First, an update on my progress with the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist. I have to say that I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the quality of the titles I’ve read so far. I’m now thinking that the judges were actually onto something with their off-the-wall picks. Therefore, I’ve decided to expand the number of titles I plan to read from the longlist from eight to eleven. It’s still unlikely that I’ll read the remaining five longlisted titles (Flamingo, This One Sky Day, The Exhibitionist, The Island of Missing Trees and Salt Lick) unless they make the shortlist.
The Paper Palace, Miranda Cowley Heller’s debut novel, is narrated by fifty-year-old Elle, who has returned every summer throughout her life to an idyllic family hideaway at Cape Cod. This summer, she’s there with her three children and her husband, Peter, when she abruptly reconnects with an old flame, Jonas, who is also the keeper of her darkest secrets. The Paper Palace flashes back and forward through time to trace the events since Elle’s earliest childhood as her story also unfolds in the present, a structural choice that works effectively when Heller confines herself to the two central timelines, but can become unnecessarily confusing in the few instances when multiple flashbacks and flash-forwards are employed at the same time.
Numerous reviewers mention the traumatic subject-matter of The Paper Palace. While I don’t believe the central incident of the novel is gratuitous per se, as it is the hook upon which the story hangs, I would certainly concur that the numerous other mentions of sexual abuse, other kinds of childhood abuse and neglect, unlikely accidents and early deaths are indeed gratuitous and unnecessary. This is a book where we can’t witness an old man swimming happily with his friend in the men’s pond on Hampstead Heath without him abruptly drowning, where children are smothered by sand dunes for no reason, where adolescents are constantly exposed to random adults having sex in front of them. (I feel I can mention these incidents freely because they are in no way spoilers for the main plot or the primary or secondary characters’ journeys – which itself indicates how easily Heller could have removed them.) The Paper Palace, despite its incredibly familiar plot-line and flat characters, is a weirdly compelling read, and I think a big part of this is Heller’s car-crash writing – we don’t want to look away because we know there’s going to be something awful on the next page. This is certainly one way to compel your reader, but a good novel it does not make.
Even putting this material aside, The Paper Palace is not a well-executed novel. Elle, Peter and Jonas are all very sketchily characterised and largely unsympathetic. Heller might claim to be exploring the generational impacts of trauma, and to be reflecting her characters’ experience thematically through the string of arbitrary misfortunes that befall other people in this book, but I just didn’t think she pulled it off. There are also small annoyances. The book is weirdly obsessed with Elle’s hymen being intact (so obviously intact a gynaecologist comments on it!) before she has sex for the first time, despite the fact she uses tampons, which perpetuates myths about what the hymen is and how it’s related to female ‘virginity’. Sex scenes are used to stand in for any kind of meaningful emotional development between Elle and her two lovers. And while, unlike some other readers, I felt that it was pretty clear what Elle decides to do at the end of the novel, I simply did not care by this point. Ultimately, this reads like sub-par Jodi Picoult, and I don’t believe it belongs on the Women’s Prize longlist.
Remote Sympathy, Catherine Chidgey’s sixth novel, alternates between four perspectives on the Nazi concentration camp of Buchenwald during the final years of the Second World War. SS Sturmbannführer Dietrich Hahn was the camp’s administrator; his sections are narrated from the vantage point of the 1950s when he is being interviewed after his release from prison. His young wife, Greta Hahn, is diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer in 1943, and tells us what is happening to her as it happens. The doctor Lenard Weber is a ‘political prisoner’ in the camp, arrested for an invented crime after Dietrich found out about his pre-war invention, the ‘Sympathetic Vitaliser’, which was intended to cure cancers through the transmission of electric current through the body. His contributions come in the form of letters to his small daughter Lotte, who has been taken with her Jewish mother Anna to another concentration camp, Theresienstadt. A fourth and, in my opinion, superfluous, perspective is an occasional contribution from a chorus of Weimar villagers who live near Buchenwald.
While the synopsis of this novel indicates potentially speculative elements, Remote Sympathy is in fact a straightforwardly traditional and realistic historical novel; Lenard’s ‘vitaliser’ is clearly rooted in pre-war experiments with electricity as a means of rejuvenation, and the principle of ‘remote sympathy’ which supposedly makes it effectual is based on the eighteenth-century experiments of the Scottish surgeon John Hunter. And Remote Sympathy is very good at what it does. It’s convincing and moving. Chidgey uses Dietrich’s self-justifying perspective to explore how he rationalises the horrors of Buchenwald in relation to what he believes were ‘actual’ concentration camps, such as Auschwitz, and we see how Buchenwald did indeed possess weird flourishes to try and hide its true purpose, such as a prisoners’ library and brothel. (And in the grotesque choral sections from the Weimar villagers, it’s reminiscent of Audrey Magee’s The Undertaking, which was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize back in 2014.) Its most heartbreaking thread is Lenard’s realisation that he must now pretend as hard as he can that his failed experimental machine may actually be working, in order to save his own life and hopefully that of his wife and child, even as he struggles with lying to Greta about her prognosis.
This is not, however, a novel that I think will stay with me. I’ve simply read too many novels that cover this ground and many of them were equally competent. I’m glad to have read Remote Sympathy and I think it deserves to be longlisted, but it doesn’t offer anything especially new.
I’m not aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize longlist this year, but I’ve selected eleven titles that I do want to read. These are numbers five and six. I’ve already read Great Circle, The Book of Form and Emptiness , Careless and The Sentence.