Sex, the sea and academia: Night Waking (Sarah Moss) & The Pisces (Melissa Broder)

 

At first glance, it might seem perverse to pair Sarah Moss’s Night Waking and Melissa Broder’s The Pisces. One is about an harassed, exhausted mother trying to write an academic book and deal with two children on a remote Scottish island, ‘Colsay’ (St Kilda), while her ornithologist husband counts puffins; the other is about a single woman who, seeking no-strings sex, falls in love with a merman whom she meets on an LA beach. Nevertheless, I happened to read the two side by side, and that made me think about the ways both Moss and Broder write about sex, the sea and academia.

I first read Night WakingMoss’s second novel, eight years ago, and it’s been nettling me ever since. I couldn’t decide then, and I still can’t decide now, who to like and dislike, whose fault is what, and I think this is quite deliberate. Anna, our first-person narrator, a historian of childhood in her early thirties and mother to seven-year-old Raphael and two-year-old Moth, is not an easy person to warm to, even though her narrative is frequently hilarious and her complaints are usually justified. She tends to express her resentment through sidelong comments to her children; for example, when reading Moth the adventures of Lucy and Tom: ‘Lucy is helping to pack up the picnic… Tom, reinforcing gender stereotypes, has gone to get the buckets and spades from the sandpit.’ Or when Moth pleads ‘Mummy stop it raining’, ‘I can’t stop it raining. Believe me, if I had supernatural powers the world would be a very different place.’ 

When I first read this book, in my early twenties, I felt uncomfortable about Anna’s frank relationship with her children, but now I find myself applauding her. What’s less relatable now about her character, for me, is why she puts up with so much. We never find out why she decided to have two children so young (for her demographic), with a significant age gap between them (Anna is in her early thirties, so must have had Raphael when she was around twenty-five), why she insists on baking her own bread and cooking for the family when she hates it and is rubbish at it, or why she doesn’t just give husband Giles an ultimatum about his lack of contribution to childcare and housework.

On first glance, Lucy, the thirty-eight-year-old protagonist of The Pisces, might conceivably be more relatable to other single, childless women, and Broder certainly has her come out with some brilliant sets of observations, especially near the start of the novel. But she’s also frustrating in similar ways to the unnamed heroine of Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and RelaxationLike Anna, Lucy has an academic book to write; unlike Anna, she has no caring responsibilities (short of a friendly dog called Dominic) and is being allowed to stay for free in her sister’s LA beach house.

This is reflected in the symbolic landscapes of the two novels. The sea that Anna encounters on Colsay is wild, cold and obviously deadly; she almost comes to grief trying to get back to the island in a small boat on one occasion, and we know that people have died in it in the past. Meanwhile, Lucy’s California ocean is warm, erotic and welcoming; we only find out later that it too has a fatal edge.

But what about the sex? This might seem to be the biggest difference between the two novels. The Pisces is deliberately explicit; Lucy’s sexual experiences both with her merman, and with a range of random Tinder dates, are described in detail, and while I didn’t find the novel crude in the way I was expecting, it actually becomes completely non-erotic in its clear descriptions of bodily functions. Meanwhile, Anna does have sex with Giles, but it happens offscreen every time, and is blink-and-you’ll-miss it, buried under the narrative’s dominant concerns of childcare, academic writing and the infant skeleton that Anna finds in their garden, which turns out to date from the 1860s. If Lucy’s Tinder profile says ‘Let’s make out in a dark alley’, Anna’s would probably say ‘Please leave me alone in a dark bedroom’. However, sex is significant in Night Waking in a way I didn’t appreciate at first, and less significant in The Pisces than I had expected.

Lucy pretends to be seeking carnal experience, but she really wants to be loved. All her pre-merman sex is disappointing, and while sex with the merman is transcendent, it doesn’t silence her deep conviction that all relationships are essentially power games. ‘When Romeo cried for Juliet, because he thought she was dead, it was Juliet who had the power. But then she cried for him when he was really dead, and he had the power. It’s the dead one who is the most cherished in the end.’ The Pisces ends with Lucy rejecting sexual love for platonic love: ‘I had hoped that fantasy would triumph. Now I was left with neither. But I had my sister.’ 

In contrast, Giles and Anna continuously squabble but do not separate, and it’s implied that what holds them together is a deep and mutual sexual bond, all the more powerful for not being shown to the reader, and revealed largely through Raphael and Moth’s surprise at their parents being more openly affectionate than usual after the deed: ‘ “Daddy, why did you do that?”…”What?”… “Kiss Mummy.”‘ Both books leave the reader with thorny questions. Is good sex worth it, if it binds you to someone who’s exploiting your emotional and domestic labour? Is it better to be with someone with whom you’re less sexually compatible, but who you can live a full life with, rather than having to mould your life around theirs? Does love need good sex? Does good sex need love? I wasn’t totally won over by either of these novels, but I know that both will continue to niggle at me.

A note re. the Women’s Prize 2019; while I’m not sure whether or not The Pisces, which was longlisted, would make my personal shortlist, it’s definitely better than at least half the books on the actual shortlist, and so should be there. And Sarah Moss being shunned unfairly by the Women’s Prize judges has a long history; Night Waking was not longlisted in 2011.

 

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Science fiction for the spring, May 2019

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Having now read Nina Allan’s second novel, The Rift, shortly after finishing her third novel, The DollmakerI feel like I’m getting a better grasp of her overarching literary project. Allan’s novels explore the line between fantasy and reality, presenting a relatively realistic version of the present while making our own world persistently sinister. She’s especially interested in parallel stories – both The Rift and The Dollmaker include sections from fictional texts, whether those are fairy tales, newspaper cuttings, lists, alien histories or alien novels. Because of this, both these novels are ‘speculative’ in the broadest sense; neither absolutely rests on the existence of any SF or fantasy element. However, The Rift opens up a much bigger space for reader speculation than The Dollmaker, and perhaps that was one of the reasons I liked it so much better.

The premise is simple. Selena’s sister Julie goes missing at the age of seventeen and turns up twenty years later, claiming to have been mysteriously transported to another planet, which she calls Tristane. Selena wonders if Julie is deliberately deceiving her, or if she is mentally ill, or if she’s really her sister at all. However, Julie’s own narrative is remarkably coherent, and she knows things that only she could know about the sisters’ past. On one reading, The Rift, like The Dollmaker, uses this set-up to explore the experience of loss and change on a metaphorical level. Allan doesn’t make the connections for us, but lets us draw our own conclusions. Selena watches a documentary about a woman in the States, Sharon, who was kidnapped and held prisoner for seven years: ‘Selena gained the impression that Sharon Wade no longer cared if people believed her or not. They could believe her or think she was lying, that was their choice.’ Julie hears an apocryphal story about Tristane’s twin planet, Dea, and a monster called the creef that invades human bodies and hollows them out from the inside, gradually eroding their identity.

However, what worked better about The Rift for me is that there’s also space for the reader to believe Julie’s story, if they want to. The novel is infused with eeriness; nothing overtly scary happens, but it’s still a very unsettling reading experience, uncanny in the most specific sense. As Julie’s teacher recalls in a newspaper article after her disappearance: ‘You know the strangest thing about her? Julie was terrified of black holes. She told me they gave her nightmares. When I asked her why, she said that black holes proved there were a lot of things we didn’t know about the universe, and most of them were terrifying.’ Allan explores the line between what we know to be true and what we know to be false, and suggests that the state of that knowledge is fragmentary at best. This incredible novel has to be a contender for one of my favourite books of 2019. Thanks to Victoria at Eve’s Alexandria for the recommendation!

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Unlike The Rift, Children of Time, which won the Arthur C. Clarke award for best novel in 2016, is proper, hard-core science fiction. The remains of the human race are sleeping in stasis on a cargo ship called the Gilgamesh having fled from an uninhabitable Earth. Far in the past, their space-faring ancestors terraformed distant planets as homes for new life, and the Gilgamesh happens upon one of these planets, which looks like the last hope for humanity. Unfortunately, it’s guarded by an aggressive and hostile AI, and populated by giant spiders. Children of Time spans centuries through the eyes of its principal protagonist, the classicist Holsten, who is continually awoken at times of crisis and then sent back to stasis.This incredibly clever device allows Tchaikovsy to tell a massive story about the human race’s interactions with this new planet while giving the reader an anchor.

This is necessary, because Children of Time, like a number of epic SF novels I’ve read, suffers from a certain coldness. Tchaikovsy is clearly most interested in exploring big questions about evolution, co-operation and society, and I love cerebral science fiction, but the individual element sometimes gets a little lost. While the characterisation isn’t bad, we only ever see these people when they’re doing important things; there’s no sense of what they do when they need to take a break, or be with other people. Arguably, this is because the key characters are only awake for short periods of time, but if so, I’d have liked to have seen the psychological impact of this more deeply explored (although Tchaikovsy, to be fair, does make a stab at this through a running theme about Holsten being ‘the oldest man in the universe’, a statement that’s both true and not true at different points).

Alongside the story of the Gilgamesh, a second, equally dominant narrative thread in Children of Time covers the evolution of a race of giant, sentient spiders on the terraformed planet, and how they too begin to reach out to the stars. Again, this is imaginatively handled; while generations of spiders are born and die, Tchaikovsy uses the same set of names for his central characters in each generation (‘Portia’, ‘Bianca’, ‘Viola’, ‘Fabian’), so we feel like we have something to hang onto. However, I found this strand of this story much less compelling than the alternate half of the novel. Part of this is personal preference: I’m not especially interested in reading about primitive societies. By the end of the novel, the spiders have become an interesting, sophisticated civilisation, but this is really only in play for the last few chapters. There are good plot reasons for this, but sometimes I couldn’t shake the sense that this was 600 pages of set-up for the next novel in the series, Children of Ruin. The inevitable conflict between human and spider is solved rather neatly, and while I don’t think the solution is a cop-out, as such, I’d have bought into it more if it had been the beginning of a novel rather than the end. Nevertheless, I have to admire Tchaikovsy’s ambition and imagination, and I’d be up for reading the sequel.

I have also recently read one relatively poor speculative novel, Luiza Sauma’s Everything You Ever Wantedand one really awful science fiction novel, SK Vaughn’s Across the VoidLinks are to my Goodreads reviews! Finally, I’ve just started reading Annalee Newitz’s Autonomouswhich is about space pirates.

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.

Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist, #3/Wellcome Book Prize Longlist, 2019: Freshwater

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One does not challenge their chi to a wrestling match.

Born in Nigeria to Igbo and Tamil parents, Ada is inhabited by ogbanje, an Igbo term that might translate as ‘evil spirits’ but, as Freshwater, Akwaeke Emezi’s debut novel, makes clear, is actually much more complicated. ‘Ogbanje’ are also ‘children who come and go’, or what we might think of as changeling children, children of gods who don’t properly belong in this world. To be an ‘ogbanje’, as Ada is, is to be marked out as special. Ada is also a practicing Christian, but while her internal ogbanje recognise the presence of what they call Yshwa, or Christ, they don’t perceive him as having any particular status, and have their own take on his motives: ‘while he loves humans… what they forget is that he loves them as a god does, which is to say, with a taste for suffering’. One of Ada’s selves, Asughara, is particularly resentful of Yshwa, whom they call ‘that fucking resurrected bastard’ after losing an argument with him.

If this all sounds a little metaphysical, you’re not alone; I approached Freshwater with some trepidation. However, I ended up engaging with it a lot more easily than I expected. Emezi’s writing makes the conflict between Ada and her various selves real and concrete, more like the interactions between the gods of a Greek myth than the inner monologue of a person with multiple personality disorder. This is obviously deliberate. One of the things that’s most brilliant about Freshwater is its refusal to line up Ada’s experience with Western psychological or psychoanalytical categories. Insofar as these diagnoses are useful as a way of understanding our experience, Emezi suggests that Ada can most effectively come to terms with herself by using the language of Igbo belief. Because of this, and despite its longlisting for the Wellcome Book PrizeFreshwater doesn’t feel like a novel about mental illness but more a novel about coming to terms with the relationship between self and world.

Emezi writes particularly well on Ada’s struggle to live in a physical body, observations that seem to be drawn from Emezi’s own experience (they identify as non-binary). This manifests not exactly as gender dysphoria but as an inability to reconcile how one sees oneself with how others see us. After Ada has a breast reduction, she starts wearing dresses more often; one of her friends can’t understand this, saying ‘Most people get it done to be more masculine’. But for Ada, the surgery wasn’t intended to help her fit into a particular gender category more easily but to complicate people’s impressions of her. If Freshwater doesn’t quite work at times, it’s because of its closeness to Emezi’s own life, and the redundancies that inevitably creep in when you try and compress life into fiction (there seem to be too many temporary lovers, and I wasn’t sure what purpose Ada’s siblings served). Nevertheless, this is a startling novel that deserves its place on both the Women’s Prize and Wellcome Prize longlists – and I wish it had gone forward to the Wellcome shortlist.

Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist, #2: The Silence of the Girls & Circe

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As a teenager, I worked my way through both popular versions of Greek myths and stories, primarily compiled by Roger Lancelyn Green, and novel-length retellings such as Adele Geras’s Troy. As an adult, I’ve tended to steer away from modern versions of classical stories – making exceptions for complete remakes like Kamila Shamsie’s take on Antigone – and was recently rather unimpressed by Colm Toibin’s House of Nameswhich focuses on the prelude and postlude to the siege of Troy. I was surprised, therefore, at how closely Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls gripped me from the start. Barker, unlike Toibin, focuses on the most famous bit of The Iliad – the siege of Troy itself by the Greek army, Patroclus’s death, Achilles’s furious return to the fight, and how Hector’s body is dragged many times around the walls of Troy before the city finally falls. At the end of the novel, there are details borrowed from Euripides’s Trojan Women, such as the killing of Trojan children by Greek soldiers.

I was less familiar with the first half of the story told here, which deals with Achilles’s anger with Agamemnon after the latter demands his war prize, an enslaved girl, Briseis, as compensation for the loss of his own ‘prize’, Chryseis. Briseis narrates the first section of The Silence of the Girls, and it was her unmediated first-person narrative that I found most impressive. Barker shows us how the women in the camp remain silent in the presence of more powerful men, but speak up when they are alone, offering their own take on the familiar characters of these epics. After meeting her fellow ‘prizes’, Briseis learns a great deal about the men whom they ‘belong’ to:

Hecamede… had been awarded to Nestor… as his prize for strategic thinking, since he was too old to take part in the actual raid.

“Too old for anything?” I ventured to hope.

Uza… hooted with laughter. “Don’t you bloody well believe it! They’re always the worst, old men”… Uza was Odysseus’s prize. No problems there, apparently. All very straightforward. When it was over, he’d lie looking up at the ceiling and indulge in long, rambling reminiscences about his wife, Penelope, to whom he was utterly devoted…

Ritsa turned to me. “What about Achilles? What’s he like?”

“Fast,” I said, and left it at that.

As with any oppressed group, the enslaved women form complex social hierarchies between themselves, based not on their status before slavery (Briseis was married to the king of Lyrnessus), but on qualities that now have more tradeable value, such as youth and beauty, and the attitude of the men who now own them. There’s debate over where the fragile Chryseis fits into all of this:

In one respect, as Uza pointed out, she was better off than most of us: Agamemnon couldn’t get enough of her. “Never sends for anybody else,” she said. “I’m amazed she’s not pregnant.”

He prefers the back door,” Ritsa said. She’d know. Ritsa had a jar of goose fat mixed with crushed roots and herbs that the common women round the campfires relied on if they’d had a particularly rough night.

Later on, the narrative starts to switch between Briseis’s account and Achilles’s third-person perspective, and while this narrative choice is necessary to cover some events that Briseis is not witness to, I found that the novel lost some of its power once its voice was divided. Nevertheless, Barker writes convincingly about religious belief, the duties that the men believe they owe to the gods, and Achilles’s relationship with Patroclus, which is reinvented as a profound, but non-sexual, love, although the other men are convinced they’re sleeping together.

There’s a deliberate use of modern terminology throughout the novel, which on the whole, worked well; while there’s nothing more jarring than a really anachronistic term, making historical characters speak in stilted sentences (which in this case could never be ‘accurate’ given the language difference) is alienating, and gives the false impression that slang and abbreviations are modern inventions. I particularly liked this rowdy chant that the men sing about Achilles:

Why was he born so beautiful?

Why was he born at all?

He’s no fucking use to anyone!

He’s no fucking use at all!

He may be a joy to his mother,

But he’s a pain in the arsehole to me!

This use of language, including some of the phrasing of the First World War poets elsewhere in the narrative, only enhances the power of this wonderful novel.

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Seven years ago, when her debut novel, The Song of Achilles, won what was then the Orange Prize, it was rumoured that Madeline Miller was writing a retelling of the Odyssey. Instead, her second novel takes a slightly different tack. Circe takes the witch that Odysseus famously encounters on an isolated island and gives us an alternative perspective on some of the most famous stories from Greek myth and legend. The novel begins when Circe is a mistreated nymph at her father’s court, exiled after transforming one of her fellow nymphs into the sea monster, Scylla. On her island, Circe encounters first Jason, and then Daedalus, hearing stories of her sister Pasiphae, her minotaur child, and the labyrinth Daedalus built to contain him. Her uneasy truce with the messenger god, Hermes, allows her to learn what happens to these people after they leave her. However, it’s only after Odysseus arrives that Circe really becomes deeply involved in a storyline in her own right.

It’s also been seven years since I read The Song of Achilles, but I remember being impressed by the way that Miller wove little interludes into the central narrative of the siege of Troy while not allowing the novel to feel too tangential. In contrast, much of the first half of Circe is distractingly episodic – not epic, but not really mythical either. The novel only really gets going at the halfway mark, after Circe is raped by a ship’s captain, and vows to transform all men who land on her island into pigs. This middle section is mesmerising, and from this point on, Circe begins to become more of an agent, rather than the recipient of curses, punishments, and tales. However, I still felt profoundly disappointed in her characterisation for much of the novel. She seems to be designed to win the reader’s sympathy rather than positioned as a complex mix of god, nymph and witch. All she really wants is to live the life of a mortal, to have love and children, and she only becomes truly vengeful after her rape. While Miller, like Barker, obviously wants to give us a female perspective on these male-dominated legends, I felt that Circe was much less successful in this respect than The Silence of the Girls. The morality was a bit black-and-white for me; eventually we find out that Odysseus is also a villain, overwriting what was most interesting about his characterisation in The Song of Achilles and in much of this novel. Miller’s writing is still excellent, but if only one classical retelling can make it to the Women’s Prize shortlist this year, I’d prefer it to be The Silence of the Girls.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three Things… March 2019

As ever, borrowed from Paula at Book Jotter.

Reading

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

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

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

Watching

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

Thinking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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