6 Degrees of Separation: Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close


This is the first time I’ve played this game; it’s like “6 Degrees from Kevin Bacon” only with books. You can join in too; the rules are here. Technically this is a very late post (the meme is for the first Saturday of each month, and the November one will be coming up soon), but whatever.

We start with

  1. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, a novel by Jonathan Safran Foer about a little boy whose father dies in the 9/11 attacks, and who embarks on an epic quest to find the lock that matches a mysterious key his father owned. It’s one of the first adult novels I read that included pictures, photographs, drawings, etc. as part of the book.
  2. Another book that does that is the one I’m reading now, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo. Its main character, Zhuang (or Z.), shows us snippets of her lover’s handwriting, confusing signage on London shopfronts, and her own tentative scribbles.
  3. As a Chinese woman navigating a Western society that seems, frankly, weird and illogical most of the time, Z. reminds me of Zou Lei, the heroine of Atticus Lish’s frighteningly good novel about the repercussions of the Iraq War, which is also a love letter to New York City: Preparation for the Next Life.
  4. Lish’s book contains a rape scene that disturbed me so badly I had to put the book down (temporarily). Another book that’s beautifully written and deals with sexual assault head-on is Sara Taylor’s Baileys-longlisted The Shore. (This one made me cry in public.)
  5. The Shore is set in rural Virginia and composed of a bunch of interlinked short stories. Donald Ray Pollock’s incredible Knockemstiff lays bare the gritty and intensely depressing lives of rural Ohio’s poverty-stricken and painkiller-addicted, and it too is composed of interlinked short stories.
  6. I first saw one of Donald Ray Pollock’s books on the coffee table of a guy I was seeing. Another book I first encountered through a date was, well, the collected works of Terry Pratchett, but we’ll go with Guards! Guards!, the first in the City Watch series. What a wonderful discovery.


From New York City to Discworld—not bad, but I’m sure I could do better…

A Book Haul!


I don’t often post book hauls because, well, I don’t know. Because it feels vaguely masturbatory? Because they’re nice to look at, sure, but the point is to read them? Because I get the vast majority of my books through publishers or through other people’s kindness, instead of through shopping sprees? Possibly some part of all the above. There are some habits that die hard, though, one of which is the inclination to read around the subject with which I was inoculated just before university. Starting work in a new industry sent me scurrying instantly for research reading. Amazingly, I found a lot of food/cooking/hospitality memoirs for about a penny each secondhand, plus two others which are relevant to that recent talk at the Southbank Centre…


Garlic and Sapphires, by Ruth Reichl. I read this years ago, during high school, when I worked at New Dominion Bookshop in my hometown. It’s an account of the disguises—wigs, wardrobe, makeup and all—that Reichl, the former New York Times restaurant critic, adopted when visiting restaurants in order not to be given “special treatment”. She finds that her different characters have different personalities, too, but the psychological insights (although pretty good) aren’t my favourite part. That would be the reviews: Reichl dissects pretension and hypocrisy with verve, and hands out approving write-ups to small, unfashionable restaurants where the chefs are passionate about their craft. I wish every food critic was like her.

Waiter Rant. This, too, came into my life via the food memoir shelves at New Dominion. I remember very little of it, except for the way it casts a blinding, sarcastic light upon the business of waiting tables. Since that is now my occupation, it seemed due a reread.

Blood, Bones and Butter, by Gabrielle Hamilton. I know nothing about this, except that it is apparently the best memoir by a chef ever written. Since chefs are, to me, mostly enigmatic and mercurial beasts, reading this is probably, at least on a practical level, a wise move. (Also, no doubt, Kitchen Confidential, but we’ll save that for later.)

Heads in Beds, by Jacob Tomsky. Like Waiter Rant, but for hotels. The relevance of this is that, before getting the pub job, I signed up with an agency that provides contracted workers to hotels for both front-and back-of-house work. The training day, plus a couple of episodes of Hotel Babylon, made the whole hospitality enterprise feel a bit like The West Wing, only less morally defensible.


UFO In Her Eyes, by Xiaolu Guo. This was the book that Guo talked about most during the Southbank Centre event. She wanted to write it in English, but, because her English was limited, she chose to write the whole thing as a police interview transcript: no flowery language, no poetic turns, just terse narrative prose. It’s about a woman in rural southern China who becomes convinced she’s seen a UFO outside the village, but there’s a whole kettle of political allegory just under the surface.

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, by Xiaolu Guo. Maybe Guo’s best-known work in the UK; it was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize, back when Orange was still the sponsor. It follows a young Chinese immigrant to Britain and her love affair—start to inevitable end—with an English man. I’ve read the first few pages and I’m already in; the English of the narrator is so perfectly broken, it’s like you can hear her in your head.

Anyone read any of these, want to offer advice on where to start, or know any other food memoirs/Chinese sci-fi I should check out?

Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts


The menu at the White Bear, Kennington. If you’re going to be in South London, come say hi!

Several days late. Sorry!

  1. It’s been two weeks since I’ve written anything here, which is mostly because of training for my new job at the gastropub round the corner. We opened to the public on Wednesday, and I’ve been working floor every night since (except for tonight). So far I’ve spilled two and a half pints, but I’ve also acquired a nickname from the chefs (“Dave”, for reasons unknown), so I guess it’s going pretty well. It’s especially interesting to be on the receiving end of the British attitude towards tips. (In a nutshell: almost no one tips, although we’ve had a few very generous tables.)
  2. Tana French is one of those authors I’ve been wanting to read for aaaages, and it all came to a head last week when Ella Risbridger noted on Twitter that her back catalogue was 99p per book on Kindle, as a promotion for her newest release. I bought all five of the Dublin Murder Squad books and have been absolutely ADORING them. The first two (In the Woods and The Vanishing) are, I think, better than the third (Faithful Place) and maybe the fourth, which I’m halfway through now (The Secret Place), but they’re all amazing. French’s prose is stunning—literary, descriptive and elegant—and her plotting is phenomenal. I especially love her analytical approach to characterisation; Ella’s description of her as “like Donna Tartt without the pretentiousness” is spot-on.
  3. My own novel is nearly to 50,000 words. I’m so close to finishing section two that I can actually see the light at the end of the tunnel. I’ll have to go back to sections one and three, after that, but it’ll be amazing to have a whole chunk of the first draft finished.
  4. Speaking of my novel: I’ve created a website for it! There’ll be periodic updates there as well as playlists, blog posts about the writing process, sneak previews, etc. If you’re at all interested in this thing I’ve spent the past few months coyly mentioning, head over there and check it out.
  5. The London Literature Festival at the Southbank Centre today hosted a panel on Chinese sci-fi, entitled “Living in Future Times”. The two authors featured were Cixin Liu, whose The Three-Body Problem won this year’s Hugo Award, and Xiaolu Guo, author of Baileys-longlisted I Am China and A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, as well as of the book-turned-film UFO In Her Eyes. Liu is a very big-picture kind of guy, full of thoughtful assertions about the potential of science fiction to bring people together across races, nations and creeds. Guo is fiery and deeply intelligent, a tri-lingual trained filmmaker whose take on sci-fi (and literature in general) is distinctly, though discreetly, feminist. It was a hugely enjoyable talk, and I’m definitely going to buy both Liu’s trilogy (of which The Three-Body Problem is the first volume) and Guo’s books.

Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts is hosted by Christine at Bookishly Boisterous: go check out the other posts!

September Superlatives

September! A thoroughly mixed bag: meteorologically, professionally, literarily. I finished ten books, which is okay, and felt good about eight of them, which is also okay. The air has been getting steadily less warm, although today was the first day I actually felt cold outside. I’ve taken a part-time job in a gastropub round the corner from our flat, which is exciting—they’re giving us training! I’m learning to pull pints and carry three plates at once!—but also, of course, intimidating, and forcing me to rethink myself in a way that will hopefully be healthy (did I ever expect to be working in a pub at this stage of my life? I did not.) The book is coming along steadily; I’m handwriting some of it, which is going better than I thought it would. Roll on October!

least my thing: Unsurprisingly, this accolade goes to Diary of an Oxygen Thief, an anonymously published English translation of a book originally released in Amsterdam in 2006. The foul misogyny I was expecting was mostly replaced by narcissism and alcoholism, so although it could have been much worse, it was still a bit of a chore.


most delightful: Lolly Willowes, by Sylvia Townsend Warner, a novel about a maiden aunt whose eventual move to the countryside to start her own life is the catalyst for a pact with the devil. I like how gradually the plot moves; we get to know Laura, or “Aunt Lolly”, so well that when the devil eventually does come a-calling (surprisingly late in the book), we care all the more about her happiness.

most evocative: Deborah Levy’s incredible novel Hot Milk, which makes heavy use of symbolism and allegory but which also says “summer” in a way few other novels I’ve read this summer actually have. Set in desert-like Almería, Spain, it deals with hypochondria, sexuality, mothers and daughters, and responsibility. I liked its bizarre unpredictability, loved its woozy prose. I’d be happy if it won the Booker Prize.

most surprisingly enjoyable: I hadn’t expected to dislike Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, but I’d expected to find the politics much more obviously unpalatable. Instead, I found right-wing military philosophy that struck me as more juvenile than malevolent. I think I still prefer the film, mostly for reasons of pacing; the book drags a little.


warm bath book: Defined either as “one you could read in the bath” or “one that functions like a warm bath”. In this case—Judy Blume’s In the Unlikely Event—both are true. It’s a novel based on the real events that happened in Elizabeth, New Jersey in the 1950s, where three planes crashed en route to Newark airport in the space of three months. There’s plenty of domestic drama too, and although Blume’s prose is occasionally ungainly, it’s ultimately a lovely, life-affirming read that doesn’t shy away from tackling huge questions.

best romp: Obviously, Love and Freindship [sic], a collection of Jane Austen’s juvenilia. It’s so rewarding to see how she developed from her very earliest writings to the work she was producing in her late teens: sharp and witty from the beginning, but the wit gets ever more pointed as she goes on. Lady Susan is a miniature masterpiece. It’s the early stuff, though, like The Beautifull Cassandra and Frederic and Elfrida, that makes me giggle: heroines get rat-arsed on port wine and steal bonnets, men are so useless that they forget who they’re married to. It’s great.

most illuminating: iO Tillett Wright’s memoir, Darling Days, about growing up semi-feral on the Lower East Side. If you’ve ever known anyone who’s had a difficult family life; who’s experienced parental alcohol or drug abuse, who’s grown up “alternative” or who’s been through the juvenile courts system, you need to read this book. It will tell you everything you need to know about the effect it has on a kid, and it will also show you that it is possible for kids to survive and thrive into adulthood even under the craziest of circumstances.

most aptly timed: Not Working, by Lisa Owens, for obvious reasons. Seriously, though, this is a fantastic novel. I was braced for something a bit brittle, a bit vapid or over-privileged. Instead, the sadness, the humour, and the bravado of this book absolutely knocked me out. It’s a beautifully balanced piece of writing; I’ll be keeping a keen eye out for Lisa Owens’s future work.


most disturbing: Angela Carter is always going to win “most disturbing”, isn’t she? Not necessarily bad disturbing, just…disturbing. You know. Anyway, I read The Magic Toyshop this month, which apes the traditions of Victorian novels (beautiful young orphaned heroine, big bad uncle, mysterious cousin, etc.) and produces, out of material that we think we know, a wholly strange concoction. This book has got atmosphere by the bucket-load; you feel so grounded in its reality, reading it, and yet simultaneously enchanted. My favourite Carter to date, I think.

most disappointing: I hate to say this, but: Michael Hughes’s The Countenance Divine. I was expecting, if not quite Neal Stephenson, at least Stephenson-adjacent, and you can’t really blame me: the plot summary is that, in 1999, a programmer working on a fix for the Y2K bug becomes entangled with a tradition of millennarianism involving Jack the Ripper (in 1888), William Blake (in 1777), and John Milton (in 1666). Sounds phenomenal, no? And yet. The execution is so inconsistent (the sections set in 1999 are written in especially dull tones), and none of the book’s internal logic is really conveyed to the reader. Also, it features what has to be the drippiest Messiah EVER. (Unless the actual Messiah isn’t the character just referred to… Doesn’t change the rest of the book, though.) Oh, and either the Apocalypse in this book actually does rely upon horrific violence against women, or Hughes hasn’t sufficiently explained the reasons a reader should resist this interpretation. Which is such an old, and boring, story.

up next: I’m currently reading Beauty Is a Wound by Eka Kurniawan, an Indonesian writer who’s been compared to Gabriel Garcia Marquez with absolute justice. When I finish it, I’ll review The Story of a Brief Marriage by Anuk Arudpragasam, coming out from Granta this week.

Darling Days, by iO Tillett Wright

What I’m about to do is the worst and best move I will ever make.


The book-comparison game is a dangerous one, but it is one that people who sell and promote books have to play on a regular basis. Sometimes this results in weird and vaguely desperate combinations (hands up if you’ve ever seen a book whose jacket says something like “for fans of Stephen King and Sex and the City” and wondered what the hell kind of target demographic that is); sometimes it results in regrettable over-selling (see my review of Diary of an Oxygen Thief, which wasn’t well served by being compared to The Catcher in the Rye). Sometimes—just sometimes—it’s spot on. And so it is with Darling Days, a memoir by iO Tillett Wright (yes, iO, spelled like that) that comes garlanded with comparisons to Patti Smith’s Just Kids and Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle. Incredibly, almost improbably, the comparisons are apt. It’s a great book.

Actually, for my money, Wright is better at prose than Patti Smith is by a considerable margin. I enjoyed Just Kids for its general atmosphere of romantic bohemianism, but much of the writing on a sentence-by-sentence basis felt overwrought, emotional, and repetitive. Wright, by contrast, produces electrifying, evocative descriptions of the Lower East Side in the 1980s, a world that gentrification destroyed so quickly that it is almost as though these places never existed. Take this:

The Bowery Hotel, now a glamorous weekend landing pad for movie starlets, used to be a twenty-four-hour gas station that served radioactive vindaloo on Styrofoam plates to my mother in the middle of the night. Two mangy dogs roamed between the pumps, so dirty and caked with exhaust grease that one’s fur had turned green, the other one’s blue.

Wright’s mother’s husband, Billy, the great love of her life, was shot in his sleep by police. She was never married to Wright’s father, Seth Tillett, with whom she had a relationship after Billy’s death. Wright is entirely open about her parents’ intentions, or lack thereof (“they never had the intention of being a couple or building any kind of domestic life together”), but she’s equally clear about their love for their daughter. They promise each other that they will put her first; they will care for her; they will never put her through foster care or the courts system. Their official relationship might be only temporary, but both pledge responsibility for the baby.

For the first few years of Wright’s life, she lives with her mother. Apart from the abject poverty, the fact that they live up the block from a shelter full of homeless, occasionally violent junkies, and Wright’s desire to dress, act, and be treated as a boy, everything is pretty normal. In 1991, though, things start to change: the management of their apartment building, mindful of new city regulations, announces that the place will be gutted, and everyone will need to move:

The way Ma describes it, it’s like they rode in from Fourth Street on horseback. One day we are minding our own business in the asshole of the universe, and the next day these squares are galloping in, handing out bribes or slaughter as they go.

…’Unfortunately for all of us, either way the city is stepping in and putting its foot down. All the tenants will be temporarily relocated during the renovations to equally comfortable apartments until you can be moved back into your new houses.’

He tries to word this carefully, but when he says “comfortable”, half a dozen people snort and snicker. I’m thinking of the red-haired, pothead leprechaun with six pianos downstairs, and what comfort might mean to him, a kind of joy inconceivable to the man now speaking in American Dream bullshit platitudes. Or what it means to my mom, for whom comfort itself is a dirty word.

This is really the beginning of the end for the people who live in this building, and it seems to be the beginning of the end for Rhonna Wright, too. From this point onwards, she becomes increasingly angry, violent, even psychotic. Little iO has always known that her mom drinks a lot, but this is different, a darkness behind her eyes that frightens. She writes just enough scenes describing fights between her and her mother for us to get the idea: they are both incredibly strong-willed. Rhonna has always been her protector, but things are getting untenable. There’s never food. Rhonna starts cooking things and forgets about them. She hoards trash, newspapers, cardboard. The apartment is dark and difficult to navigate. iO sleeps on an army cot and is woken repeatedly, almost nightly, by her mother raging through the darkness, swearing, screaming.

The “best and worst move she will ever make” is the reporting of her mother’s condition to her school guidance counselor. Wright knows this will catapult her into the care of the city and the courts system, a bureaucracy against which her mother has fought all her life. She knows it will be seen as a betrayal, but she does not have a choice. Eventually, a court grants custody to her father, and she moves to Germany to live with him.

It’s a brief happiness: her father, too, has substance addiction problems, and her father’s girlfriend Julia eventually finds the whole situation too difficult to handle. When Julia finally snaps, pinning Wright to a car bonnet and screaming into her face on a freezing Christmas Eve, it’s a horrible scene, and if Wright’s terrible vulnerability wasn’t already clear to the reader, this part makes it so. She’s a tenacious, hot-tempered teenager, and she can’t have been easy to care for, but her life so far has lacked such a basic level of stability. Her father sends her to a progressive boarding school in England, where she finds the heady joys of first love with a German student called Nikita, but every summer, it’s a toss-up as to where Wright will end up, which country she’ll call home this year.

Clearly enough, what keeps her grounded (and, sometimes, alive) is her circle of friends. There’s Johnny, her Puerto Rican “brother” who leaves his leftovers on the table for her as a kid. There’s the girl she calls KGB, a beautiful Russian; there’s Nan, her larger-than-life godmother; there’s Frankie, a pot-smoking bohemian musician who moves into the flat Wright and Rhonna share in New York, and who can care for Rhonna with the objectivity that Wright cannot summon. There’s also Edie Tillett, Wright’s paternal grandmother, providing unconditional love and a bolthole over the years: her death, near the end of the book, is wrenching.

 Wright ends her memoir as she moves out of her mother’s apartment, aged twenty-two, looking for a new start and entering a new relationship. The copy I read was an unfinished proof; I hope that in the final book, perhaps in the Acknowledgments, there’s a sense of how Wright’s relationship with her mother currently stands. It’s clearly the strongest, most significant bond of her life, at least thus far; she never villainizes Rhonna, only tries to understand. (Her mother’s late-revealed dependence on Desoxyn explains a lot: combined with alcohol, it produces psychosis.) All the other people that love and support Wright, too, populate the background of this book, quiet but nevertheless present. That old saying is true, after all: friends are a family you choose.

Thanks very much to Grace Vincent at Virago for the review copy. Darling Days will be published in the UK on 27 September.

Meanwhile, At Litro: Victorians Decoded at Guildhall Art Gallery


Despite the radio silence over the summer, I do still write for Litro. Last week I went to a review a TOTALLY FREE exhibition at London’s Guildhall Art Gallery, focusing on Victorian art and how it was affected by the advent of the telegraph. Here’s how it starts:

The curator in the pink dress is fielding my halting questions with aplomb. We have stopped in front of a medium-sized oil painting of a scene on board ship. It is a tangle of unnameable emotions and undefined relationships: a woman in a bath chair, perhaps an invalid, gazes into the middle distance as a sailor wearing a wedding ring addresses her from slightly behind and to the side, his arm curled around her chair in a manner that feels distinctly Mephistophelean. On a deckside bench nearby, another sailor—older and bearded—holds a newspaper, which he’s not reading, between his knees and looks disgruntled. His seat companion, an elderly gentleman with a top hat and watch chain, glances behind him with irritation at something out of view. Meanwhile, a little girl with a black velvet hair ribbon leans over the back of the bench: perhaps trying to read the newspaper that’s held out of her reach, perhaps importuning the elderly man (a grandfather? A guardian?). Behind them all, the riggings of this ship and a dozen others criss-cross the sky in whip-like lines of black paint. It is unspeakably claustrophobic. The curator is telling me that these lines are a direct allusion to the telegraph cables that had been placed under the Atlantic less than a decade before this painting was made, in 1873, by James Tissot. It is all about communication that cannot be decoded, glances that can’t be explained, eyelines that don’t line up. Everyone in this painting is trying to say something without saying it directly, and mostly, they are failing.

You can read the rest of the review here. I would be so chuffed if you did. (Plus, the exhibition is incredibly interesting – if you’re in London or the South of England, go!)

Love and Freindship [sic] and Other Youthful Writings, by Jane Austen

My temper is even, my virtues innumerable, my self unparalleled. Since such Sir is my character, what do you mean by wishing me to marry your Daughter?


Jane Austen has basically always gotten a rough shake, because literary misogyny exists and anyone who writes about bonnets is always going to find herself dismissed by one half of humanity and read feverishly—but only for the bonnets—by half of the other half. The truth, of course, is less frilly and floral than the background for the photo above would suggest. Consensus on Austen for a while now has generally been that she was a shrewd and uncompromising chronicler of human hypocrisy and frailty; that she wrote with absolute clarity on the myriad foolishnesses of polite society but also that she understood them inside out; and that her “charming” marriage-based plots are a forensic examination of the legalized system of prostitution that found it acceptable to sell unmarried women to the highest bidder—and in which the women in question frequently colluded because their other choices were homelessness or humiliation as “companion” dependents of wealthier families.

This book is a collection of Austen’s juvenilia, work written when she was between the ages of eleven and nineteen. Christine Alexander, the editor of the Penguin volume, has laid them out in rough chronological order (more or less as they appear in Austen’s manuscript books). The advantage, obviously, is that you can see how Austen grew and developed, not just in terms of her prose becoming more complex and easily controlled, but also as she became more confident in her ability to handle a plot and as her satire became no less sharp, but significantly more subtle.

The stories from her pre-teen and early teenaged years are surprisingly excellent, however, because they give a sense of how unbounded and anarchic her imagination was. She was supposedly an excellent mimic, loved parlor games and charades, and that vivacious goofiness is so evident in pieces like “Frederic and Elfrida”. Here she gleefully mocks the conventions of sentimental novels (then very much in vogue) by writing a group of young women who fall into raptures of adoring friendship the moment they see each other, who are constantly obliging one another with snatches of trite pastoral song, and one of whom accepts two marriage proposals so as not to cause offense to either suitor. Their claims of intimacy are burlesqued by their deeply unladylike conduct towards each other: “From this period,” Austen writes,

the intimacy between the Families…daily increased till at length it grew to such a pitch, that they did not scruple to kick one another out of the window on the slightest provocation.

Years later, when writing “Catharine, or the Bower”, and also “Lady Susan”, she recycles this idea in the characters of young men who use the informality of friendship as a shield against charges of quite astonishing rudeness that include inviting themselves, unasked, to the homes of people who don’t actually know them.

I also particularly enjoyed “Jack and Alice”, whose heroine tosses off bumpers of claret with extreme alacrity (young unmarried women would, first of all, not have been offered claret, which was a strong, heavy red wine, and secondly, would have been expected to sip at their glasses—not down the whole thing at once, as Alice does.) And “The Beautifull Cassandra” is a glorious, ridiculous story comprising four pages in which our heroine (who shares a name with Austen’s sister) steals a bonnet from her family’s shop, wanders around London committing various acts of vandalism and fraud, and then returns to the bosom of her family quite content. Her attitude towards paying for goods and services is especially anarchic:

She then proceeded to a Pastry-cooks where she devoured six ices, refused to pay for them, knocked down the Pastry-cook and walked away.

…Being returned to the same spot of the same Street she had set out from, the Coachman demanded his Pay. She searched her pockets over again and again; but every search was unsuccessfull [sic]. No money could she find. The man grew peremptory. She placed her bonnet on his head and ran away.

“Love and Freindship” [sic], meanwhile, is a particularly excellent satire on the sentimental, focusing on two women who commit acts of the most appalling selfishness, cruelty and criminality, and blame everything on their deep “Sensibility of Mind”. When a carriage containing their long-lost husbands overturns in front of them (it’s a long story, okay), they enact responses of horror that suggest, indeed, sentimentality, but are not exactly practical:

Yes, dearest Marianne, they were our Husbands. Sophia shreiked [sic] and fainted on the Ground—I screamed and instantly ran Mad. We remained thus mutually deprived of our Senses some minutes, and on regaining them were deprived of them again—. For an Hour and a Quarter did we continue in this unfortunate Situation—Sophia fainting every moment and I running Mad as often—.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t resist the image of our narrator Laura dashing wildly to and fro, waving her arms in the air and frothing at the mouth, as Sophia swoons and revives repeatedly in the background like some kind of interval in a Loony Tunes episode.

It turns out that one of the men has survived, but the women become aware of this too late, and instead of providing him with prompt medical attention, they demand that he recite “what has befallen you” since they were separated (another trope of sentimental fiction: long stories-within-stories as every new acquaintance does a huge info-dump on their background and life history.) Before he can begin his tale, of course, the poor man expires.

This is all very entertaining, and in places, very sharp, but it’s “Lady Susan” (recently made into a film under the name “Love and Friendship”) that represents the pinnacle of Austen’s young writing. Written in the epistolary style of Samuel Richardson, whom Austen idealized, it is primarily told from the point of view of Lady Susan Vernon, a recent widow who is, we quickly realize, on the hunt for a husband again. She is in disgrace as a result of her conduct at Langford, the home of her friends; at no point is this ever fully explained, but through her letters and those of her sister-in-law, Catherine Vernon, it becomes evident that she has seduced Mr. Manwaring, a married man, away from his wife. Since Manwaring would not be free to marry her unless his wife had died (an event which Lady Susan and her friend Alicia Johnson certainly mull over the idea of hastening), she fixes her sights on another young man: Reginald De Courcy, brother of her dead husband’s sister-in-law.

Lady Susan is a fantastic character: beautiful, manipulative, extremely intelligent, and totally amoral. She takes great delight in confounding the prejudices of Reginald, who has already heard stories about her that cast her in a bad light. Of him to Mrs. Johnson, Susan writes,

There is something about him that rather interests me, a sort of sauciness, of familiarity, which I shall teach him to correct. He is lively and seems clever, and when I have inspired him with greater respect for me than his sister’s kind offices have implanted, he may be an agreable [sic] Flirt.—There is exquisite pleasure in subduing an insolent spirit, in making a person pre-determined to dislike, acknowledge one’s superiority.

Instead of being coquettish when he is “familiar” (e.g. flirtatious) with her, she responds with gravity, dignity, and quietness. Reginald becomes convinced that the tales he heard were slanderous, and poor Catherine fails to convince him of their truth in time to stop him from becoming entangled. Meanwhile, Susan is maneuvering to get her daughter Frederica engaged to the somewhat simple Sir James Martin—not because she cares about Frederica’s happiness, but in order to get her off of her hands—and engages in a campaign of what we’d now call gaslighting to prevent anyone else from taking Frederica’s concerns seriously. Fortunately, Catherine Vernon’s efforts are more successful here; Frederica is saved from a soul-crushing marriage and becomes, essentially, the ward of her aunt and uncle.

Lady Susan, of course, receives her comeuppance, though to tell you how this happens would ruin the pleasure of reading the story. In a way, too, reading her downfall is a disappointment. She is too deeply unpleasant a character for a reader to entirely invest in, but her pursuit of her own satisfactions is so unabashed, and so cleverly strategized, that to read her letters is like peering inside the head of Thackeray’s Becky Sharp. She is one of English literature’s best villainesses; that her creator was not more than twenty is really proof, if any is still needed, that Austen was a literary genius.