20 Books of Summer, 2017

20-booksOnce again, I’m picking up the 20 Books of Summer challenge from Cathy at 746 Books. I enjoyed this last year – here’s my old list and reviews. I dumped two of my choices last year – The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann and The Master by Colm Toibin – so I’ll be borrowing another idea from Cathy and choosing two reserves.

So, my 20 + 2 books are as follows:

  • Swallow: Sefi Atta
  • The Sellout: Paul Beatty
  • An Ice-Cream War: William Boyd
  • The Clocks in this House All Tell Different Times: Xan Brooks
  • The Hate Race: Maxine Beneba Clarke
  • Hild: Nicola Griffith
  • The Fifth Season: NK Jemisin
  • Orangeboy: Patrice Lawrence
  • Black Water Rising: Attica Locke
  • The Gracekeepers: Kirsty Logan
  • Embassytown: China Mieville
  • Augustown: Kei Miller
  • Paradise: Toni Morrison
  • The Bone Readers: Jacob Ross
  • The Comet Seekers: Helen Sedgwick
  • Swing Time: Zadie Smith
  • Waterland: Graham Swift
  • The Lauras: Sara Taylor
  • House of Names: Colm Toibin
  • Mrs Dalloway: Virginia Woolf

plus two reserves:

  • The Sunlight Pilgrims: Jenni Fagan
  • The Mare: Mary Gaitskill

With an eye on my New Year’s Resolution to read more books by writers of colour, 10 of the 20 books (50%) are written by men or women of colour. And unusually for me, 8 of the 20 (40%) are by men. Usually – without any deliberate planning – I read two books by women for every one I read by a man (33.3%), so male writers are getting slightly more of a look-in here (though many of the books by men also feel like the ones most likely to be replaced by a female wild card, so watch this space…)

Unrelatedly, I’ve finished my Baileys Prize shortlist reading, so expect a review of The Dark Circle and a rankings post on Friday.

What summer reading is everybody else planning?

‘Bears hear what men say’

51KTSiQPa8L._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_The Ice, Laline Paull’s second novel, is set in a not-so-distant future when the Arctic sea ice has melted. Boats are cruising around the newly-liquid North Pole, where environmental concerns have intensified, and where old university friends Sean Cawson and Tom Harding have recently snapped up a prime Arctic property in the shape of Midgard Lodge, located in a restricted area of the territory. Tom is passionate about tackling climate change, and he and Sean plot to gain a financial stake in the Arctic in order to place themselves among the movers and shakers who can actually affect policy in the region. However, it’s clear from the outset that Sean has a slightly different take on their ultimate purpose. The Ice begins four years after the initial acquisition of the property, when Tom’s body is discovered in a glacier. It’s assumed that his death after the collapse of an ice cave a year earlier was a tragic accident, but as the inquest into his death begins, it becomes evident that there’s more beneath the surface than meets the eye.

The Ice is so completely different from Paull’s debut, The Bees, that it has to be taken on its own merits; whether or not you liked The Bees will probably bear no relation at all to whether you like The Ice. Personally, I found The Bees baffling, with its curiously directionless plot, passive heroine and simplistic dystopian trappings, so The Ice was definitely a better read for me. Nevertheless, it wasn’t without its own problems. While there are some excellent chapters, much of the plot is rather slow, and I found myself most captivated by the scenes set during Tom’s life, as I simply found him a more interesting character than the rather unmotivated, weak and selfish Sean, who has an especially unpleasant attitude to most women. Paull does pretty well with her main players; I particularly liked Ruth Mott, Arctic biologist and Tom’s ex-lover, who is strong without ever verging into the stereotypical territory of Strong Female Character. But her background cast tends to be cartoonish; I was impatient from the start with her moralistic portrayal of Arctic tourists ‘ravenous for bear’. Overall, I found that the novel struggled to establish a strong through-line, despite the hook of Tom’s death, and kept wandering off on tangents, not helped by the flashes back and forward in time.

The pace of the novel was further broken up by the long quotations, largely from the memoirs of Arctic explorers, but also from sources such as the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, that Paull inserts before every chapter. Some of these (though surprisingly few – and I love reading about Arctic and Antarctic exploration!) were interesting in their own right, but very few seemed to bear much relation to the story at hand. At times, I felt they acted as shorthand for facts that Paull ought to have woven into the main narrative – for example, the description of pickled auk or the story of the explorer who hacked his way out of the ice with his own frozen excrement. Wonderful stories – such as the Inuit legend of ‘The Great Bear’ – also feel too separate from the text. There are some great descriptions, but I did not get as strong a sense of the Arctic from this novel as I hoped I might. It’s a strange beast, a literary thriller that doesn’t quite deliver on either front – the last few pages are especially bizarre – and while it’s clear that Paull is a consistently original writer, I’m not sure that her work is for me.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher.

‘We were a plague’

51mHRH0-UAL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_Sebastian Barry’s Costa-winning Days Without End surprised, impressed, disappointed and troubled me in equal measure. Continuing Barry’s tracking of the history of the McNulty family through multiple novels, it focuses on Thomas McNulty, a young Irishman who has travelled to the United States via Canada in the mid-nineteenth century, where he and his fellow Irish emigrants were treated with shocking inhumanity. ‘Canada was a-feared of us. We were a plague. We were rats of people.’ Because of this experience, he now often buys into Irish stereotypes himself: ‘Don’t tell me an Irish is an example of civilised humanity… If you cross an Irish for half a dollar he’s going to burn your house in revenge… I was never no different neither.’ The story that follows recalls Noel Ignatiev’s arguments in How the Irish Became White (1995), which famously suggested that despite having economic hardship in common, nineteenth-century Irish immigrants to the States deliberately defined themselves against Northern black residents. As he sets out along the Oregon trail, Thomas’s experiences become geographically and racially distinct; while encountering black people, his principal contact is with Native Americans, especially the Sioux. And yet, his response, at least for the vast majority of the novel, is the same: he fails to see any similarity between his treatment in Quebec and the horrific atrocities he visits on the Sioux.

I’ve always felt a little lukewarm about Barry’s writing in the past. His prose is beautiful, but, at times, becomes so lyrical that it flattens some of the immediacy of the events he is relating and the distinctiveness of his characterisation, as in his The Temporary Gentleman. But Thomas’s narrative voice is an absolute triumph. In my review of The Temporary Gentleman, I wrote that I ‘was rarely struck by a single brilliant line’; here, they bristle out on every page. The novel is as good on scenery as it is on battles as it is on small personal detail. ‘All that riding grinds down your backbone,’ Thomas tells us, ’till I believe you gain for yourself a little store of bone dust into your buttocks.’ Or, ‘you ain’t long travelling on the plains when you begin to feel clear loco… Your brain is molten in its bowl of bones and you just seeing atrocious wonders everywhere.’ I discussed this novel at a book group, and there was some criticism of Thomas’s narrative voice for being too lyrical for an uneducated working-class man. As Lisa McInerney has recently argued, this assumes that working-class people can’t be articulate, which is not true. Also, I’m always surprised when readers interpret a first-person narrative voice as literally what the character would write down if they had pen and paper. There is some justification for that in Days Without End, where (as in so many Barry novels) Thomas seems to be writing his account from the vantage point of old age, but I still don’t think it’s a helpful assumption. After all, any ‘authentic’ written narrative, whatever the class of the person writing it, would obviously be full of repetition and error, and wouldn’t make for a very satisfying novel.

Thomas’s sexuality, and his lifelong relationship with fellow soldier John Cole, is also beautifully-handled. It’s hard to know whether we are meant to assume whether or not Thomas – who frequently dresses in women’s clothes and occasionally refers to himself as a woman – is supposed to be read as trans and/or gender-fluid. (This Guardian review weirdly suggests that even his cross-dressing is anachronistic; not the case!) I quite like the idea that he’s simply homosexual, because, if so, Barry has done a fantastic job portraying a man who understands his desire for other men in very different terms than he might today. While I’m not up on the literature on homosexuality in the nineteenth-century United States, Thomas’s gender-crossing would certainly have fit into popular depictions of male homosexuality in late nineteenth-century England. As Lesley Hall and Sean Brady have argued, high-profile events like the trial of Oscar Wilde collapsed ideas about effeminacy and sex between men into one cautionary tale, defined in opposition to respectable middle-class masculinity. Matt Houlbrook’s work on homosexual identities in ‘Queer London’ in the inter-war period shows that these ideas persisted in queer subcultures for some time. As one working-class man, John Alcock, said: ‘We were queer, so we were much more like women than we were like men.’ To my mind, it’s the job of the historical novel to explore mindsets that are genuinely different from our own, and to me, Thomas’s troubles with his gender and sexuality fit more easily into these contemporary belief-systems than modern definitions of trans or gay identity.

However, I was ultimately left troubled by the conclusion to Days Without End, which felt altogether too neat and pleasant compared to what had gone before. Relatively early in the novel, John and Thomas adopt a Sioux girl, Winona, after they and their fellow soldiers kill the rest of her family. The tensions that you might expect to arise are completely unwritten. Indeed, Winona often feels like more of a prop to back up John and Thomas’s ‘marriage’ and life together as a man and woman, and to cause plot-significant problems for them, rather than a character in her own right. This highlights a larger problem with the novel; while Barry is absolutely explicit about the slaughter of Native Americans by white settlers, it still feels like a backdrop to John and Thomas’s story, which, in my opinion, is very uncomfortable. This has structural as well as moral consequences for the novel; conflict drops in its final third, despite some significant events, because by then we have realised that neither John nor Thomas is going to fundamentally shift their world-view. Of course, I have no problem with historical novelists writing characters who believe things that we now see to be fundamentally wrong, but it makes it hard to fully buy into John and Thomas’s happy ending given that they don’t truly experience any kind of reckoning.

Barry’s writing here is better than anything I’ve ever read from him before (a tall order), and Days Without End is undoubtedly powerful and gripping. It’s a shame that it doesn’t follow through on everything it promised in its early chapters, but I’m not surprised that it has been so critically acclaimed.

Baileys Prize Shortlist Round-Up, #2

The first part of my Baileys Prize musings can be found here.

51mmlVB41eL._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_So, The Sport of Kings by CE Morgan. I still haven’t absolutely made up my mind how to rank the shortlisted novels, but this is a strong contender for my favourite. As I said in my first post, I read this novel in a few huge gulps over quite a long space of time because it wouldn’t fit in my backpack. Fortunately, I think this approach suited it well. Morgan’s second novel traces two interlinked, epic narratives. The first is the story of the Forge family, important landowners in Kentucky, and especially the story of Henry Forge, who breaks away from his family’s legacy of corn farming to breed racehorses, a new endeavour which he hopes to bequeath to his daughter Henrietta. Evolutionary imagery dominates the novel from the start – Morgan uses a number of quotations from On the Origin of Species as chapter epigraphs – underwriting the Forges’ violently racist views and actions as well as Henry’s conception of his destiny. The second starts with Allmon Shaughnessy, a mixed-race boy growing up in Cincinnati, Ohio, divided from Kentucky by the Ohio River – famously crossed by escaping slaves in the nineteenth century, as it formed part of the border between free states and slave states. Allmon’s life, brutally hard because of his race and poverty, is tied into a wider history of white supremacy and black subjugation in the United States, as Morgan intersperses interludes about former slaves fleeing slavery. This legacy of historical violence against the bodies of black people sits in opposition to the teleological and misunderstood evolutionary beliefs held by the Forges: as Henry believes, ‘evolution is a ladder to perfection… You can chart the development of the horse right up the ladder.’

[Spoilers for the first half of The Sport of Kings follow.]

I have rarely found anything as emotionally difficult to read as Allmon’s section of the narrative (although Hanya Yanighara’s A Little Life is probably up there, and Lionel Shriver’s So Much For All That is as excruciatingly right about US healthcare). Allmon grows up under the care of his mother, Marie, who struggles to provide for her son after she develops lupus – a disease which disproportionately affects black women – which puts her in incredible, relentless pain. Her symptoms start when Allmon is ten, but told by the doctor that, without health insurance (‘she made just barely too much to qualify for Medicaid but couldn’t afford private insurance – not that they’d insure her now anyway’), she can’t afford the treatment she needs. ‘I’m just a doctor,’ he says. ‘I didn’t make the system and I can’t change it.‘ Marie loses her welfare benefits because she’s kept hold of her one asset, a car, so Allmon gets involved in drug running to make some money for the household. Eventually, he makes enough to take her to another doctor, who tells him that ‘your mother has a lot of the soft criteria for lupus, but not the hard criteria.’ He can’t give her a diagnosis, so she won’t qualify for disability benefits. Allmon gets into a prestigious athletics school, but, still a teenager, is arrested for being on the scene of a riot and ends up in prison for two years. Once he gets out, his mother is dying. She is eventually rushed to hospital, despite her protests that an ambulance costs ‘a thousand dollars’.

‘But by then it was too late. His mother’s kidneys had failed, and she died under the care of the shocked ER physician, who took one look at the lupoid lesions that had ravaged her neck and torso, and said with his hand over his surgical mask, “Jesus Christ. Who let this happen to her?’

To which the only answer can be: all of you. All of us.

I agree with Naomi Frisby that The Sport of Kings is too long; nevertheless, I think all the ground it covers is essential, to fully position these two competing historical stories about inheritance and to finally demolish Henry’s supremacist views about the quest for perfection in a conversation with local vet Lou:

“[The] horse was the remnant of an evolutionary failure. …”

An evolutionary failure.”

Well, yes,” said Lou, clearing her throat. “It’s really the first thing you learn when you study evolution in school…”

Evolution is a ladder,” whispered Henry, “a ladder to a perfect thing.”

Actually, no, not really.” Lou shook her head quizzically… “It’s not a ladder. It’s more like… a bush… Think of it as a branching bush. A great, endlessly diversifying bush that gets stronger with each new branch, each new variation.”

The Sport of Kings is filled with its oppressive atmosphere, its ambitious thematic reach and its exuberant storytelling; it’s messy, too wordy, and untidy at the edges, but then, that seems to have been precisely what Morgan was going for.

31-7AfADNKL._SX333_BO1,204,203,200_From the longest novel on the shortlist to the shortest: Gwendoline Riley’s First Love. Narrated in first person by Neve, it flashes between her present-day misery, married to an older man, Edwyn, and her past misery, finally breaking free from her bullying father to live alone in Glasgow. It’s incredibly well-written; the polar opposite of The Sport of Kings with its spare, unshowy prose. Riley hits so many nails on their heads: ‘large crows executed their leisurely inspecting strut’; ‘[the wood-pigeons’] fussy wing-slaps, like rifled cards’; ‘the sky’s cold threat.’ I think the last novel I read that was simply this well-written was Samantha Harvey’s Dear Thief

Riley is also fantastic with dialogue; it’s wincingly realistic, far more so than most writers allow themselves. Neve and Edwyn’s endearments are embarrassingly awkward to read but recognisable: “How are your poor poorly paws?” I said… “Naughty paw.” She also uses italics liberally, especially when writing Edwyn’s or Neve’s mother’s speech, something which writers are generally discouraged from doing but which absolutely works here. Neve’s mother, indeed, is one of the best characters in the novel; not simply vicious like Edwyn or Neve’s father, she is burdensome and selfish, but still endearing. When Neve accompanies her to the cinema, this little anecdote is genuinely painful:

I always felt terrible when she said, of something she’d looked forward to, and with only just a shade less brightness to her voice, that it had been “Not what I expected.”‘

Riley brings her to life with just a few scatters of sentences like these. She texts Neve: ‘CUT ALL MY HAIR OFF DO YOU WANT BRUSH AND BOBBLES ETC. MUM.’ “So yes, I thought, I’ve got this hairbrush now that I don’t need and these bobbles, so…” “I have got my own hairbrush, thanks,” Neve tells her.

First Love is a brilliant snapshot of reality. For me, it didn’t quite feel substantial enough to be my preferred winner, but then, I’ve always been especially fond of big, messy, flawed novels rather than beautifully precise short ones.

Baileys Prize Shortlist Round-Up, #1

baileys-womens-prize-for-fiction-2017-longlist-announcement_4As many bloggers, reviewers and readers have already commented, 2017 is an exceptionally strong year for the Baileys Prize. Having read five out of six of the shortlisted books (Linda Grant’s The Dark Circle is waiting for me at the library), I can honestly say that I would consider any of them to be a worthy winner. (Indeed, given the quality of the shortlist, I’m tempted to do something I rarely do, and go back to the longlist: I’ve already read Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent and Emma Flint’s Little Deaths, but I’m tempted by Mary Gaitskill’s The Mare, and (obviously) Eimear McBride’s The Lesser Bohemians.) However, there were certainly entries that I thought stronger than others; conversely, nothing has so utterly blown me away that I’m certain it’s my winner. Having already reviewed Naomi Alderman’s The Power, in this series of round-up posts I’m going to say what I thought about the other shortlisted novels, and then give my final ranking.

31349579Ayòbámi Adébáyò’s Stay With Me is a tremendously moving account of the life of a single Nigerian woman, Yejide, spanning almost thirty years from the military coups of the 1980s to the relatively more peaceful territory of 2008. Her story starts and ends in Ilesa in south-west Nigeria, where, as a young university student, she meets and falls in love with Akin. The blurb for Stay With Me gives us a neat elevator pitch: when Yejide fails to get pregnant, Akin’s family, especially his mother, to whom Yejide is especially close, decide that he must take another wife who can give him children. When the new wife, Funmi, appears on the scene, Yejide’s relationship with Akin is threatened. All of this accurately represents the opening chapters of Stay With Me, but it really isn’t a good indication of where the book is going to go – or even what it is about. Similarly, I felt a little misled by the rather platitudinous cherry-picked quotes that seem to turn up in a lot of the marketing for this book. For example: ‘There are things even love can’t do… If the burden is too much and stays too long, even love bends, cracks, comes close to breaking and sometimes does break. But even when it’s in a thousand pieces around your feet, that doesn’t mean it’s no longer love.’ This does not showcase the best of Adébáyò’s writing, which is witty, concise, and much more moving when it is rooted in characterisation. For example [mild spoilers: highlight to read], when Yejide has her first child, she recalls how Akin ‘spent his evenings singing made-up songs to Olamide and reading newspaper articles aloud to her… It was the most beautiful thing, watching my husband tell my daughter things she could not understand.’[end spoilers]

All this is to say that I thought I wouldn’t like Stay With Me, and I did, enormously. Like Chinelo Okparanta’s Under the Udala Trees, the novel draws from Nigerian folktale both explicitly and implicitly, interweaving traditional stories into the narrative but also drawing its emotional strength from the underlying simplicity of its structure. When Yeijde climbs The Mountain of Jaw-Dropping Miracles to seek miraculous help to get pregnant, we know that this decision is going to haunt her. And it does – but not in the way that we think. Three tragedies come to befall Yejide, each devastating, each blindsiding the reader as much as the characters. I think it should be acknowledged how difficult it is to make a reader feel a character’s pain in this way. I’ve read so many books where I feel I can intellectually acknowledge the awfulness of the events, but I’m struggling to truly connect. This goes double, for me, for novels that deal with relatively familiar fictional themes surrounding marriage and motherhood. But Stay With Me is heartbreaking. When we realise why the book is called what it is, it’s a moment of both beauty and pain.

I think the only other thing I can say without giving away more significant spoilers is that this isn’t a novel about fertility or marriage, not really, or about the everyday infringements of political instability which Adébáyò weaves expertly into the novel (while of course there’s a place for big sweeping political novels about civil war, such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of A Yellow Sun, which deals with the earlier Nigeria-Biafra civil war in the late 1960s, I really appreciated the way Adébáyò documented the little ways conflict touched the characters’ lives); it’s about motherhood and daughterhood. The ending is absolutely earnt, and Yejide and her story will indeed stay with me.

9781783782673In contrast, Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing impressed me with its historical and political scope, but left me emotionally cold. I tried so hard with this book – it’s been received so well that I feel embarrassed for not getting it. And unlike Stay With Me, I was sure I would love it – but I just didn’t. Do Not Say We Have Nothing, the blurb tells us, starts with ten-year-old Marie and her mother, who come from China but who are now living in Canada. In 1991, they welcome Ai-Ming, who is fleeing the Tiananmen Square protests. Ai-Ming is the daughter of a friend of Marie’s father – who has recently committed suicide – and it soon becomes clear that Marie’s family history, and especially her father’s story, is much more complicated than she suspected. As with Stay With Me, this elevator pitch for Do Not Say We Have Nothing is pretty misleading. Marie barely appears in the novel, acting as the linking thread in the present-day for the interlinked histories of Ai-Ming’s and Marie’s families. These stories start in the 1940s with Ai-Ming’s great-aunt and grandmother, Swirl and Big Mother, and move forward through later generations of the family into Mao’s Cultural Revolution and the horrors it unleashes.

Thien is clearly a fine and intelligent writer. There are a number of memorable political set-pieces in the novel. Her descriptions of the Tiananmen Square protests themselves are incredibly well done, as are the earlier scenes of public denunciations of renowned figures such as the composer He Luting. The questions the characters grapple with about what to believe or trust in such a climate, and what this does to their ability to think, are intellectually very interesting. But I didn’t engage with any of the cast. I found the shifting time-frames incredibly difficult to follow, and would have appreciated a family tree – although I recognise this would have spoilt some later twists. The patchwork nature of the novel makes thematic sense, reflecting the co-authorship, copying and reinvention of a manuscript that is passed around throughout the story, first emerging within the courtship of ‘Wen the Dreamer’ and Swirl. However, I felt like I was spending so much time trying to catch up with what was going on that I was never fully able to root my sympathies for any character in particular, despite the sufferings of the cast as a whole. (The ‘lyrical, nostalgic fog’ of prose that this review discusses expresses my feelings about the style of the novel much more eloquently!)

In this context, I want to talk about some of the trivial and circumstantial reasons we turn against certain novels, some of which originate from within the novel itself and some of which don’t. In the case of Do Not Say We Have Nothing, the first is simple: I thought the novel was going to be about Marie and Ai-Ming. These two characters open the novel, lead the blurb, and are instantly intriguing. But they don’t appear on most of its pages. When the novel first flashed back to the early days of the Cultural Revolution, I assumed this would be a brief flashback positioned as part of Marie and Ai-Ming’s conversations. For this reason, I read it at a distance; it felt different to me than the early chapters from Marie’s first-person point of view. By the time I realised the novel’s structure was quite different, it felt too late to ‘catch up’ with the heart I should have put into those early sections. Secondly, music is central to the novel’s narrative, and I am not a musical person. Other equally good novels have not fared well with me for this reason (see: Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music.) Finally, and silliest: I read this book alongside CE Morgan’s wonderful The Sport of Kings. The Sport of Kings I read was a giant hardback, whereas my copy of Do Not Say We Have Nothing was a relatively compact paperback. So every day, I headed out to work, dying to read more of The Sport of Kings, but because I could only cram Do Not Say We Have Nothing into my backpack, I dutifully read through it over multiple bus journeys, never reading more than a bit at a time (unlike The Sport of Kings, which I ended up reading in huge gulps). This alone might explain my disconnection from the text. These things give me pause for thought about how subjective reviewing is – although I think there is something useful to be said about getting the readers’ sympathies in the right place from the outset, which for me, Do Not Say We Have Nothing didn’t manage.

Next up: The Sport of Kings and First Love.