The Other Americans (Laila Lalami) and The Boat People (Sharon Bala)

 

On the surface, The Other Americans and The Boat People have a lot in common. Both explore a range of point-of-view characters with a range of views on immigration into North America, whether that’s because they’re a second- or third-generation immigrant themselves, have just come to the US or Canada, are African-American, or are fundamentally racist. Both take a single, exemplary case – a hit-and-run killing of an elderly Moroccan man in The Other Americans, a Tamil father and son fleeing the Sri Lankan civil war in The Boat People – and use it to illustrate the wider plight of refugees and minorities. Both are written by middle-aged female authors from immigrant backgrounds – Lalami was born in Morocco and moved to the US for university, whereas Bala, whose family are Sri Lankan, was born in Dubai and emigrated to Canada as a child. Nevertheless, one, in my opinion, is a resounding success, whereas the other falls far short of its ambitions.

Lalami sets herself a formidable challenge in The Other Americans. The novel is narrated by no fewer than nine first-person point-of-view characters (with one random jump into second person): Driss, the hit-and-run victim and his wife, Maryam; their two adult daughters, Nora and Salma; Nora’s old school friend, Jeremy, back from fighting in Afghanistan; Efrain, an undocumented immigrant who witnessed Driss’s death and is afraid to come forward; Anderson, the driver of the car, and his son, A.J.; and Coleman, an African-American female police officer investigating the incident. These narrators don’t even exhaust the number of significant characters in the novel, as other figures, such as Fierro, Jeremy’s ex-army comrade, also play substantial secondary roles. With so many narrators, it would be nearly impossible to give them all individual registers, but Lalami doesn’t even seem to try; the mass of voices is a device to give us all the different sides of the story, rather than an experiment in ventriloquism. It’s especially frustrating when certain narrators, such as Salma and Anderson, pop up just to resolve unanswered questions or throw in red herrings. Through Salma’s chapters, for example, we learn that she’s addicted to prescription medication, which helps us to read some of the tensions in certain conversations she has with Nora; but was this a fact that really needed to be conveyed to us?

Like Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You – although with less elegant prose – The Other Americans is a novel that’s so afraid that its readers might miss something that it insists on spelling everything out. The numerous narrators ensure that we aren’t left wondering about any aspect of Driss’s life or death, which rather robs the book of its power. Nora’s decision to investigate what really happened, after her father’s death is initially ruled accidental, gives the plot some sense of direction, but this thread pops up well into the book and is resolved before the end. Lalami also explores the micro-aggressions that Driss and his family have suffered since their arrival in the States, but these, too, are dropped in so pointedly that they feel schematic, rather than integral to the characters’ understanding of themselves. This is another problem created by the large cast – Salma’s recognition that her lighter skin has made her path much easier than that of her darker-skinned sister’s could have been subtle and interesting, but it’s simply said and then forgotten about, as the book doesn’t have enough time to explore the relationship between the sisters in depth. Axing much of the secondary cast to focus more closely on the Moroccan family at the heart of this novel would have allowed Lalami to achieve the emotional impact she seeks.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 27th March 2019.

Sharon Bala’s debut novel, The Boat People, also flips between perspectives: Mahindan, a single refugee father seeking asylum in Canada; Priya, a second-generation Sri Lankan who is part of his legal team; and Grace, an inexperienced Japanese-Canadian adjudicator who’s tempted to take a hard line against a group of people who she sees as terrorists. However, by utilising only three voices, and telling their stories in the third person, her novel feels much richer and, ironically, more polyphonic than Lalami’s. The Boat People features a wonderful secondary cast who are all the stronger for not having their every thought revealed, from Mitchell, a long-time adjudicator who warns Grace about the political motivations behind her appointment, to Priya’s father and uncle, also survivors of conflict in Sri Lanka, to Mahindan’s late wife, Chithra.

Bala handles the legal complexities of claiming asylum in Canada with a light but informed touch, and her three protagonists are all divided interestingly within themselves. Mahindan agonises over his memories of the past eight years in Sri Lanka, remembering how, as a mechanic, he was forced to fix vehicles for the Tigers, and slowly revealing that he may have become even more morally compromised. Priya is reluctantly co-opted onto an internship in refugee law when she wants to work on corporate cases, and suspects it’s because of her boss’s mistaken belief that she speaks Tamil – but her involvement in the hearings starts to break long-established patterns of silence in her own family. Grace is hard to like, with her stubborn insistence that she’s equipped to do the job she’s doing despite being obviously out of her depth (there are shades of The Secret Barrister’s critique of the British legal system here) and her willingness to swallow cliches about dangerous, criminal immigrants. However, Bala does an admirable job of showing how this prejudice manages to take root in Grace, despite her own family’s experience of migration. My only complaint about The Boat People is that it ended too soon; I could happily have read three hundred more pages about this nuanced and diverse community of characters.

Thanks to Rebecca for passing on her proof copy of The Boat People to me!

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The Overstory (Richard Powers) and Unsheltered (Barbara Kingsolver)

 

From a tree to a house; from the whole of the United States to a single New Jersey town; from the mastery of the natural world to being mastered by it; from protection to being left unprotected. Richard Powers’s The Overstory and Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered, which I read consecutively, kept resonating with each other in interesting ways. This could be pretty confusing, because both novels want to resonate within themselves as well. Kingsolver’s novel flips between a contemporary family in a financial crisis whose house is literally cracking around them, to a nineteenth-century science teacher who’s fighting to be allowed to teach Darwin in high school and becomes fascinated by his next-door neighbour, the botanist Mary TreatThe Overstory is several levels more ambitious, introducing the reader to no fewer than nine characters in its first hundred pages, then spending the rest of the book bringing them all together as almost all of them fight to save the last remnants of the US’s ancient forests.

Both novels have an overriding moral message. Kingsolver addresses hers to individuals, suggesting that clinging onto old certainties and old places is a waste of time. Echoing the Darwinian science so fiercely advocated by her nineteenth-century hero, Thatcher Greenwood, she suggests that we must adapt to survive; that the millennial generation is much better equipped than their parents to deal with impending economic and environmental crisis. This is tidily laid out in her set of central contemporary characters. Nick, the grandfather, is literally falling apart as he insists on clinging to a bygone time when white elite men were on top, eating up the radio rants of a Trump-esque presidential candidate referred to only as as the ‘Bullhorn’. Willa, the mother, is palpably out of her depth for most of the novel, trying to patch up her house and her finances rather than starting afresh. Her two children, Zeke and Tig, provide case studies of what and what not to do. Zeke has ‘done everything right’, graduating from Harvard and pursuing a career in economics, but still finds himself a broke single father dependent on wider family assistance. Tig has always been a worry, dropping out of college and running off to Cuba, but now gives Willa invaluable help, working in a local restaurant and taking care of her brother’s baby, Dusty, on the side. Willa repeatedly marvels at her daughter’s practical skills: the way she acquires baby clothes through a network of friends, her easy ability to cook and freeze baby food to save money. Tig, she thinks, is the person best equipped to make a success of the new world they find themselves in.

In contrast, The Overstory asks why we need to tell stories about human relationships to keep the reader’s attention, when the natural world has a story of its own that is far older and more important. The novel is frustrated by humans’ inability to recognise the history of trees, and the ways in which they interact and talk to each other (a persistent theme in 2018/19 novels and memoirs!) If Unsheltered is pessimistic, The Overstory is apocalyptic, suggesting that we don’t want humans to adapt and survive; for the good of the planet, it would be better if they all died off as quickly as possible. Yet The Overstory undercuts its own driving themes by telling us a number of very human stories. The book begins with what feels like nine miniature novels, introducing us to each of the central characters, and then interweaves these stories together with incredible skill. Structurally, The Overstory is fragmented but still coherent, especially as its different threads (or ‘rings’, as the book would have it, playing off rings in a tree trunk) wrap closer and closer around each other as it reaches its climax.

Unsheltered’s dual narratives, on the other hand, can never actually meet, however much they might talk to each other, and however much research Willa does about Thatcher Greenwood and Mary Treat in the present day. This makes it feel more like two novels in one, and I found that this was a consistent distraction. The nineteenth-century narrative is actually accomplished and immersive, with more than a touch of George Eliot, but I’d just be getting into its deliberate slowness when I was whisked back to the modern-day plot, which is superficially speedier. Kingsolver also doesn’t achieve the same kind of subtlety as Powers when it comes to moralising. There’s a great scene early in the novel when Willa’s husband, father-in-law and children are all so invested in being ‘right’ that they talk over her, a family dinner that portrays all the characters as flawed and somewhat egotistic. However, this kind of nuance is abandoned in the final chapters, when Tig’s role becomes didactic as she lectures her mother on how life has to be now. Nice as it is to see a positive portrayal of millennials, I’d have preferred a bit more intergenerational exchange between mother and daughter. Tig might have cracked how to live sustainably, but she spends most of her time performing physical and emotional labour of the kind Willa’s generation stood up against – child care, care of her elderly grandfather, cooking, and house maintenance. Is this really a brave new world, or a sad indictment of the fact that economic hardship tends to stifle other kinds of rebellion?

Finally, Unsheltered suggests that we have to let go of our attachment to place to thrive in a landscape that is constantly changing, whereas The Overstory sees its characters trying to defend ancient strongholds at all cost. Personally, I felt more convinced by The Overstory’s recognition of what we lose when we lose environments that have taken such time and effort to build than Unsheltered’s suggestion that it would be better for us not to cling to such shelters so we can grow as people. Nevertheless, these are both massive, engrossing and important books, and I suggest that everybody reads them both. Just perhaps not one after the other.

December Reading Plans

 

I’ve been in a bit of a reading slump recently; I abandoned Claire Fuller’s Bitter Orange, yet another novel of complicated relationships set in a stately home during a heatwave summer; this pitch feels too familiar to me now, and the protagonist wasn’t engaging enough to keep me reading. I also struggled with Lucie Whitehouse’s first police procedural, Critical Incidents; Whitehouse is an elegant and effective writer of psychological thrillers, but this first instalment in a series was horribly over-complicated, with three interlocking plots that were all tied up too swiftly at the end.

I’m currently reading Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Loney, which is a extremely well-written story of a religious fundamentalist family spending time on an isolated piece of coastline in north-west England in the 1970s, but it’s also a classic case of a book that’s been let down by its marketing. With the current resurgence of ghost and horror narratives, it’s been repackaged, as my friend Alex pointed out, as part of that genre even though it really isn’t a spooky novel. If I’d started it in a literary fiction frame of mind, I think I’d be getting on with it much better. Finally, I’m about two-thirds of the way through Richard Powers’s massive The Overstory, which actually is very good, but demands time and effort.

I’ve got six books left on my TBR pile, and I’m hoping to read these before Christmas rolls around. They are:

  • Unsheltered: Barbara Kingsolver. After hearing her speak in London recently, I obviously wanted to get hold of her latest novel, and although I’m unsure about the historical strand (which deals, yet again, with the impact of Darwin) I’m intrigued with her contemporary take on the economic crisis and boomerang millennials.
  • The Fishermen: Chigozie Obioma. Set in 1990s Nigeria, this 2015 Booker Prize shortlisted novel tells the story of four brothers who receive a curse from a local madman.
  • The Rapture: Claire McGlasson [June 2019]. I heard Glasson speak about this novel at the Durham Book Festival. It tells the story of a real-life inter-war all-female cult, the Panacea Society.
  • Golden Child: Claire Adam [January 2019]. Again, Adam spoke about this debut at the Durham Book Festival. Set in Trinidad, the novel follows one brother searching for another.
  • Testament: Kim Sherwood. Based on Sherwood’s own family history. Eva is seeking to uncover her grandfather’s past when she discovers that he underwent forced labour service in Hungary before being taken to the death camps during the Holocaust.
  • The Boat PeopleSharon Bala. A ship of refugees from Sri Lanka reaches Vancouver and are thrown into a detention processing centre. Told through the perspectives of a range of characters, including refugee and father, Mahindan, his lawyer, and the adjudicator. Thanks to Rebecca for passing on her proof copy!

What are your December reading plans?

Three Things… November 2018

As ever, borrowed from Paula at Book Jotter!

Reading

 

I’ve been reading a lot of books that deal with ice, snow, and travelling in the cold – very appropriate for Newcastle in November. I finally finished Ursula Le Guin’s classic The Left Hand of Darkness, which I’ve been reading very slowly – the first half, in particular, is dense and difficult, and I needed time to take it in. As is well known, the novel deals with a foreign visitor to the planet Gethen, or ‘Winter’, whose otherwise-human inhabitants have no specific biological sex until they enter a monthly state called kemmer, when they can become either male or female depending on circumstance (Le Guin calls this ‘a bisexual society’, which makes the modern reader trip up a bit, and demonstrates how marginal bisexual sexualities were in the 1970s). This not only makes gender irrelevant but renders everybody asexual most of the time. The phrase that the title comes from – a Gethenian saying that ‘the left hand of darkness is the right hand of light’ indicates the novel’s concern with challenging binaries, not solely those of man/woman but of friend/enemy and sexual partner/platonic companion.

The second half of the novel is where it really picks up pace, having established its theoretical framework, as our original narrator travels with an exiled Gethenian across a frozen sea – a journey reminiscent of the accounts of Antarctic travellers such as Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the WorldI kept tracing the influence of this novel forward to Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justicewhich also corrects one of the most significant flaws of The Left Hand of Darkness by using ‘she’ rather than ‘he’ to refer to its genderless beings, a thought experiment that, for me, works much better. I’m certain I’ve missed half of what this novel has to say, so I hope I’ll return to it again.

Other recent reads that deal with the cold, and travelling away from, through it, and towards it: Garth Nix’s follow-up to his brilliant Abhorsen trilogy, Goldenhand, which I enjoyed as much as Abhorsen, if not as much as Sabriel or Lirael; and Sally Magnusson’s The Sealwoman’s Gift, a thoroughly engrossing historical novel set between seventeenth-century Iceland and Algiers, which is both genuinely funny and genuinely sad. I especially admired how Magnusson described the meeting of two oral storytelling traditions, as captured Icelandic slaves come into contact with local Muslim women.

Watching

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Passengers (2016) attracted fierce criticism for its misogynistic and antiquated story line when it was initially released. Nevertheless, I can’t resist (a) set-pieces/’locked rooms’ (b) films set in space (c) living spaces full of futuristic breakfast-making technology etc. (d) things going wrong with lots of beeping screens and electronic read-outs, so I was pretty sure I was going to hate the gender politics but enjoy the film anyway. Spoilers for Passengers follow. 

And yes, as the film stands, it’s as sexist as everybody says. If you didn’t follow the original controversy, the film focuses on a ship making its way towards a new home world for humanity. The passengers and crew on board are in suspended animation over the 120-year journey, but when the ship suffers a meteorite strike, one of the pods is damaged, and its passenger, Jim, wakes up ninety years too early. Realising that he’s doomed to live out his life alone on the ship, he becomes fixated on fellow passenger, Aurora, tampers with her pod and wakes her up as well. Aurora and Jim fall in love, but when she finds out what he did, she’s rightly furious. When the ship starts going even more wrong, Jim’s heroic willingness to risk his own life to save others encourages Aurora to forgive him, and they grow old and die together in space.

As a number of people pointed out at the time, this is fundamentally disturbing. Jim essentially murders Aurora, and deliberately places her in a situation where she will become emotionally and socially dependent on him. His behaviour is abusive, and although Aurora is offered the choice of returning to suspended animation near the end of the film through a plot contrivance, Jim could not have known this would happen when he decided to wake her up. Moreover, the way the film is framed reduces Aurora to a passive object that Jim first takes and then has to win back. A recorded message from one of her friends telling her that she needs to learn to give more of herself and not always be so distant and independent underlines the unpleasant message that her enforced ‘love’ for Jim is natural and right.

Nevertheless, I can’t stop thinking about Passengers, basically because it’s one of those films that could so easily have been really good and instead is terrible. As this video (‘Passengers, Rearranged’) outlines, if the structure of the film was flipped and we started in Aurora’s head as she wakes up, the reveal that Jim deliberately did this to her would come as a surprise to the viewers as well. Jim would become a dark grey character, rather than a romantic hero, and the film’s tone would shift more towards horror than sci-fi. Even better, the video suggests that Jim could be killed off in the course of the movie, leaving Aurora alone on the ship – and faced with the same dark choice that he originally struggled with. Framed like this, Passengers could have been less Titanic and more Black Mirror, much more thought-provoking, and far less objectionable.

Thinking

I’m absolutely loving Tim Clare’s Couch to 80k Writing Bootcamp, a free eight-week novel-writing course with a 20-minute podcast including a ten-minute writing exercise every day (with one day off a week). The name, while catchy, is a bit misleading – Clare explicitly advises writers against the kind of NaNoWriMo mentality where you try to get as many words down each day no matter how bad they are, believing it makes you burn out and get put off. Instead, he suggests, you should make writing something you look forward to and stop while you still want to do more – a practice that these podcasts certainly encourage. So you won’t have 80k words by the end, but you’ll hopefully be feeling much more creative and productive.

What’s especially brilliant about it is how flexible it is – it’s really a way of getting you to establish a daily writing habit, so it’s a useful boost whether you’re just starting your very first novel or are bogged down in the third draft of your tenth. For me, it’s helping me do some proper thinking and planning for my new project, which is set in Antarctica (more cold!) and has the working title Old Ice. I love this bootcamp so much that I’m listening to two episodes a day and making it into a four-week writing course, so I’m hoping to be done by Christmas and ready to properly launch into a first draft. Given how many novel-writing courses, offline or online, are prohibitively expensive for those on low incomes (which is not my position at the moment, but used to be for a number of years and may be again in the future) I’m really impressed by Clare’s generosity in providing this gem for free, and I’ll definitely be contributing to his coffee fund.

The elect and the damned

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I wonder, when God permitted us to fall, if He knew we’d fall so far.’

When I was studying early modern history in my first term at university in 2005, one of my lecturers had the job of conveying the significance of the range of Protestant beliefs held in Britain in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to a group of undergraduates, most of whom had probably never been to church. How do you get across how deeply the fate of one’s immortal soul mattered, and how seriously these kind of stakes would have been taken? He decided to thunder from the pulpit. Starting a lecture on Calvinism, he would announce to us: “Some of you are SAVED… and SOME are DAMNED… and NOBODY knows which”. We were mesmerised.

Sarah Perry’s third novel, Melmothwas written while Perry was in almost constant pain from a combination of chronic conditions, but the seeds of it also seem to have been laid during her religious upbringing as a Strict Baptist. In contrast to General Baptists, Strict Baptists hold Calvinist beliefs: in short, as my lecturer explained, the conviction that salvation is restricted to God’s chosen elect, associated with predestination, the belief that this elect were always known to God, and so nothing we do in our earthly lives can influence our final fate. I can’t stop thinking of Melmoth as a kind of Calvinist ghost story, with its eponymous figure, the black-robed woman called Melmoth the Wanderer, turning up at moments in human lives when individuals have to choose to embrace great evil, or turn away from it, even if they are – given their fallen natures – unable to actually do good. In this, it poses a very early modern question: how far do we have free will to reject sin?

Although I now work on much more contemporary history, my fascination with early modern religious belief has never left me, and so it’s not surprising that I devoured this novel. Perry centres her story around a present-day protagonist, Helen Franklin, living a deliberately circumscribed existence in Prague (the accounts of how Helen shuns joy and bodily pleasure echo the behaviour of some strict early modern non-conformists). When Helen’s friend passes her a bundle of documents describing meetings with Melmoth, she is drawn ever further into the vortex of the legend. From a sixteenth-century woman awaiting martyrdom under Mary Tudor, to a German boy who deliberately turns in a Jewish family to the Nazis, to two Turkish brothers who take a bureaucratic but essential role in the persecution of the Armenians, the stories relate both people’s awakening to the fact that they are utterly corrupted and lost, but also moments when they were able to act against what seems to be their fallen natures. Melmoth plays a suitably evangelical role by offering each a choice: will they go with her, or stay away? However, even accepting this temptation does not seem to lead to straightforward results.

While Melmoth has received much critical acclaim, some reviewers, such as Alexandra Harris in the Guardian, have found the ‘spooky entertainment’ of the novel’s Gothic trappings pulls against the atrocities it describes. Susan Hill makes a similar point in the Spectator:

the entertainment of the ghost and semi-horror Gothic novel is stiffened by and set against some genuinely frightening stories of evil deeds… This… sits uneasily against the spookiness and the rustle of old-fashioned garments.

I think these readings of the novel somewhat miss the point. While Perry plays with Gothic tropes – deliberately challenging the ingrained misogyny and racism of the genre that is paraded by writers such as Bram Stoker and, in modern Gothic, H.P. Lovecraft – the roots of Melmoth are not in the Gothic but in a set of religious beliefs that are much older and, for me, much more resonant. To suggest that Melmoth’s challenge sits frivolously alongside the vignettes of the persecution of ethnic and religious minorities, the story of a woman permanently disabled after her boyfriend threw acid in her face, and the spectacle of a gay asylum seeker being deported back home to face abuse, is to miss the stakes of early modern religious commitment. Suffering and pain are bad enough on Earth, but what could be worse than to suffer eternally in Hell? It’s something that Perry, given her upbringing, obviously understands instinctively and it’s something that I worry might be a little lost on some of her audience. Nevertheless, for me, Melmoth was an incredible and unlikely success, conveying that, although we may have abandoned the belief systems that originally motivated these questions about what makes us ‘sinful’ or ‘righteous’, if atonement is possible or if all we can do is admit our guilt, the questions themselves remain unanswered.

Holiday Reading in the USA, Part Two

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One of the key goals of my trip to the US was to buy a copy of Tana French’s latest novel, The Witch Elm, and get it back to the UK (not easy with a very big hardback book and a very limited baggage allowance). As readers of this blog will know, I am a huge fan of Tana French’s literary crime writing, and am always trying to recruit people to my cult (my success rate is high). Her first six novels were all focused on detectives working in the Dublin Murder Squad, making The Witch Elm her first stand-alone, although it retains the Dublin setting. Our narrator, Toby, has lived a life that he describes as ‘lucky’ and we might describe as ‘privileged’; as a white, middle-class, straight man, he has no structural barriers to overcome until the moment two burglars break into his flat and beat him brutally, leaving him dealing with neurological disabilities. While still trying to get back on his feet, he goes to stay with his dying uncle Hugo, and reunites with his two cousins, Susanna and Leon. But when a skeleton is discovered in the wych elm in Hugo’s garden, Toby realises that his gilded past might not have been as fortunate as he thought.

While the quality of French’s writing shows no sign of diminishing, I felt that The Witch Elm ranked alongside my least favourite of the Dublin Murder Squad novels, rather than with the best; in theme and accomplishment, it’s most similar to French’s debut, In the Woods. One thing that was lacking for me was the interplay of genre and literary conventions that marks out the most brilliant of French’s novels; by discarding the police procedural elements, French ends up writing a much more straightforward literary novel that is more reminiscent of The Secret History and its many imitators  than crime fiction. I missed this tension, which French handles so well – although after reading her first six novels multiple times, I felt that I could almost read the minds of the policemen who interrogate Toby and his family, and found myself wondering which strategies and masks they were using, which was fun 🙂

Moreover, although The Witch Elm’s message about privilege is powerful, I felt it was a bit too clearly spelt out, especially near the end of the novel, when Toby is carefully lectured by Susanna and Leon. Earlier scenes, such as Toby’s attitude to the ‘urban youth’ whose art he is meant to be promoting as part of his job – he sees the whole endeavour as a politically correct racket – make the point about his character much more subtly. Nevertheless, the dissolution of Toby’s very self as he realises he can no longer rely on being seen as a ‘blank slate’ – that he is now being judged by his stammer, his twitches and his pauses – is very well done. Toby can’t understand who he is now he is seen by society as a ‘disabled man’ rather than simply as a person; he’s lost his ability to imagine himself as anything he wants to be, and now can’t imagine himself as anything at all.

Anne Charnock’s Dreams Before The Start Of Time combines the artificial wombs of Helen Sedgwick’s The Growing Season with the single-parent babies of Angela Chadwick’s XX to present a series of vignettes across three generations that consider how both new technologies and changing social norms transform child-bearing and child-rearing. This short book is deceptively easy to read, but I felt like little of it was sticking with me; books that jump forward in time like this often end up making the characters’ children and grandchildren into no more than a list of names, a problem that was also obvious in Laura Barnett’s The Versions of Us. I liked the fact that Charnock mixed together a series of advances rather than focusing on a single ‘what-if’ scenario, but she didn’t really give herself the space to consider these alternative realities in enough depth.

I came across Robin Oliveira’s My Name Is Mary Suttera historical novel about a midwife wanting to train as a surgeon who ends up nursing wounded soldiers in DC in the midst of the American Civil War, on Claire’s blog. The novel is not only hard-hitting but almost tragic, in the Greek sense; Oliveira seems determined to force Mary to a point where she literally has only herself to rely on, where she must completely re-examine the initial determination to receive medical training that drove her to this point. As with Lissa Evans’s Old Baggage, I enjoyed reading about a female protagonist who is primarily motivated by ambition and idealism rather than by love, friendship and family, although Oliveira also emphasises Mary’s emotional ties. There are a few annoying tropes -[highlight for spoiler] why does Mary’s unambitious and feminine sister, Jenny, have to compete with her over a man, get married, do nothing, and then die horribly in childbirth[end spoiler] – but the vitality of Mary’s character pulls the novel through.

What next, now I’m sadly back in the UK? I’m enthralled by Sarah Perry’s Melmoth, which I have to call a Calvinist ghost story (thanks to Rebecca for handing on her proof copy!) and am slowly enjoying Ursula Le Guin’s classic The Left Hand of Darkness, while I found Elisa Lodato’s An Unremarkable Body to be an unsatisfactory mix of literary experimentation and chick lit. For peaceful, contemplative bedtime reading, I’m rediscovering some Michael Morpurgo favourites from childhood – Kensuke’s Kingdom and King of the Cloud Forests – and for more unsettling dreams, I re-read a book that haunted my teenage years, John Marsden’s Letters from the Inside.

Holiday Reading in the USA, Part One

I’m back from a very nostalgic trip to DC (and a less nostalgic trip to Providence and Boston, two cities that I’d never visited before). I spent five years of my childhood in DC, from age two to age seven – but even so, I was surprised by how much revisiting the city felt like coming home. The effect was probably amplified by taking a tour, with my sister, of all our favourite childhood haunts, such as the Air and Space Museum, the Natural History Museum (sadly minus most of its dinosaurs at the moment – they are going to reappear in a new dinosaur hall in 2019) and our old house and old school. A kind neighbour helped us to set up the second photo in this dual shot outside our old house in Palisades (1994/2018):

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Alongside all of this, I also found time for some reading – and enough reading that I’ve had to split it into two posts!

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Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow came highly recommended by Rebecca, Annabel and Elle, and so I felt pretty certain that I would enjoy it. As I turned out, I absolutely loved it. The novel jumps between two timelines; in the present day, Jesuit priest Emilio Sandoz has returned injured and traumatised, the sole survivor of a mission that made first contact with a newly-discovered alien race on a distant planet, Rakhat. Forty years ago (due to relativity, time has passed more slowly for Emilio than for Earth), we see Emilio planning this mission with his friends, a vibrant secondary cast that include Anne, a medical doctor, her husband George, who picked up the original signal from a radio telescope at Arecibo Observatory that led to the discovery of Rakhat, and Sofia, a genius-level specialist in artificial intelligence who, we discover, is trying to escape a form of bonded labour she was sold into as a child.

The Sparrow, on the surface, sounds similar to a number of other novels; it’s not the first science fiction to deal with ‘Jesuits in space’ (that seems to be James Blish’s 1958 novel A Case of Consciencewhich I haven’t read) and its depiction of violent and gruesome cultural misunderstandings between two highly developed alien societies gave me flashbacks to Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead. However, when I first heard about this book, the first comparison title that came to mind was Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Thingswhich also imagines a religious mission to an undiscovered world. It was refreshing, therefore, to realise just how different these two books are. The Sparrow is more concerned with the journey of its protagonists than in the detailed depiction of the alien cultures they encounter. In contrast, Strange New Things lacked an emotional centre for me, because its central couple were so unlikeable, but delivered a more satisfying plot line relating to its aliens, the Oasans – partly because the last third of The Sparrow feels too compressed. The heartbreaking moment in The Sparrow comes when Emilio realises just how far his linguistic abilities have failed him when communicating on Rakat; in Strange New Things, it’s when the missionary protagonist, Peter, understands exactly why the story of Jesus has such appeal to the Oasan race.

Both The Sparrow and Strange New Things are structurally clunky, which I think is almost inevitable, given what they are trying to do; interweave a character-led, literary story with a more gripping, plot-led thread borrowed from hard science fiction. The Sparrow deals seriously and thoughtfully with Emilio’s loss of faith, and I was also impressed with its consideration of celibacy and commitment. Emilio’s choice to remain celibate is something that he suffers for, but Russell doesn’t caricature it by suggesting that it is innately warped, wrong and unnatural. Instead, she uses it to open up a wider discussion about how we all make choices that close off other paths. Anne and George are admired by the other characters for their decades-long marriage, but Anne sums up why this works without sentimentality: ‘I have been married at least four times, to four different men… They’ve all been named George Edwards but, believe me, the man who is waiting for me down the hall is a whole different animal from the boy I married, back before there was dirt… Every ten years or so, George and I have faced the fact that we have changed and we’ve had to decide if it makes sense to create a new marriage between these two new people.’ Vows, Anne implies, are not worthless simply because they don’t last forever, or because they don’t cater to our most immediate impulses.

The Sparrow fails because it tries to do so much; it also succeeds, triumphantly, because it tries to do so much. It’s not a novel that’s easy to forget, and I doubt it would become more indelible if it was smaller and tidier.

I also read Andrew Ervin’s Bit by Bit, a popular history of video games, and Karen Thompson Walker’s The Dreamers, a speculative novel that imagines a plague that starts in a college town and sends each of its inhabitants to sleep one by one. Bit by Bit was short, engaging, and thought-provoking. Ervin outlines the early history of video games, skipping from the first video game (whether that was Tennis for Two (1958) or  Spacewar! (1962) is a matter of debate) to innovations such as the use of a gap in a wall to indicate a door in Adventure (1979-80), which also introduced the first ‘Easter egg’, to more modern multiplayer video games such as World of Warcraft. Unlike Jason Schreier’s more formulaic Blood, Sweat and Pixelshe’s happy to hop around topics, discussing everything from ‘are video games art’? to the difference between healthy escapism and unhealthy obsession. Refreshingly, he also gives plenty of space to female game designers, as well as to more recent games such as Journey (2012) and Gravity Ghost (2015) that explore questions of gender, race and immigration. I enjoyed playing video games as a teenager but have always resisted them as an adult as ‘a waste of time’. Ervin’s book made me question that.

The Dreamers isn’t out until February 2019, so I’ll post a fuller review nearer publication date, but I was impressed by how Thompson Walker sustained its eerie, paranoid atmosphere – especially as I’m not at all interested in the psychology of dreaming. The book has little to add to the many other stories that have already been told about devastating plagues, but its use of sleep as the central agent of destruction plays cleverly on deep-rooted fears of sleep as ‘the little death’, and how in sleep we may not be ourselves ourselves. Darting about between several groups of characters, the very short chapters maintain tension, and I was particularly drawn in by the story of two young sisters and their survivalist father, and the couple with a newborn baby who were once praying to get more sleep, and are now terrified of it. Compelling, if not groundbreaking.