Starting a new job, moving to a new place, signing the contract for my first academic book… all these things haven’t stopped me reading, but they haven’t given me much time to write about what I’ve read. Here’s some mini-reviews.
Elle at Elle Thinks has already written very well about Sarah Franklin’s debut historical novel Shelter, and I pretty much agree with her thoughts. Shelter has a great premise; Connie ends up as a ‘lumberjill’ in the New Forest in 1944 after she flees London and her past. As she helps with timber production for the war effort, she meets Seppe, an Italian prisoner of war who has secrets of his own to hide. For Connie, the forest is a temporary stopping-point; for Seppe, it’s a necessary refuge. Structurally, the novel is extremely effective, and it’s genuinely touching, but it’s let down by the quality of its prose. Seppe’s third-person narrative suffers from a touch of melodrama and repetition, and I struggled to find him entirely convincing as a character partly because of passages like this, where he’s remembering how he was bullied by a fellow soldier, Fredo, when they were deployed together in the African desert:
‘It will only end, Seppe thinks, with death or capture… How blissful would be the release, the escape from Fredo, from this senseless war. He draws himself in every time he feels Fredo is nearby, tenses for the next slight. The very act of diminishing himself breeds self-loathing and resentment. Resentment of his father, whose sickening beliefs obscured love for his family; of his mother for compelling him into this senseless war; of Fredo.’
Connie, in contrast, is a much more compelling character, partly because her narration tends to omit these long passages of introspection where everything she’s thinking is spelt out. She comes alive in the very first pages of the novel, when after struggling with classroom work, she finds out that she’s good at handling a saw:
‘Frank nodded across at Connie. “Nice work there.” She looked around but he really did mean her. Nobody had ever praised her for work before! She puffed out, just a little.’
Connie’s loss of her past, and her grief, are handled much more subtly than Seppe’s torments, and she’s the more convincing for it. Nevertheless, I found that much of her jaunty Cockney prose jarred, and seemed put on, rather than authentic: ‘With a bit of luck she’d maybe wangle a bath then get under the bedcovers. Maybe her billet would be as cushy as that last place.’ Overall, Shelter is strong on concept and characterisation but let down by its writing; it could also be much shorter without losing its heart.
Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s (also largely historical) debut Harmless Like You certainly can’t be faulted on a line-by-line basis. It’s impeccably and beautifully written without the prose ever becoming obtrusive, except perhaps in the first few pages (an odd pattern I’ve noticed in novels – is it my fault, because I’m still getting into the novel, or is it the writer trying a little too hard to flashily grab the reader’s attention?) The story kicks off when Jay is meeting his estranged mother, Yuki, in Berlin in 2016 for the first time since he was a toddler, then flashes back to 1968, when Yuki is a Japanese teenager in New York, feeling utterly invisible to the world. Buchanan writes about this kind of social isolation very well; ‘On TV, there was always a popular gang and an unpopular gang. This mystified Yuki. How can you be unpopular in a gang? When she was in elementary school, girls had called her Yucky Yuki, but now they didn’t bother speaking to her.’ But soon enough, Yuki meets Odile, who is her own age but seems to inhabit an impossibly glamorous world, and is pulled into a completely different way of living, although she continues to hang onto her own dreams of becoming an artist.
I found Harmless Like You both absorbing and moving. There’s so much that Buchanan gets exactly right. Yuki’s fundamental conviction as a young adult that nobody could ever love her, and how that plays out during the rest of her life, is explored without any sentimentality. Yuki – especially during the period of her life when she suffers through an abusive relationship – is certainly worthy of sympathy, but at the same time, her lack of self-worth means that she has no space in her head to think about other people, and that she ends up hurting them precisely because she believes she’s not significant enough to hurt anybody. Her abandoned friendship with Odile is a case in point; it’s obvious to the reader that Yuki could never have imagined that Odile would mind her absence, and yet of course she does. She frequently acts without thought for others as if out of surprise that she can actually make a mark on the world, which makes her final decision – when she really does understand what she’s giving up – even more heartbreaking. As the title indicates, it’s precisely because she’s seen as so harmless that she can do such harm.
While Yuki is a fascinating character, I did find her passivity frustrating. Nevertheless, I’ve always been wary of the creative writing axiom that protagonists in novels must be active, not least because it seems to stop writers from exploring the structural constraints of race, gender, sexuality and disability, among others. As a Japanese woman living in first the US and then in Europe, Yuki is clearly subject to more restrictions than most. At one point, after visiting one of her exhibitions, Jay recognises this: ‘It mentioned that she had lived in the States for a while, at a time when it was almost impossible to succeed as a woman or or a person of colour… The plaque seemed to applaud her for this effort, for this beating against closed doors. I knew as well as anyone how locked those rooms were… My mother’s efforts struck me only as an act of insane hubris’. Although on the whole this is a wonderful debut, I felt that I wanted to see more of this later Yuki, rather than the younger and less visible version.
Finally, I have to say something about Maxine Beneba Clarke’s extraordinary memoir The Hate Race, which details her experiences growing up as a black girl in Australia. Clarke’s parents were originally born in the West Indies, but met in Britain then moved to Australia, following the advice of a friend, before having children. In short, this memoir details incident after incident of institutional racism visited upon Clarke as a child and adolescent, from being told that she can’t have been born in Australia to having to learn bowdlerised history about the ‘civilising’ of Aboriginal Australians. It’s awful to read and yet gripping; Clarke writes so well. And while this book is obviously about race, it’s also about childhood. Most obviously, a number of the racist incidents that Clarke experiences only happen to her, in precisely that way, because she is a child; her parents also experience racism, but it is coded very differently. Clarke is abused so often by her peers because most of the adults in her life do not take childhood bullying seriously; there’s no sense that children are able to visit significant harm upon each other. She’s also abused by her teachers because they hold power over her. Because of this, I found it strongly reminiscent of my own childhood experiences in some ways, although obviously, as a white child, I never experienced this kind of structural oppression, which is so crushing precisely because it relates to a wider network of racist belief in the world outside school, as Clarke makes plain.
Clarke also considers how she herself was co-opted into these power games when she remembers verbally attacking an Indian/Australian girl in her school, ‘Bhagita’ (all names in the memoir are changed) with racist taunts, and the approval she received from her classmates for doing so. While race is obviously prominent here, most children will probably remember a similar incident of victimising a peer in order to protect their own position, wherever they were in the pecking order at school. (I was always at the very bottom and yet I certainly did it, although in the very white school I was attending at the time, race didn’t come into play). In summary, Clarke suffers because of her race; being the ‘black girl’; because her skin colour is the only thing her classmates notice about her; but she is also spotlighted for this particular kind of suffering because she is a child at school. A must read.
I received free proof copies of Shelter and Harmless Like You from the publishers for review, while The Hate Race is #16 of my long-overdue 20 Books of Summer!