Tench, by Inge Schilperoord

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Tench occupied a curious space in my brain while I was reading it, a space that makes it extremely difficult to review. I accepted it from Pushkin Press’s superb publicist Tabitha Pelly, who has form for sending me things that are both very worthwhile and challenging to sum up. The problem, or one of the problems, is a common one: when someone asks you what you are reading, the follow-up question is usually “What’s it about?” In the case of Tench, the answer is “A paedophile”, which, understandably, tends to dampen any further conversation. And the experience of reading it is not unlike that exchange: it is a very brave, very sad book about a lonely and conflicted man with fatally weak support networks, and as such, it is not the sort of thing that one “enjoys” reading. On the other hand, Schilperoord’s grasp of emotional beats in the soul of someone trying hard to be good and do the right thing is superb, and moving. This book will cut you. That’s a recommendation, I promise.

Inge Schilperoord is a Dutch criminal psychologist, and her experience with men like her protagonist, Jonathan, goes a long way towards explaining why he is such a convincing character. As the book opens, he is being released from prison. Something happened to put him there – something involving the neighbour’s daughter Betsy, who seems to suffer from a developmental disability – but the evidence to keep him there is apparently insufficient, and so he is let go. There isn’t much for him to return to: his mother is a well-meaning provincial naif who suffers from asthma and needs Jonathan’s care and attention almost every hour of the day. In a way, this suits Jonathan just fine. He creates a strict daily schedule for himself built around his shift at the fish gutting factory, his daily walks with the elderly family dog, Milk, and keeping house for his mother. Built into the schedule are “exercises” from his workbook, designed to help him control his own thoughts and actions.

His days are so regimented that we know from the beginning, with sinking hearts, it can’t last. Just after moving in, Jonathan meets Elke, a prepubescent girl who lives next door with her single mother. Elke is often left alone in her house, and while Jonathan’s been in prison, she’s been walking Milk for his mother. When they meet, disaster is inevitable.

Partly, Tench is an indictment of silence. Jonathan has no one to help him in his efforts to steer clear of Elke because he doesn’t tell his mother anything. He’s not even sure that she knows precisely why he went to prison: she didn’t come to his trial and he has asked his lawyer not to talk to her about the case. For her own part, his mother never tries to find out; there’s something in her son that she doesn’t understand, and though she loves him, she fears that part of him more than she can admit. So she tries to banish Elke from their house, but she doesn’t ask him anything outright, doesn’t discuss prison or the past with him, and is therefore unable to help him change his future. It’s an understandable attitude, but a useless one: pretend it’s not happening and everything will be all right. “That’s fine, son,” she says often, of his coffee-making or his omelette-flipping. These little finenesses can’t make up for the huge not-okay-ness of most of Jonathan’s life, but she tries to make it seem as if they can.

Schilperoord marshals the symbolism of the natural world to emphasise Jonathan’s constant discomfort: the story is set in a freak heat wave, and the tench of the title is a fish – thought by medieval peasants to have healing properties – which Jonathan tries to keep alive in his bedroom aquarium. It becomes the focus of his interactions with Elke, who loves animals and seems to be just as lonely as Jonathan himself, though where she is desperate for his company, he is terrified of hers. Slowly, as the care of the fish becomes their mutual concern, Jonathan’s flimsily constructed self-discipline begins to erode: first he promises himself he won’t allow the girl within a few dozen metres of him, then within five, then within two. He is constantly trying to maintain boundaries, but also constantly self-justifying.

And all the while, the relentless hot weather: humid, oppressive, and omnipresent. It’s a perfect metaphor for Jonathan’s own thoughts. His exercises tell him that these can be unlearned and rebuilt in a more acceptable image, but although he tries, it’s difficult to do the hard work on your own, without an external force holding you accountable. Schilperoord makes very sure that we see that: that we witness him trying, that we witness him backsliding not because he’s an evil kiddie-fiddler but because he’s human, in the same way that an alcoholic might try hard not to drink but end up reaching for a beer because, dammit, they’ve had a bad day.

Throughout the book, the climactic catastrophe looms. Something is bound to happen, but it’s hard to imagine how Schilperoord will engineer it without boxing herself in: either Jonathan gives in to his impulses, in which case the novel holds out no hope for individual goodness or effort at all, or he doesn’t, which, given the amount of time Tench spends destabilising Jonathan’s resolve, seems dramatically unsatisfying. The third option – the one Schilperoord finally takes – avoids these problems, but is tripped up by its sheer unlikeliness. But that, I think, is the danger inherent in writing a story with such high stakes; on one side or the other, melodrama lurks, and the fact that Schilperoord avoids it for as long as she does is impressive.

What this book most reminded me of was Ian Parkinson’s The Beginning of the End, which I reviewed about two years ago. Parkinson too writes from the perspective of an anti-hero whose lack of sympathetic qualities are due not to a Byronic, rebellious nature but to being repellent and heartbreakingly lonely. But Parkinson’s book does not hold out hope, and while Schilperoord’s book doesn’t really either, it feels by the end as though we’ve moved beyond hope. Jonathan has done nothing, but he will probably be punished. In a way, he’ll be safer back in prison – where at least a support system of psychologists and social workers exists – than out in the wide, terrifying world of flat shores and unpredictable children.

(It is also worth reading Alexandra Marzano-Lesnevich’s book The Fact of a Body in conjunction with Tench. Both give windows onto the almost insurmountable difficulties of living with paedophilia in a society where you are more likely to be reviled or ignored than offered help, and onto the painful struggle not to hurt anyone when, to you, it doesn’t even feel like hurt.)

Many thanks to Tabitha Pelly of Pushkin Press for the reading copy. Tench was published in the UK on 27 April 2017.

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.

September Superlatives

September! A thoroughly mixed bag: meteorologically, professionally, literarily. I finished ten books, which is okay, and felt good about eight of them, which is also okay. The air has been getting steadily less warm, although today was the first day I actually felt cold outside. I’ve taken a part-time job in a gastropub round the corner from our flat, which is exciting—they’re giving us training! I’m learning to pull pints and carry three plates at once!—but also, of course, intimidating, and forcing me to rethink myself in a way that will hopefully be healthy (did I ever expect to be working in a pub at this stage of my life? I did not.) The book is coming along steadily; I’m handwriting some of it, which is going better than I thought it would. Roll on October!

least my thing: Unsurprisingly, this accolade goes to Diary of an Oxygen Thief, an anonymously published English translation of a book originally released in Amsterdam in 2006. The foul misogyny I was expecting was mostly replaced by narcissism and alcoholism, so although it could have been much worse, it was still a bit of a chore.

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most delightful: Lolly Willowes, by Sylvia Townsend Warner, a novel about a maiden aunt whose eventual move to the countryside to start her own life is the catalyst for a pact with the devil. I like how gradually the plot moves; we get to know Laura, or “Aunt Lolly”, so well that when the devil eventually does come a-calling (surprisingly late in the book), we care all the more about her happiness.

most evocative: Deborah Levy’s incredible novel Hot Milk, which makes heavy use of symbolism and allegory but which also says “summer” in a way few other novels I’ve read this summer actually have. Set in desert-like Almería, Spain, it deals with hypochondria, sexuality, mothers and daughters, and responsibility. I liked its bizarre unpredictability, loved its woozy prose. I’d be happy if it won the Booker Prize.

most surprisingly enjoyable: I hadn’t expected to dislike Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, but I’d expected to find the politics much more obviously unpalatable. Instead, I found right-wing military philosophy that struck me as more juvenile than malevolent. I think I still prefer the film, mostly for reasons of pacing; the book drags a little.

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warm bath book: Defined either as “one you could read in the bath” or “one that functions like a warm bath”. In this case—Judy Blume’s In the Unlikely Event—both are true. It’s a novel based on the real events that happened in Elizabeth, New Jersey in the 1950s, where three planes crashed en route to Newark airport in the space of three months. There’s plenty of domestic drama too, and although Blume’s prose is occasionally ungainly, it’s ultimately a lovely, life-affirming read that doesn’t shy away from tackling huge questions.

best romp: Obviously, Love and Freindship [sic], a collection of Jane Austen’s juvenilia. It’s so rewarding to see how she developed from her very earliest writings to the work she was producing in her late teens: sharp and witty from the beginning, but the wit gets ever more pointed as she goes on. Lady Susan is a miniature masterpiece. It’s the early stuff, though, like The Beautifull Cassandra and Frederic and Elfrida, that makes me giggle: heroines get rat-arsed on port wine and steal bonnets, men are so useless that they forget who they’re married to. It’s great.

most illuminating: iO Tillett Wright’s memoir, Darling Days, about growing up semi-feral on the Lower East Side. If you’ve ever known anyone who’s had a difficult family life; who’s experienced parental alcohol or drug abuse, who’s grown up “alternative” or who’s been through the juvenile courts system, you need to read this book. It will tell you everything you need to know about the effect it has on a kid, and it will also show you that it is possible for kids to survive and thrive into adulthood even under the craziest of circumstances.

most aptly timed: Not Working, by Lisa Owens, for obvious reasons. Seriously, though, this is a fantastic novel. I was braced for something a bit brittle, a bit vapid or over-privileged. Instead, the sadness, the humour, and the bravado of this book absolutely knocked me out. It’s a beautifully balanced piece of writing; I’ll be keeping a keen eye out for Lisa Owens’s future work.

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most disturbing: Angela Carter is always going to win “most disturbing”, isn’t she? Not necessarily bad disturbing, just…disturbing. You know. Anyway, I read The Magic Toyshop this month, which apes the traditions of Victorian novels (beautiful young orphaned heroine, big bad uncle, mysterious cousin, etc.) and produces, out of material that we think we know, a wholly strange concoction. This book has got atmosphere by the bucket-load; you feel so grounded in its reality, reading it, and yet simultaneously enchanted. My favourite Carter to date, I think.

most disappointing: I hate to say this, but: Michael Hughes’s The Countenance Divine. I was expecting, if not quite Neal Stephenson, at least Stephenson-adjacent, and you can’t really blame me: the plot summary is that, in 1999, a programmer working on a fix for the Y2K bug becomes entangled with a tradition of millennarianism involving Jack the Ripper (in 1888), William Blake (in 1777), and John Milton (in 1666). Sounds phenomenal, no? And yet. The execution is so inconsistent (the sections set in 1999 are written in especially dull tones), and none of the book’s internal logic is really conveyed to the reader. Also, it features what has to be the drippiest Messiah EVER. (Unless the actual Messiah isn’t the character just referred to… Doesn’t change the rest of the book, though.) Oh, and either the Apocalypse in this book actually does rely upon horrific violence against women, or Hughes hasn’t sufficiently explained the reasons a reader should resist this interpretation. Which is such an old, and boring, story.

up next: I’m currently reading Beauty Is a Wound by Eka Kurniawan, an Indonesian writer who’s been compared to Gabriel Garcia Marquez with absolute justice. When I finish it, I’ll review The Story of a Brief Marriage by Anuk Arudpragasam, coming out from Granta this week.