Everyday Horror: The Other Black Girl & The Apparition Phase

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Zakiya Dalila Harris’s The Other Black Girl starts off in relatively familiar, All About Eve territory. Nella is the only black employee at Wagner Books, and despite her continuous efforts to make her colleagues more aware of issues of race and representation, nothing much has changed in the years she’s worked there. When another black girl, Hazel, joins the company, Nella is initially hopeful that she has an ally, especially when Hazel commiserates with her over the racist representation of a character in the latest novel from one of Wagner’s top-selling authors. However, when Hazel throws Nella under the bus to impress her white bosses, Nella grows rapidly more suspicious. As Nella’s story unfolds in the present, we get occasional snippets from other narrators who are both entwined in Wagner’s past and involved in something much more sinister.

There’s a great novel somewhere inside The Other Black Girl, but for me the pacing was too radically uneven for it to reach its full potential. The first 75% or so focuses too squarely on office politics, and the creepy speculative thread is introduced too late, making the ending feel rushed. If only it had had longer to rev up, the climax could have been brilliantly twisted, but Harris spent too long on office microaggressions (which of course could form the basis of a great novel in their own right) to fully lean into the weirdness. I can see why this has made a big splash, but I hope Harris goes more full out with the horror in her next novel.

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

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Will Maclean’s debut novel, The Apparition Phase, is that very rare thing – a novel-length ghost story that actually works. I don’t really like straight ghost stories unless they’re liberally crossed over with horror, and this is up there with Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter, delivering a truly chilling entity from an author who is smart enough not to tell us everything. The Apparition Phase begins with teenage twins Tim and Abi, growing up in 70s English suburbia, who have allied together over a shared interest in anything spooky or unexplained. (They have a list of their top three favourite ghost photographs, and collaborate to write phrases on the pages of a book that describe what the afterlife is like – swearing an oath that whichever of them dies first will use these phrases to communicate with the surviving twin). But when they fake a ghost photograph to scare a gullible classmate, they fear they have summoned up more than they’ve bargained for.

The Apparition Phase feels a little like two stories in one – after an awkward bridging section which is the only point when the pace of the book really falters, we’re plunged into another plot. Tim joins a group of teenagers led by an academic who is investigating ghostly phenomena in a haunted house in Suffolk. This, however, eventually loops around to link back to the beginning of the novel in a terrifying climatic scene where Tim is pursued by a mysterious figure through the pitch-black countryside in pelting rain. Despite the bridging section, I thought that this unusual structure worked, making sure the novel didn’t run out of steam halfway through. The Apparition Phase reminded me most strongly of Nina Allen’s brilliant work of speculative fiction, The Riftas it explores the edges of our world and what we can know, telling a fragmentary tale that doesn’t tie up neatly but is all the more haunting for it. One of my favourite books of the year so far.

10 Books of Summer, #1 and #2: True Story and Holding Her Breath

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Kate Reed Petty’s debut True Story, like many other contemporary novels over the past few years, tackles the topic of sexual violence – but with a twist. Alice is a teenager at high school when she passes out in the backseat of a car and wakes up to find out that boys have been boasting about what they did with her when she was asleep. However, rather than telling Alice’s story straight, Petty relates it through a mix of documents, memories and a more traditional first-person narrator, Nick, who was not involved in the alleged assault but also fails to challenge his friends when they start spreading the rumours. As the trying-too-hard cover suggests, this book is about who gets to be in charge of the story and what kind of story it turns out to be. In my favourite fragments, Alice and her best friend Hayley write gleefully violent horror movie scripts together. On the other hand, in a section that I thought was much too thematically obvious, Alice tries to write about her experience for a college application essay before giving up and inventing an standard ‘inspirational’ story instead to win the praise of her adviser. 

Overall, although I raced through True Story, I felt that it suffered from trying to be too clever and too meta. There’s a central twist in this narrative that would have been enough by itself, and definitely brings something new to the table in fiction about sexual violence [highlight for spoilers]. Alice eventually finds out that she wasn’t assaulted that night – the boys were just spreading rumours about her to big up their own reputations. Some reviewers have found this distasteful, suggesting that this makes the novel about a false allegation, but I don’t agree with that point of view at all. Petty vividly shows the impact that ‘just words’ have had on Alice and how devastating it is for her to feel like she no longer fits into the standard victim narrative – in no way does she minimise the impact of these boys’ actions. Indeed, I’d argue that she actually challenges some problematic assumptions about sexual violence by foregrounding its emotional rather than physical impact. [end spoilers]. However, rather than being content with that twist, Petty takes it a step further, and while I understood her thematic point about rewriting the story, I ended up feeling unsatisfied. Ironically, I found the most convincing and original sections of this novel belonged to Nick rather than Alice.

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Beth was a champion swimmer before she had a mental health crisis in her final year of school and dropped out of active competition. Now she’s starting university a little late, tentatively swimming again, although not at the elite level where she once participated, and trying to work out who she is without the sport. She turns to another label that she’s had all her life: she’s the granddaughter of Benjamin Crowe, a famous poet who drowned himself in the sea before she was born. Her grandmother Lydia is reluctant to talk about the past, but Beth sets off to discover what lay behind Benjamin’s most famous poem, Roslyn, completed just before he died. Holding Her Breath, Eimear Ryan’s debut, reminded me strongly of Danielle McLaughlin’s recent novel, The Art of Falling, which also intertwines an artistic mystery from the past with a finding-yourself plot in contemporary Ireland. Both McLaughlin and Ryan write the same kind of effortless, matter-of-fact prose, as well. However, Holding Her Breath is the stronger novel; Beth is much more of a person than the somewhat blank protagonist of The Art of Falling, and the secondary characters are much more people in their own right as well, especially Lydia and Beth’s flatmate Sadie.

In the hands of a different writer, this might have been yet another book about Dysfunctional Women Being Dysfunctional, following in the footsteps of Sally Rooney, Naoise Dolan and Ottessa Moshfegh, amongst others. Beth certainly ticks a lot of the boxes with her mental health issues, her sudden decision to abandon her swimming career, and a few sexual partners. However, Ryan is definitely not writing that sort of character, and I liked Beth the better for it. Surprisingly, it turns out that you can have sex with different people without being bent on self-destruction! And quitting your ‘job’ doesn’t mean you are doomed to spiral into isolation! It’s a much more positive way to write about young women, and gives Beth more agency. Sadly, though, despite these strengths, I don’t think Holding Her Breath will stay with me for long. Despite its nuanced protagonist, it has nothing really to say, and its watery imagery feels too schematic. I’ll be looking out for more from Ryan, though.

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

Upcoming Beach Reads (or Stay-At-Home Reads) 2021

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Malibu Rising follows the four Riva siblings through the course of a single day and night in August 1983 as they hold their annual party at their clifftop mansion. The novel centres on the oldest of the four, Nina Riva, who has always held the family together after their rock star father Mick left them when they were small children and their mother June descended into alcoholism. Even now her siblings are grown up, Nina continues to put others first, pursuing a modelling career that she doesn’t want for the sake of financial security as she grieves the end of her marriage. However, this year’s party will throw everything up in the air for the Rivas, with both unexpected guests and unexpected secrets emerging as the night goes on.

Malibu Rising shares a focus on historic glamour and fame with Taylor Jenkins Reid’s two previous novels, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo and Daisy Jones and the Six, but in terms of style, it’s closer to her earlier, fluffier books like Maybe In Another Life and Forever, Interrupted, which were much more standard chick lit. (You could make the case that Evelyn Hugo is pretty fluffy, but I think Reid actually adopts a stylised mode of storytelling for that book that gave it both its humour and its edge.) It starts promisingly but quickly fades out in its second half, with none of the Riva siblings fully realised as characters except Nina – and even then, Reid has an unfortunate tendency to spell out all of the revelations Nina has about her life and exactly how they connect back to her difficult childhood. Given the lack of page-space for the other three siblings, it’s even odder that Reid chooses to jump between the heads of multiple unrelated party-goers in the second half of the novel, even though we learn nothing about them except who they are in love or lust with at the time, and they have no effect on the story.

Reid still has the gift of making us care about her characters, and I was invested in Nina and her relationship with her parents – I thought the sub-plot with her father was actually resolved quite well, even if it was a bit heavy-handed, as Nina refuses to accept glib rationalisations for why he treated the family so badly. However, this was a real disappointment after the two previous novels, and felt like it had been written in a rush. Given how well Reid handled stories that are meant to be a composition of different accounts (Daisy Jones) or a single account from one potentially unreliable narrator (Evelyn Hugo), I wonder if this mode of storytelling simply suits her better than the more straightforward multi-perspective third-person she uses in this novel, which didn’t do her writing any favours. A fun beach book, but I expect more from Reid.

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

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I’ve been reading Lauren Weisberger’s books since The Devil Wears Prada, even though they frequently make me quite cross, because she seems to be so against women pursuing their own ambitions – The Devil Wears Prada itself is the best example of this, but it’s also a pretty clear sub-theme in The Singles Game and Last Night in Chateau Marmont. In her previous novel, The Wives, she softened this message slightly to portray the importance of balancing family and career, and interestingly introduced a relatively older female character (by which I mean a character in her late thirties, nobody is ever actually old in this world) who regrets having completely sacrificed her own life for her children. This theme continues in her latest offering, Where The Grass Is Green*, which focuses on two sisters whose lives have taken unexpectedly different paths: Peyton, the high school dropout, is now an incredibly successful TV anchor, while Skye, the academic high-flier, is now totally focused on her daughter Aurora.

As I’ve said, Weisberger is often out to punish her protagonists when they start getting ideas, so I found this novel surprisingly sweet compared to most of her other work. It’s all set in the completely ridiculous world of the super-wealthy, so bears little resemblance to actual life, but the relationship between the two sisters is portrayed as supportive and loving. Neither is glorified at the expense of the other, although Weisberger does default a little back to her ‘family over career’ agenda by the end of the novel. I also found the portrayal of Peyton’s teenage daughter, Max, refreshingly positive compared to the usual ways that teenagers come across in light women’s fiction. The book is marketed as being about a college admissions scandal, but that’s more of a plot device than anything else (if you want a beach read about college admissions, go for Tracy Dobmeier and Wendy Katzman’s Girls With Bright Futures). Instead, the focus is the relationships between these three women, which makes this book much more fun and less depressing.

*Titled Where The Grass Is Green And The Girls Are Pretty for the US market, which is a Guns n’Roses lyric and a much better title. I’m not sure why the publishers truncated it for the UK – I wouldn’t have got the reference either way, but the UK title doesn’t make any sense. Maybe a copyright issue?

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

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Yours Cheerfully, the sequel to AJ Pearce’s delightful Dear Mrs Bird, brings the reader more of the same jollity and ‘Blitz spirit’ – which is probably even more welcome now during the Covid-19 pandemic than it was when the first book was published. Emmy and her best friend Bunty are still bearing up as well as they can on the home front in London during the Second World War. Emmy is still working at Women’s Friend magazine, trying to shore up readers’ morale and offer them good advice, but after being invited to a Ministry of Information briefing for writers on women’s magazines, she is gripped by the idea of trying to encourage more women to sign up for war work. However, as she starts to meet women who are actually working in factories, she realises that a shortage of government nurseries is both preventing them Doing Their Bit and putting many into financial hardship. Can Emmy balance her ‘patriotic’ duty to give a positive account of factory work with her new awareness of the real needs of workers?

As she did in Dear Mrs Bird, Pearce deliberately adopts a kind of spoof pastiche of how we think people sounded in the 1940s, without any attempt at historical realism. This worked a little less well for me in this sequel, however, perhaps because of the integration of more serious questions about women’s war work and childcare. It also felt more twee than its predecessor – while Dear Mrs Bird was centred on some genuinely tragic events, nothing nearly as dark happens in Yours Cheerfully, so the balance doesn’t feel quite right. Emmy’s life is indeed so cheery that I found myself becoming more interested in Bunty’s quiet struggles instead. All in all, this is a fun read, but it feels very much like the middle book in a trilogy – and I suspect a third will be along soon. 

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on June 24th.

Wolfson History Prize Blog Tour: Survivors

I was delighted to be invited to take part in the blog tour for the Wolfson History Prize for the third year running. The Prize celebrates historical writing which ‘combines excellence in research with readability’ and you can see the full 2021 shortlist here.

The winner of the Prize will be announced on 9th June 2021.

Today, I’m reviewing one of the shortlisted titles: Rebecca Clifford’s Survivors: Children’s Lives After The Holocaust. Clifford is an Associate Professor in History at Swansea University and specialises in twentieth-century European history, oral history, Holocaust history, and memory studies. You can see her full academic profile here.

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Felice Z., alongside her parents and older sister, was deported from Baden to the internment camp of Gurs in the south of France in October 1940, when she was just one year old. In early 1941, she and her sister were rescued from Gurs by the Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants (OSE), and Felice was hidden with a French Catholic family until the Liberation. Her parents were killed in Auschwitz. Despite these wartime experiences, Felice remembered being criticised and belittled by adult survivors of the Holocaust when she attended the first American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors in 1983, saying:

I questioned whether I should go because I’d never been in a camp… I used to want to have a number [tattooed on my arm] so I could show people the pain… They used to say ‘You were a child, what do you know? You don’t remember.’

This reflected earlier ideas of who counted as a ‘Holocaust survivor’ – originally, ‘survivors’ were considered to be concentration camp survivors – but also the general exclusion of child survivors of the Holocaust from the category, even if they had been in a camp. In the immediate post-war period, child survivors were called ‘unaccompanied children’ or ‘Jewish war orphans’ instead. Recently, Clifford writes, child survivors have taken on more of the familiar public roles we might associate with a ‘Holocaust survivor’ – giving talks, speaking to school students, and volunteering at Holocaust museums – but ‘there is a clear rationale behind the shift: they are the only ones left’.

Survivors focuses on child survivors of the Holocaust who were born between 1935 and 1944, making them ten years old or younger at liberation in 1945. This deliberate choice by Clifford shows how things we think we know about the experience of Holocaust survivors changes when young children are placed at the centre of the story. For example, she argues, for child survivors, who experienced a certain amount of stability during wartime, the end of the war could often be a more difficult period. Maurits C., who spent the war in hiding in the Netherlands, recalled that ‘My war began in 1945… When I learned that my father and mother would not come back, and my brothers, then the war started.’ Counter-claims on Jewish child survivors after the end of the war added to this uncertainty. Jewish organisations were determined to reclaim children whom they thought had been taken by Christian families, while countries such as America, Canada, Australia and Britain were keen to care for ‘Jewish war orphans’ – but only if they were very young, ideally female, and full orphans, which many child survivors were not. Child survivors did not always want to be reunited with families they could not remember. Felice was forced to leave the Catholic family who had cared for her during wartime, which she remembered as traumatic: ‘I think they [the OSE] might have said… “you have to start being Jewish.” But I couldn’t understand what being Jewish meant’. 

Their limited memories of the war hampered child survivors throughout their adult lives, calling the validity of their ‘testimony’ into question, especially after the rise of Holocaust denialism, when there was a greater emphasis on survivors’ accounts being fixed and factually accurate. This was often impossible for child survivors. They were marked out in other ways: the West Germany Federal Indemnification Law of 1953 was meant to allow financial compensation for survivors from West Germany, but it was difficult for even adult survivors, let alone children, to supply the kind of ‘proof’ that was required. They could also be further severed from the Jewish community. Esther T. was in Auschwitz as a child, but as an adult, she found she needed her parents’ birth certificate to marry in an Orthodox synagogue: ‘you have to prove you’re Jewish to get married in a shul, and I couldn’t prove it!’

As a historian of childhood, what I found most brilliant about this book was the way in which it integrates histories of childhood into the kind of bigger historical narrative where children are usually absent or only included in a tokenistic or stereotyped way. Clifford shows how changing ideas of childhood and trauma immediately following the Second World War conditioned reactions to child survivors and forced them into unhelpful binaries: either they were seen as unaffected by the trauma they had endured because they would not remember it, or the separation from their mothers they had endured at an early age was believed to have left them permanently damaged. Neither of these narratives were helpful for child survivors, whom, in retrospective interviews, often felt they had to ‘prove’ they weren’t forever ‘maladjusted’: Denny M., who was interviewed in 1977, said ‘compared with so many messed-up adults that I’ve seen, I think I’m reasonably normal’. 

Even at the time, child survivors could be pathologised for being either ‘too bad’ or ‘too good’. The Buchenwald boys were a group of boys, ranging in age from 8 to 18, who were liberated from Buchenwald concentration camp in April 1945 and sent to an OSE-run reception centre in Normandy. On the way there, ‘they destroyed property, stole and assaulted civilians; there is some evidence that they raped German girls as an act of revenge’. Rather than seeing this behaviour as relating to what they had been through, the OSE’s chief psychiatrist suggested that they had survived precisely because of their ‘insensitivity and indifference‘. However – reflecting new psychological post-war ideas about middle childhood as an innately gregarious and energetic period – a welfare officer in the Jewish DP camps located in the US zone of occupation in Germany worried in 1948 that the children in these camps were too obedient and not ‘mischievous, high-spirited and imaginative’ enough.

Children themselves were aware of adult expectations about trauma and played into these; as Clifford puts it, these ‘wary children’ had good reason to distrust adults in authority and so ‘fabricated suitable pasts’. Two children who were placed in a children’s home in Surrey, Weir Courtney, learnt how to exhibit the correct emotions and tell the right stories. Fritz F. was bullied in the home, and was found crying by the matron who tucked him in at night: ‘I told her I was thinking about my mother. I wasn’t’. Unlike some post-war settings, Weir Courtney prided itself on being a place where children could be open about the past, but children may have been forced to talk about things they would rather not have discussed to play into the psychoanalytical narrative that disclosure was cathartic. We can speculate that this might have led to some false stories. Mina R. told the matron that she had seen her mother shot through the head in front of her, and the matron was pleased with the subsequent change in the girl, who had, she wrote, been ‘much quieter and clearer since‘. However, it was later discovered that Mina’s mother was still alive.

This is a really excellent book, intelligent, thoughtful and empathetic; I would be delighted to see it win the Wolfson History Prize.

Make sure to check out the other stops on the first week of the Wolfson History Prize blog tour:

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Late Spring Reading, 2021

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Mehar, Harbans and Gurleen are three recently married young women living in rural Punjab in 1929. They are the brides of three brothers, but none of the three women know which brother it is that they have married. They spend most of their nights in the ‘china room’, where they share a pair of charpoys, string beds, and whisper together under the display of their mother-in-law’s wedding china that came as part of her dowry. However, every so often, one of the women is called to sleep with her husband in a ‘windowless chamber at the back of the farm.’ In the blackness, each struggles to identify her bridegroom, but at first, none of them are able to. With this compelling set-up, Sunjeev Sahota’s third novel, China Room, immediately has something of the folkloric about it. This is countered or perhaps enhanced by the modernity of Sahota’s language and his refusal to slip into distancing, archaic prose. This usually works very well, although there were a couple of phrases that made me pause: it does feel jarring for these isolated characters to say things like ‘Ants in your pants?’, although I get that Sahota is already ‘translating’ their words into English and so we’re already only getting a version of what they say. On the other hand, this decision definitely gives China Room the immediacy that a lot of historical novels lack.

Alongside the story of Mehar and her sisters-in-law, we follow an unnamed eighteen-year-old male narrator in 1999, who is detoxing from heroin addiction on his family’s farm in the Punjab, having grown up in England. Our narrator becomes slightly interested in his family history – we discover that Mehar is his great-grandmother – but Sahota doesn’t draw the connections tightly between these two threads, preferring instead that the stories mirror each other thematically through their depiction of social exclusion and agency. This makes the modern narrator feel a little unnecessary at times, as Mehar’s section of the narrative has much greater tension and direction. However, I did like the perspective that his experiences brought, as he reflects upon the vicious racism he suffered as a teenager, confounding some of our assumptions about the relevant privilege of a young man raised in modern Britain as opposed to a young woman in an arranged marriage in 1920s India. China Room didn’t have quite the same kind of impact on me as Sahota’s previous book, The Year of the Runawaysbut it’s a beautifully quiet and moving novel.

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

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Dantiel W. Moniz’s debut collection of short stories, Milk Blood Heat, plays on some familiar themes: quite a few of the stories are about a pair of girls on the cusp of adolescence, knotted together by their own closeness but already sensing the encroachment of the outside world, where class, race and sexual attractiveness will start to define them. I am quite tired of fiction that stresses the strangeness of girlhood – why can’t we write about teenagers like they’re people, like everybody else? – but to be fair, Moniz only occasionally uses this register. Two things stood out to me from this collection, which I otherwise found a bit forgettable. One, most of the stories continue a couple of pages past where I expected where they were going to end, which was refreshing, as Moniz pulled a bit more out of each situation than I thought it could hold. Two, what will stay with me from Milk Blood Heat is not the plots of its stories but a series of arresting, brutal images. A woman grieving for a lost baby is fascinated by an octopus in an aquarium consuming its own tentacles. A girl hangs onto her non-swimmer friend to save herself when their raft drifts too far out to sea. A sister confronts her younger brother’s school bully in a closet and terrifies him. Tying into what I’ve already said, it’s not surprising that all these scenes came near the end of their respective stories. It’s almost as if Moniz had to write through the mundane before reaching the surprising. I’ve just read too many collections like this for Milk Blood Heat to stand out, I’m afraid, but Moniz definitely has promise.

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

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The unnamed narrator of Natasha Brown’s debut, Assembly, is a black woman working in finance, and its ostensible focus is a visit to her boyfriend’s family estate. However, the story takes place almost entirely inside the narrator’s head. This stream-of-consciousness novella sometimes strays closer to being a polemic essay than a piece of fiction, which in this instance, isn’t a bad thing at all. We find out early on that the narrator has been diagnosed with some kind of life-threatening condition and is refusing treatment, but doesn’t seem too concerned with her physical future. Instead, she consistently bashes against the walls of her own mind as she muses on the impossibilities of truly existing as a black woman in Britain. The central theme is how black lives have been monetised, from the compensation paid to slaveowners after Britain abolished slavery early in the nineteenth century, to the way she is exploited and tokenised by capitalism today.

The narrator’s voice becomes increasingly desperate as she considers how futile it is to make people see white supremacy when they don’t believe it’s there: ‘Explain air… Prove what can’t be seen. A breezy brutality cuts you each day.’ To survive, she feels she is being asked to ‘become the air’ and so considers opting out, letting her own body kill her. Her younger sister is on the same ‘successful’ life trajectory, and she believes that by dying she can help her out: ‘I have amassed a new opportunity, something to pass on. Forwards. To my sister.’ However, the claustrophobic twist in this tale is that the narrator herself still can’t think past money, giving her sister a stake in the system that has ground her down: ‘I have the flat, savings and some investments, pensions, plus a substantial life-insurance policy.’ While I admired what Brown was doing with this book, for me it did suffer a bit from the typical curse of the novella; I felt it could have been tightened into an incredible short story or expanded into a wonderful novel. But although it didn’t quite hit as hard as it might have done, it’s still a haunting piece of writing.

I received a free proof copy of this novella from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 3rd June.

Early Spring Reading, 2021

As usual, I have been reading three completely different things!

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Alexandra Andrews’s debut thriller, Who Is Maud Dixon?, is so close to Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley that it feels almost like a retelling, although there are also shades of Caroline Kepnes’s You in its cynical take on the literary world. Florence is an editorial assistant in New York who never seems to do or say the right thing; her less privileged upbringing leaves her feeling like an outsider. Like other young women of her generation, she’s fallen in love with the novel Mississippi Foxtrot, written under the pseudonym Maud Dixon. When Florence is invited to travel to Morocco to work as a personal assistant for the woman behind the pseudonym, Helen Wilcox, she believes she will learn the secret of how to be a successful novelist. However, she still feels stuck too fast in her old identity. When an unexpected opportunity to become Helen Wilcox – and through her, Maud Dixon – comes up, what will Florence do with it?

The first half of this thriller was really intelligently written; although the early chapters are not overtly eventful, I felt completely gripped by Florence’s voice and observations. In the second half, it comes off the rails a bit, with an identity-swapping plot that becomes too complicated and a little absurd. Highsmith’s decision to have Tom Ripley’s deception be initially so simple, but so audacious, felt even wiser after reading Who Is Maud Dixon? I would have been much more convinced if the novel had taken a quieter turn and focused more on literary deception. In particular, Andrews’s decision to make Mississippi Foxtrot loosely autobiographical felt unfortunate given that Elena Ferrante’s decision to write under a pseudonym seemed at least partly motivated by  the assumption that women writers can only write about their own lives. As she writes anonymously, Ferrante’s critics can’t draw neat lines between her life and that of her characters, which seems to be exactly what she wants. Instead, Andrews falls back on a really tiring trope – that all novels are simply veiled versions of autobiography – which doesn’t leave her any room to explain wider questions about writing. However, I would definitely read her next novel, as I thought Florence was such an interesting creation, and she carries the book even in its sillier moments.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK now.

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Naomi Ishiguro’s debut novel, Common Ground, also starts in a very familiar place. It’s 2003, but it might as well be 1950; thirteen-year-old Stan is the school outcast, teased for his NHS glasses and old clothes, and struggling after his father’s death. When he meets cool sixteen-year-old Charlie, who doesn’t go to school but works at the local gym instead, an unlikely friendship results. Stan – who, speaking as someone who was also a pretty unworldly teenager in 2003, seems almost impossibly naive – is fascinated by Charlie’s Traveller* family and shocked at the abuse they receive. Almost ten years later, in 2012, Stan and Charlie meet again at a party in London. Both are now very different people, and struggle to connect across class, education and racial divides. Charlie’s life has been marked by the social exclusion and discrimination he’s experienced, while Stan seems to have lightly shrugged off his earlier suffering. Will their previous closeness be enough to bring them together?

Common Ground has very worthy intentions, and draws attention to a form of racism that is often forgotten, despite recent headlines about discrimination against Traveller communities in both Britain and Ireland. However, as a novel, I found it plodding and simplistic, and much too long. I was a little puzzled about what it was trying to do. A number of reviews describe it as ‘feelgood’ or ‘heartwarming’, but I found it rightly, relentlessly grim. If you’re looking for something that cheerfully explores community in the vein of Libby Page’s The Lido or Joanna Cannon’s Three Things About Elsiethis is not the book for you. However, by itself, that isn’t a problem – there’s no reason why a book that explores this kind of entrenched racism should be uplifting. The trouble is that Common Ground doesn’t bring much more to the table. The prose is competent, but both Charlie and Stan remain within the boundaries of their respective archetypes. When they meet again in London in 2012, Charlie slips straight into the salt-of-the-earth working-class observer role, mocking middle-class students’ pretentious views on art (why is this always the way protagonists demonstrate emotional authenticity?) while Stan can’t speak without lapsing into journalistic jargon about austerity politics. People are more complicated than this.

I was sorry not to like Common Ground more, because I really admire its focus on the experiences of Traveller communities. I would actually be keen to try Ishiguro’s collection of short stories, Escape Routes, to see how her writing works in a very different form.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 25th March.

*There are a range of terms that these communities use to refer to themselves, as the linked article describes. I’m using ‘Traveller’ in this review because it’s the word Charlie seems to prefer.

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Gwendoline Riley has many gifts as a writer, but I think the most obvious – showcased both in her most recent book, My Phantoms, and her previous one, First Love – is the way she composes dialogue. I can’t think of another writer who nails so precisely how we actually speak, with all of its redundancies, embarrassing repetitions and pointless exclamations. The narrator of My Phantoms, Bridget, is also acutely aware of how even the most throwaway comment might be interpreted, at least when she’s talking to her mother, Hen, which adds an extra layer of self-reflection. Here she is talking to Hen about a drinks party:

I got stuck with a really boring woman for about ten minutes,” I said.

“Oh no!” my mother said.

“So typical,” I said, “in a room full of interesting people.”

That was a slip-up. I knew it as soon as I’d said it.

“Mmm,” she said, bravely.

I tried to get her back: “The dreadful thing is, I think she felt she’d got stuck with me, too! But neither of us had the wherewithal to break it off.”

“Aargh!” said my mother.

And encouraged, I went on, “I think it’s worse when you feel you’re the boring one!” I said. But there again, that was wrong; I’d given the impression now of such a party-rich life that I could make generalisations.

Bridget tells us almost nothing about herself; the focus of this novella is on character portraits of her parents, her unbearably awful father (whose constant badgering of her when she was a child gives us some idea of why she may have withdrawn so far into herself) and the much more complicated Hen, who is always striving for something brighter and better at the same time as she trips herself up. Hen’s life is the real centre of this story, and the final glimpse of her we get is unbearably sad.

Other reviewers have noted that Bridget’s effacement of herself from the narrative doesn’t mean that we should think of her as unselfish, pointing out that she outsources caring responsibilities to her sister Michelle as Hen gets older, and seems unreasonably opposed to Hen meeting her boyfriend. However, I think Riley leaves Bridget’s motivations deliberately open. She is far estranged not only from her parents but from Michelle, and there seems to be a great deal she doesn’t say about her childhood. And while she is capable of deliberately baiting and upsetting her mother (for example, subtly noting the inconvenience of having dinner with Hen on her actual birthday, because the weather’s always cold and wet) we also see how hard she tries to make pleasant conversation. This kind of watchfulness made me reflect back on what Bridget experienced while she was growing up, as it felt like the kind of learnt behaviour that emerges from an abusive environment. None of these characters are easy to read, but that’s why this novella is so good.

I received a free proof copy of this novella from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 1st April.

Talking to ghosts: The Library of the Dead by TL Huchu

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TL Huchu’s debut novel, The Library of the Dead, one of my most anticipated 2021 releases, is narrated by a fourteen-year-old Scottish-Zimbabwean girl called Ropa who can talk to ghosts. Her interactions with the dead tend to be short and sweet – after all, the more messages from the afterlife she can pass onto grieving relatives, the more money she can make, and she has to support her gran and little sister. However, when a ghost appeals to her to find out what happened to her young son, who has mysteriously vanished, Ropa finds herself becoming involved in a dangerous mystery that will take her beneath the streets of Edinburgh and into the Library of the Dead.

When I heard that The Library of the Dead was not only an urban supernatural novel but a dystopian one, I wasn’t sure whether Huchu would be able to handle all of these elements in the same novel. As it turns out, the Scottish dystopia he imagines remains a backdrop to the main plot, but a backdrop that is vividly rendered, with brief descriptions that indicate a much more intricate history that I’m sure we’ll discover more about in later books in this series: ‘The concrete walls of the now-old “new Parliament” are marked with graffiti, and there’s a gaping hole through the main entrance, called “the king’s knock”. It was made by a shell from a Challenger tank when separatist MSPs holed up in the building, rejecting the crown’s authority after the restoration. Parliament looks like a wounded animal sunk on its haunches after the hunt, just before it expires. It’s forever caught in that moment. As the wind blows, you can hear its rattly gasps through the yawning cavern.’ If you know Edinburgh, these kind of passages are particularly chilling.

However, there’s a bit too much thrown into The Library of the Dead, or perhaps it’s that everything that’s here doesn’t quite work together, as great as all the components are. We have a slangy teenage narrator akin to El from Naomi Novik’s A Deadly Education exploring a library that’s reminiscent of Garth Nix’s Lirael learning a magic system that reminded me a bit of Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind and ending up somewhere as unnerving as David Mitchell’s Slade House. The book never seems to know exactly where it sits. The tone shifts, as well. The Library of the Dead feels predominantly like YA, sometimes with a darker edge that leads towards adult crossover, and yet the resolution of the mystery of who’s been taking the children is light-hearted enough to be at home in children’s fiction. Ropa’s voice is fantastic – she seems like a genuine autodidact, with her random mix of references and slang – but because she is the kind of narrator who makes complicated jokes and doesn’t always tell us things straight, I think it would have worked better were she narrating a more straightforward plot.

Perhaps because of the amount of information that Huchu packs in, The Library of the Dead also feels weirdly slow, although plenty happens. The very short chapters and scenes chop up the reader’s attention, as Ropa moves between different plot threads, and it’s only in the final third of the novel, when she completely commits to solving the missing children mystery, that it speeds up. Huchu seems to be doing a lot of work here setting up later books in the series by showcasing his rich and original world, but for me, this first instalment struggled to stand on its own, despite all the brilliant things that were in it.

‘In the beginning there was an idea’: Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

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Gifty, the protagonist of Yaa Gyasi’s second novel, Transcendent Kingdom, is both a neuroscience PhD student at Stanford who sought rigour in all things from an early age, and a grieving woman who is still deeply connected to her Ghanaian family’s Pentecostalism. As a child, she struggled with the command to ceaselessly praise God, soon discovering that she found it difficult to keep her mind on prayer for more than a few minutes; her teenage imagination was caught by the idea that ‘in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God’ might actually be translated differently: ‘“Word” was translated from the Greek word Logos, which didn’t really mean “word” at all, but rather something closer to “plea” or even premise… In the beginning there was an idea, a premise; there was a question.’ Gifty’s research on reward-seeking behaviour in mice has obvious connections with the death of her older brother Nana from opioid addiction, but the novel avoids giving her this one simple motivation for her project; she explains that she was drawn to neuroscience because it seemed so hard and so pure, and is now grappling with the conflict between religious and scientific ideas of the brain, the mind and the soul.

From a white British perspective, fiction on the perceived conflict between religion and science has often tended to focus on the theory of evolution, and explored either the gentle accord that nineteenth-century men of science found between their faith and the evidence that the natural history of the world was much longer than they’d expected, or the later clashes with creationism. Transcendent Kingdom stands out in its depiction of Gifty’s Pentecostal faith, which, unlike Anglicanism/ Episcopalianism, focuses on personal divine revelation and speaking in tongues, and how she integrates her childhood beliefs with her neuroscientific work. (Creationism only comes up once, as an irritating question that non-believers ask her; she dodges it by spouting something one of her schoolteachers once said, ‘I believe we’re made of stardust, and God made the stars.’) This novel is so wise and thoughtful that there are endless bits I could quote, but I was especially struck by how Gifty turns to both scientific articles and biblical passages, not necessarily as sources of authority, but as things that are both good to think with.

This book is so thematically resonant that a lot of the reviews I’ve read make it sound intellectually worthy, but a bit dry; this isn’t the case at all. Gifty is a completely captivating narrator, ironically funny about her younger self, complex, unashamedly ambitious and yet deeply caring. Gyasi does not have time for any of the usual binaries that afflict female characters, and doesn’t let us think for a second that because Gifty wants to be a scientific star and does not want marriage or children, this means that she is in any way emotionally deficient. The novel is also technically brilliant in a very unobtrusive way; the narrative melts between present and past every few paragraphs, but I never felt at all confused about where or when we were. Indeed, it’s this clever juxtaposition that allows Gyasi to say so much without spelling anything out to the reader.

I never managed to love Gyasi’s acclaimed debut, Homegoing, as much as I wanted to; I admired its premise and construction, and connected with some of the stories, but felt a little distanced from the project as a whole. Transcendent Kingdom was a very different experience; I was completely pulled into Gifty’s world and Gifty’s questions. This novel deserves to go straight onto the Women’s Prize longlist and indeed the shortlist, and I hope to see it there on the 10th March.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 4th March.

(An aside: what is going on with the UK cover for this book? It looks like the sort of shapes I used to doodle in class, and the pink and green cover scheme is – not good. It’s such a shame, because the US cover is perfect:

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Naomi Novik’s A Deadly Education: Sunshine and Shadows

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Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver, her second immersive folktale retelling, was one of my top ten books of 2020. Her latest novel, A Deadly Education, is both utterly different and equally brilliant. The first in a trilogy, it’s set at the Scholomance, a magical school that takes all the nagging doubts we had about Hogwarts – ‘why are teenagers allowed to attend a school that’s so dangerous?’ – and runs with them. The Scholomance is infested with mals, dangerous magical creatures that want to kill the trainee wizards within, and so constant vigilance is required to see off attacks, whether you’re getting your lunch in the cafeteria or trying to find a book in the library. However, the curriculum itself, which is not taught by teachers but simply manifests for the students to follow, doesn’t help matters. As El, our first-person narrator, explains:

If you don’t complete a shop assignment on time, your unfinished work will animate on the due date and come after you with whatever power you’ve put into it. And if you try and get around that by not putting anything into it, or doing it wrong, the raw materials you should have used all animate separately and come at you. It’s quite a solid teaching technique.

El blithely tells us near the beginning of the novel that the reason teenage wizards fight to get into the Scholomance is that they’re even more vulnerable to mals in the outside world, which neatly dispenses with some obvious objections to this set-up. And while this isn’t a major theme of the book, I liked its unconscious riposte to Lord of the Flies-type assumptions that teenagers would descend into anarchy if left to their own devices; as we see, these adolescents are as capable of constructing a social order as adults, even if it has many of the same class issues.

El, a half-Indian, half-Welsh social outcast, is such a delightful narrator. If you don’t like tangents in your fiction, forget about reading this book now, because a massive proportion of this book is El simply telling us about how the Scholomance works, how its social hierarchies function, and the myriad ways that the students have devised to try and survive to graduation (only a certain proportion of each year group ever make it out). El even manages to shoot off on several digressions while facing a mawmouth, most terrifying of all the mals. However, I adore this kind of narration, and I can’t wait to devour two more books of it. Coincidentally enough, I happened to re-read Robin McKinley’s Sunshine, one of my favourite books of all time, just before I started A Deadly Education, and I’m convinced that Sunshine’s voice was a huge influence on El’s voice. (This theory was lent weight when I found out that Novik stuck a deliberate reference to another McKinley novel into her first folktale retelling, Uprootedclearly, she’s a fan). Sunshine, who is a coffeehouse baker in an alternative version of our world infested with vampires, shares a lot with El; both enthusiastically tell us about the intricacies of their lives even in the face of danger, and both are afraid that they might become evil. But their voices sound similar even on the sentence level, with a lot of second-person address, long sentences, and snark. Here’s El telling us why the Scholomance exists:

We’re a lot harder to get at in here than if we were living out in the wide open, in a yurt for instance. Even enclave kids were getting eaten more often than not before the school was built, and if you’re an indie kid who doesn’t get into the Scholomance, these days your odds of making it to the far side of puberty are one in twenty. One in four is plenty decent odds compared to that. 

And here’s Sunshine telling us about the ninety percent of people who have both sorcerer and demon blood who go insane:

If you were in the ninety percent, it showed up early. Usually. If you weren’t born with a precocious ability to hoist yourself out of your cost and get into really repulsive mischief, the next likeliest time for you to start running amok was in the pre-teen years, when magic-handling kids are apprenticed for their first serious magic-handling training.

This isn’t to say that A Deadly Education is in any way copying off Sunshine. Both books share a concern with being a powerful magic handler who could go bad (and both build this up brilliantly through slightly unreliable first-person narration) and both also feature enchanted objects, like wards and books, that frequently do go bad, but in most other ways their worldbuilding and storylines are very different. And to be honest, most of this probably wouldn’t even occur to you if you haven’t read Sunshine a worryingly large number of times, like me. What I am saying is, if this is a homage, it’s a fantastic one; and if you liked A Deadly Education, you need to read Sunshine IMMEDIATELY. 

A note: when A Deadly Education first came out, it was accused of being racist in this Goodreads review. As a result, one unintentionally racist, but problematic passage was excised from future editions of the book, and Novik apologised. The review makes a number of other claims about why the book is racist, but in my opinion, these additional claims just don’t stand up. A lot of them are factually wrong, while others have been challenged by other readers of colour from the relevant backgrounds (this review discusses Chinese representation, and this review covers Indian representation). I was also interested to read the comments from biracial people on all of these reviews, as one criticism of El is that she is ‘whitewashed’ and disconnected from her Indian heritage – which she absolutely is, but this seems to make sense given that she has been brought up in Wales by her white mother. Overall, the diversity of the Scholomance is pretty surface-level, and exists largely to facilitate world-building – different languages are useful for different spells, for example. This means that the book doesn’t have much to say about race, or the experience of being biracial, but I don’t think it intended to, and given its style and genre, I think Novik, as a white writer, sensibly decided not to tackle these issues. While I totally agree that it’s a problem if this is the only kind of diversity we get in fiction, this is a structural publishing problem rather than an individual book problem; while publishing remains white-dominated, it’s going to be easier to sell this kind of ‘diversity’ to publishers than books by authors of colour.

Finishing Up With February ARCs

These three solid debut novels mark the end of my glut of February ARCs! My first post on February releases can be found here.

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I thoroughly enjoyed Emily Layden’s All Girls, although I recognised that the book has some issues which may be more of a turn-off for other readers. All Girls is set during the academic year 2015-16 at a New England prep school where a former student has recently accused one of the teachers of sexually assaulting her. However, All Girls is not really focused on the details of the accusation, but rather how it impacts the school’s current students, and their developing ideas of how to navigate in the world as young women who are never quite taken seriously. It’s narrated through nine different third-person perspectives (plus a bit of head-hopping in the final section), as we meet a range of girls from different grades, from awkward new freshman Lauren to jaded ex-ballet dancer Sloane to lesbian Emma, a senior whose long-term relationship with her mixed-race girlfriend Olivia has become iconic in the school.

While the characters sometimes become hard to keep track of, I really felt that Layden had thought this all through; there’s something solid about the connections between her cast that makes me believe that if I re-read this novel, all sorts of things would start coming to light that I hadn’t noticed first time round. In this way, I thought her decision to use multiple narrators was much more illuminating than if we’d had to keep to a single person’s perspective (both the strength and weakness of Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prepwhich this novel obviously has a lot in common with, is that we’re totally trapped in Lee’s head, and Lee’s head is a very unreliable place to be trapped). And while there are so many novels about the inner worlds of teenage girls, there are very few that are so serious and insightful; like Sittenfeld, Layden really gets how some teenage girls approach the world, and how small but yet significant interactions can crush or uplift their sense of who they are. If there was one thing I found less convincing about All Girls, it was that all her narrators seem to share this sense of watchfulness; it would have been nice, and more realistic, to get inside the head of at least one student who was less compulsively analytic. It’s also, frankly, too long. Nevertheless, it’s definitely well ahead of most books of this kind, and if you like campus novels, you’ll probably like this.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 18th February.

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Neema Shah’s Kololo Hill focuses on an episode in British colonial history that may not be familiar to many readers; the expulsion of Asians from Uganda in 1972 by Idi Amin. Most Asians had to leave the country within ninety days, fleeing to the range of countries in which they had citizenship – with a majority ending up in Britain – although some were left stateless. As the novel makes clear, although Uganda had gained independence from Britain in 1962, this event was a direct result of its long history of colonisation. South Asians, mostly Gujaratis, had been originally brought to Uganda by the British, first to work on the construction of the Uganda Railway in the late nineteenth century (nearly a third of these Indian workers were killed or maimed during the project), and later to participate in commerce and administration under the Uganda Protectorate. However, the expulsion of Ugandan Asians was also intertwined with Britain’s future stance towards its former colonial subjects; the 1971 Immigration Act increased immigration controls and was primarily motivated by the influx of refugees from Uganda and from Kenya, which also expelled Asians in the late 1960s.

Kololo Hill tells this story through a single family. Asha has recently married Pran, who runs a general store, or dukan, with his brother Vijay, and also lives with mother Jaya and father Motichand. While the family are not wealthy, they become increasingly aware of how they are perceived as privileged ‘dukawallahs’ by African Ugandans, and try to protect their ‘house-boy’ December, who is one of the persecuted Acholi people. Each step of the plot is pretty predictable, but Kololo Hill still flows easily and engagingly as we see how this family deal with their world suddenly being turned upside down. I wanted our three narrators – Asha, Vijay and Jaya – to stray a little further from archetype, but I appreciated the inter-generational perspective, and the consideration of how Vijay manages with a physical disability (he was born missing most of his left arm), especially when he comes into contact with the British welfare state. Shah depicts the ways in which her protagonists are both oppressed and fortunate skilfully, as they recognise the advantages they’ve had over African Ugandans due to British patronage and their relatively kinder welcome into Britain itself, and yet are obviously uprooted, robbed, and attacked in Uganda, and continue to face racism every day in Britain. While Kololo Hill might be competent rather than brilliant, it vividly conveys this significant moment in history.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 18th February.

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Way back in January 2020, before the UK publication date of Meng Jin’s Little Gods got pushed back, it was one of my most-anticipated books for that year. And, it turns out, it does use a narrative device that’s one of my favourites: telling the story of a single character solely through the perspectives of multiple other people, like Anna North does in The Life and Death of Sophie Stark or Kevin Nguyen does in New WavesAs a young woman, Su Lan is a brilliantly talented theoretical physicist. We meet her having just given birth to her daughter Liya in Beijing in the midst of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, where an exhausted nurse is struck by her unusual demeanour. The novel then moves between the perspectives of Su Lan’s former neighbour Zu Wen, her former classmate Li Yongzong, and Liya herself to put together the fractured pieces of Su Lan’s history. What emerges is that Su Lan was a master of self-fashioning, but this was driven by a desperate need to hide what she saw as her true self. Arguing with her, Yongzong reflects: ‘through the cracks I saw something terrible, it was dark and powerful and churning, and I recognised with frightening clarity that everything I knew about Su Lan – her excellence, her beauty, her composure – was actually an attempt to control this thing.’ We hear about the poverty of Su Lan’s childhood in rural China, but we never get to the bottom of what she thinks is so wrong with her, and this novel is the stronger for it. Instead, we see how she uses theoretical physics and thermodynamics (in the form of Maxwell’s demon) to chase an impossible dream: can we forget the past and remember the future? There’s something here of Nell Freudenberger’s excellent Lost and Wantedwhich also picks up on quantum mechanics to deal with grief and ghosts. For me, Little Gods was stronger in its first half than in its second, when the pieces of the puzzle come together a bit too neatly, but it’s still an impressive debut.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 25th February.