November Superlatives Plus #NovellasInNovember #SciFiMonth Round-Up

A very short superlatives post this month because I’ve been focused on Novellas in November and SF Month! I’ve also included my summaries of both of these challenges at the bottom of this post.

The Best Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Passing Strange by Ellen Klages, a glittering lesbian novella set in 1940s San Francisco. You can read my full review here.

The Worst Book I Read This Month Was…

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… The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne. So, I knew this was going to be bad, but I didn’t know it would be quite THIS bad. My Goodreads review/rant is here.

The Thriller I Had The Most Mixed Feelings About This Month Was…

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… Five Survive by Holly Jackson. This follows six friends who get into an RV for a long road trip from Philadelphia to the Gulf Coast, hoping to celebrate high school graduation. However, things go wrong when they break down in the middle of nowhere, none of their phones have any service, and they realise there’s a sniper shooting at them. One of them won’t survive the night… but which one? And why have they been targeted and held hostage?  In short: compelling thriller, incredibly irritating narrator. And why has it been saddled with a cover that makes it look like it’s one of the children’s mysteries I used to read as a kid? Readalike: Riley Sager’s silly but compelling Survive The Night. My full Goodreads review is hereI received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on December 8th.

My Favourite Reread This Month Was…

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… The Galaxy, and The Ground Within by Becky Chambers. I read this final instalment of Chambers’s Wayfarers quartet a couple of years back, but it was a delight to return to it as part of the #SciFiMonth readalong, and I found the discussion questions from Lisa and Mayri helped me think more deeply about the novel. In particular, I focused on Pei’s character arc, which had been easily the most interesting section of the novel for me first time around but this time felt even more resonant.  Spoilers follow – if you want a spoiler-free review of this novel, here’s my original review

Pei is part of an alien species called the Aeluon, who organise their reproductive cycle rather differently than humans do. The Aeluon come in three sexes – male, female and shon, who can shift between the two. Females only incubate an egg once or twice in their reproductive lifetimes, and this is signalled by the ‘shimmer’, when their scales sparkle rainbow. As Aeluon society has developed, males and shon have come to do all the child-rearing, and this is respected as a professional skill, with prospective fathers listing their qualifications. Mothers, meanwhile, just need to have sex with the father/s while they’re shimmering, and then expel the fertilised egg. Aeluons are accustomed, therefore, to separating biological parenthood from those who actually bring you up, and collective child-rearing in creches is standard.

Pei’s dilemma in Galaxy is that she starts shimmering and realises that she really doesn’t want to take time out of her life to spend the required few weeks at a creche to fertilise and expel her egg. Aeluon society, because of its low fertility, really hammers home the message that this is a sacred duty for females, but Pei ultimately realises that there’s no problem with the Aeluon population these days* and she really doesn’t have to mother an egg if she doesn’t want to. Great, you might think: but when I first read Galaxy, I was incredibly frustrated with Pei’s decision. I always cheer on human women in fiction who don’t want to be mothers, but come on! This is the easiest sacred social duty to fulfil ever! Why wouldn’t you fit in with your society’s norms if you could do it so simply!

*though I really don’t understand how this species has survived, let alone thrived, as it is mathematically unable to reproduce itself – even if every female fertilised every egg they had and there was no embryo/infant/child loss – unless there are a great many more females than males or shon, and this is not implied

On a re-read, as I knew what Pei was going to decide ahead of time, I was able to respond more reflectively. Pei’s plot line made me realise, as someone who is childless by choice, how much I would like to be a mother if I lived in a completely different society. I have never felt any biological urge to have children, but I like the idea of being able to deeply invest in a relationship with my own children, although I do hugely value working with other people’s children as well. I would love to experience childrearing as a creative, satisfying and emotional project. However, unfortunately I have realised that in our current society, there’s no way I would have the time and space I’d need to give to a child to make this a fulfilling experience for me while still doing some of the other things that I most value (I am under no illusion that you can have a child and ‘have it all’, in any version of our world, and whether you are a man or a woman; child-rearing takes time, and so you are going to have less time for other things if you do it right). I don’t want to live a life where everything is crammed in, so cheap/free nursery provision, flexible working, supportive partner etc wouldn’t change my mind. On the other hand, I would adore being an Aeluon mother, or even potentially being an Aeluon father! By detaching these questions from our ideas of human sex/gender roles, Chambers gives us so much to think with. It’s a shame that I didn’t find the other character arcs in this book as thought-provoking.

***

A quick round-up for #SciFiMonth and #NovellasInNovember – my original plans are linked here:

  • I read four wonderful speculative novellas. My least favourite of the four was Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Walking to Aldebaran, and it was still pretty good!
  • I read two queer ‘romances with a side of science fiction’. While I loved Everina Maxwell’s Winter’s OrbitI thought Aliette de Bodard’s The Red Scholar’s Wake left much to be desired.
  • I loved much of NK Jemisin’s short story collection How Long ‘Til Black Future Month?especially her SF shorts.
  • I read three more novellas that (accidentally) spanned the range of the #NovellasInNovember challenge: one non-fiction, one classic, one contemporary/in translation. My favourite of the three was the last, Space Invaders by Nona Fernández.
  • I am currently reading Adrian Tchaikovsky’s novel Children of Memory (good, some sections have a very different feel from the first two in the trilogy) and Zen Cho’s short story collection Spirits Abroad (amazing, adore the undead aunts).
  • I am still planning to read Gwyneth Jones’s Life. I just had too many long, complicated SF novels to get through this month! This will be a December read.
  • I am no longer planning to read Tochi Onyebuchi’s Goliath. Now this book has been published, there are a lot more reviews available, and I decided its fragmentary style and focus on surviving life on a decimated Earth weren’t really for me. I also worried that it might be a bit heavy-handed re social justice issues.

Did you read any SF or speculative fiction, or any novellas from any genre this month? What were your favourite and least favourite reads in November?

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#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?

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?

20 Books of Summer, #17: Room

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! I’m on holiday and off-grid until 30th August, so my last couple of posts for this challenge are auto-scheduled.

L: My proof copy. R: The original hardback cover of the novel.

Before rereading: I read Room in 2010, as an ARC, so before the real hype around the novel began. Since reading Room, I’ve read and loved many of Donoghue’s other novels (Stir-Fry, Hood, The Sealed Letter, The Wonder, Akin, The Pull of the Stars) which has influenced my take on her as a writer. I’ve also seen the excellent film version of Room (2015), which helped me to engage with the novel as I could more clearly visualise what was happening. On one hand, Room is strikingly unrepresentative of Donoghue’s other work, which makes me think better of it; I can see how she was pushing boundaries here. On the other hand, I’ve become a little uncomfortable with the views on motherhood expressed in some of Donoghue’s later work, especially her short story ‘Halfway To Free’, which makes me approach it more warily than before. Finally, since first reading Room in 2010, I have become a historian of childhood; so obviously I’m going to have more thoughts about how it treats its child narrator than I did first time around!

When I first read Room, I wrote: ‘ When I was a little kid I thought like a little kid, but now I’m five I know everything” Jack, the delightful narrator of Emma Donoghue’s new novel tells us. What he has discovered shortly after his fifth birthday is that the room in which he lives with his mother, ‘Ma’, is not in fact the entire world; there’s a world outside, and one day he and Ma might be able to escape… Jack’s voice is the most important thing about this novel, as being inside his head both simplifies the story, sometimes irritatingly, and also allows Donoghue to view the imprisonment in Room from an unexpected angle. Before reading this book, I thought that it might be very distressing and dark – in the vein of John Fowles’ The Collector – but although some of the details that we manage to work out don’t make for easy reading, the overall tone is far lighter than you might expect… I felt that this novel leant a little too hard on the exciting original concept, and on Jack’s skewed narration… and could have been a little better-plotted, especially in the latter half. But I would still very much recommend it.’

After rereading: So, I liked Room more the second time around. I found it intensely gripping, which was not quite my experience when I first read it. The first half of the novel is impressive. Donoghue handles Jack’s voice adeptly, and in the process, says much about being five years old in any place as well as in Room. It made me reflect on the push and pull about what we need as adults and what children need from us, a push and pull that is inevitable anywhere we live right now, let alone in somewhere like Room. Ma heroically constructs as normal as possible a life for Jack, which means that he is largely happy in Room; when they escape, he struggles with the adjustment to the outside world, pining for the objects he remembers. One particular exchange between him and Ma is both insignificant and horribly poignant, especially as the reader has only ‘seen’ the objects in Room through Jack’s uncritical eyes before:

Mine [hair] is back in ponytail but tangledy because there’s no Comb, we left him in Room. “You should have brung Comb,” I tell her.

Brought,” she says. “Remember, I was in kind of a hurry to see you.”

Yeah but we need it.”

“That old plastic comb with half its teeth snapped off? We need it like a hole in the head,” she says.

Jack also struggles, inevitably, with ever being apart from Ma, which means their needs are in direct conflict; Ma is desperate to get outside after seven years in confinement, whereas Jack finds the outside world terrifying. It’s a clever exploration of the tensions within the nuclear family, dialled up to eleven.

Having said this, it’s disappointing that the novel ultimately trails off. Donoghue doesn’t seem sure what to do with Ma and Jack after they are discharged from hospital. Jack’s voice, which worked so well in Room and in the immediate aftermath of their rescue, starts to become a little saccharine in the later stages of the novel, as he encounters more social norms: ‘In the world I notice persons are nearly always stressed and have no time… In Room me and Ma had time for everything.’ I started to wonder if it might have worked better if Donoghue had switched from Jack’s voice to Ma’s in this final section, which would  have avoided this ‘innocent child reveals the truth of society’ cliche. Just as Jack was the right narrator in Room, giving us a backwards perspective on the horror of Ma’s imprisonment, Ma might have been the right narrator as they try to adjust to the outside world. For me, most of Donoghue’s other novels are stronger than this one, but it does have more to say about childhood than I originally thought.

My rating in 2010: ***1/2

My rating in 2022: ****

‘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.

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

Stranger_Things_4_Poster

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:

WHP 2021 Blog Tour Banner Week 1