Wellcome Book Prize Blog Tour: My Year of Rest and Relaxation

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A young woman, recently graduated and recently orphaned, decides to take a year off from living to emerge purified. Camping out in her expensive New York apartment, she doses herself with a vast range of drugs, from the real to the fictional, in an attempt to sleep away the next three hundred and sixty five days. During this period, her human contact is limited to her only friend, Reva, whom she openly despises, the men at the local bodega who sell her two coffees when she manages to wake up, and her terrible psychiatrist, Dr Tuttle, who’s happy to prescribe her anything and everything. The narrator also muses on her earlier employment in the surreal art market of the very late twentieth century, and the kinds of productions that received acclaim, such as ejaculation drawings and pedigree dogs preserved through taxidermy.

There are a number of ways to read Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Most obviously, its narrator is obscenely privileged, cushioned from ‘real life’, as is the art scene which she frequents; both are abruptly jolted awake by the intrusion of 9/11, which takes place at the very end of the novel. Secondly, My Year is both surprisingly readable and unreadably dull; its litanies of drugs and old movies recall Patrick Bateman’s recitation of brand names in American Psycho, another book that feels to me like it was deliberately written to be skimmed:

I took another Nembutal, watched Presumed Innocent, then took a few Lunestas and drank the second bottle of funeral wine, but somehow the alcohol undid the sleeping pills, and I felt even more awake than before… Then I was hungry, so I ate the banana bread and watched Frantic three times in a row, taking a few Ativan every thirty minutes or so. But I still couldn’t sleep. I watched Schindler’s List, which I hoped would depress me, but it only irritated me, and then the sun came up, so I took some Lamictal and watched The Last of the Mohicans and Patriot Games, but that had no effect either, so I took a few Placidyl and put The Player back in.

Like American Psycho, this is a satire that’s too horrific – at least in my view – to be funny. The only genuinely satirical section is the mid-point set-piece, when our narrator attends Reva’s mum’s funeral – a scene which weirdly kept reminding me of Bunny’s funeral gathering in The Secret History, even though the Secret History scene is undoubtedly much better in its lurches between comedy and tragedy.

Thirdly, one might discern a more serious side to My Year. What would happen, it asks, if we simply didn’t do anything for a year, if we were able to do that? It’s an anti-YOLO book, a deliberate rejection of the idea that life has meaning or that it shouldn’t be wasted. Because of this, my favourite section was the section near the end, when our narrator finally decides to knock herself out completely for several months, only waking for an hour every three days to see to her basic needs. This takes Moshfegh’s project to its logical conclusion, refusing to allow her narrator any wants or desires, and hence discarding all the usual things that novels are meant to be about. My Year, in this respect, is strangely liberating, because there’s absolutely nothing our narrator wants to achieve (and although she’s arrogant and self-aggrandising, she doesn’t seem to think she’s in any way perfect, so this isn’t rooted in false self-belief). Are our ambitions simply a shield against the absurdity of having such a short, and yet such a long, life to waste?

I didn’t enjoy reading My Year very much at all, but I don’t think that I was meant to. And while there were a number of books on the longlist that I thought were stronger (Sight, This Really Isn’t About You, Freshwater, Educated), it’s probably my second favourite on the Wellcome shortlist, if only because I doubt I will ever forget it.

Thoughts on My Year of Rest and Relaxation from other members of the shadow panel can be found here:

Rebecca’s review

Annabel’s review

Clare’s review

Paul’s review

Thanks to Midas PR for sending me a free copy of this novel to review for the blog tour.

The shadow panel – who are pretty divided this year! – will announce our winner on Monday 29th April, and the official winner will be announced on Wednesday 1st May.

My personal winner, by some distance, is Thomas Page McBee’s remarkable Amateur.

Don’t forget to check out the other stops on the blog tour!

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Finally, 5×15 are running a Wellcome Book Prize shortlist event in London once again, featuring  five of the shortlisted writers: Will Eaves, Sarah Krasnostein, Ottessa Moshfegh, Sandeep Jauhar and Arnold Thomas Fanning. While I’m sad that, once again, I won’t be hearing from my favourite shortlisted writer (though this is unsurprising given that McBee lives in New York), I loved this event in 2018, when I live-tweeted it, and have already booked tickets – along with three of my friends who were also big fans of last year’s event, despite not having read any of the shortlisted books! It’s on 7pm on the 30th April, and you can get tickets here.

 

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Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist, #4: Remembered & Bottled Goods

Onwards! This is the last pair of Women’s Prize reviews I’ll be able to fit in before the shortlist is announced on 29th April (I still haven’t been able to read Normal People, so it had BETTER be shortlisted just saying). I’ll be posting my own wishlist before then, probably this weekend.

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Yvonne Battle Felton’s debut, Remembered, operates a dual timeline. In Philadelphia in 1910, Spring is sitting by the bedside of her injured son, Edward, who has been charged with deliberately driving a streetcar into a department store. As Spring tells him the story of his grandmothers and mothers, we jump back in time to antebellum America and the experience of being enslaved. There’s also a familiar ghostly element to the story, as Spring’s dead sister, Tempe, sits beside her and comments on the tale she’s telling, occasionally summoning visions to give us glimpses of scenes Spring wasn’t privy to, such as the plan that led up to Edward’s protest (I’m afraid this device felt less magical to me and more a rather clumsy way of adding an additional point of view). In this, Remembered most obviously recalls Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Singwhich was shortlisted for last year’s Women’s Prize and also dealt with the legacy of slavery, as well as Toni Morrison’s classic Beloved.

I’ve been having an interesting discussion on Elle’s blog about the recent popularity of novels that explore the experiences of enslaved people, whether that’s in a C19th/C20th American context, as with the examples above, or focusing on the C18th/C19th transatlantic slave trade, such as Esi Eduygan’s Washington BlackAndrea Levy’s The Long Song, Yaa Gyasi’s Homecoming, and Jane Harris’s Sugar Money (the latter is also the only recent example I can think of written by a white person). Most obviously, this trend is well overdue, and it also makes perfect sense that in the wake of movements such as Black Lives Matter, black writers are being drawn to explore the structural roots of modern racism. I also recognise that while Battle-Felton was writing this novel, the willingness of publishers to suddenly foreground narratives of slavery was hardly something she could have predicted. Yet, having said all this, it’s still the case that Remembered addresses a story that’s becoming familiar, and I’m not sure what it brings to the table. As I commented in my review of Rachel Seiffert’s The Boy in Winterlonglisted for last year’s Women’s Prize, which deals with the round-up of Jews in the Ukraine in 1941 by the SS; there has to be a compelling reason to rehearse these traumatic histories, especially when black writers and readers have emphasised that they don’t just want to see stories about slavery and black suffering.

And sadly, I didn’t feel that Battle-Felton’s writing was up to this task. There are two compelling ideas at the heart of Remembered. First, the streetcar incident as a deliberate act of resistance to racial discrimination, and second, the plantation where Spring and Tempe grow up, which is said to be cursed; no live babies can be born there, and it turns out that the enslaved women are deliberately taking contraceptive measures. Both these plots foreground the agency of black people long before the inception of the civil rights movement. However, both are strangely under-explored. This, I think, comes down to the nuts and bolts of Battle-Felton’s prose; point-of-view switches are not handled well, it’s really difficult to get a sense of time passing, and some key incidents in the novel are just confusing. This becomes particularly problematic in an especially brutal scene near the beginning of the narrative; this scene is, deliberately, horrific, but because of the weak writing, it tips over into what feels like exploitative melodrama. While I admire Battle-Felton’s intentions, this is not a strong entry on the Women’s Prize longlist.

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A shorter review for a very short novel. Bottled Goods, which is also a debut, has been described as a ‘novella-in-flash’; the novel is divided into very short sections that make big chronological jumps, and also plays with format; one section is a table, another is solely dialogue, some are in first person, others in third. Set in communist Romania in the 1970s, the novella focuses on primary school teacher Alina, who falls under suspicion after her brother-in-law defects to the west and she fails to report a pupil caught with a copy of a subversive magazine. There’s a touch of magical realism, but Sophie van Llewyn holds it in the right balance, making Bottled Goods intriguing but grounded. Nevertheless, despite the strength of van Llewyn’s writing, this isn’t one of my favoured contenders for the shortlist either, although I’m glad that I ultimately decided to read it. I’m not convinced that a series of interlinked flash fiction pieces works in the same way an interlinked collection of short stories can; the strength of flash is its ability to conjure a world in very few words, and as these stories don’t need to do that, because character and situation have already been established, they can feel needlessly short. A number of individual pieces are very arresting, but not all of the pieces attain this standard. Overall, I was left feeling that this novella was simply too slight to make enough of an impression. I hope van Llewyn writes something else soon, however, because she’s clearly an original and skilled writer.

Late Spring Reading

I’m still working my way through the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist. I’ve now read all of the titles I planned to read before the shortlist announcement except Sally Rooney’s Normal People and Lillian Li’s Number One Chinese Restaurant – the library just isn’t coming through for me! So, I’ve decided to change my strategy, as I want to get as many of these read before the shortlist is announced on the 29th April. I’m going to buy myself a copy of Normal People, as I’m pretty sure I’ll enjoy it. Then, as I’ve read some pretty poor reviews of Number One Chinese Restaurant and some pretty good reviews of Sophie van Llewyn’s Bottled Goods (plus, I love the fact she’s written this tiny literary novella for a tiny press, and yet says her favourite book/s are A Song of Ice and Fire), I’m going to read Bottled Goods instead. Therefore, I won’t be reading Number One… (or The Pisces, Swan Song or Praise Song for the Butterflies) unless it’s shortlisted, which I doubt it will be.

In the meantime, a round-up of some non-Women’s Prize reading:

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In retrospect, everything else in The Dollmaker was overshadowed for me by the hauntingly brilliant long quotation that prefaces the novel, taken from an 1897 article called ‘A Study of Dolls’, co-authored by the famous American psychologist of adolescence, G. Stanley Hall. Here’s a little bit of it:

90 children mentioned burial, their average age being nine; 80 mentioned funerals, 73 imagined their dolls dead, 30 dug up dolls after burial to see if they had gone to heaven, or simply to get them back. Of these 11 dug them up the same day… 12 dolls came to death by accidental bumps and fractures, 1 burst, 1 died of a melted face, 2 were drowned (1 a paper doll)… 30 children had never imagined dolls dead. This parents often forbid… In 21 cases there was death but no burial; in 10, funerals but no burials; in 8, funerals but no death.

This is so ridiculous and beautiful, the kind of inadvertent poetry that you sometimes find in Victorian social studies, that The Dollmaker was never going to live up to it. Ultimately, I admired the craft and intelligence with which this novel was written, but it wasn’t really my thing.

Andrew Garvie, who has dwarfism, has spent his life collecting and making dolls. When he receives a letter from Bramber Winters, a woman living in an institution on Bodmin Moor, about his collection, this begins an enthusiastic correspondence between them. Andrew sets off on a journey across England to finally meet Bramber, and on the way, reads a book of Polish stories that she’s recommended to him by the fictional Ewa Chaplin. Chaplin’s stories are littered with characters that might be considered ‘freaks’ in nineteenth-century parlance, from a range of people who also have dwarfism to a woman whose fingers have been frozen by rheumatoid arthritis and a woman born without one of her eyes. This engages Andrew’s sympathies; recently, he has been restoring ‘monsters’, damaged dolls who don’t have perfect faces and bodies, because he sees no reason why dolls shouldn’t reflect reality.

A number of Chaplin’s stories are scattered throughout the novel, and most are riveting; subtly disturbing, they all suggest worlds that aren’t quite our own. In contrast, Andrew and Bramber’s plot-line is rooted more firmly in reality than I’d expected, and I longed for more than a hint of the speculative. The dolls themselves are more symbolically significant throughout the novel than anything else, and I wished there had been a lot more about Andrew’s work as a dollmaker, picking up on the hint of creepiness in the Stanley Hall quote. And while the Chaplin stories worked for me, they made the pace of the novel very erratic, as it took me a little while to get into each one, meaning I’d often put the novel aside for some time when a new story appeared. Without the stories, on the other hand, this is a familiar tale of two misfits finding love through letter, and Bramber never really came alive for me; I’d have preferred the whole thing to be about Andrew, his dolls, and Ewa Chaplin’s stories.

Writers often complain that reviewers review the book they wanted to read rather than the book the writer wanted to write, and that’s definitely at play for me here; I SO wanted this to be a more alternative-reality sort of novel that I kept on making up elaborate twists that didn’t come to pass (Andrew and Bramber are actually dolls in a complicated child’s game!). However, this is a very well-written novel that I’d recommend to those to whom the synopsis appeals, and as I hear Allan’s earlier novels lean more towards the SF, I’ll definitely be checking those out (The Rift is already on my 2019 reading list).

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

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College friends Jack and Wynn are canoeing the Maskwa River in Northern Canada. Wynn is the most experienced with whitewater, while Jack is an expert on wilderness survival and hunting; they don’t anticipate problems. However, when they find themselves in the path of a forest fire and overhear a couple arguing in the middle of the night, they are unwillingly plunged into a life-or-death journey down the river.

This novel, the first I’ve read by Peter Heller, sits somewhere between literary fiction and thriller; the UK cover is somewhat misleading in depicting it as a pure white-knuckle ride. Heller spends some time establishing the landscape and the relationship between the two men, so the plot doesn’t really kick in until we’re about a third of the way through. However, this is a relatively short novel, so I didn’t find this to be a problem; just don’t expect this to be thrills from page one. Once The River gets going, it’s properly gripping, and Heller’s knowledge of the wilderness is evident. It reminded me of Erica Ferencik’s equally engrossing The River at Night, with perhaps a greater touch of realism.

The ‘literariness’ of this novel is a little more questionable. Heller’s writing is somewhat reminiscent of Charles Frazier, but less deliberately meditative. However, The River doesn’t seem to have a great deal to say; the one enduring theme is the contrast between Wynn’s idealism and Jack’s cynicism, which is rather simplistically resolved. The novel also falls back on cliched gender roles; of the two women mentioned prominently in it, one, Jack’s dead mother, appears only in flashbacks as a motivation for Jack’s actions, while the other is a helpless victim of male violence. In short, I’d have liked this to either have gone full-on ‘thriller’, or to have had greater depth; although I enjoyed reading it, it sits a bit uneasily between the two.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on May 16th.

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Lucy grew up in a working-class family in Sunderland, attending a comprehensive school in nearby Washington, so when she heads to university at King’s College, London, in the mid-00s, she has to adjust to the new landscape around her, abandoning fake tan, sequins and Asti for cigarettes, leather jackets and leopard-print tights. Later, having received her degree, Lucy will flee to her grandfather’s home in Donegal, seeking out the silence of a very different world.

Saltwater, Jessica Andrews’s debut novel, is told in non-linear fragments, although the four parts of the book roughly divide up the phases of Lucy’s life, from childhood to adolescence to studenthood to the aftermath. However, I didn’t find anything especially original in either the prose or the structure. This kind of storytelling is commonplace in literary fiction – think early Maggie O’Farrell – as, increasingly, are the very short chapters. Saltwater is clearly based very closely on Andrews’s own experiences, and while I’m not against fashionable autofiction per se, it has to be really wonderful to convince me, e.g. Jessie Greengrass’s Sight.

As someone who’s recently moved to Newcastle and who has family on both sides who grew up in the north-east, I loved the idea of a novel that explored working-class experience outside London. However, Saltwater either gives us precise, repetitive litanies of sweets, toys, drinks and bands, or feels irritatingly vague. Some of the sections that explore Lucy’s adolescent experiences, such as hanging out in Exhibition Park, are a bit more satisfying, but these aren’t typical of the novel as a whole. Having read some of Andrews’s articles about being the first person in her family to go to university, I found these more illuminating than the fictional version represented here. Andrews’s writing is readable enough, but I hope she pushes herself further next time.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on May 19th.

Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist, #3/Wellcome Book Prize Longlist, 2019: Freshwater

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One does not challenge their chi to a wrestling match.

Born in Nigeria to Igbo and Tamil parents, Ada is inhabited by ogbanje, an Igbo term that might translate as ‘evil spirits’ but, as Freshwater, Akwaeke Emezi’s debut novel, makes clear, is actually much more complicated. ‘Ogbanje’ are also ‘children who come and go’, or what we might think of as changeling children, children of gods who don’t properly belong in this world. To be an ‘ogbanje’, as Ada is, is to be marked out as special. Ada is also a practicing Christian, but while her internal ogbanje recognise the presence of what they call Yshwa, or Christ, they don’t perceive him as having any particular status, and have their own take on his motives: ‘while he loves humans… what they forget is that he loves them as a god does, which is to say, with a taste for suffering’. One of Ada’s selves, Asughara, is particularly resentful of Yshwa, whom they call ‘that fucking resurrected bastard’ after losing an argument with him.

If this all sounds a little metaphysical, you’re not alone; I approached Freshwater with some trepidation. However, I ended up engaging with it a lot more easily than I expected. Emezi’s writing makes the conflict between Ada and her various selves real and concrete, more like the interactions between the gods of a Greek myth than the inner monologue of a person with multiple personality disorder. This is obviously deliberate. One of the things that’s most brilliant about Freshwater is its refusal to line up Ada’s experience with Western psychological or psychoanalytical categories. Insofar as these diagnoses are useful as a way of understanding our experience, Emezi suggests that Ada can most effectively come to terms with herself by using the language of Igbo belief. Because of this, and despite its longlisting for the Wellcome Book PrizeFreshwater doesn’t feel like a novel about mental illness but more a novel about coming to terms with the relationship between self and world.

Emezi writes particularly well on Ada’s struggle to live in a physical body, observations that seem to be drawn from Emezi’s own experience (they identify as non-binary). This manifests not exactly as gender dysphoria but as an inability to reconcile how one sees oneself with how others see us. After Ada has a breast reduction, she starts wearing dresses more often; one of her friends can’t understand this, saying ‘Most people get it done to be more masculine’. But for Ada, the surgery wasn’t intended to help her fit into a particular gender category more easily but to complicate people’s impressions of her. If Freshwater doesn’t quite work at times, it’s because of its closeness to Emezi’s own life, and the redundancies that inevitably creep in when you try and compress life into fiction (there seem to be too many temporary lovers, and I wasn’t sure what purpose Ada’s siblings served). Nevertheless, this is a startling novel that deserves its place on both the Women’s Prize and Wellcome Prize longlists – and I wish it had gone forward to the Wellcome shortlist.

Among the ‘Afropolitans’: Ghana Must Go (Taiye Selasi)

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In 2005, Taiye Selasi wrote in her essay, ‘What is an Afropolitan?’ that ‘Afropolitans’ are ‘not citizens, but Africans of the world’; perhaps ethnically mixed, perhaps culturally diverse through living in different countries and speaking different languages, but linked by having ‘at least one place on the African continent to which we tie our sense of self‘. Selasi herself has one Nigerian and one Ghanaian parent, was born in London, and has lived in Accra, Berlin, New York and Rome. Her own experiences are mirrored in the Nigerian-Ghanaian family at the heart of her debut novel, Ghana Must Go (2013). All four children are primarily brought up in New York, but the eldest, Olu, has only been to Ghana as an infant, while the youngest, Sadie, has never been there at all. In contrast, Taiwo and Kehinde, twins, spent part of their adolescence there after their father left the family and their Nigerian mother, Fola, wanted to give them a better start in life.

Ghana Must Go hovers between richness and cliche. High-achieving, Yale-educated Olu is the ‘good son’, marrying young and pursuing a career as a doctor. Middle daughter Taiwo, whom we first meet in a white fur coat on the streets of New York, pursues troubled relationships with unsuitable men, while remaining supernaturally close to her artistic twin, Kehinde. ‘Baby Sadie’, the youngest, feels disregarded and ignored by the rest of the family, and has developed an eating disorder. As Ghana Must Go goes on, all four of these characters, who begin as a familiar set, develop greater depth – but it’s a shame that it’s only really in the last fifty pages that we feel we get to know them properly. In particular, a twist near the end of the novel could have been positioned earlier, allowing us more of a handle on Kehinde, who’s very distant for much of the narrative.

Because of this, for the majority of Ghana Must Go the parents feel more original and engaging than their offspring, because we already have their backstory. The wayward Ghanaian father, Kweku, who dies at the beginning of the book, is an early example of an ‘Afropolitan’, training in Poland, moving to New York, then returning to Ghana when he loses his job after a racist accusation. He describes the pressure that rests on him after Fola gives up her studies in law to support his career: ‘he knew that her sacrifice was endless. And as the Sacrifice was endless, so must be the Success.’ Meanwhile, Fola is an especially vibrant character, combining modernity and tradition with her mysterious ability to sense the mental states of her four children, her determined independence and her bell-bottom jeans. Of all Selasi’s protagonists, she challenges Western myths about ‘Africa’ most directly. Studying in the US after the Nigeria-Biafra civil war, she reflects:

She sensed the change immediately, in the tone people took when they learned that her father had been murdered by soldiers; in the way that they’d nod as if yes, all makes sense… Never mind that the Hausas were targeting Igbos, and her father was a Yoruba… her classmates and professors… somehow believed that it was natural, however tragic, what had happened… she’d stopped being Folasade Somayina Savage and had become instead the native of a generic War-Torn Nation… Surely, broad-shouldered, woolly-haired fathers of natives of war-torn nations got killed all the time?

Stylistically, I found Ghana Must Go to be a little too poetic and elliptic for my liking; I was rarely able to become properly immersed in the story because of its distracting, mid-sentence shifts in point-of-view, or between present and past. The rhythm of Selasi’s sentences is wonderful, but often reads more like a prose-poem than prose, and I found myself being lulled into reading forward without always taking the meaning in, as when Olu finds out about his father’s death while sitting in his white bedroom: ‘He sits in his scrubs with the shirt in the dark, with the moon making ice of the floor and the walls, and thinks maybe she’s right, all this white is oppressive… In the sunlight it’s gorgeous, hard angles and harder the light crashing brilliantly against its own shade, to an eerie effect, white on white, like an echo, the sun staring at its own reflection.’ In contrast, when Selasi’s prose occasionally breaks up into fragments, the text becomes much more immediate. Nevertheless, I was impressed by this debut, and sorry to see that Selasi has written nothing since.

Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist, #2: The Silence of the Girls & Circe

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As a teenager, I worked my way through both popular versions of Greek myths and stories, primarily compiled by Roger Lancelyn Green, and novel-length retellings such as Adele Geras’s Troy. As an adult, I’ve tended to steer away from modern versions of classical stories – making exceptions for complete remakes like Kamila Shamsie’s take on Antigone – and was recently rather unimpressed by Colm Toibin’s House of Nameswhich focuses on the prelude and postlude to the siege of Troy. I was surprised, therefore, at how closely Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls gripped me from the start. Barker, unlike Toibin, focuses on the most famous bit of The Iliad – the siege of Troy itself by the Greek army, Patroclus’s death, Achilles’s furious return to the fight, and how Hector’s body is dragged many times around the walls of Troy before the city finally falls. At the end of the novel, there are details borrowed from Euripides’s Trojan Women, such as the killing of Trojan children by Greek soldiers.

I was less familiar with the first half of the story told here, which deals with Achilles’s anger with Agamemnon after the latter demands his war prize, an enslaved girl, Briseis, as compensation for the loss of his own ‘prize’, Chryseis. Briseis narrates the first section of The Silence of the Girls, and it was her unmediated first-person narrative that I found most impressive. Barker shows us how the women in the camp remain silent in the presence of more powerful men, but speak up when they are alone, offering their own take on the familiar characters of these epics. After meeting her fellow ‘prizes’, Briseis learns a great deal about the men whom they ‘belong’ to:

Hecamede… had been awarded to Nestor… as his prize for strategic thinking, since he was too old to take part in the actual raid.

“Too old for anything?” I ventured to hope.

Uza… hooted with laughter. “Don’t you bloody well believe it! They’re always the worst, old men”… Uza was Odysseus’s prize. No problems there, apparently. All very straightforward. When it was over, he’d lie looking up at the ceiling and indulge in long, rambling reminiscences about his wife, Penelope, to whom he was utterly devoted…

Ritsa turned to me. “What about Achilles? What’s he like?”

“Fast,” I said, and left it at that.

As with any oppressed group, the enslaved women form complex social hierarchies between themselves, based not on their status before slavery (Briseis was married to the king of Lyrnessus), but on qualities that now have more tradeable value, such as youth and beauty, and the attitude of the men who now own them. There’s debate over where the fragile Chryseis fits into all of this:

In one respect, as Uza pointed out, she was better off than most of us: Agamemnon couldn’t get enough of her. “Never sends for anybody else,” she said. “I’m amazed she’s not pregnant.”

He prefers the back door,” Ritsa said. She’d know. Ritsa had a jar of goose fat mixed with crushed roots and herbs that the common women round the campfires relied on if they’d had a particularly rough night.

Later on, the narrative starts to switch between Briseis’s account and Achilles’s third-person perspective, and while this narrative choice is necessary to cover some events that Briseis is not witness to, I found that the novel lost some of its power once its voice was divided. Nevertheless, Barker writes convincingly about religious belief, the duties that the men believe they owe to the gods, and Achilles’s relationship with Patroclus, which is reinvented as a profound, but non-sexual, love, although the other men are convinced they’re sleeping together.

There’s a deliberate use of modern terminology throughout the novel, which on the whole, worked well; while there’s nothing more jarring than a really anachronistic term, making historical characters speak in stilted sentences (which in this case could never be ‘accurate’ given the language difference) is alienating, and gives the false impression that slang and abbreviations are modern inventions. I particularly liked this rowdy chant that the men sing about Achilles:

Why was he born so beautiful?

Why was he born at all?

He’s no fucking use to anyone!

He’s no fucking use at all!

He may be a joy to his mother,

But he’s a pain in the arsehole to me!

This use of language, including some of the phrasing of the First World War poets elsewhere in the narrative, only enhances the power of this wonderful novel.

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Seven years ago, when her debut novel, The Song of Achilles, won what was then the Orange Prize, it was rumoured that Madeline Miller was writing a retelling of the Odyssey. Instead, her second novel takes a slightly different tack. Circe takes the witch that Odysseus famously encounters on an isolated island and gives us an alternative perspective on some of the most famous stories from Greek myth and legend. The novel begins when Circe is a mistreated nymph at her father’s court, exiled after transforming one of her fellow nymphs into the sea monster, Scylla. On her island, Circe encounters first Jason, and then Daedalus, hearing stories of her sister Pasiphae, her minotaur child, and the labyrinth Daedalus built to contain him. Her uneasy truce with the messenger god, Hermes, allows her to learn what happens to these people after they leave her. However, it’s only after Odysseus arrives that Circe really becomes deeply involved in a storyline in her own right.

It’s also been seven years since I read The Song of Achilles, but I remember being impressed by the way that Miller wove little interludes into the central narrative of the siege of Troy while not allowing the novel to feel too tangential. In contrast, much of the first half of Circe is distractingly episodic – not epic, but not really mythical either. The novel only really gets going at the halfway mark, after Circe is raped by a ship’s captain, and vows to transform all men who land on her island into pigs. This middle section is mesmerising, and from this point on, Circe begins to become more of an agent, rather than the recipient of curses, punishments, and tales. However, I still felt profoundly disappointed in her characterisation for much of the novel. She seems to be designed to win the reader’s sympathy rather than positioned as a complex mix of god, nymph and witch. All she really wants is to live the life of a mortal, to have love and children, and she only becomes truly vengeful after her rape. While Miller, like Barker, obviously wants to give us a female perspective on these male-dominated legends, I felt that Circe was much less successful in this respect than The Silence of the Girls. The morality was a bit black-and-white for me; eventually we find out that Odysseus is also a villain, overwriting what was most interesting about his characterisation in The Song of Achilles and in much of this novel. Miller’s writing is still excellent, but if only one classical retelling can make it to the Women’s Prize shortlist this year, I’d prefer it to be The Silence of the Girls.

 

Wellcome Book Prize Shortlist, 2019: Murmur & Mind on Fire

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Will Eaves’s short novel, Murmur, is loosely linked to the life of the mathematician Alan Turing, best-known for inventing the machine that cracked German codes during the Second World War, and for undergoing forced chemical castration after one of his homosexual encounters was discovered, and thereafter, committing suicide. (Turing is fictionalised here as ‘Alec Pryor’, but the link is obvious.) The novel is bookended by two short sections very distinct in style from its much longer middle. The first, originally a short story shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award 2017, describes, in a journal entry, the liaison with working-class Cyril that led to Pryor’s punishment. The second, even shorter, depicts Pryor conversing with ‘the council of machines’, who tell him that he is losing his mind. Playing with ideas about AI, the council of machines claim that they have been fully aware from the start, through all the suffering of the Industrial Revolution, and so Pryor need not think that the painful consciousness of humans is a unique burden. Both of these sections are breathtakingly good; Eaves’s prose is beautifully direct, and the odd links Pryor makes in the second section are not necessarily logical, but still connect up perfectly well.

Unfortunately, I found the bulk of Murmur, which sits between these two bits, virtually unreadable. Eaves tries to convey what the inner workings of Turing’s mind might actually have been like while he was undergoing hormone treatment and descending into an altered state, and the results are highly irritating. Most of the novel consists of either dream sequences or letters that are ostensibly addressed to a person but are really letters to the self – two of the devices I most hate in fiction. As I also struggle with novels that are completely detached from reality, it’s no surprise that I didn’t get on with this. Even in this section, there are some beautiful passages, such as when Pryor recalls swimming in a lake with schoolfriend Christopher – but these are swiftly interrupted by another cluster of references, doublings, and psycho-analytical allusions.

I’ve been trying to work out why I find this kind of experimental literary fiction so offputting, as I’m certainly not averse to experimental literary fiction in general. There are a number of possible reasons. First, it strikes me, like a lot of postmodern literary criticism, as being more clever than wise; rather than striving to say things in the simplest way possible, it seems to delight in obtuseness. Unlike, for example, Anna Burns’s Milkman, the style isn’t working hard in service of what the writer wants to say but is getting in the way. Secondly, I think what really interests me in fiction is how humans respond to external and internal conflict, particularly if ethical, their complex relationships with other human beings, and how they think these through; when a narrator’s mind is this distanced from itself, there’s no such rational conflict, even if you could argue that conflict is still happening. Thirdly, I guess I’m unconvinced that this is the only way novels can push boundaries; it seems to me that within a more realist mode there are still hugely interesting things to be done, and I’d rather read books that are working in that direction.

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In contrast, I found Arnold Thomas Fanning’s Mind on Fire, a memoir of living with bipolar disorder, much more engaging than I’d expected, although his writing is more humdrum than Eaves’s. Fanning suffered severely from mania and depression for ten years, wrestling with his own delusions, and at his lowest point, spending a winter homeless on the streets of London. I think what worked for me about Mind on Fire is that Fanning is recounting it from a position of stability – apart from a brief, necessary section at the beginning, there’s no attempt to actually try and capture his state of mind on the page. This memoir gives the reader important insights into the experience of living with serious mental illness, and I also liked the way Fanning handled his account of his own childhood and adolescence in Ireland. While there are a number of factors that may have contributed to his poor mental health – the early death of his mother, a difficult and distant father – he doesn’t attempt to draw neat causal lines between the two, but simply presents what he remembers. Fanning’s honesty throughout the entirety of this memoir is courageous and creditable.

However, I still felt that this memoir could have had a greater impact if it had been structured differently. Like many memoirs of physical illness – Porochista Khakpour’s Sick comes to mind – Mind on Fire becomes inevitably repetitive, as Fanning continually presents himself to hospitals and becomes a psychiatric in-patient, is discharged, has a period of good health, and then starts to spiral into manic depression again. Moreover, the memoir ends rather abruptly, with only a few pages given over to Fanning’s recovery, and how he’s dealt with bipolar disorder long-term. It seemed to me that both these problems could have been solved if Fanning had compressed the period of his illness somewhat, and spent more time on the period after he ‘turned the corner’. Records of emails and letters, in particular, felt to me like Fanning was doing the very necessary work of piecing together this period in his life for himself, but I wasn’t sure that all this detail needed to be in his published narrative. A great resource for those who want to learn more about bipolar disorder, or perhaps for those living with it themselves, but not an outstanding memoir.

Thanks to Rebecca for passing on her copy of this book.