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?

Some Forthcoming February Novels: girls, schools, sex and death

Looking ahead to three February releases that share a lot of common themes – and none of which quite worked for me, although some came closer than others.

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Clare Beams’ debut novel, The Illness Lesson, is set in Massachusetts in 1871 and is narrated in the third person by Caroline, an unmarried woman in her late twenties who still lives with her father, Samuel, and feels stifled by the narrowness of her life; as she reflects when lying in bed ‘where she lay in the same darkness that had covered her at twenty-four, eighteen, twelve, eight, the walls and ceiling of her room like a box that fit her’. Caroline’s world promises to change when Samuel starts a progressive school for young ladies in their home, aiming to teach them such masculine subjects as Greek and philosophy, and recruiting Caroline to teach English literature. However, the presence of the girls, coupled with the strange behaviour of the trilling hearts, the imaginary species of bird that haunt the school’s environs, starts to stir up old secrets from the past and new tensions in the present.

The Illness Lesson’s blurb foregrounds the group of students, but this is really Caroline’s story, and she’s a convincing narrator, acutely aware of the loneliness of her position as intellectual companion to her father, and unsure whether it is fair to educate girls in a world that does not give them the opportunity to exercise their talents. Beams is a skilful writer, and the quiet prose is consistently vivid and impressive. The problem for me was that the story the novel focuses on is so familiar. There have been lots of post-Victorian fictions about female hysteria and its abusive treatments, and I didn’t think that this one brought anything very new, even though it is elevated by Beams’ careful telling.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out on February 6th.

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This is a weird and refreshing little book that doesn’t follow the normal rules of this kind of fiction. It starts off in a relatively familiar space; our protagonist has a very literary name (Henna) and is doing a very literary job (writing encyclopaedia entries for a publisher on water and ice) after her parents and twin sister Claire died in a very literary way (being lost at sea). The first chapter made me think that The Snow Collectors would be full of the kind of drifty, quasi-magical prose that you find in writers like Alice Hoffman. However, this book, and Hall’s writing, actually sits in a more interesting space. While there are sentences that stray into sentimentality – ‘his palm was dry and warm, speckled with grains of salt which rolled between our joined hands like secrets we hadn’t told yet’ – there are other, much more robust, passages that are more typical of the novel: ‘Attached to the gas station near the interstate was a Dunkin’ Donuts, and I sat at the counter and sipped coffee with skim milk… By the counter of the gas station was a display of souvenirs. Apples dangling from key chains and packets of pancake mix, resin moose and dead skyscrapers in globes of water… Everything smelled the chemical scent of strawberry air freshener. The clerk wished a nice day on everyone, as if it were a curse.’

The Snow Collectors is also weird because it doesn’t seem to be set in either our present or the future. There’s a fantastical air to the world that Hall has created – Claire used to be able to hold her breath for four days – but there’s also a SF hint to the near-future Alaskan setting, where bees are gone and the rest of the US never sees snow. It also shoots off in some unexpected directions. The death of Claire, and of Henna’s parents, barely impinges on the plot, except to give Henna a plausible reason to be so isolated. Instead, the book revolves around a dead girl found in the woods and an archive concerning the lost John Franklin Arctic expedition that is held in the town. In between Henna’s chapters, we get short but captivating glimpses of Jane Franklin, who kept up the search for her husband long after everyone else had given up hope. Ultimately, this felt a little incomplete to me, as if it hadn’t quite been imagined fully enough, but there’s enough promise here that I’d definitely be interested in reading whatever Hall writes next.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out on February 12th.

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The Temple House Vanishing is billed as a novel set in an elite Catholic girls’ boarding school in Ireland in 1990, where creepy nuns rule the roost but attractive art teacher Mr Lavelle offers a possibility of escape. It’s surprising how little of this the novel actually delivers on. Louisa arrives at the school as a scholarship girl and forms an intensive friendship with Victoria; both are drawn into Mr Lavelle’s orbit and become somewhat set apart from the other girls. A second plot thread is narrated by a journalist who is investigating the disappearance of Louisa and Mr Lavelle, now decades in the past; she really wants to contact Victoria, but Victoria isn’t talking.

I love school settings, but The Temple House Vanishing doesn’t conjure up any sense of place or time. The scenes at the school could have been set at any time in the past seventy years (and indeed, feel rather earlier than 1990; while the school itself is supposed to be stuck in the past, there’s not much sense that this causes any disjuncture with the pupils’ ordinary lives). I’m only guessing that it’s set in Ireland because of the fact that the author, Rachel Donohue, is from Dublin. Finally, the nuns have very little presence on the page; we’re told that ‘they weakened you with mind games and nightmares about limbo, and hell’, but this is never actually shown. Throughout, the prose is formal, eschewing contractions in a way that could have worked had it been confined to the narration and dialogue of a single character, but feels ponderous when generalised; here’s the journalist having an inconsequential conversation with her intern:

“Are you coming to the drinks on Friday?” she asked.

I doubt it, might have to go away this weekend,” I said.

No-one thinks you will come,” she answered.

I am predictable that way,” I said.

With so many options of boarding-school or university-set novels to read in 2020, I can’t say that I particularly recommend this one.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out on February 20th.

Three feminist eco-horror dystopias! #SciFiMonth #NovellasinNovember

I’m not sure how #NovellasInNovember officially defines a novella, but, given that I usually read much longer books, I’m going to go for anything under 200 pages. And Naomi Booth’s Sealed is 170 pages of pure, brilliant horror. I heard Booth speak about this novel at the Durham Book Festival and instantly knew I had to read it, especially when I saw it had Victoria (Eve’s Alexandria)’s endorsement. Booth imagines a near-future Australia infected by cutis, a disease that causes skin to seal over all the orifices in the body. Alice, who is nearing the end of her pregnancy, and her partner, Pete, leave Sydney for a small town in the Blue Mountains because they believe the environment will be cleaner and safer; as Alice puts it, ‘I look out at the mountains and the blue-grey haze around them. It’s not like the smog back in the city; there’s nothing yellow or septic-looking about it. The softening of the mountain edges is just distance, and eucalypt oil on the air, and low, fine cloud.’ But, as Booth discussed at her festival event, our ideas about detox, health and rural space are often chimeras; living in a polluted world means that we are polluted too. Often, climate change fiction posits a contrast between unspoiled natural places, often located in developing countries, and Western urban sprawl, but Booth has little time for this, writing about a village located near the Citarum river in Indonesia, ‘the river doesn’t appear to move at all as the reporter walks alongside it; it’s covered over with greyish debris, a barely-drifting scurf of different bits of plastic.’ The ideas explored in Sealed are inherently gripping, but Booth also writes incredibly precise prose and place.

Some shots from my trip to the Blue Mountains in June.

Cynan Jones’s Stillicide is even shorter; technically, it’s 174 pages, but the wide spacing of his short paragraphs means it clocks in at far fewer words than Booth’s novella. Jones originally wrote this series of interlinked short stories to be read on the radio, and from what I can tell from this version, they’d have sounded incredible. Like Sealed, Stillicide is concerned with the displacement of people; this time, their homes on the outskirts of the city are being bulldozed to make way for the ‘Ice Dock’, a huge iceberg designed to solve the urban water crisis. As in his previous novellas, The Dig and Cove, his prose is beautifully sparse and efficient. He has fun with the word ‘stillicide’, which is strung between every story: it means ‘a continual dropping of water’ but also ‘a right or duty relating to the collection of water from or onto adjacent land’. For me, though, there’s also an instinctive if incorrect meaning to the word that filters through Jones’s stories; the ‘cide’ ending makes me think of ‘suicide’, and so ‘stillicide’ sounds to me like a kind of death through standing still, through inaction. While it’s obviously deeply concerned with climate change, Stillicide doesn’t fit the ‘feminist eco-horror dystopia’ tag quite as well as the other two books in this post, but I couldn’t resist that title.

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The BBC Radio 4 advert for Stillicide.

Rory Powers’s 370-page YA novel, Wilder Girls, is definitely not a novella, but it’s so thematically relevant I decided to make it part of this post anyway. Hetty, Reese and Byatt are pupils at the Raxter School for Girls, located on an isolated island. When the novel opens, the school has been cut off from the mainland for eighteen months because of the spread of the Tox, which causes the girls’ bodies to mutate in gruesome ways and also infects the local flora and fauna (there’s more than a hint of Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation in this novel – an infected bear even plays a key role – but fortunately it’s not nearly as disturbing!). With food supplies running low and the death toll rising, the girls come to realise that their days on the island are numbered. Great premise, but this book felt too bound by YA conventions for me to really enjoy it, and the obligatory link to climate change was unnecessary – as the two novellas above show, we have no shortage of books that do this well. The pace is, weirdly, both slow and breathless, and the three main characters feel interchangeable. I would have liked this to spend a LOT more time delving into the life of the school and the background to the Tox, and less time on action sequences; there’s also very little on how the girls experience their changing bodies. Even more than VanderMeer, this book reminded me of Ann Halam’s Dr Franklin’s Island, which also focuses on three protagonists forced into a bizarre medical experiment. But while I found the morphing sequences in that book unforgettable – I last read it more than fifteen years ago! – Wilder Girls didn’t make much of an impression on me.

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Dr Franklin’s Island: maybe a YA classic, maybe a book I’d hate if I read it now!

I also read Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (thankfully, only 104 pages in my Kindle version) as part of #NovellasinNovember, but as it’s not remotely thematically relevant to this post, I’ve put my review on Goodreads instead. You can read it here. (Dickens fans may want to avoid.)

#SciFiMonth: Ammonite by Nicola Griffith

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Nicola Griffith first came to my attention with her novel Hild (2013), which follows the life of a significant female figure in seventh-century Anglo-Saxon Britain, and which many of my favourite bloggers absolutely loved. (I’m ashamed to say that I’m yet to finish it, although I’m determined to give it another go – the complexity of names, allegiances and relationships defeated me, even when I tried to make my own notes as I went along! Fans of this novel, any tips?) Ammonite, her 1993 debut, starts in a rather different space. Marghe, trained as an anthropologist, is about to land on a distant planet inhabited by a migratory strand of the human race. Centuries ago, this planet was affected by a mysterious virus that wiped out all the men and conferred upon the women the power to reproduce asexually, although they are able to scramble genetic data so they don’t simply give birth to clones of themselves (Griffith emphasises that there is a mystical aspect to how this takes place, so getting hung up on the science would be, I think, to miss the point of this novel). Marghe is using an untested vaccine to avoid becoming infected herself, but as she walks deeper into the unknown, she is drawn to the cultures she encounters in ways that she hadn’t anticipated.

As this all suggests, Ammonite draws heavily from Ursula Le Guin’s classic The Left Hand of Darknessnot only philosophically – Le Guin famously depicts a society where biological sex is mutable and often absent – but spatially. A centrepiece of the novel is the time Marghe spends in the freezing northern wastes of this planet, reflecting the journey that Le Guin’s narrator undertakes across a frozen sea. But it also looks forward to SF such as Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, where biological sex differences remain but the sociological significance of gender has been eliminated. In Ammonite, I often found myself forgetting that everybody in the book is female (and that all the people in this world are lesbians, if that word has any meaning in a world where everyone’s forgotten that men ever existed); but when I remembered, it was incredibly refreshing to read something where I don’t have to constantly think about the structural power conferred upon men and straight people by patriarchy. Interestingly, Griffith herself seems to take a similar approach; the book is not really interested in interrogating gender or sexuality as such, but with getting on with telling another kind of story.

The pivotal point of this novel comes partway through, when Marghe is talking to one of the women, Thenike, about her work. Thenike asks her ‘These places you go, the people you find, do you come to care for them? Or do you only study them like strange shells you might find on the beach?’ This phrase comes to haunt Marghe. ‘She had lived alone for as long as she could remember… She had buried herself in study, in observation and analysis… She had no friends, because whenever she began to get close to someone it felt like unknown territory, and it scared her; she ran away to a new place, to find new people to study, people to whom she did not necessarily have to be a person back.’ Later, Marghe title-drops the novel by thinking of herself as an ammonite, a fossilised empty shell, unlike the living creatures who inhabit the ‘shells’ she studies. This novel, then, for all its alien trappings, is really about making a commitment to yourself and to a place; about realising, as Dido sings, that your life is not for rent. A less accomplished novelist might have reduced this to a dreary lesson on how family and friends are more important than career, but we see how the choice Marghe makes allows her to give her full self to both.

Readers who struggled with the dry academic tone of The Left Hand of Darkness will be pleased to hear that Ammonite is much more engaging on the storytelling level; readers who liked The Left Hand of Darkness will be encouraged by the fact that this comes with the Le Guin seal of approval (she called it ‘a knockout . . . Strong, likable characters, a compelling story, and a very interesting take on gender’). For my money, Ammonite is both uncompromisingly intelligent and emotionally and morally rich. My kind of book.

Wellcome Book Prize 2019: Shortlist Events and Award Ceremony

I’m off to the Wellcome Book Prize award ceremony tonight to find out which of these books has won the prize!

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I went to the Wellcome 5×15 event with a friend yesterday evening at Wilton’s Music Hall, where five of the six shortlisted authors had fifteen minutes each to discuss their work. This was great, as always – if I lived in London, I’d try to go to some non-Wellcome-related 5×15 events, as the format really works for me. Here are some brief thoughts.

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Sarah Krasnostein: ‘Trauma cleaning for Sandra’

Krasnostein gave a very emotive talk on The Trauma Cleanerher biography of Sandra Pankhurst, a trans woman who has suffered her own personal horrors and now cleans the houses of hoarders, agoraphobics and those who have died and been left undiscovered. It’s clear how much this matters to her. She described how, when she first began the research for this book, her doctor asked her ‘Who would ever want to read that?’ and how this made her more determined to show how we are all connected despite our outward differences. To emphasise this, she used the metaphor of a forest of 40,000 quaking aspens in Utah, which are all linked by the same root system even though they look like individual trunks above the surface (this really is fashionable at the moment!) Krasnostein sees her book as a kind of trauma cleaning for Sandra, doing for her subject what she has done for others. The Trauma Cleaner was our shadow panel winner, and I think it has a good chance of taking the actual prize.

Sandeep Jauhar: ‘Taking away the sudden death option’

In my favourite talk of the evening, Jauhar, a cardiologist, spoke about how his family history of malignant heart disease led him to write his popular medical book, Heart: A History. Like Krasnostein, he encountered some initial resistance to his topic: his eleven-year-old son told him ‘Don’t write a book about the heart. No-one will buy it, because the heart is boring.’ Jauhar told us how the sudden deaths of both of his grandfathers gave him a ‘fear of the heart’, which he saw as both powerful and vulnerable, and how he became obsessed with the organ as a child, adjusting the speed of the ceiling fan so it synchronised with his heartbeat. (He also discovered that if you hooked up an average adult human heart to a swimming pool, it would empty it in a week.) Overall, though, he has come to the conclusion that a swift death from heart disease can be merciful, leaving him with difficult decisions to make about whether to suggest that his patients are fitted with internal defibrillators, which ‘take away the sudden death option’.

Arnold Thomas Fanning: ‘Walking down corridors endlessly’

For those of us who have read Mind on FireFanning’s account of living with bipolar disorder, this talk perhaps had less to offer, as Fanning essentially recounted what he tells us in his memoir. However, he illustrated the talk with a series of pictures of himself from childhood to the present day, which were really interesting to see, and vividly recounted his time in a mental hospital, where he ‘walked down corridors endlessly’ because of his restless energy, and at one point was prescribed sixty different medications over a six-month period. Fanning’s emotional honesty is admirable, and it was lovely to see the delighted reaction from the audience when he announced at the end of the talk that he’s getting married the month after next.

Will Eaves: ‘Understanding the gap between your experiences and someone else’s’

I’m afraid I had many of the same problems with Eaves’s talk as I did with his novel, Murmurwhich chronicles the inner life of a fictional Alan Turing undergoing forced chemical castration after being convicted of gross indecency for having sex with another man. It swung between being profound and pretentious as he meditated on the idea that we can never really understand somebody else’s internal state, and that’s what true sympathy is, offering an interesting counterpart to Krasnostein’s tree metaphor. I was particularly frustrated by the section on time, where Eaves claimed that there is no scientific reason why an equation can’t go backwards rather than forwards;  I wrote ‘ENTROPY’ on my programme and my friend added ‘TWADDLE’. However, Eaves did give us a great potted history of Turing’s life, which will help those approaching Murmur with little knowledge of the subject.

Ottessa Moshfegh: ‘People are vulnerable in having feelings’

Moshfegh spent quite a lot of time talking about what her novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxationis (in her words) not about: namely, how easy it is to get psychiatric drugs in the US, and why that’s a problem. Psychiatrists play on this to get customers, she argued, because ‘people are vulnerable in having feelings.’ Underlining this point, she read the section from the novel where our protagonist first meets Dr Tuttle. However, she stated that, for her, My Year is actually about a woman who ‘does not want to live in this plane of consciousness’ and believes that if she sleeps long enough, all her cells will have forgotten their cellular trauma. Moshfegh presents her protagonist more sympathetically than I had expected from the way she writes about her in the novel, and the talk really made me think again about how to interpret My Year.

Updated 1/5/19: The winner of the Wellcome Book Prize is…

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I’m not surprised by this result, but I am disappointed. Murmur was my least favourite book on the shortlist and on the longlist. I found it pretentious and unreadable, and Eaves’s discussion of the book has only cemented my opinions. More broadly speaking, I felt it would have been the right moment for a book on trans issues to have taken the prize, which would have pointed to a win for either Amateur or The Trauma Cleaner. Winning this prize will probably garner Eaves a wider readership, but it seems unlikely that many readers will be engaged by Murmur.

Wellcome Book Prize Blog Tour: My Year of Rest and Relaxation

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A young woman, recently graduated and recently orphaned, decides to take a year off from living to emerge purified. Camping out in her expensive New York apartment, she doses herself with a vast range of drugs, from the real to the fictional, in an attempt to sleep away the next three hundred and sixty five days. During this period, her human contact is limited to her only friend, Reva, whom she openly despises, the men at the local bodega who sell her two coffees when she manages to wake up, and her terrible psychiatrist, Dr Tuttle, who’s happy to prescribe her anything and everything. The narrator also muses on her earlier employment in the surreal art market of the very late twentieth century, and the kinds of productions that received acclaim, such as ejaculation drawings and pedigree dogs preserved through taxidermy.

There are a number of ways to read Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Most obviously, its narrator is obscenely privileged, cushioned from ‘real life’, as is the art scene which she frequents; both are abruptly jolted awake by the intrusion of 9/11, which takes place at the very end of the novel. Secondly, My Year is both surprisingly readable and unreadably dull; its litanies of drugs and old movies recall Patrick Bateman’s recitation of brand names in American Psycho, another book that feels to me like it was deliberately written to be skimmed:

I took another Nembutal, watched Presumed Innocent, then took a few Lunestas and drank the second bottle of funeral wine, but somehow the alcohol undid the sleeping pills, and I felt even more awake than before… Then I was hungry, so I ate the banana bread and watched Frantic three times in a row, taking a few Ativan every thirty minutes or so. But I still couldn’t sleep. I watched Schindler’s List, which I hoped would depress me, but it only irritated me, and then the sun came up, so I took some Lamictal and watched The Last of the Mohicans and Patriot Games, but that had no effect either, so I took a few Placidyl and put The Player back in.

Like American Psycho, this is a satire that’s too horrific – at least in my view – to be funny. The only genuinely satirical section is the mid-point set-piece, when our narrator attends Reva’s mum’s funeral – a scene which weirdly kept reminding me of Bunny’s funeral gathering in The Secret History, even though the Secret History scene is undoubtedly much better in its lurches between comedy and tragedy.

Thirdly, one might discern a more serious side to My Year. What would happen, it asks, if we simply didn’t do anything for a year, if we were able to do that? It’s an anti-YOLO book, a deliberate rejection of the idea that life has meaning or that it shouldn’t be wasted. Because of this, my favourite section was the section near the end, when our narrator finally decides to knock herself out completely for several months, only waking for an hour every three days to see to her basic needs. This takes Moshfegh’s project to its logical conclusion, refusing to allow her narrator any wants or desires, and hence discarding all the usual things that novels are meant to be about. My Year, in this respect, is strangely liberating, because there’s absolutely nothing our narrator wants to achieve (and although she’s arrogant and self-aggrandising, she doesn’t seem to think she’s in any way perfect, so this isn’t rooted in false self-belief). Are our ambitions simply a shield against the absurdity of having such a short, and yet such a long, life to waste?

I didn’t enjoy reading My Year very much at all, but I don’t think that I was meant to. And while there were a number of books on the longlist that I thought were stronger (Sight, This Really Isn’t About You, Freshwater, Educated), it’s probably my second favourite on the Wellcome shortlist, if only because I doubt I will ever forget it.

Thoughts on My Year of Rest and Relaxation from other members of the shadow panel can be found here:

Rebecca’s review

Annabel’s review

Clare’s review

Paul’s review

Thanks to Midas PR for sending me a free copy of this novel to review for the blog tour.

The shadow panel – who are pretty divided this year! – will announce our winner on Monday 29th April, and the official winner will be announced on Wednesday 1st May.

My personal winner, by some distance, is Thomas Page McBee’s remarkable Amateur.

Don’t forget to check out the other stops on the blog tour!

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Finally, 5×15 are running a Wellcome Book Prize shortlist event in London once again, featuring  five of the shortlisted writers: Will Eaves, Sarah Krasnostein, Ottessa Moshfegh, Sandeep Jauhar and Arnold Thomas Fanning. While I’m sad that, once again, I won’t be hearing from my favourite shortlisted writer (though this is unsurprising given that McBee lives in New York), I loved this event in 2018, when I live-tweeted it, and have already booked tickets – along with three of my friends who were also big fans of last year’s event, despite not having read any of the shortlisted books! It’s on 7pm on the 30th April, and you can get tickets here.

 

Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist, #3/Wellcome Book Prize Longlist, 2019: Freshwater

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One does not challenge their chi to a wrestling match.

Born in Nigeria to Igbo and Tamil parents, Ada is inhabited by ogbanje, an Igbo term that might translate as ‘evil spirits’ but, as Freshwater, Akwaeke Emezi’s debut novel, makes clear, is actually much more complicated. ‘Ogbanje’ are also ‘children who come and go’, or what we might think of as changeling children, children of gods who don’t properly belong in this world. To be an ‘ogbanje’, as Ada is, is to be marked out as special. Ada is also a practicing Christian, but while her internal ogbanje recognise the presence of what they call Yshwa, or Christ, they don’t perceive him as having any particular status, and have their own take on his motives: ‘while he loves humans… what they forget is that he loves them as a god does, which is to say, with a taste for suffering’. One of Ada’s selves, Asughara, is particularly resentful of Yshwa, whom they call ‘that fucking resurrected bastard’ after losing an argument with him.

If this all sounds a little metaphysical, you’re not alone; I approached Freshwater with some trepidation. However, I ended up engaging with it a lot more easily than I expected. Emezi’s writing makes the conflict between Ada and her various selves real and concrete, more like the interactions between the gods of a Greek myth than the inner monologue of a person with multiple personality disorder. This is obviously deliberate. One of the things that’s most brilliant about Freshwater is its refusal to line up Ada’s experience with Western psychological or psychoanalytical categories. Insofar as these diagnoses are useful as a way of understanding our experience, Emezi suggests that Ada can most effectively come to terms with herself by using the language of Igbo belief. Because of this, and despite its longlisting for the Wellcome Book PrizeFreshwater doesn’t feel like a novel about mental illness but more a novel about coming to terms with the relationship between self and world.

Emezi writes particularly well on Ada’s struggle to live in a physical body, observations that seem to be drawn from Emezi’s own experience (they identify as non-binary). This manifests not exactly as gender dysphoria but as an inability to reconcile how one sees oneself with how others see us. After Ada has a breast reduction, she starts wearing dresses more often; one of her friends can’t understand this, saying ‘Most people get it done to be more masculine’. But for Ada, the surgery wasn’t intended to help her fit into a particular gender category more easily but to complicate people’s impressions of her. If Freshwater doesn’t quite work at times, it’s because of its closeness to Emezi’s own life, and the redundancies that inevitably creep in when you try and compress life into fiction (there seem to be too many temporary lovers, and I wasn’t sure what purpose Ada’s siblings served). Nevertheless, this is a startling novel that deserves its place on both the Women’s Prize and Wellcome Prize longlists – and I wish it had gone forward to the Wellcome shortlist.

Wellcome Book Prize Shortlist, 2019: Murmur & Mind on Fire

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Will Eaves’s short novel, Murmur, is loosely linked to the life of the mathematician Alan Turing, best-known for inventing the machine that cracked German codes during the Second World War, and for undergoing forced chemical castration after one of his homosexual encounters was discovered, and thereafter, committing suicide. (Turing is fictionalised here as ‘Alec Pryor’, but the link is obvious.) The novel is bookended by two short sections very distinct in style from its much longer middle. The first, originally a short story shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award 2017, describes, in a journal entry, the liaison with working-class Cyril that led to Pryor’s punishment. The second, even shorter, depicts Pryor conversing with ‘the council of machines’, who tell him that he is losing his mind. Playing with ideas about AI, the council of machines claim that they have been fully aware from the start, through all the suffering of the Industrial Revolution, and so Pryor need not think that the painful consciousness of humans is a unique burden. Both of these sections are breathtakingly good; Eaves’s prose is beautifully direct, and the odd links Pryor makes in the second section are not necessarily logical, but still connect up perfectly well.

Unfortunately, I found the bulk of Murmur, which sits between these two bits, virtually unreadable. Eaves tries to convey what the inner workings of Turing’s mind might actually have been like while he was undergoing hormone treatment and descending into an altered state, and the results are highly irritating. Most of the novel consists of either dream sequences or letters that are ostensibly addressed to a person but are really letters to the self – two of the devices I most hate in fiction. As I also struggle with novels that are completely detached from reality, it’s no surprise that I didn’t get on with this. Even in this section, there are some beautiful passages, such as when Pryor recalls swimming in a lake with schoolfriend Christopher – but these are swiftly interrupted by another cluster of references, doublings, and psycho-analytical allusions.

I’ve been trying to work out why I find this kind of experimental literary fiction so offputting, as I’m certainly not averse to experimental literary fiction in general. There are a number of possible reasons. First, it strikes me, like a lot of postmodern literary criticism, as being more clever than wise; rather than striving to say things in the simplest way possible, it seems to delight in obtuseness. Unlike, for example, Anna Burns’s Milkman, the style isn’t working hard in service of what the writer wants to say but is getting in the way. Secondly, I think what really interests me in fiction is how humans respond to external and internal conflict, particularly if ethical, their complex relationships with other human beings, and how they think these through; when a narrator’s mind is this distanced from itself, there’s no such rational conflict, even if you could argue that conflict is still happening. Thirdly, I guess I’m unconvinced that this is the only way novels can push boundaries; it seems to me that within a more realist mode there are still hugely interesting things to be done, and I’d rather read books that are working in that direction.

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In contrast, I found Arnold Thomas Fanning’s Mind on Fire, a memoir of living with bipolar disorder, much more engaging than I’d expected, although his writing is more humdrum than Eaves’s. Fanning suffered severely from mania and depression for ten years, wrestling with his own delusions, and at his lowest point, spending a winter homeless on the streets of London. I think what worked for me about Mind on Fire is that Fanning is recounting it from a position of stability – apart from a brief, necessary section at the beginning, there’s no attempt to actually try and capture his state of mind on the page. This memoir gives the reader important insights into the experience of living with serious mental illness, and I also liked the way Fanning handled his account of his own childhood and adolescence in Ireland. While there are a number of factors that may have contributed to his poor mental health – the early death of his mother, a difficult and distant father – he doesn’t attempt to draw neat causal lines between the two, but simply presents what he remembers. Fanning’s honesty throughout the entirety of this memoir is courageous and creditable.

However, I still felt that this memoir could have had a greater impact if it had been structured differently. Like many memoirs of physical illness – Porochista Khakpour’s Sick comes to mind – Mind on Fire becomes inevitably repetitive, as Fanning continually presents himself to hospitals and becomes a psychiatric in-patient, is discharged, has a period of good health, and then starts to spiral into manic depression again. Moreover, the memoir ends rather abruptly, with only a few pages given over to Fanning’s recovery, and how he’s dealt with bipolar disorder long-term. It seemed to me that both these problems could have been solved if Fanning had compressed the period of his illness somewhat, and spent more time on the period after he ‘turned the corner’. Records of emails and letters, in particular, felt to me like Fanning was doing the very necessary work of piecing together this period in his life for himself, but I wasn’t sure that all this detail needed to be in his published narrative. A great resource for those who want to learn more about bipolar disorder, or perhaps for those living with it themselves, but not an outstanding memoir.

Thanks to Rebecca for passing on her copy of this book.

Three Things… March 2019

As ever, borrowed from Paula at Book Jotter.

Reading

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The Language of Kindness is Christie Watson’s memoir of her twenty years as a nurse, working across a range of specialisms that included resuscitation, paediatrics and mental health. I totally agree with Watson’s emphasis on the importance of nursing care, and how, as a female-dominated profession, it is systematically overlooked and undervalued. A number of my close family members are nurses and the work they do is so important. So why did this memoir irritate me consistently? Partly, I think, it’s Watson’s voice – there’s a lack of the kind of soul-searching and self-doubt that I’ve encountered in junior doctors’ memoirs such as Rachel Clarke’s Your Life in My Hands, or in other professional memoirs such as barrister Sarah Langford’s In Your Defence (both highly recommended!) and so Watson comes across as far too complacent.

It’s difficult for me to review this fairly, I think, because once you lose trust in the narrator of a memoir like this, that’s it – you keep on finding fault. For me, this happened pretty early on. I’ve encountered a recent spate of horror stories about the way parents are treated by nurses in PICU, Paediatric Intensive Care Unit, and SCBU, Special Care Baby Unit (search ‘Mumsnet SCBU/NNU/PICU’ for some of these). Watson has nothing but praise for the nurses in these units, and I’m sure many of them are doing a very good job under extremely tough circumstances. However, the judgmental and misogynistic expectations placed on mothers in these units come through even in Watson’s positive account:  ‘The nurses do everything they can to treat mother and baby as one unit… In maternity units in some private hospitals, babies are taken from the mum directly after birth to be cared for in the nursery’. But what about the mother’s needs, which are separate from those of her infant? The fact that it’s relatively new practice to refuse to part mothers and babies after birth, even if the mother is recovering from an emergency C-section and can’t safely take care of her baby? Accounts from mothers also indicate that they were judged harshly for not being by their baby’s side night and day in PICU/SCBU – even if they had other children to care for at home.

This section is typical of the book as a whole. Apart from a brief paragraph that admits that a few nurses are not very good at their jobs, Watson permits no criticism – and most doctors get short shrift, dropping in from on high to deliver a diagnosis then leaving the nurses with the real work. While I’m in no doubt this is how some consultants behave, it’s evident from the accounts of junior doctors that this is a misrepresentation of their work. This interesting review on Goodreads also points out that Watson is in the habit of minimising the significance of other professions as well – in this case, translators. She also has little to say about other hospital workers who are not part of a ‘profession’ but are nonetheless vital, such as healthcare assistants and porters. Ultimately, this came off as a rather sugar-coated account of life as a nurse.

Watching

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I went to see Rafiki at the Tyneside Cinema last night, directed by Kenyan filmmaker Wanuri Kahiru. Rafiki (Swahili for ‘friend’) is currently banned in Kenya, where homosexuality is illegal, because it depicts a lesbian relationship too positively. Kahiru was asked by the Kenya Film Classification Board to change the hopeful ending, but she refused. From my perspective, Rafiki is more of a significant political statement about LGBT rights in Kenya than a groundbreaking piece of art. The story it tells, about two girls who discover their sexuality together and then are brutally torn apart, is very familiar. The evocation of Nairobi is colourful and vivid, and both protagonists give great performances. However, it made me think about how incredibly limited the stories we tell about bisexual and lesbian women are, and how lesbianism tends to be shallowly explored, if it features at all, in Western fiction and film as well (compare the recent Disobedience, which deletes the novel’s complexity, and both versions of The Miseducation of Cameron Post, which are uplifting, but have little interesting to say). However, this is not to criticise Rafiki, which is doing a very important job. You can watch the trailer for Rafiki here.

Thinking

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Not the novel discussed below, which many people liked more than I did!

A while back, I wrote a fairly negative review of a writer’s second novel. I was especially cross about this particular book because it felt lazy and rushed. I posted the review on my blog and on Goodreads, but didn’t tag the author anywhere. Despite this, the writer in question took the time to seek me out on Twitter and block me – even though this was a platform where we’d had no interaction at all. So, this led me to think about why I write critical book reviews.

I disagree with much of what is said in this provocative article on book reviews in Harper’s, ‘Like This Or Die’, not least its eager dismissal of anything that doesn’t fall into the category of ‘literary fiction’ and its weird hostility to television. However, I think it has a point about the relentless push towards solely positive coverage of books in the mainstream media and on social media. This is (perhaps unsurprisingly) promoted by authors themselves, whom I often see tweeting things like this:

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[I love James Smythe’s work so feel bad picking on him here – it’s just the latest example of the trend I could find!]

This kind of statement is often extended to book bloggers and reviewers as well, or, more threateningly, to aspiring writers, who are told that if they want to get published themselves, they should spread positivity at all times [again, this link is to a blog that I generally like!]

I find this stance both repressive and bizarre. Firstly, there’s the suggestion that critical reviews (I think the terms ‘bad’ or ‘negative’ reviews are too loaded) are permissible, as long as they don’t come from other writers. Why? Secondly, there’s the hidden implication that actually nobody should be writing critical reviews at all – that if you don’t like a book, you shouldn’t say anything about it. I find this absurd for a number of reasons:

  • First and foremost, I don’t review books for the sake of their writers. I review them for other readers, as a reader. I don’t tag writers in critical book reviews, even if the criticism is very minor, so if they seek them out, that’s on them.
  • The idea that published writers are so fragile that they can’t deal with criticism from bloggers is a little strange to me. I tend to think that if you’ve demanded a reader’s time and attention by publishing a book, you need to be able to take polite feedback if you have sought it out (again, I don’t advocate sending bad reviews to writers, or being rude, and I assume here that writers with mental health conditions or specific personal circumstances will be able to avoid critical reviews).
  • I find this PARTICULARLY weird because all unpublished writers are essentially told to ‘just suck it up and get better’ when it comes to dealing with criticism of their work, whereas for published writers, there’s suddenly an attitude of ‘I don’t want to criticise something that someone’s put so much work into’ – so, in short, there’s a double standard in play that implies that unpublished writers’ work is less valuable and has required less labour.
  • Moreover, I think critical reviews can actually be helpful for other writers (i.e. the ones that didn’t write the book in question!) I’ve learnt a lot more about writing from reading intelligent, critical reviews than totally positive reviews.
  • It can also be impossible in practice, if you’re an honest reviewer, to avoid negative reviews if you are on a shadow panel, a blog tour, or have proof copies to review. If I really find a book unreadable I won’t review it, but this has only happened once or twice.
  • Finally, all this is off the table if a book is problematic and offensive, when suddenly everybody seems to agree that it needs to be ‘called out’, even if this jars with their usual stance on critical reviews.

My feeling is, that if I ever publish a novel, I may not seek out criticism from readers; but in the abstract, I could only be grateful to those who engage thoughtfully and critically with my work, especially if they aren’t paid to do so.

What are other people’s thoughts on writing critical reviews?