‘You owe me a debt’

Golden-HillThis review will contain spoilers for Golden Hill.

 Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill, which recently won both the Desmond Elliot Prize and the Costa First Novel Award, is a book that fully repays the initial effort it takes to get used to the slightly archaic version of eighteenth-century language that Spufford adopts (and to get through its tortuously and perhaps intentionally long first sentence). The set-up is strong: the mysterious Mr Richard Smith arrives in the small town of New York in 1746 demanding payment for a bill of a thousand pounds, and enough money to pay his way in the meantime. When Smith’s purse is snatched immediately after he acquires some petty cash (in the form of an eclectic mix of coins and scribbled papers), he’s forced to rely on his wits and chuztpah to hang on until his larger debt comes through.

Much of the joy of Golden Hill lies in its set-pieces, and so it can feel like a simple narrative of incident, as it traces Smith’s ability to get himself into one scrape after another. While the book meanders at first through a series of meetings in polite society, it suddenly lights up when Smith finds himself being chased by an angry mob after mishandling matters of etiquette as he shares a drink with other men around a Guy Fawkes bonfire. The trouble is foreshadowed by an ominous juggernaut travelling through the streets: ‘stuck with many torches, and bundles of hissing, sparking firecrackers; a moving, skirted mass as wide as the road, on which rose three monstrous heads, gleaming in lines of gleeful red where fresh paint had been applied to pates and noses and villainous grins.’ Only after it has long passed ‘did the crush slacken enough for Smith to sidle into the road and follow on, seeing the puppets’ chariot up ahead now as a slow-travelling blockade, a tight plug of fire and dancing demon shadows creeping between dark walls’. Smith has plenty of problems to come: he’s thrown into debtors’ prison, caught cuckolding a prominent member of New York society, challenged to a duel, then accused of murder. Yet Spufford makes quieter scenes as vivid as these moments of tension; in his description of a New York winter, for example: ‘The snow of streets was rammed by feet, drilled with holes where passers-by had pissed, and printed by horses’ hooves in confused stanzas of c’s, n’s and u’s. When the sun shone, loose handfuls of crystal hissed off the rooftops in prismatic eddies.’ (It was at about this point that I realised I had read something by Spufford before: his history of Antarctic exploration, I May Be Some Time).

Nevertheless, Golden Hill is not just a string of happenings, as gripping as these may be. It is linked by the reader’s discovery halfway through that Smith is ‘the grandson of a slave’: able to pass as white, he is undertaking a secret errand on behalf of his family. Golden Hill has an omniscient narrator, so we rarely hear Smith’s direct thoughts, and can only guess what he is thinking when he is cast as an African prince in a play and asks, ‘I was wondering… whether at the performance, you mean me to put on black-face?’, or when others ask him how he would like his bill paid (cash not being an option) and he says ‘Slaves?… Can you make me a bargain there?’. Smith’s eventual settling of his account puts his character in quite a different light from the libertine-like hero he might have seemed so far. Spufford’s style – which like Smith, moves between comic and tragic – also makes the book far more than just its plot. I’ve read very little eighteenth-century literature, but can hear the traces of Spufford’s inspirations in the Victorian fiction with which I’m more familiar. The narrator’s admission of ignorance as to how to describe a sword-fight, or a game of piquet, is particularly refreshing, and I was reminded of George Eliot when the narration deliberately head-hops in the middle of a scene: ‘She ran her hands into Smith’s wet hair, and he – But why always Smith?… Have we not heard quite enough already of Mr Smith’s desire, and seen Mrs Tomlinson quite sufficiently as he did?’ The identity of the narrator is revealed in a final epilogue which is a little masterpiece in its own right; I’m always more taken by good closing lines than good opening lines, which seem to me to be much easier, and Spufford gives us a memorable final sentence.

 I struggle with most historical fiction (not because it’s ‘inaccurate’, but because I’m never quite sure what most of it is meant to be doing) but Golden Hill is an exception. Clever with both its pastiche of historical style and its precise use of interesting fact, it never gets bogged down in its own setting. I hope Spufford continues writing fiction.

Thanks so much to the Desmond Elliot Prize for the free review copy of Golden Hill.

20 Books of Summer, #9 and #10: Augustown by Kei Miller and The Mare by Mary Gaitskill

2844722720 Books of Summer has not gone especially well for me this year. I have read lots of books this summer (23 since the beginning of June, to be exact) but less than half of these have been actual Books of Summer. Nevertheless, the quality of my reading this year has been much better than in my more successful 2016 challenge. Kei Miller’s Augustown and Mary Gaitskill’s The Mare are proof of that.

Augustown is set in a fictionalised version of August Town, a community in Kingston, Jamaica. The ‘inciting incident’ of the novel, a phrase which is perhaps especially appropriate here, is the moment that a young Rastafarian boy, Kaia, comes home to his great-aunt, Ma Taffy, with his dreadlocks shorn by his schoolteacher. Augustown covers both what happens on that day and all the things that led up to it, diving back into the history of the place to tell the story of Bedward, the flying preacherman, the violent experiences of local gang member Soft Paw, the history of the schoolteacher’s own unhappy marriage and how that was inflected by beliefs about race and class, and the conversion of a young man to Rastafari after an emotional love affair with an older ‘Rastaman’. Its disembodied narrator tells us not to try to put these stories into a simple box: ‘Look, this isn’t magic realism. This is not another story about superstitious island people and their primitive beliefs. You don’t get off that easy. This is a story about people as real as you are, and as real as I once was before I became a bodiless thing  floating up here in the sky. You may as well stop to consider a more urgent question; not whether you believe in this  story or not, but whether this story is about the kinds of people you have never taken the time to believe in.’ Miller’s use of his narrator swiftly removes this ghost from Lovely Bones-style whimsy and cleverly knits it into the second half of the novel, when we realise who will stand at the centre of the storm that breaks over Augustown. This book is both deceptively simple and short; it covers a huge amount of ground. Unfairly compared to Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings – seemingly because they both deal with race and violence in Kingston – it’s an entirely different kind of book, and I took much more from it. It’s my favourite yet of all the titles longlisted for the Jhalak Prize (even though it didn’t even make the shortlist).

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Mary Gaitskill’s The Mare suffered similar longlist woes. How on earth did this not get shortlisted for this year’s Baileys Prize? It should have been a strong contender to win the whole thing. The novel starts by alternating between the voices of two characters, Ginger, an ex-addict and almost-ex-artist in her late forties who lives in rural New York State, and Velvet, an eleven-year-old Dominican girl from Brooklyn who is sent to stay with Ginger and her husband Paul for a few weeks during the summer through the Fresh Air Fund. Ginger regrets her decision not to have children; Velvet feels unwanted by her mother, Silvia, who consistently tells her that she is not good enough, that she has ‘bad blood’. Gaitskill effectively explores the obvious tensions that arise for both characters through this growing relationship. Ginger is acutely aware of how easily she could slip into the role of ‘white saviour‘, yet cannot deny her growing love for Velvet. She has to continually make judgement calls: is she idealising Velvet and denying that she can do anything wrong when Velvet is in trouble, or is she the only one standing up for a deprived adolescent girl? Is Paul right to criticise their closeness, or is he so troubled by the race and class gap between them that he fails to recognise the genuine feeling on both sides? Gaitskill refuses to answer these questions – and indeed, Ginger probably crosses and recrosses these lines over the course of the novel. Velvet, on the other hand, is a beautifully-written teenager, with her early sexual feelings especially well dealt with, and her conflicted emotions towards both Ginger and Silvia respectfully explored.

Nevertheless, despite the strength of these early chapters, the novel really takes off when Silvia gains a narrative voice. Gaitskill’s exploration of her psyche is brave and fascinating. Silvia’s treatment of Velvet is abusive in many ways, but she believes absolutely that her job as a mother is to prepare Velvet for the kind of life she will most likely live – which, she believes, will not involve college places, horse-riding or happy marriage, but a daily struggle to survive. The most memorable passage in a novel that’s full of them comes from Silvia when she tells Velvet that ‘Men are like babies screaming for love.’ They’ll break you and throw you across the room, she says, then scream for more, ‘and always some dumb woman comes running.’* Silvia is terrified by the fact that Velvet seems to be getting unrealistic ideas about what her life should be, and she feels that she must make sure Velvet can live in the real world. Late in the novel, she tells Velvet that she was trying to help her by telling her that she had ‘bad blood’, because she felt that her daughter would then understand that her problems weren’t her fault. This is especially hard to stomach when compared to Silvia’s closeness to Velvet’s younger brother, but it’s clear to see how Silvia feels her own girlhood is playing out again through her daughter. And the ending of the novel certainly doesn’t suggest that Silvia was wrong to be afraid. However, The Mare never allows a single character or their way of thinking to dominate for long; ultimately, the reader is left to decide what to take away from its tangle of voices, a freedom which few authors are courageous enough to grant.

Finally, in James S.A. Corey news: I’ve now finished the third in the Expanse series, Abaddon’s Gate, and after my earlier comments, I feel I ought to report that it features a prominent lesbian character who is also a Methodist minister. She’s great.

*I immediately lent this book to a friend as soon as I’d finished reading it, so apologise for any misquotation/lack of full quotations!

‘Knavery’s plain face’

UnknownIt’s eleven-year-old Osei’s first day in his new Washington DC elementary school in the 1970s, and he already knows that he isn’t going to fit in. Osei, known as O, the son of a Ghanian diplomat, is the only black student in his new school, and he’s used to being the outsider. But when he is befriended almost immediately by the pretty, popular Dee, he’s dragged unwittingly into the middle of schoolyard politics that he’s ill-equipped to navigate. The unpleasant bully Ian is immediately jealous of O’s sudden status, and plots revenge.

So far, so Othello 101. This new entry in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, where well-known authors are given the task of retelling Shakespeare plays, has been roundly criticised, and I’m not going to repeat the points made in those excellent reviews. However, while I absolutely agree that this novel does not work, I felt like I had a slightly different take (or perhaps an additional take) on why it doesn’t. Obviously, your opinion on New Boy will be strongly governed by your reading of Othello. Elle’s review quite rightly points out that Tracy Chevalier’s retelling completely alters the Othello character’s position in the story. Rather than an established, well-respected general who is not generally defined by his race, O is new to his environment and immediately defined as ‘the black boy’. This fundamentally refocuses the narrative of the play – and, I think, makes it less interesting. Chevalier’s take on racial politics is also, as Elle puts it, ‘insultingly simplistic.’ In short, New Boy says little more than that overt racism is bad, and because it is an historical novel, even if it is set in the recent past, risks falling into the reductive trap of suggesting that things were Bad Back Then but are Better Now. I’d add that O’s older sister, Sisi, who is obsessed with Black Power and natural hairstyles, is not only unnecessary to the story but is fast becoming a cliche in books about race written by white authors. Jodi Picoult’s problematic Small Great Things features a similar set-up; her protagonist is black nurse Ruth, who, like Osei, tries to conform to white social norms to avoid getting into trouble, whereas Ruth’s sister Rachel legally changes her name to Adisa, embraces her ‘ethnic roots’ and ‘natural kinky’ hair, has five children and lives on the minimum wage.

However, I’d like to talk about the novel’s central premise – the idea of setting Othello in an elementary school in the first place. Unlike many reviewers, I believe that this could have been made to work. Modern viewers often struggle with the very tight timing of the original play, and it makes sense to try and manage this by putting it into a setting where friendships, rivalries and feuds are notoriously short and volatile (although I’m not sure why Chevalier chose to challenge herself further by compressing the story into a single day).  There are also some ageist assumptions floating about – I didn’t find the sophistication of thought displayed by Chevalier’s eleven-year-olds at all unconvincing, and I certainly think that children of this age are capable of both manipulating and reflecting upon manipulation at the level she shows, although I was less convinced by the material on sexuality, which felt both unrealistic and unnecessary. (Chevalier’s writing may be at fault here rather than the concept itself – a number of reviewers have picked up on the way that the children literally spell very complex thought processes out in their heads, and I certainly think that this could have been handled better.) Indeed, I think this might have been a good way of getting away from a lot of the baggage of the original play, although one’s opinion depends really on what you think was most important in the original play, given that some bits of it work better in an elementary school setting than others.

What I think is most important and interesting about Othello can be summed up in a single word: Iago (as long as that single word is allowed to encompass his relationship with Emilia, who is the other character that I find most compelling). Iago, at least from what I remember from English A Level, is a character with no clear motive for his villainy, although he offers a number of spurious motives for his actions across the course of the play. This is something that I see as central to his characterisation. Iago is not driven by a clear end goal but by his love of power for power’s own sake; he relies on observation and reaction, rather than on developing complicated plots ahead of time. As he puts it in his monologue at the end of Act 2, Scene 1: ‘‘Tis here, but yet confused./Knavery’s plain face is never seen till used.’ Furthermore, Iago gets better at manipulating people through practice. His rather simplistic plot against Michael Cassio, who has taken the post as lieutenant that he wanted, allows him to work out how to address the more difficult target of Othello. The famous dialogue between the two that encompasses the whole of Act 4 also showcases Iago’s cleverness, and how carefully he seeds doubt in Othello’s mind by referring to earlier things that Othello has seen or heard, as well as using Othello’s own insecurities against him.

Chevalier’s portrayal of the Iago character in New Boy, Ian, misses all of these points. Ian is a bully, but he’s not an especially intelligent one, and his motivations to make Osei’s life a misery are simple: he’s jealous of Osei’s status both as Dee’s ‘boyfriend’ and as a good baseball player, a jealousy that’s augmented by racism. Ian does manipulate the Cassio character, the popular Casper, but the section of the plot where he takes down Casper himself is almost completely omitted. Instead, we move straight to the bit where Ian/Iago tries to make Osei/Othello believe that Casper/Cassio has been having an affair with Dee/Desdemona. This has a significant impact on the complexity of Ian’s characterisation, because we don’t get to see him trying things out. Finally, Ian’s manipulation of Osei himself is incredibly basic. It could be argued that the verbal cleverness that Iago showcases would be inappropriate for an eleven-year-old, but this is where Chevalier could have demonstrated a better understanding of how non-verbal power dynamics function in the playground, and how somebody like Ian might take advantage of that to exploit the opportunities that come his way. New Boy cleaves most closely to Othello, in fact, in its ending, where we’re left feeling that Emilia (‘Mimi’ here) speaks out the loudest and gets the worst deal of all.

New Boy, while still technically an historical novel, is Chevalier’s first book to be entirely set in a world anywhere close to our own time, and I can’t say that it’s filled me with renewed confidence in her as a writer. (My thoughts on some of her other books can be found here.) Ultimately, it doesn’t stand as a story on its own – and comparisons with Othello only indicate how far it falls short.

I was given a free review copy of New Boy by the publisher via NetGalley.