20 Books of Summer, #8: The Nickel Boys

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Ellwood is a teenage working-class African-American boy being brought up by his grandmother in Florida in the early 1960s, when, despite civil rights activism, racial segregation is still strictly enforced. Nevertheless, Ellwood has decided to do everything ‘right’; he studies hard at school, is known as a reliable worker in his hotel job, and has been recommended for a special scheme allowing disadvantaged young people to take college-level classes at local black college, Melvin Griggs. He listens over and over again to a recording of Martin Luther King’s speeches that his grandmother bought him, idealising non-violent protest and taking part in a civil rights march himself. Nevertheless, none of this protects Ellwood when he is wrongly accused of joyriding and sentenced to Nickel, a reformatory school for boys that is supposed to create upstanding citizens rather than subject its inhabitants to punitive imprisonment. As Ellwood reflects ironically when he first arrives at the place: ‘The campus was kept up meticulously, a bounty of lush green… The cedar trees and beeches cut out portions of shade, tall and ancient. It was the nicest-looking property Ellwood had ever seen… In a sad joke, it intersected with his visions of Melvin Griggs Technical, minus a few statues and columns.’

Nickel might look good from the outside, but it’s rotten on the inside: dormitories go unpainted, bleachers splinter, canteen food is stolen by the guards and sold to local businesses, boys are informally loaned out to labour for those who can do the staff a favour, and above all, there’s the ‘White House’, where an industrial fan hides the sounds of night-time beatings. Even worse than that, however, is being ‘taken out back’, for after that boys tend to disappear. Whitehead conveys the horror of their fates through descriptions of archaeological excavations of their bodies in the present day, which clearly and chillingly spells out what happened to them, but avoids sensationalising their pain: ‘When the state of Florida dug [one boy] up fifty years later, the forensic examiner noted the fractures in the wrists and speculated that he’d been restrained before he died, in addition to the other violence attested by the broken bones.’

The first two-thirds or so of The Nickel Boys, Colson Whitehead’s seventh novel, follow a pretty straightforward narrative that is familiar from prison or reform school memoirs and fictions; Whitehead’s take is lifted by his incredibly moving writing. A couple of incidents are horrifyingly memorable, not necessarily because of their violence but also for their poignancy, such as a notable boxing match between the champions of the ‘black’ and ‘white’ sides of the school, and the boys’ pride when they decorate the place for the annual Christmas Fair. Nevertheless, I found myself wondering if there was more to this story; the two of Whitehead’s previous novels that I’ve read, Zone One and The Underground Railroad, were both dense and intelligent, making the reader work hard in a good way, whereas this seemed to be relying on simpler emotional beats. But The Nickel Boys, too, becomes more complex later on, as Whitehead starts flashing between life after the institution and life still within it. The ending of the novel, in particular, had me in tears, as Whitehead draws together the past and present with no hope of closure in the future.

Like a number of recent novels by African-American writers (Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, SingYvonne Battle-Felton’s Remembered), Whitehead effectively shows how slavery is at the core of America’s modern history, and shapes black lives and deaths to this day. The only thing that stopped this being a five-star novel for me was his handling of his characters. Spoilers follow [highlight to read.] We are led to believe that Ellwood is narrating his time in Nickel as well as his later life in New York, but at the end of the novel, it’s revealed that it’s his friend Turner who survived the place; Ellwood was shot dead trying to escape after a naive attempt to whistleblow on the goings-on in Nickel. The ‘Ellwood’ we meet in later life is in fact Turner, who has taken on his friend’s name to honour him. I’m not sure why this twist was necessary. Indeed, it seemed to pit Ellwood and Turner too clearly against each other as archetypes, the ‘good’ black martyr who is too idealistic for this world, and the canny black survivor who understands the reality of institutional racism. As with the early chapters of the novel, Whitehead seems to sacrifice nuance for emotion. Spoilers end. However, this is a haunting novel, and Whitehead’s evocation of what was a real-life place will be difficult to forget.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on the 1st August.

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20 Books of Summer, #6 and #7: Starling Days and The Island of Sea Women

20 Books of Summer Housekeeping Note: I’ve managed to get hold of e-copies of both Tea Obrecht’s Inland and Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys, two books I’d wanted to put on 20 Books of Summer but wasn’t sure if I’d be able to get hold of in time. Therefore, I’m officially swapping them in for Richard Powers’s The Echo Maker and Chia-Chia Lin’s The Unpassing. Apologies to those books – I will still be reading them at a later date as they’re on my 2019 Reading List.

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I loved Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s debut novel, Harmless Like You, which focused on art dealer Jay and his estranged Japanese mother Yuki, flashing between Yuki’s youth in 1960s New York and Jay’s contemporary journey. What I found particularly fascinating about the way that Buchanan portrayed Yuki, who is determined to pursue a career as a visual artist, is that she hurts others so much precisely because she believes it’s impossible for her to have much impact on others’ lives; she believes nobody can really care about her. There’s something of that in Mina, the Chinese-American protagonist of Buchanan’s second novel, Starling Days; but unlike Yuki, I felt that we never really got to know Mina.

 Starling Days is a novel about clinical depression, self-harm, and suicide, and it felt right that I was reading it when I went to an exhibition about these themes by a female Chinese artist, Chen Ze, in the White Rabbit gallery in Sydney [content note for self-harm]. However, I found it very difficult to engage with Mina’s state of mind for the majority of the text, especially because the narrative is split between her point of view and that of her husband Oscar; I wasn’t sure what Oscar’s sections added. Moreover, the novel starts with Mina thinking about her dual heritage (plus the Japanese last name she’s inherited from her husband, who is desperately trying to learn kanji through playing children’s games on the computer) and her bisexuality, but has very little to say about either. Instead, she feels so self-focused, which is unsurprising due to her illness but which doesn’t induce empathy in the reader.

The writing also felt off-kilter for much of Starling Days, which surprised me, because Harmless Like You was so on point. It often feels a bit try-hard; ‘a breeze ran through the tree, and the leaves applauded’… a body in scrubs the colour of the swimming pool where she’d made her first tentative laps as a pre-schooler’,  while sometimes hitting the right note; ‘The river was as dark as poured tarmac’. Buchanan’s prose was really what carried Harmless Like You, so I was disappointed by the frequent clunkiness here.

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

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Lisa See is known for novels that focus on intense and often harmful female friendships, though in perhaps her best-known work, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, it seems obvious to me that the protagonist is romantically and sexually in love with her closest friend, so calling it a novel about female friendship is a bit of a stretch. The Island of Sea Women, her latest, is more straightforwardly platonic: it follows a very similar plot-line to Snow Flower, with our two protagonists, Young-sook and Mi-ja, growing up together on the Korean island of Jeju and becoming extremely close despite coming from very different backgrounds. Young-sook’s family is respected among the all-female community of haenyeo, freedivers who collect octopuses, abalone and sea urchins for sale, because her mother is the leader of the collective. Meanwhile, Mi-ja is initially shunned in the village as her father collaborated with the Japanese when they occupied Korea during the Second World War. As with Snow Flower, it’s clear from the start of the novel that something horrific has come between these two women; we first meet Young-sook as an elderly woman in 2008, refusing to talk about Mi-ja.

What makes this my favourite novel I’ve read by See so far, despite its familiar plot-line, is both the subject-matter and the way that See deploys historical detail. She effortlessly conveys the particular community of the haenyeo without getting bogged down, from the way that the women learn to dive, to ‘leaving-home-water-work’ in freezing Russian seas, to the later experiments of scientists fascinated by the divers’ ability to operate while hypothermic. Moreover, this felt incredibly refreshing compared to much ostensibly feminist historical fiction, because Young-sook is neither an atypical rebel nor a downtrodden victim. See is clear that her characters do not live in a matriarchal society, but rather one that is ‘women-centred’: women earn money and exert power in the household because of their autonomous working life, while men do the bulk of the childcare, but formal education is still sought for boys rather than girls, and the men are the ones who are expected to think ‘big thoughts’. Many of the haenyo complain at how hard their lives are compared to those of their fathers, husbands and brothers, despite the fact that they reject the Confucian traditions of mainland Korea that explicitly subordinate women to men. It’s an anthropological study of a complicated culture, and this material is as gripping as its characters’ lives. This was one of the novels I was most looking forward to in 2019, and it didn’t disappoint.

Reading on My Travels, Sydney 2019: Mini-Reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Nix (**1/2), DNF @ 35%

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

Reading on My Travels, Tokyo 2019: Mini-Reviews

I’m back from my travels! Tokyo (and Kyoto, Nikko and Hakone) were everything I’d wanted them to be:

I’m posting my 20 Books of Summer reviews separately, but here’s some thoughts on the other reading I did while I was in Tokyo:

Taylor Jenkins Reid’s The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo was totally addictive – I tore through it in a single day, and I have to thank Rachel for persuading me that I’d like it despite my aversion to Old Hollywood settings. The plot draws on some classic chick-lit tropes: junior journalist Monique is stunned when she’s contacted out of the blue by Hollywood star Evelyn Hugo, now in her seventies, and asked to write her biography. Evelyn is famous for having been married seven times – but who was the true love of her life? And what other secrets is she hiding? So far, so predictable. However, Reid’s writing is a notch above similar novels like Harriet Evans’s Not Without You, and the novel is more diverse in terms of both sexuality and race than is usual for this genre; Monique is a biracial black woman, Evelyn is Cuban-American, and there’s also significant LGB representation. In considering the ‘it factor’ projected by true stars, and the emotional dynamics of close-knit groups, Reid picks up on some of the themes she explores further in her most recent novel, Daisy Jones and the Six, although I thought that novel’s innovative narrative structure and more restrained plot twists made it superior.

While I hugely enjoyed this novel, I did have some issues. Firstly, it’s cleverly organised into sections each named after one of Evelyn’s husbands, but this does mess with the pacing a little – some important segments of Evelyn’s life feel rushed, especially as she grows older (in contrast, Daisy Jones covers the band’s whole career but the bulk of it focuses on only a few years). Secondly, while it’s more mature in its approach to different kinds of love than the usual romance novel, I felt that the ending, which falls back on a traditional ‘love is more important than ambition’ platitude, was regressive compared to the more satisfying midpoint where Evelyn validates the importance of both love and career (if Reid was trying to say something clever here about how we value love at different points in our lives, she didn’t quite pull it off). Thirdly [highlight for spoilers] while I loved that Evelyn’s major relationship was with another woman, I felt there was a certain reliance on stereotypes; Evelyn is a bisexual, maritally promiscuous Cuban-American, which draws on unfortunate tropes about both bi people and Latin Americans, while her partner, Celia, is a ‘pure’, blonde, gold star lesbian. While there’s a bit of awkward dialogue where Evelyn argues that her multiple marriages have nothing to do with her bisexuality – which, to be fair, they don’t – this feels a bit pasted on to fix this problem, rather than integral to her character. [spoilers end] Nevertheless, I can forgive the novel a great deal for its last line; it’s just brilliant.

I gave up on Alex White’s A Big Ship at the Edge of The Universe about 15% in – I’m theoretically up for the idea of crossing SF and fantasy, but this fell too much on the fantasy side for me, and also did that irritating fantasy thing of setting up some interesting world-building only to abandon it all after the plot kicks off (SF seems to be generally better at integrating its stories more closely with the worlds they’re set in, and makes better use of set-piece/enclosed settings, which is something I can’t get enough of).

Finally, Hanna Jameson’s The Last is a sub-Station Eleven novel about ‘the end of the world’, but then again, most speculative fiction is sub-Station Eleven, and The Last does well at what it sets out to do. Jon, a historian of modern America, is staying in an isolated hotel in Switzerland when the news breaks of nuclear attacks on countries across the world. No-one knows quite what has happened – the situation is realistically confusing, with phone and internet connections breaking down – and Jon and a handful of other people decide it’s safest to stay holed up at the hotel, rather than venture into an uncertain world. Unlike Station Eleven, therefore, The Last picks up directly after the initial catastrophe, and looks at the nuts and bolts of rebuilding a workable society, rather than considering ‘higher level’ goods like art. Nevertheless, it doesn’t neglect more complex human needs. Jon, desperate to be useful in some way, starts recording events, and when a small girl’s body is discovered in the water tank of the hotel, decides that he’s going to find out what happened to her.

The Last is billed as a murder mystery as well as an end-of-the-world thriller, but it really isn’t about murder – Jon’s search for the girl’s killer is more about his own psychological need to support his belief that human life still matters, that it hasn’t become meaningless in the face of such disaster. This thread, therefore, backs up one of The Last’s central themes: that humans have enough good in them to work together for a common goal. Refreshingly, this is not a nihilistic look at human nature, although Jameson portrays violence and desperation at times. Instead, it impresses us with humankind’s ability to strive towards civilisation, despite our imperfections. Jon himself acts as a microcosm here – he has a number of admirable qualities, but he’s also an unreliable narrator who has done things he’s ashamed of and hurt other people. Jameson bravely leaves the ending wide open, and the ‘resolution’ of Jon’s anxieties about the fate of his wife and children, who were in San Francisco at the time of the attacks, is especially haunting.

20 Books of Summer, #4 and #5: The Chalk Artist and Winter Sisters

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Allegra Goodman’s latest novel, The Chalk Artist, set in Cambridge and Boston, is written in deliberately hallucinatory prose, making every element of the story feel heightened. This could tip into overkill but worked for me because of the subject-matter. Teenage Aidan is academically bright, but spends all his free time playing an MMORPG created by the company Arkadia (think World of Warcraft, which weirdly also exists in this universe even though linked games EverWhen and UnderWorld are clearly intended to mimic it – for example, one incident in the book obviously mirrors WoW’s famous Corrupted Blood incident in 2005). Aidan’s sister, Diana, scrawls endless, intermittently relevant answers to her teacher’s questions in her English journal, writing, among other things, about how worried she is about her brother. Diana’s teacher, Nina, is determined to get through to her students and prove that she can do something useful in the world – not simply exist as the daughter of Arkadia’s boss. Finally, Nina’s boyfriend, Collin, is the ‘chalk artist’ of the title; he’s incredibly gifted at sketching but doesn’t mind wiping his creations away when he’s done. Collin is also pulled into UnderWorld’s web after becoming a concept artist on a new game – where, he realises, his art is just as transient as chalk, but he’s no longer the one who destroys it.

The Chalk Artist picks up on themes that appeared in the two other Goodman novels I’ve read, Intuition and The Cookbook Collector – both of which were tantalisingly intelligent but spread themselves much too thin. Most interestingly, it starts to explore what it means to be gifted, and what we owe to our gift. Collin is preternaturally talented at art, but precisely because of that, he’s not attracted by the things that draw lesser artists – he’s dropped out of art school and loves the fact that nothing he makes lasts. This recalls a secondary character in Intuition, who refuses to play lab politics and abandons his career even though he’s a scientific genius. Disappointingly, however, The Chalk Artist doesn’t quite follow through on this theme when it comes to Aiden. Perhaps because of his age, Goodman implicitly endorses the idea that UnderWorld is bad for him, and pursuing good grades in the ‘real world’ is better, especially once he begins to be inspired by Nina’s tutoring. This is undercut slightly by the suggestion that connecting deeply with poetry is a fantastic – in the literal sense of the word – experience in its own right, but I’d like to have seen this novel take gaming a bit more seriously.

On the other hand, Goodman writes brilliantly about the experience of being immersed in a VR world; EverWhen and UnderWorld are so compelling precisely because she avoids the temptation to get bogged down in technological detail. I haven’t seen virtual reality written this well since a few classic novels from my childhood (1990s children’s fiction was a little obsessed with virtual worlds): Gillian Cross’s New World, Stephen Bowkett’s Dreamcastle, Helen Dunmore’s Fatal Error. All of these, like The Chalk Artist, emphasise the dangers of getting lost in something that is not real; but the way they describe what draws people into such worlds makes them more than simple morality tales. I’d hoped The Chalk Artist would be a 4.5 star read for me, and it isn’t quite; but it’s definitely a solid four stars, and my favourite so far from Goodman.

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Robin Oliveira’s Winter Sisters, set in Albany in 1879, is a loose sequel to My Name Is Mary Sutterwhich followed the eponymous Mary, a midwife striving to train as a doctor during the American Civil War. When I reviewed the first novel, I wrote that it was almost classically tragic in the hardships visited upon its central character, and upon her mother and sister. However, I felt that this worked in the context of that story, emphasising Mary’s superhuman determination to pursue her chosen career in the face of institutional misogyny and the hazards of wartime. In contrast, Winter Sisters feels both melodramatic and a little exploitative in the way it explores its characters’ misery. The novel kicks off in the way it means to continue: two reasonably prominent secondary characters from My Name Is Mary Sutter are unceremoniously dispatched in a blizzard to set up the plot-line of this novel. Their deaths occupy a couple of sentences, almost as if Oliveira was keen to get this set-up out of the way so she can move on to the central suffering of the story. For after these characters are killed, it’s discovered that their two young daughters, Emma and Claire, are missing, believed dead in the snowdrifts that have buried Albany.

Mary, a close friend of Emma’s and Claire’s family, determines to seek out the girls, but what she discovers is horrifying. Spoilers [highlight to read]. Emma and Claire have been kidnapped by two men and kept imprisoned in a cellar for weeks – during this time, Emma has been regularly raped and beaten by one of the men. Claire has been spared similar treatment because she is under the age of consent – which at that time was just ten. Spoilers end. The rest of the novel is devoted to exploring the aftermath of the girls’ fates, including an extended courtroom sequence. While Winter Sisters is well-written and makes careful use of historical detail, I did find myself questioning the need to cover this story in such detail. Oliveira’s afterword notes explicitly that she was inspired by the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, but by choosing such an unquestionable case, she fails to draw parallels between the past and the present and instead underlines the difference of the past. I also felt uncomfortable with the way she wrote her child characters, who are reduced to symbols of innocence and have little voice in the novel. If My Name Is Mary Sutter tipped towards tragedy, Winter Sisters wallows in it.

I’m now back in the UK but am still away from home travelling for work, and so may take longer to reply to comments than usual.

20 Books of Summer, #2 and #3: Queenie and Pulp

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Queenie, Candice Carty-Williams’s debut novel, has attracted comparisons to Bridget Jones for its funny and frank account of a young black woman working in the media, living in London, navigating bad one-night stands and on-off relationships with men, and relying on the support of her loyal group of female friends, or, as she renames their WhatsApp group, ‘The Corgis’. However, Queenie is more of a straight reinvention of the much-maligned and, in recent years, unpopular ‘chick lit’ genre than a successor to Bridget Jones. As I have said many times (and am going to keep saying until people stop saying the opposite!) Bridget Jones, at least in novel form, is not chick lit or a ‘romcom’ but social satire. Bridget is not meant to be a feminist icon and we aren’t necessarily meant to like her. In contrast, Queenie is hugely sympathetic, and realistically flawed. Her story is a satisfyingly different take on the chick lit plot. Rather than being relegated to the role of the ‘black best friend’, she takes centre stage, with both her white and black friends firmly positioned as her supporting cast; rather than personifying white liberal feminism at her media job, she vocally supports Black Lives Matter, despite resistance from her boss; and the ending is nicely unexpected.

Queenie is also far less ‘feelgood’ than most chick lit, and for all the right reasons; the misogynist and racist abuse Queenie receives, most often entwined in the form of ‘misogynoir‘, is incredibly distressing to read (and I’m speaking about this from the point of view of a white woman who has never had to receive this kind of abuse, so God knows how it must feel to read this if you’re a woman of colour). I found myself feeling angry on Queenie’s behalf almost all of the time, although I liked the way that Carty-Williams challenges the ‘strong black woman’ trope by allowing Queenie to be vulnerable and to seek help from a therapist. Queenie is the target of so much hate because her physical body is hyper-visible in the white-dominated places she’s forced to frequent; from a trendy lido, to her workplace, where only three ‘diverse’ colleagues could be found to appear in a ‘diversity’ poster (‘Zainab in Digital had refused to take part’), to the bars and clubs of Brixton that used to be dominated by her black Caribbean community. Her size, her hair, her skin colour and her shape (‘a bum like yours needs room for manoeuvre’) are all used to belittle and objectify her. In this way, she is a constantly ‘visible woman’, but not for the right reasons.

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Abby is a seventeen-year-old lesbian living in DC in the present day who’s decided to do her school project on post-war lesbian pulp fiction; Janet is an eighteen-year-old lesbian living in DC in the 1950s, trying to hide her sexuality as she finds herself falling in love with her best friend. Robin Talley’s Pulp alternates between these two girls’ stories, exploring the historical difficulties of being homosexual in an age of McCarthy and the ‘lavender menace’, while also dealing with Abby’s more mundane struggles with her family, her ex-girlfriend, and what being in love might mean.

Pulp has a great premise, but like much YA fiction, it suffers from being YA. Much as I wish writers wouldn’t write down to a teenage audience (though the majority of YA is actually read by adults) they continue to do so, and everything in Pulp is spelt out and ticked off far too neatly. Talley puts great effort into her diverse cast, featuring a range of characters of colour, a non-binary friend, and a number of bi and gay characters alongside her lesbian leads, but these feel like nothing more than lip-service, especially given that few of them play much of a role in the novel. Abby’s strand of the story is particularly slow, and Abby herself is really not an engaging character. The historical material is more interesting, but I didn’t feel as confident as I should have done with Talley’s handling of this period; some details, like Janet’s job at a drive-in, feel real, most feel too simplistic.

Pulp did, however, make me think about what a book about lesbians aimed at this kind of audience should be doing, if not for the right reasons. Abby rightfully condemns the kind of still-too-familiar queer narrative that sees its characters meet an unhappy ending, but she doesn’t seem to know what she wants to put in its place. As part of her project, she’s meant to be writing her own take on pulp fiction, but apart from ditching the ‘twilight realm’ and ‘in the shadows’ connotations and calling it Totally Normal Women in the Daylight, we never get a sense of what’s different about her plot. In fact, at one point, her teacher tells her that one of her characters, Henrietta, needs to grow and change throughout the course of the book, and Abby resists this – society was what was wrong, not Henrietta, she thinks. Of course, Abby sees this differently by the end of Pulp, but I didn’t get why – wouldn’t this actually be one way of challenging story conventions, by showing gay characters who don’t change, because they don’t need to, but also don’t have the protagonist’s traditional ‘agency’ because of the heteronormative world in which they live?

Pulp clearly wants to be something a bit more serious than Becky Albertalli’s delightful, feelgood LBGT YA novels (Simon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda, The Upside of Unexpected, Leah On the Offbeat) but, in aiming for this, it fails to deliver the subversive happiness of those stories, and doesn’t really deliver anything else. And it has nothing to say about LGBT identity, really, other than that oppression is bad. Overall – and so ironically for a book about pulp fiction – I just found it a bit worthy.

I’m still away travelling at the moment and so may take longer to reply to comments than usual.

20 Books of Summer, #1: Self-Portrait With Boy

Hello from Tokyo! I’m stacking up reviews, so even though I’m still on vacation, I’m going to start posting some of them, so I’m not overwhelmed. I may take longer to reply to comments than usual, and I’m sorry I haven’t been commenting on others’ blog posts – I’m excited to read them all when I get back! I’m doing pretty well with 20 Books of Summer – four read, partway through a fifth – so here’s my first review.

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Self-Portrait With Boy, Rachel Lyon’s debut, focuses on Lu Rile, a working-class artist in her mid-twenties, living in a condemned tower block in Brooklyn’s DUMBO – Down Under The Manhattan Bridge Overpass – district in the 1990s, before gentrification swept the area. (Lyon’s vivid depiction recalls Ivy Pochoda’s treatment of a different Brooklyn neighbourhood, Red Hook, under threat in Visitation Street.) Lu makes ends meet by working in a grocery store, but all the same, she’s constantly on the edge; costs mount up as she has to pay for her father’s cataract treatment, legal fees as her neighbours try and keep hold of their building, and materials and printing for her own photography projects. And despite Lu’s commitment to her work – for example, she takes a self-portrait every day – she’s nowhere near breaking through. But when a neighbour’s child, Max, falls to his death from the roof of the tower block, Lu accidentally creates a masterpiece; having set up her camera to capture herself leaping in front of her loft window, she also catches Max falling outside. What should she do with this photo – Self-Portrait #400?

The blurb of Self-Portrait With Boy sets this up as a choice: should Lu make the photo public or not, especially as she grows increasingly close to the dead boy’s mother, Kate? However, this novel isn’t really about that moral decision: Lu’s pretty clear from the start that she wants to show the photo, though she struggles over how to tell Kate. Instead, it’s a disturbing description of a protagonist who’s totally devoted to the task of making good art. Most of Lu’s narration is incredibly detached from the world, although, to be fair, this is heightened by her exhaustion as she takes on more and more jobs to make ends meet, and as she struggles to sleep as her repressed emotions manifest themselves as Max’s ghost tapping on her window.

One confrontation with her father feels especially brutal and truthful. When he buys her a Christmas gift of an ex-library photography book, she flicks through it:

Glossy colour photos of young green forests and beaches at sunset. Waterfalls that had been photographed on a long exposure so that their cascades looked soft and blurred as mist…

I said, Dad, do you know anything about the kind of work that I’ve been doing?… It’s not like this, I said. This isn’t art, Dad… This sort of photography is created to numb the mind. The sort of work I do, and I want to tell you this so that you know, it’s the opposite. It’s meant to unsettle the mind.

He said, It was only a dollar. You don’t like it, okay.

I said, It isn’t that I don’t like it. How can anyone not like a sunset or a fucking babbling brook?… but looking at a picture of it? Why? Why? Who opens up a book to look at a picture of a beach? People who hate their lives, The anxious and the weak. This isn’t art, it’s fucking lidocaine.

It would be easy to condemn Lu for her harshness towards her ageing, poorly-sighted father, but I felt there was another reading of this scene; Lu’s father matters to her enough that she’s willing to be open with him about what she believes, rather than cultivating her usual silence. It would be easy for her to come out with platitudes about his gift, but would that really be an honest way to conduct their relationship?

Spoilers follow [highlight to show].

When Lu realises that she is a lesbian, and that her close connection to Kate is, for her, romantic and possibly sexual, her extreme austerity throughout the bulk of this novel starts to make more sense. Lu has fully disconnected from her own sexuality, and so when she begins exploring it with a woman she meets by chance at a museum, her narrative as it has been is over. How might she have acted differently had she been in love, and aware of it, at the start of the novel? Lyon sensibly leaves this as an open question, refusing to allow Lu to fully soften even in the moving closing lines.

Spoilers end.

This is not just a book about a woman coming to terms with how and who to love, but a book about a woman who puts her creative self – not her ambition, I think that’s unfair – above everything else. Literally starving, Lu knows she won’t be able to continue making work unless something changes – so she takes her chance. What I found really objectionable about her conduct was less her determination to show the photo, and more her cowardice in not telling Kate of her plans. One could argue that Lu is not a true artist – that her best work was produced by accident – but, on the other hand, Lu wouldn’t have taken her photo if she hadn’t shown up for work on the three hundred and ninety-nine days before Self Portrait #400 appeared on her developing film. Haunting, clever and original.

Thanks to Rachel at pace, amore, libri for both recommending this novel and sending me a copy via her blog giveaway!