June 2021 Wrap-Up

I had another piece of absurdly good news in June, which was that I’d gotten into the London Library’s Emerging Writers Programme. You can read a bit more about it here. It offers free membership to the LL for a year, for research and a work space; mentoring with published writers; peer support in groups with my fellow Emerging Writers (love that, “emerging”, like we’re coming out of a cocoon); and networking and social opportunities. Plus, the incredible gift of knowing that someone else (someones else) took my writing seriously. Hurrah!

It was also a pretty good month for reading, if slightly scattered. I read twelve books, some pretty long.

The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien: Another reading voyage prompted by the Prancing Pony podcast hosts, and a nice re-read of a book I’d last picked up well over a decade ago. The standard line on The Hobbit is that it’s the goofy, kid-friendly fairytale that Tolkien wrote before he decided to get serious with The Lord of the Rings, and to a certain extent that’s true, but a close re-read brings up plenty of seriousness, in themes like the importance of hope and courage and in the allusions to be found in Tolkien’s etymology. The chapter “Riddles in the Dark” is never not good, is it; never not terrifically creepy. It reminded me of how potentially scary The Hobbit is for a young reader: there are a lot of dark and claustrophobic situations, a lot of caves and mountains and dank unpleasant environments. It stands up magnificently to a re-read.

The Promise, by Damon Galgut: A family drama set in South Africa over several decades; each chapter returns to the farmstead for the funeral of one more family member. The metaphor for the deadening poison of a racist society is clear enough, and the constantly deferred titular promise–that the family’s black maid Salome will be given ownership of the house where she has lived for decades–is not a particularly subtle iteration of that metaphor either. What I enjoyed about it, and what makes me interested in Galgut’s older work, is his stylistic bravura, the way he sweeps in and out of characters’ thoughts and perceptions like Virginia Woolf, the old-fashioned but seemingly effortless cinematic eye of his narration. He can move between characters in a single paragraph, sometimes in a single sentence, without ever fully disorienting the reader. It’s a huge technical accomplishment.

Body of Glass (He, She and It), by Marge Piercy: First published under the former title, now published under the latter; I don’t know why. This won the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1993, and is a thoughtful science fictional exploration of artificial intelligence, cyborg humanity, and Jewish history: it is set in an America where most of the population lives in the Glop (gigantic conurbations reaching down the East Coast and across the Midwest), except for those employed and housed by megacorporations. The few exceptions are smaller communities that have made themselves useful; our protagonist Shira returns to one, her hometown, at the novel’s start. Her community is entirely Jewish, and the creation of a cyborg, Yod, to defend the town from physical and cyber attacks is an explicit parallel to the tale of a golem created by Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel in the ghetto of sixteenth-century Prague to defend its Jewish population from murderous Christian Czechs. There’s perhaps a little too much sentimentalism about sex and male-female relations for my personal taste, but it’s nearly thirty years old, and ninety percent of the book is thought-provoking enough about religion, science and freedom that for me it was overall a success.

The Fell, by Sarah Moss: Sarah Moss is the only person by whom I would want to read a lockdown novel (with the exception of Sarah Hall’s Burntcoat; both are out in the autumn). The Fell doesn’t reach the heights of Ghost Wall for tension, dread and horror, but I’m not sure anything else Moss writes ever will, and it comes closer than Summerwater did. (And it is also by no means the case that tension, dread and horror are the only aims here.) Following an ordinary single mother, Kate, as she leaves her house for an illicit walk on the fells during a time when she is supposed to be quarantining (a colleague at the cafe where she works has tested positive for coronavirus), The Fell also slips into the perspectives of her teenage son Matthew, her elderly neighbour Alice, and Rob, part of the mountain rescue team that must search for her when darkness falls and she doesn’t return. It’s a novel the experience of which will deepen with re-reading; Kate’s encounter with mortality, for instance, is so subtly seeded with intent that it’s startling to realize she may not want to be saved. Another excellent showing from Moss.

As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner [spoilers, I guess?]: A summer re-read. I can’t read Faulkner in any other season, I’m not sure why. This time around, the cruel humour of the novel felt more apparent than ever; the Bundren family’s utter haplessness and emotional melodrama is so darkly funny (Anse “mumbling his mouth” and not “begrudging” his dead wife anything; furious bastard Jewel; weird, confused little Vardaman). And yet it does feel cruel to be told to laugh at them. I was particularly unnerved this time by the fate of Dewey Dell, whose very name signposts the only important thing about her–her femininity and fertility–and whose fumbling attempts to procure an abortifacient result in her rape. Why can’t Faulkner and I coexist more easily? I find his writing magnetic and also deeply, deeply disturbing; Flannery O’Connor is the same. I want to argue with them both.

Resistance and Transformation: On Fairy Tales, by Mari Ness: Read for the Barbellion Prize, so will say little about it other than a description; it’s a collection of columns that originally appeared on Tor.com about classic French fairytales and their roots in social mobility, resistance to autocratic monarchy, and salon culture. Accessible, smart, and well worth a read for its discussion of some obscurer stories (like “Bearskin”, which I knew almost nothing about!)

America on Fire, by Elizabeth Hinton: A nonfiction examination of the history of Black civil rebellion in America from the 1960s to the 1990s. All of last summer’s books seemed to be aimed at helping white people be less racist, or at least be able to know racism when they see it, and that’s worthwhile, but America on Fire is a different proposition, providing a rigorously researched timeline that gives the lie to any notion that 2020’s protests were new, unprecedented or unwarranted. Hinton describes Black communities in small to medium-sized cities all across America, for decades, taking to the streets or arming themselves for self-protection, and describes merciless campaigns of terror waged by white citizens and police departments. This is really your next step for understanding “how we got to here”: after reading Hinton’s book, you’ll realise we’ve always been here.

The Wolf Den, by Elodie Harper: A historical novel detailing the experiences of Amara, a slave in Pompeii’s brothel (known as the lupanar, hence the title). Amara was once a free woman, but her father died in debt and she was sold as a household slave; her master’s jealous wife has had her sold again, as a whore. Much of the novel revolves around her attempts to make more money (through schemes like managing financial loans to desperate women in the town) and gain her freedom. Although Harper can’t inhabit her Roman characters’ mindsets with the conviction of a Renault or a Mantel–I never lost sight of the fact that I was reading a modern historical novel–she does create characters for whom it’s easy to care, much like Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls.

And the Band Played On, by Randy Shilts: It took me a week to get through this 600-page investigative/documentary history of the early years of the AIDS crisis, but that’s not because it’s hard to read. Shilts musters a cast of characters including activists, doctors, politicians, bureaucrats, and private citizens, all of whom give their testimony about the years from 1979 to 1984, when a new disease began to ravage the queer community of America from coast to coast, with no apparent cause or treatment method. Enraging and heart-rending in its depiction of official indifference and political infighting, without which tens of thousands more lives could have been saved, it’s also a portrait of a community that finally found its feet in advocating for its own survival. Shilts himself was diagnosed HIV-positive a year after the book was first published, and died of complications from AIDS in 1994. And the Band Played On is a worthy legacy.

First Comes Love, by Tom Rasmussen: Rasmussen is a non-binary male-bodied person in a relationship with a man, who has always wanted to get married but never really known why. In the chapters of this chatty, funny, often surprisingly deep book, they examine what marriage means when you don’t fit a very narrow “standard”–whether that means gay, nb, polyamorous, or something else. They speak to a woman who married a ghost, to a wedding planner for multi-millionaires, to their friend Gemma from Lancaster. They examine how class, particularly in Britain, determines the tone and aesthetic of a wedding, and the relationship between the unique event of a wedding and the long effort of maintaining a marriage. It’s not always as rigorous in its tone and in avoiding repetition as I’d like, but I was very pleasantly surprised by it and will be passing it on; I can think of many people my age (and not) who would appreciate the questions Rasmussen raises and the way they discuss them.

My Ántonia, by Willa Cather: I keep re-reading this (well, this is the second time in two years) and finding new beauty in it every time. It’s a perfect summer choice, set as it is on the Great Plains of Nebraska, and written as it is with attention to details of season and weather, though without ever becoming enervating in its landscape description. Cather’s narrator, Jim Burden, grows from a young boy to a man in early middle age, looking back on his youth in the West, although like Cather (and like me), Jim originates in the Virginia mountains. But the novel is very oriented towards the plains, and the titular character of My Ántonia, while an individual, is also an archetype, an homage to the pioneer women who came from Germany and Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) and Sweden and Norway to settle the American West. Reading Cather brings home the combined dignity and humility of the human state; I don’t think I can be clearer on her magnificence.

Emma, by Jane Austen: Another re-read, this time of a novel I hadn’t visited since I was fourteen. Oddly, although I’ve always gotten on pretty easily with most of Austen’s work, Emma managed to repulse me somehow, and I hadn’t sought it out again since first reading. Coming back to it at twenty-eight, it absolutely shines: the characters are drawn without mercy but with terrific good humour, the dialogue and the wit both sparkle, and the whole thing is just a lot more charming than either Persuasion or Mansfield Park, the former of which is gorgeous but very melancholy and the latter of which often seems to put people off Austen with its unappealing heroine. But Emma the second time around? Magnificent. Maybe her best novel of all. I do think that having spent a decade socializing as an adult equipped me much better to find its rich veins of humour and absurdity; teenage me just thought everyone in it was kind of horrible, which is of course true, but not the whole truth.

What have you been reading, or re-reading, in June? Do you have books you can only read in certain seasons? Do you have summery books?

May 2021 Wrap-Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 2021 Wrap-Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Glass of Blessings

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

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

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

A Glass of Blessings, p. 7

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

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

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

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


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

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.