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?

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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).

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.

Three Things… July 2019

It’s ages since I’ve done a Three Things! Borrowed, as ever, from Paula at Book Jotter.

Reading

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The Terrible, a memoir by poet and short-story writer Yrsa Daley-Ward, falls into the category of prose-poetry that has attracted criticism recently for being easy and vague, and for prizing ‘relatability’ above other artistic considerations. Poets like Daley-Ward, Hollie McNish and Rupi Kaur have been disparagingly termed ‘Instapoets’ because of their significant social media presence and use of Instagram to highlight their poetry; given that poets nowadays need to be proactive in engaging with their audience, I don’t find this term useful, and nor do I think that using Instagram makes you a less serious writer. Nevertheless, I broadly agree with poet Rebecca Watts’ now infamous piece in PN Review, ‘The cult of the noble amateur’, which focuses on McNish, that McNish’s and Kaur’s poetry is problematic because it is characterised by an ‘open denigration of intellectual engagement and rejection of craft’. This assumes, Watts argues, that poems are not ‘deliberately created works’ but naturally occurring outbursts of feeling, and thus positions them as something that ‘anyone could write’. Unfortunately, I felt that Daley-Ward’s memoir, despite some interesting sections, also ended up in this place.

The Terrible is certainly honest, and it is brave in its exploration of childhood and adolescent trauma. Yrsa and her little brother Roo grew up with their Seventh-Day Adventist grandparents in north-west England; their mother was both present and absent in their childhood. ‘I think she loves us a bit,’ the young Yrsa tells Roo, ‘but not as much as other people’s mums.’ Daley-Ward writes well about how she was meant to feel alienated from her own body before she even hit her teens; entering puberty early, being exoticised as a woman of colour, encountering the ‘powerfear’ of men’s sexual attraction to her. At nine and a half, she writes, ‘I longed for smallness; to be petite. To have small hands and feet and no growing pains; no angry lion dreams and definitely no boobs.’ However, these sections are some of the few in the book that are narrated in prose, and are the stronger for it.

As Daley-Ward moves into her teens, she narrates more and more in prose-poetry (which often just feels like confessional, split-up prose) as she recounts her time in sex work and her isolation in the world. After sleeping with a much older man for money and having to hurriedly leave because his daughters are arriving, she thinks ‘He has daughters. He has a family. It does not feel fair that someone so old should have a doting family and someone as young as me should have no-one.’ But most of these chapters feel like words spilt onto the page, too easy, too emotive, often in a manipulative second-person voice:

You

reduce food to 1200 calories

reduce food to 1000 calories

don’t tell anyone what’s happening with Peter

He wants to leave his wife. Oh God.

He says “You’re losing too much weight.

Eat. Please eat.”

 I wonder if the problem with this kind of poetry, as with McNish’s and Kaur’s, is that it’s really written to be spoken rather than read, that on the page we’re only getting part of the performance. But if that’s the case, this memoir needed to be rethought; for me, this doesn’t work in print. Rather than capturing the specificity of Yrsa’s experiences as her more straightforward writing does, it reduces them and makes them trite. I’d like to see Daley-Ward write more consistently in prose, rather than resort to this hybrid form, as it seems to be where her talents lie.

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

Watching

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People who know me IRL will know I’m a huge Stranger Things fan. The first two series packed a huge emotional punch for me, especially as I watched them in a row when I was having a difficult time back in January 2018. For those who haven’t watched Stranger Things, it’s set in Hawkins, a fictional small town in Indiana, in the 1980s (and never lets you forget it; this is 80s nostalgia writ large). The main focus of the show is a group of friends on the cusp of their teens, one of whom goes missing after a game of Dungeons and Dragons one night, and the strange, traumatised girl they encounter, Eleven, who turns out to have psychokinetic powers. Our heroes soon start to suspect there’s something supernatural going on beneath the surface of Hawkins, and decide to investigate…

[Mild spoilers for Stranger Things 1 and 2 follow.]

After how much I loved the first two series, Stranger Things 3 was a bit of a let-down. Partly, this is beyond the showrunners’ control: the charm of the first two series lay largely in their exploration of the last years of childhood, when you no longer believe in magic but really want to, and as the central cast age into adolescence, this was never going to work in the same way. However, there were other aspects of Stranger Things 3 that I found a bit lacking. A number of the characters became caricatures of themselves. I’ve always disliked Mike, one of the pre-teens, but I hated him with the intensity of a thousand suns this season as he’s pretty much horrible to everybody around him, especially best friend Will and new girlfriend Eleven. Similarly, disillusioned police chief Hopper seemed to be vicious rather than just jaded, and local mother Joyce, who always shouted a lot, seemed to be shouting even more. There was also not nearly enough Will, the original missing person, who for me has always been the heart of the series. Some of the brilliance of the earlier series was still present – I will always adore Dustin, and his alliance with Steve and Robin was inspired – but, overall, I felt like this season of Stranger Things was more schlocky, less scary, and less haunting.

Thinking

I’ve been listening to a brand new podcast, What Editors Want, which is about what publishers look for in an author and book. The first episode, featuring Louisa Joyner from Faber & Faber, was excellent, and it’s nice to get a different take on publishing after having read 1000+ articles on ‘what agents want’. I went to an event with Joyner at the Durham Book Festival where she was talking with three of her debut authors, and I really admire her approach to getting good books to readers. While I disagree with her that there’s no distinction between commercial and literary fiction, I definitely agree that there are a lot of fantastic books that fall into that liminal space.

20 Books of Summer, #8: The Nickel Boys

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Ellwood is a teenage working-class African-American boy being brought up by his grandmother in Florida in the early 1960s, when, despite civil rights activism, racial segregation is still strictly enforced. Nevertheless, Ellwood has decided to do everything ‘right’; he studies hard at school, is known as a reliable worker in his hotel job, and has been recommended for a special scheme allowing disadvantaged young people to take college-level classes at local black college, Melvin Griggs. He listens over and over again to a recording of Martin Luther King’s speeches that his grandmother bought him, idealising non-violent protest and taking part in a civil rights march himself. Nevertheless, none of this protects Ellwood when he is wrongly accused of joyriding and sentenced to Nickel, a reformatory school for boys that is supposed to create upstanding citizens rather than subject its inhabitants to punitive imprisonment. As Ellwood reflects ironically when he first arrives at the place: ‘The campus was kept up meticulously, a bounty of lush green… The cedar trees and beeches cut out portions of shade, tall and ancient. It was the nicest-looking property Ellwood had ever seen… In a sad joke, it intersected with his visions of Melvin Griggs Technical, minus a few statues and columns.’

Nickel might look good from the outside, but it’s rotten on the inside: dormitories go unpainted, bleachers splinter, canteen food is stolen by the guards and sold to local businesses, boys are informally loaned out to labour for those who can do the staff a favour, and above all, there’s the ‘White House’, where an industrial fan hides the sounds of night-time beatings. Even worse than that, however, is being ‘taken out back’, for after that boys tend to disappear. Whitehead conveys the horror of their fates through descriptions of archaeological excavations of their bodies in the present day, which clearly and chillingly spells out what happened to them, but avoids sensationalising their pain: ‘When the state of Florida dug [one boy] up fifty years later, the forensic examiner noted the fractures in the wrists and speculated that he’d been restrained before he died, in addition to the other violence attested by the broken bones.’

The first two-thirds or so of The Nickel Boys, Colson Whitehead’s seventh novel, follow a pretty straightforward narrative that is familiar from prison or reform school memoirs and fictions; Whitehead’s take is lifted by his incredibly moving writing. A couple of incidents are horrifyingly memorable, not necessarily because of their violence but also for their poignancy, such as a notable boxing match between the champions of the ‘black’ and ‘white’ sides of the school, and the boys’ pride when they decorate the place for the annual Christmas Fair. Nevertheless, I found myself wondering if there was more to this story; the two of Whitehead’s previous novels that I’ve read, Zone One and The Underground Railroad, were both dense and intelligent, making the reader work hard in a good way, whereas this seemed to be relying on simpler emotional beats. But The Nickel Boys, too, becomes more complex later on, as Whitehead starts flashing between life after the institution and life still within it. The ending of the novel, in particular, had me in tears, as Whitehead draws together the past and present with no hope of closure in the future.

Like a number of recent novels by African-American writers (Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, SingYvonne Battle-Felton’s Remembered), Whitehead effectively shows how slavery is at the core of America’s modern history, and shapes black lives and deaths to this day. The only thing that stopped this being a five-star novel for me was his handling of his characters. Spoilers follow [highlight to read.] We are led to believe that Ellwood is narrating his time in Nickel as well as his later life in New York, but at the end of the novel, it’s revealed that it’s his friend Turner who survived the place; Ellwood was shot dead trying to escape after a naive attempt to whistleblow on the goings-on in Nickel. The ‘Ellwood’ we meet in later life is in fact Turner, who has taken on his friend’s name to honour him. I’m not sure why this twist was necessary. Indeed, it seemed to pit Ellwood and Turner too clearly against each other as archetypes, the ‘good’ black martyr who is too idealistic for this world, and the canny black survivor who understands the reality of institutional racism. As with the early chapters of the novel, Whitehead seems to sacrifice nuance for emotion. Spoilers end. However, this is a haunting novel, and Whitehead’s evocation of what was a real-life place will be difficult to forget.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on the 1st August.

20 Books of Summer, #6 and #7: Starling Days and The Island of Sea Women

20 Books of Summer Housekeeping Note: I’ve managed to get hold of e-copies of both Tea Obrecht’s Inland and Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys, two books I’d wanted to put on 20 Books of Summer but wasn’t sure if I’d be able to get hold of in time. Therefore, I’m officially swapping them in for Richard Powers’s The Echo Maker and Chia-Chia Lin’s The Unpassing. Apologies to those books – I will still be reading them at a later date as they’re on my 2019 Reading List.

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I loved Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s debut novel, Harmless Like You, which focused on art dealer Jay and his estranged Japanese mother Yuki, flashing between Yuki’s youth in 1960s New York and Jay’s contemporary journey. What I found particularly fascinating about the way that Buchanan portrayed Yuki, who is determined to pursue a career as a visual artist, is that she hurts others so much precisely because she believes it’s impossible for her to have much impact on others’ lives; she believes nobody can really care about her. There’s something of that in Mina, the Chinese-American protagonist of Buchanan’s second novel, Starling Days; but unlike Yuki, I felt that we never really got to know Mina.

 Starling Days is a novel about clinical depression, self-harm, and suicide, and it felt right that I was reading it when I went to an exhibition about these themes by a female Chinese artist, Chen Ze, in the White Rabbit gallery in Sydney [content note for self-harm]. However, I found it very difficult to engage with Mina’s state of mind for the majority of the text, especially because the narrative is split between her point of view and that of her husband Oscar; I wasn’t sure what Oscar’s sections added. Moreover, the novel starts with Mina thinking about her dual heritage (plus the Japanese last name she’s inherited from her husband, who is desperately trying to learn kanji through playing children’s games on the computer) and her bisexuality, but has very little to say about either. Instead, she feels so self-focused, which is unsurprising due to her illness but which doesn’t induce empathy in the reader.

The writing also felt off-kilter for much of Starling Days, which surprised me, because Harmless Like You was so on point. It often feels a bit try-hard; ‘a breeze ran through the tree, and the leaves applauded’… a body in scrubs the colour of the swimming pool where she’d made her first tentative laps as a pre-schooler’,  while sometimes hitting the right note; ‘The river was as dark as poured tarmac’. Buchanan’s prose was really what carried Harmless Like You, so I was disappointed by the frequent clunkiness here.

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

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Lisa See is known for novels that focus on intense and often harmful female friendships, though in perhaps her best-known work, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, it seems obvious to me that the protagonist is romantically and sexually in love with her closest friend, so calling it a novel about female friendship is a bit of a stretch. The Island of Sea Women, her latest, is more straightforwardly platonic: it follows a very similar plot-line to Snow Flower, with our two protagonists, Young-sook and Mi-ja, growing up together on the Korean island of Jeju and becoming extremely close despite coming from very different backgrounds. Young-sook’s family is respected among the all-female community of haenyeo, freedivers who collect octopuses, abalone and sea urchins for sale, because her mother is the leader of the collective. Meanwhile, Mi-ja is initially shunned in the village as her father collaborated with the Japanese when they occupied Korea during the Second World War. As with Snow Flower, it’s clear from the start of the novel that something horrific has come between these two women; we first meet Young-sook as an elderly woman in 2008, refusing to talk about Mi-ja.

What makes this my favourite novel I’ve read by See so far, despite its familiar plot-line, is both the subject-matter and the way that See deploys historical detail. She effortlessly conveys the particular community of the haenyeo without getting bogged down, from the way that the women learn to dive, to ‘leaving-home-water-work’ in freezing Russian seas, to the later experiments of scientists fascinated by the divers’ ability to operate while hypothermic. Moreover, this felt incredibly refreshing compared to much ostensibly feminist historical fiction, because Young-sook is neither an atypical rebel nor a downtrodden victim. See is clear that her characters do not live in a matriarchal society, but rather one that is ‘women-centred’: women earn money and exert power in the household because of their autonomous working life, while men do the bulk of the childcare, but formal education is still sought for boys rather than girls, and the men are the ones who are expected to think ‘big thoughts’. Many of the haenyo complain at how hard their lives are compared to those of their fathers, husbands and brothers, despite the fact that they reject the Confucian traditions of mainland Korea that explicitly subordinate women to men. It’s an anthropological study of a complicated culture, and this material is as gripping as its characters’ lives. This was one of the novels I was most looking forward to in 2019, and it didn’t disappoint.

Reading on My Travels, Sydney 2019: Mini-Reviews

I headed onwards from Tokyo to Sydney for the Society for the History of Childhood and Youth conference at Australian Catholic University. Sydney wasn’t as high on my personal wish list as Tokyo, but it was still amazing to get the chance to spend time there (and in the Blue Mountains):

I read two books not from my 20 Books of Summer list in Sydney (and started The Nix and Atlantic Winds as well):

Never Far From Nowhere, one of Andrea Levy’s earlier novels, actually felt much more original to me than her later, more well-known works The Long Song or Small Island. Perhaps this is simply my aversion to much historical fiction, or perhaps Levy herself wrote better about more contemporary times and places. Technically, Never Far From Nowhere, published in 1996, is historical fiction: set on a council estate in the 1970s, it revels in the details of teenage life in that decade, from bovver boots to tights with carefully-positioned rows of holes to hippie hair to Ben Sherman checked shirts. However, Levy is clearly drawing on her own experiences growing up in Islington (although the book is set in Finsbury Park) and so this deluge of detail feels properly authentic.

Never Far From Nowhere follows two sisters, Olive and Vivian. Neither of them is traditionally likeable. Olive, darker-skinned and both much more acutely aware of her blackness and more willing to adopt it as an identity, leaves school with no qualifications and struggles in a series of short-term jobs. She rows constantly with her mother, but her younger sister, Vivian, is jealous of how Olive always seems to be the centre of attention, the one that their mother really cares about. This is despite the fact that Vivian makes every effort to meet their mother’s expectations: she works hard at grammar school and has ambitions to go to art college. Levy carefully balances the family dynamics, not allowing her story to become a simple binary between a ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sister.

The plot also plays with ideas of a ‘good’ and ‘bad’ working-class immigrant – Olive and Vivian were both born in England, but their parents emigrated from Jamaica. ‘Mouthy’ Olive ends up on benefits and doggedly chases up a council flat; Vivian aspires to be socially mobile and keeps her mouth shut when her friends toss around racial slurs. Olive’s recalcitrance seems deliberate; why should we only have sympathy for those who are doing all the right things? And despite Vivian’s academic intelligence, it’s Olive who is clearest about the structural oppression the sisters face in England, although she can be strikingly naïve in certain situations. Never Far From Nowhere lacks deliberate structure; it’s a slice of these sisters’ lives, and ends at a point that feels largely arbitary. It’s also a pretty grim read. Nevertheless, Levy’s portrayal of 1970s north London through the eyes of these two sisters stands out.

Because I work on young people’s writing in post-war Britain, I was excited to read Rife: Twenty-One Stories From Britain’s Youth, a collection of essays by young people aged sixteen to twenty-four, edited by Nikesh Shukla and Sammy Jones. Unfortunately, I was disappointed in most of these essays on a number of counts. Firstly, it has to be said: most of the writing here isn’t very good. I know from reading blogs, short stories and novels written by young/er people, as well as from reading the writing of my own undergraduate students, that writers in their late teens and early twenties are as capable of producing wonderful and insightful prose as any other group of writers. However, I worry that others reading this collection will lazily assume that nothing better can be expected from young people.

The problem possibly lies in the way many of these essays were produced: rather than seeking out twenty-one independent contributions, a lot of these essays emerged from a single project at Watershed in Bristol, which produced Rife magazine. Whatever the process was, it seems to have encouraged many of these writers towards a ponderous and formal style; individual voice is smothered and a lot of the essays sound the same. Rather than drawing on personal experience, many of the essays pontificate on very familiar topics: the rental crisis, poor funding for mental health and university fees. (One essay on the university experience was particularly enraging; the writer rightly criticises high fees but seems to blame lecturers for not providing ‘value for money’ e.g. for going on strike over staff pensions, rather than government policies. I know from talking to my own students about these issues that many undergraduates are not this short-sighted).

My second problem with this collection is more an issue of personal preference. Most of these writers talk about their experience as young people by invoking the language of generational inequality; making the usual arguments about the unfairness of rising house prices, unemployment and student debt in comparison to the experience of their parents’ generation. While I agree with these arguments, I was hoping that these writers might have more to say about the way that age itself acts as an oppressive category. This may in its turn result from the limited range of ages represented by the contributors. The majority are in their early twenties – already looking back on adolescence. The one essay that is obviously written by a teenager, ‘Sweet Sixteen: Kiss, Marry, Vote’, was one of my favourites. Amber Kirk-Ford effectively challenges the relevance of chronological age, arguing: ‘If some sixteen-year-olds are disengaged or badly behaved, that is equally true of apparent grown-ups… [not giving sixteen-year-olds the vote] is based on the myth that all young people are exactly the same, and are less mature than adults’. Other essays worked well for me despite the fact that they weren’t focused on questions of age because of the way they explored other intersectional identities; for example, Shona Cobb’s essay on her experiences of living with Marfan Syndrome, ‘Exclusion’, and Mariam Khan’s essay on being an hijabi, ‘My Body, My Choice’. On the whole, however, while I think projects of this kind are really important, I’ve read much better writing by teenagers and young adults elsewhere.

I received a free proof copy of this collection from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 11th July 2019.

Edit: I meant to add my (dissatisfied) thoughts about The Nix and Atlantic Winds to this post and forgot, so here are links to my Goodreads reviews:

The Nix (**1/2), DNF @ 35%

Atlantic Winds (**1/2), only finished because it was so short