‘My child and my child’s child’

51KmpXfMD3L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_This post will contain spoilers for Antonia Honeywell’s The Ship, and minor spoilers for Jane Rogers’s The Testament of Jessie Lamb.

Sixteen-year-old Lalla has grown up in a London that is slowly falling apart. Her father finally decides to launch his ambitious and audacious escape plan; a ship that will not just take himself, his wife and Lalla away from the chaotic mainland, but also transport 497 other people, handpicked  as deserving of rescue. Lalla is unimpressed by her father’s ingenuity, and rapidly disconcerted by life on the ship. Everything that its inhabitants could possibly need is provided for them, but what happens when its massive stores eventually run out? And where is the ship going, when the sun always sets on a different side of the deck? The reader works out these answers much more swiftly than Lalla; this huge ship is sailing in circles, with no intention of ever making landfall again, and when its supplies finally diminish, no-one currently alive on the ship will be around to worry about it. The ship itself is the new world that Lalla thought she was travelling to.

As this implies, Lalla’s naivety is the first reason why many might find her a difficult heroine, but Antonia Honeywell’s choice to depict her in all her stroppiness, impulsiveness and relative ignorance is ultimately very brave. Lalla is not easy to like, but her insistence on making her own life, and her fundamental belief that a true life cannot really be lived in a place that never changes, demands at least some respect from the reader. At first, Lalla’s objections to the ship seem childish, and her desire for particular objects she has never seen, like an apple, monstrously selfish in light of the terrible suffering that is happening elsewhere in the world. But we gradually realise that, for Lalla, a living apple is the symbol of the type of life that she will now never have. As she says to her father, ‘What is being alive if it is not to grow? And what is it to grow, if not to make something new.’ Threatening to leave the ship, she ultimately configures it as a mass grave: ‘I would rather die out there, looking for a future, than die here, knowing there is none.’ For Lalla, being able to contribute to the world that she lives in is fundamental to a meaningful existence. By imprisoning her in the ship and choosing her a suitably-vetted romantic partner, Lalla’s father has created a situation where he can actually fulfil the natural parental desire to forever protect a child from venturing out into a hostile world. But his fantasy only allows Lalla to be a passive, happy object.

51SjFemrHvL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Lalla’s relationship with her father has strong parallels with another recent piece of speculative fiction, Jane Rogers’s The Testament of Jessie Lamb, which I reviewed here. In sixteen-year-old Jessie’s world, all pregnant women are dying shortly after conceiving their children from a fictional disease called MDS. The only way to ensure that any children are born at all is to seek teenage volunteers to get pregnant and be put into comas so their child at least might be carried to term, even though they sacrifice their lives in the process. Jessie decides that she wants to be one of these volunteers; her father is, unsurprisingly, horrified, and imprisons her in her own home so she can’t put herself forward. Like Lalla, Jessie can be a frustrating heroine; her decision to die for her child feels hasty and unnecessary, and not a little anti-feminist; but we are forced to accept her argument that she deserves agency in her own life, even if the choice she makes is not one that we would want for her. Both girls could be speaking when Jessie says ‘You have to allow me to choose what to do.’ And both Honeywell and Rogers depict realistic adolescent girls that nevertheless are allowed the same depth of respect and understanding that we would afford to an adult character.

Nevertheless, the significance of both Lalla and Jessie reaches beyond what they choose to do as individuals. Both girls represent the importance of the future – the human impossibility of settling for a life without creation and work. As adolescents, the girls will be living in their dystopian worlds long after their parents are dead, and the pressing needs of their generation cannot be forgotten, even as older cohorts naturally seek safety and security after painful, active lives. As Lalla’s father tells her, ‘This ship is for the children’. ‘And their children?’ Lalla responds. ‘A beautiful life makes a present of death’, he tells her. ‘I have given you all a beautiful life.’ Lalla is unconvinced that what he is offering is anything more than a beautiful death.

 Similarly, for Jessie, the promise of a good life on other people’s terms is not enough. Her father tries to talk her out of her decision: ‘The future is an abstract concept, Jess,’ but Jessie can’t believe this: ‘No, it’s my child and my child’s child’. Both girls are concerned not only for their own generation but the generations that they will bring life to, understanding more clearly than their parents that the current situation is no sort of world for children to grow up in. It’s fitting that both girls’ stories revolve so closely around pregnancy, and that they both profess their intentions not to smother their children in the way that their fathers have tried to smother them. As Lalla tells her unborn child: ‘When you are born, little one, I will never say that I did this for you.’

Laura Rereading: Atticus on trial

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The edition I read as a teenager.

In this series of posts, I revisit books that I disliked as a teenager and see if my opinion has changed. For the (incomplete) list of upcoming books, see this post.

1. To Kill A Mockingbird: Harper Lee (1960)

I first read this novel in 2004, when I was aged seventeen. I remember having a sense that I was already quite behind; a parallel GCSE set had studied it for English Literature, while we did Susan Hill’s I’m The King of the Castle instead, but I had avoided reading it because it didn’t seem like my ‘thing’. I came to the novel with a sense that I ought to read it, and ought to like it, which, given my contrary teenage self (and let’s face it, I’m still like this today), made me predisposed to find fault with it. Oh, and I did. I read the novel swiftly and promptly declared to my history teacher that I ‘didn’t see what the point of it’ was, to which she responded with shock. Her reaction pleased me still further, confirming my sense of myself as avant-garde, and I didn’t pick up the novel again for more than ten years. Why didn’t I see the point of To Kill A Mockingbird? Well, as far as I can remember, I read it as a simple moralistic tale preaching that ‘racism is wrong’, and found this a point too obvious to be worth making.

***

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The (far inferior) edition that I read this year.

The first thing I should say is that I have not completely revised my opinion of To Kill A Mockingbird, although I found it a very different reading experience from the one that I remembered. Of course, my opinion of the novel was strongly coloured by the recent furore over its new prequel, Go Set A Watchman. I can’t deny that the distress surrounding the ‘revelation’ that the heroic Atticus is in fact a racist gave me a certain amount of pleasure, but it also intrigued me. Were the seeds there in the original novel, previously unperceived by most of its readers? If so, I thought, I might have misjudged Mockingbird; perhaps it was a much more complex book than my teenage self would admit.

First things first: I enjoyed reading the novel far more than I did when I was a teenager, especially the court sequences, which are genuinely gripping. Nevertheless, I found Scout’s voice, and the tone of much of the narration, rather peculiar. I feel I have to apologise for this somewhat startling comparison, but it often reminded me of the late Anne of Green Gables books, Anne of Ingleside, Rainbow Valley and Rilla of Ingleside, which deal with the (mis)adventures of Anne’s children. There’s something about the mix of Atticus’s moral code, as he conveys it to Scout and to Jem, and the ‘scrapes’ that they get into as they dare each other to get closer to the Radley Place, that brought forth this irresistible memory. Mockingbird, of course, strays into much darker territory – although, let’s not forget that the final Anne book deals squarely with the horrors of the First World War, with one beloved character dying in the trenches and another losing an eye. Yet it retains that sense of a relatively simple moral universe, which perhaps was part of what led to my teenage declaration about the ‘point’ of the novel.

The morality of Mockingbird is centred upon Atticus Finch. God in Scout’s eyes, he tells us how we ought to interpret everything that happens. I’m going to say it – I saw nothing in Mockingbird that makes Atticus’s latter-day portrayal as a fundamentally racist man at all surprising. Although I have not yet read Watchman, so there may be other reasons for the criticisms of his characterisation of which I’m not aware, it seemed to me that Atticus not only expresses a segregationist philosophy in Mockingbird, but that it would be a serious failure on Lee’s part not to explore the racist ideas that he would inevitably have internalised. As the novel stands, her exploration of the latter issue is limited and patchy, but there’s enough here to give us the sense that Atticus’s moral compass is not truly infallible. ‘As you grow older,’ he tells Jem, ‘you’ll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but… whenever a white man does that to a black man… that white man is trash.’ This key tenet of his philosophy, expressed several times throughout the novel, rests, however, on racist ground: ‘There’s nothing more sickening to me than a low-grade white man who’ll take advantage of a Negro’s ignorance.’

My problem with Mockingbird is not that Atticus Finch expresses racist ideas. It is – ironically, given the popular reaction to Watchman – that he is not racist enough, not as fundamentally implicated in the attitudes of his society as he should be. Although Lee’s handling of the experiences of black men and women in this small town is often subtle and nuanced, the heart of Mockingbird is ultimately quite simplistic. It is about a good white man – Atticus – trying, and failing, to save a good black man – Tom. But these men are good in different ways. Atticus has the privilege of thinking about his conscience; a favourite subject. ‘This case, Tom Robinson’s case, is something that goes to the essence of a man’s conscience – Scout, I couldn’t go to church and worship God if I didn’t try to help that man… before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.’ While Atticus is obviously aware of the horrific injustice Tom is suffering, his actions are also fundamentally self-centred; he cannot live with himself if he doesn’t fully defend the case. Tom, on the other hand, is presented by Atticus in the courtroom as the white man’s vision of a perfect black man: subservient, good, hard-working and honest. Tom has no choice but to be ‘good’, because it is the only way he might survive – and even then, this is a path that leads to his violent death as he tries to escape prison. We don’t get much sense of who Tom really is, behind the ‘good’ facade, because ultimately this novel is more interested in Atticus.

So, what’s my final verdict? Mockingbird is a strong story, well-told, and consistently readable. It has a ‘point’, even if that point is only to consider race relations in the Deep South in the 1930s through the eyes of a young white girl. But I struggle to make a case for it to be much more than that, because of the dominance of Atticus, a character we are clearly meant to read as a moral exemplar, regardless of any minor flaws that he might possess. I don’t find anything especially thought-provoking in the story of a great white man doing the right thing for an oppressed minority, or in the child’s-eye view that we get from Scout. Whatever faults Watchman may possess, it at least sounds as if it explores more shades of grey.

 

Monday Musings: 2016 reading plans

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Warning: this post is partly intended as a guide and reminder to myself, and is pretty long. Scroll down to the bottom if you just want to see what new books I want to pick up in 2016!

The TBR Pile

The majority of the books I’ve planned to read in 2016 are already on my TBR pile [some pictured have, unusually, already been read!!]:

The Blade Itself: Joe Abercrombie. I thought this was worth a try, but am already regretting picking it up from the charity shop after hearing some decidedly mixed reviews. Happy to abandon if it doesn’t grab me in the first fifty pages or so.

The Dig: Cynan Jones. I’ve heard that this is bleak, but brilliant, and at least its bleakness will be mitigated by its briefness. Gift from a friend!

The Temporary Gentleman: Sebastian Barry. I very much liked The Secret Scripture when I read it many years ago, but haven’t read any of Barry’s other loosely-linked Irish novels. Another charity-shop find.

Any Human Heart: William Boyd. I haven’t read any of Boyd’s novels, and I hear this is a good place to start. Also a gift from a friend.

CPX6RkBUsAYlml4Burley Cross Postbox Theft: Nicola Barker. This has been on my TBR pile longer than any other current inhabitant, but I’m still determined to read it someday! Free proof copy.

Losing Nelson: Barry Unsworth. Belongs to my husband, he tried to get rid of it but I rescued it.

The Magic Mountain: Thomas Mann. I’m becoming increasingly unconvinced I will ever actually read this but we shall see. Gift from a friend.

The Master: Colm Toibin. While I enjoyed Brooklyn, I didn’t adore it and I’ve never really got into anything else by Toibin. Hopefully this will change my mind. Charity shop.

10:04: Ben L51KmpXfMD3L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_erner. I declared last year that this was one of the books I was looking forward to in 2016, and I did at least get round to buying it. I loved Leaving the Atocha Station so I have high hopes for this. Actually purchased from a bookshop.

The Ship: Antonia Honeywell. Antonia gave such a fantastic talk at my Curtis Brown Creatve course about her first novel that I was immediately keen to read it. Borrowed from the library.

My Brilliant Friend: Elena Ferrante. I’ve been trying to find a novel in translation I’ll actually like, and everyone’s been raving about this! Borrowed from a friend.

Slade House: David Mitchell. I loved The Bone Clocks and this short ghost story looks equally engrossing. A Christmas gift from my husband.

The Eustace Diamonds and The Prime Minister: Anthony Trollope. I’ve read Can You Forgive Her?, Phineas Finn and Phineas Redux, so I’m starting to fill in the gaps in the Palliser series. Borrowed from my dad and bought from charity shop respectivelyy.

 UnknownOn The Kindle

I usually forget these books exist so this is a reminder.

Ancillary Justice: Ann Leckie. Reviewed positively by many of my favourite bloggers so had to try it when it was available for 99p. I’m expecting some bizarre genderless SF.

Now All Roads Lead to France: Matthew Hollis. Biography of the poet Edward Thomas, very well-reviewed on publication.

The Martian Chronicles: Ray Bradbury. I’ve been trying to read more SF, and this is an obvious classic.

J: Howard Jacobson. I want to try something by Jacobson, but this has been on my Kindle for at least a year.

DSC02255Mr B’s Reading Spa

I haven’t yet read four of the five books I got from this fabulous spa experience:

A Kind of Compass ed. Belinda McKeon: I’ve loved both of McKeon’s novels, and this collection of short stories seemed like an ideal way to discover interesting new writers.

Vampires in the Lemon Grove: Karen Russell. I read St Lucy’s Home For Girls Raised By Wolves some time ago, but found it intermittently brilliant and bizarre; I’ve been told that this later collection of short stories is better.

The Deep: James Nestor. Non-fiction exploration of free diving and deep-sea exploration. The deeps of the ocean are one of my amateur obsessions, so I was obviously going to read this.

The Round House: Louise Erdrich. Set on a Native American reservation in North Dakota, this book is narrated by thirteen-year-old Joe, who finds out that his mother has been raped. Erdrich has written numerous novels, but this is the first I’ve read.

Considering this existing pile of books, it’s clear that, with the exception of Erdrich, it isn’t going to get me much further towards my goal of reading more writers of colour in 2016 (also, the TBR pile and Kindle are clearly where all the white men have been hiding…), so I’ve tried to keep this in mind when choosing…

Marlon James-A Brief History of Seven KillingsNew Books to Buy, Borrow or Beg*

A Brief History of Seven Killings: Marlon James. James has been everywhere since his Booker win, but shamefully, I hadn’t heard of him until he was shortlisted. This book looks fantastic and I very much look forward to reading it.

Eligible: Curtis Sittenfeld. It’s a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice by Curtis Sittenfeld. Of course I have to read it. (April 2016)

Your Heart Is A Muscle The Size of a Fist: Sunil Yapa. Little Brown kindly offered me a free e-copy of this upcoming debut, which focuses on a riot in Seattle at the end of the twentieth century. (February 2016)

Everything is Teeth: Evie Wyld and Joe Sumner. Wyld’s second novel All The Birds, Singing was my favourite book of 2014, and I’m intrigued to try this graphic novel about sharks, although I don’t think I’ve ever read a graphic novel.

41RSlu19TOL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Closure ed. Jacob Ross. An edited collection of short stories by British writers of colour, this includes well-known writers such as Monica Ali and Bernadine Evaristo, but also lots of writers I haven’t heard of and whom I’m looking forward to discovering.

The Kindness of Enemies: Leila Aboulela. Split between nineteenth-century Russia and modern Scotland, this novel follows half-Sudanese academic Natasha in the present day and warrior Shamil in the 1850s. Requested free proof copy; I haven’t read anything by Aboulela before and I’m looking forward to trying her work.

The Bees: Laline Paull. I always read the Baileys shortlist, and this is the only book I haven’t read from the 2015 shortlist except the Anne Tyler. It looks weird and intriguing, and I was fascinated by bees as a child after reading Ned Kelly and the City of the Bees.

Go Set A Watchman: Harper Lee. After re-reading To Kill A Mockingbird, I’m especially intrigued to check this out.

I Let You Go: Clare Mackintosh. Mackintosh is coming to speak at my Curtis Brown course, so I’m keen to read this beforehand.

*request free proof copies of

The war inside

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Before beginning Everyone Brave Is Forgiven, my only previous experience of Chris Cleave’s writing was Gold, which I enjoyed reading, but also thought was lightweight and often overloaded by cliche. Given this, I couldn’t help wondering at first why I’d chosen to pick up yet another book largely set on the British home front during the Second World War, billed as focusing on two young lovers, by a writer whom I didn’t trust to handle this subject-matter well. I’m telling you this because it’s a credit to Cleave’s substantial achievement in this novel that he convinced me so quickly. Without giving anything away, Everyone Brave Is Forgiven is a book that consistently surprises and grips the reader. Whenever you feel you are on a well-trodden path, Cleave will change the way you are going, without ever sacrificing the integrity of his story for the sake of cheap shocks. And yet, he also simultaneously reinvents familiar scenes – such as the memorable section when two of his protagonists walk through blitzed London for the first time – and makes them feel real and immediate once more.

In September 1939, eighteen-year-old Mary North ‘leaves finishing school unfinished’ and signs up for the war effort. Assigned to the unglamorous duty of London schoolteaching, she meets and falls in love with education administrator Tom, who is questioning his own purpose after his best friend, Alistair, signs up to fight. Mary soon discovers that she does not fit into the prescriptive role of schoolteacher, but forges a real connection with her pupils, especially Zachary, a black boy whose father makes a living performing with a minstrel troupe. Alongside Mary and Tom’s domestic struggles, we follow two other key characters; Mary’s slightly resentful friend Hilda, and Alistair himself, who is eventually stationed at Malta, giving us a vantage point on the wider theatre of war. However, Everyone Brave Is Forgiven is not a straightforward love story for any of our protagonists, and in the end it is less about love than what we learn about ourselves under the most testing of conditions. While this isn’t an explicitly gory book, there are three or four especially shocking scenes that I know will stay with me, largely due to the clarity of Cleave’s description and his handling of what seems at times like an especially perverse fate. Tiny accidents have much bigger consequences, putting the reader in the shoes of those who are trying to survive the war while persistently having their destinies taken out of their own hands.

Characterisation is another obvious strength. Brittle, jolly, clever, often too obstinate and occasionally self-centred, Mary isn’t an especially likeable heroine, but I found her consistently compelling. Her relationship with Hilda, who feels she has stood too long in her friend’s shadow, is especially well-drawn, and develops ever greater nuance and complexity as the novel progresses. The connections between these two characters and the two men, Tom and Alistair, are beautifully handled; Cleave pulls off the difficult trick of making their shifting feelings feel organic, without making anyone seem fickle or inconsistent. Responses to trauma are also exceptionally well-done, as each reacts in their own individual way. Even better, Cleave starts Mary in a very familiar place, as a rebel against social norms, but his empathy with her conventional mother as well as with Mary’s own determination to change the world makes this old theme far richer. I had one complaint with this novel, it would be the dialogue. The dialogue is in fact written brilliantly – it’s snappy, often hilarious, memorable, and flows so easily. Unfortunately, these obvious strengths create the persistent flaw of masking the characters’ own individual voices. Exchanges between Hilda and Mary start to sound exactly the same as conversations between Alistair and his fellow officer in Malta, and although their inward worlds are sufficiently well-distinguished to counter this to some extent, I did wonder whether Cleave’s obvious gift for dialogue had led him to get a bit carried away with the clever humour at the expense of his characters.

This is a gripping, genuinely moving novel that was one of my favourites this year. I highly, highly recommend it (and I’ll now be checking out Cleave’s backlist in the hope that Gold was just a blip).