April Superlatives

April was a shockingly good month for reading: I finished sixteen books. Chunking four books from my TBR at a time seems to really work! On the downside, I’ve realized that I have so many books requested from publishers to review that it’s been impossible to review anything that I’ve read outside of that. I’m going to cut down severely on publisher requests after next month (not much I can do about it now because May’s pre-pubs have already been sent to me)–but focusing on the books I really want to read, as opposed to the books I think I might as well accept for review, is something I’m looking forward to.

most thought-altering: Daughters of the North, by Sarah Hall. A genuine dystopia, for once (people tend to use the word when they mean “post-apocalyptic” or even just “bad”, but Hall’s novel really does feature a repressive, terrifying government, one that tries to control the population by forcibly implanting coils in all women of reproductive age.) The story of our heroine’s escape, life on a rebel collective, and eventual militarization is fascinating, disturbing, and totally up-ends the things you think you believe about human behaviour.

best UK publishing debut: Foreign Soil, by Maxine Beneba Clarke. A collection of short stories that utterly blew me away, each one perfect and containing a novel’s worth of emotion and development in a tiny space. It feels like such a cliché to call them “gem-like”, but that’s the word my brain wants to use. Buy it and read it, and buy Clarke’s next book too.

most unexpected surprise:  A Month With Starfish, Bev Jackson’s memoir of her month spent on Lesbos volunteering to aid refugees. It’s such a humane and generous book, making both the refugees and the volunteers real people, instead of nameless, faceless statistics or stories on the news. Really worth reading if you can get hold of it; it’s £6.99 on Kindle.

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most thoroughly comforting, a warm bath of a book: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers. Oh how I loved this. There’s an interspecies lesbian romance, a human with dwarfism in love with an AI, plenty of fascinating galactic diversity, and a basically happy ending. It’s written with utter control and limpidity, and it made me happy like a good ensemble-cast TV show makes you happy. [insert Firefly reference here]

best thriller: The Turning Tide, by Brooke Magnanti. Complex thriller from former escort Belle du Jour, whose Diary of a London Call Girl was my guilty pleasure throughout university (but especially just before Mods.) It turns out she can write fiction, too. Maybe a little too complex (there are several different plot strands, not all obviously related), but I enjoyed it hugely; it’s topical, political, and socially aware.

best teenager: The Glorious Heresies, by Lisa McInerney. Five people in Cork’s criminal underbelly–a gangster, his mother, a prostitute, a teenage drug dealer, and his alcoholic dad–are connected over the years. On the shortlist for the Baileys Prize and I’m hoping it wins. Ryan Cusack is the best, most complicatedly believable teenager that I’ve read for years.

most disillusioning: The Exclusives, by Rebecca Thornton. Two best friends are awful to each other at boarding school, then must reconcile 18 years later. You will never look at boarding schools the same way again.

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party I was late to: A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. LeGuin. Deservedly a classic. It’s written in quite a portentous, old-fashioned style, but the story of Ged, who needs to learn the limits and responsibilities of his immense power, is never going to get old. And yes, I object to the erasure/belittling of women’s magic, but. It’s still a good book. I read the other two in the original Earthsea trilogy, The Tombs of Atuan and The Farthest Shore, at the start of the bank holiday weekend. Their ethos is one of balance and goodness and maintaining equilibrium, and it’s really quite beautiful.

true love: Selected Poems of Sylvia Plath. I love her. I love her frightening, visual imagination, and the way motherhood repels her as well as attracting her, and I love how she wrote through madness. I just love her. The end. (I’ve mentioned before that someone should set “Daddy” to music, and I’ll say it again. Same goes for “Tulips”, I think.)

most evocative: The Sunlight Pilgrims, by Jenni Fagan.  In the grip of a global winter, a lost young man, a single mother, and a transitioning teenager find friendship and love with each other in a Scottish caravan park. Fagan is good on atmosphere and the effect is quite lovely, although the book as a whole feels anti-climactic somehow.

most engrossing: I read The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver in two days, glued to the sofa and twiddling my hair breathlessly through most of a Saturday.  I’ve always loved Kingsolver, but this novel–the one that made her name, about an evangelical missionary’s family in the Congo in 1959–is really something else. Transcendent, and highly recommended.

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most disturbing: Cynthia Bond’s Ruby, a tale of Satanism and the rape and murder of children in East Texas. It is beautiful and moving but it is also incredibly dark. Also, if you are a woman, you may have difficulty trusting any men at all for up to forty-eight hours after reading it. Sorry. (Also, Becoming/Unbecoming, a graphic novel memoir by an artist called Una about growing up in Yorkshire under the shadow of the Ripper murders. It’s about so much more than that, too; it’s about what happens when a culture hates women, and thinks they deserve all the violence meted out to them. I am very glad it is not the 1970s anymore, although I’m sanguine about the amount of hatred and violence that remains.)

most formally playful: The Cauliflower, by Nicola Barker, is a fragmented novel that explores the life of Sri Ramakrishna, a late nineteenth-century Indian guru who was thought to be God. It’s a very self-aware, constructed novel, and its reputation preceded it, so I expected it to be deeply annoying. Instead, it was very amusing and a little disturbing, shaking your ideas about how the public performance of faith works. Good stuff.

up next: After the bank holiday, I’ll need to read Shawn Vestal’s Daredevils, from ONE Pushkin, to review (it’s supposedly a combination of Mormons and motorcycles). I’ve also got Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters lined up for soon afterwards.

 

The Inheritors, by William Golding

“The new people are like a wolf and honey, rotten honey and the river.”

There are two things it’s useful to remember when you read The Inheritors: one is a fact, one a contention. The first, the fact, is that homo sapiens shares 4% of its genome with the Neanderthal. The second—the contention—is that a large part of what makes us human, and what allowed prehistoric humans to succeed, is the capacity for abstract thought, which often (though not always) takes the form of figurative thought, of metaphor and comparison.

Figuration is precisely what’s lacking among the People, Golding’s locution for a small extended family of Neanderthals. (He never capitalizes “People”, actually; there’s no need, for in the minds of his Neanderthal protagonists, there is no other group from whom they need to differentiate themselves.) There are eight of them to begin with: Fa and Nil, adult women; Lok and Ha, adult men; Liku, a child; “the new one”, Nil’s infant; Mal, the patriarch, and “the old woman”. The old woman doesn’t speak for most of the book’s opening section, but she carries with her a mysterious bundle which turns out to be a hearth flame. She is the locus of mystical, intuitive, female knowledge (Golding has Neanderthals worshiping a fertility goddess named Oa) in the same way as Mal, the oldest man, is the repository of “pictures”, or memories; he is all the people have by way of history.

(A quick note on Golding’s accuracy regarding Neanderthals: there’s no evidence that they had any kind of religion. He knew this, and, as John Carey says in his short but deeply illuminating introduction (in the Faber paperback edition),

gets round these possible objections by making his Neanderthals worship ‘ice women’, and place meat and water in the grave for the afterlife, none of which would leave any remnants for archaeologists to discover.

So, a rather clever novelistic hack, I feel, and one I’m quite happy to let stand.)

The book opens as the people try to cross a river, following a trail that will lead them back to their summer territory. They’re stymied by the fact that the log which usually serves as their bridge across the water has been washed away. Disappearance is more than an inconvenience; it literally incapacitates them. Lok, our protagonist, simply cannot process the idea of absence:

He shut his eyes and frowned at the picture of the log. It had lain in the water from this side to that, grey and rotting. When you trod the centre you could feel the water that washed beneath you, horrible water, as deep in places as a man’s shoulder…So sure was he of this log the people always used that he opened his eyes again, beginning to smile as if he were waking out of a dream; but the log was gone.

It takes Mal, the old man and keeper of the people’s memories, to tell them what to do: find a new log and maneuvre it to take the place of the old. But Mal is elderly and weak, and falls into the river as they cross, and although they pull him out, he quickly sickens and dies. Without him, the people have no history, no hope of being able to use their past experiences to inform their present behavior or to help them solve problems. None of them remember, or none of them have the capacity to put their memories together, to make useful connections.

None of them, that is, except for Fa. It becomes clear that Fa is by far the brightest of the people, and although we see things through Lok’s uncomprehending eyes, a reader’s understanding of Fa’s abilities is quicker. It interests me both that Golding makes the most competent and well-equipped member of the people a female character, and also that the tragedy of The Inheritors is, in a certain way, specifically Fa’s tragedy. She comes very close, several times, to articulating ideas that would help her people immeasurably: for instance, when the old woman feeds Mal by repeatedly dipping a stick into some broth and holding it to his mouth, Fa “gets a picture” of seashells filled with water. What the old woman needs—what the people need—is some way of holding things, of containing them, so that they can be put aside and used at leisure, but they don’t have this concept. If the old woman could feed Mal from a bowl, that would be physically easier, and less time-consuming, than feeding him drops from a stick. But Fa never manages to articulate her pictures to the rest of her people. Even if she did, they might not understand her; Lok, although he’s in love with her, almost never does, preferring instead to play pranks and “babble” (Golding’s word). Interestingly, while the old woman is alive, she actively discourages Fa’s pictures by advocating a sort of gender essentialism: “A man for pictures,” she insists; “a woman for Oa.” Fa is for both Oa and pictures, a fact which utterly diminishes Lok’s sense of himself. “Diminishes” is actually, again, the word Golding uses (it’s worth paying attention to the precise wording of this book).

The catalyst of the book’s events is the coming of the new people (again, never capitalized). Ha, the only other adult male of the people, goes missing. There are movements and strange smoke rising from an island below the cave in the cliff where the people are staying. In short order, the old woman and Nil turn up dead; Liku and the new one, the children of the tribe, are taken prisoner by the new people. Fa and Lok spend most of the book trying to rescue them, while also trying to determine who, exactly, these new people are. We know them; they’re us, a prehistoric us, homo sapiens about to be victorious. From the Neanderthal point of view, however, the new people are monstrous and terrifying and addictive: not quite gods, for the new people worship their own gods, but something very like them.

Golding said that he was interested in the concept of the Fall as he wrote this book: he is not religiously dogmatic, but the loss of innocence is very keenly felt. The image of the waterfall, the landmark around which much of the action takes place, is the most blatant of the symbols he introduces, but the really brilliant symbolic linkage takes place when Fa and Lok discover the fermented honey drink of the new people. They become roaringly drunk (none of which is comprehensible to them; Lok keeps thinking that the trees are moving, whereas we know that his vision is blurring) and awake hungover. Not long afterwards,

Lok discovered “Like.” He had used likeness all his life without being aware of it. Fungi on a tree were ears, the word was the same but acquired a distinction by circumstances that could never apply to the sensitive things on the side of his head. Now, in a convulsion of the understanding, Lok found himself using likeness as a tool as surely as ever he had used a stone to hack at sticks or meat. Likeness could grasp the white-faced hunters with a hand, could put them into the world where they were thinkable and not a random and unrelated irruption.

If the biblical Fall is the knowledge of good and evil, Golding sees it as simile, the Fall as language. (It’s a somewhat Miltonic notion.) Saying that the new people are like something else allows Lok to understand them better, to integrate them into his world instead of having to face them with childlike bewilderment, but the flipside of that understanding is the knowledge of evil. There can be no going back after the sudden recognition of cruelty, or murder, or vice.

The extraordinary thing that the novel does at the end, however, is to switch its point of view suddenly and without warning. Up until now, we’ve been mostly inside Lok’s head; but when he loses Fa, everything changes. It is no coincidence that she is lost by going over the falls. The next thing we know,

The red creature stood on the edge of the terrace and did nothing. The hollow log was a dark spot on the water towards the place where the sun had gone down. The air in the gap was clear and blue and calm…The red creature turned to the right and trotted slowly towards the far end of the terrace.

But he doesn’t stop there. The final chapter is told entirely through the eyes of Tuami, one of the new people, who is paddling his little group away from the “country of the devils”. They’re on the run themselves, from the rest of their tribe, and the future is, at best, uncertain; Tuami is calculating the wind, the currents, the strip of darkness at the edge of the lake, and how long he can go before he stabs the shaman Marlan and assumes the leadership for himself. The last we see of “the red creature”, it is curled, lifeless, in the cave where Mal was buried, struck by grief, identity lost with the loss of its people, come undone, nothing left to live for. To read this and to know that you are reading from the winning side, genetically speaking, creates an extraordinary dissonance; you feel horror and sorrow for the fate of Lok and his people, you feel revulsion for the violence of the new people, but you also see in them the capacity to be interesting and to create interesting new things, to have ideas. If the tragedy of The Inheritors is in Fa’s missed opportunities, its irony is in its title: it wasn’t the meek who inherited the earth—at least not yet—but the bold.

Top Ten Tuesday: Top Ten New-to-Me Authors Read in 2014

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by a blog called The Broke and the Bookish (yep, and…yep.) They’re cool. Check ’em out.

This week’s topic: the top ten authors whom I read for the first time in 2014. I read a lot of authors for the first time this year; it was a year of exploration and I loved nearly every minute of it.

1. Beryl Bainbridge. My first book of the year, Master Georgie, was also one of the best–rarely have I ever read something so emotionally charged, written with such subtlety and compression. Although I didn’t read any other Bainbridge novels this year, The Bottle Factory OutingAn Awfully Big Adventure and According to Queeney are definitely on my list.

2. Mary Doria Russell. The Sparrow is a disturbing, gorgeous book about faith and first contact with an alien civilization. Although it’s less tightly wound than Master Georgie, here Russell also deals with an emotionally charged plot and themes very subtly. It’s a masterclass for anyone who wants to write fiction.

3. Katherine Faw Morris. Young God was without a doubt one of the best books I read this year–possibly the very best. How could it be otherwise? It’s got a thirteen-year-old North Carolina hill-dwelling drug lord called Nikki for a protagonist. She’s motherless, violent and magnificent.

4. Sarah Waters. HOW HAD I NOT READ HER BEFORE. HOW. This is the writer who gave the world the metaphor of a woman who resides in her own skin with a smooth fullness that suggested she’d been poured into it like toffee into a mould. That is a first-class metaphor, you guys.

5. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Author of Americanah, about which I think I raved earlier. Also, gave an interview in which she said she was a feminist and seemed utterly bewildered by the idea that anyone with any sense of human rights might not be a feminist. What a pro.

6. Anne Carson. Anne Carson redrew the boundaries of poetry for me this year. Her collection Glass and God obsessed me in early October the way that life-changing writing does. I also wrote about it for Quadrapheme.

7. John le Carre. The master of British understatement and tragic post-imperial malaise. I read Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy this year and started The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. No one writes espionage novels like this guy did.

8. Jane Smiley. For the devastating spin on King Lear in her novel A Thousand Acres; I haven’t read any of her other novels and apparently no two are the same, but she too understands how to hold strong emotions in tension with each other, without over-explaining. What an amazing book.

9. David Foster Wallace. I read his first novel, The Broom of the System, this spring. (He published it when he was my age. He wrote it as an undergrad, alongside his thesis on Wittgenstein. Bastard.) Broom is ridiculously funny and biting and makes no fucking sense at all. I can’t wait to get Infinite Jest out of storage.

10. Olivia Laing. All people who write and all people who are alcoholics/have ever known an alcoholic/have ever known someone who knew someone who was an alcoholic (by my calculations that covers everyone on the planet) could benefit from reading The Trip to Echo Spring. Her writing is sharp, economical but somehow lush, equally well adapted to describing the innermost workings of John Cheever’s short stories, the dipsomaniacal obsessions of Raymond Carver, or the thoughts and feelings in her own mind as a train takes her across America.