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.

20 Books of Summer, #4 and #5: If I Had Your Face and Surfacing

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Frances Cha’s debut novel, If I Had Your Face, is narrated in first person by four women in their late twenties and early thirties living precarious lives in contemporary Seoul (they actually live in the Gangnam district, which is a good education for those of us who have only heard of Gangnam from the K-pop single ‘Gangnam Style’). Despite only having four narrators, it has five significant female characters, all of whom live in the same apartment building. Ara, a mute hair stylist obsessed with a K-pop icon, shares her flat with school friend Sujin, who is saving up for plastic surgery so she can be a top ‘room salon’ girl like Kyuri, who makes money by entertaining men every night. Kyuri’s flatmate, Miho, seems to have broken away from her deprived upbringing in an orphanage when she wins a scholarship to an art school in New York, but is still at the mercy of the classist judgments of other Koreans when she returns; finally, Wonna, who lives with her husband in the downstairs flat, is desperate to become a mother even though she doesn’t know how she’ll be able to make ends meet. If I Had Your Face is significantly, if not wholly, concerned with how all of these women struggle to meet conventional standards of femininity and sexuality. In this, it has something in common with Cheryl Lu-Lien’s Singapore-set Sarong Party Girls; however, the latter has a much more satirical tone, depicting women who party hard and are much more willing to break the rules in their search for the perfect husband, whereas the Korean characters in If I Had Your Face live more constrained lives.

There are flashes of memorable originality in this debut novel, but the bits that stuck with me most vividly – like Wonna accidentally blinding her cousin as a child or Ara beating up an assistant hair stylist who’s sabotaging her at work – were the incidents that didn’t really connect to the story as a whole. The novel feels a little meandering and confusing, and this is amplified by how difficult it is to tell its four narrators apart and how all four of them tend to skip backwards and forwards in time when telling their stories. I was perhaps more bothered than I ought to have been by the fact that Sujin doesn’t get to narrate, whereas Wonna doesn’t seem to fit into many of the key themes of the book and so felt like an unnecessary addition. I understand that Cha wanted to explore the fate of women who do achieve marriage to a respectable man as a counterpoint to the rest of her characters trying to survive on their own, but I felt like I’d read this story many times before. If I Had Your Face had so much potential, but it never quite pulled it together.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on July 23rd.

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Surfacing is Kathleen Jamie’s third collection of nature-writing essays, following Findings and Sightlinesboth of which I enjoyed immensely. Unlike her previous two collections, Surfacing is dominated by two novella-length pieces on archaeological digs and their relationship with the landscape around them – ‘In Quinhagak’ explores the University of Aberdeen’s excavations at the Nunalleq site near the Yup’ik village of Quinhagak in Alaska, while ‘Links of Noltland’ focuses on the excavation of Neolithic remains on Orkney. The former essay is especially interesting because of the presence of the Yup’ik community, who support the archaeological dig because it’s uncovering evidence of their pre-contact culture. As Jamie writes, ‘It’s about saying, this is yours. Everything you feared you lost, or never even knew you had. Look. It’s here. It’s back.’ The Links of Noltland dig, exploring a time unfathomably more ancient, has no such direct living connection, but the meticulous work of the archaeologists builds up a sense of what the community must have been like. At one point, Jamie is helping two of the researchers, Dan and Anna, explore a particular patch:

[Dan] had the enclosure wall to deal with and, in its lee, many flints. His patch was covered in little polythene bags, each containing a bit of flint. Anna and I, just a metre further into the enclosure, had only brown earth which yielded occasional small morsels of bone. I pretended outrage when Hazel came by. “Miss! It’s not fair! He’s getting all these finds, and we’re not.”

Hazel’s answer seemed visionary. She glanced and said, “They must have been sitting on the wall, flint-knapping.”

Sat right there on their village wall in the afternoon sunshine, working and chatting. I almost saw them.

Jamie’s writing is as clear and brilliant as ever, but this collection felt slightly unbalanced by the dominance of these two long pieces. None of the very short pieces interspersed throughout worked for me, although I enjoyed a couple of the medium-length pieces; ‘The Wind Horse’, a bit of a departure from Jamie’s usual work, evocatively returns to her travels as a young woman in Xiahe, which is formally part of China but ‘ethnically and culturally Tibetan’, and ‘Elders’ is a moving piece about the ageing and death of her dad. Unlike Sightlines, Surfacing is also less successful at pulling together Jamie’s travel-writing with her emotional reflections on her own life; both are present in this book but tend to be explored in separate essays. Nevertheless, I would recommend this thoughtful, beautiful collection, especially if you are interested in questions of historical and cultural preservation.