Johannesburg, by Fiona Melrose


I seem to be writing a lot about rewrites these days. Fiona Melrose’s second novel, Johannesburg, isn’t precisely a rewrite, but it takes many of its cues from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway: from its life-in-the-day scope to its characters (Melrose’s hunchbacked, homeless protestor September mirroring Woolf’s shellshocked, suicidal Septimus) to its culmination in a grand party. These knowing echoes, and others like them, don’t always work, but when they do, Melrose achieves what Woolf does: she creates a portrait of a city, and of particular moments in time, and reminds us that a moment can contain an eternity.

We start with Gin, an unmarried fine artist in her early forties who has come home to Johannesburg from New York to throw a birthday party for her eighty-year-old mother, Neve. Neve has never apparently approved of anything Gin has done, and the party – as such parties do – has taken on a major weight of significance in Gin’s mind: if Neve likes it, sees that she has worked hard to make it look beautiful and get the details right, then that will prove, once and for all, that her mother loves her. Preparations for the party throughout the day take up much of the book’s matter, though Melrose lets us spend less time picking up food or cutting flowers, and much more time inside Gin’s head, as she worries ceaselessly about being a woman, behaving like a woman, disappointing her mother, having her own space to create.

That obsession – having one’s own space to create – is deeply Woolfian, and should give some hint as to what this contemporary Dalloway is trying to achieve. Woolf is famous for ignoring the servants and working-class women that enable her life and the lives of her creative female characters, but Melrose doesn’t make that mistake: she accords to Mercy and to Duduzile, a housekeeper and a cook/maid, the same longing for agency and independence as she gives to Gin (and to Gin’s now-dead Aunt Virginia, a novelist who drowned herself on her eightieth birthday, all of which I think is slightly too heavy-handed). Still, Mercy has her own thoughts – most of them, fortunately, not about the white family she works for – and, at one point, wonders what kind of cooking she could do if she had a little kitchen that was all her own. It’s a long-awaited way of moving Woolf’s famous “room of one’s own” into the realm of a working-class woman; Mercy thinks she’d buy a table and paint it red, hang her own curtains, cook fritters and pap to sell to stalls all over the city.

Duduzile, meanwhile, is tethered to responsibility by her brother September, a hunchbacked man who used to work as a cook in the kitchens of a large mining company, until the miners staged a demonstration for better pay and conditions. This demo, at Verloren, turned into a massacre, and September – one of the few survivors – was grazed by a bullet that ploughed a furrow through the side of his head. Now, homeless and misshapen, he is animated by the need for justice: every day, he takes up vigil outside the Diamond, the urban headquarters of the mining company, with a placard strapped to his back above his hump: VERLOREN. HERE I AM. Dudu brings him meat and fruit and water, and tries to make sure he gets enough rest; he sleeps on cardboard in an abandoned garden, since living with Dudu is impossible (he reflects that he would frighten her “madam”, and the madam’s children.)

September is the moral heart of the novel. His stand outside the Diamond is only the most obvious instance; throughout the book he represents a silent majority who have been mistreated and underestimated, but who, nevertheless, demand justice and show love. The book takes place on the day that Nelson Mandela’s death is announced, and throughout the narrative is woven a sense of the people of Johannesburg hurrying to the Residence to pay their respects and show their grief. Extra police officers and helicopters are deployed to “keep the peace”, which September views as an insult: South Africans love Mandela; to suggest that they might degenerate into violence upon his death is offensive. His presence in the book serves as a mute instance of passive resistance, a technique that has fallen in and out of favour with political activists (particularly Black activists, both in Africa and in the States), but which nevertheless has a long and distinguished pedigree. HERE I AM.

September’s outstanding act in the book is to return Neve’s runaway dog, Juno, thereby salvaging Neve’s mood and Gin’s planned party. He doesn’t hang around for long enough to receive the cash reward that Gin wants to give him; when she returns to the front door with her wallet, he’s already walking away. Later (no spoiler, this, if you’ve read Dalloway) September is killed outside the Diamond in a standoff-cum-misunderstanding-cum-suicide by cop, a tragedy which Gin’s former lover Peter is helpless to prevent. When Gin hears the news, and realises that the dead man is the very man who brought her dog back (and saved the evening by restoring Neve’s good mood), she is horrified to realise that when he left her door, he was walking to his death. Up to this point in the book, very little has been able to get through Gin’s carapace of self-pity, shame, and fascination with mortality; it is only the actual death of a person she saw mere hours before that shakes her. Here Melrose both hews closely to Woolf’s original – where Clarissa Dalloway is upset by news of Septimus’s suicide – and writes with a broader social awareness than Woolf manages. Gin, death-obsessed, is a well-off white woman with every conceivable liberty – artistic, financial, romantic. When death does enter the novel, it doesn’t come for her, but for a poor, crippled black man; she is forced to decentralise herself, to understand that while she may see death as “an option”, for others it is so much more.

There are some missteps: the story of Aunt Virginia, for instance, who doesn’t contribute much to the narrative other than a way for the reader to nod knowingly, and some of the dialogue between Gin and Neve, which is probably meant to be painfully adolescent but possibly not meant to be quite so annoying and banal. Ultimately, though, Mrs. Dalloway and Johannesburg are both – at least through Melrose’s lens – about a particular city, and what it is like to live there, and how the city becomes more than the sum of its parts. The scenes in Johannesburg where Gin drives through town – always driving, always separated from the street and the noise and the heat – are intelligent counterpoints to September’s view of the overlapping freeways that soar above his traffic island. Both characters feel embedded in the city; neither sees it whole. In that fragmentation, combined with the sense of unity provided by communal grief at Mandela’s death, Johannesburg rings wonderfully true.

Many thanks to the kind folk at Corsair for the review copy. Johannesburg is published in the UK on 3 August.


The Hate Race, by Maxine Beneba Clarke

I knew they were scared. I knew they were just kids. But so were we.


Maxine Beneba Clarke’s short story collection, Foreign Soil, was one of my favourite books of 2016. Do you know what it feels like to open a book by someone totally new to you and to know, within the space of the first page, that you can trust them and their writing, that you can relax the part of your reading mind that’s always on the alert for awkwardness or falseness, that you can just sink below the surface of the words and go? Of course you do. That’s what Clarke’s writing did—and does—for me, and it’s a large part of why I was anticipating The Hate Race so much.

It doesn’t disappoint. As a memoir of a middle-class black kid growing up in white suburban Australia, it is indeed the kind of story that Clarke’s country hasn’t often heard and needs to hear, as she herself says. But I worry that it will be shared and written about only in that context—of being an “important”, “brave”, “necessary” book—and often, when I see that context, I see condescension. So here’s another way of saying it: The Hate Race is important, brave, and necessary. It is also phenomenally well-written, meticulously observant about social minutiae. Above all, in it, Clarke precisely anatomises the psychology of a bullied kid.

Her observations sting like a badly skinned knee. Bullying starts early: on her first day of kindergarten, a tiny white bitch-in-the-making called Carlita Allen surveys Maxine with wrinkled nose and announces, “You’re brown” in a tone that suggests this is, definitively, unacceptable. To begin with, Carlita perplexes Maxine—who knows she’s brown but has never considered that this might mean anything much—but pretty soon she learns. The book is punctuated with a repeated riff on a couple of sentences: “This is how it broke me,” on one page. Or, “This is how it alters us. This is how we change.”

Maxine starts to alter early on. Her thought processes bounce sharply off of injustice and are forced to bend, every time. A boy in her class calls her blackie one too many times, and she tells a teacher. If she’d been hoping for protection, she’s mistaken:

Mrs Hird kept her grey-green eyes on me, red pen still poised above the spelling test she’d been marking. “Well,” she said slowly, “that’s what you are. You can call him whitey if you like.”

This is 1990. Clarke is ten.

In her horror and rage, she makes the mistake of crying, “That’s racist!” and is scolded for “using that word in my classroom” and “accusing your classmate of something like that.” How dare a girl taunted by the word blackie accuse her tormentor of racism?

Most of the bullying is verbal and emotional, which is hard enough. When Clarke realises that she’s winning schoolyard games of Catch and Kiss not because she’s a fast runner, but because none of the boys want to touch her, it feels like a fist in the throat. She quotes the stupid cruelties of one kid in particular, Greg Adams (all names in this book have been changed, which I assume is to prevent readers from tracking down Greg Adams, and Mrs. Hird, and kicking the living hell out of them):

Greg Adams loudly ranked the girls in our class from one to eleven on his Fuck Chart. He said he couldn’t even put me at the end of the list because animals didn’t count. Greg Adams said that would be bestiality. Greg Adams said the only way black chicks got fucked was gang-banged with the lights turned off, and even then you’d have to be super-desperate, and use ten condoms so you didn’t get AIDS. And then Greg Adams and his friends laughed, and laughed, and laughed.

(I wished, reading that, that Clarke had gone to my majority-black American high school, where white girls were essentially useless. The most desirable trait in a girl at my high school was to have a booty out to HERE. Our prom queen’s nickname literally was “Booty”. Based on Clarke’s writing about her own booty, which stubbornly refuses to be tucked in during gymnastics classes, she would have been a goddess.)

But physical bullying intrudes too, most notably when Clarke and her brother are riding their bikes with two white friends, the McGuire kids. Older boys show up on the scene. Names are called. The McGuires are silent. Then a stone is hurled; and another. The McGuire kids break for home, not even looking back to check that the Clarkes are okay. That scene is where the quotation at the top of this post comes from, and it’s one of the most powerful moments in the memoir. Kids of colour who deal with racism and bullying are children. Children with more structural privilege don’t get to invoke terror as an explanation for their failure to act; Clarke and her brother may be children, but they live in a state of watchfulness and fear so constant that it sometimes reminded me of the behaviour of soldiers. It’s an equally useful reminder for adults. You might be scared by the white supremacist shouting at the hijab-wearing woman on the bus, but guess what? That woman is also scared, and the actual target. Fear of reprisals is a weak excuse for “allies” who do nothing.

Clarke doesn’t let herself off the hook in this regard, either. One of the bravest and most painful sections is her recounting of her behaviour towards Bhagita Singh, an Indian/Australian girl in her class who was, predictably, also bullied by people like Greg Adams. Clarke finds Bhagita’s ability to stare past her tormentors baffling: why can Bhagita do that, but she can’t? When Clarke gets hair extensions—something she’s wanted for months—Bhagita off-handedly says that she liked Clarke’s hair the way it was, and muses that Indian women often sell their hair so that extensions and wigs can be made for other women. It’s all delivered in an utterly un-malicious tone; Bhagita’s straightforwardness makes her capable of ignoring bullies, but also of being quite startlingly tactless without intending to be. Clarke is so disappointed in this response, so filled with embarrassment and let-down and an unplaceable sense of shame, that she lashes out appallingly: the word curry-muncher is used, the accusation leveled that no one would want Bhagita’s hair because it smells disgusting and is greasy (none of which, Clarke notes, is true.) It’s only a matter of hours before Clarke begins to repent, but when she tries to apologise to Bhagita the next day, the other girl wrenches herself away, a look of fear on her face. “Get away from me. Get away!” To Bhagita, Clarke is One Of Them now, undifferentiated from the Carlita Allens and the Greg Adamses. It’s a betrayal more painful to Clarke than almost anything she experiences personally.

(It will also feel familiar to readers who have read Foreign Soil; it mirrors the story “Shu Yi”, in which a little black girl in a majority-white school is instructed to befriend a Chinese Australian classmate, on the basis that they’re both non-white and therefore presumably share some mystical bond. Ava, the protagonist, turns on Shu Yi in order to grasp a shred of playground credibility, and is made to pay the emotional price by Shu Yi herself, who locks eyes with Ava even as she pisses herself with fear and shame. It’s one of the most powerful stories I’ve ever read, and it comes from this place of scrabbling, this place where badly bullied kids end up, where survival instinct takes precedence over kindness.)

Anger is the engine of this book, but Clarke’s writing corrals that emotion and uses it, instead of being overpowered by it. Reviewers often complain that reviewing a memoir is hard, because it’s unfair to judge someone’s life; I would argue that in reviewing a memoir, you are not judging a person’s life, but the way in which they choose to present it to you. For Clarke, presentation is paramount. Also repeated throughout the text is the touchstone phrase, “This is how it happened, or else what’s a story for.” It is not written as a question. She roots her telling in the storytelling traditions of West Indians (her father’s family is Jamaican, her mother’s Guyanese). The passage into adulthood is, in large part, a process that begins when you start being able to tell a story your own way. Clarke’s recounting of what happened to her is an act of authority and reclamation: she was hurt, she was beaten down, and now she will not be silenced any longer. If you have any sense, you will buy this book immediately, and listen.

Many thanks to Grace Vincent at Corsair for the review copy. The Hate Race is published in the UK on 8 June.

Foreign Soil, by Maxine Beneba Clarke

this casual unguardedness that comes from never really knowing fear


[Not a capsule review, but a shorter one than usual. Sorry.]

I think I’m going to start referring to 2016 as the Year When I Found Out I Was Wrong About Everything. (Not, like, everything, you understand. Most things I’m good on.) It is definitely the case, though, that I am not very good on short stories. They disorient me, especially if a collection doesn’t have some kind of unifying thread. But Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Foreign Soil, oh man. I’m here for this.

It’s mostly a collection about the experiences of black people separated in some way from a community. It’s not necessarily, or always, a collection “about” racism, or race relations, which is why I’m doubly pleased that it’s been published in the UK; there remains this lingering conviction that writers of colour are always somehow writing about that (and, by extension, about white people). Clarke’s first story, “David”, explores the conflict between a second-generation woman born in Australia to Sudanese parents, and the first-generation immigrant woman she meets on her way back from buying a bike. Their dance of mutual misunderstanding, frustration and need is conveyed by each woman in turn; they tell their stories in parallel, the older woman recounting the backstory that explains her present. Neither of them is aware that the other is also narrating. Their voices proceed in isolation until the very end of the story, where they come together in a moment that’s transcendant for being so utterly unexpected.

Clarke uses this technique a lot, often without contextualizing who the different voices belong to. My favourite instance is in the story “Gaps In the Hickory”, about a young transgender boy, Carter, in rural Mississippi. (Technically, I guess, Carter is a transgender girl: born male and being raised as a boy, partly because his father is too violent and bigoted to be trusted with the secret knowledge he has of his girlhood.) His story, told through his worried and loving mother’s eyes, is spliced with scenes in New Orleans where we see an older woman, Delores, interacting with a small girl, her neighbour Ella. For a very long time, we don’t know who Delores is, or why she’s important, though slowly, slowly, we learn that she knew Carter’s grandmother. Still, though, the final reveal is very gradual, very contextual—the reader gets there just a second before the narrative does. Again, the end of the story is a moment of synthesis, of connection.

The brilliance of a short story, I think, stands or falls upon its ability to know when to stop. Clarke’s brilliance in these particular stories is to stop just after the synthesis. We feel, as readers, some sense of relief: an immediate tension has been resolved, characters have met, action has been taken. But that relief is contingent because Clarke never resolves things utterly: in “Big Islan”, for instance, her protagonist Nathanial has learned how to read as a result of his wife’s ceaseless instruction, and he awakes at the end of the story feeling restless in Kingston, which he had once thought the centre of the world. But that’s it. He’s got itchy feet now, and he’s as willing to travel as his wife wants him to be, but we don’t get the satisfaction of finding out whether they make it. The same goes for “The Stilt Fishermen of Kathaluwa”, the protagonist of which is a detained Sri Lankan seeking asylum in Australia from being forced into service with the Tamil Tigers. The whole story is about his escape, spliced with scenes of the domestically dissatisfied lawyer who’s driving to see him in the detention centre. As the story closes, we know, the young man has done something drastic in front of a press conference at the centre, in order to draw attention to his plight. But we don’t know whether it works.

The stories that concern themselves most overtly with race aren’t interested in white people; they’re to do with how non-whites betray each other. They are incredible, disturbing vignettes of internalized fear and hatred. “Shu Yi”‘s narrator is a young black girl at a mostly white Australian school. Asked to befriend the only other child of colour in her year—a Chinese girl who barely speaks and is violently bullied—Ava reluctantly agrees. When it comes down to it, though, she publicly humiliates the other girl in order to protect her own standing, to make sure there’s someone weaker and more despised than she is. The story’s final image is of Shu Yi pissing herself, the shame and hopelessness of her situation expressed with horrible poignancy: “Shu Yi’s eyes locked with mine. A thin trickle travelled out the bottom of her tunic and down the inside of her legs, soaking slowly into her frilly white socks.” It’s so painful to read (God, the picture of those little frilly socks), but it’s also, astonishingly, dignified. Shu Yi doesn’t hide behind her hair, or put her face in her hands. She looks her betrayer in the eye. She owns the shame that belongs to her. She can’t say a thing, but she can make Ava understand that what she’s done is terrible.

Many of the stories are written in dialect: not just the dialogue, but the actual narration. I read a few reviews that didn’t take kindly to this, and I can see why a reader wouldn’t, but I think it’s a genius decision. To narrate in “standard English” the story of a teenager in 1950s Jamaica, pregnant out of wedlock, is to stand somewhere in relation to that teenager: to stand away from her, apart from her, above her looking down, even. To narrate that story in the words that she would use, though, in the patois (or “patwa”) that she speaks, is to make it a story that she is telling us. It brings it to life, it levels the reader’s horizon. An English tutor (or, well, I) would say that it asserts that teenager’s right to narrative authority.

Which is, I think, the point of the book’s epigraph, a quotation by Chinua Achebe: “Let no one be fooled by the fact that we may write in English, for we intend to do unheard of things with it.” Clarke’s embrace of many Englishes—Jamaican patois, Brixton street slang, broken and Tamil-inflected, suburban Australian—levels the reader’s horizons for all of these stories. You’re not observing them; you’re engaging with them. And the final story, “The Sukiyaki Book Club”, is a passionate defense of an artist’s right to tell the stories they want to tell, the ones they need to tell. It quotes the rejection letters sent to a writer whose situation is very much as Clarke’s was, while she was writing this collection:

Your writing is genuinely astonishing, but I’d like to read something you’ve written that deals with more everyday themes. Work that has an uplifting quality. Ordinary moments. Think book club material.

Imagine if that day of the Tottenham riots was ultimately a wake-up call that got an angry black kid back on the straight and narrow? We would be very interested in working with you to bring some light to this collection…These are very minor edits we are talking about.

What Clarke is doing, with Achebe’s English, is an unheard of thing: she is saying no. She is saying, fuck y’all. She is saying, This is not book club material. You are not talking about minor edits. You would like to corral these stories into shapes that make you more comfortable and you will not be permitted to do that. Thank God.

Read Foreign Soil; read it urgently. Discuss it with your book club, if you have one. It’s one of the best short story collections I’ve ever read, a collection of exquisite novels in miniature, and I can’t wait to read Clarke’s next book.

Thanks very much to Poppy Stimpson at Corsair for the review copy. Foreign Soil was published in the UK on 7 April.

Capsule reviews: Radiance, by Catherynne M Valente, and Eleanor, by Jason Gurley

Racing to finish the last of March’s books before March bloody well ends, I realized that my last two reads had some interesting thematic similarities, so I decided to present the reviews to you side-by-side, in capsule form. (Also, I’m behind again. That’s probably the more honest reason for using this format.)

Radiance, by Catherynne M. Valente (Corsair Books)


Someone wrote a review of this recently that commenced with the breathless exclamation, “SPACE WHALES.” And yeah, there are whales, and yeah, it’s in space, and yeah, the whales are actually the most important thing about the mystery that forms the book’s nominal core. The reason I say “nominal” is that, although the catalyst for all the action is the attempts of survivors and the bereaved to work out what happened to documentary filmmaker Severin Unck when she disappeared on the planet Venus, what the book ends up demonstrating at its core is the story-ness of stories. How we frame things and from what angle we choose to tell a tale: these are decisions that absolutely define whatever tale we’re telling. You might think that just saying what happened is fairly straightforward, but Radiance reminds us that it’s not.

Severin makes documentaries. Her father, Percival Unck, is a famous director in the Golden Age of Hollywood, the late 1800s and early 1900s. His style tends towards the Gothic and the noir; he has swooning heroines, unscrupulous villainesses, blood, castles, thunderstorms, the works. The only things we might find unusual are that a) all of these are set, and indeed filmed, on other worlds (The Red Beast of Saturn; The Spectres of Mare Nubium), and that b) they are all silent movies. This is a universe where the European race to acquire colonies has spread to the stars (Neptune is French, the Moon is British, and so on), and where the Edison family hoards patents so that providing sound in films has become prohibitively expensive.

This silencing means that you interpret films solely through your eyes: you can only think about what you have seen, not what you have heard. (There are title cards, of course, as for the silent movies of our own universe.) Acting is about convincing people through your face, your bearing, your very body. It’s not to do with what you say; it’s what you do. Of course, this leads to a profound interest in how people construct themselves—which is one of the main concerns of fiction, full stop. Severin is filmed from nearly the beginning of her life, often having to go back and do things again for a third time or a fourth, until Percival feels he’s got the shot. This includes the “scene” where he finds her in a basket on his doorstep; he makes his assistant, Vince (Vincenza, actually) go back and do it again so that he can film it in the proper dramatic fashion.

Her disappearance is revealed on the book’s third page, and the rest of the book is a series of documents—filming scripts, advertising voiceovers, journal entries, “straight” prose—by people as diverse as her favourite stepmother (she’s had seven), her father and Vince, her lover Erasmo, and the voiceless, traumatised boy whom they found on Venus before she disappeared, whom Erasmo subsequently raised as his own son. It’s a totally flamboyant narrative strategy, and Valente’s style is flamboyant too, as she mimics hard-boiled noir detective, mysterious beckoning omnipotent persona, young but already cynical actress out to make her fortune, and other voices. There’s a sense of exploding colour and drama and texture: sequins and palettes are described in lavish detail. It’s Old Hollywood, after all.

Although the reveal is brilliant, and the sheer verve and vivaciousness of the writing has you racing forward to figure it out, I don’t think that Radiance is making an especially new point, once you strip it right back to its basics. I think it’s a book about storytelling, and although that is beautiful and important and appeals to me, a savvy reader will already be aware of how narratives are contingent: how they depend on who is telling them, how they are constantly incomplete, how death and loss are plot points you can’t get around, how real life isn’t anything like a story anyway. But Valente conveys all of this with exceptional style, and her writing is downright beautiful (not to mention that much of its sly humour had me grinning widely). It is certainly a book worth reading, and I’m already keen to see what Valente, who’s already had tremendous success with The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship Of Her Own Making, comes up with next. Her imagination seems boundless.

Eleanor, by Jason Gurley (Harper Voyager)


Now that I come to the second half of this post, and have to think back to what I said earlier about thematic similarities, I’m worried that they won’t come across fully. Eleanor is a book about mothers and daughters, about the awful repercussions of acts across generations. It is sort of about time travel and sort of about the subconscious. I didn’t emphasize any of those in my Radiance review, but I think it’s important to reiterate that they are present in that book as well, and that reading these two back-to-back was an experience where both texts ended up illuminating one another.

In 1962, Eleanor is married to Hob and has a toddler daughter, Agnes. Hob is good to her, almost incredibly so; he is the man that everyone wants to meet and fall in love with, kind and loving and with an understanding for her foibles that borders on the infinite. And yet Eleanor isn’t happy; she married young, she feels stifled. She was a high school swimmer with potential to be Olympian, but that all changed with the birth of Agnes. Now she’s pregnant again and falling into depression. One morning she wakes early, drives their truck to the nearby ocean, walks into the waves, and never comes back. In 1985, Agnes is an adult now with twin daughters, Esme and Eleanor. A car crash kills Esme, and Agnes’s whole world is destroyed by loss for a second time. In 1993, Eleanor is now fourteen and the primary carer for Agnes, now an embittered alcoholic who hates her remaining daughter and blames her for Esme’s death. But something starts happening to Eleanor: she’s beginning to slip out of time, to disappear from her own world and reappear in another. Slowly, over several years, she starts to piece together what these strange vanishing acts have to do with her family history, and what she has to do to get them to stop.

Much of the plot is guessable, although the identity of Efah (an odd, seemingly male entity who lives in the Rift that Eleanor keeps falling into) took me rather too long to guess. Part of that is the intense immersion that Gurley makes you undertake. The prose is straightforward and doesn’t draw attention to itself, but Gurley’s grasp of emotional beats is impressively good. There is a scene where Eleanor, her would-be boyfriend Jack, and her father Paul find Agnes comatose in her bedroom—but they don’t notice her at first; what’s drawn them upstairs is the sound of home videos, featuring long-gone Esme, playing on the bedroom television. Time seems to hang suspended as you read that scene; Gurley shows you Paul, horrified and grief-stricken and fascinated and longing for his baby back, Eleanor, transfixed by seeing an image of her twin for the first time in eight years, Jack, who doesn’t quite know what to do. In the hands of an inexperienced or overconfident writer, that scene could have been cringingly awful. Instead it bruised me; it made me hurt.

The way that the supernatural is invoked frustrates me in some ways, because I think the heart of this story is in the way that people fail to heal. Agnes is completely destroyed by her childhood trauma and by the shock of losing a child, and her response—to blight the life of her remaining daughter—is indefensibly awful. But it happens all the time, in countries and cities all over the planet. People react to things badly. Many of them limp on through their lives, but many of them never recover. It’s kind of up to you, in some senses, to negotiate a way of continuing to function with the dark scars of bereavement and fuckuppery. What Severin Unck knows in Radiance (aha! here’s a connection) is that you can’t restage the moments that change your life. What Jason Gurley gives us, in Eleanor, is a story where you can. And the curious thing is that (avoiding spoilers here, I think) not much needs to be sacrificed.

Many, many thanks to both Clara Diaz at Corsair and Jaime Frost at Harper Voyager for the review copies. Radiance was published in the UK on 3 March; Eleanor was published on 10 March.

Love Me Back, by Merritt Tierce

It wasn’t about pleasure; it was about how some kinds of pain make fine antidotes to others.


I can’t presume to say how other people are going to read this book, but I would be amazed if a good many of you didn’t, at some point, look up from it with a cold, nasty recognition shock. I did. Given its subject matter, this might seem an inapposite confession; but, while I’ve never devoted myself to quite the level or quantity of narcotics, promiscuity and self-harm that the protagonist Marie does, there it is. I’ve done destructive things: bad for myself, bad for other people. A lot of us have. Sometimes it’s only when you read it that you realize: I should never have put up with that. I should never have done that. I should never have treated myself that way.

This is not about slut-shaming, incidentally. Sex is great and glorious and as long as everyone involved is happy and in control of their own actions, then the more, the merrier, say I. (For a perfect articulation of my position [hehe], see Lindy West’s article here.) Nor is it about stigmatizing self-harm or alcoholism. Those things happen, people do them, and it doesn’t make them weak or selfish or somehow innately bad. What Love Me Back, and this whole review of it, is about is self-hatred: the active, venomous conviction that you yourself are a worthless person, and the attendant refusal to set boundaries about what other people are permitted to do to you, both physically and mentally.

Marie gets pregnant at seventeen, on a mission trip to Mexico, and the chapters that recount her just-about-adult life waiting tables in Dallas restaurants alternate with shorter segments that tell the story of that trip. The boy she sleeps with is sweet and bookish and quiet and solid. They get married (in the face of shaming from family and church elders that is sad and sickening to read about: “The elders meet with me privately,” Marie recalls, “in the library. Nine of them and a seventeen-year-old girl…I don’t know her, and I don’t know these men in dark suits, and there is nothing I can do to help her.”) It doesn’t last long, though; within a year, she’s slept with three other men from the Olive Garden, which is her first restaurant job, and her husband has filed for divorce. Their baby, Analisa, goes to stay with him. Marie sees her once every few weeks.

It’s only the beginning of a long, long line of sex, drinking, drug abuse, and self-harm both physical and emotional. Marie is driven by an impulse, but it’s one that she understands entirely, one for which she takes all the responsibility. I’m seeing this more and more in female protagonists these days, and I like it a lot. It feels real, and the fact that authors are writing it and readers reading it says good things to me about how the novel is developing, or can develop, at the moment. Marie is deeply self-aware but not very reflective; she knows that she can’t think too hard about some things, but she can know them nonetheless.

I ask my memory, Why did I take each next step? There was a hateful man who once said I am a step skipper but no, each step was taken. That one, then that one, then another, each voluntary. Whatever is in me that makes decisions is now full of an accretion of plaque, the chalky consequence of, paradoxically, so many hollow moments.

That is about as philosophical as it gets, which is a good thing. Tierce gets through a lot of material in only a little over two hundred pages—we get the sense of the frenetic, coke-fueled sex binges without going through each one in great detail. The effect is much stronger for it; these events are, by and large, flashing past Marie as well as us. The only ones that she lingers on, or describes, are the ones that were for some reason memorable. Everything else is just life. It’s a terrifying, but brilliant, evocation of how to normalize extremity.

There are two parts to Love Me Back, separated by an “Intermezzo”. The second part concerns Marie’s eventual long-term position as a waitress at a very upscale Dallas steakhouse known only as The Restaurant. Everything else was origin story, but here is where Marie comes into her own. It doesn’t mean that she suddenly goes straight, of course. It means that she starts to feel as though she belongs somewhere. She stays at The Restaurant long enough to become professionally confident. The result of this is the other major strength of the book, which is its utterly unromantic, but deeply empathetic, portrayal of the service industry. The lengths to which Marie and her fellow servers go for The Restaurant’s wealthy, entitled patrons suggest, irresistibly, that service work consitutes a hierarchy of power that echoes abusive or unhealthy dynamics of sexuality. It’s all about control: what one person can force another to do, not necessarily through brute physical exertion but also through guilt, coercion, and a sense of obligation. The first scene in the book has Marie sleeping with a restaurant patron out of some combination of the above:

On the third floor we got into his bed and he was so happy. He had done it. Gotten me there. Into the house, up the three stories, onto the bed. I couldn’t not let him have it. I lay down next to him and turned my back to him and heard the drawer of the nightstand open. He hurried with the condom as if I might vanish. I let him penetrate me. No, I thought. No no no. I whispered it each time he pushed. No. No. No.

It’s one of the most disturbing sex scenes I’ve ever read, and that’s where it ends: she gets up, does two lines of coke in the man’s bathroom, and leaves. There’s no hitting, no cruelty. But there is violence: it’s a violence she does to herself, and it’s a violence that the customer commits against her, despite the fact that he’s a pathetic schlub. His indifference to her her-ness, his desperate, fumbling insecurity, are violences.

Her coworker and friend Calvin points out that you can be liberated without deliberately hurting yourself all the time. Her reaction is fascinating for what it suggests about her motives, and about how much of them she recognizes:

It had something to do with love and something to do with grief. It was just this: I’d be down on the floor sometimes, picking up fallen chunks of crab cake near some diamond broker’s shoe…and I’d feel impaled by the sight and feel of the half-eaten crabmeat because it wasn’t her sparkly laugh and it wasn’t that place on her shoulder, right up against her neck, that smells like sunlight. I am not a mother, I’d think as I walked to the trash can.

We also learn—though it’s mentioned only once and scarcely dwelt upon—that Marie was her high school’s valedictorian and had been offered a place at Yale before she became pregnant. (It’s credible; she’s not one of those heroines whom we’re supposed to just believe is super-smart and naturally beautiful. Her voice is sharp, frank, and clever. She’s Yale material.) That combination of frustrated potential, profound mother-love, and a sense of having failed not only yourself but also, possibly, your child: could it be strong enough to make you think yourself worthless, to fuel self-destruction? Yes, of course it could.

Love Me Back isn’t hopeful about people, but it’s incredibly sanguine about them. There’s a sense of camaraderie about the restaurant workers, the people who create chaos, order, chaos, then order again, eight hours a night every night. Danny, The Restaurant’s manager, is notorious for punctuating his sentences with the phrase “Suck it”, and Marie wonders if it’s a Tourette’s-esque form of affection, like a soldier’s swearing. Calvin, DeMarcus, Asami, and her other coworkers will fuck each other, sell each other pills, total each other’s cars, but always, always help each other out when the night or the tips are on the line. At the end of the book, Marie is about to quit, and we hope—of course we hope—that she’ll be able to figure herself out somewhere else. But that confusion, that rage, that numbness, some of it is just part of the deal.

In that restaurant all of us were off. Chipped. […] Maybe it’s the same in a law firm, a nail salon, whatever high or low. Maybe that’s just what it is to be alive, you’ve got that broken sooty piece of something lodged inside you making you veer left.

For the honesty, bravery and beauty with which Tierce writes about those things that make you veer left, Love Me Back is up there, for me, with Katherine Carlyle and The Wolf Border. If there’s any justice in the world, this one’s going to be big.

Thanks very much to the kind Clara Diaz at Corsair for the review copy. Love Me Back is published in the UK on 14 January.