January: That Which Was Not Reviewed

I did a new thing this month, which was to alternate reading books I Had To Review (because I had promised I would) with books that I Did Not Have To Review (because I had chosen them myself, been given them as presents, etc.) It was a most effective way of tunneling through the great January heap of review books, and I’m going to try to keep it up. The downside is that half of the stuff I read, I’ve already written about, so January Superlatives seem kind of pointless. Instead, here’s an overview of what I read and didn’t talk about:

Ancillary JusticeAncillary Sword, and Ancillary Mercy, by Ann Leckie.

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I read all three of these and loved them. Their main character is a fragment of an AI system; now known as Breq, her consciousness confined to a single body like a human, she used to be the computer-mind of a spaceship, Justice of Toren, with thousands of soldier-bodies that she could use however she liked. The catastrophe that reduced her to just one body, twenty-five years ago, was precipitated by her head of government, Anaander Mianaai, who also has a nearly infinite store of bodies, and who is suffering from what you might call split personality disorder. Civil war is the natural result. Ancillary Justice won the Nebula Award, the Hugo Award, and the Arthur C Clarke Award, which is just ridiculous–like a book winning the Booker, the Baileys, and the Costa Book of the Year Awards, all at once. Leckie’s success is richly deserved: the books are lucid but full of detail. There’s also an interesting linguistic trick whereby the dominant language, Radchaai, doesn’t mark gender, so it’s never clear whether any of the protagonists are male or female. (You can sort of guess at a few of them, but the point is that it’s not relevant. Stereotypical “male” and “female” behaviour, clothing and hairstyles are culturally relative depending on which planet you’re on, anyway, and hence not reliable guides.) The default pronoun is also always “she”. It’s such a small thing, but it changes how you see this entire universe. It’s also classic space opera. Amazing, addictive stuff. I read each book in a day.

The Cutting Season, by Attica Locke.

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One of the books Dad got me this Christmas, which I reached for when I’d read three review books in a row and my brain was reaching the consistency of a saturated sponge. I wanted something where I could rely on the quality of the writing while also relaxing into a primarily plot-driven narrative, and this, I knew, Attica Locke could deliver. Her second novel, The Cutting Season, is set on a Louisiana plantation, Belle Vie, which has found a second life as a sort of antebellum Disneyland: Civil War buffs and parties of bored school children take tours round it, and it has a thriving sideline as a venue for wedding receptions and corporate dinners. When a woman–a Mexican migrant worker from the huge agribusiness farm next door–is found with her throat slit on Belle Vie’s property line, Caren Gray, the estate’s manager and descendant of slaves who worked this land, must find the killer before suspicion falls on her or her employees. It’s a book unafraid to tackle huge issues: agribusiness and slavery, but also the long shadow of racism (Caren’s white employees, the Clancys, who’ve known her since she was a child, keep reminding her to be grateful to them; Donovan, the prime suspect, is a young African-American man, all too easy to profile), as well as the difficulties of raising a child whose father you are no longer in a relationship with, and the painful pride of the working class (when Caren, as a young woman, found out that her tuition at Tulane was being paid for by the Clancys, she left school rather than owe them any more.) Locke is a fluid writer; pages, even chapters, whizz by, but you never feel short-changed or as though the plot is fluffy. She’s a serious, and seriously good, crime writer; no wonder Black Water Rising, her first novel, was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2010.

The Vegetarian, by Han Kang.

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As far from an easy ride as it gets; I was inspired to read this by going to hear Han talk at Foyle’s about her most recently translated novel, Human Acts, about the Gwangju massacre in the 1970s. The Vegetarian was released in English by Portobello Books earlier in 2015, sensitively translated (as Human Acts is) by Deborah Smith. At its most basic level of plot, it is about a woman, Yeong-hye, who, after years of being a passive housewife, decides she is no longer going to eat any meat. In Korea this is a somewhat bigger deal than it might be in the UK or the US, in part because meat comprises such a huge part of the national diet. But it’s clear that Yeong-hye’s rebellion disturbs the people in her life—mostly men—for another reason too, which is that it’s an assertion of her control over her own body, and thereby a denial of anybody else’s control. The first section of the book culminates in an act of violence that her own father perpetrates against her in an attempt to force meat into her mouth; she responds with a swift suicide attempt, is restrained and hospitalised, and her husband seeks a divorce. Vegetarianism isn’t where it ends; she eventually won’t eat or drink anything at all, and keeps trying to take her clothes off in the sunlight, and it becomes slowly, gradually clear that she is essentially trying to photosynthesise. She doesn’t want to be a human any more. There’s a lot more to this novel, which is slim but absolutely explosive: there’s a whole middle section involving a video art project, nudity, and painted flowers, which somehow—miraculously—manages to avoid any hint of D.H. Lawrence; there’s Yeong-hye’s sister, In-hye, who cares for her even as she slips in and out of consciousness in a secure unit; there are the horrifying dreams Yeong-hye has, which melt into what seem to be memories of her childhood, her father violently abusive, though only to her. There is so much to unpack here, all of it delicately rendered and intensely disturbing. Highly, highly recommended.

Loop of Jade, by Sarah Howe.

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Howe’s had a lot of publicity recently, with many an Establishment asshat contending that she can’t possibly have won the TS Eliot Prize because she’s any good at poetry; no, it’s probably because she’s young, erudite, beautiful, and mixed-race (snort!gasp!wheeze!) I read a Guardian review of Loop of Jade before reading the book itself, and I was braced for irritating, unnecessary polysyllables, but fuck me, was I ever blown away instead. If you lift almost any line of poetry out of context and say it sneeringly, it can sound ridiculous; the work of TS Eliot himself is proof of this. (“Do I dare to eat a peach?” indeed.) Howe’s lines, in their contexts, are allusive, balanced, rich, conversational enough to make sense without ever sounding merely conversational, if you see what I mean. It’s a genuinely impressive collection; not one of these poems feels thin or glib or weak or pointless, which is something I cannot say of either of the collections of Don Paterson or Michael Symmons Roberts that I have read in the past eighteen months, much though I admire them both. And, for a collection that is touted as being Very Much About a mixed-race legacy, it is somehow about more than that; you can draw things from it about coming to terms with your identity, your history (as mediated by your parents), full stop. The horrors in which you are implicated merely by blood; the traumas of which you are forced to be, on some level, a victim, or a consequence, likewise. It’s terrific poetry, and the way it’s been received in the national press is a breathtaking reminder of how racist and sexist the literary establishment still is.

and now I am reading:

Quicksilver, by Neal Stephenson, the first volume of his Baroque trilogy. It is basically the entire late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, condensed into 900+-page novel form, and there are two more after this one. I am as happy as a pig in the proverbial unmentionable substance.

Also, to be reviewed soon, Atticus Lish’s Preparations for the Next Life, out in paperback from Oneworld (the folks who brought you Marlon James, so it’s bound to be good.)

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22 thoughts on “January: That Which Was Not Reviewed

  1. I don’t read much poetry but discovered Loop of Jade after Howe won the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award and loved it – a very deserving winner of both prizes. I also really want to read The Vegetarian as I’ve heard so many positive reviews about it.

  2. I agree, poetry isn’t always the most accessible of literary forms, but I’m so glad you enjoyed Loop of Jade too–it feels full, to me, rich, like a novel full of dense colours and textures. Also, do read The Vegetarian. It’s intense and thought-provoking and fevered; its shortness only heightens that.

  3. I’m a big Attica Locke fan, her fiction is political, engaged, thought-provoking and yet thrilling too. And I look forward to reading Sara Howe – I like poetry and I’ve been nonplussed to see what a reaction there’s been to her success.

  4. Our taste in books is so similar it’s a little bit odd! I have the Leckie on my shelf – it’s not my usual read but I love the idea of it. I’ve also got the Locke, I absolutely loved Black Water Rising, so I’m pleased there’s two more for me to read. And I’ve read and loved the others on your list! Excellent round-up.

  5. What fun to read about all your juicy books. I really want to read The Vegetarian. I tried to get it on the Literary Wives list for this year, but I don’t think one other person voted for it. I will just have to read it myself. 🙂

      • We have just changed out rules to any book to do with the experience of being a wife. We were finding the other way too limiting.

      • Ah, I see! Well, that should open things up no end–although, if you were going to choose any parameter for titles, “having the word ‘Wife’ in it” is a fairly broad one. Even broader if you include “having the word ‘Daughter’ in it”!

      • There are a lot of them, but we started to discover that some of them are not as much about being a wife as the title might suggest.

  6. Yay for Ann Leckie! I am so glad you liked the books, I loved them so much. I am still waiting for The Vegetarian from my library, it is on order and I wish it would hurry up and get here! Also, I am so upset about the sexist racist swirl around Loop of Jade winning. Made me grind my teeth when I heard about it. I plan on reading the book but my library doesn’t have it yet.

    • It’s great, you’ll really enjoy it when it does arrive! (This goes for The Vegetarian AND Loop of Jade, actually. They’re both wonderful.)

  7. Love your blog – so many interesting reviews and TBR suggestions! I’m so looking forward to reading the Ancillary Justice series. I have the first on my Kindle.

    I loved the characters and setting of The Cutting Season, but (as far as I can remember – it’s a long time since I read it) the writing didn’t quite work for me. I found it jerky and over-simplistic, as if Locke was deliberately dumbing down her otherwise accomplished prose to fit a ‘thriller’ style or to artificially build tension. I’m keen to try Pleasantville, however, and/or Black Water Rising, to see if this was a single book issue.

    • Yeah, I can see where you’re coming from there. I read it so quickly that actual infelicities (that jerkiness you mention) tended to fly by, but I was always vaguely aware of it. I’m willing to overlook it because a) it’s not blatant, so I can still zip through the book, and b) the social engagement is so good. You might find Black Water Rising similar, but again, the political issues are so fascinating and dealt with so deftly that, for me, it didn’t matter. (I read BWR on an airplane, though, which may have accounted for it.)

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