06. The Waters and the Wild, by DeSales Harrison

35576092I’ve always thought Benjamin Britten would have written great music for it, the Yeats poem that gives this book its title:

Come away, O human child!

To the waters and the wild

With a faery, hand in hand,

For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

The poem appears in an envelope addressed to Daniel Abend, a psychoanalyst who lives in New York City. Along with the poem—handwritten, in the distinctive block capitals of the woman whom Daniel loved twenty years ago in Paris, who killed herself shortly after they ended their relationship—there is a photograph of Daniel’s former patient Jessica Burke, who died in her bathtub of a heroin overdose. She is supposed to have died alone, but the photograph suggests otherwise; someone else was there, someone who knows Daniel’s life and history, and who is bent on revenge.

Daniel reveals his story through a long confession written and sent to Father Nelson Spurlock, the vicar of the church in New York that conducts Jessica Burke’s funeral. Thus, as Spurlock reads the document, we too discover the secrets that Daniel has been living with, and keeping from his daughter Clementine. By its very nature, the confessional structure is a slow reveal; it takes almost the entire book for us to learn things that Daniel knows from the start. Sometimes it’s too slow. Harrison, like Benjamin Wood, wants us to see this story as somehow special or profound. He uses as many tricks as he can to imbue the narrative with weight: heavy foreshadowing, complex or inverted sentence structure that echoes biblical or poetic phrasing, introduction of religious themes (Daniel’s beloved is on track to become a nun), and of course that Yeats poem. Again, though, I don’t see that it works, and I don’t see why it’s even necessary to reach for it: the particular sins of Daniel’s life, his failures and his lies, are so commonplace and human. They have extreme consequences—a person’s death, a child’s life—but Harrison seems to want to introduce a metaphysical significance to the events of the plot that simply isn’t supported. There is a lot about shame and guilt and God, but these things can and should be invoked and felt deeply by the characters, without necessarily being a moral framework through which the reader ought to perceive the book.

The Waters and the Wild is helped, though, by that confessional structure: you want to read it all the way through because you do—even if frustrated by Daniel’s withholding—want to know what happened in the past, and how it is affecting the present. You want, perhaps most of all, to know his level of culpability: how much is he at fault? He is a thoroughly realised character, seemingly open but concealing much, perhaps because he is deceiving himself. That particular brand of unreliability makes a nice change from the other unreliable narrators of domestic noir, who tend to be alcoholic women. The Waters and the Wild is flawed in conception and execution, but it sets its sights much higher than most other books of its genre.

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Reading Diary: all the stuff that’s not #20booksofsummer

Believe it or not, I have been reading things that aren’t #20booksofsummer, and I’m reliably informed that some people miss the reading diary format. So here’s a longer roundup post for y’all; I’ll continue to write reviews that count towards the challenge as individual posts.

35207298Femme noir beach read, I see you! I see you so hard! Sunburn is Laura Lippman’s latest book, and given how minutely it dissects the ways in which men can be manipulated by women using patriarchal entitlement as a weapon, it’s the closest thing I’ve read to a successor to Gone Girl. Our protagonist, Polly, has walked out on her dying marriage to Gregg and her toddler daughter, Jani. We first meet her in a bar in Belleville, Delaware, a nowhere-town that comes to life only during beach tourist season. She soon takes up with Adam, a regular at the bar who quickly becomes the chef, but Adam is hardly an ideal summer fling: he’s a private investigator who’s been hired to find her, by someone who’s not Gregg. Meanwhile, Polly is trying to keep more than one layer of secrets about her past under wraps… It’s been two and a half weeks (?) since I read this, and honestly, much of the plot has already left my head (though I can at least recall that it’s got insurance fraud and arson). The reason to read it is Polly, who can twist men (always men; women never like her) around her little finger, but who has also had such a rough shake from life that the more we learn about her, the more we think she deserves whatever she can garner for herself. Lippman’s plotting sags a little in the third quarter, but the tightness of the denouement makes up for it. This should be at the top of the stack of paperbacks next to your sun lounger.

9781509818402The Wonder is not a book that fears to wear its allegiance on its sleeve: its central character, Lib Wright, is a nurse trained by Florence Nightingale who has seen active service in the Crimea, and she is intellectually dedicated to the rigours of the scientific method. She is therefore both uniquely prepared for, and uniquely disadvantaged to play, the role that she takes on at the start of the book: to keep a two-week, twenty-four-hour watch on a young Irish girl who claims to have been living on air (or, as she puts it, “manna from heaven”) for the last four months. Ireland in the 1880s is still so deeply enmeshed in the twin grips of rural poverty and the Catholic Church that Lib finds herself totally alone in her skepticism: the local priest, Mr. Thaddeus, waits for proof of a miracle, while the half-cracked elderly village doctor is convinced that Anna represents the first step in humanity’s evolution into something superhuman (“perhaps reptilian”, he suggests). It’s only when Mr. Byrne, a journalist from Dublin, enters the village that Lib has an ally, but time is running out for Anna… The Wonder isn’t perfect; Donoghue hammers home the price of superstition, making even supposedly educated people into credulous caricatures. The ending, too, although deeply satisfying in a certain emotional sense, is a little neat. The chances of a happy ending to this sort of story are so slim, after all. What saves the book from mawkishness is Donoghue’s ability to get us desperately invested in the truth: as Rebecca rightly notes, the geographical isolation of the setting makes The Wonder almost a locked-room mystery, and the satisfaction of figuring it out is compelling.

9781408880364At a christening party in Los Angeles, Albert Cousins kisses his host’s wife. What might have been a mildly embarrassing social faux pas becomes much more when Beverly Keating divorces her husband and marries Bert, moving across the country to live with him in Northern Virginia, nearer his parents. Complicating the situation are Bert’s and Beverly’s children, a multifarious brood who sometimes get along, sometimes don’t. A tragic accident one summer haunts the whole extended family; years later, Franny Keating, whose christening party was the scene of the initial forbidden kiss, is grown up and working as a cocktail waitress, having dropped out of law school. At the bar where she works, she meets Leon Posen, a Great American Writer clearly imagined in the vein of Roth or Bellow. Her family’s story becomes the plot of Posen’s comeback novel, and the repercussions of this second betrayal follow her and her siblings for decades to come. Ann Patchett’s grasp of family dynamics and the way people speak to each other is majestic; Commonwealth has a large cast of characters, complexly interrelated, but for the most part Patchett keeps them all clearly differentiated. The book is an exploration of what families owe to one another, and of where, if anywhere, the boundaries of “family” can be drawn. Franny and Posen’s long-term relationship is drawn exceptionally well: a long chapter during which friends from the publishing industry impose on Franny’s hospitality for weeks at a time reveals so much about the inequalities of age, wealth, and social capital that will eventually capsize their lives together. I’d rather read Patchett on dysfunctional families than Franzen, any day: she’s funnier, and kinder.

91yjoatbknlThe Burning Chambers is brain candy, there can be no question, but it’s the sort of brain candy that does you no harm. It is set during sixteenth-century France’s Wars of Religion, in the old medieval town of Carcassonne and in the city of Toulouse. Although religious conflict does play a role in the plot, the real story is about the heritage of our heroine Minou. (This, I am told, is the equivalent of naming an English character “Pussy”, with all of the same connotations. Whoops.) She is a classic romantic-adventure protagonist: gutsy and morally sound without being moralising, remarkably openminded regarding an individual’s freedom to worship as they see fit, bookish but not intellectual, and possessed of a single defining physical characteristic (mis-matched eyes. Her love interest, Piet Reydon, has another standard iteration of this: red hair.) Minou and Piet are caught up in the machinations of the evil cleric Valentin, once Piet’s best friend at university, now a zealot whose interest in maintaining the iron grip of Catholicism is motivated less by religious passion than by a lust for worldly power. He all but rubs his hands together and cackles, á la Frollo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. (He also has one distinguishing feature, a streak of white in an otherwise-black head of hair.) And Valentin is entangled with a woman who has never met Minou, but who, for reasons we slowly come to learn, wants her dead. It all sounds quite ridiculous and indeed, it is—the denouement, which involves an enormous pyre in the middle of a mountain forest, becomes almost farcical as various characters run in and out of the scene—but it works. Mosse keeps all of her plates spinning, never seeming to lose each character’s place in the plot; her action scenes are exciting and fast-paced, just begging the eye to fly down the page; and she’s done her research. Minou’s politics might be conveniently progressive, but sixteenth-century Carcassonne comes to life in Mosse’s brisk but detailed prose.

51qzl0d3hbl-_sx308_bo1204203200_“Progressive” is not the word anyone would use to describe the politics of the characters in Cressida Connolly’s After the Party. Focalised through the memories of one woman, Phyllis Forrester, the book is a dissection of the Sussex “county set” in the late 1930s, and particularly of the upper-middle-class people who believed passionately in the values being preached by the British Union of Fascists. The word “fascist” is never used; nor are the names of Oswald Mosley or Diana Mitford, as far as I could see, but that is, self-evidently, who and what they are. The book’s marketing is slightly misleading, in that it emphasises a tragic death that occurs after a party held by a local couple, and Phyllis’s sense of responsibility for it; that event does have some significance, but it is not the reason why she goes to prison, which is the other thing that we know about almost from the outset. What Connolly seems to be doing—and it’s not at all clear to me whether she means to do this or not—is inculcating in the reader a sense of sympathy for the average British fascist, the sort of people whose analogues in Nazi Germany were spending these years “just following orders”.

Although I had no idea that members of the Union were interned in the early 1940s without trial or explanation—and although that is a horrifying thought, particularly as many of those imprisoned were profoundly low-level and did little more than file reports or make tea, while far more senior organisers and theorisers were left alone—there is something about the very attempt to make British fascism palatable, or understandable, or even mildly sympathetic, that I pull strongly against. It does not advance the cause of global peace and dignity, in these days, to dehumanise your opponents; I understand that, and I appreciate that Phyllis is so very human a character, slightly weak, slightly bored, clinging to fascism well after it’s fashionable because without it, all the losses of her life will have been for nothing. But I am very wary of what a conservative or right-wing book review page (The Spectator, perhaps) could do with After the Party, very wary of anything that lends itself to the interpretation that we should all hug a fascist. The past eighteen months have made it abundantly clear that Phyllis Forrester’s time is not over and gone; last Sunday, supporters of Tommy Robinson marched in London; and to ask one group of people to try and understand the humanity of another group that refuses to extend that same dignity to them is revolting and absurd. That’s not to say that those adjectives apply to After the Party—it’s an extremely nuanced novel, and literature abounds with protagonists whose personal convictions the reader finds appalling (Humbert Humbert, anyone?)—but it is, without a doubt, a book that could only have been conceived and written in this particular way by someone in a position of significant relative privilege.

36237273From boom times to penury: The Death of Mrs. Westaway, Ruth Ware’s latest novel, opens on our protagonist Harriet—known as Hal—trudging through rain and wind with a fish and chips she can’t really afford under her arm. Hal does tarot readings on Brighton pier: she inherited the booth from her mother, who died in a hit-and-run accident three years ago. Now twenty-one, Hal has unwisely taken money from a local loan shark, and is in desperate need of three thousand pounds before his steel-toed-boot-wearing enforcers come around. So when a case of mistaken identity results in a letter from a lawyer’s office in Penzance, referring to her as the beneficiary of her grandmother’s will, she decides she might as well use her cold-reading techniques to see what she can get. When it turns out that the bequest isn’t just a few thousand pounds, but most of the estate, Hal realises she has two choices: confess now, or stay in it for the long haul. She chooses, of course, the latter, but things at Trepassen aren’t what they seem, and she finds herself unraveling a conspiracy of silence that stretches back decades. This is the first of Ruth Ware’s novels that I’ve read (a shocking admission given how well they go down at Heywood Hill), and it’s highly impressive. It’s so easy to lose the thread of thriller plotting, particularly when your subgenre is psychological intrigue, where so many of the significant plot points happen inside characters’ heads, but Ware never does: there’s always that sense of forward momentum, no scenes that feel like they’re treading water. Tarot, and the interplay between superstition, fate, and self-determination, is woven through the book: is life something Hal can navigate for herself, or does the past determine the present? Ware deals with these questions subtly, and creates a protagonist whose constant calculations are made necessary and sympathetic by the precariousness of her situation. Very good stuff indeed.

Thoughts on recent reading: All female authors, all highly readable, and a surprising recurrence of themes around lost or thwarted heritage. Quite pleased with the summer’s start.

02. Neuromancer, by William Gibson

615zhd3me2bl-_sx323_bo1204203200_Ken McLeod once said of Neuromancer‘s plot that it was “intricate and forgettable”, a phrase which holds in its depths a clue as to how the entire damn book should be read. Like Pat Cadigan’s SynnersNeuromancer is considered a foundational text of cyberpunk, and one of the core tenets of that particular movement is the refusal to explain anything at all. From the very first sentence, almost as famous as that of Pride and Prejudice – “The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel” – Gibson has pushed us into a world where the measure of the human is the machine. The metaphor that a mind in this world initially reaches for is technological, not organic. The reader, as a human, is responsible not for arbitrating meaning, but simply for keeping up.

Reading this after Altered Carbon is also an exercise in comparison. Gibson’s protagonist is Henry Case, a jaded criminal who’s saved from death by a group of shady individuals who need him to pull off just one more job. He shares a literary bloodline, part of a motivation, and a position of vulnerability with Morgan’s damaged ex-cop, Kovacs. The sense of machinations going on much higher up and behind the scenes is also familiar. There’s even a bad-ass female character whose bad-ass-ness doesn’t quite extend to allowing her to be more than a prop and sexual partner to the male protagonist (though Neuromancer‘s Molly, with retractable scalpels embedded beneath each flawlessly varnished nail, gets a lot of page time: she’s the one who effects the physical break-in that the plot requires).

On the other hand, the more time you spend with Neuromancer, the easier it gets to move through its weird cyberspatial world. Gibson invented the idea of the matrix, and the standard pop-culture visualisation of what hacking looks like from the inside. Once you’ve learned to adjust to that – and to the slangy dialogue, full of abbreviations and redolent with cynicism – everything makes a lot more sense. The plot is intricate, involving a schizophrenic AI whose two halves are known as Wintermute and Neuromancer, but its finer details are entirely forgettable (possibly because Gibson never makes a terribly strong effort to articulate them.) And somehow that’s okay. The point isn’t necessarily what’s happening on any given page, but the atmosphere that Gibson creates. It means that Neuromancer‘s value, at least to me, is more historical than literary; that it matters more for having done things first than for the objective quality of the things it does. But a historically significant book is still a book worth having read, usually, and it is in this case. I might prefer to reach for another Richard Morgan title the next time I want a cyberpunk fix, but what Gibson did is respect-worthy. (And I still want to read Pattern Recognition.)

01. Altered Carbon, by Richard Morgan

51dwaae3rzl-_sx320_bo1204203200_At last, I’ve read Altered Carbon! It’s interesting to have read this just before William Gibson’s Neuromancer; it’s like seeing influence in reverse, tracking details of Morgan’s worldbuilding and plot to their antecedents in Gibson. Anyway, Morgan’s innovation is the idea that humans have developed a way of remotely storing consciousness, so that your body isn’t the vehicle for your life in the same way as we understand it. Instead, that which is you—memories, cognition, personality—can be found in a small implant near the base of the neck, known as a stack. Bodies are referred to as “sleeves”; poorer people go “on stack”, their consciousnesses divorced from their physical selves, and rent out their bodies to those who can pay, who upload their own stacks into these sleeves. Incarceration happens along the same lines: a particularly egregious crime can see the offender being placed on stack for perhaps two hundred years, during which time their body, or clones thereof, can be used as a sleeve by whoever particularly wants it.

Prisoners can also be remanded in order to do particular jobs while they’re serving their time. This is what happens to Takeshi Kovacs, a former Envoy (or special forces officer) who finds himself decanted into the sleeve of a man whom he eventually discovers is an ex-cop from Earth, currently on stack for corruption. In this sleeve, he must do a job for Laurens Bancroft, an obscenely wealthy entrepreneur who “committed suicide” two months previously by taking his own head off with a flare gun. Bancroft, however, maintains that he was murdered: since he always has multiple clones on ice, and backs up his stack to a remote location every forty-eight hours, he argues, he would have known that shooting himself wouldn’t exactly be permanent. (One of the great weirdnesses of Morgan’s world is the distinction between killing someone’s body, and causing Real Death; the former is quite routine, while the latter—effected by destroying a stack, and the backed-up data if there is any—is considered a serious offense.) Kovacs must find out who shot Bancroft, and why, and who wants him on (or off) the investigation in the first place. And he’s got some demons of his own to exorcise, related to a military operation in his past that went horribly wrong and to a crime boss whose path he’d hoped never to cross again.

The resulting novel is hardboiled science noir, and it is a huge amount of fun. Morgan treads in cyberpunk territory, but he is happier to make things readily comprehensible than the great names of cyberpunk usually are. The action scenes are terrific, violent and delivered with cynical flair by Kovacs’s first-person narration. If it sometimes gets a little difficult to work out who’s on which side, well, that’s the point of the mystery. (I’ve read criticism that finds Morgan’s resolution of the mystery plot a bit of a let-down. Perhaps it is. I found it convincing enough, and also found that there was more than enough atmosphere and verve to carry me over whatever plotholes or lack of plausibility there might be.) Morgan’s female characters err somewhat on the side of being Tough Cool Girls; they are undeniably both tough and cool, but they tend to function as vectors for Kovacs’s feelings. Abigail Nussbaum notes that Morgan’s novels are “a rare example of the gap between taking the problems of masculinity seriously, and being interested in feminism”—in other words, feminist novel Altered Carbon is not, but it does engage seriously and thoughtfully with toxic masculinity, and the culture of violence and damage that it promulgates.

It’s worth noting that Altered Carbon contains graphic scenes of both torture and (consensual) sex, and the fight scenes are often also explicitly violent. If, like me, you find it much easier to read such things than to watch them on a television screen, you may not have much of a problem with the book—you can always read faster, or even skip ahead a few pages. (The fact that Kovacs is downloaded into a female sleeve for the torture is interesting from a critical point of view; for a noir hero to be personally subjected to the particular vulnerabilities of having a woman’s body is one of those things that Morgan does that both acknowledges female experience and makes it not quite the point, since Kovacs identifies firmly as a man, and is in a male body at all other times. It is also, however, one of the things that might make it harder for women to read this book.)

What remains is the fact that Morgan writes like a demon—gripping, compelling, bursting with brilliant, weird, revealing ideas about how societies work—and that makes me want to read his Clarke Award-winning novel, Black Man, as soon as possible.

A Place For Us, by Fatima Farheen Mirza

cover4Fatima Farheen Mirza’s debut novel, A Place For Us, fills a niche that I haven’t seen filled very often, if at all, in mainstream contemporary fiction: it’s a dysfunctional family saga/romance set in the context of a deeply traditional, conservative, Indian Muslim community. Rafiq and Layla were married by arrangement; they have settled in California, they have three children – Hadia, Huda, and Amar – and their lives are pleasant, stable, comfortable. But as Amar starts to grow up, he finds it hard to conform to the life his parents expect of him. Meanwhile, Hadia and Huda are fighting their own battles: whether to wear the headscarf, how best to please their parents, what to do about the boys they fancy. Told mostly in flashbacks from the moment of Hadia’s wedding, to which Amar (now estranged from the entire family) is invited, A Place For Us illustrates how secrets and illusions in a family can develop over years; how easy it can be for a husband not to know his wife, for a mother not to know her daughters.

For the first third of A Place For Us, I was hoping that Mirza was really going to push the boundaries (which, if we’re honest, means I was hoping Amar was going to be gay). Eventually, I realised that she was pushing the boundaries; it is sufficiently controversial, in a conservative household, to be uncertain of your faith, to drink, to smoke, to want to escape. It’s fortunate that Rafiq and Layla, and their community, are never portrayed as oppressive caricatures. As Layla puts it, they want to be able to guide their children, and they can only guide them in what they know. But you don’t have to be a cartoon villain to represent a life that your child doesn’t want, and you don’t have to be a parent to understand how difficult, even impossible, it can be to let go of your expectations for your child’s life. Mirza balances these emotional currents with astuteness and compassion for all sides; although I hate referring to an author’s age as though it means anything, I confess to being floored by envy that she’s achieved this book at the age of twenty-six. It is perhaps too long: establishing the shifting dynamics of the family over years does take time, but it’s hard to believe that every single scene here is essential. Still, A Place For Us is a thoughtful and moving story, demonstrating that, happy or unhappy, most families are more alike than we might care to think.

In response to a reader request, I’m trialing breaking up my long reading diary entries into individual ones on each book. It goes against my tendencies to publish posts that are so brief, but I’m sure someone will tell me if you feel you’re being shortchanged.

Reading Diary: what day is it again?

I’ve read seven books since my last confession reading diary entry, and I can’t keep track of days anymore, and I also can’t write a soooper long review of every single one of them, despite them having been almost universally extraordinary. Here we go with a roundup, anyway.

cover2Our Homesick Songs, by Emma Hooper: I didn’t read Hooper’s debut, Etta and Otto and Russell and James, but I gather that Our Homesick Songs shares with it a lyrical but straightforward prose style. It reads with the simplicity, and the judiciously applied repetition, of a child’s fable—but don’t take this to mean that the book is naive or twee. Finn Connor is growing up in an isolated Newfoundland fishing village in the 1990s; his father, Aidan, was a fisherman, and his mother, Martha, used to make nets. But the fish are gone, the island is dying, and Aidan and Martha must take turns working hundreds of miles away on the mainland, a month at a time. Finn’s older sister Cora tries to feed her thirst for adventure by transforming every abandoned house on the island into a representation of a different country, but it’s not enough and soon she strikes out on her own. Struggling with his sister’s abandonment and the difficulty of his parents’ situation, Finn assigns himself the task of bringing the fish back to his home waters. Our Homesick Songs is suffused with the Irish ballads that Newfoundland fishermen sing, and with a sense of deep melancholy; Hooper comes down firmly on the side of family love as one of the few forces that can withstand so much loss. It’s a book with a core of sorrow, wrapped in gentleness.

cover132346-mediumSocial Creature, by Tara Isabella Burton: Louise is twenty-nine and living in New York, barely keeping her head above water—and her time is running out. Between barista shifts and SAT tutoring hours, she can live, but she has no time to write, or think, or do anything other than survive. All that changes when she meets Lavinia: golden, fabulously wealthy, deeply romantic, alarmingly charismatic. So when Lavinia dies—not a spoiler; we know it almost from the beginning—what’s Louise going to do? Can she…perhaps…keep fooling everyone?

I’ve said on social media before now that the genius of Social Creature is in Tara Isabella Burton’s depiction of someone who is poor, not all that young, without a safety net, and terrified. Louise is the dark side of renter culture, of moving to the city without a dime; she’s all the New York stories you never hear, all the millennials who have nothing and no one. Her characterisation is the bedrock of this book. We need to be convinced by her slide into desperation; her sins need to seem merely venal to us because we understand her. They do, and we do, and that, more than anything, is why people have been comparing this to Tartt and Highsmith: because Burton is at the same level of play when it comes to characterisation, and because she understands that, at bottom, she’s writing a book about money, and about the awful things that people do when they’re afraid of life without it. (Lavinia, incidentally, is a fantastic creation: the pretentiousness of her constant Instagram posts featuring quotes by Rimbaud, and the sinisterness of her history with other young women like Louise, is achieved gradually, but insistently. She’s a wonderfully horrible antagonist.)

cover3Old Baggage, by Lissa Evans: Mattie Simpkin fought for women’s suffrage. She was arrested, imprisoned, force-fed, and maltreated. Now, women have the vote, and she’s rattling around her house in Hampstead with her friend Florrie Lee (known to all as The Flea), looking for something meaningful to do with the rest of her life. The reappearance of an old friend from suffrage days—now married and espousing Fascism—prompts Mattie to start a group for girls that promotes imagination and curiosity (and a bit of self-defense), but not everyone is in favour… Old Baggage is, not to put too fine a point on it, bloody marvelous. The tagline is “What do you do next, after you’ve changed the world?”, and there’s a real sense of frustrated potential in the book, suggested not just by Mattie’s stagnation but by Evans’s delicate outlining of class issues. (Mattie’s first recruit is her young maid, who comes to her after being fired from a job at the first-class ladies’ cloakroom in St Pancras for having a sty, which might offend the ladies. Her feelings about being made to run about in the rain are initially, let us say, mixed.) The downside of Mattie’s forceful character is a tendency to trample, which Evans acknowledges; there is also a ballast of personality in the form of The Flea, who works as a health visitor, tackling poverty and inequality in places that Mattie, for all her fire and dedication, cannot reach. Old Baggage is wonderfully nuanced, both in its rage and in its understanding of who can and can’t afford rage in the first place.

61iucjvvmwl-_sx322_bo1204203200_The Sea and Summer, by George Turner: In his Clarke Award-winning novel, Turner imagines a not-too-distant future (2041) ravaged by climate change. In Australia, the social gap has widened into a chasm: on one side, the Sweet, who retain jobs where most employment has been taken over by automation, and on the other, the Swill, the 99.9% who mostly live crammed into tower blocks and at the mercy of the State. The plot, which is slightly too slow-moving for its own good, at least at the beginning, concerns a conspiracy to speed up population control and a family whose fortunes leave them in a curious limbo between Sweet and Swill. But it’s Turner’s vision of the future that really startles. You can see the effect of his own times (he was writing in 1987, and the Swill system of supermarkets and vouchers is reminiscent of Soviet-era department stores; characters talk a lot about “the greenhouse effect”, a term that has mostly gone out of fashion now). Yet many of his imaginings about the medium-term effects of climate change are prescient: constant flooding, toxic groundwater, the aforementioned takeover of most industries by automation, and an offensively huge income gap are issues that we’re all talking about now, with increasing urgency. When Turner was writing, few politicians seemed even to be aware of climate change, let alone willing to talk about it publicly. The Sea and Summer is a less pessimistic portrayal than some (its framing story is set in a future beyond the Sweet/Swill time, when the planet is cooling again and parts of humanity have survived), and its prescription for social healing is education: the development of “new men”, neither Sweet nor Swill, who teach themselves the information they need in order to survive a changing planet. It’s an approach that has something to teach our age.

51wwwsztqml-_sx324_bo1204203200_Ghost Wall, by Sarah Moss: A deceptively short book, almost a novella at 150 pages, with a core of menace. Ghost Wall follows Silvie, the daughter of a bus driver whose love for Ancient British history is tinged with racism and nationalism. He has brought Silvie and her mother on a trip to Northumberland to live as Iron Age peoples did, but their campmates—a professor and his students on an “Experiential Archaeology” course—are less devoted to dogmatic historical accuracy, and tensions rise almost at once. We know something terrible is going to happen; how could it not, given Silvie’s father’s propensity towards violence, and the expedition’s growing obsession with the ritual murders that culminated in bog bodies? But Moss takes us there slowly, carefully, building atmosphere (the discomfort of heat without insulated walls or air conditioning; the endless round of finding something to eat, laboriously preparing it, cooking it, eating it, and starting again). It is also a very tightly written book: everything is thematically connected to everything else, which is no mean feat in a text so short, especially one that also includes fine descriptive passages. The first three pages, and the final five, caused a physical reaction in me when I read them: Moss’s evocation of emotional states is that strong, that subtle. I have no hesitation at all in calling Ghost Wall a masterpiece.

4633870306_259x395Crudo, by Olivia Laing: I adore Laing’s nonfiction, and although Crudo is thought-provoking and up-to-the-minute, her first foray into fiction didn’t have the same effect on me. It follows a writer called Kathy, who, the cover blurb says coyly, “may or may not be” Kathy Acker. The reason for this ambiguity is unclear, and if it is meant to be Kathy Acker, the reason for this is unclear too: she died in 1997 in Tijuana, so is Crudo then meant to be the alternate world in which she lives and marries an Englishman, or is the world the reader lives in meant to be the alternate? Are we perhaps meant to be asking these questions? The action takes place in the summer of 2017; like Ali Smith in her Seasons Quartet, Laing is writing almost immediate reportage of current events. Also like Smith, Laing sometimes doesn’t achieve enough of a sense of distance, so that what we get is simply the bludgeoning effect of last year’s news all over again. (Particularly painful to me is the fact that she mentions, two or three times, last summer’s neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, where I grew up. I happened to read this book in a park in Paris, sitting next to my childhood best friend, who was counter-protesting that day; she was punched in the face by a Nazi, and several people she knows were struck by the car that killed Heather Heyer. The past is not.) If Crudo‘s point is that the headlines are awful and it’s hard to live in the world, even when you’re a critically acclaimed white writer with enough spare cash to contemplate buying a second home in the Barbican Centre, well…that’s not news. I can’t deny that it’s smart, or even that it has heart. I’m just not sure what the purpose of the exercise was.

36628420Melmoth, by Sarah Perry: Few, if any, contemporary novelists are doing as much as Sarah Perry is to make Calvinist thought sexy again. (There’s a sentence I never thought I’d write.) Her first two novels, and this one, are all suffused with a sense of the reality of sin, although that word is rarely used: perhaps more in Melmoth than elsewhere. And yet the book is also a Gothic romp; it is disturbing and serious, but it’s scattered with delightful ghost-story tropes, starting with an eminent Czech scholar who inherits some papers from an elderly friend who dies at his carrel in Prague’s National Library. They tell the story of Melmoth the Witness, a woman cursed to wander the earth forever, feet bleeding, clad in black, bearing witness to all of the cruelty that humans are capable of displaying towards each other. Helen Franklin, an expat translator who has been punishing herself for twenty years for some nameless crime, comes into possession of the papers, and develops an obsessive interest in the Melmoth story. The novel is intensely atmospheric: you can almost feel the chill of the wind swirling snow on the bridges of Prague, see the jackdaws tilting their observant heads. It also asks enormous questions about morality: is one good deed enough to offset a dozen bad ones? How much atonement is enough? Is atonement necessary, or productive? What Melmoth offers her victims is understanding, but understanding of a very bleak kind: if you have committed a terrible crime, she affirms, no one will ever love or forgive you, so come away with me, wander the earth, at least we can be damned together. It’s a nice metaphor for the sheer indulgence of self-flagellation, the way that martyring yourself allows you to forgo other responsibilities. Perry’s prose is still sometimes too lush for its own good—it occasionally tips over into a style so swooning and wide-eyed as to feel consciously naive—but the combination of creepy ghost story and philosophical inquiry will make Melmoth the most spectacular fireside book, come October.

Thoughts on recent reading: It’s been a long time since I’ve had such a streak of good books, though none of these are out yet, except for the Turner (hooray for reading one title off my backlist!) The final three (Moss, Laing, Perry) were picked for a long weekend in Paris, and I will never stop congratulating myself on the excellence of that decision.

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.