‘This isn’t life and it isn’t time’: Our Share of Night by Mariana Enríquez

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In 1985, the world watched as a thirteen-year-old girl, Omayra Sánchez, slowly died as she stood trapped in debris after a volcanic eruption in the Tolima region of Colombia. Pinned down by the ruins of her own house, Omayra’s dead aunt’s arms were locked around her niece’s legs and feet. Given the equipment on the ground there was no way to get Omayra out. She survived for several days as gangrene and hypothermia set in; by the time she died, her fingers had become white and her eyes had turned completely black.

Even more than the legacy of the military junta in Argentina that led to the death or ‘disappearance’ of thousands of people, Omayra’s story haunts the pages of Our Share of Night, the first of Mariana Enríquez’s novels to be translated into English. Alongside these real horrors, Enríquez gives us a terrifying shadow-story that revolves around the cult of the ‘Darkness’, whose followers believe it can offer them eternal life despite its destructive mutilations when it manifests via a medium. When Our Share of Night opens in 1981, the only medium is Juan, a seriously ailing man born with a congenital heart condition whose body has also broken down through being forced to manifest the Darkness. Juan is desperate to protect his young son, Gaspar, who is the cult’s next target – if Gaspar doesn’t inherit his father’s powers, they plan to transfer Juan’s consciousness into Gaspar’s body so Juan can live on after his impending death.

Despite its 736 pages, Our Share of Night has a straightforward plot and a small cast of characters. Even in its side-stories we focus tightly on Juan, Gaspar and the Darkness. And here, I think, is one reason why I so admired Enríquez’s ambition and many of her set-pieces, but found the book such a painfully slow read. Yes, it’s long, but it doesn’t normally take me five weeks to get through a book of this length; I read Hanya Yanagihara’s To Paradise, which is almost exactly the same length, in less than two. Like To Paradise, I’d suggest that this book is best approached as a collection of novels and novellas rather than as a single work. But unlike To Paradise, the unity of theme and character between the different sections makes Our Share of Night feel much more repetitive. I think the only section that completely worked for me was the short-story-length ‘The Zañartú Pit’, set in 1993, where we see anthropologist Olga Gallardo exploring the remnants of these dark rites in a Guaraní village devastated by the military coup, unaware of exactly what she’s getting herself into.

And maybe this was my favourite section because it really is the only section where Enríquez truly weaves together the horrors of Argentinian history and the terror of the cult of the Darkness. Throughout the rest of the novel, these are very much two separate stories, with the Darkness almost standing in for the junta rather than reflecting and illuminating it. Perhaps I am at fault here as well; I know very little about this period in Argentina and, if I knew more, the parallels might be more obvious. But I do think that Enríquez was going for something akin to Julianne Pachico’s The Anthill or Violet Kupersmith’s Build Your House Around My Body, which both entwine the violent history of a country (Colombia and Vietnam respectively) with more supernatural gore and horror.

Omayra, then, feels more present in the novel than anything done by the military junta because she is the figure that haunts the set of characters who are the only ones who really come to life: Gaspar’s childhood friends, Pablo, Vicky and Adela. And this gives me another reason why this book was so difficult to drag myself through: ultimately, I didn’t care what happened to Juan or to Gaspar. They never felt like real people to me. Perhaps this was a deliberate choice by Enríquez; touched by the weirdness of the Darkness, Gaspar is set apart from his three, more human friends. But again, I thought of another brick of a novel that I found much easier to read, and re-read: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. Gaspar shares something with the traumatised Theo, but despite Theo’s story meandering almost as badly as Gaspar’s at times (get out of Las Vegas, please!!!), I stayed with it because I was so invested in Theo. And unlike The Goldfinch, which pulls off a stonking final section that fully repays the reader’s investment, Our Share of Night manages to rush its climax.

This is a very difficult novel to sum up, because despite the fact that I did not enjoy reading most of it, I know that it will absolutely stay with me; and there are sections where Enríquez’s prose, as translated by Megan McDowell, is extraordinarily powerful. I’ll definitely be reading Enríquez’s translated short story collections. Still, the pacing is hopeless, and the horror only intermittent. I can’t in good conscience recommend it.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It was left over from my R.I.P XVII challenge (though I have been reading it since October 8th!)

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‘I saw the other side of them’: The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai

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We break from our regular SF Month and Novellas In November programming to bring you this somewhat ranty review.

The Mountains Sing tells the story of the Vietnam War through the perspective of three generations of a relatively wealthy Vietnamese family living in the North. Although it touches on the occupation of the country by the French and the Japanese, the bulk of the novel is focused on the rise of Communism and the splitting of Vietnam between a US-backed South and a Communist-backed North. The novel is narrated in alternate chapters by Diệu Lan, who relates her experience of the Land Reform of the mid-1950s, and her granddaughter Hương, who grows up in the 1970s as the US withdraw from Vietnam but fighting continues. This Goodreads review perfectly sums up my reservations about this kind of inter-generational ‘history of a non-Western country novel’; while they can be amazing (Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, Lisa See’s The Island of Sea WomenJing-Jing Lee’s How We Disappearedand while not a novel, Jung Chang’s Wild Swans) they can also be simplistic stories of suffering that seem to be designed to make Western audiences feel good about themselves while saying very little else.

Typically, these novels fail to distinguish one character from another; the different members of the cast are defined entirely by what has happened to them, not who they are. Some are at least good on historical detail while others are much sketchier. The Mountains Sing falls into this category. I learnt surprisingly little about Vietnam or the Vietnam War from reading it. Of course, this doesn’t have to be a novelist’s job, but it doesn’t really work as a novel either – none of the characters have any distinguishing traits and I wasn’t sure why Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai chose to switch between Diệu Lan’s and Hương’s narratives – every time I was sinking into one, I’d get dragged back to the other, and because their voices are exactly the same, I easily became confused. I also found the take on the Vietnam War so simplistic as to be problematic. My knowledge of the war is very poor, but Quế Mai’s approach seems to be summed up by this quotation from about halfway through the novel, after Hương listens to her uncle’s story of an encounter with American soldiers: ‘What my uncle said made me think. I had resented America, too. But by reading their books [Hương is a fan of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House In The Big Woods], I saw the other side of them – their humanity. Somehow I was sure that if people were willing to read each other, and see the light of other cultures, there would be no war on earth.’

I mean, really? The novel consistently refuses to talk about structural power or exploitation, and is much keener to describe Communist atrocities against rich landowners then to focus on the American role in the war. And while I don’t know enough about the Land Reform to judge Quế Mai’s account of it, I felt uncomfortable with the consistent dehumanisation of the family’s poorer neighbours, who are all portrayed as evil, greedy and animalistic. In contrast, Diệu Lan’s family are saints who help out their village by installing a water pump. You don’t have to be a communist to feel a little uneasy that this book seems to be totally happy with the existing social inequalities and so disgusted at the villagers who aren’t as fortunate as Diệu Lan. And with all their talk about reaching out to invading Americans, the family find it much harder to forgive Uncle Minh (Diệu Lan’s oldest son) who ended up fighting for the South during the war. This could very much be a realistic character choice (easier to blame each other than the real oppressors), but I wanted to see this explored by Quế Mai. As it stands, The Mountains Sing seems likely to confirm stereotypes rather than to challenge them. In many ways, it seems to me an example of writing for your worst possible reader rather than for your best.

October Superlatives

October superlatives already! You can also read my R.I.P XVII/Spooktastic Reads challenge round-up for this month.

The Best Book I Read This Month Was…

We Ride Upon Sticks by Quan Barry. Teen witch field hockey drama in the 1980s! However, this evocative historical novel was also brilliant on how our perspectives on race, feminism and queer/trans identity have changed, not always for the better. My full review is here.

(Hon. mention: This Time Tomorrow by Emma Straub, which gives its time-travel narrative somewhat short shrift due to some odd pacing choices, but which partly makes up for this by its beautiful, poignant depiction of the central father-daughter relationship.)

The Worst Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Patricia Wants To Cuddle by Samantha Allen. I hoped this short novel would be the right side of ridiculous, but unfortunately it was the wrong side of ridiculous. The finale of a Bachelor-style franchise is taking place on a remote island where a group of female hikers went missing decades ago. Unbeknownst to our Instagram-obsessed cast, a female Bigfoot is stalking the island, aided and abetted by a cult of lesbians. Doesn’t it sound engagingly weird? However, the execution was really off. The first two-thirds of the novel reads like a light thriller criticising social media, then the final third pairs gruesome horror with humour. There needed to be a much darker, more subversive undercurrent from the beginning to make this shift work. And while this book obviously wants to be queer and satirical, I still wasn’t a fan of the lesbian stereotypes which didn’t seem to do any interesting narrative work (the interspersed love letters were so cliched they were painful to read), and the cult of ‘Patricia’ needed a lot more page-time. A shame, because it has a good cover.

The Book That Was So Well-Written But Not Much Else This Month Was…

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… The White Rock by Anna Hope. Hope’s fourth novel follows four unnamed narrators in four different time periods, travelling in the same area of Mexico: the Writer in 2020, the Singer in 1969, the Girl in 1907 and the Lieutenant in 1775. All of her novels have been well-written, but The White Rock is on another level. The strength of her writing here, however, helped me really pin down why it is that none of her novels have quite worked for me (I’ve also reviewed The Ballroom and Expectation). The quality of the prose is definitely there but the quality of the ideas is consistently lacking. These four narratives are linked by a sense of worlds that are ending, relationships with the environment that are being destroyed. However, Hope has little new to say about this; once you try and look past the prose, the story dissolves. My full review is on GoodreadsI received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

The Only Book I Read From The Booker Longlist Before The Winner Was Announced Was…

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… Nightcrawling by Leila Mottley. This debut novel made this year’s Booker longlist but not the shortlist, and, while I admired Mottley’s writing, I’m not sure I’d have even put it on the longlist. Kiara is a black teenage girl living in Oakland who turns to casual sex work when she and her brother are threatened with eviction from their rented apartment; things turn even darker when the local police pick her up and force her to have sex with them at regular ‘parties’. Kiara’s voice is convincing, with some fantastic sentences: ‘the boyfriend I had when I was fourteen and still trying to live out childhood’; ‘a series of tingles have coursed across my forehead like that feeling when you’re blindfolded, but your body feels the eyes’; ‘Mama wore wide-leg red pants to go fall in love with Daddy and kept them even after they tore at the seams.’ The prose also occasionally waterfalls into long, run-on sections that feel utterly authentic for this seventeen-year-old narrator. However, the story itself felt too familiar, and Mottley sometimes tells us what we should take from a scene rather than letting it speak for itself, as in the otherwise strong set-piece when Kiara and a friend go to a ‘funeral day’, taking food and clothes from a funeral parlour: ‘Funeral day is a reckoning, when we mimic thieves and really just find excuses for our tears’. Despite the excellent writing, therefore, I doubt Nightcrawling will stay with me.

The Best Essay Collection I Read This Month Was…

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… Things I Have Withheld by Kei Miller. This was on my 2022 reading list; it was also shortlisted for the 2021 Baillie Gifford Prize and the 2022 Jhalak Prize. As Miller explains in the introduction, these essays ‘are about things I have withheld’, quoting the poet Dionne Brand: ‘I am a black woman speaking to a largely white audience… so that there are some things that I will say to you and some things that I won’t. And quite possibly the most important things will be the ones that I withhold.’  He writes so thoughtfully about racialisation – how society constructs racial categories to put people into – and especially well, perhaps surprisingly so, about white women, in essays like ‘Mr Brown, Mrs White and Ms Black’, ‘The Crimes That Haunt The Body’ and ‘The White Women and The Language of Bees’. As Miller demonstrates, we tend to think of ‘race’ and ‘racialisation’ only when we think of people of colour, but ‘white’ is a constructed category as well. And as a black man, he’s acutely aware of his own perspective – structurally advantaged by his sex but not by his race, although his queerness complicates things further. The book largely focuses upon Britain and Jamaica, Miller’s two home countries, plus a trip that he takes to Kenya, Ethiopia and Ghana, but speaks to experiences of racism elsewhere too. There were a few very short pieces here that felt a little less necessary, but otherwise this is an excellent, elegant and moving collection of essays.

The Best Novel About Ballet I Read This Month Was…

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… They’re Going To Love You by Meg Howrey. I was enraptured by Howrey’s last novel, The Wanderers, a brilliantly dead-pan but richly thoughtful story that followed three astronauts training for a Mars mission in the Utah desert. They’re Going To Love You is a very different book. Carlisle trained as a ballet dancer in New York, relying heavily on the support of her father Robert and his long-term partner, James. In the wake of the 1980s AIDS crisis, she watched them both uneasily, reassured by their monogamy but haunted by the sudden deaths of young men they knew. The novel skips between Carlisle’s past and the present [c.2016], where we learn that Carlisle has been estranged from both Robert and James for nineteen years, after her father forbade her to contact them. Ballet has been served badly by fiction: most ballet novels I’ve read emphasise the tortured nature of the art and how masochistic you must be to want to devote your life to it. Howrey, a former professional dancer, presents a much more nuanced view. I doubt this will be memorable in the way that The Wanderers was, with Carlisle’s first-person voice already slipping from me. Nevertheless, it’s still all too rare to read a novel that stars an ambitious, childless woman who isn’t punished for her perversity. My full review is on GoodreadsI received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 10th November. 

(Hon. mention: The Cranes Dance, Howrey’s first novel, which is much MORE about ballet than They’re Going To Love You is, and is also very much worth reading, but which I found a bit schematic in its depiction of the two Crane sisters.)

The Only Book In Translation I Read This Month Was…

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… Saha by Cho Nam-Joo. This short novel introduces us to a city-state called Town where you belong to one of three levels of society: either you are a full Citizen, an ‘L2’ who’s licensed for up to two years to fulfil particular jobs, or a ‘Saha’, one of the social outcasts who lives in the high-rise Saha estates. But Saha feels caught between two narratives, two types of story. One follows Saha resident Jin-Kyung’s determination to get to the bottom of her brother’s disappearance after he’s falsely accused of murdering his girlfriend. The other skips around between the people who live in Saha and is organised by the numbers of the units they occupy. I think I understood what Nam-Joo was trying to do with this second narrative, and I liked the idea of bringing the Saha estates to life through the voices of this peripatetic community. But it strays back too often to Jin-Kyung, and the individuals often blur into a litany of suffering rather than strongly coming forward in their own right. I also struggled with the choppy transitions and sketchy writing, which often felt like an early draft. I was struck to see that this was translated by Jamie Chang, who also translated Kim Hye-Jin’s Concerning My Daughter – and I had exactly the same problems with the prose in that novella! So, this at least may be a translation issue, but I still didn’t feel that Nam-Joo really pulled off what she set out to achieve here. I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 30th November. 

What were the best and worst books you read in October?

September Superlatives, Part 1

This got really long so I’ve split it into two posts!

The Best Book I Read This Month Was…

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… The Anthill by Julianne Pachico. I loved Pachico’s linked short story collection The Lucky Ones, which focused on left-wing guerrilla groups in Colombia in the 1990s as seen through the eyes of one elite, expat school class. Her first novel is just as good. It follows Lina, who spent her early childhood in Medellín but left for England when she was eight. Lina’s returned to the city to reunite with childhood friend Mattias, who now runs a community centre for local children, the Anthill. She uncomfortably navigates her own privilege as she volunteers at the centre, desperate to insist that she’s not like the other volunteers – that she knows this city, she knows Mattias, she speaks fluent Spanish. Here, the novel reminded me of Nikita Lalwani’s brilliant, merciless The VillageHowever, The Anthill also keeps company with another kind of book that I love: like Violet Kupersmith’s Build Your House Around My Bodyit uses horror tropes to explore a character’s and a country’s traumatic past. A fantastic novel that seems to have been very unfairly overlooked.

The Worst Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke and Other Misfortunes by Eric LaRocca. This is a strange little book. It consists of one novella – ‘Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke’ and two short stories – ‘The Enchantment’ and ‘You’ll Find It’s Like That All Over’. The first and last stories in the collection felt like they had potential. In ‘Things Have Gotten Worse’, two women connect over email when one is trying to sell her grandmother’s antique apple peeler and develop a strange, swift obsession with each other. In ‘You’ll Find It’s Like That’, a man enters into a dangerously escalating series of bets with his neighbour.

Neither of these stories exactly worked for me – the first came too close to torture porn for shock value for my liking while the second felt too abrupt and abbreviated – but both have memorable images and phrases. In contrast, ‘The Enchantment’ was a bit of a mess; it starts with the arresting idea that the afterlife has been proven not to exist, but does nothing with that at all, choosing instead to focus on a couple grieving after their son commits suicide, an experience which seems like it would have been much the same regardless of belief in an afterlife. Finally, Eric LaRocca’s writing is consistently off-kilter and stilted; I thought this was a stylistic choice when reading ‘Things Have Gotten Worse’ but soon realised it wasn’t, which robbed that novella of some of what made it interesting as well. I received a free proof copy of this collection from the publisher for review.

The Best Historical Novel I Read This Month Was

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People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks. This novel’s central thread follows rare books specialist Hanna, who’s been asked to restore the famous Sarajevo Haggadah. However, the rest of the narrative functions as a series of interconnected short stories interspersed throughout Hanna’s story as she tracks the origins of the traces on the book: saltwater and wine marks, missing silver clasps, a butterfly wing, a white cat hair stained with dye. We move through the interconnected European histories of the three major Abrahamic religions, with a focus on the persecution of the Jews: from Sarajevo during the Second World War to Vienna in the 1890s to seventeenth-century Venice to Barcelona and Seville in the late fifteenth century. I struggled with the short modern sections but felt that the past came alive once we entered the early modern and medieval periods. Meanwhile, Hanna’s present-day voice is satisfyingly individual, caustic and critical, although I found the resolution to her difficult relationship with her mother rather too neat – I would have preferred a more complex reckoning with the past – and the romantic subplot felt unnecessary. I was impressed by Brooks’s Year of Wonders until its jump-the-shark ending, so I was glad to find that People of the Book was much more convincing. Next up: Brooks’s March. [Borrowed from my local library #LoveYourLibrary]

The Best Short Story Collection I Read This Month Was…

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… Afterparties by Anthony Veasna So. This incredibly strong collection of short stories showcases So’s talent and underlines the tragedy of his early death; he died unexpectedly in 2020, before seeing it published. So achieves something very difficult in this collection, asking the same questions without becoming repetitive as he tells the stories of second-generation Cambodian immigrants to California who live in the shadow of their Khmer parents’ experience of the Cambodian genocide of the 1970s. Stories like ‘The Shop’ and ‘We Would’ve Been Princes!’, which begin comically, inevitably circle round to this reckoning. For me, the strongest stories were the ones that moved a little further away from the young gay male narrators who dominate much of this collection – ‘Three Women Of Chuck’s Donuts’, ‘The Monks’, and ‘Generational Differences’ – not because So’s stories about young gay men’s experiences were not strong nor important, but because it was a joy to see him stretch himself. This reminded me of another short story collection I loved that combined a unity of theme with a multiplicity of voices, Souvankham Thammavongsa’s How To Pronounce Knife.

The Best Book On Death I Read This Month Was…

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And Finally by Henry Marsh. This short book chronicles Henry Marsh’s life after retiring from neurosurgery and being diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer, as he looks back on his career from the perspective that age and illness gives him. I’ve read Marsh’s two previous memoirs, Do No Harm and Admissions, and frankly I wouldn’t recommend this to anybody who hasn’t at least read Do No Harm; much of the poignancy here is lost if we don’t first encounter Marsh as a practicing surgeon. However, Marsh is typically (for him) and unusually (for most writers) honest about his experience of ageing and facing mortality, and that alone made And Finally worthwhile for me. I also liked his clear and compelling arguments for legalising assisted dying in the UK, a cause for which he is now campaigning. Alongside Paul Kalanithi and Atul Gawande, Marsh remains one of the best doctors-turned-writers I’ve read. My full review is on GoodreadsI received a free proof copy of this book from the publisher for review.

Part 2 coming soon!

A familiar tyrant: Haven by Emma Donoghue

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Emma Donoghue’s Haven doesn’t have the ingredients to be an obvious bestseller. Three monks set out to found a refuge from the world in seventh-century Ireland, eventually alighting on Skellig Michael, an isolated rock in the middle of the sea home to puffins, shearwaters, cormorants, auks and not much else. However, I love quiet, slow historical stories about faith and isolation, and I’ve never read a Donoghue novel I didn’t like (Hood, The Sealed Letter, The Wonder, Room) or love (Stir-Fry, Akin, The Pull of the Stars). So why wasn’t Haven a hit for me?

There are aspects of this novel I really liked. Donoghue painstakingly and lovingly explores the details of the monks’ difficult lives as they try to eke out an existence in this unpromising place. Through the oldest of the three, Cormac, we learn about masonry; the youngest of the three, Trian, struggles with the copying of manuscripts that is required of him by their leader, Artt, trying to find new ways to mix ink when he’d prefer to be out fishing and fowling. Having recently visited the Farne Islands, the sharp descriptions of the bird populations on Skellig Michael also rang true to me. While it helped that I could easily visualise this place due to its appearances in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi as Luke Skywalker’s hideout, Donoghue brought it to greater life.

Where Haven fell down for me was in its thematic concerns and, to an extent, its characterisation. Cormac and Trian are both well-developed but Artt increasingly becomes a caricature of dogmatic faith. This linked to my lukewarm feelings about the novel’s concerns; it seemed to be saying very familiar things about fanaticism and human dominion over nature, rather than using its seventh-century setting to ask new questions. A late revelation feels unnecessary and under-explored, and should either have been integrated into the book from the beginning or omitted.

A final note: many reviewers have suggested this shares a lot with Donoghue’s earlier novel Room. Having very recently reread Room, I disagree. The books are both about people living in isolation from the world and making the best of the limited resources they have, but that’s where the similarities end. Room, I thought, was much richer and more interesting, posing questions about parenthood and childhood through the use of five-year-old Jack as a narrator. In contrast, Haven is disappointingly conventional, telling us things we already know.

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

20 Books of Summer, #17: Room

This year, I’m doing 20 Books of Summer as a rereading challenge. I can read any twenty books I want as long as I have read them already! I’m on holiday and off-grid until 30th August, so my last couple of posts for this challenge are auto-scheduled.

L: My proof copy. R: The original hardback cover of the novel.

Before rereading: I read Room in 2010, as an ARC, so before the real hype around the novel began. Since reading Room, I’ve read and loved many of Donoghue’s other novels (Stir-Fry, Hood, The Sealed Letter, The Wonder, Akin, The Pull of the Stars) which has influenced my take on her as a writer. I’ve also seen the excellent film version of Room (2015), which helped me to engage with the novel as I could more clearly visualise what was happening. On one hand, Room is strikingly unrepresentative of Donoghue’s other work, which makes me think better of it; I can see how she was pushing boundaries here. On the other hand, I’ve become a little uncomfortable with the views on motherhood expressed in some of Donoghue’s later work, especially her short story ‘Halfway To Free’, which makes me approach it more warily than before. Finally, since first reading Room in 2010, I have become a historian of childhood; so obviously I’m going to have more thoughts about how it treats its child narrator than I did first time around!

When I first read Room, I wrote: ‘ When I was a little kid I thought like a little kid, but now I’m five I know everything” Jack, the delightful narrator of Emma Donoghue’s new novel tells us. What he has discovered shortly after his fifth birthday is that the room in which he lives with his mother, ‘Ma’, is not in fact the entire world; there’s a world outside, and one day he and Ma might be able to escape… Jack’s voice is the most important thing about this novel, as being inside his head both simplifies the story, sometimes irritatingly, and also allows Donoghue to view the imprisonment in Room from an unexpected angle. Before reading this book, I thought that it might be very distressing and dark – in the vein of John Fowles’ The Collector – but although some of the details that we manage to work out don’t make for easy reading, the overall tone is far lighter than you might expect… I felt that this novel leant a little too hard on the exciting original concept, and on Jack’s skewed narration… and could have been a little better-plotted, especially in the latter half. But I would still very much recommend it.’

After rereading: So, I liked Room more the second time around. I found it intensely gripping, which was not quite my experience when I first read it. The first half of the novel is impressive. Donoghue handles Jack’s voice adeptly, and in the process, says much about being five years old in any place as well as in Room. It made me reflect on the push and pull about what we need as adults and what children need from us, a push and pull that is inevitable anywhere we live right now, let alone in somewhere like Room. Ma heroically constructs as normal as possible a life for Jack, which means that he is largely happy in Room; when they escape, he struggles with the adjustment to the outside world, pining for the objects he remembers. One particular exchange between him and Ma is both insignificant and horribly poignant, especially as the reader has only ‘seen’ the objects in Room through Jack’s uncritical eyes before:

Mine [hair] is back in ponytail but tangledy because there’s no Comb, we left him in Room. “You should have brung Comb,” I tell her.

Brought,” she says. “Remember, I was in kind of a hurry to see you.”

Yeah but we need it.”

“That old plastic comb with half its teeth snapped off? We need it like a hole in the head,” she says.

Jack also struggles, inevitably, with ever being apart from Ma, which means their needs are in direct conflict; Ma is desperate to get outside after seven years in confinement, whereas Jack finds the outside world terrifying. It’s a clever exploration of the tensions within the nuclear family, dialled up to eleven.

Having said this, it’s disappointing that the novel ultimately trails off. Donoghue doesn’t seem sure what to do with Ma and Jack after they are discharged from hospital. Jack’s voice, which worked so well in Room and in the immediate aftermath of their rescue, starts to become a little saccharine in the later stages of the novel, as he encounters more social norms: ‘In the world I notice persons are nearly always stressed and have no time… In Room me and Ma had time for everything.’ I started to wonder if it might have worked better if Donoghue had switched from Jack’s voice to Ma’s in this final section, which would  have avoided this ‘innocent child reveals the truth of society’ cliche. Just as Jack was the right narrator in Room, giving us a backwards perspective on the horror of Ma’s imprisonment, Ma might have been the right narrator as they try to adjust to the outside world. For me, most of Donoghue’s other novels are stronger than this one, but it does have more to say about childhood than I originally thought.

My rating in 2010: ***1/2

My rating in 2022: ****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My rating in 2011: ***1/2

My rating in 2022: ***

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

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

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

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

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

My rating in 2004: ****

My rating in 2022: ****1/2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My rating in 2005: ****

My rating in 2022: ****1/2

July Superlatives

Again, the Superlatives format is borrowed from Elle. I only feature books that I read for the first time this month, not rereads (otherwise the worst book would obviously be Skellig)

The Best Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin. This gorgeous story of work, friendship, making art, storytelling and play completely bowled me over. My full review is hereI received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

Honorable mention: Disorientation by Elaine Hsieh Chou. This smart, surreal satire about Asian Americans in academia both delighted and impressed me, even if I thought the tone was a bit uneven. My full review is here. I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

The Worst Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Pulse Points by Jennifer Down. Down is an Australian writer, and I picked up this collection of short stories because I spotted Julia Armfield recommending it. Unfortunately, it did not work for me at all. I actually liked the title story, which appears first in the collection; I thought it was subtle and clever. Then all the rest blurred into one. Although Down flips between different styles and viewpoints, I found her stories very samey, and I couldn’t figure out what she was trying to do.

(Dis)honorable mention: People Like Them by Samira Sedira, trans. Lara Vergnaud. Painfully clunky prose – I assume a combination of bad writing and bad translation – plus painfully obvious social commentary.

The Most Disappointing Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Complicit by Winnie M Li. I admired Li’s debut novel, Dark Chapterwith some reservations; I thought Li wrote bravely and vividly about rape, drawing from her own experience, but was less convinced by the sections written from the point of view of the rapist. Complicit is in a very different category. It’s basically a straightforward #MeToo thriller told from the perspective of a young Chinese-American woman, Sarah, an assistant film producer in Hollywood. It brings nothing new to the table, and also makes some missteps. On reflection, I think Li wanted to make Sarah a flawed and unreliable narrator in the vein of My Dark Vanessastruggling with internalised misogyny and racism as she stereotypes other women as dumb blondes and herself as a victim of her ‘Chinese work ethic’, and dismisses sexual assault as ‘not rape’. However, the writing isn’t strong enough to pull this off, and Sarah’s comments often end up sounding as if we’re meant to read them straight. A disappointing second novel.

The Book I Had The Most Mixed Feelings About This Month Was…

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… Unofficial Britain by Gareth E. Rees. This book has a mission statement, drawn from Rees’s original Unofficial Britain website; Rees wants to ‘walk through everyday places, like car parks, bus stops, amusement arcades, factories, alleyways and promenades, only to find that they become weirder the closer we look’. Probably because of Rees’s single-mindedness, I found Unofficial Britain highly irritating and incredibly insightful by turns. I’m sorry, I just don’t buy the idea that a car park or an underpass is exactly the same as a natural landscape like a forest; apart from anything else, forests are living organisms in their own right, not just dead structures upon which humans bestow meaning. There’s also too much moaning about what Rees sees as stereotypical haunted places, like rural moorland or old Victorian houses. However, when he manages to get off his bandwagon, he has lots of interesting things to say. I especially enjoyed the chapters on motorways, multistorey car parks, and motorways, and I loved his discussion of the liminal nature of chain hotels, which feel like they could be anyplace because they all look the same inside.

The Weirdest Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Life Ceremony by Sayaka Murata, trans. Ginny Tapley Takemori. I struggle with body horror and am a bit tired of the numerous recent short story collections that deal with women and their bodies. Therefore, I should not have been a fan of Life Ceremony, which features cannibalism, jewellery made from bones, and a woman obsessed with other people’s body fluids, among other bizarre themes. But weirdly, a lot of these stories worked for me. I loved how Murata revealed the contingent, mandated nature of what we think of as ‘normal’ in Convenience Store Woman, and that’s a big concern here, as well. As one character puts it: ‘There was a couple engaged in insemination on the beach. What would that have looked like back when it was still called sex?’ My full review is on GoodreadsI received a free proof copy of this collection from the publisher for review.

The Best YA Book I Read This Month Was…

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… A Magic Steeped in Poison by Judy I. Lin. It’s unusual for me to find a YA fantasy that I enjoy, but I liked this immersive debut. It stars teenage Ning, a physician’s apprentice whose mother has recently been killed by drinking poisoned tea distributed by her province’s governor. Now Ning is determined to take up the art of tea magic to cure her sister Shu, who was also poisoned and is now slowly dying. But to achieve her goal, she’ll have to compete to become the palace’s next shennong-shi – a master of tea-making. Lin’s world-building is elegant and convincing. It actually reminded me a bit of Tamora Pierce’s Tortall; there’s an authority in Lin’s writing that allows her to set out the politics of this kingdom simply and effectively without making them feel skimpy. Sadly, I found the characters interchangeable, and so did not invest enough in their story to necessarily want to follow them to the next novel in this duology, but this was escapist and fun. I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

The Book That Swung Off Course The Most For Me This Month Was...

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… Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus. This much-hyped debut follows Elizabeth Zott, an uncompromising research chemist rebelling against American women’s expected roles in the 1950s and 1960s, who uses her TV cookery show to encourage other housewives to break free. I thought the first half of this novel was delightful, if a little self-indulgent. Garmus balanced the jaunty tone well with the hints of a greater darkness in Elizabeth’s past, and I was won over by her relationship with fellow chemist Calvin. Unfortunately, it all went wrong in the second half, after Elizabeth begins her cookery show; I found its audience appeal completely unconvincing and the snippets of ‘chemistry’ irritating (I loved chemistry A Level because of the way it made everything fit together; there’s no sense of that here, with Elizabeth simply namedropping terms like ‘sodium chloride’). We have to deal with both an irritating dog, who understands English, and an irritating child, who is ‘precocious’ in the cute way that children in books often are, which is nothing like the way exceptionally smart children are in real life. The random reappearance of long-lost family members at the end ties it all together into a sugary bow. A pity, because I really liked Elizabeth-the-research-chemist before she (reluctantly) became Elizabeth-the-TV-star.

The Most Illuminating Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Reverse Engineering ed. Tom Conaghan. This first book from new indie short story publishers Scratch Books reprints seven exceptional modern short stories and pairs them with commentary from their authors. The stories are worth reading in their own right – I loved every single one except Irenosen Okojie’s ‘Filamo’, which I’d already encountered in her Nudibranchso I knew what to expect. But it’s so great to have the authors’ reflections as well. My favourite story was Mahreen Sohail’s wonderful ‘Hair’. Sohail’s discussion of how she first extended and then pared back the story’s ending, which shoots forward into the future, was fascinating, as was her reflection on how she signalled a switch of protagonist early in the text, temporarily revealing the story’s workings: ‘Sometimes I think short stories should do this more. We seem to be really into smokes and mirrors and tricks and stuff but there’s something really powerful about stating something as it is.’ Chris Powers’s story ‘The Crossing’, alongside his commentary, made me reflect on what George Saunders says in A Swim In The Pond In The Rain about how short story writers should anticipate the reader’s expectations at each stage of the story, and make the unexpected choice. Other standouts for me were Jessie Greengrass’s clever ‘Theophrastus and the Dancing Plague’, which was based loosely on the life of the early modern physician and philosopher Paracelsus (who was born Theophrastus, though I wish there had been a clue to his more famous identity in the text), and Joseph O’Neill’s bizarre ‘The Flier’.

Did you have any stand-out reads in July?