06. The Waters and the Wild, by DeSales Harrison

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

Come away, O human child!

To the waters and the wild

With a faery, hand in hand,

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

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

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

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

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05. A Station On the Path to Somewhere Better, by Benjamin Wood

a-station-on-the-path-to-somewhere-better-9781471126741_hrThe back cover of my proof of this doesn’t give much away: merely the names and relationship of our two protagonists, Francis and Daniel Hardesty, father and son, and the promise of a road trip that ends in an explosion of violence, which continues to haunt Daniel twenty years after the fact. Given the road trip element of the book, I was expecting a darker version of Let Go My Hand. What I got was, indeed, dark, but there is no question of redemption or forgiveness in A Station On the Path… In Francis Hardesty, a man whose temper, capacity for manipulation, and sense of entitlement drive him ever further towards acts of intimidation and murder, Benjamin Wood has created the scariest literary father since Daddy, of Fiona Mozley’s Elmet, or Martin Alveston of My Absolute Darling.

It’s not particularly easy to talk about this book in a critical way without some significant plot spoilers, so if you intend to read it and you don’t want to know specifically what happens, look away! If you don’t think you’ll read it but you want my opinions on it anyway, for some reason, or if you don’t mind knowing some details of the promised violence before opening the book, read on.

Wood effectively creates a manipulative, shitty ex-husband and self-centered absentee father in Francis Hardesty; the opening pages, where he arrives to collect Daniel for a road trip whose purpose is, for a while, unclear, cement his unreliability in our minds. The fact that Daniel’s mother doesn’t trust him to enter the house speaks volumes. There’s a bit of heavy-handed retrospection as they drive away: “That was the last time I saw her,” Daniel tells us, narrating from the future. Several more of these ominous sentences are scattered through the book; it’s not the gravest of authorial sins, but it’s never been a strategy I particularly like. If you’re going to foreshadow, do it implicitly. Otherwise, build an atmosphere of menace and let that do the talking.

The atmosphere of menace is, in itself, top-notch. Daniel and Francis are driving towards Leeds, where Francis is a carpenter on a television show called The Artifex, about the friendship between a young boy and a strange woman who says she’s an alien, but who may just be mad. (More of this parallel wouldn’t have gone amiss: the point is that the show is about not just the line between reality and fantasy, but that between fantasy and insanity. That line is one that Francis Hardesty tightrope-walks for the first half of the book, then falls off of spectacularly in the second half. If we take the metaphor at face value, though, it pushes us towards the interpretation that Francis is deceiving himself as much as he deceives his son and everyone who comes into his orbit. That would make him a pitiful figure, but he is instead terrifying, capable of inventing a complicated lie within seconds and always poised to verbally or physically attack the skeptical.) As inconsistencies mount up – Francis keeps them in a pub waiting for a contact instead of taking them straight to the studio; the contact is very late; the initial approach to the studio is furtive and, ultimately, unsuccessful – Daniel becomes aware that his father is not just unreliable, but teetering on the brink of something that cannot be walked back from. Because the reader lacks Daniel’s need for love and acceptance from Francis (and is also an adult, not a child), we’ve come to this realisation earlier, but watching Daniel get there is nail-biting.

If I have a major issue with A Station On the Path, it’s that it seems to be reaching for a moral weight with which to invest its horrors that doesn’t appear warranted. Francis Hardesty murders four people and himself. Whether he does it because of deep-seated psychotic rage, a sense of entitlement, a combination of the two, or something else entirely isn’t ever made clear, and doesn’t really need to be. There’s a final section where we see Daniel as an adult, with a beloved partner, and realise that the book has been driving, all along, towards the question of whether he can bear to be a father, whether it is irresponsible for him to taint a child with the bloodline of a mass murderer. That is a weighty moral issue, and had Wood spent longer in that place, narratively, it would have made more sense. But as it is, the bulk of the book is spent describing the horrible events of the past, and there can be no particular reason to treat those events as though they’re special. Angry men kill people all the time. If Wood had let Daniel acknowledge the sheer banality of his father’s evil, it would have made for a stronger book.

04. The Stopping Places, by Damian Le Bas

41hq1jsvw3l-_sx309_bo1204203200_Damian Le Bas grew up around the Hampshire-Sussex border; he name-checks Petersfield on the first page, which is where my grandparents live and where I spent my summers from the age of seven onwards. Le Bas’s childhood, however, was spent selling flowers at the market there, and bombing around the countryside with various uncles and cousins, working on construction projects. He comes from a family of Travellers, or Gypsies, or Romanies—he uses the word Gypsy of himself and of people he knows, although my understanding is that for gorjies (outsiders), using either “Traveller” or “Romany” is less likely to give offense. He doesn’t, however, look particularly like a Traveller; he is light-skinned, fair-haired, blue-eyed. His education also marks him out: he won a scholarship to Christ’s Hospital as a schoolboy, and went on to study theology at Oxford. Like many people whose life has taken them to places their early childhood never hinted at, Le Bas has anxieties about his identity, about what he can call himself and how to reconcile his heritage with the endless comments of “you don’t look like a Gypsy”. To that end, he decides to spend some time driving around Britain in search of atchin tans or stopping places: spots that traditional Traveller families knew as good sites to camp or to halt at, temporarily, on the road.

Despite Le Bas’s reminiscences of his childhood, the resulting book is really much more a travelogue than a memoir. His wife, Candis, for instance, appears regularly—she joins him for some of the later legs of his journey—but we don’t really get a sense of her as a personality, nor of how they met and entered into a relationship with each other. They seem not to speak much while they’re on the road, and he only rarely describes any particular feelings towards her; she’s just sort of there. Perhaps this is to free up space to talk about the atchin tans, which are interesting, although for at least the book’s first half there is a strong suggestion that the whole thing might end in failure: Le Bas finds himself unmoved by many of the stopping places he first visits, and there are several dark nights of the soul where he ponders why he’s making these trips in the first place. The reader could be forgiven for wondering the same thing.

Fortunately, after a trip to France to join in the Continental Gypsy pilgrimage to the shrine of St Sara-la-Kali, emotional engagement seems to kick in. Le Bas’s descriptions of Appleby horse fair, past and present, constitute some of the best and most evocative passages in the book. He’s also skilled at evoking the world of Traveller masculinity and honour, the rigid codes that govern a society that only appears free-wheeling to outsiders. But the most effective elements of The Stopping Places are Le Bas’s conversations with his indomitable grandmother, who grew up one of ten children in a world where Travellers still used wagons (they’re mostly in caravans or bungalows now): her retelling of her memories functions as a kind of oral history project. There’s too much in the way of regurgitated itinerary, and we don’t get to participate in Le Bas’s emotions and thought processes nearly as much as we ought; instead we’re mostly relegated to passive recipients of what he informs us he is thinking and feeling. But the fact that I can think of no other currently published mainstream book about Traveller life and culture is indicative of The Stopping Places‘ significance. It’s certainly a tantalising beginning.

03. May, by Naomi Kruger

38748440May is a novel about dementia. There have been a few of them recently, most notably Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon and Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey. A protagonist whose memory is addled by old age is a smart choice for a writer to make in a literary environment that remains obsessed with, among other things, the unreliable (and usually female) narrator. You cannot get much less reliable than a dementia patient. Every author who makes that choice, however, must then contend with an implicit charge of exploitation: dementia is not a personality trait, but an illness, and one that can cause emotional trauma to both the person who has it and the people that love the patient. How do you write about someone caught in the grip of that fatal confusion without making the reader’s interest in the terrible minutiae feel prurient? And how do you make your character’s illness integral to the mystery (because dementia novels, like all novels about memory, are fundamentally mysteries) in a way that doesn’t read as cynical? How, in other words, do you avoidwriting tragedy porn?

Kruger’s answer is, in part, to focalise the novel through characters other than May herself. Although the back cover says that the book is set over the course of a single day, chapters flash back to 1957 and forward to 2007, told by May’s husband Arthur, daughter Karen, grandson Alex, and carer Afsana. Each of these people, of course, has their own story. Through them, the reader tries to unravel May’s obsession, in her care home in 2000, with a mysterious red-haired boy who might be a figure from her past or might be a figment of her imagination. It’s unfortunate, given the title of the book, that the character and narrative arc I found most compelling wasn’t May’s at all; it was that of Afsana, her caretaker, whose background is revealed to us slowly and subtly, and is all the scarier for that. There is a whole novel – a longer and more interesting novel, actually – in Afsana, a girl of mixed Anglo-Pakistani heritage whose white English mother and devout Muslim father both seem keen to keep her in her place; who grasps at freedom when it’s offered her, despite the fact that it comes in the form of her geography teacher when she is only seventeen; whose marriage to that teacher has not only isolated her from her family, but has failed to provide her with support and understanding in return for what she has lost. It is extremely impressive that Kruger manages to convey this entire backstory without ever saying any of it out loud: we learn everything from small details of gesture and address and brief flashes of memory. But the technical skill with which she constructs Afsana’s story makes it all the more disappointing that it is clearly designed as a supporting narrative to the main tale of May, her family, and the mystery of the red-haired boy.

That mystery isn’t much of a one, and it’s resolved in the final few pages in a way that feels perfunctory. The fragmentation of May’s narrative voice on the page – her sections are typeset in a manner that recalls the poetry of e.e. cummings – does what it’s meant to do, in that it is a physical manifestation of her crumbling psyche, but since playful typography is a literary technique at least two hundred and fifty years old, it can’t really carry the weight of the whole book. What we are left with is the love of May and Arthur, which is sweet but doesn’t have any peculiarities in it that make it seem the natural focus of a story, and the question of whether Alex will ever come into his own, although it’s not clear that there’s really anything wrong with him other than a general aimlessness. If only, if only, the book had been called Afsana instead.

02. Neuromancer, by William Gibson

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

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

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

01. Altered Carbon, by Richard Morgan

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

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

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

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

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

Reading Diary: Apr. 22-Apr. 30

9781786697080There ought to be a law that if your book has a crackerjack premise, you must execute it with commensurate panache. I don’t know how this might be enforced – through the imposition of a fine, perhaps? – but it might stop books like In the Cage Where Your Saviours Hide from getting me really excited and then letting me down hard. It’s a crime novel set in a Scotland that never signed the Act of Union, so the country has always been independent of England, and has relied for the past several centuries on its Central American empire, the Caledonian States. (In this version of history, the Darien scheme was a smashing success.) Malcolm Mackay sets the novel in the northwest port town of Challaid, which is slowly dying as industry dries up. Darien Ross, a private investigator with a jailbird ex-cop dad, a mildly criminal older brother, and a lot of fine lines to tread, takes a case from a classic noir femme fatale: Maeve Campbell walks into the office he shares with his boss and asks him to track down the man who stabbed her boyfriend, a money launderer descended from Caledonian immigrants. Ross, of course, takes the case.

The setup is great. It’s a shame, then, that the pay-off is so minimal. For what Mackay does with his cleverly imagined setting is to write a noir crime novel so straight that it could just as easily be set in Cardiff, or Manchester, or anywhere vaguely northern and rainy. As a novel about a private investigator goes, it hits all the beats it needs to  (although there are some frustrating choices in Maeve’s characterisation, and in the revelation of the killer). But there are a million things about an independent Scotland that could have been developed: what are its relations with its southern neighbour? Why are its industries in decline? (It must be a reason that has nothing to do with English rule and/or political decisions, but we don’t get to hear it.) There are hints of unrest regarding immigration from the Caledonian states, which are agitating for independence; Ross interviews a waiter from Costa Rica who will be entitled to a Scottish passport if he can just keep working in Challaid for another two months. But nothing is made of it, it doesn’t go anywhere. You can’t entice readers with the promise of world-building and then avoid building the world. The “primary source” documents which interleave the chapters – historic newspaper articles, investigative reports, etc. – are perhaps an attempt to do this implicitly, but they are not elegantly integrated into the main narrative, and therefore are less of a help than an obstacle. It’s a shame, especially given that the last alternative-history book I read (KJ Whittaker’s phenomenal False Lights, back in September) managed its world-building so well.

33590210Roy and Celestial are a middle-class black couple from Atlanta. He’s a banker; she’s an emerging artist. They’ve been married for a year when Roy is arrested, tried and convicted for a crime that he didn’t commit. Sent to prison for twelve years, he’s let out after five, but the damage to his marriage is already done: how can he and Celestial, and their mutual friend Andre, figure out a way to live after their lives have been destroyed?

An American Marriage is a lot like Diana Evans’s Ordinary People, which I read last week, in that it asks questions about how marriages and relationships actually work, or don’t work, and doesn’t shy away from the fact that the answers might be devastating. It is never in question that Roy and Celestial love each other, but the strain of incarceration on a brand-new marriage is intense. Jones gives Celestial some wonderful, incisive dialogue about what it feels like to be a black woman standing in line for a prison visit with your husband: how you know the guards are judging you, how you’re judging yourself, how desperately you don’t want to feel part of the sorority of black women all around you who are also there to visit their men. It’s not just romantic relationship dynamics that are under scrutiny here: Roy’s mother’s husband, the man who raised him, is not his biological father. While in prison, he meets the man who fathered him, and Jones explores, through their oddball, tentative relationship and through the love between Roy and his adopted father, Big Roy, the various ways in which boys can become men. Characterisation is deep and convincing, dialogue is on point – there’s nothing about An American Marriage that rings false. It’s a highly addictive story told with great powers of observation and empathy. UK readers are lucky that the brilliant publisher Oneworld has made it available in this country.

cover2Even though I’m trying hard to read more nonfiction, A Spy Named Orphan still isn’t the sort of thing I generally go for. It looks like a book on the “hard” edge of the spectrum: the history/biography lists that are still overwhelmingly white educated male-centric. For some reason, I rescued a proof from oblivion a few months ago, and now I’m very glad I did. Roland Philipps has written a sympathetic, nuanced and informative biography of Donald Maclean (one of the original Cambridge Five who passed large amounts of classified information to the Soviets from posts within the British establishment during the Second World War and for decades after it). Not only that, but Philipps’s style is easy, combining erudition with accessibility in a way that alienates neither the casual reader nor the aficionado. It’s a very impressive piece of work.

Maclean himself was also an impressive piece of work: he possessed a first-rate ability to synthesise and summarise information, a genuine desire to make the world a safer and more peaceful place, and a self-destructive alcoholic streak that very nearly killed him. The combination of these traits makes for gripping reading. Philipps also – unusually for this sort of history/biography, I feel – acknowledges the central role that Maclean’s wife Melinda played in his life: loyal to him throughout their marriage and despite his frequently appalling public behaviour, she stuck by him even after he vanished behind the Iron Curtain, not knowing if she would ever see him again. Despite the evident faults of both husband and wife, and the cruelty of various acquaintances from the diplomatic world who generally described Melinda as a simpleton, Philipps makes it clear that they loved each other. (All things come to an end, however: when Melinda and the Maclean children were eventually exfiltrated and allowed to join Donald, she ended up running away with Kim Philby, which is the sort of thing you couldn’t make up.) A Spy Named Orphan is a genuinely gripping story, told with clarity and verve. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Thoughts on this week’s reading: I’m still reading a lot of books which, if not exactly crime, certainly involve being on the wrong side of the law. This continues with my current reading, Kirk Wallace Johnson’s The Feather Thief. (I read nothing from Thursday night until this morning, due to being the maid of honour at a family wedding over the weekend, which went smashingly.)