‘Is It Finished?’ and ‘Are You Happy With It?’: When I Grow Up: Conversations With Adults in Search of Adulthood

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I’m on holiday and off-grid until the end of August. This post, and a couple of others, have been auto-scheduled.

Jacqueline Wilson, the 76-year-old bestselling children’s author, has little time for adulthood. ‘From the way you are speaking’, she tells Moya Sarner, when being interviewed for Sarner’s book When I Grow Up: Conversations With Adults in Search of Adulthood, ‘it’s as if… when you achieve adulthood, that is somehow the pinnacle, whereas I think that’s when you start to pretend.’ Wilson thinks that the people who seem most mature ‘have just learned how to pretend to be an adult’, and that children are refreshing because they tend not to participate in this pretence. Several of Sarner’s other interviewees also reject adulthood outright. 19-year-old Sam, a Nigerian immigrant to Britain, hopes never to be an adult despite having had to take on a great deal of responsibility; he sees adulthood as defined by self-imposed constraints, by the refusal to dream, and so by the inability to imagine radical social revolution. Most strikingly, very few of Sarner’s interviewees, from those in their late teens to those reaching the end of their lives, see themselves as truly ‘adult’. ‘I truly do not consider that I have grown up,’ says Pog, who has three adult children and was a full-time carer for her late husband. ‘And I’m 90.’

Like the concept of ‘adulthood’ itself, When I Grow Up is caught between contradictions, which are acutely frustrating in its earlier, shallower chapters and become more meaningful in the later, better sections of the book. As a historian of adulthood in Cold War Britain, I would contend that ‘adulthood’ is difficult to reclaim, despite Sarner’s efforts, because it serves two main societal purposes. One – the one that Sarner is really interested in – is the idea that adulthood is an individual attitude of mind, something that we may lose and regain throughout our lives, that isn’t better than other orientations towards the world, but just different. As psychoanalyst Josh Cohen suggests in conversation with Sarner, who is herself a psychodynamic psychotherapist, childhood and adulthood can be seen as different psychic states rather than developmental stages, and hence not positioned as part of a hierarchy. I love this idea, and very much resonate with the sense of being more and less ‘adult’ at different times of life.

However, as Sarner’s book unconsciously demonstrates, it’s difficult to use the idea of ‘adulthood’ in this way when it is so embedded in modern society as a way of dividing the deserving from the undeserving; the non-citizens from the citizens; the immature from the mature. Adulthood is hierarchical, by nature, because for there to be adults there have to be non-adults, who don’t possess the same rights, capabilities and competencies as adults. As Sarner says herself, adulthood is associated with independence from others, ‘mastery and competence’, care and thoughtfulness’, ‘responsibility’ and mature moral understanding. Sarner contests this definition later in the book, emphasising that, for example, dependence isn’t necessarily a bad thing – but fails to understand that the idea of the ‘dependent subject’ is encoded in the very idea of adulthood, as historians like Holly Brewer, Satadru Sen, Corinne Field, Nicholas Syrett and Ishita Pande have shown. The most obvious victims of hierarchical adulthood are children and young people, but it also targets disabled people, who may be seen as not fully grown-up because they may not be able to live independently, and other groups who don’t fit into white heterosexual middle-class male norms.  I, personally, would prefer to challenge the idea that ‘being an adult’ is meaningful rather than just trying to change what ‘being an adult’ means.

Nevertheless, the later chapters of Sarner’s book, where she more fully acknowledges that adulthood should not be a fixed goal to be achieved, contain much that is valuable. I loved the story she tells about a nursery manager who does not praise or criticise the paintings the children in her care produce but instead simply asks ‘Is it finished?’ and ‘Are you happy with it?’ Sarner suggests that this gives the picture back to the child – allowing the picture to stay in a child’s world of creation rather than in an adult world of aspiration and achievement. But as she implies, this attitude to one’s artistic work is also deeply mature – and, in my opinion, disconnected from chronological age. I was more able to occupy this headspace at 18 than I am now, at 35. Why not discard the idea of a set sequence of life stages altogether? This is kind of where Sarner gets to by the end of this book – but by not signalling this from the start, and by structuring her chapters around this familiar sequence, she undermines her own argument. Why insist that children must be protected from the world, that adolescents have to party and take risks, that adults should be ambitious, that middle-aged people should settle down, that the old are wise but obsolete? Why not let us all be people, some of whom need more or less help with their lives than other people?

RANDOM POSTSCRIPT FOR THOSE AGED 30-40: We are used to being told that the frontal lobes of our brain, which are responsible for executive functioning, don’t fully develop until 25 or even 30. HOWEVER, Sarner reveals that they then start declining after age 40! So, fellow 30-40 year olds, this is actually the only decade we get to be adults! Make the most of it!!!

If you want to read more about my own historical research on adulthood, check out the History and Publications tabs. I am currently working on an edited collection on adulthood in Britain and the United States since c. 1300 with fellow historian Maria Cannon, and a book on children and adolescents’ understandings of adulthood and chronological age in Cold War Britain, c.1945-1989.

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

20 Books of Summer, #15 and #16: The Memory of Love and Beloved

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Before rereading: I first read The Memory of Love in 2011, when it was on the Orange Prize shortlist. I remember liking the novel far more than I anticipated, but being hugely disappointed by the ending. I remember very little about it otherwise, although I was impressed by Aminatta Forna’s subsequent novels, The Hired Man and Happiness. Spoilers for The Memory of Love follow.

The first time I read The Memory of Love, I wrote: ‘The book is set in 2001 in Freetown, Sierra Leone, and delicately and vividly charts the aftermath of the recent civil war. The central character is ostensibly Adrian Lockheart, an English psychatrist who has come to help the survivors work through their trauma and grief, but he is rather colourless, and I found myself far more involved in the stories of the two other major characters: Kai, an orthopedic surgeon, and Elias, a dying man who tells Adrian the events that unfolded thirty years ago when he fell in love with the wife of a colleague just before the country was swept up in a military coup.’ 

However, I was hugely disappointed by the final fifty pages of the novel, writing: ‘I thought this was a fantastic novel up until the last fifty pages, and then – abruptly, and to my own frustration and disappointment – I began to change my mind… Adrian, who has never lived through a war or under military rule, feels that he can despise Elias, while not giving a thought to his abdication of responsibilities towards his own family… If this self-righteousness was portrayed as a failing of Adrian’s, it would be interesting – but my impression was that Forna was entirely behind Adrian’s viewpoint here, especially as we hear no more of Elias after this pivotal scene, and there are no more sections from his point of view that might qualify his actions. Disturbingly, in an earlier scene Adrian is fully able to forgive a war criminal who tossed a baby into a burning building, and even compares him favourably to Elias because he is honestly repentant, while Elias is still trying to justify himself… [The female characters] become idealised pawns largely because we are meant to come down on Adrian’s “side”‘.

After rereading: Interestingly, while I disagree with some of the criticisms I made of The Memory of Love the first time around, I came away with a significantly worse impression of the novel in 2022 than in 2011. It now strikes me as a curiously old-fashioned book, especially in comparison to Forna’s later work. Forna seems determined not to reveal much of Adrian’s inner life, keeping us at arm’s length from the character and instead describing the world he moves through in great, if not excruciating, detail. This might have been a clever narrative choice, especially given Adrian’s psychiatric work that requires him to dig deeply into the traumatised minds of other characters while saying nothing about himself, but it ultimately causes a big problem for the novel.

Adrian’s ‘colourlessness’ seems to render him an objective observer of the aftermath of the civil war in Sierra Leone and the moral conflicts it has caused for its survivors, which makes him feel uncomfortably like a kind of white saviour who isn’t even that good at saving. I’m less convinced than I was in 2011 that this was Forna’s intention; I think we are meant to question Adrian’s presence and motives. Nevertheless, his judgment of Elias still feels off-kilter, even if we can assume that some of his anger is displaced frustration about his inability to help his lover, Mamakay, who is Elias’s daughter. I disliked Elias even more this time round (originally, I felt he was ‘seriously flawed’ but still sympathetic), and so was a bit less bothered about his fate, but it was hard not to feel that both he and Adrian are cast in the same mould: paternalistic men who believe they know what’s best for those around them, especially the women they claim to love but never really get to know. However, if this was the reaction that Forna was aiming for, I wish the women in the narrative had been more than idealised ciphers.

If there’s anything that saves this novel, it’s Kai’s story. While Forna also gives us limited access to Kai’s thoughts, we get more to work with, and he is also the character that has the most nuanced and interesting arc, as he struggles with his own unresolved PTSD and the temptation of emigrating to the United States to join his friend Tejani, rather than continuing with his important orthopaedic practice in Sierra Leone. Interestingly, when Mamakay turns up in Kai’s narrative, we get a sense of who she might be as a person rather than the ‘unreadable’ woman she appears to be through Adrian’s eyes. Again, I wonder if Forna had something to say here about the white and/or misogynistic gaze, as this replays Elias’s relationship with Mamakay’s mother Saffia. If so, though, the novel reproduces these power structures rather than truly challenging them. The woman on its cover remains a distant memory rather than a real, living love.

My rating in 2011: ***1/2

My rating in 2022: ***

L: The fantastic, Woman In White-esque edition belonging to my mum that I read first time around. R: the slightly bizarre Everyman’s classics edition I borrowed from the library this time around.

Before rereading: I first read Beloved during the summer of 2004, when I was seventeen. I clearly remember reading it in the tent that served as the ‘green room’ for the outdoor youth theatre production of My Fair Lady I was involved with that summer. I’d been inspired to read it because we’d read the opening paragraphs in English Literature class (we’d started preparing for our A Level unseen text syllabus just before school broke up, as our AS Levels were over) and I’d been hugely impressed by Morrison’s writing. However, I remember struggling with the denseness of the text while reading the whole novel. I thought it was good, but I knew I didn’t quite understand it. I didn’t write anything about the novel at the time.

After rereading: Like The Memory of Love, Beloved deals with the legacy of trauma, working through dreams and fragmentary flashbacks as the characters continue to struggle with the violence they’ve witnessed. Slavery occupies the same kind of space in Beloved as the civil war does in The Memory of Love; we gradually become aware of what has happened to our protagonists, but we are never given a neat chronological account. Instead, we re-experience the trauma as they do, when it intrudes upon the present. It won’t come as any surprise that Beloved is the far better novel, but they made interesting reading companions.

I was surprised, when revisiting Beloved, to find that it was much less dense and difficult than I remembered. I think I’ve just had so much more experience at reading this kind of writing since I was a teen (when I chomped down big nineteenth-century English classics, so had no fear of ‘challenging’ books per se). And yes, it’s a hugely impressive achievement. Morrison’s prose is stunning, especially when she writes about what we remember, what we cannot, and how we re-encounter it:

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I don’t really think the world needs me to review Beloved in great depth, because I don’t have anything profound to say. This is a great novel, and if I do still admire it rather than adore it, that doesn’t bear any relation to how well it achieves what it set out to do.

My rating in 2004: ****

My rating in 2022: ****1/2

20 Books of Summer, #10: The Woman In White

This year, I’m doing 20 Books of Summer as a rereading challenge. I can read any twenty books I want as long as I have read them already!

L: The edition of The Woman In White I read in 2005 from the library. R: The edition I read this time around, purchased second-hand.

Before rereading: I remember loving this novel when I first read it as an eighteen-year-old in 2005, but almost nothing else about it.

When I first read The Woman In White, I wrote: I happened to read The Woman in White during a very brief period in my late teens when I wrote frequent updates on all the books I was reading. So, here they are!

April 25th, 2005. I haven’t really read enough of this to form an opinion on it yet.

April 27th, 2005. This is improving – I’ve read about 50 pages and I’m interested in Marian Halcombe and Laura Fairlie, who have just been introduced. The narrator of this section seems fairly boring, but then narrators often do. I’m thrilled that it’s written with switching 1st-person perspectives; so few books are and I absolutely love it, though it can be quite badly done, as in FALLING ANGELS [by Tracy Chevalier]. I didn’t find his first meeting with ‘the woman in white’ particularly chilling though…

May 2nd, 2005. Have read about 100 more pages and is v. good, though Laura Fairlie is v. boring. Have just read the legal section which I liked. Unfortunately I am fairly sure on what happens having read spoilers, but intrigued that Wilkie Collins was the 1st to use switching perspectives. [I don’t think this is true. Collins’s introduction to the novel makes this claim, which is where I got it from.]

May 5th, 2005. Have read quite a bit more (to p.225) but not much seems to have happened. Already know the bit about the insane asylum and LF so am waiting for it to happen.

May 9th, 2005. The same. V. slow at the moment. Wish I didn’t know what was going to happen.

May 16th, 2005. Has just got off the ground and is now v. good. I loved all the short narratives, especially Mr Fairlie and Fosco’s note, and I’m now on the Third Epoch and in the depths of the mystery. The part of the plot I know about has now happened and I’m not sure what the secret is – much better. I actually quite like the slow pace now, and if I read it again I think I’d enjoy it a lot more. Common with most classic books.

After rereading: Oh, what a pleasure it was to revisit The Woman In White. It’s one of those books that’s so famous that writing a full review seems a bit silly, though for the benefit of those who haven’t read it, it’s a ‘sensation’ tale of inheritance, asylums and mistaken identity. A few observations: this really feels like a proto-psychological thriller. It was serialised in the journal All The Year Round from November 1859 to August 1860, and was such a hit that readers used to queue outside the journal’s offices to get their hands on the next instalment as soon as it was published. The Penguin edition marks the beginning and end of each section, so you get some sense of what it must have been like to read it when it was first coming out, and the cliffhangers are brilliant. However, I was also fascinated by how it mimics the structure of a traditional ghost story, despite not actually containing any hint of the supernatural. The ‘woman in white’ appears out of the night, disappears without trace, reappears standing by her own gravestone – she’s much more of an apparition than a character in her own right, especially as her name and identity get detached from each other.

I enjoyed The Woman In White more than when I read it as a teenager. I didn’t experience the lull in pacing that my notes record; if anything, I thought the very beginning was slow and it speeded up from there, plus I wasn’t so bothered by knowing the plot in advance. And yes, Laura Fairlie is boring – and perplexing to a modern reader. Collins seems to have been inspired by Dickens’ ideal of the child-woman when figuring her as the romantic lead, for her main appeal seems to be that she is utterly incapable of doing anything. Unsurprisingly, both contemporary and modern readers preferred her clever, capable spinster sister, Marian Halcombe, whom we actually see interacting with Laura’s love interest, Walter, far more than Laura does, making us wonder why he doesn’t prefer her too. Nevertheless, if you’re used to Victorian novels, this isn’t a surprise, and this is one of the most absorbing and gripping nineteenth-century blockbusters out there.

Random trivia: It took me at least 21 days (and probably a few more) to read The Woman In White first time around, and it took me 19 days the second time.

My rating in 2005: ****

My rating in 2022: ****1/2

March Superlatives

Again, the Superlatives format is borrowed from Elle.

The Best Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Bloodchild and Other Stories by Octavia E. Butler (2nd ed). I’d already read the title story of this collection back in spring 2021, and it’s brilliant; I was thrilled to discover that Butler’s other SF shorts are just as good. In fact, I think my favourite story in this collection wasn’t ‘Bloodchild’ but ‘Amnesty’, another coloniser/colonised story with an even more morally complex dynamic. But I also loved ‘Speech Sounds’, which depicts a world where humans have lost most of their language abilities; ‘The Evening and The Morning and The Night’, which is about an imaginary hereditary disease and also about what we inherit more generally, even when we don’t want to; and ‘The Book of Martha’, where a woman challenged by God comes up with a pretty original idea for a utopia. (There’s something of Ted Chiang in that last one). This collection also contains two short essays by Butler on writing, neither of which is groundbreaking but which are nice to have, and two non-SF short stories, ‘Near of Kin’ and ‘Crossover’, which unfortunately didn’t work for me at all. However, a collection of five incredible miniature pieces of science fiction hardly leaves the reader shortchanged.

 The Worst Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Concerning My Daughter by Kim Hye-jin. This novella was translated from the Korean by Jamie Chang; my comments here are obviously based on the English translation and I can’t speak to the quality of the original Korean text. Concerning My Daughter sets up such interesting internal conflicts for its characters. Our narrator, an ageing woman, is appalled when her daughter, Green, moves into her house with her girlfriend, Lane. She can’t understand why her daughter would seek a relationship that, for her, is ‘play-acting’, without ‘real’ intimacy or the hope of biological children. She’s also ashamed of Green’s activism at work; Green, a university lecturer, has stood up for some of her colleagues who were sacked for being in a homosexual relationship. But our narrator is not a one-dimensional bigot. She, too, stands up for what she believes to be right when she witnesses the mistreatment of a woman with dementia at the care home where she works – a woman who’s lived a life much bigger than our narrator’s conventional trajectory.

Unfortunately, for me, the structure and prose made Concerning My Daughter almost unreadable. The novella jumps around in time, following its narrator’s internal monologue – something I love when a writer pulls it off, but here was just confusing and bitty. The narrator also has a habit of spelling out her thoughts on everything, leaving the reader no room for interpretation. This makes the novella feel clunky and obvious, despite its hugely promising plot-line, and reminded me a bit of Maki Kashimada’s Japanese novella-in-translation Ninety-Nine Kisses, which suffered from the same problem.

I received a free proof copy of this novella from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 14th April.

The Best Short Story Collection I Read This Month Was…

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… Out There by Kate Folk. This debut collection shares a lot of concerns and themes with many other collections I’ve read recently from female writers; body horror, AI infiltrators, the hidden violence of heterosexual relationships, female sexuality, mysterious medical conditions, folktale themes, returns from the dead. I’d place it alongside collections such as Julia Armfield’s salt slow, Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body And Other Parties, Mary South’s You Will Never Be Forgotten and Irenosen Okojie’s Nudibranch. However, unlike these earlier books, all of which I found disappointing to one degree or another (although both the Armfield and Machado contain some excellent individual stories), Out There delivers. My full review is on Goodreads.

The Best Memoir I Read This Month Was…

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… Aftershocks by Nadia Owusu. Owusu grew up between multiple different cultures but never felt she belonged in any; her mother was Armenian, her father Ghanaian, her stepmother Tanzanian, and she has lived in New York, Rome, London, Addis Ababa, Dar-es-Salaam, Kampala and Kumasi. The extended metaphor of the ‘seismometer’ in her head and the earthquakes it triggers allows Owusu to write incredibly effectively about trauma, as well as race and culture; as a relatively light-skinned black woman, she experiences being read differently wherever she goes. In Rome, she’s a curiosity; in Addis Ababa, she’s mistaken for a native Ethopian until people realise she can’t speak Amharic; in Ghana, she’s seen as fortunate because her skin is not too dark. In its rewarding density and its attention to the different trajectories of an extended family, this reminded me of Négar Djavadi’s novel Disoriental.

(Hon. mention: Inferno by Catherine Cho, which deals with postnatal psychosis and which I found much more emotionally resonant than I expected, given I have never been pregnant and never intend to be).

The Book That Took Me The Longest To Read This Month Was…

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…A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine. It took me a month to read this, and I’m glad I finished it, but I don’t think I’ll be picking up the sequel any time soon – especially as the loose ends felt very tied up. Great worldbuilding, politics and thought-provoking technology, but I had the same problem with this that I had with the couple of China Mieville books I’ve read (Embassytown and The City and the City); there wasn’t enough internal depth to the characters. We know interesting things about our protagonist Mahit, such as her attraction to Teixcalaanli culture, but I never felt this really informed her as a person, especially as, given how lacking she is in backstory, she might as well have appeared out of nowhere at the start of the novel (we only learn halfway through, for example, that she has a younger brother). Meanwhile, the voices of the secondary characters tended to blend together.

The Most Forgettable Book I Read This Month Was…

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Intimacies by Katie Kitamura. True to form, I’ve already forgotten almost everything about it, so there’s not much I can say! I thought the scenes in The Hague were very well done but was disappointed that the book increasingly focused on the protagonist’s romantic life. Ultimately, she ended up a bit too much disaster woman and not enough international criminal court translator.

The Most Disappointing Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Dead Silence by SA Barnes. The premise of this book is one of my favourite SF set-ups ever, although it’s a relatively familiar trope: crew of a spaceship accidentally happen upon the abandoned wreck of another spaceship that mysteriously disappeared a long time ago. The extra embellishments that Dead Silence promised only made its plot sound better; in this book, the abandoned ship is a luxury liner which was not on any kind of mission when it vanished but simply on a pleasure cruise. It’s found far away from its original course with an emergency beacon transmitting on a disused frequency; what happened? Unfortunately, Dead Silence squanders this premise, and I agree with other reviewers that it plays out more as a (tired) psychological thriller than as a relatively more original horror/SF genre-cross. My full review is on Goodreads.

The Best Thriller I Read This Month Was…

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… Sun Damage by Sabine Durrant. I’ve read all of Durrant’s thrillers; she reliably delivers gripping but credible plots, strong prose, and well-observed characterisation. Sun Damage is no exception. Ali is making ends meet through running small scams with her partner in crime Sean, drifting between different holiday destinations to find their next mark. But when a sudden tragedy makes her realise how much Sean is exploiting her, she takes off on her own, knowing she mustn’t let Sean track her down. As she infiltrates the lives of a family group holidaying in the South of France, she keeps one eye open for Sean while struggling to keep up the deception she’s invented to allow her to remain in their midst. But is somebody on to Ali, and what will happen if Sean does find her?

I’d certainly recommend Sun Damage for anybody looking for a solid thriller that’s a notch above the rest. However, looking back on my reviews of Durrant’s earlier work – which I’ve always rated four stars – I have one reflection. For some reason, however much I enjoy Durrant’s books at the time, they quickly slip from my memory. I have no recollection of her other novels, even Take Me In, which at the time, I thought was ‘much more memorable’ than other thrillers I’d read. This isn’t necessarily a problem, but it’s interesting to compare her to a writer like Lottie Moggach – Durrant and Moggach are very much on a par in terms of the quality of their prose and their plots, but Moggach’s Kiss Me First, Under The Sun and Brixton Hill are all vivid and distinct in my memory. This doesn’t make her a bad writer, though; I suppose it depends what you want from a book.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 2nd June.


			

#NovellasInNovember: The Fell by Sarah Moss

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I cheated a little by reading this at the end of October!

I’ve been reading Sarah Moss’s books since I was lucky enough to receive a proof copy of her eerie fiction debut, Cold Earthway back in 2009, and I have read all the fiction she’s ever published. However, I’ve long been waiting for her to write a novel that I really, really love; The Tidal Zone probably came closest as a whole, while Cold Earth and Night Waking (which I’ve reviewed twice!) frustrated me with their moments of brilliance. The Fell, her latest novella, has made me realise that it’s perhaps time to give up this hope, as I don’t think Moss’s writing is moving in a direction that fits what I want from fiction. Like her previous novella, Summerwater, The Fell is told in stream-of-consciousness through multiple voices. Set in the month-long Covid-19 lockdown of November 2020, it focuses on Kate, a struggling single mum who can’t bear the constraints of her two-week isolation period any longer and so secretly strikes out alone onto the moors. We also hear from Kate’s teenage son, Matt; mountain rescue volunteer Rob; and Kate’s next-door neighbour Alice, who is shielding after having had breast cancer and lives alone after the death of her husband.

I imagine some people would have fits if they saw that I’ve tagged The Fell as a ‘historical novel’, but that’s what it feels like to me, set in a specific time, place and mindset that seems very long ago. This, I think, is going to be the problem faced by writers who want to write realistic fiction about the Covid-19 pandemic; it’s all so tiringly familiar and yet already out-of-date; it’s neither of the moment or of its time. This is the first fiction I’ve read to tackle Covid-19, but it already feels full of cliche. The overall message of this novella, conveyed none-too-subtly through anecdotes about baby monkeys clinging to cloth mothers and comforting voices easing patients’ need for pain relief, is that we all need human connection to be truly happy, and there is no real substitute. Moss lays it on even more thickly when the mountain rescue team pull together to rescue an injured Kate. The problem is that we’ve heard nothing else but the importance of human interaction since the start of this pandemic, so this really doesn’t feel like it needs to be said. It evades both more interesting questions about the value and pain of solitude and totally ignores the fact that everyone’s experience of the pandemic wasn’t sitting at home being bored and baking bread, being able to take walks in their private front gardens when they felt too cooped up. In this, it rehearses observations that are already so familiar from social media and journalism: ‘Social distancing, whoever came up with that, there’s not much that’s less social than acting as if everyone’s unclean and dangerous, though the problem of course is that they are, or at least some of them are and there’s no way of knowing.’ No lockdown fanatics or ‘freedom’ protesters here; everyone in this novella reluctantly accepts the need for lockdown and complains about it politely.

These, perhaps, are problems that would face any novelist who is one of the first to write about Covid-19, but I think this topic also posed particular problems for Moss. Alywnne writes in their Goodreads review of The Fell that ‘Moss’s story’s almost too realistic at times, preserving rather than creatively reinventing the territory it covers.’ This, I think, is spot-on, and explains my frustration with Moss’s more recent fiction, which has moved away from both the imaginative exploration of Cold Earth and the visceral historical material evoked in Night Waking, Bodies of Light and Signs for Lost Children, but yet is too slight and insubstantial when compared to the more realistic The Tidal Zone. Moss’s characters have started to feel too comfortable, too similar in their world-views, and her thinking a little stale. This passage near the end of The Fell is so sub-Reservoir 13 (and I thought Reservoir 13 was sub-Jon McGregor anyway!):

The raven flies down the valley. It’s hours yet, till sunrise. Sheep rest where their seed, breed and generation have worn hollows in the peat, lay their dreaming heads where past sheep have lain theirs. The lovely hares sleep where the long grass folds over them. No burrows, no burial. The Saukin Stone dries in the wind. Though the stone’s feet are planted deep in the aquifers, in the bodies of trees a thousand years dead, its face takes the weather, gazes eyeless over heather and bog. Roots reach deep, bide their time. Spring will come.

While, taken on its own, this is beautiful writing, the passage feels totally unearnt within the context of the novel, which doesn’t spend much time focusing on the connections between nature and humanity (and you really have to earn a line like ‘spring will come’). It feels like it was pulled from a draft of Summerwater, which also tried this trick (and while I didn’t like it there either, it was at least a theme more convincingly woven through the novel).

It’s a shame to write a review like this for a writer whose work I’ve enjoyed so much in the past; I hope Moss’s next book takes a different direction.

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

10 Books of Summer, #9 and #10: The Sleeping Beauties and The Wild Laughter

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After reading Suzanne O’Sullivan’s recent article in the Guardian on ‘mystery illnesses’, I knew I wanted to seek out the book in which she explores these ideas further, Sleeping Beauties, though I found it patchier then its précis version. It worked best for me when O’Sullivan used a case study to link together wider issues, as she does in the opening chapter on ‘resignation syndrome’ among refugee children in Sweden, and in the final chapter on how Western medical labels are as open to question as indigenous explanations for illness; less well when she got too bogged down in the minutae of a single example, which was the case in most of the other chapters. The thread that links all of the outbreaks that O’Sullivan explores is the idea of a ‘functional neurological disorder’: in these disorders, patients experience nervous symptoms that are genuine but not linked to any observable physical problem. O’Sullivan understands why people resist being told that their debilitating experience of illness is ‘psychosomatic’, and emphasises that this diagnosis in no way suggests that their suffering is not real, or that they are making up their symptoms. Drawing on a biopsychosocial model of health, she suggests that the causes of these disorders arise from the interaction between body, mind and environment, and that all three of these things can be equally important in understanding certain conditions. Overall, I found this argument very interesting, and there are sections here I’ll definitely return to, but the book becomes a bit repetitive, and I felt that a couple of the chapters could have been cut.

Thanks to Rebecca from Bookish Beck for kindly passing on her proof copy of this book to me.

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Caoilinn Hughes’ The Wild Laughter is a smart, short novel with a brilliant, utterly convincing narrative voice; unfortunately, I found it hard to inhabit rather than simply admire. Hart is the younger of a pair of Irish brothers who are watching their father slowly dying after the economic crash in Ireland leaves him bankrupt. His voice initially reminded me of Lisa McInerney’s The Glorious Heresies (with perhaps a bit of Edward Docx’s Let Go My Hand thrown in), but Hughes’s dense prose, which needs to be read and digested line by line, is closer to Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. And while I adored the two former novels, I also found myself at arm’s length from McBride’s book, recognising her skill but not able to quite connect. Hughes is fond of complicated, poetic similes that are all wonderful in their own right but kept catching me off-balance when I tried to sink into the flow of this book, because I had to work out what they meant. At an agricultural show, ‘peach udders drooped everywhere like the rear end of a birthday party.’ The ‘restless landscape’ is ‘sporadically moonlamped, as if the night was giving sign to a dangerous reef up ahead.’ A hairstyle is ‘a bun like a hare’s tail, but rained on.’ Alongside this, Hughes comes up with many more arresting lines – but they feel buried in the rest of the prose. For me, the writing got in the way of the story she was telling.

Thanks to Rebecca from Bookish Beck for kindly passing on her proof copy of this book to me.

This concludes my 10 Books of Summer! How did you do with your summer reading?

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021: No One Is Talking About This

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Patricia Lockwood’s uber-contemporary No One Is Talking About This has been described as a novel of two halves. In the first half, our unnamed protagonist is completely absorbed by what she calls ‘the portal’ and what we would call Twitter: ‘Why did the portal feel so private,’ she reflects, ‘when you only entered it when you needed to be everywhere?’ In the second half, she is consumed by something else: the short life of her baby niece, who is born with the rare condition Proteus Syndrome. Again, it’s technology – the babycam at the hospital – that allows her to fully enter her obsession: ‘There was a channel that played the baby in fuzzy black and white… and this is what she used to think the angels did, watch the channel that played her.’ I’ve read a number of reviews of this novel that suggest that Lockwood is intending to juxtapose the unreality of the protagonist’s existence of Twitter to the hard reality of her niece’s illness. However, while I think that is one of the things Lockwood is trying to do – and that the title of the novel indicates this – I didn’t find that No One Is Talking About This split that neatly into two halves.

I am very weary of fiction that tells us that the Internet is Bad and is Wrecking Our Minds, and I did feel that Lockwood fell into that trap, although she writes with greater subtlety than many others who have tackled the topic. When I think of popular Twitter memes, like feral hogs, Bernie at the inauguration, or the distracted boyfriend, they honestly make me feel more positive about humanity, not less. I like seeing people have fun, be clever, and be inventive, especially in the face of a lot of difficult things. The kind of ‘humorous’ Twitter that our protagonist is steeped in isn’t a kind that I recognise; it’s not funny and not cheering. I’m sure this was a deliberate choice on Lockwood’s part, but I don’t have much time for this one-sided view of technology. And while Lockwood sometimes hits on a clever turn of phrase, I found much of this novel grimly unreadable.

Where I think things get more interesting with No One Is Talking About This is how the sub-plot with the protagonist’s niece relates to the rest of the novel. Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but I couldn’t help seeing thematic links between the baby’s condition and the protagonist’s existence as part of the collective consciousness of the portal. Because of the baby’s illness, her head grows out of proportion to the rest of her body, but her caregivers perceive her as having great abilities that she cannot exercise, defying her prognosis: ‘As the baby struggled to breathe, as it became clear that her airway was collapsing, as her head grew too heavy to even turn from side to side, it slowly dawned on them that she was experiencing an enlightenment, a golden age… Against all wisdom… she was learning, she could learn.’ There’s a sense that being part of the ‘Twitter hive mind’ has as much promise as the baby but is also weighing humans down in the same way as the baby struggles with her head, because we weren’t meant to be connected to so much as once; we too have an overgrowth of neural connections. If you buy into this reading, what the book is saying about the internet is much more thoughtful and equivocal. However, I guess I wasn’t convinced that I wasn’t just seeing things that weren’t there.

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

‘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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‘Let light perpetual shine upon them’

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In the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, British researchers started undertaking series after series of cohort studies, following children born around the same time as they grew up and checking back in with them at different ages. Some of these studies were big and largely quantitative, like the MRC National Survey of Health and Development, which started in 1946 and initially included more than 5000 participants, and some were smaller and largely qualitative, like John and Elizabeth Newson’s study of around 700 children born around 1958 in Nottingham. However, the most fascinating, from my point of view as a researcher, were the studies that asked children and adolescents to imagine their future adult lives, like the sociological researcher Thelma Veness did in 1956, working with fourteen-year-olds. Most of these narratives mapped out the milestones you might expect – marriage, children, work – although there were a few unexpected findings. Veness was puzzled by the fact that almost a quarter of the girls in her sample ‘killed off’ their imaginary husbands before they reached their late thirties, with more than half of the husbands dying by middle age. She postulated that once men had fulfilled their role as father, these girls did not imagine themselves wanting or needing a partner in later life. [1]

The five protagonists of Francis Spufford’s latest novel, Light Perpetual Jo, Val, Vern, Alec and Ben – are all born in London around 1940, making them only slightly older than some of the members of these post-war cohort studies. However, in 1944, these four-year-olds are looking at a new delivery of saucepans in Woolworths with their mothers when a German V2 bomb hits the store, incinerating them all immediately. Jo, Val, Vern, Alec and Ben are never going to hit or miss life ‘milestones’, or ‘transition’ into adolescence, adulthood or old age, because they are all dead. Here, Spufford steps in. He tells us what would have happened to these five people if they hadn’t been killed during the Second World War, jumping forwards in satisfyingly untidy intervals of time all the way up to 2009. For a while, I kept asking – and I think it’s a reasonable question – why did these people have to die in the first place? Spufford isn’t interested in playing with alternative timelines, at least not explicitly, so why not just trace their lives normally, without the interruption of a German bomb? However, by the end of the novel, I came to realise that its opening pages (slightly pretentious as their prose might be) are essential to Spufford’s project. None of the five protagonists change the course of history; the loss of these lives meant both nothing, and everything.

As with Golden HillSpufford’s research is impeccable (and here I’m in a much better position to judge than I was with Golden Hill, because I’m a historian of post-war Britain). He shows how all five protagonists are restrained by class and gender and yet how their lives take them to places we might not have expected when we first properly meet them in a run-down primary school in Halstead Road. Musical, synaesthetic Jo becomes the temporary girlfriend of a rock star in America. Vern builds and loses several business empires. Val becomes mixed up with the fascist racism of the British Movement in the late 1970s. Ben and Alec’s lives seem most tied to their class destinies, in Alec’s case perhaps partly because of the way he sees class struggle; going into a ‘trade for life’ at the printworks, he faces his skills being made obsolete by digitisation. Meanwhile, Ben is also eventually phased out as a bus conductor but struggles terrifyingly in the meantime with schizophrenia, in a fragment that is one of the most immersive and horrific things I’ve ever read about mental illness.

Light Perpetual is, notably, not that concerned with the dreams and promise of youth. More than three-quarters of the novel takes place after the protagonists are thirty-nine. This hugely refreshing choice pulls Spufford away both from the obsessions of the original cohort studies – what percentage get married? who is socially mobile? – and the concerns of most fiction of this kind, which, even if it follows the protagonists through their lives, tends to linger on the twenties and thirties and then race towards old age. It gives him space to explore how our lives still change, transform, explode or implode, even once we are seen as ‘middle-aged’. It feels like he’s telling us that we’re not always going to be defined by choices that felt so important when we were young. And as the characters get older, the book gets ever more beautiful and moving (yes, I cried a couple of times). I noted in my review of Golden Hill that Spufford seemed to have been influenced by George Eliot; here, it’s blatant. Eliot famously wrote in Middlemarch that ‘If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence’. Here’s Spufford’s reinvention, through the eyes of Alec, who was possibly my favourite character:

You couldn’t walk up a rush hour street, negotiate a bus queue, sit in a theatre, if you were constantly aware of the millionfold press of beings as entire and complicated as yourself… He’s still blundering among over-noticed faces when he boards his eastbound train, still ringed around as he sits down with his briefcase on his knee by eyes universally bright and significant because they are all of them the windows through which single souls are looking out.

Riffing off such a famous passage is a pretty hard thing to get away with, but Spufford pulls it off here because he earns it. Golden Hill was brilliantly clever and thoughtful, but Light Perpetual is even better. It tells us that we are all important – even when we’re actually horrible, like Vern, or believe we’re horrible, like Ben – and that we’re all worth something. And somehow it does this, unlike most novels which try it, without ever being sentimental or obvious. What a book.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on the 4th of February. So you know what to do.

[1] Thelma Veness, School Leavers: Their Aspirations and Expectations (London: Methuen and Co, 1962), 33.

#SciFiMonth Reading, 2020

I haven’t really participated properly in #SciFiMonth this year, but here’s a round up of the science fiction and speculative fiction that I did read in November!

Megan Giddings’ debut novel Lakewood unites horror and speculative fiction in the story of Lena, a young black woman living in Michigan who drops out of college to participate in a secret medical testing programme to pay her mother’s medical bills after her grandmother dies. It soon becomes apparent that things at Lakewood, the location of the programme, are not right, but Lena can’t see another way forward – she’s gripped by the inertia that results from living in a system where both healthcare and education aren’t treated as universal rights, and black lives are viewed as less valuable. Despite the importance of Giddings’ message, however, and her deft use of some horror tropes, Lakewood didn’t function successfully as fiction for me. Like Mary South’s recent collection of short stories, You Will Never Be ForgottenI found it both too surreal and too obvious. Especially in its final third, Lakewood becomes hallucinatory in a way that I found frustrating, but at the same time, we’re told exactly what we should take away from this book, with Lena namechecking infamous historical medical experiments on black people such as Tuskagee

I’m late to the party with Octavia E. Butler’s science fiction classic Kindred, but I’m so glad I got there in the end. Kindred follows a black female writer, Dana, who is unexpectedly thrown back in time to antebellum Maryland, where she’s called upon to save the life of a drowning white boy. As she continues to jump back and forth through time, she realises that this boy is her ancestor, and that he will grow up to become a slaveowner in his own right – and that their fates seem to have become linked. This novel is more of a time-slip than a time travel narrative. Butler is uninterested in the metaphysical questions that get raised in a lot of time travel fiction, preferring instead to reckon with issues of historical relativism, culpability and empathy. I was struck by how naturally the story is told, although this isn’t the first time I’ve been impressed by how (American) science fiction writers from the 1970s and 1980s seem almost to speak from the page. Butler makes her set-up feel completely real through the very simple device of having her characters ask the right questions, allowing her to demonstrate that their actions and reactions make sense, and the novel is both emotionally engaging and incredibly thought-provoking. I’m definitely a Butler convert.

I also read two anthologies of science fiction and speculative fiction this month, Escape Pod, edited by Mur Lafferty and SB Divya, and New Suns, edited by Nisi Shawl. Escape Pod was drawn from the Escape Pod podcast to celebrate its fifteenth anniversary. As with all anthologies, there were some stories that worked for me better than others. I was disappointed to find a cluster of stories that, like Lakewood, committed the common SF error of introducing really promising concepts, but then spelling out the message of the story so clearly near the end that it ceased to be interesting. This was the case with Kameron Hurley’s ‘Citizens of Elsewhen’, Beth Cato’s ‘A Consideration of Trees’ and Tobias S. Buckell’s ‘The Machine that Would Rewild Humanity’, among others. However, in contrast to other SF collections I’ve read, this anthology was really strong on stories that were thoughtful and funny, or at least more light-hearted. I loved T. Kingfisher’s ‘Report of Dr. Hollowmas on the Incident at Jackrabbit Five’, Mary Robinette Kowal’s ‘Jaiden’s Weaver’, John Scalzi’s ‘Alien Animal Encounters’ and Cory Doctorow’s ‘Clockwork Fagin’. I’d already read NK Jemisin’s ‘Give Me Cornbread or Give Me Death’, in another collection, A People’s Future of the United States, but it’s a great story that’s worth revisiting. Overall, this anthology definitely picked up in its second half, and introduced me to a number of writers I hadn’t heard of before.

I received a free proof copy of Escape Pod from the publisher for review.

Nisi Shawl’s edited collection of speculative fiction by writers of colour, New Suns, has been on my radar for a while, and while, as I say, anthologies are always a mixed bag, this is an exceptionally strong selection. (It’s made me even keener to check out Shawl’s own work, as they clearly have good taste). There were only a couple of stories that didn’t work for me at all; Jaymee Goh’s ‘The Freedom of the Shifting Sea’ had a lot of pretty gratuitous body horror, which is not my thing; E. Lily Yu’s ‘Three Variations on A Theme of Imperial Attire’ not only had the kind of title that sends up red flags for me, but was awkwardly meta; and Karin Lowachee’s ‘Blood and Bells’ was a cliched Romeo-and-Juliet gang narrative, albeit set in another world. Having said that, I basically liked everything else in New Suns; even Hiromi Goto’s ‘One Easy Trick’, which became too silly for me by the end as a woman chases her own bellyfat through a forest and encounters a talking bear, had such an arresting and memorable opening that I can’t write it off. My favourite stories were mostly on the creepy side: Alex Jennings’s ‘unkind of mercy’ mixes a terrifying premise with an incredibly authentic, inattentive narrative voice to great effect; Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s very short ‘Give Me Your Black Wings Oh Sister’ taps into the fear of having done something terrible in childhood which we can’t remember, and which still sets us apart from everybody else; and Indrapramit Das’s ‘The Shadow We Cast Through Time’ sets up a haunting world on another planet governed by hagtrees and kalform demons. However, I also loved Minsoo Kang’s ‘The Virtue of Unfaithful Translations’, a lighter story about how two translators team up to stop a war that reminded me of some of the more stylised stories in Ken Liu’s edited collection of Chinese science fiction, Broken Stars, although Kang is Korean. A brilliant anthology.