Literary Fiction in Late Spring

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Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise is one of those books I’d heard a great deal about before I picked it up, and I was so intrigued that I put it on my ideal longlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction (to be honest, even though I didn’t like it, I still wish that it had been longlisted, as it would have shaken things up a bit). The first half of the novel immerses us in heated teen drama at a performing arts school in Houston, focusing on an on/off relationship between students Sarah and David, but also suggesting that a number of the staff are unable to maintain professional boundaries. Afterwards, it does the kind of structural flip that novels like Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry pull off so beautifully – but here, I don’t think it works. I felt completely disengaged from both halves of the novel, and while I can see that Choi is posing questions about who gets to control the narrative, I just didn’t find them very interesting. If anything, after the perspective switches, the side we should take is too obvious and there isn’t enough left for the reader to wrestle with. In one sense, I felt this was an ultra-literary take on a problem that genre writers have been engaging with for decades: who engages the reader’s sympathies and how can writers play with that? It’s also a #MeToo novel, once again written before #MeToo (this interview with Choi is really worth reading, though it has significant spoilers for Trust Exercise) but published at a time when I’m starting to feel that a straightforward take on these themes is becoming too familiar. I loved the idea of a novel called Trust Exercise that demands time and patience from its readers, but I didn’t feel I was repaid.

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I’m not having a lot of luck with experimental literary fiction recently, because Eimear McBride’s Strange Hotel didn’t work for me either, although I admired her A Girl Is A Half-Formed ThingLike McBride’s debut, Strange Hotel excels at tracing the precise shifts in a woman’s thought processes; however, her protagonist here is not the chaotic young narrator of Girl but a relatively older woman, in her mid-thirties, who is travelling from hotel room to hotel room in a number of different cities. Her own relationship with herself is much more detached and ironic, and the prose reflects this: ‘She drinks [the wine] down with some considerable relief at outmanoeuvring her travel fatigue… That’s it right now, agitating her veins. Coursing through until the arches of her feet unclench – the most secret pleasure of drinking, she thinks, and unquantifiably nice.’ McBride knows how we become different people when alone in unfamiliar hotel rooms, and the first quarter of the book could be a brilliant short story. There are hints of Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation in how this woman secludes herself from the world and seeks the optimum state of intoxication. Unfortunately, I didn’t make it any further, because I couldn’t face spending any more time with the protagonist’s convoluted and depressing voice. I’ll be checking out McBride’s second novel, The Lesser Bohemians, instead.

Although I found these two novels disappointing, I’ve not had a bad time with all literary fiction this month – I’m completely immersed in Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Lightwhich I think is the best of the Cromwell trilogy, and am now almost halfway through! Review to come once I finish, but I’m deliberately taking my time.

Have you read any good literary novels recently?

Belated April ARCs

I feel very sorry for these three April ARCs. Not only have these three authors had to deal with being published in the middle of a global pandemic, they’ve also been personally neglected by me because I was so busy with my Women’s Prize reading. Nevertheless, I’ve finally got round to them, and I have to say that all three are worthwhile – so I hope that they get at least some of the attention that they deserve!

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You People, Nikita Lalwani’s third novel, was one of the books I was most looking forward to in 2020, though I wish it hadn’t been burdened with such a hideous cover. It’s set in 2003 in an Italian restaurant in London that’s run by Tuli, who enjoys the reputation of being a benefactor to the undocumented migrants and other recent arrivals who work there, many of whom are Tamils from Sri Lanka fleeing civil war. It has two narrators: first, Nia, a nineteen-year-old Welsh waitress who passes for white and privileged and is happy to reap the advantages of that, but whose father was Bengali and who’s refusing to return home so she won’t have to deal with her alcoholic mother. Second, Shan, one of the Sri Lankan refugees, who is desperately seeking to reunite with his wife and child. Lalwani carefully draws the reader into the net that Tuli is weaving, causing us to continuously reassess what we think we know about the situation that Nia and Shan find themselves in. As ever, Lalwani writes so well about complicated moral choices and inhabits each of her characters with sharp empathy, although I didn’t find this novel to be quite as clever or memorable as her brilliant The VillageNevertheless, she creates a complex community of word-of-mouth bargains and secrets, and she’s still streets ahead of many of her contemporaries. I’ll be interested to see how this compares to Aravind Adiga’s Amnesty, which – although it’s set in Sydney – also deals with an undocumented immigrant from Sri Lanka who has to make a difficult ethical decision!

You People was released in the UK on April 2nd. I received a free copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

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C. Pam Zhang’s debut, How Much of These Hills Is Gold, is set in California at the end  of the Gold Rush of the 1850s. It explores the lives and histories of two young Chinese siblings, Lucy and Sam, as they struggle to survive after the deaths of both their parents. In this, it joins novels like Téa Obreht’s Inland and Philipp Meyer’s The Son in seeking to reimagine white, male myths of the American nineteenth-century ‘pioneer spirit’. The novel starts with the siblings fleeing their home with their Ba’s body packed into a trunk on the back of their mule; it then flashes back so that Ba can relate the last generation of their family’s history; and finally flashes forward five years to a time when Lucy, now seventeen, is trying to become a respectable young woman in town while an absent Sam lives feral.

Unlike some reviewers, I didn’t find this structure especially awkward – for me, the siblings’ futures and pasts were more interesting than their present, so I was glad that Zhang decided to deftly shake it up a bit – but still, this novel doesn’t quite fulfil its ambitions. Both Lucy and Sam are vividly imagined, and yet they’re never given enough space to become totally captivating. Sam’s contested relationship with gender is handled cleverly by Zhang – it can be difficult to position this kind of narrative in a historical setting, but I thought Zhang managed to create a space for Sam that felt like a kind of  queer space that might have existed at the time, even though readers may continue to wonder what modern labels fit the character. However, as Elle points out in her review, Zhang’s refusal to commit to pronouns for Sam makes the writing clunky. Initially, I wondered if this represented Lucy’s own confusion about how to refer to Sam, but as we get sentences like ‘Sam’s hair… reaches just under Sam’s ears’ at the same time as Lucy continually refers to Sam as ‘her’, I didn’t understand why Zhang didn’t choose a set of pronouns, even if these changed later on in the book. The present tense also felt too much like a creative-writing class default setting rather than a deliberate choice. In short, How Much of These Hills Is Gold suffers, like many debut novels, from trying to pack too much into one story, but I’d much rather read something like this than a bland, competent book, and I’ll look out for more from Zhang.

How Much Of These Hills Is Gold was released in the UK on April 9th. I received a free copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

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How To Pronounce Knife, Souvankham Thammavongsa’s debut collection of short stories, was also one of my most anticipated 2020 titles. All the stories are set in a city that is deliberately unnamed, left sketchy around the edges, although I had the sense from a couple of references that we are somewhere in Canada. All, also, deal with the lives of Lao immigrants and their children, although not all of the stories are primarily about immigration or ethnicity. What I found so impressive about these quiet stories, in fact, is the way that they don’t cluster around one specific theme; Thammavongsa is sharply insightful on a number of registers. Childhood is one of these, and Thammavongsa’s thoughts on writing in the voice of a child are worth reading. The title story, which deals with a small girl trying to navigate between her family’s culture and the world of school, completely gets how frustrating it is for children not to be heard, and how adults continually fail to understand how, when young children are angry about one thing, it’s often something much bigger than just that thing.

However, Thammavongsa takes us into the head of an older woman who has just begun a sexy affair with a much younger man with equal conviction (‘Slingshot’), upturning our received ideas about age, sex, and the way that these attributes structure power dynamics in a relationship. She writes beautifully about how chicken plant worker Red (‘Paris’) only knows one kind of love: ‘that simple, uncomplicated, lonely love one feels for oneself on the quiet moments of the day. It was there, steady and solid in the laughter and talk of the television and with her in the grocery aisles on the weekends’. She vividly details the different work worlds of a man working in a nail salon (‘Mani Pedi’) and a woman picking worms in a field (‘Picking Worms’). Occasionally, a story seems to draw away from its climax rather than landing with the conviction of the others in this collection, and Thammavongsa sometimes goes for an easy emotional beat rather than pressing for something more interesting (‘Her sense of taste comes and goes now’, muses an older woman after having a stroke in ‘You Are So Embarrassing’. ‘Most of the time it all tastes bitter. And all that bitterness in her mouth is hard to swallow.’) However, these are rare missteps in a collection that is otherwise consistently good.

How to Pronounce Knife was released in the UK on April 16th. I received a free copy of this collection from the publisher for review.

If any of these books appeal, and if you’re able to do so, please consider ordering from Hive, from Waterstones, or from your local independent bookshop to support authors and bookshops at this time.

‘The Sequel is So Much Darker’: Why Series Don’t Always Get Darker – and Why That’s A Good Thing

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Sequels to science fiction and fantasy books, films and TV series are often described as ‘darker’ than their immediate predecessor, a trend that I first noticed with Harry Potter. Retrospectives on the book series tend to assume that Voldemort’s return in the fourth book, Goblet of Fire, shifted the series towards a ‘darker’, ‘more mature’, tone; retrospectives on the film series point the finger at the third film, Prisoner of Azkaban, where director Alfonso Cuaron deliberately created a Hogwarts with a very different feel to Chris Columbus’s version (at the time, most newspapers ran with ‘Harry Potter hits puberty‘, praising Cuaron’s revamp). Nevertheless, this trend started earlier; every Harry Potter film was described as darker than the one before it. A number of professional reviewers praised the second film, Chamber of Secrets for being ‘better and darker than its predecessor’. Entertainment Weekly wrote that the film ‘deepen[ed] the darker, more frightening atmosphere for audiences. This is as it should be: Harry’s story is supposed to get darker’, referring to J.K. Rowling’s stated intention that the series should ‘grow up with its readers’. However, even after the tonal shift when Voldemort regains a physical body in Goblet of Fire, reviewers kept praising the films for being darker than the last. ‘Harry Potter grows older and darker’ was Time‘s headline for their review of Order of the Phoenix .

Given the larger number of books and films in the Harry Potter series, this trend is most obvious for this franchise, but is not confined to it. You might not think that a series that kicks off with the state-sanctioned murder of 23 children and adolescents by their peers could get any darker, but according to reviewers, the Hunger Games franchise did. The Atlantic found Mockingjay: Part 1, the third film in the series, ‘darker, more relentless’ than the previous installments, spelling out what they meant while unintentionally proving the Sequel Is Always Darker rule: ‘The second installment was already weightier than the first, and in this outing the moral gravity has been ratcheted up once more.’ The Star Wars prequel Rogue One was obviously going to have a different tone from the earlier films, given its content, but alongside its universal reputation as ‘dark’, fans still asked ‘Should Rogue One Have Been Even Darker?‘ To look at a different kind of follow-up, remakes of classic movies are often praised as being ‘darker’ than the originals. Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory remake was seen as ‘the darker side of Willy Wonka‘. Netflix’s The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina has been reviewed as both ‘darker’ than the original 1990s sitcom and comic book series and as getting darker than its original self season-by-season. Showrunners also love to tease fans with ‘darker’ sequels, as with this piece on the third season of Stranger Things,  which claims, ‘it’s definitely going to get darker still – [it will go to?] places that I think audiences are going to really love.’

But what do reviewers actually mean when they say that a book or film is ‘darker’ than its predecessor? We could spend ages arguing over what it means to be ‘dark’ (kill count? tone? grey morality?) or whether or not these sequels are actually darker, but instead, I want to suggest that when people say something is ‘darker’, they mean it is ‘better’, and this is a big problem.

Why does darker = better, especially when it comes to popular science fiction and fantasy series? My hypothesis is that it’s a signal that these books and films are worthy of adult attention, and so it’s OK if you’re an adult and you like them. Popular associations surrounding these genres still associate them with children, and one way for both artists and their fans to try and shed this ‘childish’ reputation is to talk about how dark their work is, and how much darker it’s going to be. This also explains why the first episode may be dark, but the next one is always darker: series need to ‘mature’, ‘grow up’, ‘develop’, because these are all Good Things, whereas remaining in the supposedly immature and undeveloped world of childhood is bad.

This is problematic enough in itself, because it simultaneously devalues children and adolescents, claims that young people don’t want complex stories, and assumes that being into ‘darker’ media makes you a better, more serious adult. It sets up a false binary between cheery, morally black-and-white children’s fiction and dark, morally grey fiction for adults. However, I’d also argue that playing into this narrative leads writers, filmmakers and showrunners into serious trouble. I’m going to reserve my full Harry Potter rant for another post, but suffice it to say that I think Rowling’s decision to make the series ‘grow up with Harry’ not only gives it a horribly uneven tone, but actually leads to it becoming less morally interesting. Rogue One disappointed me terribly because it served up such simplistic and boring characters compared to its companion film, A New Hope, as if being serious means that you don’t get to have a personality (you know you’ve gone wrong when the robot is the most compelling person in your film). And season three of Stranger Things misstepped by deciding that it had to fully embrace adolescence rather than exploring the ways in which our protagonists are still children – or realising that it was its celebration of childhood creativity and ingenuity that made the first two series so great.

I think it’s time to abolish the assumption that darker is better, or even that calling something ‘dark’ is a meaningful description. I love a lot of fiction that has been called ‘dark’, such as A Song of Ice and Fire and Black Mirror. But give me The Force Awakens or the book version of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone any day over other films or books in those franchises that try to be ‘dark’ because they think that’s how to be ‘grown up’, and, in doing so, reinforce our limited ideas of what is worthy of our notice.

 

 

Not The Wellcome Prize 2020: Exhalation and A Good Enough Mother

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Thanks to Annabel for this graphic!

I’m delighted to be taking part in both the blog tour and the judging panel for Not the Wellcome Prize this year, which has been so brilliantly organised by Rebecca Foster of Bookish Beck. As the Wellcome Book Prize, which aims to recognise books that have a  ‘central theme that engages with some aspect of medicine, health or illness’, is on hiatus this year, we are hoping to fill the gap by highlighting some of the best health-related fiction and non-fiction of 2019, then choosing our own ‘winner’ in May! Be sure to check in with the other stops on the blog tour to see what other books we’ve picked.

I’m excited to showcase two titles on my blog today: Ted Chiang’s latest collection of SF short stories, Exhalation, and Bev Thomas’s debut psychological thriller, A Good Enough Mother. These two books are very different from each other, but share common concerns about parenting, childhood and a ‘healthy’ upbringing.

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I was utterly gripped by Exhalation when it first appeared in July 2019 (as was Barack Obama, who said that it ‘will make you think, grapple with big questions, and feel more human. The best kind of science fiction’.) It was one of my top ten books of 2019 and contains one of my favourite short stories of all time. You can read my full review of Exhalation here, but for the purposes of this blog post, I thought I’d focus on one novella in this collection that seems to me to be especially concerned with themes of medicine, health and illness.

‘The Lifecycle of Software Objects’ imagines a world where ‘digients’, virtual, teachable pets who seem to operate on the level of a chimp with language skills, have been created, and examines the ethical issues that this introduces. Humans swiftly get bored with their digients and move onto the next thing, except for a group of hardcore owners, our narrator, Ana, among them, who’ve formed real emotional bonds with their virtual creatures and are trying to find a way for them to live better lives. Because of this, this novella asks questions about what is healthy for both the digients and their owners; is it fair to keep the digients ‘alive’ when they have minimal social interaction and are often unhappy, but on the other hand, how can it be right to ‘kill’ a sentient being simply because you’ve got bored with it? A lot of owners start to ‘suspend’ their digients as a compromise solution, but this unsurprisingly unsettles the digients when they find out they’ve missed whole chunks of time.

The story continually plays with the analogy between digients and human children, up to the point when their owners have to decide whether to let their ‘teenage’ digients be recoded as sexual beings, and which, early on, is made explicit when one of Ana’s friends gets pregnant and tells her ‘People always say that we’re evolved to want babies, and I used to think that was a bunch of crap, but not anymore… Cats, dogs, digients, they’re all just substitutes for what we’re supposed to be caring for.’ Indeed, one of Chiang’s points in this novella is that ‘healthy’ AIs will need to be brought up like human children: ‘The years [Ana] spent raising Jax… gave him… fluency at navigating the real world, creativity at solving new problems, judgement you could entrust with an important decision. Every quality that made a person more valuable than a database was a product of experience.’ Chiang writes in his ‘Story Notes’ that ‘based on our experience with human minds, it takes at least twenty years of steady effort to produce a useful person.’ I’d challenge the idea that children and adolescents can’t be creative, resourceful or trustworthy, but the overall point is one worth making.

Nevertheless, I felt there was a darker message about the biological need for creating children that Ana’s friend talks about early in the story buried in ‘The Lifecycle of Software Objects’. One of the major obstacles for the digients and their owners in this novella is the obsolescence of the digital platform on which the digients were living their social lives, and the need for new coding to allow them to continue to interact with digients who run on other servers. While Chiang is delightfully good at teasing out the specifics of this situation, it also has symbolic weight; is it right to create new people who will be born into a world that is becoming unfit for purpose? As ever, Chiang doesn’t offer answers, but he poses some major questions.

Other stories in this collection that, in my opinion, have something to say about health, medicine and illness are ‘Exhalation’, ‘Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny’ and ‘The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling’.

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Way back in October 2018, I was lucky enough to hear Bev Thomas discuss this novel, which was published in March 2019, at the Durham Book Festival. Thomas previously worked as a clinical psychologist, and her expertise is evident in the very title of this novel, which is drawn from the work of the post-war child psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, who published a number of popular childrearing guides as well as becoming a regular feature on BBC radio. Winnicott asserted that mothers should not worry too much about making ‘mistakes’ with their children, saying that ‘The good-enough mother… starts off with an almost complete adaptation to her infant’s needs, and as time proceeds she adapts less and less completely, gradually, according to the infant’s growing ability to deal with her failure.’ In his popular texts, he built on this by writing that mothers would instinctively know what their infants needed, and did not need to rely on external expertise. As I’ve argued, this may have been intended to reassure mothers (coincidentally, Winnicott was reacting against the strict inter-war ‘behaviourist’ ideas that Chiang satirises in Exhalation, in his story ‘Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny’!)  but, in practice, left many feeling inadequate because their parental instincts did not seem to have kicked in and they would have liked some outside help.

So, what does this mean for Thomas’s novel (other than setting it up with a title that feels pretty sinister to me!)? The book focuses on Ruth Hartland, a professional psychotherapist who is haunted by her missing son, Tom, who disappeared a year and a half ago. As she starts treating a new patient, Dan, she can’t shake the fact that he reminds her strongly of Tom, and her increasing inability to separate the two men leads her into tragedy. A Good Enough Mother functions perfectly as a gripping psychological thriller, but is much more thought-provoking than the average thriller about therapy (or indeed than the approximately two million other thrillers that deal with missing children). We see that Ruth has never felt she was a ‘good enough mother’ to Tom, despite the supposedly soothing nature of Winnicott’s advice; Tom always struggled to separate from her and she worries that she did not encourage him to become independent. Now that they are completely apart, she can only guess how he’s navigating the world by himself. This theme is especially highlighted by the fact that Tom is a twin, which – although he and his more confident sister are obviously fraternal rather than identical – makes Ruth strain even harder to understand why her two children are so different. Ruth’s gradual emotional breakdown felt utterly convincing, and this is a hugely promising debut. (Incidentally, it also gets the thumbs up from my mum!)

Make sure to check out the other great books featured on our blog tour! 

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Have you read anything recently that deals particularly well with themes of health, medicine and/or illness?

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020: Dominicana

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It’s 1965, and Ana Canción is fifteen years old when she enters into an arranged marriage that will transport her from the Dominican Republic to New York, and offers the chance that her family will be able to follow her there. Ana does not love her new and much older husband, Juan; he beats her, rapes her, and resists letting her leave their apartment, even to access free English classes. Nevertheless, Ana reaches out to her new world as far as she can, befriending one of Juan’s female debtors, Marisela, and talking to the pigeons who live outside her window. When political unrest in the Dominican Republic forces Juan to return to protect his assets, the radius of Ana’s world dramatically expands; suddenly, alongside Juan’s attractive younger brother César, she is dreaming of starting her own food business and selling pastelitos at the World’s Fair. However, what will happen when Juan comes back?

Angie Cruz writes in the afterword to Dominicana that ‘This novel was inspired by my mother’s story… When I told my mother back in 2005 I would write a novel inspired by her, she said, Who would be interested in a story about a woman like me? It’s so typical. And yet, stories like my mother’s, although common, are rarely represented in the mainstream narratives available to us. I am grateful for the opportunity to publish this singular story, knowing very well that so many writers who are women of color do not have this privilege and access.’ Cruz is, in one sense, absolutely right. I’ve read nothing about the Dominican Republic before and knew nothing about the community of Dominicanas that formed in New York City from the 1950s onwards and which is beautifully documented here.

Cruz writes vividly about Ana’s life and language, and although her prose can be a little cringeworthy while describing Ana’s experience of sexual desire (Rachel picks out some good examples in her review), this didn’t dominate my experience of reading the novel as a whole (I wondered if this purple prose reflected the telenovelas that Ana consumes). In general, I felt that Cruz did a good job of communicating the inner world of this very young woman, and her ability to continue exploring and hoping, as in her friendship with Marisela, who exploits her naivety but also gives her a different way to frame her relationship with Juan. After Marisela jokes with her about men, she scripts a different kind of imaginary conversation with her husband: ‘I fall to the sofa, feet in the air. Ana, go get me a drink! Hurry! Where’s my dinner? What’s taking you so long? Ana! Ana! Ana! Oh Juan, get your own stupid drink! I say to the hat on the table, then laugh.’ Ana can’t easily escape her abuse, but Cruz conveys how she builds up an inner resilience that enables her later (if limited) rebellion.

Nevertheless, while the raw materials of this story may be fresh, the literary model that Cruz has chosen is painfully familiar. Dominicana maps out the precise story beats of so many other novels about immigration to the United States that I’ve read, and so it becomes very predictable (not helped by the fact that the blurb summarises pretty much all of the plot!). While the narrative comes to life in a way that other versions of this narrative don’t (for example, Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers), I became frustrated by this very limited coming-of-age framing. The novel already cheats slightly by jumping out of Ana’s first-person voice to give us glimpses of Juan, and I felt that this story might have been much more thought-provoking had we not been confined to Ana’s head. I would have loved to have read more from Juan, who intricately justifies his treatment of Ana and his affair with another woman, and perhaps to explore the perspective of Ana’s mother, who pushes her daughter into this marriage to benefit her family. These perspectives would also have allowed us to see more of the Dominican Republic rather than the typical New York 60s setting. On reflection, I found my enthusiasm for this book waning as I read on.

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

I’m aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist this year. This is number six. I’ve already read Girl, Woman, Other; The Dutch House; QueenieDjinn Patrol on the Purple Line; and Nightingale Point.

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020: Nightingale Point

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Every year, the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlists something that I find bafflingly bad, and this year, I’m pretty confident that prize goes to Luan Goldie’s Nightingale Point. This novel, set in the mid-1990s and early 2000s, is told principally from six different first-person perspectives, with a seventh tossed in at the very end for no good reason. Its narrators are linked by the run-down London block of flats where they live, Nightingale Point, and by the traumatic tragedy that occurs one hot summer’s afternoon when a cargo plane plows into the block. Mary is a Filipino nurse who is burdened with guilt about an affair; she is surrogate mother to two black teenage boys, Malachi and Tristan. Malachi is studious, asthmatic and heartbroken, while his younger brother Tristan is more concerned with keeping up his street cred and keeping their little flat spotless. Elvis, a white man with learning disabilities, has recently moved to the block through a care-in-the-community placement; he loves having his own place but is the target of harassment. Finally, Pamela, perhaps the most vivid, is a white teenage girl kept captive in her own flat by her controlling father; she remembers the days when she was at least let out to run in the frosty park for an hour, and wishes she could reunite with Malachi, with whom she had a brief love affair.

At almost four hundred pages, Nightingale Point, which treads slowly through a long preamble and postamble to its central incident, feels like a much shorter story stretched out to fill the space of a novel. It also has some fairly basic craft problems, which I found surprising, given that Goldie is a past Costa Short Story award winner. On a sentence-by-sentence level, it’s uninspiring but competent, although there are some occasional clangers (‘The woven burgundy throw falls from the back of the sofa to reveal the holes and poverty beneath it.’) However, the prose clumps together in uncomfortable ways, partly because the transitions between past and present, and between introspection and action, are often awkwardly handled. Here’s Pamela on the roof of the block of flats:

Her running shoes swing by her sides as she pads across the greyness in her socks. She steps over the glossy ripped pages of a magazine; a girl in a peephole leather catsuit stares back at her. The door bounces against its splintered frame as Pamela enters the building. Her world starts to shrink.

On a macro level, this novel didn’t work for me either. It’s not a sharp evocation of a London council estate along the lines of Guy Gunaratne’s In Our Mad and Furious Citybut seems more akin to plodding feelgood London community-based novels like Libby Page’s The Lidodespite the fact it’s not especially feelgood! It doesn’t have anything interesting to say about either solidarity or hierarchy in the wake of this disaster, and, for a novel that claims to mirror the Grenfell tragedy, it’s curiously apolitical. (While I obviously understand that Goldie wouldn’t have wanted to tackle Grenfell directly, I wondered why she chose to pluck a real-life incident from its original social context – this plane crash into a tower block actually took place in Amsterdam in 1992, and led to a government cover-up.) Because the novel chooses to eschew all these interesting power dynamics, it becomes a somewhat soapy and manipulative read, with an especially troubling through-line for one of its central characters.

Highlight for spoiler. As is achingly predictable, poor Pamela dies in the crash because she can’t escape from her locked flat. Her story then becomes the property of the men who are grieving her. Pamela left a note for Malachi before her death breaking the news of her pregnancy that, it seems to me, she would have wanted very much for him to read even if she was dead, but Tristan, who promised to deliver the note, decides it will be better for his brother if he tears it up, and Malachi never finds out he did this (which is terrible storytelling anyway!) Then for some reason, Pamela’s abusive father, Jay, gets a surprise point-of-view chapter near the end of the novel which seems principally concerned with eliciting sympathy for him and suggesting that he and Malachi can find common ground at a memorial service five years on: ‘So much happened back then, so many things that can’t be unsaid or changed. But today isn’t about that, it’s not about Jay or Malachi, it’s about acknowledging Pamela, the sixteen-year-old girl who loved laughing and milkshakes and running till she could no longer feel her legs. The girl they both loved. They share a look, which Jay feels is not filled with violence or regret, but with understanding of what they’ve both lost.’ BUT, the reason Pamela (and her baby!) is dead is because Jay LOCKED HER IN HER FLAT, and even when she was alive she never got to enjoy running and milkshakes because Jay KEPT HER LOCKED IN HER FLAT. I know this is from Jay’s point of view, but Goldie could easily have chosen to undercut this scene when she returned to Malachi’s perspective; instead, he doesn’t comment. End spoiler. In short: what were the judges thinking?

I’m aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist this year. This is number five. I’ve already read Girl, Woman, Other; The Dutch House; Queenie; and Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line.

John Murray Proof Party @ Durham Book Festival: Reading Report

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Last autumn, I went to the John Murray Proof Party  at the Durham Book Festival, heard three fascinating women talk about their upcoming early 2020 novels, and picked up free copies of the books (published by John Murray’s Two Roads imprint) in a great tote bag. I’ve now read all three and am here to report back!

In reverse order of preference…

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I found Guinevere Glasfurd’s account of the research and background to her second book, The Year Without Summer, the most engaging to listen to at the festival. Set in 1815 and 1816, the novel explores the aftermath of the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia through multiple narrative voices scattered across the globe. I loved the idea of protagonists linked by an abrupt and disastrous change in climate – the eruption led to cold, stormy weather and crop failures across Europe and North America as the rising ash cloud covered the sun. However, I didn’t feel that Glasfurd pulled off this incredibly ambitious premise – the reader’s attention is simply too divided, and the only narrator who really came to life for me was Fenland farm labourer Sarah.

The Year Without Summer is out now.

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I was least interested in reading Karen Raney’s debut, All the Water in the World, simply because I thought that the premise – a teenage girl facing cancer – was so familiar in fiction. However, the novel is also an intelligent look at a close mother-daughter relationship that comes under intense strain. The book alternates between the mother Eve and daughter Maddy’s perspectives, and between the present and the past. Both Eve and Maddy are refreshing narrators; they avoid falling into the tropes that they might have occupied (distressed mother who is characterised as nothing but a mother; self-absorbed and rebellious teenager). Raney doesn’t bring anything especially new to the table, except a few interesting chapters on Maddy’s involvement in the climate protest movement and how she relates the climate catastrophe to her own impending death, but she writes well, so I’d be interested to see what she does next.

All the Water in the World is out now.

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Having very much enjoyed Sally Magnusson’s debut, The Sealwoman’s Gift, I was excited to get hold of a copy of her next novel, The Ninth Child, and it didn’t disappoint. Set in the late 1850s, the novel focuses on an ambitious engineering project at Loch Katrine that aims to supply fresh water to Glasgow to reduce the impact of cholera epidemics in the city. Isabel Aird has been drawn reluctantly into the project after her husband accepts the post of doctor, serving the navvies who are frequently injured in the course of the excavation. Purposeless and lonely, Isabel nurses the silent grief of a series of stillbirths. She is drawn in by a charismatic minister, Robert Kirke, who mysteriously appears and disappears on the shores of the loch. Kirsty, a displaced Highlander working for the Aird family, watches Isabel and Robert anxiously; she knows much about the fairy folk, and suspects that Robert has a dark history and an even darker purpose.

Magnusson pulls together what might seem to be a rather unlikely premise with great skill. For once, comparisons to Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent are fully deserved – if anything, I liked The Ninth Child better, because it treads more original medical historical ground and because its central protagonist is much more appealingly flawed. I especially enjoyed a small side-plot about Queen Victoria and Prince Albert visiting the area to marvel at the skill of the works – both royal narrators are hilarious! I wondered if Magnusson’s use of multiple voices might also make this novel feel too fragmented – there are a number of omniscient sections alongside bits from the royals, Isabel, Kirsty and Robert – but it somehow all works, although Kirsty is very much a member of the supporting cast rather than having a character arc of her own, which is a bit of a shame. Still, totally absorbing.

The Ninth Child is out on 19th March.

Have you read any of these novels? What did you think?