6 Degrees of Separation: Room

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: Room by Emma Donoghue, the story of a young woman who is abducted, imprisoned, and impregnated. We see it all through the eyes of the son she has with her captor—Jack, who until he is five years old believes that the room where they live is all that there is.

How you feel about Room depends on large part on how authentic you feel Jack’s voice is. I liked it (many others didn’t), but another book with utterly convincing child characters is The Light Years, the first entry in Elizabeth Jane Howard’s sprawling Cazalet Chronicles, which tells the story of an extended upper-middle-class English family before and during the Second World War. It is much less sentimental Downton-esque pablum than it is an illuminating and moving look at what life used to be like, and how in many ways the emotional beats of life in the ’40s were the same ones we experience now. It’s also (The Light Years in particular) very funny.

The Light Years is a book I often recommend to people who tell me they’ve enjoyed Barbara Pym. Excellent Women is probably her most famous, centering on a group of Anglican church ladies in a small English village. Great on group politics and genteel rivalry.

Pym came back into fashion after her books spent many years under the radar. Pushkin Press tends to perform the same service for writers, often from Eastern or Central European countries, who haven’t had as much press as they should have had in the West. Stefan Zweig has perhaps not been quite as obscure as some others, but the recently republished edition of his The World of Yesterday has definitely pushed him further into the public consciousness.

Another Pushkin Press book that I reeeally want to hit the big-time is Sand (review), by Wolfgang Herrndorf. It’s basically John Le Carré as directed by the Coen Brothers in one of their blacker moods, and it’s insanely good.

Herrndorf’s book has the opposite of a false bottom: a huge twist comes far too late in the day for it to be anything other than the real ending. Emma Flint’s Little Deaths (review), while the twist is less huge, achieves the same effect with its ending, finally establishing how we’re meant to feel about a character who’s been giving off mixed signals since the beginning.

And that’s all, folks. Next month the chain will start with Christos Tsiolkas’s The Slap. And tonight, I’ll post my personal Baileys Prize shortlist, so stay tuned. HURRAH.

March Superlatives

In March the Baileys Prize longlist was announced and I started duties as part of the prize’s shadow panel, which involved reading all of the longlisted books I hadn’t already gotten to. This amounted to ten (well, nine and a half; I’d already read part of The Lesser Bohemians), plus some reading for work that included a couple of thrillers, some social realism, and some historical fiction. Overall, it’s been a very good, if exhausting, reading month: eighteen books finished. This is productive even for me.

best thriller: Sand, Wolfgang Herrndorf’s newly released novel that combines the black humour of Greene with the social observation of Ian Fleming, but better written. It’s nasty, funny, irresistibly engaging, confusing, and utterly nihilistic. (review)

best surprise: I read Adam Haslett’s Imagine Me Gone because there was a damaged paperback copy at work that we couldn’t sell or return. I was expecting a basic story about dysfunctional, miserable WASPs. Instead, I got a book and a writer capable of articulating the complex motives behind emotions with such precision that I wanted to underline bits—and I never underline bits. Highly, highly recommended.

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cut nearest to the bone: Polly Clark’s debut novel, Larchfield, is about a young pregnant poet, Dora, who moves with her husband to Helensburgh, a small community in Scotland. W.H. Auden, she learns, used to teach at the local school. When Dora has the baby, a combination of neighbourly malice, loneliness, and loss of personal identity drives her to seek solace in learning about Auden’s experiences in Helensburgh. Curiously, neither working at Mumsnet nor talking to friends with babies has brought home to me as clearly as Larchfield did what a thoroughly frightening, isolating, relentless undertaking motherhood is. It seriously, seriously scared me about having children. (I think there is a longer post in this—in how fiction represents motherhood, and in how that particular thematic obsession in literature by and about women is received by women like me—young, childless, starting to wonder—but I’m leaving it for now.)

solidest thriller: Being the most solid of something is not the same as being the best at something, but Jane Harper’s The Dry is a good example of a crime novel that will please pretty much everyone. It is what people usually mean when they say “well-written”: nothing clunks or stands out; the plot is gory enough to be interesting without relying on the torture porn that seems to be the crime genre’s stock-in-trade these days; the villain is believable, and you don’t see the reveal coming from a mile away. Also, it’s set in a small Australian farming community, which is a fairly unusual setting and gives the book a sense of uniqueness. If you like decent crime, pick it up.

Mantel for the easily distracted: Sarah Dunant’s take on Renaissance Italy and the Borgias, In the Name of the Family. I found that she covers much of the same thematic ground as Mantel does—autocratic power, the role of the church in government, moral compromise in exchange for a measure of safety—but does so with a little more zip to her plotting. Highly recommended. (review)

most meh: I feel bad about saying this. There’s nothing wrong with The Gustav Sonata, Rose Tremain’s Baileys Prize-longlisted novel about a young boy growing up in post-war Switzerland and his lifelong friendship with talented pianist Anton. It just felt aimless. The writing is very lucid and the characterisation sympathetic, but it faded from memory more and more as I compared it to other longlisters. (review)

best Shakespeare rewrite: Hag-Seed, by Margaret Atwood. This is, without a doubt, the most successful installment of the Hogarth Shakespeare project so far, not least because Atwood acknowledges the existence of her source material (The Tempest) within her novel, and thus is allowed to write a book that stands on its own and can explicitly examine The Tempest’s preoccupations. Not Atwood’s best novel, but really good for Shakespeare nerds. (review)

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best reread: I got ill over a weekend and read American Gods by Neil Gaiman all over again, and it was great. It’s still the best of his books, I think (maybe a close contender with Neverwhere; I’d have to read the latter again to decide.) His take on modern gods—the sharp businessman Mr. Wednesday (Odin), the dapper and shrewd Mr. Nancy (Anansi), undertakers Jacquel and Ibis (Egyptian underworld gods Anubis and Thoth)—remains fresh and clever, and he conjures the menace of Americana like no other author I know.

most cute: This is definitely damning with faint praise, I’m afraid. I did like Yewande Omotoso’s The Woman Next Door; her portrayal of two elderly, crotchety neighbour ladies, one white and one black, is irresistibly charming, and she does engage with serious political and historical ideas. But the flavour the book left in my mouth was The Help meets Alexander McCall Smith, where people are mildly chastised for their prejudice but mostly let off the hook, and everything is okay at the end. I wanted more than that. (review)

most intelligent: Pretty much all of the books I read this month were intelligent, so this is kind of a crap category. But Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by Madeleine Thien, engages on such a high level with questions of ethics and art-making and agency in Mao’s China that it leaves much of its competition in the dust. I can’t help feeling a Baileys win would be somehow unfair (it’s already won the Giller, and been Booker Prize-shortlisted; let someone else have a go), but it would be very richly deserved. (review)

hardest punch to the gut: The Power, by Naomi Alderman. Alderman takes a simple premise—what if girls and women had the ability to discharge electricity from their bodies?—and uses it to explore some of the deepest questions about what human civilisation even is. If Thien is interested in the cerebral, Alderman is all about the fundamental. This book shook me. It’s a big deal. (review)

best sex: Unsurprisingly, Eimear McBride’s The Lesser Bohemians. Never have I encountered an author who understands so clearly that sex isn’t interesting because of who put what where, but because of who feels what when, and why. In other words, she maps sex as an emotional experience—and she also explores what sex is like when emotions are missing, and isn’t judgmental about it. (review)

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should have been on the Baileys longlist: For all my days, there are some things I will never understand about prize lists. The omission of Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border in 2015 was one of them; the omission of Danielle Dutton’s Margaret the First this year is another. It’s a short, choppy, odd little novel, just like its subject: Margaret Cavendish, seventeenth-century Duchess of Newcastle and first female science fiction writer in the Western world, as far as we know. I loved it for its utter idiosyncracy—the prose so full of sharp, well-chosen images—for the efficiency with which Dutton sketches Margaret for us (it’s a very short book and by the end of it we know her as we do a dear friend), and for the lack of sentimentality with which she closes it. Seek this out.

most missed opportunity: Little Deaths by Emma Flint is a historical noir that deals with the hideous misogyny of 1960s New York in the context of an investigation into the murders of two children. Flint rouses our fury that the police are so much less interested in really investigating than they are in punishing Ruth Malone, our protagonist, for being separated for her husband and sexually active—but she never makes us feel complicit in that kind of judgment, and if she’d done that, it would have been a more powerful novel. (review)

full marks for ambition: The 700+ page opus from Annie Proulx, Barkskins. Telling the stories of the descendants of René Sel and Charles Duquet from the 1690s to the present day, it also encompasses Manifest Destiny, forest management, racial prejudice, and legacy. It flounders at points, and it’s too damn long, but overall it’s well worth the time. (review)

most classically Womens Prize?: Not that I want to slag off novels about relationships, marriages, infertility, and the staggering hypocrisy of the way society treats men vs. the way it treats women, but this is well-worn ground and exactly the sort of thing the Women’s Prize seems to go for sometimes. Stay With Me, Ayobami Adebayo’s Nigeria-set novel, covers all these points and introduces a bit of melodrama in the form of death and war. It’s good enough but may turn out to be forgettable. (review)

best find: Mick Herron, whose first entry in the Slough House series of spy thrillers, Slow Horses, isn’t just good for a genre novel—it’s good for any kind of novel. Herron is the Tana French of espionage writers: his grasp of the way language flows is absolute, he trusts his readers, he’s funny, his dialogue is on point. Plus the story—group of disgraced spooks find themselves trying to save a boy whose beheading is scheduled to occur live on the Internet in 48 hours—is a cracker, not least because the details of the boy’s abduction are (not to spoil anything for you) so precisely not what you initially think they are. There are three more in the series thus far, and I’m in it for the long haul.

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most unexpectedly genre-bending: Black Water, Louise Doughty’s first book since the acclaimed Apple Tree Yard. It’s sort of a spy thriller, but the protagonist isn’t a spy; it’s sort of a love story, but the love is complicated by reality and history; it’s sort of a historical political novel, but the present day takes up two-thirds of the book. It’s mostly set in Indonesia and its protagonist is part-Indonesian, part-Dutch, which made a nice change from the Anglo-American-centricity of other books with a similar focus. Doughty too knows how to grip a reader, and knows how to construct a sentence that hangs together and transitions nicely to the next sentence. This is just out in paperback, and I’d highly recommend it.

what’s next: Who knows?! I’m posting my personal Baileys Prize shortlist tomorrow, and the shadow panel is posting our (un)official shortlist choices on Sunday. After that, this project will be more or less wrapped up, and I have well over twenty-five books (reading copies; damaged copies we can’t sell that we’re allowed to take home; etc.) waiting to be prioritised, so it’s not like I’m out of choices…

Baileys Prize Longlist Reading 4: Flint

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.

Little Deaths, by Emma Flint

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Little Deaths is based on the real-life murder of two children in 1965, in Queens, New York, and the subsequent police investigation, which focused heavily on their mother, Alice Crimmins. Flint’s character is named Ruth Malone, but everything about her is Crimmins-esque: the fact that she is separated from her husband; her public persona (flirtatious to men; indifferent to most women); and, of course, her identity as a “striking, slender, redheaded cocktail waitress”. We know that she is these things because the newspapers that report on the murders of her children use no other words when they talk about her—and they talk about her a lot. The whole project of Little Deaths is to be a condensed cry of outrage at a police force and a tabloid media that, when faced with a woman who defies their expectations of femininity—and in particular of motherhood—respond by villainizing her, despite the utter lack of evidence against her.

Flint knows her noir tropes, and she uses them with contagious glee: who wouldn’t smirk with recognition at the crusty, cynical newspaper boss Friedemann, or at the fresh-faced young reporter Pete Wonicke, or at slimeball mafioso Lou Gallagher? Like most recognisable character types in genre fiction, these ones function as signposts: they let us know exactly what kind of a book we’re in.For a while, I found this superficially fun but, on a deeper level, a bit wearying. If we’re meant to be struck—as we clearly are—by the poisonous hatred of women that infects head detective Devlin’s campaign against Ruth, and by the more cynical casual misogyny of Friedemann and Wonicke’s newspaper, and by Lou Gallagher’s systematic misuse of women, well, we are; we could hardly not be, given how frequently Devlin spews words like “bitch” and “whore”, and how often we get to see the newspaper stories about the investigation. All of it walks a fine line between convincing characterisation of awful people, and outright caricature. Sometimes it tips over; an overheard conversation between Devlin and his deputy, Quinn, shows us just how much he values the presentation of male control (he rebukes Quinn for having an unironed shirt, not because it’s sloppy per se but because it suggests that he can’t get his wife or mother to take good enough care of him, which, obviously, makes him less of a man and therefore less worthy of respect). The conversation does what it’s meant to— shows us how deep Devlin’s issues with women and power run—but it does that with all the seams showing. The fact that I read it and instantly thought, This is here to show us how deep Devlin’s issues with women and power run says a lot.

Pete Wonicke is where Flint complicates things. He’s presented to us in the way that you present characters whom you want your readers to like: a guy from the sticks making his way in the big city, feeling vaguely guilty about leaving his mother, pursuing his dream of big-city journalism. And yet there are little details that feel undeniably weird: he fixates on Ruth from the start, not as a villain but as a Not Like Other Girls girl. He stakes out her apartment on his own time; when she appears in the window, he is aroused and ends up masturbating when he returns home. When he’s asked, late on in the book, how well he knows Ruth, he says “We’re…close”, though the extent of his interaction with her is one interview, and that one supervised. It’s a moment that throws the reader (are they close? Is there something we’ve missed?), and that serves to massively complicate Pete’s good-guy status. (Assuming, that is, that the wanking and the stalking haven’t already been dubious enough for you.) How we’re meant to feel about Pete is really only clarified by the ending—and I really mean the ending, like the very last page—which serves up a narrative choice that pleased me very much, and was certainly less expected than the eventual revelation of the killer.

In fact, the least successful aspect of the book is the one in which it is a crime thriller. This is kind of ironic for something that identifies itself so thoroughly as noir, but it’s true: apart from the fact that we’re pretty sure Ruth didn’t do it, we get nothing that even remotely resembles the sowing of clues or motive pointing towards someone else. When the killer is revealed, their identity is not that surprising, but only because if you look at the situation objectively—and discount Ruth—there is an obvious answer. The revelation is a problem in another way, too: we haven’t been given enough information about the character who is the murderer to have any feelings about them, one way or the other; we can be neither shocked nor satisfied. The blandness of this character is obviously meant to be a counterpoint to the fact that they turn out to be a cold-blooded child-killer, but I can’t help feeling I’d have cared more if Flint had constructed an actual personality, had pushed us towards actually approving of the character instead of merely being indifferent.

And that goes for the novel as a whole, I think. It’s an admirable project and it fits right into the spirit of our times: to show how, within living memory, women who deviated from a narrow range of accepted normality were treated with breathtaking injustice and real evil was allowed to flourish. But as readers, we always know whose side we’re meant to be on, and it is always clear that the characters who denigrate Ruth are cruel and wrong. If Flint had complicated that—if she had, even for a moment, caused us to feel some of that disgust and rage at Ruth, and then to recognise our own complicity in a brutal system—this book would come much closer to challenging that system. As it is, it’s good, but it’s preaching to the choir.

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. Little Deaths is published by Picador, and is available in hardback.

Baileys Prize Longlist Reading 2: Thien and Alderman

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.

do-not-say-we-have-nothingDo Not Say We Have Nothing, by Madeleine Thien

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is comprised of nested narratives. Li-ling (or Marie), in ’90s Toronto Vancouver (thanks to eagle-eyed reader Shawn for catching that), is a maths-obsessed teenager whose father has disappeared back to China. They learn that he has committed suicide there, in Hong Kong. Later, a Chinese girl comes to stay with Marie and her mother. Her name is Ai-ming. She is only eighteen, and a political refugee, in trouble for having participated in the uprisings in Tiananmen Square. Her father, now dead, was Marie’s father’s former music teacher. Ai-ming begins telling Marie her family history, but these stories quickly take on a life of their own and the framing device drops out for chapters at a time, leaving us fully immersed in the lives of sisters Big Mother Knife and Swirl; then in the lives of their children, Sparrow and Zhuli, and of Sparrow’s student and best friend Kai.

The book spans seventy years in the middle of the twentieth century, during which time China underwent traumatic political and social change. From the time of the Civil War to the Cultural Revolution, this family is forced to adapt in ways that deny its members love, fulfillment, and security. Most of the book focuses on music: Sparrow is a promising composer, Zhuli a talented young violinist, Kai a pianist. All three of them attend Shanghai Conservatory. When the denouncements ramp up and the witch-hunts for counter-revolutionaries increase in the ’70s, the pressure to play only certain kinds of music, and in a certain style, becomes nearly unbearable, and the three young people bend or snap in different ways according to who they are.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is the most intellectually sophisticated book of the longlistees that I’ve read, so far: the questions it poses and the assertions that it makes about the ideology of making art are subtly framed and yet don’t detract from the actual story. Thien faces the fact that music and art in general cannot save you— that “poetry makes nothing happen”—and yet when Zhuli thinks “It belongs to me”, she recognises that you can hold onto music or beauty, you can claim it, and its significance comes from the assertion you make of its value to yourself. The number zero is also significant: Marie, the current-day Chinese-Canadian mathematician, talks about how zero can represent a value of both everything and nothing. It’s not hard to see the links between the idea of zero and the value of creativity in a society that hates and fears it. To write a Western-influenced sonata or to play Bach like an angel is worth nothing in post-Cultural Revolution China. And yet it is also worth everything

SPOILERS DEAD AHEAD – Thien achieves this depth of thought, this endless wrestling with value and the ethics of making art, while maintaining the reader’s investment in her multiple characters and their fates. When Zhuli kills herself, we care terribly; when Sparrow, near the end of his life, begins to engage politically, we see how hard it is for him because he has survived awful loss only by cultivating indifference. And she doesn’t do it through simplistic structure, either: on the page, it looks simple—there are no chapter headings telling us what time we’re in, for instance—but it develops in complexity as it follows this enormous tree of extended family and friends. Thien ensures that we don’t lose sight of our main characters, and the development of the framing story into part of the actual narrative near the end of the book is seamless, which is a lot harder to do than it looks.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is very affecting and deeply intelligent. So far, it is my favourite to win overall; I would be surprised if another longlisted book came near it, at least on its own terms.

41rubuzrhzlThe Power, by Naomi Alderman

One book that might challenge it—though with a very different flavour—is The Power. I am indebted to Abigail Nussbaum for helping me sort out my whirling, love-and-terror-addled thoughts on this book. Her review of it, at Strange Horizons, is really the place to go if you want someone intelligent and critically acute to open up The Power‘s complexities for you. Much of what I write here will be borrowed from that piece.

Everyone, by now, knows the premise of The Power: what if women and girls were suddenly capable of shooting bolts of electricity out of their bodies? As Nussbaum notes, this premise is the sort of thing that it’s easy to run away with in your own head, which sets you up to be disappointed by whatever the writer actually executes. Fortunately I went into The Power with little in the way of preconceptions (not because the premise didn’t excite me but because I hadn’t had the time to think about it much), and I was completely bowled over by it.

There are four strands to the book, four main point-of-view characters. Three of them are women. There’s Roxy, the child of a London crime boss who quickly takes over the business after what becomes known globally as the Day of the Girls; Allie, a fostered and abused girl who hears a “voice” that might be her own survival instinct or might really be the voice of God; Tunde, a Nigerian journalism student who gets the first footage of the Power being used in public, and drops out of college to follow the stories, broadcasting from YouTube; and Margot Cleary, a public servant whose response to the Power clears the way for her meteoric rise to the top of American government.

Critical responses to The Power have mostly been of the who’d-have-thought, women-can-be-just-as-violent-as-men school. It’s true, obviously, but as analysis goes it’s not very deep. Alderman is using gender as a focusing lens, but I don’t think this book is really about gender; if it were, there would be a lot more in the way of retributive justice, and what we get instead is a horrifying breakdown of the comforting cause-and-effect that justifies vigilantism. In the most brutal scene of the book, a gang of women attack a refugee camp full of men in the mountains of Moldova. Tunde, who survives—just—notes the complete absence of sense and logic: these women are not attacking men who’ve wronged them. They are torturing, raping (yes, really, and the way Alderman makes that work is terrifying and illuminating about the fundamental point of rape as an act of war: to humiliate) and killing because they can. And it’s that motive—because you can—that runs through the book. It’s not about gender; it’s about power.

Which makes Alderman’s project, and her book’s ending, a lot more fundamental. The question that The Power asks is: is it even possible for humans to create and exist in an egalitarian society? Or, as Nussbaum puts it in her review, “If you can completely upend the foundations of human civilization and yet end up at exactly the same place, then isn’t there a greater flaw at work? Is there another way, or do there always have to be winners and losers, strong and weak, powerful and powerless?”

There are flaws (fortunately I managed to notice these before reading Nussbaum’s review, though she discusses them more deeply.) One of the most curious omissions in The Power is any discussion of transgender individuals. The electrostatic power in women is biological; it comes from an organ at the base of the throat called the skein. A very, very small number of biological males develop it, too, but they’re seen as freaks and outcasts. Does that mean that most trans women don’t have it? What about trans men? What does that do to their status in society? Racial difference, too, is erased or ignored. From a writer’s point of view, I can see why—there are only so many stories you can tell at one time—but it’s odd, given the book’s fascination with the arbitrary exercise of power, not to include the effects that the Power might have on other forms of societal oppression.

Regardless. The Power is nightmarish and profound and one of the ballsiest books I have read in years. This must be what is meant by “the best of women’s writing”; if it’s not this, this deep engagement with the terms of human civilisation’s very existence, what is it? If it were up to me, I would put it on the shortlist without hesitation.

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. Do Not Say We Have Nothing is published by Granta and is now in paperback; The Power is published by Viking and is available in hardback.

Bailey’s Prize Longlist Reading 1: Tremain, Atwood, Omotoso

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. Minor spoilers ahead.

The Gustav Sonata, by Rose Tremain

9781784700201Gustav Perle lives in Matzlingen, Switzerland, with his beloved Mutti. The second World War has just ended. His father, Erich, is dead – a hero, his Mutti says, but Gustav doesn’t know anything about him, not why he died or what he was like when he was alive. Gustav adores Mutti, but she spends a lot of time ignoring him, or crying. When Anton Zwiebel joins the local kindergarten, Gustav has a friend for the first time in his short life. The rest of Rose Tremain’s poised and beautiful book is dedicated to the story of Anton and Gustav’s friendship, and to the story of the truth of Erich and Emilie Perle’s marriage.

It has been said that The Gustav Sonata is about neutrality, and it is, sort of, but the word I thought of most when I was reading it was “caring”, which is another way of talking about neutrality. The book is intensely focused on care: giving care, receiving care, in the sense of love and attention, is at the heart of Gustav and Anton’s relationship. It is also Gustav’s problem. He is pushed into adulthood early by a lack of care from his mother Emilie (who tells him frequently as a child that he must “master himself”); he is forced into a caregiving role vis-à-vis Anton by Anton’s parents, who are kind to Gustav but surprisingly willing to place the burden of Anton’s emotional well-being on a pre-adolescent’s shoulders. Meanwhile, Gustav’s family history is characterised by a generational withholding of care: Emilie, his mother, was constantly chastised and neglected by her mother, Irma, and the book’s second section, on the Perle marriage, charts the decline of care between two people in a way that illuminates everything about Gustav’s life. Meanwhile, excessive care damages people: Anton is hurt by it – his major adult relationship is passionate, but deeply abusive – and the affair between Erich Perle and his boss’s wife is unhealthy in its obsessiveness.

Tremain plants her thematic seeds carefully and tends them throughout the novel, so that resonances spring up at you as you read. Switzerland’s political neutrality, the destructive neutrality of one human being towards another, and Erich Perle’s rejection of official neutrality in order to save refugees are all tied together. Tremain writes like Kate Atkinson: her prose is accessible and clear without making the treatment of her subject light or superficial. The ending could, I think, be more delicate and also more believable: there is never any sense of sex in Gustav’s life, either before or after the final revelation of Anton’s love, and I think it is a disservice to deny him this. If it’s intentional, it isn’t leaned on enough to make the intention clear. But this is a question of verisimilitude versus thematic coherence – whether something is entirely believable versus whether it reinforces the novel’s general concerns – and so my reservation is pretty minor.

Hag-Seed, by Margaret Atwood

29245653Atwood’s novel is the fourth in the Hogarth Shakespeare series that seeks to “retell” some of the most famous of the plays as novels set in the present day. Some of these have been more successful than others; Atwood’s, I think, is the best so far. The reason it works is because she fully acknowledges the existence of The Tempest inside the world of her novel, which frees her: she doesn’t have to pretend, like Jeanette Winterson and Howard Jacobson, that the uncanny similarities between her characters and the plot of Shakespeare’s play is mere happenstance. She can delve right into those parallels, explore them explicitly, instead of making us wonder why no one in the book has yet noticed how unlikely this all is.

Her Prospero is Felix Phillips, a disgraced and deposed theatre festival director now going by the name Mr. Duke and teaching a theatre course in the local prison. Miranda – brilliantly – is dead (because the late plays are all about dead daughters, losing daughters, coming to terms with grief); she died of meningitis as a three-year-old, a horribly plausible scenario. After twelve years of living in hiding from his former associates, Felix chooses his method of revenge: he will stage his own production of The Tempest at the prison, and take down the men who betrayed him—now high-ranking politicians—along the way.

Whether this revenge fantasy would actually work or not (and I admit it would rely heavily on excellent timing, which usually doesn’t work out in real life), you have to admire the way Atwood takes on the play. Felix walks his convict players through The Tempest with a thorough thoughtfulness that I found genuinely illuminating. It might, I suppose, be considered a little academic, but the tone is always that of an interested and informed person talking to other interested people; Felix neither talks down to nor bamboozles his actors, and by extension, he doesn’t do these things to us. The Tempest is a play uniquely well-suited to prison. Felix and Atwood allow us to watch the dawning awareness, among the convict-actors, of the story’s relevance, and it is a gorgeous, shiver-inducing thing. The only major concern I had was when Atwood ventriloquised the rap songs that the actors invent to make the play more contemporary: would it sound like a White Lady Author “doing” street? Answer: sort of, but mostly, I think, because raps look awful written down. When I did them in my head, they…well, they worked. Though I don’t envy whoever does the audiobook.

The Woman Next Door, by Yewande Omotoso

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Hortensia James and Marion Agostino are next-door neighbours in an upmarket area of Cape Town. Hortensia is black, married to a white British husband; Marion is white (and racist, which we’ll learn about later.) They are eighty years old, they have both run successful businesses—Hortensia as a textile designer, Marion as an architect—and they hate each other. The Woman Next Door is an account, if not quite of how they become friends, then of how they come to hate each other a little bit less.

Marion’s racism is breathtaking. She’s a woman of her generation—apartheid was her normal. Her housekeeper, Agnes, is a black South African who is expected to eat from separate containers and use separate (and inferior) toilet paper. Agnes spends no energy in contesting any of this; she simply, quietly, gets on with the business of being a real human with some level of agency. When Marion eventually discovers that Agnes has stopped using the toilet paper bought for her, she is shocked and dismayed, until Agnes reveals that she’s simply paying for her own bogroll. But Marion’s relief is shortlived: it turns out that Agnes has started buying better-quality stuff than Marion allows herself. This scene is the sort of thing Omotoso excels at, the delicate dance of social oneupmanship. She tells a little bit too much more than she shows, though I think that’s a common misstep with social comedy.

The biggest stylistic hiccup with The Woman Next Door is the occasional register clash, or what feels like it. Omotoso uses words like “peeved” and “messed up”, which sound either euphemistic or childish, or both, and represent a linguistic cautiousness I wouldn’t expect from two old women who, we’re told, can “cut the legs off people” with their words. In general, on the sentence level, this book isn’t going to set you aflame. I do think its political content is sly and significant; the kinds of people who will read a book blurbed by Helen Simonson are not necessarily going to respond well to polemic, but Omotoso does slip in commentary. There’s a subplot about reparations in the form of a land claim (which I’d have liked a lot more of) and another about the descendant of a slave who lived on the farm where the neighbourhood now stands. I’m pleased that these points are present; they might find an audience that would otherwise have missed them. It’s also a book about old women, and about friendship, and we don’t get many books about old women; as Naomi said, more please. I like it fine, and will probably recommend it to quite a few bookshop customers. I’m just not sure it’s a shortlister.

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 EricThe Gustav Sonata is published by Vintage and is now in paperback; Hag-Seed is published by Hogarth and is available in hardback; The Woman Next Door is also published by Vintage and is also now in paperback.

In the Name of the Family, by Sarah Dunant

He has forgotten the subterfuge of clever women; how stubborn their gentleness can be.

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Incredible though it may seem, there are people—I have personally met a few—who did not like Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. Up until now, I have been at a loss for what to do with these people, apart from simply abandon them altogether (at least where Wolf Hall is concerned.) Now, however, I know what I shall do: point them in the direction of Sarah Dunant. Her new novel, In the Name of the Family, is the first book of hers I have read, but it is utterly irresistible.

Like Mantel, she writes about the personal dynamics that are forever intertwined with political manoeuvering, and has chosen an iconic, fertile area of history to explore in fiction. If her exploration of psychology and motive digs a little less deep than Mantel’s, that is even more reason to recommend her to doubters. In Sarah Dunant, you get a writer who is observant, reflective, and conjures up the past with incredible skill, while also pushing her plot relentlessly forward. She is, basically, an accessible Mantel, and even though the word “accessible” generally makes me shudder, here I think it’s a good thing; she writes historical fiction for the bright general reader who prefers action to philosophising.

In the Name of the Family proves that politicking isn’t limited to the Tudor court. It is set in the opening years of the sixteenth century, in an Italy swiftly coming under the control of the Borgias. Cesare Borgia is the bastard son of Pope Alexander VI, né Rodrigo Borgia, and he is general of a mercenary army that is busy capturing key cities across the centre of the country. Alexander, meanwhile, is bleeding the Church dry to keep his son in pikemen and cannon. At the book’s beginning, Lucrezia, the Pope’s daughter, is about to be married to the Duke-Elect of Ferrara, Alfonso d’Este; the alliance will strengthen Borgia family power and the Estes are happy to have a family connection to the papacy. And then there is Niccolo Machiavelli, our Thomas Cromwell figure, whose experiences as envoy from Florence to Cesare will form the backbone of his still-to-be-written masterwork, The Prince.

Dunant does a brilliant rehabilitation job on these characters, some of whom we may have preconceived ideas about. Lucrezia, for instance, has come down in history as a kind of psychotic vamp, promiscuous and murderous in equal measure. In Dunant’s telling, she’s more sinned against than sinning: on her third marriage at twenty-three, not through any fault of hers but through the natural death of one husband and the murder of the second by Cesare. The incest rumours, by the way, are dealt with: there is something weird about Cesare’s fixation with his sister, and Dunant gives us the occasional dark flashback to childhood uneasiness. Lucrezia never appears complicit in Cesare’s control of her, and she isn’t a passive victim, either; she’s well-read, and wants to make Ferrara a centre of the arts. Where her interests might appear frivolous or feminine, such as her insistence upon her full dowry allowance so that she can have sufficiently fine clothes, Dunant makes clear to the reader how much hangs on appearances. Lucrezia is a piece in a game, but a piece who knows her value. She must win over the d’Estes; she must win over the city of Ferrara. The way to do it is through beauty, youth, and charm. It is no coincidence that she is an excellent dancer.

Cesare is a little more opaque—the book’s men in general, in fact, are drawn with less shade and subtlety, and some of the scenes amongst the conspirators in Cesare’s own army are a little Game-of-Thrones-y in their terse melodrama. (I mean, it’s quite Game-of-Thrones anyway; the Wars of the Roses aren’t the only model George R.R. Martin is using. At one point, Machiavelli’s inner monologue describes the torments inflicted on a city by a particularly bad ruler, one who, as he sees it, isn’t actually cementing his power through his cruelty, only increasing the hatred of his citizens. It reminded me of those Bolton fellas.) But his sections serve as a counterpoint to Lucrezia’s gardens and silks, and they also serve as a reminder: this is why she is marrying, this is what it’s all for, the steady march of Cesare’s men over the map of Italy.

Pope Alexander is particularly well-drawn. He was, historically, a man of many contradictions: he liked to breakfast on plain herring, despite throwing money around like sand in order to buy offices or support Ceare’s troops; flashbacks suggest he was a genuinely devout child, spending Christmas night under the altar at his local church in Spain in hopes of catching a glimpse of the Virgin Mary, yet he is never without a mistress or three, and even at seventy-two he is fathering children. Dunant nails these conflicting characteristics, and makes us believe that they could exist in one man. Her Pope is friendly and big-hearted, except for when contradicted—usually by Cesare—at which point he shouts. He is not unlike Mantel’s Henry VIII: a man who can afford to be generous because he has never known want, because it has never even occurred to him that there might not be enough for all. He is devoted to his family. The book’s titular phrase never appears within its pages, but Alexander’s underlying interest is clear. When he thinks Lucrezia is unhappy in Ferrara, he writes the sixteenth-century equivalent of a passive-aggressive email to her new father-in-law, demanding improvements; when Cesare tells him he is lacking, Alexander provides. All is for the family. Advancing it is the most important thing.

Machiavelli, meanwhile, functions as an analyst. He is there to work things out as or before we do, to explain the import of Cesare’s decisions if we haven’t got them alreaddy, and to be a more or less normal, everyday person (i.e. a non-noble) whose life is directly affected by the whims of these rulers. Dunant makes him no better or worse than he ought to be; he is probably a bit better than Thomas Cromwell—there’s no suggestion he’s ever killed anyone—but he likes drink and he likes women, despite having a fiery wife of his own. His relationship with her is actually one of the greatest joys of the book; it develops from newlywed uncertainty to affectionate teasing to real, quiet feeling in such an uncontrived way, humming along gently under the narrative’s larger events. Dunant also has Marietta Machiavelli write the one line which now survives from her, a description of their newborn son in a letter, and it is glorious. To learn that it’s a real sentence, really written by the real woman over five hundred years ago, makes the whole thing even better.

In the Name of the Family is a fairly long book, and perhaps it could have been a smidge shorter, but at no point does it feel as though it’s dragging. On the contrary, Sarah Dunant makes the danger and the beauty of sixteenth-century Italian politics come to life so vividly and with so little wasted effort that I feel cheated at having missed her work for so long.

Many thanks to the publicity folks at Virago for the review copy. In the Name of the Family was published in the UK on 2 March.

Baileys Prize Longlist 2017

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Aahhh, the Baileys Prize longlist announcement! Its timing is a boon to readers and booksellers alike: at the beginning of March, the next year’s big hitters mostly aren’t out yet (the first round will come in May) and last November’s surge of pre-Christmas publications has probably already been devoured by the serious and/or professional reader. March in books is like March in vegetables; you just have to lump it til spring starts. Except for the Baileys Prize, which provides a much-needed shot of excitement and, sometimes, impetus to check out titles you may have overlooked.

This year I am following the prize as part of the Shadow Panel, along with Naomi, Eric, Antonia, and Meera. This was also the first year in which I recognized every single title on the longlist, which is probably due to the fact that I’ve been paying ever closer attention to books news.

It is not as diverse as it might look. Most of the listed authors are established; only three are non-white. I’m not sure what constitutes a “small” or “independent” publisher – Serpent’s Tail are independent but have serious literary bona fides, as have Granta – but it’s interesting that none of these publishers are new to me either. In the past there has generally been at least one or two wild cards; none of these entries surprise me hugely.

What surprises a little bit is a host of absences: Idaho by Emily Ruskovitch. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. Margaret the First by Danielle Dutton. Swing Time by Zadie Smith. Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn. I suppose this only goes to show that the state of English-language writing by women is flourishing – the longlist has 16 books on it instead of 12, which also supports this theory – but still, their absence is notable. (Especially given the presence on the list of Barkskins, which has provoked extremely tepid reactions from virtually every book person I know.)

Most appalling in its absence is Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing. What possible excuse can there be for leaving it off?

Anyway. I’ve read six and a half of the longlistees (including most of the big ones, hurrah!), which is good because we only have three weeks to the shortlist announcement. The full list is below; links are to my reviews, where they exist.

Stay With Me by Ayòbámi Adébáyò (Canongate) – read after announcement; review

The Power by Naomi Alderman (Viking) – read after announcement; short review

Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood (Hogarth) – read after announcement; short review

Little Deaths by Emma Flint (Picador) – read after announcement; review

The Mare by Mary Gaitskill (Serpent’s Tail)

The Dark Circle by Linda Grant (Virago)

The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride (Faber & Faber) – read after announcement; review

Midwinter by Fiona Melrose (Corsair) – reviewed in a Superlatives post

The Sport of Kings by CE Morgan (4th Estate) – reviewed in a Superlatives post

The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso (Chatto & Windus) – read after announcement; short review

The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill (riverrun) – tried to start three times, couldn’t bring myself to care about any of it, ended up abandoning

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry (Serpent’s Tail) – read twice, and discussed in a Superlatives post

Barkskins by Annie Proulx (4th Estate) – read after announcement; review

First Love by Gwendoline Riley (Granta) – reviewed at Shiny New Books

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien (Granta) – read after announcement; short review

The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain (Chatto & Windus) – read after announcement; short review


Which book are you most excited for? Is there a book I haven’t read that you think I should get to without delay? Any notable omissions or inclusions you’re furious about?