#6Degrees of Separation: It, by Stephen King

This game is like “6 Degrees from Kevin Bacon” only with books. You can join in too; the rules are here.

tumblr_n9snzsrmtv1qkl5tno8_1280

We start with It, Stephen King’s creepy clown horror novel, which I read in May and (to my great surprise) thoroughly enjoyed. I had avoided King for a long time, assuming that he was probably not all that good a writer, and was completely surprised by the fact that, actually, he writes very well. (review)

Virtually the opposite happened when I read my first John Grisham novel, Camino Island; having been proved wrong with King, I had hopes that Grisham would turn out to be a pretty good writer, but these were dashed by page five. Fortunately, it’s a quick read.

My copy of Camino Island was purchased at New Dominion Bookstore in Charlottesville, where I used to work and where John Grisham would often come in to sign (he lives nearby). My current favourite author-signed copy is the paperback of White Teeth that my brother got Zadie Smith to sign and dedicate to me. (It says, “To Eleanor – the joy is in the writing!”, and it makes me teary with happiness every time I even think about it.)

Smith published her first book at twenty-four. Another young publishing phenomenon was Catherine Webb, who now writes as Claire North. I didn’t love her most recent book, The End of the Day (review), although her earlier book The Fifteen Lives of Harry August got a lot of attention and might be worth checking out.

The End of the Day is easily compared to Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens, but I really got whiplash from reading it so soon after finishing China Miéville’s novel Kraken. Set in London, Kraken starts with the theft of the Natural History Museum’s giant squid, and quickly delves into apocalypse cults, Londonmancers, and the unionisation of magical familiars. It’s also Gaiman-inflected, but with some tongue-in-cheek homage to Lovecraft.

A favourite magical London is the one from Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. An enormous tome set during an alt-history version of the Napoleonic Wars, it focuses on the attempts of the two titular men to revive English magic. It is rich and deep and creepy and wonderful, and you’ll never look at a mirror the same way again.

Finally, another excellent alt-Napoleonic Wars novel (yes, there’s more than one of them!) is K.J. Whittaker’s recent False Lights. Whittaker’s book contains no magic, but in her world, Napoleon wins at Waterloo and installs his brother Jerome on the English throne. Our heroine is the mixed-race daughter of a black British sea captain. It’s got romance and swashbuckling and wit, and is perfect for fans of Daphne Du Maurier, Rafael Sabatini, or indeed Susanna Clarke.

From small-town American horror to sumptuous historical fancy, via blockbusting crime and literary prodigies; where will your #6Degrees take you? Next month we start with Alexander McCall Smith’s The Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency, a firm favourite from adolescence which is now a franchise that probably reached its natural end several years ago…

Advertisements

Sand, by Wolfgang Herrndorf

“Are you entirely sure that you don’t know who you are?”

91hjwnwu4ul-_ac_ul320_sr200320_

Let’s start with what I put on Goodreads, five minutes after finishing Sand:

Excellent and horrible. Parts of it are reminiscent of what James Bond might have been like if Fleming had been a decent writer; parts of it are like desert Le Carré; quite a bit of it is like surreal, blackly-comic Greene. You have no idea what’s happening for the first hundred pages and then it all clicks, the characters’ relations to each other make sense, and you’re off. Gloriously, there are no good guys, except perhaps for our amnesiac protagonist, who takes his name (Carl) from the designer’s label inside his suit. The ending laughs majestically in the face of narrative justice. It’s incredible.”

Now let’s back up. Sand does not start with amnesiac Carl. It starts with Polidorio and Canisades, two post-colonial policemen in Morocco circa 1972. The Olympic Games at Munich have just been defiled by the abduction and murder of Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists. The world is hot and nervous. Polidorio and Canisades are called upon to investigate the murder of four people at a hippie commune, apparently by a Moroccan national of seemingly boundless stupidity by the name of Amadou Amadou. Something about the case feels not quite right, but the evidence all adds up and Amadou is on his way to be hanged—until his prison truck is involved in a traffic accident and he is sprung free. The police seem incapable of finding him again; Polidorio is summoned to his chief inspector’s office and informed that, due to the wishes of important people, Amadou will not be found at all, full stop, end of story.

Interspersed with this are chapters following American Helen Gliese, who supposedly works for a cosmetic company but whose sample case was mysteriously and conveniently lost on the docks as she disembarked in Morocco. Helen, who has what the back cover describes as “a talent for being underestimated”, picks up Carl at a desert petrol station; he is wandering aimlessly, covered in blood, having just extricated himself from a scene of distressing violence at a barn in the middle of nowhere with no memory of who he is or what he was doing there. Helen is also acquainted with one of the residents of the commune, a dippy woman called Michelle who reads tarot cards but tends to cheat the deck by removing the Hanged Man.

Once Helen and Carl come together with Michelle, it’s clear that there are wheels within wheels. Up to this point, it hasn’t been at all clear; because Herrndorf starts us off at a point so peripheral to the main action (and, perhaps not coincidentally, to the description on the back of the book), we’re left completely disoriented for quite a long time. Being thrown off balance at the start doesn’t always impress me, but it does here because Herrndorf so obviously knows what he’s doing, even though we don’t. On he marches through the setup of his plot, unspooling authorial confidence behind him, and we follow. By the time Carl meets Helen, you’re in it for the long haul.

Carl is an innocent, and not only by virtue of being unable to remember anything. His actions and reactions (and inactions) are often inexplicably odd. Briefly captured by a white-haired crime lord named Adil Bassir, he has his hand nailed to the table by a letter-opener but does not take the opportunity to explain that he has lost his memory. Helen is baffled: “If I’d been nailed to a desk with a letter-opener I’d have told him a thing or two.” “I had the feeling,” Carl says helplessly, “that I didn’t know what he didn’t know. He just didn’t know that I didn’t know. If I had told him, what would he have done with me?” He panics at the wrong times, is calm at the wrong times. He cries a lot. He is simply, undeniably goofy. And yet we can also feel terrible pity for him, because we can project onto his blank exterior: is there anyone more deserving of kindness than someone lost and vulnerable who doesn’t understand what’s happening to them?

But it’s precisely Carl’s amnesia that also complicates his character. Late on in the book, he is captured and tortured for information that he doesn’t (of course) have. In the course of this unpleasantness, one of his tormentors pinpoints the problem with creating sympathy for the unknown:

“You have something that belongs to us. That we discovered. Our scientists. And that’s why we are the good guys: we built the bomb and wreaked havoc with it. But we learned from that. We’re the adaptive system. Hiroshima shortened the war, and you can argue about Nagasaki—but it’s not going to happen a third time. We will stop it from happening a third time. In our hands the bomb is nothing more than an ethical principle. Put the same bomb in your hands and we’d be heading toward a catastrophe that would make everything else look like nothing more than a minor headache by comparison.”

Whether this rosy picture of American military morality is legitimate or not isn’t the point of this passage; the point of the passage is to awaken uncertainty in the reader. Who, after all, is Carl? We know nothing about him. He knows nothing about himself. Can we be so certain that he isn’t—or wasn’t—involved in hideous plans? We only know what we’ve seen of him, in a very particular, impotent context. What is the difference between a freedom fighter and a terrorist? One’s point of view. And the difference between an innocent man and a guilty one, Herrndorf seems to be saying, is sometimes just the same.

Readerly investment in Carl increases as the book goes on. He is made to suffer a great deal, and by the end of the book our perspective is confined almost entirely to his experiences, so that we can’t help but identify with him. Whether he was or is a terrorist or not, Herrndorf clearly shows us a human: one who fears and tries and clings tenaciously to whatever scrap of a chance is held out to him, one who wants more than anything else to live. So when I say that the ending laughs in the face of narrative justice, what I mean is that it leaves the reader with a sense of wall-pounding noooooooo-ness that you might recognise if you’ve read Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s Waking Lions or watched the film There Will Be Blood. It’s an ending that looks sideways at your high school lit class and everything you learned there about the blueprints for fiction, then smiles wryly, puts out its cigarette on its tongue, and kicks the shit out of teleology. It is, in other words, an ending as true to true life as anything I’ve ever read, and it makes the point that Friedrich Durrenmatt is trying to make in The Pledge about falseness in genre narrative with significantly greater raw grace than Durrenmatt manages. (Sorry, Durrenmatt.)

Wolfgang Herrndorf died of a brain tumour in 2013, at the age of forty-eight. He wrote an earlier book, translated in English as Why We Took the Car, but Sand will be his last. It alone ought to assure him a place in twenty-first century literary history: it’s bold, anarchic, blackly funny, and completely unafraid.

Many thanks as always to the publicity folks at Pushkin for a review copy. Sand is published in the UK on 30 March.

6 Degrees of Separation: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

This game is like “6 Degrees from Kevin Bacon” only with books. You can join in too; the rules are here.

e2ff4901-5224-4ba4-b1cb-b27cb7395084

  1. We start this month with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson’s thriller featuring cult favourite heroine, hacker Lisbeth Salander. The book was made into a movie—well, two, one of them starring Noomi Rapace.
  2. Rapace’s been in another thriller film based on a book, “The Drop”. It was originally a short story by Dennis Lehane called “Animal Rescue”, but he turned it into a novel after the film came out. The film features Tom Hardy and James Gandolfini, and is really pretty good.
  3. Lehane is the patron of a US publishing imprint, Dennis Lehane Books, which first published Attica Locke. Her novel The Cutting Season, about a contemporary murder on a meticulously preserved Louisisana plantation, delves deep into racism, power, and self-interest in America.
  4. I lent The Cutting Season to the Chaos’s mum, who’d read Locke’s earlier book Black Water Rising and enjoyed it. She, in return, lent me Sense and Sensibility, the Joanna Trollope version: a reboot of Austen’s original that is possibly the most successful entry so far in the contemporary-versions-of-Austen enterprise.
  5. Trollope is a descendant of THE Trollope, Anthony, who is most famous for his Barchester and Palliser Chronicles: two six-book series that map out English political and social life in the nineteenth century. One of my favourites, however, is the stand-alone The Way We Live Now, an alarmingly relevant novel in the 21st century, about unscrupulous financier Melmotte and the dangers of blind trust.
  6. The incomparable David Suchet played Melmotte in the BBC’s adaptation of Trollope’s novel; Suchet is most famous, however, for playing Hercule Poirot in the seemingly trillions of Agatha Christie adaptations. My favourite is Evil Under the Sun, set on Burgh Island in Devon, which can only be reached at low tide in a contraption called a Sea Tractor.

We didn’t move around much in terms of genre—nearly all crime thrillers— and we mostly stayed in England. I think the connections were pretty good this time, though!

A White Night, by Charlotte Mew – in Daughters of Decadence

417iyjlx9pl

~~caution: here be a spoiler for a single story~~

In 1993, Virago published a collection of short stories by women writers of the 1880s and 1890s, edited by Elaine Showalter, a prominent feminist scholar. Now, twenty-three years later, they’ve reissued the collection. It’s not a time period that speaks to me much; when I learned about the tail end of the 19th century in high school history classes, I got the Gilded Age of American industry, monopolies, philanthropists, presidents with eccentric facial hair, and prolonged but indecisive military excursions in Latin America. Photographs of the period look somehow older than photographs from thirty years previously. The women wear hats of ludicrous width and all appear to be sucking on lemons; the men are frequently top-hatted titans of capitalism, and almost never looking directly at the camera. It is not a period that represents itself with the lush brightness of the mid-19th century, or the filthy vivacity of the 18th, or the political intrigue of the 17th.

And yet, as Showalter’s introduction to the collection points out, there was a lot going on in this fin de siecle as regards women, both in terms of their writing and in terms of their more general social position. We think of decadent writers and artists as men–Wilde, Beardsley–and the same is true of this era’s serious literary authors: think of Henry James and Joseph Conrad. Yet at the same time, there was an explosion of writing, mostly in the form of short stories, from women. They were published in periodicals like Vogue and Lippincott’s and The Yellow Book, most of which don’t exist any more. They were by and about “New Women”, creatures of sometimes ambiguous sexuality, authors of unrecognized genius, complex thinkers. They terrified critics, who referred to them dismissively as vain “erotomaniacs”. One of them was Charlotte Mew, whose short story A White Night I was asked to review by the Virago publicity folks.

A White Night is brief and deeply disturbing. Our narrator, Cameron, is on holiday in Spain with his sister Ella (we can’t really call her our heroine, though Showalter, heroically, refers to her as such in the collection’s introduction) and Ella’s new husband King. They visit a rural hill town and, at Ella’s insistence, go exploring in the twilight. The action doesn’t really start until they enter a large parish church attached to a convent and get locked in by accident. It’s much too late for anyone to hear them banging on the door and shouting, so they’re eventually resigned to spending the night there, until, around midnight, their uneasy rest is disturbed by a parade of monks, followed by a woman and two priests. A long ritual ensues which is completed by the live burial of the woman under a flagstone before the altar. Cameron does not intervene, and actively prevents King from doing so, although when the monks leave the church, they attempt to find the gravestone in the darkness. Day eventually dawns, they realize their labours are hopeless (they’ve managed to find the stone but can’t pry it up again), and they leave the church with Ella, speechless and horrified, in tow. Telling the story to the British Consul produces only a kind of bureaucratic shrug, and they leave Spain within twenty-four hours. Cameron notes, as a final aside, that this episode still haunts Ella’s dreams, and that she has “never forgiven him” for his objectivity and detachment about it.

What are we to make of that same detachment? Cameron’s refusal to intervene to save the woman is the most inexplicable part of this story: he is moved and horrified by the scene unfolding before him and yet there is something about the woman’s demeanour that makes him feel as though saving her would be wrong. “She had, one understood, her part to play,” he tells us, and goes on to describe with a sort of relish her face’s inscrutable expression:

It was of striking beauty, but its age? One couldn’t say. It had the tints, the purity of youth…but for a veil of fine repression which only years, it seemed, could possibly have woven. And it was itself–this face–a mask, one of the loveliest that spirit ever wore. It kept the spirit’s counsel… Only, as she stood there, erect and motionless, it showed the faintest flicker of distaste, disgust…She was at last in full possession of herself. The flicker of distaste had passed and left her face to its inflexible, inscrutable repose.

So for Cameron, at least, this is a face that possesses a certain power, a face that has agency. He uses other words in conjunction with her (“proud surrender”, “magnificent disdain”) that give us similar impressions. We are not meant to see her as a victim. She has entered the church screaming, but Cameron keenly notes (with what authority, it’s unclear) that the screams are mere “physical responses”, in other words instinctive reflexes; her face looks unmoved.

It’s hard to know what to make of this. My initial instinct was to trust it. Cameron later writes that “she lies, one must remember, in the very centre of the sanctuary… It was this honour, satisfying, as it did, some pride of spirit or of race, which bore her honourably through.” The woman’s value is high in his estimation because of her honourable conduct, her perfect performance of acquiescence. She acquits herself, in other words, like a man, but not so much like a man that she ceases to be passive and therefore womanly. Threatened women gain male approval by being thoroughly aware of their own impending doom, and accepting it stoically. (Do you see what I mean about this being a disturbing story?)

The monks, likewise, are dealt with not as individuals but as one blurred indistinct entity. There’s a superficial distinction between them, but their actual personhoods fade into insignificance because they are all together, all a crowd:

Some of the faces touched upon divinity; some fell below humanity; some were, of course, merely a blotch of book and bell, and all were set impassively toward the woman standing there. And then one lost the sense of their diversity in their resemblance; the similarity persisted and persisted till the row of faces seemed to merge into one face – the face of nothing human – of a system, of a rule. It framed the woman’s and one felt the force of it: she wasn’t in the hands of men.

Except, of course, that she both is, and isn’t: Mew creates in this scene a brilliant representation of patriarchy, a system or rule composed of the faces of ordinary people who are in themselves neither saints nor devils. No monk or priest puts the woman in the grave that opens before her: she walks into it and lies down on her own. But she has been brought by those faces before her to a state where she can do that to herself. Perhaps it is not only a picture of an oppressive system, but a picture of what would later become known as “internalized misogyny”, the scorn and devaluing of women by other women, the self-hatred that a woman pours into herself.

King, the husband, is moved to try and help (perhaps he is trying to be the punning “white knight” of the title), but Cameron stops him; Cameron himself sees only the theoretical and the symbolic sides of the experience, considering it “a rather splendid crime”. It’s only Ella who remains troubled by the episode, and this, Cameron suggests, is because of her damned silly woman’s irrationality:

She refuses to admit that, after all, what one is pleased to call reality is merely the intensity of one’s illusion.

Men of Cameron’s time and class can afford to believe that reality is an illusion, because in many ways, for them, it is. Women – of almost any time, any class – have never been able to indulge in this kind of sophistry, because reality touches them too forcefully. Can you say to a woman of the late Victorian era who was never taught anything of biology or anatomy that her experience – maybe involving terror, force, pain – on her wedding night was “the intensity of her illusion”? Can you tell a woman who has been buried alive that her suffocation is not real? Maybe Ella is the heroine of this story, after all: she understands the significance of what she has seen, even if no one else does.

Many thanks to Poppy Stimpson at Virago for the review copy. Daughters of Decadence was published in the UK on 4 August.

My Cousin Rachel, by Daphne DuMaurier

“There are some women, Philip, good women very possibly, who through no fault of their own impel disaster.”

9781844080403

~~here be not-really-spoilers, but I do tell you my opinion of the novel’s central “crime”~~

The excellent Daphne DuMaurier suffered, during her lifetime, from critics not knowing where to put her. They tended to settle for dismissing her work as feminine pot-boiling; Jamaica Inn and Rebecca, probably her two most famous novels, are deeply melodramatic and romantic, so you can see the justification in a way. My Cousin Rachel, as Sally Beauman points out in the introduction to this edition, is a different kettle of fish, because there is so obviously some serious social commentary going on under the surface. Quite apart from that, the plotting is so good, the tension wound so tight, that even crusty old 1950s newspaper reviewers had to admit that it showed incredible story-telling ability. (Dubious though “story-telling” was considered to be in the literary world of the 1950s, it has always been a quality that people admire, willingly or not. It’s harder than you think to just tell a story well. Look at how people try, at dinner parties or in the pub, and how often they don’t quite manage it.)

Sally Beauman’s introduction is invaluable for another reason, which is that it makes the reader aware at once that Philip Ashley, our narrator, is not to be trusted—or is to be trusted only contingently. Philip, and his older cousin and guardian Ambrose, are inveterate woman-haters; Ambrose can’t stand the “chatter” and “vulgarity” of feminine company, to the extent that he refuses to have any woman servants in his house, and dismisses Philip’s nurse when he catches her paddling the little boy with a hairbrush. (Not because he finds the corporal punishment distasteful, though; just because she has “great coarse hands” and is “too unintelligent to comprehend” how to properly discipline a young gentleman.) When Ambrose is advised by his doctors to winter on the Continent for the sake of his health, then, he goes alone. It’s a huge shock when he writes back to England to say, firstly, that he’s met a distant female cousin by chance who turns out to be a bearable companion, and then, secondly, that he has married her.

This woman is, of course, cousin Rachel, or rather, my cousin Rachel, of the title. The possessive is important. Philip is a deeply insecure young man (he’s twenty-three when we first meet him, twenty-five when the novel ends) whose sheltered, privileged and eccentric upbringing has equipped him astoundingly badly for the realities of adult life and emotion. Ambrose is his father figure, his brother figure, the only male authority he has ever known—the only authority of any kind he has ever known—and the love he feels towards him is both fiercely familial and vaguely Oedipal. Upon being notified of Ambrose’s marriage, he is sick with jealousy and frustration at the thought of having to share his beloved cousin with anyone else, especially (God forbid) a woman. He spends a good deal of time inventing identities, none of them flattering, for cousin Rachel:

One moment monstrous, like poor Molly Bate at the West Lodge, obliging one to avert the eyes from sheer delicacy, and the next pale and drawn, shawl-covered in a chair, with an invalidish petulance about her, while a nurse hovered in the background, mixing medicines with a spoon. On emoment middle-aged and forceful, the next simpering and younger than Louise, my cousin Rachel had a dozen personalities or more and each one more hateful than the last.

Such imaginings are, of course, poisonous, and poison is the book’s central metaphor (more on that shortly). Ambrose dies in Italy quite suddenly, of symptoms much like those that preceded the death of his father from a brain tumour. Philip, who has received panicked, fearful letters from Ambrose, suspects that all is not as it seems, but when he arrives in Florence, he can find no answers, and his cousin Rachel has left the city. Once he returns to England, however, he receives a letter from her: she is in Plymouth. More out of a sense of duty than anything else, he invites her down to stay, and it becomes immediately evident that Rachel is nothing like his ridiculous fantasies.

What’s immediately evident to the reader is that Rachel is, at least to some extent, playing him. She makes a great point of not minding whether he smokes indoors or puts his feet on the chairs; she sets about beautifying the house, but in a subtle, charming way, asking the opinions of the servants and getting Philip interested too. As I read I thought of her as a proto-Cool Girl (thanks, Gillian Flynn, for that concept): the woman all the men like because she challenges none of their existing prejudices. Of course, Rachel challenges Philip’s prejudices about her, but that’s as far as it goes. She does not require him to change anything about his way of thinking, his mode of living. Cleverly, this results in some actual changes in Philip’s thinking and living, but only because she does not insist on them. It’s a classic use of soft power, and it’s the reason people think of emotional manipulation and passive aggression both as feminine and as inferior ways of fighting. For a very long time, these were the only social and emotional weapons that women had.

Another classically female weapon is poison, which I mentioned above as the book’s central metaphor. DuMaurier barely mentions it by name in most of the 300+ pages: one of Ambrose’s letters wonders, amongst other ravings, “Could they be trying to poison me?” No more is heard of it until the discovery of laburnum seeds amongst Rachel’s possessions, at the very end of the novel. (Even that discovery is inconclusive, as Philip’s childhood friend Louise points out. Rachel is a keen gardener and orders plants from all over Europe; that she possesses the seeds of a plant poisonous to cattle and humans but used extensively in ornamental horticulture is hardly a smoking gun.) But venom—the slow, insidious drip of it—is present throughout the book. It’s there when Ambrose takes little Philip to see a hanged man when he is only seven or eight, a man who killed his wife. It’s there when fear and paranoia start to percolate through Ambrose’s mind. It’s there when Philip grows envious of anyone sharing Ambrose, and again when he falls in love with Rachel and seeks to control and limit his neighbours’ access to her. It’s there when he makes reckless withdrawals of jewels and rewrites wills for her (again, without her ever mentioning the inheritance or money.) This naive, romantic, stunted, immature man-child’s entire life is poison, all the way down to the root.

And Rachel might very well be poison too, although the great glory of the novel is that it’s impossible for us to know for sure. That exercise of soft power, if she’s doing it intentionally, is peerless; she never asks Philip for anything. Indeed, she seems genuinely embarrassed when he tries to give her a very valuable necklace, and she immediately returns it to his lawyer. And yet… Ambrose’s death is suspicious, and Philip begins to experience similar symptoms. Is this just what happens to hopelessly under-socialized men when they encounter worldly women—they begin to lose their minds? Do Philip and Ambrose simply share a genetic inheritance that dooms them to early deaths? Or is Rachel a calculating gold-digger and a killer? She is certainly more sexually sophisticated than poor Philip (possibly the only time I felt sorry for him is when he loses his virginity to her, then believes that this means they will be married. She is really horrified when she realizes this, and points out that he has never actually asked her to marry him, much less received a positive verbal response. Rachel is modern when it comes to sex—she thinks of the seduction as a thank-you present for the jewelry Philip eventually suceeds in giving her—and Philip is behind the times even for his own, unspecified but probably mid-Victorian, era.)

If she is a killer—and personally, I think she is—I can’t say I blame her too much. We are told that, like Becky Sharp, she grew up abroad, only half-English (and therefore, unspokenly, only half worth protecting), and without parental guidance. DuMaurier delicately omits to discuss the details of her former life, but from the conversations Rachel has with her financial adviser Rainaldi, we can guess that it involved a form of high-class prostitution: born of a good family, attending the best parties in Florence and Venice, but trading sex for financial stability nonetheless. If her behaviour has a pattern (find a wealthy, inexperienced man; become indispensable to him; marry, kill, inherit), it’s a logical one. And perhaps she never meant to kill, at first. Perhaps she married and realized that Ambrose was intolerable, and only then decided she couldn’t wait another thirty years.

Rachel suffers the sort of fate that most sexually liberated, autonomous, frightening women had to suffer in novels up until very recently. (You’ll have to read it to find out exactly what happens, though; I shan’t give it away.) DuMaurier’s brilliance is to keep us asking questions—did she really kill anyone? Is Philip merely a fool or is he actually abusive?—until we begin to wonder whether such women deserve their fates at all, no matter what we think they did. To suggest that a woman doesn’t deserve punishment for something, anything, is a slyly radical move even now; DuMaurier made it in 1951.

Many thanks to Poppy Stimpson at Virago for the review copy. My Cousin Rachel was published as a Virago Modern Classic on 5 May.

September Superlatives

A better gender balance this month, and less unswervingly miserable! I’ve been much more thoughtful about choosing what I want to read and when, paying attention to my moods and trying not to overwhelm myself with one genre or tone. I’ve been terrible at reviewing, though, again. This is a shame, because it’s not like I don’t have tons of ideas about these books; I just convince myself I haven’t got the time to do them justice. I should just write some stuff, instead, and see what happens.

most unabashedly comforting: Without a doubt, the month’s first selection, Winifred Watson’s 1930s novel Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day. I desperately needed something that wasn’t crazy violent/dark/misogynistic/sorrowful/bittersweet, since almost everything that I read in August was at least one of those things. Miss Pettigrew was a perfect solution. The story of a poor spinster who finally blossoms when her temp agency accidentally gives her an assignment with a flighty nightclub singer named Delysia LaFosse, it’s got enough wit and sauce not to be blandly boring (there’s cocaine and premarital sex!), but nothing is actually, you know, upsetting, and everything ends well. There are also some really affecting, poignant pieces of interior dialogue, as Miss Pettigrew talks herself into enjoying life for once. I loved it.

most unexpectedly profound: “Unexpectedly” is a bit of a fudge here, because you can expect sly profundity in anything Terry Pratchett ever wrote. Nonetheless, Going Postal, which features an ex-con man glorying in the birth name of Moist von Lipwig being made to take over the running of the Ankh Morpork Post Office, pushes quite a few buttons, and pushes them with hilarity and wit. As always, the existence of golems—creatures to whom words are supremely important, because without them they wouldn’t function, although it’s also by words that they’re enslaved—threw up a good deal of moral conundrum, as did the revelation that the battle to be waged isn’t between old ways and new tech, but between giving a shit about people and giving a shit about money. It’s not as dark as some of the late City Watch books, but it’s seriously fun.

The other book that fits this description from this month is Bernardine Evaristo’s novel Mr Loverman, about an eighty-four-year-old Anglo-Caribbean grandfather who decides to finally come out as gay, ending his hopeless, loveless marriage of fifty years. Evaristo is a novelist I’d heard of, but never read, and this novel won one of the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prizes in 2014. It’s full of humour, and Barry, her protagonist, is certainly no victim; his attitudes are decidedly un-PC and he’s as judgmental as they come. Yet he’s also sympathetic, as we discover what gets sacrificed when you spend your whole life living an untruth. There’s a gravitas to this book that’s belied by its transparent prose; you can read it in a day, but it certainly won’t leave you for a while longer.

most disturbing: Penelope Mortimer (wife of John Mortimer, who gave the world the Rumpole novels) wrote a semi-autobiographical book called The Pumpkin Eater, about the breakdown of a marriage. Her protagonist, Mrs Armitage (we never learn her first name), is married four times by the age of thirty and mother of an ever-growing brood of children. The subtexts of infidelity, control, power dynamics and obsession made me think of it as a cross between James Salter’s Light Years and Ellen Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper. Certainly the most singular fictional woman I’ve encountered for some time.

most thoroughly engrossing world: Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon hooked me without mercy. From a submarine in the North Atlantic to the jungles of Luzon to the Quonset huts of Bletchley Park, not once in over nine hundred pages do you feel as though you’re not fully immersed in everything that’s going on. A dazzlingly intelligent book by a writer who can really, really write (and who is often laugh-out-loud-in-the-queue-for-the-bus funny, which is the true litmus test of literary hilarity.) I plan to read the entirety of his backlist, an honour heretofore reserved in my mind for AS Byatt and Sarah Hall only.

most thought-provoking: China Miéville’s novel Embassytown, about an alien populace, the two-mouthed Ariekei, whose language—or Language—has no referents. There is no way to lie in Language; words don’t represent things, they are the things. From this premise, Miéville spins a world and a plot that follow the implications of that worldview all the way to their conclusions. There are human similes, people who have acted out certain tableaux for the Ariekei in order to enable them to talk about something; there are cloned Ambassadors born and bred to speak Language (it can only be done with two mouths and one consciousness). There is addiction, war, and semiotics. It is one of the most intellectually complex novels I’ve ever read, and Miéville carries it off with very little apparent effort.

oldest friend: Bill Bryson’s majestically funny A Walk In the Woods, a travelogue about attempting to hike the Appalachian Trail with his alcoholic hometown buddy Stephen Katz. It’s partly set in the area I’m from (the Blue Ridge Mountains), and I’ve read it so many times that I know all the jokes, but that’s part of the joy. It’s recently been made into a film, which could be either wonderful or not so.

most topical: After having a guided tour through Mary King’s Close, a sunken medieval alley in Edinburgh, I read Mortal Causes by Ian Rankin, one of his famous detective novels starring DI John Rebus and the city of Edinburgh. Set in the early 1990s, some of the discussions about Scots-Irish religious sectarianism were convoluted and left me rather wishing for an executive summary of some kind, but it was exciting that the murder in the novel takes place in Mary King’s Close and that many of the locations Rankin name-checks were places I had been.

up next: I have about a thousand books which I have promised I will formally review, starting with Kerry Hadley-Pryce’s The Black Country, which I’m halfway through: a poisonous little gem of a novel about a marriage gone badly wrong. I also managed to leave Scotland having acquired six new books, so those are going to have to fit in somewhere…

Sharp Objects, by Gillian Flynn

Sometimes if you let people do things to you, you’re really doing it to them.

Sharp Objects reads a lot like a trial run for Gone Girl. I mean this in the best possible way; Gone Girl is, I remain firmly convinced, a work of genius, and very few writers produce work like that without experimenting a little bit along the way. Reading Flynn’s debut novel, you can see how her interests have developed, how her exploration of uncomfortable (to say the least) subject matter has evolved and matured, and how she’s learned some writerly tricks. Gone Girl is like a shirt woven in one piece, top to bottom; in Sharp Objects, you can see the seams. But hell, it’s absorbing, it’s terrifying, and even with its seams showing, it’s very, very well-written. Even if Flynn had never written her third novel, this one would have secured her a reputation. It won the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award from the Crime Writers’ Association, so other people agree with me on this.

Camille Preaker, our protagonist, is a hard-bitten newspaper journalist from Chicago whose editor sends her back to her hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri, to cover a story that might be their last hope to turn their ailing paper around: two little girls have been abducted. One was found strangled with all of her teeth pulled out; the other is still missing. Camille, like all hard-bitten reporters and/or detectives and/or small-town refugees, has an unpleasant past, and returning to Wind Gap brings it all back: the death of her younger sister, her inability to ever win her mother’s love, the rampant alcoholism, sexual abuse and mental illness that seethes in tiny communities when they refuse to admit to imperfection. Meanwhile, the second little girl turns up dead—also strangled and with all her teeth pulled out—and Camille’s thirteen-year-old half-sister, Amma, seems to have the whole town under her (disturbingly sexualized) sway. Can Camille, with Kansas City detective Richard Willis, find a murderer at the heart of small-town life, or will her demons ruin her first?

Go on, guess.

The identity of the murderer isn’t really the point in Sharp Objects, though; I’d guessed it (and the twist, I’m proud to say) about seventy-five pages in. I don’t think Flynn is that interested in the tension of the chase, although she executes that tension well enough. The main characteristic of the book is its absolutely obsessive interest in power, and especially the varieties of power that are available to women—and girls—in a deeply misogynistic environment. Gang rape is not uncommon at Wind Gap high school parties, but no one recognizes it as such; middle school girls frequently offer less popular classmates to groups of older boys. Amma, whose alarmingly adult body is one of her defining features, speaks the header quote; at thirteen, she’s already fully assimilated the power inherent in submission. Unlike most of the other girls in Wind Gap, though, she’s not content simply to submit. Amma’s instinct to dominate and to damage is presented as an inexplicable evil; “What if you hurt,” she asks Camille,

because it feels so good? Like you have a tingling, like someone left a switch on in your body. And nothing can turn that switch off except hurting [someone else]. What does that mean?”

All of the women who hurt in Sharp Objects hurt other women. It never occurs to any of them that the cruel, contradictory, impossible demands they make of each other are assimilated simulacra of male priorities, male wants. They are so embedded in the system that stunts them that they can only target individuals who are as deeply helpless as they are; you couldn’t ask for a more perfect fictional representation of the Panopticon phemenon. It’s this, more than anything else, which really disturbed me while reading: you have to ask yourself whether the book, as well as its characters and setting, is misogynistic. Camille becomes furious at Richard Willis when he calls the gang rapes by name: “And sometimes,” she tells him,

drunk women aren’t raped; they just make stupid choices—and to say we deserve special treatment when we’re drunk because we’re women, to say we need to be looked after, I find offensive.”

Later, in an internal monologue, she muses,

I was never really on my side in any argument. I liked the Old Testament spitefulness of the phrase got what she deserved. Some women do.

The first comment goes against everything I have spent my adolescence and early adulthood learning: that you cannot consent while you are drunk, that you cannot consent if underage. Camille’s understanding of feminism, too, is fundamentally flawed: not having sex with drunken middle-schoolers is not giving them “special treatment”. It’s behaving with the understanding that they’re human children, instead of insensate vaginas.

Fortunately, I came to the conclusion that Flynn as an author, and Sharp Objects as a text, do not share Camille’s or Wind Gap’s convictions about female behaviour and what women can “expect”—or at least, they don’t want to. The ending of the book has Camille asking herself how much of her behaviour is due to a true sense of compassion, and how much of it is a legacy from her deeply disturbed mother, Adora. (I won’t elaborate for fear of spoilers, but if you read it, you’ll see what I mean.) “Lately”, she concludes, “I’ve been leaning towards kindness.” The reader wants, truly wants, to lean that way, too. It’s both Flynn’s strength and her weakness to have given us a portrait of darkness so convincing that that final sentence rings a little hollow.