Down the TBR Hole, #3

Time for another round! This is a meme started by Lia, and it goes as follows: set your to-read list on Goodreads to “date added” in ascending order, then go through five to ten books in chronological order to decide which ones are keepers and which ones you’re really, for whatever reason, never going to read.

(My Goodreads TBR, by the way, isn’t like a real-world TBR. It only represents books I’d like to read—they’re not necessarily books I already have. It does, however, often guide my purchasing decisions.)

4193ii6whql-_sx327_bo1204203200_Book #21: Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, by Douglas Hofstadter

Why is it on my TBR? It looked like cool, reasonably accessible writing about maths and music and pattern. Sold.

Do I already own it? No, although I have Hofstadter’s (massive) book on translation, Le ton beau de Marot.

Verdict? Keep, or at least keep to try. Ton beau is written—at least to begin with—in a half-rhyming, almost spoken-word style; if GEB is the same I may have a hard time with it, since I need maths writing to be a bit more straightforward.

Book #22: English Food, by Jane Grigson41fmma0p1nl-_sx320_bo1204203200_

Why is it on my TBR? Quite superficially, because I liked the look of it in a shop.

Do I already own it? I did. I’ve already gotten rid of it, because…

Verdict? …if I’m ever going to have the time, energy and technique to prepare dishes like devilled hare’s kidney in marmalade (only a little bit exaggerating), it will be very far into the future.

23999630Book #23: A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

Why is it on my TBR? Read a good review of it while trawling through the archives of a books blog I’d just discovered and really adored, I think. Can’t recall which one—perhaps Eve’s Alexandria.

Do I already own it? Nope.

Verdict: Keep. It’s a classic of speculative fiction and I’m fascinated by the idea of monks preserving civilisation post-apocalypse, like late antiquity all over again. (Plus, the title is terrific for charades.)

Book #24: Blue Highways, by William Least Heat-Moon71gmzprxvgl

Why is it on my TBR? Americana. Nostalgia. Travels on the forgotten byways of the continent. (A weakness for road-trippery.)

Do I already own it? Nope.

Verdict: I have heard not-so-good things about this one, in the interim. I might not bother.

386187Book #25: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, by John Berendt

Why is it on my TBR? Southern Gothic nonfiction. Eccentricity and Spanish moss and heat. Duh. Also, my cousin bought it for me for about $4 at a secondhand bookshop when I was seventeen; you remember things like that.

Do I already own it? Yes!

Verdict: Keep. So obviously.

Book #26: Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity, by Andrew Solomon81cbrobjzrl

Why is it on my TBR? I was bought it by a dear friend who thought I should read it.

Do I already own it? Yes. But I lent it to another dear friend who seemed in need of it, and then she moved a long way away, and long story short, I think she might still have it but I don’t know where.

Verdict: Keep, if I can ever find the damn thing again.

9780060885618_custom-1f0040cfdade67159cc9ebfe336dcbabaf73206c-s6-c30Book #27: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain

Why is it on my TBR? Not sure. After I added it, though, it was made into a film, which is apparently amazing and surreal, and I would really like to read the book first.

Do I already own it? Nope.

Verdict: Keep, I think.

Book #28: The Common Stream: Two Thousand Years of the FrontCoverMockTemplateEnglish Village, by Rowland Parker

Why is it on my TBR? Piqued an interest in English social history, especially over centuries. I might have just finished Ulverton by Adam Thorpe when I added it.

Do I already own it? Nope, but there’s a very attractive Eland edition in the bookshop.

Verdict: Keep. I’ve just read a Thomas Hardy and remembered why I like rusticity.

bio_2000_sp_unabridged_journals_web Book #29: The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath

Why is it on my TBR? Read Plath’s Collected Poems, thought they were amazing, had a shufti at some of her journaling and found it as compelling and personal as Woolf’s.

Do I already own it? Nope.

Verdict: Keep.

Book #30: All Change, by Elizabeth Jane Howardpage-51-all

Why is it on my TBR? I read the first four Cazalet Chronicles books and really, really loved them. All Change is set ten(?) years after the last one.

Do I already own it? Nope.

Verdict: Actually, discard. I loved the Cazalets so much because of the way that the children interacted with one another, and with the adults; now that the children are young adults in their own right, I don’t feel quite as compelled by it.


Conclusions: Three books out of ten discarded, each for a good reason, I think. Going through these books is, if nothing else, reminding me of how much I’ve been “wanting to get to” for a long time, and how silly it is to put off reading interesting things you’ve been aware of for a while in favour of titles that you’ve seen more recently.

What do you think—is William Least Heat-Moon actually a genius whom I should read immediately? Is Sylvia Plath not worth it? How difficult is Douglas Hofstadter’s mathematical writing?! Comments much encouraged, as always.

New Boy, by Tracy Chevalier

Get down from there, n*****!

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The Hogarth Shakespeare series continues to strike me as an endeavour excellent in theory, but almost invariably doomed in practice. Fundamentally, what you can do and want to do in a play is different from the scope and focus allowed you by a novel. Perhaps more challenging is the balance a contemporary novelist must strike: do they dig deep into the motivations, the emotion and the structure behind one of Shakespeare’s plots—sincerely trying to adapt the story to the present day—or do they hit the high notes, the stuff that an averagely well read person could tell you about the play off the top of their head if you stopped them in the street? Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed has been the most successful adaptation so far, and I think that’s partly because she chooses path A; her novel does hit some of the high notes, but she deliberately makes her book an exploration of revenge, bereavement and redemption, as The Tempest is, as opposed to a story about a magician called Prospero who has a daughter named Miranda. Tracy Chevalier, like most of the other Hogarth Shakespeare novelists, chooses path B, which accounts for many of the problems I have with her adaptation of Othello.

My problem with New Boy (and I’ve said this before, if you follow me on Instagram, but it bears repeating) is quite basic: Chevalier chooses to set it in a school playground, to make her Othello character (Osei, or O) an eleven-year-old, and to make the tension of the work entirely contingent upon O’s skin colour. I think these are all serious miscalculations. Othello as Shakespeare wrote him is a successful military veteran who has worked his way up through skill and graft; he is an older man in a relationship with a much younger woman; he is self-conscious about many things, including his blackness, but also his age and his plain manner of speech. When Brabantio, Iago and others call him “the Moor”, they’re indicating his racial difference, but—I would contend—not necessarily in a fashion more derogatory than if he were called, e.g., “the Italian” or even “the Welshman”. (Consider the Welsh jokes in the history plays. Consider, also, that Shakespeare’s other iconic Other, Shylock, is comparatively much more defined by his Otherness: he is “the Jew” by every line he speaks, every action he takes, no matter the weight you place on the “if you prick us” speech.)

But the thing that people remember about Othello is that it’s a play about a black man, and therefore Chevalier places racial difference and racial prejudice at the centre of her novel. This is possible only if she makes it impossible for any of the people young O encounters to form a positive opinion of him, and so she stacks the deck by setting the course of the action over one day, making O a “new boy”—a Ghanaian diplomat’s son at an all-white school—and giving Mr. Brabant (a stand-in for Brabantio) a personality composed of creepy paternalism and barely-veiled white supremacism. But that is not the power dynamic at play between the Venetian Senate and Othello. Venice owes him. The city is in his debt; he has done them a favour. His blackness is barely relevant, because asking foreign mercenaries to lead the Venetian army was standard practice; it prevented the ruling elite from accruing too much military power and attempting a coup. When Venetian characters complain about “the Moor”, they’re latching onto a palpable difference between themselves and an outsider, but it’s his foreignness—not his blackness, and they are two different things—that makes Venice envious and insecure. Chevalier’s constant emphasis on racial prejudice is almost insultingly simplistic, and it leads her to make bizarre authorial choices: she invents a wholly unnecessary older sister for O who becomes increasingly fascinated by Black Power and Black Is Beautiful; she writes O as an instinctive diplomat, which is both untrue to Shakespeare’s characterisation and makes him feel uncomfortably like a puppet for respectability politics; and she writes the line of dialogue at the top of this post (spoken by the enraged Mr. Brabant at the dénouement), which is such a blatant piece of authorial manipulation (Brabant bad! Racism bad!) that it backfires, or it should.

Then there is Ian, who is the Iago analogue in New Boy. Ian hates O because he can see that the other boy has the potential to dethrone him as king of the playground. It’s fairly convincing as far as it goes—thus, sixth-grade politics—but it makes zero sense in the context of reassessing the play. Iago tells us he doesn’t know why he hates the Moor, but he gives two possible reasons anyway: one, he was passed over for promotion in favour of privileged airhead Cassio, and two, he suspects Othello of cuckolding him. Chevalier gestures at both of these reasons, making Ian a feared bully and loner while Casper/Cassio is golden and popular, and giving Ian a brief flash of paranoia when he sees O making his “girlfriend” Mimi laugh. The latter, though, is usually glossed as just that—paranoia—and it’s the former (jealous rage at not being promoted) that tends to seem most plausible. For this to make any sense at all as a rationale in New Boy, O would have to have held some sort of power over Ian for some period of time before the commencement of the action, and Ian would have to feel that O is indebted to him in some way. (Iago’s hopes of promotion aren’t unreasonable; he’s fought with Othello and for him; they were colleagues, even friends.) Since Chevalier can’t do that without breaking the self-imposed unity of time, she has to settle for making Ian a tyrant who is fiercely protective of his own status. In the play, that status is never Iago’s to begin with. It’s a subtle distinction, but it changes everything about the antagonist’s emotional baggage; it makes the story a very different story, and it’s not clear to me that the change is an improvement, or even intentional.

It also ascribes a level of cunning and villainy to Ian that I am not sure Iago possesses, let alone an eleven-year-old (cunning and villainous though I am willing to admit they can be). The point of Iago is that he is a master of shaping circumstance, but he is not a planner; he’s a hyena, not a lion. He gets incredibly lucky with the business of the handkerchief, and his mind is quick enough to grasp what he can do with it. He makes blind leaps repeatedly: in goading Othello, in joking with Cassio, he is merely hoping for a certain outcome, not ensuring one. He is a chancer. Ian, on the other hand, gets the same luck dropped into his lap (with a pencil case standing in for a handkerchief), and immediately begins long-term strategic planning. (Well, long-term for sixth grade, which is to say, anticipating afternoon recess.) Iago doesn’t do things like that; he never anticipates what his petty revenge plot might lead to. Ian, on the other hand, really wants to break up O and Dee (the Desdemona character) from the beginning; he really wants Mimi (Emilia) under his thumb; he really wants to seriously damage O, and not just socially—we’ve seen him physically bully enough people by this point in the book, and he too exhibits white supremacist behaviour.

Maybe the problem is this: Chevalier tries to stick too closely to the mechanics of Shakespeare’s plot, while also making choices about characterisation and motive that undermine that plot’s power. She gives Ian Iago’s famous non-defense (“I have nothing to say for myself”) more or less verbatim, but she doesn’t make him a convincing contemporary model of a small-minded, jealous, possibly traumatised soldier; instead, he’s an ogre and a child. (She does make him a believable abusive boyfriend.) She gives Dee Italian ancestry—her full name is Daniela Benedetti—presumably in a wink to the original’s Venetian setting, but she doesn’t show us the complex power dynamics at play in her relationship with O, dynamics that encompass so much more than race; Desdemona and Othello are a compelling couple because various imbalances of knowledge, of beauty, of worldly experience, of age, of responsibility, see-saw back and forth between them. For an excellent positioning of Othello in a contemporary setting, I can recommend the National Theatre’s 2013 production with Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear, set on an army base during the Iraq War. (That production’s treatment of women is also excellent.) If you’re a Hogarth Shakespeare completist, or if you just want to decide for yourself, read New Boy—but its flaws mean that I can’t think of it as a successful reimagining of the original.

#6Degrees of Separation: Picnic at Hanging Rock

This game is like “6 Degrees from Kevin Bacon” only with books. You can join in too; the rules are here.

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We start off with Picnic at Hanging Rock, by Joan Lindsay, which I’ve never read but which was something of a sensation in the ’60s and ’70s, a novel about the disappearance of a group of Australian schoolgirls on a school outing. I gather that the central mystery is never really resolved, though apparently Lindsay wrote a revelatory final chapter which was published separately. It sounds a bit rubbish.

My favourite disappearance story this year – and one of my favourite books of the year so far, full stop – has been Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13. It’s a tender, nuanced portrait of a small community where a young girl disappears while on holiday with her parents; McGregor returns to the village over the course of thirteen years, finding both change and continuity with each passing year. It is a beautiful book, and highly recommended. (review)

Another “thirteen” book is Jane Smiley’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel. In each chapter, she discusses a technical aspect of the novel form: voice, characterisation, length, and so on. In the final section, she writes notes on one hundred books that she read as part of her project to determine what defines a novel. It’s an excellent resource both on a technical level and for people who want a basic reading list of classics and contemporary classics.

One of the books I read because it was in Smiley’s compendium is Junichiro Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters. A society novel about three Japanese sisters and their family’s difficulties in marrying them all off, it reminded me strongly of an east Asian Jane Austen, with equal biting wit, satire, and observation. (review – a very old one! I was so cute in 2013.)

I recommended The Makioka Sisters to a very well-read customer recently, along with Shusaku Endo’s novel Silence, about a pair of Catholic priests who travel to Japan at a time when Christianity is illegal. They end up serving an underground community of believers, but at great risk both to themselves and to their flock. The book’s emotional core is the choice between renouncing one’s faith publicly in order to save the innocent, or remaining technically faithful to God but condemning others to die.

Martin Scorsese directed a nerve-wracking film of this book last year. He also directed “Hugo”, a gorgeously shot if slightly incoherent movie based on The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Brian Selznick’s stunning children’s novel about a boy who lives in a railway station, befriends a pioneer of early film, and tries to fix an automaton left to him by his father.

So: from Edwardian Australia to steampunk Paris, via contemporary Yorkshire, mid-century Osaka, and post-Shimabara Japan. Where will your #6Degrees take you? Next month we start with Pride and Prejudice, which ought to provide a lot of jumping-off points…

June Superlatives

June has been about how to live and thrive in limbo, between one state and another. Doing that successfully requires you to be intentional about a whole lot of things, including what you put into your brain. So although there have been many dinners with friends, glasses of wine and chai tea and gin-based cocktails, WhatsApp messages and perfectly chosen postcards and so much love, I’ve also watched my reading die down. And then it bounced back—such that I cleared 18 books this month—which is, at least, something positive. (I thoroughly sucked at reviewing, but that’s life.)

most diverting: The final two books in Mick Herron’s Slough House series, Real Tigers and Spook Street. For about a week at the beginning of the month, reading, sleeping and eating were much harder than I usually find them. Herron’s slick, pacy espionage thrillers (from the point of view of a team of underdogs) were exactly what my brain needed: easily digestible and not too deep. He writes good books anyway, but it’s especially nice to know that they can fill this kind of reading niche.

hardest-hitting: Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson. Stevenson has worked for decades as a death row lawyer in Alabama, defending condemned men and women free of charge through his nonprofit, the Equal Justice Initiative. He’s a deeply thoughtful and compassionate man, and his writing about the flawed ways in which the death penalty is applied is so calmly, measuredly furious that it is nearly impossible to believe so many states (including my home state, Virginia) still use it. This, too, I read during the week that reading was hard, though I’m almost positive that’s due to personal associations that make me feel comfortable and secure when reading books about the law.

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best start: My first Iain M. Banks novel, The Player of Games. Jernat Morau Gurgeh is a member of the Culture, a utopian, anti-hierarchical society of plenty. He’s one of the Culture’s best game-players, and he’s dispatched in this book to the far-off Empire of Azad to play the game that gives the empire its name—and everything else; roles at every level of society are determined by how well you play, and the winner becomes the Emperor of Azad himself. As an introduction to Banks’s science-fictional work, The Player of Games works very well; it doesn’t assume too much familiarity (it was only the second Culture novel to be published), but there’s a level of sophistication to the political maneuvering that I enjoyed. I look forward to more of these; perhaps Use of Weapons next.

most ekphrastic: Edward Dusinberre’s memoir-cum-journey through Beethoven’s late string quartets, Beethoven For a Later Age. Dusinberre is the first violinist in the Takács Quartet, and he writes evocatively not only about the music itself (excerpts are printed within the text, which is extremely helpful) but about the process of making music cooperatively but not hierarchically—a very different endeavour from that of a solo artist, or even an orchestra, which has a conductor to follow. A superb insight into professional musicianship.

book that brought my groove back: The Dollmaker, by Harriette Arnow. It follows the tribulations of Gertie Nevels, a Kentucky hill farmer and mother of five who is impelled by World War II to move to Detroit, where her husband Clovis, a mechanic, gets a job in a steel factory. The rest of the book traces the fallout of that choice, and the corrosive effect of industrialised urban living on a creative mind. If anyone you know still has lingering doubts about the disadvantages imposed by poverty, hand them this. (review)

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most intelligent: Gwyneth Jones’s five-minutes-in-the-future novel, Life, which follows the adolescence and adulthood of molecular biologist Anna Senoz, who discovers a sex chromosome phenomenon called Transferred Y which might mean the end of human sexual difference as we know it. It is a novel about sex, and sexuality and gender, but also about science: the everyday practice of it, the hard work and the research and the satisfaction. Life is utterly unlike anything else I’ve read; like Madeleine Thien, Jones does her thinking on a very high level and lets it play out in her fiction through the depiction of ordinary, everyday lives.

best timing: My uncle sent me a sorry-you-broke-up book, which goes to show a) how well my family knows me, or b) how predictable I am. Or both. It was Leaving Before the Rains Come by Alexandra Fuller—a memoir of her marriage to Charlie Ross, and its dissolution, and further memories of growing up with deeply eccentric parents on a farm in Zambia. Fuller writes beautifully, and she is so good at gesturing at psychological damage without spelling it out for you.

most underrated: Michael Arditti has been writing novels for years and yet he seems to fly under the radar. I read his book Easter this month. Set over the course of a single Holy Week in a Hampstead parish, it deals with AIDS, hypocrisy, loss of faith, the legacy of the Holocaust, and love, and I really, really liked it. Like a modern-day, slightly grittier Trollope, focusing on the contemporary issues that the Anglican church faces.

hands-down favourites: Two, actually. One was George Saunders’s novel Lincoln In the Bardo, which imagines the night that Abraham Lincoln spent in his eleven-year-old son Willie’s mausoleum, from the point of view of the ghosts who haunt the place. It’s hot ice and wondrous strange snow, a truly polyphonic piece of work (it helps to read it as though it’s a play, or to think of it as a written-down audiobook) that manages to be both heart-rending and honest, and surprisingly funny in places.

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The other was Jeff VanderMeer’s new book Borne, which follows scavenger Rachel in a post-apocalyptic landscape ravaged by a five-storey-tall flying bear called Mord, the result of experimentation within the sinister Company. When Rachel finds a piece of biotech in Mord’s fur, she takes it home and names it Borne. From their relationship—semi-parental, semi-best-friendship—comes the book’s emotional core, which is made more poignant by our growing realisation (and Rachel’s resistance to realising) of what Borne is, does, and could be. The dialogue is sweet and goofy and painful, and I dashed through the book in a day. It’s wonderful.

most nearly: After a twenty-year wait for Arundhati Roy’s second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is finally here. While I enjoyed reading it at the time, and was as moved and distressed as Roy presumably wanted me to be by the descriptions of the Indian army’s program of oppression and torture amongst the insurgents of Kashmir, I ultimately felt the novel’s focus was too diffuse; in trying to present us with many different points of view, it failed to provide a strong emotional core. I wrote more about it at Litro (review text here).

most holy-fucking-shit: Gabriel Tallent’s debut novel My Absolute Darling, which is coming out from 4th Estate in August. It’s the story of 14-year-old Turtle Alveston, who can navigate through thirty miles of rough terrain in a day and shoot a playing card out of her daddy’s hand. Her daddy is all she has, and she loves him, but things are changing… It is astonishing on the psychological dynamics of abuse—that love/hate, life/death, symbiotic/parasitic framework—and there is heart-in-throat suspensefulness. A beautiful and beautifully written book about entering adulthood too soon, with all of the implications about survival and protection and decision-making that implies. I hope it’s huge.

second most nearly: My first Allegra Goodman novel, The Chalk Artist. I still really want to read Intuition and The Cookbook Collector, since I love the promise of a novelist whose work fuses an interest in technological advances with a clear dedication to artistic creativity and (at least in this book) the written word. The problem with this was the prose, which was the sort I once heard described as “medium-roast”, and the level of melodrama reached the ridiculous about halfway through and didn’t abate. If I didn’t already know I want to read her early work, this might have put me off permanently.

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party I was late to: The Loney, Andrew Michael Hurley’s Costa-winning novel from last year. It’s a good creepy Gothic, suffused with the awfulness of mid-century middle-class Catholics (the narrator’s mother is obsessed with “curing” her mute, disabled elder son Hanny) and with bleak seashore menace, and with potential satanism. I have to confess it left me a little cold, though; that melodrama, again, was too strong, and the pacing of the dénouement, the revelation of horror, felt rushed and diluted. I did read it very quickly, which probably didn’t help.

warm bath book: An odd category for this, but Nicholas Hytner’s memoir of his time at the National Theatre, Balancing Acts, was immensely soothing. He writes with intelligence and style and deep understanding about the text and subtext of plays, and he’s wonderfully witty on actors and directors too, without making the inevitable name-dropping appear too self-satisfied. (I love the way he introduces Ben Whishaw, whom he first sees as a minor character in the initially disastrous production of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials.) And Hytner on Shakespeare is superb; the book is worth its price for the sections on Othello, Hamlet and Much Ado alone.

most fun to argue with: Tracy Chevalier’s addition to the Hogarth Shakespeare novelisation series, New Boy, her take on Othello. The choices she makes about how to approach and modernise the story seem to me superficial; I don’t believe that she sat down with the play and thought deeply enough about character or motivation, or perhaps she did but wanted something that would hit all the notes a casual reader might remember from doing the play at A-Level thirty years ago. If you ignore the question of whether the book as it’s framed has any merit as a response to Shakespeare’s ideas, it’s a clean and stylish piece of work, but I’m not sure that’s enough. (review)

most apt timing: A new debut novel by Zinzi Clemmons, called What We Lose, of which I got a proof copy from work. It’s written with such urgency and clarity that it feels like a memoir, and it is all about loss – of parents, of lovers, of friendships – and displacement: what does it feel like to be neither South African nor American, neither white nor black? Short, fragmentary and strangely soothing; it’s out in July and I really recommend it.

up next: I’m reading Francesca Segal’s new novel, The Awkward Age, about a blended Anglo-American family whose teenagers seem to hate each other, and so far it’s wonderful: funny, observant, with wonderful casual descriptions of people and places.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, by Arundhati Roy

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A second novel is a tricky thing. If your first novel was a barnstorming global sensation that won the Booker Prize, doubly so. If you then take twenty years to produce that elusive follow-up, well. With the weight of all that expectation, you could sink. Arundhati Roy’s second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, does not sink. It is in many places gripping, moving, and fueled by a burning rage at India’s human rights record. If it doesn’t entirely float, either, that is due not so much to the inclusion of political material per se as to the sheer quantity that Roy is willing to include, a proliferation of detail that doesn’t always pull its weight within the framework of the story.

Roy opens with the birth of a Hijra: born as Aftab, our protagonist is quickly found to have two sets of genitals—one male, one female. Though Aftab’s parents attempt to raise their child as a boy, by the time Aftab is old enough to be aware of difference, he knows that he’s a she. A chance sighting of a famous Hijra who goes by the name of Bombay Silk sparks a series of reactions that finish with Aftab’s name change (to Anjum), a move out of her parents’ house and into the house known as the Khwabgah, or House of Dreams, where other Hijras live and work, mostly as specialist courtesans. For a while all is well: Anjum has a career, a chosen family, and adopts a small child whom she finds in the street one day, naming her Zainab. A visit to a shrine in Gujarat, however, coincides with the massacres being perpetrated upon Muslims in the area at the time, and results in trauma that Anjum, upon her return to Delhi, refuses to discuss. Her internalised distress forces her to move out of the Khwabgah and into a nearby graveyard, which she slowly sets about turning into a complex of rooms to which she refers as the Jannat (“Paradise”) Guest House.

Anjum’s story intertwines with the story of Tilottama, or Tilo, a trained architect who becomes a political activist, and the three men who love her: Musa, who takes advantage of the rumours of his death to become a major figure in the Kashmiri insurgency; Naga, a respectable official whom Tilo marries in order to ensure her own safety; and Bilqab, the least assuming of the three, who works in the Intelligence Bureau and engineers Tilo’s release when she is captured by the sadistic captain Amrik Singh. In this strand, too, an unclaimed child generates redemption: Tilo adopts a dark-skinned baby found on the street during a mass protest. The child is named Miss Jebeen the Second in honour of Musa’s daughter, shot by police while on the fringes of a Kashmiri martyr’s funeral.

There is a sense in which Roy’s inclusion of many characters and forms of oppression is generous, giving the reader many points of view from which to access the story. “How to tell a single story?” Roy muses near the end of the book, in a paragraph reproduced in its entirety on the back of the proof copy. “By slowly becoming everybody. No. By slowly becoming everything.” It is an admirable idea in theory, but there are pitfalls to that approach from which The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is not exempt. It is extremely difficult, for example, to differentiate characters. Writing the previous paragraph, I had to pause and think, long and hard, about which lover was Musa, which was Naga, and what Bilqab had to do with it all. There are many minor characters so similar to each other that they might as well be the same person: Saeeda and Nimmo Gorakhpuri, for example, both of whom are flamboyant and confident young Hijras known to Anjum. Both appear, and are named, throughout the book, but there is no sense of each woman as a separate, rounded entity. There is a young man called Saddam Hussein who lives in Anjum’s graveyard and ends up marrying her daughter, but by the end of the book it’s a challenge to recall why he’s there, what narrative function he is fulfilling.

In a way, this might be precisely against the point. Questions of literary efficiency—of narrative function, of plot rationalisation, of what a given adjective or character or event is actually doing in the novel—are mostly absent. That kind of novel, one where every word is weighed carefully, every action accountable for, doesn’t seem to be the kind of novel that Roy is writing. She has said in interviews that she wants to “wake the neighbours”, and if your ultimate goal in writing a novel is to raise awareness, then indeed it can seem entirely right to leave in as much as possible. By following this strategy, Roy achieves inclusivity, but she also gives the novel the appearance of ticking a lot of boxes. Homelessness amongst Delhi’s transgender population? Tick. Drug addiction? Tick. Blameless (indeed, mentally disabled) martyr? Tick. Rape and torture? Tick.

I’m not leveling charges of gratuitousness at The Ministry of Utmost Happiness; quite the opposite. Roy treats these topics seriously and renders to her characters a level of dignity generally not afforded them by Western writers of atrocity porn. To write a good political novel, though—and it is more than possible to do that—you need an emotional core. Roy gives us plenty of personae and detail, but in opening up the focus of her story, she diffuses it. Perversely, an authorial choice that was clearly motivated by a desire to provoke empathy obstructs the fiction reader’s ability to empathise.

This review originally published in Litro.

The Dollmaker, by Harriette Arnow

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Every couple of years or so, a contemporary publisher “rediscovers” a classic. Most successfully, this happened to Stoner back in 2013. Now it is the turn of The Dollmaker by Harriette Simpson Arnow, a 605-page doorstop that reads like something half its size, about the struggles of hill farmer Gertrude Nevels as she adjusts to life as a factory worker’s wife in WWII industrial Detroit. Vintage has just reprinted it, with their inimitable red spine, and if there’s any justice (which, of course, there rarely is), it will see a renaissance like Stoner’s.

It is essentially a novel about culture clash, and about being uprooted. Gertie Nevels is our point-of-view character and heroine: the book opens with her giving her youngest child, Amos, a tracheotomy by the side of the road, while a US Army officer hems and haws about the propriety of giving her a lift to the doctor’s in town. We thus learn two things about Gertie almost immediately: one, she is fearless, not especially sentimental but a mother to the core and completely certain of her own strength; and two, she is a very good carver. She refers to what she does as “whittlin”, but the Army officer notes it as artistic skill; she whittles a tube for her baby’s throat to complete the tracheotomy, a detailed and fiddly piece of work, without trouble. (Dialogue throughout the book is written in Appalachian dialect. Instead of seeming like authorial mockery, this allows Arnow’s characters dignity whilst constantly reinforcing their identity: we can never forget that these are hill people, country people, people to whom urban, 20th-century America is alien.) Gertie is utterly confident in her own demesne. She is strong; she can dig and plant potatoes on her own, chop and haul wood, milk the cow. Her husband Clovis’s periodic absences hauling coal in his truck are not a problem; she is tall and broad, a farmer’s daughter and a sharecropper, and you immediately understand that she could run an entire small farm herself with little difficulty.

The outbreak of war has had a huge impact on their community. (One of the best scenes in the book comes early, when the women of the settlement gather at the general store-cum-post office to await the mail, delivered by ancient Uncle Ansel and his donkey; Arnow beautifully but quietly conveys the crippling anxiety of a community composed almost entirely now of women, some of whom have already lost sons or husbands, others of whom are desperately praying that today isn’t the day they lose theirs.) When Clovis has to leave for a few days for his army fitness assessment, she’s not too worried—surely the army won’t take a farmer?—but then he disappears for weeks, and when she next hears from him, he’s moved to Detroit and found work in a factory. Gertie’s appalling mother (drawn with the same pen as Gwendoline Riley uses on her character Neve’s mother in First Love, a whining, carping, manipulative horror, only in this case with added God-bothering) guilts her into joining him, so she gives up her hope of buying the Tipton Place, uproots her children, and takes the train north.

Almost immediately, it becomes clear that they’ve made a mistake. Reading the Detroit sections of The Dollmaker while flat-hunting alone in London is an astonishingly resonant experience; Arnow describes cramped conditions, poor ventilation, smells, dirt, noisy neighbours, and—most critically for Gertie—an almost total lack of nature. Living in the city creates other disconnects: their furniture and car, Gertie is horrified to discover, have been bought “on time” (credit), and every month seems to drive them further into debt. A block of wood that she has brought with her from home, which she intends to carve into the image of a Christ, is often abandoned for days or weeks at a time: Clovis thinks she can make money selling dolls to women and children in the neighbourhood, and she gets commissions for crucifixes and jointed dolls from wealthier people—her neighbour’s husband’s boss, amongst others.

Money is so constantly in short supply that efficiency, and profit, begin to take over Gertie’s work. She doesn’t want them to—one of Arnow’s strengths is her ability to convince us that Gertie is an artist through and through, not because of any airy-fairy beliefs about the integrity of creating, but because she was born to it, born with the skill and the need to practice it—but Clovis is insistent. The purchase of a jig saw, which enables Gertie and her children to cut pre-drawn two-dimensional shapes out of wood, speeds up the production considerably, but it comes at the expense of hand-carving, and therefore of art. The Nevels children, most of whom adapt speedily to their new circumstances, delight in their “home factory”; it throws Gertie into despair and depression, knowing as she does that the need to pay the bills will trump, every time, the need to make something beautiful and meaningful.

Gertie’s problem – one of Gertie’s problems – is that she is inarticulate. She’s an artist, but a visual, physical, active one; she carves and whittles, hoes and hews. Words don’t come easily or naturally to her. Nor do they come naturally to Clovis, a mechanic whose “tinkering” is the source of mild mockery in their small community. Gertie and Clovis love each other, clearly, at the beginning of the novel, even though they don’t have the words for it; by the end, they barely speak to one another, and have been changed out of all recognition by the new community in which they live.This inarticulacy combines with inherently patriarchal attitudes to create a code of conduct for women that seems designed for their misery: at one point, Clovis becomes anxious when he thinks Gertie is in pain, mostly because she has apparently never given any indication of being physically hurt or ill throughout their entire married life. Though it’s never stated (like so much else in this book), we can surmise that Clovis’s obliviousness to his wife’s ability to feel pain – despite her having given birth at least five times – is partly down to that female code that doesn’t let you “trouble” your husband.

One of the tragedies of The Dollmaker is that it’s a portrait of a marriage which could, in other times, have ended in divorce, as the two parties realise they are simply too dissimilar in what they want and value in life. As it is, Gertie is stuck. By the end of the book, whether she loves him or not doesn’t even matter: she must keep producing, keep paying the rent, keep her children in shoes. The block of wood that she tries to make into a Christ is sometimes mistaken for a Judas; it’s a fitting uncertainty for a book that shows us so brutally how sacrifice can also be betrayal.

Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts

  1. Today I went to the hospital for a diabetes clinic appointment. I have them every three months or so. I try not to think about them too much. I try not to think about being diabetic too much. It’s been the case for twenty-one years, so there’s not much point in dwelling on it. Clinic appointments stress me out, especially in a large hospital instead of the smaller outpatient centre I attended as a kid. They’re often embarrassing or frustrating, or both: navigating the brusque guy on the ward desk; peeing in a cup; answering inane NHS questionnaires on an iPad; waiting in an ugly, humid room with a bunch of other broken humans; all these things make me want to claw my skin off. That’s even before we get to the part where I have to be weighed, or where a diabetic nurse has the chance to scold me for lax attitudes to medicating, or where a dietitian tells me, for the seven thousandth time, about food groups.

This time, I didn’t get a nurse; I got a consultant. She was young, and kind, and smart, and she didn’t push me. At some point, when she went away to check something with the phlebotomist, something new happened: I started crying. When she came back, I tried to stop, and to apologise. “I’ve had this for twenty-one years,” I said. “I should be able to—” and then stopped. The doctor looked at me and said, gently, “Do you know how common depression and anxiety are amongst diabetics? Especially ones who’ve had it since they were children? I see this all the time.”

And to my own surprise, I looked up and said, “I’m so angry.”

The long and the short of it is that there’s counselling available, and I’ve asked for a referral. The NHS may be cumbersome and bureaucratic, but it came through for me today. It’s taken me this long, but it’s time to sort some things out. If you feel the same way, but you’re scared or uncertain, take this story as a good omen. People pay their taxes for this; for you; for me.

2. Relatedly: I hope you all voted Labour.

3. You know that “one like = one fave book” Twitter meme that’s been going around? I did it through my work Twitter account (@HeywoodHill). It was what you might call successful.

4. I did one from my personal account too. You know, if you want to.

5. Many congratulations to Naomi Alderman for winning the Baileys Prize with The Power! I can’t say that I’m surprised, or indeed disappointed, although my personal favourite was Do Not Say We Have Nothing, for the sheer high-level thinking that it displays at every turn. But The Power is a terrific, deserving, and very timely winner.

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