More #NovellasInNovember: Kashimada and Serpell

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I looked forward to reading this collection of two novellas in translation from the Japanese writer Maki Kashimada (trans. Haydn Trowell) back in January 2021. I have to admit, part of the attraction was the cover; this design from Europa Editions is simply gorgeous. However, I’ve liked a lot of Japanese novellas and short novels in recent years, and was excited to try a writer new to me. And I enjoyed the first and longer novella in this collection, Touring the Land of the Dead, a lot. It’s an introspective third-person piece that focuses on Natsuko, who is accompanying her disabled husband Taichi to a spa hotel she used to visit with her family in her childhood. Natsuko’s family shun and jeer at Taichi for not being able to support Natsuko. However, as Natsuko’s mind darts between past and present, we learn that ‘that life’, her past with her mother and brother, was a place of horror for her, and she is still trying to shrug them off in the present. Natsuko’s striving to become her own person in the face of family expectations is a familiar theme from much Japanese fiction written by women that I’ve read, but Kashimada puts a different slant on it. As we come to realise, Natsuko has already got out, but can’t quite credit that she’s escaped.

The second novella in this collection, Ninety-Nine Kisses, is very different in style and tone. It’s narrated in first person by the youngest of four sisters, Nanako. Her three older sisters remain unmarried and living at home with their mother, and we come to realise that Nanako sees them as parts of the same whole, and is sexually possessive over them, although she denies their relationship is incestuous. As the novella develops, we realise there is something off-kilter about the whole family, who pride themselves on being able to engage in ‘dirty talk’ with each other as a sign of their closeness. This is undoubtedly a weird and disturbing story, but I didn’t find that to be a problem in itself; instead, the style didn’t work for me because it felt like everything was spelt out as explicitly as possible. There’s a sense that Kashimada wants to shock here with blatant sexual content, but this overshadowed the more interesting aspects of the relationship between the four sisters, and made it feel like nothing changed or emerged over the course of the novella, because it was all there from the beginning.

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(Technically, this is a short collection of essays rather than a novella, but it’s also Non-Fiction November, so…)

I put Stranger Faces on my 2021 TBR after being hugely impressed by Namwali Serpell’s essay on empathy in fiction. Serpell is a professor of English at Harvard, so it’s no surprise that these short essays on faces as signifiers have an academic bent. All have moments of real, accessible insight, but most use an interpretive framework that feels a little alien to somebody like me, who’s used to reading texts either as a historian or as an ‘ordinary reader’, whatever that is, rather than being trained in film or literary criticism. Serpell’s interested in how texts, both written and visual, are put together, excavating their juxtapositions and shots for layers of meaning, whereas I tend to think of texts in terms of story structure and unreliable narration. For example, ‘Mop head’, her analysis of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and the murder of Marion Crane, focuses heavily on the visual doubling that transfers the viewer’s interest from Marion to her sister Lila, whereas I’m more interested in thinking about Marion as a decoy protagonist and how this affects the storytelling (although unlike Serpell, I’m certainly no expert on Psycho!)

Both our sets of interests come together in ‘Two-faced’, Serpell’s essay on Hannah Crafts’ ‘The Bondwoman’s Narrative’, a novel that may have been written between 1853 and 1861 by an enslaved woman. If this book was really written by an escaped female slave, it would be the ‘only known novel written by a fugitive from slavery and the first by an African-American woman.’ However, as Serpell outlines, since this text was republished in 2002, academics have fiercely debated its ‘authenticity’, with some arguing that it was written by a white abolitionist. Serpell points out the anachronistic claims made by critics such as John Bloom, who argued that the text could not really have been written by an enslaved woman because of its multiple literary references and sophisticated vocabulary, which ignores the erudition of former slaves like Frederick Douglass and Phyllis Wheatley.  However, she also deconstructs our assumptions about what makes a text ‘real’ or ‘fake’, highlighting Karen Sánchez-Eppler’s argument that no text can be truly pure, and that our instinctive assumptions about ‘tells’ that reveal a text’s authorship are often wrong (Crafts’ class snobbery has been cited by critics as a sign that Crafts must have been white and as a sign she must have been black). This reminded me, incidentally, of the female reviewer who thought Jane Eyre must have been written by a man because the writer had such a poor knowledge of women’s clothes.

Although I admired ‘Two-faced’, the real gem here is ‘E-faced’, the final essay in Stranger Faces, which I absolutely loved. ‘E-faced’ focuses on emoji, and while I’m sure Serpell is not the first writer to analyse emoji, this is the first serious piece on them I’ve read, and I found it fascinating. Serpell points out that emoji were intended to clarify meaning but, like all languages, have developed shifting and uncertain meanings of their own. She also thinks about how we use emoji – often ‘stacking’ them, posting multiple emoji in one go – and how emoji are almost always unnecessary, but add a kind of warmth to a message (which I guess makes sense of why I, personally, so often add a pointless one to the end of a text, e.g. ‘Hope you have a good time at the party!’ 🎉) There are also some great bits of trivia. Wittgenstein experimented with ‘proto-emoji’ in his ‘Lectures on Aesthetics’ in the late 1930s, arguing that simplified drawings of expressions could make language more flexible and more precise. And the word ’emoji’ has nothing to do with e- as in electronic or emo- as in emotion, but comes from the Japanese words (picture) and moji (character). Interesting stuff! 👍

Review: The Haunting Season: Ghostly Tales for Long Winter Nights

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I’ve been keen to read this collection since I first heard about it in January 2021, and it seems I wasn’t the only one; it’s the first short story collection to hit the Sunday Times bestseller list since records began, and there are now a shortage of copies! I can kind of see why; this features a stellar line-up of writers who’ve all had big success with at least one book group/accessible literary novel, and it was published at exactly the right time of year, with gorgeous cover art. However, writing short stories is a very different art to writing novels, so would The Haunting Season deliver?

Unsurprisingly for a multiple-author collection, I thought this was a mixed bag, but one which did give me the cozy, spooky reading experience I was looking for, even if some of the stories worked better for me than others. Spooky, ghostly and scary stories are, perhaps, particularly subjective, and it doesn’t help that the ‘ghost story’ is, in my opinion, a very different genre from the ‘horror’ or ‘scary’ story, and this collection brings both together. Personally, I prefer horror stories to ghost stories, and have no time at all for friendly ghosts, so there were a few stories here that were never going to work for me, like Imogen Hermes Gowar’s ‘Thwaite’s Tenant’ (though, even putting my own preferences aside, I thought this was a disappointingly bland story for a writer who produced a novel as original as The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock). On the other end of the spectrum, Jess Kidd’s ‘Lily Wilt’ reminded me of some of H.P. Lovecraft’s less tasteful body horror, particularly his short story ‘Cool Air’, and wasn’t my thing at all. And while I liked the stories by Kiran Millwood Hargrave and Elizabeth Macneal, I’m less interested in psychological horror, where the reader is left uncertain whether what’s truly happening is real, than in full-blown supernatural fear. 

Given I’m a massive Natasha Pulley fan, I wasn’t surprised that her contribution, ‘The Eel Singers’, was my favourite story in the collection. It’s hard for me to know how this would read to someone who isn’t familiar with her novels The Watchmaker of Filigree Street and The Lost Future of Pepperharrowbecause it features their protagonists. However, I thought this was perfectly eerie, evoking the fen landscape and leaving just the right amount unexplained. In contrast, Bridget Collins’s ‘A Study in Black and White’ had a wonderfully chilling central idea, but spent too much time on set-up and seemed to stop just as it got going. Another favourite in the collection for me was Laura Purcell’s ‘The Chillingham Chair’. I didn’t get on with her novels The Silent Companions and (especially) The Corset, but this demonstrated that what might seem thin in a novel works well in a short story; as she does in The Silent Companions, Purcell picks a real historical object – in this case, an early kind of wheelchair – and scares her reader with what happens when it becomes animate. Formulaic, but fun.

All of these stories are historical, set in some undefined eighteenth or nineteenth century (Andrew Michael Hurley’s disappointing contribution, ‘The Hanging of the Greens’, is the only one that feels a bit more modern.) This works for this collection, harking back to the golden age of Victorian ghost stories, but it also leaves it feeling somewhat traditional as a whole. The best stories, like the one by Pulley, are the ones that push the boundaries.

#NovellasInNovember: The Fell by Sarah Moss

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I cheated a little by reading this at the end of October!

I’ve been reading Sarah Moss’s books since I was lucky enough to receive a proof copy of her eerie fiction debut, Cold Earthway back in 2009, and I have read all the fiction she’s ever published. However, I’ve long been waiting for her to write a novel that I really, really love; The Tidal Zone probably came closest as a whole, while Cold Earth and Night Waking (which I’ve reviewed twice!) frustrated me with their moments of brilliance. The Fell, her latest novella, has made me realise that it’s perhaps time to give up this hope, as I don’t think Moss’s writing is moving in a direction that fits what I want from fiction. Like her previous novella, Summerwater, The Fell is told in stream-of-consciousness through multiple voices. Set in the month-long Covid-19 lockdown of November 2020, it focuses on Kate, a struggling single mum who can’t bear the constraints of her two-week isolation period any longer and so secretly strikes out alone onto the moors. We also hear from Kate’s teenage son, Matt; mountain rescue volunteer Rob; and Kate’s next-door neighbour Alice, who is shielding after having had breast cancer and lives alone after the death of her husband.

I imagine some people would have fits if they saw that I’ve tagged The Fell as a ‘historical novel’, but that’s what it feels like to me, set in a specific time, place and mindset that seems very long ago. This, I think, is going to be the problem faced by writers who want to write realistic fiction about the Covid-19 pandemic; it’s all so tiringly familiar and yet already out-of-date; it’s neither of the moment or of its time. This is the first fiction I’ve read to tackle Covid-19, but it already feels full of cliche. The overall message of this novella, conveyed none-too-subtly through anecdotes about baby monkeys clinging to cloth mothers and comforting voices easing patients’ need for pain relief, is that we all need human connection to be truly happy, and there is no real substitute. Moss lays it on even more thickly when the mountain rescue team pull together to rescue an injured Kate. The problem is that we’ve heard nothing else but the importance of human interaction since the start of this pandemic, so this really doesn’t feel like it needs to be said. It evades both more interesting questions about the value and pain of solitude and totally ignores the fact that everyone’s experience of the pandemic wasn’t sitting at home being bored and baking bread, being able to take walks in their private front gardens when they felt too cooped up. In this, it rehearses observations that are already so familiar from social media and journalism: ‘Social distancing, whoever came up with that, there’s not much that’s less social than acting as if everyone’s unclean and dangerous, though the problem of course is that they are, or at least some of them are and there’s no way of knowing.’ No lockdown fanatics or ‘freedom’ protesters here; everyone in this novella reluctantly accepts the need for lockdown and complains about it politely.

These, perhaps, are problems that would face any novelist who is one of the first to write about Covid-19, but I think this topic also posed particular problems for Moss. Alywnne writes in their Goodreads review of The Fell that ‘Moss’s story’s almost too realistic at times, preserving rather than creatively reinventing the territory it covers.’ This, I think, is spot-on, and explains my frustration with Moss’s more recent fiction, which has moved away from both the imaginative exploration of Cold Earth and the visceral historical material evoked in Night Waking, Bodies of Light and Signs for Lost Children, but yet is too slight and insubstantial when compared to the more realistic The Tidal Zone. Moss’s characters have started to feel too comfortable, too similar in their world-views, and her thinking a little stale. This passage near the end of The Fell is so sub-Reservoir 13 (and I thought Reservoir 13 was sub-Jon McGregor anyway!):

The raven flies down the valley. It’s hours yet, till sunrise. Sheep rest where their seed, breed and generation have worn hollows in the peat, lay their dreaming heads where past sheep have lain theirs. The lovely hares sleep where the long grass folds over them. No burrows, no burial. The Saukin Stone dries in the wind. Though the stone’s feet are planted deep in the aquifers, in the bodies of trees a thousand years dead, its face takes the weather, gazes eyeless over heather and bog. Roots reach deep, bide their time. Spring will come.

While, taken on its own, this is beautiful writing, the passage feels totally unearnt within the context of the novel, which doesn’t spend much time focusing on the connections between nature and humanity (and you really have to earn a line like ‘spring will come’). It feels like it was pulled from a draft of Summerwater, which also tried this trick (and while I didn’t like it there either, it was at least a theme more convincingly woven through the novel).

It’s a shame to write a review like this for a writer whose work I’ve enjoyed so much in the past; I hope Moss’s next book takes a different direction.

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

Booker Prize 2021: Bewilderment and Great Circle

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Astrobiologist Theo Byrne spends his time looking for life on other planets but is most concerned about the welfare of his nine-year-old son, Robin. Since Theo’s wife and Robin’s mother, Alyssa, died two years ago, Robin has struggled at school and with life in general, and Theo has come under increasing pressure to accept a psychological diagnosis for his son and put him on meditation. Instead, Theo turns to an experimental treatment being pioneered by one of his colleagues, ‘Decoded Neurofeedback’, which guides ‘trainees’ to mimic the brain states of ‘targets’ who have deliberately elicited particular emotions in themselves while their brains were scanned with fMRI. Because Alyssa participated in an earlier phase of the experiment, Robin can be matched to his mother’s euphoric brain patterns – a process which puts him into a state of beatific calm. Having been constantly screaming at the pain of living in a dying world, Robin now embraces the beauty of endangered species and becomes a viral news story. At the same time, Theo witnesses the world beginning to unravel. Bewilderment, Richard Powers’s thirteenth novel, is uneasily set between our present and a slightly different version of it, giving the book a speculative twist while not allowing us to feel safely distant from the America it describes:

That first Tuesday in November, online conspiracy theories, compromised ballots, and bands of armed poll protesters undermined the integrity of the vote in six different battleground states. The country slid into three days of chaos. On Saturday, the President declared the entire election invalid. He ordered a repeat, claiming it would require at least three more months to secure and implement.

As readers of Powers’s previous novel, the brilliant The Overstorywill know, Powers has a bleak view of our environmental future, and Bewilderment is, if possible, even darker than its predecessor. However, it’s also lit up by the stories about other planets, other peoples and other extinctions and rebirths that Theo tells Robin, and by Robin himself, who seems to symbolically switch between two ways of responding to our current predicament: mourning what we have lost or embracing it before it’s gone. If there’s a fault in this novel, it’s that Powers occasionally gives into the temptation to end paragraphs with a too-easy, too-sentimental line; but in general, he keeps impressively far away from sentimentality for a book about a ‘special’ child. A beautiful, if discomforting read that ought to make the shortlist.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 21st September.

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Marian Graves was a pioneering inter-war and wartime aviator whose career abruptly ended after she circumnavigated the globe in 1949 and disappeared in the Antarctic. In the present day, Hadley Baxter has been hired to portray Marian in a biopic, sensing a chance to get her career back on track after cheating on her co-star in a thinly veiled version of the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise. The bulk of Maggie Shipstead’s Great Circle is a family saga, focused largely on Marian but circling back before her birth and outwards to explore the lives of other characters like her brother Jamie, while the Hollywood episodes with Hadley seem to belong to a lighter kind of book altogether. I have to confess that, at the point of writing this review, I’m only slightly over halfway through Great Circle, so it may make a sudden turnabout in its second half; however, it’s an incredibly long book, and 300+ pages in, I’m looking for a payback that I’m not getting. Shipstead’s prose is pedestrian, and the story she’s telling is very familiar; I found particular resonances with Michael Christie’s far superior Greenwood, but there are so many sagas of this kind. Great Circle is plodding along enjoyably enough to keep me reading, but it’s a massive potboiler that I don’t think belongs on the Booker longlist.

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The Booker shortlist will be announced on September 14th, and I don’t think I’ll be able to get to any more of the longlisted titles before then, so here’s my ranking of the six I’ve read:

  1. Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford
  2. Bewilderment by Richard Powers
  3. China Room by Sunjeev Sahota
  4. Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro
  5. Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead
  6. No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood

I would really like to see the Spufford, Powers and Sahota on the shortlist, but I don’t know the Booker Prize well enough or have read enough of the longlist to be confident in making any predictions!

Have you read any of the longlisted titles? Who do you think will make it to the shortlist?

10 Books of Summer, #9 and #10: The Sleeping Beauties and The Wild Laughter

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After reading Suzanne O’Sullivan’s recent article in the Guardian on ‘mystery illnesses’, I knew I wanted to seek out the book in which she explores these ideas further, Sleeping Beauties, though I found it patchier then its précis version. It worked best for me when O’Sullivan used a case study to link together wider issues, as she does in the opening chapter on ‘resignation syndrome’ among refugee children in Sweden, and in the final chapter on how Western medical labels are as open to question as indigenous explanations for illness; less well when she got too bogged down in the minutae of a single example, which was the case in most of the other chapters. The thread that links all of the outbreaks that O’Sullivan explores is the idea of a ‘functional neurological disorder’: in these disorders, patients experience nervous symptoms that are genuine but not linked to any observable physical problem. O’Sullivan understands why people resist being told that their debilitating experience of illness is ‘psychosomatic’, and emphasises that this diagnosis in no way suggests that their suffering is not real, or that they are making up their symptoms. Drawing on a biopsychosocial model of health, she suggests that the causes of these disorders arise from the interaction between body, mind and environment, and that all three of these things can be equally important in understanding certain conditions. Overall, I found this argument very interesting, and there are sections here I’ll definitely return to, but the book becomes a bit repetitive, and I felt that a couple of the chapters could have been cut.

Thanks to Rebecca from Bookish Beck for kindly passing on her proof copy of this book to me.

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Caoilinn Hughes’ The Wild Laughter is a smart, short novel with a brilliant, utterly convincing narrative voice; unfortunately, I found it hard to inhabit rather than simply admire. Hart is the younger of a pair of Irish brothers who are watching their father slowly dying after the economic crash in Ireland leaves him bankrupt. His voice initially reminded me of Lisa McInerney’s The Glorious Heresies (with perhaps a bit of Edward Docx’s Let Go My Hand thrown in), but Hughes’s dense prose, which needs to be read and digested line by line, is closer to Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. And while I adored the two former novels, I also found myself at arm’s length from McBride’s book, recognising her skill but not able to quite connect. Hughes is fond of complicated, poetic similes that are all wonderful in their own right but kept catching me off-balance when I tried to sink into the flow of this book, because I had to work out what they meant. At an agricultural show, ‘peach udders drooped everywhere like the rear end of a birthday party.’ The ‘restless landscape’ is ‘sporadically moonlamped, as if the night was giving sign to a dangerous reef up ahead.’ A hairstyle is ‘a bun like a hare’s tail, but rained on.’ Alongside this, Hughes comes up with many more arresting lines – but they feel buried in the rest of the prose. For me, the writing got in the way of the story she was telling.

Thanks to Rebecca from Bookish Beck for kindly passing on her proof copy of this book to me.

This concludes my 10 Books of Summer! How did you do with your summer reading?

Upcoming Beach Reads (or Stay-At-Home Reads) 2021

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Malibu Rising follows the four Riva siblings through the course of a single day and night in August 1983 as they hold their annual party at their clifftop mansion. The novel centres on the oldest of the four, Nina Riva, who has always held the family together after their rock star father Mick left them when they were small children and their mother June descended into alcoholism. Even now her siblings are grown up, Nina continues to put others first, pursuing a modelling career that she doesn’t want for the sake of financial security as she grieves the end of her marriage. However, this year’s party will throw everything up in the air for the Rivas, with both unexpected guests and unexpected secrets emerging as the night goes on.

Malibu Rising shares a focus on historic glamour and fame with Taylor Jenkins Reid’s two previous novels, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo and Daisy Jones and the Six, but in terms of style, it’s closer to her earlier, fluffier books like Maybe In Another Life and Forever, Interrupted, which were much more standard chick lit. (You could make the case that Evelyn Hugo is pretty fluffy, but I think Reid actually adopts a stylised mode of storytelling for that book that gave it both its humour and its edge.) It starts promisingly but quickly fades out in its second half, with none of the Riva siblings fully realised as characters except Nina – and even then, Reid has an unfortunate tendency to spell out all of the revelations Nina has about her life and exactly how they connect back to her difficult childhood. Given the lack of page-space for the other three siblings, it’s even odder that Reid chooses to jump between the heads of multiple unrelated party-goers in the second half of the novel, even though we learn nothing about them except who they are in love or lust with at the time, and they have no effect on the story.

Reid still has the gift of making us care about her characters, and I was invested in Nina and her relationship with her parents – I thought the sub-plot with her father was actually resolved quite well, even if it was a bit heavy-handed, as Nina refuses to accept glib rationalisations for why he treated the family so badly. However, this was a real disappointment after the two previous novels, and felt like it had been written in a rush. Given how well Reid handled stories that are meant to be a composition of different accounts (Daisy Jones) or a single account from one potentially unreliable narrator (Evelyn Hugo), I wonder if this mode of storytelling simply suits her better than the more straightforward multi-perspective third-person she uses in this novel, which didn’t do her writing any favours. A fun beach book, but I expect more from Reid.

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

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I’ve been reading Lauren Weisberger’s books since The Devil Wears Prada, even though they frequently make me quite cross, because she seems to be so against women pursuing their own ambitions – The Devil Wears Prada itself is the best example of this, but it’s also a pretty clear sub-theme in The Singles Game and Last Night in Chateau Marmont. In her previous novel, The Wives, she softened this message slightly to portray the importance of balancing family and career, and interestingly introduced a relatively older female character (by which I mean a character in her late thirties, nobody is ever actually old in this world) who regrets having completely sacrificed her own life for her children. This theme continues in her latest offering, Where The Grass Is Green*, which focuses on two sisters whose lives have taken unexpectedly different paths: Peyton, the high school dropout, is now an incredibly successful TV anchor, while Skye, the academic high-flier, is now totally focused on her daughter Aurora.

As I’ve said, Weisberger is often out to punish her protagonists when they start getting ideas, so I found this novel surprisingly sweet compared to most of her other work. It’s all set in the completely ridiculous world of the super-wealthy, so bears little resemblance to actual life, but the relationship between the two sisters is portrayed as supportive and loving. Neither is glorified at the expense of the other, although Weisberger does default a little back to her ‘family over career’ agenda by the end of the novel. I also found the portrayal of Peyton’s teenage daughter, Max, refreshingly positive compared to the usual ways that teenagers come across in light women’s fiction. The book is marketed as being about a college admissions scandal, but that’s more of a plot device than anything else (if you want a beach read about college admissions, go for Tracy Dobmeier and Wendy Katzman’s Girls With Bright Futures). Instead, the focus is the relationships between these three women, which makes this book much more fun and less depressing.

*Titled Where The Grass Is Green And The Girls Are Pretty for the US market, which is a Guns n’Roses lyric and a much better title. I’m not sure why the publishers truncated it for the UK – I wouldn’t have got the reference either way, but the UK title doesn’t make any sense. Maybe a copyright issue?

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

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Yours Cheerfully, the sequel to AJ Pearce’s delightful Dear Mrs Bird, brings the reader more of the same jollity and ‘Blitz spirit’ – which is probably even more welcome now during the Covid-19 pandemic than it was when the first book was published. Emmy and her best friend Bunty are still bearing up as well as they can on the home front in London during the Second World War. Emmy is still working at Women’s Friend magazine, trying to shore up readers’ morale and offer them good advice, but after being invited to a Ministry of Information briefing for writers on women’s magazines, she is gripped by the idea of trying to encourage more women to sign up for war work. However, as she starts to meet women who are actually working in factories, she realises that a shortage of government nurseries is both preventing them Doing Their Bit and putting many into financial hardship. Can Emmy balance her ‘patriotic’ duty to give a positive account of factory work with her new awareness of the real needs of workers?

As she did in Dear Mrs Bird, Pearce deliberately adopts a kind of spoof pastiche of how we think people sounded in the 1940s, without any attempt at historical realism. This worked a little less well for me in this sequel, however, perhaps because of the integration of more serious questions about women’s war work and childcare. It also felt more twee than its predecessor – while Dear Mrs Bird was centred on some genuinely tragic events, nothing nearly as dark happens in Yours Cheerfully, so the balance doesn’t feel quite right. Emmy’s life is indeed so cheery that I found myself becoming more interested in Bunty’s quiet struggles instead. All in all, this is a fun read, but it feels very much like the middle book in a trilogy – and I suspect a third will be along soon. 

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on June 24th.

Wolfson History Prize Blog Tour: Survivors

I was delighted to be invited to take part in the blog tour for the Wolfson History Prize for the third year running. The Prize celebrates historical writing which ‘combines excellence in research with readability’ and you can see the full 2021 shortlist here.

The winner of the Prize will be announced on 9th June 2021.

Today, I’m reviewing one of the shortlisted titles: Rebecca Clifford’s Survivors: Children’s Lives After The Holocaust. Clifford is an Associate Professor in History at Swansea University and specialises in twentieth-century European history, oral history, Holocaust history, and memory studies. You can see her full academic profile here.

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Felice Z., alongside her parents and older sister, was deported from Baden to the internment camp of Gurs in the south of France in October 1940, when she was just one year old. In early 1941, she and her sister were rescued from Gurs by the Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants (OSE), and Felice was hidden with a French Catholic family until the Liberation. Her parents were killed in Auschwitz. Despite these wartime experiences, Felice remembered being criticised and belittled by adult survivors of the Holocaust when she attended the first American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors in 1983, saying:

I questioned whether I should go because I’d never been in a camp… I used to want to have a number [tattooed on my arm] so I could show people the pain… They used to say ‘You were a child, what do you know? You don’t remember.’

This reflected earlier ideas of who counted as a ‘Holocaust survivor’ – originally, ‘survivors’ were considered to be concentration camp survivors – but also the general exclusion of child survivors of the Holocaust from the category, even if they had been in a camp. In the immediate post-war period, child survivors were called ‘unaccompanied children’ or ‘Jewish war orphans’ instead. Recently, Clifford writes, child survivors have taken on more of the familiar public roles we might associate with a ‘Holocaust survivor’ – giving talks, speaking to school students, and volunteering at Holocaust museums – but ‘there is a clear rationale behind the shift: they are the only ones left’.

Survivors focuses on child survivors of the Holocaust who were born between 1935 and 1944, making them ten years old or younger at liberation in 1945. This deliberate choice by Clifford shows how things we think we know about the experience of Holocaust survivors changes when young children are placed at the centre of the story. For example, she argues, for child survivors, who experienced a certain amount of stability during wartime, the end of the war could often be a more difficult period. Maurits C., who spent the war in hiding in the Netherlands, recalled that ‘My war began in 1945… When I learned that my father and mother would not come back, and my brothers, then the war started.’ Counter-claims on Jewish child survivors after the end of the war added to this uncertainty. Jewish organisations were determined to reclaim children whom they thought had been taken by Christian families, while countries such as America, Canada, Australia and Britain were keen to care for ‘Jewish war orphans’ – but only if they were very young, ideally female, and full orphans, which many child survivors were not. Child survivors did not always want to be reunited with families they could not remember. Felice was forced to leave the Catholic family who had cared for her during wartime, which she remembered as traumatic: ‘I think they [the OSE] might have said… “you have to start being Jewish.” But I couldn’t understand what being Jewish meant’. 

Their limited memories of the war hampered child survivors throughout their adult lives, calling the validity of their ‘testimony’ into question, especially after the rise of Holocaust denialism, when there was a greater emphasis on survivors’ accounts being fixed and factually accurate. This was often impossible for child survivors. They were marked out in other ways: the West Germany Federal Indemnification Law of 1953 was meant to allow financial compensation for survivors from West Germany, but it was difficult for even adult survivors, let alone children, to supply the kind of ‘proof’ that was required. They could also be further severed from the Jewish community. Esther T. was in Auschwitz as a child, but as an adult, she found she needed her parents’ birth certificate to marry in an Orthodox synagogue: ‘you have to prove you’re Jewish to get married in a shul, and I couldn’t prove it!’

As a historian of childhood, what I found most brilliant about this book was the way in which it integrates histories of childhood into the kind of bigger historical narrative where children are usually absent or only included in a tokenistic or stereotyped way. Clifford shows how changing ideas of childhood and trauma immediately following the Second World War conditioned reactions to child survivors and forced them into unhelpful binaries: either they were seen as unaffected by the trauma they had endured because they would not remember it, or the separation from their mothers they had endured at an early age was believed to have left them permanently damaged. Neither of these narratives were helpful for child survivors, whom, in retrospective interviews, often felt they had to ‘prove’ they weren’t forever ‘maladjusted’: Denny M., who was interviewed in 1977, said ‘compared with so many messed-up adults that I’ve seen, I think I’m reasonably normal’. 

Even at the time, child survivors could be pathologised for being either ‘too bad’ or ‘too good’. The Buchenwald boys were a group of boys, ranging in age from 8 to 18, who were liberated from Buchenwald concentration camp in April 1945 and sent to an OSE-run reception centre in Normandy. On the way there, ‘they destroyed property, stole and assaulted civilians; there is some evidence that they raped German girls as an act of revenge’. Rather than seeing this behaviour as relating to what they had been through, the OSE’s chief psychiatrist suggested that they had survived precisely because of their ‘insensitivity and indifference‘. However – reflecting new psychological post-war ideas about middle childhood as an innately gregarious and energetic period – a welfare officer in the Jewish DP camps located in the US zone of occupation in Germany worried in 1948 that the children in these camps were too obedient and not ‘mischievous, high-spirited and imaginative’ enough.

Children themselves were aware of adult expectations about trauma and played into these; as Clifford puts it, these ‘wary children’ had good reason to distrust adults in authority and so ‘fabricated suitable pasts’. Two children who were placed in a children’s home in Surrey, Weir Courtney, learnt how to exhibit the correct emotions and tell the right stories. Fritz F. was bullied in the home, and was found crying by the matron who tucked him in at night: ‘I told her I was thinking about my mother. I wasn’t’. Unlike some post-war settings, Weir Courtney prided itself on being a place where children could be open about the past, but children may have been forced to talk about things they would rather not have discussed to play into the psychoanalytical narrative that disclosure was cathartic. We can speculate that this might have led to some false stories. Mina R. told the matron that she had seen her mother shot through the head in front of her, and the matron was pleased with the subsequent change in the girl, who had, she wrote, been ‘much quieter and clearer since‘. However, it was later discovered that Mina’s mother was still alive.

This is a really excellent book, intelligent, thoughtful and empathetic; I would be delighted to see it win the Wolfson History Prize.

Make sure to check out the other stops on the first week of the Wolfson History Prize blog tour:

WHP 2021 Blog Tour Banner Week 1

 

Late Spring Reading, 2021

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Mehar, Harbans and Gurleen are three recently married young women living in rural Punjab in 1929. They are the brides of three brothers, but none of the three women know which brother it is that they have married. They spend most of their nights in the ‘china room’, where they share a pair of charpoys, string beds, and whisper together under the display of their mother-in-law’s wedding china that came as part of her dowry. However, every so often, one of the women is called to sleep with her husband in a ‘windowless chamber at the back of the farm.’ In the blackness, each struggles to identify her bridegroom, but at first, none of them are able to. With this compelling set-up, Sunjeev Sahota’s third novel, China Room, immediately has something of the folkloric about it. This is countered or perhaps enhanced by the modernity of Sahota’s language and his refusal to slip into distancing, archaic prose. This usually works very well, although there were a couple of phrases that made me pause: it does feel jarring for these isolated characters to say things like ‘Ants in your pants?’, although I get that Sahota is already ‘translating’ their words into English and so we’re already only getting a version of what they say. On the other hand, this decision definitely gives China Room the immediacy that a lot of historical novels lack.

Alongside the story of Mehar and her sisters-in-law, we follow an unnamed eighteen-year-old male narrator in 1999, who is detoxing from heroin addiction on his family’s farm in the Punjab, having grown up in England. Our narrator becomes slightly interested in his family history – we discover that Mehar is his great-grandmother – but Sahota doesn’t draw the connections tightly between these two threads, preferring instead that the stories mirror each other thematically through their depiction of social exclusion and agency. This makes the modern narrator feel a little unnecessary at times, as Mehar’s section of the narrative has much greater tension and direction. However, I did like the perspective that his experiences brought, as he reflects upon the vicious racism he suffered as a teenager, confounding some of our assumptions about the relevant privilege of a young man raised in modern Britain as opposed to a young woman in an arranged marriage in 1920s India. China Room didn’t have quite the same kind of impact on me as Sahota’s previous book, The Year of the Runawaysbut it’s a beautifully quiet and moving novel.

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

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Dantiel W. Moniz’s debut collection of short stories, Milk Blood Heat, plays on some familiar themes: quite a few of the stories are about a pair of girls on the cusp of adolescence, knotted together by their own closeness but already sensing the encroachment of the outside world, where class, race and sexual attractiveness will start to define them. I am quite tired of fiction that stresses the strangeness of girlhood – why can’t we write about teenagers like they’re people, like everybody else? – but to be fair, Moniz only occasionally uses this register. Two things stood out to me from this collection, which I otherwise found a bit forgettable. One, most of the stories continue a couple of pages past where I expected where they were going to end, which was refreshing, as Moniz pulled a bit more out of each situation than I thought it could hold. Two, what will stay with me from Milk Blood Heat is not the plots of its stories but a series of arresting, brutal images. A woman grieving for a lost baby is fascinated by an octopus in an aquarium consuming its own tentacles. A girl hangs onto her non-swimmer friend to save herself when their raft drifts too far out to sea. A sister confronts her younger brother’s school bully in a closet and terrifies him. Tying into what I’ve already said, it’s not surprising that all these scenes came near the end of their respective stories. It’s almost as if Moniz had to write through the mundane before reaching the surprising. I’ve just read too many collections like this for Milk Blood Heat to stand out, I’m afraid, but Moniz definitely has promise.

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

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The unnamed narrator of Natasha Brown’s debut, Assembly, is a black woman working in finance, and its ostensible focus is a visit to her boyfriend’s family estate. However, the story takes place almost entirely inside the narrator’s head. This stream-of-consciousness novella sometimes strays closer to being a polemic essay than a piece of fiction, which in this instance, isn’t a bad thing at all. We find out early on that the narrator has been diagnosed with some kind of life-threatening condition and is refusing treatment, but doesn’t seem too concerned with her physical future. Instead, she consistently bashes against the walls of her own mind as she muses on the impossibilities of truly existing as a black woman in Britain. The central theme is how black lives have been monetised, from the compensation paid to slaveowners after Britain abolished slavery early in the nineteenth century, to the way she is exploited and tokenised by capitalism today.

The narrator’s voice becomes increasingly desperate as she considers how futile it is to make people see white supremacy when they don’t believe it’s there: ‘Explain air… Prove what can’t be seen. A breezy brutality cuts you each day.’ To survive, she feels she is being asked to ‘become the air’ and so considers opting out, letting her own body kill her. Her younger sister is on the same ‘successful’ life trajectory, and she believes that by dying she can help her out: ‘I have amassed a new opportunity, something to pass on. Forwards. To my sister.’ However, the claustrophobic twist in this tale is that the narrator herself still can’t think past money, giving her sister a stake in the system that has ground her down: ‘I have the flat, savings and some investments, pensions, plus a substantial life-insurance policy.’ While I admired what Brown was doing with this book, for me it did suffer a bit from the typical curse of the novella; I felt it could have been tightened into an incredible short story or expanded into a wonderful novel. But although it didn’t quite hit as hard as it might have done, it’s still a haunting piece of writing.

I received a free proof copy of this novella from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 3rd June.

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!)