Ken McLeod once said of Neuromancer‘s plot that it was “intricate and forgettable”, a phrase which holds in its depths a clue as to how the entire damn book should be read. Like Pat Cadigan’s Synners, Neuromancer is considered a foundational text of cyberpunk, and one of the core tenets of that particular movement is the refusal to explain anything at all. From the very first sentence, almost as famous as that of Pride and Prejudice – “The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel” – Gibson has pushed us into a world where the measure of the human is the machine. The metaphor that a mind in this world initially reaches for is technological, not organic. The reader, as a human, is responsible not for arbitrating meaning, but simply for keeping up.
Reading this after Altered Carbon is also an exercise in comparison. Gibson’s protagonist is Henry Case, a jaded criminal who’s saved from death by a group of shady individuals who need him to pull off just one more job. He shares a literary bloodline, part of a motivation, and a position of vulnerability with Morgan’s damaged ex-cop, Kovacs. The sense of machinations going on much higher up and behind the scenes is also familiar. There’s even a bad-ass female character whose bad-ass-ness doesn’t quite extend to allowing her to be more than a prop and sexual partner to the male protagonist (though Neuromancer‘s Molly, with retractable scalpels embedded beneath each flawlessly varnished nail, gets a lot of page time: she’s the one who effects the physical break-in that the plot requires).
On the other hand, the more time you spend with Neuromancer, the easier it gets to move through its weird cyberspatial world. Gibson invented the idea of the matrix, and the standard pop-culture visualisation of what hacking looks like from the inside. Once you’ve learned to adjust to that – and to the slangy dialogue, full of abbreviations and redolent with cynicism – everything makes a lot more sense. The plot is intricate, involving a schizophrenic AI whose two halves are known as Wintermute and Neuromancer, but its finer details are entirely forgettable (possibly because Gibson never makes a terribly strong effort to articulate them.) And somehow that’s okay. The point isn’t necessarily what’s happening on any given page, but the atmosphere that Gibson creates. It means that Neuromancer‘s value, at least to me, is more historical than literary; that it matters more for having done things first than for the objective quality of the things it does. But a historically significant book is still a book worth having read, usually, and it is in this case. I might prefer to reach for another Richard Morgan title the next time I want a cyberpunk fix, but what Gibson did is respect-worthy. (And I still want to read Pattern Recognition.)
I’ve read seven books since my last confession reading diary entry, and I can’t keep track of days anymore, and I also can’t write a soooper long review of every single one of them, despite them having been almost universally extraordinary. Here we go with a roundup, anyway.
Our Homesick Songs, by Emma Hooper: I didn’t read Hooper’s debut, Etta and Otto and Russell and James, but I gather that Our Homesick Songs shares with it a lyrical but straightforward prose style. It reads with the simplicity, and the judiciously applied repetition, of a child’s fable—but don’t take this to mean that the book is naive or twee. Finn Connor is growing up in an isolated Newfoundland fishing village in the 1990s; his father, Aidan, was a fisherman, and his mother, Martha, used to make nets. But the fish are gone, the island is dying, and Aidan and Martha must take turns working hundreds of miles away on the mainland, a month at a time. Finn’s older sister Cora tries to feed her thirst for adventure by transforming every abandoned house on the island into a representation of a different country, but it’s not enough and soon she strikes out on her own. Struggling with his sister’s abandonment and the difficulty of his parents’ situation, Finn assigns himself the task of bringing the fish back to his home waters. Our Homesick Songs is suffused with the Irish ballads that Newfoundland fishermen sing, and with a sense of deep melancholy; Hooper comes down firmly on the side of family love as one of the few forces that can withstand so much loss. It’s a book with a core of sorrow, wrapped in gentleness.
Social Creature, by Tara Isabella Burton: Louise is twenty-nine and living in New York, barely keeping her head above water—and her time is running out. Between barista shifts and SAT tutoring hours, she can live, but she has no time to write, or think, or do anything other than survive. All that changes when she meets Lavinia: golden, fabulously wealthy, deeply romantic, alarmingly charismatic. So when Lavinia dies—not a spoiler; we know it almost from the beginning—what’s Louise going to do? Can she…perhaps…keep fooling everyone?
I’ve said on social media before now that the genius of Social Creature is in Tara Isabella Burton’s depiction of someone who is poor, not all that young, without a safety net, and terrified. Louise is the dark side of renter culture, of moving to the city without a dime; she’s all the New York stories you never hear, all the millennials who have nothing and no one. Her characterisation is the bedrock of this book. We need to be convinced by her slide into desperation; her sins need to seem merely venal to us because we understand her. They do, and we do, and that, more than anything, is why people have been comparing this to Tartt and Highsmith: because Burton is at the same level of play when it comes to characterisation, and because she understands that, at bottom, she’s writing a book about money, and about the awful things that people do when they’re afraid of life without it. (Lavinia, incidentally, is a fantastic creation: the pretentiousness of her constant Instagram posts featuring quotes by Rimbaud, and the sinisterness of her history with other young women like Louise, is achieved gradually, but insistently. She’s a wonderfully horrible antagonist.)
Old Baggage, by Lissa Evans: Mattie Simpkin fought for women’s suffrage. She was arrested, imprisoned, force-fed, and maltreated. Now, women have the vote, and she’s rattling around her house in Hampstead with her friend Florrie Lee (known to all as The Flea), looking for something meaningful to do with the rest of her life. The reappearance of an old friend from suffrage days—now married and espousing Fascism—prompts Mattie to start a group for girls that promotes imagination and curiosity (and a bit of self-defense), but not everyone is in favour… Old Baggage is, not to put too fine a point on it, bloody marvelous. The tagline is “What do you do next, after you’ve changed the world?”, and there’s a real sense of frustrated potential in the book, suggested not just by Mattie’s stagnation but by Evans’s delicate outlining of class issues. (Mattie’s first recruit is her young maid, who comes to her after being fired from a job at the first-class ladies’ cloakroom in St Pancras for having a sty, which might offend the ladies. Her feelings about being made to run about in the rain are initially, let us say, mixed.) The downside of Mattie’s forceful character is a tendency to trample, which Evans acknowledges; there is also a ballast of personality in the form of The Flea, who works as a health visitor, tackling poverty and inequality in places that Mattie, for all her fire and dedication, cannot reach. Old Baggage is wonderfully nuanced, both in its rage and in its understanding of who can and can’t afford rage in the first place.
The Sea and Summer, by George Turner: In his Clarke Award-winning novel, Turner imagines a not-too-distant future (2041) ravaged by climate change. In Australia, the social gap has widened into a chasm: on one side, the Sweet, who retain jobs where most employment has been taken over by automation, and on the other, the Swill, the 99.9% who mostly live crammed into tower blocks and at the mercy of the State. The plot, which is slightly too slow-moving for its own good, at least at the beginning, concerns a conspiracy to speed up population control and a family whose fortunes leave them in a curious limbo between Sweet and Swill. But it’s Turner’s vision of the future that really startles. You can see the effect of his own times (he was writing in 1987, and the Swill system of supermarkets and vouchers is reminiscent of Soviet-era department stores; characters talk a lot about “the greenhouse effect”, a term that has mostly gone out of fashion now). Yet many of his imaginings about the medium-term effects of climate change are prescient: constant flooding, toxic groundwater, the aforementioned takeover of most industries by automation, and an offensively huge income gap are issues that we’re all talking about now, with increasing urgency. When Turner was writing, few politicians seemed even to be aware of climate change, let alone willing to talk about it publicly. The Sea and Summer is a less pessimistic portrayal than some (its framing story is set in a future beyond the Sweet/Swill time, when the planet is cooling again and parts of humanity have survived), and its prescription for social healing is education: the development of “new men”, neither Sweet nor Swill, who teach themselves the information they need in order to survive a changing planet. It’s an approach that has something to teach our age.
Ghost Wall, by Sarah Moss: A deceptively short book, almost a novella at 150 pages, with a core of menace. Ghost Wall follows Silvie, the daughter of a bus driver whose love for Ancient British history is tinged with racism and nationalism. He has brought Silvie and her mother on a trip to Northumberland to live as Iron Age peoples did, but their campmates—a professor and his students on an “Experiential Archaeology” course—are less devoted to dogmatic historical accuracy, and tensions rise almost at once. We know something terrible is going to happen; how could it not, given Silvie’s father’s propensity towards violence, and the expedition’s growing obsession with the ritual murders that culminated in bog bodies? But Moss takes us there slowly, carefully, building atmosphere (the discomfort of heat without insulated walls or air conditioning; the endless round of finding something to eat, laboriously preparing it, cooking it, eating it, and starting again). It is also a very tightly written book: everything is thematically connected to everything else, which is no mean feat in a text so short, especially one that also includes fine descriptive passages. The first three pages, and the final five, caused a physical reaction in me when I read them: Moss’s evocation of emotional states is that strong, that subtle. I have no hesitation at all in calling Ghost Wall a masterpiece.
Crudo, by Olivia Laing: I adore Laing’s nonfiction, and although Crudo is thought-provoking and up-to-the-minute, her first foray into fiction didn’t have the same effect on me. It follows a writer called Kathy, who, the cover blurb says coyly, “may or may not be” Kathy Acker. The reason for this ambiguity is unclear, and if it is meant to be Kathy Acker, the reason for this is unclear too: she died in 1997 in Tijuana, so is Crudo then meant to be the alternate world in which she lives and marries an Englishman, or is the world the reader lives in meant to be the alternate? Are we perhaps meant to be asking these questions? The action takes place in the summer of 2017; like Ali Smith in her Seasons Quartet, Laing is writing almost immediate reportage of current events. Also like Smith, Laing sometimes doesn’t achieve enough of a sense of distance, so that what we get is simply the bludgeoning effect of last year’s news all over again. (Particularly painful to me is the fact that she mentions, two or three times, last summer’s neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, where I grew up. I happened to read this book in a park in Paris, sitting next to my childhood best friend, who was counter-protesting that day; she was punched in the face by a Nazi, and several people she knows were struck by the car that killed Heather Heyer. The past is not.) If Crudo‘s point is that the headlines are awful and it’s hard to live in the world, even when you’re a critically acclaimed white writer with enough spare cash to contemplate buying a second home in the Barbican Centre, well…that’s not news. I can’t deny that it’s smart, or even that it has heart. I’m just not sure what the purpose of the exercise was.
Melmoth, by Sarah Perry: Few, if any, contemporary novelists are doing as much as Sarah Perry is to make Calvinist thought sexy again. (There’s a sentence I never thought I’d write.) Her first two novels, and this one, are all suffused with a sense of the reality of sin, although that word is rarely used: perhaps more in Melmoth than elsewhere. And yet the book is also a Gothic romp; it is disturbing and serious, but it’s scattered with delightful ghost-story tropes, starting with an eminent Czech scholar who inherits some papers from an elderly friend who dies at his carrel in Prague’s National Library. They tell the story of Melmoth the Witness, a woman cursed to wander the earth forever, feet bleeding, clad in black, bearing witness to all of the cruelty that humans are capable of displaying towards each other. Helen Franklin, an expat translator who has been punishing herself for twenty years for some nameless crime, comes into possession of the papers, and develops an obsessive interest in the Melmoth story. The novel is intensely atmospheric: you can almost feel the chill of the wind swirling snow on the bridges of Prague, see the jackdaws tilting their observant heads. It also asks enormous questions about morality: is one good deed enough to offset a dozen bad ones? How much atonement is enough? Is atonement necessary, or productive? What Melmoth offers her victims is understanding, but understanding of a very bleak kind: if you have committed a terrible crime, she affirms, no one will ever love or forgive you, so come away with me, wander the earth, at least we can be damned together. It’s a nice metaphor for the sheer indulgence of self-flagellation, the way that martyring yourself allows you to forgo other responsibilities. Perry’s prose is still sometimes too lush for its own good—it occasionally tips over into a style so swooning and wide-eyed as to feel consciously naive—but the combination of creepy ghost story and philosophical inquiry will make Melmoth the most spectacular fireside book, come October.
Thoughts on recent reading: It’s been a long time since I’ve had such a streak of good books, though none of these are out yet, except for the Turner (hooray for reading one title off my backlist!) The final three (Moss, Laing, Perry) were picked for a long weekend in Paris, and I will never stop congratulating myself on the excellence of that decision.
It took me a long time to read Pat Cadigan’s novel Synners: three and a half days, which is half a week and a timespan in which I can usually dispatch two books. It’s been a while since I read something that forced me to work out its rules as I went along, and the mental stretch felt good, although possibly also ill-timed; by the end of April, I won’t have had a weekend to myself for over two months, and for an introvert in a customer-facing job, that doesn’t put my brain in a happy place. Still, the unmerciful in-your-face-ness of cyberpunk is something I find quite charming. Cadigan’s novel is set in a future LA, a city where big business, entertainment and media conglomerates are even more obsessed with capturing the consumer’s attention than they are now. Into this maelstrom of competing adverts, music videos, and immersive games, Cadigan introduces a technology called sockets, which allow humans direct neural contact not only with the Web (which, fyi, didn’t exist at the time she wrote the novel), but with each other’s brains. The implications, both for business and for things like, you know, human rights and privacy, are huge and not altogether positive. The novel’s final fifth is a huge set piece in which our heroes and heroines – a team of misfit hackers and makers – try to stop the global Internet from having, basically, a stroke. It’s a very exciting book, and incredibly prescient; it was 1992 when it won the Clarke Award, and, as other people have noted, apart from the curious lack of mobile phones, Cadigan’s vision of future tech is not terribly far off where we are now (although I don’t think music videos are quite the cultural force in our world that they are in Synners. It was clearly written when MTV was more of a thing.)
Its major problem is that sense of disorientation. I wouldn’t give this to anyone who was a novice science fiction reader; it asks a lot of you from the very beginning, jumping point-of-view character each chapter for the first five or six chapters while also throwing tech-speak at you with both hands. (There are slightly too many characters, I think, and Cadigan opens with a chapter focalised through someone who turns out to be not very important, which is sort of representative.) The big set piece at the end is hard to visualise, too; it takes place inside various systems, consoles, programs and augmented-reality environments, as well as the “real” world, and the action can get hard to follow. What Cadigan does do very well, however, is achieving emotional roundedness for her characters. Sam, a seventeen-year-old hacker who has emancipated from her parents, has some wonderful moments: pragmatic, with an agile mind, an insouciant attitude, and a crush on someone too old for her, she makes a believable smart teenager. Gina Aiesi, whose lover, Mark, is the reason for the net-wide stroke, is given an incredibly engaging emotional arc—the need to decide between having her own life and sticking around for someone who has never been there for her—and a characteristic rage that prevents her from being a passive figure. In a novel that sees the melding of human and machine as virtually inevitable, the fact that I came to care deeply for the humans in the pages says a lot about Cadigan’s skill as a writer.
Richard Powers is fast making his way into my favourite writers of all time (a permanently shifting category that at the moment includes A.S. Byatt, Sarah Hall, and William Thackeray). The Overstory, his latest book, is maybe his most ambitious yet: it seeks, essentially, to instill in its reader a sense of sympathy and identification with trees. That Powers actually manages it is confirmation that he is one of the most skilled writers currently working that I can think of.
The Overstory starts with a section called Roots, divided into six separate strands that introduce us to our main characters. They range from Nick Hoel, whose family farm houses virtually the only chestnut in America to be spared the blight that kills other specimens, to Douglas Pavlicek, a Vietnam vet whose life is saved by a banyan tree, to Olivia Vandergriff, a feckless college girl who experiences a short period of death (shower, light switch, poorly wired house) and emerges back into life convinced that she has been chosen by mysterious entities to help save the California redwoods. There is also Neelay, a paraplegic video game designer; Adam, an academic psychologist; Patricia, a botanist disgraced by her assertion that trees form communities; and Dorothy and Ray, a couple constantly on the brink of disaster. Over the course of the book, these characters will (mostly) become intertwined with each other’s lives, and with trees: studying them, living in them, trying to protect them, listening to them.
The reason it works so well, I think, is partly because Powers takes his time to establish the stories of each character, and partly because his writing about geological time, and about the biological miracle of plant life, is so stunningly beautiful. It is easy to love and feel for the people in this book, but it is also impossible to come away from it without the understanding that they – and, by extension, you – are the least significant parts of a story that has been going on for a much, much longer time, of which they – and you – can only ever be a tiny fraction. The Overstory doesn’t preach about environmentalism, but it does lay out facts, and those facts reach for you. It has made me reconsider, once again, whether I can in good conscience choose to have children. It is an astonishingly well-written, empathetic, heart-rending, blink-inducing book, and I recommend it without reservation.
Jodi Taylor is, I think, the nearest anyone has yet come to being the obvious successor to Jasper Fforde. Instead of rootling through the backstage area of literature, however, her protagonists jump into the past; her Chronicles of St Mary’s is basically The Eyre Affair for historians. Taylor’s writing isn’t quite as nimble as Fforde’s was at the start of his series: you can generally see the jokes coming from a mile away, although one or two of them are a delightful surprise. In this first volume, we’re introduced to our heroine, Madeleine Maxwell (more often referred to as Max), who embodies a lot of the badass-tough-girl tropes that genre fiction is often guilty of endorsing, but manages also to be sympathetic. Mostly, Taylor achieves this by juxtaposing Max’s relentless up-for-it-ness with another set of tropes: the hopeless klutz. But she has a sense of humour, and it’s not difficult to see why her friends like her, so the reader is pretty much along for the ride.
The plot of Just One Damned Thing After Another can best be summed up by that title; there are at least three natural ends to this novel, and it might have made more sense if Taylor had chosen the first or the second. The main action centers around a jump to the Cretaceous period; St Mary’s is a historical research institute whose employees “investigate historical events in contemporary time.” (They’re instructed not to call it time travel. It’s time travel.) Taylor takes my personal favourite way out of the science-y bit of all this: she acknowledges it before refusing to engage (Max asks how it all works, and is met with stony looks and a sarcastic “Really?” from a tech). It’s as good a strategy as any, and better than either pretending the reader doesn’t know how bonkers time travel is, or going full metal technobabble and over-explaining. The Cretaceous jump is meant to be a simple observe-and-report mission, but Max’s partner betrays her, leading to the discovery of a plot from the future to monetise St Mary’s’ activities and develop a chrono-tourism trade. The rest of it is buddy-adventure with a big old beating heart, a bit of romance (and a surprisingly good sex scene), and a delightful cliffhanger at the end. Great fun, and you don’t have to check your whole brain at the door.
The next book on the Women’s Prize longlist for me was Sight, by Jessie Greengrass, a novel which I’d been anticipating, since Greengrass was shortlisted for the Young Writer of the Year Award back in 2016. If Sight hasn’t quite made me a rabid fan, it’s at least made me understand that shortlisting. Greengrass is at ease with language, and her sentences reflect that ease; she’s never uncomfortable or dull to read.
Where Sight is open to criticism is in its relentlessly autobiographical-seeming and narrow focus. I’m wary of saying this, especially because it is a book about motherhood, pregnancy, daughterhood, and grief: all subjects that women seemingly cannot write about without being asked if they too have experienced such things as their characters experience. But the choice of person and narrative style in Sight pushes us towards such an interpretation: it’s an extremely tightly focalised first person throughout, except for sections on the history of medicine (Röntgen, Freud, and John and William Hunter are of main interest, for their relevance to the protagonist’s physical and mental state throughout the book). Insofar as it has a plot, Sight is focused on the protagonist’s choice (or not) to have her first child, but we know from flashes back and forward that she has a daughter, so her agony of indecision is not especially suspenseful for the reader. What we’re left with, essentially, is a collection of meditations on the body and on grief, but the protagonist’s voice so rarely makes connections between her own experience and anything in the wider world—she doesn’t seem to have a job, for example, or any friends except for her partner; there’s no discussion of how societal pressure might be affecting her decision-making about children—that it reads more like disconnected autofiction. This is absolutely a matter of taste, but the trend towards fiction writing that might have been better off as memoir is not one that I feel very positively about, so although Greengrass is a skillful and thoughtful writer, I’d feel obscurely frustrated if Sight made the shortlist.
The Guardian’s books site wrote a piece not long ago about “up lit”, and cited titles like The Trouble With Goats and Sheep, Joanna Cannon’s first novel, as examples. Naomi then tweeted about how inaccurate she found this: neither Cannon’s work, she said, nor some of the other examples (Eleanor Oliphant, for instance), are particularly cheery or uplifting, they’re just marketed that way. Opening Three Things About Elsie, I was dubious (look at the cover, for Christ’s sake); closing it, I was in agreement with Naomi. It is not a jolly, Jonas Jonasson-type romp about picturesque elderly people getting into scrapes. It is a book about dementia, and terrible loneliness, as well as about the pasts that people choose to forget. Its ending is, in a strange sort of way, uplifting, but I suspect there will still be readers who are less uplifted than distressed by it.
This means I liked it a great deal more than I was expecting to. The plot is, in many ways, the weakest thing about it: it revolves around eighty-four-year-old Florence’s belief that she has spotted a menacing figure from her past, one Ronnie Butler, in the nursing home where she now lives. His attempts to discredit her are made easier by the fact that paranoia is the one symptom of dementia everyone knows. As Florence remembers more and more about the past, the coincidental connections with staff and other residents of the care home start to seem a little too good to be true, and the comments made in dialogue about the effect of even an insignificant person’s life on those around them are rather heavy-handed. Where Three Things About Elsie absolutely shines, however, is in Cannon’s slow revelation of the huge gap between how someone believes they are perceiving the world, and how the world perceives them. Florence’s narration initially makes her seem a crotchety, but basically sound, old lady. As the book progresses, other peoples’ reactions to her make it clearer to us that she is fairly far gone (which makes it easier for Ronnie to cast doubt on the legitimacy of her allegations), and also that she is painfully lonely: she daydreams about inviting the carers, or the man in the corner shop, round for tea and cake; she stockpiles shortbread for visitors who never drop by. That’s a state of mind we need to be reading more about in fiction, and for my money, Cannon writes about it more effectively and movingly than Gail Honeyman in Eleanor Oliphant, a book touted as being all about loneliness.
Thoughts on this fortnight’s reading: That I’ve read at all, in between a flying visit to Dorset, preparations to move north of the river, and an Easter weekend hen do, feels vaguely miraculous.
My favourite way to celebrate International Women’s Day, as with all celebrations, is to read something apt, and there is no book apter than Joanna Russ’s tour de force, The Female Man. (Note the deliberate not-use of the word “masterpiece”.) The plot of the book, such as it is, is fairly simple: there are four female characters, Jeannine, Joanna, Janet, and Jael. Each is from a different time period, and/or world: Jeannine from a world like ours, but where the Great Depression never ended and women’s lib never began; Joanna from the era contemporaneous to the book’s writing (1975), in the world as we know it; Janet from a place called Whileaway, where there simply aren’t any men; and Jael from a future where men and women are, quite literally, at war. (She has metal teeth.) The book is mostly comprised of their interactions with each other, and the ways in which these reveal each world’s priorities with regards to women and their place. Though the plot isn’t complicated, Russ’s writing is extremely in-your-face; she often jumps from one point of view to the next, frequently mid-scene, none of which is signposted. Her chapters can be six pages, or a paragraph, or a sentence. (It’s a very Vonnegut-esque approach to structure.) I’ve also read critiques of The Female Man that say, essentially, one of two things: either that society has moved on since the 1970s, and therefore Russ’s exposé of male hypocrisy and female oppression is no longer relevant, or that literature has moved on since the 1970s, and therefore that other people have since said the same things, but better. I disagree on both counts: on the first, society really hasn’t moved that far on since the 1970s (#MeToo, Weinstein, Gamergate, Trump, I can’t even be arsed to keep trotting out these examples, it’s so boring). On the second, few writers of any age have been as uncompromising as Joanna Russ is in The Female Man—she’s like Angela Carter on steroids and without any of the whimsy—and for a young feminist not to have read any of her work is for that young feminist to be missing a key part of history. “As my mother once said: the boys throw stones at the frogs in jest. But the frogs die in earnest.”
Renée Fleming is, as my friend Jon would say, a genuine goddamn treasure. Quite apart from her voice—which is a great big “quite apart from”; have you seen this? Or this? Or, good Jesus, the first nine seconds of this?—she projects this huge, warm, charming, utterly authentic personality. She wrote this book fifteen years ago as a resource for other young singers, remembering that, when she was just starting out, she devoured the biographies of famous sopranos but couldn’t find anything on what it actually felt like to build and train a voice, let alone create and maintain one’s own brand, develop a character, and all the other minutiae of an opera singer’s life. She’s so delightfully honest about being a people-pleaser from a young age, about her long years of failing to win competitions or auditions, and about not being considered particularly beautiful or stylish (although her “big face” was at least seen as an asset; she’d be visible from the upper circle.) I also love the way she writes about singing as work, both physical and mental, and the down-to-earth-ness of her love for her daughters and the life of her family. This would be an invaluable book for a young singer, but just as much fun to read as a regular opera-goer, or even just as someone who would like to know what all the fuss is about.
The first book in my Women’s Prize longlist reading was Kit de Waal’s The Trick to Time; it’s also the first of de Waal’s books that I’ve read, having missed My Name Is Leon. Having no idea what to expect, it’s nice to be able to report that I enjoyed it very much. Partly set in 1970s Birmingham, and partly set in the present day, it follows the love story of Mona and William, two Irish migrants to England. After their marriage, Mona falls pregnant quickly, and the future seems bright – until tragedy strikes. In the present-day storyline, Mona is living in a small seaside village, making dolls and providing an initially unspecified service for bereaved mothers, while also fielding the attentions of Karl, a mysteriously aristocratic European living in town, and maintaining a curious relationship with a man known only as the carpenter, who provides the raw material for her dolls. The way that de Waal interweaves the two timelines, and slowly reveals the relevance of Mona’s past life to her present, is masterful: every revelation is perfectly timed, the prose is always completely controlled. Particularly impressive is de Waal’s ability to unflinchingly draw out the reader’s emotional engagement. Karl, in particular, seemed too good to be true, and when the truth about his circumstances becomes clear, it is in a scene so excruciating and yet so convincing, so alive with shame, that I read it with heart pounding. The book should probably come with a content warning, if only because the nature of the tragedy that strikes Mona and William’s marriage is potentially triggering. So far, though, the Women’s Prize longlist is off to a flying start.
The Parentations has received the same treatment as The Wicked Cometh – pretty cover, lots of accolades – and unfortunately it suffers from similar problems. The story, which concerns an Icelandic spring whose waters convey eternal life, and the attempt to protect a child from evil Danes who would kill him in their efforts to discover the secrets of immortality, is a good one, reminiscent of a grownup Tuck Everlasting. But it is, first of all, too long. This is not a structural problem, but a question of paragraphs having been allowed to remain in the manuscript that are not pulling their weight, or indeed any weight. Despite being over 400 pages, I read it in two days, because so much of it is not actually advancing anything that it can be skimmed. Secondly, and perhaps in part because of its length, there are some odd gaps in logic and characterisation. We learn nothing about the Danish family that is supposedly so evil: they are straw man villains, and although the book spends time in nearly every major character’s head, we never see through their eyes or even get a particularly strong sense of their motivation. Equally opaque is the novel’s real villain, Clovis Fowler, who descends swiftly into oversexed femme-fatality and never recovers. (We’re meant to believe that she’s a perfectly poised and flawless criminal mind, but some of the decisions that she makes seem wasteful and gratuitous, neither one of which bespeaks true ice-cool evil.) Is it a page-turner? Absolutely. Is it, as its publisher has said in the Bookseller, some of the most extraordinary literary prose encountered in a thirty-year career? If so, that publisher hasn’t been reading widely enough.
Oh, man. I so badly wanted House of Beauty, by Melba Escobar, to be good. A crime novel revolving around a Bogotá beauty salon, featuring the murder of a schoolgirl and a coverup by corrupt officials involved in massive healthcare fraud? The idea of a salon as a place where women go to tell each other things and feel safe, where the world of men cannot—for a brief while—intrude? Yes please. And Fourth Estate is publishing it, so I got a NetGalley proof, trusting. I was wrong to trust.
Part of the problem—and I don’t speak Spanish, but I understand a little—is, I think, the translation. Dialogue sounds stilted, motivation is explained with cartoonish specificity. Worst of all, it’s just confusing. The book is being told from the perspective of two women, Claire and Lucía, who are upper-middle-class Bogotáns, after the events have already played out; but there’s nothing to mark their points of view apart, so I was frequently startled by hearing Claire apparently refer to herself, then realise that Lucía was now speaking. We also get third-person chapters from the perspective of Karen, a beautician at the eponymous salon; from Sabrina Guzmán, the girl who dies; and from Sabrina’s mother, Consuelo. But none of them really move us towards an understanding of the crime: we arrive at that understanding only because we get to see into everyone’s heads, which characters in the book cannot do, so their deductions are unearned. The ending, meanwhile, had me staring at my phone in baffled rage, wanting to throw the thing against a wall—not because it’s incomplete, but because it suddenly partakes of the grossest stereotype. I think this is meant to make us feel differently about one of the narrators—which it sure did—but again, it felt unearned. In between the disorienting points of view and the leaps in plot, there are some interesting and upsetting things being said in House of Beauty about contemporary Colombian society, and the place of women (especially dark-skinned women) within it, but there’s just too much getting in the reader’s way.
Thoughts on this week’s reading: A great start, a disappointing end. I’m glad to have started the Women’s Prize reading and am now on my next book for that project, Nicola Barker’s H(A)PPY.
** spoilers follow** Look at that cover, eh. That’s pretty much what London’s looked like for the past week or so, although it hadn’t started snowing when I picked up The Secret Agent. It’s subtitled “A Simple Story”, which I think is some sort of bleak sarcasm on Conrad’s part, since much of the plot revolves around a young man whom we would now refer to as having learning difficulties. This is Stevie, the brother of Winnie Verloc, a young woman who is married to Mr. Adolf (yes, really) Verloc, a dealer in pornography and also a closet anarchist who has been employed by the Russian Embassy in London as an agent provocateur for thirteen years. The novel opens as Verloc’s handlers inform him that he’s been sleeping on the job, and that they wish him to precipitate some sort of public scare, so that the British government will be more likely to support Imperial Russia’s moves towards authoritarianism. The plan is to blow up the Royal Observatory at Greenwich (an attack on the prime meridian! On time itself! What could be more disturbing?) but things go awry and poor Stevie is killed.
The cunning trick of the novel is in the way its focus pivots from Adolf Verloc, whom we think is going to be the protagonist of the piece, to Mrs. Verloc, whose tragedy it turns out to be. Realising that her marriage, which was contracted almost entirely in order to provide Stevie with a safety net in the event of her mother’s death, was actually the instrument of Stevie’s destruction, Winnie murders her husband and then, it is heavily implied, leaps from a cross-Channel ferry to her own death. I’m not wholly convinced by the way that Conrad effects this shift of focus; it works, but it seems very sudden, and the entire novel is profoundly nihilistic in a way that makes one wonder why he thought he was writing it. (An Author’s Preface is included; clearly Conrad came under fire for the supposed immorality of the story, and felt the need to defend his choice. He makes it clear that he didn’t set out to offend, but he doesn’t entirely explain why he thought the story worth telling in the first place.) The prose is quite dense, and requires focus, which will put some readers off, but in its mercilessness, The Secret Agent is not unlike The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, and fans of early Le Carre would benefit from reading it.
Having been in a bit of a reading funk since the previous week, and having expended considerable mental energy in elbowing my way through The Secret Agent, I picked up something completely different: Happiness For Humans, by P.Z. Reizin. It is essentially a rom-com with the part of the matchmaking friend played by two AIs, or rather “machine intelligences”. Jen’s job is to teach one of them, an AI called Aiden; he’s super-efficient but needs help learning how to behave like a human, so Jen spends every day talking to him about books and movies, watching the news with him, expanding his conversational and cultural repertoire. Unbeknownst to her, Aiden has escaped from his “twelve metal cabinets in Shoreditch” onto the Internet, and can now roam at will. In this way, he discovers that she’s broken up with her boyfriend and is sad; he runs the numbers and decides to find her a new man. There’s more to the story, involving another escaped AI, Aisling, and a malevolent one, Sinai, but suffice to say that hijinks, missed connections, and true love with a divorced ex-adman named Tom ensue.
There are issues with Happiness For Humans: it doesn’t manage to totally avoid some gender-reductionism with regards to characterisation, the evil AI is fairly cliched and gets a deeply unsatisfactory (and somewhat disturbing) ending, and Reizin is suprisingly patronising about a) anyone under thirty, and b) computer programmers. But it completely snapped me out of my reading slump: it’s funny and charming, and although there’s what film rating boards would call “mild peril”, we’re never in much doubt that our hero(es) and heroine(s) will prevail. A warm bath book in the dying days of February.
All the Perverse Angels is a book I feel quite personally about, because I inititally came across it about two years ago, when it was still being crowdfunded on Unbound. At the time I was skint, and couldn’t support it financially—but now that it’s been published, I can support it by selling the hell out of it. A dual-timeframe narrative is one of those techniques that either works brilliantly, or fails miserably; Marr manages hers very well, by keeping her point of view characters to two, and by not belabouring the parallels between her present-day protagonist (Anna, a curator recently released from a psychiatric hospital after a breakdown precipitated by her female partner’s infidelity with a man) and her past one (Penelope, a first-year Oxford undergraduate in 1887—when female students were just starting to be accepted—has an unfortunate affair with the husband of a don at her college, and discovers true love, and disaster, with a fellow student). All the Perverse Angels isn’t afraid to reflect its difficult themes in its style; Anna’s narration is often just a tiny bit disorienting, as her mental associations run riot, leading her to conflate memories of childhood and the recent past with her present experiences. Marr is also an excellent describer: one of my favourite subgenres of fiction is “books about other art forms”, and the way she writes about paintings had me reaching for my laptop at least once a chapter to see for myself. (Note: Cornelius van Haarlem’s 1588 painting Two Followers of Cadmus Devoured By A Dragon is absolutely horrible enough to cause a panic attack, as it does in the book.) Anyone who loves art and art history, or who is interested in fictional treatments of marriage, fidelity and relationships, should read this.
Thoughts on this week’s reading: Three books instead of four in a week represents the slump’s effects, though I’m well out of that. Both Reizin’s and Marr’s books are very new on the market—I’m thrilled to be able to promote them even more assiduously—and I’m equally pleased to have managed a classic that had escaped me til now.
The week opened with two historical novels, one written some time ago, one being released next month. Towers in the Mist by Elizabeth Goudge is one of her adult novels; she wrote other books, for children, including Linnets and Valerians and The Little White Horse, both of which I loved as a kid. Towers in the Mist is set in Elizabethan Oxford and follows (more or less) a poor but very promising scholar called Faithful Crocker, who gets himself to Oxford in the hope of acquiring learning. He’s quickly adopted by the family of Canon Leigh of Christ Church, and becomes the servitor of the eldest Leigh son, Giles, also studying at Christ Church. Over the course of a year, the fortunes of Faithful and the Leighs rise and fall. There is a love story (there are two, actually), but two things really make the book: its stunningly vivid, detailed, loving descriptions of Oxford city and the surrounding countryside, and its funny, chatty, interesting asides about the real-life historical figures that people its pages. (The book features not only a young Walter Raleigh but a clever, thoughtful Philip Sidney, and Elizabeth I, amongst many other characters whose lives are a matter of record.) Goudge, of course, propagates a mid-twentieth-century view of Tudor England, one that holds up Good Queen Bess and the return of religious moderatism and Raleigh’s patriotic imperial yearnings as models of behaviour. But her characters are vivacious and irresistible, and the whole book comprises a love letter to Oxford that is more charming than I can say. She also handles religion rather well, I think; the practice and accoutrements of Christianity—prayers, relics and so on—are omnipresent in her characters’ lives in a way that feels entirely faithful to the period, probably because they were very present in her own life, too.
The second historical novel I read was distinctly harder to get a handle on, which feels, in its own way, appropriate: Samantha Harvey’s The Western Wind is set a hundred and fifty years before Towers in the Mist, and the boisterous wonder of the Renaissance has not yet settled on England. Nor are we in such an exalted locale as Oxford. Instead, Harvey puts us down in Oakham, a small and isolated village in Somerset (travellers who get lost in the area tend to end up in Wales). Oakham is dying: it has a river, but lacks a bridge, and therefore a port or wharf, and therefore trade. The local lord, Townshend, is under the deluded belief that cheese will make Oakham’s fortune, though there is no market for the products (anyone with a cow can make cheese, so why pay your neighbours for it?) Townshend has been losing his land, slowly but steadily, to Thomas Newman—an incomer to the area, but, we’re given to understand, a good man. As the book opens, Newman has drowned in the river, and the village priest, John Reve, is under pressure from the rural dean to find his killer.
The Western Wind is complicated in a way that Towers in the Mist is not. Those allegorical names, for instance: Townshend (town’s end), Newman (…come on), Reve (reeve; an archaic position in local government that involved law enforcement duties). Then there’s Reve himself, a man curiously slow to offer the things a priest must offer in fifteenth-century England, pre-eminently earthly judgment. Reve is passive, and not especially convinced of the sinfulness of his flock, and—relatedly—not especially convinced of his fitness to serve as their channel to God, though he never quite admits his doubts to himself. Then there is the sub-theme about technology and development; about building a bridge, and the money it’ll take to do it; about stewarding your land, and what that involves; about stewarding a people, and how ill-equipped those designated as leaders can be. It’s a very slow-rolling book, like a river after a flood but before the waters have gone back down, with a lot of unobvious things churning about in its depths. The more I think about it, the happier I’d be to see it on the Women’s Prize longlist.
There was then a fiction hiatus while I finished The Digital Critic, which I am meant to be reviewing for Litro. I will be pretty brief about it here (although Litro nicely says I can reproduce whatever I write for them on my own site). The book is a collection of essays—more or less; some are adapted versions of talks given elsewhere, like a Will Self lecture delivered at Brunel University—on the topic of the subtitle: literary culture online. A wide selection of subthemes is represented, from literary translators’ use of the Internet (in an essay that foregrounds the online journal Asymptote and discusses how its editorial team works to place translation further to the front of readers’ brains), to working “for exposure” in the age of moribund print media, to a writer’s need for isolation and how that works when social media demands constant accessibility. My favourite, from a standpoint of professional usefulness, is an essay on publishers and how they function as the very first “critics” of a text, in the sense that the choices they make about a book—editorial but also, very significantly, in terms of marketing and cover design—create a foundational interpretation of that book that every other reader and critic builds on. Of particular interest to bloggers are the several essays in the collection interested in the collapsing distinctions between “professional” or “elite” critics, and the criticism of the general public on forums like Goodreads, Amazon, and, of course, sites like this one. I would have appreciated an acknowledgement that the ability to participate in “professional” literary culture is in large part reliant on your ability to pay your rent whether there’s money coming in regularly or not, and that, therefore, the rise of “amateur” online literary critics might be a) representative of the fact that this is an increasingly difficult proposition, and b) a potentially fertile source of brilliant criticism that comes from people who happen not to be able to afford to play the game. Still, this is a collection of essays that I would like every bookseller, book blogger, book reviewer, arts page editor, and minister for the arts to read: containing such varied points of view, with consistently solid writing and argumentation, it’s illuminating at every turn.
Finally, to Women by Chloe Caldwell, out on the 8th of March from 4th Estate. 4th Estate tends to be incredibly trustworthy, and I have to say that this short novel—a novella, really—is written with the same linguistic surefootedness and attention to emotional detail that one expects from an author published by the same house that published Reservoir 13. Our unnamed narrator is a woman in her mid- to late twenties who moves to an unnamed city (probably LA or SF; it’s West Coast and big) and falls in love, quite unprecedentedly in her experience, with a woman. Finn is nineteen years older than our narrator, a virtually even mix of butch and femme, and has a long-term girlfriend. Despite that, the two women embark on an affair that leaves them both hollowed out. Caldwell evokes the childishness of bad decision-making, emotional manipulation, and jealousy with almost disturbing ease, and her descriptions of being lonely and unmoored by a solid friendship group or regular work hours will prompt nods of recognition too. My main issue with Women is probably signposted by the presence of that Lena Dunham quotation on the front: it feels very much like a tourist-lesbian novel in a way that codifies structures of privilege without examining them particularly hard. One reviewer on Goodreads writes that she feels uncomfortable with the narrator, a white woman, acquiring self-knowledge by way of Finn, a woman of colour. I didn’t pick up on any details that actually confirmed Finn’s non-whiteness to me, but then I wasn’t keeping an eye out for them; and anyway, it seems sufficiently worrisome that the focus of the novel is on a woman who doesn’t seem to self-identify as a lesbian at all, acquiring self-knowledge by way of a woman who has always identified as a lesbian and who has a very great deal to lose by their relationship. That doesn’t necessarily make Women a worse book, but it does, once again, raise the question of responsible storytelling, and where the line falls between representation and exploitation.
Thoughts on this week’s reading: A heavy historical and religious focus followed by a quite alarming slump: after Wednesday, I found it really difficult to get excited about reading anything. Overstimulation is probably the issue. Everything seems too loud, too bright, too exhausting.
One of the fun things about my job is that, as part of the reading consultation that precedes our bespoke book subscription service, a lot of people tell me what their favourite book is. The Secret History turns up frequently. (If you’re interested, so do Sapiens, All the Light We Cannot See, and the works of Jane Austen, these last usually referred to in aggregate as opposed to individually.) Honestly, who can blame anyone for loving The Secret History? Tartt’s signature combination—an almost obsessive accretion of physical and emotional detail, and the distinct intellectual coolness of her phrasing—is seductive and very effective; never mind that she’s not quite managed to replicate it in the years and books since. Perhaps that’s because her setting, in this first outing, is the perfect backdrop for that kind of style: her overanalysing, overprivileged, overeducated New England college kids, with their total inability to recognise their self-centeredness and the monstrosity of what they eventually do in the name of intellectual curiosity. It is almost an anti-intellectual book, in the sense that it shows you so very clearly how easy and how fatal it is to lose sight of consensus reality when you live much of your life in your head. Two things stick out enormously on rereading: one, the extent to which Tana French’s The Likeness is an homage to this book (it’s not exactly hard to notice the parallels, but a reread brings it all back: Henry and Daniel are basically the same character), and two, the pacing issues that somewhat marred The Goldfinch are evident here, too, in utero as it were. The Secret History is a brilliantly plotted book, but it is extremely luxurious, almost languid, in its transitions. In a way that’s what makes it so phenomenal: it manages to be a thriller and a page-turner while looking like exactly the opposite. But with the benefit of hindsight, you can trace that languidness right through to the occasional bagginess of Tartt’s later work.
The Wanderers is actually the second book of a trilogy, but you don’t need to have read the first to enjoy Tim Pears’s writing, or to become fully immersed in the world he recreates. This volume is set in Devon and Cornwall in 1913, as Leo Sercombe is cast out of his home on the Prideaux estate in Devon for some crime which remains unspecified. (This is where having read book one, The Horseman, might be handy, but as the plot of The Wanderers doesn’t concern itself overly with what happened in the past, I found it didn’t noticeably dim my understanding of the book.) Pears gives the reader two perspectives: Leo’s, as he journeys across the West Country, making his way slowly towards Penzance, and that of Lottie, Lord Prideaux’s daughter and Leo’s former playmate. Leo’s sections read like slow-motion picaresque in a minor key, with awe and respect at the beauty of the natural world taking the place that humour and the grotesque usually occupy in that genre. He spends time with “gypsies” (Romany travelers), Cornish tin miners, and a vagabond named Rufus who served in the Second Boer War. Lottie’s story, meanwhile, follows a Bildungsroman arc, as her father remarries and Lottie fights to pursue an intellectual fascination with anatomy and dissection. What saves this arc from being a tired “feisty-girl” trope is Pears’s ability to express, sensitively and subtly, Lottie’s deep grief at Leo’s disappearance, and her isolation from her father and from any friends her own age. His writing, both about nature and about the complexities of the human heart, is delicate and precise and always slightly oblique; he is the master of presenting a situation or a piece of dialogue without comment, and letting the reader conclude what she will. I’m shocked that I haven’t read his work before now.
Jamie Quatro’s debut novel, Fire Sermon, does something that I have never seen in a mainstream contemporary novel: it introduces an objective moral dimension to a fairly standard emotional dilemma. In other words, Quatro’s protagonist Maggie believes strongly and passionately in God, and also enters into an emotional affair (which, don’t you worry, becomes very physical) with a fellow writer, James. What saves this book from being another novel about sad white writers in bad marriages (thanks to Roxane Gay for that spot-on category) is precisely the presence of God in it. It’s not a novel that requires its reader to believe in God; it does require its reader to believe that other people can believe in God – intelligent, intellectual people – sincerely and without irony. Quatro’s adulterous lovers are drawn to each other first for the quality of one another’s minds: if your idea of flirtation is verbal sparring about metaphysical poetry and the Western apophatic tradition, then you’re going to find Fire Sermon very sexy. This also allows for a novel where adultery actually matters. The stakes are much higher, and the agony more pronounced, here than they strictly need to be; these people suffer not because society makes them, but because they want to hold themselves to a standard of behaviour and feeling that is incompatible with most of the other things that they want. That kind of suffering, the kind you enter with open eyes, has a very different quality to the more socially-ordained kind; you are not a victim of it in the same way. Faith is a hard habit to shake, and some people are built for it; consider Flannery O’Connor’s “Christ-haunted” South. In addition to this deep sense of conviction, Fire Sermon is also richly allusive (C.S. Lewis! T.S. Eliot! Jane Gardam! Maggie Nelson! Sharon Olds!) I want more books about Christians like this: confused, fucked-up, questioning, questing.
Thoughts on this week’s reading: It’s nice to have read a book this week that’s just come out (as opposed to one that’ll be out next month), so that I can recommend it immediately. Reading ahead of release dates has its advantages and its disadvantages.
The House of Impossible Beauties, by Joseph Cassara, is a gorgeous book, set in the drag queen ball scene of New York, from the late ’70s to the early ’90s. Angel, our main character, becomes the mother of the House of Xtravaganza, the first house for aspiring Puerto Rican queens (a drag queen house is something like a Formula 1 team, but a thousand times more fabulous, and its members relate to each other like a family). Angel is joined by sassy and beautiful Venus (born Thomas); shy banjee boy Daniel; and skilled seamstress and lost boy Juanito. There’s also Dorian, an even older queen who serves as a mentor and cultural guardian. Cassara’s prose is so evocative; he effortlessly summons the smells and sounds and sights of a world most of his readers will know nothing of—the piers where kings, queens and johns cruise and mingle; Times Square strip joints; bars on Christopher Street—and his dialogue is perfect, witty and human and liberally sprinkled with Spanglish. It’s a tragic book, as one set amongst the gay and trans community during those decades must be: many sisters fall, to the virus or to illegal drugs or to malevolent strangers. It’s also defiantly, spectacularly beautiful, constantly reaffirming the value of the family you choose for yourself. Fans of A Little Life, RENT, and Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City will all find something to love here.
And then for something completely different: Graham Greene’s novel The Power and the Glory. The thing that always surprises me with Greene is how humane he is; for some reason I expect his Catholicism to be curdled and grotesque, like Evelyn Waugh’s, but it always turns out gentle and pitying. This novel follows an unnamed “whisky priest”, an ordained man on the run from the authorities in a Mexican state where Catholicism and the priesthood have been outlawed. The priest’s fugitive condition is set against that of Padre José, who has succumbed to the government’s demand that ordained men enter marriage. José is constantly shamed and belittled by children and by his new wife (formerly his housekeeper); he is a man who has lost his dignity, his sense of purpose, almost his humanity; Greene portrays him as you might a confused dog. The whisky priest, meanwhile, is a weak man and a bad Catholic, but in his final acts, in his attempts to encourage kindness and love, he redeems himself. Greene is also spectacularly good at suggesting interiority while maintaining firm boundaries between the reader and his characters; we always feel we’re standing somewhat outside of the whisky priest, watching him do things or have things done to him, but as we continue to observe him, our understanding of him grows. It would make a very interesting companion read to Shusaku Endo’s Silence (which I’m afraid I’ve only seen the film of).
The cover of The Wicked Cometh, Laura Carlin’s debut novel, should perhaps have made me wary; anything that’s getting the Sarah Perry/Jessie Burton design treatment is something on which the publisher wants to make the big bucks, and making the big bucks is not always commensurate with flawless prose and editing. The Wicked Cometh begins with about a hundred pages of somewhat overwrought scene-setting, in which we meet young Hester White, the orphaned daughter of a clergyman who now lives with her father’s former gardener Jacob and his wife Meg in a foul slum in London’s Whitechapel. Rumours abound of disappearances: ordinarily steady men, women and children are vanishing, never to be seen again. When Hester is involved in an accident with a carriage, and invited to recuperate (and work as a maid) at the country house of the man who caused the damage, she begins to unravel a horrifying conspiracy. The writing tends to teeter back and forth between melodrama and the kind of flattening present tense that constantly tells a reader how to feel, which hampers attempts to engage with the story. But if you can get past the initial pages and reach the point at which Hester returns to London with her friend and beloved, Rebekah Brock, you’ll make it to the end. The conspiracy is really rather fiendish, if somewhat over-complicated, and I liked that Carlin develops a love story between two women in the nineteenth century as though there’s nothing out of the ordinary about it (which, in fact, there isn’t.)
A little book to end the week with: I wasn’t sure whether this really counted, but it has its own ISBN, so why not. It’s Calm, one of the Vintage Mini books that comprise excerpts from an author’s larger work on a particular theme. Calm is a 95-page chunk from Tim Parks’s book Teach Us To Sit Still, about his experiences with Vipassana Buddhist meditation, chronic pain, and spirituality. Parks was raised in a deeply religious household (his father was an Anglican priest), from which he seems to have fled both physically and mentally at the earliest possible opportunity; faith is obviously a deeply vexed issue for him. He writes pitilessly, with great wit and self-deprecation, about his attempts to be more mindful, to meditate better, and about the depths of his despair when a meditation retreat seems to promise nothing but more physical pain and suffering. When, at last (and very briefly) the meditation does work, he writes of his body’s feeling of liberation and release with an illumination and a joy that is reminiscent of mystics like Margery Kempe—and also acknowledges how fleeting such joy must be (his return to discomfort is “liturgy after revelation”). I’d very much like to read Teach Us To Sit Still in its entirety now, and perhaps try to pick up my own meditation or yoga practice again.
Thoughts on this week’s reading: A hell of a lot of purple covers and spirituality. Is the subconscious really responsible for things like that?
There is no need for Superlatives in December, I hear you say; didn’t we deal with all that when we did the end-of-year roundup? The answer is nope, we did not! In fact, I’ve barely mentioned any of my December reads on this blog, which is a shame, because almost all of them were great. There were ten of them, a record monthly low for 2017. For some reason I always seem to read less during the holidays, probably because I’m busy being guilted into spending quality time with my family instead.
most utterly charming: A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles. Look, I will confess that I was really cynical about this one. A decades-spanning novel focusing on a Russian aristocrat placed under house arrest by the Bolsheviks and forced to live in a swanky hotel forever? <eyeroll> But I was very wrong. It’s about writing poetry and drinking champagne, sure. But it’s also about creating order, and structure, and meaning, in environments where such things are discouraged. It’s about adapting to your circumstances, and the importance of bending the rules a little, and the strength of the human mind. It deserves every accolade it’s received. Go read it right now.
best historical fiction: Walking Wounded by Sheila Llewellyn, set in a psychiatric hospital after WWI. Llewellyn has worked with men suffering from PTSD and her novel deals with the birth of the psychological techniques now used to treat the condition: group therapy and CBT. It’s not dissimilar to Pat Barker’s Regeneration—the creation of art plays a major role in rehabilitating some of the men, just as poetry does for Barker’s characters.
most heart-achingly lovely: Five Rivers Met On a Wooded Plain, Barney Norris’s first novel, about five people who are brought together one day by a traffic accident in Salisbury. Norris is the heir to Jon McGregor’s semi-cinematic approach to novel writing. Rita, the flower seller-cum-drug-dealer whose voice starts the book off, is brilliantly drawn, though I think Alison, an army wife writing a diary to the husband on tour whom she desperately misses, is the most acutely observed. The whole thing is gorgeously done.
the Annual Winter Dickens: The Old Curiosity Shop. It’s not, I’m afraid, in the first tier of Dickens’s work (for what it’s worth: Bleak House, Great Expectations, Our Mutual Friend). The grotesquerie is too much, the minor characters are unmemorable ciphers (who can tell me who Abel Garland is?) and the plot is stretched wildly out of shape; near the end, events somehow feel both rushed and plodding. But the diminutive villain, Daniel Quilp, is why this book lives. He’s disturbingly vivid—the threat that he poses has more than a tinge of the sexual, in a way that’s surprisingly overt for Dickens—and he’s totally unforgettable.
most harrowing: White Chrysanthemum, by Mary Lynn Bracht. Dealing with two neglected subjects—the haenyeo or female divers of Korea’s Jeju Island, and the experiences of “comfort women” enslaved for sex by the Japanese army during WWII—it’s without doubt an important piece of historical fiction. It will probably be read more for its content than for its style; Bracht’s prose is best described as serviceable. (It’s not bad; it’s just not anything else, either.) Still, I found myself really invested in the story of sisters Hana and Emi, and rooting for both to survive and thrive.
most like inside baseball: Mystery and Manners, Flannery O’Connor’s collection of essays, lectures and “occasional prose”. It’s a lot of fun if you’ve read her work (and is there any style to beat the slightly self-conscious mid-century Anglo-American essay style? [well, yeah]), but the collection suffers from repetitiveness if read straight through. You do get a good sense of O’Connor’s obsessiveness, and sense of humour, as a writer and a person, though.
most exciting debut: The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock, by Imogen Hermes Gowar. I straight up loved this. Jonah Hancock is a staid merchant in Georgian London, whose most reliable captain has just sold his entire ship for what he says is a mermaid. Aghast, but needing to recoup his losses, Hancock exhibits the mermaid in a public house, to great acclaim. Its success leads him to the courtesan Angelica Neal, with whom he begins to fall in love… To say more would be to give the whole game away, but here’s a recommendation: anyone who loved Golden Hill or The Essex Serpent will adore this. It’s got spectacularly fluid writing with just the right level of period detail, perfect comic touches, and an atmosphere of total sumptuousness.
best book to read on the sofa on Christmas Eve: An English Murder, by Cyril Hare. A pitch-perfect self-aware reincarnation of the Golden Age murder mystery—complete with enigmatic butler, terminally ill aristocrat, caddish young heir, beautiful ingenue, meddling middle-class woman, country house, white-out, communications breakdown, and cyanide. Hare also deals with the social effects of the English fascist movement after the end of WWII, which feels extremely topical indeed. A real page-turner and very elegantly written too.
warm bath book: At Home In Mitford, by Jan Karon. My mum used to read these books when I was small and my grandparents have the whole series; they’re set in a small town in North Carolina and revolve around the local Episcopalian priest, Father Tim Kavanagh. Karon does actually acknowledge social issues like lack of welfare services, rural substance abuse and addiction, child poverty, and so on, though nothing in Mitford is ever what you might call gritty. Everyone reads their Bible and helps their neighbour, and no one ever swears. It’s all very Southern and very soothing.
best book to read on the sofa on Boxing Day: A Maigret Christmas, a collection of two novellas (novelettes? They’re quite short) and a short story by Georges Simenon. In the title story, Maigret is importuned into solving the mystery of who broke into his neighbour’s flat dressed in white and red; in the second, a socially awkward police phone operator discovers a pattern in seemingly random crimes all over Paris; in the third, which isn’t really a crime story at all, a prostitute decides to do a favour for a hopelessly naive country girl on Christmas Eve. The second and third are, I think, better stories—they certainly hold your attention more—though perhaps that’s because Maigret was already a well established character when Simenon wrote the first story. In any case, I’ll try a full-length Maigret novel before making up my mind.
what’s next: Two books into 2018 already, and with a goal of reading 190 books this year (to improve on 2017’s tally of 181), I’m having to choose between three proofs of soon-to-be-released novels: Turning For Home, Barney Norris’s second novel, about the legacy of the Troubles; The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch, about which I’ve already heard amazing things; and The Devil’s Highway by Gregory Norminton, set in England at three different points in history. Can anyone recommend one over the others?
This year, so far, I’ve read 175 books. That’s a lot to choose from, but I’ve managed to narrow down my top choices for the year to eleven. These are THE books: the ones I can’t stop thinking about, have been recommending for months, and still get something new from, every time I reconsider them. There were many, many others that I loved and thought were brilliant (they’re listed at the bottom of this post). Some titles have been left off on the grounds of ubiquity: Lincoln in the Bardo, The Underground Railroad and The Power were all incredible books which I adored, but they don’t exactly need any more attention or admiration. These eleven are my absolute hands-down all-stars, and some of them, I think, deserve a bit more love. So here they are.
For A Little While, by Rick Bass. Bass is criminally unknown in this country. He writes the most beautiful, most complete short stories I’ve ever seen: each one is like a novel, feeling full with incident and characterisation and yet never going on for too long. His geography is the American West and Midwest, but unlike other writers of whom he reminds me (Flannery O’Connor, Cormac McCarthy) he is unfailingly humane to his characters. Reading him is an absolute treat. (short review)
2. Days Without End, by Sebastian Barry. Speaking of McCarthy, Barry’s novel reminded me of a gay-er, more tender and humane and frankly normal, riff on Blood Meridian. Barry too writes about the violence visited upon Native Americans by whites, but he does so in the context of the US Civil War and as part of the love story between his two male protagonists, Thomas McNulty and John Cole. His sentences are stunning, and he absolutely nails the dynamic of silent, undemonstrative love between men.
3. Sand, by Wolfgang Herrndorf. My initial impression of this stands: it’s like a Graham Greene novel and an Ian Fleming novel had a baby, then left the baby to be raised by the Coen Brothers. Dark, funny, nihilistic and magnificently disdainful of narrative convention, it’s a spy novel set in 1970s Morocco that manages to completely baffle you half a dozen times. The ending is unforgettable. (full review)
4. Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by Madeleine Thien. Of all the books I read this year, this is one of the most sophisticated. Juggling the stories of several young Chinese musicians at Shanghai Conservatory during the Cultural Revolution, it manages to be an overview of twentieth-century Chinese history, a family saga, and an examination of the ethics of making art under tyranny, without ever losing nuances of characterisation. Good though The Power is, this was my favourite to win the Baileys Prize. (short review)
5. The Fact of a Body, by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich. This is the single book that I wish I had pushed on more people this year. It’s a hard sell, because it is about Marzano-Lesnevich’s investigation of the case of Ricky Langley, who is in prison for molesting and murdering a six-year-old boy. She interweaves his story with her own—including her childhood molestation by her grandfather—and creates a compelling, frightening, beautiful book out of it, tackling the meanings of innocence, of justice and of redemption. I think it is utterly stunning.
6. Reservoir 13, by Jon McGregor. Everyone has been talking about this book. No prize jury has yet seen fit to reward it, which is bonkers; it’s a book with no narrator, which ignores the conventions of the missing-girl genre as well as those of traditional nature writing, resulting in an extraordinarily compelling jigsaw of life in a rural village shaken by tragedy over the course of thirteen years. It takes almost inconceivable skill to write such a thing, and I urge you to pick it up if you haven’t already. (full review)
7. The Time Of Our Singing, by Richard Powers. This book is absolutely astonishing. Its protagonists are mixed-race (African-American-Jewish) brothers Jonah and Joseph, a concert pianist and an operatic tenor, but it is so much more than an insider’s classical music novel; it is ambitious enough to take on twentieth-century American history, inter-racial marriage, deep questions of belonging and vocation and family and home, and Powers simply writes so intelligently and thoughtfully. (It will also give you a whole Spotify playlist of stuff to listen to, if that’s your jam.) It is now on my shelf of Books To Save From Fire. Can’t say better than that.
8. It, by Stephen King. Rarely, if ever, have I been so pleasantly surprised by a book. King’s exploration of small-town horror and mundane evil is over a thousand pages long, but, reader, they will fly by, I promise you. His sexual politics are awkward and dated, but you can tell he was trying, and I don’t think I’ve ever encountered another author who—at his best—is so damn readable while still keeping rhythm and flow in his prose. Make time for this book. (full review)
9. Borne, by Jeff VanderMeer. The sci-fi book I have been recommending to everyone who doesn’t like sci-fi. Set in an industrially ravaged future city menaced by an enormous flying bear (go with it), it tells the story of scavenger Rachel, who lives with her partner Wick in an abandoned tower block, and who finds a small lump of biotech one day on her searches. She takes it home and names it Borne, and quickly finds that the extent of Borne’s abilities—and his true nature—are way beyond her expectations. It’s a lot of things rolled into one: a suspense thriller, a mother-and-child story, a tale of friendship, a sort of romance. VanderMeer’s imagination, and ability to translate his ideas into strong visuals through prose, is peerless.
10. The Diary of a Bookseller, by Shaun Bythell. In the same way, I imagine, as the medical profession thanks its various divinities for Theodore Dalrymple, Henry Marsh, and Adam Kay, so are booksellers offering orisons for the work of Shaun Bythell. At last, someone who is lifting the curtain on the ridiculous/rude/implausible/plain stupid things, customers, and situations that booksellers deal with daily. And you don’t have to be in the industry to appreciate the man’s witty misanthropy. We keep selling out of this in the bookshop, sometimes within the same day of a fresh delivery.
11. Dodgers, by Bill Beverly. This is one of those books that you almost cannot talk about, because to do so is to disturb the complex feelings of awe and sorrow and emptiness and fullness that settle, all at the same time, upon you once you finish it. It is indisputably a crime novel, but oh it is so much more. East, our protagonist, is a fifteen-year-old lookout at an LA crack house. He fucks up, and is given a chance to redeem himself: take a roadtrip with some other fuck-ups, and his preternaturally brutal younger brother Ty, to assassinate a federal judge in Wisconsin. There is so much brilliant thinking and writing in this, about brothers and violence and despair and choosing the kind of man you wish to be. It deserves to be a classic.
Other books that were incredible: Every one of these titles is something I would urge you to read as soon as you can. Run, don’t walk. Gnomon, by Nick Harkaway: viciously funny, insanely clever, on the potential consquences of a surveillance society. Sing Unburied Sing, by Jesmyn Ward: a stunning road trip novel; Ward is a modern William Faulkner. A Gentleman In Moscow, by Amor Towles: charming and witty, without ever losing intellectual complexity and nuance. Five Rivers Met On A Wooded Plain, by Barney Norris: if you loved Reservoir 13, this is your next stop; set in Salisbury and utterly breathtaking. English Animals, by Laura Kaye: beat Ali Smith to being the Most Timely Brexit Novel, and also a beautifully written depiction of class/power imbalance and a lesbian relationship. A Field Guide to Reality, by Joanna Kavenna: the dreamiest, oddest Oxford novel ever, taking in thirteenth-century medieval theories of reality and contemporary metaphysics, and really set apart by fantastic illustrations. The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead: you know why. Black and British, by David Olusoga: my new favourite history book, dealing with the presence of free Africans in Britain long before the Empire Windrush. The Wardrobe Mistress, by Patrick McGrath: a compelling ghost story set in the freezing winter of 1947, in London’s seedily glamorous theatre world. 2084, ed. George Sandison: some of the best sci-fi of the year, in the best-edited short story collection of the year. My Absolute Darling, by Gabriel Tallent: brutal and stunning, a contemporary McCarthy mixed with Daniel Woodrell. Balancing Acts, by Nicholas Hytner: engaging commentary on plays and staging, as well as some fun name-dropping; worth reading for his analysis of Othello alone. Lincoln In the Bardo, by George Saunders: it really is the most heartbreaking and risk-taking book, very worth reading. Night Sky With Exit Wounds, by Ocean Vuong: my favourite poetry book of the year, lush meditations on sex and heritage and allegiance. The Power, by Naomi Alderman: reading it is a mental game-changer; you won’t think the same way again. Walkaway, by Cory Doctorow: an honest-to-God utopian novel, suggesting that the future might not suck if we work together and use tech productively. Like A Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun, by Sarah Ladipo Manyika: a novella about a sexy, cosmopolitan pensioner, the kind of older woman we should all aim to be.
And I have to stop there—I could go on. Have you read any of these? Have I convinced you to pick up any?