- You all should read this four-part series by Tim Urban at WaitButWhy (the link goes through to all of the content in one place, don’t worry) on space exploration (/colonisation) and Elon Musk. Not least for the two incredible videos of the Spirit and Curiosity rovers landing on Mars. I suggest that, once you get to the part about the Hubble Space Telescope, you soundtrack your reading for as long as it takes to listen to this.
- I saw my lovely friend Ella (long-time readers will recall her former incarnation on this blog as the Duchess) for a quick hour-long lunch last week, and it was great. She teaches in Vermont, so I haven’t seen much of her, except on FaceTime, for months. She was back for her mother’s birthday, and we went to a little Italian cafe on Kentish Town Road where the inefficiency of the service is compensated for by the outstanding quality of their pasta. We had lasagna and chorizo-mushroom penne and talked about office politics and our families and laughed a lot. I’d been having a particularly shit morning that day, so it was especially nice to just let go with an old friend, even briefly.
- My old college had its annual black-tie ball this weekend. This is the first year I haven’t gone. I went last year with some friends in the year below me, even though I was no longer a student or even participating in the life of the college much (despite still living in Oxford), and it was, overall, a mistake. I think one of the hardest things about graduating is knowing when to stop going back (at least for a few years); this is the time. I’ll probably return with some other friends to use High Table dining rights this summer, and it was great to see pictures of people I did know enjoying themselves and looking fly, but it’s not my place anymore. Or at least not in the same way. And that’s okay.
- Prince died, and even though I don’t think I’ve ever consciously listened to any of his music, let alone been a devotee, it seemed really, really sad. He was obviously a taboo-breaker and an outrageously talented instrumentalist: one of my coworkers reminisced about seeing him, in concert, hurl himself across the stage, lean backwards over a piano, and play, while upside-down, exactly the right chords at exactly the right moment. That kind of gold dust shouldn’t die at 57.
- I’m writing fiction again. That’s all for now. Hooray.
Month: April 2016
The Sunlight Pilgrims, by Jenni Fagan
It’s how they get through the dark, by stashing up as much light as they can.
No doubt about it, this is the loveliest cover I’ve had on a review book for some time.
The Sunlight Pilgrims is set during a raw and ravenous global winter, in late 2020 and early 2021. Those years are not far ahead of us now; I find it quite easy to think, “Oh, the future”, when I see that the third digit of a year is a 2, but really, Fagan is talking about five years from now. That’s nothing at all, even in human terms. Geologically, it’s the present moment—right this second. And geological scales matter here: an iceberg is floating down from Norway to the Clachan Fells region of Scotland, where the three main characters of this book—Dylan MacRae, a refugee from London; Constance Fairbairn, a free spirit; and Stella, her twelve-year-old daughter—plan to wait out the winter in a caravan park.
Dylan’s mother and grandmother, the only family he’s ever known, have just died, leaving him a mountain of debt which their little art-house cinema must be sold to pay off—but, also, secretly purchased by his mother Vivienne, the caravan. He flees from London amid reports of worsening weather and the prediction of the worst winter in two hundred years. In November, it is already -6 degrees; by March, and the end of the book, it will reach -56. Fagan does a great line in description of the environment as it affects your physical state; here she is on the all-night bus that takes Dylan to Scotland:
The roads are sparser and the heater filters on and on and the air is too hot. Sleep announces itself as a heaviness—a fug he falls into—a density to it that makes it a struggle to rise back up, and the engine drones louder until noise becomes everything—night-lights shine down and distort the passengers’ features while traffic signs and roadworks fly past the window.
Stella and Constance, meanwhile, exist in a curious, banter-fueled relationship that mirrors the particular intensity of single parenthood but differs from it in a number of important ways. Stella’s father, Alistair, lives nearby (he’s on his third wife but has never been married to Constance, whose name is a kind of ironic reverse-symbol); Constance, for her own part, has made a practice of keeping two lovers at once, although the other one, Caleb, is supposedly “often away” and never turns up in this book. Stella remembers him with some fondness, but she doesn’t speak to Alistair. Less than a year ago, she was Cael. Alistair has not taken his child’s transition well.
Stella is really the heart of the book. Dylan, whose adulthood is tempered by a remarkably non-obnoxious arrested development, narrates a bit; Constance doesn’t narrate at all, and although she’s never completely twee-mystical, there are some distinct touches of magical realism about her. The whole book is woven through with little threads of the numinous, in fact. Dylan’s grandmother Gunn appears to Stella (who doesn’t know who she is) to dispense some advice. The freak winter itself is like the backdrop to a fairy tale: Narnia, or the country of the Snow Queen. The appearance of the aurora borealis is a moment of transcendent beauty as represented in the natural world.
And there is a great need for transcendent beauty in this harshness. It’s not just the winter that’s cold; a chill wind (as recent-birthday-boy Shakespeare reminded us) is not so unkind as man’s ingratitude to man. He was talking about children and parents, but Fagan’s cruelest humans are friends. Stella’s classmates, like Alistair, are not really adjusting to her transition. Her best friend from childhood, Lewis, is both attracted to her (he kissed her last summer) and terrified of standing out from the crowd (among other things, he contributes to a nasty drawing of her that does the rounds at a community hall emergency meeting.) Her doctor isn’t exactly malicious, but he utterly fails to understand why she’s so desperate to get her hands on hormone blockers before facial hair and a cracking voice start making their entrances. It’s perseverance, stubbornness, that Stella needs, more than anything, to get through her teenaged years.
Likewise, perseverance is the only thing that can get her patched-together family through the winter. The sunlight pilgrims of the title are semi-mythical monks, from stories of Gunn’s: men who, in the dark months of the year, used the sunlight they’d soaked up in warmer days and stored in their cells. They husbanded and harvested a resource they kept inside their bodies. Amidst greyness and gloom, they glowed. It may not be the subtlest of metaphors, but it’s awfully moving: the idea that you can make mental and emotional preparations for survival.
This may be why the book’s ending seems to me a bit of an anti-climax, in its pure uncertainty. It’s all about survival, the day-to-day business of it, and Fagan ends halfway through, leaving us on something of a cliffhanger. You can decide for yourself how to read the ambiguous final page, which I suppose is a good thing. I like to think that they all die, not because I hated the characters or thought they deserved it but because it seemed the most likely fate, and the aptest. After its admittedly unpleasant initial stages, hypothermia is a relatively calm way to die. And it doesn’t seem so bad, after all, to go at the same time as the people who are most important to you, swaddled in the sunlight of your memories, and your love.
Many thanks to Emma Finnigan at William Heinemann for the review copy. The Sunlight Pilgrims was released in the UK on 7 April.
Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts
- We are getting a weekly veg box. Yes. Truly. I am now an official member of the unbearable young urban professional elite, and I’m not even sorry. I am only excited at what I will be able to cook over the next week with today’s delivery of butterhead lettuce, chestnut mushrooms, purple sprouting broccoli, red peppers, onions, and swiss chard.
- I made panettone bread and butter pudding (not the panettone bit, we bought that from the Italian caff downstairs) on Sunday night. The custard split, slightly, because I took my eye off it for LIKE ONE SECOND. But it was still pretty good, and apparently just as good cold.
- Last week I used Facebook to do a Very Scientific Survey of my employed friends: I asked them whether they’d rather be bored but peaceful at work, or busy and stressed. Most of them said busy and stressed, which is fascinating: the debilitating long-term effect of stress is (hilariously enough) one of the things that worries me the most about modern living. It’s also interesting because I think lots of people don’t work as well as they could: they don’t have enough to do, or they have too much to do, or they feel they need to be seen working without actually doing anything effective. Basically, work culture seems really skewed and weird to me and I’m trying to figure it out. My ideal, as I said on that thread, is “happily and consistently occupied”, but it seems very difficult to find a formal, full-time, salaried position that provides such a level of work. Feast or famine seem far more common.
- Media Diversified has been retweeting and promoting this for an age (an Internet age, mind you, which is, like, two weeks), and yet a petition to save a Soho art-house cinema STILL has more signatures. I’m 100% behind the salvation of Soho art-house cinemas, but for the love of God, can we start taking rape perpetrated by UN peacekeeping forces seriously? That would be great. Really, really great.
- There’s a wedding in August that I’m going to, and I haven’t been to a wedding for over a decade, and I have no fucking clue what to wear. I’m probably going to have to buy something new. Any advice? I’ve been lurking on Torrid’s Instagram feed and there are some really nice sundresses with contrasting jackets, but I’m short so I’d probably need to get wedge sandals, too.
- A guy wiped out his entire company (and some other peoples’ companies, too) with one line of bad code. edit: Actually, he didn’t. It was a marketing hoax. But a weirdly prescient once, since a website hosting company then “deleted part of the Internet” not seven days later. Moral: BACK YOUR SHIT UP, YOU LOT.
- Has any composer ever set Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” to music? I was reading her Selected Poems last week, and it just seemed like the sort of poem that Kurt Weill, for instance, could have made a really chilling, incredible song out of.
- My brother was crowned Prom King (and his girlfriend, Prom Queen) last weekend. This is simultaneously hilarious and mind-blowing. I did high school so incredibly poorly (I barely spoke to anyone for three and a half years) that it seems particularly miraculous that I should actually be related, in any way, to a Prom King. The kicker is that he’s not even a football jock; he’s a smart, hilarious theatre kid with a talent for music and drawing and mountain biking. He’s also about 7,000 times nicer than I am.
The Exclusives, by Rebecca Thornton
By the time the tangy tomato sauce nips at the back of my tongue, I’ve already worked out the headline that will bring Freya down.
~~here be a few spoilers; I’ll warn you when they’re coming~~
It’s a slightly weird experience, reading a book in uncorrected proof. There are usually a lot of forgotten quotation marks or left-out commas, which (you can be pretty sure, though not always) will be added in during the editing process; there’s often quite a lot of repetition, which you can think about likewise. Still, you don’t actually know what the book will look like, as a finished product. You can just hope. Most of the advance review copies I get are corrected and bound proofs, which means they’re essentially the finished book, which just happens to not be on sale yet. My copy of The Exclusives, though, is uncorrected, which means this review will be a sort of time capsule. I’m not reviewing the book as it is now; I’m reviewing it as it was in January. Take any criticisms, therefore, with the knowledge that the book may well have changed.
The “exclusives” of the title are Josephine Grey and Freya Seymour, two privileged girls at a prestigious (and fictional) English boarding school; the “exclusives” are also, by implication, boarding schools themselves, and the bizarre bubble that surrounds their inmates from reality. That bubble extends to the world outside of school: Josephine’s father works for the Prime Minister and gets her an interview with the PM for the school newspaper, while another character, late in the book, says that she’s sure her father will be able to ensure her place at Oxford. Unlikely as it seems that David Cameron would give an interview to a school newspaper, consider that my friend Ella, who went to an elite girls’ school in north London—not the same thing as Eton or Cheltenham Ladies’ College, but still—experienced regular talks by the likes of Imelda Staunton and Emma Thompson. This world exists.
The book doesn’t start in 1996, though—instead, we’re dropped into Josephine’s life in 2014, as she’s heading up an archaeological dig in Jordan. She’s successful in her profession, less so in her personal life: she’s maintaining a supposedly no-strings fling with a charming but irresponsible foreign correspondent. An email from Freya, however, throws everything out of balance: she’s found Josephine’s contact details, and she wants to talk about what happened eighteen years ago. We don’t yet know what that was—we won’t know for sure until the final twenty pages of the book—but whatever it was, Josephine absolutely does not want to revisit it. She’s forced back to England, though, by her mother’s illness: she’s thought to be dying, and Josephine is summoned to London to say her goodbyes, where she’ll have to face her past.
The novel is split-narrative, alternating its chapters between 1996 at Greenwood Hall and 2014 in London. Josephine narrates in both timelines, which at first seemed like a missed opportunity to integrate more perspectives, but which quickly came to seem like a very clever idea. It enables Josephine, and Thornton, to maintain complete control over what the reader knows, both about the past and about the present. The extent of that need for control tells us everything we need to know about Josephine: her strong will, her arrogance, her single-mindedness, her determination, her fear. The greatest terror of her life is that she will end up like her mother, a mentally ill housewife with no degree or accomplishments of her own, fighting off the voices in her head. The antidote to this fate, she is convinced, lies in winning a place at Oxford.
I have to say that, although linked scholarships were only abolished very recently, and may have been around as recently as 1996, I do not think that the Oxford admissions process has ever been conducted in quite the way Thornton describes it. When I applied, in the autumn of 2009, I did indeed have to sit an aptitude test (as all applicants for English literature, history, any foreign language, or biomedical science have to do) and attend an interview, but the idea that the interviewers might have gotten in touch with my school to say that my essay was “the best they have seen in years” is fanciful, at best. (Josephine is told by her headmistress that such was the opinion of the examining board.) Oxford tutorials depend on the ability of the tutors to manage and control the inevitable arrogance of their best students, which is not achieved by praising them before they’ve even matriculated. A tutor did once tell me about the excellent results of an applicant in the year below me (though she didn’t take up her offer, in the end), but I can’t imagine that she would ever have ensured that the applicant herself knew about that. And although we were never discouraged, we were also generally made to feel as though we could probably have done better, and perhaps would do so next week. It worked reasonably well as a corrective to callow youth.
Details aside, the major achievement of The Exclusives is the maintenance of suspense. Over nearly 300 pages, it’s hard to prevent your readers from guessing fully and completely what happened, but Thornton manages it, partly by providing two disasters. The first occurs on a night out in London; only Freya and Josephine experience it, and their differing responses to that trauma drive them apart when they return to school. The second disaster is precipitated, coldly and calculatingly, by Josephine alone, and is done as a sort of insurance plan against Freya telling anyone else about what happened. That catastrophe is discovered and has repercussions in 1996, but the first one, the one that really sets everything else in motion, remains unaddressed, and festers, until 2014. When Freya and Josephine eventually meet—and, of course, they do, despite Josephine’s attempts to stonewall her former friend—the events of that night have to come out. In the end, it’s Freya who remembers for them both. Josephine has spent her entire adult life suppressing it: she has airbrushed it out of her experience entirely, as an example of imperfection, of weakness and vulnerability.
Now for the spoiler-y bit: I wonder sometimes whether I want too much right-thinking, too much political correctness, in the books that I read, or whether it’s okay to want fictional models of situations that happen in real life being dealt with healthily and appropriately. Disaster # 1, for instance, the disaster that starts the ball rolling, is a relatively uncommon experience. You are much less likely to be raped and beaten by two strangers in a nightclub than you are to experience the same abuse at the hands of someone you love and trust. Disaster # 2, on the other hand, is far more common: an inappropriate relationship between a teacher and a student is something that, I guarantee you, has happened at every boarding school in the country during some point in its history, whether that relationship has eventually been made public or not. The teacher in question is fired, but there doesn’t seem to be any uncertainty about coercion; Freya is presented as having been totally in control of herself the whole time. Maybe we’re meant to see this assertion as a coping mechanism, or as necessary self-delusion; I don’t know. I just find it difficult to take at face value, and not a particularly constructive interpretation of the events that we’re given, especially in an era when decades-old stories of coerced minors are finally coming to light. Likewise, I don’t think that it’s particularly constructive to perpetuate the myth that rape is mostly something that strangers do to you when you’ve put some E in your drink. Novels don’t have a duty to be constructive, I know. I still struggle with this.
WE’RE DONE WITH THE SPOILERS NOW, YOU CAN TAKE YOUR FINGERS OUT OF YOUR EARS
The Exclusives is like a nasty Malory Towers, or a grown-up version of the Chalet School, with the terrible striving at its heart exposed. It’s dark and cruel and in some places melodramatic, but it sure as hell makes you want to know what happened. When Josephine achieves closure and catharsis at the end, it’s a relief; maybe we, too, can finally come to terms with the mean and selfish things we’ve done.
Thanks very much to Emily Burns at Bonnier for the review copy. The Exclusives was published in the UK on 7 April.
Meanwhile, At Litro: the Baileys Prize Shortlist
I was (not completely, but to a great extent) annoyed about this. I wrote a spiky column for Litro, describing how annoyed I was about it. Lovers of Kate Atkinson, I am here to avenge the wrongs she has suffered.
Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts
- It turns out that I am the kind of person who, when left alone for the weekend, mentally regresses into single student mode. When I did a load of washing on Friday night, I felt as though I’d be morally justified in taking a picture, uploading it to Instagram, and tagging it “#adulting”. (nb: I did not actually do this.) Also, the ONLY reason I did not eat cookies for three days was because I had been made to solemnly and specifically promise that I wouldn’t.
- Although going to see movies is not something I do regularly, I’m thinking I might have to go see Batman vs. Superman. Not because it’s good or anything, but because the Chaos is actually on the soundtrack. (He does session work for film scores, on and off.) That’s a good reason to blow £20 on tickets and popcorn, right?
- Most of the stuff on this site probably would not fit me, or would look like a stretched-out handkerchief on my body, but this Mulan skirt… I would turn up for this.
- A feminist Facebook group I’m part of, Cuntry Living (YUP), has been running a thread of “great female literary characters” recently and it’s so great. Meg Murray! Alanna of Trebond! Betsey Trotwood! Becky Sharp! Moll Flanders! Hester Prynne! Penelope! Lyra! Scarlett O’Hara! Sally Lockhart! Jean Brodie! Maggie Tulliver! Amy Dunne! Shug Avery! Scout Finch! Violet Baudelaire! I’m going to have to go back and do a lot of rereading. Or maybe a Kick-Ass Women Week?
- I’ve recently decided to start helping myself out when it comes to my TBR by breaking it up into little chunks: four books at a time go onto a pile on my dresser, to be read through in order. Then, once I’ve read those, I can pick my next chunk. It helps me to mix up books to be reviewed with books I may have borrowed, books from the Baileys Prize archive (an ongoing project), and long-owned books that deserve to be read before I forget I even have them. At present, I’m reading Lisa McInerney’s The Glorious Heresies; the rest of the small pile comprises A Wizard of Earthsea (borrowed from the Chaos), The Exclusives by Rebecca Thornton (to be reviewed), and Selected Poems of Sylvia Plath (bought in January, needs reading).
Relativity, by Antonia Hayes, + Q&A
“Help”, he said. “He’s not breathing.”
Relativity takes, as its starting point, the kind of thing that you never want to experience as a parent: an emergency hospital visit for an infant displaying all the symptoms of shaken baby syndrome. The child’s father, who was alone with him at the time of injury, denies everything, but is arrested, tried, and convicted. He spends years in prison. Meanwhile, the child grows up—but when he’s twelve, he accidentally intercepts a letter from his father to his mother, and the past rushes in to fill the present.
Hayes is coy about what exactly happened when Ethan was a baby until about halfway through the book, which is a wise move. We spend time first getting to know Mark, his father; Claire, his mother; and Ethan himself. Mark is fascinating: probably, fundamentally, a good guy, but immature, prone to temper, and deeply self-important. One of the most painful aspects of the book is the section detailing his youthful relationship with Claire. She’s an aspiring ballet dancer; he’s doing a Ph.D in astrophysics. Her pregnancy is unexpected, but they’re in love and they decide to make the best of things. When the baby is born, though, Mark has a hard time feeling love for him; he’s too preoccupied by the destructive effect a newborn is having on his sleep cycle, his research, and his writing. Claire’s fear that her dancing career is over, meanwhile, is exacerbated by Mark’s apparent indifference to it. In one of their worst fights, he suggests that she should give it up altogether, since it’s not very lucrative or stable employment, and she might never make it big. This is not, needless to say, the behaviour of a supportive spouse.
So the portrayal of the strain on Claire and Mark’s relationship is certainly convincing; what I found difficult to swallow was the standardness of the gender stereotyping. Claire is repeatedly described as being deeply physical and intuitive, “thinking with her body”, while Mark is logical, rational, intellect-driven. It’s a female/male dichotomy that I find knackered, and knackering. Of course the mother is a ballerina, someone who works with their body; of course the father is a physicist, someone for whom the mind is paramount; and of course Claire not only connects instantly with their baby, while Mark struggles, but also gives up her career entirely—out of guilt—after Ethan sustains his injury. It probably frustrates me because of its very realism, because it is still the way that many relationships are framed, but I just kept hoping for something that would challenge these woman-as-nurturer, man-as-reasoner roles, and there was nothing in the book that did.
What does work very well, however, is Hayes’s portrayal of a gifted child. For Ethan can “see” physics: the sound waves left by a lightning strike, the movement of air pressure, the Doppler effect. He’s also simply very bright, with an affinity for mathematics and physics, an excellent memory, and a boundless curiosity. He reads constantly and is forever making connections. Yet he’s still only twelve: a mature twelve-year-old in many ways, but still, as twelve-year-olds do, lacking the fundamental emotional experiences that aid maturity. Hayes nails that curious combination, the brilliance and sensitivity of a child who is, nevertheless, a child. It’s hard to put into words unless you’ve either been that child or been the parent of one, so I’m guessing Hayes is one or both of those things. (The book is based to some extent on her real-life experiences: when she was nineteen, her partner shook their baby, and stood trial for it as a result.)
The bullying Ethan withstands, too, is sickeningly convincing: you hope it’s not written from life, though it probably is. There’s nothing more awful, in middle school, than the betrayal of a former best friend trying to hang with the cool guys, or the nastiness of bullies who use your home life against you, as well as your school persona of Nerd Supreme. To be twelve is to negotiate a bizarre, unreplicable mental space where supernovae and sex are elbowing each other for your attention; where you get boners in the shower but remain fascinated by the minutiae of meteors and the possibility of time travel. Both of those impulses—the sexual and the scholastic—are neatly chronicled in Relativity. It may treat its adult characters in a way that frustrated me, but Ethan is perfectly drawn.
Very luckily, I’ve been able to ask Antonia Hayes some questions about the book and about her writing (courtesy of publicist Grace Vincent), so now it’s over to her:
Ethan is a very convincing portrayal of a gifted child – he still possesses the maturity levels of a twelve-year-old in some ways, even though he is clearly brilliant. What’s your best advice for getting inside the head of a character like that?
While I was writing Ethan’s character, I did quite a bit of research about gifted children and what effects having a preternatural intelligence can have on a child’s mindset. Even though Ethan can understand theoretical physics, it doesn’t mean that he really understands everything – especially adult relationships. At the same time, being brilliant does make Ethan a little too confident in his own abilities and judgement, even outside the world of science. So I really wanted to play with the conflict between intellect and wisdom with his character. Ethan’s intelligence is deep but it’s also quite narrow. Just because he’s a genius doesn’t mean he necessarily has common sense. Gifted kids are still kids – but Ethan doesn’t know how naive he really is.
Claire gives up ballet almost as a way of punishing herself for not being the mother she feels she should have been. Talk to me about careers and motherhood: expectations, reality, unfairness…
There’s a line in the scene about Claire’s childhood training to be a ballet dancer and the pressure her own mother put on her that I think sums up Claire’s feelings about this: “How motherhood could easily annihilate whatever came before it.”
Unfortunately, I think careers (particularly in the arts) and motherhood are both given these unrealistic narratives about complete and utter devotion, but anyone who is completely and utterly devoted to anything at the exclusion of all other things in their life lacks balance. Claire did buy into this specific fiction of martyrdom and surrender with motherhood, perhaps at the expense of her own happiness and fulfilment. With her character, I really wanted to push that motherhood guilt complex. My intention was to show the ways some mothers truly believe they’re doing the best thing by their kids when they make these sacrifices for their children, but they’re actually inflicting a different kind of damage.
My own personal view – as a writer and a mother myself – is that one informs the other. My writing is richer because I’m a parent, but I’m also a better parent because I know how important it is for me to write and pursue my dreams. I am sick of the dialogue around motherhood versus everything because it works on the assumption that motherhood is all-consuming, transactional, selfless and a sacrifice – which is wrong. There’s no conflict or dichotomy; it’s symbiotic and always changing from one phase to the next. It’s the industrial complex of motherhood that’s hostile to art, because it uses guilt and obligation and domesticity as its currency. You can have kids and not suppress who you are; it’s healthier for our kids if we don’t.
Neuroplasticity is well documented, but Ethan’s condition is highly unusual – although the novel eventually reveals that his savantism isn’t what it’s initially believed to be, is such a thing realistically possible?
Yes! Acquired savants are real, although only about 50 of them exist worldwide. One real life case I was particularly interested in was that of Jason Padgett, who became a mathematical and geometry genius after a brain injury.
How did you first become interested in writing this story? What was the initial spark: shaken baby syndrome, gifted children, physics, neuroscience, or something else altogether?
To be honest, it was actually a constellation of all of those things. The initial spark was the character, Ethan – he popped into my head one day, and I knew almost immediately that he loved physics. I’d been thinking of writing about shaken baby syndrome, and his character and interests were my way into telling that story. I’m often asked if Ethan is based on my own son (who is now 14), but he’s actually much more like 12-year-old Antonia. All those elements are different obsessions of mine, that I managed to combine for the novel.
Where do you do most of your writing?
I work at my dining table at home, mostly. Technically this room should be where we eat dinner, but it’s now overrun with books and has become my makeshift office.
Do you have any advice for a debut novelist or for someone who wants to write a novel but is too scared to start? (Asking for a friend…)
I used to be completely terrified of the idea of writing a novel! I think what made me overcome my fear was separating the act of writing itself from what follows it (publication etc). Sitting quietly at my desk, and arranging and rearranging sentences, wasn’t actually a scary thing to do; in fact, it brought me enormous pleasure. So instead of focusing on writing a novel that one day might become a published book (which is an intimidating idea), I focused on writing and after a while, I had a manuscript. Worrying about publication before there’s even a first draft of a manuscript is likely to do anyone’s head in because it creates extra stress you don’t need to trouble yourself with yet. If writing makes you happy, start there. The rest is noise and your friend can worry about that later.
Thanks very much to Grace Vincent for the review copy, and to Antonia Hayes for her incisive and thoughtful answers! Relativity was published in the UK on 7 April.
Foreign Soil, by Maxine Beneba Clarke
this casual unguardedness that comes from never really knowing fear
[Not a capsule review, but a shorter one than usual. Sorry.]
I think I’m going to start referring to 2016 as the Year When I Found Out I Was Wrong About Everything. (Not, like, everything, you understand. Most things I’m good on.) It is definitely the case, though, that I am not very good on short stories. They disorient me, especially if a collection doesn’t have some kind of unifying thread. But Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Foreign Soil, oh man. I’m here for this.
It’s mostly a collection about the experiences of black people separated in some way from a community. It’s not necessarily, or always, a collection “about” racism, or race relations, which is why I’m doubly pleased that it’s been published in the UK; there remains this lingering conviction that writers of colour are always somehow writing about that (and, by extension, about white people). Clarke’s first story, “David”, explores the conflict between a second-generation woman born in Australia to Sudanese parents, and the first-generation immigrant woman she meets on her way back from buying a bike. Their dance of mutual misunderstanding, frustration and need is conveyed by each woman in turn; they tell their stories in parallel, the older woman recounting the backstory that explains her present. Neither of them is aware that the other is also narrating. Their voices proceed in isolation until the very end of the story, where they come together in a moment that’s transcendant for being so utterly unexpected.
Clarke uses this technique a lot, often without contextualizing who the different voices belong to. My favourite instance is in the story “Gaps In the Hickory”, about a young transgender boy, Carter, in rural Mississippi. (Technically, I guess, Carter is a transgender girl: born male and being raised as a boy, partly because his father is too violent and bigoted to be trusted with the secret knowledge he has of his girlhood.) His story, told through his worried and loving mother’s eyes, is spliced with scenes in New Orleans where we see an older woman, Delores, interacting with a small girl, her neighbour Ella. For a very long time, we don’t know who Delores is, or why she’s important, though slowly, slowly, we learn that she knew Carter’s grandmother. Still, though, the final reveal is very gradual, very contextual—the reader gets there just a second before the narrative does. Again, the end of the story is a moment of synthesis, of connection.
The brilliance of a short story, I think, stands or falls upon its ability to know when to stop. Clarke’s brilliance in these particular stories is to stop just after the synthesis. We feel, as readers, some sense of relief: an immediate tension has been resolved, characters have met, action has been taken. But that relief is contingent because Clarke never resolves things utterly: in “Big Islan”, for instance, her protagonist Nathanial has learned how to read as a result of his wife’s ceaseless instruction, and he awakes at the end of the story feeling restless in Kingston, which he had once thought the centre of the world. But that’s it. He’s got itchy feet now, and he’s as willing to travel as his wife wants him to be, but we don’t get the satisfaction of finding out whether they make it. The same goes for “The Stilt Fishermen of Kathaluwa”, the protagonist of which is a detained Sri Lankan seeking asylum in Australia from being forced into service with the Tamil Tigers. The whole story is about his escape, spliced with scenes of the domestically dissatisfied lawyer who’s driving to see him in the detention centre. As the story closes, we know, the young man has done something drastic in front of a press conference at the centre, in order to draw attention to his plight. But we don’t know whether it works.
The stories that concern themselves most overtly with race aren’t interested in white people; they’re to do with how non-whites betray each other. They are incredible, disturbing vignettes of internalized fear and hatred. “Shu Yi”‘s narrator is a young black girl at a mostly white Australian school. Asked to befriend the only other child of colour in her year—a Chinese girl who barely speaks and is violently bullied—Ava reluctantly agrees. When it comes down to it, though, she publicly humiliates the other girl in order to protect her own standing, to make sure there’s someone weaker and more despised than she is. The story’s final image is of Shu Yi pissing herself, the shame and hopelessness of her situation expressed with horrible poignancy: “Shu Yi’s eyes locked with mine. A thin trickle travelled out the bottom of her tunic and down the inside of her legs, soaking slowly into her frilly white socks.” It’s so painful to read (God, the picture of those little frilly socks), but it’s also, astonishingly, dignified. Shu Yi doesn’t hide behind her hair, or put her face in her hands. She looks her betrayer in the eye. She owns the shame that belongs to her. She can’t say a thing, but she can make Ava understand that what she’s done is terrible.
Many of the stories are written in dialect: not just the dialogue, but the actual narration. I read a few reviews that didn’t take kindly to this, and I can see why a reader wouldn’t, but I think it’s a genius decision. To narrate in “standard English” the story of a teenager in 1950s Jamaica, pregnant out of wedlock, is to stand somewhere in relation to that teenager: to stand away from her, apart from her, above her looking down, even. To narrate that story in the words that she would use, though, in the patois (or “patwa”) that she speaks, is to make it a story that she is telling us. It brings it to life, it levels the reader’s horizon. An English tutor (or, well, I) would say that it asserts that teenager’s right to narrative authority.
Which is, I think, the point of the book’s epigraph, a quotation by Chinua Achebe: “Let no one be fooled by the fact that we may write in English, for we intend to do unheard of things with it.” Clarke’s embrace of many Englishes—Jamaican patois, Brixton street slang, broken and Tamil-inflected, suburban Australian—levels the reader’s horizons for all of these stories. You’re not observing them; you’re engaging with them. And the final story, “The Sukiyaki Book Club”, is a passionate defense of an artist’s right to tell the stories they want to tell, the ones they need to tell. It quotes the rejection letters sent to a writer whose situation is very much as Clarke’s was, while she was writing this collection:
Your writing is genuinely astonishing, but I’d like to read something you’ve written that deals with more everyday themes. Work that has an uplifting quality. Ordinary moments. Think book club material.
…Imagine if that day of the Tottenham riots was ultimately a wake-up call that got an angry black kid back on the straight and narrow? We would be very interested in working with you to bring some light to this collection…These are very minor edits we are talking about.
What Clarke is doing, with Achebe’s English, is an unheard of thing: she is saying no. She is saying, fuck y’all. She is saying, This is not book club material. You are not talking about minor edits. You would like to corral these stories into shapes that make you more comfortable and you will not be permitted to do that. Thank God.
Read Foreign Soil; read it urgently. Discuss it with your book club, if you have one. It’s one of the best short story collections I’ve ever read, a collection of exquisite novels in miniature, and I can’t wait to read Clarke’s next book.
Thanks very much to Poppy Stimpson at Corsair for the review copy. Foreign Soil was published in the UK on 7 April.
Reviews Elsewhere: Maresi at Shiny New Books
The new edition of Shiny New Books is out today! Please go check it out; it’s a review collective that covers fiction, nonfiction, reprints, and general book chat (news, author Q&As, etc.)
I reviewed Maresi by Maria Turtschaninoff for them. Here’s the first paragraph of what I wrote:
Maresi is thirteen or so. She lives in a fantastical realm on an island called Menos, under the protection of the Sisters of the Red Abbey. Men aren’t allowed on the island, although the sisters trade with fishermen. A girl called Jai arrives at the abbey fleeing the murderous violence of her father. She’s slow to trust, but Maresi takes charge of her and slowly Jai begins to open up about the death of her beloved sister and about the threat she still faces from her father’s unstoppable dedication to ‘honour’. It’s not long before sails show up on the horizon, and the Red Abbey is forced to defend itself against cruelty, hatred, and—crucially—the patriarchy.
You can read the rest here.
Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts
This is a weekly thing I’ve just found that’s hosted by Christine on Bookishly Boisterous, and I really like it. I don’t write much here about my life, at least not in a casual yet consistent sort of way; you poor guys tend to either get 1,000+-word essays on Traumas Of Elle’s Past or straight book reviews. The idea of sharing a bit is weirdly appealing. Although, who knows, maybe I’m just feeling generous, what with all the new light in the air.
- I’ve been working on collating a database of all my own books (at least those ones which are in the flat) for a while. I’m using software called PortaBase, which is not going to win any beauty contests but which is extremely good at doing what I want it to do. This weekend I got through a huge chunk of the remaining books. All that’s left now are the three shelves of books bought for my degree. Inconveniently, they’re the shelves closest to the wall and therefore hardest to get at.
- The Chaos and I saw Lydia and Rob (formerly known, when this blog was Oxford-based, as Princi and Casanova) for dinner last week. Odd that, living in London, it isn’t easier to get together with one’s friends, but I hadn’t seen either of them for nearly a month. I suppose Lydia’s erratic shifts (she’s a police officer at the Met) don’t help. It felt like ye olden times, with Lydia making stir fry, us bringing a random bottle that didn’t quite go with the food (prosecco, so could have been worse), and a general feeling of laziness assisted by the sun streaming in through their enormous sitting room bay window.
- Last weekend was gorgeous. Determined to do something London-y, I organised a picnic excursion to Regent’s Park on Saturday, where we sat on a sunny bank near the rose garden (where there were no roses as yet) and ate a big tomato and olive salad, sausages with pear chutney, apples, and some Creme Eggs that were 25 p at Tesco. (Such are the joys of the week after Easter. Seriously, what a wonderful thing.) I worked on competency questions while the Chaos dozed and offered advice. Sunday was similarly full of sun and food and reading and writing/reviewing, plus house admin that had been put off for weeks. It was just all so bloody nice.
- I’ve been thinking about the systems I use to organise myself. At the moment, I use a to-do app on my phone called Clear, and my iCal to keep track of events I’m attending. I keep a regular notebook on my desk at work, and use that as a work diary, and I do personal journaling on an iPhone app called Chronicle. I’ve only been using phone apps for stuff like this since last fall, and some of the glamour is starting to wear off. I spent an hour last week noodling around the Paperchase website. ARGH.
- I finally got my shit together and ordered some business cards from Moo. They’re beautiful and inexpensive – highly recommended. Mine are made of normal cheap card stock, but the backs are marbled: a quarter of them are dark blue, a quarter of them are pink, a quarter are light blue and a quarter are yellow. (I also took a deep breath and put “Writer” on them, under my name. Taking myself seriously is one step closer to being taken seriously by everyone else.)