#6Degrees of Separation: Picnic at Hanging Rock

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

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We start off with Picnic at Hanging Rock, by Joan Lindsay, which I’ve never read but which was something of a sensation in the ’60s and ’70s, a novel about the disappearance of a group of Australian schoolgirls on a school outing. I gather that the central mystery is never really resolved, though apparently Lindsay wrote a revelatory final chapter which was published separately. It sounds a bit rubbish.

My favourite disappearance story this year – and one of my favourite books of the year so far, full stop – has been Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13. It’s a tender, nuanced portrait of a small community where a young girl disappears while on holiday with her parents; McGregor returns to the village over the course of thirteen years, finding both change and continuity with each passing year. It is a beautiful book, and highly recommended. (review)

Another “thirteen” book is Jane Smiley’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel. In each chapter, she discusses a technical aspect of the novel form: voice, characterisation, length, and so on. In the final section, she writes notes on one hundred books that she read as part of her project to determine what defines a novel. It’s an excellent resource both on a technical level and for people who want a basic reading list of classics and contemporary classics.

One of the books I read because it was in Smiley’s compendium is Junichiro Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters. A society novel about three Japanese sisters and their family’s difficulties in marrying them all off, it reminded me strongly of an east Asian Jane Austen, with equal biting wit, satire, and observation. (review – a very old one! I was so cute in 2013.)

I recommended The Makioka Sisters to a very well-read customer recently, along with Shusaku Endo’s novel Silence, about a pair of Catholic priests who travel to Japan at a time when Christianity is illegal. They end up serving an underground community of believers, but at great risk both to themselves and to their flock. The book’s emotional core is the choice between renouncing one’s faith publicly in order to save the innocent, or remaining technically faithful to God but condemning others to die.

Martin Scorsese directed a nerve-wracking film of this book last year. He also directed “Hugo”, a gorgeously shot if slightly incoherent movie based on The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Brian Selznick’s stunning children’s novel about a boy who lives in a railway station, befriends a pioneer of early film, and tries to fix an automaton left to him by his father.

So: from Edwardian Australia to steampunk Paris, via contemporary Yorkshire, mid-century Osaka, and post-Shimabara Japan. Where will your #6Degrees take you? Next month we start with Pride and Prejudice, which ought to provide a lot of jumping-off points…

May Superlatives

The less said about May, the better, frankly. Or perhaps that’s unfair: it’s been much too busy, but I’ve seen old friends, and family, and done a lot of singing. At the end of the month, though, my personal life has—quite unexpectedly—gone to shit. It’s no one’s fault, but it’s incredibly painful and it means my present, and my future, are in a state of upheaval. I don’t want to talk about it on here, beyond that. I have read 12 books, and my brain is like a wrung-out sponge: reviewing capacities are at a pretty low ebb.

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biggest mindfuck: The City and the City, China Miéville’s novel about two cities which, topologically, exist in the same space, but are ontologically not the same places: Beszél and Ul Qoma. Miéville’s said he wants to write a novel in every genre, and this is his noir, with Inspector Borlú our hardboiled detective. As is the case with a lot of his work, the conceit is adhered to with such astonishing tenacity that the sheer comprehensiveness of it mostly makes up for a certain thematic thinness. (After all, if the point of The City and the City‘s overlapping spaces is to illustrate urban alienation, all you need to do that is the conceit itself; you don’t really need to hang a whole novel on it.) Still, I never regret reading a Miéville book.

hardest to discuss: As a bookseller, I can tell you right now that any book about a paedophile is going to be a hard sell. Tench, by Inge Schilperoord, is nevertheless a very compassionate and terribly lucid exploration of the circumstances that surround people who commit this nature of offense, and the ways that they’re so often unsupported, and left to offend again. A heartbreaking but very good book. (review)

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hands-down favourite: The Time of Our Singing by Richard Powers—recommended to me by a colleague—a six hundred-page novel about the musically talented mixed-race children of a black Philadelphian woman and a German Jewish man, growing up in the 1960s. The best novel I have ever read about classical singing, it also encompasses over a hundred years of American racial history. It’s a total knock-out and should be much better known.

most like a feminist rewrite of The Road: There’s one every year now, in the vein of Emily St John Mandel’s excellent Station Eleven. This year it’s Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From, an extremely brief and spare book about a woman raising her newborn son alone in a flooded England. The woman (unnamed) navigates the loss of her husband, her home, and everything about her old life with grief, but also with aplomb; the baby, curiously, anchors her. You could read it, I suppose, as an extended metaphor. That might be the most productive way to do it, given that, at the end of the book, the waters recede, the husband returns, and the baby starts to walk—this confluence, I suspect, not coincidental.

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nimblest: Let Go My Hand, by Edward Docx, is a book that could have run into a lot of problems: it’s about three brothers unwillingly escorting their dying father to Zurich in a camper van. He intends to take his own life at the Dignitas clinic. On the way, there are emotional and physical reckonings from decades of parenting failures, both standard and particular. Docx avoids every one of the places where he could have bogged down in sentimentality or crassness; it’s a superb piece of work, moving and realistic and often bizarrely funny, with some perfect dialogue. Imagine a Wes Anderson movie, but not annoying. (It’ll probably be a Wes Anderson movie soon, so read it first.)

most rage-inducing: Maxine Beneba Clarke’s memoir about growing up black and middle-class in white suburban Australia, The Hate Race. It’s just won the Multicultural NSW Award there, which is both heartening (it’s a fantastic book and it deserves prizes) and kind of hilariously ironic (it’s mostly about the appalling racist bullying Clarke suffered as a child in “multicultural New South Wales” barely 25 years ago). (review)

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best newcomer: Ocean Vuong’s poetry isn’t completely new to me—I’d read “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” and a couple other pieces online in Poetry Magazine—but his first full collection is just out in the UK. Night Sky With Exit Wounds is an elegiac, sexy, pull-the-rug-out compendium of poems, absolutely unforgettable. “Because It’s Summer” might be one of my new all-time favourites.

oddest: Sudden Death, by Álvaro Enrigue. Fictionalising and retelling the story of a tennis match-cum-duel that was once fought between the painter Caravaggio and the Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo, it’s sort of a novel. It calls itself a novel. It frequently digresses, however, to take in historical footnotes such as the ultimate fate of Anne Boleyn’s hair (used to stuff the world’s most expensive tennis balls), the ultimate fate of Anne Boleyn’s executioner (executed himself, his throat professionally slit in a French courtyard), and the conquest of the Aztecs. I think I can see what it’s trying to do, and I think I’m intrigued and impressed. I’m just not quite sure it comes off: partly it’s hampered by its own cleverness, which has Enrigue writing these footnote sections in the tone of a chatty media don, giving the impression that they’ve migrated into the novel from a popular history book.

pleasantest surprise: This is going to sound so weird, but: It, Stephen King’s killer-clown novel. I’d never read Stephen King, and picked this up really on a whim. It turned out to be astonishingly addictive, which for me means that the writing is high-quality and frictionless. It’s also genuinely terrifying—more so when focusing on events that happen to the central group of characters as children; slightly less so when focusing on them as adults and the final reckoning with It, but still pretty good then. I’ll be trying King again. (review)

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most hmm: Kevin Wilson’s new novel, Perfect Little World, which is out in June. The idea is cool: a child psychologist with his own issues around nurture and stability is funded by an eccentric billionairess to run a ten-year study called the Infinite Family Project, where ten couples raise their babies communally to see how this affects child development. Our main character, teen single mother Izzy, is delightfully down-to-earth and the way Wilson introduces conflict to the “perfect little world” is pleasingly realistic, but his prose style creates a kind of distance between the reader and the characters; I always felt I was on the outside, looking in. Perhaps that was the point, though I’m still not sure how I feel about it if so.

hardest to read: When I Hit You: Or, Portrait of the Writer As A Young Wife, by Meena Kandasamy, a novel about an abusive marriage between an Indian feminist writer and her passionately Communist husband. The title should tell you why. (This has got nothing to do with the shit thing that has just happened, though.)

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biggest relief: Tana French’s most recent novel, The Trespasser, is finally 1.99 on Kindle. It’s the only thing I’ve been able to read since the shit thing happened—I can’t focus enough for anything else—and I should take this opportunity to again state how thoroughly French as a writer has earned my trust as a reader.

up next: No idea. In any sense.

The Hate Race, by Maxine Beneba Clarke

I knew they were scared. I knew they were just kids. But so were we.

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Maxine Beneba Clarke’s short story collection, Foreign Soil, was one of my favourite books of 2016. Do you know what it feels like to open a book by someone totally new to you and to know, within the space of the first page, that you can trust them and their writing, that you can relax the part of your reading mind that’s always on the alert for awkwardness or falseness, that you can just sink below the surface of the words and go? Of course you do. That’s what Clarke’s writing did—and does—for me, and it’s a large part of why I was anticipating The Hate Race so much.

It doesn’t disappoint. As a memoir of a middle-class black kid growing up in white suburban Australia, it is indeed the kind of story that Clarke’s country hasn’t often heard and needs to hear, as she herself says. But I worry that it will be shared and written about only in that context—of being an “important”, “brave”, “necessary” book—and often, when I see that context, I see condescension. So here’s another way of saying it: The Hate Race is important, brave, and necessary. It is also phenomenally well-written, meticulously observant about social minutiae. Above all, in it, Clarke precisely anatomises the psychology of a bullied kid.

Her observations sting like a badly skinned knee. Bullying starts early: on her first day of kindergarten, a tiny white bitch-in-the-making called Carlita Allen surveys Maxine with wrinkled nose and announces, “You’re brown” in a tone that suggests this is, definitively, unacceptable. To begin with, Carlita perplexes Maxine—who knows she’s brown but has never considered that this might mean anything much—but pretty soon she learns. The book is punctuated with a repeated riff on a couple of sentences: “This is how it broke me,” on one page. Or, “This is how it alters us. This is how we change.”

Maxine starts to alter early on. Her thought processes bounce sharply off of injustice and are forced to bend, every time. A boy in her class calls her blackie one too many times, and she tells a teacher. If she’d been hoping for protection, she’s mistaken:

Mrs Hird kept her grey-green eyes on me, red pen still poised above the spelling test she’d been marking. “Well,” she said slowly, “that’s what you are. You can call him whitey if you like.”

This is 1990. Clarke is ten.

In her horror and rage, she makes the mistake of crying, “That’s racist!” and is scolded for “using that word in my classroom” and “accusing your classmate of something like that.” How dare a girl taunted by the word blackie accuse her tormentor of racism?

Most of the bullying is verbal and emotional, which is hard enough. When Clarke realises that she’s winning schoolyard games of Catch and Kiss not because she’s a fast runner, but because none of the boys want to touch her, it feels like a fist in the throat. She quotes the stupid cruelties of one kid in particular, Greg Adams (all names in this book have been changed, which I assume is to prevent readers from tracking down Greg Adams, and Mrs. Hird, and kicking the living hell out of them):

Greg Adams loudly ranked the girls in our class from one to eleven on his Fuck Chart. He said he couldn’t even put me at the end of the list because animals didn’t count. Greg Adams said that would be bestiality. Greg Adams said the only way black chicks got fucked was gang-banged with the lights turned off, and even then you’d have to be super-desperate, and use ten condoms so you didn’t get AIDS. And then Greg Adams and his friends laughed, and laughed, and laughed.

(I wished, reading that, that Clarke had gone to my majority-black American high school, where white girls were essentially useless. The most desirable trait in a girl at my high school was to have a booty out to HERE. Our prom queen’s nickname literally was “Booty”. Based on Clarke’s writing about her own booty, which stubbornly refuses to be tucked in during gymnastics classes, she would have been a goddess.)

But physical bullying intrudes too, most notably when Clarke and her brother are riding their bikes with two white friends, the McGuire kids. Older boys show up on the scene. Names are called. The McGuires are silent. Then a stone is hurled; and another. The McGuire kids break for home, not even looking back to check that the Clarkes are okay. That scene is where the quotation at the top of this post comes from, and it’s one of the most powerful moments in the memoir. Kids of colour who deal with racism and bullying are children. Children with more structural privilege don’t get to invoke terror as an explanation for their failure to act; Clarke and her brother may be children, but they live in a state of watchfulness and fear so constant that it sometimes reminded me of the behaviour of soldiers. It’s an equally useful reminder for adults. You might be scared by the white supremacist shouting at the hijab-wearing woman on the bus, but guess what? That woman is also scared, and the actual target. Fear of reprisals is a weak excuse for “allies” who do nothing.

Clarke doesn’t let herself off the hook in this regard, either. One of the bravest and most painful sections is her recounting of her behaviour towards Bhagita Singh, an Indian/Australian girl in her class who was, predictably, also bullied by people like Greg Adams. Clarke finds Bhagita’s ability to stare past her tormentors baffling: why can Bhagita do that, but she can’t? When Clarke gets hair extensions—something she’s wanted for months—Bhagita off-handedly says that she liked Clarke’s hair the way it was, and muses that Indian women often sell their hair so that extensions and wigs can be made for other women. It’s all delivered in an utterly un-malicious tone; Bhagita’s straightforwardness makes her capable of ignoring bullies, but also of being quite startlingly tactless without intending to be. Clarke is so disappointed in this response, so filled with embarrassment and let-down and an unplaceable sense of shame, that she lashes out appallingly: the word curry-muncher is used, the accusation leveled that no one would want Bhagita’s hair because it smells disgusting and is greasy (none of which, Clarke notes, is true.) It’s only a matter of hours before Clarke begins to repent, but when she tries to apologise to Bhagita the next day, the other girl wrenches herself away, a look of fear on her face. “Get away from me. Get away!” To Bhagita, Clarke is One Of Them now, undifferentiated from the Carlita Allens and the Greg Adamses. It’s a betrayal more painful to Clarke than almost anything she experiences personally.

(It will also feel familiar to readers who have read Foreign Soil; it mirrors the story “Shu Yi”, in which a little black girl in a majority-white school is instructed to befriend a Chinese Australian classmate, on the basis that they’re both non-white and therefore presumably share some mystical bond. Ava, the protagonist, turns on Shu Yi in order to grasp a shred of playground credibility, and is made to pay the emotional price by Shu Yi herself, who locks eyes with Ava even as she pisses herself with fear and shame. It’s one of the most powerful stories I’ve ever read, and it comes from this place of scrabbling, this place where badly bullied kids end up, where survival instinct takes precedence over kindness.)

Anger is the engine of this book, but Clarke’s writing corrals that emotion and uses it, instead of being overpowered by it. Reviewers often complain that reviewing a memoir is hard, because it’s unfair to judge someone’s life; I would argue that in reviewing a memoir, you are not judging a person’s life, but the way in which they choose to present it to you. For Clarke, presentation is paramount. Also repeated throughout the text is the touchstone phrase, “This is how it happened, or else what’s a story for.” It is not written as a question. She roots her telling in the storytelling traditions of West Indians (her father’s family is Jamaican, her mother’s Guyanese). The passage into adulthood is, in large part, a process that begins when you start being able to tell a story your own way. Clarke’s recounting of what happened to her is an act of authority and reclamation: she was hurt, she was beaten down, and now she will not be silenced any longer. If you have any sense, you will buy this book immediately, and listen.

Many thanks to Grace Vincent at Corsair for the review copy. The Hate Race is published in the UK on 8 June.

#6Degrees of Separation: The Slap

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

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First up: The Slap, a book I didn’t read when it came out but which made a lot of waves. I gather the controversy derives from the book’s opening chapter, in which an adult man slaps a child who isn’t his own at a barbeque. This is something I have frequently been tempted to do (though never done), which leads us to…

Sarah Hall’s incredible novel The Electric Michelangelo, about an early twentieth-century tattoo artist and his love affair with one of his customers, a woman who asks him to cover her entire body in tattooed eyes. (I’ve been batting around the idea of a tat for years, and not yet committed. But I wanna.)

The tattoo of an eye is the distinguishing mark of the major villain, Count Olaf, in Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. The series also features three siblings named Violet (a gifted inventor), Klaus (a voracious reader with a photographic memory), and Sunny (who likes biting, and, eventually, cookery).

One of Snicket’s authorial gimmicks involves expanding a young reader’s vocabulary by defining tricky words within the context of the story. The only other book I’ve read with an eye to its vocabulary was Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals, which we read in school and for which we were required to make word lists. I learned “lugubrious”, “catarrh” and “unctuous” this way.

I’d actually encountered “unctuous” the previous summer, when Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire came out. It’s the word Rowling uses to describe Igor Karkaroff, headmaster of Durmstrang, the Eastern European magic school whose students come to participate in the Triwizard Tournament at Hogwarts.

Where do you go from Harry Potter? Everywhere, or nowhere: it’s curiously self-contained, but influences all children’s literature that comes after it. But I have one out: I met J.K. Rowling in February 2014, and at the time, I was reading This Secret Garden: Oxford Revisited, by Justin Cartwright. It’s part of a commissioned series called Writers and the City, and I identified with the city’s psychic resonance in Cartwright’s life, long after he’s finished his degree and moved away.

C’est tout! Next month the chain starts with Shopgirl, by Steve Martin.

09-15 of 20 Books of Summer

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I made this collage on Picmonkey and I am so ridiculously proud of it

WHOOPS.

To be completely honest with you, I got to book #15, and then shit happened—other books I needed to review, holidays, that pesky novel I need to write—so although I’ve read waaaayyy more than 20 books this summer, I am very unlikely to finish the 20 Books of Summer, if you follow me. Still, it’s a super project, very worth attempting, and I’m definitely going to try it again next year! (Plus, because I’ve decided to DNF one of them—I can’t read Dylan Thomas’s collected poems all the way through, sorry—and to not worry about another—a monograph from the Royal Academy on Jean-Étienne Liotard, which I’ll enjoy reading in snatches but which is too bulky to be practical as an everyday book—I only have three books left to read, and I’m sure I can knock those out before the fall is too far advanced…)

Brief reviews follow.

book_2909. When I Lived in Modern Times, by Linda Grant

Where I read it: Mostly on the Tube, I think, over about two days.

I liked everything about the premise for this one: Evelyn Sert is an orphaned hairdresser, aged twenty, who decides to move from Soho to the new state of Palestine. Once there, she becomes embroiled with a mysterious man named Johnny, who it turns out is a spy and a student militant, and their romance has serious repercussions for them both.

Things that were great about it: The setting is beautifully evoked. Tel Aviv in the 1940s and ’50s must have been an absolute shock to the system for a girl raised in grey post-war London. The Bauhaus architecture, the café culture, the brilliance of lemons and oranges against the whiteness of the houses; it’s all very well done. Equally, the snobbish attitude of the British wives whose husbands work for the protectorate in Palestine is well conveyed. Evelyn’s job at the salon is dependent on these women continuing to believe that she herself is 100% British, and the awkwardness of trying to conceal her Jewish identity in a place that seems designed to celebrate it is a really nice touch.

Things that could have been better: Everything about the espionage plot, really. Evelyn is quite a passive character, so it makes sense that she should do and know so little, but a) that means we don’t really know her, even by the book’s end, and b) it means that the dénouement comes as rather a surprise. We know Johnny’s up to something, but we hardly know what, and the ending feels a bit unearned.

cover-jpg-rendition-460-70710. Chronicles, by Thomas Piketty

Where I read it: Over the course of a lazy, hair-twirling, coffee-drinking Saturday.

This is a collection of Piketty’s financial columns which he wrote for a French newspaper. They’ve clearly been released on the back of his success with Capital in the Twenty-first Century, which means a lot of them are out of date. What’s interesting about them, though, is how scarily prescient they appear to a reader in 2016. He’s writing from 2012 about Greece and the IMF, but a lot of what he says about the Euro, and how it can best be stabilized, and what will happen if it isn’t, resonates with alarming clarity in the post-Brexit atmosphere. Essentially, Piketty predicted Brexit too, saying that if the situation in central Europe wasn’t changed for the better by decisive action from the European Parliament—mostly France and Germany—and the IMF, lack of confidence in the European project would be the result. And… yep, that’s exactly what happened.

All of which makes me think that we really ought to be paying attention to whatever Piketty is saying now.

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11. Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson

Where I read it: On the train to Hitchin, where the Progenitors Chaotic live, and on the train back again.

I read this book too fast. In my defense, it’s hard not to. It’s short, the prose flies by. Robinson is known for the beauty and the quasi-Biblical rhythms of her writing, and that’s certainly true; there’s an eerie luminescence that surrounds my memory of Housekeeping that I think is only attributable to that incredible quality in the writing. I don’t remember noticing it much at the time, but I remember it making an impact on me nonetheless.

It is about two orphaned sisters, Ruth and Lucille Stone, and their lives in the Idaho town of Fingerbone. Their aunt Sylvie comes to care for them. Sylvie is not a domesticated creature, even by the somewhat more relaxed standards of our day; Housekeeping, it’s implied, is set sometime mid-20th-century, and the good men and women of Fingerbone hardly know what to do with Sylvie at all. She doesn’t clean. She doesn’t tidy. She’s a hoarder and a wanderer and a wild-haired sprite, a former homeless woman, a rider in railroad cars. Ruth loves this. Ruth clings to her. Lucille doesn’t; she goes to live with a teacher, a woman who has doilies on her tables and a clean, full, well-lit larder. Fearful of being removed by Child Protection, Ruth escapes with Sylvie across frozen Fingerbone Lake, and they both become travelers. Occasionally they pass through the town again, riding the rails.

It’s basically a novel about family, about what home can mean, and as Robert McCrum puts it, “Robinson believes in family.” This is a good book to have read a few months after reading another of her novels, Lila, which also addresses the question of the families we’re born into and the families we choose, or which are thrust upon us, or which we build for ourselves. While Housekeeping has a more overtly dark edge (I spent pages waiting for something cataclysmic to occur; I was amazed that all of the characters got out of it alive), it too is preoccupied with choosing family, with the statements that your choice makes.

978022409002512. The Father, by Sharon Olds

Where I read it: Commuting, again. God, this is getting dull.

Poetry is so fucking hard to write about, it tends to put me off reading it, or at least it puts me off reading it for this blog. In brief: this is a collection of poems in which the narrator is a daughter tending to her dying father. He has cancer. Their relationship has not been a positive or a loving one; as Adam Mars-Jones noted in a London Review of Books essay on Olds’s poetry, “the depth of the poems is inversely proportionate to the richness of the relationship. The poet is so attentive to her father’s dying because in his living he so comprehensively refused her.”

So, yeah, not exactly happy stuff, but supremely, superbly powerful. Olds is one of those poets who writes in a manner that looks conversational and absolutely isn’t. She doesn’t do syntactical inversion, heightened diction, alliteration, any of that bag-of-tricks stuff. She just selects and places words so that their context gives them grandeur. I’d love to be able to do it myself. I will never be a poet that good.

51n8dqdd2wl13. Raw Spirit, by Iain Banks

Where I read it: On the bus from Crouch End to Finsbury Park, after a marathon OITNB session with my friend Ella, formerly known on this blog as the Duchess.

This book suffers appallingly from two interrelated things: an excess of privilege, and a deficit of self-awareness. Iain Banks was commissioned to do a tour of Scotland’s single malt distilleries and write a full-length travelogue detailing his search for “the perfect dram” (see subtitle). It’s a great idea. It’s the sort of thing that editors stopped having the money or the free time to do, circa 2003, which coincidentally is when this book was published. And it’s the kind of all-expenses-paid vanity project that you really, really need to be humble about, if you’re lucky enough to land the gig. Banks isn’t humble. He preens. He mentions that he’s been commissioned, that the whisky is all on his publisher, that none of his junkets are leaving him out of pocket, at least once a chapter.

He also doesn’t really seem to take the brief all that seriously. On the one hand, it’s hard to blame him for this: his descriptive skills are good, but come on, it’s whisky, innit. It’s smokey and peaty and maybe a bit salty and occasionally you can throw in some words like “caramel” or “toasted orange”, but on the whole it’s going to be difficult to describe fifty of the buggers in anything like a distinctive fashion. On the other hand, there were times when so very little of this book had anything to do with whisky that it honestly felt like he was taking the piss. Like the five pages about a Jaguar he once had, followed by a cursory page and a half on a distillery’s history and product. Or the long anecdotes about his friends and what they’re like when they’re drunk. Real talk: no one is a hilarious drunk to a stranger. Reading about how they got in trouble (tee hee hee, boys will be boys) for making too much noise in a family hotel after-hours did not make me sympathetic. It didn’t even make me think, “What a legend.” It made me think, “What an arsehole.”

So anyway, long story short is, I’m going to read Consider Phlebas and The Player of Games and forget that I ever took this irritating detour into their author’s personal life/head.

18071176-_uy200_14. The Violent Bear It Away, by Flannery O’Connor

Where I read it: Literally no idea. Perhaps it gave me amnesia?

Tell you what, O’Connor really doesn’t fuck around with her titles.

This is her second novel. Her first, Wise Blood, had already established her thematic interests: evangelical Christianity, confused young men, violence and grace, the human fear and loathing and rejection of Christ and His implacability. It’s fairly serious stuff; you can’t really go into it half-heartedly. Even if you have issues with Christian belief or are simply an atheist, you need to take on board the premise that these beliefs are significant and important for the people you’re reading about. Otherwise none of it makes any sense at all, and even for me – raised in a church tradition, though not a fundamentalist one – it sometimes gets a bit bewilderingly intense.

The Violent Bear It Away focuses on Francis Marion Tarwater, who was abducted from his family home as a baby by his mother’s brother. Determined to make the little boy into a prophet of the Lord, old Tarwater raises him in a rural backwater and keeps him away from school (by getting him to pretend he’s mentally disabled when the truant officer comes around). When old Tarwater dies, young Tarwater moves to the city in search of his other uncle, and has to determine whether to live as his religious uncle raised him or as his secular uncle wants to make him. It asks a lot of questions about freedom: spiritual, intellectual, moral. O’Connor doesn’t really believe in freedom, or at least not in the way that most of the people reading her probably do. She believes in God, though, in the ultimateness of Him. So it hasn’t got what you might call a happy ending, but it has an ending full of conviction. Reading O’Connor gives me a much stronger sense of what motivated a Joan of Arc or a Thomas Cranmer: the solid reality of that kind of belief.

4125be3z3vl-_sx310_bo1204203200_ 15. The Idea of Perfection, by Kate Grenville

Where I read it: Lying on the bed, the window open to catch whatever breeze was going in southwest London, the week before my holiday.

Kate Grenville won the Orange Prize for this in 2001, and she followed it up with The Secret River, which means I should really have read her by now. It served both for 20 Books of Summer and for my less formal Women’s Prize project, and, like most of the (relatively) early Women’s Prize winners I’ve read, it was a fantastic surprise.

It follows two awkward people (imperfection, you see): Harley Savage, a museum curator who specializes in textiles, and Douglas Cheeseman, a structural engineer who adores cement. Both are in Karakarook, New South Wales, Harley to advise on the development of a heritage museum and Douglas to oversee the destruction of a historic bridge. Obviously, these are conflicting aims, and the townspeople expect Harley and Douglas to be at loggerheads. To begin with, they are, sort of, but both are at odds with the expectations leveled at them by daily life and society in general, and this brings them together.

What’s brilliant about it: the sheer dedication that Grenville puts into her portrayal of imperfect people. Harley and Douglas go on a “first date” to a genuinely horrible rural greasy spoon café, where they manage to misunderstand one another and second-guess their own reactions to a point that is, frankly, painfully familiar to anyone with even mild social anxiety. Also, I love how she deals with the “woman with a past” trope in relation to Harley, who suffers horrible guilt from something that was 100% not her fault but nevertheless pretty horrible. Grenville is so good at not making her a bombshell or a sex object while also not painting her as a gargoyle or a grotesque (though that’s how Harley thinks of herself.) This is counterpointed by the story of a bank manager’s wife who embarks on an affair with the local butcher, pretending that her marriage is perfect while we know it’s a sham. That storyline ends with a twist that is so tame by today’s Gone Girl standards, and yet so perfectly conveyed in the prose, that I actually gasped. It’s emblematic of the lovely balancing act Grenville achieves throughout the book. And the ending is very joyous.

When I Lived in Modern Times, Linda Grant. (London: Granta, 2011 [2000])

Chronicles, Thomas Piketty. (London: Viking, 2016)

Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson. (London: Faber & Faber, 2005)

The Father, Sharon Olds. (London: Jonathan Cape, 2009 [1992])

Raw Spirit, Iain Banks. (London: Arrow, 2004 [2003])

The Violent Bear It Away, Flannery O’Connor. (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2007 [1960])

The Idea of Perfection, Kate Grenville. (London: Picador, 2002 [2001])

Relativity, by Antonia Hayes, + Q&A

“Help”, he said. “He’s not breathing.”

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Relativity takes, as its starting point, the kind of thing that you never want to experience as a parent: an emergency hospital visit for an infant displaying all the symptoms of shaken baby syndrome. The child’s father, who was alone with him at the time of injury, denies everything, but is arrested, tried, and convicted. He spends years in prison. Meanwhile, the child grows up—but when he’s twelve, he accidentally intercepts a letter from his father to his mother, and the past rushes in to fill the present.

Hayes is coy about what exactly happened when Ethan was a baby until about halfway through the book, which is a wise move. We spend time first getting to know Mark, his father; Claire, his mother; and Ethan himself. Mark is fascinating: probably, fundamentally, a good guy, but immature, prone to temper, and deeply self-important. One of the most painful aspects of the book is the section detailing his youthful relationship with Claire. She’s an aspiring ballet dancer; he’s doing a Ph.D in astrophysics. Her pregnancy is unexpected, but they’re in love and they decide to make the best of things. When the baby is born, though, Mark has a hard time feeling love for him; he’s too preoccupied by the destructive effect a newborn is having on his sleep cycle, his research, and his writing. Claire’s fear that her dancing career is over, meanwhile, is exacerbated by Mark’s apparent indifference to it. In one of their worst fights, he suggests that she should give it up altogether, since it’s not very lucrative or stable employment, and she might never make it big. This is not, needless to say, the behaviour of a supportive spouse.

So the portrayal of the strain on Claire and Mark’s relationship is certainly convincing; what I found difficult to swallow was the standardness of the gender stereotyping. Claire is repeatedly described as being deeply physical and intuitive, “thinking with her body”, while Mark is logical, rational, intellect-driven. It’s a female/male dichotomy that I find knackered, and knackering. Of course the mother is a ballerina, someone who works with their body; of course the father is a physicist, someone for whom the mind is paramount; and of course Claire not only connects instantly with their baby, while Mark struggles, but also gives up her career entirely—out of guilt—after Ethan sustains his injury. It probably frustrates me because of its very realism, because it is still the way that many relationships are framed, but I just kept hoping for something that would challenge these woman-as-nurturer, man-as-reasoner roles,  and there was nothing in the book that did.

What does work very well, however, is Hayes’s portrayal of a gifted child. For Ethan can “see” physics: the sound waves left by a lightning strike, the movement of air pressure, the Doppler effect. He’s also simply very bright, with an affinity for mathematics and physics, an excellent memory, and a boundless curiosity. He reads constantly and is forever making connections. Yet he’s still only twelve: a mature twelve-year-old in many ways, but still, as twelve-year-olds do, lacking the fundamental emotional experiences that aid maturity. Hayes nails that curious combination, the brilliance and sensitivity of a child who is, nevertheless, a child. It’s hard to put into words unless you’ve either been that child or been the parent of one, so I’m guessing Hayes is one or both of those things. (The book is based to some extent on her real-life experiences: when she was nineteen, her partner shook their baby, and stood trial for it as a result.)

The bullying Ethan withstands, too, is sickeningly convincing: you hope it’s not written from life, though it probably is. There’s nothing more awful, in middle school, than the betrayal of a former best friend trying to hang with the cool guys, or the nastiness of bullies who use your home life against you, as well as your school persona of Nerd Supreme. To be twelve is to negotiate a bizarre, unreplicable mental space where supernovae and sex are elbowing each other for your attention; where you get boners in the shower but remain fascinated by the minutiae of meteors and the possibility of time travel. Both of those impulses—the sexual and the scholastic—are neatly chronicled in Relativity. It may treat its adult characters in a way that frustrated me, but Ethan is perfectly drawn.

Very luckily, I’ve been able to ask Antonia Hayes some questions about the book and about her writing (courtesy of publicist Grace Vincent), so now it’s over to her:

Ethan is a very convincing portrayal of a gifted child – he still possesses the maturity levels of a twelve-year-old in some ways, even though he is clearly brilliant. What’s your best advice for getting inside the head of a character like that?

While I was writing Ethan’s character, I did quite a bit of research about gifted children and what effects having a preternatural intelligence can have on a child’s mindset. Even though Ethan can understand theoretical physics, it doesn’t mean that he really understands everything – especially adult relationships. At the same time, being brilliant does make Ethan a little too confident in his own abilities and judgement, even outside the world of science. So I really wanted to play with the conflict between intellect and wisdom with his character. Ethan’s intelligence is deep but it’s also quite narrow. Just because he’s a genius doesn’t mean he necessarily has common sense. Gifted kids are still kids – but Ethan doesn’t know how naive he really is.

Claire gives up ballet almost as a way of punishing herself for not being the mother she feels she should have been. Talk to me about careers and motherhood: expectations, reality, unfairness…

There’s a line in the scene about Claire’s childhood training to be a ballet dancer and the pressure her own mother put on her that I think sums up Claire’s feelings about this: “How motherhood could easily annihilate whatever came before it.”

Unfortunately, I think careers (particularly in the arts) and motherhood are both given these unrealistic narratives about complete and utter devotion, but anyone who is completely and utterly devoted to anything at the exclusion of all other things in their life lacks balance. Claire did buy into this specific fiction of martyrdom and surrender with motherhood, perhaps at the expense of her own happiness and fulfilment. With her character, I really wanted to push that motherhood guilt complex. My intention was to show the ways some mothers truly believe they’re doing the best thing by their kids when they make these sacrifices for their children, but they’re actually inflicting a different kind of damage.

My own personal view – as a writer and a mother myself – is that one informs the other. My writing is richer because I’m a parent, but I’m also a better parent because I know how important it is for me to write and pursue my dreams. I am sick of the dialogue around motherhood versus everything because it works on the assumption that motherhood is all-consuming, transactional, selfless and a sacrifice – which is wrong. There’s no conflict or dichotomy; it’s symbiotic and always changing from one phase to the next. It’s the industrial complex of motherhood that’s hostile to art, because it uses guilt and obligation and domesticity as its currency. You can have kids and not suppress who you are; it’s healthier for our kids if we don’t.

Neuroplasticity is well documented, but Ethan’s condition is highly unusual – although the novel eventually reveals that his savantism isn’t what it’s initially believed to be, is such a thing realistically possible?

Yes! Acquired savants are real, although only about 50 of them exist worldwide. One real life case I was particularly interested in was that of Jason Padgett, who became a mathematical and geometry genius after a brain injury.

How did you first become interested in writing this story? What was the initial spark: shaken baby syndrome, gifted children, physics, neuroscience, or something else altogether?

To be honest, it was actually a constellation of all of those things. The initial spark was the character, Ethan – he popped into my head one day, and I knew almost immediately that he loved physics. I’d been thinking of writing about shaken baby syndrome, and his character and interests were my way into telling that story. I’m often asked if Ethan is based on my own son (who is now 14), but he’s actually much more like 12-year-old Antonia. All those elements are different obsessions of mine, that I managed to combine for the novel.

Where do you do most of your writing?

I work at my dining table at home, mostly. Technically this room should be where we eat dinner, but it’s now overrun with books and has become my makeshift office.

Do you have any advice for a debut novelist or for someone who wants to write a novel but is too scared to start? (Asking for a friend…)

I used to be completely terrified of the idea of writing a novel! I think what made me overcome my fear was separating the act of writing itself from what follows it (publication etc). Sitting quietly at my desk, and arranging and rearranging sentences, wasn’t actually a scary thing to do; in fact, it brought me enormous pleasure. So instead of focusing on writing a novel that one day might become a published book (which is an intimidating idea), I focused on writing and after a while, I had a manuscript. Worrying about publication before there’s even a first draft of a manuscript is likely to do anyone’s head in because it creates extra stress you don’t need to trouble yourself with yet. If writing makes you happy, start there. The rest is noise and your friend can worry about that later.

Thanks very much to Grace Vincent for the review copy, and to Antonia Hayes for her incisive and thoughtful answers! Relativity was published in the UK on 7 April.

 

Foreign Soil, by Maxine Beneba Clarke

this casual unguardedness that comes from never really knowing fear

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[Not a capsule review, but a shorter one than usual. Sorry.]

I think I’m going to start referring to 2016 as the Year When I Found Out I Was Wrong About Everything. (Not, like, everything, you understand. Most things I’m good on.) It is definitely the case, though, that I am not very good on short stories. They disorient me, especially if a collection doesn’t have some kind of unifying thread. But Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Foreign Soil, oh man. I’m here for this.

It’s mostly a collection about the experiences of black people separated in some way from a community. It’s not necessarily, or always, a collection “about” racism, or race relations, which is why I’m doubly pleased that it’s been published in the UK; there remains this lingering conviction that writers of colour are always somehow writing about that (and, by extension, about white people). Clarke’s first story, “David”, explores the conflict between a second-generation woman born in Australia to Sudanese parents, and the first-generation immigrant woman she meets on her way back from buying a bike. Their dance of mutual misunderstanding, frustration and need is conveyed by each woman in turn; they tell their stories in parallel, the older woman recounting the backstory that explains her present. Neither of them is aware that the other is also narrating. Their voices proceed in isolation until the very end of the story, where they come together in a moment that’s transcendant for being so utterly unexpected.

Clarke uses this technique a lot, often without contextualizing who the different voices belong to. My favourite instance is in the story “Gaps In the Hickory”, about a young transgender boy, Carter, in rural Mississippi. (Technically, I guess, Carter is a transgender girl: born male and being raised as a boy, partly because his father is too violent and bigoted to be trusted with the secret knowledge he has of his girlhood.) His story, told through his worried and loving mother’s eyes, is spliced with scenes in New Orleans where we see an older woman, Delores, interacting with a small girl, her neighbour Ella. For a very long time, we don’t know who Delores is, or why she’s important, though slowly, slowly, we learn that she knew Carter’s grandmother. Still, though, the final reveal is very gradual, very contextual—the reader gets there just a second before the narrative does. Again, the end of the story is a moment of synthesis, of connection.

The brilliance of a short story, I think, stands or falls upon its ability to know when to stop. Clarke’s brilliance in these particular stories is to stop just after the synthesis. We feel, as readers, some sense of relief: an immediate tension has been resolved, characters have met, action has been taken. But that relief is contingent because Clarke never resolves things utterly: in “Big Islan”, for instance, her protagonist Nathanial has learned how to read as a result of his wife’s ceaseless instruction, and he awakes at the end of the story feeling restless in Kingston, which he had once thought the centre of the world. But that’s it. He’s got itchy feet now, and he’s as willing to travel as his wife wants him to be, but we don’t get the satisfaction of finding out whether they make it. The same goes for “The Stilt Fishermen of Kathaluwa”, the protagonist of which is a detained Sri Lankan seeking asylum in Australia from being forced into service with the Tamil Tigers. The whole story is about his escape, spliced with scenes of the domestically dissatisfied lawyer who’s driving to see him in the detention centre. As the story closes, we know, the young man has done something drastic in front of a press conference at the centre, in order to draw attention to his plight. But we don’t know whether it works.

The stories that concern themselves most overtly with race aren’t interested in white people; they’re to do with how non-whites betray each other. They are incredible, disturbing vignettes of internalized fear and hatred. “Shu Yi”‘s narrator is a young black girl at a mostly white Australian school. Asked to befriend the only other child of colour in her year—a Chinese girl who barely speaks and is violently bullied—Ava reluctantly agrees. When it comes down to it, though, she publicly humiliates the other girl in order to protect her own standing, to make sure there’s someone weaker and more despised than she is. The story’s final image is of Shu Yi pissing herself, the shame and hopelessness of her situation expressed with horrible poignancy: “Shu Yi’s eyes locked with mine. A thin trickle travelled out the bottom of her tunic and down the inside of her legs, soaking slowly into her frilly white socks.” It’s so painful to read (God, the picture of those little frilly socks), but it’s also, astonishingly, dignified. Shu Yi doesn’t hide behind her hair, or put her face in her hands. She looks her betrayer in the eye. She owns the shame that belongs to her. She can’t say a thing, but she can make Ava understand that what she’s done is terrible.

Many of the stories are written in dialect: not just the dialogue, but the actual narration. I read a few reviews that didn’t take kindly to this, and I can see why a reader wouldn’t, but I think it’s a genius decision. To narrate in “standard English” the story of a teenager in 1950s Jamaica, pregnant out of wedlock, is to stand somewhere in relation to that teenager: to stand away from her, apart from her, above her looking down, even. To narrate that story in the words that she would use, though, in the patois (or “patwa”) that she speaks, is to make it a story that she is telling us. It brings it to life, it levels the reader’s horizon. An English tutor (or, well, I) would say that it asserts that teenager’s right to narrative authority.

Which is, I think, the point of the book’s epigraph, a quotation by Chinua Achebe: “Let no one be fooled by the fact that we may write in English, for we intend to do unheard of things with it.” Clarke’s embrace of many Englishes—Jamaican patois, Brixton street slang, broken and Tamil-inflected, suburban Australian—levels the reader’s horizons for all of these stories. You’re not observing them; you’re engaging with them. And the final story, “The Sukiyaki Book Club”, is a passionate defense of an artist’s right to tell the stories they want to tell, the ones they need to tell. It quotes the rejection letters sent to a writer whose situation is very much as Clarke’s was, while she was writing this collection:

Your writing is genuinely astonishing, but I’d like to read something you’ve written that deals with more everyday themes. Work that has an uplifting quality. Ordinary moments. Think book club material.

Imagine if that day of the Tottenham riots was ultimately a wake-up call that got an angry black kid back on the straight and narrow? We would be very interested in working with you to bring some light to this collection…These are very minor edits we are talking about.

What Clarke is doing, with Achebe’s English, is an unheard of thing: she is saying no. She is saying, fuck y’all. She is saying, This is not book club material. You are not talking about minor edits. You would like to corral these stories into shapes that make you more comfortable and you will not be permitted to do that. Thank God.

Read Foreign Soil; read it urgently. Discuss it with your book club, if you have one. It’s one of the best short story collections I’ve ever read, a collection of exquisite novels in miniature, and I can’t wait to read Clarke’s next book.

Thanks very much to Poppy Stimpson at Corsair for the review copy. Foreign Soil was published in the UK on 7 April.