Two Utopias: Thoughts on Walkaway and Naondel

These two books are, on the surface of it, about as different as you can imagine. Walkaway, by Cory Doctorow, is resolutely for adults (with a lot of graphic sex); Naondel, Maria Turtschaninoff’s follow-up to last year’s Maresi, is, despite its girth, a middle-grade YA novel. Walkaway believes in the power of technology to save us; Naondel places its faith in earth magic and the maternal life force. Walkaway is profoundly, almost giddily, optimistic about human nature; Naondel shows us a humanity that is near uniform in its brutality. And yet for all these polarities – sci fi vs. fantasy; adults vs. kids; positivity vs. cynicism – the two books have some striking similarities, and even their differences are illuminating.

9780765392763Both are about the drive, and the overwhelming need, to create utopias. Doctorow opens his book by introducing us to three characters: Hubert “Etcetera” Espinoza, so called because he has nineteen first names; Seth, Hubert’s slightly fratty but basically harmless friend; and Natalie, the scion of a minor branch of Toronto’s wealthy Redwater family. Hubert and Seth meet Natalie at a party (in one of the book’s many delightful coinings, it is a “Communist party”, where enterprising youths use 3D printing and microbial biology to create free dance floors, free speakers, and—crucially—free beer out of “feedstock”, useless industrial leftovers in an abandoned warehouse). At the end of chapter one, the party is crashed by drones directed by the forces of “default” society; one of Natalie’s friends, Billiam, falls fatally from a catwalk; Hubert, Seth and Natalie end up in the house of Natalie’s father, uber-capitalist Jacob Redwater; and the three of them, fueled by Natalie’s disgust over her family’s privileged arrogance and Hubert’s knowledge of other options, choose to “go walkaway”. Apparently, eighty years in the future, this will be a possibility: to join huge communal groups of people who don’t want to live in the wage slavery of late capitalism (where the rulers are not the 1%, but the .001%), and who use advances in 3D printing, network programming, and genetic modification to build lives for themselves.

The other way of living, in this world—the “default” way—is exactly like how we live now, but worse: go into deep hock to acquire degrees that are all but meaningless; reach age sixty-five without ever shaking the word “assistant” from your job title; live in constant terror of eviction or joblessness. Domestic servants in the Redwater household are hired on an ad hoc basis through an app—much in the way that catering and hospitality agencies provide workers now—meaning that the maid or the gardener is rarely the same person twice. It’s not the sort of world that values anyone, other than absolute zillionaires. The appeal of rejecting it is obvious.

34035652Naondel, meanwhile, is set in a country that clearly doesn’t belong to our world but which, judging from linguistics and economy, seems to be an amalgam of Arabic and Japanese culture. (This is a problem in itself, opening the novel up to charges of both exoticising and demonising Eastern cultures and their attitudes towards women. The Big Bad character is a brutal poisoner and rapist named Iskan ak Honta-che, which made me think of nothing so much as the rapey desert warlord in Game of Thrones.) In Karenokoi, very few people are both good and powerful. Power, by definition, corrupts. Turtschaninoff shows us a world where it’s not just the men who are evil, either; Izani, Iskan’s mother, is cold and cruel to her grandsons, while Lehan, the younger sister of a main character, is so infatuated with Iskan that she actually—albeit unknowingly—helps him to victimise another woman.

The whole novel is the foundation story of the Red Abbey on the island of Menos, where the first book, Maresi, was set. In Maresi we saw that kind of utopian, matriarchal society in action, and cheered as it destroyed a threat from outside. In Naondel we see why it’s necessary: the only place for women in Karenokoi is a subservient one. Interestingly, though, Turtschaninoff’s attempts at creating diversity among her characters cause a continuity problem. Several of the women who eventually escape from the dairahesi (harem) of Ohaddin Palace are from other cultures: there’s a woman from a nomadic tribe with strong spiritual connections to the earth, another from a tree-dwelling people who has the power to control others’ dreams. When they escape—as we always know they will—why don’t they make for one of these lands, where women and their powers are revered or at least respected? One suspects that it’s because the mechanics of Turtschaninoff’s plot demand otherwise. They have to settle the island of Menos and establish the Red Abbey; we knew from the moment we opened the book that it would end this way. To make that happen, we get a bit of authorial hand-waving that acknowledges the problem without digging into it, which limits the book’s success.

Anyway. Both of these countries, clearly, are ruled by total bastards. The establishment of a utopia is the only way out of their uncompromising and dehumanising systems. But here Doctorow and Turtschaninoff part ways again. Doctorow’s bastards are, by definition, a minority, and a tiny minority at that. Pretty much everyone whom our hero/-ines meet in walkaway is compassionate, sensible, and positive about their ability to make a difference. They collectively embody the covered-dish principle, which Doctorow explains within the book itself: after a catastrophe, do you go over to your neighbour’s house with a covered dish of food, or a shotgun? If you choose the dish, even a neighbour who chose the shotgun is more likely to put it down and offer you some food in return. If you choose the shotgun, it’s very unlikely that things will end well for anyone. Walkaway is about people who believe fiercely that taking a covered dish is the right thing to do, and who make the right choice most of the time. When an aggressive inhabitant of a walkaway community tries to create a formal hierarchy, he’s stymied because people there simply abandon the place, rather than live under someone again. When police besiege another community near the end of the novel, they’re defeated in part by their own innate goodness: those who are trapped mobilise the Internet to find relatives of the policemen who are also walkaways, then broadcast appeals from police’s siblings, parents, and children, targeted at individual cops. Without fail, this causes them to drop their weapons. You may find this beautiful, or unbelievable, or – as I did – both; but there’s no doubt that it gave me more hope, post-election, post-Brexit, post-Westminster and Stockholm and Syrian gas attack, than anything more overtly political I’ve read in the past year.

Naondel, by contrast, doesn’t allow us to believe in the innate goodness of anyone other than our heroines. They are somewhat complicated, but their morally dubious acts are always implicitly justified: Kabira, the eldest, taunts her mother-in-law with breathtaking cruelty as the old woman lies dying, but she has endured decades of taunts in her turn, and has been denied access to her children. Orseola, the dreamweaver, is exiled from her home for a major social taboo, but her outburst stems from the fact that she is untrained in her craft, and frightened of her own power. Sulani, the warrior, murders people left, right and centre, but she is a warrior and—it’s implied—that’s just what warriors do. Outside of this circle, we actually see very few characters, and the minor ones—like the eunuch guards of the harem—are at best indifferent to the suffering of the women. At worst, they’re either mustache-twirlers (like Iskan, who all but cackles), or—as in the case of Iskan’s other concubines—vain and stupid.

This is largely down to the fact that Turtschaninoff’s gender politics are broad-brush. It makes a certain level of sense. She’s writing for middle school girls, who are just becoming aware of the fact that, yeah, people will judge you for literally anything, and, no, it doesn’t seem to be like that for boys. Unfairness is the engine that drives Naondel—at points I found myself becoming furious—and to be given a book that not only provokes anger, but legitimises it, is a big deal for a twelve-year-old girl. Doctorow’s utopia takes the opposite approach. It is almost post-gender. None of the major characters have long-lasting cishet relationships; they’re all either L, G, B, T, Q, or I, and relationship drama is kept at an absolute minimum. Crucially, cishet identities are most reinforced by people who oppose walkaway culture: by Jimmy, the guy who attempts to create hierarchy in a community by tearing down their best programmer for being female; and by Jacob Redwater, whose wife and daughter live in a world of gilded privilege but almost no real freedom.

I prefer Doctorow’s vision, probably appropriately: I’m an adult, and his gender politics are adult too. Naondel is still a book I’d recommend heartily to middle-grade kids and their parents; it has important things to say. I would just take care to balance it with something like Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness quartet. For all her faults, Pierce at least recognised that women were capable not only of creating their own retreat from the world, but also of engaging with its injustices head on.

Thanks very much to Chrissy at Head of Zeus and Tabitha at Pushkin Press for the review copies. Walkaway will be published in the UK on 25 April; Naondel was published in the UK on 6 April.

 

March Superlatives

In March the Baileys Prize longlist was announced and I started duties as part of the prize’s shadow panel, which involved reading all of the longlisted books I hadn’t already gotten to. This amounted to ten (well, nine and a half; I’d already read part of The Lesser Bohemians), plus some reading for work that included a couple of thrillers, some social realism, and some historical fiction. Overall, it’s been a very good, if exhausting, reading month: eighteen books finished. This is productive even for me.

best thriller: Sand, Wolfgang Herrndorf’s newly released novel that combines the black humour of Greene with the social observation of Ian Fleming, but better written. It’s nasty, funny, irresistibly engaging, confusing, and utterly nihilistic. (review)

best surprise: I read Adam Haslett’s Imagine Me Gone because there was a damaged paperback copy at work that we couldn’t sell or return. I was expecting a basic story about dysfunctional, miserable WASPs. Instead, I got a book and a writer capable of articulating the complex motives behind emotions with such precision that I wanted to underline bits—and I never underline bits. Highly, highly recommended.

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cut nearest to the bone: Polly Clark’s debut novel, Larchfield, is about a young pregnant poet, Dora, who moves with her husband to Helensburgh, a small community in Scotland. W.H. Auden, she learns, used to teach at the local school. When Dora has the baby, a combination of neighbourly malice, loneliness, and loss of personal identity drives her to seek solace in learning about Auden’s experiences in Helensburgh. Curiously, neither working at Mumsnet nor talking to friends with babies has brought home to me as clearly as Larchfield did what a thoroughly frightening, isolating, relentless undertaking motherhood is. It seriously, seriously scared me about having children. (I think there is a longer post in this—in how fiction represents motherhood, and in how that particular thematic obsession in literature by and about women is received by women like me—young, childless, starting to wonder—but I’m leaving it for now.)

solidest thriller: Being the most solid of something is not the same as being the best at something, but Jane Harper’s The Dry is a good example of a crime novel that will please pretty much everyone. It is what people usually mean when they say “well-written”: nothing clunks or stands out; the plot is gory enough to be interesting without relying on the torture porn that seems to be the crime genre’s stock-in-trade these days; the villain is believable, and you don’t see the reveal coming from a mile away. Also, it’s set in a small Australian farming community, which is a fairly unusual setting and gives the book a sense of uniqueness. If you like decent crime, pick it up.

Mantel for the easily distracted: Sarah Dunant’s take on Renaissance Italy and the Borgias, In the Name of the Family. I found that she covers much of the same thematic ground as Mantel does—autocratic power, the role of the church in government, moral compromise in exchange for a measure of safety—but does so with a little more zip to her plotting. Highly recommended. (review)

most meh: I feel bad about saying this. There’s nothing wrong with The Gustav Sonata, Rose Tremain’s Baileys Prize-longlisted novel about a young boy growing up in post-war Switzerland and his lifelong friendship with talented pianist Anton. It just felt aimless. The writing is very lucid and the characterisation sympathetic, but it faded from memory more and more as I compared it to other longlisters. (review)

best Shakespeare rewrite: Hag-Seed, by Margaret Atwood. This is, without a doubt, the most successful installment of the Hogarth Shakespeare project so far, not least because Atwood acknowledges the existence of her source material (The Tempest) within her novel, and thus is allowed to write a book that stands on its own and can explicitly examine The Tempest’s preoccupations. Not Atwood’s best novel, but really good for Shakespeare nerds. (review)

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best reread: I got ill over a weekend and read American Gods by Neil Gaiman all over again, and it was great. It’s still the best of his books, I think (maybe a close contender with Neverwhere; I’d have to read the latter again to decide.) His take on modern gods—the sharp businessman Mr. Wednesday (Odin), the dapper and shrewd Mr. Nancy (Anansi), undertakers Jacquel and Ibis (Egyptian underworld gods Anubis and Thoth)—remains fresh and clever, and he conjures the menace of Americana like no other author I know.

most cute: This is definitely damning with faint praise, I’m afraid. I did like Yewande Omotoso’s The Woman Next Door; her portrayal of two elderly, crotchety neighbour ladies, one white and one black, is irresistibly charming, and she does engage with serious political and historical ideas. But the flavour the book left in my mouth was The Help meets Alexander McCall Smith, where people are mildly chastised for their prejudice but mostly let off the hook, and everything is okay at the end. I wanted more than that. (review)

most intelligent: Pretty much all of the books I read this month were intelligent, so this is kind of a crap category. But Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by Madeleine Thien, engages on such a high level with questions of ethics and art-making and agency in Mao’s China that it leaves much of its competition in the dust. I can’t help feeling a Baileys win would be somehow unfair (it’s already won the Giller, and been Booker Prize-shortlisted; let someone else have a go), but it would be very richly deserved. (review)

hardest punch to the gut: The Power, by Naomi Alderman. Alderman takes a simple premise—what if girls and women had the ability to discharge electricity from their bodies?—and uses it to explore some of the deepest questions about what human civilisation even is. If Thien is interested in the cerebral, Alderman is all about the fundamental. This book shook me. It’s a big deal. (review)

best sex: Unsurprisingly, Eimear McBride’s The Lesser Bohemians. Never have I encountered an author who understands so clearly that sex isn’t interesting because of who put what where, but because of who feels what when, and why. In other words, she maps sex as an emotional experience—and she also explores what sex is like when emotions are missing, and isn’t judgmental about it. (review)

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should have been on the Baileys longlist: For all my days, there are some things I will never understand about prize lists. The omission of Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border in 2015 was one of them; the omission of Danielle Dutton’s Margaret the First this year is another. It’s a short, choppy, odd little novel, just like its subject: Margaret Cavendish, seventeenth-century Duchess of Newcastle and first female science fiction writer in the Western world, as far as we know. I loved it for its utter idiosyncracy—the prose so full of sharp, well-chosen images—for the efficiency with which Dutton sketches Margaret for us (it’s a very short book and by the end of it we know her as we do a dear friend), and for the lack of sentimentality with which she closes it. Seek this out.

most missed opportunity: Little Deaths by Emma Flint is a historical noir that deals with the hideous misogyny of 1960s New York in the context of an investigation into the murders of two children. Flint rouses our fury that the police are so much less interested in really investigating than they are in punishing Ruth Malone, our protagonist, for being separated for her husband and sexually active—but she never makes us feel complicit in that kind of judgment, and if she’d done that, it would have been a more powerful novel. (review)

full marks for ambition: The 700+ page opus from Annie Proulx, Barkskins. Telling the stories of the descendants of René Sel and Charles Duquet from the 1690s to the present day, it also encompasses Manifest Destiny, forest management, racial prejudice, and legacy. It flounders at points, and it’s too damn long, but overall it’s well worth the time. (review)

most classically Womens Prize?: Not that I want to slag off novels about relationships, marriages, infertility, and the staggering hypocrisy of the way society treats men vs. the way it treats women, but this is well-worn ground and exactly the sort of thing the Women’s Prize seems to go for sometimes. Stay With Me, Ayobami Adebayo’s Nigeria-set novel, covers all these points and introduces a bit of melodrama in the form of death and war. It’s good enough but may turn out to be forgettable. (review)

best find: Mick Herron, whose first entry in the Slough House series of spy thrillers, Slow Horses, isn’t just good for a genre novel—it’s good for any kind of novel. Herron is the Tana French of espionage writers: his grasp of the way language flows is absolute, he trusts his readers, he’s funny, his dialogue is on point. Plus the story—group of disgraced spooks find themselves trying to save a boy whose beheading is scheduled to occur live on the Internet in 48 hours—is a cracker, not least because the details of the boy’s abduction are (not to spoil anything for you) so precisely not what you initially think they are. There are three more in the series thus far, and I’m in it for the long haul.

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most unexpectedly genre-bending: Black Water, Louise Doughty’s first book since the acclaimed Apple Tree Yard. It’s sort of a spy thriller, but the protagonist isn’t a spy; it’s sort of a love story, but the love is complicated by reality and history; it’s sort of a historical political novel, but the present day takes up two-thirds of the book. It’s mostly set in Indonesia and its protagonist is part-Indonesian, part-Dutch, which made a nice change from the Anglo-American-centricity of other books with a similar focus. Doughty too knows how to grip a reader, and knows how to construct a sentence that hangs together and transitions nicely to the next sentence. This is just out in paperback, and I’d highly recommend it.

what’s next: Who knows?! I’m posting my personal Baileys Prize shortlist tomorrow, and the shadow panel is posting our (un)official shortlist choices on Sunday. After that, this project will be more or less wrapped up, and I have well over twenty-five books (reading copies; damaged copies we can’t sell that we’re allowed to take home; etc.) waiting to be prioritised, so it’s not like I’m out of choices…

November Superlatives

I’ve sort of forgotten about the end of November. It seems to have been an infinite month, on and on and on, late nights, late shifts, weekends alone or away. It doesn’t feel like the end of anything, especially given that things are only going to get busier at the pub from now until New Year. I’ve read twelve books this month, though—some of them quite long. I won’t lie, there was definitely some post-election comfort reading going on.

most disproportionately affecting: By size, I mean. The playscript for Camilla Whitehill’s play Where Do Little Birds Go (which I reviewed at Litro) takes a quarter of an hour to read, but the play is haunting. A one-woman show that dramatises the experiences of Lucy Fuller, a barmaid kidnapped by the Kray twins in the 1960s, it’s spare, effective, and completely engrossing.

best glimpse of another world: Alfred Russel Wallace’s The Malay Archipelago, his writings about the years he spent in Southeast Asia collecting specimens of birds, insects and mammals. He’s thoughtful and reflective, but still a product of time; reading his ruminations about the “natural character” of the indigenous people is an insight into a mindset that may not be cruel but is still limited. His writings on landscape are beautiful.

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most obscurely disappointing: There is nothing at all wrong with Fiona Melrose’s debut novel Midwinter. I just wanted more… juice, I said to Rebecca when she reviewed it, though I’m not sure that’s the right word. The story of a father and son struggling with the decade-old loss of mother and wife Cessie, it’s a quiet novel about quiet men, whose thoughts Melrose infiltrates and describes fluently. The writing is good. I can’t complain about it. I think it has been the victim of Twitter hype.

most relevant: The Dark Circle, Linda Grant’s new novel, which takes in the beginnings of the NHS and the global social changes of the 1950s, and leaves us believing that the strength of the individual character is our best hope. I reviewed it just after the US election and was comforted by its vision of a new, happy, modern life, despite the constant presence of the past.

warm bath books: The US election was hard. I woke up at eight the morning after, checked my phone, and began to cry, at which point the Chaos made me return to bed. I cried and demanded to be held and cried some more, went back to sleep for a few hours, woke up, cried again. I was very glad I had the day off. I read the second and third of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy: The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. It had been years since I’d read them and I was pleasantly surprised to find that they are not as intellectually antagonistic as I remembered; they are instead profoundly humane books, framing the human mind and human evolution as a source of wonder and power. They are soothing without being mindless or saccharine, and just about perfect.

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weirdest: I think Shena Mackay just writes weird books, and her novel Dunedin, though the first of hers that I’ve read, is probably pretty representative. It’s a split timeframe—the first half is set in nineteenth-century New Zealand; the second half follows the descendants of our original protagonists in southeast London—but the New Zealand bit is short-changed in the word count, and the plot of the south London bit has no obvious centre. She writes the same kind of tactile, color-and-light-filled prose as A.S. Byatt, though, so I liked it anyway.

most potential: This is, I admit, a backhanded compliment indeed. Stephanie Victoire’s debut story collection, The Other World, It Whispers, addresses issues of gender and sexuality through a fantasy lens that is fueled by a huge imagination. I also, unfortunately, found it under-edited and uneven. Swings and roundabouts…

second most potential: Wendy Jones’s collection of interviews with English women about their sex lives (helpfully entitled The Sex Lives of English Women) is, yes, totally fascinating. She has a decent spread of age, class, race and preferences—there is a 19-year-old devout Muslim, a 33-year-old ex-Buddhist nun, a 94-year-old former Land Girl who recalls having sex by the side of the road—but I wanted a little more structure; the chapters read as transcriptions of one half of a conversation, which is a bit disorienting, as it sometimes is in magazine interviews.

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best impulse buy: I’m not sure I’ve ever bought a book on the strength of one review, but I did it for Treasure Palaces: Great Writers Visit Great Museums, an anthology from The Economist whose subtitle tells you all you need to know. The museums range from the Pitt Rivers in Oxford to the Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb, via the Frick Collection, the ABBA Museum, Kelvingrove in Glasgow, and many more. The authors range from Frank Cottrell Boyce to Don Paterson, Ali Smith to Jacqueline Wilson. The essays are elegiac, descriptive, lyrical, hilarious, strange. A total treasure box.

best debut: Eric Beck Rubin’s novel School of Velocity, ONE Pushkin Press’s new release. The control Rubin exercises in this tale of charisma, friendship, music and obsession is worthy of a veteran novelist. I’m very interested to read his next book.

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big fat fucking awesome book: C.E. Morgan’s The Sport of Kings has divided opinion since its release. Me, I like it. A chunkster indeed, but its tale of Thoroughbred horse racing, interwoven with a Southern family saga and the attendant agonies of racial prejudice right through to the present day, makes it all forgivable: its flaws are immense because its ambitions are immense, as someone once said of Dickens. I read it on many trains over about three days, and was delighted to have had it with me to pass the time.

up next: I’m reading Sarah Moss’s Signs for Lost Children and loving it. I loved The Tidal Zone, so this is hardly surprising, but still.

 

The Other World, It Whispers, by Stephanie Victoire

I want to find her and ask her to show me what other creatures I could be.

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Fabulism isn’t a literary mode that I have a particularly easy time with. The discomfort that I often feel when reading something with an overtly “magical realist” tinge is, I’ve discovered, the same as the discomfort I get from “contemporary” translations of texts from classical antiquity. It’s a form of register clash. Reading a translation of Virgil’s Eclogues that includes the phrase “Put up or shut up” (as I once did) is jarring, a yank out of the clearly established classical context into a slangy modernity that feels false. In the same way, reading a story obviously set in a world like our own becomes bewildering when elements of fantasy creep in: witches, spells, sculptures that come to life, but also Paddington station, a bar called the Red Oak, Paris’s Sacré Cœur glimpsed from an apartment window. More often than not, when stories like this work, it’s because the author has planed her prose smooth, every word chosen to encourage and nourish the reader’s belief.

Stephanie Victoire’s stories manage this about half the time, and half is a pretty good ratio for a young author (she graduated from London Met in 2010) whose first collection this is. The first story, “Time and Silence”, and the third, “Layla and the Axe”, work very well because they remain basically unmoored from an easily identifiable contemporary world. “Time and Silence” is told from the perspective of an adolescent boy who is abused, Cinderella-fashion, by a mother who believes in the fundamental badness of males. A mysterious girl with no name appears outside their forest-bound shack. His friendship with her gives him the strength to defy his mother and leave his situation of domestic slavery, but the world into which he escapes is, in many ways, no safer:

As for me, there’d be new lands and the sea, and that thought got me excited. I only looked back once to see the small glow of light from the house disappear behind the arms of the trees. Snow tugged my arm, urging me on. There was no way I could let go of her now. I looked up one more time at the moon before moving quicker, because it was then I was sure I heard the howling of a wolf.

I have always liked ambiguity in short stories, especially in their endings. “Layla and the Axe” also derives its strength from the ambiguity of its ending, indeed of its whole plot: a young girl moves through a similar forest, her faithful fox by her side, carrying an axe. She is on her way to wreak vengeance on a mysterious man who has emerged repeatedly from the trees to seduce, or rape, girls from the village. She finds a house at the story’s end:

“Come in! Come in!” says the voice again and, at the turning of the handle and the creak of the door, Layla pushes through the aches in her arms, ready to swing, and thinks Pa’s axe could be a hero.

There the story ends; we never find out whether she brings the axe down in time, whether the person she kills is the person she is looking for. There is just enough uncertainty about the mysterious man’s provenance to make the reader wonder: is it possible that Layla doesn’t, can’t, succeed?

The stories I found less convincing were “The Animal Ball” and “Dark Arts and Deities”, the penultimate story in the collection. “The Animal Ball” is a brilliant idea wrapped in an execution that feels too hurried. A wealthy couple, the Barringtons, invite everyone they know to an animal-themed costume ball. Over the course of the evening, there is a murder, and the Barrington marriage—thanks in no small part to the presence of a fortune-telling guest dressed as a snow owl—begins to disintegrate under the weight of lies, jealousy, and revenge. My problem with it is that the writing just feels undercooked. The story asks the reader to do quite a lot of emotional work as it progresses, but there’s no sense of the words being arranged artfully in order to help the reader do that. It’s probably easier to illustrate this by quoting:

The swan went over to the snow owl to explain that she’d have her payment the next day as she didn’t have any more cash on her.

“Oh no, all that has been sorted with your husband,” the snow owl replied, stroking the feathers of her cloak.

“What do you mean?” The swan gulped down the lump in her throat, discreetly she thought, but the snow owl saw it.

“I think you ought to talk to him about it.”

I don’t know, it’s just a little too much, or not enough: the casual colloquialisms when the rest of the story is on a higher thematic plane (“didn’t have any more cash on her”; “been sorted”), the tang of cliché (“gulped down”, “lump in her throat”). It didn’t work for me at all.

A similar set of problems plagues “Dark Arts and Deities”, which focuses on a twenty-something wild child summoning a pantheon of historically and culturally diverse gods to wreak revenge on the small town whose provincial inhabitants have snubbed her. Why would any of these divine powers give the slightest damn about a vaguely sexy woman being misunderstood? What about our protagonist is compelling enough to make us believe that she is herself a candidate for apotheosis? The sex scenes are just embarrassing, the info-dumping is excessive, the clichés reach new heights (“the usual suspects”; “sobbing her eyes out”; “all of her emotional cuts were closing up”). The story needs, in effect, a more judicious editorial eye. I know I say this a lot about contemporary fiction but I think it’s true; there are many, many competent stories and novels being published which could have been excellent with a little more attention and criticism.

The collection’s triumph, though—and it does have one—is the presence of two stories which deal with gay and transgender themes. “Shanty”, the inner monologue of a biological male who knows he is a girl, invokes the archetype of the mermaid:

I wish I’d been created so. Imagine being that magnificent, that magnetic and that ethereal… Just a tail that allows you to soar and pirouette, like a ribbon being twirled in the air…in pure, blissful freedom.

Freedom is the key. In the final story, “Morgana’s Shadow”, a young girl from a deeply religious family is imprisoned after she’s seen kissing a woman in the forest. “It was a kiss to seal a deal”, she explains, the deal being that in exchange for the kiss she acquires the power of shape-shifting. It’s one of the shorter stories, but in it, Victoire seamlessly literalises the feeling of not being oneself, or of not being the self that others believe one is or should be, that often haunts people struggling with their sexuality. Her interest in liberation—physical, mental, emotional—is rooted in a belief in the power of transforming magic. But it is very easy to see how literal magic can stand in for the intoxicating feeling that comes from finally, finally being true to yourself:

I rip myself free from the rags and my large wing bats Joshua away from me. …I test out my new lungs and a loud cry sweeps across the room with my breath—the sound of freedom.

Many thanks to the publicity folks at Salt for sending me a review copy. The Other World, It Whispers was published in the UK on 15 November.

6 Degrees of Separation: Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

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This is the first time I’ve played this game; it’s like “6 Degrees from Kevin Bacon” only with books. You can join in too; the rules are here. Technically this is a very late post (the meme is for the first Saturday of each month, and the November one will be coming up soon), but whatever.

We start with

  1. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, a novel by Jonathan Safran Foer about a little boy whose father dies in the 9/11 attacks, and who embarks on an epic quest to find the lock that matches a mysterious key his father owned. It’s one of the first adult novels I read that included pictures, photographs, drawings, etc. as part of the book.
  2. Another book that does that is the one I’m reading now, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo. Its main character, Zhuang (or Z.), shows us snippets of her lover’s handwriting, confusing signage on London shopfronts, and her own tentative scribbles.
  3. As a Chinese woman navigating a Western society that seems, frankly, weird and illogical most of the time, Z. reminds me of Zou Lei, the heroine of Atticus Lish’s frighteningly good novel about the repercussions of the Iraq War, which is also a love letter to New York City: Preparation for the Next Life.
  4. Lish’s book contains a rape scene that disturbed me so badly I had to put the book down (temporarily). Another book that’s beautifully written and deals with sexual assault head-on is Sara Taylor’s Baileys-longlisted The Shore. (This one made me cry in public.)
  5. The Shore is set in rural Virginia and composed of a bunch of interlinked short stories. Donald Ray Pollock’s incredible Knockemstiff lays bare the gritty and intensely depressing lives of rural Ohio’s poverty-stricken and painkiller-addicted, and it too is composed of interlinked short stories.
  6. I first saw one of Donald Ray Pollock’s books on the coffee table of a guy I was seeing. Another book I first encountered through a date was, well, the collected works of Terry Pratchett, but we’ll go with Guards! Guards!, the first in the City Watch series. What a wonderful discovery.

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From New York City to Discworld—not bad, but I’m sure I could do better…

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.

April Superlatives

April was a shockingly good month for reading: I finished sixteen books. Chunking four books from my TBR at a time seems to really work! On the downside, I’ve realized that I have so many books requested from publishers to review that it’s been impossible to review anything that I’ve read outside of that. I’m going to cut down severely on publisher requests after next month (not much I can do about it now because May’s pre-pubs have already been sent to me)–but focusing on the books I really want to read, as opposed to the books I think I might as well accept for review, is something I’m looking forward to.

most thought-altering: Daughters of the North, by Sarah Hall. A genuine dystopia, for once (people tend to use the word when they mean “post-apocalyptic” or even just “bad”, but Hall’s novel really does feature a repressive, terrifying government, one that tries to control the population by forcibly implanting coils in all women of reproductive age.) The story of our heroine’s escape, life on a rebel collective, and eventual militarization is fascinating, disturbing, and totally up-ends the things you think you believe about human behaviour.

best UK publishing debut: Foreign Soil, by Maxine Beneba Clarke. A collection of short stories that utterly blew me away, each one perfect and containing a novel’s worth of emotion and development in a tiny space. It feels like such a cliché to call them “gem-like”, but that’s the word my brain wants to use. Buy it and read it, and buy Clarke’s next book too.

most unexpected surprise:  A Month With Starfish, Bev Jackson’s memoir of her month spent on Lesbos volunteering to aid refugees. It’s such a humane and generous book, making both the refugees and the volunteers real people, instead of nameless, faceless statistics or stories on the news. Really worth reading if you can get hold of it; it’s £6.99 on Kindle.

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most thoroughly comforting, a warm bath of a book: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers. Oh how I loved this. There’s an interspecies lesbian romance, a human with dwarfism in love with an AI, plenty of fascinating galactic diversity, and a basically happy ending. It’s written with utter control and limpidity, and it made me happy like a good ensemble-cast TV show makes you happy. [insert Firefly reference here]

best thriller: The Turning Tide, by Brooke Magnanti. Complex thriller from former escort Belle du Jour, whose Diary of a London Call Girl was my guilty pleasure throughout university (but especially just before Mods.) It turns out she can write fiction, too. Maybe a little too complex (there are several different plot strands, not all obviously related), but I enjoyed it hugely; it’s topical, political, and socially aware.

best teenager: The Glorious Heresies, by Lisa McInerney. Five people in Cork’s criminal underbelly–a gangster, his mother, a prostitute, a teenage drug dealer, and his alcoholic dad–are connected over the years. On the shortlist for the Baileys Prize and I’m hoping it wins. Ryan Cusack is the best, most complicatedly believable teenager that I’ve read for years.

most disillusioning: The Exclusives, by Rebecca Thornton. Two best friends are awful to each other at boarding school, then must reconcile 18 years later. You will never look at boarding schools the same way again.

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party I was late to: A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. LeGuin. Deservedly a classic. It’s written in quite a portentous, old-fashioned style, but the story of Ged, who needs to learn the limits and responsibilities of his immense power, is never going to get old. And yes, I object to the erasure/belittling of women’s magic, but. It’s still a good book. I read the other two in the original Earthsea trilogy, The Tombs of Atuan and The Farthest Shore, at the start of the bank holiday weekend. Their ethos is one of balance and goodness and maintaining equilibrium, and it’s really quite beautiful.

true love: Selected Poems of Sylvia Plath. I love her. I love her frightening, visual imagination, and the way motherhood repels her as well as attracting her, and I love how she wrote through madness. I just love her. The end. (I’ve mentioned before that someone should set “Daddy” to music, and I’ll say it again. Same goes for “Tulips”, I think.)

most evocative: The Sunlight Pilgrims, by Jenni Fagan.  In the grip of a global winter, a lost young man, a single mother, and a transitioning teenager find friendship and love with each other in a Scottish caravan park. Fagan is good on atmosphere and the effect is quite lovely, although the book as a whole feels anti-climactic somehow.

most engrossing: I read The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver in two days, glued to the sofa and twiddling my hair breathlessly through most of a Saturday.  I’ve always loved Kingsolver, but this novel–the one that made her name, about an evangelical missionary’s family in the Congo in 1959–is really something else. Transcendent, and highly recommended.

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most disturbing: Cynthia Bond’s Ruby, a tale of Satanism and the rape and murder of children in East Texas. It is beautiful and moving but it is also incredibly dark. Also, if you are a woman, you may have difficulty trusting any men at all for up to forty-eight hours after reading it. Sorry. (Also, Becoming/Unbecoming, a graphic novel memoir by an artist called Una about growing up in Yorkshire under the shadow of the Ripper murders. It’s about so much more than that, too; it’s about what happens when a culture hates women, and thinks they deserve all the violence meted out to them. I am very glad it is not the 1970s anymore, although I’m sanguine about the amount of hatred and violence that remains.)

most formally playful: The Cauliflower, by Nicola Barker, is a fragmented novel that explores the life of Sri Ramakrishna, a late nineteenth-century Indian guru who was thought to be God. It’s a very self-aware, constructed novel, and its reputation preceded it, so I expected it to be deeply annoying. Instead, it was very amusing and a little disturbing, shaking your ideas about how the public performance of faith works. Good stuff.

up next: After the bank holiday, I’ll need to read Shawn Vestal’s Daredevils, from ONE Pushkin, to review (it’s supposedly a combination of Mormons and motorcycles). I’ve also got Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters lined up for soon afterwards.