Three Things… July 2019

It’s ages since I’ve done a Three Things! Borrowed, as ever, from Paula at Book Jotter.

Reading

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The Terrible, a memoir by poet and short-story writer Yrsa Daley-Ward, falls into the category of prose-poetry that has attracted criticism recently for being easy and vague, and for prizing ‘relatability’ above other artistic considerations. Poets like Daley-Ward, Hollie McNish and Rupi Kaur have been disparagingly termed ‘Instapoets’ because of their significant social media presence and use of Instagram to highlight their poetry; given that poets nowadays need to be proactive in engaging with their audience, I don’t find this term useful, and nor do I think that using Instagram makes you a less serious writer. Nevertheless, I broadly agree with poet Rebecca Watts’ now infamous piece in PN Review, ‘The cult of the noble amateur’, which focuses on McNish, that McNish’s and Kaur’s poetry is problematic because it is characterised by an ‘open denigration of intellectual engagement and rejection of craft’. This assumes, Watts argues, that poems are not ‘deliberately created works’ but naturally occurring outbursts of feeling, and thus positions them as something that ‘anyone could write’. Unfortunately, I felt that Daley-Ward’s memoir, despite some interesting sections, also ended up in this place.

The Terrible is certainly honest, and it is brave in its exploration of childhood and adolescent trauma. Yrsa and her little brother Roo grew up with their Seventh-Day Adventist grandparents in north-west England; their mother was both present and absent in their childhood. ‘I think she loves us a bit,’ the young Yrsa tells Roo, ‘but not as much as other people’s mums.’ Daley-Ward writes well about how she was meant to feel alienated from her own body before she even hit her teens; entering puberty early, being exoticised as a woman of colour, encountering the ‘powerfear’ of men’s sexual attraction to her. At nine and a half, she writes, ‘I longed for smallness; to be petite. To have small hands and feet and no growing pains; no angry lion dreams and definitely no boobs.’ However, these sections are some of the few in the book that are narrated in prose, and are the stronger for it.

As Daley-Ward moves into her teens, she narrates more and more in prose-poetry (which often just feels like confessional, split-up prose) as she recounts her time in sex work and her isolation in the world. After sleeping with a much older man for money and having to hurriedly leave because his daughters are arriving, she thinks ‘He has daughters. He has a family. It does not feel fair that someone so old should have a doting family and someone as young as me should have no-one.’ But most of these chapters feel like words spilt onto the page, too easy, too emotive, often in a manipulative second-person voice:

You

reduce food to 1200 calories

reduce food to 1000 calories

don’t tell anyone what’s happening with Peter

He wants to leave his wife. Oh God.

He says “You’re losing too much weight.

Eat. Please eat.”

 I wonder if the problem with this kind of poetry, as with McNish’s and Kaur’s, is that it’s really written to be spoken rather than read, that on the page we’re only getting part of the performance. But if that’s the case, this memoir needed to be rethought; for me, this doesn’t work in print. Rather than capturing the specificity of Yrsa’s experiences as her more straightforward writing does, it reduces them and makes them trite. I’d like to see Daley-Ward write more consistently in prose, rather than resort to this hybrid form, as it seems to be where her talents lie.

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

Watching

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People who know me IRL will know I’m a huge Stranger Things fan. The first two series packed a huge emotional punch for me, especially as I watched them in a row when I was having a difficult time back in January 2018. For those who haven’t watched Stranger Things, it’s set in Hawkins, a fictional small town in Indiana, in the 1980s (and never lets you forget it; this is 80s nostalgia writ large). The main focus of the show is a group of friends on the cusp of their teens, one of whom goes missing after a game of Dungeons and Dragons one night, and the strange, traumatised girl they encounter, Eleven, who turns out to have psychokinetic powers. Our heroes soon start to suspect there’s something supernatural going on beneath the surface of Hawkins, and decide to investigate…

[Mild spoilers for Stranger Things 1 and 2 follow.]

After how much I loved the first two series, Stranger Things 3 was a bit of a let-down. Partly, this is beyond the showrunners’ control: the charm of the first two series lay largely in their exploration of the last years of childhood, when you no longer believe in magic but really want to, and as the central cast age into adolescence, this was never going to work in the same way. However, there were other aspects of Stranger Things 3 that I found a bit lacking. A number of the characters became caricatures of themselves. I’ve always disliked Mike, one of the pre-teens, but I hated him with the intensity of a thousand suns this season as he’s pretty much horrible to everybody around him, especially best friend Will and new girlfriend Eleven. Similarly, disillusioned police chief Hopper seemed to be vicious rather than just jaded, and local mother Joyce, who always shouted a lot, seemed to be shouting even more. There was also not nearly enough Will, the original missing person, who for me has always been the heart of the series. Some of the brilliance of the earlier series was still present – I will always adore Dustin, and his alliance with Steve and Robin was inspired – but, overall, I felt like this season of Stranger Things was more schlocky, less scary, and less haunting.

Thinking

I’ve been listening to a brand new podcast, What Editors Want, which is about what publishers look for in an author and book. The first episode, featuring Louisa Joyner from Faber & Faber, was excellent, and it’s nice to get a different take on publishing after having read 1000+ articles on ‘what agents want’. I went to an event with Joyner at the Durham Book Festival where she was talking with three of her debut authors, and I really admire her approach to getting good books to readers. While I disagree with her that there’s no distinction between commercial and literary fiction, I definitely agree that there are a lot of fantastic books that fall into that liminal space.

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20 Books of Summer, #4 and #5: The Chalk Artist and Winter Sisters

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Allegra Goodman’s latest novel, The Chalk Artist, set in Cambridge and Boston, is written in deliberately hallucinatory prose, making every element of the story feel heightened. This could tip into overkill but worked for me because of the subject-matter. Teenage Aidan is academically bright, but spends all his free time playing an MMORPG created by the company Arkadia (think World of Warcraft, which weirdly also exists in this universe even though linked games EverWhen and UnderWorld are clearly intended to mimic it – for example, one incident in the book obviously mirrors WoW’s famous Corrupted Blood incident in 2005). Aidan’s sister, Diana, scrawls endless, intermittently relevant answers to her teacher’s questions in her English journal, writing, among other things, about how worried she is about her brother. Diana’s teacher, Nina, is determined to get through to her students and prove that she can do something useful in the world – not simply exist as the daughter of Arkadia’s boss. Finally, Nina’s boyfriend, Collin, is the ‘chalk artist’ of the title; he’s incredibly gifted at sketching but doesn’t mind wiping his creations away when he’s done. Collin is also pulled into UnderWorld’s web after becoming a concept artist on a new game – where, he realises, his art is just as transient as chalk, but he’s no longer the one who destroys it.

The Chalk Artist picks up on themes that appeared in the two other Goodman novels I’ve read, Intuition and The Cookbook Collector – both of which were tantalisingly intelligent but spread themselves much too thin. Most interestingly, it starts to explore what it means to be gifted, and what we owe to our gift. Collin is preternaturally talented at art, but precisely because of that, he’s not attracted by the things that draw lesser artists – he’s dropped out of art school and loves the fact that nothing he makes lasts. This recalls a secondary character in Intuition, who refuses to play lab politics and abandons his career even though he’s a scientific genius. Disappointingly, however, The Chalk Artist doesn’t quite follow through on this theme when it comes to Aiden. Perhaps because of his age, Goodman implicitly endorses the idea that UnderWorld is bad for him, and pursuing good grades in the ‘real world’ is better, especially once he begins to be inspired by Nina’s tutoring. This is undercut slightly by the suggestion that connecting deeply with poetry is a fantastic – in the literal sense of the word – experience in its own right, but I’d like to have seen this novel take gaming a bit more seriously.

On the other hand, Goodman writes brilliantly about the experience of being immersed in a VR world; EverWhen and UnderWorld are so compelling precisely because she avoids the temptation to get bogged down in technological detail. I haven’t seen virtual reality written this well since a few classic novels from my childhood (1990s children’s fiction was a little obsessed with virtual worlds): Gillian Cross’s New World, Stephen Bowkett’s Dreamcastle, Helen Dunmore’s Fatal Error. All of these, like The Chalk Artist, emphasise the dangers of getting lost in something that is not real; but the way they describe what draws people into such worlds makes them more than simple morality tales. I’d hoped The Chalk Artist would be a 4.5 star read for me, and it isn’t quite; but it’s definitely a solid four stars, and my favourite so far from Goodman.

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Robin Oliveira’s Winter Sisters, set in Albany in 1879, is a loose sequel to My Name Is Mary Sutterwhich followed the eponymous Mary, a midwife striving to train as a doctor during the American Civil War. When I reviewed the first novel, I wrote that it was almost classically tragic in the hardships visited upon its central character, and upon her mother and sister. However, I felt that this worked in the context of that story, emphasising Mary’s superhuman determination to pursue her chosen career in the face of institutional misogyny and the hazards of wartime. In contrast, Winter Sisters feels both melodramatic and a little exploitative in the way it explores its characters’ misery. The novel kicks off in the way it means to continue: two reasonably prominent secondary characters from My Name Is Mary Sutter are unceremoniously dispatched in a blizzard to set up the plot-line of this novel. Their deaths occupy a couple of sentences, almost as if Oliveira was keen to get this set-up out of the way so she can move on to the central suffering of the story. For after these characters are killed, it’s discovered that their two young daughters, Emma and Claire, are missing, believed dead in the snowdrifts that have buried Albany.

Mary, a close friend of Emma’s and Claire’s family, determines to seek out the girls, but what she discovers is horrifying. Spoilers [highlight to read]. Emma and Claire have been kidnapped by two men and kept imprisoned in a cellar for weeks – during this time, Emma has been regularly raped and beaten by one of the men. Claire has been spared similar treatment because she is under the age of consent – which at that time was just ten. Spoilers end. The rest of the novel is devoted to exploring the aftermath of the girls’ fates, including an extended courtroom sequence. While Winter Sisters is well-written and makes careful use of historical detail, I did find myself questioning the need to cover this story in such detail. Oliveira’s afterword notes explicitly that she was inspired by the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, but by choosing such an unquestionable case, she fails to draw parallels between the past and the present and instead underlines the difference of the past. I also felt uncomfortable with the way she wrote her child characters, who are reduced to symbols of innocence and have little voice in the novel. If My Name Is Mary Sutter tipped towards tragedy, Winter Sisters wallows in it.

I’m now back in the UK but am still away from home travelling for work, and so may take longer to reply to comments than usual.

Unhappy People: Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (Jeanette Winterson) & Normal People (Sally Rooney)

Jeanette Winterson grew up in an English Pentecostal family. Her adoptive parents were shocked when she came out as a lesbian, and had their church conduct an exorcism. Winterson ended up leaving home at sixteen, and broke contact with her family shortly after. Famously, she published a fictionalised account of her childhood and adolescence, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, when she was only twenty-five, but this memoir addresses her experiences from her own point of view. The title has a simple origin. When Winterson told her mother that she had fallen in love with another woman, and that this relationship made her very happy, her mother said: ‘Why be happy when you could be normal?’

While few people would put this question as bluntly as Mrs Winterson (Winterson refers to her mother in this way throughout Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?) I think that it’s a question that a lot of us grapple with. That’s certainly true for the protagonists of Sally Rooney’s second novel, Normal People, Connell and Marianne, who meet at school in Carricklea and carry on an one-off relationship through their years at university in Dublin. While Marianne’s family are far better off than Connell’s – Connell’s mother cleans their house – Marianne’s class privilege does little to help her at school, where Connell possesses all the social cachet. When they start sleeping together, both simply assume that the relationship should be kept secret. Cleverly, Rooney reverses the power dynamics in Dublin, where it is Marianne who is striving for social success, whereas Connell takes the brunt of not only being working-class but rural. Both characters feel the pressures of being what Marianne calls ‘normal people’, a state that is both aspirational and stifling.

Like Connell, Winterson came from a working-class family in a relatively out-of-the-way location (in her case, Accrington) and went to a glamorous world-class university (in her case, Cambridge). She writes so well about both class and religion. Despite the oppressive nature of the Pentecostal church, she remembers how she valued the sense of community it brought and the simple fact of ‘having somewhere to go in the evening’ in a declining north-west England industrial town where communal facilities had been steadily stripped away. Not connecting this to the bigger picture at the time, Winterson, as a young woman, voted for Thatcher in 1979, valuing what she seemed to represent: a self-made woman in a world where left politics felt dominated by masculine trade unionism. In contrast, both class and (especially) religion are relatively slight in Normal People. While class differences feed into the consistent miscommunication between Connell and Marianne, Rooney seems more interested in analysing how they misunderstand each other word by word and sentence by sentence, rather than suggesting that there are macro factors that keep them apart. The sadness of their story is that it could so easily have been different. In terms of politics, Marianne talks vaguely about Marxism, but that’s as far as it goes.

Rooney is a wonderfully observational writer. This Goodreads review seems to me to miss the point of her prose; it accuses her of piling up irrelevant details, but actually the content of this quote is who is doing what:

Marianne goes inside and comes back out again with another bottle of sparkling wine, and one bottle of red. Niall starts unwrapping the wire on the first bottle and Marianne hands Connell a corkscrew. Peggy starts clearing people’s plates. Connell unpeels the foil from the top of a bottle as Jamie leans over and says something to Marianne. He sinks the screw into the cork and twists it downwards. Peggy takes his plate away and stacks it with the others.

While I don’t think this is the strongest example of Rooney’s writing, there’s a certain power dynamic here that we can see through Connell’s eyes; Marianne bringing out more bottles; handing him a corkscrew while her current partner, Jamie, tries to get her attention; Peggy taking charge through clearing the plates.

Ordinary People is an addictive read, and I found it less limited than Conversations With Friends (the critics who have suggested that Rooney has somehow regressed because she’s writing about characters who are chronologically younger than her last set of protagonists need to think again). However, I have to confess that I’m baffled as to why it’s being hailed as ‘a future classic’. I feel like I’ve read quite a few novels like this, most notably Belinda McKeon’s beautiful TenderI’d still put it on my personal shortlist for this year’s Women’s Prize, but this is partly due to the weakness of the overall longlist rather than feeling blown away by this book.

What I wanted it to address, I suppose, is something that’s inchoate in the story but never quite comes to the surface: when we are teenagers, we often want more than anything to be ‘normal people’, but as we find out how easy it is to be normal, we strive to become exceptional again. This happens most obviously to Marianne when she’s accepted by a popular set at university, and is seduced into putting her own needs and interests to one side. In Winterson’s case, I get the sense that, after what her mother said to her, being ‘normal’ was never on the agenda; so her wonderful memoir is more about the cost of living on the other side of normality, which may be the right place to be, but is often a very painful space as well.

Sex, the sea and academia: Night Waking (Sarah Moss) & The Pisces (Melissa Broder)

 

At first glance, it might seem perverse to pair Sarah Moss’s Night Waking and Melissa Broder’s The Pisces. One is about an harassed, exhausted mother trying to write an academic book and deal with two children on a remote Scottish island, ‘Colsay’ (St Kilda), while her ornithologist husband counts puffins; the other is about a single woman who, seeking no-strings sex, falls in love with a merman whom she meets on an LA beach. Nevertheless, I happened to read the two side by side, and that made me think about the ways both Moss and Broder write about sex, the sea and academia.

I first read Night WakingMoss’s second novel, eight years ago, and it’s been nettling me ever since. I couldn’t decide then, and I still can’t decide now, who to like and dislike, whose fault is what, and I think this is quite deliberate. Anna, our first-person narrator, a historian of childhood in her early thirties and mother to seven-year-old Raphael and two-year-old Moth, is not an easy person to warm to, even though her narrative is frequently hilarious and her complaints are usually justified. She tends to express her resentment through sidelong comments to her children; for example, when reading Moth the adventures of Lucy and Tom: ‘Lucy is helping to pack up the picnic… Tom, reinforcing gender stereotypes, has gone to get the buckets and spades from the sandpit.’ Or when Moth pleads ‘Mummy stop it raining’, ‘I can’t stop it raining. Believe me, if I had supernatural powers the world would be a very different place.’ 

When I first read this book, in my early twenties, I felt uncomfortable about Anna’s frank relationship with her children, but now I find myself applauding her. What’s less relatable now about her character, for me, is why she puts up with so much. We never find out why she decided to have two children so young (for her demographic), with a significant age gap between them (Anna is in her early thirties, so must have had Raphael when she was around twenty-five), why she insists on baking her own bread and cooking for the family when she hates it and is rubbish at it, or why she doesn’t just give husband Giles an ultimatum about his lack of contribution to childcare and housework.

On first glance, Lucy, the thirty-eight-year-old protagonist of The Pisces, might conceivably be more relatable to other single, childless women, and Broder certainly has her come out with some brilliant sets of observations, especially near the start of the novel. But she’s also frustrating in similar ways to the unnamed heroine of Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and RelaxationLike Anna, Lucy has an academic book to write; unlike Anna, she has no caring responsibilities (short of a friendly dog called Dominic) and is being allowed to stay for free in her sister’s LA beach house.

This is reflected in the symbolic landscapes of the two novels. The sea that Anna encounters on Colsay is wild, cold and obviously deadly; she almost comes to grief trying to get back to the island in a small boat on one occasion, and we know that people have died in it in the past. Meanwhile, Lucy’s California ocean is warm, erotic and welcoming; we only find out later that it too has a fatal edge.

But what about the sex? This might seem to be the biggest difference between the two novels. The Pisces is deliberately explicit; Lucy’s sexual experiences both with her merman, and with a range of random Tinder dates, are described in detail, and while I didn’t find the novel crude in the way I was expecting, it actually becomes completely non-erotic in its clear descriptions of bodily functions. Meanwhile, Anna does have sex with Giles, but it happens offscreen every time, and is blink-and-you’ll-miss it, buried under the narrative’s dominant concerns of childcare, academic writing and the infant skeleton that Anna finds in their garden, which turns out to date from the 1860s. If Lucy’s Tinder profile says ‘Let’s make out in a dark alley’, Anna’s would probably say ‘Please leave me alone in a dark bedroom’. However, sex is significant in Night Waking in a way I didn’t appreciate at first, and less significant in The Pisces than I had expected.

Lucy pretends to be seeking carnal experience, but she really wants to be loved. All her pre-merman sex is disappointing, and while sex with the merman is transcendent, it doesn’t silence her deep conviction that all relationships are essentially power games. ‘When Romeo cried for Juliet, because he thought she was dead, it was Juliet who had the power. But then she cried for him when he was really dead, and he had the power. It’s the dead one who is the most cherished in the end.’ The Pisces ends with Lucy rejecting sexual love for platonic love: ‘I had hoped that fantasy would triumph. Now I was left with neither. But I had my sister.’ 

In contrast, Giles and Anna continuously squabble but do not separate, and it’s implied that what holds them together is a deep and mutual sexual bond, all the more powerful for not being shown to the reader, and revealed largely through Raphael and Moth’s surprise at their parents being more openly affectionate than usual after the deed: ‘ “Daddy, why did you do that?”…”What?”… “Kiss Mummy.”‘ Both books leave the reader with thorny questions. Is good sex worth it, if it binds you to someone who’s exploiting your emotional and domestic labour? Is it better to be with someone with whom you’re less sexually compatible, but who you can live a full life with, rather than having to mould your life around theirs? Does love need good sex? Does good sex need love? I wasn’t totally won over by either of these novels, but I know that both will continue to niggle at me.

A note re. the Women’s Prize 2019; while I’m not sure whether or not The Pisces, which was longlisted, would make my personal shortlist, it’s definitely better than at least half the books on the actual shortlist, and so should be there. And Sarah Moss being shunned unfairly by the Women’s Prize judges has a long history; Night Waking was not longlisted in 2011.

 

The Books That Made Me, Part 1

I’ve been thinking about where my basic assumptions about what makes a good novel comes from, and how both my reading preferences and the themes, structures and concerns of my own creative writing can be traced back to a handful of crucial titles. These are not my favourite books of all time, or the books that I think are the best, but they are books that I once loved or still love. Post inspired partly by Lucy Mangan’s Bookworm!

Early Childhood Favourites (Under 8)

I was a precocious reader (nobody who reads this blog will be at all surprised to hear) and my mum struggled to find me books that I wouldn’t eat up in two seconds and yet would still be appropriate for my age. It’s not surprising that she turned to fantasy. What’s wonderful about all these titles is that they’re books that have lived with me for more than twenty years, enriching my life differently as I get older; they’re books that I didn’t necessarily understand completely the first time I read them, but which have shaped my understanding of story-form on an unconscious level.

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Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles, especially the first two titles in the series, Dealing With Dragons and Searching For Dragons, have given me endless pleasure throughout the years. Most importantly, I think their use of twisted fairytale elements made me understand that stories look different from different points of view. Princess Cimorene volunteers to live with a dragon, but has to constantly turn away disgruntled princes who want to rescue her so they can get half her father’s kingdom and her hand in marriage. Rumpelstiltskin is forced, through family tradition, to take the babies of women who can’t guess his name after spinning straw into gold, but he can’t provide for all the children, and he can’t spin gold for himself; he solves the problem by setting up a boarding school and hiring a good lawyer to make it into a charitable trust, so he can spin for charity. Wizards, like the Wicked Witch of the West, can be vanquished by a bucket of soapy water, but don’t forget to add lemon juice, or it doesn’t work. Unlike many favourite children’s books, I honestly feel that these could be read and appreciated at any age, even if you first come to them as an adult.

Monica Furlong’s Wise Child and Juniper, about a group of powerful women, called dorans, who strive to live in harmony with the earth, put forward a beautiful and subtly feminist vision of female power, based on Cornish folklore. In that, they share some elements with Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Quartet*, especially The Tombs of Atuan and Tehanu. I didn’t fully understand any of these books as a child, but their descriptions of light and dark magic made a deep impression. Similarly, Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown, about a female dragon killer, was almost incomprehensible to me at first due to the way it nested stories within stories, but it became my first introduction to this storytelling style. Her Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast was more accessible for a seven-year-old. Finally, my mum’s childhood copy of Alan Garner’s A Weirdstone of Brisingamen scared me and delighted me at the same time, and the scene when Colin and Susan are chased through an underground cave system is still an exemplar of how to build up tension.

*There were only four books when I was little…

Late Childhood Favourites (8-12)

Fantasy and speculative fiction continued to dominate my reading during this period (I read plenty of more realistic books as well, I just didn’t like them as much) with the beginnings of some science fiction as well. Catherine Storr’s Marianne Dreams is still one of the most terrifying books I’ve ever read, and also a great lesson in how to mix fantasy and reality; it focuses on Marianne, who is confined to bed with a long illness, and who starts to discover that the things she draws come to life in her dreams. Lionel Davidson’s almost unknown Under Plum Lake is a deeply haunting narrative of a boy who discovers a secret world deep under the sea; impossible to summarise, impossible to forget. The last of these three books – they always go together in my mind – is Penelope Farmer’s Charlotte Sometimes, about a girl at boarding school in the 1960s who unknowingly swaps places with a girl at the same school in 1918. All these novels have the supernatural, otherworldly quality that I strive for in my own fiction.

All these books were published decades before I was born. On the other hand, there were modern series: so many series! Growing up in the 1990s, very few new books for children or teenagers seemed to be stand-alones. Many of these titles were rubbish, but there were some exceptions. I bought the first Harry Potter book in 1997, and so was a little ahead of the curve; I was enraptured by how incredibly well-plotted it was, and the complex moral universe that seemed to be suggested by its two sequels. Alas, the Harry Potter series jumped the shark for me after book five (see monster rant coming soon), but I still admire the first three books. More satisfying was K.A. Applegate’s Animorphs series, which I’ve written about before but will never stop talking about, probably because they had the single biggest impact on my childhood self. This SF series stars a group of teenagers who can change into any animal they can touch and have to use these powers to fight a guerrilla war against an undercover alien invasion that’s infiltrating Earth by taking over human bodies. By the age of ten, I was desperate for books that moved beyond heroes and villains and explored more difficult questions about morality; Animorphs, which ends with our all-American boy hero committing genocide against the main alien antagonists of the series, delivered this in spades. Given that the series is fifty-four books long, plus some sequels, super editions and spin-offs, it obviously varies in quality, but nothing else I read made me think so hard.

This post got too long, so Parts 2 and 3 are coming soon! Images in this post are of the covers that I’m familiar with, or the closest approximation.

Have you read any of these books? What were your childhood favourites, and how have they affected the way that you read and/or write fiction?

Late Spring Reading

I’m still working my way through the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist. I’ve now read all of the titles I planned to read before the shortlist announcement except Sally Rooney’s Normal People and Lillian Li’s Number One Chinese Restaurant – the library just isn’t coming through for me! So, I’ve decided to change my strategy, as I want to get as many of these read before the shortlist is announced on the 29th April. I’m going to buy myself a copy of Normal People, as I’m pretty sure I’ll enjoy it. Then, as I’ve read some pretty poor reviews of Number One Chinese Restaurant and some pretty good reviews of Sophie van Llewyn’s Bottled Goods (plus, I love the fact she’s written this tiny literary novella for a tiny press, and yet says her favourite book/s are A Song of Ice and Fire), I’m going to read Bottled Goods instead. Therefore, I won’t be reading Number One… (or The Pisces, Swan Song or Praise Song for the Butterflies) unless it’s shortlisted, which I doubt it will be.

In the meantime, a round-up of some non-Women’s Prize reading:

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In retrospect, everything else in The Dollmaker was overshadowed for me by the hauntingly brilliant long quotation that prefaces the novel, taken from an 1897 article called ‘A Study of Dolls’, co-authored by the famous American psychologist of adolescence, G. Stanley Hall. Here’s a little bit of it:

90 children mentioned burial, their average age being nine; 80 mentioned funerals, 73 imagined their dolls dead, 30 dug up dolls after burial to see if they had gone to heaven, or simply to get them back. Of these 11 dug them up the same day… 12 dolls came to death by accidental bumps and fractures, 1 burst, 1 died of a melted face, 2 were drowned (1 a paper doll)… 30 children had never imagined dolls dead. This parents often forbid… In 21 cases there was death but no burial; in 10, funerals but no burials; in 8, funerals but no death.

This is so ridiculous and beautiful, the kind of inadvertent poetry that you sometimes find in Victorian social studies, that The Dollmaker was never going to live up to it. Ultimately, I admired the craft and intelligence with which this novel was written, but it wasn’t really my thing.

Andrew Garvie, who has dwarfism, has spent his life collecting and making dolls. When he receives a letter from Bramber Winters, a woman living in an institution on Bodmin Moor, about his collection, this begins an enthusiastic correspondence between them. Andrew sets off on a journey across England to finally meet Bramber, and on the way, reads a book of Polish stories that she’s recommended to him by the fictional Ewa Chaplin. Chaplin’s stories are littered with characters that might be considered ‘freaks’ in nineteenth-century parlance, from a range of people who also have dwarfism to a woman whose fingers have been frozen by rheumatoid arthritis and a woman born without one of her eyes. This engages Andrew’s sympathies; recently, he has been restoring ‘monsters’, damaged dolls who don’t have perfect faces and bodies, because he sees no reason why dolls shouldn’t reflect reality.

A number of Chaplin’s stories are scattered throughout the novel, and most are riveting; subtly disturbing, they all suggest worlds that aren’t quite our own. In contrast, Andrew and Bramber’s plot-line is rooted more firmly in reality than I’d expected, and I longed for more than a hint of the speculative. The dolls themselves are more symbolically significant throughout the novel than anything else, and I wished there had been a lot more about Andrew’s work as a dollmaker, picking up on the hint of creepiness in the Stanley Hall quote. And while the Chaplin stories worked for me, they made the pace of the novel very erratic, as it took me a little while to get into each one, meaning I’d often put the novel aside for some time when a new story appeared. Without the stories, on the other hand, this is a familiar tale of two misfits finding love through letter, and Bramber never really came alive for me; I’d have preferred the whole thing to be about Andrew, his dolls, and Ewa Chaplin’s stories.

Writers often complain that reviewers review the book they wanted to read rather than the book the writer wanted to write, and that’s definitely at play for me here; I SO wanted this to be a more alternative-reality sort of novel that I kept on making up elaborate twists that didn’t come to pass (Andrew and Bramber are actually dolls in a complicated child’s game!). However, this is a very well-written novel that I’d recommend to those to whom the synopsis appeals, and as I hear Allan’s earlier novels lean more towards the SF, I’ll definitely be checking those out (The Rift is already on my 2019 reading list).

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

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College friends Jack and Wynn are canoeing the Maskwa River in Northern Canada. Wynn is the most experienced with whitewater, while Jack is an expert on wilderness survival and hunting; they don’t anticipate problems. However, when they find themselves in the path of a forest fire and overhear a couple arguing in the middle of the night, they are unwillingly plunged into a life-or-death journey down the river.

This novel, the first I’ve read by Peter Heller, sits somewhere between literary fiction and thriller; the UK cover is somewhat misleading in depicting it as a pure white-knuckle ride. Heller spends some time establishing the landscape and the relationship between the two men, so the plot doesn’t really kick in until we’re about a third of the way through. However, this is a relatively short novel, so I didn’t find this to be a problem; just don’t expect this to be thrills from page one. Once The River gets going, it’s properly gripping, and Heller’s knowledge of the wilderness is evident. It reminded me of Erica Ferencik’s equally engrossing The River at Night, with perhaps a greater touch of realism.

The ‘literariness’ of this novel is a little more questionable. Heller’s writing is somewhat reminiscent of Charles Frazier, but less deliberately meditative. However, The River doesn’t seem to have a great deal to say; the one enduring theme is the contrast between Wynn’s idealism and Jack’s cynicism, which is rather simplistically resolved. The novel also falls back on cliched gender roles; of the two women mentioned prominently in it, one, Jack’s dead mother, appears only in flashbacks as a motivation for Jack’s actions, while the other is a helpless victim of male violence. In short, I’d have liked this to either have gone full-on ‘thriller’, or to have had greater depth; although I enjoyed reading it, it sits a bit uneasily between the two.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on May 16th.

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Lucy grew up in a working-class family in Sunderland, attending a comprehensive school in nearby Washington, so when she heads to university at King’s College, London, in the mid-00s, she has to adjust to the new landscape around her, abandoning fake tan, sequins and Asti for cigarettes, leather jackets and leopard-print tights. Later, having received her degree, Lucy will flee to her grandfather’s home in Donegal, seeking out the silence of a very different world.

Saltwater, Jessica Andrews’s debut novel, is told in non-linear fragments, although the four parts of the book roughly divide up the phases of Lucy’s life, from childhood to adolescence to studenthood to the aftermath. However, I didn’t find anything especially original in either the prose or the structure. This kind of storytelling is commonplace in literary fiction – think early Maggie O’Farrell – as, increasingly, are the very short chapters. Saltwater is clearly based very closely on Andrews’s own experiences, and while I’m not against fashionable autofiction per se, it has to be really wonderful to convince me, e.g. Jessie Greengrass’s Sight.

As someone who’s recently moved to Newcastle and who has family on both sides who grew up in the north-east, I loved the idea of a novel that explored working-class experience outside London. However, Saltwater either gives us precise, repetitive litanies of sweets, toys, drinks and bands, or feels irritatingly vague. Some of the sections that explore Lucy’s adolescent experiences, such as hanging out in Exhibition Park, are a bit more satisfying, but these aren’t typical of the novel as a whole. Having read some of Andrews’s articles about being the first person in her family to go to university, I found these more illuminating than the fictional version represented here. Andrews’s writing is readable enough, but I hope she pushes herself further next time.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on May 19th.

Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist, #1: Lost Children Archive

Having already read five of the sixteen books on this year’s Women’s Prize shortlist before it was announced, I’m now working my way through the others.

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Valeria Luiselli’s long essay, Tell Me How It Ends, recounted her period working as a translator for the unaccompanied child refugees who arrive at the US-Mexico border from the ‘Northern Triangle’ of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Her first novel written in English, Lost Children Archive, picks up on these themes though an unnamed female narrator who is driving with her husband, daughter and stepson from New York to Arizona. Our narrator wants to document the Mexican migrant ‘crisis’, which has been brought to her attention via a friend who is trying to find her two lost daughters. Her husband is more interested in the soundscape of the ‘vanished’ Apaches who once lived in Apacheria, retelling the stories of their decline to his children, which the girl gleefully repeats as ‘when Geronimo fell off his horse, he died’. Her narrative is interspersed with descriptions of the contents of various boxes the couple have brought with them for their two projects, which, as Luiselli explains at the end of the novel, is one way of citing her sources within the text itself, rather than confining them to footnotes. There’s also an emotional tension on this long road trip; our narrator and her husband are considering divorce, which means that the two children, who are ‘only’ step-siblings, will be separated.

More than half of this long novel is narrated by this female narrator, and this section fits squarely into the emerging genre of autofiction, tracing the themes of Luiselli’s own life very closely. However, it lumbers under the weight of its own intertextuality. Everything that the family encounter has to be fitted into the theme of lost or vanished children in some way, from the haunting voices in ‘Echo Canyon’ to the fading images in Polaroids. Moreover, as Luiselli suggests in her note on sources, this is not just autofiction, but a kind of creative non-fiction; she deliberately wants to weave her workings through the text to tell the horrific story of the journeys of child migrants. This is compounded by the introduction of an imaginary text into this section, Elegies for Lost Children, which effectively and brutally narrates the experiences of these children. While this text would work well on its own, the way Luiselli scatters it throughout an already complicated and thematically-burdened narrative dilutes its force. It’s only when we finally get to read it in full that it really hits us.

Luiselli pushes at the boundaries of the novel form, but in doing so, loses much of what makes novels work. It’s in the shorter second section, narrated by the stepson, where Lost Children Archive really comes alive, making it one of the very few novels that I’ve ever read that manages to win back some ground after the halfway point. Unlike his stepmother’s narrative, the stepson’s voice is compelling, and it foregrounds one of the most successful aspects of the novel; the depiction of his relationship with his stepsister, which perfectly shows how children create little worlds of their own. Indeed, when Luiselli is writing about real rather than figurative children, she’s incredibly good on the physicality, word-play, and belief systems of childhood. Once the two children step into a kind of alternate reality formed from reading Elegies for Lost Children, the novel reaches another level; suddenly, it works as it should, free from references and footnotes. You can almost feel the pages speeding up.

The first section, however, is not only inferior because it’s so dense; I just wasn’t convinced that all the different kinds of loss Luiselli explores worked very well together. Most obviously, the novel plays into the ‘vanishing Indian’ narrative, assuming that Native Americans are now totally absent from America, which is recognised as an untruthful and harmful trope that ignores the persistence of these peoples. It’s a shame to see this perpetuated in a book that is otherwise so good at highlighting the displacement caused by American power politics, tracing this back (for example) to the division of Texas from Mexico and its annexation by the United States. Moreover, the divorce plotline never felt emotionally credible; I couldn’t understand what had come between this couple, and the impact on the two children was implied rather than shown. When the kids strike out on their own, it feels totally unmotivated, and while this was my favourite bit of the novel, I suspect that they do this not because their own motivations have taken them to this point but because Luiselli wants to manoeuvre them into a final symbolic journey.

While you have to admire Luiselli’s ambition, Lost Children Archive doesn’t really work as a whole. I like it better than some of the Women’s Prize longlistees I’ve read because of its sheer inventiveness, but I’d be surprised to see this make it to the shortlist.

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