Reading Diary: 7 Sept.-13 Sept.

The Short Knife, by Elen Caldecott: This children’s novel is set in a time often ignored by historical fiction writers: early post-Roman Britain, when the Empire has retreated and the physical infrastructure it built is crumbling, but elderly people can remember a time when everything was different. Saxon invaders/settlers/colonialists (pick your favourite noun) are starting to battle it out for land and supremacy with the native British warlords. Caught in this historical maelstrom is thirteen-year-old Mai, who loses her family farm one night to the drunken fury of three Saxons, and who vows vengeance. Her father badly burnt and her older sister Haf hurt in a way Mai doesn’t understand (although the reader thinks they do, given that the novel is intercut with flash-forward scenes nine months later to Mai’s sister giving birth), they make their way to the camp of the local British strongman, Gwyrthaeyr, hoping that ethnic ties (all the native Britons consider themselves kin) will prompt him to help them. All does not go as planned, and Mai finds herself a slave in a Saxon camp, instead.

Caldecott engages gracefully and forcefully with the limited options available to the two sisters. Haf makes herself useful with “honey smiles” and “sweet words”, becoming a storyteller and adviser under the assumption that getting closer to power is the safest place to be. Mai, who is repeatedly told by various characters to “grow up”, doesn’t understand Haf’s strategy, seeing it as betrayal, and takes a more overtly resistant approach, which frequently endangers her. My primary frustration is a stylistic one: to achieve an archaic tone, Caldecott often relies on kenning-like constructions, some of which work well (“infant-small”, “dust-crumbled”) and some of which only get in the way (“bitter-coiled ferns”–why?; “trip-tangled” brambles–that being a defining feature of brambles). But it’s a strong entry for children’s fiction, with engrossing characters, and rarely have I had such a sense of how far back cultural diffusion goes in the history of these islands.

Kindred, by Octavia Butler: You shouldn’t really need me to tell you how excellent this book is, but in case you don’t know: it’s excellent. The premise is that Dana, a Black woman in contemporary California (the novel was written in 1979), finds herself being repeatedly pulled back in time to save the life of her ancestor Rufus Weylin, the scion of a white slave-owning family in Maryland. The first time she meets him, it’s 1815, and they encounter each other again and again over the next few decades, every time his life is endangered and Dana is summoned out of the future to rescue him. Dana’s white husband, Kevin, is also pulled into the past at one point, and his experiences there are–by virtue of the colour of his skin and his gender–very different, although Butler is perhaps fairer than she needs to be in pointing out that Kevin, too, faces dangers in the antebellum South. Perhaps the hardest-hitting element of the novel, though, is Butler’s repeated demonstration of the ease with which enslaved people can be forced into complicity: through a fear achieved by threats of extreme bodily violence and extreme emotional torment (largely because families can be torn apart on a master’s whim at any time). Dana explicitly discusses the idea of complicity more than once, although she also recognizes coercion and rape: her ancestress, Alice Greenwood, is bought by Rufus because he is in love with her, but his love does not extend to permitting her choices about where she sleeps at night, or to freeing her children. (He does dangle the promise of freedom, though, which is partly what keeps Alice in place.) After Kindred, every other time-travel novel feels a little anaemic, a little under-examined. It’s a magnificent piece of work.

recent reading thoughts: I’ve been very slow this month, so far. I’m blaming it on the anxiety of moving and a lot of weekend activities. At the moment I’m nearly finished with Where the Crawdads Sing, which I don’t love, although I’m warming up to it now that the trial has commenced. More on that next week.

Readers Imbibing Peril, XV

I don’t often participate in reading challenges, having my own unpredictable and eclectic method of choosing my next read according to whim, necessity, and release date, but early to mid autumn is a season that really does seem to demand tailored reading. The R(eaders).I(mbibing).P(eril). Challenge is well suited to this, and in 2020 it’s easier than ever to play. Just read at least one book that could be qualified as mystery, suspense, Gothic, horror, supernatural, thriller, or dark fantasy, between 1 September and 31 October. Easy.

It’s not my absolute wheelhouse as far as genre goes, but I do like being a little creeped out, and have had some great reading experiences at this time of the year in the past, as the temperature drops and streetlamps become golden puddles of sanctuary in between inky pools of night, as winds rise and mists creep and bare branches scrape. I also have a few books already in the house that fit the bill, so I’m excited about joining in this year.

There are two I’ll make a definite commitment to read. One is Gorky Park, by Martin Cruz Smith, a contemporary classic about a murder in Soviet Russia that becomes the subject of a cover-up. Really good political crime is such a rare beast that I’m very hopeful about this one. The other is Let the Right One In, John Ajvide Lindqvist’s modern-day vampires-in-Stockholm chiller. I started reading it at someone’s house party five years ago (I’m usually better than this at parties, I swear, but I barely knew anyone) and, in retrospect, should have stolen it; it was immediately gripping, with a wonderfully judged air of melancholy, and I’ve wanted to get past page twenty ever since.

A few others are options for when I complete the above two. There’s Stephen King’s The Stand, of course, which is no doubt extraordinary but also incredibly long and could throw a spanner in my reading life for weeks. I’ve also just got hold of Eliza Clark’s Boy Parts, a creepy/grotesque new novel which promises to be all the body horror. Left over from a previous charity shop binge is Mrs. Wood’s sensation novel East Lynne, which I think I’ve ignored for too long. I’m also seeking a secondhand copy of Wilkie Collins’s The Law and the Lady, since I liked The Moonstone so much and have had this one recommended as my next Collins venture by both Twitter and my colleague Zoe. And I’d like to include a volume of Sheridan Le Fanu’s ghost stories, as collected in either In A Glass Darkly or Green Tea, since I read M.R. James’s collected ghost tales this time last year and successfully freaked myself out with them. (I know they’re not meant to be that scary, especially to developed 21st-century sensibilities more accustomed to the Saw movies, but I am the biggest wuss; it does not take much.)

I also read a Dickens novel every late autumn/winter, although I’m running out of ones new to me, and this year will have to choose between The Pickwick Papers, Barnaby Rudge, and Edwin Drood. That doesn’t have to be part of RIP XV, although if it shakes out that way, that’ll be nice too (it’d have to be Drood to count, I think).

You can play too, if you like! Tag #ripxv and @PerilReaders on social media. Happy reading!

Reading Diary: 1 Sept.-6 Sept.

The Shadow King, by Maaza Mengiste: Some books have blurbs that barely touch the surface of their actual contents and concerns. Sometimes this is avoidable, but often it isn’t, and The Shadow King strikes me as one of the latter kind. It is mainly focused on Hirut, one of the Ethiopian women who became soldiers during the country’s war with fascist Italy in 1935, but her military training and experiences are in the background compared with the novel’s interest in her relationship with Aster and Kidane, a couple who previously employed (/owned) her thanks to an unclear but close relationship between her mother and Kidane’s father, and who eventually command her in battle. Consequently, The Shadow King can seem to take rather a long time to get going, and occasionally loses the primary thrust of its story—the Ethiopian resistance to a particular Italian officer, Colonel Carlo Fucelli—in digressions. There are sections told from Fucelli’s perspective, for instance, as well as through the eyes of Ettore Navarra, an Italian Jewish war photographer whose safety from Rome’s increasingly murderous anti-Semitic policies is assured as long as he obeys orders, but who feels increasingly disgusted and torn by the atrocities he is asked to document. (Fucelli, in a Bond-villain-esque but no doubt completely historically accurate fashion, likes to execute Ethiopian prisoners by pushing them off of a high cliff.) Ettore and Hirut, we know, meet again after the war, and a few flash-fowards to 1974 show us the moments leading up to their uneasy reunion.

Mengiste writes with great attention to simile and metaphor, and is especially interested in qualities of light and shadow, but while this sometimes results in moments of great poetic beauty, at other times it simply obscures the action. (There were at least half a dozen instances at chapter endings where I wasn’t sure what had actually taken place and what was simply a character musing). Finally, we hear from the Emperor Haile Selassie, haunted by guilt over his daughter’s death at the hands of her brutal husband, and over his abandonment of his country to live in exile in Bath for six years. In Selassie’s sections, Mengiste’s dreamy style works extremely well, breaking down barriers between sanity and illusion, past and present. The novel is told, I have no doubt, the way its author wanted to tell it, but the sense that it could have been tighter makes me wonder if some of the desired effect has been lost.

Valentine, by Elizabeth Wetmore: This is not for the faint of heart; the inciting incident of the plot is a brutal rape and beating of a fourteen-year-old Mexican girl, and because the book takes place in West Texas in 1974, you can be assured that justice, in the traditional sense of the word, is not exactly served. However, the book is not so much about the attack on Gloria Ramirez and its aftermath as it is about the lives of the women who live on the edge of the oilfields, their joys and vulnerabilities, the ways in which a boom can mean economic prosperity but also always means increasing numbers of women hurt, missing or dead, as restless and reckless men flood into the area for work. Gloria (or Glory, as she renames herself) opens the book, in a taut and terrifying first chapter where she wakes in the desert and walks away from the truck where her attacker lies drunkenly sleeping, thereby saving her own life. After that, the perspective switches between several other women, some of whom get fairly short shrift: Suzanne Ledbetter and Karla Sibley, for instance, only narrate one chapter each, although through them we understand much more about the putting-on-a-brave-face school of West Texas womanhood, the awful pride and the unspeakable pain. Corrine Shepard, formerly a high school English teacher, is one of the most successful narrators, a spiky and gloriously unlikeable woman in the vein of Olive Kitteridge whose beloved husband Potter, faced with a terminal cancer diagnosis, has just killed himself. The chapter describing the state of Corrine’s and Potter’s marriage after the birth of their daughter—her struggle to go back to work, his reluctance but ultimate capitulation—is perfectly judged, conveying the social and professional limitations of women in the 1950s and the ways in which the era we inhabit blinkers us, even as it also demonstrates that their relationship was unusual, beautiful, and eventually stronger for having been tested. That chapter might be the highlight of the book, though the chapters narrated by Mary Rose Whitehead, a young rancher’s wife who is the first to see Gloria Ramirez after the rape and who is determined to testify in court on her behalf, are also wonderful and frightening. Were I to have a complaint, it might be that the abundance of narrators seems a little unnecessary and can contribute to a sense of un-focus, but then Valentine is not nearly as plot-centric as its blurb suggests, and that is no bad thing. If you liked Evie Wyld’s The Bass Rock, this should be on your TBR.

Reading Diary: 24 August-30 August

The Liar’s Dictionary, by Eley Williams: I hadn’t read Williams’s debut story collection, Attrib., but everyone I knew who did read it thought it was fantastic. The Liar’s Dictionary is a dual-timeline novel set in the offices of an eccentric fourth-rate enyclopaedic dictionary in the present day, and during its heyday a little over a hundred years ago. Our contemporary protagonist, closeted-at-work intern Mallory, never becomes aware of the identity of perpetually-belittled Peter Winceworth, but his lasting contribution to the dictionary–a series of entirely invented words scattered throughout its text–becomes her problem, as her boss instructs her to find and remove them before the whole thing is digitized. Winceworth, meanwhile, we learn, is inserting the words as a means of relieving his feelings, both about his place of work and about the enigmatic fiancee of his most unbearable colleague. Williams’s style really carries the book, with a kind of madcap yet melancholy glee, and a glorying in words–not in a wishy-washy oh-the-wonder-of-language sort of way, but in a way that takes a very Edwardian pleasure in precision and elegance. The plot in the contemporary sections becomes increasingly frenetic, but that felt somehow right; both narratives possess a kind of surreal sheen, which led a colleague to compare the book, in a way, to Wodehouse’s work (though much more conscientious and less privileged). I loved The Liar’s Dictionary and found it heartbreaking at the same time; it’s just the right level of weird for me.

Scabby Queen, by Kirstin Innes: It’s an old adage of criticism that it’s easier to write about something you hated than something you loved. I loved Scabby Queen, and I’m going to try to write about it anyway. It opens with the death of fifty-one-year-old Clio Campbell, who achieved moderate levels of fame as a protest singer in the ’90s and who has just overdosed on pills and vodka in the flat of her long-suffering (and, we realize, taken-advantage-of) friend Ruth. Over the next three hundred pages, various people who entered and exited Clio’s life—her godfather, a music journalist half in love with her, several women who lived in a Brixton squat with her, someone she only met once on a train—give their perspectives on a woman whose relentless political activism and manipulative social charm were both entrancing and infuriating. It’s very rare, especially now, to get a look at both sides of activism, particularly historic activism: the genuineness of early-days-of-a-better-world idealism mixed with what can be a disturbing willingness to sacrifice whatever gets in the way. Innes nails that balance, and nails her portrait of Clio, who becomes increasingly more difficult to sympathize with but also increasingly nuanced: by the end, when her suicide note is revealed, her motives seem simultaneously obtuse and entirely in keeping with what we know of her. I suspect people who remember the ’90s and early ’00s as adults will find even deeper resonances in Scabby Queen’s political aspects. I loved them, but what I loved most was Innes’s brilliance at characterization. Like Daisy Jones and the Six, an oblique approach to a central character through the people whose lives they affected results in something both tough and touching, and utterly without condescension.

The Odyssey, by Homer: I’d never actually read it! Isn’t that weird? It must be the case for quite a lot of people. The stories are so familiar from excerpted children’s versions and adaptations that we feel as though we have. Anyway, I think the primary thing to be aware of while you’re reading is the very different weight and pacing present in the poem. The first four books are about Odysseus’s son, Telemachus, who embarks on his own short journey to find out more about where his missing father could be; Odysseus himself doesn’t appear until book five, by which point he’s already lost all of his ships and companions to various disasters and is reduced to telling the tale of his adventures to the friendly Phaeacian court during books nine to twelve. (Interestingly, Doug Metzger suggests on his podcast Literature and History that these books are no more likely to be “true”, within the world of the poem, than any of the other lies Odysseus tells about his origins. I’d contest that, since much of that lying is done in order to protect himself upon his return to Ithaca, which is essentially an occupied territory, but I love the idea: we’ve only Odysseus’s word to say that the Lotus-eaters, Circe, Scylla and Charybdis, the journey to the underworld, the Cyclops episode, etc., actually happened at all, and he’s a notorious fibber.) They send him back home under escort in book thirteen, and the entire second half of the poem is about him regaining his property, murdering the men who’ve been harassing his wife, and Telemachus’s coming of age.

It’s known as an adventure/travel poem, but it’s very much more, I think, a poem about restitution, espousing a fundamentally socially conservative view of the world’s proper order. (It’s Tom Jones. Or rather, Tom Jones is the Odyssey. Hey!) For all that, it’s much more engaging to me personally than the Iliad was, perhaps because the emotional atmosphere is much more immediately identifiable for a reader who’s never been to war. Be warned: the final books are brutal. Margaret Atwood’s poem A Chorus Line neatly sums up the breathtaking hypocrisy of the murder of the maids (from one perspective; from another, of course—that socially conservative one the poem partakes of—Odysseus is merely ensuring that loyalty to his person and his dynasty, even when they’re not present, is the order of the day. Fascinating how that always seems to involve punishing women. I wonder if the housekeeper Eurycleia, who eagerly provides her returned master with the names of maids who’ve “behaved shamefully” in his absence, was a model for Aunt Lydia.) Anyway, the Oxford World’s Classics edition I read was translated by Anthony Verity and is, from a non-classicist’s perspective, excellent; you get a good sense of the original Greek’s use of repetition, but not so much so that it’s annoying, and thank God Verity does not attempt to match an antique meter or rhyme scheme. If you’re relatively new to antique poetry, I’d recommend this edition particularly: the end notes are also good and there’s a handy index of first names in the back.