In the shadow of the Second World War: Akin (Emma Donoghue) & The Tenth Muse (Catherine Chung)

On the whole, I’m a bit tired of books that explore family secrets during the Second World War, but both of these new releases manage to twist this trope in interesting ways, wringing more out of it than I thought was possible.

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Emma Donoghue’s Akin sounded initially unpromising but was unexpectedly delightful. It focuses on retired chemist Noah Selvaggio, who is returning to the French Riviera, where he spent his early childhood, on the eve of his eightieth birthday. Noah lost his wife some years back, and is happy to admit that, of the two of them, she was the one whose work really contributed to the sum of human knowledge, as she was a leading cancer researcher. The couple were contentedly childless, and so Noah is now winding down his own life in a predictable fashion, unsure what it has all meant but happy in the recognition of the privilege it contained. This is all upended when Noah becomes the temporary guardian of Michael, his eleven-year-old great-nephew (“Mr Selvaggio is your great-uncle”… “What’s so great about him?” Michael wanted to know.) Told that if he does not assume responsibility for Michael he will have to be put in foster care, Noah reluctantly takes the boy with him to France.

Akin isn’t a plotty book; how much you like it will probably be dependent on how much you enjoy this kind of dialogue, which makes up the bulk of the novel:

During the Occupation – when the German army took over from the Italians – you had to tape black over every window so American bombers wouldn’t spot any lights. And there was a curfew, which meant everybody had to stay indoors after dark.” [Noah said].

 “I know what a freaking curfew is.” [Michael said]

“Of course you do.” Home by four thirty every day.

“Mom and Grandma were all about the curfew,” Michael said.

 “Yeah?”

 “You come straight home from school now” – in a gravelly old-lady voice – “and stay inside, live to be a man. Hanging around on the corner, you’re going to end up getting yourself shot like Cody.”

 The well-observed repartee between Noah and Michael has several reoccurring themes; Noah shocked by the reality of Michael’s turbulent childhood, and unsure where to draw boundaries with his charge; Noah trying to pass on his knowledge of the world to Michael, while constantly being surprised by what the boy does or doesn’t know, what happens to interest him, and what to protect him from. “You know a lot of stuff, but most of it’s sick,” Michael tells him. “Fair comment,” Noah replies.

The warmth which which Donoghue writes about both her characters offsets the hint of cliché in Michael’s characterisation (just because a portrayal is realistic doesn’t mean it can’t also be cliched). These long conversations also have a thematic purpose; Akin explores what we can pass on to the next generation, and what it’s worth. In this context, when Noah starts researching his family’s past during the Nazi occupation of France, this familiar plot feels fresher, especially as it’s juxtaposed with another miscarriage of justice that has been visited on Michael’s parents. Once again, Donoghue pulls something totally different out of the bag; I’ve read her on countercultural contemporary lesbian relationships (Stir-Fry, Hood) a pulpy nineteenth-century courtroom drama (The Sealed Letter) and the mysterious case of an Irish girl said to have survived without food for months in 1859 (The Wonder), as well as her most famous novel, Room, which is totally distinctive again. All were worthwhile, and although Akin can be a little slow at times, I’d rank it as among her best.

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

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As a female Chinese-American mathematician in the post-war United States, Katherine knows that her path ahead won’t be easy, and that she will never be viewed on her own merits: ‘When I die, I know the first sentence in my obituary will read, “Asian American woman mathematician dies at the age of X”. Nevertheless, she refuses to compromise her principles for the sake of her career or her personal life. The central problem that will haunt her forever is framed early on in this novel; when still an undergraduate student, her professor confronts her, claiming she has copied her problem sets from her male friend. Of course, it’s the friend who is the plagiarist, but he refuses to tell the truth, and Katherine feels that the only way to prove her own merits is to work ten times harder. Later, when she begins a relationship with a well-known mathematician and they publish papers together, everyone refers to him as the sole author, and assumes she was only named on the papers because she’s sleeping with him. However, these early unjust incidents are only the preamble for two further events that mean Katherine must choose between the people she loves and the work that inspires her.

The title of Catherine Chung’s novel, The Tenth Muse, also refers back to this central dilemma. As she tells her story, Katherine repeatedly remembers two tales she first encountered as a young child; as she summarises them, ‘The tenth muse gave up everything to claim her own voice. Kwan-Yin gave up everything on behalf of everyone else.’ Katherine wants to believe there’s a middle way between these two poles, but her experiences constantly force her into difficult choices. Chung’s take on the damaging sacrifices we make for those we love is refreshing, and I admired the portrayal of a female protagonist who isn’t willing to always be the Kwan-Yin. She also interweaves the complicated story of Katherine’s heritage, which, like Noah’s, is rooted in the Second World War, carefully through the main plot. However, The Tenth Muse was a little too neat for me. Its message is spelt out several times. It’s very light on the mathematics it describes, which in one way was a relief, as I doubt I would have understood anything more complex, but this also means there’s little to make it stand out. Katherine is a compelling narrator, but her story remains a sketch.

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

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Durham Book Festival 2019: Part One

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One of the (many) things I love about living in Newcastle is what brilliant literary events we have in the north-east, and the highlight of the year is always the Durham Book Festival, which never fails to have an excellent line-up at relatively affordable prices. I headed to two events there last Saturday and am going to two more next Saturday, so here is the first installment of my thoughts!

The John Murray Proof Party was not one I was going to miss, as it offered three proof copies of upcoming 2020 releases as well as a discussion with the authors.

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L to R: Rebecca Wilkie (New Writing North), Karen Raney, Guinevere Glasfurd, Sally Magnusson

The three books in question were:

All The Water in the World (January 2020), Karen Raney’s debut novel, which is told from the perspective of Maddy, a sixteen-year-old girl with cancer, and her mother, Eve. I was intrigued by the setting – the book takes place mostly in Washington DC and at a lake house in Pennsylvania – and as I, like Raney, have fond memories of visiting a lake in Pennsylvania as a child, as well as growing up in DC, I’m interested to see what she does with these places. Raney talked about wanting to show a ‘sound’ relationship between a mother and daughter that’s under great strain, which I liked – as she said, too many parent-child relationships in fiction are fundamentally dysfunctional. She also enjoyed writing from the perspective of a teenager, finding it easier to imagine, in Zadie Smith’s words, ‘the I that is not me’. I wouldn’t necessarily have bought this novel myself, as the premise sounds a little too familiar, but I’m looking forward to reading my free copy.

The Year Without Summer (February 2020) is Guinevere Glasfurd’s second novel. This sounds incredibly ambitious, using six voices – ranging from Mary Shelley in Switzerland, John Constable in Suffolk and a female farm labourer in the Cambridgeshire Fens – to tell the story of the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia in 1815, the devastation of local communities, and the global impact of the ash cloud that led the ‘seasons to fail’ in the following year. I love the idea of looking at a period of historical climate change, and linking disparate places through this weird weather. Glasfurd spoke about how, during her research, she found that Tambora was ten times bigger than the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883, and yet very little is known about it and it wasn’t reported for a year after it happened. She was also very interesting on wanting to challenge Constable’s bland image as the painter of ‘The Hay Wain‘, speaking of the vivid oil sketches that he completed in that year. I hadn’t heard of Glasfurd before this event, but this all sounds great to me.

The Ninth Child (March 2020) is also Sally Magnusson’s second novel, though she has also written a memoir about dementia called Where Memories Go and a number of other things. This book is set in the Trossachs in Scotland, specifically ‘on the line between the Lowlands and the Highlands’, and deals with the building of a waterworks at Aberfoyle in the mid nineteenth century that was intended to supply fresh water to Glasgow to prevent another cholera epidemic. Its three narrators are an elite woman called Isabel, a navvy’s wife called Kirsty, and Robert Kirk – the legendary seventeenth-century minister who wrote about ‘the secret commonwealth’ of fairy and was believed to have been taken by the fairies upon his sudden death. Magnusson said that she wanted to explore what might happen ‘if Robert Kirk came back’, so it sounds like there’s a hint of magic in this historical novel. I very much enjoyed Magnusson’s first novel, The Sealwoman’s Giftand I can’t wait to see what she does with this premise.

At the end of the event, we were all given copies of these three books in a gorgeous Two Roads tote bag, which was a present in itself!

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The second event I went to last Saturday was a discussion between Louise Doughty, whose new novel, Platform Seven, is just out, and John Mitchison from Unbound.

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When I first heard the premise of Platform Seven, I described it as ‘Point Horror meets literary thriller’, but you can judge for yourself:

Platform Seven at 4am: Peterborough Railway Station is deserted. The man crossing the covered walkway on this freezing November morning is confident he’s alone. As he sits on the metal bench at the far end of the platform it is clear his choice is strategic – he’s as far away from the night staff as he can get.

What the man doesn’t realise is that he has company. Lisa Evans knows what he has decided. She knows what he is about to do as she tries and fails to stop him walking to the platform edge.

Two deaths on Platform Seven. Two fatalities in eighteen months – surely they’re connected?

No one is more desperate to understand what connects them than Lisa Evans herself. After all, she was the first of the two to die.

I don’t seem to have cross-posted my Goodreads review of this gripping and chilling novel to my blog, but you can find it here.

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Doughty started off by saying that she sees Platform Seven not exactly as a ghost story, but as ‘a novel narrated by a dead person’, and for me, this set the tone for the rest of the event. She explained that she was envisaging Peterborough railway station as a kind of ‘purgatory’, as, due to growing up in the East Midlands and attending university and work in Leeds, Norwich and London, she seemed to have spent a lot of her life waiting there in the freezing cold! However, she also reflected, later in the event, that it was exactly when she no longer had a reason to go to Peterborough, after her mother’s sudden death, that she ended up setting a novel there and spending a lot of time at the station doing research – so the novel itself was part of the grieving process. She wanted to capture ‘an affectionate portrayal’ of Peterborough and its inhabitants (and in my opinion, she definitely succeeds) – emphasising the individuality and significance of each of her characters, whether they’re a security guard or a station manager.

I managed to ask her at the end of the event about how, as a novelist, she handled the melding of horror and thriller in Platform Seven, and she explained how the inclusion of horror elements allowed her to explore certain themes in a different way – imagining Peterborough station as a kind of portal for unquiet souls allowed her to explore her characters’ hidden motivations in a different way (Lisa, the dead narrator, also has a limited ability to see into other people’s minds, so offers a kind of omniscience). She also argued that ghost and horror novels tend to be set in traditionally spooky places like an old manor house, but why shouldn’t Peterborough station be a portal? – to which I say YES, bring it on, because these traditional settings are something I find very tiring in Gothic fiction (I loved Ruth Ware’s recent chiller set in a ‘smart house’, for example). Basically, she concluded, she’s ‘greedy’ – she doesn’t want to be restricted by genre in the things she can explore. I love cross-genre fiction, so this all sounds great to me, and Platform Seven would be a perfect read for the RIP Challenge, or anyone wanting something creepy for Halloween!

I’ll be back at the Durham Book Festival next week, heading to an event with poet Raymond Antrobus as well as a discussion with Naomi Booth and Sunjeev Sahota. I don’t think I have many readers from northern England, but is anyone else planning to attend anything at this festival? (And if anyone is wondering, Durham Book Festival didn’t actually sponsor me to write these posts, I’m just a massive geek…)

 

Houses That Haunt: Patchett and Ware

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In post-war Philadelphia, Danny and Maeve Conway grow up in the ‘Dutch House’, a beautiful building that is ‘open inside’, with huge windows allowing passers-by to look directly through the house and to the views beyond. As adults, they can no longer return to their childhood kingdom, but neither of them can leave it behind; they start sitting outside the house in a car for hours on end every now and again, although they never catch a glimpse of the house’s present inhabitants. There’s something fairy-tale in this exile that sits at the heart of Ann Patchett’s latest novel, The Dutch Houseit reminded me of Lucy Clifford’s horrific cautionary tale, ‘The New Mother‘, in which two children are told that if they do not behave their real mother will go away and be replaced by another mother ‘with glass eyes and a wooden tail’. (Spoiler: they don’t behave, and the story ends with them watching their once-happy home from the outside as the new mother walks within.)

Danny narrates the story of the Dutch House, but Maeve is at its centre; after their mother ran away to India when Danny was very small, she’s taken care of her brother. There’s a sense that Maeve threw herself in the path of this explosion to shield Danny from the worst of its effects; for most of his childhood, despite having no mother and a distant father, Danny feels secure. Maeve’s sacrifice continues into adulthood ( we find out much of what happens to the siblings in later life early on, as Patchett cleverly constructs the novel around a series of flash-forwards) as Danny pursues his education while she takes up a make-ends-meet job at an accountancy firm.

As ever, Patchett balances the emotional crises of her novel perfectly, and while much of The Dutch House is (deliberately) predictable, its power to move doesn’t lie in surprising the reader but in seeing how everything plays out. Nevertheless, as with Patchett’s last novel, Commonwealth, I was left feeling slightly underwhelmed – if only because I know how brilliant she can be. I think Patchett’s writing works best for me when she takes on more unusual subject-matter, as she did in State of Wonderwhereas both her last two novels have felt more familiar, telling long family stories in the vein of Anne Tyler, whom I don’t especially rate. There’s no doubt that The Dutch House is a good novel, but I wonder how long it will stay with me.

I received a proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 24th September.

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I absolutely loved Ruth Ware’s first thriller, In A Dark, Dark Wood, but was rather underwhelmed by the two I’ve read since, The Woman In Cabin 10 and The Lying Game. The Turn of the Key restored my faith in her; this is top-notch modern Gothic, running with a brilliant setting, where a nanny is left isolated in a ‘smart house’ in Scotland with three small children, frightened by both traditional tropes such as the enveloping forest, and the technology that turns lights off when she isn’t expecting it and makes coffee for her in the morning. Ware builds on the setting she created in In A Dark, Dark Wood, where a house with many of its walls replaced with glass panels looked into a creepy woodland, but amps it all up. I usually struggle with modern Gothic because I don’t find old houses that frightening, but the combination of old and new here works perfectly, and allows Ware to pull off some novel twists. She also writes very cleverly, seeding clues from the start but never allowing the plot to feel too contrived. It’s all a little reminiscent of Kate Murray-Browne’s absorbing The Upstairs Roombut scarier.

Do you have any favourite novels about the hold that houses have over us?

Some Upcoming September Releases

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I picked up We Need New Stories, British-Sudanese journalist Nesrine Malik’s first non-fiction book, because I like Malik’s Guardian columns and her Twitter discussions. We Need New Stories aims to challenge six modern myths, ranging from the idea that there is a ‘free speech crisis’ to the argument that ‘identity politics’ is the root of political and social divisions. I read about a third of this book, but eventually found myself losing interest. I agreed with everything Malik was saying, but that was part of the problem; I wasn’t sure if this book was bringing anything especially new to the table, given how well-rehearsed these debates have been already. Her writing also doesn’t translate well to long-form, becoming much too wordy, with run-on sentences and some misuse of commas. This needed to be much shorter and snappier.

We Need New Stories is out on 5th September. I received a free proof copy of this book from the publisher for review.

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I’ve read everything that Tracy Chevalier has written, despite the fact that I don’t think any of her novels have been solid hits for me since 2003. (I loved her early novels The Virgin Blue, Girl With A Pearl Earring (didn’t we all?) and The Lady and the Unicorn, but have had issues with everything else she’s written since then – if you’re interested, I’ve written about Burning Bright and Remarkable Creatures here, and New Boy here.) So, for the first time in sixteen years, I can honestly say that I liked a Tracy Chevalier novel. A Single Thread probably has the quietest premise of any of her historical fiction; rather than focusing on an encounter with a famous person* or object, the book follows the story of Violet Speedwell, a thirty-eight-year old spinster who has recently moved away from her elderly mother to seek a measure of independence in Winchester, working in an office and living in a boarding house. When Violet meets the broderers, a group of women embroidering ‘kneelers’ for Winchester Cathedral, she is drawn into their fellowship.

A Single Thread complements other recent and more overtly radical inter-war historical fiction such as Lissa Evans’s Old Baggage by considering the impact of individual women choosing to live their lives differently. A long set-piece where Violet takes a walking tour by herself is especially insightful; Chevalier writes so well about how she is subtly constrained by the reactions of the men around her, from the over-friendliness of a patronising publican to a man who starts following her in a cornfield and clearly means harm. The novel underlines how actions that seem relatively small and apolitical, such as reorganising the secretaries’ office work after one of your colleagues leaves so you can get better pay and an extra heater in winter, add another thread of discourse to a changing world. I found the ending a little disappointing – I’d hoped for something less conventional – but it does work with the overall concerns of the novel. And while a little of Chevalier’s tendency to show her research seeps through in a long bell-ringing interlude, on the whole, the historical setting is handled subtly and evocatively. Delightful.

*one of the embroiderers in the book, Louisa Pesel, was a real person, but this is on a bit of a different level from say, William Blake or Mary Anning.

A Single Thread is out on 5th September. I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

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Jessie Burton’s writing seems to be becoming more mature and more complex with every novel; I felt lukewarm about The Miniaturist but was gripped by The Muse. Her latest, The Confession, is even more compelling. The book switches between two timelines, both equally interesting: in the early 1980s, Elise Morceau, in her early twenties, falls swiftly in love with the older novelist Connie Holden after a chance meeting on Hampstead Heath, and goes with her to LA. Meanwhile, in present-day London, Elise’s daughter, Rose, wants to know more about the mother she can’t remember – Elise disappeared when Rose was a baby – and devises a plan to make contact with Connie after she discovers that Connie was the last person to see her mother before she went missing. Burton writes so intelligently about choosing whether or not to have a child (there’s precious little fiction, especially in this mainstream literary vein, that allows women to choose to remain childless, but The Confession made me realise that we also hear little about why women actively choose to have children. Spoiler – highlight to read. It also lets one of its main characters get pregnant accidentally and choose to have an abortion rather than to keep the baby, which should not be surprising in 2019 but is still barely talked about in novels. End spoiler.) Burton’s concern with the conditions under which women can make art, which preoccupied The Muse, is also an important sub-theme in this novel, and there’s something of Clarissa Pinkola Estes’s classic Women Who Run With the Wolves in her depiction of women who feel compelled to drop out of their everyday lives. As with the ending of The Muse, Burton gives into the temptation to spell out the themes of the novel a little too neatly in its last few pages, but this is still a smart, thought-provoking take on how women negotiate emotional ties. Thematically, it chimed beautifully with A Single Thread; both novels consider women who choose to be single, who choose to be with other women, and who choose or do not choose motherhood.

The Confession is out on 19th September. I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

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Finally, I’ve just started reading Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House (24th September) – I tend to enjoy Patchett’s more offbeat novels more than her ‘family sagas’, but I’m already captivated by the narrator’s voice. Full review coming soon!

What September releases are you especially excited about, or have already read and liked?

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).

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.