My Top Ten Books of 2021

It’s time for another top ten books of the year list! (You can find my 2020 post here, my 2019 post here, my 2018 post here, my 2017 post here, my 2016 post here, my 2015 post here, and my 2014, 2013, 2012 and 2011 posts on my old blog.) For clarity, these are my ten favourite books I have read this year, regardless of when they were published.

A note: I feel like 2021 has been one of my worst reading years for a long time, not in terms of the number of books I read, but the quality – or perhaps I was just very bad at picking books that suited my mood. For the first time in a long time, I felt like I was struggling to find books for my top ten rather than struggling to choose between them. These books are still all great, but I’m hoping to have a better reading year in 2022.

In no particular order…

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1.My Dark Vanessa: Kate Elizabeth Russell. I held off from reading My Dark Vanessa for a long time, convinced that there was nothing new to add to the vast number of recent novels that deal with coercive, abusive relationships. But this collaboration between Russell and her teenage self made a huge impact on me. I reviewed it here.

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2.Light Perpetual: Francis Spufford. I loved Spufford’s clever and inventive Golden Hillbut I thought this was even better. Many readers and reviewers seem to have misunderstood its ‘alternative timeline’ conceit; it’s not a Sliding Doors type book, but kills off its ordinary protagonists at the beginning so we can feel the weight of their loss, even though they make no direct impact on history. I reviewed it here.

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3.A Deadly Education: Naomi Novik. Novik’s Spinning Silver was one of my favourite books of 2020, and this very different, but utterly delightful novel took me back to being a pre-teen reading the early Harry Potter books for the first time, although the narrative voice also reminded me of one of my adult SFF favourites, Robin McKinley’s Sunshine. I reviewed it here.

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4. In This House of Brede: Rumer Godden. 2021 was the year of novels about nuns for me, and although there were some other nun novels that I really enjoyed (such as Sarah Dunant’s Sacred Hearts), this was the best of the bunch. Set in an English Benedictine community in the 1960s, this novel centres on new recruit Philippa, but expands outwards to give a portrait of the entire community. I reviewed it here.

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5. A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: George Saunders. This is probably the best book I’ve ever read about fiction-writing, even though it’s centred on a series of classic Russian short stories which I am not especially interested in. I’ve now signed up for Saunders’s online writing course on substack, Story Club.

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6. Slow River: Nicola Griffith. Nicola Griffith can’t put a foot wrong with me; this is the third time in a row she’s appeared on my top ten books list (after Ammonite in 2019 and Hild in 2020). Slow River is not only the best SF novel about sewage treatment I’ve ever read, but features a truly compelling central character and a skilful back-and-forth structure. No idea what’s going on with the cover of this edition.

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7. Transcendent Kingdom: Yaa Gyasi. What an incredible, cerebral, emotional novel. It’s brilliantly written, handles so many interesting ideas, and yet is so vibrant and human. I loved the protagonist, Gifty. I reviewed it here.

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8. Little Gods: Meng Jin. This is another one with a great, complex protagonist, which seems to be something I’m really looking for in novels at the moment: Su Lan is only the more fascinating because her story is told through a series of other narrators, and we never hear from her directly. I reviewed it here.

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9. Breasts and Eggs: Mieko Kawakami. This took me such a long time to read, but it was such a worthwhile experience. This strange, meandering novel about lonely writer Natsu has a great deal to say about parenthood and our responsibilities to the next generation. I wrote briefly about it here.

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10. In The Dream House: Carmen Maria Machado. Squeaking in just under the wire… I raced through this memoir between Boxing Day and New Year, hugely impressed by Machado’s ability to weave together self-narrative, fantasy, and academic reflections on how abusive relationships between women have been (not) written about before. Everyone who recommended this to me was right.

Reading Stats

I read 153 books in 2021. Slightly more than 2020, but quite a few less than my 2019 record, 175. This is pretty much where I want to be, so in 2022, I’ll again set a target of 150. However, I’d also like to start keeping track of how many books I re-read. This year, 11 of the books I read were re-reads, and I’d like to see that number go up in 2022.

I read 125 books by women (including one trans woman), 27 books by men, and 1 book by an author who identifies as non-binary.  This means I read the same percentage of books by men as I did in 2020 – 18%. I usually say I don’t care about upping the number of books I read by men, but this article has made me realise that I really want to read more by men of colour. Therefore, I’ve tried to include lots of books by men of colour in my 2022 Reading Plans, which will be up tomorrow. I also still want to read more from trans men, despite reading 0 books by trans men this year!

I read 43 books by writers of colour and 110 books by white writers. This means the percentage of books I read by writers of colour has dropped a little since 2020, to 28%. Once again, I will aim to achieve 33% books by writers of colour in 2022.

Finally, here’s what Goodreads thinks was My Year In Books: 

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2021 in Books: Commendations and Disappointments

As always, I won’t be posting my Top Ten Books of 2021 until the 31st December, but here are some books that almost made my top ten – and also my biggest disappointments of the year. Links are to my reviews. All books are first read by me in 2021, not necessarily first published in 2021.

Highly Commended

 In prize lists, I loved Annabel Lyon’s Consentwhich should have made the Women’s Prize shortlist – and Richard Powers’s Bewildermentwhich did make the Booker Prize shortlist.

The new Sally Rooney, Beautiful World, Where Are You, was massively overhyped, but it was easily my favourite Rooney so far – I loved her clever use of psychic distance, switching between an observer’s view of her characters to their innermost thoughts.

In science fiction and speculative fiction, I thought the writing team behind James S.A. Corey pulled off a hugely satisfying conclusion to The Expanse series with the final instalment, Leviathan Falls – this series stuttered a bit in the middle but the last three books were all great, and Corey effectively tied up all the loose ends while wisely leaving the ‘dark gods’ of the universe still mysterious. Tade Thompson’s Far From the Light of Heaven was a hugely inventive space-opera-cum-crime-thriller with touches of horror. Will Maclean’s The Apparition Phase was a brilliant ghost story, something that is almost impossible to achieve at novel-length. Finally, Nina Allan’s short story collection The Art of Space Travel showcased what I love best about her writing in haunting stories such as ‘Flying in the Face of God’, ‘Four Abstracts’ and ‘The Art of Space Travel’ itself.

In historical fiction, I was pleasantly surprised by Stacey Halls’s engaging Mrs Englandwhich had one of the dreaded floral covers but actually featured a complex, sympathetic protagonist who works as a Norland nanny in Edwardian England. Meanwhile, everything this damning review says about Sarah Penner’s The Lost Apothecary is true (except that Cambridge does offer a masters degree in eighteenth-century and Romantic studies – that’s Cambridge being weird, not Penner!). Nevertheless, I found it irresistibly fun and gripping, so I guess I recommend it anyway, if you can deal with the terrible history?

Finally, in YA and YA-adjacent, I liked Angeline Boulley’s Firekeeper’s Daughter (one of my most anticipated reads of 2021) despite its pacing problems and tendency to spell things out for the reader – it follows an Ojibwe teenager who’s an unenrolled tribal member, and so feels she’s never quite fit into her family. Emily Layden’s All Girls gave me Prep vibes (amazing), and was serious and insightful about the inner worlds of teenage girls (rare). I picked up T. Kingfisher’s Bryony and Roses after loving her short story in Escape Pod; this Beauty and the Beast retelling is heavily influenced by Robin McKinley’s Beauty and Rose Daughter, but still brings its own wit and logic to the table, plus a nicely chilling touch of horror.

Biggest Disappointments

By ‘biggest disappointments’ I don’t necessarily mean that these were my worst books of the year, but that they were books I’d been looking forward to, that had been hyped by publishers/reviewers/friends/all of the above, and which fell well short of my expectations. I have to say, there were a lot of disappointments in 2021. For whatever reason, this was a pretty lacklustre reading year for me. So this list is longer than normal.

I was disappointed by quite a few books written by authors I’ve loved in the past. Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun promised a fresh take on AI but was just a tired rehash of Never Let Me Go. Ruth Ozeki’s The Book of Form and Emptiness drowned in its own tweeness about literature, despite a promising central cast. And Fiona Mozley’s Hot Stew abandoned all the subtlety of Elmet for Dickensian caricatures.

Elizabeth Macneal’s Circus of Wonders unfortunately didn’t live up to her excellent debut, The Doll FactoryJessie Greengrass’s The High House had none of the originality of Sight. Mark O’Connell’s Notes From an Apocalypse was only mildly disappointing compared to his To Be A Machine until I reached the end, where he admits he regularly lies to his young son about the state of the world – this is horrific (children know what’s going on, so lying to them just leaves them alone with their fears). Sarah Moss’s The Fell confirmed to me that I don’t like the direction her writing is currently going. Finally, after loving Kindred so much, I did not get on at all with Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower, although some of this was not Butler’s fault – so many YA writers have clearly copied her dystopian tropes that they now feel cliched in a way they wouldn’t have done when the book was originally published. Still, I found the heroine disturbingly monomaniacal and the diary entry format limiting.

At least some of this must be me, rather than the books! But I think it explains why 2021 felt like such a dud of a reading year, even though I also read many books that I loved. On that note…

I’ll be back tomorrow with my Top Ten Books of 2021!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Booker Prize 2021: Bewilderment and Great Circle

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Astrobiologist Theo Byrne spends his time looking for life on other planets but is most concerned about the welfare of his nine-year-old son, Robin. Since Theo’s wife and Robin’s mother, Alyssa, died two years ago, Robin has struggled at school and with life in general, and Theo has come under increasing pressure to accept a psychological diagnosis for his son and put him on meditation. Instead, Theo turns to an experimental treatment being pioneered by one of his colleagues, ‘Decoded Neurofeedback’, which guides ‘trainees’ to mimic the brain states of ‘targets’ who have deliberately elicited particular emotions in themselves while their brains were scanned with fMRI. Because Alyssa participated in an earlier phase of the experiment, Robin can be matched to his mother’s euphoric brain patterns – a process which puts him into a state of beatific calm. Having been constantly screaming at the pain of living in a dying world, Robin now embraces the beauty of endangered species and becomes a viral news story. At the same time, Theo witnesses the world beginning to unravel. Bewilderment, Richard Powers’s thirteenth novel, is uneasily set between our present and a slightly different version of it, giving the book a speculative twist while not allowing us to feel safely distant from the America it describes:

That first Tuesday in November, online conspiracy theories, compromised ballots, and bands of armed poll protesters undermined the integrity of the vote in six different battleground states. The country slid into three days of chaos. On Saturday, the President declared the entire election invalid. He ordered a repeat, claiming it would require at least three more months to secure and implement.

As readers of Powers’s previous novel, the brilliant The Overstorywill know, Powers has a bleak view of our environmental future, and Bewilderment is, if possible, even darker than its predecessor. However, it’s also lit up by the stories about other planets, other peoples and other extinctions and rebirths that Theo tells Robin, and by Robin himself, who seems to symbolically switch between two ways of responding to our current predicament: mourning what we have lost or embracing it before it’s gone. If there’s a fault in this novel, it’s that Powers occasionally gives into the temptation to end paragraphs with a too-easy, too-sentimental line; but in general, he keeps impressively far away from sentimentality for a book about a ‘special’ child. A beautiful, if discomforting read that ought to make the shortlist.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 21st September.

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Marian Graves was a pioneering inter-war and wartime aviator whose career abruptly ended after she circumnavigated the globe in 1949 and disappeared in the Antarctic. In the present day, Hadley Baxter has been hired to portray Marian in a biopic, sensing a chance to get her career back on track after cheating on her co-star in a thinly veiled version of the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise. The bulk of Maggie Shipstead’s Great Circle is a family saga, focused largely on Marian but circling back before her birth and outwards to explore the lives of other characters like her brother Jamie, while the Hollywood episodes with Hadley seem to belong to a lighter kind of book altogether. I have to confess that, at the point of writing this review, I’m only slightly over halfway through Great Circle, so it may make a sudden turnabout in its second half; however, it’s an incredibly long book, and 300+ pages in, I’m looking for a payback that I’m not getting. Shipstead’s prose is pedestrian, and the story she’s telling is very familiar; I found particular resonances with Michael Christie’s far superior Greenwood, but there are so many sagas of this kind. Great Circle is plodding along enjoyably enough to keep me reading, but it’s a massive potboiler that I don’t think belongs on the Booker longlist.

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The Booker shortlist will be announced on September 14th, and I don’t think I’ll be able to get to any more of the longlisted titles before then, so here’s my ranking of the six I’ve read:

  1. Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford
  2. Bewilderment by Richard Powers
  3. China Room by Sunjeev Sahota
  4. Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro
  5. Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead
  6. No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood

I would really like to see the Spufford, Powers and Sahota on the shortlist, but I don’t know the Booker Prize well enough or have read enough of the longlist to be confident in making any predictions!

Have you read any of the longlisted titles? Who do you think will make it to the shortlist?

Wolfson History Prize Blog Tour: Survivors

I was delighted to be invited to take part in the blog tour for the Wolfson History Prize for the third year running. The Prize celebrates historical writing which ‘combines excellence in research with readability’ and you can see the full 2021 shortlist here.

The winner of the Prize will be announced on 9th June 2021.

Today, I’m reviewing one of the shortlisted titles: Rebecca Clifford’s Survivors: Children’s Lives After The Holocaust. Clifford is an Associate Professor in History at Swansea University and specialises in twentieth-century European history, oral history, Holocaust history, and memory studies. You can see her full academic profile here.

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Felice Z., alongside her parents and older sister, was deported from Baden to the internment camp of Gurs in the south of France in October 1940, when she was just one year old. In early 1941, she and her sister were rescued from Gurs by the Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants (OSE), and Felice was hidden with a French Catholic family until the Liberation. Her parents were killed in Auschwitz. Despite these wartime experiences, Felice remembered being criticised and belittled by adult survivors of the Holocaust when she attended the first American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors in 1983, saying:

I questioned whether I should go because I’d never been in a camp… I used to want to have a number [tattooed on my arm] so I could show people the pain… They used to say ‘You were a child, what do you know? You don’t remember.’

This reflected earlier ideas of who counted as a ‘Holocaust survivor’ – originally, ‘survivors’ were considered to be concentration camp survivors – but also the general exclusion of child survivors of the Holocaust from the category, even if they had been in a camp. In the immediate post-war period, child survivors were called ‘unaccompanied children’ or ‘Jewish war orphans’ instead. Recently, Clifford writes, child survivors have taken on more of the familiar public roles we might associate with a ‘Holocaust survivor’ – giving talks, speaking to school students, and volunteering at Holocaust museums – but ‘there is a clear rationale behind the shift: they are the only ones left’.

Survivors focuses on child survivors of the Holocaust who were born between 1935 and 1944, making them ten years old or younger at liberation in 1945. This deliberate choice by Clifford shows how things we think we know about the experience of Holocaust survivors changes when young children are placed at the centre of the story. For example, she argues, for child survivors, who experienced a certain amount of stability during wartime, the end of the war could often be a more difficult period. Maurits C., who spent the war in hiding in the Netherlands, recalled that ‘My war began in 1945… When I learned that my father and mother would not come back, and my brothers, then the war started.’ Counter-claims on Jewish child survivors after the end of the war added to this uncertainty. Jewish organisations were determined to reclaim children whom they thought had been taken by Christian families, while countries such as America, Canada, Australia and Britain were keen to care for ‘Jewish war orphans’ – but only if they were very young, ideally female, and full orphans, which many child survivors were not. Child survivors did not always want to be reunited with families they could not remember. Felice was forced to leave the Catholic family who had cared for her during wartime, which she remembered as traumatic: ‘I think they [the OSE] might have said… “you have to start being Jewish.” But I couldn’t understand what being Jewish meant’. 

Their limited memories of the war hampered child survivors throughout their adult lives, calling the validity of their ‘testimony’ into question, especially after the rise of Holocaust denialism, when there was a greater emphasis on survivors’ accounts being fixed and factually accurate. This was often impossible for child survivors. They were marked out in other ways: the West Germany Federal Indemnification Law of 1953 was meant to allow financial compensation for survivors from West Germany, but it was difficult for even adult survivors, let alone children, to supply the kind of ‘proof’ that was required. They could also be further severed from the Jewish community. Esther T. was in Auschwitz as a child, but as an adult, she found she needed her parents’ birth certificate to marry in an Orthodox synagogue: ‘you have to prove you’re Jewish to get married in a shul, and I couldn’t prove it!’

As a historian of childhood, what I found most brilliant about this book was the way in which it integrates histories of childhood into the kind of bigger historical narrative where children are usually absent or only included in a tokenistic or stereotyped way. Clifford shows how changing ideas of childhood and trauma immediately following the Second World War conditioned reactions to child survivors and forced them into unhelpful binaries: either they were seen as unaffected by the trauma they had endured because they would not remember it, or the separation from their mothers they had endured at an early age was believed to have left them permanently damaged. Neither of these narratives were helpful for child survivors, whom, in retrospective interviews, often felt they had to ‘prove’ they weren’t forever ‘maladjusted’: Denny M., who was interviewed in 1977, said ‘compared with so many messed-up adults that I’ve seen, I think I’m reasonably normal’. 

Even at the time, child survivors could be pathologised for being either ‘too bad’ or ‘too good’. The Buchenwald boys were a group of boys, ranging in age from 8 to 18, who were liberated from Buchenwald concentration camp in April 1945 and sent to an OSE-run reception centre in Normandy. On the way there, ‘they destroyed property, stole and assaulted civilians; there is some evidence that they raped German girls as an act of revenge’. Rather than seeing this behaviour as relating to what they had been through, the OSE’s chief psychiatrist suggested that they had survived precisely because of their ‘insensitivity and indifference‘. However – reflecting new psychological post-war ideas about middle childhood as an innately gregarious and energetic period – a welfare officer in the Jewish DP camps located in the US zone of occupation in Germany worried in 1948 that the children in these camps were too obedient and not ‘mischievous, high-spirited and imaginative’ enough.

Children themselves were aware of adult expectations about trauma and played into these; as Clifford puts it, these ‘wary children’ had good reason to distrust adults in authority and so ‘fabricated suitable pasts’. Two children who were placed in a children’s home in Surrey, Weir Courtney, learnt how to exhibit the correct emotions and tell the right stories. Fritz F. was bullied in the home, and was found crying by the matron who tucked him in at night: ‘I told her I was thinking about my mother. I wasn’t’. Unlike some post-war settings, Weir Courtney prided itself on being a place where children could be open about the past, but children may have been forced to talk about things they would rather not have discussed to play into the psychoanalytical narrative that disclosure was cathartic. We can speculate that this might have led to some false stories. Mina R. told the matron that she had seen her mother shot through the head in front of her, and the matron was pleased with the subsequent change in the girl, who had, she wrote, been ‘much quieter and clearer since‘. However, it was later discovered that Mina’s mother was still alive.

This is a really excellent book, intelligent, thoughtful and empathetic; I would be delighted to see it win the Wolfson History Prize.

Make sure to check out the other stops on the first week of the Wolfson History Prize blog tour:

WHP 2021 Blog Tour Banner Week 1

 

‘An act of furious defiance’: The High House by Jessie Greengrass

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I thought Jessie Greengrass’s debut novel, Sight, was fantastic; complex but incredibly readable, weaving together the narrator’s musings on motherhood with the lives of three historical figures, Wilhelm Röntgen, Anna Freud and John Hunter, via the theme of inner sight. The High House, her second novel, is deliberately different. Greengrass still writes beautiful prose, but here it is much simpler, and focuses on description and action rather than the close anatomisation of inner worlds. It’s narrated by three people – Caro, Sally and Pauly – but their voices are the same, which again, I felt was a purposeful choice, as Greengrass certainly has the literary skill to differentiate her narrators if she so chooses. Finally, The High House is focused on a static period of time, a drawn-out experience of waiting for catastrophe to unfold, which starts to get to the reader in the same way as it does to the characters. No diving away from your own experience to think about the history of X rays or psychoanalysis in this novel; Greengrass keeps us all suspended in the high house.

All this is to say that I think, technically, Greengrass does exactly what she wanted to do, but I still couldn’t quite embrace this novel. It tells a familiar, if still horrifying, story of a handful of English survivors clinging on after devastating floods sweep much of the globe as a result of climate change. Their refuge was prepared in advance, so they have the resources to survive – for now. But because they were already anticipating disaster before it happened, their before and after is not that different. If the ‘after’ is worse, it’s because Pauly, who was a small child when the floods struck, is now an adult, and so Caro and Sally no longer have somebody to care for in the same way. This picks up on interesting questions about the future generation. Pauly’s mother, Francesca, was a climate activist and was killed by a storm even as she continued to predict Armageddon; she couldn’t enjoy sunny weather because she sees it as a harbinger of doom. And yet, she chose to give birth to Pauly, which Caro thinks was ‘an act of furious defiance… a kind of pact with the world that, having increased her stake in it, she should try to protect what she had found to love’. 

But whether or not this was actually why Francesca had a child, it doesn’t sum up what Pauly comes to mean to Caro and Sally, and how bringing him up, putting his needs first, provides them with psychic defences against the horror they’re facing. Pauly, who is the only one of the trio who can’t remember the world as it used to be, also finds it easiest to adapt to their new reality. Greengrass raises a number of questions that don’t have answers: is it wrong to choose not to reproduce because you’re afraid of the future, because that means you’ve abandoned hope? On the other hand, is it wrong to create a child who has to live in this kind of world simply as a comfort for yourself? Or is this a disaster that humanity will ultimately live through, and the new generation are needed precisely because they’ll have the skills to do that? Nevertheless, the bleakness of this novel wore me down somewhat. It’s not as good as Jenny Offill’s Weatherwhich is similarly grim about future generations, but is also funny and bright and complicated. At times, The High House just feels like a warning, and I’m not sure anyone who reads this book will really need such a warning.

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

‘In the beginning there was an idea’: Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

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Gifty, the protagonist of Yaa Gyasi’s second novel, Transcendent Kingdom, is both a neuroscience PhD student at Stanford who sought rigour in all things from an early age, and a grieving woman who is still deeply connected to her Ghanaian family’s Pentecostalism. As a child, she struggled with the command to ceaselessly praise God, soon discovering that she found it difficult to keep her mind on prayer for more than a few minutes; her teenage imagination was caught by the idea that ‘in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God’ might actually be translated differently: ‘“Word” was translated from the Greek word Logos, which didn’t really mean “word” at all, but rather something closer to “plea” or even premise… In the beginning there was an idea, a premise; there was a question.’ Gifty’s research on reward-seeking behaviour in mice has obvious connections with the death of her older brother Nana from opioid addiction, but the novel avoids giving her this one simple motivation for her project; she explains that she was drawn to neuroscience because it seemed so hard and so pure, and is now grappling with the conflict between religious and scientific ideas of the brain, the mind and the soul.

From a white British perspective, fiction on the perceived conflict between religion and science has often tended to focus on the theory of evolution, and explored either the gentle accord that nineteenth-century men of science found between their faith and the evidence that the natural history of the world was much longer than they’d expected, or the later clashes with creationism. Transcendent Kingdom stands out in its depiction of Gifty’s Pentecostal faith, which, unlike Anglicanism/ Episcopalianism, focuses on personal divine revelation and speaking in tongues, and how she integrates her childhood beliefs with her neuroscientific work. (Creationism only comes up once, as an irritating question that non-believers ask her; she dodges it by spouting something one of her schoolteachers once said, ‘I believe we’re made of stardust, and God made the stars.’) This novel is so wise and thoughtful that there are endless bits I could quote, but I was especially struck by how Gifty turns to both scientific articles and biblical passages, not necessarily as sources of authority, but as things that are both good to think with.

This book is so thematically resonant that a lot of the reviews I’ve read make it sound intellectually worthy, but a bit dry; this isn’t the case at all. Gifty is a completely captivating narrator, ironically funny about her younger self, complex, unashamedly ambitious and yet deeply caring. Gyasi does not have time for any of the usual binaries that afflict female characters, and doesn’t let us think for a second that because Gifty wants to be a scientific star and does not want marriage or children, this means that she is in any way emotionally deficient. The novel is also technically brilliant in a very unobtrusive way; the narrative melts between present and past every few paragraphs, but I never felt at all confused about where or when we were. Indeed, it’s this clever juxtaposition that allows Gyasi to say so much without spelling anything out to the reader.

I never managed to love Gyasi’s acclaimed debut, Homegoing, as much as I wanted to; I admired its premise and construction, and connected with some of the stories, but felt a little distanced from the project as a whole. Transcendent Kingdom was a very different experience; I was completely pulled into Gifty’s world and Gifty’s questions. This novel deserves to go straight onto the Women’s Prize longlist and indeed the shortlist, and I hope to see it there on the 10th March.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 4th March.

(An aside: what is going on with the UK cover for this book? It looks like the sort of shapes I used to doodle in class, and the pink and green cover scheme is – not good. It’s such a shame, because the US cover is perfect:

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‘Let light perpetual shine upon them’

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In the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, British researchers started undertaking series after series of cohort studies, following children born around the same time as they grew up and checking back in with them at different ages. Some of these studies were big and largely quantitative, like the MRC National Survey of Health and Development, which started in 1946 and initially included more than 5000 participants, and some were smaller and largely qualitative, like John and Elizabeth Newson’s study of around 700 children born around 1958 in Nottingham. However, the most fascinating, from my point of view as a researcher, were the studies that asked children and adolescents to imagine their future adult lives, like the sociological researcher Thelma Veness did in 1956, working with fourteen-year-olds. Most of these narratives mapped out the milestones you might expect – marriage, children, work – although there were a few unexpected findings. Veness was puzzled by the fact that almost a quarter of the girls in her sample ‘killed off’ their imaginary husbands before they reached their late thirties, with more than half of the husbands dying by middle age. She postulated that once men had fulfilled their role as father, these girls did not imagine themselves wanting or needing a partner in later life. [1]

The five protagonists of Francis Spufford’s latest novel, Light Perpetual Jo, Val, Vern, Alec and Ben – are all born in London around 1940, making them only slightly older than some of the members of these post-war cohort studies. However, in 1944, these four-year-olds are looking at a new delivery of saucepans in Woolworths with their mothers when a German V2 bomb hits the store, incinerating them all immediately. Jo, Val, Vern, Alec and Ben are never going to hit or miss life ‘milestones’, or ‘transition’ into adolescence, adulthood or old age, because they are all dead. Here, Spufford steps in. He tells us what would have happened to these five people if they hadn’t been killed during the Second World War, jumping forwards in satisfyingly untidy intervals of time all the way up to 2009. For a while, I kept asking – and I think it’s a reasonable question – why did these people have to die in the first place? Spufford isn’t interested in playing with alternative timelines, at least not explicitly, so why not just trace their lives normally, without the interruption of a German bomb? However, by the end of the novel, I came to realise that its opening pages (slightly pretentious as their prose might be) are essential to Spufford’s project. None of the five protagonists change the course of history; the loss of these lives meant both nothing, and everything.

As with Golden HillSpufford’s research is impeccable (and here I’m in a much better position to judge than I was with Golden Hill, because I’m a historian of post-war Britain). He shows how all five protagonists are restrained by class and gender and yet how their lives take them to places we might not have expected when we first properly meet them in a run-down primary school in Halstead Road. Musical, synaesthetic Jo becomes the temporary girlfriend of a rock star in America. Vern builds and loses several business empires. Val becomes mixed up with the fascist racism of the British Movement in the late 1970s. Ben and Alec’s lives seem most tied to their class destinies, in Alec’s case perhaps partly because of the way he sees class struggle; going into a ‘trade for life’ at the printworks, he faces his skills being made obsolete by digitisation. Meanwhile, Ben is also eventually phased out as a bus conductor but struggles terrifyingly in the meantime with schizophrenia, in a fragment that is one of the most immersive and horrific things I’ve ever read about mental illness.

Light Perpetual is, notably, not that concerned with the dreams and promise of youth. More than three-quarters of the novel takes place after the protagonists are thirty-nine. This hugely refreshing choice pulls Spufford away both from the obsessions of the original cohort studies – what percentage get married? who is socially mobile? – and the concerns of most fiction of this kind, which, even if it follows the protagonists through their lives, tends to linger on the twenties and thirties and then race towards old age. It gives him space to explore how our lives still change, transform, explode or implode, even once we are seen as ‘middle-aged’. It feels like he’s telling us that we’re not always going to be defined by choices that felt so important when we were young. And as the characters get older, the book gets ever more beautiful and moving (yes, I cried a couple of times). I noted in my review of Golden Hill that Spufford seemed to have been influenced by George Eliot; here, it’s blatant. Eliot famously wrote in Middlemarch that ‘If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence’. Here’s Spufford’s reinvention, through the eyes of Alec, who was possibly my favourite character:

You couldn’t walk up a rush hour street, negotiate a bus queue, sit in a theatre, if you were constantly aware of the millionfold press of beings as entire and complicated as yourself… He’s still blundering among over-noticed faces when he boards his eastbound train, still ringed around as he sits down with his briefcase on his knee by eyes universally bright and significant because they are all of them the windows through which single souls are looking out.

Riffing off such a famous passage is a pretty hard thing to get away with, but Spufford pulls it off here because he earns it. Golden Hill was brilliantly clever and thoughtful, but Light Perpetual is even better. It tells us that we are all important – even when we’re actually horrible, like Vern, or believe we’re horrible, like Ben – and that we’re all worth something. And somehow it does this, unlike most novels which try it, without ever being sentimental or obvious. What a book.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on the 4th of February. So you know what to do.

[1] Thelma Veness, School Leavers: Their Aspirations and Expectations (London: Methuen and Co, 1962), 33.

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

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

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

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

2020 In Books: Commendations and Disappointments

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

Highly Commended

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Biggest Disappointments

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

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

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

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