#NovellasInNovember: Patchett, Brooks, Fernández

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I’m obsessed with Ann Patchett’s non-fiction, so I splashed out on What Now? even though it’s really no more than an essay padded out with inspirational Instagram-like black and white images that don’t feel like Patchett at all. This mini-book is an expanded version of Patchett’s commencement address at Sarah Lawrence, her alma mater (having attended a lot of UK graduations in my role as an academic, I can’t imagine having someone like Patchett come to speak to you rather than the usual miserable speeches we get!). Some of the material, like her time working as a waitress and as a line cook, will be familiar if you’ve read her earlier autobiographical essays and writings in Truth and Beauty and This Is The Story of a Happy MarriageStill, I enjoyed her reflections on ‘what now?’ and how this question can be freeing as well as pressurising and terrifying. My favourite bit was actually the postscript when she explains how she wrote a boring, portentous speech first time around, then had to write it again after her mentor broke the news to her that it was awful…

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Maud Martha, first published in 1953, is a modern classic, the only novel by acclaimed, Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks. It follows the life of Maud Martha, a black girl growing up in inter-war Chicago, who moves from a relatively affluent family household to a smaller, more run down ‘kitchenette’ apartment when she marries. I had much the same problem with Maud Martha that I’ve had with other classics from black female writers from this period, such as Nella Larsen’s Passing (1929) and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937); while I recognise the historical significance of these novels, and how groundbreaking they would have been at the time, they now feel narrow and cliched to me. (I don’t think this is a problem confined to black female writers, by the way! I struggle in general with inter-war and postwar English and American literature, and so I just haven’t picked up many books by white and/or male writers from these periods – these three texts have all been book club picks.)

Maud Martha tells a very familiar coming of age story of marriage, motherhood, colorism and racism. Brooks does a marvellous job of illuminating the inner consciousness, how we think and how we imbue what we see and observe with our own emotions. Her description of the birth of Maud Martha’s daughter Paulette is so vivid and immediate, as is an incident when the n-word is used at a black-owned beauty shop but the owner fails to call it out, to Maud Martha’s horror. It’s also obvious that Brooks was a brilliant poet; there are some absolutely perfect sentences here, like when Maud Martha muses on her general dissatisfaction with her marriage when she sees her husband dancing with another woman: ‘ “I could,” considered Maud Martha, “go over there and scratch her upsweep down. I could spit on her back”… But if the root was sour what business did she have up there hacking at a leaf?’ Nevertheless, these vignettes of human consciousness never seemed to me to belong to a specific person, to Maud Martha; the novella felt like a strung-together series of observations from Brooks plus some sociological background on Maud Martha’s life. In the introduction to this edition, Margo Jefferson makes much of Maud Martha’s teenage assertion ‘What she wanted was to donate to the world a good Maud Martha’, suggesting that Maud Martha ‘cherishes her own mind, her sensibility… it is quietly extraordinary’ and that readers should ‘take nothing about this girl for granted’; but I found that Maud Martha very rarely took me by surprise.

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This very short novella is told in chorus by a group of schoolfriends who were children during Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile in the 1980s, and are now adults who still feel bound together by the horrors of this time, and especially the uncertain fate of their classmate, Estrella González. Nona Fernández’s Space Invaders, translated by Natasha Wimmer, makes much of the familiar computer game that the children play, with the ranks of green aliens who continually advance symbolising the militaristic society they are growing up in. However, I preferred the parts of this novella that felt less certain, harder to interpret. Although they are scattered far apart, the friends – with González’s childhood crush, Zúñiga, gradually coming to the fore – believe that they meet each other in dreams, where they discuss what may have happened to González after she was abruptly taken out of school by her father, an officer in Pinochet’s regime. ‘We could take attendance… but it’s not necessary. We’re all here. We were scheduled to meet here. We’ve risen from our sheets and mattresses scattered around the city to arrive precisely on time. As always, the dream summons us.’ Maybe this is just Zúñiga’s way of dealing with his own trauma, but it makes the collective memories of the friends feel powerfully entangled. As ever with novellas, this just felt too brief to me, but I’m now keen to read Fernández’s recently translated novel, The Twilight Zone.

Have you read any novellas in November? Which were your favourites?

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#SciFiMonth: How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? & The Red Scholar’s Wake

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My experience with NK Jemisin’s short story collection How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? mirrored my experience with Jemisin’s writing as a whole, but definitely left me feeling keener to read more of her work. There were some stories here that did not work for me. Often, these were early tries at novels of hers that I have read and didn’t quite click with (‘Stone Hunger’/The Fifth Season) or novels of hers that I haven’t read and am now even more sure I won’t click with (‘The City Born Great’/The City We Became). A couple were as heavy-handed as her novella Emergency Skin – ‘The Ones Who Stay And Fight’, ‘Red Dirt Witch’; a couple others just felt silly and under-developed – ‘The Trojan Girl’, ‘Sinners, Saints, Dragons and Haints…’, ‘On The Banks of the River Lex’, ‘Henosis’.

Having said all that, though, there are twenty-two stories in this book and pretty much all the others were great. This is especially impressive because they span such a range of worlds and styles. A cook encounters a mysterious man who passes her magical recipes (‘L’Alchimista’); two women ally in an alternative version of early nineteenth-century New Orleans (‘The Effluent Engine’); a girl discovers why all the school valedictorians in her firewalled world are taken away from their community (‘Valedictorian’). Easily my favourite stories were the science fiction shorts, which feel like novels-in-a-bottle; I loved the chilling ‘The Brides of Heaven’, where an all-woman community struggles in a space colony after all the men die in a life-support unit malfunction, and ‘The Evaluators’, a first-contact story that reminded me of Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow and Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things.

While I’ve only read one full-length novel by Jemisin, I definitely feel that she’s at her strongest when she’s creating interesting worlds, and at her weakest when she starts giving her stories simple messages. At her best, she somehow manages to tie together huge narratives in the space of thirty pages or so, never trailing off like I’ve seen so many short story writers do. I’m still not sure what I’ll pick up from her next – it’s a shame that all her longer works seem to be fantasy rather than science fiction, which works less well for me – but I’m open to recommendations.

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I loved the cover and the premise and indeed, the title of Aliette de Bodard’s The Red Scholar’s Wake. Sadly, I did not love this book. The inciting incident struck me as very similar to that of Everina Maxwell’s Winter’s Orbitwhich I also read this month. When Xích Si is captured by the Red Banner pirate fleet, she’s shocked when its leader, the sentient ship Rice Fish, proposes an offer of marriage; her previous wife, the Red Scholar, died in mysterious circumstances, and Rice Fish wants to draw on Xích Si’s technical expertise to work out what really happened. Xích Si and Rice Fish are divided by their views of the world: while Xích Si despises piracy and valorises her scavenger lifestyle, deploring the indentures used by the pirate alliance, Rice Fish argues that the haven she has built using the Red Banner offers a better way of living. Despite these differences, Xích Si and Rice Fish begin to fall for each other – but then an escalation of the political struggle within the pirate fleet threatens to tear them apart.

In my review of Winter’s Orbit, I suggested that it was really ‘romance with a side of science fiction’ and I think The Red Scholar’s Wake falls into that category as well, despite having more superficial SF trappings. de Bodard makes much of the sentient ships, the avatars that both ships and humans project and the bots they then use to interact with their environment, but unlike Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice trilogy, this book has nothing interesting to say about sentience, and indeed treats its ship and human characters exactly the same way. Similarly, there’s a gloss of Vietnamese culture that informs the world of this novel, but doesn’t ultimately make it any different from a standard SF setting. The political subplot is incredibly simplistic and predictable, making Winter’s Orbit look Machiavellian.

The problem is, then, that if The Red Scholar’s Wake is really a romance, it needs to be… romantic. And for me, the pairing didn’t work at all. Neither Xích Si nor Rice Fish are given much of a character past the different ethical stances that I described above. Because they have no personalities, there is nothing to draw them together, and yet they fall very quickly for each other. There also seems to be no consideration of the fact that ONE OF THEM IS A SHIP. I imagine de Bodard was trying to show that this kind of pairing is very normal in this world, but she needed to do more work to sell this to the reader (I found the ‘sex’ scene in the middle of the novel INCREDIBLY creepy). Reading this book actually made me reflect on why Winter’s Orbit worked so well, and why it might be a bit unfair to describe it as ‘romance with a side of science fiction’. While I was totally won over by the central pairing in that novel, the science fiction setting wasn’t merely a backdrop; Maxwell used some of the technologies she introduced to explore the trauma of an abusive relationship and how we can mend ourselves. In contrast, The Red Scholar’s Wake was definitely romance plus a bit of science fiction; the two aspects of the novel never speak to each other, and at some points (the aforementioned sex scene!!), are directly in conflict.

Note: After writing this, I found this excellent Goodreads review which picks up on the problematic representation of aromantic and asexual people in this book. This perfectly explains the unease I had around the way that Rice Fish’s relationship with her first wife was depicted, and why I didn’t find her trauma convincing.

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

‘This isn’t life and it isn’t time’: Our Share of Night by Mariana Enríquez

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In 1985, the world watched as a thirteen-year-old girl, Omayra Sánchez, slowly died as she stood trapped in debris after a volcanic eruption in the Tolima region of Colombia. Pinned down by the ruins of her own house, Omayra’s dead aunt’s arms were locked around her niece’s legs and feet. Given the equipment on the ground there was no way to get Omayra out. She survived for several days as gangrene and hypothermia set in; by the time she died, her fingers had become white and her eyes had turned completely black.

Even more than the legacy of the military junta in Argentina that led to the death or ‘disappearance’ of thousands of people, Omayra’s story haunts the pages of Our Share of Night, the first of Mariana Enríquez’s novels to be translated into English. Alongside these real horrors, Enríquez gives us a terrifying shadow-story that revolves around the cult of the ‘Darkness’, whose followers believe it can offer them eternal life despite its destructive mutilations when it manifests via a medium. When Our Share of Night opens in 1981, the only medium is Juan, a seriously ailing man born with a congenital heart condition whose body has also broken down through being forced to manifest the Darkness. Juan is desperate to protect his young son, Gaspar, who is the cult’s next target – if Gaspar doesn’t inherit his father’s powers, they plan to transfer Juan’s consciousness into Gaspar’s body so Juan can live on after his impending death.

Despite its 736 pages, Our Share of Night has a straightforward plot and a small cast of characters. Even in its side-stories we focus tightly on Juan, Gaspar and the Darkness. And here, I think, is one reason why I so admired Enríquez’s ambition and many of her set-pieces, but found the book such a painfully slow read. Yes, it’s long, but it doesn’t normally take me five weeks to get through a book of this length; I read Hanya Yanagihara’s To Paradise, which is almost exactly the same length, in less than two. Like To Paradise, I’d suggest that this book is best approached as a collection of novels and novellas rather than as a single work. But unlike To Paradise, the unity of theme and character between the different sections makes Our Share of Night feel much more repetitive. I think the only section that completely worked for me was the short-story-length ‘The Zañartú Pit’, set in 1993, where we see anthropologist Olga Gallardo exploring the remnants of these dark rites in a Guaraní village devastated by the military coup, unaware of exactly what she’s getting herself into.

And maybe this was my favourite section because it really is the only section where Enríquez truly weaves together the horrors of Argentinian history and the terror of the cult of the Darkness. Throughout the rest of the novel, these are very much two separate stories, with the Darkness almost standing in for the junta rather than reflecting and illuminating it. Perhaps I am at fault here as well; I know very little about this period in Argentina and, if I knew more, the parallels might be more obvious. But I do think that Enríquez was going for something akin to Julianne Pachico’s The Anthill or Violet Kupersmith’s Build Your House Around My Body, which both entwine the violent history of a country (Colombia and Vietnam respectively) with more supernatural gore and horror.

Omayra, then, feels more present in the novel than anything done by the military junta because she is the figure that haunts the set of characters who are the only ones who really come to life: Gaspar’s childhood friends, Pablo, Vicky and Adela. And this gives me another reason why this book was so difficult to drag myself through: ultimately, I didn’t care what happened to Juan or to Gaspar. They never felt like real people to me. Perhaps this was a deliberate choice by Enríquez; touched by the weirdness of the Darkness, Gaspar is set apart from his three, more human friends. But again, I thought of another brick of a novel that I found much easier to read, and re-read: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. Gaspar shares something with the traumatised Theo, but despite Theo’s story meandering almost as badly as Gaspar’s at times (get out of Las Vegas, please!!!), I stayed with it because I was so invested in Theo. And unlike The Goldfinch, which pulls off a stonking final section that fully repays the reader’s investment, Our Share of Night manages to rush its climax.

This is a very difficult novel to sum up, because despite the fact that I did not enjoy reading most of it, I know that it will absolutely stay with me; and there are sections where Enríquez’s prose, as translated by Megan McDowell, is extraordinarily powerful. I’ll definitely be reading Enríquez’s translated short story collections. Still, the pacing is hopeless, and the horror only intermittent. I can’t in good conscience recommend it.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It was left over from my R.I.P XVII challenge (though I have been reading it since October 8th!)

October Superlatives

October superlatives already! You can also read my R.I.P XVII/Spooktastic Reads challenge round-up for this month.

The Best Book I Read This Month Was…

We Ride Upon Sticks by Quan Barry. Teen witch field hockey drama in the 1980s! However, this evocative historical novel was also brilliant on how our perspectives on race, feminism and queer/trans identity have changed, not always for the better. My full review is here.

(Hon. mention: This Time Tomorrow by Emma Straub, which gives its time-travel narrative somewhat short shrift due to some odd pacing choices, but which partly makes up for this by its beautiful, poignant depiction of the central father-daughter relationship.)

The Worst Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Patricia Wants To Cuddle by Samantha Allen. I hoped this short novel would be the right side of ridiculous, but unfortunately it was the wrong side of ridiculous. The finale of a Bachelor-style franchise is taking place on a remote island where a group of female hikers went missing decades ago. Unbeknownst to our Instagram-obsessed cast, a female Bigfoot is stalking the island, aided and abetted by a cult of lesbians. Doesn’t it sound engagingly weird? However, the execution was really off. The first two-thirds of the novel reads like a light thriller criticising social media, then the final third pairs gruesome horror with humour. There needed to be a much darker, more subversive undercurrent from the beginning to make this shift work. And while this book obviously wants to be queer and satirical, I still wasn’t a fan of the lesbian stereotypes which didn’t seem to do any interesting narrative work (the interspersed love letters were so cliched they were painful to read), and the cult of ‘Patricia’ needed a lot more page-time. A shame, because it has a good cover.

The Book That Was So Well-Written But Not Much Else This Month Was…

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… The White Rock by Anna Hope. Hope’s fourth novel follows four unnamed narrators in four different time periods, travelling in the same area of Mexico: the Writer in 2020, the Singer in 1969, the Girl in 1907 and the Lieutenant in 1775. All of her novels have been well-written, but The White Rock is on another level. The strength of her writing here, however, helped me really pin down why it is that none of her novels have quite worked for me (I’ve also reviewed The Ballroom and Expectation). The quality of the prose is definitely there but the quality of the ideas is consistently lacking. These four narratives are linked by a sense of worlds that are ending, relationships with the environment that are being destroyed. However, Hope has little new to say about this; once you try and look past the prose, the story dissolves. My full review is on GoodreadsI received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

The Only Book I Read From The Booker Longlist Before The Winner Was Announced Was…

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… Nightcrawling by Leila Mottley. This debut novel made this year’s Booker longlist but not the shortlist, and, while I admired Mottley’s writing, I’m not sure I’d have even put it on the longlist. Kiara is a black teenage girl living in Oakland who turns to casual sex work when she and her brother are threatened with eviction from their rented apartment; things turn even darker when the local police pick her up and force her to have sex with them at regular ‘parties’. Kiara’s voice is convincing, with some fantastic sentences: ‘the boyfriend I had when I was fourteen and still trying to live out childhood’; ‘a series of tingles have coursed across my forehead like that feeling when you’re blindfolded, but your body feels the eyes’; ‘Mama wore wide-leg red pants to go fall in love with Daddy and kept them even after they tore at the seams.’ The prose also occasionally waterfalls into long, run-on sections that feel utterly authentic for this seventeen-year-old narrator. However, the story itself felt too familiar, and Mottley sometimes tells us what we should take from a scene rather than letting it speak for itself, as in the otherwise strong set-piece when Kiara and a friend go to a ‘funeral day’, taking food and clothes from a funeral parlour: ‘Funeral day is a reckoning, when we mimic thieves and really just find excuses for our tears’. Despite the excellent writing, therefore, I doubt Nightcrawling will stay with me.

The Best Essay Collection I Read This Month Was…

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… Things I Have Withheld by Kei Miller. This was on my 2022 reading list; it was also shortlisted for the 2021 Baillie Gifford Prize and the 2022 Jhalak Prize. As Miller explains in the introduction, these essays ‘are about things I have withheld’, quoting the poet Dionne Brand: ‘I am a black woman speaking to a largely white audience… so that there are some things that I will say to you and some things that I won’t. And quite possibly the most important things will be the ones that I withhold.’  He writes so thoughtfully about racialisation – how society constructs racial categories to put people into – and especially well, perhaps surprisingly so, about white women, in essays like ‘Mr Brown, Mrs White and Ms Black’, ‘The Crimes That Haunt The Body’ and ‘The White Women and The Language of Bees’. As Miller demonstrates, we tend to think of ‘race’ and ‘racialisation’ only when we think of people of colour, but ‘white’ is a constructed category as well. And as a black man, he’s acutely aware of his own perspective – structurally advantaged by his sex but not by his race, although his queerness complicates things further. The book largely focuses upon Britain and Jamaica, Miller’s two home countries, plus a trip that he takes to Kenya, Ethiopia and Ghana, but speaks to experiences of racism elsewhere too. There were a few very short pieces here that felt a little less necessary, but otherwise this is an excellent, elegant and moving collection of essays.

The Best Novel About Ballet I Read This Month Was…

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… They’re Going To Love You by Meg Howrey. I was enraptured by Howrey’s last novel, The Wanderers, a brilliantly dead-pan but richly thoughtful story that followed three astronauts training for a Mars mission in the Utah desert. They’re Going To Love You is a very different book. Carlisle trained as a ballet dancer in New York, relying heavily on the support of her father Robert and his long-term partner, James. In the wake of the 1980s AIDS crisis, she watched them both uneasily, reassured by their monogamy but haunted by the sudden deaths of young men they knew. The novel skips between Carlisle’s past and the present [c.2016], where we learn that Carlisle has been estranged from both Robert and James for nineteen years, after her father forbade her to contact them. Ballet has been served badly by fiction: most ballet novels I’ve read emphasise the tortured nature of the art and how masochistic you must be to want to devote your life to it. Howrey, a former professional dancer, presents a much more nuanced view. I doubt this will be memorable in the way that The Wanderers was, with Carlisle’s first-person voice already slipping from me. Nevertheless, it’s still all too rare to read a novel that stars an ambitious, childless woman who isn’t punished for her perversity. My full review is on GoodreadsI received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 10th November. 

(Hon. mention: The Cranes Dance, Howrey’s first novel, which is much MORE about ballet than They’re Going To Love You is, and is also very much worth reading, but which I found a bit schematic in its depiction of the two Crane sisters.)

The Only Book In Translation I Read This Month Was…

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… Saha by Cho Nam-Joo. This short novel introduces us to a city-state called Town where you belong to one of three levels of society: either you are a full Citizen, an ‘L2’ who’s licensed for up to two years to fulfil particular jobs, or a ‘Saha’, one of the social outcasts who lives in the high-rise Saha estates. But Saha feels caught between two narratives, two types of story. One follows Saha resident Jin-Kyung’s determination to get to the bottom of her brother’s disappearance after he’s falsely accused of murdering his girlfriend. The other skips around between the people who live in Saha and is organised by the numbers of the units they occupy. I think I understood what Nam-Joo was trying to do with this second narrative, and I liked the idea of bringing the Saha estates to life through the voices of this peripatetic community. But it strays back too often to Jin-Kyung, and the individuals often blur into a litany of suffering rather than strongly coming forward in their own right. I also struggled with the choppy transitions and sketchy writing, which often felt like an early draft. I was struck to see that this was translated by Jamie Chang, who also translated Kim Hye-Jin’s Concerning My Daughter – and I had exactly the same problems with the prose in that novella! So, this at least may be a translation issue, but I still didn’t feel that Nam-Joo really pulled off what she set out to achieve here. I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 30th November. 

What were the best and worst books you read in October?

September Superlatives, Part 2

Continued from Part 1.

The Best ‘Dark Academia’ Book I Read This Month Was…

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… The Lake of Dead Languages by Carol Goodman, published back in 2002 before ‘dark academia’ really became a trend as such, although it owes a bit to The Secret History. When Jane was a pupil at a private girls’ school by the shores of Heart Lake, both her roommates committed suicide. Now she’s back as a Latin teacher with her young daughter in tow. But as the lake gradually freezes over, the secrets Jane has been keeping all these years rise back to the surface. The Lake of Dead Languages is a pitch-perfect example of this sub-sub-genre. Goodman expertly interweaves the past with the present, and treads carefully enough to avoid too much melodrama, despite her sensational subject-matter. The biggest triumph, though, is the evocative atmosphere, and the way in which the lake functions so elegantly as metaphor; ‘overturn’, we learn, is what happens when a body of water cools, with the denser, colder water sinking to the bottom and the warmer water rising to the top to cool in its turn. I found a number of the revelations predictable, but that didn’t affect my enjoyment; if anything, I liked seeing how Goodman was setting up her dominos.  If you liked Elisabeth Thomas’s Catherine House, Bridget Collins’s The Betrayals or Tana French’s The Secret PlaceI’d suggest trying this one. [My copy was discovered in a little free library!]

The Best Thriller I Read This Month Was…

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… The Skeleton Key by Erin Kelly. Loosely based on Kit Williams’ famous Masqueradethis novel invents another treasure hunt started by The Golden Bones, a picture book full of clues that lead to a set of tiny golden models of a folktale lady’s bones. Decades on, so-called ‘Bonehunters’ are still obsessed with finding the final bone, and Nell, who has grown up under the shadow of this book her father wrote with his best friend, is still dealing with the fallout. Erin Kelly is known for her sophisticated thrillers, but this felt like a step beyond even what she’s done before, with such psychological realism as she explores the network of relationships within Nell’s family. It took a little while, but ultimately I fell in love with this complicated, intricate story. My full review is on GoodreadsI received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

The Best Non-Fiction Book I Read This Month Was… 

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… Black, Listed: Black British Culture Explored by Jeffrey Boakye. I’ve read a number of excellent recent books on black British culture and the legacy of the British Empire – Akala’s Natives and Afua Hirsch’s Brit(ish) come to mind. Black, Listed isn’t quite as good as those two, but Boakye cleverly structures his reflections around the language that has been used to describe black people in Britain, and the language they use to describe themselves. So we have short sections on official descriptors like ‘Afro-Caribbean’, ‘ethnic minority’ and ‘person of colour’, alongside openly derogatory language like ‘half-caste’, historical terms like ‘Moor’ and what Boakye calls ‘loaded terms’ like ‘ebony’, ‘exotic’ and ‘powerful’. (In a book full of violent words, I found it striking that Boakye admits that the thing he’d most hate to be called is ‘sellout’, which reflects his continuing struggle with his black identity and his fear of being seen as ‘not black enough’.) This tight focus on terminology was consistently thought-provoking, even if some of the content was familiar. I’ve immediately set a section of the book for my undergraduates.

The Book That Left Me Feeling Most Conflicted This Month Was…

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… The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt. Hustvedt is always a cerebral writer, but I found this significantly more challenging than What I Loved and Memories of the FutureHarriet Burden has struggled for artistic recognition all her life, and now, in early old age, she conducts an experiment that she calls the ‘Masking’: she stages three art exhibitions using three different male artists as her alter egos, and watches as the accolades roll in. The book is told via a compilation of Harriet’s notebooks, written or spoken accounts from other key players, and reviews of the shows. I’ve no doubt this novel will stay indelibly fixed in my mind. Hustvedt brilliantly explores how Harriet’s art changes as she imagines herself as each of the three men she chooses, and how she creates a complicated web of self-reflection, writing to an art journal under yet another male name to both reveal and critique her own project. You get the sense that Harriet’s fatal flaw is that she can’t quite recognise that the rest of the world are not as clever as she is. She’s a marvellous character. Having said that, though, I felt this worked better as a thought experiment than as a novel. I found some sections nearly unreadable, and others dragged down by the weight of academic footnotes that added very little. Like Harriet, it’s a bit too smart for its own good. Hustvedt’s follow-up, Memories of the Future, is a much better piece of fiction; still, I’d rather read a book like this than many tidier novels. [Borrowed from my local library #LoveYourLibrary]

The Best Romcom I Read This Month Was…

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… Yinka, Where Is Your Huzband? by Lizzie Damilola Blackburn. This charming first novel is basically rebranded ‘chick lit’, of the sort I used to devour in my early twenties, and none the worse for that, especially as it changes things up by starring a dark-skinned Nigerian-British woman. Yinka is tired of being asked by older relatives when she is going to find a ‘huzband’ – especially as she’s secretly a hopeless romantic and would love to settle down with a man. So she finally agrees to try out some of the strategies recommended by her community, including attending a different (more evangelical, less C of E) church with lots of eligible bachelors. I adored Yinka, and her story is great fun. A more light-hearted version of Candice Carty-Williams’s Queenie and a better-written, more engaging version of Ayisha Malik’s Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged. 

What were the best and worst things you read in September?

R.I.P XVII Reading Plans

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I’ve taken part in the R.I.P (Readers Imbibing Peril) Challenge once before. This challenge runs from 1st September to 31st October, and involves reading books classified as mystery, suspense, thriller, dark fantasy, gothic, horror or supernatural. So technically I’m a bit late to the game, but for me, these kind of books really belong to October, and I’m anticipating a few new acquisitions in these categories for my birthday at the end of the month!

I’m planning to read:

I am utterly obsessed with Naomi Novik’s Scholomance series, so much so that I have written several posts about it. The third in the trilogy, The Golden Enclaves, finally comes out on the 27th September, and I can’t wait! The Scholomance is perfect for the RIP challenge; it’s a magical school where the majority of its students never graduate, due to the very high death rate within its walls.

Keeping with the dark fantasy theme, I’ve asked for RF Kuang’s Babel for my birthday. I’ve been excited about this novel since I first heard about it, and I hope it doesn’t disappoint! Here’s the blurb: ‘Oxford, 1836. The city of dreaming spires. It is the centre of all knowledge and progress in the world. And at its centre is Babel, the Royal Institute of Translation. The tower from which all the power of the Empire flows. Orphaned in Canton and brought to England by a mysterious guardian, Babel seemed like paradise to Robin Swift. Until it became a prison… but can a student stand against an empire?’ One of my most anticipated novels of 2022.

While Quan Barry’s We Ride Upon Sticks is unlikely to be that dark, the witchy content makes it a perfect October read for me. NPR describes it as a ‘charming teen witchcraft-slash-field-hockey novel’. Set in 1989, a school hockey team’s luck changes when the girls ‘pledge themselves to the forces of eternal darkness’. Another from my 2022 reading list.

Finally, I have a proof of Mariana Enriquez’s Our Share of Night from NetGalley, which spans ‘the brutal decades of Argentina’s military dictatorship and its aftermath’ but tells this story through an occult lens: ‘Gaspar is six years old when the Order first come for him. For years, they have exploited his father’s ability to commune with the dead and the demonic, presiding over macabre rituals where the unwanted and the disappeared are tortured and executed, sacrificed to the Darkness. Now they want a successor. Nothing will stop the Order, nothing is beyond them. Surrounded by horrors, can Gaspar break free?’ I’ve just finished Julianne Pachico’s The Anthill, which similarly uses horror tropes to explore the aftermath of Colombia’s traumatic history. I loved The Anthill and I hope I’ll love Our Share of Night as well.

In film and TV, I’m uneasily awaiting the release of Hocus Pocus 2which comes out on my birthday. The original Hocus Pocus was one of the iconic films of my childhood, and my sister and I can probably quote most of the film. There’s no way the sequel can live up to it, but I hope it will be a fun and nostalgic watch.

Check out Elle’s R.I.P XVII reading list here.

Are you taking part in the R.I.P Challenge, or planning to read any darker books this October?

Leave to remain: Best of Friends by Kamila Shamsie

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Maryam and Zahra are teenage girls growing up in Karachi in the late 1980s when Benazir Bhutto is democratically elected after the death of dictator General Zia. Both are inspired by the progressive future that thirty-five year old Bhutto seems to promise, but both are also dealing with the rise of what Maryam calls ‘girlfear’: the growing realisation that they cannot move through the world in the same way as men. And although they are close friends, both from relatively privileged backgrounds, they are at heart very different: wealthy Maryam is heir to her family’s leather business, dreaming of one day taking her grandfather’s place, while middle-class, idealistic Zahra wants to go to Cambridge and be a lawyer. The slow trace of desire and unease as the girls recognise their awakening sexuality is very well done, setting Best of Friends apart from many similar coming-of-age novels; as does the evocation of the particular experience of being a teenager in this place, in this time.

Kamila Shamsie’s previous novel, Home Firewas remorseless and explosive; given that, I’m not surprised that she wanted to write something rather gentler, with lower stakes. Nevertheless, I liked the development of Maryam and Zahra’s relationship as they move away from their early years and become successful forty-something women in London. I’ve said before that Shamsie’s writing can be heavy-handed, and that isn’t totally absent here; sometimes she spells out exactly what she wants to say about friendship rather than letting the reader realise it. ‘Childhood friendship really was the most mysterious of all relationships… it was built around rules that didn’t extend to any other pairing in life’. However, there are also more thought-provoking observations, such as the description of two elderly women walking together that is allowed to speak for itself.

And while Maryam and Zahra at first appear to be differentiated rather schematically from each other, I thought both grew into much richer characters. I was especially heartened by how seriously Shamsie takes Zahra’s political and moral commitments. Writers often suggest that, when it really comes down to it, what’s ‘real’ is your love for your friends and family and that will always come first. That’s definitely Maryam’s view, but it’s not Zahra’s – or at least, her definition of those she loves stretches much further than those who are personally known to her. As Maryam and Zahra approach their moment of reckoning, it’s clear that what sets them apart isn’t jealousy or petty resentment but a real difference in their core values, which is so refreshing after reading so many novels like Anna Hope’s Expectationwhich boil down problems in female friendship to grudges over men or children.

I didn’t think Shamsie quite hit the emotional climax she wanted to in this novel, but it’s an absorbing read that, for me, moves far away from the problems I had with her earlier historical fiction, Burnt Shadows and A God In Every Stone, even if it doesn’t quite reach the heights of Home Fire.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 27th September.

August Superlatives

A nice short round-up this month as I’ve reviewed most of my reads for 20 Books of Summer already, and only new reads count for the purposes of my Superlatives posts.

The Best Book I Read This Month Was…

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… The Blue Place by Nicola Griffith. This, with its AMAZING late 90s cover, only confirmed that I will read anything Nicola Griffith writes. Billed as a thriller, this is actually a character study of Aud Torvingen: former police lieutenant, lesbian, six-foot tall martial arts practitioner, Norwegian-British-American, carpenter and social manipulator. From the first page I loved Aud and the way that Griffith writes about her world, from the humidity of Atlanta to the glacial lakes of the fjords. It’s the first in a trilogy and there’s a sense that Griffith is just getting going; the book really springs to life in its second half. However, we rarely meet fictional people like Aud, and that alone is enough to make me want to read the next two books. Arguably, she’s a bit larger than life, a bit wish-fulfilment-for-lesbians, but you know what, I love it: there are so many wish-fulfilment books for straight white men, especially in the crime/thriller space, and nobody cares. (I also love that the Italian edition is called Concrete Eyes). Not quite up there with Hild, Ammonite and Slow Riverbut still brilliant.

The Worst Book I Read This Month Was…

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…The Dark Between The Trees by Fiona Barnett. This novel had such potential. It’s told through alternating chapters set in two different time periods. A group of historians follow the trail of some seventeenth-century Parliamentarian soldiers who disappeared in Moresby Wood, now out of bounds to the general public. Both groups soon find that the woods are not what they seem; paths seem to rearrange themselves to direct them towards certain places, landmarks shift and go missing. So far, so Blair Witch. However, the poor writing robs the novel of any tension and the large cast are difficult to tell apart. There also seems to have been no real effort to portray an early modern mindset in the soldiers’ chapters (at one point, a character talks about the division between his ‘personal’ and ‘professional’ roles). My full review is on Goodreads. I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

The Best YA Book/s I Read This Month Were…

….Hani and Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating and The Henna Wars, both by Adiba Jaigirdar. I think I’ve found the kind of YA novel I like, and it’s queer contemporary romance! (Though I also read Casey McQuiston’s I Kissed Shara Wheeler this month, which did not work well for me, and found Alice Oseman’s Heartstopper: Volume 3 a bit cheesy). These were two more adorable stories. Hani and Ishu is about two bisexual Bengali girls who start ‘fake dating’ each other at their Irish Catholic school, each for their own reasons, but then start falling for each other for real. The Henna Wars stars a lesbian Bangladeshi Muslim girl, Nishat, who is infuriated when Brazilian-Irish classmate, Flávia, steals her idea of launching a henna business.

Funnily enough, the first few chapters of Hani and Ishu (though not The Henna Wars) start out over-explaining everything, not just Bengali references, but Irish ones like ‘Leaving Cert’ – but then Jaigirdar drops this completely (except in conversations between the protagonists and their white friends, where explanations feel natural). She trusts the reader to come along with her, which I loved. For this reason, both The Henna Wars and Hani and Ishu feel more subtle and complex than many adult romance/women’s fiction novels I’ve read on similar subjects. The Henna Wars spells out Nishat’s frustrations about cultural appropriation a few too many times, but that was the only time it reminded me of more usual YA fare.

Jaigirdar beautifully portrays how much it means to Hani and Ishu to find each other, after years of being the only brown girls at an all-white school; however, she doesn’t ignore cultural difference. Hani, like Nishat, is a Bangladeshi Muslim; Ishu Indian and pretty secular, happy to swear and drink alcohol. Intergenerational dynamics are cleverly portrayed, too. Ishu’s ‘pushy’ parents are not driven by religion or conservatism but by ambition; Hani’s parents rarely go to the mosque until Hani becomes interested in Islam in her own right, and are totally accepting of her bisexuality. The Henna Wars, meanwhile, tells a different story about coming out in a Muslim family; Nishat’s parents are much more traditionally religious and struggle to come to terms with her being a lesbian. I adored the super-close relationship between Nishat and her younger sister Priti, though.

If I was to compare these two books, I think The Henna Wars is the stronger novel – I liked the more substantial plot-line and the more nuanced characterisation of Nishat’s classmates – but both are certainly worth reading.

The Best Historical Novel I Read This Month Was...

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… The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich. Erdrich’s Pulitzer-winning novel is set in 1953 and focuses on the Chippewa Council’s fight against House Concurrent Resolution 108, which ‘called for the eventual termination of all American Indian tribes, and the immediate termination of five tribes, including the Turtle Mountain Band’. Her central character Thomas Wazhushk is based on her own grandfather; Thomas works shifts as a night watchman while protesting what was erroneously called the ‘Indian Emancipation Bill’, barely finding time to sleep. The other strand in the novel follows a young Chippewa woman called Pixie, who is figuring out her own life while searching for her lost sister. This is a solid and educational novel, but for me it never rose to the heights of Erdrich’s more complex The Sentencewhich was much more evocatively and imaginatively narrated. This was more like The Round House, which I found both worthy and plodding – and I was disappointed by how much Pixie’s relatively cliched narrative dominated when I really wanted to know about Thomas’s campaign. Erdrich fans, which of her books should I read next?

The Saddest Book I Read This Month Was…

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… The Dolphin House by Audrey Schulman, which is closely based on a real scientific scandal of the 1960s. A young white woman, Margaret Lovatt, lived with a male dolphin called Peter in a partly flooded house on the Caribbean island of St Thomas, hoping to teach him to communicate with humans by mimicking human language through his blowhole. Schulman presents a harrowing picture of research with dolphins in the 1960s, exploring both their innate capabilities and how little they’re understood by their human captors. Her fictional protagonist, Cora, is desperate to prevent the further exploitation of the dolphins she works with, but is ultimately unable to stop it.

This novel is so intelligent and so interesting that I’m struggling to work out why I didn’t really click with it as a work of fiction (it would have been brilliant as a long essay). the biggest problem for me was Cora herself. Schulman is so determined to rewrite Lovatt’s reputation that I think she goes a bit too far. Cora is continuously idealised, always right in every situation, always there to tell the reader what they should think. So as non-fiction, this is brilliant; as fiction, it’s a little lacking. My full review is on GoodreadsI received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

Did you have any standout reads in August? What were the best and worst books you read?

 

‘Is It Finished?’ and ‘Are You Happy With It?’: When I Grow Up: Conversations With Adults in Search of Adulthood

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I’m on holiday and off-grid until the end of August. This post, and a couple of others, have been auto-scheduled.

Jacqueline Wilson, the 76-year-old bestselling children’s author, has little time for adulthood. ‘From the way you are speaking’, she tells Moya Sarner, when being interviewed for Sarner’s book When I Grow Up: Conversations With Adults in Search of Adulthood, ‘it’s as if… when you achieve adulthood, that is somehow the pinnacle, whereas I think that’s when you start to pretend.’ Wilson thinks that the people who seem most mature ‘have just learned how to pretend to be an adult’, and that children are refreshing because they tend not to participate in this pretence. Several of Sarner’s other interviewees also reject adulthood outright. 19-year-old Sam, a Nigerian immigrant to Britain, hopes never to be an adult despite having had to take on a great deal of responsibility; he sees adulthood as defined by self-imposed constraints, by the refusal to dream, and so by the inability to imagine radical social revolution. Most strikingly, very few of Sarner’s interviewees, from those in their late teens to those reaching the end of their lives, see themselves as truly ‘adult’. ‘I truly do not consider that I have grown up,’ says Pog, who has three adult children and was a full-time carer for her late husband. ‘And I’m 90.’

Like the concept of ‘adulthood’ itself, When I Grow Up is caught between contradictions, which are acutely frustrating in its earlier, shallower chapters and become more meaningful in the later, better sections of the book. As a historian of adulthood in Cold War Britain, I would contend that ‘adulthood’ is difficult to reclaim, despite Sarner’s efforts, because it serves two main societal purposes. One – the one that Sarner is really interested in – is the idea that adulthood is an individual attitude of mind, something that we may lose and regain throughout our lives, that isn’t better than other orientations towards the world, but just different. As psychoanalyst Josh Cohen suggests in conversation with Sarner, who is herself a psychodynamic psychotherapist, childhood and adulthood can be seen as different psychic states rather than developmental stages, and hence not positioned as part of a hierarchy. I love this idea, and very much resonate with the sense of being more and less ‘adult’ at different times of life.

However, as Sarner’s book unconsciously demonstrates, it’s difficult to use the idea of ‘adulthood’ in this way when it is so embedded in modern society as a way of dividing the deserving from the undeserving; the non-citizens from the citizens; the immature from the mature. Adulthood is hierarchical, by nature, because for there to be adults there have to be non-adults, who don’t possess the same rights, capabilities and competencies as adults. As Sarner says herself, adulthood is associated with independence from others, ‘mastery and competence’, care and thoughtfulness’, ‘responsibility’ and mature moral understanding. Sarner contests this definition later in the book, emphasising that, for example, dependence isn’t necessarily a bad thing – but fails to understand that the idea of the ‘dependent subject’ is encoded in the very idea of adulthood, as historians like Holly Brewer, Satadru Sen, Corinne Field, Nicholas Syrett and Ishita Pande have shown. The most obvious victims of hierarchical adulthood are children and young people, but it also targets disabled people, who may be seen as not fully grown-up because they may not be able to live independently, and other groups who don’t fit into white heterosexual middle-class male norms.  I, personally, would prefer to challenge the idea that ‘being an adult’ is meaningful rather than just trying to change what ‘being an adult’ means.

Nevertheless, the later chapters of Sarner’s book, where she more fully acknowledges that adulthood should not be a fixed goal to be achieved, contain much that is valuable. I loved the story she tells about a nursery manager who does not praise or criticise the paintings the children in her care produce but instead simply asks ‘Is it finished?’ and ‘Are you happy with it?’ Sarner suggests that this gives the picture back to the child – allowing the picture to stay in a child’s world of creation rather than in an adult world of aspiration and achievement. But as she implies, this attitude to one’s artistic work is also deeply mature – and, in my opinion, disconnected from chronological age. I was more able to occupy this headspace at 18 than I am now, at 35. Why not discard the idea of a set sequence of life stages altogether? This is kind of where Sarner gets to by the end of this book – but by not signalling this from the start, and by structuring her chapters around this familiar sequence, she undermines her own argument. Why insist that children must be protected from the world, that adolescents have to party and take risks, that adults should be ambitious, that middle-aged people should settle down, that the old are wise but obsolete? Why not let us all be people, some of whom need more or less help with their lives than other people?

RANDOM POSTSCRIPT FOR THOSE AGED 30-40: We are used to being told that the frontal lobes of our brain, which are responsible for executive functioning, don’t fully develop until 25 or even 30. HOWEVER, Sarner reveals that they then start declining after age 40! So, fellow 30-40 year olds, this is actually the only decade we get to be adults! Make the most of it!!!

If you want to read more about my own historical research on adulthood, check out the History and Publications tabs. I am currently working on an edited collection on adulthood in Britain and the United States since c. 1300 with fellow historian Maria Cannon, and a book on children and adolescents’ understandings of adulthood and chronological age in Cold War Britain, c.1945-1989.

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

20 Books of Summer, #15 and #16: The Memory of Love and Beloved

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Before rereading: I first read The Memory of Love in 2011, when it was on the Orange Prize shortlist. I remember liking the novel far more than I anticipated, but being hugely disappointed by the ending. I remember very little about it otherwise, although I was impressed by Aminatta Forna’s subsequent novels, The Hired Man and Happiness. Spoilers for The Memory of Love follow.

The first time I read The Memory of Love, I wrote: ‘The book is set in 2001 in Freetown, Sierra Leone, and delicately and vividly charts the aftermath of the recent civil war. The central character is ostensibly Adrian Lockheart, an English psychatrist who has come to help the survivors work through their trauma and grief, but he is rather colourless, and I found myself far more involved in the stories of the two other major characters: Kai, an orthopedic surgeon, and Elias, a dying man who tells Adrian the events that unfolded thirty years ago when he fell in love with the wife of a colleague just before the country was swept up in a military coup.’ 

However, I was hugely disappointed by the final fifty pages of the novel, writing: ‘I thought this was a fantastic novel up until the last fifty pages, and then – abruptly, and to my own frustration and disappointment – I began to change my mind… Adrian, who has never lived through a war or under military rule, feels that he can despise Elias, while not giving a thought to his abdication of responsibilities towards his own family… If this self-righteousness was portrayed as a failing of Adrian’s, it would be interesting – but my impression was that Forna was entirely behind Adrian’s viewpoint here, especially as we hear no more of Elias after this pivotal scene, and there are no more sections from his point of view that might qualify his actions. Disturbingly, in an earlier scene Adrian is fully able to forgive a war criminal who tossed a baby into a burning building, and even compares him favourably to Elias because he is honestly repentant, while Elias is still trying to justify himself… [The female characters] become idealised pawns largely because we are meant to come down on Adrian’s “side”‘.

After rereading: Interestingly, while I disagree with some of the criticisms I made of The Memory of Love the first time around, I came away with a significantly worse impression of the novel in 2022 than in 2011. It now strikes me as a curiously old-fashioned book, especially in comparison to Forna’s later work. Forna seems determined not to reveal much of Adrian’s inner life, keeping us at arm’s length from the character and instead describing the world he moves through in great, if not excruciating, detail. This might have been a clever narrative choice, especially given Adrian’s psychiatric work that requires him to dig deeply into the traumatised minds of other characters while saying nothing about himself, but it ultimately causes a big problem for the novel.

Adrian’s ‘colourlessness’ seems to render him an objective observer of the aftermath of the civil war in Sierra Leone and the moral conflicts it has caused for its survivors, which makes him feel uncomfortably like a kind of white saviour who isn’t even that good at saving. I’m less convinced than I was in 2011 that this was Forna’s intention; I think we are meant to question Adrian’s presence and motives. Nevertheless, his judgment of Elias still feels off-kilter, even if we can assume that some of his anger is displaced frustration about his inability to help his lover, Mamakay, who is Elias’s daughter. I disliked Elias even more this time round (originally, I felt he was ‘seriously flawed’ but still sympathetic), and so was a bit less bothered about his fate, but it was hard not to feel that both he and Adrian are cast in the same mould: paternalistic men who believe they know what’s best for those around them, especially the women they claim to love but never really get to know. However, if this was the reaction that Forna was aiming for, I wish the women in the narrative had been more than idealised ciphers.

If there’s anything that saves this novel, it’s Kai’s story. While Forna also gives us limited access to Kai’s thoughts, we get more to work with, and he is also the character that has the most nuanced and interesting arc, as he struggles with his own unresolved PTSD and the temptation of emigrating to the United States to join his friend Tejani, rather than continuing with his important orthopaedic practice in Sierra Leone. Interestingly, when Mamakay turns up in Kai’s narrative, we get a sense of who she might be as a person rather than the ‘unreadable’ woman she appears to be through Adrian’s eyes. Again, I wonder if Forna had something to say here about the white and/or misogynistic gaze, as this replays Elias’s relationship with Mamakay’s mother Saffia. If so, though, the novel reproduces these power structures rather than truly challenging them. The woman on its cover remains a distant memory rather than a real, living love.

My rating in 2011: ***1/2

My rating in 2022: ***

L: The fantastic, Woman In White-esque edition belonging to my mum that I read first time around. R: the slightly bizarre Everyman’s classics edition I borrowed from the library this time around.

Before rereading: I first read Beloved during the summer of 2004, when I was seventeen. I clearly remember reading it in the tent that served as the ‘green room’ for the outdoor youth theatre production of My Fair Lady I was involved with that summer. I’d been inspired to read it because we’d read the opening paragraphs in English Literature class (we’d started preparing for our A Level unseen text syllabus just before school broke up, as our AS Levels were over) and I’d been hugely impressed by Morrison’s writing. However, I remember struggling with the denseness of the text while reading the whole novel. I thought it was good, but I knew I didn’t quite understand it. I didn’t write anything about the novel at the time.

After rereading: Like The Memory of Love, Beloved deals with the legacy of trauma, working through dreams and fragmentary flashbacks as the characters continue to struggle with the violence they’ve witnessed. Slavery occupies the same kind of space in Beloved as the civil war does in The Memory of Love; we gradually become aware of what has happened to our protagonists, but we are never given a neat chronological account. Instead, we re-experience the trauma as they do, when it intrudes upon the present. It won’t come as any surprise that Beloved is the far better novel, but they made interesting reading companions.

I was surprised, when revisiting Beloved, to find that it was much less dense and difficult than I remembered. I think I’ve just had so much more experience at reading this kind of writing since I was a teen (when I chomped down big nineteenth-century English classics, so had no fear of ‘challenging’ books per se). And yes, it’s a hugely impressive achievement. Morrison’s prose is stunning, especially when she writes about what we remember, what we cannot, and how we re-encounter it:

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I don’t really think the world needs me to review Beloved in great depth, because I don’t have anything profound to say. This is a great novel, and if I do still admire it rather than adore it, that doesn’t bear any relation to how well it achieves what it set out to do.

My rating in 2004: ****

My rating in 2022: ****1/2