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!]

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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!

 

 

Three Things… November 2018

As ever, borrowed from Paula at Book Jotter!

Reading

 

I’ve been reading a lot of books that deal with ice, snow, and travelling in the cold – very appropriate for Newcastle in November. I finally finished Ursula Le Guin’s classic The Left Hand of Darkness, which I’ve been reading very slowly – the first half, in particular, is dense and difficult, and I needed time to take it in. As is well known, the novel deals with a foreign visitor to the planet Gethen, or ‘Winter’, whose otherwise-human inhabitants have no specific biological sex until they enter a monthly state called kemmer, when they can become either male or female depending on circumstance (Le Guin calls this ‘a bisexual society’, which makes the modern reader trip up a bit, and demonstrates how marginal bisexual sexualities were in the 1970s). This not only makes gender irrelevant but renders everybody asexual most of the time. The phrase that the title comes from – a Gethenian saying that ‘the left hand of darkness is the right hand of light’ indicates the novel’s concern with challenging binaries, not solely those of man/woman but of friend/enemy and sexual partner/platonic companion.

The second half of the novel is where it really picks up pace, having established its theoretical framework, as our original narrator travels with an exiled Gethenian across a frozen sea – a journey reminiscent of the accounts of Antarctic travellers such as Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the WorldI kept tracing the influence of this novel forward to Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justicewhich also corrects one of the most significant flaws of The Left Hand of Darkness by using ‘she’ rather than ‘he’ to refer to its genderless beings, a thought experiment that, for me, works much better. I’m certain I’ve missed half of what this novel has to say, so I hope I’ll return to it again.

Other recent reads that deal with the cold, and travelling away from, through it, and towards it: Garth Nix’s follow-up to his brilliant Abhorsen trilogy, Goldenhand, which I enjoyed as much as Abhorsen, if not as much as Sabriel or Lirael; and Sally Magnusson’s The Sealwoman’s Gift, a thoroughly engrossing historical novel set between seventeenth-century Iceland and Algiers, which is both genuinely funny and genuinely sad. I especially admired how Magnusson described the meeting of two oral storytelling traditions, as captured Icelandic slaves come into contact with local Muslim women.

Watching

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Passengers (2016) attracted fierce criticism for its misogynistic and antiquated story line when it was initially released. Nevertheless, I can’t resist (a) set-pieces/’locked rooms’ (b) films set in space (c) living spaces full of futuristic breakfast-making technology etc. (d) things going wrong with lots of beeping screens and electronic read-outs, so I was pretty sure I was going to hate the gender politics but enjoy the film anyway. Spoilers for Passengers follow. 

And yes, as the film stands, it’s as sexist as everybody says. If you didn’t follow the original controversy, the film focuses on a ship making its way towards a new home world for humanity. The passengers and crew on board are in suspended animation over the 120-year journey, but when the ship suffers a meteorite strike, one of the pods is damaged, and its passenger, Jim, wakes up ninety years too early. Realising that he’s doomed to live out his life alone on the ship, he becomes fixated on fellow passenger, Aurora, tampers with her pod and wakes her up as well. Aurora and Jim fall in love, but when she finds out what he did, she’s rightly furious. When the ship starts going even more wrong, Jim’s heroic willingness to risk his own life to save others encourages Aurora to forgive him, and they grow old and die together in space.

As a number of people pointed out at the time, this is fundamentally disturbing. Jim essentially murders Aurora, and deliberately places her in a situation where she will become emotionally and socially dependent on him. His behaviour is abusive, and although Aurora is offered the choice of returning to suspended animation near the end of the film through a plot contrivance, Jim could not have known this would happen when he decided to wake her up. Moreover, the way the film is framed reduces Aurora to a passive object that Jim first takes and then has to win back. A recorded message from one of her friends telling her that she needs to learn to give more of herself and not always be so distant and independent underlines the unpleasant message that her enforced ‘love’ for Jim is natural and right.

Nevertheless, I can’t stop thinking about Passengers, basically because it’s one of those films that could so easily have been really good and instead is terrible. As this video (‘Passengers, Rearranged’) outlines, if the structure of the film was flipped and we started in Aurora’s head as she wakes up, the reveal that Jim deliberately did this to her would come as a surprise to the viewers as well. Jim would become a dark grey character, rather than a romantic hero, and the film’s tone would shift more towards horror than sci-fi. Even better, the video suggests that Jim could be killed off in the course of the movie, leaving Aurora alone on the ship – and faced with the same dark choice that he originally struggled with. Framed like this, Passengers could have been less Titanic and more Black Mirror, much more thought-provoking, and far less objectionable.

Thinking

I’m absolutely loving Tim Clare’s Couch to 80k Writing Bootcamp, a free eight-week novel-writing course with a 20-minute podcast including a ten-minute writing exercise every day (with one day off a week). The name, while catchy, is a bit misleading – Clare explicitly advises writers against the kind of NaNoWriMo mentality where you try to get as many words down each day no matter how bad they are, believing it makes you burn out and get put off. Instead, he suggests, you should make writing something you look forward to and stop while you still want to do more – a practice that these podcasts certainly encourage. So you won’t have 80k words by the end, but you’ll hopefully be feeling much more creative and productive.

What’s especially brilliant about it is how flexible it is – it’s really a way of getting you to establish a daily writing habit, so it’s a useful boost whether you’re just starting your very first novel or are bogged down in the third draft of your tenth. For me, it’s helping me do some proper thinking and planning for my new project, which is set in Antarctica (more cold!) and has the working title Old Ice. I love this bootcamp so much that I’m listening to two episodes a day and making it into a four-week writing course, so I’m hoping to be done by Christmas and ready to properly launch into a first draft. Given how many novel-writing courses, offline or online, are prohibitively expensive for those on low incomes (which is not my position at the moment, but used to be for a number of years and may be again in the future) I’m really impressed by Clare’s generosity in providing this gem for free, and I’ll definitely be contributing to his coffee fund.

The elect and the damned

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I wonder, when God permitted us to fall, if He knew we’d fall so far.’

When I was studying early modern history in my first term at university in 2005, one of my lecturers had the job of conveying the significance of the range of Protestant beliefs held in Britain in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to a group of undergraduates, most of whom had probably never been to church. How do you get across how deeply the fate of one’s immortal soul mattered, and how seriously these kind of stakes would have been taken? He decided to thunder from the pulpit. Starting a lecture on Calvinism, he would announce to us: “Some of you are SAVED… and SOME are DAMNED… and NOBODY knows which”. We were mesmerised.

Sarah Perry’s third novel, Melmothwas written while Perry was in almost constant pain from a combination of chronic conditions, but the seeds of it also seem to have been laid during her religious upbringing as a Strict Baptist. In contrast to General Baptists, Strict Baptists hold Calvinist beliefs: in short, as my lecturer explained, the conviction that salvation is restricted to God’s chosen elect, associated with predestination, the belief that this elect were always known to God, and so nothing we do in our earthly lives can influence our final fate. I can’t stop thinking of Melmoth as a kind of Calvinist ghost story, with its eponymous figure, the black-robed woman called Melmoth the Wanderer, turning up at moments in human lives when individuals have to choose to embrace great evil, or turn away from it, even if they are – given their fallen natures – unable to actually do good. In this, it poses a very early modern question: how far do we have free will to reject sin?

Although I now work on much more contemporary history, my fascination with early modern religious belief has never left me, and so it’s not surprising that I devoured this novel. Perry centres her story around a present-day protagonist, Helen Franklin, living a deliberately circumscribed existence in Prague (the accounts of how Helen shuns joy and bodily pleasure echo the behaviour of some strict early modern non-conformists). When Helen’s friend passes her a bundle of documents describing meetings with Melmoth, she is drawn ever further into the vortex of the legend. From a sixteenth-century woman awaiting martyrdom under Mary Tudor, to a German boy who deliberately turns in a Jewish family to the Nazis, to two Turkish brothers who take a bureaucratic but essential role in the persecution of the Armenians, the stories relate both people’s awakening to the fact that they are utterly corrupted and lost, but also moments when they were able to act against what seems to be their fallen natures. Melmoth plays a suitably evangelical role by offering each a choice: will they go with her, or stay away? However, even accepting this temptation does not seem to lead to straightforward results.

While Melmoth has received much critical acclaim, some reviewers, such as Alexandra Harris in the Guardian, have found the ‘spooky entertainment’ of the novel’s Gothic trappings pulls against the atrocities it describes. Susan Hill makes a similar point in the Spectator:

the entertainment of the ghost and semi-horror Gothic novel is stiffened by and set against some genuinely frightening stories of evil deeds… This… sits uneasily against the spookiness and the rustle of old-fashioned garments.

I think these readings of the novel somewhat miss the point. While Perry plays with Gothic tropes – deliberately challenging the ingrained misogyny and racism of the genre that is paraded by writers such as Bram Stoker and, in modern Gothic, H.P. Lovecraft – the roots of Melmoth are not in the Gothic but in a set of religious beliefs that are much older and, for me, much more resonant. To suggest that Melmoth’s challenge sits frivolously alongside the vignettes of the persecution of ethnic and religious minorities, the story of a woman permanently disabled after her boyfriend threw acid in her face, and the spectacle of a gay asylum seeker being deported back home to face abuse, is to miss the stakes of early modern religious commitment. Suffering and pain are bad enough on Earth, but what could be worse than to suffer eternally in Hell? It’s something that Perry, given her upbringing, obviously understands instinctively and it’s something that I worry might be a little lost on some of her audience. Nevertheless, for me, Melmoth was an incredible and unlikely success, conveying that, although we may have abandoned the belief systems that originally motivated these questions about what makes us ‘sinful’ or ‘righteous’, if atonement is possible or if all we can do is admit our guilt, the questions themselves remain unanswered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Genre fiction round-up, January 2018

The horror story

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Laura Purcell’s The Silent Companions has a fantastic premise: set in the nineteenth century, newly widowed Elsie moves into her husband’s creepy old house in the country to find that it’s filled with silent companions made of wood. The first hint that something eerie is going on is the splinters she finds on her husband’s dead face. The novel flashes between Elsie’s growing suspicions of the companions and two other timelines: Elsie imprisoned in a lunatic asylum some time later, and a third narrative thread set in the same house during the reign of Charles I, when the companions were initially purchased.  The companions are genuinely scary – no easy thing to pull off – and there are a number of brilliantly shivery scenes in this novel, especially when Elsie is moving through the house at night! However, although I enjoyed reading this, I thought it could have been stronger. I’m much more of a horror fan than a ghost story fan, and The Silent Companions is annoyingly poised between the two. I struggle with ghost stories because they often run with little internal logic, allowing literally anything to happen, and The Silent Companions falls into this trap, even though the companions ought to have physical limitations (which I think would actually make them more frightening). This is particularly obvious in the twist ending of the novel, which Purcell can deliver because she doesn’t actually need to make everything that’s happened hang together.

Stylistically, The Silent Companions also has a few problems. The seventeenth-century narrative is unconvincing, told in exactly the same voice as the nineteenth-century bits, despite the vast differences between self-narratives in the two time periods. The imagery in the novel around ‘silent companions’ is often too tidily bang-on; our seventeenth-century narrator, Anne, has a daughter, Hetta, who is literally mute, and Elsie has to live alongside her husband’s quiet sister, Sarah, who has been employed as her companion. Entertaining to read next to a log fire at Christmas (as I did) but I was left feeling that this could have been so much more.

The psychological thriller

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Sarah Vaughan’s third novel, Anatomy of a Scandal, sets up a very familiar psychological thriller narrative, with a political twist: rising Tory MP James Whitehouse has been accused of raping a younger female colleague. His wife Sophie doesn’t know who to believe, whereas the prosecuting barrister, Kate, who specialises in sexual assault cases, is determined to convict him. The story of James’s trial is interspersed with flashbacks to his Oxford days, where he got up to no good as a member of the Bullingdon Club (thinly disguised here as the Libertines). Is James guilty? And what happened during his time at Oxford that might come back to haunt him?

Anatomy of a Scandal is an enjoyable read, but I found it surprisingly unsatisfying. Firstly, the structure is awkward; there are five narrators and we’re  introduced to each of them by a lengthy info-dump where they simply think about their life and choices for a long period of time. This is also used later in the novel when we haven’t seen one character’s perspective on events for a while, and it makes the characterisation very clunky, as well as slowing down the pace. Secondly, I actually guessed the central twist early in the novel, which is very unusual for me; I never guess twists. This wasn’t a big deal, but it did make me feel that it was a bit cliched. Thirdly, I think the book could have had more to say about the impact of rape and rape culture. Finally, the ending felt weak and rushed, and I would like to have heard a lot more about the aftermath of what happened. Most obviously, there are two central characters that I felt really ought to have met near the end of the novel. Given the proliferation of much better books on rape trials (Louise Doughty’s Apple Tree Yard and Erin Kelly’s He Said/She Said spring to mind) this isn’t a memorable entry. And – although this obviously isn’t Vaughan’s fault – it already feels incredibly dated. We’re back in a comfortable and confident David Cameron administration where sex scandal is less significant than it was during John Major’s ‘Back to Basics’ and there’s no hint of Brexit or Trump. This all feels off after the rise of #metoo and the growing political crisis engulfing the Tory party.

I received a free proof copy of Anatomy of A Scandal from the publisher for review. 

The sci-fi

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I loved M.R. Carey’s The Girl With All The Gifts, a SF novel set in an imagined dystopia, where huge population loss has decimated Britain and the few survivors hang on in military bases. When I first reviewed it, I was careful to avoid spoilers, but after the success of both the book and the film, it seems safe to say that it’s a zombie novel, although the zombies are known as ‘hungries’ and the mechanism through which the disease spreads as ‘the hungry plague’. This prequel picks up about twenty years earlier. A group of scientists and soldiers are travelling around England in ‘Rosie’, a huge tank-like contraption in which they live and work. Their mission is ostensibly to pick up abandoned research materials in hope that these might provide clues to finding a vaccination for the hungry plague, although it soon becomes clear that several of the team have their own agendas. Again, this sounds like a great set-up, but I found The Boy on the Bridge very disappointing in comparison to The Girl With All The Gifts. The narrative is fragmented between the team, and few of its members are given enough character development to feel like real people. The two that probably get the most page time are scientist Dr Khan and boy genius Stephen, the ‘boy on the bridge’ of the title. Unfortunately, I found both characters frustrating; there’s no emotional centre to this book. While The Girl With All The Gifts also used multiple narrators, Melanie, the ‘girl’, was so significant to the overall story that she held it all together, and the secondary cast are much stronger. I struggled to finish it, and can’t really recommend it.

Seeking a better past: Hilary Mantel’s Reith Lectures

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The Tudors (2007-10)

History is about the probable, whereas historical fiction is about the possible. Or is this too tidy? In the fourth of her Reith lectures [1], Hilary Mantel spoke about the problems that can be created when historical fiction diverges from historical fact, citing the decision of the writers of the TV series The Tudors to combine Henry VIII’s two sisters into a single character. ‘The writers have eaten the future,‘ she said, pointing out that this not only made little historical sense of the remaining sister’s life (and led to the deletion of Mary Queen of Scots!) but obscured the fascinating stories of these two women. ‘The reason you must stick by the truth,’ she argued, addressing the historical novelist, ‘is that it is better, stranger, stronger than anything you can make up.’ Why, though, is this the case? The subtext in Mantel’s words is that writers are likely otherwise to resort to cliche; the truth is better not simply because it is true (and Mantel makes it clear throughout the Reith lectures that she is healthily sceptical of historical ‘truths’) but because it is more interesting. It challenges our assumptions. In other words, it is better to think with.

Hence, it’s not surprising that Mantel also notes throughout these lectures that one of the key jobs of the historical novelist is to explore the difference of the past, and not ‘distort’ historical characters into ‘versions of ourselves’, as tempting as it might be to seek our own faces and voices in the past. ‘A good novelist will have her characters operating within the ethical framework of their day – even if it shocks her readers,’ she notes. Why is this important? In the questions following her third lecture, Mantel expanded. When asked: ‘Isn’t the power of history… because the story is that things were different before and can be different again?’ she replied, ‘I think you’ve nailed it. History, the study of history, is a revolutionary study. If things were not always as they are now, they could be different in the future. They could be better.’

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Pride (2014)

As an historian of twentieth-century Britain who is also working on two historical novels (neither of which is set in twentieth-century Britain) I think what Mantel says here is absolutely right. Historical fiction should not use history simply as window-dressing. There must be a reason for your story to be set in the past, and – unless you are writing something for pure entertainment – that reason should not be solely because you wanted to put your characters into the midst of an exciting battle or interesting political event, but because there was something about the way things worked back then that you want to explore. It’s even less impressive, as Mantel also argues, to use the past as a useful supply of historical horrors to demonstrate how far we’ve come. To give some quick examples from twentieth-century British history, this is why I’ve never been a fan of the films Suffragette (2015) or Made in Dagenham (2010), because they don’t open up that imaginative space; they both present a world in which things were Bad Back Then (no votes for women, no equal pay) but are Better Now (Made in Dagenham conspicuously fails to mention the continuing gender pay gap in its historical update at the end).  In contrast, and regardless of how historically ‘accurate’ any of these films are, Pride (2014), on the story of the 1980s campaign Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, is a much better piece of historical fiction, because it at least confounds some of our expectations about class, sexuality and solidarity.

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Pieter Brugel the Elder, Children’s Games, c.1560.

However, Mantel’s assertions about difference are interesting precisely because many historians have spent much time emphasising that people in the past were not as different as we used to think. To take an example: I’m currently writing a semi-historical novel set in fourteenth-century Cambridgeshire, provisionally entitled A Minute’s Grace. (This novel is only ‘semi-historical’ because it’s a time travel novel, but still.) As I was aware before beginning this novel, a lot of work on medieval and early modern mindsets over the last few decades has been dedicated to squashing myths about absolute difference. Pre-modern people did love their children, despite high infant mortality. Furthermore, they had both a concept of childhood and a concept of youth. They probably had an internal sense of self. This myth-squashing extends to the kind of details that are the most fun for the novelist to play with. Pre-modern people – as Mantel notes – were much cleaner than we believe. Medieval England was not covered in forest. Therefore, as much as an historian-turned-novelist might subscribe to the idea that historical novels should be about difference, research can leave you running up against similarities. And, depending on the stories that we tell about that bit of the past, this can be just as surprising to the reader.

I’ve started to think that one thing historical novelists can usefully do is to engage with popular ideas about the past, rather than history itself (although I totally agree with Mantel when she says that historical fiction and history complement each other). This can be in the pursuit of emphasising ‘sameness’ as well as ‘difference’, if this upsets comfortable ideas about history. Sarah Perry has written about how much she relished presenting women’s social activism in late nineteenth-century Britain in her novel The Essex Serpent (2016), challenging ideas about passive Victorian ladies. In my own fiction, I’m aware there are dominant stories that we tell about the English medieval past that need to be challenged, even though one could theoretically write a fully ‘accurate’ English medieval historical novel without troubling these narratives. For example, inspired by the work of MedievalPOC, Our Migration Story, and the historian Dr Caitlin Green, I wanted to write about a medieval fenland where people of colour are present, even though the story I’m telling isn’t ‘about’ race or ethnicity. In simple statistical terms, the presence of such characters in the particular bit of Cambridgeshire I’m writing about isn’t necessarily probable. But is it possible? Yes. That’s the space in which fiction is written.

I’ll be saying more about story structure and its problems for both historians and novelists in my paper at the Creative Histories conference at the University of Bristol on Thursday July 20th. This blog has been cross-posted on Storying the Past.

[1] Hilary Mantel’s Reith Lectures, plus transcripts, can all be found here.