‘An act of furious defiance’: The High House by Jessie Greengrass

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I thought Jessie Greengrass’s debut novel, Sight, was fantastic; complex but incredibly readable, weaving together the narrator’s musings on motherhood with the lives of three historical figures, Wilhelm Röntgen, Anna Freud and John Hunter, via the theme of inner sight. The High House, her second novel, is deliberately different. Greengrass still writes beautiful prose, but here it is much simpler, and focuses on description and action rather than the close anatomisation of inner worlds. It’s narrated by three people – Caro, Sally and Pauly – but their voices are the same, which again, I felt was a purposeful choice, as Greengrass certainly has the literary skill to differentiate her narrators if she so chooses. Finally, The High House is focused on a static period of time, a drawn-out experience of waiting for catastrophe to unfold, which starts to get to the reader in the same way as it does to the characters. No diving away from your own experience to think about the history of X rays or psychoanalysis in this novel; Greengrass keeps us all suspended in the high house.

All this is to say that I think, technically, Greengrass does exactly what she wanted to do, but I still couldn’t quite embrace this novel. It tells a familiar, if still horrifying, story of a handful of English survivors clinging on after devastating floods sweep much of the globe as a result of climate change. Their refuge was prepared in advance, so they have the resources to survive – for now. But because they were already anticipating disaster before it happened, their before and after is not that different. If the ‘after’ is worse, it’s because Pauly, who was a small child when the floods struck, is now an adult, and so Caro and Sally no longer have somebody to care for in the same way. This picks up on interesting questions about the future generation. Pauly’s mother, Francesca, was a climate activist and was killed by a storm even as she continued to predict Armageddon; she couldn’t enjoy sunny weather because she sees it as a harbinger of doom. And yet, she chose to give birth to Pauly, which Caro thinks was ‘an act of furious defiance… a kind of pact with the world that, having increased her stake in it, she should try to protect what she had found to love’. 

But whether or not this was actually why Francesca had a child, it doesn’t sum up what Pauly comes to mean to Caro and Sally, and how bringing him up, putting his needs first, provides them with psychic defences against the horror they’re facing. Pauly, who is the only one of the trio who can’t remember the world as it used to be, also finds it easiest to adapt to their new reality. Greengrass raises a number of questions that don’t have answers: is it wrong to choose not to reproduce because you’re afraid of the future, because that means you’ve abandoned hope? On the other hand, is it wrong to create a child who has to live in this kind of world simply as a comfort for yourself? Or is this a disaster that humanity will ultimately live through, and the new generation are needed precisely because they’ll have the skills to do that? Nevertheless, the bleakness of this novel wore me down somewhat. It’s not as good as Jenny Offill’s Weatherwhich is similarly grim about future generations, but is also funny and bright and complicated. At times, The High House just feels like a warning, and I’m not sure anyone who reads this book will really need such a warning.

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

Nuns In Novel(la)s

This year, despite not being religious myself, I’ve become slightly obsessed with fictional nuns. I thought I’d think a little about why nuns offer such interesting possibilities for novelists, in anticipation of Lauren Groff’s forthcoming MatrixHere, I’ll be discussing three very different books about three very different kinds of nuns: Sarah Dunant’s Sacred Hearts (2008), which depicts a convent in sixteenth-century Italy; Lina Rather’s Sisters of the Vast Black (2019), which follows an unspecified order of nuns on board a living spaceship; and Rumer Godden’s In This House Of Brede (1969), which is set in an English Benedictine community in the 1960s. However, although these nuns are far apart in space and time, they all sit within the Catholic tradition; this post will therefore focus on Catholic nuns, while recognising that these aren’t the only nuns that exist, even in the Christian faith – and recommendations for books that deal with non-Christian nuns would be very welcome!

Catholic nuns tend to be the butt of jokes, either portrayed as incredibly prudish or sex-obsessed; because nuns are supposed to be angelic, any hint of misbehaviour from a nun is somehow funnier than if it came from a ‘normal’ person. (One of my favourite jokes as a child – no idea why – was ‘What goes black white black white?’/’A nun rolling down a hill.’/’What’s black and white and goes ha ha?’/’The nun who pushed her!’) The radical potential in stories about Catholic nuns, therefore, lies in asking what it’s really like to be a nun and whether this popular stereotype of repressed, unhappy, usually elderly women holds true. If you take out references to nuns or convents from the blurbs of Sacred Hearts and In This House of Brede, they suddenly sound a lot more subversive: 

Sixteen-year-old Serafina is ripped by her family from an illicit love affair and forced into the women’s community of Santa Caterina, renowned for its superb music. 

Philippa Talbot, a highly successful professional woman, leaves her life among the London elite to join a women’s community.

This is not to say that you can simply ‘take out’ the religion from these kinds of communities and reimagine them as proto-feminist communes, but that there’s obvious potential in telling stories about groups of women who live together and rely on each other, and are often able to do things they could not do in the outside world, while recognising that this kind of life comes with its own set of restrictions. To be honest, I wouldn’t be surprised if Matrix sparks a new trend for this kind of novel, as it speaks to a lot of twenty-first century concerns: women who are not defined as wives or mothers; female separatism; loneliness vs chosen solitude; the un/importance of sex.

However, if nun novels were just about women both embracing and escaping the confines of their times, Sisters of the Vast Black would be pointless. Why write about nuns in space when you can invent a future where women can do anything they want? Here, I think we see the appeal of writing about a community of people who are simply trying to do the right thing, aside from feminist concerns. The first two-thirds of Sisters of the Vast Black have a moral seriousness that isn’t preachy or theoretical but very much connected to the world the sisters are dealing with. Even more interestingly, both Sacred Hearts and In This House of Brede depict closed orders, where the nuns’ job is not to do ‘good works’ but to create a community of prayer, cut off from most contact with the world around them. The purpose of this can be hard to understand; what good are the nuns doing by removing themselves from the world? However, in both novels, the power of the convent, of this way of living, is evident, although both Godden and Dunant recognise that this life is right for some women and hellish for others.

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Diana Rigg starred in a film adaptation of In This House Of Brede (1975)

Why read about Catholic nuns if you are not yourself Catholic or Christian? One great thing that these novels open up is the opportunity to write about women who are not primarily driven by one emotional tie, whether that’s to a man, a child or another family member. As I wrote in my review of Lissa Evans’s Old Baggagethese kind of novels are very rare. And while I wouldn’t want to read a nun novel that was simplistic or dogmatic about religion, none of these books are like that. Dunant vividly conveys the importance of faith to some women in her sixteenth-century convent while others suffer under its strictures. Godden has a harder task, convincing us that a twentieth-century character like Philippa would enter a convent in the first place, or thrive there as she does. But while few of us have a vocation to be a nun, I could identify with how Philippa struggles with herself, the fight to be the best version of herself she can be – I don’t need to share her beliefs to understand that.

Finally, there’s a thoughtfulness about these kind of novels, a deliberately reflective pace that I find hugely refreshing in fiction. Sacred Hearts and In This House of Brede tell a big story about lots of women and the lives they lead, and they aren’t tempted to hurry us along to hit the dramatic highpoints. Sisters of the Vast Black, in my opinion, suffers in its final third because it suddenly speeds up, losing much of what made it special earlier on. These books eschew standard plots with a single, ‘active’ protagonist to think about how even the most self-reliant of nuns are part of something bigger. Along the way, they break many ‘rules’ of fiction, and they’re all the better for it.

Have you read any of these novels, or any other novels about nuns? Do you have any recommendations? (I’ve already spotted that Rumer Godden wrote two other novels about nuns, and am eagerly seeking them out!)

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021: Detransition, Baby

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Torrey Peters’s Detransition, Baby flips between present and past to tell the story of Reese, a trans woman; her ex Ames, who once lived as a trans woman called Amy but has now detransitioned; and Katrina, who is pregnant by Ames and shocked to discover his trans past. Ames proposes that they form a child-rearing triad, giving Katrina the support she needs with the baby and fulfilling Reese’s lifelong dream of being a mother. But will their different takes on parenting, relationships and what it means to be a woman torpedo this arrangement before it even gets going?

I had to read Detransition, Baby very slowly, not because it’s an inherently slow read (each chapter zips past) but because I felt like Peters was throwing so much at me that I needed time to digest it before moving on. Therefore, this review will take the form of a series of observations rather than the straightforward kind of review I usually write. It also occurs to me that this is the kind of book I’m going to rethink as time goes on, so these thoughts are also very provisional.

  • Peters is not interested in writing trans characters that are straightforwardly likeable or who deliberately challenge trans stereotypes, which is a good thing. When I’ve read trans women or girls written by writers who don’t identify as trans, I’ve found that these depictions tend to be so respectful as to be smothering. Peters seems to have looked at this kind of writing and gone, fuck this. Reese has very little time for what she frames as trans victimhood but at the same time recognises that she plays into it when it suits her. This tactic backfires when she tries to tell Katrina, who is Chinese-American, that Katrina, as a cis woman, can’t understand how it feels to want a baby and yet to be seen as unfit to parent. Katrina isn’t having any of this: ‘I don’t know, Reese. It doesn’t sound like you’re talking about all women, it just sounds like a certain kind of woman. Like women now, here in this country – white women… When my grandma arrived here from China, she wasn’t encouraged to have kids.’ Reese is also unable to understand how cis women might perceive pregnancy as a biological burden, because she so desperately wants to get pregnant herself.
  • The book portrays a trans culture that, in Reese’s words, is ‘morbid and highly skeptical’. Peters presents this as a coping mechanism for living in a transphobic world. In one particularly memorable chapter, Reese attends yet another funeral for a trans woman who took her own life, but although she’s angry and sad, she deals with her feelings by employing black humour: ‘What no-one wants to admit about funerals, because you’re supposed to be crushed by the melancholy of being a trans girl among the prematurely dead trans girls, is that funerals for dead trans girls number among the notable social events of a season.’
  • It has really interesting things to say about age and generation. One of Reese’s favourite narratives is that trans women don’t have any ‘elders’, and so she has to be a ‘mother’ to ‘baby trans’ women. She also points out that trans women have often gone through a second puberty, and so experience a kind of second adolescence. In short, Peters takes a lot of ideas from impenetrable academic books I’ve read about queer temporality and makes them accessible 🙂 
  •  The book isn’t afraid to tackle taboos such as autogynephilia. Ames/Amy wrestles with his/her sexuality, and whether he/she really is a woman or is simply turned on by dressing up and being treated like one. (I’m using both sets of pronouns here because Ames/Amy uses both during the course of the novel). However, Peters is too smart a writer not to pursue this question to its furthest extent; Ames/Amy reflects that cis women may also be turned on by performing gender, and so this isn’t something that’s unique to trans women. I didn’t agree with all the assumptions that Ames/Amy and Reese make about cis women, but that’s fine; Peters isn’t writing a manifesto here, she’s writing a novel about characters that relate to gender in a certain way and move within a particular kind of subculture.
  • Because of all this Detransition, Baby calls into question our pre-conceived ideas about who authors are writing for and what they need to explain. I often felt incredibly uncomfortable while I was reading this novel. Some of this was because the book messed with some of my ideas about womanhood and gender, which didn’t always fit with the ideas that Ames/Amy and Reese express (not in the sense that I thought the ideas they expressed were wrong, but in the sense that there wasn’t much space for me in this world, which again, is OK, there doesn’t have to be, I’m not trans). However, I realised that some of this was because I was worrying about the reaction of an imagined reader who is not me; an imagined straight cis reader who doesn’t know much about trans issues and is inclined to be unsympathetic. (These Goodreads reviewers call this reaction ‘not in front of the cis‘ or ‘not in front of the straights‘, which is perfect). Peters clearly decided that she was going to write without worrying about whether she was leaving the reader behind or presenting an unsympathetic image of trans women. And ultimately, I think this is great: how can you create good art, or talk honestly about identity, if you are constantly worrying about a person who doesn’t understand the basics of what you want to say?
  • Having said all this, Detransition, Baby does have problems on a craft level. This book is so clever and so interesting that I often skimmed past a lot of this, but there’s no denying that it feels rather hastily put together; the tenses often go wonky and some of the dialogue doesn’t work. Given the subject-matter, I think Peters can be forgiven for a lot of the ‘telling’ she does; if you’re writing about things that haven’t been spoken about before, how do you convey those things to the reader other than by telling? However, sometimes I felt that she was just dumping too much in, and failed to connect to her characters’ emotions. You could also see the joins in the unsteady jumps between past and present. Some of the sex was thematically necessary, but some felt gratuitous. So, this feels very much like a debut, but WHAT a debut; I’d definitely rather read a book like this than a book from someone who has totally mastered their craft, but has nothing to say. 

I’d also like to recommend this Goodreads review from a non-binary reviewer who I think really nails why this book works, especially the complexity of the three main characters.

I’m not aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize longlist this year, but I’ve selected seven titles that I do want to read. This is number seven. I’ve already read The Vanishing HalfTranscendent KingdomPiranesiConsent, Exciting Times and Small Pleasures.

Now I’ve read all seven books, I’ll be back soon with my overall ranking and shortlist predictions!

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021: Consent and Exciting Times

(Perhaps someone should actually write a novel called Consent and Exciting Times, it sounds fun).

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Annabel Lyon’s latest novel, Consent, is almost impossible to summarise swiftly (which may explain why the British publisher has pretty much given up and written an inaccurate summary of the entire plot on the back cover, but publishers, this really isn’t a good idea – apart from anything else, it makes Consent sound like a thriller, which it is not). In short, it’s about two pairs of sisters. Sara’s sister Mattie is intellectually disabled, and Sara starts caring for her after the death of their mother. Saskia’s sister Jenny has been out of control since she was a teenager, and now she’s in a coma following a car accident. Lyon packs so much into this relatively slim novel that there are probably multiple ways of summarising what it’s really ‘about’, but I found myself particularly picking up on the theme of bodily autonomy – what we are allowed to do with our bodies, and how that’s related to both our intellectual capacity and our capacity to live independently from other people. We valorise independence, but we’re all dependent. We want freedom, but we often throw away the things that would allow us to seek it. Some of us, Lyon seems to be saying, are allowed to wreck our own lives; some of us are not.

I thought this novel was fantastic, but I’m struggling to say why. I imagine many readers will find it incredibly unsatisfying. Lyon’s writing is elliptical, deliberately looping round pieces of key information so we have to be constantly engaged to work things out for ourselves. Such intensity might have been too much in a longer novel, but in this short book it’s perfect, like one of the strong espressos Sara drinks or the expensive scents she wears. It also strays close to the ironic commentary of some ‘millennial novels’ I’ve read without giving into the temptation to say things that are too easy. (Sara, born in the 70s, is also too old to be a millennial, and I liked the juxtaposition between her inner monologue and that of the younger Saskia’s). I’d never heard of Lyon before she was longlisted for the Women’s Prize, but now I want to check out her entire backlist. Brilliant choice, judges.

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It’s a rare novel that draws praise from both Marian Keyes and Hilary Mantel, but both are quoted on the cover of my copy of Naoise Dolan’s debut, Exciting Times. As regular readers of this blog will know, I’ve been steering clear of this for some time because I felt it would be yet another ‘dysfunctional women being dysfunctional novel’, but after some persuasion, mostly by Elle, I decided to give it a try. And I’m glad I did; this is much weirder and more interesting than your typical novel about a young woman messing her life up. Ava is working as a TEFL teacher in Hong Kong, partly because she doesn’t know what to do next with her life and partly to avoid living at home in Dublin. She finds herself hate-dating banker Julian, and stays in his flat when he leaves Hong Kong for months on business. But then she meets Edith, and finds herself building a relationship that’s much sweeter and more genuine – although, if that’s really the case, why is she still so drawn to Julian?

Ava’s narration makes this novel. She’s interested in language in a way that feels much more illuminating than the wordplay that writers like Ali Smith sometimes indulge in, musing on the differences between Irish English and the ‘correct’ form of English that she’s instructed to teach to her students, as well as the differences between English and the languages she encounters in Hong Kong. Her voice is also pitched very carefully between being relatable and alienating, which perhaps explains why both Keyes and Mantel enjoyed this. Bits of Exciting Times did take me right back to my early twenties, when being the least keen in a relationship was so important, and you get interested in people who seem to be the antithesis of everything you say you believe in, because they come from a world you’ve never encountered before. However, Ava isn’t an everywoman; she’s both terrible and brilliant at social interaction, and makes some very bizarre judgments about others. She comes off at first like the kind of astute narrator that we can laugh along with, but we gradually realise how off-kilter her ideas are. All this is really cleverly handled, and although I didn’t quite fall for Exciting Times, I definitely admired it.

I’m not aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize longlist this year, but I’ve selected seven titles that I do want to read. These are numbers four and five. I’ve already read The Vanishing Half ,Transcendent Kingdom and Piranesi.

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021: Piranesi

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Piranesi, Susanna Clarke’s second novel, has been called ‘a puzzleand a ‘mystery’ with ‘revelations‘ that unfold throughout the narrative. I think this sets up expectations for the book that mar the reading experience (encouraging the reader to rush to discover secrets), so I’m going to say straight off, I didn’t find any unexpected twists or shocks in Piranesi. Indeed, I felt like I knew what was going on almost from the start, although it gradually took firmer shape. On the other hand, I wasn’t sure that we were ever really meant to know what was going on, for certain; Piranesi has something of the resonant, deliberately frustrating quality of Nina Allan’s novels, perhaps especially The Silver Wind. It didn’t enchant me quite as much as I expected, but the world that Clarke creates within Piranesi’s House is so vivid and troubling that it will take me a long time to forget it.

Our narrator tells us about the limited world within which he lives, a labyrinth of marble halls that ascend into the clouds and are intermittently washed by tides, and which are filled with statues. Only fifteen people, he believes, have ever existed, and only two of those are still alive; himself, and a man he calls ‘the Other’, who visits him occasionally, only to disappear again ‘to far distant halls’. In the journal entries that make up the first couple of sections of this book, part of the fascination of the narrator’s character is figuring out how things might be if you thought such a place was the entire world. He is greatly reverent of the dead, for example, able to pay each of the collections of bones he discovers individual attention, because there are so few people to remember. As the plot gathers pace and the narrator starts to unpick things he believed were true, this aspect of the novel recedes, but there’s a haunting oddness about Piranesi that remains even when we return to a more mundane world at the end. The epigraph from The Magician’s Nephew, the only Narnia book I’ve ever enjoyed, is totally apt. 

Piranesi is an odd book to find on the Women’s Prize longlist. Even when the Prize has branched out to embrace more speculative fiction, it’s tended to stay closer to realism. Nevertheless, I completely welcome its presence here, and I hope this heralds more science fiction, horror and fantasy on future longlists, as well as all those genres that fall in between.

I’m not aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize longlist this year, but I’ve selected seven titles that I do want to read. This is number three. I’ve already read The Vanishing Half and Transcendent Kingdom.

Early Spring Reading, 2021

As usual, I have been reading three completely different things!

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Alexandra Andrews’s debut thriller, Who Is Maud Dixon?, is so close to Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley that it feels almost like a retelling, although there are also shades of Caroline Kepnes’s You in its cynical take on the literary world. Florence is an editorial assistant in New York who never seems to do or say the right thing; her less privileged upbringing leaves her feeling like an outsider. Like other young women of her generation, she’s fallen in love with the novel Mississippi Foxtrot, written under the pseudonym Maud Dixon. When Florence is invited to travel to Morocco to work as a personal assistant for the woman behind the pseudonym, Helen Wilcox, she believes she will learn the secret of how to be a successful novelist. However, she still feels stuck too fast in her old identity. When an unexpected opportunity to become Helen Wilcox – and through her, Maud Dixon – comes up, what will Florence do with it?

The first half of this thriller was really intelligently written; although the early chapters are not overtly eventful, I felt completely gripped by Florence’s voice and observations. In the second half, it comes off the rails a bit, with an identity-swapping plot that becomes too complicated and a little absurd. Highsmith’s decision to have Tom Ripley’s deception be initially so simple, but so audacious, felt even wiser after reading Who Is Maud Dixon? I would have been much more convinced if the novel had taken a quieter turn and focused more on literary deception. In particular, Andrews’s decision to make Mississippi Foxtrot loosely autobiographical felt unfortunate given that Elena Ferrante’s decision to write under a pseudonym seemed at least partly motivated by  the assumption that women writers can only write about their own lives. As she writes anonymously, Ferrante’s critics can’t draw neat lines between her life and that of her characters, which seems to be exactly what she wants. Instead, Andrews falls back on a really tiring trope – that all novels are simply veiled versions of autobiography – which doesn’t leave her any room to explain wider questions about writing. However, I would definitely read her next novel, as I thought Florence was such an interesting creation, and she carries the book even in its sillier moments.

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

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Naomi Ishiguro’s debut novel, Common Ground, also starts in a very familiar place. It’s 2003, but it might as well be 1950; thirteen-year-old Stan is the school outcast, teased for his NHS glasses and old clothes, and struggling after his father’s death. When he meets cool sixteen-year-old Charlie, who doesn’t go to school but works at the local gym instead, an unlikely friendship results. Stan – who, speaking as someone who was also a pretty unworldly teenager in 2003, seems almost impossibly naive – is fascinated by Charlie’s Traveller* family and shocked at the abuse they receive. Almost ten years later, in 2012, Stan and Charlie meet again at a party in London. Both are now very different people, and struggle to connect across class, education and racial divides. Charlie’s life has been marked by the social exclusion and discrimination he’s experienced, while Stan seems to have lightly shrugged off his earlier suffering. Will their previous closeness be enough to bring them together?

Common Ground has very worthy intentions, and draws attention to a form of racism that is often forgotten, despite recent headlines about discrimination against Traveller communities in both Britain and Ireland. However, as a novel, I found it plodding and simplistic, and much too long. I was a little puzzled about what it was trying to do. A number of reviews describe it as ‘feelgood’ or ‘heartwarming’, but I found it rightly, relentlessly grim. If you’re looking for something that cheerfully explores community in the vein of Libby Page’s The Lido or Joanna Cannon’s Three Things About Elsiethis is not the book for you. However, by itself, that isn’t a problem – there’s no reason why a book that explores this kind of entrenched racism should be uplifting. The trouble is that Common Ground doesn’t bring much more to the table. The prose is competent, but both Charlie and Stan remain within the boundaries of their respective archetypes. When they meet again in London in 2012, Charlie slips straight into the salt-of-the-earth working-class observer role, mocking middle-class students’ pretentious views on art (why is this always the way protagonists demonstrate emotional authenticity?) while Stan can’t speak without lapsing into journalistic jargon about austerity politics. People are more complicated than this.

I was sorry not to like Common Ground more, because I really admire its focus on the experiences of Traveller communities. I would actually be keen to try Ishiguro’s collection of short stories, Escape Routes, to see how her writing works in a very different form.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 25th March.

*There are a range of terms that these communities use to refer to themselves, as the linked article describes. I’m using ‘Traveller’ in this review because it’s the word Charlie seems to prefer.

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Gwendoline Riley has many gifts as a writer, but I think the most obvious – showcased both in her most recent book, My Phantoms, and her previous one, First Love – is the way she composes dialogue. I can’t think of another writer who nails so precisely how we actually speak, with all of its redundancies, embarrassing repetitions and pointless exclamations. The narrator of My Phantoms, Bridget, is also acutely aware of how even the most throwaway comment might be interpreted, at least when she’s talking to her mother, Hen, which adds an extra layer of self-reflection. Here she is talking to Hen about a drinks party:

I got stuck with a really boring woman for about ten minutes,” I said.

“Oh no!” my mother said.

“So typical,” I said, “in a room full of interesting people.”

That was a slip-up. I knew it as soon as I’d said it.

“Mmm,” she said, bravely.

I tried to get her back: “The dreadful thing is, I think she felt she’d got stuck with me, too! But neither of us had the wherewithal to break it off.”

“Aargh!” said my mother.

And encouraged, I went on, “I think it’s worse when you feel you’re the boring one!” I said. But there again, that was wrong; I’d given the impression now of such a party-rich life that I could make generalisations.

Bridget tells us almost nothing about herself; the focus of this novella is on character portraits of her parents, her unbearably awful father (whose constant badgering of her when she was a child gives us some idea of why she may have withdrawn so far into herself) and the much more complicated Hen, who is always striving for something brighter and better at the same time as she trips herself up. Hen’s life is the real centre of this story, and the final glimpse of her we get is unbearably sad.

Other reviewers have noted that Bridget’s effacement of herself from the narrative doesn’t mean that we should think of her as unselfish, pointing out that she outsources caring responsibilities to her sister Michelle as Hen gets older, and seems unreasonably opposed to Hen meeting her boyfriend. However, I think Riley leaves Bridget’s motivations deliberately open. She is far estranged not only from her parents but from Michelle, and there seems to be a great deal she doesn’t say about her childhood. And while she is capable of deliberately baiting and upsetting her mother (for example, subtly noting the inconvenience of having dinner with Hen on her actual birthday, because the weather’s always cold and wet) we also see how hard she tries to make pleasant conversation. This kind of watchfulness made me reflect back on what Bridget experienced while she was growing up, as it felt like the kind of learnt behaviour that emerges from an abusive environment. None of these characters are easy to read, but that’s why this novella is so good.

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

‘In the beginning there was an idea’: Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

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Gifty, the protagonist of Yaa Gyasi’s second novel, Transcendent Kingdom, is both a neuroscience PhD student at Stanford who sought rigour in all things from an early age, and a grieving woman who is still deeply connected to her Ghanaian family’s Pentecostalism. As a child, she struggled with the command to ceaselessly praise God, soon discovering that she found it difficult to keep her mind on prayer for more than a few minutes; her teenage imagination was caught by the idea that ‘in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God’ might actually be translated differently: ‘“Word” was translated from the Greek word Logos, which didn’t really mean “word” at all, but rather something closer to “plea” or even premise… In the beginning there was an idea, a premise; there was a question.’ Gifty’s research on reward-seeking behaviour in mice has obvious connections with the death of her older brother Nana from opioid addiction, but the novel avoids giving her this one simple motivation for her project; she explains that she was drawn to neuroscience because it seemed so hard and so pure, and is now grappling with the conflict between religious and scientific ideas of the brain, the mind and the soul.

From a white British perspective, fiction on the perceived conflict between religion and science has often tended to focus on the theory of evolution, and explored either the gentle accord that nineteenth-century men of science found between their faith and the evidence that the natural history of the world was much longer than they’d expected, or the later clashes with creationism. Transcendent Kingdom stands out in its depiction of Gifty’s Pentecostal faith, which, unlike Anglicanism/ Episcopalianism, focuses on personal divine revelation and speaking in tongues, and how she integrates her childhood beliefs with her neuroscientific work. (Creationism only comes up once, as an irritating question that non-believers ask her; she dodges it by spouting something one of her schoolteachers once said, ‘I believe we’re made of stardust, and God made the stars.’) This novel is so wise and thoughtful that there are endless bits I could quote, but I was especially struck by how Gifty turns to both scientific articles and biblical passages, not necessarily as sources of authority, but as things that are both good to think with.

This book is so thematically resonant that a lot of the reviews I’ve read make it sound intellectually worthy, but a bit dry; this isn’t the case at all. Gifty is a completely captivating narrator, ironically funny about her younger self, complex, unashamedly ambitious and yet deeply caring. Gyasi does not have time for any of the usual binaries that afflict female characters, and doesn’t let us think for a second that because Gifty wants to be a scientific star and does not want marriage or children, this means that she is in any way emotionally deficient. The novel is also technically brilliant in a very unobtrusive way; the narrative melts between present and past every few paragraphs, but I never felt at all confused about where or when we were. Indeed, it’s this clever juxtaposition that allows Gyasi to say so much without spelling anything out to the reader.

I never managed to love Gyasi’s acclaimed debut, Homegoing, as much as I wanted to; I admired its premise and construction, and connected with some of the stories, but felt a little distanced from the project as a whole. Transcendent Kingdom was a very different experience; I was completely pulled into Gifty’s world and Gifty’s questions. This novel deserves to go straight onto the Women’s Prize longlist and indeed the shortlist, and I hope to see it there on the 10th March.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 4th March.

(An aside: what is going on with the UK cover for this book? It looks like the sort of shapes I used to doodle in class, and the pink and green cover scheme is – not good. It’s such a shame, because the US cover is perfect:

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My Dark Vanessa, Or Why I’m A Year Behind Everyone Else In Getting To This Book

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I wasn’t going to read My Dark Vanessa. Not even when I saw how many rave reviews it was getting from bloggers I trust. Based on this, I was sure that it was a good book; that it dealt thoughtfully with a sensitive subject. But I still wasn’t convinced that I needed to read another novel about a relationship between a schoolgirl and her teacher, no matter how well it was written. This is ground that’s been so thoroughly trodden, both in novels and in numerous comment pieces analysing real-life cases in both Britain and the US over the past few years. It’s also something I think about in my own historical research on children and young people in twentieth and twenty-first century Britain. My Dark Vanessa might be great, I decided, but it wasn’t going to say anything that I didn’t already know.

I changed my mind about trying My Dark Vanessa after attending an online At Home With Four Indies event where Kate Elizabeth Russell was interviewed (very adeptly) by Louise O’Neill. What I found so fascinating about the way Russell wrote My Dark Vanessa was not just that the novel was drafted over the course of eighteen years, but that Russell essentially put it together in conversation with her teenage self. She talked about finding bits and pieces she had written as a teenager where she didn’t know if it was her writing as herself or as Vanessa, and also how certain sequences that had been present in early drafts of the novel dropped out as she redrafted then made it back in to the final version, as if they were always meant to be there. I found this especially interesting because I, too, have a novel that I’ve been working with, on and off, for about seventeen years, since I was in my late teens, and it, too, is traumatic, although not in an especially autobiographical way and not in quite the same way as My Dark Vanessa. Nevertheless, however captivated I was by Russell’s account of her process, I still needed to find out if the novel would work for me.

And unexpectedly, it did. Basically, this was because while My Dark Vanessa is absolutely a book about a schoolgirl who has a relationship with her teacher, and which has a lot to say on that specific subject, that also isn’t all it is. Russell clearly thought very deeply about tackling something so difficult, and Vanessa is presented as a character who has been fundamentally shaped by what has been happening to her since she was fifteen. As other reviewers have outlined, Vanessa is such a thought-provoking protagonist because she doesn’t fit into our idea of what the ‘ideal victim’ should be – she maintains that what happened between her and her teacher, Strane, was not abuse, and that her own psychology was somehow leading her towards something of this kind. Russell does not give Vanessa a simplistic moment of revelation in the wake of the #MeToo movement, but we see how she comes to reassess how she felt at the time.

But because Russell presents such an authentic portrait of both Vanessa’s teenage and adult selves, this novel also has resonance far beyond stories of sexual exploitation in the classroom or even abuse and rape more generally, and for me, that’s why it worked so well. It asks how we can square beliefs that our younger selves held so fervently with what we learn later on in life – and how we can do that without totally tossing our younger selves under a bus. It explores how we can cope with the knowledge that our life has been shaped by something outside our control, especially if we thought it was within our control when it was happening. And in this, I felt the strength of what all Russell’s different reworkings of this story have brought to it. I don’t know how she’s going to write her next book after something like this – I know how difficult it is starting a new project after working on one thing since you were a teenager, because your teenage self had so much to give – but I do feel confident that she can.

Getting Ahead With February ARCs

Like a lot of book bloggers, I seem to be completely swamped with February ARCs, so started reading them in January in order to try and get ahead of the upcoming tide. Here are my thoughts on some of next month’s releases:

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Megha Majumdar’s debut novel, A Burning, came very highly hyped, but for me, it was one of those novels where the hype left me feeling baffled and concerned about the state of the literary world. Set in modern Kolkata, it alternates between the perspectives of three characters: Jivan, a young Muslim woman falsely accused of being involved in a terrorist attack; Lovely, a hijra who longs to be an actress and who has been learning English from Jivan; and PT Sir, Jivan’s former teacher, who is now becoming dangerously involved with a nationalist political party who want to use Jivan as a scapegoat. All three characters use, and are used, by social media. Jivan was originally ensnared by the police after posting an angry Facebook status criticising the government, PT Sir uses YouTube to spread the word about the party he works for, while Lovely is delighted when a video of her goes viral.

A Burning is emotionally moving, but I found it disappointingly thin. All three of the protagonists are relatively one-dimensional, with Jivan defined by her wronged innocence, Lovely by her sassy narration, and PT Sir as the typical social climber seduced by the opportunity of power. The quick switches between them make the novel a swift read but also reinforce the impression that it’s only skating over the surface of these political injustices. Majumdar also breaks away from her three central narrators at times – for example, there are brief snatches from the point of view of Jivan’s parents – which means that the novel ends up spelling out things that it doesn’t really need to, slipping into a mode of storytelling that is more common in YA than in adult fiction. Ultimately, I wished that Majumdar had had the confidence to leave more unsaid.

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

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I’ve been looking forward to the third book in James Smythe’s Anomaly Quartet since I read The Explorer and The Echo back in 2014 (having been further impressed by his I Still Dream in the interim). In The Edge, the Anomaly is up to its usual creepy tricks; it’s moved much closer to the Earth and our protagonist and first-person narrator, Ali, is part of a team who’ve been sent up in space to monitor the Anomaly’s progress and to try to find out more about it. Heading up the team is an ancient Tomas, the surviving twin brother from The Echo, who, it soon becomes clear, has his own questions to answer. But as strange things start to happen on the space station, Ali starts to wonder if she can trust anybody other than herself.

Smythe is brilliant at thinking logically through the consequences of a concept, and expanding his stories as his characters discover these consequences. The relatively simple time-loop story told in The Explorer became much more complex in The Echo, and The Edge builds further on what we already know about the Anomaly, further enhancing the terror of the threat it poses. However, despite the fact that the central story of this quartet advances in satisfying ways in this installment, I found it disappointing as a stand-alone read. Ali is in many ways more grounded than our two previous narrators, and more obviously relatable; perhaps this is why her paranoia feels more like the familiar gaslighting of a psychological thriller rather than the truly skewed stories told by Cormac and Mira. The originality of the first two novels was a little lacking here, and I found myself getting tired of Ali’s self-questioning, and of the backstory with her husband, which drew on too many usual tropes. However, it may be that this all seems a lot fresher to SF readers who haven’t read as many psychological thrillers as I have, and it is an interesting kind of genre-cross, which I always appreciate.

Despite my relative ambivalence about The Edge, I’m still very excited to read the final book in the Anomaly Quartet, and to find out how Smythe pulls together all the questions he’s posed over the course of this series, though I suspect the final meaning of the Anomaly may be more metaphorical than scientific.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 18th February.

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The Galaxy, and the Ground Within is the final title in Becky Chambers’s Wayfarers quartet (although I hope she will return to this world, if not these characters, in future, as there still seems to be so much more to explore!) As ever, it’s gentle, character- and concept-driven sci fi, with a satellite accident merely providing the pretext for her four central characters to be stranded together on the ‘truck stop’ planet Gora. Ouloo and Tupo, a Laru mother and child, run the Five-Hop One-Stop, trying hard to provide appropriate food and facilities for all the different alien races they might encounter. Roveg is an exiled Quelin who builds immersive VR environments, and is keen to be on his way so he doesn’t miss an important appointment. Speaker is an Akarak, a race who seem to have drawn a galactic short straw, and is desperately trying to reunite with her twin sister in orbit. And Pei, who briefly appeared in The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet, is an Aeluon who is initially relaxed about the extended stop-over, until something unexpected throws her off course.

I haven’t truly adored any of the Wayfarers novels as much as I loved The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet, and this held true for The Galaxy, and the Ground Within. However, it still delivers Chambers’s usual thoughtful inventiveness and optimistic take on the future of the universe. I continue to be frustrated that a writer who so flexibly rethinks gender, sexuality and race can’t break outside the idea of childhood and adolescence as a universal biological category, and Tupo fell into many of the same teenage stereotypes as Chambers’ human character Kip in Record of A Spaceborn Few. Nevertheless, The Galaxy, and the Ground Within still gives us plenty of interesting ideas to chew on. Most of the cast veered close to being a bit too idealised for me, but I loved Chambers’s complex portrayal of Pei, who is forced to wrestle with questions of just war, reproductive duty and non-conformity. Her narrative strand, for these reasons, was by far the most compelling. In short, though, The Galaxy, and the Ground Within won’t disappoint Wayfarers fans, and as ever, I’m excited to see what Chambers does next.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 18th February.

February ARCs to come: Light Perpetual (Francis Spufford); All Girls (Emily Layden); Kololo Hill (Neema Shah); Little Gods (Meng Jin).

How are you doing with your February ARCs?

My Top Ten Books of 2020

It’s time for another top ten books of the year list! (You can find my 2019 post here, my 2018 post here, my 2017 post here, my 2016 post here, my 2015 post here, and my 2014, 2013, 2012 and 2011 posts on my old blog.) For clarity, these are my ten favourite books I have read this year, regardless of when they were published.

In the order I read them…

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  1. Spinning Silver: Naomi Novik. Novik hits it out of the park with her second folktale retelling, telling three equally compelling stories about three very different women in the fictional kingdom of Lithvas, loosely inspired, according to Novik, by Lithuania, Poland and Russia. I’ve always believed folk/fairytales are fiendishly and perhaps deceptively difficult to turn into full-length novels, because they operate with a logic and a pace that breaks a lot of our conventional ‘rules’ of storytelling (I can’t recommend Kate Bernheimer’s essay ‘Fairy Tale is Form, Form is Fairy Tale’ enough if you’re as interested in this as I am). Novik’s approach is to tell a series of miniature stories that magically combine together. Perfection. I reviewed it here.

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2. Minor Feelings: Cathy Park Hong. This series of essays on making art while considering your own cultural and historical position now feels especially relevant given the issues that were ever more strongly highlighted by black activists during 2020, but is also vital for anyone who’s ever given a thought to how artists should and can use their own experience. I’ve yet to read something better on the idea of writing both within and outside your lane; Hong, who is Korean-American, argues that even when we are apparently writing from our own lived experience, we are always ‘speaking nearby’ ourselves, because no one person can tell everybody else’s story – or even their own. I reviewed it here.

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3. Ice Diaries: Jean McNeil. There’s a whole sub-genre of memoirs written by writers-in-residence in Antarctica, but McNeil’s is in a class of its own. She brilliantly evokes how spending four months on an Antarctic base affected her sense of her own selfhood, while also interrogating the human fascination with empty spaces on the map. If you liked Nancy Campbell’s The Library of Iceyou should read this next – however, I think this is also one of those rare Antarctic books that would appeal to readers who otherwise have no interest in the farthest south. I reviewed it briefly here.

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4. The Butchers: Ruth Gilligan. I recently named this as one of the novels I thought had been most unfairly overlooked this year, and I still don’t understand why it hasn’t received more critical attention. Set during the BSE crisis in Ireland in 1996, it moves between four narrators to tell a story of cow-smuggling and cattle-slaughtering that feels infused with folktale. Read it if you’re a fan of Fiona Mozley or Cynan Jones. I reviewed it here. (Published as The Butchers’ Blessing in the US).

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5. Broken Stars: ed. and trans. Ken Liu. This collection of short Chinese science fiction in translation, the second such collection edited by Liu, gives the Western reader an insight into a literary world that is otherwise not accessible to them. The inclusion of three essays on Chinese SF and its fandom is particularly inspired, giving ignorant readers like me some context for the development of the genre in China. And the book is stuffed full of original and exciting stories, with my favourites including Han Song’s ‘Submarines’, Baoshu’s ‘What Has Passed Shall In Kinder Light Appear’, Hao Jingfang’s ‘The New Year Train’, Ma Boyong’s ‘The First Emperor’s Games’ and Chen Qiufan’s ‘A History of Future Illnesses’. To top it all off, the UK edition has one of the most beautiful covers I’ve ever seen, though you have to see it in its real-life gold-foiled glory to fully appreciate it.

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6. The Lost Future of Pepperharrow: Natasha Pulley. I’m a massive Pulley fan, and this sequel to The Watchmaker of Filigree Street didn’t disappoint (indeed, I thought it was better than the first, though not quite as good as The Bedlam Stacks). We now follow the clairvoyant watchmaker Keita Mori and his friend and lover, Thaniel Steepleton, to late nineteenth-century Japan, where Mori disappears on a mission of his own as electrical storms brew across the country. Before I read Pulley’s fiction, I worried her books would be a little twee, but I was totally wrong; they’re eerie and intelligent and funny, all at the same time. And having wrestled with a time travel novel for several years, I can only admire her ability to centre her plot around a character who has the gift of precognition, which makes figuring out cause and effect EVEN MORE CONFUSING. I reviewed it here.

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7. The Mirror and the Light: Hilary Mantel. I’m not sure what else I can say about this magnificent conclusion to the Cromwell trilogy, other than that it was delightful to find myself finally falling in love with a much-praised sequence of books that I’d always had ambivalent feelings about before (though, typically for me, this happened just when everybody else seemed to decide this one wasn’t as good as the others). For me, this was the best in the trilogy, and should have won everything going. I reviewed it here.

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8. My Year of Meats: Ruth Ozeki. I would never have picked this book up if I hadn’t loved A Tale For The Time Being so much; the story of a Japanese-American documentarian, Jane Takagi-Little, who exposes the illegal use of hormones in the American meat industry back in 1991 didn’t immediately appeal to me. However, although this novel goes to some bizarre places, it really works; it’s held together by Jane, who feels real in a way that few characters ever do. I reviewed it here.

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9. New Suns: ed. Nisi Shawl. It’s very unusual for me to like one multi-author SF anthology enough to put it in my top ten books of the year, let alone two! But Shawl’s edited collection of short speculative fiction by writers of colour delivered hit after hit, and gave me lots of new names to look out for. I especially loved some creepy contributions: Alex Jennings’s ‘unkind of mercy’, Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s ‘Give Me Your Black Wings Oh Sister’ and Indrapramit Das’s ‘The Shadow We Cast Through Time’. I reviewed it here.

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10. Hild: Nicola Griffith. Having abandoned this book twice before finishing it, once in 2017 and again in 2018, it’s safe to say I never thought it would make a top ten books of the year list. However, when I finally committed to Hild, I found myself completely inhabiting her sixth-century world. It’s a book that demands a lot of time and attention, more so, I’d say, even than The Mirror and The Light; but I thought about it for such a long time after finishing it, and wished I could walk back in. (Interestingly, Griffith is now two for two in my books of the year; her SF debut Ammonite was in my top ten in 2019. I’m about to read So Lucky, so we’ll see if she can keep this up!). I wrote a little more about Hild here.

Reading Stats

I read 150 books in 2020. I’m a little surprised by this – it’s less than I read in 2018 and 2019 – as I felt I was reading much more during the pandemic. However, I have to remember that as recently as 2017, 127 books still felt like a massive number. I suspect what has happened is that I’ve read a lot of very long books because I had more time to concentrate, which have dragged down my stats (The Terror, The Mirror and The Light, Hild and The Wise Man’s Fear, I’m looking at you). In 2021, I’ll again set a target of 150.

I read 120 books by women, 28 books by men, and 2 books by an author who identifies as non-binary. This was, again, the worst year ever for men, dwindling to 18% of the books I read – and, interestingly, a few male authors appear several times (I read three books apiece by both James Smythe and James S.A. Corey) – meaning that the number of individual male authors I read was even lower.

I read 46 books by writers of colour and 104 books by white writers. To my huge surprise, the percentage of writers of colour (31%) is the best I’ve ever managed, and actually quite close to my target of 33%! I’m surprised because I felt I was really failing on this target this year, so something must have gone right. Once again, I will aim to achieve 33% books by writers of colour in 2021.

Finally, here’s what Goodreads thinks was My Year In Books: 

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