Approaching God with contrary requests

9781847088369About a third of the way through Chinelo Okparanta’s debut novel, her protagonist, Ijeoma, who at this time is a teenage girl attending a predominantly Igbo school in early 1970s Nigeria, goes to visit an onye ocha [white] minister. Ijeoma has a secret; she is in love with a classmate, Amina, who is not only female, but Hausa. Doubly divided from the person she loves, and having already been told by her mother that her desires are unnatural, Ijeoma knows precisely what she wants to pray for. When the schoolgirls line up to receive their own personal miracles from the minister, Ijeoma only tells him that her ailment ‘pertained to the heart.’ However, Amina is having doubts about their relationship, battling with the ostracism she has already faced due to her sexuality. She asks the minister for something quite different, as Ijeoma tells us:

[Amina’s] face was somber, and though at the time I did not have the slightest clue what miracle she was asking the onya ocha to perform for her, sometimes these days I think I know. Sometimes I speculate that she must have gotten exactly what she wished for. But at the time, it appeared that it was I who would get my wish. Maybe this is the way it goes when people approach God with contrary requests. How does God choose whose request to fulfill?

This incident encapsulated for me the power of Under the Udala Trees; the way it uses the language of folktale, both literally – Ijeoma encounters a number of Nigerian stories throughout her journey, and replays some of them in her dreams – and figuratively, suggesting that this is the sort of story that has been missing and now ought to be told. This use of traditional story structure is interwoven with the simple Biblical language that Ijeoma grew up hearing. When her mother discovers that she is in love with another girl, she tries to eradicate her desires by reading her passages from the Bible that ‘prove’ the wrongness of what she is doing. Okparanta’s depiction of Ijeoma’s state of mind during this period of her life is beautifully done, demonstrating how she desperately tries to make sense of the information that is being thrown at her, but is too intelligent to take what is said at face value. She genuinely grapples with these old-fashioned arguments, and when she feels she has found a solution, she takes it to her mother joyfully – only to realise that, at least at that time, her mother is unable to think beyond what she has been taught.

Happily, Ijeoma’s story does not end with Amina. After her graduation, she meets a new lover, Ndidi, a teacher who introduces her to the underground lesbian and gay communities near the town where they live. Through Ndidi, she discovers that there are other people like her but also, when a church where they are meeting is attacked, the prejudice and violence that they face. Ijeoma, however, is still caught between her mother’s teachings and her craving to be who she truly is.

The folkloric power of Under the Udala Trees also imposes strict limitations on this novel. Okparanta’s writing is beautiful and moving, and the tug-of-war between Ijeoma and Mama, as I’ve already suggested, is convincingly portrayed. But at times, the other characters fade into cipher, especially Ijeoma’s two lovers – who occasionally serve the sole purpose of representing two opposed sets of attitudes. It’s a familiar pattern from other lesbian coming-of-age stories; Ijeoma’s first partner is timid and fearful, requiring her to lead them into this new realm of experience, but when she has broken free of the bonds of convention herself, she can meet a more sexually experienced woman who will educate her in her turn. However, Under the Udala Trees is also strengthened by its simplicity. This story-form may be familiar, Okparanta seems to be saying, but it is a story that needs to be told here. As she notes in an afterword to the novel, the criminalisation of gay marriage and the membership of gay organisations in Nigeria in 2014 makes this an even more timely and important message. The ending of the novel itself also reiterates her overall goal; to tell stories like this until they become so internalised it is as if they were always there.

‘Some of those nights when we are together and in bed, Ndidi wraps her arms around me. She moulds her body around mine and whispers in my ear about a town where love is allowed to be love, between men and women, and men and men, and women and women, just as between Yoruba and Igbo and Hausa and Fulani…

“What is the name of the town?” I ask.

… One night, she mumbles that it is Aba. The next night it is Umuahia. With each passing night she names more towns… I have to laugh and say, “How is it that this town can be so many places at once?”

Her voice is soft like a hum, and the words come out quiet like a prayer… She says, “All of them are here in Nigeria. You see, this place will be all of Nigeria.”

Thanks to Granta Books for sending me a free copy of this novel.


Pulling his punches

9781408707401Writing on this novel in the GuardianSarah Ditum begins: ‘Millennials might struggle to believe it, but there was a political world before the Manichean split of 9/11.’ She goes on to discuss the event that this novel centres around – the Seattle World Trade Organisation protests of 1999 – and the motives, tactics and solidarity of the protesters. Ditum’s opening gambit is obviously both ageist and inaccurate. From what I know of (relatively) young activists, they are acutely aware of earlier traditions of protest (ironically enough, Jenny Hendrix in the New York Times notes how the riots might be seen as ‘easily mocked millennial optimism’). But it still struck a nerve with me. Barely a teenager in 1999, I have to admit this was the first I’d heard of the WTO protests. They fall into that unfortunate gap where, for me, twentieth-century history ends (I teach modules up to 1989) and my personal political awareness begins (certainly no earlier than 2003). I considered feigning knowledge and reviewing this novel as if I was already well-aware of the WTO protests, but it seemed to me that would miss an interesting opportunity to discuss how authors manage the task of conveying knowledge to the reader, and judging how much knowledge the reader already possesses.

Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist pieces together a kaleidoscope of perspectives on the day of the protests, largely among either the police or the protesters, with the exception of interludes from the Sri Lankan delegate to the conference, Charles Wickramsinghe. Yapa’s writing as he jumps from head to head is frequently mesmerising, especially when he narrates from the point of view of Victor, a mixed-race nineteen-year-old who is the long-lost son of white police chief Bishop. As Victor takes part in a peaceful protest by chaining himself to other activists, their arms in tubes so it is difficult to get them apart, he is gassed and beaten by police. In the midst of his pain, his mind wanders to his absent mother: ‘Perhaps you spent a cold and shivering morning opening the soup line, from the time you were eight on up, from the early morning hours of the first school bell, fed the men who would spend all morning, perhaps all day, shivering in their thin clothes from warmer weathers and waiting for a job to come by in the form of a pickup truck and a wave and a whistle. Not so different from the whistle of her own childhood, she had once said to him, the steam-kettle shriek that had called his grandfather to the factory… Maybe it was a hundred cold mornings you spent with her. Even a thousand would not have been enough.’

Yapa’s beautiful writing, however, has the curious effect of flattening much of the action of this novel, lulling us too gently with the rhythm of his prose, rather than demanding the intense emotional engagement he seems to be after. This isn’t helped by the fact that from the point-of-view of certain, less well-realised characters – most notably John Henry, who acts as a figurehead for the cause – his writing is more vulnerable to purple missteps; after a while, I felt I was drowning under the weight of lines like ‘some force inexorably gathering around them here at the edge of the millennium’ and ‘their words had the quality of midnight prayer.’ In short, Yapa tells us so insistently that this is an important moment that he sometimes falls short of showing us, despite the visceral power of his descriptions of tear gas and police violence. It’s towards the climax of the novel, which is more solidly focused on action, that Your Heart comes fully into its own. In a way, this maps the trajectory of the protest itself; the long, heaving work of the march followed by a sudden explosion of pain; but it keeps the reader at quite a distance for much of the time.

To return to my own ignorance of the WTO protests, this sense of fuzziness was multiplied by the fact that Yapa makes little or no attempt to explain to the reader – at least until the introduction of Wickramsinghe’s narrative – what is at stake here. It isn’t even clear when the novel is set. Even assuming that many readers will know more of the context then I did, this still makes Your Heart feel oddly disengaged, despite its celebration of protest. If it felt more rooted in the particular issues of this protest, some of the flatness that I complained about above might dissipate. It’s a difficult balance to strike, and difficult to convey so much complicated information within the bounds of a novel, but I felt that Yapa might have made a better stab at it. Your Heart demonstrates his obvious talent, but I felt that its impact was muffled; more of a nudge than a punch.

I received a free e-copy of this novel from Little, Brown via NetGalley.

Friday Musings: The Baileys Prize Shortlist

screen-shot-2016-04-11-at-17-13-27Given the way the cards have fallen, it’s difficult for me to muse very much about a shortlist where I’ve read only one of the shortlisted titles (A Little Life), although I’m absolutely thrilled that it made the shortlist. My few musings are as follows:

  • Having read only Girl At War and Pleasantville from the longlist, I didn’t feel very qualified to comment on what ought to be shortlisted, either, although I wasn’t convinced enough by either of those novels to back them. For me, Pleasantville got bogged down in its complicated plot, while Girl At War, ironically, felt structurally too neat and simple, despite the emotional impact of its early twist.
  • This article on the shortlist, by Elle Thinks, is a great read – I looked at the first page of The Improbability of Love in Waterstones the other day and wanted to put it down immediately, and it certainly sounds like it ticks a lot of my personal dislikes. On the other hand, I haven’t read an Atkinson novel I liked since Behind the Scenes at the Museum, so was perhaps a little unfairly relieved to see that A God in Ruins wasn’t shortlisted, although I’ve not read it and it may be brilliant.
  • I wish that Rush Oh! and The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet had been shortlisted – they were the two titles I most wanted to read from the longlist.
  • As I’m committed to getting through my TBR pile, I may not do my usual shortlist read along this year, especially as few of the chosen grab my attention, but of the shortlisted novels, I’m most intrigued by The Glorious Heresies. 

The city of the bees

1438858320958Flora 717 is born into a world where her station in life is determined from birth. As a sanitation worker, she cannot expect even to see the more sacred places in the complex where she lives, but is expected to serve the higher orders selflessly until her death. But Flora is not satisfied with obeying the rules, and as she finds she has abilities far greater than the rest of her class, she starts to break free. This is familiar YA dystopian territory – even down to the inexplicably ‘special’ heroine – but Laline Paull’s debut has a sting in the tail; Flora is a bee, and her world is a hive. It’s this feature of The Bees that has attracted the most positive critical attention, but I found that, however unusual its premise, Flora’s story quickly fell apart.

Flora is a protagonist with no goal. Indeed, this lack of direction is written into the very fabric of the story, as scent trails and mysterious instincts lead Flora towards the next chapter of her story, and she is constantly surprised by her own developing powers. As Flora is whipped in quick succession from the bee nursery, to the guardposts of the hive, to the drone chambers and to the queen herself, it’s hard not to feel that she’s only moving so the reader can get to know all the different parts of the hive. When I first heard about this novel, I joked that it might be like a book I only half-remembered from my childhood, Thomas Keneally’s quasi-educational Ned Kelly and the City of the Bees (1981), but as we follow Flora’s aimless trail, the story does become increasingly didactic. Unlike what I recall of Ned Kelly, however, it’s very difficult to disentangle fact and fiction in The Bees, so we don’t feel as if we’re learning very much.

Flora’s aimlessness means that the novel starts strongly but swiftly loses all its momentum, especially as – despite her explorations – we have little sense of how an ordinary sanitation bee would spend its days, or exactly how far she is transgressing. She breaks a huge number of rules in the first third of the novel, but there are no consequences for her actions, meaning that when she claims to have violated the most sacred taboo of all, it’s already hard to believe she’s in any real danger. This problem is compounded by the uneasy position that the characters occupy – they have essentially human minds, but are forced to play out bee roles. This unworkable compromise means that we actually aren’t sure what death, for example, would mean to Flora, or any of the other bees. Flora tells us that ‘Sisters of all kin were born and died by their hundreds every day’ and, despite the frequent violence of this novel, there seems to be little concern at the loss of a single life. Being asked to care about an individual who only perceives her own value as part of a collective is a difficult thing, and, apart from the length of the bees’ lives, Paull seems uninterested in considering what it might mean to be part of a ‘hive mind’.

Judged as a dystopia, then, rather than as an accurate novel about the lives of bees, The Bees falls significantly short. There is no plotline, little characterisation, and the stakes are very low. Familiar dystopian trappings such as mindless orders – ‘Respect. Obey. Serve’ – and casual sexism – the drones are referred to as ‘Your Malenesses’ – are all present and correct. Much like Tris Prior in Divergent and its sequels, Flora is marked out as special only because those around her are so simplistically drawn, and seem to have had no thought of rebelling. Some reviewers have found an environmental thread running through The Bees, and although this is certainly an important issue, my lack of engagement with the characters meant that this barely registered. I was left feeling that this could either have been a highly experimental novel about a collective mind, or a fully-anthromorphised fairytale about a plucky bee, and that it failed because it tried to be both.

*     *     *

The Bees was the last novel that I read from last year’s Baileys Prize shortlist, and it will come as no surprise that it was my least favourite. Although I’m very late to the party with this one, having now read all six shortlisted novels, I thought I’d have a go at ranking them:

  1. The Paying Guests (Sarah Waters). I reviewed this novel briefly here.
  2. How to be Both (Ali Smith). For me, nothing Smith has written since has ever quite lived up to Hotel World, but I thoroughly enjoyed this outing, and wasn’t surprised that it was the judges’ favourite.
  3. Outline (Rachel Cusk). I’m not usually a Cusk fan, but I thought this was elegant and clever, encouraging the reader to work hard without ever becoming tiresome.
  4. A Spool of Blue Thread (Anne Tyler). I’m still not sure what all the fuss is about Tyler, but I have to admit that the 400+ pages flew by.
  5. A God In Every Stone (Kamila Shamsie). I was drawn in by the issues at stake, but I found most of the characterisation rather thin.

Nevertheless, I liked all five of these novels; 2015 was a strong year for the Baileys, although I’m a little flummoxed that two of my favourite books of 2015, Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven (which would easily have been my winner!) and Samantha Harvey’s Dear Thief,  didn’t make the shortlist. [Links to my reviews.]

Looking forward to the 2016 shortlist announcement today… Here’s hoping A Little Life is there.

Reading round-up

Where I write mini-reviews of the eclectic mixture of books I’ve recently finished… Mixing it up a bit, so I’ll post my review of Sunil Yapa’s debut on Monday 11th.

51A-bVQveQL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_Pleasantville: Attica Locke

Hitting the sweet spot between crime and literary fiction is a difficult thing to pull off. I loved the concept and setting of Locke’s second novel, The Cutting Season, and the background of its central character, Caren, a black woman managing an old slave plantation in Louisiana that has now become a tourist attraction; racist undercurrents directed towards both the majority black population and the Mexican workers that harvest the cane crops ensure that the suffering of the past is still very present. However, I found the sensationalist choppiness of the writing offputting enough that I didn’t make it to the end. In contrast, turning to Pleasantville for some light reading, I found it a bit of a slog, although it’s fair to say I was genuinely gripped by the climax. Pleasantville returns to Jay Porter, the central character of Locke’s debut, Black Water Rising, as he finds himself unwillingly at the centre of a political scandal; as Axel Hathorne looks set to become Houston’s first black mayor, his campaign is thrown into chaos when his nephew is accused of murder. Jay believes that this is part of a broader smear campaign run by the opposing team, but he also has to re-examine his own relations with Pleasantville, as his failure to settle an ongoing lawsuit he undertook in their name sours his reputation among the community. Pleasantville becomes increasingly complex as these multiple strands intertwine, but I didn’t feel it went deep enough to repay the effort I put in trying to follow the plot. It’s possible I just had my stupid head on when reading this novel, but for me, despite the markedly better prose, it followed the same track as The Cutting Season, leaving me unsure whether I was reading a crime fiction or something far more nuanced. There are certainly strands of both here, but the novel – and by extension, the reader – never feels committed enough to one or the other.

digThe Dig: Cynan Jones

‘It is gone, and its place knows it no more. He hears again the parson speak… I don’t think it’s true. I think a place can remember… A place remembers, he thought. A place has to remember.’

What can I say about this brief and brilliant novel that hasn’t already been said? Jones’s prose is so beautiful, and so genuinely heartbreaking, that even after re-reading certain passages multiple times, they still had the power to move me. Daniel is grieving the death of his wife, who was killed suddenly when her horse kicked her in the head. Retreating into the routines of lambing to try and get through the day and the night, he is undone when he discovers a piece of cloth that his wife used to wear: ‘It was just a thing she had, like a comfort thing – a bright piece of pink patterned cloth that was variously a hair tie, a headscarf or bandanna, or was worn about her neck to stop the dust and grime tracking down her collar. It was as much a thing of her as the Stanley knife she always carried for snipping the bale bindings’. I’m not sure how, in these few simple sentences, Jones manages to capture the physical intimacy of a long relationship, the deep love that Daniel felt for his wife, and the aching space that she has left, but he does. It would be easy to continue to quote examples of Jones’s ability to convey emotion, or his precise descriptions of the Welsh landscape, but to turn to an aspect of this novel that has received less attention; he’s also adept at social observation, whether that’s the painful school experiences of a misfit teenager or Daniel’s description of his mother: ‘She had seemed to prematurely age, to adopt some strange outwardly witnessed notion of old people in the way teenagers put on some adulthood… [she] seemed to choose a stock phrasebook of senior comments which she took to saying with a wistful acceptance; again, like a teenager trying to sound grown-up.’ Just as the length and complexity of Pleasantville left me struggling to know how much attention to pay to it, the sheer brevity of Jones’s novel ensures that his prose receives the notice it requires. As Daniel’s path intersects with a violent badger-baiter, we are already gripped by The Dig‘s vivid writing.

Leckie_AncillaryJustice_TPAncillary Justice: Ann Leckie

Again, what to say about a novel that won every science fiction prize going and has consequently been reviewed by everybody already? I’ll focus on the most-debated theme of this novel; gender. The protagonist of Ancillary Justice was once the AI controller of an imperial spaceship, Justice of Toren; as well as controlling the ship itself, giving it intimate access to the minds of its crew, it was able to inhabit the bodies of several platoons of ‘ancillaries’, human bodies that have been co-opted for service from conquered planets. (If that sounds complicated, don’t let it put you off; Leckie does a marvellous job of easing us into this world by focusing first on a fugitive fragment of Justice of Toren, which gives itself the name Breq.) If you’re wondering why I’m referring to Breq as ‘it’, this brings us to the most-discussed element of Ancillary Justice, despite the fact that it’s really on the periphery of the main story; the fact that the imperial race, the Radchaai, although biologically human, no longer distinguish between genders. Breq therefore refers to everybody it meets as ‘she’, as it cannot tell the difference, and as Breq does not identify with a single human body, it would be inappropriate to assign it a gender. Leckie’s decision to use ‘she’ as the only pronoun has attracted criticism; it has been argued that using ‘she’ for a non-gendered culture when non-binary Spivak pronouns exist ‘inadvertently genders’ non-gendered beings. I disagree. Ancillary Justice is not set in a society where a certain group of people claim to be ‘non-binary’ (a concept that makes little sense anyway); it is set in a society where the gender binary no longer exists, and so either ‘he’ or ‘she’ is as good as any other pronoun. Leckie’s decision to use ‘she’ was clearly the right one; she puts forward her reasons in greater detail here. I would add that, if she had used a Spivak pronoun like ’em’, my suspicion is that readers (including myself) would have defaulted right back to imagining everybody we encounter as male, because we don’t live in a non-binary society. The joy and the challenge of Ancillary Justice is having those assumptions reversed. As far as I can tell, all the Radchaai seem to be non-white, an identity flip which is just as important, and yet because it is more difficult to emphasise race continually, this seems to have struck readers with far less force. Anyway, apart from the gender issues; I loved this novel, and I’m so looking forward to reading the next two in the trilogy.

Monday Musings: Teenage diaries, #6

This entry was written late in my last year of sixth form, when I was in the middle of writing a novel, but also acting in my final youth theatre play, After Juliet.


April 19th, 2005

I went into the Boston Tea Party today to get some form of drink after swimming (Starbucks being closed) and had only been there a little while when A— came in and noticed me. [A was a playwright who had written a number of plays for youth theatre.] I don’t think I’ve seen her since HOUSE ON HELLMOUTH HILL (the return of!). I seem to remember finding her slightly annoying and patronising – God I was an over-critical little girl then. We had a very interesting conversation – she began by asking me about my own writing, as always, and I said that I was certainly keeping on with it but was so busy at the moment with A Levels that I had very little time. (Still bogged down in chapter 13. And not very positive about it as always happens when I have to take a long break. But I want to start again!)

Then I asked her about Storm [on the Lawn. A youth theatre project] this year, for which she’s written another play, this time focusing on the life and stories of Hans Christian Andersen. We had quite a good conversation about Andersen – by good luck I’ve been reading some of his stories lately, thinking they might be useful for Elizabeth [a character in the novel I was writing] so I could mention the well-known ones like the Wild Swans and the Snow Queen without sounding a complete twit. It was clearly a good topic for A— as she’s obviously really enthusiastic about it having done loads of research – she told me about some of the lesser known, more ‘Gothic’ Anderson tales such as ‘The Shadow’ apparently, about a man who believes his shadow has come alive and is following (Funny how we just did Ferdinand [from The Duchess of Malfi] today – I am being chased by nothing and so forth) him, and ‘Auntie Toothache’. Must look those up – could be very useful.

It was interesting enough just to be able to talk to somebody serious about writing; it’s always surprising how nice it feels, as even people who say they’re interested in writing but are my age are usually not OBSESSIVE enough. Said I knew very little about HCA’s life and A— told me a bit about that as well – apparently a very strange man. She finished by promising to get me a copy of The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, as always, and gave me her e-mail address and said that I really could contact her at any time in the future, as it would probably never change. Always feel awkward about that – I am grateful she wants to help me with my writing but I never know what I could ask her.

B— [our youth theatre director] came in at that point and he and A— went to a separate table while I read. I think they’re discussing ‘The Country of the Blind’, Foundation group’s new project. I continued to read (‘A Clash of Kings’ very good at the moment) [proof I was a George RR Martin obsessive before it was cool!] and when I left I made sure to say good-bye, as I always miss chances like that. B— told me he was coming to see ‘After Juliet’ tonight and wished me luck. I didn’t want to sit down right away as it was sunny and the air felt gorgeous so I prowled up and down a bit. Am excited about first night tonight, although funnily I almost don’t want to go back into the atmosphere of the play.

Author’s Note

Teenagers – and indeed, the under-25s – are often stigmatised as being incapable of long-term planning, defined by their impulsiveness, risk-taking and lack of understanding of real consequences. In other words, they cannot make serious plans for the future. These stereotypes have always puzzled me, because I’m convinced that I was far more ‘mature’ as an eighteen-year-old than I was in my early- or even my mid-twenties. Viewing age as a continuum along which we gradually become more competent until the ‘decline’ of old age involves fundamentally ageist assumptions about both young and older people. In reality, we don’t experience our own ageing as steady improvement, but as a series of ups and downs, as we claw back some self-knowledge and lose it again. Why, then, are we so ready to accept negative generalisations about whole age groups?

As I’ve said all along, posting my teenage diaries has never been about proving that I was some super-exceptional teenager. Indeed, I’ve tried to emphasise how much I had in common with others my age (although I often looked down at my contemporaries at the time!). This entry is a little different, in that I think, aged eighteen, that I was unusually focused – a focus I lost once I went to university and was distracted by my social life. I was committed to writing a serious novel, and I worked on my novel every day. Ten years later, I realise how difficult that is to achieve. I was taking four A Levels, so I didn’t have a lot of free time, and I consciously gave up things I might have enjoyed to devote time to my writing. For the first time, I also became truly reflective, about myself, and about the others around me. I’m not suggesting that I was a perfect eighteen-year-old – most significantly, I was very socially isolated – but I think I knew who I was and what I wanted much more clearly than I have since, and that I was essentially right about what those things were. When I re-read this diary entry, I don’t hear an immature teenager but a person living her life as best as she knows how.

Shadows in the ballroom

51t7uLBQ-kL._SX309_BO1,204,203,200_Menston Asylum had a ballroom; a fact that Anna Hope uses to great effect in her second novel. In this more neutral space the men and women of the asylum could, if allowed to attend, shed their identities as patients for a few brief hours and dance together. It’s an image that illuminates a novel that is in many ways so bleak. Ella Fay has been sentenced to the asylum because of her refusal to submit any more to the ‘work-discipline’ that positions her as nothing more as a cog in the factory machine; she works as a spinner, and one day is so desperate to ‘see the sky’ in their gloomy spinning room that she ‘slid a skep of empty bobbins out from under her feet, picked one up and launched it at the window beside her.’ The image of the open window will follow Ella throughout her time in the asylum, as she continues to seek out the natural world despite her daily toil in the laundry; when she is first allowed a bath, she stares outside: ‘Beyond the windows was green, mucky-dark in the low winter light, but green all the same. Hills in the distance, covered by a thin haar of mist.’ Hope writes beautifully about the countryside that surrounds the asylum, and its deep connection to the characters. And when Ella finally escapes the routine of the asylum to meet secretly with another inmate, John, she, of course, climbs out through a window.

John and Ella’s relationship is completely convincing, despite the limited time they have together; I’m no fan of love at first sight, but Hope manages to demonstrate the many ways they get to know each other, despite their frequent physical separation. John’s letters, read to Ella by her friend Clem, because Ella never learnt to read in her crowded elementary school, form a crucial point of connection, demonstrating their shared love of the landscape around them. As John writes of the flowers he sees, ‘They make a great display in the fields so that the fields seem almost to be made of gold… I think they are most beautiful just before they fall.’ Much seems to have been made in the publicity for this novel of the fact that it’s set in 1911, the famous ‘long summer’ that also marked the beginning of what was once known as the ‘Edwardian crisis’; union unrest, gun-running in Ireland, suffagrette militancy and the German war council of 1912 are all on the horizon. But to be honest, with the exception of some of the eugenics in the novel (more on that later) I didn’t feel that it was set at a time of change, or indeed in any particular year at all. Ella and John’s stories play out against a backdrop of alienation from the land and forcible separation from the fruits of their labours that could easily have been set at any time from the early nineteenth century onwards. Hope’s eye for specific detail ties it to the Edwardian years, but this choice of date is not essential to the story; nor does it need to be.

menston ballroom smExcept, perhaps, for the narrative of our third protagonist, Charles, a member of the asylum staff, and an enthusiast for new treatments. It’s with Charles’s voice that I felt The Ballroom was at its weakest. The novel recognises the troubling popularity of eugenic ideas among relatively progressive people in early twentieth-century Britain, and at the beginning of his downward tumble, Charles is portrayed as complex and sympathetic, especially as we swiftly realise he is struggling with his own homosexual desires. However, as he veers towards villainy, I found that I was increasingly questioning why his story was taking up so much of this otherwise well-balanced novel, if all we were to take away was that his standpoint is so bizarre and wrong that it could not be accepted by anybody reasonable. Of course, Charles’s ideas are repulsive, but rather than exploring how such ideas could have won support among the medical establishment, Hope seems to prefer to depict him as an outlier, despite a few references to other respectable figures who think in the same way. The twist in the tale – that Charles is the one veering towards madness as John and Ella, the supposed ‘lunatics’, clearly retain tight hold on their sanity – didn’t work for me; I found it a bit obvious and unenlightening. I started wondering what place there was in Hope’s novel for people who really are suffering from (non-asylum-induced) mental illness, rather than being victimised by social norms? They are reduced to shadows in the ballroom – or are not allowed to venture there at all. When exploring its central relationship, The Ballroom is on solid, and ultimately harrowing ground. But I felt there was more to say about the world beyond its walls.

I received a review copy of this novel via NetGalley.