Dark Chapters

Dark-Chapter-by-Winnie-M-Li-_-Legend-PressWinnie M. Li’s semi-fictionalised memoir, Dark Chapter, has received a fair amount of attention already, winning the Not the Booker Prize, and I decided that I should definitely find time for it after reading Naomi’s review on The Writes of Woman. Dark Chapter is a hard read because of its subject matter. Its protagonist, Vivian, is brutally raped and assaulted by a 15-year-old Irish Traveller, Johnny, while out walking near Belfast. The novel, switching between the points of view of Vivian and Johnny, tells the story of the rape and its aftermath.

I’ve written before about tackling rape in fiction, but Dark Chapter, of course, can’t quite be spoken about in this way because it draws from Li’s actual experience. Therefore, there are a number of things in Dark Chapter that, while perhaps limiting its critique of rape culture, cannot be held up as ‘criticisms’ of the story’s choices because this is the way it actually happened. Most obviously, we should all know that rape by a stranger is relatively rare; most women (and men) know their attacker before they are raped. Furthermore, if this were a straightforward novel, I would find Johnny’s isolation from his community (and the fact that his community is a relatively isolated and stigmatised group in its own right) a little troubling. The media likes to portray rapists as monsters, but what, of course, is so structurally bad about rape is the fact that it is so often committed by supposedly ‘ordinary’ men like Brock Turner – and the many, many Brock Turners out there who have either already got away with sexual violence or haven’t been put in the position yet where they are able to commit it. Dark Chapter partly addresses this by including Johnny’s point of view as well as Vivian’s, not to elicit the reader’s sympathy or to make excuses for him but to highlight his incomprehension of what he has done, how myths such as ‘girls always want it’ or ‘they always say yes when they mean no’ have infected his psyche. Nevertheless, because Johnny is an outcast, it’s relatively easier for readers to see him as an aberration rather than as a product of his culture. Again, I want to emphasise that this is not something that Dark Chapter does wrong – it’s a result of its status as both a memoir and a novel – and writing about one’s own experience of rape is a politically significant act in itself, even if that experience was not typical.

And it’s because Dark Chapter draws from Li’s actual experience that it does what it does do so well. While the central material of this story – the rape scene itself, Vivian’s trauma over reporting the incident to the police and undergoing a physical examination, the terrible ceremony of a rape trial – is all vividly written and deeply upsetting to read, it’s in the small details where Li really conveys both the horror and the frustration of Vivian’s ordeal. Immediately afterwards, she can barely take it in: ‘What about her hike? And why shouldn’t she just continue?… She still has enough time to cover the what… nine miles left in the trail… [But] in her rational mind, she knows she should get medical attention. As much as she wants to, she can’t escape what’s just happened.’ As she tries to tell people what has happened, she finds herself having to do the emotional labour of managing their emotions when she’s the one who deserves support; when she answers a work email ‘I’m sorry, but over the weekend I was assaulted and raped’ she ‘wonders if she should have sugar-coated that response. But why? It’s the truth. It wasn’t an accident. Someone raped her.’ Later, her friends convince her that she shouldn’t break the news in that way, but I was left thinking: why not? Surely she can break the news in whatever way she wants? It’s these insidious ways in which society shifts the burden of the rape on to the victim long after the actual assault is over that Li writes about so painfully well.

(As an aside, in the sections of the book that cover the period before the rape, Vivian remembers a number of ‘near-misses’ – although it’s hard to tell how near or far they were – where she was travelling alone and might have been assaulted, but wasn’t. This both highlights how living in a rape culture restricts women’s freedom of movement and is eerily reminiscent of Maggie O’Farrell’s haunting memoir I Am, I Am, I Amwhere she recounts a sequence of her own near-death experiences, including one narrowly-escaped rape and murder).

Dark Chapter is also unique because while it’s hard not to read Vivian’s sections as a memoir, Johnny’s sections are, of course, imagined. And while I think it’s important that they were there, I found him a bit of a patchwork of a character. At times, it feels as if he’s just a living embodiment of a number of rape myths, not all of which work coherently together – it’s not clear, for example, whether he really believes that women all secretly want sex or whether he enjoys exerting power over his victims (he’s a serial assaulter). Obviously, the answer to this might be ‘both’, and plausibly so, but I thought a bit more could have been done to make him hang together. I can’t imagine how hard this must have been to write, so again, phrasing this as a criticism feels out of place, but this imbalance in the book, again, results from the way in which it sits between fact and fiction. Nevertheless, this is a hugely important read, and despite the difficult subject-matter, one that I also found almost impossible to put down.

36339726Briefly, I also finished Kelly Luce’s debut novel, Pull Me Under, recently. While this felt refreshingly light after Dark Chapter, it also goes to some pretty dark places. Our protagonist, Rio, who is half-Japanese, killed a classmate with a letter-opener when she was a twelve-year-old at school in Japan, and, now an adult, has started a new life in the US under a different name. Neither her husband or her daughter – who is now twelve herself – know about her past. When Rio’s estranged father dies, she’s drawn back to Japan to attend his funeral, and starts trying to decipher a mysterious note he left her (she’s forgotten how to read kanji after all her years away). This all seems to have the makings of a fairly familar kind of literary thriller, but one of the good things about Pull Me Under is that its twists, while not dramatic, are consistently surprising. It ends up taking in ultra-marathons, pilgrimages, traditional Japanese legal exams, the joys of onigiri (especially the sour plum flavour) and how difficult it is to get vomit out of a tatami mat. It doesn’t quite fit neatly alongside other novels, and I didn’t find it surprising that the UK edition was published by a small independent press (Daunt Books). I suspect that not a lot of people will come across this, at least in the UK, but it deserves attention.

Coming up: I’ll be taking a break from this blog for the holidays, but after Christmas, I’ll be doing my usual Top Ten Books of 2017, checking out how I did with my 2017 reading goals, and – because I’ve just read so many wonderful books this year – probably writing an extra round-up of all the titles that didn’t quite make the Top Ten cut. I’m really looking forward to reading everybody else’s 2017 round-ups as well – and I hope you all have a relaxing break.


‘He has no right to keep me from my own’

35491487Having struggled with both of the other novels by Kamila Shamsie I’ve read, A God in Every Stone and Burnt Shadowsand having heard that Home Fire suffered from the same faults, I almost didn’t pick up this novel. But I’m so glad I did. In the past, I’ve struggled with Shamsie’s flat characterisation and familiar themes, and haven’t found her writing especially interesting. Funnily enough, I can’t say that any of these faults are entirely absent from Home Fire – but it somehow blossoms in a way that neither of its two predecessors did, perhaps partly because it’s so contemporary. Home Fire starts off with Isma, a young British Muslim woman who’s just undergone the ordeal of being held at security for so long that she’s missed her flight to the US. Isma is going to start a PhD in Massachusetts after years of bringing up her two orphaned siblings, Parvaiz and Aneeka. We immediately see that her relationship with Aneeka is not just loving and protective, but mutually close, as the sisters’ differences enable them to support each other through a world that is so frequently hostile. Before Isma heads off to the airport, they practice the anticipated interrogation together:

‘ “You know you don’t have to be so compliant about everything,” Aneeka had said during the role playing… “For instance, if they ask you about the Queen, just say, ‘As an Asian I have to admire her colour palette.'”… Instead, Isma had responded, “I greatly admire Her Majesty’s commitment to her role.” But there had been comfort in hearing her sister’s alternative answers in her head, her Ha! of triumph when the official asked a question she’d anticipated and that Isma had dismissed, such as the Great British Bake Off one.’

However, we realise immediately that Isma and Aneeka’s brother Parvaiz is missing, and both sisters are angry at him; neither have spoken to him in months. Shortly after, we find out that Parvaiz has been recruited by ISIS and has joined its media division in Syria, following in the footsteps of his father, a jihadi who died after being tortured in Afghanistan – not quite reaching Guantanamo Bay.

Both Isma and Aneeka are compelling characters, adopting very different ways of handling their ethnicity, their faith, and their sexuality, but never falling into the schematic strokes that, for me, often dogged Shamsie’s characterisation in her earlier novels. Isma is ambitious and likeably grave, but while the world takes her as a stern advocate for the rights of Muslims and of hijabi, she struggles with the simple feeling of having a crush, of wanting to be liked in the same way as she likes somebody else. She also gets the best line of the novel. In Amherst, Isma meets Eamonn, the son of infamous Conservative Home Secretary, Karamat Lone, who in order to establish his own credentials as a Muslim in government, has cultivated a reputation for being ‘strong on security’, arguing that British Muslim communities need to learn to integrate better and eroding the human rights of British citizens engaging in terrorist organisations abroad.  Isma knows who Eamonn is, and realises that the pride he takes in being his father’s son, and wanting to live up to that legacy, makes it hard for him to hear any criticism of Karamat. The same kind of feelings, after all, have driven her brother to Syria; the desire to be seen as a man in his own right. ‘[Fathers] are our guides into manhood,’ Eamonn tells her. ‘She’d never really understood this,’ Isma thinks. ‘For girls, becoming women was inevitability; for boys, becoming men was ambition.’

Aneeka is a high-flyer in her own right, starting a law degree, and sharply aware of how to navigate as a Muslim woman in London and on the internet. She stays over with boyfriends but makes sure to find time for daily prayers, telling one lover when he asks her ‘What were you praying for?’:Prayer isn’t about transaction, Mr Capitalist. It’s about starting the day right.’ And as we see throughout the course of the novel, she can be manipulative and resourceful when she needs to be. But Home Fire is split into five sections, each narrated by a different character: Isma, Aneeka, Parvaiz, Eamonn and Karamat. And the two young men, in particular, do revert slightly to stereotype in contrast to the richness of the female cast. Their relationships with their own race and religion are much more straightforward, and they act as foils to each other. Eamonn is utterly determined to reject his Muslim heritage: ‘It was London’s Muslim population who had turned their backs on Karamat Lone and voted him out… All because he expressed a completely enlightened preference for the conventions of a church over those of a mosque, and spoke of the need for British Muslims to lift themselves out of the Dark Ages if they wanted the rest of the nation to treat them with respect.’ He’s forced to question those beliefs, but this doesn’t noticeably deepen him as a character. Meanwhile, Parvaiz is driven to go to Syria for predictable reasons and changes his mind in a predictable way, longing to return to his safe multicultural British life:  Mo Farah at the Olympics, Aunty Naseem’s commemorative cake tin from the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. London. Home.‘ Karamat is a more satisfying narrator, although his own story is somewhat overshadowed by the horrifyingly gripping events of the end of the novel.

Home Fire left me genuinely upset about what happens to the small family we are introduced to at its beginning  – something that might seem obvious, given the violence of its events and the fact that it’s loosely based on the Greek tragedy Antigone, but in fact it’s rare for books to leave me with this kind of emotional legacy. I’m still thinking about it – and telling other people about it – more than a week later. Shamsie’s writing can still be workmanlike, her characterisation is not consistently complex, and she’s still not saying anything especially new in the big themes of this novel, although one could argue that a lot of the significance is in the detail – how Isma cares how her hair looks despite wearing a headscarf, how Aneeka is wary of Googling While Muslim, how Parvaiz lost some photographs of his father as a child because they were confiscated by Special Branch investigators. It’s made me wonder if it’s the weight of historical settings that dragged down her last two books, I now want to turn to one of her earlier contemporary novels. But in short, it’s not surprising this was longlisted for the Booker, and tipped as a likely candidate for the shortlist, even though it didn’t make it there. It’s a remorseless, intelligent, and utterly gripping read.

Reading round-up, November 2017

Recently, I’ve been reading quite a few proofs of novels that won’t be released until 2018, which makes keeping up with this blog difficult as I try to put up my full reviews as close to the publication date as possible, although you can read my brief thoughts on Goodreads if you’re interested! My two favourites so far have both received a good deal of advance hype – Imogen Hermes Gowar’s The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock (January 2018) and A.J. Pearce’s Dear Mrs Bird (April 2018). They’re very different novels, but it was a joy to discover that, unusually, the hype was justified in both cases, and I’d definitely keep an eye out for them.

8255951Otherwise, I’ve continued to crack on with my 20 Books of Summer, even though summer itself is a distant memory, and have just finished #17, Swallow by Sefi Atta. I picked this book in the first place after reading Tolita’s review, as I’d never heard of Atta before. It turns out she’s an established and celebrated Nigerian writer, who won the Wole Soynika Prize for Literature in Africa in 2006 and the Noma Award for Publishing in Africa in 2009. Swallow (published in 2010) comes covered in praise from such writers as Leila Aboulela and Nnedi Okorafor. It focuses on the lives of two twenty-something housemates living in Lagos and working at the same bank, Rose and Tolani, who narrates the novel. The novel is largely plotless, but not without incident, as Tolani faces sexual harassment at work, tries to cajole her reluctant boyfriend into marriage, is horrified when one of her neighbour’s children appears to have drowned in their septic tank, and invests her small amount of savings in an unscrupulous scheme. Interspersed with Tolani’s story is the story of her mother, Arike, growing up in rural Nigeria and rebelling against community expectations by refusing to marry and riding to market on a Vespa. Swallow explores the tensions Tolani feels as she considers the very different lives she might live – having migrated to urban Lagos, she is both drawn back to, and repelled, by her rural roots, which she scorns as being infected by primitive ‘tribalism’. She is equally scathing about what she calls ‘Andrews’, after a government advert, Nigerians who travel to other countries in search of a better life. ‘They were not good citizens like those of us who stayed and suffered,’ she reflects ironically. Yet, not so very long afterwards, Tolani is tempted by the idea of becoming a drug mule alongside Rose, swallowing a condom packed with cocaine and travelling to England – not only to earn more than her monthly salary in one go, it’s implied, but to see what else is out there.

Swallow might prove frustrating to many readers because of its lack of narrative drive, and it is lopsidedly structured; the introduction of the drug mule plot, from which the novel takes its title, comes very late in the day, and as a result, the first half meanders and the conclusion feels rushed. Yet the strengths of Atta’s writing carried me along anyway. Tolani’s relationship with Rose, who is irreverent, stubborn and relentlessly reckless, is beautifully-drawn, and Tolani herself refuses to fade into the familiar role of the less confident friend but takes up causes of her own, most notably her insistence on reporting the sexual assault she experiences at her workplace, despite receiving no support from anybody around her. Her relationship with her mother remains, frustratingly, largely off-screen, despite an early, off-hand comment that she has always wondered if she was actually her father’s daughter, but Arike’s story is compelling in its own right, and Atta convincingly shows us what Tolani might have inherited from her mother even though the two do not appear together until the very end of the novel. Her writing is nuanced and complex, and I’m now very interested to read some of her other work (her other two novels A Bit of Difference and Everything Good Will Come were published in 2013 and 2005 respectively, and she also published a collection of short stories, News From Home, in 2010). I’m surprised that her work hasn’t received more critical attention in the UK.

A note: I’m not impressed by the jacketing of this novel by Interlink Books, a US publisher. The woman on the cover, while obviously chosen to appear ‘non-white’, fits Western beauty standards closely, with her light skin and straight, flowing hair. Tolani is explicit in the novel that her hair is ‘untameable‘ and forms an afro if she lets it grow out at all. She deliberately shuns salons where she might have it straightened or add hair extensions. While I’m not sure if this was actually stated, I also imagined her as dark-skinned. I’m not sure why we couldn’t see somebody on the cover who looks more like our narrator, and find this dismaying given how few dark-skinned black women with natural hair we see depicted in the media.

madame-zero-by-sarah-halThis month, I also read Sarah Hall’s new collection of short stories, Madame Zero. I’m a longstanding Sarah Hall fan and I think I’ve read everything she’s written, so I was obviously going to enjoy this. However, it didn’t bowl me over quite as much as her previous collection, The Beautiful Indifference, which was one of my top ten books of 2011. The two flagship stories here are ‘Mrs Fox’, which won the BBC National Short Story Award in 2013, and ‘Evie’, which was shortlisted for the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award, also in 2013. Both stories are about the visceral and – given contemporary patriarchal norms – disturbing reality of female sexuality, and both work very well. And yet both seemed to me to be oddly familiar. Other stories in the collection – ‘One in Four’ and ‘Later, His Ghost’ – pick up on other favoured Hall themes, exploring dystopian futures, and again, I felt a sense of deja vu. Funnily enough, it was an odd little story that I didn’t like at all at first, ‘Goodnight Nobody’, that ended up working its way under my skin, as it follows a lonely young girl, Jem, as she observes her mortician mother, ‘Mumm-Rah’, who takes on the status of a minor deity in the telling. ‘Case Study 2’, which deals with a psychiatrist treating an abused boy, fulfils Hall’s own strictures for the short story, refusing to wrap anything up neatly, so it lingers long after it ends. But then ‘Theatre 6’, about doctors operating in a world where abortion is outlawed, felt a bit sub Margaret Atwood, and ‘Luxury Hour’, about a new mother escaping to the swimming pool, reminded me a bit of Helen Simpson’s painfully obvious stories about motherhood, although Hall is a far better writer and this is a far better story. In short, it’s by Hall, so of course it’s worth a read, but I’d try The Beautiful Indifference first (or if you fancy a novel, The Carhullan Army).

51qjb-a2DuL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Other books worth mentioning: Emily Fridland’s Booker-shortlisted The History of Wolves, which I thought was good, but not outstanding – as with Hall’s stories, there was a thread of familiarity in this narrative of an isolated teenager who involves herself with the affairs of an abusive family. I couldn’t help loving Shonda Rhimes’s messy, stream-of-consciousness quasi self-help book, Year of Yeswhich I read for the all-female Newcastle-based book group I’ve just joined, Sisters Read the World, which focuses on reading books by writers of colour. Up next, I’m reading Pull Me Under by Kelly Luce, and am going to try Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie, which has received mixed reviews. Having been pretty hesitant about Shamsie’s earlier novels, I’ll be interested to see if this one can change my mind.

‘I wonder, can you see my heart?’

51kcJ2-oQCL._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_Jen Campbell’s debut collection of short stories, The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night, picks up on what is beginning to feel like quite a familiar theme in fiction, albeit one that’s brilliant if done right: either full on folktale retellings or folktale imagery and metaphor woven into a modern setting. The blurb emphasises this aspect of the collection, promising ‘spirits in jam-jars, mini-apocalypses, animal hearts… a coffin hotel’, but, in the end, it was the stories that stuck closest to the real world that felt most compelling.

Campbell’s collection is full of fascinating ideas, but some of her stories are simply too short to allow them to take off.  ‘Plum Pie. Zombie Green. Yellow Bee. Purple Monster’ starts to play with the idea of young girls who grow flowers and vines from their skin and who are exploited for these growths, and almost pulls off an emotionally resonant last line, but there just isn’t enough space for this to all come together. ‘Human Satellites’ is more of a string of musings, and most frustratingly of all, ‘Little Deaths’ introduces the tantalising spirits-in-jam-jars concept, with great lines such as ‘Ghosts in jars light up the street on Saturday mornings, swinging from tarpaulin, ready to be sold as medicine and prayers’, but again, ends before it can really get going. The brevity of many of these pieces means they can never achieve the depth of other short speculative fictions such as Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove or Kirsty Logan’s The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales (with which The Beginning of the World…) shares more than a few satisfying similarities.

In other, longer, stories, Campbell often relies on mini-retellings of folk tales, or on one occasion, myths, in the middle of her own narrative, which also didn’t work for me. Despite its popularity, I think using folktale in modern fiction is a tremendously difficult thing to pull off, and tends to work best when a writer abandons the source material and tells a story of her own that draws from the resonance of these older fictions – although closer retellings are possible if the writer is really brilliant (see the collected works of Robin McKinley, especially Deerskin and Rose Daughter). In ‘Animals’, a gory story about borrowed hearts, the fragments of story interspersed with facts and a quick rehearsal of ‘The Wild Swans’ made the whole thing feel choppy and laboured. Similarly, the story of Pandora’s Box popping up in the otherwise nicely eerie ‘Aunt Libby’s Coffin Hotel’ didn’t add anything for me.

And yet, there are a couple of stories here that are really good, and for me, they were always the ones with no explicit speculative element, even though I love speculative fiction. ‘Margaret and Mary and the End of the World’ meditates beautifully on the Annunciation – the moment, captured by so many painters, when Mary learns she is pregnant with Jesus – while exploring the feelings of a fourteen-year-old girl who had to give her own baby up for adoption. ‘Pebbles’ does a great deal in a very short space as it follows a young lesbian meditating on the various sources of hatred in the world. And my absolute favourite, ‘Bright White Hearts’, tries something similar to ‘Animals’ by interpersing story and fact, but pulls it off far better. It’s narrated by a woman working at an aquarium who’s fallen in love with the resident mermaid, Melissa, who performs  in a sequinned tail and ‘cheap bubblegum bra’, and who is also fascinated by the sea creatures that surround her. ‘Crocodile icefish live in the depths of Antarctica. Swimming stars with transparent blood. They have no haemoglobin or myoglobin so, beneath their jelly skin, you can see them pulsing. Musical fish, beating, with bright, white hearts.’ ‘Bright White Hearts’ also thinks about scars, ‘freaks’ and deformity as it challenges what is ‘normal’. It’s these wonderful pieces that make me keen to see what Campbell does next.

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

Reading round-up, autumn 2017

Starting a new job, moving to a new place, signing the contract for my first academic book… all these things haven’t stopped me reading, but they haven’t given me much time to write about what I’ve read. Here’s some mini-reviews.

SHELTERElle at Elle Thinks has already written very well about Sarah Franklin’s debut historical novel Shelter, and I pretty much agree with her thoughts. Shelter has a great premise; Connie ends up as a ‘lumberjill’ in the New Forest in 1944 after she flees London and her past. As she helps with timber production for the war effort, she meets Seppe, an Italian prisoner of war who has secrets of his own to hide. For Connie, the forest is a temporary stopping-point; for Seppe, it’s a necessary refuge. Structurally, the novel is extremely effective, and it’s genuinely touching, but it’s let down by the quality of its prose. Seppe’s third-person narrative suffers from a touch of melodrama and repetition, and I struggled to find him entirely convincing as a character partly because of passages like this, where he’s remembering how he was bullied by a fellow soldier, Fredo, when they were deployed together in the African desert:

It will only end, Seppe thinks, with death or capture… How blissful would be the release, the escape from Fredo, from this senseless war. He draws himself in every time he feels Fredo is nearby, tenses for the next slight. The very act of diminishing himself breeds self-loathing and resentment. Resentment of his father, whose sickening beliefs obscured love for his family; of his mother for compelling him into this senseless war; of Fredo.’

Connie, in contrast, is a much more compelling character, partly because her narration tends to omit these long passages of introspection where everything she’s thinking is spelt out. She comes alive in the very first pages of the novel, when after struggling with classroom work, she finds out that she’s good at handling a saw:

‘Frank nodded across at Connie. “Nice work there.” She looked around but he really did mean her. Nobody had ever praised her for work before! She puffed out, just a little.’

Connie’s loss of her past, and her grief, are handled much more subtly than Seppe’s torments, and she’s the more convincing for it. Nevertheless, I found that much of her jaunty Cockney prose jarred, and seemed put on, rather than authentic: ‘With a bit of luck she’d maybe wangle a bath then get under the bedcovers. Maybe her billet would be as cushy as that last place.’ Overall, Shelter is strong on concept and characterisation but let down by its writing; it could also be much shorter without losing its heart.

34536632Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s (also largely historical) debut Harmless Like You certainly can’t be faulted on a line-by-line basis. It’s impeccably and beautifully written without the prose ever becoming obtrusive, except perhaps in the first few pages (an odd pattern I’ve noticed in novels – is it my fault, because I’m still getting into the novel, or is it the writer trying a little too hard to flashily grab the reader’s attention?) The story kicks off when Jay is meeting his estranged mother, Yuki, in Berlin in 2016 for the first time since he was a toddler, then flashes back to 1968, when Yuki is a Japanese teenager in New York, feeling utterly invisible to the world. Buchanan writes about this kind of social isolation very well; ‘On TV, there was always a popular gang and an unpopular gang. This mystified Yuki. How can you be unpopular in a gang? When she was in elementary school, girls had called her Yucky Yuki, but now they didn’t bother speaking to her.’ But soon enough, Yuki meets Odile, who is her own age but seems to inhabit an impossibly glamorous world, and is pulled into a completely different way of living, although she continues to hang onto her own dreams of becoming an artist.

I found Harmless Like You both absorbing and moving. There’s so much that Buchanan gets exactly right. Yuki’s fundamental conviction as a young adult that nobody could ever love her, and how that plays out during the rest of her life, is explored without any sentimentality. Yuki – especially during the period of her life when she suffers through an abusive relationship – is certainly worthy of sympathy, but at the same time, her lack of self-worth means that she has no space in her head to think about other people, and that she ends up hurting them precisely because she believes she’s not significant enough to hurt anybody. Her abandoned friendship with Odile is a case in point; it’s obvious to the reader that Yuki could never have imagined that Odile would mind her absence, and yet of course she does. She frequently acts without thought for others as if out of surprise that she can actually make a mark on the world, which makes her final decision – when she really does understand what she’s giving up – even more heartbreaking. As the title indicates, it’s precisely because she’s seen as so harmless that she can do such harm.

While Yuki is a fascinating character, I did find her passivity frustrating. Nevertheless, I’ve always been wary of the creative writing axiom that protagonists in novels must be active, not least because it seems to stop writers from exploring the structural constraints of race, gender, sexuality and disability, among others. As a Japanese woman living in first the US and then in Europe, Yuki is clearly subject to more restrictions than most. At one point, after visiting one of her exhibitions, Jay recognises this: ‘It mentioned that she had lived in the States for a while, at a time when it was almost impossible to succeed as a woman or or a person of colour… The plaque seemed to applaud her for this effort, for  this beating against closed doors. I knew as well as anyone how locked those rooms were… My mother’s efforts struck me only as an act of insane hubris’. Although on the whole this is a wonderful debut, I felt that I wanted to see more of this later Yuki, rather than the younger and less visible version.

1469173101329Finally, I have to say something about Maxine Beneba Clarke’s extraordinary memoir The Hate Race, which details her experiences growing up as a black girl in Australia. Clarke’s parents were originally born in the West Indies, but met in Britain then moved to Australia, following the advice of a friend, before having children. In short, this memoir details incident after incident of institutional racism visited upon Clarke as a child and adolescent, from being told that she can’t have been born in Australia to having to learn bowdlerised history about the ‘civilising’ of Aboriginal Australians. It’s awful to read and yet gripping; Clarke writes so well. And while this book is obviously about race, it’s also about childhood. Most obviously, a number of the racist incidents that Clarke experiences only happen to her, in precisely that way, because she is a child; her parents also experience racism, but it is coded very differently. Clarke is abused so often by her peers because most of the adults in her life do not take childhood bullying seriously; there’s no sense that children are able to visit significant harm upon each other. She’s also abused by her teachers because they hold power over her. Because of this, I found it strongly reminiscent of my own childhood experiences in some ways, although obviously, as a white child, I never experienced this kind of structural oppression, which is so crushing precisely because it relates to a wider network of racist belief in the world outside school, as Clarke makes plain.

Clarke also considers how she herself was co-opted into these power games when she remembers verbally attacking an Indian/Australian girl in her school, ‘Bhagita’ (all names in the memoir are changed) with racist taunts, and the approval she received from her classmates for doing so. While race is obviously prominent here, most children will probably remember a similar incident of victimising a peer in order to protect their own position, wherever they were in the pecking order at school. (I was always at the very bottom and yet I certainly did it, although in the very white school I was attending at the time, race didn’t come into play). In summary, Clarke suffers because of her race; being the ‘black girl’; because her skin colour is the only thing her classmates notice about her; but she is also spotlighted for this particular kind of suffering because she is a child at school. A must read.

I received free proof copies of Shelter and Harmless Like You from the publishers for review, while The Hate Race is #16 of my long-overdue 20 Books of Summer!

A re-reading season

DSC_0013I’ve decided that for autumn and winter 2017, I’m only going to read books that I already own or have already read. I’m hoping this will allow me to do more re-reading, but given the length of the list of books I own and haven’t read (below), I’m not sure how much I’ll get to in the near future…

Why? I really value re-reading. Even putting aside the question of whether you need to re-read certain books to fully understand them, I find that when I’m re-reading, the pressure is off; I feel I can go as slow or as fast as I like, and I don’t have to think all the time about how much I’m enjoying the book or what I should say in my review. I stop worrying so much about the literaryness or otherwise of the novel I’m reading. It’s a way of reading that I discovered in my late teens, and it’s something I’d like to return to.


TBR Pile

The Hate Race: Maxine Beneba Clarke

Hild: Nicola Griffiths

Swallow: Sefi Atta

Mrs Dalloway: Virginia Woolf

A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms [short stories]: George R. R. Martin

The Many Days [poetry]: Norman MacCaig

Harmless Like You: Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

The Things I Would Tell You [short pieces] ed. Sabrina Mahfouz

The Start of Something [short stories]: Stuart Dybek

The Vegetarian: Han Kang

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics [non-fiction]: Carlo Rovelli

Our Endless Numbered Days: Claire Fuller

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock: Imogen Hermes Gowar

Lincoln in the Bardo: George Saunders



Holiday reading in the Outer Hebrides, September 2017

9781784700133I’ve been offline for the past fortnight while I travelled around the Outer Hebrides with a friend – one of my aunts has recently moved to Stornoway, so we stayed with her for a few days before travelling down the chain of islands, ending up in Barra. As I’m about to move to Newcastle to start my new job as assistant professor of British history at Durham University, posts for the rest of the month will likely be sporadic, so I thought I’d quickly write something about the novels I read in the Hebrides. First up was Kirsty Logan’s The Gracekeepers, #13 of my 20 Books of Summer, which turned out to be eerily appropriate for journeying from island to island. Not only is it set in a flooded world whose inhabitants navigate by boat, one of the main characters is called Callanish, a name that I suspect might be taken from the Callanish standing stones on Lewis, the largest island on the Outer Hebrides.


With the evidence at the Callanish stones.

Callanish is a gracekeeper, living on an isolated island and tasked with tending the cages of the graces, a flock of small birds that form part of the mourning ritual of her people. Interspersed with her story is that of another young woman, North, who performs with her bear in a travelling circus whose members despise their ‘dampling’ audiences who can only live on the land. The tension between land and sea dwellers is central to The Gracekeepers, as are themes of death and grief, not only for those who have passed away but for lives that we might have lived. Logan handles the intertwining of folktale and fiction far better than the majority of writers who’ve attempted it (see: Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child and Jess Richards’s Snake Ropes). She clearly understands how folktales work and how to use them. It’s very difficult to deliberately discard the more specific, logical and detailed worldbuilding of high fantasy without becoming annoyingly mystical and vague, but Logan pulls it off perfectly. I’d be keen to read her next novel in any case, but then I found out THIS was the blurb:

‘My fourth book, The Gloaming, will be published by Harvill Secker in May 2018. It’s a queer mermaid love story set on a remote island that slowly turns its inhabitants to stone.’ (http://www.kirstylogan.com)


200px-Mieville_Embassytown_2011_UKThe next novel I read on the Hebrides was equally strange, although in a very different and (for me) less satisfying way. I chose China Mieville’s Embassytown as #14 of my 20 Books of Summer because I’ve been trying to read more SF lately, and I was intrigued by his genre-crossing works and all the accolades they’ve received. Embassytown is certainly both thought-provoking and incredibly imaginative. Set in the far future, it’s narrated by Avice Benner Cho, an ‘immerser’ who is able to travel long distances between planets and stars through the ‘immer’ without having to remain unconscious, as normal humans do. (This fascinating idea is, sadly, pretty irrelevant to the rest of the narrative, which seemed like slightly clumsy storytelling). Instead, the action is firmly confined to a single settlement that borders the world of the Ariekei, an alien race who communicate through Language. Unlike other alien tongues, Language is almost impossible for humans to speak; they can only talk to the Ariekei through the use of Ambassadors, pairs of human clones who can mimic the way the Ariekei speak through their two mouths. More significantly, however, the Ariekei cannot lie: Language only allows them to mention things that are explicitly true. This leads to trouble with similes, which must be enacted by specific humans – Avice being one of them – to be part of Language. (As a simile, Avice is honoured by the Ariekei as ‘the girl who was hurt in darkness and ate what was given to her’ and there’s some entertaining asides about other similes competing over how often they are used in Language and how important they are).

While I had to admire Mieville’s imagination and sheer intelligence, however, I didn’t find Embassytown especially captivating as a novel. Firstly, it has a protagonist problem: Avice, despite her interesting personal history, swiftly becomes little more than a window through which readers can view events. Secondly, this points to a larger problem with the plausibility of the novel from a human – rather than a linguistic or philosophical – perspective. Why have this colony gone to such huge (and, we discover, immoral) lengths to communicate with the Ariekei? Why is it seen as such an honour to be part of Language? What are the goals of these colonists outside their contacts with the Ariekei? Mieville depicts a society that responds very differently to its dealings with an alien race than we might expect. This, in itself, is not a problem – I love SF novels that speculate about how human nature might itself have changed over countless centuries – but he doesn’t lay the groundwork. The plight of the Ambassadors is another brilliant concept that is under-explored. In short: too much Ariekei, not enough human for me.

820669Toni Morrison’s Paradise was #15 of my 20 Books of Summer. I don’t want to say too much about it, because I suspect, like Beloved, it’s one of those novels that demands a re-read before I can really understand it. However, the sketch that I have of the novel is strong. The Convent stands near Ruby, an all-black town in Oklahoma founded by seven ‘founding families’ in 1950. The Convent has its own violent history: it began as a boarding school for Native American girls forcibly removed from their families. However, by the time Paradise opens, it has become a place of refuge for women fleeing the constraints of their patriarchal lives. Feeling threatened by the Convent, which they see as a place of sin and corruption, nine of the town’s men decide to take it upon themselves to destroy this female haven.

The book opens memorably with the lines: ‘They shoot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time.’ These lines signal the book’s concern with race, although not perhaps for the reasons you might think. The race of a number of the women in the Convent is never made clear, and so it is not obviously evident who the white victim is. This leaves the reader guessing throughout the novel – who is the first to die? – then questioning themselves – why does it matter so much which of the women is white? More overtly, Morrison describes how the desire of the founding fathers to keep the town purely black, or ‘8-rock’, has led to the shunning of mixed-race children. As the third of an informal ‘trilogy’ that began with Beloved and continued with Jazz (which I haven’t read), Paradise, then, picks up on the theme of race as a mechanism through which to impose separation and exert power.

11955643Finally, I’ve been rediscovering the joys of re-reading recently, as I’ve read Naomi Alderman’s Disobedience and Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding for a second time. Looking back through my book record, it’s obvious that I used to re-read books far more frequently than I do now. In 2011, about half the books I read were re-reads, whereas I’ve only re-read three books so far this year! I’d like to do something about this, as it’s clear that there are many books that need and deserve a second read. I certainly got far more out of Disobedience this time round than when I first read it as an undergraduate in 2008, for example. I’m playing with the idea of finally doing a ‘year of rereading’, which I’ve wanted to do for a long time, but haven’t had easy access to my full book collection. Once I move to Newcastle, I should be able to have most of my books with me, and so this will be a real possibility. What do others think? Do you re-read books more or less than you used to? Would you ever consider only rereading for a set amount of time, or are new novels just too tempting?