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

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

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

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

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

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

‘In the beginning there was an idea’: Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

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Gifty, the protagonist of Yaa Gyasi’s second novel, Transcendent Kingdom, is both a neuroscience PhD student at Stanford who sought rigour in all things from an early age, and a grieving woman who is still deeply connected to her Ghanaian family’s Pentecostalism. As a child, she struggled with the command to ceaselessly praise God, soon discovering that she found it difficult to keep her mind on prayer for more than a few minutes; her teenage imagination was caught by the idea that ‘in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God’ might actually be translated differently: ‘“Word” was translated from the Greek word Logos, which didn’t really mean “word” at all, but rather something closer to “plea” or even premise… In the beginning there was an idea, a premise; there was a question.’ Gifty’s research on reward-seeking behaviour in mice has obvious connections with the death of her older brother Nana from opioid addiction, but the novel avoids giving her this one simple motivation for her project; she explains that she was drawn to neuroscience because it seemed so hard and so pure, and is now grappling with the conflict between religious and scientific ideas of the brain, the mind and the soul.

From a white British perspective, fiction on the perceived conflict between religion and science has often tended to focus on the theory of evolution, and explored either the gentle accord that nineteenth-century men of science found between their faith and the evidence that the natural history of the world was much longer than they’d expected, or the later clashes with creationism. Transcendent Kingdom stands out in its depiction of Gifty’s Pentecostal faith, which, unlike Anglicanism/ Episcopalianism, focuses on personal divine revelation and speaking in tongues, and how she integrates her childhood beliefs with her neuroscientific work. (Creationism only comes up once, as an irritating question that non-believers ask her; she dodges it by spouting something one of her schoolteachers once said, ‘I believe we’re made of stardust, and God made the stars.’) This novel is so wise and thoughtful that there are endless bits I could quote, but I was especially struck by how Gifty turns to both scientific articles and biblical passages, not necessarily as sources of authority, but as things that are both good to think with.

This book is so thematically resonant that a lot of the reviews I’ve read make it sound intellectually worthy, but a bit dry; this isn’t the case at all. Gifty is a completely captivating narrator, ironically funny about her younger self, complex, unashamedly ambitious and yet deeply caring. Gyasi does not have time for any of the usual binaries that afflict female characters, and doesn’t let us think for a second that because Gifty wants to be a scientific star and does not want marriage or children, this means that she is in any way emotionally deficient. The novel is also technically brilliant in a very unobtrusive way; the narrative melts between present and past every few paragraphs, but I never felt at all confused about where or when we were. Indeed, it’s this clever juxtaposition that allows Gyasi to say so much without spelling anything out to the reader.

I never managed to love Gyasi’s acclaimed debut, Homegoing, as much as I wanted to; I admired its premise and construction, and connected with some of the stories, but felt a little distanced from the project as a whole. Transcendent Kingdom was a very different experience; I was completely pulled into Gifty’s world and Gifty’s questions. This novel deserves to go straight onto the Women’s Prize longlist and indeed the shortlist, and I hope to see it there on the 10th March.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 4th March.

(An aside: what is going on with the UK cover for this book? It looks like the sort of shapes I used to doodle in class, and the pink and green cover scheme is – not good. It’s such a shame, because the US cover is perfect:

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Finishing Up With February ARCs

These three solid debut novels mark the end of my glut of February ARCs! My first post on February releases can be found here.

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I thoroughly enjoyed Emily Layden’s All Girls, although I recognised that the book has some issues which may be more of a turn-off for other readers. All Girls is set during the academic year 2015-16 at a New England prep school where a former student has recently accused one of the teachers of sexually assaulting her. However, All Girls is not really focused on the details of the accusation, but rather how it impacts the school’s current students, and their developing ideas of how to navigate in the world as young women who are never quite taken seriously. It’s narrated through nine different third-person perspectives (plus a bit of head-hopping in the final section), as we meet a range of girls from different grades, from awkward new freshman Lauren to jaded ex-ballet dancer Sloane to lesbian Emma, a senior whose long-term relationship with her mixed-race girlfriend Olivia has become iconic in the school.

While the characters sometimes become hard to keep track of, I really felt that Layden had thought this all through; there’s something solid about the connections between her cast that makes me believe that if I re-read this novel, all sorts of things would start coming to light that I hadn’t noticed first time round. In this way, I thought her decision to use multiple narrators was much more illuminating than if we’d had to keep to a single person’s perspective (both the strength and weakness of Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prepwhich this novel obviously has a lot in common with, is that we’re totally trapped in Lee’s head, and Lee’s head is a very unreliable place to be trapped). And while there are so many novels about the inner worlds of teenage girls, there are very few that are so serious and insightful; like Sittenfeld, Layden really gets how some teenage girls approach the world, and how small but yet significant interactions can crush or uplift their sense of who they are. If there was one thing I found less convincing about All Girls, it was that all her narrators seem to share this sense of watchfulness; it would have been nice, and more realistic, to get inside the head of at least one student who was less compulsively analytic. It’s also, frankly, too long. Nevertheless, it’s definitely well ahead of most books of this kind, and if you like campus novels, you’ll probably like this.

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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Neema Shah’s Kololo Hill focuses on an episode in British colonial history that may not be familiar to many readers; the expulsion of Asians from Uganda in 1972 by Idi Amin. Most Asians had to leave the country within ninety days, fleeing to the range of countries in which they had citizenship – with a majority ending up in Britain – although some were left stateless. As the novel makes clear, although Uganda had gained independence from Britain in 1962, this event was a direct result of its long history of colonisation. South Asians, mostly Gujaratis, had been originally brought to Uganda by the British, first to work on the construction of the Uganda Railway in the late nineteenth century (nearly a third of these Indian workers were killed or maimed during the project), and later to participate in commerce and administration under the Uganda Protectorate. However, the expulsion of Ugandan Asians was also intertwined with Britain’s future stance towards its former colonial subjects; the 1971 Immigration Act increased immigration controls and was primarily motivated by the influx of refugees from Uganda and from Kenya, which also expelled Asians in the late 1960s.

Kololo Hill tells this story through a single family. Asha has recently married Pran, who runs a general store, or dukan, with his brother Vijay, and also lives with mother Jaya and father Motichand. While the family are not wealthy, they become increasingly aware of how they are perceived as privileged ‘dukawallahs’ by African Ugandans, and try to protect their ‘house-boy’ December, who is one of the persecuted Acholi people. Each step of the plot is pretty predictable, but Kololo Hill still flows easily and engagingly as we see how this family deal with their world suddenly being turned upside down. I wanted our three narrators – Asha, Vijay and Jaya – to stray a little further from archetype, but I appreciated the inter-generational perspective, and the consideration of how Vijay manages with a physical disability (he was born missing most of his left arm), especially when he comes into contact with the British welfare state. Shah depicts the ways in which her protagonists are both oppressed and fortunate skilfully, as they recognise the advantages they’ve had over African Ugandans due to British patronage and their relatively kinder welcome into Britain itself, and yet are obviously uprooted, robbed, and attacked in Uganda, and continue to face racism every day in Britain. While Kololo Hill might be competent rather than brilliant, it vividly conveys this significant moment in history.

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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Way back in January 2020, before the UK publication date of Meng Jin’s Little Gods got pushed back, it was one of my most-anticipated books for that year. And, it turns out, it does use a narrative device that’s one of my favourites: telling the story of a single character solely through the perspectives of multiple other people, like Anna North does in The Life and Death of Sophie Stark or Kevin Nguyen does in New WavesAs a young woman, Su Lan is a brilliantly talented theoretical physicist. We meet her having just given birth to her daughter Liya in Beijing in the midst of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, where an exhausted nurse is struck by her unusual demeanour. The novel then moves between the perspectives of Su Lan’s former neighbour Zu Wen, her former classmate Li Yongzong, and Liya herself to put together the fractured pieces of Su Lan’s history. What emerges is that Su Lan was a master of self-fashioning, but this was driven by a desperate need to hide what she saw as her true self. Arguing with her, Yongzong reflects: ‘through the cracks I saw something terrible, it was dark and powerful and churning, and I recognised with frightening clarity that everything I knew about Su Lan – her excellence, her beauty, her composure – was actually an attempt to control this thing.’ We hear about the poverty of Su Lan’s childhood in rural China, but we never get to the bottom of what she thinks is so wrong with her, and this novel is the stronger for it. Instead, we see how she uses theoretical physics and thermodynamics (in the form of Maxwell’s demon) to chase an impossible dream: can we forget the past and remember the future? There’s something here of Nell Freudenberger’s excellent Lost and Wantedwhich also picks up on quantum mechanics to deal with grief and ghosts. For me, Little Gods was stronger in its first half than in its second, when the pieces of the puzzle come together a bit too neatly, but it’s still an impressive debut.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 25th February.

Early Autumn Reading #ReadingWomen

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Anneliese Mackintosh’s Bright and Dangerous Objects combines two kinds of female-led stories that are currently very popular; the dysfunctional millennial drifting through her life, and the woman struggling with the realities and fantasies of potential motherhood. However, Solvig, the 37-year-old protagonist of this novel, is a bit different from a lot of her literary counterparts; alongside her internal conflicts, she is also occupied with a skilled and dangerous job, commercial deep-sea diving for an oil company in the North Sea. (This addresses one of my most frequent complaints about this kind of novel, so kudos to Mackintosh for that!) She also toys with what is probably one of the most extreme solutions to her present problems contemplated by any of these literary women: joining the first mission to Mars as a colonist. Bright and Dangerous Objects doesn’t have a lot to say about either deep-sea diving or Mars, so I wouldn’t advise picking it up if your interest really lies in either of those areas, rather than with Solvig herself. However, I thought that Mackintosh’s take on this sub-genre was smarter and more engaging than many I’ve read, especially when she starts getting into the idea that going to Mars could potentially be seen as a suicide mission, given the high death rate anticipated among colonists. While the novel never seems to take the Mars mission totally seriously as an option, this does give it some thematic resonance; is there something appealing for Solvig in bowing out of life when she could still just about be perceived as the maiden, rather than the mother or the crone? Bright and Dangerous Objects, as a piece of work, was too sketchy and brief for me, but it suggests that Mackintosh has the potential to write something brilliant.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK and US on October 6th.

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Cal has retired from the Chicago police force to a tiny town in rural Ireland, where he spends his time doing up an old farmhouse and enjoying long, casual chats with his neighbours. However, when a local teenager, Trey, whose older brother Brendan has recently gone missing, starts hanging around his property, Cal finds himself being pulled into this community far more deeply and dangerously than he intended. French is known for her brilliant Dublin Murder Squad novels, a series of police procedurals, and it seemed to me that, in The Searcher, she wanted to write about sombody conducting an investigation who can’t fall back on the apparatus of the state; no forensics, no technology, no mobile phone records. This allows French to showcase what she has always been best at – mapping out conversations between two people when one has something to hide and the other wants to find it out, which have before taken place in the interrogation room but are now set in bedrooms, shops and fields. However, thematically, Cal’s lack of formal ties also allows French to explore how this forces him to negotiate right and wrong outside the framework of the police force, and to ask questions about the role of the police themselves that are hugely relevant in the wake of the resurgent Black Lives Matter movement. As Elle says in her review, the conversation that Cal and Trey have about the difference between ‘etiquette, manners and morals’ is absolutely crucial to French’s project, as is Cal tussling with the idea that he once had a personal ‘code’ which he has lost along the way.

However, although The Searcher is an intelligent and immersive novel, it fell a little short for me. Of all French’s protagonists, I felt Cal was the one who is least called upon to truly rethink what he believes. My concern is that somebody who has bought into ideas about the silliness of ‘woke’ millennials might think that they are being vindicated here – with Cal’s comments, for example, about how everyone today is too hung up on using the correct language rather than doing the right thing – and while I don’t think that’s what French is saying at all, I wanted her to back Cal into a tighter corner. Because the narrative ended up being too straightforward, this sits in the second tier of French novels for me, alongside The Witch Elm and my least favourite Dublin Murder Squad novel, Faithful Place. I still miss the supernatural spark that lights up all of French’s best books, and I don’t think her most recent stories have been as enthralling. Nevertheless, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: French cannot write a bad novel, and this is still so worth reading.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the US on October 6th and in the UK on November 5th.

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As regular readers of this blog will know, I am aiming to read all twenty-four previous winners of the Women’s Prize as part of their #ReadingWomen challenge before the ‘Winner of Winners’ is announced in November. Helen Dunmore’s A Spell of Winter was the first ever winner of the Prize back in 1996, and at first glance it’s a weird choice, although after I’d thought about it for a little while, I could see that it’s concerned with themes such as patriarchy and motherhood that would have seemed relevant for the inaugural winner of a prize for women writers. Catherine and her brother Rob have grown up isolated from the world in their grandfather’s slowly decaying manor house sometime shortly before the First World War. Catherine’s narration reveals how closely she feels entwined with this building and the land that surrounds it. ‘I knew as much about the house as Rob did. More. I watched it, and he never did. I knew where its walls trapped sunlight and fed it back to you when you leaned against them after dust. I knew where the pears ripened first against the kitchen-garden wall’. Ultimately, her home is overtaken by the natural world: ‘It doesn’t want to be a house any more. It swarms with life… When I went into my grandfather’s room his window was black with leaves.’ I’ve never been especially impressed with Dunmore’s writing before, but here it’s stunning; this book delivers atmosphere in spades, reminiscient of any number of classic novels about lonely girls and old houses, although Catherine’s off-kilter narration reminded me most strongly of Merricat in Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived In The Castle. Unlike that novel, however, A Spell of Winter feels uneasily poised between fantasy and realism, and although the secondary characters are often vivid, I wasn’t as swept away by Catherine’s voice as I felt I needed to be. While reading, I kept on feeling that I was about to be swallowed up by this book, but I never quite got there. Nevertheless, this is a distinctive novel, and I’m not surprised it appealed to the original panel of judges.

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

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

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

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

20 Books of Summer, #3: The Maths of Life and Death

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The Maths of Life and Death, written by Kit Yates, who is a senior lecturer in the Department of Mathematical Sciences and co-director of the Centre for Mathematical Biology at the University of Bath, aims to show that ‘maths is for everyone’ and that mathematics is ‘first and foremost, a practical tool to make sense of our complex world.‘ This is a mission that I’m definitely on board with. I’m convinced that maths is the worst taught of all school subjects in England (due to the failure of central government policies to attract and reward good teachers), leaving a lot of people with the idea that maths isn’t for them. It’s frustrating to see people who are otherwise really smart refusing to even engage with an argument if it contains numbers or anything else ‘sciency’. Yates’s book, on the whole, definitely does a good job of explaining some basic mathematical concepts simply and clearly, and showing how they are relevant in the ‘real world’. The book is almost entirely focused on statistics, and the one chapter that strays into the realm of pure mathematics – on algorithms – will probably be less accessible for the average reader. However, having a solid understanding of some basic concepts in statistics is both vital and possible for everyone, and so I think this focus works well.

I have to say that most of the examples used in The Maths of Life and Death were already familiar to me, which is probably the result of my amateur enthusiasm for statistics rather than any undue repetition on Yates’s part, although there is a certain amount of crossover with Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science. Because I’m interested in medicine, I was already familiar with the material on medical statistics covered in chapter two, and with much of the epidemiological information in chapter seven (this, of course, is not Yates’s fault, but because this chapter focuses on controlling global pandemics, it makes for a rather chilling read in the wake of Covid-19). Chapter three, on the law, retells the story of the infamous Sally Clark case, where statistics were used to ‘prove’ that the chances of experiencing two stillbirths in the same family were 1 in 73 million, and so Clark must have murdered her two children; as Yates shows, this figure could only have been arrived at through multiple statistical errors. And I already knew about the ‘birthday problem’ in chapter four, which shows that in any school class it’s more likely than not that two children share the same birthday, although I loved hearing the story of how Yates used this fact to pitch his literary agent, Chris Wellbelove, while they were having drinks in a pub:

I bet him the next round of drinks that I would be able to find two people, in the relatively quiet pub, who shared a birthday. After a quick scan of the room, he readily took me on and indeed offered to buy the next two rounds if I could find such a pair, so unlikely did he think the prospect of a match. Twenty minutes and a lot of baffled looks and superficial explanations later… I had found my pair of birthday-sharers and the drinks were on Chris.

Yates’s prose is clear and straightforward, which is absolutely necessary for a book of this type. Occasionally, when he is trying to write about the bigger implications of statistics, it becomes a bit banal, but this isn’t the case most of the time. I also liked that he explained his calculations both in the text and through the use of diagrams – I found the text easier to follow, but others would probably prefer the diagrams, so this works for everyone. All in all, I’d recommend this book as an accessible and important introduction to understanding the use and abuse of statistics.

I would like to thank Quercus for sending me a free copy of this book to review.

Not The Wellcome Prize 2020: Exhalation and A Good Enough Mother

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Thanks to Annabel for this graphic!

I’m delighted to be taking part in both the blog tour and the judging panel for Not the Wellcome Prize this year, which has been so brilliantly organised by Rebecca Foster of Bookish Beck. As the Wellcome Book Prize, which aims to recognise books that have a  ‘central theme that engages with some aspect of medicine, health or illness’, is on hiatus this year, we are hoping to fill the gap by highlighting some of the best health-related fiction and non-fiction of 2019, then choosing our own ‘winner’ in May! Be sure to check in with the other stops on the blog tour to see what other books we’ve picked.

I’m excited to showcase two titles on my blog today: Ted Chiang’s latest collection of SF short stories, Exhalation, and Bev Thomas’s debut psychological thriller, A Good Enough Mother. These two books are very different from each other, but share common concerns about parenting, childhood and a ‘healthy’ upbringing.

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I was utterly gripped by Exhalation when it first appeared in July 2019 (as was Barack Obama, who said that it ‘will make you think, grapple with big questions, and feel more human. The best kind of science fiction’.) It was one of my top ten books of 2019 and contains one of my favourite short stories of all time. You can read my full review of Exhalation here, but for the purposes of this blog post, I thought I’d focus on one novella in this collection that seems to me to be especially concerned with themes of medicine, health and illness.

‘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 examines the ethical issues that this introduces. Humans swiftly get bored with their digients and move onto the next thing, except for a group of hardcore owners, our narrator, Ana, 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. Because of this, this novella asks questions about what is healthy for both the digients and their owners; is it fair to keep the digients ‘alive’ when they have minimal social interaction and are often unhappy, but on the other hand, how can it be right to ‘kill’ a sentient being simply because you’ve got bored with it? A lot of owners start to ‘suspend’ their digients as a compromise solution, but this unsurprisingly unsettles the digients when they find out they’ve missed whole chunks of time.

The story continually plays with the analogy between digients and human children, up to the point when their owners have to decide whether to let their ‘teenage’ digients be recoded as sexual beings, and which, early on, is made explicit when one of Ana’s friends gets pregnant and tells her ‘People always say that we’re evolved to want babies, and I used to think that was a bunch of crap, but not anymore… Cats, dogs, digients, they’re all just substitutes for what we’re supposed to be caring for.’ Indeed, one of Chiang’s points in this novella is that ‘healthy’ AIs will need to be brought up like human children: ‘The years [Ana] spent raising Jax… gave him… fluency at navigating the real world, creativity at solving new problems, judgement you could entrust with an important decision. Every quality that made a person more valuable than a database was a product of experience.’ Chiang writes in his ‘Story Notes’ that ‘based on our experience with human minds, it takes at least twenty years of steady effort to produce a useful person.’ I’d challenge the idea that children and adolescents can’t be creative, resourceful or trustworthy, but the overall point is one worth making.

Nevertheless, I felt there was a darker message about the biological need for creating children that Ana’s friend talks about early in the story buried in ‘The Lifecycle of Software Objects’. One of the major obstacles for the digients and their owners in this novella 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. While Chiang is delightfully good at teasing out the specifics of this situation, it also has symbolic weight; is it right to create new people who will be born into a world that is becoming unfit for purpose? As ever, Chiang doesn’t offer answers, but he poses some major questions.

Other stories in this collection that, in my opinion, have something to say about health, medicine and illness are ‘Exhalation’, ‘Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny’ and ‘The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling’.

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Way back in October 2018, I was lucky enough to hear Bev Thomas discuss this novel, which was published in March 2019, at the Durham Book Festival. Thomas previously worked as a clinical psychologist, and her expertise is evident in the very title of this novel, which is drawn from the work of the post-war child psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, who published a number of popular childrearing guides as well as becoming a regular feature on BBC radio. Winnicott asserted that mothers should not worry too much about making ‘mistakes’ with their children, saying that ‘The good-enough mother… starts off with an almost complete adaptation to her infant’s needs, and as time proceeds she adapts less and less completely, gradually, according to the infant’s growing ability to deal with her failure.’ In his popular texts, he built on this by writing that mothers would instinctively know what their infants needed, and did not need to rely on external expertise. As I’ve argued, this may have been intended to reassure mothers (coincidentally, Winnicott was reacting against the strict inter-war ‘behaviourist’ ideas that Chiang satirises in Exhalation, in his story ‘Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny’!)  but, in practice, left many feeling inadequate because their parental instincts did not seem to have kicked in and they would have liked some outside help.

So, what does this mean for Thomas’s novel (other than setting it up with a title that feels pretty sinister to me!)? The book focuses on Ruth Hartland, a professional psychotherapist who is haunted by her missing son, Tom, who disappeared a year and a half ago. As she starts treating a new patient, Dan, she can’t shake the fact that he reminds her strongly of Tom, and her increasing inability to separate the two men leads her into tragedy. A Good Enough Mother functions perfectly as a gripping psychological thriller, but is much more thought-provoking than the average thriller about therapy (or indeed than the approximately two million other thrillers that deal with missing children). We see that Ruth has never felt she was a ‘good enough mother’ to Tom, despite the supposedly soothing nature of Winnicott’s advice; Tom always struggled to separate from her and she worries that she did not encourage him to become independent. Now that they are completely apart, she can only guess how he’s navigating the world by himself. This theme is especially highlighted by the fact that Tom is a twin, which – although he and his more confident sister are obviously fraternal rather than identical – makes Ruth strain even harder to understand why her two children are so different. Ruth’s gradual emotional breakdown felt utterly convincing, and this is a hugely promising debut. (Incidentally, it also gets the thumbs up from my mum!)

Make sure to check out the other great books featured on our blog tour! 

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Have you read anything recently that deals particularly well with themes of health, medicine and/or illness?

Three Things… September 2019

As ever, borrowed from Paula at Book Jotter!

Reading

 

I’ve been delving into a subreddit called nosleep, which focuses on ‘realistic horror stories’; as you’d expect, it’s of very mixed quality, but contains some real gems. On Elle’s recommendation, I started with ‘Has anyone heard of the Left/Right game?’, and moved on to ‘I’m a search and rescue officer for the US Forest Service, I have some stories to tell’. The first is a straightforward ‘found footage’ set-up, focusing on a journalist called Alice who sets off on a journey along a terrifying road, and has a fully realised plot that is recounted to us through a series of files that Alice’s friend, the subreddit poster, claims to have found. The second doesn’t have a plot as such, but is actually even scarier as we’re introduced to a series of mysterious disappearances in one of the US National Parks, and the sets of staircases that rangers occasionally come across that lead to nowhere. They’re told by their superiors never to go near them or talk about them, but of course some people break the rules…

What I find especially fascinating about these nosleep stories is the way that they play with the genre conventions of message boards to create a new kind of fiction. In one sense, this is a very traditional way to tell a story – in serialised parts – but it gets interesting when commentators below the line start playing along, and treat the story as if it’s real, like this poster on the US Forest Service story: ‘I’ve heard about these staircases too, my ex was a SAR officer and he mentioned them and told me not to tell anyone. It pissed me off, because he didn’t know much about them and didn’t seem to find it as fascinating as I did.’ Obviously, part of the game is not knowing who’s recounting real stories and who’s deliberately playing into the theme of the board, and if possible, this makes these stories even more terrifying. Seriously, do not read either of these after dark, or, if you’re easily spooked, by yourself. Both of them remind me a little of James Smythe’s SF novels The Explorer and The Echowhich suggests how well horror conventions can be integrated into other genres (see also: George R.R. Martin’s depiction of the Red Wedding in A Storm of Swords). But they also made me think about how horror rarely works well in long form, and how this is a new way to connect with readers.

Watching

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On a very different note, I’ve been indulging in nostalgia recently! I went to see Wise Children’s production of Malory Towersadapted and directed by Emma Rice, at the York Theatre Royal. I loved Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers novels as a child but am in no sense a Malory Towers purist; I liked how this show drew on elements from all six novels in a mishmash of fun. The cast have a great energy and there are some hilarious moments, most notably Mary-Lou dangling from a cliff and being rescued by a horse.  School bully Gwendoline was also depicted wonderfully (I’m a Gwendoline apologist and so is this show). Nevertheless, it didn’t quite come together for me as a whole. I think this was partly the result of trying to handle too many characters; Rice rightly wants to show how all the girls are flawed and have their own secrets and complexities, but there’s just too much going on. Also, a number of the character choices for the pupils jarred for me. In the original, Sally is terribly jealous of her baby sister, and Alicia is an incredibly smart girl who struggles to empathise with others because everything comes so easily to her. In this, only child Sally is simply ignored by her parents and Alicia worries about keeping up with the other girls in lessons. In short, they’re both reduced to much less interesting archetypes, and I didn’t understand why.

Finally, Bill was a highlight of the show for me; played wonderfully by non-binary actor Vinnie Heaven, the character is exuberantly gender non-conforming. The show itself did a good job of leaving it up to the audience how to interpret Bill, I thought; is he a trans boy, are they non-binary, or is she a lesbian in a very 1940s mould? However, the reviews of this show all seem to have decided that Bill is definitely trans (it’s not clear whether Rice herself intended the reading to be so set in stone). I find this a bit of a problem because the character in the play is produced from the rolling together of two Blyton characters who are canonically lesbian (some may question this, but they would be wrong; the two characters decide to live together and set up a stables at the end of the series, and for anyone who knows anything about inter-war lesbian coding, it’s written all over them). There does seem to be a tendency recently for media to operate a ‘one in one out’ policy on lesbian and trans characters; if your show has a trans man, it seemingly can’t have a lesbian as well (see also: The Chilling Adventures of Sabrinawhich I’ve been watching on Netflix). Both trans men and lesbians are still chronically under-represented, so I think this is really sad. Why can’t we have both?

Thinking

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After giving my talk on ‘When children became evil’ at the British Science Festival, which was held this year at the University of Warwick, I enjoyed seeing some of the other talks. The highlight for me was probably Robin Allaby’s talk on ‘The lost landmass of Doggerland’ where he described his team’s scientific research on this lost landmass in the North Sea that used to connect Britain and Europe. I was fascinated to hear about a wide range of phenomena, including ‘Seahenge’, a submerged timber circle discovered in Norfolk, the remains of forests that can be found under the North Sea (I already knew about the ones found in Cambridgeshire peat fens!), and the Storegga Slide tsunami that caused an underwater landslide 8200 years ago, marking this hidden landscape. Julia Blackburn’s Time Song: Searching for Doggerland was already on my TBR list, but now I’m extra keen to read it. I was also fascinated by Diva Amon’s talk on ‘The dark heart of the ocean‘, which focused on deep-sea mining but also included some interesting bits about deep sea landscapes, such as how ancient many of the organisms are (tubeworms can live up to 1000 years and black corals 4200 years) and so how hard they find it to adapt to human interference. Finally, Hannah Belcher, Karen Leneh Buckle, Will Mandy and Hannah Hayward spoke on ‘Autism: the lost girls’, about how girls with autism are routinely ignored or misdiagnosed because of the ‘extreme male brain’ stereotype: the most moving part of this talk was the Q&A, where many audience members spoke of their own struggles with getting help for their daughters or granddaughters.

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.