Not The Wellcome Prize 2020: Exhalation and A Good Enough Mother

Not the Wellcome Prize blog tour poster

Thanks to Annabel for this graphic!

I’m delighted to be taking part in both the blog tour and the judging panel for Not the Wellcome Prize this year, which has been so brilliantly organised by Rebecca Foster of Bookish Beck. As the Wellcome Book Prize, which aims to recognise books that have a  ‘central theme that engages with some aspect of medicine, health or illness’, is on hiatus this year, we are hoping to fill the gap by highlighting some of the best health-related fiction and non-fiction of 2019, then choosing our own ‘winner’ in May! Be sure to check in with the other stops on the blog tour to see what other books we’ve picked.

I’m excited to showcase two titles on my blog today: Ted Chiang’s latest collection of SF short stories, Exhalation, and Bev Thomas’s debut psychological thriller, A Good Enough Mother. These two books are very different from each other, but share common concerns about parenting, childhood and a ‘healthy’ upbringing.

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I was utterly gripped by Exhalation when it first appeared in July 2019 (as was Barack Obama, who said that it ‘will make you think, grapple with big questions, and feel more human. The best kind of science fiction’.) It was one of my top ten books of 2019 and contains one of my favourite short stories of all time. You can read my full review of Exhalation here, but for the purposes of this blog post, I thought I’d focus on one novella in this collection that seems to me to be especially concerned with themes of medicine, health and illness.

‘The Lifecycle of Software Objects’ imagines a world where ‘digients’, virtual, teachable pets who seem to operate on the level of a chimp with language skills, have been created, and examines the ethical issues that this introduces. Humans swiftly get bored with their digients and move onto the next thing, except for a group of hardcore owners, our narrator, Ana, among them, who’ve formed real emotional bonds with their virtual creatures and are trying to find a way for them to live better lives. Because of this, this novella asks questions about what is healthy for both the digients and their owners; is it fair to keep the digients ‘alive’ when they have minimal social interaction and are often unhappy, but on the other hand, how can it be right to ‘kill’ a sentient being simply because you’ve got bored with it? A lot of owners start to ‘suspend’ their digients as a compromise solution, but this unsurprisingly unsettles the digients when they find out they’ve missed whole chunks of time.

The story continually plays with the analogy between digients and human children, up to the point when their owners have to decide whether to let their ‘teenage’ digients be recoded as sexual beings, and which, early on, is made explicit when one of Ana’s friends gets pregnant and tells her ‘People always say that we’re evolved to want babies, and I used to think that was a bunch of crap, but not anymore… Cats, dogs, digients, they’re all just substitutes for what we’re supposed to be caring for.’ Indeed, one of Chiang’s points in this novella is that ‘healthy’ AIs will need to be brought up like human children: ‘The years [Ana] spent raising Jax… gave him… fluency at navigating the real world, creativity at solving new problems, judgement you could entrust with an important decision. Every quality that made a person more valuable than a database was a product of experience.’ Chiang writes in his ‘Story Notes’ that ‘based on our experience with human minds, it takes at least twenty years of steady effort to produce a useful person.’ I’d challenge the idea that children and adolescents can’t be creative, resourceful or trustworthy, but the overall point is one worth making.

Nevertheless, I felt there was a darker message about the biological need for creating children that Ana’s friend talks about early in the story buried in ‘The Lifecycle of Software Objects’. One of the major obstacles for the digients and their owners in this novella is the obsolescence of the digital platform on which the digients were living their social lives, and the need for new coding to allow them to continue to interact with digients who run on other servers. While Chiang is delightfully good at teasing out the specifics of this situation, it also has symbolic weight; is it right to create new people who will be born into a world that is becoming unfit for purpose? As ever, Chiang doesn’t offer answers, but he poses some major questions.

Other stories in this collection that, in my opinion, have something to say about health, medicine and illness are ‘Exhalation’, ‘Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny’ and ‘The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling’.

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Way back in October 2018, I was lucky enough to hear Bev Thomas discuss this novel, which was published in March 2019, at the Durham Book Festival. Thomas previously worked as a clinical psychologist, and her expertise is evident in the very title of this novel, which is drawn from the work of the post-war child psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, who published a number of popular childrearing guides as well as becoming a regular feature on BBC radio. Winnicott asserted that mothers should not worry too much about making ‘mistakes’ with their children, saying that ‘The good-enough mother… starts off with an almost complete adaptation to her infant’s needs, and as time proceeds she adapts less and less completely, gradually, according to the infant’s growing ability to deal with her failure.’ In his popular texts, he built on this by writing that mothers would instinctively know what their infants needed, and did not need to rely on external expertise. As I’ve argued, this may have been intended to reassure mothers (coincidentally, Winnicott was reacting against the strict inter-war ‘behaviourist’ ideas that Chiang satirises in Exhalation, in his story ‘Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny’!)  but, in practice, left many feeling inadequate because their parental instincts did not seem to have kicked in and they would have liked some outside help.

So, what does this mean for Thomas’s novel (other than setting it up with a title that feels pretty sinister to me!)? The book focuses on Ruth Hartland, a professional psychotherapist who is haunted by her missing son, Tom, who disappeared a year and a half ago. As she starts treating a new patient, Dan, she can’t shake the fact that he reminds her strongly of Tom, and her increasing inability to separate the two men leads her into tragedy. A Good Enough Mother functions perfectly as a gripping psychological thriller, but is much more thought-provoking than the average thriller about therapy (or indeed than the approximately two million other thrillers that deal with missing children). We see that Ruth has never felt she was a ‘good enough mother’ to Tom, despite the supposedly soothing nature of Winnicott’s advice; Tom always struggled to separate from her and she worries that she did not encourage him to become independent. Now that they are completely apart, she can only guess how he’s navigating the world by himself. This theme is especially highlighted by the fact that Tom is a twin, which – although he and his more confident sister are obviously fraternal rather than identical – makes Ruth strain even harder to understand why her two children are so different. Ruth’s gradual emotional breakdown felt utterly convincing, and this is a hugely promising debut. (Incidentally, it also gets the thumbs up from my mum!)

Make sure to check out the other great books featured on our blog tour! 

Not the Wellcome Prize blog tour covers collage

Have you read anything recently that deals particularly well with themes of health, medicine and/or illness?

Recommended Reading for a Pandemic

If You Actually Want To Read Books About A Pandemic

I can’t face reading pandemic fiction at the moment, but judging by the sales of pandemic films and novels, lots of people don’t feel the same way, so here are some suggestions:

  • Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven was one of my top ten books of the decade. It deals with the aftermath of a grim pandemic with a much greater mortality than coronavirus that sweeps the Earth, killing the majority of its population. However, the bright side of Station Eleven is the society that it imagines on the other side of this catastrophe, following a travelling theatre company across Canada. It also brings to life the fictional comic-book world of ‘Station Eleven’, which both parallels the events of the novel and exists as a significant space of its own. Ultimately, like a lot of good fiction that takes a disaster as its starting-point, I’d argue that this novel is less about A Pandemic and more about how art relates to reality.
  • Naomi Booth’s Sealed is, again, ostensibly about a terrifying skin-sealing disease that is sweeping Australia, but actually has more to say about the relationship between humans and the environment. It’s a brilliant eco-horror that follows Alice, who is heavily pregnant with her first child, and her partner Pete, who leave Sydney for a town in the Blue Mountains because they believe they will be safer there. But the idea of escaping to a ‘cleaner’ rural location soon turns out to be a dangerous fantasy. If this sounds like your sort of thing, please consider ordering Sealed directly from the publisher, Dead Ink, a small press who are struggling right now.
  • Finally, the first (and best!) novel in James S.A. Corey’s Expanse series, Leviathan Wakes, deals with a creepy space plague caused by a mysterious protomolecule that reassembles biological matter. Our protagonists have to stop this spreading through a space station. The Expanse’s writers have so far failed to fully deliver on the promise of this first novel, but it works as a gripping stand-alone.

If You Want To Read Books Where People Face Up To Bad Things That Are Not Pandemics

This is basically where I’m at right now – I want books where the characters face serious social and economic disasters but still manage to survive – so here are some ideas:

  • Hanna Jameson’s thoughtful and engaging The Last focuses on a group of people trapped in a remote hotel in Switzerland after the world is devastated by a series of nuclear attacks. Jon, our narrator, starts investigating a suspected murder; the body of a young girl is discovered in one of the hotel’s water tanks. While some of his fellow survivors try to persuade him of the futility of this quest, Jon seems to be driven by the conviction that life still matters even in the face of this disaster, and that society can be rebuilt. Ultimately, and despite its Lord of the Flies-esque set-up, The Last is very optimistic about human nature.
  • I’ve recently been raving about Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Calculating Stars and The Fated Skyand now I wish I hadn’t raced through both novels and the associated short stories so quickly! This series imagines an alternative version of post-war American history where a meteor hits the Earth, setting off a spiralling environmental disaster that leads the US to rapidly accelerate its space programme, believing that humanity’s future now lies on other planets. Our narrator, Elma, whose voice is so funny and addictive, was a pilot in WWII and is still a brilliant mathematician; she is determined to become one of the first ‘lady astronauts’. I’ve never read a post-apocalyptic novel that’s so comforting.
  • I’m hesitant to indulge any of the poor Second World War analogies that have been floating around, but Chris Cleave’s Everyone Brave Is Forgiven is just such a good novel. One of my top ten books of 2015, this Blitz-set book focuses on four young people doing their best for the war effort. Mary and Tom are trying to keep London’s education system running; Alistair is fighting in Malta; Mary’s resentful friend Hilda stands on the sidelines. It sounds like it’s going to be saccharine, but it’s actually hilarious, heartbreaking and intelligent.
  • John Wyndham’s classic The Kraken Wakes sees an alien invasion from the sea threaten civilisation. Both genuinely tense and enjoyably ridiculous, this, in my opinion, is Wyndham’s best novel, spookily anticipating later climate change fiction. It’s also notable for being just as sexist as the rest of Wyndham’s science fiction, but, unlike his other books, if you read between the lines you can pretend that the male narrator is completely unreliable and his wife is actually running the show.
  • I’ve also returned to my first love in fiction, K.A. Applegate’s Animorphs series. I devoured this long-running US kids’ series as a pre-teen and teenager. It focuses on five teenagers who are given the ability to morph any animal they can touch to fight an alien invasion, and ends up in some very dark places. At their core, Animorphs are anti-war novels for the post-Cold War generation, and one day I am going to write something serious about them!

If You Want Books That Aren’t About Any Really Bad Things, Including Pandemics

Personally, I’m finding these kinds of novels difficult at the moment, and can’t summon up many original ideas, but if you want something truly escapist, here are some suggestions:

  • Anything by Robin McKinley, my favourite fantasy writer; my top comforting recommendations are her two retellings of Beauty and the Beast, Beauty and Rose Daughter, and her feminist dragon-slaying epic The Hero and the Crown.
  • In a similar vein, Naomi Novik’s fairytale-inspired Uprooted and Spinning Silver are both beautifully escapist, although I thought Spinning Silver was far superior. They’re both stand-alones, so you can read them in any order.
  • If you want something that’s both contemporary and escapist, I recommend Erica Ferencik’s thriller The River at Night; four female friends, all in their forties, are left stranded on a dangerous white-water rafting trip through the Allagash Wilderness in Maine.
  • YA can also be a haven: my top YA picks right now are Becky Albertalli’s Leah on the Offbeat, which refreshingly foregrounds queer female teenagers, and Bridget Collins’s YA-esque The Bindingwhich is set in an alternative past where bookbinders bind people’s memories into individual volumes.

What comfort reads, of any kind, would you recommend? I’d especially love to hear about books that fall into the second category.

 

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.

Some Forthcoming February Novels: girls, schools, sex and death

Looking ahead to three February releases that share a lot of common themes – and none of which quite worked for me, although some came closer than others.

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Clare Beams’ debut novel, The Illness Lesson, is set in Massachusetts in 1871 and is narrated in the third person by Caroline, an unmarried woman in her late twenties who still lives with her father, Samuel, and feels stifled by the narrowness of her life; as she reflects when lying in bed ‘where she lay in the same darkness that had covered her at twenty-four, eighteen, twelve, eight, the walls and ceiling of her room like a box that fit her’. Caroline’s world promises to change when Samuel starts a progressive school for young ladies in their home, aiming to teach them such masculine subjects as Greek and philosophy, and recruiting Caroline to teach English literature. However, the presence of the girls, coupled with the strange behaviour of the trilling hearts, the imaginary species of bird that haunt the school’s environs, starts to stir up old secrets from the past and new tensions in the present.

The Illness Lesson’s blurb foregrounds the group of students, but this is really Caroline’s story, and she’s a convincing narrator, acutely aware of the loneliness of her position as intellectual companion to her father, and unsure whether it is fair to educate girls in a world that does not give them the opportunity to exercise their talents. Beams is a skilful writer, and the quiet prose is consistently vivid and impressive. The problem for me was that the story the novel focuses on is so familiar. There have been lots of post-Victorian fictions about female hysteria and its abusive treatments, and I didn’t think that this one brought anything very new, even though it is elevated by Beams’ careful telling.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out on February 6th.

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This is a weird and refreshing little book that doesn’t follow the normal rules of this kind of fiction. It starts off in a relatively familiar space; our protagonist has a very literary name (Henna) and is doing a very literary job (writing encyclopaedia entries for a publisher on water and ice) after her parents and twin sister Claire died in a very literary way (being lost at sea). The first chapter made me think that The Snow Collectors would be full of the kind of drifty, quasi-magical prose that you find in writers like Alice Hoffman. However, this book, and Hall’s writing, actually sits in a more interesting space. While there are sentences that stray into sentimentality – ‘his palm was dry and warm, speckled with grains of salt which rolled between our joined hands like secrets we hadn’t told yet’ – there are other, much more robust, passages that are more typical of the novel: ‘Attached to the gas station near the interstate was a Dunkin’ Donuts, and I sat at the counter and sipped coffee with skim milk… By the counter of the gas station was a display of souvenirs. Apples dangling from key chains and packets of pancake mix, resin moose and dead skyscrapers in globes of water… Everything smelled the chemical scent of strawberry air freshener. The clerk wished a nice day on everyone, as if it were a curse.’

The Snow Collectors is also weird because it doesn’t seem to be set in either our present or the future. There’s a fantastical air to the world that Hall has created – Claire used to be able to hold her breath for four days – but there’s also a SF hint to the near-future Alaskan setting, where bees are gone and the rest of the US never sees snow. It also shoots off in some unexpected directions. The death of Claire, and of Henna’s parents, barely impinges on the plot, except to give Henna a plausible reason to be so isolated. Instead, the book revolves around a dead girl found in the woods and an archive concerning the lost John Franklin Arctic expedition that is held in the town. In between Henna’s chapters, we get short but captivating glimpses of Jane Franklin, who kept up the search for her husband long after everyone else had given up hope. Ultimately, this felt a little incomplete to me, as if it hadn’t quite been imagined fully enough, but there’s enough promise here that I’d definitely be interested in reading whatever Hall writes next.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out on February 12th.

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The Temple House Vanishing is billed as a novel set in an elite Catholic girls’ boarding school in Ireland in 1990, where creepy nuns rule the roost but attractive art teacher Mr Lavelle offers a possibility of escape. It’s surprising how little of this the novel actually delivers on. Louisa arrives at the school as a scholarship girl and forms an intensive friendship with Victoria; both are drawn into Mr Lavelle’s orbit and become somewhat set apart from the other girls. A second plot thread is narrated by a journalist who is investigating the disappearance of Louisa and Mr Lavelle, now decades in the past; she really wants to contact Victoria, but Victoria isn’t talking.

I love school settings, but The Temple House Vanishing doesn’t conjure up any sense of place or time. The scenes at the school could have been set at any time in the past seventy years (and indeed, feel rather earlier than 1990; while the school itself is supposed to be stuck in the past, there’s not much sense that this causes any disjuncture with the pupils’ ordinary lives). I’m only guessing that it’s set in Ireland because of the fact that the author, Rachel Donohue, is from Dublin. Finally, the nuns have very little presence on the page; we’re told that ‘they weakened you with mind games and nightmares about limbo, and hell’, but this is never actually shown. Throughout, the prose is formal, eschewing contractions in a way that could have worked had it been confined to the narration and dialogue of a single character, but feels ponderous when generalised; here’s the journalist having an inconsequential conversation with her intern:

“Are you coming to the drinks on Friday?” she asked.

I doubt it, might have to go away this weekend,” I said.

No-one thinks you will come,” she answered.

I am predictable that way,” I said.

With so many options of boarding-school or university-set novels to read in 2020, I can’t say that I particularly recommend this one.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out on February 20th.

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.

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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!

Female desire in a patriarchy: Three Women by Lisa Taddeo & The Body Lies by Jo Baker

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Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women seems to have attracted a lot of controversy – partly because it doesn’t fulfil the unachievable expectations set by its marketing campaign. It’s been billed as a book that gives a universal account of female sexuality, but of course, it doesn’t do this. Three Women focuses on three white American women whose backgrounds range from comfortable to wealthy; while one of the women is bisexual, the book focuses on relationships with men. In a sense, this should be unsurprising. As Taddeo writes in her epilogue, even when women are listened to, it’s only certain women that get to be heard, and it’s obvious why women who more closely adhere to social norms have been more willing to have their stories told in this intensely intimate way. None of this is to say, however, that the three subjects of the book aren’t also subject to uncomfortable power relationships. Lina, engaged in a hopeless affair with a married man in Indiana, also suffers from the chronic pain brought on by her fibromyalgia. Maggie, in South Dakota, was only fifteen when her teacher started coming on to her. Meanwhile, Sloane, in the Northeast, seems to have everything going for her and pursues her own erotic fantasies with apparent freedom, but still can’t avoid being objectified by men even as she willingly participates in threesomes.

Other reviewers have argued that the book is not about desire but about abuse, but I actually think that, on this point, the blurb has it spot on; the book exposes ‘the fragility, complexity, and inequality of female desire’ in a patriarchy. All three subjects are in touch with their own deep sexual desires, but this does not mean that they manage to fulfil them in a healthy way. Taddeo is frank about how much Maggie wants her teacher, but equally clear that he is in the wrong. Lina’s desperation makes us want to turn away from the page, but that only makes us realise how we’ve been socialised to believe that the very worst thing a woman can be is ‘clingy’ or ‘needy’ – far better to ignore what we feel and keep quiet. Similarly, the instinctive impulse to judge Sloane should also make us reflect on our beliefs about how women’s desires should be appropriately expressed. I understand that, if you came to this book wanting something more uplifting about how women can relate differently to their sexual selves, that this isn’t what it delivers. But Taddeo is so good on the barriers that women face in being true to their sexuality, even in this supposedly sexually liberated society. Does these women’s privilege make it even more frustrating that they can’t break free? Or is privilege, in this case, a straitjacket that stops you imagining different relationships?

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If Three Women left you feeling pessimistic about the future of heterosexual relationships, I’d steer clear of Jo Baker’s latest novel, The Body Lies (which also suffers from a rather misleading blurb that frames it as a literary thriller).Our unnamed female protagonist, who is in her early thirties, has just taken up a lectureship in creative writing in an unidentified northern English town, leaving her husband in London but bringing her three-year-old son with her. The protagonist encounters familiar tensions at her new university; the steady accumulation of administrative responsibilities loaded onto a new female hire, and the problems of handling several very different personalities in her MA novel-writing seminars. But this begins to involve into something rather more sinister as she becomes aware of the interest of one of her MA students, Nicholas, who is writing a novel about a ‘lost girl’ but also becomes very angry when one of his classmates starts his bog-standard police procedural with a naked body. The metafictional themes are obvious from the start; The Body Lies starts with the frozen body of a young woman lying undiscovered in a field. Baker’s writing is so smart and creepy that this rather gentle plot becomes unputdownable; there are shades of Louise Doughty’s Apple Tree Yard in her analysis of how even women in notional positions of power can be undermined by misogyny. It’s a very different novel from Longbourn and A Country Road, A Treebut it’s equally good.

Three Things… October 2019

As ever, borrowed from Paula at Book Jotter!

Reading

After my reading slump, I wanted to read something relatively undemanding to get me back on track. Diane Setterfield’s immersive Once Upon A River fit the bill. Setterfield’s books are basically potboilers, but I enjoyed this a lot more than The Thirteenth Tale. Set around the River Thames, it uses the case of a four-year-old girl who seems to have come back to life after being pulled from the river as a central thread that interweaves a range of stories from the local villagers. The novel actually has a pretty precise temporal location – the references to Darwin’s recent book suggest we’re around 1859 – but I thought this was a misstep. The timeless feel of Setterfield’s prose is one of the book’s strengths, and the Darwinian references are hackneyed and unnecessary (and far less important to the plot than the back cover blurb makes out). The book has a fairly conservative attitude to childhood and motherhood on the whole (it ALMOST features a woman who makes a positive decision to remain childless, but no), but there are hints of radicalism in how the community tears itself apart over who owns this little girl, suggesting how children can be valuable more as symbols than as people.

I’ve read all of Val McDermid’s Tony Hill/Carol Jordan police procedurals, and while the early entries in the series (especially The Wire In The Blood, which inspired the TV series of the same name) can’t be beaten, she’s done a remarkable job of maintaining quality across a long-running series. The eleventh installment, How The Dead Speak, cleverly handles several plot threads without overwhelming the reader – this is crucial, as her central cast are now scattered in different locations, with Tony in prison, Carol retired from the police, and the remaining members of Carol’s old squad assigned to a new case. Only one plotline, following Tony’s abusive mother, felt unnecessary – it provided a kind of psychological closure that I felt that the previous novels in the series had already addressed – but it wasn’t too much of a distraction. Perfect weekend reading.

Finally, I’ve almost finished Lisa Taddeo’s controversial Three Women – full review coming soon, but I’ll say that I’m finding it totally absorbing, especially Maggie’s story, and I’m a little puzzled as to why it’s upset people so much – I wonder if the answer may lie with the marketing of the book rather than the book itself. I think the publishers have made claims about the universal nature of the three women’s stories that couldn’t possibly be supported by any book of this kind.

Watching

 

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I went to see the premiere of Ken Loach’s new film, Sorry We Missed You, at (where else!) Tyneside cinema last Wednesday, which was followed with a Q&A with Loach, the scriptwriter Paul Laverty and the key cast members. Set in Newcastle, the film focuses on a working-class family who, in the words of Laverty, sleep ‘in the same house: they are only a few feet away from each other for hours on end. But they hardly see each other at all.’ The dad, Ricky, is ‘self-employed’, delivering parcels for a large firm; what this means in practice is that he bears all the risks of the business and is allowed no sick leave or holiday. The mum, Abby, is a carer, travelling by bus between the homes of old and vulnerable people who need her help; she’s only paid for the time she actually spends with them, and can’t claim overtime if one of them has a crisis and she can’t leave them. Their teenage son, Seb, is struggling at school, focusing instead on becoming a graffiti artist, and their pre-teen daughter, Liza Jane, is distressed about what’s happening to her family. Sorry We Missed You, therefore, presents a critique of the ‘gig economy’ that will be familiar to many people already, but, like I, Daniel Blake, it’s a deeply moving film. Loach commented in the Q&A that followed the film that this family ‘could have lived on the next street to Daniel Blake’.

Loach’s recent films, in my opinion, are intended as campaign pieces rather than as artistic works per se; the impact of I, Daniel Blake, which an audience member who volunteers at a food bank acknowledged in this screening, is so important that one can hardly begrudge him his priorities. However, I did find the characterisation of the four protagonists much more simplistic in Sorry We Missed You than the more interesting stories that were drawn out in I, Daniel Blake. In short, the film’s focus is on Ricky; this is a film about white working-class masculinity and the shame of not being able to provide for his family; even after he hits his son hard in the midst of an argument, the camera stays with him and not with Seb. While we get to see a lot of Abby’s job and her difficulties, the ending of the film underlines the fact that Ricky is the real tragedy of this story. The underlying message also strongly reinforces the nuclear family as the unit under attack by capitalist exploitation, playing into traditional narratives about gender roles. Sorry We Missed You is worth seeing, but I wished it had a bit more of the experimentation that characterised I, Daniel Blake, even if I thought that film ultimately slipped into sentimentality.

Thinking

After six weeks of teaching, I’m too tired to think! Instead, I will suggest some links that connect to what I’ve been teaching. This great article by Professor Lucy Robinson, ‘Climate protests have roots that go deep into the rich history of British social change‘, sums up a lot of the rationale behind my current undergraduate course, which is on youth, age and protest in post-war Britain. Dr Jenny Crane has written a fascinating blog post on ‘What is a “gifted child” anyway – and can children themselves design or defy this term?’ which reflects some of my own work on ‘evil’ or ‘extraordinary’ children in post-war British horror and SF films. Finally, this useful post by Dr Ryan Hanley sums up some new books on black British history.

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I also went to see Margaret Atwood speak at the Sage Gateshead at the last minute on Saturday (friend had a spare ticket). If I’d known I was going, I would have prepared better, as much of the detailed discussion went over my head – I read The Handmaid’s Tale when I was sixteen and haven’t read the sequel or watched the TV series. But Atwood was unexpectedly hilarious at times, and I enjoyed her thoughts on writing what you can write rather than trying to write what you can’t. I’m completing the Booker double in December when I’ve booked to see Bernadine Evaristo speak at the same location!

 

Durham Book Festival 2019: Part One

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One of the (many) things I love about living in Newcastle is what brilliant literary events we have in the north-east, and the highlight of the year is always the Durham Book Festival, which never fails to have an excellent line-up at relatively affordable prices. I headed to two events there last Saturday and am going to two more next Saturday, so here is the first installment of my thoughts!

The John Murray Proof Party was not one I was going to miss, as it offered three proof copies of upcoming 2020 releases as well as a discussion with the authors.

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L to R: Rebecca Wilkie (New Writing North), Karen Raney, Guinevere Glasfurd, Sally Magnusson

The three books in question were:

All The Water in the World (January 2020), Karen Raney’s debut novel, which is told from the perspective of Maddy, a sixteen-year-old girl with cancer, and her mother, Eve. I was intrigued by the setting – the book takes place mostly in Washington DC and at a lake house in Pennsylvania – and as I, like Raney, have fond memories of visiting a lake in Pennsylvania as a child, as well as growing up in DC, I’m interested to see what she does with these places. Raney talked about wanting to show a ‘sound’ relationship between a mother and daughter that’s under great strain, which I liked – as she said, too many parent-child relationships in fiction are fundamentally dysfunctional. She also enjoyed writing from the perspective of a teenager, finding it easier to imagine, in Zadie Smith’s words, ‘the I that is not me’. I wouldn’t necessarily have bought this novel myself, as the premise sounds a little too familiar, but I’m looking forward to reading my free copy.

The Year Without Summer (February 2020) is Guinevere Glasfurd’s second novel. This sounds incredibly ambitious, using six voices – ranging from Mary Shelley in Switzerland, John Constable in Suffolk and a female farm labourer in the Cambridgeshire Fens – to tell the story of the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia in 1815, the devastation of local communities, and the global impact of the ash cloud that led the ‘seasons to fail’ in the following year. I love the idea of looking at a period of historical climate change, and linking disparate places through this weird weather. Glasfurd spoke about how, during her research, she found that Tambora was ten times bigger than the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883, and yet very little is known about it and it wasn’t reported for a year after it happened. She was also very interesting on wanting to challenge Constable’s bland image as the painter of ‘The Hay Wain‘, speaking of the vivid oil sketches that he completed in that year. I hadn’t heard of Glasfurd before this event, but this all sounds great to me.

The Ninth Child (March 2020) is also Sally Magnusson’s second novel, though she has also written a memoir about dementia called Where Memories Go and a number of other things. This book is set in the Trossachs in Scotland, specifically ‘on the line between the Lowlands and the Highlands’, and deals with the building of a waterworks at Aberfoyle in the mid nineteenth century that was intended to supply fresh water to Glasgow to prevent another cholera epidemic. Its three narrators are an elite woman called Isabel, a navvy’s wife called Kirsty, and Robert Kirk – the legendary seventeenth-century minister who wrote about ‘the secret commonwealth’ of fairy and was believed to have been taken by the fairies upon his sudden death. Magnusson said that she wanted to explore what might happen ‘if Robert Kirk came back’, so it sounds like there’s a hint of magic in this historical novel. I very much enjoyed Magnusson’s first novel, The Sealwoman’s Giftand I can’t wait to see what she does with this premise.

At the end of the event, we were all given copies of these three books in a gorgeous Two Roads tote bag, which was a present in itself!

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The second event I went to last Saturday was a discussion between Louise Doughty, whose new novel, Platform Seven, is just out, and John Mitchison from Unbound.

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When I first heard the premise of Platform Seven, I described it as ‘Point Horror meets literary thriller’, but you can judge for yourself:

Platform Seven at 4am: Peterborough Railway Station is deserted. The man crossing the covered walkway on this freezing November morning is confident he’s alone. As he sits on the metal bench at the far end of the platform it is clear his choice is strategic – he’s as far away from the night staff as he can get.

What the man doesn’t realise is that he has company. Lisa Evans knows what he has decided. She knows what he is about to do as she tries and fails to stop him walking to the platform edge.

Two deaths on Platform Seven. Two fatalities in eighteen months – surely they’re connected?

No one is more desperate to understand what connects them than Lisa Evans herself. After all, she was the first of the two to die.

I don’t seem to have cross-posted my Goodreads review of this gripping and chilling novel to my blog, but you can find it here.

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Doughty started off by saying that she sees Platform Seven not exactly as a ghost story, but as ‘a novel narrated by a dead person’, and for me, this set the tone for the rest of the event. She explained that she was envisaging Peterborough railway station as a kind of ‘purgatory’, as, due to growing up in the East Midlands and attending university and work in Leeds, Norwich and London, she seemed to have spent a lot of her life waiting there in the freezing cold! However, she also reflected, later in the event, that it was exactly when she no longer had a reason to go to Peterborough, after her mother’s sudden death, that she ended up setting a novel there and spending a lot of time at the station doing research – so the novel itself was part of the grieving process. She wanted to capture ‘an affectionate portrayal’ of Peterborough and its inhabitants (and in my opinion, she definitely succeeds) – emphasising the individuality and significance of each of her characters, whether they’re a security guard or a station manager.

I managed to ask her at the end of the event about how, as a novelist, she handled the melding of horror and thriller in Platform Seven, and she explained how the inclusion of horror elements allowed her to explore certain themes in a different way – imagining Peterborough station as a kind of portal for unquiet souls allowed her to explore her characters’ hidden motivations in a different way (Lisa, the dead narrator, also has a limited ability to see into other people’s minds, so offers a kind of omniscience). She also argued that ghost and horror novels tend to be set in traditionally spooky places like an old manor house, but why shouldn’t Peterborough station be a portal? – to which I say YES, bring it on, because these traditional settings are something I find very tiring in Gothic fiction (I loved Ruth Ware’s recent chiller set in a ‘smart house’, for example). Basically, she concluded, she’s ‘greedy’ – she doesn’t want to be restricted by genre in the things she can explore. I love cross-genre fiction, so this all sounds great to me, and Platform Seven would be a perfect read for the RIP Challenge, or anyone wanting something creepy for Halloween!

I’ll be back at the Durham Book Festival next week, heading to an event with poet Raymond Antrobus as well as a discussion with Naomi Booth and Sunjeev Sahota. I don’t think I have many readers from northern England, but is anyone else planning to attend anything at this festival? (And if anyone is wondering, Durham Book Festival didn’t actually sponsor me to write these posts, I’m just a massive geek…)

 

Houses That Haunt: Patchett and Ware

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In post-war Philadelphia, Danny and Maeve Conway grow up in the ‘Dutch House’, a beautiful building that is ‘open inside’, with huge windows allowing passers-by to look directly through the house and to the views beyond. As adults, they can no longer return to their childhood kingdom, but neither of them can leave it behind; they start sitting outside the house in a car for hours on end every now and again, although they never catch a glimpse of the house’s present inhabitants. There’s something fairy-tale in this exile that sits at the heart of Ann Patchett’s latest novel, The Dutch Houseit reminded me of Lucy Clifford’s horrific cautionary tale, ‘The New Mother‘, in which two children are told that if they do not behave their real mother will go away and be replaced by another mother ‘with glass eyes and a wooden tail’. (Spoiler: they don’t behave, and the story ends with them watching their once-happy home from the outside as the new mother walks within.)

Danny narrates the story of the Dutch House, but Maeve is at its centre; after their mother ran away to India when Danny was very small, she’s taken care of her brother. There’s a sense that Maeve threw herself in the path of this explosion to shield Danny from the worst of its effects; for most of his childhood, despite having no mother and a distant father, Danny feels secure. Maeve’s sacrifice continues into adulthood ( we find out much of what happens to the siblings in later life early on, as Patchett cleverly constructs the novel around a series of flash-forwards) as Danny pursues his education while she takes up a make-ends-meet job at an accountancy firm.

As ever, Patchett balances the emotional crises of her novel perfectly, and while much of The Dutch House is (deliberately) predictable, its power to move doesn’t lie in surprising the reader but in seeing how everything plays out. Nevertheless, as with Patchett’s last novel, Commonwealth, I was left feeling slightly underwhelmed – if only because I know how brilliant she can be. I think Patchett’s writing works best for me when she takes on more unusual subject-matter, as she did in State of Wonderwhereas both her last two novels have felt more familiar, telling long family stories in the vein of Anne Tyler, whom I don’t especially rate. There’s no doubt that The Dutch House is a good novel, but I wonder how long it will stay with me.

I received a proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 24th September.

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I absolutely loved Ruth Ware’s first thriller, In A Dark, Dark Wood, but was rather underwhelmed by the two I’ve read since, The Woman In Cabin 10 and The Lying Game. The Turn of the Key restored my faith in her; this is top-notch modern Gothic, running with a brilliant setting, where a nanny is left isolated in a ‘smart house’ in Scotland with three small children, frightened by both traditional tropes such as the enveloping forest, and the technology that turns lights off when she isn’t expecting it and makes coffee for her in the morning. Ware builds on the setting she created in In A Dark, Dark Wood, where a house with many of its walls replaced with glass panels looked into a creepy woodland, but amps it all up. I usually struggle with modern Gothic because I don’t find old houses that frightening, but the combination of old and new here works perfectly, and allows Ware to pull off some novel twists. She also writes very cleverly, seeding clues from the start but never allowing the plot to feel too contrived. It’s all a little reminiscent of Kate Murray-Browne’s absorbing The Upstairs Roombut scarier.

Do you have any favourite novels about the hold that houses have over us?

Reading on My Travels, Tokyo 2019: Mini-Reviews

I’m back from my travels! Tokyo (and Kyoto, Nikko and Hakone) were everything I’d wanted them to be:

I’m posting my 20 Books of Summer reviews separately, but here’s some thoughts on the other reading I did while I was in Tokyo:

Taylor Jenkins Reid’s The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo was totally addictive – I tore through it in a single day, and I have to thank Rachel for persuading me that I’d like it despite my aversion to Old Hollywood settings. The plot draws on some classic chick-lit tropes: junior journalist Monique is stunned when she’s contacted out of the blue by Hollywood star Evelyn Hugo, now in her seventies, and asked to write her biography. Evelyn is famous for having been married seven times – but who was the true love of her life? And what other secrets is she hiding? So far, so predictable. However, Reid’s writing is a notch above similar novels like Harriet Evans’s Not Without You, and the novel is more diverse in terms of both sexuality and race than is usual for this genre; Monique is a biracial black woman, Evelyn is Cuban-American, and there’s also significant LGB representation. In considering the ‘it factor’ projected by true stars, and the emotional dynamics of close-knit groups, Reid picks up on some of the themes she explores further in her most recent novel, Daisy Jones and the Six, although I thought that novel’s innovative narrative structure and more restrained plot twists made it superior.

While I hugely enjoyed this novel, I did have some issues. Firstly, it’s cleverly organised into sections each named after one of Evelyn’s husbands, but this does mess with the pacing a little – some important segments of Evelyn’s life feel rushed, especially as she grows older (in contrast, Daisy Jones covers the band’s whole career but the bulk of it focuses on only a few years). Secondly, while it’s more mature in its approach to different kinds of love than the usual romance novel, I felt that the ending, which falls back on a traditional ‘love is more important than ambition’ platitude, was regressive compared to the more satisfying midpoint where Evelyn validates the importance of both love and career (if Reid was trying to say something clever here about how we value love at different points in our lives, she didn’t quite pull it off). Thirdly [highlight for spoilers] while I loved that Evelyn’s major relationship was with another woman, I felt there was a certain reliance on stereotypes; Evelyn is a bisexual, maritally promiscuous Cuban-American, which draws on unfortunate tropes about both bi people and Latin Americans, while her partner, Celia, is a ‘pure’, blonde, gold star lesbian. While there’s a bit of awkward dialogue where Evelyn argues that her multiple marriages have nothing to do with her bisexuality – which, to be fair, they don’t – this feels a bit pasted on to fix this problem, rather than integral to her character. [spoilers end] Nevertheless, I can forgive the novel a great deal for its last line; it’s just brilliant.

I gave up on Alex White’s A Big Ship at the Edge of The Universe about 15% in – I’m theoretically up for the idea of crossing SF and fantasy, but this fell too much on the fantasy side for me, and also did that irritating fantasy thing of setting up some interesting world-building only to abandon it all after the plot kicks off (SF seems to be generally better at integrating its stories more closely with the worlds they’re set in, and makes better use of set-piece/enclosed settings, which is something I can’t get enough of).

Finally, Hanna Jameson’s The Last is a sub-Station Eleven novel about ‘the end of the world’, but then again, most speculative fiction is sub-Station Eleven, and The Last does well at what it sets out to do. Jon, a historian of modern America, is staying in an isolated hotel in Switzerland when the news breaks of nuclear attacks on countries across the world. No-one knows quite what has happened – the situation is realistically confusing, with phone and internet connections breaking down – and Jon and a handful of other people decide it’s safest to stay holed up at the hotel, rather than venture into an uncertain world. Unlike Station Eleven, therefore, The Last picks up directly after the initial catastrophe, and looks at the nuts and bolts of rebuilding a workable society, rather than considering ‘higher level’ goods like art. Nevertheless, it doesn’t neglect more complex human needs. Jon, desperate to be useful in some way, starts recording events, and when a small girl’s body is discovered in the water tank of the hotel, decides that he’s going to find out what happened to her.

The Last is billed as a murder mystery as well as an end-of-the-world thriller, but it really isn’t about murder – Jon’s search for the girl’s killer is more about his own psychological need to support his belief that human life still matters, that it hasn’t become meaningless in the face of such disaster. This thread, therefore, backs up one of The Last’s central themes: that humans have enough good in them to work together for a common goal. Refreshingly, this is not a nihilistic look at human nature, although Jameson portrays violence and desperation at times. Instead, it impresses us with humankind’s ability to strive towards civilisation, despite our imperfections. Jon himself acts as a microcosm here – he has a number of admirable qualities, but he’s also an unreliable narrator who has done things he’s ashamed of and hurt other people. Jameson bravely leaves the ending wide open, and the ‘resolution’ of Jon’s anxieties about the fate of his wife and children, who were in San Francisco at the time of the attacks, is especially haunting.