Sandlands, by Rosy Thornton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

07. A Manual for Cleaning Women, Lucia Berlin

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

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

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

08. The Queen of the Night, by Alexander Chee

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo, by Boris Fishman

“You want to adopt, adopt a child from a place that you know.”

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Maya and Alex Shulman-Rubin live in New Jersey with their adopted son, Max. Alex’s parents, Eugene and Raisa—Soviet Jewish emigrés who have built their food import business into a small empire—live nearby, popping over to socialize and cook. Maya’s parents are still in the Ukraine; she doesn’t see them often, but she’s happy enough in the States, working as a radiologist and caring for her family. Until Max turns eight and starts behaving strangely: running away, sitting in streams, collecting grass. The Shulman-Rubins begin to worry. How much do they really know about their son—where he came from, what strange heritage might be surfacing? All they have to go on are the parting words from Max’s birth mother, eighteen-year-old Laurel from Montana: “You’re the mother,” she tells Maya. “You will raise him as you see fit. But I want to ask you for one thing… Please don’t let my baby do rodeo.”

As Max’s behaviour becomes increasingly erratic (though never violent), Maya decides the only way to lay their fears (and any ghosts there might be) to rest is to take Max back to the land of his birth. She doesn’t drive, so although Alex is reluctant (an understatement; he thinks it’s a terrible idea), the three of them set off together on a road trip from New Jersey to Montana, hoping to find some answers.

It’s a quixotic premise, and the book continues in that vein. What Maya seeks (it’s all about her; Alex is sort of a background character) is not clear, to her or to anyone else, and least of all to the reader. The developing strain on their marriage is obvious, and its source is, in large part, Maya’s inability to pin down what she wants out of this trip or how she plans to go about getting it. Alex is a much preciser man, though also a martyr: happy to retain the moral upper hand by passive-aggressively submitting to his wife’s every demand, no matter how patently illogical it seems to him. The second chapter of the book details how they meet and marry, and it was that chapter that pulled me into the story: everything that happens to the Shulman-Rubins is a direct consequence of their visa-marriage, when Maya and Alex are twenty-three, barely old enough to know what they’re doing. One of the clevernesses of Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo is that it details how romantic youthfulness can curdle, over time, into frustration with each other’s weaknesses. Maya is spontaneous, warm, and enigmatic, sure, but she’s also irresponsible, self-centered, and indecisive. Alex is rational, solid and sensible, but he’s also controlling, dismissive, and a coddled mama’s boy. Spend enough time with them, and you’ll find them just as infuriating and hurtful as they clearly find each other. You’ll also probably be just as invested.

What did surprise me about the book as a whole was the general attitude to adoption that the characters displayed. Maya and Alex adopt Max as an infant in 2004, and the main action of the book takes place in 2012. Yet Eugene Rubin, Alex’s father, has lines like these:

“Of course those parents sprang him on you the way that they did… And got away without ever telling you why. Rodeo?” He laughed in an ugly way. He was finally saying things he had kept back because he was kind. “What is that? A lie. But you ate it.” He stared at Maya and bellowed, “What didn’t they tell you?”

That’s an extreme example, of course, but the first chapter’s set-up—that Max is a problem child—relies on similarly odd, and seemingly outdated, ideas about child development. Eugene and Raisa are horrified to learn that Max sleeps not in his bed but on the floor, and that he collects and labels types of grass, and that he has been lobbying his parents to let him sleep outside in a tent. This, and his running away, are the indicators of delinquency that the reader is given. At no point does anyone suggest that this is basically fairly normal eight-year-old behaviour: the testing of social norms and boundaries, the collector’s obsessiveness, the experimentation with leaving the comforts and bonds of home. I’m pretty sure that my eight-year-old brother—as biological and non-adopted as they come—loved tents and catalogued his possessions, too, and running away isn’t exactly unheard of, either. Sure, Max gets pretty far; and sure, mothers worrying about their bonds with their adopted children is also not unheard of. But it strikes me as odd that the Rubins take these things as a definitive proof that there is a Problem that needs to be Solved. The same is true of Eugene’s argument about the birth parents, one that Maya repeats in internal monologues. Why would a pair of eighteen-year-olds give up a newborn? Aren’t there obvious reasons (not enough money; not enough stability; not enough maturity) without having to look for something sinister?

Maybe we’re meant to feel this bewildered by the main characters. Maybe this is part of us understanding that the immigrant experience in America is one that turns you around, makes you an outsider all your life even as you seek to assimilate, changes your perceptions of who you are and what you can expect from other people. It’s a strength and weakness of the book that I honestly can’t decide whether this is the case.

Fishman’s writing is impossible to fault, especially in its descriptive sections. He writes with precision about the emotional currents between fighting people; he writes sex well; he writes perfectly about the landscape of the American West:

The sign, its blue uncannily matched to the head-beating blue of the sky, was in the shape of the state. The circle at its heart divided, inversely, into snow-capped peaks rising above a lemony sun. But the sky was so general in every direction over the prairie they had been crossing, which was so flat it looked pressed with an iron, that she would not have been surprised to see the sun rolling along the fields rather than up in the heavens.

There is an interesting hitch in the rhythms of his prose, a slight obliqueness, that is like the written equivalent of a trace of a foreign accent: hard to track, hard to identify, nevertheless making itself known. It means that sometimes you have to reread, particularly the words that encircle dialogue, to grasp the logistics of a scene, or the mechanics of a complex emotion. It’s an enriching way to consume a book, though it is time-consuming.

There is always a vague spectre of disaster hanging over the road trip that comprises the book’s second half, although what species of disaster it might be is left up to the reader to theorize. The ending is ambiguous, but hopeful: Alex and Maya’s marriage will endure, though it won’t ever be the same; their love for their son is unchanged. And the meaning of “don’t let my baby do rodeo”? It would be cruel to give it away (though Fishman leaves this, too, a little ambiguous), but there’s a metaphor there: rodeo is about wrestling and wrangling, about asserting control, about putting yourself in the way of terrible harm—life-changing injuries or even death—in order to master something larger than yourself. It’s exhilarating and invigorating, but it is also violent, masculine and aggressive. Max’s birth father, Tim, was crippled by a bull in a rodeo at the age of eighteen. It’s the prayer of every mother: don’t let my baby do rodeo. Don’t let my baby come to harm. Don’t let my baby’s heart harden against the world. Don’t let my baby be hurt.

Many many thanks to Tabitha Pelly at ONE Pushkin for the review copy. Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo was published in the UK on 14 July.

Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts

  • My birthday was on Monday. I took the day off work, made pancakes, went hat shopping, went book shopping, went to an art exhibit, came home, called my mum, made my own cake (from this recipe by She Cooks She Eats), and then we had pizza. It was all very nice.
  • It’s been hot in London this week. Like, really motherf*ckin’ hot. Before anyone starts mocking the Brits for their weather weakness, please bear in mind that a) I grew up in Virginia, where it’s often 90 degrees (Fahrenheit; that’s 32 Celsius, kids) in the shade by mid-May, and humid, so it’s not like I don’t know what heat is, and b) in Virginia, every building is designed to deal with the heat. Even the ones that were built pre-air conditioning; my parents’ house is from about 1890, and they’re not legally allowed to install a/c, but it was built to allow cool breezes (when there are any) to drift through the whole building. My office in London, by contrast, has no air conditioning and is designed to keep us warm in the Victorian winters (although, as I can attest, it does a pretty crap job at that, too). There are no breezes and we’re all miserable.
  • Angela Eagle has stepped down from her bid to be leader of the Labour Party. This is sad, partly because Piers Morgan has decided to play on it by suggesting that perhaps women just aren’t good enough (his words, y’all. His actual words). Mostly, though, I’m sad that the team on Dead Ringers won’t be able to satirize her anymore. (“I may sound like a nervous badger, but when I want something, I take it! And then I put it back. And cry when the police come.”)
  • Yoga isn’t something I’m particularly good at; my flexibility and upper arm strength are nil (though my balance isn’t bad) – but I’ve been doing it for nearly two months through work and I am, I think, getting a bit stronger. I’ve only got another week of it left, though, so if I want to continue, I’ll have to find a class near home. I’d like to carry on, but like everything else, it costs money, which I soon won’t have much of. I know it’s the sort of thing worth spending money on, though. Ugh. Someone help me to convince myself?
  • I’m 13 books into #20booksofsummer, and have finally read the first on my list which I really wasn’t into: Raw Spirit, by Iain Banks. He may have been a brilliant fiction writer, but in person he strikes me as a self-indulgent blowhard with too much money, a less funny Bill Bryson. Shame.
  • Kodasema is an Estonian architecture group that’s designed a beautiful, tiny pre-fab house (the KODA) that can move with you. It only takes seven hours to put up, in total (I spend more time than that at work every day), it’s green as hell, and it’s unbelievably good-looking. The downsides are that the ceiling is only 7’1″ (the Chaos is 6’7″), and no website seems to have information on prices. Still…

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06. The Unredeemed Captive, by John Demos

51ekjmutwolWhere I read it: in bed at the end of a very, very busy weekend in June seeing my parents and brother

I’m on book 13 of 20 Books of Summer, but I’m way behind on reviews (even though I’m keeping them brief!) so here’s another one.

In 1703, the village of Deerfield, Massachusetts was raided by a French and Indian war party. The town’s Puritan minister, John Williams, was taken captive along with his wife and their five children. Mrs. Williams, heavily pregnant, died en route to Canada;   John Williams was ransomed two and a half years later, and most of his children too were eventually returned to him. Only one was “unredeemed”: Eunice, five years old at the time of her capture, remained with the Mohawks. The Unredeemed Captive is about Williams’s attempts over many decades to free his daughter—to redeem her not only physically (by bringing her back) but spiritually (by reinculcating in her the Puritan traditions of her childhood). Expeditions to release her, negotiations between French Canadian and colonial English governments, intelligence from fur trappers and merchant traders: all were in vain. Eunice forgot how to speak English within a few years of her capture, converted to a frontier form of Catholicism, married a young Mohawk, raised children with him, and above all—when finally located and visited by what remained of her family—refused to return to Massachusetts.

It’s a fascinating premise, and John Demos, a Yale historian, tells it with due attention to historical context. The French and Indian wars are a complicated and frankly bewildering time in American colonial history; the fact that they occurred pre-Revolution, also, means that they tend to be glossed over during American school history classes. I knew virtually nothing about them beyond the fact that they had happened. Demos digs deep into the implications of Eunice’s captivity: because French Canadians had developed a level of co-existence with Indian tribes and, in some communities, lived together with them, the world into which Eunice was plunged was one of what the Puritans regarded as spiritual heresy. By forgetting her catechism in favour of the pagan-tinted Catholicism of Frenchified Mohawks, not only was John Williams’s daughter lost to him in this life; she was lost to him in eternity, as well, unless he could retrieve—redeem—ransom her. The connotations of all of those words are not accidental.

Demos uses contemporary sources to excellent effect: sermons, letters and diaries feature heavily, particularly those of John Williams and his son, Eunice’s brother, Stephen. He  acknowledges the problem with relying on the written word—that we cannot know what Eunice thought or felt—though there is one surviving letter from her, and he analyzes its text with a thoughtful tenderness that suggests a true investment in his subject. Elsewhere, he freely admits to speculation, and writes sections in italics that describe turning points in the drama: the trek to Canada, the marriage of Eunice with her Mohawk husband, the meeting between Eunice and her father after many decades, and what might have been going through her head.

If the novelistic approach here clashes with the slightly dry facts and figures in other places (Demos ensures that if we’re confused by the vagaries of the French and Indian wars, it’s not for lack of information), I’m willing to give it a pass: the book is so illuminating on a period I know so little about, and so generous in its examinations of how the religious, social, and political currents of a whole world affect the beliefs and actions of individuals. It is, in short, the kind of book that tells a story, situated within a wider context (Demos admits freely that he likes history for its storytelling potential). It approaches history in the same way as my best teachers did at school: as a way of making sense of people.

The Unredeemed Captive, by John Demos (New York: Papermac, 1996 [1994])

Summer Reading 101

Vulture did a feature on “beach reads” this week (which I stumbled upon by way of Vintage Books’s Twitter feed). Whoever wrote the piece identified three things a book needs to be a good beach read: “narrative momentum, a transporting sense of place, and ideally, a touch of the sordid.” Just so, I thought, applying these criteria in quick succession to the books I have mentally begun to select for the six-hour train journey to (and subsequent five days in) St. Ives next month. John Le Carré’s The Tailor of Panama passed the tests with flying colours, as anything by Le Carré would. Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Marking Time, the second of the Cazalet Chronicles? Sure – one out of three at least (a transporting sense of place), and the turmoil of family relationships in war provides, I think, a touch of the sordid, even if the book itself is tasteful in the extreme. Neal Stephenson’s The System of the World? Hell yes to all of the above.

I realized, at that point, that there were plenty of books, new and old, which I’ve already read this year that would be absolutely cracking beach reads – not silly or fluffy, nor harrowing and dark, but absorbing, well paced, atmospheric. Hence this: a list of books I truly think cannot be beaten for this year’s holiday reading.

NEW BOOKS

Clinch, by Martin Holmén (my review)

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A sexy retro-noir about a bisexual ex-boxer in 1930s Stockholm, searching for a murderer in order to clear his own name. It’s sharp and surprising, and the setting is perfectly rendered. I called this “the thinking person’s beach read, as long as you don’t mind a little blood and bonking”, an assessment which I stand by unreservedly. Narrative momentum: A. Transporting sense of place: A+. Touch of the sordid: A++.

The Queen of the Night, by Alexander Chee (20 Books of Summer review forthcoming)

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If you know nothing about opera, this’ll convert you; if you do know about opera, you won’t be disappointed. (A very rare combination, that.) Lilliet Berne, former pioneer girl, equestrienne, and courtesan, now a soprano in the France of Napoléon III, retells the story of her life to determine which figure from her past now threatens her. Narrative momentum: A- (it’s long, though compelling). Transporting sense of place: A+. Touch of the sordid: A+.

The Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry

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You know as well as I do that this was never NOT going to be on this list. Recently widowed Cora Seaborne, an amateur naturalist, moves to the remote Essex village of Aldwinter with her young son Francis, in search of a mythical creature that might provide a geological “missing link”. The friendship that ensues with Aldwinter’s vicar, William Ransome, and his family, will challenge everything that both Cora and Will thought they knew about faith, knowledge, and love. It’s beautiful historical fiction that takes its characters seriously as people, in the way of Wolf Hall and Possession (two other favourites). Narrative momentum: A+. Transporting sense of place: A++. Touch of the sordid: A+.

OLD(er) BOOKS

The Gormenghast Trilogy, by Mervyn Peake

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My parents took me on holiday to the North York Moors after I graduated from university. I had no job prospects, had just broken up with my uni boyfriend, and was sinking into acute depression. I read this, and was miserable. That I still remember Gormenghast so vividly is a testament to how great it is: a Gothic fantasy about a seemingly endless castle, an evil kitchen boy, murder most foul and strange rituals beneath the moon… It’s one of the most original things I’ve ever read. Narrative momentum: A- (points deducted for length, but you won’t care, honestly.) Transporting sense of place: A++. Touch of the sordid: A++.

The Way We Live Now, by Anthony Trollope

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I actually read this on a winter holiday, not a summer one, but it’s utterly absorbing: for the long train journey from Oxford to Manchester it was perfect, and it even kept me busy on the long flight from Manchester to America, too. (The chapters are short, which helps.) Trollope’s merciless (and epic) portrayal of venal capitalists ruining everyone else’s lives in Victorian England may feel a little too topical at the moment, or it may serve as reassuring proof that other times and places were not necessarily any better, and in some ways were a great deal worse. Narrative momentum: A-. Transporting sense of place: A. Touch of the sordid: A+.

The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver (my 20 Books of Summer review)

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The “hook” is that it’s about Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Leon Trotsky—art, adultery, politics, cooking—in Mexico during the 1930s; the perspective is that of the young man who becomes cook and secretary to their households, Harrison Shepherd. It also follows Shepherd’s later life in America, and the destructive effects of the Communist witch-hunts. I described it as “lush” and “vivid”, which it most certainly is. Narrative momentum: A. Transporting sense of place: A+. Touch of the sordid: A+.

Anyone else read any of these? How does your projected (or already-achieved) holiday reading stand up to the supposed criteria?

 

 

The Tidal Zone, by Sarah Moss

It is not all right, but there is beauty.

9781783783076

Sarah Moss’s new novel begins with a fifteen-year-old girl who, one day, for reasons no doctor can quite discern, collapses on the field at school and stops breathing. Her name is Miriam Goldschmidt, known to her family as Mimi or Mim, and although the novel starts with her “incident”, as others call it, what it’s actually about is Mimi’s father Adam and the way he responds to this inexplicable medical hazard that now hangs over his daughter. Adam is a stay-at-home father, and I think it highly telling that, although there are plenty of stay-at-home fathers in the world, and although I read at least a hundred books a year, I cannot think of a single book I’ve read that adopts the point of view of such a man. Moss uses Adam’s maleness as a way of turning on their heads all of the stereotypes about women who have children; it achieves the effect that one of Helen Simpson’s short stories in Cockfosters, “Erewhon”, is going for, when it gives to a late-middle-aged man an internal monologue of fears and worries about undesirability and how to have an equitable marriage when you’re not the breadwinner. The Tidal Zone works where “Erewhon” doesn’t quite, because it’s very firmly grounded in reality: Adam and his wife Emma exist in our world, where their division of household labour is viewed as progressive and vaguely alien, whereas “Erewhon” is essentially a social fantasy.

This is the first novel by Sarah Moss that I’ve read, but you can tell, from reading it, what her strengths as a novelist must be in her other books too: voice, character, and weaving poetic interstices among the episodes of action that draw them all together, give the reader a chance to breathe. The Tidal Zone is full of social commentary that passes off so casually, usually in dialogue and quite often in sarcasm, that you don’t see it until it’s already happened. Miriam, for instance, is a very clever and very infuriating fifteen-year-old with all of a fifteen-year-old’s rage and idealism: she’s awake to feminism, to the iniquities of global capitalism, to the way that the older generation seems to have so comprehensively fucked over today’s adolescents and young adults. She’s annoying about it, because she is persistently cynical and refuses to admit any comforting pabulum in any form (she mocks her father for suggesting, after her cardiac arrest, that they move to the country; she knows the narrative he’s trying to follow, and she knows that it’s “all fantasy and self-congratulation”, as she puts it). But she’s also bang on the money most of the time, and sharply funny with it. When a family friend sends her a copy of his latest book to read while she’s in hospital, she is disgusted:

“No, Dad, that’s monstrously egotistical. Oh, sorry you nearly died, you’d better read my book. My monstrously egotistical book about how when I go for a walk it’s a profound moral and spiritual experience that makes me a better person than you, but when you go to the same place you’re just a tourist messing things up… It’s a pile of bullshit about how he’s weighed down by sorrow for my generation, only not like normal adults are because we’re being badly educated for jobs that don’t exist in an economy that condemns us to poverty and homelessness, but because we can’t tell the difference between the lesser marshwort and the – the flowering marsh grass, which all goes to show that we’re losing our vital and precious sense of being at one with the natural world, rather than for example showing that the world’s moved on and by the time we’re grown up two-thirds of the global population will be living in cities and not actually giving a fuck about the lesser marshwort, and it doesn’t seem to have crossed his sorrowful little mind that if we all went and joined him communing with the fauna of furthest outer Scotland it would in fact be full of people and he’d have to find somewhere else to be superior—”

Which actually made me grin with black-hearted glee, because Miriam pinpoints so unmercifully, of course, a particular kind of bullshit nostalgia evident in contemporary nature writing (I’ll name no names), and links it so acutely to a need for superiority. It’s incisive and wonderful, and it’s also expressed in a manner entirely in keeping with a fifteen-year-old: she doesn’t sound implausibly adult, here, but like a smart, articulate, really pissed off teenager, which is exactly what she is throughout the course of the book.

Likewise, Adam’s existence as a very part-time academic (he’s working on a book about the reconstruction of Coventry Cathedral) and full-time dad is laid bare for us in a conversation that he has with the father of one of Miriam’s friends:

He came to lean on the kitchen counter, watched me run a spatula round the springform cake tin… “Looks as if you really know what you’re doing. I don’t get much beyond a ready meal myself. Well, apart from the barbecue in the summer.”…He shifted his feet, as if his balls were too big for him to stand straight. I never know what I’m supposed to say to remarks like his.

…”They’re not keeping you too busy up at the University then?”

“Oh, I’m very part-time there. Just teaching once a week.” Just to get me out of the house, I didn’t say, to make a change from Pilates and getting my hair done; look, mate, it’s a job, the making of cakes and the washing of sheets, the coordination of laundry with PE lessons, the handling of the Christmas shopping and the girls’ dental appointments, and the fact that your wife does it on top of her paid work without you noticing does not make you clever.

To which, obviously, one says, Amen.

Not that Adam is a model of meek domesticity—he and Emma have marital problems aplenty, one of which is that they don’t communicate with one another very well and another of which is that they seem not to have had sex for an unbelievably long time. Both of these have to do with the fact that Emma is a GP working twelve-hour days, and although Adam knows well enough that Emma’s paycheck is what enables them to live as comfortably as they do, there is still a level of resentment there. It’s a low-level toxicity, the kind that results in a slow accretion of petty frustrations. You’re never really sure, reading The Tidal Zone, what the stress of Miriam’s “incident” and subsequent diagnosis (such as it is) is going to do to Adam and Emma’s marriage. At several points in the novel, I was almost positive it was going to end in divorce.

Moss is too canny to let us feel as though it’s all definitely going to be okay at the end—it would be nonsensical for us to feel that way given that the entire preceding novel has been precisely about the impossibility of knowing that it’s all definitely going to be okay. Her prose is fluid and sensual and gorgeous, and it is particularly well suited, I think, to describing the emotional phenomena that surround medicine and un-wellness. Adam is so badly affected by the suddenness of Miriam’s collapse, by its inexplicability, that he wanders the house unable to do anything after she returns to school. Every siren could be going to her, or going to Rose, their younger daughter. He monitors their sleep. He reminds Miriam with a zealousness bordering on mania to take her epipen with her at all times. He is afraid that the anaphylaxis will be triggered by cold, or hunger, or by running too fast. He reminded me, more painfully than I had expected, of my mother, who must have gone through precisely the same agonies when I was diagnosed with Type I diabetes at the age of three; who spent most of my childhood making sure that there was a juicebox and some peanut butter crackers in my emergency bag; who made me run up and down the stairs when it rained, to get enough exercise. Terror; love; the same thing.

The Coventry Cathedral project that Adam is working on forms a secondary strand to The Tidal Zone (the story of Adam’s parents—his father, born the child of Jewish refugees in Brooklyn, now in Cornwall; his mother, who drowned in a freak accident when Adam was a boy—is the third and final subplot.) His monograph (or, rather, his “geolocative media app”, since that is the sort of academic project that gets funded now, he tells us) is about the reconstruction of the cathedral after it was bombed to bits in the Second World War. The story of Coventry Cathedral is a story not just of recovery after great trauma, but of how that great trauma forges great beauty. The deaths of Coventry’s citizens, and the murder of the Jews in the Holocaust, are everywhere reflected in the new cathedral’s design: in the tapestry, Christ In Glory, that rises the height of the building; in the saints and angels of the West Screen, “angular, emaciated… in the image of those liberated from Nazi concentration camps.” In the roofless ruins that are left as they stand. That’s how you transform an experience that could destroy you: you make it beautiful. You tell a story.

Moss integrates her themes so well that, as I thought about the book after reading it, I kept pulling out new strands and thinking, “Ah, yes! Oh, that makes sense too, in conjunction with this, and with that bit…” If I’m honest, I’m still not entirely sure how she does it—maintains that limpid, vivid prose while being so elegant with the big ideas underpinning it all. It’s an extraordinary book, an unforgettable one, and one I’d urge on anyone, really. Perhaps by reading her other books, I’ll work out how it’s done.

Many thanks to Lamorna Elmer at Granta Books for the review copy. The Tidal Zone was published in the UK on 7 July.