Belated April ARCs

I feel very sorry for these three April ARCs. Not only have these three authors had to deal with being published in the middle of a global pandemic, they’ve also been personally neglected by me because I was so busy with my Women’s Prize reading. Nevertheless, I’ve finally got round to them, and I have to say that all three are worthwhile – so I hope that they get at least some of the attention that they deserve!

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You People, Nikita Lalwani’s third novel, was one of the books I was most looking forward to in 2020, though I wish it hadn’t been burdened with such a hideous cover. It’s set in 2003 in an Italian restaurant in London that’s run by Tuli, who enjoys the reputation of being a benefactor to the undocumented migrants and other recent arrivals who work there, many of whom are Tamils from Sri Lanka fleeing civil war. It has two narrators: first, Nia, a nineteen-year-old Welsh waitress who passes for white and privileged and is happy to reap the advantages of that, but whose father was Bengali and who’s refusing to return home so she won’t have to deal with her alcoholic mother. Second, Shan, one of the Sri Lankan refugees, who is desperately seeking to reunite with his wife and child. Lalwani carefully draws the reader into the net that Tuli is weaving, causing us to continuously reassess what we think we know about the situation that Nia and Shan find themselves in. As ever, Lalwani writes so well about complicated moral choices and inhabits each of her characters with sharp empathy, although I didn’t find this novel to be quite as clever or memorable as her brilliant The VillageNevertheless, she creates a complex community of word-of-mouth bargains and secrets, and she’s still streets ahead of many of her contemporaries. I’ll be interested to see how this compares to Aravind Adiga’s Amnesty, which – although it’s set in Sydney – also deals with an undocumented immigrant from Sri Lanka who has to make a difficult ethical decision!

You People was released in the UK on April 2nd. I received a free copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

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C. Pam Zhang’s debut, How Much of These Hills Is Gold, is set in California at the end  of the Gold Rush of the 1850s. It explores the lives and histories of two young Chinese siblings, Lucy and Sam, as they struggle to survive after the deaths of both their parents. In this, it joins novels like Téa Obreht’s Inland and Philipp Meyer’s The Son in seeking to reimagine white, male myths of the American nineteenth-century ‘pioneer spirit’. The novel starts with the siblings fleeing their home with their Ba’s body packed into a trunk on the back of their mule; it then flashes back so that Ba can relate the last generation of their family’s history; and finally flashes forward five years to a time when Lucy, now seventeen, is trying to become a respectable young woman in town while an absent Sam lives feral.

Unlike some reviewers, I didn’t find this structure especially awkward – for me, the siblings’ futures and pasts were more interesting than their present, so I was glad that Zhang decided to deftly shake it up a bit – but still, this novel doesn’t quite fulfil its ambitions. Both Lucy and Sam are vividly imagined, and yet they’re never given enough space to become totally captivating. Sam’s contested relationship with gender is handled cleverly by Zhang – it can be difficult to position this kind of narrative in a historical setting, but I thought Zhang managed to create a space for Sam that felt like a kind of  queer space that might have existed at the time, even though readers may continue to wonder what modern labels fit the character. However, as Elle points out in her review, Zhang’s refusal to commit to pronouns for Sam makes the writing clunky. Initially, I wondered if this represented Lucy’s own confusion about how to refer to Sam, but as we get sentences like ‘Sam’s hair… reaches just under Sam’s ears’ at the same time as Lucy continually refers to Sam as ‘her’, I didn’t understand why Zhang didn’t choose a set of pronouns, even if these changed later on in the book. The present tense also felt too much like a creative-writing class default setting rather than a deliberate choice. In short, How Much of These Hills Is Gold suffers, like many debut novels, from trying to pack too much into one story, but I’d much rather read something like this than a bland, competent book, and I’ll look out for more from Zhang.

How Much Of These Hills Is Gold was released in the UK on April 9th. I received a free copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

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How To Pronounce Knife, Souvankham Thammavongsa’s debut collection of short stories, was also one of my most anticipated 2020 titles. All the stories are set in a city that is deliberately unnamed, left sketchy around the edges, although I had the sense from a couple of references that we are somewhere in Canada. All, also, deal with the lives of Lao immigrants and their children, although not all of the stories are primarily about immigration or ethnicity. What I found so impressive about these quiet stories, in fact, is the way that they don’t cluster around one specific theme; Thammavongsa is sharply insightful on a number of registers. Childhood is one of these, and Thammavongsa’s thoughts on writing in the voice of a child are worth reading. The title story, which deals with a small girl trying to navigate between her family’s culture and the world of school, completely gets how frustrating it is for children not to be heard, and how adults continually fail to understand how, when young children are angry about one thing, it’s often something much bigger than just that thing.

However, Thammavongsa takes us into the head of an older woman who has just begun a sexy affair with a much younger man with equal conviction (‘Slingshot’), upturning our received ideas about age, sex, and the way that these attributes structure power dynamics in a relationship. She writes beautifully about how chicken plant worker Red (‘Paris’) only knows one kind of love: ‘that simple, uncomplicated, lonely love one feels for oneself on the quiet moments of the day. It was there, steady and solid in the laughter and talk of the television and with her in the grocery aisles on the weekends’. She vividly details the different work worlds of a man working in a nail salon (‘Mani Pedi’) and a woman picking worms in a field (‘Picking Worms’). Occasionally, a story seems to draw away from its climax rather than landing with the conviction of the others in this collection, and Thammavongsa sometimes goes for an easy emotional beat rather than pressing for something more interesting (‘Her sense of taste comes and goes now’, muses an older woman after having a stroke in ‘You Are So Embarrassing’. ‘Most of the time it all tastes bitter. And all that bitterness in her mouth is hard to swallow.’) However, these are rare missteps in a collection that is otherwise consistently good.

How to Pronounce Knife was released in the UK on April 16th. I received a free copy of this collection from the publisher for review.

If any of these books appeal, and if you’re able to do so, please consider ordering from Hive, from Waterstones, or from your local independent bookshop to support authors and bookshops at this time.

#ReadingWomen: Past Women’s Prize for Fiction Winners, Part One

This post offers a break from my Women’s Prize 2020 longlist coverage with… more Women’s Prize content!

The Women’s Prize for Fiction is setting up a #ReadingWomen challenge this year, challenging readers to read all 24 of the previous prize winners. I’ve been desultorily pursuing this aim since 2015 and so have a head start – I only had 5 previous winners left to read when they announced the challenge!

A long time ago in the 1990s and early 2000s, when the Women’s Prize for Fiction was still called the Orange Prize*, I was only a child and did not follow the Prize as obsessively as I do now. Because of this, most of the winners that I haven’t yet read are from this earlier period of the Prize’s history. In this post, I’m taking a look at two of these early winners; the remaining three will be covered in later posts. Eventually, I will try and rank all 24 (though this will be dubious as I read some of them a LONG time ago).

*although this name lasted until 2012 and is still my favourite iteration of the Women’s Prize’s various names. There’s something that feels so fitting about it, as if men are the standard apples of the literary world and women are the sharper, more innovative oranges, even though I know it’s the name of the sponsor!

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Anne Michaels’ debut novel Fugitive Pieces was the second ever winner of the Orange Prize, in 1997. The book is narrated by Jakob Beer, who fled the Holocaust as a young boy in Poland, hiding in a forest after his parents and older sister Bella were taken by the Nazis. Jakob is rescued by a Greek geologist Athos, who takes him first to Greece and then to Toronto. In the last third of the book, the narrative switches to Ben, a Canadian professor of weather patterns (classic literary fiction job) whose parents were also Holocaust survivors and who, it transpires, is their third but only living child. Ben becomes obsessed with Jakob’s poetry as a way of helping him understand the trauma his family has suffered, despite the fact that Jakob himself failed to process the horrors in his own past.

I anticipated that I would struggle with Fugitive Pieces because of the ubiquity of Holocaust narratives in contemporary literature; what I didn’t anticipate was the incredible pretentiousness of its prose. Elle has pretty much said everything I want to say about this novel’s writing in her brilliant review, so I won’t dwell on the subject, but as an example, this are the kind of musings our narrators go in for:

History is the poisoned well, seeping into the groundwater. It’s not the unknown past we’re doomed to repeat, but the past we know. Every recorded event is a brick of potential, of precedent, thrown into the future. Eventually the idea will hit someone in the back of the head. This is the duplicity of history: an idea recorded will become an idea resurrected. Out of fertile ground, the compost of history.

Lightning has restored a man’s sight and also his hair.

Ball lightning enters through a window, a door, a chimney. Silently it circles the room, browses the bookshelf and, as if unable to decide where to sit, disappears through the same air passage by which it entered.

A thousand accumulated moments come to fruition in a few seconds. Your cells are reassembled. Struck, your metal melted. Your burnt shape is branded into the chair, vacancy where once you inhabited society. Worst of all, she appears to you as everything you’ve ever lost.

It sometimes seems unfair to pluck paragraphs from a book and critique them, but in Fugitive Pieces, this is exactly how they read in the narrative. Michaels’ prose often feels like a series of strung-together sentences that have no obvious connection to each other, and often deliberately obscure meaning, as in the first passage, where past events move from being a poisoned well to a brick to compost. Occasionally she hits upon something that is strong out of context; I like the sentence ‘Eventually the idea will hit someone in the back of the head’ and the idea of ball lightning browsing the bookshelf. But none of this adds up to anything, because the prose isn’t doing any work. Incidentally, the first passage above comes from Jakob’s section of the book and the second from Ben’s; the two narrators are completely indistinguishable, which to my mind is a pretty unforgivable novelistic sin.

Furthermore, the passage about the lightning prefigures Ben’s meeting with one of the few female characters in this novel, and it’s entirely typical. Women in this world always ‘appear’ to men when they need them, manifesting as a cluster of ideal traits, never as individuals in their own right. Jakob’s first wife, Alex, is a manic pixie dream girl before the term was fashionable; she seems to only have one character trait, which is making incredibly annoying puns: ‘I’m making a check list, is Liszt Czech?’ His second wife, Michaela, draws an even shorter straw, as her only defining characteristic is that she is so much younger than Jakob, a fact of which we are continually reminded: ‘I dream of Michaela – young, glistening smooth as marble, sugary wet with sunlight’. The women in Ben’s life are similarly attuned to what his narrative arc needs at any given point, and appear and disappear accordingly.

It’s hard for me to think of a novel that does so many of the things I hate most, and so, despite its occasional moments of emotional clarity – for example, Jakob’s memories and imaginings of his sister Bella – Fugitive Pieces was an outright failure for me.

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Valerie Martin’s seventh novel, Property, won the Orange Prize in 2003. Set in the 1820s, it’s narrated by Manon, the wife of a Louisiana slaveowner who hates her husband and longs to return to her native New Orleans; but even the hope of inheriting her mother’s property is tainted by her knowledge that it will be swallowed up by her husband’s debts. Manon’s frustration and rage is turned upon an enslaved woman, Sarah, who has been forced to have two children with Manon’s husband, and who now, in Manon’s eyes, haunts her house like a living reminder of this infidelity. As rumours of a slave rebellion move through the South, Manon herself becomes increasingly restless and abusive towards this woman who is in her power.

Recently, I’ve been concerned by certain literary furores that seem to suggest that novelists should not write in the voice of an oppressor. I’m working on a longer post on this issue at the moment, but in short, I think this arises from the misguided assumption that fiction has only one purpose – to ‘give voice’ to marginalised people whose stories we need to hear. If this were true, it would be obvious why we shouldn’t write from the perspective of those who hold power over others, as they already control the narrative in the real world. But while ‘giving voice’ to the oppressed can be a function of fiction, I don’t think it’s the most important thing fiction can do, and it definitely isn’t the only thing novels are for. This is demonstrated perfectly by Property. If we’re playing by ‘giving voice’ rules, then this is a terrible novel – we only hear from an abusive, privileged and selfish white woman, while all the black characters, both enslaved and free, are totally silenced. But imprisoning the reader in Manon’s head sheds light on the self-justifying logic of those who practiced slavery. Manon is acutely aware of the injustices that she faces – as a married woman, she is not able to hold property in her own right, for example. Nevertheless, she is completely unable to view enslaved people as anything but subhuman. While she dislikes her husband’s exceptionally cruel behaviour towards some enslaved boys, this seems to be more a matter of what she views as good estate management rather than morality.

Martin’s portrayal of Manon also plays with received wisdom about the function of a protagonist. Manon is not a traditional protagonist nor even an antagonist – she exercises very little agency and spends most of her time bemoaning her lot. Meanwhile, Sarah, who speaks only a handful of sentences over the novel’s pages, is the most active character in the novel, albeit largely off-screen. This doesn’t mean that Sarah is our protagonist either, but I think this helps us to understand the power of Martin’s authorial choices. Some reviewers have suggested that this would be a better novel if it gave Sarah a narrative voice as well, but I think this misses the point. It is precisely Sarah’s silence in the story, I would suggest, that brings home the totality of slavery as an institution. Sarah, as we know from hearsay, is an articulate and intelligent woman, but she will not speak to Manon because her voice is something that Manon cannot own. By refusing to relate her own story, Sarah makes herself unknowable, and hence, to Manon’s persistent frustration, forever beyond the complete domination that Manon craves. Seventeen years after it was first published, Property still has a great deal to say.

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020: Nightingale Point

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Every year, the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlists something that I find bafflingly bad, and this year, I’m pretty confident that prize goes to Luan Goldie’s Nightingale Point. This novel, set in the mid-1990s and early 2000s, is told principally from six different first-person perspectives, with a seventh tossed in at the very end for no good reason. Its narrators are linked by the run-down London block of flats where they live, Nightingale Point, and by the traumatic tragedy that occurs one hot summer’s afternoon when a cargo plane plows into the block. Mary is a Filipino nurse who is burdened with guilt about an affair; she is surrogate mother to two black teenage boys, Malachi and Tristan. Malachi is studious, asthmatic and heartbroken, while his younger brother Tristan is more concerned with keeping up his street cred and keeping their little flat spotless. Elvis, a white man with learning disabilities, has recently moved to the block through a care-in-the-community placement; he loves having his own place but is the target of harassment. Finally, Pamela, perhaps the most vivid, is a white teenage girl kept captive in her own flat by her controlling father; she remembers the days when she was at least let out to run in the frosty park for an hour, and wishes she could reunite with Malachi, with whom she had a brief love affair.

At almost four hundred pages, Nightingale Point, which treads slowly through a long preamble and postamble to its central incident, feels like a much shorter story stretched out to fill the space of a novel. It also has some fairly basic craft problems, which I found surprising, given that Goldie is a past Costa Short Story award winner. On a sentence-by-sentence level, it’s uninspiring but competent, although there are some occasional clangers (‘The woven burgundy throw falls from the back of the sofa to reveal the holes and poverty beneath it.’) However, the prose clumps together in uncomfortable ways, partly because the transitions between past and present, and between introspection and action, are often awkwardly handled. Here’s Pamela on the roof of the block of flats:

Her running shoes swing by her sides as she pads across the greyness in her socks. She steps over the glossy ripped pages of a magazine; a girl in a peephole leather catsuit stares back at her. The door bounces against its splintered frame as Pamela enters the building. Her world starts to shrink.

On a macro level, this novel didn’t work for me either. It’s not a sharp evocation of a London council estate along the lines of Guy Gunaratne’s In Our Mad and Furious Citybut seems more akin to plodding feelgood London community-based novels like Libby Page’s The Lidodespite the fact it’s not especially feelgood! It doesn’t have anything interesting to say about either solidarity or hierarchy in the wake of this disaster, and, for a novel that claims to mirror the Grenfell tragedy, it’s curiously apolitical. (While I obviously understand that Goldie wouldn’t have wanted to tackle Grenfell directly, I wondered why she chose to pluck a real-life incident from its original social context – this plane crash into a tower block actually took place in Amsterdam in 1992, and led to a government cover-up.) Because the novel chooses to eschew all these interesting power dynamics, it becomes a somewhat soapy and manipulative read, with an especially troubling through-line for one of its central characters.

Highlight for spoiler. As is achingly predictable, poor Pamela dies in the crash because she can’t escape from her locked flat. Her story then becomes the property of the men who are grieving her. Pamela left a note for Malachi before her death breaking the news of her pregnancy that, it seems to me, she would have wanted very much for him to read even if she was dead, but Tristan, who promised to deliver the note, decides it will be better for his brother if he tears it up, and Malachi never finds out he did this (which is terrible storytelling anyway!) Then for some reason, Pamela’s abusive father, Jay, gets a surprise point-of-view chapter near the end of the novel which seems principally concerned with eliciting sympathy for him and suggesting that he and Malachi can find common ground at a memorial service five years on: ‘So much happened back then, so many things that can’t be unsaid or changed. But today isn’t about that, it’s not about Jay or Malachi, it’s about acknowledging Pamela, the sixteen-year-old girl who loved laughing and milkshakes and running till she could no longer feel her legs. The girl they both loved. They share a look, which Jay feels is not filled with violence or regret, but with understanding of what they’ve both lost.’ BUT, the reason Pamela (and her baby!) is dead is because Jay LOCKED HER IN HER FLAT, and even when she was alive she never got to enjoy running and milkshakes because Jay KEPT HER LOCKED IN HER FLAT. I know this is from Jay’s point of view, but Goldie could easily have chosen to undercut this scene when she returned to Malachi’s perspective; instead, he doesn’t comment. End spoiler. In short: what were the judges thinking?

I’m aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist this year. This is number five. I’ve already read Girl, Woman, Other; The Dutch House; Queenie; and Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line.

‘Gleefully narrating the events of last night’

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Jai is nine years old and lives with his family in the slums of New Delhi. He loves watching reality cop shows, especially Police Patrol (presumably a fictionalised version of Crime Patrol), waits hungrily for his mother to bring back special food from her job as a maid in one of the ‘hi-fi’ flats of the city, and is watched over by his older sister, Runu, who dreams of becoming a successful runner and winning a sports scholarship that will allow her to escape. When children start disappearing from Jai’s basti, he forms a detective gang with his two best friends, Pari and Faiz, and they determine to find out what is happening. Their investigations take them onto the Metro’s Purple Line, into a part of the city they have never been before. Jai is convinced that there may be something supernatural at work, and that the children may have been snatched by the hungry djinns that are said to hunt at night. Framed by the fact that around 180 children in India go missing every day (although this article explains that the reasons behind this statistic are complex, and not all of these children are abducted), this debut novel is unafraid to highlight the limited interest from the Indian media in the fate of poor kids and to go to some very dark places. Indeed, I found this one of the most upsetting things I have read for some time.

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line draws from Deepa Anappara’s own origins in Kerala and her experience of working as a journalist in India for eleven years, and, as expected, is rich in detail. Anappara slips seamlessly between English and Hindi in such a way that the language of the novel is never difficult to follow, and Jai’s basti is vividly brought to life. Anappara has written thoughtfully about the difficulties of inhabiting the voice of a poor urban child, even given her own background and experience, in the Times [paywalled], an article that feels even more salient given the recent reviews of Jeanine Cummins’s American Dirt.I had been concerned that any representation of a marginalised, vulnerable community in India risked stereotyping or romanticising their difficult circumstances’, she writes, recounting that ‘I had witnessed how children’s voices had been absent from the news reports about their disappearances, and I wanted to reframe the narrative so they would be at the heart of it.’ Ultimately, she writes, it was only after her sibling was diagnosed with incurable cancer that she really felt at one with Jai, and his need to tell stories about the world to make sense of the horrors he witnesses.

Although I can’t comment on how accurate Anappara’s depiction of the New Delhi slums actually is, I do think that she has successfully achieved her aim of not writing ‘poverty porn’. Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line presents a diverse cast of characters not defined by their personal circumstances, and also pays close attention to the social and economic hierarchies within the basti, rather than presenting a mass of human misery. When Jai visits the home of the first boy who disappears, Bahadur, he notes that Bahadur’s family must be better off than his because they have ‘more of everything: more clothes hanging from the clothes lines above us, more upturned pots and pans… more framed photos of gods on the walls, the glass turning sooty because of the joss sticks stuck into the corners of the frames, a bigger TV, and even a fridge’. The novel is also attentive to anti-Muslim feeling among the predominantly Hindu population.

If there was something about this novel that made me feel a bit uncertain, it was Jai’s voice, which feels too much like the kind of chirpy, cliched child narrator I’ve read in many other novels set in wildly different times and places. A brief segment of narration from his older sister Runu sets this into context somewhat, giving us a very necessary external viewpoint on Jai. After a family argument where she is slapped by her father, she sees her brother ‘gleefully narrating the events of last night’ to his friends and reflects that ‘Since he had been born, she had considered Jai with a blend of loathing and admiration; it seemed to her that he had a way of softening the imperfections of life with his daydreams and the self-confidence that the world granted boys’. The first two-thirds of this novel are overlong, with Jai’s rambling narration becoming a bit frustrating, but the interspersed sections from other narrators are much stronger, especially those that relate urban legends from the basti – I was especially gripped by the tale of Junction-ki-Rani, who is said to stand guard at highway junctions to protect women who are threatened by men. And to be fair, the harrowing ending justifies much of the build-up, even if this could still probably have been achieved in a shorter page count. I’ve rarely read a final chapter that stayed with me so long, and that’s probably the great achievement of Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on January 30th.

Little Women (BBC, 2017) vs Little Women (Columbia, 2019)

When the hype for Greta Gerwig’s film version of Little Women (2019) started to get going, I felt a bit confused. The film was being hailed as a modern take on the classic novel that finally drew out its feminist themes, foregrounded the real, human relationships between the women of the family, and gave both Jo and Amy the credit they deserve. But for me, all of this had already been done – by the stellar BBC television adaptation of the novel in 2017.

Before anyone gets cross, I really liked Greta Gerwig’s film – but I think Vanessa Caswill’s very different adaptation has been unfairly sidelined. So I thought it would be fun to pitch these two against each other. I will only compare things that I care about, so don’t expect this to be in any way fair.

Warning, this post probably won’t make much sense unless you are already familiar with Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and Good Wives!

Meg

Let’s start with an easy one. Meg from 2017 (Willa Fitzgerald) is streets ahead of Meg from 2019 (Emma Watson), and because No-One Likes Meg, it’s so important to get her right. This is down to the acting, but – even though I’m not a Watson fan – I think the script is the crucial factor here. The longer runtime of the BBC mini-series allows Meg to come into her own. Fitzgerald portrays her with a quiet serenity that makes her affectations at the Moffats’ party feel genuinely out of character, and giving her time to talk about her work as a governess – and be snubbed by an English snob, as she is in the novel – means that her desire for pretty things feels less shallow and more understandable. As she moves into adulthood, the harrowing birth scene added in 2017 makes her life feel real and hard rather than merely a heteronormative fantasy that’s there to taunt Jo.

I think that the 2019 film had its heart in the right place with Meg. For example, her line to Jo – ‘just because my dreams are different than yours doesn’t mean they’re unimportant – indicates that we are meant to see her as a person worthy of respect in her own right, and that Gerwig wants us to recognise that women who choose a traditional path of marriage and child-bearing are not inherently inferior. But I think that the way that 2019 chooses to value Meg is a bit of a misstep, emphasising the need for both sisters to understand each other rather than the true, inherent conflict between their dreams. Meg wants her own home and family; Jo wants her ‘first family’ to remain together forever. Both films are really good at portraying Jo’s anguish at the prospect of losing Meg, but only 2017 actually presents it as the insoluble problem that it is. But because 2017 takes Jo so seriously, it also allows us to feel the pressure that Jo’s expectations put on Meg, with Jo looming in the background of John’s proposal like a forbidding, virtuous angel. Meg is sometimes seen as moralistic, but Jo shows us that she’s actually the sister who holds others to viciously high standards. +1 to 2017.

Jo

Let’s move on to a more difficult one. Yes, Saoirse Ronan’s portrayal of Jo in 2019 is, I think, better than Maya Fitzgerald’s portrayal of Jo in 2017. But, again, this isn’t just down to the two actors, but about the choices made by script and direction. 2019 is the Jo Show, and the character is totally captivating. Gerwig draws out the queer undertones of Jo’s character much more effectively than any other adaptation I’ve seen, and she gets a huge amount of screen time to explore the central tension in her life: that, as she puts it in the most memorable scene of the 2019 film, she doesn’t want to get married but nor does she want to live her life alone. ‘Jo’s Dark Days’ is one of my favourite chapters of Little Women and Good Wives, and 2019 gets that so well. However, if Jo is less striking in the 2017 adaptation, it’s partly because the script has made a deliberate choice to give more time to Marmee and to the other sisters, which strengthens the story as a whole. So 2019 wins, but at a cost. +1 to 2019.

Beth

Maybe nobody likes Meg, but the character I found most difficult in the novel was always Beth – I still find her death totally unmoving except in terms of how it affects Jo. Annes Elwy in 2017 and Eliza Scanlen in 2019 both do an admirable job of making her a little less dull. Both adaptations play up her social anxiety, which helps us to understand the character a little more, but on balance, I preferred the deliberate weirdness of 2019’s Beth, who constructs elaborate tableaux with her dolls at the table and uses the fact of her impending death to get Jo to write her the stories she wants. +1 to 2019.

Amy

Everyone’s supposed to hate Amy, but I always liked her, and both 2017 and 2019 bring Justice for Amy. Both adaptations make the choice to have Amy played by the same actor throughout, which means they both make certain sacrifices. Kathryn Newton (2017) is much more convincing as Young Amy, partly because she gets more screen-time, so although neither version really helps us understand why Amy burns Jo’s book, 2017 gives us more space to explore Amy’s character development after the terrible deed. For example, we get the scene where Amy writes a will, with Laurie’s help, when Beth is sick with scarlet fever, and makes a specific bequest to Jo because she’s sorry about her book and wants to be a better person.

On that note, I really disliked the fact that the 2019 adaptation chose to have Amy in love with Laurie all along, rather than being the self-centred, creative, clever, irritating person she actually is in the first volume. 2019 really wants us to buy into Amy and Laurie, a pairing that a lot of fans find difficult to accept, but because I never had a problem with them in the first place, I never found this to be such a plot hurdle. 2017 handles the pairing more subtly by showing us how Amy and Laurie interact while she’s still a child and he’s still in love with Jo, while 2019 uses its non-chronological structure to intercut shots of the young Amy pining after Laurie while older Amy realises that he’s finally falling for her. Not a fan, bring back selfish Amy please.

However, having said that, Florence Pugh (2019) is so good as the older Amy, and one of the stand-out moments of the film is when she explains to Laurie that while marriage might not be a financial transaction for him, it surely is for her. Some of the assumed modernity of 2019 grated on me, but I can completely believe that this is something that Amy might say to the dissipated and ‘lazy’ Laurie. It’s a score draw. +1 to 2017, +1 to 2019.

Marmee

2019 did not get Marmee. She’s one of the key casualties of its meta approach to the source text, with Gerwig unable to play her deeply held moral beliefs – based on a life of repression and self-sacrifice – straight and instead retconning in feminist statements. As Sarah Blackwood writes in the New Yorker:

Marmee belongs at the heart of the story. Gerwig’s adaptation is too committed to the idea of Jo as a transformative feminist hero to plumb these depths. The story that Gerwig’s film wants us to own—the story that so many redemptive, individualist readings of the novel push us toward—is the one where there are survivors, singular women who somehow escape. I don’t think this was the story Alcott was telling. 

One of my favourite scenes in the novel is the scene when Marmee talks to Jo after Amy falls through the ice; partly because it’s one of the few scenes that gives us a glimpse of Marmee as a person. Both 2017 and 2019, unusually, adapt this scene, but I don’t think either of them quite get it right. In the book, Marmee tells Jo: “You think your temper is the worst in the world, but mine used to be just like it.” Jo can’t believe it: “Yours, Mother? Why, you are never angry!” Marmee explains: “I’ve been trying to cure it for forty years, and have only succeeded in controlling it. I am angry nearly every day of my life, Jo, but I have learned not to show it, and I still hope to learn not to feel it, though it may take me another forty years to do so.”

In an age where we are told – and rightly so – that rage becomes her, that anger is a positive emotion, that the criticism and belittling of women’s anger, particularly the anger of women of colour, is a tool of the patriarchy, Marmee’s words may feel too anti-feminist to screen, and it’s noticeable that neither adaptation lets her say the full quotation. However, I think that we need to know this about Marmee if we are going to understand her character. Marmee isn’t sweetness and light; she is a mother who cares deeply about her daughters but is still deeply embedded in the society in which she lives. 2019 sees her offering her daughters ‘outs’, suggesting to Jo that her life can be different from the one that Marmee herself has lived. The harsher, less forgiving Marmee in 2017 (Emily Watson) is much more accurate, and much more interesting, and as a bonus, unlike Laura Dern, she doesn’t look like she’s dressed up for a day at the office. +1 to 2017.

Mr March

Mr March is literally missing in action in 2019 even after he comes home from war, with Bob Odenkirk only appearing in a couple of shots (none of which I could find to use for this post). While I slightly admire Gerwig’s determination to make the patriarch of the family ‘not seen and not heard’, this choice undermines the reality of the sisters’ worry about him, and further diminishes Marmee as an independent individual. While Mr March (Dylan Baker) doesn’t have a great deal more to do in 2017, he’s there enough to address these issues. +1 to 2017.

Laurie

I don’t really care about Laurie as a character, except insofar as the way he is presented affects the characterisation of Jo and Amy. 2019’s Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) is much more engaging, but I think 2017’s Laurie (Jonah Hauer-King) does a better job of getting across why the essentially conventional Laurie is not right for Jo. Both films handle the proposal scene heartbreakingly well, but 2019 leans harder on the idea that Jo never wants to get married, whereas 2017 is more focused on Jo’s assertion that she does not love Laurie romantically, but may love somebody else in the future. I like 2019’s interpretation more, but I actually found the 2017 version of the scene more convincing. As I’ve suggested, both adaptations also do a pretty good job of setting up Amy and Laurie as a romantic pairing. It’s a score draw. +1 to 2017, +1 to 2019.

Professor Bhaer

I mean, that says it all, doesn’t it? Alcott was cross about having to marry Jo off at the end of Good Wives, so she invented Professor Friedrich Bhaer, an older German intellectual who is not conventionally attractive (Mark Stanley, 2017); the pair team up to open a school for boys. Making Bhaer into a hottie (Louis Garrel, 2019) totally undermines that, whatever the meta intentions of Gerwig’s choice, and I’m not sure about the more conventional feminist resolution of having Jo and Friedrich open a mixed-sex school instead of a boys’ school either.

Rewatching the 2017 adaptation, in contrast, made me see why Friedrich is a good match for the Jo presented in this version of Little Women. Jo, as I suggested above, is an idealist who holds other people to her scarily high moral standards, and the person she’s hardest upon is herself. Modern readers find the scene where Professor Bhaer paternalistically criticises Jo’s stories hard to swallow – and this scene isn’t adapted fully in either 2017 or 2019 – but the intention behind his criticism is to show that he believes that these stories don’t represent the moral or emotional truth Jo is capable of writing. The 2017 adaptation gets how important it is for Jo to have someone who believes in her, not as a writer (I never got the sense that Jo was lacking in self-confidence where her writing is concerned) but as a good person. +1 to 2017.

The Civil War

Neither film lingers on the realities of the Civil War or its legacies of white supremacy, but 2019 gives a couple of black characters speaking parts, whereas the only black person in 2017 is a corpse on a stretcher. (If you want to read more about the whiteness of Little WomenKaitlyn Greenidge’s essay in The New York Times is a good place to start). +1 to 2019.

Story structure

2017 tells the story in strict chronological order. 2019 intercuts between Little Women and Good Wives, so, for example, both of Beth’s sickbed scenes are juxtaposed together, and Jo is trying to sell her stories at the start of the film. I admire the idea behind 2019’s out-of-order storytelling, but I don’t think it really works. It makes the film feel even more rushed and choppy, and I’m not sure a viewer who wasn’t very familiar with these two volumes could easily follow it. +1 to 2017.

So meta

Modern Little Women adaptations are always a little bit meta, something that some of the reviews of the 2019 film have missed. (Even the 1994 adaptation shows Jo writing her life story). However, 2019 goes a step further, presenting two potential endings to Jo’s story – one in which she marries Professor Bhaer and runs her school, and one in which, like her creator, she becomes a ‘literary spinster’. This pulls out a lot of the thematic material that is latent in Little Women and Good Wives and gets at some of the ideas raised above about how all of the sisters are stuck in the system, but it does also feed into the suggestion that exceptional women are able to escape. For me personally, the straightforward 2017 adaptation feels more useful to think with, but I have to admit that 2019 has probably brought the tensions at the heart of Little Women to a bigger audience. It’s a score draw. +1 to 2017, +1 to 2019.

THE VERDICT

2017: 8 points

2019: 6 points

To be honest, we’re lucky to have two such great adaptations of this great novel. However, 2017 wins out for me because I think it’s willing to present the viewer with more difficult material, because it doesn’t aim to wrap everything up with a feminist bow, and because it acknowledges that Marmee, not Jo, is the centre of the story.

Has anyone else seen both these adaptations? What did you think? Or are any of the earlier adaptations closer to your heart?

 

 

2019 in Books: Commendations and Disappointments

As always, I won’t be posting my Top Ten Books of 2019 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 2019, not necessarily first published in 2019.

Highly Commended

I discovered two new favourite authors this year: Nina Allan and Natasha Pulley. I’ve now read both of Pulley’s novels, and three of Allan’s. One novel from each writer has made my top ten books of 2019, but here are the others I read: The Race, The Dollmaker and The Watchmaker of Filigree Street. Both Allan and Pulley write speculative fiction, and I’ve found myself increasingly drawn towards speculative and science fiction this year, taking part in #SciFiMonth in November.

I didn’t find that 2019 was a particularly strong year for memoir and non-fiction, but two books stood out for me – Thomas Page McBee’s Amateurwhich was my pick to win the Wellcome Prize 2019, and Lisa Taddeo’s Three WomenInterestingly, both are essentially about the patriarchal constraints imposed by binary gender; McBee describes what it’s like to live as a trans man, while Taddeo interrogates how badly the world responds to genuine female desire. McBee’s subtitle is ‘a true story about what makes a man’, while Taddeo’s could easily be ‘three true stories about what makes a woman’.

I’ve been surprised to see some prominent end-of-the-year lists declare that 2019 was a poor year for fiction, as something that stood out for me this year was that many big-name releases didn’t disappoint! Jessie Burton and Tracy Chevalier produced arguably their strongest novels to date in The Confession and A Single ThreadTaylor Jenkins Reid’s much-hyped Daisy Jones and the Six was totally absorbing, while Emma Donoghue’s Akin was a slow-burning triumph. Finally, Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other was a totally worthy Booker winner, even if I felt that she shortchanged her youngest narrators.

In fiction, I also enjoyed three very different novels that don’t fit into any of the above categories: Lisa See’s story of Korean haenyeo free divers, The Island of Sea Women, which, pleasingly, was one of the books I was most looking forward to in 2019; Aminatta Forna’s difficult-to-summarise but very moving Happiness; and Naomi Booth’s eco-horror Sealed.

re-read three novels that made a big impression on me second time around (or in the case of Enchantress, probably fourth or fifth time around!): Sarah Moss’s Night Waking, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and Sylvia Louise Engdahl’s Enchantress From The Stars.

In crime and thriller, I rediscovered Ruth Ware, and was totally captivated by her two latest novels, The Turn of the Key and The Death of Mrs Westawayboth of which brilliantly mix classic Gothic tropes with a contemporary setting. But frankly, I was spoilt for choice in this genre in 2019, as Erin Kelly released her best novel yet, Stone Mothersand Jo Baker’s The Body Lies introduced a clever meta-level into the familiar story of a murdered woman.

Finally, I admired two adult fantasy novels infused with YA energy: Leigh Bardugo’s Ninth House, about a Yale secretly run by supernatural societies, and Bridget Collins’s The Binding, which will please everyone who loves a gay teenage OTP. Both are also absolutely beautiful hardbacks.

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 three authors I had enjoyed in the past. Uzodinma Iweala’s Speak No Evil was one of my top ten books of 2018, but his debut, Beasts of No Nation, was simplistic and pointless. Anna Hope’s Expectation was supposed to present three different women reassessing their lives in their thirties, but its characters ended up moving within such narrow bonds, all wanting the same things. Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s Starling Days was muddled, aimless and – oddly, given how much I admired her debut, Harmless Like You – quite badly written.

Two debuts also disappointed me. Jessica Andrews’s Saltwater promised a coming-of-age story set in Sunderland and London, but totally lacked a sense of place. Katy Mahood’s Entanglement was supposed to be inspired by quantum physics but ended up being a very conventional story about two couples over several decades. Both novels were also written in a lilting, quasi-literary style that did nothing for me.

I’ll be back tomorrow with my Top Ten Books of 2019!

Who does your body belong to?

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I had such mixed feelings about Richard K. Morgan’s novel-turned-Netflix-series, Altered Carbon! The premise is great; set in the future, people can now separate their consciousness from their physical bodies, so death isn’t necessarily permanent – although this technology is much more accessible if you’re wealthy. ‘Stacks’, containing your essential selfhood, are implanted in ‘sleeves’, or bodies – often synthetic – and those who can afford it back-up their minds in the cloud, so even if their stack is destroyed, they’ll continue to exist. ‘Real Death’, or the obliteration of your consciousness, becomes much more significant, while ‘resleeving’ in a different physical form is disorientating but not devastating. However, I was frustrated that Morgan’s excellent worldbuilding often took second place to a convoluted thriller plot that I found difficult to follow; there are so many questions raised by this set-up. The protagonist, Takeshi Kovacs, finds himself resurrected from virtual storage in somebody else’s ‘sleeve’ – he struggles with a craving for cigarettes and certain sexual partners, as well as missing his original racial identity. Nevertheless, the book never really gets into what the swapping of sleeves does to societal ideas about race, gender and sexuality – although, interestingly, race seems to be more easily sloughed off than gender in Morgan’s world. Perhaps this is because most people still spend their lives in their original bodies, but wouldn’t that make things even stranger for those who swap? And despite the plottiness of the novel, it felt achingly slow until about the two-thirds mark.

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I’ve never forgotten Jane Rogers’ deeply disturbing The Testament of Jessie Lamb (indeed, it haunted me so thoroughly that I reviewed it twice), so it’s not surprising to see her returning to questions of bodily autonomy in her latest novel, Body Tourists. The premise is reminiscent of Altered Carbon, but a few centuries earlier in the development of the technology: again, selfhood can now be stored digitally and transferred to another body, even after your own death. In Rogers’ world, the twist is that there are no synthetic bodies, so you need a healthy volunteer to allow the wealthy dead to live their lives again – someone who’s willing to put their own lives on hold for two weeks and take the risk of letting somebody else walk around in their body. And given the extensive poverty and inequality on the British housing estates in this not-so-distant future, there are no shortage of volunteers hoping to earn ten grand for taking this gamble.

Body Tourists unfolds through the stories of several people connected with the technology; some only narrate for a chapter or so, while others form a continuing thread throughout the novel. Octavia, one of the first to benefit from the technology, is overjoyed by the experience of being in a young body, and Rogers captures the visceral reality of this very well. Paula and Ryan see no alternative other than to volunteer for the experiment. Elsa’s partner Lindy is swept up in a witch-hunt and killed before they can reconcile; what wouldn’t Elsa give for more time with her? Finally, ageing rock star Richard K is tempted to bring back his dead father, but soon begins to regret it.

These human stories are all compelling, but spending her time on so many threads holds Rogers back from exploring the implications of this technology as thoroughly as I’d hoped she would. I can see the advantage of these multiple voices – as in Helen Sedgwick’s wonderful The Growing Season, these different narrators stop body tourism from being pigeonholed as either good or bad. However, the simplistic villainy behind the scheme lets the novel down; the character who drives the misuse of the technology is unbelievable and simplistic, and this stops Rogers asking the more interesting kind of moral questions that she raised in The Testament of Jessie Lamb. This is an addictive read, and more thoughtful than much recent high-concept speculative fiction, but I still wanted a little more depth.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on November 14th.