Reading Diary: Apr. 22-Apr. 30

9781786697080There ought to be a law that if your book has a crackerjack premise, you must execute it with commensurate panache. I don’t know how this might be enforced – through the imposition of a fine, perhaps? – but it might stop books like In the Cage Where Your Saviours Hide from getting me really excited and then letting me down hard. It’s a crime novel set in a Scotland that never signed the Act of Union, so the country has always been independent of England, and has relied for the past several centuries on its Central American empire, the Caledonian States. (In this version of history, the Darien scheme was a smashing success.) Malcolm Mackay sets the novel in the northwest port town of Challaid, which is slowly dying as industry dries up. Darien Ross, a private investigator with a jailbird ex-cop dad, a mildly criminal older brother, and a lot of fine lines to tread, takes a case from a classic noir femme fatale: Maeve Campbell walks into the office he shares with his boss and asks him to track down the man who stabbed her boyfriend, a money launderer descended from Caledonian immigrants. Ross, of course, takes the case.

The setup is great. It’s a shame, then, that the pay-off is so minimal. For what Mackay does with his cleverly imagined setting is to write a noir crime novel so straight that it could just as easily be set in Cardiff, or Manchester, or anywhere vaguely northern and rainy. As a novel about a private investigator goes, it hits all the beats it needs to  (although there are some frustrating choices in Maeve’s characterisation, and in the revelation of the killer). But there are a million things about an independent Scotland that could have been developed: what are its relations with its southern neighbour? Why are its industries in decline? (It must be a reason that has nothing to do with English rule and/or political decisions, but we don’t get to hear it.) There are hints of unrest regarding immigration from the Caledonian states, which are agitating for independence; Ross interviews a waiter from Costa Rica who will be entitled to a Scottish passport if he can just keep working in Challaid for another two months. But nothing is made of it, it doesn’t go anywhere. You can’t entice readers with the promise of world-building and then avoid building the world. The “primary source” documents which interleave the chapters – historic newspaper articles, investigative reports, etc. – are perhaps an attempt to do this implicitly, but they are not elegantly integrated into the main narrative, and therefore are less of a help than an obstacle. It’s a shame, especially given that the last alternative-history book I read (KJ Whittaker’s phenomenal False Lights, back in September) managed its world-building so well.

33590210Roy and Celestial are a middle-class black couple from Atlanta. He’s a banker; she’s an emerging artist. They’ve been married for a year when Roy is arrested, tried and convicted for a crime that he didn’t commit. Sent to prison for twelve years, he’s let out after five, but the damage to his marriage is already done: how can he and Celestial, and their mutual friend Andre, figure out a way to live after their lives have been destroyed?

An American Marriage is a lot like Diana Evans’s Ordinary People, which I read last week, in that it asks questions about how marriages and relationships actually work, or don’t work, and doesn’t shy away from the fact that the answers might be devastating. It is never in question that Roy and Celestial love each other, but the strain of incarceration on a brand-new marriage is intense. Jones gives Celestial some wonderful, incisive dialogue about what it feels like to be a black woman standing in line for a prison visit with your husband: how you know the guards are judging you, how you’re judging yourself, how desperately you don’t want to feel part of the sorority of black women all around you who are also there to visit their men. It’s not just romantic relationship dynamics that are under scrutiny here: Roy’s mother’s husband, the man who raised him, is not his biological father. While in prison, he meets the man who fathered him, and Jones explores, through their oddball, tentative relationship and through the love between Roy and his adopted father, Big Roy, the various ways in which boys can become men. Characterisation is deep and convincing, dialogue is on point – there’s nothing about An American Marriage that rings false. It’s a highly addictive story told with great powers of observation and empathy. UK readers are lucky that the brilliant publisher Oneworld has made it available in this country.

cover2Even though I’m trying hard to read more nonfiction, A Spy Named Orphan still isn’t the sort of thing I generally go for. It looks like a book on the “hard” edge of the spectrum: the history/biography lists that are still overwhelmingly white educated male-centric. For some reason, I rescued a proof from oblivion a few months ago, and now I’m very glad I did. Roland Philipps has written a sympathetic, nuanced and informative biography of Donald Maclean (one of the original Cambridge Five who passed large amounts of classified information to the Soviets from posts within the British establishment during the Second World War and for decades after it). Not only that, but Philipps’s style is easy, combining erudition with accessibility in a way that alienates neither the casual reader nor the aficionado. It’s a very impressive piece of work.

Maclean himself was also an impressive piece of work: he possessed a first-rate ability to synthesise and summarise information, a genuine desire to make the world a safer and more peaceful place, and a self-destructive alcoholic streak that very nearly killed him. The combination of these traits makes for gripping reading. Philipps also – unusually for this sort of history/biography, I feel – acknowledges the central role that Maclean’s wife Melinda played in his life: loyal to him throughout their marriage and despite his frequently appalling public behaviour, she stuck by him even after he vanished behind the Iron Curtain, not knowing if she would ever see him again. Despite the evident faults of both husband and wife, and the cruelty of various acquaintances from the diplomatic world who generally described Melinda as a simpleton, Philipps makes it clear that they loved each other. (All things come to an end, however: when Melinda and the Maclean children were eventually exfiltrated and allowed to join Donald, she ended up running away with Kim Philby, which is the sort of thing you couldn’t make up.) A Spy Named Orphan is a genuinely gripping story, told with clarity and verve. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Thoughts on this week’s reading: I’m still reading a lot of books which, if not exactly crime, certainly involve being on the wrong side of the law. This continues with my current reading, Kirk Wallace Johnson’s The Feather Thief. (I read nothing from Thursday night until this morning, due to being the maid of honour at a family wedding over the weekend, which went smashingly.)


22 thoughts on “Reading Diary: Apr. 22-Apr. 30

  1. Interesting to see your comparison between An American Marriage, which I read recently and enjoyed very much, and Ordinary People which I already had my eye on. You’re abolutely right about OneWorld – a gem of a publisher!

  2. Wow, that premise (In That Cage) is fantastic, and I feel disappointed even though I haven’t read it!

    I have my eye on An American Marriage. I found Ordinary People familiar and cliched, but the very different circumstances facing the couple in An American Marriage sound much more promising.

    1. I think I found Ordinary People more interesting because it focuses on a black middle-class couple – not something I see so much of in mainstream fiction – but I think An American Marriage certainly has a stronger premise.

      1. Yes, I liked that aspect (and don’t want to suggest that stories about black couples need to e.g. put racial issues front and foremost, or be somehow different in nature from stories about white couples) but unfortunately struggled with the familiarity/narrowness of their concerns.

      2. Yes, that aspect of my recent reading has been very evident – a lot of anxiety about marriage and children (is there ANY book in which having children is portrayed as rewarding and enriching a relationship? Or is it all just authorial not-waving-but-drowning attempts to warn the as-yet-childless?)

      3. I’ve been thinking about this and I can’t think of anything that isn’t told from the point of view of the child (so happy mothers are only ever seen from the outside 😦 )

      4. It’s just occurred to me that Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border is a portrayal of a woman whose marriage isn’t shredded by having a child, although that’s because she isn’t married or in a long-term relationship in the first place. But she does end up entering a good, solid relationship with someone while pregnant/in the early days of her baby’s infancy, so that’s positive, I suppose.

      5. A favourite of mine too. Re: ambivalent motherhood, ‘my’ bibliotherapist recommended The Accidental by Ali Smith, The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff, and The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt.

      6. The Last Samurai!! I’d forgotten how much I wanted to read that, and now that it’s been reissued in the UK, my chance is here.

  3. I’m looking forward to An American Marriage. The kind people of Oneworld sent me a copy but I’ve fallen behind on review books.

    Ooh, I didn’t know The Feather Thief was coming out in the UK! I’ll look out for it.

  4. What a shame about the independent Scotland novel – it does sound like a fantastic premise! And yes, I agree that there have been a few books lately which start off firing on all cylinders and then fall a little flat (for example, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle – great concept, a little repetitive in execution).
    About The Last Samurai, everyone told me I would love it, that it was just my type of thing (I studied Japanese, I have quite bright but not genius children, I am a bit of a weird mother) – but in the end I found it rather pretentious and messy.

    1. I don’t want to sound too curmudgeonly, but I strongly suspect it has something to do with the fact that marketing departments are now so heavily involved in commissioning meetings that sometimes they alone are the deciding factor on whether a book is bought by a publishing house or not. And marketing people are great people, but their driving question is less “how is the prose and plot structure?” and more “can we sell lots of copies by comparing it to something people already love and/or appealing to the human fondness for novelty?” Which often results in books based on cool ideas, but doesn’t always require those cool ideas to be bolstered by all the rest of the good stuff.

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