Virgin and Other Stories, by April Ayers Lawson

not being comfortable at church but always pursuing a belief in something

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Things I really like about Virgin:

  • The way it nails fundamentalist Christianity, but from the inside out, so that you see all the seams and the inconsistencies. A lot of writers who skewer this kind of religious atmosphere in their work seem to be setting out to do just that—skewer it—and Lawson’s take is so much more complex. Many of her narrators are raised in fundamentalism, but aren’t necessarily of it, so that you get kids like Conner in “The Negative Effects of Homeschooling” trying clumsily to woo Ally Kapawski in the half-hour after church when the kids are running around and the adults are being sociable. Ally, meanwhile, is not unaware of Conner’s advances, but instead of being either a “slutty hypocrite” stereotype or a bible-thumper, she’s just massively, entirely disinterested:

So I pressed my mouth against hers. She didn’t kiss back but she didn’t move away, either. I just pressed my lips to hers until I got embarrassed for not knowing what to do next… and then I got out of the car. She followed.

  • The way Lawson can take a narrative concept that seem predictable—older man preys on younger girl—and make it special to our eyes by particularising it. Take, for instance, “The Way You Must Play Always”, one of my favourites of the five stories. Here, the “older man” is dying of a brain tumour, and he is not that old, maybe in his late twenties. The young girl is Gretchen, who narrates the story; she is thirteen and the piano student of the older man’s sister. Gretchen is falling in love with the older man, or at the very least obsessed. She finds him a source of endless fascination—not explicitly sexual but not quite not sexual, either—and spends the week in between lessons planning how best to be alone with him for a few seconds. The fact that he makes her touch him is, undeniably, wrong, but Lawson makes us see how wrongness is not incompatible with a huge and shifty complexity. Gretchen does not invite her molestation, but there is something about the whole act that interests her, and that changes the way the reader sees it. It’s uncomfortable to catch yourself reading this way, but also highly unusual for a writer to actually make you do it, as Lawson does.
  • The first story, “Virgin”, does this same particularising work with a seemingly predictable narrative: a man cheats on his wife at a party. But it’s not just any man, and not just any wife: it’s Jake and Sheila, they’ve been married a few years, and Sheila won’t let Jake have sex with her. They’ve managed it once; afterwards,

she sighed with what he at first mistook for contentment and said, “I guess that’s it, then.”

…He felt as if she’d struck him again; his whole body rather than just his head. “You mean you don’t feel anything for me.”

“No. No. I love you… I just… It’s me. I try to look in your eyes and I can’t, and I know I’m supposed to, but I can’t. It’s fun, though. It’s great. It’s just me, is all. I shouldn’t have said anything. I talk too much.”

Sheila is also from a fundamentalist family, is a virgin when she marries, is working through the trauma of childhood sexual grooming by an uncle. The sad bewildered blundering of their marriage is given a counterweight in the mother and child Jake meets in his work as a press officer for the local hospital. The woman has given a lot of money for a mobile mammography unit; she wasn’t born rich, and she has an open, straightforward way of speaking and of being. So does her three- or four-year-old daughter, who, on a visit to Jake’s office,

began to pick up and examine objects on his desk: his brass paperweight, his Post-it notes, his pens. She looked at these things as if they were fantastic, turning them in her small white hands while the water-coloured eyes contemplated their sides from multiple angles. …He quickly began to sift through the contents of his desk for something that might interest the child. Found himself handing over pens, an old Rolodex, a small green clipboard bearing the logo of a pharmaceutical company. The child accepted these things with the air of one accepting precious gifts. Suddenly he had the feeling that all things in his office were sacred, were less and also more than what they were.

There’s something so gravely farcical about it, I can’t help smiling every time I read it back. The solemn little girl, the slightly flailing professional man paying her homage, the faintly amused mother watching the scene. The way it could be a parody of the shepherds and wise men visiting the infant Christ, or it could just be an awkward guy and a self-possessed kid, or—best of all—it could be both at once. It all just works so nicely.

Things in Virgin that don’t work quite as nicely:

  • Most of the final story, “Vulnerability”, which is long, is set in New York City as an artist falls for her art dealer. The artist isn’t from New York; she’s settled long ago into a life where her husband supports them and she paints and faintly despises or resents him while also loving him while also being exhausted by the whole situation for reasons she doesn’t really understand. She is the sort of character who continually tests the reader’s patience because, Jesus, what does she have to complain about? And yet there’s something about her that’s a little socially weird and deeply observant and, we sense, she’s not just complaining for the sake of it but because something about her life really does feel wrong to her, and it’s easy to understand that. Maybe the story goes on for a bit too long, but it is painfully precise: Lawson draws the lines of a burgeoning affair that’s happening only partly for reasons of attraction or mutual affection or interest with such clarity, such attention to detail.

What I really like about Virgin, though, is something it doesn’t often occur to me to like, because the whole point is that it doesn’t draw attention to itself: her prose is like glass. Totally clear, totally unobtrusive; perfectly capable of style, but generally more elegant than in-your-face. It’s a hard, hard effect to achieve, but it’s what makes these stories both emotionally incisive and gloriously readable.

Many thanks to Natalie Shaw at Granta for the review copy! Virgin and Other Stories is published in the UK on 5 January.

A Year In Reading: 2016

Winter

I started a new job six weeks before Christmas 2015, so the beginning of 2016 was mostly a haze of attempting to reorient myself professionally. I had requested a truly enormous pile of review copies, and spent most of January bashing through them, alternating them with 978-0-385-53807-7TBR books. Some of the year’s best books were found this way, including Merritt Tierce’s Love Me Back, which should have received more attention: the story of a young single mother and waitress in Dallas, Texas whose experiments with drugs and no-strings sex are really elaborate forms of self-harm. Beautifully written and devastating. Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice and its two sequels, my Christmas presents from the Chaos, paved the way for more contemporary sci-fi this year. I especially loved Leckie’s use of the universal female pronoun, and the way she casually inverts standard tropes (a sexy bombshell character, who’s also a shrewd politician, is repeatedly described as being large, plump, etc., and the ruler of the known universe is, one realises late in the day, a black woman.)

Visiting a friend of the Chaos’s in rural France in February, we retrieved a couple of books he’d borrowed: the first two volumes of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Trilogy. I read all three volumes this year, but the first, Quicksilver, is my favourite because it requires marginally less intimate knowledge of early modern international finance than the other two. They are all excellent books, witty like Terry Pratchett, smart like no other writer I know, circumscribing the globe and many decades. Characters like Gottfried Leibniz and Sophie, electress of Hanover, cross paths with Eliza, formerly a harem slave in Constantinople who rises to become Duchess of Arcachon and major stockbroker for the French crown; Jack, a vagabond and anti-hero par excellence; and Daniel Waterhouse, a natural philosopher and a Puritan malgré lui.

In a totally different way, Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life was an equally 28238711wonderful reading experience; it is, I think, the best “9/11” novel I’ve ever read, engaging with the aftermath of deployment in Afghanistan and the diversity of New York City and the fact that sometimes, despite your best efforts, you just can’t win. It’s disturbing and  heart-breaking and every word, every detail, tastes real. I’m still thinking about it all these months later. I also loved Helen Stevenson’s Love Like Salt, a memoir of her daughter’s cystic fibrosis that also encompasses expatriation, marriage, music, and bereavement after her mother’s death. It was one of those rare books that seems to strike a chord because the author’s experiences and interests are so like my own.

Spring

Four of the best books I read this year, I read in April. What was going on in that month?! I can barely remember, but I do know I started singing again the month before that. Good spring all around, really.

Those great books were: Daughters of the North (or, in the UK, The Carhullan Army), by Sarah Hall, whose novel The Wolf Border was my book of the year in 2015. In this novel she posits a UK where the population is controlled by forcibly implanting contraceptive devices into women; her heroine runs away from the Cumbrian border town of Penrith to join a militant women’s collective in the hills. In its exploration of the limits of what we’re willing to subject ourselves, or others, to, it’s positively incendiary. Foreign Soil is the debut story collection from Australian writer Maxine Beneba Clarke, and I just bloody 9780733632426loved it. Every story is like a tiny novel, an ivory miniature to rival the perfect miniaturism of Austen. She writes about refugees and immigrants and minorities and foreigners and makes you feel that her characters are your aunts and uncles, brothers and cousins, sisters and friends. The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers was longlisted for the Baileys Prize and should have been on the shortlist (I can think of at least two worse books that did make it to the shortlist). Like Leckie’s trilogy, it’s part of a new breed of sci fi that celebrates diversity, tolerance, respect, and friendship, and I really like it for that. It doesn’t avoid big issues—the possibility of enfranchisement, or rather embodiment, for artificial intelligence is one of the novel’s major foci—and it isn’t preachy but 61oilfbarml-_sy344_bo1204203200_simply, boundingly joyful. Kizzy and Jenks, spaceship mechanics, have a particularly great relationship. Finally, Lisa McInerney won the prize itself with her debut novel The Glorious Heresies, and oh my was it ever deserved. Heresies is a great book, outlining in detail a whole swathe of Cork City’s underbelly with the blackest of humour, an ear for dialogue that never fails, and just the right touch of poignancy. I wanted a sequel.

Summer

Every year has a crazy season, doesn’t it. This year it was the summer. I left my job. I decided to actually write the novel I had been trying to pretend wasn’t in my head for the past two years. I discovered that actually, I would really really like to write novels for a living. We went on holiday to Cornwall, where it was very windy and I complained about walking up hills and the Chaos tried to stop me from buying a pasty for every meal. Lots of books were read.

Of these, not many actually stick in the memory. I was trying to complete Cathy‘s #20booksofsummer challenge and, although it’s a great idea, I fear my picks were basically good books but not, you know, outrageously awesome. The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee was a huge beast of a book about Belle Epoque France and nineteenth-the-north-watercentury opera that I absolutely adored; it has its flaws, but I was definitely the right reader for this. Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women, which I got to a year late, was as amazing as everyone said: her stories about laundromats and alcoholics and runaways and emergency rooms are never pessimistic or downbeat, though often bittersweet. Ian McGuire’s novel of whaling and pure human evil, The North Water, sticks in my head, though its level of violence made me feel sick at least once. It is, nevertheless, not a book that will leave you easily.

In Cornwall, I finished Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles, which are wonderful. My favourite, I think, is probably Marking Time or Confusion, but to be honest with you,51fme2b2br0rl-_sx323_bo1204203200_ they do all run together. That’s sort of the point; they are a literary box set. For all that they’re thinly veiled autobiography, they are also astonishingly delicate and ahead of their time, for the ways in which they handle child sexual abuse, emotional manipulation, post-partum depression, and the realities of a bad marriage. The way the story flips back and forth between the cousins, the way they develop and grow as characters, is utterly charming and addictive: pretty, vain Louise; sensitive Polly; passionate Clary; dashing Teddy; increasingly horrible little Neville. They feel like family.

Autumn

Writing novels is not necessarily lucrative. I’ve been financing the writing of mine by working as a waitress since late September, and that work has framed my season. While in 51vbtiu7keltraining, I discovered the novels of Tana French going for 99p each on Kindle, and snapped them up. (They were easy to read on my phone, during breaks in training. I maaayyy, in a minor way, be less violently opposed to the Kindle app now.) In the Woods and The Likeness, the first two, are perhaps the best: in the former, Detective Rob Ryan must catch a murderer in his hometown of Knocknaree, where two of his childhood friends went missing, presumed dead, in the woods. In the latter, Detective Cassie Maddox goes undercover to find out who stabbed a University College Dublin postgraduate. They’re not your run-of-the-mill thrillers: French writes detailed, precise, electric prose, and her understanding of human psychology is second to none. I’m a true convert to her work now.

I also adored Lisa Owens’s Not Working, a sweetly sad novel about graduate unemployment 9781509806546not20workingwhich, let’s not dissemble, struck pretty close to home. It should go on the same shelf as Alice Furse’s Everyone Knows This Is Nowhere, for consultation in the year 2216 by academics interested in artistic representations of the repercussions of global fuckuppery and malaise in the early twenty-first century. Treasure Palaces, edited by Maggie Fergusson, is a glorious compendium of essays by well-known authors on their favourite museums. Don Paterson’s piece on the Frick Collection is simultaneously reverent and ripe with detail; it makes me want to go straight there. So does Frank Cottrell Boyce’s on the Pitt Rivers in Oxford, and Aminatta Forna’s on the Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb. C.E. Morgan’s magisterial The Sport of Kings is, like The Queen of the Night, an enormous and flawed beast: for some, Morgan’s use of four words where one would do isn’t worth it. For me, it absolutely is; her exuberance is tempered by the fact that she does know how to write, and by her huge ambition in taking on subjects like race, racism and heredity in a Southern American setting. It feels a bit like a Faulkner novel had a threesome with Jaimy Gordon’s Lord of Misrule and Dickens’s Bleak House.

Finally, coming up to Christmas I’ve had some absolutely cracking reads, as I try to push 97818470891371through the books outstanding on my TBR before the New Year. Sarah Moss’s Signs for Lost Children is a hell of a book, dealing with trust, responsibility, emotional abuse, mental health and cultural disorientation, all in a nineteenth-century Cornish and Japanese setting. I’m now planning to read Moss’s entire back catalogue. And the two books most recently reviewed here—Chernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexievich and Golden Hill by Francis Spufford—couldn’t be more different, but couldn’t be more brilliant in their own ways: one a painfully beautiful literary documentary of life for the citizens of rural Ukraine and Belarus in the aftermath of Chernobyl, the other a glorious, voluptuous romp in eighteenth-century New York with writing that rings true as a bell. Both are unforgettable.

These books are my personal best-of 2016 list. I can’t rank them—the good ones this year were so good, and so diverse, that it feels like comparing apples with oysters—but I feel I’ve raved more about The Queen of the Night this year than any other book. Though I’ve also shouted a lot about Love Me Back. And In the Woods. And Love Like Salt. And the Baroque Trilogy. And, now, Golden Hill. …No, ranking is impossible.

Coming soon: 2016’s few (but spectacular!) bookish misfires…

6 Degrees of Separation: Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

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This is the first time I’ve played this game; it’s like “6 Degrees from Kevin Bacon” only with books. You can join in too; the rules are here. Technically this is a very late post (the meme is for the first Saturday of each month, and the November one will be coming up soon), but whatever.

We start with

  1. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, a novel by Jonathan Safran Foer about a little boy whose father dies in the 9/11 attacks, and who embarks on an epic quest to find the lock that matches a mysterious key his father owned. It’s one of the first adult novels I read that included pictures, photographs, drawings, etc. as part of the book.
  2. Another book that does that is the one I’m reading now, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo. Its main character, Zhuang (or Z.), shows us snippets of her lover’s handwriting, confusing signage on London shopfronts, and her own tentative scribbles.
  3. As a Chinese woman navigating a Western society that seems, frankly, weird and illogical most of the time, Z. reminds me of Zou Lei, the heroine of Atticus Lish’s frighteningly good novel about the repercussions of the Iraq War, which is also a love letter to New York City: Preparation for the Next Life.
  4. Lish’s book contains a rape scene that disturbed me so badly I had to put the book down (temporarily). Another book that’s beautifully written and deals with sexual assault head-on is Sara Taylor’s Baileys-longlisted The Shore. (This one made me cry in public.)
  5. The Shore is set in rural Virginia and composed of a bunch of interlinked short stories. Donald Ray Pollock’s incredible Knockemstiff lays bare the gritty and intensely depressing lives of rural Ohio’s poverty-stricken and painkiller-addicted, and it too is composed of interlinked short stories.
  6. I first saw one of Donald Ray Pollock’s books on the coffee table of a guy I was seeing. Another book I first encountered through a date was, well, the collected works of Terry Pratchett, but we’ll go with Guards! Guards!, the first in the City Watch series. What a wonderful discovery.

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From New York City to Discworld—not bad, but I’m sure I could do better…

Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts

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The menu at the White Bear, Kennington. If you’re going to be in South London, come say hi!

Several days late. Sorry!

  1. It’s been two weeks since I’ve written anything here, which is mostly because of training for my new job at the gastropub round the corner. We opened to the public on Wednesday, and I’ve been working floor every night since (except for tonight). So far I’ve spilled two and a half pints, but I’ve also acquired a nickname from the chefs (“Dave”, for reasons unknown), so I guess it’s going pretty well. It’s especially interesting to be on the receiving end of the British attitude towards tips. (In a nutshell: almost no one tips, although we’ve had a few very generous tables.)
  2. Tana French is one of those authors I’ve been wanting to read for aaaages, and it all came to a head last week when Ella Risbridger noted on Twitter that her back catalogue was 99p per book on Kindle, as a promotion for her newest release. I bought all five of the Dublin Murder Squad books and have been absolutely ADORING them. The first two (In the Woods and The Vanishing) are, I think, better than the third (Faithful Place) and maybe the fourth, which I’m halfway through now (The Secret Place), but they’re all amazing. French’s prose is stunning—literary, descriptive and elegant—and her plotting is phenomenal. I especially love her analytical approach to characterisation; Ella’s description of her as “like Donna Tartt without the pretentiousness” is spot-on.
  3. My own novel is nearly to 50,000 words. I’m so close to finishing section two that I can actually see the light at the end of the tunnel. I’ll have to go back to sections one and three, after that, but it’ll be amazing to have a whole chunk of the first draft finished.
  4. Speaking of my novel: I’ve created a website for it! There’ll be periodic updates there as well as playlists, blog posts about the writing process, sneak previews, etc. If you’re at all interested in this thing I’ve spent the past few months coyly mentioning, head over there and check it out.
  5. The London Literature Festival at the Southbank Centre today hosted a panel on Chinese sci-fi, entitled “Living in Future Times”. The two authors featured were Cixin Liu, whose The Three-Body Problem won this year’s Hugo Award, and Xiaolu Guo, author of Baileys-longlisted I Am China and A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, as well as of the book-turned-film UFO In Her Eyes. Liu is a very big-picture kind of guy, full of thoughtful assertions about the potential of science fiction to bring people together across races, nations and creeds. Guo is fiery and deeply intelligent, a tri-lingual trained filmmaker whose take on sci-fi (and literature in general) is distinctly, though discreetly, feminist. It was a hugely enjoyable talk, and I’m definitely going to buy both Liu’s trilogy (of which The Three-Body Problem is the first volume) and Guo’s books.

Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts is hosted by Christine at Bookishly Boisterous: go check out the other posts!

Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts

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  1. We are getting a weekly veg box. Yes. Truly. I am now an official member of the unbearable young urban professional elite, and I’m not even sorry. I am only excited at what I will be able to cook over the next week with today’s delivery of butterhead lettuce, chestnut mushrooms, purple sprouting broccoli, red peppers, onions, and swiss chard.
  2. I made panettone bread and butter pudding (not the panettone bit, we bought that from the Italian caff downstairs) on Sunday night. The custard split, slightly, because I took my eye off it for LIKE ONE SECOND. But it was still pretty good, and apparently just as good cold.
  3. Last week I used Facebook to do a Very Scientific Survey of my employed friends: I asked them whether they’d rather be bored but peaceful at work, or busy and stressed. Most of them said busy and stressed, which is fascinating: the debilitating long-term effect of stress is (hilariously enough) one of the things that worries me the most about modern living. It’s also interesting because I think lots of people don’t work as well as they could: they don’t have enough to do, or they have too much to do, or they feel they need to be seen working without actually doing anything effective. Basically, work culture seems really skewed and weird to me and I’m trying to figure it out. My ideal, as I said on that thread, is “happily and consistently occupied”, but it seems very difficult to find a formal, full-time, salaried position that provides such a level of work. Feast or famine seem far more common.
  4. Media Diversified has been retweeting and promoting this for an age (an Internet age, mind you, which is, like, two weeks), and yet a petition to save a Soho art-house cinema STILL has more signatures. I’m 100% behind the salvation of Soho art-house cinemas, but for the love of God, can we start taking rape perpetrated by UN peacekeeping forces seriously? That would be great. Really, really great.
  5. There’s a wedding in August that I’m going to, and I haven’t been to a wedding for over a decade, and I have no fucking clue what to wear. I’m probably going to have to buy something new. Any advice? I’ve been lurking on Torrid’s Instagram feed and there are some really nice sundresses with contrasting jackets, but I’m short so I’d probably need to get wedge sandals, too.
  6. A guy wiped out his entire company (and some other peoples’ companies, too) with one line of bad code. edit: Actually, he didn’t. It was a marketing hoax. But a weirdly prescient once, since a website hosting company then “deleted part of the Internet” not seven days later. Moral: BACK YOUR SHIT UP, YOU LOT.
  7. Has any composer ever set Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” to music? I was reading her Selected Poems last week, and it just seemed like the sort of poem that Kurt Weill, for instance, could have made a really chilling, incredible song out of.
  8. My brother was crowned Prom King (and his girlfriend, Prom Queen) last weekend. This is simultaneously hilarious and mind-blowing. I did high school so incredibly poorly (I barely spoke to anyone for three and a half years) that it seems particularly miraculous that I should actually be related, in any way, to a Prom King. The kicker is that he’s not even a football jock; he’s a smart, hilarious theatre kid with a talent for music and drawing and mountain biking. He’s also about 7,000 times nicer than I am.

The Fishermen, by Chigozie Obioma

The prophecy, like an angered beast, had gone berserk and was destroying his mind with the ferocity of madness, pulling down paintings, breaking walls, emptying cupboards, turning tables until all that he knew, all that was him, all that had become him was left in disarray.

The Fishermen is a deceptively small book. It’s not much more than two hundred pages, but in those pages it manages to be an allegory about post-colonial governments, a tragedy in the classical mould, and a particularly high-stakes coming-of-age story. Chigozie Obioma, its twenty-nine-year-old author (brief pause for those of you under thirty to be sick with envy; we resume), writes in a style that melds oral storytelling rhythms with the portentousness of myth, all filtered through the eyes of a child. If that sounds like a difficult thing to pull off, well, it is, but Obioma does it, which is probably why the Man Booker Prize committee put The Fishermen on its longlist.

The basic story is that four brothers, ranging in age from nine to fifteen, are left to get up to mischief when their father, who works for the Central Bank of Nigeria, is transferred to a different town. He visits every other weekend, but it’s not enough for him to maintain the discipline of his household, and Ikenna, Boja, Obembe and Benjamin are soon traipsing down to the river with lines and fishing hooks instead of going to school. On one of these trips, a local madman named Abulu prophesies that Ikenna, the eldest, will be killed by a fisherman, which the boy takes to mean one of his own brothers. From then on, the novel spirals into the doom of the inevitable, as fear of the prophecy and attempts to avoid it lead only to its fulfilment.

Plenty of novels try to incorporate elements of classical literature, but not many of them manage to integrate those elements fully into a culture that seems, at first glance, utterly different. Nigeria in the 1990s, for instance, doesn’t look much like the environment that spawned classical notions of tragedy. But it has, in spades, the requisite elements. The Agwu boys are kept pinned beneath the hubris of their father, who has picked out professions for each of his sons that will make them “great men”: a pilot, a lawyer, a professor. Mr. Agwu’s determination to keep his children on the straight and narrow is more destructive than he imagines: having set himself up as the arbiter of discipline, he doesn’t realize that by leaving the household, he also leaves his sons without an authority figure. Although they are an educated and middle-class family, Mrs. Agwu’s authority is entirely subordinated to her husband’s, and she must resort to threatening the boys with the prospect of being beaten by him, instead of being able to discipline them herself. In deeply classical mode, Mr. Agwu brings upon himself the very thing he is trying to guard against: the wasting of his sons’ potential.

Once the prophecy is made, this sense of inevitability only grows. Ikenna, who is the eldest and the leader, shuts himself away from his younger brothers out of fear. His mother can’t prevail upon him to go to church, not even to pray for himself: “I am a scientist!” he shouts at her, but he doesn’t behave like someone who believes in the primacy of reason. Instead, he antagonizes and rejects his brothers by turns until eventually provoking a fight with the second oldest, Boja. Obioma’s slightly breathless prose style works particularly well in the scene where Ikenna’s body is found:

Obembe was not alone in the kitchen. Mr. Bode stood beside him, his hands on his head, gnashing his teeth. Yet there was a third person, who, however, had become a lesser creature than the fish and tadpoles we caught at Omi-Ala. This person lay facing the refrigerator, his wide-opened eyes still and fixed in one place. It was obvious these eyes could not glimpse a thing. His tongue was stuck out of his mouth from which a pool of white foam had trailed down to the floor, and his hands were splayed wide apart as though nailed to an invisible cross. Half-buried in his belly was the wooden end of Mother’s kitchen knife, its sharp blade deep in his flesh.

Gory, yes, but also a magnificent tease of a paragraph, in the guise of an innocent child’s reportage. “This person” isn’t even named as Ikenna until two paragraphs later, but it doesn’t matter; what Obioma doesn’t write is just as effective as what he does, his style managing to be both stripped down and full of detail.

(I’m now writing on my phone, without access to the book or a charger, so the last half of this review is going to be me trying to get down my remaining impressions as effectively as possible. Onwards!)

The clever thing that Obioma does is to not stop with Ikenna’s death. He could easily have done so; a lesser novelist might have done. But he makes the point of the story be not just about the prophecy’s effect on Ikenna; instead, it’s about what unchecked fear and superstition does to an entire family. Boja, Ikenna’s killer, is also headed for a reckoning, and after he meets his fate, the two younger boys, Obembe and Benjamin, become obsessed with murdering Abulu, the madman whose prophecy started the whole saga in the first place.

Their desperation to blame someone external, some kind of elemental misfortune, for the decisions that led to such disaster, is particularly interesting because the novel is interspersed with flashbacks to the boys’ childhood, and much of these reflect political unrest in Nigeria. Ikenna, for instance, becomes a local hero at the age of about twelve when he drives his younger brothers away from a political riot in an abandoned truck, and one of the greatest moments of the brothers’ childhoods is meeting MKO Abiola, who became the president of Nigeria. The reader can see how he manipulates them, how they are used as photo op fodder for Abiola’s campaign, but his ambiguous goodness as a leader or man doesn’t prevent him from being a monumental figure in the lives of these children. Politics is personal, in this novel, in a way similar (though not identical) to the personal politics in A Brief History of Seven Killings. And the personal investment in politics means also that when the politicians fail, as they inevitably do, it feels like a personal betrayal. It’s no coincidence, I think, that Abiola is found dead in “suspicious circumstances” just as the events of the novel are also reaching their climax.  Meanwhile, the autocratic Mr Agwu reflects both the long shadow of paternalistic colonialism–which valued things such as “education”, “civilised behaviour”, and “bettering oneself”–and the stranglehold of tyrannical leadership under which many African countries suffered when the colonisers moved out without bothering to create a system that could function after them. His absence from the family home is what enables the boys to go to the river in the first place, and although I don’t think Obioma is writing a defense of any sort of paternalism, I think he does want to convey how easy it is to make fatally bad decisions when you are suddenly given a great deal of latitude without being accustomed to any.

It is, in short, a very good book: sobering, moving, but with a light touch and, in Benjamin, a protagonist we can ache for, with a child’s voice that mercifully avoids irritating precocity. A short-lister? One hopes so.

nb: Many thanks to ONE/Pushkin Press for a review copy of this book.

Top Ten 2014 Releases I Meant To Read But Didn’t Get To

  1. An Untamed State, by Roxane Gay. Already released in the States in May 2014, but only just being released in UK hardcover in January, this debut novel by one of the Internet’s most famous fem-columnists explores the tensions between money and poverty in Haiti, when the wealthy daughter of a Haitian construction tycoon is kidnapped. The body of a woman becomes the playing field for the economic struggles between men, and it’s all done in the most breathtaking prose (apparently). Obviously, I’m desperate to read this.
  2. Station Eleven, by Emily St John Mandel. “Survival is insufficient”: a line from an old Star Trek episode, a strong candidate for best life advice ever, and the slogan painted on the caravan of a group of traveling Shakespearean actors as they flee the mysterious pandemic sweeping the American continent. One of the most highly feted books of the year, also a debut novel, also speculative fiction, also has Shakespeare in it. CAN IT PLEASE BE IN PAPERBACK SOON PLEASE
  3. How to be both, by Ali Smith. I’ve only ever read one Ali Smith novel, The Accidental. I barely remember any of it because I was fifteen and at that time of my life I read novels the way children pop M&Ms at Easter, but bits of it sometimes return to me in a fugueish sort of way. This meditation on art and gender should, according to most people, have won the Booker Prize, and it comes in two different versions, where different halves of the story are presented first. It’s a clever conceit, and forces you to think about how you perceive the same piece of art when you return to it repeatedly, with different concerns and experiences each time. Love a good thinky-arty book, me.
  4. The Wake, by Paul Kingsnorth. At Quadrapheme, we got to this book early last year, and our reviewer Martin Cornwell loved it. As a big fan of Beowulf, I’m hoping I’ll enjoy it too; it’s told in a kind of faux-Old English (not super-difficult to work out words, though, and there’s a glossary), and describes the experience of the Anglo-Saxon population of Britain just after the Norman invasion. Medieval post-colonialism: yes please!
  5. Bad Feminist, by Roxane Gay. This isn’t a novel but a collection of essays, and the title alone makes me think that Roxane Gay and I are going to get along pretty well. Writing on why her favorite color is pink, as well as on topics within art and politics, she declares, “I’m human, full of contradictions, and a feminist.” YES MATE. Let’s all just write that on our foreheads.
  6. The Children Act, by Ian McEwan. Raised in a legal family, I have a particular interest in novels that address topics of law, ethics and self-determination. McEwan’s novel is the story of a young man–though still, as a seventeen-year-old, legally a child–who, for religious reasons, wishes to refuse a treatment that could save his life. The book is told from the point of view of the High Court judge in charge of his case. The title refers both to an English statute of 1989, designed to protect the rights of children, and to the young defendant’s attempt to exercise his right to self-determination. I’m often dubious about McEwan, particularly his recent outings, but this looks very promising.
  7. Lila, by Marilynne Robinson. I loved Gilead, and Lila revisits those characters from a different point of view. Combining Robinson’s usual golden, numinous prose with the darker edge provided by a homeless protagonist, wary of trusting anyone and distinctly uncomfortable fitting into the role of “minister’s wife” that she ends up adopting, this book looks like just the sort of thing that will simultaneously break your heart and fill you with hope.
  8. The Rental Heart, by Kirsty Logan. Anything subtitled And Other Fairytales, which Logan’s debut collection is, is bound to appeal to me. I tend to be very wary of short stories, particularly canonical ones, but Logan’s “exploration of substitutions for love” (as Amazon curiously terms it) looks like it has a strong dollop of the surreal and the poignant–always a winning combination.
  9. The Book of Strange New Things, by Michael Faber. Partly this looks so wonderful because it has a similar premise to Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, which blew my mind last year. First contact with an alien civilization, with a particular focus on how Christianity chooses to evangelize other planets: how could it be anything other than fascinating, meaty and moving? Especially since it’s coming from the pen of the ridiculously imaginative Michael Faber, who already gave us both Under the Skin and The Crimson Petal and the White.
  10. The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, by Tom Rachman. A Welsh bookseller named Tooly Zylberberg had a childhood she cannot understand: abducted, but then adopted by her abductors, she traveled around Asia and Europe with this unlikely family for years. The Rise and Fall of Great Powers is the story of why, featuring (amongst others) a chess-playing, avocado-eating Russian named Humphrey, a pot-bellied pig, and the shadowy Venn, who seems to have all the answers. Just the thing to get lost in.