The Reread Project: Skellig

In this series of posts, I revisit books that I disliked as a child or teenager and see if my opinion has changed. For the list of upcoming books, see this post (though I’ve since cut Tess because I know I will just hate it again!) The three other entries in this series so far are To Kill A Mockingbird , The Handmaid’s Tale, and The Color Purple. This is also #7 of my 20 Books of Summer.

4. Skellig: David Almond (1998)

L: The edition I originally read. R: The edition I own now.

I first read Skellig around the time it came out, when I was twelve years old. I furiously hated it. (Seeing the title still makes me feel angry even now!) Although I obviously did not enjoy the novel, I think the reason I felt such ire towards it was because it happened to come out just as I was clarifying my critical thoughts on children’s fiction, which had been brewing for the past two years or so. Skellig won both the Carnegie Medal and the Whitbread Children’s Book of the Year, and to me, epitomised ‘the kind of book adults think children ought to like’. I’d been wary of award-winning children’s novels since a string of bad experiences with Newbery Award winners when I was much younger, and nearly didn’t pick up the first Harry Potter solely because it had won prizes. (Interestingly, checking the novel’s Wikipedia page, it turns out that Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone won basically all the UK awards that were voted for by children, but was only shortlisted for awards voted for by adults. If I’d known this at the time, it would definitely have added fuel to the flames!)

I have a fairly clear memory of the basic plot of Skellig. Boy meets decaying angel in his garage while he is praying for his ailing baby sister to get well. I also remember why I hated it so much. My biggest complaint was what I might now call the ‘magical realist’ elements of the book. I was hugely frustrated with the angel, the idea that he might not be real within the world of the book (I was of course used to reading science fiction and fantasy; fantastical elements per se were not a problem) and that he only existed to represent something else. This made the whole book feel pointless to me. When my mum read Skellig, I remember her saying: ‘I think the angel represented the boy’s hope; so the angel got better as he got more hopeful’. This interpretation filled me with utter disgust! I also had more minor criticisms of the book. Aesthetically, it didn’t work for my imagination. I didn’t like the way the angel intersected with the ordinary world, demanding Chinese takeaway; this just seemed ludicrous to me. I also couldn’t relate to the boy’s concern for his sister (I think adults often forget that our instinctive horror at the idea of an ailing child or baby will not necessarily be experienced by children who are much closer to the character’s age). Finally, I just found it boring.

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The mention of Heaven Eyes (2000) suggests to me that I wrote this a bit later, when I was 13.

The good thing about Skellig, though, was that it started my career as a book reviewer. It was my rage at Skellig that led me to start making lists of the books I thought were really ‘deserving’ of awards, and eventually to start recording everything I read. So I did have something to thank the book for.

***

Where to start? I was SO right about Skellig.

I’m sure there are both adults and children who genuinely love this bookHowever, what struck me most about rereading it as an adult is how performative it is. Almond has his characters utter so many faux-profound statements, which gives the impression that the book is saying something deep – but it isn’t actually saying anything at all. There’s a void at the heart of this novel. My mum’s interpretation about ‘hope’ seems as good to me as any, because basically this is a book that allows you to project what you want onto it. Here are some examples of Almond’s platitudes; while they all sound the same, they’re actually spoken or thought by a range of different characters, including some random elderly people who turn up to dispense wisdom, then depart:

‘He said we were surrounded by angels and spirits. We must just open our eyes a little wider, look a little harder.’

You just keep believing. And everything will be fine.’

They say that shoulder blades are where your wings were, when you were an angel. They say they’re where your wings will grow again one day.’

Keep on moving. That’s the thing. Keep the old bones moving. Don’t let everything seize up.’

There was the loveliest lass on the trapeze. You could swear she could nearly fly.’

‘Her dark eyes looked right into me, right into the place where all my dreams were.’

Skellig very much presents an adult’s view of a child’s internal landscape, an idealised, sentimental view of childhood imagination. I’m sure that some readers can relate to this, but it felt utterly alien to me. We’re supposed to be swept away by the beauty of this fable (and I think that’s what it is; it certainly isn’t a folk tale or fairy story, which have far more internal logic) but it just made me feel a bit sick. I’m sad to think of all the children who have surely been subjected to studying this at school.

This book unfortunately concludes with the narrator and his parents considering a couple of ‘meaningful’ names for the baby, including ‘Persephone’ and ‘Angela’, and finally deciding to name her JOY.

My rating in 1998: *

My rating in 2022: *

20 Books of Summer, #1 and #2: All Girls and Gillespie and I

This year, I’m doing 20 Books of Summer as a rereading challenge. I can read any twenty books I want as long as I have read them already! (Only posting now makes it look like I’m super behind, but I’m doing rather better with my rereads than with my reviews of my rereads…)

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Before rereading: I first read All Girls in February 2021, so not very long ago! I picked it up again on a whim; I remembered an evocative set-piece set at the school’s ‘Fall Fest’ and originally intended just to re-read that section. I originally received All Girls as a Kindle proof from NetGalley.

The first time I read All Girls, I wrote: 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.’ I felt that ‘there’s something solid about the connections between [Layden’s] 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… while there are so many novels about the inner worlds of teenage girls, there are very few that are so serious and insightful; like [Curtis] 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’.

After rereading: While I still found All Girls a compelling read, I was a little less impressed with it second time around. I still think it is thoughtful and insightful on the experience of being a teenage girl, and far better than many much-hyped novels on this theme, like Rachel Donohue’s The Temple House Vanishing, Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise or Robin Wasserman’s Girls On FireHowever, I guess what I hoped for didn’t materialise: no new connections between the cast emerge even as you start recognising previous narrators popping up across the chapters. I also continued to be frustrated with how Layden leans so heavily on the watchful outcast, even though there are some narrators who don’t quite fit this trope. Finally, the theme of sexual agency seemed more dominant than on my first read, and I didn’t think Layden had much new to say on this topic.

My rating in 2021: ****

My rating in 2022: ***1/2

The original hardback  I read from the library (L) and the second-hand paperback I own now (R)

Before rereading: I first read Jane Harris’s second novel, Gillespie and I, in 2011, when I was 24. I believe I originally read a library copy but now own a second-hand paperback copy that I bought after loving it so much. (It was one of my top ten books of 2011). I now remember very little about it other than that it had an incredible, unreliable narrative voice, as the older narrator inveigled her way into the family of artist Ned Gillespie.

The first time I read Gillespie and I, I wrote: Due to extreme pickiness, I rarely find a historical novel that I like, with the exception of anything by Sarah Waters, but this is certainly getting there. Narrated by the unreliable Harriet Baxter, it follows the story of her relationship with the Gillespie family in the 1890s, and especially with Ned Gillespie, a talented artist. While becoming a little melodramatic in places, the historical detail is beautifully conveyed, the characters satisfyingly grey, and the narration as compelling as that of The Observations [Harris’s debut], if not quite as idiosyncratic.’

After rereading: Well, my rating has stayed the same, but I felt like my reading experience was radically different. Gillespie and I is a novel that totally relies on its narrator. Harriet’s unreliable voice is our only guide to anything that’s actually going on here, and we gradually realise across the course of the novel just how untrustworthy she is. However, because I had the measure of Harriet from the start this time, I found the first half of the novel frustratingly slow, even though I think much (though not all) of the detail here is justified. Once Harris’s narrative reaches a key turning-point about halfway through and everything starts to unravel, Gillespie and I is newly gripping.

On this reread, it also struck me how much this feels like a psychological thriller, a genre that, pre-Gone Girl, was not nearly as dominant back in 2011. Perhaps this was why it struck me as less clever and less original this time round; I’ve got too used to novels with unreliable, ‘unlikeable’ female narrators. But there are still aspects of Gillespie and I that strike me as both stranger and more emotionally authentic than the territory that most psychological thrillers tread, such as the portrait of Ned’s troubled young daughter, Sybil. Indeed, I’d say that the sections of Gillespie and I set in the 1930s, when Harriet is a very elderly woman, veer close to psychological horror. It also trusts its reader to do a lot of guesswork, which I think is why it makes such an indelible impression; long after finishing it, you’re still wondering what to believe.

So, my rating is the same, but I think I’ve gone from a ‘high’ four stars in 2011 to a ‘low’ four stars in 2022.

My rating in 2011: ****

My rating in 2022: **** 

Three Things… June 2022

Back to this useful post format, borrowed from Paula at Book Jotter! These three things have a horror theme

Reading

I read the British edition (L) but the cover of the American edition (R) gives a much better idea of the feel of the book.

I’m currently taking part in an online ‘How To Write Horror Fiction’ course, and as part of that course, I was sent a free book bundle from Bloomsbury (or, to be precise, their Raven Books imprint). This included a number of titles I’d never heard of, and I tore through James Han Mattson’s Reprieve, which is ostensibly about a full-contact haunted house challenge but really reflects on how people’s bodies are objectified by society. We know from the start that the book centres on the murder of a black man, Bryan, but this comes more and more into focus as the story develops.

The bits of Reprieve I found most difficult to read didn’t concern haunted house gore but the disgusting ways that people treat each other. Jaidee is a gay international student from Thailand who is shunned by the white gay men he meets at college, who assume he’s coming onto them and think it’s laughable that they could ever be attracted to him. Inversely, the middle-aged Leonard leaves a happy marriage and starts an obsession with a Thai sex worker, Boonsri, projecting all his desires and dreams onto her despite her obvious discomfort. Mattson doesn’t map simple trajectories of racial oppression, however. Jaidee and Bryan are college roommates, but when Jaidee expresses unease with how Bryan treats him, he’s told by a white friend that he’s being racist, because he’s assuming black men are homophobic. However, Jaidee then embarks on a campaign of deliberate racism against black students to express his resentment, plus denigrating other international students for their ‘ethnic’ ways, even as he is mocked for trying to fit in by wearing American brands.

Don’t go into Reprieve expecting a straightforward horror novel, despite the very misleading British cover: instead, read it for Mattson’s deconstruction of the genre.

Watching

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I was a huge fan of Stranger Things 1 and 2 but found Stranger Things 3more schlocky, less scary, and less haunting’Luckily, Stranger Things 4 is back on track, and steaming ahead into 1986, the year I was born (which means more of the nostalgic references were familiar to me!). I’ve been having a great conversation with one of my writing groups about why this season hit so hard when Season 3 was so forgettable. We all think it’s because of the characters. First, the writers are reaping dividends from earlier seasons in having such a diverse and well-developed cast who continually bounce off each other in interesting ways. My favourite characters are currently Dustin, Will, Steve and Robin, which definitely wouldn’t have been the case in Season 1! However, the writers are also smart enough to bring characters with interesting internal conflicts to the foreground (Max) while sidelining previously prominent characters who don’t have much going on (Mike, Jonathan).

Second, some characters who have always experienced conflict got more interesting for me this season. Controversially, I’ve never been quite won over by the traumatised, psychokinetic Eleven. While I don’t dislike her character, she remained a little flat for me throughout the first three seasons, always morally in the right and saving the day with her powers. Stripped of her supernatural abilities and struggling with the loss of father-figure Hopper, she’s in a very different place at the start of this season. A violent scene at a roller-skating rink was one of my favourite moments of Season 4. Finally, Eleven felt like a real, rageful girl who scares herself as much as she scares others. For this reason, I found the season finale disappointing, as it seemed to reset the status quo. I hope the final two episodes in July allow Eleven to be a person as well as just the hero.

Thinking

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Sky have just aired a new remake of John Wyndham’s novel The Midwich Cuckoos (1957), following earlier film versions from 1960/1963 and 1995. I’m fascinated by how this story of a group of creepy alien children who dominate adults through psychokinetic powers seems to pop up again every thirty years. I’m writing a piece for The Conversation on what this tells us about our attitudes towards the rising generation, so I won’t say much more about that now (though you can get a preview by checking out either of my academic articles on the subject here or here).

Does this remake stand up in its own right? I actually enjoyed watching it, but I’d have to say no. There’s so much potential here that is not well-served by a pretty straight remake of the original source material. The biggest difference from earlier adaptations is the close focus on the relationship between the mothers and their hostile children, which rehearses familiar stereotypes about the burden of parental love and the ingratitude that children display in the face of their parents’ sacrifices. This set of Midwich Cuckoos are portrayed as especially unnatural because they are unable to love their parents, which raises interesting questions about the emotional tasks of children within the family that this remake is not equipped to answer.

This version of The Midwich Cuckoos also felt less resonant to me because it lacks the interesting tensions that haunted the sixties adaptations, Village of the Damned (1960) and its loosely linked sequel, Children of the Damned (1963). The latter, in particular, treads an uneasy line between showing us the amorality of the alien children but also suggesting that the amorality of adults is destroying the future for those who ought to inherit the world. The destruction of the children at the end of Children of the Damned is not a necessary evil but a tragic accident. The film invites us to shiver at the unnatural competence and maturity of the Cuckoos, but also plays with fears of nuclear annihilation and the ways in which adults have abdicated their authority by creating such terrible weapons. In an age of climate change protests, this felt like a big missed opportunity for the remake, which sticks very closely to the Cuckoos-are-evil line. Apparently, there’s already talk of a second series, which might allow Sky to move into Children of the Damned territory – but I’m not holding my breath.

Do What Is Right, Not What Is Easy: Naomi Novik’s The Last Graduate & The Harry Potter Books

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This post contains spoilers for A Deadly Education but not for The Last Graduate.

For most of my teenage years, I was a highly dedicated and committed Harry Potter fan. I was exactly the right age to ‘grow up with Harry’, reading the first book when I was eleven (and actually having to wait for the second one to come out!) and I spent a great deal of time on forums discussing the books and what might happen next, starting on Amazon.com’s Harry Potter forum (which was deleted abruptly in 2001, to my distress) and moving onto Fictionalley. As well as working out complicated theories, I also wrote some fan fiction (have a read here if you’re curious!) However, after Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was published in the summer of 2005, when I was eighteen, I abruptly and painfully fell out of love with the series. When I see Harry Potter fans discussing how betrayed they feel by JK Rowling in recent years, I feel a little amused and a little frustrated, because for me the series’ moral compass was always a little dodgy and crashed and burnt spectacularly with the last two books, so I don’t feel surprised at anything that’s happened since. In particular, I feel uncomfortable when I see fans lamenting that JKR hasn’t lived up to some of the moral platitudes in the series, because frankly, it’s a moral sinkhole, and shouldn’t be framed as Good Books vs their Bad Creator. I keep meaning to write a long post explaining why but it keeps on getting out of hand (for example, I managed to write more than 1550 words mostly on why The Twins are Terrible People, so you can see why I can’t keep my more extensive thoughts blog-length). 

Perhaps Harry Potter was never meant to be a series about ethics; indeed, I’ve seen some convincing essays on why it is really a series about grief and death. However, if that were the case, it certainly puts a lot of emphasis on the difference between ‘doing what is right and what is easy’ and on Harry’s own fears of becoming like Voldemort, especially in book two (where Harry’s fakeout revelation that he might be the Heir of Slytherin made eleven-year-old me screech loudly in a train, to my mum’s annoyance) and book five, where Sirius tells him ‘the world isn’t divided into good people and Death Eaters‘. The problem is, by book six – where Voldemort is portrayed as evil from birth, a creepy baby who never cried – and certainly by book seven, we find out that actually the world is so divided. Either you are Good or you are Bad; if you are Good, all your actions can be justified, whereas if you are Bad, none of them can. Choosing what is right is choosing what is easy if you are a Good person, like Harry; and choosing what is right, however hard it is, rarely comes with long-term consequences (it’s interesting that the book that is arguably not the strongest of the series, but, for my money, has the most ‘adult’ feel, is Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, which is the only book of the seven to try and deal seriously with trauma).

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Definitely not the best-plotted Harry Potter book, but the one that I still get the most joy from rereading.

SO. Where does Naomi Novik’s Scholomance series fit into all this? The Scholomance trilogy has been seen, and rightly so in my opinion, to be in direct conversation with Harry Potter. Set at a magical and part-sentient school and engaging explicitly with the trope of the Chosen One, there are some obvious lines of inspiration (although Rowling didn’t invent any of these things). The first book in the Scholomance series, A Deadly Education, introduced us to El, a deeply traumatised teenage girl who can barely keep her penchant for destructive magic under control, is certain that everybody hates her, and tries to hide all of this from her peers and from the reader by keeping up an ironic running commentary about everything she knows about the Scholomance and how to survive there. One of the things that was so brilliant about A Deadly Education, in my opinion, was its head-first engagement with morality. Magically gifted children, in El’s world, fight to get into the dangerous Scholomance because their odds of surviving to adulthood in the outside world are even worse. But once on the inside, those with money, power and family connections (‘enclavers’) up their own odds even further by exploiting their fellow students. El starts off the series by thinking that she wants to get a spot in an enclave for herself after graduation, but by the end of A Deadly Education, she’s realised she actually wants to burn the whole system down.

In short, in A Deadly Education and in its sequel, The Last Graduate, doing what is right is emphatically not what is easy, and Novik shows how El has to fight this internal battle multiple times, rather than simply setting herself on the path of Good and never looking back. Even more importantly, though, Novik’s commitment to portraying the trauma that every inhabitant of the Scholomance has suffered (there’s a particularly painful sequence in The Last Graduate where the students get a glimpse of the outside world through an enchanted facsimile and experience it as a punishment because they miss it so much) means that there are no real villains here. Bar a few maleficers, El doesn’t encounter a group of ‘bad’ kids equivalent to Rowling’s Slytherins, even though there are students who try and get in her way; Novik understands that the problem lies in the power structure of El’s world rather than with specific people. And while I would argue the Scholomance series is neither as ‘dark’ nor as morally complex as my all-time favourite children’s/YA series, K.A. Applegate’s Animorphs – which shows its characters as not only traumatised but as fundamentally altered for the worse by their trauma – it shares more in common with that series than it does with Harry Potter.

Three cheers for the Scholomance books, then? Not yet. The Last Graduate wasn’t, in my opinion, quite as good as A Deadly Education, but it was still a great book that took some unexpected, thoughtful turns, even if it ended with exactly the cliffhanger I’d expected. Nevertheless, it will be the third book in this trilogy that will really decide whether Novik has achieved what I want her to achieve or not, and unfortunately, I do think it could go either way. Will El and Orion continue to be the true heroes they’ve showed themselves to be so far, or will something go badly wrong for one (or ideally, both) of them? A Deadly Education worked so well for me because El couldn’t accept her inner goodness; in The Last Graduate, I had had a bit too much of her inner goodness by the end. Furthermore, the cliffhanger from book one may or may not have been resolved here, and I really hope it hasn’t been, because if it has, that indicates the series is not going the way I’d like it to go. On the plus side: a lot of stuff happens in this book that I would usually expect in the final book of a trilogy, so Novik has given herself a lot of space to play with by clearing up some of the most obvious problems. On the minus side: the cliffhanger in book two sets up the potential of a rather traditional YA plotline that could take us away from what’s most interesting in this series. So we have to wait and see.

I’ve written a more straightforward review of The Last Graduate here.

A Deadly Education was accused of racist representation; I’ve summarised my thoughts on this issue at the end of my review here, and they remain the same.

I received a free proof copy of The Last Graduate from the publisher for review.

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.

Survivors Cover Art

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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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.

My Dark Vanessa, Or Why I’m A Year Behind Everyone Else In Getting To This Book

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I wasn’t going to read My Dark Vanessa. Not even when I saw how many rave reviews it was getting from bloggers I trust. Based on this, I was sure that it was a good book; that it dealt thoughtfully with a sensitive subject. But I still wasn’t convinced that I needed to read another novel about a relationship between a schoolgirl and her teacher, no matter how well it was written. This is ground that’s been so thoroughly trodden, both in novels and in numerous comment pieces analysing real-life cases in both Britain and the US over the past few years. It’s also something I think about in my own historical research on children and young people in twentieth and twenty-first century Britain. My Dark Vanessa might be great, I decided, but it wasn’t going to say anything that I didn’t already know.

I changed my mind about trying My Dark Vanessa after attending an online At Home With Four Indies event where Kate Elizabeth Russell was interviewed (very adeptly) by Louise O’Neill. What I found so fascinating about the way Russell wrote My Dark Vanessa was not just that the novel was drafted over the course of eighteen years, but that Russell essentially put it together in conversation with her teenage self. She talked about finding bits and pieces she had written as a teenager where she didn’t know if it was her writing as herself or as Vanessa, and also how certain sequences that had been present in early drafts of the novel dropped out as she redrafted then made it back in to the final version, as if they were always meant to be there. I found this especially interesting because I, too, have a novel that I’ve been working with, on and off, for about seventeen years, since I was in my late teens, and it, too, is traumatic, although not in an especially autobiographical way and not in quite the same way as My Dark Vanessa. Nevertheless, however captivated I was by Russell’s account of her process, I still needed to find out if the novel would work for me.

And unexpectedly, it did. Basically, this was because while My Dark Vanessa is absolutely a book about a schoolgirl who has a relationship with her teacher, and which has a lot to say on that specific subject, that also isn’t all it is. Russell clearly thought very deeply about tackling something so difficult, and Vanessa is presented as a character who has been fundamentally shaped by what has been happening to her since she was fifteen. As other reviewers have outlined, Vanessa is such a thought-provoking protagonist because she doesn’t fit into our idea of what the ‘ideal victim’ should be – she maintains that what happened between her and her teacher, Strane, was not abuse, and that her own psychology was somehow leading her towards something of this kind. Russell does not give Vanessa a simplistic moment of revelation in the wake of the #MeToo movement, but we see how she comes to reassess how she felt at the time.

But because Russell presents such an authentic portrait of both Vanessa’s teenage and adult selves, this novel also has resonance far beyond stories of sexual exploitation in the classroom or even abuse and rape more generally, and for me, that’s why it worked so well. It asks how we can square beliefs that our younger selves held so fervently with what we learn later on in life – and how we can do that without totally tossing our younger selves under a bus. It explores how we can cope with the knowledge that our life has been shaped by something outside our control, especially if we thought it was within our control when it was happening. And in this, I felt the strength of what all Russell’s different reworkings of this story have brought to it. I don’t know how she’s going to write her next book after something like this – I know how difficult it is starting a new project after working on one thing since you were a teenager, because your teenage self had so much to give – but I do feel confident that she can.

Getting Ahead With February ARCs

Like a lot of book bloggers, I seem to be completely swamped with February ARCs, so started reading them in January in order to try and get ahead of the upcoming tide. Here are my thoughts on some of next month’s releases:

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Megha Majumdar’s debut novel, A Burning, came very highly hyped, but for me, it was one of those novels where the hype left me feeling baffled and concerned about the state of the literary world. Set in modern Kolkata, it alternates between the perspectives of three characters: Jivan, a young Muslim woman falsely accused of being involved in a terrorist attack; Lovely, a hijra who longs to be an actress and who has been learning English from Jivan; and PT Sir, Jivan’s former teacher, who is now becoming dangerously involved with a nationalist political party who want to use Jivan as a scapegoat. All three characters use, and are used, by social media. Jivan was originally ensnared by the police after posting an angry Facebook status criticising the government, PT Sir uses YouTube to spread the word about the party he works for, while Lovely is delighted when a video of her goes viral.

A Burning is emotionally moving, but I found it disappointingly thin. All three of the protagonists are relatively one-dimensional, with Jivan defined by her wronged innocence, Lovely by her sassy narration, and PT Sir as the typical social climber seduced by the opportunity of power. The quick switches between them make the novel a swift read but also reinforce the impression that it’s only skating over the surface of these political injustices. Majumdar also breaks away from her three central narrators at times – for example, there are brief snatches from the point of view of Jivan’s parents – which means that the novel ends up spelling out things that it doesn’t really need to, slipping into a mode of storytelling that is more common in YA than in adult fiction. Ultimately, I wished that Majumdar had had the confidence to leave more unsaid.

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

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I’ve been looking forward to the third book in James Smythe’s Anomaly Quartet since I read The Explorer and The Echo back in 2014 (having been further impressed by his I Still Dream in the interim). In The Edge, the Anomaly is up to its usual creepy tricks; it’s moved much closer to the Earth and our protagonist and first-person narrator, Ali, is part of a team who’ve been sent up in space to monitor the Anomaly’s progress and to try to find out more about it. Heading up the team is an ancient Tomas, the surviving twin brother from The Echo, who, it soon becomes clear, has his own questions to answer. But as strange things start to happen on the space station, Ali starts to wonder if she can trust anybody other than herself.

Smythe is brilliant at thinking logically through the consequences of a concept, and expanding his stories as his characters discover these consequences. The relatively simple time-loop story told in The Explorer became much more complex in The Echo, and The Edge builds further on what we already know about the Anomaly, further enhancing the terror of the threat it poses. However, despite the fact that the central story of this quartet advances in satisfying ways in this installment, I found it disappointing as a stand-alone read. Ali is in many ways more grounded than our two previous narrators, and more obviously relatable; perhaps this is why her paranoia feels more like the familiar gaslighting of a psychological thriller rather than the truly skewed stories told by Cormac and Mira. The originality of the first two novels was a little lacking here, and I found myself getting tired of Ali’s self-questioning, and of the backstory with her husband, which drew on too many usual tropes. However, it may be that this all seems a lot fresher to SF readers who haven’t read as many psychological thrillers as I have, and it is an interesting kind of genre-cross, which I always appreciate.

Despite my relative ambivalence about The Edge, I’m still very excited to read the final book in the Anomaly Quartet, and to find out how Smythe pulls together all the questions he’s posed over the course of this series, though I suspect the final meaning of the Anomaly may be more metaphorical than scientific.

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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The Galaxy, and the Ground Within is the final title in Becky Chambers’s Wayfarers quartet (although I hope she will return to this world, if not these characters, in future, as there still seems to be so much more to explore!) As ever, it’s gentle, character- and concept-driven sci fi, with a satellite accident merely providing the pretext for her four central characters to be stranded together on the ‘truck stop’ planet Gora. Ouloo and Tupo, a Laru mother and child, run the Five-Hop One-Stop, trying hard to provide appropriate food and facilities for all the different alien races they might encounter. Roveg is an exiled Quelin who builds immersive VR environments, and is keen to be on his way so he doesn’t miss an important appointment. Speaker is an Akarak, a race who seem to have drawn a galactic short straw, and is desperately trying to reunite with her twin sister in orbit. And Pei, who briefly appeared in The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet, is an Aeluon who is initially relaxed about the extended stop-over, until something unexpected throws her off course.

I haven’t truly adored any of the Wayfarers novels as much as I loved The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet, and this held true for The Galaxy, and the Ground Within. However, it still delivers Chambers’s usual thoughtful inventiveness and optimistic take on the future of the universe. I continue to be frustrated that a writer who so flexibly rethinks gender, sexuality and race can’t break outside the idea of childhood and adolescence as a universal biological category, and Tupo fell into many of the same teenage stereotypes as Chambers’ human character Kip in Record of A Spaceborn Few. Nevertheless, The Galaxy, and the Ground Within still gives us plenty of interesting ideas to chew on. Most of the cast veered close to being a bit too idealised for me, but I loved Chambers’s complex portrayal of Pei, who is forced to wrestle with questions of just war, reproductive duty and non-conformity. Her narrative strand, for these reasons, was by far the most compelling. In short, though, The Galaxy, and the Ground Within won’t disappoint Wayfarers fans, and as ever, I’m excited to see what Chambers does next.

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

February ARCs to come: Light Perpetual (Francis Spufford); All Girls (Emily Layden); Kololo Hill (Neema Shah); Little Gods (Meng Jin).

How are you doing with your February ARCs?

Guest Blog Post on Teenage Girls and British Second-Wave Feminism

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This blog has been quiet so far this year! I have been reading, but I don’t seem to have that much headspace for writing reviews, perhaps because I’m trying to knock out a thousand words a day on my Antarctic novel. I will be back soon, probably rounding up my thoughts on recent ARCs I’ve read.

In the meantime, I wrote this blog post on my historical research over at the Changing Childhoods blog: Spare Rib, Shocking Pink and the Politics of Age in 1980s Feminism.

It’s about how teenage girls were ignored and belittled in the pages of adult-led second-wave British feminist magazine Spare Rib, and so went off and started their own collective. Enjoy!

2020 In Books: Commendations and Disappointments

As always, I won’t be posting my Top Ten Books of 2020 until the 31st December, but here are some books that almost made my top ten – and also my biggest disappointments of the year. Links are to my reviews. All books are first read by me in 2020, not necessarily first published in 2020.

Highly Commended

I was hugely impressed by Akala’s Natives, which interweaves his personal experience of growing up as a working-class black boy in Britain with the country’s history of racism and colonialism, and is particularly good on the way that schools oppress black children. The only thing it falls a bit short on is gender, but for that reason, it’s the perfect companion read to Afua Hirsch’s Brit(ish), which was one of my top ten books of 2019.

Emily St John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel gradually crept up on me as I read it; it’s almost impossible to summarise, but essentially focuses on the fallout from a Ponzi scheme alongside the relationship between two estranged siblings. It’s very different from her hit pandemic novel Station Eleven, but is haunting in similar ways.

Souvankham Thammavongsa’s debut short story collection How To Pronounce Knife, which focuses on the lives of Lao immigrants and their children in Canada, was so clever and insightful. Unlike most short story collections, it explores a range of disparate themes, showcasing Thammavongsa’s range. I was thrilled when it won Canada’s Scotiabank Giller Prize. I reviewed it here.

I usually struggle with historical fiction, but this year was an exception. Three standouts were, firstly, Emma Donoghue’s The Pull of the Stars, which immersed me so fully in the 1918 flu pandemic that I forgot to draw comparisons to Covid-19; I reviewed it here. Secondly, Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Mercies, set in the early seventeenth century on an isolated island off the Norwegian coast, managed to completely reinvent the rather familiar plot of false witchcraft accusations; I reviewed it here. Finally, Sally Magnusson’s The Ninth Child really cleverly pulled together a number of different, disparate stories, centring on an ambitious engineering project at a Scottish loch in the 1850s; I reviewed it here.

Science fiction and speculative fiction is probably the genre I’m loving the most at the moment, so there’s lots to choose from, but I wanted to highlight three very different books. Octavia E. Butler’s time-slip story Kindred doesn’t need any further introduction from me, but I admired how she made her protagonist’s journeys feel both so real and emotionally grounded, and how she used this conceit to ask questions about inheritance and culpability. I reviewed it here. Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! was a structural mess, but so utterly different and memorable; I don’t think I’ll ever forget the Bigtrees’s Floridian alligator-wrestling theme park. I reviewed it here. Finally, Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Calculating Stars, the first in an alternate-history trilogy about female astronauts in 1950s America, is still the novel I think everyone needs to survive the Covid-19 pandemic; I stand by my statement in my review that I’ve ‘never read a post-apocalyptic novel that is so comforting‘.

 

In crime and thriller, I was very taken with Hazel Barkworth’s Heatstroke, a novel that turns a good number of cliches about adolescence on their head while still being completely compelling; I reviewed it here. I’ve been disappointed by a string of Attica Locke’s novels, which for me haven’t lived up to their fantastic premises, but Bluebird, Bluebird, which follows a black Texas Ranger torn between duty to his community and his responsibility to his job, finally hit the sweet spot; I briefly reviewed it on Goodreads. Finally, Lottie Moggach’s Brixton Hill is a grim but gripping thriller that is centrally concerned with the way that prison wears inmates’ lives away; I reviewed it here.

Biggest Disappointments

By ‘biggest disappointments’ I don’t necessarily mean that these were my worst books of the year, but that they were books I’d been looking forward to, that had been hyped by publishers/reviewers/friends/all of the above, and which fell well short of my expectations.

I was disappointed by two boarding-school novels, a sub-genre that I’m obsessed with, that didn’t work for me for very different reasons. Clare Beams’ The Illness Lesson was beautifully written, but told an overly familiar story about female hysteria in the late nineteenth century. Meanwhile, Rachel Donohue’s The Temple House Vanishing was just not very good at all, totally failing to conjure atmosphere, and hampered by awkward dialogue. I reviewed both books here. (Fortunately, 2020 wasn’t a total write-off for campus novels: I loved Elisabeth Thomas’s Catherine House!)

I found Mary North’s debut collection of short stories, You Will Never Be Forgottenhugely frustrating, because it was full of original ideas but frequently undercut itself by spelling out the message of a story too clearly. I reviewed it here. Ivy Pochoda’s LA-set and cliched These Women was primarily disappointing because I thought her Visitation Street was so subtle and so good, but also didn’t really deliver on its promise to tell a story about a serial killer from the point of view of his victims. I reviewed it briefly on Goodreads. Finally, I’m a huge Garth Nix fan but his latest, The Left-Handed Booksellers of London, was just too silly for my liking.

I’ll be back tomorrow with my Top Ten Books of 2020!