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.

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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!

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.

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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)

I’M IN.

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?

Reading round-up, August 2017

Another summer month, another month of progressing slowly with my 20 Books of Summer. However, I do have two more to write about, both of which I very much enjoyed.

51YP96I9jNL._SX336_BO1,204,203,200_Jenni Fagan’s second novel, The Sunlight Pilgrims, #11 of my 20 Books of Summer, is both beautifully-written and oddly disjointed (which, in this case, is not necessarily a bad thing). At least half of it is a sensitive exploration of a trans girl, Stella, coming to terms with her new identity, and dealing with the bullying she experiences from her classmates; the other half brings together a mismatched bunch of adults, including Stella’s mother Constance, as they face up to what looks like the dawn of a new ice age in the northern reaches of Scotland. Some reviewers have tried to neatly link the two – as the world falls apart, so do our set ideas of gender identity! – but I’m not sure this is the most sensible way to read the novel. Indeed, one of the things I liked best about The Sunlight Pilgrims was the way it told two kinds of story that you rarely see side by side; the coming-of-age narrative about being different from the other people around you in terms of race, gender or sexuality, and the survivalist tale about how humanity reacts when the end of the world seems imminent.

The novel suggests that, rather than falling back on our most primitive instincts, such an existential threat might be one way for humans to deal with entrenched prejudice. But, more interestingly, the book also gently reminds us that, even in the face of danger, life goes on; Stella’s struggles are not less important because they’re happening in a time of intense cold and starvation rather than during a period of greater luxury. The Sunlight Pilgrims hence brings a broader scope to the coming-of-age narrative than we usually see, while at the same time, illuminates the end-of-the-world nightmare by reminding us that this doesn’t happen at all at once, that things don’t stop mattering overnight, and that the end of the world doesn’t just happen to one kind of person. If I had a criticism of the novel, it would be that I struggled to engage with the sections written from the point of view of Dylan, Constance’s wannabe lover – but this may just have been because the rest of the book was so compelling. Thematically, this beautiful passage probably sums up the book’s message about bracing yourself for harsh times to come in the hope that you might see the spring: ‘I met someone once who told me you can drink energy from the sun, store it in your cells so you grow strong… She said there were sunlight pilgrims doing it all the time – it’s how they get through the dark, by stashing up as much light as they can’.

19161852N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, #12 of my 20 Books of Summer, also tells us about the end of the world, although in this case we’re firmly situated on a fantasy continent that expects to encounter a series of natural disasters during its turbulent ‘Seasons’, from fungal blights to earthquakes to floods. While the book claims to begin with the world’s end, most of it actually takes us back before this event to explain why it happened. It’s told in three female voices, two of which feel like classic high-fantasy narrators: the small child who exhibits strange powers and is forcibly taken from her home for training, and the young adept who wants to demonstrate her mastery of a magical craft. The third voice, memorably narrated in second person, is perhaps a little less familiar; a mother who has seen her child murdered in front of her by her husband, and is now searching for her husband and her other daughter, while trying to control her own ability to move the earth. I swiftly decided which of these narrators I related to most strongly, which makes the twist that comes near the end of the novel especially thought-provoking. I also enjoyed the inclusive setting of the novel; race and gender differences are marked, but do not seem to be set within a power hierarchy, although Jemisin thoughtfully explores a range of invented cultures.

In another coincidental echo of The Sunlight Pilgrims, The Fifth Season includes a couple of casually-mentioned trans characters, making it clear that the kind of prejudice Stella experiences is completely absent from this world. (This did make me ask the kind of world-building questions that I hope will be expanded upon in the rest of the trilogy; how does this world view gender? Biological sex differences are recognised by the designation of certain individuals as ‘Breeders’, but this isn’t a culturally universal practice on the continent. Sex and gender are clearly still linked by modes of dress and ‘typical’ body shapes – a trans woman is identified as a woman by another character because of the way she dresses, and takes medicine so she doesn’t grow facial hair – so there isn’t a complete separation between the two. All in all, it reads like a world that hasn’t abolished gender but certainly views it fairly flexibly, which is intriguing.) I don’t usually read high fantasy, but this worked well enough for me that I’ll be checking out the next two books in the series.

Upcoming: I’m currently reading Sarah Schmidt’s See What I Have Done, an historical novel based on the infamous Lizzie Borden; I’ve just bought Maggie O’Farrell’s memoir of a series of near-death experiences, I Am, I Am, I Am, which I’m looking forward to hugely; and I also want to launch into some more of my 20 Books of Summer. Top of my list is Nicola Griffith’s Hild, but because it looks like the kind of novel that will benefit from time and space, I’m saving it for my trip to the Outer Hebrides in mid-September. Next up, then, will be the two titles my local library has in stock: Kirsty Logan’s The Gracekeepers and Toni Morrison’s Paradise.

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!

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.

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).