Nuns In Novel(la)s

This year, despite not being religious myself, I’ve become slightly obsessed with fictional nuns. I thought I’d think a little about why nuns offer such interesting possibilities for novelists, in anticipation of Lauren Groff’s forthcoming MatrixHere, I’ll be discussing three very different books about three very different kinds of nuns: Sarah Dunant’s Sacred Hearts (2008), which depicts a convent in sixteenth-century Italy; Lina Rather’s Sisters of the Vast Black (2019), which follows an unspecified order of nuns on board a living spaceship; and Rumer Godden’s In This House Of Brede (1969), which is set in an English Benedictine community in the 1960s. However, although these nuns are far apart in space and time, they all sit within the Catholic tradition; this post will therefore focus on Catholic nuns, while recognising that these aren’t the only nuns that exist, even in the Christian faith – and recommendations for books that deal with non-Christian nuns would be very welcome!

Catholic nuns tend to be the butt of jokes, either portrayed as incredibly prudish or sex-obsessed; because nuns are supposed to be angelic, any hint of misbehaviour from a nun is somehow funnier than if it came from a ‘normal’ person. (One of my favourite jokes as a child – no idea why – was ‘What goes black white black white?’/’A nun rolling down a hill.’/’What’s black and white and goes ha ha?’/’The nun who pushed her!’) The radical potential in stories about Catholic nuns, therefore, lies in asking what it’s really like to be a nun and whether this popular stereotype of repressed, unhappy, usually elderly women holds true. If you take out references to nuns or convents from the blurbs of Sacred Hearts and In This House of Brede, they suddenly sound a lot more subversive: 

Sixteen-year-old Serafina is ripped by her family from an illicit love affair and forced into the women’s community of Santa Caterina, renowned for its superb music. 

Philippa Talbot, a highly successful professional woman, leaves her life among the London elite to join a women’s community.

This is not to say that you can simply ‘take out’ the religion from these kinds of communities and reimagine them as proto-feminist communes, but that there’s obvious potential in telling stories about groups of women who live together and rely on each other, and are often able to do things they could not do in the outside world, while recognising that this kind of life comes with its own set of restrictions. To be honest, I wouldn’t be surprised if Matrix sparks a new trend for this kind of novel, as it speaks to a lot of twenty-first century concerns: women who are not defined as wives or mothers; female separatism; loneliness vs chosen solitude; the un/importance of sex.

However, if nun novels were just about women both embracing and escaping the confines of their times, Sisters of the Vast Black would be pointless. Why write about nuns in space when you can invent a future where women can do anything they want? Here, I think we see the appeal of writing about a community of people who are simply trying to do the right thing, aside from feminist concerns. The first two-thirds of Sisters of the Vast Black have a moral seriousness that isn’t preachy or theoretical but very much connected to the world the sisters are dealing with. Even more interestingly, both Sacred Hearts and In This House of Brede depict closed orders, where the nuns’ job is not to do ‘good works’ but to create a community of prayer, cut off from most contact with the world around them. The purpose of this can be hard to understand; what good are the nuns doing by removing themselves from the world? However, in both novels, the power of the convent, of this way of living, is evident, although both Godden and Dunant recognise that this life is right for some women and hellish for others.

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Diana Rigg starred in a film adaptation of In This House Of Brede (1975)

Why read about Catholic nuns if you are not yourself Catholic or Christian? One great thing that these novels open up is the opportunity to write about women who are not primarily driven by one emotional tie, whether that’s to a man, a child or another family member. As I wrote in my review of Lissa Evans’s Old Baggagethese kind of novels are very rare. And while I wouldn’t want to read a nun novel that was simplistic or dogmatic about religion, none of these books are like that. Dunant vividly conveys the importance of faith to some women in her sixteenth-century convent while others suffer under its strictures. Godden has a harder task, convincing us that a twentieth-century character like Philippa would enter a convent in the first place, or thrive there as she does. But while few of us have a vocation to be a nun, I could identify with how Philippa struggles with herself, the fight to be the best version of herself she can be – I don’t need to share her beliefs to understand that.

Finally, there’s a thoughtfulness about these kind of novels, a deliberately reflective pace that I find hugely refreshing in fiction. Sacred Hearts and In This House of Brede tell a big story about lots of women and the lives they lead, and they aren’t tempted to hurry us along to hit the dramatic highpoints. Sisters of the Vast Black, in my opinion, suffers in its final third because it suddenly speeds up, losing much of what made it special earlier on. These books eschew standard plots with a single, ‘active’ protagonist to think about how even the most self-reliant of nuns are part of something bigger. Along the way, they break many ‘rules’ of fiction, and they’re all the better for it.

Have you read any of these novels, or any other novels about nuns? Do you have any recommendations? (I’ve already spotted that Rumer Godden wrote two other novels about nuns, and am eagerly seeking them out!)

My Top Ten Books of 2020

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

In the order I read them…

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  1. Spinning Silver: Naomi Novik. Novik hits it out of the park with her second folktale retelling, telling three equally compelling stories about three very different women in the fictional kingdom of Lithvas, loosely inspired, according to Novik, by Lithuania, Poland and Russia. I’ve always believed folk/fairytales are fiendishly and perhaps deceptively difficult to turn into full-length novels, because they operate with a logic and a pace that breaks a lot of our conventional ‘rules’ of storytelling (I can’t recommend Kate Bernheimer’s essay ‘Fairy Tale is Form, Form is Fairy Tale’ enough if you’re as interested in this as I am). Novik’s approach is to tell a series of miniature stories that magically combine together. Perfection. I reviewed it here.

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2. Minor Feelings: Cathy Park Hong. This series of essays on making art while considering your own cultural and historical position now feels especially relevant given the issues that were ever more strongly highlighted by black activists during 2020, but is also vital for anyone who’s ever given a thought to how artists should and can use their own experience. I’ve yet to read something better on the idea of writing both within and outside your lane; Hong, who is Korean-American, argues that even when we are apparently writing from our own lived experience, we are always ‘speaking nearby’ ourselves, because no one person can tell everybody else’s story – or even their own. I reviewed it here.

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3. Ice Diaries: Jean McNeil. There’s a whole sub-genre of memoirs written by writers-in-residence in Antarctica, but McNeil’s is in a class of its own. She brilliantly evokes how spending four months on an Antarctic base affected her sense of her own selfhood, while also interrogating the human fascination with empty spaces on the map. If you liked Nancy Campbell’s The Library of Iceyou should read this next – however, I think this is also one of those rare Antarctic books that would appeal to readers who otherwise have no interest in the farthest south. I reviewed it briefly here.

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4. The Butchers: Ruth Gilligan. I recently named this as one of the novels I thought had been most unfairly overlooked this year, and I still don’t understand why it hasn’t received more critical attention. Set during the BSE crisis in Ireland in 1996, it moves between four narrators to tell a story of cow-smuggling and cattle-slaughtering that feels infused with folktale. Read it if you’re a fan of Fiona Mozley or Cynan Jones. I reviewed it here. (Published as The Butchers’ Blessing in the US).

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5. Broken Stars: ed. and trans. Ken Liu. This collection of short Chinese science fiction in translation, the second such collection edited by Liu, gives the Western reader an insight into a literary world that is otherwise not accessible to them. The inclusion of three essays on Chinese SF and its fandom is particularly inspired, giving ignorant readers like me some context for the development of the genre in China. And the book is stuffed full of original and exciting stories, with my favourites including Han Song’s ‘Submarines’, Baoshu’s ‘What Has Passed Shall In Kinder Light Appear’, Hao Jingfang’s ‘The New Year Train’, Ma Boyong’s ‘The First Emperor’s Games’ and Chen Qiufan’s ‘A History of Future Illnesses’. To top it all off, the UK edition has one of the most beautiful covers I’ve ever seen, though you have to see it in its real-life gold-foiled glory to fully appreciate it.

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6. The Lost Future of Pepperharrow: Natasha Pulley. I’m a massive Pulley fan, and this sequel to The Watchmaker of Filigree Street didn’t disappoint (indeed, I thought it was better than the first, though not quite as good as The Bedlam Stacks). We now follow the clairvoyant watchmaker Keita Mori and his friend and lover, Thaniel Steepleton, to late nineteenth-century Japan, where Mori disappears on a mission of his own as electrical storms brew across the country. Before I read Pulley’s fiction, I worried her books would be a little twee, but I was totally wrong; they’re eerie and intelligent and funny, all at the same time. And having wrestled with a time travel novel for several years, I can only admire her ability to centre her plot around a character who has the gift of precognition, which makes figuring out cause and effect EVEN MORE CONFUSING. I reviewed it here.

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7. The Mirror and the Light: Hilary Mantel. I’m not sure what else I can say about this magnificent conclusion to the Cromwell trilogy, other than that it was delightful to find myself finally falling in love with a much-praised sequence of books that I’d always had ambivalent feelings about before (though, typically for me, this happened just when everybody else seemed to decide this one wasn’t as good as the others). For me, this was the best in the trilogy, and should have won everything going. I reviewed it here.

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8. My Year of Meats: Ruth Ozeki. I would never have picked this book up if I hadn’t loved A Tale For The Time Being so much; the story of a Japanese-American documentarian, Jane Takagi-Little, who exposes the illegal use of hormones in the American meat industry back in 1991 didn’t immediately appeal to me. However, although this novel goes to some bizarre places, it really works; it’s held together by Jane, who feels real in a way that few characters ever do. I reviewed it here.

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9. New Suns: ed. Nisi Shawl. It’s very unusual for me to like one multi-author SF anthology enough to put it in my top ten books of the year, let alone two! But Shawl’s edited collection of short speculative fiction by writers of colour delivered hit after hit, and gave me lots of new names to look out for. I especially loved some creepy contributions: Alex Jennings’s ‘unkind of mercy’, Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s ‘Give Me Your Black Wings Oh Sister’ and Indrapramit Das’s ‘The Shadow We Cast Through Time’. I reviewed it here.

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10. Hild: Nicola Griffith. Having abandoned this book twice before finishing it, once in 2017 and again in 2018, it’s safe to say I never thought it would make a top ten books of the year list. However, when I finally committed to Hild, I found myself completely inhabiting her sixth-century world. It’s a book that demands a lot of time and attention, more so, I’d say, even than The Mirror and The Light; but I thought about it for such a long time after finishing it, and wished I could walk back in. (Interestingly, Griffith is now two for two in my books of the year; her SF debut Ammonite was in my top ten in 2019. I’m about to read So Lucky, so we’ll see if she can keep this up!). I wrote a little more about Hild here.

Reading Stats

I read 150 books in 2020. I’m a little surprised by this – it’s less than I read in 2018 and 2019 – as I felt I was reading much more during the pandemic. However, I have to remember that as recently as 2017, 127 books still felt like a massive number. I suspect what has happened is that I’ve read a lot of very long books because I had more time to concentrate, which have dragged down my stats (The Terror, The Mirror and The Light, Hild and The Wise Man’s Fear, I’m looking at you). In 2021, I’ll again set a target of 150.

I read 120 books by women, 28 books by men, and 2 books by an author who identifies as non-binary. This was, again, the worst year ever for men, dwindling to 18% of the books I read – and, interestingly, a few male authors appear several times (I read three books apiece by both James Smythe and James S.A. Corey) – meaning that the number of individual male authors I read was even lower.

I read 46 books by writers of colour and 104 books by white writers. To my huge surprise, the percentage of writers of colour (31%) is the best I’ve ever managed, and actually quite close to my target of 33%! I’m surprised because I felt I was really failing on this target this year, so something must have gone right. Once again, I will aim to achieve 33% books by writers of colour in 2021.

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

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2020 In Books: Commendations and Disappointments

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

Highly Commended

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Biggest Disappointments

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

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

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

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

20 Books of Summer, #17 and #18: New Waves and The Fens

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Kevin Nguyen’s debut New Waves was one of my most anticipated new releases of 2020, and it didn’t disappoint, even though the novel I read turned out to be a very different novel from the one the blurb led me to expect. New Waves was billed as fast-paced and satirical, featuring a black woman, Margo, and a Vietnamese man, Lucas, who team up to steal their New York tech start-up’s user database after being ignored and underpaid by the company for too long. While that’s certainly where the story starts, this hook doesn’t have much to do with where it goes after that. Nevertheless, as it turned out, New Waves fits right into a sub-genre that I’ve only just realised I love: literary fiction about fascinatingly opaque characters whom we learn about solely through the viewpoints of their friends and the technological or artistic remnants they leave behind (see also: Anna North’s The Life and Death of Sophie Stark and Nell Freudenberger’s Lost and Wanted). Which is to say that this novel is all about Margo, tech genius and science fiction short story writer, even though she dies in a random accident in its first few pages. Grieving the loss of his best friend, Lucas hunts through her laptop, and while he doesn’t exactly come across revelations that overturn everything he knows about Margo, he definitely finds things that switch that knowledge onto new tracks. New Waves is so smart about race and gender, but it also has a lot to say about how both people and programmes tend to add up data in a way that makes sense to them. Margo’s short stories are nihilistic, refusing to organise themselves in any way that allows a happy ending, but her actual presence in Lucas’s life was relentlessly optimistic. Because we never hear from her directly (other than in the typed and spoken material she left behind, which is more about her fiction than about her), we are left to make up our own minds about a lot of loose ends. What kind of person was she deep down? What did she really think about Lucas? This novel will probably drive some readers to distraction, but I loved it.

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Francis Pryor is an archaeologist who specialises in the study of the British Bronze and Iron Ages. The Fens: Discovering England’s Ancient Depths traces the history of this particular English region from prehistoric times to the present day, interspersing Pryor’s personal experiences on particular digs and his memories of living in the fenland with an archaeologist’s view of how and why the fens have developed and changed. Unsurprisingly, given Pryor’s area of specialism, which I wasn’t aware of when I picked up this book, the bulk of the material is prehistoric; the medieval fens, which is the period I’m personally most interested in, barely get a look in, and what he does say about medieval power relationships is pretty simplistic from a historian’s point of view. Pryor is, when it comes down to it, more interested in the evolution of technologies, buildings and settlements than in social and political history, and fair enough if that’s your kind of thing. However, I did feel this would struggle to appeal beyond a relatively narrow audience. It’s very long, goes off on a lot of tangents, and Pryor’s writing is clear but no more than that. Certainly, the autobiographical elements of this book don’t add very much, although it promises to discuss a more emotional relationship with landscape. If you’ve lived in the fens, there will be something to interest you here, but it might not be enough to engage you for the whole 400+ pages; I read the first four chapters and then skipped to the chapters that particularly appealed to me.

I’ve made a second and final substitution in my 20 Books of Summer; unfortunately, my NetGalley copy of Gina Rippon’s The Gendered Brain was so badly formatted it was unreadable (not the first time), so I’ve subbed in Xuan Juliana Wang’s collection of short stories Home Remedies, which was on my list of books to read in 2020.

20 Books of Summer, #14 and #15: The Mercies and The Terror

After a series of random mismatched 20 Books of Summer posts, I am perhaps unreasonably pleased that I’ve finally managed to bring together two historical novels that share undoubted thematic similarities, despite some equally obvious differences. Both are set in the far and freezing north; both feature characters in small communities beset by threats from outside that raise superstitious fears; both feature uneasy interactions between white Europeans and local indigenous people; and both are full of violence and death. Neither, therefore, is the best summer read, but as someone who isn’t the biggest fan of summer, I didn’t find that to be a problem 🌞

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Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s first adult novel, The Mercies, is set on a tiny island off the Norwegian coast in the early seventeenth century. When an unexpected storm sweeps in and kills almost all of the island’s men, the women are left to fend for themselves, and are managing well enough when a commissioner from Scotland, steeped in King James VI and I’s writings on witchfinding, is dispatched from the mainland to root out suspected sorcery in this isolated community. Threaded through this series of real historical events is the story of two women: Maren, one of the islanders, who is trying to handle the breakdown of the relationship between her mother and Sámi sister-in-law, and Ursa, the commissioner’s unhappy wife. Hargrave warmly conveys the way in which these very different women come to trust and love each other, as Maren teaches Ursa basic skills such as baking and butchering that she never had cause to learn before. While the pace of this novel is deliberately meditative, the building tensions within the wider community of women are exceptionally well-conveyed, with their common experience of grief proving to be divisive as they find different ways of coping with the tragedy.

The Mercies has an unapologetically feminist focus, and it’s this perhaps that sets it apart from the many, many novels I’ve read that deal with witchcraft accusations in isolated communities in both the early American colonies and across Europe (Corrag/Witch Light by Susan Fletcher; The Heretic’s Daughter by Kathleen Kent; Burial Rites by Hannah Kent). This isn’t to say that these other fictions aren’t conscious of gender inequality, because they are, but The Mercies is both more brutal and more beautiful in its depiction of the position of women under patriarchy. Hargrave vividly depicts Ursa’s humiliating marriage and the abuse faced by the village women who break out of traditional roles to take to the fishing boats after the loss of their men. She gives her story time to breathe before tightening the screws at the end, and while some readers may think this makes the book too slow, I thought this decision was necessary to ensure that we truly care about these characters before they meet their fates. While I clocked that this book plays into a trope that is much too common [highlight for spoiler] bury your gays [end spoiler], I did think that Hargrave made the right kind of choice for the story she was telling, although she could have softened this somewhat by [highlight for spoiler] not killing Maren [end spoiler]. This confident and moving novel bodes well for Hargrave’s future in adult fiction.

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Dan Simmons’s The Terror tells the story of John Franklin’s infamous ‘lost expedition’ (1845-8), a voyage of exploration that intended to chart the Arctic Northwest Passage but from which none of the men ever returned. The fate of Franklin’s expedition attracted a fair amount of attention at the time, especially given the (later verified) rumours of cannibalism among some of the crew and the single, confusing note that survives from one of the copper cairns where Franklin was meant to leave regular reports of his progress. Simmons starts his story after Franklin’s death, during the period when the expedition’s two ships, Erebus and Terror, were still stuck fast in pack ice off King William Island. Nineteenth-century Arctic expeditions relied on building ships that could survive a winter or more marooned in this way, but Franklin’s party ran into particular trouble. Not only did two winters pass with little sign of the pack ice loosening enough for them to sail in the intervening warmer periods, but much of the tinned food they had packed was found to have been poorly sealed, and became poisonous. Along with the weakening of the ascorbic acid in their stores of lemon juice over time, scurvy became a major problem for the crew, alongside other horrific ailments such as frostbite.

Not content with allowing his characters to deal with these trials, Simmons introduces a supernatural element into the mix. Both ships are being stalked by a mysterious white creature that is far taller and more deadly than a polar bear, and which kills men without warning. The Terror switches between more mundane struggles for survival and the fear induced by this monster, but these two plots don’t properly dovetail until the men leave their stricken ships and begin hauling sledges overland to reach a new stock of supplies at one of their base camps, about two-thirds of the way through the narrative. For me, it was only at this point that the novel became truly gripping, which is a bit of an ask given that it’s almost a thousand pages long. Nevertheless, Simmons serves up brilliant set-piece after brilliant set-piece in the first two-thirds, so if you can deal with the lack of narrative pull and are attracted by the blurb, you’re still likely to get a lot out of this book. Two particular stand-outs are a terrifying action scene where one of the ship’s ‘ice masters’ has to climb and leap through the rigging to evade the monster, and a garish ‘Carnivale’ that the men hold on the ice, complete with tents made of sailcloth dyed of different colours, that predictably ends in carnage.

Simmons’s account of being an explorer in the coldest regions of the Earth is the best fictional recreation I’ve ever read, summoning up memories of Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s hellish memoir of his Antarctic experience, The Worst Journey in the World, and, through this, he fully captures the absurdity of the colonial mindset that led white men to ship bad canned food to the furthest corners of the globe rather than recognising the skills that allow native people to survive there. There’s absolutely no way that this book needed to be as long as it is for Simmons to achieve what he wanted with it; however, it’s not a story that I’ll forget in a hurry.

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020: The Mirror and The Light

It feels like a very long time already since I wrote about this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, but I’m back with a review of the final title on the longlist, which has since advanced to the shortlist.

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Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy, following the career of one of the most significant advisors of Henry VIII’s reign, needs no introduction. The two previous books in the series, Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodieswere intensely acclaimed, with prize juries pretty much flinging awards in their direction, and this final installment was so eagerly awaited that its publication was announced through a mysterious billboard in Leicester Square. Nevertheless, it’s taken me a little while to warm up to this series, which I read as it was released. Wolf Hall, in particular, which I’ve read one and a half times due to being unable to finish it the first time, felt like it required a level of investment from the reader that wasn’t entirely repaid. I found it difficult to understand how anyone could negotiate the intricacies of its plot without a detailed knowledge of Henrician politics (I have a history degree, and studied Tudor England and Stuart Britain as an undergraduate, but I didn’t focus closely on anything before Elizabeth I, and I admit, I struggled!) When I read Bring Up The Bodies, Mantel’s project made a lot more sense to me; this taut novel hits the ground running, building up the cast that was introduced in Wolf Hall and executing the Boleyns with vicious brilliance. And the strength and intelligence of Mantel’s prose, and of her historical insight, was never in doubt. But I was still concerned that it had taken Mantel six hundred and fifty pages to set up the dominos that she knocks down in the sequel, and the dependance of these two books on each other made it hard for me to truly adore Bring Up The Bodies.

The Mirror and The Light, however, is in a class of its own. Perhaps this sounds ridiculous given the huge success of the first two books, but for me, Mantel’s finally cracked it; she tells a very long and intricate story that doesn’t abandon any of the commitments she made in Wolf Hall or Bring Up The Bodies, which expects a lot from its reader and yet gives so much back. This book may be nine hundred pages long, but in many ways, it’s a lot more accessible than its predecessors. I don’t think you actually have to have read either of the previous Cromwell novels nor have a strong knowledge of Tudor history to be totally immersed in this wonderful novel. As long as you know that Cromwell rose from a humble background to become an advisor to Henry, that he was a big fan of previous advisor Cardinal Wolsey, that Cromwell was instrumental in the fall of Anne Boleyn, Henry’s second wife, and a supporter of Henry’s break with Rome and of reformed religion, you’d probably be fine. Mantel also references the previous novels frequently throughout her text; for example, Cromwell is haunted by the final days of George Boleyn despite his expressed disgust for his character, and relives them several times. While I don’t think this was her intention, it’s handy for the new reader or for readers (like myself) who read the other two novels long enough ago to have forgotten a lot.

This also points to one central concern of The Mirror and The Light: time and memory. There are a number of long, beautiful interludes in the novel where Cromwell explicitly reflects on the subject, and where the past and present collapse as he views England as a palimpsest:

Don’t look back, he had told the king: yet he too is guilty of retrospection as the light fades, in that hour in winter or summer before they bring in the candles… when the page grows dim and letter forms elide and slip into other conformations, so that as the page is turned the old story slides from sight… From the top of Wayneflete’s tower, the countryside beneath him was more imagined than real, stretching away in the darkness. It will soon be All Hallows, he thought. It seemed to him time had shuddered and slowed, as if the transit of heavenly bodies was retarded by the catastrophe that had overtaken his master and all England.

While I was reading this novel, I also read a co-authored article in the American Historical Review about the concept of ‘generation’ where the early modernist Alexandra Walsham argues that

the Protestant Reformation… profoundly reconfigured the relationship between the living and the dead: one consequence of its theology was to sever the inhabitants of these two realms from each other and to deny that there could be any kind of communication or interaction between them.[1]

This statement haunted me while I inhabited the world of Thomas Cromwell, who was as fierce an advocate as any of removing customs such as indulgences. (Indulgences imagined that, for example, the wealthy could donate money to charitable works and reduce the amount of time deceased relatives had to spend in purgatory – and so their abolition suggested that the living could no longer give any help to the dead.) Nevertheless, Cromwell is haunted by the dead, including those, like George Boleyn, where he was at least partly responsible for their fall; the reference to All Hallows Eve in the quotation from the novel above refers to the idea that this was a day on which the veil between the worlds was especially thin.

The Mirror and the Light also expands upon the vision of early modern monarchy that was imagined in Bring Up The Bodies, where, in one especially memorable scene, Henry is believed to be dead in a jousting accident, and the court is shaken to its foundations. As I wrote in my review of Bring Up The Bodies, Mantel explores Henry’s kingship through ‘the vivid early modern metaphor of the king’s earthly body becoming parallel to the kingdom’s single body, united in law and loyalty to the monarch’ and, in The Mirror and the Light, because of Cromwell’s ever-increasing closeness to the monarch, we see more of the toll this takes on Henry. Mantel’s characterisation of Henry is superb: he’s both very smart and dangerously mercurial, unable to understand the impact that a chance statement can have on the politics of his court. But while not excusing his personal brutality, we also see the weight he carries, with the health of his ageing body directly identified with the health of the realm. As he says to Cromwell, ‘All my life, to be a prince… to unmake myself as a man in order to make myself a king… When I was a young man I suppose I showed the calf of my leg to an ambassador and said, “There, has your French king a calf as good as that?” And my words were reported, and all Europe laughed at me… But being young I asked myself, if God had formed Francois better than me, which prince did He favour most?’

It’s impossible to do such a novel justice in a single review (and this one is long enough!); it took me a month to read it and I still miss it now it’s over. I won’t be surprised if Mantel sweeps all the prizes again with this one, and she would deserve it, for this is her masterpiece.

My next Women’s Prize for Fiction post, on Monday, will be my ranking of all sixteen titles on the longlist, and an extremely surprising announcement of which book I’d like to win the prize this year (Thomas Cromwell Rules OK).

[1] Abosede George, Clive Glaser, Margaret D. Jacobs, Chitra Joshi, Emily Marker, Alexandra Walsham, Wang Zheng, and Bernd Weisbrod, ‘AHR Conversation: Each Generation Writes Its Own History of Generations,’ American Historical Review 123, 5, December 2018, p.1522. [paywalled]

I’m aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist this year. This is number sixteen. I’ve already read Girl, Woman, Other; The Dutch House; QueenieDjinn Patrol on the Purple Line; Nightingale Point; Dominicana; Girl; How We DisappearedA Thousand ShipsHamnet; Actress; WeatherFleishman Is In Trouble; Red at the Boneand The Most Fun We Ever Had.

Quotidian horrors: The Bass Rock

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Evie Wyld’s The Bass Rock was probably my most eagerly anticipated title of the last couple of years. Her second novel, All The Birds, Singingwith its insanely clever backwards structure, was one of my top ten books of the decade; I put The Bass Rock on my4.5 star challenge before it even had a cover because I was so sure I was going to love it. So, perhaps it could never have lived up to such high expectations, and yet I do feel a little disappointed. Before I go any further, I should say that The Bass Rock is absolutely a good novel, and it was utterly cheated by not making the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist (especially given the dubious quality of many of the titles that were longlisted). Wyld is an incredible writer, and, line-by-line, there is nothing about this book that is a letdown. However, it’s made me reflect on what I want from a novel that is really going to blow me away: and I guess I’ve concluded that I put a higher premium on originality – both in terms of structure, and content – than perhaps other readers do. Quite apart from the brilliant structural tricks that Wyld played in All The Birds, I loved its unusual setting – the protagonist, a woman called Jake, spends a good chunk of the novel as a sheep-shearer in the Australian outback – and the way that Wyld experiments with horror tropes. Nevertheless, The Bass Rock totally succeeds in everything that it sets out to do, and it is a bit unfair to be cross at it simply because it isn’t All The Birds.

The Bass Rock, like its predecessor, also takes a slightly experimental structure; the vast majority of the novel is divided between three narratives, linked by place rather than by person. Viv, in the present day, is house-sitting in the shadow of the Bass Rock, a looming presence off the Scottish coast. Ruth, in the 1950s, has just moved into the same house, navigating her relationship with Peter and his two teenage sons, who are having a turbulent time at boarding school. Finally, in the early 1700s, a woman flees for her life into the surrounding woods after she is accused of being a witch. Usually, novels that use dual or triple narratives tie them together tightly – a common trope (much disliked by me) is the person researching their family history – but, although certain links emerge, Wyld is brave enough to let these three strands stand in parallel. While I thought this aspect of the novel worked, I still found that I was constantly wishing to return to Ruth’s story, which felt by far the strongest of the three. I hate to say it, but aimless millennial narrators like Viv are starting to irritate me; she’s an old millennial, but she still fits into a groove that I feel has become increasingly worn. Meanwhile, the early modern witch-hunt felt flat and familiar.

It’s when we’re spending time with Ruth that the book really shines; the way that it traces the quotidian trauma of male violence, and how easily it can become an everyday experience. While all three stories are, of course, concerned with patriarchal power, its threads are seen most clearly in the mundane horrors of Ruth’s world; the predatory local vicar, the boys’ abusive boarding school, how Ruth’s own husband quietly oppresses her, the silencings and smothering of other girls and women. Somehow, Wyld manages to nail not just how violence works but how we come to take it for granted. She doesn’t allow us to judge these characters from outside (of course he’s an abuser; of course that’s rape) but forces us to enter into their heads and understand how difficult it is for them to see things clearly. Her take on this theme is one of the best that I’ve ever seen in fiction, and that alone makes The Bass Rock worth reading.

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

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020: Hamnet

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Just like there is a Hamlet and a Hamnet, I feel there are two Hamnets: the novel that Maggie O’Farrell actually wrote, and the story that has been hyped to the back of beyond since its publication was first announced back in 2019. This makes it a difficult novel to review, because, if I’d just come across this book as ‘the next Maggie O’Farrell’, I think I’d have taken it more to my heart than I actually did. I understand why a publisher would want to try and push an author like O’Farrell to the next level; having utterly adored her last two books, her novel This Must Be The Place and her memoir I Am, I Am, I AmI was genuinely shocked to discover that, for example, she’s never been longlisted for the Women’s Prize before. I am a long-time admirer of O’Farrell’s understated but beautiful, observational prose, and I have read everything she’s ever written. Nevertheless – and perhaps because, unlike readers discovering her for the first time, I already know how good O’Farrell can be – I felt underwhelmed by Hamnet.

Hamnet is billed as telling the untold story of Shakespeare’s son, who died when he was only eleven years old, but I found this misleading in two ways. Firstly, I feel like it’s common knowledge that Shakespeare had a son who died young. Secondly, the book is really about Shakespeare’s wife, here called Agnes (Anne Hathaway was named as ‘Agnes’ in her father’s will – and I think it’s a clever choice by O’Farrell to use this name, giving herself some distance between the historical figure and her own creation). And unfortunately, I found that Agnes often fell into some familiar stereotypes, despite some transcendent moments, such as the scene when she is unable to wrap her son in his winding sheet, because it means she will never see his face again. I find historical novels that seek to tear down a man’s reputation as if that’s the only way to give the women in his life some agency intensely irritating – this was one of the reasons why I struggled with Madeline Miller’s Circebecause I didn’t like the way it treated Odysseus. Hamnet does not exactly do this. Shakespeare, never named in the text, is portrayed as a man who deeply loves his wife and children despite his long absences from home. However, there’s still a tendency to write Agnes into the story by writing him out, and I would have preferred a novel that felt more equally split between the two parents.

O’Farrell brings early modern England wonderfully to life in very few words. The setting of the story is completely captivating. However, I didn’t feel that Hamnet achieved the same kind of depth in its characterisation. I’ve already suggested that Agnes feels a little stale; Hamnet himself, alongside his siblings, never became truly real to me. For this reason, the novel never broke my heart in the way it set out to do. O’Farrell writes so well about grief, but I found myself admiring her writing from afar rather than grieving with the characters. Rather than being glued to this book, I kept on thinking back to a different novel that enthralled me as a teenager, Susan Cooper’s King of Shadows. The two books are not exactly the same. Cooper tells the story of a young actor, Nat, who is thrown back in time to Elizabethan England and ends up as part of Shakespeare’s company. However, King of Shadows also portrays Shakespeare as a grieving father, forging a special connection with Nat, who is a fatherless boy – and it was the sharpness of the emotion in that book that I found myself craving.

Hamnet is absolutely worth reading, especially if you haven’t read O’Farrell before. However, I don’t think it’s the ‘novel of her career’ [© publicity]. Selfishly, I’d hope that’s a novel she’s not yet written! But if we’re confined to her existing corpus, then I’d say that This Must Be The Place sees her writing at the height of her powers; that The Hand That First Held Mine is genuinely moving in a way that for me, this novel was not; and that After You’d Gone might not be the most accomplished of her books, but it remains an astonishing debut. But as I say, I still feel confident that the best is yet to come.

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

I’m aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist this year. This is number ten. I’ve already read Girl, Woman, Other; The Dutch House; QueenieDjinn Patrol on the Purple Line; Nightingale Point; Dominicana; Girl; How We Disappeared; and A Thousand Ships.

The Books That Made Me, Part 2

Part I can be found here. Images in this post are of the covers that I’m familiar with, or the closest approximation.

Early Teenage Years (13 to 16)

 

In my early teens, SF and fantasy still dominated my reading, with a little more realism creeping in. I read Michelle Magorian’s Goodnight Mister Tom as a child, along with many of her other novels, but in my early teens, my absolute favourite was Back Home, about a twelve-year-old girl, Rusty, who returns to England at the end of the Second World War after being evacuated to the States. As someone who spent a significant part of her childhood in Washington DC before moving ‘back home’ to England, where I was born, I strongly identified with Rusty. As I got older, I appreciated Magorian’s subtle characterisation more and more; Back Home is less idealised than Goodnight Mister Tom, and the adult characters don’t split so neatly into good and bad.

Berlie Doherty’s The Sailing Ship Tree really shaped my own writing as a teenager; set in the Edwardian period, it describes the emerging friendship between ‘Master George’, the privileged son of a landed family, and twins Dorothy and Walter, who live on his estate. Told in multiple viewpoints, The Sailing Ship Tree has virtually no plot but is emotionally complex and very moving.

I devoured Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights when it first came out and waited eagerly for the next two books in the series. Sadly, I’ve found that I don’t enjoy re-reading Pullman as an adult, but I absolutely loved all the His Dark Materials books as a teenager. Going to a comprehensive school in Bath where evangelical Christianity was surprisingly dominant among my fellow pupils, I ate up Pullman’s opposition to organised religion, even though I now find his world-view simplistic and aggressive. I also loved reading Pullman’s writing advice, much of which is quite sound, and his suggestion [paraphrased] that ‘writers should study anything but English Literature’ had a big hand in me choosing a History degree.

John Christopher’s The Lotus Caves is about two teenagers living on the moon who fall through its surface into a strange underground world. Eerie and compelling, I still enjoy reading this. Another SF favourite was Lois Lowry’s much more famous The Giver, which still has me pondering ethical questions about the distribution of resources in a fair society, the problems with sexual attraction, and how we handle feelings.

Finally, Susan Cooper’s time-slip story King of Shadows had a much bigger impact on me than her more famous Dark Is Rising series, which I read as a child. Nathan, mourning the loss of his parents, is flung back in time and becomes an actor in Shakespeare’s company. This rather whimsical premise is rooted in clever historical detail and a beautiful exploration of the filial bond that develops between Nathan and Shakespeare.

Late Teenage Years (16 to 19)

 

While the fourth and fifth Harry Potter books were not as structurally perfect as the first three, they fuelled my Harry Potter obsession further; this article gives a pretty good account of how it felt to be a teenage fan in the years before book six, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, came out. While I never ‘shipped’ Sirius and Lupin, I was just as devoted to seeking out clues in the text of the first five books as were the romance-orientated fans described in the article linked above. I was convinced that the moral complexity that seemed to be emerging in book five, when Sirius tells Harry that ‘the world isn’t divided into good people and Death Eaters‘, would pay off, and spent hours on the internet discussing theories with fellow fans – both other teenagers, and adults. Therefore, it’s hard to convey just how disappointed I was by book six without sounding silly. I’d invested so much time and effort into this series, and I felt like JKR had thrown it all in my face – the terrible romance, the awful plotting, the evil-from-birth baby Tom Riddle who ‘never cried’. I’m not going to write extensively about Harry Potter here because I have a Monster Rant post coming up, but suffice it to say that my anger with books six and seven was incredibly formative. As an adult, I can see that many of the structural problems that afflicted the last two books in the series were present in books four and five as well, but the material in those books was so much more generous and interesting, that I still like them even though I know I shouldn’t.

Luckily, George R.R. Martin stepped in to fill the fantasy gap. I first read A Game of Thrones in 2004, when seemingly no-one else in the UK had heard of it, and became totally addicted to A Song of Ice and Fire, blazing through the next three books over the next year. Please always remember: these books are nothing like the TV series. Rather than a nihilistic world portrayed through a series of misogynistic tropes, Martin presents a universe that is brutal and misogynistic, but where hope and honour can win out, and with a large and diverse female cast who deal with Westerosi society in their own way. What Martin is best at is handling the readers’ sympathies; making us rethink our own allegiances; exploring shades of grey. It’s a literary skill that I still think is massively underrated, and it’s been hugely influential on my own writing. One day I’m going to write a longer post about A Song of Ice and Fire, but suffice it to say that it ENRAGES me that the Harry Potter series has a wholly undeserved ‘feminist’ reputation, whereas Song is written off as sexist, largely because of the awful TV series.

 

And now we get to the really formative books, the books that have had the most profound impact on the way I read and write. The most significant of these has to be Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. As an eighteen-year-old, I was entranced by how Ishiguro approached speculative fiction; throwing scientific accuracy out the window in favour of emotional truth. Kathy H’s voice is absolutely convincing, and I still think about Tommy’s tantrums: ‘Maybe I knew something all along. Something the rest of you didn’t’. If you haven’t read this uncanny story of three teenagers growing up in a peculiar school, what on earth are you waiting for?

Two classic novels also shaped my mindset during this period. My school had been given a free set of Everyman’s Classics at some point, so around the age of sixteen, I started methodically reading through them. I had studied Jane Eyre in Year Nine and liked it, but Charlotte Bronte’s lesser-known and yet greater novel, Villette, totally blew me away. Lucy Snowe, its protagonist, is a strikingly modern heroine who only slowly infiltrates her way into the narrative. She’s an unreliable and not totally likeable narrator, but Bronte’s exploration of her emotional isolation is utterly heartbreaking. I’ve written more about Villette here. Similarly, Middlemarch was an education; the ways in which Eliot extends sympathy to each and every character are still too little replicated in modern novels. (Though it’s clearly an inferior text, I also loved Adam Bede).

Finally, I returned to a childhood favourite, Robin McKinley, for two novels that I’ve re-read countless times. Rose Daughter, a second retelling of Beauty and the Beast, shaped how I write about place and landscape, with its beautiful evocation of the Beast’s castle and the roses that Beauty cultivates there. (Poor McKinley has been lumbered with some terrible covers in her time – please ignore the fact that this looks like a bad romance novel!) Sunshine, which featured vampires before they became fashionable, is a totally different kind of story, with its rambling, captivating narrator and brilliantly imagined futuristic world. I’m only allowed to re-read this very occasionally for fear of wearing the magic out; I love it so much.

What were your favourite teenage reads, and do you still enjoy them now?

[NB. I have put the promised Parts 2 and 3 into one post as there wasn’t really a sensible way to separate them – hence why this is so long!]

2018 in Books: Commendations and Disappointments

As always, I won’t be posting my Top Ten Books of 2018 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 2018, not necessarily first published in 2018.

Highly Commended

The Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist was especially strong this year, and there were lots of standout titles for me. I’ll focus on my two favourites here. Fiona Mozley’s Elmetwhich was shortlisted for the Booker but inexplicably failed to make the Women’s Prize shortlist, is mesmerisingly good on femininity and masculinity, and the close connections of a single family to rural Yorkshire. Jessie Greengrass’s shortlisted Sight mixes auto-fiction with historic interludes that cover the detection of X-rays, the psychoanalytical work of Anna Freud and a nineteenth-century Scottish surgeon. I was blown away by Greengrass’s precise and brilliant meditations on pregnancy and early motherhood.

I read two excellent short story collections: Julianne Pachico’s The Lucky Onesset between 1993 and 2013 in Colombia, New York and DC, and Nafissa Thompson-Spires’s Heads of the Colored People, one of my 20 Books of Summer, which is a series of sketches of young middle-class black lives in present-day America. Pachico deals brilliantly with the intersection between imagination and reality, whereas Thompson-Spires’s satirical narratives are delightfully vivid and larger-than-life.

2018 wasn’t as strong a year for memoir and non-fiction as 2017, but three books stood out: Xiaolu Guo’s Once Upon A Time In The East and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis,  neither of which I’ve reviewed on this blog, and Nancy Campbell’s The Library of IceGuo’s account of her childhood and adolescence in China is riveting, much more engaging than any of her novels. Campbell eschews autobiography to seek out ice in all of its forms, from a remote Greenlandic community to a curling rink in Scotland, successfully reinventing the overstuffed ‘polar memoir’ genre. Persepolis, one of the only graphic novels I’ve read, brilliantly and succinctly conveys Satrapi’s experience growing up in Iran after the Islamic Revolution.

Two historical novels stood out. Lissa Evans’s wonderful Old Baggageset in the late 1920s, stars Mattie, a once-militant suffragette who wonders what she should do with her life now. John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies proved to be a comedic and moving take on gay male lives in Britain since 1945.

Finally, I enjoyed two novels that might broadly be called speculative. Mary Doria Russell’s eerie and unforgettable The Sparrow deals with a Jesuit mission to make contact with an alien race. I got its sequel, Children of God, for Christmas, and can’t wait to start it. Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter, about a man isolated in the Arctic winter, hasn’t been reviewed on this blog but is an absolute model of how to write a horror story. Don’t read it alone in the dark.

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.

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Michael Donkor’s Hold, dealing with a teenage Ghanian housegirl, Belinda, who comes to London in 2002 to deal with a disobedient relative of the family she works for, Amma, was one of the books I was most looking forward to in 2018. Unfortunately, I found Donkor’s writing laborious and convoluted, and his dialogue was so doggedly ‘authentic’ as to be almost unreadable.

Both Omar El Akkad’s American War and Angela Chadwick’s XX had great premises. American War is set in the aftermath of a second civil war that has torn apart America, creating a refugee crisis. XX imagines a world where two women can have their own biological child together, opening up new possibilities for lesbian couples. However, most of American War played out like a cliched dystopian novel, whereas XX never moved beyond simplistic moral messages, refusing to explore the full implications of its imagined future. Two missed opportunities.

I was also disappointed by two authors whose novels I’d enjoyed in the past. Claire Fuller’s Our Endless Numbered Days was a gripping and original literary thriller, but her latest, Bitter Orange, about a lonely, middle-aged woman who becomes obsessed with a glamorous younger couple during a summer spent in a country house, felt so hackneyed, and had such an unpleasant narrator, that I gave up a third of the way in, and haven’t reviewed it here. Having loved Amy Sackville’s first two novels, The Still Point and Orkney, I couldn’t wait to read her latest, Painter to the Kingwhich deals with the painter Diego Velázquez at the court of Philip IV of Spain in the first half of the seventeenth century. However, it felt more like an extended writing exercise than a novel, focusing intently on the visuals with little psychological probing into the mindsets of her characters.

I’ll be back on Monday with my Top Ten Books of 2018!