May 2021 Wrap-Up

May! May was a good month. “Good” is a broad word, which we were taught in school never to use in our writing (like “pretty” and “nice”), but May was a good month nevertheless. I read thirteen books, indoor dining and hugs both made a return to our lives, and I got into grad school! (I’ll start with an MPhil and shift to a PhD after two years–I’ll be studying part-time to begin with–on 18th-century literature, specifically literary depictions of sex workers, even more specifically those marginalized by their race and/or gender identity. I KNOW.) Also, it eventually stopped raining.

So, those books. A remarkably high number of them were proofs/reading copies of current hardback releases. Actually, one of those came out in 2019 but it’s still available in hardback so I’m counting it, and also counting it as a dent in the Great Unread: the comedian Sofie Hagen’s memoir Happy Fat, which doesn’t say a lot that anyone who’s done any fat-positive reading won’t already have seen, but which has the great virtue of being funny, and of reinforcing a message that I always, always seem to need to hear. Another was Natasha Pulley’s The Kingdoms, her newest historical-fantasy novel, and also her best; combining time travel, the Napoleonic Wars, speculative history, and a slow-burning love story, its multiple subplots are handled with greater clarity and aplomb than anything she’s yet written. It’s not what you’d think of as a “quick read”, and yet it reads quickly; once I became invested, I couldn’t stop reading til I was done. One was a Barbellion Prize submission, Sara Gibbs’s memoir of growing up as an undiagnosed autistic woman, Drama Queen. (I won’t comment extensively on the Barbellion Prize books other than to register that I’ve read them; I haven’t discussed this with the chair of judges but I have a feeling it’s not the done thing.) There was Assembly by Natasha Brown, which I discussed a little bit with Rebecca and Laura on Goodreads; it’s marketable as a disaster-woman book but I don’t actually think it is; I think it’s a book about the impossibility of winning as a Black British woman under capitalism, how material success is based upon the exploitation of your labour and material poverty only reaffirms your status as a second-class citizen. The plot twist, such as it is, has been called melodramatic, but I think it’s perfect: the stakes are that high, and (without wishing to spoil anything) the book makes it very apparent that checking out completely can easily look like the only solution. As our narrator muses, in a passage that seems to me to encapsulate the book’s whole project, “Nothing is a choice. Nothing is a choice. Nothing is a choice.” I also read The Dreadful Monster and its Poor Relations by Julian Hoppitt (a history of taxation and spending in the UK from the Act of Union in 1707 to 2010; dry, yes, but more or less comprehensible if very granular, and I’m interested in the British historical economy and how people and governments chose to spend money as imperial ambitions and capacities increased), and The Absolute Book by Elizabeth Knox (as much a love letter to libraries, books, and stories as everyone says it is, with references ranging from Jane Eyre to Norse mythology to The Da Vinci Code, but oddly and problematically disjointed, for me. There’s too much going on, too many characters who want too many incompatible and largely undiscussed things, to hold it all in your head as a singular reading experience, which makes it very unlike Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, a book to which it has been much compared. It’s addictive, extremely tense in parts, and I enjoyed reading it, but it’s not perfect and not as immersive as I’d hoped.)

With regards to backlist reading: I read two of the Gollancz ebooks from that 99p sale (I’m getting through them!): Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book (very close to being better than just good; personally, I found Willis’s 1990s conception of a 2050s Oxford a lot closer to 1950s Oxford, which is frustrating on an imaginative level–a huge part of one plot strand revolves around being unable to get hold of an academic because he’s on holiday, Willis apparently not having thought of widespread mobile phone usage, and the gender politics amongst the young characters are ridiculously outdated–but the historical strand works well because it relies on our emotional connection to individuals we know will die sooner or later, and it largely earns that emotional connection) and Sheri S. Tepper’s Raising the Stones, which I really enjoyed: gods who are a sentient fungus! A blistering critique of theocratic patriarchy! An acknowledgment of music as a revolutionary force! If the book has a weakness, it’s a total indifference to minimizing point of view; there are dozens of POV characters, though we move fluidly between each of them and the effect is generally that of an omniscient narrator, which is manageable. Still, I thought it was great and will be reaching for more Tepper (especially Grass) in future. I also finished The Silmarillion, with the help of the Prancing Pony podcast; it is decidedly not for casual Tolkien fans, but I definitely came to it at the right time and, like all the richest collections of myth and legend, it contains some very memorable individual stories (the death of Fingolfin; Beren and Luthien, of course; the children of Hurin, also of course). Much to my surprise, women are better represented here than in The Hobbit or LOTR: there are more of them, elves and humans and demigods, and they achieve more in war and in diplomacy (Haleth, for instance, who leads the defense of her lands, and takes up the leadership of her people when all her male relatives fall). Those who believe Tolkien a misogynist might do well to look to the women of The Silmarillion for role models.

More academically, I read Rebecca Gibson’s The Corseted Skeleton: a Bioarchaeology of Binding, for Barbellion Prize purposes (it’s about the physical effects of corseting on women’s bodies and argues that physical transformation should not be interpreted as oppression across the board), and British Women’s Writing in the Long 18th Century edited by Jennie Batchelor and Cora Kaplan, which, well, does what it says on the tin. Most of it probably won’t be that relevant to my own work, but women did sometimes address sex work–as well as, more commonly, the morality of labour, and constructions of race and otherness–in their writing, and I came away from it with at least two new directions of enquiry. So that’s a good thing.

Finally, two rereads: Tana French’s In the Woods (which I reread almost by accident, in snatches on my phone; the final 25% of it as agonizing as ever, I honestly take my hat off to her for being able to sustain the process of writing such emotionally painful scenes as an intimate friendship falls apart. The case is technically solved, but no one wins and justice is not served, and it’s that as well as her delicate, brutal filleting of motive and social performance that makes her such an unusual crime writer, I think), and Jane Austen’s Persusasion (which I think I hadn’t reread since June of 2007?! That can’t be right, but it must be right. Anyway, it holds up. I hadn’t noticed til reading Gillian Beer’s introduction this time around how closely we are tied to Anne Elliot’s perspective, even to the point that when she lowers her eyes, the rest of the scene is reported only in dialogue–we literally can’t see what she can’t see. It explains, I think, why Wentworth sometimes feels oddly colourless. He’s handsome, rich thanks to his own competence, sensible, kind, dutiful, and dryly witty, but he doesn’t have the vast charismatic charge of Darcy, or even the queasily immoral magnetism of a Willoughby or a Henry Crawford; we love him because Anne loves him. Which feels right, I think, in that the book is about becoming sure of yourself, and of your choice of partner, without needing to justify them or hold them up for the quantification and judgment of others.)

To analyse: only one by a person of colour, which is pretty poor. (I started two others–The World Does Not Require You by Rion Amilcar Scott, and Hard Like Water by Yan Lianke–and abandoned both, mostly for the same reason: more surreal/magical realist than I fancied. It’s really not my mode. Also, Lianke’s narrator kept describing a woman’s breasts as being like handsome white sheep. Hard pass.) Quite a lot of nonfiction, though; five out of thirteen, a figure inflated by Barbellion Prize reading. (There are some nominated novels and poetry collections, but I’m not there yet.) Two books by queer authors and/or featuring queer characters (Happy Fat and The Kingdoms), again not great but present. A pretty good balance of frontlist to backlist, and I definitely feel my choices have been largely directed by thoughtful whim.

For June, I have no reading plans, apart from not buying any books, again. I’m moving in late September and am already planning a joyful way of downsizing my book collection, which I’ll tell you more about later. For now, I’ll try to enjoy my last few months of “free reading” before I start the MPhil, which I anticipate will keep me constantly guilty when I’m not working. (I’m really, really excited, though. Honestly, I am!)

And you? Do you have summer reading plans, wishes, goals, hopes?

April 2021 Wrap-Up

With best intentions, it looks as though my New Year’s resolution to write something about every.single.book. has sort of come to its natural end. Oh well. It lasted for two months pretty solidly, which isn’t bad. I refuse to feel guilt or shame. In fact, I’m beginning to wonder if constant churning-out of bookish content is really where I want my productivity to lie. It was a useful exercise for a while there, to bring my mind back into shape, but I already work for the book industry eight hours a day, five days a week. Do I really want my leisure hours to consist entirely of free publicity for that same industry? This ambivalence is partly reflected in the way my reading is shifting away from frontlist titles at the moment. We’ll see how this develops over the course of the year.

On to April, a pretty rich reading month in which I read eleven books! Three of these were proofs of new releases: Florence Gildea’s Lessons I Have Unlearned (a cheering and charming slim volume about mental health, eating disorders, and God; it would be difficult to read it from a non-Christian perspective, but as someone who wrestles with God’s existence and a brutally perfectionist self-image, I found it very resonant), Jon McGregor’s Lean Fall Stand (exactly as good as I wanted it to be, though a different animal, and slightly less technically accomplished, than Reservoir 13; it’s a novel in two chunks, really, the first chunk establishing as protagonist Robert “Doc” Wright, an experienced technician assisting scientists and photographers in Antarctica, the second following Doc’s progress after a stroke leaves him with aphasia, and filtered through the eyes of his wife, Anna; emotionally nuanced but sometimes perhaps a bit distant with its readers. Still, writing aphasia–a condition defined by a loss of control over language–is ambitious and difficult, and mostly McGregor does well there), and Maggie Shipstead’s Great Circle (a strong contender for my book of the year so far, a dual-strand historical novel following Marian Graves, a 20th-century female pilot who disappears, like Earhart, on an attempt to complete a type of round-the-world flight known as a great circle, and Hadley Baxter, a “troubled Hollywood starlet” in the mould of Jennifer Lawrence or Kristin Stewart–she’s become famous by playing the female romantic lead in a franchise adapted from cod-fantasy YA novels, whose fans are portrayed as rabidly unable to tell the difference between fiction and reality–who feels compelled to play Marian in a new, and misleading, biopic, and to find out more about her actual life; Marian’s strand gets more pages, and it’s clear to me that Shipstead preferred writing her, but Hadley is never less convincing than Marian; it’s been months since I read a book that made me believe so deeply in the reality of its characters. The descriptive writing is also phemonenal. It might be a tad longer than strictly necessary, but not a single page made me feel I was wasting my time by reading it. It’s magnificent, and will, I hope, be much loved.)

Two were newly released reprints of older books, both from Penguin’s Black Britain: Writing Back series. The first, Incomparable World by SI Martin, is a sort of crime picaresque set in 1780s London amongst a community of Black soldiers who fought for the British in the American Revolution, having been promised freedom from slavery and a new life in England after the war’s end. Martin’s great on atmosphere, noise and muck and mess, the way poverty steals dignity, the necessity of living on the edge, but less good on clear plotting and character differentiation. Still, it’s funny and poignant and provides a much-needed fictional window into a historical experience that remains largely unexplored. The second was The Fat Lady Sings by Jacqueline Roy, in which zaftig, irrepressible Gloria, and skinny, silent Merle become unlikely companions on an NHS mental health ward in the 1990s. Roy slyly forces us to question whether either of them is actually mad, or whether (as has been the case so often for women, especially poor women and/or women of colour) they’ve been sectioned largely for the convenience of people around them. Gloria sings constantly, talks loudly to everyone she sees, and is secretly grieving her female partner of many years, Josie, whose family’s homophobia has made it impossible for Gloria’s pain to be acknowledged; Merle is traumatized by childhood sexual abuse and a toxic current relationship; both make other people uncomfortable. Their growing friendship, and the journals they keep for the scrutiny of their doctors, reveal the essential unhelpfulness and fluidity of labels like “sane” and “insane”. It’s a genuinely joyful book, and the ending is perfect.

I got through a number of books when I went down to Sussex at the start of the month. Two of these were e-copies of backlist sci fi classics that I snaffled in a buying spree at Gollancz’s 99 p sale (Paul McAuley’s Fairyland, which also counts towards my Clarke Award challenge as it won in 1996; heavy on the cyber-punk and biotech but posing fascinating questions about sentience and authority over life, although its curious structure lets it down by deflating tension every time we move location; and M John Harrison’s The Centauri Device, which Harrison himself has described as “the crappiest of my novels”, a kind of anti-space opera in which the half-alien protagonist is defined by his passivity and indifference in the face of a potentially world-ending weapon that only he can unlock; I don’t regret reading it, but I’m pleased to hear that he gets better). One was a backlist title gifted to me by my partner (The Dragon Lady by Louisa Treger, a reexamination of the life of Lady Virginia Courtauld and her husband Stephen–yes, that Courtauld. They lived in Rhodesia because Ginie’s history was too scandalous to keep them in England, which is portrayed as unbearably stuffy and repressed, probably quite accurately; a part of me struggles with being asked to sympathize too heavily with a wealthy white woman for being socially ostracized for being vocally anti-racist, but then, as Treger makes clear, being a “race traitor” in Rhodesia in the 1950s could get you shot.) Two were old copies of books found at my grandmother’s house (A Glass of Blessings by Barbara Pym, which I wrote about at greater length earlier this month, and A History of Harting by Rev. H.D. Gordon, a private-press reprint of a local history of my grandmother’s area originally published in the late 19th century. Absolutely fascinating explanation of topography and human settlement in that part of the world going right back to the Iron Age, when there was a hill fort, and with some exciting, lurid stories of murder, smuggling and land grabs in later centuries. Obviously of very niche interest, but I loved it).

Finally, one of April’s reads was part of a new-paperback buying spree at BookBar on Blackstock Road: Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, which uses imagination, empathy and analysis to re-present the lives of Black women in American cities in the early part of the 20th century, whose experiments in sexuality, family structure, and earning a living anticipated the 1960s revolution in white social and sexual structures by decades. (There are still four books from this spree I have yet to delve into, but I’m pleased to have read one relatively quickly, instead of leaving the whole pile to languish, as so often happens.)

In terms of reading resolutions, I feel this month was fairly diverse: a number of books by authors of colour, a number of books by or about queer individuals, a respectable sprinkling of nonfiction, some experimental and some “standard”. A good genre spread too: some sci fi, some historical fiction, some contemporary fiction. Though not a whole lot of the latter; this plus the release of the Women’s Prize shortlist yesterday (of which I have read one) makes it clearer than ever that my reading interests are not necessarily making it easy to prioritize frontlist books. Further stagnation on the Great Unread, though. It’s difficult to make room for everything, especially because I really need to start pushing Barbellion Prize contenders to the fore. (I probably won’t discuss those in future reading wrap-ups, apart from acknowledging how many of them I’ve read in a given month. I’m not sure why, but it seems the done thing to keep official prize panel reading to oneself.)

In May, I am going to try not to buy any books. I have my proof pile, my physical-purchases pile, my Gollancz e-purchases (currently reading Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, not totally sure about it), the Great Unread, Barbellion Prize submissions… There’s plenty to be getting on with. (I’m also reading, chapter by chapter and at long last, The Silmarillion, which defeated me utterly as a Lord of the Rings-obsessed ten-year-old but which I think I’m finally coming to at the right time. After each chapter, I’m listening to the corresponding episode of the Prancing Pony podcast, which is a chapter-by-chapter deep dive into Tolkien’s work hosted by two very funny, earnest, passionate Americans. I love it. I so rarely fly my true High Fantasy Freak Flag, but consider it hoisted.)

Also: beer gardens and outdoor dining are back! I had a falafel burger and two glasses of wine at a cafe with my best friend last night, then came back home and promptly fell asleep, like an overstimulated toddler. Happy days.

A Glass of Blessings

Having spent the last two-ish weeks more or less on break over Easter, reading quite a lot (six books in twelve days) and writing about absolutely none of it, I’m attempting to get back on the horse with a little bit of commentary (hardly a review or a critical essay) on Barbara Pym’s A Glass of Blessings, which I picked up on a whim at my grandmother’s house (yes, technically I shouldn’t have been there; she’s double-vaccinated, recently widowed, and lonely, I’m single-vaccinated and basically a hermit, we both accepted the risks).

Really, the best way to think of A Glass of Blessings is as a 20th-century Anglo-Catholic version of Jane Austen’s Emma. Like Emma, Wilmet Forsyth is comfortably well off, reasonably clever, and more than a touch bored. (Unlike Emma, she’s already married, to a civil servant named Rodney whom she met under significantly more dashing circumstances when they were both stationed in Italy during the war. One of the recurring themes is a vague, not entirely negative acknowledgment of how much more respectable and staid their lives, and the lives of their old friends, have become, a sense that nothing else can really measure up but an equal sense that perhaps they’ve simply lost the first energies of youth in a way that would always have happened, war or not.) Wilmet’s boredom leads her to take an increasingly active interest in the life of her local parish church, St Luke’s (Rodney does not attend), and to be drawn towards the three priests there as well as her friend Rowena’s rather enigmatic but good-looking brother, Piers. Wilmet’s prejudices, arrogance and blind spots–like Emma’s–lead her to entirely erroneous conclusions about most of these men, as well as about the spotlessly good and pious Mary Beamish, whose friendship she initially discounts but who later proves to be rather more switched-on, and more valuable as a friend, than previously judged. I should add that Wilmet is never drawn as a horrible person or even an unpleasant one–her problem is comfortable certainty, not cruelty, and a certain ability to bend facts to suit her subconsciously desired interpretation–and she is often the vessel for Pym’s brilliant, sometimes off-the-wall observational capacities, which tell just as much against her as against whoever she’s discussing:

Were the invitations always for Father Thames and never for mild dumpy little Father Bode, with his round spectacled face and slightly common voice, who always seemed to be the sub-deacon at High Mass and who had once read the wrong lesson at a carol service? I was sure that Father Bode was equally worthy of eating smoked salmon and grouse or whatever luncheon the hostesses might care to provide. Then it occurred to me that he might well be the kind of person who would prefer tinned salmon, though I was ashamed of the unworthy thought for I knew him to be a good man.

A Glass of Blessings, p. 7

It won’t take the 21st-century reader very long to determine that Piers, far from being secretly and moodily in love with Wilmet, is gay, and that the roommate he takes such pains to avoid discussing is in fact his lover, Keith (who is not only a man but has a detectable Leicester accent, which is possibly more of a transgression). I was both surprised and impressed by the way Piers’s sexuality seems simply to be accepted by all of the main characters; it is never openly discussed, but neither is he socially shunned once Wilmet works it out, and even her husband Rodney seems both to comprehend the situation and to find the two men’s company more amusing than problematic. Perhaps the acceptance is possible precisely because what Piers and Keith are to each other is never spoken aloud, just made obvious through the intimacy of their living situation. I’m not certain how to feel about the portrayal of Keith, who is depicted as a rather motherly figure (though the younger partner of the couple): an excellent interior decorator, tidier, cook and host. He’s clearly meant to stand as a contrast to Piers, who was miserable and an alcoholic before Keith’s influence entered his life, but is it too stereotypical for a gay character? The novel was written in 1958, which makes it interesting that Pym attempts it at all. I do think she succeeds in making Keith a person, as she makes almost all of her characters; his portrayal certainly doesn’t appear offensive, or stigmatizing.

The first few chapters are taken up with finding a new housekeeper for the clergy house, where two of the priests lodge together, and through Wilmet’s intervention, the successful applicant is in fact a man, a Mr. Bason. He is also a talented cook and admirer of beautiful things (in fact something of a kleptomaniac regarding the latter), also queer-coded, and also clearly lower-middle-class at best. Wilmet and her friends, of a different social standing, have no such apparent hunger for beauty or practical ability to create it (though Wilmet does allow as to how she has a talent for flower arranging). A taste for life’s finer things, Pym seems to suggest, is a quality reserved for people who do not know for sure that they can have such things. The difference between Bason and Keith is that the former is a snob, out of a terror of social exclusion, and Keith is not a snob at all; instead he is almost an innocent, remarking wistfully that Wilmet must see lots of trees where she lives. Pym may notice everything, but she is never unwilling to allow sympathy for her characters. She never lets the reader despise them or feel scorn for them, although we may find them dislikable, embarrassing, or pompous, which is why her novels seem to me to have more heart than the phrase “English high comedy”–certainly applicable here–would suggest.

The best character, after Wilmet herself, however, must be her mother-in-law Sybil, who is neither a tyrannical harridan nor an overbearing smotherer. Sybil is cheerfully atheistic, fond of her son and her daughter-in-law (who both live in her house) but by no means entirely occupied with home life. She immerses herself in shopping, lunches, and academic lectures, which is how she comes into contact with the dry but gentle and kind-hearted Professor Root, who becomes a fixture of the Forsyth’s family life. It is apparent to the reader much earlier than it is to Wilmet that Professor Root and Sybil are romantically involved, and the sweet gentility with which these two older people go about courting each other and, finally, deciding to get married, feels like a little cherry to enjoy on top of the delights of the main characters’ doings. The fact that Wilmet is oblivious to it only makes it more delicious.

This is my third Pym novel–I read Excellent Women in 2014 and Quartet In Autumn in 2010, according to my book journal–and I think I’ve finally reached the age where one starts to actually appreciate her. (Quartet in Autumn depressed me, perhaps unsurprisingly since I was eighteen at the time, and I don’t think I fully comprehended Excellent Women; looking back, I read it during a month of extreme upheaval during which I had three different addresses, so frankly it’s a miracle I remember any of it at all.) Where should I venture next in her back catalogue?


A Glass of Blessings was first published in 1958; my edition is a Penguin paperback from 1983, many of the yellowing pages of which have come entirely unglued from the spine and are simply shoved loose between the covers. A very nice contemporary edition is available in the UK from Little, Brown.

March 2021 Wrap-Up

Hahahahaha. Well, that didn’t last: I managed two months of reviewing pretty much everything I read, and then this month, it all went wrong.

In my defense, that is because I was reading for, and writing up, an application for an MPhil/PhD programme in English, which consumed a lot of time and brain energy. It also led me to read several academic books in quick succession, none of which I could really adequately review, and to reach mainly (although not entirely) for palate-cleansers in between.

So, this month, I read fourteen books, which is a lot more like the olden days. Of those, I have managed to review one, Revolting Prostitutes by Juno Mac and Molly Smith. Of the rest, five were new releases and/or proof copies: The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex (a truly wonderful, eerie novel set in Cornwall and based on the true story of three lighthousemen who disappeared without a trace; Stonex’s ability to depict human emotion and her firm grasp on the nature of insanity is never less than bracing); The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans (I never read anything billed as “stories and a novella” and good Lord am I glad I made an exception for this, a near-flawless collection on emotional loss and the deceptions of American historio-mythology; my two favourite stories are “Richard of York Gave Battle In Vain”, set during a wedding that doesn’t happen, and the title story, a novella that makes devastatingly clear the cost of being honest about history); Hot Stew by Fiona Mozley (a rather broadly drawn but engaging romp through all levels of society, centering on the attempted demolition of a Soho brothel and gentrification of the neighbourhood; Mozley works in types here, and the prose is less remarkable than in her debut, Elmet, but Hot Stew is in a Dickensian tradition of London novels that connect the homeless with the high and mighty and everyone in between; it’s a lot of fun); Harvest by Georgina Harding (the third in a loose trilogy–I’ve read the second but not the first–and a book that grows on you, quietly, the further you read; dealing with the unspoken traumas and losses of a Norfolk farming family which are revealed when Kumiko, the Japanese girlfriend of youngest son Jonathan, comes to stay; Harding moves from perspective to perspective seamlessly and with great empathy, and although the book is certainly a rural tragedy of a sort it never feels melodramatic or Hardy-esque); and The Left-Handed Booksellers of London by Garth Nix (sadly, mildly diverting but there’s nothing going on here that China Mieville, Neil Gaiman, Ben Aaronovitch, Michael Moorcock, CS Lewis, Susan Cooper, Alan Garner and JRR Tolkien–the latter four of whom are frequently name-checked–haven’t done already, and better; the story of a half-mortal girl discovering her parentage, aided by an eccentric and sometimes violent extra-governmental secret agency, spirits of ancient wells and mountains evoking a deep-time England, etc; it should all be very evocative but Nix never really grounds his setting in a feeling of place: he gets street names and geographies right (down to his booksellers’ headquarters on, ahem, Curzon Street, in a Georgian townhouse, right across from Shepherd Market… looks a lot like home…) but unlike Cooper, Garner, Mieville and Tolkien (at least), he never manages to make me feel as though I understand the spirit of his settings. Which is fatal for a book about topographical magic.) A final, and unexpectedly wonderful, read for March was Sylvia Townsend Warner’s 1920 novel Mr. Fortune’s Maggot, which Penguin Modern Classics have reissued in one of their lovely eau-de-nil-backed editions; the premise–a middle-aged English bank clerk receives a small inheritance, becomes a missionary in Polynesia, feels a call to convert the inhabitants of the tiny island of Fanua, but makes only one convert, a boy, and finds himself put to “a terrible test”–seemed fertile ground for Graham Greene-ish misery, but Warner is nothing like Greene, nowhere near so predictable in her belief in human wretchedness, and instead the novel is profoundly moving: Mr. Fortune’s friendship with the boy Lueli changes his life, and eventually it is love that compels him to give up his own happiness, because he realizes the damage he will do to the Fanuan way of life if he stays. Quietly stunning and under two hundred pages long; I urge you to give it a go.

Three of the other books I read were for background purposes as I worked up an abstract and then a research proposal: Infamous Commerce: Prostitution in Eighteenth-Century Literature and Culture by Laura J. Rosenthal (a broad overview of 18th-century literary depictions of prostitutes), Prostitution and Eighteenth-Century Culture, an anthology of literary and historical essays edited by Ann Lewis and focusing on British, French and Dutch sources, and Mastery, Tyranny and Desire by Trevor Burnard, an in-depth look at the diaries of Jamaican slave-owner Thomas Thistlewood, from whose extensive journal-keeping comes much of what we know about the experiences of enslaved people and Anglo-Jamaican colonialists during the eighteenth century. It’s both genuinely fascinating, and utterly horrifying.

In between, I’ve read two science fiction novels as palate-cleansers: a re-read of Alastair Reynolds’s gripping and entirely inessential Revelation Space, whose failings on the level of character become more obvious the second time around but which still has a pretty compelling mystery at its heart, which rescues it, and Tricia Sullivan’s 1999 Clarke Award-winner Dreaming In Smoke, a planetary colonization novel whose plot is catalyzed by the apparent implosion of the AI, Ganesh, that keeps operational a fledgling human outpost on the fiery planet T’nane. (Verdict: also pretty compelling, though with great lashings of cyberpunk-ish technobabble, which I always find myself having to skim, and a protagonist whose profound insecurity and passivity is both infuriating and a fascinating character choice in a genre where indestructible badass bitches are more the order of the day.) I also reread Adam Roberts’s collection of sci fi and fantasy criticism, Sibilant Fricative, which, like all of Roberts’s criticism, is always amusing and largely illuminating. Finally, I read the short story/novella Bloodchild by Octavia Butler, which is utterly brilliant, revolting and entrancing and poignant and horrific all at once, about a reproductive relationship worked out between future humans on an alien world and that world’s indigenous insectoid race, the T’lic. The story’s thirty pages long and says more about consent, bodily autonomy, love, coercion, and choice than most novels can hope for.

What did this all mean for my self-imposed reading resolutions? Oddly, not everything was a loss: nearly half of this month’s books were nonfiction. Only two were by an author of colour, though (The Office of Historical Corrections and Bloodchild), and only one by a queer author (Hot Stew). No translations, and my progress through the Great Unread stalled entirely (although I enjoyed my rereads). I did, however, set myself the goal of reading “eighteenth-century stuff” and “stuff on sex work” in March, which, I think we can all agree, has been a success. And did I succeed at “generally not stressing myself out too much”? Not really. But that’s an ongoing project.

In April, I’ll have little to do but wait for a reply to my application, so my reading can be a touch more expansive. Certainly, maintaining reading diversity and getting through the Great Unread are still general aims. I’m also enjoying my rereads so much, and usually give rereading so little thought, that I’d quite like to do more of it. Finally, I went hog-wild during a Gollancz 99p ebook sale yesterday and bought eight titles for the price of one, so I really must attempt to justify that by actually reading them. (The first I read was the underwhelming Nix, mentioned above, but most of the others are in the SF Masterworks series – aka classics of the genre – so I expect better things to come.)

I can’t think too much about the fact that it’s been a year since lockdown one. I remember it felt like a strange, hallucinatory holiday – I bought a Disney+ subscription and ordered a lot of sushi and drank a lot of gin, and it was a sunny spring, although a lonely one. That feeling is long gone. We’ll readjust, of course, in a superficial way, once we’re allowed to see our loved ones and go out and about again, but we’ll be experiencing the effects of these two years in a more subtle fashion for a long time, I think.

Revolting Prostitutes

Eye-catching post title, no? And eye-catching book title. Anyway—this is going to take the form of some reflections upon, and consolidations of, what Molly Smith and Juno Mac lay out in the above.

Smith and Mac are both sex workers, and their stance on the legal status of sex work is that, first and foremost, it should proceed from the standpoint that a) sex workers are working, and b) workers deserve access to labour rights. These are two seemingly straightforward premises, but, as the current global status of sex work demonstrates, they are remarkably difficult ones for politicians and anti-prostitution feminists (a term Smith and Mac use and which I will adopt) to get their heads around. Using interviews with current sex workers and activists all over the world as well as former sex workers, they draw attention to two false figures, the Happy Hooker and the Erotic Professional. They are closely related, and are often used in media pieces by or about sex workers who are among the most privileged in their profession, the “elite” or “high-class” escorts, many of whom say that they love sex work, find it empowering, and don’t think there is any need for further regulation. As Smith and Mac demonstrate, any emphasis on fulfillment misses the point. An individual in the highest rungs of any industry may love their job and find it empowering (or that may all be part of the marketing material, since many elite escorts are selling emotional intimacy and “the girlfriend experience”, as well as sex). That does nothing to change the fact that there are workers of lower status in the industry who require access to labour law. Whether a high-class escort feels empowered by her work or not is irrelevant to the question of whether we should give workers in her industry legal protections from harassment, rape, eviction, and prosecution simply for trying to exist. One would not expect a representative worker in the retail, hospitality or media industry to find their job “empowering”, necessarily; one would expect that they are undertaking work in order to survive, and that they therefore have the right to work reasonable hours, not be harassed by management or customers in their workplace, and not be subject to punitive measures outside of their workplace (such as being arrested themselves simply for, let’s say, looking like a barista, if they call the police to report a crime committed against them). Yet this is exactly what mainstream media and much contemporary feminism tends to expect of its sex workers—that they either claim to represent all sex workers in their empowerment, or be made to represent all sex workers in moral panic-mongering about degradation and “trafficking”.

Trafficking, as Smith and Mac also point out, is a real phenomenon; it is just that it merges into a wider phenomenon, which is that of people smuggling and undocumented migration. In their early chapters, they skilfully demonstrate that the criminalization of sex work is inextricably connected to much wider issues, like the ongoing tightening of borders, the ongoing criminalization of drugs, and austerity policies that drive more and more people into poverty and homelessness, then punish and humiliate them for being poor and homeless. In these circumstances, it is not at all surprising that people turn to sex work. (Smith and Mac mostly figure sex workers as women, both cis and trans, which reflects the realities of the industry, but they do acknowledge cis and trans male sex workers, and use studies focusing on them, as well.) Smith and Mac are pragmatic about this, and their proposed solutions are radical in the truest sense, in that they strike at the root of the problem: liquidate borders, decriminalize drug use, reinstate (or instate, in some countries) a proper social safety net, and decriminalize sex work. Using both statistics and anecdote, they demonstrate that in every place where drug use and sex work have been rendered safer (which decriminalization would do), and where so-called “exit programmes” prioritize the needs of workers in giving them money and genuine career development pathways, instead of patronizing them with punitive benefits measures and lower-paid jobs making garments or jewellery, neither drug use nor sex work has increased in frequency; in many places, it has decreased, because workers are no longer in such desperate need; and deaths have decreased substantially.

I say “in every place” where drug use and sex work have been made safer; there is only one country in the world that has pursued full decriminalization, and that is New Zealand. A case study on NZ makes up the final chapter of the book, and interviewed sex workers are palpably more confident in their safety at work, their ability to access labour law, and their security from police brutality and abuse. Police abuse of power is a horrifying constant throughout the other chapters. These explore countries that have fully criminalized sex work; the “Nordic model”, which criminalizes buyers but not sellers, and is not the silver bullet its proponents claim it is (clients who are frightened they will be arrested can demand increasingly unsafe environments and practices from their sex workers, who find themselves less and less able to refuse because they need money, while the client can always choose not to purchase sex from them); “legalization”, which is the model used in Germany and the Netherlands, requires things like registration for sex workers and mandatory health checks, the former of which leaves undocumented migrant sex workers out in the cold and the latter of which is a human rights violation; and full decriminalization, which only New Zealand currently uses and which essentially removes state apparatus, and policing, from the sex industry altogether, except in the sense that police officers are required to protect the rights and safety of sex workers at work in the same way they are required to protect the rights and safety of office workers or waitstaff. Sex workers are safer when they do not have to fear the police, either while a transaction is taking place or afterwards. (The numbers of arrests for “brothel-keeping” in countries that criminalize are ridiculous, and include such people as a sex worker’s pal who lets her crash at their place for a few weeks, and, memorably, a seventy-year-old cleaner in Melbourne, Australia who called an ambulance when a client had a heart attack and was promptly arrested under anti-pimping legislation, thus ensuring, as Smith and Mac write, that no one in any part of Melbourne’s sex industry ever again calls an ambulance for a client or worker in need of medical attention.)

If Smith and Mac sometimes seem to focus on the negative or dangerous elements of sex work, it is not because they wish to shame or stigmatize members of their own community; it is because they wish to draw attention to the fact that workers of any kind, anywhere, have a right to safety and comfort, and that when those rights are ignored, the consequences are devastating and unjust. Putting current sex workers at the centre of the movement for their rights seems so obvious, yet so many policymakers, governments and institutions appear not to understand the principle; Smith and Mac never lose sight of it. As a starting point for anyone interested in the political dimensions of sex work, or in how to reduce harm to vulnerable people, or in the interconnectedness of many of today’s most pressing social issues, Revolting Prostitutes is essential reading.


Revolting Prostitutes was first published by Verso Books in the UK in 2018; my paperback edition is from 2020.

February 2021 Wrap-Up

We’re two full months into the year now, and in London most of us have spent most of that time isolated from our friends, beloveds, and family. Thank God the weather is improving and the light really is coming back now—I’ve always found February one of the most hopeful months, the month where you start to see genuine seasonal changes, the month that starts dark and ends with sunsets at 5:30 instead of 4:00. It makes all the difference in the world. There are crocuses everywhere at the moment, and I always think of them as late-winter lamps, lighting the way into spring. Maybe soon we’ll be permitted to see each other again, although I wouldn’t trust the Tories to have devised a genuinely safe and sensible roadmap out of lockdown.

Reading is a constant, as ever. I read eight books in February—much less than I’m used to, but that is all part of this year’s intentionality plan—four of which were proofs or finished copies of new releases (A Still Life, Memorial, The Dead Are Arising, and Milk Fed, which I haven’t yet written about). Three came from my own shelves (The Female Quixote, Fanny Burney: Her Life, and Gilead), the latter of which was a reread; one (Tender Is the Flesh) was a new purchase. One of the new releases (The Dead Are Arising) was for review in an external publication.

I seem to have stopped worrying about Goodreads numbers, which is pleasing, although now I worry about writing something about every book I read; I’m currently struggling with Milk Fed, because it said a lot to me, but not necessarily in a way that I’ve yet digested or feel able to interpret. How long is too long between reading the book and writing about it? I tend to try and get something down quite quickly, because otherwise I forget or other books pile up. Alternatively, how little is too little to say about a book that had a pretty big impact on you? I’m not sure.

With regards to my reading diversity and my aims for this month: I’m doing okay on the former. Three of February’s books were nonfiction, two were by and about people of colour, two were by queer authors and/or about queer characters, and one was by and about a writer with chronic illness. Tender Is the Flesh was the only translation I read, which is a bit poor given that I wanted to read more translated work in February, but then it’s also more than I generally manage in any given month. I’m certainly continuing to work through the Great Unread, and I feel as though my choices this month have generally been decided by whim and interest, which is a major win.

For March, I’m going to try to focus on a few areas of reading that are relevant to some projects I have going on: eighteenth-century stuff; stuff on sex work, perhaps including some theory on sexuality, bodies and capitalism; and some more work by chronically ill and disabled writers. I’m still, of course, aiming to read through the Great Unread, maintain reading diversity, and generally not stress myself out too much.

In non-book-related stuff, I’ve started a small contemplative practice for Lent, using Richard Rohr’s book A Spring Within Us: a Year of Daily Meditations. I hope to continue using it all year, but starting in Lent felt appropriate. Rohr’s approach to prayer and to religious belief is the most affirmative, inclusive and compassionate I’ve come across, and he draws from many traditions outside of Christianity as well as strands of thought within it. It’s helping me focus and be more present, I think, and it’s a nice small coffee ritual in the mornings before work starts. I’ve also started working on various applications for grants and prizes (for writing), and postgraduate programmes (in English). A lot of things are underway at the moment and nothing has actually happened yet, but it makes me so happy to a) produce creative, intellectual work, and b) feel as though I’m at least attempting to take control of my life and mold it into the life I really want. Obviously, it’s also terrifying. Your good wishes are much appreciated. My commando-style early-morning supermarket visits have had some excellent results this month, including, amongst others: pork pibil tortillas with pickled red onions, sour cream and coriander; chermoulah-rubbed chicken with cumin and orange-braised carrots; curried parsnip soup; Bengali mustard cod with spiced vegetables; conchiglie with a roasted butternut squash and rosemary sauce; and chicken and plums, marinaded in lemon juice, garlic, honey, mace, Aleppo pepper, and thyme. Food is love, as M likes to say. In less exalted pursuits, Joe and I are still watching The Great Pottery Throwdown and Drag Race UK (UK Hun?!), and tore through all five episodes of Lupin in a weekend. I finished The West Wing and am now filling my ’90s-and-early-’00s-nostalgia-telly slot with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which I’ve never seen but which I absolutely adore for its combination of campy silliness and willingness to go to surprisingly dark emotional places; it’s very clear that the early series of the new Doctor Who (i.e. the tenure of Ecclestone and Tennant) were influenced by it. (I am very saddened and disappointed by the recent Joss Whedon revelations, but love Anthony Stewart Head and the other men of Buffy even more for speaking up in condemnation, and Charisma Carpenter for her bravery.) And M and I watched O Brother, Where Art Thou? last night via Teleparty, which reminded me once again that it’s one of my favourite films of all time, with a soundtrack that’s also one of my all-time favourite albums.

What about you? How do you feel about the covid roadmap in England? Is reading helping at all? What makes you feel the most engaged with life and the wider world? What kind of flowers are you seeing?

The Dead Are Arising

Over at Litro, my review of The Dead Are Arising is up! It’s a new biography of Malcolm X, nearly 30 years in the making, and although it’s a landmark piece of work, it’s not without its weaknesses. You can read the full review for free here.

Tender Is the Flesh

~~here be spoilers. also, content note/trigger warning for: implied violence against children, violence against women, violence against animals, rape, murder, eugenics, cannibalism~~

It’s an arguable premise: civilization, believing that all animals contain (or could contain) a virus deadly to humans, makes the Transition and begins to eat factory-farmed human meat. Why, the casual reader might think, should we believe that would work? As Bazterrica’s sickeningly straightforward novel demonstrates, there are two reasons why it might: first of all, we already have the infrastructure in place for large-scale breeding, slaughter and processing of carcasses; secondly, people can and will get used to almost anything if it’s presented to them using the right words. Language, vocabulary and speech are Bazterrica’s concerns just as much as the obvious capitalist metaphor of consuming human bodies; in fact, I would argue, more so. Cannibalism in this book is what Adam Roberts in his History of Science Fiction calls a novum (he takes the word from scholar Darko Suvin): one single new idea or change to the way society works that an author uses to illuminate and comment upon other, usually wider, phenomena. Bazterrica has written a horror fable about slaughtering humans like animals, sure, but she’s also written a critique of language as a tool for control: it’s not just about what is said and not said by politicians and the media, but about who even has the permission or the right to speak, and the implications of speech for—quite literally—our humanity.

Our protagonist, Marcos, works in an abattoir. His father used to own a tannery, but it was sold after the Transition, and in recognition of the family’s history, Marcos has been given an administrative job at the Krieg Processing Plant. He does not kill the “heads”, as humans reared for consumption are called; instead his job involves communicating with, and visiting, the other businesses with which the processing plant works: breeding centres, game reserves, the tannery, and, finally, the Valka Laboratory. This, of course, gives the reader access to a broad overview of the factory-farmed human meat industry, which is convenient for worldbuilding purposes; also, and more cleverly, it keeps Marcos away from overtly violent action, so that for long swathes of the book, we think of him—sometimes almost ridiculously—as the only good man left in a sick world. Narration is third-person limited, so Marcos doesn’t get to speak directly to us, but we never leave his head: his eyes are ours, and naturally his perspective is, too. We get to know about the dogs he loved in his childhood, which he was forced to put down when the panic over animal transmission started; we spend time with him at an abandoned zoo, where his now-dementia-ridden father used to take him; most devastatingly, we learn about the loss of his child, a baby much wanted and born only after endless agonizing rounds of IVF, donor eggs, and debt. (Reproduction, and the great, complex imponderables of human families and legacies, is a major interest of Tender Is the Flesh, which is of course also, and overtly, interested in the opposite idea: reproduction as breeding programme. The first “head” we meet is a stud male. There is a brilliant, horrible scene very early on in which Marcos, visiting a breeding centre, witnesses a staff gathering: the men are barbecuing a kid in celebration, since one of them has just become a father. The kid, of course, is a human child, not a young goat. “Want a sandwich?”, the centre director asks.)

Throughout this early scene-setting, Bazterrica—usually through Marcos—keeps directing us to think about language. It is the book’s very opening scene, in which Marcos wakes covered in sweat, obsessing over words:

Carcass. Cut in half. Stunner. Slaughter line. Spray wash. […] No one calls them [humans], he thinks, as he lights a cigarette. He doesn’t call them that when he has to explain the meat cycle to a new employee. They could arrest him for it, even send him to the Municipal Slaughterhouse and process him. Assassinate him, would be the correct term, but it can’t be used. […] His brain warns him that there are words that cover up the world.

There are words that are convenient, hygienic. Legal.

Tender Is the Flesh, Agustina Bazterrica, p. 11

Only a few pages later, he considers how the government used rhetoric around the supposed animal virus to suppress dissent, and discusses a circulating conspiracy theory: “He believes in a theory that some people have tried to talk about. But those who have done so publicly have been silenced. The most eminent zoologist, whose articles claimed the virus was a lie, had an opportune accident. He thinks it was all staged to reduce overpopulation.” (p. 14) Whether this is a plausible global population strategy or not hardly matters; what matters is the word silenced. It is planted early, and for good reason. (This would be an appropriate time to mention the translator, Sarah Moses, who—as far as I can tell as a non-Spanish speaker—has done sterling work in rendering the novel’s flat, uninflected affect in English. This is praise; as we’ve seen, the language is meant not to draw attention to itself, the better to lull us into acceptance of Bazterrica’s premise. I found myself frequently mentally replacing the human bodies swinging from hooks and having their throats cut with cows or pigs, as I was supposed to. It is easy enough to do during most of the slaughterhouse scenes. The most disturbing thing about this novel is how much violence and horror it manages to show a reader before the reader becomes seriously disturbed.)

The inciting incident of the plot is that Marcos is gifted a purebred female head from the director of a breeding centre, in one of those business-to-business not-quite-bribes. He has no idea what to do with her; initially, he ties her up in an outbuilding, leaving her food and water. One night she watches him burning his son’s cot, and—drunk, musing that it looks almost as though she understands—he unties her. When he wakes up, she is lying next to him, asleep. He doesn’t touch her then, but later, when he has to clean her, he becomes aroused and rapes her.

I have to be very clear about this, because the point of the book is that Marcos is not clear about this at all. It is rape in the same sense that bestiality is rape: not because the female is an animal, but because, like animals, she is physically incapable of giving meaningful consent. The vocal cords of heads bred for consumption are removed when they are young. She is, in fact, inferior to a cow or a pig in terms of speech ability: not only can she not speak, she cannot even scream, or wail, or make any sound at all. (Interestingly, Marcos never tells us whether the heads are capable of producing tears.) He moves her into the house, teaches her how to use utensils and sit at a table, and keeps her locked up in a modified bedroom while he is away at work (lest she hurt herself wandering around the house, of course). As she becomes more domesticated, the relationship becomes more disturbing; she is a cross between an abducted sister-wife and a house pet. He names her Jasmine, after the way she smells. She is eight months pregnant by Part Two.

The speechlessness of the heads is absolutely central to the system that raises and slaughters them. They are kept in isolation from birth, and are not socialized in any of the ways that human beings require to function in community with one another, but they are clearly not stupid. No genetic modification is made to their brains, and we can infer that the intellectual potential of an average head is still that of an average human. Their consciousness is complex enough that they seem able to understand futurity: when Jasmine is delivered to Marcos, she is terrified, suggesting that she understands herself to be in danger even when she’s removed from the abattoir. Impregnated heads have their arms and legs removed, because otherwise they tend to ram their stomachs into the sides of their cages to induce abortion. This is intelligent behaviour, and therefore the tool that most reliably renders one human capable of appealing to another for mercy or understanding—speech—must be denied them. The industry that creates them could not exist otherwise. Rendering a living creature silent is the essential step that moves it from a potentially sympathetic figure to a passive object.

This isn’t a new point, particularly not when it comes to women and society’s other historically low-status groups, but Bazterrica succeeds brilliantly in rendering Marcos’s hypocrisy. In his inner monologue, he is indignantly alive to the cruelty perpetrated upon the heads, fully conscious of their humanity, and hyper-aware of the qualities of words; he almost figures them as having life in their own right. In his actions, however, he is exactly as in thrall to the manipulative nature of language as everyone else whom he judges so disdainfully. He can rape, imprison and impregnate Jasmine precisely because the use of language is denied her. He has absolutely ceased to think of her as human, if he ever did, by the time she gives birth to their baby. The last gut-punch, on the final page, I will leave to those of you who end up reading the book, but you will not be surprised by it; it is the only possible conclusion to which Bazterrica’s careful set-up can lead.

It may be common in literature to excoriate humanity’s capacity for violence, priggishness and self-righteousness, but I cannot think of another novel that commits more fully to the working-out of the idea, nor one that implicates the reader more thoroughly. We are Marcos, after all—his disgust with his industry is our response, too—but because we are Marcos, the inconsistency of a humanitarian impulse that makes exceptions for the behaviour of “people like us” is also our burden. A politically liberal, educated reader ought to squirm at this. Without rigorous self-examination—and without artists like Bazterrica to shock us back towards honesty—murder, it turns out, is the least of the damage we can do to each other.


Tender Is the Flesh was first published in Spanish in 2017. The English-language translation, by Sarah Moses, was published by Pushkin Press as a trade paperback in 2020; my edition is the 2021 B-format paperback.

Gilead

Last Sunday was a very good day and a very beautiful one: I did the work I intended to do in the morning, finishing up a review for Litro and doing the research I’d planned, and then I went for a walk to the nearest Little Free Library to drop off some proofs and old books, which is a roundtrip of about forty minutes. The weather was beautiful; it was the first day of this year that the air didn’t bite, which is always a good day, and the sun was shining in between scraps of drifting cloud. I started off in my jacket but didn’t need it. There were crocuses and snowdrops and daffodils in gardens every other block. On the way home, I bought a fourpack of tinned cider. We no longer have access to a garden, so instead I sat on our front step, barefoot and wearing sunglasses, and drank my way through three tinnies (waving at the downstairs neighbours through their front room curtains when I returned with refills), and re-read a book both completely beautiful and completely irrelevant to any other project I’m working on right now, which is Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. According to my book journal, the last time I read this was in February 2008, which would have been my sophomore year of high school. I’ve read Robinson more recently than that—her fourth novel, Lila, made a huge impression on me over Christmas in 2015—but although I did remember the outline of Gilead, much of the detail was lost on me as a fifteen-year-old reader, and probably rightly so. Returning to it at twenty-eight was a good choice.

Better criticism on Marilynne Robinson’s work has been written than I can muster in the morning hour before work, I’m afraid, so this is not going to be a critical essay, just a few comments and responses to what I saw in Gilead this time around. First of all, it is almost the only mainstream contemporary novel I can think of that takes seriously, and allows its characters to take seriously, the notion of divinity as Christian tradition frames it. (The only other one that springs to mind, apart from Robinson’s other work, is Jamie Quatro’s Fire Sermon. Possibly William Kent Krueger’s Ordinary Grace, though there’s a distance between the characters and the narrator, who is looking back on events after several decades, that renders faith less potent somehow. Leif Enger’s Peace Like a River is not in the same category, to my mind, because the purpose of God in that novel is to dazzle the reader with miracle and sentiment, and in my experience that is not a representative modus operandi for God in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. I’m willing to change my mind, though.) John Ames, the minister who is writing the entire book as a letter to his young son, born to him in old age, has lived his entire life within this framework of religious belief, although he has not been without doubt. It allows him, and Robinson, to wrestle genuinely with the ideas of grace and redemption that other writers can only gesture at because the stakes in those novels are not as high. In Gilead, it is not only Jack Boughton, the prodigal son, who needs redeeming; it is also, and urgently, John Ames himself, whose jealousy, misunderstanding and distrust must be overcome if he is to die well and rest peacefully. Blessing Jack, as Jack’s father (also a minister) cannot do, is the crowning redemptive act of John Ames’s life, and when he does it at the end of the book, he has reached a peace with God and himself, the legacies of his own father and grandfather, and left a good legacy for his son. (Significantly, also, Jack’s full name is John Ames Boughton; he is named after Ames, who lost a wife and child of his own as a young man, and Ames acknowledges that Jack is as much his son, in the ways that matter, as Boughton’s. Jack’s fate, in other words, is tied to Ames’s own. He carries the name forward into the world, making his forgiveness and redemption that much more a matter of personal urgency.)

Noticeable, also, is the presence of the American Civil War, which is threaded through the book with Robinson’s characteristic narrative subtlety. This was something I almost entirely missed when reading it as a teenager. John Ames’s grandfather, we learn, was a radical abolitionist preacher who came to “Bleeding Kansas” in the days when the fate of that state—it was about to enter the Union; would it be slave-holding or free?—seemed to hold the key to the fate of the nation. Old Ames, as I’ll call him, was uncompromising: he fought with the rebel John Brown, was hunted by Confederate soldiers, founded hamlets that existed only for the safe passage of fugitive slaves headed for Canada, and converted indifferent settler towns to the anti-slavery cause through tireless preaching. He is, of course, an impossible figure to live up to. As an old man, we are told, he was a pathological giver-away of things, to an extent that distressed and embarrassed his children and other townspeople: his adult daughter takes to hiding coins in jars of food in the pantry; more than once Ames remembers him taking clothes off of washing lines to give to vagrants; there is a memory of him emptying the entire collecting plate at the Presbyterian church into his hat one Sunday. Near the end of his life, he flees Gilead altogether and returns to Kansas, without telling the rest of his family where he has gone. Old Ames is haunted, in other words, by abolition and by what he has seen in the war. He has given his life to a cause and now it consumes him. A preacher who has killed, a freedom fighter who sees the rise of Jim Crow laws and sharecropping, and knows that little has changed despite the blood that was spilt, cannot rest anywhere. John Ames writes that he knows his father was a disappointment to his grandfather, and that he disappointed his father in turn: they are, not to put too fine an allegorical point on it, representative of the generations of post-Civil War America. They cannot help but fail to live up to the demands of their ancestors, who also failed themselves by speaking of liberty and perhaps believing in it, all while founding a nation upon the sin of keeping others in bondage. When John Ames blesses Jack Boughton because Boughton’s father can’t, it’s not only because old Boughton is dying; it’s because Jack has returned to tell Ames that he is married to a “colored woman”, Della, and has a mixed-race son.

Parents and children—specifically, though I think not exclusively, fathers and sons; sin and redemption; freedom and slavery; black and white; God and human. These are huge concerns and cannot necessarily be reconciled by intellect or ingenuity, no matter how hard or how cleverly we try. Ames acknowledges the nature of the problem in one of his theological asides:

Existence is the essential thing and the holy thing. If the Lord chooses to make nothing of our transgressions, then they are nothing. Or whatever reality they have is trivial and conditional[…] After all, why should the Lord bother much over these smirches that are no part of His Creation?

Well, there are a good many reasons why He should. We human beings do real harm. History could make a stone weep. I am aware that significant confusion enters my thinking at this point. […] Though I recall even in my prime foundering whenever I set the true gravity of sin over against the free grace of forgiveness.

Gilead, Marilynne Robinson, p. 190

The only peace and reconciliation that comes to Ames is through blessing a young man who has, in the past, hurt others terribly. Where is the justice in that? Is Jack Boughton held accountable for the damage he did in his youth? Ames may blame him, but he cannot judge him. That, we are given to understand, is God’s job, as is forgiveness. Ames can only forgive him, too, in his own heart, and bless.

(It is also, to my surprise, a very funny book. Ames is alive to the ridiculous and the joyful as well as to the sacramental and solemn. Robinson’s descriptions of Ames and some friends as children baptizing a litter of cats, some of whom escape, rendering their status of salvation uncertain; or of a story told by his grandfather in which a stranger’s horse sinks through a weak road and a shed has to be moved on top of it; or of his young son camping out with his best friend Tobias but being kept awake all night (“You heard growling in the bushes. T. has brothers”), are all beautifully judged, with the lightest of touches. Nothing is ever grotesque, but there is a lot of joy in Ames’s recollections of what it has been like to live, and that includes, of course, the many things to be laughed at in the world.)

Worth returning to repeatedly. There was a very good long piece on Robinson’s fiction, relatively recently, in the New Yorker, which I think came out when her most recent book, Jack, did (retelling Jack Boughton’s life from his own perspective). I’ll try to find that again, too.


Gilead was first published in the US in 2004 by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. My edition is the 2006 Picador paperback.

Coming soon

I’m not dead yet! I’ve been reading a 523-page biography of Malcolm X and writing a review of it for Litro Magazine, which has taken me a week. It’ll be up here whenever they publish it, which I think will be the 26th of February, though possibly sooner. (I didn’t entirely like it, so if mildly critical reviews are your jam, keep checking back. I also didn’t entirely hate it, so if you’re a positive-reviews-only kind of person, there’ll be something in it for you.)