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

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

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

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

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

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

#SciFiMonth Reading, 2020

I haven’t really participated properly in #SciFiMonth this year, but here’s a round up of the science fiction and speculative fiction that I did read in November!

Megan Giddings’ debut novel Lakewood unites horror and speculative fiction in the story of Lena, a young black woman living in Michigan who drops out of college to participate in a secret medical testing programme to pay her mother’s medical bills after her grandmother dies. It soon becomes apparent that things at Lakewood, the location of the programme, are not right, but Lena can’t see another way forward – she’s gripped by the inertia that results from living in a system where both healthcare and education aren’t treated as universal rights, and black lives are viewed as less valuable. Despite the importance of Giddings’ message, however, and her deft use of some horror tropes, Lakewood didn’t function successfully as fiction for me. Like Mary South’s recent collection of short stories, You Will Never Be ForgottenI found it both too surreal and too obvious. Especially in its final third, Lakewood becomes hallucinatory in a way that I found frustrating, but at the same time, we’re told exactly what we should take away from this book, with Lena namechecking infamous historical medical experiments on black people such as Tuskagee

I’m late to the party with Octavia E. Butler’s science fiction classic Kindred, but I’m so glad I got there in the end. Kindred follows a black female writer, Dana, who is unexpectedly thrown back in time to antebellum Maryland, where she’s called upon to save the life of a drowning white boy. As she continues to jump back and forth through time, she realises that this boy is her ancestor, and that he will grow up to become a slaveowner in his own right – and that their fates seem to have become linked. This novel is more of a time-slip than a time travel narrative. Butler is uninterested in the metaphysical questions that get raised in a lot of time travel fiction, preferring instead to reckon with issues of historical relativism, culpability and empathy. I was struck by how naturally the story is told, although this isn’t the first time I’ve been impressed by how (American) science fiction writers from the 1970s and 1980s seem almost to speak from the page. Butler makes her set-up feel completely real through the very simple device of having her characters ask the right questions, allowing her to demonstrate that their actions and reactions make sense, and the novel is both emotionally engaging and incredibly thought-provoking. I’m definitely a Butler convert.

I also read two anthologies of science fiction and speculative fiction this month, Escape Pod, edited by Mur Lafferty and SB Divya, and New Suns, edited by Nisi Shawl. Escape Pod was drawn from the Escape Pod podcast to celebrate its fifteenth anniversary. As with all anthologies, there were some stories that worked for me better than others. I was disappointed to find a cluster of stories that, like Lakewood, committed the common SF error of introducing really promising concepts, but then spelling out the message of the story so clearly near the end that it ceased to be interesting. This was the case with Kameron Hurley’s ‘Citizens of Elsewhen’, Beth Cato’s ‘A Consideration of Trees’ and Tobias S. Buckell’s ‘The Machine that Would Rewild Humanity’, among others. However, in contrast to other SF collections I’ve read, this anthology was really strong on stories that were thoughtful and funny, or at least more light-hearted. I loved T. Kingfisher’s ‘Report of Dr. Hollowmas on the Incident at Jackrabbit Five’, Mary Robinette Kowal’s ‘Jaiden’s Weaver’, John Scalzi’s ‘Alien Animal Encounters’ and Cory Doctorow’s ‘Clockwork Fagin’. I’d already read NK Jemisin’s ‘Give Me Cornbread or Give Me Death’, in another collection, A People’s Future of the United States, but it’s a great story that’s worth revisiting. Overall, this anthology definitely picked up in its second half, and introduced me to a number of writers I hadn’t heard of before.

I received a free proof copy of Escape Pod from the publisher for review.

Nisi Shawl’s edited collection of speculative fiction by writers of colour, New Suns, has been on my radar for a while, and while, as I say, anthologies are always a mixed bag, this is an exceptionally strong selection. (It’s made me even keener to check out Shawl’s own work, as they clearly have good taste). There were only a couple of stories that didn’t work for me at all; Jaymee Goh’s ‘The Freedom of the Shifting Sea’ had a lot of pretty gratuitous body horror, which is not my thing; E. Lily Yu’s ‘Three Variations on A Theme of Imperial Attire’ not only had the kind of title that sends up red flags for me, but was awkwardly meta; and Karin Lowachee’s ‘Blood and Bells’ was a cliched Romeo-and-Juliet gang narrative, albeit set in another world. Having said that, I basically liked everything else in New Suns; even Hiromi Goto’s ‘One Easy Trick’, which became too silly for me by the end as a woman chases her own bellyfat through a forest and encounters a talking bear, had such an arresting and memorable opening that I can’t write it off. My favourite stories were mostly on the creepy side: Alex Jennings’s ‘unkind of mercy’ mixes a terrifying premise with an incredibly authentic, inattentive narrative voice to great effect; Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s very short ‘Give Me Your Black Wings Oh Sister’ taps into the fear of having done something terrible in childhood which we can’t remember, and which still sets us apart from everybody else; and Indrapramit Das’s ‘The Shadow We Cast Through Time’ sets up a haunting world on another planet governed by hagtrees and kalform demons. However, I also loved Minsoo Kang’s ‘The Virtue of Unfaithful Translations’, a lighter story about how two translators team up to stop a war that reminded me of some of the more stylised stories in Ken Liu’s edited collection of Chinese science fiction, Broken Stars, although Kang is Korean. A brilliant anthology.

Miscellaneous October Reading

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Melissa Harrison’s most recent novel, All Among the Barley, set in the early 1930s, focuses on an extended encounter between fourteen-year-old Edie Mather, who lives and works on a farm in rural England, and Constance FitzAllen, who claims that she has travelled from London to document rural traditions before they are lost to the next generation. Harrison’s nature-writing is spot on, and I thought that Edie’s narrative posed a resonant question: what do you do when there is no future for you in the place where you live, but when you are so bound to that place that you can’t imagine living anywhere else? In that, and in other ways, the novel recalls Helen Dunmore’s A Spell of Winter, with its menacing sexual tension and exploration of the boundaries of consent in Edie’s ‘courtship’ with a village boy. However, I thought the threat posed by Constance was almost too sinister; I think Harrison would have had more to work with if she had made her more of an early social scientist with a less overtly horrific agenda. Other themes, such as witchcraft and mental illness, feel underdeveloped. Harrison writes so well, but I was struck by the feeling that I would have been hugely impressed by this as an older teen, and that I don’t feel quite so drawn to these kind of books any more; which actually makes me feel a little sad.

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Temi Oh’s debut, Do You Dream of Terra-Two?, is set in an alternative present where a group of British teenagers have been selected to travel to the distant planet of Terra-Two, which is envisaged as an alternative home for humanity. The catch: the journey will take twenty-three years and none of them will ever come back. Before reading this novel, I was aware that a number of reviewers had found it too ‘YA-ish’, with a heavy focus on romance that reduced the sci-fi setting to a backdrop. The first third of Do You Dream of Terra-Two? absolutely met expectations in this respect, and I almost gave up on it several times. However, once our protagonists finally leave Earth, this novel takes off as well, acquiring a dream-like quality through the characters’ visions and imaginings of the utopian Terra-Two. It’s strongly influenced by Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game; there are some obvious nods to the earlier novel, such as the final stage of training being nicknamed ‘Command School’ and one male character becoming completely obsessed with a simulation. However, Oh also captures some of the mood of Ender’s experiences at Battle School, raising questions about how these characters are going to create a new world, especially when their adult mentors are absent or inadequate and the people they’ve left behind are already starting to forget them. It still feels more like the first installment in a series rather than a book that works in its own right, but I enjoyed the time I spent in its eerie world.

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Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale For The Time Being was one of my top ten novels of the last ten years, but I couldn’t finish All Over Creation. Thankfully, her debut, My Year of Meats, was a hit rather than a miss. Set in 1991, it follows Jane Takagi-Little, a Japanese-American documentarian who’s been employed by a Japanese production company to film a series called My American Wife!, sponsored by an American meat-exporting business who want to offload more beef into the Japanese market. The My American Wife! formula stipulates that Jane should find an attractive white woman with a reasonable number of children who can demonstrate a delicious meat dish that she makes to feed her family, and feature one woman like this per programme. However, as Jane gains more creative control, she starts going rogue, filming Hispanic and black families, adopted children, and, in her most daring decision, featuring a vegetarian lesbian couple making pasta primavera. Interwoven with Jane’s story is that of Akiko, a Japanese housewife whose abusive husband is part of the production team, and who forces her to watch every episode of My American Wife! and make the featured dishes. Jane and Akiko are poles apart, but their stories are linked by a common experience of infertility, with Jane suffering from a deformed uterus caused by the hormonal drugs her mother took during pregnancy. This leads her to start uncovering the ways in which hormones are used, often illegally, in the American meat industry, and the human cost of these practices. The blurb of My Year of Meats wasn’t that appealing to me; I thought it would become too simplistic, preaching about male violence and the horrors of the meat industry (although as a feminist vegetarian, I’m very much on board with such criticisms!). Instead, Ozeki writes so intelligently and vividly, I was totally engrossed. I also loved the short extracts from Sei Shōnagon’s The Pillow Book, which I believe Jane is drawn to because Shōnagon shares her sharp observational abilities. Brilliant, if not quite as brilliant as A Tale For The Time Being.

Durham Book Festival Online: Dialogue Books Proof Party

This year, alongside the John Murray Proof Party that I attended last week, Durham Book Festival also hosted a Dialogue Books Proof Party, offering free copies of two upcoming releases, plus a discussion with the writers chaired by Yvonne Battle-Felton. The two books were:

Unfortunately, Buki Papillon had technical problems and couldn’t join us for the discussion, which is a shame, because I’m really excited about An Ordinary Wonder. Set in Nigeria, it’s ‘the powerful coming of age story of an intersex twin, Oto, who is forced to live as a boy despite their heartfelt belief that they are a girl.‘ I’ve read very few novels about intersex people other than Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex and Kathleen Winter’s Annabel, so I’m looking forward to receiving the proof.

The discussion therefore focused on Kit Fan’s debut novel, Diamond Hill, which is set in Hong Kong in the 1980s, told in first-person from the point of view of a recovering heroin addict, Buddha, in the shanty town of Diamond Hill. Fan read an extract from the novel where Buddha encounters two figures that are crucial to the rest of the story – actress Audrey Hepburn and a teenage gang leader, Boss. (He explained that he wanted to write about Hepburn because when he was a child in Hong Kong in the 1980s, his dad would say to his mum, when he got impatient about her spending too long putting on her make-up, ‘do you think you’re Audrey Hepburn?’) The 1980s was also crucial to his vision for the book: he sees it as a ‘lost decade’ in Hong Kong, when people were obsessed with making money but also frightened about the looming handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China in 1997, especially after the events in Tiananmen Square in 1989, which led to a huge flow of emigration from Hong Kong.

Fan spoke really interestingly about two aspects of writing that are often used to judge the ‘authenticity’ of fiction: language and place. The novel is peppered with Cantonese, but English translations are included in parentheses. Fan explained that he wanted to use Cantonese in the novel partly because he remembered when writing it in school was taboo, as it was seen as a dialect, not a written language, but he also wanted to make the novel accessible to readers who don’t read Chinese or Cantonese. This led to a great back-and-forth with Battle-Felton over how easy authors should make things for readers. Fan also discussed how, although he grew up in an apartment building overlooking Diamond Hill, he has never visited the shanty town. He saw this as an advantage, not a disadvantage – he’s not writing a documentary, and it’s liberating to imagine somewhere you have never been.

Do either of these books appeal to you?

‘We could always blame the stars’

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Emma Donoghue’s latest novel, The Pull of the Stars, is set over three days in Dublin during the 1918 flu pandemic. Its narrator, Julia Power, is a nurse tasked with caring for pregnant women who have come down with influenza, as it’s known that these patients can be hit especially hard by the disease and that it may also lead to early delivery. Overcome with the amount of work, she requests and is sent a volunteer helper, Bridie Sweeney, who seems to know mysteriously little about the world but is very quick to learn. A new doctor is also assigned to oversee the ward: Kathleen Lynn, a real historical figure who was a Sinn Féin politician as well as its director of public health, and had been arrested in the Easter Rising of 1916. Reviewers have stressed how eerily timely The Pull of the Stars is (Donoghue was finishing her final edits on the novel when Covid-19 became a serious concern), but, funnily enough, I found it so immersive that I forgot to make connections between this historical pandemic and our contemporary situation, except in a couple of obvious moments where Julia is reading public health notices that stress keeping away from crowded venues. The power of this novel, for me, wasn’t because it has anything particular to say about Covid-19 but because of how well it works within the very narrow constraints it sets itself.

Unlike many readers, I wasn’t entirely won over by Donoghue’s Room, although I loved some of her earlier work; but, with The Wonder, Akin and now The Pull of the Stars, I think she’s become one of the writers who I’ll always follow with interest. The Pull of the Stars reminded me vividly of Sarah Waters’s The Night Watch[highlight for spoiler] not because of its lesbian content but [end spoiler] because both novelists use precise historical detail to patiently evoke the experience of living during an extraordinary time. While Waters’ WWII-set novel technically covers a number of years, the longest central section is a set-piece that focuses on a single night during the Blitz, and one of the characters is a female ambulance driver dealing with bomb casualties. In the same way, although in a different time and place, Donoghue brings to life the small routines of life on a ward as well as the horrifying stories of Julia’s patients. While I’m not familiar with Irish sources from the early twentieth century, their medical histories reminded me of similar accounts from England, although in that country the particular pressures imposed by Catholicism were largely absent. In 1915, the Women’s Co-Operative Guild published Maternity: Letters From Working Womenwhich collected narratives from English Guild members that graphically describe how they have been worn out by persistent childbearing alongside work and childcare. Donoghue repeats a chilling if potentially apocryphal saying in The Pull of the Stars: She doesn’t love him unless she gives him twelve.’ The Pull of the Stars might seem unnecessarily shocking in its depiction of the suffering of these women, but Maternity indicates that Donoghue is simply drawing from history.

Two of Donoghue’s other narrative choices have come in for criticism from reviewers: because I think that both of these constitute spoilers for the novel, I suggest you skip the next section [marked by two sets of asterisks] unless you want to find out what happened or you have already read the book.

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In the last quarter or so of The Pull of the Stars, Julia finds herself abruptly falling for Bridie. A number of Goodreads reviewers seem to think this came out of nowhere, but I don’t agree; in fact, I thought Donoghue cleverly seeded this twist from the moment that Bridie is introduced, but allowed us to recognise Julia’s feelings just as she clocks them herself. It made sense to me that, given the society she lives in, Julia wouldn’t initially allow herself to register her attraction to Bridie, but what Donoghue does do is make Bridie incredibly attractive to us, the readers, even as we forget that we’re seeing this through Julia’s eyes. This continued to the extent that I started to think that Bridie was being overly idealised; then the penny dropped. Far from being ‘tacked on’, I thought this romantic sub-plot was absolutely necessary for the emotional power of The Pull of the Stars, and key to its central conceit of how we are driven by forces we don’t always understand.

While I was predisposed to like this twist, the ending of The Pull of the Stars uses one of the tropes I usually hate in fiction: a happily childless woman who has never expressed much interest in motherhood before ending up with a baby. Sarah Moss criticised this in her Guardian review, writing that ‘I found this novel admirable right up to the final chapters, when it veers into a disappointing cliche.’ Weirdly enough, however, The Pull of the Stars might be the one novel where this trope worked for me, although I still think the prevalence of it in fiction is a problem. Thinking it over, I felt that the book was so bleak that it had to end with a fragment of hope, and while there were probably other ways to supply that hope, they might not have been as historically plausible (I would have loved to see Julia team up with Kathleen Lynn and her female partner when they opened their free clinic and then a children’s hospital, but this wouldn’t have worked within the tight timeline of the novel). I was also glad that Julia adopted a baby rather than randomly getting pregnant herself, which made the choice seem less about ‘maternal instinct’ and more about trying to break the cycle of abuse she’s witnessed. So I’m giving Donoghue a bit of a pass for this one, especially as she doesn’t have form for resorting to convention.

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In short: this is a brief novel that works incredibly well, and which has much more to offer than a reflection of the Covid-19 pandemic. Beautiful, moving work by Emma Donoghue.

20 Books of Summer, #17 and #18: New Waves and The Fens

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Kevin Nguyen’s debut New Waves was one of my most anticipated new releases of 2020, and it didn’t disappoint, even though the novel I read turned out to be a very different novel from the one the blurb led me to expect. New Waves was billed as fast-paced and satirical, featuring a black woman, Margo, and a Vietnamese man, Lucas, who team up to steal their New York tech start-up’s user database after being ignored and underpaid by the company for too long. While that’s certainly where the story starts, this hook doesn’t have much to do with where it goes after that. Nevertheless, as it turned out, New Waves fits right into a sub-genre that I’ve only just realised I love: literary fiction about fascinatingly opaque characters whom we learn about solely through the viewpoints of their friends and the technological or artistic remnants they leave behind (see also: Anna North’s The Life and Death of Sophie Stark and Nell Freudenberger’s Lost and Wanted). Which is to say that this novel is all about Margo, tech genius and science fiction short story writer, even though she dies in a random accident in its first few pages. Grieving the loss of his best friend, Lucas hunts through her laptop, and while he doesn’t exactly come across revelations that overturn everything he knows about Margo, he definitely finds things that switch that knowledge onto new tracks. New Waves is so smart about race and gender, but it also has a lot to say about how both people and programmes tend to add up data in a way that makes sense to them. Margo’s short stories are nihilistic, refusing to organise themselves in any way that allows a happy ending, but her actual presence in Lucas’s life was relentlessly optimistic. Because we never hear from her directly (other than in the typed and spoken material she left behind, which is more about her fiction than about her), we are left to make up our own minds about a lot of loose ends. What kind of person was she deep down? What did she really think about Lucas? This novel will probably drive some readers to distraction, but I loved it.

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Francis Pryor is an archaeologist who specialises in the study of the British Bronze and Iron Ages. The Fens: Discovering England’s Ancient Depths traces the history of this particular English region from prehistoric times to the present day, interspersing Pryor’s personal experiences on particular digs and his memories of living in the fenland with an archaeologist’s view of how and why the fens have developed and changed. Unsurprisingly, given Pryor’s area of specialism, which I wasn’t aware of when I picked up this book, the bulk of the material is prehistoric; the medieval fens, which is the period I’m personally most interested in, barely get a look in, and what he does say about medieval power relationships is pretty simplistic from a historian’s point of view. Pryor is, when it comes down to it, more interested in the evolution of technologies, buildings and settlements than in social and political history, and fair enough if that’s your kind of thing. However, I did feel this would struggle to appeal beyond a relatively narrow audience. It’s very long, goes off on a lot of tangents, and Pryor’s writing is clear but no more than that. Certainly, the autobiographical elements of this book don’t add very much, although it promises to discuss a more emotional relationship with landscape. If you’ve lived in the fens, there will be something to interest you here, but it might not be enough to engage you for the whole 400+ pages; I read the first four chapters and then skipped to the chapters that particularly appealed to me.

I’ve made a second and final substitution in my 20 Books of Summer; unfortunately, my NetGalley copy of Gina Rippon’s The Gendered Brain was so badly formatted it was unreadable (not the first time), so I’ve subbed in Xuan Juliana Wang’s collection of short stories Home Remedies, which was on my list of books to read in 2020.

Random Late Summer Non-Fiction Reading

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Perhaps I was always going to have unfair expectations of Gabrielle Moss’s Paperback Crush: The Totally Radical History of 80s and 90s Teen Fiction, which is a broad survey of a lot of the US middle grade and YA fiction published in these two decades. I don’t research children’s lit or YA at the moment (though watch this space for a super secret exciting project coming soon!!*), but I’ve read enough on the topic to know that there’s scholarly work on this that Moss doesn’t engage with. However, having said that, I think I would have been happy enough with a shallow analysis of publishing trends and genre history if Moss had really seemed to know and love the books that she’s writing about. And while there are exceptions – she’s clearly a big Christopher Pike fan and gives a welcome shout-out to The Midnight Club, also my favourite Pike – she doesn’t really manage to convey her enthusiasm. Here, Moss isn’t well served by the explosion of blogs and online articles that so intelligently and hilariously dissect 80s and 90s mass market paperbacks aimed at this age group. Why would you read Moss on Lurlene McDaniel when you could read Somewhere Between YA Lit and Death? Or on Sweet Valley High when we have 1bruce1 AND Double Love? On the Baby-Sitters’ Club when we have 3_foot_6’s recaps on bsc_snark? On Point Horror when we have Teenage Scream? Or on this era at all when we have Frankie Thomas’s YA of Yore series in The Paris Review? So as I say, a bit unfair – Moss clearly did not have the page space to be able to go into the same amount of depth – but I guess I think this would have worked better if it had focused on a handful of Moss’s own favourite series rather than trying to cover everything (which it can’t, and doesn’t, anyway). The book is worth it for the hilarious full-colour reproductions of 1980s and 1990s book covers alone, however. And for any other 90s kids, I’m sorry not sorry if I just sent you down a rabbit hole with any of those links.

*maybe temper your expectations, unless you are really into 90s/early 00s middle grade US SF

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Recent Cambridge graduates Chelsea Kwakye and Ọrẹ Ogunbiyi wrote Taking Up Space: The Black Girl’s Manifesto for Change for other black girls like them trying to navigate the still very white spaces of the British university system. However, it’s an important read for anyone who is involved in education in any way, shape or form. The topics covered – institutional racism, white curriculums, mental health, dating – are not obviously different from a number of other books on race and gender in modern Britain, but Kwakye and Ogunbiyi’s specific perspectives as young black women are hugely valuable. Having taught black students at both Oxford and Cambridge, this book made me further reflect on my own practice, sometimes uncomfortably, especially when Kwakye and Ogunbiyi discuss how they felt at times that less was expected of them because they are black women. At a conscious level, I know that I don’t expect less of black female students, but, especially in the one-to-one and one-to-two supervision/tutorial contexts of Cambridge and Oxford, we as supervisors/tutors are constantly making judgment calls about how to interact with students. Do you aggressively press a counter-argument in the hope that this will inspire the student to defend their own case, or should you talk through other interpretations more collaboratively so you don’t make them feel attacked? For obvious reasons, I’ll tread more carefully if I feel that students, of whatever race or gender, seem under-confident or uncertain, but as I’ve reflected in the past, it’s hard to judge whether these snap judgments are influenced by unconscious bias. On the other hand, Kwakye and Ogunbiyi point out that authority figures and peers can go too far the other way, assuming that they are invulnerable because they are ‘strong black women’, and not allowing them space to care for their own wellbeing. This opposing trope reminds the reader that improving black women’s experience of education is a continuous and challenging process of attaining balance in the context of a racist society.

20 Books of Summer, #14 and #15: The Mercies and The Terror

After a series of random mismatched 20 Books of Summer posts, I am perhaps unreasonably pleased that I’ve finally managed to bring together two historical novels that share undoubted thematic similarities, despite some equally obvious differences. Both are set in the far and freezing north; both feature characters in small communities beset by threats from outside that raise superstitious fears; both feature uneasy interactions between white Europeans and local indigenous people; and both are full of violence and death. Neither, therefore, is the best summer read, but as someone who isn’t the biggest fan of summer, I didn’t find that to be a problem 🌞

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Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s first adult novel, The Mercies, is set on a tiny island off the Norwegian coast in the early seventeenth century. When an unexpected storm sweeps in and kills almost all of the island’s men, the women are left to fend for themselves, and are managing well enough when a commissioner from Scotland, steeped in King James VI and I’s writings on witchfinding, is dispatched from the mainland to root out suspected sorcery in this isolated community. Threaded through this series of real historical events is the story of two women: Maren, one of the islanders, who is trying to handle the breakdown of the relationship between her mother and Sámi sister-in-law, and Ursa, the commissioner’s unhappy wife. Hargrave warmly conveys the way in which these very different women come to trust and love each other, as Maren teaches Ursa basic skills such as baking and butchering that she never had cause to learn before. While the pace of this novel is deliberately meditative, the building tensions within the wider community of women are exceptionally well-conveyed, with their common experience of grief proving to be divisive as they find different ways of coping with the tragedy.

The Mercies has an unapologetically feminist focus, and it’s this perhaps that sets it apart from the many, many novels I’ve read that deal with witchcraft accusations in isolated communities in both the early American colonies and across Europe (Corrag/Witch Light by Susan Fletcher; The Heretic’s Daughter by Kathleen Kent; Burial Rites by Hannah Kent). This isn’t to say that these other fictions aren’t conscious of gender inequality, because they are, but The Mercies is both more brutal and more beautiful in its depiction of the position of women under patriarchy. Hargrave vividly depicts Ursa’s humiliating marriage and the abuse faced by the village women who break out of traditional roles to take to the fishing boats after the loss of their men. She gives her story time to breathe before tightening the screws at the end, and while some readers may think this makes the book too slow, I thought this decision was necessary to ensure that we truly care about these characters before they meet their fates. While I clocked that this book plays into a trope that is much too common [highlight for spoiler] bury your gays [end spoiler], I did think that Hargrave made the right kind of choice for the story she was telling, although she could have softened this somewhat by [highlight for spoiler] not killing Maren [end spoiler]. This confident and moving novel bodes well for Hargrave’s future in adult fiction.

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Dan Simmons’s The Terror tells the story of John Franklin’s infamous ‘lost expedition’ (1845-8), a voyage of exploration that intended to chart the Arctic Northwest Passage but from which none of the men ever returned. The fate of Franklin’s expedition attracted a fair amount of attention at the time, especially given the (later verified) rumours of cannibalism among some of the crew and the single, confusing note that survives from one of the copper cairns where Franklin was meant to leave regular reports of his progress. Simmons starts his story after Franklin’s death, during the period when the expedition’s two ships, Erebus and Terror, were still stuck fast in pack ice off King William Island. Nineteenth-century Arctic expeditions relied on building ships that could survive a winter or more marooned in this way, but Franklin’s party ran into particular trouble. Not only did two winters pass with little sign of the pack ice loosening enough for them to sail in the intervening warmer periods, but much of the tinned food they had packed was found to have been poorly sealed, and became poisonous. Along with the weakening of the ascorbic acid in their stores of lemon juice over time, scurvy became a major problem for the crew, alongside other horrific ailments such as frostbite.

Not content with allowing his characters to deal with these trials, Simmons introduces a supernatural element into the mix. Both ships are being stalked by a mysterious white creature that is far taller and more deadly than a polar bear, and which kills men without warning. The Terror switches between more mundane struggles for survival and the fear induced by this monster, but these two plots don’t properly dovetail until the men leave their stricken ships and begin hauling sledges overland to reach a new stock of supplies at one of their base camps, about two-thirds of the way through the narrative. For me, it was only at this point that the novel became truly gripping, which is a bit of an ask given that it’s almost a thousand pages long. Nevertheless, Simmons serves up brilliant set-piece after brilliant set-piece in the first two-thirds, so if you can deal with the lack of narrative pull and are attracted by the blurb, you’re still likely to get a lot out of this book. Two particular stand-outs are a terrifying action scene where one of the ship’s ‘ice masters’ has to climb and leap through the rigging to evade the monster, and a garish ‘Carnivale’ that the men hold on the ice, complete with tents made of sailcloth dyed of different colours, that predictably ends in carnage.

Simmons’s account of being an explorer in the coldest regions of the Earth is the best fictional recreation I’ve ever read, summoning up memories of Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s hellish memoir of his Antarctic experience, The Worst Journey in the World, and, through this, he fully captures the absurdity of the colonial mindset that led white men to ship bad canned food to the furthest corners of the globe rather than recognising the skills that allow native people to survive there. There’s absolutely no way that this book needed to be as long as it is for Simmons to achieve what he wanted with it; however, it’s not a story that I’ll forget in a hurry.

20 Books of Summer, #1 and #2: Brixton Hill and The Vanishing Half

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I enjoyed Lottie Moggach’s two previous social-issue literary thrillers, Kiss Me First and Under the Sunand Brixton Hill is very much in the same vein. Rob is nearing the end of a seven-year sentence for manslaughter in an open prison in Brixton; he’s now allowed out on day release to volunteer in a charity shop. Rob knows that all he has to do now is keep his head down and be on his best behaviour to secure his freedom, but an accidental encounter with Steph, an attractive, well-dressed woman, on Brixton Hill, threatens to risk all of that. Structurally, this novel, which switches between the first-person perspectives of both Rob and Steph, hits all its thriller beats. We’re kept guessing as to what Steph really wants from Rob, and how much he’s worked out about her motives, and Moggach weaves in the small clues very effectively. However, Rob’s narrative, in particular, delivers something even more interesting. Despite his many certificates from prison courses proving that he’s learnt to feel remorse and manage anger, he is uncertain about the possibility of true rehabilitation. He self-presents as a genuinely guilty perpetrator, but we are also left to judge how far his story is reliable, especially as Moggach deliberately limits how much we know about his crime. On the other hand, the novel’s depiction of life even in an open prison highlights how damaging and ineffective imprisonment is, and how difficult it is for released prisoners to aspire to anything in the world outside; the nature of Rob’s conviction means that it will never expire, and so even something like getting credit on a mobile phone purchase will always be hard for him. Brixton Hill kept me gripped, but it also left me with plenty to think about.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on July 2nd.

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I wanted to read Brit Bennett’s second novel, The Vanishing Half, despite being underwhelmed by her debut, The Mothers, because I found the synopsis so intriguing. The Vanishing Half is about identical twin sisters Desiree and Stella, born into Mallard, a Louisiana town so small that it doesn’t feature on maps, and is distinguished by having an all-black population who pride themselves on having extremely light skin. Both sisters flee Mallard in adolescence for a more promising life in New Orleans, but Desiree returns in early adulthood with her small and ‘dark’ daughter, Jude, in tow, while Stella disappears into an entirely different life, passing as white, marrying a white man, and having her own daughter, Kennedy. Bennett arguably spends too much time setting this all up in the first quarter of the novel, which is pretty slow, but once it takes off, The Vanishing Half has some very interesting things to say about race. This is brought home most vividly in the chapters written from Stella’s point of view where she negotiates a friendship with a new black neighbour in her all-white neighbourhood; having accepted the social and economic privileges bestowed upon her by adopting a white identity, she now realises painfully how this excludes her from the friendship and trust of black women.

Similarly, when the two cousins eventually and inevitably meet, they have their own understandings of what race is and means: Kennedy declares that she isn’t black, while Jude insists that Kennedy is. Both cousins’ interpretations seem rational: Kennedy has been brought up as a white woman, with access to everything that would have been denied to her were she racialised as black, but at the same time, her grandfather was still lynched by white racists, and her mother’s decision has left her estranged from her own family history. Bennett’s aim is not to adjudicate this argument, but to draw attention to how constructed and yet how real the category of race is. Jude’s long-term relationship with a trans man, Reese, seems to be designed to explore this theme further, but here I felt the novel fell short: Bennett doesn’t say enough about Reese’s life or how he understands his identity for this thread to take off. Nevertheless, this is a strong second novel that takes Bennett’s highly readable writing to the next level.

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

Wolfson History Prize Blog Tour: The Five

I was delighted to be invited to take part in the blog tour for the Wolfson History Prize for the second year running. The Prize celebrates historical writing which ‘combines excellence in research with readability’ and you can see the full 2020 shortlist here.

The winner of the Prize will be announced on Monday 15 June 2020 in a virtual ceremony.

Today I’ll be reviewing one of the shortlisted titles, Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper, which fits nicely with my teaching interests (I don’t focus on the nineteenth century in my own research, but have taught a number of undergraduate modules on gender and sexuality in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Britain.)

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The obsessive study of Jack the Ripper, or ‘Ripperology’, has been a persistent if unpleasant trend since the series of Ripper murders were committed in Whitechapel in 1888. The Bishopsgate Institute, located in Spitalfields, holds a collection of more than three hundred books on the Ripper (though to be fair, when I toured their archives, they seemed pretty embarrassed by this, and much more keen to talk about their brilliant collections of LGBT+ and protest history). In The Five, Rubenhold wants to face firmly away from this accumulation of misogynist morbidity and focus on the lives of the five women believed to have been killed by Jack the Ripper: Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Kate and Mary Jane. To be honest, it’s a great idea for a joint biography even without the aim of debunking Ripper myths: we often think about the diverging life courses of people who started in the same place, but here we have five women who started in very different places but came to the same end. It makes the five life stories that Rubenhold presents feel increasingly claustrophobic, as each bottlenecks towards its descent.

One hugely important result of this is to blow apart Victorian myths of what social investigators called the ‘residuum’, the people who lived in the very worst circumstances, skirting between criminality and vagrancy in the inner cities. Rubenhold shows that we cannot think of the nineteenth-century poor as a miserable, identical mass. Several of these five women – who experienced their childhoods in the period before the establishment of compulsory universal elementary education in England in 1870 – were literate. Polly spent much of her adult life in one of the model Peabody estates built to hasten slum clearance, which only admitted working-class residents seen to be of exceptional character and industry. Elizabeth was an immigrant from Sweden. Annie was the daughter of a cavalry trooper, growing up between London and Windsor barracks where ‘the sight of landaus filled with ladies in expensive silk bonnets and titled gentleman whose uniforms clanked with medals would have seemed an ordinary occurrence’. Kate often made a living, alongside her husband, as a chapbook seller and street singer. Mary Jane, the last of the five victims, offered other women sanctuary from the streets when she heard about the Whitechapel murders, and was heard singing in her room for more than an hour on the night she herself was killed. The Five brings home the fragility of Victorian respectability, familiar to academic historians of this period, to a popular audience, indicating how easy it was for working-class support systems to fail, even among the families of the most skilled craftsmen.

The Five is also concerned with shattering a myth that is central to Ripperology, and which remains the one thing that most people know about Jack the Ripper’s victims: the assumption, made by the press at the time, that the Ripper deliberately targeted prostitutes. Rubenhold argues that four out of five of the victims did not regularly engage in selling sex, and therefore, this framework, which contributes to the gruesome notoriety of this series of murders, is wrong. But, as Rubenhold makes clear in her conclusion to this book, the word ‘prostitute’ did not have a straightforward meaning in Victorian England. Selling sex has never been illegal in England, so to be convicted as a ‘common prostitute’ [the legal term which was used at the time] under the Vagrancy Act of 1824, you needed to also be behaving in a ‘riotous or indecent manner’ in pubic. However, because these two claims (soliciting and bad behaviour) needed to be combined for a charge to be brought against you, the identification of which women were ‘common prostitutes’ was to a large extent left to the judgement of the police.  ‘Common prostitute’, therefore, became a legal category that ‘manufactured prostitutes’, in the words of the first female inspector of women’s prisons in 1918: it was not an offence to be a prostitute, but once you were designated as such, you could be accused of crimes that other women could not commit. [1]

As Rubenhold writes in her conclusion: ‘very few authorities, including the Metropolitan Police, could agree as to what exactly constituted a “prostitute” and how she might be identified’ as the moral codes of the time did not firmly distinguish between casual sex outside wedlock and sex work. She emphasises that four out of the five women were not legally labelled as ‘common prostitutes’, and that there is also little evidence that they engaged in ‘casual prostitution’. Nevertheless, I was a little concerned by the way that this argument was handled throughout the course of The Five. In the four sections that deal with these women, Rubenhold spends quite a lot of time emphasising that they were not prostitutes, and her return to the subject in the conclusion seems to frame it as a central finding of the book. Moreover, it’s only in the conclusion itself that Rubenhold explores the contested meaning of the word ‘prostitute’ in the nineteenth century in detail; before that, the casual reader would likely think that ‘prostitute’ = ‘sex worker’. In short, I worried that, by putting so much emphasis on this issue, Rubenhold was giving ground to the Ripperologists by debunking a claim that they clearly consider to be important. But ultimately, it should not matter whether or not these women sold sex. The Five is a significant book for so many other reasons; there’s no need to lean on this one.

Make sure to check out the other stops on this blog tour as it enters its second week:

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[1] Julia Laite, ‘Taking Nellie Johnson’s fingerprints: prostitutes and legal identity in early twentieth-century London’History Workshop Journal, 65, 1 (2008), paywalled.