My Mama Said, #1: The Brutal Telling, by Louise Penny

This is the first in an occasional series of posts reviewing books that my mum challenges me to read. She’s a huge reader and I so rarely get recommendations from other people. Technically, she wants me to read all of Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache books, but of the ones on the shelves in my grandparents’ house, this is the earliest number in the series, so I’ve started here.


The premise: In Three Pines, a sleepy Québecois village, a man is found bludgeoned to death inside Olivier’s Bistro. No one recognises him, and the murder weapon is nowhere to be found. As Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté investigates, the neighbourly veneer of Three Pines is stripped away to reveal deep-rooted deceit.

Plot stuff: The Brutal Telling is a slow burn to start with. There are multiple false leads, the investigation takes time to work out that the body has been moved not once but twice, and the discovery of the murder scene at the victim’s home–which contains the most significant evidence–comes only halfway through the book. Once the investigation knows which direction to go, though, there are some really excellent clues: a spider’s web that appears to have the word “WOE” woven into its design; two beautiful and terrifying wood-carvings; the legend of the Mountain King; and a linguistic cipher known as Caesar’s Shift. My ma likes these books for their propagation of a grace and forgiveness ethos, and although that ethos caused me to question several moments in the book (what self-respecting Chief Inspector would blithely attend dinner parties hosted by potential suspects?), that’s what gives The Brutal Telling emotional heft. The final unraveling is quite complicated, but the ultimate story–of betrayal, vengeance, shame, and greed–is recognizably human. Gamache’s response to crime is always deeply compassionate; it is an unusual choice in this genre to write a chief inspector who, although he has no illusions about human nature, seems devoid of cynicism.

Technical stuff: I struggle with what appears to be widespread reader consensus that Penny is an exceptional prose stylist. There are certainly passages where she hooks emotion out of the reader; usually they’re the ones that involve characters responding to a work of art, whether it’s a painting, a wood carving, or an old Celtic dance tune played on a Bergonzi violin. On a sentence-by-sentence basis, though, I can’t see where the stylistic skill is meant to be, though I can see a lot of authorial tics. Most frustrating among these: rhythmic repetitiveness, overstatement, and the commencement of sentences with a conjunction. Here’s an example of all three:

As he followed the Chief’s car back to Three Pines Beauvoir thought about that, and agreed that Olivier had saved the precious antiques, and spent time with the crabby old woman. But he could have done it and still given the old woman a fair price.

But he hadn’t.

“Precious” and “crabby” have no place in that sentence; neither tells us anything we don’t already know, and the latter in particular strikes an oddly prim tone in a book that is also quite content to allow two of its positively regarded characters to use words like “fag” and “whore” in apparent jest. (The tonal disjunctions are chronic, and I’ll talk about them in a moment.) To start two consecutive sentences with “but” is unconscionable, and the one-sentence paragraph is a literary tool that needs immediate retirement. In this case, it also functions the way “precious” and “crabby” do, which is to say, it tells us something we already know. If an author does this too much, the reader begins to assume that the author thinks we’re stupid.

Genre stuff: The Brutal Telling exists at a kind of generic crossroads. On the one hand, it has all of the trappings of a “cosy”: small and apparently friendly rural settlement with a disproportionately high and frequent murder rate, eccentric locals for both comic effect and pearls of wisdom, an unflappable Lawful Good figure, and a propensity to center intense emotion upon activities or institutions that, in a larger community, would be able to remain marginal. Three Pines is a literary relation of St Mary Mead, by way of the county of Midsomer, and quite possibly the North Carolina village of Mitford. And yet (and this is present in the Mitford novels too, but Jan Karon gives herself an easier time by not raising the stakes to include deliberate taking of lives) there’s a distinct metaphysical seriousness to this novel, and presumably the rest of Penny’s work too. The reveal of the murderer here is so devastating because they have betrayed trust–not just that of their neighbours and loved ones, but that of the readers, who have (no spoilers) known this character for five books. The seriousness of betrayal is vividly portrayed in the story of the Mountain King, which reappears throughout the book: the King is robbed by a young man who first befriends him, and who is pursued forever by the forces of Chaos, Sorrow, and something “worse than Death”. This turns out to be Conscience, and I think Penny’s aim with the surprisingly compassionate Gamache and the explicit references to allegorical spiritual figures is to situate the horrors of crime in a basis more profound than the integrity of the law; we are meant to understand that murder is a crime of, and against, not just the body but the soul. That combination–cosy atmosphere, extremely serious core–is the source of Penny’s tonal dissonance, but also of her ambition.


Reading Diary: May 14-May 20

41940609This is Shakespeare, by Emma Smith: Smith is probably best known as the academic whose recorded lectures form the podcast series Approaching Shakespeare, which you can get from iTunes. (I went to them live, as an undergrad, which is saying something because no English students went to lectures after about third week.) Her book’s thesis is that we should read Shakespeare, not because he’s an immortal genius or whatever the propagandistic nonsense du jour is, but because his plays are weird: they’re gappy, ambivalent, they ask more questions than they answer. Each chapter deals with a single question arising from one of the plays (they’re not all covered here, but there’ s a good spread). Lucid, accessible, and fresh, this would be just as perfect for someone who’s slightly anxious about Shakespeare, as for someone who already loves his work.

41081373Girl, Woman, Other, by Bernardine Evaristo: Almost, but not quite, an interlinked collection of short stories: each of the twelve chapters here follows a different woman (mostly black and British), and one of the book’s pleasures is discovering how they’re all connected to and through one another. Evaristo has always had great skill with potentially controversial topics: the generosity she extends to her characters nullifies any charges of bandwagoning when it comes to stories about gender, race, and class. This book in particular demonstrates that black women were fighting and winning these battles many decades before “This Is What A Feminist Looks Like” t-shirts and social media accounts became a thing. In her application of the tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner principle, Evaristo reminds me of no one so much as George Eliot.

91at5ojnm-lThe Porpoise, by Mark Haddon: This is the sort of book that the Hogarth Shakespeare project should be trying to produce (interestingly, he was apparently asked to write it for them, and ended up pulling out of the project due to creative differences). Haddon moves from present-day privilege (globally connected aristocratic businessmen certainly have power equivalent to autocratic monarchs) to the ancient Mediterranean to a Tudor London where George Wilkins–Shakespeare’s co-writer on Pericles, the obscure play that this novel engages with–is punished after death for his sins against women. I need much, much more space to write about this (it’ll probably be the focus of my next Monthly Book feature); here, I’ll say only that it’s excellent, the prose crisp, the pace thrilling, the connections between different parts of the novel resonant and moving.

42596091The Dog Runner, by Bren MacDibble: For kids ten and up. Ella and her brother Emery are living through a global emergency: a fungus has destroyed most of the planet’s crops and caused widespread food shortages. When their dad doesn’t come back from an expedition into the city, the two kids set off for Emery’s mother’s house upcountry, along with their three huge dogs. Emery and Ella have different mothers, and Emery’s is of Aboriginal descent. MacDibble deals with blended families and racial difference subtly and well; it’s mentioned when it’s relevant to the story (for instance, Emery’s grandfather, Ba, has used indigenous land management techniques to keep ancient grains alive). Adventurous and thoughtful, with a protagonist both boys and girls can relate to.

Currently reading: About to start either Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Ruin (but not sure I can cope with another chunkster after reading his first book so recently), or Lucasta Miller’s L.E.L., a biography of Letitia Elizabeth Landon, “the female Byron”.

Reading Diary: May 7-May 13

91zymqnikmlThe Parisian, by Isabella Hammad: Tricky call, this one. It’s a beautifully written (for the most part) historical epic about the life of Midhat Kamal (who happens to be Hammad’s great-grandfather). In 1915, he is sent by his father from Nablus, in Palestine, to study medicine in France; a private humiliation changes his life and has reverberations twenty years later, as Palestine begins its struggle for independence. It’s ambitious and Hammad’s gift for imagery is often truly arresting, but it’s also far too long—as Charles Finch notes, each chapter could be half the length—and, given the multiple points of view, there’s no clear indication of the necessity of each perspective.

25938081On Forgiveness, by Richard Holloway: Short, but brilliant. Holloway is a theologian whose radically laid-back approach to Christianity I quite like (he describes organized religion, at one point in this book, as the rocket shuttle, and the values of love, forgiveness, justice, etc., as the payload, which is bold in that it suggests the utility of organized religion is limited and possibly has come to an end). This book is written “not in the imperative, but the indicative”: he’s not telling us to forgive, but examining the concept and the mechanism of forgiveness, that radical, insane, illogical form of unconditional love. I underlined loads and will be coming back for more.

51d2bl86m0vl._sx309_bo1204203200_The Dollmaker, by Nina Allan: This came on and off my TBR three times before the number of good reviews persuaded me to give it a go, and I’m so glad I did. It is a love story between Andrew Garvie, a man with dwarfism who collects dolls, and Bramber Winters, whose personal advertisement asking for friendship and/or information on Ewa Chaplin, a post-war dollmaker and writer, catches Andrew’s eye. Some of Chaplin’s stories are scattered through the book; they’re brilliant creations, reminiscent of A.S. Byatt’s pastiche Victorian poems in Possession, and create an air of the sinister (as, frankly, do dolls in general) that keeps the reader uncertain about the novel’s ending. My only quibble is the vagueness of the explanation for Bramber’s living situation; other than that, this is a beautiful, quietly confident novel and I am an Allan convert.

9781474943437Where the World Ends, by Geraldine McCaughrean: For children twelve and up (though I think younger ones with high reading levels could handle this; the darker bits would likely go over their heads). Based on the true story of a group of boys from St Kilda who go for the traditional month of bird-catching on one of the sea stacs near the island, and find themselves stranded when the boat meant to bring them back at summer’s end never appears. Quilliam, our storytelling protagonist, is believably charismatic but conflicted, and McCaughrean is funny and accurate on the group dynamics of pre-teen boys. Genuinely high-stakes peril and real psychological nuance make this the real deal.

512tbfmt7al._sx323_bo1204203200_Children of Time, by Adrian Tchaikovsky: Space spiders. I am afraid you must accept them before you read this book. Once you’ve done that: an incredibly ambitious, and often beautiful, exploration of theology, evolutionary theory, and legacy. The sections that follow the development of an intelligent, scientific civilization of Portia labiata spiders–infected with a nanovirus that boosts their intellectual development–are significantly more interesting than the rather familiar beats of the human-based plotline (generation ship, cold storage, humanity’s last hope, &c.), but for those spider sections alone, Tchaikovsky deserves the Clarke Award he won in 2016: he not only creates a sense of true alienness, but directs a reader’s sympathy towards it.

original_400_600From the Wreck, by Jane Rawson: More science fiction, but a rather different tone and aesthetic. The plot of From the Wreck is based on the true story of a wreck off the coast of Australia in 1859. George Hills survives for eight days without food or water, protected by what looks like one of the female passengers–but he is convinced that she is something else, not a woman at all, and he is right. His obsession with whatever saved him eventually threatens his family and his own sanity. Chapters from the creature’s perspective–it is essentially an interdimensional refugee–are sufficiently rich and strange, but the middle section drags, and the secondary characters need more room.

Currently reading: This Is Shakespeare by Emma Smith, whose lectures I loved as an undergrad and whose book is no less lucid, accessible, and fresh.

Reading Diary: Apr. 29-May 6

43206809Things in Jars, by Jess Kidd: Easily the most enjoyable novel I’ve read for weeks, Kidd’s third book is set in a familiar Victorian Gothic London, but her elegant, witty prose invigorates the setting. (She is particularly good at the literally birds-eye view; several chapters open from the perspective of a raven, allowing some lovely atmospheric scene-setting.) Our protagonist, red-haired Irish investigator Bridie Devine, is a magnificent addition to the ranks of spiky Victorian ladies in fiction, and her tentative love affair with the ghost of a heavily tattooed boxer is conveyed delicately. The is-it-or-isn’t-it supernatural flavour of the central mystery makes this book perfect for fans of The Essex Serpent–and, as a bonus, Things in Jars has an excellently dry sense of humour.

x298Lost Children Archive, by Valeria Luiselli: Reading this after the Women’s Prize shortlist announcement, my frustration at the composition of that list was refreshed. Luiselli takes a Sebaldian approach to her two-pronged story. One strand follows the journey of a group of migrant children from Mexico as they ride the border freight trains, sleep rough, and–sometimes–die, trying to get to a better life. The second follows the road trip of a married couple who are both audio journalists, and their two children, ostensibly traveling towards the American Southwest in order to produce a story about the migrant children. Luiselli’s philosophical, detailed style occasionally outstays its welcome, but mostly Lost Children Archive is a heartbreaking, fiercely intelligent wonder.

Currently reading: Isabella Hammad’s debut novel, The Parisian, set in WWI-era France and a post-WWI Palestine struggling for independence.

Women’s Prize Shortlist, 2019: WTF?


Well, it’s been released. And I am…disappointed. No, worse: I’m spitting.

First, and most importantly: Ghost Wall is not there. Ghost Wall is not there. It is a completely inexplicable omission. If this is an award for the best book written by a woman in any given year, to say that Ghost Wall is not in the top half-dozen is sheer insanity. Which book that did make the cut is more skillfully written, more ambitious in its scope, achieves more thematic coherence, possesses more emotional heft, and conjures an atmosphere of greater dread in fewer pages? Not a single one. Every word in Ghost Wall is earning its keep; each page is a knife. The very fact of Ghost Wall‘s absence means we can safely dismiss the authority of this year’s judges. Which makes the rest of this analysis somewhat redundant, but as an exercise in cultural what-the-fuckery, let’s take a look at this shortlist as a whole.

It contains two retellings of Greek myths, two dissections of the breakdown of a marriage, a zeitgeisty confection, and the winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize.


Snark aside, seriously, from the top:

Circe is a tremendously enjoyable novel, and I am not furious about its presence on a shortlist, although I’d fling it under the nearest bus for Ghost Wall; Miller’s style has sharpened and matured since she won for The Song of Achilles, and although Circe is a touch episodic, the ending–with its revisionist fate for Penelope and Telemachus–encapsulates the book’s entire project (not only are gods much worse than humans, but to be a female god is sometimes worse than being a female human, in a nutshell) in a way that doesn’t insult a reader’s intelligence. Of the two Greek myth retellings (which is, in itself, a baffling judicial decision), it is stronger than the Barker. The Silence of the Girls has its moments–in particular, the scenes set amongst the captured women, where they trade home remedies and look after each others’ kids–but mostly it is surprisingly full of manpain for a novel that was supposed to be a “feminist retelling” of The Iliad; the space and priority given to male voices and experience is not counterbalanced by Barker’s portrayal of Patroclus’s gentle, almost feminine energy. Nor, to be honest, did I find its prose especially “evocative”: it’s not enough to simply write sandals, fish, sea, sand and expect us to be swept away, and Barker never really engaged my sense of the strangeness of the past.

Another natural pairing in this shortlist–which is another way of saying “two books that do the same thing”–is An American Marriage with Ordinary People. Both are what I’m going to start calling Good Stories. They are engaging while you’re reading them, they tell a story well, and they don’t achieve much more. They’re not even reaching for much more; sure, An American Marriage glances at the iniquities of the prison-industrial complex and Ordinary People weaves in musings on parenthood’s relationship to feminism (mind you, Ordinary People was the book that finally made me think, “Well, if marriage and children habitually fucks up people’s love for each other this badly, why does anyone bother doing it?”), but that’s not really the beating heart of either of those books. They’re both, quite simply, stories about a specific marriage (or pair of marriages) and what makes them fail. Of the two, Ordinary People is bolder: Evans suggests that a happy ending might look like the opposite, which is an idea that mainstream fiction hasn’t much explored. But it is still neither stylistically impressive enough, nor ambitious enough, content-wise, to justify its inclusion here given some of the other longlisters. (The Pisces, for instance, is also a book that challenges the conception of “happy endings”, “women’s fiction”, and the romance narrative, in a manner precisely aligned with the Women’s Prize stated aims, and in more slyly intellectual terms, and it pushes that challenge much further than Ordinary People deigns to.)

The last two on the shortlist, Milkman and My Sister the Serial Killer, don’t make a natural pair, which is actually something of a relief given the irritating symmetry of the rest of the bunch. Milkman, plainly, deserves to be here: it’s a bold, innovative, dryly funny, relentlessly stylistic piece of writing, absolutely one of the best six novels by women written over the past year. Its inclusion is hardly controversial, however, given that it has already won the Anglophone world’s most prestigious literary prize; I am not inclined to give the judging panel any credit for recognizing its brilliance. My Sister the Serial Killer is the novel on this shortlist about which I have the least to say, for the simple reason that I read the first few chapters and found myself so profoundly unmoved by it (which is another way of saying “bored”) that I put it down unfinished. In one sense, I feel like I can’t talk about it because I haven’t finished it, but in another sense,  the fact that its supposedly shocking premise left me cold says everything.

Which brings me to the expression of a niggling doubt that has been growing in my mind for the past few years, primarily with regards to the Women’s Prize, but extendable to panel-judged literary prizes in general: who are the people choosing these books? Why are they making decisions like this? If they are not making their judgments based on quality of writing and/or ambition, what criteria are they prioritizing and why? And (whisper it) is it possible that there is a problem with the panel selection process? Because, no, you don’t need any particular qualifications to read (apart from the ability to do so), and you don’t need any qualifications even to form an opinion–everyone who reads is entitled to have thoughts and feelings about books. But an opinion is one thing: it can be formed in a moment, with little space for context. A judgment is something else: you have to come to it, usually by a process of comparison and analysis, and to have any facility at that, you need to practice. Judging a literary prize is immense hard work; for big ones, hundreds of titles are submitted. To assess and compare and keep in your head the details, merits, and weaknesses of, let’s say, two hundred titles requires the people who engage in it to have had a certain level of practice. And I’m not confident that present-day judging panels contain people who have had a lot of practice. The Women’s Prize panel usually contains some mix of broadcasters, professional novelists, and Public Women (high-profile and nebulous, presumably because they have name recognition and bring their own followers; I’m not saying these aren’t media-savvy decisions). I don’t doubt for a minute that all of them are intelligent and well-read. What they’re noticeably not–generally–is prolific critics. Maybe that’s a good thing; opening up the academy usually is. But then you get a shortlist like this and you have to ask, again: if the most elegantly written and thematically bold books aren’t to be rewarded, what possible criteria can the panel be using? And what exactly is the value of this, or any, prize?

A 100% Objectively Correct Alternate-Universe Shortlist:

  • Ghost Wall, by Sarah Moss
  • Lost Children Archive, by Valeria Luiselli
  • The Pisces, by Melissa Broder
  • Circe, by Madeline Miller
  • Milkman, by Anna Burns
  • Freshwater, by Akwaeke Emezi

If you got this far, come argue with me (or commiserate vociferously) in the comments.

A Monthly Book, #4: The Last Chronicle of Barset


The Last Chronicle of Barset is a) 900 pages long in this edition, and b) the culmination of a highly involved and interconnected six-book series, Anthony Trollope’s nineteenth-century Chronicles of Barsetshire. Consequently, I am not confident that a standard review–even one that goes into great thematic detail–will be of much use to most of the people likely to read this post. Instead, I’d like to take a leaf out of the books of some other reviewers I rate (primarily Abigail Nussbaum) and simply make a few comments on the book, which might be more helpful for determining whether it’s the sort of thing you’d like to read.

  • It is just about possible to read this as a standalone novel. Trollope understands human attention spans, and he seeds enough plot reminders from his earlier Barsetshire books for the purposes of basic comprehension. Nevertheless, there are so many recurring characters, and such a large portion of their relationships with each other are callbacks to earlier interactions in the series, that it’s worth having read at least one or two of the preceding books. The catalyst of the plot in this volume is the supposed theft of a cheque by the principled and intelligent, but highly difficult, clergyman Josiah Crawley. Crawley’s guilt or innocence is the talk of the county, which allows Trollope to bring in most of the major characters from the past five books, in the guise of providing an overview of general society’s opinion. Crawley also has direct relationships, both professional and familial, with many of these characters, and most of the mentioned families are directly interrelated through marriage. Being able to follow these connections not only minimizes confusion, but makes it easier to appreciate the thematic richness of the novel in its relation to the other books in the series. (To take one example: Crawley’s daughter Grace is beloved of Major Grantly, the son of the archdeacon; the archdeacon’s wife is the daughter of Septimus Harding, a former warden of the city’s almshouse, who falls under similar suspicions of financial misconduct in the first book of the series, The Warden.)
  • Many elements of The Last Chronicle of Barset are reconsiderations or echoes of themes found in Framley ParsonageAlthough one of the novel’s subplots concerns the disposal in marriage of Lily Dale, whose disposal in marriage was also the primary plot of the preceding Barsetshire novel, The Small House at Allington, it seems to me that The Last Chronicle of Barset is more interested in developing themes that recall Framley ParsonageFP is not the most interesting of the Barsetshire books, but perhaps it’s better in hindsight. Its subplot consists of a potential “inappropriate” marriage (inappropriate on the grounds of unequal social status and wealth, that is) between Lucy Robarts, sister of a vicar who has run into financial difficulties, and Lord Lufton, her brother’s childhood friend. Lufton’s mother prefers Archdeacon Grantly’s cold but higher-status daughter, Griselda, as a potential daughter-in-law, and Lucy must prove her worth through humility (she won’t agree to marry Lufton until his mother consents) and kindness (she provides charity to, amongst others, Josiah Crawley and his family. Do you see what I mean about the level of connectivity?!) There is an obvious parallel in the dilemma of Josiah’s daughter Grace, who, in The Last Chronicle of Barset, refuses several times to marry a man she loves and who loves her, out of fear that her family’s poverty and the very real possibility that her father will be convicted of a crime will “demean” her intended husband. In fact, there’s even a scene where old Lady Lufton and Archdeacon Grantly talk about the situation, and Lady L gives advice from her personal experience. In the end the archdeacon yields, but it is the passive sweetness, seriousness and “nobility” of Grace Crawley’s bearing that wins him over. She is a Good Girl; he even tells her so, in so many words. It’s this element of Trollope’s female characters that I sometimes struggle with–the use of soft power through manipulation and performative femininity is highly praised, while what might be a more honest use of power, as typified by the aggressive Mrs. Proudie, is vilified.
  • The further subplot involving a high society painter is meant to be comic relief. Personally, I think it fails as comedy because none of the characters introduced in these chapters are in any way sincere. Mrs Dobbs Broughton, the wife of a millionaire, is actually something of a tragic figure: bored and shallow, she engages in little flirtations as a way of making herself feel alive. Conway Dalrymple, the painter, is simultaneously mercenary and dense; he’s clever enough to get into an entanglement, but not clever enough to get out again without having work hard at it. Dobbs Broughton is an unsympathetic drunkard, and Mr Musselboro, Dobbs Broughton’s business partner, is initially introduced as vulgar (though it’s hard to shake the conviction that Trollope paints him thus simply because he’s a money man, a City trader), and subsequently proves himself to be scheming. It’s hard to laugh at the romantic and financial misunderstandings of characters who seem themselves to feel as though they’re merely acting.
  • “Honour” is the key to everyone’s behaviour, and also one of the most frustrating elements of this book for a modern reader. Trollope delights in establishing situations for his characters from which they cannot extricate themselves with both happiness and honour intact, and then creating an escape route, usually through death, money, truth, or all three. In this he is hardly alone–Dickens is notorious for implausible dei ex machina–but for Trollope the motivating factor of a gentleman, or a lady, is the maintenance of honour, and honour frequently requires misery. In some characters, an adherence to honour is their defining good quality: Grace’s refusal to injure a man she loves by marrying him is a twisty piece of logic for a twenty-first century reader to follow, but every character in the book approves of her for it (even those who think she should marry her lover anyway), and the narrating voice certainly never censures her for her decision. Where Trollope does like to complicate the honour ethos is through characters whose actions negatively affect others, not just themselves. Josiah Crawley refuses many kindnesses from friends and neighbours out of a sense of honour, among them the use of a horse to get to Barchester and deliveries of fresh food from Framley Parsonage. What this means, in effect, is that the strain of maintaining good relations in the community–as well as the strain of being able to feed and clothe a large and possibly disgraced family on a small income–falls to his wife. She mostly gets around her husband’s refusals, and accepts the assistance that is offered them, but she is forced to do so, to some degree, behind his back, which presents another moral difficulty in a society where wives (not least clergymen’s wives) are to be subordinate to their husband’s wishes. Trollope is a true believer in honour, I think; his good characters are good in part because the moral standards they choose are utterly inflexible. But he is also a subtle enough thinker, and writer, to understand that an honour society is one that often values appearances over the possibility of human suffering. The fact that he wrestles with that is one of the things I prize most about his writing.

Reading Diary: Apr. 16-Apr. 22

9780241349199The Confessions of Frannie Langton, by Sara Collins: Frannie, a Jamaican servant in 1820s London, is writing her life history while awaiting trial for the murder of her employers. Part of that history explains her literacy, and the horrifying purpose for which her earlier master in Jamaica educated her. Unfortunately, while we are expected to understand that Frannie has been traumatized by more than the general experience of slavery, Collins doesn’t clarify until the book is very far advanced. The theory behind this decision is clear—Frannie mentions how little white people are interested in the stories of black people unless they are stories of suffering, and Collins chooses to elide the specifics of her protagonist’s suffering to prove the point—but it means the reader is asked for a high level of emotional investment more or less on trust, which is manipulative without being satisfying. I didn’t find the sexual relationship between Frannie and her mistress especially convincing, either. It’s a solid historical crime novel, but not the explosive debut it’s been touted as.

42270835The Nickel Boys, by Colson Whitehead: Inspired by recent revelations about the crimes and abuse that occurred at the Dozier School for Boys, a reform facility operated by the state of Florida between 1900 and 2011. (It was in the news again last week. TW in the linked article for abuse and murder of children.) Whitehead skilfully uses that cruelty, and the racism that motivates it, to illuminate the conundrum of being black in general. Elwood Curtis, a clever boy who dreams of participating in Civil Rights marches and was due to attend college-level classes in his junior year of high school, must decide whether survival or resistance is more important: his choice inside the institution is the same one that his grandmother has been forced to make on the outside, in an equally corrupt and violent society. The final twist of the plot is perhaps unsurprising, but breathtaking. This, I think–pace Sara Collins’s novel, above–is how to detail suffering without rendering it pornographic. Out in August.

51qboo1lw9l._sx340_bo1204203200_Beneath the World, a Sea, by Chris Beckett: Unlike Beckett’s Clarke Award-winning Dark Eden, Beneath the World… is set on Earth, but a weird version thereof, containing a South American region called the Submundo populated by descendants of slaves as well as by humanoid creatures called duendes. These have a disturbing psychic effect on humans when they get too close, and are ritually hunted by the Mundinos, but the UN has now classified duendes as “people” and sent Ben Ronson, a policeman specializing in culturally sensitive crimes, to try and stop the killings. Beckett plays with ideas of the subconscious (allegorized, not terribly subtly, by the Submundo’s underground sea) and of conventional morality (what did the ordinarily buttoned-up Ronson do in the Zona, an area that disappears from a traveler’s memory as soon as they’ve left?) But these ideas are hardly virgin ground; a more interesting and original novel might have resulted from a closer focus on how “personhood” is defined when the subject is clearly organic (as opposed to the more familiar fictional arguments over robot personhood), and on the ramifications of the Submundo’s colonial history.

Currently reading: The Last Chronicle of Barset, the final novel in Anthony Trollope’s Barsetshire series, dealing with Victorian religious and secular politics in a fictitious English county.