Confessions of the Fox

The old me would not have written a review of Confessions of the Fox, or possibly even tried. The old me, having such strong—indeed, passionate—feelings about a book, might have regarded the act of corraling them verbally with exhaustion, thinking that there could never be enough time or ink or articulacy to Get It All Down and, moreover, get it all down right, and that therefore, not making the attempt was preferable to doing so and failing. The person I am trying to be, at least for one full month of a new year, is taking the opposite view, and has elected to try to write critically and insightfully about Confessions of the Fox anyway.

It purports, at first, to be the academically edited transcript of a rediscovered manuscript about the life of Jack Sheppard, perhaps the eighteenth century’s most notorious thief and gaolbreaker, who escaped the hands of the law repeatedly and (according to his legend) semi-miraculously until his eventual final capture and death at the ripe old age of twenty-two. Jack had a lover, a London sex worker known as Edgworth Bess; this much is a matter of historical record. Rosenberg, however, remagines Jack as a trans man (a possibility intriguingly opened by the many descriptions of Jack as being of small and slight build), and Bess as Bess Khan, mixed-race daughter of a lascar sailor and a mother from the Fens who raised her as a social radical and died protesting the surveying and draining of their landscape. Black, mixed-race and South Asian people had a presence in eighteenth-century Britain, and, naturally, eighteenth-century London; this, too, is not outside the realm of historical possibility. Rosenberg, or rather his editorial narrating voice, one Professor Voth, notes that whiteness has been the historical default of portrayals of Bess, but nothing in contemporary sources prevents us from reading her a different way: rather like the Virgin Mary, or Hermione Granger. The same is true of what we would now call queer and trans communities, represented in part by “mollies”, or homosexual male sex workers, and in part by reports of a shadowy society formed by mutinous sailors in the South Asian seas, partly founded by women who partake of a “strength Elixir” that seems to be a rudimentary form of hormone therapy. Rosenberg draws explicitly on the work of Saidiya V. Hartman, who is cited both in-text (in footnotes) and as further reading in the back; her scholarship deals with how to historically reimagine individuals or experiences that have been largely left out of “the archive”, which is to say the official record of What Happened And Who Was There. These are postmodern games, so if those aren’t your cup of tea, there you have it; but if they are, it’s tremendously exciting to be invited to participate in the gameplay, as a reader. We are absolutely reading a novel, with dialogue, structure, foreshadowing, and so on; we are also, in parallel, contemplating the grounds of that novel’s very existence as a document which, though avowedly fictional, attempts to interpret and reimagine historical individuals and events.

If Confessions of the Fox therefore seems rather odd, with patches of what we’d think of as twenty-first century concerns (the ethics of policing, surveillance culture; even, rather alarmingly, the idea that quarantine and lockdown under the guise of plague is a hoax perpetrated by the elites to keep the common people ground down) in eighteenth-century clothing, it becomes increasingly obvious that that is the point. Voth’s footnotes, which start as vocabulary aids or references to further reading, reveal ever more about the world in which he lives as the book goes on: he is summoned to a meeting at his down-at-heel university campus with the sinister Dean of Surveillance Andrews; the manuscript and his work on it is requisitioned by the even more ominous P-Quad corporation, which more or less owns the university; a representative of P-Quad, the distressingly cheery and all-caps’d Sullivan (“LEADERSHIP TECHNIQUE! CAPS SETTING NON-NEGOTIABLE”), demands ever more control over the manuscript and, at the same time, their interest becomes ever more prurient. Further nods both to Hartman and to eighteenth-century literary forebears here: a description that seems sure to lead up to an illustration of Jack’s unusual genitalia leads us to nothing more illuminating than a marbled page (as in Tristram Shandy). Sullivan, convinced that a page has been removed, demands that Voth reinstate it forthwith. His curiosity is disproportionate, and here Hartman is also relevant: she writes of the ways in which people who escaped slavery declined to use the graphic, gory details of their bondage and their escape to satisfy the grim voyeurism of Northern whites. (Frederick Douglass, who is also quoted directly in the text, is characteristically coy about how he escaped, saying that he did not want to jeopardize the route he took for others still trying to escape. At the very end of the book, we learn that Voth has escaped with the manuscript to a kind of fantastical Borgesian library; he will not tell us how he got there, saying only: “Dear Reader, if you are you—the one I edited this for, the one I stole this for—and if you cry a certain kind of tears […] you will not need a map.“) It is a question of being a vulnerable person, a person who might, in the wrong time or place, be put on display in a menagerie, and of refusing to lay your trauma bare for people who cannot be trusted to deal with it respectfully. It’s profoundly political in Confessions, and it was political when Douglass did it too.

However, although they may seem distinctly contemporary to us, it’s also obvious that these concerns about society and money and how we live together have their roots in the eighteenth century. The 1714 Vagrancy Act, which comes into force during Jack’s apprenticeship to a brutal carpenter, widens the definition of vagrant to almost anyone who was considered a lower class of citizen and didn’t have some kind of proof of employment. This swept up women, children, and poor-looking men: anyone unable, in fact, to “give a good account of themselves” (an obviously un-quantifiable requirement). It is designed to promote the alienation of labour; if you have no master, work for yourself in a small capacity, are a sex worker, are an unmarried woman who looks like a sex worker, are a woman of indeterminate status who looks like a sex worker, are a foreigner (foreigners were also blamed for plague), you are liable to be imprisoned. If you do have a master, like Jack, he has no responsibility to treat you well, and your hopes of career advancement are entirely pinned upon his goodwill. (This is why Dickens’s Scrooge is so awful, and why his memory of his old master Fezziwig’s kindness is so potent: until robust labour laws were instated, men who employed others were petty gods, virtually unaccountable.) Capitalism, mercantilism and imperialism—the trading of goods for money; the forced export of goods for money; the seizure of lands and peoples and resources to produce goods for money—are all starting to assume their modern forms in this century. The values of people’s lives are changing accordngly. What Rosenberg (and Voth) drives at is that some people’s lives have always been valued at a low price, but that, though they may have found a way to live—like the mollies and the bats (sex workers)—the capitalist turn deliberately made that way much harder.

I’ve not even scratched the surface here; Bess’s childhood in the Fens is particularly worth more time, as is the fact that Rosenberg writes sex so well, hot and yet delicate: the eroticism and the hesitancy here intertwine, as Jack and Bess discover each other and gain each other’s trust. It would be interesting to read Fanny Hill, which is much more deliberately explicit, alongside Confessions of the Fox; I wrote about it a few years ago, considering it both liberating in its frank descriptions of female sexuality and constricting in the sense that it’s entirely focused through the (male) desire and voyeurism of its author and early readers. Confessions does not constrict in its depictions of sex, though its characters may feel constrained; their transports of delight are not designed to arouse us, even if they sometimes do. (Or are they?) Confessions isn’t going to be for everyone, but if a mishmash of eighteenth-century history and queer theory is your thing, then read it right now.

The Summer Without Men

I’d read three of Siri Hustvedt’s books before this one: What I Loved, which haunts me in the best possible way with its intimations of conceptually-artistic murder and child death; Memories of the Future, a Woolfian excavation of a woman’s recollections of early adulthood in New York City; and A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women, a brilliant but dense collection of essays on art, sex, and neuroscience. I was told to expect lighter fare with this, and I can see why: that Jane Austen comparison (from the Daily Mail, no less—boak), the jaunty readeress on the front cover, a plot that promised to retread old midlife-marriage-crisis ground. Mia Fredericksen, a middle-aged moderately successful experimental poet, is told by her husband Boris, a neurobiologist, that he wants “a pause” in their marriage in order to pursue a relationship with a much younger French colleague. Mia experiences a brief bout of psychosis, and a stay in hospital, then goes back to a Midwestern town where her mother is now in an assisted living facility to recover for the summer. There she becomes embroiled in the social drama of several twelve-year-old girls to whom she teaches a poetry workshop; befriends her neighbour Lola, a twenty-six-year-old woman with two small children and a deeply unstable, angry husband; discovers the subversive art produced over many decades by one of her mother’s friends in the facility, Abigail; and tries to come to terms with the possibility that her marriage is over. Sounds a bit like Frederick Backman or Joanna Cannon, right? Charming. Inoffensive. A trifle twee.

Noooo. No no no no no.

Hustvedt’s work is intensely metatextual and allusive; always has been. It makes perfect sense that Mia, a poet and professor, should have quotations at her finger’s ends. Throughout the book, she refers, inter alia, to the works of: Emily Dickinson, George Trakl, Alice in Wonderland, Friedrich von Klinger, a whole sublist of mad poets (“Torquato Tasso, John Clare, Christopher Smart, Friedrich Holderlin, Anontin Arnaud […], Edna St Vincent Millay […], Anne Sexton, Laura Riding, Sara Teasdale, Vachel Lindsay, John Berryman, James Schuyler, Sylvia Plath, Delmore Schwartz…”), Jane Eyre, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129, Tom Lehrer, the Book of Job, Soren Kierkegaard. That’s only the first fifty pages. I just flicked through; there’s something every two or three pages or so. There is also, consistently, the Jane Austen novel Persuasion, which Mia’s mother’s book club is reading and discussing. Persuasion, of course, is known best for being Austen’s most middle-aged novel, a book in which youthful mistakes and arrogance, and the pain they cause, are not ignored—the effects of Anne’s initial rejection of Wentworth are not undone—but in which a second chance, another choice, is made possible. (It’s Austen’s version of Shakespeare’s late romances, her Tempest or Winter’s Tale, perhaps.)

Hustvedt is a sophisticated enough writer not to suggest that better worlds are likely, but she does offer chances. The girls to whom Mia teaches poetry are not all natural readers or writers, and the one who is—Alice—is shunned and bullied for being what the other girls incoherently refer to as “stuck up”. What they mean is that Alice’s feelings are strong and external; that she makes herself vulnerable; and that the sight of her vulnerability in conjunction with her access to imaginative (if overheated) self-expression is enraging, that it makes them want to hurt her. Mia’s method of dealing with this crisis, when it comes to a head, is to force all of the girls into writing accounts of the debacle from each other’s points of view. It looks, at first, like the old, hoary notion that fiction fosters empathy, but that’s not Mia’s purpose, or Hustvedt’s:

By Thursday it was obvious that a tacit script had already been written, and the children had thrown themselves into their own melodrama with gusto. Alice lost something of her stature as a romantic heroine, but her suffering was acknowledged by all, and she entered the lives of her tormentors with such zeal that by Friday, Nikki cried out, “Oh my God, Alice, you like being the mean one!” […] The story they all took home on Friday was not true; it was a version they could all live with, very much like national histories that blur and hide and distort the movements of people and events in order to preserve an idea. The girls did not want to hate themselves, and, although self-hatred is not at all uncommon, the consensus they reached about what had happened among them was considerably softer than [“homo homini lupus“].

The Summer Without Men, Siri Hustvedt, p. 201

The way to start over again, then, in life, is to tell a different story. What I love Hustvedt for is that she never says that. She just has her characters doing it. Mia, for instance, runs through Boris’s many tics and quirks and downright thoughtless habits, and those are stories; she also tells herself differing versions of the same tale when her daughter Daisy reports that Boris is now living in a hotel: he has broken up with The Pause, The Pause has broken up with him, they’re still together but the apartment isn’t big enough so they’ve moved in to a hotel, they’ve mutually broken up, none of the above. Her ability to cope with her life is determined by her ability to narrativize it. The same is true of Abigail, her mother’s friend. It transpires that she has spent much of her adult life making entirely unobjectionable-looking needlepoint pieces which, on further inspection, contain secret unseemlinesses: a button is the knob of a door that opens onto a scene of cavorting naked women, or flying Hoovers, or flaming female dragon-monsters. Abigail was in love with a woman but married a man—a man who failed her—and it is not hard to start drawing parallels between her story and Persuasion and Austen’s biography and the long history of furious, hidden, secret female art.

Mia’s metatextual playfulness extends to the very book we’re reading. She is its author as well as its subject, we are given to understand. As with all of Hustvedt’s work, Virginia Woolf’s ghost hovers when it comes to discussions of time and the fictional representation thereof:

How to tell it? asks your sad, crack-brained, crybaby narrator. How to tell it? It gets a bit crowded from here on in—there’s simultaneity, one thing happening at Rolling Meadow, another at the Arts Guild, another at the neighbouring house, not to speak of my Boris wandering the streets of NYC with my confused Daisy on his heels; all of this will have to be dealt with. And we all know that simultaneity is a BIG [sic] problem for words. They come in sequence, always, only in sequence, so while I sort it out, I will refer to Dr. Johnson.

Ibid., p. 134

It’s not a light book; it’s just not heavy. It’s a Trojan horse for deep levels of thought about time, cause and effect in relationships, action, structure, narrative. It is, in other words, not far from what my friend and former colleague Faye means when she talks about “soft metafiction”. I already know it’ll be a book to revisit.


The Summer Without Men was published in 2011; my copy is from Sceptre.

The Prophets

In the past year or so, several books have been compared to the masterworks of Toni Morrison. I’ve read at least two of them–The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Conjure Women by Afia Atakora–and it’s been easy enough to see where the comparisons come from–both have been novels about enslaved people and the toll that slavery exacts upon the humanity of oppressors and oppressed–but none of those books has been as deserving of the accolade as Robert Jones Jr.’s The Prophets.

The novel deals with the love between two enslaved men on a Mississippi plantation in the late 1700s or early 1800s (no clearer assessment can be made regarding the time period; it seems likely that it’s before Britain ceases to participate in the transatlantic slave trade, since the master’s long-lost cousin, now an overseer on the plantation, works his passage over from England as a deckhand on a slave ship.) These two young men, Isaiah and Samuel, share a love that every slave on the plantation recognizes as nourishing; it seems to light them up from the inside, and their movement through the world is evidence of their love’s power. What it renders difficult, however, is the forced breeding programme run by the plantation’s owner, Paul. When one of the boys not only refuses to rape a fellow slave woman but is actually physically unable to, Paul turns to another slave, Amos, who wants to preach. Giving Amos the power of literacy via the Bible and the license to talk about Jesus on Sunday mornings, Paul hopes to convert his whole slave population to Christianity, foment hatred of Isaiah and Samuel as sodomites, and keep potential rebellion unfulfilled by dangling the hope of eternal heavenly reward for patient earthly suffering.

One of the most interesting things about The Prophets is its integration of African religious and spiritual practices into the lives of its characters. Because it’s set at a point in history when Christianity has not yet become a default worldview for Black enslaved people living in America, Jones can explore blood memory, which lives in many of the enslaved women whose perspectives litter the book. (Almost every named character gets a point-of-view chapter; it’s fortunate that Jones generally leaves each perspective behind him once he’s used it, or things would get unwieldy. However, the skill with which he inhabits the subtle distinctions of each character’s thoughts and feelings about their position in the world makes such a proliferation feel less superfluous than it usually does.) Maggie is the gatekeeper of blood memory on the plantation (which, though named for Paul’s mother Elizabeth, is known by a more colloquial, and more telling, name: Empty). She brings other women together to perform healing rituals with herbs and recitation when Isaiah and Samuel are whipped. She sees shadows move. She feels the presence of ancestors. She knows there were other ways. Some of the other women also have this ability: in particular, Puah, a teenage girl in fruitless love with Samuel, and Sarah, a woman who once loved another woman as Isaiah and Samuel love each other.

Perhaps the aspect of traditional religion as Jones portrays it that will surprise the greatest number of readers is its acceptance of queer sexualities. Intercut chapters show life in a pre-slavery Kosongo village ruled over by a female king, Akusa. Akusa has six wives, some of whom are women and some of whom are men. There are more than two possibilities, anyway: you can be woman, man, free, or all. When Akusa’s village first encounters a white person, a “skinless” Portuguese missionary named Brother Gabriel brought to them by an emissary from a neighbouring village that has turned quisling, he is invited to participate in a feast celebrating the marriage of two warriors, Kosii and Elewa. His inability to understand the nature of the celebration is grounded in the fact that they are both men. To King Akusa, Gabriel’s incomprehension is proof of idiocy:

“Two men?” These colorless people had the strangest system of grouping things together by what they did not understand rather than by what they did. He could see bodies, but it was clear that he could not see spirits. […]

“Impossible,” she said with a laugh. “They are bonded. Do you not see?”

“I think your people would benefit from our religion,” Brother Gabriel said.

The Prophets, Robert Jones Jr., p. 208

This has not quite been destroyed by the time Isaiah and Samuel are living in Empty. Amos, the aspiring preacher, himself thinks of a slave he knew named Henry who would answer only to Emma, and is able to absorb this: Henry/Emma is clearly a woman inside. Jones’s thesis is very clear: the damage wrought on cultures that functioned perfectly, indeed better than contemporaneous white culture did, was perpetrated not merely with guns and shackles, but with Bibles.

There are also interlaced chapters in which the voices of the ancestors speak. Unattributed, lyrical, often contradictory and confusing, impossible to pin down, these polylogues are simultaneously the most “difficult” aspect of The Prophets and the aspect that elevates it to greatness. Jones is not content to tell a simple historical story of love and struggle and failure and death. The ancestors’ voices are what make that struggle both a source of rage and a source of pride. I am not Black and have (as far as I know) no Black ancestry, and these sections were not written for me, but I can see in them the harnessed artistic expression of fury and dignity, of people whose past, present and future is channeled through shared memory and tradition. If I’m waxing unbecomingly lyrical myself here, it’s because the power of these sections renders commentary somewhat presumptuous. Jones taps into a voice that speaks down generations, through centuries. The shivers that he’s able to raise on the back of the reader’s neck with this voice are the clearest indication that his book truly does approach Morrisonian heights.


The Prophets was published by riverrun on 5 January, 2021.

Water Music

~~contains spoilers, but don’t let that stop you~~

In 1795, Ned Rise is trying to make a bit of money by producing a live sex show in a London tavern. Mungo Park, meanwhile, is on his first expedition into Africa, bankrolled by Sir Joseph Banks and the aristocratic subscribers of the African Association, trying to be the first European to see the Niger River. Rise and Park are the twin poles of Water Music, TC Boyle’s debut novel (published in 1981). In usually-alternating chapters, we see them succeed and fail, following each man through years of misadventure. They will meet in Africa, on Park’s second expedition, but their lives run in curious parallel, often almost but not quite overlapping. An additional strand details the tribulations of Park’s fiancée and then wife, Ailie Anderson, who waits for years for him to come home and marry her, only to lose him to Africa a second time when Banks et al. commission him to find the Niger’s source in the early 1800s.

Water Music reminds me a good deal of Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver, though less single-mindedly scientific and with a less overt thesis. It is tremendously diverting, scurrilous, funny, sad, but one of the most significant criticisms I’ve seen leveled at it is that it seems not really to have a point; that it’s an incredibly virtuosic performance for no real purpose, other than to entertain. There’s nothing wrong with a book being merely entertaining, especially when it’s done this well, though when it’s done this well, one can’t help feeling that it could have accommodated more meaning. However, having finished the book, it’s apparent that Boyle does pull out a thematic conclusion. Rise and Park, having come together only one hundred pages before the end of the book, are forced into situations that change them: Rise for the better, as he suddenly develops a clear-eyed sense of other people’s characters and his own capacities and responsibilities, and Park for the worse, as the relentless pursuit of their expedition down the Niger by indigenous Africans turns him from a naive, excitable young man into a naive, infuriated one, his soul crabbed by racist hatred and megalomania. When, in the book’s final pages, they are faced with almost certain death, Rise at last rises (haha) to the occasion, preventing Park from murder and narrowly saving his own life (for probably the fifth time) in the process.

Rise’s miraculous ability to escape death is threaded throughout the book. As a baby, he’s saved by a mysterious harridan who reappears periodically in the narrative, haunting and mocking, perhaps a personification of street London itself. Fleeing an abusive master who mutilates him to make him a more convincingly crippled child beggar, he’s taken in by a kindly clarinetist named Barrenboyne who trains and feeds him, though Barrenboyne is shot and killed in a duel with a black man over a racial insult (who is later revealed to be Mungo Park’s first and best guide through Africa, Johnson). Jumping into the freezing Thames to escape justice when the police break up his live sex show, he should drown, but instead washes up at a fish shed in Southwark, where two brothers take him in. Sentenced to hang by the neck until dead for a death pinned on him as murder by the vindictive landlord of the raided tavern, he wakes up coughing on a dissecting slab, not a cadaver after all. Thrown down a well, locked up in a prison hulk, sent to the malarial swamps of the Goree as free labour, Rise survives time after time after incredible time. So does Park, curiously: we first meet him as a tortured prisoner of the Moors, but he endures many more tribulations–flash floods, crocodile attacks, curious cannibals, territorial leopards, Moors again–before his final voyage down the Niger. The two men are defined by their tenacious relationship with existence. At one point, wedged into a well several feet from the bottom so that his friend Boyles can take his turn sleeping on the ground, Rise wonders whether he really did die on the scaffold and everything since then has been hell; Park, wedged into the fork of a tree to avoid ravening nocturnal predators, wonders something similar. Boyle draws these connections lightly and many dozens of pages apart, making him a good deal subtler than Dickens, of whose work Water Music is also reminiscent (though really the aptest comparison would be Hogarth, with his etchings and engravings teeming with faces and bodies, grotesque and gorgeous, drinking, spitting, swearing, laughing, eating, pushing each other over. And indeed, the front cover of this edition is a Hogarth painting.)

If we didn’t already know that this was the debut novel of an aggressively clever young man, the style would make it clear. Water Music is defined by its frenetic energy, which is partly what makes it difficult to detect a purpose to its narrative: it can be hard for an author to maintain a thematic throughline when they’re so busy hopping up and down. Detail and abundance are the watchwords here, and never once does Boyle’s energy flag. Here, for instance, is the beginning of a brief (for this book) history of Johnson, the guide. It is on page ten of my edition:

Concerning Johnson. He is a member of the Mandingo tribe, they who inhabit the headwaters of the Gambia and Senegal rivers and most of the Niger valley as far as the city of legend, Timbuctoo. His mother did not name him Johnson. She called him Katunga–Katunga Oyo–after his paternal grandfather. At the age of thirteen, Johnson was kidnapped by Foulah herdsmen while celebrating the nubility of a tender young sylph in a cornfield just outside his native village of Dindikoo. The sylph’s name was Nealee. The Foulahs didn’t ask. Their chieftain, who took a fancy to Nealee’s facial tattoos and to other features as well, retained her as his personal concubine. Johnson was sold to a slatee, or traveling slave merchant, who shackled his ankles and drove him, along with sixty-two others, to the coast. Forty-nine made it. There he was sold to an American slaver who chained him in the hold of a schooner bound for South Carolina. The boy beside him, a Bobo from Djenné, had been dead for six days when the ship landed at Charleston.

Water Music, p. 10

And here, for comparison, is a passage from page 419:

And so here they are–guideless, cowryless, goodsless, anchorless, their clothes in rags and their bodies devastated with disease, sunburn and culinary fatigue, the current carrying them where it will, the water level dropping as the dry season advances, sandbanks lapping at them like tongues, humped white rocks protruding from the sickly wash of the current like picked ribs, mites, flies, ticks, chiggers and mosquitoes biting, the odor of dead fish and exposed muck so rancid and oppressive they can hardly breathe–here they are, overjoyed, celebrating, heading south.

Ibid., p. 419

Not an ounce of the hyperactive drive from the first pages has been lost. Clauses pile on top of one another like waves. It’s not always forward movement–Boyle loves to circle, as in between the two dashes above–but it doesn’t stagnate. It’s like a spun penny that never falls over. I would argue that Boyle doesn’t need 438 pages to tell this story, and that his stylistic exuberances are in large part responsible for the book’s unnecessary length, but I’m also not sorry to have read a single one of those pages.

I haven’t even gotten to Ailie, the woman and then wife whom Park abandons again and again, or Fanny, the much-loved chambermaid who sacrifices herself to a sadomasochistic young lord who is obsessed with her, in order to ease Ned Rise’s time in prison. Neither of them has quite what you would call a happy ending. Ailie glimpses happiness with a man she’d previously rejected, but a sort of vision recalls her to her responsibilities, and although she never sees her husband (or brother, who accompanies him on his second expedition) again, she spends the remaining decades of her life determinedly fostering the cult of Mungo Park, the great lost explorer. Yet she also loses her youngest son to the lure of exploration, and in our final glimpse of her, she seems drowned in despair: Africa, empire, conquest, has destroyed nearly everyone she has ever loved. Fanny, meanwhile, dies a terrible death: sex-trafficked into Europe, kept half-unconscious by laudanum (to which she becomes addicted), repeatedly gang-raped for years by an aristocratic group of sex-cultists, she escapes back to England with her toddler son after a particularly violent orgy, but loses him. Penniless, friendless, she falls from Blackfriars Bridge, even as Rise continues to search for her. It is difficult to read these passages. Ailie starts off spirited and bright, funny, sarcastic, impatient; Park’s self-centeredness and inability to trust his wife with the truth makes her life a waste, and renders her a husk of her former self. Fanny is beautiful, good-natured, and brave; the choice she makes for her man brings her nothing but humiliation, pain, shame and death. What are we to make of this, other than to nod in recognition as, once again, patriarchal societies that fundamentally despise women end up destroying them? They are very skilfully rendered sections, and there is no doubt that the 1790s and early 1800s were not forgiving times for women whose lives did not follow the prescribed track; it’s just that we do already know this. Is dwelling on the point realistic, or cruel? Hard to say.


Water Music was first published in the US, by Little, Brown, in 1981. My edition was published by Granta in 1998.

Lightseekers

~~might contain spoilers, depending on how you define spoilers~~

Femi Kayode’s debut crime novel is set in Nigeria, to which his protagonist Philip Taiwo has just returned after an academic stint in America. Taiwo is hired by eminent businessman Emeka Nwamadi to find out what happened to his son, Kevin—although not in the usual way, since what happened to Kevin and two other boys, an hours-long beating followed by necklacing with a burning rubber tyre, was caught on video and is all over the Internet. Everyone knows who was in the mob that killed the Okriki Three. What no one knows, and what Taiwo has been hired to find out, is why.

I wanted to like this much more than I did, which is disheartening. The story is promising, but the writing is very average. Take, for instance, this pulse-pounding cliffhanger:

Has he been shot?

Or maybe, I’m the one who has been.

I can’t seem to figure this out as I start falling into blank, endless space.

Three single-sentence paragraphs in a row, one of which ends in the lumpen “has been” and starts with the O RLY?-inducing phrase “Or maybe”, colloquialism in “can’t seem to figure this out” that adds to a sense of inconsequence instead of to a meaningful statement about the character’s informal nature, and “blank, endless space” to finish, which is double redundancy. It’s fine; it’s readable; it’s not exciting. At another point, the narrator muses, “For the second time today, I am left alone to wonder who the real villains are in the Okriki Three tragedy.” Hmm! Perhaps we should complicate our opinions of several main characters!

This would be less galling, I think, if Taiwo weren’t a psychologist. A psychologist protagonist never convinces unless they are at least two steps ahead, which Taiwo is not. (After his wife is irritated when she sees him talking to an attractive woman who’s helping him with the investigation: “To say I’m perplexed is an understatement. Women are strange!” Pal…)

What Lightseekers does have going for it, however, is that it is entirely set in a black African community that is not represented as a monolith. There are divides—class, wealth, education, urban vs rural, expatriate status—that matter in Nigeria as Kayode describes it in a way that race absolutely does not. Those complicating factors are inherently interesting. Kayode also deals persuasively with the effects of social media on communities; I might have been less convinced by his conclusions a few years or even a few months ago, but it’s more obvious now than ever that bad actors can exploit, channel, and even create, aggression and hatred.


Lightseekers is published by Raven Books on 4 February, 2021.

2021 Resolutions, reading and otherwise

It’s the reading resolutions we’re all always so interested in, isn’t it? Which is fair enough, and I have a few of those. They tie into a more general purpose for 2021, though, which can be boiled down to: be more intentional. Spend my time more intentionally. Cook, eat, maintain contact with friends, choose and read books, write my own work, develop my career, with a certain level of intentionality, which 2020 seemed to steal from me. I don’t want to drift, and I don’t want to run my engine frantically in place. I want to make choices.

With that in mind, my reading choices this year will be aligned along the following axes:

  1. Read better. Not more, exactly. I already know how many books I can read in a year while maintaining full-time employment; I top out at around 200 and I’m perfectly happy with that. What I’d like to do is cut down even more on the number of books I read out of a sense that they might be professionally useful to me, or otherwise out of un-joyful obligation. (Sometimes obligations are joyful!) I pick up so many titles because I imagine that many of my clients might enjoy a book but want to do some quality control first. It’s not a bad impulse, but it means I spend more of my reading time than I would like following other people’s whims, instead of my own deepest interests. Since I’m not paid for the time I spend reading, this imbalance seems worth addressing.
  2. Find more older books to enjoy. Everything you could describe as “a classic” that I read in 2020–including but not limited to Shirley, The Lonely Londoners, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, The Portrait of Dorian Gray, My Antonia, East Lynne–I enjoyed immensely. (Actually, not quite: I didn’t love Crime and Punishment or The Aeneid. Still worth it, though, just.) Most of the books I read that were mid-to recent-backlist were also excellent: Zami, A View of the Empire at Sunset, The Testament of Jessie Lamb, Air, and The Fifth Season, among many, many others, made big impressions. There’s so much I’m still missing.
  3. Chill the fuck out about the Goodreads Reading Challenge. I’m starting to wonder if I should stop even participating in this, since all it does is engage my competitive perfectionist side. This year I’ve deliberately set my target unprecedentedly low (75 books), so as to feel better when I overachieve. We’ll see if that psychological approach actually works or not. I spent a good fifteen minutes this evening angsting over the need to choose my next read quickly so my stats don’t drop, so I’m inclined to be pessimistic on this one, but I think choosing what to read next will always be fraught.
  4. Keep actively seeking out authors of colour and queer authors. Durrr. I might try and work a few more translations in here, and it’d be good to seek out and support more nonbinary writers, too.

Five things about Don Quixote

My first book of what is supposed to be the best year of all our lives (though so far, I’m not sure) is Don Quixote. In my edition (the Penguin Clothbound Classics one, above), it’s 982 pages long plus endnotes, and I remember trying to read it (in a different edition) at least twice before, becoming bored, and dropping it. Now, at last, I’ve conquered it, and as with a previous nearly-thousand-page-long book (The Last Chronicle of Barset), I’m not sure that a review or even an analytical essay is as useful as a few scattered comments and/or tips, if you’re thinking of scaling this mountain yourself.

  1. The translation matters. Not in the way that you might think, or the way which tends to trip me up with comparisons (“which one is The Best/the most faithful to the original language/the most faithful to the original sense/what should I even be looking for in a translation aaauugghhh helpppp”). Like War and Peace, Don Q has many translators, and the one that’s right for you will depend on what kind of reader you are, the context and background knowledge you bring to the book, etc. However, the translation I read is by John Sutherland, and I would recommend it highly, in large part because it’s one of the few translations that really contributes to a sense that…
  2. The book is funny. I really wasn’t sure about this at first, and I’m not sure Cervantes was either–it takes a while for the characters to become people, and for the humour to kick in. After Quixote’s “first sally” (initial adventure), however, it’s clear that Cervantes decides he’s interested in this delusional hidalgo and his coarse and obnoxious yet truth-telling squire, and from then on they start to develop a relationship and characteristics that form the basis of the book’s best humour. Sancho Panza, the squire, not only develops the habit of speaking in endless and often irrelevant proverbs, but also of a kind of reverse malapropism: Quixote mentions “the estimates of Ptolemy, the great cosmographer”, which Sancho dismisses as “the sexy butts and tomfoolery of a great pornographer”. The translation matters! In another, stuffier or older edition, that level of linguistic playfulness wouldn’t, I think, sound nearly so natural, modern, fresh or irreverent, and therefore wouldn’t be nearly as funny. Obviously there’s also the physical humour (Quixote is frequently tricked into uncomfortable, painful or embarrassing situations, often by women, and Sancho gets beaten up as a proxy for his master more times than you can count), which may be less hilarious to you; I didn’t find myself laughing out loud reading those scenes, although it’s possible they’re funnier read aloud. Which brings me to…
  3. The book may have been intended partly for oral transmission. There’s some evidence for this in the cliffhanger chapter endings and the way that the narrator discusses his storytelling strategy (which is what leads so many people to refer to it as a post-modern book avant la lettre; Cervantes’s narrative persona is extremely self-aware, and throughout the text, there are explicit signposts that it is a text). There’s a lot of repetition and rhetorical embroidery, which looks chunkily intimidating on a page but makes a good deal more sense if you think of someone reading it loud or half-performing the scene; it represents the natural rhetorical padding that humans give to spoken sentences. It also means you shouldn’t feel particularly bad skimming those bits. You can get the gist in the first and final few sentences of a page-long paragraph, and pick up the essentials in the middle, without committing your full attention to every single word–the text is clearly not designed for that level of scrutiny.
  4. Women, poor people and working people are interesting and well-represented here. Many of Don Q‘s past translators have assumed that his devotion to chivalry, although deriving from insanity, represents an aspirational ideal, like the holy fool, and have therefore interpreted him as an uncomplicated paragon of goodness and mercy who is genuinely beset by devils and malice. Sutherland approaches the text in a way that reveals Quixote’s madness as ridiculous, if also somewhat pitiable, and grounded in an old-fashioned paternalism that is repeatedly shown to be silly and impractical. Sancho Panza’s wife (initially referred to as Juana but always subsequently known as Teresa) is a sturdy, pragmatic farmer’s daughter who runs her family’s smallholding intelligently and is very reluctant to be drawn into her husband’s airy hopes of promotion and enhancement. The daughter and maidservant of the innkeeper during Quixote’s first adventure play numerous tricks on him, which are all enabled by his outmoded and deluded view of female innocence and susceptibility. A ruffian named Ginés appears twice in the book, once as a convict and once as the proprietor of a travelling ape and puppet show; both times his ingenuity and quick wit is presented with approbation, while Quixote’s credulousness in both situations leads to chaos and destruction. Women, working people and poor people are generally described with sympathy, and given complexity and agency. It’s a nice surprise.
  5. Don’t worry about the plot. There is one, sort of, eventually (it kicks in during the second half of Part II), but you could just as easily call that an extended episode, one of many. It’s an episodic book by nature, which would make it perfect for dipping in and out of over the course of a longer period of reading, maybe one or two chapters an evening. Mostly, Quixote ventures forth, meets someone or sees something which he grievously misinterprets as requiring his help or input, attempts to fulfill the conditions of knight-errantry, fails, and either chalks it up to the work of malicious enchanters or interprets his failure as a success anyway. Sancho has some kind of misadventure, complains about it, tries to fix his master up as best he can, asks for payment, is rebuffed, and they continue. It’s formulaic, of course, but that’s the point when you’re writing a satire of chivalric romance. And it means the reader need not worry too much about losing track of names or events. Characters do recur, but this is not a tightly-plotted novel by any means, so if you’re not following, don’t worry too much–just keep reading and see what happens.

Worth reading? For my money, definitely. It’s a serious investment of time, but it’s fun and doesn’t take itself too seriously (or, really, seriously at all), and it contains some bittersweet moments of sanity in the midst of complete madness. A joyful ride.

Books of the Year, 2020

It’s Christmas Eve. I’m still on the clock for another few hours, but apart from monitoring three inboxes, there’s not much that needs doing. It has been three months since I last posted anything about books, and now is the first time in those three months that I’ve started to feel as though maybe I have the time, energy, or inclination to try.

It wasn’t the year I expected, in a number of ways. I fell in love. There was a pandemic. Both of these things, plus renewed social justice movements in both my home countries, impelled me to read in particular ways, and to forego habitual patterns of book consumption. I read many, many fewer hardbacks and new releases this year, and found myself drawn much more to backlist titles (both fiction and non), filling gaps in my reading knowledge, and increasing the diversity of what I consume and recommend. It’s been a very rewarding year in that sense, and has helped to unshackle me somewhat from an old feeling of constant vigilance: must read the latest release, must know about all the big authors’ newest titles! No, I mustn’t. There’s no real need. If they’re very good, they’ll stick around.

Not that I didn’t read a number of excellent new releases. Some of the best, most memorable books I read this year were from debut authors whose next outing I await with excitement. Others were new releases but were perhaps a second or third foray from authors I already knew. I read a handful of the year’s It Books and, on the whole, was glad that I did.

I can never narrow a list down to ten. I read too much for ten to be reasonable (158 books thus far in 2020; down considerably from last year, but still a decent showing, and many of them excellent). My preliminary list was nineteen titles strong; after being very stern with myself, I managed to highlight six that were absolutely exceptional, that I’ll probably carry with me forever. Those six are below, with the honourable remaining thirteen to come in a later post. All of these are amazing and recommended without reservations.

  1. Kingdomtide, by Rye Curtis. Imagine that Olive Kitteredge is a septuagenarian Texan Methodist, then add a survivalist bent worthy of Cormac McCarthy, and you have the outline of Cloris Waldrip, Curtis’s protagonist in this brilliant, heart-bending debut. Cloris is the only survivor of a light plane crash in the mountains of Montana that kills her husband of many decades and the pilot. She must walk out of the hills if she wants to live: no one from the outside world believes there were any survivors, except for tenacious, alcoholic park ranger Debra Lewis. Oh: and Cloris isn’t alone in the mountains. Encompassing theology, sex, grief, and culpability, Kingdomtide asks what we owe to each other, individually and as a community, and challenges the contexts in which we judge one another. It’s also, dryly, quite funny.

2. Ducks, Newburyport, by Lucy Ellmann. Yes, it is a thousand pages long, and yes, it is all stream of consciousness, and no, there’s more than one sentence (several interludes from the perspective of a mother mountain lion are written in regular, multi-sentence prose), and yes, it really does need to be this long. Ellmann’s protagonist is a home baker who has turned her hobby into a business. The process of circling her head, voyeuristically privy to the themes, symbols and memories to which she frequently returns, is analogous to the lamination of dough for croissants: you genuinely need those many layers in order to build up a broad, rich picture of her state of mind. And when the plot (there is one!) takes a turn for the melodramatic near the end, we realize the significance of everything that’s gone before.

3. Parable of the Talents, by Octavia E. Butler. Someone this year tweeted, “Every time I hear a white woman say ‘We’re living through The Handmaid’s Tale‘, all I hear is ‘I haven’t read Parable of the Sower.'” Parable of the Talents is that novel’s sequel, and although I haven’t yet read Sower either, Talents shares its alarming characteristic of feeling like both a prophecy and a history lesson. Butler describes an America ravaged by economic hardship and religious fundamentalism, electing a hard-line right-wing fundamentalist soi-disant “Christian” named Andrew Jarrett Steele, who promises to make America great again. Steele’s supporters attack the self-sufficient community that our protagonist, Lauren Olamina, has created in an effort to propagate her own religion, Earthseed, which teaches that God is change and that humanity’s destiny is to leave Earth and populate the stars. Written by a Black American author twenty-five years ago, it also engages closely with racism and cultural imperialism in a deeply relevant and necessary way. Profoundly disturbing, and incredibly moving.

4. Women, Race and Class, by Angela Y. Davis. Without a shadow of a doubt, the most intellectually sophisticated yet accessibly written book of its kind I read this year, or indeed any year. Davis weaves together the histories of feminism, abolitionism, and the labour movement to show the natural interconnectedness of these fights: it’s a primer on intersectionality in action, and on how, when intersectionality fails, its failure is due to a form of short-sightedness that sets everyone back. I found her analysis of the late 19th- and early 20th-century struggle for worker’s rights especially interesting, as those were stories I was less familiar with, but every page of this slim volume contains the names of heroes and heroines both well-known and obscure. Penguin Modern Classics reprinted a beautiful edition of this earlier in 2020, and for people wanting to get their heads around the sociocultural problems that sparked Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, this is an ideal starting block.

5. In the Dream House, by Carmen Maria Machado. This earned an instant place on my Books To Save From Fire shelf. Telling of Machado’s experience of domestic abuse within a lesbian relationship, it is simultaneously an excavation of how narrative works in folklore and myth, a revelation of how humans use those same narrative tropes to make sense of our experience, and a gut-wrenchingly immediate yet bruisingly poetic portrait of the betrayal of trust that occurs when abuse does. Machado also weaves in brilliant, shockingly funny pen sketches of friends and family, serious discussions of how lesbian experience is erased in broader conversations about abuse, and digressions on topics such as the queerness of seemingly all Disney villains. Utterly unlike any book I’ve ever read before, and serves as a perfect blend of craft, skill, humour and intellect. It’s particularly hard-hitting for people who have suvived an abusive relationship, although has a lot to offer even readers who have not. (It was also my boyfriend’s favourite book of the year, because he accepts my recommendations and has great taste.)

6. Reynard the Fox, by Anne Louise Avery. This brand-new retelling of William Caxton’s classic medieval trickster tales, featuring sly Reynard the Fox, pompous King Noble the lion, brutal Isengrim the wolf, stalwart Grimbart the badger, and silly Bruin the bear, amongst many others, is one of the most delightfully playful, erudite, and generous-hearted books I’ve read in a very long time. Glorying in multilingualism, it incorporates slang from Middle English and Middle Dutch, German, French and Latin, and contains wonderful asides, anecdotes, and even recipes in the footnotes. The tales themselves are small miracles: surprisingly dark and violent in places, they reinforce the values of individualism, rebelliousness, resourcefulness and quick wit that we so love in our anti-heroes. Reynard is an unforgettable character, and Anne Louise Avery’s work in bringing his stories to a modern audience would be rewarded with a prize, if the world was just.

There: my top six books from 2020. Magnificent, all of them. I’ve started a new shelf on Goodreads called “breaks your heart and puts your chin up”, and each of these titles deserves its place there. They offer us what we most need right now. Go get them and read them at once!

And, of course, have a very merry Christmas. I’ll be back later with the thirteen(!) runners-up…

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!