Baileys Prize Longlist Reading 5: Proulx

Being a series of short reviews of the Bailey’s Prize longlisted titles I hadn’t read before the announcement. These are mostly hack-jobs, consisting of extrapolations of my reading notes. Luckily I tend to make notes in full sentences. Spoilers ahead.

Barkskins, by Annie Proulx

51qccavjjel-_sx326_bo1204203200_Before we start, let’s be clear about one thing: Barkskins is extravagantly, almost defiantly, flawed. For one thing, it is far too long. Nobody needs 717 pages all at once; I know it is traditional to make exceptions for War and Peace and Clarissa but I am honestly not sure that even they make the most of their unwieldy page count. Barkskins certainly doesn’t need it; it would always have been a big book, mind you, but it could easily have been 200 pages shorter. For another, that length is compounded by Proulx’s tendency to sacrifice depth to breadth, most notably in terms of her characterisation. Characters are introduced, get married, go to seek their fortune, and die choking on river water or crushed by a falling log, all within the space of five pages—not just once, but repeatedly. As the book edges closer to contemporaneity, we’re allowed to focus more on individuals (I think this may also have something to do with the upward trajectory of the average lifespan), but there’s still a lot to keep track of, not least how all of these people relate to one another. (There are two family trees provided, but, for reasons surpassing understanding, they are in the back, so unless you flick through the whole volume first, you won’t know they’re there until it’s far too late.) It is the sort of book that could not have been published without the author being a big enough name to guarantee that it’d be worth it.

And yet, unlike most such books, Barkskins is actually pretty good. Once it settles down and starts focusing for longer stretches on individual characters, we find people who are worth caring about. There is the sexually aggressive Posey, who engineers not only the death of one husband who’s no good to her, but goes on to seduce and marry James Duke, heir to the Duke logging fortune. There is her daughter Lavinia, who from the 1880s onwards runs the business more competently and ruthlessly than any of the men on its board. There is part-Mi’kmaq Jinot Sel, who travels to New Zealand with his employer and patron and is horrified by the naive paternalism shown by whitemen towards the native Maori. (This eventually gets Jinot’s employer killed, which isn’t good news for Jinot either.) Everywhere, for over three hundred years, we are met with two things: the visceral ways in which men (and women) react to forests, and the complacent conviction of whites that they know best, wherever they are, whichever indigenous nation they’re encountering.

Barkskins is a lot like another book on the Baileys Prize longlist, The Sport of Kings, in that it refracts the history of an entire industry in North America through the focusing lens of a family (or two). Barkskins takes a much longer view—it starts in the 1690s and goes all the way up to 2013, where The Sport of Kings only starts in the nineteenth century—but Proulx’s and Morgan’s projects are almost identical. They ask us to see the ways in which racial prejudice is a definitive part of the American identity, and in particular of the business culture that America developed. Where Morgan focuses on the endemic racism of the South created by plantation slavery, Proulx looks much further back: the experience of black Americans is entirely absent from Barkskins, but only because she focuses on the displacement and total destruction of Native American ways of life. Though much of this is achieved through despoiling the natural habitat (I lost count of the number of times characters proclaimed that the forest needed no conservation, because it was infinite—literally too big to fall), a lot of it is also achieved through racial mixing. This starts in generation one, when Charles Duquet and René Sel both have children with Mi’kmaq women in New France (now Canada), and the effects of it continue to be felt for centuries: young men in later generations return to a dying Mi’kmaw village (yes, it’s spelled both ways) headed up by the long-lived patriarch Kuntaw. They’re mixed-race, poor, and looking for a place they can belong, but the old ways are disappearing fast, and there simply aren’t enough Mi’kmaq being born to replace the ones who are dying. It is also interesting to note that the Sels, who never attempt to hide or erase the Native parts of their heritage, develop into a dynasty of lumberjacks: they are professionals and have deep knowledge, but they are the workers. The Duquets, meanwhile—a line which at one point early on seems as though it might run out of boys, prompting Charles Duquet to adopt three from European orphanages—become the Dukes, owners of the greatest logging empire in North America. Their success exists alongside their utter rejection of any whiff of Mi’kmaq in their family’s past. (Proulx also dwells gleefully on the deep irony of a company that prides itself on family ownership and heredity being founded on adoption, a non-blood relationship.)

Proulx isn’t just interested in race fatalism, though; she uses race to comment on environmental choices. Whitemen are baffled by the Native American tendency not to develop and cultivate land, not to “improve” it; most white people genuinely see this as a sign that natives are unfit to live in the country. The Mi’kmaq, meanwhile, as well as representatives of other tribes and nations that we see, cannot understand what whitemen think they are doing: their “improvement” involves slash-and-burn cutting, huge amounts of wasted timber, erosion of topsoil leading to flash floods and landslides, and the total eradication of wildlife, which doesn’t seem much like improvement from an indigenous—or, indeed, sensible contemporary—point of view. Proulx mostly avoids the “magical Indian” stereotypes of inscrutable redmen in touch with the spirit of the forest, but she makes it quite clear that centuries of rapine and our current ecological disaster situation is due to the greed of white people. There’s a grain of hope: near the end of the book, a Duke son begins to take an interest in replanting, and develops a seedling nursery which later becomes a fully-fledged foundation that (in a nice touch) gives a grant to two young Sel descendants to study forestry and participate in a replanting project. And that grain of hope is appropriately complicated by the book’s final page; we want to believe that human ingenuity and determination can fix this problem, but we can’t fix everything.

So, final verdict time. There are awkward parts to Barkskins; quite apart from the length and the often-perfunctory investment in characters, we’re often treated to infodumps in the form of conversation which sounds stilted and silly even for a historical recreation. But overall? It’s surprisingly readable; when we do get the space to care about characters, they’re rounded and vivid; and Proulx’s staggering ambition is in large part repaid by the realism with which she corrals her themes and her loose ends. To be honest, I wouldn’t complain if it ended up on the shortlist. It’s trying to do something immense, and I think that’s worth celebrating.

The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist is announced on 3 April. For more commentary, see the rest of the Shadow Panel: Naomi, Antonia, Meera and Eric. Barkskins is published by 4th Estate, and is available in hardback.

Baileys Prize Longlist Reading 4: Flint

Being a series of short reviews of the Bailey’s Prize longlisted titles I hadn’t read before the announcement. These are mostly hack-jobs, consisting of extrapolations of my reading notes. Luckily I tend to make notes in full sentences. Spoilers ahead.

Little Deaths, by Emma Flint

little-deaths-emma-flint-2017

Little Deaths is based on the real-life murder of two children in 1965, in Queens, New York, and the subsequent police investigation, which focused heavily on their mother, Alice Crimmins. Flint’s character is named Ruth Malone, but everything about her is Crimmins-esque: the fact that she is separated from her husband; her public persona (flirtatious to men; indifferent to most women); and, of course, her identity as a “striking, slender, redheaded cocktail waitress”. We know that she is these things because the newspapers that report on the murders of her children use no other words when they talk about her—and they talk about her a lot. The whole project of Little Deaths is to be a condensed cry of outrage at a police force and a tabloid media that, when faced with a woman who defies their expectations of femininity—and in particular of motherhood—respond by villainizing her, despite the utter lack of evidence against her.

Flint knows her noir tropes, and she uses them with contagious glee: who wouldn’t smirk with recognition at the crusty, cynical newspaper boss Friedemann, or at the fresh-faced young reporter Pete Wonicke, or at slimeball mafioso Lou Gallagher? Like most recognisable character types in genre fiction, these ones function as signposts: they let us know exactly what kind of a book we’re in.For a while, I found this superficially fun but, on a deeper level, a bit wearying. If we’re meant to be struck—as we clearly are—by the poisonous hatred of women that infects head detective Devlin’s campaign against Ruth, and by the more cynical casual misogyny of Friedemann and Wonicke’s newspaper, and by Lou Gallagher’s systematic misuse of women, well, we are; we could hardly not be, given how frequently Devlin spews words like “bitch” and “whore”, and how often we get to see the newspaper stories about the investigation. All of it walks a fine line between convincing characterisation of awful people, and outright caricature. Sometimes it tips over; an overheard conversation between Devlin and his deputy, Quinn, shows us just how much he values the presentation of male control (he rebukes Quinn for having an unironed shirt, not because it’s sloppy per se but because it suggests that he can’t get his wife or mother to take good enough care of him, which, obviously, makes him less of a man and therefore less worthy of respect). The conversation does what it’s meant to— shows us how deep Devlin’s issues with women and power run—but it does that with all the seams showing. The fact that I read it and instantly thought, This is here to show us how deep Devlin’s issues with women and power run says a lot.

Pete Wonicke is where Flint complicates things. He’s presented to us in the way that you present characters whom you want your readers to like: a guy from the sticks making his way in the big city, feeling vaguely guilty about leaving his mother, pursuing his dream of big-city journalism. And yet there are little details that feel undeniably weird: he fixates on Ruth from the start, not as a villain but as a Not Like Other Girls girl. He stakes out her apartment on his own time; when she appears in the window, he is aroused and ends up masturbating when he returns home. When he’s asked, late on in the book, how well he knows Ruth, he says “We’re…close”, though the extent of his interaction with her is one interview, and that one supervised. It’s a moment that throws the reader (are they close? Is there something we’ve missed?), and that serves to massively complicate Pete’s good-guy status. (Assuming, that is, that the wanking and the stalking haven’t already been dubious enough for you.) How we’re meant to feel about Pete is really only clarified by the ending—and I really mean the ending, like the very last page—which serves up a narrative choice that pleased me very much, and was certainly less expected than the eventual revelation of the killer.

In fact, the least successful aspect of the book is the one in which it is a crime thriller. This is kind of ironic for something that identifies itself so thoroughly as noir, but it’s true: apart from the fact that we’re pretty sure Ruth didn’t do it, we get nothing that even remotely resembles the sowing of clues or motive pointing towards someone else. When the killer is revealed, their identity is not that surprising, but only because if you look at the situation objectively—and discount Ruth—there is an obvious answer. The revelation is a problem in another way, too: we haven’t been given enough information about the character who is the murderer to have any feelings about them, one way or the other; we can be neither shocked nor satisfied. The blandness of this character is obviously meant to be a counterpoint to the fact that they turn out to be a cold-blooded child-killer, but I can’t help feeling I’d have cared more if Flint had constructed an actual personality, had pushed us towards actually approving of the character instead of merely being indifferent.

And that goes for the novel as a whole, I think. It’s an admirable project and it fits right into the spirit of our times: to show how, within living memory, women who deviated from a narrow range of accepted normality were treated with breathtaking injustice and real evil was allowed to flourish. But as readers, we always know whose side we’re meant to be on, and it is always clear that the characters who denigrate Ruth are cruel and wrong. If Flint had complicated that—if she had, even for a moment, caused us to feel some of that disgust and rage at Ruth, and then to recognise our own complicity in a brutal system—this book would come much closer to challenging that system. As it is, it’s good, but it’s preaching to the choir.

The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist is announced on 3 April. For more commentary, see the rest of the Shadow Panel: Naomi, Antonia, Meera and Eric. Little Deaths is published by Picador, and is available in hardback.

Baileys Prize Longlist Reading 3: McBride

Being a series of short reviews of the Bailey’s Prize longlisted titles I hadn’t read before the announcement. These are mostly hack-jobs, consisting of extrapolations of my reading notes. Luckily I tend to make notes in full sentences. Spoilers ahead.

41no-ogymgl-_sy344_bo1204203200_The Lesser Bohemians, by Eimear McBride

The definitive characteristic of The Lesser Bohemians is its style. You cannot extricate anything about this book from the way in which it is told; as in the most elegant biological structures, form equals function. The story is basic: Eily, an eighteen-year-old drama student, fetches up in London from Ireland (which, in the 1990s, doesn’t seem to have been a fun place to grow up). Over the course of her first year in drama school, she will meet and fall in love with a man twenty years her senior. Gradually, she will come to learn his past—which is, to say the least, disturbing—and he will come to learn hers, which is likewise. The development of their relationship is the central interest of the book: McBride is not even as interested in whether they will stay together or not as she is in charting the ways that this relationship enables Eily’s meteoric journey towards emotional maturity.

This is especially pleasing because it means that a book which spends a good portion of its middle section detailing the personal struggle of a male character—Eily’s lover Stephen—ultimately refuses to grant that struggle primacy. We are interested in Stephen’s redemption, of course, but we’re mainly interested in it for the effect it has on Eily. It’s a nice inversion of tropes that usually have women suffering in order to develop a male character; McBride isn’t so crass a writer as to simply gender-flip the trope, but the shape we get is of a man’s personal hell being definitive for a woman’s emotional development, and not just because it traumatises her.

To get to the middle section, though, you have to get through the first ninety pages, and to get through those, you have to warm to the style. The phrase “stream of consciousness” generally makes me want to kick something (all articulation is artificial to an extent! You can’t write a stream of consciousness by definition! And usually what people mean by this phrase is just “unpunctuated”!), but McBride comes close: her narrative lens is a tight, first-person one, and Eily’s voice comes to us in fits and starts, sentence fragments, ungrammatical, present tense. It’s a much truer way of portraying the experience of thought and perception, for my money, than (to take one example) the unbroken monologue that Joyce gives Molly Bloom in Ulysses. It lays the book open to charges of preciousness, I suppose, but McBride manages here to be less overtly poetic than in her debut, A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, and so the voice doesn’t feel contrived. (It is also particularly well suited to a story about first love: the heart-pounding, the panic of jealousy, the grimness of the morning after a fight, all are rendered completely naturally in that slightly jerky present tense.) The test of a gimmick is whether it works, and this does. Once you realise that you’re not being narrated to, but instead are watching someone think, you know how to read it. (And we are very used to being narrated to, I admit. Having to do hard work as a contemporary reader, even as a reader of literary fiction, is fairly unusual.)

It does make me wonder where McBride will go next. To have written two novels in this style leaves her with a choice: write a third just like it, and become calcified in the public imagination as a one-trick pony in the style department, or write a third that differs from it wildly, and run the risk of disappointing the people who adore her work. Given the number of rejections her debut received, and how she persevered with it, though, I think she’s probably up to the challenge.

The remaining question is: would I shortlist this? The answer is that it depends heavily on how the rest of the longlist reading goes. I enjoyed it much more than I expected to, I think its stylistic choices work extremely well given the material, and I was hugely impressed by the way that McBride handles questions of love and trust: in the hands of a lesser writer this story could be 50-Shades-adjacent, but with McBride it isn’t; it is always about two people navigating the past inside the present, with varying degrees of success. But at the same time, for me, it lacks the visceral punch of Do Not Say We Have Nothing and The Power, and the gobsmacking ambition of The Sport of Kings, and the economical honesty of First Love (all on my tentative personal shortlist so far). The Lesser Bohemians might well make the grade if nothing else is better—which sounds like damning with faint praise, but believe me, whether it makes the personal (or the shadow panel’s) shortlist or not, it’s worth your time.

The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist is announced on 3 April. For more commentary, see the rest of the Shadow Panel: Naomi, Antonia, Meera and Eric. The Lesser Bohemians is published by Faber & Faber, and is available in hardback.

Baileys Prize Longlist Reading 2: Thien and Alderman

Being a series of short reviews of the Bailey’s Prize longlisted titles I hadn’t read before the announcement. These are mostly hack-jobs, consisting of extrapolations of my reading notes. Luckily I tend to make notes in full sentences. Spoilers ahead.

do-not-say-we-have-nothingDo Not Say We Have Nothing, by Madeleine Thien

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is comprised of nested narratives. Li-ling (or Marie), in ’90s Toronto Vancouver (thanks to eagle-eyed reader Shawn for catching that), is a maths-obsessed teenager whose father has disappeared back to China. They learn that he has committed suicide there, in Hong Kong. Later, a Chinese girl comes to stay with Marie and her mother. Her name is Ai-ming. She is only eighteen, and a political refugee, in trouble for having participated in the uprisings in Tiananmen Square. Her father, now dead, was Marie’s father’s former music teacher. Ai-ming begins telling Marie her family history, but these stories quickly take on a life of their own and the framing device drops out for chapters at a time, leaving us fully immersed in the lives of sisters Big Mother Knife and Swirl; then in the lives of their children, Sparrow and Zhuli, and of Sparrow’s student and best friend Kai.

The book spans seventy years in the middle of the twentieth century, during which time China underwent traumatic political and social change. From the time of the Civil War to the Cultural Revolution, this family is forced to adapt in ways that deny its members love, fulfillment, and security. Most of the book focuses on music: Sparrow is a promising composer, Zhuli a talented young violinist, Kai a pianist. All three of them attend Shanghai Conservatory. When the denouncements ramp up and the witch-hunts for counter-revolutionaries increase in the ’70s, the pressure to play only certain kinds of music, and in a certain style, becomes nearly unbearable, and the three young people bend or snap in different ways according to who they are.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is the most intellectually sophisticated book of the longlistees that I’ve read, so far: the questions it poses and the assertions that it makes about the ideology of making art are subtly framed and yet don’t detract from the actual story. Thien faces the fact that music and art in general cannot save you— that “poetry makes nothing happen”—and yet when Zhuli thinks “It belongs to me”, she recognises that you can hold onto music or beauty, you can claim it, and its significance comes from the assertion you make of its value to yourself. The number zero is also significant: Marie, the current-day Chinese-Canadian mathematician, talks about how zero can represent a value of both everything and nothing. It’s not hard to see the links between the idea of zero and the value of creativity in a society that hates and fears it. To write a Western-influenced sonata or to play Bach like an angel is worth nothing in post-Cultural Revolution China. And yet it is also worth everything

SPOILERS DEAD AHEAD – Thien achieves this depth of thought, this endless wrestling with value and the ethics of making art, while maintaining the reader’s investment in her multiple characters and their fates. When Zhuli kills herself, we care terribly; when Sparrow, near the end of his life, begins to engage politically, we see how hard it is for him because he has survived awful loss only by cultivating indifference. And she doesn’t do it through simplistic structure, either: on the page, it looks simple—there are no chapter headings telling us what time we’re in, for instance—but it develops in complexity as it follows this enormous tree of extended family and friends. Thien ensures that we don’t lose sight of our main characters, and the development of the framing story into part of the actual narrative near the end of the book is seamless, which is a lot harder to do than it looks.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is very affecting and deeply intelligent. So far, it is my favourite to win overall; I would be surprised if another longlisted book came near it, at least on its own terms.

41rubuzrhzlThe Power, by Naomi Alderman

One book that might challenge it—though with a very different flavour—is The Power. I am indebted to Abigail Nussbaum for helping me sort out my whirling, love-and-terror-addled thoughts on this book. Her review of it, at Strange Horizons, is really the place to go if you want someone intelligent and critically acute to open up The Power‘s complexities for you. Much of what I write here will be borrowed from that piece.

Everyone, by now, knows the premise of The Power: what if women and girls were suddenly capable of shooting bolts of electricity out of their bodies? As Nussbaum notes, this premise is the sort of thing that it’s easy to run away with in your own head, which sets you up to be disappointed by whatever the writer actually executes. Fortunately I went into The Power with little in the way of preconceptions (not because the premise didn’t excite me but because I hadn’t had the time to think about it much), and I was completely bowled over by it.

There are four strands to the book, four main point-of-view characters. Three of them are women. There’s Roxy, the child of a London crime boss who quickly takes over the business after what becomes known globally as the Day of the Girls; Allie, a fostered and abused girl who hears a “voice” that might be her own survival instinct or might really be the voice of God; Tunde, a Nigerian journalism student who gets the first footage of the Power being used in public, and drops out of college to follow the stories, broadcasting from YouTube; and Margot Cleary, a public servant whose response to the Power clears the way for her meteoric rise to the top of American government.

Critical responses to The Power have mostly been of the who’d-have-thought, women-can-be-just-as-violent-as-men school. It’s true, obviously, but as analysis goes it’s not very deep. Alderman is using gender as a focusing lens, but I don’t think this book is really about gender; if it were, there would be a lot more in the way of retributive justice, and what we get instead is a horrifying breakdown of the comforting cause-and-effect that justifies vigilantism. In the most brutal scene of the book, a gang of women attack a refugee camp full of men in the mountains of Moldova. Tunde, who survives—just—notes the complete absence of sense and logic: these women are not attacking men who’ve wronged them. They are torturing, raping (yes, really, and the way Alderman makes that work is terrifying and illuminating about the fundamental point of rape as an act of war: to humiliate) and killing because they can. And it’s that motive—because you can—that runs through the book. It’s not about gender; it’s about power.

Which makes Alderman’s project, and her book’s ending, a lot more fundamental. The question that The Power asks is: is it even possible for humans to create and exist in an egalitarian society? Or, as Nussbaum puts it in her review, “If you can completely upend the foundations of human civilization and yet end up at exactly the same place, then isn’t there a greater flaw at work? Is there another way, or do there always have to be winners and losers, strong and weak, powerful and powerless?”

There are flaws (fortunately I managed to notice these before reading Nussbaum’s review, though she discusses them more deeply.) One of the most curious omissions in The Power is any discussion of transgender individuals. The electrostatic power in women is biological; it comes from an organ at the base of the throat called the skein. A very, very small number of biological males develop it, too, but they’re seen as freaks and outcasts. Does that mean that most trans women don’t have it? What about trans men? What does that do to their status in society? Racial difference, too, is erased or ignored. From a writer’s point of view, I can see why—there are only so many stories you can tell at one time—but it’s odd, given the book’s fascination with the arbitrary exercise of power, not to include the effects that the Power might have on other forms of societal oppression.

Regardless. The Power is nightmarish and profound and one of the ballsiest books I have read in years. This must be what is meant by “the best of women’s writing”; if it’s not this, this deep engagement with the terms of human civilisation’s very existence, what is it? If it were up to me, I would put it on the shortlist without hesitation.

The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist is announced on 3 April. For more commentary, see the rest of the Shadow Panel: Naomi, Antonia, Meera and Eric. Do Not Say We Have Nothing is published by Granta and is now in paperback; The Power is published by Viking and is available in hardback.

Bailey’s Prize Longlist Reading 1: Tremain, Atwood, Omotoso

Being a series of short reviews of the Bailey’s Prize longlisted titles I hadn’t read before the announcement. These are mostly hack-jobs, consisting of extrapolations of my reading notes. Luckily I tend to make notes in full sentences. Minor spoilers ahead.

The Gustav Sonata, by Rose Tremain

9781784700201Gustav Perle lives in Matzlingen, Switzerland, with his beloved Mutti. The second World War has just ended. His father, Erich, is dead – a hero, his Mutti says, but Gustav doesn’t know anything about him, not why he died or what he was like when he was alive. Gustav adores Mutti, but she spends a lot of time ignoring him, or crying. When Anton Zwiebel joins the local kindergarten, Gustav has a friend for the first time in his short life. The rest of Rose Tremain’s poised and beautiful book is dedicated to the story of Anton and Gustav’s friendship, and to the story of the truth of Erich and Emilie Perle’s marriage.

It has been said that The Gustav Sonata is about neutrality, and it is, sort of, but the word I thought of most when I was reading it was “caring”, which is another way of talking about neutrality. The book is intensely focused on care: giving care, receiving care, in the sense of love and attention, is at the heart of Gustav and Anton’s relationship. It is also Gustav’s problem. He is pushed into adulthood early by a lack of care from his mother Emilie (who tells him frequently as a child that he must “master himself”); he is forced into a caregiving role vis-à-vis Anton by Anton’s parents, who are kind to Gustav but surprisingly willing to place the burden of Anton’s emotional well-being on a pre-adolescent’s shoulders. Meanwhile, Gustav’s family history is characterised by a generational withholding of care: Emilie, his mother, was constantly chastised and neglected by her mother, Irma, and the book’s second section, on the Perle marriage, charts the decline of care between two people in a way that illuminates everything about Gustav’s life. Meanwhile, excessive care damages people: Anton is hurt by it – his major adult relationship is passionate, but deeply abusive – and the affair between Erich Perle and his boss’s wife is unhealthy in its obsessiveness.

Tremain plants her thematic seeds carefully and tends them throughout the novel, so that resonances spring up at you as you read. Switzerland’s political neutrality, the destructive neutrality of one human being towards another, and Erich Perle’s rejection of official neutrality in order to save refugees are all tied together. Tremain writes like Kate Atkinson: her prose is accessible and clear without making the treatment of her subject light or superficial. The ending could, I think, be more delicate and also more believable: there is never any sense of sex in Gustav’s life, either before or after the final revelation of Anton’s love, and I think it is a disservice to deny him this. If it’s intentional, it isn’t leaned on enough to make the intention clear. But this is a question of verisimilitude versus thematic coherence – whether something is entirely believable versus whether it reinforces the novel’s general concerns – and so my reservation is pretty minor.

Hag-Seed, by Margaret Atwood

29245653Atwood’s novel is the fourth in the Hogarth Shakespeare series that seeks to “retell” some of the most famous of the plays as novels set in the present day. Some of these have been more successful than others; Atwood’s, I think, is the best so far. The reason it works is because she fully acknowledges the existence of The Tempest inside the world of her novel, which frees her: she doesn’t have to pretend, like Jeanette Winterson and Howard Jacobson, that the uncanny similarities between her characters and the plot of Shakespeare’s play is mere happenstance. She can delve right into those parallels, explore them explicitly, instead of making us wonder why no one in the book has yet noticed how unlikely this all is.

Her Prospero is Felix Phillips, a disgraced and deposed theatre festival director now going by the name Mr. Duke and teaching a theatre course in the local prison. Miranda – brilliantly – is dead (because the late plays are all about dead daughters, losing daughters, coming to terms with grief); she died of meningitis as a three-year-old, a horribly plausible scenario. After twelve years of living in hiding from his former associates, Felix chooses his method of revenge: he will stage his own production of The Tempest at the prison, and take down the men who betrayed him—now high-ranking politicians—along the way.

Whether this revenge fantasy would actually work or not (and I admit it would rely heavily on excellent timing, which usually doesn’t work out in real life), you have to admire the way Atwood takes on the play. Felix walks his convict players through The Tempest with a thorough thoughtfulness that I found genuinely illuminating. It might, I suppose, be considered a little academic, but the tone is always that of an interested and informed person talking to other interested people; Felix neither talks down to nor bamboozles his actors, and by extension, he doesn’t do these things to us. The Tempest is a play uniquely well-suited to prison. Felix and Atwood allow us to watch the dawning awareness, among the convict-actors, of the story’s relevance, and it is a gorgeous, shiver-inducing thing. The only major concern I had was when Atwood ventriloquised the rap songs that the actors invent to make the play more contemporary: would it sound like a White Lady Author “doing” street? Answer: sort of, but mostly, I think, because raps look awful written down. When I did them in my head, they…well, they worked. Though I don’t envy whoever does the audiobook.

The Woman Next Door, by Yewande Omotoso

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Hortensia James and Marion Agostino are next-door neighbours in an upmarket area of Cape Town. Hortensia is black, married to a white British husband; Marion is white (and racist, which we’ll learn about later.) They are eighty years old, they have both run successful businesses—Hortensia as a textile designer, Marion as an architect—and they hate each other. The Woman Next Door is an account, if not quite of how they become friends, then of how they come to hate each other a little bit less.

Marion’s racism is breathtaking. She’s a woman of her generation—apartheid was her normal. Her housekeeper, Agnes, is a black South African who is expected to eat from separate containers and use separate (and inferior) toilet paper. Agnes spends no energy in contesting any of this; she simply, quietly, gets on with the business of being a real human with some level of agency. When Marion eventually discovers that Agnes has stopped using the toilet paper bought for her, she is shocked and dismayed, until Agnes reveals that she’s simply paying for her own bogroll. But Marion’s relief is shortlived: it turns out that Agnes has started buying better-quality stuff than Marion allows herself. This scene is the sort of thing Omotoso excels at, the delicate dance of social oneupmanship. She tells a little bit too much more than she shows, though I think that’s a common misstep with social comedy.

The biggest stylistic hiccup with The Woman Next Door is the occasional register clash, or what feels like it. Omotoso uses words like “peeved” and “messed up”, which sound either euphemistic or childish, or both, and represent a linguistic cautiousness I wouldn’t expect from two old women who, we’re told, can “cut the legs off people” with their words. In general, on the sentence level, this book isn’t going to set you aflame. I do think its political content is sly and significant; the kinds of people who will read a book blurbed by Helen Simonson are not necessarily going to respond well to polemic, but Omotoso does slip in commentary. There’s a subplot about reparations in the form of a land claim (which I’d have liked a lot more of) and another about the descendant of a slave who lived on the farm where the neighbourhood now stands. I’m pleased that these points are present; they might find an audience that would otherwise have missed them. It’s also a book about old women, and about friendship, and we don’t get many books about old women; as Naomi said, more please. I like it fine, and will probably recommend it to quite a few bookshop customers. I’m just not sure it’s a shortlister.

The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist is announced on 3 April. For more commentary, see the rest of the Shadow Panel: Naomi, Antonia, Meera and EricThe Gustav Sonata is published by Vintage and is now in paperback; Hag-Seed is published by Hogarth and is available in hardback; The Woman Next Door is also published by Vintage and is also now in paperback.

In the Name of the Family, by Sarah Dunant

He has forgotten the subterfuge of clever women; how stubborn their gentleness can be.

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Incredible though it may seem, there are people—I have personally met a few—who did not like Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. Up until now, I have been at a loss for what to do with these people, apart from simply abandon them altogether (at least where Wolf Hall is concerned.) Now, however, I know what I shall do: point them in the direction of Sarah Dunant. Her new novel, In the Name of the Family, is the first book of hers I have read, but it is utterly irresistible.

Like Mantel, she writes about the personal dynamics that are forever intertwined with political manoeuvering, and has chosen an iconic, fertile area of history to explore in fiction. If her exploration of psychology and motive digs a little less deep than Mantel’s, that is even more reason to recommend her to doubters. In Sarah Dunant, you get a writer who is observant, reflective, and conjures up the past with incredible skill, while also pushing her plot relentlessly forward. She is, basically, an accessible Mantel, and even though the word “accessible” generally makes me shudder, here I think it’s a good thing; she writes historical fiction for the bright general reader who prefers action to philosophising.

In the Name of the Family proves that politicking isn’t limited to the Tudor court. It is set in the opening years of the sixteenth century, in an Italy swiftly coming under the control of the Borgias. Cesare Borgia is the bastard son of Pope Alexander VI, né Rodrigo Borgia, and he is general of a mercenary army that is busy capturing key cities across the centre of the country. Alexander, meanwhile, is bleeding the Church dry to keep his son in pikemen and cannon. At the book’s beginning, Lucrezia, the Pope’s daughter, is about to be married to the Duke-Elect of Ferrara, Alfonso d’Este; the alliance will strengthen Borgia family power and the Estes are happy to have a family connection to the papacy. And then there is Niccolo Machiavelli, our Thomas Cromwell figure, whose experiences as envoy from Florence to Cesare will form the backbone of his still-to-be-written masterwork, The Prince.

Dunant does a brilliant rehabilitation job on these characters, some of whom we may have preconceived ideas about. Lucrezia, for instance, has come down in history as a kind of psychotic vamp, promiscuous and murderous in equal measure. In Dunant’s telling, she’s more sinned against than sinning: on her third marriage at twenty-three, not through any fault of hers but through the natural death of one husband and the murder of the second by Cesare. The incest rumours, by the way, are dealt with: there is something weird about Cesare’s fixation with his sister, and Dunant gives us the occasional dark flashback to childhood uneasiness. Lucrezia never appears complicit in Cesare’s control of her, and she isn’t a passive victim, either; she’s well-read, and wants to make Ferrara a centre of the arts. Where her interests might appear frivolous or feminine, such as her insistence upon her full dowry allowance so that she can have sufficiently fine clothes, Dunant makes clear to the reader how much hangs on appearances. Lucrezia is a piece in a game, but a piece who knows her value. She must win over the d’Estes; she must win over the city of Ferrara. The way to do it is through beauty, youth, and charm. It is no coincidence that she is an excellent dancer.

Cesare is a little more opaque—the book’s men in general, in fact, are drawn with less shade and subtlety, and some of the scenes amongst the conspirators in Cesare’s own army are a little Game-of-Thrones-y in their terse melodrama. (I mean, it’s quite Game-of-Thrones anyway; the Wars of the Roses aren’t the only model George R.R. Martin is using. At one point, Machiavelli’s inner monologue describes the torments inflicted on a city by a particularly bad ruler, one who, as he sees it, isn’t actually cementing his power through his cruelty, only increasing the hatred of his citizens. It reminded me of those Bolton fellas.) But his sections serve as a counterpoint to Lucrezia’s gardens and silks, and they also serve as a reminder: this is why she is marrying, this is what it’s all for, the steady march of Cesare’s men over the map of Italy.

Pope Alexander is particularly well-drawn. He was, historically, a man of many contradictions: he liked to breakfast on plain herring, despite throwing money around like sand in order to buy offices or support Ceare’s troops; flashbacks suggest he was a genuinely devout child, spending Christmas night under the altar at his local church in Spain in hopes of catching a glimpse of the Virgin Mary, yet he is never without a mistress or three, and even at seventy-two he is fathering children. Dunant nails these conflicting characteristics, and makes us believe that they could exist in one man. Her Pope is friendly and big-hearted, except for when contradicted—usually by Cesare—at which point he shouts. He is not unlike Mantel’s Henry VIII: a man who can afford to be generous because he has never known want, because it has never even occurred to him that there might not be enough for all. He is devoted to his family. The book’s titular phrase never appears within its pages, but Alexander’s underlying interest is clear. When he thinks Lucrezia is unhappy in Ferrara, he writes the sixteenth-century equivalent of a passive-aggressive email to her new father-in-law, demanding improvements; when Cesare tells him he is lacking, Alexander provides. All is for the family. Advancing it is the most important thing.

Machiavelli, meanwhile, functions as an analyst. He is there to work things out as or before we do, to explain the import of Cesare’s decisions if we haven’t got them alreaddy, and to be a more or less normal, everyday person (i.e. a non-noble) whose life is directly affected by the whims of these rulers. Dunant makes him no better or worse than he ought to be; he is probably a bit better than Thomas Cromwell—there’s no suggestion he’s ever killed anyone—but he likes drink and he likes women, despite having a fiery wife of his own. His relationship with her is actually one of the greatest joys of the book; it develops from newlywed uncertainty to affectionate teasing to real, quiet feeling in such an uncontrived way, humming along gently under the narrative’s larger events. Dunant also has Marietta Machiavelli write the one line which now survives from her, a description of their newborn son in a letter, and it is glorious. To learn that it’s a real sentence, really written by the real woman over five hundred years ago, makes the whole thing even better.

In the Name of the Family is a fairly long book, and perhaps it could have been a smidge shorter, but at no point does it feel as though it’s dragging. On the contrary, Sarah Dunant makes the danger and the beauty of sixteenth-century Italian politics come to life so vividly and with so little wasted effort that I feel cheated at having missed her work for so long.

Many thanks to the publicity folks at Virago for the review copy. In the Name of the Family was published in the UK on 2 March.

Baileys Prize Longlist 2017

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Aahhh, the Baileys Prize longlist announcement! Its timing is a boon to readers and booksellers alike: at the beginning of March, the next year’s big hitters mostly aren’t out yet (the first round will come in May) and last November’s surge of pre-Christmas publications has probably already been devoured by the serious and/or professional reader. March in books is like March in vegetables; you just have to lump it til spring starts. Except for the Baileys Prize, which provides a much-needed shot of excitement and, sometimes, impetus to check out titles you may have overlooked.

This year I am following the prize as part of the Shadow Panel, along with Naomi, Eric, Antonia, and Meera. This was also the first year in which I recognized every single title on the longlist, which is probably due to the fact that I’ve been paying ever closer attention to books news.

It is not as diverse as it might look. Most of the listed authors are established; only three are non-white. I’m not sure what constitutes a “small” or “independent” publisher – Serpent’s Tail are independent but have serious literary bona fides, as have Granta – but it’s interesting that none of these publishers are new to me either. In the past there has generally been at least one or two wild cards; none of these entries surprise me hugely.

What surprises a little bit is a host of absences: Idaho by Emily Ruskovitch. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. Margaret the First by Danielle Dutton. Swing Time by Zadie Smith. Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn. I suppose this only goes to show that the state of English-language writing by women is flourishing – the longlist has 16 books on it instead of 12, which also supports this theory – but still, their absence is notable. (Especially given the presence on the list of Barkskins, which has provoked extremely tepid reactions from virtually every book person I know.)

Most appalling in its absence is Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing. What possible excuse can there be for leaving it off?

Anyway. I’ve read six and a half of the longlistees (including most of the big ones, hurrah!), which is good because we only have three weeks to the shortlist announcement. The full list is below; links are to my reviews, where they exist.

Stay With Me by Ayòbámi Adébáyò (Canongate)

The Power by Naomi Alderman (Viking)

Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood (Hogarth) – read after announcement; short review

Little Deaths by Emma Flint (Picador)

The Mare by Mary Gaitskill (Serpent’s Tail)

The Dark Circle by Linda Grant (Virago)

The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride (Faber & Faber)

Midwinter by Fiona Melrose (Corsair) – reviewed in a Superlatives post

The Sport of Kings by CE Morgan (4th Estate) – reviewed in a Superlatives post

The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso (Chatto & Windus) – read after announcement; short review

The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill (riverrun)

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry (Serpent’s Tail) – read twice, and discussed in a Superlatives post

Barkskins by Annie Proulx (4th Estate)

First Love by Gwendoline Riley (Granta) – reviewed at Shiny New Books

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien (Granta) – read after announcement

The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain (Chatto & Windus) – read after announcement; short review


Which book are you most excited for? Is there a book I haven’t read that you think I should get to without delay? Any notable omissions or inclusions you’re furious about?