20 Books of Summer, #12 and #13: Memories of the Future and The Untelling

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Siri Hustvedt’s new novel, Memories of the Future, is on the face of it an entry in a very familiar genre; young provincial woman goes to New York in 1979 to immerse herself in art, living in a sketchy apartment and working exploitative and/or weird jobs to make ends meet. And as an example of this genre, I’ve read better even just within my 20 Books of Summer (Self-Portrait With Boy is both more interesting on making art and more evocative of a vanished world). However, Memories of the Future is less about the specific content of its narrator’s past, and more about how we interact with our own pasts and futures. And in this, it is superb:

In our plain old human world, the young woman who lifts her eyes when she hears the door open at the Hungarian Pasty Shop in September 1978 becomes the ageing woman who sits here now in September 2016 in her study in a house in Brooklyn and types the sentence you are reading in your own present… But over there in Minkowski spacetime, the still girlish “I” and the much older “I” coexist, and in that startling 4D reality, the two of us can theoretically find each other and shake hands… What is memory if my earlier self is still out there somewhere, unchanged?

As the narrator, called ‘S.H’ in keeping with the autofictional theme, or ‘Minnesota’ by her friends, explores the diaries she kept at the time and riffles through her own memories, she keeps on returning to these paradoxes of time. Hustvedt is especially good on trauma:

I, the old narrator, am asking myself why my former self waited. I am so ashamed of waiting. I have been ashamed of waiting for almost four decades now and my humiliation does not end. No, it burns brightly… It is as if I am still that young woman outside the elevator unable to move… There must be a way to move her from that spot.

This review argues that Memories of the Future is more of an essay than a novel, and I agree; the parts of this book that came closer to fiction, such as S.H.’s relationship with her monologuing neighbour, Lucy Brite, and S.H.’s attempts at a novel, were the parts that worked least well for me. This could have been a much slimmer volume, and I think it would have been the better for it. Nevertheless, when it’s good, it’s really good.

Thanks to Rebecca for passing on her proof copy of Memories of the Future!

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There’s something about Tayari Jones’s writing that really works for me; the stories she’s telling are not always especially captivating, but her prose packs an emotional punch. The Untelling, her second novel, recalls the way Hustvedt writes about trauma by exploring how the relationships between its protagonist, Aria, and her mother and older sister have never really recovered from a devastating car crash which killed both Aria’s father and her baby sister. When Aria, now twenty-five, suspects that she is pregnant, the secrets that the surviving family members have kept from each other begin unravelling, challenging the ‘tellings’ that have become accepted over the intervening years. Aria’s story is juxtaposed with that of Keisha, a teenager who she is tutoring for the GED exam via a local literacy programme, who has also just announced her pregnancy.

In some ways, The Untelling is simplistic and a little melodramatic; in this, it recalls Jones’s An American Marriagewhich I read for last year’s 20 Books of Summer, more closely than her debut, Leaving Atlantawhich I thought was much more subtle. Nevertheless, Jones gets away with a lot of it because of how real her characters feel and how well she conveys their individual tragedies. The plot is relatively slight, but takes some unexpected twists, and like all Jones’s writing, it’s so readable. (It’s a shame it’s been burdened with such a hideous cover, which also makes it look like it’s set in a nineteenth-century asylum; hopefully, given the huge success of An American Marriage, Jones’s backlist will be reissued, and will also be made available in the UK).

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Three Things… July 2019

It’s ages since I’ve done a Three Things! Borrowed, as ever, from Paula at Book Jotter.

Reading

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The Terrible, a memoir by poet and short-story writer Yrsa Daley-Ward, falls into the category of prose-poetry that has attracted criticism recently for being easy and vague, and for prizing ‘relatability’ above other artistic considerations. Poets like Daley-Ward, Hollie McNish and Rupi Kaur have been disparagingly termed ‘Instapoets’ because of their significant social media presence and use of Instagram to highlight their poetry; given that poets nowadays need to be proactive in engaging with their audience, I don’t find this term useful, and nor do I think that using Instagram makes you a less serious writer. Nevertheless, I broadly agree with poet Rebecca Watts’ now infamous piece in PN Review, ‘The cult of the noble amateur’, which focuses on McNish, that McNish’s and Kaur’s poetry is problematic because it is characterised by an ‘open denigration of intellectual engagement and rejection of craft’. This assumes, Watts argues, that poems are not ‘deliberately created works’ but naturally occurring outbursts of feeling, and thus positions them as something that ‘anyone could write’. Unfortunately, I felt that Daley-Ward’s memoir, despite some interesting sections, also ended up in this place.

The Terrible is certainly honest, and it is brave in its exploration of childhood and adolescent trauma. Yrsa and her little brother Roo grew up with their Seventh-Day Adventist grandparents in north-west England; their mother was both present and absent in their childhood. ‘I think she loves us a bit,’ the young Yrsa tells Roo, ‘but not as much as other people’s mums.’ Daley-Ward writes well about how she was meant to feel alienated from her own body before she even hit her teens; entering puberty early, being exoticised as a woman of colour, encountering the ‘powerfear’ of men’s sexual attraction to her. At nine and a half, she writes, ‘I longed for smallness; to be petite. To have small hands and feet and no growing pains; no angry lion dreams and definitely no boobs.’ However, these sections are some of the few in the book that are narrated in prose, and are the stronger for it.

As Daley-Ward moves into her teens, she narrates more and more in prose-poetry (which often just feels like confessional, split-up prose) as she recounts her time in sex work and her isolation in the world. After sleeping with a much older man for money and having to hurriedly leave because his daughters are arriving, she thinks ‘He has daughters. He has a family. It does not feel fair that someone so old should have a doting family and someone as young as me should have no-one.’ But most of these chapters feel like words spilt onto the page, too easy, too emotive, often in a manipulative second-person voice:

You

reduce food to 1200 calories

reduce food to 1000 calories

don’t tell anyone what’s happening with Peter

He wants to leave his wife. Oh God.

He says “You’re losing too much weight.

Eat. Please eat.”

 I wonder if the problem with this kind of poetry, as with McNish’s and Kaur’s, is that it’s really written to be spoken rather than read, that on the page we’re only getting part of the performance. But if that’s the case, this memoir needed to be rethought; for me, this doesn’t work in print. Rather than capturing the specificity of Yrsa’s experiences as her more straightforward writing does, it reduces them and makes them trite. I’d like to see Daley-Ward write more consistently in prose, rather than resort to this hybrid form, as it seems to be where her talents lie.

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

Watching

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People who know me IRL will know I’m a huge Stranger Things fan. The first two series packed a huge emotional punch for me, especially as I watched them in a row when I was having a difficult time back in January 2018. For those who haven’t watched Stranger Things, it’s set in Hawkins, a fictional small town in Indiana, in the 1980s (and never lets you forget it; this is 80s nostalgia writ large). The main focus of the show is a group of friends on the cusp of their teens, one of whom goes missing after a game of Dungeons and Dragons one night, and the strange, traumatised girl they encounter, Eleven, who turns out to have psychokinetic powers. Our heroes soon start to suspect there’s something supernatural going on beneath the surface of Hawkins, and decide to investigate…

[Mild spoilers for Stranger Things 1 and 2 follow.]

After how much I loved the first two series, Stranger Things 3 was a bit of a let-down. Partly, this is beyond the showrunners’ control: the charm of the first two series lay largely in their exploration of the last years of childhood, when you no longer believe in magic but really want to, and as the central cast age into adolescence, this was never going to work in the same way. However, there were other aspects of Stranger Things 3 that I found a bit lacking. A number of the characters became caricatures of themselves. I’ve always disliked Mike, one of the pre-teens, but I hated him with the intensity of a thousand suns this season as he’s pretty much horrible to everybody around him, especially best friend Will and new girlfriend Eleven. Similarly, disillusioned police chief Hopper seemed to be vicious rather than just jaded, and local mother Joyce, who always shouted a lot, seemed to be shouting even more. There was also not nearly enough Will, the original missing person, who for me has always been the heart of the series. Some of the brilliance of the earlier series was still present – I will always adore Dustin, and his alliance with Steve and Robin was inspired – but, overall, I felt like this season of Stranger Things was more schlocky, less scary, and less haunting.

Thinking

I’ve been listening to a brand new podcast, What Editors Want, which is about what publishers look for in an author and book. The first episode, featuring Louisa Joyner from Faber & Faber, was excellent, and it’s nice to get a different take on publishing after having read 1000+ articles on ‘what agents want’. I went to an event with Joyner at the Durham Book Festival where she was talking with three of her debut authors, and I really admire her approach to getting good books to readers. While I disagree with her that there’s no distinction between commercial and literary fiction, I definitely agree that there are a lot of fantastic books that fall into that liminal space.

Reading on My Travels, Sydney 2019: Mini-Reviews

I headed onwards from Tokyo to Sydney for the Society for the History of Childhood and Youth conference at Australian Catholic University. Sydney wasn’t as high on my personal wish list as Tokyo, but it was still amazing to get the chance to spend time there (and in the Blue Mountains):

I read two books not from my 20 Books of Summer list in Sydney (and started The Nix and Atlantic Winds as well):

Never Far From Nowhere, one of Andrea Levy’s earlier novels, actually felt much more original to me than her later, more well-known works The Long Song or Small Island. Perhaps this is simply my aversion to much historical fiction, or perhaps Levy herself wrote better about more contemporary times and places. Technically, Never Far From Nowhere, published in 1996, is historical fiction: set on a council estate in the 1970s, it revels in the details of teenage life in that decade, from bovver boots to tights with carefully-positioned rows of holes to hippie hair to Ben Sherman checked shirts. However, Levy is clearly drawing on her own experiences growing up in Islington (although the book is set in Finsbury Park) and so this deluge of detail feels properly authentic.

Never Far From Nowhere follows two sisters, Olive and Vivian. Neither of them is traditionally likeable. Olive, darker-skinned and both much more acutely aware of her blackness and more willing to adopt it as an identity, leaves school with no qualifications and struggles in a series of short-term jobs. She rows constantly with her mother, but her younger sister, Vivian, is jealous of how Olive always seems to be the centre of attention, the one that their mother really cares about. This is despite the fact that Vivian makes every effort to meet their mother’s expectations: she works hard at grammar school and has ambitions to go to art college. Levy carefully balances the family dynamics, not allowing her story to become a simple binary between a ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sister.

The plot also plays with ideas of a ‘good’ and ‘bad’ working-class immigrant – Olive and Vivian were both born in England, but their parents emigrated from Jamaica. ‘Mouthy’ Olive ends up on benefits and doggedly chases up a council flat; Vivian aspires to be socially mobile and keeps her mouth shut when her friends toss around racial slurs. Olive’s recalcitrance seems deliberate; why should we only have sympathy for those who are doing all the right things? And despite Vivian’s academic intelligence, it’s Olive who is clearest about the structural oppression the sisters face in England, although she can be strikingly naïve in certain situations. Never Far From Nowhere lacks deliberate structure; it’s a slice of these sisters’ lives, and ends at a point that feels largely arbitary. It’s also a pretty grim read. Nevertheless, Levy’s portrayal of 1970s north London through the eyes of these two sisters stands out.

Because I work on young people’s writing in post-war Britain, I was excited to read Rife: Twenty-One Stories From Britain’s Youth, a collection of essays by young people aged sixteen to twenty-four, edited by Nikesh Shukla and Sammy Jones. Unfortunately, I was disappointed in most of these essays on a number of counts. Firstly, it has to be said: most of the writing here isn’t very good. I know from reading blogs, short stories and novels written by young/er people, as well as from reading the writing of my own undergraduate students, that writers in their late teens and early twenties are as capable of producing wonderful and insightful prose as any other group of writers. However, I worry that others reading this collection will lazily assume that nothing better can be expected from young people.

The problem possibly lies in the way many of these essays were produced: rather than seeking out twenty-one independent contributions, a lot of these essays emerged from a single project at Watershed in Bristol, which produced Rife magazine. Whatever the process was, it seems to have encouraged many of these writers towards a ponderous and formal style; individual voice is smothered and a lot of the essays sound the same. Rather than drawing on personal experience, many of the essays pontificate on very familiar topics: the rental crisis, poor funding for mental health and university fees. (One essay on the university experience was particularly enraging; the writer rightly criticises high fees but seems to blame lecturers for not providing ‘value for money’ e.g. for going on strike over staff pensions, rather than government policies. I know from talking to my own students about these issues that many undergraduates are not this short-sighted).

My second problem with this collection is more an issue of personal preference. Most of these writers talk about their experience as young people by invoking the language of generational inequality; making the usual arguments about the unfairness of rising house prices, unemployment and student debt in comparison to the experience of their parents’ generation. While I agree with these arguments, I was hoping that these writers might have more to say about the way that age itself acts as an oppressive category. This may in its turn result from the limited range of ages represented by the contributors. The majority are in their early twenties – already looking back on adolescence. The one essay that is obviously written by a teenager, ‘Sweet Sixteen: Kiss, Marry, Vote’, was one of my favourites. Amber Kirk-Ford effectively challenges the relevance of chronological age, arguing: ‘If some sixteen-year-olds are disengaged or badly behaved, that is equally true of apparent grown-ups… [not giving sixteen-year-olds the vote] is based on the myth that all young people are exactly the same, and are less mature than adults’. Other essays worked well for me despite the fact that they weren’t focused on questions of age because of the way they explored other intersectional identities; for example, Shona Cobb’s essay on her experiences of living with Marfan Syndrome, ‘Exclusion’, and Mariam Khan’s essay on being an hijabi, ‘My Body, My Choice’. On the whole, however, while I think projects of this kind are really important, I’ve read much better writing by teenagers and young adults elsewhere.

I received a free proof copy of this collection from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 11th July 2019.

Edit: I meant to add my (dissatisfied) thoughts about The Nix and Atlantic Winds to this post and forgot, so here are links to my Goodreads reviews:

The Nix (**1/2), DNF @ 35%

Atlantic Winds (**1/2), only finished because it was so short

Unhappy People: Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (Jeanette Winterson) & Normal People (Sally Rooney)

Jeanette Winterson grew up in an English Pentecostal family. Her adoptive parents were shocked when she came out as a lesbian, and had their church conduct an exorcism. Winterson ended up leaving home at sixteen, and broke contact with her family shortly after. Famously, she published a fictionalised account of her childhood and adolescence, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, when she was only twenty-five, but this memoir addresses her experiences from her own point of view. The title has a simple origin. When Winterson told her mother that she had fallen in love with another woman, and that this relationship made her very happy, her mother said: ‘Why be happy when you could be normal?’

While few people would put this question as bluntly as Mrs Winterson (Winterson refers to her mother in this way throughout Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?) I think that it’s a question that a lot of us grapple with. That’s certainly true for the protagonists of Sally Rooney’s second novel, Normal People, Connell and Marianne, who meet at school in Carricklea and carry on an one-off relationship through their years at university in Dublin. While Marianne’s family are far better off than Connell’s – Connell’s mother cleans their house – Marianne’s class privilege does little to help her at school, where Connell possesses all the social cachet. When they start sleeping together, both simply assume that the relationship should be kept secret. Cleverly, Rooney reverses the power dynamics in Dublin, where it is Marianne who is striving for social success, whereas Connell takes the brunt of not only being working-class but rural. Both characters feel the pressures of being what Marianne calls ‘normal people’, a state that is both aspirational and stifling.

Like Connell, Winterson came from a working-class family in a relatively out-of-the-way location (in her case, Accrington) and went to a glamorous world-class university (in her case, Cambridge). She writes so well about both class and religion. Despite the oppressive nature of the Pentecostal church, she remembers how she valued the sense of community it brought and the simple fact of ‘having somewhere to go in the evening’ in a declining north-west England industrial town where communal facilities had been steadily stripped away. Not connecting this to the bigger picture at the time, Winterson, as a young woman, voted for Thatcher in 1979, valuing what she seemed to represent: a self-made woman in a world where left politics felt dominated by masculine trade unionism. In contrast, both class and (especially) religion are relatively slight in Normal People. While class differences feed into the consistent miscommunication between Connell and Marianne, Rooney seems more interested in analysing how they misunderstand each other word by word and sentence by sentence, rather than suggesting that there are macro factors that keep them apart. The sadness of their story is that it could so easily have been different. In terms of politics, Marianne talks vaguely about Marxism, but that’s as far as it goes.

Rooney is a wonderfully observational writer. This Goodreads review seems to me to miss the point of her prose; it accuses her of piling up irrelevant details, but actually the content of this quote is who is doing what:

Marianne goes inside and comes back out again with another bottle of sparkling wine, and one bottle of red. Niall starts unwrapping the wire on the first bottle and Marianne hands Connell a corkscrew. Peggy starts clearing people’s plates. Connell unpeels the foil from the top of a bottle as Jamie leans over and says something to Marianne. He sinks the screw into the cork and twists it downwards. Peggy takes his plate away and stacks it with the others.

While I don’t think this is the strongest example of Rooney’s writing, there’s a certain power dynamic here that we can see through Connell’s eyes; Marianne bringing out more bottles; handing him a corkscrew while her current partner, Jamie, tries to get her attention; Peggy taking charge through clearing the plates.

Ordinary People is an addictive read, and I found it less limited than Conversations With Friends (the critics who have suggested that Rooney has somehow regressed because she’s writing about characters who are chronologically younger than her last set of protagonists need to think again). However, I have to confess that I’m baffled as to why it’s being hailed as ‘a future classic’. I feel like I’ve read quite a few novels like this, most notably Belinda McKeon’s beautiful TenderI’d still put it on my personal shortlist for this year’s Women’s Prize, but this is partly due to the weakness of the overall longlist rather than feeling blown away by this book.

What I wanted it to address, I suppose, is something that’s inchoate in the story but never quite comes to the surface: when we are teenagers, we often want more than anything to be ‘normal people’, but as we find out how easy it is to be normal, we strive to become exceptional again. This happens most obviously to Marianne when she’s accepted by a popular set at university, and is seduced into putting her own needs and interests to one side. In Winterson’s case, I get the sense that, after what her mother said to her, being ‘normal’ was never on the agenda; so her wonderful memoir is more about the cost of living on the other side of normality, which may be the right place to be, but is often a very painful space as well.

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.

Late Spring Reading

I’m still working my way through the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist. I’ve now read all of the titles I planned to read before the shortlist announcement except Sally Rooney’s Normal People and Lillian Li’s Number One Chinese Restaurant – the library just isn’t coming through for me! So, I’ve decided to change my strategy, as I want to get as many of these read before the shortlist is announced on the 29th April. I’m going to buy myself a copy of Normal People, as I’m pretty sure I’ll enjoy it. Then, as I’ve read some pretty poor reviews of Number One Chinese Restaurant and some pretty good reviews of Sophie van Llewyn’s Bottled Goods (plus, I love the fact she’s written this tiny literary novella for a tiny press, and yet says her favourite book/s are A Song of Ice and Fire), I’m going to read Bottled Goods instead. Therefore, I won’t be reading Number One… (or The Pisces, Swan Song or Praise Song for the Butterflies) unless it’s shortlisted, which I doubt it will be.

In the meantime, a round-up of some non-Women’s Prize reading:

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In retrospect, everything else in The Dollmaker was overshadowed for me by the hauntingly brilliant long quotation that prefaces the novel, taken from an 1897 article called ‘A Study of Dolls’, co-authored by the famous American psychologist of adolescence, G. Stanley Hall. Here’s a little bit of it:

90 children mentioned burial, their average age being nine; 80 mentioned funerals, 73 imagined their dolls dead, 30 dug up dolls after burial to see if they had gone to heaven, or simply to get them back. Of these 11 dug them up the same day… 12 dolls came to death by accidental bumps and fractures, 1 burst, 1 died of a melted face, 2 were drowned (1 a paper doll)… 30 children had never imagined dolls dead. This parents often forbid… In 21 cases there was death but no burial; in 10, funerals but no burials; in 8, funerals but no death.

This is so ridiculous and beautiful, the kind of inadvertent poetry that you sometimes find in Victorian social studies, that The Dollmaker was never going to live up to it. Ultimately, I admired the craft and intelligence with which this novel was written, but it wasn’t really my thing.

Andrew Garvie, who has dwarfism, has spent his life collecting and making dolls. When he receives a letter from Bramber Winters, a woman living in an institution on Bodmin Moor, about his collection, this begins an enthusiastic correspondence between them. Andrew sets off on a journey across England to finally meet Bramber, and on the way, reads a book of Polish stories that she’s recommended to him by the fictional Ewa Chaplin. Chaplin’s stories are littered with characters that might be considered ‘freaks’ in nineteenth-century parlance, from a range of people who also have dwarfism to a woman whose fingers have been frozen by rheumatoid arthritis and a woman born without one of her eyes. This engages Andrew’s sympathies; recently, he has been restoring ‘monsters’, damaged dolls who don’t have perfect faces and bodies, because he sees no reason why dolls shouldn’t reflect reality.

A number of Chaplin’s stories are scattered throughout the novel, and most are riveting; subtly disturbing, they all suggest worlds that aren’t quite our own. In contrast, Andrew and Bramber’s plot-line is rooted more firmly in reality than I’d expected, and I longed for more than a hint of the speculative. The dolls themselves are more symbolically significant throughout the novel than anything else, and I wished there had been a lot more about Andrew’s work as a dollmaker, picking up on the hint of creepiness in the Stanley Hall quote. And while the Chaplin stories worked for me, they made the pace of the novel very erratic, as it took me a little while to get into each one, meaning I’d often put the novel aside for some time when a new story appeared. Without the stories, on the other hand, this is a familiar tale of two misfits finding love through letter, and Bramber never really came alive for me; I’d have preferred the whole thing to be about Andrew, his dolls, and Ewa Chaplin’s stories.

Writers often complain that reviewers review the book they wanted to read rather than the book the writer wanted to write, and that’s definitely at play for me here; I SO wanted this to be a more alternative-reality sort of novel that I kept on making up elaborate twists that didn’t come to pass (Andrew and Bramber are actually dolls in a complicated child’s game!). However, this is a very well-written novel that I’d recommend to those to whom the synopsis appeals, and as I hear Allan’s earlier novels lean more towards the SF, I’ll definitely be checking those out (The Rift is already on my 2019 reading list).

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

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College friends Jack and Wynn are canoeing the Maskwa River in Northern Canada. Wynn is the most experienced with whitewater, while Jack is an expert on wilderness survival and hunting; they don’t anticipate problems. However, when they find themselves in the path of a forest fire and overhear a couple arguing in the middle of the night, they are unwillingly plunged into a life-or-death journey down the river.

This novel, the first I’ve read by Peter Heller, sits somewhere between literary fiction and thriller; the UK cover is somewhat misleading in depicting it as a pure white-knuckle ride. Heller spends some time establishing the landscape and the relationship between the two men, so the plot doesn’t really kick in until we’re about a third of the way through. However, this is a relatively short novel, so I didn’t find this to be a problem; just don’t expect this to be thrills from page one. Once The River gets going, it’s properly gripping, and Heller’s knowledge of the wilderness is evident. It reminded me of Erica Ferencik’s equally engrossing The River at Night, with perhaps a greater touch of realism.

The ‘literariness’ of this novel is a little more questionable. Heller’s writing is somewhat reminiscent of Charles Frazier, but less deliberately meditative. However, The River doesn’t seem to have a great deal to say; the one enduring theme is the contrast between Wynn’s idealism and Jack’s cynicism, which is rather simplistically resolved. The novel also falls back on cliched gender roles; of the two women mentioned prominently in it, one, Jack’s dead mother, appears only in flashbacks as a motivation for Jack’s actions, while the other is a helpless victim of male violence. In short, I’d have liked this to either have gone full-on ‘thriller’, or to have had greater depth; although I enjoyed reading it, it sits a bit uneasily between the two.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on May 16th.

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Lucy grew up in a working-class family in Sunderland, attending a comprehensive school in nearby Washington, so when she heads to university at King’s College, London, in the mid-00s, she has to adjust to the new landscape around her, abandoning fake tan, sequins and Asti for cigarettes, leather jackets and leopard-print tights. Later, having received her degree, Lucy will flee to her grandfather’s home in Donegal, seeking out the silence of a very different world.

Saltwater, Jessica Andrews’s debut novel, is told in non-linear fragments, although the four parts of the book roughly divide up the phases of Lucy’s life, from childhood to adolescence to studenthood to the aftermath. However, I didn’t find anything especially original in either the prose or the structure. This kind of storytelling is commonplace in literary fiction – think early Maggie O’Farrell – as, increasingly, are the very short chapters. Saltwater is clearly based very closely on Andrews’s own experiences, and while I’m not against fashionable autofiction per se, it has to be really wonderful to convince me, e.g. Jessie Greengrass’s Sight.

As someone who’s recently moved to Newcastle and who has family on both sides who grew up in the north-east, I loved the idea of a novel that explored working-class experience outside London. However, Saltwater either gives us precise, repetitive litanies of sweets, toys, drinks and bands, or feels irritatingly vague. Some of the sections that explore Lucy’s adolescent experiences, such as hanging out in Exhibition Park, are a bit more satisfying, but these aren’t typical of the novel as a whole. Having read some of Andrews’s articles about being the first person in her family to go to university, I found these more illuminating than the fictional version represented here. Andrews’s writing is readable enough, but I hope she pushes herself further next time.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on May 19th.

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.