20 Books of Summer, #10: The Road Home by Rose Tremain #ReadingWomen

I’m taking part in the Women’s Prize for Fiction’s #ReadingWomen challenge, aiming to read all 24 previous winners of the Women’s Prize before the autumn. Now I have two left to go!

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Rose Tremain’s The Road Home won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2008. It follows Lev, an immigrant from a nameless Eastern European country, as he struggles to make a life for himself in England while sending money home to his mother and his young daughter. For much of the novel, Lev is positioned as a neutral social observer, and Tremain often seems to be using him (as well as some of the other characters that he meets) as a mouthpiece for the things she wants to say about the weirdnesses and excesses of English society. For example, when Lev goes to see an experimental new play that features a character who watches child pornography, he thinks it’s ‘disgusting’ and gets into an argument with his girlfriend, Sophie, about it:

I think it’s brilliant,” said Sophie… “it’s radical and brave and – ” 

It’s shit,” said Lev… “I understand you now. You don’t see anything! You see what is “fashion”, what is “smart”. That’s all that matters to you. Because you don’t know the world… I’m not sick, like this play. At home I have a daughter, Maya. I love this daughter – 

Who cares?” said Preece [an artist.] “That’s so not relevant. Who cares if you’ve got a daughter? This is art. This is cutting edge.”

Because of this, Lev doesn’t develop a distinctive voice or character of his own. For much of the novel, he remains a cipher, flipping between different registers depending on what Tremain wants from the interaction; which makes the one scene where he smashes out of his anodyne default even more shocking. As this argument about art heats up, he suddenly, for no obvious reason ‘grabbed Sophie and locked her body to his with his arm around her neck… She began to choke and gasp.’  Later on, when she comes round to see if he’s OK after he’s fired from his job, he rapes her. Nevertheless, the reader seems to be expected to continue keeping company with Lev as if all of this is forgivable and understandable; it’s not presented as a line that he’s crossed.

While this is horrific enough by itself, the problems with this novel run even deeper. As I’ve suggested, Tremain uses Lev to criticise certain aspects of English society, but this never amounts to a fundamental engagement with the problems of capitalism and globalisation. In other exchange where she seems to be making her characters spell out one of the messages she wants to impart, Lev is talking to Midge, the owner of an asparagus farm that employs migrant labour. Lev thinks that Midge’s Chinese employees are so happy all the time because “in England, they feel more… free than in China. And this freedom gives them happiness.” (The Chinese stereotypes in this novel are something else.) Midge replies: “Never think of our lives as “free”, do we? Think of them as one long work shift… But perhaps, in this country, we take a lot for granted.” Later, Lev is talking to a friend who works as a mortgage advisor: she comments ‘We have a mountain of personal debt in this country… in Britain, everybody wants it now, hurry-scurry: new house, new car, new fridge, new kitchen…’. This novel was published just before the financial crisis, but this message is still pretty awful: England is the promised land, and individuals’ problems are their own greedy fault. It’s notable that Lev encounters barely a jot of xenophobia throughout the whole novel, despite anti-immigrant sentiment being rife at the time; prime minister Gordon Brown made his infamous ‘British jobs for British workers’ statement the year this novel was published.

So if England is mostly all right, actually, what about the nameless country Lev has left behind, and which he still thinks of as ‘home’? The trouble is that we don’t know anything about it. Not only is it never identified, everything we do learn is generic; it’s poor, people struggle to get work, vodka is the most popular drink, Lev’s mother sews traditional things, Lev’s best friend runs a dodgy taxi business with a patched-together car. By refusing to make this country real, Tremain plays into stereotypes of a faceless, grim Eastern Europe defined solely by its Communist past, and contrasts this no-place with the opportunities offered by a England – mostly by a London – that is rendered in specific detail. As Eveline Kilian argues in her analysis of the novel, ‘There is nothing in Lev’s country that seems worth preserving: no traditions, no culture, no political ideas; it is a place with “[n]o future”‘. [1] It’s only by adopting British values that Lev can build a successful life for himself back home, opening a restaurant that he’s sure will make money because it will be ‘the first one in my country where the food will be truly good’. I can’t imagine that The Road Home felt especially timely or insightful even in 2008, and I fervently hope that it wouldn’t win the Women’s Prize if it were published today.

[1] Eveline Kilian, ‘Frames of recognition under global capitalism: Eastern European migrants in British fiction’ in Narrating Poverty and Precarity in Britain ed. Barbara Korte and Frédéric Regard (DeGruyter, 2014), p.138. [Paywalled, but you can read an extract here.]

20 Books of Summer, #7, #8 and #9: Tiamat’s Wrath, The Disaster Tourist and Notes From The Bottom of the World

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Tiamat’s Wrath is the eighth book in the Expanse series, a vast interplanetary science fiction saga with more than a little in common with George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (the two writers behind the pen name ‘James S.A. Corey’ dreamed up the world of the Expanse in a role-playing game where Martin was one of the players). Given that this is the eighth of nine planned installments, the rest of this review will inevitably contain spoilers for the first seven books of the series [highlight to read]. Tiamat’s Wrath and its immediate predecessor, Persepolis Rising, instigate a soft reboot of this very long series by skipping forward decades and refocusing on what was the central antagonist of the first few books: the protomolecule, a substance created by a long-lost alien race that has the power to rewrite the very laws of physics. This was a massive return to form, in my opinion: neither Nemesis Games or Babylon’s Ashes, the fifth and sixth entries, worked well for me because they deviated from this fascinating concept to focus on a much more mundane war. I was thrilled when I realised that Persepolis Rising was returning to the series’ original horror roots, and Tiamat’s Wrath continues in the same vein, focusing on the dangerous meddling of the new Laconian Empire. Corey also resists the temptation to expand the number of narrators as they did in some of the earlier books, making them unwieldy and confusing: sticking to a core group, all but one of which have narrated before, allows Tiamat’s Wrath to keep up its pace and tension. The ending is hugely disturbing, and having become lukewarm about the Expanse in its mid-series slump, I now can’t wait for the ninth and final book.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

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Yun Ko-eun’s The Disaster Tourist, translated from the Korean by Lizzie Buehler, follows a young woman called Yona who feels she is being gradually forced out of the company she works for, Jungle Tourism, after experiencing sexual harassment. Jungle specialise in ‘disaster tourism’, luring Korean tourists to the sites of high-profile disasters, and Yona is dispatched to assess an experience called ‘Desert Sinkhole’ in the fictional country of Mui, which Yun reportedly based on south-east Asian countries such as Vietnam and Thailand. Yona discovers that this once-popular destination is becoming less appealing because it’s perceived by its visitors as lacking authenticity; the volcano doesn’t look like what they think a volcano should look like, and the sinkhole isn’t providing the emotional experience they crave. After being accidentally left behind in Mui when her tour group depart, Yona becomes drawn into an attempt to fundamentally rebrand this tourist destination through manufacturing a new disaster, directed by a faceless corporation called Paul. It goes without saying that this novella is intended to critique the destructive tourism of wealthy outsiders, but it didn’t hit as hard as I thought it might. I wasn’t convinced by the inclusion of workplace harassment at the beginning; it seemed like one theme too many for such a short book to carry and didn’t fundamentally shape Yona’s portrayal, so I would have preferred the focus to remain with the exploitation of Mui. Even so, the intensely surreal tone meant that I felt too distanced from what was happening; it seemed so unreal that it was hard to connect with the moral questions the book raises. I wondered if, as an English reader who hasn’t read that much Korean fiction, I was missing something, and sought out this fascinating interview with the author and translator; however, Yun’s suggestion that she wanted this novel to feel like an ‘Orwellian dystopia’ confirmed that for whatever reason, The Disaster Tourist didn’t work for me.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

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Suzanne Adam’s reflections on being an American expat who has lived in Chile for forty years, Notes From The Bottom of the World, were billed as being travel writing about ‘[Chile’s] culture, its idiosyncrasies, and its exotic landscapes, from Patagonian glaciers to the northern Atacama Desert’. However, this series of very short essays – many aren’t much more than a page long – focus more on Adam’s personal experiences than her explorations of Chile, at least in the third of the book that I read. Moreover, her observations tend towards the banal and the cliched, whether she’s writing about ageing or glaciers; for example, travelling through the Patagonian fjords, she muses: ‘What draws us in the twenty-first century to visit rugged, distant places? Is it an urge for adventure in these times when few unexplored frontiers remain on this planet?’ Given that this is really life-writing rather than travel writing, I found Adam strikingly unreflective. If you want a book that combines travel-writing from the farthest south with intelligent self-narrative, I’d suggest reading Jean McNeil’s wonderful memoir Ice Diaries instead.

20 Books of Summer, #6: Swamplandia!

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Thirteen-year-old Ava Bigtree’s world is falling apart. After her mother, Hilola Bigtree, renowned alligator wrestler and the star attraction at the family’s island theme park, Swamplandia!, dies of cancer, things start unravelling. Revenues at Swamplandia! plummet and Ava’s father travels to the mainland to try and save his business. Her brother, Kiwi, defects to a rival theme park, the World of Darkness, and her sister, Osceola, falls in love with the ghost of a teenage dredgeman who was killed in the swamp in the 1930s. Ava is left alone amid the ruins of Swamplandia!, trying to hold back the infestation of melaleuca trees and watching over the ninety-eight Seths (all of the Bigtree alligators are called Seth) that populate the park. As this makes clear, Karen Russell’s first novel, Swamplandia!, exists in the same speculative space as her short stories, and it’s exactly the kind of territory I like most; weird things happen, but they feel real rather than magical realist. Russell grounds her yarn through the precise details of her swampy setting, which is an actual place – the Ten Thousand Islands off the coast of southwest Florida.

I have to say that Rebecca’s review of this novel pretty much sums up my thoughts, but I’ll try to explain why I loved Swamplandia! so much even though it’s a massive mess. It took Russell a long time to write and it shows – you can almost see the stitches that hold its disparate parts together. Ava’s narrative approximates a coming-of-age story but its relationship with reality is never quite clear; at times it seems that Russell wants us to read Ava as an intensely unreliable narrator who is bestowing magic upon Swamplandia!, at other times it seems that we’re meant to believe in what she’s recounting. Osceola’s relationship with the dredgeman ghost starts off with a bang, when she recounts the story of his death in a beautifully focused few pages that showcase Russell’s gift for set-piece, but then this thread flounders, getting wrapped up swiftly at the end as if Russell had already forgotten about it. Meanwhile, Kiwi’s more realistic travails at the World of Darkness are so straightforwardly gripping that they risk  dominating the book and robbing Ava of her agency. It’s a tricky one to call, because I enjoyed the digressions in Swamplandia! far more than the central narrative, and yet structurally they do detract from what Russell wants to say about Ava. At the same time, the untidiness of this book adds a richness to its telling.

Russell has a gift for simile and metaphor, and in her short stories, these are deployed expertly. In Swamplandia!, I felt they were, at times, used too much, especially as reading a 300+ page novel is a much more intense experience than reading a 30-page short story. Each individual idea is still brilliant, but when juxtaposed too closely together, the effect is confusing rather than illuminating. For example:

[T]he black raptors continued to map the sky. The buzzards from Ohio had migrated here too. Turning circles, as docile as party ponies around a mainland carousel. Then they fell, one by one, like little black razors, into the paurotis palms. And it was hard to see this and not think of carnage. A line of birds falling in a row. Red clouds massed in the southeast and it looked like the sky was getting its stitches out after an operation.

However, as with the book’s structure, the writing is strikingly uneven; there are whole pages and chapters that are impeccably judged, and then pages like this that feel much clunkier. Ava’s long journey into the swamp, from which this quotation comes, is especially overwritten, and this probably contributed to my sense that this segment was the weakest part of the novel.

And yet… sometimes I worry that books can be overedited, because while I can see the temptation to ‘fix’ Swamplandia!, and I definitely think that some of its sentences could be slashed and burned, I also wonder if trying to make this novel work in a more conventional way would have robbed it of some of its genius. We probably don’t need to know everything that we find out about the Bigtrees, but I wanted to know most of it anyway. And while the road there might be frustratingly meandering, the final paragraph is just perfection.

The Mid-Year Book Freakout Tag, 2020

  1. Best book you’ve read so far in 2020. This has to be Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and The Light.
  2. Best sequel you’ve read so far in 2020. Technically, this could ALSO be The Mirror and The Light, but I don’t want to be repetitive, so this goes to Natasha Pulley’s The Lost Future of Pepperharrowa totally bewitching sequel to The Watchmaker of Filigree Street that is, in my view, better than the first book.
  3. New release you haven’t read yet, but want to. I’m desperate to read Curtis Sittenfeld’s Rodham, so desperate in fact that I pre-ordered the hardback. This was my undoing, as I subsequently discovered that, in the UK, it’s available much earlier on Kindle, so now I have to pointlessly wait!
  4. Most anticipated release for the second half of the year. I’ve pre-ordered Brandon Taylor’s Real Life, which isn’t out in the UK until late August. I love the premise and it’s also received glowing reviews from bloggers I trust.
  5. Biggest disappointment. Carys Davies’s WestTechnically, I didn’t have super high expectations for this novella, which I picked up on a whim on a Kindle 99p deal, but I still can’t get over how BAD it was. I think it must be one of the worst examples of literary fiction I’ve ever read.
  6. Biggest surprise. James S.A. Corey’s Persepolis Rising. For some reason I’ve been dutifully slogging through the Expanse series, a SF epic, despite only really enjoying the first three books. However, this seventh entry instigates a kind of soft reboot of the series and takes it back to what I enjoyed in the first place. I was unexpectedly gripped!
  7. Favourite new author (debut or new to you) Mary Robinette Kowal. I loved her alternative-history women astronaut book The Calculating Stars so much that I immediately went out and bought the sequel, The Fated Sky, then read all the free short stories she has online 🙂
  8. Newest fictional crush. I have thought about this but I don’t think I’ve had any fictional crushes since I was a teenager!
  9. Newest favourite character. I loved the three female protagonists of Naomi Novik’s enchanting Spinning SilverMiryem, Wanda and Irina. Novik does such a fantastic job of giving them such distinctive first-person voices and showing how their different strengths complement each other, while allowing them all to mess up and not assuming that they’ll automatically show solidarity.
  10. Book that made you cry. I can’t remember if I actually cried, but I was devastated by the ending of Deepa Anappara’s Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line.
  11. Book that made you happy. I loved how Elisabeth Thomas’s Catherine House channelled all the spooky ESP young adult novels I read as a teenager!
  12. Most beautiful book you’ve bought so far this year (or received). Ken Liu’s edited collection of Chinese science fiction in translation, Broken Stars. The British edition is so stunning [see it here, though the picture doesn’t do justice to the gold foil!] I spent a lot of time just looking at it, and the stories are stellar as well.
  13. What books do you need to read by the end of the year? I still have 14 of my 20 Books of Summer to go, plus around another 18 books from the list I made at the beginning of the year, but I find this question works best (in terms of me actually reading the books) if I stick to a few titles. So I’ll go for: Paulina Flores’s Humiliation, Caite Dolan-Leach’s We Went To The Woods, and Nisi Shawl’s edited collection of speculative fiction by writers of colour, New Suns.

I’ve loved reading other responses to this tag, so tagging everyone else to give it a go if you haven’t already!

20 Books of Summer, #4 and #5: If I Had Your Face and Surfacing

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Frances Cha’s debut novel, If I Had Your Face, is narrated in first person by four women in their late twenties and early thirties living precarious lives in contemporary Seoul (they actually live in the Gangnam district, which is a good education for those of us who have only heard of Gangnam from the K-pop single ‘Gangnam Style’). Despite only having four narrators, it has five significant female characters, all of whom live in the same apartment building. Ara, a mute hair stylist obsessed with a K-pop icon, shares her flat with school friend Sujin, who is saving up for plastic surgery so she can be a top ‘room salon’ girl like Kyuri, who makes money by entertaining men every night. Kyuri’s flatmate, Miho, seems to have broken away from her deprived upbringing in an orphanage when she wins a scholarship to an art school in New York, but is still at the mercy of the classist judgments of other Koreans when she returns; finally, Wonna, who lives with her husband in the downstairs flat, is desperate to become a mother even though she doesn’t know how she’ll be able to make ends meet. If I Had Your Face is significantly, if not wholly, concerned with how all of these women struggle to meet conventional standards of femininity and sexuality. In this, it has something in common with Cheryl Lu-Lien’s Singapore-set Sarong Party Girls; however, the latter has a much more satirical tone, depicting women who party hard and are much more willing to break the rules in their search for the perfect husband, whereas the Korean characters in If I Had Your Face live more constrained lives.

There are flashes of memorable originality in this debut novel, but the bits that stuck with me most vividly – like Wonna accidentally blinding her cousin as a child or Ara beating up an assistant hair stylist who’s sabotaging her at work – were the incidents that didn’t really connect to the story as a whole. The novel feels a little meandering and confusing, and this is amplified by how difficult it is to tell its four narrators apart and how all four of them tend to skip backwards and forwards in time when telling their stories. I was perhaps more bothered than I ought to have been by the fact that Sujin doesn’t get to narrate, whereas Wonna doesn’t seem to fit into many of the key themes of the book and so felt like an unnecessary addition. I understand that Cha wanted to explore the fate of women who do achieve marriage to a respectable man as a counterpoint to the rest of her characters trying to survive on their own, but I felt like I’d read this story many times before. If I Had Your Face had so much potential, but it never quite pulled it together.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on July 23rd.

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Surfacing is Kathleen Jamie’s third collection of nature-writing essays, following Findings and Sightlinesboth of which I enjoyed immensely. Unlike her previous two collections, Surfacing is dominated by two novella-length pieces on archaeological digs and their relationship with the landscape around them – ‘In Quinhagak’ explores the University of Aberdeen’s excavations at the Nunalleq site near the Yup’ik village of Quinhagak in Alaska, while ‘Links of Noltland’ focuses on the excavation of Neolithic remains on Orkney. The former essay is especially interesting because of the presence of the Yup’ik community, who support the archaeological dig because it’s uncovering evidence of their pre-contact culture. As Jamie writes, ‘It’s about saying, this is yours. Everything you feared you lost, or never even knew you had. Look. It’s here. It’s back.’ The Links of Noltland dig, exploring a time unfathomably more ancient, has no such direct living connection, but the meticulous work of the archaeologists builds up a sense of what the community must have been like. At one point, Jamie is helping two of the researchers, Dan and Anna, explore a particular patch:

[Dan] had the enclosure wall to deal with and, in its lee, many flints. His patch was covered in little polythene bags, each containing a bit of flint. Anna and I, just a metre further into the enclosure, had only brown earth which yielded occasional small morsels of bone. I pretended outrage when Hazel came by. “Miss! It’s not fair! He’s getting all these finds, and we’re not.”

Hazel’s answer seemed visionary. She glanced and said, “They must have been sitting on the wall, flint-knapping.”

Sat right there on their village wall in the afternoon sunshine, working and chatting. I almost saw them.

Jamie’s writing is as clear and brilliant as ever, but this collection felt slightly unbalanced by the dominance of these two long pieces. None of the very short pieces interspersed throughout worked for me, although I enjoyed a couple of the medium-length pieces; ‘The Wind Horse’, a bit of a departure from Jamie’s usual work, evocatively returns to her travels as a young woman in Xiahe, which is formally part of China but ‘ethnically and culturally Tibetan’, and ‘Elders’ is a moving piece about the ageing and death of her dad. Unlike Sightlines, Surfacing is also less successful at pulling together Jamie’s travel-writing with her emotional reflections on her own life; both are present in this book but tend to be explored in separate essays. Nevertheless, I would recommend this thoughtful, beautiful collection, especially if you are interested in questions of historical and cultural preservation.

20 Books of Summer, #3: The Maths of Life and Death

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The Maths of Life and Death, written by Kit Yates, who is a senior lecturer in the Department of Mathematical Sciences and co-director of the Centre for Mathematical Biology at the University of Bath, aims to show that ‘maths is for everyone’ and that mathematics is ‘first and foremost, a practical tool to make sense of our complex world.‘ This is a mission that I’m definitely on board with. I’m convinced that maths is the worst taught of all school subjects in England (due to the failure of central government policies to attract and reward good teachers), leaving a lot of people with the idea that maths isn’t for them. It’s frustrating to see people who are otherwise really smart refusing to even engage with an argument if it contains numbers or anything else ‘sciency’. Yates’s book, on the whole, definitely does a good job of explaining some basic mathematical concepts simply and clearly, and showing how they are relevant in the ‘real world’. The book is almost entirely focused on statistics, and the one chapter that strays into the realm of pure mathematics – on algorithms – will probably be less accessible for the average reader. However, having a solid understanding of some basic concepts in statistics is both vital and possible for everyone, and so I think this focus works well.

I have to say that most of the examples used in The Maths of Life and Death were already familiar to me, which is probably the result of my amateur enthusiasm for statistics rather than any undue repetition on Yates’s part, although there is a certain amount of crossover with Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science. Because I’m interested in medicine, I was already familiar with the material on medical statistics covered in chapter two, and with much of the epidemiological information in chapter seven (this, of course, is not Yates’s fault, but because this chapter focuses on controlling global pandemics, it makes for a rather chilling read in the wake of Covid-19). Chapter three, on the law, retells the story of the infamous Sally Clark case, where statistics were used to ‘prove’ that the chances of experiencing two stillbirths in the same family were 1 in 73 million, and so Clark must have murdered her two children; as Yates shows, this figure could only have been arrived at through multiple statistical errors. And I already knew about the ‘birthday problem’ in chapter four, which shows that in any school class it’s more likely than not that two children share the same birthday, although I loved hearing the story of how Yates used this fact to pitch his literary agent, Chris Wellbelove, while they were having drinks in a pub:

I bet him the next round of drinks that I would be able to find two people, in the relatively quiet pub, who shared a birthday. After a quick scan of the room, he readily took me on and indeed offered to buy the next two rounds if I could find such a pair, so unlikely did he think the prospect of a match. Twenty minutes and a lot of baffled looks and superficial explanations later… I had found my pair of birthday-sharers and the drinks were on Chris.

Yates’s prose is clear and straightforward, which is absolutely necessary for a book of this type. Occasionally, when he is trying to write about the bigger implications of statistics, it becomes a bit banal, but this isn’t the case most of the time. I also liked that he explained his calculations both in the text and through the use of diagrams – I found the text easier to follow, but others would probably prefer the diagrams, so this works for everyone. All in all, I’d recommend this book as an accessible and important introduction to understanding the use and abuse of statistics.

I would like to thank Quercus for sending me a free copy of this book to review.

20 Books of Summer, #1 and #2: Brixton Hill and The Vanishing Half

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I enjoyed Lottie Moggach’s two previous social-issue literary thrillers, Kiss Me First and Under the Sunand Brixton Hill is very much in the same vein. Rob is nearing the end of a seven-year sentence for manslaughter in an open prison in Brixton; he’s now allowed out on day release to volunteer in a charity shop. Rob knows that all he has to do now is keep his head down and be on his best behaviour to secure his freedom, but an accidental encounter with Steph, an attractive, well-dressed woman, on Brixton Hill, threatens to risk all of that. Structurally, this novel, which switches between the first-person perspectives of both Rob and Steph, hits all its thriller beats. We’re kept guessing as to what Steph really wants from Rob, and how much he’s worked out about her motives, and Moggach weaves in the small clues very effectively. However, Rob’s narrative, in particular, delivers something even more interesting. Despite his many certificates from prison courses proving that he’s learnt to feel remorse and manage anger, he is uncertain about the possibility of true rehabilitation. He self-presents as a genuinely guilty perpetrator, but we are also left to judge how far his story is reliable, especially as Moggach deliberately limits how much we know about his crime. On the other hand, the novel’s depiction of life even in an open prison highlights how damaging and ineffective imprisonment is, and how difficult it is for released prisoners to aspire to anything in the world outside; the nature of Rob’s conviction means that it will never expire, and so even something like getting credit on a mobile phone purchase will always be hard for him. Brixton Hill kept me gripped, but it also left me with plenty to think about.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on July 2nd.

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I wanted to read Brit Bennett’s second novel, The Vanishing Half, despite being underwhelmed by her debut, The Mothers, because I found the synopsis so intriguing. The Vanishing Half is about identical twin sisters Desiree and Stella, born into Mallard, a Louisiana town so small that it doesn’t feature on maps, and is distinguished by having an all-black population who pride themselves on having extremely light skin. Both sisters flee Mallard in adolescence for a more promising life in New Orleans, but Desiree returns in early adulthood with her small and ‘dark’ daughter, Jude, in tow, while Stella disappears into an entirely different life, passing as white, marrying a white man, and having her own daughter, Kennedy. Bennett arguably spends too much time setting this all up in the first quarter of the novel, which is pretty slow, but once it takes off, The Vanishing Half has some very interesting things to say about race. This is brought home most vividly in the chapters written from Stella’s point of view where she negotiates a friendship with a new black neighbour in her all-white neighbourhood; having accepted the social and economic privileges bestowed upon her by adopting a white identity, she now realises painfully how this excludes her from the friendship and trust of black women.

Similarly, when the two cousins eventually and inevitably meet, they have their own understandings of what race is and means: Kennedy declares that she isn’t black, while Jude insists that Kennedy is. Both cousins’ interpretations seem rational: Kennedy has been brought up as a white woman, with access to everything that would have been denied to her were she racialised as black, but at the same time, her grandfather was still lynched by white racists, and her mother’s decision has left her estranged from her own family history. Bennett’s aim is not to adjudicate this argument, but to draw attention to how constructed and yet how real the category of race is. Jude’s long-term relationship with a trans man, Reese, seems to be designed to explore this theme further, but here I felt the novel fell short: Bennett doesn’t say enough about Reese’s life or how he understands his identity for this thread to take off. Nevertheless, this is a strong second novel that takes Bennett’s highly readable writing to the next level.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020: Final Thoughts

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I’ve now finished reading all sixteen titles on the Women’s Prize longlist – so I’m going to post my round-up even though the actual winner won’t be announced until 9th September.

If 2019 was a below-par year for the Women’s Prize, 2020, for me, was a new low. It’s made me reconsider how much energy I should put into the prize next year – much as I enjoy shadowing the prize alongside my fellow bloggers, I might return to only reading the shortlist, plus any longlisted titles that interest me.

NEVERTHELESS, there are some gems on the longlist and shortlist that deserve celebrating. Here is my  ranking of the sixteen longlisted titles, with a link to, and line from, each of my reviews.

In order of preference:

  • The Mirror and the Light: ‘this is [Mantel’s] masterpiece’.
  • Girl, Woman, Other: ‘It’s a joy to see black second-wave feminism being discussed so seriously and yet so effortlessly in a fictional context… an essential and vital read.’
  • Weather: ‘At times, I felt like [Offill] was rummaging around in my brain… profoundly disturbing but also very funny’.
  • How We Disappeared: ‘compelling… [considers] questions of truth, family and storytelling across the longue durée’.
  • Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line: ‘the first two-thirds are overlong… [but] the harrowing ending justifies much of the build-up… I’ve rarely read a final chapter that stayed with me so long’.
  • Queenie: ‘funny and frank… Queenie is hugely sympathetic, and realistically flawed… and the ending is nicely unexpected’.
  • Fleishman Is In Trouble: ‘a mess… [but] I found myself unexpectedly warming to this novel… I can see why it’s attracted so many hot takes’.
  • The Dutch Houseas ever, Patchett balances the emotional crises of her novel perfectly… [but] I was left feeling slightly underwhelmed’.
  • Hamnet: ‘O’Farrell writes so well about grief, but I found myself admiring her writing from afar rather than grieving with the characters.’
  • Actress: ‘Enright’s prose is always impeccable and frequently, startlingly good… [but] the unleavened misery of these characters was just too much for me’.
  • Dominicana: ‘I felt that Cruz did a good job of communicating the inner world of this very young woman… [but] the literary model that [she] has chosen is painfully familiar’.
  • A Thousand Ships: ‘[Haynes] delivers some brilliant set-piece chapters, but… this novel… felt too meta, too self-aware, and too convinced that it’s doing something more original than it actually is.’
  • The Most Fun We Ever Had: ‘I actually found this quite a fun, trashy read… but it’s not a novel that should be anywhere near prize lists.’
  • Red At The Bone: ‘Its prose is competent and I enjoyed the warmth that Woodson brings to her characters, but I have rarely read anything that felt so pointless.’
  • Girl: ‘I found myself thinking “what’s the point?” not because I wasn’t affected by the brutality that O’Brien depicts, but because I wasn’t sure why this had to be a novel at all.’
  • Nightingale Point: ‘In short: what were the judges thinking?’

Who do I want to win?

Hilary Mantel sweeps all before her with The Mirror and The Light. I’d bet on a third Booker win, as well.

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Who do I think will win?

Precisely because that third Booker win is in the offing, I wouldn’t put my money on the judges actually giving this prize to Mantel, although I do think she’s in with a strong chance. Interestingly, I think the prize is fairly predictable this year. Aside from Mantel, there are only two shortlisted titles I see as possible winners:

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Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other would be a very worthy winner of the Women’s Prize, and it would make up for that joint Booker win. Ironically, I think if she had won the Booker outright, she’d actually be in with less of a chance here, due to prize politics, so there must be strong odds on her.

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However, despite the superiority of the two previous titles, the book I think is most likely to actually take the prize is Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet. This is a choice that would clearly distinguish the Women’s Prize from other book prizes and make up for their neglect of O’Farrell in the past, and the book is also relatively timely (grief and plague). As an O’Farrell fan, I could live with this result, although it’s a shame that she’s finally getting attention for what I think is one of her weakest novels.

When the winner is announced on the 9th September, I will write a brief post on my reaction.

Who do you want to win the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020?

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020: The Mirror and The Light

It feels like a very long time already since I wrote about this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, but I’m back with a review of the final title on the longlist, which has since advanced to the shortlist.

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Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy, following the career of one of the most significant advisors of Henry VIII’s reign, needs no introduction. The two previous books in the series, Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodieswere intensely acclaimed, with prize juries pretty much flinging awards in their direction, and this final installment was so eagerly awaited that its publication was announced through a mysterious billboard in Leicester Square. Nevertheless, it’s taken me a little while to warm up to this series, which I read as it was released. Wolf Hall, in particular, which I’ve read one and a half times due to being unable to finish it the first time, felt like it required a level of investment from the reader that wasn’t entirely repaid. I found it difficult to understand how anyone could negotiate the intricacies of its plot without a detailed knowledge of Henrician politics (I have a history degree, and studied Tudor England and Stuart Britain as an undergraduate, but I didn’t focus closely on anything before Elizabeth I, and I admit, I struggled!) When I read Bring Up The Bodies, Mantel’s project made a lot more sense to me; this taut novel hits the ground running, building up the cast that was introduced in Wolf Hall and executing the Boleyns with vicious brilliance. And the strength and intelligence of Mantel’s prose, and of her historical insight, was never in doubt. But I was still concerned that it had taken Mantel six hundred and fifty pages to set up the dominos that she knocks down in the sequel, and the dependance of these two books on each other made it hard for me to truly adore Bring Up The Bodies.

The Mirror and The Light, however, is in a class of its own. Perhaps this sounds ridiculous given the huge success of the first two books, but for me, Mantel’s finally cracked it; she tells a very long and intricate story that doesn’t abandon any of the commitments she made in Wolf Hall or Bring Up The Bodies, which expects a lot from its reader and yet gives so much back. This book may be nine hundred pages long, but in many ways, it’s a lot more accessible than its predecessors. I don’t think you actually have to have read either of the previous Cromwell novels nor have a strong knowledge of Tudor history to be totally immersed in this wonderful novel. As long as you know that Cromwell rose from a humble background to become an advisor to Henry, that he was a big fan of previous advisor Cardinal Wolsey, that Cromwell was instrumental in the fall of Anne Boleyn, Henry’s second wife, and a supporter of Henry’s break with Rome and of reformed religion, you’d probably be fine. Mantel also references the previous novels frequently throughout her text; for example, Cromwell is haunted by the final days of George Boleyn despite his expressed disgust for his character, and relives them several times. While I don’t think this was her intention, it’s handy for the new reader or for readers (like myself) who read the other two novels long enough ago to have forgotten a lot.

This also points to one central concern of The Mirror and The Light: time and memory. There are a number of long, beautiful interludes in the novel where Cromwell explicitly reflects on the subject, and where the past and present collapse as he views England as a palimpsest:

Don’t look back, he had told the king: yet he too is guilty of retrospection as the light fades, in that hour in winter or summer before they bring in the candles… when the page grows dim and letter forms elide and slip into other conformations, so that as the page is turned the old story slides from sight… From the top of Wayneflete’s tower, the countryside beneath him was more imagined than real, stretching away in the darkness. It will soon be All Hallows, he thought. It seemed to him time had shuddered and slowed, as if the transit of heavenly bodies was retarded by the catastrophe that had overtaken his master and all England.

While I was reading this novel, I also read a co-authored article in the American Historical Review about the concept of ‘generation’ where the early modernist Alexandra Walsham argues that

the Protestant Reformation… profoundly reconfigured the relationship between the living and the dead: one consequence of its theology was to sever the inhabitants of these two realms from each other and to deny that there could be any kind of communication or interaction between them.[1]

This statement haunted me while I inhabited the world of Thomas Cromwell, who was as fierce an advocate as any of removing customs such as indulgences. (Indulgences imagined that, for example, the wealthy could donate money to charitable works and reduce the amount of time deceased relatives had to spend in purgatory – and so their abolition suggested that the living could no longer give any help to the dead.) Nevertheless, Cromwell is haunted by the dead, including those, like George Boleyn, where he was at least partly responsible for their fall; the reference to All Hallows Eve in the quotation from the novel above refers to the idea that this was a day on which the veil between the worlds was especially thin.

The Mirror and the Light also expands upon the vision of early modern monarchy that was imagined in Bring Up The Bodies, where, in one especially memorable scene, Henry is believed to be dead in a jousting accident, and the court is shaken to its foundations. As I wrote in my review of Bring Up The Bodies, Mantel explores Henry’s kingship through ‘the vivid early modern metaphor of the king’s earthly body becoming parallel to the kingdom’s single body, united in law and loyalty to the monarch’ and, in The Mirror and the Light, because of Cromwell’s ever-increasing closeness to the monarch, we see more of the toll this takes on Henry. Mantel’s characterisation of Henry is superb: he’s both very smart and dangerously mercurial, unable to understand the impact that a chance statement can have on the politics of his court. But while not excusing his personal brutality, we also see the weight he carries, with the health of his ageing body directly identified with the health of the realm. As he says to Cromwell, ‘All my life, to be a prince… to unmake myself as a man in order to make myself a king… When I was a young man I suppose I showed the calf of my leg to an ambassador and said, “There, has your French king a calf as good as that?” And my words were reported, and all Europe laughed at me… But being young I asked myself, if God had formed Francois better than me, which prince did He favour most?’

It’s impossible to do such a novel justice in a single review (and this one is long enough!); it took me a month to read it and I still miss it now it’s over. I won’t be surprised if Mantel sweeps all the prizes again with this one, and she would deserve it, for this is her masterpiece.

My next Women’s Prize for Fiction post, on Monday, will be my ranking of all sixteen titles on the longlist, and an extremely surprising announcement of which book I’d like to win the prize this year (Thomas Cromwell Rules OK).

[1] Abosede George, Clive Glaser, Margaret D. Jacobs, Chitra Joshi, Emily Marker, Alexandra Walsham, Wang Zheng, and Bernd Weisbrod, ‘AHR Conversation: Each Generation Writes Its Own History of Generations,’ American Historical Review 123, 5, December 2018, p.1522. [paywalled]

I’m aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist this year. This is number sixteen. I’ve already read Girl, Woman, Other; The Dutch House; QueenieDjinn Patrol on the Purple Line; Nightingale Point; Dominicana; Girl; How We DisappearedA Thousand ShipsHamnet; Actress; WeatherFleishman Is In Trouble; Red at the Boneand The Most Fun We Ever Had.

Wolfson History Prize Blog Tour: The Five

I was delighted to be invited to take part in the blog tour for the Wolfson History Prize for the second year running. The Prize celebrates historical writing which ‘combines excellence in research with readability’ and you can see the full 2020 shortlist here.

The winner of the Prize will be announced on Monday 15 June 2020 in a virtual ceremony.

Today I’ll be reviewing one of the shortlisted titles, Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper, which fits nicely with my teaching interests (I don’t focus on the nineteenth century in my own research, but have taught a number of undergraduate modules on gender and sexuality in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Britain.)

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The obsessive study of Jack the Ripper, or ‘Ripperology’, has been a persistent if unpleasant trend since the series of Ripper murders were committed in Whitechapel in 1888. The Bishopsgate Institute, located in Spitalfields, holds a collection of more than three hundred books on the Ripper (though to be fair, when I toured their archives, they seemed pretty embarrassed by this, and much more keen to talk about their brilliant collections of LGBT+ and protest history). In The Five, Rubenhold wants to face firmly away from this accumulation of misogynist morbidity and focus on the lives of the five women believed to have been killed by Jack the Ripper: Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Kate and Mary Jane. To be honest, it’s a great idea for a joint biography even without the aim of debunking Ripper myths: we often think about the diverging life courses of people who started in the same place, but here we have five women who started in very different places but came to the same end. It makes the five life stories that Rubenhold presents feel increasingly claustrophobic, as each bottlenecks towards its descent.

One hugely important result of this is to blow apart Victorian myths of what social investigators called the ‘residuum’, the people who lived in the very worst circumstances, skirting between criminality and vagrancy in the inner cities. Rubenhold shows that we cannot think of the nineteenth-century poor as a miserable, identical mass. Several of these five women – who experienced their childhoods in the period before the establishment of compulsory universal elementary education in England in 1870 – were literate. Polly spent much of her adult life in one of the model Peabody estates built to hasten slum clearance, which only admitted working-class residents seen to be of exceptional character and industry. Elizabeth was an immigrant from Sweden. Annie was the daughter of a cavalry trooper, growing up between London and Windsor barracks where ‘the sight of landaus filled with ladies in expensive silk bonnets and titled gentleman whose uniforms clanked with medals would have seemed an ordinary occurrence’. Kate often made a living, alongside her husband, as a chapbook seller and street singer. Mary Jane, the last of the five victims, offered other women sanctuary from the streets when she heard about the Whitechapel murders, and was heard singing in her room for more than an hour on the night she herself was killed. The Five brings home the fragility of Victorian respectability, familiar to academic historians of this period, to a popular audience, indicating how easy it was for working-class support systems to fail, even among the families of the most skilled craftsmen.

The Five is also concerned with shattering a myth that is central to Ripperology, and which remains the one thing that most people know about Jack the Ripper’s victims: the assumption, made by the press at the time, that the Ripper deliberately targeted prostitutes. Rubenhold argues that four out of five of the victims did not regularly engage in selling sex, and therefore, this framework, which contributes to the gruesome notoriety of this series of murders, is wrong. But, as Rubenhold makes clear in her conclusion to this book, the word ‘prostitute’ did not have a straightforward meaning in Victorian England. Selling sex has never been illegal in England, so to be convicted as a ‘common prostitute’ [the legal term which was used at the time] under the Vagrancy Act of 1824, you needed to also be behaving in a ‘riotous or indecent manner’ in pubic. However, because these two claims (soliciting and bad behaviour) needed to be combined for a charge to be brought against you, the identification of which women were ‘common prostitutes’ was to a large extent left to the judgement of the police.  ‘Common prostitute’, therefore, became a legal category that ‘manufactured prostitutes’, in the words of the first female inspector of women’s prisons in 1918: it was not an offence to be a prostitute, but once you were designated as such, you could be accused of crimes that other women could not commit. [1]

As Rubenhold writes in her conclusion: ‘very few authorities, including the Metropolitan Police, could agree as to what exactly constituted a “prostitute” and how she might be identified’ as the moral codes of the time did not firmly distinguish between casual sex outside wedlock and sex work. She emphasises that four out of the five women were not legally labelled as ‘common prostitutes’, and that there is also little evidence that they engaged in ‘casual prostitution’. Nevertheless, I was a little concerned by the way that this argument was handled throughout the course of The Five. In the four sections that deal with these women, Rubenhold spends quite a lot of time emphasising that they were not prostitutes, and her return to the subject in the conclusion seems to frame it as a central finding of the book. Moreover, it’s only in the conclusion itself that Rubenhold explores the contested meaning of the word ‘prostitute’ in the nineteenth century in detail; before that, the casual reader would likely think that ‘prostitute’ = ‘sex worker’. In short, I worried that, by putting so much emphasis on this issue, Rubenhold was giving ground to the Ripperologists by debunking a claim that they clearly consider to be important. But ultimately, it should not matter whether or not these women sold sex. The Five is a significant book for so many other reasons; there’s no need to lean on this one.

Make sure to check out the other stops on this blog tour as it enters its second week:

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[1] Julia Laite, ‘Taking Nellie Johnson’s fingerprints: prostitutes and legal identity in early twentieth-century London’History Workshop Journal, 65, 1 (2008), paywalled.