‘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.

Three #NovellasInNovember (and #NaNoWriMo)

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This blog has been a bit quiet recently! The reason for this isn’t that I haven’t been reading – in fact, after a couple of bad reading months, I’ve been tearing through books in November, and have read nine already, though admittedly this included three novellas (see below) and a pretty short YA novel. No, the reason for my relative silence is that I’ve decided to properly commit to #NaNoWriMo this year to finally crank out a significant chunk of a first draft of my Antarctic-set novel, working title Old Ice. I’ve never been able to write more than about 10k words during NaNo before, but I think this year might be my year – lockdown means there are fewer distractions, so I’m getting into a really decent writing habit. Also, it turns out that all my intermittent efforts with freewriting exercises over the last couple of years mean that I’ve built up much more of the world of this novel than I anticipated already, and that I’ve got a lot better at just putting words on the page without my inner editor intervening. However, it turns out that getting out about 1700 words of fiction every day means that something has to give, and I haven’t had as much creative energy for blogposts as normal. So here’s a quick #NovellasinNovember post as a stop-gap.

I never officially join #NovNov, which is co-run by Rebecca and Cathy, because, much in the same way that some people can’t stand short stories, I’m not a big fan of novellas. I almost always end up thinking that the book could have been shorter or longer! However, by chance I usually read a couple of novellas in November anyway, and here are my thoughts on the three I did read.

Becky Albertalli’s Love, Creekwood is a YA novella that’s strictly for fans of her first two novels set in the same universe – Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda and Leah On The Offbeat. (Technically, The Upside of Unrequited is also in this universe, but I don’t like it so I tend to pretend it doesn’t exist.) If you haven’t read those two books, I don’t think this has much to offer you. But if you have, this is an unashamed 100+ pages of fanservice as we catch up with the Creekwood gang at college, especially our two favourite queer couples. Did this book need to exist? No. Did I want it to exist? Definitely, YES – and as a bonus, Albertalli is donating all her profits to The Trevor Project, an US LGBT+ suicide hotline. Normally I’d be cross at having to pay £4.99 for a novella, but I can’t begrudge that.

Lina Meruane’s Seeing Red, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell, is narrated by a Chilean writer called Lucina who, due to complications of diabetes, has been told that the veins behind her eyes are fragile and could burst at any minute, rendering her at least partly blind. She’s been instructed to ‘stop smoking… and then don’t hold your breath, don’t cough, do not for any reason pick up heavy packages, boxes, suitcases. Never ever lean over, or dive headfirst into water. The carnal throes of passion were forbidden’. At a party in New York, where she is pursuing an academic career, she suddenly sees red spreading across her vision and realises that the worst has happened. However, even as Lucina tries to navigate the world with limited sight, she realises that she has now been set free to indulge her physical urges in every way she couldn’t before because she feared her fragile veins would break. Meruane has spoken about how this novella is based on her own experience of sight impairment but is not autobiographical; however, she says, one thing she realised when she was almost blind was how visual her world still was, with her brain filling in the gaps. Therefore, Seeing Red is surprisingly full of vivid visual imagery. It’s also written in a stream-of-consciousness rush that allows us to inhabit Lucina’s world as she waits for an operation that may or may not restore her sight. This was another of those stylistically experimental books that keep the reader close inside the protagonist’s head, like A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing, that I struggled to connect with emotionally, though it’s incredibly well-written (kudos to the translator, who has had to cope with a lot of figurative language that can’t translate easily, starting with the title itself, which is Sangre en el ojo in the Spanish-language version, or ‘blood in the eye’; apparently, that connotes flying into a rage in the same way that Seeing Red does in English). The medical narrative is fascinating, however, and this book would be a good fit for the Wellcome Prize had it been eligible and were the prize still running.

Lorrie Moore’s Who Will Run The Frog Hospital? is a quiet novella about Berie and Sils, whose were incredibly, inseparably close as adolescents in the early 1970s but who no longer see each other now they are adults. The book is framed by two sections where Berie is holidaying in Paris with her husband, but the bulk of it focuses on a single summer when the girls were working summer jobs in Storyland, a run-down children’s amusement park in upstate New York. Who Will Run The Frog Hospital? reminded me of an expanded version of one of Alice Munro’s short stories; Moore has the same ability to distil an entire life into a scant number of pages. I was especially fascinated by the title; Berie explains that the local boys used to shoot frogs with BB guns when she and Sils were children, and they used to try and bandage them up. Later, seeing the tragi-comedy in this situation, teenage Sils painted a picture called ‘Who Will Run The Frog Hospital’ which depicted them caring for the injured frogs. (Moore was reportedly inspired by a real-life painting by Nancy Mladenoff, which appears as a frontispiece in some editions of this novella). This book is all about the evocation of a particular emotional period, and the final paragraph conveys the heartbreaking loss of adolescence as well as anything I’ve read. Thanks very much to Rebecca for passing on her copy!

Have you read any novellas in November? Or is anyone else attempting #NaNoWriMo?

Miscellaneous October Reading

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Melissa Harrison’s most recent novel, All Among the Barley, set in the early 1930s, focuses on an extended encounter between fourteen-year-old Edie Mather, who lives and works on a farm in rural England, and Constance FitzAllen, who claims that she has travelled from London to document rural traditions before they are lost to the next generation. Harrison’s nature-writing is spot on, and I thought that Edie’s narrative posed a resonant question: what do you do when there is no future for you in the place where you live, but when you are so bound to that place that you can’t imagine living anywhere else? In that, and in other ways, the novel recalls Helen Dunmore’s A Spell of Winter, with its menacing sexual tension and exploration of the boundaries of consent in Edie’s ‘courtship’ with a village boy. However, I thought the threat posed by Constance was almost too sinister; I think Harrison would have had more to work with if she had made her more of an early social scientist with a less overtly horrific agenda. Other themes, such as witchcraft and mental illness, feel underdeveloped. Harrison writes so well, but I was struck by the feeling that I would have been hugely impressed by this as an older teen, and that I don’t feel quite so drawn to these kind of books any more; which actually makes me feel a little sad.

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Temi Oh’s debut, Do You Dream of Terra-Two?, is set in an alternative present where a group of British teenagers have been selected to travel to the distant planet of Terra-Two, which is envisaged as an alternative home for humanity. The catch: the journey will take twenty-three years and none of them will ever come back. Before reading this novel, I was aware that a number of reviewers had found it too ‘YA-ish’, with a heavy focus on romance that reduced the sci-fi setting to a backdrop. The first third of Do You Dream of Terra-Two? absolutely met expectations in this respect, and I almost gave up on it several times. However, once our protagonists finally leave Earth, this novel takes off as well, acquiring a dream-like quality through the characters’ visions and imaginings of the utopian Terra-Two. It’s strongly influenced by Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game; there are some obvious nods to the earlier novel, such as the final stage of training being nicknamed ‘Command School’ and one male character becoming completely obsessed with a simulation. However, Oh also captures some of the mood of Ender’s experiences at Battle School, raising questions about how these characters are going to create a new world, especially when their adult mentors are absent or inadequate and the people they’ve left behind are already starting to forget them. It still feels more like the first installment in a series rather than a book that works in its own right, but I enjoyed the time I spent in its eerie world.

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Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale For The Time Being was one of my top ten novels of the last ten years, but I couldn’t finish All Over Creation. Thankfully, her debut, My Year of Meats, was a hit rather than a miss. Set in 1991, it follows Jane Takagi-Little, a Japanese-American documentarian who’s been employed by a Japanese production company to film a series called My American Wife!, sponsored by an American meat-exporting business who want to offload more beef into the Japanese market. The My American Wife! formula stipulates that Jane should find an attractive white woman with a reasonable number of children who can demonstrate a delicious meat dish that she makes to feed her family, and feature one woman like this per programme. However, as Jane gains more creative control, she starts going rogue, filming Hispanic and black families, adopted children, and, in her most daring decision, featuring a vegetarian lesbian couple making pasta primavera. Interwoven with Jane’s story is that of Akiko, a Japanese housewife whose abusive husband is part of the production team, and who forces her to watch every episode of My American Wife! and make the featured dishes. Jane and Akiko are poles apart, but their stories are linked by a common experience of infertility, with Jane suffering from a deformed uterus caused by the hormonal drugs her mother took during pregnancy. This leads her to start uncovering the ways in which hormones are used, often illegally, in the American meat industry, and the human cost of these practices. The blurb of My Year of Meats wasn’t that appealing to me; I thought it would become too simplistic, preaching about male violence and the horrors of the meat industry (although as a feminist vegetarian, I’m very much on board with such criticisms!). Instead, Ozeki writes so intelligently and vividly, I was totally engrossed. I also loved the short extracts from Sei Shōnagon’s The Pillow Book, which I believe Jane is drawn to because Shōnagon shares her sharp observational abilities. Brilliant, if not quite as brilliant as A Tale For The Time Being.

‘We could always blame the stars’

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Emma Donoghue’s latest novel, The Pull of the Stars, is set over three days in Dublin during the 1918 flu pandemic. Its narrator, Julia Power, is a nurse tasked with caring for pregnant women who have come down with influenza, as it’s known that these patients can be hit especially hard by the disease and that it may also lead to early delivery. Overcome with the amount of work, she requests and is sent a volunteer helper, Bridie Sweeney, who seems to know mysteriously little about the world but is very quick to learn. A new doctor is also assigned to oversee the ward: Kathleen Lynn, a real historical figure who was a Sinn Féin politician as well as its director of public health, and had been arrested in the Easter Rising of 1916. Reviewers have stressed how eerily timely The Pull of the Stars is (Donoghue was finishing her final edits on the novel when Covid-19 became a serious concern), but, funnily enough, I found it so immersive that I forgot to make connections between this historical pandemic and our contemporary situation, except in a couple of obvious moments where Julia is reading public health notices that stress keeping away from crowded venues. The power of this novel, for me, wasn’t because it has anything particular to say about Covid-19 but because of how well it works within the very narrow constraints it sets itself.

Unlike many readers, I wasn’t entirely won over by Donoghue’s Room, although I loved some of her earlier work; but, with The Wonder, Akin and now The Pull of the Stars, I think she’s become one of the writers who I’ll always follow with interest. The Pull of the Stars reminded me vividly of Sarah Waters’s The Night Watch[highlight for spoiler] not because of its lesbian content but [end spoiler] because both novelists use precise historical detail to patiently evoke the experience of living during an extraordinary time. While Waters’ WWII-set novel technically covers a number of years, the longest central section is a set-piece that focuses on a single night during the Blitz, and one of the characters is a female ambulance driver dealing with bomb casualties. In the same way, although in a different time and place, Donoghue brings to life the small routines of life on a ward as well as the horrifying stories of Julia’s patients. While I’m not familiar with Irish sources from the early twentieth century, their medical histories reminded me of similar accounts from England, although in that country the particular pressures imposed by Catholicism were largely absent. In 1915, the Women’s Co-Operative Guild published Maternity: Letters From Working Womenwhich collected narratives from English Guild members that graphically describe how they have been worn out by persistent childbearing alongside work and childcare. Donoghue repeats a chilling if potentially apocryphal saying in The Pull of the Stars: She doesn’t love him unless she gives him twelve.’ The Pull of the Stars might seem unnecessarily shocking in its depiction of the suffering of these women, but Maternity indicates that Donoghue is simply drawing from history.

Two of Donoghue’s other narrative choices have come in for criticism from reviewers: because I think that both of these constitute spoilers for the novel, I suggest you skip the next section [marked by two sets of asterisks] unless you want to find out what happened or you have already read the book.

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In the last quarter or so of The Pull of the Stars, Julia finds herself abruptly falling for Bridie. A number of Goodreads reviewers seem to think this came out of nowhere, but I don’t agree; in fact, I thought Donoghue cleverly seeded this twist from the moment that Bridie is introduced, but allowed us to recognise Julia’s feelings just as she clocks them herself. It made sense to me that, given the society she lives in, Julia wouldn’t initially allow herself to register her attraction to Bridie, but what Donoghue does do is make Bridie incredibly attractive to us, the readers, even as we forget that we’re seeing this through Julia’s eyes. This continued to the extent that I started to think that Bridie was being overly idealised; then the penny dropped. Far from being ‘tacked on’, I thought this romantic sub-plot was absolutely necessary for the emotional power of The Pull of the Stars, and key to its central conceit of how we are driven by forces we don’t always understand.

While I was predisposed to like this twist, the ending of The Pull of the Stars uses one of the tropes I usually hate in fiction: a happily childless woman who has never expressed much interest in motherhood before ending up with a baby. Sarah Moss criticised this in her Guardian review, writing that ‘I found this novel admirable right up to the final chapters, when it veers into a disappointing cliche.’ Weirdly enough, however, The Pull of the Stars might be the one novel where this trope worked for me, although I still think the prevalence of it in fiction is a problem. Thinking it over, I felt that the book was so bleak that it had to end with a fragment of hope, and while there were probably other ways to supply that hope, they might not have been as historically plausible (I would have loved to see Julia team up with Kathleen Lynn and her female partner when they opened their free clinic and then a children’s hospital, but this wouldn’t have worked within the tight timeline of the novel). I was also glad that Julia adopted a baby rather than randomly getting pregnant herself, which made the choice seem less about ‘maternal instinct’ and more about trying to break the cycle of abuse she’s witnessed. So I’m giving Donoghue a bit of a pass for this one, especially as she doesn’t have form for resorting to convention.

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In short: this is a brief novel that works incredibly well, and which has much more to offer than a reflection of the Covid-19 pandemic. Beautiful, moving work by Emma Donoghue.

20 Books of Summer, #3: The Maths of Life and Death

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The Maths of Life and Death, written by Kit Yates, who is a senior lecturer in the Department of Mathematical Sciences and co-director of the Centre for Mathematical Biology at the University of Bath, aims to show that ‘maths is for everyone’ and that mathematics is ‘first and foremost, a practical tool to make sense of our complex world.‘ This is a mission that I’m definitely on board with. I’m convinced that maths is the worst taught of all school subjects in England (due to the failure of central government policies to attract and reward good teachers), leaving a lot of people with the idea that maths isn’t for them. It’s frustrating to see people who are otherwise really smart refusing to even engage with an argument if it contains numbers or anything else ‘sciency’. Yates’s book, on the whole, definitely does a good job of explaining some basic mathematical concepts simply and clearly, and showing how they are relevant in the ‘real world’. The book is almost entirely focused on statistics, and the one chapter that strays into the realm of pure mathematics – on algorithms – will probably be less accessible for the average reader. However, having a solid understanding of some basic concepts in statistics is both vital and possible for everyone, and so I think this focus works well.

I have to say that most of the examples used in The Maths of Life and Death were already familiar to me, which is probably the result of my amateur enthusiasm for statistics rather than any undue repetition on Yates’s part, although there is a certain amount of crossover with Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science. Because I’m interested in medicine, I was already familiar with the material on medical statistics covered in chapter two, and with much of the epidemiological information in chapter seven (this, of course, is not Yates’s fault, but because this chapter focuses on controlling global pandemics, it makes for a rather chilling read in the wake of Covid-19). Chapter three, on the law, retells the story of the infamous Sally Clark case, where statistics were used to ‘prove’ that the chances of experiencing two stillbirths in the same family were 1 in 73 million, and so Clark must have murdered her two children; as Yates shows, this figure could only have been arrived at through multiple statistical errors. And I already knew about the ‘birthday problem’ in chapter four, which shows that in any school class it’s more likely than not that two children share the same birthday, although I loved hearing the story of how Yates used this fact to pitch his literary agent, Chris Wellbelove, while they were having drinks in a pub:

I bet him the next round of drinks that I would be able to find two people, in the relatively quiet pub, who shared a birthday. After a quick scan of the room, he readily took me on and indeed offered to buy the next two rounds if I could find such a pair, so unlikely did he think the prospect of a match. Twenty minutes and a lot of baffled looks and superficial explanations later… I had found my pair of birthday-sharers and the drinks were on Chris.

Yates’s prose is clear and straightforward, which is absolutely necessary for a book of this type. Occasionally, when he is trying to write about the bigger implications of statistics, it becomes a bit banal, but this isn’t the case most of the time. I also liked that he explained his calculations both in the text and through the use of diagrams – I found the text easier to follow, but others would probably prefer the diagrams, so this works for everyone. All in all, I’d recommend this book as an accessible and important introduction to understanding the use and abuse of statistics.

I would like to thank Quercus for sending me a free copy of this book to review.

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020: Hamnet

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Just like there is a Hamlet and a Hamnet, I feel there are two Hamnets: the novel that Maggie O’Farrell actually wrote, and the story that has been hyped to the back of beyond since its publication was first announced back in 2019. This makes it a difficult novel to review, because, if I’d just come across this book as ‘the next Maggie O’Farrell’, I think I’d have taken it more to my heart than I actually did. I understand why a publisher would want to try and push an author like O’Farrell to the next level; having utterly adored her last two books, her novel This Must Be The Place and her memoir I Am, I Am, I AmI was genuinely shocked to discover that, for example, she’s never been longlisted for the Women’s Prize before. I am a long-time admirer of O’Farrell’s understated but beautiful, observational prose, and I have read everything she’s ever written. Nevertheless – and perhaps because, unlike readers discovering her for the first time, I already know how good O’Farrell can be – I felt underwhelmed by Hamnet.

Hamnet is billed as telling the untold story of Shakespeare’s son, who died when he was only eleven years old, but I found this misleading in two ways. Firstly, I feel like it’s common knowledge that Shakespeare had a son who died young. Secondly, the book is really about Shakespeare’s wife, here called Agnes (Anne Hathaway was named as ‘Agnes’ in her father’s will – and I think it’s a clever choice by O’Farrell to use this name, giving herself some distance between the historical figure and her own creation). And unfortunately, I found that Agnes often fell into some familiar stereotypes, despite some transcendent moments, such as the scene when she is unable to wrap her son in his winding sheet, because it means she will never see his face again. I find historical novels that seek to tear down a man’s reputation as if that’s the only way to give the women in his life some agency intensely irritating – this was one of the reasons why I struggled with Madeline Miller’s Circebecause I didn’t like the way it treated Odysseus. Hamnet does not exactly do this. Shakespeare, never named in the text, is portrayed as a man who deeply loves his wife and children despite his long absences from home. However, there’s still a tendency to write Agnes into the story by writing him out, and I would have preferred a novel that felt more equally split between the two parents.

O’Farrell brings early modern England wonderfully to life in very few words. The setting of the story is completely captivating. However, I didn’t feel that Hamnet achieved the same kind of depth in its characterisation. I’ve already suggested that Agnes feels a little stale; Hamnet himself, alongside his siblings, never became truly real to me. For this reason, the novel never broke my heart in the way it set out to do. O’Farrell writes so well about grief, but I found myself admiring her writing from afar rather than grieving with the characters. Rather than being glued to this book, I kept on thinking back to a different novel that enthralled me as a teenager, Susan Cooper’s King of Shadows. The two books are not exactly the same. Cooper tells the story of a young actor, Nat, who is thrown back in time to Elizabethan England and ends up as part of Shakespeare’s company. However, King of Shadows also portrays Shakespeare as a grieving father, forging a special connection with Nat, who is a fatherless boy – and it was the sharpness of the emotion in that book that I found myself craving.

Hamnet is absolutely worth reading, especially if you haven’t read O’Farrell before. However, I don’t think it’s the ‘novel of her career’ [© publicity]. Selfishly, I’d hope that’s a novel she’s not yet written! But if we’re confined to her existing corpus, then I’d say that This Must Be The Place sees her writing at the height of her powers; that The Hand That First Held Mine is genuinely moving in a way that for me, this novel was not; and that After You’d Gone might not be the most accomplished of her books, but it remains an astonishing debut. But as I say, I still feel confident that the best is yet to come.

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

I’m aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist this year. This is number ten. I’ve already read Girl, Woman, Other; The Dutch House; QueenieDjinn Patrol on the Purple Line; Nightingale Point; Dominicana; Girl; How We Disappeared; and A Thousand Ships.

Recommended Reading for a Pandemic

If You Actually Want To Read Books About A Pandemic

I can’t face reading pandemic fiction at the moment, but judging by the sales of pandemic films and novels, lots of people don’t feel the same way, so here are some suggestions:

  • Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven was one of my top ten books of the decade. It deals with the aftermath of a grim pandemic with a much greater mortality than coronavirus that sweeps the Earth, killing the majority of its population. However, the bright side of Station Eleven is the society that it imagines on the other side of this catastrophe, following a travelling theatre company across Canada. It also brings to life the fictional comic-book world of ‘Station Eleven’, which both parallels the events of the novel and exists as a significant space of its own. Ultimately, like a lot of good fiction that takes a disaster as its starting-point, I’d argue that this novel is less about A Pandemic and more about how art relates to reality.
  • Naomi Booth’s Sealed is, again, ostensibly about a terrifying skin-sealing disease that is sweeping Australia, but actually has more to say about the relationship between humans and the environment. It’s a brilliant eco-horror that follows Alice, who is heavily pregnant with her first child, and her partner Pete, who leave Sydney for a town in the Blue Mountains because they believe they will be safer there. But the idea of escaping to a ‘cleaner’ rural location soon turns out to be a dangerous fantasy. If this sounds like your sort of thing, please consider ordering Sealed directly from the publisher, Dead Ink, a small press who are struggling right now.
  • Finally, the first (and best!) novel in James S.A. Corey’s Expanse series, Leviathan Wakes, deals with a creepy space plague caused by a mysterious protomolecule that reassembles biological matter. Our protagonists have to stop this spreading through a space station. The Expanse’s writers have so far failed to fully deliver on the promise of this first novel, but it works as a gripping stand-alone.

If You Want To Read Books Where People Face Up To Bad Things That Are Not Pandemics

This is basically where I’m at right now – I want books where the characters face serious social and economic disasters but still manage to survive – so here are some ideas:

  • Hanna Jameson’s thoughtful and engaging The Last focuses on a group of people trapped in a remote hotel in Switzerland after the world is devastated by a series of nuclear attacks. Jon, our narrator, starts investigating a suspected murder; the body of a young girl is discovered in one of the hotel’s water tanks. While some of his fellow survivors try to persuade him of the futility of this quest, Jon seems to be driven by the conviction that life still matters even in the face of this disaster, and that society can be rebuilt. Ultimately, and despite its Lord of the Flies-esque set-up, The Last is very optimistic about human nature.
  • I’ve recently been raving about Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Calculating Stars and The Fated Skyand now I wish I hadn’t raced through both novels and the associated short stories so quickly! This series imagines an alternative version of post-war American history where a meteor hits the Earth, setting off a spiralling environmental disaster that leads the US to rapidly accelerate its space programme, believing that humanity’s future now lies on other planets. Our narrator, Elma, whose voice is so funny and addictive, was a pilot in WWII and is still a brilliant mathematician; she is determined to become one of the first ‘lady astronauts’. I’ve never read a post-apocalyptic novel that’s so comforting.
  • I’m hesitant to indulge any of the poor Second World War analogies that have been floating around, but Chris Cleave’s Everyone Brave Is Forgiven is just such a good novel. One of my top ten books of 2015, this Blitz-set book focuses on four young people doing their best for the war effort. Mary and Tom are trying to keep London’s education system running; Alistair is fighting in Malta; Mary’s resentful friend Hilda stands on the sidelines. It sounds like it’s going to be saccharine, but it’s actually hilarious, heartbreaking and intelligent.
  • John Wyndham’s classic The Kraken Wakes sees an alien invasion from the sea threaten civilisation. Both genuinely tense and enjoyably ridiculous, this, in my opinion, is Wyndham’s best novel, spookily anticipating later climate change fiction. It’s also notable for being just as sexist as the rest of Wyndham’s science fiction, but, unlike his other books, if you read between the lines you can pretend that the male narrator is completely unreliable and his wife is actually running the show.
  • I’ve also returned to my first love in fiction, K.A. Applegate’s Animorphs series. I devoured this long-running US kids’ series as a pre-teen and teenager. It focuses on five teenagers who are given the ability to morph any animal they can touch to fight an alien invasion, and ends up in some very dark places. At their core, Animorphs are anti-war novels for the post-Cold War generation, and one day I am going to write something serious about them!

If You Want Books That Aren’t About Any Really Bad Things, Including Pandemics

Personally, I’m finding these kinds of novels difficult at the moment, and can’t summon up many original ideas, but if you want something truly escapist, here are some suggestions:

  • Anything by Robin McKinley, my favourite fantasy writer; my top comforting recommendations are her two retellings of Beauty and the Beast, Beauty and Rose Daughter, and her feminist dragon-slaying epic The Hero and the Crown.
  • In a similar vein, Naomi Novik’s fairytale-inspired Uprooted and Spinning Silver are both beautifully escapist, although I thought Spinning Silver was far superior. They’re both stand-alones, so you can read them in any order.
  • If you want something that’s both contemporary and escapist, I recommend Erica Ferencik’s thriller The River at Night; four female friends, all in their forties, are left stranded on a dangerous white-water rafting trip through the Allagash Wilderness in Maine.
  • YA can also be a haven: my top YA picks right now are Becky Albertalli’s Leah on the Offbeat, which refreshingly foregrounds queer female teenagers, and Bridget Collins’s YA-esque The Bindingwhich is set in an alternative past where bookbinders bind people’s memories into individual volumes.

What comfort reads, of any kind, would you recommend? I’d especially love to hear about books that fall into the second category.

 

John Murray Proof Party @ Durham Book Festival: Reading Report

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Last autumn, I went to the John Murray Proof Party  at the Durham Book Festival, heard three fascinating women talk about their upcoming early 2020 novels, and picked up free copies of the books (published by John Murray’s Two Roads imprint) in a great tote bag. I’ve now read all three and am here to report back!

In reverse order of preference…

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I found Guinevere Glasfurd’s account of the research and background to her second book, The Year Without Summer, the most engaging to listen to at the festival. Set in 1815 and 1816, the novel explores the aftermath of the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia through multiple narrative voices scattered across the globe. I loved the idea of protagonists linked by an abrupt and disastrous change in climate – the eruption led to cold, stormy weather and crop failures across Europe and North America as the rising ash cloud covered the sun. However, I didn’t feel that Glasfurd pulled off this incredibly ambitious premise – the reader’s attention is simply too divided, and the only narrator who really came to life for me was Fenland farm labourer Sarah.

The Year Without Summer is out now.

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I was least interested in reading Karen Raney’s debut, All the Water in the World, simply because I thought that the premise – a teenage girl facing cancer – was so familiar in fiction. However, the novel is also an intelligent look at a close mother-daughter relationship that comes under intense strain. The book alternates between the mother Eve and daughter Maddy’s perspectives, and between the present and the past. Both Eve and Maddy are refreshing narrators; they avoid falling into the tropes that they might have occupied (distressed mother who is characterised as nothing but a mother; self-absorbed and rebellious teenager). Raney doesn’t bring anything especially new to the table, except a few interesting chapters on Maddy’s involvement in the climate protest movement and how she relates the climate catastrophe to her own impending death, but she writes well, so I’d be interested to see what she does next.

All the Water in the World is out now.

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Having very much enjoyed Sally Magnusson’s debut, The Sealwoman’s Gift, I was excited to get hold of a copy of her next novel, The Ninth Child, and it didn’t disappoint. Set in the late 1850s, the novel focuses on an ambitious engineering project at Loch Katrine that aims to supply fresh water to Glasgow to reduce the impact of cholera epidemics in the city. Isabel Aird has been drawn reluctantly into the project after her husband accepts the post of doctor, serving the navvies who are frequently injured in the course of the excavation. Purposeless and lonely, Isabel nurses the silent grief of a series of stillbirths. She is drawn in by a charismatic minister, Robert Kirke, who mysteriously appears and disappears on the shores of the loch. Kirsty, a displaced Highlander working for the Aird family, watches Isabel and Robert anxiously; she knows much about the fairy folk, and suspects that Robert has a dark history and an even darker purpose.

Magnusson pulls together what might seem to be a rather unlikely premise with great skill. For once, comparisons to Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent are fully deserved – if anything, I liked The Ninth Child better, because it treads more original medical historical ground and because its central protagonist is much more appealingly flawed. I especially enjoyed a small side-plot about Queen Victoria and Prince Albert visiting the area to marvel at the skill of the works – both royal narrators are hilarious! I wondered if Magnusson’s use of multiple voices might also make this novel feel too fragmented – there are a number of omniscient sections alongside bits from the royals, Isabel, Kirsty and Robert – but it somehow all works, although Kirsty is very much a member of the supporting cast rather than having a character arc of her own, which is a bit of a shame. Still, totally absorbing.

The Ninth Child is out on 19th March.

Have you read any of these novels? What did you think?