Difficult Women, by Roxane Gay

She was smart enough to want more but tired enough to accept the way things were.

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Someone on Goodreads wrote that this book could be equally well titled “Sad Women Having Sex.” They’re not wrong. They don’t mean it in a pejorative way, though, which is good because Gay’s stories shouldn’t be patronised or belittled just because they are, in fact, about sad women having sex. Plenty of critics, I think, have been taught that women, let alone sad women, let alone sad women fucking, aren’t serious subjects. One of the great significances of Gay as a writer is how she affirms that they are.

In Difficult Women, she circles the same thematic territory over and over again. Many of these stories feature sexual abuse, rape or molestation. Many of these protagonists conceive a child and lose it, through miscarriage or tragic accidents. Many of them work through their damage by demanding to be hurt: rough sex, verbal abuse, slapping, choking. Several of them are set in Michigan; one of my favourites, “How”, is about a woman of Finnish descent, Hanna, who finally shucks off the thankless life she has lived in the service of her parents and husband, in favour of escape with her sister and her female lover. Another, “North Country”, follows a light-skinned black academic as she moves to a Northern town, fields constant queries about where she’s from Detroit (why else, her white neighbours assume, would a black person be in Michigan?), and lets go of her protective carapace enough to fall in love with a woodsy guy called Magnus.

Those stories have happy endings, more or less, endings where people meet their trauma on their own terms and force it into a shape they can handle. There are other stories, like the first one, “I Will Follow You”, where a happy ending is contingent and constantly marked by the shadow of the past. The narrator here follows her older sister, Carolina, to Nevada, where Carolina’s husband Darryl works. Slowly, the secret of their past is revealed: the younger sister was kidnapped as a child by a paedophile known to them only as Mr. Peter. Carolina, instead of running for help, jumped into Mr. Peter’s van just before the door closed—”I couldn’t leave my sister alone,” she says when asked why she did this. The narrator recalls the settlement they were awarded by a jury, after Mr. Peter released them and was arrested:

The jury awarded us a lot of money, so much money we would never have to work or want. For a long time, we refused to spend it. Every night, I went online and checked my account balances and thought, This is what my life was worth.

The worth of women is another recurring theme in this collection, often intertwined with race and class. “La Negra Blanca” is a story about Sarah, who strips to pay her way through college and who goes by “Sierra” while she’s working. She’s mixed-race but has white features and straight Caucasian hair. One of her regular clients is a man named William Livingston III, a white guy from a Southern family for whom blood purity is an unshakable tenet of the universe, but who also has a fetishising obsession with street culture, African-American music, and black women’s bodies. It is not the subtlest story I’ve ever read, although there is something convincingly, pathologically pathetic about Livingston’s secret forays into the hood aesthetic:

When he’s not watching his housekeeper, William listens to his music and repeats the lyrics about skeeting and Beckys and backing that ass up and living the gangasta life. His office has a small closet where he keeps urban clothing he sends his assistant to West Baltimore to purchase—Sean John jeans and Phat Farm hoodies and Timberland boots. His understanding of what the kids are wearing is dated. Sometimes he poses in front of the full-length mirror, grabbing a handful of denim-clad crotch, and sets his chin to the side and tries to recreate gang signs with his fingers.

It’s not the kind of behaviour I can even remotely imagine someone in Livingston’s position actually engaging in, but the story works if you view him, not as an individual, but as an embodiment of the way black culture gets turned into something that Western companies can use to make a quick buck. Isn’t Livingston just a logical extension of the way white people have stolen black people’s words, stories, hair, clothes? (See: Bo Derek’s dreadlocks; Miley Cyrus twerking at the VMAs.) He happens, also, to be a literal rapist. When he finds out that Sarah/Sierra is actually half-black, he is consumed not with guilt but with horror: “He has done something generations of Livingstons have had the discipline to avoid.” The truth is that they probably haven’t: the supposed purity of white Southern women has always rested on the fact that their men have been able to satisfy themselves on the bodies of black women. Livingston may think his father “looked but didn’t touch”, but that’s naive.

“A Pat” is a very short story, only two pages long, but it’s one of the subtlest in the collection: the narrator sees a man eating a burrito alone in a fast food restaurant. She sits down across from him, keeps him company, invites him back to her house “for a proper meal”. She cooks for him and he eats her dinner and they have sex and then he leaves. The narrator remembers her mother’s advice from her first day of school:

“You make friends with the ugliest kids in your class and you make friends with the loneliest kids in your class, the ones off by themselves. They will be the best friends you’ve ever had and they’ll make you feel better about yourself.” With a pat on the head, she pushed me.

It’s so short and it works so hard, this paragraph: the way it shows you that kindness can be pity can be mercy; the way that generosity can be selfish; the way that, somehow, it doesn’t matter what it is.

There are a lot of stories in this collection—twenty-one—and some of them are better than others, more purposeful or more interesting or with more varied sentence structure. (This has been, for me, a semi-permanent stumbling block with Gay’s style: when she’s writing straightforward, linear, present-tense prose, it’s often not very interesting on the sentence level; the effect is more cumulative and thematic, and sometimes I don’t have the patience.) But let’s be honest: you’re probably going to read Difficult Women anyway, because it’s Roxane goddamn Gay and no one wants to miss one of her books. This is worth reading not just to keep up with the zeitgeist, but because it contains stories and endings like “A Pat” and “How” and “North Country” and “I Am A Knife” and “Break All the Way Down”, stories that approach pain and sex and humanity from many different angles, stories that are considered and honest and, in the most important sense, true.

Many thanks to Susan de Soissons and the team at Corsair Books for the review copy. Difficult Women is released in the UK on 3 January.

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2016’s Dishonourable Mentions

I was really lucky with my reading this year. Maybe it’s because as I get older, I have a better sense of what I’m going to like; maybe it’s the opposite and I’m just developing the ability to appreciate a wider range of writing. Whatever the reason, most of the books I read this year were not just good but really good, worth rereading at the very least—even the ones that didn’t make my Best Of Year list. But…no year is perfect. Here are the few books that just completely misfired for me in 2016. (This is all, of course, highly personal and subjective. What didn’t work for me may work brilliantly for you! And vice versa. I’ll still try to explain, succinctly, why I felt these books faltered, but don’t feel you need to take my word for it. All links are to my reviews, if you want to read more.)

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The Expatriates, by Janice Lee

What’s it about? The intertwined lives of three women living in Hong Kong: Hilary Starr, the childless stay-at-home-wife of an expat lawyer; Margaret Reade, whose youngest child went missing last year; and Mercy Cho, the childminder who was meant to be looking after the lost boy at the time of his disappearance.

Why didn’t it work? From my review: “Over the course of the novel, all three women will come to understand and accept motherhood as the highest possible goal of a life—a conclusion which, couched as it is in a foreign setting and an occasionally melodramatic plot, could be overlooked on first reading, but which becomes increasingly uncomfortable the more you think about it.”

9780804141321Shylock Is My Name, by Howard Jacobson

What’s it about? It’s the second entry in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, which novelises and updates some of the Bard’s most famous plays. Jacobson resets The Merchant of Venice in Cheshire’s Golden Triangle, throwing celebrity footballers into the mix.

Why didn’t it work? From my review: “It’s not just the gross dehumanisation suggested by the use of the word “Jewesses” (though [the characters] Plury and D’Anton use it frequently); it’s also that, basically, they’ve pimped a teenager, and none of the resulting brouhaha treats that as a big deal. Combined with Strulovitch’s original pervy possessiveness, and the many approving references to Philip Roth, it just all made me hideously uncomfortable.”

ten daysTen Days, by Gillian Slovo

What’s it about? The development of riots over the course of ten days in south London, as a result of a death in police custody. There are some clear parallels to the Tottenham riots of 2011.

Why didn’t it work? From my review: “The problem may be that I’ve seen all of this before, and not too long ago at that, and done with greater flair: in House of Cards, obviously, but also in The Politician’s Husband. (I hope other people remember that show. It starred David Tennant and Emily Watson, and aired in 2013. It was fucking devastating.) It’s suggestive, I think, that both of those instances are television shows. I suspect that this is material we don’t actually expect to read anymore; political machinations and back-room deals are the domain of the small screen now, and a good actor can raise a thinly written politician stereotype to a higher level, whereas a novel…well, a novel has to rely on its writing. The writing is all that a novel has.”

9781408862445The Improbability of Love, by Hannah Rothschild

What’s it about? A down-on-her-luck woman working as a private chef finds a priceless Watteau painting in a junk shop; everyone from a Saudi sheik to a shady art dealer decides they want it.

Why didn’t it work? From my Superlatives post: “It’s a sweet idea but executed in a very Eat-Pray-Love sort of way. The main character’s mother is an alcoholic and the conversations they have are so full of psychological jargon that I wasn’t at all convinced two people would talk to each other like that. Also, Rothschild doesn’t get contractions: all of her characters say things like ‘I will’ or ‘You do not”, instead of ‘I’ll’ or ‘You don’t’. It’s not for emphasis, either, and it happens for 404 pages, first to last.”

51n8dqdd2wlRaw Spirit, by Iain Banks

What’s it about? Banks, a famous science fiction writer but also a well-known lover of whisky, takes a road trip with several of his old drinking buddies to visit, and sample the wares of, every single-malt distillery in Scotland.

Why didn’t it work? From my #20booksofsummer roundup: “This book suffers appallingly from two interrelated things: an excess of privilege, and a deficit of self-awareness. …There were times when so very little of this book had anything to do with whisky that it honestly felt like he was taking the piss. Like the five pages about a Jaguar he once had, followed by a cursory page and a half on a distillery’s history and product. Or the long anecdotes about his friends and what they’re like when they’re drunk. Real talk: no one is a hilarious drunk to a stranger.”

9781784630485The Many, by Wyl Menmuir

What’s it about? Timothy buys an abandoned fishing cottage in a tiny Cornish village and sets out to restore it, temporarily leaving his wife behind in London. But the village has its own secrets: the fate of the man who lived in the cottage before Timothy, the bizarrely etiolated fish being pulled from the sea, the identity of the mysterious grey-coated woman who buys every catch…

Why didn’t it work? From my review: “The reality of reality, and the sanity of sanity, have long been uncertainties for authors to engage with. But the strength of a book lies in how satisfactorily it deals with those questions—it doesn’t have to answer them, but it has to deal with them—and The Many doesn’t deal with anything. It just shrugs and leaves. It’s a mark of my frustration that, after finishing it, I realized I still had not the slightest clue what the title meant. The many what? Fish? Deaths? Portentous pronouncements by old Clem the winchman? I don’t mean to sound bitter, but reading this book felt like being ghosted by someone on Tinder. There was so much promise here! What happened?!”

c836babd417bc41a990f6a706700b1b5Diary of an Oxygen Thief, by Anonymous

What’s it about? The supposedly non-fictional (but, thank heavens, clearly actually fictional) account of an alcoholic Irishman who, after years of recreational cruelty to women, gets a taste of his own medicine.

Why didn’t it work? A lot of reasons, but this, from my review, might give you a clue: “The knowledge that this particular Irishman does not actually exist was, in places, the only thing that kept me reading. He is not very nice. You can gather this from the first sentence, and also from the part where he talks about purging himself of his sins against women. Handy hint: if you’re a man and you want to purge yourself of your sins against women, you will never be able to.”

51fxpzhkbwlThe Countenance Divine, by Michael Hughes

What’s it about? In 1999, a programmer working on a fix for the Y2K bug becomes entangled with a tradition of British millennarianism involving Jack the Ripper (in 1888), William Blake (in 1777), and John Milton (in 1666).

Why didn’t it work? From my monthly Superlatives post: “The execution is so inconsistent (the sections set in 1999 are written in especially dull tones), and none of the book’s internal logic is really conveyed to the reader. Also, it features what has to be the drippiest Messiah EVER. (Unless the actual Messiah isn’t the character just referred to… Doesn’t change the rest of the book, though.) Oh, and either the Apocalypse in this book actually does rely upon horrific violence against women, or Hughes hasn’t sufficiently explained the reasons a reader should resist this interpretation. Which is such an old, and boring, story.”

9781784630850The Other World, It Whispers, by Stephanie Victoire

What’s it about? A debut collection of fantastical short stories focusing on transformation, metamorphosis, and literal and figurative identity.

Why didn’t it work? From my review: “I don’t know, it’s just a little too much, or not enough: the casual colloquialisms when the rest of the story is on a higher thematic plane (“didn’t have any more cash on her”; “been sorted”), the tang of cliché (“gulped down”, “lump in her throat”). It didn’t work for me at all. …The story needs, in effect, a more judicious editorial eye. I know I say this a lot about contemporary fiction but I think it’s true; there are many, many competent stories and novels being published which could have been excellent with a little more attention and criticism.”

Did you read any of these this year? What did you think of them? Am I a lunatic fool for missing the point of The Many? Am I a horrid killjoy for wanting to roll my eyes on every page of The Improbability of Love? Let me know…

2016 In First Lines

I did a post like this two years ago, and forgot to repeat it last year. (Don’t worry; there’ll still be a good end-of-year roundup!) These are the opening lines of the first book I’ve read each month, with a little bit about said book, and what I thought of it. Reach for your TBR lists now, because most of these were great.

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January: “Inspired by Beyoncé, I stallion-walk to the toaster.” – American Housewife, by Helen Ellis. This somewhat manic collection of short stories, some very short indeed, tackles domestic femininity, pop culture, and societal double standards. It’s a little like a book version of Lucille from Arrested Development, delivering tart one-liners and clutching a martini. I didn’t love it, but I can respect what it was doing.

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February: “Enoch rounds the corner just as the executioner raises the noose above the woman’s head.” – Quicksilver, by Neal Stephenson. Book one of Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle—one of my favourite reading experiences this year—wherein we meet erstwhile member of the Royal Society Daniel Waterhouse, and follow him on the beginning of his mission to reconcile Newton and Leibniz.

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March: “I looked like a girl you’d expect to see on a city bus, reading some clothbound book from the library about plants or geography, perhaps wearing a net over my light brown hair.” – Eileen, by Ottessa Moshfegh. Nyer nyer, I read it before it was longlisted for the Booker Prize. Highsmith-esque noir plotting meets serious psychological ishoos; Eileen is an unforgettable character.

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April: “My name is Sister.” – Daughters of the North (published in the UK as The Carhullan Army), by Sarah Hall. An absolute belter of a book that takes the ideas of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and pushes them further, to more interesting places, than Atwood ever does. Another of 2016’s highlights.

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May: “They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days.” – My Cousin Rachel, by Daphne du Maurier. Start as you mean to go on, Daphne: ominous as all hell. This tale of a femme fatale—maybe—and a hapless young man—maybe—is an ideal stepping stone to the rest of du Maurier’s work after Rebecca.

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June: “In 1972 Spring Hill was as safe a neighbourhood as you could find near an East Coast city, one of those instant subdivisions where brick split-levels and two-car garages had been planted like cabbages on squares of quiet green lawn.” – A Crime in the Neighbourhood, by Suzanne Berne. What I loved about this book was how adroitly Berne makes us sympathise with a kid who does a cruel and terrible thing: how completely we enter her head.

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July: “When it began, it began as an opera would begin, in a palace, at a ball, in an encounter with a stranger who, you discover, has your fate in his hands.” – The Queen of the Night, by Alexander Chee. I’ve raved about Chee’s book here before. Opulent, atmospheric, full of detail: it’s not only a great summer holiday read, but would make a great Christmassy one, too.

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August: “That day I woke up from a dream the way I always woke up: pressed against my mom’s back, my face against her and hers turned away.” – The Mare, by Mary Gaitskill. A raw and absorbing book about Velveteen Vargas, a Dominican teenager, and the world of horse-riding to which she’s exposed during a Fresh Air Fund trip. How Gaitskill inhabits her characters so faithfully is beyond me, but I’m not complaining.

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September: “I liked hurting girls.” – Diary of an Oxygen Thief, by Anonymous. One of the less impressive books I’ve read this year, in all honesty (and perhaps unsurprisingly, given that opening gambit). More on that in an end-of-year post.

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October: “One afternoon on a weekend in March, Dewi Ayu rose from her grave after being dead for twenty-one years.” – Beauty Is a Wound, by Eka Kurniawan. I was initially bowled over by this book, but Didi’s comments made me look at its use of sexual violence afresh, and I was a bit less pleased with it after that.

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November: “On my 18th birthday my Uncle Keith took me to see Charlie Girl, starring the one and only Joe Brown, who I was in love with and was very much hoping to marry.” – Where Do Little Birds Go, by Camilla Whitehill. Whitehill’s words, plus the acting of Jessica Butcher in the production that I saw, combine to make this one-woman show about exploitation and power dynamics in the Kray twins’ London one of the best plays I’ve seen this year.

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December: “There is a boy.” – Signs for Lost Children, by Sarah Moss. Moss’s latest novel, The Tidal Zone, was the first of hers I’ve read, but I honestly think Signs for Lost Children is better: in the late 1800s, Tom Cavendish and Ally Moberley, recently married, are separated by Tom’s engineering work, which takes him to Japan for a span of months. While he is gone, Ally, a qualified doctor, works at Truro women’s asylum. In each other’s absence, both of them must face their fears and, eventually, trust each other again.

So! What do these say about my reading this year? (Well, this year so far; December has hardly started.) Two-thirds of these titles are by female authors, though I went through phases of reading mostly men, then mostly women. None of the authors of colour I’ve read this year are represented, which suggests the limitations of this method (showcasing only the first book read in each month). Nor are the genres, which included a little more sci fi, fantasy, memoir and short story collections. What this selection does suggest, though, is that this was a good year for reading. There were very few books I didn’t enjoy at all, and many that I truly adored.

Soon to come: my top books of 2016, or The Year In Reading, to be followed by the year’s dishonourable mentions.

Diary of an Oxygen Thief, by Anonymous

The point is to tell you how I purged myself of my sins against women, and indeed, against myself.

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I almost didn’t read this book at all. Its very first line is “I liked hurting girls”, and the second line is “Mentally, not physically.” If you’ve spent much time around here at all, you’ll know that I have personal experience of men who like hurting girls mentally-not-physically, and that I don’t have a whole lot of time for that anymore. Furthermore, The Pool describes the whole book as “as hipster as a £3 bowl of Rice Krispies on Shoreditch High Street.” So, am I its ideal reader? Is it even remotely my aesthetic? Hell to the no. And did it completely redeem itself in my eyes? Not completely. But there are parts of it that I think are very valuable. They just might not be the parts the author intended.

Something that might comfort you (it did me) is that although this is written by “Anonymous”, although the narrator presents it as a memoir, and despite all of the seductive marketing around it that suggests its author has embarked on a decade-long guerrilla social media campaign, it is not non-fiction. It is a novel written by a Dutch person and originally published in Amsterdam ten years ago. Its narrator is an Irishman living in London and then in Minnesota. The knowledge that this particular Irishman does not actually exist was, in places, the only thing that kept me reading. He is not very nice. You can gather this from the first sentence, and also from the part where he talks about purging himself of his sins against women. Handy hint: if you’re a man and you want to purge yourself of your sins against women, you will never be able to. You will never be forgiven.

The blurb compares the narrator to Holden Caulfield, a comparison which I guess derives from prose like this:

Also, I’m completely paranoid. I mean, seriously paranoid. Not just mildly interested in the fact that there may be people who don’t necessarily have my best interests at heart. No. The word is “paranoid”. Another word is “self-centered”. I don’t like that one as much, though. Doesn’t sound medical enough.

The thing is that writing like this is totally passable to a lot of people. It achieves the effect of being wry and conversational and ironic. Millennials and hipsters like these things. And they’re not as easy as you might think: there’s an art to being casual. I’m unwilling to call this the inheritor of Salinger’s mantle, though. Holden is a lot more innocent than this guy. Holden is not calculating anything for effect. He’s not jaded or cynical. He kind of wants to be, but he’s just too young to be there yet. Our oxygen thief, on the other hand, is plenty jaded, and so instead of being a howl of raw adolescent longing and confusion, his anger and bitterness curdles.

This, however, is where the book becomes valuable, at least to me, because what the oxygen thief does par excellence is describe the myriad horrors of corporate culture. He works for an advertising agency in London, but gets headhunted for an agency based in Saint Lacroix, Minnesota. (We will gloss over the fact that a “Saint Lacroix” is unlikely, since “Lacroix” means “the Cross”. I reckon he’d have done better to call his Minnesotan town either Lacroix on its own, or Saint Something-Else. /digression) During his phone interview, he tells the interviewer

…that I was at the age where I was thinking about getting married. There followed a long moment of silence, which could only be satisfactorily explained by him punching the air in triumph and straightening his clothes before continuing. He began to talk like someone I’d known for years, dropping all use of the conditional tense in favor of the future.

When he arrives in America, the ad agency helps him out with the purchase of a beautiful old Victorian house, which turns out to be a major millstone. He only wants to be in the States for a year or two at the most, but suddenly here he is with a mortgage. He thinks of it, initally, as an investment, money he can make back when he sells. But then the house doesn’t sell. And his boss starts to point out to him the eligible girls in the office. When he doesn’t come to the Christmas party, the agency arranges for two ice sculptures to be placed either side of his front door. You can see pretty clearly why someone might begin to feel paranoid in this environment. And then there’s this, which is one of those observations that so neatly encapsulates a difference, you actually want to put the book down and gaze into the middle distance for a minute or two:

[In Minnesota] there also seemed to be a great deal of pride in the bulbous nature of a pregnant belly, a phenomenon I had not yet encountered. In London, pregnancy was associated with failure and social death. Here it was encouraged. People got promoted after having a kid. A little fleshy anchor prevented the minds of America’s corporate soldiers from drifting too far from its assignments.

Weird pronoun inconstencies in the final sentence aside, how spot on is that? Can you even imagine getting a promotion after procreating in this country? Lololololol, as a university friend of mine would say. Not that it doesn’t happen sometimes, but please look at these case studies if you’re under the illusion that it’s standard. In the US, however, the fear of poverty and the pressing need to save up for a kid’s university tuition from the minute they’re born makes parents fantastic employees. A parent will put up with all kinds of workplace bullshit to guarantee their baby’s college fund.

And our oxygen thief’s cynicism actually works really well in this environment: he notices things that most other people are too polite or too embarrassed or too idealistic to mention. For instance: the gross imbalance that enables major charities to be absolutely huge (think of all the LA and New York charity balls!) is largely down to consumers and taxpayers. Which is to say, you and me.

Every ad agency likes to have a charity on their books for which they’ll pull all sorts of outlandish favours… There are tax concessions and write-offs. But it’s important which charity you affiliate yourself with. …For instance, a charity that raises funds to help addicts get off heroin isn’t nearly as reliable or photogenic or even pitiable as one that treats kids with AIDS. Adults with AIDS are no good. It could be their own fault. …Sorry, but it’s true.

Whoever this Dutch guy is, he’s clearly spent time in the States, because this is exactly how American public morality works. “Adults with AIDS are no good. It could be their own fault.” That bit really deserves to be quoted twice; it’s so cruelly accurate.

Supposedly, the main point of this book is how he gets his heart broken by a cruel bitch of a girl who does to him exactly what he did to all those other women, back when he was an alcoholic and a Bad Guy. And in many ways, that is a glorious trajectory. Aisling, the villainess, is a million times smarter and more ambitious than our narrator; she’s like a modern-day Becky Sharp. In fact, I’d have preferred that comparison to the Lolita one on the back cover (and it strikes me as weirdly distasteful, too, since Lolita is an underage victim of a creepy rapist, and Aisling is a fully autonomous vengeful goddess. You can hardly draw parallels between the two of them. Lolita was never a vamp; she was a kid.)

But to be honest, that story—the story of an asshole who gets his comeuppance—it’s not a new story. It’s not told, here, in a particularly new or exciting way. Don’t read Diary of an Oxygen Thief for the personal relationships. Read it for the distressingly bright light it shines on the way companies manipulate people: the ones who work for them, and the ones who buy the stuff they flog. If this book is “hipster”, and if “being hipster” now means “making people want to advocate the violent overthrow of capitalism”, then okay. I’m down for that.

Thanks very much to Poppy Stimpson at Corsair Books for the review copy. Diary of an Oxygen Thief was published in the UK on 25 August.

LaRose, by Louise Erdrich

Our son will be your son now.

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Up until the last day that I was reading this book, I was having a hard time working out whether I’d be able to review it. It seemed, in a hard-to-explain sort of way, to be resisting me. The premise was phenomenal, biblical: a man who kills a boy in a hunting accident offers to the bereaved parents the rearing of his own five-year-old son in exchange for the life he took. Yet something about the densely plain language seemed not to lend itself to analysis; nor were the rounded but somehow glassy characters being useful. I’ve never before read a Louise Erdrich novel, and there were things—decisions she made about where to cut off a scene, what folktales to recount, the details of those stories—that didn’t make a lot of sense to me. They weren’t obviously nonsensical. It was just that I wasn’t getting them.

Then it occurred to me that this was maybe what it felt like for ethnic-minority readers being made to read the white Western canon of literature, as part of a school class or a university course. Familiar in some ways, because humans are humans and all that, but in the little ways, the details, the shapes that we think stories “naturally” fall into… much more alien. Louise Erdrich is Ojibwe, and her novels have focused on Native Americans; this one, her fifteenth, is partly about forced assimilation (in its flashback sections) and about how identities don’t necessarily fade so much as they become patchwork. “LaRose” has been a family name for five generations, and Erdrich writes about all the things that the second LaRose learned: from her mother, LaRose # 1, how to be an Indian:

how to heal people with songs, with plants, what lichens to eat in an extremity of hunger, how to set snares, jig fish, tie nets, net fish, create fire out of sticks and curls of birchbark. How to sew, how to boil food with hot stones…how to make arrows, a bow, shoot a rifle, how to use the wind when hunting, make a digging stick…carve a flute, play it, bead a bandolier bag.

And from the teachers in Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, LaRose the Second learns other things:

She gave recitations including a poem about the angel in the kitchen. She learned mathematics and memorized the shape of the countries on the globe. She learned American history…Mostly she learned how to do menial labor—how to use a mangle, starch, an iron. She worked ten-hour days in 120 degree heat. She learned how to sew with a machine. How to imagine her mouth sewn shut.

LaRose takes place, essentially, in two time periods. In one, the late ’90s to early 2000s, Landreaux Iron accidentally kills his friend Peter’s son, Dusty. He and his wife, Emmaline, give Peter and his wife, Nola, their son LaRose in exchange, although the transaction turns into a sort of timeshare; LaRose spends half his time with the Ravitches, half with the Irons. There’s a lot going on in this section: the complicated feelings and personal histories of the adults, who have all known each other from childhood; the mental instability of Nola, who clings to LaRose, obsessively bakes cakes, and spends much of the novel contemplating suicide; the violent rebellion of Nola’s daughter Maggie, who carries the responsibility for her mother’s life on her own shoulders, who is famed as a “discipline problem” at school until LaRose’s sisters convince her to try out for the varsity volleyball team, which gives her an outlet for all of her rage. There is Romeo Puyat, a classic fuck-up and former best friend of Landreaux; Landreaux and Emmaline are raising his son, Hollis, while he makes a living by stealing prescription medication from the reservation’s elderly and scamming passersby out of money for gas and booze. Romeo has a long-unaddressed beef with Landreaux, stemming from their school days. His desire to get even will provoke the book’s major plot crisis, such as it is, when he becomes convinced that there was a cover-up the day Dusty died.

The second time period deals with Nola’s and Emmeline’s ancestry (they are, in fact, half-sisters, although they don’t get along terribly well and barely speak to each other over the three-year period that the story covers.) They’re both descended from the original LaRose, a woman whose mother sold her, as a mere child, to a trader in a North Dakota outpost in 1839. The trader, Mackinnon, is a bully and a rapist, but his clerk, Wolfred, tries to protect the girl for as long as he can, and, when he can’t, the two of them kill Mackinnon and flee. LaRose goes to an Indian boarding school but returns to marry Wolfred, with whom she is in love. The two of them are haunted, though, by Mackinnon’s head, which (in one of the many touches that you might call magical realist) pursues them through the forest on their initial flight, bouncing from tree to tree. LaRose already has tuberculosis when she returns from the boarding school, and although she bears five children and holds on for nearly twenty years, she eventually dies of it. The doctor attending her at her death takes her body, for “science”. Despite Wolfred’s pleas, it is never returned to him.

Erdrich repeatedly defines herself, in interviews, as “a storyteller”, and it’s this, I think, that stumped me when I started trying to think about LaRose. It is, very basically, two stories. It can feel as though they’re just there, beginning to end, event lined up after event, without much confusion or complication for a critic’s analysis to shed light upon. But that’s not quite right, because the more I think about those two stories, the more connections I begin to see. Little LaRose (the boy, in the 1999-2003 timeline) walks in other worlds, just as the other LaRoses did: he sees and speaks to Dusty, the boy whom he’s somehow replaced. His emotional intelligence is way beyond his years: he knows how much Nola depends on him, how Emmaline gives him the lion’s share of her attention and love (at the expense of his older sisters) when he’s with them. He doesn’t abuse this awareness or manipulate the people who love him; he just knows. In several scenes, he sees the other LaRoses and hears them speaking to him. He’s the living embodiment of a history: the history of one family, but also the history of a tribe, a nation, a continent, a piece of land. Stolen, swapped, bartered, sacrificed.

If there is an oddness to LaRose (the novel, that is, not the boy), it’s that we never get an adequate sense of what the dead boy, Dusty, was like. He was only four when Landreaux shot him, so perhaps this is unsurprising: the personality of a four-year-old, no matter how developed, has its limitations. And even this, considered from a different angle, makes sense. It is not Dusty himself that matters: the dead are dead, they are elsewhere, in another place. It is the fallout of his death that matters, the fallout of all the trauma in this book. We should mourn the living, Erdrich seems to be saying: Nola, who balances on a chair in the barn with a rope around her neck every day for months, longing to die but not quite able to make the leap; Romeo, who surfs the waves of pills and delusion and resentment until his road-to-Damascus moment; Peter, whose rage surfaces in murderous fantasies; LaRose himself, whose most poignant line, to Maggie, is “Let’s stop being grownups.” The two of them have had to be grownups—caring for their parents’ emotional needs, instead of the other way round—much too soon.

But Nola does come down from her chair; Romeo attends Hollis’s graduation party, and is welcomed; Maggie finds a place and a way to be who she is without fear of punishment; LaRose traverses, peacefully, the worlds of the living and the departed. I hope to read more of Erdrich’s work soon: once you get past the initial sense of disorientation, you’re in the hands of someone who knows both her craft and her history.

Thanks very much to Poppy Stimpson at Corsair Books for the review copy. LaRose was published in the UK on 10 May.