Young Writer of the Year Award Reading: Conversations With Friends, by Sally Rooney

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Being a series of short reviews of the Young Writer of the Year Award shortlisted titles. Spoilers ahead.

I was really very determined not to like Conversations With Friends. In part this was pure obstinacy—the same sort of thing that has prompted me to refuse to read any Elena Ferrante until the whole furore around her writing dies down and I can focus on it without the background noise demanding that I love it—and in part it was more nastily envious, the self-defensive response of a twenty-five-year-old who’s trying to write a novel to a twenty-six-year-old who already has. And I was worried, too, about the way the book might present the experience of being young: its blankly descriptive title, like still life paintings whose titles enumerate every item in the image, gave the impression of a voice that was clever and ironic but ultimately soulless. It’s so easy to caricature millennials, especially intellectual ones, as brittle, brainy robots; I didn’t want to read that.

Well, I was wrong. Not totally wrong—Rooney’s protagonist, Frances, is often described as “cold” or “aloof”, although as we read further we realise that’s probably a function of anxiety and social uncertainty—but fairly wrong. There is sincerity and feeling here; it’s just very often hidden. As Rebecca notes, for a novel that signposts so clearly its interest in communication, an awful lot of the characters’ conversations fail vitally in conveying information about their emotional states.

The basic arc of the story is that two young women, Frances and Bobbi, who used to date each other and now perform spoken-word poetry together, meet a married couple, Melissa and Nick. Melissa is a writer and photographer; Nick is an actor. When Melissa decides she wants to write a profile of the two younger women for a magazine, they’re catapulted into her and Nick’s orbit. Bobbi is intellectually drawn to Melissa, who seems to dislike Frances, who in turn is mesmerised by Nick, who seems to have lost interest in his wife. Frances and Nick begin an affair, Melissa and Bobbi find out about it, and the rest of the book charts the fallout of that discovery on the complex relationships that bind the four of them.

When Naomi Frisby and I talked about this book, she described it as “very middle class”, which isn’t wrong. Conversations With Friends is intensely interested in money, class, and belonging: those are the issues that especially vex people of my generation. A sense of inheritance and legitimacy generally goes hand in hand with the financial freedom to pursue artistic projects: young writers, artists and actors are very often the ones whose parents can support them after university while they pursue their craft. Bobbi, a political radical who wants to be an academic, has a father who will take her out to three-course meals every few weeks and a family background that gives her the security to take risks. Frances, whose refusal or inability to be so loudly opinionated is generally read by the other characters as poise or self-confidence, comes from a less comfortable situation: her father, who left her mother years ago, is catastrophically alcoholic and financially unreliable. (In one horrible scene, he calls Frances to assure her that he’s just put her allowance in the bank. Since he never calls her to say this, she checks her account, which is, of course, empty.) And yet Frances’s flat in Dublin is owned by her uncle, who lets her stay there virtually rent-free. Privilege perpetuates itself—something that her fellow (unpaid) intern at a literary agency explicitly says during the course of the novel.

The ending, curiously, seems to abandon this relentless realism altogether. Frances has separated from Nick, but at the end of the book, the strong implication is that they recommence their relationship. Why? The dynamic that Rooney has established between her characters means that this ménage à trois cannot end well; either you can have an affair with a married man without his wife knowing, and end it, or you can have an affair with a married man with his wife knowing, and end it, or you can enter into an open relationship with a married couple. The choice Frances appears to have—to be in a relationship with a married man whose wife knows but is ambivalent about it—is fantasy; to sustain it even for a couple of months will be impossibly stressful and probably deeply painful for all parties. Perhaps that’s what Rooney wants us to recognise, but whether the point is that Frances and Nick will be punished for selfishness, or that they are both immature, isn’t clear. The other possibility—that the ending is meant to be happy, or happy-ish—is absurd and romanticises human behaviour in a way that none of the rest of the novel has done.

That aside, though, the dialogue is witty and believable, and Rooney is a canny chronicler of social faultlines, the way people’s insecurities and wants affect how they act in public. My vote is still for The Lucky Ones, but I wouldn’t be sorry if Conversations With Friends won.

The Young Writer of the Year Award winner is announced on 7 December. For more commentary, see the rest of the Shadow Panel: Rebecca, Clare, Dane and AnnabelConversations With Friends is published by Faber, and is available in hardback.

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Young Writer of the Year Award Reading: The Lauras, by Sara Taylor

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Being a series of short reviews of the Young Writer of the Year Award shortlisted titles. Spoilers ahead.

Sara Taylor’s first book, The Shore, made me sob openly in a coffee shop. It’s a novel composed of interlinked stories, all set on Virginia’s Atlantic shore, and despite its great beauty, it is dark: the scene that made me cry is a rape scene, and it represents better than any I’ve ever read the way in which an assault is so often a betrayal of trust, that stomach-flipping slide from joyful banter with someone you consider a friend to the queasy realisation that that friend wishes to—is about to—hurt you. Her second book, The Lauras, is on the Sunday Times/PFD Young Writer of the Year Award shortlist, and on paper it’s nothing like The Shore, being a road trip novel and an exploration of mother/child relationships and a hymn to living unconventionally. But there is a genetic similarity: an interest in that same kind of darkness, a willingness to peer at the moments in which we realise ourselves to be in danger.

The title of the book is a bit of a red herring; yes, in theory, Ma and Alex are embarking on a two-year road trip across America to track down the five women—all named Laura—who played important roles in Ma’s life. But the focus of the book is not really on these women, or even necessarily on Ma’s past. Alex, who identifies as neither male nor female, is our narrator; we spend all of our time in their head, and what The Lauras is really about is the slow journey of a person towards comfort in their own skin.

(Rebecca posed the question, in an email thread between the shadow panelists, of how we see Alex’s sex or gender. I didn’t think very much about it until the point at which the book began to emphasise Alex’s non-binary identification, which doesn’t happen for some time. If I had to put money on it, I would say that Alex is probably biologically male. Obviously this isn’t the point of the book, but it makes the front cover design far more interesting: the person on the front is plainly coded as feminine—long hair, wearing a dress, seen from behind—which makes me think the whole design process was a piece of marketing bluff. The other option is that the design is a huge, ironic wink: there’s absolutely nothing in the text that suggests Alex is a girl, but because the book begins with a grown woman and a child fleeing a man in the middle of the night, our reading protocols are heavily weighted towards seeing them as such. One does not so readily picture adolescent boys escaping their fathers. It would probably be too much to hope that a commercial publisher’s design department would be so witty, though.)

Much of the book is told in flashback, as Ma tells Alex the parts of her story that are necessary for each new encounter. Most of these are interesting enough in themselves that the somewhat episodic nature of the tellings doesn’t drag: the story of Margaret-Mary, for instance, who is Ma’s friend and partner in crime at college until she meets and marries a devoutly Christian—and dour, humourless, repressive—man. Ma and Alex rescue Margaret-Mary’s eldest daughter, Anna-Maria, from the same fate, and Alex resents the way the two older women bond. It’s a clever way of incorporating another angle on what it means to be a good child, what it means to be a good parent, and whether, in the end, neither of those things is as important as developing your own sense of honesty and self-sufficiency.

There’s not a huge sense of urgency about The Lauras, so it helps that Taylor is capable of some really lovely turns of phrase: “We were caught on the thin, hungry edge of the morning,” she writes early on, “before the sun sliced itself open on the horizon and bled out across the sky.” There is also an emotional honesty to her treatment of potentially traumatic events that lifts them out of sordidness. Alex, trying to hitchhike back to the town where they’re staying after an ill-conceived jaunt to the next state over (so that they can send their dad a postcard without being traceable), is picked up by a classic Guy In A Car who ends up forcing them to give him a blowjob as payment for the lift. Taylor deals with it in the most astonishingly open and honest way: Alex is kind of grossed out, sure, but they’re also fourteen and desperate to get laid, and there’s a sense of grim determination in their efforts to get the guy off. When they think about it later, it is with disgust and fear, but never also without a faint tinge of excitement. That’s as true a reaction as any I can think of: reactions to assault are often complicated and inconsistent. Taylor’s willingness to explore that makes her an extremely brave writer, and she achieves the effect subtly.

Final verdict? Given that it’s the first of the shortlist that I finished, it’s impressive. Are there points at which the plot drags a little? Perhaps. But in a way, that is the purpose of the genre in which Taylor is working. A road trip novel, like a road trip, is never about where you’re ultimately heading, but about what you experience along the way.

The Young Writer of the Year Award winner is announced on 7 December. For more commentary, see the rest of the Shadow Panel: Rebecca, Clare, Dane and Annabel. The Lauras is published by Windmill, and is available in paperback.

Dunbar, by Edward St Aubyn

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Back at the energy level where full reviews are hard but I still want to write about what I’m reading, I’ve decided to try—for probably the seventeenth time—just writing shorter ones. Dunbar is the most recent installment in Hogarth’s Shakespeare update project; this time, Edward St Aubyn takes on the monumental King Lear. Of the aging king, he makes a self-made media mogul, Henry Dunbar, who has signed over most of his assets and all of the real decision-making powers to his daughters Megan and Abby. They, in turn, have colluded with the crooked Doctor Bob to medicate Dunbar to the point of paranoid insanity, and after an unfortunate incident on Hampstead Heath, he’s been relegated to a nursing home in the Lake District. Escaping with his roommate, the alcoholic ex-comedian Peter Walker (who bears a personality resemblance to Tommy Cooper), Dunbar must brave a stormy night in the fells, and the good daughter Florence must find him before it’s too late.

Dunbar, like most of the Hogarth series, fails, and like the others, it fails for several reasons. Most particularly, it fails because it entirely lacks a moral component, and—relatedly—any sense of universality. Shakespeare’s Lear is a King, of course, so hardly an Everyman, but the actors who play him have the opportunity to invest him with the most human of fears: “let me not be mad”. Dunbar says this too, but St Aubyn doesn’t give him the chance to be an Everyman; instead he’s an aggressive and deeply unpleasant businessman who’s suffered a drug-induced psychotic break. Where is the tragedy in this? Where is the audience’s self-identification with the fallen man, the terror and the catharsis? Nothing in Dunbar’s state of mental collapse is inherent to him; it is all the result of Doctor Bob’s prescriptions and his daughters’ machinations. By contrast, Lear’s fall comes about precisely and only because he is who he is. A different man would not have made the decisions he makes. That’s the heart of tragedy—the fatalism of it—and St Aubyn misses it entirely. Glimpses of Dunbar’s childhood—a cold and distant mother, a stint in provincial Winnipeg—might have made it possible for a reader to identify the events and experiences that have warped Dunbar from the start, but St Aubyn never does more than glance at them. (The mother, clearly, is meant to explain some of the Lear story’s misogyny).

Additionally, there are technical issues. The characterisation is both tissue-thin and daft. Abby and Megan are psychotic vamps without a shred of psychological realism between them; it’s totally possible to write believably empty characters motivated only by sex and violence, cf. Patrick Bateman, but these women are cartoonish nymphomaniacs, first presented having sex that terminates with the biting off of a man’s nipple. Doctor Bob (that very man) is a helpless, hand-wringing fool without any clear motivations or passions. (He’s also an instance of bad naming; quite apart from the fact that his name is inexplicably bland, anyone who’s ever seen The Simpsons will think of Sideshow Bob whenever the good doctor is mentioned.) Florence, as is often the case with Cordelia, is sweetly dull. Mark, the Albany analogue, could have been interesting given more time and attention—Albany’s horror as he realises what his wife has done is one of the more moving and distressing elements of Lear, like Emilia standing up to Iago at the end of Othello—but in this treatment, he comes across simply as a pawn, doing what he does because that’s what happens in the play. St Aubyn’s much-vaunted prose style, meanwhile, is nowhere in evidence. I’ve read one of the Melrose novels, Never Mind, and am willing to accept that he could write a good sentence in 1992. But this is 2017, and the sentences in Dunbar are, at best, fine. Absolutely none of them stands out. Taken together, they comprise a thoroughly medium-roast reading experience.

I’m left wondering, as always, whether this is an inherent problem of form; whether these stories are so plainly play-shaped that making them into novels is doomed; or whether there is something about consciously attempting to adapt Shakespeare that makes even revered writers choke; or whether (shall we whisper it?) these writers have been ill-chosen, whether they have been selected on the basis of name recognition or other dubious merits, and whether the Hogarth committee ought to have looked further afield for their project. It is clearly not impossible to write an excellent novel that brings the concerns of King Lear into the present day: Jane Smiley did so years ago, with A Thousand Acres, and Preti Taneja has just done the same thing in We That Are Young. But maybe we ought to stop expecting such a thing from established literary names. There have been too many disappointments already.

Dunbar was published in the UK on 5 October, 2017, by Hogarth Press.

My Cat Yugoslavia, by Pajtim Statovci

We should come up with another word for evil, and that name should be laziness.

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Pajtim Statovci’s debut novel, like a lot of debut novels, has some parallels with the writer’s own life: it focuses on a young gay man living in Finland named Bekim, whose family moved from Kosovo during that country’s political unrest in the late 1980s. Statovci, too, was born in Kosovo and now lives in Finland. Bekim’s sense of displacement and awareness of the hatred directed at him from native-born Finns is surely based on personal experience—though the rest of the novel, in which Bekim, friendless and living alone, buys a pet snake and shacks up with a large and abusive talking cat, is surely not. My Cat Yugoslavia is a delicate, highly constructed book, full of symbolism and surrealism, and as such the story can feel difficult to connect with. But at its most effective, it combines the playful weirdness of Murakami with the satirical wit of Bulgakov, and tops it off with a style and an aesthetic that’s reminiscent of Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs To You. It is, in short, not a book for which I am the ideal reader, but it is an objectively impressive achievement.

We first meet Bekim as he is arranging a casual hookup through Grindr or an equivalent (the book opens with a forum message from username blackhetero-helsinki). The sex goes well, but he asks the man to leave directly afterwards, and from glimpses we get of his life as a student, it’s obvious that he is deeply lonely. When he buys a boa constrictor from a pet shop—despite being terrified of snakes—he is kind to it, and Statovci describes his first interactions with the snake with a tenderness that nearly brought me to tears. Yet there’s also an edge of hazard to the whole transaction; the snake is large and permitted to roam freely about the flat, since it hates its terrarium, and when it gathers enough confidence to approach Bekim, it ends up twined around his chest and arms, lying heavily in his lap. (It’s a constrictor, remember.)

The book thus starts by inducing a sense of unease, which is only compounded when Bekim meets a handsome talking cat in a bar. My Cat Yugoslavia is the sort of book in which readers are not expected to be remotely surprised at a character’s commencing a romantic relationship with a cat, or to undermine the conceit by asking prosaic questions like how do they have sex? The point is not that the cat is a cat; rather, he represents an abusive authority to which Bekim becomes enslaved. The title of the book suggests that we should be thinking about the cat allegorically, though the terms of the allegory are not clear-cut: is the cat representative of the country that Bekim’s family left behind? Is he, rather, an embodiment of the abusive relationship of Bekim’s parents? His homophobic remarks and personal attacks echo the racist bullying that Bekim recalls suffering in school from Finnish children; perhaps the cat is a reminder of the legacy both of political turmoil and of violence within the family.

Bekim’s mother Emine is the second point-of-view character, and her chapters are more immediately engaging than her son’s. She begins to narrate her life for us at the age of sixteen, when she happens to accept a ride in a car from an older man who eventually asks her parents for her hand in marriage. Knowing nothing about him, her parents accept, and she becomes the wife of Bajram, who showers her with gold and jewels, then has entirely inconsiderate sex with her on their wedding night and becomes a predictably appalling husband. (Statovci is careful to make him, not ogre-ish, but aggressively, exhaustingly entitled; Emine’s greatest grudge against her husband is that while she cooks, cleans, waits until he’s finished his meal before beginning her own, bears him several children, and brings them all up with the strictest discipline, he has never once said the words “thank you” to her.) Where Bekim needs to become trusting—to fall in love—in order to work through the pain of his past, Emine needs exactly the opposite: her victory comes on the morning when she packs a small bag and leaves Bajram without explanation or excuse. Living alone, befriending a cashier at the local grocery store who is widowed (and pretending that she too has lost her husband to an untimely death), she begins to be more of a person than she has ever been.

I have an occasional problem with novels in translation, especially novels that rely for their effect upon a whimsical quality in the prose. Statovci’s book was first written in Finnish and translated into English for Pushkin Press by David Hackston; I can’t know whether the problem I had with My Cat Yugoslavia is down to the original or to the translation. Ordinarily it’s an excess of tweeness that gets me; in this book it’s a kind of randomised specificity. The most indicative passage is when Bekim describes driving past billboards in Prishtina: red, orange, yellow and blue ones. Why? Why do we have to know what colours they are? Why would you write (and I’m not quoting directly here because the book isn’t with me, but this is the structure of the sentence) “I drove past red, orange, yellow and blue billboards”? It’s outrageously dull. You can’t even say that it’s like writing a shopping list, because at least a shopping list tells you something (a person shopping for artichokes, preserved lemon, salmon and kale is not the same person as the one buying lightbulbs, sanitary pads, orange juice and chocolate biscuits, or at least not on the same day.) It’s not as though Bekim is a Curious Incident-type savant, either; he doesn’t go around telling us the colours and numbers of everything he sees, just occasionally gives us this oddly pointless level of detail.

That problem is particular to me, though, and it may not have any bearing on your reading of the novel at all. I have to confess that My Cat Yugoslavia left me feeling a tiny bit empty: there’s a happy ending, which is nice, and the snake meets a fate that will devastate you if you’ve anthropomorphised it as much as I did, but the way that the book signposts its own symbolic nature makes it hard to take the whole thing very personally. It is, however, a fresh and subtle way of looking at the Balkan conflict of the 1990s, and I prefer Statovci’s approach to that of, e.g., Sara Nović in Girl At War. His focus on the lives of refugees after they’ve escaped the immediate danger is an important reminder to a Western world currently struggling with the consequences of global conflict: for a migrant, the past is never dead.

Many thanks to Tabitha Pelly at Pushkin Press for the review copy. My Cat Yugoslavia was published in the UK on 7 September.

Home Fire, by Kamila Shamsie

A man needed fire in his veins to burn through the world

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caution: some spoilers ahead

I didn’t think I was going to write a full-length review of this, but two things have changed my mind. One is this post from Victoria Best at Tales From the Reading Room, which poses the question “what kind of critic are you?” and, just as importantly, “what kind of criticism is most helpful to you?” while examining Deborah Levy’s symbol-heavy novel Hot Milk from both a critical academic perspective and a more general reader’s one. The second is Victoria Hoyle’s Booktube review of three Booker-longlisted novels, including Home Fire, where she elegantly dissects her contradictory reactions to Shamsie’s book: frustrated by having been emotionally manipulated, let down by characters that feel stereotypical, but – despite all that – effectively moved. My initial reaction to Home Fire was more positive than hers, but after watching her video, I began to wonder about the extent to which I’d been reading as a critic versus as a general reader, and why I had – at least initially – felt no ambivalence about Shamsie’s admittedly opinionated storytelling.

Home Fire is a retelling of Sophocles’s Antigone, but I read it without brushing up on the older story, and can confirm that it didn’t noticeably hamper my experience to read it simply as a hyper-contemporary literary political novel. Shamsie uses five point-of-view characters: Isma, the daughter of a jihadi who died on the way to Guantanamo, who has been supporting her younger siblings for years and is now—freed by their accession to adulthood—starting a PhD program in the States; Aneeka, her passionate and beautiful younger sister; Parvaiz, Aneeka’s fraternal twin, desperate for direction about how to be a man; Karamat Lone, a Home Secretary of Pakistani origin whose hard-line stance on Muslims and immigration has been at the centre of much controversy; and Karamat’s son Eamonn, born into privilege, who becomes Aneeka’s lover. As the story progresses, each character gives us their own perspective on the issues of freedom, citizenship, love and duty that the story circles.

Much of the negative commentary I’ve seen about Home Fire has focused on Shamsie’s construction of these characters: they’ve most often been called “one-dimensional”, “stereotypical” or “flat”. I would contend that this is a reductive way of reading, not a quality inherent to the characters. Take Aneeka, for instance: a devout nineteen-year-old Muslim who prays at dawn, has extra-marital sex, and makes her hijab the last thing her lover is allowed to take off. Take Isma: both sister and mother to her siblings, the proverbial “strong woman”, yet too afraid, when she finally launches into the world, to make the first move towards a man who attracts her. These are unusual women, unusual heroines, especially of contemporary literature; they are serious and convicted. Their faith is significant to them, and therefore must be taken seriously by the reader. Their wounds are not merely personal; they have inherited distrust and division, their father’s death as a terrorist in captivity marking them out permanently to the governments of the West as Persons Of Interest. The Pasha siblings are slightly cold fish, but that’s the point: when you live under the weight of suspicion from everyone around you, for things you didn’t even do, that happens. (Aneeka speaks, sarcastically, of the dangers of Googling While Muslim.) It is not, I think, the sort of dynamic we are accustomed to. We tend to want our heroines feisty—or failing that, broken, but, you know, picturesquely. (Whitely. Middle class-ly.)

I’ve long been suspicious that people who find novels “too political” are people who don’t need to think about politics all the time. Lots of us would love not to have to politicise everything, but our lives and opinions are valued at a lower price, and so everything is political; when you struggle to thrive in a society that mistrusts, scorns, or blames you, life itself is a political act. I’m white and well-educated, but I’m also female and disabled. There are elements of daily living that are a constant uphill struggle for me: balancing meals and a social life with medication and self-care. Convincing a GP to change my prescriptions when things aren’t working. Getting a pharmacist to re-dispense that prescription when it hasn’t come through for seventy-two hours and I no longer have enough insulin to last through the night. I don’t talk to anyone about these things—partly because they are quotidian for me, and partly because no one else I know will really have had that experience.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that Home Fire’s “political” nature is necessary, inherent even, to telling a story about a Muslim family in contemporary Britain. Of course not every Muslim family has a brother who runs away to join IS, or a father who died on the way from Bagram to Guantanamo. But the constant surveillance of the state, particularly the eyes that are fixed upon Muslim children lest they show the slightest sign of the dreaded radicalisation—that is a reality for so many immigrants to this country, and it’s foolish to be surprised by how abundantly clear Shamsie makes that fact. Googling While Muslim is the least of it. Visas can be refused, careers cut short, degrees torpedoed. When Parvaiz is a little boy, the Pashas are visited by a man from the security services who takes from Parvaiz’s bedroom the only thing he has from his father: a photograph album containing pictures of Adil Pasha toting guns in Bosnia, Chechnya, Afghanistan, and inscribed When you’re older, son. After the story’s first tragedy, this same security officer is interviewed on television: he describes that visit and that album, and suggests it’s a shame that Child Protection Services weren’t involved immediately. Nowhere do we see that officer—or the country he works for—offer Parvaiz, and his sisters and mother, anything substantial—no financial assistance, no mentoring, no help obtaining apprenticeships or scholarships—in return for what is taken from them in dignity and in trust.

So much for the emotional potency of Home Fire, which even its detractors have admitted is one of its strengths; what of its weaknesses? Shamsie’s prose is capable, but often slides into melodrama. Especially in dialogue and at the ends of chapters, she has a tendency to seek significance and profundity for every plot point. In fact, the whole book skirts melodrama almost as a matter of course. (It’s based on a Greek tragedy; how could it not?) Some credibility is lost with Aneeka’s mad vigil over Parvaiz’s body in the park, with Eamonn’s wild flight to find her there, and with the last two pages in their entirety. (Some of this is down to the fact that Aneeka and Eamonn are, at least to me, not especially credible lovers. Eamonn’s and Isma’s interactions, showcased by the misdirection at the beginning of the book, are much more interesting.) Karamat Lone, also, is a little too purely villainous to be convincing, despite Shamsie loading him with a backstory that at least makes sense of his stubborn championing of assimilation. (That said, the shenanigans that Theresa May pulled when Home Secretary, particularly towards LGBTQ asylum-seekers, are almost enough to make Lone look eminently reasonable and pleasant.)

For all that, I still think it’s an incredibly important book, and the fact that it’s set so firmly in the present day—engaging so firmly with present-day concerns—doesn’t diminish it, but instead makes it essential reading. Shamsie is presenting a world here that many of her readers will never be forced to engage with or have to navigate; we can choose to read this story or to put it aside. It is a story fraught with fear and tension and the possibility of betraying someone no matter what you do, and the fact that it is being billed as a retelling of an ancient Greek tale suggests to me that its significance will not fade as its cultural referents do. It does deserve to be on the Man Booker Prize longlist; it also deserves to be widely read.

August Superlatives

Plainly, another terrible month for reviewing. I’m sure I will get back on the horse eventually. Writing reviews seems to take so much mental energy, though, and so much of my stock of that is being expended on other things right now. I didn’t read a whole lot of books, either—at least, not a whole lot for me—August’s total being eleven. Still, I had a holiday and I saw my folks and some dear friends, and that’s a pretty good trade.

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easiest to analyse: Fiona Melrose’s second novel, Johannesburg, which I did actually manage to review. A reassessment of Mrs. Dalloway set in contemporary South Africa, it neatly captures the feeling of Woolf’s original while also intelligently updating several key aspects. A couple of unnecessary elements weren’t enough to mar the thing. (review)

weirdest: Bogmail, by Patrick McGinley, an Irish Gothic novel about murder and blackmail and mushrooms that came out in the early ’90s and is being reprinted. This was probably a wrong-book-wrong-reader problem; it just didn’t land with me, the blackness of the humour seemed jarring instead of cheeky, and I had a hard time differentiating, or indeed giving a damn about, any of the characters.

best romp: Frenchman’s Creek, Daphne Du Maurier’s novel of forbidden pirate love in seventeenth-century Cornwall. It’s romantic and silly, somewhat reminiscent of The Princess Bride, but quite charming in its own way. Dona St Columb is a marvelous heroine, and her goofy idiot husband Harry a well-drawn aristocrat, benign but totally entitled.

most nearly: Sarah Franklin’s WWII saga, Shelter, which follows a member of the Women’s Timber Corps and her growing friendship with an Italian prisoner of war. On a thematic level, Shelter is brave and bold, dealing with pre-marital sex, toxic masculinity, and a woman who isn’t a natural mother; on the more basic level of sentence and character, it’s a little overblown and relies too heavily on cliché. Fun, though. (review)

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most HELL YEAH: This year’s airplane reading, The Resurrection of Joan Ashby, by Cherise Wolas. A 500+-page tome exploring the life of a promising young writer who has children and is thwarted from writing for about the next twenty-five years, it is all about ambition, expectations, art, family, and how these things interact and compete with each other. It’s brutally honest and also incredibly well written. The final hundred-odd pages, set in Dharamshala, didn’t quite convince me (can we stop sending Western women East to find their True Purpose, plz?), but they too were faultlessly composed. This is out in September and I highly recommend it.

most good clean fun: John Grisham’s new novel, Camino Island. It opens with the theft of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s original manuscripts of Gatsby and others from the Princeton University library, and a lot of it is set in the world of rare books and antiques dealers. It’s the first Grisham I’ve ever read; I conclude that he can’t write a three-dimensional character to save his life, but he can show you a good time. Worth it.

most nostalgic: Guess what I reached for when I was at home? That is correct: Tolkien. He soothes me; he’s what I read when I was ten or eleven and hungry for something meaningful and more important than real life seemed. The Two Towers will always be my favourite of the books, and of the films: the battle of Helm’s Deep is simply superb, though when you read it you realise how much Jackson compressed and altered in the film version. (Whisper it: his pacing is actually a lot better than Tolkien’s.) The Return of the King, meanwhile, is dramatically satisfying and proper scary, although again, the pacing is off. Still, I’m glad I went back to the books. They take themselves so seriously, and it feels like there’s a lesson in that somewhere.

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breeziest: The Case of the Team Spirit, a collection of the strips that comprise John Allison’s first Bad Machinery story. Mystery-solving teens! Implausibly witty dialogue! Hilarious Yorkshire accents! A wall-eyed Russian lady! A character named Mad Terry! You gotta love it.

most parent-shocking: Saga, vol. 3, a continuation of Brian K. Vaughan’s intergalactic love story. This time, Marko and Alana are hiding out with their illegal baby daughter Hazel and Marko’s irascible, recently widowed mother, at the home of romance novelist D. Oswald Heist. Things get weirder from there: bounty hunters are still on their trail, not to mention Marko’s ex Gwendolyn, who is severely pissed off. There’s enough explicit sex and violence in this one that my dad, leaning over my shoulder to look at one particularly unfortunate spread, recoiled. That’ll learn ‘im.

best rediscovery: White Teeth, by Zadie Smith, which I read years ago but had sort of forgotten about until my brother got me a signed and personalised copy (best.brother.ever.) and gave it to me on holiday. It is a bloody amazing book, so full of character and incident, knowing and mouthy but also quiet and wise. How does she ventriloquise all these characters, all their cultural baggage? How does she tie things in so neatly and also make it so clear that nothing can fully be tied in, or mopped up, that the past isn’t even past? And she was twenty-four. God.

up next: I’m about to finish Mark Twain’s Western travelogue, Roughing It, and have a couple of options for where to go next. Maybe Pajtim Statovci’s forthcoming book My Cat Yugoslavia, from Pushkin Press; maybe a book from my US purchases stack; or maybe something left over from a pre-holiday Waterstone’s binge—I’ll Sell You A Dog or China Mountain Zhang. Unless I get a lot of overwhelming feedback, I’ll probably leave it up to the random number generator…

Shelter, by Sarah Franklin

The forest itself warned them of loss.

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This’ll be a shorter review than usual, I think; I’m on holiday, and want to make the most of the time by reading things I have no obligation to consider deeply. Some spoilers ahead.

World War II seems to be endlessly fertile ground for any number of the creative industries. In the UK, especially, I suspect that this springs from a deeply seated national trauma and/or the fact that our oldest living generation came of age during or just after the war, and therefore feel their identities were shaped by it, and therefore are more likely to commission and pay for creative work that deals with it in some way. I have mostly ceased to read WWII books simply on principle (not always a good idea; I nearly missed Kate Atkinson’s A God In Ruins due to this, although I’ve also managed to avoid All the Light We Cannot See, which is proof that on the whole it works). Very occasionally, however, a WWII book deals with the conflict from a fresh angle. These books are valuable in an inherent sense: even if they’re not undying masterpieces, at least they give the reader a relatively original route into the history.

Sarah Franklin’s first novel Shelter is such a book. It is set in the Forest of Dean, where members of the Women’s Timber Corps were sent to assist the woodsmen who had lived there for generations, cutting down trees for the war effort. Franklin’s female protagonist, Connie, is a former Land Girl whose pregnancy got her booted off the farm where she was previously billeted. Her entire family killed in a bomb strike in Coventry, she has nowhere to return to, and she’s confident enough in her own strength and tenacity to sign up for the WTC. When she arrives in Gloucestershire, she meets gruff but kindly foreman Frank, and his wife Joyce, and is eventually assigned to partner Seppe, an Italian prisoner of war from the camp just up the hill. Seppe is a woodcarver and furniture maker; he is our second protagonist, a shy boy growing up under a belligerent Fascist father, unable to stand up for his battered mother or himself. Initially a hopeless forester, he improves under Connie’s instruction, and they’re soon Frank’s best team.

Shelter is one of those books whose strengths are to be found on the macro level. In terms of plot, Franklin is brave to write a female character to whom pregnancy and childbirth are not joyous, natural events, and who views her baby son with discomfort and dread. Seppe is much better with baby Joe than Connie manages to be; despite Joyce’s repeated assertions that everyone finds motherhood hard and she’ll improve, Franklin leaves enough room for us to doubt that wisdom, to think that Connie might be right when she says that she simply isn’t cut out to be a mother. For an author to leave open that possibility—even to acknowledge that not every woman is naturally maternal—is impressive, particularly in historical fiction. Seppe, meanwhile, is a (deliberately) sensitive, even feminised man; he serves as a soothing counterpoint to the toxic masculinity of his fellow prisoner Fredo, of his true-believer father, and of the thousands of young male characters we have already met who valorise conflict, violence, and ambition. Seppe has none of these qualities: he is quiet, shy, a maker and creator, very good with children, deeply domestic. When he and Connie begin a sexual relationship, he falls in love with her, seeing in her an opportunity for the secure and happy home life that he has never had. Connie does not take him nearly as seriously; his proposal of marriage, the thought of living in Gloucestershire in a hut for the rest of her life, terrifies and suffocates her.

On the micro level—that is, on the level of the sentence—Shelter is less innovative. People “swallow hard” (or its briefer equivalent, “gulp”), a lot, generally in response to strong emotion. (I am reasonably confident that I have never used this reflex to pull myself together, nor have I ever witnessed someone do it; it’s one of those things that apparently only happens in fiction.) Characters spell out their thought processes to each other with surprising and unnecessary thoroughness. Forest of Dean dialect permeates not only the locals’ speech, but also their writing, although their letters remain impressively free of spelling errors. (It’s entirely possible that dialect does translate to written language, in which case I’m being a tool, but it doesn’t read naturally; it’s mostly restricted to verb insertions, so that instead of saying “Joyce is at home”, a character will say “Joyce do be at home”, which just sounds a little Thomas Hardy.)

It’s hard to be too pedantic, though, because there’s a sweetness and a joy about Shelter that is very hard to resist. The immediate acceptance of Connie, then her pregnancy, then her baby, as well as Seppe, into the forest community is heart-warming and also rings true. Franklin’s themes dovetail nicely—Connie, whose home and family have disappeared under a pile of rubble; Seppe, who has never felt he had a home or a family at all; the delicate balance between responsible land management (the Forest representing home in a very particularised, local sense) and the demands of the government (representing home in a more general, national, patriotic sense); that is all smartly integrated, if a bit self-evident. Shelter is about people seeking, and finding, a place to belong. In its depiction of the upheavals of a war which both destroyed domestic establishments and enabled the creation of new ones, it is a unique addition to the glut of WWII books. Just move quickly past the bits where people gulp.

Many thanks to Emily Burns at Bonnier Zaffre for the review copy. Shelter was published in the UK on 27 July 2017.