I’ve been offline for the past fortnight while I travelled around the Outer Hebrides with a friend – one of my aunts has recently moved to Stornoway, so we stayed with her for a few days before travelling down the chain of islands, ending up in Barra. As I’m about to move to Newcastle to start my new job as assistant professor of British history at Durham University, posts for the rest of the month will likely be sporadic, so I thought I’d quickly write something about the novels I read in the Hebrides. First up was Kirsty Logan’s The Gracekeepers, #13 of my 20 Books of Summer, which turned out to be eerily appropriate for journeying from island to island. Not only is it set in a flooded world whose inhabitants navigate by boat, one of the main characters is called Callanish, a name that I suspect might be taken from the Callanish standing stones on Lewis, the largest island on the Outer Hebrides.
Callanish is a gracekeeper, living on an isolated island and tasked with tending the cages of the graces, a flock of small birds that form part of the mourning ritual of her people. Interspersed with her story is that of another young woman, North, who performs with her bear in a travelling circus whose members despise their ‘dampling’ audiences who can only live on the land. The tension between land and sea dwellers is central to The Gracekeepers, as are themes of death and grief, not only for those who have passed away but for lives that we might have lived. Logan handles the intertwining of folktale and fiction far better than the majority of writers who’ve attempted it (see: Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child and Jess Richards’s Snake Ropes). She clearly understands how folktales work and how to use them. It’s very difficult to deliberately discard the more specific, logical and detailed worldbuilding of high fantasy without becoming annoyingly mystical and vague, but Logan pulls it off perfectly. I’d be keen to read her next novel in any case, but then I found out THIS was the blurb:
‘My fourth book, The Gloaming, will be published by Harvill Secker in May 2018. It’s a queer mermaid love story set on a remote island that slowly turns its inhabitants to stone.’ (http://www.kirstylogan.com)
The next novel I read on the Hebrides was equally strange, although in a very different and (for me) less satisfying way. I chose China Mieville’s Embassytown as #14 of my 20 Books of Summer because I’ve been trying to read more SF lately, and I was intrigued by his genre-crossing works and all the accolades they’ve received. Embassytown is certainly both thought-provoking and incredibly imaginative. Set in the far future, it’s narrated by Avice Benner Cho, an ‘immerser’ who is able to travel long distances between planets and stars through the ‘immer’ without having to remain unconscious, as normal humans do. (This fascinating idea is, sadly, pretty irrelevant to the rest of the narrative, which seemed like slightly clumsy storytelling). Instead, the action is firmly confined to a single settlement that borders the world of the Ariekei, an alien race who communicate through Language. Unlike other alien tongues, Language is almost impossible for humans to speak; they can only talk to the Ariekei through the use of Ambassadors, pairs of human clones who can mimic the way the Ariekei speak through their two mouths. More significantly, however, the Ariekei cannot lie: Language only allows them to mention things that are explicitly true. This leads to trouble with similes, which must be enacted by specific humans – Avice being one of them – to be part of Language. (As a simile, Avice is honoured by the Ariekei as ‘the girl who was hurt in darkness and ate what was given to her’ and there’s some entertaining asides about other similes competing over how often they are used in Language and how important they are).
While I had to admire Mieville’s imagination and sheer intelligence, however, I didn’t find Embassytown especially captivating as a novel. Firstly, it has a protagonist problem: Avice, despite her interesting personal history, swiftly becomes little more than a window through which readers can view events. Secondly, this points to a larger problem with the plausibility of the novel from a human – rather than a linguistic or philosophical – perspective. Why have this colony gone to such huge (and, we discover, immoral) lengths to communicate with the Ariekei? Why is it seen as such an honour to be part of Language? What are the goals of these colonists outside their contacts with the Ariekei? Mieville depicts a society that responds very differently to its dealings with an alien race than we might expect. This, in itself, is not a problem – I love SF novels that speculate about how human nature might itself have changed over countless centuries – but he doesn’t lay the groundwork. The plight of the Ambassadors is another brilliant concept that is under-explored. In short: too much Ariekei, not enough human for me.
Toni Morrison’s Paradise was #15 of my 20 Books of Summer. I don’t want to say too much about it, because I suspect, like Beloved, it’s one of those novels that demands a re-read before I can really understand it. However, the sketch that I have of the novel is strong. The Convent stands near Ruby, an all-black town in Oklahoma founded by seven ‘founding families’ in 1950. The Convent has its own violent history: it began as a boarding school for Native American girls forcibly removed from their families. However, by the time Paradise opens, it has become a place of refuge for women fleeing the constraints of their patriarchal lives. Feeling threatened by the Convent, which they see as a place of sin and corruption, nine of the town’s men decide to take it upon themselves to destroy this female haven.
The book opens memorably with the lines: ‘They shoot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time.’ These lines signal the book’s concern with race, although not perhaps for the reasons you might think. The race of a number of the women in the Convent is never made clear, and so it is not obviously evident who the white victim is. This leaves the reader guessing throughout the novel – who is the first to die? – then questioning themselves – why does it matter so much which of the women is white? More overtly, Morrison describes how the desire of the founding fathers to keep the town purely black, or ‘8-rock’, has led to the shunning of mixed-race children. As the third of an informal ‘trilogy’ that began with Beloved and continued with Jazz (which I haven’t read), Paradise, then, picks up on the theme of race as a mechanism through which to impose separation and exert power.
Finally, I’ve been rediscovering the joys of re-reading recently, as I’ve read Naomi Alderman’s Disobedience and Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding for a second time. Looking back through my book record, it’s obvious that I used to re-read books far more frequently than I do now. In 2011, about half the books I read were re-reads, whereas I’ve only re-read three books so far this year! I’d like to do something about this, as it’s clear that there are many books that need and deserve a second read. I certainly got far more out of Disobedience this time round than when I first read it as an undergraduate in 2008, for example. I’m playing with the idea of finally doing a ‘year of rereading’, which I’ve wanted to do for a long time, but haven’t had easy access to my full book collection. Once I move to Newcastle, I should be able to have most of my books with me, and so this will be a real possibility. What do others think? Do you re-read books more or less than you used to? Would you ever consider only rereading for a set amount of time, or are new novels just too tempting?