‘You owe me a debt’

Golden-HillThis review will contain spoilers for Golden Hill.

 Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill, which recently won both the Desmond Elliot Prize and the Costa First Novel Award, is a book that fully repays the initial effort it takes to get used to the slightly archaic version of eighteenth-century language that Spufford adopts (and to get through its tortuously and perhaps intentionally long first sentence). The set-up is strong: the mysterious Mr Richard Smith arrives in the small town of New York in 1746 demanding payment for a bill of a thousand pounds, and enough money to pay his way in the meantime. When Smith’s purse is snatched immediately after he acquires some petty cash (in the form of an eclectic mix of coins and scribbled papers), he’s forced to rely on his wits and chuztpah to hang on until his larger debt comes through.

Much of the joy of Golden Hill lies in its set-pieces, and so it can feel like a simple narrative of incident, as it traces Smith’s ability to get himself into one scrape after another. While the book meanders at first through a series of meetings in polite society, it suddenly lights up when Smith finds himself being chased by an angry mob after mishandling matters of etiquette as he shares a drink with other men around a Guy Fawkes bonfire. The trouble is foreshadowed by an ominous juggernaut travelling through the streets: ‘stuck with many torches, and bundles of hissing, sparking firecrackers; a moving, skirted mass as wide as the road, on which rose three monstrous heads, gleaming in lines of gleeful red where fresh paint had been applied to pates and noses and villainous grins.’ Only after it has long passed ‘did the crush slacken enough for Smith to sidle into the road and follow on, seeing the puppets’ chariot up ahead now as a slow-travelling blockade, a tight plug of fire and dancing demon shadows creeping between dark walls’. Smith has plenty of problems to come: he’s thrown into debtors’ prison, caught cuckolding a prominent member of New York society, challenged to a duel, then accused of murder. Yet Spufford makes quieter scenes as vivid as these moments of tension; in his description of a New York winter, for example: ‘The snow of streets was rammed by feet, drilled with holes where passers-by had pissed, and printed by horses’ hooves in confused stanzas of c’s, n’s and u’s. When the sun shone, loose handfuls of crystal hissed off the rooftops in prismatic eddies.’ (It was at about this point that I realised I had read something by Spufford before: his history of Antarctic exploration, I May Be Some Time).

Nevertheless, Golden Hill is not just a string of happenings, as gripping as these may be. It is linked by the reader’s discovery halfway through that Smith is ‘the grandson of a slave’: able to pass as white, he is undertaking a secret errand on behalf of his family. Golden Hill has an omniscient narrator, so we rarely hear Smith’s direct thoughts, and can only guess what he is thinking when he is cast as an African prince in a play and asks, ‘I was wondering… whether at the performance, you mean me to put on black-face?’, or when others ask him how he would like his bill paid (cash not being an option) and he says ‘Slaves?… Can you make me a bargain there?’. Smith’s eventual settling of his account puts his character in quite a different light from the libertine-like hero he might have seemed so far. Spufford’s style – which like Smith, moves between comic and tragic – also makes the book far more than just its plot. I’ve read very little eighteenth-century literature, but can hear the traces of Spufford’s inspirations in the Victorian fiction with which I’m more familiar. The narrator’s admission of ignorance as to how to describe a sword-fight, or a game of piquet, is particularly refreshing, and I was reminded of George Eliot when the narration deliberately head-hops in the middle of a scene: ‘She ran her hands into Smith’s wet hair, and he – But why always Smith?… Have we not heard quite enough already of Mr Smith’s desire, and seen Mrs Tomlinson quite sufficiently as he did?’ The identity of the narrator is revealed in a final epilogue which is a little masterpiece in its own right; I’m always more taken by good closing lines than good opening lines, which seem to me to be much easier, and Spufford gives us a memorable final sentence.

 I struggle with most historical fiction (not because it’s ‘inaccurate’, but because I’m never quite sure what most of it is meant to be doing) but Golden Hill is an exception. Clever with both its pastiche of historical style and its precise use of interesting fact, it never gets bogged down in its own setting. I hope Spufford continues writing fiction.

Thanks so much to the Desmond Elliot Prize for the free review copy of Golden Hill.

20 Books of Summer, #9 and #10: Augustown by Kei Miller and The Mare by Mary Gaitskill

2844722720 Books of Summer has not gone especially well for me this year. I have read lots of books this summer (23 since the beginning of June, to be exact) but less than half of these have been actual Books of Summer. Nevertheless, the quality of my reading this year has been much better than in my more successful 2016 challenge. Kei Miller’s Augustown and Mary Gaitskill’s The Mare are proof of that.

Augustown is set in a fictionalised version of August Town, a community in Kingston, Jamaica. The ‘inciting incident’ of the novel, a phrase which is perhaps especially appropriate here, is the moment that a young Rastafarian boy, Kaia, comes home to his great-aunt, Ma Taffy, with his dreadlocks shorn by his schoolteacher. Augustown covers both what happens on that day and all the things that led up to it, diving back into the history of the place to tell the story of Bedward, the flying preacherman, the violent experiences of local gang member Soft Paw, the history of the schoolteacher’s own unhappy marriage and how that was inflected by beliefs about race and class, and the conversion of a young man to Rastafari after an emotional love affair with an older ‘Rastaman’. Its disembodied narrator tells us not to try to put these stories into a simple box: ‘Look, this isn’t magic realism. This is not another story about superstitious island people and their primitive beliefs. You don’t get off that easy. This is a story about people as real as you are, and as real as I once was before I became a bodiless thing  floating up here in the sky. You may as well stop to consider a more urgent question; not whether you believe in this  story or not, but whether this story is about the kinds of people you have never taken the time to believe in.’ Miller’s use of his narrator swiftly removes this ghost from Lovely Bones-style whimsy and cleverly knits it into the second half of the novel, when we realise who will stand at the centre of the storm that breaks over Augustown. This book is both deceptively simple and short; it covers a huge amount of ground. Unfairly compared to Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings – seemingly because they both deal with race and violence in Kingston – it’s an entirely different kind of book, and I took much more from it. It’s my favourite yet of all the titles longlisted for the Jhalak Prize (even though it didn’t even make the shortlist).

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Mary Gaitskill’s The Mare suffered similar longlist woes. How on earth did this not get shortlisted for this year’s Baileys Prize? It should have been a strong contender to win the whole thing. The novel starts by alternating between the voices of two characters, Ginger, an ex-addict and almost-ex-artist in her late forties who lives in rural New York State, and Velvet, an eleven-year-old Dominican girl from Brooklyn who is sent to stay with Ginger and her husband Paul for a few weeks during the summer through the Fresh Air Fund. Ginger regrets her decision not to have children; Velvet feels unwanted by her mother, Silvia, who consistently tells her that she is not good enough, that she has ‘bad blood’. Gaitskill effectively explores the obvious tensions that arise for both characters through this growing relationship. Ginger is acutely aware of how easily she could slip into the role of ‘white saviour‘, yet cannot deny her growing love for Velvet. She has to continually make judgement calls: is she idealising Velvet and denying that she can do anything wrong when Velvet is in trouble, or is she the only one standing up for a deprived adolescent girl? Is Paul right to criticise their closeness, or is he so troubled by the race and class gap between them that he fails to recognise the genuine feeling on both sides? Gaitskill refuses to answer these questions – and indeed, Ginger probably crosses and recrosses these lines over the course of the novel. Velvet, on the other hand, is a beautifully-written teenager, with her early sexual feelings especially well dealt with, and her conflicted emotions towards both Ginger and Silvia respectfully explored.

Nevertheless, despite the strength of these early chapters, the novel really takes off when Silvia gains a narrative voice. Gaitskill’s exploration of her psyche is brave and fascinating. Silvia’s treatment of Velvet is abusive in many ways, but she believes absolutely that her job as a mother is to prepare Velvet for the kind of life she will most likely live – which, she believes, will not involve college places, horse-riding or happy marriage, but a daily struggle to survive. The most memorable passage in a novel that’s full of them comes from Silvia when she tells Velvet that ‘Men are like babies screaming for love.’ They’ll break you and throw you across the room, she says, then scream for more, ‘and always some dumb woman comes running.’* Silvia is terrified by the fact that Velvet seems to be getting unrealistic ideas about what her life should be, and she feels that she must make sure Velvet can live in the real world. Late in the novel, she tells Velvet that she was trying to help her by telling her that she had ‘bad blood’, because she felt that her daughter would then understand that her problems weren’t her fault. This is especially hard to stomach when compared to Silvia’s closeness to Velvet’s younger brother, but it’s clear to see how Silvia feels her own girlhood is playing out again through her daughter. And the ending of the novel certainly doesn’t suggest that Silvia was wrong to be afraid. However, The Mare never allows a single character or their way of thinking to dominate for long; ultimately, the reader is left to decide what to take away from its tangle of voices, a freedom which few authors are courageous enough to grant.

Finally, in James S.A. Corey news: I’ve now finished the third in the Expanse series, Abaddon’s Gate, and after my earlier comments, I feel I ought to report that it features a prominent lesbian character who is also a Methodist minister. She’s great.

*I immediately lent this book to a friend as soon as I’d finished reading it, so apologise for any misquotation/lack of full quotations!

‘Knavery’s plain face’

UnknownIt’s eleven-year-old Osei’s first day in his new Washington DC elementary school in the 1970s, and he already knows that he isn’t going to fit in. Osei, known as O, the son of a Ghanian diplomat, is the only black student in his new school, and he’s used to being the outsider. But when he is befriended almost immediately by the pretty, popular Dee, he’s dragged unwittingly into the middle of schoolyard politics that he’s ill-equipped to navigate. The unpleasant bully Ian is immediately jealous of O’s sudden status, and plots revenge.

So far, so Othello 101. This new entry in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, where well-known authors are given the task of retelling Shakespeare plays, has been roundly criticised, and I’m not going to repeat the points made in those excellent reviews. However, while I absolutely agree that this novel does not work, I felt like I had a slightly different take (or perhaps an additional take) on why it doesn’t. Obviously, your opinion on New Boy will be strongly governed by your reading of Othello. Elle’s review quite rightly points out that Tracy Chevalier’s retelling completely alters the Othello character’s position in the story. Rather than an established, well-respected general who is not generally defined by his race, O is new to his environment and immediately defined as ‘the black boy’. This fundamentally refocuses the narrative of the play – and, I think, makes it less interesting. Chevalier’s take on racial politics is also, as Elle puts it, ‘insultingly simplistic.’ In short, New Boy says little more than that overt racism is bad, and because it is an historical novel, even if it is set in the recent past, risks falling into the reductive trap of suggesting that things were Bad Back Then but are Better Now. I’d add that O’s older sister, Sisi, who is obsessed with Black Power and natural hairstyles, is not only unnecessary to the story but is fast becoming a cliche in books about race written by white authors. Jodi Picoult’s problematic Small Great Things features a similar set-up; her protagonist is black nurse Ruth, who, like Osei, tries to conform to white social norms to avoid getting into trouble, whereas Ruth’s sister Rachel legally changes her name to Adisa, embraces her ‘ethnic roots’ and ‘natural kinky’ hair, has five children and lives on the minimum wage.

However, I’d like to talk about the novel’s central premise – the idea of setting Othello in an elementary school in the first place. Unlike many reviewers, I believe that this could have been made to work. Modern viewers often struggle with the very tight timing of the original play, and it makes sense to try and manage this by putting it into a setting where friendships, rivalries and feuds are notoriously short and volatile (although I’m not sure why Chevalier chose to challenge herself further by compressing the story into a single day).  There are also some ageist assumptions floating about – I didn’t find the sophistication of thought displayed by Chevalier’s eleven-year-olds at all unconvincing, and I certainly think that children of this age are capable of both manipulating and reflecting upon manipulation at the level she shows, although I was less convinced by the material on sexuality, which felt both unrealistic and unnecessary. (Chevalier’s writing may be at fault here rather than the concept itself – a number of reviewers have picked up on the way that the children literally spell very complex thought processes out in their heads, and I certainly think that this could have been handled better.) Indeed, I think this might have been a good way of getting away from a lot of the baggage of the original play, although one’s opinion depends really on what you think was most important in the original play, given that some bits of it work better in an elementary school setting than others.

What I think is most important and interesting about Othello can be summed up in a single word: Iago (as long as that single word is allowed to encompass his relationship with Emilia, who is the other character that I find most compelling). Iago, at least from what I remember from English A Level, is a character with no clear motive for his villainy, although he offers a number of spurious motives for his actions across the course of the play. This is something that I see as central to his characterisation. Iago is not driven by a clear end goal but by his love of power for power’s own sake; he relies on observation and reaction, rather than on developing complicated plots ahead of time. As he puts it in his monologue at the end of Act 2, Scene 1: ‘‘Tis here, but yet confused./Knavery’s plain face is never seen till used.’ Furthermore, Iago gets better at manipulating people through practice. His rather simplistic plot against Michael Cassio, who has taken the post as lieutenant that he wanted, allows him to work out how to address the more difficult target of Othello. The famous dialogue between the two that encompasses the whole of Act 4 also showcases Iago’s cleverness, and how carefully he seeds doubt in Othello’s mind by referring to earlier things that Othello has seen or heard, as well as using Othello’s own insecurities against him.

Chevalier’s portrayal of the Iago character in New Boy, Ian, misses all of these points. Ian is a bully, but he’s not an especially intelligent one, and his motivations to make Osei’s life a misery are simple: he’s jealous of Osei’s status both as Dee’s ‘boyfriend’ and as a good baseball player, a jealousy that’s augmented by racism. Ian does manipulate the Cassio character, the popular Casper, but the section of the plot where he takes down Casper himself is almost completely omitted. Instead, we move straight to the bit where Ian/Iago tries to make Osei/Othello believe that Casper/Cassio has been having an affair with Dee/Desdemona. This has a significant impact on the complexity of Ian’s characterisation, because we don’t get to see him trying things out. Finally, Ian’s manipulation of Osei himself is incredibly basic. It could be argued that the verbal cleverness that Iago showcases would be inappropriate for an eleven-year-old, but this is where Chevalier could have demonstrated a better understanding of how non-verbal power dynamics function in the playground, and how somebody like Ian might take advantage of that to exploit the opportunities that come his way. New Boy cleaves most closely to Othello, in fact, in its ending, where we’re left feeling that Emilia (‘Mimi’ here) speaks out the loudest and gets the worst deal of all.

New Boy, while still technically an historical novel, is Chevalier’s first book to be entirely set in a world anywhere close to our own time, and I can’t say that it’s filled me with renewed confidence in her as a writer. (My thoughts on some of her other books can be found here.) Ultimately, it doesn’t stand as a story on its own – and comparisons with Othello only indicate how far it falls short.

I was given a free review copy of New Boy by the publisher via NetGalley.

Reading round-up, July 2017

51qqhN9YCFL._SY445_QL70_July has been another outstanding month for reading. I kicked off by finishing Maggie O’Farrell’s This Must Be The Place, which is now officially my favourite O’Farrell since her debut After You’d Gone. While I very much enjoyed (almost) all the novels she wrote in between, I found that they tended to switch between two modes: the fragmented modern life (The Distance Between Us, My Lover’s Lover) or the more officially ‘historical’ fiction (The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, Instructions for a Heatwave). It’s no surprise that I liked the Fragmented Modern Life ones better, given how much I loved After You’d Gone, the original version, although an honourable mention has to go to The Hand That First Held Mine, O’Farrell’s first attempt at combining these two modes, which I also really liked. This Must Be The Place is so fantastic because it combines the sweep of O’Farrell’s later novels with the close-knit characterisation of her earlier work, returning to the time-hopping that, for me, so well approximates to how we really remember. The novel starts with the relationship between reclusive film star Claudette and her husband Daniel, isolated in rural Donegal, but weaves a web outwards from these two characters until, near the end, we are inside the head of middle-aged Chilean expat Rosalind, who has fled from an unhappy marriage to the salt flats of Bolivia, and doesn’t know Claudette or Daniel.

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Gordon Matta-Clark, Splitting (1974)

I found O’Farrell’s description of her writing process in an afterword, ‘Building Work’, almost as fascinating as the novel itself. She wrote the novel while a large portion of her house was being rebuilt (how??) and initially planned it meticulously with Post-Its on a huge pin-board. Then her young daughter pulled down all the Post-It notes. O’Farrell responded with admirable grace: ‘The sticky note disaster forced me to rethink the book at its crucial halfway point; I had to reconstruct and rejustify every decision.’ She linked this to the work that her builders were doing: ‘As I watched the builders heaving cornerstones out of the fabric of our home, I thought that maybe I could step outside the boundaries of the novel’s structure… I was overcome by an urge to unhitch my book from expectations… To attempt, in short, to remove its supporting walls.‘ Coincidentally, I was reading This Must Be The Place when I went to see an exhibition at the Serralves Museum in Porto about the work of the New York artist Gordon Matta-Clark in the 1970s. His project Splitting (1974) involved dividing a two-story house in New Jersey in two, an endeavour mesmerisingly recorded by the films I saw at Serralves. All the work I saw there played with space to emphasise that buildings are not solid; that light can be shed into them from unexpected places. Similarly, This Must Be The Place pulls apart ‘backstory’ but coming at it from odd angles, rather than treating it as the solid foundation of the present. With this as background, O’Farrell’s thoughts about the architecture of her novel made perfect sense.

28390369Zadie Smith’s Swing Time, #7 of my 20 Books of Summer, was probably not just my favourite read this month, but my favourite book that I’ve read so far this year. I haven’t always loved Smith’s novels; I struggled with White Teeth and On Beauty, although I very much enjoyed NW. For me, Swing Time felt like the third iteration of a story she’s been trying to tell for a long time (with White Teeth and NW as the first two attempts) and it absolutely blew me away. For a start, Smith’s writing has moved yet another notch up, and here is simply incredible. This is one of the very few novels where I was certain I was going to enjoy it from the first page simply because of the confidence of the narrative voice. The novel has been criticised for a lack of plot, but I was so utterly compelled by the world that Smith creates that I could easily have read another 500 pages once I reached the end. Like This Must Be The Place, Swing Time moves between past and present, although in a more predictable fashion, alternating chapters between the narrator’s past growing up on a London housing estate in the 1980s alongside best friend Tracey, and her current-day life as personal assistant to internationally-famous pop star Aimee (although the two threads converge upon a single incident that happens at the beginning of the book). Smith’s intertwining of these two strands is thematically impeccable (I could imagine her using a complicated Post-It and pinboard system as well).

Smith’s depiction of these two childhood friends – superficially united by race, class and gender, but still fundamentally divided – has been compared to Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, and such comparisons are definitely not overblown. When reading these sections, Aminatta Forna’s (ageist) complaint that the novel has ‘breadth but not depth’ and so will appeal to millennials looks especially bizarre – the relationship between the narrator and her mother, for example, is written with great subtlety. Taiye Selasi’s excellent Guardian review puts it much better when she argues that the novel is concerned with the idea of leaving one’s home for ‘a better life’, an idea that, in Britain, might be framed with the limiting language of ‘social mobility’, but which Smith makes much more widely applicable. When the narrator travels to the Gambia as part of a large-scale charity project that Aimee has set her heart on, she is unable to comprehend the life of a young village woman, Hawa, not simply because Hawa wants different things than she does but because Hawa is a different person than she is – a person whom she cannot easily pity. These sections are reminiscent of Nikita Lalwani’s excellent novel The Village in their careful unpicking of the inner world of a privileged Western narrator who has been used to suffering discrimination back in Britain due to the colour of their skin, and the way these narrators react to the Indian and African people that they encounter. Similarly, Tracey does not exhibit the kind of ambition that our narrator expects – and yet, as with the lives of Lila and Elena in Ferrante’s novels, we’re left wondering which of the women is actually unhappier. I’m thrilled that Swing Time has been longlisted for the Booker Prize, and I hope to see it on the shortlist.

41Ds6ojrBNL._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_A quick word for Lottie Moggach’s second novel, Under the Sun, which is getting a hard time on Goodreads for not being thriller-esque enough. I loved Moggach’s first novel, Kiss Me First, which was indeed a stylish and clever thriller, but her second has things to offer as well. Anna is stranded in Spain in 2008 after the financial crash leaves her unable to sell the finca that she sunk all her savings into, and her partner deserts her. Marooned in the intensely lonely expat community, she foolishly rents her finca to a local businessman, only to find that he is involved in something far darker than she could have imagined. Moggach precisely captures the feel of this small community, and although Anna is a frustrating protagonist at times, she is also, as a forty-year-old childless woman, a refreshingly unusual one in this genre. (I found her vaguely reminiscent of the Anna in Joanna Hogg’s excellent 2008 film Unrelated). I felt that the ending tied her story up too tidily, but this relatively short novel, currently only 99p on Kindle, is worth reading.

Finally, I’ve been trying to read some more SF, especially ‘hard SF’, recently, and I zipped through James S.A. Corey’s Leviathan Wakes, an ambitious space opera that still manages to keep a small cast of central characters in sight. (However, despite some race and gender diversity in the secondary cast, it still stars two rather cliched white men, which is disappointing. The second in the series, Caliban’s War, improves in these respects, but significant LGBT characters are still totally absent.) The authors certainly know how to plot a novel – unsurprising, given they benefited from the advice of George R.R. Martin – and I’ll definitely be checking out the rest of the series.

Maria Weston wants to be friends with you

51mCV12k+uL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_Disclaimer: Laura Marshall is a friend of mine – we met while taking the Curtis Brown Creative novel-writing course in 2015/16. However, I read the first chapter of the novel that became Friend Request at the very first session of this course, before I had properly met Laura – and I was instantly gripped and extremely keen to read on. So I’d guess that I would have loved this novel regardless.

Louise Williams believes that she’s left her difficult school days far behind her; in her early forties, divorced, with a small son, she may not be completely happy with her life, but her successful career as an interior designer is keeping her going. However, everything changes when she receives a friend request on Facebook from Maria Weston, a girl that she bullied at school. Louise believes that Maria died twenty-five years ago. However, as the messages keep arriving, and Louise starts to realise that she may not know everything about the night that Maria disappeared, Louise begins to wonder if Maria is still out there somewhere, and seeking revenge…

Friend Request switches between 1989, when Louise and Maria were sixteen-year-old schoolgirls, and 2016. While both main sets of chapters are from Louise’s first-person point-of-view, there are also mysterious italicised sections from an unknown narrator. The clever structure of this novel is one of the reasons why it works so well. While alternating between the past and present is a common device for psychological thrillers, Marshall integrates it absolutely seamlessly – it never feels jarring or confused. The novel brilliantly builds to a juxtaposition of the fateful night of sixteen-year-old Louise’s leaving party and forty-three-year-old Louise’s school reunion, and by this midpoint, the book is unputdownable. Also, I’m not usually a fan of the mysterious italicised narrator device – it can feel like a bit of a cheap way to build tension. I was impatient with it throughout most of this novel as well. But, when I found out who it was, everything slotted together – and I actually think this was a really clever twist on a familiar trope.

Another notable strength of Friend Request is its depiction of teenage girls. While I’m a bit tired of novels that focus solely on the trouble caused by teenagers, both male and female, this is a comment on the market rather than a criticism of this particular book. Friend Request actually skirts cleverly away from stereotypes by making all its teenage characters, even the ‘queen bee’ sort, sympathetic and relatable. Its biggest triumph is the characterisation of Maria. She’s a person in her own right, not just a tragic victim or menacing threat – funny, independent-minded and clever without being slotted into the ‘geek’ or ‘swot’ niche favoured by so many writers who focus on school experiences. We really care about what happened to her, as well as what is going to happen to Louise. I wasn’t surprised when I found out that Marshall had drawn on her own teenage diaries to add to the authenticity of these ‘past’ sections; it absolutely shows.

Over the last few months, I’ve felt a bit burnt out by psychological thrillers, but this doesn’t mean I’m not still keen to read takes on the genre that are genuinely original. Friend Request stands out from the crowd. It’s gripping from first page to last, and the ‘past’ sections are particularly well-observed, interesting, and painfully relatable. I definitely recommend this brilliant summer read, and I will obviously be reading Marshall’s next book!

Thanks to the publisher for giving me a free proof copy of Friend Request to review. It’s out TODAY in the UK.

20 Books of Summer: very short update

20-booksMy 20 Books of Summer list can be found here!

A quick update: I’ve abandoned William Boyd’s An Ice-Cream War and Xan Brooks’s The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times and replaced them with my two reserve choices, Mary Gaitskill’s The Mare and Jenni Fagan’s The Sunlight Pilgrims. This is partly due to lucky finds in Blackwell’s 3 for 2 and the Amnesty bookshop in Brighton, and partly due to losing interest in the other titles.

I’ve fixed my half-finished post on House of Names by Colm Toibin and Waterland by Graham Swift, which can be found here.

I’ve finished #7 of my 20 Books, Swing Time by Zadie Smith, which was so wonderful I’m not sure I can write about it coherently – but I’ll try to have a go! I’ve moved onto reading #8, Black Water Rising by Attica Locke (yes, I’m really behind).

Seeking a better past: Hilary Mantel’s Reith Lectures

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The Tudors (2007-10)

History is about the probable, whereas historical fiction is about the possible. Or is this too tidy? In the fourth of her Reith lectures [1], Hilary Mantel spoke about the problems that can be created when historical fiction diverges from historical fact, citing the decision of the writers of the TV series The Tudors to combine Henry VIII’s two sisters into a single character. ‘The writers have eaten the future,‘ she said, pointing out that this not only made little historical sense of the remaining sister’s life (and led to the deletion of Mary Queen of Scots!) but obscured the fascinating stories of these two women. ‘The reason you must stick by the truth,’ she argued, addressing the historical novelist, ‘is that it is better, stranger, stronger than anything you can make up.’ Why, though, is this the case? The subtext in Mantel’s words is that writers are likely otherwise to resort to cliche; the truth is better not simply because it is true (and Mantel makes it clear throughout the Reith lectures that she is healthily sceptical of historical ‘truths’) but because it is more interesting. It challenges our assumptions. In other words, it is better to think with.

Hence, it’s not surprising that Mantel also notes throughout these lectures that one of the key jobs of the historical novelist is to explore the difference of the past, and not ‘distort’ historical characters into ‘versions of ourselves’, as tempting as it might be to seek our own faces and voices in the past. ‘A good novelist will have her characters operating within the ethical framework of their day – even if it shocks her readers,’ she notes. Why is this important? In the questions following her third lecture, Mantel expanded. When asked: ‘Isn’t the power of history… because the story is that things were different before and can be different again?’ she replied, ‘I think you’ve nailed it. History, the study of history, is a revolutionary study. If things were not always as they are now, they could be different in the future. They could be better.’

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Pride (2014)

As an historian of twentieth-century Britain who is also working on two historical novels (neither of which is set in twentieth-century Britain) I think what Mantel says here is absolutely right. Historical fiction should not use history simply as window-dressing. There must be a reason for your story to be set in the past, and – unless you are writing something for pure entertainment – that reason should not be solely because you wanted to put your characters into the midst of an exciting battle or interesting political event, but because there was something about the way things worked back then that you want to explore. It’s even less impressive, as Mantel also argues, to use the past as a useful supply of historical horrors to demonstrate how far we’ve come. To give some quick examples from twentieth-century British history, this is why I’ve never been a fan of the films Suffragette (2015) or Made in Dagenham (2010), because they don’t open up that imaginative space; they both present a world in which things were Bad Back Then (no votes for women, no equal pay) but are Better Now (Made in Dagenham conspicuously fails to mention the continuing gender pay gap in its historical update at the end).  In contrast, and regardless of how historically ‘accurate’ any of these films are, Pride (2014), on the story of the 1980s campaign Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, is a much better piece of historical fiction, because it at least confounds some of our expectations about class, sexuality and solidarity.

Pieter_Bruegel_d._Ä._041b

Pieter Brugel the Elder, Children’s Games, c.1560.

However, Mantel’s assertions about difference are interesting precisely because many historians have spent much time emphasising that people in the past were not as different as we used to think. To take an example: I’m currently writing a semi-historical novel set in fourteenth-century Cambridgeshire, provisionally entitled A Minute’s Grace. (This novel is only ‘semi-historical’ because it’s a time travel novel, but still.) As I was aware before beginning this novel, a lot of work on medieval and early modern mindsets over the last few decades has been dedicated to squashing myths about absolute difference. Pre-modern people did love their children, despite high infant mortality. Furthermore, they had both a concept of childhood and a concept of youth. They probably had an internal sense of self. This myth-squashing extends to the kind of details that are the most fun for the novelist to play with. Pre-modern people – as Mantel notes – were much cleaner than we believe. Medieval England was not covered in forest. Therefore, as much as an historian-turned-novelist might subscribe to the idea that historical novels should be about difference, research can leave you running up against similarities. And, depending on the stories that we tell about that bit of the past, this can be just as surprising to the reader.

I’ve started to think that one thing historical novelists can usefully do is to engage with popular ideas about the past, rather than history itself (although I totally agree with Mantel when she says that historical fiction and history complement each other). This can be in the pursuit of emphasising ‘sameness’ as well as ‘difference’, if this upsets comfortable ideas about history. Sarah Perry has written about how much she relished presenting women’s social activism in late nineteenth-century Britain in her novel The Essex Serpent (2016), challenging ideas about passive Victorian ladies. In my own fiction, I’m aware there are dominant stories that we tell about the English medieval past that need to be challenged, even though one could theoretically write a fully ‘accurate’ English medieval historical novel without troubling these narratives. For example, inspired by the work of MedievalPOC, Our Migration Story, and the historian Dr Caitlin Green, I wanted to write about a medieval fenland where people of colour are present, even though the story I’m telling isn’t ‘about’ race or ethnicity. In simple statistical terms, the presence of such characters in the particular bit of Cambridgeshire I’m writing about isn’t necessarily probable. But is it possible? Yes. That’s the space in which fiction is written.

I’ll be saying more about story structure and its problems for both historians and novelists in my paper at the Creative Histories conference at the University of Bristol on Thursday July 20th. This blog has been cross-posted on Storying the Past.

[1] Hilary Mantel’s Reith Lectures, plus transcripts, can all be found here.