just after midnight

The monster showed up just after midnight. As they do.

A Monster Calls, Patrick Ness. 2011.

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I am trying to read my way through this list, for reasons that combine professional interest (I’m now Children’s Subscriptions Coordinator at work, you may acclaim me) with the simple curiosity of the lifelong, but now grown-up, bookworm. The undisputed number one book on the list is A Monster Calls, and it makes sense, doesn’t it, to start with the best?

A monster—a Green Man-type walking yew tree, the earth on two legs—calls on pre-teen Conor O’Malley at 12:07 one night. He isn’t afraid of it. Or rather, he is, but he’s not as afraid of it as he is of the other thing, which is the dream that he keeps having. The dream involves his mum, but he can’t even bring himself to think about it when he’s awake. His mum is dying. Everyone at school knows this, because his best friend has told them all. His father is in America with his new family and seems content to use them as an excuse to stay there; his grandmother, not at all a stereotypical sort, is a hard-nosed estate agent whose attempts to do right by her family are constantly butting up against her own brusqueness and rigidity. Conor is alone, until the monster comes. And the monster wants to tell him a story. Three, actually.

Conor—thank God—reacts like a normal child to this, which is to say that he can’t understand what’s meant to be so scary about that. (It reminded me of a delightfully sarcastic tweet, which I can’t find now, in response to the recently released The Secret Commonwealth: “Mum! Philip Pullman’s at the door! He’s bangin’ on about the power of storytelling again!”) The scarier thing, as far as Conor’s concerned, is the bargain that the monster drives: after three stories, it’ll be Conor’s turn to tell one. If he manages, the monster will leave; if he refuses, or if he can’t, the monster will eat him. There’s only one story he can tell–the story of what happens in his dream every night–and he doesn’t want to tell it. But he has a respite, for now, while the monster goes first.

The stories Conor is told are like fairytales, in that their characters and dynamics are similar: there is a foolish king whose second marriage is to an evil witch, a cruelly slaughtered bride, a misanthropic healer, a proud man humbled by grief. Where the monster, and Ness, differ from familiar tales is that the person we suppose to be good, the protagonist with whom our sympathies are designed to lie, is shown each time to be compromised. What they want to achieve is not necessarily good or right. Nor is this a simplistic flipping of heroes and villains: the “bad” characters don’t turn out to be angels. In the monster’s first story, the murderer of the bride turns out not to be the witchy queen, but the queen is most definitely a witch, and a powerful, dangerous one at that. She’s allowed to escape the violent retribution of the villagers not because she’s a good person, but simply because she isn’t a killer.

I have to confess that I, like Conor, was initially very skeptical of the monster’s stories, but by the end of the first one, the effect was clear: to introduce the idea of grey-area morality. And Conor needs this, because his mother is about to die, and although no one in his life has told him, it will be the moment he enters adulthood, and to enter adulthood is to enter a realm where nothing is any longer definitely good or definitely bad. The story the monster wants him to tell is the acknowledgment of his own loss of innocence: he must confess that a part of him actually wants his mother to die, to put a stop to her pain and his own.

The story is moving, and movingly told, on its own, but it’s Jim Kay’s illustrations that lend a real air of wildness, of uncharted territory both physical and emotional, to the book. He might be better known for his illustrated editions of the Harry Potter books, but his stark, brambly pen-and-ink drawings that encroach on nearly every page of A Monster Calls are exquisitely well suited to the text. This is my favourite spread:

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A thoroughly unpatronizing dissection of grief and growing up, and an excellent start to the project. The best children’s book of the last twenty years? Quite possibly.

a bit of most things

Not everything I’ve read since my last post, but a fair amount of it.

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Mortal Engines, by Philip Reeve: An addition to the shelf of books that prove children’s literature need not be any less morally complex, engaging, or surprising than adult books (Philip Pullman’s complete oeuvre also lives there). You no doubt know the premise of this already, from the film: in an ecologically ravaged future, cities have become mechanized and mobile, and the principle of Municipal Darwinism encourages larger settlements to hunt and consume smaller ones. (This accounts for Reeve’s justly famous opening line: “It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring, and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried-out bed of the North Sea.”) Tom Natsworthy, a young apprentice historian, saves a famous adventurer from an assassin and, during the struggle, is flung from the city into the wastelands below. He must team up with a physically and emotionally scarred girl named Hester Shaw, not only to get back to London, but to foil a plot brewing within the city itself that threatens what remains of the world. There’s also a third point-of-view character: Katherine, the sheltered and protected daughter of the man whose life Tom saves, who mounts her own investigation from within the upper echelons of London society.

Both Katherine’s and Tom’s moral arcs bend towards disillusionment and the assumption of responsibility, and Mortal Engines is so good because that development is paced so well. Tom and Hester argue periodically about the legitimacy of Municipal Darwinism, and for more than half the book, Tom cannot quite understand why anybody would want a different system; Katherine trusts in the good faith of the authority figures around her for a very long time, even as she continues to uncover proof of corruption. It’s a realistic depiction of how difficult it is to face the flaws in your own beliefs, and it’s infinitely more convincing than the remarkable readiness of, e.g., Katniss Everdeen to overthrow everything she’s ever known. (Reeve also writes with a restraint and sureness of touch that makes his more emotional sequences unbearably effective: a sudden death near the end of the book is conveyed in a paragraph the rhythmic balance and deftness of which made me cry.) I’ll be reading the rest of the series.

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The Jewel, by Neil Hegarty: Back to adult literature for a bit, with Neil Hegarty’s second novel, which was published on 3 October. It centers around the theft of an almost miraculous artwork: a painting buried with its artist as a shroud, but later exhumed and hung on the walls of a Dublin gallery. It draws the attention of the public for its uncanny freshness: the nature of the materials means the colours should not have remained bright for as long as they have. A short opening sequence is from the perspective of the late Victorian female artist who painted the piece; when it is stolen, the chapters shift between the perspectives of the thief, the specialist tasked with recovering it, and the curator in charge of the robbed gallery. It is, in a way, a novel about a stolen painting, but it is not an art-world heist caper; it is very much more about the lives led by three people brought together by a piece of art that is meaningful to each of them, about what sorts of experiences form a person and how that formed personality can sometimes be blazed away, for an instant, by something other. Probably more to the point, though, Hegarty’s character sketches are precise and painful: the corrosive effect of cynicism on a man’s soul, the revelation of the cancerous depth of abuse in a supposedly loving relationship, the searing trauma of a sister’s death in silent, repressive late-twentieth-century Ireland. Some are more effective than others. I was never quite as convinced by Roisin, the gallery curator, and the story of Ward, the recovery specialist, is by far the most emotionally engaging. But these are quibbles that raise themselves weeks after reading the book; while turning the pages, all of these characters are real. And Hegarty’s prose is just so trustworthy, which is much rarer than it sounds.

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Homecoming: Voices of the Windrush Generation, by Colin Grant: Also published on 3 October. Grant is a journalist and Homecoming (or Home Coming; reviews have been published that spell it both ways) is an oral history of black Caribbean-British life from the 1940s onwards. Like many books that use this research method, Homecoming is often not quite clear about when its sources were interviewed, presumably because Grant has visited some of his interviewees multiple times, then cut and shaped their testimony (Svetlana Alexievich’s books are not dissimilar). The book also borrows transcripts from other projects of this kind: from BBC documentaries on the black British experience going back as far as the 1950s, for example, or from memoirs by black British writers. Although this can lead to a kind of historical vertigo, it also has the effect of layering generations of testimony, sometimes in a surprising and enlightening manner; there is a whole chapter dedicated to racist violence in Notting Hill in 1958, but there are also several interviewees who state frankly that Enoch Powell’s notorious “Rivers of Blood” speech, ten years later, made little to no impression on their daily lives. It’s one of many salutary reminders in the book that people live, as Margaret Atwood puts it in The Handmaid’s Tale, “as usual”–that patterns we retroactively read as abnormal or catastrophic are often experienced much less dramatically by the people alive at the time. The point is not that racism never existed or wasn’t as bad as news reports suggested; it’s that no two people of Caribbean descent in Britain have experienced the same things in the same ways. Homecoming goes a long way towards challenging the still-prevalent idea of a monolithic racial narrative.

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The Song of the Lark, by Willa Cather: Still on a Cather kick, and I think this might be the best one so far, although possibly that’s because it’s about something that fascinates me: namely, the artistic development of a musician. Thea Kronborg grows up the daughter of a Lutheran pastor in Moonstone, Colorado, but her talent as a pianist, and later as a soprano, lead her to Chicago, Germany, New York, and beyond. Cather’s strengths are here in full force: her apparently effortless evocation of the lands of the American West; her subtle and entire grasp of the complications of human character; and her innate understanding that artistry involves sacrifice, and that involves decisions that other people can’t always empathize with. (Thea chooses, for example, not to come home when her mother is dying; if she stays in Germany, she will have the chance to sing the role of Elizabeth in Wagner’s Tannhauser, which becomes her breakthrough role. The people in her life are divided primarily into those who understand this perfectly, and those who never will.) Structurally, Cather thought the novel a failure, and AS Byatt, in her introduction, agrees: she cites what Cather seemed to think of as the weakening effect of the final section of the novel, during which Thea is seen at the height of her career. Cather’s regret is understandable; the novel would be strong enough if it ended just as Thea goes off to Germany, her development as a singer now well underway. This isn’t really a book about success: it’s a book about work, which makes a whole section on success a little redundant. But it’s worth it, just about, to know that the work pays off.

also read recently:

  • Trick Mirror, by Jia Tolentino, undoubtedly the most intelligent and rigorous essay collection on the Internet age, and specifically Internet feminism, that I’ve yet read. Tolentino’s a New Yorker staff writer and she is not content with platitudes about millennial culture or about the deleterious effects of social media on our attention spans; she’s much more interested in dissecting how things happen, what the exact circumstances are that result in malaise, or trolling, or a specific cultural phenomenon. Outstanding.
  • Priests de la Resistance, by Fergus Butler-Gallie, a moving and also charming collection of biographical chapters focusing on religious individuals (mostly ordained or consecrated but some not) who have fought Fascism in the twentieth century. The usual suspects are present (Maximilian Kolbe, Dietrich Bonhoeffer), but also some names quite new to me (Sister Sara Salkhazi, Pietro Pappagallo). He also doesn’t just stick to WWII-era resistance, but glances also at the religious foundations of the US civil rights movement. A bit more balance would have been welcome, but maybe that’s for volume three? In any case: an excellent collation of humans who, whatever you think of theology in general, felt themselves called to save lives. We could all do a lot worse than to follow these particular examples.
  • The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, my first audiobook in… maybe ever. Our household didn’t really do audiobooks when I was a kid, and I’ve always assumed I’ll find them annoying. This was technically a re-read, since I read it first at fifteen, but this time around, Atwood’s novel felt much more immediate and daring and vital. For a long time I’ve been quietly skeptical of what all the fuss is about, having only faint memories of the book I read twelve years ago, and now – especially thanks to Elisabeth Moss’s dry, softly-spoken narrative style – I get it. Occasionally Atwood shows signs of the slightly too on-the-nose jokes that have started to mar her recent work (“pen is envy”, recently cited by a reviewer of The Testaments, turns up for the first time in The Handmaid’s Tale, and I’m not at all convinced by the likelihood of portmanteaux such as “Prayvaganza” or “Particicution”, although the grim euphemism of “Salvaging” is plausible). But mostly, it’s as fresh and terrifying a guide to the ways in which women can be enslaved – and complicit in the system that enslaves them – as ever.

 

 

 

some children’s books

Therapist: and what do we do when we feel a tiny bit heartbroken but also dumb because we revealed our vulnerability to someone who rejected it, and additionally feel waves of acute terror that a no-deal Brexit will threaten our actual life because we need insulin and medicine shortages will be more than a minor inconvenience?

Me: walk to the nearest bookshop and purchase £50+ worth of children’s and YA novels

Therapist: NO

And so:

wrinkle in time

A Wrinkle In Time, by Madeleine L’Engle: Not gonna lie, this one has aged weirdly. Not badly, exactly, but weirdly. There’s a level of sheer serene acceptance of Christian theology that would actually make me think twice before sending it to a child now—not because L’Engle ever advocates anything more controversial than the power of love, but because direct Biblical quotation in a book for eight-to-twelve-year-olds feels a bit…full on? Maybe that’s my problem, though; maybe a child would skate over whatever they didn’t need. They tend to. Also, I can’t quite shake my uncertainty about the characterisation of Meg, her genius-mystic little brother Charles Wallace, and her beautiful-genius mother Mrs. Murry, in particular, ever since reading this Paris Review article. Are they just prototypes of the Perfectly Flawed Protagonist trope in YA? I don’t know. There’s enough left in the book, even with my discomfort, to make it resonate with me very deeply: the way Meg is told that her weaknesses can also be her strengths, that what she has in her heart for her little brother is enough to save him from the cruelty that wants him for its own. And the description of the terrifying dark planet of Camazotz, with its authoritarian sameness and awful punishments for those who step out of line, retains all of its power to disturb.

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The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster: The complex delights of characterisation are not really an issue in The Phantom Tollbooth. Our protagonist, Milo, is a chronically bored little boy (one rather extraordinary feature of the book is that he appears not to have any parents; it’s not that he’s orphaned but that they simply aren’t mentioned. I guess he’s what that era might have called a latchkey kid, except that he literally never thinks about them, not once. It’s a fascinating omission. Is it that they don’t love him, or that they’re simply not necessary to the story? Or a bit of both?) Anyway, one day he finds a parcel in his room which turns out to be a flatpack toy tollbooth. He rouses himself from lassitude enough to put it together and drive through it in his little toy car, and suddenly finds himself in an entirely different world, where two brothers rule over words and numbers (respectively), the conductor Chroma directs the orchestra of the world to play every day into colour from sunrise to sunset, and Dr. Kakofonous A. Dischord collects loud noises along with his lab assistant, the Terrible Dynne. Milo acquires two faithful companions, Tock the Watchdog (watch + dog, you see?) and the Humbug (stripy, pompous, likes spats), and soon finds himself on a quest to bring back the princesses Rhyme and Reason from their exile in the Castle in the Air. The delights of The Phantom Tollbooth are in the rigorous logic of its nonsense world, in which it much resembles Lewis Carroll; if you eat subtraction stew, you get hungrier and hungrier, of course—why wouldn’t you?

*a personal disclaimer: I read The Phantom Tollbooth out loud to my kid brother when he was six or seven and I was eleven or twelve. It made the most enormous impression on him; until he discovered Roald Dahl, he called it his favourite book, and he used to talk about it loads. We never found another book that did quite the same sort of thing.

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Arsenic For Tea, by Robin Stevens: The second in Stevens’s Murder Most Unladylike series, and quite possibly even better than the eponymous first book. Daisy Wells (president of the Detective Society at Deepdean School) and Hazel Wong (Secretary) are at Daisy’s parents’ country house, Fallingford, for the summer holidays, but there is something rotten in the estate. Daisy’s mother (much younger than Daisy’s father) has invited a rather flashy and insincere antiques dealer named Mr Curtis to stay, and they seem entirely too chummy; Great-Aunt Saskia’s habit of pinching the silver spoons is becoming too obvious to ignore; and why does Uncle Felix (who does something top secret for the government) seem to know the girls’ holiday governess, when she’s only just been employed? When Daisy’s birthday tea ends with the unexpected demise of Mr Curtis, and flash flooding cuts off Fallingford from the surrounding countryside, it’s up to the girls to find out which of the houseguests is a killer… The reason Stevens’s books work so brilliantly is that, within this familiar framework of Christie-esque plot devices, she is absolutely committed to psychological realism. Daisy and Hazel have investigated one murder already, and they are only fourteen; where a lesser author would skip over any lingering effects of trauma, Stevens understands that the resilience of youth has limits, that Hazel is upset not just by this murder occurring but by the way murder seems to be happening all around her and her friends, that Daisy’s apparently lesser concern is not (as Hazel believes) a sign of her superiority but an indicator that something is not quite right with her. Daisy’s and Hazel’s characterisations have both developed between books one and two, and I’m very interested to see where Stevens takes them next. (She also has the extraordinary knack of dealing with topics like infidelity, lesbian relationships and pathological kleptomania in a way that feels entirely accurate to the 1930s’ schoolgirl point of view, but also entirely appropriate to her 21st-century audience, neither patronizing nor unsubtle. It is one of the hardest tricks in the world and she deserves to sell very well for it.)

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Howl’s Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones: Wynne Jones mostly bypassed me, somehow; I had friends who loved Charmed Life and Dark Lord of Derkholm, and I think I read one or two, but they didn’t really sink in. And I’ve never seen the Miyazaki film of Howl’s Moving Castle, which is presumably how most people now come to the book. But the Folio Society—of all people—made Howl’s Moving Castle the subject of their most recent illustration competition, and artists produced such stunning and intriguing work for it that I found myself picking it up and thinking I’d give it a go. Well, it’s great. Wynne Jones, like Stevens, takes familiar and even goofy genre tropes (three daughters, a supposedly evil wizard, seven-league boots, curses cast by jealous witches), throws them all together with a huge dose of irony, sarcasm and bloodymindedness, and makes something entirely sui generis. Sophie Hatter is an eldest daughter, which means her life will be comfortable and boring; everyone knows only the youngest children in a family get to have adventures. But when she inadvertently offends the Witch of the Waste, a spell is cast on her that makes her appear to be an old woman. Making her way to the castle of the feared wizard Howl in hopes that he can remove the curse, she finds that being an old woman liberates her from caring for other peoples’ opinions, and she installs herself as Howl’s cleaner. But the Witch is after Howl, too, and Sophie needs to find a way to free Howl’s indentured fire demon, Calcifer, if she’s to rescue not only herself but her employer… Extremely funny, quite unpredictable, and with some action taking place in our world in a way that Wynne Jones simply declines to explain, which (instead of being annoying) makes it all the more magical. Also, and rather unexpectedly, features one of my favourite John Donne poems.

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Rules For Vanishing, by Kate Alice Marshall: Actually not part of the book haul, but a proof copy sent to the bookshop which I plucked off the shelf in anticipation of its October publication by Walker Books. It is an excellent instance of Internet-creepypasta-type horror, including an urban legend about a girl who disappeared, mysterious documents about “the road”, “the game” and “rules” that must be followed, and a fragmented, documentary-style structure. (I was forcefully reminded in the early pages of this exceptional Reddit thread.) There’s also a very impressive subtlety to the representation of deafness, bisexuality, and stammering; I often struggle with YA where the characters are DIVERSE!!1!1!!!1!, but Marshall does it brilliantly, making each character an individual with a given trait, as opposed to a walking trait. (The deaf character’s deafness, in particular, actually functions in the story: because of it, most of his friends know ASL, so they can communicate silently when they need to.) I’ll definitely be recommending this to thirteen-year-olds and up, for Halloween and beyond.

Currently reading: Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve, which I’m loving (more on that in another post, perhaps), and have two more from the book haul stack left: Frances Hardinge’s A Face Like Glass, which is new to me but which Abigail Nussbaum convinced me about, and Richard Adams’s Watership Down, a childhood favourite and also one of those books that, when read as an adult, make one wonder why on earth our parents thought this was appropriate for us at the tender age of nine.

06. Pericles, by William Shakespeare

I like Pericles. A lot of people don’t, or find its weirdness too weird, its lacunae and unreliability and dreaminess offputting. It is weird and unreliable and dreamy, but those, I think, aren’t bad things. Of all the plays Shakespeare had a hand in, surely the odd ones, the ones that don’t totally work or don’t work the way you think they should, are the ones we ought to be most interested in.

Pericles is particularly interesting for a lot of reasons, not least because Shakespeare is thought to have collaborated fairly heavily on it. His co-writer has been identified as a playwright called George Wilkins who was artistically active only for about three years, writing more or less competent comedies, and then spent most of the rest of his life as a pimp. He does not appear to have been a terribly nice man (Mark Haddon’s recent novel, The Porpoise, which takes inspiration from Pericles, deals with Wilkins in a most satisfactory manner). Most of Acts 1 and 2 are thought to be Wilkins’s, primarily because they’re the ones in which the verse (and the prose, frankly) is less impressive. Shakespeare’s influence allegedly begins in the Prologue to Act 3. If you’re paying attention, you can see it, I suppose, a difference in the quality of the verse; everything gets tighter, the scansion less limp, the rhymes more pungent. But then that might easily be confirmation bias. It doesn’t feel like crossing a Rubicon of any kind. The improvement is noticeable, but not jarring.

One of the other tricky things about Pericles is the state of the text we have, which is shocking. Publishing an edition of the play is a question of reconstructing–sometimes just guessing–what might be meant by lines that are often punctuated in a way that renders them nonsensical, have too many syllables to fit the metrical scheme (or too few), and sometimes just don’t exist. (There’s a gap of probably three or four lines at one point that no one has been able to fill.) General academic opinion is that the text was recounted from memory by one or two of the actors who’d performed the play (one of them might have been the boy who played Marina, Pericles’s daughter): they were probably trying to sell it to a publisher, somewhat unscrupulously, because theaters closed for a year, thanks to the plague, almost immediately after Pericles‘s first performance. They were hungry.

The point is that Pericles is not one of the more accessible of Shakespeare’s plays. Even if a theatrical ensemble can get past the textual problems, and can make the less impressive prosody sound convincing, it is odd. Bouncing from location to location, it follows Pericles as he 1) flees the wrath of a provincial governor who, it turns out, is sleeping with his own daughter; 2) wins the hand of another princess in a tournament; 3) marries, impregnates, and is immediately shipwrecked with said princess, who gives birth to their daughter and promptly dies; 4) leaves his newborn daughter with the governor of another city-state while he returns to Tyre to take up his throne upon the death of his father; 5) forgets to come back for her for the next fourteen years; 6) returns for her after fourteen years only to be told that she’s died [she hasn’t]; 7) after quite a lot of faff and much mourning, is reunited with her in a different city, as well as 8) being reunited with his wife, who isn’t actually dead and has been working as a priestess of Diana all this time. That is A Lot. There is also a chorus figure, who represents the medieval poet John Gower (which is something that doesn’t happen in any other Shakespeare play: a named individual functioning as a chorus between scenes). If what you want is something with a clear narrative trajectory, at least one memorable speech, some naughty jokes, and either a wholesome group marriage scene or a cathartic tableau of dead dramatis personae at the end, do not go to Pericles for it.

If, on the other hand, you are willing to take it for whatever it is, there’s a lot to be had. Most notably, it’s a play obsessively concerned about incest: it’s the opening impetus for Pericles’s flight when he uncovers it in a rival court, it’s a tension when he first meets his wife (whose father is, to everyone’s relief, a doting and appropriate parent keen to settle her in marriage), there’s the constant threat of it when he first meets his daughter, whom he doesn’t recognize. The whole play is overshadowed by the representation of deviant, non-generative sexuality, sexuality that, instead of allowing for growth and forward movement, curls back in on itself like a snake eating its tail. Fathers and daughters must be parted; even as Shakespeare and Wilkins bring Pericles and Marina back together at the end, their reunion is only possible because Marina has caught the eye of a handsome and wealthy young man outside of the family grouping, a socially appropriate match. There’s more to this–the father/daughter relationship and controlling interest in adolescent female sexuality is reminiscent of The Tempest; the lost/not lost wife subplot appears again in The Winter’s Tale–and if you’re at all interested in Shakespeare, or even (especially) if you think that he’s overtaught and overpraised and has nothing more to surprise you with, give Pericles a go.


Pericles was probably written in 1607 or 1608. My copy is the Arden Shakespeare 2nd edition, edited and introduced by Suzanne Gossett and published in 2004.

05. Dressed, by Shahidha Bari

Reader, I DNFd it.

Most likely it’s a problem with me, not with Dressed itself. You can hardly fault a book just for not being the thing you wanted it to be. Still, I was really hoping for some fairly specific, example-grounded analysis of garments and styles, and what I got—at least for the first thirty pages or so—was a series of rather superficial, if lyrical, pronouncements. The back cover quote is (for once) illustrative: “Clothes tell our stories, some that we would rather not tell, others that we hardly know ourselves.” As an introduction to a section that delves into specific instances of garments that reveal more than they’re intended to about the person wearing them, that sentence would be okay; still a little dull, but it’d do. As the precursor to several other sentences that are, substantively, exactly like it, it doesn’t convince. Perhaps Bari is more amenable to citing evidence that backs up her statements later on in the book, but life is short, books are many, and I’m never going to get that far.


I don’t intend to replace this in my official 20 Books of Summer list; it’s okay not to finish things. Dressed was published by Jonathan Cape on 13 June.

04. The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective, by Susannah Stapleton

This rather marvelous book is a mashup of biography, social history, and what for a lack of a better phrase I might call “research thriller”. Susannah Stapleton comes across the figure of Maud West by chance, while idly pondering whether lady detectives had existed during the Golden Age of crime fiction; she’s only thinking about this at all because of a historical missing-persons case that regular historical research had led her to. When she finds Maud West, her interest is piqued by the dearth of information. “The game”, as she winningly puts it, “was afoot.”

Maud West did exist, although she wasn’t born under that name. She opened a private investigation agency in London in 1905 and ran it until just before the Second World War, employing a small staff of hand-selected and rigorously trained men and women as well as undertaking large amounts of field work herself. She wrote “case study” pieces for a variety of tabloids, and filled them with tales of derring-do, often involving white slavers, cocaine smugglers, last-minute ocean liner voyages, and fisticuffs (or, just as often, the well-timed production of a small revolver). Stapleton concludes that West mostly made these stories up–but why? Her business flourished; she tracked cheating spouses, fraudulent salesmen, dishonest cardsharps and country-house jewel thieves. In other advertising venues, she made much of her work amongst the “best sort”; the aristocracy and upper middle classes, in other words. West’s psychology–what she felt she had to prove; the characters she enjoyed playing; her love of disguise (this is borne out by many, many contemporary news features including photographs of West disguised as an old woman, a businessman, a vicar, and so on)–fascinates Stapleton, and the more she digs, the clearer it becomes that the life of this particular private investigator was at least as interesting as any of the cases she worked over the course of her career. Amongst other revelations, and without wishing to spoil anything, West’s life story includes a name change, illegitimacy, and someone who spends forty years masquerading as his own uncle.

Stapleton structures her book brilliantly: excerpts from sensationalist articles written by West are reprinted between chapters. Each chapter is named for a classic crime novel and deals (roughly) with some relevant social issue of the time, like the introduction of women to the Metropolitan police force or the “nightclub panic” of the interwar years, spliced with details of Stapleton’s sleuthing. Quite apart from being an excellent introduction to the Golden Age of crime outside of the pages of fiction, The Adventures of Maud West also functions as a window into the life of a working researcher. Stapleton takes trains from her home in Shropshire to the British Library to read archival clippings; she tracks down out-of-print books to get a sense of how West might have trained herself in investigation techniques; she scans international print databases and calls up descendants. The thrill of the academic chase is a huge part of the book’s appeal–which is really saying something, given that its subject is a woman with such immense willpower, fortitude, and peculiarity of character. A more engaging and intellectually stimulating biography you won’t read this summer.


The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective was published by Picador on 13 June.

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03. 10 Minutes 38 Seconds In This Strange World, by Elif Shafak

~~some spoilers ahead, I guess~~

10 minutes and 38 seconds is the longest amount of time (according to Elif Shafak’s novel) that human brain activity has been recorded post-mortem. (I’m not sure this is true, but as Shafak makes no attempt to convince us of medical legitimacy, I’m also not sure that it’s the point.) In this novel, the dead or dying brain belongs to Tequila Leila, a sex worker in Istanbul. Her ten minutes are spent remembering her life up to this point, in a series of vignette flashbacks that each start with a smell: the scent of the lemon-and-sugar wax that her mother and auntie slathered on their legs, the aroma of the cardamom coffee she used to drink with the man who became her husband. Shafak’s descriptive powers are at their height in these flashback passages, which are the strongest parts of the novel. She is a serious political novelist, but also a dryly humorous one; particularly enjoyable is the sequence in which the madam of Leila’s brothel makes all the girls clean it in anticipation of the arrival of the American Sixth Fleet, only to be stymied by a left-wing student demonstration that means the Americans never get off their ship. Bitter Ma’s rage at the lost business potential is very real and fundamentally not funny–we already know that she privileges a profit above the safety of her workers, as when she leaves Leila alone with a john who has a history of violence and who ends up throwing acid at her–but Shafak simultaneously nails the glorious, futile absurdity that seems to characterize street life in Istanbul. This section also introduces Leila’s five friends: Hollywood Humeyra, Sabotage Sinan, Nalan (who used to be Osman), Jameelah, and Zaynab122 (the number refers to her height; she has a form of dwarfism). These are the people–transsexuals, sex workers, the disabled and the lonely–who form her chosen family when her blood family fails her, and they will be the people who come to take her body from the morgue.

They don’t receive it, though. The first part of the book is entitled The Mind; the second, The Body. Shafak splits her narrative strategy into two: The Mind is limited to Leila’s perspective, but The Body–which mostly concerns the five friends’ attempts to give Leila’s corpse a proper burial–is narrated by an omniscient external voice that observes the living characters without committing to any one point of view. As the five are not her immediate family, the hospital refuses to release Leila’s body to them, and she is buried in the Cemetery of the Companionless, a kind of potter’s field outside of Istanbul where the nameless dead are denied even gravestones: the individual plots are marked with wooden boards upon which numbers are haphazardly scrawled. Nalan, the group’s de facto leader, suggests a solution: they will rob the grave, remove their friend’s body, and bury her at sea, as she wished. This section (and the very brief third, The Spirit, that follows) is much less successful. Mostly, I think, this is because Shafak’s handle on her tone starts to loosen. In part one, there is a delicate balance between horror and hilarity; in part two, the madcap grave robbery quickly becomes slapstick, and many of the jokes seem to turn on the inherently amusing nature of Nalan’s physical presentation as a trans woman. It’s as though the novel can’t decide what sort of book it is: an evocative meditation on violence against women in twentieth-century Turkey, or a buddy romp.

On the whole, I think, the first section is strong enough to carry the rest. But once the life leaves Leila, it leaves the book, too.


10 Minutes 38 Seconds In This Strange World was published by Viking on 6 June.

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