A bit about some of the genre fiction I’ve been reading recently!
Holly Cave’s thriller The Memory Chamber has a premise that’s strongly reminiscent of the TV show Black Mirror. Isobel is a Heaven Architect, identifying her clients’ most beloved memories and using them to create an artificial Heaven which they can occupy indefinitely after their death. In Heavens, you don’t feel the passage of time, so are unable to tire of the relatively limited pool of memories that Isobel selects, and so can spend forever in the happiest moments of your life. However, there’s a catch: you can only include other people in your Heaven if they explicitly ‘opt-in’. Isobel passionately defends this rule, emphasising that others have a right to privacy, and this could open the door to people’s images and personalities being exploited by their abusers, for example. But her smaller UK-based company is coming under pressure from Valhalla, the US supplier of Heavens, to challenge this in the courts. At the same time, Isobel finds herself dealing with an emotional crisis: she’s falling in love with one of her clients, Jarek, a married man dying from a brain tumour. Jarek says he no longer loves his wife and doesn’t want her in his Heaven; will he end up including Isobel instead?
The Memory Chamber is cleverly and thoughtfully written. This premise could be treated simplistically (Heavens = bad, real life = good), but Cave is aware of both the pitfalls and benefits of her invented technology. (This also highlighted the book’s connections with Black Mirror for me; contrary to popular opinion, Black Mirror is not about how technology is bad and will kill us but how people misuse and exploit technology.) The plot takes some relatively unexpected twists, and I found it genuinely gripping. Cave is also very good at hinting at the wider world in which The Memory Chamber takes place without becoming vague or unbelievable. In terms of genre, this book is definitely a psychological thriller with a speculative twist, and so detailed futuristic world-building would be out of place, but Cave suggests both geopolitical shifts (a new Cold War with China) and day-to-day change (no more honey; driverless cars; iris chips) without labouring the point. She also gets at the poignancy of the past, the way in which Heavens are both beautiful and terrible at the same time. And the cover design is creepily ingenious.
I’ve been reading Harriet Evans’s novels since her 2005 debut, Going Home, and I’m a particular fan of the turn she’s taken in her last two books, A Place for Us and The Butterfly Summer, moving away from ‘chick lit’ towards modern family sagas. I always enjoy a good chick lit, but there’s something in Evans’s writing, and in her interest in home, place and family dynamics, that seems to work especially well telling these kinds of stories, and I’ve found them all really absorbing. The Wildflowers is no exception, and I think it might be her best yet. It focuses at first on a single family in the 1970s and 1980s: Althea and Tony Wilde and their two children, Cordelia and Ben, known as ‘The Wildflowers’ by the locals who live near the ‘Bosky’, the old family house in Worth Bay. The book looks forward into the future, letting us know early on that this family has become fractured, even as all its members pursue their own creative careers; Althea and Tony as actors, Cordelia as a singer and Ben as a film director. But the book also reaches back into Tony’s past; orphaned during the Second World War, he’s taken in by his eccentric archaeologist great-aunt, Dinah. Finally, we see the family through the eyes of Mads, a neglected and abused child who grows up near Cordelia and Ben, and longs to be a part of their games.
All of the cast of The Wildflowers are completely convincing, but I was especially won over by Cordelia and Dinah. Cordelia is vividly flawed, defending her own sense of right and wrong to the death, and yet, in terms of her own personal conduct, ends up doing the least damage. Dinah is still mysterious even by the end of the novel, making us share Tony’s desire to know more about her, and what her life was like before and after she ended up taking care of him. Althea is also nicely done; she could easily have become a stereotypical martyr, but Evans gives her a life of her own, as she does with Mads, who manages to escape some of the most familiar ‘outsider’ tropes. If there is a flaw in this novel, it’s that there was a bit too much Tony for my taste. I felt at times that we were being nudged to sympathise with him, and although I didn’t feel completely unsympathetic towards him, I wasn’t sure about the way the narrative seemed to be weighted on his side. I found the sections from his point of view in the 1940s difficult to get through, and thought they could have been cut down – especially as I was so gripped by the sections set in later time periods.
The Wildflowers perfectly evokes the golden past of one particular family and what happened to pull it apart – and questions whether this idyll ever really existed. Top-notch storytelling.
I received a free copy of The Wildflowers for review from the publisher.
Finally, I’ve been enjoying Adele Geras’s Egerton Hall series, first published in 1992, and first read by me as a teenager in the early 2000s. This YA trilogy consists of The Tower Room, Watching the Roses and Pictures of the Night, and focuses on three friends, Megan, Alice and Bella, who have grown up at boarding school together. Each of the novels is a loose retelling of a fairy tale, but Geras is smart enough not to be tied too tightly by her source material, so the books are long on atmosphere and short on artificial constraints. Despite the brevity of each novel – the longest is only 150 pages – Geras manages to completely inhabit the girls’ secluded world. I think they’re wonderful, and was sad to see their poor ratings on Goodreads from YA readers who have come across them more recently. To me, this is what romantic, fairy-tale-retelling YA should be – capturing the magic and excitement of first love while still keeping an eye on gendered power imbalances. This is explored especially well in The Tower Room, a retelling of Rapunzel, where Megan’s liberation is marked not by her initial escape from school with a lover but by her return to sit her exams and stake her claim to a life that doesn’t revolve around him. Geras’s other books for children and young people are also worth seeking out.