November Superlatives

Plenty of good stuff this month, with barely a dud in the bunch. (And nine books read overall, which feels a lot better. December is always a good reading month, too, what with Christmas and plane journeys and general leisure time.) I started my Women’s Prize reading project and have so far read four: two excellent, two meh. Two other exceptional novels, a collection of brilliant short stories, a series of non-fiction tales about American poverty, and a rather formulaic John Le Carre comprise the rest of the month’s reading.

best cover version: Jeanette Winterson herself calls The Gap of Time a “cover version” of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. It does what all good covers should: keeps the spirit of the original while bringing something fresh and exciting to the retelling. It’s a poignant and extremely skilled piece of evidence for the significance of storytelling, not just to human culture in general but to individual human lives. It’s also got some terrific one-liners.

best new writing: The collection of “non-fiction stories” being put together by my friend and former colleague Charles Wolford, Entertainments. I read them in draft this month and they’re sharply observant, simultaneously cynical about and baffled by the world and its harshness. He’s particularly good on describing process—especially the tedium of low-paid labour—and on the bleary disorientation of foreign travel. Not to be missed.

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best filler: A category that damns with faint praise if ever I’ve seen one. This rather dubious honour goes to John Le Carré’s novel A Most Wanted Man, which was the least bad option from the book exchange shelves at work during the week when I was living out of a suitcase and didn’t have a book on the go. It could have been a taut thriller about international counterterrorism operations with a unique perspective (the political dueling between German, American and British intelligence), but it got bogged down by a paint-by-numbers approach to female characters, even (especially) when such an approach was contradictory to what had previously been written about said characters. Why are male writers of a certain age so wary of just stepping over the line of their comfort zone? They’ll dance right the way up to it and then back off. Cross the line, dudes! Your characters will be more believable and fascinating when you do!

slow but satisfying burn: Helen Simpson’s new collection of short stories, Cockfosters. Simpson has been writing about the lives and relationship dynamics of women all her career: from the marriage-and-babies maelstrom of women in their twenties to the career-and-children grind of the thirties, and now this collection: the long, slow breath out as wives and mothers hit their fifties and begin to relax a bit. Children are growing up, husbands are growing cranky, it’s time to reassess. She writes men just as well as women: the two (or maybe three) stories in this collection from a male point of view are every inch as bittersweet, generous and nuanced. I’d never read her before, but I’m deeply impressed.

all-around best: I loved Rupert Thomson’s new novel, Katherine Carlyle, about a young woman who decides to run away from her absent father and her buried grief for her mother, and start a new life as far North as she can possibly go. The landscape descriptions and pencil sketches of people were vivid but controlled, and I am always hugely impressed by writers who decide to make their protagonists’ sexual and emotional responses individual, as opposed to formulaic. It feels like a commitment to the reality of the character, and to reflecting the idiosyncrasies of the reader’s reality properly. Like The Wolf Border, Katherine Carlyle did this brilliantly. It will probably end up on my best-of-year list.

greatest disappointment: This is perhaps a bit unfair, because it’s not like I had any particular expectations of Fugitive Pieces, the 1997 Orange Prize winner by Anne Michaels. It’s not a terrible book, just a vague one, suffering from the curse of language that’s too mannered to be deeply meaningful. Also, it’s a Holocaust novel without a Holocaust, which (quite apart from the fact that WWII novels tend to grate on me) is a very odd choice.

most thoroughly engrossing world: The rural Edwardian isolation of Helen Dunmore’s A Spell of Winter. She’s so perfect at describing country life, with all its stark mortality: the hare hung from the ceiling, dripping blood into a dish; the orange trees in a conservatory; the smell of must that hangs about unaired rooms. Plus the sex scenes in this book, although brief, are electrifying.

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most deserved prize winner: Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel about the Biafran war of independence, which won the Orange Prize in 2007 and won the Best of the Best award that celebrated the prize’s twentieth anniversary. Adichie uses five characters—middle-class professor Odenigbo, his lover Olanna, Olanna’s businesswoman sister Kainene, and Kainene’s white British lover Richard, along with Odenigbo and Olanna’s houseboy, Ugwu—to tell the story of the war through the experiences of one family. Dealing truthfully and compassionately with the cruelties of civil war and starvation as well as with the vagaries of love, it’s a stunning novel.

most anticlimactic: The final book of November was another Women’s Prize winner, Madeline Miller’s 2011 The Song of Achilles. A novelization of the love between Achilles and Patroclus that culminates in both of their deaths on the fields of Troy, it was less frustrating to read than Fugitive Pieces but had almost the opposite problem: the language felt too pedestrian, like Miller was ticking off plot points and wasn’t that interested in characterization (I never understood what made Achilles especially loveable, for instance. He seemed unreal to me. So did Patroclus, which is worse, since he was a first-person narrator.) It slipped down easily enough and the ending tugs at the heartstrings a bit, but I think it’s basically quite forgettable.

what’s next: I’m currently reading Anne Lamott’s memoir of her son’s first year of life, Operating Instructions. I have loved Lamott for years, ever since reading her book Traveling Mercies—she’s anarchic and hilarious and quirky in the best possible sense of the word—and this is only making me love her more.

2 capsule reviews: A Spell of Winter + Cockfosters

I’ve never done capsule reviews before–the closest I’ve gotten is the Superlatives roundup at the end of every month–but they strike me as rather a good idea for books that you enjoyed but just can’t summon up the energy/quotes/coherence to do a full-length review for. I’ve read two books this month that I thought were brilliant in their own ways, but full reviews are probably out of the question for the moment. Here, therefore, are two mini-reviews, which I shall think of as two for the price of one (and encourage you to do the same).

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Cockfosters, by Helen Simpson

Helen Simpson is basically the doyenne of the modern English short story, though I didn’t realize it until requesting her newest collection from Cape. She’s been writing about the lives of women for years, from university and careers through marriage and motherhood, and now out the other side. Most of the women in this collection are going through menopause, empty-nesters, or negotiating a “blended family” through remarriage. The stories are almost all brilliant.

Each is named after a place, and one of the standouts for me was “Moscow”, a story from the point of view of a successful businesswoman who’s at home one afternoon to let a workman in. He’s meant to be fixing her freezer. He’s Russian, and their brief, desultory chat leads her to think about the way that people’s lives are limited: by history, by gender, by money or the lack of it. Her own childhood and adolescence is subtly, gradually revealed, although never outright stated: it becomes clear that her father was physically and verbally abusive, but only because we read between the lines of her own thoughts. It’s realistic and beautiful and, in its own way, both sad and hopeful.

Nearly every story is exceptional in that sad/hopeful way, from the interior monologue of a woman baking a lemon cake for her daughter’s 18th birthday (considering motherlove and letting your children go into adulthood without you) to the title story, about two old school friends taking the Piccadilly line to its terminus in order to look for a pair of lost glasses. My absolute favorite, though, has to be “Berlin”, a long short story (almost a novella, forty-odd pages) about a couple on a package tour to experience Wagner’s Ring cycle in Berlin over a week or so. The reveal of their past is, again, subtle and gradual, and almost entirely inferred: there’s been some infidelity; they seem to still be in love; the husband is both infuriatingly casual and intensely vulnerable, and he has some anger issues. Their fellow tourists are drawn with equal sympathy. Perhaps the best bit of the whole story is that the operas are sung in German without surtitles, and our protagonist, Tracy, doesn’t speak a word of it. Instead, she spends her nights in the hotel bathroom learning words and phrases, and at the performances of the operas, she is wholly immersed in the music. It’s beautiful ekphrastic writing, weaving the patterns of Wagner’s music with Tracy’s thought processes, and it made me want to listen to the Ring cycle all over again.

The only story that doesn’t 100% work is “Erewhon”, which is a clever little gender-flipped tale (a husband lies awake at night, fretting about how men get uglier with age and how his wife only seems interested in him for the sex, and how he’s underpaid and overworked, and how he worries about upsetting her because she raises her voice to him at every little thing, and so on.) I could easily see a man reading this and being moved to understand the fear and shame and worry that so many women live with, every day. As a woman, though, it didn’t work for me on that level; all I saw was someone suffering whom you don’t expect to see suffer. It seemed thinner than it ought to be; it felt like a story that could have said more, if it had set up different parameters. Nevertheless, potentially revolutionary, and therefore hardly a weak story.

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A Spell of Winter, by Helen Dunmore

This was the second book I read for my Women’s Prize project (I’m now on Half of a Yellow Sun, enjoying it immensely, and worrying about what to say in the review, other than “It’s great! Read it now!”) It’s got taboo Edwardian sex in it, plus a crumbling country house. Sold!

Don’t think of it as Downton Abbey, though; it’s far more twisty and shabby than that. Cathy, the narrator, lives with her brother Rob, her distant and enigmatic grandfather, and her father, who actually spends most of the book in an asylum. Her mother left the family long ago and is now rumoured to live in France. Cathy is being pushed at a wealthy incomer in the neighbourhood, Mr. Bullivant, who seems both kind and interested in her. Instead, however, she falls for her brother. Incest, an unwanted pregnancy, rural illegal abortions, and emotional trauma ensue.

First things first: the sex scenes in A Spell of Winter are excellent. Dunmore uses the kneejerk “ick” reaction to incest to electrify her descriptions; apart from the fact that they’re really hot, we also know that we “shouldn’t” think of them that way, which gives them an extra kick. Her descriptive language is incredible throughout, actually. I kept thinking of scenes in the book as little tableaux: Cathy, Rob and their maidservant Kate, dancing in the orangery; a dead hare dangling from a cellar hook, dripping blood into a little white dish; Miss Gallagher, their former governess, struggling through winter undergrowth. It would make a very beautiful miniseries, if a television producer decided to back it.

Dunmore is also excellent at creating sympathy for a fairly unsympathetic character. Cathy is not kind. She’s beautiful, but in a sort of scary, witchy way; everyone knows she looks like her mother, and that’s not a good thing. She fucks her brother, and she’s exceptionally cruel to Miss Gallagher. That relationship is fascinating: Miss Gallagher is parasitic, demanding Cathy’s love, smothering her with a hungry affection that is frankly horrifying. (If you’ve read Gone Girl, think Desi’s “love” for Amy.) Yet she is also a pathetic figure, terribly lonely and with so little to cling to. She’s simultaneously monstrous and sad. Cathy’s reaction to her is both dreadful and completely understandable. Likewise, the melodramatic events of the book’s second half: they’re almost soap opera, but they don’t just come flying out of nowhere. The reader sees them slowly, inevitably, unfurling, and is both shocked and powerless to stop them.

Also, and rather delightfully, this is a WWI novel where the war is barely there. It comes into the story about three-quarters of the way through; the novel’s far more interested in the tangled relationship dynamics of a family whose history is full of secrets, omissions and lies. Dunmore’s writing is gorgeously evocative without being overblown and meaningless (cf. my review of Fugitive Pieces) and the salacious plot details are backed up by rounded, convincing characters. Definitely worth reaching back into the archives for.

A Spell of Winter won the Women’s [Orange] Prize for Fiction in 1996. It forms part of my project to read all of the past Women’s Prize winners, inspired by the Best of the Best event a few weeks ago.

Books I’m Thankful For

It’s Thanksgiving on Thursday. As per usual, I sort of forgot about it until the beginning of this week, so I haven’t made an American-style feast to assuage my homesickness and feed all of my friends. Maybe next year. (I say this every year.)

Last Thanksgiving sucked. I was alone, in a house I’d only moved into the month before, in a job I couldn’t stand; my mother was about to start radiotherapy and I was an ocean away from her; my writing was stalling. My whole life felt like it was stalling. I wrote a Facebook post about the things I was grateful for–to be essentially healthy (despite having a chronic medical condition), to have functioning limbs and eyes and lungs, to possess a house and a job at all, to have a family that loved me. It got a lot of likes, but it didn’t make me feel much better. Instead, that night, I cried, and I read.

I read Northern Lights, by Philip Pullman, which is the first in the trilogy known as His Dark Materials. It’s less philosophically angsty, less aggressively atheistic, than the other two, but it’s magically clever, with images that haunt and hold you: a golden compass. A polar bear in steel-blue armour. A narrowboat nosing through the fens. It distracted me, it charmed me, and I was utterly, utterly thankful for it.

In that same spirit, here are some other books for the existence of which I’m grateful: because they provided coping strategies, because they opened my eyes, or because they entered my life when I most needed them. They’re not all my “favorite” books or the best books I’ve ever read, but they’re the ones that I owe something to.

The Song of the Lioness quartet, by Tamora Pierce.

These are (or were until my dad cleaned out the bookshelves in my old playhouse) absolutely essential comfort reading for the holidays. Alanna of Tortall is a kick-ass warrior protagonist, but she’s also sexually active and empathetic: neither the Manic Pixie Dream Girl nor the dreaded Strong Female Character gets a look-in here. The first books that suggested bravery as an ideal to emulate.

Still one of my favorite covers of all time.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy, by J.R.R. Tolkien.

All I would read when I was ten or so; I don’t think I touched another book for months. I obsessed over them, whispering the proper nouns to myself, feeling the sound of them in my mouth: Earendil, Morgoth, Galadriel, Lothlorien, Fangorn. Years and years later, I’d study Anglo-Saxon poetry and realize quite how much of it Tolkien jacked, but during my early adolescence, the magic of Middle-earth was entirely unspoiled for me. It was immersion on an unprecedented scale; I’d never before entered so fully and willingly into someone else’s world.

A Dog So Small, by Philippa Pearce.

Very situation-specific, this. I was thirteen when the Heathrow airplane hijacking scare happened, the day before we were due to fly home and four days before I was due to start high school. We were delayed for forty-eight hours: scared, thirsty, heat-struck, impatient, and confused by inadequate communications. I was terrified I’d miss the start of freshman year (I was an unbearably nerdy little twerp). I spent those two days reading aloud to my brother (who was then eight) this book by the author of Tom’s Midnight Garden. The book is about a dog so small it fits in peoples’ pockets. I’ve no idea where it came from, and I think we left it on the plane, because we couldn’t find it once we got home. It’s difficult to conceive of a situation in which I could possibly have been more grateful for a book; I’ve always entertained the notion that, like Mary Poppins, it came to us when we needed it.

Miss Dahl’s Voluptuous Delights, by Sophie Dahl.

This was the book that taught me, when I was seventeen, that I could feed myself. It’s impossible to overestimate the force of that revelation to a habitually overweight, diabetic teenager. Suddenly it became clear that not only was it okay not to be a size zero (that, indeed, you could be successful and happy without that), but also that I could take charge of what I put in myself. I could cook what I wanted to eat, and eat what I cooked. Mind-blowing. Of course, this did not stop me from massively fucking up the first thing I cooked from this book (a seared sea bass recipe of which the less said the better, except to mention that fish sauce and fish paste are not the same thing). But it did put my feet on a path that led to empowerment and autonomy and self-acceptance, which, when you’re seventeen, is everything.

Tender, by Belinda McKeon.

Read this past spring. I am grateful to it because, of all the books I have ever read, none so clearly and immediately evoked my frame of mind post-breakup as this one did. McKeon had it. It was like she had been there. I hadn’t been at all well, mentally, and her protagonist, Catherine, with her doomed obsession for her best (gay) friend James, echoed to precision all the things I had thought and felt. I cannot tell you what a relief it is to know that you may have been mad, but you’re not alone in your madness. Tender did that for me.

The Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture.

Sometimes you’re grateful for things not because they make you happy or comforted, but because they smack you in the face with a (metaphorical) mackerel and remind you to wake the fuck up. That’s what this report did. I hold a passport from a country that engaged in extrajudicial punishment of prisoners being held on charges that were frequently not articulated to them; those punishments often escalated into torture, which was only very thinly rationalized, and the CIA lied about it, repeatedly and deliberately, to other branches of government and to the media. If I’d ever had any lingering innocence about the essential benevolence of Western democracies, this report exploded it, and that’s as it should be.

Tiny Beautiful Things, by Cheryl Strayed.

Cheryl Strayed is, as my friend JonBoy would say, “a genuine goddamn treasure”. She is the former advice columnist for the Rumpus (writing under the pseudonym Dear Sugar), and Tiny Beautiful Things is her collected works. It is impossible to explain how important, how radically compassionate, these columns are unless you have read them. Without judgment, without sentiment, with infinite love and patience and knowledgeability, Strayed tells her readers what they already know they must do to be the best versions of themselves that they can hope to be. She is neither unrealistic nor discouraging. I once described her as your best friend, your coolest teacher and your big sister all rolled into one, and I stand by it. Everyone in the English-speaking world ought to be grateful for Tiny Beautiful Things.

Fugitive Pieces, by Anne Michaels

Time is a blind guide.

The above quotation is, I think, a good litmus test for whether or not Fugitive Pieces is your sort of novel. If, after reading it, you nod and sigh and think, “How true. How beautiful. What a lovely sentence that is,” then congratulations, you are not going to have any problems with this book. If, after reading it, you think, “What a lovely sentence that is. …What does it mean?”, then you’d better buckle yourself in, because Fugitive Pieces is full of sentences just like it.

Anne Michaels won the 1997 Women’s Prize for Fiction with this novel. No kitchen sink dramas here: Michaels sets her sights high. Fugitive Pieces is a Holocaust novel, albeit one where the Holocaust itself is elided. Little Jakob Beer is seven years old when his family is murdered in their home by Nazis; he escapes only because he has been playing a game where he hides in a cupboard. After their deaths, he flees through the vast darkness of a Polish forest, sleeping at night in holes that he digs in the ground, eating grass. His final hiding place is a cradle of mud in an archaeological excavation of the ancient town of Biskupin. When he springs from the dirt the next morning, he comes face to face with Athos, a Greek geologist working on the dig. Athos at first thinks he’s a bog boy, preserved in peat like Tollund Man; only when Jakob begins to cry, and the tears crack the mud on his face, does Athos recognize that he’s alive.

There’s a parallel here to what Jakob mentions later in the novel: the way that Nazi vocabularies legitimized the slaughter of the Jews by rendering them non-human. Fugitive Pieces is an extremely self-consciously linguistic book. Language is repeatedly declared to be all-important. Extrapolation of this claim, or evidence to support it, is thin on the ground, but every once in a while Michaels comes out with something like this, which is truly arresting:

Nazi policy was beyond racism, it was anti-matter, for Jews were not considered human. An old trick of language, used often in the course of history. Non-Aryans were never to be referred to as humans, but as “figuren”, “stucke”—”dolls”, “wood”, “merchandise”, “rags”. Human beings weren’t being gassed, only “figuren”, so ethics weren’t being violated. No one could be faulted for burning debris, for burning rags and clutter in the dirty basement of society.

That last sentence is a point at which metaphor is really working, earning its keep. It is a moment where a figure of speech, by being presented as true, causes you to understand the monstrosity of the idea it represents.

Unfortunately, such moments of potency are rare in this book. Michaels is primarily a poet (she’s written one other novel, published in 2009, which appears to have sunk almost without trace), and although I don’t think that poets cannot write good novels, I do think that the strategies of poetry and of prose fiction are very, very different. It is not always easy for a writer accustomed to working with one set of strategies to adopt another. In the case of Fugitive Pieces, this results—among other things—in a style which frequently chooses lyricism and the impression of profundity over genuine, deeply-considered resonance. Athos, the Greek geologist, takes Jakob back to Greece with him, where they wait out the war on Athos’s ancestral island of Zakynthos; here Jakob learns about fossils, about the history of the earth written in its stones, about silent witnesses. It’s quite clear that geology, poetry and the memory of atrocity are meant to braid together, in Jakob’s life and throughout the book. But Michaels never entirely manages it, partly because she never fully delves into what the history of earth and stone, or the history of flesh and death, might mean. There’s no specificity of vocabulary, no recounting of phenomena. Just Jakob’s musings:

It’s no metaphor to feel the influence of the dead in the world, just as it’s no metaphor…to witness the astonishing fidelity of minerals magnetized, even after hundreds of millions of years, pointing to the magnetic pole… We long for place; but place itself longs. Human memory is encoded in air currents and river sediment.

Well, yes and no. It is a metaphor to feel the influence of the dead in the world. The longevity of magnetization is astonishing and beautiful when viewed as another metaphor, but it does not mean that every place “longs”, or at least not in the same way. As for human memory being encoded in river sediment, the mere idea of that being a phenomenon still has nothing to do with the magnetic fields that pull earth and stone, which are what we have just been discussing. It’s a frustrating leap, and one that can’t be excused with the catch-all of “poetic license”, because poetic license can only be invoked when you understand the rules you’re breaking or the principles you choose to ignore.

Land and language: the two things that can isolate immigrants from their new communities, or can bind them together. Michaels does evoke land well: her Greek islands and her hurricane-flooded Toronto swim before our eyes. Slightly more curious is the way that the Holocaust never sweeps Jakob up. He knows that his parents and sister are dead, but he doesn’t understand until he’s much older that they died in a continental-wide convulsion of violence and hate. Living with Athos, he’s almost entirely sheltered from news of the outside world. He never sees piles of bodies, or smells smoke rising from his neighbours’ homes. It’s an odd decision to make, because it means that although he has been touched by tragedy, he’s never really been immersed in it. The Holocaust is an experience he manages, bizarrely, to sort of escape. For a young Polish Jew in the 1940s, that is astonishing–genuinely miraculous. Yet Jakob’s obsession with human history is painted quite straightforwardly, as that of someone who has experienced every one of the Holocaust’s horrors. I think a more interesting novel lurks in the cracks: how do you convince yourself that your grief is legitimate when you have been so relatively lucky, so protected? He longs for his parents, and especially his older sister Bella, but never is there a trace of survivor’s guilt or regret for having outlived them. It’s an odd omission.

About two-thirds of the way through the novel, Jakob disappears. His place as narrator is taken, instead, by a young man called Ben, a former student of his friend Maurice Salman and an admirer of Jakob’s poetry. Ben is working on a thesis that combines meteorology with literature. His inner monologue is almost indistinguishable from Jakob’s, although in his case, it is his parents, not he himself, who fled the Nazis. Nevertheless, he too is vaguely thoughtful about Human Nature, Love and Poetry:

When we say we’re looking for a spiritual adviser, we’re really looking for someone to tell us what to do with our bodies. Decisions of the flesh.

It’s the sort of declaration that immediately brings out the bolshie pedant in me (“We are? Really? Gosh.”) It’s also frustrating because it’s not entirely clear what Ben is doing in this novel. Perhaps it’s as simple as symmetry: he functions to let us know how a man terribly affected by history can turn his pain into beauty and pass that beauty on to the next generation. But in that case, genuine symmetry would be an advantage, and Ben isn’t introduced halfway through Fugitive Pieces; the novel is most of the way over before he takes over. It’s disorientating. Meanwhile, the women in his life (thoughtful, teeth-achingly sweet Naomi, and exotic, carefree Petra) are both two-dimensional. They’re also just as difficult to differentiate from the women in Jakob’s life (carefree Alex; understanding Michaela) as Ben is from Jakob himself.

Still, there are some moments where Michaels succeeds in communicating directly and painfully. Jakob imagines his sister Bella keeping her spirits up in the camps by silently playing her beloved Beethoven on the side of her bunk at night. Ben discovers that his parents had two children before him who were both lost to genocide. When he was born, they feared losing him so much that they decided not to name him, hoping God’s eye would pass him by: “Ben” isn’t short for “Benjamin”; it means, in Hebrew, simply “son”. On the first night of his flight, Jakob thinks he can see the spirits of the recently murdered leaving the earth, and believes he must give his mother’s soul permission to go: it wants desperately to ascend, but it wants even more desperately to stay with him. Moments like these are conveyed quite simply, and the simplicity underscores their power. It’s the overwriting–reaching for philosophical significance and tipping into insensibility–that makes the book less effective.

Fugitive Pieces won the Women’s [Orange] Prize for Fiction in 1997. It forms part of my project to read all of the past Women’s Prize winners, inspired by the Best of the Best event a few weeks ago.

Katherine Carlyle, by Rupert Thomson

Are there ghosts at either end of life?

It’s not uncommon, from time to time, to feel as though everything about your life is being orchestrated in some way. You meet someone’s eye on a train, and it’s significant; everything from the music in your headphones to the advert on the walls confirms it. Your whole life, somehow, has been building to this. It’s not about falling in love. It’s about the sense of arriving at a destination, even if you don’t quite understand what the destination is, or why you’re meant to be there.

Katherine Carlyle—Kit—knows exactly how you feel.

Her whole life has been an uncertainty. Created for IVF purposes, she was frozen as an embryo for eight years before her parents decided to try conceiving. Those lost years—nearly a decade where she neither existed nor didn’t exist, a kind of prenatal Schrodinger’s Cat—have haunted her all her life. Now, at eighteen, her mother is dead of cancer and her foreign correspondent father is emotionally absent as well as physically not around very much. They live in Rome. She has a full scholarship to Worcester College, Oxford, and is meant to be starting in the autumn, but she has other plans.

It might be fairer to say that she feels life has other plans for her. Kit may appear to be a very active, dynamic character, but she only ever acts in ways that she believes to be inevitable, fated. She never uses the word destiny, but her conviction in her own destiny shapes her story absolutely. There’s no twee meta-awareness (no “What if I were a character in a book?” malarkey), but she knows, deep inside, that she is following a narrative arc. We may wonder whether she’s deluded, but we are drawn along by the strength of her belief. The catalyst for her flight from “normal life” comes when she attends a movie and overhears a couple talking about their mutual friend, a man who lives in Berlin:

I keep thinking about Klaus Frings and his apartment in Berlin. The inexplicable shock of recognition when I heard his name. The sense of being summoned, singled out. The sudden disappearance of my heart, as if it had been sucked into a black hole at the centre of my body. There have been so many dry runs and dress rehearsals but I knew that sooner or later one of the messages would feel right. And now, finally, it does.

That conviction combines with the fact that she is obviously very beautiful (although, much to my relief, she doesn’t tell us this, and never dwells on it too much; we infer it, and we also infer that she finds it as much a source of mild irritation as of power) to give her a powerful magnetism. Other people are drawn to her, women as well as men. Kit may possess all of the delusions of teenagerhood, but she happens also to be one of those rare people whose mere existence seems capable of reshaping reality. They do exist.

Thomson is brilliant on the void created by solitary, long-distance travel. When Kit gets to Berlin, Klaus Frings is merely the first in a series of steps (she is entirely comfortable using people as tools to get to where she wants to go; refreshingly, this is presented as a characteristic with no moral charge to it. It’s just what she does, what we’d all do if we were capable.) She is aiming, ultimately, for the far North, which means Russia. The Europe she passes through is lit by dimly glowing lamps on the sides of railway tracks and highway flyovers: dawns, dusks, twilights, frost, disorientation. It’s a rather lovely metaphor for her state of mind—she’s always trying to get somewhere, always outwardly calm but internally on edge. Traveling, you meet people and enter situations that exist on the outskirts of the bell curve of what has been your measure of normalcy. Thomson’s descriptions are simultaneously woozy and sharp, like your head after you’ve been drinking for so long you’re now sober again. On a sleeper train to Arkhangel’sk:

In the corridor Russian men are already dressed for bed, in shorts and flip-flops. I edge past them and jump down on to the platform. Some new passengers are hurrying to climb on board, struggling with heavy bags. Others stand about, talking and smoking. Three army women in green uniforms and fur hats pose for a photo under the harsh lights. Steam lifts from the wheels of the train, and the sides of the carriages are ridged, gleaming and faintly dented, like old-fashioned biscuit tins. The night feels brash, dramatic. Nickel-plated.

He’s also clever with his landscape descriptions. They’re generally not more than a paragraph long, but each one gives you a succinct image: color, texture, a simile. They’re like Polaroids, pictures simultaneously fleeting and searing. Here, for instance, Kit is on the ship that will take her to her final destination, Ugolgrad, a mining town near Svalbard and as far north on the planet as you can hope to live:

Behind us Longyearbyen gradually shrinks, the colorful A-frame houses swallowed by a landscape that is vast and jagged. We pass a beach where I found pulpy green-gold banners of seaweed and square grey stones as flat as plates. The Isfjord lies ahead of us. The pinched mauve light makes the water look translucent, dense, almost congealed, like vodka when you keep it in the freezer. In the distance, on the western horizon, is a ghostly range of mountains, cloaked in snow. My heart dilates with a pleasure that is pure and undiluted.

Gorgeous, no? And then that’s it. No poetic waffling beyond what’s necessary.

Longyearbyen town

One of the most impressive things about Katherine Carlyle is the balancing act Thomson pulls off when writing about sexuality and power. Kit is very, very beautiful, as we know, but she doesn’t seem to take any satisfaction at all in sexual power games. Instead, she’s mostly bored by them—her half-hearted liaison with Klaus comes about because he is clearly desperate; she doesn’t sleep with her next step, a man called Cheadle, at all, or with the other friend she makes in Berlin, Oswald. Their interest in and desire for her is something she’s aware of, but she ignores it. She uses her power to close down situations, instead of inflaming them. Entanglement is the last thing she wants or cares about. Yet the book contains two instances of sudden sexual violence against Kit, or rather, one attempted and one, we gather, successful. Given their placement in the plot, it could appear as though Thomson is punishing his own character for her attempts at autonomy, for forgetting that she is a lone woman and lone women are fair game, always. But I don’t think that’s what he’s doing; I think he’s saying something more complicated, which is that there are always going to be men who want to control other people, and who will do it violently, sexually, in whatever way they can, and who will fail utterly in their attempts to reassert control this way. Kit’s autonomy does distress and infuriate these men, but it doesn’t distress or infuriate her author. And her response after both attacks is similar: she is numbed by shock, but she is far from destroyed. The first one occurs just before she goes to Arkhangel’sk; it doesn’t stop her. The second one occurs in Ugolgrad; she does not die, and although there is a change in her demeanor, it’s a change of growth, not of defeat. Her sense of self remains untouched.

On paper, in summary, the book could look reactionary: poor little rich girl, seeking attention and affection from absent father, flees home, gets into trouble, uses the promise and power of sex, finds herself, forgives Daddy. The brilliance of Katherine Carlyle is that Rupert Thomson imbues that story with such specificity—it is not about just any poor little rich girl; it is about her, this girl whose head we live inside, and she is clever; and her father is not just any old daddy, but a war journalist coping badly with bereavement despite reporting on death as a professional every day; and her mother was not just any old mother, but an anarchic, vibrant woman whose first reaction upon being diagnosed with cancer was to take her twelve-year-old daughter to a nightclub on the Italian coast where they danced and drank and laughed with each other. It’s an absolute testament to the power of character. It also forces your hand in terms of empathy. You care about them because they’re individuals. Thomson does this for every character: the bartender Natasha at the hotel in Arkhangel’sk; Cheadle’s girlfriend Tanzi; Yevgeny, the kind elderly Russian Kit meets on a train. It is the George Eliot principle of fiction-writing at its finest—you write to make one human being understand another—and it has resulted in a very, very good book.

Thanks to the kind folks at Corsair for the review copy.

Of Mount TBR

Lovely Naomi of The Writes of Woman tagged me in this, and I’m a big fan of general book talk, so here we go: a set of questions about how I store and manage the books I haven’t yet read, or, in book bloggers’ parlance, the To Be Read (TBR) stacks!

I don’t have one of these, but give me time, give me time…

How do you keep track of your TBR pile?

I don’t own that many books I haven’t read, mostly due to space constraints. I used to keep all of my unread books on the floor–they earned a spot on the shelf as they were read–but living with The Chaos, who is, perversely, tidier than I am, has scotched that. I have a to-do app on my phone (it’s called Clear, if you’re interested) where I keep two TBR lists, one of books that have been requested from publishers and one of books that I’ve bought myself. I also have a “to-be-read” shelf on Goodreads, but that’s to keep track of the books I want to buy/acquire/borrow in future, and I think of it more as a “to-investigate” list than an actual duty.

Is your TBR mostly print or e-book?

100% print. I don’t read on screens, partly because my eeeyyyeeesss, and partly because it’s just not something I grew up doing and it doesn’t really occur to me as an option. Also because I have a curiously materialistic streak and I love book covers. If you’re reading on a phone or tablet, you can’t see the cover design, can’t feel the book in your hands, and you miss out on that little satisfaction.

How do you determine which books from your TBR to read next?

If its publication date is within the next week or so (or has already passed), it goes straight to the top of the list. If I’m picking off my own list, I have all sorts of little strategies: the random number generator, asking a friend to choose, doing themed reading, spreading out a selection on my bed and reading a bit of each… It’s all rather onanistic.
A book that has been on my TBR the longest?

I’ve had David Copperfield since August 2013. It’ll be this year’s airplane/Christmas book.

A book you recently added to your TBR?

I haven’t actually bought myself a book for ages. I’m borrowing The Chaos’s copy of Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels at the moment, to kick off my Women’s Prize reading project.

A book on your TBR strictly because of its beautiful cover?

Actually, most of the books on my TBR right now are gifts, so I can’t say whether they were chosen specifically for the cover or not! Recent books that I’ve been drawn to because of cover design include Landfalls by Naomi J. Williams, Katherine Carlyle by Rupert Thomson (review coming soon!), and The Shore by Sara Taylor.

A book on your TBR that you never plan on reading?

I don’t plan to never read anything! (Except for Atlas Shrugged. Ain’t no one got time for that, either literally or ideologically.) I’ve been putting off some books because they’re thick and probably a bit melancholy, though, including Of Human Bondage and Guantanamo Diary. Sigh.

An unpublished book on your TBR that you’re excited for?

Eimear McBride’s second novel, The Lesser BohemiansA Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing was amazing, although I kind of want her to do something completely different this time around. Whatever she does will be worth checking out.

A book on your TBR that everyone recommends to you?

Nights At the Circus. I’ve tried, I really have. Every time, it just feels a bit camp and excessive and I just think you kind of need to be in the mood for vaudeville, y’know? I got about a third of the way through last time. In most Angela Carter novels I get this sense of creeping, impending disaster, which will then be treated as though it’s not a disaster at all, and in this one it’s really throwing me.

A book on your TBR that everyone has read but you?

See above. What am I doing wrong?!

A book on your TBR that you’re dying to read?

Go Set A Watchman. I was going to read it over the summer, and for some reason it always kept getting delayed. Now I’m going to have to read it before Christmas, which is so annoying–Maycomb, Alabama is a summer place, not a winter one! Maybe it’ll provide some relief from the grey of London?

How many books are on your TBR shelf?

I’m actually embarrassed by how few there are, at least in real life, which is unheard of for a book blogger: only seven! (On my Goodreads “to-read” shelf, however, there are 152.) And I’d like to say, in my own defense, that all this means is a) I’m good at pacing my acquisitions, and b) I don’t have very much space!

Most of my shelves

People I’m tagging:

Rebecca at Bookish Beck

Alice at OfBooks

Naomi at Consumed By Ink

Stefanie at So Many Books

Teresa and Jenny at Shelf Love

Esther at Esther Writes

The Gap of Time, by Jeanette Winterson

Forgiveness is a word like tiger–there’s footage of it and verifiably it exists but few of us have seen it close and wild or known it for what it is.

Pity Shakespeare’s late plays. They’re neither histories nor tragedies, they lack the philosophical knottiness of the “problem plays” and they’ve never been as well beloved as the comedies, which have picturesque plots and wily servants. They contain elements of tragedy—terrible misunderstanding, exile, sundering, even (and repeatedly) hints of incest—but things are always resolved. The resolutions are always last-minute, strange, and occasionally unsatisfying, and they always come about by virtue of that elusive act, forgiveness.

The Winter’s Tale is no different. King Leontes of Sicilia is plagued by irrational and consuming jealousy; he thinks his pregnant wife, Hermione, is having an affair with his best friend, Polixenes of Bohemia. He tries to kill Polixenes (who flees), arrests Hermione (who remains dignified and steadfast under interrogation), and has the baby girl, once it’s born, abandoned on a far-off shore by the husband of one of Hermione’s women, Paulina. Cosmic vengeance is swift: Leontes’ only son, little Mamilius, dies, and Hermione collapses, apparently dead of grief, at the news. In almost a single stroke, the king has lost his love, his heir, his future, and his best friend. Sixteen years later, the baby—called Perdita, rescued by some rural nobodies—is falling in love at a party with a young man named Florizel, who is the catalyst for her discovery of her past…

Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time is the first entry in the new Hogarth Shakespeare series, in which contemporary novelists attempt to rewrite Shakespeare plays. (Others lined up include Anne Tyler to reinterpret The Taming of the Shrew, Howard Jacobson to do The Merchant of Venice, and Gillian Flynn to do Hamlet.) It’s an idea reminiscent of the rewritten Jane Austen novels: Val McDermid’s Northanger Abbey, Joanna Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility, Alexander McCall Smith’s Emma. Curiously, however, I think Shakespeare is better suited to this retelling idea than Austen. Austen is always of her time; her novels are set in a firmly early-C18 social and cultural milieu. Shakespeare bounced all over the place, making things up (plots, characters, locations) as he went. Austen’s stories don’t really work unless they’re in that Regency setting; the customs and mores of the time are precisely what she’s commenting on, and what provoke her characters to act as they do. Shakespeare’s stories do work in a contemporary setting, I would argue, because what he’s writing about isn’t really the effect of a particular culture on the behavior of humans; what he’s writing about is what humans (think that they) want, and how—within various societies—they go about getting (or not getting) that. Macbeth, for instance, isn’t strictly about medieval Scottish monarchical succession; it’s about acquiring power in an environment that values aggression. You could set it in a boardroom easily.

Likewise, the faintly preposterous mid-European kingdoms of The Winter’s Tale aren’t important to the story in the slightest. It’s basically a second-chance version of Othello, minus the racial tension: what happens when the past won’t stay past? How might a man feel when the family he thought he’d destroyed comes back to life? How might a daughter feel when told that the man who raised her isn’t her father, that her father gave her away? You don’t get all of the nuance of this in the stage play; you get the bare bones of a story that ends with redemption and repentance and miraculous, astonishing forgiveness. Where you can get all of that nuance, of course, is in a novel, the form most uniquely suited to inspiring empathetic identification between real-life reader and fictional character. Which is where The Gap of Time enters this review.

Winterson’s updating is solid: Leontes becomes Leo, the mercurial and charismatic head of a hedge fund; Polixenes is Xeno, his best friend (and former lover) from their boarding school days. Hermione becomes MiMi, an internationally renowned chanteuse, and Paulina becomes Pauline, Leo’s competent, no-bullshit personal assistant. The shepherd and the “clown” of Shakespeare’s play, surrogate family to Perdita, become Shep and Clo, an African-American father and son who run a bar in a barely-fictionalized New Orleans. All of this makes sense, both for a novel set in the present day and for an adaptation of the relationships that drive Shakespeare’s original.

Kenneth Branagh as Leontes

Judi Dench as Paulina

The most interesting thing that Winterson does, I think, is to suggest that Leo may not have been entirely wrong in his jealousy. MiMi and Xeno aren’t having an affair—that’s never in question—but we learn that when Leo wanted to propose, he used Xeno as a go-between, and the two of them—Xeno and MiMi—connected then in a way that was more intimate than pure friendship. Pauline asks Leo: would it be so bad, if they loved each other? They also love you. Leo’s history with Xeno is made more explicit than Shakespeare could have made it: they had sex a few times at boarding school, before Leo caused an accident that nearly killed Xeno and which affected their friendship forever after. Xeno as an adult, meanwhile, is sort-of-probably-mostly-but-not-quite-completely gay; his son, Zel (the Florizel character), is the result of a deliberately planned liaison with a woman. The fluidity of the adults’ sexuality is a clever nod to the ever-present titillation of Tudor staging conventions (boys playing women who kiss men playing men, for instance, or boys playing women who pretend to be boys who then kiss men). It’s also a brilliant explanation of motive. The three members of the older generation—the parents—all want each other, all at the same time. It makes more sense, to me at least, than Leo’s jealousy springing out of nowhere, as it does in The Winter’s Tale. It makes a fascinating contrast to the usual story in the comedies, where young love must overcome elderly conservatism; here, it’s the older people who are more adventurous than their offspring (Perdita and Zel are, to all appearances, firmly cis/hetero/vanilla in their sexual preferences).

Parents and their children are a major concern in Shakespeare’s late plays, something out of which critics have mostly made pretty heavy weather. There’s a curious pattern to The TempestPericles and The Winter’s Tale: the mothers are out of the picture (dead or presumed dead); the fathers lose the daughters; the fathers are, in some way, morally dubious or culpable; the daughters return to the fathers, though not before their relationship is almost rendered morally dubious in and of itself. (In Pericles, the eponymous hero finds his long-lost child in a brothel and nearly makes use of her services. In The Winter’s Tale, Leontes fancies Perdita when she turns up at court, before he hears her life story and puts two and two together. In The Tempest, well, it’s not clear what Prospero and Miranda have been doing living in a cave all those years, but…) In all of these plays, too, disasters are brought upon women and children by the actions of men; this is the part where they all look like tragedies. Only the endings redeem, and often those endings seem like they shouldn’t be enough. Winterson gives her characters some good comments on gendered genre trappings:

“I am revising my thesis. It’s the fathers who kill the sons.”

“Who kills the daughters?” said Perdita.

“We all do,” said Xeno. “If the hero doesn’t kill you—call him Hamlet, call him Othello, call him Leontes, Don Giovanni, James Bond—still you’ll be the sacrifice for his soul.”

The inclusion of Leontes in this list is delightfully cheeky; unpacking it, it’s also clear that some of these murderous heroes (Giovanni, Bond) have been chosen because they’re sexually, as well as physically, destructive. And Winterson’s not afraid of pointing out that even fictional women who survive are made to suffer in order to advance the hero’s development: women are collateral damage in the cosmic struggle for a man’s soul.

Putting sixteen years between the beginning of the play (/novel) and its conclusion is the literary equivalent of a montage, only the growth and development doesn’t happen during the intervening time. When we come back to the characters whom we’ve seen at their worst, they haven’t miraculously gotten better; we return to them just as they start to understand that they’ve only been wasting time. Perhaps for this reason, Shakespeare’s late plays are often read through a biographical lens (Prospero’s farewell to magic = Shakespeare’s farewell to the stage, anyone?), and they seem to speak in particular to audiences and actors on the far sides of the age spectrum: both the elderly and newly minted adults can see themselves in this plot.

Looking back on a life is an inherently regretful act. We fuck up so much; we could have done better. Even the best of us have mostly failed. In a way, that’s the comfort: no one comes out of their own life as an angel. (The video game Xeno has spent his adult life designing, incidentally, is all about angels; it’s based on a dream famously dreamt by the French poet Gerard de Nerval.) Xeno, again, is the commentator:

“If I could make it unhappen. And then I remember that the choices I made, I made because there was no me to make any other choices. Free will depends on being stronger than the moment that traps you.”

It depends not only on that, but on your ability to cope with the choices—free or not—that you’ve already made. “The past”, Winterson writes, “is a grenade that explodes when thrown.” This beautiful novel reinvents a story that comes from far, far back in our collective cultural past—from farther back even than Shakespeare. The endpoint is that of the prodigal son. We will be forgiven, every one of us, but only by each other.