The Week’s Book, #2: The Five

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The first thing to know about The Five is that it is a book defined by its approach; the second thing is that the approach is long overdue. The facts are these: in the late summer and autumn of 1888, from the end of August to November, five women were murdered in London’s Whitechapel neighbourhood. They appeared to have been killed in the same way, and presumably by the same person. That person was never caught, but the persona that solidified around him (though, of course, we can’t know for sure that he was a him) goes by the name “Jack the Ripper”. Victorian society and 21st-century society both possess an unhealthy obsession with the sickening minutiae of Jack’s crimes–the way in which he physically mutilated the women he killed, and the almost supernatural ease with which he seemed to vanish into the gas-lit, fog-bound metropolis. Of the people he murdered, the most that any story about them seems to agree on is that they were sex workers. That “fact” (which is not true) has obscured both the actual lives they lived, and the reality of their murders: that they were not nubile doxies hanging about on street corners with artfully tousled Helena Bonham-Carter hair, but rather were overwhelmingly middle-aged, alcoholic, homeless women whose primary failing was to have been left bereft, in one way or another, of the male protection without which a nineteenth-century woman was considered functionally worthless.

Hallie Rubenhold is redressing the balance. The Five is a group biography; each of the women considered “canonical” victims of the Ripper murders is given a section of her own, which consists of three to four chapters that trace her life history from birth to the night she died. The most deliberate structural choice in the book is that Rubenhold never describes a murder. She’s writing with an agenda about which she is not remotely ashamed: women who are murdered are more than the story of their deaths. Starting with what can be determined about each woman’s early life–her parents, her place of birth, her place in the social hierarchy–she uses a sometimes scanty primary source record, bolstered with intelligently chosen secondary sources that provide contextual information about the experience of working-class life in late nineteenth-century England. Inevitably, she is forced to engage in a certain amount of speculation: in the absence of CCTV or diaries from the women themselves, it’s often difficult to know why they moved house, for instance, or whether the name that appears in parish records is the right one. But she has an excellent capacity for triangulation: she frequently uses that aforementioned historical context in conjunction with a primary source to arrive at a conclusion of what is overwhelmingly likely about a particular woman’s life, and it is convincing.

The most patently false “fact” about the canonical five is that they were all sex workers (or, as Rubenhold writes throughout the book, “prostitutes”; I assume this is for historical continuity and she is using the word as it was deployed in police reports). There is no evidence that four out of the five women were professional sellers of sex. (The fifth, Mary Jane Kelly, who did work both in a brothel and freelance, is the one about whom we know the least.) However, every single one of them is known to have struggled with alcohol addiction. Mostly, drinking problems and the resultant financial strain were responsible for the implosion of their marriages or common-law relationships. They were all–again, except for Mary Jane Kelly–murdered outside, in the middle of the night. The unbearably sad conclusion is that their killer was targeting, not youthful sex workers who were lying down to ply their trade, but middle-aged homeless women who were lying down because they were asleep. Rubenhold makes it terribly clear that being a woman “outside” conventional societal roles–a woman separated from her husband or widowed, an addict, a beggar–was conflated, often fatally, with being a woman of loose morals. No distinction was made between the broken and the fallen. Not only is The Five a lucid and frankly addictive group biography (the pages really do turn themselves); it also makes painfully clear that a country whose social welfare programs are limited to the application of shame, humiliation, and a rigid code of so-called morality is not a country anyone ought to wish to return to. (I, like Rubenhold, will leave you to infer the contemporary political resonance.)

It is, in short, an excellent book as well as a much-needed one: it mingles true crime and well-researched history with narrative energy and Rubenhold’s ever-present passion for her subject. It’s going to do well without my help, but you really should read it.

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Reading Diary: Feb. 5-Feb. 11

dwexiozxcam1lcdThe Warlow Experiment, by Alix Nathan: Nathan’s novel is based on a true story: in 1793, a Mr. Powyss offered £50 a year for life to any man who would undertake to live in solitary confinement underground for seven years, without cutting his nails, hair, or beard, keeping a journal of his thoughts. The advertisement was answered by one man, a labourer with a wife and a large number of children. Nathan skillfully integrates the class upheaval occurring in England at the time, and the voice of John Warlow, the semi-literate ploughman who takes up the offer, is poignantly and viscerally rendered. Out in July and not to be missed.

61aijqs-bml._sx323_bo1204203200_In the Full Light of the Sun, by Clare Clark: Clark’s enormous but addictive new novel fictionalizes an art-world scandal that rocked 1930s Berlin regarding the authenticity (or not) of several dozen recently discovered Van Gogh paintings. Clark’s three point-of-view characters are Emmeline, an aspiring young artist; Julius, an art historian whose reputation is on the line; and Frank, a Jewish defense lawyer. The plot is over-complicated–there are too many names to remember and not enough clarity regarding the details of the fraud–but Clark’s most memorable character, the charismatic and manipulative art dealer Matthias Rachmann, is a real success.

Currently reading: A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women, by Siri Hustvedt (a brilliant collection of essays on the mind-body problem, art, and gender relations; she’s one of the most intelligent writers I know), and Dark Eden, by Chris Beckett (which makes an interesting counter-read to the Hustvedt, given that it’s a Clarke Award-winning science fiction planetary romance/exploration drama which also partakes of alarming gender essentialism).

Reading Diary: Jan 29-Feb. 4

a-time-to-keep-silence_1024x1024A Time to Keep Silence, by Patrick Leigh Fermor: A very short (95 pages) collection of three essays about monasteries and the monastic life. Leigh Fermor stayed at St Wandrille, Solesmes and La Grande Trappe, as well as spending time looking at the ruins of the Cappadocian rock monasteries. The first two essays, set in the three French foundations, are the strongest, describing what it’s like to live in solitude for a spiritual purpose; though Leigh Fermor has no faith, he acclimatizes to the silence and misses it when he returns to the world. If your mind needs calming, these pieces may help.

51kp-nb0hjlThe Wolf Border, by Sarah Hall: There are people who might say, I suppose, that the final quarter of this book is too slow, or that Hall’s writing about the Lake District seasons, weather and light are too deliberate and descriptive, but I’m never going to be one of those people, because I think she writes like a dream and this is one of my favourite books of all time. I also think that here, some of her previous thematic interests–motherhood, the cycle of birth and death, the natural world and how humans live both in- and outside of it–coalesce in their most sophisticated form yet. An excellent book to read if you need reminding of how well it is possible to write.

9781781257364_2I must be living twice: new and selected poems, by Eileen Myles: Myles’s poetry is quite different from Rich’s; her lines are short and jagged, often only three or four words each. Her style of thought is discursive: I often feel lost, reading her, until a vivid observation or connection jumps out. “Peanut Butter” is the poem that brought me to Myles, but the sweary dismissiveness of “On the Death of Robert Lowell” makes me laugh; “Yellow Tulips” is unashamedly happy; the opening of “Mal Maison” is devastating. “And Then the Weather Arrives” is maybe peak Myles: it feels like it’s written in a sort of personal code, but you understand the emotions, if not the details.

9781473639058What I Loved, by Siri Hustvedt: A totally brilliant book, following the friendship between two men–painter Bill and art historian Leo–and the intertwining of the lives of their families, including Leo’s wife, Bill’s first and second wives, and their two sons: Leo’s Matthew, and Bill’s Mark. The first half of the book, roughly, deals with the older generation, and the second half with the younger; without any spoilers, Matthew and Mark’s lives turn out very differently. Hustvedt excels at describing the destructive self-delusion of a certain kind of art world denizen. The novel is both intellectual and terrifying; I found it hard to sleep after finishing it and know it’ll continue to haunt me.

31v6x3y3mql._sx286_bo1204203200_The Wild Iris, by Louise Gluck: The next installment in my quest for more poetry. Someone recommended Gluck to me years ago, but it’s taken me this long to read her. I am not sure that I grasp or love her yet. There’s passion in these poems, but it feels like the highly personal and focused passion of a nun; not that it’s anti- or asexual, but that it insists upon the numinous. Does that sound pretentious? It shouldn’t; most of the poems are quite explicitly earthbound, being either from the point of view of a plant or flower (metaphors, I think, for human life), or from a higher point of view that is still occupying itself with earthly things. Curious and transcendent.

Currently reading: I’ve just finished Alix Nathan’s forthcoming The Warlow Experiment.

Reading Diary, Jan. 22-28

isbn9781787470453The Night Tiger, by Yansze Choo: Set in 1930s Malaya (now Malaysia) and dealing with the folklore of weretigers, through the perspectives of Ji Lin, a bright girl working in a dance hall to pay off her mother’s mahjong debts, and Ren, a young houseboy whose white master, Dr. MacFarlane, has just died. Choo slides into cliché sometimes, particularly when she’s writing about Ji Lin’s attraction to her stepbrother Shin, and the solution to the mystery is robbed of being completely satisfying because the characterization of the malefactor(s) is too thin. Ji Lin’s and Ren’s voices are both charming, though.

9781526602077To the Lions, by Holly Watt: A forthcoming (February) thriller by, and about, an investigative journalist, illustrating the way in which British political and business interests exploit volatile countries—in this case, Libya. The protagonist, Casey, is something too much of a Cool Girl (she’s effortlessly beautiful, a lone wolf and a risk-taker, more afraid to tell a man she loves him than of being executed in the desert), but Watt’s brilliant on the fizzing energy of the newsroom, the dialogue made me laugh out loud more than once, and the plot is a genuine, morally complex page-turner.

41c8al52l8l._sx331_bo1204203200_Selected Poems: 1950-2012, by Adrienne Rich: On every page, practically, there is a line that reaches into my chest. I choose to love this time for once/With all my intelligence: that one I knew already, thanks to Cheryl Strayed, but what about this: What happens between us/has happened for centuries/we know it from literature//still it happens […] there are books that describe all this/and they are useless. Or this: The woman who cherished/her suffering is dead […] I want to go on from here with you/fighting the temptation to make a career of pain. She wants so much to live responsibly, love responsibly. Probably my new favourite poet.

611phcl47gl._sx323_bo1204203200_The Priory of the Orange Tree, by Samantha Shannon: An epic stand-alone high fantasy novel from the author of The Bone Season; this is the first of her books I’ve read. Shannon emphatically but subtly foregrounds women in her fantasy world – rulers, knights-errant, pirates, merchants, etc., are more often female than not – and the whole book is casually gay in a way that effectively challenges Western paternalist fantasy tropes. The story itself is fairly standard (dragons, an ancient evil, some business involving a sword and some jewels) but it rips along and Shannon’s writing is excellent: often funny, always genuinely moving.

Currently reading: A Time To Keep Silence, by Patrick Leigh Fermor.

2019: the plan.

After some really excellent feedback from you guys, I’ve had a think about how best to do this blog – and indeed how to approach my reading this year – and here’s what’s going to happen:

  1. My reading challenge goal has been revised downwards from 205 to 120. I can’t read 205 books, work full-time, finish my novel, and have a social life this year; I just can’t. 120 is the lowest reading goal I’ve ever set, so it seems reasonable to imagine I’ll be able to surpass it, which will be a nice mood boost, and it’ll keep the pressure off. (Plus, if you think about it, that’s still a lot of books.)
  2. Instead of trying to read as many books as I can, I’m going to try to genuinely enjoy as many of the books I read this year as possible. This will mean a lot of DNFing, I imagine. So many things I’ve read since Christmas have been so good that it’s really put me off trying to get through something mediocre just because we’re guaranteed to sell a lot of it at the shop.
  3. I’m also going to try to fill in some of my classics and 20th-century gaps.
  4. Re blogging, I’m going to try the following: a weekly reading diary which (as vacuouswastrel suggested) will be, quite literally, one or two lines on everything I’ve read that week. Fortnightly (approximately) I’ll choose one or two of the best books read in that period to feature. Less regularly – I don’t know at this point how often – I’ll do a proper deep-dive review into something that really demands that amount of attention. I’ll also carry on doing Three Things at the end of each month.

And hopefully, that will work. Sort of. Well enough.

A conundrum

Lovely readers, here is my plight: the Reading Diary format last year enabled me to write about every book that I’d read, but I often fell behind. Catching up often entailed a huge effort: I haven’t written a Reading Diary since just before Christmas, for instance, and now have a backlog of twelve books to talk about. It was impractical to say “I’ll publish a post weekly without fail”, and what I did manage to produce often felt rushed or under-considered. I like reading detailed literary analysis, and I’d like to produce it; Instagram-style book reviewing, involving a plot summary plus some adjectives (“brilliant”, “searing”, “heartbreaking”), isn’t something I’m interested in writing, though of course it has its place.

What should I do in 2019?

In an ideal world, every day would be three times as long, and I could read 205 books, give each one the critical write-up it deserves, and finish my own novel this year. But this world isn’t ideal, so something will have to give. At the same time, I want to keep writing about what I’ve read, because I like this blogging, reading community, and because it acts as a useful supplement to my day job, which is to sell books to people.

If any of you have any ideas – about the type of posts I could be writing, or about a possible posting schedule – I would be very grateful to hear them.

In 2018

My most long-standing New Year’s tradition is to look back over what I’ve done during the past twelve months. Usually the good outweighs the bad. This year was so, so much better than last year; it wasn’t just about surviving, but about thriving: finding out, as Dolly Parton so wisely said, who I am, then doing it on purpose.

In 2018, I:

celebrated my lovely colleague Faye’s wedding, with other bookshop chums

attended a celebratory black tie dinner at the Oxford and Cambridge Club for the engagement of two more friends

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found a new flat, with a new housemate

helped plan my cousin Sarah’s wedding, as her maid of honour, and in company with her brilliant bridesmaids

sang Irish songs, drunkenly, on a rooftop in the snow

received incredibly helpful mentoring and advice on my novel from the infinitely generous Antonia Honeywell

experienced a hen do in Brighton

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sang at York Minster (and had some verse solos in the canticles, in the presence of Iestyn Davies. Swoon.)

participated in the Womens Prize Shadow Panel again

sang for, danced at, and generally revelled in Sarah’s wedding to the wonderful Gareth

hosted my mum in my new flat

travelled to Paris for an utterly unforgettable long weekend with my beloved friend Kendall

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relatedly: eaten a meal in Paris that I will remember for the rest of my life—seven courses, four hours, wine

started a regular paid Sunday singing gig

visited Chatsworth, home of my employers, for the first time

caught up with my goddaughter Beatrice, and her lovely parents, Esther and Bojan, in Oxford

went to IKEA for the first time in my adult life

celebrated my twenty-sixth birthday with beloved friends and so much sushi I could barely stand afterwards

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threw a housewarming party in the new flat, with my excellent housemate Joe

sang at St Paul’s with old college chums, then immediately afterwards attended the reception for Kerry and Alvina’s wedding

hosted my little brother Nick and his brilliant girlfriend Emma on their London holiday

ticked another cathedral (Southwark) off my list of Places I’ve Sung In

heard Susan Graham, live

drank in the private pub for Yeomen Warders of the Tower of London

took myself on my first solo holiday, to Brussels, where I survived on goat’s cheese, baguette, chocolate caramel spread, and ratatouille

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…and where I also wrote thousands of words’ worth of my book

chatted to an agent about said book, and promised to send a draft when finished

accidentally insulted Sebastian Faulks

flew home to visit my family, during which time we picked apples, drank coffee (and a lot of wine), strolled in downtown Charlottesville, basked in late autumn sunlight, drove up into the mountains. I also brunched joyfully at Helen and Charlie’s wedding reception, and wrote more thousands of words

attended the Young Writer of the Year Award announcement, along with lots of blogging friends (and where I met the incomparable Sarah Moss)

cooked a Thanksgiving meal for some American (and non-American!) friends

got a sparkly gel pedicure because why not

sang in four Christmas concerts

re-permed my hair, also because why not

celebrated Christmas at Canterbury Cathedral, thanks to the kind hospitality of Sarah and Gareth

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finished off the New Year with gigs at Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s

read exactly 200 books