Shelter, by Sarah Franklin

The forest itself warned them of loss.

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This’ll be a shorter review than usual, I think; I’m on holiday, and want to make the most of the time by reading things I have no obligation to consider deeply. Some spoilers ahead.

World War II seems to be endlessly fertile ground for any number of the creative industries. In the UK, especially, I suspect that this springs from a deeply seated national trauma and/or the fact that our oldest living generation came of age during or just after the war, and therefore feel their identities were shaped by it, and therefore are more likely to commission and pay for creative work that deals with it in some way. I have mostly ceased to read WWII books simply on principle (not always a good idea; I nearly missed Kate Atkinson’s A God In Ruins due to this, although I’ve also managed to avoid All the Light We Cannot See, which is proof that on the whole it works). Very occasionally, however, a WWII book deals with the conflict from a fresh angle. These books are valuable in an inherent sense: even if they’re not undying masterpieces, at least they give the reader a relatively original route into the history.

Sarah Franklin’s first novel Shelter is such a book. It is set in the Forest of Dean, where members of the Women’s Timber Corps were sent to assist the woodsmen who had lived there for generations, cutting down trees for the war effort. Franklin’s female protagonist, Connie, is a former Land Girl whose pregnancy got her booted off the farm where she was previously billeted. Her entire family killed in a bomb strike in Coventry, she has nowhere to return to, and she’s confident enough in her own strength and tenacity to sign up for the WTC. When she arrives in Gloucestershire, she meets gruff but kindly foreman Frank, and his wife Joyce, and is eventually assigned to partner Seppe, an Italian prisoner of war from the camp just up the hill. Seppe is a woodcarver and furniture maker; he is our second protagonist, a shy boy growing up under a belligerent Fascist father, unable to stand up for his battered mother or himself. Initially a hopeless forester, he improves under Connie’s instruction, and they’re soon Frank’s best team.

Shelter is one of those books whose strengths are to be found on the macro level. In terms of plot, Franklin is brave to write a female character to whom pregnancy and childbirth are not joyous, natural events, and who views her baby son with discomfort and dread. Seppe is much better with baby Joe than Connie manages to be; despite Joyce’s repeated assertions that everyone finds motherhood hard and she’ll improve, Franklin leaves enough room for us to doubt that wisdom, to think that Connie might be right when she says that she simply isn’t cut out to be a mother. For an author to leave open that possibility—even to acknowledge that not every woman is naturally maternal—is impressive, particularly in historical fiction. Seppe, meanwhile, is a (deliberately) sensitive, even feminised man; he serves as a soothing counterpoint to the toxic masculinity of his fellow prisoner Fredo, of his true-believer father, and of the thousands of young male characters we have already met who valorise conflict, violence, and ambition. Seppe has none of these qualities: he is quiet, shy, a maker and creator, very good with children, deeply domestic. When he and Connie begin a sexual relationship, he falls in love with her, seeing in her an opportunity for the secure and happy home life that he has never had. Connie does not take him nearly as seriously; his proposal of marriage, the thought of living in Gloucestershire in a hut for the rest of her life, terrifies and suffocates her.

On the micro level—that is, on the level of the sentence—Shelter is less innovative. People “swallow hard” (or its briefer equivalent, “gulp”), a lot, generally in response to strong emotion. (I am reasonably confident that I have never used this reflex to pull myself together, nor have I ever witnessed someone do it; it’s one of those things that apparently only happens in fiction.) Characters spell out their thought processes to each other with surprising and unnecessary thoroughness. Forest of Dean dialect permeates not only the locals’ speech, but also their writing, although their letters remain impressively free of spelling errors. (It’s entirely possible that dialect does translate to written language, in which case I’m being a tool, but it doesn’t read naturally; it’s mostly restricted to verb insertions, so that instead of saying “Joyce is at home”, a character will say “Joyce do be at home”, which just sounds a little Thomas Hardy.)

It’s hard to be too pedantic, though, because there’s a sweetness and a joy about Shelter that is very hard to resist. The immediate acceptance of Connie, then her pregnancy, then her baby, as well as Seppe, into the forest community is heart-warming and also rings true. Franklin’s themes dovetail nicely—Connie, whose home and family have disappeared under a pile of rubble; Seppe, who has never felt he had a home or a family at all; the delicate balance between responsible land management (the Forest representing home in a very particularised, local sense) and the demands of the government (representing home in a more general, national, patriotic sense); that is all smartly integrated, if a bit self-evident. Shelter is about people seeking, and finding, a place to belong. In its depiction of the upheavals of a war which both destroyed domestic establishments and enabled the creation of new ones, it is a unique addition to the glut of WWII books. Just move quickly past the bits where people gulp.

Many thanks to Emily Burns at Bonnier Zaffre for the review copy. Shelter was published in the UK on 27 July 2017.

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Tench, by Inge Schilperoord

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Tench occupied a curious space in my brain while I was reading it, a space that makes it extremely difficult to review. I accepted it from Pushkin Press’s superb publicist Tabitha Pelly, who has form for sending me things that are both very worthwhile and challenging to sum up. The problem, or one of the problems, is a common one: when someone asks you what you are reading, the follow-up question is usually “What’s it about?” In the case of Tench, the answer is “A paedophile”, which, understandably, tends to dampen any further conversation. And the experience of reading it is not unlike that exchange: it is a very brave, very sad book about a lonely and conflicted man with fatally weak support networks, and as such, it is not the sort of thing that one “enjoys” reading. On the other hand, Schilperoord’s grasp of emotional beats in the soul of someone trying hard to be good and do the right thing is superb, and moving. This book will cut you. That’s a recommendation, I promise.

Inge Schilperoord is a Dutch criminal psychologist, and her experience with men like her protagonist, Jonathan, goes a long way towards explaining why he is such a convincing character. As the book opens, he is being released from prison. Something happened to put him there – something involving the neighbour’s daughter Betsy, who seems to suffer from a developmental disability – but the evidence to keep him there is apparently insufficient, and so he is let go. There isn’t much for him to return to: his mother is a well-meaning provincial naif who suffers from asthma and needs Jonathan’s care and attention almost every hour of the day. In a way, this suits Jonathan just fine. He creates a strict daily schedule for himself built around his shift at the fish gutting factory, his daily walks with the elderly family dog, Milk, and keeping house for his mother. Built into the schedule are “exercises” from his workbook, designed to help him control his own thoughts and actions.

His days are so regimented that we know from the beginning, with sinking hearts, it can’t last. Just after moving in, Jonathan meets Elke, a prepubescent girl who lives next door with her single mother. Elke is often left alone in her house, and while Jonathan’s been in prison, she’s been walking Milk for his mother. When they meet, disaster is inevitable.

Partly, Tench is an indictment of silence. Jonathan has no one to help him in his efforts to steer clear of Elke because he doesn’t tell his mother anything. He’s not even sure that she knows precisely why he went to prison: she didn’t come to his trial and he has asked his lawyer not to talk to her about the case. For her own part, his mother never tries to find out; there’s something in her son that she doesn’t understand, and though she loves him, she fears that part of him more than she can admit. So she tries to banish Elke from their house, but she doesn’t ask him anything outright, doesn’t discuss prison or the past with him, and is therefore unable to help him change his future. It’s an understandable attitude, but a useless one: pretend it’s not happening and everything will be all right. “That’s fine, son,” she says often, of his coffee-making or his omelette-flipping. These little finenesses can’t make up for the huge not-okay-ness of most of Jonathan’s life, but she tries to make it seem as if they can.

Schilperoord marshals the symbolism of the natural world to emphasise Jonathan’s constant discomfort: the story is set in a freak heat wave, and the tench of the title is a fish – thought by medieval peasants to have healing properties – which Jonathan tries to keep alive in his bedroom aquarium. It becomes the focus of his interactions with Elke, who loves animals and seems to be just as lonely as Jonathan himself, though where she is desperate for his company, he is terrified of hers. Slowly, as the care of the fish becomes their mutual concern, Jonathan’s flimsily constructed self-discipline begins to erode: first he promises himself he won’t allow the girl within a few dozen metres of him, then within five, then within two. He is constantly trying to maintain boundaries, but also constantly self-justifying.

And all the while, the relentless hot weather: humid, oppressive, and omnipresent. It’s a perfect metaphor for Jonathan’s own thoughts. His exercises tell him that these can be unlearned and rebuilt in a more acceptable image, but although he tries, it’s difficult to do the hard work on your own, without an external force holding you accountable. Schilperoord makes very sure that we see that: that we witness him trying, that we witness him backsliding not because he’s an evil kiddie-fiddler but because he’s human, in the same way that an alcoholic might try hard not to drink but end up reaching for a beer because, dammit, they’ve had a bad day.

Throughout the book, the climactic catastrophe looms. Something is bound to happen, but it’s hard to imagine how Schilperoord will engineer it without boxing herself in: either Jonathan gives in to his impulses, in which case the novel holds out no hope for individual goodness or effort at all, or he doesn’t, which, given the amount of time Tench spends destabilising Jonathan’s resolve, seems dramatically unsatisfying. The third option – the one Schilperoord finally takes – avoids these problems, but is tripped up by its sheer unlikeliness. But that, I think, is the danger inherent in writing a story with such high stakes; on one side or the other, melodrama lurks, and the fact that Schilperoord avoids it for as long as she does is impressive.

What this book most reminded me of was Ian Parkinson’s The Beginning of the End, which I reviewed about two years ago. Parkinson too writes from the perspective of an anti-hero whose lack of sympathetic qualities are due not to a Byronic, rebellious nature but to being repellent and heartbreakingly lonely. But Parkinson’s book does not hold out hope, and while Schilperoord’s book doesn’t really either, it feels by the end as though we’ve moved beyond hope. Jonathan has done nothing, but he will probably be punished. In a way, he’ll be safer back in prison – where at least a support system of psychologists and social workers exists – than out in the wide, terrifying world of flat shores and unpredictable children.

(It is also worth reading Alexandra Marzano-Lesnevich’s book The Fact of a Body in conjunction with Tench. Both give windows onto the almost insurmountable difficulties of living with paedophilia in a society where you are more likely to be reviled or ignored than offered help, and onto the painful struggle not to hurt anyone when, to you, it doesn’t even feel like hurt.)

Many thanks to Tabitha Pelly of Pushkin Press for the reading copy. Tench was published in the UK on 27 April 2017.

Reservoir 13, by Jon McGregor

The missing girl’s name was Rebecca, or Becky, or Bex.

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I’m growing more and more interested in the idea of reading protocols: roughly speaking, ways that we are primed to read and interpret a book given its genre, or its front cover design, or the name of its author. Jon McGregor’s name was familiar to me when I picked this up, but I’d never read any of his work before, so I had no real expectations. The front cover design gives little away. All you have to go on is the opening pages: a community-wide hunt for a thirteen-year-old girl who goes missing on the moors above an unnamed Peak District village, not far from Manchester. The reading protocols that most of us, I would guess, have developed by now prime us to expect that Reservoir 13 will focus on this disappearance: maybe it will flash back to the week before the girl vanishes, bring us forward in time; maybe it will take us into the police investigation, into the heads of the detectives trying to find her. Maybe we’ll learn what horrible thing happened to her, and why.

We don’t. That’s one thing worth knowing before you crack the spine of Reservoir 13: you never find out what happens. It’s a book that doesn’t so much challenge your expectations as ignore them. There is no point even in guessing what happened to the missing girl: we’re told, many times, that it could have been anything; an accident; something deliberately planned by her parents; a running away, a walk to the nearby motorway and a jump into a friendly-looking car and later a burial somewhere miles away, or maybe just the start of a new life. Although, over the years, two clues emerge from the surrounding landscape, they remain inconclusive. One of them isn’t even recognised as a clue and is discarded by the character who finds it, though we as readers are braced for it to be a breakthrough in the case.

Instead, the focus of the book is on the life of the village where the girl disappears. She and her parents are holiday-makers, passersby; the village, by contrast, is full of people who have lived there for years, people who farm and trade there and are making a life. The time period is never specified, but from context about what’s on the news, it’s probably the early 2000s. McGregor structures his book in thirteen chapters, each representing another year after the disappearance.

We are not permitted even the illusion of a single focal point. Unlike The Virgin Suicides, another novel set within and defined by a particular community, Reservoir 13 is not narrated by a “we”, and there is no main character. Instead the book’s voice is omnipotent and omnipresent, a godlike third-person narration that gives the impression of a village whose identity is a bit like that of Trigger’s broom: its composition is ever shifting, its inhabitants dying or moving or being born, but through some ineffable alchemy it remains recognisably the same place.

The other technique that contributes to this effect is McGregor’s use of the natural world, and the events of the farming year, as touchstones. Lambing, for instance, occurs every year and in every chapter. In the opening pages of the book, we are told that Jackson’s boys are seeing to it under the supervision of their aging father. By the end of the book, Jackson is confined to his bed after a stroke; it’s out of the question for him to play any sort of active role in the day-to-day workings of the farm, let alone the major events of the year. McGregor is quite willing to let his characters age and weaken—or age and mature, as in the case of Susanna Wright, who enters the village as an object of some suspicion, a yoga-practicing divorcée, and becomes embedded in the life of the community.

That is a particular beauty of Reservoir 13: all human life is here, and not in the Midsomer Murders sort of way that sees incest behind every rose bush. Instead McGregor introduces stories and characters that initially seem typically “English” (for which read: white, well-to-do, nuclear families) and gradually causes us to recognise that they’re more complicated. In one of the early chapters, Austin Cooper, the editor of the local paper, is complimented in the village shop on his wife Su’s pregnancy. Oh, okay, we think; young couple, probably yuppies or refugees from urban life, playing at journalism and housewifery. It’s only gradually that we learn that Su’s name is Su Lin; that her parents are Anglo-Chinese; that she works for the BBC; that Austin is sixty, and that for him marriage and fatherhood have long seemed unattainable joys. Likewise, Sally and Brian Fletcher appear to represent a classically dull village marriage: Brian is a permanent fixture on the parish council, Sally does volunteer-type things at the church and tracks butterflies in the nearby nature reserve. It’s with something of a shock that we learn they met online.

The obvious question, of course, is why tell this story, and why tell it this way? The missing girl vanishes on page one and as far as narrative closure goes, that’s pretty much it. Her parents hang around the village for several years, returning every so often, to be seen as objects of pity and bafflement. But we never get even the tiniest inkling of what happened to her—the police seem to have none—and though McGregor invokes her as surely and regularly as he does the New Year’s fireworks and the springtime well-dressing ceremony, with the quotation used at the top of this post, there is never much in the way of elaboration. Reservoir 13 is not about Rebecca Shaw’s disappearance.

But it could not be the book that it is without her. Everyone in this village carries a burden, even—especially—those who seem the most secure. Bossy matriarch Irene is becoming increasingly physically threatened by her developmentally disabled son Andew; Jones the school caretaker, convicted of possessing child pornography (charges he denies), is a full-time carer for his sister. Susanna Wright’s ex-husband is dangerous. Young James kissed Becky Shaw the day she disappeared. Wherever there is a community, there are people living in the shadows of their own secrets, in the light of the inexplicable secrets of their neighbours. Jon McGregor’s genius, in Reservoir 13, is to tell stories about the people who continue to live in such a place, the people who have to continue existing on land that holds great suffering and great sorrow and great mystery. The fact that Rebecca Shaw disappears there only serves as the most extreme example of that mystery. That place is our neighbourhood, and everywhere; the people are us, and everyone.

Reservoir 13 was published in the UK on 1 April 2017 by 4th Estate.

Baileys Prize Longlist Reading 5: Proulx

Being a series of short reviews of the Bailey’s Prize longlisted titles I hadn’t read before the announcement. These are mostly hack-jobs, consisting of extrapolations of my reading notes. Luckily I tend to make notes in full sentences. Spoilers ahead.

Barkskins, by Annie Proulx

51qccavjjel-_sx326_bo1204203200_Before we start, let’s be clear about one thing: Barkskins is extravagantly, almost defiantly, flawed. For one thing, it is far too long. Nobody needs 717 pages all at once; I know it is traditional to make exceptions for War and Peace and Clarissa but I am honestly not sure that even they make the most of their unwieldy page count. Barkskins certainly doesn’t need it; it would always have been a big book, mind you, but it could easily have been 200 pages shorter. For another, that length is compounded by Proulx’s tendency to sacrifice depth to breadth, most notably in terms of her characterisation. Characters are introduced, get married, go to seek their fortune, and die choking on river water or crushed by a falling log, all within the space of five pages—not just once, but repeatedly. As the book edges closer to contemporaneity, we’re allowed to focus more on individuals (I think this may also have something to do with the upward trajectory of the average lifespan), but there’s still a lot to keep track of, not least how all of these people relate to one another. (There are two family trees provided, but, for reasons surpassing understanding, they are in the back, so unless you flick through the whole volume first, you won’t know they’re there until it’s far too late.) It is the sort of book that could not have been published without the author being a big enough name to guarantee that it’d be worth it.

And yet, unlike most such books, Barkskins is actually pretty good. Once it settles down and starts focusing for longer stretches on individual characters, we find people who are worth caring about. There is the sexually aggressive Posey, who engineers not only the death of one husband who’s no good to her, but goes on to seduce and marry James Duke, heir to the Duke logging fortune. There is her daughter Lavinia, who from the 1880s onwards runs the business more competently and ruthlessly than any of the men on its board. There is part-Mi’kmaq Jinot Sel, who travels to New Zealand with his employer and patron and is horrified by the naive paternalism shown by whitemen towards the native Maori. (This eventually gets Jinot’s employer killed, which isn’t good news for Jinot either.) Everywhere, for over three hundred years, we are met with two things: the visceral ways in which men (and women) react to forests, and the complacent conviction of whites that they know best, wherever they are, whichever indigenous nation they’re encountering.

Barkskins is a lot like another book on the Baileys Prize longlist, The Sport of Kings, in that it refracts the history of an entire industry in North America through the focusing lens of a family (or two). Barkskins takes a much longer view—it starts in the 1690s and goes all the way up to 2013, where The Sport of Kings only starts in the nineteenth century—but Proulx’s and Morgan’s projects are almost identical. They ask us to see the ways in which racial prejudice is a definitive part of the American identity, and in particular of the business culture that America developed. Where Morgan focuses on the endemic racism of the South created by plantation slavery, Proulx looks much further back: the experience of black Americans is entirely absent from Barkskins, but only because she focuses on the displacement and total destruction of Native American ways of life. Though much of this is achieved through despoiling the natural habitat (I lost count of the number of times characters proclaimed that the forest needed no conservation, because it was infinite—literally too big to fall), a lot of it is also achieved through racial mixing. This starts in generation one, when Charles Duquet and René Sel both have children with Mi’kmaq women in New France (now Canada), and the effects of it continue to be felt for centuries: young men in later generations return to a dying Mi’kmaw village (yes, it’s spelled both ways) headed up by the long-lived patriarch Kuntaw. They’re mixed-race, poor, and looking for a place they can belong, but the old ways are disappearing fast, and there simply aren’t enough Mi’kmaq being born to replace the ones who are dying. It is also interesting to note that the Sels, who never attempt to hide or erase the Native parts of their heritage, develop into a dynasty of lumberjacks: they are professionals and have deep knowledge, but they are the workers. The Duquets, meanwhile—a line which at one point early on seems as though it might run out of boys, prompting Charles Duquet to adopt three from European orphanages—become the Dukes, owners of the greatest logging empire in North America. Their success exists alongside their utter rejection of any whiff of Mi’kmaq in their family’s past. (Proulx also dwells gleefully on the deep irony of a company that prides itself on family ownership and heredity being founded on adoption, a non-blood relationship.)

Proulx isn’t just interested in race fatalism, though; she uses race to comment on environmental choices. Whitemen are baffled by the Native American tendency not to develop and cultivate land, not to “improve” it; most white people genuinely see this as a sign that natives are unfit to live in the country. The Mi’kmaq, meanwhile, as well as representatives of other tribes and nations that we see, cannot understand what whitemen think they are doing: their “improvement” involves slash-and-burn cutting, huge amounts of wasted timber, erosion of topsoil leading to flash floods and landslides, and the total eradication of wildlife, which doesn’t seem much like improvement from an indigenous—or, indeed, sensible contemporary—point of view. Proulx mostly avoids the “magical Indian” stereotypes of inscrutable redmen in touch with the spirit of the forest, but she makes it quite clear that centuries of rapine and our current ecological disaster situation is due to the greed of white people. There’s a grain of hope: near the end of the book, a Duke son begins to take an interest in replanting, and develops a seedling nursery which later becomes a fully-fledged foundation that (in a nice touch) gives a grant to two young Sel descendants to study forestry and participate in a replanting project. And that grain of hope is appropriately complicated by the book’s final page; we want to believe that human ingenuity and determination can fix this problem, but we can’t fix everything.

So, final verdict time. There are awkward parts to Barkskins; quite apart from the length and the often-perfunctory investment in characters, we’re often treated to infodumps in the form of conversation which sounds stilted and silly even for a historical recreation. But overall? It’s surprisingly readable; when we do get the space to care about characters, they’re rounded and vivid; and Proulx’s staggering ambition is in large part repaid by the realism with which she corrals her themes and her loose ends. To be honest, I wouldn’t complain if it ended up on the shortlist. It’s trying to do something immense, and I think that’s worth celebrating.

The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist is announced on 3 April. For more commentary, see the rest of the Shadow Panel: Naomi, Antonia, Meera and Eric. Barkskins is published by 4th Estate, and is available in hardback.

Baileys Prize Longlist Reading 3: McBride

Being a series of short reviews of the Bailey’s Prize longlisted titles I hadn’t read before the announcement. These are mostly hack-jobs, consisting of extrapolations of my reading notes. Luckily I tend to make notes in full sentences. Spoilers ahead.

41no-ogymgl-_sy344_bo1204203200_The Lesser Bohemians, by Eimear McBride

The definitive characteristic of The Lesser Bohemians is its style. You cannot extricate anything about this book from the way in which it is told; as in the most elegant biological structures, form equals function. The story is basic: Eily, an eighteen-year-old drama student, fetches up in London from Ireland (which, in the 1990s, doesn’t seem to have been a fun place to grow up). Over the course of her first year in drama school, she will meet and fall in love with a man twenty years her senior. Gradually, she will come to learn his past—which is, to say the least, disturbing—and he will come to learn hers, which is likewise. The development of their relationship is the central interest of the book: McBride is not even as interested in whether they will stay together or not as she is in charting the ways that this relationship enables Eily’s meteoric journey towards emotional maturity.

This is especially pleasing because it means that a book which spends a good portion of its middle section detailing the personal struggle of a male character—Eily’s lover Stephen—ultimately refuses to grant that struggle primacy. We are interested in Stephen’s redemption, of course, but we’re mainly interested in it for the effect it has on Eily. It’s a nice inversion of tropes that usually have women suffering in order to develop a male character; McBride isn’t so crass a writer as to simply gender-flip the trope, but the shape we get is of a man’s personal hell being definitive for a woman’s emotional development, and not just because it traumatises her.

To get to the middle section, though, you have to get through the first ninety pages, and to get through those, you have to warm to the style. The phrase “stream of consciousness” generally makes me want to kick something (all articulation is artificial to an extent! You can’t write a stream of consciousness by definition! And usually what people mean by this phrase is just “unpunctuated”!), but McBride comes close: her narrative lens is a tight, first-person one, and Eily’s voice comes to us in fits and starts, sentence fragments, ungrammatical, present tense. It’s a much truer way of portraying the experience of thought and perception, for my money, than (to take one example) the unbroken monologue that Joyce gives Molly Bloom in Ulysses. It lays the book open to charges of preciousness, I suppose, but McBride manages here to be less overtly poetic than in her debut, A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, and so the voice doesn’t feel contrived. (It is also particularly well suited to a story about first love: the heart-pounding, the panic of jealousy, the grimness of the morning after a fight, all are rendered completely naturally in that slightly jerky present tense.) The test of a gimmick is whether it works, and this does. Once you realise that you’re not being narrated to, but instead are watching someone think, you know how to read it. (And we are very used to being narrated to, I admit. Having to do hard work as a contemporary reader, even as a reader of literary fiction, is fairly unusual.)

It does make me wonder where McBride will go next. To have written two novels in this style leaves her with a choice: write a third just like it, and become calcified in the public imagination as a one-trick pony in the style department, or write a third that differs from it wildly, and run the risk of disappointing the people who adore her work. Given the number of rejections her debut received, and how she persevered with it, though, I think she’s probably up to the challenge.

The remaining question is: would I shortlist this? The answer is that it depends heavily on how the rest of the longlist reading goes. I enjoyed it much more than I expected to, I think its stylistic choices work extremely well given the material, and I was hugely impressed by the way that McBride handles questions of love and trust: in the hands of a lesser writer this story could be 50-Shades-adjacent, but with McBride it isn’t; it is always about two people navigating the past inside the present, with varying degrees of success. But at the same time, for me, it lacks the visceral punch of Do Not Say We Have Nothing and The Power, and the gobsmacking ambition of The Sport of Kings, and the economical honesty of First Love (all on my tentative personal shortlist so far). The Lesser Bohemians might well make the grade if nothing else is better—which sounds like damning with faint praise, but believe me, whether it makes the personal (or the shadow panel’s) shortlist or not, it’s worth your time.

The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist is announced on 3 April. For more commentary, see the rest of the Shadow Panel: Naomi, Antonia, Meera and Eric. The Lesser Bohemians is published by Faber & Faber, and is available in hardback.

Baileys Prize Longlist Reading 2: Thien and Alderman

Being a series of short reviews of the Bailey’s Prize longlisted titles I hadn’t read before the announcement. These are mostly hack-jobs, consisting of extrapolations of my reading notes. Luckily I tend to make notes in full sentences. Spoilers ahead.

do-not-say-we-have-nothingDo Not Say We Have Nothing, by Madeleine Thien

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is comprised of nested narratives. Li-ling (or Marie), in ’90s Toronto Vancouver (thanks to eagle-eyed reader Shawn for catching that), is a maths-obsessed teenager whose father has disappeared back to China. They learn that he has committed suicide there, in Hong Kong. Later, a Chinese girl comes to stay with Marie and her mother. Her name is Ai-ming. She is only eighteen, and a political refugee, in trouble for having participated in the uprisings in Tiananmen Square. Her father, now dead, was Marie’s father’s former music teacher. Ai-ming begins telling Marie her family history, but these stories quickly take on a life of their own and the framing device drops out for chapters at a time, leaving us fully immersed in the lives of sisters Big Mother Knife and Swirl; then in the lives of their children, Sparrow and Zhuli, and of Sparrow’s student and best friend Kai.

The book spans seventy years in the middle of the twentieth century, during which time China underwent traumatic political and social change. From the time of the Civil War to the Cultural Revolution, this family is forced to adapt in ways that deny its members love, fulfillment, and security. Most of the book focuses on music: Sparrow is a promising composer, Zhuli a talented young violinist, Kai a pianist. All three of them attend Shanghai Conservatory. When the denouncements ramp up and the witch-hunts for counter-revolutionaries increase in the ’70s, the pressure to play only certain kinds of music, and in a certain style, becomes nearly unbearable, and the three young people bend or snap in different ways according to who they are.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is the most intellectually sophisticated book of the longlistees that I’ve read, so far: the questions it poses and the assertions that it makes about the ideology of making art are subtly framed and yet don’t detract from the actual story. Thien faces the fact that music and art in general cannot save you— that “poetry makes nothing happen”—and yet when Zhuli thinks “It belongs to me”, she recognises that you can hold onto music or beauty, you can claim it, and its significance comes from the assertion you make of its value to yourself. The number zero is also significant: Marie, the current-day Chinese-Canadian mathematician, talks about how zero can represent a value of both everything and nothing. It’s not hard to see the links between the idea of zero and the value of creativity in a society that hates and fears it. To write a Western-influenced sonata or to play Bach like an angel is worth nothing in post-Cultural Revolution China. And yet it is also worth everything

SPOILERS DEAD AHEAD – Thien achieves this depth of thought, this endless wrestling with value and the ethics of making art, while maintaining the reader’s investment in her multiple characters and their fates. When Zhuli kills herself, we care terribly; when Sparrow, near the end of his life, begins to engage politically, we see how hard it is for him because he has survived awful loss only by cultivating indifference. And she doesn’t do it through simplistic structure, either: on the page, it looks simple—there are no chapter headings telling us what time we’re in, for instance—but it develops in complexity as it follows this enormous tree of extended family and friends. Thien ensures that we don’t lose sight of our main characters, and the development of the framing story into part of the actual narrative near the end of the book is seamless, which is a lot harder to do than it looks.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is very affecting and deeply intelligent. So far, it is my favourite to win overall; I would be surprised if another longlisted book came near it, at least on its own terms.

41rubuzrhzlThe Power, by Naomi Alderman

One book that might challenge it—though with a very different flavour—is The Power. I am indebted to Abigail Nussbaum for helping me sort out my whirling, love-and-terror-addled thoughts on this book. Her review of it, at Strange Horizons, is really the place to go if you want someone intelligent and critically acute to open up The Power‘s complexities for you. Much of what I write here will be borrowed from that piece.

Everyone, by now, knows the premise of The Power: what if women and girls were suddenly capable of shooting bolts of electricity out of their bodies? As Nussbaum notes, this premise is the sort of thing that it’s easy to run away with in your own head, which sets you up to be disappointed by whatever the writer actually executes. Fortunately I went into The Power with little in the way of preconceptions (not because the premise didn’t excite me but because I hadn’t had the time to think about it much), and I was completely bowled over by it.

There are four strands to the book, four main point-of-view characters. Three of them are women. There’s Roxy, the child of a London crime boss who quickly takes over the business after what becomes known globally as the Day of the Girls; Allie, a fostered and abused girl who hears a “voice” that might be her own survival instinct or might really be the voice of God; Tunde, a Nigerian journalism student who gets the first footage of the Power being used in public, and drops out of college to follow the stories, broadcasting from YouTube; and Margot Cleary, a public servant whose response to the Power clears the way for her meteoric rise to the top of American government.

Critical responses to The Power have mostly been of the who’d-have-thought, women-can-be-just-as-violent-as-men school. It’s true, obviously, but as analysis goes it’s not very deep. Alderman is using gender as a focusing lens, but I don’t think this book is really about gender; if it were, there would be a lot more in the way of retributive justice, and what we get instead is a horrifying breakdown of the comforting cause-and-effect that justifies vigilantism. In the most brutal scene of the book, a gang of women attack a refugee camp full of men in the mountains of Moldova. Tunde, who survives—just—notes the complete absence of sense and logic: these women are not attacking men who’ve wronged them. They are torturing, raping (yes, really, and the way Alderman makes that work is terrifying and illuminating about the fundamental point of rape as an act of war: to humiliate) and killing because they can. And it’s that motive—because you can—that runs through the book. It’s not about gender; it’s about power.

Which makes Alderman’s project, and her book’s ending, a lot more fundamental. The question that The Power asks is: is it even possible for humans to create and exist in an egalitarian society? Or, as Nussbaum puts it in her review, “If you can completely upend the foundations of human civilization and yet end up at exactly the same place, then isn’t there a greater flaw at work? Is there another way, or do there always have to be winners and losers, strong and weak, powerful and powerless?”

There are flaws (fortunately I managed to notice these before reading Nussbaum’s review, though she discusses them more deeply.) One of the most curious omissions in The Power is any discussion of transgender individuals. The electrostatic power in women is biological; it comes from an organ at the base of the throat called the skein. A very, very small number of biological males develop it, too, but they’re seen as freaks and outcasts. Does that mean that most trans women don’t have it? What about trans men? What does that do to their status in society? Racial difference, too, is erased or ignored. From a writer’s point of view, I can see why—there are only so many stories you can tell at one time—but it’s odd, given the book’s fascination with the arbitrary exercise of power, not to include the effects that the Power might have on other forms of societal oppression.

Regardless. The Power is nightmarish and profound and one of the ballsiest books I have read in years. This must be what is meant by “the best of women’s writing”; if it’s not this, this deep engagement with the terms of human civilisation’s very existence, what is it? If it were up to me, I would put it on the shortlist without hesitation.

The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist is announced on 3 April. For more commentary, see the rest of the Shadow Panel: Naomi, Antonia, Meera and Eric. Do Not Say We Have Nothing is published by Granta and is now in paperback; The Power is published by Viking and is available in hardback.

Bailey’s Prize Longlist Reading 1: Tremain, Atwood, Omotoso

Being a series of short reviews of the Bailey’s Prize longlisted titles I hadn’t read before the announcement. These are mostly hack-jobs, consisting of extrapolations of my reading notes. Luckily I tend to make notes in full sentences. Minor spoilers ahead.

The Gustav Sonata, by Rose Tremain

9781784700201Gustav Perle lives in Matzlingen, Switzerland, with his beloved Mutti. The second World War has just ended. His father, Erich, is dead – a hero, his Mutti says, but Gustav doesn’t know anything about him, not why he died or what he was like when he was alive. Gustav adores Mutti, but she spends a lot of time ignoring him, or crying. When Anton Zwiebel joins the local kindergarten, Gustav has a friend for the first time in his short life. The rest of Rose Tremain’s poised and beautiful book is dedicated to the story of Anton and Gustav’s friendship, and to the story of the truth of Erich and Emilie Perle’s marriage.

It has been said that The Gustav Sonata is about neutrality, and it is, sort of, but the word I thought of most when I was reading it was “caring”, which is another way of talking about neutrality. The book is intensely focused on care: giving care, receiving care, in the sense of love and attention, is at the heart of Gustav and Anton’s relationship. It is also Gustav’s problem. He is pushed into adulthood early by a lack of care from his mother Emilie (who tells him frequently as a child that he must “master himself”); he is forced into a caregiving role vis-à-vis Anton by Anton’s parents, who are kind to Gustav but surprisingly willing to place the burden of Anton’s emotional well-being on a pre-adolescent’s shoulders. Meanwhile, Gustav’s family history is characterised by a generational withholding of care: Emilie, his mother, was constantly chastised and neglected by her mother, Irma, and the book’s second section, on the Perle marriage, charts the decline of care between two people in a way that illuminates everything about Gustav’s life. Meanwhile, excessive care damages people: Anton is hurt by it – his major adult relationship is passionate, but deeply abusive – and the affair between Erich Perle and his boss’s wife is unhealthy in its obsessiveness.

Tremain plants her thematic seeds carefully and tends them throughout the novel, so that resonances spring up at you as you read. Switzerland’s political neutrality, the destructive neutrality of one human being towards another, and Erich Perle’s rejection of official neutrality in order to save refugees are all tied together. Tremain writes like Kate Atkinson: her prose is accessible and clear without making the treatment of her subject light or superficial. The ending could, I think, be more delicate and also more believable: there is never any sense of sex in Gustav’s life, either before or after the final revelation of Anton’s love, and I think it is a disservice to deny him this. If it’s intentional, it isn’t leaned on enough to make the intention clear. But this is a question of verisimilitude versus thematic coherence – whether something is entirely believable versus whether it reinforces the novel’s general concerns – and so my reservation is pretty minor.

Hag-Seed, by Margaret Atwood

29245653Atwood’s novel is the fourth in the Hogarth Shakespeare series that seeks to “retell” some of the most famous of the plays as novels set in the present day. Some of these have been more successful than others; Atwood’s, I think, is the best so far. The reason it works is because she fully acknowledges the existence of The Tempest inside the world of her novel, which frees her: she doesn’t have to pretend, like Jeanette Winterson and Howard Jacobson, that the uncanny similarities between her characters and the plot of Shakespeare’s play is mere happenstance. She can delve right into those parallels, explore them explicitly, instead of making us wonder why no one in the book has yet noticed how unlikely this all is.

Her Prospero is Felix Phillips, a disgraced and deposed theatre festival director now going by the name Mr. Duke and teaching a theatre course in the local prison. Miranda – brilliantly – is dead (because the late plays are all about dead daughters, losing daughters, coming to terms with grief); she died of meningitis as a three-year-old, a horribly plausible scenario. After twelve years of living in hiding from his former associates, Felix chooses his method of revenge: he will stage his own production of The Tempest at the prison, and take down the men who betrayed him—now high-ranking politicians—along the way.

Whether this revenge fantasy would actually work or not (and I admit it would rely heavily on excellent timing, which usually doesn’t work out in real life), you have to admire the way Atwood takes on the play. Felix walks his convict players through The Tempest with a thorough thoughtfulness that I found genuinely illuminating. It might, I suppose, be considered a little academic, but the tone is always that of an interested and informed person talking to other interested people; Felix neither talks down to nor bamboozles his actors, and by extension, he doesn’t do these things to us. The Tempest is a play uniquely well-suited to prison. Felix and Atwood allow us to watch the dawning awareness, among the convict-actors, of the story’s relevance, and it is a gorgeous, shiver-inducing thing. The only major concern I had was when Atwood ventriloquised the rap songs that the actors invent to make the play more contemporary: would it sound like a White Lady Author “doing” street? Answer: sort of, but mostly, I think, because raps look awful written down. When I did them in my head, they…well, they worked. Though I don’t envy whoever does the audiobook.

The Woman Next Door, by Yewande Omotoso

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Hortensia James and Marion Agostino are next-door neighbours in an upmarket area of Cape Town. Hortensia is black, married to a white British husband; Marion is white (and racist, which we’ll learn about later.) They are eighty years old, they have both run successful businesses—Hortensia as a textile designer, Marion as an architect—and they hate each other. The Woman Next Door is an account, if not quite of how they become friends, then of how they come to hate each other a little bit less.

Marion’s racism is breathtaking. She’s a woman of her generation—apartheid was her normal. Her housekeeper, Agnes, is a black South African who is expected to eat from separate containers and use separate (and inferior) toilet paper. Agnes spends no energy in contesting any of this; she simply, quietly, gets on with the business of being a real human with some level of agency. When Marion eventually discovers that Agnes has stopped using the toilet paper bought for her, she is shocked and dismayed, until Agnes reveals that she’s simply paying for her own bogroll. But Marion’s relief is shortlived: it turns out that Agnes has started buying better-quality stuff than Marion allows herself. This scene is the sort of thing Omotoso excels at, the delicate dance of social oneupmanship. She tells a little bit too much more than she shows, though I think that’s a common misstep with social comedy.

The biggest stylistic hiccup with The Woman Next Door is the occasional register clash, or what feels like it. Omotoso uses words like “peeved” and “messed up”, which sound either euphemistic or childish, or both, and represent a linguistic cautiousness I wouldn’t expect from two old women who, we’re told, can “cut the legs off people” with their words. In general, on the sentence level, this book isn’t going to set you aflame. I do think its political content is sly and significant; the kinds of people who will read a book blurbed by Helen Simonson are not necessarily going to respond well to polemic, but Omotoso does slip in commentary. There’s a subplot about reparations in the form of a land claim (which I’d have liked a lot more of) and another about the descendant of a slave who lived on the farm where the neighbourhood now stands. I’m pleased that these points are present; they might find an audience that would otherwise have missed them. It’s also a book about old women, and about friendship, and we don’t get many books about old women; as Naomi said, more please. I like it fine, and will probably recommend it to quite a few bookshop customers. I’m just not sure it’s a shortlister.

The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist is announced on 3 April. For more commentary, see the rest of the Shadow Panel: Naomi, Antonia, Meera and EricThe Gustav Sonata is published by Vintage and is now in paperback; Hag-Seed is published by Hogarth and is available in hardback; The Woman Next Door is also published by Vintage and is also now in paperback.