May Superlatives

The less said about May, the better, frankly. Or perhaps that’s unfair: it’s been much too busy, but I’ve seen old friends, and family, and done a lot of singing. At the end of the month, though, my personal life has—quite unexpectedly—gone to shit. It’s no one’s fault, but it’s incredibly painful and it means my present, and my future, are in a state of upheaval. I don’t want to talk about it on here, beyond that. I have read 12 books, and my brain is like a wrung-out sponge: reviewing capacities are at a pretty low ebb.


biggest mindfuck: The City and the City, China Miéville’s novel about two cities which, topologically, exist in the same space, but are ontologically not the same places: Beszél and Ul Qoma. Miéville’s said he wants to write a novel in every genre, and this is his noir, with Inspector Borlú our hardboiled detective. As is the case with a lot of his work, the conceit is adhered to with such astonishing tenacity that the sheer comprehensiveness of it mostly makes up for a certain thematic thinness. (After all, if the point of The City and the City‘s overlapping spaces is to illustrate urban alienation, all you need to do that is the conceit itself; you don’t really need to hang a whole novel on it.) Still, I never regret reading a Miéville book.

hardest to discuss: As a bookseller, I can tell you right now that any book about a paedophile is going to be a hard sell. Tench, by Inge Schilperoord, is nevertheless a very compassionate and terribly lucid exploration of the circumstances that surround people who commit this nature of offense, and the ways that they’re so often unsupported, and left to offend again. A heartbreaking but very good book. (review)


hands-down favourite: The Time of Our Singing by Richard Powers—recommended to me by a colleague—a six hundred-page novel about the musically talented mixed-race children of a black Philadelphian woman and a German Jewish man, growing up in the 1960s. The best novel I have ever read about classical singing, it also encompasses over a hundred years of American racial history. It’s a total knock-out and should be much better known.

most like a feminist rewrite of The Road: There’s one every year now, in the vein of Emily St John Mandel’s excellent Station Eleven. This year it’s Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From, an extremely brief and spare book about a woman raising her newborn son alone in a flooded England. The woman (unnamed) navigates the loss of her husband, her home, and everything about her old life with grief, but also with aplomb; the baby, curiously, anchors her. You could read it, I suppose, as an extended metaphor. That might be the most productive way to do it, given that, at the end of the book, the waters recede, the husband returns, and the baby starts to walk—this confluence, I suspect, not coincidental.


nimblest: Let Go My Hand, by Edward Docx, is a book that could have run into a lot of problems: it’s about three brothers unwillingly escorting their dying father to Zurich in a camper van. He intends to take his own life at the Dignitas clinic. On the way, there are emotional and physical reckonings from decades of parenting failures, both standard and particular. Docx avoids every one of the places where he could have bogged down in sentimentality or crassness; it’s a superb piece of work, moving and realistic and often bizarrely funny, with some perfect dialogue. Imagine a Wes Anderson movie, but not annoying. (It’ll probably be a Wes Anderson movie soon, so read it first.)

most rage-inducing: Maxine Beneba Clarke’s memoir about growing up black and middle-class in white suburban Australia, The Hate Race. It’s just won the Multicultural NSW Award there, which is both heartening (it’s a fantastic book and it deserves prizes) and kind of hilariously ironic (it’s mostly about the appalling racist bullying Clarke suffered as a child in “multicultural New South Wales” barely 25 years ago). (review)


best newcomer: Ocean Vuong’s poetry isn’t completely new to me—I’d read “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” and a couple other pieces online in Poetry Magazine—but his first full collection is just out in the UK. Night Sky With Exit Wounds is an elegiac, sexy, pull-the-rug-out compendium of poems, absolutely unforgettable. “Because It’s Summer” might be one of my new all-time favourites.

oddest: Sudden Death, by Álvaro Enrigue. Fictionalising and retelling the story of a tennis match-cum-duel that was once fought between the painter Caravaggio and the Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo, it’s sort of a novel. It calls itself a novel. It frequently digresses, however, to take in historical footnotes such as the ultimate fate of Anne Boleyn’s hair (used to stuff the world’s most expensive tennis balls), the ultimate fate of Anne Boleyn’s executioner (executed himself, his throat professionally slit in a French courtyard), and the conquest of the Aztecs. I think I can see what it’s trying to do, and I think I’m intrigued and impressed. I’m just not quite sure it comes off: partly it’s hampered by its own cleverness, which has Enrigue writing these footnote sections in the tone of a chatty media don, giving the impression that they’ve migrated into the novel from a popular history book.

pleasantest surprise: This is going to sound so weird, but: It, Stephen King’s killer-clown novel. I’d never read Stephen King, and picked this up really on a whim. It turned out to be astonishingly addictive, which for me means that the writing is high-quality and frictionless. It’s also genuinely terrifying—more so when focusing on events that happen to the central group of characters as children; slightly less so when focusing on them as adults and the final reckoning with It, but still pretty good then. I’ll be trying King again. (review)


most hmm: Kevin Wilson’s new novel, Perfect Little World, which is out in June. The idea is cool: a child psychologist with his own issues around nurture and stability is funded by an eccentric billionairess to run a ten-year study called the Infinite Family Project, where ten couples raise their babies communally to see how this affects child development. Our main character, teen single mother Izzy, is delightfully down-to-earth and the way Wilson introduces conflict to the “perfect little world” is pleasingly realistic, but his prose style creates a kind of distance between the reader and the characters; I always felt I was on the outside, looking in. Perhaps that was the point, though I’m still not sure how I feel about it if so.

hardest to read: When I Hit You: Or, Portrait of the Writer As A Young Wife, by Meena Kandasamy, a novel about an abusive marriage between an Indian feminist writer and her passionately Communist husband. The title should tell you why. (This has got nothing to do with the shit thing that has just happened, though.)


biggest relief: Tana French’s most recent novel, The Trespasser, is finally 1.99 on Kindle. It’s the only thing I’ve been able to read since the shit thing happened—I can’t focus enough for anything else—and I should take this opportunity to again state how thoroughly French as a writer has earned my trust as a reader.

up next: No idea. In any sense.

22 thoughts on “May Superlatives

  1. I’m sorry to hear things have been so hard recently, Elle. I’m glad Tana French has been a comfort. A couple of other thrillers I’ve read recently that might fill a similar niche – well-written, but not too demanding when it’s hard to focus – are Erica Ferencik’s The River at Night and Susie Steiner’s Missing, Presumed, if you haven’t already read them both. Hope things look a bit better soon.

    1. I’ve heard about Ferencik and Steiner both, and those sound like great works to move on to. Thanks for the kind wishes—trying to be kind to myself, too.

  2. Very sorry to hear about your personal downturn, but I do hope it’s only temporary and that things improve soon. In the meantime, you’ve read some great books, although perhaps dystopia adds to a general feeling of unease.

    1. Thank you – the downturn is, in a technical sense, unfortunately not temporary, but of course the side effects of such upheavals do fade after a while, I know. Yeah, definitely revising my list of books to be read soon, in favour of stuff like Tana French (am currently on the third Mick Herron book, which is fulfilling much the same function). I need to prioritise stuff that I know will be both good and non-stressful.

  3. I do hope your life turns around and begins to pick up very soon. I always turn to thrillers for comfort too – and Mick Herron’s are sooo good. I’d really recommend Sirens by Joseph Knox too – superb.

  4. Great roundup – definitely a couple on there to add to my TBR. I hope things get better quickly for you and that you find what you’re looking for both book-wise and other.

  5. Richard Powers really impressed me with Orfeo, but for some reason I haven’t picked up anything else by him since then. Our trip to the States has been so busy that my reading has really tailed off recently, though I’ve acquired plenty of new (secondhand + proof) books! I hope I’ll get to say hi to New Dominion for you on Friday. So sorry to hear you’re having a rough time. Wishing you all the best.

    1. Yay for acquiring books and for New Dominion! I’d say Orfeo is good on the academic/analytical aspect of music, and The Time Of Our Singing is a nice counterpart to that, in that it’s about performing (though performance obviously requires a lot of technical and analytical ability too). But if you liked Orfeo, I’d really recommend it. Thank you so much for the kind thoughts—they really do help.

      1. ALAS! Our friend in Charlottesville has been unwell this week so couldn’t host us. We did about 24 hours in Williamsburg and then just drove back to my parents’ instead of heading on to C’ville. We’ll try again at Christmas.

      2. Again it was mostly to visit a friend, but also neat to see the town — I hadn’t been since I was a kid. We only walked around so didn’t have to pay the (exorbitant) entry fee. My husband said it wasn’t as naff as he expected 😉 We did Jamestown Island as well.

      3. Jamestown is good! I remember going there years ago, it was raining and my family was the only family there, which meant we got the undivided attention of all the cosplayers (I mean, of course, historial reenacters, whoops.)

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