20 Books of Summer, #17: Exhalation

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Exhalation, Ted Chiang’s second collection of short stories, is even better than his exhilarating Stories of Your Life and Others (although I’m sad about the UK cover; why can’t we have this beautiful US one, as well as a decently produced hardback?) For me, more of the stories in Exhalation than in Stories of Your Life managed to blend Chiang’s incredible intelligence with a solid emotional core, and when Chiang does this, he’s unbeatable. The opening story, ‘The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate’ was, for me, the most satisfying: Chiang effortlessly handles complicated single-timeline time travel and its emotional consequences, while packaging it in a literary form – the nested stories of The Arabian Nights – to which it is absolutely suited. Although, [spoiler] I couldn’t help speculating that the narrator, by travelling back to intercept the comforting news being brought to his former self, had inadvertently condemned his former self to a lifetime of guilt, motivating him to travel back in the first place, which he doesn’t seem to register! [spoilers end]. I know from bitter experience how difficult it is to write time travel this elegantly, and I can only applaud (and envy) Chiang.

The two novellas included in the collection are also both fantastic, although for me, not quite as perfect as ‘The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate’. ‘The Lifecycle of Software Objects’ imagines a world where ‘digients’, virtual, teachable pets who seem to operate on the level of a chimp with language skills, have been created, and the ethical issues that this throws up. Humans swiftly get bored with their digients and move onto the next thing, except for a group of hardcore owners, our narrator among them, who’ve formed real emotional bonds with their virtual creatures and are trying to find a way for them to live better lives. As ever, Chiang thinks about the details: one obstacle the owners face is the obsolescence of the digital platform on which the digients were living their social lives, and the need for new coding to allow them to continue to interact with digients who run on other servers. However, this story is particularly notable for the potential parallels it draws. The analogy with human children is somewhat imperfect (digients seem much less capable than children, even when the number of years they’ve been alive is factored in) but works when we start thinking about why we have children: can it ever be right to create something just so we can love it?

‘Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom’ (the title is taken from Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Anxiety) also dissects a familiar time-travel trope, although it’s not a time travel story: in this novella, humans are able to converse with their ‘paraselves’ who are living in alternative timelines that have split off from the timeline they are living in following quantum events. A lot of time travel novels (including mine…) use this trope, drawn from  Hugh Everett’s many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, to allow time travel between parallel timelines rather than within a single timeline. Chiang stresses that new timelines, in this story, don’t break off whenever anyone makes a decision but only in certain circumstances; however, it is often possible to converse with a paraself in a timeline where a significant decision has turned out differently, whether that’s leaving a marriage, taking a new job, or admitting to a crime. Chiang glosses this story most succinctly in his own ‘Story Notes’ (I could happily read a volume of Chiang’s ‘Story Notes’): ‘Some have pointed out that when Martin Luther defended his actions to the church in 1521, he reportedly said, “Here I stand, I can do no other,” i.e. he couldn’t have done anything else. But does that mean we shouldn’t give Luther credit for his actions? Surely we don’t think he would be worthier of praise if he had said, “I could have gone either way.”… If you could somehow examine a multitude of Martin Luthers across many worlds, I think you’d have to go far afield to find one that didn’t defy the church, and that would say something about the kind of person he was.’

These kinds of themes – our relationship with our former or alternative selves, our moral responsibility for the choices we make that could have ‘gone either way’, and whether we are the sum of our choices or our circumstances – are prominent in all of my own fiction, so unsurprisingly, I found the story fascinating, although the ending was a little unsatisfying. Chiang is rightly concerned to demonstrate that the many-worlds interpretation does not mean our choices are meaningless (because there is an alternative universe where we made the opposite choice) and I agree with his take on it; parallel timelines can surely be separated from our own world by various degrees of difference, and some situations are not so neatly reducible to a single individual’s choice.  However, in a particular incident that dogs one character, it seems to be suggested that a choice she regrets made no difference because the friend she betrayed would have taken the same path in life anyway. I would like Chiang to have delved a little deeper into this theme (which he does address in a parallel plotline): how does making selfish choices hurt us and our future selves, even if they have no actual impact? (Coincidentally, while reading background material on Samantha Harvey’s All Is Song, another of my 20 Books of Summer, I came across this interview where she discusses exactly that.)

There are other excellent stories in this collection, such as ‘Omphalos’, which considers what would have happened if God had created the world, and humanity realised we were not at the centre of his universe – but a few of the others fell into the trap I wrote about in my review of Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others, lacking emotional commitment and taking place in a blank void: ‘Exhalation’, ‘What’s Expected Of Us’, ‘The Great Silence’ and ‘The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling’. Chiang always gives you lots to think about, but he doesn’t always make you feel. Meanwhile, ‘Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny’, which postulates that interwar American behaviourist child psychologists such as John F. Watson and B.F. Skinner went a step further by designing a mechanical automaton to see to a child’s needs, made me smile, but didn’t feel terribly fresh to me (probably because I’ve written on behaviourism in my historical research, and thought this was a bit of a simplistic take on how childrearing advice developed in the first half of the twentieth century). Nevertheless, this collection is stunning, the percentage of hits is higher than in Stories of Your Life, and it’s got to be one of my favourite books of the year so far.

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20 Books of Summer, #15 and #16: The Good Immigrant USA and Fruit of the Drunken Tree

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The Good Immigrant USA, edited by Nikesh Shukla and Chimene Suleyman, is the American follow-up to Shukla’s previous edited collection, The Good Immigrant, which focused on Britain. Both collections feature a range of essays from immigrants to these countries talking about their own experiences and challenging stereotypes, but for me at least, the two books have a very different feel. The Good Immigrant was more personal and more anecdotal, and it was definitely funnier; while there were, of course, essays that didn’t employ humour at all, many other contributors used it to effect to make serious points, such as comedian Nish Kumar’s ‘Is Nish Kumar A Confused Muslim?’, about becoming a racist meme, and actor ‘Miss L’s’ ‘The Wife of A Terrorist’, which explained how, as a brown woman, she’s always typecast as a traditional Middle Eastern wife, often of a terrorist.

In contrast, The Good Immigrant USA takes a more literary and a less journalistic tone, and many of the essays require more sustained effort, although the effort is repaid. It feels also more wide-ranging, reflecting the US’s racial mix, from Adrián and Sebastián Villar Rojas’s essay about the history of Argentina’s colonial encounters, ‘Juana Azurdy Versus Christopher Columbus’, to Porochista Kapoor’s meditation on becoming pigeonholed by your ethnic identity, ‘How to Write Iranian-American, Or The Last Essay’. There’s also a didactic earnestness in a few of the essays in this collection that’s missing from their British counterparts: for example, Jim St. Germain’s essay on Haiti, ‘Shithole Nation’. None of this makes one collection superior or inferior, but they aren’t simply transatlantic versions of each other. The Good Immigrant had more of an impact on me, but I think this was partly the result of having read much less about race and immigration when I encountered it.

One feature of The Good Immigrant USA which wasn’t present in The Good Immigrant is the inclusion of essays by white or white-passing immigrants as well as ethnic minorities. This perhaps says something about the two countries’ attitudes to immigration, but I also found this a helpful and interesting addition to The Good Immigrant USA, allowing the writers to explicitly reflect on white privilege while also reflecting the experience of growing up caught between two cultures. Maeve Higgins writes well about the long tradition of Irish immigration to the US (‘Luck of the Irish’), but I was particularly captivated by Jean Hannah Edelstein’s ‘An American, Told’ (I also loved her memoir This Really Isn’t About You), which focused on having a British mother and Jewish father, and growing up between Britain and the US. Personally, having also moved between the two countries, I identified with what she said about not really feeling British or American. Although I fall much more on the British side of the equation, I still sometimes fall through those cracks (as a recent discussion about ‘frowns’ on Twitter reminded me; I’m on the Americans’ side with that one!).

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Ingrid Rojas Contreras, who is from Bogotá but now lives in San Francisco, could easily have contributed (and I suspect, very interestingly) to The Good Immigrant USA. Her debut novel, Fruit of the Drunken Tree, draws on her experience of growing up in a gated community in Colombia in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It focuses on two children, Chula and her sister Cassandra, and the close relationship they develop with their teenage maid Petrona, who is from what they term the invasión, one of the guerrilla-occupied shanty towns that have grown up on the outskirts of Bogotá. As the girls witness the rise of drug lord Pablo Escobar and the violent incidents that surround them, they cling more tightly to Petrona as an emissary from an outside world they do not understand. But their family’s connection with Petrona will also bring them into danger.

Contreras is obviously a gifted writer, and the afterword of this novel, which explains how it links to her own personal experience, is exceptionally moving. Her website says that ‘She is working on a family memoir about her grandfather, a curandero from Colombia who it was said had the power to move clouds’, and I’d absolutely love to read that. Having read only one other novel set in Colombia (Julianne Pachico’s The Lucky Oneswhich also kicks off in the early 1990s) this was refreshingly different, in some ways, from what I usually read. However, it also rehashes some familiar tropes about children encountering a conflict that they don’t understand (I thought the novel would have been much more interesting if narrated by the mother), and the pacing is askew, with virtually everything that happens squashed into the last hundred pages. I found myself wondering if Contreras had been tripped up by trying to translate her own childhood into fictional form, and if her life-writing might work better for me. Fruit of the Drunken Tree is effective page-by-page, but I found the book as a whole frustrating.

20 Books of Summer, #14: A People’s Future of the United States

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Victor LaValle’s and John Joseph Adams’s edited collection of speculative fiction, A People’s History of the United States, has a brilliant premise. As LaValle explains in his introduction, the title riffs on Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States (1980), which, in the words of the jacket copy, was the first book ‘to tell America’s story from the point of view of – and in the words of – America’s women, factory workers, African-Americans, Native Americans, the working poor, and immigrant laborers.’ Whether or not this historiographical claim is true, LaValle and Adams used this famous text as a jumping-off point for this collection. They, LaValle writes, ‘decided to ask a gang of incredible writers to imagine the years, decades, even the centuries, to come. And to have tales told by those, and/or about those, who history often sees fit to forget.’ The jacket copy of this book doubles down on LaValle’s framing, suggesting that: ‘Knowing that imagining a brighter tomorrow has always been an act of resistance, [the editors] asked for narratives that would challenge oppressive American myths, release us from the chokehold of our history, and give us new futures to believe in.’

My disappointment with the majority of this collection, therefore, stems both from the fact that most of the stories here don’t do this, and the fact that the stories that do are almost always head and shoulders above their predictable dystopian counterparts. While many of the snatches of misery here are well-written, do we really need another set of futures that envisage the bureaucratic oppression of trans and non-binary people (A. Merc Rustad’s ‘Our Aim Is Not to Die’), imagine high-tech gay conversion therapy (Violet Allen’s ‘The Synapse Will Free Us From Ourselves’), allow no access to contraception or abortion (Justina Ireland’s ‘Calendar Girls’) or predict the reinstatement of enslavement (Lesley Nneka Arimah’s ‘The Referendum’*)? Not only are these stories pessimistic, they are usually unimaginative; it doesn’t take much to think of a future where things are uniformly worse. But history doesn’t usually march towards progress or slide towards despair; realistic futures will be a mix of both. Moreover, these stories usually have very little to say about identity other than that we shouldn’t oppress others; to me, the diversity, especially around LGBT+ identities, often feels tick-box rather than significant (for example, in Seanan MacGuire’s ‘Harmony’).

*I still love Arimah’s writing, though: for better work by her, both realistic and speculative, check out her collection, What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky.

These stories, however, still work on some level; for me, the absolute failures in this collection – which were in the minority, but still all too frequent – were the stories where the writer seemed to have misunderstood how fiction functions. These stories spelt out their messages so simplistically that they left no space for creativity. By far the worst was Ashok K. Banker’s ‘By His Bootstraps’, which imagines a future where a president who strongly resembles Donald Trump has used a bioweapon meant to return America to its original genetic purity. In case you can’t guess where this is going, Banker has one of the characters tell you: ‘Mr President, you gave the order to deploy Operation Clean Sweep because you thought – we all did – that it would be a clean sweep of our country’s racial diversity, restoring America to the white Christian nation we all believed it once had been. But that was a myth. America has always been an ethnically diverse myth, a melting pot of races and cultures.’ Not only is this terrible writing, it also seems strikingly naive about how white supremacy functions; as if white supremacists would realise the error of their ways if they attended more history lessons.

Amongst all this, however, are some absolute stars. Malka Older’s ‘Chapter 5: Disruption and Continuity (Excerpted)’ is simply brilliant, recalling Ted Chiang’s ‘Story of Your Life’ in how it plays with tenses to deploy its central concept. Readers may have different interpretations of this story, which is written in the style of an academic monograph, but for me, it seemed to come from a future where time travel has become an accepted research method for historians, leading to this kind of baffling but glorious analysis by ‘futurists’:

“Civil society” will become, in the absence of strong political institutions, just “society”, while without coherent corporations “social media” will become just “media”. While we can describe these transitions, from a distance, as neutral changes or even positive outcomes of creative destruction, it is important to remember that for people living in that time, such drastic shifts are disorienting and frightening.

I loved the idea of getting away from teleological narratives of ‘everything got better’ or ‘everything got worse’ by imagining historians as observers of a range of past and future time periods, able to pity or admire the future as much as the past. Older takes the challenge posed by the editor head on, and her story seems to frame the whole collection.

Similarly, I appreciated Omar El Akkad’s ‘Riverbed’, which envisages a future US making reparations for the forced displacement and internment of its Muslim citizens, because of El Akkad’s willingness to imagine a scenario that isn’t wholly negative or positive. The assertiveness of its main character, Khadija, at the airport and with her taxi driver, subtly makes the point that she’s operating in very different circumstances than Muslim women do today, but the horrors of her past show how easily we could tip into this kind of atrocity. El Akkad’s American War, which I read for last year’s 20 Books of Summer, didn’t really work for me, but this story underlined what a promising writer he is. Daniel H. Wilson’s ‘A History of Barbed Wire’, which imagines a reservation built by the Cherokee Nation with a wall to keep refugees out, also strikes an interesting balance.

Finally, the editors irritatingly group a number of the best stories near the end of the collection. Charles Yu’s ‘Good News Bad News’ and N.K. Jemisin’s ‘Give Me Cornbread Or Give Me Death’ both use humour to great effect; Yu’s story, in particular, slips between satire and chilling realism as he quotes from invented news stories about racist robots, sentient trees and an automated Congress. Jemisin has fun with a more fantastic tale of dragons who are persuaded not to feed on the populace by being given various spicy vegetable dishes instead. G. Willow Wilson’s ‘ROME’, though not as original as other offerings, tells an enticingly human story about a group of people trying to finish their automated English tests while the street burns around them because voters didn’t want to pay taxes for firefighters.

However, the stand-out entry in A People’s Future of the United States is probably the very last one. Alice Sola Kim’s ‘Now Wait For This Week’ (read it here) flips the familiar Groundhog Day trope to tell the repeating week from the perspective of the time traveller’s perplexed friends. This both works brilliantly on a story level and helps Kim illuminate wider narratives about the endless ‘Me Too’ media cycle that lacks real justice, because it doesn’t tackle the structural causes of men’s behaviour. Kim also trusts her readers to join the dots without having everything spelt out for them, both structurally and thematically. Speculative fiction writers, this is how it’s done: more like this, please?

20 Books of Summer, #12 and #13: Memories of the Future and The Untelling

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Siri Hustvedt’s new novel, Memories of the Future, is on the face of it an entry in a very familiar genre; young provincial woman goes to New York in 1979 to immerse herself in art, living in a sketchy apartment and working exploitative and/or weird jobs to make ends meet. And as an example of this genre, I’ve read better even just within my 20 Books of Summer (Self-Portrait With Boy is both more interesting on making art and more evocative of a vanished world). However, Memories of the Future is less about the specific content of its narrator’s past, and more about how we interact with our own pasts and futures. And in this, it is superb:

In our plain old human world, the young woman who lifts her eyes when she hears the door open at the Hungarian Pasty Shop in September 1978 becomes the ageing woman who sits here now in September 2016 in her study in a house in Brooklyn and types the sentence you are reading in your own present… But over there in Minkowski spacetime, the still girlish “I” and the much older “I” coexist, and in that startling 4D reality, the two of us can theoretically find each other and shake hands… What is memory if my earlier self is still out there somewhere, unchanged?

As the narrator, called ‘S.H’ in keeping with the autofictional theme, or ‘Minnesota’ by her friends, explores the diaries she kept at the time and riffles through her own memories, she keeps on returning to these paradoxes of time. Hustvedt is especially good on trauma:

I, the old narrator, am asking myself why my former self waited. I am so ashamed of waiting. I have been ashamed of waiting for almost four decades now and my humiliation does not end. No, it burns brightly… It is as if I am still that young woman outside the elevator unable to move… There must be a way to move her from that spot.

This review argues that Memories of the Future is more of an essay than a novel, and I agree; the parts of this book that came closer to fiction, such as S.H.’s relationship with her monologuing neighbour, Lucy Brite, and S.H.’s attempts at a novel, were the parts that worked least well for me. This could have been a much slimmer volume, and I think it would have been the better for it. Nevertheless, when it’s good, it’s really good.

Thanks to Rebecca for passing on her proof copy of Memories of the Future!

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There’s something about Tayari Jones’s writing that really works for me; the stories she’s telling are not always especially captivating, but her prose packs an emotional punch. The Untelling, her second novel, recalls the way Hustvedt writes about trauma by exploring how the relationships between its protagonist, Aria, and her mother and older sister have never really recovered from a devastating car crash which killed both Aria’s father and her baby sister. When Aria, now twenty-five, suspects that she is pregnant, the secrets that the surviving family members have kept from each other begin unravelling, challenging the ‘tellings’ that have become accepted over the intervening years. Aria’s story is juxtaposed with that of Keisha, a teenager who she is tutoring for the GED exam via a local literacy programme, who has also just announced her pregnancy.

In some ways, The Untelling is simplistic and a little melodramatic; in this, it recalls Jones’s An American Marriagewhich I read for last year’s 20 Books of Summer, more closely than her debut, Leaving Atlantawhich I thought was much more subtle. Nevertheless, Jones gets away with a lot of it because of how real her characters feel and how well she conveys their individual tragedies. The plot is relatively slight, but takes some unexpected twists, and like all Jones’s writing, it’s so readable. (It’s a shame it’s been burdened with such a hideous cover, which also makes it look like it’s set in a nineteenth-century asylum; hopefully, given the huge success of An American Marriage, Jones’s backlist will be reissued, and will also be made available in the UK).

The Literary Fiction Book Tag

Thanks to Rachel from pace, amore, libri for tagging me for this!

1. How do you define literary fiction?

I’ve written about this here but I actually now prefer Emma Darwin’s definition. Here’s an excerpt from it: ‘all fiction works by integrating the familiar (the world that readers experience themselves) with the new (what they don’t know themselves), in varying proportions… [but] when it comes to the proportions of originality to familiarity, there’s more originality, in more aspects (plot, character, prose, ideas etc. etc.) than in commercial fiction. The more that’s original and the more original it is, the more challenging it will be to read.’

2. Name a literary fiction novel with a superb character study

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I’m actually not as fervent a fan of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History as many others seem to be (I think her The Little Friend is a better novel, and that Tana French’s The Likeness takes on a number of the same themes more interestingly) but this was the first title that came to mind when I thought about characterisation. There are a number of vignettes that have stuck with me. Henry knowing everything about classical culture but only just finding out that man has landed on the moon, and struggling to believe it. The twins, Charles and Camilla, working out their alibi  – they’ve decided to say they were seeing a movie – and then starting to argue over the meaning of the movie that is their alibi for murder, because they’re twins and that’s what they do. The sweet stupidity of Bunny’s father as he dotes over the small children in his family, even as we know the harm his unthinking privilege can wreak.

3. Name a literary fiction novel that has experimental or unique writing

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Uzodinma Iweala’s Speak No Evil did not get the love it deserved (especially given the inexplicable praise of his far inferior debut, Beasts of No Nation). It follows a black, gay teenager trying to fit in at his exclusive DC private school, but is distinguished by its prose, adopting an experimental literary style that effortlessly blends dialogue and interior monologue in a way that can occasionally be jolting but is usually exhilarating. Despite this, it’s not difficult to read at all; this was one of my top ten novels of 2018.

4. Name a literary fiction novel with an interesting structure

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Evie Wyld’s All The Birds, Singing, another massively under-appreciated novel that should have won all the prizes going in the year it was published, switches between first-person chapters narrated in past tense and set in the present which move forward in time, and first-person chapters narrated in present tense and set in the past which move backwards in time. This sounds confusing, but it isn’t; our brilliant protagonist, a woman called Jake, easily ties the two together. Half the novel is set on a remote sheep farm on an island off the coast of Britain; the other half is set in the Australian outback. It’s unusual to find a novel that’s both so intelligent and so moving, and this is why I’m waiting so impatiently for Evie Wyld’s new book.

5. Name a literary fiction novel that explores social themes

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Sarah Hall’s The Carhullan Army is the best feminist dystopia I’ve ever read (sorry, Margaret Atwood). Set in the near future in Penrith, it follows a youngish woman, Sister, who strikes out from her regimented life in the town to join a female collective, Carhullan, in the wilderness. This novel is feminist not because it glorifies women, but because it explores both the violence and the love that develops in this single-sex settlement, and what women might be like if they lived and ran their own space. Everything Hall’s written is worth reading, but this remains my favourite – and given that it was first published in 2007, it now feels extraordinarily prescient.

6. Name a literary fiction novel that explores the human condition

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I have to second Rachel’s suggestion of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, but I’ll also add Sebastian Faulks’ Engleby, which I wrote about here as a guest post on At Home With Books. I’m not especially keen on most of Faulks’ novels, but this book, which starts with the disappearance of a Cambridge student in the 1970s, emerges from Faulks’ fascination with the human brain, and the ways in which it’s ill-adapted to a temporal existence. This picks up on the concerns expressed in his previous novel Human Traces and his subsequent novel A Possible Life, but I think Engleby is the best of the three. The narration is often weird but consistently fascinating, and Faulks writes so well about human consciousness, our sense of modernity, and what Siri Hustvedt might call ‘memories of the future’.

7. Name a brilliant literary-hybrid genre novel

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My FAVOURITE thing. There are so many I could name, but I’ll go for Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale For The Time Being, an exhilarating mix of literary and speculative fiction. This melts between reality and fantasy so effortlessly as it follows the stories of Ruth and Nao. I must re-read this.

8. What genre do you wish was mixed with literary fiction more?

I love speculative literary fiction, as above, but it doesn’t always fall firmly enough into the realm of the speculative for me; so let’s say literary sci-fi. I know from bitter experience (writing my own!) that these two genres are not an easy combination, but when it’s pulled off, as it is in Nina Allen’s The Rift and Kate Mascarenhas’s The Psychology of Time Travelthe results can be extraordinary.

I don’t tend to tag anyone in posts, but if you haven’t done this tag already, I’d love to hear your answers!

20 Books of Summer, #10 and #11: Chemistry and Inland

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Weike Wang’s Chemistry is a weird little book which I didn’t love as much as I think I was supposed to, but nevertheless enjoyed reading. Our unnamed narrator is pursuing a PhD in organic chemistry at a demanding Boston university and struggling with her relationship with boyfriend Eric, who has asked her to marry him. The novel, however, is really about parental pressure, and about dealing with that in the face of US cultural stereotypes about Chinese parents:

There is a new episode of the cooking show and a Chinese American chef is competing… In between rounds, she talks about her upbringing. Her mother was very quiet. Her father was very strict. They expected certain things of her and cooking was not one of them. But here she is… There is then a round of applause from the judges.

But… my mother is quiet like a lot of Asian mothers. And my father is strict like a lot of Asian fathers. And we are unhappy like a lot of Asian families… 

It was the Chinese roommate who first said to me, We are our own worst propagators of these cliches. We are constantly throwing each other under the bus. But I am also angry at these judges. Why encourage this of us, to constantly rebel, without understanding why some of us do not?

From the blurb, I’d expected this to have more to say about both academia and chemistry, although there’s some nice black humour about the former: 

In Arizona, a PhD advisor dies. Authorities blame the grad student who shot him, but grad students around the world blame the advisor. No student can graduate without the advisor’s approval. This advisor had kept the student in lab for seventeen years, believing him too valuable to be let go or simply having gone insane. I think, Kudos to the student for making it to seventeen years. I would have shot someone at ten.

My adviser is more reasonable than that, which is why he is still alive.

Our narrator often refers to scientific metaphors, but she’s as likely to draw from the physics of light or the science of cell structure than chemistry as such. (I know chemistry is also involved in these things, but from the little we find out about what the protagonist is studying, it does seem to be what a school student might think of as chemistry, with mentions of fume hoods and corrosive chemicals). I’m starting to find this kind of quirky, woman-failing-in-academia narration quite familiar – see also Melissa Broder’s The Pisces and Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s Starling Days – but I got enough of a sense of the quietly resisting, dryly funny narrator to keep me going.

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Téa Obreht’s first novel, The Tiger’s Wife, was one of my stand-out novels from the last decade, so I approached her long-awaited second novel, Inland, with both excitement and trepidation. The central plot thread of Inland is set over one long, thirsty day in a small settlement called Amargo in the Arizona Territory in 1893. Nora’s husband has failed to return to their homestead with with fresh water, so she’s watching the level of her household bucket inexorably reduce as she curses her three irritating sons, two of whom are also absent, and her housemaid Josie, who’s insisting she’s seen a strange beast out in the gulch. Josie has a habit of conversing with what she calls ‘the other living’, or ghosts, which also annoys Nora, even though she regularly chats with the spirit of her dead daughter, Evelyn, who she believes is bound to their house. In a second thread, Lurie, a Turkish immigrant on the run from the law, joins up with the Camel Corps to travel through the parched West and narrates his life story to beloved camel Burke. These two stories knot together in the final pages of the book, as Obreht soars into a dazzling, stream-of-consciousness ending.

Inland is a slow, immersive and impressive novel. Obreht is such a talented writer; this is a very different book from The Tiger’s Wife, yet the way she conjures up the mindset of the homesteaders in this parched and lonely land is spot-on. She writes so well about a shifting landscape peopled by settlers of all races, from whites to ‘Arabs’ to Mexicans, by Native Americans, and by ghosts. I sometimes struggle with such an obvious supernatural presence in a novel, but Obreht balances it perfectly; the grit of Nora’s narration is leavened by her matter-of-fact dialogues with Evelyn. The campaign that Nora conducts via her husband’s newspaper to try and stop the county seat being moved from Amargo to Ash River, which would leave the settlement even more isolated, is both humorous and tense. There’s something reminiscent of Eleanor Catton’s New Zealand-set The Luminaries in the way that Obreht explores a tight-knit pioneer community with dark things brewing under the surface. However, the main narrative was undercut for me by Lurie’s sections, which I found much less engaging, although I loved the final resolution of his story. Because of this, Inland was a novel that I appreciated intellectually, but didn’t take to my heart in the same way as The Tiger’s Wife.

Inland was part of my 4.5 Star Challenge: unfortunately, this is another book that’s fallen short, as I only rated it four stars. Will any book ever manage to live up to my expectations?!

I received a free proof copy of Inland from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on August 13th.

20 Books of Summer, #9: Happiness

9781408893302

Jean is researching the habits of urban foxes in London, far from her native New England and from her ex-husband and young adult son, neither of whom seem to need her very much any more. Attila, a Ghanaian psychiatrist specialising in PTSD who has worked in conflict zones ranging from Bosnia to Sierra Leone, is in London to attend a conference but is also looking for his friend’s young son, who has gone missing. Happiness, Aminatta Forna’s fourth novel, thus picks up on the themes of war and displacement that were prominent in her previous novels The Memory of Love and The Hired Manbut also adeptly views London from beneath. Attila recruits street workers to help him with his search, reflecting ‘He had a city of eight million people, he had a lost boy and he had a team of doormen and dustmen.’ Jean uses the same informal network to record sightings of the foxes she’s tracking; the parallels between ‘legal’ inhabitants’ hatred and fear of both urban wildlife and undocumented immigrants are obvious.

At one point, Jean reflects on her previous campaign to stop the local coyotes being defined as ‘nuisance animals’ in New England, and how she was told by a forest manager ‘Coyote don’t belong here… This is a prairie animal and it belongs on the prairie.’ Jean countered this: ‘I only know that they’re here now, so evidently, quite evidently, at some level they do belong. Better than you or me, you could say. They have adapted to what was already here, while we had to change what we found to suit us… coyote belong everywhere they live.’ Jean’s frustrated attempts to explain ecosystems to a deliberately ignorant populace recall other fictional female biologists, from Rachel in Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border, which speculates about what might happen if wolves were reintroduced into England, to Deanna in Barbara Kingsolver’s fascinating Prodigal Summer, which similarly deals with coyote populations, although in the Appalachians this time. Attila effectively sums up the struggles of these smart, caring protagonists after Jean tries to deal with listeners’ questions about foxes on a radio show: ‘You treated the listeners like adults. It’s hard not to feel frustrated when they don’t respond in kind.’ Similar things could be said about voters’ attitudes to immigration in both the US and in Britain.

Happiness isn’t driven by a single plot thread; the search for the little boy is never especially prominent, and is resolved early on, and while Jean is concerned about the fate of urban foxes, this is only one strand among many. Because of this, the novel could possibly have been shortened. There’s also some thematic discussion of how trauma and adversity may actually make people happier in the long run – that those who avoid pain are living ‘numbed’ lives – that is interesting, but doesn’t quite land. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the meditative pace, and felt drawn forward by Attila and Jean as individuals, by their experience of lives that are not orientated around a nuclear family, but nevertheless contain important emotional commitments.  By foregrounding characters who live outside the usual limits, Forna writes compellingly about other ways of being happy.