneath.
“Come on,” she said, pulling me, but my body wouldn’t respond. It didn’t matter. Her strength was brutal. My legs were straight, my feet almost pulled off the floor, and before I could orient myself I was running down the corridor behind her.
Soon we were out in the street, running through the crowds back towards the river; across the bridge towards Viziváros, then we were back inside. More stairs; narrow stairs; a door. She let go of my hand and I crumpled to the floor. I put my hands over my face. Tears pushed through the cracks of my fingers like oil coating an engine.
I curled myself up so small – like I was trying to fold myself over and over again – I could feel Yang surround me completely. Her body formed itself into the shape of mine and moved with each sob and gasp and ragged breath, like she was reaching into every part of me and sucking out the last drop of poison. She didn’t speak. She didn’t move, except in time with me.
Eventually she pulled slowly away, sat next to me, took in a huge breath, and exhaled for what seemed like forever.
“Did you leave someone behind?” she asked, quietly.
I wondered for a moment if I’d start crying again but I didn’t. I was dry, and hollow, and brittle. “Claire,” I said without thinking. I looked up as I realised what I’d said, and pulled back. My mouth opened but nothing came out.
“You’re gay?” she asked casually.
“Yes,” I said.
We laughed, awkwardly at first, then big, expansive, convulsive laughs from the pit of the belly.
“Tell me about her,” she said. “Unless you want to go.”
“No. No, I’m fine here.”
“Well you’d better not stay literally there,” she said, standing up and offering her hand. “You’ll get cramp on the floor.”
I stood up and looked around for the first time. It seemed like I was in a giant studio rather than a flat. Against one wall there was a sofa, and I could see a kettle, wine, some glasses, and a sink – although that was brimming with paint rollers and things made of plastic, metal and wood I could only guess were sculpting tools. Aside from that there was no sign of anything you’d expect to see in a regular house. The wooden floor was splattered with paint stains that made it look like a giant Jackson Pollock, and the paint on the walls and ceiling was coming away in blotches. It looked like the room was covered in scabs that Yang picked at when she couldn’t find inspiration.
It was hard to tell what she was working on and what was junk. The centre of the room was empty, but there were bits of coloured, twisted plastic round the edges. I could see a couple of large cans of propane, so I figured maybe at least some of the damage was intentional; exactly what the intention was I couldn’t say.
Yang was on the sofa by now. She had a bottle of uncorked Eger Bikaver in one hand and a couple of glasses by her feet. She watched me scouting out her studio as she poured. The corners of her mouth turned slightly up.
“There you go,” she said eventually, holding out a full glass that had a dribble of the deep Bulls Blood running down the side.
I took it and sat down, slugging a good mouthful down so I didn’t spill it everywhere. The tannins hit the top of my mouth and the back of my throat together and made me gasp for air.
Yang smiled. “Sour cherries,” she said out of nowhere.
“It’s not that bad,” I said.
“The sculptures, dumbass! I’m working on a collection called Sour Cherries.”
I could see a group of bright red pieces of exploded plastic that I guessed were what she meant.
She reached down the sofa and took out an old, battered tobacco tin, opened the lid and started making up a spliff. I watched her fingers working, as quick and skilful as if she were bending an armature or playing the piano.
“Tell me about Claire,” she said, without raising her head or seeming to break her concentration.
“It sounds stupid.”
“Don’t go all self-pity on me.” She finished rolling, held up the joint like she was inspecting a precision-machined part, and pinched in the end. “Nothing’s stupid. Things either matter or they don’t. It sounded earlier like she mattered.” She put the joint in her mouth, flipped open a Zippo and lit the curl of paper at the end. I watched her tease the smoke around her mouth. For a few seconds all I thought was God I want that to be my tongue and I couldn’t breathe. She exhaled and held it out to me like it was a fragile flower.
“Better not. I’m too unstable today as it is.”
“So Claire, huh?” She took another draw.
“Damn! There’s nothing like starting at the beginning.”
“I think that is the beginning,” I said.
“You’re strange, you know? That’s good. So rewind and tell me how you met this Claire.”
“We never actually met.” Even to me it sounded odd.
“But you loved her so much you spend half a day crying over her?”
“I can’t explain it, even to myself sometimes. It’s like the soldiers the British and French sent to the South Pacific to supervise the A-bomb tests in the 50s. They were told to look away, to shield their eyes, but some of them didn’t get it quite right. For a fraction of a second they looked when they shouldn’t and what they saw burnt their retinas out. Now, whether their eyes are open or shut, whether they’re dreaming or awake, they can’t see anything except that flash of white light. Only it’s not white at all; it’s absolutely black.”
“Babe, you should be an artist!” she said, and inhaled deeply.
“I woke up one morning. I was seventeen. I was going to see Mum for the first time since I was a week old. She was coming on work – she’s an academic – and she had a researcher with her, Claire. I opened the window. Claire was standing on the path through the vineyard, looking up at my window, and she’s been burned into me ever since. She’s this bright, bright light on the back of my eyelids wherever I go. Only it’s not light; it’s absolutely black. Does that make sense?”
“Really? You think it’s possible to fall in love just like that and life never be the same again?”
“Of course. But why did you never meet her? Like, over breakfast or something?”
“By the time I went to breakfast she’d gone. Mum took her away.”
“And you never saw her again?”
“Yeah, I saw her again. Just before she died. No. Just as she died.”
“I think she saw me. I think she was looking at me. We were opposite sides of a huge crowd. It was in Bucharest, at New Year.”
“In the riots?”
“She was the Brit girl killed in the riots? Fuck! That takes some getting over.”
“It would have done. But like I said, that’s really only where it started.” It was too late to go back. “The night she died I met a man.”
Yang raised an eyebrow. I could see her straining not to make a smartarse remark.
“You know what I think?” she asked when I was finished.
“You think I’m nuts.”
“No. I think you should make it into a sculpture.”
“Make what into a sculpture?”
“Claire. This guy. Blue silk. Your window. The whole fucking lot of it.”
She was right. I needed to put everything into my sculpture.
“You know what to do, don’t you?” she said.
“I’m not sure.”
Yang leaned towards me. She put the palm of her hand on my stomach. I felt a spasm across my skin.
“You’ve got to take what’s in there,” she said. “Put it in your hands and lift it; very carefully, so it comes out whole. It’s just balance, Szandi. Like you’re handling the most fragile thing in the world. That’s all there is to it. Then you’ll have your sculpture; and the knot in here will be gone forever. But you mustn’t let anything break off on the way, or it’ll shatter into a thousand pieces and take you over like cancer.”
“I don’t think I’m ready to go there yet,” I said.
“If you’re going to be an artist you have to go there. Of course, it helps to have someone waiting to call you in if things get scary.”
“That’s a rather old fashioned way to look at art,” I said.
“I guess. Kind of Tracey Emin.”
“That’s it!” I stood up. My legs were carrying me to the door. My mind raced over Claire’s letter, her description of going to see Everyone I Have Ever Slept with 1963-1995, of waking, briefly, as if from a dream when she saw it.
“Hey, stop running there, Lola!”
“It’s OK,” I said. “I’ve got it. The sculpture. I’m going to build a tent out of blue silk; and I’m going to cut letters out of blue silk, and sew them to the inside of the tent with blue silk thread. I’ll call it Everyone I have ever Seen From my Bedroom Window 1989-2007.”
“You see,” she said. “You’re ready.”
I was nearly at the door by now, hoping I knew the streets of Viziváros well enough to find my way straight back. I needed to start sketching and planning. “Listen, can I call you if I need help? I mean, thank you. You’ve been fantastic, but I don’t know if I could have come up with this if it hadn’t been for you; and I’ve got no idea if I can follow it through, so…”
“It’s fine,” she said. “I guess I’m your muse.” She laughed and lay back on the sofa. The laughter faded. I watched her stomach quiver, the movement less and less as she closed her eyes. Her T-shirt had ridden up when she fell backwards, and I could see the yellow-brown skin of her belly, changing colour in the light as it moved with her breaths. “Seriously,” she said, drawing the syllables out like she was on the verge of sleep. She opened her eyes, just, and I wondered if they registered how I was staring. “I’m already thinking of it as my little project.”
“Can I take your number?”
“Eh?” Her eyes were closed again. “Oh. Number. Yeah. I’m feeling a bit tired. Not sure I can remember. Mobile’s over there by the sink. Call yourself from it.”
I did as she said. I pressed refuse the moment the opening chords of Smells Like Teen Spirit came from my phone, but there was no need. Yang was fast asleep.