Reading round-up, June 2017

June has been a wonderful month for books, if not so much for my 20 Books of Summer challenge – so far, I’ve only read two more from my list! Going to the fantastic Emerald Street literary festival tempted me to buy more books, and NetGalley and publishers have also been kind to me. So, as it’s impossible to review all I have read, but with the feeling that most of these books deserve at least a few lines…

The month started very well with William Boyd’s Restless. I’ve always struggled with literary spy thrillers, and was especially put off by Ian McEwan’s pretentious Sweet Tooth; Restless is the antidote. Boyd doesn’t try to do anything clever other than tell a cracking good story, which doesn’t stop Restless being an intelligent and incredibly well-structured novel led by two genuinely strong (not Strong Female Character strong) women.

9781509818402the wonder_6_jpg_265_400My next read was utterly different. I felt lukewarm about Emma Donoghue’s biggest hit, Room, but have long been a fan of her early novels on contemporary lesbian life (Stir-Fry, Hood) and her more recent historical novels (The Sealed Letter). Her latest, The Wonder, is absolutely compelling. Drawing from historical testimony, the novel, set in the mid-nineteenth century, considers the case of Anna O’Donnell, a young Irish girl who seems to be surviving on little more than a few tablespoons of water a day. Her poor Catholic family claim that she has been blessed by God, and Anna herself is profoundly religious. But when Lib, an English nurse who trained with Florence Nightingale in the Crimea, is employed to test the truth of the O’Donnells’ story, she finds far more beneath the surface – even if the secrets she uncovers are not the kind that she initially expected. Despite its simple plot-line, this story only becomes more gripping as it continues, driven by the acute contrast between Anna’s fading body and her steadfastly determined mind.

coverI was hugely looking forward to Helen Sedgwick’s The Comet Seekers, which was why I put it on my 20 Books of Summer list in the first place. Its fragmented narrative broadly follows two characters: the story of astronomer Róisín, who yearns to travel and moves between a series of postdocs, research projects and homes as she follows the stars, and chef François, who has grown up watching his mother Severine talk to her family ghosts. The novel opens arrestingly, as Róisín flees the Antarctic base where she is working and shelters in a small red tent against the rage of winter storms. The image of the red tent is one that is stitched throughout the novel, re-emerging at a number of crucial moments, and certainly I could almost see its glow against the white of the Antarctic sky. Unfortunately, I didn’t find that the novel lived up to its early promise. The threads become too fragmented, as we follow comets as far back as 1066 to meet early ancestors of the main characters; I loved Róisín’s refusal to settle, her rejection of motherhood, but still didn’t feel that I really got to know her; and the prose felt too diffused, too airy. This unkind and uncharitable review in the Scotsman calls this cadence ‘mimsical realism’, and while I don’t agree with much of what this reviewer says, I’d like a term for the kind of novel that is so removed from reality while not introducing fantasy or science-fiction tropes (I don’t think the ghosts count). There’s a trace of this in Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale, which I also sped through this month. It’s something that I do struggle to engage with, although Sedgwick’s writing is wonderful, and I’m still looking forward to seeing her tackle something more concrete in her next novel, The Growing Season.

9781408870570I also read one of my most anticipated popular non-fiction releases this year, Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge. Eddo-Lodge’s original blog post on the subject, describing the emotional labour of trying to get white people to understand their racial privilege, has stayed with me ever since I first read it, and it’s reproduced in a modified form hereAs Eddo-Lodge has noted on Twitter, publishing this book has ironically meant that she’s forced to have ever more conversations with unsympathetic white people about race – from those who follow her at conferences to the woman ‘loudly bursting into guilty tears’ at an event where she was talking about her work. It’s such vivid descriptions of how it feels to have to constantly justify one’s own experiences to people who either refuse to listen or talk about their own guilt rather than truly focusing on the experiences of the person who has actually experienced racism that make Why I’m No Longer Talking… stand out. To an extent, I recognise that a lot of this book wasn’t really meant for me, in that I’m already familiar with much of the historical and sociological information that Eddo-Lodge cites. Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a vital and useful text – especially the chapter on black British history, which is inevitably sweeping, but fills an important gap that was much discussed at the History Matters conference I attended a couple of years ago. In brief, black British history, apart from the history of slavery, is rarely taught in British schools, and black British schoolchildren deserve to hear the kind of history that their white British peers take for granted. Any criticism of Eddo-Lodge’s chapter for being too simplistic, therefore, is misplaced, because in terms of popular knowledge (if not academic knowledge) of black British history, she’s basically starting from scratch. I also found the chapter on white feminism incredibly thought-provoking, although it left me with some questions. Most importantly, Eddo-Lodge seems to equate ‘white feminism’ with the liberal feminism of Sheryl Sandberg of Lean In fame [1] – the blinkered assumption that the key issues facing all women are how to secure places in the boardroom and break the ‘glass ceiling’. While she rightly critiques this kind of feminism, I wondered what she thought about other forms of feminism – for example, socialist feminism – that pay much more attention to the needs of working-class women but can be equally blind on questions of race. In other words, I was worried that the definition of white feminism she puts forward here was too narrow – although, to be fair, a full critique would easily fill a book on its own. Come to think of it, that’s certainly a book that I’d love to see Eddo-Lodge write.

Alongside Eddo-Lodge’s book, I read another of my 20 Books of Summer, Paul Beatty’s brilliant novel The Sellout, which takes questions of race that we often believe can only be mentioned in serious tones and puts a brutally satirical twist on them. It’s almost impossible to describe, but I would certainly recommend it.

cover-1Finally, I’ve managed to acquire a number of books that are not on my 20 Books of Summer list. I’m so excited about Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill, which has just won the Desmond Elliot Prize. I’ve picked up two NetGalley proofs – Tracy Chevalier’s New Boy, a retelling of Othello set in a 1970s Washington DC elementary school [2], and Imogen Hermes Gower’s debut The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, which is about late-eighteenth century mermaids, and has an absolutely gorgeous cover. I bought Things I Would Tell You at the Emerald Street festival, which is a collection of British Muslim women’s fiction and non-fiction edited by Sabrina Mahfouz, with contributors ranging from big names like Kamila Shamsie, Leila Aboulela and Ahdaf Soueif to a Muslim teenager. I can’t wait to dive into it. Finally, I also purchased Stuart Dybek’s The Start of Something: Selected Stories at the beautiful Livraria Lello, a bookshop in Porto – partly because it was one of the few English books they had that I hadn’t already heard of.

[1] I am not sure if Sheryl Sandberg could be termed a liberal feminist herself, but this is certainly the school of thought that her work has been associated with.

[2] I’ve already read this. It’s not very good. Full review coming soon!

A vale of tears

61GXMNHp7iL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_When sentencing the killers of sixteen-year-old Becky Watts in November 2015, the presiding judge, Mr Justice Dingemans, broke down in tears. This was seen as so unusual it was reported in the press, although sympathetically. The chief investigating officer defended him: ‘The judge was addressing the family and reacted in an entirely understandable way. He’s a human being and not a robot. It does not affect his integrity or the exemplary way in which he conducted the trial.’ While this statement is obviously supportive, it is clear that some explanation was perceived to be required for the judge’s tears, despite the horrendous nature of this particular case. In mid-eighteenth century to mid-nineteenth century Britain, however, crying judges were not nearly as notable. As Thomas Dixon relates, one such judge, Sir James Shaw Willes, cried when hearing the case of a mother who had poisoned her baby: ‘at one time he buried his face in his note-book and shed tears and seemed almost unable to proceed with the evidence.’ The tide was turning by the 1850s, and Willes’s outbursts were criticised; earlier, ‘weeping judges were a regular feature of public justice.’

What has changed since the mid-eighteenth century to make the crying judge such an unusual figure? Although Weeping Britannia covers a remarkable range of case studies, the descriptions of these displays of emotion from the judiciary were how I first encountered Dixon’s work (he gave a fantastic paper at the Cambridge Cultural History seminar a few years ago). The idea seems so counter-intuitive from a modern perspective because we associate judges with impartiality, objectivity and reserve; qualities that we no longer associate with tears, hence the chief investigating officer’s insistence that Dingeman’s integrity was not compromised. But one of the key messages of Dixon’s book is that the ‘stiff upper lip’ was a brief, modern British phenomenon that dominated only the years 1880 to 1945, and that before (and now, after) that period, ‘masculine’ qualities such as dignity and objectivity were not compromised by a more emotional style. Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling (1771) makes a predictable appearance, but Dixon also examines earlier examples, such as the weeping of both Charles I and Oliver Cromwell. More subtly, he argues that we need to unpick the cultural meaning of tears in these earlier periods, challenging our assumption that tears are always linked with emotion rather than reason; for example, in his exploration of the mid-eighteenth century philosophers who argued that tears were the supreme expression of rationality, distinguishing man from the animals. ‘A tear is an intellectual thing,’ asserted William Blake.

Weeping Britannia is very accessible to general readers because of the division of the book into relatively self-contained case studies that are easy to dip in and out of. On the whole, this is pulled off very skilfully, without compromising the integrity of the argument as a whole, with perhaps the exception of the very first chapter on Margery Kempe; this felt isolated from the central concerns of the book, and chronologically, it is also removed from even the earliest of the other case studies by more than a hundred and fifty years, the biggest leap that Dixon makes. Nevertheless, I can see that it was included as a kind of counterpoint to what is to come. Although I understand why the book was written the way it was, as an historian, I’d love to read a lengthier exploration of some of the case studies here; crying judges would be high on my list, but the chapter on wartime British cinema seemed full of relatively untapped potential as well, especially if Mass Observation’s studies were used more extensively. Nevertheless, this book is a crucial contribution to the still relatively undeveloped field of the history of the emotions, and like other offerings in that vein, its greatest usefulness is perhaps to provide a refreshing new perspective on debates that have grown rather dry.

‘A shadow tongue’

wake pb copy_illustrationI simply don’t get on with historical novels written in contemporary language. The way we speak is specific to our time and place… To put 21st-century sentences into the mouths of eleventh century characters would be the equivalent of giving them iPads and cappuccinos; just wrong’. Paul Kingsnorth’s rather dogmatic views on language in historical novels, as expressed in one of the afterwords to The Wake, led him to create what he admits is ‘a tongue which no-one has ever spoken’, a version of Old English accessible to the modern reader, but which he nevertheless claims follows a set of rules; only using words and letters that originated in or existed in Old English being his primary restriction. However, he offered himself a get-out clause: ‘all of the previous rules could be overridden, if necessary, by a meta-rule… do what the novel needs you to do.’ The thicket of caveats that hedge this afterword on language suggested to me – before I’d read a word of the novel – that Kingsnorth’s brave words about modern language being like a Starbucks in the eleventh century might already be falling apart. His decision to rely on his novelist’s instinct was undoubtedly the right one. It is the language he’s created, not his skill as a writer, that lets him down.

As a modern historian, I was in no position to judge the accuracy of The Wake, but a fascinating discussion with medievalist and linguist Kate Wiles on Twitter confirmed much of what I’d suspected about its language. ‘Due to keeping OE words which are recognisable to modern eyes he is restricted to the common set of vocab which doesn’t change’, she commented in her notes on the novel, which she kindly shared with me. ‘This limits his ability to use complex ideas.’ As Kate explained, using constructions such as ‘I seen it’, which Kingsnorth does throughout, implies that eleventh-century people were so ‘simple’ that they couldn’t decline the past tense, which limits a reader’s ability to truly engage with this particular chronological moment. In the case of ‘I seen it’, the Anglo-Saxons ‘had a past tense of “to see” which was the precursor of “saw”‘, so Kingsnorth’s usage is ‘entirely anachronistic.’ Kingsnorth also often breaks even the few rules he’s set for himself. My favourite example from Kate: ‘using “fuccan” when there’s no evidence for “fuck” in OE.’ Reading the second afterword in the novel, on history, indicates that Kingsnorth doesn’t have a huge amount of time for it: ‘Historians today tend to sniff at the old radical idea of the “Norman Yoke”. History, like any academic discipline, has its fashions. In my view the Yoke was very real’. These don’t read like the words of an author who – as implied by his earlier statements about language – thinks that historical accuracy is central to the historical novel.

Nor should it have to be. Kingsnorth’s needlessly inflammatory statements in his afterwords mask the fact that he has made some very good creative choices with this novel. As indicated already, the reader should not expect this to be in any way an accurate reflection of the aftermath of the Norman Conquest or of the language of the times. I also think that Kate’s point about the over-simplification of both the medieval language and hence the medieval mindset is very apt, and a strong indication as to why the majority of historical novelists haven’t tried this type of linguistic experiment. Kingsnorth may have a point when he says that ‘our assumptions, our politics, our worldview, our attitudes – all are implicit in our words’ but this is a truth overshadowed by more pressing concerns for the novelist. Quite simply, it’s more important to portray a properly complex picture of the inner worlds of people who lived in older times. As The Wake’s problems demonstrate, sometimes you have to get things deliberately wrong to do things right.

Why don’t I see The Wake as a complete failure, then? I certainly think that it would be a better novel if Kingsnorth had addressed the points made above. Nevertheless, while reading it, I kept thinking of another quasi-medieval, quasi-fantastical novel that I recently read: Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant. I love Ishiguro’s work and it pains me to say this, but The Buried Giant didn’t work for me. The Wake succeeds much better on similar ground – with the caveat that it would have been better if Kingsnorth had positioned his work more explicitly as a fantasy, rather than rooting it in the history of the Norman Conquest. The language of the novel is limiting. However, it also slows the reader’s pace in a way that can be quite magical at times. When you start a novel that opens

‘the night was clere though I slept i seen it. though i slept i seen the calm hierde naht only the still. when i gan down to sleep all was clere in the land and my dreams was full of stillness but my dreams did not cepe me still’

you know you’re in for the long haul. As I’ve discussed before, pace and expectations are crucial to how a reader engages with a novel, and my long journey through The Wake certainly made me feel as if I had to adjust my pace to that of a different mindset. Not to the eleventh-century mindset that Kingsnorth fondly believes he has captured, perhaps, but I still felt that this readjustment was valuable. Similarly, the novel is impressive on some of the details of its medieval fantasy; from the incredibly evocative depictions of the fens to the slow spread of the news of the Battle of Hastings. If read as a folktale rather than as history, The Wake is remarkably successful in pulling the reader into an alternative world without leaving them waiting in impatient boredom for something to happen, unable to adjust to these new rules of storytelling (as I’m afraid I felt for much of The Buried Giant). It’s interesting that Ishiguro has said that he initially played with language as well before discarding his early efforts; as I’ve suggested, the language in The Wake is both a drawback and an advantage, depending on what you want the novel to do for you. Sometimes you have to get things deliberately wrong to do (some) things right…

Kingsnorth’s choices, then, can hinder both him and the reader. But this does not mean that this was an experiment not worth trying. It does raise questions about whether historical novels can still be worthwhile if their history is all wrong; big questions, and important ones, but definitely questions for another day.

Monday Musings: Denny Abbey, Cambridgeshire


William Dugdale’s map from his 1662 history of the fens, showing the southern fenland before drainage, including Milton, Waterbeach and Denny Abbey. From: David Hall and John Coles, Fenland Survey (London, English Heritage, 1994)

As part of the research for Novel 2, I spent two days back in the familiar surroundings of Cambridgeshire last week. The time travel antics of Novel 2 are focused on a very specific section of the old medieval fenland; the area surrounding Milton and Waterbeach. (The map to the left gives you some idea of how this area might have looked before the fens were drained.) On this trip, I wanted to investigate Denny Abbey, which was founded in 1159 as a Benedictine monastery, but during the fourteenth century, when the time travel bits of my novel are set, was one of only three Poor Clare communities in England at the time. Both Denny and the neighbouring Waterbeach Abbey, which no longer stands, were vulnerable to floods in the medieval period, but Denny is set on a relatively high island of high ground. When the two foundations were merged by the Countess of Pembroke in 1351, the Waterbeach nuns only slowly and reluctantly left their flood-prone abbey, partly due to fears that it would fall into lay ownership. By 1359, Waterbeach was deserted and ‘well-nigh desolate’. Denny, in a satisfyingly symmetrical contrast, hung on until dissolution in 1539.

denny abbeyFor a modern visitor, especially one who is playing with ideas of time travel, the most fascinating aspect of Denny Abbey is the fact that it is ‘deconstructed’. The building has been continuously rebuilt and extended since its foundation, moving from a Benedictine monastery to a retirement home for Knights Templars to a Franciscan nunnery to a farmhouse. When English Heritage acquired it in the 1960s, they deliberately deconstructed the building to ‘show off the different layers and architectural styles’ [sign in the abbey]. This has led to some fascinating juxtapositions:

denny outside 2denny upstairs nuns door denny

Because the different versions of this building are literally layered over each other, it is difficult to trace the outlines of either the original Benedictine monastery or the extensions put in place during the time of the Poor Clares. A part of the fourteenth-century structure has been destroyed; the door pictured to my left would have led into the nuns’ dormitories, but now opens into empty space. It’s a magical and atmospheric setting for an historian or a writer, and reminded me of a very different building, the Church of Santo Domingo in Cuzco, Peru, which was built on the site of Qorikancha, an Inca temple. Despite the Spaniards’ attempts to literally erase Inca history, when earthquakes partly destroyed the church, the remnants of the Inca building reappeared; the Inca walls, in particular, withstood the shocks much better than the Spanish architecture, and so endured. Similarly, this site – though hit by English Heritage rather than an earthquake – is literally a construction of its past.

Notes on visiting Denny Abbey: This site is surprisingly little-known, and is not featured in any of the tourist guides to Cambridgeshire that I have seen. It’s actually an easy 20-min journey from central Cambridge on the Stagecoach 9 bus. If you get off at the Research Park near Landbeach, the abbey is a short 15-minute walk away. You’ll find it on your right after walking straight up the road that the bus continues its journey on. Or you could drive, but that would be less exciting.