The year of the doll

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If 2018 was the year of the mermaid, with Louise O’Neill’s The Surface Breaks, Kirsty Logan’s The GloamingMelissa Broder’s The Pisces, and Imogen Hermes Gowar’s The Mermaid and Mrs Hancockit looks like 2019 might be the year of the doll, with Elizabeth Macneal’s debut, The Doll Factoryfollowing hard on the heels of Nina Allan’s The DollmakerHowever, like The Dollmaker, The Doll Factory uses dolls more figuratively than it does literally. Iris and her sister Rose paint porcelain dolls and sew their clothing for a living, able only to dream of having their own shop some day. However, when Iris catches the attention of an (invented) Pre-Raphaelite artist, Louis Frost, she becomes not only his model but also his pupil. As Iris’s world begins to open out, however, she is also watched by Silas, a resentful taxidermist, who wants to claim her as his own. With its emphasis on how women are treated as beautiful objects, and Iris’s quest for freedom, The Doll Factory recalls Mary de Morgan’s 1877 short story ‘The Toy Princess’, where a spirited princess is replaced by an identical clockwork doll after her people find the real woman too wilful. (This should also forestall any criticism that Macneal’s representation of women is too modern).

While Macneal’s writing is not as distinctive as Hermes Gowar’s in Mermaid or as Sarah Perry’s in The Essex Serpent, the two most obvious comparators for this novel, I found The Doll Factory totally absorbing and surprisingly moving, which puts it head and shoulders above most recent eighteenth-century and nineteenth-century-set historical fiction. There’s an upsetting moment about three-quarters of the way through which knocked me totally off balance; it’s not a twist as such, but I hadn’t expected it, and it reminded me of similar moments in Mermaid and in Francis Spufford’s Golden HillAnd while much of this story treads familiar ground, Macneal somehow manages to bring a sense of hope to it that makes it very refreshing to read. I particularly enjoyed the development of the relationship between the two sisters. While they were close as children, Rose’s teenage disfigurement through smallpox scars has left her jealous of her sister, and has led to their estrangement – or at least, so Iris believes. Rather than focusing on female rivalry, Macneal has the two sisters become sources of strength for each other.

However, although Silas’s obsession with Iris technically forms the key source of tension in The Doll Factory, I could have done without it. I have read too many books about stalking, dangerous men, and Silas himself is pretty two-dimensional, so I found myself dreading the chapters when he would simply rehearse his grievances against the world. There’s possibly a more complex story about class privilege lurking here, but Macneal doesn’t explore it. While this would make The Doll Factory a less traditionally ‘gripping’ novel, I would honestly have preferred to have no Silas – the social obstacles that Iris has to face are large enough on their own. And if this led to more on the art of oil painting, and less on taxidermy, I’d be all for that as well. The Doll Factory kept my attention not because I was afraid for Iris’s safety, but because the strength of Macneal’s story carries itself forward. I hope she has the courage to break further away from familiar plots in her next novel.

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

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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.

Early Spring Reading

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As a free school meals student at a comprehensive school in the deprived Suffolk town of Nusstead, Marianne is determined to pursue her dream of studying art history at university. But things have become even worse for her family since the closure of the local mental hospital, Nazareth, during the move towards community care, which robbed Nusstead of around four hundred jobs. Exploring Nazareth’s crumbling Victorian buildings with her boyfriend, Jesse, she comes across something that might be a solution to her problems. More than thirty years later, a successfully socially mobile Marianne is abruptly brought back into contact with her past – and she’s terrified that if her long-held secret comes out, her mentally fragile daughter will suffer.

I’m a fan of all of Erin Kelly’s psychological thrillers, but with Stone Mothers, she’s really surpassed herself. The novel effortlessly manages three timelines and three voices, moving from the 1950s to the 1980s to the present day, while establishing a distinct register for each. While the opening paragraphs are a little needlessly grabby, the novel as a whole refuses to follow a traditional thriller structure, and is the better for it. The characterisation is satisfyingly complex, and I particularly admired the way that Kelly writes about Marianne’s working-class adolescence, and her relationships with her sister and mother in both the present and the past.

Thematically, mental illness is woven subtly throughout the story, from the patients incarcerated in Nazareth in the 1950s to Marianne’s mother’s dementia and her daughter’s bipolar disorder in the present day. Kelly uses her research on changing attitudes to mental health care lightly, which makes it even more convincing. Without giving anything away, I’ve read a number of novels which foreground the story of somebody committed to an asylum for social transgressions, from Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture to Anna Hope’s The Ballroom and Maggie O’Farrell’s The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, and, in my opinion, Kelly writes about it most vividly and convincingly; in particular, she’s careful to note the sufferings of those who are actually mentally ill as well as of those who are mentally ‘well’.

Stone Mothers is utterly gripping, but in a rather different way from the run-of-the-mill thriller; it doesn’t rely on plot twists (although there are some!) but on the strength of its characterisation to pull the reader along. I’d recommend this confidently to fans of Tana French, Ruth Ware and Sabine Durrant.

Disclaimer: Erin tutored me on the Curtis Brown Creative novel-writing course I took in 2015-16, and has been so supportive of my writing ever since. However, I genuinely thought this was wonderful. I also received a proof copy from the publisher for review (not via Erin). Stone Mothers is out in the UK on the 4th April.

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Eleven-year-old Chinese orphan, Ren, worked as a houseboy for a British doctor before his master’s death; his last request is that Ren find his severed finger and reunite it with his corpse so that his soul doesn’t end up roaming the earth for all eternity. But Ren only has forty-two days to carry out his master’s final wish, before the doctor’s soul departs forever. Meanwhile, Ji-Lin, working at a dance hall in Ipoh to pay off her mother’s mah-jong debts and to try and save some money for her own education, receives a preserved finger in a vial from one of her clients, who then abruptly passes away in his turn. As Ren searches for the finger, he acquires a new British master, Dr William Acton, and rumours begin of a sinister weretiger that is killing local women. How are Ren’s, Ji-Lin’s and William’s stories intertwined? Set in 1930s Malaya (now Malaysia), The Night Tiger is deliberately symbolic, drawing repeatedly on the five Confucian virtues and on the pairs of twins that reoccur in the central characters’ dreams to suggest that its cast is linked by a fate that has followed them since they were born.

Choo tries hard to maintain the atmosphere of her story, but it’s a long book (480 pages), and it feels long; the plot has little direction, with the quest for the finger resolved early and the tiger attacks barely impinging on the story. While both Ren and Ji-Lin are engaging characters, I found myself waiting for the short bits from William, as it was only in those sections that anything much seemed to happen. I also found the romantic element of Ji-Lin’s plot too YA-ish, and a bit patriarchal, for my liking. Furthermore, I’m a little impatient with the way that folklore is used in plots like this – despite the promise of the weretiger myths, The Night Tiger ends up focusing almost entirely on magic sets of numbers, and even those are largely used in repetitive dream sequences. (In fact, I’m not sure why it’s called The Night Tiger at all). Despite the promise of the setting, the novel also failed to give me much of a sense of colonial Malaya. Started well, but lost momentum.

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

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Growing up in 1970s Belfast, middle sister never wanted to be interesting, but now she is.   Even though she’s been dating maybe-boyfriend for some time, a rumour’s going round that she’s actually with the milkman, who isn’t really a milkman at all but is a renouncer of the state. She tries her best to avoid the milkman, not wanting to be tagged as one of the renouncers, but he keeps on turning up – at her French class, where they don’t often speak French, and when she’s out running with third brother-in-law. Meanwhile, maybe-boyfriend is suspected of receiving a car part from over the water, and the milkman threatens to kill him. Will this all be resolved if middle sister keeps on keeping her head down, putting on her ‘I don’t know‘, ‘her terminal face’ – or will she have to take some kind of action?

Apologies in advance for the non-literariness of this review, but I found Anna Burns’s Milkman a uniquely frustrating read. Every day I would pick it up to read about fifteen pages (my daily limit), and every day I’d tell myself this was the last day, that I wouldn’t have to go back to this book ever again, that it was fine to leave it unfinished. But the bloody thing kept pulling me back in. Whenever I decided to give up on it, Burns would pull something so incredible out that I had to keep reading, however much of a slog it might be. Some of this was about the Troubles – Burns captures the experience of living in a community under threat from both outside and inside better than anything else I’d ever read – but some of it was just how well Burns writes about any subject at all. Here is middle sister on the arrival of second-wave feminism to the district:

This housewife’s notice said ‘ATTENTION ALL WOMEN OF THE DISTRICT: GREAT GOOD NEWS!!’ then followed information about some international women’s group that had been inaugurated unexpectedly into the world. It was seeking to set up sister branches in all the world’s countries, with no place… to be excluded from the remit, with no woman – again, any colour, any creed, any sexual preference, any disability, any mental illness or even general dislikeability, indeed, of any type of diversity – to be excluded from the venture… In her notice in the window, and in a daring modern fashion, she invited all women from the area to put their children out for their evening adventures as usual then, unencumbered, to make their way of a Wednesday evening to her house to hear her talk.

As this suggests, middle sister’s voice is often surprisingly, subtly funny – something you don’t often expect in experimental literary fiction. I particularly loved her interactions with ‘wee sisters’, her very bright, very contrary three younger sisters who all blend into one.

If I have one actual criticism of this book, it’s the lack of paragraphs. Seriously:

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[there are occasionally paragraph breaks, but not on every page!]

Everything else about the book that might be seen as ‘challenging’ – the run-on sentences, the lack of proper names, the quasi-nineteenth-century voice – was completely necessary and not actually that confusing, but I don’t think it would have made any difference if Burns had hit the ‘Enter’ key a lot more often. This may be peculiar to the way that I read – as far as I can tell, I think I tend to seek out the beginnings and ends of paragraphs, then somehow take in the whole thing in one go – but I found I kept on skipping bits accidentally and having to go back. So if this is a device to make people read more carefully, it didn’t work on me. Nevertheless, I’ve never before read a book that I literally couldn’t abandon even though I wanted to, and for that alone, I think Burns deserves her Booker win. (She’s also just been longlisted for this year’s Women’s Prize).

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Finally, a random observation. I finished Milkman at the same time as I was reading Jeff VanderMeer’s dystopic sci-fi Annihilation, which follows four female scientists as they embark on an expedition into the mysterious Area X, and they kept on crossing over in odd ways in my head. Whether it was the lack of names, the endemic distrust within a small group of people, the formal first-person narrators, or the feeling of being trapped in an enclosed space where nothing quite makes sense, I don’t know!

Why be happy when you could be normal?*

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Keiko Furukara is thirty-six and works in a convenience store. She has no partner and very few friends, so her family are consistently worried about her, especially her younger sister, who gives her instructions on how to behave more normally so she can get on with people, but still despairs of her progress: ‘I simply can’t take it anymore. How can we make you normal? How much longer must I put up with this?’ However, Keiko herself is entirely unconcerned about the future. She’s happy the way she is, and her commitment to the store is absolute: she knows that she ought to put out cellophane noodle soup dishes when there are a lot of female customers, that a properly presented promotion of fried chicken skewers will help the store meet its targets, and that the most popular flavour of rice balls are spicy cod roe with cream cheese. She likes being in a place where there are clear rules she can follow, and she copies her co-workers’ speech and clothing so she can try to fit in – not because she really wants to, but because it leads to less hassle.

It’s this logic that leads Keiko to flirt with the idea of getting married to a deeply unpleasant man she meets at the store. Shiraha is an entitled freeloader, full of incel kool-aid, who fancies the idea of a relationship of convenience with Keiko so he won’t have to work himself. Her sister is horrified when she finds out what’s going on, and Keiko pleads with her: ‘will I be cured if I leave the convenience store? Or am I better staying working there? And should I kick Shiraha out? Or am I better with him here? Look, I’ll do whatever you say. I don’t mind either way, so please just instruct me in specific terms.’ Her sister only calms down when Shiraha pretends that Keiko is angry with him for meeting up with an ex-girlfriend, and that’s why she’s behaving so strangely. As Keiko observes, ‘She’s far happier thinking her sister is normal, even if she has a lot of problems, than she is having an abnormal sister for whom everything is fine’. There are echoes here of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian in the absolute refusal to accept female boundaries.

A basic reading of Convenience Store Woman might view it as an indictment of capitalism. Keiko sees herself as a cog in the machine that is the convenience store, and believes that its rules of subservience are basic rules of living; she performs emotional labour for customers, anticipating their needs and greeting them with the correct, positive words. However, as Keiko’s acquaintances pour scorn on her job, it seems unclear how far they are actually living self-chosen lives, either, with the reverence for marriage and motherhood they’ve all internalised. I particularly enjoyed the performative anguish of the one friend, Miki, who hasn’t got married, when the rest are telling Keiko that she ‘must be getting desperate’: ‘”I’m getting desperate, too,” Miki chimed in. Then she added breezily: “But I’m always travelling abroad on business.”‘ 

In the anger of Keiko’s friends and family, we see the horror of those who have to confront the fact that a person – and God forbid, a woman – might actually find work more fulfilling than spending time with other people. But because Keiko’s job is so routine, we’re also forced to come face to face with our own assumptions about what we’re taught to see as ‘menial’ labour. If Keiko were writing a novel, or performing heart surgery, I imagine readers’ reactions to her would be very different. Furthermore, Keiko, despite her perfect work ethic, is less capitalism’s dream than its worst nightmare. She thinks her life is absolutely fine as it is. She doesn’t want anything, whether that’s a handsome husband, a pretty dress or a foreign holiday. Moreover, she really doesn’t care what anybody thinks about her, and doesn’t think there’s anything about herself she needs to change. With her total absence of insecurity, she may be a capitalist labourer, but she’s completely failing to be a capitalist consumer. A capitalist world populated by Keikos wouldn’t last very long; after all, someone has to buy fried chicken skewers from the convenience store.

Unlike novels such as Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine or The Rosie ProjectConvenience Store Woman is not about how people we think of as ‘weird’ are completely normal underneath after all, and want the same things as all the rest of us. Instead, it highlights that we all have deep weirdnesses that we cover over with a facade of normality – it’s just that some of us are better at it than others. It asks us to consider that people we think of as social rejects may not actually be seeking our sympathy, but regarding us with pity. No wonder it’s not giving readers very cosy feelings.

*NB. I haven’t actually read the Jeanette Winterson memoir that I took the title of this post from, but it fit so well that I couldn’t resist!

Three Things… September 2018

Borrowed from Paula at Book Jotter.

Reading

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I have to admit that I’m a little relieved 20 Books of Summer is over. It’s back to reading what I want, by which I mean the backlog that has accumulated while I read my 20 books. I just finished Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, which I found emotionally exhausting, as it mirrors so many of my thoughts and concerns about potential motherhood, although I have to admit to finding Heti an irritating and self-indulgent writer at times. The thought that’s stuck with me, however, is the simple statement that if you’re genuinely undecided about having children, ‘it will probably be a fine life either way.’ It started me off thinking things that Heti doesn’t explicitly spell out. If having children is central to what you want, it makes sense to shape your life around that, but for the rest of us, the choice whether or not to have a child is less a question we can ask in isolation – Should I Be A Mother? Should I Bring A Child Into This World? – and more a practical question that’s dependent on where we find ourselves. Speaking only for myself, I know I wouldn’t want to have a child unless the circumstances were exactly right (and I have pretty specific ideas of what I mean by that!) and if that never happens, I’m better off without one. Sadly, I doubt this will be the end of my worries about it, given how patriarchy likes to make us feel guilty for even entertaining the thought of not having children.

Another thing that Heti doesn’t touch on in Motherhood is the idea that not wanting your own children means you don’t like children, an unfortunate belief that I find comes up surprisingly often. I worked part-time with children for four years when I was doing my PhD in Cambridge and absolutely loved it; I know it’s something I want to do again in the future. I’m also really looking forward to getting to know my friends’ children, and my sister and I are both very keen to be aunts (there’s only the two of us, so you can see the flaw in this plan… we’ll have to rely on (potential) partners’ siblings for the moment). As a historian of childhood, I also spend my professional life thinking about how children have been marginalised and oppressed in the past, something which is very important to me. Heti doesn’t seem to have many children in her life – which is of course absolutely fine – but even if I don’t have my own children, I know I’ll want to live a life that includes other people’s children.

Watching

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I saw Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen’s film Still Here at the Side Cinema a week or so ago, and thought it was absolutely fantastic. Konttinen photographed residents in Byker from 1969-81 – her most famous photograph is probably ‘Girl on A Spacehopper’ – and in this film, she goes back to talk to some of the people she photographed who are still living in the area, although not always in Byker itself. Konttinen did a fascinating Q&A after this short film where she talked about how she tracked down her subjects. The ‘girl on a spacehopper’ has proved the most elusive; four women have claimed to be her already. I particularly enjoyed hearing from the man who was disappointed he was missing from the photograph of kids collecting junk [see above], given that his siblings were in it, but, as he said to Konttinen, ‘that was probably because I was looting your studio’. As far as I know, there aren’t any plans to tour this film outside Newcastle at the moment, which is a shame – it’s really worth seeing.

I’ve also been watching Bake Off, like everyone else – my favourite is Rahul.

Thinking

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I’m a bit tired of thinking at the moment as I’m finishing up the initial draft of my academic monograph, A Progressive Education? How Childhood Changed in Mid-Twentieth-Century English and Welsh Schools, and so have been doing a lot of thinking about that. It’s been good to get a break from cogitation by going wild swimming with my mum and sister in the Brecon Beacons; we swam in some waterfall pools and a tarn [pictured above]. I’m a big fan of wild swimming but rarely get the chance to do it; I think a proper wetsuit might be a sensible investment next spring, as the sea near Newcastle is COLD all year round. The following weekend, my sister and I rode a working fireboat in Bristol that protected Bristol docks during the Blitz, and saw it shooting water from its water cannons. This was also a very welcome respite from work.

20 Books of Summer, #17, #18 and #19: Painter to the King, Asymmetry and An American Marriage

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Amy Sackville’s third novel, Painter to the King, reads as if Sackville is guiding us through a series of living paintings that make up the court of Philip IV of Spain in the first half of the seventeenth century. The future Charles I of England, Scotland and Ireland turns up on an ill-fated courtship with the Duke of Buckingham, his father’s infamous favourite, in tow; Philip’s own favourite, the count-duke Olivares, is the power behind the throne; among all this, Diego Velázquez, painter to the king, watches, observes and records. Sackville’s writing is deliberately distancing and closely observational, especially when she’s describing the process of painting. Unlike Hilary Mantel’s Tudor novels, she doesn’t take us deeply into court intrigue but leaves us alongside Velázquez, who’s not always a prominent figure in the novel himself, but who is always present.

Sackville also reflects explicitly on the process of trying to get at the life of somebody like Velázquez, giving us a narrator – probably Sackville herself – who is retracing his steps through Madrid and often finding little left of the places he had known. These palimpsest bits of the story were the most intriguing bits for me; the traces of autofiction reminded me a bit of Jessie Greengrass’s marvellous Sight, and they add a kind of human contact to the novel that it badly needs. Unfortunately, they’re scattered only occasionally through the book.

Having read and loved The Still Point and Orkney, I already knew Sackville was a wonderful writer, but unlike these previous novels, Painter to the King feels somewhat like an extended writing exercise. The intense focus on the visual surfaces of things means that the reader never really ‘gets to know’ any of the central characters, and perhaps that’s the point; Sackville is exploring what we can know about these people who’ve been handed down to us in paint. However, for me, this stylistic choice left the novel virtually unreadable, whereas as a shorter piece it might have worked very well. I love that Sackville has taken such a bold step away from the frozen landscapes of her earlier work, but this novel ultimately left me cold.

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I wrote up a proper review of Asymmetry, Lisa Halliday’s dazzling debut, about a week ago, but WordPress decided to eat it. Therefore, I’ll have to say briefly that it’s brilliant. The novel begins on familiar territory, when a young editor, Alice, starts an affair with a much older writer, Ezra. (As all the reviews have noted, this reflects Halliday’s own relationship with Philip Roth, but as I’ve never read anything by Roth and know very little about him, this simply shows that one can enjoy this novel while missing many of the in-jokes and references that are probably present). In its second half, it starts telling a different kind of story altogether, when Iraqi-American economist Amar Jaafari is detained by border officials at Heathrow. Spoilers ahead – although I guessed the twist in this novel pretty early and don’t think it matters if you know about it ahead of time or not.

When we realise that the Amar section of the novel is actually written by Alice, it becomes clear what a brave thing Halliday has done. By allowing us to see her workings, we can unpick all the usual questions readers like to ask about whether or not a story is ‘authentic’ and how closely it ‘relates to the writer’s own life.’ There are little intersections for us to catch at, like the moment when Alice is called up for jury duty, overhears a Muslim man talking about his family, and is told that ‘Amar Jaafari’ has failed to turn up for his own jury service. When the coda to the novel turns out to be a pitch-perfect, fictitious interview with Ezra on Desert Island Discs, it might be tempting to believe that Halliday is simply showing off her literary ventriloquism. As this wonderful Atlantic review puts it: Asymmetry is a “masterpiece” in the original sense of the word—a piece of work that an apprentice produces to show that she has mastered her trade.’ However, unlike Painter to the King, there’s too much heart in Asymmetry for it to be misread as a technical experiment. It’s one of the very few books that, when I’d finished it, I wanted to start from the beginning and read all over again.

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An American Marriage – one of Barack Obama’s summer reads – highlights a universal injustice with a closely personal focus. African-American couple Celestial and Roy have been married barely a year when Roy is falsely accused of raping a white woman and sent to jail for twelve years. Celestial promises to wait for her husband, but as Roy’s days in prison roll by, the previous cracks between them start to widen. Celestial ‘comes from money’, whereas Roy’s father worked his way up from nothing. Roy’s early brashness and ambition shows that he feels he has something to prove, whereas Celestial’s instilled middle-class confidence leads her to start her own business selling expensive, handmade baby dolls – although it’s Roy who hits on the right name for the business, Poupées. How can Roy rebuild his life again once he’s freed? What does Celestial owe to Roy, hailed as a martyr by the black community – and what should she be allowed to keep for herself?

This is Tayari Jones’s fourth novel, and experience shows – her writing is effortlessly readable. Jones doesn’t dwell on the details of Roy’s trial or the wider media and community response to the case, preferring to keep her lens tightly trained on Celestial, Roy, and the old friend who becomes mixed up in their personal tragedy, Andre. While the subject-matter is not especially groundbreaking, this stylistic choice means we can’t help but feel for all three of these characters. As Rebecca noted in her review, this would be a perfect reading group book, and I’ll be recommending it to my own book group (which only reads books by people of colour, so this is a good fit) when it comes out in paperback. Jones handles the intersections of class, race and gender so lightly that this book never feels didactic, and yet leaves the reader with plenty to think about.

20 Books of Summer ends today, so that’s nineteen books read, with two official substitutions, and one left unread, Rainbirds by Clarissa Goenawan. My most successful summer yet! I’ll be posting a retrospective on the challenge later this week, and talking about my reading plans for the autumn.

How did you do with 20 Books of Summer, or with your summer reading? Would you do the challenge again?

Can we imagine a post-patriarchy? Becky Chambers’ Record of a Spaceborn Few

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The first two books in Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and A Closed and Common Orbit, both of which I loved, were largely focused on encounters between aliens of different species in the quasi-utopian spacefaring civilisation that she so brilliantly imagines. While humans were included in this mix, human society was not at the centre of the story; in The Long Way, the human protagonist Rosemary spends her time learning about the very different alien societies she encounters, while in A Closed and Common Orbit, the most significant human character, Pepper, has lived much of her life cast out from human worlds, brought up by an AI. Because of this, Record of a Spaceborn Few is the first chance we’ve had to consider how human society itself has changed in this imagined future.

Record of a Spaceborn Few is set on the Exodus fleet, the fleet on which humans migrated from a dying Earth, and on which many of them still make their homes. Life on the fleet is, broadly speaking, communist: resources are distributed centrally, as are jobs, and everyone receives the same renumeration for whatever work they do. It’s suggested that this system is working; very few able-bodied adults are willing to risk the social stigma of being idle, and those who invest more time and effort in their training are rewarded with higher status in the community. As far as I could tell, however, this society is also portrayed as a post-patriarchy (and as a post-patriarchy that has, crucially, also rejected white supremacy and hetronormativity). Race or sex seem irrelevant, although women still seem to be giving birth (and – irritatingly – there seems to have been no technological advances in this area, as one of the characters refers to birth as necessarily painful – why?). We meet gay, lesbian and bisexual characters, and there’s no sense that they face any prejudice. To be clear, this is all so far so good for me – I love the utopian nature of Chambers’s world and I think it’s hugely important to write stories like this where diverse characters can exist without constantly being defined by oppression.

The problem with Record of a Spaceborn Few, for me, comes down to a familiar feminist question: how far can we, who have been fundamentally shaped by being born and raised in a patriarchal society, conceive of a post-patriarchy at all? (Same questions also go for a genuinely post-racial society, but Chambers seems much less concerned with this issue.) In other words, Chambers’s world felt far too familiar to me, especially when she’s shown how adept she is at envisaging fundamentally different alien set-ups. Shouldn’t these post-patriarchal humans feel – well, more alien? One particular sticking point for me came with sex work. Chambers presents sex work as simply another occupation that Exodans can choose when they come of age. Sex workers are valued by this society, and it’s strongly implied that most adults have visited sex workers at some point or another. Pleasingly, Chambers emphasises the significant skill-set that sex workers possess: empathy, perception, intuition, the ability to get on with people.

Treated critically, this could have been fascinating. How much of the inherent abuse and exploitation in the sex work industry is due to the fact that we live in a capitalist patriarchy, where sex is treated as a commodity like any other? Is it possible to imagine a world where selling sex is removed from harmful power dynamics? I’m not sure I can imagine such a world, but perhaps that’s precisely the point. However, Record of a Spaceborn Few doesn’t ask these questions. Instead, I found myself getting more and more uncomfortable with its presentation of sex work. While I’m open to the idea that things might be different in a society that is so radically different from our own, presenting this scenario uncritically in a world that still fails to recognise the harm that sex work does to women feeds into damaging myths. I think that Chambers could have pulled this ‘what-if’ off, but she doesn’t seem to have given it enough thought.

There are other aspects of the text that also felt uncomfortably familiar. One of the central characters is Kip, a sixteen-year-old boy who hasn’t done enough work for his final exams and isn’t sure what he wants to do with his life. He’s bored and tempted to rebel. He and his friend get hold of fake ID, experiment with alcohol and drugs, and try to get access to the aforementioned sex workers. He basically behaves like an idiot. I found this whole plot a bit dismaying. Given that adolescence is culturally constructed – teenagers haven’t behaved the same way at the same age throughout history, and obviously the concept of the ‘teenager’ is, itself, relatively new – I don’t see why Kip would necessarily be doing any of these things. Wouldn’t it have been more interesting to challenge our ageist assumptions about young people?

I’m aware I’m holding Chambers to very high standards because her first two books were just so good, and I really enjoyed reading Record of a Spaceborn Few, despite my misgivings – the worldbuilding is richer and more original than in A Close and Common Orbit. However, I’d like to see any future books in this series think more about how humans themselves have changed, alongside the different models of sex, gender and race that they encounter in the alien species with whom they now share the universe.