New Year Superlatives

With apologies to Elle of Elle Thinks for borrowing her excellent Superlatives format.

Best Read of 2022 So Far…

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…was Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, which has all the intellectual clout of The Left Hand of Darkness but which I found much more accessible as science fiction. Its portrayal of the anarchist society of Anarres should be essential reading for those who wrongly think that anarchism is ‘everyone being allowed to do whatever they like and society descending into chaos’; it’s an incredibly ambitious attempt to work out what such a society might look like in practice, and how its people would think differently. My first five-star read of 2022.

Worst Read of 2022 So Far…

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…was definitely Charlotte McConaghy’s Once There Were Wolves, which supposedly looks at the reintroduction of wolves into the Scottish Highlands but is instead dominated by cliched romance and gratituous abuse. My Goodreads rant review is here.

Most WTF Read of 2022 So Far...

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… was, surprisingly, Hannah Kent’s Devotion, which started off treading very familiar ground but then went to some… unexpected places. My Goodreads review is here (spoilers are hidden). Maybe we can forgive it for its gorgeous coloured edges though? [Devotion is out in the UK on 3rd February].

Most Anticipated 2021 Release Read In 2022…

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… was Nina Mingya Powles’s collection of essays Small Bodies of Water (such a stunning cover!); it won the Nan Shepherd Prize for writers currently under-represented in nature writing. Although the natural world is certainly a linking thread between these essays, there are other themes that I’d say are equally dominant: food – from honey pomelos to the Chinese tofu pudding dòufu huā – and the Mandarin language. I picked up this book because I wanted to read about swimming, so it’s unsurprising that I was most drawn to the essays that focus on water, such as ‘The Safe Zone’, ‘Ache’ and ‘We Are All Dreaming of Swimming Pools’. However, I also loved how Powles often chases a single thing through time and space, such as the kōwhai tree in ‘Where the Kōwhai Blooms’, connecting her experiences of living in Aotearoa, Shanghai and London.

Least Anticipated 2021 Prize Longlistee Read In 2022…

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… was Raven Leilani’s Luster, which I decided not to read when I was shadowing the 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction because ‘I still don’t want to read any more dysfunctional women being dysfunctional books’. Either I’ve had a long enough break from them or this one is better than most, because I liked it a lot more than I anticipated. It reminded me very strongly of Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Timesbut I’d probably rank it more highly (which means it would have made my ideal Women’s Prize 2021 shortlist), largely because Edie is a more interesting protagonist than Ava. However, I still had issues with Luster; like many of my fellow bloggers, I loved Edie’s dark irony but found that her journey ended up in a much less interesting place than I’d anticipated at the start of the novel.

Our First Book Club Read of 2022…

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… was Lot by Bryan Washington. Structurally, I found this difficult; it essentially consists of segments of a novella about a gay mixed-race (black and Latino) teenage boy, Nicolas, interspersed with short stories about people who live in the Houston neighbourhoods around him. Some of the individual short stories were absolutely brilliant in their own right; I loved ‘Peggy Park’, which brutally and efficiently traces the fates of an amateur baseball team, and ‘Waugh’, which explores the complicated relationship between a boy selling sex and the man who provides him with accommodation. However, because I know nothing about Houston and the book doesn’t fill in the gaps, I couldn’t situate any of these locations in relation to each other, so the communal voice of the city that I think Washington was going for didn’t come through for me.

I was also a little lost as to the queer themes running through the stories; Washington has said that he ‘wanted every narrative in Lot to have a queer character or queer component’ because of the lack of representation for queer people who ‘fall outside of a palette-cleansing, cis, white, queer narrative, with a certain brand of polished body’. He’s of course, absolutely right about this, and the protagonist’s narrative offers a powerful corrective to this dominant trope – but the queer characters in the short stories seem to fall into very similar moulds to Nicolas, all young men of colour who have casual sex with other men. It’s very much focused on sexuality as an act rather than an identity, and, partly because of this, it’s a very male take on queerness. For this reason, I didn’t think that Lot offered the diversity of queer experience that it promised.

January’s Biggest Talking Point…

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… was definitely Hanya Yanagihara’s To Paradisewith reactions ranging from utter boredom to intellectual delight. My thoughts are here.

What were your favourite and least favourite reads in January? Any other books that stood out (for right or wrong reasons)?

Sci-Fi Novellas for #SciFiMonth #NovellasinNovember

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Premee Mohamed’s These Lifeless Things is a dystopian novella that switches between the diary entries of Eva, a forty-something survivor of an apocalyptic attack, and the first-person point-of-view of Emerson, an anthropologist studying the ruins of her city fifty years later. Eva refers to the monsters that have devastated the world only as ‘Them’, and both narrators struggle to understand what they truly are/were: they don’t seem to be aliens who hail from the same kind of time and space as we do, nor beings that have emerged from Earth itself. The narrative chillingly hints at Their ability to affect human minds themselves, with millions committing suicide at the beginning of the invasion. In Emerson’s time, They have disappeared without a trace, but Emerson is convinced that her research is essential to understand what happened during the three years now known as ‘the Setback’. However, her colleagues in the hard sciences aren’t convinced, and tell her she is wasting her time studying Eva’s diary, even when what she finds in the ruins starts to mirror what Eva described.

I found These Lifeless Things to be an adept and skilful read, but it didn’t affect me in the ways I’d hoped. There was something in the way the story was told that made me expect more of a twist, or perhaps more of a sudden linkage between Eva’s world and Emerson’s. Unless I’ve been too stupid to miss subtle clues, this doesn’t really happen. Instead, Eva’s story devolves into a cliched -let’s-rescue-the-children plot, and Emerson’s frustrations with her colleagues are spelt out rather too clearly at the end of the novella when she bursts out: ‘you think there has to be an application for things we study? You think everything has to end up in some… lab somewhere, a product for people to buy. Well, I happen to think there are other questions in the world.’ The novella wasn’t quite as scary as I had hoped, either, despite some good lines about statues coming to life and trees being possessed by Them. I found Emerson’s sections much more engaging than Eva’s diary entries (but then I love fictional anthropologists and hate diary entries as a narrative device, so that was pretty inevitable) and I found myself wondering if this might not have been better, and more frightening, if it had been told completely from Emerson’s point of view, with perhaps quoted snippets from Eva’s entries. (Interestingly, Eva’s close alliance with another survivor in the face of this devastation reminded me of Sarah Hall’s pandemic novel Burntcoatbut I wasn’t sure what it added here). However, I would certainly read more by Mohamed.

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That was the dystopia, now for the utopia! I loved Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series and her previous novella, To Be Taught, If Fortunate, so her latest novella, A Psalm for the Wild-Built, was one of my most anticipated 2021 releases. Chambers’s brand of sci-fi is often described as cozy or comforting, but I think at its best, it’s optimistic; there are certainly darker strands in all of her previous work, such as the enslaved clones in A Close and Common Orbit or the horrific experience of having your ship buried in alien slugs in To Be Taught, If Fortunate. For me, then, A Psalm for the Wild-Built marks a bit of a departure; dedicated ‘to anyone who needs a break’, it is cozy to the max. Non-binary* monk, Sibling Dex, leaves their job tending the monastery garden to become an itinerant tea-monk, dispensing tea and advice as they travel around, but even this new life starts to feel limiting. When they strike out into the wilderness where the robots that humans made disappeared after the ‘Factory Age’, they meet robot Mosscap, and wander around with Mosscap chatting about life and humanity.

And… that’s it. I love positive visions of the future after endless recycled dystopias, but this felt so thin. It reads more like children’s fiction than anything else, but without the profundity and timelessness that the best children’s fiction delivers. The characters’ voices are far too similar for a novella that promises a meeting of two beings from very different worlds, and this makes their philosophical dialogue feel especially contrived. In general, I think Chambers’ meditations on ethics are original and engaging, but she doesn’t manage to make them feel organic in this story. By the end, I wished we had just stayed with Dex handing out different kinds of tea to suffering people; that’s the kind of cozy I could possibly suspend my critical faculties for.

*I’m not sure if this is the right term in this futuristic context – Dex describes themselves as ‘not having a gender’, while other people in this world do use gendered titles and pronouns.

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As the hip-hop group clipping explain in their afterword to The Deep, this novella emerges from a collaborative creative space. clipping were inspired by the music of techno-electronic duo Drexciya to write their song, ‘The Deep’, which drew from the same mythology – an underwater world peopled by the descendants of enslaved, pregnant African women who were thrown overboard from slave ships. Solomon’s novella is another link in this chain, and I loved the way clipping described their contribution: ‘It’s a retelling that reaches back to the materials it adapts, and complicates them; makes them better. In this sense, Rivers has coauthored our song in as profound a way as we have inspired this book.’ I also liked the way clipping rejected the concept of this universe having a fixed ‘canon’: ‘We prefer to imagine each of these objects as artefacts – as primary sources – each showing a different angle on a world whose nature can never be observed in totality’. The Deep, therefore, draws from an incredibly rich imaginative space, telling a story about historical suffering, and who has to bear its weight. Its protagonist, Yetu, has been selected by the community as its ‘historian’, carrying these memories so the community doesn’t have to, but bringing them back together through the ritual of the Remembering so they retain their identity as a people.

The Deep is a portrait of Yetu and her community, who call themselves the wajinru, and so it is not, and does not need to be, plot-driven. Solomon evokes the deep underwater world of the wajinru atmospherically, as well as the ways they have developed away from their original human forms. However, given the nature of this novella, this fascinating world really needed to be matched by exceptional writing, and unfortunately, here it fell a bit short. Solomon’s prose wasn’t distinctive or memorable enough for me, and there is a tendency to spell things out that could have been more subtly conveyed, especially when it comes to Yetu’s internal struggles about her role as historian, which become quite repetitive: ‘She wasn’t used to having wants and needs of her own at all. It had always been a battle between what the wajinru needed, what the ancestors needed, and what she needed. A single lonely girl, her own needs never won.’ Thematically, The Deep is brilliant; it takes the central concept of Lois Lowry’s The Giver and thinks about it specifically in the context of the burden of memory that oppressed groups carry, and it also reminded me of the figure of Arha in Ursula Le Guin’s The Tombs of Atuan, whose personal identity is ‘eaten’ by the Nameless Ones. But for this to work for me as a fiction rather than merely an exploration of ideas, it needed something else, something more.

#SciFiMonth: Yu and Binge

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I put Charles Yu’s second short story collection, Sorry Please Thank You, on my 2021 TBR after reading his short story ‘Good News Bad News’ in A People’s Future of the United StatesYu has been compared to the brilliant science fiction writer Ted Chiang, but honestly I don’t think they have much in common (cynically, you might say that they’ve been squashed together because they’re both Chinese-American men who write speculative short fiction). Chiang’s work is intensely cerebral and serious, whereas Yu’s short stories are much more playful, satirical and strongly reminiscent of early George Saunders (e.g. CivilWarLand In Bad Decline). Like Saunders, Yu is fond of making fun of American corporate culture and late capitalism, enjoying phrases like ‘the new slogan, Be The Person You Wish You Were™’ and ‘I’ve always loved Autumn®’. And as with Saunders’ early writing, this can work well for one story but quickly become tiresome over the course of an entire collection.

Luckily, there are some gems here. I thought the opening story, ‘Standard Loneliness Package’, was really wonderful; I read it twice in a row to fully appreciate how Yu pulls it off. It’s based on a pretty standard kind of science fiction premise; our narrator works in a call centre where people can pay him to feel their pain for them. However, Yu elevates this material beyond a simple ‘what if?’ by the skill with which he weaves various elements of the story together. His deliberately repetitive style builds resonance, so the final paragraphs are horribly moving even though you don’t quite know why. While nothing else in this collection is quite as good, the shorter ‘Troubleshooting’ works on the same kind of terms, but is even more pared down. Yu also gives us two stories that imagine what it would be like to be a character in formulaic fictional worlds; of the two, I thought the Star Trek inspired one (‘Yeoman’) was a lot better and funnier than the Dungeons and Dragons/World of Warcraft inspired one (‘Hero Absorbs Major Damage’). The rest of the collection is padded out with a lot of very short pieces that cover similar ground, which is a shame, because Yu’s best stories show that when he’s good, he’s really good.

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Professor Everywhere, Nicholas Binge’s debut novel, sounded right up my street: Chloe Chan, an international student at the University of Warwick, is determined to discover what the mysterious Professor Crannus is up to, and is drawn into a series of multiple worlds. I love books set at colleges or universities and I also love books that draw on physicist Hugh Everett’s many-worlds theory. To top that off, this novel has the kind of precise, contemporary historical setting that I also enjoy; it’s set around the time of the G20 summit in London in 2009. And to be fair, Professor Everywhere delivers on its promises, even if Binge’s version of time travel, with mysterious ‘Constants’ that remain the same throughout space and time, was a bit fuzzy for my liking. By the end, I found myself wondering why it never quite drew me in, as there isn’t anything obviously wrong with the story Binge is telling.

This might just be a mismatch between the book I wanted to read and the book Binge wanted to write, which is not anyone’s fault. Professor Everywhere is more of a straightforward time travel thriller than I expected from the blurb, with oblique references to the ‘Pimlico incident’ culminating in a satisfyingly dramatic resolution. Although it’s framed as Chloe’s memoir (complete with footnotes), Binge has more fun geekily referencing other SF writers than getting into questions of unreliable narration or subjectivity, which I found a little disappointing. And, despite being set at a university, the novel doesn’t really have a campus atmosphere – which is, to a degree, understandable, especially given Warwick’s thoroughly modern campus, but I still felt Binge could have done a little more with his setting (there is that beautiful lake!). I’d recommend this to fans of Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter; less so to those seeking dark academia or really clever metafiction.

Nuns In Novel(la)s

This year, despite not being religious myself, I’ve become slightly obsessed with fictional nuns. I thought I’d think a little about why nuns offer such interesting possibilities for novelists, in anticipation of Lauren Groff’s forthcoming MatrixHere, I’ll be discussing three very different books about three very different kinds of nuns: Sarah Dunant’s Sacred Hearts (2008), which depicts a convent in sixteenth-century Italy; Lina Rather’s Sisters of the Vast Black (2019), which follows an unspecified order of nuns on board a living spaceship; and Rumer Godden’s In This House Of Brede (1969), which is set in an English Benedictine community in the 1960s. However, although these nuns are far apart in space and time, they all sit within the Catholic tradition; this post will therefore focus on Catholic nuns, while recognising that these aren’t the only nuns that exist, even in the Christian faith – and recommendations for books that deal with non-Christian nuns would be very welcome!

Catholic nuns tend to be the butt of jokes, either portrayed as incredibly prudish or sex-obsessed; because nuns are supposed to be angelic, any hint of misbehaviour from a nun is somehow funnier than if it came from a ‘normal’ person. (One of my favourite jokes as a child – no idea why – was ‘What goes black white black white?’/’A nun rolling down a hill.’/’What’s black and white and goes ha ha?’/’The nun who pushed her!’) The radical potential in stories about Catholic nuns, therefore, lies in asking what it’s really like to be a nun and whether this popular stereotype of repressed, unhappy, usually elderly women holds true. If you take out references to nuns or convents from the blurbs of Sacred Hearts and In This House of Brede, they suddenly sound a lot more subversive: 

Sixteen-year-old Serafina is ripped by her family from an illicit love affair and forced into the women’s community of Santa Caterina, renowned for its superb music. 

Philippa Talbot, a highly successful professional woman, leaves her life among the London elite to join a women’s community.

This is not to say that you can simply ‘take out’ the religion from these kinds of communities and reimagine them as proto-feminist communes, but that there’s obvious potential in telling stories about groups of women who live together and rely on each other, and are often able to do things they could not do in the outside world, while recognising that this kind of life comes with its own set of restrictions. To be honest, I wouldn’t be surprised if Matrix sparks a new trend for this kind of novel, as it speaks to a lot of twenty-first century concerns: women who are not defined as wives or mothers; female separatism; loneliness vs chosen solitude; the un/importance of sex.

However, if nun novels were just about women both embracing and escaping the confines of their times, Sisters of the Vast Black would be pointless. Why write about nuns in space when you can invent a future where women can do anything they want? Here, I think we see the appeal of writing about a community of people who are simply trying to do the right thing, aside from feminist concerns. The first two-thirds of Sisters of the Vast Black have a moral seriousness that isn’t preachy or theoretical but very much connected to the world the sisters are dealing with. Even more interestingly, both Sacred Hearts and In This House of Brede depict closed orders, where the nuns’ job is not to do ‘good works’ but to create a community of prayer, cut off from most contact with the world around them. The purpose of this can be hard to understand; what good are the nuns doing by removing themselves from the world? However, in both novels, the power of the convent, of this way of living, is evident, although both Godden and Dunant recognise that this life is right for some women and hellish for others.

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Diana Rigg starred in a film adaptation of In This House Of Brede (1975)

Why read about Catholic nuns if you are not yourself Catholic or Christian? One great thing that these novels open up is the opportunity to write about women who are not primarily driven by one emotional tie, whether that’s to a man, a child or another family member. As I wrote in my review of Lissa Evans’s Old Baggagethese kind of novels are very rare. And while I wouldn’t want to read a nun novel that was simplistic or dogmatic about religion, none of these books are like that. Dunant vividly conveys the importance of faith to some women in her sixteenth-century convent while others suffer under its strictures. Godden has a harder task, convincing us that a twentieth-century character like Philippa would enter a convent in the first place, or thrive there as she does. But while few of us have a vocation to be a nun, I could identify with how Philippa struggles with herself, the fight to be the best version of herself she can be – I don’t need to share her beliefs to understand that.

Finally, there’s a thoughtfulness about these kind of novels, a deliberately reflective pace that I find hugely refreshing in fiction. Sacred Hearts and In This House of Brede tell a big story about lots of women and the lives they lead, and they aren’t tempted to hurry us along to hit the dramatic highpoints. Sisters of the Vast Black, in my opinion, suffers in its final third because it suddenly speeds up, losing much of what made it special earlier on. These books eschew standard plots with a single, ‘active’ protagonist to think about how even the most self-reliant of nuns are part of something bigger. Along the way, they break many ‘rules’ of fiction, and they’re all the better for it.

Have you read any of these novels, or any other novels about nuns? Do you have any recommendations? (I’ve already spotted that Rumer Godden wrote two other novels about nuns, and am eagerly seeking them out!)

Feminisms: A Global History by Lucy Delap

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting Ahead With February ARCs

Like a lot of book bloggers, I seem to be completely swamped with February ARCs, so started reading them in January in order to try and get ahead of the upcoming tide. Here are my thoughts on some of next month’s releases:

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Megha Majumdar’s debut novel, A Burning, came very highly hyped, but for me, it was one of those novels where the hype left me feeling baffled and concerned about the state of the literary world. Set in modern Kolkata, it alternates between the perspectives of three characters: Jivan, a young Muslim woman falsely accused of being involved in a terrorist attack; Lovely, a hijra who longs to be an actress and who has been learning English from Jivan; and PT Sir, Jivan’s former teacher, who is now becoming dangerously involved with a nationalist political party who want to use Jivan as a scapegoat. All three characters use, and are used, by social media. Jivan was originally ensnared by the police after posting an angry Facebook status criticising the government, PT Sir uses YouTube to spread the word about the party he works for, while Lovely is delighted when a video of her goes viral.

A Burning is emotionally moving, but I found it disappointingly thin. All three of the protagonists are relatively one-dimensional, with Jivan defined by her wronged innocence, Lovely by her sassy narration, and PT Sir as the typical social climber seduced by the opportunity of power. The quick switches between them make the novel a swift read but also reinforce the impression that it’s only skating over the surface of these political injustices. Majumdar also breaks away from her three central narrators at times – for example, there are brief snatches from the point of view of Jivan’s parents – which means that the novel ends up spelling out things that it doesn’t really need to, slipping into a mode of storytelling that is more common in YA than in adult fiction. Ultimately, I wished that Majumdar had had the confidence to leave more unsaid.

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

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I’ve been looking forward to the third book in James Smythe’s Anomaly Quartet since I read The Explorer and The Echo back in 2014 (having been further impressed by his I Still Dream in the interim). In The Edge, the Anomaly is up to its usual creepy tricks; it’s moved much closer to the Earth and our protagonist and first-person narrator, Ali, is part of a team who’ve been sent up in space to monitor the Anomaly’s progress and to try to find out more about it. Heading up the team is an ancient Tomas, the surviving twin brother from The Echo, who, it soon becomes clear, has his own questions to answer. But as strange things start to happen on the space station, Ali starts to wonder if she can trust anybody other than herself.

Smythe is brilliant at thinking logically through the consequences of a concept, and expanding his stories as his characters discover these consequences. The relatively simple time-loop story told in The Explorer became much more complex in The Echo, and The Edge builds further on what we already know about the Anomaly, further enhancing the terror of the threat it poses. However, despite the fact that the central story of this quartet advances in satisfying ways in this installment, I found it disappointing as a stand-alone read. Ali is in many ways more grounded than our two previous narrators, and more obviously relatable; perhaps this is why her paranoia feels more like the familiar gaslighting of a psychological thriller rather than the truly skewed stories told by Cormac and Mira. The originality of the first two novels was a little lacking here, and I found myself getting tired of Ali’s self-questioning, and of the backstory with her husband, which drew on too many usual tropes. However, it may be that this all seems a lot fresher to SF readers who haven’t read as many psychological thrillers as I have, and it is an interesting kind of genre-cross, which I always appreciate.

Despite my relative ambivalence about The Edge, I’m still very excited to read the final book in the Anomaly Quartet, and to find out how Smythe pulls together all the questions he’s posed over the course of this series, though I suspect the final meaning of the Anomaly may be more metaphorical than scientific.

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

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The Galaxy, and the Ground Within is the final title in Becky Chambers’s Wayfarers quartet (although I hope she will return to this world, if not these characters, in future, as there still seems to be so much more to explore!) As ever, it’s gentle, character- and concept-driven sci fi, with a satellite accident merely providing the pretext for her four central characters to be stranded together on the ‘truck stop’ planet Gora. Ouloo and Tupo, a Laru mother and child, run the Five-Hop One-Stop, trying hard to provide appropriate food and facilities for all the different alien races they might encounter. Roveg is an exiled Quelin who builds immersive VR environments, and is keen to be on his way so he doesn’t miss an important appointment. Speaker is an Akarak, a race who seem to have drawn a galactic short straw, and is desperately trying to reunite with her twin sister in orbit. And Pei, who briefly appeared in The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet, is an Aeluon who is initially relaxed about the extended stop-over, until something unexpected throws her off course.

I haven’t truly adored any of the Wayfarers novels as much as I loved The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet, and this held true for The Galaxy, and the Ground Within. However, it still delivers Chambers’s usual thoughtful inventiveness and optimistic take on the future of the universe. I continue to be frustrated that a writer who so flexibly rethinks gender, sexuality and race can’t break outside the idea of childhood and adolescence as a universal biological category, and Tupo fell into many of the same teenage stereotypes as Chambers’ human character Kip in Record of A Spaceborn Few. Nevertheless, The Galaxy, and the Ground Within still gives us plenty of interesting ideas to chew on. Most of the cast veered close to being a bit too idealised for me, but I loved Chambers’s complex portrayal of Pei, who is forced to wrestle with questions of just war, reproductive duty and non-conformity. Her narrative strand, for these reasons, was by far the most compelling. In short, though, The Galaxy, and the Ground Within won’t disappoint Wayfarers fans, and as ever, I’m excited to see what Chambers does next.

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

February ARCs to come: Light Perpetual (Francis Spufford); All Girls (Emily Layden); Kololo Hill (Neema Shah); Little Gods (Meng Jin).

How are you doing with your February ARCs?

Reviewing Amazon Original Short Stories

I accidentally signed up for (and immediately cancelled) Amazon Prime for the dozenth time recently, but still have a free trial lasting a month. As part of this, I realised, I can borrow Amazon Original e-book only short stories from Prime for free, many of which are by authors I really rate. It turns out, this is quite addictive, and I’ve recently read two short story collections. Here’s what I thought:

The Forward collection, edited by Blake Crouch, is a selection of six SF short stories about the future of our world. Overall, I found this collection disappointing: the stories tended to be cliched, and were often more engaged with spelling out their moral message than in creating compelling fiction. This was especially true for ‘Ark’ by Veronica Roth and ‘Emergency Skin’ by NK Jemisin (a huge disappointment from Jemisin, who’s usually a much more subtle writer). I’m honestly getting a bit concerned about this trend in a lot of the recent short SF I’ve read, because while I love stories that tackle the real-life inequalities in our world, and totally agree with the messages these writers are trying to put across, I find these kind of stories so alienating. I just don’t think fiction is the right medium to choose if all you want to do is present your own points, however morally important those points might be. In contrast, ‘Randomise’ by Andy Weir was fun but forgettable, and Paul Tremblay’s ‘The Last Conversation’ sub-Black Mirror and predictable.

The two stand-outs for me were the two longer stories: Blake Crouch’s ‘Summer Frost’ and Amor Towles’s ‘You Have Arrived At Your Destination’. Like the two Crouch novels I’ve read, Dark Matter and Recursion, ‘Summer Frost’ suffers a bit from trying to chuck too many ideas into one story, but it makes you think and keeps you guessing, and that’s always a good thing. It tackles the familiar trope of a video game designer who creates an AI that is gradually increasing in intelligence, but adds in creepy stuff like Roko’s Basilisk, which I loved. My major criticism would be that the narrator is a queer woman, but her voice feels odd to me, and I kept on forgetting that she wasn’t a straight man, although I can’t put my finger on why – possibly something about the particular quality of the sexually possessive way she interacts with her creation? ‘You Have Arrived At Your Destination’, meanwhile, is probably the most well-crafted of the stories in this collection, which makes sense given that Towles made his name in literary fiction. It cleverly starts with another hackneyed premise – a man is invited to choose the genetic characteristics of his future child – but then shoots off in a different direction, exploring the ways in which we already try to control our children’s lives, and how frequently we fail. Towles is willing to let his story finish ambiguously, which gives it much more resonance than the neat endings of most of the stories in this collection. 

The Out of Line collection features seven stories by female writers that explore ‘what happens when women step out of line and take control of their own stories’. This was a much stronger collection than Forward, and I wasn’t surprised, because I know how good most of these writers are. I loved Lisa Ko’s ‘The Contractors’, about  two women working for the same company, one in the Philippines and one in the US, who gradually wake up to their exploitation but also how it differs, and Mary Gaitskill’s ‘Bear Witness’, a dark multi-perspective story that focuses on a rape trial. Surprisingly, however, the real standout was Caroline Kepnes’s ‘Sweet Virginia’, a brilliantly satirical story that takes a young mother dreaming of Hallmark movies into her own version of a wintry escape. This has made me believe that there’s more to Kepnes than just one hit (I very much enjoyed You but couldn’t get through its sequel, Hidden Bodies, which I felt was re-running the same story again).

Two of the stories use a similar premise to Sophie Mackintosh’s novel Blue Ticketimagining worlds where only certain women are allowed or encouraged to have children. Roxane Gay’s ‘Graceful Burdens’ started with an arresting scene at a ‘baby library’, where women are encouraged to check out babies for a short time to ease their maternal urges, but didn’t do anything very interesting with the idea after that. Meantime, Emma Donoghue’s ‘Halfway To Free’ really worried me; I love Donoghue, but this story was so problematic. By imagining a dystopian world where childlessness is celebrated as a means of population control and environmentalism, I felt that Donoghue played strongly into anti-feminist tropes, and also weirdly scapegoated millennials and Generation Z who are (rightly, in my opinion) thinking hard about whether or not to have children due to the climate crisis. I have to believe that this was a writing misstep rather than a reflection of what Donoghue really thinks; there are suggestions in the story that this world is not meant to be entirely bad (older people are respected and valued much more, and a dementia vaccine shows how healthcare has been refocused on their needs) but it very much comes across as a warning rather than a nuanced look at what would happen if we elevated childlessness rather than motherhood.

A final note on this collection: all the protagonists in these stories are mothers, and all but two of them are overtly about motherhood. There’s nothing wrong with this, but the collection wasn’t framed as an examination of motherhood – and certainly I know some of us are weary of this theme after a glut of novels in 2019 and 2020. I personally found Kepnes’s take on this, in particular, very refreshing, but it feels like this focus should have been advertised upfront. 

I’ll now be taking a break from this blog until I post my Commendations and Disappointments, Top Ten Books of the Year, and 2021 Reading Plans on December 30th, December 31st and January 1st respectively! I hope you are all able to have a relaxing holiday season, however you celebrate.

The Translated Literature Book Tag

Thanks to Rachel at pace, amore, libri for tagging me for this!

1. A translated novel you would recommend to everyone.

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Having just had a lively book group discussion about Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman, translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori, it has to be this one. Not everyone loved this story of Keiko, a thirty-six-year-old woman who is totally devoted to a convenience store, but it made us ask really interesting questions about what is ‘normal’ and who gets to judge. Personally, this is one of the best novels I’ve read so far this year, particularly good on capitalism and its myths of individual fulfilment. I enjoyed this interview with the translator.

2. A recently read ‘old’ translated novel you enjoyed.

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I didn’t read this recently AT ALL, but I did enjoy Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, translated from the Italian by William Weaver. This unashamedly slow medieval mystery set in a Benedictine monastery culminates in the horrific murder of a lost manuscript (following the murders of some actual monks).

3. A translated novel you could not get into.

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This has happened to me with a disproportionate number of translated novels and is one of the reasons I tend to avoid fiction in translation unless it’s specifically recommended to me. The first example that comes to mind is Michel Deon’s The Foundling Boy, which I found dully written and derivative; it was first published in France in 1975 but translated into English by Julian Evans in 2013, so it unfortunately combined my aversion to novels published between c.1918 to c.1980 with my aversion to a number of novels translated from French around that time (Suite Francaise etc.)

4. Your most anticipated translated novel release.

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Not a novel as such, but I’m looking forward to Humiliation by Paulina Flores, a collection of short stories set in Chile and translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell. As part of the research for my new novel, I’m specifically seeking out recent fiction by Chilean writers, and I liked the sound of these stories. Humiliation is out in the UK on November 7th.

5. A ‘foreign-language’ author you would love to read more of.

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I was fascinated by Han Kang’s The Vegetarian and The White Book, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith, so I’d now like to read Human Actswhich focuses on a violent student uprising in South Korea.

6. A translated novel which you consider to be better than the film.

I’ve tried very hard to find something for this category, but I can’t find any films based on a translated novel where I’ve both read the book and seen the film…

7. A translated ‘philosophical’ fiction book you recommend.

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Jostein Gaarder is best known for his novel Sophie’s World, a whistle-stop tour through the history of Western philosophy, but my favourite of his books is The Ringmaster’s Daughterwhich centres on an unnaturally brilliant man and his facility for making up stories, which leads to him selling plots to authors. It’s not as overtly ‘about’ philosophy as Sophie’s World, but the narrator’s musings on fiction are fascinating. It was translated from the Norwegian by James Anderson.

8. A translated fiction book that has been on your TBR for far too long.

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The book in translation that’s been on my Goodreads TBR the longest is Carole Maurel’s Luisa: Now and Then, a graphic novel translated from the French by Nanette McGuinness and adapted by Mariko Tamaki. Luisa, thirty-two, meets her fifteen-year-old self and confronts questions about her sexuality. I really ought to read this while I’m still thirty-two!

9. A popular translated fiction book you have not yet read.

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Using the list ‘Popular Translated Fiction Books‘ on Goodreads, there are a LOT, but I’ll pick Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, translated from the Japanese by Jay Rubin. Unfortunately I am unlikely to read this as I didn’t enjoy either Norwegian Wood or Kafka on the Shore.

10. A translated fiction book you have heard a lot about and would like to find more about or read.

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Returning to my Goodreads TBR, I’d like to read Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over The Bones of the Dead, translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones; I’ve been hearing about this everywhere, and it has a great title. It’s set in a remote Polish village where people start turning up dead in strange circumstances.

If anyone else wants to have a go at this tag, please do – I’d love to see your answers.

20 Books of Summer, #17: Exhalation

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Exhalation, Ted Chiang’s second collection of short stories, is even better than his exhilarating Stories of Your Life and Others (although I’m sad about the UK cover; why can’t we have this beautiful US one, as well as a decently produced hardback?) For me, more of the stories in Exhalation than in Stories of Your Life managed to blend Chiang’s incredible intelligence with a solid emotional core, and when Chiang does this, he’s unbeatable. The opening story, ‘The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate’ was, for me, the most satisfying: Chiang effortlessly handles complicated single-timeline time travel and its emotional consequences, while packaging it in a literary form – the nested stories of The Arabian Nights – to which it is absolutely suited. Although, [spoiler] I couldn’t help speculating that the narrator, by travelling back to intercept the comforting news being brought to his former self, had inadvertently condemned his former self to a lifetime of guilt, motivating him to travel back in the first place, which he doesn’t seem to register! [spoilers end]. I know from bitter experience how difficult it is to write time travel this elegantly, and I can only applaud (and envy) Chiang.

The two novellas included in the collection are also both fantastic, although for me, not quite as perfect as ‘The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate’. ‘The Lifecycle of Software Objects’ imagines a world where ‘digients’, virtual, teachable pets who seem to operate on the level of a chimp with language skills, have been created, and the ethical issues that this throws up. Humans swiftly get bored with their digients and move onto the next thing, except for a group of hardcore owners, our narrator among them, who’ve formed real emotional bonds with their virtual creatures and are trying to find a way for them to live better lives. As ever, Chiang thinks about the details: one obstacle the owners face is the obsolescence of the digital platform on which the digients were living their social lives, and the need for new coding to allow them to continue to interact with digients who run on other servers. However, this story is particularly notable for the potential parallels it draws. The analogy with human children is somewhat imperfect (digients seem much less capable than children, even when the number of years they’ve been alive is factored in) but works when we start thinking about why we have children: can it ever be right to create something just so we can love it?

‘Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom’ (the title is taken from Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Anxiety) also dissects a familiar time-travel trope, although it’s not a time travel story: in this novella, humans are able to converse with their ‘paraselves’ who are living in alternative timelines that have split off from the timeline they are living in following quantum events. A lot of time travel novels (including mine…) use this trope, drawn from  Hugh Everett’s many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, to allow time travel between parallel timelines rather than within a single timeline. Chiang stresses that new timelines, in this story, don’t break off whenever anyone makes a decision but only in certain circumstances; however, it is often possible to converse with a paraself in a timeline where a significant decision has turned out differently, whether that’s leaving a marriage, taking a new job, or admitting to a crime. Chiang glosses this story most succinctly in his own ‘Story Notes’ (I could happily read a volume of Chiang’s ‘Story Notes’): ‘Some have pointed out that when Martin Luther defended his actions to the church in 1521, he reportedly said, “Here I stand, I can do no other,” i.e. he couldn’t have done anything else. But does that mean we shouldn’t give Luther credit for his actions? Surely we don’t think he would be worthier of praise if he had said, “I could have gone either way.”… If you could somehow examine a multitude of Martin Luthers across many worlds, I think you’d have to go far afield to find one that didn’t defy the church, and that would say something about the kind of person he was.’

These kinds of themes – our relationship with our former or alternative selves, our moral responsibility for the choices we make that could have ‘gone either way’, and whether we are the sum of our choices or our circumstances – are prominent in all of my own fiction, so unsurprisingly, I found the story fascinating, although the ending was a little unsatisfying. Chiang is rightly concerned to demonstrate that the many-worlds interpretation does not mean our choices are meaningless (because there is an alternative universe where we made the opposite choice) and I agree with his take on it; parallel timelines can surely be separated from our own world by various degrees of difference, and some situations are not so neatly reducible to a single individual’s choice.  However, in a particular incident that dogs one character, it seems to be suggested that a choice she regrets made no difference because the friend she betrayed would have taken the same path in life anyway. I would like Chiang to have delved a little deeper into this theme (which he does address in a parallel plotline): how does making selfish choices hurt us and our future selves, even if they have no actual impact? (Coincidentally, while reading background material on Samantha Harvey’s All Is Song, another of my 20 Books of Summer, I came across this interview where she discusses exactly that.)

There are other excellent stories in this collection, such as ‘Omphalos’, which considers what would have happened if God had created the world, and humanity realised we were not at the centre of his universe – but a few of the others fell into the trap I wrote about in my review of Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others, lacking emotional commitment and taking place in a blank void: ‘Exhalation’, ‘What’s Expected Of Us’, ‘The Great Silence’ and ‘The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling’. Chiang always gives you lots to think about, but he doesn’t always make you feel. Meanwhile, ‘Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny’, which postulates that interwar American behaviourist child psychologists such as John F. Watson and B.F. Skinner went a step further by designing a mechanical automaton to see to a child’s needs, made me smile, but didn’t feel terribly fresh to me (probably because I’ve written on behaviourism in my historical research, and thought this was a bit of a simplistic take on how childrearing advice developed in the first half of the twentieth century). Nevertheless, this collection is stunning, the percentage of hits is higher than in Stories of Your Life, and it’s got to be one of my favourite books of the year so far.

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.