January Superlatives

For the first time ever, I have signed up to a year-long Goodreads Reading Challenge. Don’t ask me why. My target is 150 books, which should be achievable since I read 141 last year (possibly my highest total since records began back in 2007). This month I read 17, which, Goodreads informs me, puts me 5 books ahead of schedule. Thank goodness their algorithms are keeping track of the maths for that, because I wouldn’t know how.

best short story collection: Virgin by April Ayers Lawson is an extremely technically impressive collection; she’s one of those young American writers whose prose is planed smooth and wouldn’t look out of place in The New Yorker. I can’t say that this collection moved me very deeply, but that’s not always a bad thing. Her take on fundamentalism and sexual awakening is interesting and well worth the read.

best comfort rereads: Split, this one, between Tana French’s Broken Harbour and Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. I’m now leaning on French’s murder mysteries for mental distraction in busy times; Broken Harbour focuses on the murder of almost an entire family in an Irish ghost estate, one of those places that was half-built during the Celtic Tiger boom and then abandoned by the contractors during the recession. It’s terrific, and terrifying, on the psychology of being broke and jobless. I Capture the Castle probably needs no introduction; I read it after a week of consuming media mostly about death and torment, longing for comfort and uplift. It delivered, as it always does.

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best tragedy: His Bloody Project, by Graeme Macrae Burnet. It’s full of horrible petty officials oppressing hardworking Scottish crofters, and unreliable narration, and raped sisters, and dead sheep, in a way that recalls Britain’s seemingly unshakable love of the historical costume drama. However, it’s all done with an extremely skillful voice. I can entirely see how this swayed the Booker Prize jury, and why it’s been the best-selling of last year’s shortlist.

best state-of-the-nation novel: Laura Kaye’s terrific debut, English Animals, about a young Slovakian woman whose experience working for a rich but struggling English couple reveals the prejudices of this country with wondrous slyness. Appropriate post-Brexit, but full of truths that apply not just to this immediate moment, but to English culture throughout the ages.

party I was late to: How had I not read Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s collaboration, Good Omens, until now? It’s a wonderful, hilarious, generous novel about the Antichrist (as you would expect), featuring a no-nonsense witch named Anathema Device, a Satanic Nun of the Chattering Order of St Beryl (who later becomes a businesswoman running corporate management courses), a Witchfinder named Newton Pulsifer, and a demon/angel duo who don’t actually want the world to end at all. Its cult status is fully deserved, and I loved it.

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best escapism: You’d think this would be one of my comfort rereads, but no! This month I read volume 1 of Brian Vaughan’s and Fiona Staples’s graphic novel Saga. It starts with a childbirth scene. The cover features a breastfeeding woman. There is an interracial couple from opposite sides of a galactic war. There is a sarcastic teenage ghost and a spider-lady assassin and an animal called Lying Cat (which I particularly like; it’s blue and has pointy ears and croaks the word “LYING” whenever anyone tries to fib in its vicinity.) I can’t wait to order volume 2.

best city novel: Chibundu Onuzo’s second novel, Welcome to Lagos. It follows a group of unlikely comrades—from two soldiers who reject their colonel’s acts of cruelty in the Nigerian Delta, to a runaway middle-class wife, to a chancing teenager with radio dreams named Fineboy—as they try to live without money, papers or qualifications in a city that chews people up and spits them out. There’s a political plot, too, but I thought it was most effective in its portrait of how ordinary people build trust between themselves.

Annual Winter Dickens: A Tale of Two Cities, which I somehow managed to escape secondary school without ever having read. More interesting, I think, for its dissection of how revolutionary fervour can turn into a massacre of the innocent than for its nominal plot (noble self-sacrifice tugs my heartstrings well enough, but I resent it).

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best intellectual romp: Joanna Kavenna’s bizarre, inventive, beautiful novel A Field Guide to Reality. Set in a sort of otherworldly Oxford (where there are still waitresses and the Cowley Road, but the colleges are named things like Pie Hall and Nightingale Hall and there’s a Unicorn Street), it shifts between the thirteenth century and the present day, and deals with ideas about light and optics, perception, grief, and the nature of reality. It handles huge questions with a kind of boundless, sarcastic creativity that I really enjoyed. It also contains gorgeous illustrations by Olly Ralfe. Highly recommended, especially if you like slightly weird shit.

best anti-Tr*mp reading: The Good Immigrant, a crowdfunded collection of essays about the experience of being an ethnic minority in Britain. This is one of those books that makes you more aware of things: the way you look at people in public, the way you hold your body on the train or the words you use to friends and coworkers, and the consequences those actions might have. Some of the essays are more creative and interesting than others, and there are a few that felt theoretical in a way detrimental to engaging with them, but I’m happy to admit that this may be my problem.

best “commercial” read: Katie Khan’s Hold Back the Stars, which doesn’t do much with its sci-fi window dressing but which does tell a touching love story, and might very well get readers who wouldn’t normally be keen on genre more interested.

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induced worst case of location envy: The Enchanted April, obviously. I’d seen the film (it’s one of my mum’s favourites) but not read the Elizabeth von Arnim novel it’s based on until now. It follows four Edwardian women, each unhappy in their own way, who together rent an Italian castle for a month, and the ways in which sunshine and liberty change their lives. You might be thinking of it as an early Eat Pray Love, but it’s much less solipsistic, and much more charming. The garden descriptions are sublime.

most nightmarish: Julia Scheeres’s memoir of child religious, emotional, physical and sexual abuse, Jesus Land. It is unrelenting. I had several problems with it, one of which was the way she recounts experience at the expense of analysis (ask me about this if you’re not sure what I mean; explaining would take a while) and another of which was the way that she keeps foregrounding her own experience while maintaining that this is really a book about her adopted black brother David. Still. Oof.

categorically, not-a-shadow-of-a-doubt, best fucking book this month: The Underground Railroad. Y’all will know about this by now: Oprah loves it, Obama loves it, it won the National Book Award. If I know some of you, you’ll be avoiding it purely because of the attention it’s been getting. Don’t do that with this book. Do it with all the others, but not with this one. It’s too good, too heartbreaking, too well constructed, too evocative and simultaneously subtle and clear, too much of a body slam, too likely to make you think deeply and for long about why America’s present looks as it does, for you to put it off. It’s that rare thing, a novel that both invests you in its characters and story and effortlessly incorporates wider thematic concerns. I can barely talk about it without worrying that I’m not doing it justice. Just read it, for heaven’s sake.

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most disproportionately affecting: First Love, by Gwendoline Riley, which I’ll be reviewing for Shiny New Books. Telling the story of a walking-on-eggshells marriage and glancing back at wife Neve’s childhood and early adult life, it’s one of those books that doesn’t have a clear-cut moral, but which simply provides a kind of snapshot. I ended up mentally turning it over and over, finding each time that I understood more about the characters and their decisions. It’s an extremely insightful novel.

best murder mystery: Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s novel The Pledge is being republished by Pushkin Vertigo next month. I’m also reviewing it for Shiny, so I won’t say too much here – just that the story of Inspector Matthäi’s doomed obsession with the murderer of schoolchild Gritli Moser is exactly as calculated an affront to the conventions of the detective novel as the publicity material says.

up next: A couple of proof copies for February remain to be read: Dorthe Nors’s Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, about a middle-aged woman learning to drive, and Rick Bass’s collected stories, For A Little While. I also REALLY want to read some of the books longlisted for the inaugural Jhalak Prize (for best book by a BAME author in the UK), and am looking forward to picking my first!

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Hold Back the Stars, by Katie Khan

“It’s not your job to save me.”

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When I was little, I didn’t know what I wanted to be, but my best friend Kendall wanted to be an astronaut. Even at seven, I knew the Best Friend Rules—you support and encourage at all times. She’d talk about going into space, and I’d nod along, but there was a constant undercurrent of fear that I couldn’t shake or share with her: I was terrified she would die there. I’d never seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, but I had read the Tintin book Explorers on the Moon, and I remembered the bit where one character, a stowaway on a rocket ship, sacrifices himself by stepping out into space when it becomes clear there isn’t enough oxygen for everyone else. Nothing—not monsters under the bed, not Voldemort or Sauron or the White Witch—was as frightening to me as the thought of dying alone in an infinite darkness, floating thousands of miles from Earth and light and love, suffocating slowly.

Hold Back the Stars is about that. As the book opens, Carys and Max are free-falling through space. Their severely damaged ship, the Laertes, is behind them and receding every minute. And every minute counts: they have ninety left in their oxygen tanks. After that, if they can’t get back to the ship or get the AI to direct a satellite drone their way, they will suffocate.

Most of the story is told in flashbacks, showing us how Carys and Max came to know each other and to fall in love. Their world, the back cover of my proof says, is one “where love is banned”, which isn’t strictly true but is close enough for marketing copy. Katie Khan has created a near-future, semi-familiar world, suffering from nuclear fallout as the result of a war between the US and “the Middle East” (never clear which bit). Europe has become Europia, a collection of regions known as Voivodes through which citizens are shuffled every three years in a programme called Rotation. It’s meant to discourage individuals from becoming overly attached to one place; how better to combat xenophobia, jingoism and the various dangers of nationalistic pride than to make sure that everyone is from everywhere, or nowhere?

The catch is the Couples Rule, which stipulates that no one can enter a marriage or a civil partnership—preferably not even a serious relationship—before the age of thirty-five. Carys and Max are in their mid-twenties when they meet each other. (It’s a technological meet-cute, wherein she asks the MindShare [which does what it says on the tin] where to get hold of goose fat to roast potatoes; he answers; they flirt in multiple languages and eventually bump into each other in meatspace.) It’s not the smoothest of romances: Max is from one of the founding familes of Europia, people who believe firmly in the rightness of the rules, and Carys wants a demonstration of commitment that he finds hard to give. Eventually, however, wanting to prove his love for her, he not only introduces her to his parents, but asks the Europian government for an exemption to the Couples Rule. The legislature agrees to give the pair a trial run as a couple, but not within Europia; instead, they’re “volunteered” for a space mission to try and find a navigable route through the asteroid field that has inexplicably surrounded Earth since about the time of the nuclear war.

Hold Back the Stars, you will probably have gathered by now, is a kind of sci-fi-lite. All of the trappings are there: global political catastrophe, new world order, environmental changes, altered names for familiar objects or phenomena, increased levels of domestic technology, grand and impersonal government. It is, at least, an actual dystopia. I get very fatigued when people throw the word around imprecisely, but in the case of this novel it’s almost too apt: the population of Europia believe themselves to be living in the best of all possible systems on the benighted Earth (they’ve even incorporated the word “utopia” into their new name), but it doesn’t work for everyone, and isn’t as impartial it seems. However, if you’ve read more than even the tiniest smattering of mildly speculative fiction, or seen more than three episodes of Doctor Who, you will probably find the book’s atmosphere a bit dull. The MindShare, for instance, is not what you’d call a groundbreaking concept. Nor are the Wall Rivers, indoor text and video feeds that echo ideas found everywhere in the genre, from Fahrenheit 451 to the Black Mirror episode “Fifteen Million Merits”. (Also, Khan’s description of the Europian government’s debating chamber reminded me so strongly of the way the Galactic Senate is portrayed in Star Wars: Episode II that I almost giggled.) It’s not that searing originality is the most important thing; I’m not demanding that everyone be a Joanna Russ or a China Miéville. It’s just that if you’re going to use building blocks that lots of other people have used before you, it would be nice to at least give them a fresh coat of paint. <eyes strained metaphor; abandons it>

Anyway, the sci-fi is lite because Hold Back the Stars isn’t all that interested in its own theoretical implications; it’s much more interested in being a love story, and in this it succeeds. Carys and Max are irritating but fundamentally likeable people; they fuck up because of relatable human things like pride, fear, loyalty to family. They’re not deeply characterised, but they are at least clearly so: Carys does things we recognise as being Carys-like, Max does very different things that are classic Max. And as Khan carries her story along, we see the value of this, because of the nature of the plot twist.

Actually, there are two. The end of part one seems to answer the question of what will happen to them as they fall through space, and the reader, saddened and bewildered, reads on to discover the repercussions of their actions in later years. Until a point at which that answer is suddenly shown to be malleable: a different ending could happen, and then the future would look like this. Or…another possibility altogether.

I like the options that are revealed to us; I like that they are revealed in the first place, that Khan is open-ended and open-handed with her characters’ fates. I like somewhat less the fact that the device enabling these twists is never explained or even hinted at. Is there reincarnation? Time travel? Are these parallel universes? Are we, at any point, simply inside someone’s head, and if so, whose? It seems odd, in a book that adopts a speculative or science fiction-y air, to completely ignore this. Unless the point is a meta one (any ending is possible because all is invented), but if so, the book doesn’t draw attention to its own fictionality in its earlier stages, so it’s a bit sudden.

Hold Back the Stars is an evocative, solidly written love story hung on a futuristic framework. The hook is terrific—the opening pages absolutely dare you not to read on—and it’s easy to become invested in what happens next. I probably won’t reach for it again; I’m not its ideal reader. But if you’re looking for an absorbing, fast-paced, and rather charming love story, pick it up. You’ll have a hard time putting it back down.

Many many thanks to the publicity folks at Doubleday for my review copy. Hold Back the Stars is published in the UK on 26 January.

A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens

“Tell Wind and Fire where to stop,” returned madame; “but don’t tell me.”

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In an attempt both to write about more of the books I read—not just the ones I get for free off of publishers—and to make that process less intimidating, I’m experimenting with different ways of posting, e.g. not always my usual essay. I’m structuring this review around my Goodreads updates on the book, sharing and annotating them as examples of how my feelings about the book changed as I read. As always, feedback appreciated.

page 38, 8.0%: “I read recently that A Tale of Two Cities was not representative of Dickens, and I can now say that’s pretty much true. I much prefer the fat tomes—Bleak House, Our Mutual Friend. I spent my first reading session of AToTC thinking ‘why can’t this banker arsehole just tell the girl her father isn’t dead? And why does the girl have to be golden-haired? And why do we even care? When does the guillotine come out?'”

Okay, so the opening section of A Tale of Two Cities is kind of weird. It starts with a character whose relevance to the plot isn’t at all clear; Dickens conjures atmosphere, in the meteorological sense, as well as ever (all that mist and mud and darkness on the Dover road! All that fear of being robbed by highwaymen! It’s terribly evocative) but, at least in this section, his prose reads more densely than I remembered it. It’s a little like late-period Shakespeare, where about once a paragraph you go “Hang on, what?” and have to trace the twisted syntax back to its start.

The character we meet first is Jarvis Lorry, a banker on his way to France via Dover. At the port, he pauses in an inn to wait for someone coming after him: a golden-haired seventeen-year-old girl. (In this, Dickens never changes: his ideal woman is always small, physically angelic, disgustingly sweet-tempered, and underage.) The girl, it turns out, is the daughter of French physician Alexandre Manette. Her father, thought to be dead for years, has been discovered alive: he’s been kept for eighteen years without charge as a political prisoner in the Bastille. Lorry, for reasons best known to himself and Dickens, doesn’t come right out and tell the girl (Lucie) this; instead, he fannies around saying things like “If someone were to tell you that there was a girl who thought her father was dead, and then it turned out that he wasn’t…” This is a manner of news-breaking I have never understood, and have little patience for, but it gets the job done in the end.

page 100, 22.0%: “Ok, Dickens wins this round—the trial scene is gripping and I now want to know how Darnay and Carton end up in Paris, since so far they’re still in London. I think the legal stuff has really swayed it for me; why is Dickens so good at it?”  

Having read the Introduction, I think the reason Dickens is so good at legal stuff is because he was a court reporter for a time, in his early twenties. Anyway, things pick up five years later, when Charles Darnay is on trial in London for being a French spy. Lucie and Doctor Manette are witnesses at his trial, since they were also passengers with him on the return boat from Calais five years ago. Sydney Carton, a dissolute young lawyer, saves Darnay’s life by pointing out that there’s a strong physical resemblance between the two of them, so that the witnesses can’t be completely sure it was Darnay they saw. (He isn’t a spy, of course, but that isn’t really the point.)

As seems to happen fairly often in Dickens, people who have come together publicly in this manner end up becoming bosom pals. Darnay and Carton both end up visiting the Manettes frequently, as does Jarvis Lorry. Both young men fall in love with Lucie (of course they do! Of course!), and Darnay ends up marrying her. Before he does, he confides a “terrible secret” about his real name to Dr. Manette, who is seriously disturbed by it but promises never to reveal the truth to his daughter. (Because telling the truth to women leads to all sorts of complications!)

page 185, 41.0%: “I have decided that I quite like Madame Defarge. I’m probably not meant to—at least, from everything I heard about this book in childhood, I think I’m not meant to—but she seems like a pretty boss biddy and a champion of the people, so what’s not to like?”

Okay, so here is where things are actually interesting, because I’ll be honest with you: I don’t care that much about the English party. Like, I don’t want Darnay to die, and I want Carton to stop getting wasted every night and realise his full intellectual potential, and etc., but they’re kind of dull and rich-ish and we’re so obviously meant to like them that I don’t really want to. But Madame Defarge is a Bloody Difficult Woman, and therefore worth our attention.

The thing that got me about A Tale of Two Cities—the thing that I think makes it an astonishing book, as opposed to a basically sentimental tale about self-sacrifice—is the way Dickens handles the Defarges. Around page 185, Madame Defarge is being painted as a leader of her people. The women of her poor urban neighbourhood rally around her as they would around a general. She is an intelligence channel, a node in a network of revolutionary spies, a sleeper cell. Her husband does most of the legwork, and she knits names into her register of the condemned, but basically it’s all up in her head. She carries a pistol and a dagger. She is the brains. And she takes the long view:

“I tell thee,” said madame, extending her right hand for emphasis, “that although it is a long time on the road, it is on the road and coming. I tell thee it never retreats, and never stops. …Look around and consider the lives of all the world that we know…the rage and discontent. …Can such things last?”

“My brave wife,” returned Defarge, “…I do not question all this. But it has lasted a long time, and it is possible—you know well, my wife, it is possible—that it may not come, during our lives.”

… “We shall have helped it,” returned madame. “Nothing that we do, is done in vain. I believe, with all my soul, that we shall see the triumph.”

It’s actually quite stirring rhetoric, quite beautiful and inspirational: I believe with all my soul that we shall see the triumph. It’s the sort of thing that oppressed people, from the slaves of the Deep South to the peasants of Siberia to the suffragettes of England, have said throughout history. And, in and of itself, it is righteous.

The brilliance of A Tale of Two Cities is in how Dickens shows that righteousness spiraling out of control into bloodlust. By page 345, with Darnay condemned to die for the crimes (which are serious and awful) of his aristocratic ancestors, we have this conversation occurring amongst the Defarges and their co-conspirators:

“The Evrémonde people are to be exterminated, and the wife and child must follow the husband and father.”

“She has a fine head for it,” croaked Jacques Three. “I have seen blue eyes and golden hair there, and they looked charming when Samson held them up.” Ogre that he was, he spoke like an epicure. …”The child also,” observed Jacques Three, with a meditative enjoyment of his words, “has golden hair and blue eyes. And we seldom have a child there. It is a pretty sight.”

That, undeniably, is sick. No Revolution’s aims can be achieved by murdering children, no matter who their parents and grandparents have been. And yet, as Madame Defarge says with dispassion in reply to Lucie’s pleas for mercy, “The wives and mothers we have been used to see, since we were as little as this child… we have known their husbands and fathers laid in prison and kept from them, often enough… We have borne this a long time. Judge you! Is it likely that the trouble of one wife and mother would be much to us now?”

A Tale of Two Cities also captures the sense of what it’s like to live in the midst of civil unrest as a foreigner. The English party—Jarvis Lorry, the Manettes’ servants—are basically safe, since they are not French citizens, but the upheaval in the city is so profound that they can never be sure, from day to day, whether their situation has changed. I imagine it’s a little like being a BBC correspondent in a war zone, or a Red Cross worker: your status ought to be enough to protect you, and often, in a formal sense, is; but no one can account for the mistakes, the accidental car bomb or the ricocheting bullet. In the same spirit of constant fear and vigilance, we see Miss Pross, the Manettes’ housekeeper, set out on her errands: a more English woman you could hardly hope to see, but she still wants to buy the tomatoes as quickly as possible and get back inside. I would like to see someone adapt the story to a modern-day revolutionary zone, perhaps the Sudan in the early 2000s.

Anyway, I’ve now read my Annual Winter Dickens (trademark pending) and I’m glad I did, even though it felt in many ways not very Dickensian. I’m entering the realm of the obscure Dickenses now; the ones left are Barnaby Rudge, Martin Chuzzlewit, Edwin Drood, Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop, and The Pickwick Papers. Any suggestions for which to tackle next year?

My copy of A Tale of Two Cities is published by Oxford University Press, as part of the Oxford World’s Classics series.

English Animals, by Laura Kaye

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Laura Kaye’s debut novel has been praised as being, amongst other things, a timely novel for our post-Brexit political climate, but what strikes me about it is that in many ways it is spectacularly timeless. Homophobia, xenophobia, and the capacity of the English upper classes for almost childish cruelty: these issues are not confined to the present moment, and British literature has a long history of exploring them. But English Animals is no Brideshead redux; instead it’s a savvy outsider’s look in, at an establishment struggling to reconcile its habitual complacency with the demands of modern economics. It’s also a finely drawn portrait of forbidden desire.

Mirka is nineteen, from Slovakia. She has spent the past year in London, living with flatmates she hardly knows, so alone that on Christmas Day her celebrations consisted of a solitary walk to a McDonald’s. Answering an advert for live-in help, she travels to the countryside (we’re never told exactly where, but at a guess, it’s somewhere like Suffolk or Sussex) to live at Fairmont Hall with Richard and Sophie Parker. Mirka expects that she’ll be caring for children, but the job is stranger than that: Richard, who’s married into the estate, runs a small taxidermy business and hosts shooting parties to make money. Mirka is expected to help him skin, stuff and pose the animals, and to act as a beater for the shoots. Initially, she doesn’t think she can handle it, but with practice, she discovers she’s more skilled than Richard is, and business picks up.

We learn that Mirka is gay before the end of chapter two. As a character, she is straightforward, principled, and honest in a way that marks her out from her British employers: she doesn’t do ambivalence or circumlocution. Her “coming out” to Sophie occurs on a walk through the house’s grounds:

“Did you have a boyfriend before you came to England?” Sophie said.

“I had a girlfriend,” I said.

“Oh,” Sophie said. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to assume… Oh, that’s terrible of me. I just thought—”

“It’s OK,” I said. “Everyone is the same.”

[…] “I mean, so you’re gay then? Or was it only one girl?”

I already knew all the questions she would ask. “I’m completely gay.”

(How many times, in your reading experience, has a character said the line “I’m completely gay”? How rare and important is that even now?)

Sophie, in perfectly calculated dialogue, reveals that she had “a couple of flings” with girls at university, though she’s keen to emphasise that she wasn’t, like, in love with them or anything. The stage is set for a sort-of love triangle, which we duly get, with Mirka and Sophie carrying on an affair during the hours Richard spends out of the house, in the pub or on the far reaches of the estate.

Antagonism comes from two sources: David, the part-time groundskeeper at Fairmont, and William, Sophie’s father. One of Kaye’s biggest successes is conveying the real grounds of the discontent that people like Nigel Farage took advantage of during the Brexit debate. David only works every other day at Fairmont; the other local big house employs him for the rest of the week. Clearly, neither estate can really afford to keep him full-time. When the owner of the neighbouring house sells up and the new owner, an Australian, decides to let David go, he’s in trouble: two days a week, or even three, isn’t enough, but the money is less the point than the sense of humiliation and diminished professionalism. David’s hatred for Mirka would be implacable even if she were straight: in several brief but chilling scenes, he tells her to go back to her own country, and we can see his thinking. What is this foreign woman doing here, when red-blooded Englishmen like David who’ve worked the land for generations can’t get a full-time job?

It’s Sophie’s father William who is both the most broadly-drawn character and, oddly, one of the most convincing. Kaye’s touch is light, but her point is made: he sees Mirka, literally, as a servant.

“Could you make us some more Pimm’s?”

“Yes, of course.”

“I’ll do it, Dad,” Sophie said.

“I think Mirka and I have this under control,” William said to her, then turned back to me and put his finger and thumb against the jug. “You want about that much Pimm’s and the rest lemonade. And ice.”

[…] When I came back, William held out his glass and I poured the Pimm’s into it. Then I walked around the edge of the rug filling everyone else’s glass.

Hard to read, very hard, without feeling pure rage. The conversation doesn’t improve: William holds forth on the iniquities of gay marriage (“What I object to is them trying to normalise something that patently isn’t”). Sophie is nervous and uncomfortable, and tries to change the subject, but she doesn’t make a stand. It’s a conversation we’ve probably all had, with some asshole relative or coworker, but to see it written down is a stark reminder of how often we fail to challenge them. “I knew people thought those things,” Mirka tells us, “but I did not think I would ever hear them on a lawn in England.”

One of the most impressive instances of integrity in English Animals is that Mirka never has a single thought along the lines of “I need to do [something] because they’re paying me.” There are things she absolutely refuses to do, things which involve self-respect and boundaries, and she will not be dissuaded. She is a real person with a real will and real preferences; Richard and Sophie are never allowed to forget that. When the estate books a large wedding and Sophie asks her to help out, she agrees but won’t wear a dress. Instead, she asks to borrow a tux from Richard. I don’t know quite why I like this scene so much: whether it’s the way a character’s autonomy is respected both by the author and by the other characters, or the way Kaye shows us how Mirka’s feelings towards the tux are exactly those that another woman might have towards a beautiful dress, or some combination of those and other things. It makes Sophie’s (inevitable) betrayal of Mirka all the worse: we know that she doesn’t take things like feelings and relationships lightly, that she can’t make compromises for social acceptance the way Sophie can and does.

The difference, though, is that despite her deep capacity for feeling, Mirka is an adult in a way that Sophie and Richard fundamentally aren’t. Their posturing friends (there’s a great scene at a house party where Mirka quietly punctures a man’s adolescent attempts at edginess), their frantic attempts to make money to keep the house afloat, their relationship’s reliance on alcohol and weed and a cycle of fighting and making up: these are all signs of a pervading and corrosive immaturity. Despite their pedigree, it’s the Parkers who can’t take care of themselves. Mirka, who’s had to leave Slovakia in the face of homophobia from her parents and community, who’s suffered hideous loneliness in London, and who’s been let down by the woman she loves most, ends the book walking away from Fairmont Hall on her own two feet. She’s walking uphill, towards the village, but she is not afraid: “I will find something for myself, I thought.” Maybe that resilience is what the British voting public so resents about immigrants; maybe it’s jealousy, conscious or not. So many of us have never really had to be adults. From characters—from humans—like Mirka, we could learn something.

Many thanks to Hayley Camis at Little Brown for the review copy. English Animals was published in the UK on 12 January. This piece is part of the official English Animals blog tour: check out the banner below for the rest of the week’s features!

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On J.R. Carpenter’s Gorge, Part 2.5: HTML, web pages, and the DOM

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It ain’t pretty, but it’s what the Web is made of.

This post is part of a series on digital literature. I’m dissecting the JavaScript code of “Gorge”, an infinite poem by J.R. Carpenter that riffs on Nick Montfort’s program “Taroko Gorge”.  The first post, which defines “variables”, “strings” and “arrays”, is here; the second, which explains “functions” and demonstrates how the program chooses randomly from a list of inputs (a.k.a. words), is here. This post is a brief primer on how web pages are written, how HTML works, and what a DOM is. It will help to know this stuff before we move on to Part Three: putting everything together.

As you probably know, web pages are written in a language called HTML (HyperText Markup Language), which consists of a bunch of elements. Elements are basically containers for bits of the page. (If you know anything about JavaScript, you may be thinking, “Hey, that sounds like an object.” You would not be wrong.) They can also be nested: like the branches of a tree, one element can have one or more “child nodes”, or elements that branch off from it.

As well as containing stuff, elements have attributes or characteristics. (If you know anything about JavaScript, you may be thinking, “Hey, that sounds like a property.” Again, you would not be wrong.) One common attribute is called “id”; we use IDs to mark bits of the page that the program is interested in. Because attribute values have to be unique, you can drop an ID into a section of the page and be certain that, when you instruct the program to look for that ID, it’ll take you to the right place. For example, if I wanted a way of quickly referring to a paragraph about Henry Fielding—and let’s say that’s located the top of the second paragraph in the third div of my web page—I might drop the ID “fielding” in there. It saves me from having to tell the program “look out for the top of the second paragraph in the third div”, which is a pain in the arse to write and also less natural, since no one (almost no one) thinks like that. (Also, when you restructure your piece, so that the Fielding paragraph isn’t the second one anymore, the “id” attribute “fielding” will still take you to the right place. Isn’t that convenient.)

The DOM, or Document Object Model, is a mapping from HTML to JavaScript: elements (in HTML) are mapped onto objects (in JavaScript). This allows your JavaScript programs to fiddle with your web page. Now, this may not bother you, but when it was first explained to me, it bothered me because it seemed inefficient. Why do you have to do that? Why can’t you just do things to your web page using HTML? Well, because HTML isn’t a programming language; it’s a markup language, which is like a fancy form of annotating (make this bit bold, make this bit bigger, put a hyperlink here). In order to change the contents of the page, you have to change stuff in the DOM.

Hopefully, this will have given you the vocabulary/conceptual tools to better understand the next post. In that, I’ll talk about how the code for “Gorge” manipulates the DOM to change how the poem appears on its web page.

I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith

Noble deeds and hot baths are the best cures for depression.

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Would you like to know the best opening sentence in the English language? It is not “Call me Ishmael”. Nor is it “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” No, it is the opening sentence of Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle: “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” It is without flaw: irresistibly odd, rather charming, certainly intriguing. In this, it is a perfect introduction to the book itself, which is also all of these things, and one of my favourite books to read when I’m feeling a little down or fragile.

The plot is so unlike any other book I’ve read that I might as well just quickly summarise it for you: Cassandra Mortmain lives in a crumbling castle (on a forty-year lease) with her older sister, Rose, and younger brother, Thomas; her father, a writer who produced a highly-regarded philosophical novel years ago but has written nothing since; and her stepmother Topaz, a former artist’s model and professional muse. What the Mortmains lack in money, they make up for in cheerfulness and romanticism, but they lack money in a serious way. When their landlord and owner of the local big house dies, his grandsons arrive from America to take over the house and settle his affairs. Topaz, Cassandra and Rose determine that Rose should marry one of the brothers, but the two girls quickly discover that in the real world, things aren’t as easily resolved as they are in novels…

Living arrangements at the castle appear delightfully eccentric. Topaz, who tends towards the melodramatic, likes to play the lute and to commune with nature, generally without any clothes on. But the poverty is real:

How odd it is to remember that “tea” once meant afternoon tea to us—little cakes and thin bread-and-butter in the drawing-room. Now it is as solid a meal as we can scrape together, as it has to last us until breakfast.

Stephen, the son of the Mortmains’ former maid, who lives with them and does various odd jobs, is “devoted” to Cassandra and frequently gives her some of his own food. A family meeting at the beginning of the book demonstrates, somewhat alarmingly, that Rose and Cassandra’s accomplishments are basically useless for earning any money; Thomas is still at school, and Topaz cannot leave Mortmain, so the only member of the household who can earn at all is Stephen.

But the descriptions are absolutely charming, like Cassandra’s musings about baths (which I must give in full, because I love them so much):

I was just getting into the bath when Heloise [the dog] whined at the back door and had to be let in. Of course she wanted to come to the fire, which was a slight bore as she is no asset to a bath—her loving paws are apt to scrape one painfully. However, she seemed sleepy and we settled down amicably. It was wonderfully cosy inside my tall, draught-proof screen; and the rosy glow from the fire turned the green sheets to a fascinating colour. I had the brainwave of sitting on our largest dinner-dish to avoid the dye [they have spent the afternoon dyeing things green]; the gravy runnels were a bit uncomfortable, though.

I believe it is customary to get one’s washing over first in baths and bask afterwards; personally, I bask first. I have discovered that the first few minutes are the best and not to be wasted… Father says hot water can be as stimulating as an alcoholic drink and though I never come by one—unless the medicine-bottle of port that the Vicar gives me for my Midsummer rites counts—I can well believe it.

What’s best about this book, though—especially on re-reading at this age—is how you can see Cassandra growing up. The American brothers, Neil and Simon, are initially put off by Rose’s excessive coquetry, but Topaz soon has her in line and Simon ends up proposing. Cassandra’s own feelings for Simon complicate matters, though, as does the possibility that Rose may not be in love at all, and Stephen’s “devotion” to Cassandra, which she begins to recognise in a far more serious, adult light. It’s a book about first love and naivety and making terrible mistakes; there is real emotion in it, which I had almost forgotten, since I hadn’t re-read it for so long. And yet the stakes are never so high that Smith can’t make us laugh. In one scene, Cassandra storms off to the village and gets drunk on cherry brandy at the Keys inn; it’s both pathetic and very funny. Anyone who has ever been a teenager, or heartbroken, will understand, and will also want to shake her rather hard, then put her to bed.

Aspects of the gender politics are outdated (unsurprisingly, since it was written in 1949). It’s not so much the general willingness to marry Rose off for money that got me; it was the attitude towards Mortmain, Cassandra’s father. He’s viewed as a “genius” by Topaz, despite the fact that he seems to find her irritating and she doesn’t seem very happy. When she asks Cassandra whether she ought to leave him, Cassandra convinces her to stay by guilt-tripping her into imagining what the posthumous biographies will say:

“Just imagine… ‘Mortmain was about to start on the second phase of his career, when the faithlessness of his artist-model wife shattered the fabric of his life. We shall never know what was lost to the world through this worthless young woman…’ “

It works, of course, and Topaz wants it to, because she derives much of her personal worth from being a muse to men. But it leaves a nasty taste in the mouth, especially the word “worthless.” And Mortmain is not the pleasantest of men. He’s meant, I think, to come across as brilliant but harmless, yet Cassandra is most convinced that he’s doing some work when he becomes physically violent towards her and throws her into a door; it’s that action that makes her think of “the old Father”, before his fallow period set in. Excusing violence in the name of genius is…well, sorry, but no.

These things stick out to me now because I am more alert to the use of emotive rhetoric to manipulate people, especially women, but also because they are so unusual in this book. Mortmain is not the main focus. Far more of it is about evoking the atmosphere of the castle, and about relationships: how Rose interacts with Neil and Simon, how Cassandra chooses to handle Stephen, how Topaz, despite her bohemian appearance, is the most stable person in the girls’ lives.

When I was little and easily frightened, my mum invented the concept of “the safe book”: something you could read before going to sleep, where there would be no great evil or physical danger or mental cruelty, something that would never give you nightmares. I Capture the Castle has always been my ultimate safe book. In the depths of winter, at the beginning of what is bound to be a difficult year, it feels like a charm against darkness.

Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts

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Liam Neeson as Father Ferreira in “Silence”

  1. It’s been a while since I did one of these.
  2. We went to see the new Scorsese movie, “Silence”, based on the novel by Japanese author Shusaku Endo, at the BFI last week. It’s about seventeenth-century Jesuit missionaries in Japan, where Christianity was persecuted after the Shimabara Rebellion in 1637-8. It is…rough. I hesitate to use the word “graphic”, because no one gets disembowelled or anything, but there are some pretty distressing scenes. I thought it was a very powerful movie asking very interesting questions about the point at which virtuous loyalty to a faith becomes destructive pride (in this case, the point at which the life at stake isn’t yours, but someone else’s). The Chaos thought it was a very powerful movie with a very superfluous premise, since to him, all religious belief is absurd anyway. I’d really like to read the book now.
  3. Though there are a couple of Endo’s books in the flat, Silence isn’t one of them.
  4. “Reading resolutions” are not really my cup of tea—I like reading somewhat at whim; “challenges” and “lists” strike me as being generally an instance of eyes larger than stomach. However: in the sitting room and the landing bookshelves, we have hundreds of books that the Chaos took from his grandparents’ house after they died. There are many nineteenth and twentieth-century classics (Bellow, Kafka, Lawrence Durrell, Graham Greene); there is a fair amount of Japanese literature and non-fiction; there is quite a lot of science and poetry. I’d like to start reading them. In between new books solicited from publishers and essential contemporary reading (The Underground Railroad, Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, etc.), I’ll prioritise those.
  5. This is all I have for you at the moment, I’m afraid: reading, writing my own book (which comes along), turning up to work, and getting quite a lot of cuddles are pretty much all I can manage. January is not my favourite month.
  6. (Although a couple of years ago I wrote a post about how to survive January; it’s on my old blog. It included the advice “eat a lot of oranges”.)