This rather marvelous book is a mashup of biography, social history, and what for a lack of a better phrase I might call “research thriller”. Susannah Stapleton comes across the figure of Maud West by chance, while idly pondering whether lady detectives had existed during the Golden Age of crime fiction; she’s only thinking about this at all because of a historical missing-persons case that regular historical research had led her to. When she finds Maud West, her interest is piqued by the dearth of information. “The game”, as she winningly puts it, “was afoot.”
Maud West did exist, although she wasn’t born under that name. She opened a private investigation agency in London in 1905 and ran it until just before the Second World War, employing a small staff of hand-selected and rigorously trained men and women as well as undertaking large amounts of field work herself. She wrote “case study” pieces for a variety of tabloids, and filled them with tales of derring-do, often involving white slavers, cocaine smugglers, last-minute ocean liner voyages, and fisticuffs (or, just as often, the well-timed production of a small revolver). Stapleton concludes that West mostly made these stories up–but why? Her business flourished; she tracked cheating spouses, fraudulent salesmen, dishonest cardsharps and country-house jewel thieves. In other advertising venues, she made much of her work amongst the “best sort”; the aristocracy and upper middle classes, in other words. West’s psychology–what she felt she had to prove; the characters she enjoyed playing; her love of disguise (this is borne out by many, many contemporary news features including photographs of West disguised as an old woman, a businessman, a vicar, and so on)–fascinates Stapleton, and the more she digs, the clearer it becomes that the life of this particular private investigator was at least as interesting as any of the cases she worked over the course of her career. Amongst other revelations, and without wishing to spoil anything, West’s life story includes a name change, illegitimacy, and someone who spends forty years masquerading as his own uncle.
Stapleton structures her book brilliantly: excerpts from sensationalist articles written by West are reprinted between chapters. Each chapter is named for a classic crime novel and deals (roughly) with some relevant social issue of the time, like the introduction of women to the Metropolitan police force or the “nightclub panic” of the interwar years, spliced with details of Stapleton’s sleuthing. Quite apart from being an excellent introduction to the Golden Age of crime outside of the pages of fiction, The Adventures of Maud West also functions as a window into the life of a working researcher. Stapleton takes trains from her home in Shropshire to the British Library to read archival clippings; she tracks down out-of-print books to get a sense of how West might have trained herself in investigation techniques; she scans international print databases and calls up descendants. The thrill of the academic chase is a huge part of the book’s appeal–which is really saying something, given that its subject is a woman with such immense willpower, fortitude, and peculiarity of character. A more engaging and intellectually stimulating biography you won’t read this summer.
The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective was published by Picador on 13 June.
The Golden Rhinoceros: Histories of the African Middle Ages, by François-Xavier Fauvelle: Each very short chapter of Fauvelle’s book takes an archaeological site, artifact, or ancient text as its focus. From these items, he creates what a Literary Review critic called “historical pointillism”, opening tiny windows onto medieval African international relations, piecing together tantalizing stories: the Jewish merchant who impregnated his Indian maid and abandoned her in Somaliland; the Sultan of Mali whose lavish tipping while on hajj crashed the Cairene gold market for thirty years. But Fauvelle is not a storyteller, and frequently stops writing just as these stories begin to pique interest. The Golden Rhinoceros is a great introduction to other work, but sometimes frustrates in and of itself.
The Pisces, by Melissa Broder: Initially worried that this was going to be some sort of Moshfegh-esque body-grossout fic, I instead found myself captivated by Lucy, an aimless Sappho scholar, and her attempts to find love (or at least, following the advice of her group therapist Dr. Jude, to determine whether love is what she really wants). What you’ll already know about this book is that there’s merman sex in it, which is true, but the merman (Theo) doesn’t turn up until about halfway through the book, and the ending—which Broder handles brilliantly—is hardly a fairy tale. Lucy’s feelings of “nothingness”—the existential void—and her subtly woven backstory induce a kind of shamed empathy: it’s hard to imagine a 21st-century woman who can’t identify, at least a little bit, with this protagonist. I wrote a longer piece on The Pisceshere.
Sins As Scarlet, by Nicolás Obregón: The second in a series featuring Inspector Kosuke Itawa; the first, Blue Light Yokohama, gives him sufficient traumas to make him abandon life as an official detective, move to LA, where his mother lives, and become a private investigator instead. The plot of Sins As Scarlet revolves around the murder of a transgender woman, who happens to be Itawa’s sister-in-law. Obregón handles the material sensitively, and points to all-too-common lapses in official behaviour, such as the consistent misgendering of the victim by the LAPD. The novel takes an unexpected turn when the US-Mexico border, and the hazard involved in crossing it, becomes relevant to the case. Itawa is a great flawed detective, and Obregón is as deserving an heir to Chandler and his LA noir as I can think of.
Spring, by Ali Smith: The third in Smith’s seasonal quartet, and a lot of her overarching plan with this project starts to come clear. Focusing in part on grieving filmmaker Richard Lease, who has just lost his friend, collaborator and former lover Patricia Heal, and in part on Brittany Hall, a young security officer at a refugee detention center just outside of London, the novel is also dotted with short sections which we’re meant to think of as being authored by Florence Smith, a schoolgirl who seems bafflingly capable of both selective invisibility and holding authority figures to account. As with earlier seasonal quartet installments, the plot is somehow less important than the empathy these characters induce in us. It feels both more hopeful and more emotionally accessible than Autumn (I haven’t yet read Winter).
And two rereads: One, Lucy Mangan’s delightful memoir of childhood reading, Bookworm, I read last year—my review of it can be found here. I revisited it with the excuse that it constitutes professional development; I’ve now taken on responsibility for some of our Children’s Year In Books at work, and reacquainting myself with the world of literature for kids is proving very enjoyable.
The second is, appropriately, an old childhood favourite. In the late ’90s and early 2000s, Scholastic produced a series of books entitled The Royal Diaries. Written in diary format, they were meant to be the adolescent journals of various princesses from world history. There were the obvious candidates, like the ones for Marie Antoinette, Elizabeth Tudor, and Mary Queen of Scots; but there was a genuinely global focus, so that the series included diaries from the likes of Sondok of Korea, Kazunomiya of Japan, Weetamoo of the Native American Pohasset tribe, and even some princesses whose names have not come down to us (they were marketed under their dynastic titles instead; there’s one about medieval China entitled Lady of Chi’ao Kuo: Warrior of the South). They were by far the most significant source of my world history knowledge until I entered high school, and frankly, even then I relied fairly heavily on what I had learned from them.
I’ve recently discovered that you can buy pretty much every title for a penny plus shipping through secondhand sellers. My first, and favourite, of these books was Cleopatra VII: Daughter of the Nile, so Cleopatra was, of course, my first priority. It’s easy to see why my youthful self loved it: it combines historical detail (the sights and sounds of the markets of Alexandria! The Great Library and the Lighthouse! The pet monkeys and leopards!) with interpersonal conflict (will Cleopatra’s scheming older sister kill her before their father returns? Will her father’s habitual drunkenness jeopardize their ability to negotiate with Rome?) in an immensely appealing way. There’s also a section of historical notes, family trees, and contexualizing pictures at the back of the book; this is where I first learned, for instance, the story of Cleopatra rolling herself up in a carpet for Julius Caesar, and where I acquired my first inkling of the complicated political nature of her later-in-life love affairs. I can’t wait to choose which one to acquire next.
Currently reading: Abi Elphinstone’s new children’s novel, Rumblestar (see “reacquainting myself with the world of literature for kids”, above). So far I’m not totally convinced, but maybe it’s just a matter of time.
The first thing to know about The Five is that it is a book defined by its approach; the second thing is that the approach is long overdue. The facts are these: in the late summer and autumn of 1888, from the end of August to November, five women were murdered in London’s Whitechapel neighbourhood. They appeared to have been killed in the same way, and presumably by the same person. That person was never caught, but the persona that solidified around him (though, of course, we can’t know for sure that he was a him) goes by the name “Jack the Ripper”. Victorian society and 21st-century society both possess an unhealthy obsession with the sickening minutiae of Jack’s crimes–the way in which he physically mutilated the women he killed, and the almost supernatural ease with which he seemed to vanish into the gas-lit, fog-bound metropolis. Of the people he murdered, the most that any story about them seems to agree on is that they were sex workers. That “fact” (which is not true) has obscured both the actual lives they lived, and the reality of their murders: that they were not nubile doxies hanging about on street corners with artfully tousled Helena Bonham-Carter hair, but rather were overwhelmingly middle-aged, alcoholic, homeless women whose primary failing was to have been left bereft, in one way or another, of the male protection without which a nineteenth-century woman was considered functionally worthless.
Hallie Rubenhold is redressing the balance. The Five is a group biography; each of the women considered “canonical” victims of the Ripper murders is given a section of her own, which consists of three to four chapters that trace her life history from birth to the night she died. The most deliberate structural choice in the book is that Rubenhold never describes a murder. She’s writing with an agenda about which she is not remotely ashamed: women who are murdered are more than the story of their deaths. Starting with what can be determined about each woman’s early life–her parents, her place of birth, her place in the social hierarchy–she uses a sometimes scanty primary source record, bolstered with intelligently chosen secondary sources that provide contextual information about the experience of working-class life in late nineteenth-century England. Inevitably, she is forced to engage in a certain amount of speculation: in the absence of CCTV or diaries from the women themselves, it’s often difficult to know why they moved house, for instance, or whether the name that appears in parish records is the right one. But she has an excellent capacity for triangulation: she frequently uses that aforementioned historical context in conjunction with a primary source to arrive at a conclusion of what is overwhelmingly likely about a particular woman’s life, and it is convincing.
The most patently false “fact” about the canonical five is that they were all sex workers (or, as Rubenhold writes throughout the book, “prostitutes”; I assume this is for historical continuity and she is using the word as it was deployed in police reports). There is no evidence that four out of the five women were professional sellers of sex. (The fifth, Mary Jane Kelly, who did work both in a brothel and freelance, is the one about whom we know the least.) However, every single one of them is known to have struggled with alcohol addiction. Mostly, drinking problems and the resultant financial strain were responsible for the implosion of their marriages or common-law relationships. They were all–again, except for Mary Jane Kelly–murdered outside, in the middle of the night. The unbearably sad conclusion is that their killer was targeting, not youthful sex workers who were lying down to ply their trade, but middle-aged homeless women who were lying down because they were asleep. Rubenhold makes it terribly clear that being a woman “outside” conventional societal roles–a woman separated from her husband or widowed, an addict, a beggar–was conflated, often fatally, with being a woman of loose morals. No distinction was made between the broken and the fallen. Not only is The Five a lucid and frankly addictive group biography (the pages really do turn themselves); it also makes painfully clear that a country whose social welfare programs are limited to the application of shame, humiliation, and a rigid code of so-called morality is not a country anyone ought to wish to return to. (I, like Rubenhold, will leave you to infer the contemporary political resonance.)
It is, in short, an excellent book as well as a much-needed one: it mingles true crime and well-researched history with narrative energy and Rubenhold’s ever-present passion for her subject. It’s going to do well without my help, but you really should read it.
This is not my usual sort of book at all. 880 pages of global economic history, nearly 200 of which are taken up by endnotes and bibliography? Gosh. But I put it on my #20BooksofSummer pile for a few reasons: we had sold a lot of it in the shop last summer, there was a damaged copy going, the front cover is utterly beautiful, and I am kind of interested in material culture: how people’s stuff relates to the way they treat themselves and each other, how self-fashioning is so often bound up with what you own and how you use it.
Since this is so enormous, I posted updates to Goodreads while I was working my way through it. They’re fairly indicative:
page 136 (15.45%): “So far, I’m impressed by Trentmann’s scope: he deals with consumerism in Ming China and in East African kingdoms, as well as in Britain, France, the Netherlands, etc. (There were big differences. Ming elites wanted antiques with provenance, not the new and shiny.) The focus of any given section is often unclear, though I’m willing to believe that this is the fault of a reader unaccustomed to reading economic history.”
page 370 (42.05%): “I’ve a better handle on the focus and structure now: part one is basically a chronological overview of global consumption trends (fun!!) Almost finished that section now and especially impressed with the analysis of consumption in the GDR and Soviet Russia. (Socialism doesn’t stop people wanting stuff. It’s not news, but the details on things like car ownership and food shopping are interesting and engaging.)”
page 735 (83.52%): “Covered lots of ground last night. Part 2 deals with present-day consumption issues, using historical examples to contextualise: the current chapter is on fair-trade movements. Interestingly, Trentmann’s analysis of the effects of state spending merely glances at contemporary austerity policies. He implies they only really affect the already-poor and disadvantaged, which is demonstrably untrue, at least in the UK.”
The very last bit was a short chapter looking into the future of consumption, which – obviously – is a tenuous one, given that if human civilisations continue to consume resources at the current rate, or anything like it, we’ll be in deep trouble very shortly. Trentmann has some interesting things to say on short-term strategies, like various municipal waste-management policies, but he stops short of advocating a real crackdown on waste or consumption. He keeps his own politics out of the narrative, mostly, as a good historian should, but globally we’ve reached a point where to be politically neutral is to make a political statement, so it doesn’t wash in this section, though it does in the earlier chapters.
It’s also too long, but then, any book of 880 pages is too long.
Oh, it starts off adhering to its title well enough: Kildea gives some background information about Chopin and his lover, George Sand, an infamous female author who liked to scandalise Parisian salon society by dressing as a man. The two moved to the island of Mallorca for the winter of 1838-39, where Chopin’s lovely Pleyel piano got held up in customs and he was forced to make do with a pianino built by a local craftsman, Juan Bauza. That is the instrument on which he wrote his Preludes, “scraps” of music that have baffled listeners, players and critics ever since their premiere. Kildea’s idea, at least to begin with, is that tracing the pianino will shine some light not only on the circumstances under which the Preludes were composed, but on their vexed history of interpretation and performance. Since he also sees the Preludes as a symbol of Romanticism itself, the way in which pianists have approached them – from the ethereal stylings of Cortot to a later Romantic fad for greater attack and intensity, as befitted the larger halls in which public concerts could now be performed, and which publicly performed music now had to fill – is representative, for Kildea, of the history of the artistic movement in general.
None of that is particularly evident from the way he structures his book, though; I have come to the conclusion that this is what Kildea wants to explore because I’ve mentally winnowed the many, many pages of digression, distraction, tangent and plain irrelevance with which Chopin’s Piano is riddled. It’s not totally unenjoyable. If you have any interest in historical detail at all, some of it is great fun: descriptions of nineteenth-century Palma, the Mallorcan port town, are vivid (if too long), and the section set in the twentieth century doubles as a primer on the Nazi art-theft industry. (The pianino came into the hands of Wanda Landowska, a Polish pianist who had an affinity for Chopin and his music. Her instrument collection was scattered by the Nazi looting of great Parisian houses; some of it has been put back together, but the pianino has not been conclusively traced.) But there is just so much of it. Barely a few chapters into the book, Kildea launches into an explanation of how a nineteenth-century artist would produce a linocut. It goes on for some paragraphs. This has been prompted by the existence of a linocut of Palma as Chopin and Sand would have seen it. It’s interesting information on its own, but in a book like this, it’s vexing, an obstacle to the reader’s pursuit of the actual story.
Kildea does write evocatively about performance, which is historically his strength, given that his previous book was a biography of Benjamin Britten and that he was the artistic director of the Wigmore Hall from 2003-2005. He compares the various styles of the musicians who have attempted the Preludes with great thoroughness and erudition; it’s quite clear which side he comes down on (Cortot’s, and the gentler tradition’s), but he enables us to understand his partiality, because he can tell us what he hears. Nor is it his fault that the trail of the pianino goes cold, though it is narratively unsatisfying. The real issue, though, as Igor Toronyi-Lalic wrote in his Literary Review article on the book, is that one gets the impression Kildea is bored of being “a mere music biographer, and wants to be a Writer. Fatal.” I wouldn’t say fatal, but I would say it’s a waste of a good story.
It’s so nice when reading overlaps a little, and reading this back-to-back with Dragon Lords provided rather a good level of continuity. The first of the twelve manuscripts that De Hamel examines is known as the Gospel Book of St Augustine (of Canterbury), which dates from about the sixth century; saints and kings mentioned in Eleanor Parker’s book also get airtime here. De Hamel is the director of the Parker Library at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, so he knows whereof he speaks. Twelve manuscripts spanning nearly a thousand years are given the full-on examination treatment: we get the histories of the material objects, the significance of the writing and illumination within, and, last but not least, a travelogue style of narrating, where De Hamel shares what it is actually like to look at the manuscripts. As he points out, most people with the will and the travel budget can go to see the Mona Lisa, if they want to; it is far harder to physically access a manuscript in person, though they are some of the greatest cultural treasures in the world. And so he gives us the experience, insofar as he can. We learn what it’s like to walk inside the Staatsbibliothek in Berlin, or the Black Diamond building of the Royal Library in Copenhagen, or the Pierpont Library in New York. (Some of this stuff is worth the cover price for the sheer gossip value: De Hamel is always utterly professional, but his strong feelings about various buildings and their staff still come through. Copenhagen’s library seems like a lovely place to visit, full, as he describes it, of serenely long-haired students like time-frozen hippies and helpful, cheery staff; his experience with the Morgan library, by contrast, is one of polite bafflement at America’s love affair with bureaucracy, authority, and procedure.)
Not only is this book ridiculously beautiful (with lots of full-page colour illustrations, as you would hope), and outrageously informative (I know all about the difference between uncials, insular majuscule, and capitalis rustica now), it’s also far, far funnier than it has any right to be. De Hamel’s account of the day when both Pope Benedict XVI and the Archbishop of Canterbury bowed to him on live television (he was carrying an extremely old copy of the Gospels at the time) is characteristically excellent: self-deprecating, with a keen eye for the ridiculous, as when he describes various dolled-up prelates as “walking Christmas trees”. If all of this wasn’t enough, it’s full of trivia that makes you gasp: there’s a book called the Codex Amiatinus, for example, that is repeatedly referred to as being ridiculously huge, and when you finally see a photo of it, you immediately get it. (De Hamel says it weighs about 90 pounds; then, winningly, he adds that an eccentric antiquary of the Victorian era described it as “weighing about the same as a fully-grown female Great Dane”. De Hamel opts for the slightly more sensible comparison unit of a twelve-year-old boy. Either way, that is a very heavy book.) It’s not just for antiquarians, this; anyone who likes beautiful things, or old things, or books, in any way, would get a lot out of it. It’s certainly earned a spot on my best-of-2018 list.
In response to a reader request, I’m trialing breaking up these reading diary entries into individual ones on each book. It goes against my tendencies to publish posts that are so brief, but I’m sure someone will tell me if you feel you’re being shortchanged.
If you were to choose a book to be reading in public with the deliberate strategic purpose of getting the number of the guy who works in your local Indian takeaway, it is unlikely that you would choose this one, but truth is stranger than fiction and I must therefore tell you that that is exactly what happened when I wandered into the curry house on Crouch Hill holding a copy of Dragon Lords. “The history and legends of Viking England” is quite an enticing subtitle, so perhaps that had something to do with it; it was certainly a major factor in my requesting a reading copy of this from the publisher’s rep. It’s also a slightly misleading subtitle, since Dragon Lords is both more focused and less conclusive than an overview of late antique/early medieval British history might be. I think it might be a book version of Parker’s doctorate (she’s now a tutor at Brasenose College, Oxford), which is no bad thing, though it meant re-accustoming myself to writing that isn’t necessarily for a general audience.
Dragon Lords is primarily interested in early medieval narratives about Anglo-Danish interaction. (Sexy!) Since there were multiple waves of Danish/Viking conquests, the history is not nearly as straightforward as the phrase “Anglo-Danish” makes it sound; the conquerors of one generation became the naturalised inhabitants of England, and the people conquered, in the next round of organised invasion. Intermarriage and cultural diffusion happened, as they always do, and the resulting culture was a whole lot of things rolled into one: pagan-Christian, Anglo-Saxon-Danish-with-a-splash-of-Norman. Naturally, the stories that this motley culture told itself over several hundred years—about where it came from, and why—also changed: sometimes a Dane is a good Christian king, sometimes he is the leader of a band of ravening, monk-murdering sea-wolves.
Because Parker’s emphasis is on the continuity (or not) of narrative elements, the sheer accumulation of detail can sometimes be difficult to follow. In the second chapter, for instance, she follows the trail of a mysterious figure called Ragnar Lothbrok, who appears in Anglo-Danish narratives in all manner of guises. Sometimes he’s a thug with many sons, murdered at the hands of the King of Mercia and avenged by his children; sometimes he’s a more innocent figure, a stranger in a strange land betrayed by a jealous courtier. It’s impossible to make any concrete assertions about the historical figure (or figures) that might have been behind the Lothbrok stories—he’s like Robin Hood or King Arthur—but Parker’s greatest asset as a writer is her curiosity, and that carries the reader a long way, too. (My particular interest in Viking Britain is literary, and I especially enjoyed her long section on the early verse romance Havelok the Dane. There are also some interesting sections on stories, or story elements, that Shakespeare clearly drew upon when he was writing Macbeth and Hamlet.) Dragon Lords is unashamedly niche, but if you want to know more about pre-Conquest Britain—and trust me, there are hundreds and hundreds of years’ worth of eventful, exciting, violent history there—this is for you.
In response to a reader request, I’m trialing breaking up these reading diary entries into individual ones on each book. It goes against my tendencies to publish posts that are so brief, but I’m sure someone will tell me if you feel you’re being shortchanged.
There ought to be a law that if your book has a crackerjack premise, you must execute it with commensurate panache. I don’t know how this might be enforced – through the imposition of a fine, perhaps? – but it might stop books like In the Cage Where Your Saviours Hide from getting me really excited and then letting me down hard. It’s a crime novel set in a Scotland that never signed the Act of Union, so the country has always been independent of England, and has relied for the past several centuries on its Central American empire, the Caledonian States. (In this version of history, the Darien scheme was a smashing success.) Malcolm Mackay sets the novel in the northwest port town of Challaid, which is slowly dying as industry dries up. Darien Ross, a private investigator with a jailbird ex-cop dad, a mildly criminal older brother, and a lot of fine lines to tread, takes a case from a classic noir femme fatale: Maeve Campbell walks into the office he shares with his boss and asks him to track down the man who stabbed her boyfriend, a money launderer descended from Caledonian immigrants. Ross, of course, takes the case.
The setup is great. It’s a shame, then, that the pay-off is so minimal. For what Mackay does with his cleverly imagined setting is to write a noir crime novel so straight that it could just as easily be set in Cardiff, or Manchester, or anywhere vaguely northern and rainy. As a novel about a private investigator goes, it hits all the beats it needs to (although there are some frustrating choices in Maeve’s characterisation, and in the revelation of the killer). But there are a million things about an independent Scotland that could have been developed: what are its relations with its southern neighbour? Why are its industries in decline? (It must be a reason that has nothing to do with English rule and/or political decisions, but we don’t get to hear it.) There are hints of unrest regarding immigration from the Caledonian states, which are agitating for independence; Ross interviews a waiter from Costa Rica who will be entitled to a Scottish passport if he can just keep working in Challaid for another two months. But nothing is made of it, it doesn’t go anywhere. You can’t entice readers with the promise of world-building and then avoid building the world. The “primary source” documents which interleave the chapters – historic newspaper articles, investigative reports, etc. – are perhaps an attempt to do this implicitly, but they are not elegantly integrated into the main narrative, and therefore are less of a help than an obstacle. It’s a shame, especially given that the last alternative-history book I read (KJ Whittaker’s phenomenal False Lights, back in September) managed its world-building so well.
Roy and Celestial are a middle-class black couple from Atlanta. He’s a banker; she’s an emerging artist. They’ve been married for a year when Roy is arrested, tried and convicted for a crime that he didn’t commit. Sent to prison for twelve years, he’s let out after five, but the damage to his marriage is already done: how can he and Celestial, and their mutual friend Andre, figure out a way to live after their lives have been destroyed?
An American Marriage is a lot like Diana Evans’s Ordinary People, which I read last week, in that it asks questions about how marriages and relationships actually work, or don’t work, and doesn’t shy away from the fact that the answers might be devastating. It is never in question that Roy and Celestial love each other, but the strain of incarceration on a brand-new marriage is intense. Jones gives Celestial some wonderful, incisive dialogue about what it feels like to be a black woman standing in line for a prison visit with your husband: how you know the guards are judging you, how you’re judging yourself, how desperately you don’t want to feel part of the sorority of black women all around you who are also there to visit their men. It’s not just romantic relationship dynamics that are under scrutiny here: Roy’s mother’s husband, the man who raised him, is not his biological father. While in prison, he meets the man who fathered him, and Jones explores, through their oddball, tentative relationship and through the love between Roy and his adopted father, Big Roy, the various ways in which boys can become men. Characterisation is deep and convincing, dialogue is on point – there’s nothing about An American Marriage that rings false. It’s a highly addictive story told with great powers of observation and empathy. UK readers are lucky that the brilliant publisher Oneworld has made it available in this country.
Even though I’m trying hard to read more nonfiction, A Spy Named Orphan still isn’t the sort of thing I generally go for. It looks like a book on the “hard” edge of the spectrum: the history/biography lists that are still overwhelmingly white educated male-centric. For some reason, I rescued a proof from oblivion a few months ago, and now I’m very glad I did. Roland Philipps has written a sympathetic, nuanced and informative biography of Donald Maclean (one of the original Cambridge Five who passed large amounts of classified information to the Soviets from posts within the British establishment during the Second World War and for decades after it). Not only that, but Philipps’s style is easy, combining erudition with accessibility in a way that alienates neither the casual reader nor the aficionado. It’s a very impressive piece of work.
Maclean himself was also an impressive piece of work: he possessed a first-rate ability to synthesise and summarise information, a genuine desire to make the world a safer and more peaceful place, and a self-destructive alcoholic streak that very nearly killed him. The combination of these traits makes for gripping reading. Philipps also – unusually for this sort of history/biography, I feel – acknowledges the central role that Maclean’s wife Melinda played in his life: loyal to him throughout their marriage and despite his frequently appalling public behaviour, she stuck by him even after he vanished behind the Iron Curtain, not knowing if she would ever see him again. Despite the evident faults of both husband and wife, and the cruelty of various acquaintances from the diplomatic world who generally described Melinda as a simpleton, Philipps makes it clear that they loved each other. (All things come to an end, however: when Melinda and the Maclean children were eventually exfiltrated and allowed to join Donald, she ended up running away with Kim Philby, which is the sort of thing you couldn’t make up.) A Spy Named Orphan is a genuinely gripping story, told with clarity and verve. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Thoughts on this week’s reading: I’m still reading a lot of books which, if not exactly crime, certainly involve being on the wrong side of the law. This continues with my current reading, Kirk Wallace Johnson’s The Feather Thief. (I read nothing from Thursday night until this morning, due to being the maid of honour at a family wedding over the weekend, which went smashingly.)
It took me a long time to read Pat Cadigan’s novel Synners: three and a half days, which is half a week and a timespan in which I can usually dispatch two books. It’s been a while since I read something that forced me to work out its rules as I went along, and the mental stretch felt good, although possibly also ill-timed; by the end of April, I won’t have had a weekend to myself for over two months, and for an introvert in a customer-facing job, that doesn’t put my brain in a happy place. Still, the unmerciful in-your-face-ness of cyberpunk is something I find quite charming. Cadigan’s novel is set in a future LA, a city where big business, entertainment and media conglomerates are even more obsessed with capturing the consumer’s attention than they are now. Into this maelstrom of competing adverts, music videos, and immersive games, Cadigan introduces a technology called sockets, which allow humans direct neural contact not only with the Web (which, fyi, didn’t exist at the time she wrote the novel), but with each other’s brains. The implications, both for business and for things like, you know, human rights and privacy, are huge and not altogether positive. The novel’s final fifth is a huge set piece in which our heroes and heroines – a team of misfit hackers and makers – try to stop the global Internet from having, basically, a stroke. It’s a very exciting book, and incredibly prescient; it was 1992 when it won the Clarke Award, and, as other people have noted, apart from the curious lack of mobile phones, Cadigan’s vision of future tech is not terribly far off where we are now (although I don’t think music videos are quite the cultural force in our world that they are in Synners. It was clearly written when MTV was more of a thing.)
Its major problem is that sense of disorientation. I wouldn’t give this to anyone who was a novice science fiction reader; it asks a lot of you from the very beginning, jumping point-of-view character each chapter for the first five or six chapters while also throwing tech-speak at you with both hands. (There are slightly too many characters, I think, and Cadigan opens with a chapter focalised through someone who turns out to be not very important, which is sort of representative.) The big set piece at the end is hard to visualise, too; it takes place inside various systems, consoles, programs and augmented-reality environments, as well as the “real” world, and the action can get hard to follow. What Cadigan does do very well, however, is achieving emotional roundedness for her characters. Sam, a seventeen-year-old hacker who has emancipated from her parents, has some wonderful moments: pragmatic, with an agile mind, an insouciant attitude, and a crush on someone too old for her, she makes a believable smart teenager. Gina Aiesi, whose lover, Mark, is the reason for the net-wide stroke, is given an incredibly engaging emotional arc—the need to decide between having her own life and sticking around for someone who has never been there for her—and a characteristic rage that prevents her from being a passive figure. In a novel that sees the melding of human and machine as virtually inevitable, the fact that I came to care deeply for the humans in the pages says a lot about Cadigan’s skill as a writer.
Richard Powers is fast making his way into my favourite writers of all time (a permanently shifting category that at the moment includes A.S. Byatt, Sarah Hall, and William Thackeray). The Overstory, his latest book, is maybe his most ambitious yet: it seeks, essentially, to instill in its reader a sense of sympathy and identification with trees. That Powers actually manages it is confirmation that he is one of the most skilled writers currently working that I can think of.
The Overstory starts with a section called Roots, divided into six separate strands that introduce us to our main characters. They range from Nick Hoel, whose family farm houses virtually the only chestnut in America to be spared the blight that kills other specimens, to Douglas Pavlicek, a Vietnam vet whose life is saved by a banyan tree, to Olivia Vandergriff, a feckless college girl who experiences a short period of death (shower, light switch, poorly wired house) and emerges back into life convinced that she has been chosen by mysterious entities to help save the California redwoods. There is also Neelay, a paraplegic video game designer; Adam, an academic psychologist; Patricia, a botanist disgraced by her assertion that trees form communities; and Dorothy and Ray, a couple constantly on the brink of disaster. Over the course of the book, these characters will (mostly) become intertwined with each other’s lives, and with trees: studying them, living in them, trying to protect them, listening to them.
The reason it works so well, I think, is partly because Powers takes his time to establish the stories of each character, and partly because his writing about geological time, and about the biological miracle of plant life, is so stunningly beautiful. It is easy to love and feel for the people in this book, but it is also impossible to come away from it without the understanding that they – and, by extension, you – are the least significant parts of a story that has been going on for a much, much longer time, of which they – and you – can only ever be a tiny fraction. The Overstory doesn’t preach about environmentalism, but it does lay out facts, and those facts reach for you. It has made me reconsider, once again, whether I can in good conscience choose to have children. It is an astonishingly well-written, empathetic, heart-rending, blink-inducing book, and I recommend it without reservation.
Jodi Taylor is, I think, the nearest anyone has yet come to being the obvious successor to Jasper Fforde. Instead of rootling through the backstage area of literature, however, her protagonists jump into the past; her Chronicles of St Mary’s is basically The Eyre Affair for historians. Taylor’s writing isn’t quite as nimble as Fforde’s was at the start of his series: you can generally see the jokes coming from a mile away, although one or two of them are a delightful surprise. In this first volume, we’re introduced to our heroine, Madeleine Maxwell (more often referred to as Max), who embodies a lot of the badass-tough-girl tropes that genre fiction is often guilty of endorsing, but manages also to be sympathetic. Mostly, Taylor achieves this by juxtaposing Max’s relentless up-for-it-ness with another set of tropes: the hopeless klutz. But she has a sense of humour, and it’s not difficult to see why her friends like her, so the reader is pretty much along for the ride.
The plot of Just One Damned Thing After Another can best be summed up by that title; there are at least three natural ends to this novel, and it might have made more sense if Taylor had chosen the first or the second. The main action centers around a jump to the Cretaceous period; St Mary’s is a historical research institute whose employees “investigate historical events in contemporary time.” (They’re instructed not to call it time travel. It’s time travel.) Taylor takes my personal favourite way out of the science-y bit of all this: she acknowledges it before refusing to engage (Max asks how it all works, and is met with stony looks and a sarcastic “Really?” from a tech). It’s as good a strategy as any, and better than either pretending the reader doesn’t know how bonkers time travel is, or going full metal technobabble and over-explaining. The Cretaceous jump is meant to be a simple observe-and-report mission, but Max’s partner betrays her, leading to the discovery of a plot from the future to monetise St Mary’s’ activities and develop a chrono-tourism trade. The rest of it is buddy-adventure with a big old beating heart, a bit of romance (and a surprisingly good sex scene), and a delightful cliffhanger at the end. Great fun, and you don’t have to check your whole brain at the door.
The next book on the Women’s Prize longlist for me was Sight, by Jessie Greengrass, a novel which I’d been anticipating, since Greengrass was shortlisted for the Young Writer of the Year Award back in 2016. If Sight hasn’t quite made me a rabid fan, it’s at least made me understand that shortlisting. Greengrass is at ease with language, and her sentences reflect that ease; she’s never uncomfortable or dull to read.
Where Sight is open to criticism is in its relentlessly autobiographical-seeming and narrow focus. I’m wary of saying this, especially because it is a book about motherhood, pregnancy, daughterhood, and grief: all subjects that women seemingly cannot write about without being asked if they too have experienced such things as their characters experience. But the choice of person and narrative style in Sight pushes us towards such an interpretation: it’s an extremely tightly focalised first person throughout, except for sections on the history of medicine (Röntgen, Freud, and John and William Hunter are of main interest, for their relevance to the protagonist’s physical and mental state throughout the book). Insofar as it has a plot, Sight is focused on the protagonist’s choice (or not) to have her first child, but we know from flashes back and forward that she has a daughter, so her agony of indecision is not especially suspenseful for the reader. What we’re left with, essentially, is a collection of meditations on the body and on grief, but the protagonist’s voice so rarely makes connections between her own experience and anything in the wider world—she doesn’t seem to have a job, for example, or any friends except for her partner; there’s no discussion of how societal pressure might be affecting her decision-making about children—that it reads more like disconnected autofiction. This is absolutely a matter of taste, but the trend towards fiction writing that might have been better off as memoir is not one that I feel very positively about, so although Greengrass is a skillful and thoughtful writer, I’d feel obscurely frustrated if Sight made the shortlist.
The Guardian’s books site wrote a piece not long ago about “up lit”, and cited titles like The Trouble With Goats and Sheep, Joanna Cannon’s first novel, as examples. Naomi then tweeted about how inaccurate she found this: neither Cannon’s work, she said, nor some of the other examples (Eleanor Oliphant, for instance), are particularly cheery or uplifting, they’re just marketed that way. Opening Three Things About Elsie, I was dubious (look at the cover, for Christ’s sake); closing it, I was in agreement with Naomi. It is not a jolly, Jonas Jonasson-type romp about picturesque elderly people getting into scrapes. It is a book about dementia, and terrible loneliness, as well as about the pasts that people choose to forget. Its ending is, in a strange sort of way, uplifting, but I suspect there will still be readers who are less uplifted than distressed by it.
This means I liked it a great deal more than I was expecting to. The plot is, in many ways, the weakest thing about it: it revolves around eighty-four-year-old Florence’s belief that she has spotted a menacing figure from her past, one Ronnie Butler, in the nursing home where she now lives. His attempts to discredit her are made easier by the fact that paranoia is the one symptom of dementia everyone knows. As Florence remembers more and more about the past, the coincidental connections with staff and other residents of the care home start to seem a little too good to be true, and the comments made in dialogue about the effect of even an insignificant person’s life on those around them are rather heavy-handed. Where Three Things About Elsie absolutely shines, however, is in Cannon’s slow revelation of the huge gap between how someone believes they are perceiving the world, and how the world perceives them. Florence’s narration initially makes her seem a crotchety, but basically sound, old lady. As the book progresses, other peoples’ reactions to her make it clearer to us that she is fairly far gone (which makes it easier for Ronnie to cast doubt on the legitimacy of her allegations), and also that she is painfully lonely: she daydreams about inviting the carers, or the man in the corner shop, round for tea and cake; she stockpiles shortbread for visitors who never drop by. That’s a state of mind we need to be reading more about in fiction, and for my money, Cannon writes about it more effectively and movingly than Gail Honeyman in Eleanor Oliphant, a book touted as being all about loneliness.
Thoughts on this fortnight’s reading: That I’ve read at all, in between a flying visit to Dorset, preparations to move north of the river, and an Easter weekend hen do, feels vaguely miraculous.
Gregory Norminton’s new novel The Devil’s Highway is not a long book, but it is a full one, resonant with history and myth. Bouncing back and forth between three time periods—Roman Britain, the present day, and a far future of harsh drought and a return to brutality—it stays focused on one place: Bagshot Heath, in Surrey. Here, a young Celt, Andragin, tries to barter for mercy for his brothers by delivering a kidnapped decurion back to his legion; here, Harry, a soldier just back from Afghanistan, bumps into a young girl whose father is determined to preserve the heath at all costs; and here, a pack of feral children led by the ruthless Malk attempts to make it to “the West Cunny”, where, it’s rumoured, there is still rain. Norminton’s evocation of the heath’s atmosphere is superb: this book is less about individual people and their choices, and more about the ways in which a particular landscape can fate us. Each time period is linked to the others by a palm-shaped stone that resembles a crude carving of a woman, and which is so ancient that it’s old even in Andragin’s time. Norminton is a subtle enough writer to leave the connection at that (though we may draw our own conclusions about the relationship between the young Celtic warriors encouraged to their deaths by a religious mystic, and the jihadis whom Harry fights in modern-day Helmand), giving the book a feeling of David Mitchell tinged with Paul Kingsnorth’s aesthetic. The futuristic sections are perhaps the least successful—there’s only so many times authors can rehash wild-child Riddley Walker dialect—but the book as a whole is both bold and delicate, and quite unforgettable.
Equally unforgettable is Afua Hirsch’s memoir/work of cultural analysis, Brit(ish) (can we talk about the genius of that title?), which is out on the 1st of February. Hirsch’s heritage is mixed: her mother is Ghanaian and her father the child of German Jewish refugees. Both her parents had a strong cultural identity of their own, but for Hirsch and her sister, being mixed-race in Wimbledon in the ’90s meant they didn’t belong anywhere. Hirsch is never less than willing to cop to her own privilege as a lighter-skinned black person in Britain: her account of meeting her boyfriend (now husband) Sam, a black man of Ghanaian descent from Tottenham, brilliantly dissects the differences in their upbringings, with Sam constantly focused on achieving professional success because the slightest lapse in concentration might drive him off-course forever, whereas Afua’s achievements at school, university, and the world of work feel like something she’s almost sleepwalked into. But her primary thesis is that, although Britain likes to call itself a “post-racial” or “multicultural” society, this is a national self-image built on a lie: the absolute refusal of white British people to acknowledge a history of deep and terrible institutional racism. She makes an extremely compelling case, citing the American civil rights movement and Black Lives Matter as upheavals that could only occur because American society has been forthright about the fact that it was founded on racism and slavery. By contrast, British society lauds the abolition of the slave trade, but history curricula and national days of observance rarely, if ever, acknowledge the fact that for Britain to have abolished a trade in the first place, it first had to participate in that trade; in this case, for over four centuries. Hirsch is also a fantastically engaging writer, leavening rage-inducing statistics with personal anecdote and investigative journalism. Her book ought to help kickstart the conversation Britain so badly needs to have with itself.
Speaking of which, Victor LaValle’s novel The Devil In Silver is a real thousand-yard stare right at the heart of the horrors of the American health-care-for-profit system. LaValle is known as a genre writer, but most of The Devil In Silver doesn’t seem like a horror or fantasy novel; much of it is more like a psych-ward version of Orange Is the New Black. Pepper, our protagonist, is a working-class white dude who gets thrown in New Hyde Hospital because the cops who arrested him for beating up his neighbour’s ex-husband couldn’t be arsed to do the paperwork down at the precinct. Pepper’s involuntary admission means he ought only to stay for seventy-two hours, but he takes some medication on his first day, and the next thing he knows, he’s been in for four weeks. The ward, Pepper soon discovers, is being terrorised by a Minotaur-like creature—a skinny old man with the head of a buffalo—who is apparently the Devil. The brilliance of LaValle is in taking the old what-if-humans-were-the-real-monsters twist and shoving our noses so far into the complicated morality of what being human involves that we can see how monsters develop. Casual cruelty amongst nurses and orderlies is prompted by a system that underpays them and finds more value in dead patients than in live ones; madness is a not irrational response to a system that really is out to get you. And LaValle comes down on the side of tenderness and of trying, every time. One character snarls to another, “You can’t save everyone.” The other says—the only line of dialogue he gets in the whole book—”You can help.”
Thoughts on this week’s reading: Two proofs of forthcoming books and one book from my shrinking TBR stack (counted, in this context, as books I’ve bought and have yet to read), all excellent. January’s going really well so far.