It, by Stephen King

We all float down here.

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This is by far the best cover ever designed for this book.

Warning: some spoilers ahead

I like to think that I’m relatively widely read – that I will, in the optimistic words of some of my customers, “read anything if it’s well-written” – but there are still some gaping voids in my reading, and one of them is pretty much the entire genre of horror fiction. Partly, maybe, this is because horror is a genre that hasn’t been rehabilitated in the way that science fiction and fantasy has. Even a dedicatedly snobbish reader of literary fiction will be able to find some crossover, in 2017, between their tastes and the speculative writing being produced. Horror isn’t quite there yet; I can’t think of analogous examples in that genre, apart from Let the Right One In, House of Leaves, and maybe The Loney (which might qualify more as literary Gothic), and I haven’t read any of those, let alone the classics and modern classics of the genre. So a Stephen King novel was very unknown terrain, and I approached it prepared for pretty much anything. What I wasn’t expecting was quite how addictive it (or, rather, It) would be, and how much this is a function of King’s frictionless writing. Here is an author who can write sentences that go down as smooth as cream, utterly without pretension, but without the stultifying samey-ness of a Dan Brown or a Paula Hawkins. It’s a much harder trick than it looks.

It flips back and forth between two time periods: 1958, when a group of seven schoolchildren in Derry, Maine first become friends, realise that the string of child murders in their town has malevolent supernatural causes, and band together to destroy the shape-shifting entity known as It; and 1985, twenty-seven years later, when It – not properly destroyed the first time – returns, and the children, now adults, have to return and get rid of It for good. I know very little about horror tropes, but I think the genre works best when the Big Bad is representative of real things, and the shape of this story reflects the real struggle that many (if not most) adults experience in trying to come to terms with whatever trauma shaped their childhoods. The children—who call themselves “the Losers’ Club”—are all social outcasts in one way or another: Eddie Kaspbrak is an asthmatic with an overbearing mother; Richie Tozier wears specs; Mike Hanlon is black, Stan Uris is Jewish, Bev Marsh is both desperately poor and regularly beaten by her father. Ben Hanscom, perhaps the most intelligent of the group, is morbidly obese, and Bill Denbrough, their charismatic leader even at the age of eleven, has a terrible stutter. They would all have been marked by these traumas alone; it’s these, King suggests, that bring them together in the first place, that make their challenge to It possible.

All of this interweaving of childhood trauma with adult reckoning is clever, but the book wouldn’t amount to much without the other half of the equation. The thing that’s killing Derry’s children is unequivocally supernatural (or, rather, extranatural; near the end of the book, several of the characters begin to think of objective reality as a stage set made of ropes and thin canvas, behind which endless other complex machinations are occurring). Bill Denbrough’s brother, George, is the first child to be killed in the 1958 timeline, and it’s through his eyes that we see It for the first time. It appears to him as a clown calling himself Pennywise and offering a bunch of balloons, and although it seems to George faintly odd that the clown is in the sewer, he’s drawn towards it anyway almost against his will. When his body is found, his right arm has been completely torn off. He’s three. As the Losers’ Club begins to form, it becomes clear that each child has already had a close encounter with It, but each describes It differently: It appears to take Its form from the private fears of its victims. Each instance is both clearly drawn from cheesy B-movies, and utterly fucking terrifying: a decomposing leper, a fish-man, a floating eye, a clown with a mouth full of razors, a werewolf, a flesh-eating bird, George Denbrough himself.

This quality leads to some of King’s best and smartest thematic work. I’ve already mentioned that the kids of the Losers’ Club are outcasts in a superficial sense, but several of them also experience wider traumas, and that too affects how they see It. As the book goes on, Eddie Kaspbrak begins to suspect that he’s not nearly as sickly as his mother is determined that he is, and the adult reader can see the sad, awful manipulation that Mrs. Kaspbrak tries to exercise: having lost her husband, she’s damned if she’ll ever lose Eddie to anything—not to childhood illness, but neither to a college education or a girlfriend or a wife or a family or his own life as an adult. At several points in the story, Eddie sees It take on his mother’s face. This works the other way round, too. Beverly Marsh’s father at one point beats her so badly that it’s clear he will kill her if not stopped; she recognises, even as she’s running for her life, that there is real evil present in her father, that It often works best simply by provoking or enabling the innate weakness or cruelty of an adult. Bill Denbrough’s parents, crushed by the loss of their youngest son, become incapable of speaking to each other or to their remaining child. (In one heartbreaking scene, Bill hears his mother crying at one end of the house, his father stifling sobs at the other, and wonders, “Why aren’t they crying together?”) During their 1958 confrontation with It, Bill becomes locked in a kind of metaphysical stand-off, during which he can feel himself moving both closer towards It and further away: closer to Its actual essence, further from being able to stand outside of It as a separate entity and talk to It. He recognises immediately why this puts him in danger—“to pass beyond communication,” he thinks, “is to pass beyond salvation”—and he recognises it because he has seen it happen in his parents’ house.

Historical interludes (supposedly written by Mike Hanlon, who remains in Derry to become the town librarian) suggest that the town has a long and statistically anomalous history of extreme violence coupled with the bystander effect: in one case from the early twentieth century, a woodsman massacres several other men in a public saloon with an axe, while the other tavern-goers continued to drink at the bar. The youngest of them, then a boy of eighteen, is in his nineties when Mike Hanlon interviews him, and his testimony suggests that a pervasive sense of not-my-business settled over the bar while the massacre occurred behind the drinkers. It’s extreme, but not, perhaps, that extreme—recall Kitty Genovese. (After the murderous woodsman is finished, and has wandered up and down the town’s main street for some time, he’s arrested. A lynch mob arrives at the jail; the deputies flee instantly, and the man is dragged out and hanged from a tree. It’s not a story about justice, even of the vigilante sort; it’s a story about bloodlust.) What King is getting at here is a sense of collective responsibility, of how essential that responsibility is to the development of human communities, and how constantly we must be on our guard—be brave, be true, stand—to maintain it. There is no suggestion of nostalgia or that people were more neighbourly in the past; indeed, one of the worst moments in the book is when an old man in 1958 watches a potential homicide unfolding before him, then simply folds his newspaper and turns to go back inside. It’s not the times that make us evil, King wants us to know; we always carry that potential inside us.

The book’s approach to diversity and tolerance is particularly interesting, both because it engages with those issues more consciously than I expected it to, and because King is still hampered by something—perhaps the ‘80s, perhaps wider genre tropes that I don’t know much about—that causes him to make some obvious (from my standpoint) missteps. The fact that he includes a black child, a Jewish child, and a girl in his circle of Chosen Ones is unexpected, and pleasing; yes, there’s only one of each, but he handles it in a non-tokenistic manner; race, religion and gender are rarely dwelt upon. Racism is responsible for one of the worst massacres in Derry history, and King is pretty clear on the monstrosity of small-town organisations like the Legion of White Decency. On the other hand, this doesn’t stop him from giving Richie Tozier—a faintly obnoxious but charming cut-up—a party act called the Pickaninny Voice, a grotesque parody of cringing blackness liable to announcements like “Oh, lawdy, Miss Scarlett! Thisyere black boy’s gwineter behave, don’t you beat thisyere black boy”, and so on. Richie’s regularly told to shut up by the others, but no one suggests that he’s being a racist prick and maybe the black kid that they’re all friends with has something to say on the subject. There are jokes about circumcision and kosher food (though these are tempered by Stan Uris questioning why Catholics eat fish on Friday, which at least makes Richie recognise that all religious strictures are equally arbitrary). Perhaps most damningly, in the 1985 timeline, Stan Uris commits suicide instead of rejoining the others in Derry, and Mike Hanlon is attacked and put in hospital before the final confrontation with It can take place. This may not have been intentional, but it effectively denies both the black and the Jewish man participation in a catharsis that they have most assuredly earned, reinforcing the idea that heroes—in this case personified by Bill, Ben, and to a lesser extent Richie and Eddie—are just naturally white, goshdarnit.

Which brings us to Beverly, because she too is present during the final showdown with It, but you wouldn’t know it. Her role is primarily to take care of Eddie, who’s badly injured early on and spends most of the action bleeding out on the floor. When Bill and Ben and Richie disappear into the metaphysical arena of combat, Beverly’s left behind. Sure, she’s the best shot of them all and was previously given the responsibility of shooting It with a silver slingshot pellet, but that was when they were kids; the adult battle seems to have no place for her in it (except as a caregiver, and as an object of desire to both Bill and Ben). It’s the Susan Problem all over again—girls can only be active agents for as long as they’ll pretend to be one of the boys; once they hit womanhood, they’re no longer of much use—and I resent it.

The biggest problem with King’s treatment of Beverly, though, happens in the 1958 timeline. The battle with It, which leaves It badly wounded but not yet defeated, also leaves the children disoriented. Eddie, an infallible navigator, has lost his touch; they’re in the sewer tunnels, deep below Derry and mostly unmapped. Losing their way means certain death. Something is needed to bring the friends together again, to restore their confidence in each other and their sense of themselves as a unit. That something, it turns out, is for all of the boys to have sex with Beverly, which they duly do, one by one, on the ground. It’s greatly to King’s credit that at the time of reading, immersed in the novel’s world, this makes a certain degree of sense, and he handles it, for the most part, with surprising sensitivity, giving Beverly a kind of detached maturity that doesn’t make her a martyr. (The sex is her idea; only this, and the distinctly non-realist flavour of the story so far, prevents it from reading like a gang rape.) At the same time, the children he’s writing about are eleven, which strikes me as depressingly young to be concluding that sharing a woman is the only way to bring men together. (And what about the woman? How does this logic allow her to reconnect, too? King doesn’t go there.)

For all of these problems, though, It really, really works. The 1958 storyline is perhaps more compelling than the 1985 one, which begins to rely much more heavily on interpersonal melodrama to get its plot rolling. But King’s effortless evocation of fear in his readers is a writerly skill that has to be read to be believed, and the way that he integrates commentary about how humans live together—the best of it, and the worst of it—with his overtly scary monster is clever and compelling. I definitely want to read more of him in future; which of his books should I pick up next?

April Superlatives

April was a good month in numbers (seventeen), a decent month in quality, a month that I have decided I should not attempt to repeat. I got a lot of proofs from the bookshop, probably too many: there were piles on my desk at work, piles on the desk at home, and a kind of grit-my-teeth determination to get through them all before May. The vast majority of them were very good, but that still seems, in retrospect, like an awfully joyless way to read. It also meant that I burnt out on reviewing less than halfway through the month. In May I’ll be reining it in. Which is handy, since I’ll have friends and family visiting, some singing to do, and zero free time.

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most essential: If you like books or use the Internet—and, since you just read that on a website devoted to books, this means you—you need to read The Idealist, by Justin Peters. In part it’s an intellectual biography of data freedom activist Aaron Swartz, in part a tour of historic attitudes to copyright, freedom of information, and open access to literature and other works of culture. If you’re a writer, a reader, a citizen, this is fundamental, and it taps into every other contemporary political issue that there is. (review)

best exposition of little-known history: The fact that there are true things we don’t know about because they’re too weird or peripheral to make it into school history curricula is a source of neverending fascination for me, both as a reader and as a writer. Sana Krasikov’s The Patriots follows a young, idealistic American woman who moves to the USSR in the 1930s, and tracks the life she lives there, all but abandoned by the US government, as purges start to get worse. It’s a compelling, if somewhat overlong, exploration of choice, dogma, and what it means to be free. (review)

best punch to the stomach: Almost literally; One of the Boys, by Daniel Magariel, is under two hundred pages and focuses on the interactions between an abusive father and his two adolescent sons. Magariel compassionately illuminates the pressures and pitfalls of “being a man” in a world that prioritises violence and loyalty above all else. (review)

best application of essential thoughts: Cory Doctorow’s new novel, Walkaway, is dedicated in part to Aaron Swartz. Set eighty-odd years in the future, it speculates about a wholesale rejection of late-stage capitalism enabled by 3-D printers, widespread tech smarts, a communal mindset, and the fact that the 1% has become the .001%. When a walkaway group discovers a technology for cheating death, all hell breaks loose. Doctorow believes we’ll create the world that we imagine, and he wants us to imagine a cooperative one. It made me feel very hopeful. (review)

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sheerest fun: Volume 2 of Saga, Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’s barnstorming space opera graphic novel. In this one, we get more of The Will and Lying Cat—two of my absolute faves—beautifully rendered interactions between Alana and her father-in-law, a planet that hatches, and (finally) the appearance of Gwendolyn. It’s slick, funny, and superb.

most fuck-the-patriarchy: Maria Turtschaninoff’s YA fantasy novel Naondel, the follow-up to last year’s Maresi. Men in general don’t come off well—they’re all evil, weak-willed, arrogant, or all of the above—which does its young readers a disservice; Maresi took care to state that men aren’t inherently bad, a more nuanced approach that showed more respect for an adolescent’s intellect. Still, Naondel is full both of badass women and of women who’ve been badly hurt but not broken. That’s a great big middle finger to oppressive tyrants everywhere. (review)

most self-aware memoir: Admissions, English neurosurgeon Henry Marsh’s second book. Marsh is completely honest about his personal faults, which largely neutralises them; he is forthright about the problems that beset the NHS, and clearly fiercely proud of his colleagues, and of the institution as it was originally conceived. He writes a lot in this second volume about aging and death, too, without either sentimentality or cynicism. His voice is wry and utterly unique. Highly recommended.

most diffuse: Sympathy, a debut novel by Olivia Sudjic, published by ONE Pushkin. I liked it well enough, but I finished it unsure of whether Sudjic had actually done anything particularly interesting with her major theme—the ease with which one can stalk and create a false sense of intimacy, using the tools of social media—or whether she had simply used it to tell a fairly conservative story of the need for origins and belonging.

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most unexpected pleasure: That derived from Don DeLillo’s White Noise. Going in with no expectations was probably wise; it’s a surprisingly wistful novel, full of marital affection that is no less honest for being presented side-by-side with selfishness and existential terror.

best retelling: Colm Toibin’s reclamation of the Clytemnestra/Agamemnon/Orestes story from ancient Greece, House of Names. Toibin nails the bare-bones, primeval nature of the story and simultaneously brings us into the heads of absolutely single-minded characters. My only query is whether he gives quite enough weight to religious belief: the younger characters are convinced the gods are not there, but Agamemnon must have thought they were, and we don’t get enough of that (or a good reason to decide that he’s merely a nihilistic child-murdering monster.)

best murder: Two, actually—the deaths in Sarah Schmidt’s historical novel about Lizzie Borden, See What I Have Done. And by “best” I mean “most horribly described without being gratuitously gory” and “motives for which explored with the greatest delicacy and surprising artistry”. Turns out Schmidt can really, really write, and she cleverly resists the temptation to pinpoint the nature of Lizzie’s mental health problems, making for a gloriously uneasy reading experience.

most wasted opportunity: Queer City, subtitled “a history of gay London from the Romans to the present”, Peter Ackroyd’s latest. To paraphrase what I said in an earlier discussion, Ackroyd fails on two counts: a) to provide much in the way of sources (there’s a bibliography in the back, but he usually just recounts an anecdote without saying where or who it comes from, and without appearing to analyse the source), and b) to create anything like a narrative or a sense of development around the history of gay London. It’s all just event, event, event—court case, scandal, ballad, gossip, hanging—with no framing of these events in a wider context, no attempt more than cursory to explore social and political currents that might suggest why things changed when. And although the book purports to be about the city, it doesn’t really convey a sense of why or how gay culture flourished specifically in London.

best insults: To be found in The Blood Miracles, Lisa McInerney’s follow-up to The Glorious Heresies, which won her the Baileys Prize last year. In this volume, we follow one of the characters we met previously, Ryan Cusack. A few years down the line, he’s twenty and dealing drugs, and his girlfriend Karine, who means everything to him, is starting to lose patience. McInerney ties in many of the characters we met in Heresies, but this time the atmosphere is darker: there are more beatings, a mock-execution. There’s still humour, though, and the insults are fabulous (“his head is just something that keeps his ears apart” being one of my favourites). I’m just not sure it rises to the heights of Heresies, but I can’t put my finger on why.

The Fact of a Body

hands-down favourite: I liked a lot of the books I read in April, but none of them are going to stay with me like The Fact of a Body. Written by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich, a qualified lawyer with an MFA, it’s part true crime narrated in flawless novelistic prose, part attempt to exorcise the ghosts of Marzano-Lesnevich’s own abusive past. She does this by facing their echoes in the case of Ricky Langley, who admitted to killing a little boy called Jeremy Guillory in 1993. It’s a stunning piece of work: never sensationalistic, never sentimental, always sharply intelligent about the law and human nature, and yet full of understanding. I absolutely adored it. I want it to be huge.

most unabashed comfort reading: Turns out these days, when I need to recharge my brain, I go for spies and murder. (This is why I think I’m getting old. Isn’t this what old people do? Curl up with a cosy mystery and a crossword? At least I don’t do crosswords.) Fortunately neither of these were especially cosy: not Mick Herron’s Dead Lions, the second in the Slough House books, nor Tana French’s The Secret Place, one of her Dublin Murder Squad books, this one set in a girl’s school. Dead Lions isn’t quite as good as Slow Horses: the wisecracking humour starts to wear thin, and the plot is, frankly, farcical and unnecessary (no one cares about the Cold War anymore, and trying to revive it – especially after Herron put his finger on the pulse in terms of real national security trends in his first book – seems like a misguided attempt to cash in on Le Carre comparisons.) But The Secret Place is, I think, one of French’s best books, because it is so explicit about the things that interest her as an author: friendship as an almost mystical force, and what happens when that force is subjected to outside influences, what happens when loving people isn’t enough. Reading it almost felt like relief: she’s a writer I trust implicitly.

most unexpected surprise: Reservoir 13, Jon McGregor’s new novel, which I’ll be reviewing very soon. It starts with the disappearance of a young girl in a Peak District village, and promptly fails to fulfill every one of our expectations about stories that start with the disappearance of a young girl. It’s also the best evocation I have ever read of modern English village life.

up next: I’m currently reading China Miéville’s The City and the City, with almost equal measures of enjoyment and mild confusion, as Miéville’s fiction tends to make me feel. For the rest of the month, I’ve got some fantastic proofs, including Tench by Inge Schilperoord, Perfect Little World by Kevin Wilson, and The Things We Thought We Knew by Mahsuda Snaith.

Meanwhile, Over At Shiny: The Pledge

pledgeShiny New Books has undergone a revamp and now sports a new look! I’m over there today talking about Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s detective novel The Pledge, reissued by Pushkin Vertigo and made into a movie a few years ago starring Jack Nicholson and my beloved Robin Wright. Dürrenmatt challenges the very foundations of the detective genre, in a short novel about an obsessed policeman whose strict adherence to “the rules of the game” still isn’t enough to overcome the factor of random chance that inheres in all criminal investigations. It’s atmospheric, postmodern, and highly tricksy:

In a mountainous Swiss canton not far from Zurich, a little girl’s body is found. She is only seven or eight, with blonde braids and wearing a distinctive red skirt. She has been murdered, brutally, with a straight razor. It’s the last day on the job for Inspector Matthäi, of the Zurich police: he is about to be seconded to Amman as a consultant working on the reform of the Jordanian police system. He does the necessary preliminary work, then hands over the case and prepares to fly out the next day. But the girl—Gritli Moser—haunts him. At the airport, he can’t bring himself to board the plane; instead he rushes back to Zurich, determined to bring Gritli’s killer to justice. The fact that someone has already been arrested, confessed, and hanged himself in his jail cell doesn’t matter to Matthäi; he believes the man was innocent. The rest of Dürrenmatt’s novel recounts Matthäi’s increasingly desperate attempts to find the real killer.

You can read the rest of the review here.

Two New Books From Pushkin Press

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, by Dorthe Nors

the place you come from is a place you can never return to

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Sonja is forty and has never learned to drive. Now, living in Copenhagen and working as a translator of Swedish crime fiction into Danish, she’s going to learn. But the project doesn’t start out well—her instructor, Jytte, barks instructions and makes her anxious—and when she asks to switch instructors, she’s landed with the driving school owner himself, Folke, a man of disconcertingly present sexuality. Nor is all going well in other parts of Sonja’s life: her sister, Kate, won’t return her phone calls; her parents are rapidly aging in a rural part of Denmark that seems to be dying along with its old farming inhabitants; and her oldest friend, Molly, is drifting further and further away from her.

If that makes this sound like a romantic comedy or a fluffy piece of relationships fiction, it’s not. It isn’t full of gloom, either, though: the prevailing mood of Mirror, Shoulder, Signal is a kind of gentle melancholy. Sonja constantly drifts back in her thoughts to the safe place at the centre of her parents’ rye field, where she loved to hide. She fantasises about the huge skies of the countryside, the whooper swans. She tries to find green spaces in Copenhagen that will satisfy her need for landscape: “it looks like a piece of wilderness, but it isn’t, it’s Valby Park.” What the book seems to be trying to explore is how a woman—a person, really, but Sonja’s womanhood is important, I think—can come adrift. It’s not dramatic; she isn’t drinking too much or spending too much money or wandering around talking to herself. But she is very, very lonely nonetheless.

Nors works at showing us that loneliness through clean, clear, present-tense sentences. She isn’t verbose, though we get no sense of superhuman restraint in the prose either; it doesn’t feel minimalist, although it sort of is. In a way this makes it difficult to write about: I can sense the details of the book slipping from my memory, though I read it less than a week ago. The ending, though, is perfect: hopeful without sentimentality, allowing for love but not equating love with magic. And the love comes from a most unexpected place, one that made me smile with surprised delight. You’ll have to read it to see what I mean.

For A Little While, by Rick Bass

as much grace in the laying down as in the building up

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Rick Bass is all but unheard of in this country. In America, when I worked as a bookseller in high school, we would sell a couple of his books every month or so, but it has taken his name a long time to reach these shores. Pushkin Press’s collection of selected and new short stories from his pen is one of the best books I have read for a very long time; I’m hoping that it helps him make his name here, and I’m also going to be tracking down more of Bass’s work, for the beauty of his writing on the sentence level as well as the beauty of his ideas.

He writes mostly about people in the South and West and Southwest: the deserts of New Mexico and Texas, mountainous or forested regions where hunting and logging are part of daily life, Alabama during the oil boom. These are places where people live near to the earth. Bass stands out, as a writer of such places, because he does not allow for despair or tragedy to intrude into a story where it has no right to be. Again and again, he creates situations where people are vulnerable—lonely, desiring love, reaching out for something, asking. Many of them reminded me of Flannery O’Connor’s setups, but whereas O’Connor will inevitably tip the story into scorn at grotesquerie and what seems like a kind of mean-minded divine punishment for presumption, Bass’s touch is gentle, generous, loving.

In “Field Events”, one of my favourite of the stories, two brothers who excel at the shot put adopt an enormous young man called A.C., intending to train him to greatness. Their sister, Lory, is a miserable schoolteacher: her students are disinterested and often cruel to her, and she is chronically depressed. She falls in love with A.C., and he with her: his hugely muscled body cradling her tiny frame in a sitting room armchair when she can’t sleep. If this were O’Connor, you would be bracing yourself hard, waiting for the point at which A.C. mugs Lory and abandons her, crushing her heart. But that point doesn’t come. Bass is more interested, I think, in observing the strangeness of reality than in creating a philosophical structure, and that makes his stories more beautifully, lopsidedly convincing.

And he can imbue his prose with a weightiness that, somehow, does not embarrass. He describes the natural world—trees and game and snow—in vivid, serious detail. “Her First Elk” is a story about a young woman named Jyl whose first solo hunt kill is an elk stag. Hunting, for her, is tied up with the memory of her beloved father, now dead. She is helped to skin and cure the elk by two elderly brothers, Ralph and Bruce. There is a mythic element to this story that would not feel out of place in a Cormac McCarthy novel, but look how much less irritating Bass is than McCarthy:

Bruce poured a gallon jug of clean water over Ralph’s hands and wrists to rinse the soap away, and Ralph dried his hands and arms with a clean towel and emptied out the old bloody wash water, then filled it anew, and it was time for Bruce to do the same. Jyl marveled at, and was troubled by, this privileged glimpse at a life, or two lives, beyond her own—a life, two lives, of cautious compentence, fitted to the world; and she was grateful to the elk, and its gone-away life, beyond the sheer bounty of the meat it was providing her, grateful to it for having led her into this place, the small and obscure if not hidden window of these two men’s lives.

The prose uses some of the same tricks as McCarthy’s, but uses them sensibly (the mild archaism of “anew”; the faint ecclesiasticism of “into this place”), and we feel not daunted or halted but let in, like Jyl, to a small and obscure window. I am so grateful to Rick Bass for writing these stories, I cannot tell you. He has written novels, too; I will be seeking them out.


For A Little While was released in the UK on 2 February; Mirror, Shoulder, Signal will be released in the UK on 23 February. Many thanks to the publicity folks at Pushkin Press for the review copies!

January Superlatives

For the first time ever, I have signed up to a year-long Goodreads Reading Challenge. Don’t ask me why. My target is 150 books, which should be achievable since I read 141 last year (possibly my highest total since records began back in 2007). This month I read 17, which, Goodreads informs me, puts me 5 books ahead of schedule. Thank goodness their algorithms are keeping track of the maths for that, because I wouldn’t know how.

best short story collection: Virgin by April Ayers Lawson is an extremely technically impressive collection; she’s one of those young American writers whose prose is planed smooth and wouldn’t look out of place in The New Yorker. I can’t say that this collection moved me very deeply, but that’s not always a bad thing. Her take on fundamentalism and sexual awakening is interesting and well worth the read.

best comfort rereads: Split, this one, between Tana French’s Broken Harbour and Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. I’m now leaning on French’s murder mysteries for mental distraction in busy times; Broken Harbour focuses on the murder of almost an entire family in an Irish ghost estate, one of those places that was half-built during the Celtic Tiger boom and then abandoned by the contractors during the recession. It’s terrific, and terrifying, on the psychology of being broke and jobless. I Capture the Castle probably needs no introduction; I read it after a week of consuming media mostly about death and torment, longing for comfort and uplift. It delivered, as it always does.

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best tragedy: His Bloody Project, by Graeme Macrae Burnet. It’s full of horrible petty officials oppressing hardworking Scottish crofters, and unreliable narration, and raped sisters, and dead sheep, in a way that recalls Britain’s seemingly unshakable love of the historical costume drama. However, it’s all done with an extremely skillful voice. I can entirely see how this swayed the Booker Prize jury, and why it’s been the best-selling of last year’s shortlist.

best state-of-the-nation novel: Laura Kaye’s terrific debut, English Animals, about a young Slovakian woman whose experience working for a rich but struggling English couple reveals the prejudices of this country with wondrous slyness. Appropriate post-Brexit, but full of truths that apply not just to this immediate moment, but to English culture throughout the ages.

party I was late to: How had I not read Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s collaboration, Good Omens, until now? It’s a wonderful, hilarious, generous novel about the Antichrist (as you would expect), featuring a no-nonsense witch named Anathema Device, a Satanic Nun of the Chattering Order of St Beryl (who later becomes a businesswoman running corporate management courses), a Witchfinder named Newton Pulsifer, and a demon/angel duo who don’t actually want the world to end at all. Its cult status is fully deserved, and I loved it.

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best escapism: You’d think this would be one of my comfort rereads, but no! This month I read volume 1 of Brian Vaughan’s and Fiona Staples’s graphic novel Saga. It starts with a childbirth scene. The cover features a breastfeeding woman. There is an interracial couple from opposite sides of a galactic war. There is a sarcastic teenage ghost and a spider-lady assassin and an animal called Lying Cat (which I particularly like; it’s blue and has pointy ears and croaks the word “LYING” whenever anyone tries to fib in its vicinity.) I can’t wait to order volume 2.

best city novel: Chibundu Onuzo’s second novel, Welcome to Lagos. It follows a group of unlikely comrades—from two soldiers who reject their colonel’s acts of cruelty in the Nigerian Delta, to a runaway middle-class wife, to a chancing teenager with radio dreams named Fineboy—as they try to live without money, papers or qualifications in a city that chews people up and spits them out. There’s a political plot, too, but I thought it was most effective in its portrait of how ordinary people build trust between themselves.

Annual Winter Dickens: A Tale of Two Cities, which I somehow managed to escape secondary school without ever having read. More interesting, I think, for its dissection of how revolutionary fervour can turn into a massacre of the innocent than for its nominal plot (noble self-sacrifice tugs my heartstrings well enough, but I resent it).

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best intellectual romp: Joanna Kavenna’s bizarre, inventive, beautiful novel A Field Guide to Reality. Set in a sort of otherworldly Oxford (where there are still waitresses and the Cowley Road, but the colleges are named things like Pie Hall and Nightingale Hall and there’s a Unicorn Street), it shifts between the thirteenth century and the present day, and deals with ideas about light and optics, perception, grief, and the nature of reality. It handles huge questions with a kind of boundless, sarcastic creativity that I really enjoyed. It also contains gorgeous illustrations by Olly Ralfe. Highly recommended, especially if you like slightly weird shit.

best anti-Tr*mp reading: The Good Immigrant, a crowdfunded collection of essays about the experience of being an ethnic minority in Britain. This is one of those books that makes you more aware of things: the way you look at people in public, the way you hold your body on the train or the words you use to friends and coworkers, and the consequences those actions might have. Some of the essays are more creative and interesting than others, and there are a few that felt theoretical in a way detrimental to engaging with them, but I’m happy to admit that this may be my problem.

best “commercial” read: Katie Khan’s Hold Back the Stars, which doesn’t do much with its sci-fi window dressing but which does tell a touching love story, and might very well get readers who wouldn’t normally be keen on genre more interested.

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induced worst case of location envy: The Enchanted April, obviously. I’d seen the film (it’s one of my mum’s favourites) but not read the Elizabeth von Arnim novel it’s based on until now. It follows four Edwardian women, each unhappy in their own way, who together rent an Italian castle for a month, and the ways in which sunshine and liberty change their lives. You might be thinking of it as an early Eat Pray Love, but it’s much less solipsistic, and much more charming. The garden descriptions are sublime.

most nightmarish: Julia Scheeres’s memoir of child religious, emotional, physical and sexual abuse, Jesus Land. It is unrelenting. I had several problems with it, one of which was the way she recounts experience at the expense of analysis (ask me about this if you’re not sure what I mean; explaining would take a while) and another of which was the way that she keeps foregrounding her own experience while maintaining that this is really a book about her adopted black brother David. Still. Oof.

categorically, not-a-shadow-of-a-doubt, best fucking book this month: The Underground Railroad. Y’all will know about this by now: Oprah loves it, Obama loves it, it won the National Book Award. If I know some of you, you’ll be avoiding it purely because of the attention it’s been getting. Don’t do that with this book. Do it with all the others, but not with this one. It’s too good, too heartbreaking, too well constructed, too evocative and simultaneously subtle and clear, too much of a body slam, too likely to make you think deeply and for long about why America’s present looks as it does, for you to put it off. It’s that rare thing, a novel that both invests you in its characters and story and effortlessly incorporates wider thematic concerns. I can barely talk about it without worrying that I’m not doing it justice. Just read it, for heaven’s sake.

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most disproportionately affecting: First Love, by Gwendoline Riley, which I’ll be reviewing for Shiny New Books. Telling the story of a walking-on-eggshells marriage and glancing back at wife Neve’s childhood and early adult life, it’s one of those books that doesn’t have a clear-cut moral, but which simply provides a kind of snapshot. I ended up mentally turning it over and over, finding each time that I understood more about the characters and their decisions. It’s an extremely insightful novel.

best murder mystery: Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s novel The Pledge is being republished by Pushkin Vertigo next month. I’m also reviewing it for Shiny, so I won’t say too much here – just that the story of Inspector Matthäi’s doomed obsession with the murderer of schoolchild Gritli Moser is exactly as calculated an affront to the conventions of the detective novel as the publicity material says.

up next: A couple of proof copies for February remain to be read: Dorthe Nors’s Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, about a middle-aged woman learning to drive, and Rick Bass’s collected stories, For A Little While. I also REALLY want to read some of the books longlisted for the inaugural Jhalak Prize (for best book by a BAME author in the UK), and am looking forward to picking my first!

I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith

Noble deeds and hot baths are the best cures for depression.

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Would you like to know the best opening sentence in the English language? It is not “Call me Ishmael”. Nor is it “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” No, it is the opening sentence of Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle: “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” It is without flaw: irresistibly odd, rather charming, certainly intriguing. In this, it is a perfect introduction to the book itself, which is also all of these things, and one of my favourite books to read when I’m feeling a little down or fragile.

The plot is so unlike any other book I’ve read that I might as well just quickly summarise it for you: Cassandra Mortmain lives in a crumbling castle (on a forty-year lease) with her older sister, Rose, and younger brother, Thomas; her father, a writer who produced a highly-regarded philosophical novel years ago but has written nothing since; and her stepmother Topaz, a former artist’s model and professional muse. What the Mortmains lack in money, they make up for in cheerfulness and romanticism, but they lack money in a serious way. When their landlord and owner of the local big house dies, his grandsons arrive from America to take over the house and settle his affairs. Topaz, Cassandra and Rose determine that Rose should marry one of the brothers, but the two girls quickly discover that in the real world, things aren’t as easily resolved as they are in novels…

Living arrangements at the castle appear delightfully eccentric. Topaz, who tends towards the melodramatic, likes to play the lute and to commune with nature, generally without any clothes on. But the poverty is real:

How odd it is to remember that “tea” once meant afternoon tea to us—little cakes and thin bread-and-butter in the drawing-room. Now it is as solid a meal as we can scrape together, as it has to last us until breakfast.

Stephen, the son of the Mortmains’ former maid, who lives with them and does various odd jobs, is “devoted” to Cassandra and frequently gives her some of his own food. A family meeting at the beginning of the book demonstrates, somewhat alarmingly, that Rose and Cassandra’s accomplishments are basically useless for earning any money; Thomas is still at school, and Topaz cannot leave Mortmain, so the only member of the household who can earn at all is Stephen.

But the descriptions are absolutely charming, like Cassandra’s musings about baths (which I must give in full, because I love them so much):

I was just getting into the bath when Heloise [the dog] whined at the back door and had to be let in. Of course she wanted to come to the fire, which was a slight bore as she is no asset to a bath—her loving paws are apt to scrape one painfully. However, she seemed sleepy and we settled down amicably. It was wonderfully cosy inside my tall, draught-proof screen; and the rosy glow from the fire turned the green sheets to a fascinating colour. I had the brainwave of sitting on our largest dinner-dish to avoid the dye [they have spent the afternoon dyeing things green]; the gravy runnels were a bit uncomfortable, though.

I believe it is customary to get one’s washing over first in baths and bask afterwards; personally, I bask first. I have discovered that the first few minutes are the best and not to be wasted… Father says hot water can be as stimulating as an alcoholic drink and though I never come by one—unless the medicine-bottle of port that the Vicar gives me for my Midsummer rites counts—I can well believe it.

What’s best about this book, though—especially on re-reading at this age—is how you can see Cassandra growing up. The American brothers, Neil and Simon, are initially put off by Rose’s excessive coquetry, but Topaz soon has her in line and Simon ends up proposing. Cassandra’s own feelings for Simon complicate matters, though, as does the possibility that Rose may not be in love at all, and Stephen’s “devotion” to Cassandra, which she begins to recognise in a far more serious, adult light. It’s a book about first love and naivety and making terrible mistakes; there is real emotion in it, which I had almost forgotten, since I hadn’t re-read it for so long. And yet the stakes are never so high that Smith can’t make us laugh. In one scene, Cassandra storms off to the village and gets drunk on cherry brandy at the Keys inn; it’s both pathetic and very funny. Anyone who has ever been a teenager, or heartbroken, will understand, and will also want to shake her rather hard, then put her to bed.

Aspects of the gender politics are outdated (unsurprisingly, since it was written in 1949). It’s not so much the general willingness to marry Rose off for money that got me; it was the attitude towards Mortmain, Cassandra’s father. He’s viewed as a “genius” by Topaz, despite the fact that he seems to find her irritating and she doesn’t seem very happy. When she asks Cassandra whether she ought to leave him, Cassandra convinces her to stay by guilt-tripping her into imagining what the posthumous biographies will say:

“Just imagine… ‘Mortmain was about to start on the second phase of his career, when the faithlessness of his artist-model wife shattered the fabric of his life. We shall never know what was lost to the world through this worthless young woman…’ “

It works, of course, and Topaz wants it to, because she derives much of her personal worth from being a muse to men. But it leaves a nasty taste in the mouth, especially the word “worthless.” And Mortmain is not the pleasantest of men. He’s meant, I think, to come across as brilliant but harmless, yet Cassandra is most convinced that he’s doing some work when he becomes physically violent towards her and throws her into a door; it’s that action that makes her think of “the old Father”, before his fallow period set in. Excusing violence in the name of genius is…well, sorry, but no.

These things stick out to me now because I am more alert to the use of emotive rhetoric to manipulate people, especially women, but also because they are so unusual in this book. Mortmain is not the main focus. Far more of it is about evoking the atmosphere of the castle, and about relationships: how Rose interacts with Neil and Simon, how Cassandra chooses to handle Stephen, how Topaz, despite her bohemian appearance, is the most stable person in the girls’ lives.

When I was little and easily frightened, my mum invented the concept of “the safe book”: something you could read before going to sleep, where there would be no great evil or physical danger or mental cruelty, something that would never give you nightmares. I Capture the Castle has always been my ultimate safe book. In the depths of winter, at the beginning of what is bound to be a difficult year, it feels like a charm against darkness.

6 Degrees of Separation: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

This game is like “6 Degrees from Kevin Bacon” only with books. You can join in too; the rules are here.

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  1. We start this month with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson’s thriller featuring cult favourite heroine, hacker Lisbeth Salander. The book was made into a movie—well, two, one of them starring Noomi Rapace.
  2. Rapace’s been in another thriller film based on a book, “The Drop”. It was originally a short story by Dennis Lehane called “Animal Rescue”, but he turned it into a novel after the film came out. The film features Tom Hardy and James Gandolfini, and is really pretty good.
  3. Lehane is the patron of a US publishing imprint, Dennis Lehane Books, which first published Attica Locke. Her novel The Cutting Season, about a contemporary murder on a meticulously preserved Louisisana plantation, delves deep into racism, power, and self-interest in America.
  4. I lent The Cutting Season to the Chaos’s mum, who’d read Locke’s earlier book Black Water Rising and enjoyed it. She, in return, lent me Sense and Sensibility, the Joanna Trollope version: a reboot of Austen’s original that is possibly the most successful entry so far in the contemporary-versions-of-Austen enterprise.
  5. Trollope is a descendant of THE Trollope, Anthony, who is most famous for his Barchester and Palliser Chronicles: two six-book series that map out English political and social life in the nineteenth century. One of my favourites, however, is the stand-alone The Way We Live Now, an alarmingly relevant novel in the 21st century, about unscrupulous financier Melmotte and the dangers of blind trust.
  6. The incomparable David Suchet played Melmotte in the BBC’s adaptation of Trollope’s novel; Suchet is most famous, however, for playing Hercule Poirot in the seemingly trillions of Agatha Christie adaptations. My favourite is Evil Under the Sun, set on Burgh Island in Devon, which can only be reached at low tide in a contraption called a Sea Tractor.

We didn’t move around much in terms of genre—nearly all crime thrillers— and we mostly stayed in England. I think the connections were pretty good this time, though!