Reading Diary: from Wednesday to Wednesday

isbn9781408711156Simon Mawer is known as a writer of rather excellent spy novels, many of which are interconnected: The Girl Who Fell From the SkyThe Glass Room and Tightrope all have overlapping characters, and deal primarily with WWII espionage. (I reviewed Tightrope for Quadrapheme when it was released, and was impressed with Mawer’s ability to construct a female spy whose sex didn’t define her, and whose war trauma was acknowledged without being fetishised.) His new novel, Prague Spring, is set during a time that rarely gets treated, at least in the espionage fiction that I see: 1968, in Czechoslovakia, as the titular conflict draws near. Mawer has two sets of protagonists. The first is a pair of English undergraduates named James and Ellie, who are hitch-hiking around Europe and who head to Czechoslovakia more or less on a whim. The second is a British diplomatic official in Prague, Sam Wareham, and a young Czech student, Lenka, with whom he is conducting an affair. These four come into contact with each other about halfway through the book, and one of Mawer’s greatest successes is in showing how insistently social life asserts itself, even as huge political rumblings occur in the background: gigs and meetings and parties don’t stop even as Leonid Brezhnev continues to pressure Alexander Dubček. The espionage element of the plot exists, but is downplayed in favour of exploring political innocence and coming of age. Ellie is a passionate student protester (she was arrested in Paris, which gives her a mystique in James’s eyes), but events in Prague quickly overwhelm her limited and privileged experience of political conflict. The Czechs, meanwhile, experience this disillusionment on a grander scale, as Soviet forces invade the country and crush hopes for a more liberal society. Prague Spring is a much-needed examination of the human cost of repressive regimes, and also a rattling good read.

a1k1al3vf5lThe Golden Age of crime writing is having quite the renaissance at the moment; I presume much of this is down to a desperate desire for escapism on the part of politically left-leaning readers, and a certain level of satisfaction for right-leaning ones in the allure of a simpler, jollier, more British age. Rachel Rhys’s second novel written under that name (it’s the pseudonym of psychological thriller writer Tammy Cohen), Fatal Inheritance, is set just post-WWII and takes place primarily on the French Riviera, where frustrated housewife Eve Forrester finds herself sitting in a solicitor’s office being informed that the last will and testament of Guy Lester, a man she’s never met, has named her as the beneficiary of a quarter share of his beachside villa. Needless to say, Lester’s adult children and wife are furious, but Eve wants to discover the nature of her connection to them, so, despite a barrage of irritated telegrams from her cold and boring husband, Clifford, she remains in France. As she attempts to investigate, it becomes increasingly clear that someone is trying to murder her – and that this might have some connection to a file of old newspaper clippings about a man killed in a London park decades earlier. Fatal Inheritance wears its influences unabashedly on its sleeve (I noticed some Mary Stewart, some Du Maurier, some Christie), although it’s not as original or as engaging as any of them: Eve is sympathetic but a bit of a blank, and the ultimate explanation feels a bit anticlimactic. Still, it’s a sunny summer book that practically reads itself. If it’s your sort of thing, it’ll definitely be your sort of thing, if you see what I mean.

17903275I love advice columns. I love the whole concept of them, the placing of your confusion and entanglement into the hands of a kind, sensible stranger who can step back, look at what they’re holding, and tell you the shape of it. Cheryl Strayed’s column Dear Sugar, published at The Rumpus a few years back, is one of the undisputed classics of the genre. I’ve read Tiny Beautiful Things, a collection of some of those columns, before, but I come back to it every few years because Strayed takes people so seriously that it makes me want to cry. She makes their interactions a two-way street: not just some lost soul asking for help, but a conversation in which Strayed shares moments of vulnerability, or of epiphany, in her own life. It helps that she writes with lyrical grace that never falls into the trap of being self-satisfied, and it helps that she has had, by anyone’s standards, a life both tough as hell and outstandingly lucky. She knows whereof she speaks. I used to have a mug that said “Write like a motherfucker” on it, which is a quote from a Dear Sugar column (and to be honest with you, I want that mug back; I’ll buy another someday soon). But my favourite letter is from a man whose son was killed by a drunk driver several years ago, and who is struggling mightily to carry on. It’s a long letter, and the response is long too, but the final three sentences make me weep every time I read them – whether I’m in public or not, whether I’m feeling particularly sad that day or not. I think you, whoever you are, owe it to yourself to get hold of a copy of this book somehow and read them too.*

*Okay, okay: there’s a link to that column online here. Read it, and then buy the book.

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Varina is a historical novel about Varina Davis (née Howell), who married Jefferson Davis, the man who was later appointed President of the Confederate States of America. It’s a hell of a task, as a fiction writer, to humanise people whose ideas and ideals are so obviously, now, wrongheaded. The point on which Charles Frazier is to be commended is that he opens his arms to the complexity of this task. Jefferson Davis is here not portrayed as an evil man, but nor are his flaws brushed over: he’s ambitious, somewhat cold, and has a self-martyring streak. Varina is very clever, pretty, combative, and lonely. Her story is told in flashbacks, through conversations with a black man named James who was raised with her children – not as a slave or servant, but as part of her family – during the years of the Civil War. Varina’s and James’s relationship is complicated (did she really pick him up off the streets of Richmond, or is he her child? Is he Jeff’s?) and their conversations involve elusiveness, and illusion, on Varina’s part. All James wants is the truth about his past; Varina either can’t give it to him entirely, or can’t psychologically lose whatever she would need to lose in order to do that. She is a mystery to the reader much of the time, but Frazier is a gifted writer of character and so the result is not a cipher (like Eve Forrester of Fatal Inheritance, see above) but a woman who is enigmatic because she wants to be; not because there’s nothing there, but because there’s too much there. The musings on the rightness or wrongness of slavery that such a book must contain are integrated in a way that feels psychologically convincing. Varina recognises from the age of five that there is something odd about having masters and slaves – not necessarily good or bad, to her mind, but strange. Her observations of Jeff’s relationship to his longtime body slave and friend, Pemberton, acknowledge that strangeness too. Varina, as a novel, is thus both responsible and artful. We can talk about this in fiction, and the job of doing so can be taken up fruitfully by white writers as well as writers of colour, if we can be honest both to the characters and to the history. We must.

Thoughts on last week’s reading: Two new releases, an older title, and a proof of a forthcoming book: that’s a pretty good balance. To have enjoyed three out of four is also not bad, though it’s sad that I didn’t love the only author here that’s new to me.

 

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17. Goblin, by Ever Dundas

41wf6v2bt7dl-_sx324_bo1204203200_Goblin is a phenomenal book. There.

No, I know, I can’t just leave it there. So: Goblin has flown under the radar a bit. It turned up in places where such books do turn up – in reviews by interesting book bloggers, on the Not the Booker Prize longlist, the occasional mention in a year-end best-of roundup – but there was never, as far as I can tell, much mainstream coverage, apart from a Guardian book-of-the-day review and some pieces in the Glasgow Herald and the Scotsman. I’m here to tell you that the neglect of this book was a travesty. It’s a novel set in WWII, during the Blitz, but it’s utterly unlike any other such novel I’ve ever read: scarier, fiercer, and infinitely more successful at conveying how completely and utterly the world has changed over the past seventy years. Like The Madonna of the MountainsGoblin allows the reader to inhabit the essential strangeness of the past.

The title is our protagonist’s name: she has never known another. Her mother hates her, calling her “goblin-runt born blue” and other, less savoury names. Her father is kinder, but ineffective. Goblin finds sanctuary with her older brother David – cool in her eyes, but viciously bullied by neighbourhood toughs – her friends, Stevie and Mac, whom she tyrannizes without much difficulty, and her dog Devil. The great pet massacre – a mass culling of domestic animals that really happened – results in Devil’s death, and David disappears. Goblin articulates her loneliness and her mental distress through intense, surreal, sometimes horrifying imaginative play: the story she invents for David is charming (he has gone, she believes, to be a pirate, and to marry a mermaid), but the voodoo-like creature she constructs to help with her grief over Devil is, if harmless, disturbing: a doll with a shrew’s head, a pigeon’s wings, one clawed foot, and arms made of dried earthworms, whom she names Monsta. She also has visions of various London “characters”: Queen Isabella, who carries her husband’s heart pinned to her dress; Miss Amelia, locked up in Newgate for murdering the orphans in her charge; and the Lizard King, who wept tears of acid for his dismembered wife and took horrible revenge on humans.

It’s extremely difficult to disentangle Goblin’s imaginative capacities, and what we would now call her socioeconomic disadvantages, from the possibility that she has a form of mental illness. In fact, I think that is exactly Ever Dundas’s point. Goblin‘s literary pedigree includes ancestors like Lanark and Gormenghast, books whose magical worlds are composed in roughly equal parts of menace, fertile chaos, and a sense of having been constructed somehow out of the raw materials of consensus reality. The wartime England of, let’s say, Atonement, or of Bletchley Park, did exist, somewhere, but so too did experiences like Goblin’s. Self-sufficient, confident to the point of arrogance, so frequently muddied and tousled that she lives for months as a boy: there is joy in the chaos that surrounds her, but there’s also the gaping hole left by the neglect of parents and by David’s abandonment.

Evacuating herself from London (she hops on a train with children from various schools; the ruse is never discovered), she experiences another form of neglect when chosen to work on a farm run by a couple whose behaviour towards their refugee children moves from distasteful to abusive. But the countryside is also where she finds love, with a beautiful girl named Angel, and friendship, with a piglet that follows her around and whom she names Corporal Pig. Goblin’s queerness is a permanent point of contention throughout her life, but especially in this context: the farmer and his wife attempt an exorcism that looks very much like the torture suffered by Sierva Maria in Of Love and Other Demons. She survives, and escapes back to London, but the experience reinforces her love and trust of animals above humans; her later life as the adopted daughter of two circus performers helps to restore some of that balance, but it can’t make up for what wasn’t there at the beginning.

The crisis of the book is precipitated by the need to look back at the past. In sections set in 2011, Goblin is living in Edinburgh, very elderly but apparently all right. Her best friend, Ben, is a homeless man with a dog of his own, whom she adores because he reminds her of Devil, and they get along together until Goblin is contacted by a Met detective: they need her to return to London and give testimony regarding a crime that they think she witnessed seventy years ago, during the Blitz. Readers will piece together the nature of this crime, probably, fairly quickly, but it’s testimony to the sheer strength of Goblin’s voice, her conviction in the rightness of her own made-up stories, that the crime seems slightly incredible until the very end. It explains much of the preceding book, but it doesn’t hold much weight on its own; in another novel I would say that it feels rushed or underdeveloped, but here I think that’s exactly what’s intended. Ever Dundas has built a character whose own world may be part coping strategy, part untutored brilliance, but whose imaginative strength so far outstrips the reader’s own rationality that we are pulled with her, wherever she goes: even, at the very end, to acknowledging the real nature of her history.

16. Washington Black, by Esi Edugyan

9781781258972Looking at that cover, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Washington Black was a sort of steampunk adventure, perhaps a kind of abolitionist The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. It’s not, though; apart from the dubious legitimacy of the flying machine on which Washington Black effects his escape from plantation slavery in Barbados (and, to be honest with you, it’s hardly a deus ex machina given that it promptly crashes mid-storm), everything about Esi Edugyan’s second novel is straight historical fiction. What’s remarkable about it is the sense of constant slight peculiarity that pervades the novel’s atmosphere: this is the nineteenth century and the slave trade and the racism that we know, but there’s more to see, more to experience, than hackneyed literary tropes. Like Washington, anyone reading this book must prepare to be surprised, not just once but repeatedly: by the way people can be so simple and yet so complicated; by the curious twists of fate.

Washington is lifted (quite literally) out of his life as a Barbadian slave by the brother of his sadistic master. Christopher, or Titch, as he insists that Wash call him, is a gentleman but also an amateur naturalist. An amateur does things for love. The pain and the irony of Titch’s and Wash’s relationship is that Titch, though intelligent and far more humane than his vile brother, still sees Wash as a tool or a means to an end. That Wash happens to have artistic skills, and a scientific mind, does not make him less of an object; he’s just an object that Titch respects. Wash is young, though, and because he’s been removed from the rough love of Big Kit, the slave woman who raised him, he is desperate for something to fill that empty place of affection. When the two of them are separated, in an Arctic snowstorm (long story; there’s a lot of travelling), it’s the idea that Titch has abandoned him that haunts Wash for decades. Much of the rest of the story involves his attempts to find his former master, and his struggles to find a place in the world, while remaining permanently haunted by a particular episode of violence just before he left the plantation and by the reward his former master placed on his head.

Love comes in the form of Tanna Goff, a mixed-race young woman whose father is an eminent marine naturalist. Wash becomes Goff’s artist and assistant in an attempt to get to know Tanna better. The complex implications of everyone’s racial identity in this household are left unspoken but profoundly acknowledged. There’s an ambiguity to Wash and Tanna’s relationship, too: she’s strong and clever and loving, and he loves her, but can they ever be enough for one another?

That Edugyan packs all of this in to a novel that is also an adventure story is testimony to how carefully she picks and chooses what to depict. An encounter with an octopus that takes a shine to Wash isn’t just a natural history caper; it’s another instance of the interplay between affection and power. Titch’s determination to construct his flying machine comes – despite his progressive thoughts – at the expense of his brother’s slaves, who are diverted from their regular labour to carry materials at his whim. There’s always a sense that there are two levels to the book: the signifiers, if you will (plot events, character actions), and the signified (what those events and actions reveal, or represent). Edugyan avoids heavy-handedness by having an inherently interesting story and by creating Washington Black himself, a boy it’s impossible not to feel for. It’s an excellent piece of work.

Reading Diary: reviews in brief

I’ve read eight books in between the most recent few #20BooksofSummer entrants, and, frankly, though I want to say something about each of them, I also don’t have much time. So here are some tiny reviews.

41ytm2ralil-_sx331_bo1204203200_Blackfish City, by Sam Miller

The premise: In a post-climate change world, a floating city is visited by a mysterious woman riding an orca and accompanied by a polar bear, seeking someone she lost decades ago,  .

How I’d (cynically) sell it: Blade Runner meets Philip Pullman.

The good bits: Lots of gender diversity, including a non-binary teenage main character. Extremely atmospheric. Wears its influences elegantly.

The bad bits: Somewhat awkwardly written, particularly in the dialogue. Plot uneven: front-loaded with contextless information, conflict resolved in haste and without giving this reader a strong sense of emotional connection to the characters.

Verdict: Three stars (worth reading, but won’t keep a hard copy).

31h4vpzmjvl-_sx321_bo1204203200_Glass and God, by Anne Carson

The premise: Well, it’s poetry, so there isn’t really one, but the book is divided into several sections, the first of which (“The Glass Essay”) explores the end of a love affair through the lens of Emily Bronte’s life and work.

How I’d (cynically) sell it: Maggie Nelson for heteros, if she was also a professor of classics.

The good bits: The images, and the phrasing, of “The Glass Essay” are some of the starkest poetry I’ve ever read. You remember too much,/my mother said to me recently.//Why hold onto all that? And I said,/Where can I put it down? 

The bad bits: The other parts of the collection are diffuse to the point of incomprehensibility, although I suspect there’s meaning in them; it’s just hard to break through to.

Verdict: Five stars (I’ve read this before, and I loved it then too.)

61lyilc0sfl-_sx305_bo1204203200_Vanity Fair, by William Makepeace Thackeray

The premise: The lives of Becky Sharp, a sexy, penniless governess on the make, and her friend Amelia Sedley – a fatally naive young gentlewoman – provide a frame through which to view English high society during the early to mid-nineteenth century.

How I’d (cynically) sell it: Well, it’s a classic, so the comparisons should go the other way round really, but the toxic female friendship around which the book revolves is echoed in popular culture from Mean Girls to Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”; plus, Becky’s strange positioning (partly an antagonist, partly a protagonist) is reminiscent of Du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel.

The good bits: Very funny. Total lack of purple-ness; you never have to wade through Thackeray’s syntax to get to his meaning, as you sometimes do with Dickens or Eliot. Every character drawn with merciless clarity, but also with pity or compassion for their weakness.

The bad bits: Very long. But that’s only really a drawback if you don’t like long books on principle; Thackeray needs it to be long because his plot needs decades.

Verdict: Five stars (this is my favourite book of all time, so that one was a gimme.)

11076123Half Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan

The premise: Hiero Falk had more raw talent than any other jazz trumpeter of his generation. In occupied Paris, he was taken away and interned, never seen again, presumed dead. Now, his former bandmates – Sid, who believes that he betrayed Hiero, and Chip, who believes Hiero is still alive – set out to find him again.

How I’d (cynically) sell it: The Time Of Our Singing with classical music stripped out and World War II injected into the space where it had been.

The good bits: Emotionally compelling. Characters believably weak and vulnerable. Evocation of Paris under occupation, and of the essence of jazz playing, is exceptional.

The bad bits: Perhaps it could have been more emotionally compelling. Sid does a lot of processing in the modern-day sections, and some of his self-awareness seems to have been arrived at with convenient rapidity.

Verdict: Four stars (have already recommended to many).

9780008146221The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books, by Christopher Wilson-Lee

The premise: Partly a biography of Hernando Colon, son of Christopher Columbus and his father’s first biographer; partly an account of Hernando’s attempt to build the first truly universal library.

How I’d (cynically) sell it: Fans of Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts, as well as people who get nerdy about the history of information technology, might like this.

The good bits: Some great analogies drawn between the idea of the universal library and the Internet. Hernando Colon’s life also happens to have been rather colourful: he first went to the New World as a teenager, and inherited a lot of his father’s personal drama (and lawsuits).

The bad bits: Not nearly enough about the intellectual connection between universal libraries and the Internet. To me this was the most interesting element of the book, and it felt very under-developed.

Verdict: Three stars (I’ve been sending it out steadily, but haven’t kept my hard copy).

71agbivj1slSigns of Life, by Anna Raverat

The premise: A young woman has an affair with a man in her office; her relationship ends badly; her affair ends badly; as she recounts this eventful history, is she telling us the truth?

How I’d (cynically) sell it: Glass and God as prose fiction.

The good bits: I can’t get enough of writing like this: material about destructive relationships, relayed in prose like a recently cleaned window (and, also, like a broken bottle).

The bad bits: I didn’t dislike any of it. You’ll either love this sort of thing or you’ll hate it.

Verdict: Five stars (bought with my own money, now on the shelf of Books To Save From Fire).

revelation_space_cover_28amazon29Revelation Space, by Alastair Reynolds

The premise: The Amarantin civilisation were wiped out nine hundred thousand years ago, just as they were on the cusp of discovering spaceflight. Dan Sylveste is determined to find out why, and forges an unholy alliance with the cyborg crew of the Nostalgia For Infinity to do so – but the Amarantin were crushed for a reason…

How I’d (cynically) sell it: A beguilingly written and plotted classic space opera.

The good bits: It’s funny, it’s engaging, the mystery is excellent, and most of the main characters are women (at least one is also of colour).

The bad bits: It’s longer than it needs to be, although the scenic route lets Reynolds write some fun worldbuilding stuff. Also, despite the presence of many female characters, Dan Sylveste is still written as an Asshole Genius Deserving Veneration.

Verdict: Four stars (I raced through it and had a great time. It’s also very well written. Just, ugh, men).

coverThe Silence of the Girls, by Pat Barker

The premise: The end of the Trojan War – Agamemnon’s quarrel with Achilles, the death of Patroclus, etc. – told through the eyes of Briseis, the slave girl over whom the former two famously fall out.

How I’d (cynically) sell it: I’m so tired of people comparing every book that glances at misogyny to The Handmaid’s Tale. This does, however, have the virtue of actually also being a book about sexual slavery. (I wouldn’t compare the two in any other way, though.)

The good bits: Very competently written, as you’d expect from Pat Barker, and absolutely merciless in the way it draws back the veil on ancient societies, war, and the vulnerability of women in those contexts. Hard to read the way Ghost Wall is hard to read (which is to say, in the best possible way).

The bad bits: WHY. ARE THERE SO MANY CHAPTERS. DEVOTED TO THE PERSPECTIVES. OF MEN. At least half the book is through Achilles’s eyes. I understand the need to create variation, but why couldn’t we have had a different female perspective to fulfill that requirement, instead? I was hoping for a panoply of women’s voices.

Verdict: Four stars (it’s still bloody good).

 

14. Now We Shall Be Entirely Free, by Andrew Miller

isbn9781444784671Now We Shall Be Entirely Free is set in 1809, just after the Spanish campaign of the Peninsular War. We first meet our protagonist, John Lacroix, being carried into his family home in Somerset: feet badly wounded and hearing severely damaged, he is on the edge of death, though his housekeeper Nell nurses him back to health. Meanwhile, we meet two other characters: an English soldier named Calley who witnessed English troops on the retreat committing an atrocity in a Spanish village, and a Spanish officer named Medina. Calley, after giving testimony identifying the man in charge of the raping and murdering troops, is charged by a shadowy superior to find the individual in question and kill him; the Spanish want proof that someone has been punished, but the English government’s position is sufficiently precarious that it needs to be done extrajudicially. Medina is assigned to keep Calley on track and to witness the murder as a representative of Spain. The juxtaposition of the two narratives suggests strongly to the reader that Lacroix – whom we know, so far, as a gentle and quiet man – was the officer named by Calley. As he sets out on a journey that will take him from Somerset to Bristol to Glasgow to the Outer Hebrides, and from frozen guilt and shame to redemption and love, suspense comes not merely from wondering whether Lacroix’s psychological scars will heal, but from the reader’s disbelieving anxiety: surely we know him, but could it be that he’s less than the man we think he is?

In fact, he is, but not in the way that we’ve been led to think. This is the first of Miller’s books I’ve read, but if its impressively nuanced characterisation is anything to go by, the rest of them must be worth reading too. The community that Lacroix eventually finds in the Hebrides (on an island that he reaches on the back of a cow, after a voyage narrated with such dry wit that I found myself grinning periodically throughout) consists of three siblings, two women and a man. This is the last remnant of a quasi-pagan cult led by a charismatic man called Thorpe, or sometimes Phyrro. (We actually meet him, in passing, when the narrative is with Calley and Medina.) Thorpe has left one sister pregnant; the other, Emily, with whom Lacroix falls in love and whose sight is failing, seems to have unfinished emotional business with their absent leader. Emily’s interior landscape is complex – at one point she reproaches Lacroix for referring to her as “free”, listing the many ways in which she is not at liberty at all – and Miller renders it very delicately. There aren’t really any minor characters in this novel; even William Swann, Lacroix’s Bristol merchant brother-in-law, and Nell, the housekeeper, who only appear in one or two chapters each, feel like fully rounded people, with hopes for the future that have nothing to do with Lacroix or his journey. And Miller’s settings are the same: his early nineteenth century harboursides, crofting communities, hospitals and rural estates have lives of their own; you can imagine them carrying on quite happily when Lacroix or other point-of-view characters leave the scene.

In short, then: an excellent historical novel; a moving exploration of guilt and love; beautifully written; very highly recommended.

Reading Diary: Moll&Sarah&Alfred&Rupert

…and Grace and Lia and Sky. Herewith, the last few weeks of reading, not including #20booksofsummer titles.

51y5ybibh4l-_sx320_bo1204203200_Sometimes I just miss the eighteenth century. Not in a way that can be assuaged by contemporary historical fiction; in a way that can only really be dealt with by reading a novel rife with variant spellings like “chuse” and the persistent Capitalisation of every Noun, for Reasons. Daniel Defoe and I have a vexed history – the first of his novels that I ever read was Robinson Crusoe, which bored me almost to tears, although possibly this was because I was eight years old and not equipped to find interest in Crusoe’s devotion to the Protestant ethic through list-making, material culture, and stewardship of resources. Moll Flanders, though, I’ve always got on well with. She narrates her own story with vim, and an almost total lack of shame: her initial fall from grace, a seduction by the son of a woman in whose house she lives as a companion, is something about which she expresses regret, but mostly because she doesn’t “manage” the affair well and fails to get a promise of marriage and security. “Management” is essential in Moll’s world; the word crops up again and again. It’s interesting to consider its use as set against the idea of household management as a married woman’s primary duty; for Moll, “managing” is also a matter of maximising efficiency, but in her case it is the efficiency of graft, or theft, or of the socially approved form of prostitution that constitutes the marriage market. It’s also interesting to see how long it takes her to fall to actual crime: for most of the novel, she might be considered immoral (making various marriages for money and advantage, including the notorious incestuous one), but she doesn’t do much that’s illegal. The career of thieving comes much later, at a point where she’s not sufficiently sure of her own youth and beauty to try marrying again. The other delightful thing about the novel, of course, is that she ends up all right, with a husband she likes and a large, regular income from a plantation in Virginia. Roxana, a later Defoe novel, explores the darker and more realistic consequences of being a fallen woman, but Moll Flanders is like a glorious fantasy of transgression. I’ve always rather liked it for that.

the_reading_groupfrontpanelfinalThe Reading Party is set in the 1970s, not my favourite decade to read about but in this case made interesting because it was the time at which previously all-male colleges in Oxford and Cambridge began to admit not only female students, but female dons. Sarah Addleshaw is Fenella Gentleman’s protagonist, a social historian who becomes the first female don in the history of Wadham College. She’s selected to help an older, crustier colleague with the college’s annual reading party, in which a handful of students are chosen to go off with two tutors to a house in Cornwall for a week before their exams, to revise. (This tradition doesn’t exist in all Oxford colleges – it didn’t in mine – and I can think of many, many more pitfalls to it than advantages, but that’s by the by.) Her instinctive attraction to a Rhodes Scholar, Tyler, must be balanced against her constant awareness of being a test case, and her professional role as an academic mentor. On occasion, Sarah’s innocence about the subtlety of male belittling almost feels disingenuous; we’re so aware of it now that it feels remarkable that it was ever so widely accepted. And there’s a little too much in the way of non-dialogue exclamation points and quotation marks (the latter, I imagine, intended as signposts for readers not familiar with Oxbridge slang, but jarring.) It’s a fascinating view, though, into a time relatively near my own but which seems to have been governed by rules and convictions so vastly different that it might as well be alien. Is there any time more exotic than the recent past? And Sarah, frustrating though she sometimes is, is a doughty heroine; you want her to do well without losing her spark, and on that score, the epilogue satisfies.

53d8a8d0f1a13adde9ec4476a1b570bbI saw the film of The Prestige, based on the novel by Christopher Priest, years before reading the book. Christopher Nolan takes some liberties with plot and structure, which is, to be honest with you, a pretty good thing; Priest’s ideas work on their own, but they work slightly better when Nolan tweaks them. The heart of the story is still the rivalry between Victorian stage magicians Rupert Angier and Alfred Borden, and their achievement of a trick that appears to involve teleportation. Priest includes a framing story that features Angier’s and Borden’s descendants in the present day (which, if we assume it’s contemporaneous with the book’s writing, is the mid-1990s). It’s a further angle on the rivalry, but it doesn’t really go anywhere; the tantalising hint of resonance established by the report that sends Borden’s descendant in search of Angier’s (a potential news story about someone being in two places at once) is never resolved. The science-fiction element of the story is represented by Nikola Tesla, who makes a brief appearance as the inventor of a machine that harnesses electrical energy in the air; much as in The Bedlam Stacks, the time period of The Prestige muddies the waters about whether what’s happening is science as we’d understand it, or an illusion resulting from the limitations of Victorian knowledge. This is the first of Priest’s books I’ve read, but checking out his back catalogue after finishing it, it seems obvious that he has an artistic obsession with twins and duplicates; several of his other novels, including The Affirmation and The Separation (which won the Arthur C Clarke Award), use twinning as a device. Ideas of illusion, deception, and truth are so closely bound up with notions of identity that, at least in The Prestige, Priest carries it off, but it makes me wonder where he can possibly go with the same themes in other books.

81j4lg4hk8lMisogynistic dystopias are kind of where it’s at with culture both high and low at the moment. I think we’re either rapidly approaching saturation point, or got there some time ago (we sure as hell have passed the station where we should all have been given a collective run-down on the differences between “dystopic” and “post-apocalyptic”, two different concepts whose frequent and inappropriate blurring is the ridiculously petty hill I am prepared to die on.) Sophie Mackintosh’s entry in the genre is better than the text on the hardback back cover would lead you to believe (it reads as though it’s quoted directly from the novel, which it isn’t; Mackintosh’s prose is better, if not very interesting.) Her take involves three sisters—Grace, Lia, and the little one, Sky—and their parents, King and Mother. They live on an island off the mainland of somewhere that’s probably North America. They have been taught from a young age that the world beyond the horizon is poisoned, that their bodies and minds must be trained for assault by sickness as well as by the actions of men. It’s implied that they used to run some kind of cult there, one that appealed mostly to vulnerable women, but that no one comes for cures anymore; it’s just the girls and their parents. King vanishes without trace one day, and shortly afterwards, three men appear on the island. These two events precipitate a crisis in the girls’ worldviews, particularly that of Lia, who embarks on an affair with one of the newcomers.

There’s enough misogyny floating around that I’m never going to say we don’t need a book like this, but The Water Cure partakes of a vagueness that makes it feel generic, and therefore less urgent than many of its kind. Perhaps we’re truly not meant to know whether to read it as a speculative fiction or as disturbing realism, but the material about controlling one’s body and emotions, turning to self-harm as a form of release, and the manipulation of young women by older men is all stuff that’s been done before. What can make a book like this intensely compelling is the voice in which it’s told, but that doesn’t happen here, firstly because the narration is parceled out to three separate characters—for no readily apparent reason, like for instance a plot point where interpretation can be altered by different points of view—and secondly because none of those voices are differentiated from one another. Another way of injecting freshness into a story of this type is narrative structure, or a radical social approach (both of which are present, for instance, in Naomi Alderman’s The Power), but The Water Cure, for all its baton-switching, is a linear story, and its (tiny) social world is nothing we haven’t seen before in documentaries about cult leaders and in our own experiences with controlling men. The question with a book like this is whether holding up a mirror to experience is enough; does The Water Cure need, necessarily, to be Saying Something or Making A Statement? Perhaps not, at least not in a moral sense; but aesthetically, as a piece of art, it’s fatally weakened by bringing little new to the table.

10. Transcription, by Kate Atkinson

36991825A new Kate Atkinson novel is An Event. Transcription, forthcoming in September, is her first since A God In Ruins, which (at least for me) tore up the WWII novel playbook and should have been on the Women’s Prize longlist that year. This is also a WWII novel, at least in part, and also approaches the conflict sidelong, in the character of Juliet Armstrong, who is recruited by MI5 at the age of seventeen. She is a typist, seconded to a mission that aims to ferret out fifth-columnists and divert their pro-German sentiments into a harmless channel. To that end, Godfrey Toby, an agent whose interwar activities no one knows much about, is assigned to pose as an undercover Gestapo officer, a flat in Pimlico’s Dolphin Square serving as a base for his “informers”, most of them lower-middle-class people motivated by ignorant anti-Semitic resentment. Juliet’s job is to sit in the flat next door, transcribing the conversations that are recorded through the wall. During the course of her mission, something appalling happens, and after the war ends – as Juliet takes a job in Schools programming at the BBC – a series of coincidences makes her begin to wonder whether what she did in the war is coming back to haunt her.

The mystery of what happened is not the most compelling part of Transcription, which some readers are going to see as a weakness. I don’t. By far the most interesting aspect of the book is Juliet, whose completely unflappable exterior doesn’t so much mask desperate paddling under the surface as it does a sense of extraordinary detachment. She loses her mother young (just before her recruitment, in fact), and her father has never been a presence. Although it’s not dwelt on, Atkinson reminds us every so often that Juliet has been, amongst other things, a chambermaid; she has done hard, physical work, and been unsure of where the next meal might be coming from. Being swept up by MI5 doesn’t seem to make her star-struck, or eager to please: she views the situation more as a turn of the wheel of fortune, something that has happened to her and which she might as well be doing as anything else. In her initial interview for the typist job, she does nothing but lie, apparently uninterested in making the sort of “good impression” a young woman in the ’40s might be expected to prioritise. It’s the speed and thoroughness of the lying, we infer, that gets her the job. The other fascinating aspect of Transcription is the glimpse into the post-war BBC; it’s not quite W1A, but the institution has clearly always had one foot in the realm of pure absurdity. (A delightful problem arises when a voice actor on a brief educational segment meant to showcase a “day in the life” of a medieval village is caught on air uttering, quietly but distinctly, “fuck fuck fuck fuckity-fuck”.)

Reading this shortly after Cressida Connolly’s After the Party was an especially constructive experience. Where Connolly’s British Fascists are county-set types, men who work in banking and their wives who throw themed dinner parties, Atkinson’s are grubbier and more depressing: women called Dot and Betty and Trude, men who work on the railways (probably more useful to a horde of invading Nazis). The appalling event is an accident, precipitated by carelessness; it’s almost bathetic, the realisation that although the fifth-columnists next door seem foolish and ignorant, it is possible to be simultaneously silly and dangerous. And, running under it all, there’s another thing that Juliet does for MI5, which the reader suspects is the real heart of the book; but our gaze is never directed there. Among the period details of dress and slang and food, Atkinson has placed a serpent of a plot point. You might have to read the book twice before you tread on it. But you’ll probably want to.