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?

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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).

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.