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.

My Cousin Rachel, by Daphne DuMaurier

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

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~~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.