Audiobooks! I don’t hate them!
This, it turns out, is what I’m like: I hate the idea of change, I resist it with every fibre of my being, I make up reasons why the new thing won’t work, and then I try it once and really enjoy it. This is where I am with audiobooks now, and where I was with podcasts about six months ago. I always want to read on my commutes and yet – especially this time of year – often find that after a day at work, my eyes are too tired to want to look at marks on a page. Listening to books is a natural solution. My resistance was based on how intensely annoying other people’s voices can be, but listening to Elisabeth Moss narrate The Handmaid’s Tale turned out to be a good introduction: she has a soft-spoken, understated delivery that suits the barely veiled menace of Gilead. Having finished that, I spent some time looking for another title that would work as well, and eventually settled on Stephen Fry narrating a collection of Sherlock Holmes novels and stories. It’ll last me for some time; I’ve completed two of the novels and still have over 60 listening hours to go…
A Study in Scarlet, by Arthur Conan Doyle: The very first Sherlock Holmes adventure ever published, in which we meet both the titular character and his amanuensis and helpmeet, the stolid Dr John Watson. The mystery revolves around the murder of a man in an abandoned house in Brixton, found without a mark on his body and with the word RACHE painted in blood on the wall. (S1E1 of the BBC’s Sherlock perpetrated a nice, sarcastic twist upon this detail: “She was writing Rachel?” a Scotland Yard detective says, skeptically, and Cumberbatch’s Sherlock snarls, “No, she was writing an angry note in German – of course she was writing Rachel”, where in the book it is precisely, and improbably, the other way round.) The solution to the mystery, at which Holmes arrives with customary speed, involves revenge for a romantic injustice that occurred decades previously, when both killer and victim were involved with – yes – the early Mormon community of Salt Lake City.
Most of the novel’s Part II is taken up with a flashback narrative of the circumstances that led up to said injustice, which lets Conan Doyle really go for broke with his portrayal of the American West. There’s absolutely no clear reason for him to introduce Mormonism, apart from the natural exoticism involved in describing a foreign sect, and A Study in Scarlet has been challenged in some American schools for showing “anti-Mormon prejudice” (to which one answer might be, well, Brigham Young and his buddies were pretty big fans of polygamy, and they did have a secret police/militia, known as the Nauvoo Legion, so where’s the lie?) This section is much too long and risks losing the reader’s interest, though one wonders what might have happened had Doyle decided to write a Western. (Are fanfic communities already on top of this?) Apart from that, though, the most interesting element of A Study in Scarlet is Holmes, who, on his first outing, is nowhere near such a jerk as he’s been made to appear in subsequent adaptations: a little full of himself, perhaps, but surprisingly warm to Watson, and always ready to laugh at the absurd.
It Would Be Night in Caracas, by Karina Sainz Borgo: One of the season’s offerings from HarperCollins’s new imprint, Harper Via, which focuses on fiction in translation. Borgo is a Venezuelan journalist; this is her first novel. She no longer lives in her home country but in Spain, and has been watching Venezuela descend into lawlessness over the past thirteen years. Some of what she has seen is echoed in the experiences of her protagonist, Adelaida Falcon, whose world falls apart immediately after she buries her mother. Adelaida’s flat is commandeered by a group of violent and clearly working-class women – supposed revolutionaries, though their behaviour is more like that of petty warlords – who use it as a base to store the food supplies that they are meant to be distributing equally throughout the district. (They are, of course, selling most of it on the black market at ridiculously inflated prices.) Driven from what remains of her home, Adelaida finds shelter in the flat of her neighbour, who happens to have died of a heart attack. She also offers sanctuary to her friend’s brother, Santiago, who has been captured, tortured and raped, and made to join the revolutionary forces, but deserts the instant he gets the chance. Adelaida’s and Santiago’s silent, nocturnal lives – they cannot draw attention to themselves for fear of being found out by the women in the flat next door – make up the bulk of the book, interspersed with childhood flashbacks, until Adelaida at last takes the risk of attempting to impersonate the dead woman, who has family in Spain, and flee the country.
The briefest trawl of Goodreads throws up lukewarm reviews of It Would Be Night in Caracas. A lot of them are in Spanish, which I don’t read very well. The longest one in English suggests that Borgo has, either out of intentional malice or out of culpable ignorance enabled by her own position of privilege as a white Venezuelan member of the property-owning classes, written bourgeois propaganda meant to dupe the English-reading public into supporting action against a democratically elected Venezuelan government. This was not something I considered while reading the book, and I’m glad to have been made to stop and think about it afterwards. As far as the convincing fictional construction of a life under siege goes, Borgo’s nailed it; the novel feels both dreamlike and hyper-real because those are the conditions of emotional and physical stress under which her characters live, and she pulls that off because she can write. (Her journalistic training may help; there’s a straightforward lack of melodrama to her descriptions of suffering that enhances their power.) I would need to know more than I do about Venezuelan history and politics to be able to say whether this feels more like a cynical maneuver, a sincere cri de coeur from an exile, or something in between. But it sure as hell works on a technical level.
Olive, Again, by Elizabeth Strout: Strout’s last two books, My Name Is Lucy Barton and Anything Is Possible, defeated me—I tried the first few pages of each and rapidly lost interest. Olive, Again is a sequel to her Pulitzer Prize winner, Olive Kitteredge, and either I’ve changed or the book really is in a different league. Here Strout brings together characters from books spanning her entire career; the eponymous Burgess boys make an appearance, as does Isabelle of Amy and Isabelle. But mostly the book is about Olive Kitteredge as she ages, including her second marriage, in her seventies, to the gentle and persistent Jack Kennison. Strout has been working, hard, for a long time now, and it shows in the writing, which has that particular level of finesse that is only possible from someone who has wrestled daily with language and finally come to a deep understanding with it. What is so extraordinary about her work is that—not unlike Willa Cather, now that I think of it—she uses a smooth, almost placid linguistic register as a container for explosive feelings and behaviour. Power dynamics are constantly being assessed and revealed, but never explicitly. The first chapter, which follows Jack Kennison on a drive, includes a scene where he’s stopped and humiliated by a police officer, who may or may not—Jack doesn’t look long enough to know for sure—get an erection during the course of the interaction. It scares us as it scares him, the idea of being at the mercy of someone who is aroused by your unconsensual helplessness. Yet the idea never escapes the boundaries of a restrained, almost formal narrative voice that suits the character and the context exactly. Olive, Again is a magnificent piece of work, and yet, perhaps because of its subject matter—old age and death—it has the feeling of a swan song. I desperately hope it isn’t; Strout may be hit or miss for me, but the hits are good enough that I’ll keep trying her every time she produces something new.
The Sign of Four, by Arthur Conan Doyle: First of all: this book is racist. Sorry. It was written by a British man in 1890 and involves the Indian Rebellion, also known as the Sepoy Mutiny; under such circumstances, casual racism is, regrettably, par for the course. However, the main villain is a white Englishman, giving Doyle only a relatively small window in which to be racist. He must turn his attention instead to what seems to be a staple of the Sherlock Holmes books—the Lengthy Explication Of the Crime By the Villain What Did It, Taking Up At Least the Final Third of the Novel’s Whole Length—and for most of this explanation, racism is blessedly beside the point.
The plot is complex and turns on the theft of some jewels by four men—two Sikhs, a Muslim, and the aforementioned white guy—during the Indian Rebellion, when the countryside is in an uproar and a particularly wealthy Rajah attempts to have his valuables escorted to be guarded by the British at Agra. Instead of ensuring the safety of his possessions, the wheeze backfires spectacularly: the courier accompanying the jewels is murdered and the four men steal, and hide, the treasure. Their crime is found out almost at once and they are all sentenced to lifelong penal servitude in the Andaman Islands, but—crucially—the treasure remains hidden. Our villain, one Jonathan Small, reveals its location to one of the British army officers stationed in his prison, hoping that the man’s desperate gambling debts will prompt him to help Small escape in return for a portion of the loot. Instead, naturally, the British officer absconds with the entire treasure and Small remains incarcerated, until he escapes and befriends an Andaman Islander named Tonga. (More racism occurs here, particularly as Tonga ultimately falls from a boat and drowns as a direct result of Holmes and Watson’s investigation, and their inability to conceive of a black man as anything other than threatening.) Tonga and Small travel to England, track down the man who betrayed Small, and kill him. Collateral damage takes the form of the death of another British officer, a Captain Morstan, who is a fairly good guy as far as this book is concerned, and whose daughter’s desire to find out what happened to her father is the catalyst for the plot. (She falls conveniently in love with John Watson, and agrees to marry him at the end of the book. If it’s hardly the most convincing romance I’ve ever read, it’s a fairly convincing match; they’re both practical, sensible, kind-hearted characters.)
Listening to both of these books in quick succession has allowed me to note Doyle’s evident fondness for a kind of plotting formula. This perhaps shouldn’t come as a surprise to me, seeing as they are classic genre novels and genre fiction can be partly defined by a certain level of structural predictability. Still, side by side, The Sign of Four and A Study in Scarlet both have easily identifiable features, the most prominent of which is the Very Long Flashback Monologue From the Villain. In a way, I wonder if this constitutes moral foresight on Doyle’s part, a kind of pre-post-modern attempt to get the reader to empathize with a murderer by understanding their circumstances. In another and more likely way, I think it might just be Doyle indulging his readers’ (and his own) taste for descriptions of faraway lands. It can’t be a coincidence that both Very Long Flashback Monologues (VLFMs from now on) take place in colorfully unstable foreign countries, much like the pre-credits sequence in every new James Bond film. Does anyone know of any work on colonialist tropes in early crime fiction and how/whether this developed along with the genre? I’d be keen to find out more.
also read recently:
- North Child, Edith Pattou’s retelling of the Norwegian fairy tale East O’ the Sun and West O’ the Moon, which is in itself a form of Beauty and the Beast or Cupid and Psyche. It was my favourite as a kid—there’s a talking white bear and an evil troll queen!—and Pattou’s adaptation is beautiful, scary and thrilling. There are too many POV characters (not all of them contribute much to our understanding of the story), but that’s a minor gripe. For strong readers of 10+.
- The Horseman, the first in Tim Pears’s West Country trilogy, of which I’d already read the second and the third. (Weird, yes, but take from this the fact that you can start reading the books in pretty much any order.) This volume focuses on life working the land on a manor estate in Edwardian Devon, before our young protagonist Leo is (metaphorically) expelled from Eden. It’s just as beautiful—hyper-focused, lyrical, unsentimental about either nature or farming—as the other two. More people should be reading Pears. He knows what he’s about; in fact, he’s so good that attempting to analyze, critique or review his work feels somewhat superfluous.
- A Man On the Moon, Andrew Chaikin’s now-twenty-year-old history of the Apollo program. I developed a mild obsession with the moon landing this summer, when it was the fiftieth anniversary of Apollo 11 and a lot of media on the topic was being broadcast. Chaikin’s book goes one better by dealing with every mission from Apollo 1—which never flew, because a disastrous fire in the space capsule during a routine test killed all three members of the crew—to Apollo 17, which gave us more information than we’d ever had before about the geology of the moon, and therefore about the history of our own planet. The fact that NASA plans to return to the moon in 2024, with the Artemis program, is intensely exciting; we should be funding these projects, we should be trying to learn more and go further and study what we find. A Man on the Moon is a fantastically readable account of the handful of people who have already done these things, and an inspirational argument for repeating the effort.