I’m through that proof pile (we can talk about the library books later/never), so here are brief thoughts on each one.
The Water Dancer, by Ta-Nehisi Coates (out 6 Feb): I mentioned this a little in the earlier post because I’d actually finished it by the time I wrote that. Initially something of a challenge to hook into (it starts, shall we say, very much in medias res), it becomes more navigable as it goes on, and reveals itself to be the story of Hiram Walker, a slave on a Virginia plantation whose father is Howell, the white owner. Raised as a body man to his own (feckless) white half-brother Maynard, Hiram’s life is one not just of oppression, but of suppression: to survive as a house slave, particularly one so close to the family, he must occupy an intensely lonely and narrow social stratum, where he can fully trust neither his white family (who could sell him at any time) nor his slave one (who might develop resentment of his relatively high status). When Maynard drowns, Hiram is made over to Maynard’s fiancée, Corrine, and discovers that she has been freeing slaves and running a training school for Underground Railroad agents on her immense plantation, fighting slavery from within its own dark heart. She wants him because of a power he possesses, one his African grandmother, Santi Bess, is said to have used to free nearly a hundred slaves. Here is where I struggled a little with Coates’s conception: a supernatural liberating power that relies on harnessing traumatic memory is a brilliantly resonant idea; trauma plays such an insidious and undeniable role in the lives of descendants of enslaved people now that the idea of channeling it towards liberation is irresistible. But in the process, does it diminish or cheapen the efforts made by real Underground conductors, like Harriet Tubman, who appears in The Water Dancer as a supreme wielder of this power? Maybe: after all, enslaved people were not freed by magic. Or maybe not; maybe the metaphor holds and our conceptions of Tubman’s skill, courage and dignity are enriched by the suggestion that she was touched or chosen by something greater. I’m still not sure, though precisely because it raises these questions, I think The Water Dancer deserves to do very well.
The Lost Pianos of Siberia, by Sophy Roberts (out 6 Feb): Roberts is a travel writer whose work has been published in the FT and in Condé Nast Traveler; this is her first book, and takes the form of a quest. On her travels, she has met a world-class pianist in, all of places, the Mongolian steppe, but this musician lacks an instrument equal to her powers. Roberts determines to find her one, and to do so by looking in Siberia, generally known as a land of unforgiving conditions, prison camps, black bread, greasy soup, exile, and misery. But—partly indeed because of the Tsarist, and later the Soviet, exile system—it also contains a surprising amount of culture, left over from times when highly educated and accomplished men and women were sent to the steppe for life. There are many pianos in Siberia. There are concert halls; there are opera houses; there is a ballet company. There are pianos brought for virtuosi to play and abandoned after one or two performances; there are pianos shipped overland by the determined wives of commissars and high-ranking Decembrist exiles; there are pianos in sitting rooms and music schools, played by children and old people and students and housewives. Siberia, it turns out, is intensely musical. There is great charm in Roberts’s descriptions of the landscape, the people, and the history. I personally tend to struggle with books of this nature because their composition seems so patently artificial: there’s a note right at the start of the text to inform us that Roberts has conflated and combined details of three long research trips to make her narrative, and while I understand why a writer might do that, something about it makes me automatically wary of all the detail that comes after. She also hasn’t quite managed to integrate herself into the text in a way that feels…how shall I put this? Generous? It’s hard to describe, but every time Roberts mentions her own reactions to something, you get the sense that the piano hunt is a proxy; what she wants, really, is an excuse to find Siberia. But there is never any acknowledgment of this, even though leads on pianos sometimes disappear for pages at a time. Hard to sum up, then, this book, though it’s also hard not to fall under its spell.
The Good Hawk, by Joseph Elliott (out 6 Feb. Mild spoilers follow): Elliott’s debut novel for children stars a protagonist with a condition that goes unnamed in her world, but which is pretty clearly Down’s syndrome. In an alt-Scotland, Agatha is a Hawk: her job is to guard the sea wall that keeps her clan isolated and safe on the Isle of Skye. When she makes an honest, but dreadful, mistake, it’s held up as proof of her unfitness for work, and she’s stripped of her duties. Meanwhile, Jaime has a different problem: he’s been assigned a job as an Angler, a deep-sea fisherman, but is scared of the water. He’s also about to be married off to a girl from the neighboring island, Raasay, which is a fate worse than it usually is in children’s books because Skye people have never married; it’s not part of their culture or society. Jaime’s wedding is political—it’s meant to cement an alliance—but also deeply antithetical to everything his tribe has ever taught him, which is just one of the ways in which Elliott intelligently deals with tropes. (How many times have we seen a reluctant-young-bride figure in YA fantasy, as opposed to a reluctant young groom? How many times have we ever seen a boy being made to do things with his body that he doesn’t want to?) Agatha and Jaime—plus Jaime’s new wife, a Raasay girl named Lileas—must pull together when a betrayal sees their entire village abducted by alt-Vikings.
Elliott puts his characters in convincingly perilous and terrifying situations, and he’s not afraid to be realistic about the violence adults are willing to inflict: when a fairly major character is overpowered by the Viking prince whom the three children have managed to capture, their death is both shocking and thoroughly believable. Elliott introduces fantasy through the legend of the former Scottish king, who is said to have bred an army of shadows to carry on his war with “Ingland”, and to have been destroyed by them. The legends, it turns out, are quite true, and Agatha and Jaime will have to be the best versions of themselves—Jaime will need to be brave, Agatha to master her anger—in order to face them. I could have done with more Aggie, actually; I understand why Elliott chooses to intersperse her chapters with ones narrated by Jaime, in order to orient us, and Jaime himself has a rather lovely trajectory to do with his learning that homosexuality is fully accepted in what’s left of mainland society (and I can’t be the only one who’s also reading repressed queerness in his character). But I thought Agatha’s viewpoint was both unusual and strong, and wished for more of it. Luckily, this is the first in a projected series (the second is already written), and the final pages suggest that Agatha’s unusual ability to communicate with animals will drive the plot of the next installment. Hopefully that means she takes center stage on her own.
Swimming in the Dark, by Tomasz Jedrowski (out 6 Feb): Initially giving the impression of some kind of Aciman/Greenwell love child, Swimming in the Dark doesn’t actually dispel that characterization so much as deepen it. Though I haven’t read Aciman, I don’t think he’s best known for being tremendously political; Jedrowski, on the other hand, is at least as interested in the effect of state repression on the growth and development of two men’s minds as he is in its effect on their romance. Indeed, he makes it clear that the two things are sort of the same. Ludwik and Janusz meet at a camp for university students, meant to teach intellectuals about the joys of toiling on the land—for this is Poland in the 1980s, half a decade away from Lech Wałeşa and Solidarność. They’re irresistibly drawn to each other, Ludwik with a kind of halting nervousness, Janusz with something more like gracious acceptance, and at the end of the camp, they go on a walking holiday together. They become lovers almost immediately, with a sense of utter naturalness and simplicity. Upon their return to Warsaw, they maintain their relationship, but in secret; in communist Poland, homosexuality is up there with sympathy towards the decadent West as the sort of leaning that can get you into serious trouble. Ludwik, who early in the novel acquires a banned copy of James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, is deeply frustrated by this repression. Janusz, by contrast, seems to see it as a necessary evil, the price a gay communist must pay for the satisfactions and rewards of being part of the state. The tension between these mutually exclusive attitudes will eventually render their relationship, and Ludwik’s continued habitation in Poland, impossible: the novel is focalized through his eyes and in retrospect, from the life he leads in New York in the late ’80s, watching news coverage of the revolution in his home country. We are meant, of course, to sympathize more with Ludwik, whose integrity will not be compromised, but Jedrowski is a good enough writer to gesture at the ways in which Janusz may not have made such a bad choice; he has almost certainly survived, his marriage to the fun-loving daughter of a high-ranking Party official both a protection and perhaps a thing enjoyable enough in itself.
A Small Revolution in Germany, by Philip Hensher (out 6 Feb): This is the one I’m going to find hardest to talk about, not only because I finished it the most recently and therefore haven’t had time to let my thoughts about it percolate, but because there’s a lot about it that resists summary, though not necessarily analysis. It is, in essence, the story of a political awakening, but where most such stories tend to stop after that moment (the “small revolution” of the title, in one possible reading), Hensher’s more interested in the repercussions, the implications, of changing your mind or refusing to. His protagonist, Spike, and Spike’s partner of many decades, Joaquin, are the only two people from their youthful friendship group who have not deeply compromised their teenage radical principles. Others—like Percy Ogden, erstwhile leader of their gang, who once harangued an Army recruitment officer and now writes smug, condescending columns for a national newspaper, or Eric Milne, now a QC and a lord—most certainly have. Perhaps the worst offender of all is James Frinton, whom Spike recalls as the offspring of a pub landlord and a clinical depressive, smelling of overcooked peas and despair, and who reinvented himself so thoroughly at Oxford that he is now Home Secretary. And yet Spike doesn’t seem quite comfortable with his own integrity. He repeatedly notes, with something like unease, that the word “boyish” is often used of himself and of Joaquin. There is an extent to which moral compromise defines adulthood; if Spike and Joaquin haven’t compromised, how much can they be considered participants in the “real world”? How much do they want to be? (I wonder, also, if Hensher’s choice to make his protagonist a childless gay men is meant to be a gesture towards this as well. Not that I think Hensher is actually saying that a childless long-term homosexual relationship is a form of lifestyle immaturity; but I do think he might be suggesting that the world at large often frames choices like Spike’s in this way.) Anyway. Very interesting, and quite a good introduction to Hensher’s work, I think.
Have you got a proof TBR you’re trying to tackle? How’s it going?