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).

The kids aren’t all right

Probably one of my most unpopular literary opinions is that, despite being a very happy reader of both genre and literary fiction, I just don’t get the appeal of the new-style ‘YA’. Unlike the young adult books I read as a teenager, I see new YA as a genre rather than an age category, given its popularity among adults (55% of YA books are bought by over-18s) and the strong similarities between YA novels’ approaches, concerns and themes. I’m certainly willing to admit that I’m wrong, and of course there are fantastic novels that happen to have been marketed in the YA category. But so often, a YA novel will leave me feeling like it could have been a great book if only it hadn’t been YA. This is obviously nothing to do with any stereotypes about not wanting to read books that are marketed at teenagers. If anything, my concerns about the ageist ways in which young people are treated make me inherently suspicious about YA, which doesn’t always avoid playing into these ageist tropes (although adult novels definitely do this as well). I hate when adults sneer at books for children or at children’s writers, and I feel the same way about shallow criticisms directed at YA and at YA writers. And yet – unlike children’s fiction – I still rarely meet a YA book I really like.

25699515Two recent reads have partly confirmed my worries about YA, but also left me asking further questions about the definition of the genre. Orangeboy by Patrice Lawrence, #6 of my 20 Books of Summer, is certainly one of the best YA novels I’ve read in a long time. The opening chapter, where teenage Marlon heads to the fair with the girl of his dreams, Sonya, then suddenly realises that he’s sitting next to her dead body on a House of Horrors ride, is a miniature masterpiece in its own right. By the end of this handful of pages, we’re completely inside Marlon’s head, and although we want him to tell the police the truth about the drugs Sonya slipped him, we understand that, as a young black man, his wariness is well-founded. This sympathy is something that Lawrence tests to its limits throughout the novel, as Marlon makes a series of what we might see as increasingly stupid decisions, and yet she manages to keep us on our protagonist’s side. Even though the novel is partly about gang violence, she resists simple racial and class stereotypes about broken, uneducated families – Marlon’s mum is a librarian and his dad (dead from cancer) loved old science fiction novels so much that Marlon’s full name is Marlon Isaac Asimov Sunday. (“It could have been worse,” Marlon’s mum comments. “Your dad could have preferred Philip K. Dick!”) One thing that most adult novels desperately need to learn from YA is how to deal with diversity beyond the very simplistic, and Orangeboy makes a great start.

And yet. The novel, at 449 pages, is very long, especially for a YA novel, and especially for any kind of novel that has a relatively linear thriller-esque plot. Most of the time, it kept me turning the pages, but given the space Lawrence had, I felt she could have fleshed out a few sub-plots – Tish, Marlon’s best friend, for example, is a great character, and a great support to Marlon, but doesn’t really get to have a story of her own. Ultimately, while I enjoyed Orangeboy very much, I felt that its portrayal of a young man trying to make good but being sucked into the criminal underworld through family connections wasn’t a patch on Lisa McInerney’s The Glorious HeresiesPerhaps it’s unfair to expect it to be; perhaps YA novels have a different job to do. And yet, to me, that feels a little too much like pandering to the idea that teenagers need simpler stories told in simpler ways.

30141409In contrast, Shappi Khorsandi’s deeply disturbing Nina Is Not OK seems on the surface to suggest, as do Louise O’Neill’s lacerating Only Ever Yours and Asking for Itthat YA fiction might be able to go places where adult novels fear to tread. We meet seventeen-year-old Nina as she’s being kicked out of a club for giving a man a blow job in public. He and his friends follow her outside. The next thing she knows, she’s in a taxi heading home, throwing up spectacularly as she makes it to her front door. Waking up the next day, she tries to scrub off the remains of her awful night in the shower. But this is just the beginning of a sequence of drunken days and drunken nights – which lead to Nina’s eventual realisation that, like her beloved and dead dad, she is an alcoholic. However, saying that Nina Is Not OK is simply a book about alcoholism would be to undersell it, although it certainly deals very well with both the experience of addiction, and the suffering it inflicts upon an addict’s friends and family. It is, almost more than anything else, a book about sexual and emotional boundaries, and despite its darkness, it feels profoundly healthy in its insistence on the right of young women to set such boundaries and the ways in which they should do it. Some readers might find the second half of the novel, in which Nina goes on a full-blown AA journey of recovery, complete with a number of formal apologies to people that she has hurt, a little cringeworthy; I believe that by this point Nina Is Not OK has fully earnt these emotional scenes. It also portrays the utter heartbreak of losing an adolescent love – and the need to draw very careful lines in order to move on – better than any other novel I can currently remember.

Nina’s alcoholism has its victims, primarily her mum and stepdad, and her long-standing best friend Beth and Beth’s father, who take Nina in when her family move to Germany. Nevertheless, what is most upsetting about Nina Is Not OK is the sequence of men who prey on the obviously teenage, obviously ‘plastered’ Nina as she seeks out drinks in pubs and clubs. These men sit on a spectrum of bad behaviour but none of them is completely exempt from criticism, despite Nina’s attempt to group them into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ men later in the novel (a rare misstep, I think, from Khorsandi). There are, of course, men in the novel who don’t take advantage of Nina – mostly older men in positions of responsibility, but also the lovely Robbie, who fancies her and yet shows no signs of putting any pressure on her to do anything she doesn’t want to. And yet most of the men who go after her are like the middle-aged man she picks up in a pub, who has sex with her in a park and yet, when he finds out she is seventeen, texts her: ‘I am shocked by this. I got a daughter a bit younger than you. Please take better care of yrself. Treat yrself with more self-respect.‘ Apparently men’s sexual desire is a force of nature; it’s Nina’s job to stop it. Khorsandi handles Nina’s shifting beliefs around sex with great sensitivity, critiquing well-meaning but harmful interventions, such as her stepdad’s suggestion that some women put rape ‘down to experience’, but I thought this particular strand of sexual entitlement could have been more firmly dealt with.

Nina Is Not OK is not an easy read. But Khorsandi also makes sure that Nina has hope. The support she receives from Beth, from her other friend Trish and her mother Belle, from schoolteacher Isabelle, and eventually from Sapphire, allows her to carry on. In the midst of its otherwise bleak world, the book’s treatment of sexuality is also hugely refreshing. During the course of the novel, Nina realises she is bisexual, but she encounters very little biphobia or indeed much internalised self-hatred about this particular aspect of her sexuality. She is also surrounded by positive female gay role models – Belle and Isabelle are both lesbians. Khorsandi has explained this aspect of the novel with reference to her own confusion as a teenager about being attracted to women as well as men: ‘[it’s] my little way of being happy for this generation… because they will live in a world where it’s completely fine… it won’t be a big bloody issue… There are bits [in the book] that are my sort of cathartic moments that make up for my missed opportunities.’ Sadly, I think Khorsandi is a little over-optimistic about the current state of affairs for LGB teenagers. However, I don’t think there’s anything wrong at all in writing a novel where the protagonist happens to meet only with love and acceptance. Gay women need this kind of story as well – and Nina Is Not OK is already dark enough.

Nina Is Not OK is a great example of what YA fiction could be. The problem: it hasn’t been marketed as YA. Amazon have categorised it as contemporary women’s fiction, and/or humour and satire. Penguin list the book on their adult site, and recommend it to fans of Caitlin Moran and Lena Dunham. And while I’m no expert, the cover does not look to me like YA. While I see no reason why it shouldn’t be seen as YA, and fully expect that teenagers will read it, it does make me wonder what the book would look like if it had been aimed at a ‘teenage’ market. And that’s why, I suppose, despite its possibilities, YA still leaves me a little concerned.

20 Books of Summer, #4 and #5: House of Names by Colm Toibin and Waterland by Graham Swift

29344653Family, murder, revenge, history, the importance of names; death in a small, enclosed community. These seemingly very different books, written more than thirty years apart, turned out to reflect each other in surprising ways when I read them at the same time. Colm Toibin’s House of Names retells the well-known Ancient Greek story of the prelude to the siege of Troy, when Greek general Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia to the gods to gain a wind for his fleet to sail, and its postlude, when grieving mother Clytemnestra murders her husband and is in turn murdered by her remaining children, Orestes and Electra. Toibin’s version switches between three narrators, Clytemnestra, Orestes and Electra, and his writing is distinguished, as ever, by its simplicity. House of Names starts in strong form with the dense, disturbing narrative of Clytemnestra, which flashes back and forward between her present-day plans to kill Agamemnon and her memory of the days leading up to Iphigenia’s death. This is writing that needs to be read sentence by sentence, and repays the effort. The narrative becomes truly chilling when, as a last resort, Clytemnestra threatens to curse Agamemnon’s men if they murder her daughter: ‘”From my mother I received a set of words that she, in turn, had received from hers,” I said… “They cause the insides of all men within earshot to shrivel… If one of you lays a finger on my daughter or on me… I will invoke that curse. Unless you come behind us like a pack of dogs, I will speak the words of the curse.” She is then imprisoned under a rock before she can speak: ‘I was half-buried underground as my daughter died alone.’ This is a very familiar story, but Toibin manages to make us feel the horror of the sacrifice all over again through its impact on Iphigenia’s mother.

Unfortunately, for me, House of Names went downhill from there, although there’s another wonderfully creepy, if very short, section from Clytemnestra at the end that brings a bit of the otherness back into the narrative. Orestes’s third-person sections, which dominate the rest of the novel, are the absolute opposite of his mother’s narration; the prose is incredibly sparse, and I zipped through it in no time. There are particular bits of the story, such as when Orestes escapes an oppressive institution with a couple of other young men, or when they roam across the wilderness looking for shelter and getting into fights, that reminded me of dystopian YA fiction that draws from classical motifs, such as Pierce Brown’s Red Rising series, although Toibin’s writing is certainly better than Brown’s clunky prose. Electra’s first-person narration also failed to come alive for me, especially as I found myself struggling with the question of motivation; Electra knows her father killed her sister and that her mother killed her father in retaliation for this act, and yet she doesn’t seem to struggle at all with the decision to kill her mother until late in the day. Motivation is an interesting problem in retellings of Greek myth or legend, and I am certainly sympathetic to the stance that modern readers should not be expected to emphasise with the motivations of these characters, because the stories are serving a different purpose. I admired the gestures towards this in Madeline Miller’s excellent Trojan retelling The Song of Achilles, for example, where Achilles is both humanised, especially through his relationship with Patroclus, and utterly alien as he wrestles with his godlike destiny. However, because the utterly relatable Clytemnestra has been plonked in the middle of this version, this distorts the less sympathetic, deliberately stylised depictions of the other characters.

19689086088Graham Swift’s Waterland has the same feel of grand family tragedy, despite being narrated by an ordinary enough lock-keeper’s son turned history teacher, Tom Crick, who now lives in Greenwich but grew up beside the Great Ouse in East Anglia. Waterland is deservedly seen as one of the greatest novels about the England fenland, and Swift’s descriptions are spot on (as is the cover of the edition I read, pictured to the left). ‘No one needs telling that the land in that part of the world is flat,’ he writes in the novel’s opening pages. ‘It stretched away to the horizon, its uniform colour, peat-black, varied only by the crops that grew upon it… its uniform levelness broken only by the furrowed and dead-straight lines of ditches and drains, which, depending on the state of the sky and the angle of the sun, ran like silver, copper or golden wires across the fields, and which, when you stood and looked at them, made you shut one eye and fall prey to fruitless meditations on the laws of perspective.‘ Unfortunately, much of the writing in Waterland is less like this and more like this: ‘Once upon a time people believed in the end of the world… But that, of course, was superstition. The world grew up. It didn’t end… For a little while – it didn’t start so long ago, only a few generations ago – the world went through its revolutionary, progressive phase; and the world believed it would never end, it would go on getting better. But then the end of the world came back again, not as an idea or a belief but as something the world had manufactured for itself all the time it was growing up. Which only goes to show that if the end of the world didn’t exist it would be necessary to invent it.’ Waterland is one of those books that is about History and Time and Stories, expressing ideas that perhaps don’t sound too bad in small doses but which I found both familiar and pretentious by the time I was about halfway through (it very much reminded me of Barry Unsworth’s Losing Nelson in this respect).

As my post on Hilary Mantel’s Reith Lectures indicates (as well as the title of this blog) I love thinking about History and Time and Stories. So why didn’t I like Waterland? Simply, I didn’t feel these grand musings were emotionally earnt. As in House of Names, the most powerful and harrowing stories in Waterland are about the suffering of women, a thread that runs through the history of Tom Crick’s family. Sarah Atkinson, Tom’s maternal great-great grandmother, is ‘young and spirited’ when she marries fenland ale brewer Thomas in the early nineteenth century, but when he falsely accuses her of infidelity and strikes her across the face, she is left brain-damaged for her remaining fifty-four years of life, retaining ‘the paradoxical pose of one who keeps watch – but over nothing. She will not lose her beauty… Even in old age when her flesh has shrunk… she will preserve the sadly imperious demeanour of an exiled princess.‘ After Sarah’s death, it rains for two days straight, flooding the town, and the townspeople spread a rumour that Sarah has returned from the dead. Two generations on, Sarah’s grandson, Ernest, and his daughter, Helen (who is Tom Crick’s mother), begin an incestuous relationship after the burning down of the Atkinson’s brewery. Finally, Tom’s own wife, Mary, having endured an illegal abortion when she was a teenager which left her infertile, ends up in a mental health institution at the age of fifty-two after she steals somebody else’s baby and brings it home. And yet, despite these characters, women feel curiously absent from Waterland, brought in to build the background against which men’s stories are told. It’s one of those novels that makes me feel it was written with only male readers in mind, although it’s hard to put my finger on exactly why. Ultimately, I suppose, women are othered as distant, beautiful and insane figures; unable to prevent what happens to them; only able to be hurt. The death of a young boy that opens the novel similarly fades into the background, and we are left only with Tom’s own, theoretical, thoughts about the nature of History, Time and Stories, as if such ideas exist in a vacuum, or as if they can exonerate him from his own role in all this female pain.

Reading round-up, June 2017

June has been a wonderful month for books, if not so much for my 20 Books of Summer challenge – so far, I’ve only read two more from my list! Going to the fantastic Emerald Street literary festival tempted me to buy more books, and NetGalley and publishers have also been kind to me. So, as it’s impossible to review all I have read, but with the feeling that most of these books deserve at least a few lines…

The month started very well with William Boyd’s Restless. I’ve always struggled with literary spy thrillers, and was especially put off by Ian McEwan’s pretentious Sweet Tooth; Restless is the antidote. Boyd doesn’t try to do anything clever other than tell a cracking good story, which doesn’t stop Restless being an intelligent and incredibly well-structured novel led by two genuinely strong (not Strong Female Character strong) women.

9781509818402the wonder_6_jpg_265_400My next read was utterly different. I felt lukewarm about Emma Donoghue’s biggest hit, Room, but have long been a fan of her early novels on contemporary lesbian life (Stir-Fry, Hood) and her more recent historical novels (The Sealed Letter). Her latest, The Wonder, is absolutely compelling. Drawing from historical testimony, the novel, set in the mid-nineteenth century, considers the case of Anna O’Donnell, a young Irish girl who seems to be surviving on little more than a few tablespoons of water a day. Her poor Catholic family claim that she has been blessed by God, and Anna herself is profoundly religious. But when Lib, an English nurse who trained with Florence Nightingale in the Crimea, is employed to test the truth of the O’Donnells’ story, she finds far more beneath the surface – even if the secrets she uncovers are not the kind that she initially expected. Despite its simple plot-line, this story only becomes more gripping as it continues, driven by the acute contrast between Anna’s fading body and her steadfastly determined mind.

coverI was hugely looking forward to Helen Sedgwick’s The Comet Seekers, which was why I put it on my 20 Books of Summer list in the first place. Its fragmented narrative broadly follows two characters: the story of astronomer Róisín, who yearns to travel and moves between a series of postdocs, research projects and homes as she follows the stars, and chef François, who has grown up watching his mother Severine talk to her family ghosts. The novel opens arrestingly, as Róisín flees the Antarctic base where she is working and shelters in a small red tent against the rage of winter storms. The image of the red tent is one that is stitched throughout the novel, re-emerging at a number of crucial moments, and certainly I could almost see its glow against the white of the Antarctic sky. Unfortunately, I didn’t find that the novel lived up to its early promise. The threads become too fragmented, as we follow comets as far back as 1066 to meet early ancestors of the main characters; I loved Róisín’s refusal to settle, her rejection of motherhood, but still didn’t feel that I really got to know her; and the prose felt too diffused, too airy. This unkind and uncharitable review in the Scotsman calls this cadence ‘mimsical realism’, and while I don’t agree with much of what this reviewer says, I’d like a term for the kind of novel that is so removed from reality while not introducing fantasy or science-fiction tropes (I don’t think the ghosts count). There’s a trace of this in Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale, which I also sped through this month. It’s something that I do struggle to engage with, although Sedgwick’s writing is wonderful, and I’m still looking forward to seeing her tackle something more concrete in her next novel, The Growing Season.

9781408870570I also read one of my most anticipated popular non-fiction releases this year, Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge. Eddo-Lodge’s original blog post on the subject, describing the emotional labour of trying to get white people to understand their racial privilege, has stayed with me ever since I first read it, and it’s reproduced in a modified form hereAs Eddo-Lodge has noted on Twitter, publishing this book has ironically meant that she’s forced to have ever more conversations with unsympathetic white people about race – from those who follow her at conferences to the woman ‘loudly bursting into guilty tears’ at an event where she was talking about her work. It’s such vivid descriptions of how it feels to have to constantly justify one’s own experiences to people who either refuse to listen or talk about their own guilt rather than truly focusing on the experiences of the person who has actually experienced racism that make Why I’m No Longer Talking… stand out. To an extent, I recognise that a lot of this book wasn’t really meant for me, in that I’m already familiar with much of the historical and sociological information that Eddo-Lodge cites. Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a vital and useful text – especially the chapter on black British history, which is inevitably sweeping, but fills an important gap that was much discussed at the History Matters conference I attended a couple of years ago. In brief, black British history, apart from the history of slavery, is rarely taught in British schools, and black British schoolchildren deserve to hear the kind of history that their white British peers take for granted. Any criticism of Eddo-Lodge’s chapter for being too simplistic, therefore, is misplaced, because in terms of popular knowledge (if not academic knowledge) of black British history, she’s basically starting from scratch. I also found the chapter on white feminism incredibly thought-provoking, although it left me with some questions. Most importantly, Eddo-Lodge seems to equate ‘white feminism’ with the liberal feminism of Sheryl Sandberg of Lean In fame [1] – the blinkered assumption that the key issues facing all women are how to secure places in the boardroom and break the ‘glass ceiling’. While she rightly critiques this kind of feminism, I wondered what she thought about other forms of feminism – for example, socialist feminism – that pay much more attention to the needs of working-class women but can be equally blind on questions of race. In other words, I was worried that the definition of white feminism she puts forward here was too narrow – although, to be fair, a full critique would easily fill a book on its own. Come to think of it, that’s certainly a book that I’d love to see Eddo-Lodge write.

Alongside Eddo-Lodge’s book, I read another of my 20 Books of Summer, Paul Beatty’s brilliant novel The Sellout, which takes questions of race that we often believe can only be mentioned in serious tones and puts a brutally satirical twist on them. It’s almost impossible to describe, but I would certainly recommend it.

cover-1Finally, I’ve managed to acquire a number of books that are not on my 20 Books of Summer list. I’m so excited about Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill, which has just won the Desmond Elliot Prize. I’ve picked up two NetGalley proofs – Tracy Chevalier’s New Boy, a retelling of Othello set in a 1970s Washington DC elementary school [2], and Imogen Hermes Gower’s debut The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, which is about late-eighteenth century mermaids, and has an absolutely gorgeous cover. I bought Things I Would Tell You at the Emerald Street festival, which is a collection of British Muslim women’s fiction and non-fiction edited by Sabrina Mahfouz, with contributors ranging from big names like Kamila Shamsie, Leila Aboulela and Ahdaf Soueif to a Muslim teenager. I can’t wait to dive into it. Finally, I also purchased Stuart Dybek’s The Start of Something: Selected Stories at the beautiful Livraria Lello, a bookshop in Porto – partly because it was one of the few English books they had that I hadn’t already heard of.

[1] I am not sure if Sheryl Sandberg could be termed a liberal feminist herself, but this is certainly the school of thought that her work has been associated with.

[2] I’ve already read this. It’s not very good. Full review coming soon!

20 Books of Summer, #1: The Lauras by Sara Taylor

30965704A mother, named only as Ma, tells her teenage child, Alex, that they must both leave the house abruptly without any warning, and that Alex can only take the school backpack they’d already packed. The pair set off on a road trip across America, guided by a map upon which Ma has written annotations such as ‘Brainwashed broodmother’ in the middle of Texas, and ‘Den of prostitution and overpriced wine’ in Nevada. But there’s a pattern to some of these scribbles; many of them relate to a series of women called Laura that Ma met throughout her life. While Ma had romantic feelings for most of the Lauras, some took other roles in her life entirely; yet their influence was always positive. As she explains when Alex asks her ‘Why are they all called Laura?’, ‘You try to get the new Laura to fit into the hole the old Laura left. And when you get older it doesn’t matter that you know things don’t work like that, because your ears will be primed and your heart will beat faster at the sound of that name… until you look back when you’re forty years old and realise that you have a long string of Lauras behind you who were all important.‘ However, alongside Ma’s odyssey, Alex has their own journey; they (Alex) has no internal sense of gender identity, and take care to outwardly appear neither male nor female, so they cannot be forced into a box by others. The vicious bullying and sexual assaults Alex encounters at a series of schools has set them apart from the world, yet they are totally certain about who they are inside.

The Guardian headlined its review of The Lauras an engrossing transgender road trip‘, which is misleading; Alex does not seem to me to be trans or even non-binary under the conventional definition used by trans women and men or non-binary people, because they do not have a gender identity, and so their gender identity cannot be at odds with the sex they were assigned at birth.[1] Nevertheless, The Lauras is intensely thought-provoking about gender. This is a topic I’ve been thinking a lot about recently myself after hearing Sarah Perry talk at the Emerald Street Literary Festival about how she does not have a strong internal sense of being a woman. I don’t want to paraphrase her words too much, so here is a link to an older article where she says: ‘I’m not entirely sure I think of myself as a woman.’ 

When I was a little girl, I swung year on year between being a vehement ‘tomboy’ and being the girliest girl I could imagine. When I was five, I used to ask for a ‘boy’ party bag at friends’ parties rather than a ‘girl’ party bag – because I wanted the dinosaur and truck toys, not the dolls and glitter, but also because I think I already had the sense that I didn’t want to be like the other girls. By the time I was seven, I insisted on having my long hair braided, wore the frilliest possible dresses, and policed my own behaviour for signs of anything I thought was too ‘boyish’. As a nine-year-old, I swung back again; I remember one male teacher at my primary school joking that ‘Laura’s as likely to wear a skirt as I am.’ Perhaps cued by this kind of well-intentioned comment that nevertheless, highlighted my difference from the others in my class, by twelve I was in short skirts, platform shoes and badly-applied make-up. This is all summed up for me by an entry I made as a young child in the sort of diary that gave you prompts as to what to write. Under the sentence ‘This year I’m going to change this about myself’ I wrote ‘Being Like A Boy.’ A year or so later, I rubbed the last word out and wrote ‘Being Like A Girl’.

Ramona diaryPerry’s talk chimed with me because I have also never felt an internal sense of gender identity. Because I have grown up being treated as a girl and then as a woman, I have learnt my way into this role, but it doesn’t feel like something that was mine to begin with. However, I think I differ from her when she says that ‘my being a woman only rarely occurs to me, in quite a detached and disinterested way’. Although I don’t feel that I always was female ‘inside’, I would say I have come to identify with other women through shared experience under patriarchy. Therefore, being a woman is now an important part of my identity, albeit not one that I feel has been present since birth.

This is a very long-winded way of saying that I absolutely loved the thought-provoking questions that The Lauras posed about gender and gender identity. We never find out Alex’s biological sex, or indeed, whether they are in fact intersex. As in the Ancillary Justice series, which are in all other respects very different books, I found myself trying to guess what Alex ‘really’ was, then wondering why the question mattered so much. As Alex appears androgynous, their sex has nothing to do with how they are treated by other people, except insofar as they are bullied and assaulted for being genderless. Taylor is perhaps a bit too blunt and simplistic in attacking readers’ assumptions when she has Alex think ‘Knowing someone’s sex doesn’t tell you anything… I suppose the need to know, how knowing changes the way you behave about them… tells an awful lot about you’, but it’s a point that is obviously central to the novel.

I’ve written so much about Alex that there’s little space to say much more about Ma’s journey, but rest assured that, if not as theoretically thought-provoking, her travels fully earn their place in the narrative, and, indeed, provide its backbone. Travelling from place to place, Ma picks up the threads of stories that she dropped years ago, and finds out what happened next, while being as at ease with her own sexuality as she is with Alex’s (lack of) gender. And I have to say, as a Laura myself, I loved the series of different Lauras that she seeks out. As a small child I often made friends with other Lauras because we had a common point of reference, and I still have a disproportionate number of friends called Laura in the present day (although the name was so popular in the year I was born that perhaps this is inevitable; I’ve rarely been in a large group of people my age without at least one other Laura).

All this is to say that The Lauras is a beautifully-written and gripping novel, remaining upbeat about difficult questions of identity while consistently managing to steer clear of anything too kitschy or glib. It’s been a brilliant start to my 20 Books of Summer.

[1] Based on the definitions of transgender and non-binary identity put forward by Stonewall and GLAAD. Obviously these definitions can be contested.