10 Books of Summer, #6 and #7: Easy Meat and The Women of Troy

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It’s the day of the Brexit referendum but Caleb Jenkins doesn’t think he’s going to vote. Employed as a butcher in a slaughterhouse in the South Wales valleys alongside a largely Polish workforce, he’s more concerned with hanging onto his job and regaining his physical fitness so he can win the Swansea triathlon in September. Winning the 18-24 category in the Ironman five years before made him a temporary celebrity and Welsh reality TV star, but his victory also led to heartbreak when he was deceived by a girlfriend who wanted to keep him at any cost. Now he’s trying to support his unemployed family and ‘get back to the point in his life when he’d been winning’, but everything seems to be stacked against him.

I’ve read a couple of brilliant novels recently that deal with the meat industry (Ruth Gilligan’s The ButchersRuth Ozeki’s My Year of Meats) and Rachel Trezise’s novella Easy Meat is no exception, although here the slaughterhouse largely acts as a backdrop, demonstrating the brutal physicality of Caleb’s working life, rather than raising any ethical questions about meat consumption and quality. Easy Meat has also been described as an exploration of why so many chose to vote Leave, but what’s so impressive about Trezise’s take on the referendum is that Brexit very much fades into the background. Caleb ends up filling in his ballot at the very last minute, and while we can guess which way his vote went –  ‘ “Remain” meant that everything would stay the same but “Leave” meant something had to change’ – we aren’t actually told. Nor does he share the typical characteristics of stereotyped Brexit voters, demonstrating solidarity with his Polish workmates and actually envying the close bonds they have with each other.

If I had a reservation about Trezise’s portrayal of Brexit in this novella, it’s that it plays a little into the idea that the Leave vote was driven primarily by ‘left-behind’ working-class voters, when this has been debunked. Nevertheless, there’s much more to Easy Meat than its Brexit narrative; it’s a vivid snapshot of one day in a young man’s life as he tries to accelerate into his future but seems to already be slowing to a halt.

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

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I was impressed by Pat Barker’s 2018 retelling of the siege of Troy, The Silence of the Girlsand The Women of Troy not only picks up exactly where that book left off but seems to herald a third book that will continue to follow Briseis, our protagonist from Lyrnessus who was enslaved in The Silence of the Girls but has been newly freed by marriage in The Women of Troy. Unlike The Silence of the Girls, which zipped with great economy through the major events of the Trojan War, The Women of Troy is deliberately static and brooding. Stranded on the shores of Troy after sacking the city, the Greek army and their captives can only wait for the wind to change, tortured by a brief lull in the weather each morning before the interminable gale starts up again. Briseis wanders through the camp, encountering the most famous women of Troy in turn; Hecuba, shrivelled but still defiant; Andromache, shattered by grief and trauma; Cassandra, being Cassandra (she’s been characterised exactly the same in every retelling of the Greek epics I’ve ever read, and I love her for it); Helen, being pretty selfish but a little more humanised than in other versions I’ve seen from modern writers. The first half of this novel can therefore feel a little too schematic, and Briseis seems to have the measure of all these other women almost immediately, which makes her become rather too idealised – although we also understand more explicitly that she’s telling this story from the vantage point of old age, which perhaps excuses some of her self-aggrandising narration.

Once it’s discovered, about halfway through the novel, that somebody has been trying to bury Priam’s body, which has been deliberately left to rot in the sand (an episode that seems to have been inspired by Antigone), The Women of Troy suddenly picks up its pace, although this isn’t to say I didn’t also enjoy the more reflective first half. Like The Silence of the Girls, Briseis’s first-person narration is interspersed with third-person narration from male characters – here, Achilles’ son Pyrrhus and the Trojan priest Calchas. I felt Barker handled the shift between viewpoints more smoothly in this sequel, partly because Pyrrhus and Calchas are introduced as narrators from the beginning, rather than only appearing after we’ve already had a long stretch of Briseis’s narration. Her prose remains as strong as it was in The Silence of the Girls, and she continues to use a direct, modern style very effectively, especially in dialogue. Like The Silence of the Girls, The Women of Troy didn’t absolutely bowl me away, but it’s a haunting, beautiful novel, both books are by far the best of the recent influx of feminist Greek myth and epic retellings, and if this is a trilogy, I’ll certainly be reading the third installment.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 26th August.

I couldn’t get through Lisa Taddeo’s Animal, so I subbed The Women of Troy into my 10 Books of Summer.

20 Books of Summer, #17 and #18: New Waves and The Fens

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Kevin Nguyen’s debut New Waves was one of my most anticipated new releases of 2020, and it didn’t disappoint, even though the novel I read turned out to be a very different novel from the one the blurb led me to expect. New Waves was billed as fast-paced and satirical, featuring a black woman, Margo, and a Vietnamese man, Lucas, who team up to steal their New York tech start-up’s user database after being ignored and underpaid by the company for too long. While that’s certainly where the story starts, this hook doesn’t have much to do with where it goes after that. Nevertheless, as it turned out, New Waves fits right into a sub-genre that I’ve only just realised I love: literary fiction about fascinatingly opaque characters whom we learn about solely through the viewpoints of their friends and the technological or artistic remnants they leave behind (see also: Anna North’s The Life and Death of Sophie Stark and Nell Freudenberger’s Lost and Wanted). Which is to say that this novel is all about Margo, tech genius and science fiction short story writer, even though she dies in a random accident in its first few pages. Grieving the loss of his best friend, Lucas hunts through her laptop, and while he doesn’t exactly come across revelations that overturn everything he knows about Margo, he definitely finds things that switch that knowledge onto new tracks. New Waves is so smart about race and gender, but it also has a lot to say about how both people and programmes tend to add up data in a way that makes sense to them. Margo’s short stories are nihilistic, refusing to organise themselves in any way that allows a happy ending, but her actual presence in Lucas’s life was relentlessly optimistic. Because we never hear from her directly (other than in the typed and spoken material she left behind, which is more about her fiction than about her), we are left to make up our own minds about a lot of loose ends. What kind of person was she deep down? What did she really think about Lucas? This novel will probably drive some readers to distraction, but I loved it.

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Francis Pryor is an archaeologist who specialises in the study of the British Bronze and Iron Ages. The Fens: Discovering England’s Ancient Depths traces the history of this particular English region from prehistoric times to the present day, interspersing Pryor’s personal experiences on particular digs and his memories of living in the fenland with an archaeologist’s view of how and why the fens have developed and changed. Unsurprisingly, given Pryor’s area of specialism, which I wasn’t aware of when I picked up this book, the bulk of the material is prehistoric; the medieval fens, which is the period I’m personally most interested in, barely get a look in, and what he does say about medieval power relationships is pretty simplistic from a historian’s point of view. Pryor is, when it comes down to it, more interested in the evolution of technologies, buildings and settlements than in social and political history, and fair enough if that’s your kind of thing. However, I did feel this would struggle to appeal beyond a relatively narrow audience. It’s very long, goes off on a lot of tangents, and Pryor’s writing is clear but no more than that. Certainly, the autobiographical elements of this book don’t add very much, although it promises to discuss a more emotional relationship with landscape. If you’ve lived in the fens, there will be something to interest you here, but it might not be enough to engage you for the whole 400+ pages; I read the first four chapters and then skipped to the chapters that particularly appealed to me.

I’ve made a second and final substitution in my 20 Books of Summer; unfortunately, my NetGalley copy of Gina Rippon’s The Gendered Brain was so badly formatted it was unreadable (not the first time), so I’ve subbed in Xuan Juliana Wang’s collection of short stories Home Remedies, which was on my list of books to read in 2020.

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020: A Thousand Ships

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There are so many ways of telling a war: the entire conflict can be encapsulated in just one incident. One man’s anger at the behaviour of another, say… But this is the women’s war, just as much as it is the men’s, and the poet will look upon their pain – the pain of the women who have always been relegated to the edges of the story, victims of men, survivors of men, slaves of men – and he will tell it, or he will tell nothing at all. They have waited long enough for their turn.

A Thousand Ships, Natalie Haynes’s retelling of the Trojan War and its aftermath through the voices of myriad women on both sides of the conflict, struggles under the weight of its own good intentions. First of all, the book is much too aware of what it’s trying to do, and Haynes can’t resist the temptation to use Calliope, the ‘muse’ of the famous opening lines of the Iliad (‘Sing, O Muse, of the wrath of Achilles’) to tell us why these female voices are important. The quote above is just one example of Calliope awkwardly spelling out what was already effectively communicated through the framing of this story. Second, because Haynes wants to fracture the narrative through multiple women rather than focus on a few, the novel too often feels directionless and choppy. This can be a common risk when dealing with retellings of myths and legends (I also found Madeline Miller’s Circe too episodic, although overall it is a more interesting novel). Because women are only prominent in a few of the surviving texts, Haynes has to spread her net wide to catch her narrators, and this makes the book’s scope too big – we cover the entire siege of Troy and the full Odyssey, alongside extra stories from less well-known texts, such as the tale of the Amazon Penthesilea.

And thirdly… Pat Barker’s far superior The Silence of the Girls, which also retells the siege of Troy and which was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize last year, was criticised for turning away from its female narrator, Briseis, for long periods of time to focus on Achilles, but now I’ve read A Thousand Ships, I’m even more convinced that Barker made the right narrative choices. Because women are simply not present for many of the key events of the Iliad and the Odyssey, this book contains a lot of awkward, compressed narration where characters tell us about events that they didn’t witness themselves. Sometimes, this works. Near the end of the novel, Haynes gets very clever with the prophetess Cassandra, who has been somewhat under-utilised up to this point, and uses her gift of foretelling the future to allow her to watch events as if she is replaying a film (‘Cassandra gave a low moan. This part always made her sick’). Indeed, if this whole novel had been narrated from Cassandra’s perspective, it could have been quite the ride.

But because most of the characters don’t possess Cassandra’s supernatural abilities, this narrative trick usually fails. I especially disliked the Odyssey narrated as a series of letters from Penelope to Odysseus, with Penelope retelling her husband’s exploits having heard about them second-hand through a bard. It’s bad enough that Penelope is an incredibly annoying narrator, with too many ‘witty’ proto-feminist asides (‘Obviously you would not have spent, as the bards have it, a year in her [Circe’s] halls, living as her husband, for the excellent reason that you are my husband, and such behaviour would be beneath you’) but, on reflection, I started to think that this narrative undermined the point of this book. If women at home are as important as men at war, why didn’t Haynes focus on Penelope’s trials, and ignore what Odysseus is up to?

Haynes gave herself a mammoth task, and while I’m impressed by her ambition, I wasn’t sure that she chose the correct structure to support her book. She delivers some brilliant set-piece chapters, but I couldn’t get on board with this novel as a whole, largely because it felt too meta, too self-aware, and too convinced that it’s doing something more original than it actually is.

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

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

Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist, #2: The Silence of the Girls & Circe

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As a teenager, I worked my way through both popular versions of Greek myths and stories, primarily compiled by Roger Lancelyn Green, and novel-length retellings such as Adele Geras’s Troy. As an adult, I’ve tended to steer away from modern versions of classical stories – making exceptions for complete remakes like Kamila Shamsie’s take on Antigone – and was recently rather unimpressed by Colm Toibin’s House of Nameswhich focuses on the prelude and postlude to the siege of Troy. I was surprised, therefore, at how closely Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls gripped me from the start. Barker, unlike Toibin, focuses on the most famous bit of The Iliad – the siege of Troy itself by the Greek army, Patroclus’s death, Achilles’s furious return to the fight, and how Hector’s body is dragged many times around the walls of Troy before the city finally falls. At the end of the novel, there are details borrowed from Euripides’s Trojan Women, such as the killing of Trojan children by Greek soldiers.

I was less familiar with the first half of the story told here, which deals with Achilles’s anger with Agamemnon after the latter demands his war prize, an enslaved girl, Briseis, as compensation for the loss of his own ‘prize’, Chryseis. Briseis narrates the first section of The Silence of the Girls, and it was her unmediated first-person narrative that I found most impressive. Barker shows us how the women in the camp remain silent in the presence of more powerful men, but speak up when they are alone, offering their own take on the familiar characters of these epics. After meeting her fellow ‘prizes’, Briseis learns a great deal about the men whom they ‘belong’ to:

Hecamede… had been awarded to Nestor… as his prize for strategic thinking, since he was too old to take part in the actual raid.

“Too old for anything?” I ventured to hope.

Uza… hooted with laughter. “Don’t you bloody well believe it! They’re always the worst, old men”… Uza was Odysseus’s prize. No problems there, apparently. All very straightforward. When it was over, he’d lie looking up at the ceiling and indulge in long, rambling reminiscences about his wife, Penelope, to whom he was utterly devoted…

Ritsa turned to me. “What about Achilles? What’s he like?”

“Fast,” I said, and left it at that.

As with any oppressed group, the enslaved women form complex social hierarchies between themselves, based not on their status before slavery (Briseis was married to the king of Lyrnessus), but on qualities that now have more tradeable value, such as youth and beauty, and the attitude of the men who now own them. There’s debate over where the fragile Chryseis fits into all of this:

In one respect, as Uza pointed out, she was better off than most of us: Agamemnon couldn’t get enough of her. “Never sends for anybody else,” she said. “I’m amazed she’s not pregnant.”

He prefers the back door,” Ritsa said. She’d know. Ritsa had a jar of goose fat mixed with crushed roots and herbs that the common women round the campfires relied on if they’d had a particularly rough night.

Later on, the narrative starts to switch between Briseis’s account and Achilles’s third-person perspective, and while this narrative choice is necessary to cover some events that Briseis is not witness to, I found that the novel lost some of its power once its voice was divided. Nevertheless, Barker writes convincingly about religious belief, the duties that the men believe they owe to the gods, and Achilles’s relationship with Patroclus, which is reinvented as a profound, but non-sexual, love, although the other men are convinced they’re sleeping together.

There’s a deliberate use of modern terminology throughout the novel, which on the whole, worked well; while there’s nothing more jarring than a really anachronistic term, making historical characters speak in stilted sentences (which in this case could never be ‘accurate’ given the language difference) is alienating, and gives the false impression that slang and abbreviations are modern inventions. I particularly liked this rowdy chant that the men sing about Achilles:

Why was he born so beautiful?

Why was he born at all?

He’s no fucking use to anyone!

He’s no fucking use at all!

He may be a joy to his mother,

But he’s a pain in the arsehole to me!

This use of language, including some of the phrasing of the First World War poets elsewhere in the narrative, only enhances the power of this wonderful novel.

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Seven years ago, when her debut novel, The Song of Achilles, won what was then the Orange Prize, it was rumoured that Madeline Miller was writing a retelling of the Odyssey. Instead, her second novel takes a slightly different tack. Circe takes the witch that Odysseus famously encounters on an isolated island and gives us an alternative perspective on some of the most famous stories from Greek myth and legend. The novel begins when Circe is a mistreated nymph at her father’s court, exiled after transforming one of her fellow nymphs into the sea monster, Scylla. On her island, Circe encounters first Jason, and then Daedalus, hearing stories of her sister Pasiphae, her minotaur child, and the labyrinth Daedalus built to contain him. Her uneasy truce with the messenger god, Hermes, allows her to learn what happens to these people after they leave her. However, it’s only after Odysseus arrives that Circe really becomes deeply involved in a storyline in her own right.

It’s also been seven years since I read The Song of Achilles, but I remember being impressed by the way that Miller wove little interludes into the central narrative of the siege of Troy while not allowing the novel to feel too tangential. In contrast, much of the first half of Circe is distractingly episodic – not epic, but not really mythical either. The novel only really gets going at the halfway mark, after Circe is raped by a ship’s captain, and vows to transform all men who land on her island into pigs. This middle section is mesmerising, and from this point on, Circe begins to become more of an agent, rather than the recipient of curses, punishments, and tales. However, I still felt profoundly disappointed in her characterisation for much of the novel. She seems to be designed to win the reader’s sympathy rather than positioned as a complex mix of god, nymph and witch. All she really wants is to live the life of a mortal, to have love and children, and she only becomes truly vengeful after her rape. While Miller, like Barker, obviously wants to give us a female perspective on these male-dominated legends, I felt that Circe was much less successful in this respect than The Silence of the Girls. The morality was a bit black-and-white for me; eventually we find out that Odysseus is also a villain, overwriting what was most interesting about his characterisation in The Song of Achilles and in much of this novel. Miller’s writing is still excellent, but if only one classical retelling can make it to the Women’s Prize shortlist this year, I’d prefer it to be The Silence of the Girls.

 

Women’s Prize for Fiction Shortlist 2018

Having read fourteen of the sixteen titles longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, I thought I’d have a go at putting together my dream shortlist before the actual one is announced on Monday. (This is with the caveat that I haven’t read Nicola Barker’s H(A)PPY or Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. I obviously just hate books about happiness).

I had anticipated this being a difficult task, as my overall impression of the longlist was that it was very strong. However, when I looked at these fourteen titles again, I realised that for me, there are six that are way ahead of the rest. This isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy any of the other books on the list, but that these six emphatically stood out.

In no particular order, with links to my reviews:

  • Sight by Jessie Greengrass. In some ways this is an awkward and disjointed novel, but I was blown away by Greengrass’s precise and brilliant meditations on pregnancy and early motherhood, as well as her writing on the grief of losing a parent when you are still a very young adult yourself.
  • Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward. Drawing on the tropes of Southern Gothic, this novel traces the deep-rooted history of racial violence in Mississippi through the manifestion of a series of ghosts. The final page or so is simply spectacular.
  • Elmet by Fiona Mozley. An incredibly confident exploration of masculinity and patriarchy, and the deep emotional attachments we can feel to places as well as people. The narrator’s sister, Cathy, is a particularly memorable character.
  • When I Hit You by Meena Kandasamy. This account of an violent marriage moves far beyond familiar cliches in the way it picks apart and rewrites this single story, repositioning both the abused wife and her abusive husband.
  • The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar. A fabulous, intricate historical novel with a light touch of speculative fiction. Although it has serious themes to tackle itself, it’s also refreshingly lighter in tone than these other five titles!
  • Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie. I was totally emotionally engaged by this retelling of Antigone, which deals with Parvaiz, a young British Muslim recruited by ISIS, his two sisters, Isma and Aneeka, and Eamonn, the son of Muslim Home Secretary Karamat who is staging a ‘crackdown’ on terrorism to enhance his own reputation. Best line: ‘For girls, becoming women was inevitability; for boys, becoming men was ambition.’

I don’t have an absolute favourite to win, but Mozley, Ward and Greengrass are all strong contenders for me, with Mozley perhaps edging slightly ahead of the other two.

I’ll update this post with my thoughts on the actual shortlist once it has been released. In the meantime, what are your wishes and predictions for the 2018 shortlist?

UPDATED 23/4/18:

The actual shortlist is here!

As you can imagine, I’m pretty thrilled that it’s so close to my dream shortlist, though perplexed by the exclusion of Fiona Mozley’s Elmet, which appeared on all the predicted shortlists I’ve seen, and was my preferred winner. I enjoyed The Idiot and I think it’s an interesting and original book in a number of ways, but found it meandering and over-long. However, I’m excited to have read all of the six shortlisted titles, and will now be backing Sight or Sing, Unburied, Sing as the overall winner.

Who do you think should win the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018?

‘He has no right to keep me from my own’

35491487Having struggled with both of the other novels by Kamila Shamsie I’ve read, A God in Every Stone and Burnt Shadowsand having heard that Home Fire suffered from the same faults, I almost didn’t pick up this novel. But I’m so glad I did. In the past, I’ve struggled with Shamsie’s flat characterisation and familiar themes, and haven’t found her writing especially interesting. Funnily enough, I can’t say that any of these faults are entirely absent from Home Fire – but it somehow blossoms in a way that neither of its two predecessors did, perhaps partly because it’s so contemporary. Home Fire starts off with Isma, a young British Muslim woman who’s just undergone the ordeal of being held at security for so long that she’s missed her flight to the US. Isma is going to start a PhD in Massachusetts after years of bringing up her two orphaned siblings, Parvaiz and Aneeka. We immediately see that her relationship with Aneeka is not just loving and protective, but mutually close, as the sisters’ differences enable them to support each other through a world that is so frequently hostile. Before Isma heads off to the airport, they practice the anticipated interrogation together:

‘ “You know you don’t have to be so compliant about everything,” Aneeka had said during the role playing… “For instance, if they ask you about the Queen, just say, ‘As an Asian I have to admire her colour palette.'”… Instead, Isma had responded, “I greatly admire Her Majesty’s commitment to her role.” But there had been comfort in hearing her sister’s alternative answers in her head, her Ha! of triumph when the official asked a question she’d anticipated and that Isma had dismissed, such as the Great British Bake Off one.’

However, we realise immediately that Isma and Aneeka’s brother Parvaiz is missing, and both sisters are angry at him; neither have spoken to him in months. Shortly after, we find out that Parvaiz has been recruited by ISIS and has joined its media division in Syria, following in the footsteps of his father, a jihadi who died after being tortured in Afghanistan – not quite reaching Guantanamo Bay.

Both Isma and Aneeka are compelling characters, adopting very different ways of handling their ethnicity, their faith, and their sexuality, but never falling into the schematic strokes that, for me, often dogged Shamsie’s characterisation in her earlier novels. Isma is ambitious and likeably grave, but while the world takes her as a stern advocate for the rights of Muslims and of hijabi, she struggles with the simple feeling of having a crush, of wanting to be liked in the same way as she likes somebody else. She also gets the best line of the novel. In Amherst, Isma meets Eamonn, the son of infamous Conservative Home Secretary, Karamat Lone, who in order to establish his own credentials as a Muslim in government, has cultivated a reputation for being ‘strong on security’, arguing that British Muslim communities need to learn to integrate better and eroding the human rights of British citizens engaging in terrorist organisations abroad.  Isma knows who Eamonn is, and realises that the pride he takes in being his father’s son, and wanting to live up to that legacy, makes it hard for him to hear any criticism of Karamat. The same kind of feelings, after all, have driven her brother to Syria; the desire to be seen as a man in his own right. ‘[Fathers] are our guides into manhood,’ Eamonn tells her. ‘She’d never really understood this,’ Isma thinks. ‘For girls, becoming women was inevitability; for boys, becoming men was ambition.’

Aneeka is a high-flyer in her own right, starting a law degree, and sharply aware of how to navigate as a Muslim woman in London and on the internet. She stays over with boyfriends but makes sure to find time for daily prayers, telling one lover when he asks her ‘What were you praying for?’:Prayer isn’t about transaction, Mr Capitalist. It’s about starting the day right.’ And as we see throughout the course of the novel, she can be manipulative and resourceful when she needs to be. But Home Fire is split into five sections, each narrated by a different character: Isma, Aneeka, Parvaiz, Eamonn and Karamat. And the two young men, in particular, do revert slightly to stereotype in contrast to the richness of the female cast. Their relationships with their own race and religion are much more straightforward, and they act as foils to each other. Eamonn is utterly determined to reject his Muslim heritage: ‘It was London’s Muslim population who had turned their backs on Karamat Lone and voted him out… All because he expressed a completely enlightened preference for the conventions of a church over those of a mosque, and spoke of the need for British Muslims to lift themselves out of the Dark Ages if they wanted the rest of the nation to treat them with respect.’ He’s forced to question those beliefs, but this doesn’t noticeably deepen him as a character. Meanwhile, Parvaiz is driven to go to Syria for predictable reasons and changes his mind in a predictable way, longing to return to his safe multicultural British life:  Mo Farah at the Olympics, Aunty Naseem’s commemorative cake tin from the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. London. Home.‘ Karamat is a more satisfying narrator, although his own story is somewhat overshadowed by the horrifyingly gripping events of the end of the novel.

Home Fire left me genuinely upset about what happens to the small family we are introduced to at its beginning  – something that might seem obvious, given the violence of its events and the fact that it’s loosely based on the Greek tragedy Antigone, but in fact it’s rare for books to leave me with this kind of emotional legacy. I’m still thinking about it – and telling other people about it – more than a week later. Shamsie’s writing can still be workmanlike, her characterisation is not consistently complex, and she’s still not saying anything especially new in the big themes of this novel, although one could argue that a lot of the significance is in the detail – how Isma cares how her hair looks despite wearing a headscarf, how Aneeka is wary of Googling While Muslim, how Parvaiz lost some photographs of his father as a child because they were confiscated by Special Branch investigators. It’s made me wonder if it’s the weight of historical settings that dragged down her last two books, I now want to turn to one of her earlier contemporary novels. But in short, it’s not surprising this was longlisted for the Booker, and tipped as a likely candidate for the shortlist, even though it didn’t make it there. It’s a remorseless, intelligent, and utterly gripping read.

Seeking a better past: Hilary Mantel’s Reith Lectures

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The Tudors (2007-10)

History is about the probable, whereas historical fiction is about the possible. Or is this too tidy? In the fourth of her Reith lectures [1], Hilary Mantel spoke about the problems that can be created when historical fiction diverges from historical fact, citing the decision of the writers of the TV series The Tudors to combine Henry VIII’s two sisters into a single character. ‘The writers have eaten the future,‘ she said, pointing out that this not only made little historical sense of the remaining sister’s life (and led to the deletion of Mary Queen of Scots!) but obscured the fascinating stories of these two women. ‘The reason you must stick by the truth,’ she argued, addressing the historical novelist, ‘is that it is better, stranger, stronger than anything you can make up.’ Why, though, is this the case? The subtext in Mantel’s words is that writers are likely otherwise to resort to cliche; the truth is better not simply because it is true (and Mantel makes it clear throughout the Reith lectures that she is healthily sceptical of historical ‘truths’) but because it is more interesting. It challenges our assumptions. In other words, it is better to think with.

Hence, it’s not surprising that Mantel also notes throughout these lectures that one of the key jobs of the historical novelist is to explore the difference of the past, and not ‘distort’ historical characters into ‘versions of ourselves’, as tempting as it might be to seek our own faces and voices in the past. ‘A good novelist will have her characters operating within the ethical framework of their day – even if it shocks her readers,’ she notes. Why is this important? In the questions following her third lecture, Mantel expanded. When asked: ‘Isn’t the power of history… because the story is that things were different before and can be different again?’ she replied, ‘I think you’ve nailed it. History, the study of history, is a revolutionary study. If things were not always as they are now, they could be different in the future. They could be better.’

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Pride (2014)

As an historian of twentieth-century Britain who is also working on two historical novels (neither of which is set in twentieth-century Britain) I think what Mantel says here is absolutely right. Historical fiction should not use history simply as window-dressing. There must be a reason for your story to be set in the past, and – unless you are writing something for pure entertainment – that reason should not be solely because you wanted to put your characters into the midst of an exciting battle or interesting political event, but because there was something about the way things worked back then that you want to explore. It’s even less impressive, as Mantel also argues, to use the past as a useful supply of historical horrors to demonstrate how far we’ve come. To give some quick examples from twentieth-century British history, this is why I’ve never been a fan of the films Suffragette (2015) or Made in Dagenham (2010), because they don’t open up that imaginative space; they both present a world in which things were Bad Back Then (no votes for women, no equal pay) but are Better Now (Made in Dagenham conspicuously fails to mention the continuing gender pay gap in its historical update at the end).  In contrast, and regardless of how historically ‘accurate’ any of these films are, Pride (2014), on the story of the 1980s campaign Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, is a much better piece of historical fiction, because it at least confounds some of our expectations about class, sexuality and solidarity.

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Pieter Brugel the Elder, Children’s Games, c.1560.

However, Mantel’s assertions about difference are interesting precisely because many historians have spent much time emphasising that people in the past were not as different as we used to think. To take an example: I’m currently writing a semi-historical novel set in fourteenth-century Cambridgeshire, provisionally entitled A Minute’s Grace. (This novel is only ‘semi-historical’ because it’s a time travel novel, but still.) As I was aware before beginning this novel, a lot of work on medieval and early modern mindsets over the last few decades has been dedicated to squashing myths about absolute difference. Pre-modern people did love their children, despite high infant mortality. Furthermore, they had both a concept of childhood and a concept of youth. They probably had an internal sense of self. This myth-squashing extends to the kind of details that are the most fun for the novelist to play with. Pre-modern people – as Mantel notes – were much cleaner than we believe. Medieval England was not covered in forest. Therefore, as much as an historian-turned-novelist might subscribe to the idea that historical novels should be about difference, research can leave you running up against similarities. And, depending on the stories that we tell about that bit of the past, this can be just as surprising to the reader.

I’ve started to think that one thing historical novelists can usefully do is to engage with popular ideas about the past, rather than history itself (although I totally agree with Mantel when she says that historical fiction and history complement each other). This can be in the pursuit of emphasising ‘sameness’ as well as ‘difference’, if this upsets comfortable ideas about history. Sarah Perry has written about how much she relished presenting women’s social activism in late nineteenth-century Britain in her novel The Essex Serpent (2016), challenging ideas about passive Victorian ladies. In my own fiction, I’m aware there are dominant stories that we tell about the English medieval past that need to be challenged, even though one could theoretically write a fully ‘accurate’ English medieval historical novel without troubling these narratives. For example, inspired by the work of MedievalPOC, Our Migration Story, and the historian Dr Caitlin Green, I wanted to write about a medieval fenland where people of colour are present, even though the story I’m telling isn’t ‘about’ race or ethnicity. In simple statistical terms, the presence of such characters in the particular bit of Cambridgeshire I’m writing about isn’t necessarily probable. But is it possible? Yes. That’s the space in which fiction is written.

I’ll be saying more about story structure and its problems for both historians and novelists in my paper at the Creative Histories conference at the University of Bristol on Thursday July 20th. This blog has been cross-posted on Storying the Past.

[1] Hilary Mantel’s Reith Lectures, plus transcripts, can all be found here.

 

 

20 Books of Summer, #4 and #5: House of Names by Colm Toibin and Waterland by Graham Swift

29344653Family, murder, revenge, history, the importance of names; death in a small, enclosed community. These seemingly very different books, written more than thirty years apart, turned out to reflect each other in surprising ways when I read them at the same time. Colm Toibin’s House of Names retells the well-known Ancient Greek story of the prelude to the siege of Troy, when Greek general Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia to the gods to gain a wind for his fleet to sail, and its postlude, when grieving mother Clytemnestra murders her husband and is in turn murdered by her remaining children, Orestes and Electra. Toibin’s version switches between three narrators, Clytemnestra, Orestes and Electra, and his writing is distinguished, as ever, by its simplicity. House of Names starts in strong form with the dense, disturbing narrative of Clytemnestra, which flashes back and forward between her present-day plans to kill Agamemnon and her memory of the days leading up to Iphigenia’s death. This is writing that needs to be read sentence by sentence, and repays the effort. The narrative becomes truly chilling when, as a last resort, Clytemnestra threatens to curse Agamemnon’s men if they murder her daughter: ‘”From my mother I received a set of words that she, in turn, had received from hers,” I said… “They cause the insides of all men within earshot to shrivel… If one of you lays a finger on my daughter or on me… I will invoke that curse. Unless you come behind us like a pack of dogs, I will speak the words of the curse.” She is then imprisoned under a rock before she can speak: ‘I was half-buried underground as my daughter died alone.’ This is a very familiar story, but Toibin manages to make us feel the horror of the sacrifice all over again through its impact on Iphigenia’s mother.

Unfortunately, for me, House of Names went downhill from there, although there’s another wonderfully creepy, if very short, section from Clytemnestra at the end that brings a bit of the otherness back into the narrative. Orestes’s third-person sections, which dominate the rest of the novel, are the absolute opposite of his mother’s narration; the prose is incredibly sparse, and I zipped through it in no time. There are particular bits of the story, such as when Orestes escapes an oppressive institution with a couple of other young men, or when they roam across the wilderness looking for shelter and getting into fights, that reminded me of dystopian YA fiction that draws from classical motifs, such as Pierce Brown’s Red Rising series, although Toibin’s writing is certainly better than Brown’s clunky prose. Electra’s first-person narration also failed to come alive for me, especially as I found myself struggling with the question of motivation; Electra knows her father killed her sister and that her mother killed her father in retaliation for this act, and yet she doesn’t seem to struggle at all with the decision to kill her mother until late in the day. Motivation is an interesting problem in retellings of Greek myth or legend, and I am certainly sympathetic to the stance that modern readers should not be expected to emphasise with the motivations of these characters, because the stories are serving a different purpose. I admired the gestures towards this in Madeline Miller’s excellent Trojan retelling The Song of Achilles, for example, where Achilles is both humanised, especially through his relationship with Patroclus, and utterly alien as he wrestles with his godlike destiny. However, because the utterly relatable Clytemnestra has been plonked in the middle of this version, this distorts the less sympathetic, deliberately stylised depictions of the other characters.

19689086088Graham Swift’s Waterland has the same feel of grand family tragedy, despite being narrated by an ordinary enough lock-keeper’s son turned history teacher, Tom Crick, who now lives in Greenwich but grew up beside the Great Ouse in East Anglia. Waterland is deservedly seen as one of the greatest novels about the England fenland, and Swift’s descriptions are spot on (as is the cover of the edition I read, pictured to the left). ‘No one needs telling that the land in that part of the world is flat,’ he writes in the novel’s opening pages. ‘It stretched away to the horizon, its uniform colour, peat-black, varied only by the crops that grew upon it… its uniform levelness broken only by the furrowed and dead-straight lines of ditches and drains, which, depending on the state of the sky and the angle of the sun, ran like silver, copper or golden wires across the fields, and which, when you stood and looked at them, made you shut one eye and fall prey to fruitless meditations on the laws of perspective.‘ Unfortunately, much of the writing in Waterland is less like this and more like this: ‘Once upon a time people believed in the end of the world… But that, of course, was superstition. The world grew up. It didn’t end… For a little while – it didn’t start so long ago, only a few generations ago – the world went through its revolutionary, progressive phase; and the world believed it would never end, it would go on getting better. But then the end of the world came back again, not as an idea or a belief but as something the world had manufactured for itself all the time it was growing up. Which only goes to show that if the end of the world didn’t exist it would be necessary to invent it.’ Waterland is one of those books that is about History and Time and Stories, expressing ideas that perhaps don’t sound too bad in small doses but which I found both familiar and pretentious by the time I was about halfway through (it very much reminded me of Barry Unsworth’s Losing Nelson in this respect).

As my post on Hilary Mantel’s Reith Lectures indicates (as well as the title of this blog) I love thinking about History and Time and Stories. So why didn’t I like Waterland? Simply, I didn’t feel these grand musings were emotionally earnt. As in House of Names, the most powerful and harrowing stories in Waterland are about the suffering of women, a thread that runs through the history of Tom Crick’s family. Sarah Atkinson, Tom’s maternal great-great grandmother, is ‘young and spirited’ when she marries fenland ale brewer Thomas in the early nineteenth century, but when he falsely accuses her of infidelity and strikes her across the face, she is left brain-damaged for her remaining fifty-four years of life, retaining ‘the paradoxical pose of one who keeps watch – but over nothing. She will not lose her beauty… Even in old age when her flesh has shrunk… she will preserve the sadly imperious demeanour of an exiled princess.‘ After Sarah’s death, it rains for two days straight, flooding the town, and the townspeople spread a rumour that Sarah has returned from the dead. Two generations on, Sarah’s grandson, Ernest, and his daughter, Helen (who is Tom Crick’s mother), begin an incestuous relationship after the burning down of the Atkinson’s brewery. Finally, Tom’s own wife, Mary, having endured an illegal abortion when she was a teenager which left her infertile, ends up in a mental health institution at the age of fifty-two after she steals somebody else’s baby and brings it home. And yet, despite these characters, women feel curiously absent from Waterland, brought in to build the background against which men’s stories are told. It’s one of those novels that makes me feel it was written with only male readers in mind, although it’s hard to put my finger on exactly why. Ultimately, I suppose, women are othered as distant, beautiful and insane figures; unable to prevent what happens to them; only able to be hurt. The death of a young boy that opens the novel similarly fades into the background, and we are left only with Tom’s own, theoretical, thoughts about the nature of History, Time and Stories, as if such ideas exist in a vacuum, or as if they can exonerate him from his own role in all this female pain.