Revolting Prostitutes

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

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

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

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

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


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

The Dead Are Arising

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

Tender Is the Flesh

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

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

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

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

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

There are words that are convenient, hygienic. Legal.

Tender Is the Flesh, Agustina Bazterrica, p. 11

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Gilead

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gilead, Marilynne Robinson, p. 190

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

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

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


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

Fanny Burney: Her Life

Without wishing to underestimate anyone, I think you’d be hard pressed to find the general reader in 2021 who has even the remotest idea of who Fanny Burney is. Fantastically famous and well-regarded in her own time, and a favourite author of Jane Austen—indeed, influential enough that the title of Pride and Prejudice is taken directly from the final chapter of Burney’s novel Cecilia—she’s now largely read by students, professors, and nerd-types. This is unjust: her work is not only fascinating as a direct literary forebear of Austen’s, but in its own right. Her novels of young women beginning the world, heiresses forced to reckon with the culpable greed of marriage brokers, and heroines fleeing political upheaval are not only diverting for their plots; they’re also studded with minutely observed dialogue and social interactions. Burney’s shrewd ear for phrasing and tone was first honed upon the famous connections of her musical father, such as David Garrick, Hester Thrale, and Samuel Johnson; then upon Queen Charlotte, King George III, and their court, when she was a member of the Queen’s household; finally, as a married woman whose husband’s identity as a French national and a professional soldier, in the era of the Napoleonic Wars, put her family in a constant state of instability for nearly twenty years. Kate Chisholm’s marvelous biography, now rather over twenty years old itself (see bibliographical information at the end of this piece), is a wild ride through the events of Burney’s life—a very full one for a woman as shy and retiring as she was—as well as the general history of mid-eighteenth- to early nineteenth-century Europe, and a vivid introduction to Burney’s fiction and drama.

Chisholm starts with Burney’s father, a man who was to have a significant claim on her affection and loyalty throughout her life: Dr Charles Burney, an eminent musician, teacher and musicologist, whose ambitions to mix in the highest society were realized in a manner almost impossible for even the most talented to emulate. (One of Fanny’s brothers-in-law, also considered an extremely gifted musician, never attained a fraction of the acclaim, money, or access to elites, suggesting that Dr Burney’s achievements were exceptional and owed as much to his personal charms, and to good luck, as to his technical abilities.) She also had a mentor figure in the person of Samuel Crisp, a family friend to whom she repeatedly referred as “my Daddy”. Twenty-first century readers will have some questions about this, and I think rightly so; Crisp was one of the few adult men who took Fanny’s mind seriously, and with whom she could have conversations about art, literature, history and culture, but it came at the price of a level of control. Crisp’s letters show that he was unusually fond of the company of young women; it seems unlikely that his interest in Fanny was menacingly inappropriate, since they remained affectionate towards each other throughout their lives and we know Fanny to have been an almost prudish person with regards to perceived impropriety, but certainly it appears to have pleased him to have such a clever, and such a seemingly malleable, young woman in and around his house and at such close emotional proximity, so regularly. Crisp gave her some very good advice, but also some very bad: her play The Witlings was suppressed because Crisp and Dr. Burney believed it too bluntly satirical towards people who had offered Fanny specifically, and the Burney family more generally, their patronage and support, such as the literary hostess Mrs. Thrale. She may have listened to them, but she wasn’t happy about it: when Crisp’s “patronising response” (Chisholm, p. 95) to her disappointment was to suggest another topic for a more straightforward comedy, she didn’t bother to reply to the letter.

By this point she was already famous, since her first and still most widely known novel Evelina had been published in 1778. Her protagonist is a young woman trying to enter society whilst labouring under the disadvantage of being unacknowledged by her father: she knows who he is, but until he will publicly admit to her being his daughter, she is a nobody despite the upper-middle-class milieu in which she has been raised and educated by her kind guardian, Mr. Villars. The book takes the form of a series of letters, mostly from Evelina to Villars back home, as she navigates London society for the first time. It is, technically, a romantic plot, as she ends up married by the end, but what really brought the novel to critical attention and acclaim, as well as that of readers, were Fanny’s skewering powers of observation. Her ear for dialogue was exceptional and was to be her trademark as a fiction writer all her life; she depicts the conversation of vulgar City upstarts, country-bred gentlemen, young women, conniving older women on the make, foreigners and servants, with a precision that creates comedy. She rarely physically describes anyone (we never know what colour Evelina’s eyes are), but her powers of scene-setting and creation of atmosphere are immense. Her perceptiveness and memory gave her both the ability to reproduce conversations word for word and great power over fictional tone, but this initially worried her: “if you do tell Mrs Thrale [that I am the author of Evelina], —won’t she think it very strange where I can have Kept Company, to draw such a family as the Branghtons…” (quoted Chisholm, p. 57) Her identity was at first anonymous; all of her communications with her publisher took place through a brother or cousin, suitably disguised (both of the male relatives she pressed into service for her here seemed to relish the amateur theatrics of it all). She was terrified to be thought unladylike. When the secret was finally revealed (by her father), she was only persuaded of the acceptability of her public authorship by the knowledge that both Mrs. Thrale and Dr. Johnson (another family friend) regarded Evelina very highly.

Fanny occupies an intriguing place in women’s history, and particularly in the history of women writers: she was not a political radical or a feminist by any means, deferring to her father frequently and eventually marrying a French aristocratic emigré, General d’Arblay. (Their marriage seems to have been the happiest of all her siblings’; they were very much in love, and remained so throughout their lives. She was forty-one when she married him, forty-two when they had their first and only child, Alexander.) Yet her writing—she produced three other novels, Cecilia, Camilla, and The Wanderer, and many other plays, though few were ever staged and one at least that was staged was disastrously received—is consistently interested in how women can make their way in the world without patriarchal protection; in what happens to a woman who perhaps has money but no one to represent her interests, and little or no respect from her guardians; and in representing events occurring in the world without attaching an obvious moral. Her work was satirical but does not partake of the clear agenda to “improve” that defines Richardson’s and Fielding’s writing; she trusts her readers to understand the rights and wrongs of her characters, but is much more an observer than a moralist. Particularly in her early work, there are eruptions of violence (a monkey bites off a dandy’s ear) and cruelty (two lords make two elderly peasant women race each other so that they can have something to bet on) that are, even now, grotesque and shocking to read; there are encounters with sex workers at Vauxhall in one novel, frank and funny dialogues between servants, milliners, and other working women in her plays. Fanny is never easy to categorize, either as a person or as an author.

She was restored to public attention primarily through the publication of her journals and letters, which made it clear that she was present at many of the great historical moments of her time. As a child, she plays with the famous actor David Garrick, a frequent house guest thanks to her father’s musical work in the theatre. As a young woman, she matches wits with Dr Johnson, Mrs. Thrale, Mrs. Montagu, and Richardson. As an unmarried woman in her thirties, a friend introduces her to Queen Charlotte and she is appointed Second Keeper of the Robes; although miserable as a courtier and eventually released from royal service, she becomes close to the royal family, witnesses the first illness and madness of King George III, and is present in Kew Gardens for his recovery (she runs away from him, unaware that he is now well again, and he chases her through the shrubbery with his doctors). In her forties, she becomes part of a circle that includes French emigrés fleeing the Revolution, and falls in love with one, whom she marries. In her fifties, her husband is part of the army of allies that challenges Napoleon at Waterloo; she is in Brussels while the battle takes place, and her account of the confused intelligence coming from the battlefield regarding the victor is an extraordinarily immediate portrayal of that historical moment.

One of the most famous accounts from her journals describes her endurance of a seventeen-minute mastectomy; she had a cancerous lump in her right breast and was operated upon in 1811. It took her nine months to complete her account of this ordeal, and it is frankly a wonder that she managed it at all. I defy anyone, with or without breasts, to read her testimony unmoved. She was without anaesthetic apart from some wine mixed with laudanum, and refused to be held down by the surgeon’s assistant; she held her own breast for him to cut, and describes the linen handkerchief that was placed over her face for a measure of dignity and discretion. “[w]hen, Bright through the cambric, I saw the glitter of polished Steel,—I closed my Eyes,” she writes (quoted Chisholm, p. 214) She did this without her husband, forbidding her servants to fetch him from his office; in a foreign language and land (they were living in France at the time, and although she spoke the language well, it must have added another layer of fear and estrangement to proceedings); and her own maids, save one, had been sent out of the room by the surgeon and “7 Men in black” (ibid.) who were present to assist him. Her bravery, and her suffering, is unthinkable, and the fact that she left a record of the experience makes her braver still. If you read one thing by Fanny Burney, make it that account. (If you read a second thing, make it Evelina.)

Responding to such trauma by memorializing it verbally is more indicative of Fanny than anything else that can be said: she was a writer through and through, an observer and recorder. We’re lucky to have her words, and lucky to have Kate Chisholm’s biography, which gives such an exciting and entertaining yet scholarly account of her life and world. As Stella Tillyard has already said, if the best literary biographies make us want to seek out the work of their subjects, Chisholm succeeds admirably. I read Evelina over a decade ago, but will be returning to it, and seeking out her other novels too.


Fanny Burney: Her Life was published by Vintage in paperback in 1999. It is now out of print, but can be found on AbeBooks. My copy is from The Second Shelf. Burney’s novels are all in print from Penguin and/or Oxford World’s Classics, except for The Wanderer, a 1991 edition of which is also available secondhand through AbeBooks. The Second Shelf might also be able to find you a copy if you ask nicely.

Memorial

Benson and Mike are at the end of the line, maybe. Neither of them seems quite sure. Something has to change, anyway; they’ve been together for four years and they’re approaching a point of nebulous, unspoken no return. Then something does change: Mike’s estranged father, in Osaka, is dying. Mike’s departure from Houston to care for him just as his mother Mitsuko arrives for a visit means Mitsuko and Benson are stuck as flatmates, each a stranger to the other, for an indeterminate amount of time. This, clearly, is the push they need, but what will they decide to do with it?

I read Bryan Washington’s debut story collection Lot over the summer, and found it hugely accomplished; he’s a very young writer to possess such a sense of restraint, although occasionally that restraint becomes the kind of telegram-ese that can make a contemporary novel seem flat and aloof. Memorial too is restrained, its sense of distance portrayed as a rhetorical survival skill acquired by Benson, whose family kicked him out not after he came out but after he was diagnosed HIV-positive, since, as he says, his gayness was then impossible to ignore. He retains individual relationships with his mother, father and sister, peculiar and distant as they are: he’s closest to his sister Lydia, who texts him regularly and has met Mike, but he occasionally speaks on the phone to his mother, who has remarried a pastor and has a whole new family of teenage boys, and he spends some time visiting (and fighting with) his father, who is an alcoholic living alone in a Houston suburb. He works at an afterschool centre for children from troubled or disadvantaged backgrounds, and although he doesn’t want children or particularly like them, he finds he’s good with them. His life with Mike, from this perspective, looks steady, if unexciting. When Mike leaves, it seems to shatter the possibility of their relationship recovering or deepening. He doesn’t text or call from Osaka for days at a time. (The texts, incidentally, are extremely well done and, as some other reviewer has noted, entirely without cutesy formatting that tends to signpost an author’s self-satisfaction at having Integrated Technology into their work:

I start to text Mike.

I type, We’re done.

I type, Fuck you.

I type, It’s over dickhead.

I type, How r u, and that’s what I send.

Memorial, Bryan Washington, p. 22

Benson’s new roommate, Mike’s mother Mitsuko, is an acerbic shock to the system in the midst of all this angst. She and her husband Eiju raised Mike in the US, but both of them eventually moved back to Japan—Eiju first, precipitating their separation, and then her, several years before the book is set. Mitsuko’s English is perfect, her sarcasm is off the charts, and she’s not at all cuddly or maternal or what you might think of as traditionally nurturing. (Benson asks her, awkwardly, how her day has been, early on; she rattles through a list of what Mike has done to drop her in this situation, then concludes, “My day was fucking phenomenal.”) She swears a lot, and has conversations with Benson of a directness and clarity that he’s unused to (“So, how long have you been sleeping with my son?”; “I’m fluent in fine. Fine means fucked.”; “Remember… you’re the one who let him leave”). Her tenderness manifests in other ways, mostly in food, which Mike makes for a living, as a chef at a Mexican restaurant; Benson, meanwhile, is barely capable of cooking (which he realizes “might have been the problem in the first place”). Washington writes beautifully and without fuss about food preparation, the sensory delights of it and the clear, clean competence of knowing your way around it:

Mitsuko cooks what she tells me is his favorite: potato korokke, crowded beside onions and gravy, surrounded by sliced tomatoes and lettuce. She mashes the potatoes with pork through her fingers, drizzling the mixture with salt and pepper, molding tiny patties and flipping them in flour and egg yolks and panko. I watch them crisp from the counter, and Mitsuko watches me watch them.

It’s the most personal thing she’s shared with me so far, and I tell her that.

She looks at me for a while, then says, Don’t be stupid.

Memorial, p. 58

Cleverly, what Washington does after about 100 pages of Benson’s perspective is shift us smoothly into Mike’s. So far, we’ve only seen Mike through a disgruntled lover’s eyes, and his behaviour in leaving his mother and boyfriend behind in order to pursue redemption of a sort with a father he hasn’t spoken to in fifteen years hasn’t necessarily endeared him to us. Context is everything, of course, and although Mike doesn’t exactly come out of his section fully redeemed, Washington’s point is made: we can sympathize with almost anything, almost anyone, if we’re given the gift of their perspective. Mike’s father Eiju is dying of pancreatic cancer, but insists on keeping it a secret from his small staff and many regulars at the bar he runs in Osaka (named, to Mike’s alarm and disbelief, after Mitsuko). Mike must reconcile the furious, violent father he knows with the jokey, blokey, paternal attitude Eiju takes at the bar. There’s the young and hapless Kunihiko, who was hired when he stumbled in to get drunk after being fired from a bank for gross incompetence; there’s Hana and Mieko, work pals who use the bar as something of a second home, as do three salarymen, Takeshi, Hiro, and Sana, who took months to realize they all worked in the same building; tiny Natsue and her ridiculously tall husband. To realize that someone who seems to have disliked and abandoned you is capable of affection and love with a found family is a painful but familiar plot point, but Washington’s restraint, again, is what spins straw into gold here.

Mike also tells the story of how he and Benson got together, in between the present-day moments of his time caring for Eiju and tending the bar, and this is where Benson’s self-presentation is called into question. He’s hard to get, ignoring Mike’s texts and obvious interest for days (an inversion of Mike’s weighted silence in the first section, which is maybe a projection, we realize). When they move in together, Benson not only doesn’t create relationships with the neighbours the way Mike does; he actively doesn’t want to. There’s tension over racial oppression: Benson is Black in America, but was more or less middle-class; Mike is Japanese in America, one of the “model minority”, but grew up with no money or stability.

[…] my parents weren’t surprised. They knew it was coming. It’d been building up for a while.

And y’all had money, I said.

What the fuck does that have to do with us?

It has everything to do with everything.

[…] Sure, he said. They had money. I grew up middle-class. But we’re black. So that cancels everything out.

If you say so.

I say so.

That wasn’t an attack, I said. It’s not a competition. It’s okay to grow up okay.

Memorial, p. 194

But of course no one really grows up okay—everyone has something to get through in their childhood, whether it’s poverty or racial aggression or the experience of immigration or sickness or divorce or loneliness or anything else or some combination of multiple things—and it’s the excavation of not-okayness that Memorial is driving at, in the end. Benson and Mike can’t be together unless they can acknowledge openly—not defensively—the many ways in which they’re wounded. They need time and space to do that, and maybe once they’ve done it, they can’t even be together then; maybe they will have grown too far apart. The ending of the book leaves the question wide open, as Mitsuko leaves Houston, Mike contemplates returning to Osaka to run Eiju’s bar (which has been left to him if he wants it), and Benson… well, it’s not clear what Benson’s going to do. It’s not clear what any of them are going to do. There aren’t many reassuring bromides in this story, which is what redeems the other parts of it that might seem hackneyed: teaching your son’s partner how to cook; learning from your partner’s mother; coming to terms with your dying father’s life. At the end, it’s clear only that something has happened, something has ended, and something is starting.


Memorial was published in the UK by Atlantic Books on 7 January, 2021.

The Female Quixote

Charlotte Lennox’s best-known novel is still not particularly well known—certainly not as famous as its contemporaries, Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (published four years earlier) or Fielding’s Tom Jones (published three years earlier). There’s a reason for that: The Female Quixote is patchily constructed, with psychological acuity in its early books fading into a kind of episodic filler approach in later ones (although there’s a reason for this, too, as we’ll see). It is, however, both extremely funny and extremely interesting in the way it shows a young, unmarried woman claiming the kind of power for herself that her society simply does not grant her. Arabella’s ability to steamroll others, largely men, into accepting that she possesses a right to command them is remarkable, even if, at the end of the book, she is “tamed”, her “madness” passes away, and she accepts docility and submission as the wife of the patient and kind, if also rather predictable, Mr. Glanville.

The title of the book suggests the nature of Arabella’s “madness”. Like our friend Don Quixote from earlier in the year, she has read too many of the wrong sorts of books; unlike Don Q, she has overdosed not on chivalry books but on tales of heroic romance. These were prolifically produced by French writers in the late seventeenth- and early- to mid-eighteenth centuries, and there are so many of them that the use of the scholarly footnotes is eventually rendered pointless, because every time a little footnote number appears, it is bound simply to be another summary of whichever heroic romance Arabella is quoting from this time. What this tells us is that Charlotte Lennox had an intimate personal acquaintance with the canon of heroic romance, which throws the generally accepted view of The Female Quixote as pure satire into question. Why bother becoming deeply read in texts that you scorn and despise if your only purpose is to mock them? Is it not more likely that Mrs. Lennox had, at least, a conflicted relationship with heroic romance, and that Arabella’s behaviour in The Female Quixote has greater complexity?

After all, her madness allows her a great deal of freedom. The heroines of romance are queens, empresses and princesses, not only of kingdoms but of hearts; the women upon whom she models her behaviour, like Statira, Thalestris, Cleopatra, and Media, have the powers to raise men nearly from the dead merely by commanding them to live and “permitting them to hope”. They have no obligation to be compassionate, no social pressure to placate or soothe wounded feelings, other than this. Indeed, in romance, the more miserable and wretched a male suitor is, the better he proves himself worthy to perhaps eventually kiss his beloved’s hand; in the meantime, anything less than at least ten years of devoted service, in which either he kills thousands of enemies for her sake, or lives in pastoral, hermitic retreat, is considered insufficient. (Miss Glanville, Lady Arabella’s cousin, points out, rather inconveniently, that ten years of service will make both parties “old” when they finally begin courting; Arabella responds with horror and disgust at Miss Glanville’s vulgarity, since of course the consequences of the passage of time are never dwelt upon in heroic romance.) What this means is that for a young lady in the 1750s to model her behaviour upon these heroines, she must arrogate to herself much more power and consequence than she actually possesses, and for a long time in The Female Quixote, this more or less works. “A little more Submission and Respect would become you better; you are now wholly in my Power”, she informs a startled dandy on page 20.

Her power, of course, in this case, comes from her father, as she indeed acknowledges. The patriarchal world of England in the 1750s means her peculiarities are much more indulged than they would otherwise have been, because she has a large fortune and her father was a lord. Were she a dairymaid, her convictions of high status would see her packed off to an asylum. (And yet: her uncle at one point is seriously considering having her committed, something we are only told in passing but which serves as a sharp reminder that no women of any station have more than nominal power in this world. The tension between Arabella’s absolute belief in her own righteousness when she berates a man for his insolence in following her, and the equally strong belief, in the society in which she lives, that women simply do not have a right to privacy—a woman wanting to be left alone could retire to her chamber, but would not dare to place limitations upon a man’s movements—is a small example of the tension that drives the book. She is clearly not mad, and yet what is madness if not a failure to understand and accept the limitations of your environment?)

There is a trade-off to Arabella’s claims of power, of course. The world at large views her as ridiculous, her cousin Glanville loves her but is embarrassed by her presumptuous outpourings, and when they visit Bath and London, she is gossiped about relentlessly. None of this, however, makes much of an impression on Arabella. Until her conversion in the penultimate chapter, she is largely concerned with preserving her reputation; the problem is that she misapprehends her society’s idea of a good reputation, and her society, in turn, misapprehends her notion of virtue. Failure to interpret signs is, quite literally, everywhere in the book (Arabella frequently makes hand gestures which the men around her don’t understand; likewise, she’s usually incapable of “reading the room” she is in), but the greatest misapprehension is in her idea of good womanhood, and her environment’s:

“[…] I am afraid, if he was to commit Murder to please you, the Laws would make him suffer for it; and the World would be very free with its Censures on your Ladyship’s Reputation, for putting him upon such shocking Crimes.

[…] replied Arabella […] you kn[o]w as little in what the good Reputation of a Lady consists, as the Safety of a Man; for certainly the one depends intirely upon his Sword, and the other upon the Noise and Bustle she makes in the World.

The Female Quixote, Charlotte Lennox, p. 128

This is, of course, diametrically opposed to ideals of womanhood in the 1750s, as Miss Glanville knows, and as another character, the Countess, reinforces later in the novel: asked to tell Arabella “her Adventures”, she replies gently but firmly: “The Word Adventures carries in it so Free and Licentious a Sound in the Apprehensions of People at this Period of Time, that it can hardly with Propriety be apply’d to those few and natural Incidents which comprise the History of a Woman of Honour.” She was born, she tells Arabella; she grew up; she met a man and married him, with her parents’ encouragement and consent; and that is the end of that. Arabella is shocked to discover that she has experienced not a single shipwreck, abduction, or case of false identity. The Countess is an interesting character, because she responds to Arabella’s infatuation with fictions by engaging her rationally: Arabella is capable of perfect reasoning when not discussing romances directly, and the scene where she and the Countess discuss the changing nature of virtue and vice depending upon historical context must be one of the most interesting conversations two women have with each other in the whole of eighteenth-century literature. It does not concern men; it concerns ethics, literature and history, all considered “serious” topics and all part of a classical education, and although it is done to disabuse a young woman of “madness”, it is done on her turf and on her terms, simultaneously gently demonstrating the limitations of fiction as a model for life and taking her intellectual capacities with the utmost seriousness.

The Countess disappears after this chapter, and the final cure of Arabella is left to a wise and elderly (and male) curate who has never appeared before in the book. This is probably because of some advice Samuel Richardson gave Lennox with regards to the ending, which also explains why the final chapters feel both rushed and spun out. It’s a shame that the Countess is not brought back; some scholars think this was Lennox’s original plan, and I have to say I would have preferred it. It would make more sense to use a character with whom we were already familiar, and it would serve also to reinforce Lennox’s interest in the nature of female power. It is an interest that the twenty-first century also shares, although we are in a different historical context. The book also possesses a strong flavour of the surreal. The tension between laughing at Arabella mistaking a carp-poaching gardener for a prince in disguise wishing to abduct her, and admiring her for her courage and consistency in adhering to principles that, though impractical and wrong-headed, give her a sense of self-worth, is potent. Should a brave production company be casting about for Bridgerton-alikes, a judicious reimagining of The Female Quixote would be fertile ground.


The Female Quixote was first published in 1752. My edition is by Oxford University Press, in their World’s Classics series, from 1998 (textual apparatus copyright 1989). There’s a newer edition from 2008.

A Still Life

Josie George has been ill most of her life, on and off. She’s never had a diagnosis, or more accurately, she’s had many: chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, psychosomatic, and a dozen more. None has quite described what happens to her body: the dragging fatigue, the hot leaden pain in her legs, the fainting, the immobility. She has a mobility scooter, and her mother and best friend both live nearby, so she’s not without help, but the pain and the indignity are still there. Her young son, age ten at the time of this book’s writing, knows her bad days well enough to be able to get himself dinner or entertain himself in the evenings, when he has to.

The book is structured in four parts, seasonal: winter, spring, summer, autumn. In every part, George oscillates between past (“Then”) and present (untitled sections). Then contains the story of her childhood, the early manifestations of her illness, the way it has affected her relationships—an early, terrifying boyfriend from her church, who controlled and manipulated her and coerced her into sex at the age of thirteen; an ex-husband who did nothing bad except to be the wrong person for her—and the work she has loved to do: early jobs in an office, typing up invoices; in a care home for the elderly, which she loves with the passion of someone called to the work; at a library in a high school, where she reads and talks to the children for whom that room is a refuge. The present is the story of the year she spends writing the book—2017-2018, I think, judging by the date of the foreword—during which she raises her son, spends a lot of time observing the motions of the world around her, and, most unexpectedly, falls in love.

George’s response to physical limitation is an extraordinary attentiveness to what is around her. Her capacity to attend, to note, to see, to connect, is heightened by the extra time and effort it takes her to get anywhere. In one beautiful, bravura passage, she’s in her local community centre, listening to Vivaldi, and the movements of everyone around her in the cafe become somehow, miraculously, rhythmically entwined with the music:

A pause in the arrangement followed by a considered, swelling note coincides with a man bracing to leave his armchair opposite, veins thick on his hands, and a nose-scratch behind him catches the staccato note that follows. I watch a coat shrugged off in perfect 3/4 time. A slow cello joins and I watch an elderly woman raise knife and fork with each glide of the bow: a fragile, hesitant conductor […] Thank goodness for the days when my tight, egotistical hold on a hoarded reality slips and I can see it all for what it is again: that nothing and no-one is separate.

A Still Life, Josie George, p. 316

It’s common, in works about chronically ill and disabled people, to either find or seek a sense of inspiration in them; to gain the impression that the life of a sick person is designed specifically in order to make you, in your whole body, marvel at the wonder of their continued ability to exist. It’s patronizing, and wrong, and I also have a complicated relationship with it, since I too am a chronically ill and disabled person (one entire organ has failed to work since I was three, for reasons best known to itself). George could be seen, I suppose, as inspirational, but that would be to ignore the thread that runs through her work, fierce and gentle, of choice. She writes about choice throughout A Still Life, and it’s not the frantic, choose-not-to-be-sick capitalistic fetishization of productivity and well-being and mindfulness, although she talks about a time when she tried to be that person. It’s about raising her son to see that the body does not limit the mind, that pain and suffering and difficulty are never all that there is, and that, to a very large extent, you can decide whether to despair or not. You can decide what stories to tell yourself; you can decide how you see your own life.

I carry power inside of me. I carry it hot and ripe. I need only point my will and move, infinitesimally slow and ordinary but forward. It doesn’t need to be dramatic or impressive. No one need see it but me and him, as we hang the laundry together, as I pull the plug on the dirty dishwasher, as we decide to watch nature programmes on my laptop in bed.

Power is given and taken, but not all of it. Never all of it.

A Still Life, p. 119

A little later, she talks again about how to approach life from a slowed-down vantage. It’s not all calm acceptance; there are days when she is furious, frightened, when it takes too long to walk from room to room and she feels like time is wasted; when she has fallen on the bathroom floor and must crawl to her bed, grateful her son is at school; when she is so sick and in pain that she can’t move from bed in the first place. Buddhist teaching helps her with some of this: to understand that pain is occurring to her but is not all. She writes about acting where and as she can, about the nature of resting in a world that glorifies work, and about how it is possible to rest badly as well as to rest well. (Anyone who has stuffed their brain with Netflix and Twitter late into the night, then felt vaguely hungover the next morning, will recognize this. She admits she’s done it too; among George’s great qualities as a narrating voice, one of them is the distinct lack of judgment or superiority. One gets the impression she would find any assertions of superiority intensely funny.)

I believe in gentle, creative, practical action now above all else: conscious, malleable, chosen. Action not to prove my worth or meet anyone’s expectations, but an unseen, calm momentum. Action that looks life straight in the eye.

A Still Life, p. 142

In the twenty-first century, especially in the past twelve months, where it has been proved one hundred thousand times in the UK alone that a human life has value to our government only insofar as it can perform as a productive economic unit, this is a radical assertion. George invites us to the quietest of revolutions. It’s not uplit or #inspo; it’s something much better. It’s the idea of becoming. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see this book on the Barbellion Prize shortlist next year.


A Still Life is published by Bloomsbury on 18 February, 2021.

All the Birds in the Sky

I read this in a way that I had sort of tacitly agreed with myself to stop doing: in great big tearing gulps, all at once, the whole thing in a day, which has left me with a book hangover and a sense that it needs digestion before being written about. I think it’s likely I won’t write such a long or detailed review here as some of my more recent ones have been, but that’s okay—a lot of my new attitude towards reading and writing is an experiment, so some trial and error is par for the course.

Which is probably what Laurence would say, Laurence being one half of the duo-tagonists of this book. He is a maths and science genius when we meet him, in the eighth grade, being brutally bullied. Patricia, our other main character, is a witch. But while Laurence is always capable of using his skills (to, for instance, build a two-second time machine with schematics he finds on the internet, which brings him to the attention of some grown-up geeks who will shape his adult life), Patricia is often unable to control or command hers for months at a time. We first meet her, age six, realizing she can talk to birds, and being directed by one of them to the Parliamentary Tree, where she is asked a seemingly unanswerable riddle; but the memory of this fades with time, and she is only sporadically able to communicate with animals, or use astral travel, until the crisis of her own experiences with bullying at school causes her to run away. You might think there’s a touch of gender essentialism in making Laurence’s power quintessentially male-inflected and Patricia’s quintessentially feminized: when Patricia speaks to the tree, it tells her “a witch serves nature”, which makes her wonder: if a witch serves nature and nature serves Laurence, would following the path of magic lead me to nothing more exciting than serving Laurence?

All the Birds isn’t totally interested in answering these questions—about power and interference—on a macro level, although it acknowledges them (trained witches, as Patricia eventually is, are constantly warned against Aggrandizement, or doing anything that might a) affect the course of the world too much, or b) make them feel that they themselves are any more important than “specks on a speck”). Patricia and Laurence argue in explicit terms about ethics: Laurence belives morals are derived from principles, Patricia that they’re situational. But ultimately—even though each of them ends up making choices that bring humanity closer to either abject destruction, or another chance at life—the novel is about two people, and the responsibilities they bear towards each other. There’s a touch of disproportion here, in that we both know by the end of the book that Patricia and Laurence really are just specks on a speck, and yet we’re also being asked to care the most about them; I’m not sure All the Birds is completely coherent in its riffs on the ideas of Chosen Ones and specialness vs. just doing what’s in your power to make the world a safer, kinder place.

I sort of don’t mind, though. Anders’s narrative tone oscillates between the arch and the urgent in a way that jolts a reader rather pleasantly: I found myself snorting at descriptions of the assassin Theodolphus Rose, determined to kill both Laurence and Patricia as children, who eats a poisoned ice-cream sundae in a suburban mall Cheesecake Factory and has to self-administer the antidote. His later attempts to get closer to them involve being hired as their school guidance counselor, and inadvertently becoming the most beloved educator in the school. These early sections might seem manic, I suppose, but they reminded me of Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett at their satirical best—auspicious stylistic forbears for a novel about both science and magic. Later descriptions of the hAcKcOlLeCtIvE [sic] in the Bay Area where Laurence works on a wormhole machine that might save ten percent of humanity from a warming planet, or Danger Books, a San Francisco secondhand bookshop and absinthe bar where area witches congregate, are as assured as, and warmer than, anything out of Gibson or Gaiman. Ernesto, a witch whose touch supercharges anything organic (including himself) and Isobel, a scientist whose fear for her planet leads her to the brink of despair, could both have come straight out of Jeff VanderMeer’s Area X novels. And in between the descriptions of our protagonists as children and adults just doing their thing, we get glimpses of a rather sinister world; the curriculum they follow, the Saarinian Programme, seems designed to have them memorizing and repeating obscure texts by rote (for instance, the speeches of Rutherford B. Hayes, which becomes a sort of running joke), and their families appear even more damaged and desensitized by late capitalism than is usual. (Patricia’s parents lock her in her room for a week at one point; her sister Roberta clearly tortures small animals; Laurence’s father is so terrified at the thought of falling behind in his work that he can’t even consider taking an afternoon off to go watch a rocket launch with his son.) The scene-setting and the set dressing in All the Birds is a big part of the fun (it would make a terrific mini-series). If the whole apocalypse part seems muddled, well, apocalypses usually are.


All the Birds in the Sky was published by Tor Books in the US in 2016; in the UK, where my copy originated, it’s published by Titan Books.

Without Prejudice

~~Some spoilers may follow. Trigger/content warnings for open racism and sexism, rape, sexual coercion~~

Without Prejudice, one of the six entries in Penguin’s new Black Britain: Writing Back reprint series (curated by Bernardine Evaristo), is a crime novel from 1997 that both speaks urgently to contemporary issues and reveals just how far we’ve come in twenty-odd years–though often this is less a question of battles being won than of the fight simply moving underground. Lee Mitchell, the protagonist, is a barrister from a working-class Caribbean background; one of only two women in her chambers, and the only Black person at all, she comes up against constant institutional resistance, from colleagues as well as clients. When a tasty, high-profile fraud case involving the Omartians, a City investing family, lands on her desk, she takes it in the knowledge that this could be The Case, the win–or at least the media attention–that catapults her into the big-time. It wouldn’t be a courtroom drama, of course, if things went exactly as planned, and soon it becomes clear that Lee’s client, Clive Omartian, could destroy everything she’s worked so hard to achieve.

One of the great features of Without Prejudice is that it is likely to surprise even relatively sanguine and realistic people about the prevalence of biogtry in English society. It’s not that it exists, but the sheer nakedness of its expression, that is so jolting. Clive is pretty clearly some degree of wrong’un from the start, so perhaps his increasingly sexualized remarks come as less of a revelation, but even Lee’s head of chambers, the odious Giles Townsend, thinks of her as “abrasive” (whilst also secretly pulling strings to get his 23-year-old lover, to whom he grotesquely refers as his niece, installed as Lee’s pupil), and the celebrity barrister George Amery reflects, unbecomingly, on how much he’ll enjoy “taking this arrogant bitch down a peg or two”. These are such classic instances of sexist-inflected language that I felt almost impatient with them; I learned that “abrasive”, “brusque”, “intimidating”, “rude”, “cold” and “arrogant” were dog-whistle euphemisms when I was eighteen or so–which admittedly was late; I got lucky not having to learn sooner, and I was at university in the early 2010s, when fourth-wave feminism was just stirring and #MeToo wasn’t even a speck on the horizon. (None of us, as far as I can recall, had Twitter.) So the language and undisguised nature of the prejudice on display in this novel from 1997 struck me as rather self-evident, or even quaint. Which, of course, is the most perfect illustration of how we’ve changed since then, or how we haven’t.

Although it’s a subplot and not particularly connected to Lee’s Omartian trial, the aspect of the book that conveys this most effectively is the way Lee’s friend Simone is treated when she makes an allegation of rape against a man whom she had been seeing casually, and whom she let into her house to use the bathroom one evening. Simone doesn’t want to prosecute at first, and when her rapist leaves the house, she washes herself thoroughly and bleaches everything (including, horrifyingly, herself; Williams writes that a juror winces at this). Both of these actions, plus the fact that she is still legally married to but separated from her husband, who has left her because she has miscarried a much-wanted baby, and the fact that she was sleeping with her rapist but (horrors!) not in love with him, torpedo her case in court. Here, for instance, is a portion of her cross-examination by her rapist’s defence barrister:

“Mrs Wilson, let’s talk about the pictures. I suggest that those bruises were due to sexual activity that was a little, shall we say, more energetic than usual.”

“I don’t get excited by being hurt, Mr. Amery.”

“And what does, to use your words, Mrs. Wilson, ‘excite’ you?”

Without Prejudice, Nicola Williams, p. 259

It is not inconceivable now that a defence barrister would take such a line: the rough-sex defence for serious harm or murder was only outlawed in the UK in July of 2020, less than a year ago. (Please note, by the way, that the URL for that article shows us that it is not archived on the Independent’s website under “news/uk/crime”, but under “life-style/women”. Clearly, we haven’t made all that many intellectual and cultural leaps since 1997.) It is slightly less conceivable that a vulnerable witness would be allowed to take the stand, in a highly emotive case, before a jury, with apparently no guidance from her lawyers with regards to how to give her testimony, and these days Simone might not have to appear in court in person at all (page 35 of the government’s Victim Strategy from 2018 suggests as much, anyway). For which, reading Williams’s meticulous account of her cross-examination by the defence and the Crown’s failure to assist her, one can only say thank God.

There are other, telling moments that bring class into the equation, as must always eventually happen in discussions of British inequality. Lee is at last alerted to the presence of a mole in her team by a former client, Ray Willis, a career criminal whose defence she has conducted many times. Ray manages this under the nose of a minder from a higher-up, by giving her a copy of Julius Caesar, which was, he tells her, the only thing he paid attention to in school before he dropped out. Paging through it, Lee finds that he has highlighted the famous statement about “yon Cassius”, with his “lean and hungry look”, and realizes to whom it refers. Williams knows that this is something a snob would consider implausible; when Ray is visited later by the truly awful Clive, “he had a bemused look on his face: ‘So it’s true, a Peckham lad who reads Shakespeare as well as Loaded.'” To Clive, it’s incongruous, even suspicious; but poor people read Shakespeare, and like and understand him as well as Harrow-educated fraudulent financiers do. Perhaps better: Ray loves Caesar so much because he sees reflected in it a relentless jostling for power that he recognizes from his own life. In another incident that blends class and race prejudice, Lee is mistaken for a defendant in a drugs case by a young Oxbridge clerk on summer work experience (who is, to top it all, late for the relevant trial). Her response is delicious (“Please, don’t say anything more. We’re done here.”), but she faces it every day, from every conceivable angle.

Something my housemate and I like to talk about is: where are our blind spots now? Broadly speaking, racism, sexism and homophobia are the “how did you not get that was bad?” issues of our grandparents’ generation; our parents struggle with neurodiversity and transsexuality; we, I suspect, will be intolerant of transhumans, people who believe themselves to be a consciousness which belongs more rightly in a mainframe than a body. It’s interesting to see an author twenty-five years ago trying to grapple with that herself. Williams introduces, very briefly, a trans woman named Tonia, who used to be Winston and who went to school with Simone and Lee. When Simone cannot acquire justice through the courts, she turns to vigilanteism. [trigger warning now for rape/revenge rape] Her rapist, Steve, is “fooled” by the stunning Tonia in a club, goes back to her place, and is promptly beaten to the ground and raped by that same Tonia, who still has a penis, while Simone looks on dispassionately from the shadows. As trans representation goes, it’s very, very bad. Cis straight men have historically responded to their fear of being “fooled” or “tricked” by enacting murderous violence upon the bodies of trans women; to suggest that the threat is the other way around may look like empowerment, but is in fact an early manifestation of what’s now turned into the bathroom debate. Tonia endangers her own life to enact vengeance for Simone. (And are we to assume that she can simply summon an erection on command?) That scene is hazardous, and more than anything else, that’s what marks this novel as out-of-date. The rest of it, though, is eye-opening. I have two more reprints from the Writing Back series–one a historical novel, one an exploration of ’90s Britain’s mental health system–and look forward to exploring them both.


Without Prejudice was originally published in the UK in 1997; my edition, from Penguin’s Black Britain: Writing Back series, is published 4 February 2021.