May Superlatives

May started slowly, but finished fast, and every book I read was worthwhile. That’s as much as you can ask for, really. I read all of my pre-pub review copies first, which is a strategy that seemed to work well enough (at least I met all of my review obligations); I’m going to try it again in June. The bank holiday weekends (both of them) were lovely and needed. The month itself was hard: bereavement, work. Still, I feel incredibly happy. It might be pouring now, but the summer is coming.

best backlist author: I’d only ever read one of Daphne DuMaurier’s books before now (Rebecca, obviously, at school), but My Cousin Rachel has convinced me that she was a proper genius. The story of a woman who may or may not have murdered two rich, controlling husbands, and who may or may not be planning to murder a third hapless young man, our narrator, Philip—it messes with your head unmercifully and it is brilliant.

most unexpected ending: That belonging to Shawn Vestal’s debut novel Daredevils, which managed to shake off tropes about boys and girls in a way that really delighted me. For a novel set in the 1970s about oppressive midwestern Mormons, it inspires in its reader a terrific sense of freedom.

best state-of-the-nation book: Journeyman, by Marc Bojanowski, which links the construction of tract homes to the unnameable malaise sweeping America in the wake of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and makes both phenomena echo in the lives of construction worker Nolan and his reporter brother, Chance. I think on Twitter I called it the first book I’d read about an American man in a long time that didn’t make me loathe said man. A real gem, in fact.

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I much prefer the US cover, for once

aptest timing: Katie Roiphe’s The Violet Hour, subtitled Great Writers at the End, which I read the week after my uncle died. I’d have preferred more analysis of each writer’s body of work, but I still appreciated it for its careful, methodical examination of other people’s deaths, and attitudes towards death.

most epic: LaRose, Louise Erdrich’s fifteenth novel. It spans 170 years and tells the story of LaRose Iron—given up as a surrogate son to the family of the boy his father kills by accident—as well as the story of his family and Ojibwe heritage. In a way, it was almost too epic: I found it difficult at times to track the reasoning behind Erdrich’s introduction of a new theme or character or episode. Then again, this kind of alien-ness in a reading experience is one of the major reasons to read outside of your comfort zone of race and gender and class and nationality.

most violent: Martin Holmén’s Clinch, a noir thriller set in 1930s Stockholm and published by Pushkin’s Vertigo imprint. I’m not sure how convinced I was by the actual trajectory of the crime, sleuthing, and final revelation, but I’ve only just realized that, because I was so utterly seduced by the blood, the sex, and the cool knowingness of our protagonist, Harry Kvist. I’d nominate this as the thinking person’s beach read this summer.

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most pleasant surprise: One of my work colleagues told me, in conversation, that her favourite book was The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera. I’d never read it (I tried in high school, but I generally find Eastern European writing, especially by men, to be a curious combination of the intimidating and the outrageously boring—mostly because of what I see as a sort of dramatic indulgence in the style)—anyway, she lent it to me, I read it, and by God, I was moved. I actually cried a bit at the end (the bit with the dog, for those of you who’ve read it.) I can heartily recommend this one as a beach read too, though for totally different reasons: it asks the sort of questions that we only have time to answer when we’re on holiday.

most harrowing: Human Acts, the second novel by Han Kang to be translated from Korean to English by Deborah Smith. (Kang and Smith won the Man Booker International Prize in May! Hurrah.) It focuses on the Gwangju massacre of students and labour rights demonstrators in 1980, and on its aftermath. It’s very quiet but extremely affecting: the  night I finished it, I dreamed of murder. Worth reading, even if you ordinarily shy away from tough stuff.

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party to which I was late: Sarah Perry’s debut novel, After Me Comes the Floodread in advance of The Essex Serpent‘s release in June. Borrowed from a different work colleague (they’re good, my colleagues!)—I was expecting something rich, strange, and excellent, and I got it. The story of a heatwave, a case of mistaken identity, and a strange house whose inhabitants all seem to be expecting our protagonist, with plenty of Biblical and Old English references along the way (which delighted me no end), it reads like a slow-burning horror film which turns into a drama of simple human sadness. I’m even more thrilled for The Essex Serpent now.

most one-sided story: This isn’t meant to be a criticism or a declaration of allegiance, but obviously Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters. They are very beautiful and they give me a lot of hope for free verse as a poetic strategy, and they were very good to read after reading Plath’s poetry. Simultaneously, they are only one-half of the sum total of the memories of their marriage, and you can see the partiality in places. In particular, Hughes seems to both accept and promulgate an autobiographical reading of “Daddy”. Maybe he’s right, maybe he’s wrong; it’s worth remembering that Plath herself identified the speaker of “Daddy” as a fictional construct, though of course she may not have been entirely truthful there either.

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second most pleasant surprise: Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being. I have to say, knowing that it was narrated by a Japanese teenager, I was expecting it to be a bit twee and tedious. Mais non! It is about quantum physics and the autonomy conferred by suicide and losing your home and intertextuality and Buddhism and terrorism and all sorts. It is vaguely reminiscent of David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten, and ridiculously enjoyable.

straight-up best: The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry’s second novel. Set in the late 1800s (some time after the explosion of Krakatoa in 1883, so probably the ’90s), it moves back and forth from London to Aldwinter, a small Essex village, following Cora Seaborne, a widow and keen amateur geologist, and Luke Garrett, the arrogant surgeon who’s in love with her, and Francis, her probably autistic son, and the Ransomes, a vicar and his beautiful, kind, sickly wife. That makes it sound deeply Victorian and stodgy; it is not. This book is sexy and upsetting and, in places, Gothic; it made my heart pound and it made me sad and it made me laugh aloud and it stopped me in my tracks with its accuracy: the way Cora comes to terms with her dead husband’s abuse, the selfishness of wanting people to like you. I can’t recommend it highly enough. I’m afraid I can’t sell it more articulately, really. It’s very beautiful and sly and surprising. Please go and read it at once.

what’s next: I’m currently reading Matthew Desmond’s Evicted, a journalistic non-fiction study of eviction in Milwaukee, which is breaking my heart. Next up for review is Margo Jefferson’s memoir Negroland, from Granta Books, which I think will be fascinating: the black middle classes are often invisible in America, their experiences not considered sufficiently picturesque perhaps. I’m looking forward to reading it.

 

20 Books of Summer

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The wonderful Cathy at 746 Books is running this event: you have from 1 June til 5 September to read a pile of twenty books that you’ve chosen for yourself. I happen to have twenty books (not including pre-pubs) on deck right now, so thought I might as well try to join in the fun! I’m expecting to be able to put these away without difficulty, but I’m also taking the whole endeavour with a pinch of salt: I generally find formalized reading challenges to be Not My Thing. As these constitute the titles I’m trying to read at the moment anyway, though, perhaps I’ll have more success.

Collected Poems (update: I can’t. Sorry, I can’t. I did try to read these all in one go, and it was impossible. I’ll only get through these by going very slowly indeed.) – Dylan Thomas: I love Dylan Thomas. I think he was utterly mad and would have been a hopeless person to know, love or be friends with, but his poetry is magical and I’d like to read it all.

Darwin Among the Machines (finished 20/06/16; thoughts here)- George Dyson: A classic text exploring the possibility of artificial intelligence. The book’s title originates from an essay by Samuel Butler, considering roughly the same question, but from a late Victorian historical perspective.

Celia’s House – DE Stevenson: A stocking pressie from last Christmas; a gentle Edwardian novel about a woman who leaves her house to her nephew and his young family. What my mum used to call “a safe book.”

The Queen of the Night (finished 03/07/16; thoughts here)- Alexander Chee: A Parisian opera star in Belle Epoque France tries to maintain her upward trajectory and keep hidden a dark and secretive past. Yes, of course I was always going to want to read it.

Jean-Étienne Liotard (update: have decided not to worry about completing this one by the end of the challenge date. It’s huge and very difficult to take out of the house, as it won’t fit in any of my normal bags) – the RA: This is the enormous hardback monograph for the Liotard exhibition that we saw at the beginning of spring. He was an Enlightenment-era French portraitist and I absolutely adored everything that we saw. My new favourite painting is his wedding portrait of 23-year-old Julie de Thellusson-Ployard. It’s the contained but genuine joy in her smile, I think.

A Manual for Cleaning Women (finished 29/06/16; thoughts here)- Lucia Berlin: Another party to which I am appallingly late, but the underappreciated-woman-writer-from-the-’60s vibe is one I can get behind. Perhaps a good preparation for Elena Ferrante, whom I’ll probably get to eventually.

Larry’s Party (finished 10/06/16; thoughts here)- Carol Shields: A novel about late-20th-century masculinity, under the guise of a character study: one man, Larry, followed from age 27 to age 47. I don’t know why, but that title makes me feel really sad.

The Idea of Perfection (finished 11/08/16) – Kate Grenville: An unlikely love story set in New South Wales, and winner of the Orange Prize. I have high hopes.

When I Lived in Modern Times (finished 05/07/16) – Linda Grant: In 1946, Evelyn Sert sails from Soho to Palestine, where the new state of Israel is coalescing, to reinvent herself, find love, and (from what the blurb coyly suggests) be a spy?! Excellent.

The Lacuna (finished 08/06/16; thoughts here) – Barbara Kingsolver: Not Kingsolver’s familiar territory here – Harrison Shepherd, a young drifter, becomes entangled with the households and intimate lives of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera in Mexico. I heard an excerpt from it at a Baileys Prize event last fall and was very favourably impressed.

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Unintentionally colour-coordinated book pile #1 (peach and green)

Housekeeping (finished 09/07/16) – Marilynne Robinson: Beautiful, phenomenal Marilynne Robinson. Her first book. All about sisters and aunts, family and loyalty. Hurrah.

Raw Spirit (finished 17/07/16) – Iain Banks: Somewhat randomly acquired in September when I visited my godmother and her husband in Glasgow, and we went on a distillery tour; they were selling this in the gift shop. Banks’s account of his attempt to find the perfect whiskey. I’d quite like to read his “real” books (sf and lit fic both), but this’ll do to start.

The Siege of Krishnapur (finished 13/06/16; thoughts here) –  J.G. Farrell: Basically a novel about the Sepoy Mutiny, but from the point of view of English soldiers barricaded into the Residency in a remote north Indian town. An early Booker Prize winner; my copy is secondhand and very tattered.

The Book of Memory (finished 04/06/16; thoughts here) – Petina Gappah: An albino Zimbabwean woman on death row recounts the strange story of her childhood, and the man her parents sold her to as a child. Rumour suggests it’s all right but not the same level as An Elegy for Easterly. Sadface.

The Father (finished 12/07/16) – Sharon Olds: Moar poetry, moar! I am trying to read more, anyway. Apparently this is good. I’ve been wary of Sharon Olds since reading a very dismissive review of her work by William Logan when I was fifteen, and only recently did I think of that review again and realize that it was crazily misogynistic. I hadn’t twigged.

Decreation – Anne Carson: Love Anne Carson. Find her a bit terrifying. Have read three of her collections already, so moving through back catalogue now.

Chronicles (finished 09/07/16) – Thomas Piketty: A more manageably-sized tome from the author of Capital in the Twenty-First Century; a collection of his financial op-ed columns. I’m being brave with this one. Economics tends to lose my attention after a time.

Brief Lives – John Aubrey: A seventeenth-century collection of biographical sketches of public figures. Aubrey is pretty well known for this work, at least among people who care about the seventeenth century; it’s gossipy, lively, and rather entertaining, on folk as diverse as Shakespeare, Edmund Halley, and John Dee.

The Unredeemed Captive (finished 26/06/16; thoughts here) – John Demos: A scholarly study of the early American nonfiction genre known as the captivity narrative, usually written by or about European settlers who had been abducted by Native Americans. Some assimilated, married into the tribe, and raised children; others escaped or were ransomed. I can’t wait for this.

The Violent Bear It Away (finished 25/07/16) – Flannery O’Connor: The last of O’Connor’s fiction that I haven’t yet read, concerning a young boy in the Deep South whose uncle is raising him to be a prophet. I expect it to contain all the murderous misunderstandings and religious wranglings that O’Connor’s work is known for.

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Unintentionally colour-coordinated book pile #2 (blue and red)

I do feel rather excited now. It remains to be seen whether I can read all of these AND the nine pre-pubs that I have, at least in theory, agreed to review, but at least I know I won’t run out…

Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts

  1. Two weekends ago I did the MoonWalk, a walking half-marathon (+ 2 miles, so it was actually 15 miles) through central London at night, to raise money for breast cancer research. Standing on Chelsea Bridge watching the sun rise over the river ranks high on my list of Best London Moments To Date.
  2. My friend Ella is back in town! I had two lovely lunches with her last week (one also included our friend Lydia). Reconnecting with old friends is so comforting, and comfortable.
  3. Han Kang and Deborah Smith won the Man Booker International Prize for The Vegetarian, which is just great news. The Vegetarian is a terrific book—disturbing, memorable, elegant—and Han Kang is a thoughtful, compassionate author. Deborah Smith, her translator, is only twenty-eight, and is super cool: she runs a small press called Tilted Axis. I saw both of them speak at Foyles last winter, about the second of Han’s novels to be published in English, Human Acts. They are a brilliant team.
  4. After languishing unused for nearly a year, my Cupcake face mask from Lush finally got used for the first time last week. It’s chocolate-scented, with peppermint oils, so I smell a bit like an After Eight, but my GOD does it ever make my skin soft and clear. I’ve always been a little skeptical about Lush: no longer.
  5. The dress I ordered for this August wedding arrived, and it was MADE OF VELVET AND POLYESTER. I was expecting the polyester bit (all clothing has a little bit of it these days) but the velvet, not so much. The very idea of wearing it in August made me feel sticky. (Plus, in that fabric, the pattern made me look like a cheaply upholstered sofa.) So back it goes, and in a fit of hopefulness I’ve ordered this from House of Fraser instead (I reckon I can dress it up with jewelery and wedges): dress
  6. UPDATE: The above dress arrived last night. Turns out I ordered it a size too big (…yay?), and it’s so thin you can see my pants through it. So fuck that. I’m now thinking I’ll just wear a dress I already own (purple, from French Connection, smart but not excessive) and get some wedges from New Look or something.
  7. I bought a ticket to Emerald Street Literary Festival, which is on 11 June. I am not a lit fest person (I don’t really care about authors, honestly; I’d rather read what they’ve written than listen to them talk), but I’m genuinely excited about this one. The three sessions I’ve signed up for are a panel on the pros and cons of EU membership for UK women; a chat with Sarah Perry (actually thrilled for this) and a chat with Maggie O’Farrell (which should spur me to read one of her books.)

Clinch, by Martin Holmén

My old trainer once said that boxing, at its best, makes you feel properly alive. This is wrong. Boxing is at its best when you’re completely empty inside.

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It’s Stockholm, Sweden, in the 1930s. Harry Kvist (“Kvisten”, or “twig”, to his friends, in what can only be irony) is an ex-sailor, ex-boxer, currently a heavyman-cum-debt-collector for whoever wants to hire him. He’s also skilled at tracking down unfaithful spouses, prostitutes, and teenaged runaways. When we first meet him, he is descending on the apartment of the hapless Zetterberg, who has defaulted on a loan. He scares Zetterberg, roughs him up a little, says he’ll come back for the payment tomorrow. So far, so good. But when he comes back, he finds Zetterberg murdered, and himself a person of interest in the inquiry. He’s released after the evidence of Zetterberg’s neighbour clears him, but the police know Kvist rather too well already, and they’re happy to take him in again if they can’t turn up anyone else. He’d rather not have them anywhere near his personal life, so the novel turns into a familiar path for the contemporary thriller: innocent man seeks to save his own skin by uncovering the real wrong-doer.

The reason the police know Kvist so well already is because he’s a practicing homosexual. (In point of fact, he’s bisexual, since he has an involved and very definitely sexual affair with a woman during the second half of the novel, but his relationship with Doris seems devoid of actual feeling. They fuck a lot, but the tumult and conflict of Kvist’s emotions are all directed towards men. It’s men with whom he shares the few moments in the book in which he shows tenderness.) The police have booked him twice, under what they refer to as “paragraph eighteen”—presumably, a Swedish anti-sodomy statute. The inspector who interviews him, Olsson, immediately makes clear his disgust and distaste for this “bloody homophile”, although he does have to grudgingly admit that Kvist is also a hard bastard.

Which he most certainly is. The front cover quote explicitly invites us to compare Holmén’s work with Raymond Chandler’s, which is a hell of an invitation but, as far as I can tell, a completely legitimate one. (Now is probably the time to mention that I have never read Chandler, but I have: listened to Garrison Keillor’s Guy Noir segments since I was six years old; read the Calvin and Hobbes strips where Calvin pretends to be a P.I.; and seen a fair few gangster movies. I feel like the lineaments of the noir genre are pretty well known, anyway.) Clinch commits, with manic glee, to its own atmosphere: it’s set in a perpetually snowy Stockholm winter, full of dark back alleys, shack-like tenement flats, and underground nightclubs for the consumption of illegal liquor. (Prohibition-era Stockholm is basically Prohibition-era Chicago.) Kvist, while not given to quite the level of throwaway wisecracks that we expect from Chandler’s protagonists, is a wryly sarcastic, enjoyably cynical narrator. He is much given to punching people’s lights out while detailing the gruesome shifting of bones in his hand as he connects. As an ex-boxer, he lives by sporting metaphors, and his stock of experience gives him an air of dangerous, world-weary authority as he explains street fighting to us:

I close my eyes, inhale what feels like an ice block, and listen. I’ve had to trust in my hearing many times when I was on the ropes, when the swelling around my eyes was such that I couldn’t even orient myself, or when I was blinded by blood or sweat.

Like many a detective, Kvist also has an alcohol problem and is terrible at relationships—in his case, a wife and daughter set sail for America at least ten years ago, but he has not followed them—but this is all complicated by his sexuality. Sweden actually legalised same-sex intercourse in 1944, and has in general been in the forefront of international LGBT rights during the twentieth century, but this story is happening in the 1930s and so Kvist must still cruise in silence and in danger. Although that is somewhat misleading; in most of the encounters he has, he is the danger. The first sex scene takes place less than thirty pages into the book and ends with Kvist punching into unconsciousness the boy who’s just sucked him off. In this combination of hypermasculine aggressive violence with queer sexuality, Kvist reminded me forcefully of Weeper in Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings: here’s another man who both reinforces and challenges “manliness”. Later, when he first has a sex scene with his mistress, Doris Steiner, the atmosphere is just as violent: from both sides, there are punches, slaps, bloody noses, hair-pulling. Where Holmén is maybe more modern than Chandler is in his willingness to write in detail about the mechanics of fucking itself; some of these scenes border on the pornographic, which is to say that they are excellent, evocative, achieve what they set out to do, and had me bending the pages away from people on the Tube.

Doris is a fascinating creation: she’s the classic noir dame, the bored hot wife of a rich man. She’s also an alcoholic and a heroin addict, and a former film star. We know from the start that there is something off about her, about the way that she meets Kvist: supposedly she has come to him for proof that her maid is thieving from her jewellery box, but she doesn’t seem terribly concerned, and after they fall into bed, we hear no more about it. When she tells Kvist a little more about her life and history, he seems to take it more or less at face value, which is surprising given his cynicism up to now. Is he blinded by lust, or does his indifference to her mean he doesn’t see her as a potential threat? (Or both?) Either way, alarm bells have started ringing for the reader now: surely Doris isn’t all she appears…

Indeed, she isn’t, though not quite in the way I had hoped. Still, the ending is delightfully, unabashedly melodramatic, with its tense showdown in an opulent setting, the iniquities of the rich and powerful finally entered into the ledger of justice. (Even if that justice happens to be extrajudicial.) It’s strong stuff, but Clinch is a fabulously classy twist on pulp fiction: it’ll be a top-notch summer book for readers looking for something diverting but smart, as long as they don’t mind a little blood and bonking.

Many thanks to Tabitha Pelly at Pushkin Vertigo for the review copy. Clinch is published in the UK on 20 May.

LaRose, by Louise Erdrich

Our son will be your son now.

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Up until the last day that I was reading this book, I was having a hard time working out whether I’d be able to review it. It seemed, in a hard-to-explain sort of way, to be resisting me. The premise was phenomenal, biblical: a man who kills a boy in a hunting accident offers to the bereaved parents the rearing of his own five-year-old son in exchange for the life he took. Yet something about the densely plain language seemed not to lend itself to analysis; nor were the rounded but somehow glassy characters being useful. I’ve never before read a Louise Erdrich novel, and there were things—decisions she made about where to cut off a scene, what folktales to recount, the details of those stories—that didn’t make a lot of sense to me. They weren’t obviously nonsensical. It was just that I wasn’t getting them.

Then it occurred to me that this was maybe what it felt like for ethnic-minority readers being made to read the white Western canon of literature, as part of a school class or a university course. Familiar in some ways, because humans are humans and all that, but in the little ways, the details, the shapes that we think stories “naturally” fall into… much more alien. Louise Erdrich is Ojibwe, and her novels have focused on Native Americans; this one, her fifteenth, is partly about forced assimilation (in its flashback sections) and about how identities don’t necessarily fade so much as they become patchwork. “LaRose” has been a family name for five generations, and Erdrich writes about all the things that the second LaRose learned: from her mother, LaRose # 1, how to be an Indian:

how to heal people with songs, with plants, what lichens to eat in an extremity of hunger, how to set snares, jig fish, tie nets, net fish, create fire out of sticks and curls of birchbark. How to sew, how to boil food with hot stones…how to make arrows, a bow, shoot a rifle, how to use the wind when hunting, make a digging stick…carve a flute, play it, bead a bandolier bag.

And from the teachers in Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, LaRose the Second learns other things:

She gave recitations including a poem about the angel in the kitchen. She learned mathematics and memorized the shape of the countries on the globe. She learned American history…Mostly she learned how to do menial labor—how to use a mangle, starch, an iron. She worked ten-hour days in 120 degree heat. She learned how to sew with a machine. How to imagine her mouth sewn shut.

LaRose takes place, essentially, in two time periods. In one, the late ’90s to early 2000s, Landreaux Iron accidentally kills his friend Peter’s son, Dusty. He and his wife, Emmaline, give Peter and his wife, Nola, their son LaRose in exchange, although the transaction turns into a sort of timeshare; LaRose spends half his time with the Ravitches, half with the Irons. There’s a lot going on in this section: the complicated feelings and personal histories of the adults, who have all known each other from childhood; the mental instability of Nola, who clings to LaRose, obsessively bakes cakes, and spends much of the novel contemplating suicide; the violent rebellion of Nola’s daughter Maggie, who carries the responsibility for her mother’s life on her own shoulders, who is famed as a “discipline problem” at school until LaRose’s sisters convince her to try out for the varsity volleyball team, which gives her an outlet for all of her rage. There is Romeo Puyat, a classic fuck-up and former best friend of Landreaux; Landreaux and Emmaline are raising his son, Hollis, while he makes a living by stealing prescription medication from the reservation’s elderly and scamming passersby out of money for gas and booze. Romeo has a long-unaddressed beef with Landreaux, stemming from their school days. His desire to get even will provoke the book’s major plot crisis, such as it is, when he becomes convinced that there was a cover-up the day Dusty died.

The second time period deals with Nola’s and Emmeline’s ancestry (they are, in fact, half-sisters, although they don’t get along terribly well and barely speak to each other over the three-year period that the story covers.) They’re both descended from the original LaRose, a woman whose mother sold her, as a mere child, to a trader in a North Dakota outpost in 1839. The trader, Mackinnon, is a bully and a rapist, but his clerk, Wolfred, tries to protect the girl for as long as he can, and, when he can’t, the two of them kill Mackinnon and flee. LaRose goes to an Indian boarding school but returns to marry Wolfred, with whom she is in love. The two of them are haunted, though, by Mackinnon’s head, which (in one of the many touches that you might call magical realist) pursues them through the forest on their initial flight, bouncing from tree to tree. LaRose already has tuberculosis when she returns from the boarding school, and although she bears five children and holds on for nearly twenty years, she eventually dies of it. The doctor attending her at her death takes her body, for “science”. Despite Wolfred’s pleas, it is never returned to him.

Erdrich repeatedly defines herself, in interviews, as “a storyteller”, and it’s this, I think, that stumped me when I started trying to think about LaRose. It is, very basically, two stories. It can feel as though they’re just there, beginning to end, event lined up after event, without much confusion or complication for a critic’s analysis to shed light upon. But that’s not quite right, because the more I think about those two stories, the more connections I begin to see. Little LaRose (the boy, in the 1999-2003 timeline) walks in other worlds, just as the other LaRoses did: he sees and speaks to Dusty, the boy whom he’s somehow replaced. His emotional intelligence is way beyond his years: he knows how much Nola depends on him, how Emmaline gives him the lion’s share of her attention and love (at the expense of his older sisters) when he’s with them. He doesn’t abuse this awareness or manipulate the people who love him; he just knows. In several scenes, he sees the other LaRoses and hears them speaking to him. He’s the living embodiment of a history: the history of one family, but also the history of a tribe, a nation, a continent, a piece of land. Stolen, swapped, bartered, sacrificed.

If there is an oddness to LaRose (the novel, that is, not the boy), it’s that we never get an adequate sense of what the dead boy, Dusty, was like. He was only four when Landreaux shot him, so perhaps this is unsurprising: the personality of a four-year-old, no matter how developed, has its limitations. And even this, considered from a different angle, makes sense. It is not Dusty himself that matters: the dead are dead, they are elsewhere, in another place. It is the fallout of his death that matters, the fallout of all the trauma in this book. We should mourn the living, Erdrich seems to be saying: Nola, who balances on a chair in the barn with a rope around her neck every day for months, longing to die but not quite able to make the leap; Romeo, who surfs the waves of pills and delusion and resentment until his road-to-Damascus moment; Peter, whose rage surfaces in murderous fantasies; LaRose himself, whose most poignant line, to Maggie, is “Let’s stop being grownups.” The two of them have had to be grownups—caring for their parents’ emotional needs, instead of the other way round—much too soon.

But Nola does come down from her chair; Romeo attends Hollis’s graduation party, and is welcomed; Maggie finds a place and a way to be who she is without fear of punishment; LaRose traverses, peacefully, the worlds of the living and the departed. I hope to read more of Erdrich’s work soon: once you get past the initial sense of disorientation, you’re in the hands of someone who knows both her craft and her history.

Thanks very much to Poppy Stimpson at Corsair Books for the review copy. LaRose was published in the UK on 10 May.

Journeyman + The Violet Hour

April was so efficient a reading month that May was bound to be a bit slower by comparison; literally almost anything would have been. I’ve read nothing but review copies this month so far, and have still only finished four books in twelve days (and written reviews of two of them). So as not to fall behind, I’m putting my reviews for both Journeyman and The Violet Hour into the same post. They’re not desperately similar books, but, like many literary pairings, the more you think about them in conjunction with one another, the more they seem like two different ways of dealing with the same thing.

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Journeyman, by Marc Bojanowski (Granta)

After Daredevils, Bojanowski’s protagonist Nolan reminded me a bit of Jason, in the way that he’s an essentially good man who is often (though, crucially, not always) defined by his passivity. This isn’t Bojanowski’s first novel, but it’s the first of his that I’ve read, and it strikes me that he’s very much a writer of themes. That isn’t to say he doesn’t do them well—the integration of plot points into the service of theme is generally elegant and often slyly surprising—but you can bet your boots that when something does happen in this book, it will be resonant in more ways than one.

It starts as it means to go on. The title is a reference to Nolan’s occupation: he’s a journeyman carpenter. But it’s also, very pointedly, a reference to his identity: he’s a journey-man, one who is always moving, always packing up and heading on. “What’s that saying?” his brother Chance sneers. “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” Nolan’s MO for life, it seems, is to get the hell out of Dodge whenever it starts to look too much like reality—commitment, mortality, what-have-you—is closing in. When he visits Chance in California, it’s meant to be a courtesy call, but he loses his truck and Airstream trailer in an accident and finds himself stranded there, unwillingly putting down what you might start to call roots.

Western literature’s original journey-man is Odysseus (technically I guess it’s probably Gilgamesh, but POETIC LICENSE), whose character becomes defined by war to the extent that he can’t bring himself to just go back home. He has to keep having adventures, keep escaping death, keep being larger than life. Nolan’s relationship to war is much more ambivalent, but equally haunted. The book is set in 2007 or 2008, a time when the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan were real and present to almost every American, and especially to young men of fighting age. Nolan has not enlisted, and neither has Chance. Meanwhile, their father—a shadowy but hugely influential figure in their lives—was a veteran of Vietnam, about which he never spoke. At one point Nolan mentions the way in which participating in war demarcated adulthood for the men of previous generations; now, even those who’ve seen combat are not so much purified and matured by the experience as they are deeply, deeply fucked up. Additionally, since that participation is optional, it’s not clear what can come to take its place. Both brothers are dogged by a feeling of having failed in some way obscure but profound. Chance is an obsessive, writing a thousand-page novel about a Russo-Japanese naval battle and pursuing a serial arsonist in the little town of Burnridge. (Burn-ridge, get it?) Nolan works in construction, represses most of his feelings of guilt and lost-ness, and runs like hell from anything that might tether him.

We’re meant to fear the repressed man—we’re taught that his bottled-up emotions will one day explode, most likely in violence, and probably all over us—but in Journeyman, it’s not Nolan’s repression that’s frightening; it’s Chance’s behaviour. Unstoppably loquacious, clearly unhinged, he babbles about conspiracy theories and death and meaning and consequences; he assaults a man in a pizza parlor in the belief that he is defending civilisation; he is transported to rage by the next door neighbour’s teenaged daughter’s loud music, and pours bleach on their lawn. His mania is precisely the sort of thing that the tidy facade of suburban northern California is meant to hide. But instead of joyous anarchy, it suggests a man who’s come loose from the moorings of his community, even from sanity. Bojanowski’s ending, which is quietly redemptive but far from saccharine, reinforces that: the importance of committing to a place, to people. Of not keeping yourself isolated in the universe.

The Violet Hour, by Katie Roiphe (Virago)

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The other day, I was killing time in a Pret and this old woman came up to me and asked if she could sit at my table. There was another seat free and I wasn’t waiting for anyone, so of course I told her that she could. She sat for a moment, then asked what I was reading. Normally when people ask what you’re reading, they either don’t really care, or they’re mad. Choosing not to commit myself by speaking, lest she was either one, I held up the book so that she could see the front cover. “Great Writers at the End”, she read the subtitle aloud. “I knew a great writer once,” she said.

“Which one?” I asked. I still had one finger in the book, marking my place.

“You probably won’t know her,” she said slowly. She wasn’t that old, really, but she had the face of a smoker and her eyes were rheumy and the words came slowly out of her mouth in the way that I’ve heard words come from people who are on heavy medication.

“Try me,” I said.

She shrugged. “Doris Lessing?”

We talked for forty minutes. Her name was Hetty. Her father had been a South African journalist, had known Mandela. They came to this country when she was five. She seemed to have moved in rarefied circles. She told me she was bipolar. Some of the celebrities she said she’d met were probably lies—she couldn’t explain, for instance, how she knew Paul McCartney or Audrey Hepburn—but some of it was, I think, the truth. She’d nannied for Eric Idle’s children. She had written songs. She sang a fragment of one for me. Her voice was low and sweet, the kind of voice that the 1960s and ’70s liked.

This isn’t really, I know, a review of The Violet Hour, but in a tangential sort of way it is a nod to the sort of thinking that Roiphe’s book provokes. She writes about famous authors just before their deaths, and about how death pervaded their lives and their arts. Many of them were obsessed, fearful of it or romanticizing it or both. Dylan Thomas thought he was dying at thirty and returned to the idea constantly. Susan Sontag refused to discuss her cancer diagnosis; her personal mythology, her exceptionalism, had no room for mortality. John Updike tried to keep death at bay, all his life, with illicit sex: affairs were proof of life. Maurice Sendak was perhaps my favourite of all the featured writers (though to me he is more an artist): his long-undiscussed sexuality, his long-term partner Gene, his dogs, his adoptive son. He seems to have been mischievous, cantankerous and generous in equal measure.

I would have liked to see Roiphe focus more on the work of each writer: their lives and personalities are reasonably interesting, but more judicious close reading of passages would have been nearer to my heart. The work, after all, is what distinguishes them. But there is something extraordinary anyway in hearing about their childhood brushes with disease and disaster, their neediness or their fearlessness or their posturing in the middles of their lives as well as at the ends of them. “All deaths are the same,” Roiphe writes, and that’s what I won’t forget from her book. Hetty, who seemed to have tangoed with greatness, was now a woman with faded curly hair and a slightly trembling hand, drinking coffee across from me on Kentish Town Road and telling me stories. She was just a person, just a human, who would die. I was a young, hungry, sharp-elbowed woman, listening to her voraciously, and I was just a person, just a human, who would die. I’ve met two or three very famous people in my life, and every single one of them, when I looked them in the eye, was just a person. Just a human, who would die. Roiphe quotes George Bernard Shaw, who, as usual, is both pithy and correct: “Don’t try to live forever; you will not succeed.” Nothing wrong with that, this book says.

Thanks very much to Natalie Shaw at Granta, and Grace Vincent at Virago, for the review copies. Journeyman and The Violet Hour were published in the UK on 5 May.

Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts

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Sadiq Khan: the new Mayor of London, a self-identified feminist and lover of chocolate HobNobs (aka my kind of guy)

  1. Didn’t do one of these last week because I just hadn’t written enough about books to justify yet another . So this is a two-week catch-up.
  2. The Paris Review interviews with famous authors are all online and free to read. I had no idea. I thought you had to buy the four big fat volumes of them. I might do that anyway, but for now, holy shit, it’s the Grail.
  3. The BBC and Netflix are collaborating to re-produce Watership Down as a four-part series starring John Boyega and James McAvoy. I don’t know how to feel about this. I’m feeling all the feelings.
  4. Donald Trump is the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. Which…just…I mean, there’s nothing left to say about this, really. Although the ever-illuminating Samantha Field’s analysis of Trump from a progressive Christian point of view gave a name to many of the horrors of his candidacy.
  5. Sadiq Khan was elected Mayor of London: the first Muslim mayor the city’s ever had, and nice to see Labour back in City Hall after eight years of Conservative buffoonery in the form of Boris Johnson. I voted for him (Khan, I mean.) I wasn’t used to voting on paper—I’ve only ever voted postally in this country, and my memories of accompanying my dad to the American polling station as a kid involved those shonky-looking electronic voting booths. It was kind of amazing to literally put a pencil mark on a piece of paper and stick that paper in a box. It made me feel closer to the democractic process, somehow.
  6. Brown eyeliner. Is a thing. That I actually rather like. It’s a softer look than my usual aggressive line of black, and has the added advantage of not rubbing off on the Chaos’s face/shirt/forehead (although that may just be because it’s a better brand.)
  7. Last week was basically pretty shit. A family member died, I felt like a disappointment at work, and I barely got any writing done. The only thing that was okay was that the weather was so beautiful, I went to Parliament Hill Fields for lunch every day.
  8. We went out to dinner in Great Portland Street with some old college friends on Friday. The restaurant was lovely, the tasting menu was delicious, everything was going well, until loud angry shouting noises began emanating from the kitchens. They were repetitive, and seemed to be relating to the fact that a delivery driver was demanding cash payment immediately, without the approval of a manager. After about two minutes of this (and the restaurant was so small that literally everyone could hear it), Lydia, who is a police officer, stood up and—in her glittery night-out top, holding her warrant card—wordlessly walked into the kitchens. It was probably one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. She came back five minutes later and, when questioned, said only, “I told him to shut up and go away unless he wanted to be charged with a public order offense.” Our friend Adam asked, with disappointment, why she hadn’t arrested him, to which she replied, “On a night out? Think of the paperwork!”
  9. Last weekend, the Chaos was going to be in Cambridge on Saturday. Given the bad week, I was really worried I’d spend the whole day in bed, eating cookies. So I made a plan—and then it was gloriously upended by my cousin Sarah, who is a tour guide at the National Theatre. She put out a Facebook plea for people to turn up on Saturday so that she could do an Architecture Tour, which is partly outside (it was gorgeous weather). In the event, I was the only person there, so I got a private tour, which was great: I learned loads about the building (including the rationale behind its ugly design), and we went into the tech workshops, where she showed me a half-finished set and loads of props, most of them horrible and gory (severed heads, bloody leg bones). I also saw one of the horse puppets from War Horse, which is hanging from the ceiling in the backstage area behind the Lyttelton Theatre. It’s just as complex and beautiful a piece of machinery as you’d expect.
  10. Do you guys know Tinyletter? It’s sort of an email subscription service, I think. I subscribe to one called Friday Poem: does what it says on the tin, is often beautiful and always timely. Here’s a different one by Helena Fitzgerald that really rang true with me, on public grief for celebrities as a rehearsal for the real thing.

Daredevils, by Shawn Vestal

It wasn’t so horrible. Nothing ever is.

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Loretta is a fifteen-year-old Mormon girl, bored out of her wits in Short Creek, Arizona, circa 1974. All that keeps her going is the illicit thrill of sneaking out of the house to meet her forbidden boyfriend, Bradshaw—although Bradshaw, who’s both a good deal older and a good deal dumber than Loretta, is starting to lose a bit of his shine, too. He’s convinced they belong together and wants to run away; Loretta, with a shrewd sense of his myriad character failings, has been putting him off. As it turns out, she doesn’t have to decide whether to stay or go, because she’s caught by her father at the end of chapter one. Her parents, horrified by her rebelliousness (and, really, by what they see as her harlotry), decide to solve the problem by marrying her to Dean Harder, a fellow Mormon albeit one with a more fundamentalist bent: Loretta will be his second wife.

Not long after their marriage (which, Dean promises Loretta’s father, won’t be consummated until she’s sixteen; the quotation above is from the night of Loretta’s sixteenth birthday, after Dean comes to her room to assert his marital rights), Dean’s father dies. Estranged from his siblings for much of his life, Dean moves his wives and children back up to Idaho to assert his right over the family farm. There, Loretta will meet Jason, Dean’s nephew, and events will bring them—along with Jason’s part-Shoshone friend, Boyd—to taking the drastic step of running away from their own lives.

You could be forgiven for expecting those two paragraphs to comprise the first forty or so of the book’s pages, and for the rest of the novel to follow Loretta, Jason, and Boyd on their picaresque road adventure. That’s not how Shawn Vestal structures his novel, though. He’s much more interested in getting us to understand how people manage to live like this, how the weight of community expectations and disappointed hopes and pure dumb venal humanity makes people what they are. He’s interested, too, in subtly but constantly undermining our beliefs about characters. Loretta, for instance, is (obviously) young and good-looking, but she’s neither a self-conscious Lolita nor an airhead. She is, instead, world-weary (without actually being worldly) and analytical. Here she is assessing Bradshaw on page eight:

He loves to be listened to. He loves to tell her about the way he handled something, the way he has put someone in their place. He is telling her about his new boss, the turf farmer from St. George… His laugh is like a chugging motor. Why does he think she wants to hear this?

Jason, meanwhile, is a kid whose genuine innate sensitivity wars with his genuine innate cowardice. Neither is a good trait for an Idaho farm boy in the ’70s. He really does hate violence—a local cull of the pesty jackrabbits, using baseball bats, makes him physically sick—and we as readers are sympathetic towards that. Yet he also bottles important decisions, time and again, and even he is enmeshed in a block-headed patriarchal view of the world that leaves him utterly confused when he “rescues” Loretta only to find that she is the one who knows what she’s doing.

There are, as well, several chapters narrated from the point of view of Ruth, Dean’s first wife. There are only two or three of them; they’re isolated pockets of narrative, and they give us a wholly different picture of Ruth from the one that Loretta sees. They show us how such hardness, such impenetrability, can be developed—through childhood trauma, through the establishment of boundaries that identify her and her family as members of the persecuted and oppressed. (She is a survivor of the 1953 raid by the US government on the Short Creek Mormon community; you can dislike polygamy as much as the next person and still be deeply unimpressed by the way that raid was handled.) The final chapter of Ruth’s shows us the choice she made that led to Dean, shows us her determination and grit and, yes, her analytical character, in a way that reminded me of no one so strongly as Loretta. Ruth is what Loretta might have been, might still be, unless she finds a way to escape, to live outside of expectation.

In between chapters narrated from Jason’s and Loretta’s point of view, we get first-person monologues from Evel Knievel. This is less irrelevant than it sounds; Jason idolizes him. Indeed, when we first meet Jason, he’s driving with his grandfather (the one whose death precipitates Dean’s move back to Idaho) to see Knievel jump the Snake River Canyon on a rocket-propelled motorcycle. The jump fails, although Knievel survives. In fact, if you read Knievel’s Wikipedia entry, you’ll come to the conclusion that the majority of his career consisted of failures which he happened to survive. It was part of his appeal: people came to see him dare the impossible, but they also came to hope that they’d see him die. This idea—that failure, as Knievel puts it, is when you don’t try to get back up—has implications for the rest of the book. Jason is a failure, for much of it, because he doesn’t fight back, doesn’t speak out or stand up against the injustices he knows are occurring in the Harder household and at school where his friend Boyd is the butt of regular racist bullying. He’s a classic Good Guy (unlike Knievel, whose monologues include an anecdote about him beating a “faggoty” journalist half to death with a baseball bat): not actively bad or destructive, and possessed of the belief that this entitles him, metaphorically, to a cookie.

In Jason’s case, the cookie is Loretta, and one of the things that made me really, really like Daredevils—perhaps the major deciding factor—is that he doesn’t get that cookie. When the three of them run away, it’s Boyd whom Loretta is interested in (although even that is temporary), and Jason cannot square this with the reality that he’s been taught to expect from movies and television:

It has all gone wrong so quickly… She is the one flirting with Boyd. She is the one who has not looked at him with any kind of special look, any sign whatsoever… It has all been her. He keeps telling himself that he is her rescuer—because that is who he is supposed to be, that is how the story goes—and yet it has always been her.

Fifteen is not a bad age to be learning that the story does not always go the way you think it goes, although I will confess to feeling a slight pang for Jason. It is embarrassing, to be young and convinced that life is just like fiction, and to bump up for the first time against the fact that it is not, at all. He is old enough, mature enough, to be vaguely embarrassed, but he is not quite old enough or mature enough to take his ego out of the equation.

And this, from Loretta, made me want to fist-pump, with the way that Vestal captures the resigned disappointment of a very young woman who already knows that it’s a rare man indeed who won’t let you down:

She had come tonight thinking what a nice boy Jason was, what a simple clean thing, and that he and she were a team, whatever that meant, and she had thought maybe it meant something. Perhaps it would grow, this fresh, clean thing. But soon enough she saw Jason’s irritation with Boyd, saw his confusion and jealousy, and realized he was simply another part, as was Boyd, of the wide world that looked at her and wanted to turn her into something of theirs.

Loretta doesn’t have time for this, for them; she is way ahead of them already, and eventually they realize it. In Daredevils, she’s the real daredevil, the one who ends up driving into the dawn with barely any money or possessions, but with the infinite freedom of a soul that owes no one anything.

Many thanks to Tabitha at ONE Pushkin for the review copy. Daredevils was published in the UK on 5 May.

My Cousin Rachel, by Daphne DuMaurier

“There are some women, Philip, good women very possibly, who through no fault of their own impel disaster.”

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~~here be not-really-spoilers, but I do tell you my opinion of the novel’s central “crime”~~

The excellent Daphne DuMaurier suffered, during her lifetime, from critics not knowing where to put her. They tended to settle for dismissing her work as feminine pot-boiling; Jamaica Inn and Rebecca, probably her two most famous novels, are deeply melodramatic and romantic, so you can see the justification in a way. My Cousin Rachel, as Sally Beauman points out in the introduction to this edition, is a different kettle of fish, because there is so obviously some serious social commentary going on under the surface. Quite apart from that, the plotting is so good, the tension wound so tight, that even crusty old 1950s newspaper reviewers had to admit that it showed incredible story-telling ability. (Dubious though “story-telling” was considered to be in the literary world of the 1950s, it has always been a quality that people admire, willingly or not. It’s harder than you think to just tell a story well. Look at how people try, at dinner parties or in the pub, and how often they don’t quite manage it.)

Sally Beauman’s introduction is invaluable for another reason, which is that it makes the reader aware at once that Philip Ashley, our narrator, is not to be trusted—or is to be trusted only contingently. Philip, and his older cousin and guardian Ambrose, are inveterate woman-haters; Ambrose can’t stand the “chatter” and “vulgarity” of feminine company, to the extent that he refuses to have any woman servants in his house, and dismisses Philip’s nurse when he catches her paddling the little boy with a hairbrush. (Not because he finds the corporal punishment distasteful, though; just because she has “great coarse hands” and is “too unintelligent to comprehend” how to properly discipline a young gentleman.) When Ambrose is advised by his doctors to winter on the Continent for the sake of his health, then, he goes alone. It’s a huge shock when he writes back to England to say, firstly, that he’s met a distant female cousin by chance who turns out to be a bearable companion, and then, secondly, that he has married her.

This woman is, of course, cousin Rachel, or rather, my cousin Rachel, of the title. The possessive is important. Philip is a deeply insecure young man (he’s twenty-three when we first meet him, twenty-five when the novel ends) whose sheltered, privileged and eccentric upbringing has equipped him astoundingly badly for the realities of adult life and emotion. Ambrose is his father figure, his brother figure, the only male authority he has ever known—the only authority of any kind he has ever known—and the love he feels towards him is both fiercely familial and vaguely Oedipal. Upon being notified of Ambrose’s marriage, he is sick with jealousy and frustration at the thought of having to share his beloved cousin with anyone else, especially (God forbid) a woman. He spends a good deal of time inventing identities, none of them flattering, for cousin Rachel:

One moment monstrous, like poor Molly Bate at the West Lodge, obliging one to avert the eyes from sheer delicacy, and the next pale and drawn, shawl-covered in a chair, with an invalidish petulance about her, while a nurse hovered in the background, mixing medicines with a spoon. On emoment middle-aged and forceful, the next simpering and younger than Louise, my cousin Rachel had a dozen personalities or more and each one more hateful than the last.

Such imaginings are, of course, poisonous, and poison is the book’s central metaphor (more on that shortly). Ambrose dies in Italy quite suddenly, of symptoms much like those that preceded the death of his father from a brain tumour. Philip, who has received panicked, fearful letters from Ambrose, suspects that all is not as it seems, but when he arrives in Florence, he can find no answers, and his cousin Rachel has left the city. Once he returns to England, however, he receives a letter from her: she is in Plymouth. More out of a sense of duty than anything else, he invites her down to stay, and it becomes immediately evident that Rachel is nothing like his ridiculous fantasies.

What’s immediately evident to the reader is that Rachel is, at least to some extent, playing him. She makes a great point of not minding whether he smokes indoors or puts his feet on the chairs; she sets about beautifying the house, but in a subtle, charming way, asking the opinions of the servants and getting Philip interested too. As I read I thought of her as a proto-Cool Girl (thanks, Gillian Flynn, for that concept): the woman all the men like because she challenges none of their existing prejudices. Of course, Rachel challenges Philip’s prejudices about her, but that’s as far as it goes. She does not require him to change anything about his way of thinking, his mode of living. Cleverly, this results in some actual changes in Philip’s thinking and living, but only because she does not insist on them. It’s a classic use of soft power, and it’s the reason people think of emotional manipulation and passive aggression both as feminine and as inferior ways of fighting. For a very long time, these were the only social and emotional weapons that women had.

Another classically female weapon is poison, which I mentioned above as the book’s central metaphor. DuMaurier barely mentions it by name in most of the 300+ pages: one of Ambrose’s letters wonders, amongst other ravings, “Could they be trying to poison me?” No more is heard of it until the discovery of laburnum seeds amongst Rachel’s possessions, at the very end of the novel. (Even that discovery is inconclusive, as Philip’s childhood friend Louise points out. Rachel is a keen gardener and orders plants from all over Europe; that she possesses the seeds of a plant poisonous to cattle and humans but used extensively in ornamental horticulture is hardly a smoking gun.) But venom—the slow, insidious drip of it—is present throughout the book. It’s there when Ambrose takes little Philip to see a hanged man when he is only seven or eight, a man who killed his wife. It’s there when fear and paranoia start to percolate through Ambrose’s mind. It’s there when Philip grows envious of anyone sharing Ambrose, and again when he falls in love with Rachel and seeks to control and limit his neighbours’ access to her. It’s there when he makes reckless withdrawals of jewels and rewrites wills for her (again, without her ever mentioning the inheritance or money.) This naive, romantic, stunted, immature man-child’s entire life is poison, all the way down to the root.

And Rachel might very well be poison too, although the great glory of the novel is that it’s impossible for us to know for sure. That exercise of soft power, if she’s doing it intentionally, is peerless; she never asks Philip for anything. Indeed, she seems genuinely embarrassed when he tries to give her a very valuable necklace, and she immediately returns it to his lawyer. And yet… Ambrose’s death is suspicious, and Philip begins to experience similar symptoms. Is this just what happens to hopelessly under-socialized men when they encounter worldly women—they begin to lose their minds? Do Philip and Ambrose simply share a genetic inheritance that dooms them to early deaths? Or is Rachel a calculating gold-digger and a killer? She is certainly more sexually sophisticated than poor Philip (possibly the only time I felt sorry for him is when he loses his virginity to her, then believes that this means they will be married. She is really horrified when she realizes this, and points out that he has never actually asked her to marry him, much less received a positive verbal response. Rachel is modern when it comes to sex—she thinks of the seduction as a thank-you present for the jewelry Philip eventually suceeds in giving her—and Philip is behind the times even for his own, unspecified but probably mid-Victorian, era.)

If she is a killer—and personally, I think she is—I can’t say I blame her too much. We are told that, like Becky Sharp, she grew up abroad, only half-English (and therefore, unspokenly, only half worth protecting), and without parental guidance. DuMaurier delicately omits to discuss the details of her former life, but from the conversations Rachel has with her financial adviser Rainaldi, we can guess that it involved a form of high-class prostitution: born of a good family, attending the best parties in Florence and Venice, but trading sex for financial stability nonetheless. If her behaviour has a pattern (find a wealthy, inexperienced man; become indispensable to him; marry, kill, inherit), it’s a logical one. And perhaps she never meant to kill, at first. Perhaps she married and realized that Ambrose was intolerable, and only then decided she couldn’t wait another thirty years.

Rachel suffers the sort of fate that most sexually liberated, autonomous, frightening women had to suffer in novels up until very recently. (You’ll have to read it to find out exactly what happens, though; I shan’t give it away.) DuMaurier’s brilliance is to keep us asking questions—did she really kill anyone? Is Philip merely a fool or is he actually abusive?—until we begin to wonder whether such women deserve their fates at all, no matter what we think they did. To suggest that a woman doesn’t deserve punishment for something, anything, is a slyly radical move even now; DuMaurier made it in 1951.

Many thanks to Poppy Stimpson at Virago for the review copy. My Cousin Rachel was published as a Virago Modern Classic on 5 May.

April Superlatives

April was a shockingly good month for reading: I finished sixteen books. Chunking four books from my TBR at a time seems to really work! On the downside, I’ve realized that I have so many books requested from publishers to review that it’s been impossible to review anything that I’ve read outside of that. I’m going to cut down severely on publisher requests after next month (not much I can do about it now because May’s pre-pubs have already been sent to me)–but focusing on the books I really want to read, as opposed to the books I think I might as well accept for review, is something I’m looking forward to.

most thought-altering: Daughters of the North, by Sarah Hall. A genuine dystopia, for once (people tend to use the word when they mean “post-apocalyptic” or even just “bad”, but Hall’s novel really does feature a repressive, terrifying government, one that tries to control the population by forcibly implanting coils in all women of reproductive age.) The story of our heroine’s escape, life on a rebel collective, and eventual militarization is fascinating, disturbing, and totally up-ends the things you think you believe about human behaviour.

best UK publishing debut: Foreign Soil, by Maxine Beneba Clarke. A collection of short stories that utterly blew me away, each one perfect and containing a novel’s worth of emotion and development in a tiny space. It feels like such a cliché to call them “gem-like”, but that’s the word my brain wants to use. Buy it and read it, and buy Clarke’s next book too.

most unexpected surprise:  A Month With Starfish, Bev Jackson’s memoir of her month spent on Lesbos volunteering to aid refugees. It’s such a humane and generous book, making both the refugees and the volunteers real people, instead of nameless, faceless statistics or stories on the news. Really worth reading if you can get hold of it; it’s £6.99 on Kindle.

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most thoroughly comforting, a warm bath of a book: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers. Oh how I loved this. There’s an interspecies lesbian romance, a human with dwarfism in love with an AI, plenty of fascinating galactic diversity, and a basically happy ending. It’s written with utter control and limpidity, and it made me happy like a good ensemble-cast TV show makes you happy. [insert Firefly reference here]

best thriller: The Turning Tide, by Brooke Magnanti. Complex thriller from former escort Belle du Jour, whose Diary of a London Call Girl was my guilty pleasure throughout university (but especially just before Mods.) It turns out she can write fiction, too. Maybe a little too complex (there are several different plot strands, not all obviously related), but I enjoyed it hugely; it’s topical, political, and socially aware.

best teenager: The Glorious Heresies, by Lisa McInerney. Five people in Cork’s criminal underbelly–a gangster, his mother, a prostitute, a teenage drug dealer, and his alcoholic dad–are connected over the years. On the shortlist for the Baileys Prize and I’m hoping it wins. Ryan Cusack is the best, most complicatedly believable teenager that I’ve read for years.

most disillusioning: The Exclusives, by Rebecca Thornton. Two best friends are awful to each other at boarding school, then must reconcile 18 years later. You will never look at boarding schools the same way again.

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party I was late to: A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. LeGuin. Deservedly a classic. It’s written in quite a portentous, old-fashioned style, but the story of Ged, who needs to learn the limits and responsibilities of his immense power, is never going to get old. And yes, I object to the erasure/belittling of women’s magic, but. It’s still a good book. I read the other two in the original Earthsea trilogy, The Tombs of Atuan and The Farthest Shore, at the start of the bank holiday weekend. Their ethos is one of balance and goodness and maintaining equilibrium, and it’s really quite beautiful.

true love: Selected Poems of Sylvia Plath. I love her. I love her frightening, visual imagination, and the way motherhood repels her as well as attracting her, and I love how she wrote through madness. I just love her. The end. (I’ve mentioned before that someone should set “Daddy” to music, and I’ll say it again. Same goes for “Tulips”, I think.)

most evocative: The Sunlight Pilgrims, by Jenni Fagan.  In the grip of a global winter, a lost young man, a single mother, and a transitioning teenager find friendship and love with each other in a Scottish caravan park. Fagan is good on atmosphere and the effect is quite lovely, although the book as a whole feels anti-climactic somehow.

most engrossing: I read The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver in two days, glued to the sofa and twiddling my hair breathlessly through most of a Saturday.  I’ve always loved Kingsolver, but this novel–the one that made her name, about an evangelical missionary’s family in the Congo in 1959–is really something else. Transcendent, and highly recommended.

ruby

most disturbing: Cynthia Bond’s Ruby, a tale of Satanism and the rape and murder of children in East Texas. It is beautiful and moving but it is also incredibly dark. Also, if you are a woman, you may have difficulty trusting any men at all for up to forty-eight hours after reading it. Sorry. (Also, Becoming/Unbecoming, a graphic novel memoir by an artist called Una about growing up in Yorkshire under the shadow of the Ripper murders. It’s about so much more than that, too; it’s about what happens when a culture hates women, and thinks they deserve all the violence meted out to them. I am very glad it is not the 1970s anymore, although I’m sanguine about the amount of hatred and violence that remains.)

most formally playful: The Cauliflower, by Nicola Barker, is a fragmented novel that explores the life of Sri Ramakrishna, a late nineteenth-century Indian guru who was thought to be God. It’s a very self-aware, constructed novel, and its reputation preceded it, so I expected it to be deeply annoying. Instead, it was very amusing and a little disturbing, shaking your ideas about how the public performance of faith works. Good stuff.

up next: After the bank holiday, I’ll need to read Shawn Vestal’s Daredevils, from ONE Pushkin, to review (it’s supposedly a combination of Mormons and motorcycles). I’ve also got Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters lined up for soon afterwards.