Just four books this past week, plus an unfortunate misfire which I got over halfway through before deciding to abandon ship.
Four Treasures of the Sky, by Jenny Tinghui Zhang (2022): I wasn’t totally sure about this when I started it. It’s the story of a girl, Daiyu, who’s abducted in nineteenth-century China and smuggled to San Francisco, where her experiences include a stint in a brothel, escape and subsequent posing as a boy, a brief home with two Chinese men who run a general store in Idaho, and the racist attacks of white Westerners after the Chinese Exclusion Act is passed. I wasn’t sure whether Zhang would be able to truly breathe life into the period; a lot of historical novels, especially ones with ambitions to political relevance, are two-dimensional and thin. I needn’t have worried: although I’m not totally convinced by the brothel sections (our heroine is never forced to sell sex, which smacks a little of precious protagonist syndrome), subsequent sections are much more willing to look historical realities head-on. The end of the novel [spoilers ahead], in which Daiyu and her employers are lynched by a racist mob, approaches with a grim, sinking sense of inevitability: the court is stacked, the judge indifferent, the law unjust, the sheriff corrupt. When Daiyu finally realizes that there is one choice left to her—how she decides to face death—it’s impossible not to think of how narrow and cruel that choice is, and how many people have been presented with it by American racist killers over the centuries. A brilliantly managed ending, at which I cried.
The Night Ship, by Jess Kidd (2022): Another brilliantly managed ending, also to do with [spoilers ahead] the death of a child at the hands of men swollen with arrogance, cruelty, and power. Reading these two books one after the other was kind of a kick in the head. Kidd constructs a dual narrative, one set in the 1620s aboard the Dutch imperial ship Batavia, one set in the 1980s on an island in the now-Australian atoll where the Batavia is known to have sunk and where some few survivors lived for several months. In each timeline, there is a child: peculiar, brave, and parentless. Mayken is our Dutch girl, Gil our Australian boy. Kidd has a fantastically matter-of-fact way of writing about creepy or spooky doings, which I remembered loving in her earlier novel Things In Jars. The Night Ship does not disappoint. It is very close to being a horror novel, in the “humans are the monsters” sense, and there is one moment of pure slipstream, where Mayken and Gil connect across time. It’s barely glanced at, but it’s there. I cried at the end, again. Really exceptional work.
The IPCRESS File, by Len Deighton (1962): The classic spy novel about brainwashing, which I read as a library ebook loan. I’m glad I read it, but as with Le Carré, I found it almost impossible to follow for the first half. There’s something about these mid-century espionage novels, stylistically, that feels incredibly oblique. There are details that don’t seem relevant followed by leaps in time; characters will be introduced whom the protagonist obviously knows but doesn’t explain to us. It’s effective at creating a sense of the foggy culture of European spycraft in those days, I suppose, but I don’t find being that disoriented particularly enjoyable. I did enjoy The IPCRESS File once I had some sense of what was going on (thanks, Wikipedia), and Deighton’s sardonic asides are very well done. Some of the descriptive writing is surprisingly Wodehousian. And he’s great on food; his unnamed narrator lovingly describes meals and even his grocery shopping in a way that pleased me immensely. That’s capitalist decadence for you.
A Question of Power, by Bessie Head (1973; unfinished): Picked up for my African Summer reading challenge. I did try. That problem of not enjoying disorientation was at the heart of my failure to get on with it, I think. I read well over 50%, but eventually I had a think and realized I was dreading picking the thing up again, and that’s really not the point, even of a reading challenge, so I decided to do the sensible thing and let it go. It’s a nearly autobiographical novel about a mixed-race woman named Elizabeth who moves from South Africa to Botswana, experiences severe bouts of mental ill health that involve religious auditory and visual hallucinations and seem to border on the schizophrenic, and works with a local NGO where Westerners teach principles of eco-friendly agriculture to local Botswanans. I loved the gardening bits; her clashes with the more patronizing of the Danish volunteers are funny, her friendship with the local woman Ketosi is sweet, the descriptions of hard work and pride in the vegetables that grow are lovely. But so much of it is unbroken paragraphs of religious hallucination, and I just hate that sort of thing. I wish I didn’t. If you’re really into literary representations of how individuals experience mental illness, this book is definitely for you, though.
The Brave African Huntress, by Amos Tutuola (1958): I’m counting this as the replacement for A Question of Power in the African Summer reading challenge. A short novella (about 160 pages) based on Yoruba folk tale, in which Adebisi loses her four brothers to the bloodthirsty inhabitants of the Jungle of the Pigmies, then sets off with her father’s gun to get them back. Tutuola was notorious for “bad grammar” (a colonialist concept, by the way). It makes the book a harder reading experience but a much easier-to-imagine-listening-to one, if that makes sense. There are stops and starts in the sentences, clauses that start with “and” or “so” and then go nowhere. It doesn’t matter. Adebisi is a kick-ass heroine who also, occasionally, has her ass kicked. She feels real and funny and her world of giants, obnoxious tricksters, supernatural beasts, hornéd kings and horny bachelors feels real too, despite being patently invented. It’s a bit of an effort to read Tutuola, for sure, but the books are so short I’ll probably try another one. I have both The Palm-Wine Drinkard (his most famous) and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts on loan until the 17th, so we’ll see—maybe I’ll manage both.