Baileys Prize Longlist Reading 3: McBride

Being a series of short reviews of the Bailey’s Prize longlisted titles I hadn’t read before the announcement. These are mostly hack-jobs, consisting of extrapolations of my reading notes. Luckily I tend to make notes in full sentences. Spoilers ahead.

41no-ogymgl-_sy344_bo1204203200_The Lesser Bohemians, by Eimear McBride

The definitive characteristic of The Lesser Bohemians is its style. You cannot extricate anything about this book from the way in which it is told; as in the most elegant biological structures, form equals function. The story is basic: Eily, an eighteen-year-old drama student, fetches up in London from Ireland (which, in the 1990s, doesn’t seem to have been a fun place to grow up). Over the course of her first year in drama school, she will meet and fall in love with a man twenty years her senior. Gradually, she will come to learn his past—which is, to say the least, disturbing—and he will come to learn hers, which is likewise. The development of their relationship is the central interest of the book: McBride is not even as interested in whether they will stay together or not as she is in charting the ways that this relationship enables Eily’s meteoric journey towards emotional maturity.

This is especially pleasing because it means that a book which spends a good portion of its middle section detailing the personal struggle of a male character—Eily’s lover Stephen—ultimately refuses to grant that struggle primacy. We are interested in Stephen’s redemption, of course, but we’re mainly interested in it for the effect it has on Eily. It’s a nice inversion of tropes that usually have women suffering in order to develop a male character; McBride isn’t so crass a writer as to simply gender-flip the trope, but the shape we get is of a man’s personal hell being definitive for a woman’s emotional development, and not just because it traumatises her.

To get to the middle section, though, you have to get through the first ninety pages, and to get through those, you have to warm to the style. The phrase “stream of consciousness” generally makes me want to kick something (all articulation is artificial to an extent! You can’t write a stream of consciousness by definition! And usually what people mean by this phrase is just “unpunctuated”!), but McBride comes close: her narrative lens is a tight, first-person one, and Eily’s voice comes to us in fits and starts, sentence fragments, ungrammatical, present tense. It’s a much truer way of portraying the experience of thought and perception, for my money, than (to take one example) the unbroken monologue that Joyce gives Molly Bloom in Ulysses. It lays the book open to charges of preciousness, I suppose, but McBride manages here to be less overtly poetic than in her debut, A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, and so the voice doesn’t feel contrived. (It is also particularly well suited to a story about first love: the heart-pounding, the panic of jealousy, the grimness of the morning after a fight, all are rendered completely naturally in that slightly jerky present tense.) The test of a gimmick is whether it works, and this does. Once you realise that you’re not being narrated to, but instead are watching someone think, you know how to read it. (And we are very used to being narrated to, I admit. Having to do hard work as a contemporary reader, even as a reader of literary fiction, is fairly unusual.)

It does make me wonder where McBride will go next. To have written two novels in this style leaves her with a choice: write a third just like it, and become calcified in the public imagination as a one-trick pony in the style department, or write a third that differs from it wildly, and run the risk of disappointing the people who adore her work. Given the number of rejections her debut received, and how she persevered with it, though, I think she’s probably up to the challenge.

The remaining question is: would I shortlist this? The answer is that it depends heavily on how the rest of the longlist reading goes. I enjoyed it much more than I expected to, I think its stylistic choices work extremely well given the material, and I was hugely impressed by the way that McBride handles questions of love and trust: in the hands of a lesser writer this story could be 50-Shades-adjacent, but with McBride it isn’t; it is always about two people navigating the past inside the present, with varying degrees of success. But at the same time, for me, it lacks the visceral punch of Do Not Say We Have Nothing and The Power, and the gobsmacking ambition of The Sport of Kings, and the economical honesty of First Love (all on my tentative personal shortlist so far). The Lesser Bohemians might well make the grade if nothing else is better—which sounds like damning with faint praise, but believe me, whether it makes the personal (or the shadow panel’s) shortlist or not, it’s worth your time.

The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist is announced on 3 April. For more commentary, see the rest of the Shadow Panel: Naomi, Antonia, Meera and Eric. The Lesser Bohemians is published by Faber & Faber, and is available in hardback.

February Superlatives

February! I started working at Heywood Hill. I followed the Jhalak Prize long list. In a perhaps not shocking turn of events, my to-read list grew significantly. I am beginning to worry about bookshelf space again. Not as many books this month—only fourteen update: fifteen! I forgot one!—but in a month as short as February, that’s a book every two days, which isn’t bad at all.

most whimsical: Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, the tale of a Danish woman’s travails in learning to drive as an adult, by Dorthe Nors. Poor Sonja; somehow her life has become something she never intended it to be, but she doesn’t know where she went wrong. It’s a fairly plotless book, but I think that suits its subject matter.

best short stories for people who don’t like short stories: Rick Bass’s beautiful, monumental collection from Pushkin Press, For A Little While. Bass writes stories the way Maxine Beneba Clarke does: they seem like miniature novels, tiny but perfectly formed and evocative, little jewels of description and characterisation. He writes like a dream on the sentence level, and his interest in the lost or confused people of the world is sincere and generous and kind. This collection is a marvel.

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THIS COVER. I DIE.

most thoroughly engrossing world: The Ghana/America splitscreen through the ages that you get in Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing. Starting with two estranged sisters in eighteenth-century Asanteland, the novel follows each woman’s descendants through history. Comparing the lives of the Ghanaian branch of the family to the American branch over the centuries is fascinating—such a tiny difference to start with, but such a huge gulf in only a few years’ time—and the ending is crazy satisfying without being completely unrealistic.

so close! so close!: Irenosen Okojie’s short story collection Speak Gigantular, which has fantastic, surreal ideas rendered in a highly original way, but which is let down by a general failure on her publisher’s part to check for things like typos. It’s an amazing collection, and it could be even better with a little attention to detail.

most skillfully written: This is a tough one to award elsewhere while Rick Bass’s stories are on the list, but Kei Miller’s prose in Augustown is so controlled, so subtle, so confident in itself, that from the very first page you can feel yourself relaxing, knowing you’re in good hands. It’s a lovely feeling to have when you open a book, that total trust in the writer’s ability.

best book to give someone who “doesn’t read YA”: Patrice Lawrence’s novel Orangeboy, which is significantly better than many adult novels. Marlon’s teenaged attempts to protect his family are rendered with such sympathy and lack of judgmentalism, I think it’s a book a lot of young people (and those who work with them) should be reading.

most fascinating: Not a shadow of a doubt here: Black and British, David Olusoga’s overview of black British history. I guarantee that you will learn something new from it, and that this new thing will be, moreover, wildly intriguing and contradictory to the history you remember from school.

most accidentally forgotten: Do not make assumptions about the fact that, in the first version of this post, I forgot Shappi Khorsandi’s Nina Is Not OK! It’s about a teenager who slowly comes to terms with the fact that, like her beloved and now dead father, she is an alcoholic. Nina’s situation is complicated by a trauma that happens at the beginning of the book and which she must acknowledge before she can begin to handle her alcoholism. Khorsandi is bitingly funny, sad, spirited, and never sentimental. I loved it.

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most grudgingly liked: I do not want to like the work of Paul Kingsnorth. It subscribes to a philosophy of back-to-nature manhood, unfettered by things like infants or women, that I find at best eye-roll-worthy, at worst destructive and juvenile. But his writing is none of these things; it is evocative, assured, and bold. His second novel, Beast, is about a man slowly unravelling on what seems to be Dartmoor. It’s short and very impressive.

best comfort read: The Uncommon Reader, Alan Bennett’s charming fable about what might happen if the Queen took up reading for pleasure. It’s so tiny and cute that you can read it in an hour, then go about the rest of your day with a small smile on your face. I particularly like the way Bennett characterises the Duke of Edinburgh—so succinct, so efficient!—through his curmudgeonly dialogue.

best reread: So, guys… whisper it. I didn’t really get all the love for The Essex Serpent when it came out. I mean, I liked the book, I thought the landscape and food descriptions were gorgeous, Perry’s writing is lush. But I also thought her first book hung together better, was a more perfect object, and I didn’t feel the same adoration for Cora and Will that lots of people seemed to. They were fine. I just didn’t love them. Then I read it again, really really slowly, over the course of about six weeks—mostly on my phone during five-minute bathroom breaks at the restaurant—and finished it this weekend, and although I still don’t feel fanatical about it, I think I understand it better.

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most serviceable thriller: I read William Shaw’s Kent-set murder mystery, The Birdwatcher, because it’s gotten a lot of love from people at work and it seemed worth checking out. It was perfectly acceptable, but my benchmark for thrillers/mysteries is now Tana French. Not many people can meet that standard—certainly not on the qualities of dialogue, descriptive writing and psychological depth—so, while Shaw’s book was a pretty solid example of the genre, and gripping as hell, it won’t knock French from her pedestal.

most evocative: Days Without End, Sebastian Barry’s Costa Award-winning novel about nineteenth-century Irish-American soldiers John Cole and Thomas McNulty: best friends, brothers-in-arms, lovers. The way that Barry allows their relationship its proper dignity, the way that he balances maternal feeling with military prowess in the character of McNulty, the way that he writes about the American West, is both roughly beautiful and incredibly elegant. It reminded me a lot of True History of the Kelly Gang.

best holiday reading: My dilemma about what to take on a four-day trip to France was solved by my friend Helen, who recommended Zadie Smith’s Swing Time. It’s a long and thoughtful novel but it never fails to be interesting – on dance and the body, on opportunity, on girls and friendship and hateship and growing up, on selfishness and revenge. I know it’s had mixed reviews, but me, I really liked it.

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most pleasant surprise: Anthony Horowitz’s reboot of the Sherlock Holmes universe, The House of Silk. I bought it on my phone mostly because it was 99p, and read it because I didn’t fancy anything too involved given my levels of sleep-deprivation at the time. It turned out to be a pretty gripping and not ill-written book; maybe a little mannered, but then so is Conan Doyle, and Horowitz always has a sense of humour about the project. The dénouement could conceivably lay the book open to charges of homophobia, but I think Horowitz is aiming less at closeted men and more at men who exploit the powerless. Anyway, I enjoyed it.

up next: Currently reading Sand, another crime novel (I think I’m becoming old) by a German author called Wolfgang Herrndorf. It’s set in Morocco circa 1972 and extremely diffuse; only now, at 100+ pages in, do I feel I have a sense of what’s going on. Review to follow.

Golden Hill, by Francis Spufford

By morning, the news was all around town that a stranger had arrived with a fortune in his pocket.

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In an attempt both to write about more of the books I read—not just the ones I get for free off of publishers—and to make that process less intimidating, I’m experimenting with different ways of posting, e.g. not always my usual essay. I like the idea of “journaling” about a book; in particular, books that have been released for a while don’t, I think, need to be “reviewed” as much as they simply need to be considered. As always, feedback appreciated.

I am not at all sure that I have read a more purely enjoyable book this year than Golden Hill. It ticks many of my personal-preference boxes: set in the eighteenth century (New York City, 1746), exploring finance and trade and the intersection of the political with the personal. I was hoping that it would be a bit like Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Trilogy. And in many ways, there were similarities, but Spufford is doing something with the material that is totally his own, and with such confidence in his plot and such exuberant yet finely controlled language that I smiled more times than I could count. One of 2016’s most unalloyed reading highlights; I keep trying to think of reasons to dislike it, and am unable to come up with any.

Further to journaling, here is some elaboration on the reasons that I did like it:

  • Its echoes of David Simple/Tom Jones/Roderick Random (eighteenth-century English picaresque novels) are entirely intentional. David Simple in particular is referred to repeatedly, explicitly, throughout the text; I like that Spufford has done his homework. I also like how good-humoured he is about these novels, and about novels in general, often in quite a meta way. For instance: his protagonist is Richard Smith, who appears in New York with an order for a thousand pounds in his pocket. Smith falls in love with his banker’s prickly eldest daughter Tabitha. At a dinner one night, Tabitha’s sister Flora, who loves novels, asks Smith to pass her his copy of David Simple. He hands it to Tabitha to pass down the table. Mistake: Tabitha is a self-professed hater of novels (though she is by far the brightest woman Smith meets). She hurls it down the table in disgust, where it lands in a soup bowl and is fished out by another dinner guest.
  • It is intensely atmospheric; more specifically, it evokes in great detail just how provincial colonial New York was. In 1746 there was still a strong Dutch presence there; Richard meets the influential Van Loons, and a powerful judge drives in to town from “his farm in the Bouwerij” (the Bowery). There are just enough surprising touches like that—moments where Spufford’s use of the old name for a place meets my awareness of our contemporary name for the same place—to make the setting seem both utterly familiar and utterly alien, and yet it never becomes an end in itself, it never yanks you out of the story. I spent several pages eagerly following Smith’s progress up a semi-rural road referred to as the Broad Way. It took me quite a long time to work out that this was, of course, what the famous Broadway had been in 1746.
  • Language and syntax are just antiquated enough to be interesting and believable, without being actual pastiche. Through various plot twists (again paralleling the picaresque tendencies of eighteenth-century novels), Smith is imprisoned; his letter to his father is both painfully poignant to read, and a sheer delight because of how perfectly it adheres to the style of the time. The main body of the narrative doesn’t use archaisms very often; instead, the structure of the sentences and judicious word choices (“I am become”, “a civil attention”) keeps the historical flavour correct.
  • The male gaze is repeatedly flipped, challenged or interrogated. Smith is, at one point, seduced by an “aging” (she’s forty-six) actress in a bathhouse; the narrator, delightfully, breaks off mid-sentence (this is another eighteenth-century thing, though people forget it: narrators that directly address, manipulate, and often annoy, the reader). “But why always Smith?” we are asked. “Was it necessarily true, that because she seemed to him the ripe, round, straightforward antidote to the complications of his hopes, the scene looked as simple through her eyes? Was she not taking the greater risk here? Did she not have to set aside cautions, sorrows, hopes, fears, loyalties, to permit herself the role of the plump and ready siren in the steam-room? …Should we not, at least, pay a little attention to [her] view of him?” It’s good; it maintains that lightness of touch that I mentioned earlier in relation to the way novels are discussed, though the point is serious. Plus, the late revelation of who, exactly, is narrating this story flips much of what we’ve seen and been told over the past 300 pages, which I very much enjoyed.
  • Related to the above, I think, is the fact that Spufford addresses homosexuality, slavery and women sensitively but, broadly, within the mindset of the times. He writes, for instance, a relationship between an African slave and a young white male secretary for the Governor, and picks his way delicately but confidently over and around the many faultlines of power and secrecy that their relationship implies. When Smith finds out, he tells the secretary—Septimus, one of his few friends in New York—that he does not think the less of him for sleeping with a man, or even for sleeping with a black man, but “for taking your pleasure where there is no possibility of it being refused.” (The relationship is consensual, but for Spufford to characterise Smith by making that his major concern is efficient to the point of mastery.) Smith’s relationship with Tabitha is equally complicated by the fact that she is what Kenneth Clarke would call “a bloody difficult woman”. Although Smith is attracted to her—and although he is also a highly unusual man—he has to devise his own script for interacting with her; his society and upbringing have given him one that is too limited to be helpful. In devising that independent script, he frequently makes mistakes, sometimes approaching the unforgivable, and Tabitha likewise. Spufford doesn’t shy away from that, which I think is a mark of real emotional honesty in a writer.
  • That emotional honesty leads to another thing: he’s not afraid to make bold plot choices. A major character dies three-quarters of the way through the book. Smith is in jail, then out of it, then in again. The first chapter is hardly over before he’s had his order for a thousand pounds stolen from his hands. And the ending—when we finally learn why he is in New York, where the money is from, and what he has been charged to do with it—is both brilliantly unexpected and makes perfect sense.

I’m so glad this book is in paperback now. I want everyone to read it. It would make an ideal Christmas holiday escape: cracking plot (you’ll be up past midnight reading) meets the vivacious clarity of truly excellent writing. It’s on my shelf of Books To Save From Fire now; I can’t praise it more highly.

Golden Hill is published by Faber and Faber.

Anatomy of a Soldier, by Harry Parker

I functioned.

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That line, “I functioned”, is spoken by a bomb. It’s just one of the forty-five different objects that narrate this novel, swapping off chapters to create a picture of British army life in Afghanistan that one journalist has already described as “literary cubism”. It’s an appropriate word, I think, for its sense of fractured perspective: these objects frame the experience of the protagonist, Captain Tom Barnes, but whenever the same event is recounted from another point of view, the reader gets a broader sense of how causes and effects tie into each other. Like the conflict itself, the weeks that the novel covers are complicated. There’s the fear and boredom of patrolling; there’s the explosion itself; there’s Barnes’s recovery in an English hospital; and there’s also another narrative strand that belongs to Afghan locals, both the insurgents and those who fear them.

Each object narrates in the first person. It’s a huge gamble, the kind of strategy that makes you think uneasily of your high-school creative writing class. Pleasingly, it actually works here. Parker has said that he set rules for himself while writing, including one that specified an object could only “know” what someone was thinking if that character was touching them. That minimizes the inherent silliness of a telepathic camp bed (or body armour, or snowflake), and instead creates an atmosphere where it seems entirely natural that a piece of equipment being used by a soldier should enter into some kind of emotional partnership with them. In one scene, Barnes crouches in a ditch with his platoon and experiences the strongest sense of connection in the book; the way that men have to work together, and tools have to work with men, during warfare makes such connection plausible. When your life relies on the proper functioning of your helmet mike, you have a relationship with that object; why shouldn’t it, for its part, have a relationship with you?

One obvious reason why not is the charge of sentimentality, of which, thank God, there is none. This is the other clever aspect of narrating a war novel through the inanimate; a flag does not, in and of itself, have a philosophical mind, although the eventual fate of a flag can (and does) make a philosophical point. In all war novels narrated by humans, an evaluation of the morality of war enters the picture at some point. It must, because non-sociopaths can’t do anything for very long without wondering whether it’s the right thing or not. By using objects, which have no sense of morality, Parker avoids having to either denounce the war or praise it, which makes the novel far less preachy than it might have been. It’s also a canny move for a man whose father is the former deputy NATO commander in Afghanistan, and whose own Army career follow his protagonist’s closely.

If Parker makes any moral or political statement at all, it is in the inclusion of the insurgents. We hear from objects around the doomed boy Latif, his former best friend Faridun Hhan, Faridun’s father, who assists the soldiers and fears for his family’s safety , and Aktar, the leader of the provincial insurgency. A scene where Barnes enters the Hhan compound and offers money to help rebuild the school is given piquancy by the fact that we know the Hhans are under the eye of Aktar and his men: they’ve already threatened to cut off the head of the daughter, Lalma. And the appeal of the insurgency is poignantly expressed by a chapter told from the point of view of a pair of knockoff Nikes, which young Latif purchases with his first paycheck from Aktar. They’re pristine and they’re incredibly cool–never underestimate the power of cool to a seventeen-year-old–and there’s no way  he could have afforded them working as an agricultural laborer in the province. I’m not as convinced by Parker’s portrait of the higher-ups; perhaps it just takes more time and space than he had to explore what makes a man believe that IEDs are the best way to achieve his (vague) ends.

Although I want to call it a stylistic triumph for what it does with its narrating voices, I can’t quite, because there’s a certain clunkiness to the sentences. Parker has a habit of linking independent clauses together with the word “and”, which is unnecessary; you can see that he was possibly inspired by the polysyndeton of Hemingway and Cormac McCarthy, but even those chaps don’t always pull it off. McCarthy, in particular, only manages it because his sentences are perfectly balanced, as though he’s sung them out loud to himself a dozen times. Parker hasn’t; the effect, instead of being hypnotic, is frequently sing-song. Sometimes, it’s actually nonsensical:

He returned home and expected that Hassan’s men had visited. [pg 216]

I am a communications platform and information bounced through me. [pg 238]

He hated this, and he stretched his fingertips into the hole he’d created. [pg 280]

None of these independent clauses need to be yoked together like this. In the first sentence, the grammatical implication is that Faridun’s “expecting” is accomplished after he returns home, much like “He returned home and boiled the kettle”. But in fact, his expectation occurs while he is on his way home. The “and” creates a false chronology. In the second sentence, the two verbs, “am” and “bounced”, are in different tenses—fine if they weren’t linked by that “and”. In the third, you expect the sentence to read something like “He hated this, he thought, and he stretched…” But instead, the distance from “hating” (an abstract action) and “stretching” (a concrete one) is mediated only by the comma and “and”. It’s slightly more defensible than the previous two sentences, but it disorients. It’s a little surprising that no one at Faber caught this; these are just three examples of a tendency that runs through the whole book, start to finish.

The other tactic Parker adopts that can go both ways is a lack of specificity in the characterisation and the dialogue. You get a decent sense of who Barnes is when you’re with him in Afghanistan, but he could still be almost any halfway-decent officer, capable in command but emotionally torn. Sometimes the vagueness of the dialogue works brilliantly. In a patrol base, conversation probably doesn’t vary all that much, and the brief exchanges that we’re privy to between Barnes and his colleagues are smile-inducing, silly, brotherly. Recovering in England, though, Barnes becomes more of a cipher. His sorrow and shame and helplessness are Everyman traits, which on the one hand means he’s relatable, but on the other hand means he doesn’t feel individuated. The dialogue, too, is oddly reliant on names: he calls his brother “David” , his dad “Dad”, and his mum “Mum”, far more frequently than any actual person would. Likewise, they nearly always address him directly as “Tom”. I think authors do this in order to create a sense of emotional intensity, which is a perfectly legitimate goal; but to use someone’s name is more intimate than you realise. Imagine addressing your sibling or parent or partner by name every three sentences. They’d think you were patronising them, or trying to sell them something.

That said, what Parker has achieved is immense: a book about a highly emotive subject that has a greater claim to objectivity than any of its peers that I can think of. He’s tackled Army life, but, just as importantly, the physical agony and emotional strain of rehabilitation. It’s a brave, bold thing to want to write about, and to choose this kaleidoscopic strategy is bold, too. I suspect that stylistic infelicities will be brushed over in broadsheet reviews, and, to be honest, I can’t say I’ll blame the reviewers. Parker earns praise through sheer technical audacity; in this case, that really is enough.

My copy of this came from the pre-pub pile at work, but if it hadn’t, it would’ve come from Kate McQuaid at Faber. Anatomy of a Soldier was published in the UK on 25 February.

There ain’t no party like a book launch party

(Title quote stolen shamelessly from the deathless anthem “S Club Party”, which had the distinction of being my favourite song for about two weeks when I was eight or so.)

I haven’t been around here much recently. Sorry. Easter holidays came and went, and I was in Hampshire/West Sussex with the Revered Ancestors, dealing with their ridiculous parish organ and seeing the gorgeous, elegant flower arrangements in the church and eating roast chicken. Then I was in London, seeing friends and going on a houseboat and drinking outrageously priced cocktails. Sometimes when you’re happy you don’t want to spend any time in front of a screen. Who knew, eh?

Last week, though, as a result of Quadrapheme’s growing profile and some fabulously nice publicists, I was at two book launch events—two! My first two, so I was both wickedly nervous and wasn’t quite sure what to wear. The first was in the top room of a pub in Farringdon. I was meant to be meeting one of Quadrapheme’s ace reviewers, the erudite and charming Martin Cornwell, outside the venue, so that we could go in together (there’s nothing less fun than entering, alone, a party where you only know one other person). That night I was staying at the Duchess’s house in North London, but she was tired out from our boating exertions earlier that day (can’t say I blame her; locks are hard work.) After some deliberation, I put on a black sleeveless dress, black flats, and lipstick, and wended my way to Farringdon.  (Though not before having the following conversation: “Okay, does it look like I have my shit together?” “Yeah. It’s kind of scary, actually.” “Good.”) Brilliantly, I turned the wrong way out of the station and walked for ten minutes in the opposite direction to the pub; by the time I worked out my mistake, the event was about to start. I hailed a cab from the street—something I’ve never done before in my life; it was rather exciting and professional-feeling—and texted Martin with apologies. He was waiting outside for his friend in any case, so we had ten minutes to kill before going in. His friend turned out to also be about six feet tall, so I spent most of the evening craning upwards.

The event itself was for a literary thriller called Orient, by the American arts journalist Christopher Bollen. Martin had read it, and will be reviewing it in Quadrapheme, but I hadn’t, so swiped a free copy from the mantelpiece as I was leaving. It really is good. Set in a tiny village on the tip of Long Island, it explores gentrification, small-town resentment and pettiness, and the New York art world, in a way that makes you both fascinated and repulsed. You wouldn’t want to meet any of the characters, really, with the possible exception of young Mills, the nineteen-year-old foster kid on whom the murders (there are lots of those) are pinned. It might give you an idea of how compelling I found it to say that it’s about six hundred pages long, and I finished it in two days. Stay tuned for Martin’s review! Also, although these things shouldn’t matter, the author is lovely. I was introduced to Christopher Bollen near the end of the event, and he immediately corralled me by the elbow, took me over to the wine table, and began to talk with great enthusiasm about his online Scrabble habit, which has, apparently, turned into an online chess habit. When I told him I played chess (I do, but I lose most of the time), he cried, “Well, you should play me!” Despite suspecting that he wouldn’t remember the conversation the next morning—there really was a lot of wine floating around—it was thoroughly charming.

The second event wasn’t a launch per se, but it was the only event that Sarah Hall is doing in London to promote her new novel, The Wolf Border. I absolutely loved the book, and her publicist at Faber was kind enough to send me two comps tickets to an “in conversation with” that she was doing at Foyles on Tuesday night. Since Darcy is from Cumbria, and the novel is set there (plus it’s Hall’s home county), he was my plus-one. Transport woes also stymied my arrival to this one: the coach from Oxford was badly delayed leaving, and when I finally got to the Central line, it was to discover that trains aren’t stopping at Tottenham Court Road all the way through 2015. Trying to get a taxi from Oxford Circus was a bust, too, since half of Oxford Street is shut to taxis due to Crossrail construction. My taxi driver only told me this after I’d gotten in. I swore a lot, and commiserated with him on all the fares he was losing as a result. He dropped me about two blocks from Tottenham Court Road and refused to let me pay him, which was rather kind. I practically sprinted to Foyles, and, panting, presented myself twenty minutes late to the front desk bookseller, who informed me that the event was on the sixth floor. I’m not proud of the fact that I then sighed, “Oh, fuuuuuck me”, although discovering the lifts improved my mood a bit.

After some rather embarrassing peering-about for Darcy, who had saved a seat for me but had then sat directly behind a large bank of A/V equipment, making him difficult to find, I slid into the seat next to him, grinned in what I hoped was an apologetic yet rakish manner, and paid attention to what was happening on stage.

Sarah Hall’s a very interesting human being. She doesn’t do tropes, really, or seem to subscribe to any of the things that people tell you about life experiences. This comes across most profoundly, for me, in the way that she writes sex and relationships. Sex in her books has this inconclusiveness that rings truer than all the myths we’ve ever been told about how “love actually” works. She also has a self-confessed obsession with realism and detail: the research for The Wolf Border involved her acquisition of an enormous encyclopaedia on lupine behaviour, from which, she says, she dropped far too many details into the first draft. (She insisted, however, on keeping the fact that wolves can swim eight miles. It is, admittedly, a pretty great fact.) She’s also wary of giving potted answers, which is absolutely wonderful in an author; there’s no glibness at all, no insincerity, no pomposity. A successful author without pomposity is a magical thing.

She also signed my copies of The Wolf Border and The Beautiful Indifference, a collection of her short stories published in 2011. I barely have any signed books, but the ones I do have—hers, and the entirety of A.S. Byatt’s Frederica Quartet plus Possession—are among my most treasured.

So, there we have it. Networking, wine drinking, question asking, book signing. More fun than an S Club Party any day, methinks.

Meanwhile, Over At Quadrapheme: The Wolf Border, by Sarah Hall

Meanwhile, Over At Quadrapheme is my new way of showcasing the work I do for Quadrapheme: 21st Century Literature. It’s an online literary review for which I’m the managing editor. I also still write reviews. Here’s a taster for my latest, of Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border:

In The Wolf Border (Faber, March 2015) Hall returns to the Cumbrian setting that has served her writing so well in the past. The fictional Earl of Annerdale (a title modeled, clearly, on the real-life Earls of Lonsdale) has pledged his money and substantial private land to be the testing ground for reintroducing grey wolves to the English wilderness. He wants to hire Rachel Caine–a wildlife biologist, Cumbrian by birth, who fled Britain at the earliest opportunity for the vast anonymity of the Chief Joseph Reservation in Idaho–to manage the project. Rachel is, at first, reluctant: she interviews, but rejects the Earl’s offer. Several months later, with the death of her demanding and unconventional mother, she reconsiders and accepts, and the rest of the novel covers her attempts to manage the wolves’ best interests while also navigating the Earl’s personal agenda and her relationship with her own estranged brother.

I absolutely loved it: it’s one of the best novels I’ve read this year, and its exclusion from the Baileys Prize long list is incomprehensible to me. For the rest of the review, click here.