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.
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.
The 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.
Ancillary 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.