New Boy, by Tracy Chevalier

Get down from there, n*****!

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The Hogarth Shakespeare series continues to strike me as an endeavour excellent in theory, but almost invariably doomed in practice. Fundamentally, what you can do and want to do in a play is different from the scope and focus allowed you by a novel. Perhaps more challenging is the balance a contemporary novelist must strike: do they dig deep into the motivations, the emotion and the structure behind one of Shakespeare’s plots—sincerely trying to adapt the story to the present day—or do they hit the high notes, the stuff that an averagely well read person could tell you about the play off the top of their head if you stopped them in the street? Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed has been the most successful adaptation so far, and I think that’s partly because she chooses path A; her novel does hit some of the high notes, but she deliberately makes her book an exploration of revenge, bereavement and redemption, as The Tempest is, as opposed to a story about a magician called Prospero who has a daughter named Miranda. Tracy Chevalier, like most of the other Hogarth Shakespeare novelists, chooses path B, which accounts for many of the problems I have with her adaptation of Othello.

My problem with New Boy (and I’ve said this before, if you follow me on Instagram, but it bears repeating) is quite basic: Chevalier chooses to set it in a school playground, to make her Othello character (Osei, or O) an eleven-year-old, and to make the tension of the work entirely contingent upon O’s skin colour. I think these are all serious miscalculations. Othello as Shakespeare wrote him is a successful military veteran who has worked his way up through skill and graft; he is an older man in a relationship with a much younger woman; he is self-conscious about many things, including his blackness, but also his age and his plain manner of speech. When Brabantio, Iago and others call him “the Moor”, they’re indicating his racial difference, but—I would contend—not necessarily in a fashion more derogatory than if he were called, e.g., “the Italian” or even “the Welshman”. (Consider the Welsh jokes in the history plays. Consider, also, that Shakespeare’s other iconic Other, Shylock, is comparatively much more defined by his Otherness: he is “the Jew” by every line he speaks, every action he takes, no matter the weight you place on the “if you prick us” speech.)

But the thing that people remember about Othello is that it’s a play about a black man, and therefore Chevalier places racial difference and racial prejudice at the centre of her novel. This is possible only if she makes it impossible for any of the people young O encounters to form a positive opinion of him, and so she stacks the deck by setting the course of the action over one day, making O a “new boy”—a Ghanaian diplomat’s son at an all-white school—and giving Mr. Brabant (a stand-in for Brabantio) a personality composed of creepy paternalism and barely-veiled white supremacism. But that is not the power dynamic at play between the Venetian Senate and Othello. Venice owes him. The city is in his debt; he has done them a favour. His blackness is barely relevant, because asking foreign mercenaries to lead the Venetian army was standard practice; it prevented the ruling elite from accruing too much military power and attempting a coup. When Venetian characters complain about “the Moor”, they’re latching onto a palpable difference between themselves and an outsider, but it’s his foreignness—not his blackness, and they are two different things—that makes Venice envious and insecure. Chevalier’s constant emphasis on racial prejudice is almost insultingly simplistic, and it leads her to make bizarre authorial choices: she invents a wholly unnecessary older sister for O who becomes increasingly fascinated by Black Power and Black Is Beautiful; she writes O as an instinctive diplomat, which is both untrue to Shakespeare’s characterisation and makes him feel uncomfortably like a puppet for respectability politics; and she writes the line of dialogue at the top of this post (spoken by the enraged Mr. Brabant at the dénouement), which is such a blatant piece of authorial manipulation (Brabant bad! Racism bad!) that it backfires, or it should.

Then there is Ian, who is the Iago analogue in New Boy. Ian hates O because he can see that the other boy has the potential to dethrone him as king of the playground. It’s fairly convincing as far as it goes—thus, sixth-grade politics—but it makes zero sense in the context of reassessing the play. Iago tells us he doesn’t know why he hates the Moor, but he gives two possible reasons anyway: one, he was passed over for promotion in favour of privileged airhead Cassio, and two, he suspects Othello of cuckolding him. Chevalier gestures at both of these reasons, making Ian a feared bully and loner while Casper/Cassio is golden and popular, and giving Ian a brief flash of paranoia when he sees O making his “girlfriend” Mimi laugh. The latter, though, is usually glossed as just that—paranoia—and it’s the former (jealous rage at not being promoted) that tends to seem most plausible. For this to make any sense at all as a rationale in New Boy, O would have to have held some sort of power over Ian for some period of time before the commencement of the action, and Ian would have to feel that O is indebted to him in some way. (Iago’s hopes of promotion aren’t unreasonable; he’s fought with Othello and for him; they were colleagues, even friends.) Since Chevalier can’t do that without breaking the self-imposed unity of time, she has to settle for making Ian a tyrant who is fiercely protective of his own status. In the play, that status is never Iago’s to begin with. It’s a subtle distinction, but it changes everything about the antagonist’s emotional baggage; it makes the story a very different story, and it’s not clear to me that the change is an improvement, or even intentional.

It also ascribes a level of cunning and villainy to Ian that I am not sure Iago possesses, let alone an eleven-year-old (cunning and villainous though I am willing to admit they can be). The point of Iago is that he is a master of shaping circumstance, but he is not a planner; he’s a hyena, not a lion. He gets incredibly lucky with the business of the handkerchief, and his mind is quick enough to grasp what he can do with it. He makes blind leaps repeatedly: in goading Othello, in joking with Cassio, he is merely hoping for a certain outcome, not ensuring one. He is a chancer. Ian, on the other hand, gets the same luck dropped into his lap (with a pencil case standing in for a handkerchief), and immediately begins long-term strategic planning. (Well, long-term for sixth grade, which is to say, anticipating afternoon recess.) Iago doesn’t do things like that; he never anticipates what his petty revenge plot might lead to. Ian, on the other hand, really wants to break up O and Dee (the Desdemona character) from the beginning; he really wants Mimi (Emilia) under his thumb; he really wants to seriously damage O, and not just socially—we’ve seen him physically bully enough people by this point in the book, and he too exhibits white supremacist behaviour.

Maybe the problem is this: Chevalier tries to stick too closely to the mechanics of Shakespeare’s plot, while also making choices about characterisation and motive that undermine that plot’s power. She gives Ian Iago’s famous non-defense (“I have nothing to say for myself”) more or less verbatim, but she doesn’t make him a convincing contemporary model of a small-minded, jealous, possibly traumatised soldier; instead, he’s an ogre and a child. (She does make him a believable abusive boyfriend.) She gives Dee Italian ancestry—her full name is Daniela Benedetti—presumably in a wink to the original’s Venetian setting, but she doesn’t show us the complex power dynamics at play in her relationship with O, dynamics that encompass so much more than race; Desdemona and Othello are a compelling couple because various imbalances of knowledge, of beauty, of worldly experience, of age, of responsibility, see-saw back and forth between them. For an excellent positioning of Othello in a contemporary setting, I can recommend the National Theatre’s 2013 production with Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear, set on an army base during the Iraq War. (That production’s treatment of women is also excellent.) If you’re a Hogarth Shakespeare completist, or if you just want to decide for yourself, read New Boy—but its flaws mean that I can’t think of it as a successful reimagining of the original.

June Superlatives

June has been about how to live and thrive in limbo, between one state and another. Doing that successfully requires you to be intentional about a whole lot of things, including what you put into your brain. So although there have been many dinners with friends, glasses of wine and chai tea and gin-based cocktails, WhatsApp messages and perfectly chosen postcards and so much love, I’ve also watched my reading die down. And then it bounced back—such that I cleared 18 books this month—which is, at least, something positive. (I thoroughly sucked at reviewing, but that’s life.)

most diverting: The final two books in Mick Herron’s Slough House series, Real Tigers and Spook Street. For about a week at the beginning of the month, reading, sleeping and eating were much harder than I usually find them. Herron’s slick, pacy espionage thrillers (from the point of view of a team of underdogs) were exactly what my brain needed: easily digestible and not too deep. He writes good books anyway, but it’s especially nice to know that they can fill this kind of reading niche.

hardest-hitting: Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson. Stevenson has worked for decades as a death row lawyer in Alabama, defending condemned men and women free of charge through his nonprofit, the Equal Justice Initiative. He’s a deeply thoughtful and compassionate man, and his writing about the flawed ways in which the death penalty is applied is so calmly, measuredly furious that it is nearly impossible to believe so many states (including my home state, Virginia) still use it. This, too, I read during the week that reading was hard, though I’m almost positive that’s due to personal associations that make me feel comfortable and secure when reading books about the law.

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best start: My first Iain M. Banks novel, The Player of Games. Jernat Morau Gurgeh is a member of the Culture, a utopian, anti-hierarchical society of plenty. He’s one of the Culture’s best game-players, and he’s dispatched in this book to the far-off Empire of Azad to play the game that gives the empire its name—and everything else; roles at every level of society are determined by how well you play, and the winner becomes the Emperor of Azad himself. As an introduction to Banks’s science-fictional work, The Player of Games works very well; it doesn’t assume too much familiarity (it was only the second Culture novel to be published), but there’s a level of sophistication to the political maneuvering that I enjoyed. I look forward to more of these; perhaps Use of Weapons next.

most ekphrastic: Edward Dusinberre’s memoir-cum-journey through Beethoven’s late string quartets, Beethoven For a Later Age. Dusinberre is the first violinist in the Takács Quartet, and he writes evocatively not only about the music itself (excerpts are printed within the text, which is extremely helpful) but about the process of making music cooperatively but not hierarchically—a very different endeavour from that of a solo artist, or even an orchestra, which has a conductor to follow. A superb insight into professional musicianship.

book that brought my groove back: The Dollmaker, by Harriette Arnow. It follows the tribulations of Gertie Nevels, a Kentucky hill farmer and mother of five who is impelled by World War II to move to Detroit, where her husband Clovis, a mechanic, gets a job in a steel factory. The rest of the book traces the fallout of that choice, and the corrosive effect of industrialised urban living on a creative mind. If anyone you know still has lingering doubts about the disadvantages imposed by poverty, hand them this. (review)

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most intelligent: Gwyneth Jones’s five-minutes-in-the-future novel, Life, which follows the adolescence and adulthood of molecular biologist Anna Senoz, who discovers a sex chromosome phenomenon called Transferred Y which might mean the end of human sexual difference as we know it. It is a novel about sex, and sexuality and gender, but also about science: the everyday practice of it, the hard work and the research and the satisfaction. Life is utterly unlike anything else I’ve read; like Madeleine Thien, Jones does her thinking on a very high level and lets it play out in her fiction through the depiction of ordinary, everyday lives.

best timing: My uncle sent me a sorry-you-broke-up book, which goes to show a) how well my family knows me, or b) how predictable I am. Or both. It was Leaving Before the Rains Come by Alexandra Fuller—a memoir of her marriage to Charlie Ross, and its dissolution, and further memories of growing up with deeply eccentric parents on a farm in Zambia. Fuller writes beautifully, and she is so good at gesturing at psychological damage without spelling it out for you.

most underrated: Michael Arditti has been writing novels for years and yet he seems to fly under the radar. I read his book Easter this month. Set over the course of a single Holy Week in a Hampstead parish, it deals with AIDS, hypocrisy, loss of faith, the legacy of the Holocaust, and love, and I really, really liked it. Like a modern-day, slightly grittier Trollope, focusing on the contemporary issues that the Anglican church faces.

hands-down favourites: Two, actually. One was George Saunders’s novel Lincoln In the Bardo, which imagines the night that Abraham Lincoln spent in his eleven-year-old son Willie’s mausoleum, from the point of view of the ghosts who haunt the place. It’s hot ice and wondrous strange snow, a truly polyphonic piece of work (it helps to read it as though it’s a play, or to think of it as a written-down audiobook) that manages to be both heart-rending and honest, and surprisingly funny in places.

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The other was Jeff VanderMeer’s new book Borne, which follows scavenger Rachel in a post-apocalyptic landscape ravaged by a five-storey-tall flying bear called Mord, the result of experimentation within the sinister Company. When Rachel finds a piece of biotech in Mord’s fur, she takes it home and names it Borne. From their relationship—semi-parental, semi-best-friendship—comes the book’s emotional core, which is made more poignant by our growing realisation (and Rachel’s resistance to realising) of what Borne is, does, and could be. The dialogue is sweet and goofy and painful, and I dashed through the book in a day. It’s wonderful.

most nearly: After a twenty-year wait for Arundhati Roy’s second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is finally here. While I enjoyed reading it at the time, and was as moved and distressed as Roy presumably wanted me to be by the descriptions of the Indian army’s program of oppression and torture amongst the insurgents of Kashmir, I ultimately felt the novel’s focus was too diffuse; in trying to present us with many different points of view, it failed to provide a strong emotional core. I wrote more about it at Litro (review text here).

most holy-fucking-shit: Gabriel Tallent’s debut novel My Absolute Darling, which is coming out from 4th Estate in August. It’s the story of 14-year-old Turtle Alveston, who can navigate through thirty miles of rough terrain in a day and shoot a playing card out of her daddy’s hand. Her daddy is all she has, and she loves him, but things are changing… It is astonishing on the psychological dynamics of abuse—that love/hate, life/death, symbiotic/parasitic framework—and there is heart-in-throat suspensefulness. A beautiful and beautifully written book about entering adulthood too soon, with all of the implications about survival and protection and decision-making that implies. I hope it’s huge.

second most nearly: My first Allegra Goodman novel, The Chalk Artist. I still really want to read Intuition and The Cookbook Collector, since I love the promise of a novelist whose work fuses an interest in technological advances with a clear dedication to artistic creativity and (at least in this book) the written word. The problem with this was the prose, which was the sort I once heard described as “medium-roast”, and the level of melodrama reached the ridiculous about halfway through and didn’t abate. If I didn’t already know I want to read her early work, this might have put me off permanently.

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party I was late to: The Loney, Andrew Michael Hurley’s Costa-winning novel from last year. It’s a good creepy Gothic, suffused with the awfulness of mid-century middle-class Catholics (the narrator’s mother is obsessed with “curing” her mute, disabled elder son Hanny) and with bleak seashore menace, and with potential satanism. I have to confess it left me a little cold, though; that melodrama, again, was too strong, and the pacing of the dénouement, the revelation of horror, felt rushed and diluted. I did read it very quickly, which probably didn’t help.

warm bath book: An odd category for this, but Nicholas Hytner’s memoir of his time at the National Theatre, Balancing Acts, was immensely soothing. He writes with intelligence and style and deep understanding about the text and subtext of plays, and he’s wonderfully witty on actors and directors too, without making the inevitable name-dropping appear too self-satisfied. (I love the way he introduces Ben Whishaw, whom he first sees as a minor character in the initially disastrous production of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials.) And Hytner on Shakespeare is superb; the book is worth its price for the sections on Othello, Hamlet and Much Ado alone.

most fun to argue with: Tracy Chevalier’s addition to the Hogarth Shakespeare novelisation series, New Boy, her take on Othello. The choices she makes about how to approach and modernise the story seem to me superficial; I don’t believe that she sat down with the play and thought deeply enough about character or motivation, or perhaps she did but wanted something that would hit all the notes a casual reader might remember from doing the play at A-Level thirty years ago. If you ignore the question of whether the book as it’s framed has any merit as a response to Shakespeare’s ideas, it’s a clean and stylish piece of work, but I’m not sure that’s enough. (review)

most apt timing: A new debut novel by Zinzi Clemmons, called What We Lose, of which I got a proof copy from work. It’s written with such urgency and clarity that it feels like a memoir, and it is all about loss – of parents, of lovers, of friendships – and displacement: what does it feel like to be neither South African nor American, neither white nor black? Short, fragmentary and strangely soothing; it’s out in July and I really recommend it.

up next: I’m reading Francesca Segal’s new novel, The Awkward Age, about a blended Anglo-American family whose teenagers seem to hate each other, and so far it’s wonderful: funny, observant, with wonderful casual descriptions of people and places.

Bailey’s Prize Longlist Reading 1: Tremain, Atwood, Omotoso

Being a series of short reviews of the Bailey’s Prize longlisted titles I hadn’t read before the announcement. These are mostly hack-jobs, consisting of extrapolations of my reading notes. Luckily I tend to make notes in full sentences. Minor spoilers ahead.

The Gustav Sonata, by Rose Tremain

9781784700201Gustav Perle lives in Matzlingen, Switzerland, with his beloved Mutti. The second World War has just ended. His father, Erich, is dead – a hero, his Mutti says, but Gustav doesn’t know anything about him, not why he died or what he was like when he was alive. Gustav adores Mutti, but she spends a lot of time ignoring him, or crying. When Anton Zwiebel joins the local kindergarten, Gustav has a friend for the first time in his short life. The rest of Rose Tremain’s poised and beautiful book is dedicated to the story of Anton and Gustav’s friendship, and to the story of the truth of Erich and Emilie Perle’s marriage.

It has been said that The Gustav Sonata is about neutrality, and it is, sort of, but the word I thought of most when I was reading it was “caring”, which is another way of talking about neutrality. The book is intensely focused on care: giving care, receiving care, in the sense of love and attention, is at the heart of Gustav and Anton’s relationship. It is also Gustav’s problem. He is pushed into adulthood early by a lack of care from his mother Emilie (who tells him frequently as a child that he must “master himself”); he is forced into a caregiving role vis-à-vis Anton by Anton’s parents, who are kind to Gustav but surprisingly willing to place the burden of Anton’s emotional well-being on a pre-adolescent’s shoulders. Meanwhile, Gustav’s family history is characterised by a generational withholding of care: Emilie, his mother, was constantly chastised and neglected by her mother, Irma, and the book’s second section, on the Perle marriage, charts the decline of care between two people in a way that illuminates everything about Gustav’s life. Meanwhile, excessive care damages people: Anton is hurt by it – his major adult relationship is passionate, but deeply abusive – and the affair between Erich Perle and his boss’s wife is unhealthy in its obsessiveness.

Tremain plants her thematic seeds carefully and tends them throughout the novel, so that resonances spring up at you as you read. Switzerland’s political neutrality, the destructive neutrality of one human being towards another, and Erich Perle’s rejection of official neutrality in order to save refugees are all tied together. Tremain writes like Kate Atkinson: her prose is accessible and clear without making the treatment of her subject light or superficial. The ending could, I think, be more delicate and also more believable: there is never any sense of sex in Gustav’s life, either before or after the final revelation of Anton’s love, and I think it is a disservice to deny him this. If it’s intentional, it isn’t leaned on enough to make the intention clear. But this is a question of verisimilitude versus thematic coherence – whether something is entirely believable versus whether it reinforces the novel’s general concerns – and so my reservation is pretty minor.

Hag-Seed, by Margaret Atwood

29245653Atwood’s novel is the fourth in the Hogarth Shakespeare series that seeks to “retell” some of the most famous of the plays as novels set in the present day. Some of these have been more successful than others; Atwood’s, I think, is the best so far. The reason it works is because she fully acknowledges the existence of The Tempest inside the world of her novel, which frees her: she doesn’t have to pretend, like Jeanette Winterson and Howard Jacobson, that the uncanny similarities between her characters and the plot of Shakespeare’s play is mere happenstance. She can delve right into those parallels, explore them explicitly, instead of making us wonder why no one in the book has yet noticed how unlikely this all is.

Her Prospero is Felix Phillips, a disgraced and deposed theatre festival director now going by the name Mr. Duke and teaching a theatre course in the local prison. Miranda – brilliantly – is dead (because the late plays are all about dead daughters, losing daughters, coming to terms with grief); she died of meningitis as a three-year-old, a horribly plausible scenario. After twelve years of living in hiding from his former associates, Felix chooses his method of revenge: he will stage his own production of The Tempest at the prison, and take down the men who betrayed him—now high-ranking politicians—along the way.

Whether this revenge fantasy would actually work or not (and I admit it would rely heavily on excellent timing, which usually doesn’t work out in real life), you have to admire the way Atwood takes on the play. Felix walks his convict players through The Tempest with a thorough thoughtfulness that I found genuinely illuminating. It might, I suppose, be considered a little academic, but the tone is always that of an interested and informed person talking to other interested people; Felix neither talks down to nor bamboozles his actors, and by extension, he doesn’t do these things to us. The Tempest is a play uniquely well-suited to prison. Felix and Atwood allow us to watch the dawning awareness, among the convict-actors, of the story’s relevance, and it is a gorgeous, shiver-inducing thing. The only major concern I had was when Atwood ventriloquised the rap songs that the actors invent to make the play more contemporary: would it sound like a White Lady Author “doing” street? Answer: sort of, but mostly, I think, because raps look awful written down. When I did them in my head, they…well, they worked. Though I don’t envy whoever does the audiobook.

The Woman Next Door, by Yewande Omotoso

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Hortensia James and Marion Agostino are next-door neighbours in an upmarket area of Cape Town. Hortensia is black, married to a white British husband; Marion is white (and racist, which we’ll learn about later.) They are eighty years old, they have both run successful businesses—Hortensia as a textile designer, Marion as an architect—and they hate each other. The Woman Next Door is an account, if not quite of how they become friends, then of how they come to hate each other a little bit less.

Marion’s racism is breathtaking. She’s a woman of her generation—apartheid was her normal. Her housekeeper, Agnes, is a black South African who is expected to eat from separate containers and use separate (and inferior) toilet paper. Agnes spends no energy in contesting any of this; she simply, quietly, gets on with the business of being a real human with some level of agency. When Marion eventually discovers that Agnes has stopped using the toilet paper bought for her, she is shocked and dismayed, until Agnes reveals that she’s simply paying for her own bogroll. But Marion’s relief is shortlived: it turns out that Agnes has started buying better-quality stuff than Marion allows herself. This scene is the sort of thing Omotoso excels at, the delicate dance of social oneupmanship. She tells a little bit too much more than she shows, though I think that’s a common misstep with social comedy.

The biggest stylistic hiccup with The Woman Next Door is the occasional register clash, or what feels like it. Omotoso uses words like “peeved” and “messed up”, which sound either euphemistic or childish, or both, and represent a linguistic cautiousness I wouldn’t expect from two old women who, we’re told, can “cut the legs off people” with their words. In general, on the sentence level, this book isn’t going to set you aflame. I do think its political content is sly and significant; the kinds of people who will read a book blurbed by Helen Simonson are not necessarily going to respond well to polemic, but Omotoso does slip in commentary. There’s a subplot about reparations in the form of a land claim (which I’d have liked a lot more of) and another about the descendant of a slave who lived on the farm where the neighbourhood now stands. I’m pleased that these points are present; they might find an audience that would otherwise have missed them. It’s also a book about old women, and about friendship, and we don’t get many books about old women; as Naomi said, more please. I like it fine, and will probably recommend it to quite a few bookshop customers. I’m just not sure it’s a shortlister.

The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist is announced on 3 April. For more commentary, see the rest of the Shadow Panel: Naomi, Antonia, Meera and EricThe Gustav Sonata is published by Vintage and is now in paperback; Hag-Seed is published by Hogarth and is available in hardback; The Woman Next Door is also published by Vintage and is also now in paperback.

2016’s Dishonourable Mentions

I was really lucky with my reading this year. Maybe it’s because as I get older, I have a better sense of what I’m going to like; maybe it’s the opposite and I’m just developing the ability to appreciate a wider range of writing. Whatever the reason, most of the books I read this year were not just good but really good, worth rereading at the very least—even the ones that didn’t make my Best Of Year list. But…no year is perfect. Here are the few books that just completely misfired for me in 2016. (This is all, of course, highly personal and subjective. What didn’t work for me may work brilliantly for you! And vice versa. I’ll still try to explain, succinctly, why I felt these books faltered, but don’t feel you need to take my word for it. All links are to my reviews, if you want to read more.)

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The Expatriates, by Janice Lee

What’s it about? The intertwined lives of three women living in Hong Kong: Hilary Starr, the childless stay-at-home-wife of an expat lawyer; Margaret Reade, whose youngest child went missing last year; and Mercy Cho, the childminder who was meant to be looking after the lost boy at the time of his disappearance.

Why didn’t it work? From my review: “Over the course of the novel, all three women will come to understand and accept motherhood as the highest possible goal of a life—a conclusion which, couched as it is in a foreign setting and an occasionally melodramatic plot, could be overlooked on first reading, but which becomes increasingly uncomfortable the more you think about it.”

9780804141321Shylock Is My Name, by Howard Jacobson

What’s it about? It’s the second entry in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, which novelises and updates some of the Bard’s most famous plays. Jacobson resets The Merchant of Venice in Cheshire’s Golden Triangle, throwing celebrity footballers into the mix.

Why didn’t it work? From my review: “It’s not just the gross dehumanisation suggested by the use of the word “Jewesses” (though [the characters] Plury and D’Anton use it frequently); it’s also that, basically, they’ve pimped a teenager, and none of the resulting brouhaha treats that as a big deal. Combined with Strulovitch’s original pervy possessiveness, and the many approving references to Philip Roth, it just all made me hideously uncomfortable.”

ten daysTen Days, by Gillian Slovo

What’s it about? The development of riots over the course of ten days in south London, as a result of a death in police custody. There are some clear parallels to the Tottenham riots of 2011.

Why didn’t it work? From my review: “The problem may be that I’ve seen all of this before, and not too long ago at that, and done with greater flair: in House of Cards, obviously, but also in The Politician’s Husband. (I hope other people remember that show. It starred David Tennant and Emily Watson, and aired in 2013. It was fucking devastating.) It’s suggestive, I think, that both of those instances are television shows. I suspect that this is material we don’t actually expect to read anymore; political machinations and back-room deals are the domain of the small screen now, and a good actor can raise a thinly written politician stereotype to a higher level, whereas a novel…well, a novel has to rely on its writing. The writing is all that a novel has.”

9781408862445The Improbability of Love, by Hannah Rothschild

What’s it about? A down-on-her-luck woman working as a private chef finds a priceless Watteau painting in a junk shop; everyone from a Saudi sheik to a shady art dealer decides they want it.

Why didn’t it work? From my Superlatives post: “It’s a sweet idea but executed in a very Eat-Pray-Love sort of way. The main character’s mother is an alcoholic and the conversations they have are so full of psychological jargon that I wasn’t at all convinced two people would talk to each other like that. Also, Rothschild doesn’t get contractions: all of her characters say things like ‘I will’ or ‘You do not”, instead of ‘I’ll’ or ‘You don’t’. It’s not for emphasis, either, and it happens for 404 pages, first to last.”

51n8dqdd2wlRaw Spirit, by Iain Banks

What’s it about? Banks, a famous science fiction writer but also a well-known lover of whisky, takes a road trip with several of his old drinking buddies to visit, and sample the wares of, every single-malt distillery in Scotland.

Why didn’t it work? From my #20booksofsummer roundup: “This book suffers appallingly from two interrelated things: an excess of privilege, and a deficit of self-awareness. …There were times when so very little of this book had anything to do with whisky that it honestly felt like he was taking the piss. Like the five pages about a Jaguar he once had, followed by a cursory page and a half on a distillery’s history and product. Or the long anecdotes about his friends and what they’re like when they’re drunk. Real talk: no one is a hilarious drunk to a stranger.”

9781784630485The Many, by Wyl Menmuir

What’s it about? Timothy buys an abandoned fishing cottage in a tiny Cornish village and sets out to restore it, temporarily leaving his wife behind in London. But the village has its own secrets: the fate of the man who lived in the cottage before Timothy, the bizarrely etiolated fish being pulled from the sea, the identity of the mysterious grey-coated woman who buys every catch…

Why didn’t it work? From my review: “The reality of reality, and the sanity of sanity, have long been uncertainties for authors to engage with. But the strength of a book lies in how satisfactorily it deals with those questions—it doesn’t have to answer them, but it has to deal with them—and The Many doesn’t deal with anything. It just shrugs and leaves. It’s a mark of my frustration that, after finishing it, I realized I still had not the slightest clue what the title meant. The many what? Fish? Deaths? Portentous pronouncements by old Clem the winchman? I don’t mean to sound bitter, but reading this book felt like being ghosted by someone on Tinder. There was so much promise here! What happened?!”

c836babd417bc41a990f6a706700b1b5Diary of an Oxygen Thief, by Anonymous

What’s it about? The supposedly non-fictional (but, thank heavens, clearly actually fictional) account of an alcoholic Irishman who, after years of recreational cruelty to women, gets a taste of his own medicine.

Why didn’t it work? A lot of reasons, but this, from my review, might give you a clue: “The knowledge that this particular Irishman does not actually exist was, in places, the only thing that kept me reading. He is not very nice. You can gather this from the first sentence, and also from the part where he talks about purging himself of his sins against women. Handy hint: if you’re a man and you want to purge yourself of your sins against women, you will never be able to.”

51fxpzhkbwlThe Countenance Divine, by Michael Hughes

What’s it about? In 1999, a programmer working on a fix for the Y2K bug becomes entangled with a tradition of British millennarianism involving Jack the Ripper (in 1888), William Blake (in 1777), and John Milton (in 1666).

Why didn’t it work? From my monthly Superlatives post: “The execution is so inconsistent (the sections set in 1999 are written in especially dull tones), and none of the book’s internal logic is really conveyed to the reader. Also, it features what has to be the drippiest Messiah EVER. (Unless the actual Messiah isn’t the character just referred to… Doesn’t change the rest of the book, though.) Oh, and either the Apocalypse in this book actually does rely upon horrific violence against women, or Hughes hasn’t sufficiently explained the reasons a reader should resist this interpretation. Which is such an old, and boring, story.”

9781784630850The Other World, It Whispers, by Stephanie Victoire

What’s it about? A debut collection of fantastical short stories focusing on transformation, metamorphosis, and literal and figurative identity.

Why didn’t it work? From my review: “I don’t know, it’s just a little too much, or not enough: the casual colloquialisms when the rest of the story is on a higher thematic plane (“didn’t have any more cash on her”; “been sorted”), the tang of cliché (“gulped down”, “lump in her throat”). It didn’t work for me at all. …The story needs, in effect, a more judicious editorial eye. I know I say this a lot about contemporary fiction but I think it’s true; there are many, many competent stories and novels being published which could have been excellent with a little more attention and criticism.”

Did you read any of these this year? What did you think of them? Am I a lunatic fool for missing the point of The Many? Am I a horrid killjoy for wanting to roll my eyes on every page of The Improbability of Love? Let me know…

February Superlatives

It’s been a whole year since I started doing Superlative wrap-ups! Elle Thinks has come a long way since then. Last month it didn’t seem worth doing Superlatives because most of what I’d read was reviewed; this month, I’m getting back into the swing of things. Reading was decent—I spent two whole weeks on two different 900-page books, which resulted in fewer total books read, but it was worth it.

most thoroughly engrossing world: The seventeenth century in Neal Stephenson’s erudite, globe-spanning novels Quicksilver and The Confusion. They cover almost everything—commerce, finance, politics, sex, war, slavery, physics—and everywhere: London, Cambridge, Germany, Constantinople, Versailles, the Barbary coast, India, the Philippines, Mexico. There’s Daniel Waterhouse, fellow of the Royal Society; Jack Shaftoe, soldier, galley slave, King of the Vagabonds, and pirate; and Eliza, who works her way up from slavery in a Turkish harem to major stockbroker for the French crown and a duchess twice over. Other characters include Isaac Newton, William of Orange, Peter the Great, Charles II, Samuel Pepys, Christopher Wren, Gottfried Leibniz, and Sophie, Electress of Hanover. It’s extremely difficult to stop reading them once you’ve started. The third in the trilogy is called The System of the World, and I nearly bought it this weekend, but The Chaos insisted I try reading his ebook copy first. This will be my first (and very reluctant) foray into ereaders. I will report back.

most comprehensively devastating: Without a doubt, Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life. I read some rough stuff this month, especially towards the end, but Lish’s story of an Iraq War veteran and the Chinese Muslim he falls in love with is classically tragic in its inexorable downward slide. It’s also some of the best writing about New York City I’ve ever read.

most obscurely baffling: I didn’t really get on with Shylock Is My Name, Howard Jacobson’s retelling of The Merchant of Venice for Hogarth’s Shakepeare project. Much of the plot felt begrudged, as though Jacobson were primly disgusted by all of these goings-on. The dialogues between Shylock and his contemporary stand-in, Strulovitch, were genuinely interesting, but marred by Strulovitch’s prurient fascination with his daughter’s sex life. That sort of thing tends to give me the shudders, and not in a good way.

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most chilled-out read: This wasn’t a hard book, either stylistically or intellectually, but damn if I didn’t have a jolly nice time reading it: Jes Baker’s Things No One Tells Fat Girls. It’s a bible of radical body-positivity. I’m really into this idea: that not all bodies are “pretty”, but that every single body is beautiful, and that, moreover, your body is absolutely no one else’s business, and no one else’s body is your business, unless and until they explicitly invite you to it. Imagine what the world would look like if people didn’t publicly (or even privately) comment on other people’s bodies. Imagine what magazines and TV and the Internet would like. Imagine how health writing and food marketing would change. Imagine how much more we could do with our lives.

book that could have been written for me: Love Like Salt, Helen Stevenson’s memoir of her daughter’s cystic fibrosis, plus her mother’s dementia and their life in France, ticked so many boxes for me. She’s a good amateur pianist who writes lovingly and knowledgeably about music I know and love. She’s a linguist and a reader who uses poems and prose that mean something to me as touchstones for her own thoughts. She’s the  mother of a child with a chronic illness; I was a child with a chronic illness, and am now an adult with one, and I remember what my mother had to do for me when I was younger. In fact, Love Like Salt touched me so personally that I am actually dreading having to finish a review of it; it cuts so close to the bone.

greatest potential: I wasn’t unimpressed by Harry Parker’s debut novel, Anatomy of a Soldier. Quite the contrary; he takes a conceit that could go horribly wrong (a novel about an IED explosion in Afghanistan, narrated by forty-five different inanimate objects) and gives it life. What did surprise me was the stylistic awkwardness that pervaded the writing. I wonder more and more now about editorial practices in large publishing houses: how much work gets done on a manuscript after it’s been bought from an agent? It was a poignant, topical book and it’ll get a ton of publicity, which means it’s likely to sell well, and perhaps that was the rationale, but it just strikes me as odd that no one looked at it and thought, This is pretty good, but we can make it even better.

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most nightmare-inducing: I don’t remember my good dreams, just my bad ones. Elizabeth Knox’s new novel, Wake, gave me a nightmare after I’d only read forty pages of it. It’s about a small town in New Zealand that falls into the grip of a mysterious insanity, causing everyone to kill each other. There are only fourteen survivors, and the inexplicable malevolent force that caused the disaster isn’t quite finished… Brilliant literary psychological horror that cleverly keeps its monster offstage for most of the action, while also making sure to actually explain what the hell is going on. (You’d be amazed how many of these sorts of novels never do, which, contrary to the beliefs of their authors, is not clever but infuriating). I won’t forget it for some time. I also think it would make a fantastic mini-series.

what’s next: I’m about to start Ottessa Moshfegh’s debut novel, Eileen. I have heard Patricia Highsmith comparisons and am expecting good things. (Though I am also wondering how to stop myself burning out on dark twistedness next month. Many of my to-review pre-pubs for March seem…rough.)

Shylock Is My Name, by Howard Jacobson

It is justice that makes us human, not forgiveness.

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This is a weird book.

In part, this is because it’s a contemporary adaptation of The Merchant of Venice, which is in and of itself a weird play. Along with Measure for Measure, All’s Well That Ends Well, and (sometimes) Troilus and Cressida, it’s been lumped in the category of “problem plays” for about a century. This is a category—now essentially discredited in academia, but still frequently used in popular discourse about Shakespeare—that critics invented for those of Shakespeare’s works that didn’t fit neatly into comedy, tragedy, English history, Roman history, or “romance”. (For more on Shakespearean romance, I direct you to my review of The Gap of Time, an adaptation of The Winter’s Tale.) The problem plays are deeply philosophical: they’re explicitly about ethics and morality, they’re not funny, and if there are any marriages at the end, the romantic or erotic lead-up to those marriages was certainly not the main point of the preceding five acts. When you watch one of Shakespeare’s comedies, you leave the theatre grinning broadly and feeling a little saucy; when you watch the tragedies, feeling drained and pared down. When you watch a problem play, you leave the theatre scratching your head and frowning thoughtfully.

A brief recap of The Merchant of Venice (which, incidentally, Jacobson does not provide): Bassanio is the titular merchant, who needs money that he doesn’t have to woo the noblewoman Portia. He asks a friend, Antonio, for a loan; Antonio doesn’t have hard cash, but he promises to be the guarantor if someone else will loan Bassanio the money. Shylock will; he’s a Jewish moneylender, and he hates Antonio, because Antonio is viciously, outspokenly anti-Semitic. He almost refuses the loan altogether, but eventually, he lays out the following terms: if Bassanio defaults, Shylock can take a pound of Antonio’s flesh as repayment. Unsurprisingly (see “the gun rule”: if a gun appears in act one, it must go off by act three), Bassanio does default–all his ships are lost in a storm at sea–and Shylock demands the flesh. Portia, Bassanio’s lady love, disguises herself as a lawyer and argues that Shylock’s contract gives him only flesh, but says nothing about blood, which he would have to spill in order to get what the contract allows him. Defeated, Shylock is dragged off to be forcibly converted to Christianity and to have his (considerable) estate divided up between Antonio and the Venetian government. Oh, and also, his daughter runs away with a Gentile.

There’s a little bit more to it than that, mostly involving some unconvincing and not particularly sexy or funny prancing about at Portia’s country estate, but that is the crux of the story.

I don’t actually feel competent to review Jacobson’s updating of the play, mostly because it (the novel) is all about Jewish identity, and I am not Jewish. The Duchess (who, long-time readers of this blog will recall, is my best friend from university and former housemate) is, and through her I’ve learned some things about what it’s like to live in a country that forcibly expelled your people in the year 1290, only to grudgingly re-admit them a few hundred years later; a country where large numbers of the mid-century social elite thought that Hitler, though a grubby little man, perhaps had the right idea; a country where casual, institutional anti-Semitism exists under the radar, so that no one believes you when you say you’ve encountered it. But I am not, and so I lose the nuance and weight of many of the conversations that pass between Jacobson’s two main characters–Shylock himself, transported to 21st-century England by some mystical means we are not meant to interrogate, and Simon Strulovitch, a billionaire art collector and benefactor who represents the Shylock character in the modern-day plot.

There are a few things that I can cavil at. One is the alarming nature of Strulovitch’s approach to fatherhood. His daughter, Beatrice, is sexually precocious and beautiful. He spends much of her adolescence driving around Cheshire and London, trying to find her, and dragging her away from parties by her hair (literally). He is bizarrely jealous of any boy she kisses. He is pruriently interested in whose bed she has been in, or will be in. This is waved off as overprotective Jewish fatherhood. Not knowing anything about Jewish fatherhood, I cannot speak to that, but to me it seems psychotic, abusive, and Freudian, and not something that you ought to be pinning on religious conscientiousness.

There is also the problem of everyone else’s attitudes to Beatrice. The crisis of the plot is precipitated by her apparent elopement with a footballer who is ten years her senior. She is sixteen, but evidence suggests that the footballer first slept with her when she was fifteen. She was essentially procured for him by Plury (the Portia character, a wealthy young-ish woman who throws a lot of parties) and D’Anton (the Antonio character, an also-wealthy gay aesthete and social butterfly), who are aware of the footballer’s proclivity for “Jewesses”, and find him one accordingly. It’s not just the gross dehumanisation suggested by the use of the word “Jewesses” (though Plury and D’Anton use it frequently); it’s also that, basically, they’ve pimped a teenager, and none of the resulting brouhaha treats that as a big deal. Strulovitch is more enraged that they pimped a teenager to a goy; Plury and D’Anton, when they realise that they could be in legal trouble, are so ridiculously naive in their shock that I wanted to throw things. Combined with Strulovitch’s original pervy possessiveness, and the many approving references to Philip Roth, it just all made me hideously uncomfortable.

 Possibly, what we should take away from all of this is that it is much easier to update some of Shakespeare’s plays than others. Jeannette Winterson managed it with The Gap of Time in part because the original already had a slightly fairy tale aspect. I wonder whether the plot details of The Merchant of Venice meant that Jacobson bogged slightly; it certainly feels as though he’s much more interested in having Strulovitch and Shylock debate identity than in the movement of the plot, and those conversational sections were the ones I found most engaging. Shylock’s conversations with his dead wife, Leah, were also rather beautiful and moving. Perhaps if the whole novel had been a dialogue, it would have been more powerful; instead, more than half of it was irritating if not downright horrifying. (I suspect–with very little in the way of concrete evidence, I admit, but a lot in the way of gut feeling and experience with entitled old men–that Jacobson is one of those public intellectuals who would jump right on the “freeze peach” bandwagon with regards to misogyny.) So…buy it if you’re into Shakespeare, and buy it if you’re into the philosophical bits (I was both, and enjoyed it for that alone), but be prepared to either wade through the other half, or skip it altogether.

Many thanks (despite the above excoriations) to the kind folks at Hogarth for the review copy. Shylock Is My Name was published in the UK on 4 February.