Holiday Reading in the USA, Part Two

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One of the key goals of my trip to the US was to buy a copy of Tana French’s latest novel, The Witch Elm, and get it back to the UK (not easy with a very big hardback book and a very limited baggage allowance). As readers of this blog will know, I am a huge fan of Tana French’s literary crime writing, and am always trying to recruit people to my cult (my success rate is high). Her first six novels were all focused on detectives working in the Dublin Murder Squad, making The Witch Elm her first stand-alone, although it retains the Dublin setting. Our narrator, Toby, has lived a life that he describes as ‘lucky’ and we might describe as ‘privileged’; as a white, middle-class, straight man, he has no structural barriers to overcome until the moment two burglars break into his flat and beat him brutally, leaving him dealing with neurological disabilities. While still trying to get back on his feet, he goes to stay with his dying uncle Hugo, and reunites with his two cousins, Susanna and Leon. But when a skeleton is discovered in the wych elm in Hugo’s garden, Toby realises that his gilded past might not have been as fortunate as he thought.

While the quality of French’s writing shows no sign of diminishing, I felt that The Witch Elm ranked alongside my least favourite of the Dublin Murder Squad novels, rather than with the best; in theme and accomplishment, it’s most similar to French’s debut, In the Woods. One thing that was lacking for me was the interplay of genre and literary conventions that marks out the most brilliant of French’s novels; by discarding the police procedural elements, French ends up writing a much more straightforward literary novel that is more reminiscent of The Secret History and its many imitators  than crime fiction. I missed this tension, which French handles so well – although after reading her first six novels multiple times, I felt that I could almost read the minds of the policemen who interrogate Toby and his family, and found myself wondering which strategies and masks they were using, which was fun 🙂

Moreover, although The Witch Elm’s message about privilege is powerful, I felt it was a bit too clearly spelt out, especially near the end of the novel, when Toby is carefully lectured by Susanna and Leon. Earlier scenes, such as Toby’s attitude to the ‘urban youth’ whose art he is meant to be promoting as part of his job – he sees the whole endeavour as a politically correct racket – make the point about his character much more subtly. Nevertheless, the dissolution of Toby’s very self as he realises he can no longer rely on being seen as a ‘blank slate’ – that he is now being judged by his stammer, his twitches and his pauses – is very well done. Toby can’t understand who he is now he is seen by society as a ‘disabled man’ rather than simply as a person; he’s lost his ability to imagine himself as anything he wants to be, and now can’t imagine himself as anything at all.

Anne Charnock’s Dreams Before The Start Of Time combines the artificial wombs of Helen Sedgwick’s The Growing Season with the single-parent babies of Angela Chadwick’s XX to present a series of vignettes across three generations that consider how both new technologies and changing social norms transform child-bearing and child-rearing. This short book is deceptively easy to read, but I felt like little of it was sticking with me; books that jump forward in time like this often end up making the characters’ children and grandchildren into no more than a list of names, a problem that was also obvious in Laura Barnett’s The Versions of Us. I liked the fact that Charnock mixed together a series of advances rather than focusing on a single ‘what-if’ scenario, but she didn’t really give herself the space to consider these alternative realities in enough depth.

I came across Robin Oliveira’s My Name Is Mary Suttera historical novel about a midwife wanting to train as a surgeon who ends up nursing wounded soldiers in DC in the midst of the American Civil War, on Claire’s blog. The novel is not only hard-hitting but almost tragic, in the Greek sense; Oliveira seems determined to force Mary to a point where she literally has only herself to rely on, where she must completely re-examine the initial determination to receive medical training that drove her to this point. As with Lissa Evans’s Old Baggage, I enjoyed reading about a female protagonist who is primarily motivated by ambition and idealism rather than by love, friendship and family, although Oliveira also emphasises Mary’s emotional ties. There are a few annoying tropes -[highlight for spoiler] why does Mary’s unambitious and feminine sister, Jenny, have to compete with her over a man, get married, do nothing, and then die horribly in childbirth[end spoiler] – but the vitality of Mary’s character pulls the novel through.

What next, now I’m sadly back in the UK? I’m enthralled by Sarah Perry’s Melmoth, which I have to call a Calvinist ghost story (thanks to Rebecca for handing on her proof copy!) and am slowly enjoying Ursula Le Guin’s classic The Left Hand of Darkness, while I found Elisa Lodato’s An Unremarkable Body to be an unsatisfactory mix of literary experimentation and chick lit. For peaceful, contemplative bedtime reading, I’m rediscovering some Michael Morpurgo favourites from childhood – Kensuke’s Kingdom and King of the Cloud Forests – and for more unsettling dreams, I re-read a book that haunted my teenage years, John Marsden’s Letters from the Inside.

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Holiday Reading in the USA, Part One

I’m back from a very nostalgic trip to DC (and a less nostalgic trip to Providence and Boston, two cities that I’d never visited before). I spent five years of my childhood in DC, from age two to age seven – but even so, I was surprised by how much revisiting the city felt like coming home. The effect was probably amplified by taking a tour, with my sister, of all our favourite childhood haunts, such as the Air and Space Museum, the Natural History Museum (sadly minus most of its dinosaurs at the moment – they are going to reappear in a new dinosaur hall in 2019) and our old house and old school. A kind neighbour helped us to set up the second photo in this dual shot outside our old house in Palisades (1994/2018):

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Alongside all of this, I also found time for some reading – and enough reading that I’ve had to split it into two posts!

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Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow came highly recommended by Rebecca, Annabel and Elle, and so I felt pretty certain that I would enjoy it. As I turned out, I absolutely loved it. The novel jumps between two timelines; in the present day, Jesuit priest Emilio Sandoz has returned injured and traumatised, the sole survivor of a mission that made first contact with a newly-discovered alien race on a distant planet, Rakhat. Forty years ago (due to relativity, time has passed more slowly for Emilio than for Earth), we see Emilio planning this mission with his friends, a vibrant secondary cast that include Anne, a medical doctor, her husband George, who picked up the original signal from a radio telescope at Arecibo Observatory that led to the discovery of Rakhat, and Sofia, a genius-level specialist in artificial intelligence who, we discover, is trying to escape a form of bonded labour she was sold into as a child.

The Sparrow, on the surface, sounds similar to a number of other novels; it’s not the first science fiction to deal with ‘Jesuits in space’ (that seems to be James Blish’s 1958 novel A Case of Consciencewhich I haven’t read) and its depiction of violent and gruesome cultural misunderstandings between two highly developed alien societies gave me flashbacks to Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead. However, when I first heard about this book, the first comparison title that came to mind was Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Thingswhich also imagines a religious mission to an undiscovered world. It was refreshing, therefore, to realise just how different these two books are. The Sparrow is more concerned with the journey of its protagonists than in the detailed depiction of the alien cultures they encounter. In contrast, Strange New Things lacked an emotional centre for me, because its central couple were so unlikeable, but delivered a more satisfying plot line relating to its aliens, the Oasans – partly because the last third of The Sparrow feels too compressed. The heartbreaking moment in The Sparrow comes when Emilio realises just how far his linguistic abilities have failed him when communicating on Rakat; in Strange New Things, it’s when the missionary protagonist, Peter, understands exactly why the story of Jesus has such appeal to the Oasan race.

Both The Sparrow and Strange New Things are structurally clunky, which I think is almost inevitable, given what they are trying to do; interweave a character-led, literary story with a more gripping, plot-led thread borrowed from hard science fiction. The Sparrow deals seriously and thoughtfully with Emilio’s loss of faith, and I was also impressed with its consideration of celibacy and commitment. Emilio’s choice to remain celibate is something that he suffers for, but Russell doesn’t caricature it by suggesting that it is innately warped, wrong and unnatural. Instead, she uses it to open up a wider discussion about how we all make choices that close off other paths. Anne and George are admired by the other characters for their decades-long marriage, but Anne sums up why this works without sentimentality: ‘I have been married at least four times, to four different men… They’ve all been named George Edwards but, believe me, the man who is waiting for me down the hall is a whole different animal from the boy I married, back before there was dirt… Every ten years or so, George and I have faced the fact that we have changed and we’ve had to decide if it makes sense to create a new marriage between these two new people.’ Vows, Anne implies, are not worthless simply because they don’t last forever, or because they don’t cater to our most immediate impulses.

The Sparrow fails because it tries to do so much; it also succeeds, triumphantly, because it tries to do so much. It’s not a novel that’s easy to forget, and I doubt it would become more indelible if it was smaller and tidier.

I also read Andrew Ervin’s Bit by Bit, a popular history of video games, and Karen Thompson Walker’s The Dreamers, a speculative novel that imagines a plague that starts in a college town and sends each of its inhabitants to sleep one by one. Bit by Bit was short, engaging, and thought-provoking. Ervin outlines the early history of video games, skipping from the first video game (whether that was Tennis for Two (1958) or  Spacewar! (1962) is a matter of debate) to innovations such as the use of a gap in a wall to indicate a door in Adventure (1979-80), which also introduced the first ‘Easter egg’, to more modern multiplayer video games such as World of Warcraft. Unlike Jason Schreier’s more formulaic Blood, Sweat and Pixelshe’s happy to hop around topics, discussing everything from ‘are video games art’? to the difference between healthy escapism and unhealthy obsession. Refreshingly, he also gives plenty of space to female game designers, as well as to more recent games such as Journey (2012) and Gravity Ghost (2015) that explore questions of gender, race and immigration. I enjoyed playing video games as a teenager but have always resisted them as an adult as ‘a waste of time’. Ervin’s book made me question that.

The Dreamers isn’t out until February 2019, so I’ll post a fuller review nearer publication date, but I was impressed by how Thompson Walker sustained its eerie, paranoid atmosphere – especially as I’m not at all interested in the psychology of dreaming. The book has little to add to the many other stories that have already been told about devastating plagues, but its use of sleep as the central agent of destruction plays cleverly on deep-rooted fears of sleep as ‘the little death’, and how in sleep we may not be ourselves ourselves. Darting about between several groups of characters, the very short chapters maintain tension, and I was particularly drawn in by the story of two young sisters and their survivalist father, and the couple with a newborn baby who were once praying to get more sleep, and are now terrified of it. Compelling, if not groundbreaking.

The Library of Ice and Out of the Woods: natural histories, hidden natures

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There have been a lot of popular musings published on the Arctic and Antarctic, as anybody who goes to the Scott Polar Institute’s library in Cambridge will know, as they’ve collected all of them. From historical takes such as Sarah Moss’s The Frozen Ship or Francis Spufford’s I May Be Some Timeto personal stories of time spent in one of the continents such as Gavin Francis’s Empire Antarctica or Sara Wheeler’s Terra Incognitathere’s no shortage of accessible non-fiction for readers fascinated by the farthest north or farthest south. And within this glut, ice forms a recognisable sub-category, from Stephen Pyne’s classic Ice: a journey to Antarctica (1986) to more recent publications such as Veronika Meduna’s Secrets of the Ice (2005) and Joanna Kavenna’s The Ice Museum (also 2005). What, then, makes Nancy Campbell’s The Library of Ice stand out? Because as a dedicated reader of this sub-genre, I can tell you that stand out it does.

Perhaps it’s Campbell’s eclectic approach to her subject-matter. Rather than focusing on either the Arctic or Antarctic, she seeks out ice wherever she can find it – whether that’s a curling rink in Scotland, where she has a fascinating conversation about how the smoothness of the ice is maintained, or glaciers in Switzerland. She hits some familiar notes – the discussion of Antarctic ice cores, and how they preserve the history of the atmosphere because of how the chemical make-up of the ice changes as you drill further down, usually pops up in texts like this – but to be honest, I never get tired of hearing about them.

Meanwhile, Campbell’s take is poised elegantly between a personal account of her own travels and a more observational consideration of the natural history of ice. We actually find out very little about Campbell’s present life – she alludes to money troubles, and there’s one night where she sleeps propped up against the door of an airport toilet that she mentions as if it’s nothing out of the ordinary. (Her life seems to be held together by literary grants, which are notoriously capricious – she’s currently the UK Canal Laureate for 2018, which I think is fantastic. I’d love to read anything she writes about canals, having had my interest sparked by Alys Fowler’s Hidden Nature). On the other hand, Campbell doesn’t always remove herself completely from the story – she tells us, for example, about her childhood love of the Noel Streatfeild novel White Boots, about two girls who are learning to ice-skate. I re-read this over and over again when I was little, and it was lovely to revisit it, although I have to admit (as I know nothing about ice-skating) being somewhat dismayed that the ‘figures’ that our poor protagonists painstakingly practice in 1951 were already declining in importance in the sport by that time, and were abolished altogether by 1990.

Finally, Campbell’s book simply stands out because it’s so much better written than other books on the subject. There’s something about the Arctic and Antarctic that seems to tempt writers into some of the worst purple prose, woven into paragraphs that go off on endless tangents (with some honourable exceptions, such as Francis’s Empire Antarctica, which is nicely straightforward). Campbell doesn’t fall into these traps, spending less time on descriptions of the landscape than she does getting into the nitty-gritty of the things she finds out, whether that’s the experience of living in an isolated community in Greenland or researching early texts on snowflakes in the Bodleian. This makes her text dense – I found that I wanted to read it slowly to take in all the information – but it never becomes confusing or too technical. She’s giving a talk on this book at the Lit and Phil in Newcastle later in November, and I can’t wait to hear what she says.

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

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Luke Turner’s Out of the Woods uses Epping Forest as a backcloth for the exploration of his own confusing psyche: quoting St Augustine, he reflects that the inner world is ‘a limitless forest, full of unexpected dangers.’ As a bisexual man, Turner has often felt caught between two worlds, and as this memoir proceeds, we discover that the pull he feels towards spontaneous and risky sexual encounters can, he believes, be traced back to early abusive experiences with older men as a teenager. The forest itself feels like neither one thing or another; not a truly wild place, as it is so close to the suburbs of London (and Turner describes some of the decaying, yet expensive houses of these suburbs in vivid detail), and yet a place that has long been visited by the city’s inhabitants for behaviour that has been viewed as outside social bounds. Turner reflects on the men convicted for public indecency in the forest, and how it is still used as a male cruising ground; he finds out that his own ancestors had a child out of wedlock, and speculates that it was conceived in Epping.

This is one of those memoirs when I feel I have to distinguish carefully between the voice and the person. I have every sympathy for Turner’s struggle with his sexuality, and for what he suffered in his early years. As he rightly points out, bisexual men are still marginalised in a way that gay men are not: many people still persist in believing that they don’t exist or in stereotyping them as kinky, polygamous hedonists who can never be appropriate long-term partners – especially in heterosexual relationships. This is particularly evident in chick lit and in women’s magazines, as the two articles below (Glamour, 2012 and Cosmo, 2013) indicate:

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And yet, despite the fact that Turner highlights these important issues, I did not feel that Out of the Woods succeeded as a memoir. I’m afraid I found it self-indulgent, and the writing often awkward and overwrought. Unlike Campbell, Turner is front and centre all the time (no chance of missing his struggles with housing), and he fails to weave his personal experiences satisfactorily into a wider narrative about woodlands, sexuality, and state policing. I also found the lack of explicit recognition of male privilege a little frustrating; as I’ve said above, bisexual men face particular and serious prejudice, but at certain points in this memoir, Turner makes it sound as if they are the most radical, binary-breaking, properly oppressed group in history, which isn’t a label I think should be applied to any social group. And while Turner picks up on some interesting facts about woodland, such as the ability of trees to communicate with each other through networks of moss (see Suzanne Simard’s 2016 TED talk for more), there are much better books out there on the woods, notably Sara Maitland’s Gossip From The Forest. So for me, a really groundbreaking book about bi men has yet to materialise.

I received a free proof copy of this book from the publisher for review. It’s out in January 2019.

Holiday Reading Plans

I’m off to Providence for a conference on Wednesday, and from there am going to spend some time in Boston and DC. My sister is joining me in DC, and, as we lived there for five years when we were little, we’re looking forward to exploring old haunts – and to being there on Halloween. Due to baggage allowances (and my determination to leave enough space to bring the new Tana French, The Witch Elm, back from the US, as it’s not out in the UK until February) I’ve only been able to take Kindle books to the States, which has limited my options somewhat. Here’s what I’ve downloaded, or already had unread on the Kindle:

  • Dreams Before The Start Of Time by Anne Charnock. This is yet another recent novel set in the near future that explores new possibilities of reproduction, although it was published slightly before Helen Sedgwick’s The Growing Season and Angela Chadwick’s XX. However, Charnock’s novel moves away from the relatively tight focus of these two books to explore a series of vignettes, which sounds like it should give her space to consider some of the questions Sedgwick and Chadwick do not – so I don’t think this will necessarily be repetitive.
  • The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker. Out in 2019, Thompson Walker’s second novel imagines a college town transformed by a mysterious illness that sends a series of students into unwaking sleep. I haven’t read her first novel, but I’m intrigued by the premise, which riffs off familiar narratives of infectious adolescent hysteria while taking a new direction.
  • Bit by Bit: How Video Games Transformed Our World by Andrew Ervin. One of the characters in the novel I’m just beginning to write is a computer game designer, and so I’m trying out some popular non-fiction on computer games to get into his mindset. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Jason Schrier’s Blood, Sweat and Pixels, given that I’ve never played computer games myself as an adult, and, having once lived with a World of Warcraft fanatic, I’m fascinated by what people get out of the experience of gaming.
  • My Name is Mary Sutter by Robin Oliveira. I heard about Oliveira’s work on Claire’s blog, and this story of an aspiring female doctor nursing the Civil War wounded in nineteenth-century Washington DC sounded appropriate for a trip to DC.
  • The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. Rebecca of Bookish Beck recommended this science fiction novel, which echoes the plot of Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things, one of my top ten books of 2016 – although Russell’s book was published first. Set a few decades in the future, it follows a Jesuit priest, Emilio Sandoz, who leads a mission into space to make first contact with an alien culture.

Has anyone read any of these?

Three Things… October 2018

Borrowed from Paula at Book Jotter.

Regular readers may have noticed that this blog has gone a bit quiet recently. I’ve been facing some difficult personal upheavals again, and I’ve been finding it hard to concentrate on reading, let alone writing reviews. However, things seem to be settling down a bit now, especially work-wise – I’m settling into my new job as a research fellow at Queen Mary University of London, and have just submitted the full manuscript of my first academic book, A Progressive Education? How Childhood Changed in Mid-Twentieth-Century English and Welsh Schools, which is under contract with Manchester University Press.

Reading

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I was reading Esi Edugyan’s Booker-shortlisted Washington Black before things went pear-shaped, and so it probably suffered somewhat from being read over an exceptionally long period of time. Washington Black shares some surface similarities with Jane Harris’s recent Sugar Money: they are both narrated by a young, male, enslaved narrator who starts his story in the West Indies, although Washington Black is set in the early nineteenth century, exploring the shifting legal position of slavery at the time, whereas Sugar Money deals with a slave revolt in the mid-eighteenth century. Both books also tap into an eighteenth- and early-nineteenth century tradition of adventure narratives, which can lead them to feel a bit repetitive, as the story jumps from one dramatic event to another. However, I found Washington Black much more reflective and emotionally resonant than Sugar Money, helped by the fact that it takes place over a longer period of time and moves through a range of geographically diverse settings.

Washington Black’s life is transformed when, as a young boy, he comes into contact with his master’s brother, ‘Titch’, who helps him escape from slavery and adventure into the unknown. Like Sugar Money, Washington Black moves from scenes of intense and horrifying realism – most of which take place on the Barbados plantation – to more whimsical escapades, as when Washington and Titch fly off in a hot air balloon and, finding themselves about to crash into the sea, manage to steer it so they land on a ship (much to the captain’s displeasure). Tonally, Edugyan handles this expertly, and Washington’s voice is convincing and compelling.

Nevertheless, I felt that something was lacking in the cast of this novel. Frustratingly, it was Titch rather than Washington who came most vividly alive for me. Initially appearing as a kind of ‘white saviour’, or, in more historically-appropriate terminology, a ‘knight in shining armour’, Titch’s mind and motives are deconstructed across the course of this novel. Edugyan cleverly flips our perspective on him a number of times, revealing his inner conflict while not allowing him to become truly sympathetic. The final scene between him and Washington is especially powerful. While I appreciated this nuanced portrait, it’s a shame that the main black characters feel so wooden in comparison. Washington notably comes to life only when he interacts with Titch, while a love interest introduced about halfway through the novel remains no more than that. I’d be surprised if this won the Booker today (though I am usually wrong about prizes, so it probably has a good chance).

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

Watching

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Due to aforementioned life events, I haven’t been watching anything especially intelligent recently. Netflix’s sweet rom-com To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before was perfect escapism. The predictable plot follows a girl who has to confront a series of past crushes after her secret love letters to them get mailed out, but it’s nice to see a more diverse cast in this genre – the heroine, Lara Jean, is Korean-American in the novel, though played in the film by a Vietnamese-American actress. I liked what the author of the original novel, Jenny Han, had to say about the casting of Lara Jean: ‘One producer said to me, as long as the actress captures the spirit of the character, age and race don’t matter… I said, well, her spirit is Asian-American. That was the end of that.’

Thinking

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I went to see Sarah Waters talk about her 2009 novel, The Little Stranger, which has just been made into a film, at the Durham Book Festival. The talk was followed by a screening of the film, which, rather to my surprise – having thought the book would be difficult to film – I very much enjoyed. The film manages to be genuinely creepy, restraining the urge to have anything flashy happen, and Ruth Wilson is superb as Caroline, completely inhabiting her ‘unfeminine’ gait and confident sloppiness. Waters always interviews well, and I was particularly intrigued by a comment she made about the ‘ontological shock’ that should be at the heart of any good ghost story. As Waters put it, if we see a ghost, this should surely strike at the heart of our understanding of the laws of reality. If we see a ghost, surely now anything could happen – a glass could fly across the table, we ourselves could fly apart. I think Waters is absolutely right about the horror of this, and it’s something I think very few ghost stories do well. (I have to say, this is something that always annoyed me in Harry Potter as well – both Harry and Hermione are SO confident about what is silly and mythical, e.g. Luna Lovegood’s Crumple-Horned Snorkacks, and what is real. If you were introduced to a world of magic at the age of eleven, might you not be a bit more open-minded in the future? I have a vintage fanfic from 2004 that explores this question – that’s how much it got to me!)

RIP Challenge XIII – The Upstairs Room by Kate Murray-Browne

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I read this as part of the Readers Imbibing Peril Challenge, now in its thirteenth year!

Looking for a ghost story for Halloween? This may not be the place to start. Kate Murray-Browne’s debut, The Upstairs Room, ultimately only hints obliquely towards the presence of a ghost rather than dealing directly with haunting, and so may not have been the most appropriate choice for the RIP Challenge. Nevertheless, its subtle horrors and disturbances are brilliantly thought-provoking in their own right, and I’m very glad that I read it.

The Upstairs Room starts in solid middle-class territory, picking up on plot threads that are familiar from any number of psychological thrillers. Eleanor and Richard have bought a run-down Victorian house in London, intended to be a ‘forever home’ for themselves and their two young daughters. Struggling with a huge mortgage, they let out the basement to a lodger in her late twenties, Zoe. Richard finds himself becoming increasingly intrigued by Zoe’s life, while Eleanor becomes ill and paranoid, worried about the behaviour of her oldest daughter, Rosie, and wishing that she could escape from the house. As a series of creepy things start happening, from scribbles on the walls to pebbles lined up in perfect rows, Eleanor’s fear only begins to deepen.

One of the things that raises The Upstairs Room above many books like it is its bite. The book is preoccupied with why we seek safety and security, even when it makes us unhappy, rather than taking a risk on the unknown, and explores this not only through Eleanor and Richard’s relationship but through the relationships of a number of secondary characters. Eleanor’s psychosomatic vomiting, which we first witness as a reaction to her haunted house but which turns out to have intermittently appeared throughout her life, serves as a symbol of how she ignores what her heart and body are telling her.

Nevertheless, Murray-Browne doesn’t slip into cliches about middle-class boredom versus bohemian artistic freedom, as a number of Zoe’s artist friends are shown to have made similarly uneasy compromises. Eleanor’s frustrations might be familiar, but Murray-Browne’s observations are always sharp: it’s hard to forget the moment when Richard tells the younger Eleanor, after meeting her in an English supervision at Cambridge, that ‘you’re good. I mean – not brilliant. But good,’ and Eleanor ‘felt as if he’d kissed her.’ Neverthless, the older Eleanor is hardly unaware of her own pain: when her best friend Amy tells her ‘I think you’ve forgotten how bad it is to be single,’ she replies ‘Perhaps you’ve forgotten how bad it is to be in a relationship.’

The Upstairs Room isn’t a spooky ghost story, but an unsettling exploration of how we create traps for ourselves within our own lives, and how these are far worse than owning an unpleasant, expensive house that can’t be sold. It reminded me of Harriet Lane’s two excellent literary thrillers, Alys, Always and Her, in the way it breathes new life into familiar stories. I’m very much looking forward to whatever Murray-Browne writes next.

 

 

Reading round-up, September 2018

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Angela Chadwick’s debut, XX, imagines a world where two women are able to have their own biological child – who will always be female – through ovum-to-ovum fertilisation. Jules and Rosie, a lesbian couple, jump at the chance to have a baby who is related to both of them. But as the medical trial proceeds, their situation becomes increasingly dangerous as protest mounts. While it’s still all too rare to see lesbians represented in fiction, and I enjoyed the refreshing depiction of Jules and Rosie’s happy, normal relationship, this didn’t mesh very well with the premise of the book. The wider, more interesting implications of this technology are barely mentioned. As one of the characters points out, the reason people are afraid of ovum-to-ovum is not really because of lesbians – who already live lives without men – but because of the suggestion, however small, that heterosexual women might turn away from their male partners to mother children with more reliable female friends. How far are women staying with men under patriarchy so they can have children? The close focus on Jules and Rosie means that these intriguing feminist questions are sidelined, and the issues at hand are reduced to ‘giving women more choice’. Chadwick’s clunky, journalistic writing also keeps the story very simplistic. A shame, because this is readable and potentially interesting, though not a patch on Helen Sedgwick’s fantastic The Growing Season.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 4th October.

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I loved Lissa Evans’s Their Finest Hour and a Half, though I was less enamoured by Crooked Heart*, which for me sat uncomfortably between children’s/YA and adult fiction. I’m pleased to report that her latest novel, Old Baggage, is a triumph. Mattie Simpkin still relives her glory days as a suffragette by giving illustrated talks to dwindling audiences, but it’s now 1928, and she’s starting to wonder what else she has to give to the world. Discouraged by the politically apathetic attitude of the working-class young women she sees around her, as well as by the state of their health, she starts a subversive girls’ club, the Amazons, which rebels against more familiar inter-war traditions of youth organisations by encouraging radical debates and archery. Mattie is wonderfully written, with Evans not afraid to delve into her fundamental flaws as well as her strength of character. It’s hugely refreshing to read about a female character not driven primarily by her emotional relationships, whether these are romantic, platonic or familial, but by a genuine sense of idealism coupled with some pretty massive blind spots when it comes to dealing with other people. Evans also highlights the important work that was done by women after the vote was won through the character of Mattie’s lesbian housemate and close friend, ‘The Flea’, who presses on with a discouraging vocation as a health visitor. The novel is both convincingly historical and absolutely topical, raising the familiar question that has dogged feminism since its inception: how do you convince society that there is still crucial work to be done after everybody starts believing that the battle has been won?

*Having re-read my review of Crooked Heart, in which Mattie plays a small role, it’s interesting to see that I wrote that she was ‘the character that most intrigued me’. Making her the star of her own book was certainly a wise decision.

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This is my second attempt at reading Elizabeth Strout, after Olive Kitteridge, and I’m afraid that I continue to be underwhelmed by her writing. My Name Is Lucy Barton is a very brief novel that begins when Lucy, a wife and mother, is spending several weeks in hospital with an unspecified illness. Visits from her mother prompt her to recall her abusive childhood and difficult younger years, while she also remembers attending a writing workshop led by a charismatic female writer, which prompted her to try and tell her own story. Strout’s prose is admirably clear, but I kept on being bothered by echoes of other writers – most obviously, Alice Munro and Anne Tyler, but there were also bits that sounded like Ann Patchett. I hate to say this about a novel that has received such acclaim, but I felt like I’d read very similar things before. In contrast, Olive Kitteridge possessed more character, but still didn’t blow me away. I’m not sure I’ll be trying anything else by Strout in the near future.