Dunbar, by Edward St Aubyn

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Back at the energy level where full reviews are hard but I still want to write about what I’m reading, I’ve decided to try—for probably the seventeenth time—just writing shorter ones. Dunbar is the most recent installment in Hogarth’s Shakespeare update project; this time, Edward St Aubyn takes on the monumental King Lear. Of the aging king, he makes a self-made media mogul, Henry Dunbar, who has signed over most of his assets and all of the real decision-making powers to his daughters Megan and Abby. They, in turn, have colluded with the crooked Doctor Bob to medicate Dunbar to the point of paranoid insanity, and after an unfortunate incident on Hampstead Heath, he’s been relegated to a nursing home in the Lake District. Escaping with his roommate, the alcoholic ex-comedian Peter Walker (who bears a personality resemblance to Tommy Cooper), Dunbar must brave a stormy night in the fells, and the good daughter Florence must find him before it’s too late.

Dunbar, like most of the Hogarth series, fails, and like the others, it fails for several reasons. Most particularly, it fails because it entirely lacks a moral component, and—relatedly—any sense of universality. Shakespeare’s Lear is a King, of course, so hardly an Everyman, but the actors who play him have the opportunity to invest him with the most human of fears: “let me not be mad”. Dunbar says this too, but St Aubyn doesn’t give him the chance to be an Everyman; instead he’s an aggressive and deeply unpleasant businessman who’s suffered a drug-induced psychotic break. Where is the tragedy in this? Where is the audience’s self-identification with the fallen man, the terror and the catharsis? Nothing in Dunbar’s state of mental collapse is inherent to him; it is all the result of Doctor Bob’s prescriptions and his daughters’ machinations. By contrast, Lear’s fall comes about precisely and only because he is who he is. A different man would not have made the decisions he makes. That’s the heart of tragedy—the fatalism of it—and St Aubyn misses it entirely. Glimpses of Dunbar’s childhood—a cold and distant mother, a stint in provincial Winnipeg—might have made it possible for a reader to identify the events and experiences that have warped Dunbar from the start, but St Aubyn never does more than glance at them. (The mother, clearly, is meant to explain some of the Lear story’s misogyny).

Additionally, there are technical issues. The characterisation is both tissue-thin and daft. Abby and Megan are psychotic vamps without a shred of psychological realism between them; it’s totally possible to write believably empty characters motivated only by sex and violence, cf. Patrick Bateman, but these women are cartoonish nymphomaniacs, first presented having sex that terminates with the biting off of a man’s nipple. Doctor Bob (that very man) is a helpless, hand-wringing fool without any clear motivations or passions. (He’s also an instance of bad naming; quite apart from the fact that his name is inexplicably bland, anyone who’s ever seen The Simpsons will think of Sideshow Bob whenever the good doctor is mentioned.) Florence, as is often the case with Cordelia, is sweetly dull. Mark, the Albany analogue, could have been interesting given more time and attention—Albany’s horror as he realises what his wife has done is one of the more moving and distressing elements of Lear, like Emilia standing up to Iago at the end of Othello—but in this treatment, he comes across simply as a pawn, doing what he does because that’s what happens in the play. St Aubyn’s much-vaunted prose style, meanwhile, is nowhere in evidence. I’ve read one of the Melrose novels, Never Mind, and am willing to accept that he could write a good sentence in 1992. But this is 2017, and the sentences in Dunbar are, at best, fine. Absolutely none of them stands out. Taken together, they comprise a thoroughly medium-roast reading experience.

I’m left wondering, as always, whether this is an inherent problem of form; whether these stories are so plainly play-shaped that making them into novels is doomed; or whether there is something about consciously attempting to adapt Shakespeare that makes even revered writers choke; or whether (shall we whisper it?) these writers have been ill-chosen, whether they have been selected on the basis of name recognition or other dubious merits, and whether the Hogarth committee ought to have looked further afield for their project. It is clearly not impossible to write an excellent novel that brings the concerns of King Lear into the present day: Jane Smiley did so years ago, with A Thousand Acres, and Preti Taneja has just done the same thing in We That Are Young. But maybe we ought to stop expecting such a thing from established literary names. There have been too many disappointments already.

Dunbar was published in the UK on 5 October, 2017, by Hogarth Press.

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My Cat Yugoslavia, by Pajtim Statovci

We should come up with another word for evil, and that name should be laziness.

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Pajtim Statovci’s debut novel, like a lot of debut novels, has some parallels with the writer’s own life: it focuses on a young gay man living in Finland named Bekim, whose family moved from Kosovo during that country’s political unrest in the late 1980s. Statovci, too, was born in Kosovo and now lives in Finland. Bekim’s sense of displacement and awareness of the hatred directed at him from native-born Finns is surely based on personal experience—though the rest of the novel, in which Bekim, friendless and living alone, buys a pet snake and shacks up with a large and abusive talking cat, is surely not. My Cat Yugoslavia is a delicate, highly constructed book, full of symbolism and surrealism, and as such the story can feel difficult to connect with. But at its most effective, it combines the playful weirdness of Murakami with the satirical wit of Bulgakov, and tops it off with a style and an aesthetic that’s reminiscent of Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs To You. It is, in short, not a book for which I am the ideal reader, but it is an objectively impressive achievement.

We first meet Bekim as he is arranging a casual hookup through Grindr or an equivalent (the book opens with a forum message from username blackhetero-helsinki). The sex goes well, but he asks the man to leave directly afterwards, and from glimpses we get of his life as a student, it’s obvious that he is deeply lonely. When he buys a boa constrictor from a pet shop—despite being terrified of snakes—he is kind to it, and Statovci describes his first interactions with the snake with a tenderness that nearly brought me to tears. Yet there’s also an edge of hazard to the whole transaction; the snake is large and permitted to roam freely about the flat, since it hates its terrarium, and when it gathers enough confidence to approach Bekim, it ends up twined around his chest and arms, lying heavily in his lap. (It’s a constrictor, remember.)

The book thus starts by inducing a sense of unease, which is only compounded when Bekim meets a handsome talking cat in a bar. My Cat Yugoslavia is the sort of book in which readers are not expected to be remotely surprised at a character’s commencing a romantic relationship with a cat, or to undermine the conceit by asking prosaic questions like how do they have sex? The point is not that the cat is a cat; rather, he represents an abusive authority to which Bekim becomes enslaved. The title of the book suggests that we should be thinking about the cat allegorically, though the terms of the allegory are not clear-cut: is the cat representative of the country that Bekim’s family left behind? Is he, rather, an embodiment of the abusive relationship of Bekim’s parents? His homophobic remarks and personal attacks echo the racist bullying that Bekim recalls suffering in school from Finnish children; perhaps the cat is a reminder of the legacy both of political turmoil and of violence within the family.

Bekim’s mother Emine is the second point-of-view character, and her chapters are more immediately engaging than her son’s. She begins to narrate her life for us at the age of sixteen, when she happens to accept a ride in a car from an older man who eventually asks her parents for her hand in marriage. Knowing nothing about him, her parents accept, and she becomes the wife of Bajram, who showers her with gold and jewels, then has entirely inconsiderate sex with her on their wedding night and becomes a predictably appalling husband. (Statovci is careful to make him, not ogre-ish, but aggressively, exhaustingly entitled; Emine’s greatest grudge against her husband is that while she cooks, cleans, waits until he’s finished his meal before beginning her own, bears him several children, and brings them all up with the strictest discipline, he has never once said the words “thank you” to her.) Where Bekim needs to become trusting—to fall in love—in order to work through the pain of his past, Emine needs exactly the opposite: her victory comes on the morning when she packs a small bag and leaves Bajram without explanation or excuse. Living alone, befriending a cashier at the local grocery store who is widowed (and pretending that she too has lost her husband to an untimely death), she begins to be more of a person than she has ever been.

I have an occasional problem with novels in translation, especially novels that rely for their effect upon a whimsical quality in the prose. Statovci’s book was first written in Finnish and translated into English for Pushkin Press by David Hackston; I can’t know whether the problem I had with My Cat Yugoslavia is down to the original or to the translation. Ordinarily it’s an excess of tweeness that gets me; in this book it’s a kind of randomised specificity. The most indicative passage is when Bekim describes driving past billboards in Prishtina: red, orange, yellow and blue ones. Why? Why do we have to know what colours they are? Why would you write (and I’m not quoting directly here because the book isn’t with me, but this is the structure of the sentence) “I drove past red, orange, yellow and blue billboards”? It’s outrageously dull. You can’t even say that it’s like writing a shopping list, because at least a shopping list tells you something (a person shopping for artichokes, preserved lemon, salmon and kale is not the same person as the one buying lightbulbs, sanitary pads, orange juice and chocolate biscuits, or at least not on the same day.) It’s not as though Bekim is a Curious Incident-type savant, either; he doesn’t go around telling us the colours and numbers of everything he sees, just occasionally gives us this oddly pointless level of detail.

That problem is particular to me, though, and it may not have any bearing on your reading of the novel at all. I have to confess that My Cat Yugoslavia left me feeling a tiny bit empty: there’s a happy ending, which is nice, and the snake meets a fate that will devastate you if you’ve anthropomorphised it as much as I did, but the way that the book signposts its own symbolic nature makes it hard to take the whole thing very personally. It is, however, a fresh and subtle way of looking at the Balkan conflict of the 1990s, and I prefer Statovci’s approach to that of, e.g., Sara Nović in Girl At War. His focus on the lives of refugees after they’ve escaped the immediate danger is an important reminder to a Western world currently struggling with the consequences of global conflict: for a migrant, the past is never dead.

Many thanks to Tabitha Pelly at Pushkin Press for the review copy. My Cat Yugoslavia was published in the UK on 7 September.

Home Fire, by Kamila Shamsie

A man needed fire in his veins to burn through the world

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caution: some spoilers ahead

I didn’t think I was going to write a full-length review of this, but two things have changed my mind. One is this post from Victoria Best at Tales From the Reading Room, which poses the question “what kind of critic are you?” and, just as importantly, “what kind of criticism is most helpful to you?” while examining Deborah Levy’s symbol-heavy novel Hot Milk from both a critical academic perspective and a more general reader’s one. The second is Victoria Hoyle’s Booktube review of three Booker-longlisted novels, including Home Fire, where she elegantly dissects her contradictory reactions to Shamsie’s book: frustrated by having been emotionally manipulated, let down by characters that feel stereotypical, but – despite all that – effectively moved. My initial reaction to Home Fire was more positive than hers, but after watching her video, I began to wonder about the extent to which I’d been reading as a critic versus as a general reader, and why I had – at least initially – felt no ambivalence about Shamsie’s admittedly opinionated storytelling.

Home Fire is a retelling of Sophocles’s Antigone, but I read it without brushing up on the older story, and can confirm that it didn’t noticeably hamper my experience to read it simply as a hyper-contemporary literary political novel. Shamsie uses five point-of-view characters: Isma, the daughter of a jihadi who died on the way to Guantanamo, who has been supporting her younger siblings for years and is now—freed by their accession to adulthood—starting a PhD program in the States; Aneeka, her passionate and beautiful younger sister; Parvaiz, Aneeka’s fraternal twin, desperate for direction about how to be a man; Karamat Lone, a Home Secretary of Pakistani origin whose hard-line stance on Muslims and immigration has been at the centre of much controversy; and Karamat’s son Eamonn, born into privilege, who becomes Aneeka’s lover. As the story progresses, each character gives us their own perspective on the issues of freedom, citizenship, love and duty that the story circles.

Much of the negative commentary I’ve seen about Home Fire has focused on Shamsie’s construction of these characters: they’ve most often been called “one-dimensional”, “stereotypical” or “flat”. I would contend that this is a reductive way of reading, not a quality inherent to the characters. Take Aneeka, for instance: a devout nineteen-year-old Muslim who prays at dawn, has extra-marital sex, and makes her hijab the last thing her lover is allowed to take off. Take Isma: both sister and mother to her siblings, the proverbial “strong woman”, yet too afraid, when she finally launches into the world, to make the first move towards a man who attracts her. These are unusual women, unusual heroines, especially of contemporary literature; they are serious and convicted. Their faith is significant to them, and therefore must be taken seriously by the reader. Their wounds are not merely personal; they have inherited distrust and division, their father’s death as a terrorist in captivity marking them out permanently to the governments of the West as Persons Of Interest. The Pasha siblings are slightly cold fish, but that’s the point: when you live under the weight of suspicion from everyone around you, for things you didn’t even do, that happens. (Aneeka speaks, sarcastically, of the dangers of Googling While Muslim.) It is not, I think, the sort of dynamic we are accustomed to. We tend to want our heroines feisty—or failing that, broken, but, you know, picturesquely. (Whitely. Middle class-ly.)

I’ve long been suspicious that people who find novels “too political” are people who don’t need to think about politics all the time. Lots of us would love not to have to politicise everything, but our lives and opinions are valued at a lower price, and so everything is political; when you struggle to thrive in a society that mistrusts, scorns, or blames you, life itself is a political act. I’m white and well-educated, but I’m also female and disabled. There are elements of daily living that are a constant uphill struggle for me: balancing meals and a social life with medication and self-care. Convincing a GP to change my prescriptions when things aren’t working. Getting a pharmacist to re-dispense that prescription when it hasn’t come through for seventy-two hours and I no longer have enough insulin to last through the night. I don’t talk to anyone about these things—partly because they are quotidian for me, and partly because no one else I know will really have had that experience.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that Home Fire’s “political” nature is necessary, inherent even, to telling a story about a Muslim family in contemporary Britain. Of course not every Muslim family has a brother who runs away to join IS, or a father who died on the way from Bagram to Guantanamo. But the constant surveillance of the state, particularly the eyes that are fixed upon Muslim children lest they show the slightest sign of the dreaded radicalisation—that is a reality for so many immigrants to this country, and it’s foolish to be surprised by how abundantly clear Shamsie makes that fact. Googling While Muslim is the least of it. Visas can be refused, careers cut short, degrees torpedoed. When Parvaiz is a little boy, the Pashas are visited by a man from the security services who takes from Parvaiz’s bedroom the only thing he has from his father: a photograph album containing pictures of Adil Pasha toting guns in Bosnia, Chechnya, Afghanistan, and inscribed When you’re older, son. After the story’s first tragedy, this same security officer is interviewed on television: he describes that visit and that album, and suggests it’s a shame that Child Protection Services weren’t involved immediately. Nowhere do we see that officer—or the country he works for—offer Parvaiz, and his sisters and mother, anything substantial—no financial assistance, no mentoring, no help obtaining apprenticeships or scholarships—in return for what is taken from them in dignity and in trust.

So much for the emotional potency of Home Fire, which even its detractors have admitted is one of its strengths; what of its weaknesses? Shamsie’s prose is capable, but often slides into melodrama. Especially in dialogue and at the ends of chapters, she has a tendency to seek significance and profundity for every plot point. In fact, the whole book skirts melodrama almost as a matter of course. (It’s based on a Greek tragedy; how could it not?) Some credibility is lost with Aneeka’s mad vigil over Parvaiz’s body in the park, with Eamonn’s wild flight to find her there, and with the last two pages in their entirety. (Some of this is down to the fact that Aneeka and Eamonn are, at least to me, not especially credible lovers. Eamonn’s and Isma’s interactions, showcased by the misdirection at the beginning of the book, are much more interesting.) Karamat Lone, also, is a little too purely villainous to be convincing, despite Shamsie loading him with a backstory that at least makes sense of his stubborn championing of assimilation. (That said, the shenanigans that Theresa May pulled when Home Secretary, particularly towards LGBTQ asylum-seekers, are almost enough to make Lone look eminently reasonable and pleasant.)

For all that, I still think it’s an incredibly important book, and the fact that it’s set so firmly in the present day—engaging so firmly with present-day concerns—doesn’t diminish it, but instead makes it essential reading. Shamsie is presenting a world here that many of her readers will never be forced to engage with or have to navigate; we can choose to read this story or to put it aside. It is a story fraught with fear and tension and the possibility of betraying someone no matter what you do, and the fact that it is being billed as a retelling of an ancient Greek tale suggests to me that its significance will not fade as its cultural referents do. It does deserve to be on the Man Booker Prize longlist; it also deserves to be widely read.

Shelter, by Sarah Franklin

The forest itself warned them of loss.

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This’ll be a shorter review than usual, I think; I’m on holiday, and want to make the most of the time by reading things I have no obligation to consider deeply. Some spoilers ahead.

World War II seems to be endlessly fertile ground for any number of the creative industries. In the UK, especially, I suspect that this springs from a deeply seated national trauma and/or the fact that our oldest living generation came of age during or just after the war, and therefore feel their identities were shaped by it, and therefore are more likely to commission and pay for creative work that deals with it in some way. I have mostly ceased to read WWII books simply on principle (not always a good idea; I nearly missed Kate Atkinson’s A God In Ruins due to this, although I’ve also managed to avoid All the Light We Cannot See, which is proof that on the whole it works). Very occasionally, however, a WWII book deals with the conflict from a fresh angle. These books are valuable in an inherent sense: even if they’re not undying masterpieces, at least they give the reader a relatively original route into the history.

Sarah Franklin’s first novel Shelter is such a book. It is set in the Forest of Dean, where members of the Women’s Timber Corps were sent to assist the woodsmen who had lived there for generations, cutting down trees for the war effort. Franklin’s female protagonist, Connie, is a former Land Girl whose pregnancy got her booted off the farm where she was previously billeted. Her entire family killed in a bomb strike in Coventry, she has nowhere to return to, and she’s confident enough in her own strength and tenacity to sign up for the WTC. When she arrives in Gloucestershire, she meets gruff but kindly foreman Frank, and his wife Joyce, and is eventually assigned to partner Seppe, an Italian prisoner of war from the camp just up the hill. Seppe is a woodcarver and furniture maker; he is our second protagonist, a shy boy growing up under a belligerent Fascist father, unable to stand up for his battered mother or himself. Initially a hopeless forester, he improves under Connie’s instruction, and they’re soon Frank’s best team.

Shelter is one of those books whose strengths are to be found on the macro level. In terms of plot, Franklin is brave to write a female character to whom pregnancy and childbirth are not joyous, natural events, and who views her baby son with discomfort and dread. Seppe is much better with baby Joe than Connie manages to be; despite Joyce’s repeated assertions that everyone finds motherhood hard and she’ll improve, Franklin leaves enough room for us to doubt that wisdom, to think that Connie might be right when she says that she simply isn’t cut out to be a mother. For an author to leave open that possibility—even to acknowledge that not every woman is naturally maternal—is impressive, particularly in historical fiction. Seppe, meanwhile, is a (deliberately) sensitive, even feminised man; he serves as a soothing counterpoint to the toxic masculinity of his fellow prisoner Fredo, of his true-believer father, and of the thousands of young male characters we have already met who valorise conflict, violence, and ambition. Seppe has none of these qualities: he is quiet, shy, a maker and creator, very good with children, deeply domestic. When he and Connie begin a sexual relationship, he falls in love with her, seeing in her an opportunity for the secure and happy home life that he has never had. Connie does not take him nearly as seriously; his proposal of marriage, the thought of living in Gloucestershire in a hut for the rest of her life, terrifies and suffocates her.

On the micro level—that is, on the level of the sentence—Shelter is less innovative. People “swallow hard” (or its briefer equivalent, “gulp”), a lot, generally in response to strong emotion. (I am reasonably confident that I have never used this reflex to pull myself together, nor have I ever witnessed someone do it; it’s one of those things that apparently only happens in fiction.) Characters spell out their thought processes to each other with surprising and unnecessary thoroughness. Forest of Dean dialect permeates not only the locals’ speech, but also their writing, although their letters remain impressively free of spelling errors. (It’s entirely possible that dialect does translate to written language, in which case I’m being a tool, but it doesn’t read naturally; it’s mostly restricted to verb insertions, so that instead of saying “Joyce is at home”, a character will say “Joyce do be at home”, which just sounds a little Thomas Hardy.)

It’s hard to be too pedantic, though, because there’s a sweetness and a joy about Shelter that is very hard to resist. The immediate acceptance of Connie, then her pregnancy, then her baby, as well as Seppe, into the forest community is heart-warming and also rings true. Franklin’s themes dovetail nicely—Connie, whose home and family have disappeared under a pile of rubble; Seppe, who has never felt he had a home or a family at all; the delicate balance between responsible land management (the Forest representing home in a very particularised, local sense) and the demands of the government (representing home in a more general, national, patriotic sense); that is all smartly integrated, if a bit self-evident. Shelter is about people seeking, and finding, a place to belong. In its depiction of the upheavals of a war which both destroyed domestic establishments and enabled the creation of new ones, it is a unique addition to the glut of WWII books. Just move quickly past the bits where people gulp.

Many thanks to Emily Burns at Bonnier Zaffre for the review copy. Shelter was published in the UK on 27 July 2017.

Johannesburg, by Fiona Melrose

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I seem to be writing a lot about rewrites these days. Fiona Melrose’s second novel, Johannesburg, isn’t precisely a rewrite, but it takes many of its cues from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway: from its life-in-the-day scope to its characters (Melrose’s hunchbacked, homeless protestor September mirroring Woolf’s shellshocked, suicidal Septimus) to its culmination in a grand party. These knowing echoes, and others like them, don’t always work, but when they do, Melrose achieves what Woolf does: she creates a portrait of a city, and of particular moments in time, and reminds us that a moment can contain an eternity.

We start with Gin, an unmarried fine artist in her early forties who has come home to Johannesburg from New York to throw a birthday party for her eighty-year-old mother, Neve. Neve has never apparently approved of anything Gin has done, and the party – as such parties do – has taken on a major weight of significance in Gin’s mind: if Neve likes it, sees that she has worked hard to make it look beautiful and get the details right, then that will prove, once and for all, that her mother loves her. Preparations for the party throughout the day take up much of the book’s matter, though Melrose lets us spend less time picking up food or cutting flowers, and much more time inside Gin’s head, as she worries ceaselessly about being a woman, behaving like a woman, disappointing her mother, having her own space to create.

That obsession – having one’s own space to create – is deeply Woolfian, and should give some hint as to what this contemporary Dalloway is trying to achieve. Woolf is famous for ignoring the servants and working-class women that enable her life and the lives of her creative female characters, but Melrose doesn’t make that mistake: she accords to Mercy and to Duduzile, a housekeeper and a cook/maid, the same longing for agency and independence as she gives to Gin (and to Gin’s now-dead Aunt Virginia, a novelist who drowned herself on her eightieth birthday, all of which I think is slightly too heavy-handed). Still, Mercy has her own thoughts – most of them, fortunately, not about the white family she works for – and, at one point, wonders what kind of cooking she could do if she had a little kitchen that was all her own. It’s a long-awaited way of moving Woolf’s famous “room of one’s own” into the realm of a working-class woman; Mercy thinks she’d buy a table and paint it red, hang her own curtains, cook fritters and pap to sell to stalls all over the city.

Duduzile, meanwhile, is tethered to responsibility by her brother September, a hunchbacked man who used to work as a cook in the kitchens of a large mining company, until the miners staged a demonstration for better pay and conditions. This demo, at Verloren, turned into a massacre, and September – one of the few survivors – was grazed by a bullet that ploughed a furrow through the side of his head. Now, homeless and misshapen, he is animated by the need for justice: every day, he takes up vigil outside the Diamond, the urban headquarters of the mining company, with a placard strapped to his back above his hump: VERLOREN. HERE I AM. Dudu brings him meat and fruit and water, and tries to make sure he gets enough rest; he sleeps on cardboard in an abandoned garden, since living with Dudu is impossible (he reflects that he would frighten her “madam”, and the madam’s children.)

September is the moral heart of the novel. His stand outside the Diamond is only the most obvious instance; throughout the book he represents a silent majority who have been mistreated and underestimated, but who, nevertheless, demand justice and show love. The book takes place on the day that Nelson Mandela’s death is announced, and throughout the narrative is woven a sense of the people of Johannesburg hurrying to the Residence to pay their respects and show their grief. Extra police officers and helicopters are deployed to “keep the peace”, which September views as an insult: South Africans love Mandela; to suggest that they might degenerate into violence upon his death is offensive. His presence in the book serves as a mute instance of passive resistance, a technique that has fallen in and out of favour with political activists (particularly Black activists, both in Africa and in the States), but which nevertheless has a long and distinguished pedigree. HERE I AM.

September’s outstanding act in the book is to return Neve’s runaway dog, Juno, thereby salvaging Neve’s mood and Gin’s planned party. He doesn’t hang around for long enough to receive the cash reward that Gin wants to give him; when she returns to the front door with her wallet, he’s already walking away. Later (no spoiler, this, if you’ve read Dalloway) September is killed outside the Diamond in a standoff-cum-misunderstanding-cum-suicide by cop, a tragedy which Gin’s former lover Peter is helpless to prevent. When Gin hears the news, and realises that the dead man is the very man who brought her dog back (and saved the evening by restoring Neve’s good mood), she is horrified to realise that when he left her door, he was walking to his death. Up to this point in the book, very little has been able to get through Gin’s carapace of self-pity, shame, and fascination with mortality; it is only the actual death of a person she saw mere hours before that shakes her. Here Melrose both hews closely to Woolf’s original – where Clarissa Dalloway is upset by news of Septimus’s suicide – and writes with a broader social awareness than Woolf manages. Gin, death-obsessed, is a well-off white woman with every conceivable liberty – artistic, financial, romantic. When death does enter the novel, it doesn’t come for her, but for a poor, crippled black man; she is forced to decentralise herself, to understand that while she may see death as “an option”, for others it is so much more.

There are some missteps: the story of Aunt Virginia, for instance, who doesn’t contribute much to the narrative other than a way for the reader to nod knowingly, and some of the dialogue between Gin and Neve, which is probably meant to be painfully adolescent but possibly not meant to be quite so annoying and banal. Ultimately, though, Mrs. Dalloway and Johannesburg are both – at least through Melrose’s lens – about a particular city, and what it is like to live there, and how the city becomes more than the sum of its parts. The scenes in Johannesburg where Gin drives through town – always driving, always separated from the street and the noise and the heat – are intelligent counterpoints to September’s view of the overlapping freeways that soar above his traffic island. Both characters feel embedded in the city; neither sees it whole. In that fragmentation, combined with the sense of unity provided by communal grief at Mandela’s death, Johannesburg rings wonderfully true.

Many thanks to the kind folk at Corsair for the review copy. Johannesburg is published in the UK on 3 August.

New Boy, by Tracy Chevalier

Get down from there, n*****!

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The Hogarth Shakespeare series continues to strike me as an endeavour excellent in theory, but almost invariably doomed in practice. Fundamentally, what you can do and want to do in a play is different from the scope and focus allowed you by a novel. Perhaps more challenging is the balance a contemporary novelist must strike: do they dig deep into the motivations, the emotion and the structure behind one of Shakespeare’s plots—sincerely trying to adapt the story to the present day—or do they hit the high notes, the stuff that an averagely well read person could tell you about the play off the top of their head if you stopped them in the street? Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed has been the most successful adaptation so far, and I think that’s partly because she chooses path A; her novel does hit some of the high notes, but she deliberately makes her book an exploration of revenge, bereavement and redemption, as The Tempest is, as opposed to a story about a magician called Prospero who has a daughter named Miranda. Tracy Chevalier, like most of the other Hogarth Shakespeare novelists, chooses path B, which accounts for many of the problems I have with her adaptation of Othello.

My problem with New Boy (and I’ve said this before, if you follow me on Instagram, but it bears repeating) is quite basic: Chevalier chooses to set it in a school playground, to make her Othello character (Osei, or O) an eleven-year-old, and to make the tension of the work entirely contingent upon O’s skin colour. I think these are all serious miscalculations. Othello as Shakespeare wrote him is a successful military veteran who has worked his way up through skill and graft; he is an older man in a relationship with a much younger woman; he is self-conscious about many things, including his blackness, but also his age and his plain manner of speech. When Brabantio, Iago and others call him “the Moor”, they’re indicating his racial difference, but—I would contend—not necessarily in a fashion more derogatory than if he were called, e.g., “the Italian” or even “the Welshman”. (Consider the Welsh jokes in the history plays. Consider, also, that Shakespeare’s other iconic Other, Shylock, is comparatively much more defined by his Otherness: he is “the Jew” by every line he speaks, every action he takes, no matter the weight you place on the “if you prick us” speech.)

But the thing that people remember about Othello is that it’s a play about a black man, and therefore Chevalier places racial difference and racial prejudice at the centre of her novel. This is possible only if she makes it impossible for any of the people young O encounters to form a positive opinion of him, and so she stacks the deck by setting the course of the action over one day, making O a “new boy”—a Ghanaian diplomat’s son at an all-white school—and giving Mr. Brabant (a stand-in for Brabantio) a personality composed of creepy paternalism and barely-veiled white supremacism. But that is not the power dynamic at play between the Venetian Senate and Othello. Venice owes him. The city is in his debt; he has done them a favour. His blackness is barely relevant, because asking foreign mercenaries to lead the Venetian army was standard practice; it prevented the ruling elite from accruing too much military power and attempting a coup. When Venetian characters complain about “the Moor”, they’re latching onto a palpable difference between themselves and an outsider, but it’s his foreignness—not his blackness, and they are two different things—that makes Venice envious and insecure. Chevalier’s constant emphasis on racial prejudice is almost insultingly simplistic, and it leads her to make bizarre authorial choices: she invents a wholly unnecessary older sister for O who becomes increasingly fascinated by Black Power and Black Is Beautiful; she writes O as an instinctive diplomat, which is both untrue to Shakespeare’s characterisation and makes him feel uncomfortably like a puppet for respectability politics; and she writes the line of dialogue at the top of this post (spoken by the enraged Mr. Brabant at the dénouement), which is such a blatant piece of authorial manipulation (Brabant bad! Racism bad!) that it backfires, or it should.

Then there is Ian, who is the Iago analogue in New Boy. Ian hates O because he can see that the other boy has the potential to dethrone him as king of the playground. It’s fairly convincing as far as it goes—thus, sixth-grade politics—but it makes zero sense in the context of reassessing the play. Iago tells us he doesn’t know why he hates the Moor, but he gives two possible reasons anyway: one, he was passed over for promotion in favour of privileged airhead Cassio, and two, he suspects Othello of cuckolding him. Chevalier gestures at both of these reasons, making Ian a feared bully and loner while Casper/Cassio is golden and popular, and giving Ian a brief flash of paranoia when he sees O making his “girlfriend” Mimi laugh. The latter, though, is usually glossed as just that—paranoia—and it’s the former (jealous rage at not being promoted) that tends to seem most plausible. For this to make any sense at all as a rationale in New Boy, O would have to have held some sort of power over Ian for some period of time before the commencement of the action, and Ian would have to feel that O is indebted to him in some way. (Iago’s hopes of promotion aren’t unreasonable; he’s fought with Othello and for him; they were colleagues, even friends.) Since Chevalier can’t do that without breaking the self-imposed unity of time, she has to settle for making Ian a tyrant who is fiercely protective of his own status. In the play, that status is never Iago’s to begin with. It’s a subtle distinction, but it changes everything about the antagonist’s emotional baggage; it makes the story a very different story, and it’s not clear to me that the change is an improvement, or even intentional.

It also ascribes a level of cunning and villainy to Ian that I am not sure Iago possesses, let alone an eleven-year-old (cunning and villainous though I am willing to admit they can be). The point of Iago is that he is a master of shaping circumstance, but he is not a planner; he’s a hyena, not a lion. He gets incredibly lucky with the business of the handkerchief, and his mind is quick enough to grasp what he can do with it. He makes blind leaps repeatedly: in goading Othello, in joking with Cassio, he is merely hoping for a certain outcome, not ensuring one. He is a chancer. Ian, on the other hand, gets the same luck dropped into his lap (with a pencil case standing in for a handkerchief), and immediately begins long-term strategic planning. (Well, long-term for sixth grade, which is to say, anticipating afternoon recess.) Iago doesn’t do things like that; he never anticipates what his petty revenge plot might lead to. Ian, on the other hand, really wants to break up O and Dee (the Desdemona character) from the beginning; he really wants Mimi (Emilia) under his thumb; he really wants to seriously damage O, and not just socially—we’ve seen him physically bully enough people by this point in the book, and he too exhibits white supremacist behaviour.

Maybe the problem is this: Chevalier tries to stick too closely to the mechanics of Shakespeare’s plot, while also making choices about characterisation and motive that undermine that plot’s power. She gives Ian Iago’s famous non-defense (“I have nothing to say for myself”) more or less verbatim, but she doesn’t make him a convincing contemporary model of a small-minded, jealous, possibly traumatised soldier; instead, he’s an ogre and a child. (She does make him a believable abusive boyfriend.) She gives Dee Italian ancestry—her full name is Daniela Benedetti—presumably in a wink to the original’s Venetian setting, but she doesn’t show us the complex power dynamics at play in her relationship with O, dynamics that encompass so much more than race; Desdemona and Othello are a compelling couple because various imbalances of knowledge, of beauty, of worldly experience, of age, of responsibility, see-saw back and forth between them. For an excellent positioning of Othello in a contemporary setting, I can recommend the National Theatre’s 2013 production with Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear, set on an army base during the Iraq War. (That production’s treatment of women is also excellent.) If you’re a Hogarth Shakespeare completist, or if you just want to decide for yourself, read New Boy—but its flaws mean that I can’t think of it as a successful reimagining of the original.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, by Arundhati Roy

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A second novel is a tricky thing. If your first novel was a barnstorming global sensation that won the Booker Prize, doubly so. If you then take twenty years to produce that elusive follow-up, well. With the weight of all that expectation, you could sink. Arundhati Roy’s second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, does not sink. It is in many places gripping, moving, and fueled by a burning rage at India’s human rights record. If it doesn’t entirely float, either, that is due not so much to the inclusion of political material per se as to the sheer quantity that Roy is willing to include, a proliferation of detail that doesn’t always pull its weight within the framework of the story.

Roy opens with the birth of a Hijra: born as Aftab, our protagonist is quickly found to have two sets of genitals—one male, one female. Though Aftab’s parents attempt to raise their child as a boy, by the time Aftab is old enough to be aware of difference, he knows that he’s a she. A chance sighting of a famous Hijra who goes by the name of Bombay Silk sparks a series of reactions that finish with Aftab’s name change (to Anjum), a move out of her parents’ house and into the house known as the Khwabgah, or House of Dreams, where other Hijras live and work, mostly as specialist courtesans. For a while all is well: Anjum has a career, a chosen family, and adopts a small child whom she finds in the street one day, naming her Zainab. A visit to a shrine in Gujarat, however, coincides with the massacres being perpetrated upon Muslims in the area at the time, and results in trauma that Anjum, upon her return to Delhi, refuses to discuss. Her internalised distress forces her to move out of the Khwabgah and into a nearby graveyard, which she slowly sets about turning into a complex of rooms to which she refers as the Jannat (“Paradise”) Guest House.

Anjum’s story intertwines with the story of Tilottama, or Tilo, a trained architect who becomes a political activist, and the three men who love her: Musa, who takes advantage of the rumours of his death to become a major figure in the Kashmiri insurgency; Naga, a respectable official whom Tilo marries in order to ensure her own safety; and Bilqab, the least assuming of the three, who works in the Intelligence Bureau and engineers Tilo’s release when she is captured by the sadistic captain Amrik Singh. In this strand, too, an unclaimed child generates redemption: Tilo adopts a dark-skinned baby found on the street during a mass protest. The child is named Miss Jebeen the Second in honour of Musa’s daughter, shot by police while on the fringes of a Kashmiri martyr’s funeral.

There is a sense in which Roy’s inclusion of many characters and forms of oppression is generous, giving the reader many points of view from which to access the story. “How to tell a single story?” Roy muses near the end of the book, in a paragraph reproduced in its entirety on the back of the proof copy. “By slowly becoming everybody. No. By slowly becoming everything.” It is an admirable idea in theory, but there are pitfalls to that approach from which The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is not exempt. It is extremely difficult, for example, to differentiate characters. Writing the previous paragraph, I had to pause and think, long and hard, about which lover was Musa, which was Naga, and what Bilqab had to do with it all. There are many minor characters so similar to each other that they might as well be the same person: Saeeda and Nimmo Gorakhpuri, for example, both of whom are flamboyant and confident young Hijras known to Anjum. Both appear, and are named, throughout the book, but there is no sense of each woman as a separate, rounded entity. There is a young man called Saddam Hussein who lives in Anjum’s graveyard and ends up marrying her daughter, but by the end of the book it’s a challenge to recall why he’s there, what narrative function he is fulfilling.

In a way, this might be precisely against the point. Questions of literary efficiency—of narrative function, of plot rationalisation, of what a given adjective or character or event is actually doing in the novel—are mostly absent. That kind of novel, one where every word is weighed carefully, every action accountable for, doesn’t seem to be the kind of novel that Roy is writing. She has said in interviews that she wants to “wake the neighbours”, and if your ultimate goal in writing a novel is to raise awareness, then indeed it can seem entirely right to leave in as much as possible. By following this strategy, Roy achieves inclusivity, but she also gives the novel the appearance of ticking a lot of boxes. Homelessness amongst Delhi’s transgender population? Tick. Drug addiction? Tick. Blameless (indeed, mentally disabled) martyr? Tick. Rape and torture? Tick.

I’m not leveling charges of gratuitousness at The Ministry of Utmost Happiness; quite the opposite. Roy treats these topics seriously and renders to her characters a level of dignity generally not afforded them by Western writers of atrocity porn. To write a good political novel, though—and it is more than possible to do that—you need an emotional core. Roy gives us plenty of personae and detail, but in opening up the focus of her story, she diffuses it. Perversely, an authorial choice that was clearly motivated by a desire to provoke empathy obstructs the fiction reader’s ability to empathise.

This review originally published in Litro.