Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts

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We were in Cornwall all last week, Airbnb’ing in a studio flat above a gallery on Barnoon Hill in St. Ives. So this week’s Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts is Cornwall-themed!

  1. First things first, Cornwall is utterly beautiful. We went for a long walk one day and by the time we came back into town, the Chaos was saying things like “I could get a gig at Truro Cathedral” and peering in the windows of estate agents.
  2. St. Ives is famous for two things, primarily: being an outstandingly good-looking coastal town, and artists. Barbara Hepworth was one of them, a sculptor who moved down to Cornwall in the 1940s with her children and husband to escape the Blitz. She was a total boss—had triplets unexpectedly in rural nowheresville, divorced husband #1 after a few years, lived scandalously with husband #2 before actually getting hitched, competed with Henry Moore for commissions, and became such a part of the St. Ives community that she threatened to take the town council to court when they wanted to make the beautiful hill area into a massive car park. She was made a Dame in 1965. She died after a fire in her studio that started because she insisted on smoking in bed. The pictures of her make her look like a boss biddy, and I would like to write a novel about her. Her sculptures are also beautiful, powerful forms that were way ahead of their time.
  3. Speaking of novels, I didn’t write every day on holiday, but the days I did write were great: over 1,000 words every time. I’m also well past the 20,000-word mark. In fact, I missed it when it happened. The next benchmark will be 25,000, for which I need some suitable way to celebrate. Ideas welcome.
  4. Reading on holiday was great, but also awkward. I started Neal Stephenson’s magisterial (= 912-page) The System of the World in the train on the way down, which was utterly brilliant and absorbing but which took me three days. By then, I only had two days left, and, because I’m a twit, five more books in my suitcase. I ploughed on, read The Tailor of Panama, which was a fun little relaxing number, and most of Elizabeth Jane Howard’s second Cazalet book, Marking Time (which I’ve now finished). I am just going to read all of my planned holiday reading in the week after the actual holiday, I guess. (The others: Starship Troopers; Lolly Willowes; Hot Milk.)
  5. Cornwall has an unusually high proportion of Regionally Significant Foodstuffs: meat-and-potato pasties, Cornish clotted cream, “the cream tea” (scones + clotted cream + strawberry jam), ice cream, fudge. If you are in St. Ives, your range of options for pasties and fudge is immense—nearly every shop in the middle of town seems to sell one or the other, if not both. We can also personally attest to the deliciousness of bread from the St. Ives Bakery.
  6. The Chaos having the whole month of August off is great, in that he has a whole month off, and not great, in that he shares that month off with every wailing snot-nosed child in the United Kingdom. Most of these children had converged, with their drained and pinch-faced parents, on St. Ives. Having no children, we were able, mostly, to avoid them, except for going up and down Fore Street, where you just have to stare blankly into the middle distance until it’s all over.
  7. The St. Ives Bookseller is a gorgeous little independent bookshop at the very top of Fore Street. They’ve won best bookshop awards from The Bookseller in the last few years. We didn’t buy anything there, which was, as you can imagine, painful, but it’s a really nice place to browse, with well-selected content and interesting displays.

Waking Lions, by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen

She would take the money. But not only the money. The people here needed a doctor.

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~~here be a couple of spoilers~~

The synopsis of Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s second novel, Waking Lions, is like the premise for a movie: Eitan Green, an Israeli doctor exiled to a provincial hospital for whistle-blowing, leaves work one night. Exhausted and demoralised, instead of going home, he drives his SUV out into the sand dunes around Beersheba. Speeding on the deserted roads, he hits an Eritrean man walking along the roadside, but instead of calling an ambulance or the police, he leaves him to die. Why? He’s afraid for his job, of course; he fears for the comfortable life he’s built for himself, his wife Liat, a police detective, and their two little boys. But it’s not that simple, either: the man is an illegal immigrant, an African, totally alien to him. He can’t bring himself to think of what he’s done as a real crime. He drives home, goes to sleep next to Liat. The next morning, when no one else is home, there’s a knock on the door. It’s the dead man’s wife. She was there last night, although he didn’t see her. Her name is Sirkit, and she wants something from him in exchange for her silence.

She wants him to work. So he does, spending his days on long shifts in the Soroka hospital and his nights in a garage near Tlalim with a rusty table to operate on and only the most rudimentary instruments and drugs. And then Liat gets assigned the hit-and-run case. Her colleagues think they’ve cracked it within a few weeks, blaming an Arab boy, but Liat’s pretty sure it wasn’t him, and when a girl from his village steps forward to be his alibi, she’s sure of it.

This isn’t a hopeful book. The strapline on the cover asks, “How do you know what you’re capable of?”, and Gundar-Goshen’s position, pretty clearly, is that you don’t; you can’t. Eitan is a doctor, an occupation that is defined by its goodness. Doctors save lives, mitigate pain, do their best to help. But doctoring is compromised from the start of the book: Eitan is only in Beersheba because he insisted on confronting a colleague and former professor, the eminent Dr. Zakai, about his habit of accepting large bribes from patients’ families. Nothing is done about Zakai’s corruption, but Eitan is reassigned from glamorous Tel Aviv to dead-end Beersheba. Zakai reappears throughout the book in Eitan’s memories of him as a guiding light and mentor. We hear bits and pieces of his lectures, the received wisdom passed down from senior doctors to trainees. His overwhelming character trait, perhaps unsurprisingly, seems to be arrogance.

That arrogance is shared by Eitan himself. What makes this book so incendiary, and such an emotional challenge for a reader, is that Eitan constantly misses opportunities to expand his understanding. He is narrow in his comprehension of Sirkit, for whom he feels an obsessive, exoticizing lust that makes for pretty uncomfortable reading. He is narrow in his comprehension of the Africans who come to the garage for treatment. He is narrow in his obliviousness to Liat’s struggle against disgusting levels of misogyny and racism at work; he fails to understand that his own army buddies speak about women and Arabs in the same way that Liat’s colleagues do, that he’s no better. It is not fun to spend time in his head. It’s illuminating, but it’s also infuriating.

Here he is, for instance, on Semar, a woman whom he’s just assisted in giving birth. Her baby is the result of a rape perpetrated on her by her Israeli employer at a roadside restaurant; the rapist, as a result of plot machinations, has just turned up at the garage and been stabbed by Sirkit:

The thought of the rape nauseated him, but he was honest enough to admit that the nausea he felt was only indirectly related to Semar. First and foremost, he thought of himself. He wasn’t supposed to see it. He wasn’t supposed to know about it. …It was the same feeling he had when he went into a public bathroom and saw that someone had defecated and not flushed the toilet… What that man had done to Semar was horrible, but it wasn’t Eitan’s shit.

Much like certain passages from Mary Gaitskill’s The Mare, this reminded me of Orange Is the New Black. People in that show who are lucky enough to be able to ignore the shit become enraged when they’re forced to confront it. They’re happy enough, as Eitan is, to elect people who assure them that the shit will be dealt with. But engaging with it themselves is too much, too hard, unfair, and, moreover, it upsets the hierarchy. This is not the sort of thing a man like Eitan is meant to see. This is not how his world works, and his world is the only world there is.

There is a plot turn—it’s not quite a twist—about four-fifths of the way through the book which stretches credulity if you think about it too hard, but it has the tremendous advantage of sharpening Sirkit’s character for us. Is she a “good” person? Not in the way that Eitan is “good”. She demands money from the immigrant community before she’ll bring them to the garage; she refuses a Sudanese woman treatment because she can’t pay; she feared and hated her husband, the man Eitan killed, although she had good reasons to. There’s a level of steely indifference in Sirkit that makes her one of the novel’s greatest assets. She thinks of how Eitan must think of her: mopping floors, suffering. The truth is that suffering comprises only a part of Sirkit’s life. She’s also a skilled nurse, good enough to train as a doctor (Eitan is genuinely shocked to realize that she could be just as good as him. He doesn’t think of an Eritrean immigrant woman as the kind of creature that is capable in that way. It’s not that he thinks she can’t do it; it doesn’t occur to him that she can, any more than he would expect the ability of a goat.) And she is a survivor. And she is ruthless. Is she a “good” person? Who cares? She’s alive, and she commands respect.

But this isn’t, as I said before, a hopeful book. It’s so unusual to get to the end of a literary novel without some form of emotional closure, some kind of redemption, that when I got to the end of this one and found that was exactly what we were dealing with, it came as a real surprise. For (here is the biggest spoiler, probably) nothing happens to Eitan. No one ever finds out the full truth: not Liat, not his colleagues, not the rest of the police force. He is never discovered. And the saddest thing is that, even as I read the final page with surprise, I knew that I should not be surprised. Nothing about Eitan’s reprieve from the legal repercussions of his crime is surprising. It makes the novel’s ending lines, so calm and tranquil in their rhythms, look more like a cry of bitter rage:

How beautiful the earth is when it moves properly. How pleasant to move with it. To forget that any other movement ever existed. That a different movement is even possible.

It’s our privilege to be able to forget. Eitan’s, and mine. And yours. And Gundar-Goshen, in this book, is telling us all to go fuck ourselves for that. It isn’t the kind of book you can love. But that’s the point.

Many thanks to Tabitha Pelly at Pushkin Press for the review copy. Waking Lions  will be published in paperback in the UK on 1 September.

The Many, by Wyl Menmuir, & The Mare, by Mary Gaitskill

There’s very little that connects these two books, I’m afraid; they’re not being reviewed together for any clever reason on my part. One is short, the other long. One is by a man, the other a woman. One is a claustrophobic little quasi-horror tale, the other is a chunky social realist novel that thoroughly imbues the political with the personal and vice versa. They’re both published by independent publishers, but other than that, there’s not much similarity between them, either superficially or thematically. Sorry! On the other hand, at least today’s post has got something for everyone… (or something like it.)

The Many, by Wyl Menmuir (Salt Publishing)

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~~here be spoilers, sorry~~

If this looks familiar to you, it’ll be because it’s on the Man Booker Prize longlist. (My copy doesn’t have that neat little marketing sticker—proof that I got my request in just before they were inundated with book journalists’ emails and did a reprint. Haha.) It’s so short as to be almost a novella; at 141 pages, it’s readable in a day. There are two point-of-view characters: Ethan, a fisherman in a remote Cornish coastal village, and Timothy, an interloper in the village who has bought a house that’s lain dormant for a decade. The former inhabitant of Timothy’s new home was Perran, a member of a fishing crew who, it’s vaguely suggested, had some sort of learning disability, and who drowned one night in a storm. Timothy’s presence in Perran’s house is displeasing to the villagers—like all villagers, they have long memories. Ethan is struggling with his own problems: fishing trips are bringing back strangely emaciated hauls, and the sea has been declared contaminated. The fishermen are prohibited from working outside the boundary of a line of old container ships moored on the horizon, and their skeletal catches are purchased wholesale by a mysterious woman in a grey coat whose besuited goons do most of the (literal) heavy lifting.

For atmosphere, The Many cannot be faulted. In fact, its perfection in that regard is kind of the problem. Menmuir creates this setting where reality bumps up against genre trappings—eco-thriller, conspiracy—in a truly unsettling way. The sea and the sky are so encompassing, Timothy and Ethan’s emotional isolations so perfectly mirrored by their bleak surroundings, that you find yourself on tenterhooks to see what the hell is going to happen. It reminded me of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, particularly those awful dead-eyed fish: a Nature that has soured somehow, a government agency that exists, morally speaking, well within the shades of grey. And yet there is (here come the spoilers) never any resolution to this at all. The woman in the grey coat is such an obviously menacing and important figure that for us to get to the end of the book without any indication of who she is or what she’s doing there feels alarmingly like cheating. Meanwhile, Timothy’s marital troubles, we learn, stem from the stillbirth of his son, a little boy named…Perran. This was the detail that really threw me. Perran’s an unusual name. Is it meant to be a coincidence? There’s enough mystical stuff going on in this book (Timothy has Symbolic Dreams; that barrier of container ships) that I thought perhaps Timothy’s Perran and the village’s Perran were…the same person? Or is Timothy insane? Is he projecting this village and its loss?

They’re good questions. They’re the sort of questions that I like a book to provoke. The reality of reality, and the sanity of sanity, have long been uncertainties for authors to engage with. But the strength of a book lies in how satisfactorily it deals with those questions—it doesn’t have to answer them, but it has to deal with them—and The Many doesn’t deal with anything. It just shrugs and leaves (which, incidentally, is what Timothy eventually does.) It’s a mark of my frustration that, after finishing it, I realized I still had not the slightest clue what the title meant. The many what? Fish? Deaths? Portentous pronouncements by old Clem the winchman? I don’t mean to sound bitter, but reading this book felt like being ghosted by someone on Tinder. There was so much promise here! What happened?!

(Or am I just an idiot who missed the obvious? Anyone else read this and have an idea?)

Thanks very much to Hannah Corbett at Salt for the review copy. The Many was published in the UK on 15 June.

The Mare, by Mary Gaitskill (Serpent’s Tail)

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Sometimes if you’re a pretty well-known person in your field, you develop this face that you use every time someone takes a picture of you. (Natalie Dormer is an excellent example of this.) Mary Gaitskill has either learned to do this, or it came naturally to her: she is a pouty glarer. Her every photo pulses with the subtext “and just what the fuck do you want?” This is great, because I imagine that Velveteen Vargas, the teenaged protagonist of The Mare, would photograph similarly, although probably without intending to. Velveteen is one of the most impressive fictional creations I’ve come across all year: a pre-teen of Puerto Rican descent when we meet her, she grows over the course of several years into a beautifully complex fourteen-year-old, full of age-appropriate longing to fit in and to meet boys, as well as distinctly mature concerns about her physically abusive mother, and, above all, a driving passion for horses.

Velvet doesn’t know that she’s a natural horse rider until a summer trip courtesy of the Fresh Air Fund. For two weeks, she stays with Ginger, a childless artist in her late forties, and Paul, a professor at a small college in upstate New York. Across the road, there’s a stables. It’s there that Velvet meets Fugly Girl, a seriously damaged mare, learns to ride, and becomes invested in salvaging Fugly Girl’s spirit. It sounds cute and vaguely saccharine, right? It is not. There is weird coerced sex and drive-by shooting in this book; there is the agony of first love and the sadness of an affair; there is the pain and sacrifice and bewilderment of Velvet’s mother, Silvia, who has to be tricked into allowing her daughter back in the stables at all. Silvia, incidentally, is one of this book’s best-drawn characters. She’s almost completely inexplicable to soft, middle-class Ginger: a woman who tells her only daughter that she’s ugly, a woman who hits her kids, a woman who loves her kids so hard that she won’t show them any love. We only realize slowly, by the way, that that’s what Silvia’s doing. We get chapters in her voice, as well as in Ginger’s, Paul’s and Velvet’s. We learn what she’s been taught about love. We see how vulnerable she knows love can make you. We recognize that she is determined to keep her children safe by making them hard.

How Gaitskill renders the pretentious, precious awkwardness—and the warmth and good intentions—of Paul and Ginger and their intellectual friends, as well as the slang and posturing and deep loss and vulnerability of the teenagers Velvet hangs out with in Brooklyn: it all reminded me forcefully of Orange Is the New Black. That’s the only other piece of art (is TV art? whatever) that I know of that has so completely given its characters their own voices. That show’s every sentence, no matter who’s saying it, is meticulously pitched to reveal bias and weakness and at the same time to build our sense of a character, of why they are precisely who they are. It’s fucking hard to do. Gaitskill nails it. She’s written a great book. Go on.

Thanks very much to Hannah Westland at Serpent’s Tail for the review copy. The Mare was published in the UK on 21 July.

A White Night, by Charlotte Mew – in Daughters of Decadence

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~~caution: here be a spoiler for a single story~~

In 1993, Virago published a collection of short stories by women writers of the 1880s and 1890s, edited by Elaine Showalter, a prominent feminist scholar. Now, twenty-three years later, they’ve reissued the collection. It’s not a time period that speaks to me much; when I learned about the tail end of the 19th century in high school history classes, I got the Gilded Age of American industry, monopolies, philanthropists, presidents with eccentric facial hair, and prolonged but indecisive military excursions in Latin America. Photographs of the period look somehow older than photographs from thirty years previously. The women wear hats of ludicrous width and all appear to be sucking on lemons; the men are frequently top-hatted titans of capitalism, and almost never looking directly at the camera. It is not a period that represents itself with the lush brightness of the mid-19th century, or the filthy vivacity of the 18th, or the political intrigue of the 17th.

And yet, as Showalter’s introduction to the collection points out, there was a lot going on in this fin de siecle as regards women, both in terms of their writing and in terms of their more general social position. We think of decadent writers and artists as men–Wilde, Beardsley–and the same is true of this era’s serious literary authors: think of Henry James and Joseph Conrad. Yet at the same time, there was an explosion of writing, mostly in the form of short stories, from women. They were published in periodicals like Vogue and Lippincott’s and The Yellow Book, most of which don’t exist any more. They were by and about “New Women”, creatures of sometimes ambiguous sexuality, authors of unrecognized genius, complex thinkers. They terrified critics, who referred to them dismissively as vain “erotomaniacs”. One of them was Charlotte Mew, whose short story A White Night I was asked to review by the Virago publicity folks.

A White Night is brief and deeply disturbing. Our narrator, Cameron, is on holiday in Spain with his sister Ella (we can’t really call her our heroine, though Showalter, heroically, refers to her as such in the collection’s introduction) and Ella’s new husband King. They visit a rural hill town and, at Ella’s insistence, go exploring in the twilight. The action doesn’t really start until they enter a large parish church attached to a convent and get locked in by accident. It’s much too late for anyone to hear them banging on the door and shouting, so they’re eventually resigned to spending the night there, until, around midnight, their uneasy rest is disturbed by a parade of monks, followed by a woman and two priests. A long ritual ensues which is completed by the live burial of the woman under a flagstone before the altar. Cameron does not intervene, and actively prevents King from doing so, although when the monks leave the church, they attempt to find the gravestone in the darkness. Day eventually dawns, they realize their labours are hopeless (they’ve managed to find the stone but can’t pry it up again), and they leave the church with Ella, speechless and horrified, in tow. Telling the story to the British Consul produces only a kind of bureaucratic shrug, and they leave Spain within twenty-four hours. Cameron notes, as a final aside, that this episode still haunts Ella’s dreams, and that she has “never forgiven him” for his objectivity and detachment about it.

What are we to make of that same detachment? Cameron’s refusal to intervene to save the woman is the most inexplicable part of this story: he is moved and horrified by the scene unfolding before him and yet there is something about the woman’s demeanour that makes him feel as though saving her would be wrong. “She had, one understood, her part to play,” he tells us, and goes on to describe with a sort of relish her face’s inscrutable expression:

It was of striking beauty, but its age? One couldn’t say. It had the tints, the purity of youth…but for a veil of fine repression which only years, it seemed, could possibly have woven. And it was itself–this face–a mask, one of the loveliest that spirit ever wore. It kept the spirit’s counsel… Only, as she stood there, erect and motionless, it showed the faintest flicker of distaste, disgust…She was at last in full possession of herself. The flicker of distaste had passed and left her face to its inflexible, inscrutable repose.

So for Cameron, at least, this is a face that possesses a certain power, a face that has agency. He uses other words in conjunction with her (“proud surrender”, “magnificent disdain”) that give us similar impressions. We are not meant to see her as a victim. She has entered the church screaming, but Cameron keenly notes (with what authority, it’s unclear) that the screams are mere “physical responses”, in other words instinctive reflexes; her face looks unmoved.

It’s hard to know what to make of this. My initial instinct was to trust it. Cameron later writes that “she lies, one must remember, in the very centre of the sanctuary… It was this honour, satisfying, as it did, some pride of spirit or of race, which bore her honourably through.” The woman’s value is high in his estimation because of her honourable conduct, her perfect performance of acquiescence. She acquits herself, in other words, like a man, but not so much like a man that she ceases to be passive and therefore womanly. Threatened women gain male approval by being thoroughly aware of their own impending doom, and accepting it stoically. (Do you see what I mean about this being a disturbing story?)

The monks, likewise, are dealt with not as individuals but as one blurred indistinct entity. There’s a superficial distinction between them, but their actual personhoods fade into insignificance because they are all together, all a crowd:

Some of the faces touched upon divinity; some fell below humanity; some were, of course, merely a blotch of book and bell, and all were set impassively toward the woman standing there. And then one lost the sense of their diversity in their resemblance; the similarity persisted and persisted till the row of faces seemed to merge into one face – the face of nothing human – of a system, of a rule. It framed the woman’s and one felt the force of it: she wasn’t in the hands of men.

Except, of course, that she both is, and isn’t: Mew creates in this scene a brilliant representation of patriarchy, a system or rule composed of the faces of ordinary people who are in themselves neither saints nor devils. No monk or priest puts the woman in the grave that opens before her: she walks into it and lies down on her own. But she has been brought by those faces before her to a state where she can do that to herself. Perhaps it is not only a picture of an oppressive system, but a picture of what would later become known as “internalized misogyny”, the scorn and devaluing of women by other women, the self-hatred that a woman pours into herself.

King, the husband, is moved to try and help (perhaps he is trying to be the punning “white knight” of the title), but Cameron stops him; Cameron himself sees only the theoretical and the symbolic sides of the experience, considering it “a rather splendid crime”. It’s only Ella who remains troubled by the episode, and this, Cameron suggests, is because of her damned silly woman’s irrationality:

She refuses to admit that, after all, what one is pleased to call reality is merely the intensity of one’s illusion.

Men of Cameron’s time and class can afford to believe that reality is an illusion, because in many ways, for them, it is. Women – of almost any time, any class – have never been able to indulge in this kind of sophistry, because reality touches them too forcefully. Can you say to a woman of the late Victorian era who was never taught anything of biology or anatomy that her experience – maybe involving terror, force, pain – on her wedding night was “the intensity of her illusion”? Can you tell a woman who has been buried alive that her suffocation is not real? Maybe Ella is the heroine of this story, after all: she understands the significance of what she has seen, even if no one else does.

Many thanks to Poppy Stimpson at Virago for the review copy. Daughters of Decadence was published in the UK on 4 August.

July Superlatives

July’s been a month of changes. I’ve had my 24th birthday, marked my first year with the Chaos, left my job, and committed more concretely to writing my novel. I’ve also read a lot of books: fourteen of them, to be precise, seven of them counting towards #20booksofsummer and two of them on the Man Booker Prize longlist.

most gripping: The Queen of the Night, Alexander Chee’s chunky historical novel about a Parisian soprano whose past comes back to haunt her. It’s long and there are flaws, but it’s a hell of a book, impossible to put down and lushly detailed.

oddly anticlimactic: Linda Grant’s Orange Prize-winning When I Lived in Modern Times, a story about a young Jewish hairdresser from Soho who moves to Palestine after WWII. There’s political content – espionage and the handover of the Protectorate from British rule – but it’s under-emphasised, so that the shape of the book is a little uneven.

book that really should have made the Booker Prize longlist: The Tidal Zone, by Sarah Moss. It’s an exceptional novel, taking in its stride stay-at-home parenthood, marriage difficulties, the NHS, mortality, Coventry Cathedral, and much more. Sarah Moss really is a writer to attend to, one of the best novelists working in England today.

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most sadly prescient: Thomas Piketty’s collection of columns for a French newspaper, Chronicles, about European economics, the global recession, Greece, the IMF, and much more. They date from 2012, but Piketty was already predicting the crisis in the Eurozone that led directly to Brexit.

most darkly surprising: Marilynne Robinson’s first novel, Housekeeping. I know her through her novels GileadHome and Lila, which are luminous with worldly spirituality; Housekeeping is much weirder, a story of two sisters raised by their eccentric aunt. Parts of it reminded me a little of Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen, in its portrayal of a young woman coming undone; you always think something terrible is going to happen.

best family saga: Anne Enright’s Baileys Prize-shortlisted The Green Road. I’m not that keen on Irish family epics, but Enright is a skillful and lucid writer, and this had the virtue of jumping repeatedly through time, which often makes things more interesting.

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most thoroughly disappointing: Raw Spirit, a nonfiction book by Iain Banks in which he visited all (or almost all) of the single malt distilleries in Scotland. It was clearly commissioned in order to give him a kind of junket trip; he’s utterly upfront about that; but he also just struck me as a vaguely unpleasant, highly privileged man who did not think very much about his good fortune, preferring instead to cultivate lads-lads-lads friendships and drive fast cars. I’ll still seek out his science fiction, but gosh what a terrible introduction.

most emotionally complicatedDon’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo, the second of Boris Fishman’s novels to be published in the UK. It deals with adoption, immigration, infertility, and the complex currents of a marriage; there’s a lot to unpack in it, and Fishman’s prose is dense and thoughtful.

most evocative: Rosy Thornton’s Suffolk-set collection of short stories, Sandlands. United by themes of history, haunting, and the past’s effects on the future, it’s a marvellous group of stories that demonstrates a deep love for the Suffolk countryside and its people.

most philosophically demanding: The North Water, Ian McGuire’s Booker Prize-longlisted novel of a whaling voyage that descends into the heart of darkness. There are some levels on which I have issues with this book; it’s a prime example of the deeply masculine, aggressive, Blood Meridian-esque school of novel writing, in which men wrestle with great evil and women, if they exist at all, are whores or dead bodies or both. On another level, though, the writing is absolutely top-notch and the plot is so gripping I read it in a day.

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most bewildering: I never know what to do with Flannery O’Connor, morally speaking. The Violent Bear It Away is, like her other novel Wise Blood, a story about a young man who tries to evade Jesus and can’t. It also features extraordinary violence and stupidity and obstinacy. It’s fascinating, especially because it’s not easy to tell what side O’Connor comes down on.

most relevant: The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota, which was the only Booker Prize-shortlisted book from last year that I hadn’t read. If Marlon James hadn’t also been on the list, this would, or should, have won: an achingly open, generous-hearted novel about a house full of Indian immigrants in Sheffield, and the visa-wife of one of them, it refuses to give us pabulum for an ending. It is heartbreakingly good.

second most bewildering: The Many, Wyl Menmuir’s short novel (also Booker Prize-longlisted this year!) about a man who moves to a seaside town in Cornwall and finds that the history of the village is darker and more opaque than anyone is willing to admit. It feels like an allegory, but the terms of that allegory are not clear, which makes me wonder whether it wants to be cleverer than it actually is, or whether I’m just suffering from a failure of perception. Anyone else read it and want to help me out?

up next: I’m currently staying at my grandparents’ house, taking care of my grandpa for a few days while my grandmother is in hospital. I brought the collected poems of Dylan Thomas with me, but I can’t brute-force my way through it; it’s too gnarly. So I’ve picked up my old Penguin copy of Middlemarch instead. When I get back to London, I’ve got the rest of #20booksofsummer plus Mary Gaitskill’s The Mare and another Booker longlister, A.L. Kennedy’s Serious Sweet, waiting for me.

Sandlands, by Rosy Thornton

More and more, as he camped out on the dusty boarded floor that summer and into autumn, he found himself preoccupied by the notion of echoes…

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Another collection of short stories that has been slowly working through my brain, changing my mind about the form: Rosy Thornton’s Sandlands. The short stories that work for me, I find, are the ones that are connected somehow, either through shared characters or by circling around a theme, an image, a repeated idea. Thornton’s stories share a few characters, but mostly what she does in these pieces is address a couple of different ideas from various angles. I’ll structure this review by taking those ideas one by one, and looking at what she does with them.

Firstly: actual ghosts. There are, as Helen at She Reads Novels points out, not many actual ghost stories in Sandlands, but there are many which evoke the past’s presence in the here and now, and one or two which—for my money—do feature spectres. “Mad Maudlin” is told by a researcher working on Suffolk folk musical traditions. She’s viewing film clips of jam sessions in a local pub: one film she took earlier that day, and other rolls from 1979 and even as far back as 1954. As the story progresses, she realizes that one of the singers never seems to change, and bears a remarkable resemblance to a photograph on the pub wall… The narrator’s increasing nervousness is punctuated by italicized snippets from the song that the mysterious woman is always singing, in every clip, a song called Mad Maudlin, about a crazy woman in love with a crazy man. Still I sing bonny boys, bonny mad boys, Bedlam boys are bonny… The ending—perhaps the most overtly horror-movie-like in the collection—gave me little shivers of terror and delight.

Secondly: figurative ghosts. Many of Thornton’s stories are told by two characters, who bounce the narrative back and forth between them. Sometimes the historical voice comes in the form of documents: in “The Watcher of Souls”, Rebecca finds a cache of letters in a tree trunk written by a lovestruck housemaid. Other times, there is no documentary evidence, and we’re left with the perspective that only a fiction writer can give us: getting inside the head of someone who lived long ago. “Nightingale’s Return” sees an Italian man, Flavio, flying to Sussex to seek out the farm where his father, Salvatore, had worked as a kindly-treated prisoner in WWII. Both of them tell the story in turn, and with the perspectives of both, the reader acquires the full knowledge of what happened at Nightingale Farm, which neither Flavio nor Salvatore alone can have. It’s a bittersweet feeling.

Thornton often uses landscape as a touchstone for stories that occur in the same place at different points in time.”All the Flowers Gone” happens in the same stretch of Suffolk countryside near an air force base, but is told by three generations of women in the same family. Lilian, a seventeen-year-old cleaner, cycles along the Tunstall Lane on her way to work at the base. Twenty years later, her daughter Rosa cycles along the Tunstall lane (note the slight difference in the name) on her way to a protest at that same base. And twenty years further on, Rosa’s daughter Poppy (Lilian’s granddaughter) cycles along Tunstall Lane (it’s now become a proper B road) in her capacity as a botanist to look at a rare-blooming flower that someone has found at the base. Again, Thornton juxtaposes the three stories so that, together, we learn something that none of the protagonists individually can know: namely, the fact that the seeds of Poppy’s flowers were scattered by Lilian, mourning the loss of a pilot whom she had loved, sixty years previously. She’s so deft with these reveals, her touch so light, that what could be sentimental is instead achingly tender.

The past is not always benign. In “Whispers”, Dr. Theodore Whybrow, stalled Cambridge academic, moves into a Martello tower in which he is convinced that his subject, a minor Regency poet, must have been stationed during the Napoleonic wars. He gets his mojo back—he starts to write again—but the scenes where he lies on the floor of the tower, wrapped in a blanket, suggest that the past is powerful, that conjuring the dead can move you in ways you didn’t expect:

There was a paradoxical realness and solidity about the voices here, an immediacy—yes, that was the word for it: immediate, unmediated—which recalled with a sudden sharp pang the early days of his scholarship, that quickening of the blood he had thought to have lost. A connection thought severed, rejoined.

More alarmingly still, the academic protagonist of “A Curiosity Of Warnings” finds himself caught up in family history that connects him to the ghost story writer MR James, and to the legendary crown of Raedwald, king of the East Angles. It’s never clear whether his sense of being pursued is down to his own madness or to something truly malevolent, but in a way that uncertainty doesn’t matter and is, indeed, the point: the thing chasing us doesn’t need to be tangible in order to be real. Likewise, in “The Witch Bottle”, newly divorced Kathy and her builder Nick find love with each other only to come up against the intractable history of Kathy’s house: centuries ago, its master was burned to death on his wedding night. A village girl, Patience Spall, was arrested for the crime, tried at the Bury St. Edmunds assizes, and burned as a witch the next day. As in other stories, we hear from Patience in her own words, and it’s left up to us to decide whether the story’s dénouement is really supernatural vengeance, or just a deeply unnerving coincidence.

Perhaps my favourite two stories were the final two, “Curlew Call” and “Mackerel”. Thornton does a beautiful job of elegizing the dying near-past, here represented by two women of the World War II generation. In “Curlew Call”, a young woman moves from London to be a carer for elderly painter Agnes; in “Mackerel”, another young woman and her grandmother swap off points of view (like in “Nightingale’s Return”). “Mackerel” in particular captures this sad strain of being one of the only members of your generation left.

Cancer played games, too, with Ganny’s friend Rebecca; hers was in the kidney and looked to be beaten, Ganny told us, before it came back everywhere at once… With Harry Housego next door, who’d survived the war and German prison camp with nothing worse than the shade of a limp, it was, finally, his heart; his friend Philip Root had fought in the Battle of Britain but died in his armchair at the nursing home in front of Bargain Hunt. Then there was old Rose Wilderspin who nursed her Albert for five whole years before outliving him by less than one… ‘It’ll soon be only me left’, Ganny likes to say, with as much determined pride as sadness.

We’ve met all of those characters in previous stories—Harry, Philip, Rose—most often as young people. It’s like being strangely, casually punched to be catapulted into the present day to discover how they died. And there’s Ganny herself, whose internal monologue tells us she’s been through more pain than her grandchildren will ever realize:

Captured by the Italians in the Peloponnese in ’41, Frank was shipped to Italy and set to work on a farm there. Not much more than a smallholding, he said in his letters, with some scrubby vines and a few olive trees. I kept the letters, even later, after I met Bill; one a week, he wrote me, for almost three years. He was killed joining up with the Allied invaders in the winter of ’44. Funny how things work out. If it hadn’t been for the times, that rush to wed before a tomorrow that might not come, it could have been an Italian farm girl he’d left on her own and pregnant instead of me.

I’ve never been to Suffolk, but even I can recognize that these stories are suffused with a deep love for it: its sandy lanes, its coastal flats, and above all, its people. Rosy Thornton is probably best known for her romantic novels, but going by this collection, she’s a wonderful and thoughtful literary fiction writer too (I hate making that distinction, but it’s hard to articulate in a different way). If you’re holidaying in Suffolk this year, or if you just want a beautiful collection of attention-holding stories, don’t miss Sandlands.

Many thanks to the author for providing me with a review copy. Sandlands was published in the UK by Sandstone Press on 21 July.

07 & 08. A Manual For Cleaning Women and The Queen of the Night

I feel awful. I’m 14 books into #20booksofsummer and I’ve reviewed LESS THAN HALF of them. Fortunately, I now have some time on my hands: I’ve just left my job (more on that later, if I feel like it), and due to family circumstances, I’ll be popping down to West Sussex over the weekend to hold down the fort at my grandparents’ house. Both things should afford me some time to catch up. Meanwhile, I’ve just finished series 4 of Orange Is the New Black and can’t sleep—images from the past few episodes keep flashing through my head; is it normal to be this haunted by a television show? It’s because it’s so brilliant—so here are two very quick, embarrassingly quick, catch-up reviews of books I loved.

07. A Manual for Cleaning Women, Lucia Berlin

a-manual-for-cleaning-womenWhere I read it: On the way back from a singing lesson in Highbury, amongst other places.

I missed out on Lucia Berlin last year. Last year was her moment in the spotlight, really, her rediscovery after decades of brilliant and productive obscurity. Fortunately the paperback of this collection is coming out soon, so perhaps I can pass this off as a timely appreciation. Anyway, the thing is, I’m not really a short story kind of person. I find them contrived most of the time, and they make demands of you: emotional engagement, intellectual flexibility (so many of them open in medias res and expect us to be able to follow the situation at once). It’s not that I mind stories making demands of me; it just pisses me off to make the investment when the product is so…brief. (I know this is a tormented metaphor, I’m giving it up now.)

The nice thing about Berlin is that she beckons you in. She doesn’t ask you to do anything but listen. She’s not going to get smart or existential or pretentious with you. She’s just going to tell you about this thing that happened and was interesting, or sad. Her narrating persona could be the same woman all the way through, which lends the collection a more novelistic feeling; you get the impression you’re seeing someone in a fragmented way at different stages in her life, but her character is consistent enough for this not to be disorienting. Most of her stories are set in Mexico, the American Southwest, or California. It’s Cormac McCarthy country—dry wind and desert grass—but there’s more kindness and grace than McCarthy is ever willing to squeeze out. She writes about abortions, and alcoholics helping each other out in laundromats. She writes about prison and hospitals. She writes about being a writer and being poor and having two small boys. Most of her work is autobiographical (the foreword by Lydia Davis is especially illuminating about this); none is self-pitying. She mastered the art of conversational prose. You feel as though she’s standing right there next to you, smoking and looking at you with those huge heavy-lidded eyes, cracking a smile. These are 100% worth seeking out.

08. The Queen of the Night, by Alexander Chee

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Where I read it: Probably everywhere, I don’t remember actually putting it down at all.

 

When I finished The Queen of the Night, I went back to the manuscript of my own novel and wrote a scene that allowed me to describe music (Ombra mai fu from Handel’s Serse, if you’re keen); this book is that evocative and inspirational. Liliet Berne is the toast of Paris in the 1860s, an opera singer whose Fach, or voice type, is that of a Falcon soprano—a tragic voice, powerful as steel and utterly unpredictable in its delicacy. But Liliet has a secret; in fact she has many, and most of the book consists of her re-telling her own life in an attempt to find out who might be blackmailing her now.

Chee gets so many things right: the lushness and corruption of Napoléon III’s France, the helplessness of a woman without money or connections, the things that such women do to get ahead. He’s also bang on with his opera descriptions. I’m demanding about classical music in fiction because I know about it; plenty of writers get the atmosphere of performance and professionalism all wrong. He gets it just right, with enough of the basics to interest you if you don’t know much about opera while placating you with high-level detail if you’re more knowledgeable. Several times during the book I wanted to put it down and sing—but we have neighbours, and I couldn’t put it down anyway because the plot was roaring ahead at full speed.

There are places where it slows down, and I was never entirely sure of the precise mechanics behind all of the plotting and conspiring. Liliet’s life is clearly in danger throughout much of the book, but I often had to stop and reassemble the reasons for her jeopardy in my head. It’s a long novel, and confusion would be easy. And is there a faint element of the soapy to the many twists and turns of Liliet’s identities? Perhaps—though I could also easily argue that the right word is”picaresque”. But give yourself a clear run at it, and you’ll be richly rewarded: this is definitely one for the holiday (even for a long-haul flight, if you’ve got strong wrists).

A Manual for Cleaning Women, Lucia Berlin. (London: Picador, 2016 [2014])

The Queen of the Night, by Alexander Chee (London: Michael Joseph, 2016)