The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, by Arundhati Roy

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A second novel is a tricky thing. If your first novel was a barnstorming global sensation that won the Booker Prize, doubly so. If you then take twenty years to produce that elusive follow-up, well. With the weight of all that expectation, you could sink. Arundhati Roy’s second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, does not sink. It is in many places gripping, moving, and fueled by a burning rage at India’s human rights record. If it doesn’t entirely float, either, that is due not so much to the inclusion of political material per se as to the sheer quantity that Roy is willing to include, a proliferation of detail that doesn’t always pull its weight within the framework of the story.

Roy opens with the birth of a Hijra: born as Aftab, our protagonist is quickly found to have two sets of genitals—one male, one female. Though Aftab’s parents attempt to raise their child as a boy, by the time Aftab is old enough to be aware of difference, he knows that he’s a she. A chance sighting of a famous Hijra who goes by the name of Bombay Silk sparks a series of reactions that finish with Aftab’s name change (to Anjum), a move out of her parents’ house and into the house known as the Khwabgah, or House of Dreams, where other Hijras live and work, mostly as specialist courtesans. For a while all is well: Anjum has a career, a chosen family, and adopts a small child whom she finds in the street one day, naming her Zainab. A visit to a shrine in Gujarat, however, coincides with the massacres being perpetrated upon Muslims in the area at the time, and results in trauma that Anjum, upon her return to Delhi, refuses to discuss. Her internalised distress forces her to move out of the Khwabgah and into a nearby graveyard, which she slowly sets about turning into a complex of rooms to which she refers as the Jannat (“Paradise”) Guest House.

Anjum’s story intertwines with the story of Tilottama, or Tilo, a trained architect who becomes a political activist, and the three men who love her: Musa, who takes advantage of the rumours of his death to become a major figure in the Kashmiri insurgency; Naga, a respectable official whom Tilo marries in order to ensure her own safety; and Bilqab, the least assuming of the three, who works in the Intelligence Bureau and engineers Tilo’s release when she is captured by the sadistic captain Amrik Singh. In this strand, too, an unclaimed child generates redemption: Tilo adopts a dark-skinned baby found on the street during a mass protest. The child is named Miss Jebeen the Second in honour of Musa’s daughter, shot by police while on the fringes of a Kashmiri martyr’s funeral.

There is a sense in which Roy’s inclusion of many characters and forms of oppression is generous, giving the reader many points of view from which to access the story. “How to tell a single story?” Roy muses near the end of the book, in a paragraph reproduced in its entirety on the back of the proof copy. “By slowly becoming everybody. No. By slowly becoming everything.” It is an admirable idea in theory, but there are pitfalls to that approach from which The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is not exempt. It is extremely difficult, for example, to differentiate characters. Writing the previous paragraph, I had to pause and think, long and hard, about which lover was Musa, which was Naga, and what Bilqab had to do with it all. There are many minor characters so similar to each other that they might as well be the same person: Saeeda and Nimmo Gorakhpuri, for example, both of whom are flamboyant and confident young Hijras known to Anjum. Both appear, and are named, throughout the book, but there is no sense of each woman as a separate, rounded entity. There is a young man called Saddam Hussein who lives in Anjum’s graveyard and ends up marrying her daughter, but by the end of the book it’s a challenge to recall why he’s there, what narrative function he is fulfilling.

In a way, this might be precisely against the point. Questions of literary efficiency—of narrative function, of plot rationalisation, of what a given adjective or character or event is actually doing in the novel—are mostly absent. That kind of novel, one where every word is weighed carefully, every action accountable for, doesn’t seem to be the kind of novel that Roy is writing. She has said in interviews that she wants to “wake the neighbours”, and if your ultimate goal in writing a novel is to raise awareness, then indeed it can seem entirely right to leave in as much as possible. By following this strategy, Roy achieves inclusivity, but she also gives the novel the appearance of ticking a lot of boxes. Homelessness amongst Delhi’s transgender population? Tick. Drug addiction? Tick. Blameless (indeed, mentally disabled) martyr? Tick. Rape and torture? Tick.

I’m not leveling charges of gratuitousness at The Ministry of Utmost Happiness; quite the opposite. Roy treats these topics seriously and renders to her characters a level of dignity generally not afforded them by Western writers of atrocity porn. To write a good political novel, though—and it is more than possible to do that—you need an emotional core. Roy gives us plenty of personae and detail, but in opening up the focus of her story, she diffuses it. Perversely, an authorial choice that was clearly motivated by a desire to provoke empathy obstructs the fiction reader’s ability to empathise.

This review originally published in Litro.

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The Hate Race, by Maxine Beneba Clarke

I knew they were scared. I knew they were just kids. But so were we.

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Maxine Beneba Clarke’s short story collection, Foreign Soil, was one of my favourite books of 2016. Do you know what it feels like to open a book by someone totally new to you and to know, within the space of the first page, that you can trust them and their writing, that you can relax the part of your reading mind that’s always on the alert for awkwardness or falseness, that you can just sink below the surface of the words and go? Of course you do. That’s what Clarke’s writing did—and does—for me, and it’s a large part of why I was anticipating The Hate Race so much.

It doesn’t disappoint. As a memoir of a middle-class black kid growing up in white suburban Australia, it is indeed the kind of story that Clarke’s country hasn’t often heard and needs to hear, as she herself says. But I worry that it will be shared and written about only in that context—of being an “important”, “brave”, “necessary” book—and often, when I see that context, I see condescension. So here’s another way of saying it: The Hate Race is important, brave, and necessary. It is also phenomenally well-written, meticulously observant about social minutiae. Above all, in it, Clarke precisely anatomises the psychology of a bullied kid.

Her observations sting like a badly skinned knee. Bullying starts early: on her first day of kindergarten, a tiny white bitch-in-the-making called Carlita Allen surveys Maxine with wrinkled nose and announces, “You’re brown” in a tone that suggests this is, definitively, unacceptable. To begin with, Carlita perplexes Maxine—who knows she’s brown but has never considered that this might mean anything much—but pretty soon she learns. The book is punctuated with a repeated riff on a couple of sentences: “This is how it broke me,” on one page. Or, “This is how it alters us. This is how we change.”

Maxine starts to alter early on. Her thought processes bounce sharply off of injustice and are forced to bend, every time. A boy in her class calls her blackie one too many times, and she tells a teacher. If she’d been hoping for protection, she’s mistaken:

Mrs Hird kept her grey-green eyes on me, red pen still poised above the spelling test she’d been marking. “Well,” she said slowly, “that’s what you are. You can call him whitey if you like.”

This is 1990. Clarke is ten.

In her horror and rage, she makes the mistake of crying, “That’s racist!” and is scolded for “using that word in my classroom” and “accusing your classmate of something like that.” How dare a girl taunted by the word blackie accuse her tormentor of racism?

Most of the bullying is verbal and emotional, which is hard enough. When Clarke realises that she’s winning schoolyard games of Catch and Kiss not because she’s a fast runner, but because none of the boys want to touch her, it feels like a fist in the throat. She quotes the stupid cruelties of one kid in particular, Greg Adams (all names in this book have been changed, which I assume is to prevent readers from tracking down Greg Adams, and Mrs. Hird, and kicking the living hell out of them):

Greg Adams loudly ranked the girls in our class from one to eleven on his Fuck Chart. He said he couldn’t even put me at the end of the list because animals didn’t count. Greg Adams said that would be bestiality. Greg Adams said the only way black chicks got fucked was gang-banged with the lights turned off, and even then you’d have to be super-desperate, and use ten condoms so you didn’t get AIDS. And then Greg Adams and his friends laughed, and laughed, and laughed.

(I wished, reading that, that Clarke had gone to my majority-black American high school, where white girls were essentially useless. The most desirable trait in a girl at my high school was to have a booty out to HERE. Our prom queen’s nickname literally was “Booty”. Based on Clarke’s writing about her own booty, which stubbornly refuses to be tucked in during gymnastics classes, she would have been a goddess.)

But physical bullying intrudes too, most notably when Clarke and her brother are riding their bikes with two white friends, the McGuire kids. Older boys show up on the scene. Names are called. The McGuires are silent. Then a stone is hurled; and another. The McGuire kids break for home, not even looking back to check that the Clarkes are okay. That scene is where the quotation at the top of this post comes from, and it’s one of the most powerful moments in the memoir. Kids of colour who deal with racism and bullying are children. Children with more structural privilege don’t get to invoke terror as an explanation for their failure to act; Clarke and her brother may be children, but they live in a state of watchfulness and fear so constant that it sometimes reminded me of the behaviour of soldiers. It’s an equally useful reminder for adults. You might be scared by the white supremacist shouting at the hijab-wearing woman on the bus, but guess what? That woman is also scared, and the actual target. Fear of reprisals is a weak excuse for “allies” who do nothing.

Clarke doesn’t let herself off the hook in this regard, either. One of the bravest and most painful sections is her recounting of her behaviour towards Bhagita Singh, an Indian/Australian girl in her class who was, predictably, also bullied by people like Greg Adams. Clarke finds Bhagita’s ability to stare past her tormentors baffling: why can Bhagita do that, but she can’t? When Clarke gets hair extensions—something she’s wanted for months—Bhagita off-handedly says that she liked Clarke’s hair the way it was, and muses that Indian women often sell their hair so that extensions and wigs can be made for other women. It’s all delivered in an utterly un-malicious tone; Bhagita’s straightforwardness makes her capable of ignoring bullies, but also of being quite startlingly tactless without intending to be. Clarke is so disappointed in this response, so filled with embarrassment and let-down and an unplaceable sense of shame, that she lashes out appallingly: the word curry-muncher is used, the accusation leveled that no one would want Bhagita’s hair because it smells disgusting and is greasy (none of which, Clarke notes, is true.) It’s only a matter of hours before Clarke begins to repent, but when she tries to apologise to Bhagita the next day, the other girl wrenches herself away, a look of fear on her face. “Get away from me. Get away!” To Bhagita, Clarke is One Of Them now, undifferentiated from the Carlita Allens and the Greg Adamses. It’s a betrayal more painful to Clarke than almost anything she experiences personally.

(It will also feel familiar to readers who have read Foreign Soil; it mirrors the story “Shu Yi”, in which a little black girl in a majority-white school is instructed to befriend a Chinese Australian classmate, on the basis that they’re both non-white and therefore presumably share some mystical bond. Ava, the protagonist, turns on Shu Yi in order to grasp a shred of playground credibility, and is made to pay the emotional price by Shu Yi herself, who locks eyes with Ava even as she pisses herself with fear and shame. It’s one of the most powerful stories I’ve ever read, and it comes from this place of scrabbling, this place where badly bullied kids end up, where survival instinct takes precedence over kindness.)

Anger is the engine of this book, but Clarke’s writing corrals that emotion and uses it, instead of being overpowered by it. Reviewers often complain that reviewing a memoir is hard, because it’s unfair to judge someone’s life; I would argue that in reviewing a memoir, you are not judging a person’s life, but the way in which they choose to present it to you. For Clarke, presentation is paramount. Also repeated throughout the text is the touchstone phrase, “This is how it happened, or else what’s a story for.” It is not written as a question. She roots her telling in the storytelling traditions of West Indians (her father’s family is Jamaican, her mother’s Guyanese). The passage into adulthood is, in large part, a process that begins when you start being able to tell a story your own way. Clarke’s recounting of what happened to her is an act of authority and reclamation: she was hurt, she was beaten down, and now she will not be silenced any longer. If you have any sense, you will buy this book immediately, and listen.

Many thanks to Grace Vincent at Corsair for the review copy. The Hate Race is published in the UK on 8 June.

Down the TBR Hole, #1

I’ve had a hard time focusing enough to write criticism recently. I’ve had a hard time finding enough time to read; it’s halfway through the month and I’ve just started the month’s sixth book, which, given monthly totals so far this year, is glacial. So to fill the gaps here, I’m turning to this meme, which I spotted on Jillian’s blog (originally created by a blogger called Lia) and which has the virtue of actually being mildly productive.

It goes as follows: set your to-read list on Goodreads to “date added” in ascending order, then go through five to ten books in chronological order to decide which ones are keepers and which ones you’re really, for whatever reason, never going to read. (My TBR, by the way, only represents books I’d like to read—they’re not necessarily books I already have.)

51i2hbyuo5lBook #1: Nicholas Nickleby, by Charles Dickens

Why is it on my TBR? Obviously, I want to read all of Dickens’s novels (and I’m getting there! 9 out of 15), but they’re not all listed on my Goodreads TBR. Given the date I added this—February 2013—I suspect I was impelled by a viewing of the film of Nicholas Nickleby. You know, the one with that pretty boy.

Do I already own it? Nope.

Verdict? Keep—I’ll own it one day, probably when I decide I’m sick of having mismatched paperback editions of Dickens and just buy a complete set that’s actually attractive.

Book #2: The Penguin Book of Renaissance Verse, 1509-1659, ed. David Norbrook51ni8eb9pql-_sx325_bo1204203200_

Why is it on my TBR? David Norbrook was one of my favourite lecturers. Also, there was a time when I thought my academic interest was almost precisely one hundred years earlier than it actually is.

Do I already own it? Nope.

Verdict? Keep—I really like Renaissance poetry, its vocabulary of allusion and the tensions between public and private that are inherent in a literature composed mostly by horny courtiers under constant surveillance. Plus it’s at its best when anthologised, and I suspect Norbrook’s is the best of those.

51s6nofzgwl-_sy346_Book #3: The Power and the Glory, by Graham Greene

Why is it on my TBR? I went on a bit of a Graham Greene kick in the summer of 2012; I presume this is a hangover from then.

Do I already own it? I don’t think so.

Verdict? Keep. It’s Graham Greene, for heaven’s sake.

Book #4: Brighton Rock, by Graham Greene41znbbtwill-_sx323_bo1204203200_

Why is it on my TBR? See above. I’ve had a thing about Brighton Rock for a while, though; it occupies this space in my mind as being about someone properly evil, although I’m not sure that’s actually true.

Do I already own it? Yes! The Chaos has a copy on his shelves.

Verdict? Slightly tricky, this. I tried it last year and simply couldn’t get the hang of it at all. But, again, it’s Graham Greene, and perhaps I wasn’t trying hard enough. KEEP!

51v7morcjel-_sx307_bo1204203200_Book #5: A Place of Greater Safety, by Hilary Mantel

Why is it on my TBR? Adored Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, enjoyed Beyond Black and Fludd, thought this was worth a go.

Do I already own it? Nope.

Verdict: Keep, obviously, oh God this isn’t going well as a culling exercise

Book #6: The Last Chronicle of Barset, by Anthony Trollope9780141199863-uk

Why is it on my TBR? I read the entire Palliser series, and the entire Barsetshire series except for this last installment, between 2012 and 2014. I’m a completist, and the Penguin English Library cover is gorgeous.

Do I already own it? Yes! Although it is in my grandparents’ garage in West Sussex.

Verdict: Keep, but maybe this particular version of it can be given away—the entire Barsetshire series was released as Penguin Clothbound Classics and I stare at them daily from my desk at work, wondering how long it will be before I just snap and buy them so that all my Trollopes match and look nice, like adults’ books, instead of the awful mismatched copies that I have now. (It is exactly the same sitch as with Dickens and I do not enjoy it.)

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The FACE on him. #sideeye

Book #7: Essays, by Michel de Montaigne

Why is it on my TBR? I first encountered Montaigne in a high school class called Humanities, which is probably responsible for saving the lives of several hundred bright, desperately bored kids in my hometown (Charlottesville, Virginia). I came across him again as an undergrad. The idea of writing essays—literally, “attempts”—to explore your own soul was hugely appealing.

Do I already own it? Sort of. I own a selected edition, but not the big-ass Penguin paperback that represents the complete version.

Verdict: Sigh. Keep, obviously. I’ve read a few of them and I really like him, as a writer, as a person. It’s just that there are so many.

Book #8: A History of the World in 100 Objects, by Neil MacGregor

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Shiny covers are a bastard to photograph, I guess

 

Why is it on my TBR? My dad got it one Christmas, and it looked comprehensive and interesting.

Do I already own it? No—the plan would be to read it when visiting my parents.

Verdict: Finally, a firm no! I’m sure it’s great, but MacGregor did it as a podcast originally, and I think this is basically just a print tie-in. Unnecessary.

51ejioetspl-_sy344_bo1204203200_Book #9: The Embarrassment of Riches: an Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age, by Simon Schama

Why is it on my TBR? 1: I used to fancy the pants off Simon Schama. (It was an early manifestation of a clear preference for older fellas.) 2: This is precisely the period I’m interested in. 3: Dutch paintings make me want to swoon with joy. 4: Material culture is fascinating.

Do I own it? Nope.

Verdict: Of the four reasons to read it given above, three are still applicable and legitimate, so keep, duh.

Book #10: Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut4120yizu-2l

Why is it on my TBR? Astonishingly, I escaped American public high school without ever having read this.

Do I own it? The Chaos might have a copy somewhere, but I don’t think so.

Verdict: I have to keep this, really. There is no reason in the world to decide I’m never going to read it. It’s just one of those books—like The Picture of Dorian Gray and A Tale of Two Cities—that has mysteriously never quite been compelling enough to be next. (But I read A Tale of Two Cities in January, so I bet I’ll get round to this.)


Conclusions: The very earliest stuff on my TBR is stuff I still want to read, either because it’s classic or canonical or because it’s about subjects I’m still interested in. This is kind of a nice thing to know. As we get closer to the present day, however, I fully expect to see the influence of increased exposure to bookish media—blogs, review sites, Twitter, etc.—and a trigger-happy index finger.

Am I wrong about any of these? Is Vonnegut not worth the hassle? Is Graham Greene a waste of time? (No.) Is Neil MacGregor’s book 1000% worth reading? Comments welcomed.

Tench, by Inge Schilperoord

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#6Degrees of Separation: The Slap

This game is like “6 Degrees from Kevin Bacon” only with books. You can join in too; the rules are here.

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First up: The Slap, a book I didn’t read when it came out but which made a lot of waves. I gather the controversy derives from the book’s opening chapter, in which an adult man slaps a child who isn’t his own at a barbeque. This is something I have frequently been tempted to do (though never done), which leads us to…

Sarah Hall’s incredible novel The Electric Michelangelo, about an early twentieth-century tattoo artist and his love affair with one of his customers, a woman who asks him to cover her entire body in tattooed eyes. (I’ve been batting around the idea of a tat for years, and not yet committed. But I wanna.)

The tattoo of an eye is the distinguishing mark of the major villain, Count Olaf, in Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. The series also features three siblings named Violet (a gifted inventor), Klaus (a voracious reader with a photographic memory), and Sunny (who likes biting, and, eventually, cookery).

One of Snicket’s authorial gimmicks involves expanding a young reader’s vocabulary by defining tricky words within the context of the story. The only other book I’ve read with an eye to its vocabulary was Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals, which we read in school and for which we were required to make word lists. I learned “lugubrious”, “catarrh” and “unctuous” this way.

I’d actually encountered “unctuous” the previous summer, when Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire came out. It’s the word Rowling uses to describe Igor Karkaroff, headmaster of Durmstrang, the Eastern European magic school whose students come to participate in the Triwizard Tournament at Hogwarts.

Where do you go from Harry Potter? Everywhere, or nowhere: it’s curiously self-contained, but influences all children’s literature that comes after it. But I have one out: I met J.K. Rowling in February 2014, and at the time, I was reading This Secret Garden: Oxford Revisited, by Justin Cartwright. It’s part of a commissioned series called Writers and the City, and I identified with the city’s psychic resonance in Cartwright’s life, long after he’s finished his degree and moved away.

C’est tout! Next month the chain starts with Shopgirl, by Steve Martin.

Reservoir 13, by Jon McGregor

The missing girl’s name was Rebecca, or Becky, or Bex.

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I’m growing more and more interested in the idea of reading protocols: roughly speaking, ways that we are primed to read and interpret a book given its genre, or its front cover design, or the name of its author. Jon McGregor’s name was familiar to me when I picked this up, but I’d never read any of his work before, so I had no real expectations. The front cover design gives little away. All you have to go on is the opening pages: a community-wide hunt for a thirteen-year-old girl who goes missing on the moors above an unnamed Peak District village, not far from Manchester. The reading protocols that most of us, I would guess, have developed by now prime us to expect that Reservoir 13 will focus on this disappearance: maybe it will flash back to the week before the girl vanishes, bring us forward in time; maybe it will take us into the police investigation, into the heads of the detectives trying to find her. Maybe we’ll learn what horrible thing happened to her, and why.

We don’t. That’s one thing worth knowing before you crack the spine of Reservoir 13: you never find out what happens. It’s a book that doesn’t so much challenge your expectations as ignore them. There is no point even in guessing what happened to the missing girl: we’re told, many times, that it could have been anything; an accident; something deliberately planned by her parents; a running away, a walk to the nearby motorway and a jump into a friendly-looking car and later a burial somewhere miles away, or maybe just the start of a new life. Although, over the years, two clues emerge from the surrounding landscape, they remain inconclusive. One of them isn’t even recognised as a clue and is discarded by the character who finds it, though we as readers are braced for it to be a breakthrough in the case.

Instead, the focus of the book is on the life of the village where the girl disappears. She and her parents are holiday-makers, passersby; the village, by contrast, is full of people who have lived there for years, people who farm and trade there and are making a life. The time period is never specified, but from context about what’s on the news, it’s probably the early 2000s. McGregor structures his book in thirteen chapters, each representing another year after the disappearance.

We are not permitted even the illusion of a single focal point. Unlike The Virgin Suicides, another novel set within and defined by a particular community, Reservoir 13 is not narrated by a “we”, and there is no main character. Instead the book’s voice is omnipotent and omnipresent, a godlike third-person narration that gives the impression of a village whose identity is a bit like that of Trigger’s broom: its composition is ever shifting, its inhabitants dying or moving or being born, but through some ineffable alchemy it remains recognisably the same place.

The other technique that contributes to this effect is McGregor’s use of the natural world, and the events of the farming year, as touchstones. Lambing, for instance, occurs every year and in every chapter. In the opening pages of the book, we are told that Jackson’s boys are seeing to it under the supervision of their aging father. By the end of the book, Jackson is confined to his bed after a stroke; it’s out of the question for him to play any sort of active role in the day-to-day workings of the farm, let alone the major events of the year. McGregor is quite willing to let his characters age and weaken—or age and mature, as in the case of Susanna Wright, who enters the village as an object of some suspicion, a yoga-practicing divorcée, and becomes embedded in the life of the community.

That is a particular beauty of Reservoir 13: all human life is here, and not in the Midsomer Murders sort of way that sees incest behind every rose bush. Instead McGregor introduces stories and characters that initially seem typically “English” (for which read: white, well-to-do, nuclear families) and gradually causes us to recognise that they’re more complicated. In one of the early chapters, Austin Cooper, the editor of the local paper, is complimented in the village shop on his wife Su’s pregnancy. Oh, okay, we think; young couple, probably yuppies or refugees from urban life, playing at journalism and housewifery. It’s only gradually that we learn that Su’s name is Su Lin; that her parents are Anglo-Chinese; that she works for the BBC; that Austin is sixty, and that for him marriage and fatherhood have long seemed unattainable joys. Likewise, Sally and Brian Fletcher appear to represent a classically dull village marriage: Brian is a permanent fixture on the parish council, Sally does volunteer-type things at the church and tracks butterflies in the nearby nature reserve. It’s with something of a shock that we learn they met online.

The obvious question, of course, is why tell this story, and why tell it this way? The missing girl vanishes on page one and as far as narrative closure goes, that’s pretty much it. Her parents hang around the village for several years, returning every so often, to be seen as objects of pity and bafflement. But we never get even the tiniest inkling of what happened to her—the police seem to have none—and though McGregor invokes her as surely and regularly as he does the New Year’s fireworks and the springtime well-dressing ceremony, with the quotation used at the top of this post, there is never much in the way of elaboration. Reservoir 13 is not about Rebecca Shaw’s disappearance.

But it could not be the book that it is without her. Everyone in this village carries a burden, even—especially—those who seem the most secure. Bossy matriarch Irene is becoming increasingly physically threatened by her developmentally disabled son Andew; Jones the school caretaker, convicted of possessing child pornography (charges he denies), is a full-time carer for his sister. Susanna Wright’s ex-husband is dangerous. Young James kissed Becky Shaw the day she disappeared. Wherever there is a community, there are people living in the shadows of their own secrets, in the light of the inexplicable secrets of their neighbours. Jon McGregor’s genius, in Reservoir 13, is to tell stories about the people who continue to live in such a place, the people who have to continue existing on land that holds great suffering and great sorrow and great mystery. The fact that Rebecca Shaw disappears there only serves as the most extreme example of that mystery. That place is our neighbourhood, and everywhere; the people are us, and everyone.

Reservoir 13 was published in the UK on 1 April 2017 by 4th Estate.

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.