Youth is another country

cover77864-medium‘Why does literature so often depict the onset of sexuality – or indeed any aspect of girls’ growing up – as a strange, feverish thing?’ writes Lorraine Berry in the Guardian. Hooray, I thought, I absolutely agree – and immediately decided to get my hands on the two novels she praises for contributing ‘to our understanding of what it means to be a teenage girl or young woman’, Emma Cline’s The Girls and Robin Wasserman’s Girls on FireHowever, having now read the latter, I’m puzzled, to say the least. Wasserman’s novel seems to me to be a perfect distillation of how not to write about female adolescence – and a perfect example of the type of literature Berry is criticising. Furthermore, I’m starting to wonder if Berry’s explanation for these poor portrayals of teenagers – the fact that it’s often male authors who are responsible for these exaggerated teenage girls – is a bit of a red herring. While gender, as always, plays a role, I’ve found that both male and female authors are equally responsible for ‘feverish’ adolescents, and that portrayals of teenage boys are often equally problematic. To me, it seems that the key problem here is that writers aren’t satisfied with writing about adolescents – they want to write about Adolescence, and that’s where they go wrong.

Berry criticises Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides for objectifying teenage girls. Its opening chapter certainly has some objectifying lines: ‘the five glittering daughters in their homemade dresses, all lace and ruffle, bursting with their fructifying flesh’; ‘It was thrilling to know that the Lisbon girls knew our names, that their delicate vocal cords had pronounced their syllables.’ But this novel, of course, is narrated by teenage boys – and part of the point of it is the extraordinary distance between them and these girls they claim to know well, partly because they cannot see them as human beings. And even if we were meant to read Eugenides’s text at face value, the first pages of Girls on Fire could give it a run for its money: ‘See them in their golden hour, a flood of girls high on the ecstasy of the final bell, tumbling onto the city bus, all gawky limbs and Wonderbra’d cleavage, chewed nails picking at eruptive zits… Try not to see them, I dare you. Girls, everywhere.’ Perhaps this description is meant to be undercut by the story that follows; but the trouble is, it isn’t. The two main characters swing between innocence and danger, as the two epigraphs at the beginning of the book signal heavily.

Dex is the familiar teenage outcast, while Lacey is the popular but risqué new girl. They form an intense friendship – although I could never quite believe in their bond – and start to take on the world. But Lacey has a secret, shared with the school’s ‘golden girl’, Nikki, whose boyfriend Craig recently committed suicide. What will happen when Dex finds out? To be honest, it’s pretty easy to guess what happened and what Dex and Lacey do, although I’ll avoid spoilers. Girls on Fire tries to build tension by moving between one episode of ‘shocking’ teenage behaviour to the other, until its final climax, but I felt like I’d read this story many times before. To give this a distasteful twist, one of the ‘shocks’ is a violent and brutal sexual assault, while another is a lesbian relationship. I’ve no doubt that Wasserman didn’t intend the novel to be read this way, but even so, we’re left with yet another story about teenage girls self-destructing; a story that tells us girls are fragile and dangerous, frightening and vulnerable.

Where are the teenage girls I remember from my own adolescence, and the kind of girls that I worked with during my time running groups for teenaged young carers? Where are the girls who are sensible, clever, who are trying to work things out, who are not ‘golden girls’ or despised outcasts, who make mistakes but who also get things right, who – most importantly of all – are living lives in the here and now and trying to make them as good as possible, rather than burning through an adult memory of what ‘adolescence’ was like? Happily, there are novels I can recommend that deal fairly with teenagers. As Berry notes, Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep is a classic. More recently, I’ve loved Tara French’s The Secret Place, which occasionally veers close to some of the stereotypes I’ve been dismissing – especially in its portrayal of female sexuality – but, on the whole, evokes the atmosphere of adolescence without resorting to lazy shorthand.

For me, the root of the issue is that we still don’t recognise the ageist assumptions we make about adolescents. Berry rightly notes that when women and people of colour do not get to write about their own experiences, we often get distorted versions of what their lives are like. But she doesn’t go on to question the assumption that adults can write unthinkingly about teenagers, simply because we were all adolescents once. I’m obviously not advocating that only teenagers should write books about teenagers (just as I don’t believe that only women should write about women). What I’m suggesting is that adult authors are more reflective about their own experiences of adolescence, and what it might feel like to be a teenager – and, first and foremost, that they see their characters as people, not as representatives of a lost and vivid youth.

Anything you do say may be given in evidence

28273664Having never read any Tana French before July, I’ve recently blazed through four of her novels: In the Woods, The Likeness, The Secret Place and The Trespasser. The last of these was the catalyst. I received a review copy believing it was going to be like all the other police procedurals I read to relax; by the end, I felt like it had pushed the bar so much higher that everything else I read in this genre from now on – even classics like Val McDermid’s The Mermaids Singing or A Place of Execution – would fail to clear it.

The Trespasser focuses on the Dublin Murder Squad that has taken centre stage in all of French’s published novels so far. While the novel connects back to previous books, most notably The Secret Place, which immediately precedes it, you don’t need to have read anything else by French to enjoy it – and I actually wonder if I loved The Trespasser even more because I came upon it fresh. The complex web of relationships, loyalties and grudges that we sense beneath the surface of this narrative has been laid carefully over the course of the preceding six books, and even though I’ve now read and enjoyed earlier novels in the series, such as In the Woods, they did feel thinner for lack of this groundwork.

Our narrator is Antoinette Conway, a mixed-race woman who feels painfully visible in the white male world of the squad. French brilliantly conveys how the little slights and nudges that Antoinette encounters every day at work contribute to a feeling that she is constantly under attack. While one of the questions Antoinette battles with throughout this novel is whether or not she is allowing the genuine discrimination she has experienced to make her paranoid, I don’t think French ever slips into suggesting that this is all in Antoinette’s head, which would be hugely problematic. Her use of narrative voice is incredibly sensitive and nuanced, and we quickly learn that we can’t take everything Antoinette says at face value – which may include her eventual ‘realisation’ that she has been over-sensitive. Antoinette’s unreliability would feel more uncomfortable if I wasn’t aware that French pulls exactly the same trick with the male narrator of The Secret Place – and, in this case, it is Antoinette herself that he underestimates.

Antoinette’s narrative works so well because it engages so closely with genre conventions. As I say, I read a fair amount of police procedurals, and I’m used to the lead detective being used as a kind of barometer for what we should think about the situations he or she encounters, and what they say about our society. This is most obvious in more traditional murder mysteries – I’m thinking Adam Dalgleish in PD James’s novels – but also familiar in modern crime novels – Val McDermid’s Tony Hill and Carol Jordan, or even Jane Casey’s Maeve Kerrigan. Our heroes and heroines are almost always flawed, but their judgement of the world around them remains intact – fulfilling the crime novel’s subsidiary purpose as a kind of social commentary. Reading The Trespasser in this way led me down some false paths. I found myself very angry with Antoinette in the first quarter of the novel, as she sneers at a young woman, Aislinn, who has been violently murdered: ‘She’s maybe five seven, skinny, wearing spike heels, plenty of fake tan, a tight-fitting cobalt-blue dress and a chunky fake-gold necklace… She looks like Dead Barbie.’ After finding out more from Aislinn’s best friend about what Aislinn was like, ‘By this point I would have brained Aislinn with something gingham.’ Her house ‘looks like it was bought through some Decorate Your Home App’ and ‘her life was so boring, just thinking about it makes me want to hit myself in the face with a hammer for a bit of excitement.’

But there’s much more going on here than lazy stereotyping of a working-class woman who tries to look conventionally attractive, and as we learn more about Aislinn, we learn more about Antoinette – especially why her initial reaction to Aislinn was so vicious. One tool that French uses to incredible effect – leaving me wondering why it’s, frankly, a wasted opportunity in every other crime novel I’ve read – is the interrogation. Working closely with her partner, Steve, Antoinette carefully selects which persona she should use when interviewing suspects, from ‘Cool Girl’ to ‘Stroppy Man-Hating Bitch’, and how it will play out throughout the encounter. What information should they feed their targets, and what should they hold back? How should they interact with each other? What tricks can they play to rattle suspects, or put them at their ease? These set-pieces are by far the most compelling thing about The Trespasser – and indeed, about The Secret Place, although they play less of a role in French’s first two novels – and sum up how French is using genre convention to strain the limits of the genre altogether.

For what I found most exciting about The Trespasser was how much it demanded from the reader. Rather than resorting to the tiresome ‘guess whodunnit’ strategies deployed by many crime novels and psychological thrillers, it makes us keen to work out what makes all of these people tick. When Aislinn’s killer is revealed, it’s a neat twist, but the journey we’ve taken to get there is far more important – and, to my mind, far more interesting. Coupled with French’s excellent writing, this leads The Trespasser into literary territory, despite how effectively it wears its genre trappings. Indeed, the majority of literary novels don’t think as smartly and consistently about character. Having raced through three of French’s other novels, The Trespasser is still a stand-out for me, although The Secret Place (which I’ll be writing about shortly) comes close. This is that very rare thing; a genre novel that fulfils the conventions of its genre at the same time as it thoughtfully disposes of them.

The Trespasser is out in the UK on 22nd September 2016, BUT, all of Tana French’s other novels are currently available for 99p on Kindle! GO GO GO.

What’s the life of a man?

I’ve now read 12 of my 20 Books of Summer, with progress frequently halted by the temptations of new books (Tana French is especially to blame here). Here are my thoughts on two recent reads.

1507-1The Temporary Gentleman: Sebastian Barry

I remember enjoying The Secret Scripture when I read it as a student, but the story has had remarkably little staying-power; I can’t remember a thing about it. This is especially unfortunate because The Temporary Gentleman, like other Barry novels, shares many of the same characters with The Secret Scripture. It focuses upon Jack McNulty, a former UN observer who is now living in Uganda and writing his memoirs. Although there is a brief excursion into the Second World War, when Jack works as a bomb disposal expert, the book largely focuses on the breakdown of Jack’s marriage, and the disintegration of his wife Mai. Both Jack and Mai are deeply unlikeable, although Jack, having gambled away the family home, certainly deserves a bigger share of the blame for starting the dark spiral. The title is apt, referring literally to Jack’s temporary commission in the army but figuratively to his own awareness of how deeply he has ruined his own life, and the lives of other people. The ending achieves a real bleakness – the sense of a loss of a huge amount of past, which is skilfully done considering how short the novel is. But, on the whole, I found The Temporary Gentleman slight and unoriginal. Barry’s prose is flawless and smooth, but I was rarely struck by a truly brilliant line. Indeed, at times it feels as if the cadence of the sentences skates over much of the emotion in the book. The writing is better suited to Jack’s war experiences than to his marital disharmony, perfectly conveying his disconnected shock after he is almost killed by a bomb and when a ship he is travelling on is torpedoed. But this hasn’t inspired me to return to Barry soon.

any-human-heart-book-coverAny Human Heart: William Boyd

This is the other side of the coin; twice as long as The Temporary Gentleman, but packing an emotional punch many times that in its narration of the life of a man who, like Jack McNulty, lived through the twentieth century, and, also like McNulty, might be considered a ‘failure’. There’s probably little I can say about either Any Human Heart or about Boyd that hasn’t already been said, but as this was the first time I’ve tried his work, I’ll give it a go. The book masquerades as the collected diaries of Logan Mountstuart, a man who, like Margaret Forster’s female narrator in Diary of an Ordinary Woman, feels absolutely real. Boyd effortlessly traces the metamorphosis of Logan’s narrative voice across a period of seventy years, making us feel – unlike Logan himself, who ‘can see no connection between the schoolboy I was and the man I am now’ – that there is an absolute continuity between his different selves, but also that he has been utterly and profoundly changed.

The joy of this narrative is that every reader will have their different favourite sections. I was actually most impressed by the opening pages of the book, the ‘School Journal’, where Boyd brilliantly skewers the pomposity of eighteen-year-old schoolboy Logan, but also makes him feel like a person, not a caricature. Logan’s war years are also worth a mention. Throughout the entirety of the novel, however, I kept on coming across fantastic passages that made even the more plodding periods (I was least impressed by Logan’s time with the Duke of Windsor, the former Edward VIII) come to life. Boyd is especially good on ageing and on what comes to matter as you grow older. As Logan notes at the age of 71: ‘As I write this I feel that draining, hollowing helplessness that genuine love for another person produces in you. It’s at these moments that we know we are going to die.’ And near the end of his life, having said little about his father since his unexpected death while Logan was still at school: ‘ “As sound as a bell of brass.” This is a phrase my father used to describe perfectly frozen meat. Can’t think why it should suddenly pop up in my head.’

Any Human Heart also poses a metatextual puzzle. Who has ‘collected’ Logan’s diaries – annotated them, footnoted them, written an index? At the beginning of the novel, I thought that Logan was going to become a famous writer and this would explain why his diaries are available to us – and why they appear on the list of his collected works – but by the end of the novel, I realised this couldn’t be the case. Obviously, this is all made up (although I can’t have been the only reader who almost believed I could get hold of one of Logan’s novels, in the same way as I wanted to read the collected works of AN Dyer from David Gilbert’s & Sons.) But I so desperately wanted to believe that Logan had been rediscovered after his death – that he had become an important literary figure, hence the publication of the diaries and their ‘editing’ by Boyd. Or should we believe that this was done by somebody who loved him – or by one of the few remaining people that he genuinely loved? There’s no answer, of course. What is revealing is how much I came to care about Logan (despite his many flaws, particularly his appalling treatment of women) and how I wanted his significance as a person to be recognised by the wider world. But Logan is not really that special; and we cannot all be famous. His final realisation that he is ‘proud’ of the life he’s lived made me wonder why I was so determined for him to be better-known. In the end, it was more important for him to realise that he does not envy the young people he sees on the beach: ‘I wonder if any of you will live as well as I have done.’ It’s hardly an epigraph that Jack McNulty could have written.

Reading round-up: Summer SF

I’m currently venturing further into science fiction than I have done previously, but am still pretty new to the genre… Here’s some of the things I’ve been trying recently – all of them have a YA-ish bent.

12962345Earth Girl: Janet Edwards

I’m a little puzzled that this YA novel was published. Not because it’s outrageously bad, but because it reads very much as a first draft, dramatically uneven, but full of interesting ideas. Ronan Wills has already analysed the problems with the novel’s opening and central concept on his blog, so I’ll try to avoid covering the same ground. Eighteen-year-old Jarra is one of the Handicapped, a small segment of the population whose immune systems are so weak they can never leave Earth, in a time when most of humanity lives ‘off-world’, travelling through space via a portal system. Jarra hides her disability by posing as a ‘norm’ in her first year of university, as she joins a group of students undertaking archaeological digs on Earth. Jarra was a really frustrating heroine; she had so much potential and, as she is forced to reassess peers whom she misjudged, you can tell the author’s heart was in the right place, but she’s ultimately just another piece of wish-fulfilment. Brilliant at everything, she never seems to be at any real risk, and she’s another protagonist who has no actual goal, unless you count demonstrating that she is as good as the norms, which she accomplishes in the first few chapters. However, the real problem with Earth Girl is the pacing; key moments are covered in a couple of pages, while Jarra seems to risk her life on an endless number of digs that are all essentially the same. The loose ends are also tied up so tightly that I’ve no idea how there can be two more books. I assumed from an early reference in this novel that Jarra was going to encounter aliens, but apparently they don’t turn up until the sequel, which seems a very odd moment for them to suddenly appear. Anyway, it’s a shame that this wasn’t revised further before publication, because it certainly had potential.

Binti-Nnedi-OkoraforBinti: Nnedi Okorafor [Spoilers]

This YA novella also began with such promise but left me severely disappointed. Its heroine, Binti, begins a journey in the far future to Oomza University, the first of her people, the Himba, to attend. Having experienced racist oppression all her life from the ruling people of the Earth, the Khoush, Binti expects little different from her interstellar journey, despite her extraordinary talents in mathematics. However, when the spaceship she is travelling on is attacked by a menacing alien race, the Meduse, Binti has a new threat to face. The opening pages of this novella offer a refreshing take on the traditional European/American-centric sci-fi set-up, as Binti packs her otjize and explains the braiding of her hair. I also loved the way in which she travels: ‘The ship was a magnificent piece of living technology. Third Fish was a Miri 12… Miri 12s were stable calm creatures with natural exoskeletons that could withstand the harshness of space. They were genetically enhanced to grow three breathing chambers inside their bodies.’ The conflict Binti experiences between the norms of her people and her own ambitions also has potential, especially in her attitude towards the otjize that she wears – she values and respects it, but also remembers feeling great freedom when she once washed it all off as a younger girl.

Unfortunately, Binti soon founders under the weight of its own narrative. There’s simply not enough space for Okorafor to develop the story that she wants to tell, and once Binti departs on Third Fish, emotional resonance is sacrificed for a sketchy plot. Binti tells us that she makes non-Himba friends for the first time, but they are literally reduced to a list of names before being slaughtered by the Meduse. However, it’s during the conflict with the Meduse that Binti started reminding me of my least favourite episodes of Doctor Who. The Meduse kill everyone on Binti’s ship so they can retrieve a Meduse stinger from Oomza University, who possess it unlawfully. When Binti negotiates with the university on behalf of the Meduse, they not only return the stinger but agree to let one of the Meduse attend the university – seemingly forgetting all the innocent people that have died. This is a horribly reductive rendering of peacemaking that means the novel fails to explore the complexities of conflict and prejudice, despite its promising set-up. The Meduse may well have much longer-standing grudges against humankind, but the poor world-building means that we find out nothing about them. The awkward prose and Binti’s info-dumping, often characterless narration does little to help matters. Such a shame, as there was lots of promise here.

1430789787569474338A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet: Becky Chambers

Saving the best till last; I absolutely adored this. It’s a space adventure starring a diverse range of alien and human characters as they try to set up a tunnel to a far-off galaxy to facilitate trade with a distant civilisation. We see a lot of it through the eyes of new human recruit, Rosemary, who has a secret past, but the other characters who came vividly to life for me were Sissix, an alien mix of feathers and scales who pilots the ship, the quirky and tactless human engineer Kizzy, and Ashby, the long-suffering captain who has to manage all these very different personalities. A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is infused with warmth, a delightful antidote to more ‘grimdark’ fiction; it may be unrealistically positive, but it was a delight to read about a future world that is, for once, closer to utopia than dystopia.

The novel is very episodic; although there is supposed to be a through-line about the crew’s tunnelling mission, in reality, this is only briefly mentioned, and provides very little conflict. Instead, each character takes their turn to encounter unexpected peril, generally linked to their backstories and to the worlds in which they’ve grown up. At its best, this structure produces fascinating set-pieces that are full of ideas and questions, such as a longer-running thread about Sissix’s species that culminates in a visit to her family. At its worst, it can feel a bit ‘Alien of the Day’, with drama artificially manufactured so Chambers can work through some of her concepts, like the grumpy algaeist Corbin’s backstory, or even the illness of the ‘Sianat’ pair, Ohan. Similarly, characterisation can be more complex – as with Rosemary, Sissix and Kizzy – or can be reduced to a single trait that relates to whatever issue the character has to face. Nevertheless, I’m still a big fan. The cheery brightness of the novel gives it a YA feel, but there’s more to chew on here than in most YA fiction. Chambers is an imaginative and thoughtful storyteller, and I can’t wait for the sequel, A Close and Common Orbit (October 2016).