Three Things: July 2018

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With thanks to Paula of Book Jotter for hosting—new participants always welcome!

Reading: Apart from continuing with 20 Books of Summer, and trying to deal with my newly expanded pile of proofs for the autumn, I’ve found time to trawl the archives of Adam Roberts’s blog (or one of them, anyway), Morphosis. Roberts is a writer of SF whose work is weird and erudite and very far up my street: his most recent book is a virtual-reality murder mystery called The Real-Town Murders, but he’s probably best known for Jack Glass, which is apparently a mindfuck, and Yellow Blue Tibia, about a bunch of Soviet science fiction authors whose Stalin-approved group writing project appears to be coming true. Morphosis contains Roberts’s intellectual musings on things as diverse as John Bunyan, Cicero’s De officiis, and Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Ready Player One. This is to say, it takes seriously enough to examine critically a combination of high and low culture that I find massively enjoyable, and Roberts always articulates himself with enviable precision and perceptiveness. The whole blog goes as far back as 2013: plenty to explore.

Looking: The view from my sitting room never ceases to delight me. We have two enormous, tall windows—they’re one of the main reasons we took this flat in the first place—and you can see half the street from them, or it feels like it. People with their shopping; a man pushing a buggy; a woman struggling to keep her headscarf tidy against the wind. And the houses: the one opposite us has window baskets and a blue door, and their next-door neighbour has geraniums and begonias spilling out of every window. Especially in the sunshine, to sit here and drink coffee or write or eat breakfast is one of my life’s simplest joys.

Thinking: The other night I was listening to Sheryl Crow’s early album, The Globe Sessions, and her voice was so much more raw and full and stripped-back, all at the same time, than it ever has been in her more “produced” albums, and she was playing the guitar in this strum-and-punch style that feels like the epitome of modern country. And the air in my flat was hot and close, so that I could only bear to be wearing a t-shirt, and all the lights were off but I had a candle burning, and the ice in my drink was melting, and there had been a thunderstorm, and I felt like I’d time traveled back to, oh, 2003, maybe, to one of the muggy Virginia summers of my childhood or adolescence, when everything was lonely and passionate and painful and glorious. Isn’t it strange how music can do that? Music, and the weather. Memory is odd.

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15. Collected Stories, by John Cheever

51f8igl7ngl-_sx323_bo1204203200_John Cheever has a reputation, an enormous one, as a giant of post-war American fiction. There is a particular social atmosphere surrounding his work. His men mix drinks and travel into New York every weekday morning on the eight-four; his women wear furs and are quietly, desperately, suicidally bored; everyone plays tennis at the club. The sea is never far away. To a large extent these descriptions hold true when you read the actual stories, but there is a surprising extent to which that is not all they are, or not all that Cheever can do. He can, and does, write about poverty: Christmas Is a Sad Season For the Poor, for instance, which features an apartment building elevator operator who spends the entirety of Christmas morning telling everyone he ferries in his elevator how depressing and lonely his day is likely to be. He succeeds in exciting Christian charity in the hearts of virtually all the families in the building, ending up with seventeen hot dinners and mountains of presents. Unable to distribute them all to his children, he gives most of this bounty to his neighbour, who rouses herself and her family to take them, in turn, to an even poorer family. The moral of this story – even whether there is a moral at all – is unclear, although I think the point here is less any particular moral than it is an overwhelming sense of irony, maybe even of futility, not just in this context but of all human endeavour.

He can, and does, write about adultery and cruelty. (Mostly, in Cheever’s world, it’s wives who are abusive to their husbands. Every now and then, as with The Music Teacher, the position is reversed, but Cheever never seems to be on the side of patriarchy at the expense of justice. He rarely appears to take sides at all, but he generally reserves tenderness for those characters who are baffled, vulnerable, or weak, whether they’re men or women.) Many of his stories revolve around a man who takes a mistress. None of his first-person narrators are women, though he writes some stories in the omniscient third person that focus on female perspectives. He was a closeted bisexual, which, although not the only lens through which to read his dissection of middle- and upper-class American sexual mores, is an interesting one. He is frank and fascinated by the hypocrisy of family values, the liberating effect of post-war European travel, the terrible anxiety about mortality and obsolescence that the act of adultery, in this world, is an attempt to assuage.

Philip Roth is quoted on the back of my edition as saying that Cheever writes “enchanted realism”; it’s an interesting expression because it so explicitly repudiates the implications of how I’d say it, which is that he writes a kind of materialist fabulism or fantasia. Frequently, at the end of these stories, miraculous or inexplicable things happen; time shifts and blurs; people appear and disappear. There’s a sense of the uncanny about all of it. This manifests most famously, perhaps, in the late story The Swimmer, whose protagonist Ned Merrill decides to make his way home from a party by swimming in the pools of all the neighbours between the two houses, and discovers when he returns home that he has aged by decades, his fortune has evaporated, his house is shuttered and empty, his family is gone. But there’s also that twinge of eeriness in earlier work: The Sutton Place Story, for instance, which revolves around a little girl who goes missing. When, eventually, she is recovered, she mentions a mysterious lady who gave her bread, but is either unwilling or incapable of saying more. I think it is a story about the moment you first realise that a child is not an extension of yourself, a realisation that strikes the little girl’s parents especially hard precisely because they have been so neglectful of her.

Most significant, though, is that Cheever’s writing is, quite simply, beautiful. He can write a sentence as simple and declarative as Hemingway; he can spin out a string of subordinate clauses as lush and proliferating as (though more dexterous than) anything of Henry James’s. He is profound and superficial at the same time; he can capture frivolity and desperation in the same breath, and follow it up with genuine, foolish, heart-felt love. And his work is suffused, for me, with this sense of light: suburban light, golden light, American light. I’ve wanted to read his Journals for some time, and on the strength of the short stories, his novels are also about to go on my TBR. Marvelous.

Man Booker Prize 2018: What I Got

HOLY HELL, you guys. What a list. Obviously, virtually none of my wishes/predictions made it (except for The Overstory, thank all the gods). While I’m deeply depressed about the lack of Amy Sackville, Elise Valmorbida, Andrew Miller, Nick Harkaway, Joseph Cassara, and Lidia Yuknavitch, amongst others, I’m also impressed at the generic diversity: there’s a graphic novel on there! There’s a crime novel! This is crazy, y’all!

Less pleasing: the lack of ethnic/national diversity. Opening up this prize to the Americans has, as predicted, resulted in a diminishing of Commonwealth writers; there is no one here from Jamaica or Nigeria or India or even Australia. Two Canadians, two Irish writers (maybe three?), and that’s your lot.

Most of the longlisted books I haven’t read, so these are going to be more along the lines of quick impressions than considered analyses:

coverSnap, by Belinda Bauer. Pretty sure Val McDermid is singlehandedly responsible for this being on the list. Bauer’s reputation is high; I’m wondering if she’s a sort of new Tana French. The premise of this – a heavily pregnant woman walks away from her son and her broken-down car on the M5, in search of a pay phone, and is never seen again – is good.

41wnvealv5l-_sx324_bo1204203200_Milkman, by Anna Burns. The cover is stunning. It’s about an Irish woman being stalked by a paramilitary. That’s really all I’ve got on it. It’s relatively new out and I don’t think anyone at the shop has read it, although my colleague Zoe is keen. The Guardian called it Beckettian and said that Burns reveals “the logical within the absurd”, which sounds very Irish.

41lzvtkhukl-_sx258_bo1204203200_Sabrina, by Nick Drnaso. This is the first graphic novel ever to be on the Man Booker Prize long list and I’m very excited about it. I’ve flicked through the first ten pages and there’s something quietly disturbing and addictive about its atmosphere, already. The artistic style is one that I happen to hate, but that may not matter much.

9781781258972Washington Black, by Esi Edugyan. This is one of my 20 Books of Summer and it’s already so high up my TBR it’s practically tugging my sleeve, so it won’t be long before I’ve read it. A young slave boy’s master disappears on a voyage of exploration, and then…reappears? People have been comparing this to Sugar Money but I have a strong feeling that Edugyan’s book will be better.

In Our Mad and Furious City, by Guy Gunaratne. Five narrators seems like an awful lot of voices for one author to differentiate, but Gunaratne’s ability to ventriloquise the slangy vernacular of young London has been one of the major selling points of this book so far.

cover1Everything Under, by Daisy Johnson. The impression I get from this is that it might be a bit like Penelope Fitzgerald’s book Offshore, only with some mythology mixed up in it, and that is the sort of impression that makes me want to read it immediately. However, Anthony Cummins’s description of it “luridly staging the supremacy of biological fact” waves a red flag. What the fuck does that mean, Anthony?

81z2yt8ghblThe Mars Room, by Rachel Kushner. Genuinely delighted about this. I was pretty indifferent to The Flamethrowers (although I read it just out of university, when my reading protocols were still tuned to Edmund Spenser wavelengths, so maybe that was my fault), but I think if I’d read this before the announcement, I’d have put it on my wishlist. My colleague Camille loved it.

81j4lg4hk8l1The Water Cure, by Sophie Mackintosh. Now, this I have read, and it is the only title on the list that really baffles me. It’s not a bad book, but then most books aren’t bad books. It’s just derivative, endlessly, and I cannot find enough originality in it to understand why it’s here. The prose is fine. The plot is fine, although it doesn’t really go anywhere. Controlling men are bad. The punishment of women for their existence is physical mortification. *checks watch*

077107378xWarlight, by Michael Ondaatje. Ondaatje has been the unfortunate victim of my growing reluctance to read established white male writers. I hear pretty good things about this one – a kind of weird Gothic about children abandoned during World War II to a netherworld of vaguely defined criminality. It’s not going to the top of my list, but if there’s a damaged copy in the shop, I’ll take it.

a1lfnmiqzalThe Overstory, by Richard Powers. Richard Powers is exempted from my reluctance to read established white male writers, because he is wonderful. Partly this is because he doesn’t have any problems with writing women and people of colour into his stories. Partly this is because he writes so beautifully that I would be punishing myself by refusing to read him. I’m so happy he’s here.

9781509846894the20long20take_21The Long Take, by Robin Robertson. A novel in verse! How awesome is this! I’ve read some of Robertson’s poetry before – Hill of Doors, I think – which hasn’t stuck in my mind at all, but this was around the same time as The Flamethrowers, so again, that might have been my fault. This is a kind of post-war picaresque in the same vein as Andrew Miller’s new book. I think I’d like it.

71bdwmuhvzlNormal People, by Sally Rooney. Okay, Rooney’s hip and happenin’, we get it, Jesus. You can accuse me of bitterness all you like, you’re probably not wrong. Anyway, this is another novel where I can’t work out what it’s about. As far as I can tell, two Irish kids go to university. Maybe something happens to them while they’re there. Let’s hope so.

cover2From A Low and Quiet Sea, by Donal Ryan. Kind of a novel in short stories, this one, which actually I’m coming round to, as a form. Zoe tells me the first section is “epic” and the other two are less so; if this makes the shortlist I shall make more of an effort to seek it out.


What do you think of this long list? Good weird? Bad weird? Indifferent weird? What would you have liked to see on it? What enrages you with its presence?

Man Booker Prize 2018: What I Want

The Man Booker Prize longlist is announced tomorrow, and if it were up to me (and, frankly, why isn’t it?), here’s what would be on it. These are all books that I’ve read, so it’s unlikely to correspond in every particular to the list that the panel comes up with; but it does represent the best new books I’ve experienced over the past twelve months. In order of author’s surname:

methode2ftimes2fprod2fweb2fbin2fdc39ec8e-9c61-11e7-a7be-33f2196a0804Mrs Osmond, by John Banville. A follow-up to Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady, revealing what Isabel Osmond actually does to escape her marriage to the odious Gilbert. As a technical achievement it’s stunning; attempts to mimic late-C19 prose often end badly, reading as parody or pastiche, but Banville’s control and intelligence means that he manages precisely to ventriloquise a Jamesian style, albeit a slightly less gnarly one. 

cover121907-mediumThe House of Impossible Beauties, by Joseph Cassara. Cassara’s prose is so evocative; he effortlessly summons the smells and sounds and sights of a world most of his readers will know nothing of—the piers where kings, queens and johns cruise and mingle; Times Square strip joints; bars on Christopher Street—and his dialogue is perfect, witty and human and liberally sprinkled with Spanglish.

gnomon-tpbGnomon, by Nick Harkaway.  Set in a near-future Britain where surveillance is total and civil order is maintained by a System that occasionally hauls in potential dissidents for a full mind-read, Gnomon follows a detective assigned to a case when a woman dies in custody. In the files of the dead woman’s consciousness, she finds four other minds that aren’t meant to be there… Mind-bending, inventive, wondrous, and very, very funny.

cover-jpg-rendition-460-707The Western Wind, by Samantha Harvey. Harvey sets her novel in fourteenth-century Oakham, a small and isolated village in Somerset (travellers who get lost in the area tend to end up in Wales). As the book opens, a local man has drowned in the river, and the village priest is under pressure to find his killer. It’s a very slow-rolling book, like a river after a flood but before the waters have gone back down, with a lot of unobvious things churning about in its depths.

isbn9781444784671Now We Shall Be  Entirely Free, by Andrew Miller. I know I’ve just read it, but I don’t think my love for it is a side effect of its recentness. Set in 1809, just after the Spanish campaign of the Peninsular War, it follows John Lacroix as he travels north into the Hebrides, trying to escape his memories of complicity in the conflict he has just fled. Beautiful, spare but evocative writing, and a sense of real historical groundedness.

51xgptmawcl-_sx321_bo1204203200_The Wanderers, by Tim Pears. Set in Devon and Cornwall in 1913, as Leo Sercombe is cast out of his home on the Prideaux estate in Devon for some crime which remains unspecified. Pears’s writing, both about nature and about the complexities of the human heart, is delicate and precise and always slightly oblique; he is the master of presenting a situation or a piece of dialogue without comment, and letting the reader conclude what she will.

isbn9781473667792A Shout in the Ruins, by Kevin Powers. Alternating between chapters set during the American Civil War, and chapters set in the 1960s and 1980s, during which the Vietnam War and its aftermath crops up regularly, Powers presents the evils of slavery fully, but in a way that doesn’t read with the almost pornographic flavour of explicit violence. It feels as though the book respects its characters, even as their lives are made increasingly difficult.

a1lfnmiqzalThe Overstory, by Richard Powers. Maybe his most ambitious book yet: it seeks, essentially, to instill in its reader a sense of sympathy and identification with trees. The reason it works so well, I think, is partly because Powers takes his time to establish the stories of each character, and partly because his writing about geological time, and about the biological miracle of plant life, is so stunningly beautiful. Quite possibly the best book I’ve read, or will read, this year.

31937362The Italian Teacher, by Tom Rachman. What does it mean to be an artist? What constitutes art? Does genius excuse monstrosity? Twentieth century art and art criticism, the terrible void inherent in the knowledge that artistic value is a mere function of consensus, and the anxiety of influence not only from artist to artist, but from father to son: Rachman deals with them all, in this deeply engrossing and deeply moving novel.

51ehaprfykl-_sx327_bo1204203200_Painter To the King, by Amy Sackville. In her third novel, Sackville zooms all the way in on Diego Velazquez’s life and work at the court of Felipe IV. While it might be described as a fictional biography, what Painter to the King does most consistently and remarkably is convey what it feels like to be someone who sees the world as a painter – as this particular painter – does.

9780571336333The Madonna of the Mountains, by Elise Valmorbida. Quiet, but brilliant: it feels effortlessly emotionally engaging, without resorting to either melodrama or apparent anachronism. Reading it really feels as if you are peering into the head of, let’s say, your great-grandmother; someone whose world is not your world, whose socially conditioned responses are alien to your own. One of the most restrained, yet profoundly convincing, historical novels that I’ve read in years, perhaps ever.

sing-unburied-sing-300x0Sing Unburied Sing, by Jesmyn Ward. It’s a road trip novel; it’s an examination of American racism and history; it’s modern-day Faulkner, lyrical and elegiac. Jojo, our young narrator, will stay with you for a long time, as will his strong love for his baby sister Kayla and his mother Leonie’s desperation to bring her boyfriend Michael home from prison. An utterly stunning book.

36441056The Book of Joan, by Lidia Yuknavitch.  I described it on Goodreads as “Angela Carter in space”, which I stand by. There is so much going on in this book about bodies, the female body especially, and the reproductive capacities of the female body; how bodies can literally tell stories, carry history; never have I been made so aware of the body as the ultimate site of political resistance. It is resonant with where we are now, as a world, in ways that are both subtle and in-your-face.

Other books that I think might well end up on the longlist: Happiness by Aminatta Forna; Warlight by Michael Ondaatje; The Only Story by Julian Barnes (please God no); I suppose it’s possible that the ubiquitous Eleanor Oliphant will end up with a spot, in which case I will actually cry; The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock; Crudo by Olivia Laing; Transcription by Kate Atkinson.

We. Shall. See. Do any of you have predictions/desires for the Man Booker long list?

14. Now We Shall Be Entirely Free, by Andrew Miller

isbn9781444784671Now We Shall Be Entirely Free is set in 1809, just after the Spanish campaign of the Peninsular War. We first meet our protagonist, John Lacroix, being carried into his family home in Somerset: feet badly wounded and hearing severely damaged, he is on the edge of death, though his housekeeper Nell nurses him back to health. Meanwhile, we meet two other characters: an English soldier named Calley who witnessed English troops on the retreat committing an atrocity in a Spanish village, and a Spanish officer named Medina. Calley, after giving testimony identifying the man in charge of the raping and murdering troops, is charged by a shadowy superior to find the individual in question and kill him; the Spanish want proof that someone has been punished, but the English government’s position is sufficiently precarious that it needs to be done extrajudicially. Medina is assigned to keep Calley on track and to witness the murder as a representative of Spain. The juxtaposition of the two narratives suggests strongly to the reader that Lacroix – whom we know, so far, as a gentle and quiet man – was the officer named by Calley. As he sets out on a journey that will take him from Somerset to Bristol to Glasgow to the Outer Hebrides, and from frozen guilt and shame to redemption and love, suspense comes not merely from wondering whether Lacroix’s psychological scars will heal, but from the reader’s disbelieving anxiety: surely we know him, but could it be that he’s less than the man we think he is?

In fact, he is, but not in the way that we’ve been led to think. This is the first of Miller’s books I’ve read, but if its impressively nuanced characterisation is anything to go by, the rest of them must be worth reading too. The community that Lacroix eventually finds in the Hebrides (on an island that he reaches on the back of a cow, after a voyage narrated with such dry wit that I found myself grinning periodically throughout) consists of three siblings, two women and a man. This is the last remnant of a quasi-pagan cult led by a charismatic man called Thorpe, or sometimes Phyrro. (We actually meet him, in passing, when the narrative is with Calley and Medina.) Thorpe has left one sister pregnant; the other, Emily, with whom Lacroix falls in love and whose sight is failing, seems to have unfinished emotional business with their absent leader. Emily’s interior landscape is complex – at one point she reproaches Lacroix for referring to her as “free”, listing the many ways in which she is not at liberty at all – and Miller renders it very delicately. There aren’t really any minor characters in this novel; even William Swann, Lacroix’s Bristol merchant brother-in-law, and Nell, the housekeeper, who only appear in one or two chapters each, feel like fully rounded people, with hopes for the future that have nothing to do with Lacroix or his journey. And Miller’s settings are the same: his early nineteenth century harboursides, crofting communities, hospitals and rural estates have lives of their own; you can imagine them carrying on quite happily when Lacroix or other point-of-view characters leave the scene.

In short, then: an excellent historical novel; a moving exploration of guilt and love; beautifully written; very highly recommended.

11, 12 and 13: A Jest of God; Wilding; This Rough Magic

I’m less behind with #20booksofsummer than it looks, but I’m way behind on reviews.

41xly8j7thl-_sx324_bo1204203200_Margaret Laurence is one of the unsung giants of Canadian fiction. The afterword to this edition of A Jest of God is by Margaret Atwood, who acknowledges her own artistic debt to Laurence. The novel concerns Rachel Cameron, a primary-school teacher who has found it impossible to follow her older sister’s lead and flee small-town Ontario for marriage and the city. Tethered to an aging, passively demanding mother, and rapidly approaching middle age and spinsterhood, Rachel’s only real friend is Calla, a fellow teacher. When a man she remembers from childhood comes back to town for the summer, they embark on an affair that, although it doesn’t end happily, gives Rachel the courage and self-confidence she needs to change her life for good.

The interesting thing about Rachel is that her defining characteristic is a terror of embarrassment. She’s not even generally embarrassed by the things she does; she’s too much in control of herself; but other people’s weaknesses, humanity, foolishness, lack of control or inhibition, can bring her to tears of shame. It is as though she’s emotionally stuck at thirteen, consumed by humiliation at the slightest imperfection. It’s a perfect metaphor for her life: still living at home, still at the whim of a parent, she might as well be a teenager. It threatens her relationships before Nick, her lover, comes to town; her shame after attending an evangelical meeting at Calla’s church nearly destroys the friendship between the two women (and Calla, we know, is a woman not without courage in facing her own life). Although Rachel has to face a crisis of a nature which I tend to find irritating in fiction (no more for fear of spoilers, but go read my review of The Illumination of Ursula Flight), in her case the need to make a decision is removed by fate, or rather by plotting. In a way, this was frustrating; in another, it felt necessary, because the romance with Nick, although positioned as being central to the book, really isn’t. It is simply the tool that Rachel needs to lever herself out of one life and into another, which, by the end, she does, an effort described in prose that is both moving and beautiful.

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Isabella Tree’s husband, Charlie Burrell, is the owner of Knepp Castle, in Sussex. Up until the year 2000, Isabella and Charlie were still attempting to make the estate profitable through traditional farming methods. But in that year, they spoke to a tree expert about the state of the Knepp Oak – a tree so old it was likely fully grown when Elizabeth I visited the park – and his advice, together with the steeply declining profitability of traditional farming, even when subsidised, pushed them into the idea of rewilding their land. (“Rewilding” is a contentious term. The aim is not to have an aim at all, but rather to cease the intensive human management of a landscape and see what happens. Because Tree and Burrell did retain a certain amount of control by introducing old native species, or approximations thereof, like Tamworth pigs and Dartmoor ponies, and because the “original state” of the historic English landscape is not at all certain, Tree is not very comfortable using the word, but she admits it is probably the best one we have at the moment.)

Wilding is an excellent book: richly informative not only about what we do and don’t know about English landscape (very little; evidence for heavy forest cover in prehistoric and medieval Britain, Tree demonstrates, is at best partial, and has often been interpreted partially, by historians and archaeologists with ideological axes to grind), but also about the characteristics of particular species in a landscape (she explains the benefit of the Tamworth pigs rooting in rich soil by the side of their drive, the incalculable long-term effects of leaving low-lying land uncultivated to create aquatic habitats, even the virtues of the humble dung beetle). She is also never less than honest about the hard pushback that these schemes generally receive from the neighbours. Most of the land surrounding theirs in Sussex is farmed, and English farmers in particular tend to be strongly antipathetic to “wasting” good land; there is a national narrative about being an island, and the hazard of food shortages, and the need to make every inch of ground productive in some way, which she unpicks with skill and sympathy, if also frustration. But what she also conveys is the utter shortsightedness of this approach, the dead end into which English and European farming in general is running at full speed. Above all, she is passionately specific about the benefits of rewilding schemes to land health, biodiversity, and the health (and economies) of the humans who live around rewilded areas. Wilding is a seriously important book on an urgent topic, and it is also highly readable. It ought to be put into the hands of agriculture ministers and rural funding bodies, as well as those of interested civilians.

51pyv2bpvkl-_sx324_bo1204203200_Sometimes the circumstances under which you read a book are so flawlessly matched that the book and the environment meld together in your memory, and you know you’ll never be able to remember one without remembering the other. I’m so pleased to have read my first Mary Stewart under such circumstances: prostrate on a Saturday in the middle of a heatwave, window wide open, spooning raspberry sorbet into my gaping mouth, refusing to move from the bed except to go make more iced coffee. This Rough Magic, which is set on Corfu and involves a witty, spirited failed actress, a ruggedly handsome grumpy man, attempted and actual murder, smuggling, currency market inflation, abduction, and a dolphin, could not have been a more perfect read for that particular day. Our heroine, Lucy Waring, is the aforementioned failed actress, a failure about which she is quite sanguine: she knows she’s barely third-rate on the stage, though she turns out to be an excellent dissembler when it comes to enticing a known murderer on a day trip.

Any initial skepticism I might have had about Mary Stewart dropped away within minutes of starting to read: she’s very funny, an effect mostly achieved through use of pitilessly accurate similes, and the liberal sprinkling of references to The Tempest throughout the book adds a lot of charm. The mystery, and the villain, are genuinely chilling and villainous; so often in books of this vintage the stakes feel absurdly low, the evil underdeveloped, but here Stewart conveys a sense of real menace and cruelty, while keeping the melodrama under control. An excellent introduction to her work; I look forward to continuing with The Ivy Tree and The Gabriel Hounds. (This is much to the satisfaction of my colleague Faye, who wrote her PhD on Stewart and is probably the world expert on her work.)

Reading Diary: Moll&Sarah&Alfred&Rupert

…and Grace and Lia and Sky. Herewith, the last few weeks of reading, not including #20booksofsummer titles.

51y5ybibh4l-_sx320_bo1204203200_Sometimes I just miss the eighteenth century. Not in a way that can be assuaged by contemporary historical fiction; in a way that can only really be dealt with by reading a novel rife with variant spellings like “chuse” and the persistent Capitalisation of every Noun, for Reasons. Daniel Defoe and I have a vexed history – the first of his novels that I ever read was Robinson Crusoe, which bored me almost to tears, although possibly this was because I was eight years old and not equipped to find interest in Crusoe’s devotion to the Protestant ethic through list-making, material culture, and stewardship of resources. Moll Flanders, though, I’ve always got on well with. She narrates her own story with vim, and an almost total lack of shame: her initial fall from grace, a seduction by the son of a woman in whose house she lives as a companion, is something about which she expresses regret, but mostly because she doesn’t “manage” the affair well and fails to get a promise of marriage and security. “Management” is essential in Moll’s world; the word crops up again and again. It’s interesting to consider its use as set against the idea of household management as a married woman’s primary duty; for Moll, “managing” is also a matter of maximising efficiency, but in her case it is the efficiency of graft, or theft, or of the socially approved form of prostitution that constitutes the marriage market. It’s also interesting to see how long it takes her to fall to actual crime: for most of the novel, she might be considered immoral (making various marriages for money and advantage, including the notorious incestuous one), but she doesn’t do much that’s illegal. The career of thieving comes much later, at a point where she’s not sufficiently sure of her own youth and beauty to try marrying again. The other delightful thing about the novel, of course, is that she ends up all right, with a husband she likes and a large, regular income from a plantation in Virginia. Roxana, a later Defoe novel, explores the darker and more realistic consequences of being a fallen woman, but Moll Flanders is like a glorious fantasy of transgression. I’ve always rather liked it for that.

the_reading_groupfrontpanelfinalThe Reading Party is set in the 1970s, not my favourite decade to read about but in this case made interesting because it was the time at which previously all-male colleges in Oxford and Cambridge began to admit not only female students, but female dons. Sarah Addleshaw is Fenella Gentleman’s protagonist, a social historian who becomes the first female don in the history of Wadham College. She’s selected to help an older, crustier colleague with the college’s annual reading party, in which a handful of students are chosen to go off with two tutors to a house in Cornwall for a week before their exams, to revise. (This tradition doesn’t exist in all Oxford colleges – it didn’t in mine – and I can think of many, many more pitfalls to it than advantages, but that’s by the by.) Her instinctive attraction to a Rhodes Scholar, Tyler, must be balanced against her constant awareness of being a test case, and her professional role as an academic mentor. On occasion, Sarah’s innocence about the subtlety of male belittling almost feels disingenuous; we’re so aware of it now that it feels remarkable that it was ever so widely accepted. And there’s a little too much in the way of non-dialogue exclamation points and quotation marks (the latter, I imagine, intended as signposts for readers not familiar with Oxbridge slang, but jarring.) It’s a fascinating view, though, into a time relatively near my own but which seems to have been governed by rules and convictions so vastly different that it might as well be alien. Is there any time more exotic than the recent past? And Sarah, frustrating though she sometimes is, is a doughty heroine; you want her to do well without losing her spark, and on that score, the epilogue satisfies.

53d8a8d0f1a13adde9ec4476a1b570bbI saw the film of The Prestige, based on the novel by Christopher Priest, years before reading the book. Christopher Nolan takes some liberties with plot and structure, which is, to be honest with you, a pretty good thing; Priest’s ideas work on their own, but they work slightly better when Nolan tweaks them. The heart of the story is still the rivalry between Victorian stage magicians Rupert Angier and Alfred Borden, and their achievement of a trick that appears to involve teleportation. Priest includes a framing story that features Angier’s and Borden’s descendants in the present day (which, if we assume it’s contemporaneous with the book’s writing, is the mid-1990s). It’s a further angle on the rivalry, but it doesn’t really go anywhere; the tantalising hint of resonance established by the report that sends Borden’s descendant in search of Angier’s (a potential news story about someone being in two places at once) is never resolved. The science-fiction element of the story is represented by Nikola Tesla, who makes a brief appearance as the inventor of a machine that harnesses electrical energy in the air; much as in The Bedlam Stacks, the time period of The Prestige muddies the waters about whether what’s happening is science as we’d understand it, or an illusion resulting from the limitations of Victorian knowledge. This is the first of Priest’s books I’ve read, but checking out his back catalogue after finishing it, it seems obvious that he has an artistic obsession with twins and duplicates; several of his other novels, including The Affirmation and The Separation (which won the Arthur C Clarke Award), use twinning as a device. Ideas of illusion, deception, and truth are so closely bound up with notions of identity that, at least in The Prestige, Priest carries it off, but it makes me wonder where he can possibly go with the same themes in other books.

81j4lg4hk8lMisogynistic dystopias are kind of where it’s at with culture both high and low at the moment. I think we’re either rapidly approaching saturation point, or got there some time ago (we sure as hell have passed the station where we should all have been given a collective run-down on the differences between “dystopic” and “post-apocalyptic”, two different concepts whose frequent and inappropriate blurring is the ridiculously petty hill I am prepared to die on.) Sophie Mackintosh’s entry in the genre is better than the text on the hardback back cover would lead you to believe (it reads as though it’s quoted directly from the novel, which it isn’t; Mackintosh’s prose is better, if not very interesting.) Her take involves three sisters—Grace, Lia, and the little one, Sky—and their parents, King and Mother. They live on an island off the mainland of somewhere that’s probably North America. They have been taught from a young age that the world beyond the horizon is poisoned, that their bodies and minds must be trained for assault by sickness as well as by the actions of men. It’s implied that they used to run some kind of cult there, one that appealed mostly to vulnerable women, but that no one comes for cures anymore; it’s just the girls and their parents. King vanishes without trace one day, and shortly afterwards, three men appear on the island. These two events precipitate a crisis in the girls’ worldviews, particularly that of Lia, who embarks on an affair with one of the newcomers.

There’s enough misogyny floating around that I’m never going to say we don’t need a book like this, but The Water Cure partakes of a vagueness that makes it feel generic, and therefore less urgent than many of its kind. Perhaps we’re truly not meant to know whether to read it as a speculative fiction or as disturbing realism, but the material about controlling one’s body and emotions, turning to self-harm as a form of release, and the manipulation of young women by older men is all stuff that’s been done before. What can make a book like this intensely compelling is the voice in which it’s told, but that doesn’t happen here, firstly because the narration is parceled out to three separate characters—for no readily apparent reason, like for instance a plot point where interpretation can be altered by different points of view—and secondly because none of those voices are differentiated from one another. Another way of injecting freshness into a story of this type is narrative structure, or a radical social approach (both of which are present, for instance, in Naomi Alderman’s The Power), but The Water Cure, for all its baton-switching, is a linear story, and its (tiny) social world is nothing we haven’t seen before in documentaries about cult leaders and in our own experiences with controlling men. The question with a book like this is whether holding up a mirror to experience is enough; does The Water Cure need, necessarily, to be Saying Something or Making A Statement? Perhaps not, at least not in a moral sense; but aesthetically, as a piece of art, it’s fatally weakened by bringing little new to the table.