Spring Reading Tag

51KTSiQPa8L._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_Taken from Elle Thinks.

1. What books are you most excited to read over the next few months? 

As usual, I have a small backlog of proofs: I still need to read Lisa McInerney’s The Blood Miracles and Colm Toibin’s House of Names, and I’ve also picked up a copy of Laline Paull’s The Ice. (I wasn’t a fan of her debut novel The Beesbut for reasons that were very particular to the story she’d chosen to tell – and I can never resist anything set in the Arctic or Antarctic.) I’m also very much looking forward to the fourth and last of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, The Story of the Lost Child. As for books I’m yet to acquire, SO many, but especially Jenni Fagan’s The Sunlight Pilgrims and Helen Sedgwick’s The Comet Seekers. In crime and thrillers, I’m most looking forward to Susie Steiner’s second novel, Persons Unknown, after loving her crime debut, Missing, Presumed.

2. What book most makes you think of Spring, for whatever reason?

I’m really struggling with this question! I can think of a plethora of summer, autumn and winter reads, but very little for spring. Perhaps Rose Daughter by Robin McKinley, a wonderful Beauty and the Beast retelling that is all about things coming back to life?

3. The days are getting longer – what is the longest book you’ve read?

I’ve no idea how this works out in terms of different translations etc., but my feeling is that it’s either Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Augustine’s City of God or Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy. All are well over a thousand pages.

4. What books would you recommend to brighten someone’s day?

This obviously depends on the person, but Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One is my top comfort read at the moment (and I know nothing about its two key themes: computer games and the 80s.)

232660475. Spring brings new life in nature – think up a book that doesn’t exist but you wish it did. (eg by a favourite author, on a certain theme or issue etc)

I used to read a lot of chick lit (as opposed to romance), and although I’ve rather gone off the genre in recent years, I still love really warm-hearted chick lit novels with great characters, like Nicola Doherty’s If I Could Turn Back Time, The Out of Office Girl and Girls on Tour. I’ve been thinking recently about how the gay male best friend has long been a staple of chick lit (at first, appearing in very stereotypical guises, but becoming more sensitively written in later years) but that lesbians or bisexual women never get a look in, even as background characters. (Bisexual men also rarely appear, and if they do, they are written as dangerous womanisers, men to avoid.) It strikes me that it would be brilliant to read a mainstream chick lit novel that fits in with all the genre conventions but is about a lesbian or bisexual woman. Apart from the main romantic plot line, chick lit already tends to deal heavily with relationships between women – conflict with a female boss, sub-plots with female friends or sisters – and it would be lovely to see this fully played out with a woman trying to find the woman of her dreams rather than the man. I would be rubbish at writing this, so I can’t have a go myself, but I wish somebody else would!

6. Spring is also a time of growth – how has your reading changed over the years?

Since records began (around the age of fourteen, when I began tallying all the books I’d read) there have been ups and downs. After getting seriously into adult fiction around the age of sixteen or so, the number of books I read every year dropped but the quality increased. I read more and more every year I was at university, culminating in my Best Reading Year Ever, 2008, when I read 119 books. After entering the world of work in 2009, and then embarking on a PhD, numbers dropped dramatically, and I’ve averaged around 80 ever since. In terms of what I read, I’ve steadily read classics and literary fiction throughout the years, but my ‘what I read when I’m tired’ reading has moved from chick lit (see above) to crime and thrillers, and is now moving more towards sci-fi.

7. We’re a couple of months into the new year – how’s your reading going?

One of the best things about 2017 so far for me is that I’m reading so much and enjoying it so much. I don’t think I realised it at the time, but I’d lost so much pleasure in reading since around 2009/10, and although of course I’ve read so many wonderful novels in the intervening years, I find I’m now coming to new books with a relish that I haven’t felt for a long time. My workload hasn’t significantly dropped, but I’ve already read 42 books this year, which means that I’m definitely going to smash that 80-ish average, and hopefully smash my target of 100 books in 2017. Can I beat THE BEST YEAR EVER? Probably not, but we’ll see…

9781909762299-wpcf_237x3608. Any plans you’re looking forward to over the next few months?

What I’ve read of the Baileys shortlist so far has hugely impressed me, so I can’t wait to get to the remaining three novels – Stay With Me, First Love and The Dark Circle (although I’m a little dubious about the last). I also still want to read the rest of the Jhalak Prize and Wellcome Prize shortlists – especially Irenosen Okojie’s Speak Gigantular, Gary Younge’s Another Day in the Death of America, David Olusoga’s Black and British, and David France’s How To Survive A Plague.

In the time of dinosaurs*

BonesOfTheEarthThe plot of Michael Swanwick’s Bones of the Earth, nominated for Nebula, Hugo, Campbell and Locus awards in 2002 and 2003, makes you feel like taking a deep breath before trying to describe it. Elevator pitch: palaeontologists are offered the opportunity to travel back in time to study dinosaurs. After a ‘deep creationist’ plants a bomb in their ‘time beacon’, a small working party of researchers are trapped in the late Cretaceous period, with no way home. Longer version: there’s so much more going on. To give a sense of it, the book kicks off with one of the main characters, palaeontologist Richard Leyster, attending a conference in Virginia, having just been offered the opportunity to use time travel in his research. However, the conference is taking place ten years in Leyster’s future, and the research he hasn’t carried out yet has already made him a legend. ‘Oh! You’re Richard Leyster! Oh, my goodness. I want to tell you that your book was so… Oh, right. It wouldn’t be out yet,’ gushes a fellow speaker. As the conference continues, things just get weirder. Leyster attends a talk by another significant character, Gertrude Salley, who is from ‘about thirty-forty years forward’ and is not allowed to reveal any information that hasn’t already been discovered in the present time. Unsurprisingly, Leyster and Salley end up sleeping together. Afterwards, Leyster is accosted by Griffin, who is orchestrating the entire project: he tells Leyster he is a ‘fucking idiot’ because Salley will, in the future, write a paper that is ‘the single most virulent refutation of your book ever printed.‘ The book, remember, that Leyster has not yet written.

If this kind of thing puts you off, Bones of the Earth is probably not for you. It flits between time periods in both the twenty-first century and in the Mesozoic era. It head-hops with equal abandon. Griffin, Leyster and Salley are the three central protagonists, but dozens of minor characters get a look-in. This weakens the novel, in my opinion; with such a crowded and complicated narrative, it could do with a strong emotional anchor provided by a single protagonist to guide us through. Instead, we end up flipping from Leyster’s research in the Cretaceous period to Griffin’s scheming in the 2040s to Salley’s grandstanding in the 2030s, and it’s very hard to keep up. About halfway through, after the creationist plot comes to fruition, we spend a lot more time with the stranded research group, and this helps to centre Bones of the Earth – until its final chapters, when it spins off on further adventures far into the Earth’s future. It’s too much to cram into a novel that’s barely more than 300 pages long. I rarely say this, but it could have been twice the length without feeling laboured.

I would have been happier to go with the flow of this novel if the time travel in it made any sense at all. It seems to me that there are basically two ways to handle time travel consistently in fiction: either accept that your characters are travelling back in the past of an identical parallel world, rather than the past of their own world, or allow them to travel back in their own past, while accepting the seemingly unbelievable truth that they will not be able to change anything that they haven’t already changed. (In other words, they’ll know that they can’t kill their own grandfathers, however hard they try.) David Lewis’s very famous metaphysical essay ‘The Paradoxes of Time Travel’ explains this second version in greater depth. Unfortunately, Swanwick goes for neither. His characters explain that they can change their own past, but they are not allowed to, because of the terrible consequences that would result. This quickly becomes very confusing, as it’s clear that the characters are allowed to interact with their own past in specified circumstances (they spend some time leaving notes for past selves), as long as they know they’ve already done it and the way in which they did it. While this does stack up, it’s hard to avoid asking how they could possibly guard against all the potential paradoxes that might happen, and how they always know exactly what to do in their own pasts. This version of time travel does turn out to be plot-important, but I couldn’t help feeling it was an extra complication the story simply didn’t need.

Having said all this: The Bones of the Earth is an exhilarating novel. Swanwick may have chucked far too many ideas at it, but this results in some wonderful set-pieces. His handling of the dinosaur scenes is brilliant, and made me wish that he had simplified the time travel apparatus considerably (the novel originally emerged from a short story called ‘Scherzo with Tyrannosaur’, which focused more closely on the dinosaurs themselves). There’s surely enough material for a novel in the vision of a future in which expensive corporate dinners are held in an underwater bubble in the Tethys Sea, full of swarms of ammonites… jewelllike teleosts… giant strands of seaweed’ and rudist clams that dominated the Cretaceous oceans before most corals existed? Or in the description of Hilltop research station, celebrating the sheer difference of the Earth millions of years ago, where ‘shallow seas so moderated the climate that even the poles were free of ice’ and ‘herds of triceratops speckle the flowered plains… their frills were all as bright as butterflies, dominated by two black-rimmed orange circles, like great eyes.’ Swanwick also has enormous fun playing with debates about why the dinosaurs went extinct so suddenly after the Chicxulub asteroid impact. He seems to have invented his own novel hypothesis about species communicating through infrasonic vibrations (like elephants and crocodiles do) which were silenced by the earth ringing after the impact of the asteroid (this is also a thing that happens) meaning that migration and co-operation patterns were messed up, causing eventual extinction. This is obviously not true, but I’m definitely up for some quasi-scientific hypothesising in time travel novels, and this twist, for me, alongside the ‘stranded in Tyrannosaurus rex times’ bit of the plot, could easily have carried the novel.

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SMITHSONIAN DINOSAURS

Would I recommend Bones of the Earth? For all of its faults, it’s competently and intelligently written, Hancock has a gift for explaining complex things clearly, and at least part of it is a time-travelling adventure with dinosaurs. For the kid in me that spent so many happy hours in the Smithsonian, the answer has to be yes.

*Animorphs homage

‘Because they could’

The_PowerWhen I was thirteen or fourteen, I read a number of science fiction and fantasy young adult novels that imagined matriarchal worlds where women held political and societal power, rather than men. These worlds were not necessarily presented as utopias, but they were usually peaceful, co-operative and somewhat passive in the face of threat. Published in the 1980s and 1990s, novels such as Louise Lawrence’s Children of the Dust (1985), and Jean Ure’s Come Lucky April (1992), already seemed to me to be very old-fashioned. Of course it was ridiculous to assume that women would rule any better than men, I thought. And why would you want to imagine such a world anyway? I devoured these novels, but regarded them with suspicion. I thought that I recognised them as part of a ‘feminist’ project that was itself out-of-date. (I’m not a feminist, I declared proudly at that age; basically, I was saying I’m not like other girls.) Concerns about gender had nothing to do with me and how I was going to live my life.

Most readers probably know the premise of The Power by now. Girls and women start to develop the ability to deliver fatal electric shocks through their fingertips. At first, this is regarded as a curiosity; then as an incipient threat; then as an existential crisis, especially as religious cults form around female religious leaders and women overthrow male-led governments. The book swaps between a number of viewpoints; Allie, who assumes the mantle of ‘Mother Eve’ and claims to perform miracles; Tunde, who starts off as a freelance reporter and soon finds himself being pulled into the unrest; Margot, running for state political office, and her daughter Jocelyn; Roxy, part of a family of organised criminals in Britain who, at the start of the novel, witnesses her mother murdered in front of her. These stories are tied together by a framing narrative that takes place thousands of years in the future, as a ‘male author’, Neil, presents them as an historical novel to his female mentor, Naomi. Channelling the Man Who Has It All, she  questions his conclusions about the world ‘before’: ‘I feel instinctively… that a world run by men would be more kind, more gentle, more loving and naturally nurturing. Have you thought about the evolutionary psychology of it? Men have evolved to be strong worker homestead-keepers, while women – with babies to protect from harm – have had to become aggressive and violent.’

Other reviewers have rightly criticised The Power for its curious silence on the subject of race, and how race might intersect with this new gender order, especially as it features one black and one mixed-race protagonist whom you might expect to have thoughts on this. Given that it’s already bitten off more than it can chew, I can forgive the novel more easily for not engaging with other axes of oppression. I don’t see any reason why the premise of The Power requires the novel to engage with issues of sexuality, or with trans issues, for example. As ever, I’d like to see more – or indeed any! – important gay, bi, lesbian or trans characters, but the omission is no more glaring here than in many other novels. Indeed, my main criticism of it would not be that it isn’t intersectional enough, but that it doesn’t take into account all the reasons for women’s gendered oppression. In physical terms, women are not solely oppressed as a sex class because they are physically weaker than men, but because they carry, bear and often nurse children. (Helen Sedgwick’s new novel, The Growing Seasonout in September, promises to explore a world where men can have babies, and I’m hugely looking forward to what feels to me like an exploration of the other ‘half’ of The Power’s conceit.)

Despite their physical inferiority to women, men in The Power still won’t have to deal with unwanted pregnancy, or pregnancy as a result of rape; they won’t have to spend nine months pregnant and then give birth; they still won’t have to take any time out from work at all to have their own biological children. This means that the nature of their oppression is not the simple flip-side of women’s oppression, but a different kind of subjugation. All this would feel much less problematic if the book simply lacked its framing narrative, which is where we see a gender-flipped world, and overall, I’m not convinced that the framing narrative adds very much. It introduces problems (surely The Power would be written very differently if it was an historical novel from thousands of years in the future? Wouldn’t there be more explanations for its ‘modern’ readers, and less explanation about things the writer would assume they’d know?) and doesn’t solve any. It recalls The Handmaid’s Tale a little too obviously. And yet, despite these issues, I already feel convinced that The Power will remain with me for a very long time.

It’s clear from the start that The Power is not going to be about a matriarchal utopia. And yet, I suspect my teenage self would still have held it at arm’s-length, because it makes it clear that sex, and its constructed counterpart, gender, both matter. A number of reviews of The Power have suggested that ultimately, it’s not really about gender, but about power itself. I’m not sure that’s the case: I think that the novel is about both gender and sex. Alderman seems to me to be interested in the power that men hold over women as a biological sex class. In other words, she’s concerned less with socially constructed ideas about gender, and more about the physical reality of the average man’s physical superiority over the average woman. The unreality of gender norms is demonstrated by the ease with which ‘female’ characteristics – such as emotional behaviour, caring personalities and the sexual double standard – are handed over to men once they are subjugated by women. Of course, we might argue that many of these things, such as the ability to nurture and support, are not undesirable at all, but made so by the unequal burden of emotional labour they require from women. And of course, that’s right. This, I think, is precisely the point that Alderman is trying to make; as she says in her excellent interview at The Writes Of Women, ‘of course it would be good not to be in fear of violence. But the only way we can conceive of that in the current system is by being the wielder of violence… So we want the freedom… but if nothing else were to change we’d just become the aggressor. Or to put it another way (and in the words of Audre Lorde): the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.’ 

The crucial conversation comes near the end of the novel:

One of them says, “Why did they do it …?”

And the other answers, “Because they could.”

That is the only answer there ever is.

Given its acknowledgement of the reality of the subjugation of women, and hence the importance of feminism, my teenage self would have wanted to run a mile from this novel as well. It’s that, more than anything, that suggests to me how important The Power is, even if its exploration of the world it’s created is necessarily incomplete.

***

An aside. At the beginning of 2016, I started a re-read project, where I planned to re-read classic books I disliked as a teenager and see if my opinion had changed. I ultimately only got around to re-reading one novel (To Kill A Mockingbird) and decided that, basically, it hadn’t. However, reading The Power has inspired me to add The Handmaid’s Tale to the list. I’ve never been a big Atwood fan, but my skewed views on feminism as a teenager may have unfairly biased me against the novel, which I hated as a fifteen-year-old. Watch this space!

The state she’s in

GreatestHits-350Laura Barnett’s debut, The Versions of Us, had a clever, high-concept pitch: ‘What if one small decision could change the rest of your life?’ Its Sliding Doors-style narrative followed three versions of the lives of star-crossed lovers Jim and Eva, pivoting around a single moment when they either meet or don’t meet as students in Cambridge. Ultimately, I found it frustrating; the need to cover three versions of everything in Jim and Eva’s stories, from marriages to careers to children, made all three stories feel short-changed. It also became clear that Barnett and I have different ideas about what this concept is good for; while I wanted The Versions of Us to explore how fundamentally changed the characters were by their experiences, she was clearly more interested in thinking about what might remain constant. Given this, I’m not quite sure why I picked up her second novel, Greatest Hitsbut I’m so glad I did. Free from the restrictions of finding a smart hook for her story, Barnett’s talents as a storyteller really shine through. I found it a completely immersive read; the five hundred pages flew by.

Cass Wheeler is a well-known singer-songwriter in the vein of Sandy Denny or Joni Mitchell, her career kicking off in the 1970s with her first solo album, The State She’s In. Now, in 2015, having not released any music for ten years, she’s been tasked with choosing sixteen of her songs to appear on a Greatest Hits album, which she’s decided to do on a single day before having a celebratory party in the evening. This acts as a framing device for Cass’s narrative of her life as a whole, and thankfully, after the very early chapters, it isn’t too intrusive. I liked the fact that Barnett was able to jump back and forward in time throughout the novel, but frankly, Greatest Hits doesn’t need a narrative crutch of this kind. Cass’s life story is simply and beautifully told, and entirely gripping in its own right. Barnett’s clear writing somehow manages to breathe new life into the most familiar of themes, such as Cass’s awkward childhood and distant, unhappy mother. I liked Greatest Hits even more, however, from Cass’s late twenties onwards. So many novels think about teenagers running away from home who achieve early success in the field of their choice, but fewer devote as much time to the struggles of middle age.

One of the strengths of The Versions of Us was the attention Barnett paid to the full arcs of Eva and Jim’s lives, rather than foregrounding their youthful romance, and she does the same thing in Greatest Hits. I especially liked the scene where thirty-eight year old Cass is recording a song with a twenty-two year old rising star, Dinah McCombs. We’ve been primed by popular culture to expect catty competition between women in scenes such as this one, but Cass has only empathy for Dinah: ‘Standing in the vocal-booth in the New York studio, she looked across at the younger woman – so lithe and smooth-skinned, so filled with the expectation of imminent success – and felt a maternal stirring of fear for her, and the hope that she would not make the same mistakes Cass had made. But of course, she reminded herself, Dinah would make them – or she would find others of her own.’ (I’m a bit younger than Cass is in this scene, but this is how I feel towards some of my female undergraduates – although they will no doubt feel immensely and justifiably patronised if any of them read this, as most of them are much more sorted than I was at their age!)

Greatest Hits is a genuinely absorbing novel, definitely one to sink into over long summer evenings. Furthermore, it’s being released alongside an album by Kathryn Williams, produced in collaboration with Barnett, that features the songs that appear in the book – so that’s something else to look forward to.

I received a free proof copy of Greatest Hits to review. It will be released in the UK on 15th June.

Going to Mars in Utah

34661015The first thing that struck me about Meg Howrey’s new novel, The Wanderers, which centres on three astronauts training for a Mars mission in the Utah desert, was its gorgeous hardback cover. The circle in the middle of the dust-jacket is actually a cut-out, so the two floating figures are embossed in gold on the book itself. Along with the scatter of gold stars and planets over the rest of the jacket, I could happily admire this novel’s exterior for ages. It’s a good thing that the text inside is just as brilliant.

The Wanderers is not a high-concept space thriller like The Martian or Gravity (unsurprisingly, as it’s not set in space). While the details of this practice mission, taking place in the near future under the benevolent dictatorship of ‘Prime Space’, are fascinating in their own right, Howrey’s focus is firmly on her three main characters, Helen, Sergei and Yoshi, and their closest family members. While all three are beguilingly written, Helen was especially fascinating. A middle-aged woman, now widowed, with a difficult relationship with her only daughter, Mireille or ‘Meeps’, she has a sharp self-awareness of what she believes are her own emotional shortcomings. The question that dogs her throughout the book is: has she been a bad parent by pursuing her dreams as an astronaut?

Consistently logical, Helen knows that her feelings about her daughter don’t fall easily into familiar scripts: ‘The most stressful, dangerous and fatiguing moment of her life had been an eight-hour spacewalk to fix a tear in one solar panel on the space station, which she would also categorise as the most exciting, satisfying and exhilarating moment of her life. People always say day child was born, or wedding day, and certainly those were wonderful too, but they had not required any unique skills on her part.’ Helen’s fraught relationship with her dead husband, Eric, is unsurprising when we find out more about the roles they played: ‘Eric had assigned her an identity. Helen was logical, rational, didactic, meticulous. Not unlike a robot, a lovable robot… that Eric should assign her a personality that did not seem particularly loveable, and then tell her that he loved her, had seemed significant. She had to think him wonderful. Who else would love the person he described?’ However, by the end of the novel, Helen has found a way to narrate her feelings for Meeps in a way that honestly addresses her central question, and acknowledges how dominant rationality is in her psyche, without denying how much her daughter means to her: ‘You think I only love you in the “of course” way. That I always loved myself more, that my work was always more important. You don’t know how great and terrible the “of course” way is. You are able to accept things without reasons. I do not have that. The only thing I accept without reason is loving you.’

Both Sergei and Yoshi have tense family relationships to navigate as well. Sergei, recently divorced, has two teenage sons to contend with; the eldest, Dimitri, is still hiding his sexuality from the world, pursuing clandestine hook-ups with men. Meanwhile Yoshi cares deeply about his wife, Madoka, but feels distanced from her, the inevitable consequence of long periods away from home. Madoka has her own intriguing sub-plot that gets at a central theme of this novel: what is real, and why does it matter? She’s developed a new robot prototype, PEPPER, which is designed to help with the personal care needs of the elderly and disabled, while also providing companionship if necessary. Her conversations with this robot are another highlight of the novel, as it unwittingly boils down complexities of emotion into simple statements. (After Madoka tells PEPPER about a game she used to play with toy animals as a child, and that she’s sorry she wasn’t more creative, PEPPER suggests that she tell Yoshi ‘about playing with the zodiac animals and how that is a happy and sad memory for you.’) A scene near the end of the novel, where Mireille and Madoka talk to PEPPER, reflects how non-robotic even the most ‘robot-like’ person is. As Madoka explains, a robot can answer ‘yes’ to the question ‘Do you love your mother?’, as Mireille has just done: ‘But it would just be yes, in the end. It wouldn’t be a sad yes.’

With all this material about real and unreal experiences, feelings and emotions, The Wanderers sounds like a heavy read, but it’s actually one of the most genuinely funny literary novels I’ve read for a very long time. Humour is difficult in fiction; I don’t like humourless reads, but I often find that funny moments feel forced, breaking the mood or worse, distorting the characters for the sake of a good line or slapstick comedy. This is absolutely not the case in The Wanderers. Rather than falling back on old cliches about conflict and rivalry between the three astronauts in their locked-room sim, Howrey depicts touching and believable teamwork. All three characters are funny in their own ways, as demonstrated by a piece of black comedy near the end of the novel when they are discussing the protocol for if one of them dies in space:

“I got as far as ‘stick my dead body in the bag and hang me outside,'” Helen says now. “And I remembered the basics of the promession process: after my corpse is frozen, use RoMeO’s arm to vibrate me until I shatter and become a nice powder, then dehydrate my powder until it is dust, then put the dust in a can.”…

It is not in the protocol, but they should add that we take a label and put your name on it and stick it on the can,” Sergei says. “Because it would not be good to confuse you with can of protein powder.”…

“The UN treaty still holds?… We can’t let each other go out the airlock?”

No, it’s still considered littering,” Helen says.

“This is what you do for me,” Sergei says. “You put my dead body in the bag and send it out the airlock. You make fake can of powder for my family, and tell UN that promession protocols were followed and nobody littered in space.”

“Done,” Helen says. “You’ll do the same for me?”

“Yes. Yoshi, do you want the same or do you want us to eat you?”

“If you will permit a suggestion,” Yoshi says. “It is better for the space environment if you do not go out the airlock as a body. You could follow the CPB protocols and then egress as powder.”

Sergei and Helen agree this is an improvement of their plan.

It’s very rare to find a novel that is both so cerebral and so warm, witty and human. I think it’s the best thing I’ve read so far this year.

I received a free copy of The Wanderers for review. It’s out on 6th April.

‘I remember one afternoon when you are five’

61OJetFLy5L._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_I’ve been trying to read more science fiction lately, but am uncomfortably aware that as a relative stranger to the genre, it’s taking me some time to find my niche, which has led to some disastrous choices (Joe Haldeman’s horribly misogynistic and homophobic The Forever War being one of them). In contrast, Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others is certainly worth reading. These weird, original and cerebral short stories were, on the whole, not quite my thing, but at least I now feel I’m heading in the right direction. Chiang’s stories often engage the mind more than the heart, and while I was impressed by his imagination and invention, I struggled to stop thinking about what I was reading and start feeling. ‘Understand’, which makes a very brave attempt to convey the experience of an ordinary man who starts to acquire super-intelligence, was a case in point – although Chiang’s handling of this topic, for my money, is still far superior to the more famous Flowers for Algernon. Similarly, ‘Division by Zero’, which stars a mathematician who discovers an equation that seems to undermine the foundations of mathematics as we know it, impressed me, but didn’t enthral me. It’s telling that Chiang’s wonderful Story Notes were often better than the stories themselves: for ‘Division by Zero,’ for example, he writes: ‘A proof that mathematics is inconsistent, and that all its wondrous beauty was just an illusion, would, it seemed to me, be one of the worst things you could ever learn.’ He makes a real stab at conveying both the elegance of formal proofs and the horror of their disintegration to those of us who are less mathematically-minded, but I don’t think he quite pulls it off.

One of the key problems I had with stories like ‘Division by Zero’ and ‘Understand’ was that they seemed to be taking place in a white void; there is little physical description to root the reader. But Chiang is absolutely capable of intricate world-building. ‘Seventy-Two Letters’ is fabulously rich in pseudo-historical detail, as he invents a version of nineteenth-century England where automatons are an ordinary part of life. Similarly, his ‘Hell is the Absence of God’ is consistently funny, despite its dark subject-matter, as it imagines a world where angelic visitations are commonplace and Hell is frequently visible. When the angel Nathaneal makes ‘an appearance in a downtown shopping district… sixty-two people received medical treatment for injuries ranging from slight concussions to ruptured eardrums to burns requiring skin grafts. Total property damage was estimated at $8.1 million, all of it excluded by private insurance companies due to the cause.’ Sometimes, Hell manifests itself: ‘the ground seemed to become transparent, and you could see Hell as if you were looking through a hole in the floor.’ For me, the only story that was an unqualified success (partly because Chiang sets such impossibly high bars for himself to clear) was ‘Tower of Babylon’, where Chiang manages to harness another incredibly interesting concept into a satisfying ending.

UnknownBut the story I really want to discuss is ‘Story of Your Life’, which was the inspiration for the widely-praised 2016 film Arrival. [The rest of this review will feature significant spoilers for both Arrival and ‘Story of Your Life.’ You have been warned!] Anyone who has spoken to me about Arrival will know how frustrating I found it. The basic premise is great: a linguist, Louise Banks, is hired to learn the language of a group of aliens who have recently landed on Earth. The film is also great – until the final half hour. I found the resolution of Arrival totally unsatisfying, and to be honest, I’m amazed there hasn’t been a bigger critical backlash. (It rests on the  – to me, absurd – idea that by learning a language, your brain can somehow acquire the ability to see the future. How???) We discover that the ‘flashbacks’ Louise has been having throughout the film to the life and death of her daughter are in fact ‘flashforwards’ – and are asked to accept that, even though she now has this foreknowledge, her choices aren’t going to change. Finally, as Debbie Cameron has argued, the film relies on traditional gender roles; Louise saves the world because of her nurturing, empathetic personality, which is linked to her future role as a bereaved mother.

How does ‘Story of Your Life’ deal with the same basic plot line? On the whole, much better. It turns out that much of the plot that fills the film’s final half hour was added – which means that Chiang completely avoids the gendered implications that Cameron dissects. He also faces the question of Louise’s motivations head on, which made me feel much more convinced that knowing the future wouldn’t necessarily entail changing the future: ‘What if the experience of knowing the future changed a person?’ she narrates. ‘What if it evoked a sense of urgency, a sense of obligation to act precisely as she knew she would?’ This model of how gaining new knowledge might actually alter the way somebody thinks worked much better, for me, than the idea that the aliens’ language confers the power of prerecognition. (Chiang keeps this concept, but – partly because the linguistics in the story is so much more complex than the linguistics in the film – it didn’t feel quite as jarring). I also loved the way he dealt with the ‘flashforwards’, narrating in a mix of tenses that neatly demonstrate on the page how a very simple alteration in language can mess with your head. ‘I remember one afternoon when you are five years old,’ Louise narrates, jarringly, to her future daughter, or ‘I remember one day during the summer when you’re sixteen.’ Like so many of the stories in ‘Stories of Your Life and Others’, ‘Story of Your Life’ bites off a bit more than it can chew – but it’s exhilarating anyway.

***

9781408708231Speaking of language, I have some very brief thoughts about Laura Kaye’s English Animals, which focuses on Mirka, a lesbian from Slovakia who starts work in an upper-class English household and finds herself embroiled in an affair with one of her employers, the bicurious Sophie. Frankly, I hated the novel when I first read it; I thought it was incredibly badly-written, with a very black-and-white morality (Mirka good, English upper classes bad – and while I am hugely sympathetic to this from a political perspective, it didn’t make for very interesting fiction!). I recently read an interview with Kaye which explains why I found the language of the novel so lifeless. She explains that she was imagining Mirka narrating in English, with all the second-language limitations and mishaps that entails. ‘Another concern,’ she writes, ‘was that Mirka might come across as less intelligent with her deficient language, while the English people seemed more sophisticated and educated by comparison. I hope she doesn’t – in my mind she comes across as far more intelligent, brave and imaginative than anyone else in the book’. Unfortunately, I did find Kaye’s stylistic choice alienating, and I think I would have been much more sympathetic to Mirka as a character if she had just been allowed to narrate in the same way that anyone narrates in their own head. Furthermore, while Mirka is clearly a far more admirable figure than anybody else in the book – and it is refreshing to read a novel narrated by a lesbian who is utterly sure about her own sexuality – this is precisely what made her an uninteresting protagonist. I wasn’t surprised to read that English Animals began as a series of scenes told from Sophie’s point-of-view. Sophie is selfish and weak, but I wanted to read about her internal conflict much more than I wanted to read about the idealised Mirka. Like Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wakethis is another novel where complicated linguistic ambitions don’t come off.

I received a free proof copy of English Animals from the publisher for review.

‘They could be footballers’

61uQrBS-olL._SX336_BO1,204,203,200_I liked Ross Raisin’s debutGod’s Own Country, narrated by rural outcast Sam, and loved his second novel, Waterline, an utterly immersive and convincing narrative of the downwards spiral of ex-dockyard worker Mick after the death of his wife from mesothelioma. A Natural isn’t quite as compelling, but Raisin delivers another solid series of musings on the lives of modern-day men who, for one reason or another, are caught outside of mainstream society. As with Waterline, his prose doesn’t draw attention to itself, but that doesn’t mean that there are no memorable set-pieces – for example, his description of the out-of-season wild growth and pre-season mowing of a football field works brilliantly as both metaphor and as straightforward observation. And he still has the ability to draw a reader forward even when nothing much, on the surface, is happening.

Given Raisin’s obvious interest in twenty-first century masculinity, its fragilities, cracks and challenges, it was no surprise to me to realise that this novel was about a gay footballer. (Football fans, please excuse any misuse of football terminology in this review – my knowledge of football comes entirely from this novel and The Damned United, and I’ve forgotten most of what I learnt already!) Tom Pearman showed early promise as a teenager but has found himself on a poorly-performing team, ‘Town’, which are facing relegation from League Two, and hence out of the Football League. He keeps himself to himself, spending enough time with his teammates not to arouse suspicion but forming no close friendships. However, when he meets groundskeeper Liam and is drawn into a clandestine affair, the emotions that he suppressed for so long finally start to make themselves felt. Tom’s story is interwoven with that of Leah Easter, the captain’s wife, who spends most of her time taking care of her husband and small son, except when she seizes time for herself doing an art course. William Skidelsky’s Guardian review suggests that Leah’s story is both ‘generic’ and unrealistic, and diverts time from the central narrative. However, I disagree. Leah’s domestic drudgery is certainly familiar, but its juxtaposition with the story of a young man whose life is also being shaped by restrictive gender norms works well. Leah’s actions in the final chapters also rang true to me – and I think it’s easy to assume that paying lip-service to ideas about gay equality equates to true acceptance of homosexuality, an idea that Raisin neatly skewers throughout A Natural.

Raisin’s observations on how football players have to uphold especially strict codes of heteronormative masculinity precisely because they are so touchy-feely and emotionally close to each other are nothing groundbreaking, although he weaves these ideas subtly through Tom’s narrative. On holiday with Liam at a ‘gay-friendly’ resort, for example: ‘He noticed two other couples, as well as a group of five Germans whom he presumed to be gay from the way they play-fought and posed endlessly for photos on the beach, although he wondered if that might just be what Germans were like, and he did not discount either the fact that they could be footballers.’ For me, his descriptions both of playing football and of being part of a struggling, minor-league team felt much fresher. Like Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding or Lionel Shriver’s Double Fault, this book pulls off the difficult task of making a sport accessible and interesting to those who have absolutely no knowledge of it, though of course it’s difficult for me to assess how accurately it would read to fans. As for his treatment of homosexuality, there are glimpses of sharp insight into coming out – for example, Liam exclaiming, while realising the absurdity of it, “So I am really gay,” only after he’s been on holiday with Tom. However, there is very little direct examination of either of the boys’ feelings – Raisin focuses instead on their continued silence about the relationship, on what they cannot say. This works well in the first quarter or so of the novel, when Tom’s sexuality is under wraps even from the reader, but I felt there was more space for interrogation as the plot develops. Nevertheless, A Natural is worth reading.

I received a free electronic copy of this novel to review from the publisher via NetGalley.