The Mere Wife, by Maria Dahvana Headley: Described on Instagram as “the contemporary feminist Beowulf retelling of my dreams”, this takes the action of the Anglo-Saxon poem and relocates it to a gated community in upstate New York (I suppose it could be Connecticut), Herot Hall. Roger, the man whose family created Herot Hall, and Willa, his wife, are our Hrothgar and Wealhtheow; their earthly paradise is threatened by the presence of Dana Mills and her son, who live in the mountain that looms over Herot’s manicured backyards. Dana is an ex-soldier who fled a never-named Middle Eastern conflict after being captured by the enemy, her beheading staged for the Western media but not actually carried out due to her pregnancy. The liminality of her existence – her death is on tape, but remains unreal – is a brilliant way of translating the terrifying liminality of Grendel’s mother into a modern idiom, as is the heritage of her son, whom she names Gren: his father was (probably) an enemy combatant. It seems likely that he was conceived with Dana’s consent, but that isn’t ever totally clear. Dana is permanently terrified that her baby, her dark-skinned, too-tall, too-big son, will die a victim of the fear of people like the ones who live in Herot; it’s a painfully resonant fear for anyone who pays attention to the news. The tragedy of Beowulf from this point of view is that she’s right, and – as in classical tragedy – all the measures she takes to protect her boy only draw his fate nearer to him. The peril of making ancient tales contemporary, as the editors of the Hogarth Shakespeare ought to know by now, is that while some stories are timeless or universal in a certain sense, all stories arise out of a particular culture and context, and it’s very easy to sterilize the meaning of an old story by over-zealously mapping character names and plot points while forgetting to consider how that story’s conflicts might manifest in the twenty-first century. Headley mostly avoids that, although there are a few details (the train in the mountain – what is it with contemporary retellings and trains?; the fact that the Beowulf character’s name is Ben Woolf) that seem a little on the nose. On the whole, though, The Mere Wife is a phenomenal, brave reimagining of one of Western civilization’s oldest stories; unafraid to target institutional authority, Headley also forces us to question the original poem’s allegiances. It’s the sort of book I didn’t know I was waiting for someone to write.
Evening in Paradise, by Lucia Berlin: Berlin’s earlier collection, A Manual For Cleaning Women, is the book that changed my mind about short stories. She uses the raw material of her own life–alcoholism, young sons, constant moving, the American West and Southwest–in stories that constantly circle around similar themes and characters. They are written in startlingly lucid yet straightforward prose, vivid with imagery, often illuminated by a single unexpected word or phrase. Evening in Paradise is the second collection of her work to be published after her death, and it isn’t, by any means, a collection of the second-best; it’s superb. The first two stories, told through the eyes of a child, engaged me the least, but starting from “Andado” (subtitled A Gothic Romance), Berlin’s voice becomes the voice that enchanted throughout A Manual For Cleaning Women. “Andado” features Laura, the daughter of an American businessman in Chile, being used as a sexual pawn to advance her father’s career; a country weekend with a much older man leads to the loss of her virginity (she’s perhaps fourteen), which she takes in her stride, although the reader can see the grooming and calculation behind the seductive gestures. From then on, the stories focus on women who share some aspects of Laura’s background and differ in other ways; they explore sexuality, marriage, the bohemian life, poverty, whether making good art requires you to lead a cruel life. Berlin is simply brilliant; her memoir, Welcome Home, is out next year and I’ll be reading it.
The House on Vesper Sands, by Paraic O’Donnell: This is the book that The Wicked Cometh wanted to be. Young women are disappearing from London’s East End, mostly orphans and servants that few, if any, will miss. A seamstress throws herself from the top of a lord’s Mayfair townhouse; at the autopsy, a cryptic message is found stitched into her skin. What does it mean? And can young Gideon Bliss–recently arrived in London from his theological studies in Cambridge, but unable to find the mysterious uncle he’s meant to be meeting—work with Inspector Cutter, not only to keep London’s women safe, but to save Angie Tatton, the woman he loves? It’s all very pseudo-Victorian Gothic, but it works beautifully, partly because O’Donnell’s descriptive voice combines detail with restraint and partly because his characterization is so good. Cutter, irascible though fair, calls Bliss a “chattering streak of gannet’s shite”; Bliss, true to his intellectual training, cannot use one word where a dozen might do; even Esther Tull, whom we know only for one chapter, is a person with conflicting desires and duties whose departure from the narrative (and from life) feels like a real loss to the reader. O’Donnell is also frequently funny: there really are elements of Dickens at his best in the dialogue. The plot does, surprisingly, rely upon the supernatural, which is the opposite decision about Gothic tropes to the choice Susan Fletcher makes in House of Glass (see here for my review), and which might put people off. Oddly, though, I rather liked it. Everything about The House on Vesper Sands has such a flavour of ghost story that its payoff is gratifying: for once, an author isn’t messing with our heads or with genre expectations, and in this post-post-modern era, that feels oddly refreshing, especially when it’s so well executed. Highly recommended.
A Different Drummer, by William Melvin Kelley: Quercus is overtly positioning this as the next in the long line of “rediscovered classics”; the proof copy lists Suite Francaise and Stoner as forebears in this rediscovery tradition. Kelley’s book comes with a fantastically illuminating essay by Kathryn Schultz that originally appeared in the New Yorker; he was the inventor of the word “woke”, way back in the 60s, and after A Different Drummer his star never quite rose in the way it perhaps ought to have. Partly, Schultz suggests, this is because of his focus: he was writing about white people, their inner lives and reactions to black people, trying to understand them, at a time in American history when Black Power and the civil rights movement were creating an artistic and social milieu that didn’t give a single damn about what white people thought or felt. His daughter recalls that his lack of success didn’t particularly faze him: “he was utterly unafraid”, Schultz quotes her as saying, “of being poor”. A Different Drummer is perhaps a book whose time has come. It’s basically speculative fiction; the book commences with a story told amongst white men about a huge slave, known as The African, who evades being auctioned for several weeks and is the progenitor of the black family known as the Calibans, but the action proper begins with a scene in which Tucker Caliban shoots all his livestock, salts his fields, burns his house, and walks out of the (fictional) Southern state in which he lives, accompanied by his wife and their baby. The entire black population of the state follows suit, and the rest of the novel takes the points of view of various white men, including a small boy and the son of the white family for whom Tucker Caliban used to work, as they grapple with the consequences of losing half the population of the state, and with their own attitudes towards their black neighbours. Kelley writes sentences with the clarity and declarative confidence of Hemingway; his characters are vulnerable and sympathetic even while they express ignorance, prejudice, and–at the very end–bloodthirsty cruelty. (In fact, it’s the very sympathy that Kelley has previously evoked for these Southern farming men that makes the ending so horrible. The reader, especially the white reader, is placed in the same position as thousands, millions, of Americans throughout history: we know these people by name, they’re our neighbours and friends, and yet here they are, masks flung aside, lynching a preacher.) It is a totally brilliant book, one I’ve been thinking about long after finishing the last page.
House of Glass, by Susan Fletcher: I’ve already written about this as part of the blog tour that Virago ran to promote the book; you can read what I had to say here. In brief: Fletcher is dealing with Gothic romance tropes (as does Paraic O’Donnell, and, in fact, Lucia Berlin in “Andado”, though Berlin explodes them in a very different way from Fletcher; she chooses not to deceive us before revealing that there’s nothing behind the curtain, but to show us that what’s behind the curtain is so much worse than ghoulies and ghosties for being man-made: the venal pimping of one man’s child to another man, the unequal but queasily exciting exchanges of power and sex that constitute the engine that drives Gothic fiction). Fletcher’s protagonist, Clara, is quite unforgettable, and the book’s engagement with genre ideas makes for not only a gripping story, but a genuinely thought-provoking one. It’ll make an excellent autumn or winter read; pair it with Melmoth or The House on Vesper Sands and you’d have reading sorted for a chilly weekend getaway.
Devices and Desires: Bess of Hardwick and the Building of Elizabethan England, by Kate Hubbard: Things I wouldn’t ordinarily read: historical biography, in general. Things I’ll make an exception for: Bess of Hardwick. She was married four times; each marriage served as an opportunity for her to amass more land, build more homes, and acquire more material wealth in the form of plate, textiles, jewellery, et al. With her best-known husband, William Cavendish, she founded the dynasty that became the Dukes of Devonshire. Her final marriage, to the Earl of Shrewsbury, suffered under the strain of Queen Elizabeth’s request that they serve as jailers to Mary, Queen of Scots; Elizabeth clearly trusted the Shrewsburys, and continued to give Bess the benefit of the doubt even when, in her old age, she was maneouvering for advantageous marriages for her children and grandchildren (particularly her granddaughter, Arbella Stuart, whose claim to the throne Bess championed). The strength of her will comes across clearly; so does the particular nature of each of her marriages. She seems to have truly loved Cavendish, probably to have been fond of St. Loe (husband number three), and to have loved Shrewsbury before the marriage soured irreparably. (Husband number one died young and it’s not clear that Bess ever really cared much about him; she was married at the behest of her parents, for land consolidation purposes, as most young women of the minor Tudor gentry were.) Her appetite for construction was insatiable; there was a lot of house-building in Tudor England, which, with the dissolution of the monasteries, became one of the most upwardly mobile societies in the history of the world, but it was mostly done by men. Bess was a visionary builder, constantly commissioning work on any one of half a dozen houses. Commanding, tough, and fair, she’s hard not to admire, even if (as Kate Hubbard notes) personal correspondence from this period keeps contemporary readers at arm’s length, unlike letters and memoranda from just a century later.
Thoughts on this batch of reading: Many of these books resonate with each other: Berlin, O’Donnell, Fletcher and Headley are all exploring similar ideas, in very different ways. Even William Melvin Kelley has things to say about human monsters. Meanwhile, Devices and Desires is a standout biography, even though it’s not thematically related to anything else in this post; I’m really glad to have read it.