20 Books of Summer, #5 and #6: Negroland and American War

I’m behind on 20 Books of Summer AGAIN (although I have finished #7 and am now reading #8 and #9, so it’s not quite as bad as the post title makes out). This is mostly to do with moving house and having little time to read, but a little bit also to do with the fact that I found both of these books hard going, and kept on picking up other things. In the case of Negroland, this was probably my fault; in the case of American War, this was probably the book’s fault.

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Margo Jefferson’s Negroland, despite its subtitle, is only a ‘memoir’ in the loosest of senses. Jefferson examines the world of the black American elite into which she was born in the 1950s, glancing back to mid-nineteenth-century black writers who tried to justify the ‘Negro’s’ place in society by condemning the majority of their fellows and extolling the ‘Talented Tenth’. The book focuses on the tension between class and race, and how wealthy black people tried to navigate this by, on the one hand, adopting white beauty standards, mannerisms and norms, but on the other hand, recognising the casual racism of their friends and neighbours. Jefferson recalls reciting a Langston Hughes poem with her sister and making fun of the dialect, only to be rebuked by her mother: ‘This is a beautiful poem and, girls, you are butchering it.’ The wish to fit in with her white peers, to not have to worry about these kind of things, is palpable throughout Jefferson’s retelling of her childhood.

Negroland is deliberately disjointed, taking its own project apart. ‘I think it’s too easy to recall unhappy memories when you write about race,’ Jefferson reflects. ‘You arrange your angers at their most becoming angles.’ She repeats this line very near the end of her memoir, but replaces ‘write about race’ with ‘write about yourself.’ There’s a sense that she’s uncomfortable with the whole project, often digressing from her own memories to write about other things, and it was this aspect of Negroland that I struggled with. Most of the chapters are so bitty that I found I kept losing attention. Jefferson is open about the fact that she is tired of having to come back to the subject of race, while, at the same time, closely chronicling various manifestations of structural racism that make her return inevitable; skin-lightening creams, the limitations of fictional representations of black characters, the disgust aimed by white people at the majority of black Americans, which meant that privileged girls like Jefferson had to behave perfectly at all times to prove they were ‘not like them’. Nevertheless, as Negroland maps her struggles within her own psyche, I found – as with Sigrid Rausing’s Mayhem – that it felt incomplete and unfinished, a sketch for something bigger.

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Omar El Akkad’s American War is set in the relatively recent future, after a second civil war has torn apart America, leading to frequent altercations between Southern rebels and the remains of the Union. Sarat, its hefty, belligerent protagonist, becomes a refugee at the age of six and spends her adolescence in a camp on the border between Mississippi and Tennessee, where she is drawn into insurgent action. Like many dystopian novels – Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Naomi Alderman’s The Power are two obvious examples – American War has a framing narrative; but in this case, its narrator, Benjamin, is much closer to the events he’s describing than framing-narrative narrators usually are. I liked this device, demonstrating how much is at stake in the writing of history, and El Akkad makes clever use of a range of invented ‘sources’ throughout this novel, expanding on his world-building through reports, censored letters, records of compensation claims and extracts from memoirs. American War also has an obvious point to make: by making the bodies of Americans and the land that they live on the site of conflict, with anonymous benefactors from China and the Bouazizi Empire (a unified Middle East that has experienced ‘five springs’) sending care packages, El Akkad replays America’s foreign wars on its own soil.

Despite all this promising material, I felt weirdly distanced from most of American War, and couldn’t really work out why. I don’t entirely agree with this review, but its point about place seems apt to me; apart from Sarat’s affinity for swimming in swamps, there seems little particular about the setting of American War, which feels bizarre given the rich history of depictions of the South in US literature. Having read this alongside Negroland, I would also agree that the seeming irrelevance of race in this imagined future doesn’t ring true. But furthermore, I’d add, three-quarters of American War plays out as a frustratingly cliched guerrilla dystopian novel, with the expected plot beats (escape; massacre; recruitment; torture). El Akkad tries to think his way into Sarat’s head, but even his too-rare attempts to explore her internal landscape feel a bit rehearsed and unconvincing, as when she thinks about her body in relation to the bodies of the boys she knows, and wishes that being big and strong was seen as a good thing for girls. (Compare, for example, Fiona Mozley’s treatment of the same subject with Cathy in Elmet). The book suddenly came alive for me in its final quarter, when we switch into Benjamin’s first-person perspective, and all the pain, guilt, moral turmoil and broken alliances we’ve been told about abruptly feel real. Even Sarat feels more like an actual person when she’s seen through Benjamin’s eyes. I wished that El Akkad had given us much less of Sarat’s backstory, and much more of what happens after the supposed end of the civil war in 2095. Flipping the novel like this – with the backstory held back rather than presented to us on a plate – would have allowed him to explore questions of culpability and revenge much more deeply.

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Two girls in London and Ghana, 2002

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When I first saw the synopsis of Hold, Michael Donkor’s debut novel, not to mention its beautiful cover, I immediately knew I’d want to read this book. Belinda, an obedient and dutiful house-girl in Kumasi, is summoned to London at the behest of the family she works for to deal with a disobedient relative, Amma. Amma, born in London to Ghanaian parents, seems to be going off the rails; but nobody knows that this is because she’s struggling with her own sexuality. Belinda has to navigate this new and confusing metropolis while missing her younger friend Mary, whom she worked alongside in Kumasi, and whose rebellious nature both bothered and amused her. As Belinda and Amma move from mutual dislike and incomprehension to the beginnings of a friendship, they both realise that there’s more to the other one than meets the eye.

Hold is at its best when exploring how foreign London looks through Belinda’s eyes, and how strange and archaic Belinda’s world seems to Amma. It’s set in 2002, so even readers who know south London well will feel a little off-kilter, and Donkor does a good job of recalling the teenage experience at the turn of the millennium (I’m not a Londoner, but I was only a few years younger than Amma in 2002!) The exoticising conventions of Western fiction about Africa, with their detailing of ‘unusual’ practices and customs, are turned on their head as Belinda explores the local area:

Belinda walked just behind Nana as they made their way along noisy Brixton High Road… The sky was bored, the traffic was angry. Everything around them beeped or screamed… Three striped white vans with swirling blue lights moaned. Buses bent round corners looking like sick caterpillars. Both Nana and Belinda were careful to avoid stubby black bins that choked on packets and bottles, and that made Nana hiss ‘Lambeth Council’ like those words were bad kenkey on her tongue. A tall man with wheels on his shoes sailed  through it all peacefully… On her left… a group of children played silver drums… Two women with flopping hats stopped to dance in front of the band, wiggling their bottoms and holding their breasts.

As Belinda gets to know Amma better, Amma brings her along to a party, where she observes what’s going on in similarly anthropological terms: ‘A white boy with dreadlocks … hooked his fingers into the belt loops of a girl’s jeans. He pulled her towards him. The girl didn’t mind, even though she stumbled because the rug bunched under her… They both started attacking with tongues and lips.’

There’s great material here about race – Amma’s experiences as a black girl in Brixton versus Belinda’s navigation of her identity as a Ghanaian woman – and about sexuality and its intersection with ethnicity and culture.

However, I found Hold to be a laborious read, largely because of Donkor’s writing. As the long passage above indicates, his prose tends to be a bit convoluted, whether he’s writing from Amma’s point of view or Belinda’s. Dialogue is a particular problem. To an extent, I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt on this one; the Ghanaian characters living in Kumasi are obviously speaking with a very distinctive rhythm, mixing English and Twi, and it’s not possible for me to make any judgment about the authenticity of this kind of speech. But unfortunately, although his London teenagers have different speech patterns, I encountered many of the same issues with their dialogue. Here’s Amma talking to her friend Helena:

And now for that promised hashy hash.” Helena stopped to change the CD from De La Soul to Bob Dylan, wiped her hands on her faded T-shirt with Babar on it, then reached for the wooden pipe to her left and tapped ash from its bowl. She wrestled with her pockets. “The dark cloud hasn’t, like, lifted then, ma petite soeur?” Helena said, peering into the retrieved baggie.

“What?”

Obviously I’m talking about how you’ve been Lily Long Face all afternoon.”

You told me I should “do pensive”, so I’m doing – 

” – And what about how dry you were at Max’s? Mmm? I needed you there, man.”

I was there.”

Come on, Am. Support was required. Lavender needed controlling. She’s becoming a real joke. It’s like she’s forgotten that she’s actually, er, supposed to be a feminist?”

Donkor seems to be trying to approximate a distinctive mix of popular private-school phrases (the use of French) alongside teenage girls’ tendency to uptalk and add filler words alongside fake street slang (‘man’ and ‘dry’), and for me, it’s just too much, all at once. Despite the attempt at authenticity and the thought that’s gone into these girls’ mixed linguistic influences, he’s ended up with something that doesn’t sound like a conversation anybody would actually have. Moreover, there’s simply too much going on in this scene – the ‘period’ details with the CDs and Babar, the fact that we have to follow this conversation with few dialogue tags when the girls are talking about something we don’t know about beforehand – and, like the longer descriptive passages in the book, it ends up feeling cluttered.

My other issue with Hold was the structure. The novel moves between Amma and Belinda’s narratives, but we get about two-thirds Belinda to one-third Amma, and I would have preferred a more equal distribution. By the end of the book, I felt that Amma’s struggle with her lesbianism had been short-changed and unresolved, and much of the more interesting material in her story was still to come. In contrast, Belinda’s character arc feels painfully small given her page-space, although, as I said above, she’s a great observer. There’s such huge potential here, for both plot and character, but I ended up feeling very disappointed.

I received a free proof copy of Hold from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 12th July 2018.

Three Things… June 2018

Borrowed from Paula at Book Jotter.

Reading

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I’m on the last hundred pages of my book club’s choice for this month, Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and I’m feeling pretty disappointed. The Immortal Life… deals with the story of a black, working-class American woman called Henrietta Lacks who died of cervical cancer at the age of only thirty-one. When a sample of cells was taken from her cervix, they unexpectedly became ‘immortal’, and became central to much significant scientific research in the decades to come as the HeLa cell line. However, nobody told Henrietta’s family what had happened to her cells, asked for their consent, or explained the facts of the matter when they did find out what was going on. This was obviously traumatic for a family haunted by the history of medical experimentation on enslaved black Americans, more recent scandals such as Tuskagee, and their own lack of access to medical treatment. Skloot deals with both the medical history of the HeLa line and the story of Henrietta’s family.

The Immortal Life isn’t working for me for two main reasons. Firstly – as someone who is used to undertaking oral history and applying to ethical committees for clearance – the ethics of Skloot’s project remain unclear. Skloot writes scathingly about other attempts to uncover Henrietta’s life, but is not specific enough about why hers is any different. Why did an elite white woman decide so unwaveringly that this was the story she wanted to tell? The scene where she badgers Henrietta’s relatives until they agree to talk to her made me feel particularly uncomfortable. Skloot frequently alludes to the idea that Henrietta’s relatives approve of her book, but I wanted her to say a lot more about what they saw and how they vetted it – if not in the book itself, than in the Afterword.

My second concern is more to do with me as a reader. I’m finding the scientific material in The Immortal Life frustratingly simplistic, especially after having recently read Meredith Wadman’s The Vaccine Race, which gave me a lot more to get my teeth into. While I’m not knowlegeable enough to fully critique it, Skloot misses out the really interesting details and proceeds at a sub high-school/A Level rate (a cell is ‘like a fried egg’); she also definitely gets some things wrong (shortening telomeres cannot be straightforwardly linked to cell ageing). This isn’t what I want in my popular science, and as the medical ethics aspects of the book also fall short, my overall impression is that this book was a bit of a wasted opportunity.

Watching

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I’ve just finished the first season of 3% on Netflix, a Brazilian-made, low-budget show that’s been (annoyingly) dubbed into American English but is pretty watchable all the same. The set-up is Hunger Games-esque; the population lives in poverty, but when you turn twenty, you have one chance to join the elite 3% who live on the Offshore by passing the Process, a series of mental, physical and emotional tests. I’m enjoying the diverse cast (lots of characters of colour, including a prominent disabled character who actually gets to have a love life) and the twist at the end of the first season promises interesting avenues to explore in the future. I’m also looking forward to Netflix’s new series of Anne With An E and Orange Is The New Black, both of which I love.

Outside Netflix, my local independent cinema, the Tyneside, is having a Jane Campion season. Having already seen two of her best-known films, The Piano and Bright Star, I’m planning to see Holy Smoke and a collection of her very early work, Two Friends and Early Shorts, in the next few weeks. I will also continue enjoying the terribleness that is Holby City on the BBC (and celebrating its genuinely refreshing depiction of a happy relationship between a bisexual woman and a lesbian, both in their fifties) and Channel 4’s Bake Off: The Professionals (formerly Crème de la Crème) which I controversially prefer to the actual Bake Off.

Thinking

 UnknownI’ve just got back from the Children’s History Society conference at the University of Greenwich, which was full of interesting papers that gave me things to think about for my own work on the history of childhood. I particularly liked Emily Barker’s paper on adult ideas about children’s play in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s, and the tensions between those who promoted play – should play spaces allow children to have absolute freedom from adult authority, or should play be guided by trained adults (‘playworkers’)? This mirrored some of my own research on progressive/child-centred education in the same period. A fantastic panel on ‘Moving Histories of Child Welfare’ featured research from Jono Taylor, Sean Male and Michael Lambert on child evacuees and children in care in wartime and post-war Britain, while the two other speakers on my panel, ‘Young People, Education and Political Engagement’, Helen Sunderland and Rebecca de Schweinitz, both gave great papers. Helen’s research – on how deeply politically engaged elite Victorian and Edwardian adolescent girls were – was particularly fascinating, and she’s also found some evidence of political engagement among working-class girls, some of whom struck from school in 1914 when a half-day at the local boys’ school wasn’t extended to them (the male teachers got time off to watch a football match!).

GUEST POST. Bruce Bogtrotter: A Case Study in Resistance

This is a guest post by Dr Sebastian Nye, lecturer in philosophy at Oxford, inspired by my previous post on The Demon Headmaster.

My childhood copy of Matilda on the left; the newest version on the right.

Fat boys do not, as a rule, come across well in Roald Dahl stories. Usually they are all-consumed with gluttony, unable to attend to anything beyond the next mouthful. Bruno Jenkins, in The Witches, is depicted as so obsessed with eating that he not only misses the danger posed by the witches, but also the fact that he has been turned into a mouse. However, there is one glorious exception: Bruce Bogtrotter from Matilda. Bruce is a pupil at Crunchem Hall, presided over by the discipline-obsessed and sadistic Miss Trunchbull. The school is introduced as a place where punishment is swift and dissent is almost impossible. While the regime is finally overthrown by Matilda, Bruce is at the centre of the first act of successful resistance. In keeping with the fat kids in Dahl’s other works, Bruce lets gluttony get the better of him and steals a slice of Miss Trunchbull’s private chocolate cake. He is caught and the headmistress subjects him to the most humiliating punishment she can think of.

Bruce is given the seemingly impossible task of eating the rest of the giant cake in front of the whole school. Trunchbull no doubt expects him to be violently sick or, at the very least, become an object of universal disgust, leading to merciless bullying from the other kids for years to come. However, she miscalculates: the kids hate her more than they are disgusted by him. Far from taunting Bruce, they cheer him on and, when he finishes the cake, is applauded as a hero. Trunchbull is so furious that she smashes the cake platter over his head. Happily, Bruce is too full of cake for it to harm him. This is a turning point in the book. While it does not overthrow Trunchbull a crucial step is taken towards that end: successful resistance is shown to be possible. The children in Tim Minchin’s musical adaptation express the significance of this by singing: ‘We never thought it was possible/but here it is coming true/we can have our cake and eat it too’.

Organised acts of resistance by children against school authorities certainly occur. One wonderful example took place in 1972, when ten thousand British school children walked out of school to protest the use of corporal punishment. Despite this, the depiction of such organised resistance in children’s fiction is relatively unusual. However, Matilda, and the episode with Bruce Bogtrotter in particular, is not only significant because it depicts resistance by children against their school. It is significant because of what it tells us about protest and resistance more generally. When people think of protest and resistance, at least in liberal democracies, they often have in mind specific kinds of activities such going on a demonstration with a banner, signing a petition, writing a blog, and so on. Going on strike is about as radical as it gets. These activities are, for the most part, safe, familiar, predictable and easily identifiable. That is not necessarily a bad thing. However, it does lead to a view of protest and resistance which is, I think, unfortunately narrow. There are three important points to draw out about the episode with Bruce each of which, in different ways, puts pressure this arguably narrow conception of resistance.

The first is that what constitutes an act of process depends, very largely, on context. If eating a chocolate cake can, in the right circumstances, be an act of resistance, then anything can. (As a chubby kid myself, this was certainly the kind of protest I can get behind.) Gandhi made some salt, Rosa Parks sat on a seat, and Bruce ate a cake. Acts of resistance and protest should not be understood as a handful of discrete activities. Second, even acts which are prima facie objectionable can be valid and important acts of protest. I, myself, do not think that there is anything disgusting in being an overweight kid who eats chocolate cake. As I mentioned, I was that kid. However, Dahl clearly did, and that is the prescribed response from the text. Accepting that Bruce is a disgusting glutton does not, however, do anything to lessen his act of protest. Just as Diogenes the Cynic illustrates that defecation and masturbation can be valid forms of protest despite being disgusting (indeed, because they are disgusting), so Bruce demonstrates that vice and valuable resistance are not mutually exclusive. ‘Dignified protest’ is usually used as a term of praise, but perhaps there is something to be said for undignified protest.

Third, even obedience to authority can constitutes resistance against it. Bruce, after all, did exactly what he was told to do. In a sense, all that happened was that he was told to eat a chocolate cake and he ate a chocolate cake. By doing exactly what he was told to do, he highlighted Trunchbull’s weaknesses; in particular, that she understood neither his eating capacities nor, more importantly, the school’s social dynamic and her own unpopularity relative to his. Defiant obedience can show up authority, and exploitation of this can be powerful. A perhaps stretched comparison can be made with Socrates. At his trial, as reported in the Apology, Socrates did what he was officially supposed to do: defend himself, honestly and truthfully, against the charges made against him. However, he deliberately and explicitly failed to do what he was unofficially supposed to do: weep, wail, present his children and wife in floods of tears, and beg for the mercy and kindness of the Athenians.

As a result, Socrates highlighted the hypocrisy of the Athenians and the judicial process, which purportedly aimed at establishing the truth, and as a result received the death sentence. Again, we are told in Crito that Socrates was widely expected to flee the city before his execution. (Indeed, it seems that the Athenians wanted him gone but did not want to get blood on their hands, so Socrates fleeing was the generally preferred outcome.) However, once again, Socrates did what he was officially supposed to do – stay and be executed – rather than what the Athenians expected and wanted him to do. This is another act of defiant resistance against Athens, which made Socrates a martyr. Although, as an act of defiant resistance, consuming chocolate cake is preferable to hemlock.

20 Books of Summer, #3 and #4: How To Survive A Plague and Exit West

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David France’s monumental history of the activist campaigns to gain public attention, funding, and appropriate healthcare interventions for the fight against HIV/AIDS in the USA in the 1980s and early 1990s, How To Survive A Plague, is an incredible achievement. France was a young gay journalist in New York during this period, and so this is literally front-line reporting; as France says near the end of the book, by the age of thirty-five, he had lived his entire adult life in the shadow of death. He highlights the criminal neglect of HIV/AIDS by the Reagan and Bush administrations, and by the mainstream media, noting that, in the early years of the epidemic, there was virtually no coverage of the hundreds of deaths, in comparison to the huge headlines that had accompanied an outbreak of legionnaires’ disease in Philadelphia in 1976, which had only claimed 34 lives. The lack of knowledge about the gay community confirmed old stereotypes and created new ones, hindering medical research. At first, it was believed even by sympathetic doctors that gay sex itself might be the cause of the disease, triggering an immune reaction – a theory that was swiftly disproven as female and/or heterosexual cases emerged.

What How To Survive A Plague really brought home to me that, for some reason, other fiction and non-fiction about HIV/AIDS had not was the heart-wrenching irony of a disease that targeted sexually active people spreading through a community that had so recently fought for the right to live and love as they wanted. In the very early days of HIV/AIDS – before it became clear that condoms prevented the spread of the disease – it might be hard to understand why some gay men continued to have sex with each other despite knowing that they were risking their lives, but at the same time, having experienced the pain of living closeted half-lives before gay liberation in the 1970s, returning to those restraints was also unbearable. France highlights how it was the efforts of organisations led by gay men and lesbians, such as ACT UP, People With AIDS and TAG that secured funding for AIDS research and fought against some particularly cruel practices in medical trials of new drugs, such as forcing patients to discontinue all other medication, and excluding groups such as women, African-Americans and IV drug users because they were not seen as ‘typical’ sufferers.

How To Survive A Plague, at more than 500 pages, is a dense read, and I found myself getting lost in the numerous names at times; a quick guide to the key figures at the start of the book would have been a very helpful tool. It’s also primarily a history of activism, not a exploration of the science behind the development of effective treatment for HIV/AIDS; although some popular science features, I would happily have read more of this and a little less of the complicated network of alliances and rivalries that developed between particular activist figures and groups. Only a few key figures – such as Peter Staley, who went from straight-passing Wall Street bonds trader to a gay radical breaking onto the trading floor to protest the prohibitively high price at which Burroughs Wellcome were selling HIV/AIDS drug AZT – stood out to me in France’s writing. Nevertheless, this is a book that had to be written, and France seems like the right person to have written it. (He also produced a 2012 documentary of the same name).

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Mohsin Hamid’s Booker-shortlisted novel, Exit West, is a hauntingly simple story, told in the language of modern fairytale, but with the brutality of the refugee crisis at its core. Saeed and Nadia meet in a war-torn city. As conditions get worse, they hear that doors – closet doors, bedroom doors, garage doors – are becoming gateways to other countries, allowing people to escape their present situation, but at risk of repression and death elsewhere. Throwing in their lot together, Saeed and Nadia take a trip through one of those doors. Hamid’s writing reminded me strongly – and strangely – of Robin McKinley’s, a writer I’ve grown up loving, and who has spent her career either retelling familiar fairytales or making up new ones of her own (Beauty; Rose Daughter; The Hero and the Crown; Sunshine). Both writers have the gift of putting together sentences that are utterly simple but totally rooted; there’s a sense that they know exactly what they are doing, and that the lack of detail – nameless cities, places that have few distinguishing features – is always deliberate. Exit West is so thematically different from any of McKinley’s work that I kept on trying to reject this comparison while I was reading the novel, and then kept on returning to it. But anyway, it’s a beautiful and short book that I definitely read too fast; I’d like to return to it some time and take it more slowly.

Next up for 20 Books of Summer: I’m reading Negroland, and have Built waiting on my shelf.

20 Books of Summer, #2: Educated

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Tara Westover’s memoir Educated isn’t really about education as we might think we understand it – education as it’s understood by schools and universities. What it is about is finding a sense of one’s separate self in an environment that wants to subsume you entirely. Westover grew up in rural Idaho, the youngest of seven children born to a fundamentalist Mormon family. Her father believed that he could only preserve his own safety and that of his wife and children by separating them from the world, so Westover had no birth certificate, never attended school, and spent the early years of her life canning peaches in preparation for the apocalypse. As a result, her knowledge of the outside world was incredibly limited: when she enrolled in formal education for the first time, starting at Brigham Young University (BYU) at the age of seventeen, she didn’t realise she had to read her art history textbook rather than just looking at the pictures, and had never heard of the Holocaust. On the surface, Westover’s story is about how she got from being the girl who had read little except for the Bible, the writings of Mormon religious leaders and the American founding fathers to the woman who graduated with a PhD from Cambridge – except that it isn’t really about that either.

Westover’s father, and one of her brothers, were fundamentally abusive, and her mother – successful in her own right, first as the local midwife and then through running a business selling herbal remedies – colluded in the abuse. Westover writes incredibly well about how she came to understood who she was outside the belief system built up by her father, where lumps of scrap were often flung in her direction across the junkyard where they all worked with no regard for safety, because the Lord would keep her safe, and because caring little about danger was one of the things that made the Westovers who they were. She sees herself as an adult as if from the outside: ‘I tried to imagine what future such a woman might claim for herself. I tried to conjure other scenes in which she and her father were of two minds. Where she ignored his counsel and kept her own. But my father had taught me that there are not two reasonable opinions to be had on any subject: there is Truth and there is Lies… I understood that no future could hold them; no destiny could tolerate him and her. I would remain a child, in perpetuity, always, or I would lose him.’ Later, she writes: ‘I am not the child my father raised, but he is the father who raised her.’

Westover’s upbringing, and the kind of texts that she absorbed in her childhood and adolescence, explain something of Educated’s strengths and weaknesses. On the whole, her writing is powerful in its simplicity, but she falls down on invented dialogue, which is often stilted and cliched (“You must stop yourself from thinking like that… You are not fool’s gold, shining under a particular light.”) The basic structure of her story also assumes that education is an unmitigated good, even as she highlights fundamental barriers for those who haven’t had the expected middle-class experiences. Because of this, the memoir has little to say about education in itself, rather than education as a road to salvation, although for Westover (and the two of her siblings who also have doctorates) the response to their father’s imposed knowledge starvation was clearly to consume as much learning as they could. For these reasons, Educated didn’t bowl me over quite as thoroughly as I’d expected it to, but it’s still a powerful, brave and thought-provoking book.

Screen Shot 2018-06-18 at 10.03.58 Reading Educated in Tynemouth

Genre fiction round-up, June 2018

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I’ve wanted to read Cass Hunter’s The After Wife ever since I heard its premise. Rachel is working on a secret AI project when she unexpectedly dies, leaving behind her grieving husband Aidan and daughter Chloe. However, Rachel anticipated the possibility of her early demise and, in a cross between Humans and the Black Mirror episode ‘Be Right Back’, has left her family a robot, iRachel, that contains her memories and looks exactly like her. Rachel’s plans extend to practicalities: she writes a code into the robot that forces Aidan and Chloe to keep it in their house while they get used to it, and downloads various letters and messages to them that the robot can access at key moments. However, as iRachel learns more about human life, she begins to take on a life of her own.

While Hunter’s writing is very simple – characters and their relationships tend to be rose-tinted sketches, especially the central relationship between Rachel and Aidan – there is something undeniably moving about The After Wife. Much of the plot development is predictable, especially iRachel’s gradual education, but this leaves space for some nice interactions between the characters who are still alive. I liked the way that Chloe was written, the positive representation of her female friendships, and the way she was allowed to be a full, autonomous person rather than a stereotypical teenager. The juxtaposition of the declining faculties of Aidan’s mother, who is suffering from dementia, with iRachel’s perfect memory, is nothing new in this kind of speculative fiction, but it’s done sweetly, with a genuine rapport building up between the grandmother and the robot. And iRachel’s final decision is somewhat unexpected, adding a slight twist to an otherwise straightforward narrative.

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

 

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Phoebe Locke’s debut psychological thriller, The Tall Man, moves between three timelines. First, we’re introduced to a group of young girls in the 1980s, who are sharing stories about the mysterious Tall Man, who ‘takes daughters’ but can also ‘make you special’. Second, we read about Miles and Sadie, who are expecting their first child in 1999. But shortly after her daughter Amber’s birth, Sadie disappears, fearful that otherwise the Tall Man will follow her. This thread picks up in 2016, when Sadie returns to reunite with Amber and Miles. Finally, we meet Amber in 2018, when she’s become notorious after her involvement in a murder case. Straight off, it’s obvious that The Tall Man is trying to handle a bit too much at once. While I didn’t find the multiple timelines confusing as such, I found it difficult to remember what the central mysteries of the book were, and what was motivating the characters in each timeline.

Locke handles the Tall Man himself adeptly for most of the novel, capturing the eeriness of the stories that children tell among themselves. But – and I’m finding this increasingly often with this kind of novel – I felt she should have given the supernatural element of the novel a bit more space. In the final chapters, the novel pretty much falls back on a familiar psychological thriller ending, and I felt this was a wasted opportunity. I understand that Locke probably didn’t want to dive too deeply into speculative fiction, but this book lacked the kind of otherworldly hint that Tana French (for example) handles so well in her crime novels In The Woods and The Secret Place.

The Tall Man also suffers from pacing problems, in that it sags in the middle then tries to wrap up its multiple threads far too quickly at the end. I ended up feeling quite confused about what exactly had happened, and there seemed to be a lot of loose ends. I’m happy with endings that leave us with unanswered questions, but there seemed to be far too many here – most notably concerning the Tall Man, the most interesting part of the novel for me. The Tall Man definitely shows promise, and takes a rather different tack from many psychological thrillers, which is refreshing. It’s an original and gently creepy read that’s ultimately let down by its poor structure.

I received a free copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 14th June.

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I very much enjoyed Sabine Durrant’s last three psychological thrillers, Under Your Skin, Remember Me This Way and Lie With Me, so I was really looking forward to reading Take Me In, and it didn’t disappoint. In fact, I think it’s her best yet. Marcus and Tessa are on holiday with their toddler son, Josh. When they briefly take their eyes off him, he stumbles into the sea and is rescued by a tattooed stranger, Dave Jepsom. Marcus struggles with the belief that he ought to have saved his own son, while Tessa has to live with the guilt of knowing that at the time Josh almost drowned, she was on the phone to a man she’s having an affair with. When the couple return to England, they try to put the incident behind them, but both start seeing Dave everywhere. What does he want from them and will they ever be able to escape him?

Durrant’s writing puts her work a notch above most psychological thrillers, and Take Me In is particularly clever in its use of dual perspectives. As Marcus and Tessa take turns to narrate the story, we realise how many small misunderstandings and miscommunications are leaving them out of step with each other, and how they both unreliably relate their interactions with the rest of the world. My only problem with the dual narration is that the characters’ voices sounded too similar – so I would occasionally become confused about whose point of view we were in – but this didn’t really impair my enjoyment of the novel. Durrant is also not afraid to leave questions unanswered, which, to my mind, deepened the personalities of her characters. We know, for example, that Tessa had a hard time growing up, but we never find out the full story – which makes her feel more like a real person. Some readers may struggle with this open-endedness, especially when it comes to the novel’s conclusion, but for me, not knowing everything made Take Me In much more memorable. I liked being left to think about the deliberate loose ends.

Take Me In is a smart, gripping thriller that’s definitely up there with other recent hits such as Erin Kelly’s He Said/She Said.

I received a free copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 28th June.