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.

 

 

Reading round-up, June 2017

June has been a wonderful month for books, if not so much for my 20 Books of Summer challenge – so far, I’ve only read two more from my list! Going to the fantastic Emerald Street literary festival tempted me to buy more books, and NetGalley and publishers have also been kind to me. So, as it’s impossible to review all I have read, but with the feeling that most of these books deserve at least a few lines…

The month started very well with William Boyd’s Restless. I’ve always struggled with literary spy thrillers, and was especially put off by Ian McEwan’s pretentious Sweet Tooth; Restless is the antidote. Boyd doesn’t try to do anything clever other than tell a cracking good story, which doesn’t stop Restless being an intelligent and incredibly well-structured novel led by two genuinely strong (not Strong Female Character strong) women.

9781509818402the wonder_6_jpg_265_400My next read was utterly different. I felt lukewarm about Emma Donoghue’s biggest hit, Room, but have long been a fan of her early novels on contemporary lesbian life (Stir-Fry, Hood) and her more recent historical novels (The Sealed Letter). Her latest, The Wonder, is absolutely compelling. Drawing from historical testimony, the novel, set in the mid-nineteenth century, considers the case of Anna O’Donnell, a young Irish girl who seems to be surviving on little more than a few tablespoons of water a day. Her poor Catholic family claim that she has been blessed by God, and Anna herself is profoundly religious. But when Lib, an English nurse who trained with Florence Nightingale in the Crimea, is employed to test the truth of the O’Donnells’ story, she finds far more beneath the surface – even if the secrets she uncovers are not the kind that she initially expected. Despite its simple plot-line, this story only becomes more gripping as it continues, driven by the acute contrast between Anna’s fading body and her steadfastly determined mind.

coverI was hugely looking forward to Helen Sedgwick’s The Comet Seekers, which was why I put it on my 20 Books of Summer list in the first place. Its fragmented narrative broadly follows two characters: the story of astronomer Róisín, who yearns to travel and moves between a series of postdocs, research projects and homes as she follows the stars, and chef François, who has grown up watching his mother Severine talk to her family ghosts. The novel opens arrestingly, as Róisín flees the Antarctic base where she is working and shelters in a small red tent against the rage of winter storms. The image of the red tent is one that is stitched throughout the novel, re-emerging at a number of crucial moments, and certainly I could almost see its glow against the white of the Antarctic sky. Unfortunately, I didn’t find that the novel lived up to its early promise. The threads become too fragmented, as we follow comets as far back as 1066 to meet early ancestors of the main characters; I loved Róisín’s refusal to settle, her rejection of motherhood, but still didn’t feel that I really got to know her; and the prose felt too diffused, too airy. This unkind and uncharitable review in the Scotsman calls this cadence ‘mimsical realism’, and while I don’t agree with much of what this reviewer says, I’d like a term for the kind of novel that is so removed from reality while not introducing fantasy or science-fiction tropes (I don’t think the ghosts count). There’s a trace of this in Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale, which I also sped through this month. It’s something that I do struggle to engage with, although Sedgwick’s writing is wonderful, and I’m still looking forward to seeing her tackle something more concrete in her next novel, The Growing Season.

9781408870570I also read one of my most anticipated popular non-fiction releases this year, Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge. Eddo-Lodge’s original blog post on the subject, describing the emotional labour of trying to get white people to understand their racial privilege, has stayed with me ever since I first read it, and it’s reproduced in a modified form hereAs Eddo-Lodge has noted on Twitter, publishing this book has ironically meant that she’s forced to have ever more conversations with unsympathetic white people about race – from those who follow her at conferences to the woman ‘loudly bursting into guilty tears’ at an event where she was talking about her work. It’s such vivid descriptions of how it feels to have to constantly justify one’s own experiences to people who either refuse to listen or talk about their own guilt rather than truly focusing on the experiences of the person who has actually experienced racism that make Why I’m No Longer Talking… stand out. To an extent, I recognise that a lot of this book wasn’t really meant for me, in that I’m already familiar with much of the historical and sociological information that Eddo-Lodge cites. Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a vital and useful text – especially the chapter on black British history, which is inevitably sweeping, but fills an important gap that was much discussed at the History Matters conference I attended a couple of years ago. In brief, black British history, apart from the history of slavery, is rarely taught in British schools, and black British schoolchildren deserve to hear the kind of history that their white British peers take for granted. Any criticism of Eddo-Lodge’s chapter for being too simplistic, therefore, is misplaced, because in terms of popular knowledge (if not academic knowledge) of black British history, she’s basically starting from scratch. I also found the chapter on white feminism incredibly thought-provoking, although it left me with some questions. Most importantly, Eddo-Lodge seems to equate ‘white feminism’ with the liberal feminism of Sheryl Sandberg of Lean In fame [1] – the blinkered assumption that the key issues facing all women are how to secure places in the boardroom and break the ‘glass ceiling’. While she rightly critiques this kind of feminism, I wondered what she thought about other forms of feminism – for example, socialist feminism – that pay much more attention to the needs of working-class women but can be equally blind on questions of race. In other words, I was worried that the definition of white feminism she puts forward here was too narrow – although, to be fair, a full critique would easily fill a book on its own. Come to think of it, that’s certainly a book that I’d love to see Eddo-Lodge write.

Alongside Eddo-Lodge’s book, I read another of my 20 Books of Summer, Paul Beatty’s brilliant novel The Sellout, which takes questions of race that we often believe can only be mentioned in serious tones and puts a brutally satirical twist on them. It’s almost impossible to describe, but I would certainly recommend it.

cover-1Finally, I’ve managed to acquire a number of books that are not on my 20 Books of Summer list. I’m so excited about Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill, which has just won the Desmond Elliot Prize. I’ve picked up two NetGalley proofs – Tracy Chevalier’s New Boy, a retelling of Othello set in a 1970s Washington DC elementary school [2], and Imogen Hermes Gower’s debut The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, which is about late-eighteenth century mermaids, and has an absolutely gorgeous cover. I bought Things I Would Tell You at the Emerald Street festival, which is a collection of British Muslim women’s fiction and non-fiction edited by Sabrina Mahfouz, with contributors ranging from big names like Kamila Shamsie, Leila Aboulela and Ahdaf Soueif to a Muslim teenager. I can’t wait to dive into it. Finally, I also purchased Stuart Dybek’s The Start of Something: Selected Stories at the beautiful Livraria Lello, a bookshop in Porto – partly because it was one of the few English books they had that I hadn’t already heard of.

[1] I am not sure if Sheryl Sandberg could be termed a liberal feminist herself, but this is certainly the school of thought that her work has been associated with.

[2] I’ve already read this. It’s not very good. Full review coming soon!

A vale of tears

61GXMNHp7iL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_When sentencing the killers of sixteen-year-old Becky Watts in November 2015, the presiding judge, Mr Justice Dingemans, broke down in tears. This was seen as so unusual it was reported in the press, although sympathetically. The chief investigating officer defended him: ‘The judge was addressing the family and reacted in an entirely understandable way. He’s a human being and not a robot. It does not affect his integrity or the exemplary way in which he conducted the trial.’ While this statement is obviously supportive, it is clear that some explanation was perceived to be required for the judge’s tears, despite the horrendous nature of this particular case. In mid-eighteenth century to mid-nineteenth century Britain, however, crying judges were not nearly as notable. As Thomas Dixon relates, one such judge, Sir James Shaw Willes, cried when hearing the case of a mother who had poisoned her baby: ‘at one time he buried his face in his note-book and shed tears and seemed almost unable to proceed with the evidence.’ The tide was turning by the 1850s, and Willes’s outbursts were criticised; earlier, ‘weeping judges were a regular feature of public justice.’

What has changed since the mid-eighteenth century to make the crying judge such an unusual figure? Although Weeping Britannia covers a remarkable range of case studies, the descriptions of these displays of emotion from the judiciary were how I first encountered Dixon’s work (he gave a fantastic paper at the Cambridge Cultural History seminar a few years ago). The idea seems so counter-intuitive from a modern perspective because we associate judges with impartiality, objectivity and reserve; qualities that we no longer associate with tears, hence the chief investigating officer’s insistence that Dingeman’s integrity was not compromised. But one of the key messages of Dixon’s book is that the ‘stiff upper lip’ was a brief, modern British phenomenon that dominated only the years 1880 to 1945, and that before (and now, after) that period, ‘masculine’ qualities such as dignity and objectivity were not compromised by a more emotional style. Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling (1771) makes a predictable appearance, but Dixon also examines earlier examples, such as the weeping of both Charles I and Oliver Cromwell. More subtly, he argues that we need to unpick the cultural meaning of tears in these earlier periods, challenging our assumption that tears are always linked with emotion rather than reason; for example, in his exploration of the mid-eighteenth century philosophers who argued that tears were the supreme expression of rationality, distinguishing man from the animals. ‘A tear is an intellectual thing,’ asserted William Blake.

Weeping Britannia is very accessible to general readers because of the division of the book into relatively self-contained case studies that are easy to dip in and out of. On the whole, this is pulled off very skilfully, without compromising the integrity of the argument as a whole, with perhaps the exception of the very first chapter on Margery Kempe; this felt isolated from the central concerns of the book, and chronologically, it is also removed from even the earliest of the other case studies by more than a hundred and fifty years, the biggest leap that Dixon makes. Nevertheless, I can see that it was included as a kind of counterpoint to what is to come. Although I understand why the book was written the way it was, as an historian, I’d love to read a lengthier exploration of some of the case studies here; crying judges would be high on my list, but the chapter on wartime British cinema seemed full of relatively untapped potential as well, especially if Mass Observation’s studies were used more extensively. Nevertheless, this book is a crucial contribution to the still relatively undeveloped field of the history of the emotions, and like other offerings in that vein, its greatest usefulness is perhaps to provide a refreshing new perspective on debates that have grown rather dry.