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: ****

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‘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?

Last save point: Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin

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It’s the late 1980s, and pre-teens Sam and Sadie meet in a Los Angeles hospital. Sam is recovering from a horrific car accident that killed his mother and smashed up his foot, leaving him permanently disabled, while Sadie is visiting her older sister. Sam and Sadie bond over playing computer games, so when they reunite as young adults, it’s not surprising that they end up designing games together. However, their partnership is not always an easy one. Half-Korean, half-Jewish Sam – who’s reminiscent of a softer version of the traumatised Theo in Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch – is secretive, struggling with the chronic pain caused by his injury and the way it’s alienated him from his own body. Sadie is frustrated when Sam is given primary credit for their collaborations; the world assumes that as a female programmer, she must be the sidekick. Gabrielle Zevin handles the duo’s conflicts beautifully, never casting one as the wronged victim and one as the permanent aggressor. They also have recurring, complex disagreements about how far ‘making art’ conflicts with the desire to reach a larger audience, which Zevin explores thoughtfully and intelligently.

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow is a smash hit. I absolutely loved this novel. Zevin somehow manages to port everything that’s great about YA into adult fiction, and it works so well. It focuses on work and friendship rather than romance, which I adored. Sam and Sadie have a complicated history but Zevin ultimately puts their professional and platonic bond front and centre, which is so refreshing. The material on gaming is also handled very cleverly. I rarely play computer games but love reading about them, so I’m somewhere in the middle of the scope of this book’s audience. But this feels like it would be accessible and engaging even to somebody who has no interest in games at all. Zevin focuses on games as a form of storytelling, rather than getting bogged down in the nuts and bolts of programming. She invents wonderful fictional games that demonstrate how the format is used to tell stories that wouldn’t work in more traditional genres, ranging from an Animal Crossing style farming game to a hunt for the murderer of Christopher Marlowe in Elizabethan England. Ultimately, Zevin uses games like so many other authors have used music or visual art – to talk about the challenges and joys of creating.

If this wasn’t enough, Zevin’s writing is so smart and moving. It’s difficult to strike the right balance with recurring motifs in fiction; it’s easy to lay them on too thick or make them too subtle. Zevin handles the themes that echo throughout this novel so well, letting the reader do some work without making them work too hard. One haunting image is the series of gates that Sadie walks through at a Shinto shrine in Japan, helping her understand after a professional failure that there’s always another gate ahead. This returns at an even harder time in Sadie’s life through the German phrase ‘Torschlusspanik’, ‘gate-shut panic… It’s the fear that time is running out and you’re going to miss an opportunity. Literally, the gate is closing, and you’ll never get in.’ However, this also speaks to a wider theme of the novel; the tension between always being able to start again, like having infinite lives in a video game, and running up against true end points. Zevin somehow makes this story both incredibly hopeful and incredibly poignant at the same time, reflecting the title – which references both Macbeth’s nihilistic ‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow’ speech and a sense of infinite possibility. Too much time when you have nothing to live for, not enough when you do.

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow is out in the UK on 14th July. Pre-order it now!

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

June Superlatives

Again, the Superlatives format is borrowed from Elle. A shorter post than usual as I’ve reviewed more of what I’ve read this month via 20 Books of Summer.

The Best Book I Read This Month Was…

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… The Half Life of Valery K by Natasha Pulley. It’s 1963, and Valery has spent six years in the gulag when he is abruptly transferred to a secret facility called Chelyabinsk 40, where his scientific expertise is required to study an irradiated forest and the animal life within. However, Valery soon realises that something is wrong; the levels of radiation in the city are far above what has been officially reported. Valery is a hugely compelling protagonist; I loved him, and I loved this book. My full review is hereI 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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… The Unlikely Thru-Hiker by Derick Lugo. Despite being a self-proclaimed ‘metrosexual’ with no hiking or camping experience, New York comedian Derick Lugo sets out to hike the Appalachian Trail, where he’s given the trail name ‘Mr Fabulous’ because of his attention to personal hygiene and grooming, as well as his ‘peace and love’ attitude. I’m fascinated by the Appalachian Trail, although I’ve never set foot on it, and I’d hoped for a reflection on Lugo’s experiences as a black man hiking this famous route; many of his fellow hikers comment that he’s the only black man they’ve ever seen doing it. This book isn’t about race, which, of course, is fair enough; the trouble is that it isn’t about anything else either. Lugo reels off tons of unconnected anecdotes, most of which have a ‘you had to be there’ feel. He also obsesses about food, toilets and camping facilities. It’s not a long book, but it felt like it was.

The Best Non-Fiction Book I Read This Month Was…

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… Ice Rivers by Jemma Wadham. Wadham is a renewed glaciologist, and this is an accessible and interesting introduction to how glaciers form, move and melt, and how climate change is affecting some of the coldest places on Earth. Following ice around the world, we move from France to Greenland to Antarctica to Peru. As with Suzanne Simard’s Finding the Mother TreeI enjoyed the science in this book (this time, it was A Level Chemistry rather than A Level Biology I was struggling to recall), and I liked how Wadham weaved her personal experiences through the chapters, although it’s a much thinner thread than Simard’s.

The Book With The Best Narrator I Read This Month Was…

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… Vladimir by Julia May Jonas. When you struggle to review a novel because you know its narrator would look scathingly on any of the comments that you make about it, that’s when you know you’ve just read an excellent character study. My full review is on GoodreadsI received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

The Best Thriller I Read This Month Was…

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… Real Easy by Marie Rutkoski. I would likely not have picked this up without Elle’s recommendation, but I’m glad I did. Set in a strip club in the Chicago suburbs in 1999, Real Easy is ostensibly about the disappearance of two of the women who work at the club, with some viewpoint chapters from the detectives assigned to the case. However, its real focus is the lives of the women who do lap dances and strip shows to make money, exposing the banal routines of the club as well as their different home lives, their partners and children and parents. Rutkoski hops from voice to voice, but two women, intersex Samantha and bisexual, mixed-race Georgia, take centre stage. While some of the points about female objectification felt a bit familiar – especially in the chapters narrated by the male characters – Rutkoski’s writing is smart and fresh.

What do we want the future to look like? : The Men by Sandra Newman & The Half Life of Valery K by Natasha Pulley

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The Men, one of my most anticipated books of 2022, has a high-concept premise: everybody with a Y chromosome suddenly disappears from the world, and those left behind have to rebuild it. Despite this, I’m not sure that Sandra Newman actually needed a world without men (and trans women and some intersex and non-binary people) to tell the story she wanted to tell. This novel focuses on two captivatingly flawed women drawn into a close relationship with each other: Jane, a white convicted sex offender who was exploited by an older man when she was a teenager and took the rap for his crimes, and Evangelyne, a black woman who was imprisoned for more than a decade for shooting the cops that killed her family.

The Men spends almost as much time on these women’s backstories prior to the Y-chromosome-only Rapture, than it does on exploring a world without men. When Jane and Evangelyne meet at college, Evangelyne is already famous for the text she wrote in prison on commensalism, arguing that this biological concept can be applied to human society to show that it is ethical to ‘eat the rich’, as wealthy people derive little benefit from being so wealthy. (Newman is good at inventing a radical literary trajectory for Evangelyne; her more personal essay ‘The White Girl’ is her other most famous work, describing the events that led up to her shooting incident). Evangelyne then becomes the leader of a group called ComPA which rises to power as society reorganises in light of the Rapture.

All this reminded me much more of books about all-female groups trying to build utopias, like Sarah Hall’s excellent The Carhullan Army, than books that play with sex and gender, like Nicola Griffith’s Ammonite and Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. Indeed, I got the impression that Newman isn’t that interested in writing about sex/gender constructs, despite a couple of insightful lines (‘the concept of “men” had always been religious. All women were sold the idea of men as superior beings… Trans men could be masculine without making sex into a two-tier system, as cis men always had. We could love one another face-to-face, where before we had loved only through a glass darkly: so the ComPAs said’). This, I think, is why most of the mentions of trans and non-binary people feel so crowbarred in; gender isn’t Newman’s focus. Parts of the novel are also truly beautiful and hypnotic, even as they feel disconnected from the story at hand: ‘We pondered, the cozy, uncomfortable hum of the bus all around and a heavy East Texas rain making lines of wavy light on the windows, lines that trembled and were deformed in wind… We have no real face; they are masks that are borrowed and passed on, that live for millennia and are what a human is.’

However, although The Men is original and insightful, it’s also frankly bizarre. The narrative is weird and disjointed. Much of the novel is narrated by Jane, a straightforward choice that makes sense, but it trails into bits from other narrators who seem to have little to do with the main thrust of the plot. Many women are obsessed with watching a TV show called ‘The Men’ that shows naked men wandering a blasted landscape peopled with strange beasts, but the purpose of these interludes is not clear. Some reviewers have suggested that The Men is gender-essentialist and transphobic; while I largely disagree, it certainly struggles to make sense of all the ideas flung into its melting pot. I think it’s also fair to say that it wasn’t a great plan to tackle such a controversial premise when you don’t have a lot to say about gender. 

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

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The Half Life of Valery K was not on my list of most anticipated books of 2022, but it definitely would have been had I known it was getting published this year, because Natasha Pulley is one of my favourite authors. It’s 1963, and Valery has spent six years in the gulag when he is abruptly transferred to a secret facility called Chelyabinsk 40, where his scientific expertise is required to study an irradiated forest and the animal life within. However, Valery soon realises that something is wrong; the levels of radiation in the city are far above what has been officially reported. Struggling with the effects of his trauma, and having firmly believed that he was going to die in the gulag, Valery is aware that he sees everything off-kilter. He’s almost moved through his own death to a state beyond it where nothing matters to him more than preserving the lives of others. He’s a hugely compelling protagonist, perhaps Pulley’s best creation to date, because of this skewed logic.

In this context, the title of the novel becomes fascinating: on first glance, we might assume that Valery’s ‘half life’ refers to how he has been damaged and reduced by the gulag. But there’s a second meaning here, tied more closely to the subject-matter of the novel: the ‘half life’ of a radioactive substance is how long it takes for half of the unstable nuclei to decay. Substances with a longer half life have a slower but longer reach across time, while substances with a shorter half life show their effects more quickly but don’t last as long. Pulley seems to be asking: what is someone like Valery’s impact on the world, and how long will it linger?

Pulley’s other novels have all been set in versions of the nineteenth century where the real and the speculative intermingle; for fans of her other books, reading The Half Life of Valery K is a rather disconcerting experience, because it’s all based on fact but feels profoundly unreal. If The Men recalled Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, the novel I kept thinking of while reading Valery K was Le Guin’s The DispossessedThere’s something about Valery that reminded me strongly of Shevek, the physicist protagonist of The Dispossessed who comes to a capitalist world from an anarcho-syndicalist society. Pulley doesn’t delve as deeply into alternative value-systems, but Valery’s thought processes are at odds with Soviet Russian norms; she also shows how her characters, raised under communism, are perplexed by the West, especially its treatment of women. Other Pulley tropes are present and correct – Valery is drawn into a close friendship with KGB head of security, Shenkov, despite the fact that he knows Shenkov could execute him at any time – but didn’t seem as central to this novel as they have been to her others. It’s Valery and his pet octopus who take centre stage.

I’ve reviewed these two novels together because I happened to read them both in June, but there are threads that connect them: both The Men and The Half Life of Valery K are interested in imagining different futures, and asking whether we could cope with these new versions of the world. We want things to change – but do we really?

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

Three Things… June 2022

Back to this useful post format, borrowed from Paula at Book Jotter! These three things have a horror theme

Reading

I read the British edition (L) but the cover of the American edition (R) gives a much better idea of the feel of the book.

I’m currently taking part in an online ‘How To Write Horror Fiction’ course, and as part of that course, I was sent a free book bundle from Bloomsbury (or, to be precise, their Raven Books imprint). This included a number of titles I’d never heard of, and I tore through James Han Mattson’s Reprieve, which is ostensibly about a full-contact haunted house challenge but really reflects on how people’s bodies are objectified by society. We know from the start that the book centres on the murder of a black man, Bryan, but this comes more and more into focus as the story develops.

The bits of Reprieve I found most difficult to read didn’t concern haunted house gore but the disgusting ways that people treat each other. Jaidee is a gay international student from Thailand who is shunned by the white gay men he meets at college, who assume he’s coming onto them and think it’s laughable that they could ever be attracted to him. Inversely, the middle-aged Leonard leaves a happy marriage and starts an obsession with a Thai sex worker, Boonsri, projecting all his desires and dreams onto her despite her obvious discomfort. Mattson doesn’t map simple trajectories of racial oppression, however. Jaidee and Bryan are college roommates, but when Jaidee expresses unease with how Bryan treats him, he’s told by a white friend that he’s being racist, because he’s assuming black men are homophobic. However, Jaidee then embarks on a campaign of deliberate racism against black students to express his resentment, plus denigrating other international students for their ‘ethnic’ ways, even as he is mocked for trying to fit in by wearing American brands.

Don’t go into Reprieve expecting a straightforward horror novel, despite the very misleading British cover: instead, read it for Mattson’s deconstruction of the genre.

Watching

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I was a huge fan of Stranger Things 1 and 2 but found Stranger Things 3more schlocky, less scary, and less haunting’Luckily, Stranger Things 4 is back on track, and steaming ahead into 1986, the year I was born (which means more of the nostalgic references were familiar to me!). I’ve been having a great conversation with one of my writing groups about why this season hit so hard when Season 3 was so forgettable. We all think it’s because of the characters. First, the writers are reaping dividends from earlier seasons in having such a diverse and well-developed cast who continually bounce off each other in interesting ways. My favourite characters are currently Dustin, Will, Steve and Robin, which definitely wouldn’t have been the case in Season 1! However, the writers are also smart enough to bring characters with interesting internal conflicts to the foreground (Max) while sidelining previously prominent characters who don’t have much going on (Mike, Jonathan).

Second, some characters who have always experienced conflict got more interesting for me this season. Controversially, I’ve never been quite won over by the traumatised, psychokinetic Eleven. While I don’t dislike her character, she remained a little flat for me throughout the first three seasons, always morally in the right and saving the day with her powers. Stripped of her supernatural abilities and struggling with the loss of father-figure Hopper, she’s in a very different place at the start of this season. A violent scene at a roller-skating rink was one of my favourite moments of Season 4. Finally, Eleven felt like a real, rageful girl who scares herself as much as she scares others. For this reason, I found the season finale disappointing, as it seemed to reset the status quo. I hope the final two episodes in July allow Eleven to be a person as well as just the hero.

Thinking

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Sky have just aired a new remake of John Wyndham’s novel The Midwich Cuckoos (1957), following earlier film versions from 1960/1963 and 1995. I’m fascinated by how this story of a group of creepy alien children who dominate adults through psychokinetic powers seems to pop up again every thirty years. I’m writing a piece for The Conversation on what this tells us about our attitudes towards the rising generation, so I won’t say much more about that now (though you can get a preview by checking out either of my academic articles on the subject here or here).

Does this remake stand up in its own right? I actually enjoyed watching it, but I’d have to say no. There’s so much potential here that is not well-served by a pretty straight remake of the original source material. The biggest difference from earlier adaptations is the close focus on the relationship between the mothers and their hostile children, which rehearses familiar stereotypes about the burden of parental love and the ingratitude that children display in the face of their parents’ sacrifices. This set of Midwich Cuckoos are portrayed as especially unnatural because they are unable to love their parents, which raises interesting questions about the emotional tasks of children within the family that this remake is not equipped to answer.

This version of The Midwich Cuckoos also felt less resonant to me because it lacks the interesting tensions that haunted the sixties adaptations, Village of the Damned (1960) and its loosely linked sequel, Children of the Damned (1963). The latter, in particular, treads an uneasy line between showing us the amorality of the alien children but also suggesting that the amorality of adults is destroying the future for those who ought to inherit the world. The destruction of the children at the end of Children of the Damned is not a necessary evil but a tragic accident. The film invites us to shiver at the unnatural competence and maturity of the Cuckoos, but also plays with fears of nuclear annihilation and the ways in which adults have abdicated their authority by creating such terrible weapons. In an age of climate change protests, this felt like a big missed opportunity for the remake, which sticks very closely to the Cuckoos-are-evil line. Apparently, there’s already talk of a second series, which might allow Sky to move into Children of the Damned territory – but I’m not holding my breath.

Women’s Prize for Fiction, 2022: The Bread the Devil Knead and Sorrow and Bliss

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The Bread the Devil Knead, Lisa Allen-Agostini’s debut adult novel, is narrated by Alethea, a Trinidadian woman in her late thirties who lives with a violent partner, Leo. She’s repeating patterns she learnt in childhood from a neglectful mother and abusive uncle, and while she dreams of managing her own clothing boutique, this seems unlikely to ever happen while she’s under Leo’s control. The Trinidadian Creole that Alethea narrates in is the best aspect of this novel; while I didn’t understand all the words and phrases used, this wasn’t a problem, and I was introduced to a lot of brilliantly vivid vernacular: ‘dayclean’; ‘when me and Tamika eye make four’; ‘she skin up she face’. Unfortunately, pretty much nothing else about this worked for me. It reads like simplistic women’s fiction. There’s almost no characterisation except for Alethea herself, and even she is thinly drawn; from other reviews, I’d expected her voice to be funnier and more memorable. The Bread The Devil Knead is reminiscent of one of last year’s Women’s Prize shortlistees, Cherie Jones’s How The One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House, but lacks its fluid writing and rich, complex cast. It also reminded me of another 2022 longlistee I did not like, Miranda Cowley Heller’s The Paper Palace: both books deal with familial child abuse and how abusive relationships are transmitted from generation to generation (and, bizarrely, both feature a scene where the protagonist-as-little-girl wets herself because her mother is too keen to impress to take her to the toilet). Like The Paper Palace, The Bread the Devil Knead has very little new to say, which makes its recital of pain feel gratuitous, and it’s even more badly written. My least favourite title on the Women’s Prize longlist so far.

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I’ve been putting off reading Sorrow and Bliss, Meg Mason’s second novel, because it didn’t sound like my thing: I was worried it would be another Disaster Woman novel in the vein of Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Times; plus, much as I think books that focus on personal struggles with mental illness are important and necessary, I rarely enjoy reading them. So this was an unexpected hit, even though I still don’t think I loved it quite as much as other readers did. I enjoyed the first two-thirds of Sorrow and Bliss, but I was expecting the protagonist Martha’s voice to get wearing, as funny, ironic narrative voices often do. I adored Martha’s relationship with sister Ingrid but the other characters felt sketchier; Martha’s relationship with her mother, in particular, felt like it came from a less acerbic Gwendoline Riley novella. In the final third, however, Mason pulls off something quite special as Martha confronts her true diagnosis and with it a reckoning of how she has both wronged others and been wronged. We see that if we felt like we didn’t quite get the rest of the cast before, that’s because Martha has been holding them at arms-length. While Mason heartbreakingly conveys the moment when Martha realises she’s been denying herself what she really wants, I was also disappointed that this revelation turned her character back towards convention. However, this undoubtedly works well for this particular novel, as we share in Martha’s devastation and self-deception. As Martha grows in self-knowledge, so does this book; Mason’s writing starts off clever but a little glib, and becomes much more brilliant as it goes on. I particularly loved this exchange between Ingrid and Martha near the end of the novel:

“I can’t just think of something else and decide to want that instead.”

Ingrid said yes you can. “Even the women who get those things lose them again. Husbands die and children grow up and marry someone you hate… Everything goes away eventually, and women are always the last ones standing so we just make up something else to want.”

I hope and expect to see this novel on the Women’s Prize shortlist.

I’m not aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize longlist this year, but I’ve selected eleven titles that I do want to read. These are numbers nine and ten. I’ve already read Great CircleThe Book of Form and Emptiness, Careless, The Sentence, The Paper Palace, Remote SympathyThe Final Revival of Opal & Nev and Build Your House Around My Body.