What (else) I’ve been reading: January 2018

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After feeling impressed but alienated by China Miéville’s Embassytown, I found his slightly earlier novel, The City and The City, a much more engrossing read. While high-concept, it’s a little less cerebral than Embassytown, and much more effectively-structured; Miéville handles a complicated and twisty plot without ever sacrificing conceptual depth. The book centres on Inspector Borlú, a male detective set to investigate the murder of an initially anonymous young woman along with his younger female partner, Constable Corwi. So far, so crime fiction cliché; but The City and The City immediately disproves stereotypes. Borlú’s investigation is set against the backdrop of a city that is quite literally divided; while he lives his life in Besźel, large sections of Besźel are ‘cross-hatched’ against a parallel city, Ul Qoma, and the citizens of both Besźel and Ul Qoma have been socialised since birth to ‘unsee’ anything they might glimpse when the two cities intersect. Serious infractions of these rules are dealt with by an invisible bureaucracy known only as Breach; Breach’s victims are usually never heard from again. The murder Borlú is investigating goes right to the heart of this overlap between the two cities, and to outlawed academic arguments about the existence of ‘Orciny’, a world rumoured to exist in the interstitial space between the city and the city.

As with Embassytown, the key weakness of Miéville’s writing for me is his use of character. Borlú is defined entirely by the external conflict that he faces; how to solve the case and deal with the terrifying threat of Breach. There is very little trace of Borlú as a person, or any internal conflict he might experience, until the very final pages, and arguably not even then. This is especially jarring given the strong focus on identity, belonging and alienation that characterises The City and The City, and it’s not resolved even by the novel’s (wonderful) final paragraph. My only other problem with The City and The City was rather more subjective. The novel is a very effective cross between crime noir and speculative fiction, but it’s inevitable that it was going to come down harder on one side or the other. The conclusion of the novel situates it more solidly on the crime half of the equation, whereas I wanted it to make more imaginative leaps (as it seemed to be doing about two-thirds of the way through). Funnily enough, while Embassytown felt too removed from human concerns for me, The City and The City is tied too heavily to them. Nevertheless, I continue to love Miéville’s intellect and his originality, and really hope that he has written a novel that answers these concerns (Miéville fans, any recommendations for what I should read next?)

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Genre was also at the heart of my reading of Jesmyn Ward’s beautiful and violent Sing, Unburied, Sing. Rooted in the tradition of Southern Gothic, it also engages with very contemporary concerns about the devastation of the Gulf Coast of Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina. The novel starts in the real, bloody everyday when thirteen-year-old Jojo’s grandfather, Pop, takes him to slaughter a goat. The detailed description of its killing and dismemberment may shake some readers, but it’s an opening that’s thematically appropriate to what follows. Pop and Mama, Jojo’s grandparents, are revealed as resolute and caring figures, bringing up Jojo and his toddler sister Kayla. Jojo’s white father, Michael, is currently in prison, and his black mother, Leonie, the daughter of Pop and Mama, is a fitful and flighty parent. Sing, Unburied, Sing is rooted in the racial violence of the US South, as we learn early on in the novel as Pop starts to tell Jojo stories of his own brutal experience in prison, and we find out that Michael’s parents have effectively disowned him for having a relationship with a black woman. The novel is largely told in the alternate voices of Jojo and Leonie, and both narrators felt completely convincing to me. Jojo’s fiercely paternal care of Kayla mixed with his own uncertainties about growing into manhood make him completely real, and Leonie, revealed as a terrible parent in Jojo’s sections, is a fascinating case study of selfishness mixed with structural oppression. The points at which I disengaged from Sing, Unburied, Sing have less to do with the novel and more with my own personal genre preferences; I struggle with manifest ghosts in fiction, especially when they take up large portions of the narrative. The tradition within which Ward is writing obviously explains their presence, but I found the more realistic first half of the novel more gripping than its second half, despite a truly spectacular last page or so that showcases the best of Ward’s lyrical writing.

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Finally, I’ve been struggling with Ayisha Malik’s romantic comedy The Other Half of Happiness, which stars Sofia Khan, a British/Pakistani hijabi who has recently married a white Irish convert to Islam, Conall, and is struggling with her early experience of marriage. Conall has uprooted them both to Pakistan while he films a documentary, but Sofia would rather be back in Britain promoting her new book about Muslim dating – and her mother is pressurising her to hold a proper Muslim wedding celebration after her sudden elopement. But how can Sofia have a wedding without a groom, and what’s the big secret Conall is hiding from her? I absolutely loved the concept of this novel, and was intrigued by Naomi’s review, but I found it very hard to get through. Partly, this is my fault – I haven’t read the first book in the series, Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged, and I can see how that might have made me more invested in Sofia and Conall’s relationship, and in Sofia herself as a character. However, I’m not keen to go back and read the first novel because I find the style of both of them so jarring. ‘A Muslim Bridget Jones’, which seems to be what Malik is going for, sounds good on paper but doesn’t really work in practice, at least given the parameters Malik has set herself. As I’ve argued before, the Bridget Jones novels are not chick lit (though there’s nothing wrong with chick lit), but social satire, and Bridget is a caricature that we are not necessarily meant to like or sympathise with. Furthermore, Bridget’s diary style is not generic, but fundamental to her character. Given this, Malik’s pastiche of this style for a character who (as far as I can see) we are meant to like is off-putting, and it jars with the way Sofia presents herself in dialogue. It’s a real shame, as the idea of writing chick lit that centres around diverse experiences (rather than the stereotypical black or Muslim friend who usually pops up in this kind of novel) is really important, and the details about Sofia’s culture, religion and her experiences as a ‘brown’ woman working in publishing are great. The style was just too choppy, fragmented and forced for me.

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What else have I been reading in January 2018? I reviewed Fiona Mozley’s Elmet and M.R. Carey’s The Boy On The Bridge. I finished off two books I started in 2017: Jhumpa Lahiri’s absorbing storytelling novel The Namesake, and Elif Batuman’s deliberately disjointed and fragmentary The Idiot, which reminded me what it was like to be at university and discovering all these new ways to think. I enjoyed Jennifer Egan’s naturalistic Manhattan Beach, which (as everyone has said) doesn’t really match up to her earlier novels, but (as not everyone has said) still has much to recommend it, especially the half of the story that deals with the experiences of a female diver in New York during WWII. I found Celeste Ng’s second novel, Little Fires Everywhere, compulsive reading, but ultimately formulaic and disappointing; full review coming soon. And, I’ve been re-reading Tana French (nobody who has ever read this blog before will be surprised) in almost chronological order, kicking off with The Trespasser and moving onto Into The Woods and now The Likeness. I am just doing this for fun, but I try to pretend it’s writing practice as well; I’ve learned a lot from her books.

Reading plans for February 2018: I’ve gathered a small TBR pile already, despite my best intentions, consisting of Julianne Pachico’s The Lucky Ones, Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists and JL Carr’s A Month in the Countryand I’m just launching into Tiffany McDaniel’s The Summer That Melted Everything.

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14 thoughts on “What (else) I’ve been reading: January 2018

    • I’m keen to read Salvage the Bones now – did you like it? I’ve been convinced to read The Heart’s Invisible Furies by all the glowing reviews on various blogs, but not sure when I will get to it.

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  1. I did enjoy Salvage the Bones, tough as it was to be on that young characters journey. She reminds me a little of some of my favourite Caribbean woman writers, their coming of age style of writing, the touch of magic realism, the essence of survival. Yes the reviews convinced me regarding Boyne, that and the adoption angle interests me.

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  2. Loved Sing Unburied Sing, as you know! And very interested and convinced by your objections to The Other Half of Happiness as regards its kinship with Bridget Jones.

    My colleague Andrew loved Little Fires Everywhere and has been trying to get me to read it, and I just can’t get into it at all! I’ve tried twice now; I feel disoriented by the first two chapters and disinclined to read on. Did you think it was worthwhile?

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