Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021: Small Pleasures

There’s a lot to love in Clare Chambers’ absorbing Small Pleasures, set in late 1950s London – and a little that made me uncomfortable. Jean, the central character, is a journalist for the local paper and sole carer for her elderly mother. She apparently slots into a kind of literary type, but as I’ve never read any of the writers that Chambers has been compared to, like Barbara Pym and Anita Brookner, I found this to be quite a refreshing look at the unpaid and unappreciated care work done by ‘spinster’ women. Jean’s steady job is to write the ‘women’s sections’ of the paper, like ‘Pam’s Piece’ and domestic tips, but when she reads a letter from a woman who claims to have given birth ‘without the involvement of any man’, she is keen to pursue the story. This brings her into contact with Gretchen, now married to Howard, whose ‘miraculous’ daughter Margaret is now ten. Jean becomes increasingly drawn into this family, who offer her respite from her loneliness, but becoming too closely involved with their lives may turn out to have been a mistake.

As Small Pleasures unfolds, it becomes increasingly drawn away from the ‘virgin birth’ hook and more focused on the individual subjectivities of Jean, Howard and Gretchen. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, although I felt that the conclusion to the virgin birth thread was a bit deus ex machina, as if Chambers wanted to wrap it up quickly before getting onto the actual ending of the novel. The joy of this book lies partly in its quietness, its willingness to give time to characters that are often overlooked in fiction, with Jean musing extensively on her middle-aged dowdiness and how people assume that she no longer feels anything much. There’s a sensible kindness about interpersonal relationships throughout much of this novel, with neighbours offering help as well as judgment, and colleagues sympathy as well as pity. Even Jean’s querulous mother is allowed to have some redeeming qualities. However, this makes the moments when Chambers seems to run short on empathy even more telling. [Spoilers from now on, scroll to the bottom of the post to skip]

About halfway through Small Pleasures, we find out that Gretchen was in love with another woman, Martha, during the period she spent at a sanatorium as a teenager, when she also conceived Margaret. Martha was devastated because she believed Gretchen willingly slept with a man, and cut off contact with her. Gretchen explains that she was motivated to prove that Margaret was an immaculate conception so that Martha would trust her again. Having re-established contact with Martha via Jean, Gretchen leaves Howard. Howard tells Jean that he and Gretchen stopped having sex long ago, and he and Jean embark upon an affair. This, for me, was where Small Pleasures began to feel a little uncomfortable. The text focuses on Howard’s pain, emphasising that he wasn’t able to have ‘a full marriage’ with Gretchen and how important it is for him to have found true sexual love with Jean. We’re also invited to reflect on how important this is for Jean after years of self-denial. However, perhaps inadvertently, this minimises Gretchen’s (and Martha’s) suffering; it may be unpleasant to have to live a life of involuntary celibacy, but it’s another thing altogether to have the very fact that you experience desire demonised and suppressed.

I’ve noticed that when somebody writes in to a forum or problem page to say that their spouse has come out as gay or lesbian and has left them, this is often framed as deliberate deceit. While there may be some sympathy for the spouse, it’s always assumed that they ‘always knew’ they were homosexual and so always knew that they could never be a ‘proper’ husband or wife. Chambers very much plays into this kind of narrative, suggesting that Gretchen should have been ‘honest’ with Howard. However, being a lesbian in 1950s Britain was not just an identity that couldn’t be publicly claimed; it was an identity that barely existed. As Diana Chapman said, remembering her adolescence in the early 1950s, ‘Yes, I thought I was a lesbian. But… every book on psychology I ever read… told me that it was immature and I should… reconcile myself to my femininity and find myself a good man and have children.’ If your sexual desires have been validated all of your life, it might be hard to understand how queer people can both ‘know and not know’ what they really want, but this is still real for queer people – and perhaps especially queer women – today, let alone almost seventy years ago. The very fact that Gretchen waited so long to prove her story and seek out Martha suggested to me that, even if she’d once admitted her feelings for Martha to herself, she’d tried to bury them again after marrying Howard. I understand that we get all of this through Jean, who is not primed to be sympathetic to Gretchen; but I felt that Chambers could have done a lot more work, if she had been so inclined, to indicate that our sympathies should be more complicated.

I’m not aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize longlist this year, but I’ve selected seven titles that I do want to read. This is number six. I’ve already read The Vanishing Half, Transcendent KingdomPiranesi, Consent and Exciting Times.

Interview With Natasha Pulley

A couple of weeks ago, I interviewed the speculative historical fiction writer Natasha Pulley for Newcastle’s Centre for the Literary Arts (NCLA). The video of this interview is now up on YouTube:

Natasha has written four novels to date – The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, The Bedlam Stacks, The Lost Future of Pepperharrow, and The Kingdoms – all of which I have read and loved. (Watch out for my review of The Kingdoms coming soon – it’s out in May!)

Feminisms: A Global History by Lucy Delap

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Lucy Delap’s accessible and compelling Feminisms: A Global History does not attempt the impossible task of writing a complete global history of feminism, but instead, picks up on a series of themes in feminist history, ranging from ‘dreams’ to ‘dress’ to ‘actions’, and draws from modern feminist activists and movements to explore how feminist thought and action was shaped internationally. Delap deliberately uses the term ‘feminisms’ rather than feminism to emphasise the multiplicity of women’s movements across the globe, and also frames this as ‘mosaic feminism’ – women may have been using some of the same inherited pieces, but they formed different patterns. And indeed, the very first chapter emphasises that one big problem for contemporary feminism might be the inability to accommodate disagreement, citing feminist philosopher Iris Marion Young: ‘we need to wake up to the challenge of understanding across difference rather than keep on dreaming about common dreams’. Not all the activists Delap writes about would even have called themselves feminists, but they still contributed to a wider history of political action that centred women’s needs.

What I found so valuable about Delap’s approach to writing about global feminisms was that non-Western feminisms are not treated simply as an ‘add-on’ to more familiar Western histories – we aren’t simply told that there were also feminist activists and organisations elsewhere. Instead, Delap illuminates how African, Latin American and Asian feminists transformed feminist thought and challenged Western priorities. The Bengali writer Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain published her utopian text Sultana’s Dream in 1905, which depicted ‘Ladyland’, a world where women and men could interact as equals through ‘sacred’ relations that had no sexual connotations; this envisaged women’s liberation through ‘the abandonment of sexual links to men’, a vision that we might more commonly associate with ‘political lesbianism’ in Britain and the USA in the 1970s. In the early twentieth century, there was also an active Chinese feminist movement, with women in some Chinese provinces gaining the vote by 1912, well ahead of many Western counterparts, and the word nannü starting to be used to indicate a ‘sexed system of social organisation’, or something like what we might call patriarchy. Meanwhile, the Egyptian activist Huda Sha’arawi organised women in the 1919 protests against British rule; her decision to unveil in public in 1923 was celebrated by Europeans, but Sha’arawi herself did not see this as particularly important, and, in fact, mocked ‘the veil of ignorance’ that Western women wore, unable to see Egyptian women clearly because of orientalist stereotypes.

Delap also shows how ideas were exchanged, translated and repurposed in global contexts. The famous US second-wave feminist text Our Bodies, Ourselves (1970), which encouraged women to look after their health and celebrate their sexuality, was reproduced and reworked in different settings. In Bulgaria, it was retitled Our Body, Ourselves, to emphasise individualism after the fall of the communist state, whereas in Latin America the text was framed with more of a focus on traditional community settings. The phrase ‘the personal is political’, coined by US feminist Carol Hanisch, was influenced both by the Black Power practice of ‘telling it like it is’ and Hanisch’s reading of French feminist Claudie Broyelle’s Half the Sky (1973), which stressed the autonomy of women in Communist China to voice and act on their emotions through the Maoist idea of ‘speaking bitterness’. (Broyelle wrote a follow-up to this work in 1980, admitting it had been a ‘day-dream’ as reports of the violent oppression of women in China continued to emerge.) However, Feminisms does not just trace the histories of familiar Western touchstones but introduces new ones, such as the memorable phrase used by Japanese activist Kishida Toshiko in 1883, who publicly spoke of her anger at how women had to live their lives in close confinement, saying that raising daughters in such an environment was like ‘trying to grow flowers in salt’.

Feminisms is primarily concerned with the intersections of gender, race and class rather than sexuality or gender identity, although it does touch on the issues faced by lesbians and trans women who tried to engage with second-wave feminism in the 1970s and 1980s. Delap writes briefly about how sex and gender might have been understood more fluidly in certain African countries before colonialist binaries were imposed, citing the work of Ifi Amadiume and Oyèrónké Oyěwùmí. Amadiume has argued that age hierarchies were more important than gender hierarchies in the organisation of some African societies, allowing women to adopt more powerful roles such as ‘female husband’. However, it is obviously impossible to cover everything in a single book, and I had the sense that Delap had been led by the priorities of many of the activists she considers, who, especially in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, were often focused on colonial or class oppression. In 1975, Bolivian tin miner’s wife Domitila Barrios de Chúngara confronted the US feminist Betty Friedan at a meeting in Mexico City, which revealed the perceived gulf between their ideas of feminism: Barrios de Chúngara was an experienced union activist who worked alongside men, and thought gringa feminism was ‘a lesbian-dominated war against men’. (Friedan had actually been instrumental in banning lesbians from the US National Organisation for Women’s New York chapter in 1970, so likely shared this hostility).

Obviously, a book like this can never be more than a starting-point for the huge histories it touches upon, but this is an incredibly thought-provoking take on some of the questions we should be asking when we think about global histories of feminism.

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

Finishing Up With February ARCs

These three solid debut novels mark the end of my glut of February ARCs! My first post on February releases can be found here.

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I thoroughly enjoyed Emily Layden’s All Girls, although I recognised that the book has some issues which may be more of a turn-off for other readers. All Girls is set during the academic year 2015-16 at a New England prep school where a former student has recently accused one of the teachers of sexually assaulting her. However, All Girls is not really focused on the details of the accusation, but rather how it impacts the school’s current students, and their developing ideas of how to navigate in the world as young women who are never quite taken seriously. It’s narrated through nine different third-person perspectives (plus a bit of head-hopping in the final section), as we meet a range of girls from different grades, from awkward new freshman Lauren to jaded ex-ballet dancer Sloane to lesbian Emma, a senior whose long-term relationship with her mixed-race girlfriend Olivia has become iconic in the school.

While the characters sometimes become hard to keep track of, I really felt that Layden had thought this all through; there’s something solid about the connections between her cast that makes me believe that if I re-read this novel, all sorts of things would start coming to light that I hadn’t noticed first time round. In this way, I thought her decision to use multiple narrators was much more illuminating than if we’d had to keep to a single person’s perspective (both the strength and weakness of Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prepwhich this novel obviously has a lot in common with, is that we’re totally trapped in Lee’s head, and Lee’s head is a very unreliable place to be trapped). And while there are so many novels about the inner worlds of teenage girls, there are very few that are so serious and insightful; like Sittenfeld, Layden really gets how some teenage girls approach the world, and how small but yet significant interactions can crush or uplift their sense of who they are. If there was one thing I found less convincing about All Girls, it was that all her narrators seem to share this sense of watchfulness; it would have been nice, and more realistic, to get inside the head of at least one student who was less compulsively analytic. It’s also, frankly, too long. Nevertheless, it’s definitely well ahead of most books of this kind, and if you like campus novels, you’ll probably like this.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 18th February.

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Neema Shah’s Kololo Hill focuses on an episode in British colonial history that may not be familiar to many readers; the expulsion of Asians from Uganda in 1972 by Idi Amin. Most Asians had to leave the country within ninety days, fleeing to the range of countries in which they had citizenship – with a majority ending up in Britain – although some were left stateless. As the novel makes clear, although Uganda had gained independence from Britain in 1962, this event was a direct result of its long history of colonisation. South Asians, mostly Gujaratis, had been originally brought to Uganda by the British, first to work on the construction of the Uganda Railway in the late nineteenth century (nearly a third of these Indian workers were killed or maimed during the project), and later to participate in commerce and administration under the Uganda Protectorate. However, the expulsion of Ugandan Asians was also intertwined with Britain’s future stance towards its former colonial subjects; the 1971 Immigration Act increased immigration controls and was primarily motivated by the influx of refugees from Uganda and from Kenya, which also expelled Asians in the late 1960s.

Kololo Hill tells this story through a single family. Asha has recently married Pran, who runs a general store, or dukan, with his brother Vijay, and also lives with mother Jaya and father Motichand. While the family are not wealthy, they become increasingly aware of how they are perceived as privileged ‘dukawallahs’ by African Ugandans, and try to protect their ‘house-boy’ December, who is one of the persecuted Acholi people. Each step of the plot is pretty predictable, but Kololo Hill still flows easily and engagingly as we see how this family deal with their world suddenly being turned upside down. I wanted our three narrators – Asha, Vijay and Jaya – to stray a little further from archetype, but I appreciated the inter-generational perspective, and the consideration of how Vijay manages with a physical disability (he was born missing most of his left arm), especially when he comes into contact with the British welfare state. Shah depicts the ways in which her protagonists are both oppressed and fortunate skilfully, as they recognise the advantages they’ve had over African Ugandans due to British patronage and their relatively kinder welcome into Britain itself, and yet are obviously uprooted, robbed, and attacked in Uganda, and continue to face racism every day in Britain. While Kololo Hill might be competent rather than brilliant, it vividly conveys this significant moment in history.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 18th February.

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Way back in January 2020, before the UK publication date of Meng Jin’s Little Gods got pushed back, it was one of my most-anticipated books for that year. And, it turns out, it does use a narrative device that’s one of my favourites: telling the story of a single character solely through the perspectives of multiple other people, like Anna North does in The Life and Death of Sophie Stark or Kevin Nguyen does in New WavesAs a young woman, Su Lan is a brilliantly talented theoretical physicist. We meet her having just given birth to her daughter Liya in Beijing in the midst of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, where an exhausted nurse is struck by her unusual demeanour. The novel then moves between the perspectives of Su Lan’s former neighbour Zu Wen, her former classmate Li Yongzong, and Liya herself to put together the fractured pieces of Su Lan’s history. What emerges is that Su Lan was a master of self-fashioning, but this was driven by a desperate need to hide what she saw as her true self. Arguing with her, Yongzong reflects: ‘through the cracks I saw something terrible, it was dark and powerful and churning, and I recognised with frightening clarity that everything I knew about Su Lan – her excellence, her beauty, her composure – was actually an attempt to control this thing.’ We hear about the poverty of Su Lan’s childhood in rural China, but we never get to the bottom of what she thinks is so wrong with her, and this novel is the stronger for it. Instead, we see how she uses theoretical physics and thermodynamics (in the form of Maxwell’s demon) to chase an impossible dream: can we forget the past and remember the future? There’s something here of Nell Freudenberger’s excellent Lost and Wantedwhich also picks up on quantum mechanics to deal with grief and ghosts. For me, Little Gods was stronger in its first half than in its second, when the pieces of the puzzle come together a bit too neatly, but it’s still an impressive debut.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 25th February.

‘Let light perpetual shine upon them’

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In the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, British researchers started undertaking series after series of cohort studies, following children born around the same time as they grew up and checking back in with them at different ages. Some of these studies were big and largely quantitative, like the MRC National Survey of Health and Development, which started in 1946 and initially included more than 5000 participants, and some were smaller and largely qualitative, like John and Elizabeth Newson’s study of around 700 children born around 1958 in Nottingham. However, the most fascinating, from my point of view as a researcher, were the studies that asked children and adolescents to imagine their future adult lives, like the sociological researcher Thelma Veness did in 1956, working with fourteen-year-olds. Most of these narratives mapped out the milestones you might expect – marriage, children, work – although there were a few unexpected findings. Veness was puzzled by the fact that almost a quarter of the girls in her sample ‘killed off’ their imaginary husbands before they reached their late thirties, with more than half of the husbands dying by middle age. She postulated that once men had fulfilled their role as father, these girls did not imagine themselves wanting or needing a partner in later life. [1]

The five protagonists of Francis Spufford’s latest novel, Light Perpetual Jo, Val, Vern, Alec and Ben – are all born in London around 1940, making them only slightly older than some of the members of these post-war cohort studies. However, in 1944, these four-year-olds are looking at a new delivery of saucepans in Woolworths with their mothers when a German V2 bomb hits the store, incinerating them all immediately. Jo, Val, Vern, Alec and Ben are never going to hit or miss life ‘milestones’, or ‘transition’ into adolescence, adulthood or old age, because they are all dead. Here, Spufford steps in. He tells us what would have happened to these five people if they hadn’t been killed during the Second World War, jumping forwards in satisfyingly untidy intervals of time all the way up to 2009. For a while, I kept asking – and I think it’s a reasonable question – why did these people have to die in the first place? Spufford isn’t interested in playing with alternative timelines, at least not explicitly, so why not just trace their lives normally, without the interruption of a German bomb? However, by the end of the novel, I came to realise that its opening pages (slightly pretentious as their prose might be) are essential to Spufford’s project. None of the five protagonists change the course of history; the loss of these lives meant both nothing, and everything.

As with Golden HillSpufford’s research is impeccable (and here I’m in a much better position to judge than I was with Golden Hill, because I’m a historian of post-war Britain). He shows how all five protagonists are restrained by class and gender and yet how their lives take them to places we might not have expected when we first properly meet them in a run-down primary school in Halstead Road. Musical, synaesthetic Jo becomes the temporary girlfriend of a rock star in America. Vern builds and loses several business empires. Val becomes mixed up with the fascist racism of the British Movement in the late 1970s. Ben and Alec’s lives seem most tied to their class destinies, in Alec’s case perhaps partly because of the way he sees class struggle; going into a ‘trade for life’ at the printworks, he faces his skills being made obsolete by digitisation. Meanwhile, Ben is also eventually phased out as a bus conductor but struggles terrifyingly in the meantime with schizophrenia, in a fragment that is one of the most immersive and horrific things I’ve ever read about mental illness.

Light Perpetual is, notably, not that concerned with the dreams and promise of youth. More than three-quarters of the novel takes place after the protagonists are thirty-nine. This hugely refreshing choice pulls Spufford away both from the obsessions of the original cohort studies – what percentage get married? who is socially mobile? – and the concerns of most fiction of this kind, which, even if it follows the protagonists through their lives, tends to linger on the twenties and thirties and then race towards old age. It gives him space to explore how our lives still change, transform, explode or implode, even once we are seen as ‘middle-aged’. It feels like he’s telling us that we’re not always going to be defined by choices that felt so important when we were young. And as the characters get older, the book gets ever more beautiful and moving (yes, I cried a couple of times). I noted in my review of Golden Hill that Spufford seemed to have been influenced by George Eliot; here, it’s blatant. Eliot famously wrote in Middlemarch that ‘If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence’. Here’s Spufford’s reinvention, through the eyes of Alec, who was possibly my favourite character:

You couldn’t walk up a rush hour street, negotiate a bus queue, sit in a theatre, if you were constantly aware of the millionfold press of beings as entire and complicated as yourself… He’s still blundering among over-noticed faces when he boards his eastbound train, still ringed around as he sits down with his briefcase on his knee by eyes universally bright and significant because they are all of them the windows through which single souls are looking out.

Riffing off such a famous passage is a pretty hard thing to get away with, but Spufford pulls it off here because he earns it. Golden Hill was brilliantly clever and thoughtful, but Light Perpetual is even better. It tells us that we are all important – even when we’re actually horrible, like Vern, or believe we’re horrible, like Ben – and that we’re all worth something. And somehow it does this, unlike most novels which try it, without ever being sentimental or obvious. What a book.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on the 4th of February. So you know what to do.

[1] Thelma Veness, School Leavers: Their Aspirations and Expectations (London: Methuen and Co, 1962), 33.

Guest Blog Post on Teenage Girls and British Second-Wave Feminism

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This blog has been quiet so far this year! I have been reading, but I don’t seem to have that much headspace for writing reviews, perhaps because I’m trying to knock out a thousand words a day on my Antarctic novel. I will be back soon, probably rounding up my thoughts on recent ARCs I’ve read.

In the meantime, I wrote this blog post on my historical research over at the Changing Childhoods blog: Spare Rib, Shocking Pink and the Politics of Age in 1980s Feminism.

It’s about how teenage girls were ignored and belittled in the pages of adult-led second-wave British feminist magazine Spare Rib, and so went off and started their own collective. Enjoy!

My Top Ten Books of 2020

It’s time for another top ten books of the year list! (You can find my 2019 post here, my 2018 post here, my 2017 post here, my 2016 post here, my 2015 post here, and my 2014, 2013, 2012 and 2011 posts on my old blog.) For clarity, these are my ten favourite books I have read this year, regardless of when they were published.

In the order I read them…

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  1. Spinning Silver: Naomi Novik. Novik hits it out of the park with her second folktale retelling, telling three equally compelling stories about three very different women in the fictional kingdom of Lithvas, loosely inspired, according to Novik, by Lithuania, Poland and Russia. I’ve always believed folk/fairytales are fiendishly and perhaps deceptively difficult to turn into full-length novels, because they operate with a logic and a pace that breaks a lot of our conventional ‘rules’ of storytelling (I can’t recommend Kate Bernheimer’s essay ‘Fairy Tale is Form, Form is Fairy Tale’ enough if you’re as interested in this as I am). Novik’s approach is to tell a series of miniature stories that magically combine together. Perfection. I reviewed it here.

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2. Minor Feelings: Cathy Park Hong. This series of essays on making art while considering your own cultural and historical position now feels especially relevant given the issues that were ever more strongly highlighted by black activists during 2020, but is also vital for anyone who’s ever given a thought to how artists should and can use their own experience. I’ve yet to read something better on the idea of writing both within and outside your lane; Hong, who is Korean-American, argues that even when we are apparently writing from our own lived experience, we are always ‘speaking nearby’ ourselves, because no one person can tell everybody else’s story – or even their own. I reviewed it here.

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3. Ice Diaries: Jean McNeil. There’s a whole sub-genre of memoirs written by writers-in-residence in Antarctica, but McNeil’s is in a class of its own. She brilliantly evokes how spending four months on an Antarctic base affected her sense of her own selfhood, while also interrogating the human fascination with empty spaces on the map. If you liked Nancy Campbell’s The Library of Iceyou should read this next – however, I think this is also one of those rare Antarctic books that would appeal to readers who otherwise have no interest in the farthest south. I reviewed it briefly here.

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4. The Butchers: Ruth Gilligan. I recently named this as one of the novels I thought had been most unfairly overlooked this year, and I still don’t understand why it hasn’t received more critical attention. Set during the BSE crisis in Ireland in 1996, it moves between four narrators to tell a story of cow-smuggling and cattle-slaughtering that feels infused with folktale. Read it if you’re a fan of Fiona Mozley or Cynan Jones. I reviewed it here. (Published as The Butchers’ Blessing in the US).

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5. Broken Stars: ed. and trans. Ken Liu. This collection of short Chinese science fiction in translation, the second such collection edited by Liu, gives the Western reader an insight into a literary world that is otherwise not accessible to them. The inclusion of three essays on Chinese SF and its fandom is particularly inspired, giving ignorant readers like me some context for the development of the genre in China. And the book is stuffed full of original and exciting stories, with my favourites including Han Song’s ‘Submarines’, Baoshu’s ‘What Has Passed Shall In Kinder Light Appear’, Hao Jingfang’s ‘The New Year Train’, Ma Boyong’s ‘The First Emperor’s Games’ and Chen Qiufan’s ‘A History of Future Illnesses’. To top it all off, the UK edition has one of the most beautiful covers I’ve ever seen, though you have to see it in its real-life gold-foiled glory to fully appreciate it.

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6. The Lost Future of Pepperharrow: Natasha Pulley. I’m a massive Pulley fan, and this sequel to The Watchmaker of Filigree Street didn’t disappoint (indeed, I thought it was better than the first, though not quite as good as The Bedlam Stacks). We now follow the clairvoyant watchmaker Keita Mori and his friend and lover, Thaniel Steepleton, to late nineteenth-century Japan, where Mori disappears on a mission of his own as electrical storms brew across the country. Before I read Pulley’s fiction, I worried her books would be a little twee, but I was totally wrong; they’re eerie and intelligent and funny, all at the same time. And having wrestled with a time travel novel for several years, I can only admire her ability to centre her plot around a character who has the gift of precognition, which makes figuring out cause and effect EVEN MORE CONFUSING. I reviewed it here.

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7. The Mirror and the Light: Hilary Mantel. I’m not sure what else I can say about this magnificent conclusion to the Cromwell trilogy, other than that it was delightful to find myself finally falling in love with a much-praised sequence of books that I’d always had ambivalent feelings about before (though, typically for me, this happened just when everybody else seemed to decide this one wasn’t as good as the others). For me, this was the best in the trilogy, and should have won everything going. I reviewed it here.

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8. My Year of Meats: Ruth Ozeki. I would never have picked this book up if I hadn’t loved A Tale For The Time Being so much; the story of a Japanese-American documentarian, Jane Takagi-Little, who exposes the illegal use of hormones in the American meat industry back in 1991 didn’t immediately appeal to me. However, although this novel goes to some bizarre places, it really works; it’s held together by Jane, who feels real in a way that few characters ever do. I reviewed it here.

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9. New Suns: ed. Nisi Shawl. It’s very unusual for me to like one multi-author SF anthology enough to put it in my top ten books of the year, let alone two! But Shawl’s edited collection of short speculative fiction by writers of colour delivered hit after hit, and gave me lots of new names to look out for. I especially loved some creepy contributions: Alex Jennings’s ‘unkind of mercy’, Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s ‘Give Me Your Black Wings Oh Sister’ and Indrapramit Das’s ‘The Shadow We Cast Through Time’. I reviewed it here.

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10. Hild: Nicola Griffith. Having abandoned this book twice before finishing it, once in 2017 and again in 2018, it’s safe to say I never thought it would make a top ten books of the year list. However, when I finally committed to Hild, I found myself completely inhabiting her sixth-century world. It’s a book that demands a lot of time and attention, more so, I’d say, even than The Mirror and The Light; but I thought about it for such a long time after finishing it, and wished I could walk back in. (Interestingly, Griffith is now two for two in my books of the year; her SF debut Ammonite was in my top ten in 2019. I’m about to read So Lucky, so we’ll see if she can keep this up!). I wrote a little more about Hild here.

Reading Stats

I read 150 books in 2020. I’m a little surprised by this – it’s less than I read in 2018 and 2019 – as I felt I was reading much more during the pandemic. However, I have to remember that as recently as 2017, 127 books still felt like a massive number. I suspect what has happened is that I’ve read a lot of very long books because I had more time to concentrate, which have dragged down my stats (The Terror, The Mirror and The Light, Hild and The Wise Man’s Fear, I’m looking at you). In 2021, I’ll again set a target of 150.

I read 120 books by women, 28 books by men, and 2 books by an author who identifies as non-binary. This was, again, the worst year ever for men, dwindling to 18% of the books I read – and, interestingly, a few male authors appear several times (I read three books apiece by both James Smythe and James S.A. Corey) – meaning that the number of individual male authors I read was even lower.

I read 46 books by writers of colour and 104 books by white writers. To my huge surprise, the percentage of writers of colour (31%) is the best I’ve ever managed, and actually quite close to my target of 33%! I’m surprised because I felt I was really failing on this target this year, so something must have gone right. Once again, I will aim to achieve 33% books by writers of colour in 2021.

Finally, here’s what Goodreads thinks was My Year In Books: 

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2020 In Books: Commendations and Disappointments

As always, I won’t be posting my Top Ten Books of 2020 until the 31st December, but here are some books that almost made my top ten – and also my biggest disappointments of the year. Links are to my reviews. All books are first read by me in 2020, not necessarily first published in 2020.

Highly Commended

I was hugely impressed by Akala’s Natives, which interweaves his personal experience of growing up as a working-class black boy in Britain with the country’s history of racism and colonialism, and is particularly good on the way that schools oppress black children. The only thing it falls a bit short on is gender, but for that reason, it’s the perfect companion read to Afua Hirsch’s Brit(ish), which was one of my top ten books of 2019.

Emily St John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel gradually crept up on me as I read it; it’s almost impossible to summarise, but essentially focuses on the fallout from a Ponzi scheme alongside the relationship between two estranged siblings. It’s very different from her hit pandemic novel Station Eleven, but is haunting in similar ways.

Souvankham Thammavongsa’s debut short story collection How To Pronounce Knife, which focuses on the lives of Lao immigrants and their children in Canada, was so clever and insightful. Unlike most short story collections, it explores a range of disparate themes, showcasing Thammavongsa’s range. I was thrilled when it won Canada’s Scotiabank Giller Prize. I reviewed it here.

I usually struggle with historical fiction, but this year was an exception. Three standouts were, firstly, Emma Donoghue’s The Pull of the Stars, which immersed me so fully in the 1918 flu pandemic that I forgot to draw comparisons to Covid-19; I reviewed it here. Secondly, Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Mercies, set in the early seventeenth century on an isolated island off the Norwegian coast, managed to completely reinvent the rather familiar plot of false witchcraft accusations; I reviewed it here. Finally, Sally Magnusson’s The Ninth Child really cleverly pulled together a number of different, disparate stories, centring on an ambitious engineering project at a Scottish loch in the 1850s; I reviewed it here.

Science fiction and speculative fiction is probably the genre I’m loving the most at the moment, so there’s lots to choose from, but I wanted to highlight three very different books. Octavia E. Butler’s time-slip story Kindred doesn’t need any further introduction from me, but I admired how she made her protagonist’s journeys feel both so real and emotionally grounded, and how she used this conceit to ask questions about inheritance and culpability. I reviewed it here. Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! was a structural mess, but so utterly different and memorable; I don’t think I’ll ever forget the Bigtrees’s Floridian alligator-wrestling theme park. I reviewed it here. Finally, Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Calculating Stars, the first in an alternate-history trilogy about female astronauts in 1950s America, is still the novel I think everyone needs to survive the Covid-19 pandemic; I stand by my statement in my review that I’ve ‘never read a post-apocalyptic novel that is so comforting‘.

 

In crime and thriller, I was very taken with Hazel Barkworth’s Heatstroke, a novel that turns a good number of cliches about adolescence on their head while still being completely compelling; I reviewed it here. I’ve been disappointed by a string of Attica Locke’s novels, which for me haven’t lived up to their fantastic premises, but Bluebird, Bluebird, which follows a black Texas Ranger torn between duty to his community and his responsibility to his job, finally hit the sweet spot; I briefly reviewed it on Goodreads. Finally, Lottie Moggach’s Brixton Hill is a grim but gripping thriller that is centrally concerned with the way that prison wears inmates’ lives away; I reviewed it here.

Biggest Disappointments

By ‘biggest disappointments’ I don’t necessarily mean that these were my worst books of the year, but that they were books I’d been looking forward to, that had been hyped by publishers/reviewers/friends/all of the above, and which fell well short of my expectations.

I was disappointed by two boarding-school novels, a sub-genre that I’m obsessed with, that didn’t work for me for very different reasons. Clare Beams’ The Illness Lesson was beautifully written, but told an overly familiar story about female hysteria in the late nineteenth century. Meanwhile, Rachel Donohue’s The Temple House Vanishing was just not very good at all, totally failing to conjure atmosphere, and hampered by awkward dialogue. I reviewed both books here. (Fortunately, 2020 wasn’t a total write-off for campus novels: I loved Elisabeth Thomas’s Catherine House!)

I found Mary North’s debut collection of short stories, You Will Never Be Forgottenhugely frustrating, because it was full of original ideas but frequently undercut itself by spelling out the message of a story too clearly. I reviewed it here. Ivy Pochoda’s LA-set and cliched These Women was primarily disappointing because I thought her Visitation Street was so subtle and so good, but also didn’t really deliver on its promise to tell a story about a serial killer from the point of view of his victims. I reviewed it briefly on Goodreads. Finally, I’m a huge Garth Nix fan but his latest, The Left-Handed Booksellers of London, was just too silly for my liking.

I’ll be back tomorrow with my Top Ten Books of 2020!

Two Book Reviews: Adiga & Adiga

Srinath Adiga’s debut novel, Dead Money, kicks off in February 2002 with what amounts to a captivating novella. Raymond Li, a Hong Kong stockbroker, has been making money for gangsters by investing it judiciously. When he loses millions of dollars for his key client, Mr Wu, he knows his life is worth nothing if Wu finds out – but how can he make so much money so quickly with no ready capital? Raymond thinks of a crazy idea: Afterlife Dollars, inspired by the Chinese tradition of burning paper money and objects for use by the dead. If he can persuade people that he can exchange money for Afterlife Dollars with the Afterlife Bank, he can essentially make something for nothing, while selling the idea of an affluent afterlife where you will have everything you want because you had the forethought to prepare in advance. This section of Dead Money reads like a speculative thriller, and is totally gripping as Raymond sets his scam in motion but is always looking over his shoulder to see if either his gangster clients, or the police, will catch up with him. Adiga’s writing is, to be honest, a bit clunky and schlocky, but this doesn’t matter so much at the start because his ideas are so interesting.

Unfortunately, while the rest of the novel isn’t a complete write-off, it certainly steers off the rails with an unnecessarily sensationalist and stereotypical second section about Muslim suicide bombers, before getting back on track for a while in 2011 with its third narrator, Theo, a Dutch investment banker who is being forced to recommend Afterlife Dollars as investment stock to his clients despite the fact that he thinks they’re immoral. Adiga pulls off some clever twists here as he explores the ways that the mythology of Afterlife Dollars has been developed in different cultural contexts, and thinks about how this new currency might impact the global economy. However, the novel slides to an uneven halt as it moves more towards dystopian fiction than satirical thriller, a genre switch that immediately exposes the limitations of Adiga’s writing. I loved the sporadic originality and intelligence of Dead Money, but writing- and character-wise, it’s a bit of a mess.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out on January 26th.

Aravind Adiga’s fourth novel, Amnesty, was one of the books I was most looking forward to in 2020. I’ve had a patchy experience with Adiga in the past; I loved his debut, The White Tiger, but found Last Man In Tower ponderous and schematic. I was drawn to Amnesty by its premise: it focuses on Danny, an undocumented Sri Lankan immigrant to Australia, who has to decide whether to report crucial information about a murdered acquaintance to the police and risk getting deported. The blurb seemed to share some striking similarities with Nikita Lalwani’s thought-provoking You People, which also (partly) focuses on an undocumented Sri Lankan immigrant who has to make a difficult ethical decision, although it’s set in London rather than Sydney. The two novels do, obviously, share concerns about the dehumanising effects of immigrant policy, but after that they part ways. While Lalwani is interested in the solidarity that grows between a disparate group of undocumented immigrants in a London cafe, Adiga’s protagonist perceives greater hostility from ‘brown’ than white Australians: ‘The brown man in a white man’s city who is watching other brown men. Danny had studied all the ways this was done, from the amiable glances of the Western Suburbs Indians, smug in their jobs and Toyota Camrys… [to] the ostentatiously indifferent I’ve got nothing in common with you, mate glances of the Australian-born children of doctors in Mosman or Castle Hill (Icebox Indians, Danny called them, because they… never seemed to sweat, even in summer’).

Overall, I felt that Amnesty was weaker than You People, largely because of Adiga’s prose, which is surprising, given that I’ve always found him to be a very readable writer in the past. For some reason, when writing from Danny’s third-person viewpoint, he consistently trips himself up with clauses and sub-clauses: ‘In the moist mirror… he now saw the city of Sydney, when it appeared most beautiful to him, at dawn on a winter’s morning in the heart of the city, with the road-cleaning machines rumbling about Danny as he looked up at the four-faced sandstone clock tower of Central Station held aloft on shattered and roseate clouds: renewing the promise to the immigrant that something as thrilling as the air-conditioned interior of the Hotel Galadari lay ahead of him.’ This is a particular problem because Amnesty is definitely an observational rather than a plot-driven novel; Danny’s central internal dilemma is always present, but there is very little external action. Adiga still retains his sharp eye for detail, but his writing is just so hard to follow that I felt alienated from everything that was happening.

‘I ain’t no homosexual, I am a Barrysexual!’: Mr Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo

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There’s so much to love about Bernardine Evaristo’s Mr Loverman, starting with the title. A phrase that conjures up images of heterosexual virility (I hadn’t heard of the Shabba Ranks song before reading this book) headlines a story about a 74-year-old gay British-Antiguan man who, yes, does sleep around, but is ultimately devoted to his boyhood best friend Morris. Barry, our hilarious but poignant protagonist, is still in the closet. While he knows he’s attracted to men, he shuns the term ‘homosexual’, which for him means effeminate; ‘I, for one, do not wear make-up, dye my hair, or do the mince-walk… I ain’t no homosexual, I am a… Barrysexual!’. Barry has been unhappily married to Carmel for more than fifty years, but can’t bring himself to tell her the truth, even though she knows he’s been unfaithful. He’s afraid of how it will affect his relationship with his two daughters, Donna and Maxine, but perhaps even more than that, he’s scared of people seeing him as something that he thinks he’s not. A tea-time scene early in the novel where Carmel’s closest female friends are casually homophobic and Barry tries to call them out on it, but is assumed to just be being his usual disruptive and misogynistic self, shows what the stakes are.

Barry’s story feels like the perfect companion to the twelve narratives that Evaristo highlighted in her brilliant Girl, Woman, OtherHis voice is both unforgettable and very carefully crafted, two things that don’t always go together; it’s relatively easy to write an outrageous narrator if you want to, but more difficult to make them feel like a real person by remembering that people don’t sound the same when you put them into different circumstances. For example, as Barry explains to grandson Daniel, who is jealous of his freedom to speak patois: ‘you got to treat patois as a separate language that you slip into when it’s socially acceptable to do so. I can speak the Queen’s when I feel like it. But most of the time I just do me own thing. Fear thee not, though, I know my syntax from my semiotics, my homographs from my homophones, and don’t even get me started on my dangling participles.’ In this scene, Evaristo tells us so much about Barry – his pride at being an autodidact, his inability to resist sexual innuendo – and about the ways in which language is used to enforce class and race prejudice (Daniel has been forbidden to speak patois by his mother because she thinks it will make him sound stupid).

Nevertheless, I didn’t completely adore this novel in the way that I was expecting to (and I know that I’m in the minority here, given how glowing its Goodreads reviews are). Structurally, it didn’t quite work for me. [Spoilers ahead, although it’s difficult to ‘spoil’ a novel like this that is so character-led.] The main tension throughout Mr Loverman is: will Barry ever come clean to Carmel, move in with Morris, and be open with the world about who he really is? Evaristo positions this as the central conflict, so it can’t be resolved until near the end of the novel. Because of this, though, there are quite a few sequences in Mr Loverman that felt like the novel was spinning its wheels, such as a scene where Barry goes to a gay pub for the first time (I know this was supposed to be part of his induction into gay culture, but the scene didn’t connect emotionally for me, and seemed more of an excuse to introduce some vivid but inconsequential minor characters). The stalling on this made me wonder if Mr Loverman should have been much shorteror whether Evaristo should have had Barry come out at the midpoint, giving her more time to deal with the fallout, which is rather hastily tidied up at the end.

Furthermore, having waited so long for Barry to tell Carmel the truth, I wanted this to be a serious dramatic moment, and the novel doesn’t deliver. When Barry finally screws up his courage and decides to ask for a divorce, Carmel pips him to the post, having found out about his sexuality during a long visit to Antigua, and tells him that she’s dumping him. I can absolutely see why Evaristo made this decision. She recognises, quite rightly, that Barry is not the only victim of this marriage, and hands agency back to Carmel after her years of stifled suppression. This narrative decision also emphasises that ‘coming out’ is rarely the cathartic moment that you might want it to be. In the end, Barry realises that he finally ‘came out’ when he shouted at a bunch of teenage boys trashing his house, ‘Yes, I am a cock-sucker’. But even so, it felt frustrating to have this central conflict resolved off-screen, sorted whatever Barry did or didn’t do (although there are short sections of the novel narrated from Carmel’s point of view, we don’t hear about her time in Antigua until she finally tells Barry to get lost).

Having said that, this is a novel that deserves a wide readership, and looks like it is finally getting it, seven years after its first publication. As in Girl, Woman, Other, Evaristo illuminates some of the unheard stories of modern British history, and she does it with huge style. So while I might not quite have fallen in love with Mr Loverman, I still love everything about Evaristo’s literary project.