Three Things… March 2019

As ever, borrowed from Paula at Book Jotter.

Reading

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The Language of Kindness is Christie Watson’s memoir of her twenty years as a nurse, working across a range of specialisms that included resuscitation, paediatrics and mental health. I totally agree with Watson’s emphasis on the importance of nursing care, and how, as a female-dominated profession, it is systematically overlooked and undervalued. A number of my close family members are nurses and the work they do is so important. So why did this memoir irritate me consistently? Partly, I think, it’s Watson’s voice – there’s a lack of the kind of soul-searching and self-doubt that I’ve encountered in junior doctors’ memoirs such as Rachel Clarke’s Your Life in My Hands, or in other professional memoirs such as barrister Sarah Langford’s In Your Defence (both highly recommended!) and so Watson comes across as far too complacent.

It’s difficult for me to review this fairly, I think, because once you lose trust in the narrator of a memoir like this, that’s it – you keep on finding fault. For me, this happened pretty early on. I’ve encountered a recent spate of horror stories about the way parents are treated by nurses in PICU, Paediatric Intensive Care Unit, and SCBU, Special Care Baby Unit (search ‘Mumsnet SCBU/NNU/PICU’ for some of these). Watson has nothing but praise for the nurses in these units, and I’m sure many of them are doing a very good job under extremely tough circumstances. However, the judgmental and misogynistic expectations placed on mothers in these units come through even in Watson’s positive account:  ‘The nurses do everything they can to treat mother and baby as one unit… In maternity units in some private hospitals, babies are taken from the mum directly after birth to be cared for in the nursery’. But what about the mother’s needs, which are separate from those of her infant? The fact that it’s relatively new practice to refuse to part mothers and babies after birth, even if the mother is recovering from an emergency C-section and can’t safely take care of her baby? Accounts from mothers also indicate that they were judged harshly for not being by their baby’s side night and day in PICU/SCBU – even if they had other children to care for at home.

This section is typical of the book as a whole. Apart from a brief paragraph that admits that a few nurses are not very good at their jobs, Watson permits no criticism – and most doctors get short shrift, dropping in from on high to deliver a diagnosis then leaving the nurses with the real work. While I’m in no doubt this is how some consultants behave, it’s evident from the accounts of junior doctors that this is a misrepresentation of their work. This interesting review on Goodreads also points out that Watson is in the habit of minimising the significance of other professions as well – in this case, translators. She also has little to say about other hospital workers who are not part of a ‘profession’ but are nonetheless vital, such as healthcare assistants and porters. Ultimately, this came off as a rather sugar-coated account of life as a nurse.

Watching

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I went to see Rafiki at the Tyneside Cinema last night, directed by Kenyan filmmaker Wanuri Kahiru. Rafiki (Swahili for ‘friend’) is currently banned in Kenya, where homosexuality is illegal, because it depicts a lesbian relationship too positively. Kahiru was asked by the Kenya Film Classification Board to change the hopeful ending, but she refused. From my perspective, Rafiki is more of a significant political statement about LGBT rights in Kenya than a groundbreaking piece of art. The story it tells, about two girls who discover their sexuality together and then are brutally torn apart, is very familiar. The evocation of Nairobi is colourful and vivid, and both protagonists give great performances. However, it made me think about how incredibly limited the stories we tell about bisexual and lesbian women are, and how lesbianism tends to be shallowly explored, if it features at all, in Western fiction and film as well (compare the recent Disobedience, which deletes the novel’s complexity, and both versions of The Miseducation of Cameron Post, which are uplifting, but have little interesting to say). However, this is not to criticise Rafiki, which is doing a very important job. You can watch the trailer for Rafiki here.

Thinking

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Not the novel discussed below, which many people liked more than I did!

A while back, I wrote a fairly negative review of a writer’s second novel. I was especially cross about this particular book because it felt lazy and rushed. I posted the review on my blog and on Goodreads, but didn’t tag the author anywhere. Despite this, the writer in question took the time to seek me out on Twitter and block me – even though this was a platform where we’d had no interaction at all. So, this led me to think about why I write critical book reviews.

I disagree with much of what is said in this provocative article on book reviews in Harper’s, ‘Like This Or Die’, not least its eager dismissal of anything that doesn’t fall into the category of ‘literary fiction’ and its weird hostility to television. However, I think it has a point about the relentless push towards solely positive coverage of books in the mainstream media and on social media. This is (perhaps unsurprisingly) promoted by authors themselves, whom I often see tweeting things like this:

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[I love James Smythe’s work so feel bad picking on him here – it’s just the latest example of the trend I could find!]

This kind of statement is often extended to book bloggers and reviewers as well, or, more threateningly, to aspiring writers, who are told that if they want to get published themselves, they should spread positivity at all times [again, this link is to a blog that I generally like!]

I find this stance both repressive and bizarre. Firstly, there’s the suggestion that critical reviews (I think the terms ‘bad’ or ‘negative’ reviews are too loaded) are permissible, as long as they don’t come from other writers. Why? Secondly, there’s the hidden implication that actually nobody should be writing critical reviews at all – that if you don’t like a book, you shouldn’t say anything about it. I find this absurd for a number of reasons:

  • First and foremost, I don’t review books for the sake of their writers. I review them for other readers, as a reader. I don’t tag writers in critical book reviews, even if the criticism is very minor, so if they seek them out, that’s on them.
  • The idea that published writers are so fragile that they can’t deal with criticism from bloggers is a little strange to me. I tend to think that if you’ve demanded a reader’s time and attention by publishing a book, you need to be able to take polite feedback if you have sought it out (again, I don’t advocate sending bad reviews to writers, or being rude, and I assume here that writers with mental health conditions or specific personal circumstances will be able to avoid critical reviews).
  • I find this PARTICULARLY weird because all unpublished writers are essentially told to ‘just suck it up and get better’ when it comes to dealing with criticism of their work, whereas for published writers, there’s suddenly an attitude of ‘I don’t want to criticise something that someone’s put so much work into’ – so, in short, there’s a double standard in play that implies that unpublished writers’ work is less valuable and has required less labour.
  • Moreover, I think critical reviews can actually be helpful for other writers (i.e. the ones that didn’t write the book in question!) I’ve learnt a lot more about writing from reading intelligent, critical reviews than totally positive reviews.
  • It can also be impossible in practice, if you’re an honest reviewer, to avoid negative reviews if you are on a shadow panel, a blog tour, or have proof copies to review. If I really find a book unreadable I won’t review it, but this has only happened once or twice.
  • Finally, all this is off the table if a book is problematic and offensive, when suddenly everybody seems to agree that it needs to be ‘called out’, even if this jars with their usual stance on critical reviews.

My feeling is, that if I ever publish a novel, I may not seek out criticism from readers; but in the abstract, I could only be grateful to those who engage thoughtfully and critically with my work, especially if they aren’t paid to do so.

What are other people’s thoughts on writing critical reviews?

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Three Things… December 2018

As ever, borrowed from Paula at Book Jotter!

Reading

I’m trying to finish off my TBR pile before Christmas to make room for new acquisitions. Having very much enjoyed Tayari Jones’s An American MarriageI’m now tearing through her debut, Leaving Atlanta, which deals with the real-life disappearance of dozens of African-American children in Atlanta in 1979. Told from the perspective of three black fifth-graders, the novel is both gripping and beautifully observed; Jones captures the eleven-year-old mindset perfectly. Her narrators range from middle-class Tasha, who is desperately concerned about getting a pink party invitation with a magenta heart sticker from the most popular girl in her class, but is also dealing with her parents’ separation and becoming increasingly aware of the dangers of the outside world, to Octavia, a ‘project kid’ on a reduced lunch voucher who is also expert at reading the dynamics of the classroom. Jones also pulls off the difficult trick of moving from first to second to third person as she skips between her narrators. Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen, about four Nigerian brothers who receive a curse from a local madman, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2015, and on a line-by-line level, it’s easy to see why; Obioma’s prose is clever and distinctive. However, the density of the writing and the reliance on flashbacks keeps the reader at arms length, and I found that this was a novel I admired rather than enjoyed. I abandoned Kim Sherwood’s Testament after realising that I’m not sure I can read any more Holocaust novels; it prompted similar thoughts to Rachel Seiffert’s A Boy in WinterFinally, I’m hoping to start my book club’s latest choice, The Mothers by Brit Bennett, as I head home, which should see me hitting my Goodreads target of 150 books read in 2018.

Watching

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I saw the documentary Free Solo at Tyneside Cinema last week, which recounts Alex Honnold’s climb up the 3000-foot high El Capitan in the Yosemite Valley without any rope or safety equipment. Filming this feat was a massive achievement in itself, as the film makes clear – not only did the crew have to handle the logistics of capturing the key moments of Honnold’s climb, they had to reckon with the risk that their presence would put him off his game and lead him to fall to his death. The sheer danger of Honnold’s undertaking can hardly be overestimated: one fellow climber describes it as taking a shot at an Olympic gold medal, but if you fail, you die. I’m fascinated by the psychology that leads people to take such risks with their lives, but this goes far beyond even other extreme sports such as freediving. The footage from the morning of Alex’s attempt is acutely uncomfortable to watch, as the crew put on a false joviality, as if Alex is doing no more than attempting a Ninja Warrior obstacle course, whereas you can see many of them are thinking that this might be the last time they speak to him.

In the face of this, I started to wonder if Free Solo itself was unethical, glorifying a feat that is actually profoundly unhealthy. Honnold suggests in the documentary that he’s driven by the idea, instilled in childhood, that he can never be good enough. However, I think there’s a subtlety in the composition of this piece that allows these questions to be raised. Although Honnold values success rather than happiness (‘anyone can be happy and cozy’, he says at one point), the nature of free solo climbs mean they are usually accomplished out of the spotlight, with nobody watching. Seeing Honnold’s climb as either glorious or as idiotic is to simplify it. Honnold’s commitment to a (probably shortened) life of free soloing is his own response to mortality; akin to free diving, he likes the freedom of this kind of climbing, the fact that he’s only relying on himself, and the simplicity and speed of the ascent. However, the problems start when he establishes human ties as well; his serious relationship with a girlfriend feels like an unfair commitment for him to have taken on, even though he’s perfectly honest with her about his intention to continue free soloing. I can’t stop thinking about Free Solo, and the shots of Honnold’s ascent alone make it worth seeing.

Thinking

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Even though I essentially get paid to think, I always struggle to remember anything I’ve actually thought once I get to this section! So I’m going to write about where I do a lot of my thinking: either on walks in Jesmond Dene, in the swimming pool, or in yoga classes. One new version of the above that I’ve taken up recently is hot yoga, with classes in Newcastle run by Hotpod Yoga, a franchise which has bases all over the country. Before I did a trial membership at Hotpod, I was convinced that hot yoga was not for me, despite having practised normal yoga for eight years. I struggle when the temperature outside gets above 30 C (in the pods, it’s set at 37 C) and never go in saunas.

However, I’m a surprised convert. Hotpod offer three difficulty levels, of which I’ve tried two: the mid-range ‘normal’ Hotpod class is basically a vinyasa flow class in the pod, whereas Nurturing Flow is a much slower and more restorative practice, especially good for when you’re aching from other activity. Turns out, when you’re geared up to get sweaty, it isn’t that bad – I find the purple atmosphere wonderfully relaxing, and it’s a great escape from northern weather. Although I have been doing yoga for so long, I’m not very good at it – I’m not naturally bendy – and Hotpod also helps a bit with my inflexible muscles.

This will be my last post before Christmas. I’ve got some exciting festive reading lined up, including Laura Purcell’s The Corset, Natasha Pulley’s The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, Michelle Paver’s Wakenhyrst and Alan Hollinghurst’s The Sparsholt Affairand I’ll be back at the end of December with a couple of posts on the year’s reading. Hope that you all have a relaxing break!

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.

Three Things… October 2018

Borrowed from Paula at Book Jotter.

Regular readers may have noticed that this blog has gone a bit quiet recently. I’ve been facing some difficult personal upheavals again, and I’ve been finding it hard to concentrate on reading, let alone writing reviews. However, things seem to be settling down a bit now, especially work-wise – I’m settling into my new job as a research fellow at Queen Mary University of London, and have just submitted the full manuscript of my first academic book, A Progressive Education? How Childhood Changed in Mid-Twentieth-Century English and Welsh Schools, which is under contract with Manchester University Press.

Reading

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I was reading Esi Edugyan’s Booker-shortlisted Washington Black before things went pear-shaped, and so it probably suffered somewhat from being read over an exceptionally long period of time. Washington Black shares some surface similarities with Jane Harris’s recent Sugar Money: they are both narrated by a young, male, enslaved narrator who starts his story in the West Indies, although Washington Black is set in the early nineteenth century, exploring the shifting legal position of slavery at the time, whereas Sugar Money deals with a slave revolt in the mid-eighteenth century. Both books also tap into an eighteenth- and early-nineteenth century tradition of adventure narratives, which can lead them to feel a bit repetitive, as the story jumps from one dramatic event to another. However, I found Washington Black much more reflective and emotionally resonant than Sugar Money, helped by the fact that it takes place over a longer period of time and moves through a range of geographically diverse settings.

Washington Black’s life is transformed when, as a young boy, he comes into contact with his master’s brother, ‘Titch’, who helps him escape from slavery and adventure into the unknown. Like Sugar Money, Washington Black moves from scenes of intense and horrifying realism – most of which take place on the Barbados plantation – to more whimsical escapades, as when Washington and Titch fly off in a hot air balloon and, finding themselves about to crash into the sea, manage to steer it so they land on a ship (much to the captain’s displeasure). Tonally, Edugyan handles this expertly, and Washington’s voice is convincing and compelling.

Nevertheless, I felt that something was lacking in the cast of this novel. Frustratingly, it was Titch rather than Washington who came most vividly alive for me. Initially appearing as a kind of ‘white saviour’, or, in more historically-appropriate terminology, a ‘knight in shining armour’, Titch’s mind and motives are deconstructed across the course of this novel. Edugyan cleverly flips our perspective on him a number of times, revealing his inner conflict while not allowing him to become truly sympathetic. The final scene between him and Washington is especially powerful. While I appreciated this nuanced portrait, it’s a shame that the main black characters feel so wooden in comparison. Washington notably comes to life only when he interacts with Titch, while a love interest introduced about halfway through the novel remains no more than that. I’d be surprised if this won the Booker today (though I am usually wrong about prizes, so it probably has a good chance).

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

Watching

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Due to aforementioned life events, I haven’t been watching anything especially intelligent recently. Netflix’s sweet rom-com To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before was perfect escapism. The predictable plot follows a girl who has to confront a series of past crushes after her secret love letters to them get mailed out, but it’s nice to see a more diverse cast in this genre – the heroine, Lara Jean, is Korean-American in the novel, though played in the film by a Vietnamese-American actress. I liked what the author of the original novel, Jenny Han, had to say about the casting of Lara Jean: ‘One producer said to me, as long as the actress captures the spirit of the character, age and race don’t matter… I said, well, her spirit is Asian-American. That was the end of that.’

Thinking

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I went to see Sarah Waters talk about her 2009 novel, The Little Stranger, which has just been made into a film, at the Durham Book Festival. The talk was followed by a screening of the film, which, rather to my surprise – having thought the book would be difficult to film – I very much enjoyed. The film manages to be genuinely creepy, restraining the urge to have anything flashy happen, and Ruth Wilson is superb as Caroline, completely inhabiting her ‘unfeminine’ gait and confident sloppiness. Waters always interviews well, and I was particularly intrigued by a comment she made about the ‘ontological shock’ that should be at the heart of any good ghost story. As Waters put it, if we see a ghost, this should surely strike at the heart of our understanding of the laws of reality. If we see a ghost, surely now anything could happen – a glass could fly across the table, we ourselves could fly apart. I think Waters is absolutely right about the horror of this, and it’s something I think very few ghost stories do well. (I have to say, this is something that always annoyed me in Harry Potter as well – both Harry and Hermione are SO confident about what is silly and mythical, e.g. Luna Lovegood’s Crumple-Horned Snorkacks, and what is real. If you were introduced to a world of magic at the age of eleven, might you not be a bit more open-minded in the future? I have a vintage fanfic from 2004 that explores this question – that’s how much it got to me!)

Three Things… September 2018

Borrowed from Paula at Book Jotter.

Reading

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I have to admit that I’m a little relieved 20 Books of Summer is over. It’s back to reading what I want, by which I mean the backlog that has accumulated while I read my 20 books. I just finished Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, which I found emotionally exhausting, as it mirrors so many of my thoughts and concerns about potential motherhood, although I have to admit to finding Heti an irritating and self-indulgent writer at times. The thought that’s stuck with me, however, is the simple statement that if you’re genuinely undecided about having children, ‘it will probably be a fine life either way.’ It started me off thinking things that Heti doesn’t explicitly spell out. If having children is central to what you want, it makes sense to shape your life around that, but for the rest of us, the choice whether or not to have a child is less a question we can ask in isolation – Should I Be A Mother? Should I Bring A Child Into This World? – and more a practical question that’s dependent on where we find ourselves. Speaking only for myself, I know I wouldn’t want to have a child unless the circumstances were exactly right (and I have pretty specific ideas of what I mean by that!) and if that never happens, I’m better off without one. Sadly, I doubt this will be the end of my worries about it, given how patriarchy likes to make us feel guilty for even entertaining the thought of not having children.

Another thing that Heti doesn’t touch on in Motherhood is the idea that not wanting your own children means you don’t like children, an unfortunate belief that I find comes up surprisingly often. I worked part-time with children for four years when I was doing my PhD in Cambridge and absolutely loved it; I know it’s something I want to do again in the future. I’m also really looking forward to getting to know my friends’ children, and my sister and I are both very keen to be aunts (there’s only the two of us, so you can see the flaw in this plan… we’ll have to rely on (potential) partners’ siblings for the moment). As a historian of childhood, I also spend my professional life thinking about how children have been marginalised and oppressed in the past, something which is very important to me. Heti doesn’t seem to have many children in her life – which is of course absolutely fine – but even if I don’t have my own children, I know I’ll want to live a life that includes other people’s children.

Watching

Kids with Collected Junk Near Byker Bridge (Byker)  1971, printed 2012 by Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen born 1948

I saw Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen’s film Still Here at the Side Cinema a week or so ago, and thought it was absolutely fantastic. Konttinen photographed residents in Byker from 1969-81 – her most famous photograph is probably ‘Girl on A Spacehopper’ – and in this film, she goes back to talk to some of the people she photographed who are still living in the area, although not always in Byker itself. Konttinen did a fascinating Q&A after this short film where she talked about how she tracked down her subjects. The ‘girl on a spacehopper’ has proved the most elusive; four women have claimed to be her already. I particularly enjoyed hearing from the man who was disappointed he was missing from the photograph of kids collecting junk [see above], given that his siblings were in it, but, as he said to Konttinen, ‘that was probably because I was looting your studio’. As far as I know, there aren’t any plans to tour this film outside Newcastle at the moment, which is a shame – it’s really worth seeing.

I’ve also been watching Bake Off, like everyone else – my favourite is Rahul.

Thinking

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I’m a bit tired of thinking at the moment as I’m finishing up the initial draft of my academic monograph, A Progressive Education? How Childhood Changed in Mid-Twentieth-Century English and Welsh Schools, and so have been doing a lot of thinking about that. It’s been good to get a break from cogitation by going wild swimming with my mum and sister in the Brecon Beacons; we swam in some waterfall pools and a tarn [pictured above]. I’m a big fan of wild swimming but rarely get the chance to do it; I think a proper wetsuit might be a sensible investment next spring, as the sea near Newcastle is COLD all year round. The following weekend, my sister and I rode a working fireboat in Bristol that protected Bristol docks during the Blitz, and saw it shooting water from its water cannons. This was also a very welcome respite from work.

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.

 

 

‘I remember one afternoon when you are five’

61OJetFLy5L._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_I’ve been trying to read more science fiction lately, but am uncomfortably aware that as a relative stranger to the genre, it’s taking me some time to find my niche, which has led to some disastrous choices (Joe Haldeman’s horribly misogynistic and homophobic The Forever War being one of them). In contrast, Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others is certainly worth reading. These weird, original and cerebral short stories were, on the whole, not quite my thing, but at least I now feel I’m heading in the right direction. Chiang’s stories often engage the mind more than the heart, and while I was impressed by his imagination and invention, I struggled to stop thinking about what I was reading and start feeling. ‘Understand’, which makes a very brave attempt to convey the experience of an ordinary man who starts to acquire super-intelligence, was a case in point – although Chiang’s handling of this topic, for my money, is still far superior to the more famous Flowers for Algernon. Similarly, ‘Division by Zero’, which stars a mathematician who discovers an equation that seems to undermine the foundations of mathematics as we know it, impressed me, but didn’t enthral me. It’s telling that Chiang’s wonderful Story Notes were often better than the stories themselves: for ‘Division by Zero,’ for example, he writes: ‘A proof that mathematics is inconsistent, and that all its wondrous beauty was just an illusion, would, it seemed to me, be one of the worst things you could ever learn.’ He makes a real stab at conveying both the elegance of formal proofs and the horror of their disintegration to those of us who are less mathematically-minded, but I don’t think he quite pulls it off.

One of the key problems I had with stories like ‘Division by Zero’ and ‘Understand’ was that they seemed to be taking place in a white void; there is little physical description to root the reader. But Chiang is absolutely capable of intricate world-building. ‘Seventy-Two Letters’ is fabulously rich in pseudo-historical detail, as he invents a version of nineteenth-century England where automatons are an ordinary part of life. Similarly, his ‘Hell is the Absence of God’ is consistently funny, despite its dark subject-matter, as it imagines a world where angelic visitations are commonplace and Hell is frequently visible. When the angel Nathaneal makes ‘an appearance in a downtown shopping district… sixty-two people received medical treatment for injuries ranging from slight concussions to ruptured eardrums to burns requiring skin grafts. Total property damage was estimated at $8.1 million, all of it excluded by private insurance companies due to the cause.’ Sometimes, Hell manifests itself: ‘the ground seemed to become transparent, and you could see Hell as if you were looking through a hole in the floor.’ For me, the only story that was an unqualified success (partly because Chiang sets such impossibly high bars for himself to clear) was ‘Tower of Babylon’, where Chiang manages to harness another incredibly interesting concept into a satisfying ending.

UnknownBut the story I really want to discuss is ‘Story of Your Life’, which was the inspiration for the widely-praised 2016 film Arrival. [The rest of this review will feature significant spoilers for both Arrival and ‘Story of Your Life.’ You have been warned!] Anyone who has spoken to me about Arrival will know how frustrating I found it. The basic premise is great: a linguist, Louise Banks, is hired to learn the language of a group of aliens who have recently landed on Earth. The film is also great – until the final half hour. I found the resolution of Arrival totally unsatisfying, and to be honest, I’m amazed there hasn’t been a bigger critical backlash. (It rests on the  – to me, absurd – idea that by learning a language, your brain can somehow acquire the ability to see the future. How???) We discover that the ‘flashbacks’ Louise has been having throughout the film to the life and death of her daughter are in fact ‘flashforwards’ – and are asked to accept that, even though she now has this foreknowledge, her choices aren’t going to change. Finally, as Debbie Cameron has argued, the film relies on traditional gender roles; Louise saves the world because of her nurturing, empathetic personality, which is linked to her future role as a bereaved mother.

How does ‘Story of Your Life’ deal with the same basic plot line? On the whole, much better. It turns out that much of the plot that fills the film’s final half hour was added – which means that Chiang completely avoids the gendered implications that Cameron dissects. He also faces the question of Louise’s motivations head on, which made me feel much more convinced that knowing the future wouldn’t necessarily entail changing the future: ‘What if the experience of knowing the future changed a person?’ she narrates. ‘What if it evoked a sense of urgency, a sense of obligation to act precisely as she knew she would?’ This model of how gaining new knowledge might actually alter the way somebody thinks worked much better, for me, than the idea that the aliens’ language confers the power of prerecognition. (Chiang keeps this concept, but – partly because the linguistics in the story is so much more complex than the linguistics in the film – it didn’t feel quite as jarring). I also loved the way he dealt with the ‘flashforwards’, narrating in a mix of tenses that neatly demonstrate on the page how a very simple alteration in language can mess with your head. ‘I remember one afternoon when you are five years old,’ Louise narrates, jarringly, to her future daughter, or ‘I remember one day during the summer when you’re sixteen.’ Like so many of the stories in ‘Stories of Your Life and Others’, ‘Story of Your Life’ bites off a bit more than it can chew – but it’s exhilarating anyway.

***

9781408708231Speaking of language, I have some very brief thoughts about Laura Kaye’s English Animals, which focuses on Mirka, a lesbian from Slovakia who starts work in an upper-class English household and finds herself embroiled in an affair with one of her employers, the bicurious Sophie. Frankly, I hated the novel when I first read it; I thought it was incredibly badly-written, with a very black-and-white morality (Mirka good, English upper classes bad – and while I am hugely sympathetic to this from a political perspective, it didn’t make for very interesting fiction!). I recently read an interview with Kaye which explains why I found the language of the novel so lifeless. She explains that she was imagining Mirka narrating in English, with all the second-language limitations and mishaps that entails. ‘Another concern,’ she writes, ‘was that Mirka might come across as less intelligent with her deficient language, while the English people seemed more sophisticated and educated by comparison. I hope she doesn’t – in my mind she comes across as far more intelligent, brave and imaginative than anyone else in the book’. Unfortunately, I did find Kaye’s stylistic choice alienating, and I think I would have been much more sympathetic to Mirka as a character if she had just been allowed to narrate in the same way that anyone narrates in their own head. Furthermore, while Mirka is clearly a far more admirable figure than anybody else in the book – and it is refreshing to read a novel narrated by a lesbian who is utterly sure about her own sexuality – this is precisely what made her an uninteresting protagonist. I wasn’t surprised to read that English Animals began as a series of scenes told from Sophie’s point-of-view. Sophie is selfish and weak, but I wanted to read about her internal conflict much more than I wanted to read about the idealised Mirka. Like Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wakethis is another novel where complicated linguistic ambitions don’t come off.

I received a free proof copy of English Animals from the publisher for review.