Reading Diary: Apr. 30-May 12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Baileys Prize Longlist Reading 3: McBride

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February Superlatives

February! I started working at Heywood Hill. I followed the Jhalak Prize long list. In a perhaps not shocking turn of events, my to-read list grew significantly. I am beginning to worry about bookshelf space again. Not as many books this month—only fourteen update: fifteen! I forgot one!—but in a month as short as February, that’s a book every two days, which isn’t bad at all.

most whimsical: Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, the tale of a Danish woman’s travails in learning to drive as an adult, by Dorthe Nors. Poor Sonja; somehow her life has become something she never intended it to be, but she doesn’t know where she went wrong. It’s a fairly plotless book, but I think that suits its subject matter.

best short stories for people who don’t like short stories: Rick Bass’s beautiful, monumental collection from Pushkin Press, For A Little While. Bass writes stories the way Maxine Beneba Clarke does: they seem like miniature novels, tiny but perfectly formed and evocative, little jewels of description and characterisation. He writes like a dream on the sentence level, and his interest in the lost or confused people of the world is sincere and generous and kind. This collection is a marvel.

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THIS COVER. I DIE.

most thoroughly engrossing world: The Ghana/America splitscreen through the ages that you get in Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing. Starting with two estranged sisters in eighteenth-century Asanteland, the novel follows each woman’s descendants through history. Comparing the lives of the Ghanaian branch of the family to the American branch over the centuries is fascinating—such a tiny difference to start with, but such a huge gulf in only a few years’ time—and the ending is crazy satisfying without being completely unrealistic.

so close! so close!: Irenosen Okojie’s short story collection Speak Gigantular, which has fantastic, surreal ideas rendered in a highly original way, but which is let down by a general failure on her publisher’s part to check for things like typos. It’s an amazing collection, and it could be even better with a little attention to detail.

most skillfully written: This is a tough one to award elsewhere while Rick Bass’s stories are on the list, but Kei Miller’s prose in Augustown is so controlled, so subtle, so confident in itself, that from the very first page you can feel yourself relaxing, knowing you’re in good hands. It’s a lovely feeling to have when you open a book, that total trust in the writer’s ability.

best book to give someone who “doesn’t read YA”: Patrice Lawrence’s novel Orangeboy, which is significantly better than many adult novels. Marlon’s teenaged attempts to protect his family are rendered with such sympathy and lack of judgmentalism, I think it’s a book a lot of young people (and those who work with them) should be reading.

most fascinating: Not a shadow of a doubt here: Black and British, David Olusoga’s overview of black British history. I guarantee that you will learn something new from it, and that this new thing will be, moreover, wildly intriguing and contradictory to the history you remember from school.

most accidentally forgotten: Do not make assumptions about the fact that, in the first version of this post, I forgot Shappi Khorsandi’s Nina Is Not OK! It’s about a teenager who slowly comes to terms with the fact that, like her beloved and now dead father, she is an alcoholic. Nina’s situation is complicated by a trauma that happens at the beginning of the book and which she must acknowledge before she can begin to handle her alcoholism. Khorsandi is bitingly funny, sad, spirited, and never sentimental. I loved it.

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most grudgingly liked: I do not want to like the work of Paul Kingsnorth. It subscribes to a philosophy of back-to-nature manhood, unfettered by things like infants or women, that I find at best eye-roll-worthy, at worst destructive and juvenile. But his writing is none of these things; it is evocative, assured, and bold. His second novel, Beast, is about a man slowly unravelling on what seems to be Dartmoor. It’s short and very impressive.

best comfort read: The Uncommon Reader, Alan Bennett’s charming fable about what might happen if the Queen took up reading for pleasure. It’s so tiny and cute that you can read it in an hour, then go about the rest of your day with a small smile on your face. I particularly like the way Bennett characterises the Duke of Edinburgh—so succinct, so efficient!—through his curmudgeonly dialogue.

best reread: So, guys… whisper it. I didn’t really get all the love for The Essex Serpent when it came out. I mean, I liked the book, I thought the landscape and food descriptions were gorgeous, Perry’s writing is lush. But I also thought her first book hung together better, was a more perfect object, and I didn’t feel the same adoration for Cora and Will that lots of people seemed to. They were fine. I just didn’t love them. Then I read it again, really really slowly, over the course of about six weeks—mostly on my phone during five-minute bathroom breaks at the restaurant—and finished it this weekend, and although I still don’t feel fanatical about it, I think I understand it better.

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most serviceable thriller: I read William Shaw’s Kent-set murder mystery, The Birdwatcher, because it’s gotten a lot of love from people at work and it seemed worth checking out. It was perfectly acceptable, but my benchmark for thrillers/mysteries is now Tana French. Not many people can meet that standard—certainly not on the qualities of dialogue, descriptive writing and psychological depth—so, while Shaw’s book was a pretty solid example of the genre, and gripping as hell, it won’t knock French from her pedestal.

most evocative: Days Without End, Sebastian Barry’s Costa Award-winning novel about nineteenth-century Irish-American soldiers John Cole and Thomas McNulty: best friends, brothers-in-arms, lovers. The way that Barry allows their relationship its proper dignity, the way that he balances maternal feeling with military prowess in the character of McNulty, the way that he writes about the American West, is both roughly beautiful and incredibly elegant. It reminded me a lot of True History of the Kelly Gang.

best holiday reading: My dilemma about what to take on a four-day trip to France was solved by my friend Helen, who recommended Zadie Smith’s Swing Time. It’s a long and thoughtful novel but it never fails to be interesting – on dance and the body, on opportunity, on girls and friendship and hateship and growing up, on selfishness and revenge. I know it’s had mixed reviews, but me, I really liked it.

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most pleasant surprise: Anthony Horowitz’s reboot of the Sherlock Holmes universe, The House of Silk. I bought it on my phone mostly because it was 99p, and read it because I didn’t fancy anything too involved given my levels of sleep-deprivation at the time. It turned out to be a pretty gripping and not ill-written book; maybe a little mannered, but then so is Conan Doyle, and Horowitz always has a sense of humour about the project. The dénouement could conceivably lay the book open to charges of homophobia, but I think Horowitz is aiming less at closeted men and more at men who exploit the powerless. Anyway, I enjoyed it.

up next: Currently reading Sand, another crime novel (I think I’m becoming old) by a German author called Wolfgang Herrndorf. It’s set in Morocco circa 1972 and extremely diffuse; only now, at 100+ pages in, do I feel I have a sense of what’s going on. Review to follow.

I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith

Noble deeds and hot baths are the best cures for depression.

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Would you like to know the best opening sentence in the English language? It is not “Call me Ishmael”. Nor is it “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” No, it is the opening sentence of Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle: “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” It is without flaw: irresistibly odd, rather charming, certainly intriguing. In this, it is a perfect introduction to the book itself, which is also all of these things, and one of my favourite books to read when I’m feeling a little down or fragile.

The plot is so unlike any other book I’ve read that I might as well just quickly summarise it for you: Cassandra Mortmain lives in a crumbling castle (on a forty-year lease) with her older sister, Rose, and younger brother, Thomas; her father, a writer who produced a highly-regarded philosophical novel years ago but has written nothing since; and her stepmother Topaz, a former artist’s model and professional muse. What the Mortmains lack in money, they make up for in cheerfulness and romanticism, but they lack money in a serious way. When their landlord and owner of the local big house dies, his grandsons arrive from America to take over the house and settle his affairs. Topaz, Cassandra and Rose determine that Rose should marry one of the brothers, but the two girls quickly discover that in the real world, things aren’t as easily resolved as they are in novels…

Living arrangements at the castle appear delightfully eccentric. Topaz, who tends towards the melodramatic, likes to play the lute and to commune with nature, generally without any clothes on. But the poverty is real:

How odd it is to remember that “tea” once meant afternoon tea to us—little cakes and thin bread-and-butter in the drawing-room. Now it is as solid a meal as we can scrape together, as it has to last us until breakfast.

Stephen, the son of the Mortmains’ former maid, who lives with them and does various odd jobs, is “devoted” to Cassandra and frequently gives her some of his own food. A family meeting at the beginning of the book demonstrates, somewhat alarmingly, that Rose and Cassandra’s accomplishments are basically useless for earning any money; Thomas is still at school, and Topaz cannot leave Mortmain, so the only member of the household who can earn at all is Stephen.

But the descriptions are absolutely charming, like Cassandra’s musings about baths (which I must give in full, because I love them so much):

I was just getting into the bath when Heloise [the dog] whined at the back door and had to be let in. Of course she wanted to come to the fire, which was a slight bore as she is no asset to a bath—her loving paws are apt to scrape one painfully. However, she seemed sleepy and we settled down amicably. It was wonderfully cosy inside my tall, draught-proof screen; and the rosy glow from the fire turned the green sheets to a fascinating colour. I had the brainwave of sitting on our largest dinner-dish to avoid the dye [they have spent the afternoon dyeing things green]; the gravy runnels were a bit uncomfortable, though.

I believe it is customary to get one’s washing over first in baths and bask afterwards; personally, I bask first. I have discovered that the first few minutes are the best and not to be wasted… Father says hot water can be as stimulating as an alcoholic drink and though I never come by one—unless the medicine-bottle of port that the Vicar gives me for my Midsummer rites counts—I can well believe it.

What’s best about this book, though—especially on re-reading at this age—is how you can see Cassandra growing up. The American brothers, Neil and Simon, are initially put off by Rose’s excessive coquetry, but Topaz soon has her in line and Simon ends up proposing. Cassandra’s own feelings for Simon complicate matters, though, as does the possibility that Rose may not be in love at all, and Stephen’s “devotion” to Cassandra, which she begins to recognise in a far more serious, adult light. It’s a book about first love and naivety and making terrible mistakes; there is real emotion in it, which I had almost forgotten, since I hadn’t re-read it for so long. And yet the stakes are never so high that Smith can’t make us laugh. In one scene, Cassandra storms off to the village and gets drunk on cherry brandy at the Keys inn; it’s both pathetic and very funny. Anyone who has ever been a teenager, or heartbroken, will understand, and will also want to shake her rather hard, then put her to bed.

Aspects of the gender politics are outdated (unsurprisingly, since it was written in 1949). It’s not so much the general willingness to marry Rose off for money that got me; it was the attitude towards Mortmain, Cassandra’s father. He’s viewed as a “genius” by Topaz, despite the fact that he seems to find her irritating and she doesn’t seem very happy. When she asks Cassandra whether she ought to leave him, Cassandra convinces her to stay by guilt-tripping her into imagining what the posthumous biographies will say:

“Just imagine… ‘Mortmain was about to start on the second phase of his career, when the faithlessness of his artist-model wife shattered the fabric of his life. We shall never know what was lost to the world through this worthless young woman…’ “

It works, of course, and Topaz wants it to, because she derives much of her personal worth from being a muse to men. But it leaves a nasty taste in the mouth, especially the word “worthless.” And Mortmain is not the pleasantest of men. He’s meant, I think, to come across as brilliant but harmless, yet Cassandra is most convinced that he’s doing some work when he becomes physically violent towards her and throws her into a door; it’s that action that makes her think of “the old Father”, before his fallow period set in. Excusing violence in the name of genius is…well, sorry, but no.

These things stick out to me now because I am more alert to the use of emotive rhetoric to manipulate people, especially women, but also because they are so unusual in this book. Mortmain is not the main focus. Far more of it is about evoking the atmosphere of the castle, and about relationships: how Rose interacts with Neil and Simon, how Cassandra chooses to handle Stephen, how Topaz, despite her bohemian appearance, is the most stable person in the girls’ lives.

When I was little and easily frightened, my mum invented the concept of “the safe book”: something you could read before going to sleep, where there would be no great evil or physical danger or mental cruelty, something that would never give you nightmares. I Capture the Castle has always been my ultimate safe book. In the depths of winter, at the beginning of what is bound to be a difficult year, it feels like a charm against darkness.