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.)

the-expatriates

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…

The Expatriates, by Janice Y.K. Lee

They radiate well-being and prosperity, the knowledge that someone cares about them enough to take care of them while they take care of the family.

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~~here be spoilers!~~

It’s odd, the title of this novel: The Expatriates. It’s also odd that there seem to be two slightly different cover designs for it—normally the UK and US versions, if they’re going to differ, do so fairly substantially, but in this case, there are just enough similarities that you could be forgiven for not really noticing. Both feature aerial cityscapes, with big lettering, but whereas in the UK version (above) the focus is on the architecture and the sky, the sense of metropolitanism, even the title font bold and crisp, the US cover is rendered in a much more italicized, cursive script. Its cityscape cover has been photographed just after sunset instead of poised at the moment of transition; there are lights on in buildings and in bars, and most of the lower right corner of the frame is taken up by a huge, glass-walled house. The inflection of the UK cover is “global”; that of the US cover, “domestic”. And, for once, I think the US cover may have nailed it, because—despite that baffling title—The Expatriates isn’t strictly about expatriates at all. It’s about motherhood.

Of course, it’s about motherhood in a specifically expatriate environment, where “expatriate” means “privileged”, but that privilege sits differently on some women than on others. Hilary Starr comes from money and doesn’t work; she and her lawyer husband, David, have been trying to conceive a child for several years with no success. Margaret Reade, meanwhile, has two children, and is suffering from the literal loss of her youngest: little G disappeared in a crowd last year, while the family was on holiday, and despite a public appeal, has not yet been found. Finally, Mercy Cho is the childminder who was meant to be watching G when he was stolen; when the novel opens, she’s twenty-four and unemployed, still in Hong Kong but struggling to make sense of her life and to find an acceptable form for her grief over a tragedy that she feels is her fault. 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.

Initially, the book looks as though it’s going to be about precisely what it says on the tin. It opens with a two-page prologue about Hong Kong’s constant arrivals, and this sucks you in: Lee is great at writing what I like to think of as “general” or “blanket” prose, wide-ranging descriptions of a particular subset of people. It’s descriptive and precise while retaining a sense of sweep, and it serves her very well here:

The new expatriates arrive practically on the hour, every day of the week. They get off Cathay Pacific flights from New York, BA from London, Garuda from Jakarta, ANA from Tokyo, carrying briefcases, carrying Louis Vuitton handbags, carrying babies and bottles, carrying exhaustion and excitement and frustration…They are thrilled, they are homesick, they are scared, they are relieved to have arrived in Hong Kong—their new home for six months, a year, a three-year contract max, forever, nobody knows. They are fresh-faced; they are mid-career; they are here for their last job, the final rung before they’re put out to pasture. They work at banks; they work at law firms. They make buttons, clothing, hard drives, toys.

And so on. The beautiful precision of the description fades early on, though, and it is replaced by some curious repetition. Margaret, the woman who has lost her son, ends far too many of her chapters with the banal thought that you just have to carry on living, after disaster strikes, until you live your way into life again. It’s a true assertion, and endless grief is banal, but there are authors who manage to elevate that tedium of pain into something human and holy, and Lee does not; she simply repeats. Mercy, meanwhile, is astonishingly passive. Many of her chapters end with a bizarrely po-faced version of the whoops-a-daisy that tends to accompany novels featuring scatty, whimsical young heroines of the kind that Zooey Deschanel gets cast to play, a variation on “Of course [insert fresh new crisis here] had happened to her. Things like this happened to her. There was nothing she could do about. She was a magnet for catastrophe.” It’s solipsistic and self-pitying and, frankly, a bit disturbing. It is, again, true that twenty-four-year-olds are frequently solipsistic and self-pitying (I am one, I should know), but there are writers who present young adulthood in terms that are self-aware, and hence more successfully profound. Lee, again, just repeats.

There are some things that she does rather better. One is her description of Mercy’s short relationship with Charlie, a boy she knows vaguely from university and whom she dates briefly. He is oddly naive: born and raised in Hong Kong, he seems exotic to his childhood friends for having made it to America for college, but in Mercy’s eyes he is hopelessly unironic, uncool, provincial. She’s not kind about him, but in one of their dinner exchanges, Lee gives us a glimmer of understanding of how frustrated Mercy must be by their interactions. It’s one of the few times when we see a reaction instead of being told about it, and it’s understatedly powerful:

“What did you do today?” [Charlie asks]

Parrying his questions is so easy it’s like child’s play. “Such a boring topic!” she declares. “How’s work?”

And instead of saying, “And that’s not boring?” he starts telling her about work.

Which of us, o women, has not been there? This perfectly nice man, “cheerful, ebullient, a puppy eager to please”, is still not eager-to-please enough to grasp the level of unthinking, unconscious entitlement that his response reveals. No matter how eager to please he seems, he will never be as keenly aware of another person’s primacy as this woman—who is basically indifferent to him—is of his. I did a double-take when I read it: not out of surprise, just out of recognition.

The authorial emotional awareness present in that scene is strangely absent in other places, though, like when Mercy has an affair with a married man (who is, guess what, Hilary Starr’s husband, David). They’re having breakfast, a few months into their relationship, and he asks her “How are you supporting yourself?” (Why they haven’t had this conversation earlier is beyond me, but I digress.)

“I get jobs here and there,” she says. “I do a lot of different things.”

“Do you need any money?” he asks. It is so unexpectedly kind that her eyes fill with tears. It has been so long since anyone has cared enough about her to ask something like this, and to have an older, mature person consider what she might need, as opposed to her throng of twenty-something self-absorbed friends, is disconcerting and an awful kind of pleasure.

An awful kind of pleasure, it certainly is. It’s conceivable, of course, that a young woman could feel so isolated that her married lover’s offer to give her money makes her feel weepily grateful, instead of patronised and insulted. The issue isn’t so much that Mercy is terribly vulnerable and a bit pathetic; it’s that Lee doesn’t appear to think she is. Her gratitude towards David is presented as totally natural and right, without the slightest hint of reflection or analysis or consideration that maybe she’s not in a very strong state right now. Likewise, this thought, near the end of the book, when Mercy knows she is pregnant:

That’s what a mother is, she remembers thinking, someone who puts others’ needs in front of hers, who takes the pain from others and swallows it herself. Her mother, Margaret: They are mothers…This good person, this figure who is selfless and forgiving: this is who she needs to become.

There is a sense in which that is true. There is another sense in which that is a restrictive and destructive untruth. Lee acknowledges only one of these senses, and it makes for slightly blink-inducing reading.

All of this makes it sound as though I didn’t enjoy the novel much, although I did. Lee’s ability to anatomise a swathe of society works well with the subject of expatriate culture; scenes at the American Club, for instance, where Hilary’s quasi-adopted son Julian is bullied by some expat boys and wreaks his own quiet revenge, are drawn with wonderful clarity. So is Margaret’s relationship to her domestic help and to the party planner, Priscilla, with whom she consults about her husband’s fiftieth birthday celebrations: that weird attempt to balance professionalism with the brute fact that you are addressing someone who is, functionally, a servant. So are the sections about readjusting to life in the US, which evoke a disorientation even worse for being so temporary: the implication is that most expats readjust very quickly, and feel a kind of unnameable guilt for that, for the homing natures of their minds. This is all thought-provoking and fascinating and well expressed. If you are happy to cope with the narrating voice’s apparent conviction that each character’s responses are precisely as straightforward as they are reported to be, there is a lot to enjoy here. But I would recommend taking it all with a pinch of salt.

Many thanks to the kind folks at Little, Brown for the review copy. The Expatriates was published in the UK on 12 January, 2016.