Confessions of the Fox

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

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

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

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

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

The Summer Without Men

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

Noooo. No no no no no.

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

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

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

The Summer Without Men, Siri Hustvedt, p. 201

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

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

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

Ibid., p. 134

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


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

Water Music

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

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

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

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

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

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

Water Music, p. 10

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

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

Ibid., p. 419

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

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


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

Lightseekers

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

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

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

Has he been shot?

Or maybe, I’m the one who has been.

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

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

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

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


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

Five things about Don Quixote

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

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

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

Books of the Year, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading Diary: 7 Sept.-13 Sept.

The Short Knife, by Elen Caldecott: This children’s novel is set in a time often ignored by historical fiction writers: early post-Roman Britain, when the Empire has retreated and the physical infrastructure it built is crumbling, but elderly people can remember a time when everything was different. Saxon invaders/settlers/colonialists (pick your favourite noun) are starting to battle it out for land and supremacy with the native British warlords. Caught in this historical maelstrom is thirteen-year-old Mai, who loses her family farm one night to the drunken fury of three Saxons, and who vows vengeance. Her father badly burnt and her older sister Haf hurt in a way Mai doesn’t understand (although the reader thinks they do, given that the novel is intercut with flash-forward scenes nine months later to Mai’s sister giving birth), they make their way to the camp of the local British strongman, Gwyrthaeyr, hoping that ethnic ties (all the native Britons consider themselves kin) will prompt him to help them. All does not go as planned, and Mai finds herself a slave in a Saxon camp, instead.

Caldecott engages gracefully and forcefully with the limited options available to the two sisters. Haf makes herself useful with “honey smiles” and “sweet words”, becoming a storyteller and adviser under the assumption that getting closer to power is the safest place to be. Mai, who is repeatedly told by various characters to “grow up”, doesn’t understand Haf’s strategy, seeing it as betrayal, and takes a more overtly resistant approach, which frequently endangers her. My primary frustration is a stylistic one: to achieve an archaic tone, Caldecott often relies on kenning-like constructions, some of which work well (“infant-small”, “dust-crumbled”) and some of which only get in the way (“bitter-coiled ferns”–why?; “trip-tangled” brambles–that being a defining feature of brambles). But it’s a strong entry for children’s fiction, with engrossing characters, and rarely have I had such a sense of how far back cultural diffusion goes in the history of these islands.

Kindred, by Octavia Butler: You shouldn’t really need me to tell you how excellent this book is, but in case you don’t know: it’s excellent. The premise is that Dana, a Black woman in contemporary California (the novel was written in 1979), finds herself being repeatedly pulled back in time to save the life of her ancestor Rufus Weylin, the scion of a white slave-owning family in Maryland. The first time she meets him, it’s 1815, and they encounter each other again and again over the next few decades, every time his life is endangered and Dana is summoned out of the future to rescue him. Dana’s white husband, Kevin, is also pulled into the past at one point, and his experiences there are–by virtue of the colour of his skin and his gender–very different, although Butler is perhaps fairer than she needs to be in pointing out that Kevin, too, faces dangers in the antebellum South. Perhaps the hardest-hitting element of the novel, though, is Butler’s repeated demonstration of the ease with which enslaved people can be forced into complicity: through a fear achieved by threats of extreme bodily violence and extreme emotional torment (largely because families can be torn apart on a master’s whim at any time). Dana explicitly discusses the idea of complicity more than once, although she also recognizes coercion and rape: her ancestress, Alice Greenwood, is bought by Rufus because he is in love with her, but his love does not extend to permitting her choices about where she sleeps at night, or to freeing her children. (He does dangle the promise of freedom, though, which is partly what keeps Alice in place.) After Kindred, every other time-travel novel feels a little anaemic, a little under-examined. It’s a magnificent piece of work.

recent reading thoughts: I’ve been very slow this month, so far. I’m blaming it on the anxiety of moving and a lot of weekend activities. At the moment I’m nearly finished with Where the Crawdads Sing, which I don’t love, although I’m warming up to it now that the trial has commenced. More on that next week.

Reading Diary: 1 Sept.-6 Sept.

The Shadow King, by Maaza Mengiste: Some books have blurbs that barely touch the surface of their actual contents and concerns. Sometimes this is avoidable, but often it isn’t, and The Shadow King strikes me as one of the latter kind. It is mainly focused on Hirut, one of the Ethiopian women who became soldiers during the country’s war with fascist Italy in 1935, but her military training and experiences are in the background compared with the novel’s interest in her relationship with Aster and Kidane, a couple who previously employed (/owned) her thanks to an unclear but close relationship between her mother and Kidane’s father, and who eventually command her in battle. Consequently, The Shadow King can seem to take rather a long time to get going, and occasionally loses the primary thrust of its story—the Ethiopian resistance to a particular Italian officer, Colonel Carlo Fucelli—in digressions. There are sections told from Fucelli’s perspective, for instance, as well as through the eyes of Ettore Navarra, an Italian Jewish war photographer whose safety from Rome’s increasingly murderous anti-Semitic policies is assured as long as he obeys orders, but who feels increasingly disgusted and torn by the atrocities he is asked to document. (Fucelli, in a Bond-villain-esque but no doubt completely historically accurate fashion, likes to execute Ethiopian prisoners by pushing them off of a high cliff.) Ettore and Hirut, we know, meet again after the war, and a few flash-fowards to 1974 show us the moments leading up to their uneasy reunion.

Mengiste writes with great attention to simile and metaphor, and is especially interested in qualities of light and shadow, but while this sometimes results in moments of great poetic beauty, at other times it simply obscures the action. (There were at least half a dozen instances at chapter endings where I wasn’t sure what had actually taken place and what was simply a character musing). Finally, we hear from the Emperor Haile Selassie, haunted by guilt over his daughter’s death at the hands of her brutal husband, and over his abandonment of his country to live in exile in Bath for six years. In Selassie’s sections, Mengiste’s dreamy style works extremely well, breaking down barriers between sanity and illusion, past and present. The novel is told, I have no doubt, the way its author wanted to tell it, but the sense that it could have been tighter makes me wonder if some of the desired effect has been lost.

Valentine, by Elizabeth Wetmore: This is not for the faint of heart; the inciting incident of the plot is a brutal rape and beating of a fourteen-year-old Mexican girl, and because the book takes place in West Texas in 1974, you can be assured that justice, in the traditional sense of the word, is not exactly served. However, the book is not so much about the attack on Gloria Ramirez and its aftermath as it is about the lives of the women who live on the edge of the oilfields, their joys and vulnerabilities, the ways in which a boom can mean economic prosperity but also always means increasing numbers of women hurt, missing or dead, as restless and reckless men flood into the area for work. Gloria (or Glory, as she renames herself) opens the book, in a taut and terrifying first chapter where she wakes in the desert and walks away from the truck where her attacker lies drunkenly sleeping, thereby saving her own life. After that, the perspective switches between several other women, some of whom get fairly short shrift: Suzanne Ledbetter and Karla Sibley, for instance, only narrate one chapter each, although through them we understand much more about the putting-on-a-brave-face school of West Texas womanhood, the awful pride and the unspeakable pain. Corrine Shepard, formerly a high school English teacher, is one of the most successful narrators, a spiky and gloriously unlikeable woman in the vein of Olive Kitteridge whose beloved husband Potter, faced with a terminal cancer diagnosis, has just killed himself. The chapter describing the state of Corrine’s and Potter’s marriage after the birth of their daughter—her struggle to go back to work, his reluctance but ultimate capitulation—is perfectly judged, conveying the social and professional limitations of women in the 1950s and the ways in which the era we inhabit blinkers us, even as it also demonstrates that their relationship was unusual, beautiful, and eventually stronger for having been tested. That chapter might be the highlight of the book, though the chapters narrated by Mary Rose Whitehead, a young rancher’s wife who is the first to see Gloria Ramirez after the rape and who is determined to testify in court on her behalf, are also wonderful and frightening. Were I to have a complaint, it might be that the abundance of narrators seems a little unnecessary and can contribute to a sense of un-focus, but then Valentine is not nearly as plot-centric as its blurb suggests, and that is no bad thing. If you liked Evie Wyld’s The Bass Rock, this should be on your TBR.

Reading Diary: 24 August-30 August

The Liar’s Dictionary, by Eley Williams: I hadn’t read Williams’s debut story collection, Attrib., but everyone I knew who did read it thought it was fantastic. The Liar’s Dictionary is a dual-timeline novel set in the offices of an eccentric fourth-rate enyclopaedic dictionary in the present day, and during its heyday a little over a hundred years ago. Our contemporary protagonist, closeted-at-work intern Mallory, never becomes aware of the identity of perpetually-belittled Peter Winceworth, but his lasting contribution to the dictionary–a series of entirely invented words scattered throughout its text–becomes her problem, as her boss instructs her to find and remove them before the whole thing is digitized. Winceworth, meanwhile, we learn, is inserting the words as a means of relieving his feelings, both about his place of work and about the enigmatic fiancee of his most unbearable colleague. Williams’s style really carries the book, with a kind of madcap yet melancholy glee, and a glorying in words–not in a wishy-washy oh-the-wonder-of-language sort of way, but in a way that takes a very Edwardian pleasure in precision and elegance. The plot in the contemporary sections becomes increasingly frenetic, but that felt somehow right; both narratives possess a kind of surreal sheen, which led a colleague to compare the book, in a way, to Wodehouse’s work (though much more conscientious and less privileged). I loved The Liar’s Dictionary and found it heartbreaking at the same time; it’s just the right level of weird for me.

Scabby Queen, by Kirstin Innes: It’s an old adage of criticism that it’s easier to write about something you hated than something you loved. I loved Scabby Queen, and I’m going to try to write about it anyway. It opens with the death of fifty-one-year-old Clio Campbell, who achieved moderate levels of fame as a protest singer in the ’90s and who has just overdosed on pills and vodka in the flat of her long-suffering (and, we realize, taken-advantage-of) friend Ruth. Over the next three hundred pages, various people who entered and exited Clio’s life—her godfather, a music journalist half in love with her, several women who lived in a Brixton squat with her, someone she only met once on a train—give their perspectives on a woman whose relentless political activism and manipulative social charm were both entrancing and infuriating. It’s very rare, especially now, to get a look at both sides of activism, particularly historic activism: the genuineness of early-days-of-a-better-world idealism mixed with what can be a disturbing willingness to sacrifice whatever gets in the way. Innes nails that balance, and nails her portrait of Clio, who becomes increasingly more difficult to sympathize with but also increasingly nuanced: by the end, when her suicide note is revealed, her motives seem simultaneously obtuse and entirely in keeping with what we know of her. I suspect people who remember the ’90s and early ’00s as adults will find even deeper resonances in Scabby Queen’s political aspects. I loved them, but what I loved most was Innes’s brilliance at characterization. Like Daisy Jones and the Six, an oblique approach to a central character through the people whose lives they affected results in something both tough and touching, and utterly without condescension.

The Odyssey, by Homer: I’d never actually read it! Isn’t that weird? It must be the case for quite a lot of people. The stories are so familiar from excerpted children’s versions and adaptations that we feel as though we have. Anyway, I think the primary thing to be aware of while you’re reading is the very different weight and pacing present in the poem. The first four books are about Odysseus’s son, Telemachus, who embarks on his own short journey to find out more about where his missing father could be; Odysseus himself doesn’t appear until book five, by which point he’s already lost all of his ships and companions to various disasters and is reduced to telling the tale of his adventures to the friendly Phaeacian court during books nine to twelve. (Interestingly, Doug Metzger suggests on his podcast Literature and History that these books are no more likely to be “true”, within the world of the poem, than any of the other lies Odysseus tells about his origins. I’d contest that, since much of that lying is done in order to protect himself upon his return to Ithaca, which is essentially an occupied territory, but I love the idea: we’ve only Odysseus’s word to say that the Lotus-eaters, Circe, Scylla and Charybdis, the journey to the underworld, the Cyclops episode, etc., actually happened at all, and he’s a notorious fibber.) They send him back home under escort in book thirteen, and the entire second half of the poem is about him regaining his property, murdering the men who’ve been harassing his wife, and Telemachus’s coming of age.

It’s known as an adventure/travel poem, but it’s very much more, I think, a poem about restitution, espousing a fundamentally socially conservative view of the world’s proper order. (It’s Tom Jones. Or rather, Tom Jones is the Odyssey. Hey!) For all that, it’s much more engaging to me personally than the Iliad was, perhaps because the emotional atmosphere is much more immediately identifiable for a reader who’s never been to war. Be warned: the final books are brutal. Margaret Atwood’s poem A Chorus Line neatly sums up the breathtaking hypocrisy of the murder of the maids (from one perspective; from another, of course—that socially conservative one the poem partakes of—Odysseus is merely ensuring that loyalty to his person and his dynasty, even when they’re not present, is the order of the day. Fascinating how that always seems to involve punishing women. I wonder if the housekeeper Eurycleia, who eagerly provides her returned master with the names of maids who’ve “behaved shamefully” in his absence, was a model for Aunt Lydia.) Anyway, the Oxford World’s Classics edition I read was translated by Anthony Verity and is, from a non-classicist’s perspective, excellent; you get a good sense of the original Greek’s use of repetition, but not so much so that it’s annoying, and thank God Verity does not attempt to match an antique meter or rhyme scheme. If you’re relatively new to antique poetry, I’d recommend this edition particularly: the end notes are also good and there’s a handy index of first names in the back.

Reading Diary: 10 August-16 August

Afropean: Notes from Black Europe, by Johny Pitts: Pitts’s travelogue-cum-social/cultural history won the Jhalak Prize in 2020 for best book by an author of colour published in the UK, and it’s easy to see why. With immense grace, curiosity and goodwill, he spends about six months traveling continental Europe in search of the continent’s black communities, and specifically those who have forged a new identity as hybrid citizens, both African and European. His quest takes him from the alarmingly bleak suburb Clichy-sous-Bois outside of Paris, cynically patronized and abandoned by politicians, to the warmly welcoming bustle of Surinamese cafes and black cultural centres in Berlin, to an altogether more baffling experience in the museum of imperial history in Brussels which elides Belgium’s colonial atrocities altogether. Pitts is rather like a more understanding, less crotchety Bill Bryson; his eye for the spirit of a place, and his ability to convey the essence of an experience, is the same. If he sacrifices Bryson’s frequently snort-worthy comic observations for a rather deeper and more earnest approach to travel, frankly, I don’t mind (especially as the former’s observations often come at the expense of poor people, provincial people, fat people, and/or women; this is a sad thing you notice about Bryson as you get older). Pitts’s respect and, usually, affection, for his subjects’ lives opens doors: a wandering, shouting, apparently mad old African man in Moscow turns out to be a former anti-apartheid activist who last saw his parents forty years previously and knows they were too old then to still be living now. Pitts gains his story by not fleeing or ignoring him, as everyone else in the vicinity does. Afropean is gorgeous and bittersweet, and also provides perfect armchair travel; I can’t speak more highly for it.

Sisters, by Daisy Johnson: I read this in one evening, prompted by the rapturous reviews of two of my colleagues, and found it lived up fully to their praise. It may even be better (for my money) than Johnson’s Everything Under, although, like the former book, it promises an explanation only to complicate things with an ending that again blurs the line between fantasy and reality, fiction and sanity and the supernatural. It focuses on the two titular sisters, July and September, who are as close to twins as it’s possible to be without actually being so: born ten months apart, they both aren’t each other and fiercely identify with each other. This is compounded by September’s need to dominate and control her younger sister: halfway through the novel, we discover that they share a single mobile phone, and they often play a disturbing game called September Says, where July has to hurt herself. Presented to us through July’s eyes, these controlling actions often seem plausible for a time; July has internalized her sister’s behaviour, as so many children do, and understands it as a bond of love. The book opens as the pair and their mother move to a remote house in Yorkshire—where both their abusive, now-dead father and September were born—to escape a catastrophe that has occurred at the girls’ school in Oxford, but there’s something wrong with the house: footsteps where no person can be, shattering lightbulbs, a patch of paint on a wall that both absorbs July’s exploratory finger and explodes outward, pouring ants onto the floor. Body horror and the grotesque are well represented here along with psychological horror and illness, in a manner reminiscent of Shirley Jackson. The denouement, in which we discover what really happened at school, is perfectly paced (I worked it out at just the right moment), and the final few chapters leave a disturbing taste of ambiguity that feels bravely appropriate. A perfect novel for the electric, humid dog days of a difficult summer.

Cane Warriors, by Alex Wheatle: Out in October, this new novel from garlanded children’s/YA author Wheatle takes as its focus Tacky’s Rebellion, a historic slave revolt that occurred in Jamaica in 1760 and shook British colonial confidence so badly that a raft of new, brutally repressive laws were passed subsequently, including a law that outlawed the practice of obeah in the island. Our protagonist is fourteen-year-old Moa, the youngest member of the rebellion (a historical invention, I believe, though probably representative of many other young men who fought with Tacky). Through Moa’s eyes, we understand the fears and motives of the fighters: he is particularly worried for his mother, younger sister, and beloved friend Hamaya, who will soon be of an age to start being sexually abused by slavemasters and white overseers. Tacky (or Takyi), who led the rebellion, was said to have been a king in his village, and he is portrayed as a strong, natural leader here, as is Keverton, Moa’s slightly older friend and fellow fighter. My only reservation was a sense of distance from the characters; I can’t put my finger on what made it so, but it might simply be that I’m not the primary audience for this book, either in age group or in racial heritage. Certainly I think that a YA novel largely narrated in patois and detailing a heroic assertion of independence not habitually taught in schools is exactly the sort of book that publishing needs to champion, and exactly the sort of narrative young readers need to hear, and Wheatle is an accomplished pair of hands.