Wolfson History Prize 2019 Blog Tour: Building Anglo-Saxon England by John Blair

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‘Outside the precincts of minsters,’ John Blair writes in the conclusion to his magnificent new monograph, Building Anglo-Saxon England, almost everything that was built before the year 1000 carried with it no expectation that it would last. The Anglo-Saxons conceived their secular building and planning projects as the “Beowulf” poet did Herorot: “The hall towered aloft, high and wide-gabled: it awaited the upheavals of war and malicious fire.”‘ The question that this book confronts is: how can we find out how Anglo-Saxon settlements developed if their timber buildings have long disappeared? As Blair puts it: ‘this was a culture whose sophisticated artisanship and careful structuring of the built environment sat remarkably lightly in the landscape.’ As anyone who had the chance to visit the stunning British Library Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition will know, the Anglo-Saxons left behind much material evidence in the form of what Blair calls ‘small precious objects’ – the treasures of the Sutton Hoo excavations and Staffordshire Hoard, and fantastic illuminated manuscripts such as the Lindisfarne Gospels – but what did their larger works look like?

Objects from the Staffordshire Hoard, c.600, and an image from the Lindisfarne Gospels, c.715-720

Building Anglo-Saxon England, covering the period 600-1100, takes an innovative methodological approach to this problem (historians please note that I am writing as a general reader here, rather than with my historian hat on; as a modernist, I can’t fully assess how novel these claims are!) Blair explains that the integration of archaeological and historiographical findings allows us to draw a much more detailed picture of the settlements and buildings of Anglo-Saxon England than was possible in the past. Despite the wealth of material evidence discovered by archaeological digs since the 1980s, historians have not been able to access this ‘grey literature’ easily because most of it is unpublished and unprinted. On the other hand, archaeologists of early medieval England have taken a ‘prehistoric’ approach to this period despite the fact that textual evidence (albeit extremely patchy, and limited to certain geographical areas such as Wessex and Northumbria) does exist. Blair also emphasises the importance of drawing on other disciplines such as anthropology, geography and place-name studies in rewriting the history of Anglo-Saxon settlement.

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5th century excavations. From the Anglo-Saxon Archaeology blog.

Blair’s conclusions are numerous, but some of his most important points are as follows. Firstly, he argues, Anglo-Saxon secular architecture was likely as sophisticated and complex as the smaller material goods that they have left behind. Regional diversity is crucial to understanding settlement patterns, especially in considering the autonomous development of Mercia, and England was influenced equally by the Frankish (Carolingian) and Scandinavian worlds after 650. However, this is not only important for architectural historians or archaeologists; work on ‘rank, lordship and estate management’ needs to take account of how much things varied from place to place, and not assume that the social structures of eastern England and the East Midlands dominated everywhere, especially before 920. This means that many popular assumptions about an homogenous feudal society made up of lords and peasants and the ‘caging of the peasantry’ by feudal law may have to be rethought, even for the later medieval period.

But while this enormous book will surely be of interest to scholars, how accessible is it to the general reader? One obvious barrier is its sheer size; I can barely lift it one-handed, certainly can’t turn pages unless I use both hands, and struggle to rest it comfortably on my lap. However, the reason it’s so big isn’t because it’s overlong but because of the huge number of maps and diagrams that Blair has somehow managed to persuade his publisher to include; far more than is normal for an historical monograph. Given the nature of the subject, these are essential. And while the book may be physically heavy, its contents are less daunting than you might imagine. Starting Building Anglo-Saxon England reminded me of sitting down with someone who knows a lot more than you about a subject you never thought you were interested in; you think the conversation is going to be boring, but actually they win you over with their sheer enthusiasm, knowledge and clarity.

I received a free copy of this book for review from Midas PR as part of the Wolfson History Prize blog tour. 

The other titles shortlisted for the Wolfson History Prize 2019 are as follows (just look at this beast sitting on the top!) and the winner will be announced on 11th June.

books-2019-2Don’t forget to check out the other stops on the blog tour this week!

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Unhappy People: Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (Jeanette Winterson) & Normal People (Sally Rooney)

Jeanette Winterson grew up in an English Pentecostal family. Her adoptive parents were shocked when she came out as a lesbian, and had their church conduct an exorcism. Winterson ended up leaving home at sixteen, and broke contact with her family shortly after. Famously, she published a fictionalised account of her childhood and adolescence, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, when she was only twenty-five, but this memoir addresses her experiences from her own point of view. The title has a simple origin. When Winterson told her mother that she had fallen in love with another woman, and that this relationship made her very happy, her mother said: ‘Why be happy when you could be normal?’

While few people would put this question as bluntly as Mrs Winterson (Winterson refers to her mother in this way throughout Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?) I think that it’s a question that a lot of us grapple with. That’s certainly true for the protagonists of Sally Rooney’s second novel, Normal People, Connell and Marianne, who meet at school in Carricklea and carry on an one-off relationship through their years at university in Dublin. While Marianne’s family are far better off than Connell’s – Connell’s mother cleans their house – Marianne’s class privilege does little to help her at school, where Connell possesses all the social cachet. When they start sleeping together, both simply assume that the relationship should be kept secret. Cleverly, Rooney reverses the power dynamics in Dublin, where it is Marianne who is striving for social success, whereas Connell takes the brunt of not only being working-class but rural. Both characters feel the pressures of being what Marianne calls ‘normal people’, a state that is both aspirational and stifling.

Like Connell, Winterson came from a working-class family in a relatively out-of-the-way location (in her case, Accrington) and went to a glamorous world-class university (in her case, Cambridge). She writes so well about both class and religion. Despite the oppressive nature of the Pentecostal church, she remembers how she valued the sense of community it brought and the simple fact of ‘having somewhere to go in the evening’ in a declining north-west England industrial town where communal facilities had been steadily stripped away. Not connecting this to the bigger picture at the time, Winterson, as a young woman, voted for Thatcher in 1979, valuing what she seemed to represent: a self-made woman in a world where left politics felt dominated by masculine trade unionism. In contrast, both class and (especially) religion are relatively slight in Normal People. While class differences feed into the consistent miscommunication between Connell and Marianne, Rooney seems more interested in analysing how they misunderstand each other word by word and sentence by sentence, rather than suggesting that there are macro factors that keep them apart. The sadness of their story is that it could so easily have been different. In terms of politics, Marianne talks vaguely about Marxism, but that’s as far as it goes.

Rooney is a wonderfully observational writer. This Goodreads review seems to me to miss the point of her prose; it accuses her of piling up irrelevant details, but actually the content of this quote is who is doing what:

Marianne goes inside and comes back out again with another bottle of sparkling wine, and one bottle of red. Niall starts unwrapping the wire on the first bottle and Marianne hands Connell a corkscrew. Peggy starts clearing people’s plates. Connell unpeels the foil from the top of a bottle as Jamie leans over and says something to Marianne. He sinks the screw into the cork and twists it downwards. Peggy takes his plate away and stacks it with the others.

While I don’t think this is the strongest example of Rooney’s writing, there’s a certain power dynamic here that we can see through Connell’s eyes; Marianne bringing out more bottles; handing him a corkscrew while her current partner, Jamie, tries to get her attention; Peggy taking charge through clearing the plates.

Ordinary People is an addictive read, and I found it less limited than Conversations With Friends (the critics who have suggested that Rooney has somehow regressed because she’s writing about characters who are chronologically younger than her last set of protagonists need to think again). However, I have to confess that I’m baffled as to why it’s being hailed as ‘a future classic’. I feel like I’ve read quite a few novels like this, most notably Belinda McKeon’s beautiful TenderI’d still put it on my personal shortlist for this year’s Women’s Prize, but this is partly due to the weakness of the overall longlist rather than feeling blown away by this book.

What I wanted it to address, I suppose, is something that’s inchoate in the story but never quite comes to the surface: when we are teenagers, we often want more than anything to be ‘normal people’, but as we find out how easy it is to be normal, we strive to become exceptional again. This happens most obviously to Marianne when she’s accepted by a popular set at university, and is seduced into putting her own needs and interests to one side. In Winterson’s case, I get the sense that, after what her mother said to her, being ‘normal’ was never on the agenda; so her wonderful memoir is more about the cost of living on the other side of normality, which may be the right place to be, but is often a very painful space as well.

Wellcome Book Prize 2019: Shortlist Events and Award Ceremony

I’m off to the Wellcome Book Prize award ceremony tonight to find out which of these books has won the prize!

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I went to the Wellcome 5×15 event with a friend yesterday evening at Wilton’s Music Hall, where five of the six shortlisted authors had fifteen minutes each to discuss their work. This was great, as always – if I lived in London, I’d try to go to some non-Wellcome-related 5×15 events, as the format really works for me. Here are some brief thoughts.

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Sarah Krasnostein: ‘Trauma cleaning for Sandra’

Krasnostein gave a very emotive talk on The Trauma Cleanerher biography of Sandra Pankhurst, a trans woman who has suffered her own personal horrors and now cleans the houses of hoarders, agoraphobics and those who have died and been left undiscovered. It’s clear how much this matters to her. She described how, when she first began the research for this book, her doctor asked her ‘Who would ever want to read that?’ and how this made her more determined to show how we are all connected despite our outward differences. To emphasise this, she used the metaphor of a forest of 40,000 quaking aspens in Utah, which are all linked by the same root system even though they look like individual trunks above the surface (this really is fashionable at the moment!) Krasnostein sees her book as a kind of trauma cleaning for Sandra, doing for her subject what she has done for others. The Trauma Cleaner was our shadow panel winner, and I think it has a good chance of taking the actual prize.

Sandeep Jauhar: ‘Taking away the sudden death option’

In my favourite talk of the evening, Jauhar, a cardiologist, spoke about how his family history of malignant heart disease led him to write his popular medical book, Heart: A History. Like Krasnostein, he encountered some initial resistance to his topic: his eleven-year-old son told him ‘Don’t write a book about the heart. No-one will buy it, because the heart is boring.’ Jauhar told us how the sudden deaths of both of his grandfathers gave him a ‘fear of the heart’, which he saw as both powerful and vulnerable, and how he became obsessed with the organ as a child, adjusting the speed of the ceiling fan so it synchronised with his heartbeat. (He also discovered that if you hooked up an average adult human heart to a swimming pool, it would empty it in a week.) Overall, though, he has come to the conclusion that a swift death from heart disease can be merciful, leaving him with difficult decisions to make about whether to suggest that his patients are fitted with internal defibrillators, which ‘take away the sudden death option’.

Arnold Thomas Fanning: ‘Walking down corridors endlessly’

For those of us who have read Mind on FireFanning’s account of living with bipolar disorder, this talk perhaps had less to offer, as Fanning essentially recounted what he tells us in his memoir. However, he illustrated the talk with a series of pictures of himself from childhood to the present day, which were really interesting to see, and vividly recounted his time in a mental hospital, where he ‘walked down corridors endlessly’ because of his restless energy, and at one point was prescribed sixty different medications over a six-month period. Fanning’s emotional honesty is admirable, and it was lovely to see the delighted reaction from the audience when he announced at the end of the talk that he’s getting married the month after next.

Will Eaves: ‘Understanding the gap between your experiences and someone else’s’

I’m afraid I had many of the same problems with Eaves’s talk as I did with his novel, Murmurwhich chronicles the inner life of a fictional Alan Turing undergoing forced chemical castration after being convicted of gross indecency for having sex with another man. It swung between being profound and pretentious as he meditated on the idea that we can never really understand somebody else’s internal state, and that’s what true sympathy is, offering an interesting counterpart to Krasnostein’s tree metaphor. I was particularly frustrated by the section on time, where Eaves claimed that there is no scientific reason why an equation can’t go backwards rather than forwards;  I wrote ‘ENTROPY’ on my programme and my friend added ‘TWADDLE’. However, Eaves did give us a great potted history of Turing’s life, which will help those approaching Murmur with little knowledge of the subject.

Ottessa Moshfegh: ‘People are vulnerable in having feelings’

Moshfegh spent quite a lot of time talking about what her novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxationis (in her words) not about: namely, how easy it is to get psychiatric drugs in the US, and why that’s a problem. Psychiatrists play on this to get customers, she argued, because ‘people are vulnerable in having feelings.’ Underlining this point, she read the section from the novel where our protagonist first meets Dr Tuttle. However, she stated that, for her, My Year is actually about a woman who ‘does not want to live in this plane of consciousness’ and believes that if she sleeps long enough, all her cells will have forgotten their cellular trauma. Moshfegh presents her protagonist more sympathetically than I had expected from the way she writes about her in the novel, and the talk really made me think again about how to interpret My Year.

Updated 1/5/19: The winner of the Wellcome Book Prize is…

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I’m not surprised by this result, but I am disappointed. Murmur was my least favourite book on the shortlist and on the longlist. I found it pretentious and unreadable, and Eaves’s discussion of the book has only cemented my opinions. More broadly speaking, I felt it would have been the right moment for a book on trans issues to have taken the prize, which would have pointed to a win for either Amateur or The Trauma Cleaner. Winning this prize will probably garner Eaves a wider readership, but it seems unlikely that many readers will be engaged by Murmur.

Wellcome Book Prize Shortlist, 2019: Murmur & Mind on Fire

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Will Eaves’s short novel, Murmur, is loosely linked to the life of the mathematician Alan Turing, best-known for inventing the machine that cracked German codes during the Second World War, and for undergoing forced chemical castration after one of his homosexual encounters was discovered, and thereafter, committing suicide. (Turing is fictionalised here as ‘Alec Pryor’, but the link is obvious.) The novel is bookended by two short sections very distinct in style from its much longer middle. The first, originally a short story shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award 2017, describes, in a journal entry, the liaison with working-class Cyril that led to Pryor’s punishment. The second, even shorter, depicts Pryor conversing with ‘the council of machines’, who tell him that he is losing his mind. Playing with ideas about AI, the council of machines claim that they have been fully aware from the start, through all the suffering of the Industrial Revolution, and so Pryor need not think that the painful consciousness of humans is a unique burden. Both of these sections are breathtakingly good; Eaves’s prose is beautifully direct, and the odd links Pryor makes in the second section are not necessarily logical, but still connect up perfectly well.

Unfortunately, I found the bulk of Murmur, which sits between these two bits, virtually unreadable. Eaves tries to convey what the inner workings of Turing’s mind might actually have been like while he was undergoing hormone treatment and descending into an altered state, and the results are highly irritating. Most of the novel consists of either dream sequences or letters that are ostensibly addressed to a person but are really letters to the self – two of the devices I most hate in fiction. As I also struggle with novels that are completely detached from reality, it’s no surprise that I didn’t get on with this. Even in this section, there are some beautiful passages, such as when Pryor recalls swimming in a lake with schoolfriend Christopher – but these are swiftly interrupted by another cluster of references, doublings, and psycho-analytical allusions.

I’ve been trying to work out why I find this kind of experimental literary fiction so offputting, as I’m certainly not averse to experimental literary fiction in general. There are a number of possible reasons. First, it strikes me, like a lot of postmodern literary criticism, as being more clever than wise; rather than striving to say things in the simplest way possible, it seems to delight in obtuseness. Unlike, for example, Anna Burns’s Milkman, the style isn’t working hard in service of what the writer wants to say but is getting in the way. Secondly, I think what really interests me in fiction is how humans respond to external and internal conflict, particularly if ethical, their complex relationships with other human beings, and how they think these through; when a narrator’s mind is this distanced from itself, there’s no such rational conflict, even if you could argue that conflict is still happening. Thirdly, I guess I’m unconvinced that this is the only way novels can push boundaries; it seems to me that within a more realist mode there are still hugely interesting things to be done, and I’d rather read books that are working in that direction.

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In contrast, I found Arnold Thomas Fanning’s Mind on Fire, a memoir of living with bipolar disorder, much more engaging than I’d expected, although his writing is more humdrum than Eaves’s. Fanning suffered severely from mania and depression for ten years, wrestling with his own delusions, and at his lowest point, spending a winter homeless on the streets of London. I think what worked for me about Mind on Fire is that Fanning is recounting it from a position of stability – apart from a brief, necessary section at the beginning, there’s no attempt to actually try and capture his state of mind on the page. This memoir gives the reader important insights into the experience of living with serious mental illness, and I also liked the way Fanning handled his account of his own childhood and adolescence in Ireland. While there are a number of factors that may have contributed to his poor mental health – the early death of his mother, a difficult and distant father – he doesn’t attempt to draw neat causal lines between the two, but simply presents what he remembers. Fanning’s honesty throughout the entirety of this memoir is courageous and creditable.

However, I still felt that this memoir could have had a greater impact if it had been structured differently. Like many memoirs of physical illness – Porochista Khakpour’s Sick comes to mind – Mind on Fire becomes inevitably repetitive, as Fanning continually presents himself to hospitals and becomes a psychiatric in-patient, is discharged, has a period of good health, and then starts to spiral into manic depression again. Moreover, the memoir ends rather abruptly, with only a few pages given over to Fanning’s recovery, and how he’s dealt with bipolar disorder long-term. It seemed to me that both these problems could have been solved if Fanning had compressed the period of his illness somewhat, and spent more time on the period after he ‘turned the corner’. Records of emails and letters, in particular, felt to me like Fanning was doing the very necessary work of piecing together this period in his life for himself, but I wasn’t sure that all this detail needed to be in his published narrative. A great resource for those who want to learn more about bipolar disorder, or perhaps for those living with it themselves, but not an outstanding memoir.

Thanks to Rebecca for passing on her copy of this book.

Three Things… March 2019

As ever, borrowed from Paula at Book Jotter.

Reading

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The Language of Kindness is Christie Watson’s memoir of her twenty years as a nurse, working across a range of specialisms that included resuscitation, paediatrics and mental health. I totally agree with Watson’s emphasis on the importance of nursing care, and how, as a female-dominated profession, it is systematically overlooked and undervalued. A number of my close family members are nurses and the work they do is so important. So why did this memoir irritate me consistently? Partly, I think, it’s Watson’s voice – there’s a lack of the kind of soul-searching and self-doubt that I’ve encountered in junior doctors’ memoirs such as Rachel Clarke’s Your Life in My Hands, or in other professional memoirs such as barrister Sarah Langford’s In Your Defence (both highly recommended!) and so Watson comes across as far too complacent.

It’s difficult for me to review this fairly, I think, because once you lose trust in the narrator of a memoir like this, that’s it – you keep on finding fault. For me, this happened pretty early on. I’ve encountered a recent spate of horror stories about the way parents are treated by nurses in PICU, Paediatric Intensive Care Unit, and SCBU, Special Care Baby Unit (search ‘Mumsnet SCBU/NNU/PICU’ for some of these). Watson has nothing but praise for the nurses in these units, and I’m sure many of them are doing a very good job under extremely tough circumstances. However, the judgmental and misogynistic expectations placed on mothers in these units come through even in Watson’s positive account:  ‘The nurses do everything they can to treat mother and baby as one unit… In maternity units in some private hospitals, babies are taken from the mum directly after birth to be cared for in the nursery’. But what about the mother’s needs, which are separate from those of her infant? The fact that it’s relatively new practice to refuse to part mothers and babies after birth, even if the mother is recovering from an emergency C-section and can’t safely take care of her baby? Accounts from mothers also indicate that they were judged harshly for not being by their baby’s side night and day in PICU/SCBU – even if they had other children to care for at home.

This section is typical of the book as a whole. Apart from a brief paragraph that admits that a few nurses are not very good at their jobs, Watson permits no criticism – and most doctors get short shrift, dropping in from on high to deliver a diagnosis then leaving the nurses with the real work. While I’m in no doubt this is how some consultants behave, it’s evident from the accounts of junior doctors that this is a misrepresentation of their work. This interesting review on Goodreads also points out that Watson is in the habit of minimising the significance of other professions as well – in this case, translators. She also has little to say about other hospital workers who are not part of a ‘profession’ but are nonetheless vital, such as healthcare assistants and porters. Ultimately, this came off as a rather sugar-coated account of life as a nurse.

Watching

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I went to see Rafiki at the Tyneside Cinema last night, directed by Kenyan filmmaker Wanuri Kahiru. Rafiki (Swahili for ‘friend’) is currently banned in Kenya, where homosexuality is illegal, because it depicts a lesbian relationship too positively. Kahiru was asked by the Kenya Film Classification Board to change the hopeful ending, but she refused. From my perspective, Rafiki is more of a significant political statement about LGBT rights in Kenya than a groundbreaking piece of art. The story it tells, about two girls who discover their sexuality together and then are brutally torn apart, is very familiar. The evocation of Nairobi is colourful and vivid, and both protagonists give great performances. However, it made me think about how incredibly limited the stories we tell about bisexual and lesbian women are, and how lesbianism tends to be shallowly explored, if it features at all, in Western fiction and film as well (compare the recent Disobedience, which deletes the novel’s complexity, and both versions of The Miseducation of Cameron Post, which are uplifting, but have little interesting to say). However, this is not to criticise Rafiki, which is doing a very important job. You can watch the trailer for Rafiki here.

Thinking

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Not the novel discussed below, which many people liked more than I did!

A while back, I wrote a fairly negative review of a writer’s second novel. I was especially cross about this particular book because it felt lazy and rushed. I posted the review on my blog and on Goodreads, but didn’t tag the author anywhere. Despite this, the writer in question took the time to seek me out on Twitter and block me – even though this was a platform where we’d had no interaction at all. So, this led me to think about why I write critical book reviews.

I disagree with much of what is said in this provocative article on book reviews in Harper’s, ‘Like This Or Die’, not least its eager dismissal of anything that doesn’t fall into the category of ‘literary fiction’ and its weird hostility to television. However, I think it has a point about the relentless push towards solely positive coverage of books in the mainstream media and on social media. This is (perhaps unsurprisingly) promoted by authors themselves, whom I often see tweeting things like this:

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[I love James Smythe’s work so feel bad picking on him here – it’s just the latest example of the trend I could find!]

This kind of statement is often extended to book bloggers and reviewers as well, or, more threateningly, to aspiring writers, who are told that if they want to get published themselves, they should spread positivity at all times [again, this link is to a blog that I generally like!]

I find this stance both repressive and bizarre. Firstly, there’s the suggestion that critical reviews (I think the terms ‘bad’ or ‘negative’ reviews are too loaded) are permissible, as long as they don’t come from other writers. Why? Secondly, there’s the hidden implication that actually nobody should be writing critical reviews at all – that if you don’t like a book, you shouldn’t say anything about it. I find this absurd for a number of reasons:

  • First and foremost, I don’t review books for the sake of their writers. I review them for other readers, as a reader. I don’t tag writers in critical book reviews, even if the criticism is very minor, so if they seek them out, that’s on them.
  • The idea that published writers are so fragile that they can’t deal with criticism from bloggers is a little strange to me. I tend to think that if you’ve demanded a reader’s time and attention by publishing a book, you need to be able to take polite feedback if you have sought it out (again, I don’t advocate sending bad reviews to writers, or being rude, and I assume here that writers with mental health conditions or specific personal circumstances will be able to avoid critical reviews).
  • I find this PARTICULARLY weird because all unpublished writers are essentially told to ‘just suck it up and get better’ when it comes to dealing with criticism of their work, whereas for published writers, there’s suddenly an attitude of ‘I don’t want to criticise something that someone’s put so much work into’ – so, in short, there’s a double standard in play that implies that unpublished writers’ work is less valuable and has required less labour.
  • Moreover, I think critical reviews can actually be helpful for other writers (i.e. the ones that didn’t write the book in question!) I’ve learnt a lot more about writing from reading intelligent, critical reviews than totally positive reviews.
  • It can also be impossible in practice, if you’re an honest reviewer, to avoid negative reviews if you are on a shadow panel, a blog tour, or have proof copies to review. If I really find a book unreadable I won’t review it, but this has only happened once or twice.
  • Finally, all this is off the table if a book is problematic and offensive, when suddenly everybody seems to agree that it needs to be ‘called out’, even if this jars with their usual stance on critical reviews.

My feeling is, that if I ever publish a novel, I may not seek out criticism from readers; but in the abstract, I could only be grateful to those who engage thoughtfully and critically with my work, especially if they aren’t paid to do so.

What are other people’s thoughts on writing critical reviews?

Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist, #1: Lost Children Archive

Having already read five of the sixteen books on this year’s Women’s Prize shortlist before it was announced, I’m now working my way through the others.

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Valeria Luiselli’s long essay, Tell Me How It Ends, recounted her period working as a translator for the unaccompanied child refugees who arrive at the US-Mexico border from the ‘Northern Triangle’ of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Her first novel written in English, Lost Children Archive, picks up on these themes though an unnamed female narrator who is driving with her husband, daughter and stepson from New York to Arizona. Our narrator wants to document the Mexican migrant ‘crisis’, which has been brought to her attention via a friend who is trying to find her two lost daughters. Her husband is more interested in the soundscape of the ‘vanished’ Apaches who once lived in Apacheria, retelling the stories of their decline to his children, which the girl gleefully repeats as ‘when Geronimo fell off his horse, he died’. Her narrative is interspersed with descriptions of the contents of various boxes the couple have brought with them for their two projects, which, as Luiselli explains at the end of the novel, is one way of citing her sources within the text itself, rather than confining them to footnotes. There’s also an emotional tension on this long road trip; our narrator and her husband are considering divorce, which means that the two children, who are ‘only’ step-siblings, will be separated.

More than half of this long novel is narrated by this female narrator, and this section fits squarely into the emerging genre of autofiction, tracing the themes of Luiselli’s own life very closely. However, it lumbers under the weight of its own intertextuality. Everything that the family encounter has to be fitted into the theme of lost or vanished children in some way, from the haunting voices in ‘Echo Canyon’ to the fading images in Polaroids. Moreover, as Luiselli suggests in her note on sources, this is not just autofiction, but a kind of creative non-fiction; she deliberately wants to weave her workings through the text to tell the horrific story of the journeys of child migrants. This is compounded by the introduction of an imaginary text into this section, Elegies for Lost Children, which effectively and brutally narrates the experiences of these children. While this text would work well on its own, the way Luiselli scatters it throughout an already complicated and thematically-burdened narrative dilutes its force. It’s only when we finally get to read it in full that it really hits us.

Luiselli pushes at the boundaries of the novel form, but in doing so, loses much of what makes novels work. It’s in the shorter second section, narrated by the stepson, where Lost Children Archive really comes alive, making it one of the very few novels that I’ve ever read that manages to win back some ground after the halfway point. Unlike his stepmother’s narrative, the stepson’s voice is compelling, and it foregrounds one of the most successful aspects of the novel; the depiction of his relationship with his stepsister, which perfectly shows how children create little worlds of their own. Indeed, when Luiselli is writing about real rather than figurative children, she’s incredibly good on the physicality, word-play, and belief systems of childhood. Once the two children step into a kind of alternate reality formed from reading Elegies for Lost Children, the novel reaches another level; suddenly, it works as it should, free from references and footnotes. You can almost feel the pages speeding up.

The first section, however, is not only inferior because it’s so dense; I just wasn’t convinced that all the different kinds of loss Luiselli explores worked very well together. Most obviously, the novel plays into the ‘vanishing Indian’ narrative, assuming that Native Americans are now totally absent from America, which is recognised as an untruthful and harmful trope that ignores the persistence of these peoples. It’s a shame to see this perpetuated in a book that is otherwise so good at highlighting the displacement caused by American power politics, tracing this back (for example) to the division of Texas from Mexico and its annexation by the United States. Moreover, the divorce plotline never felt emotionally credible; I couldn’t understand what had come between this couple, and the impact on the two children was implied rather than shown. When the kids strike out on their own, it feels totally unmotivated, and while this was my favourite bit of the novel, I suspect that they do this not because their own motivations have taken them to this point but because Luiselli wants to manoeuvre them into a final symbolic journey.

While you have to admire Luiselli’s ambition, Lost Children Archive doesn’t really work as a whole. I like it better than some of the Women’s Prize longlistees I’ve read because of its sheer inventiveness, but I’d be surprised to see this make it to the shortlist.

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

Thoughts on the Wellcome Book Prize Shortlist, 2019

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The Wellcome Book Prize shortlist is out!

I’m delighted to see Thomas Page McBee’s Amateur there, which was by far my favourite of the longlisted titles I’ve read so far, although I’m disappointed that Jessie Greengrass’s Sight and Jean Hannah Edelstein’s This Really Isn’t About You didn’t make the cut.

I had mixed feelings about both Sarah Krasnostein’s The Trauma Cleaner and Sandeep Jauhar’s HeartThe Trauma Cleaner had chapters of brilliance but seemed to me to lack perspective on its subject, whereas Heart was readable, but forgettable. I suspect the latter has been included to make sure there’s at least one ‘serious medical book’ considering physical illness on the shortlist, as the rest skew strongly towards mental illness and questions about gender identity and transition.

I’ve not yet read Will Eaves’s Murmur, Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, or Arnold Thomas Fanning’s Mind on Fire. I’m looking forward to the first two – Annabel rated Murmur very highly, and Rebecca’s review of My Year… has persuaded me that it’s something I might enjoy. However, I’m still pretty certain that I won’t like Mind on Fire.

After last year’s female-dominated shortlist and an evenly split longlist, this year the men outnumber the women, with four books by men (including one trans man) and only two by women. Writers of colour get slightly more of a look-in than last year, with two advancing to the shortlist. Themes of sexuality (Murmur) and trans identity (Amateur, The Trauma Cleaner) are really prominent.

I’m looking forward to reading the remaining books and discussing with the rest of the Wellcome Book Prize shadow panel!