Reading Diary: Apr. 2-Apr.8

71tzk8kcqplFreshwater, by Akwaeke Emezi: Exploring the Nigerian tradition of possession by spirit children (ọgbanje), Freshwater achieves its remarkable sense of, well, freshness, by resolutely avoiding mysticism. Ada’s possession by multiple shadowy presences–two of whom develop distinct personalities: the predatory Asughara, who manifests after a sexual assault in college and who “stands in front” of Ada’s psyche in all of her dealings with men, and the gentle, masculine-presenting Saint Vincent–is presented as spiritual fact. Although Ada’s American friends treat her as though she is mentally ill, Emezi raises the possibility that what afflicts her is not nearly as clear-cut, and that Western psychology is of limited use when coping with gods. Engrossing, disturbing, and well deserving its place on the Women’s Prize longlist.

imageThe Artificial Silk Girl, by Irmgard Keun: For the first third of this slim German novella, I was getting shades of, of all things, Cassandra Mortmain from I Capture the Castle: that same insouciant cheerfulness, the same pithy, suspiciously innocent one-liners. Doris is young, good-looking and on the make. Her small provincial town can’t hold her, and after going through as many of the local men as she can, she heads off to Berlin, hoping to “become a star”. Her story goes to some significantly darker places than Cassandra’s, though Keun never allows Doris to entirely lose her witty, devil-may-care attitude, even if it ends up buried under the weight of disillusionment. Contains insights of real brilliance into the nature of human relationships, and Keun’s own life story is incredible. I’ll seek out more by her.

38720267Bottled Goods, by Sophie van Llewyn: Possibly the shortest book in contention for the Women’s Prize this year, van Llewyn’s novella-in-flash uses its bantamweight to its advantage. The story of Alina’s and Liviu’s marriage, and the strain it’s put under when Liviu’s brother defects and the Romanian secret services begin a merciless program of harassment against the couple, its most graphic and terrifying moments last no longer than three or four pages and have greater impact as a result. The opening chapter establishes an expectation of magical realism (Alina’s grandfather, apparently “shrunk” by his wife to keep him safe from the State, has spent years living in a bird cage) that has long been a staple of writing about life under a totalitarian regime, but van Llewyn’s brevity keeps it fresh and new.

queenie-9781501196010_hrQueenie, by Candice Carty-Williams: This has been billed as “the black Bridget Jones”, which is a dynamite comparison, although the idea of a book being “the black version” of another book is uncool. Queenie Jenkins’s relationship with a white man, Tom, has just imploded. (They’re “on a break”.) The novel traces Queenie’s fall–sex with men who hurt her, panic attacks, eviction–and her rise: going to therapy despite her family’s horror, accepting the love of her friends, sassy Kyazike (“Chess. Keh.”) and poshly befuddled Darcy, and slowly coming to terms with her difficult childhood. The writing is less effortless and the shape of the story less subversive than Melissa Broder’s The Pisces, but it’s a deeply relatable novel about a young woman trying to make her own way in a world that doesn’t value her as it should.

Currently reading: Namwali Serpell’s epic multi-generational novel of Zambian families, The Old Drift. It’s scarily good.

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Reading Diary: Mar. 19-Mar. 25

9780691181264The Golden Rhinoceros: Histories of the African Middle Ages, by François-Xavier Fauvelle: Each very short chapter of Fauvelle’s book takes an archaeological site, artifact, or ancient text as its focus. From these items, he creates what a Literary Review critic called “historical pointillism”, opening tiny windows onto medieval African international relations, piecing together tantalizing stories: the Jewish merchant who impregnated his Indian maid and abandoned her in Somaliland; the Sultan of Mali whose lavish tipping while on hajj crashed the Cairene gold market for thirty years. But Fauvelle is not a storyteller, and frequently stops writing just as these stories begin to pique interest. The Golden Rhinoceros is a great introduction to other work, but sometimes frustrates in and of itself.

9781408890950The Pisces, by Melissa Broder: Initially worried that this was going to be some sort of Moshfegh-esque body-grossout fic, I instead found myself captivated by Lucy, an aimless Sappho scholar, and her attempts to find love (or at least, following the advice of her group therapist Dr. Jude, to determine whether love is what she really wants). What you’ll already know about this book is that there’s merman sex in it, which is true, but the merman (Theo) doesn’t turn up until about halfway through the book, and the ending—which Broder handles brilliantly—is hardly a fairy tale. Lucy’s feelings of “nothingness”—the existential void—and her subtly woven backstory induce a kind of shamed empathy: it’s hard to imagine a 21st-century woman who can’t identify, at least a little bit, with this protagonist. I wrote a longer piece on The Pisces here.

9781405926935Sins As Scarlet, by Nicolás Obregón: The second in a series featuring Inspector Kosuke Itawa; the first, Blue Light Yokohama, gives him sufficient traumas to make him abandon life as an official detective, move to LA, where his mother lives, and become a private investigator instead. The plot of Sins As Scarlet revolves around the murder of a transgender woman, who happens to be Itawa’s sister-in-law. Obregón handles the material sensitively, and points to all-too-common lapses in official behaviour, such as the consistent misgendering of the victim by the LAPD. The novel takes an unexpected turn when the US-Mexico border, and the hazard involved in crossing it, becomes relevant to the case. Itawa is a great flawed detective, and Obregón is as deserving an heir to Chandler and his LA noir as I can think of.

91lsfruinzlSpring, by Ali Smith: The third in Smith’s seasonal quartet, and a lot of her overarching plan with this project starts to come clear. Focusing in part on grieving filmmaker Richard Lease, who has just lost his friend, collaborator and former lover Patricia Heal, and in part on Brittany Hall, a young security officer at a refugee detention center just outside of London, the novel is also dotted with short sections which we’re meant to think of as being authored by Florence Smith, a schoolgirl who seems bafflingly capable of both selective invisibility and holding authority figures to account. As with earlier seasonal quartet installments, the plot is somehow less important than the empathy these characters induce in us. It feels both more hopeful and more emotionally accessible than Autumn (I haven’t yet read Winter).

And two rereads: One, Lucy Mangan’s delightful memoir of childhood reading, Bookworm, I read last year—my review of it can be found here. I revisited it with the excuse that it constitutes professional development; I’ve now taken on responsibility for some of our Children’s Year In Books at work, and reacquainting myself with the world of literature for kids is proving very enjoyable.

cleopatraroyaldiaries_1_The second is, appropriately, an old childhood favourite. In the late ’90s and early 2000s, Scholastic produced a series of books entitled The Royal Diaries. Written in diary format, they were meant to be the adolescent journals of various princesses from world history. There were the obvious candidates, like the ones for Marie Antoinette, Elizabeth Tudor, and Mary Queen of Scots; but there was a genuinely global focus, so that the series included diaries from the likes of Sondok of Korea, Kazunomiya of Japan, Weetamoo of the Native American Pohasset tribe, and even some princesses whose names have not come down to us (they were marketed under their dynastic titles instead; there’s one about medieval China entitled Lady of Chi’ao Kuo: Warrior of the South). They were by far the most significant source of my world history knowledge until I entered high school, and frankly, even then I relied fairly heavily on what I had learned from them.

I’ve recently discovered that you can buy pretty much every title for a penny plus shipping through secondhand sellers. My first, and favourite, of these books was Cleopatra VII: Daughter of the Nile, so Cleopatra was, of course, my first priority. It’s easy to see why my youthful self loved it: it combines historical detail (the sights and sounds of the markets of Alexandria! The Great Library and the Lighthouse! The pet monkeys and leopards!) with interpersonal conflict (will Cleopatra’s scheming older sister kill her before their father returns? Will her father’s habitual drunkenness jeopardize their ability to negotiate with Rome?) in an immensely appealing way. There’s also a section of historical notes, family trees, and contexualizing pictures at the back of the book; this is where I first learned, for instance, the story of Cleopatra rolling herself up in a carpet for Julius Caesar, and where I acquired my first inkling of the complicated political nature of her later-in-life love affairs. I can’t wait to choose which one to acquire next.

Currently reading: Abi Elphinstone’s new children’s novel, Rumblestar (see “reacquainting myself with the world of literature for kids”, above). So far I’m not totally convinced, but maybe it’s just a matter of time.

A Monthly Book, #3: The Pisces

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~~caution: some spoilers ahead~~

The first paragraph of The Pisces nearly wrecked everything for me: featuring the rancid breath and un-self-conscious shit of our protagonist’s sister’s beloved foxhound (named Dominic), it seemed to represent exactly the sort of Moshfeghian abject devotion to the grossness of the body that starts to pall after about two sentences. But then Broder’s protagonist, Lucy, saved everything: “I thought, This is the proper use of my love, this is the man for me, this is the way.” It’s such a weird, sweet(-ish), innocent(-ish) thought to express: wrecked by a breakup she realizes too late she doesn’t want, recuperating in her rich but kind sister’s fancy Venice Beach pad, perhaps a dog can represent a safe locus of all the love she has to give.

It’s something that Broder returns to again and again over the course of The Pisces: who is truly worthy of our love? And how can we stop ourselves from lavishing it on someone who doesn’t deserve it? The way of framing the question is sneaky, because it subverts not only the way women are taught to think about relationships and desire, but many of the connotations of the way The Pisces itself is structured. Lucy, as we learn early on in the novel, has broken up with her long-term boyfriend, Jamie–mostly because an idle threat issued in a moment of frustration took on a life of its own–and has moved to Venice Beach for the summer, nominally to house-sit for her sister, but really to mend her broken heart. We know how this is going to go; it’s how many romance novels, wish-fulfillment tales, are written: a newly single woman escapes to some place where it’s sunny and warm and she doesn’t have to work, spends time and energy recreating herself, and is narratively rewarded for her efforts, at last, with a romantic relationship. But even from the start, Broder is messing with these tropes and with us. Lucy is unemployed because she’s a graduate student trying to finish her thesis, on how to read the textual lacunae in the extant works of Sappho. She is having a difficult time doing this, but she is meant to be doing it; she is meant to be working, and working intellectually. Already, her California beach retreat is shown to be tethered to real life, to responsibility and maturity.

In her romantic encounters with men, too, Lucy has experiences that possess the structure of a classic romance novel, but the import of which is very different. That incongruity forces the reader to reassess traditional perspectives on the situations Lucy finds herself in. There’s an excruciating sequence, for instance, in which she meets a man on Tinder and plans to have no-strings sex in a hotel with him. She buys $300 lingerie, they maintain the fantasy via text, and then the reality–he meant a hotel bar bathroom, not an actual room; the anal that he wants is painful and the attempt swiftly abandoned–reveals how empty and shallow their interactions have actually been. Crucially, Broder is not saying that having no-strings sex in a hotel bathroom is bad in and of itself; what she’s criticizing is the pressure to lavish huge amounts of time, effort and money, in the name of sexiness, upon someone whose fundamental superficiality and indifference to you renders them unworthy of that effort. The reason Lucy’s fellow patients in group therapy are all so spectacularly unable to get over their various issues with intimacy and relationships, likewise, is because all of the energy they’re expending in “self-care” is intended to make them more desirable. It’s not self-care at all; it’s an investment in product development, in the hopes that it will increase that product’s market value.

When Lucy finally does meet someone who seems to be worth it–the sexy merman Theo, who loves giving head–it looks like the romantic payoff we’ve been expecting. Or at least, it does from one angle. From another angle, it looks a little too good to be true: who actually has cosmic-level period sex? Who actually has this level of connection with a lover they barely speak to (or rather, whose dialogue with their lover is only minimally reported)? And in choosing a man who mostly lives underwater, hasn’t Lucy rather conveniently selected another person who is, at best, only half available? (“Available”, as a concept, is something Broder touches upon frequently.) The way the novel ends is confirmation of this more suspicious reading of Theo. He may be hot and good in bed, but he’s also a bottomless pit of need: almost literally, since Lucy discovers that he’s dragged seventeen women before her to the bottom of the sea.

The Pisces, therefore–if you’ll forgive me for mixing my animal metaphors–is something of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It’s a romance novel that eviscerates romantic tropes; it’s erotica that revels in the awkward; it’s the story of a woman finding herself by, eventually, forgoing her narrative reward of A Man’s Attention (Labeled Love). It’s smart as hell, and not too far below the surface of the irony there’s an acknowledgment of what Lucy calls “nothingness” or “the void” that lends the novel ballast. Is it sexy? Sure. But it’s also sincere, and profoundly unexpected. I wouldn’t be sad at all to see it on the Women’s Prize shortlist.

Reading Diary: Mar. 5-Mar. 11

original_400_600Gingerbread, by Helen Oyeyemi: I’m never totally sure what to do with Oyeyemi’s fiction; she evades rationality by a hairsbreadth in a way reminiscent of Kelly Link. Harriet Lee is a refugee of sorts from the country of Druhástrana, which has no Wikipedia entry. Living in London with her daughter Perdita, she’s forced to retell and reconsider the story of her past as Perdita gets older and demands answers to her heritage. This makes it sound like an immigrant-family allegory, but the effect is far more fantastical; Harriet’s stories of her childhood suggest a fairytale country located on a vaguely European continent but inhabited entirely by black people, and the gingerbread of the title is clearly magical. The novel’s relentless coyness is a little wearing by the end, but most of the time, Gingerbread entrances even as it baffles.

60f6a5e6a4035e1655cd07638642fbafee4bCala, by Laura Legge (DNF @ 82 pages): I may have bounced off this book so hard because I was reading in snatched five-minute bursts; my colleague Faye has been reading it in longer sittings and getting through it more easily. The comparisons to The Water Cure are reasonable (though I think Cala is somewhat more original), but the difference is that Euna, our protagonist, leaves the closed and oppressive environment of her community by page sixty. However, there’s an opacity to the prose that frustrates forward movement, and the occasional gleams of poetic lucidity that break through are more incongruous than illuminating. Possibly a case of wrong reader or wrong time, or both. Anyway, I’m trying to break myself of the habit of finishing things that aren’t appalling but that I’m not enjoying much, so I put it down.

9781786894373The Chronology of Water, by Lidia Yuknavitch: This, mes enfants, this is how you write a book. More specifically, it is how you write a book about your life, your life that is so fucked up from start to finish, your father who abused you and your mother who drank her way to blankness and your gift for swimming and the way you wrecked yourself  for years and found writing and found sex with women and found pain as expiation and found men and lost men and lost a baby and eventually made a home. Yuknavitch is certainly not “likeable” throughout, and occasionally her self-destruction becomes frustratingly repetitive, but she writes like a demon and there is one chapter – the one where she and her first husband try to scatter their stillborn daughter’s ashes – that made me cry on the bus, that ought to become a staple of auditions as a dramatic monologue. If you love Cheryl Strayed, don’t miss.

9780857503916The Terror, by Dan Simmons: A 900-page novel about an Arctic expedition is, I know, not going to be everyone’s kettle of fish. Even less so if you add an element of supernatural horror in the guise of a mysterious thing that is stalking the men of the ships Terror and Erebus from out on the pack ice; trapped in their boats for two winters, the men are all but helpless. There’s an argument to be made that The Terror is too long, and that the introduction of a supernatural element is unnecessary given the genuinely horror-movie qualities of life when you’re shipwrecked in the Arctic. (Do you know what it’s like to die of scurvy? It’s like something out of Clive Barker.) I, however, think that Simmons is trying to do something larger – to make a point about the arrogance of imperial exploration – and even if it’s sometimes a tad obvious, both the horror plot (what is that thing?!) and the “realist” plot (will the food stores last?) compelled my curiosity. (Great piece on it here by Sady Doyle saying all the things I’d like to say.)

9781408890073Circe, by Madeline Miller: The first Women’s Prize longlisted book I’ve read after the announcement, and one I enjoyed a good deal more than Miller’s Prize-winning debut, The Song of Achilles. In her second book, she’s learned emotional restraint: the slightly breathless, soapy quality of Achilles’s and Patroclus’s doomed romance is replaced by Circe’s independence and the knowledge that her time with Odysseus is borrowed at best. Perhaps the most interesting parts of this story are its beginning – Circe’s childhood as a minor daughter of the Sun Lord, Helios, and the million petty cruelties of his court – and its end – providing what I think is a non-canonical but highly satisfying fate for Penelope, Odysseus’s wife, as well as for his son Telemachus and Circe herself. I wouldn’t be sad to see this on the shortlist, unless the longlisted titles I haven’t yet read are all outstanding.

Currently reading: I’ve just started Do You Dream of Terra-Two?, a space-exploration novel by the terrifyingly young (twenty-five) and talented Temi Oh.

Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist, 2019

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It’s happened! It’s out! The Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist was released at midnight (which, as ever, is a truly baffling time to announce anything; the only good reason to do it is so that it’s top of the books news first thing Monday morning, but as Naomi Frisby has pointed out, it doesn’t make things easy for anyone with a regular day job who wants to promote the prize.)

There are sixteen books on the longlist; I’ve already read seven of them. Some of the contenders are unsurprising: The Silence of the GirlsMilkman and Normal People were all pretty safe bets. Some are surprisingly delightful: I loved Diana Evans’s Ordinary People and Lillian Li’s Number One Chinese Restaurant but never expected them to make the longlist, so hopefully this will get them some more attention. Obviously I’m delighted that Ghost Wall is there. Of the ones I haven’t read, the only two I hadn’t heard of at all are Yvonne Battle-Felton’s Remembered and Bernice L. McFadden’s Praise Song for the Butterflies, so I’m thrilled to have those authors to discover.

One very nice thing about this list is the number of authors of colour on it. Battle-Felton, Tayari Jones, and McFadden are African-American; Oyinkan Braithwaite is Anglo-Nigerian while Diana Evans is black British and Akwaeke Emezi is Nigerian. Lillian Li is Chinese-American, and Valeria Luiselli is from Mexico. It’s a proper 50:50 split, for possibly the first time (I haven’t the time to double-check the numbers on this at the moment). Also, Emezi is trans non-binary, which is definitely historical, and frankly overdue.

At the moment, my priorities are Melissa Broder’s The Pisces (which I’m reliably informed is very sexy and weird), Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater (which has been on my radar for some time anyway), Sophie van Llewyn’s Bottled Goods (which is from a very small publisher), and Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive (which I think we have a proof copy of, somewhere in the shop). My heart is still with Ghost Wall, though, which was far and away the best novel I read last year.

How about you? What excites you most about this list? What could be better? What do you wish had made the cut? (I’m sad not to see Siri Hustvedt’s Memories of the Future, for one thing…)

Pre-Women’s Prize Shortlist Meeting Thoughts

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The Women’s Prize shadow panel is meeting on Saturday to choose our shortlist. I am not, strictly speaking, ready. There are three books on the longlist that I have yet to read, or even manage to source: The Idiot by Elif Batuman; Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan; and A Boy in Winter, by Rachel Seiffert. The amount of guilt I feel about this is both profound and defensive: I feel awful for not completing, but I would also like to point out that I have not had a single free weekend since the 17th of March, and of those four weekends, three of them have required me to be out of London overnight. (The other one was the weekend in which I moved house.) So, sure, I could have done better with Women’s Prize reading, but part of not being completely mentally ill, for me, involves acknowledging when things are out of my control, and this past month has been completely and utterly out of my control.

Luckily, I already have an ideal shortlist in my own head, and I doubt that any of the three titles above would change that much.

If it were up to me, the shortlist would run like this:

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The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, by Imogen Hermes Gowar. Not only is it spectacularly well-researched historical fiction; it also captures the spirit of eighteenth-century London, the dirt and the laughter and the skull beneath the skin.

 

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Sight, by Jessie Greengrass. Although it didn’t speak to me personally as strongly as I had hoped, it’s a very skillful piece of writing on very topical issues: motherhood, autonomy, bodies. I think it’s probably a strong contender for ultimate winner, actually.

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Elmet, by Fiona Mozley. The writing is powerful and muscular and sure of itself, and Mozley integrates the anger of Generation Rent with the anger of those pushed off the land from time immemorial. It’s not a long book, but make no mistake, it’s a heavyweight.

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Home Fire, by Kamila Shamsie. A spectacular, furious book about what it feels like to be pigeonholed, marginalised, and permanently suspected by your own country. It’s dramatic and relevant and although Shamsie’s writing doesn’t always do it for me, her vision and execution are consistent enough for this to deserve a place.

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The Trick to Time, by Kit de Waal. It’s on the second tier of this hoped-for shortlist – I don’t think it has the emotional punch or sophistication of Elmet or Sing, Unburied – but de Waal has a way of writing about people’s weaknesses that is unbearably moving, never sappy or saccharine.

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Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward. This is a very interesting paperback cover choice. It’s much more commercial; one of my colleagues initially thought it was YA. That might be smart on Bloomsbury’s part, because my money and my heart are both with Ward to win, and if she does, the general reader might want a cover that doesn’t hint too heavily at the elements of this book that are dark and knotty and Faulkner-esque (not so much in the style as in the themes).


As for who will ultimately win, there are really only two choices that will be completely satisfying: Elmet or Sing, Unburied, Sing. At a push, I would accept Sight‘s victory with equanimity. The others on the longlist are – most of them – good, but Mozley and Ward are in a league of their own: in terms of their skill with words and structure, in terms of their ability to develop characters into real-feeling people, and in terms of their level of intellectual engagement with the questions and problems their own books ask.

There are fewer books that I would actually kick and scream about seeing on the shortlist or winning, but Three Things About ElsieMiss Burma and Eleanor Oliphant would all, I’m afraid, be travesties. Elsie is heavy-handed with its moral; Miss Burma should not have been written as fiction in the first place, or else should have been written with greater dedication to fictionalising; and Eleanor Oliphant, while undeniably fun, relies heavily on some lazy generalisations about the behaviour of traumatised and autistic people (which it unfortunately tends to conflate). None of them ought to make the shortlist. I’d also be annoyed if The Ministry of Utmost Happiness made it, but that’s less because it’s substantially bad and more because it’s just a perfectly average book that happens to have been written by Arundhati Roy, and that’s not a good enough reason to shortlist anything.

Am I missing out on Batuman, Egan or Seiffert? Am I completely wrong about Mozley, or de Waal, or Greengrass, or Honeyman? (Obviously not, but feel free to try and convince me otherwise.)

A full report from the shadow panel will be forthcoming after the weekend.

Reading Diary: Apr. 7-Apr. 14

32508630It’s been a long time since I read a book about which I feel so completely ambivalent as I do about Miss Burma. It is based on the lives of Charmaine Craig’s mother and grandmother, and opens with a prologue detailing the success of Louisa Bension (Craig’s mother) as a contestant in the Miss Burma pageant. The fact that she wins it, as the daughter of a Jewish man and a Karen (pronounced Kar-EN) minority woman, is held up by General Aung San as proof that the new independent Burmese regime, no longer under British rule after WWII, offers opportunities to members of all ethnic groups. Most of the rest of the book, however, is told in flashback; we go right back to the beginning of the marriage between Louisa’s parents, Khin and Benny, and follow them through Burma’s long civil war/genocide against the Karen people. Their marriage waxes and wanes; imprisonment, torture, and abandonment leave their mark on the relationship, which eventually deteriorates into mutual infidelities, mistrust, and coolness, even as Khin and Benny build a business empire together.

Like several other books on the Women’s Prize longlist (When I Hit You and, in some ways, Sight), Miss Burma makes more sense to me as creative non-fiction than as a novel. Craig is constrained by the events that actually occurred, and the work that she puts into characterising Khin and Benny early on comes to nothing when she skips several years in a single sentence and then presents us with characters who appear to have changed almost beyond recognition during that skipped time. It’s not that this doesn’t happen to traumatised people; it’s that if you want readers to believe your fiction, you need to show them some level of consistency. Biography and memoir, perversely, don’t require nearly as much verisimilitude: those genres, unlike fiction, do not need the reader to believe that things happened, because they can mobilise primary and secondary sources to prove what did. Meanwhile, the skip into Louisa’s point of view near the end is actually not as jarring as some reviews led me to believe, but her sections feel under-served: she gets far fewer pages than her parents, and the action stops at a point that, while not completely nonsensical, doesn’t feel obvious, either.

Thematically, Miss Burma is ambitious: the persecution of the Karens and the persecution of Jewish people around the world are linked by Benny’s decision to become a member of the Karens, irrevocably throwing his lot in with his wife’s people and putting a target on his own back during the genocide that follows the Second World War. Craig doesn’t follow this line of thought very closely, though; unlike Do Not Say We Have Nothing, another novel about how families splinter under political pressure, the big ideas aren’t seamlessly integrated into the plot, but rather are mentioned every few chapters by one character or another, presumably so that we don’t forget about them whilst reading about affairs or escapes through moonlit jungles. For readers who want their reading to teach them something, Miss Burma will probably be a hit; but such readers could have been just as well served with a biography/memoir blend. For others, including me, the book feels like something of a letdown, and it’s not at all clear why it should be on the Women’s Prize longlist.

9781925498523I can’t remember now where I first read a review of The Trauma Cleaner, but it was so immediately fascinating that I determined to get my hands on a copy as soon as it was available in the UK. It is a non-fiction account of the life and work of an Australian woman named Sandra Pankhurst, who was born male, and who – after an extremely varied life – now runs a service called STC Cleaners. When a murder or a suicide occurs indoors; when someone dies and isn’t found for weeks; when social services has a hoarder on their hands: these are the times when Sandra’s team is called in. Police departments and paramedic teams do not provide cleaning services: they get folks like Sandra to do it for them.

This involves an incredible amount of patience, persistence, humanity, compassion, a blend of firmness and sweetness. That Sandra possesses these qualities makes her uniquely good at her job. Sarah Krasnostein, the journalist who wrote the book, follows her from case to case, noting the way that she talks down one client, a registered sex offender; bolsters another, a compulsive hoarder with three children who are no longer permitted to live with her; instantly wins the trust of another, an old woman who was once brilliant and now lives in a nest of old water bills and groceries liquefying inside the plastic bags they were bought in because she no longer has the energy to put them away. The gruesome details of the jobs that Sandra has taken on form part of the book’s appeal, of course, but so, in large part, do the psychological tactics that she adopts for each client. Much of what Sandra and her team are doing, Krasnostein notes, is acknowledging pain. No one becomes a compulsive hoarder, or dies alone in their flat of a drug overdose or a gunshot wound, without the push of serious mental suffering. Sandra sees that suffering, and does something about it.

The other half of the book, interwoven with the clients’ case studies, is Sandra’s own story of pain. Adopted as a baby boy by a couple in Victoria, Australia, she was immediately pushed aside when her adoptive parents realised they could still have their own biological children. She (at that point still a male, referred to in The Trauma Cleaner as Peter) suffered an abusive childhood, married – very young – a woman, had children with her, began visiting gay bars, was found out, left her family, and began living full-time as a woman. She supported herself mainly as a sex worker, and completed gender reassignment surgery in (I think) the ’80s. When she and another sex worker were assaulted and raped, she pressed charges; their rapist was not only tried, but convicted and imprisoned. Krasnostein impresses on the reader what a remarkable thing this was, how deeply unlikely that, in the cultural climate of Australia in the 1980s, a transgender prostitute might win a rape case. But Sandra did.

The only weakness of this book is that Krasnostein removes herself from it to an extent that makes little sense: she’s generally not a presence, which feels right, but occasionally interjects in the first person, in ways that suggest she might have an emotional connection to Sandra’s work that would have been worth sharing. (We learn, for instance, that her mother left the family when she was very young, leaving her with a permanent sense of abandonment.) The book started out as a long essay online, and perhaps could have used just a touch more rigour when being given a bigger skeleton. But it is engrossing and inspirational and quite beautiful; anyone who enjoyed The Fact of a Body would do well to get hold of The Trauma Cleaner.

coverAlthough it’s subtitled “Detective Stories From the World of Neurology”, Suzanne O’Sullivan’s new book, Brainstorm, is really a series of case studies of epilepsy. “Detective stories” isn’t too far off, though: all stories of diagnosis are stories of detection (which is why House is so weirdly addictive, and also maybe why Hugh Laurie’s character in it has the substance abuse and anger management/personal life issues that we expect from our noir detectives; discuss.) In twelve chapters, each focusing on one of O’Sullivan’s patients, we get glimpses of epilepsy symptoms that are rare, misunderstood, misdiagnosed, and sometimes not epilepsy at all. At the very least, Brainstorm is a very illuminating book about what seizures sometimes look like, and the ways in which they can be completely misinterpreted by the public. One of her patients, for instance, gets a kind of localised Tourette’s; his seizures involve swearing and spitting. If he has a seizure in public, he risks not only disapproval and embarrassment, but arrest. (I wanted more of this from O’Sullivan, actually. She doesn’t, for example, acknowledge that her black male patients face a much higher chance of being arrested, injured or killed for displaying abnormal social behaviour.)

As in The Trauma Cleaner, there is a certain level of voyeuristic fascination in O’Sullivan’s case studies that drives readerly interest. We learn about August, a bright young woman whose seizures make her compulsively bolt from rooms and across streets; Maya, an elderly Nigerian woman who suffers blackouts and sometimes finds herself miles from home; Wahid, whose family paid thousands to various local healers and pastors before his condition was diagnosed not as spirit possession but as epilepsy. O’Sullivan is simultaneously compassionate and objective about each of her patients: she clearly cares for their well-being, but also strives to view the evidence as thoroughly and impartially as possible. Her notes on the development of technology used in diagnosing neurological problems – CAT scans, MRI and fMRI machines, the merits and demerits of brain surgery – are informative, detailed and accessible. Sometimes there’s a slight stiffness to the prose, but she’s a doctor who writes, not a professional poet, and it’s a small price to pay for the rest of the book’s informativeness and optimistic outlook on the future of neurology.

9781408893302And back to fiction for the end of the week. Happiness is the first novel by Aminatta Forna that I have read, but on the basis of it, I’d like to read some of her earlier work. It reminds me of nothing so much as a cross between Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border (one of my most beloved books) and John Lanchester’s Capital: Forna melds observations about urban wildlife, and the irrational levels of fear and hate that city-dwelling humans direct towards animals, with wider commentary on the invisible interconnections of all the people who share space in a metropolis. There are two protagonists: Jean, an urban wildlife biologist whose marriage disintegrated because her husband wanted more of her time than she was willing or able to give, and Attila, a Ghanaian psychiatrist who works with international victims of war trauma. Attila is in London for a conference; Jean is there on a grant that sees her gathering data on urban foxes for Southwark Council. They meet cute(-ish), when Jean bumps into Attila on Waterloo Bridge, and continue to collide over the course of a week, as Attila tries to ease the demented old age of a former lover, Rosie, and to locate his missing nephew Tano, who fled his home in Elephant and Castle when his mother was wrongly detained on an immigration charge.

There is a rich history of London novels, and Forna draws on a lot of techniques that were first introduced by great writers like Dickens and Woolf, particularly the almost cinematographic sweep that plunges us from one mind or life into another. My favourite of these is when she tracks the movements of foxes. One of Jean’s study cohort is fed by a kitchen porter at the Savoy Hotel, who plays a part later in finding Tano; the leftovers that fox consumes originated in a meal which, Forna says in passing, now resides largely in the belly of a hedge fund manager, currently in a taxi heading west. It’s a nice sharp swoop, in and out, and it perfectly captures those interconnections that I mention above, and how, in a large city, it’s easy not to know those connections exist. The characters are also drawn with skill and compassion: Jean is like an older version of Rachel, the protagonist of The Wolf Border, in her passionate dedication and her bemusement at negative reactions to wildlife. Attila is one of the most embodied characters I’ve ever read: as a Guardian review says, we’re always aware of his size and height, the space he takes up, his love of dancing. The network of street sweepers and hotel doormen that the pair mobilise to spot foxes, and to find Tano, are given names and histories and tics. They feel like real people, reticent and flawed as real people sometimes are.

My only real complaint is the number of comma splices in my proof copy; there are dozens per page. Hopefully Forna’s proofreader is a bigger fan of the semicolon and the full stop. Other than that, Happiness is a brilliant spring read: colourful, detailed, hopeful, a breath of fresh air. (It also makes a good corollary to The Overstory.)

Thoughts on this week’s reading: A longer commute means more time to get through books! I’m finally working my way through spring proofs, and a recent spate of three-star reads is receding into the distance. Hooray.