The Dollmaker, by Harriette Arnow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It, by Stephen King

We all float down here.

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This is by far the best cover ever designed for this book.

Warning: some spoilers ahead

I like to think that I’m relatively widely read – that I will, in the optimistic words of some of my customers, “read anything if it’s well-written” – but there are still some gaping voids in my reading, and one of them is pretty much the entire genre of horror fiction. Partly, maybe, this is because horror is a genre that hasn’t been rehabilitated in the way that science fiction and fantasy has. Even a dedicatedly snobbish reader of literary fiction will be able to find some crossover, in 2017, between their tastes and the speculative writing being produced. Horror isn’t quite there yet; I can’t think of analogous examples in that genre, apart from Let the Right One In, House of Leaves, and maybe The Loney (which might qualify more as literary Gothic), and I haven’t read any of those, let alone the classics and modern classics of the genre. So a Stephen King novel was very unknown terrain, and I approached it prepared for pretty much anything. What I wasn’t expecting was quite how addictive it (or, rather, It) would be, and how much this is a function of King’s frictionless writing. Here is an author who can write sentences that go down as smooth as cream, utterly without pretension, but without the stultifying samey-ness of a Dan Brown or a Paula Hawkins. It’s a much harder trick than it looks.

It flips back and forth between two time periods: 1958, when a group of seven schoolchildren in Derry, Maine first become friends, realise that the string of child murders in their town has malevolent supernatural causes, and band together to destroy the shape-shifting entity known as It; and 1985, twenty-seven years later, when It – not properly destroyed the first time – returns, and the children, now adults, have to return and get rid of It for good. I know very little about horror tropes, but I think the genre works best when the Big Bad is representative of real things, and the shape of this story reflects the real struggle that many (if not most) adults experience in trying to come to terms with whatever trauma shaped their childhoods. The children—who call themselves “the Losers’ Club”—are all social outcasts in one way or another: Eddie Kaspbrak is an asthmatic with an overbearing mother; Richie Tozier wears specs; Mike Hanlon is black, Stan Uris is Jewish, Bev Marsh is both desperately poor and regularly beaten by her father. Ben Hanscom, perhaps the most intelligent of the group, is morbidly obese, and Bill Denbrough, their charismatic leader even at the age of eleven, has a terrible stutter. They would all have been marked by these traumas alone; it’s these, King suggests, that bring them together in the first place, that make their challenge to It possible.

All of this interweaving of childhood trauma with adult reckoning is clever, but the book wouldn’t amount to much without the other half of the equation. The thing that’s killing Derry’s children is unequivocally supernatural (or, rather, extranatural; near the end of the book, several of the characters begin to think of objective reality as a stage set made of ropes and thin canvas, behind which endless other complex machinations are occurring). Bill Denbrough’s brother, George, is the first child to be killed in the 1958 timeline, and it’s through his eyes that we see It for the first time. It appears to him as a clown calling himself Pennywise and offering a bunch of balloons, and although it seems to George faintly odd that the clown is in the sewer, he’s drawn towards it anyway almost against his will. When his body is found, his right arm has been completely torn off. He’s three. As the Losers’ Club begins to form, it becomes clear that each child has already had a close encounter with It, but each describes It differently: It appears to take Its form from the private fears of its victims. Each instance is both clearly drawn from cheesy B-movies, and utterly fucking terrifying: a decomposing leper, a fish-man, a floating eye, a clown with a mouth full of razors, a werewolf, a flesh-eating bird, George Denbrough himself.

This quality leads to some of King’s best and smartest thematic work. I’ve already mentioned that the kids of the Losers’ Club are outcasts in a superficial sense, but several of them also experience wider traumas, and that too affects how they see It. As the book goes on, Eddie Kaspbrak begins to suspect that he’s not nearly as sickly as his mother is determined that he is, and the adult reader can see the sad, awful manipulation that Mrs. Kaspbrak tries to exercise: having lost her husband, she’s damned if she’ll ever lose Eddie to anything—not to childhood illness, but neither to a college education or a girlfriend or a wife or a family or his own life as an adult. At several points in the story, Eddie sees It take on his mother’s face. This works the other way round, too. Beverly Marsh’s father at one point beats her so badly that it’s clear he will kill her if not stopped; she recognises, even as she’s running for her life, that there is real evil present in her father, that It often works best simply by provoking or enabling the innate weakness or cruelty of an adult. Bill Denbrough’s parents, crushed by the loss of their youngest son, become incapable of speaking to each other or to their remaining child. (In one heartbreaking scene, Bill hears his mother crying at one end of the house, his father stifling sobs at the other, and wonders, “Why aren’t they crying together?”) During their 1958 confrontation with It, Bill becomes locked in a kind of metaphysical stand-off, during which he can feel himself moving both closer towards It and further away: closer to Its actual essence, further from being able to stand outside of It as a separate entity and talk to It. He recognises immediately why this puts him in danger—“to pass beyond communication,” he thinks, “is to pass beyond salvation”—and he recognises it because he has seen it happen in his parents’ house.

Historical interludes (supposedly written by Mike Hanlon, who remains in Derry to become the town librarian) suggest that the town has a long and statistically anomalous history of extreme violence coupled with the bystander effect: in one case from the early twentieth century, a woodsman massacres several other men in a public saloon with an axe, while the other tavern-goers continued to drink at the bar. The youngest of them, then a boy of eighteen, is in his nineties when Mike Hanlon interviews him, and his testimony suggests that a pervasive sense of not-my-business settled over the bar while the massacre occurred behind the drinkers. It’s extreme, but not, perhaps, that extreme—recall Kitty Genovese. (After the murderous woodsman is finished, and has wandered up and down the town’s main street for some time, he’s arrested. A lynch mob arrives at the jail; the deputies flee instantly, and the man is dragged out and hanged from a tree. It’s not a story about justice, even of the vigilante sort; it’s a story about bloodlust.) What King is getting at here is a sense of collective responsibility, of how essential that responsibility is to the development of human communities, and how constantly we must be on our guard—be brave, be true, stand—to maintain it. There is no suggestion of nostalgia or that people were more neighbourly in the past; indeed, one of the worst moments in the book is when an old man in 1958 watches a potential homicide unfolding before him, then simply folds his newspaper and turns to go back inside. It’s not the times that make us evil, King wants us to know; we always carry that potential inside us.

The book’s approach to diversity and tolerance is particularly interesting, both because it engages with those issues more consciously than I expected it to, and because King is still hampered by something—perhaps the ‘80s, perhaps wider genre tropes that I don’t know much about—that causes him to make some obvious (from my standpoint) missteps. The fact that he includes a black child, a Jewish child, and a girl in his circle of Chosen Ones is unexpected, and pleasing; yes, there’s only one of each, but he handles it in a non-tokenistic manner; race, religion and gender are rarely dwelt upon. Racism is responsible for one of the worst massacres in Derry history, and King is pretty clear on the monstrosity of small-town organisations like the Legion of White Decency. On the other hand, this doesn’t stop him from giving Richie Tozier—a faintly obnoxious but charming cut-up—a party act called the Pickaninny Voice, a grotesque parody of cringing blackness liable to announcements like “Oh, lawdy, Miss Scarlett! Thisyere black boy’s gwineter behave, don’t you beat thisyere black boy”, and so on. Richie’s regularly told to shut up by the others, but no one suggests that he’s being a racist prick and maybe the black kid that they’re all friends with has something to say on the subject. There are jokes about circumcision and kosher food (though these are tempered by Stan Uris questioning why Catholics eat fish on Friday, which at least makes Richie recognise that all religious strictures are equally arbitrary). Perhaps most damningly, in the 1985 timeline, Stan Uris commits suicide instead of rejoining the others in Derry, and Mike Hanlon is attacked and put in hospital before the final confrontation with It can take place. This may not have been intentional, but it effectively denies both the black and the Jewish man participation in a catharsis that they have most assuredly earned, reinforcing the idea that heroes—in this case personified by Bill, Ben, and to a lesser extent Richie and Eddie—are just naturally white, goshdarnit.

Which brings us to Beverly, because she too is present during the final showdown with It, but you wouldn’t know it. Her role is primarily to take care of Eddie, who’s badly injured early on and spends most of the action bleeding out on the floor. When Bill and Ben and Richie disappear into the metaphysical arena of combat, Beverly’s left behind. Sure, she’s the best shot of them all and was previously given the responsibility of shooting It with a silver slingshot pellet, but that was when they were kids; the adult battle seems to have no place for her in it (except as a caregiver, and as an object of desire to both Bill and Ben). It’s the Susan Problem all over again—girls can only be active agents for as long as they’ll pretend to be one of the boys; once they hit womanhood, they’re no longer of much use—and I resent it.

The biggest problem with King’s treatment of Beverly, though, happens in the 1958 timeline. The battle with It, which leaves It badly wounded but not yet defeated, also leaves the children disoriented. Eddie, an infallible navigator, has lost his touch; they’re in the sewer tunnels, deep below Derry and mostly unmapped. Losing their way means certain death. Something is needed to bring the friends together again, to restore their confidence in each other and their sense of themselves as a unit. That something, it turns out, is for all of the boys to have sex with Beverly, which they duly do, one by one, on the ground. It’s greatly to King’s credit that at the time of reading, immersed in the novel’s world, this makes a certain degree of sense, and he handles it, for the most part, with surprising sensitivity, giving Beverly a kind of detached maturity that doesn’t make her a martyr. (The sex is her idea; only this, and the distinctly non-realist flavour of the story so far, prevents it from reading like a gang rape.) At the same time, the children he’s writing about are eleven, which strikes me as depressingly young to be concluding that sharing a woman is the only way to bring men together. (And what about the woman? How does this logic allow her to reconnect, too? King doesn’t go there.)

For all of these problems, though, It really, really works. The 1958 storyline is perhaps more compelling than the 1985 one, which begins to rely much more heavily on interpersonal melodrama to get its plot rolling. But King’s effortless evocation of fear in his readers is a writerly skill that has to be read to be believed, and the way that he integrates commentary about how humans live together—the best of it, and the worst of it—with his overtly scary monster is clever and compelling. I definitely want to read more of him in future; which of his books should I pick up next?

The Hate Race, by Maxine Beneba Clarke

I knew they were scared. I knew they were just kids. But so were we.

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Maxine Beneba Clarke’s short story collection, Foreign Soil, was one of my favourite books of 2016. Do you know what it feels like to open a book by someone totally new to you and to know, within the space of the first page, that you can trust them and their writing, that you can relax the part of your reading mind that’s always on the alert for awkwardness or falseness, that you can just sink below the surface of the words and go? Of course you do. That’s what Clarke’s writing did—and does—for me, and it’s a large part of why I was anticipating The Hate Race so much.

It doesn’t disappoint. As a memoir of a middle-class black kid growing up in white suburban Australia, it is indeed the kind of story that Clarke’s country hasn’t often heard and needs to hear, as she herself says. But I worry that it will be shared and written about only in that context—of being an “important”, “brave”, “necessary” book—and often, when I see that context, I see condescension. So here’s another way of saying it: The Hate Race is important, brave, and necessary. It is also phenomenally well-written, meticulously observant about social minutiae. Above all, in it, Clarke precisely anatomises the psychology of a bullied kid.

Her observations sting like a badly skinned knee. Bullying starts early: on her first day of kindergarten, a tiny white bitch-in-the-making called Carlita Allen surveys Maxine with wrinkled nose and announces, “You’re brown” in a tone that suggests this is, definitively, unacceptable. To begin with, Carlita perplexes Maxine—who knows she’s brown but has never considered that this might mean anything much—but pretty soon she learns. The book is punctuated with a repeated riff on a couple of sentences: “This is how it broke me,” on one page. Or, “This is how it alters us. This is how we change.”

Maxine starts to alter early on. Her thought processes bounce sharply off of injustice and are forced to bend, every time. A boy in her class calls her blackie one too many times, and she tells a teacher. If she’d been hoping for protection, she’s mistaken:

Mrs Hird kept her grey-green eyes on me, red pen still poised above the spelling test she’d been marking. “Well,” she said slowly, “that’s what you are. You can call him whitey if you like.”

This is 1990. Clarke is ten.

In her horror and rage, she makes the mistake of crying, “That’s racist!” and is scolded for “using that word in my classroom” and “accusing your classmate of something like that.” How dare a girl taunted by the word blackie accuse her tormentor of racism?

Most of the bullying is verbal and emotional, which is hard enough. When Clarke realises that she’s winning schoolyard games of Catch and Kiss not because she’s a fast runner, but because none of the boys want to touch her, it feels like a fist in the throat. She quotes the stupid cruelties of one kid in particular, Greg Adams (all names in this book have been changed, which I assume is to prevent readers from tracking down Greg Adams, and Mrs. Hird, and kicking the living hell out of them):

Greg Adams loudly ranked the girls in our class from one to eleven on his Fuck Chart. He said he couldn’t even put me at the end of the list because animals didn’t count. Greg Adams said that would be bestiality. Greg Adams said the only way black chicks got fucked was gang-banged with the lights turned off, and even then you’d have to be super-desperate, and use ten condoms so you didn’t get AIDS. And then Greg Adams and his friends laughed, and laughed, and laughed.

(I wished, reading that, that Clarke had gone to my majority-black American high school, where white girls were essentially useless. The most desirable trait in a girl at my high school was to have a booty out to HERE. Our prom queen’s nickname literally was “Booty”. Based on Clarke’s writing about her own booty, which stubbornly refuses to be tucked in during gymnastics classes, she would have been a goddess.)

But physical bullying intrudes too, most notably when Clarke and her brother are riding their bikes with two white friends, the McGuire kids. Older boys show up on the scene. Names are called. The McGuires are silent. Then a stone is hurled; and another. The McGuire kids break for home, not even looking back to check that the Clarkes are okay. That scene is where the quotation at the top of this post comes from, and it’s one of the most powerful moments in the memoir. Kids of colour who deal with racism and bullying are children. Children with more structural privilege don’t get to invoke terror as an explanation for their failure to act; Clarke and her brother may be children, but they live in a state of watchfulness and fear so constant that it sometimes reminded me of the behaviour of soldiers. It’s an equally useful reminder for adults. You might be scared by the white supremacist shouting at the hijab-wearing woman on the bus, but guess what? That woman is also scared, and the actual target. Fear of reprisals is a weak excuse for “allies” who do nothing.

Clarke doesn’t let herself off the hook in this regard, either. One of the bravest and most painful sections is her recounting of her behaviour towards Bhagita Singh, an Indian/Australian girl in her class who was, predictably, also bullied by people like Greg Adams. Clarke finds Bhagita’s ability to stare past her tormentors baffling: why can Bhagita do that, but she can’t? When Clarke gets hair extensions—something she’s wanted for months—Bhagita off-handedly says that she liked Clarke’s hair the way it was, and muses that Indian women often sell their hair so that extensions and wigs can be made for other women. It’s all delivered in an utterly un-malicious tone; Bhagita’s straightforwardness makes her capable of ignoring bullies, but also of being quite startlingly tactless without intending to be. Clarke is so disappointed in this response, so filled with embarrassment and let-down and an unplaceable sense of shame, that she lashes out appallingly: the word curry-muncher is used, the accusation leveled that no one would want Bhagita’s hair because it smells disgusting and is greasy (none of which, Clarke notes, is true.) It’s only a matter of hours before Clarke begins to repent, but when she tries to apologise to Bhagita the next day, the other girl wrenches herself away, a look of fear on her face. “Get away from me. Get away!” To Bhagita, Clarke is One Of Them now, undifferentiated from the Carlita Allens and the Greg Adamses. It’s a betrayal more painful to Clarke than almost anything she experiences personally.

(It will also feel familiar to readers who have read Foreign Soil; it mirrors the story “Shu Yi”, in which a little black girl in a majority-white school is instructed to befriend a Chinese Australian classmate, on the basis that they’re both non-white and therefore presumably share some mystical bond. Ava, the protagonist, turns on Shu Yi in order to grasp a shred of playground credibility, and is made to pay the emotional price by Shu Yi herself, who locks eyes with Ava even as she pisses herself with fear and shame. It’s one of the most powerful stories I’ve ever read, and it comes from this place of scrabbling, this place where badly bullied kids end up, where survival instinct takes precedence over kindness.)

Anger is the engine of this book, but Clarke’s writing corrals that emotion and uses it, instead of being overpowered by it. Reviewers often complain that reviewing a memoir is hard, because it’s unfair to judge someone’s life; I would argue that in reviewing a memoir, you are not judging a person’s life, but the way in which they choose to present it to you. For Clarke, presentation is paramount. Also repeated throughout the text is the touchstone phrase, “This is how it happened, or else what’s a story for.” It is not written as a question. She roots her telling in the storytelling traditions of West Indians (her father’s family is Jamaican, her mother’s Guyanese). The passage into adulthood is, in large part, a process that begins when you start being able to tell a story your own way. Clarke’s recounting of what happened to her is an act of authority and reclamation: she was hurt, she was beaten down, and now she will not be silenced any longer. If you have any sense, you will buy this book immediately, and listen.

Many thanks to Grace Vincent at Corsair for the review copy. The Hate Race is published in the UK on 8 June.

Tench, by Inge Schilperoord

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Tench occupied a curious space in my brain while I was reading it, a space that makes it extremely difficult to review. I accepted it from Pushkin Press’s superb publicist Tabitha Pelly, who has form for sending me things that are both very worthwhile and challenging to sum up. The problem, or one of the problems, is a common one: when someone asks you what you are reading, the follow-up question is usually “What’s it about?” In the case of Tench, the answer is “A paedophile”, which, understandably, tends to dampen any further conversation. And the experience of reading it is not unlike that exchange: it is a very brave, very sad book about a lonely and conflicted man with fatally weak support networks, and as such, it is not the sort of thing that one “enjoys” reading. On the other hand, Schilperoord’s grasp of emotional beats in the soul of someone trying hard to be good and do the right thing is superb, and moving. This book will cut you. That’s a recommendation, I promise.

Inge Schilperoord is a Dutch criminal psychologist, and her experience with men like her protagonist, Jonathan, goes a long way towards explaining why he is such a convincing character. As the book opens, he is being released from prison. Something happened to put him there – something involving the neighbour’s daughter Betsy, who seems to suffer from a developmental disability – but the evidence to keep him there is apparently insufficient, and so he is let go. There isn’t much for him to return to: his mother is a well-meaning provincial naif who suffers from asthma and needs Jonathan’s care and attention almost every hour of the day. In a way, this suits Jonathan just fine. He creates a strict daily schedule for himself built around his shift at the fish gutting factory, his daily walks with the elderly family dog, Milk, and keeping house for his mother. Built into the schedule are “exercises” from his workbook, designed to help him control his own thoughts and actions.

His days are so regimented that we know from the beginning, with sinking hearts, it can’t last. Just after moving in, Jonathan meets Elke, a prepubescent girl who lives next door with her single mother. Elke is often left alone in her house, and while Jonathan’s been in prison, she’s been walking Milk for his mother. When they meet, disaster is inevitable.

Partly, Tench is an indictment of silence. Jonathan has no one to help him in his efforts to steer clear of Elke because he doesn’t tell his mother anything. He’s not even sure that she knows precisely why he went to prison: she didn’t come to his trial and he has asked his lawyer not to talk to her about the case. For her own part, his mother never tries to find out; there’s something in her son that she doesn’t understand, and though she loves him, she fears that part of him more than she can admit. So she tries to banish Elke from their house, but she doesn’t ask him anything outright, doesn’t discuss prison or the past with him, and is therefore unable to help him change his future. It’s an understandable attitude, but a useless one: pretend it’s not happening and everything will be all right. “That’s fine, son,” she says often, of his coffee-making or his omelette-flipping. These little finenesses can’t make up for the huge not-okay-ness of most of Jonathan’s life, but she tries to make it seem as if they can.

Schilperoord marshals the symbolism of the natural world to emphasise Jonathan’s constant discomfort: the story is set in a freak heat wave, and the tench of the title is a fish – thought by medieval peasants to have healing properties – which Jonathan tries to keep alive in his bedroom aquarium. It becomes the focus of his interactions with Elke, who loves animals and seems to be just as lonely as Jonathan himself, though where she is desperate for his company, he is terrified of hers. Slowly, as the care of the fish becomes their mutual concern, Jonathan’s flimsily constructed self-discipline begins to erode: first he promises himself he won’t allow the girl within a few dozen metres of him, then within five, then within two. He is constantly trying to maintain boundaries, but also constantly self-justifying.

And all the while, the relentless hot weather: humid, oppressive, and omnipresent. It’s a perfect metaphor for Jonathan’s own thoughts. His exercises tell him that these can be unlearned and rebuilt in a more acceptable image, but although he tries, it’s difficult to do the hard work on your own, without an external force holding you accountable. Schilperoord makes very sure that we see that: that we witness him trying, that we witness him backsliding not because he’s an evil kiddie-fiddler but because he’s human, in the same way that an alcoholic might try hard not to drink but end up reaching for a beer because, dammit, they’ve had a bad day.

Throughout the book, the climactic catastrophe looms. Something is bound to happen, but it’s hard to imagine how Schilperoord will engineer it without boxing herself in: either Jonathan gives in to his impulses, in which case the novel holds out no hope for individual goodness or effort at all, or he doesn’t, which, given the amount of time Tench spends destabilising Jonathan’s resolve, seems dramatically unsatisfying. The third option – the one Schilperoord finally takes – avoids these problems, but is tripped up by its sheer unlikeliness. But that, I think, is the danger inherent in writing a story with such high stakes; on one side or the other, melodrama lurks, and the fact that Schilperoord avoids it for as long as she does is impressive.

What this book most reminded me of was Ian Parkinson’s The Beginning of the End, which I reviewed about two years ago. Parkinson too writes from the perspective of an anti-hero whose lack of sympathetic qualities are due not to a Byronic, rebellious nature but to being repellent and heartbreakingly lonely. But Parkinson’s book does not hold out hope, and while Schilperoord’s book doesn’t really either, it feels by the end as though we’ve moved beyond hope. Jonathan has done nothing, but he will probably be punished. In a way, he’ll be safer back in prison – where at least a support system of psychologists and social workers exists – than out in the wide, terrifying world of flat shores and unpredictable children.

(It is also worth reading Alexandra Marzano-Lesnevich’s book The Fact of a Body in conjunction with Tench. Both give windows onto the almost insurmountable difficulties of living with paedophilia in a society where you are more likely to be reviled or ignored than offered help, and onto the painful struggle not to hurt anyone when, to you, it doesn’t even feel like hurt.)

Many thanks to Tabitha Pelly of Pushkin Press for the reading copy. Tench was published in the UK on 27 April 2017.

Reservoir 13, by Jon McGregor

The missing girl’s name was Rebecca, or Becky, or Bex.

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I’m growing more and more interested in the idea of reading protocols: roughly speaking, ways that we are primed to read and interpret a book given its genre, or its front cover design, or the name of its author. Jon McGregor’s name was familiar to me when I picked this up, but I’d never read any of his work before, so I had no real expectations. The front cover design gives little away. All you have to go on is the opening pages: a community-wide hunt for a thirteen-year-old girl who goes missing on the moors above an unnamed Peak District village, not far from Manchester. The reading protocols that most of us, I would guess, have developed by now prime us to expect that Reservoir 13 will focus on this disappearance: maybe it will flash back to the week before the girl vanishes, bring us forward in time; maybe it will take us into the police investigation, into the heads of the detectives trying to find her. Maybe we’ll learn what horrible thing happened to her, and why.

We don’t. That’s one thing worth knowing before you crack the spine of Reservoir 13: you never find out what happens. It’s a book that doesn’t so much challenge your expectations as ignore them. There is no point even in guessing what happened to the missing girl: we’re told, many times, that it could have been anything; an accident; something deliberately planned by her parents; a running away, a walk to the nearby motorway and a jump into a friendly-looking car and later a burial somewhere miles away, or maybe just the start of a new life. Although, over the years, two clues emerge from the surrounding landscape, they remain inconclusive. One of them isn’t even recognised as a clue and is discarded by the character who finds it, though we as readers are braced for it to be a breakthrough in the case.

Instead, the focus of the book is on the life of the village where the girl disappears. She and her parents are holiday-makers, passersby; the village, by contrast, is full of people who have lived there for years, people who farm and trade there and are making a life. The time period is never specified, but from context about what’s on the news, it’s probably the early 2000s. McGregor structures his book in thirteen chapters, each representing another year after the disappearance.

We are not permitted even the illusion of a single focal point. Unlike The Virgin Suicides, another novel set within and defined by a particular community, Reservoir 13 is not narrated by a “we”, and there is no main character. Instead the book’s voice is omnipotent and omnipresent, a godlike third-person narration that gives the impression of a village whose identity is a bit like that of Trigger’s broom: its composition is ever shifting, its inhabitants dying or moving or being born, but through some ineffable alchemy it remains recognisably the same place.

The other technique that contributes to this effect is McGregor’s use of the natural world, and the events of the farming year, as touchstones. Lambing, for instance, occurs every year and in every chapter. In the opening pages of the book, we are told that Jackson’s boys are seeing to it under the supervision of their aging father. By the end of the book, Jackson is confined to his bed after a stroke; it’s out of the question for him to play any sort of active role in the day-to-day workings of the farm, let alone the major events of the year. McGregor is quite willing to let his characters age and weaken—or age and mature, as in the case of Susanna Wright, who enters the village as an object of some suspicion, a yoga-practicing divorcée, and becomes embedded in the life of the community.

That is a particular beauty of Reservoir 13: all human life is here, and not in the Midsomer Murders sort of way that sees incest behind every rose bush. Instead McGregor introduces stories and characters that initially seem typically “English” (for which read: white, well-to-do, nuclear families) and gradually causes us to recognise that they’re more complicated. In one of the early chapters, Austin Cooper, the editor of the local paper, is complimented in the village shop on his wife Su’s pregnancy. Oh, okay, we think; young couple, probably yuppies or refugees from urban life, playing at journalism and housewifery. It’s only gradually that we learn that Su’s name is Su Lin; that her parents are Anglo-Chinese; that she works for the BBC; that Austin is sixty, and that for him marriage and fatherhood have long seemed unattainable joys. Likewise, Sally and Brian Fletcher appear to represent a classically dull village marriage: Brian is a permanent fixture on the parish council, Sally does volunteer-type things at the church and tracks butterflies in the nearby nature reserve. It’s with something of a shock that we learn they met online.

The obvious question, of course, is why tell this story, and why tell it this way? The missing girl vanishes on page one and as far as narrative closure goes, that’s pretty much it. Her parents hang around the village for several years, returning every so often, to be seen as objects of pity and bafflement. But we never get even the tiniest inkling of what happened to her—the police seem to have none—and though McGregor invokes her as surely and regularly as he does the New Year’s fireworks and the springtime well-dressing ceremony, with the quotation used at the top of this post, there is never much in the way of elaboration. Reservoir 13 is not about Rebecca Shaw’s disappearance.

But it could not be the book that it is without her. Everyone in this village carries a burden, even—especially—those who seem the most secure. Bossy matriarch Irene is becoming increasingly physically threatened by her developmentally disabled son Andew; Jones the school caretaker, convicted of possessing child pornography (charges he denies), is a full-time carer for his sister. Susanna Wright’s ex-husband is dangerous. Young James kissed Becky Shaw the day she disappeared. Wherever there is a community, there are people living in the shadows of their own secrets, in the light of the inexplicable secrets of their neighbours. Jon McGregor’s genius, in Reservoir 13, is to tell stories about the people who continue to live in such a place, the people who have to continue existing on land that holds great suffering and great sorrow and great mystery. The fact that Rebecca Shaw disappears there only serves as the most extreme example of that mystery. That place is our neighbourhood, and everywhere; the people are us, and everyone.

Reservoir 13 was published in the UK on 1 April 2017 by 4th Estate.

April Superlatives

April was a good month in numbers (seventeen), a decent month in quality, a month that I have decided I should not attempt to repeat. I got a lot of proofs from the bookshop, probably too many: there were piles on my desk at work, piles on the desk at home, and a kind of grit-my-teeth determination to get through them all before May. The vast majority of them were very good, but that still seems, in retrospect, like an awfully joyless way to read. It also meant that I burnt out on reviewing less than halfway through the month. In May I’ll be reining it in. Which is handy, since I’ll have friends and family visiting, some singing to do, and zero free time.

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most essential: If you like books or use the Internet—and, since you just read that on a website devoted to books, this means you—you need to read The Idealist, by Justin Peters. In part it’s an intellectual biography of data freedom activist Aaron Swartz, in part a tour of historic attitudes to copyright, freedom of information, and open access to literature and other works of culture. If you’re a writer, a reader, a citizen, this is fundamental, and it taps into every other contemporary political issue that there is. (review)

best exposition of little-known history: The fact that there are true things we don’t know about because they’re too weird or peripheral to make it into school history curricula is a source of neverending fascination for me, both as a reader and as a writer. Sana Krasikov’s The Patriots follows a young, idealistic American woman who moves to the USSR in the 1930s, and tracks the life she lives there, all but abandoned by the US government, as purges start to get worse. It’s a compelling, if somewhat overlong, exploration of choice, dogma, and what it means to be free. (review)

best punch to the stomach: Almost literally; One of the Boys, by Daniel Magariel, is under two hundred pages and focuses on the interactions between an abusive father and his two adolescent sons. Magariel compassionately illuminates the pressures and pitfalls of “being a man” in a world that prioritises violence and loyalty above all else. (review)

best application of essential thoughts: Cory Doctorow’s new novel, Walkaway, is dedicated in part to Aaron Swartz. Set eighty-odd years in the future, it speculates about a wholesale rejection of late-stage capitalism enabled by 3-D printers, widespread tech smarts, a communal mindset, and the fact that the 1% has become the .001%. When a walkaway group discovers a technology for cheating death, all hell breaks loose. Doctorow believes we’ll create the world that we imagine, and he wants us to imagine a cooperative one. It made me feel very hopeful. (review)

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sheerest fun: Volume 2 of Saga, Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’s barnstorming space opera graphic novel. In this one, we get more of The Will and Lying Cat—two of my absolute faves—beautifully rendered interactions between Alana and her father-in-law, a planet that hatches, and (finally) the appearance of Gwendolyn. It’s slick, funny, and superb.

most fuck-the-patriarchy: Maria Turtschaninoff’s YA fantasy novel Naondel, the follow-up to last year’s Maresi. Men in general don’t come off well—they’re all evil, weak-willed, arrogant, or all of the above—which does its young readers a disservice; Maresi took care to state that men aren’t inherently bad, a more nuanced approach that showed more respect for an adolescent’s intellect. Still, Naondel is full both of badass women and of women who’ve been badly hurt but not broken. That’s a great big middle finger to oppressive tyrants everywhere. (review)

most self-aware memoir: Admissions, English neurosurgeon Henry Marsh’s second book. Marsh is completely honest about his personal faults, which largely neutralises them; he is forthright about the problems that beset the NHS, and clearly fiercely proud of his colleagues, and of the institution as it was originally conceived. He writes a lot in this second volume about aging and death, too, without either sentimentality or cynicism. His voice is wry and utterly unique. Highly recommended.

most diffuse: Sympathy, a debut novel by Olivia Sudjic, published by ONE Pushkin. I liked it well enough, but I finished it unsure of whether Sudjic had actually done anything particularly interesting with her major theme—the ease with which one can stalk and create a false sense of intimacy, using the tools of social media—or whether she had simply used it to tell a fairly conservative story of the need for origins and belonging.

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most unexpected pleasure: That derived from Don DeLillo’s White Noise. Going in with no expectations was probably wise; it’s a surprisingly wistful novel, full of marital affection that is no less honest for being presented side-by-side with selfishness and existential terror.

best retelling: Colm Toibin’s reclamation of the Clytemnestra/Agamemnon/Orestes story from ancient Greece, House of Names. Toibin nails the bare-bones, primeval nature of the story and simultaneously brings us into the heads of absolutely single-minded characters. My only query is whether he gives quite enough weight to religious belief: the younger characters are convinced the gods are not there, but Agamemnon must have thought they were, and we don’t get enough of that (or a good reason to decide that he’s merely a nihilistic child-murdering monster.)

best murder: Two, actually—the deaths in Sarah Schmidt’s historical novel about Lizzie Borden, See What I Have Done. And by “best” I mean “most horribly described without being gratuitously gory” and “motives for which explored with the greatest delicacy and surprising artistry”. Turns out Schmidt can really, really write, and she cleverly resists the temptation to pinpoint the nature of Lizzie’s mental health problems, making for a gloriously uneasy reading experience.

most wasted opportunity: Queer City, subtitled “a history of gay London from the Romans to the present”, Peter Ackroyd’s latest. To paraphrase what I said in an earlier discussion, Ackroyd fails on two counts: a) to provide much in the way of sources (there’s a bibliography in the back, but he usually just recounts an anecdote without saying where or who it comes from, and without appearing to analyse the source), and b) to create anything like a narrative or a sense of development around the history of gay London. It’s all just event, event, event—court case, scandal, ballad, gossip, hanging—with no framing of these events in a wider context, no attempt more than cursory to explore social and political currents that might suggest why things changed when. And although the book purports to be about the city, it doesn’t really convey a sense of why or how gay culture flourished specifically in London.

best insults: To be found in The Blood Miracles, Lisa McInerney’s follow-up to The Glorious Heresies, which won her the Baileys Prize last year. In this volume, we follow one of the characters we met previously, Ryan Cusack. A few years down the line, he’s twenty and dealing drugs, and his girlfriend Karine, who means everything to him, is starting to lose patience. McInerney ties in many of the characters we met in Heresies, but this time the atmosphere is darker: there are more beatings, a mock-execution. There’s still humour, though, and the insults are fabulous (“his head is just something that keeps his ears apart” being one of my favourites). I’m just not sure it rises to the heights of Heresies, but I can’t put my finger on why.

The Fact of a Body

hands-down favourite: I liked a lot of the books I read in April, but none of them are going to stay with me like The Fact of a Body. Written by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich, a qualified lawyer with an MFA, it’s part true crime narrated in flawless novelistic prose, part attempt to exorcise the ghosts of Marzano-Lesnevich’s own abusive past. She does this by facing their echoes in the case of Ricky Langley, who admitted to killing a little boy called Jeremy Guillory in 1993. It’s a stunning piece of work: never sensationalistic, never sentimental, always sharply intelligent about the law and human nature, and yet full of understanding. I absolutely adored it. I want it to be huge.

most unabashed comfort reading: Turns out these days, when I need to recharge my brain, I go for spies and murder. (This is why I think I’m getting old. Isn’t this what old people do? Curl up with a cosy mystery and a crossword? At least I don’t do crosswords.) Fortunately neither of these were especially cosy: not Mick Herron’s Dead Lions, the second in the Slough House books, nor Tana French’s The Secret Place, one of her Dublin Murder Squad books, this one set in a girl’s school. Dead Lions isn’t quite as good as Slow Horses: the wisecracking humour starts to wear thin, and the plot is, frankly, farcical and unnecessary (no one cares about the Cold War anymore, and trying to revive it – especially after Herron put his finger on the pulse in terms of real national security trends in his first book – seems like a misguided attempt to cash in on Le Carre comparisons.) But The Secret Place is, I think, one of French’s best books, because it is so explicit about the things that interest her as an author: friendship as an almost mystical force, and what happens when that force is subjected to outside influences, what happens when loving people isn’t enough. Reading it almost felt like relief: she’s a writer I trust implicitly.

most unexpected surprise: Reservoir 13, Jon McGregor’s new novel, which I’ll be reviewing very soon. It starts with the disappearance of a young girl in a Peak District village, and promptly fails to fulfill every one of our expectations about stories that start with the disappearance of a young girl. It’s also the best evocation I have ever read of modern English village life.

up next: I’m currently reading China Miéville’s The City and the City, with almost equal measures of enjoyment and mild confusion, as Miéville’s fiction tends to make me feel. For the rest of the month, I’ve got some fantastic proofs, including Tench by Inge Schilperoord, Perfect Little World by Kevin Wilson, and The Things We Thought We Knew by Mahsuda Snaith.

Two Utopias: Thoughts on Walkaway and Naondel

These two books are, on the surface of it, about as different as you can imagine. Walkaway, by Cory Doctorow, is resolutely for adults (with a lot of graphic sex); Naondel, Maria Turtschaninoff’s follow-up to last year’s Maresi, is, despite its girth, a middle-grade YA novel. Walkaway believes in the power of technology to save us; Naondel places its faith in earth magic and the maternal life force. Walkaway is profoundly, almost giddily, optimistic about human nature; Naondel shows us a humanity that is near uniform in its brutality. And yet for all these polarities – sci fi vs. fantasy; adults vs. kids; positivity vs. cynicism – the two books have some striking similarities, and even their differences are illuminating.

9780765392763Both are about the drive, and the overwhelming need, to create utopias. Doctorow opens his book by introducing us to three characters: Hubert “Etcetera” Espinoza, so called because he has nineteen first names; Seth, Hubert’s slightly fratty but basically harmless friend; and Natalie, the scion of a minor branch of Toronto’s wealthy Redwater family. Hubert and Seth meet Natalie at a party (in one of the book’s many delightful coinings, it is a “Communist party”, where enterprising youths use 3D printing and microbial biology to create free dance floors, free speakers, and—crucially—free beer out of “feedstock”, useless industrial leftovers in an abandoned warehouse). At the end of chapter one, the party is crashed by drones directed by the forces of “default” society; one of Natalie’s friends, Billiam, falls fatally from a catwalk; Hubert, Seth and Natalie end up in the house of Natalie’s father, uber-capitalist Jacob Redwater; and the three of them, fueled by Natalie’s disgust over her family’s privileged arrogance and Hubert’s knowledge of other options, choose to “go walkaway”. Apparently, eighty years in the future, this will be a possibility: to join huge communal groups of people who don’t want to live in the wage slavery of late capitalism (where the rulers are not the 1%, but the .001%), and who use advances in 3D printing, network programming, and genetic modification to build lives for themselves.

The other way of living, in this world—the “default” way—is exactly like how we live now, but worse: go into deep hock to acquire degrees that are all but meaningless; reach age sixty-five without ever shaking the word “assistant” from your job title; live in constant terror of eviction or joblessness. Domestic servants in the Redwater household are hired on an ad hoc basis through an app—much in the way that catering and hospitality agencies provide workers now—meaning that the maid or the gardener is rarely the same person twice. It’s not the sort of world that values anyone, other than absolute zillionaires. The appeal of rejecting it is obvious.

34035652Naondel, meanwhile, is set in a country that clearly doesn’t belong to our world but which, judging from linguistics and economy, seems to be an amalgam of Arabic and Japanese culture. (This is a problem in itself, opening the novel up to charges of both exoticising and demonising Eastern cultures and their attitudes towards women. The Big Bad character is a brutal poisoner and rapist named Iskan ak Honta-che, which made me think of nothing so much as the rapey desert warlord in Game of Thrones.) In Karenokoi, very few people are both good and powerful. Power, by definition, corrupts. Turtschaninoff shows us a world where it’s not just the men who are evil, either; Izani, Iskan’s mother, is cold and cruel to her grandsons, while Lehan, the younger sister of a main character, is so infatuated with Iskan that she actually—albeit unknowingly—helps him to victimise another woman.

The whole novel is the foundation story of the Red Abbey on the island of Menos, where the first book, Maresi, was set. In Maresi we saw that kind of utopian, matriarchal society in action, and cheered as it destroyed a threat from outside. In Naondel we see why it’s necessary: the only place for women in Karenokoi is a subservient one. Interestingly, though, Turtschaninoff’s attempts at creating diversity among her characters cause a continuity problem. Several of the women who eventually escape from the dairahesi (harem) of Ohaddin Palace are from other cultures: there’s a woman from a nomadic tribe with strong spiritual connections to the earth, another from a tree-dwelling people who has the power to control others’ dreams. When they escape—as we always know they will—why don’t they make for one of these lands, where women and their powers are revered or at least respected? One suspects that it’s because the mechanics of Turtschaninoff’s plot demand otherwise. They have to settle the island of Menos and establish the Red Abbey; we knew from the moment we opened the book that it would end this way. To make that happen, we get a bit of authorial hand-waving that acknowledges the problem without digging into it, which limits the book’s success.

Anyway. Both of these countries, clearly, are ruled by total bastards. The establishment of a utopia is the only way out of their uncompromising and dehumanising systems. But here Doctorow and Turtschaninoff part ways again. Doctorow’s bastards are, by definition, a minority, and a tiny minority at that. Pretty much everyone whom our hero/-ines meet in walkaway is compassionate, sensible, and positive about their ability to make a difference. They collectively embody the covered-dish principle, which Doctorow explains within the book itself: after a catastrophe, do you go over to your neighbour’s house with a covered dish of food, or a shotgun? If you choose the dish, even a neighbour who chose the shotgun is more likely to put it down and offer you some food in return. If you choose the shotgun, it’s very unlikely that things will end well for anyone. Walkaway is about people who believe fiercely that taking a covered dish is the right thing to do, and who make the right choice most of the time. When an aggressive inhabitant of a walkaway community tries to create a formal hierarchy, he’s stymied because people there simply abandon the place, rather than live under someone again. When police besiege another community near the end of the novel, they’re defeated in part by their own innate goodness: those who are trapped mobilise the Internet to find relatives of the policemen who are also walkaways, then broadcast appeals from police’s siblings, parents, and children, targeted at individual cops. Without fail, this causes them to drop their weapons. You may find this beautiful, or unbelievable, or – as I did – both; but there’s no doubt that it gave me more hope, post-election, post-Brexit, post-Westminster and Stockholm and Syrian gas attack, than anything more overtly political I’ve read in the past year.

Naondel, by contrast, doesn’t allow us to believe in the innate goodness of anyone other than our heroines. They are somewhat complicated, but their morally dubious acts are always implicitly justified: Kabira, the eldest, taunts her mother-in-law with breathtaking cruelty as the old woman lies dying, but she has endured decades of taunts in her turn, and has been denied access to her children. Orseola, the dreamweaver, is exiled from her home for a major social taboo, but her outburst stems from the fact that she is untrained in her craft, and frightened of her own power. Sulani, the warrior, murders people left, right and centre, but she is a warrior and—it’s implied—that’s just what warriors do. Outside of this circle, we actually see very few characters, and the minor ones—like the eunuch guards of the harem—are at best indifferent to the suffering of the women. At worst, they’re either mustache-twirlers (like Iskan, who all but cackles), or—as in the case of Iskan’s other concubines—vain and stupid.

This is largely down to the fact that Turtschaninoff’s gender politics are broad-brush. It makes a certain level of sense. She’s writing for middle school girls, who are just becoming aware of the fact that, yeah, people will judge you for literally anything, and, no, it doesn’t seem to be like that for boys. Unfairness is the engine that drives Naondel—at points I found myself becoming furious—and to be given a book that not only provokes anger, but legitimises it, is a big deal for a twelve-year-old girl. Doctorow’s utopia takes the opposite approach. It is almost post-gender. None of the major characters have long-lasting cishet relationships; they’re all either L, G, B, T, Q, or I, and relationship drama is kept at an absolute minimum. Crucially, cishet identities are most reinforced by people who oppose walkaway culture: by Jimmy, the guy who attempts to create hierarchy in a community by tearing down their best programmer for being female; and by Jacob Redwater, whose wife and daughter live in a world of gilded privilege but almost no real freedom.

I prefer Doctorow’s vision, probably appropriately: I’m an adult, and his gender politics are adult too. Naondel is still a book I’d recommend heartily to middle-grade kids and their parents; it has important things to say. I would just take care to balance it with something like Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness quartet. For all her faults, Pierce at least recognised that women were capable not only of creating their own retreat from the world, but also of engaging with its injustices head on.

Thanks very much to Chrissy at Head of Zeus and Tabitha at Pushkin Press for the review copies. Walkaway will be published in the UK on 25 April; Naondel was published in the UK on 6 April.