May Superlatives

The less said about May, the better, frankly. Or perhaps that’s unfair: it’s been much too busy, but I’ve seen old friends, and family, and done a lot of singing. At the end of the month, though, my personal life has—quite unexpectedly—gone to shit. It’s no one’s fault, but it’s incredibly painful and it means my present, and my future, are in a state of upheaval. I don’t want to talk about it on here, beyond that. I have read 12 books, and my brain is like a wrung-out sponge: reviewing capacities are at a pretty low ebb.

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biggest mindfuck: The City and the City, China Miéville’s novel about two cities which, topologically, exist in the same space, but are ontologically not the same places: Beszél and Ul Qoma. Miéville’s said he wants to write a novel in every genre, and this is his noir, with Inspector Borlú our hardboiled detective. As is the case with a lot of his work, the conceit is adhered to with such astonishing tenacity that the sheer comprehensiveness of it mostly makes up for a certain thematic thinness. (After all, if the point of The City and the City‘s overlapping spaces is to illustrate urban alienation, all you need to do that is the conceit itself; you don’t really need to hang a whole novel on it.) Still, I never regret reading a Miéville book.

hardest to discuss: As a bookseller, I can tell you right now that any book about a paedophile is going to be a hard sell. Tench, by Inge Schilperoord, is nevertheless a very compassionate and terribly lucid exploration of the circumstances that surround people who commit this nature of offense, and the ways that they’re so often unsupported, and left to offend again. A heartbreaking but very good book. (review)

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hands-down favourite: The Time of Our Singing by Richard Powers—recommended to me by a colleague—a six hundred-page novel about the musically talented mixed-race children of a black Philadelphian woman and a German Jewish man, growing up in the 1960s. The best novel I have ever read about classical singing, it also encompasses over a hundred years of American racial history. It’s a total knock-out and should be much better known.

most like a feminist rewrite of The Road: There’s one every year now, in the vein of Emily St John Mandel’s excellent Station Eleven. This year it’s Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From, an extremely brief and spare book about a woman raising her newborn son alone in a flooded England. The woman (unnamed) navigates the loss of her husband, her home, and everything about her old life with grief, but also with aplomb; the baby, curiously, anchors her. You could read it, I suppose, as an extended metaphor. That might be the most productive way to do it, given that, at the end of the book, the waters recede, the husband returns, and the baby starts to walk—this confluence, I suspect, not coincidental.

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nimblest: Let Go My Hand, by Edward Docx, is a book that could have run into a lot of problems: it’s about three brothers unwillingly escorting their dying father to Zurich in a camper van. He intends to take his own life at the Dignitas clinic. On the way, there are emotional and physical reckonings from decades of parenting failures, both standard and particular. Docx avoids every one of the places where he could have bogged down in sentimentality or crassness; it’s a superb piece of work, moving and realistic and often bizarrely funny, with some perfect dialogue. Imagine a Wes Anderson movie, but not annoying. (It’ll probably be a Wes Anderson movie soon, so read it first.)

most rage-inducing: Maxine Beneba Clarke’s memoir about growing up black and middle-class in white suburban Australia, The Hate Race. It’s just won the Multicultural NSW Award there, which is both heartening (it’s a fantastic book and it deserves prizes) and kind of hilariously ironic (it’s mostly about the appalling racist bullying Clarke suffered as a child in “multicultural New South Wales” barely 25 years ago). (review)

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best newcomer: Ocean Vuong’s poetry isn’t completely new to me—I’d read “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” and a couple other pieces online in Poetry Magazine—but his first full collection is just out in the UK. Night Sky With Exit Wounds is an elegiac, sexy, pull-the-rug-out compendium of poems, absolutely unforgettable. “Because It’s Summer” might be one of my new all-time favourites.

oddest: Sudden Death, by Álvaro Enrigue. Fictionalising and retelling the story of a tennis match-cum-duel that was once fought between the painter Caravaggio and the Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo, it’s sort of a novel. It calls itself a novel. It frequently digresses, however, to take in historical footnotes such as the ultimate fate of Anne Boleyn’s hair (used to stuff the world’s most expensive tennis balls), the ultimate fate of Anne Boleyn’s executioner (executed himself, his throat professionally slit in a French courtyard), and the conquest of the Aztecs. I think I can see what it’s trying to do, and I think I’m intrigued and impressed. I’m just not quite sure it comes off: partly it’s hampered by its own cleverness, which has Enrigue writing these footnote sections in the tone of a chatty media don, giving the impression that they’ve migrated into the novel from a popular history book.

pleasantest surprise: This is going to sound so weird, but: It, Stephen King’s killer-clown novel. I’d never read Stephen King, and picked this up really on a whim. It turned out to be astonishingly addictive, which for me means that the writing is high-quality and frictionless. It’s also genuinely terrifying—more so when focusing on events that happen to the central group of characters as children; slightly less so when focusing on them as adults and the final reckoning with It, but still pretty good then. I’ll be trying King again. (review)

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most hmm: Kevin Wilson’s new novel, Perfect Little World, which is out in June. The idea is cool: a child psychologist with his own issues around nurture and stability is funded by an eccentric billionairess to run a ten-year study called the Infinite Family Project, where ten couples raise their babies communally to see how this affects child development. Our main character, teen single mother Izzy, is delightfully down-to-earth and the way Wilson introduces conflict to the “perfect little world” is pleasingly realistic, but his prose style creates a kind of distance between the reader and the characters; I always felt I was on the outside, looking in. Perhaps that was the point, though I’m still not sure how I feel about it if so.

hardest to read: When I Hit You: Or, Portrait of the Writer As A Young Wife, by Meena Kandasamy, a novel about an abusive marriage between an Indian feminist writer and her passionately Communist husband. The title should tell you why. (This has got nothing to do with the shit thing that has just happened, though.)

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biggest relief: Tana French’s most recent novel, The Trespasser, is finally 1.99 on Kindle. It’s the only thing I’ve been able to read since the shit thing happened—I can’t focus enough for anything else—and I should take this opportunity to again state how thoroughly French as a writer has earned my trust as a reader.

up next: No idea. In any sense.

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It, by Stephen King

We all float down here.

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This is by far the best cover ever designed for this book.

Warning: some spoilers ahead

I like to think that I’m relatively widely read – that I will, in the optimistic words of some of my customers, “read anything if it’s well-written” – but there are still some gaping voids in my reading, and one of them is pretty much the entire genre of horror fiction. Partly, maybe, this is because horror is a genre that hasn’t been rehabilitated in the way that science fiction and fantasy has. Even a dedicatedly snobbish reader of literary fiction will be able to find some crossover, in 2017, between their tastes and the speculative writing being produced. Horror isn’t quite there yet; I can’t think of analogous examples in that genre, apart from Let the Right One In, House of Leaves, and maybe The Loney (which might qualify more as literary Gothic), and I haven’t read any of those, let alone the classics and modern classics of the genre. So a Stephen King novel was very unknown terrain, and I approached it prepared for pretty much anything. What I wasn’t expecting was quite how addictive it (or, rather, It) would be, and how much this is a function of King’s frictionless writing. Here is an author who can write sentences that go down as smooth as cream, utterly without pretension, but without the stultifying samey-ness of a Dan Brown or a Paula Hawkins. It’s a much harder trick than it looks.

It flips back and forth between two time periods: 1958, when a group of seven schoolchildren in Derry, Maine first become friends, realise that the string of child murders in their town has malevolent supernatural causes, and band together to destroy the shape-shifting entity known as It; and 1985, twenty-seven years later, when It – not properly destroyed the first time – returns, and the children, now adults, have to return and get rid of It for good. I know very little about horror tropes, but I think the genre works best when the Big Bad is representative of real things, and the shape of this story reflects the real struggle that many (if not most) adults experience in trying to come to terms with whatever trauma shaped their childhoods. The children—who call themselves “the Losers’ Club”—are all social outcasts in one way or another: Eddie Kaspbrak is an asthmatic with an overbearing mother; Richie Tozier wears specs; Mike Hanlon is black, Stan Uris is Jewish, Bev Marsh is both desperately poor and regularly beaten by her father. Ben Hanscom, perhaps the most intelligent of the group, is morbidly obese, and Bill Denbrough, their charismatic leader even at the age of eleven, has a terrible stutter. They would all have been marked by these traumas alone; it’s these, King suggests, that bring them together in the first place, that make their challenge to It possible.

All of this interweaving of childhood trauma with adult reckoning is clever, but the book wouldn’t amount to much without the other half of the equation. The thing that’s killing Derry’s children is unequivocally supernatural (or, rather, extranatural; near the end of the book, several of the characters begin to think of objective reality as a stage set made of ropes and thin canvas, behind which endless other complex machinations are occurring). Bill Denbrough’s brother, George, is the first child to be killed in the 1958 timeline, and it’s through his eyes that we see It for the first time. It appears to him as a clown calling himself Pennywise and offering a bunch of balloons, and although it seems to George faintly odd that the clown is in the sewer, he’s drawn towards it anyway almost against his will. When his body is found, his right arm has been completely torn off. He’s three. As the Losers’ Club begins to form, it becomes clear that each child has already had a close encounter with It, but each describes It differently: It appears to take Its form from the private fears of its victims. Each instance is both clearly drawn from cheesy B-movies, and utterly fucking terrifying: a decomposing leper, a fish-man, a floating eye, a clown with a mouth full of razors, a werewolf, a flesh-eating bird, George Denbrough himself.

This quality leads to some of King’s best and smartest thematic work. I’ve already mentioned that the kids of the Losers’ Club are outcasts in a superficial sense, but several of them also experience wider traumas, and that too affects how they see It. As the book goes on, Eddie Kaspbrak begins to suspect that he’s not nearly as sickly as his mother is determined that he is, and the adult reader can see the sad, awful manipulation that Mrs. Kaspbrak tries to exercise: having lost her husband, she’s damned if she’ll ever lose Eddie to anything—not to childhood illness, but neither to a college education or a girlfriend or a wife or a family or his own life as an adult. At several points in the story, Eddie sees It take on his mother’s face. This works the other way round, too. Beverly Marsh’s father at one point beats her so badly that it’s clear he will kill her if not stopped; she recognises, even as she’s running for her life, that there is real evil present in her father, that It often works best simply by provoking or enabling the innate weakness or cruelty of an adult. Bill Denbrough’s parents, crushed by the loss of their youngest son, become incapable of speaking to each other or to their remaining child. (In one heartbreaking scene, Bill hears his mother crying at one end of the house, his father stifling sobs at the other, and wonders, “Why aren’t they crying together?”) During their 1958 confrontation with It, Bill becomes locked in a kind of metaphysical stand-off, during which he can feel himself moving both closer towards It and further away: closer to Its actual essence, further from being able to stand outside of It as a separate entity and talk to It. He recognises immediately why this puts him in danger—“to pass beyond communication,” he thinks, “is to pass beyond salvation”—and he recognises it because he has seen it happen in his parents’ house.

Historical interludes (supposedly written by Mike Hanlon, who remains in Derry to become the town librarian) suggest that the town has a long and statistically anomalous history of extreme violence coupled with the bystander effect: in one case from the early twentieth century, a woodsman massacres several other men in a public saloon with an axe, while the other tavern-goers continued to drink at the bar. The youngest of them, then a boy of eighteen, is in his nineties when Mike Hanlon interviews him, and his testimony suggests that a pervasive sense of not-my-business settled over the bar while the massacre occurred behind the drinkers. It’s extreme, but not, perhaps, that extreme—recall Kitty Genovese. (After the murderous woodsman is finished, and has wandered up and down the town’s main street for some time, he’s arrested. A lynch mob arrives at the jail; the deputies flee instantly, and the man is dragged out and hanged from a tree. It’s not a story about justice, even of the vigilante sort; it’s a story about bloodlust.) What King is getting at here is a sense of collective responsibility, of how essential that responsibility is to the development of human communities, and how constantly we must be on our guard—be brave, be true, stand—to maintain it. There is no suggestion of nostalgia or that people were more neighbourly in the past; indeed, one of the worst moments in the book is when an old man in 1958 watches a potential homicide unfolding before him, then simply folds his newspaper and turns to go back inside. It’s not the times that make us evil, King wants us to know; we always carry that potential inside us.

The book’s approach to diversity and tolerance is particularly interesting, both because it engages with those issues more consciously than I expected it to, and because King is still hampered by something—perhaps the ‘80s, perhaps wider genre tropes that I don’t know much about—that causes him to make some obvious (from my standpoint) missteps. The fact that he includes a black child, a Jewish child, and a girl in his circle of Chosen Ones is unexpected, and pleasing; yes, there’s only one of each, but he handles it in a non-tokenistic manner; race, religion and gender are rarely dwelt upon. Racism is responsible for one of the worst massacres in Derry history, and King is pretty clear on the monstrosity of small-town organisations like the Legion of White Decency. On the other hand, this doesn’t stop him from giving Richie Tozier—a faintly obnoxious but charming cut-up—a party act called the Pickaninny Voice, a grotesque parody of cringing blackness liable to announcements like “Oh, lawdy, Miss Scarlett! Thisyere black boy’s gwineter behave, don’t you beat thisyere black boy”, and so on. Richie’s regularly told to shut up by the others, but no one suggests that he’s being a racist prick and maybe the black kid that they’re all friends with has something to say on the subject. There are jokes about circumcision and kosher food (though these are tempered by Stan Uris questioning why Catholics eat fish on Friday, which at least makes Richie recognise that all religious strictures are equally arbitrary). Perhaps most damningly, in the 1985 timeline, Stan Uris commits suicide instead of rejoining the others in Derry, and Mike Hanlon is attacked and put in hospital before the final confrontation with It can take place. This may not have been intentional, but it effectively denies both the black and the Jewish man participation in a catharsis that they have most assuredly earned, reinforcing the idea that heroes—in this case personified by Bill, Ben, and to a lesser extent Richie and Eddie—are just naturally white, goshdarnit.

Which brings us to Beverly, because she too is present during the final showdown with It, but you wouldn’t know it. Her role is primarily to take care of Eddie, who’s badly injured early on and spends most of the action bleeding out on the floor. When Bill and Ben and Richie disappear into the metaphysical arena of combat, Beverly’s left behind. Sure, she’s the best shot of them all and was previously given the responsibility of shooting It with a silver slingshot pellet, but that was when they were kids; the adult battle seems to have no place for her in it (except as a caregiver, and as an object of desire to both Bill and Ben). It’s the Susan Problem all over again—girls can only be active agents for as long as they’ll pretend to be one of the boys; once they hit womanhood, they’re no longer of much use—and I resent it.

The biggest problem with King’s treatment of Beverly, though, happens in the 1958 timeline. The battle with It, which leaves It badly wounded but not yet defeated, also leaves the children disoriented. Eddie, an infallible navigator, has lost his touch; they’re in the sewer tunnels, deep below Derry and mostly unmapped. Losing their way means certain death. Something is needed to bring the friends together again, to restore their confidence in each other and their sense of themselves as a unit. That something, it turns out, is for all of the boys to have sex with Beverly, which they duly do, one by one, on the ground. It’s greatly to King’s credit that at the time of reading, immersed in the novel’s world, this makes a certain degree of sense, and he handles it, for the most part, with surprising sensitivity, giving Beverly a kind of detached maturity that doesn’t make her a martyr. (The sex is her idea; only this, and the distinctly non-realist flavour of the story so far, prevents it from reading like a gang rape.) At the same time, the children he’s writing about are eleven, which strikes me as depressingly young to be concluding that sharing a woman is the only way to bring men together. (And what about the woman? How does this logic allow her to reconnect, too? King doesn’t go there.)

For all of these problems, though, It really, really works. The 1958 storyline is perhaps more compelling than the 1985 one, which begins to rely much more heavily on interpersonal melodrama to get its plot rolling. But King’s effortless evocation of fear in his readers is a writerly skill that has to be read to be believed, and the way that he integrates commentary about how humans live together—the best of it, and the worst of it—with his overtly scary monster is clever and compelling. I definitely want to read more of him in future; which of his books should I pick up next?

Wake, by Elizabeth Knox

“The logic of it was like something imposed from the outside. As if someone were overseeing what was happening.”

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~~here be (a few) spoilers~~

Kahukura, a small coastal town in New Zealand, is suddenly overcome by a homicidal, suicidal mass insanity. Theresa Grey, a police officer and the first responder to the scene, witnesses a postman trying to stuff himself headfirst into a post box; a couple whom she initially believes to be kissing are actually gnawing each other’s lips off. A lorry crashes, and a mother walks herself and her pram into the burning pool of motor oil. Out of the madness walks a man–a sane one–carrying his wife. They’re visitors to the area; they only stopped in the town to go antiquing. His wife is dead, but he has survived. He and Theresa quickly discover that they can’t escape: the road out of town is blocked by a mysterious force field they nickname “the No-Go”. In short order, they find twelve other survivors. These range from a fisherman of Maori heritage, to a young biologist who works at the conservation center up the road, to a fifteen-year-old video game enthusiast, to an American lawyer in town for business. As they hole up in the town’s retirement home and try to figure out how to live in their strangely isolated new environment, the novel tracks the emotional progress of individuals, and the group as a whole, as they move through fear and hopelessness towards understanding what, precisely, they’re up against.

For a while I struggled to think what this book reminded me of. It was sort of like The Walking Dead (I imagined, having only ever seen trailers for the show), but the zombie horror only lasts for the first forty pages. It was sort of like Under the Dome, insofar as the survivors are trapped and there’s a clear supernatural tinge to their plight, but I was reaching for some other comparison to describe the sense of claustrophobia and the overriding impression that whatever caused the madness and trapped the survivors is basically inexplicable. This morning, I got it: it reminds me of Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer. The two novels share an interest in how emotion makes us vulnerable, in how we can be cracked like nuts by a merciless intelligence if it chooses to focus on our most venal, pettiest sins.

Fourteen characters is a lot of characterization to juggle, so of necessity Knox highlights some of her characters more than others. Warren, for instance, a drunk and drug addict in his mid-twenties, is basically a sketch, and Dan, a middle-aged truck driver with a family somewhere outside the No-Go, is forgotten for pages at a time (although he gets more focus near the end of the book). There’s a very odd relationship between Sam, a young woman who worked at the retirement home and seems to have learning disabilities, and William, the American lawyer who is, on occasion, physically violent towards her. The other survivors tut a bit over this, but no one tries to stop them or seems to lose any sleep over it. You could say, I suppose, that it’s an all-too-realistic portrayal of how communities, even very small and interdependent ones, turn a blind eye to things that don’t immediately concern them, but it’s not just that the characters don’t interrogate it; Knox doesn’t either, since it’s introduced and then more or less dropped. Likewise, the beginning of their ordeal sets up a tension between William and Theresa which we imagine is going to play itself out in a leadership struggle. Instead, the group hobbles on without an acknowledged leader, and at the end, after spending very little time inside Theresa’s head, we’re meant to believe that she’s fallen for William. It’s unfortunate, but revealing in another way: that the least convincing part of this supernatural horror novel should be (some of) the human emotions means that the supernatural horror part is very well executed indeed.

I should also add that other human emotions are very well drawn. Curtis, for instance, the antiquing tourist whose wife, Adele, is a victim of the madness, eventually retreats from the group altogether. His grief is such that it can’t be processed in company, which makes perfect sense (bereavement does that to you, it makes you irritated by things like the touch of a hand on your shoulder or even someone else’s voice.) Lacking community, however, he starts to slip into a kind of grief-fueled dementia–which makes him vulnerable to the force that holds the town in thrall. This, it turns out, is an actual entity, a multi-dimensional predator known as the Wake. It derives energy from plunging others into madness, and it orchestrates the madness by inverting everyday relationships, “even”, as one character notes, “fairly superficial social ones.” (Adele, for instance, choked when the antiques shop owner began forcing pound coins into her mouth, reversing the normal interaction between a customer and a shopkeeper. And remember the postman who’s posting himself when Theresa turns up in Kahukura?)

All of this is explained by Myr, a mysterious black-skinned, black-clothed man whom the survivors at first mistake for one of them. He doesn’t speak, though, and won’t come to live in the retirement home with the other survivors. His relevance, and his identity, are only revealed halfway through the book, when he briefly kidnaps Sam. It’s quite difficult to go into detail here for fear of Big Huge Spoilers, so I’ll say only that Knox integrates plot elements that could easily seem ridiculous in a surprisingly convincing manner, partly using historical precedent to back herself (you’ll see what I mean if you read the book) and partly by being as vague as she possibly can about Myr’s provenance and the Wake’s. Although the explanations are woo-woo, it’s all window dressing for an exploration of how people are their own worst enemies. That’s why the Wake feeds on people’s weaknesses: their jealousies, their fears, their secret or overt affections. It gives Knox the chance to draw a vicious cycle for us: put in a position where you have to defend your life, your positive traits quickly leach away in favour of survivalism…so how do you survive if that’s precisely what makes you vulnerable?

To be completely honest, though, it wasn’t so much the philosophy that kept me reading (although that was an enjoyable added bonus); it was the argh what the hell is going on I want to know I want to knooowwww factor. It wasn’t just about the Wake was going to do, either; Sam’s curiously blank, innocent personality is initially ascribed to her being mentally disabled, but in fact it’s due to something else, and much of the satisfaction I derived from the book was as a result of working out what that was. Usually such page-flippability is catalyzed by books written in a prose style at best pedestrian and at worst hideously awkward, so the fact that Knox can turn a sentence was a plus. I’m not entirely sure that she has a thesis, as such, although the book makes it seem as though she does; why else would you create that paradox surrounding emotion and human vulnerability? For me, it doesn’t come together in one coherent sweeping statement, but that isn’t necessarily a demerit; I loved just getting to know the characters, who are all desperately poignant in their own ways (especially fifteen-year-old Oscar, who plays Halo to cope with his worry and is passionately devoted to his family’s Siamese cat, Lucy). It kept me glued to the couch on a Sunday afternoon; what more can you ask for from a book?

Thanks very much to the kind folks at Corsair for the review copy. Wake was released in the UK on 3 March. 

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.)

Acceptance, by Jeff VanderMeer

like nothing human but something free and floating

The US covers for the Southern Reach trilogy

The UK covers for the Southern Reach trilogy

In keeping with my attempts to write something, no matter how unacademic, about whatever I read:

Acceptance is the third in the Southern Reach trilogy, which you probably know about by now if you follow books at all. It came out last year, so I’m late to the party. All three volumes were published within the year, which is a clever marketing gimmick. It really works; reading volumes one and two (Annihilation and Authority) back to back was incredibly satisfying, and even though I waited about a month to pick Acceptance up, it wasn’t due to lack of burning curiosity.

The premise of the Southern Reach trilogy is that a section of coastline and interior in the southern United States (from textual clues, probably Florida) has become suddenly inaccessible: the mysterious Area X, which used to be inhabited but is now demarcated by an inexplicable, seemingly metaphysical boundary or border of white light. The Southern Reach is the government institution established to study Area X. In Annihiliation, we learn that our narrator (known only as “the biologist”) is a member of the twelfth expedition into Area X (the border is permeable, if not exactly reliable.) In Authority, we go back to the Southern Reach itself and wrestle with contradictory evidence from various expeditions alongside Control, the institution’s new director. The books are sort of eco-thrillers, sort of alien horror, but basically not very much like either.

Acceptance sees Control and the biologist (or a version of her) returning to Area X to try and figure out what went wrong on so many expeditions. There is no easy giving away of secrets here, but although many reviewers seem to find that frustrating, I rather liked it. If you want an answer, VanderMeer provides enough information for you to construct one with a bit of effort; what he won’t do is provide authorial confirmation that your answer is right. (I think mine is, for what it’s worth.) The strength of his writing is in the way that he sketches relationships between reticent, antisocial people with just a few short lines of dialogue. No character is fully fleshed out, but we get them, nonetheless.

The title is an interesting clue about the nature of the book (and the nature of Area X), as well: what the mission is really about is acceptance of fate, of recognizing that if you stop fighting, you may not get what you thought you wanted, or return to the life you used to have, but may become or acquire something altogether more powerful and profound. It’s not as New Age-y as it sounds; there is a scene where a manifestation of the biologist (I’m sorry, I can’t be more specific than that) crashes down a hill and attacks a lighthouse where the other characters are staying, and it is as purely wild and hallucinogenic and transcendently holy as anything any medieval mystic or Biblical prophet ever saw or wrote.

There are shades of the biblical in Acceptance; one of the characters, whose viewpoint is communicated to us only from the past, used to be a preacher, and as he becomes increasingly affected by the encroachment of Area X, his journal fills up with Old Testament-style rhetoric. There is a hint of the apocalyptic, and more than a hint of the cosmic. But there’s no overarching dogma here–much like Catherine Chanter’s The Well, which I read last month–and the book is stronger for it. We’re not meant to read this as a cautionary tale about waging fewer wars and producing less pollution, although those issues are, of course, given a passing mention. Instead, we’re asked to do something much more troubling: at its core, this is a book about learning how to die.

Although Authority (book two of the trilogy) drags a bit, Acceptance is, if not quite a return to the form of Annihilation–that would be impossible and possibly undesirable–at the very least an excellent offering from Jeff VanderMeer. The man can write. I would highly recommend all three of these books; Acceptance is a satisfying conclusion to a trilogy that delights in evasion.