Swimming against the tide

I’m about halfway through 20 Books of Summer – I’ve read or am currently reading 10 of my 20 picks. Today, with some trepidation, I’m reviewing two novels that everybody else seems to have loved…

417MB2MlC0L._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_ After Me Comes the Flood by Sarah Perry

John drives away from the bookshop he owns during a dry, heavy summer, coming to rest only when he arrives at an old house in the middle of a forest. The group of strangers there seem to be expecting him; rather than explaining their mistake, he finds himself drawn into their world, but at a loss to explain their mysterious connection. After Me Comes the Flood is not especially interested in giving the reader solid answers. Instead, Perry’s beautiful and precise writing creates a strong sense of atmosphere, which flares into especial distinction in certain scenes, such as when John swims in the reservoir near the house with one of his companions, a troubled young man called Alex, looking for house martins’ nests. ‘The waterline must once have been almost level with the grass embankment, but had receded in the drought and left a kind of rough beach littered with feathers and algae. All around us the dark pines of the forest stooped towards the water as if they were thirsty.’

While I admired the skilful execution of After Me Comes the Flood, I should have suspected that it wasn’t the sort of novel I was going to enjoy. Unfortunately, I have a limited amount of patience for novels that follow a symbolic or dreamlike logic, offering up tantalising threads to follow but not supplying solid answers at the end. I love speculative fiction but have less interest in stories that suggest something complicated is going on beneath the surface but don’t allow us to get at it. This sounds horribly prosaic, and I spent some time wondering why it was that After Me Comes the Flood didn’t work for me. My conclusions are provisional, but I think it boils down to two things; characters and ideas. In keeping with the mood of the novel, Perry’s characters tend to be deliberate ciphers, filling certain roles in the landscape of the house without ever blossoming into live. If we are to assume they represent some kind of psychodrama that John is working through, this makes sense, but then John himself is humdrum, deliberately ordinary, and very unengaging. For me, he wasn’t the root to which I could cling as I navigated the shifting sands of the rest of the book, even if he was supposed to be.

All of this could have been overcome if After Me Comes the Flood had seemed to be exploring interesting ideas. But this is not a novel of ideas, nor is it meant to be. It picks up on important themes of emotional fragility and mental health, but for me these topics weren’t a strong enough thread to hold the pieces together, especially when, as I’ve said, the characters themselves felt sketchy. I’m still keen to read Perry’s second novel, The Essex Serpent – she’s clearly a wonderful prose writer and it sounds like a very different kind of book – but this wasn’t one for me.

cover_9781609450786_131_240My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

So many bloggers and friends have pressed these novels upon me that I was pretty apprehensive about reading the first in the quartet in case I committed the heresy of not liking it. To my relief, I liked it very much indeed. It’s always odd to read and review a novel that has already attracted such positive critical attention – I can never quite embrace such books with the enthusiasm that I have for things I’ve discovered by myself, but My Brilliant Friend certainly deserves its accolades. It’s also difficult to think of anything new to say about Ferrante’s writing (and the wonderful translation by Ann Goldstein) that hasn’t already been said, especially as I’m disadvantaged by having not read the rest of the quartet – and I won’t be able to get to the next three until I finish my 20 Books of Summer list! But there were a few thoughts that came to me while reading.

For those who haven’t yet encountered My Brilliant Friend, it traces the childhood and adolescence of Elena and Lila, two girls growing up in a poor neighbourhood in Naples. Their lives are often closely intertwined, but they are not always side by side. Indeed, a major split in their life courses occurs early in the novel when Lila’s parents refuse to pay for their daughter to go to middle school, whereas Elena goes on to the next stage of her schooling and finally to high school. Lila is such a presence in the novel because, despite the fact that Elena is our narrator, she is telling us Lila’s story, even when it does not intersect neatly with her own. Ferrante brings every person in the girls’ close-knit world vividly to life, but it was Elena’s forensic analysis of Lila that made the novel stand out for me. It’s rare to find a modern novelist who takes character so seriously – something which even the lesser nineteenth-century English novelists try to do, but which seems to be missing from a fair chunk of literary fiction these days.

Elena’s observations of her friend over the ten or so years which this novel covers are absolutely fascinating. To Elena, Lila is special – she stands apart from the others around her and always has done – and her recording of her complexities proves Lila’s brilliance. However, although Lila is undoubtedly exceptionally bright and unusually independent, the very skill of this novel is reminding us that she is in many ways an ordinary girl, not distinguished especially from those around her, with her limited education and her early courtships. How far can we disentangle Elena’s perception of Lila from the reality of her life? Would the other people that she has grown up with become equally contradictory and multi-faceted if viewed under this lense? My Brilliant Friend acknowledges, as few novels do, how much more there is to us than we can ever catch, and gives us a glimpse of what lies beneath the surface.

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Monograph Review: Contagious Communities

9780198725282The Health Committee of the Association of Municipal Corporations, a representative body for many of Britain’s towns and cities, expressed concerns about immigration to the Ministry of Health in a meeting in 1957. Immigrants, argued the deputation from the AMC, might be coming to the UK because of ‘the encouragement which a free health service could give to such people to come to this country with the object of seeking free treatment.’ In addition, public prejudice against immigrants was linked to ‘the problems they created and the demands they made on the Health Services.’ As Bivins notes: ‘Only a decade after the NHS opened, the fearful and possessive discourse of its exploitation by “medical tourists” was already emerging, hand in hand with redefinitions of British “identity” and “belonging”.’

This is not an academic journal, and I’m not going to try and replicate an academic book review of Bivins’ thought-provoking and hugely ambitious Contagious Communities here. What I’d like to do is offer some (not especially comprehensive) thoughts about what I found most important and interesting in this series of closely-researched, linked case studies, covering the period 1948-1991, that think about the NHS not through the lens of national policy and re-organisation, like many earlier histories, but by centring the shifting attitudes to migrant health, and the ways in which local, community-led pressure groups, the Ministry for Health, associations like the BMA, the media and other government departments interacted in both shaping, and quashing, concerns. Contagious Communities is clearly-organised. The first two chapters consider how official responses to TB changed both nationally and locally between 1948 and 1962. The third chapter rethinks smallpox along similar lines. The fourth chapter flips the language of analysis to consider discourses of ‘race relations’ between 1962 and 1971, arguing that ‘the language of race itself became increasingly tainted’ and that even ‘the appearance of racism’ was seen as harmful by politicians, civil servants and diplomats. However, as we shall see, this did not necessarily lead to more positive initiatives. The fifth chapter considers a disease that was environmental and easily addressed, yet embarrassingly, still prevalent in modern Britain: rickets. In contrast, the final chapter thinks about genetic diseases that were associated with ‘ethnic’ populations; sickle cell anaemia and thalassaemia.

In the 1950s, TB, rickets and smallpox were all diseases that had been all-too-familiar in Britain in the not-so-distant past. However, Bivins shows how popular and official memories of these once-endemic menaces were swiftly transformed. TB became ‘an imported illness’, despite its continued incidence among the native population. While smallpox outbreaks had occurred six times between 1951-60 in Britain – as Bivins puts it, smallpox in this period was ‘both spectacular and quotidian’ – it was the 1961-62 outbreak, framed by debates over the Commonwealth Immigrants Bill, that led to its reframing as ‘the killer that slipped through the net’ (Observer headline, 1962) or ‘the oriental killer’. Rickets, related to poor diet and a lack of sunshine, was relabelled as ‘Asian rickets’ due to its incidence within Asian communities, ignoring the internal diversity within this group. Evidence to associate these particular conditions strongly with immigrants was patchy, especially for TB. Bivins meticulously considers how figures on TB incidence were selectively used to support the favoured policies of the group in question. For example, a 1957 Ministry of Health survey on TB incidence in the UK presented a complicated picture: ‘Irish and Hungarian rates were among the highest, while rates from West Indian and African communities were very low… The highest rates of incidence… were found in the group from the Indian subcontinent.’ However, if Europe had been considered as a single category, rather than the Hungarians being categorised as a separate group, ‘it would have produced a significantly larger group of affected migrants.’ The Ministry of Health, seeking reasons to justify health controls for Indian and Pakistani migrants but not migrants from European countries with an equally high level of TB incidence, did not choose to present the survey results in this way.

Another important aspect of Bivins’s book, however, is the caution with which she handles the temptation to ascribe these actions to simple racism’. Racist attitudes took varied forms, and much health policy was formulated in the context of promoting community integration to improve ‘race relations’. Furthermore, in the context of the Cold War and Britain’s waning international influence, Britain’s ties with the Commonwealth were becoming increasingly important, and government officials were reluctant to do anything that might be perceived as racist and exclusionary, especially in the earlier part of the period covered by this book, when Britain actively sought to attract foreign labour to assist in post-war reconstruction. However, the language of integration did not necessarily serve the interests of migrant communities. For a start, integration was assumed to be more difficult for non-white migrants, especially younger migrants who did not arrive in family groups, who were presumed to indulge in ‘non-British’ cultural practices that were detrimental to their health. In the early 1960s, for example, the British Medical Journal invoked such stereotypes about young South Asian male migrants, claiming that their living conditions were primitive and uncivilised. This kind of attitude affected public health interventions. Rejecting fortification of foodstuffs with Vitamin D to address the rickets problem in 1993, the Principal Medical Officer in the Nutrition Section of the Ministry of Health stated that immigrants needed ‘education rather than nutrition.’ The Department also rejected screening or counselling interventions for individuals affected by sickle cell anaemia because they believed this would be stigmatising for the populations they believed were at risk; Africans and West Indians. ‘There were no consultations with any affected community,’ Bivins notes, ‘simply a uniformity of internal opinion that ‘they’ would respond poorly.’ Here, a supposed sensitivity to racial issues actually led to othering and ignorance. Similar concerns arose in relation to thalassaemia. However, when the United Kingdom Thalassaemia Society was formed by parents of affected children in 1976, it swiftly told the Department that they wanted targeted screening and genetic counselling to help reduce rates of the disease.

Finally, Bivins considers what was meant by ‘public health’ in this period. Viewed as transient minorities, migrant communities were often excluded from public health considerations, and it was suggested that they should not be given special treatment, despite their different medical needs. The Stop Rickets campaign of 1981-2 proposed a three-year project to eradicate rickets that would cost £149,000 in its first year, and £100,000 for each of the next two years. ‘After all… the recent HEC [Health Education Council] Mother and Baby Campaign had cost £600,000. This comparison provoked a frosty but revealing reply [from the Department of Health and Social Services]: the latter was entirely different as it addressed “the entire population”.’ Bivins argues that as models of intervention changed from ideas of ‘social medicine’ to an assessment of how citizens could individually manage risk, the Department ‘increasingly sought to intervene in public health problems only if “the public” in question was co-terminous with the entire British population or some nationally distributed cross-section thereof (pregnant women, for example.’ Addressing problems that were particular to migrant communities were seen as incompatible with these priorities – a stance that was justified by appeals to the need to preserve good ‘race relations’ by not treating certain groups differently from the community as a whole.

Bivins’ monograph is an important read for historians of post-war Britain, intersecting with numerous themes in existing historiography; race, gender, medicine, the NHS and the welfare state. Inevitably, it presents a series of case studies, as covering this entire period in detail would be an impossible task. However, it presents us with a new way of looking at the history of the NHS – an angle that is especially relevant given how we talk about the NHS today.

Fearfully and wonderfully made

untitledHaving read Louise O’Neill’s debut, Only Ever Yours, virtually in one sitting, I still can’t decide if it’s a messy triumph or an occasionally-brilliant mess. It gets worse: does it reverse, share or obliterate the flaws of her second novel, Asking For It, a more straightforward take on feminism and rape culture? Is it ultimately shallow, or sneakily profound? Despite the fact that it sometimes seems as if O’Neill read the chapters of Laura Bates’ Everyday Sexism that deal with girls and young women and then had a nightmare about them, is there something important here?

In a indeterminate future, women are no longer born but reproduced artificially. eves – the lack of a capital letter in both their names and titles indicating their low worth – grow up in a school where they are taught how to be appealing to men. Ranked by boys of their generation whom they never meet, they know that, when they turn seventeen and leave for the outside world, they will either be companions or concubines. The only other possible fates – to become one of the chastities who are responsible for the education of the eves, or to be consigned to the terrifying ‘Underground’ – do not bear thinking about. frieda, our narrator, is fortunate; her close friendship with the highest-ranked eve, isabel, has offered her a degree of protection throughout her time at the school. However, in her final year, as isabel retreats from the group, frieda is thrown back on her own resources – and realises how little she is equipped to cope on her own.

Why Only Ever Yours works

frieda’s world is not intended to be a realistic dystopia. In many ways, it reads like a response to two things: the cultural and social pressures heaped upon teenage girls, and other YA dystopian novels. In particular, I was thinking of Kiera Cass’s sugary The Selection and its sequels, which imagines a world where a group of girls have to compete for the hand of a prince but plays its premise absolutely straight. It doesn’t matter that this world is economically impossible, and incredibly unlikely; O’Neill is not trying to write speculative fiction, but offering a critique on how things are for young women today. By amping up everything to eleven, she gives us a glimpse of what it might be like to feel that you will never measure up, and that what happens in school will be all that ever matters – because in this world, that’s true. In doing so, she offers us a way to think about the worries of young women that does not allow us to dismiss them as trivial. The eves are obsessed with clothes, make-up, ageing, popularity and weight, but to them, these things are literally a matter of life or death (while all women are eventually ‘terminated’ at a certain age, companions are allowed longer life-spans than lower-ranked concubines). The setting allows us to listen into the loops that go through the minds of teenage girls, without immediately defaulting to telling them they’re wrong.

Only Ever Yours delivers a violent riposte to readers who want to dismiss this ‘girly’ world as boring and silly (not least by being as gripping as any ‘grip-lit’). This is most vividly illustrated when the ‘Inheritants’ – the generation of boys that these girls were designed for – enter the picture. frieda strikes up a relationship with one of the boys, Darwin, but he’s totally unable to understand the world in which she lives. When she confides one of his secrets to the top-ranked eve, megan, we completely understand how afraid she was, and how little resources she had to fight back against megan, who could genuinely ruin the rest of her life by spreading false rumours. In contrast, Darwin dismisses this as ridiculous: ‘You used me, embarrassed me in front of all my friends, because you wanted megan to be your friend?... Was she endangering your life? Threatening to bore you to death with chitter-chatter about make-up or whatever else you girls talk about?’ The boys tell the eves that they are petty, bitchy and shallow, but how else can they be? This is how they were designed to be.

Why Only Ever Yours doesn’t work

It’s clear from frieda’s internal monologue that the eves have not been genetically modified to be intellectually or emotionally different from ordinary women. Yet they do not turn to a survival strategy that women have used throughout the centuries – the friendship of other women. O’Neill offers us glimpses of links between the girls throughout the book, but these are vastly outnumbered by the daily viciousness that they encounter from their fellow eves. Fair enough, frieda’s relationship with isabel was obviously very close and supportive before their last year at school – but we’re given precious little of it before isabel breaks away. The suggestion that the two girls were in love also feels unsatisfactory. I wanted their relationship to be romantic or platonic, but not this uncertain mix of the two, which somehow manages to undermine their commitment to each other either as friends or as lovers. While frieda briefly observes closer relationships between other eves – jessie and liz, the Sweet Valley High reference twins, and the group of girls who want to be concubines – we don’t really hear much about them.

Because of this, Only Ever Yours plays into some of the YA cliches that it attempts to skewer. The only girls who seem to have much personality are frieda, isabel and agyness, a girl who has resigned herself relatively happily to a future as a chastity, and so poses no sexual threat. megan, the queen bee, possesses no redeeming features whatsoever, and her posse are hardly better; indeed, we are clearly meant to think that jessie and liz, for example, are pretty stupid. In contrast to YA novels that examine popularity more realistically and sympathetically – Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall, or O’Neill’s own Asking For It – this is harmful and unhelpful. By accepting that all the eves are real people, and real victims, O’Neill could have steered away from presenting female villains, but placed the blame squarely with the system that created them. I’ve no doubt that’s what she intended to do, but it doesn’t come across in the writing.

As we pull at these loose threads, Only Ever Yours unravels further. While some of the world-building can be handwaved, some of it has a direct impact on the feminist messages of the story. Thirty eves are born each year in ‘the Eurozone’; if nothing goes wrong, ten are destined to be companions and twenty concubines. Even in a world with a decimated population, it does not make sense to waste the contributions of women in this way. There has never been a society where women did not work, whatever the rhetoric about appropriate female roles, and there has never been a society where women’s intellectual value was not appreciated as well, albeit in limited contexts. By imagining such a society, Only Ever Yours lends credence to the inaccurate belief that, to misquote the historian of childhood Lloyd deMause, ‘The history of women is a nightmare from which we have only recently begun to awaken’. This encourages us to forget the roles that women have always played. We’ve come full circle and are back in the world of The Selection, where the role of a queen is to look pretty and remain quiet.

Only Ever Yours is unputdownable, unflinching and thought-provoking. But it hasn’t managed to completely break free from the YA mould in which it was made. I had mixed feelings about Asking For It, as well, but I’m still keen to see what O’Neill writes next. She is saying things that need to be said, and I think she will get better at it.

Fantasy, bad and good

First, a quick update on what’s up next for this blog, as I keep changing my plans…

  • Monograph Review: Roberta Bivins, Contagious Communities
  • 20 Books of Summer: I’m either reading or have read the following from the list, so expect some kind of combination of; My Brilliant Friend (Elena Ferrante), After Me Comes the Flood (Sarah Perry), The Eustace Diamonds and The Prime Minister (Anthony Trollope), to be popping up soon.
  • Not on the 20 Books of Summer List Review: Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill

Today, a couple of mini-reviews:

51KMqGz5znL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

As anybody who read my old blog will know, I’ve been a massive fan of George R. R. Martin and his A Song of Ice and Fire series since the age of 17 (though I do not like the TV show at all). Recently – having been an avid fantasy reader as a young teenager but then letting it drop – I’ve been actively trying to read more SF and fantasy, and so have been following up recommendations from other Martin fans. First, I tried The Lies of Locke Lamora series by Scott Lynch, which was great fun, and beautifully-structured. Unfortunately, I can’t say I got on as well with Joe Abercrombie. The Blade Itself, the first installment in The First Law series, reminded me of why I tired of wading through so much bad fantasy as a much younger reader. It’s really dreadful. While the book was first published in 2007, so it’s a little unfair to judge it in relation to trends that have perhaps become more dominant since then, I couldn’t help feeling weary as I realised that at least two out of three of our main characters are truly unpleasant, and the third morally grey, to say the least. It’s a shame that writers who seem to be taking inspiration from Martin don’t quite get why his novels work; despite his numerous, complex villains, heroism is not absent from A Song of Ice and Fire in a way that it seems to be in The Blade Itself. 

More importantly, though, Abercrombie’s characterisation is clumsy and obvious, reducing his protagonists to a cluster of traits (the disabled, weary torturer, the lazy, proud noble). To an extent, the issues lie with his writing. I was surprised by how badly written The Blade Itself is, having expected competent, if not brilliant prose. Furthermore, it honestly reads like a children’s book most of the time. By saying that, I don’t mean to disparage the fine and difficult work of children’s writers, but rather to point out that what works in one context (a children’s adventure story) is not appropriate in another (gruesome adult fantasy). Fighting scenes, for example, are littered with cartoonish dialogue:

‘West darted forward, ducked inside Jezal’s remaining blade and slammed into him with his shoulder. “Ooof,” said Jezal as he staggered back and crashed to the floor, fumbling his short steel.’

To be fair, this is a fencing match, not a fight to the death, but it happens in serious combat as well:

‘ “Gah!” squawked Logen as the spear cut a nick in his arm.’

Also, in scenes where there is no fighting but which ought to be serious and tense, such as incidents of torture and interrogation:

‘ “Haah!” yelped the prisoner as Glokta touched a nerve.’

More broadly, the world of The Blade Itself doesn’t feel like a world you can take very seriously, which would be fine if it wasn’t filled with gory, sensationalist violence and didn’t seem to be striving towards proper world-building. Attempts at political complexity, for example, are simplified to the point of parody. I don’t think there are any excuses that can be made; fantasy is an important genre that does important things. Unfortunately, I can’t recommend The Blade Itself as a great example of this.

15781832Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell

In contrast, this collection of fantastical, speculative short stories is simply brilliant. I read Russell’s first collection, St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, a long time ago, but while I enjoyed it, none of the stories quite hit the mark for me; the wonderful ideas didn’t quite come together to create a satisfying whole. I have the Reading Spa at Mr B’s bookshop in Bath to thank for bringing me back to Russell’s work. Every single story in this collection is a bulls-eye, although, of course, some were more to my personal taste than others. Russell’s gift is in rooting the most extraordinary situations in reality through the use of precise detail – I want to say precisely observed detail, but I don’t think she’d have had much chance to observe or experience many of the things she describes. So this is a triumph of precisely imagined detail, which is even more exhilarating. Take the reaction of a thirsty vampire to finding the one thing that satisfies his cravings:

[T]here is no word sufficiently lovely for that first taste, the first feeling of my fangs in that lemon. It was bracingly sour, with a delicate hint of ocean salt. After an initial prickling – a sort of chemical effervescence along my gums – a soothing blankness travelled from the tip of each fang to my fevered brain.’

Or a massage therapist discovering that the tattoo on her client’s back moves:

‘When she moves her hand she slides the thing across the sky on Zeiger’s shoulder, still tethered to her finger like a refrigerator magnet. Only it’s flat – it’s inside the tattoo… An orange circle no larger than a grocery SALE sticker. It’s the sun. Beverley swallows hard and blinks, as if that might correct the problem. She draws her pinky halfway down his spine, and the sun moves with it.’

Each of these short stories creates an entire world within itself, as if they are perfect windows into much longer novels; the tantalising detail in the horrific ‘Reeling for the Empire’, for example, or the bizarre custom of the Window in ‘Proving Up’. I’m now certainly keen to read Russell’s only novel, Swamplandia!, to see how she deals with a bigger canvas.

Writing for your hero, 2

UnknownI loved Jo Baker’s Longbourn, but, believing that it was her debut novel, wondered if it was the elevator pitch or the prose that had most drawn me in. ‘Pride and Prejudice from the point of view of the servants’ is a fantastic hook, but not one that could easily be duplicated in a second book. However, I’ve now learnt two things about Baker. One, that Longbourn was marketed as a debut but in fact wasn’t Baker’s first published novel at all. Two, that Baker is an impressive writer even when the story she’s telling is less high-concept.

A Country Road, A Tree begins with a boy in Ireland jumping from a tree. However, this is a more dangerous venture than it sounds, because he is flinging himself out into thin air and not landing on his feet. ‘The ground slammed up. It knocked the breath out of him, knocked the light out of him. Made him still.’ Nevertheless, the boy refuses to believe that he will fail. ‘This time, this time, this time, he would skim up to join the clouds. This time, he would fly.’ This very brief prologue – only a couple of pages long – is an arresting opening. As somebody who spent a lot of her childhood jumping off high things to see if she could learn to fly – fortunately, with much less painful results – I instantly found this project familiar. For a reader who didn’t have a childhood obsession with flight, the boy’s efforts might symbolise a theme that the novel returns to throughout; the often thankless, exhausting task of becoming a writer, the rejection, the self-doubt, the self-disgust. Because, as we discover in the course of the next couple of chapters, the nameless boy in the tree is in fact a version of the avant-garde writer Samuel Beckett.

I know very little about Beckett’s life, and (as usual!) I agree with Victoria at Eve’s Alexandria that the triumph of this novel is not presenting a fictionalised biography of Beckett but, instead, using Beckett’s experiences during the Second World War as inspiration to write about a character more loosely connected to the real Beckett. We care about our nameless narrator in a way we might not care about somebody more tightly pinned down by historical fact. The spare, clever way that Baker invokes the past strengthens our attachment further. Bogging down an historical novel with too much detail can be distancing; Baker keeps closely to the lived experience of her characters rather than namedropping newspapers for the sake of it, or trying to infodump too much material about the progress of the war. Because of this, we live through our protagonist’s zig-zaggings across France with his lover, Suzanne, as he does, managing to forget that we know how this all plays out.

A Country Road, A Tree is a very different novel from Longbourn, but they share a close attention to the physicality of their characters’ lives that roots them even more deeply into the times in which they are set. This is evident from the very beginning of A Country Road, A Tree, before the hardships and injuries of war even start; our narrator ‘lifts the skin off his coffee, a greasy caul’; his nieces ‘smell of wool and boiled milk and soap, when they are kissed’; walking up a hill near the sea, ‘gorse rattles its seed pods in the wind and his own breath rattles in his chest, and with exertion now the scar pulls.’ On the run across France in later years, physical concerns centre around two points of anguish: feet and teeth. ‘His feet are all bones, bunions and blisters and ragged yellow nails… the one toe with the missing joint’. After the war is over, our narrator, at the dentist, knows ‘things in his mouth are not as they should be; the snags and edges, the deep throb of nerve, the tender itchy gum’. He has to have several teeth out. These two points of contact, with the ground, and with the poor food that he’s had to eat, not to mention the stone that he likes to suck, leave the greatest physical legacy of the war.

Finally, Baker has pulled off something difficult in this novel; she has written about somebody that she truly admires, without flattening her characterisation or making their choices seem trite or easy. While, as I say, I don’t know enough about Beckett to suggest whether or not this is accurate, this was certainly the kind of character she was trying to create. As she writes in her afterword, ‘the war… presented [Beckett] with a series of extraordinary moral choices. And in impossibly difficult situations, he consistently turned towards what was most decent and compassionate or courageous.’ The skill of this novel is that we only gradually realise how much good is in our narrator, as he feels so torn between the demands of others and his own selfish impulses – and that another interpretation of his actions is possible (like the boy who hurt himself falling from the tree, some of our protagonist’s choices feel a little perverse). This is obviously not the kind of hero-worship pursued by our deranged narrator in Losing NelsonBut it reminds us why writing about people who do heroic things is important, but hard. It’s easier to undermine somebody’s reputation then to demonstrate why you believe it is deserved.

Writing for your hero, 1

I meant to review two novels in this post, but this has got rather long – second part coming shortly!

unsworth_nelsonLosing Nelson  is the first thing I’ve read by the late Barry Unsworth, and it seems likely that I may have started with the wrong thing. Having finished this extremely well-written but, in my view, extremely unsatisfying novel, I found my first impressions closely reflected in this Guardian review from the year of the book’s publication, 1999. Losing Nelson follows the obsessive and increasingly mentally ill Charles Cleasby, an elderly man who believes that his life closely maps that of Nelson, the subject of the book that he is writing. Cleasby’s hero-worship shows early signs of being bizarrely original. On the first page of the novel, he promises to tell us about ‘the two hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Cape St Vincent, Horatio’s first great disobedience, the day he became an angel.’ This single sentence conveys a huge amount of information about Cleasby; his precise knowledge about Nelson, his commitment to celebrating every significant date in his life; but more importantly, it tantalises us with what can possibly be going on in our narrator’s mind. Cleasby explains: ‘I will say what I think angels are. They can be dark or bright, but they all have the gift of spontaneity, of creating themselves anew.’ Cleasby continually returns to the fact that Nelson ‘broke the line’ during this battle, disobeying his commander’s orders in order to win against the Spanish, and, in his mind, this makes him angelic. Of greater psychological importance, however, is the rest of Cleasby’s explanation: ‘angels are not complete, they need their counterparts, the dark needs the bright’. Cleasby believes that he is Nelson’s ‘dark twin’, and that he is moving towards a great reckoning where he will finally vindicate Nelson from the only criticism of his hero that bothers him – that he duplicitously refused the treaty of surrender of the Naples republicans in 1799.

Cleasby’s early framing of the Battle of Cape St Vincent suggests a decidedly twisted and intriguing take on history, but that is not what we get for much of the rest of this novel. Indeed, it falls back upon an all-too-familiar project of warning us about the dangers of hero-worship, until a professional historian can finally spell it out in the final pages: ‘Heroes are fabricated in the national dream factory. Heroes are not people.’ Even almost twenty years ago, this was hardly news (think of, for example, Roland Huntford’s famously critical treatment of Captain Scott in 1979), and the pacing of the novel becomes very frustrating. We know we are building up to the climax of Cleasby realising that he cannot rescue Nelson’s reputation from Naples, but midway through, we’re still meandering. The novel switches between a series of episodes in Nelson’s life, Cleasby’s clashes with his secretary, Miss Lily, who takes a pseudo-feminist angle on Nelson’s mistress and wife, and a predictably awful talk that Cleasby gives at the Nelson Society. Unsworth’s writing is continuously illuminating and vivid, and some of the best parts in this section are his vivid rewritings of history. A scene where Cleasby, Miss Lily, and her son tour HMS Victory is especially strong, as Cleasby takes issue with the tour guide and starts his own narration: telling the boy that sailors would have worn cotton bands to protect their ears, he notes that even so ‘the men would bleed from the ears after the battle, quite copiously, yes, gushes of blood’. Nevertheless, while Unsworth’s history is wonderful, it often seems shoehorned into the framing narrative; would Cleasby really care about the travails of common sailors?

The other big issue I had with Losing Nelson was that it, like The History Boys, feels marooned in time. A mention of Blair’s victory lets us know we’re meant to be in 1997, but if it weren’t for that, I’d find it more convincing if this novel were set in the 1950s or 1960s. Cleasby is obviously a recluse, separated from the modern world around him, but this should only highlight the points at which he bumps up against modernity more clearly. Miss Lily is an obvious channel – a single mum in her early thirties – but she also seems to hail from earlier decades. (While she’s amused that Cleasby thinks of her as ‘Miss Lily’, her real name is Lilian, which doesn’t necessarily suggest a young woman in 1990s Britain). Her dialogue recalls an older, working-class sense of female deference: ‘I can’t afford to refuse a thing like this, the money is so good and everything found’. Or, to Cleasby, ‘I’ve enjoyed it so much, working together on the book… And it’s entirely because you talked to me, Charles, you weren’t just the employer, you asked my opinion.’  Cleasby’s weirdness, somehow, doesn’t seep into his history, or even into his daily life. By the time the crisis of the novel has taken him, inevitably, to Naples, and things darken and twist again, much of the original intrigue seems to have been snuffed out.

20 Books of Summer: June

20booksfinalIt’s fair to say I haven’t made an especially strong start to the 20 Books of Summer challenge: June has been both an exceptionally busy, and exceptionally upsetting month. I’ve also foolishly read a few books not on the list. However, I did manage to read four of the novels I selected, and will be blogging about them in pairs, as follows:

Monday 4th June: A Country Road, A Tree by Jo Baker and Losing Nelson by Barry Unsworth

Friday 8th June: Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell and The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

Hopefully July will be a better month all round!