The Week’s Book, #2: The Five

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The first thing to know about The Five is that it is a book defined by its approach; the second thing is that the approach is long overdue. The facts are these: in the late summer and autumn of 1888, from the end of August to November, five women were murdered in London’s Whitechapel neighbourhood. They appeared to have been killed in the same way, and presumably by the same person. That person was never caught, but the persona that solidified around him (though, of course, we can’t know for sure that he was a him) goes by the name “Jack the Ripper”. Victorian society and 21st-century society both possess an unhealthy obsession with the sickening minutiae of Jack’s crimes–the way in which he physically mutilated the women he killed, and the almost supernatural ease with which he seemed to vanish into the gas-lit, fog-bound metropolis. Of the people he murdered, the most that any story about them seems to agree on is that they were sex workers. That “fact” (which is not true) has obscured both the actual lives they lived, and the reality of their murders: that they were not nubile doxies hanging about on street corners with artfully tousled Helena Bonham-Carter hair, but rather were overwhelmingly middle-aged, alcoholic, homeless women whose primary failing was to have been left bereft, in one way or another, of the male protection without which a nineteenth-century woman was considered functionally worthless.

Hallie Rubenhold is redressing the balance. The Five is a group biography; each of the women considered “canonical” victims of the Ripper murders is given a section of her own, which consists of three to four chapters that trace her life history from birth to the night she died. The most deliberate structural choice in the book is that Rubenhold never describes a murder. She’s writing with an agenda about which she is not remotely ashamed: women who are murdered are more than the story of their deaths. Starting with what can be determined about each woman’s early life–her parents, her place of birth, her place in the social hierarchy–she uses a sometimes scanty primary source record, bolstered with intelligently chosen secondary sources that provide contextual information about the experience of working-class life in late nineteenth-century England. Inevitably, she is forced to engage in a certain amount of speculation: in the absence of CCTV or diaries from the women themselves, it’s often difficult to know why they moved house, for instance, or whether the name that appears in parish records is the right one. But she has an excellent capacity for triangulation: she frequently uses that aforementioned historical context in conjunction with a primary source to arrive at a conclusion of what is overwhelmingly likely about a particular woman’s life, and it is convincing.

The most patently false “fact” about the canonical five is that they were all sex workers (or, as Rubenhold writes throughout the book, “prostitutes”; I assume this is for historical continuity and she is using the word as it was deployed in police reports). There is no evidence that four out of the five women were professional sellers of sex. (The fifth, Mary Jane Kelly, who did work both in a brothel and freelance, is the one about whom we know the least.) However, every single one of them is known to have struggled with alcohol addiction. Mostly, drinking problems and the resultant financial strain were responsible for the implosion of their marriages or common-law relationships. They were all–again, except for Mary Jane Kelly–murdered outside, in the middle of the night. The unbearably sad conclusion is that their killer was targeting, not youthful sex workers who were lying down to ply their trade, but middle-aged homeless women who were lying down because they were asleep. Rubenhold makes it terribly clear that being a woman “outside” conventional societal roles–a woman separated from her husband or widowed, an addict, a beggar–was conflated, often fatally, with being a woman of loose morals. No distinction was made between the broken and the fallen. Not only is The Five a lucid and frankly addictive group biography (the pages really do turn themselves); it also makes painfully clear that a country whose social welfare programs are limited to the application of shame, humiliation, and a rigid code of so-called morality is not a country anyone ought to wish to return to. (I, like Rubenhold, will leave you to infer the contemporary political resonance.)

It is, in short, an excellent book as well as a much-needed one: it mingles true crime and well-researched history with narrative energy and Rubenhold’s ever-present passion for her subject. It’s going to do well without my help, but you really should read it.

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The Week’s Book, #1: Nicholas Nickleby

imageNicholas Nickleby constitutes this year’s entry in my Annual Winter Dickens project. It’s only the second novel he ever wrote (third if you count The Pickwick Papers, which is arguably more a series of sketches than a fictional narrative per se), and there’s a lot of youthful energy fizzing from the pages. Young Nicholas is very much the action hero: he’s frequently physically violent when he feels honour is at stake, usually either his or his sister’s. Wackford Squeers and Ralph Nickleby, the two villains of the piece, are extremely melodramatic: they clench their fists, turn white, and snarl, with astonishing regularity. This level of implicit theatricality makes a good deal of sense in a novel so given to explicit theatricality; the Crummles family, with whom Nicholas falls in, are traveling actors, and many of the best scenes in the book involve them.

Characterization suffers somewhat as a result of this trait. Better and more informed minds than mine have written theses on Dickens’s relationship with the theatre, and on his use (and subversion) of comic and tragic stereotypes in his fiction. The Brothers Cheeryble, who give Nicholas a chance when all hope seems lost, and who delight in doing good works without being thanked, might be better named the Brothers Implausyble. Kate, Nicholas’s beautiful, vulnerable sister, is a classically boring Dickens heroine, as is Madeline Bray, the object of Nicholas’s affections. There are, though, moments of rupture when characters – usually minor ones – confound expectations: the madman in love with Mrs. Nickleby, for instance, in his small-clothes and grey worsted stockings, falling down the chimney.

All this said, it is a tremendously enjoyable reading experience. For all that it’s extremely episodic (and long – 777 pages in my edition), its fictional world also feels smaller than that of Dickens’s later novels; I’m thinking especially of The Old Curiosity Shop, which was the last Dickens I read and which contains several characters whose relevance, even at the time, thoroughly escaped me, whereas pretty much all of the characters in Nickleby recur frequently enough, and have enough to do, that a reader can keep track. The least successful of these, for my money, is John Browdie, who seems to exist mostly so that Dickens can write bad Yorkshire dialect in the depiction of an honest countryman. It’s not subtle, and it’s nowhere near the heights of elegant connectivity that he reaches in Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend: in Nickleby, Dickens’s love of coincidence is still just an excuse for clumsy plotting, instead of a commentary on the fundamental intersectionality of all levels of society. But it’s very fun, and you can sense that with this novel he found his feet.

Reading Diary: long and short, or, God and sex

28191591Black Leopard, Red Wolf, by Marlon James (out in Feb): This outrageously good-looking book is also outrageously long: well over 600 pages in proof. It is also only the first in a projected trilogy, entitled Dark Star, focusing on African mythology. Neil Gaiman’s puffed it as an African Tolkien with flashes of Angela Carter, which actually doesn’t seem too far off. It focuses on a mercenary known only as Tracker, whose prodigious gift for finding and following scent is mostly used to hunt down debtors and shiftless husbands until he is recruited to find a missing boy who might just be the rightful heir to the throne of the kingdom. James frames most of the narrative as a story told under interrogation, presumably to keep us in suspense about how Tracker comes to be imprisoned as a result of his quest, but for long stretches of time it’s easy to forget about that. Chronological leaps, a profusion of characters, and the aforementioned sheer length of the book meant that for a fair fraction of its pages–maybe a fifth to a quarter–I was reasonably confused about what was happening and whose side we ought to be on. Luckily, I think that’s exactly the reaction James intends; he wants people to need to read Black Leopard, Red Wolf over and over again. And for all that it’s baggy, it’s also intense and immersive; I read it over four days and could barely stand having to do other things like sleep and go to work. The book is rich in brilliant imagery–a city built in the trunks and branches of enormous baobab trees; a fish the size of an island; murderous spirits who walk on the ceiling–and much of that is imagery that white readers won’t be automatically familiar with. James also does Tolkien one better by making (gasp!) explicit sex, and explicit queerness, part of his world. Black Leopard won’t be for everyone, but it’s an incredible experience.

51zSm5C7lWL._SX326_BO1204203200_The Hook, by Raffaella Barker: Books like The Hook fascinate me because they are clearly the products of skilled professionals, and yet they would be virtually unpublishable if anyone tried to sell them to an editor tomorrow. The Hook was first published in 1996 and there must have been something in the water in English literature in the ’80s and ’90s, because those decades are full of books like this, where–it seems–the author is just telling us a story. How crazy that sounds now! How crazy that it sounds crazy! It’s not that The Hook has no plot; au contraire; the minute we meet eighteen-year-old Christy and learn that her mother’s just died, she’s dropped out of sixth form, her father’s bought a trout farm in the countryside, and she’s met a man named Mick at a bar, we know bad things are afoot. Maybe it’s just that Barker appears to be writing without an agenda. She does tell a story about a young woman being led astray by an older man who is not all he says he is, and let down by the people who ought to be protecting her, but it’s hardly #MeToo territory. There is nothing in the narrating voice that forces us to see the novel’s events in a political light or even in the light of wider society. I can’t decide whether that makes it incredibly subtle and delicate in a way that publishing is missing out on now, or whether The Hook simply has…well…no hook. Or maybe a bit of both. Has anyone else read Barker? What do you think?

original_400_600Quarantine, by Jim Crace: Crace is an atheist, but this book–maybe the one for which he’s best known–reimagines the experience of Christ’s forty days in the wilderness, during which, according to biblical authority, he was tempted by the devil but rejected his advances. In Crace’s version, Jesus isn’t in the same place on his life trajectory: he’s a much younger man, almost a boy (and he never goes by the name Christ, being referred to by the narrating voice always as “Jesus”). The “devil” is a man named Musa, a merchant, wife-beater, and, later, a violent rapist, whose near-fatal fever is unwittingly cured by Jesus on his first night in the desert. The caves of quarantine are not as deserted as he would like; others are in them, seeking other things. Aphas, an old man, wants a cure for his cancer; Shim wants the enlightenment that he believes he’s entitled to; Marta wants to get pregnant; Miri and Musa are there simply because the caravan in which they were traveling left them behind. Throughout the novel, characters wrestle with what they want. Crace shows us that desire is often better left unfulfilled: one of the primary questions of the book is whether everyone would have been better off if Musa had not been miraculously cured. And yet Crace’s vision doesn’t seem so bleak, at least not to me. Jesus doesn’t survive his forty-day fast–no one could–but Musa seems to see him at the end of the book. In a sort of Schrodinger’s resurrection, Jesus is neither clearly living nor clearly dead, and it’s suggested that Musa’s inveterate storytelling habit becomes the catalyst for the New Testament narrative that we know now. Meanwhile, Marta and Miri’s friendship and eventual emancipation is, for me, the most Christian element of the book: two people finding comfort, acceptance, and courage in each other’s presence. It’s a gorgeous piece of work.

the-dreamers-9781471173561_lgThe Dreamers, by Karen Thompson Walker (out in Feb): This is exactly the sort of science fiction that will receive extremely positive mainstream press attention and high sales; like Station Eleven, another of that kind, it deals with the fall-out of a world-changing event, not so much with the nature or provenance of that event itself. In a small college town in California, students start falling asleep. They’re not in a coma–they’re just sleeping–but nothing will wake them up. Brain scans reveal that they’re dreaming, and not only that, but they’re dreaming more vividly, with more intense cerebral activity, than any normal person. Thomspon Walker follows several point-of-view characters (a few more than she needs to, although she keeps an omniscient narrator throughout, so that pesky problem of differentiating voice doesn’t arise): an isolated freshman named Mei; the idealistic and unusual boy she falls in love with, Matthew; one of her professors, who left his wife for another man decades ago; another college student, Rebecca, who becomes pregnant just before succumbing to sleep; a young couple, Annie and Ben, and their newborn baby, Grace; and two little girls whose father is a doomsday prepper. On the whole, I agree with other assessments I’ve seen of The Dreamers around the Internet: the style is lovely and languid, there’s a bit too much fetishizing of babies and breeding, and everything that’s written about Rebecca’s situation reads painfully like an anti-abortion manifesto. I’d quite like to read The Testament of Jessie Lamb, by Jane Rogers, which deals with similar issues and won the Clarke Award in 2012; The Dreamers, meanwhile, is diverting and interesting while you’re reading it, but has faded fairly quickly from my memory.

51FE8d3qeHL._SX287_BO1204203200_The English Gentleman’s Mistress, by Douglas Sutherland: This was published in the late ’80s by Debrett’s (yes, that Debrett’s), and constitutes a sort of tongue-in-cheek nature guide to that most peculiar inhabitant of high society, the gentleman’s mistress. In many ways, it’s funny and charming and contains some cracking anecdotes, including one meant to illustrate the difference between Frenchmen and Englishmen, in which one Frenchman casually informs another that he is sleeping with the latter’s wife, only to be met with “Oh yes? Tell me, is she any good at it these days?” In many other ways, it’s a startling reminder that the late 1980s were as rampant with gross sexism as the late 1880s: women are referred to as mares, for instance, with all of the sexual value judgments that the word implies, and this is clearly not a world in which any sensible woman would prefer having a career to being “kept”. A weird, often enjoyable, often really distressing little volume. I’m glad I have it, if only for self-educational purposes.

27220616Devotion, by Ros Barber: In the near future, just after the death of Richard Dawkins, moves are afoot to reclassify religious fundamentalism as a form of mental illness. In this climate, Dr Finlay Logan must assess the sanity of April Smith, a ninteen-year-old woman who has committed a religiously motivated act of mass murder. Logan himself is struggling to come to terms with the death of his daughter Flora in a skydiving accident; his grief is threatening to destroy his marriage, as his wife–Flora’s stepmother–is increasingly stymied by his inability to communicate his pain. Meanwhile, in the course of investigating April’s condition, Logan comes across a charismatic researcher named Gabrielle Salmon, who offers both him and April the chance to undergo a procedure that, she claims, will allow them to experience direct contact with the divine.

The ideas in Devotion are in many ways more compelling than the characters whose actions are meant to express those ideas: Logan is frustrating, selfish and self-pitying, while the event that drove April to murder is at best predictable, at worst a reduction of female pain to an inevitable origin in sexual trauma. I’m also uncertain about Barber’s portrayal of faith. She writes about it in a way that seems to see only three options: crazed, God-talks-to-me fundamentalism, pure atheism, and a kind of “spiritual-but-not-religious” state that manifests in a vague, fuzzy feeling of one-ness with all life. There are many other ways of experiencing what is generally referred to as the divine–there is an enormous distinction between “religious faith” and “religious fundamentalism”–and it would have been refreshing to see some more acknowledgment of that; it’s still so rare in mainstream literary fiction. Devotion is absolutely worth reading, though, even if it only goes halfway, and I’m slightly surprised that it was never on the Clarke Award shortlist.

9781783526215Don’t Hold My Head Down, by Lucy-Anne Holmes (out in Feb): The subtitle should make it pretty clear why I was interested in this. Holmes hit her mid-thirties and became aware–after a disappointing wank to Internet porn–that she wasn’t having nearly as good sex as she wanted. So she made a list (slow sex! A bit of kink! Maybe some bum stuff! Full-body orgasms!) and set off to see what she could find out about how to bang better. It’s a fun read, certainly, but much of it feels (and I accept that it’s very easy to criticize) a bit…basic? Not in terms of the sex she has–Holmes does more stuff in the name of let’s-see-what-this-is-like than I ever have–but in terms of the tone and the attitude, which is all a bit jolly-awkward-Bridget-Jones-falling-into-a-mud-puddle-whoopsy-I’m-such-a-silly-tit. There is a lot of caps lock. There are many exclamation points. A writer can’t help the person that they are, but I was hoping for something that I’d be able to connect to on an emotional level a bit more. Instead I found myself repeatedly thinking “for Christ’s sake, woman”, not helped by the fact that Holmes meets a man halfway through the book and ends up entering a serious relationship with him, eventually having a baby. Perhaps that’s meant to be a happy ending, but it did rather close off some avenues of exploration. Maybe I’ll have to write my own version of this book.

7B0DFC0F19-347A-4F63-B619-6C84B99E8F6F7DImg400John Henry Days, by Colson Whitehead: Before this I’d only read The Underground Railroad, but Whitehead’s reputation preceded him: he’s versatile and has a permanently active, connection-making mind that’s on full show in John Henry Days. John Henry is an American folk hero, although he probably did really live, in some form or another, a steeldriver on the C&O railroad. Faced with the prospect of losing his job to an automated steam drill, he’s said to have challenged the drill to a contest, and won, before dropping dead of exhaustion. Using this semi-historical, semi-mythological event as a thematic focal point, Whitehead riffs on the value of work, particularly on the value of work done by undervalued bodies (brown ones and/or female ones, predominantly), in late-capitalist America. His other protagonist, J. Sutter, is a black journalist who is on a junketeering streak: for months, he’s been at a PR event every day or night. His latest assignment is the official unveiling of the new John Henry postage stamp, and the John Henry Days festival, in the town of Talcott, West Virginia. Whitehead is so exuberantly creative, both with language (which he uses in the manner of an extremely skilled and show-off-y chef wielding a very sharp knife) and with the scope of his ambition (chapters range from the recounting of a violent Rolling Stones concert to the story of the first musician to put the folk ballad on paper), that sometimes the book feels unfocused. But who gives a shit when there’s this much going on?

Thoughts on this batch of reading: So much God stuff! So much sex stuff! An extremely long book and several pretty short ones! Also, I love how excited I’ve been by reading the paperbacks that I chose for myself in Crouch End a few weeks ago (in this batch, that was The HookQuarantineDevotion, and John Henry Days).

Books of the Year 2018: hardback fiction

It is much too difficult to narrow down to ten the 192 books I have so far read this year (two over my Goodreads goal of 190, but I still have ten days to hit my actual, crazy-person target of 200). Also, this must be the most diverse year of reading yet, in terms of genre as much as of reading literature by people of colour, women, and LBTQ folks. To make life easier for myself, this is the first of three Books of the Year lists, focusing on hardback fiction. The second will be a round-up of the best paperback fiction I read this year (e.g. older stuff, not published in 2018), and the third will be my nonfiction Books of the Year picks, both hardback and paperback.

36441056The Book of Joan, by Lidia Yuknavitch. In an ecologically ravaged future, what remains of humanity is a race of alabaster-skinned elites floating above the Earth on a platform ship called CIEL, run by the charismatic cult leader Jean de Men. Yuknavitch’s novel centers bodies, the female body especially, and the reproductive capacities of the female body: how bodies can literally tell stories, carry history, and be sites of political resistance. It is resonant with where we are now, as a world, in ways that are both subtle and in-your-face. I was surprised and saddened not to see it on the Women’s Prize or Man Booker Prize lists.

cover121907-mediumThe House of Impossible Beauties, by Joseph Cassara. I send this to everyone who loved A Little Life: it has the same feeling of youth, friendship, sexuality and the vivid mania of New York City. Based on the real-life House of Xtravaganza, the first exclusively Latinx drag house in NYC, the novel takes in both the beauty of the 1980s ball scene – the community, love, sisterhood and sass – and its dark flipside: the constant danger of physical and sexual violence, and the opening skirmishes of the community’s fight against HIV/AIDS. It’s beautifully written, and should have been on the Polari Prize list at the very least.

51xgptmawcl-_sx321_bo1204203200_The Wanderers, by Tim Pears. The Wanderers is actually the second book of a trilogy,  but you don’t need to have read the first to enjoy Tim Pears’s writing, or to become fully immersed in the world he recreates. This volume is set in Devon and Cornwall in 1913, following Leo Sercombe’s peregrinations after being cast out from his family’s cottage on the Prideaux estate, and Lottie Prideaux, his childhood playmate, as she fights to pursue an intellectual fascination with anatomy and dissection. His writing, both about nature and about the complexities of the human heart, is delicate and precise and always slightly oblique. A truly under-sung writer.

ursula20flight20coverThe Illumination of Ursula Flight by Anna-Marie Crowhurst. Ursula is born on the night of the Great Comet in 1664, just before the Restoration of Charles II. Her family is noble but needs money and so she is married off to the dour (and foul-smelling) Lord Tyringham, whose devoutness is matched only by his hypocrisy. She is suffocated by marriage; she takes joy in the Court, and in theatre, with ambitions to become a female playwright. Crowhurst’s research is worn lightly, and she’s also funny: Ursula’s observant and uncharitable teenage eye makes her a very enjoyable narrator. Perhaps unfairly overshadowed by The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock, this book is delightful.

31937362The Italian Teacher, by Tom Rachman. What does it mean to be an artist? Does genius excuse monstrosity? The Italian Teacher centers on Bear Bavinksy, a charismatic painter when we first meet him, in Rome in 1955, with his wife Natalie (nineteen years his junior) and son Charles, known as Pinch. Most of the novel is given over to Pinch and the ways in which his father’s fame, and his own thirst for approval, cripple his adult life. Art and art criticism, the terrible knowledge that artistic value is a mere function of consensus, and the anxiety of influence not only between artists, but from father to son: Rachman deals with them all in this deeply engrossing and moving novel.

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The proof cover is nicer than the finished cover, IMO.

The Overstory, by Richard Powers. There have been rumblings of critical dissent over this book – some people find it overly preachy stodge, while others think it brilliant. I’m in the latter camp. I don’t mind preaching in fiction if the prose moves me, and Powers’s does. There is also something intensely admirable about the ambition of a writer whose novel contains nine point-of-view characters, all of whom we are meant to care about but all of whom are also presented as being the least significant parts of a story that has been going on for a much, much longer time. As a fictional project, it’s one of the most deeply sophisticated and exciting things I’ve read for years, even if some of his characters don’t seem strictly necessary.

 

51ehaprfykl-_sx327_bo1204203200_Painter To the King, by Amy Sackville. Amy Sackville, in her third novel, zooms all the way in on the life and work of Diego Velazquez, King Felipe’s court painter for nearly forty years. While it might be described as a fictional biography, what Painter to the King does most consistently and remarkably is convey what it feels like to see the world as a painter does. Her prose style is gorgeously tactile, interested in texture and colour, lights and darks, heat and coolness, sky and earth. It’s maybe the most effective technique for describing the process of artistic creation that I’ve ever seen.

cover3Old Baggage, by Lissa Evans. Old Baggage is, not to put too fine a point on it, bloody marvelous. The tagline is “What do you do next, after you’ve changed the world?”, and there’s a real sense of frustrated potential in the book: Mattie Simpkin fought for women’s suffrage, but now women have the vote, and she’s rattling around her house in Hampstead with her friend Florrie Lee (known to all as The Flea), looking for something meaningful to do with the rest of her life. Old Baggage is wonderfully nuanced, both in its rage and in its understanding of who can and can’t afford rage in the first place.

51wwwsztqml-_sx324_bo1204203200_Ghost Wall, by Sarah Moss. A deceptively short book, almost a novella, Ghost Wall follows Silvie, the daughter of a bus driver. He has brought Silvie and her mother on a trip to Northumberland to live as Iron Age peoples did, but their campmates—a professor and his students—are less devoted to historical accuracy, and tensions rise almost at once. We know something terrible is going to happen, but Moss takes us there slowly, carefully, building atmosphere. It is also very tightly written: everything is thematically connected, which is no mean feat in a text so short, especially one that also includes fine descriptive passages. I have no hesitation at all in calling Ghost Wall a masterpiece.

9780571336333The Madonna of the Mountains, by Elise Valmorbida. The book starts in 1923, with a girl called Maria Vittoria embroidering sheets for her dowry trunk. From there, Elise Valmorbida spins the story of Maria Vittoria’s life: marriage, children, the ascent of Mussolini’s government and the onset of WWII. The novel feels effortlessly emotionally engaging, without resorting to either melodrama or apparent anachronism. Maria Vittoria is very much of her time, and her responses to life are so consistent that it really feels as if you are peering into the head of, let’s say, your great-grandmother; someone whose world is not your world. The Madonna of the Mountains is one of the most restrained, yet profoundly convincing, historical novels that I’ve read in years, perhaps ever. I’m delighted to have found it.

original_400_600Evening in Paradise, by Lucia Berlin. Berlin is the writer who converted me to short stories. She uses the raw material of her own life–alcoholism, young sons, constant moving, the American West and Southwest–in stories that circle around similar themes and characters. They are written in startlingly lucid yet straightforward prose, vivid with imagery, often illuminated by a single unexpected word or phrase. This is her second collection of her work to be published after her death, and it isn’t, by any means, a collection of the second-best. She explores sexuality, marriage, the bohemian life, poverty, whether making good art requires you to lead a cruel life. Berlin is simply brilliant.

Extremely honourable mentions go to: The Devil’s Highway, by Gregory Norminton; All the Perverse Angels, by Sarah K Marr; Social Creature, by Tara Isabella Burton; The Bedlam Stacks, by Natasha Pulley; All Among the Barley by Melissa Harrison; Now We Shall Be Entirely Free, by Andrew Miller; Varina, by Charles Frazier; Everything Under, by Daisy Johnson; The Mere Wife, by Maria Dahvana Headley; House of Glass, by Susan Fletcher; The House on Vesper Sands, by Paraic O’Donnell.

House of Glass, by Susan Fletcher

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At first glance, House of Glass seems to fit neatly into the tradition of English Gothic haunted-house stories: an unusual or unreliable narrator (Clara Waterfield, age twenty and a sufferer of osteogenesis imperfecta, which renders her bones dangerously brittle; her beloved mother is dead of cancer and her stepfather not unkind but distant) is summoned to a stately home (Shadowbrook, in Gloucestershire) that represents some kind of sanctuary (the opportunity to use her newly acquired horticultural skills in the cultivation of a glasshouse for Shadowbrook’s owner, the mysterious Mr. Fox). “Trouble” is darkly hinted at (by the man who drives Clara from the station to the house), but our narrator remains skeptical of anything that can’t be touched or proven. Still, the house’s staff seem to be hiding something (the overly cheerful housekeeper, Mrs. Bale, and two frightened maids from the village, Harriet and Maud), and eventually our narrator experiences some uncanny goings-on for themselves. Intellectually frustrated by the apparent impossibility of the supernatural, our narrator seeks to uncover the truth, while simultaneously revealing themselves to the reader as being an ever more untrustworthy and subjective observer.

Roughly, that is what happens in the first half of House of Glass, but Susan Fletcher innovates by making Clara not less believable, but more so. Learning to shed her preconceptions about rationality and the nature of knowledge, she also learns to shed idealized images of other people: too frail throughout childhood and adolescence to have a normal social life, she is forced to meet people at Shadowbrook who are – like all real people – contradictory, confusing, and illogical in their actions. This will eventually prove the key to solving the mystery of Shadowbrook, which – it’s whispered – is the ghost of Veronique Pettigrew, the daughter of the family that used to own the place. To say too much more would be to spoil the clever way in which Fletcher undermines the tropes of the Gothic romance genre: the crazed, over-sexed woman (Bertha in Jane Eyre, Cathy in Wuthering Heights), the deceptive housekeeper (Mrs. Danvers, Mrs. Fairfax), the brooding romantic hero whose role, in House of Glass, is spread over several male characters and in one instance combined with the trope of the taciturn-but-sexy man of the soil. Fletcher makes us consider the difference between real life and fiction. We think we are reading one sort of book, one particular set of accepted illusions, but that too is an illusion: House of Glass is a different book at its end, once we grow to understand – along with Clara, whose book-derived ideas about life echo Catherine Morland’s in Northanger Abbey, though to an effect that’s alarming rather than amusing – what it is we’re actually reading.

About three-quarters of the way through, the device that has brought all of these characters together in one place is revealed, and it’s the weakest part of the book, as such devices tend to be. Still, if the book resonates with Jane Eyre in its early sections, it’s worth remembering that Charlotte Bronte resorts to a universally-derided and equally implausible trick in order to reunite Jane and Rochester; Fletcher’s use of convoluted coincidence can be read as another comment on the genre she’s working with. House of Glass is fluid, addictive, and very clever, all at once: I can’t recommend it more highly.

This post is a stop on the House of Glass blog tour, which runs all week; other stops can be found below. Thanks to Virago for the review copy!

House of Glass Blog Tour

Reading Diary: RIP XIII and otherwise

It’s the end of October – autumn is really here now, almost winter. It’s dark early. It’s cold. I’ve been back in the UK for less than a week, and already it’s clear: we’re in a different season. On the upside, I guess: stews, scarves, the three-month festival of eating that is Halloween + Thanksgiving (/Friendsgiving) + Christmas + New Year. And books!

A lot of what I read in October qualifies for RIP XIII, it turns out. Here, at last, is the rundown.

9781408896266First, a few things that don’t really qualify, including Georgina Harding’s new novel, Land of the Living. This, I’m afraid, I shall have to be fairly brief about, as I read it before I went away (so about three weeks ago now), but it did serve as my introduction to Harding’s work and a good one it was. It’s a novel about a farmer called Charlie, back in England and married after the end of the Second World War. He was posted in Kohima, and his experiences there haunt him: not just the murder of a lost (or deserting) Japanese soldier, or the deaths of the other members of his platoon, but also the strange period of time during which he gets lost in the mountainous jungle and is rescued by a remote tribe that seems never to have had contact with white people. Harding’s descriptions of the north Indian jungle landscape are the stylistic standout of the book: so lush and evocative, you’d swear you can feel the steam rising from the vegetation. The narration jumps back and forth between Charlie’s time in India and his life now, farming, with his wife Claire. He tells her stories about the war and about foreign places, which she accepts with the incredulous equanimity of an Englishwoman in the late 1940s who, while not a fool, has never been abroad and can’t quite believe in the reality of the people her husband describes to her. Meanwhile, Harding also shows us Charlie through Claire’s eyes: a lovable man but one permanently distanced from his wife, as much by the fact that he’s a man as by his vaster life experience. That narrative even-handedness is what invests the reader; it’s not as though there’s a dearth of WWII novels, but the standouts are the ones that articulate an idiosyncratic kind of war, an individual’s war. Land of the Living is a standout.

isbn9781473679894One of the many joys of bookselling is that moment when a publisher’s rep flips to the next page of their sales catalogue (now usually in PDF form, though I understand they used to be made of Actual Paper) and says something like “Ever heard of this author? No? Well, we’re reprinting their backlist anyway, with natty new jackets, and I’m going to spend the next five minutes trying to convince you to buy every title, despite the fact that you’ve never heard of them and they died in 1987.” That all sounds sarcastic, but it actually sometimes is a joy – who doesn’t want to find a great, underrated author and get in on the ground floor of their renaissance? Pamela Hansford Johnson, it turns out, actually is fairly well known, except by me: she wrote twenty-seven novels, reviewed extensively for newspapers and magazines, and married C.P. Snow. The Unspeakable Skipton seems, at least at first, as though it might be not unlike The Talented Mr. Ripley: an Englishman abroad in Europe makes his living by conning people. The difference is in the protagonists: Ripley is cool and psychopathic, while Skipton is frantic, hotheaded, and pathetic. Convinced of his own genius as a novelist, he lives in Bruges and spends his days writing letters to his long-suffering London editor in defense of his unpublishable manuscripts. In the evenings, he latches on to expatriates and provides various services (procuring and art dealing chief among them) for money. In a way, the vast gulf between Skipton’s conception of the world – his own righteousness and the rest of humanity’s crass ignorance – and the way the world sees him is reminiscent of A Confederacy of Dunces. Certainly there’s an absurd humour in watching Skipton’s mad antics, although Hansford Johnson is hardly likely to make you guffaw the way Toole is (and she doesn’t want to, either). Mostly, though, it’s a novel about an unpleasant man getting his just desserts from equally unpleasant people. It’s neatly observed, and if it’s the sort of thing you like, you’ll like it, but it’s an awfully hard book to love.

412b7oycz4xl-_sx322_bo1204203200_Back to books that qualify for RIP XIII, the next of which was Red Snow, Will Dean’s follow-up to his smash hit Dark Pines, which featured bisexual deaf investigative journalist Tuva Moodyson. (Yes! All those adjectives!) I have to confess I didn’t read Dark Pines, although if it comes anywhere near Red Snow for atmosphere and detail, I can see why it did so well. The pleasure of Dean’s writing is in his ability to convey uncomfortable experience with the authority of one who’s lived it: not only the mental effects of a long, cold, dark, isolated, rural Swedish winter (and he does know about that, because he lives year-round in rural Sweden), but smaller things that contribute to characterisation. Tuva wears hearing aids, and in the cold they become uncomfortable; Dean lets her tell us about that, about the minutiae of her lived experience, in a way that’s dignified and convincing. (It isn’t just Tuva’s deafness that gets this treatment; he remains the only male writer I can think of who has memorialised in print the intense joy of a woman coming home after a long day at work and taking her bra off.) The crime and investigation in Red Snow, oddly, is the least convincing element of the book: there’s an apparent suicide at a liquorice factory, which has been the major employer of the tiny town of Gavrik for generations, followed by a bizarre murder in which the victim’s mouth is stuffed with liquorice and his eyes covered with liquorice coins. The pacing of the investigation (both the police and Tuva’s) is bafflingly slow and circular, readers are expected to sympathise with the family that owns the factory simply because the author and protagonist tell us we should, and the impact of the final revelation is (I suspect) diluted if you haven’t read the first book. Read it for the atmosphere, though, and for Tuva: prickly, curious, and no one’s fool. (RIP categories: mystery/suspense)

51bd3oyemyl-_sx329_bo1204203200_I doubt there’s anything I can say about Perdido Street Station that hasn’t been said before. Its impact on the fantasy genre has been so huge, despite the fact that it was published just eighteen years ago, that the aspect of it that seems to have most thrown readers for a loop when it was originally published didn’t have that much of an effect on me: the in- and subversion of genre tropes for which Mieville’s book is so famous has now become largely internalised by the genre itself. In other words, thanks to the fact that Perdido Street Station fucked with its readers’ heads unexpectedly, we now expect fantasy to fuck with our heads. It’s a theory, anyway.

Perdido Street Station is a very long book, although it doesn’t read like one, and there’s a lot going on in it, but once it gets going, it’s mostly about a ragtag bunch of criminals, outcasts and refugees who have to band together to save the city from a nest of soul-sucking menaces known as slakemoths. (They eat, or rather drink, your dreams, and they’re immoderate about it: slakemoths feed by literally putting their enormous tongue in a victim’s face and devouring every part of the brain save for the brainstem, leaving their prey alive but vegetative. They’re basically dementors.) Fundamentally, though, it’s a book about a city: Bas-Lag, which is lovingly mapped and described and explored and traversed throughout the course of the novel. It’s neither medieval London nor steampunk New York, though it’s reminiscent of both; really what it reminded me of was Ankh-Morpork if you drained all the zaniness and replaced it with menace. The comparison is a little unfortunate because it makes Mieville seem po-faced, which he isn’t quite, just serious: about this city, about this story, about story in general, its illusions, the way a person can be misled. His project in the New Crobuzon books, if we extrapolate from this first one, must be to make a world, and indeed Bas-Lag already feels more solid to me than Ul Qoma/Beszel of The City and the CityPerdido Street Station is a phenomenally accomplished start. (RIP categories: urban fantasy)

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French’s first standalone novel, The Witch Elm, flips her usual perspective on crime: instead of filtering the world through the eyes of a detective, she gives us the experience of a victim. Toby Hennessy considers himself a lucky man: he’s got a wonderful girlfriend, he’s just managed to avoid a serious scrape at work with nothing more than a slap on the wrist, he owns and likes his flat, everything has always been okay. All that changes on the night two men break into his place, steal his valuables, and beat him almost to death. Left with potentially life-changing injuries, Toby struggles to recuperate until someone suggests that he move into the old family house, where his bachelor uncle Hugh still lives. Hugh is dying of a brain tumour, and someone needs to be on hand. Toby’s reluctant, but his girlfriend Melissa thinks it’s a great idea, and they move in. All is going well, until a family visit when one of Toby’s nephews finds a human skull hidden in the wych elm at the bottom of the garden. And then old secrets start to come to light… One of my favourite things about Tana French’s writing is how she wrongfoots you. This looks like it’s a murder mystery, and Toby looks like he’s the protagonist because he’s our narrator, but actually it’s a story about privilege, although French never uses that word. Toby is so shaken by his attack because he has never, not once in his whole life, experienced powerlessness or vulnerability, and the moment he sees himself that way, his entire self-conception falls apart. Moreover—and not to spoil anything—the body in the wych elm, it becomes clear, was killed for reasons relating very strongly to privilege and its misuses. The Witch Elm isn’t a novel about Toby at all. I’ll leave you to read it to find out which character is its true center. I highly recommend that you do. (RIP categories: mystery, suspense)

41zz1laegyl-_sx325_bo1204203200_Vonnegut’s one of those writers whose first sixty pages I often find tiresome, but then I bear with it and get invested, and by the end I’m genuinely moved by and emotional about the whole book. The Sirens of Titan is his most overtly science-fictional novel, I think (having not read all of them yet), centering on the richest man on Earth, whose name is Malachi Constant. It’s almost impossible to do justice to the plot by summarising; let it be enough that the book is about free will, futility, war, love, and belonging. As ever with Vonnegut’s books, female characters aren’t mistreated so much as ignored; Beatrice Rumfoord, the woman with whom Malachi Constant eventually has a child (amusingly named Chrono), feels like a character-shaped prop, lacking even the distant, ironized sort of interiority that most of Vonnegut’s male characters are given. Yet she’s not unsympathetic; there are moments when her emotional responses are given narrative priority; and when you consider that this book was written three years before the first James Bond film, its treatment of women starts to look positively progressive. Vonnegut was at best ambivalent about NASA’s space program—he questioned whether it was worth spending money on exploring the stars when there were people starving right here on Earth—and his genre fiction, as well as his more conventionally realist novels, always seems to have this grounded sense of humanity at its core. The Sirens of Titan might be a good introduction to Vonnegut for a neophyte, in fact.

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The Ear, the Eye and the Arm is a children’s/YA novel from 1995, of which no one outside the US appears ever to have heard. My dad brought it home for me in 2001, and it was so entirely unlike any other book I read as a child that scenes and characters from it have haunted the back of the immense broom cupboard that is my reading mind for years. It’s set in Harare, Zimbabwe in the late twenty-second century, which is kind of funny because most of the technological innovations that signal future-ness in the book are standard parts of our daily lives now: holophones (basically FaceTime), robot servants (Alexa). Flying buses and taxis are really the only thing we haven’t got now—oh, and genetically engineered talking blue monkeys. General Makutsi’s three children long for an adventure, and moreover, they want to earn their Explorer badges for Scouts. Their only human servant, a white man whose job is a form of ritualised flattery called Praise Singing (the imagined racial hierarchy of post-colonial southern Africa in this book is particulary interesting to an adult reader), lets them out of the house, but they’re almost immediately kidnapped and brought to a female crime boss known as the She-Elephant, who lives in a toxic waste dump and rules over its population of homeless, outcasts and petty criminals. When the She-Elephant decides to sell them, the children uncover a conspiracy involving a gang known as the Masks, who practice human sacrifice—but not before getting caught up both in an enclave in the middle of the city whose inhabitants live in a traditional African fashion, known as Resthaven, and in the home of the Praise Singer’s mother, a white woman looking for a fat ransom payout. In the midst of all this, eldest son Tendai has to find a role for himself and come to terms with his fear of disappointing his father. The Ear, the Eye and the Arm, meanwhile, are the three detectives sent to find the children, each of whom is from a different ethnic background within the nation of Zimbabwe, and each of whom has a supernaturally strong sense: the Ear has supersonic hearing, the Eye has inhumanly good eyesight, and the Arm is both unnaturally tall and an empath. A film ratings board would say that the book has “mild peril” at best, but that seems appropriate for a middle-grade novel. The strong flavour of Afrofuturism and focus on Zimabwe’s spiritual traditions (the ultimate villain is essentially conducting a form of voodoo warfare) makes the book both fascinating and informative, without being didactic. An excellent YA backlist title. (RIP categories: urban fantasy, I guess)

Thoughts on this batch of reading: Almost all of these were fantastic, and it was particularly nice to a) choose my own reading while I was abroad, instead of reading to a schedule imposed by bookselling/my own mad ambition, and b) feel okay about reading a little bit less in a month. It was also nice to find that a lot of what I read fit in naturally with the RIP XIII challenge. I’m now feeling emboldened to seek out additional seasonally appropriate reading, such as the Annual Winter Dickens, some might-be-described-as-Gothic fiction, some Victorian pastiche, and some more (perhaps historical) crime.

Reading Diary: post-hols

9781908906342-217x346Wally Funk’s Race For Space, by Sue Nelson: If there were a prize for titles so bad they’re good, this would surely win. It happens to really be the name of the woman about whom the book is written: Mary Wallace Funk, now in her eighties, has gone by “Wally” for most of her life. Her distinction is that she is one of the highest-achieving members of the Mercury Thirteen, a group of women who were selected for, and underwent, astronaut training in the same way as the more famous (and more male) Mercury Seven. The funding for the women’s program was cut, under somewhat mysterious circumstances, and none of those who trained ever made it into space. Funk was an outstanding aviator and has spent much of her life pursuing her dream of being in orbit; she’s got Virgin Galactic tickets, though she fears she’ll die before she can use them. The book itself is an inspirational and infuriating reminder that women in science have always been both pioneering and ignored. Funk is a strange person, with characteristics that seem almost pathological (loud, repetitive speech; constant questions; absolutely no shame about the body, but very awkward when conversation turns to sex and relationships). Sue Nelson is a radio journalist, and the book often reads more conversationally than elegantly; it’s a curious mix of travelogue and biography that doesn’t always sit well together. It’s hella informative, though.

9781786074447Tirzah and the Prince of Crows, by Deborah Kay Davies: This is one of those curious books that you get sometimes, that exist right smack on the boundary between genres or categories: it’s neither one thing nor the other, though sometimes it also feels like two things at once. Tirzah is growing up in the isolated Welsh valleys in the 1970s, the daughter of parents who adhere to a Christian sect so strict that I’d recommend any survivor of spiritual abuse avoid this title altogether. She’s resilient, and resists the dictates of her elders. There are aspects of her resilience, however, that seem almost like psychotic breaks (and how many young women became either saints or martyrs after reporting similar experiences?): she becomes acutely aware of the natural world, particularly in the form of a mysterious homeless boy called Bran who claims to be the servant of a crow god. When Tirzah becomes pregnant by Bran, it shakes her whole community, and the novel becomes concerned with how Tirzah can be free under these circumstances. Its weaknesses are in the plotting: it simply goes on for too long, focusing on repetitive incidents (Tirzah does some mildly rebellious thing, like go out for a walk; her parents find out; she is shamed; she cries and feels guilty; she gets a second wind of defiance; rinse and repeat). Because of the business with the crow god and wild Bran, there’s a flavour of magical realism (there’s a Welsh myth involving crows and a giant-king called Bran the Blessed), but that never seems to go anywhere, and the ending’s ambivalence about Tirzah’s mental state is less richly open to interpretation than frustratingly vague. Davies’s description of landscapes and her characterisation of young, restless women (especially Tirzah’s mother and her cousin Biddy) are both very good, but the book is too diffuse to have the power it aims for.

41jqd2jfmul-_sy344_bo1204203200_The Long Take, by Robin Robertson: The first novel-in-verse on the Man Booker shortlist (I think?) is worthy of the accolade. Robertson’s poetry, qua poetry, has made little to no impression on me, although I read Hill of Doors a few years ago. But The Long Take uses free verse to capture not only a sense of fragmentation and loss, but also the rhythms of the mid-century American city, the trauma of war, and – perhaps most impressively – the techniques of noir filmmaking. Walker, Robertson’s protagonist, is a Canadian D-Day veteran who cannot face going home: he has a girlfriend in the little fishing village from whence he came, but he can’t imagine a world in which she deserves to be burdened with him. First in New York, then in LA and San Francisco, he finds work as a newspaper journalist, chronicling the growth of the cities (which, in LA, is synonymous with slum clearances and the building of highways) and the situation of the homeless men, many of them veterans, who clog the city streets. It’s a tad inconclusive, or rather, the conclusion Robertson reaches is the result of a process that the free verse may obscure slightly: with more words, with more elaboration, we might feel we’ve been with Walker all the way, whereas the effect of The Long Take is rather more a series of vignettes. It might well read differently to someone who knows more about the history of noir. Worth a punt, though.

heavy-9781501125652_lgHeavy, by Kiese Laymon: This is the first of two memoirs by black men that I’ve read in the past few weeks. Laymon’s context is American. He is the child of a single mother from Mississippi, a brilliant woman whose tenacity and academic achievements were matched only by her high expectations for her son and her punishing disappointment (often physically; in the memoir, she strikes young Kiese a lot) when he doesn’t match up. The book is roughly chronological, tracing Laymon’s struggles with weight, addiction, desire, and how best to be a man, from childhood on up to his professorship at Vassar. He is clear and uncompromising about the role that abuse plays in shaping young black men and women: physical abuse, such as his mother hitting him, and sexual abuse, the first scene of which occurs when he is a child in a neighbour’s house where a slightly older girl, Layla, is made to go into a bedroom with three “big boys”. Laymon is queasily but precisely aware of power and coercion even as a very  young child, and his strength in this memoir is in showing us how hard it is to win when the body – as they say – really does keep the score. Things fall apart a little near the end; the book as a whole is addressed to his mother, and as he begins to wrap up, the text begins to feel like a monologue, with some of the problems of  repetition and obscurity that that suggests. It is, however, an outrageously good and visceral piece of writing, and in its detail, it clarifies so much about black lives in America. (Particularly illuminating is the fact that each of Laymon’s paychecks gets parceled out to more than half a dozen relatives in need, so that despite a regular salary, he often finds himself living hand to mouth.) White people should read this; non-Americans should read it too. Laymon is a clear successor to Roxane Gay.

original_400_600Handel in London, by Jane Glover: This is going to be the best high-end Christmas book ever. From the joyful cover to the fact that the font isn’t too small, from the canny summaries of every opera and oratorio Handel wrote to the insightful but not distractingly detailed musical analysis, Handel in London might well have been tailored specifically for the genteel-music-lover market, and their Christmas needs. It’s also fun to read about the various difficulties involved in putting on operas in England in the early eighteenth century: they’ve always had an image problem, apparently, as they were generally considered to be too “exotic” and fancy for honest, simple English tastes. (That they were sung in a foreign language seems to have been the primary problem.) Singer drama, meanwhile, takes up a large portion of Handel’s time. (There is that glorious story about Francesca Cuzzoni refusing to perform an aria, to which Handel replied, “Madam, I see that you are a true devil – but I am Beelzebub, chief of devils”, and then threatened to fling her out of a window. Glover also recounts the weirdly manufactured rivalry between Cuzzoni and another soprano, Faustina; the two women appear to have mostly gotten along just fine, until nascent celebrity culture and the press whipped up a story about their being bitter enemies.) If I have one complaint, it’s that, although we get a great sense of what Handel was doing at any given moment in his life (and he was always doing a lot), it’s much harder to imagine what the inside of the man’s head might have been like. But then, his letters just don’t seem to be very revealing, and it’s obvious that he was both brilliant and almost obsessively hard-working. Highly recommended.

7112zfwmgglNormal People, by Sally Rooney: This is much, much preferable to Conversations With Friends, to my mind. Rooney follows two teenagers from Sligo, Marianne and Connell, as they enter into a secret relationship at school, break up, go to the same university, and spend the next three years on a faintly agonising will-they-won’t-they rollercoaster. The class difference (they meet because Connell’s mother is Marianne’s cleaner) creates a strange power dynamic, but so does the fact that Marianne is considered a social outcast at school, Connell’s physical beauty, her absolute dedication to him, and (only revealed later) her interest in BDSM. That makes explicit what Rooney has been getting at all along: that Normal People is about exploring power imbalances, in ways that are both healthy and not so. (It’s to Rooney’s credit that the BDSM isn’t painted as a Bad Thing per se; what feels icky about it is that we know Marianne feels she deserves no better than violence, as opposed to it being an avenue of exploration and pleasure for her.) The novel reminded me a lot of Belinda McKeon’s Tender, also about two young people at university in Dublin and their painful, tumultuous relationship. I still prefer McKeon’s book because she never looks away, whereas Rooney chooses to illuminate Marianne and Connell through vignettes, but that’s a stylistic thing.

9781408889183The Life and Times of a Very British Man, by Kamal Ahmed: Ahmed is the BBC chief economics editor, and as such is a pretty well-known name and face. His memoir is not unlike Afua Hirsch’s book Brit(ish), which was published earlier this year and is just out in paperback now: both Hirsch and Ahmed seek to explore the peculiar feeling of being a light-skinned or mixed-race person in Britain today, with the legacy of violence in the 1970s and ’80s still fresh, but with children for whom Britain will increasingly be a nation of brown faces. Ahmed’s book convinces me less, partly because his interpolation of statistics and political truths into the story of his life feels less organic than Hirsch’s (and Hirsch writes more fluidly), and partly because he subscribes to the idea that we all just need to listen to each other. Technically speaking, of course, he’s not wrong, but his assumption that people can meet each other at a table “as equals” is startling, given that institutional racism very much still exists; people of colour, not only in Britain but also in America and Europe, are under a weight of suspicion, lack of opportunity, lack of generational wealth, lack of access to the establishment, that their white counterparts don’t have to struggle against in quite the same way, even if they’re poor or working-class white people. No one is coming to this putative table to listen to each other without their context. I think perhaps this is a generational thing; people my age seem much more likely to acknowledge that not only are we not all dealt comparable hands, but that addressing that imbalance ought to be an integral part of any kind of policy development.