One of the Boys, by Daniel Magariel

I’d seen him whip my mother with a belt before. The difference was: she deserved it.

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I know—it’s not a very promising quotation to start a review with. Don’t run away. The ugliness of that “she deserved it” is the point; it’s where everything you need to know about this novel is located, and what you need to know is more complicated than simple, shopworn misogyny (although that’s a large part of it.) Magariel’s debut novel is told through the eyes of a twelve-year-old boy, whose name we never learn. As the book opens, he and his brother—also unnamed—are driving to New Mexico with their dad. They’ve won “the war”, their father’s name for the divorce and custody battle they’ve just gone through, and they’re about to start afresh. Except, of course, that they aren’t, or rather their father isn’t; he is simply moving the boys to a place where nobody knows them, where they’ll be isolated and easier to manipulate and control, and where he can fuel his cocaine habit unbothered by family or acquaintances. The reader clocks all this within the first chapter. The boy takes much longer, and the book—it’s very short, almost a novella at 165 pages—is about his journey towards understanding his father’s abusiveness and being able, finally, to reject it.

Unsurprisingly, this makes for tough reading. The reason it’s bearable is, largely, because it’s so short; this is no A Little Life, no relentless slog through hundreds of pages of sadism and misery. This is short sharp shocks: like that “she deserved it”, like the bizarre scene where the boy skips school, flirts with an older neighbour at the swimming pool and is nearly indoctrinated by her into the world of sex, like the father’s ability to flip from tender protectiveness to beating his naked child with the buckle end of a belt in the space of a second. The reader learns to be on edge, our constant bracing a mirror image of the permanent strategising going on in the boy’s brain.

The father is perhaps the best drawn character in the book. He is, of course, terrifying: Magariel shows us violent rage in ways that will make people who’ve experienced this sort of thing shake.

I was pulled from my brother’s body by my hair. My father’s backhand sent me staggering across the room. I crashed into the coffee table. Glass shattered around me, which seemed to send my father into a fury. He screamed that this was exactly what our mother had meant to do—divide and conquer. How had we forgotten? Why were our memories so short? Why weren’t we on his side? […] “Tell me you’re sorry. Tell me you’ll never do it again,” he said.

Upsetting though the physical violence is, it is not the most disturbing element of One of the Boys; that’s the last sentence in the quote above. Tell me you’re sorry. Hitting someone is one thing; trying to create a mindset that forces them to apologise to you for having been hit by you is a whole different level of manipulation and—although I don’t often use this word—evil. The incredible thing about One of the Boys is how it complicates that evil, how it acknowledges it and also shows us the father as, essentially, still a child himself. That doesn’t mean that he bears no responsibility for his actions, but rather, allows us to see that he isn’t an undifferentiated Big Bad to his children. “He could be so good to us sometimes,” the boy says, in heartbreakingly wistful retrospect. And he can: he often presents as a classic dad figure, providing fun and mischief and guidance. Even while the reader recognises that the father gets a self-aggrandising kick out of these sorts of performances, the appeal is obvious.

The father’s assumption of the heroic role is dependent on his making a villain of the mother, of course. He’s aided in this by the fact that she’s demonstrably imperfect: a weak-willed drunk whose immaturity apparently rivals his. Magariel makes the same point, with greater punch, that Emma Flint makes in Little Deaths: a woman needs to deviate only slightly from a norm in order to be open to charges of monstrosity. This is doubly the case when approval from a father is the reward for hating the mother; the boy notes that his mother’s approval never even seemed relevant to him as a child. There are some painful flashbacks to a moment when the boy and his brother decide to punish their mother in their own way: they throw water in her face and scream “We hate you! Fuck you!” That they’re doing it to demonstrate their loyalty to a man who repays perceived disloyalty with brutal physical assault doesn’t make it any less horrifying.

All the more of a relief, then, is the book’s ending: the boy has an opportunity to save himself and his brother by presenting himself, purple and bloodied from a recent beating, to a police officer. That’s where Magariel leaves us: blinking into the light along with our protagonist, hoping that this final act of “disloyalty”, this refusal to be “one of the boys”, complicit in his own destruction, will be enough to save him. As readers, we’ve seen the poisonous effects of silence and solidarity, but we haven’t yet, in this book, been taught to distrust the state. Where many books about abuse zero in on the indifference of police, children’s homes, and teachers, One of the Boys gives us reason to hope that these figures of public authority – unlike the private authority figure of the father – will do their jobs.

Which makes Magariel’s book, while definitely about the experiences of one particular child, also about something bigger: the abuses perpetrated more generally by a toxic ideal of masculinity. The boy and his brother are silent for so long because they want to belong to a social unit that is the familial equivalent of a treehouse with a NO GRILS ALLOWED sign. The father’s attempts to mould his children’s lives into a narcissistic male utopia is immature and destructive, but it recalls so much else: the worst of college fraternities. The worst of organised sports, with their “locker room banter” and their internal cruelties. The worst of private schooling. The worst of the military. These are worlds built on hierarchy and loyalty, on creating an image of a family, blood or chosen, allegiance to which is more important than individual lives. In showing the madness of this attitude through the microcosm of a family, Magariel offers a different way to be a man: sometimes the way to step up is to ask for help.

Many thanks to the publicity folks at Granta for the review copy. One of the Boys was published in the UK on 6 April.

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Meanwhile, Over At Shiny: First Love, by Gwendoline Riley

1000x2000Shiny New Books has undergone a revamp and now sports a new look! I’m over there today talking about Gwendoline Riley’s new novel First Love, published by Granta. Riley eschews plot, for the most part, in favour of a flashback-heavy atmosphere that focuses on the emotional life of her main character Neve. It’s stark, brutal, and elegant.

The New York Times Book Review runs a regular feature called By the Book, a kind of questionnaire for celebrated authors about their reading habits. Recently, the feminist writer Roxane Gay was featured. In answer to one of the questions—“Which genres do you especially enjoy reading, and which do you avoid?”—she replies, “I love literary fiction so long as it is not about (a) writers, (b) sad white people in bad marriages or (c) sad white writers in bad marriages.” Gwendoline Riley’s novel First Love ticks box c; it is about Neve, a writer from Liverpool, and her marriage to Edwyn, an older man. Their marriage is vexed, to say the least: there is some sweetness and canoodling, but an awful lot of it is harsh and even cruel. Yet what makes First Love more than just a story about Sad White People (trademark pending) is the way Riley preserves a semblance of impartiality. We’re not meant to feel sorry for Neve, exactly, or to see her as a victim; we’re meant to understand why she made the decisions that led her to this place, and why she makes the decisions that keep her here.

You can read the rest of the review here.

Virgin and Other Stories, by April Ayers Lawson

not being comfortable at church but always pursuing a belief in something

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Things I really like about Virgin:

  • The way it nails fundamentalist Christianity, but from the inside out, so that you see all the seams and the inconsistencies. A lot of writers who skewer this kind of religious atmosphere in their work seem to be setting out to do just that—skewer it—and Lawson’s take is so much more complex. Many of her narrators are raised in fundamentalism, but aren’t necessarily of it, so that you get kids like Conner in “The Negative Effects of Homeschooling” trying clumsily to woo Ally Kapawski in the half-hour after church when the kids are running around and the adults are being sociable. Ally, meanwhile, is not unaware of Conner’s advances, but instead of being either a “slutty hypocrite” stereotype or a bible-thumper, she’s just massively, entirely disinterested:

So I pressed my mouth against hers. She didn’t kiss back but she didn’t move away, either. I just pressed my lips to hers until I got embarrassed for not knowing what to do next… and then I got out of the car. She followed.

  • The way Lawson can take a narrative concept that seem predictable—older man preys on younger girl—and make it special to our eyes by particularising it. Take, for instance, “The Way You Must Play Always”, one of my favourites of the five stories. Here, the “older man” is dying of a brain tumour, and he is not that old, maybe in his late twenties. The young girl is Gretchen, who narrates the story; she is thirteen and the piano student of the older man’s sister. Gretchen is falling in love with the older man, or at the very least obsessed. She finds him a source of endless fascination—not explicitly sexual but not quite not sexual, either—and spends the week in between lessons planning how best to be alone with him for a few seconds. The fact that he makes her touch him is, undeniably, wrong, but Lawson makes us see how wrongness is not incompatible with a huge and shifty complexity. Gretchen does not invite her molestation, but there is something about the whole act that interests her, and that changes the way the reader sees it. It’s uncomfortable to catch yourself reading this way, but also highly unusual for a writer to actually make you do it, as Lawson does.
  • The first story, “Virgin”, does this same particularising work with a seemingly predictable narrative: a man cheats on his wife at a party. But it’s not just any man, and not just any wife: it’s Jake and Sheila, they’ve been married a few years, and Sheila won’t let Jake have sex with her. They’ve managed it once; afterwards,

she sighed with what he at first mistook for contentment and said, “I guess that’s it, then.”

…He felt as if she’d struck him again; his whole body rather than just his head. “You mean you don’t feel anything for me.”

“No. No. I love you… I just… It’s me. I try to look in your eyes and I can’t, and I know I’m supposed to, but I can’t. It’s fun, though. It’s great. It’s just me, is all. I shouldn’t have said anything. I talk too much.”

Sheila is also from a fundamentalist family, is a virgin when she marries, is working through the trauma of childhood sexual grooming by an uncle. The sad bewildered blundering of their marriage is given a counterweight in the mother and child Jake meets in his work as a press officer for the local hospital. The woman has given a lot of money for a mobile mammography unit; she wasn’t born rich, and she has an open, straightforward way of speaking and of being. So does her three- or four-year-old daughter, who, on a visit to Jake’s office,

began to pick up and examine objects on his desk: his brass paperweight, his Post-it notes, his pens. She looked at these things as if they were fantastic, turning them in her small white hands while the water-coloured eyes contemplated their sides from multiple angles. …He quickly began to sift through the contents of his desk for something that might interest the child. Found himself handing over pens, an old Rolodex, a small green clipboard bearing the logo of a pharmaceutical company. The child accepted these things with the air of one accepting precious gifts. Suddenly he had the feeling that all things in his office were sacred, were less and also more than what they were.

There’s something so gravely farcical about it, I can’t help smiling every time I read it back. The solemn little girl, the slightly flailing professional man paying her homage, the faintly amused mother watching the scene. The way it could be a parody of the shepherds and wise men visiting the infant Christ, or it could just be an awkward guy and a self-possessed kid, or—best of all—it could be both at once. It all just works so nicely.

Things in Virgin that don’t work quite as nicely:

  • Most of the final story, “Vulnerability”, which is long, is set in New York City as an artist falls for her art dealer. The artist isn’t from New York; she’s settled long ago into a life where her husband supports them and she paints and faintly despises or resents him while also loving him while also being exhausted by the whole situation for reasons she doesn’t really understand. She is the sort of character who continually tests the reader’s patience because, Jesus, what does she have to complain about? And yet there’s something about her that’s a little socially weird and deeply observant and, we sense, she’s not just complaining for the sake of it but because something about her life really does feel wrong to her, and it’s easy to understand that. Maybe the story goes on for a bit too long, but it is painfully precise: Lawson draws the lines of a burgeoning affair that’s happening only partly for reasons of attraction or mutual affection or interest with such clarity, such attention to detail.

What I really like about Virgin, though, is something it doesn’t often occur to me to like, because the whole point is that it doesn’t draw attention to itself: her prose is like glass. Totally clear, totally unobtrusive; perfectly capable of style, but generally more elegant than in-your-face. It’s a hard, hard effect to achieve, but it’s what makes these stories both emotionally incisive and gloriously readable.

Many thanks to Natalie Shaw at Granta for the review copy! Virgin and Other Stories is published in the UK on 5 January.

2016 In First Lines

I did a post like this two years ago, and forgot to repeat it last year. (Don’t worry; there’ll still be a good end-of-year roundup!) These are the opening lines of the first book I’ve read each month, with a little bit about said book, and what I thought of it. Reach for your TBR lists now, because most of these were great.

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January: “Inspired by Beyoncé, I stallion-walk to the toaster.” – American Housewife, by Helen Ellis. This somewhat manic collection of short stories, some very short indeed, tackles domestic femininity, pop culture, and societal double standards. It’s a little like a book version of Lucille from Arrested Development, delivering tart one-liners and clutching a martini. I didn’t love it, but I can respect what it was doing.

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February: “Enoch rounds the corner just as the executioner raises the noose above the woman’s head.” – Quicksilver, by Neal Stephenson. Book one of Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle—one of my favourite reading experiences this year—wherein we meet erstwhile member of the Royal Society Daniel Waterhouse, and follow him on the beginning of his mission to reconcile Newton and Leibniz.

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March: “I looked like a girl you’d expect to see on a city bus, reading some clothbound book from the library about plants or geography, perhaps wearing a net over my light brown hair.” – Eileen, by Ottessa Moshfegh. Nyer nyer, I read it before it was longlisted for the Booker Prize. Highsmith-esque noir plotting meets serious psychological ishoos; Eileen is an unforgettable character.

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April: “My name is Sister.” – Daughters of the North (published in the UK as The Carhullan Army), by Sarah Hall. An absolute belter of a book that takes the ideas of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and pushes them further, to more interesting places, than Atwood ever does. Another of 2016’s highlights.

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May: “They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days.” – My Cousin Rachel, by Daphne du Maurier. Start as you mean to go on, Daphne: ominous as all hell. This tale of a femme fatale—maybe—and a hapless young man—maybe—is an ideal stepping stone to the rest of du Maurier’s work after Rebecca.

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June: “In 1972 Spring Hill was as safe a neighbourhood as you could find near an East Coast city, one of those instant subdivisions where brick split-levels and two-car garages had been planted like cabbages on squares of quiet green lawn.” – A Crime in the Neighbourhood, by Suzanne Berne. What I loved about this book was how adroitly Berne makes us sympathise with a kid who does a cruel and terrible thing: how completely we enter her head.

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July: “When it began, it began as an opera would begin, in a palace, at a ball, in an encounter with a stranger who, you discover, has your fate in his hands.” – The Queen of the Night, by Alexander Chee. I’ve raved about Chee’s book here before. Opulent, atmospheric, full of detail: it’s not only a great summer holiday read, but would make a great Christmassy one, too.

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August: “That day I woke up from a dream the way I always woke up: pressed against my mom’s back, my face against her and hers turned away.” – The Mare, by Mary Gaitskill. A raw and absorbing book about Velveteen Vargas, a Dominican teenager, and the world of horse-riding to which she’s exposed during a Fresh Air Fund trip. How Gaitskill inhabits her characters so faithfully is beyond me, but I’m not complaining.

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September: “I liked hurting girls.” – Diary of an Oxygen Thief, by Anonymous. One of the less impressive books I’ve read this year, in all honesty (and perhaps unsurprisingly, given that opening gambit). More on that in an end-of-year post.

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October: “One afternoon on a weekend in March, Dewi Ayu rose from her grave after being dead for twenty-one years.” – Beauty Is a Wound, by Eka Kurniawan. I was initially bowled over by this book, but Didi’s comments made me look at its use of sexual violence afresh, and I was a bit less pleased with it after that.

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November: “On my 18th birthday my Uncle Keith took me to see Charlie Girl, starring the one and only Joe Brown, who I was in love with and was very much hoping to marry.” – Where Do Little Birds Go, by Camilla Whitehill. Whitehill’s words, plus the acting of Jessica Butcher in the production that I saw, combine to make this one-woman show about exploitation and power dynamics in the Kray twins’ London one of the best plays I’ve seen this year.

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December: “There is a boy.” – Signs for Lost Children, by Sarah Moss. Moss’s latest novel, The Tidal Zone, was the first of hers I’ve read, but I honestly think Signs for Lost Children is better: in the late 1800s, Tom Cavendish and Ally Moberley, recently married, are separated by Tom’s engineering work, which takes him to Japan for a span of months. While he is gone, Ally, a qualified doctor, works at Truro women’s asylum. In each other’s absence, both of them must face their fears and, eventually, trust each other again.

So! What do these say about my reading this year? (Well, this year so far; December has hardly started.) Two-thirds of these titles are by female authors, though I went through phases of reading mostly men, then mostly women. None of the authors of colour I’ve read this year are represented, which suggests the limitations of this method (showcasing only the first book read in each month). Nor are the genres, which included a little more sci fi, fantasy, memoir and short story collections. What this selection does suggest, though, is that this was a good year for reading. There were very few books I didn’t enjoy at all, and many that I truly adored.

Soon to come: my top books of 2016, or The Year In Reading, to be followed by the year’s dishonourable mentions.

The Tidal Zone, by Sarah Moss

It is not all right, but there is beauty.

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Sarah Moss’s new novel begins with a fifteen-year-old girl who, one day, for reasons no doctor can quite discern, collapses on the field at school and stops breathing. Her name is Miriam Goldschmidt, known to her family as Mimi or Mim, and although the novel starts with her “incident”, as others call it, what it’s actually about is Mimi’s father Adam and the way he responds to this inexplicable medical hazard that now hangs over his daughter. Adam is a stay-at-home father, and I think it highly telling that, although there are plenty of stay-at-home fathers in the world, and although I read at least a hundred books a year, I cannot think of a single book I’ve read that adopts the point of view of such a man. Moss uses Adam’s maleness as a way of turning on their heads all of the stereotypes about women who have children; it achieves the effect that one of Helen Simpson’s short stories in Cockfosters, “Erewhon”, is going for, when it gives to a late-middle-aged man an internal monologue of fears and worries about undesirability and how to have an equitable marriage when you’re not the breadwinner. The Tidal Zone works where “Erewhon” doesn’t quite, because it’s very firmly grounded in reality: Adam and his wife Emma exist in our world, where their division of household labour is viewed as progressive and vaguely alien, whereas “Erewhon” is essentially a social fantasy.

This is the first novel by Sarah Moss that I’ve read, but you can tell, from reading it, what her strengths as a novelist must be in her other books too: voice, character, and weaving poetic interstices among the episodes of action that draw them all together, give the reader a chance to breathe. The Tidal Zone is full of social commentary that passes off so casually, usually in dialogue and quite often in sarcasm, that you don’t see it until it’s already happened. Miriam, for instance, is a very clever and very infuriating fifteen-year-old with all of a fifteen-year-old’s rage and idealism: she’s awake to feminism, to the iniquities of global capitalism, to the way that the older generation seems to have so comprehensively fucked over today’s adolescents and young adults. She’s annoying about it, because she is persistently cynical and refuses to admit any comforting pabulum in any form (she mocks her father for suggesting, after her cardiac arrest, that they move to the country; she knows the narrative he’s trying to follow, and she knows that it’s “all fantasy and self-congratulation”, as she puts it). But she’s also bang on the money most of the time, and sharply funny with it. When a family friend sends her a copy of his latest book to read while she’s in hospital, she is disgusted:

“No, Dad, that’s monstrously egotistical. Oh, sorry you nearly died, you’d better read my book. My monstrously egotistical book about how when I go for a walk it’s a profound moral and spiritual experience that makes me a better person than you, but when you go to the same place you’re just a tourist messing things up… It’s a pile of bullshit about how he’s weighed down by sorrow for my generation, only not like normal adults are because we’re being badly educated for jobs that don’t exist in an economy that condemns us to poverty and homelessness, but because we can’t tell the difference between the lesser marshwort and the – the flowering marsh grass, which all goes to show that we’re losing our vital and precious sense of being at one with the natural world, rather than for example showing that the world’s moved on and by the time we’re grown up two-thirds of the global population will be living in cities and not actually giving a fuck about the lesser marshwort, and it doesn’t seem to have crossed his sorrowful little mind that if we all went and joined him communing with the fauna of furthest outer Scotland it would in fact be full of people and he’d have to find somewhere else to be superior—”

Which actually made me grin with black-hearted glee, because Miriam pinpoints so unmercifully, of course, a particular kind of bullshit nostalgia evident in contemporary nature writing (I’ll name no names), and links it so acutely to a need for superiority. It’s incisive and wonderful, and it’s also expressed in a manner entirely in keeping with a fifteen-year-old: she doesn’t sound implausibly adult, here, but like a smart, articulate, really pissed off teenager, which is exactly what she is throughout the course of the book.

Likewise, Adam’s existence as a very part-time academic (he’s working on a book about the reconstruction of Coventry Cathedral) and full-time dad is laid bare for us in a conversation that he has with the father of one of Miriam’s friends:

He came to lean on the kitchen counter, watched me run a spatula round the springform cake tin… “Looks as if you really know what you’re doing. I don’t get much beyond a ready meal myself. Well, apart from the barbecue in the summer.”…He shifted his feet, as if his balls were too big for him to stand straight. I never know what I’m supposed to say to remarks like his.

…”They’re not keeping you too busy up at the University then?”

“Oh, I’m very part-time there. Just teaching once a week.” Just to get me out of the house, I didn’t say, to make a change from Pilates and getting my hair done; look, mate, it’s a job, the making of cakes and the washing of sheets, the coordination of laundry with PE lessons, the handling of the Christmas shopping and the girls’ dental appointments, and the fact that your wife does it on top of her paid work without you noticing does not make you clever.

To which, obviously, one says, Amen.

Not that Adam is a model of meek domesticity—he and Emma have marital problems aplenty, one of which is that they don’t communicate with one another very well and another of which is that they seem not to have had sex for an unbelievably long time. Both of these have to do with the fact that Emma is a GP working twelve-hour days, and although Adam knows well enough that Emma’s paycheck is what enables them to live as comfortably as they do, there is still a level of resentment there. It’s a low-level toxicity, the kind that results in a slow accretion of petty frustrations. You’re never really sure, reading The Tidal Zone, what the stress of Miriam’s “incident” and subsequent diagnosis (such as it is) is going to do to Adam and Emma’s marriage. At several points in the novel, I was almost positive it was going to end in divorce.

Moss is too canny to let us feel as though it’s all definitely going to be okay at the end—it would be nonsensical for us to feel that way given that the entire preceding novel has been precisely about the impossibility of knowing that it’s all definitely going to be okay. Her prose is fluid and sensual and gorgeous, and it is particularly well suited, I think, to describing the emotional phenomena that surround medicine and un-wellness. Adam is so badly affected by the suddenness of Miriam’s collapse, by its inexplicability, that he wanders the house unable to do anything after she returns to school. Every siren could be going to her, or going to Rose, their younger daughter. He monitors their sleep. He reminds Miriam with a zealousness bordering on mania to take her epipen with her at all times. He is afraid that the anaphylaxis will be triggered by cold, or hunger, or by running too fast. He reminded me, more painfully than I had expected, of my mother, who must have gone through precisely the same agonies when I was diagnosed with Type I diabetes at the age of three; who spent most of my childhood making sure that there was a juicebox and some peanut butter crackers in my emergency bag; who made me run up and down the stairs when it rained, to get enough exercise. Terror; love; the same thing.

The Coventry Cathedral project that Adam is working on forms a secondary strand to The Tidal Zone (the story of Adam’s parents—his father, born the child of Jewish refugees in Brooklyn, now in Cornwall; his mother, who drowned in a freak accident when Adam was a boy—is the third and final subplot.) His monograph (or, rather, his “geolocative media app”, since that is the sort of academic project that gets funded now, he tells us) is about the reconstruction of the cathedral after it was bombed to bits in the Second World War. The story of Coventry Cathedral is a story not just of recovery after great trauma, but of how that great trauma forges great beauty. The deaths of Coventry’s citizens, and the murder of the Jews in the Holocaust, are everywhere reflected in the new cathedral’s design: in the tapestry, Christ In Glory, that rises the height of the building; in the saints and angels of the West Screen, “angular, emaciated… in the image of those liberated from Nazi concentration camps.” In the roofless ruins that are left as they stand. That’s how you transform an experience that could destroy you: you make it beautiful. You tell a story.

Moss integrates her themes so well that, as I thought about the book after reading it, I kept pulling out new strands and thinking, “Ah, yes! Oh, that makes sense too, in conjunction with this, and with that bit…” If I’m honest, I’m still not entirely sure how she does it—maintains that limpid, vivid prose while being so elegant with the big ideas underpinning it all. It’s an extraordinary book, an unforgettable one, and one I’d urge on anyone, really. Perhaps by reading her other books, I’ll work out how it’s done.

Many thanks to Lamorna Elmer at Granta Books for the review copy. The Tidal Zone was published in the UK on 7 July.

Negroland, by Margo Jefferson

We are not what They want to see in their books and movies. Our We is too much like theirs.

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Negroland is a book that speaks to the publishing zeitgeist in a lot of ways. Publishing it now—the year after Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, two years (can it really be? But it is) after Claudia Rankine’s Citizen—all but guarantees it an audience of fascinated, worthy, middle-class, progressive white folks. The past few years have been years of a growing awareness that race and racism aren’t done with us yet, or rather that we’re not done with them, and we have consequently come to expect certain things from the memoirs that black writers give us: anger, disappointment, examples of breathtaking prejudice and ignorance, perhaps even physical danger. That Negroland is subtitled “a memoir” primes a reader accustomed to the genre.

But from the start, Margo Jefferson is not writing that sort of book, not really. You can tell, a little bit, if you look at the front cover: those pristine gloves, that bright young smile, that perfectly coiffed hair. This isn’t a book about microaggressions and repressed rage and potential, or rather, it is but only insofar as it is also a book about negotiating an extremely fractured identity. Blackness is a part of that identity, but blackness itself is a fraught spectrum of things: dark/light, good hair/bad hair, nose, lips. “Negroland” is the word Jefferson uses to describe elite black society, the Talented Tenth championed by Frederick Douglass: self-conscious, self-aware, often arrogant, the Third Race, often either passing for white or existing in semi-isolation as token black families in progressive white neighborhoods. “Negroland” is the epitome of respectability politics. Respectability politics, of course, is heavily dependent upon each individual maintaining respectability—which places an almost unbearable amount of strain upon those individuals, each of whom is tasked with the representation of their entire race. It’s that strain, the effects of that constant internalized self-policing, that Jefferson is interested in. Her interest in that strain makes Negroland a cunningly unexpected addition to the many recent books about race relations.

She knows perfectly well what sort of book her reader might be expecting, and she’s going to try her best not to write it:

I think it’s too easy to recount unhappy memories when you write about yourself. You bask in your own innocence. You revere your grief. You arrange your angers at their most becoming angles.

She repeats this paragraph at least twice more throughout the book, dotted through the manuscript like raisins in a cake. She wants us to know how much energy she is putting into maintaining some sense of objectivity. Or, if not objectivity, fairness, or perhaps just analysis. Much of this is to do with her generation, I think: she gives the impression that there’s something vaguely unseemly about confessional. But, at least the first time this paragraph crops up, she also says something which makes clear that reticence is at the very heart of what Negroland is:

I was taught you don’t tell your secrets to strangers—certainly not secrets that expose error, weakness, failure. Nothing is just personal. And all readers are strangers.

Nothing is just personal was the other quotation I was considering for this review’s header. It strikes at the very root of Jefferson’s point in this book: black people in America who had an element of physiological, genealogical, economic and social privilege—black people who spoke softly, had light skin, whose ancestors had owned property before the Civil War or purchased it just after, who had straight (or straightenable) hair, were doctors, lawyers or teachers—were never allowed to just be humans. They were test cases for their race. They knew it all too well. The way that Jefferson builds a potted history of middle-class black America belies the “memoir” slapped on the front cover, too; this book is partly about her childhood and youth, yes, but much of it is also about the history with which she was laden. Whole chapters read more like the elliptical essay-style of (to pick two of my recent reads) Rebecca Solnit or Katie Roiphe than like an impassioned memoir about race in twentieth-century America. That is precisly the brilliance of Negroland in a stylistic sense: the book is constructed so as to force a reader to see it as something contrary to their expectations, at least in parts, at least for a while. Jefferson profiles historic black achievers: Charlotte Hawkins Brown, a groundbreaking black educator; Joseph Willson, the child of a former slavemaster by his housemaid, who became a dentist and a chronicler of the emerging black middle classes in the 1840s. She writes with mingled pain and sympathy and frustration of their snobbish devotion to the markers of white culture: Shakespeare, Milton, Schubert, Beethoven.

Jefferson became politically aware in the 1960s and ’70s, when the pendulum seemed to be swinging the other way. She writes of Black Power meetings where she was mocked for her light skin and arched nose; she writes of middle-class, well-educated, café au lait girls that she knew who married “ghetto” men in order to prove that they were not race traitors. At least one of these women, whose husband was involved in drug selling, was shot in the head and killed, less than a year after her marriage. She writes of two black women, one whose hair was relatively straight and one whose hair was a cropped mass of kinky fuzz. Both wore Afro wigs to political meetings; they met in the women’s bathroom, fixing their wig caps. There is an extraordinary sense, in this section, of not being able to win for losing. Especially for black women, beauty has traditionally been set at a standard of impossible, ridiculous whiteness; the rise of black power, its politicization of absolutely every act and choice in daily life, was like an electric shock to a black middle class that was so invested in doing whiteness (etiquette, courtesy, education, achievement) better than white people. Jefferson never says it in so many words, but I wouldn’t have blamed her at all for asking—rhetorically, of course—”So what the fuck, then, are we meant to do?” She does tell us that she became clinically depressed as a young woman, that she was disgusted by her own depression, and that to be thus depressed—to have any kind of mental ill health—was not discussed in her family’s circles. That was weakness, the sort of thing that you would not say to strangers, would not confess to unless absolutely necessary. You didn’t hand people that kind of ammunition.

People do, of course, manage to self-actualize even under the weight of such immense cultural expectation; Jefferson is particularly hamstrung by her own personality, which wants to please and satisfy as many people and requirements as possible. She’s frank about this, outlining her childish tendency to show off and her adolescent agonies about not being able to fit into any one group. She tells us that she never marries, though she obviously has a romantic life, and that she never has children, and the brief glimpses that we get of the contemporary Margo suggest that she has gotten there: she knows who she is, now, not who someone else wants her to be.

Still, the most poignant line in the book belongs to her mother, Irma. As a young bride stationed with her husband in a mostly-black air force base at the beginning of World War II, she writes a letter to a friend. It is merry and upbeat, and it ends with the exclamation, “Sometimes I almost forget I’m a Negro. That’s something, huh?” She doesn’t mean Living as a black woman is terrible but sometimes I can forget about it; she means Sometimes I nearly get to just be the person that I am: not a whole race and many millennia of history condensed into one body, not a test case, not a Good Negro. Sometimes I can almost believe that I am just Irma Jefferson, and that the choices I make affect no one but myself. That’s something, huh? It is.

Many thanks to Nat Shaw at Granta Books for the review copy. Negroland was published in the UK on 2 June.

Journeyman + The Violet Hour

April was so efficient a reading month that May was bound to be a bit slower by comparison; literally almost anything would have been. I’ve read nothing but review copies this month so far, and have still only finished four books in twelve days (and written reviews of two of them). So as not to fall behind, I’m putting my reviews for both Journeyman and The Violet Hour into the same post. They’re not desperately similar books, but, like many literary pairings, the more you think about them in conjunction with one another, the more they seem like two different ways of dealing with the same thing.

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Journeyman, by Marc Bojanowski (Granta)

After Daredevils, Bojanowski’s protagonist Nolan reminded me a bit of Jason, in the way that he’s an essentially good man who is often (though, crucially, not always) defined by his passivity. This isn’t Bojanowski’s first novel, but it’s the first of his that I’ve read, and it strikes me that he’s very much a writer of themes. That isn’t to say he doesn’t do them well—the integration of plot points into the service of theme is generally elegant and often slyly surprising—but you can bet your boots that when something does happen in this book, it will be resonant in more ways than one.

It starts as it means to go on. The title is a reference to Nolan’s occupation: he’s a journeyman carpenter. But it’s also, very pointedly, a reference to his identity: he’s a journey-man, one who is always moving, always packing up and heading on. “What’s that saying?” his brother Chance sneers. “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” Nolan’s MO for life, it seems, is to get the hell out of Dodge whenever it starts to look too much like reality—commitment, mortality, what-have-you—is closing in. When he visits Chance in California, it’s meant to be a courtesy call, but he loses his truck and Airstream trailer in an accident and finds himself stranded there, unwillingly putting down what you might start to call roots.

Western literature’s original journey-man is Odysseus (technically I guess it’s probably Gilgamesh, but POETIC LICENSE), whose character becomes defined by war to the extent that he can’t bring himself to just go back home. He has to keep having adventures, keep escaping death, keep being larger than life. Nolan’s relationship to war is much more ambivalent, but equally haunted. The book is set in 2007 or 2008, a time when the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan were real and present to almost every American, and especially to young men of fighting age. Nolan has not enlisted, and neither has Chance. Meanwhile, their father—a shadowy but hugely influential figure in their lives—was a veteran of Vietnam, about which he never spoke. At one point Nolan mentions the way in which participating in war demarcated adulthood for the men of previous generations; now, even those who’ve seen combat are not so much purified and matured by the experience as they are deeply, deeply fucked up. Additionally, since that participation is optional, it’s not clear what can come to take its place. Both brothers are dogged by a feeling of having failed in some way obscure but profound. Chance is an obsessive, writing a thousand-page novel about a Russo-Japanese naval battle and pursuing a serial arsonist in the little town of Burnridge. (Burn-ridge, get it?) Nolan works in construction, represses most of his feelings of guilt and lost-ness, and runs like hell from anything that might tether him.

We’re meant to fear the repressed man—we’re taught that his bottled-up emotions will one day explode, most likely in violence, and probably all over us—but in Journeyman, it’s not Nolan’s repression that’s frightening; it’s Chance’s behaviour. Unstoppably loquacious, clearly unhinged, he babbles about conspiracy theories and death and meaning and consequences; he assaults a man in a pizza parlor in the belief that he is defending civilisation; he is transported to rage by the next door neighbour’s teenaged daughter’s loud music, and pours bleach on their lawn. His mania is precisely the sort of thing that the tidy facade of suburban northern California is meant to hide. But instead of joyous anarchy, it suggests a man who’s come loose from the moorings of his community, even from sanity. Bojanowski’s ending, which is quietly redemptive but far from saccharine, reinforces that: the importance of committing to a place, to people. Of not keeping yourself isolated in the universe.

The Violet Hour, by Katie Roiphe (Virago)

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The other day, I was killing time in a Pret and this old woman came up to me and asked if she could sit at my table. There was another seat free and I wasn’t waiting for anyone, so of course I told her that she could. She sat for a moment, then asked what I was reading. Normally when people ask what you’re reading, they either don’t really care, or they’re mad. Choosing not to commit myself by speaking, lest she was either one, I held up the book so that she could see the front cover. “Great Writers at the End”, she read the subtitle aloud. “I knew a great writer once,” she said.

“Which one?” I asked. I still had one finger in the book, marking my place.

“You probably won’t know her,” she said slowly. She wasn’t that old, really, but she had the face of a smoker and her eyes were rheumy and the words came slowly out of her mouth in the way that I’ve heard words come from people who are on heavy medication.

“Try me,” I said.

She shrugged. “Doris Lessing?”

We talked for forty minutes. Her name was Hetty. Her father had been a South African journalist, had known Mandela. They came to this country when she was five. She seemed to have moved in rarefied circles. She told me she was bipolar. Some of the celebrities she said she’d met were probably lies—she couldn’t explain, for instance, how she knew Paul McCartney or Audrey Hepburn—but some of it was, I think, the truth. She’d nannied for Eric Idle’s children. She had written songs. She sang a fragment of one for me. Her voice was low and sweet, the kind of voice that the 1960s and ’70s liked.

This isn’t really, I know, a review of The Violet Hour, but in a tangential sort of way it is a nod to the sort of thinking that Roiphe’s book provokes. She writes about famous authors just before their deaths, and about how death pervaded their lives and their arts. Many of them were obsessed, fearful of it or romanticizing it or both. Dylan Thomas thought he was dying at thirty and returned to the idea constantly. Susan Sontag refused to discuss her cancer diagnosis; her personal mythology, her exceptionalism, had no room for mortality. John Updike tried to keep death at bay, all his life, with illicit sex: affairs were proof of life. Maurice Sendak was perhaps my favourite of all the featured writers (though to me he is more an artist): his long-undiscussed sexuality, his long-term partner Gene, his dogs, his adoptive son. He seems to have been mischievous, cantankerous and generous in equal measure.

I would have liked to see Roiphe focus more on the work of each writer: their lives and personalities are reasonably interesting, but more judicious close reading of passages would have been nearer to my heart. The work, after all, is what distinguishes them. But there is something extraordinary anyway in hearing about their childhood brushes with disease and disaster, their neediness or their fearlessness or their posturing in the middles of their lives as well as at the ends of them. “All deaths are the same,” Roiphe writes, and that’s what I won’t forget from her book. Hetty, who seemed to have tangoed with greatness, was now a woman with faded curly hair and a slightly trembling hand, drinking coffee across from me on Kentish Town Road and telling me stories. She was just a person, just a human, who would die. I was a young, hungry, sharp-elbowed woman, listening to her voraciously, and I was just a person, just a human, who would die. I’ve met two or three very famous people in my life, and every single one of them, when I looked them in the eye, was just a person. Just a human, who would die. Roiphe quotes George Bernard Shaw, who, as usual, is both pithy and correct: “Don’t try to live forever; you will not succeed.” Nothing wrong with that, this book says.

Thanks very much to Natalie Shaw at Granta, and Grace Vincent at Virago, for the review copies. Journeyman and The Violet Hour were published in the UK on 5 May.