The Great Reread, #6: Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer

Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer (2014). First read: January 2015. ~~caution: this review contains details of the plot~~

What I thought then: Although I didn’t review Annihilation on this blog when I first read it, I did write about it on Goodreads: “Absolute cracker of a book […] The long-drawn-out uncanniness of Area X; the way that all of the characters are women and all are characterized as human beings first and foremost, not as wives/mothers/appendages; the way that human relationships are present in the story but are nuanced and awkward and life-like; and above all, the few answers we manage to glimpse at the end… It’s very well done.”

What I thought this time: One of the great pleasures and purposes of rereading is the recovery of detail. My memories of Annihilation‘s plot were in the right shape and order, I remembered most of the truly salient scenes, but so much of the specificity had disappeared. I had forgotten, for example, that the Tower (tunnel) near the expedition’s base camp was not marked on their maps, and that this is the first hint of deception on the part of the agency who have financed and trained the expedition team. I had forgotten that the expedition leader, the psychologist, is authorised to use hypnotic suggestion on the other team members, and that she takes this power too far almost immediately. I had forgotten that the protagonist, known as the biologist, was married to a member of the previous expedition who came back changed, and that she joins this team in part to find out what happened to him.

The entirety of VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy also existed in my memory as a kind of unsolved puzzle. I seemed to recall that we don’t really get any answers about what on earth (or, rather, not) is happening in Area X. Rereading Annihilation, I realised that we do. I could see the hints and clues much better the second time around: the unnerving gaze of a dolphin, the mysteriously human tissue contained in the creature known as the Crawler, the molted husk of dead skin that the biologist finds on a path. With the faintest of recollections from eight years ago, I was able to come up with a theory for Area X much earlier than during the first reading. I had forgotten, also, that the biologist has a theory which she actually articulates, late on in the novel, and with which mine largely matched up. It doesn’t explain the actual origin of the phenomenon occurring in the area, so perhaps that’s why I recalled the mystery as unresolved, but it does explain, to an extent, what the biologist has observed and what we’ve observed through her eyes. It satisfied me, this time.

As before, I was pleased by the fact that every character (except for one we only meet in flashbacks) is a woman. Other readers have been irritated by the lack of personal names, but for me it just reinforces that these women are their jobs, first, and their relationships to others (as mothers, wives, etc.) don’t define them. This extends to their characterisation, as well, or at least as much as it can do with a single point of view. The biologist thinks like a biologist. Area X’s weirdness throws her off a little, and she’s already emotionally vulnerable, so she’s inconsistent, but she takes samples of the organisms she comes across, analyses them, thinks in terms of ecosystems and niches and adaptability. The psychologist, although she makes mistakes in doing so, also thinks like a psychologist, in terms of control, manipulation, and reward. It’s still so unusual to read a book where women are allowed to relate to each other with distrust, dislike, even violence, not because they’re competing in some feminine arena of desirability, but because they’re human beings trying to survive in an inexplicable environment.

VanderMeer is known as an ecological activist, and the Southern Reach trilogy strikes me now as one of the first wave of what has become known as climate fiction, or eco-horror. (Not that concern with the environment and the horror potential of the natural world are new in literature; just that there’s a specifically 21st-century interest in these themes.) There’s also a cosmic, Lovecraftian aspect to the weirdness of Area X: full comprehension means madness, subsumption, even (dare I say it) annihilation. But the strange hopefulness of the ending lies in an understanding that, in Area X, the experience of death may simply be more obviously related to its tarot-card meaning: not a termination of anything, but a complete change, a transformation.


The Great Reread, #5: I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith

I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith (1948). First read: oh, ages ago, when I was in my teens. I read it most recently before this in January of 2017.

What I thought then: This feels like a tiny bit of a cheat, actually, because I have adored this book for years and reread it more than once. The thing is, I’ve never owned my own copy; I borrowed it from my mum the first few times, and from my then-boyfriend’s mum in 2017. Recently I stumbled across a lovely Vintage paperback copy for £1 in a charity shop and simply couldn’t resist. Last time I read it, I wrote, “It’s a book about first love and naivety and making terrible mistakes; there is real emotion in it, which I had almost forgotten, since I hadn’t re-read it for so long. And yet the stakes are never so high that Smith can’t make us laugh… I Capture the Castle has always been my ultimate safe book. In the depths of winter, at the beginning of what is bound to be a difficult year, it feels like a charm against darkness.”

What I thought this time: It’s still lovely. I almost feel inclined simply to stop there! But no, I can’t, I must say something else. I will assume you all know the plot and characters; if you don’t, go back and read my earlier review (linked above) first.

The novel is absolutely a coming-of-age story, with all the pain and uncertainty of position that comes with being a teenager. Oddly, all the adult male characters keep referring to Cassandra as “a child” in front of her (or to her face), which is technically true as she’s seventeen, but strikes a modern reader as condescending. There’s another angle on growing up when Thomas comes into his own during Cassandra’s plot to force Mortmain into writing again; it reflects that surprising snap from childhood into opinionated and capable adolescence that happens around fourteen, and it brings Cassandra out of her own head for a bit, in her shock at seeing that her baby brother is no longer a baby. (Her blind spots are so beautifully and tenderly explored by Smith; her inability to take Stephen seriously, for instance, or her unawareness of the true feelings of Neil Cotton. She’s clever and observant but by no means perfect.) When she completes her Midsummer rites on the castle mound, and realises that this will be the last time—that if she carries on next year, it will just be play-acting, and that the purity of the rites must not be disrespected in that way—Smith makes us feel the sharpness of the loss in the same moment as the bittersweet anticipation of whatever compensations adult life might hold.

The gender stuff that I was tentatively alive to last time around is plainly evident now. Mortmain might be a genius, but he’s also a jerk. Topaz luckily seems to rather enjoy this, but is that entirely a good thing? And his violence towards his children has not aged well.

Still, the atmosphere is so gorgeous. The descriptions of the castle, their dog Heloise and cat Abelard (perfect), the casual allusions to literature, history and art (Cassandra is a Gainsborough, apparently, while the mean but talented photographer Leda Fox-Cotton is “a Dali… with snakes coming out of her ears” !), Smith’s brilliant comic writing (the scene at the railway station in the luggage van with the bearskin coat!) and her ability to shift on a dime to a tone that’s just as sincere but also deeply, passionately sad, but also obviously subjective… it’s all so well done. Smith revised this word by word for years, while living in California and missing England profoundly, and all of that—the hard work, the homesickness, the affection for land and heritage—really shows.

One other interesting thing: there are some striking parallels between this and Susan Scarlett’s Peter and Paul! Perhaps the most obvious is the sudden, deus-ex-machina-like sweeping off to Hollywood of a major character at the end (in I Capture the Castle‘s case, the handsome and pure-hearted Stephen Colly, the family’s de facto servant and ward, who is fruitlessly in love with Cassandra). Was this a common narrative trope in the 1940s? Maybe it was. Hollywood was still in its Golden Age, still deeply glamorous and magical, and still one of the few ways that ordinary people could visually access and imagine a wider world. The beautiful-one-plain-one dynamic is also, mildly, at work in the relationship of Cassandra to her sister Rose; Cassandra is not unpretty, but we’re made to understand that Rose is simply gorgeous, in a “pink and gold and feathery” way. (Their stepmother, Topaz, is also very beautiful in an entirely different way, a former artists’ model with white skin and masses of pale hair.) And dresses are also crucial. Indeed, Cassandra gets a beautiful internal monologue in which she thinks about the centrality of clothing to women throughout history, imagining the centuries of ladies living in the castle which is now their home. It is one of the loveliest moments in the book, linking women together in a chain of understanding and shared experience despite the passage of time—as, indeed, I Capture the Castle has done for nearly eighty years, passed down between grandmothers, mothers, daughters, aunts, nieces, cousins, sisters.

The Great Reread, #4: Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013). First read: July 2014.

What I thought the first time: I remember buying this because I picked it up in a bookshop, read the first few pages, and felt instant, total trust in Adichie’s writing. It was, at that point, a feeling I hadn’t had for some time, that sense that here was an author whose writing would look after itself and whose story I could consequently sink into unencumbered. It was a year after my university graduation and my relationship with reading had taken months to bounce back from the experience of revising for Finals, a process which at Oxford as a literature student is all-consuming (your entire degree rests on your performance in six or seven exams over one week of your life). I read Americanah all in a rush and wrote on Goodreads when I finished it, “This book is incredible, perfectly written, funny and tragic and sly and sexy and other adjectives that I’m not going to bother bombarding you with. Read it and be, even if only briefly, only temporarily, a better person.”

What I thought this time: Americanah is now a historical document, and it should be read with attention to the political environment in America and the UK at the time of its publication, as well as the times in which it is set. It was published in 2013, just after Barack Obama was elected to a second term as President of the United States. Part of it occurs at the time of his first election, in 2008. Obama is a unifying force for protagonist Ifemelu and her then-partner Blaine, whose slightly sanctimonious personality the reader can see, although Ifemelu is simply struck by what she calls his “goodness”. Through Obama’s candidacy and electoral victory, Adichie shows us the immensity of the political significance of a Black man becoming President, not just for Black people born in the US but the global community of people with dark skin (American and Non-American Blacks, as Ifemelu calls them on her blog). Reading Americanah in 2023 is at times an almost painful experience. It could not be written now; it would be a completely different book if it were written now. It would be forced to deal with the legacy of Donald Trump’s electoral victory, the murder of George Floyd, and the January 6th insurrection at the Capitol. There is almost no way that a book so explicitly interested in engaging with race and politics in the US and UK could do otherwise. That means that reading Americanah now can spark intense feelings. Ifemelu and other Nigerian expats often cite what they see as a victim mentality on the part of African-Americans; in one of her college classes, another African woman defends the use of the n-word in a text. Is that a possibility that a novel could contemplate holding out, now that the violent, lethal targeting of Black people by law enforcement and other institutional powers has been so thoroughly, so publicly documented and disseminated? I don’t know.

The writing is still excellent, clear and unobtrusive. Adichie is adept at picking up on language itself: turns of phrase, buzzwords, idiom. Her skewering of self-satisfied Ivy League liberal circles is wincingly spot-on; none of these people are bad people, clearly, but all are liable to partiality and smugness. Ifemelu, meanwhile, finds friendship in unlikely places: her white employer Kimberley, whose children she nannies, is described as obi ocha—having a good heart—despite having what might outwardly appear to be all the trappings of Karen-ism. I wanted more of her first love Obinze’s experiences in London, particularly as he is there at about the same time as the “hostile environment” is taking hold. (He is also there at about the same time as Rose Tremain’s illegal-immigration novel, The Road Home, was published; Tremain’s book partakes cringily of smugness and flattening of individuality, and I’d have liked to see more of Adichie’s writerly perspective on the same period and similar material.)

Most of all, though, Americanah brought home to me that the experience of third-culture people—those of us who belong to two or more countries, and thus in some ways feel fully at home in neither—crosses racial boundaries. I have never experienced racism, and I possess white privilege, as a woman whose visual presentation is unambiguously white, about as fully as anyone can. But the sense of disorientation, the way your perceptions change almost invisibly as you spend more time in a different country, the absolute intangibility of the things that can suddenly stab you with homesickness: those are things I’ve felt. I talked about this book with my mother (who grew up in Britain but moved to America in 1984, when she married my dad) and she reported identical feelings. Ifemelu, like my mum, can’t understand why Americans are always “really excited” about things—new restaurants, a favourite drink—or why they say “I’m good” instead of “I am well”, “hi” instead of “good morning” or “good afternoon”. Yet Ifemelu also realises when she returns to Nigeria that America has changed her aesthetic tastes: she finds the huge mansions of the Lagos wealthy crass and vulgar, while her friend Ranyinudo, who never left, thinks they’re beautiful. It reminded me so forcefully of re-learning how to tell jokes when I came to Britain (in a nutshell: you don’t tell jokes here, things with a punchline; instead, you simply are funny. I had to become funny, a process which took some time but which I think I have now managed. It is impossible to explain.) Likewise, it’s almost impossible for me now to attend choral music gigs, or to sing chorally, in America; the quality of the music-making in Britain is so high that it has spoiled me, and I end up thinking dissatisfied, mean-spirited things, which I don’t actually enjoy.

Overall, then, I’m very glad I reread this. It’s the mark of a good novel to throw up more questions than it answers, and Adichie throws up a lot of questions in Americanah. Historical document it may be, but it says a lot about the distance, the direction, and the speed with which we’ve traveled in a decade.

The Great Reread, #3: The Fact of a Body, by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

The Fact of a Body, by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich (2017). First read: April 2017.

The book was written when the author identified as a woman and a lesbian; they have since come out as trans non-binary and go by they/them pronouns. I have kept original she/her pronouns in this review on the grounds that it deals with work made by someone who identified as a woman when it was published (and this book continues to be published under the name “Alexandria” instead of “Alex”). I would really welcome feedback from those who know more/have lived experience—if it’s better practice for me to change the pronouns, please let me know in the comments.

Please note that this is a book dealing with historic child sexual abuse and the murder of a child, so if that content is difficult for you, feel free to skip this one.

What I thought the first time: In my April 2017 Superlatives, I called it my “hands-down favourite” of the month! “I liked a lot of the books I read in April,” I wrote, “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.”

What I thought this time: Well, first things first: I still adore it. It’s still stunning. Marzano-Lesnevich can really write, and her relentless drive to understand the motives of people who do awful things—particularly to children—still leads her to some extraordinary insights. Nearly six years on, the book stands up.

I noticed two things on this re-read that I don’t think I’d registered in quite the same way before. The first is Marzano-Lesnevich’s own family history, the “memoir” part of the subtitle. Her grandfather sexually abused her and her younger sister for years when they were children, and when she eventually told her parents about it, the family response was to never discuss it openly or admit that it had happened. Her grandfather continued to be a part of their lives (although they were never left alone with him again, so her parents obviously had some kind of agreement.) When, just before going to college, she at last confronts him, he doesn’t deny it—in fact, he’s almost defiant, pointing out that exactly the same thing had happened to him when he was a child.

This leads nicely on to the second thing this re-read threw up for me, which was how the generational effects of trauma in Marzano-Lesnevich’s family—what social workers call “the cycle of abuse”—are paralleled with Ricky Langley’s life. Although Ricky’s siblings all say he was loved and cared for, he was also the child of parents who had, the year before his birth, survived a hideous car crash that killed two of their other children. Ricky was conceived while his mother was in a full body cast. (Hard to tell, as Marzano-Lesnevich says, whether it was rape or consensual. Like many things about Ricky’s story, like many things about the narrative fictions that the law requires, the truth is unknowable.) The cocktail of medications that Bessie Langley imbibed during her pregnancy, and her reliance on alcohol for the management of her emotional pain, becomes a significant part of Ricky’s trial twenty-odd years later, as lawyers attempt to determine his mental capacity. Ricky, meanwhile, is on record as having begged for help with his feelings of attraction to children, never to be taken seriously by medical or government officials, until he ends up killing Jeremy Guillory—a terrible failure by the state of both killer and victim.

It’s not a sensational book, though it is a sad one; it’s bleak in that it is about awful things, but it never suggests that there’s no possibility of hope or redemption or recovery. Jeremy’s mother, Lorilei, testifies on Ricky’s behalf at his second trial: she does not want him to receive a death sentence. Marzano-Lesnevich visits her grandparents’ graves and tells them that she loves them. Time doesn’t heal all wounds, she implies, but given enough of it, we can grow.

The Great Reread, #2: Young God, by Katherine Faw Morris

Young God, by Katherine Faw Morris (2014). First read: May 2014.

What I thought the first time: I initially reviewed this for Quadrapheme, an online literary magazine I was involved with at the time. It’s now defunct and I didn’t keep my review drafts (fool!) But, as it turns out, I did make notes on the endpapers of my copy (!) Most of these are to do with the gender politics of the story: how brutal and predatory the environment surrounding our main character, 13-year-old Nikki, is, and how she uses her girlhood to her advantage, but not in the way we usually expect from stories like this. Many of the book’s details had vanished from memory, but Nikki really stuck with me. It was also one of my 2014 Books of the Year.

What I thought this time: The main plot of the book is concerned with how Nikki—barely into her teens—becomes a drug lord in rural North Carolina, which is definitely something I did remember. I think what struck me the most about it this time was its tone. In some ways, that plot description seems to demand comedy, if a Fargo-like variety of comedy. Young God is not comic. It is told in spare, bleak sentences, chapters usually only a page or two long. Scenes that might, in other hands, have a blackly humorous edge—like the scene where Nikki and her father, Coy Hawkins, drag trash bags full of a murdered girl’s body parts up a mountain and hurl them off the top—are not even a little bit funny.

In some ways I think that’s a mistake; in other ways, it ties in with Nikki’s almost total lack of interiority. Rarely, if ever, does Morris focus on how Nikki feels about anything. She does things—lots of things—but she never seems to think about why she does them. Only in very small asides, mostly in dialogue between characters who know each other from way back, does a picture begin to emerge of what her life before the book starts was like. In one of these, she asks her grandma, now bedridden and virtually comatose, why she wasn’t “chosen” and her little cousin Levi was; there have already been references to Nikki’s life in “the group home” and her terror of “DSS”, the Department of Social Services. The implication—that her grandmother was made to choose which grandchild to keep, and went for the younger one (and the boy)—says a lot about Nikki’s relationship to her own feelings: she’s already learned that she can’t really afford them. What seems to motivate her is pride: first in trying to rehabilitate her dad’s reputation (he used to be the biggest coke dealer in the county; when she returns to live with him, he is trying to stay out of trouble, but she considers his current activities beneath him), then in deciding to build up her own.

It was probably inevitable that I wouldn’t feel such strong admiration for Young God this time around. It’s a hard-hitting novel, for sure, but I’m less easily impressed now. Morris relies quite heavily on shock: the shock of declarative sentences and violent acts (“Coy Hawkins pulls the gun from his boot and shoots Renee in the face”), the shock of profoundly transgressive behaviour from a very young girl (“Heroin is the most secret of them all and needles are the most secret part and she has always loved secrets”), the shock of its formal presentation on the page (single-line chapters, lots of blank (or “charged white”) space.) That doesn’t always work cohesively with the emotional reactions that Morris seems to be aiming for with some of her other authorial choices, like Coy’s occasional apparent remorse for what happened in Nikki’s early life. It would be interesting to see how her writing has developed since this; she’s published one other book (Ultraluminous, in 2017).

The Great Reread, #1: Do Not Say We Have Nothing–Madeleine Thien

Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by Madeleine Thien (2016). First read: March 2017.

What I thought the first time: I wrote that “the book spans seventy years in the middle of the twentieth century, during which time China underwent traumatic political and social change” and that it was “the most intellectually sophisticated book of the [2017 Bailey’s Prize] longlistees that I’ve read, so far: the questions it poses and the assertions that it makes about the ideology of making art are subtly framed and yet don’t detract from the actual story… on the page, it looks simple [but] develops in complexity as it follows this enormous tree of extended family and friends… very affecting and deeply intelligent.”

What I thought this time: Most of this assessment, I stand by! Thien’s writing about three young conservatory students in Shanghai during China’s Cultural Revolution engages on a very high level with how social and political repression can sink into the soul, how profoundly being deprived of your art can change who you are. This time around, the structural particularities (and peculiarities) of the novel stood out more to me. It begins with a framing story set in the 1990s, which continues moving forward at the start of each chapter to the year of the novel’s composition, that describes narrator Marie’s encounter with student and political radical Ai-ming, sent to live with Marie and her mother in Vancouver after she participates in the Tiananmen Square uprising. Ai-ming tells Marie stories about their intertwined families: their fathers, Kai and Sparrow, are two of the three Shanghai conservatory students that the novel spends the most time with. Sparrow is the son of the fantastically named Big Mother Knife, who spends her young adulthood traveling through China singing in teahouses with her sister, Swirl—who marries a man named Wen the Dreamer and has a daughter named Zhuli, who becomes a talented violinist and the third Shanghai Conservatory student. Relationships between family members and close friends in the novel are many and complex, and Thien flashes back and forth between time periods, trusting the reader to keep up. Her writing is clear enough that it’s never hard to work out when and where we are, but it can be easy to lose track of who the characters are to each other.

The first time I read this, I think I poured a lot more emotion into it, and therefore seem to have gotten a lot of emotion out. Memory and my book journal agree that I had just started working at Heywood Hill Bookshop, just started getting back into the swing of the bookselling and publishing world, and my strong recollection is that I was overjoyed to be doing so. Those strong feelings almost certainly coloured my reading at the time, at least to an extent. Do Not Say We Have Nothing is definitely a thoughtful, worthwhile, intelligent and accomplished novel, one that could easily have won the Booker Prize that year, in addition to the then-Bailey’s Prize (although in the end it won neither, losing out to Lincoln In the Bardo and The Power, respectively). But this time around, I read the first half of it in bits and pieces—time snatched from travel to, and participation in, a major conference in my academic field—and given the structural characteristics I mentioned above, this meant it took me a lot longer to fully engage with the book.

Conclusions: I don’t do star-ratings for books anymore (it’s become too frustrating to boil my reactions, positive and negative, down into a system of that nature!) but in 2017, I gave this five stars. I wouldn’t do that now—instead, perhaps, I’d think of it as a solid A- regarding ambition of thought and quality of writing, while reserving a B for the occasional resistance generated by the structure.