The Wellcome Book Prize Longlist, 2018

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The Wellcome Book Prize, along with the Woman’s Prize for Fiction, consistently produces my favourite literary longlists and shortlists. As an historian of developmental psychology and psycho-analysis (among other things) and somebody with a strong amateur interest in medicine and healthcare, I always find that this prize, which highlights ‘the best new novels, memoirs and non-fiction that illuminate the breadth and depth of our relationship with health, medicine and illness’, brings me lots of new books to love. That’s why I’m so delighted to be part of a shadow panel for this year’s Wellcome Book Prize shortlist organised by Rebecca, alongside Clare, Paul and Annabel. Although the shortlist won’t be announced until the 20th March, I’m looking forward to digging into the longlisted books  I haven’t already read.

Medical fictions

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I read Ayòbámi Adébáyò’s Stay With Me when it was shortlisted for the 2017 Baileys Prize, and ended up ranking it third out of the six shortlisted novels. It’s a tremendously moving account of the life of a single Nigerian woman, Yejide, spanning almost thirty years from the military coups of the 1980s to the relatively more peaceful territory of 2008. I’d expected it to be a little cliched, but was surprised by how heartbreaking I found it. My only quibble with regards to the Wellcome Book Prize is that, although the story ostensibly deals with fertility, I wouldn’t call it a book that primarily engages with medical themes.

Bernard Laverty’s Midwinter Break, which deals with a long-married couple taking a break in Amsterdam, caught my eye in Waterstones when it was Book of the Week. While I’m keen to read it, again, I wouldn’t have pigeonholed it as a book that deals with health or medicine.

I was captivated by Han Kang’s The Vegetarian and so her new novel, The White Book, was always going to be a must-read for me. Deborah Levy in the Guardian describes it as ‘a fragmented autobiographical meditation on the death of the unnamed narrator’s baby sister, who died two hours after her birth’.

Memoirs of living and dying

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Maggie O’Farrell’s I Am, I Am, I Am was one of my top ten books of 2017, beating out stiff competition from the other Maggie O’Farrell book I read this year (This Must Be The Place). Subtitled ‘Seventeen Brushes With Death’, this memoir details all the near-death experiences of O’Farrell’s life – or at least, as she notes, those that she realised were near-death experiences. It’s beautifully-written; each section is incredible in its own right.

I heard Allan Jenkins talk about Plot 29which deals with his own childhood and that of his foster brother Christopher, at the Durham Book Festival. I was primarily there to hear the other writer he was paired with (Alys Fowler, discussing her wonderful memoir Hidden Nature) but was impressed by Jenkins’s consideration of how he’d dealt with such a sensitive subject, and the interconnections he made with a year of tending his allotment.

Sigrid Rausing’s Mayhem wasn’t on my radar at all before it was longlisted, but given my relatively new interest in memoir, I’m glad to have it highlighted. It deals with the impact of  drug addiction on a single family.

Busman’s holiday

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As a historian, I’m afraid I rarely read history for fun, but I’ve heard good things about Lindsay Fitzharris’s The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s quest to transform the grisly world of Victorian medicine. Apart from anything else, I’ve been interested in Storying the Past’s recent work on what academic history-writing can learn from fiction and storytelling, and so it will be good for me to see how Fitzharris addresses her work to a popular audience. I’m not hugely enamoured of the mock-Victorian sensation cover, but we shall see.

Proper science

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In contrast, I love popular science, and I’m particularly excited about Meredith Wadman’s The Vaccine Race: How scientists used human cells to combat killer viruses. It promises to tell the story of the major scientific breakthrough that led to the development of vaccines for a number of dangerous pathogens, including rubella. The novel I’m working on partly deals with the fourteenth-century Black Death, so I’m especially interested in epidemiology and epidemics at the moment (although did you know that we still don’t have a fully effective vaccine for bubonic plague?).

Robert Salpolsky’s Behave: The biology of humans at our best and worst is probably the title on the list that least appeals to me personally. I’ve delved a little into the history of the study of human behaviour for work and it just doesn’t capture my imagination. This is no reflection on the quality of Salpolsky’s book, but I won’t be reading this unless it makes the shortlist.

Joseph Jebelli’s In Pursuit of Memory: The fight against Alzheimer’s mixes the personal with the medical, as Jebelli recalls the death of his grandfather from Alzheimer’s and recounts his own career as a neuroscientist working on the disease. Again, this doesn’t instantly fit with my own interests, but it certainly looks important and worthwhile.

What it is to be human

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As anyone who has read my Top Ten Books of 2017 list might imagine, I’m especially absorbed by books about death and dying at the moment (and anyone who knew me as a young teenager obsessed with Lurlene McDaniel books might argue that this is an interest that has never gone away). So Kathryn Mannix’s With the End in Mind: Dying, death and wisdom in an age of denial, which explores her experiences working in palliative medicine, looks like a worthy successor to memoirs like Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air and Henry Marsh’s Do No Harm.

Mark O’Connell’s To Be a Machine: Adventures among cyborgs, utopians, hackers, and the futurists solving the modest problem of death deals with transhumanism, a word that I keep hearing bandied about, even though I have to admit I’m not quite sure what it means. (According to the blurb: ‘Transhumanism is a movement whose aim is to use technology to fundamentally change the human condition, to improve our bodies and minds to the point where we become something other, and better, than the animals we are.’) When I first heard about this book, I wasn’t sure it would be for me, but I’m getting more and more intrigued.

So: I’ve already read two of the longlist and want to read a few more before the shortlist is announced. To get a fair spread across the various genres I’ve identified here, I think I’m going to prioritise the Mannix, Wadman, Jenkins and Kang.

Do others have thoughts on the Wellcome longlist? Are there titles you’re especially keen to read?

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The Bookish Naughty List Tag

This tag was originally created by A Page of Jenniely, and I’ve borrowed it from Elle.

1. Received an ARC and not reviewed it?

Yes; I think only one to date (Howard Jacobson’s J, which I didn’t dislike but had nothing at all to say about).

2. Have less than 60% feedback rating on NetGalley?

My feedback rating is currently 83%, which I think is the lowest ever (I went on a bit of a requesting spree and have five outstanding titles at the moment). I feel too guilty to let it drop too low!

3. Rated a book on Goodreads and promised a full review was to come on your blog (and never did)?

Oh yes.

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4. Folded down the page of a book?

Yes, it belongs to me, why not? Now this will make anyone who likes to keep their books pristine very unhappy: when I was a teenager, I liked my books to look battered, so I deliberately creased spines, folded down corners and dented covers. I avoided hardbacks because they were more difficult to spoil.

5. Skim read a book?

Absolutely. I have skim read the last bits of many books that I was not enjoying (and by ‘last bits’, I probably mean anything up to the last third). I don’t mind abandoning books in the early stages, but I like the sense of completion once I get past 66%. (I’m not just using % because Kindle, when I was a child I actually used to work out the % of a book I had remaining if I was really enjoying it and didn’t want it to finish. I was a strange child).

6. DNF a book this year?

Yes: Tiffany Mc Daniel’s The Summer That Melted Everything. I bought it at an event run in Durham by an independent bookshop because I felt sorry for them that nobody was buying anything, and after the first few pages, I decided it wasn’t for me.

7. Bought a book purely because it was pretty with no intention of reading it?

No; I hate having unread books (see above). I have, however, wished I could buy pretty new editions of novels I really like, although I try to give them to other people rather than keeping. The novel I’ve probably bought the most copies of is Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle.

The cover I own (L) versus the pretty cover I want and have bought for others (R).

8. Read whilst you were meant to be doing something else?

Yes. Who hasn’t?

9. Accidentally spilled on a book

I’ve dropped a number of books in the bath. My friend and I once enjoyed drying out a library book page by page with a hairdryer after this fate (you need two people to do this properly). Unfortunately, the book was James S.A. Corey’s Cibola Burn, which has a lot of pages.

10. Completely missed your Goodreads goal?

I’ve only set a Goodreads goal for one year and massively exceeded it! But I think this will happen in the future.

11. Borrowed a book and not returned it?

No, I am the victim rather than the perpetrator here (still missing BSC #43: Stacey’s Emergency which I lent out in Year Eight…)

12. Broke a book buying ban?

Yes, though I really try not to. I love buying books that I can read right away without the guilt of knowing I have a big TBR pile.

13. Started a review, left it for ages then forgot what the book was about?

Not really. If this happens I turn it into a mini-review where I can be more vague…

14. Wrote in a book you were reading?

I’m a historian. I don’t write in fiction or in other people’s history books though.

15. Finished a book and not added it to your Goodreads?

I LOVE updating my Goodreads. I sometimes update it when I know I’m about to finish a book. So this would never happen.

Anyone else fancy this tag?

Upcoming Releases: Spring 2018

This blog hasn’t been very active recently because I’ve only been reading proofs of titles that won’t be released for a few months. However, I thought I’d write a little bit about some of these titles, then link back to the full reviews when I post them.

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First up was Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists (March 2018), which has a neat premise: it starts in New York in 1968, when the four Gold children visit a fortune-teller who tells each of them the day on which they will die. The rest of the book is split into four parts, following each of the siblings as we see what they do with this knowledge. Like other recent novels, The Immortalists promises a speculative twist but fails to deliver; Benjamin is much more comfortable writing about her characters’ loves, careers and personalities then she is with exploring the full potential of her premise. However, she writes well enough to make certain strands of her story feel a little magical anyway.

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Next was Libby Page’s The Lido (March 2018), another ‘feel-good’ and ‘heartwarming’ read of the kind that are enjoying a renaissance recently. I’m certainly not averse to this sub-genre (I loved A.J. Pearce’s Dear Mrs Bird, out in April) but I found The Lido stilted and rushed. It focuses on the friendship between eighty-six year old Rosemary, a lifelong resident of Brixton, and twenty-six year old Kate, a newspaper reporter, who team up to save the local lido from closure. Unfortunately, as it has very little plot, the novel relies on the success of its characterisation, and I found both Rosemary and Kate to be cliched and two-dimensional. Page wants to challenge stereotypes by featuring an elderly protagonist and a protagonist with a mental illness (Kate suffers from anxiety and panic attacks) but instead falls back on very familiar tropes.

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Louise O’Neill’s Almost Love (also March 2018), her first novel for adults, left me feeling as frustrated and intrigued as I did when I finished her debut novel for teenagers, Only Ever Yoursdespite their very different subject-matter. Almost Love is set in contemporary Dublin and flashes between the past and present as it tells the story of art teacher Sarah, who had an obsessive affair with wealthy Matthew and is still struggling to get over it, even as she tries to make her current relationship with Oisin work. There’s nothing original in the subject-matter but, as ever with O’Neill, the strength of the novel lies in its sheer viciousness and the clarity with which she deals with sexual politics. Sarah is impossible to like in any of the conventional ways you are meant to sympathise with a novel’s heroine, and yet this very unappealingness is challenging. There are definitely technical problems with the novel – the split between ‘Now’ and ‘Then’ feels unnecessarily complex and O’Neill’s writing is so spare that most of the secondary cast become a litany of names – but, like Only Ever Yours, I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

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Finally, I singled out Michael Donkor’s Hold (July 2018) as one of the titles I was most looking forward to this year, and I’m afraid I was pretty disappointed. The subject-matter is great: teenage housegirl Belinda, who is used to staying quiet and obeying the rules, is dispatched from Ghana to London to deal with wayward Amma, who is making her Ghanaian parents despair. Told in the dual perspectives of Belinda and Amma, the novel explores the strangeness of cultures seen from the outside as Amma is encouraged to involve herself more closely with her heritage and Belinda tries to adjust to London life. Unfortunately, the novel is written in such a convoluted style that much of this material isn’t showcased as it could be. Dialogue is a particular problem – I was ready to give the Ghanaian characters a pass, as I’m no judge of whether their speech patterns are realistic or not, but Londoner Amma and her English friends sound equally unbelievable. Also, Hold is about two-thirds Belinda and one-third Amma, which made it feel unbalanced – especially as Amma’s struggle to reconcile her lesbianism with her racial and ethnic identity deserved a lot more space. What a beautiful cover, though.

I received free proof copies of all the titles featured in this post for review from the publishers.

Rule-bound and regulated

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A confession: I have a bit of a soft spot for Jodi Picoult. As frequently melodramatic and contrived as her plots are, as heavy-handed as her symbolism often is, she (usually) crafts addictive novels that play with the reader’s sympathies in interesting ways. Picoult’s characters often read more like collections of symbolic traits than real people, but she relentlessly insists on challenging easy assumptions about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ characters throughout her fiction. At her best (Nineteen Minutes) she is genuinely moving and thought-provoking. Which brings me on to Celeste Ng’s second novel, Little Fires Everywhere, which is blurbed by Picoult (‘I read Little Fires Everywhere in a single, breathless sitting’.) Having read the novel, I wasn’t surprised that she enjoyed it. While Little Fires Everywhere is ostensibly aimed at a very different kind of reader to Picoult’s novels, it actually plays to a very similar audience. Unfortunately, for me, it fixed some of Picoult’s forgiveable weaknesses while failing at the important things that she does best. While Ng is a much better writer than Picoult, she’s actually far more likely to slot her characters into simplistic boxes.

Little Fires Everywhere is set in Shaker Heights, Ohio, in 1998, a meticulously planned town that lives for its own rules and regulations, and in which everything and everyone has a correct place. The Richardson family, and especially its matriarch, Mrs Richardson, epitomise the Shaker Heights ethos. Mrs Richardson ‘weighed herself once per week… Each morning she measured exactly one half cup of Cheerios, the serving size indicated on the box, using the flowered plastic measuring cup she’d got from Higbee’s as a new bride. Each evening, at dinner, she allowed herself one glass of wine… Three times weekly she took an aerobics class, checking her watch throughout to be sure her heart rate had exceeded one hundred and twenty beats per minute.’ Mrs Richardson married her college sweetheart and produced four children at the correct intervals, although Izzy, the youngest, remains a source of disappointment and frustration to her. Indeed, the only thing that isn’t quite right in Mrs Richardson’s life is her failed ambition to be a journalist. Into the Richardson family’s world roar Mia and Pearl, a mother and daughter living in a way that Mrs Richardson doesn’t understand at all. Mia, an artist, lives from hand to mouth, has very few possessions, and moves from city to city, making her own rules. Immediately, Mrs Richardson is both threatened and intrigued by Mia, while her four children are also drawn into the orbit of these two strangers.

Little Fires Everywhere also centres on a controversial court case. A white couple are trying to adopt a Chinese-American baby who was found abandoned outside a fire station. Her struggling mother, Bebe, has got her life back together and wants her daughter back. Mrs Richardson unsurprisingly sides with the couple, who are old family friends, while Mia becomes Bebe’s main support. However, the rights and wrongs of the case are so clear-cut that the novel ends up spending little time on it, and discussion about interracial adoption is reduced to a few snipes at the adoptive parents about their ignorance of Chinese culture. We are (as we should be) completely on Bebe’s side, and yet this choice of test case leaves little space for Ng to move beyond simple binaries in the rest of the novel. In short, Mia becomes our moral yardstick; what she does is right; anyone who opposes her is wrong. Mrs Richardson is a straightforward antagonist, who is drawn into increasingly immoral actions as the story continues, and who has repressed and bullied Izzy since the day she was born. The simple moral lines drawn by the novel are mirrored by its straightforward imagery. We learn in the first few pages of the book that Izzy has burnt down the Richardsons’ house. As her older sister, Lexie, puts it: ‘The fireman said there were little fires everywhere. Multiple points of origin.’ The book neatly demonstrates during the three hundred pages that follow that, in exactly the same way, the Richardson family have been brought down by the ‘little fires’ set by each of its children. The novel comes together in the reader’s hands like a puzzle with too few pieces.

Little Fires Everywhere kept me turning the pages, but left me with little to think about. There was definite promise here in the questions posed about motherhood – whether it comes down to biological connection, love, or respectful parenting – but the black-and-white characterisation left very little to the imagination. Similarly, Ng starts to write well about race, but the topic is sidelined by the focus on Mia and her journey, rather than on Bebe and her daughter. Like Shaker Heights itself, the book is perfectly constructed and consistently tidy, but at its heart, a little empty.

What (else) I’ve been reading: January 2018

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After feeling impressed but alienated by China Miéville’s Embassytown, I found his slightly earlier novel, The City and The City, a much more engrossing read. While high-concept, it’s a little less cerebral than Embassytown, and much more effectively-structured; Miéville handles a complicated and twisty plot without ever sacrificing conceptual depth. The book centres on Inspector Borlú, a male detective set to investigate the murder of an initially anonymous young woman along with his younger female partner, Constable Corwi. So far, so crime fiction cliché; but The City and The City immediately disproves stereotypes. Borlú’s investigation is set against the backdrop of a city that is quite literally divided; while he lives his life in Besźel, large sections of Besźel are ‘cross-hatched’ against a parallel city, Ul Qoma, and the citizens of both Besźel and Ul Qoma have been socialised since birth to ‘unsee’ anything they might glimpse when the two cities intersect. Serious infractions of these rules are dealt with by an invisible bureaucracy known only as Breach; Breach’s victims are usually never heard from again. The murder Borlú is investigating goes right to the heart of this overlap between the two cities, and to outlawed academic arguments about the existence of ‘Orciny’, a world rumoured to exist in the interstitial space between the city and the city.

As with Embassytown, the key weakness of Miéville’s writing for me is his use of character. Borlú is defined entirely by the external conflict that he faces; how to solve the case and deal with the terrifying threat of Breach. There is very little trace of Borlú as a person, or any internal conflict he might experience, until the very final pages, and arguably not even then. This is especially jarring given the strong focus on identity, belonging and alienation that characterises The City and The City, and it’s not resolved even by the novel’s (wonderful) final paragraph. My only other problem with The City and The City was rather more subjective. The novel is a very effective cross between crime noir and speculative fiction, but it’s inevitable that it was going to come down harder on one side or the other. The conclusion of the novel situates it more solidly on the crime half of the equation, whereas I wanted it to make more imaginative leaps (as it seemed to be doing about two-thirds of the way through). Funnily enough, while Embassytown felt too removed from human concerns for me, The City and The City is tied too heavily to them. Nevertheless, I continue to love Miéville’s intellect and his originality, and really hope that he has written a novel that answers these concerns (Miéville fans, any recommendations for what I should read next?)

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Genre was also at the heart of my reading of Jesmyn Ward’s beautiful and violent Sing, Unburied, Sing. Rooted in the tradition of Southern Gothic, it also engages with very contemporary concerns about the devastation of the Gulf Coast of Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina. The novel starts in the real, bloody everyday when thirteen-year-old Jojo’s grandfather, Pop, takes him to slaughter a goat. The detailed description of its killing and dismemberment may shake some readers, but it’s an opening that’s thematically appropriate to what follows. Pop and Mama, Jojo’s grandparents, are revealed as resolute and caring figures, bringing up Jojo and his toddler sister Kayla. Jojo’s white father, Michael, is currently in prison, and his black mother, Leonie, the daughter of Pop and Mama, is a fitful and flighty parent. Sing, Unburied, Sing is rooted in the racial violence of the US South, as we learn early on in the novel as Pop starts to tell Jojo stories of his own brutal experience in prison, and we find out that Michael’s parents have effectively disowned him for having a relationship with a black woman. The novel is largely told in the alternate voices of Jojo and Leonie, and both narrators felt completely convincing to me. Jojo’s fiercely paternal care of Kayla mixed with his own uncertainties about growing into manhood make him completely real, and Leonie, revealed as a terrible parent in Jojo’s sections, is a fascinating case study of selfishness mixed with structural oppression. The points at which I disengaged from Sing, Unburied, Sing have less to do with the novel and more with my own personal genre preferences; I struggle with manifest ghosts in fiction, especially when they take up large portions of the narrative. The tradition within which Ward is writing obviously explains their presence, but I found the more realistic first half of the novel more gripping than its second half, despite a truly spectacular last page or so that showcases the best of Ward’s lyrical writing.

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Finally, I’ve been struggling with Ayisha Malik’s romantic comedy The Other Half of Happiness, which stars Sofia Khan, a British/Pakistani hijabi who has recently married a white Irish convert to Islam, Conall, and is struggling with her early experience of marriage. Conall has uprooted them both to Pakistan while he films a documentary, but Sofia would rather be back in Britain promoting her new book about Muslim dating – and her mother is pressurising her to hold a proper Muslim wedding celebration after her sudden elopement. But how can Sofia have a wedding without a groom, and what’s the big secret Conall is hiding from her? I absolutely loved the concept of this novel, and was intrigued by Naomi’s review, but I found it very hard to get through. Partly, this is my fault – I haven’t read the first book in the series, Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged, and I can see how that might have made me more invested in Sofia and Conall’s relationship, and in Sofia herself as a character. However, I’m not keen to go back and read the first novel because I find the style of both of them so jarring. ‘A Muslim Bridget Jones’, which seems to be what Malik is going for, sounds good on paper but doesn’t really work in practice, at least given the parameters Malik has set herself. As I’ve argued before, the Bridget Jones novels are not chick lit (though there’s nothing wrong with chick lit), but social satire, and Bridget is a caricature that we are not necessarily meant to like or sympathise with. Furthermore, Bridget’s diary style is not generic, but fundamental to her character. Given this, Malik’s pastiche of this style for a character who (as far as I can see) we are meant to like is off-putting, and it jars with the way Sofia presents herself in dialogue. It’s a real shame, as the idea of writing chick lit that centres around diverse experiences (rather than the stereotypical black or Muslim friend who usually pops up in this kind of novel) is really important, and the details about Sofia’s culture, religion and her experiences as a ‘brown’ woman working in publishing are great. The style was just too choppy, fragmented and forced for me.

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What else have I been reading in January 2018? I reviewed Fiona Mozley’s Elmet and M.R. Carey’s The Boy On The Bridge. I finished off two books I started in 2017: Jhumpa Lahiri’s absorbing storytelling novel The Namesake, and Elif Batuman’s deliberately disjointed and fragmentary The Idiot, which reminded me what it was like to be at university and discovering all these new ways to think. I enjoyed Jennifer Egan’s naturalistic Manhattan Beach, which (as everyone has said) doesn’t really match up to her earlier novels, but (as not everyone has said) still has much to recommend it, especially the half of the story that deals with the experiences of a female diver in New York during WWII. I found Celeste Ng’s second novel, Little Fires Everywhere, compulsive reading, but ultimately formulaic and disappointing; full review coming soon. And, I’ve been re-reading Tana French (nobody who has ever read this blog before will be surprised) in almost chronological order, kicking off with The Trespasser and moving onto Into The Woods and now The Likeness. I am just doing this for fun, but I try to pretend it’s writing practice as well; I’ve learned a lot from her books.

Reading plans for February 2018: I’ve gathered a small TBR pile already, despite my best intentions, consisting of Julianne Pachico’s The Lucky Ones, Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists and JL Carr’s A Month in the Countryand I’m just launching into Tiffany McDaniel’s The Summer That Melted Everything.

‘We all grow into our coffins’

 

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Fiona Mozley’s debut novel Elmet was controversially shortlisted for the 2017 Booker Prize above a host of more established names. Having read 9 of the 13 longlisted novels, I think it thoroughly deserved its place on the shortlist, although I’m not surprised that it wasn’t selected as the overall winner (simply because George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo is just so good). Daniel, who narrates the novel, and his sister, Cathy – a name which deliberately recalls Wuthering Heights – have had a simple if unusual childhood. Under the watchful eye of their Daddy, they’ve grown up in a house in the middle of a Yorkshire forest, learning to fend for themselves by making furniture, catching game with handmade bows and arrows, and growing their own vegetables. Daddy is an ex-boxer, a once-famous man on the underground fighting circuit, now retired after the disappearance of his wife. However, Daddy’s strength of mind and body is still respected in the local community, and when he becomes involved in a local dispute about rent and wages, Daniel and Cathy’s peaceful existence is threatened.

Elmet, despite having little obvious plot for its first two-thirds, is a mesmerising read which becomes difficult to put down once you race into its final chapters. Much has been written about Mozley’s eye for landscape, but it was the characterisation that gripped me. Daniel, our narrator, is perhaps the least interesting of the trio who occupy the heart of the novel. A ‘girly’ boy who only very slowly realises that boys aren’t meant to have long hair or wear shirts that show off their midriffs, his struggles with masculinity are fundamentally blunted by the protection from the hostile world offered by Daddy and by ‘Daddy’s friend’, Vivian, who offers him scrappy education and a cozy home to retreat to for a few hours. What was interesting to me about Daniel wasn’t his confusion about gender – which I didn’t find especially original, as it’s been handled more interestingly in novels like Sara Taylor’s The Lauras – but the way in which his ultra-masculine Daddy seemingly accepts his feminine son unquestioningly. It would have been so easy to make this into yet another novel where a violent father tries to force a son into his own ideas of manhood. Instead, Mozley sets up a much more interesting scenario, creating a Daddy who, like Daniel, we passionately want to believe in – even if, by the end of the novel, we’re questioning whether we still can.

Cathy, like Daddy, is an absolute triumph of a character. Again, she could easily have slipped into the cliche of a wild tomboy girl, but she’s too firmly embedded in her own individuality. The vivid monologues that Mozley writes for a number of her characters are one of the most memorable aspects of Elmet, and Cathy gets all the best lines. She’s viciously angry about womanhood. After meeting Vivian, she tells Daniel, in prose that distantly recalls the prose-poetry of Eimear MacBride’s A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing:

‘Hers is the most horrible body I’ve ever seen… It’s her hips. She’s not even fat. There’s no extra weight on her, but her hip bones are so large and wide that she can’t move without considering them… God, it’s disgusting. Can you imagine running with hips like that?… Muscles on your thighs being twisted as you’re trying to run away and your knees trying to support those hips and your running thighs while trying to keep them in line with your feet. All of you trying to go forwards and bloody bones are holding you back. Jesus fucking Christ, I’d rather die.’

Cathy’s concern with being able to run away becomes more and more obvious when we find out about the sexualised assaults she’s already experienced, and the fear she feels when she hears about other women being raped and murdered. However, it’s also an account of the pain of female puberty under patriarchy that is rarely heard in fiction; the sense that you are becoming something that you so passionately don’t want to be, one of the ‘women’ who are assaulted and judged, oppressed and shamed. As Cathy says late in the novel:

‘Sometimes I can’t stop thinking about them. Sometimes I can’t stop thinking about how I’m turning into one of them. I’m older now and soon my body will be like theirs. I dindt want to end up in a ditch… We all grow into our coffins, Danny. And I saw myself growing into mine.’

I received a free copy of Elmet from the publisher for review.

The year of the mermaid

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Late one night in 1785, the merchant Jonah Hancock is startled when one of his sea captains arrives unexpectedly at his door. The captain has made what seems to be a terrible bargain: he’s sold one of Jonah’s ships in exchange for a dessicated curiosity, the preserved corpse of what he claims is a mermaid. Jonah, used only to the world of trade, is bewildered by the idea of exhibiting the creature, but determined to get at least some of his money back. As the mermaid catches the imagination of London’s fashionable society, Jonah is drawn into the orbit of the celebrated prostitute Angelica Neal, who is irritated by being ordered to charm this uninspiring man. But as the pull of the mermaid grows ever greater, we begin to wonder whether what Jonah has acquired really is just a freak and a fake, or whether there is something more sinister going on.

Imogen Hermes Gowar’s debut, The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, has already been compared to Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill and Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist, among others. It certainly depicts eighteenth-century society with as much vigour and fun as Spufford, and while the style is a light pastiche, it’s easier for the modern reader to get their head around than Spufford’s deliberately ornate prose. And like Burton’s debut, it tries to strike a compromise between historical realism and magical goings-on. Funnily enough, like The Miniaturist, I don’t think it quite succeeds – but the novel as a whole is so incredibly immersive that I could forgive it, even if I wanted to hear more about the mermaids who seem to be living their mysterious lives far beneath the waves. As the plot unfolds, Gowar keeps confounding our expectations; nothing about this novel is at all predictable, except perhaps for the spoiler given away by the title (which could, in my opinion, have been avoided by simply calling the book The Mermaid and Mr Hancock, even though the aptness of the current title becomes clear by the end of the novel).

The development of the central relationship between the flawed characters of Jonah and Angelica is assured and gripping, but I was even more taken by Gowar’s handling of the secondary female cast. The gaggle of courtesans that Angelica has trained among could easily be reduced into silly ciphers, but Gowar is careful to give them each lives and personalities of their own, especially Polly, a mixed-race woman who is becoming increasingly aware of how she is treated as an exotic curiosity by the society around her. Sukie, Jonah’s niece, who lives with him and keeps house, is equally engaging as she asserts her own intelligence and agency. In a different vein, but equally well-drawn, is Mrs Chappell, the ‘bawd’ who makes her living through the girls that she nurtures into prostitution, whose story has a horribly memorable ending that reminded me, oddly, of an equally shocking but very different scene in Golden Hill, perhaps because of the casualness of both books’ tone.

Those who come looking for mermaids might be slightly disappointed – but it looks like there are plenty of mermaids to come in fiction in 2018, from Kirsty Logan’s The Gloaming, which promises ‘a queer mermaid love story’, to Louise O’Neill’s The Surface Breaks, a retelling of the Little Mermaid. In the meantime, The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock is a wonderful historical novel, and I can’t wait to see what Gowar writes next.

I received a free proof copy of this novel for review via NetGalley. It’s out in the UK on 25th January.