Reading Diary: Apr. 30-May 12

coverIn 2009, a young music student named Edwin Rist broke into the Natural History Museum’s exotic bird collection at Tring in Hertfordshire. He carried away around three hundred bird skins, many of which were not only immensely valuable on the black market, but had incalculable scientific value. Some of them were from Alfred Russell Wallace’s famous expedition in the Malay Archipelago, and still bore biodata tags with Wallace’s handwriting on them. Rist was caught, but questions remained: who was this kid, and how had he managed a heist of this magnitude? What had he wanted the feathers for in the first place? And—given the number of skins missing from the museum—had he been assisted by someone else? Where were those skins now?

In The Feather Thief, Kirk Wallace Johnson has written an outstandingly readable account of the theft and its aftermath. Rist was a homeschooler, a brilliant flute player, and a champion salmon fly-tier. Fly-tying is a curious community; tiers become obsessive about recreating Victorian “recipes”, which often call for extremely rare feathers, sometimes from birds that are now endangered or extinct. As a result, much of the international black market in feathers is represented by single-minded tiers looking for, let us say, a Flame Bowerbird skin. Rist sold much of his loot to people like this. Some, when he was busted, agreed to return what they’d purchased. Others—most of the others, in fact—either refused outright, or became increasingly cagey before refusing to return Johnson’s messages. (Johnson enters the narrative about two-thirds of the way through; he hears the story of the heist while on a fishing trip, and becomes increasingly invested in seeing as many of the skins returned to Tring as possible. He also interviews Rist, who escaped prison by way of a psychological assessment that concluded he had Asperger’s Syndrome and was not aware of the gravity of his actions. Johnson is not so certain, and his account of the interview raised serious doubts for this reader, as well; Rist displays none of the characteristics of someone with Asperger’s.)

In among the true crime stuff, Johnson sprinkles natural history and straight-up history: accounts of the first birds of paradise to be caught by Europeans, statistics regarding the wholesale slaughter of exotic birds for Victorian and Edwardian millinery, the esoteric world of salmon fishing and fly-tying, and the murky online forums where, in the early years of the twenty-first century, tiers swapped not only tips and tricks, but feathers: sometimes legally sourced, sometimes not. It’s a profusion of detail that could be confusing, but Johnson’s journalistic training means he writes with great clarity and restraint. The Feather Thief ticks so many boxes: science, history, true crime, and the mysterious now-what-the-hell factor that all good stories have. Very worthwhile.

9781786073228Shahad Al Rawi’s debut novel, The Baghdad Clock, isn’t metaphorically titled: there really is a large landmark clock in Baghdad with four faces. It perches on top of a tall stem, visible from all directions, like a kind of Martian Big Ben. In the novel, it serves as a place for the unnamed narrator and her best friend Nadia to meet up with the boys they love. It also serves as the title of the book the two girls decide to write: a history or memorial of their neighbourhood, which is increasingly decimated by emigration as sanctions tighten on Iraq during the late ’90s and early 2000s. The clock marks the forward pace of time, but it also helps to keep time still, to preserve moments and individuals forever in a particular state of being, as writing does.

Al Rawi explicitly cites Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years Of Solitude (our narrator, dreamy and imaginative, adores it; Nadia finds it boring). Unlike many novels that look to Marquez, Al Rawi seems to me to be a completely legitimate heir to his project; like him, she delineates the effects of the outside world, of time and strife, on a small community, in this case a middle-class neighbourhood in Baghdad. Magical realist touches are dotted throughout the story so naturally that it comes as something of a shock to discover that they’re there: when our narrator goes for a midnight stroll and encounters an enormous cruise liner parked next to the eponymous clock, it takes us some time to realise that it’s not a dream. This mostly succeeds because the narrator’s voice—by turns naive, sparky, precocious, and creative—is the medium through which we encounter the whole story, and it’s consistent and convincing. Fans of The Kite Runner and The Iraqi Christ, as well as the aforementioned Garcia Marquez, will want to read this.

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The Yukon River in Alaska is home to the king salmon, a fish that has been commercially hunted to the point of absolute peril and which also forms a large part of the religious and cultural life of the indigenous folk of both Alaska and Canada. (Adam Weymouth, in Kings of the Yukon, uses the words “Indian” and “Eskimo” to distinguish between ethnic groups which are not differentiated by catch-all terms like “First Nations” or “indigenous peoples”. He notes, also, that many Alaskan indigenes use “Indian” or “Eskimo” themselves. It never particularly stands out, or at least it didn’t to me, and never appears to be used in disrespect.) This book is an account of a voyage made down this enormous river in a canoe, over the course of several months, on the trail of king salmon.

Weymouth’s nature writing, particularly his descriptions of river, forest, and wildlife encounters, is reminiscent of John McPhee’s extraordinary Alaska travelogue Coming Into the Country. So is his journalistic eye: his encounters with the people who live and work along the Yukon are reported with a sense of interested detachment (except for a scene in which Weymouth and his partner Ulli Mattson encounter some young people at a fishing camp who seem particularly threatening; the intrusion of authorial fear is jarring enough that the reader understands how truly serious the situation seems.) The real star of the book is, of course, the king salmon, a mysterious creature that engages in behaviour unlike any other animal on earth, that has supported whole civilisations on its back. It is now the cheapest fish you can get in a supermarket. Weymouth focuses on the differences between commercial and subsistence fishing, demonstrating how enforced Department of Fish and Game quotas disproportionately affect subsistence fishers and do little to discourage big commercial actors. He also writes with some wonder on the weird biology of the king salmon, its restlessness and relentless homing instinct, and how hatcheries are at best a partial solution to the problem of a shrinking population. Most importantly, though, Kings of the Yukon is intensely readable: a mix of adventure and natural history with a dollop of sociology. Like The Feather Thief, it is immensely worth your time.

51teaie8lhl-_sx313_bo1204203200_It’s difficult for me to approach Bill Bryson with critical or analytical intent, mostly because he’s as integral a part of my childhood, and of my family’s particular culture, as winter picnics, or the annual intergenerational Thanksgiving football game, or putting out beer for Santa. (We do that.) A Walk in the Woods has always had a particularly special place in my heart because it’s about his attempt to walk the Appalachian Trail, which runs in part along the Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park, about twenty minutes from where I grew up. (My parents spent a not inconsiderable amount of time pushing me and my brother up those trails when I was a young’un.) So when the bank holiday loomed and I decided not to bring any proofs away to Sussex with me, but instead to reread an old beloved or two, this was a natural choice.

There’s been some controversy surrounding A Walk in the Woods, mostly because of the way Bryson portrays his walking companion, an old school friend named Stephen Katz whom he hasn’t seen since they backpacked around Europe together twenty years earlier. Katz is a phenomenal comic creation: he’s philosophical, simple but able to get to the heart of things, amusingly materialistic, and most of all, crazy as a bedbug. (He has a temper tantrum and hurls some important things, like food, out of his pack and off a cliff. What sort of things, Bryson asks, worried. “I don’t know”, says Katz. “Heavy shit. Fuck.” We’ve all been there, no?) He’s also a reformed alcoholic, and near the end of the book comes a rather moving scene in which Katz attempts to open up to Bryson about the desperation and boredom of staring down the barrel of the rest of your shitty little life without booze to make it feel worthwhile. The scene is delicately rendered, suffused with a specifically male absence of demonstrative affection but full, nevertheless, of unspoken, deeply charged emotional truth. But it occurred to me, both then and in earlier scenes where Katz’s lack of physical fitness is dwelt upon, that this was potentially very hurtful material, and might even constitute something like a betrayal of trust. Writers’ friends are told not to trust them for good reason.

There are two primary virtues of A Walk in the Woods. Firstly, it is casually but highly informative about forests and human relationships to nature in America in general, and about the Appalachian Trail in particular. This is the sort of talent that enabled Bryson later to write A Short History of Nearly Everything, the best popsci primer I know. Secondly, and most importantly, it is devastatingly funny. There is a scene in which the two men have to escape Waynesboro, Virginia (a town through which my mother drives twice a week) without being shot by the husband of a woman Katz has inadvertently picked up in a laundromat, which has me nearly weeping with laughter every time I read it, and I’ve read it four times in the past ten years. He’s still the funniest travel writer I know.

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More Virginia with Kevin Powers’s second book, A Shout in the Ruins. Consensus seems to be that it’s good, but not on the same level as his debut novel, The Yellow Birds, which set the bar for early literary explorations of the (Second) Iraq War. Having not read The Yellow Birds, all I can say is that it must be absolutely bloody outstanding, because A Shout in the Ruins is really very, very, very good.

Powers is interested in war in general: A Shout in the Ruins alternates between chapters set during the American Civil War, and chapters set in the 1960s and 1980s, during which the Vietnam War and its aftermath crops up regularly. Much of Powers’s best writing focuses on the intimacy and the brutality of armed conflict, such as a scene in which Bob Reid, the owner of a shipping business near Richmond, loses half his arm during a skirmish near Mechanicsville. His conversation with a nearby, and equally badly wounded, enemy soldier is made possible because both men believe they will die. When Reid is rescued, the Confederate scavengers who find him savagely murder the man whose companionship has kept him awake and alive. Powers is too canny a writer to do more than show us a brief glimpse of this, but what we do see is haunting. He does the same thing when outlining emotional states. The manipulative behaviour of Mr. Levallois, Reid’s neighbour and eventual son-in-law; Reid’s mental disintegration after his injury; his daughter Emily’s diminishment in her marriage; and, over all, the untold emotional traumas of Rawls and Nurse, a slave couple whose fates are entwined with the Reids: all are recounted but not dwelt upon. Powers leaves us to conjure for ourselves the deep horror of, for instance, Rawls’s crippling, as a child, by a master determined to stop him running away.

The effect is that the evils of slavery are fully presented, but in a way that doesn’t read with the almost pornographic flavour of explicit violence. Unlike Marlon James’s The Book of Night Women, or even a scene or two in Colson Whitehead’s The Underground RailroadA Shout in the Ruins doesn’t dive deeply into the physical torture inflicted upon slaves by white folks; it just shows us, on nearly every page, that it’s there. As a white Southern male author, Kevin Powers’s position in relation to the history of American slavery is necessarily going to be different from the positions of Whitehead or James, and as such, his decision prevents the novel from falling into prurience (the white gaze on the tortured black body). It feels as though the book respects its characters, even as their lives are made increasingly difficult.

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Historical literary fiction is doing rather well at the moment, and the casual reader could be forgiven for feeling perhaps a bit wearied of the whole thing: the elaborate covers, the gushing praise, the mannered titles. I’m here to tell you that The Illumination of Ursula Flight is worth the read. It would appeal, I think, to fans of The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock, but it is in many ways a very different book. Ursula, our protagonist, speaks to us in her own voice throughout, and it is a voice with wit, sparkle, and plenty of youthful callowness; she is far from a flawless heroine, making decisions that remind us of how very young she is when cast into the world (fifteen at her marriage, nineteen at the end of the book). If, occasionally, she almost seems more adult in her thinking than is plausible, recall Becky Sharp of Vanity Fair, who claimed to have ceased being a child at the age of eight.

Ursula is born on the night of the Great Comet in 1664, just before the Restoration of Charles II. Throughout the book, the tensions in England – vanquished Puritans vs. decadent courtiers – are mirrored by the tensions in Ursula’s own life: her family is noble but needs money and so she is married off to the dour (and foul-smelling) Lord Tyringham, whose devoutness is matched only by his hypocrisy (he has an almost fetishistic fondness for plain clothes that leads him to sexually assault his female servants). Ursula, who has grown up surrounded by love and the freedom to roam the fields, read what she will, and write her own plays, is suffocated by marriage; she takes joy in the Court, in fashion, and in the theatre. It may be a cruel world, but it glitters.

Crowhurst’s research is worn lightly, and mostly integrated in speech patterns. (I particularly like her characters’ attitude to grammar, which is manifest in letters from nobles of the time; they also say “how d’ye do”, never “how do you do”, and “babby” for “baby”. It’s small but pervasive, and it makes a huge difference to the sense of verisimilitude.) She’s also funny: Ursula’s observant and uncharitable teenaged eye makes her a good playwright but also an enjoyable narrator, reminding me very pleasantly of Catherine Called Birdy (did anyone else love that book as a kid?) My sole complaint is with the ending (spoilers in white, highlight to read): can we, just for once, have a story in which the heroine doesn’t carry her unexpected pregnancy to term? It makes sense in the context of Ursula’s character, and what she’s lost up to that point,  but I still found myself hoping that the abortifacient would work, and she would keep her liberty: single, unencumbered.

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Finally, Kat Gordon’s The Hunters is set in the 1920s and ’30s amongst the Happy Valley set in colonial Kenya. Theo Miller is fourteen, accompanying his parents and ten-year-old sister Maud to their new home outside of Nairobi. His father has been appointed director of the railways; his mother is preparing herself for a life of charitable works and social engagements, the model of a colonial industrialist’s wife. Everything changes, though, when Theo meets Freddie Hamilton and Sylvie de Croy in a Nairobi hotel. Bohemian, beautiful, worldly and yet ethereal, Freddie and Sylvie capture Theo’s imagination and his schoolboy heart. Over the course of fifteen years, Theo comes slowly to understand the darkness that lies behind the glamour and the gaiety of their unconventional circle. At the same time, his parents and sister are affected by the changing political situation in Kenya, the encroachment of World War II, and the decisions that must be made when one world replaces another.

For sheer atmosphere and addictiveness, The Hunters is going to take some beating as this season’s reasonably literary beach read. Gordon effortlessly conjures the wildness of the Happy Valley set: cocktails, croquet, open-topped cars, safaris, nights at the Nairobi Club, country house orgies, young gentlemen swinging from the chandeliers. Her most impressive achievement is her characterisation of Theo: although he’s our protagonist, he is a moth to flame, caught up too young in Freddie and Sylvie’s romantic games and nearly fatally unable to see them for the immature and thoughtless – and therefore cruel – people that they are. (It is a matter of conjecture as to why Theo’s parents permit him to go on overnight stays with adults ten years his senior, with whom they are not friends and about whom they have heard only negative things. From a modern perspective, he is being groomed; from a late Edwardian perspective, he is damaging his own prospects and possibly the family’s. Obviously, the plot requires that he be allowed to spend time with Freddie and Sylvie, so that is what happens.)

Our moral centre is Maud, Theo’s sister, and here is where The Hunters palls slightly; Maud is made into a white crusader for native rights, a clear-eyed anti-fascist when everyone around her is applauding Mosley and the Blackshirts. There are sometimes people who are capable of looking at their own time from a distance, but it always feels so very convenient when a work of fiction produces such a character and uses them as a demonstration of its own social progressiveness. I am not saying that Maud is necessarily anachronistic, merely that she is presented much as Miss Skeeter in The Help: this book’s obvious advocacy for sovereignty for Africans does not extend to giving its African characters particularly complex roles or even very much dialogue. Maud’s love for, and eventual bearing of a child with, Abdullah, the family’s house boy, is presented as bold and transgressive – for her. No one in the book ever pauses to contemplate the danger Abdullah faces in this relationship. In addition, the final thirty or so pages are unnecessarily melodramatic (why must there always be an accidental death?), in a way that drags down the (much fresher) rest of the book. Still, a page-turner: I read it in a day.

Thoughts on this week’s reading: A lot of wilderness. Also, I only read one book over the bank holiday weekend, which was weirdly liberating. There are so many proofs lined up on the shelves that to just let them all go for three days felt salutary.

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Young Writer of the Year Award Reading: The Lauras, by Sara Taylor

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Being a series of short reviews of the Young Writer of the Year Award shortlisted titles. Spoilers ahead.

Sara Taylor’s first book, The Shore, made me sob openly in a coffee shop. It’s a novel composed of interlinked stories, all set on Virginia’s Atlantic shore, and despite its great beauty, it is dark: the scene that made me cry is a rape scene, and it represents better than any I’ve ever read the way in which an assault is so often a betrayal of trust, that stomach-flipping slide from joyful banter with someone you consider a friend to the queasy realisation that that friend wishes to—is about to—hurt you. Her second book, The Lauras, is on the Sunday Times/PFD Young Writer of the Year Award shortlist, and on paper it’s nothing like The Shore, being a road trip novel and an exploration of mother/child relationships and a hymn to living unconventionally. But there is a genetic similarity: an interest in that same kind of darkness, a willingness to peer at the moments in which we realise ourselves to be in danger.

The title of the book is a bit of a red herring; yes, in theory, Ma and Alex are embarking on a two-year road trip across America to track down the five women—all named Laura—who played important roles in Ma’s life. But the focus of the book is not really on these women, or even necessarily on Ma’s past. Alex, who identifies as neither male nor female, is our narrator; we spend all of our time in their head, and what The Lauras is really about is the slow journey of a person towards comfort in their own skin.

(Rebecca posed the question, in an email thread between the shadow panelists, of how we see Alex’s sex or gender. I didn’t think very much about it until the point at which the book began to emphasise Alex’s non-binary identification, which doesn’t happen for some time. If I had to put money on it, I would say that Alex is probably biologically male. Obviously this isn’t the point of the book, but it makes the front cover design far more interesting: the person on the front is plainly coded as feminine—long hair, wearing a dress, seen from behind—which makes me think the whole design process was a piece of marketing bluff. The other option is that the design is a huge, ironic wink: there’s absolutely nothing in the text that suggests Alex is a girl, but because the book begins with a grown woman and a child fleeing a man in the middle of the night, our reading protocols are heavily weighted towards seeing them as such. One does not so readily picture adolescent boys escaping their fathers. It would probably be too much to hope that a commercial publisher’s design department would be so witty, though.)

Much of the book is told in flashback, as Ma tells Alex the parts of her story that are necessary for each new encounter. Most of these are interesting enough in themselves that the somewhat episodic nature of the tellings doesn’t drag: the story of Margaret-Mary, for instance, who is Ma’s friend and partner in crime at college until she meets and marries a devoutly Christian—and dour, humourless, repressive—man. Ma and Alex rescue Margaret-Mary’s eldest daughter, Anna-Maria, from the same fate, and Alex resents the way the two older women bond. It’s a clever way of incorporating another angle on what it means to be a good child, what it means to be a good parent, and whether, in the end, neither of those things is as important as developing your own sense of honesty and self-sufficiency.

There’s not a huge sense of urgency about The Lauras, so it helps that Taylor is capable of some really lovely turns of phrase: “We were caught on the thin, hungry edge of the morning,” she writes early on, “before the sun sliced itself open on the horizon and bled out across the sky.” There is also an emotional honesty to her treatment of potentially traumatic events that lifts them out of sordidness. Alex, trying to hitchhike back to the town where they’re staying after an ill-conceived jaunt to the next state over (so that they can send their dad a postcard without being traceable), is picked up by a classic Guy In A Car who ends up forcing them to give him a blowjob as payment for the lift. Taylor deals with it in the most astonishingly open and honest way: Alex is kind of grossed out, sure, but they’re also fourteen and desperate to get laid, and there’s a sense of grim determination in their efforts to get the guy off. When they think about it later, it is with disgust and fear, but never also without a faint tinge of excitement. That’s as true a reaction as any I can think of: reactions to assault are often complicated and inconsistent. Taylor’s willingness to explore that makes her an extremely brave writer, and she achieves the effect subtly.

Final verdict? Given that it’s the first of the shortlist that I finished, it’s impressive. Are there points at which the plot drags a little? Perhaps. But in a way, that is the purpose of the genre in which Taylor is working. A road trip novel, like a road trip, is never about where you’re ultimately heading, but about what you experience along the way.

The Young Writer of the Year Award winner is announced on 7 December. For more commentary, see the rest of the Shadow Panel: Rebecca, Clare, Dane and Annabel. The Lauras is published by Windmill, and is available in paperback.

Golden Hill, by Francis Spufford

By morning, the news was all around town that a stranger had arrived with a fortune in his pocket.

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In an attempt both to write about more of the books I read—not just the ones I get for free off of publishers—and to make that process less intimidating, I’m experimenting with different ways of posting, e.g. not always my usual essay. I like the idea of “journaling” about a book; in particular, books that have been released for a while don’t, I think, need to be “reviewed” as much as they simply need to be considered. As always, feedback appreciated.

I am not at all sure that I have read a more purely enjoyable book this year than Golden Hill. It ticks many of my personal-preference boxes: set in the eighteenth century (New York City, 1746), exploring finance and trade and the intersection of the political with the personal. I was hoping that it would be a bit like Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Trilogy. And in many ways, there were similarities, but Spufford is doing something with the material that is totally his own, and with such confidence in his plot and such exuberant yet finely controlled language that I smiled more times than I could count. One of 2016’s most unalloyed reading highlights; I keep trying to think of reasons to dislike it, and am unable to come up with any.

Further to journaling, here is some elaboration on the reasons that I did like it:

  • Its echoes of David Simple/Tom Jones/Roderick Random (eighteenth-century English picaresque novels) are entirely intentional. David Simple in particular is referred to repeatedly, explicitly, throughout the text; I like that Spufford has done his homework. I also like how good-humoured he is about these novels, and about novels in general, often in quite a meta way. For instance: his protagonist is Richard Smith, who appears in New York with an order for a thousand pounds in his pocket. Smith falls in love with his banker’s prickly eldest daughter Tabitha. At a dinner one night, Tabitha’s sister Flora, who loves novels, asks Smith to pass her his copy of David Simple. He hands it to Tabitha to pass down the table. Mistake: Tabitha is a self-professed hater of novels (though she is by far the brightest woman Smith meets). She hurls it down the table in disgust, where it lands in a soup bowl and is fished out by another dinner guest.
  • It is intensely atmospheric; more specifically, it evokes in great detail just how provincial colonial New York was. In 1746 there was still a strong Dutch presence there; Richard meets the influential Van Loons, and a powerful judge drives in to town from “his farm in the Bouwerij” (the Bowery). There are just enough surprising touches like that—moments where Spufford’s use of the old name for a place meets my awareness of our contemporary name for the same place—to make the setting seem both utterly familiar and utterly alien, and yet it never becomes an end in itself, it never yanks you out of the story. I spent several pages eagerly following Smith’s progress up a semi-rural road referred to as the Broad Way. It took me quite a long time to work out that this was, of course, what the famous Broadway had been in 1746.
  • Language and syntax are just antiquated enough to be interesting and believable, without being actual pastiche. Through various plot twists (again paralleling the picaresque tendencies of eighteenth-century novels), Smith is imprisoned; his letter to his father is both painfully poignant to read, and a sheer delight because of how perfectly it adheres to the style of the time. The main body of the narrative doesn’t use archaisms very often; instead, the structure of the sentences and judicious word choices (“I am become”, “a civil attention”) keeps the historical flavour correct.
  • The male gaze is repeatedly flipped, challenged or interrogated. Smith is, at one point, seduced by an “aging” (she’s forty-six) actress in a bathhouse; the narrator, delightfully, breaks off mid-sentence (this is another eighteenth-century thing, though people forget it: narrators that directly address, manipulate, and often annoy, the reader). “But why always Smith?” we are asked. “Was it necessarily true, that because she seemed to him the ripe, round, straightforward antidote to the complications of his hopes, the scene looked as simple through her eyes? Was she not taking the greater risk here? Did she not have to set aside cautions, sorrows, hopes, fears, loyalties, to permit herself the role of the plump and ready siren in the steam-room? …Should we not, at least, pay a little attention to [her] view of him?” It’s good; it maintains that lightness of touch that I mentioned earlier in relation to the way novels are discussed, though the point is serious. Plus, the late revelation of who, exactly, is narrating this story flips much of what we’ve seen and been told over the past 300 pages, which I very much enjoyed.
  • Related to the above, I think, is the fact that Spufford addresses homosexuality, slavery and women sensitively but, broadly, within the mindset of the times. He writes, for instance, a relationship between an African slave and a young white male secretary for the Governor, and picks his way delicately but confidently over and around the many faultlines of power and secrecy that their relationship implies. When Smith finds out, he tells the secretary—Septimus, one of his few friends in New York—that he does not think the less of him for sleeping with a man, or even for sleeping with a black man, but “for taking your pleasure where there is no possibility of it being refused.” (The relationship is consensual, but for Spufford to characterise Smith by making that his major concern is efficient to the point of mastery.) Smith’s relationship with Tabitha is equally complicated by the fact that she is what Kenneth Clarke would call “a bloody difficult woman”. Although Smith is attracted to her—and although he is also a highly unusual man—he has to devise his own script for interacting with her; his society and upbringing have given him one that is too limited to be helpful. In devising that independent script, he frequently makes mistakes, sometimes approaching the unforgivable, and Tabitha likewise. Spufford doesn’t shy away from that, which I think is a mark of real emotional honesty in a writer.
  • That emotional honesty leads to another thing: he’s not afraid to make bold plot choices. A major character dies three-quarters of the way through the book. Smith is in jail, then out of it, then in again. The first chapter is hardly over before he’s had his order for a thousand pounds stolen from his hands. And the ending—when we finally learn why he is in New York, where the money is from, and what he has been charged to do with it—is both brilliantly unexpected and makes perfect sense.

I’m so glad this book is in paperback now. I want everyone to read it. It would make an ideal Christmas holiday escape: cracking plot (you’ll be up past midnight reading) meets the vivacious clarity of truly excellent writing. It’s on my shelf of Books To Save From Fire now; I can’t praise it more highly.

Golden Hill is published by Faber and Faber.

Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo, by Boris Fishman

“You want to adopt, adopt a child from a place that you know.”

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Maya and Alex Shulman-Rubin live in New Jersey with their adopted son, Max. Alex’s parents, Eugene and Raisa—Soviet Jewish emigrés who have built their food import business into a small empire—live nearby, popping over to socialize and cook. Maya’s parents are still in the Ukraine; she doesn’t see them often, but she’s happy enough in the States, working as a radiologist and caring for her family. Until Max turns eight and starts behaving strangely: running away, sitting in streams, collecting grass. The Shulman-Rubins begin to worry. How much do they really know about their son—where he came from, what strange heritage might be surfacing? All they have to go on are the parting words from Max’s birth mother, eighteen-year-old Laurel from Montana: “You’re the mother,” she tells Maya. “You will raise him as you see fit. But I want to ask you for one thing… Please don’t let my baby do rodeo.”

As Max’s behaviour becomes increasingly erratic (though never violent), Maya decides the only way to lay their fears (and any ghosts there might be) to rest is to take Max back to the land of his birth. She doesn’t drive, so although Alex is reluctant (an understatement; he thinks it’s a terrible idea), the three of them set off together on a road trip from New Jersey to Montana, hoping to find some answers.

It’s a quixotic premise, and the book continues in that vein. What Maya seeks (it’s all about her; Alex is sort of a background character) is not clear, to her or to anyone else, and least of all to the reader. The developing strain on their marriage is obvious, and its source is, in large part, Maya’s inability to pin down what she wants out of this trip or how she plans to go about getting it. Alex is a much preciser man, though also a martyr: happy to retain the moral upper hand by passive-aggressively submitting to his wife’s every demand, no matter how patently illogical it seems to him. The second chapter of the book details how they meet and marry, and it was that chapter that pulled me into the story: everything that happens to the Shulman-Rubins is a direct consequence of their visa-marriage, when Maya and Alex are twenty-three, barely old enough to know what they’re doing. One of the clevernesses of Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo is that it details how romantic youthfulness can curdle, over time, into frustration with each other’s weaknesses. Maya is spontaneous, warm, and enigmatic, sure, but she’s also irresponsible, self-centered, and indecisive. Alex is rational, solid and sensible, but he’s also controlling, dismissive, and a coddled mama’s boy. Spend enough time with them, and you’ll find them just as infuriating and hurtful as they clearly find each other. You’ll also probably be just as invested.

What did surprise me about the book as a whole was the general attitude to adoption that the characters displayed. Maya and Alex adopt Max as an infant in 2004, and the main action of the book takes place in 2012. Yet Eugene Rubin, Alex’s father, has lines like these:

“Of course those parents sprang him on you the way that they did… And got away without ever telling you why. Rodeo?” He laughed in an ugly way. He was finally saying things he had kept back because he was kind. “What is that? A lie. But you ate it.” He stared at Maya and bellowed, “What didn’t they tell you?”

That’s an extreme example, of course, but the first chapter’s set-up—that Max is a problem child—relies on similarly odd, and seemingly outdated, ideas about child development. Eugene and Raisa are horrified to learn that Max sleeps not in his bed but on the floor, and that he collects and labels types of grass, and that he has been lobbying his parents to let him sleep outside in a tent. This, and his running away, are the indicators of delinquency that the reader is given. At no point does anyone suggest that this is basically fairly normal eight-year-old behaviour: the testing of social norms and boundaries, the collector’s obsessiveness, the experimentation with leaving the comforts and bonds of home. I’m pretty sure that my eight-year-old brother—as biological and non-adopted as they come—loved tents and catalogued his possessions, too, and running away isn’t exactly unheard of, either. Sure, Max gets pretty far; and sure, mothers worrying about their bonds with their adopted children is also not unheard of. But it strikes me as odd that the Rubins take these things as a definitive proof that there is a Problem that needs to be Solved. The same is true of Eugene’s argument about the birth parents, one that Maya repeats in internal monologues. Why would a pair of eighteen-year-olds give up a newborn? Aren’t there obvious reasons (not enough money; not enough stability; not enough maturity) without having to look for something sinister?

Maybe we’re meant to feel this bewildered by the main characters. Maybe this is part of us understanding that the immigrant experience in America is one that turns you around, makes you an outsider all your life even as you seek to assimilate, changes your perceptions of who you are and what you can expect from other people. It’s a strength and weakness of the book that I honestly can’t decide whether this is the case.

Fishman’s writing is impossible to fault, especially in its descriptive sections. He writes with precision about the emotional currents between fighting people; he writes sex well; he writes perfectly about the landscape of the American West:

The sign, its blue uncannily matched to the head-beating blue of the sky, was in the shape of the state. The circle at its heart divided, inversely, into snow-capped peaks rising above a lemony sun. But the sky was so general in every direction over the prairie they had been crossing, which was so flat it looked pressed with an iron, that she would not have been surprised to see the sun rolling along the fields rather than up in the heavens.

There is an interesting hitch in the rhythms of his prose, a slight obliqueness, that is like the written equivalent of a trace of a foreign accent: hard to track, hard to identify, nevertheless making itself known. It means that sometimes you have to reread, particularly the words that encircle dialogue, to grasp the logistics of a scene, or the mechanics of a complex emotion. It’s an enriching way to consume a book, though it is time-consuming.

There is always a vague spectre of disaster hanging over the road trip that comprises the book’s second half, although what species of disaster it might be is left up to the reader to theorize. The ending is ambiguous, but hopeful: Alex and Maya’s marriage will endure, though it won’t ever be the same; their love for their son is unchanged. And the meaning of “don’t let my baby do rodeo”? It would be cruel to give it away (though Fishman leaves this, too, a little ambiguous), but there’s a metaphor there: rodeo is about wrestling and wrangling, about asserting control, about putting yourself in the way of terrible harm—life-changing injuries or even death—in order to master something larger than yourself. It’s exhilarating and invigorating, but it is also violent, masculine and aggressive. Max’s birth father, Tim, was crippled by a bull in a rodeo at the age of eighteen. It’s the prayer of every mother: don’t let my baby do rodeo. Don’t let my baby come to harm. Don’t let my baby’s heart harden against the world. Don’t let my baby be hurt.

Many many thanks to Tabitha Pelly at ONE Pushkin for the review copy. Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo was published in the UK on 14 July.

Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts

Orlando. Jesus. I have nothing to say that will be in any way new or incisive. I have not got the right to say very much at all – I am straight and white and this is not about me. But here are some extraordinary, beautiful things:

  • The solidarity rally in London’s Soho was attended by Sadiq Khan, our new mayor (try to picture Boris Johnson doing that.)
  • Over 2,500 people attended in total. Here is a photograph of Old Compton Street from above:

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  • A friend of mine wrote this on Facebook. I can’t improve on it. “To all my friends in the LGBTQ+ community…you are so loved. I’m thinking about you right now and sending a metric fuckton of hugs and kisses your way. I wish we all lived in a world where you could feel safe to dance with and love and kiss whoever you wanted, wherever you wanted. I wish I could give that to you, but I can’t. All I can do is let you know that I’m not ever going to stop being here for you. Stay loud and proud as fuck—I’m going to be right behind you, fighting alongside you every step of the way. To those who are searching for a scapegoat out of grief and rage, please remember that one man does not stand for or speak for his entire community or religion. Don’t fight hate with ignorance; be compassionate and listen.”
  • Here’s a Tumblr called the Queer Muslim Project. It’s fantastic, and in less than ten minutes of scrolling through it, I felt my own expectations and prejudices challenged. (“But he doesn’t look Muslim…but she doesn’t look gay.” And then “…oh.”) Go look at it.

It seems, frankly, churlish and ridiculous to talk about anything else at the moment. All of the minor problems and developments of one’s own life look so irrelevant when you pick up a copy of the Evening Standard and the leading article is headlined with the last text message of a man hiding in a bathroom, knowing he’s about to die. There is, however, one other thing I read last week that I loved, so here it is, as an aside:

There are so many quotes that resonated with me from this Bryony Gordon article about mental illness and love, but my absolute favourite is: “It wasn’t fireworks and drama – it was a warm front moving in after winter. It was the realisation that drama was not the key to happiness.” I probably talk about this stuff (being crazy, hating yourself, destructive relationships, changing that cycle) too much, but at least one other woman is talking about it too.

Love yourselves, love others, don’t let the bastards win.

Me in Shiny New Books: A Novel Calling

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I wrote a new feature for Shiny New Books’s Bookbuzz section this month! It’s the first installment of a series entitled A Novel Calling, where people write about the books that they feel were written just for them—that resonate strongly with their lives or experiences or tastes somehow. My offering starts as follows:

In February, I read an advance proof copy of Helen Stevenson’s Love Like Salt, and although I’d never seen a word of it before, it felt somehow familiar. She wrote about everything I cared about: poetry, music, a faith that is rooted in but not identical to religion, France, chronic illness (her daughter has cystic fibrosis, I have type I diabetes), the curious experience of having a partner who is significantly older than you are. It was brilliant and disorienting; I felt as though Stevenson were living my life, albeit from a slightly different angle. It was like seeing a water-blurred reflection in a pond: not quite the same, but very, very similar. I loved reading Love Like Salt, but some of the things that Stevenson included in it cut so close to the bone that I almost couldn’t bring myself to review it. I identified with it so closely that telling anyone about it felt like reviewing myself, then asking people whether they agreed.

I discuss three other books, too; if you’d like to know what they are, you can find out by reading the rest of the piece.

Negroland, by Margo Jefferson

We are not what They want to see in their books and movies. Our We is too much like theirs.

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Negroland is a book that speaks to the publishing zeitgeist in a lot of ways. Publishing it now—the year after Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, two years (can it really be? But it is) after Claudia Rankine’s Citizen—all but guarantees it an audience of fascinated, worthy, middle-class, progressive white folks. The past few years have been years of a growing awareness that race and racism aren’t done with us yet, or rather that we’re not done with them, and we have consequently come to expect certain things from the memoirs that black writers give us: anger, disappointment, examples of breathtaking prejudice and ignorance, perhaps even physical danger. That Negroland is subtitled “a memoir” primes a reader accustomed to the genre.

But from the start, Margo Jefferson is not writing that sort of book, not really. You can tell, a little bit, if you look at the front cover: those pristine gloves, that bright young smile, that perfectly coiffed hair. This isn’t a book about microaggressions and repressed rage and potential, or rather, it is but only insofar as it is also a book about negotiating an extremely fractured identity. Blackness is a part of that identity, but blackness itself is a fraught spectrum of things: dark/light, good hair/bad hair, nose, lips. “Negroland” is the word Jefferson uses to describe elite black society, the Talented Tenth championed by Frederick Douglass: self-conscious, self-aware, often arrogant, the Third Race, often either passing for white or existing in semi-isolation as token black families in progressive white neighborhoods. “Negroland” is the epitome of respectability politics. Respectability politics, of course, is heavily dependent upon each individual maintaining respectability—which places an almost unbearable amount of strain upon those individuals, each of whom is tasked with the representation of their entire race. It’s that strain, the effects of that constant internalized self-policing, that Jefferson is interested in. Her interest in that strain makes Negroland a cunningly unexpected addition to the many recent books about race relations.

She knows perfectly well what sort of book her reader might be expecting, and she’s going to try her best not to write it:

I think it’s too easy to recount unhappy memories when you write about yourself. You bask in your own innocence. You revere your grief. You arrange your angers at their most becoming angles.

She repeats this paragraph at least twice more throughout the book, dotted through the manuscript like raisins in a cake. She wants us to know how much energy she is putting into maintaining some sense of objectivity. Or, if not objectivity, fairness, or perhaps just analysis. Much of this is to do with her generation, I think: she gives the impression that there’s something vaguely unseemly about confessional. But, at least the first time this paragraph crops up, she also says something which makes clear that reticence is at the very heart of what Negroland is:

I was taught you don’t tell your secrets to strangers—certainly not secrets that expose error, weakness, failure. Nothing is just personal. And all readers are strangers.

Nothing is just personal was the other quotation I was considering for this review’s header. It strikes at the very root of Jefferson’s point in this book: black people in America who had an element of physiological, genealogical, economic and social privilege—black people who spoke softly, had light skin, whose ancestors had owned property before the Civil War or purchased it just after, who had straight (or straightenable) hair, were doctors, lawyers or teachers—were never allowed to just be humans. They were test cases for their race. They knew it all too well. The way that Jefferson builds a potted history of middle-class black America belies the “memoir” slapped on the front cover, too; this book is partly about her childhood and youth, yes, but much of it is also about the history with which she was laden. Whole chapters read more like the elliptical essay-style of (to pick two of my recent reads) Rebecca Solnit or Katie Roiphe than like an impassioned memoir about race in twentieth-century America. That is precisly the brilliance of Negroland in a stylistic sense: the book is constructed so as to force a reader to see it as something contrary to their expectations, at least in parts, at least for a while. Jefferson profiles historic black achievers: Charlotte Hawkins Brown, a groundbreaking black educator; Joseph Willson, the child of a former slavemaster by his housemaid, who became a dentist and a chronicler of the emerging black middle classes in the 1840s. She writes with mingled pain and sympathy and frustration of their snobbish devotion to the markers of white culture: Shakespeare, Milton, Schubert, Beethoven.

Jefferson became politically aware in the 1960s and ’70s, when the pendulum seemed to be swinging the other way. She writes of Black Power meetings where she was mocked for her light skin and arched nose; she writes of middle-class, well-educated, café au lait girls that she knew who married “ghetto” men in order to prove that they were not race traitors. At least one of these women, whose husband was involved in drug selling, was shot in the head and killed, less than a year after her marriage. She writes of two black women, one whose hair was relatively straight and one whose hair was a cropped mass of kinky fuzz. Both wore Afro wigs to political meetings; they met in the women’s bathroom, fixing their wig caps. There is an extraordinary sense, in this section, of not being able to win for losing. Especially for black women, beauty has traditionally been set at a standard of impossible, ridiculous whiteness; the rise of black power, its politicization of absolutely every act and choice in daily life, was like an electric shock to a black middle class that was so invested in doing whiteness (etiquette, courtesy, education, achievement) better than white people. Jefferson never says it in so many words, but I wouldn’t have blamed her at all for asking—rhetorically, of course—”So what the fuck, then, are we meant to do?” She does tell us that she became clinically depressed as a young woman, that she was disgusted by her own depression, and that to be thus depressed—to have any kind of mental ill health—was not discussed in her family’s circles. That was weakness, the sort of thing that you would not say to strangers, would not confess to unless absolutely necessary. You didn’t hand people that kind of ammunition.

People do, of course, manage to self-actualize even under the weight of such immense cultural expectation; Jefferson is particularly hamstrung by her own personality, which wants to please and satisfy as many people and requirements as possible. She’s frank about this, outlining her childish tendency to show off and her adolescent agonies about not being able to fit into any one group. She tells us that she never marries, though she obviously has a romantic life, and that she never has children, and the brief glimpses that we get of the contemporary Margo suggest that she has gotten there: she knows who she is, now, not who someone else wants her to be.

Still, the most poignant line in the book belongs to her mother, Irma. As a young bride stationed with her husband in a mostly-black air force base at the beginning of World War II, she writes a letter to a friend. It is merry and upbeat, and it ends with the exclamation, “Sometimes I almost forget I’m a Negro. That’s something, huh?” She doesn’t mean Living as a black woman is terrible but sometimes I can forget about it; she means Sometimes I nearly get to just be the person that I am: not a whole race and many millennia of history condensed into one body, not a test case, not a Good Negro. Sometimes I can almost believe that I am just Irma Jefferson, and that the choices I make affect no one but myself. That’s something, huh? It is.

Many thanks to Nat Shaw at Granta Books for the review copy. Negroland was published in the UK on 2 June.