Reading round-up, April into May 2018

April was largely taken up with the Women’s Prize For Fiction longlist and the Wellcome Book Prize shortlist, but I’ve started to catch up with some other things as we move into May.

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I highlighted You Think It, I’ll Say It as one of the books I was most looking forward to in 2018, and I’m pleased to say that it didn’t disappoint. I’m a big Curtis Sittenfeld fan, though for me, nothing she’s written has ever quite beaten her debut, Prepa boarding-school expose that features a narrator who’s not so much unreliable as completely impossible to see past. Sittenfeld’s familiar strengths and weaknesses are on display in You Think It, I’ll Say It, her first short story collection. As this Independent review points out, Sittenfeld’s scope can sometimes feel a little too narrow, confined to white middle-class American men and women living comfortable and predictable lives. And yet, it’s from this that I think her greatest strengths emerge: her utter confidence in pinpointing the exact details of such lives, and saying the unspoken things that everybody else is thinking. But because, perhaps, of this familiar subject-matter, for me these stories worked best when they were least neat.

I wasn’t surprised to love ‘The Nominee’, a short story about Hillary Clinton that Sittenfeld is developing into a full-length book. Having just re-read American Wife, Sittenfeld’s novel about the life of a fictionalised version of Laura Bush, Alice Blackwell, it was fun to see Sittenfeld enter the psyche of a very different woman experiencing some of the same pressures as she thinks back on her own tenure as First Lady. The childhood taunt that follows this unnamed character – ‘You’re awfully opinionated for a girl’ – is certainly not something that would trouble Alice Blackwell, who wrestles with the opposite problem; has she blended far too seamlessly into other people’s lives? While the ending of this story isn’t as open as some of the others in the collection, I still found it satisfying without being too tidy, perhaps especially because I know there’s more to come. On the other hand, ‘The World Has Many Butterflies’ and ‘Gender Studies’ both pull off loose, unresolved conclusions, and are the better for it.

This was less so for some of the other stories in You Think It, I’ll Say It. Two stories have twists in the middle – ‘Plausible Deniability’ and ‘The Prairie Wife’ – and in both cases, I guessed the twist almost immediately. This didn’t necessarily ruin the stories, but I found both of them less satisfying than I would have done otherwise. Two stories on motherhood, ‘Bad Latch’ and ‘Off the Record’, are refreshing for different reasons – ‘Bad Latch’ resists the temptation to set mothers, and different styles of parenting, up against each other, while ‘Off the Record’ is a rare glimpse into the pleasures as well as the hardships of being a single mother – but both are tied off too tightly to be especially thought-provoking.

Apart from ‘The Nominee’, the two stories that seemed to me to have the most depth and promise were ‘Vox Clamantis in Deserto’ [‘the voice of one crying out in the desert’] and ‘Volunteers Are Shining Stars’. The first deals with three college friends whose lives become linked together in unexpected ways; the second with the micro-politics of a group of volunteers running a children’s group at a shelter for women who’ve experienced domestic abuse. ‘Vox Clamantis in Deserto’ reminded me a little of Prep – and indeed is partly set at a prestigious prep school – while ‘Volunteers Are Shining Stars’ took me back to my own experiences of working and volunteering with children, although the vast majority of the other staff and volunteers in my organisation were wonderful, and things certainly never turned as nasty as they do here. I did wonder why Frances, the narrator of ‘Volunteers Are Shining Stars’, had OCD – it seemed to have been introduced to create some artificial conflict, and I thought Sittenfeld could have told essentially the same story without this prop. However, it was one of the stories in the collection that niggled at me most insistently, and hence became the most memorable.

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Guy Gunaratne’s debut novel, In Our Mad and Furious City, which is narrated by five different characters living on a north London housing estate, has already received a fair amount of advance praise. Gunaratne interweaves three stories of protest, violence, terrorism and the rejection of terrorism over the course of two generations. Elderly West Indian immigrant Nelson remembers his teenage involvement in the black community’s protests against the fascism personified by Oswald Mosley. Irish Catholic Caroline recalls how her family became both victims and perpetrators of the sectarian violence in Ireland during the Troubles. Meanwhile, the book’s three teenage narrators, Caroline’s son Ardan, Nelson’s son Selvon, and Yusuf, a Muslim whose family are originally from Pakistan, demonstrate solidarity across racial lines while they court trouble of their own.

In Our Mad and Furious City is partly a victim of its own ambition. Its structure is over-complicated: five voices, three parts, each divided into sub-parts, with two narrators – Nelson and Caroline – that switch between the far past and the present – it took me almost half the novel simply to work out the allegiances and interconnections I’ve summarised above. This wasn’t helped by the fact that I frequently mixed up Ardan, Selvon and Yusuf’s narratives, all characterised by the same repetition of street slang (‘ennet’, ‘fam’, ‘blood’), although, to be fair to Gunaratne, he does draw out differences between his characters’ voices as well (Selvon’s fond of saying ‘kiss my teeth’; Ardan is noticeably less confident; Yusuf uses more sophisticated sentence structure.) For this reason, I found the voices of the older generation more compelling and distinctive.   Gunaratne also hammers too hard on the ‘dangerous volatile seething tinderbox’ language that I’ve seen a number of other writers use when writing about this side of London, especially in the largely unnecessary prologue and epilogue. The novel tells us too much about what it already effectively shows, reminding me strongly of Sunil Yapa’s similarly good but flawed debut Your Heart Is A Muscle The Size of A Fist.

But at the heart of In Our Mad And Furious City, away from the noise and the familiar story beats, are quieter scenes that will repay re-reading and re-inhabiting. Timid Ardan comes into his own for one glorious moment when he beats another boy in an improvisational grime music battle while they ride on the top deck of a bus. Swaggering Seldon carefully mixes salve for his father’s swollen and painful feet and cleans them carefully with a cloth, a weekly ritual. Caroline remembers her own youth in Ireland, and the moment she realised that some members of her family were involved in the IRA. Nelson thinks back to his own teenage years, proud to be part of a resistance movement but increasingly fearful for his own personal safety, as he hears the beats of his community’s music antagonising their racist opponents. I wished that Gunaratne, obviously such a talented writer, had spent more time with his characters in moments like this, and less time telling us how everything is about to erupt.

I received a free copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

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I’ve also recently read Lucy Mangan’s Bookworm, which I loved, and which deserves a full review of its own, and relished three re-reads: Sarah Hall’s magnificent The Carhullan Army, Naomi Alderman’s thought-provoking, if uneven, The Lessons and Sarah Waters’s  lesbian classic, Fingersmith. I’m currently reading Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, an incredibly well-written but frustratingly clinical zombie apocalypse novel, and Xiaolu Guo’s mesmerising memoir, Once Upon A Time in the East, which was shortlisted for the Jhalak Prize, the Costa Biography Award and the Rathbones Folio Prize. After being disappointed by her novels, especially I Am China, I’m finding this riveting.

What spring reading have you been doing?

 

9 thoughts on “Reading round-up, April into May 2018

  1. I enjoyed your thorough review of the Sittenfeld and your fair summary of the strengths and weaknesses. You’re a cleverer reader than me to have guessed those two big twists 🙂 I guess the one thing I could say to stick up for Sittenfeld, despite her rather homogeneous characters, is that she has introduced some diverse sexuality in her recent books what with lesbian relationships here and a trans character in Eligible.

    Interesting to see your comparison of Gunaratne with Sunil Yapa — I loved his book.

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  2. Hooray for Bookworm, Fingersmith, and The Carhullan Army! Xiaolu Guo is really interesting, too – I’ve read UFO In Her Eyes and A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary For Lovers. Can see why a reader might bounce off them, but rather enjoyed the slight uncanniness of her writing, especially in UFO.

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    • I’m going to have to go back to her novels now – I remember finding Concise Chinese-English Dictionary & 20 Fragments of A Ravenous Youth a bit shallow, but it’s almost ten years since I read them. Once Upon A Time in The East is ridiculously good, though harrowing – I would strongly recommend.

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  3. Pingback: Some of My Favourite Short Stories | Laura Tisdall

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