Black Leopard, Red Wolf, by Marlon James (out in Feb): This outrageously good-looking book is also outrageously long: well over 600 pages in proof. It is also only the first in a projected trilogy, entitled Dark Star, focusing on African mythology. Neil Gaiman’s puffed it as an African Tolkien with flashes of Angela Carter, which actually doesn’t seem too far off. It focuses on a mercenary known only as Tracker, whose prodigious gift for finding and following scent is mostly used to hunt down debtors and shiftless husbands until he is recruited to find a missing boy who might just be the rightful heir to the throne of the kingdom. James frames most of the narrative as a story told under interrogation, presumably to keep us in suspense about how Tracker comes to be imprisoned as a result of his quest, but for long stretches of time it’s easy to forget about that. Chronological leaps, a profusion of characters, and the aforementioned sheer length of the book meant that for a fair fraction of its pages–maybe a fifth to a quarter–I was reasonably confused about what was happening and whose side we ought to be on. Luckily, I think that’s exactly the reaction James intends; he wants people to need to read Black Leopard, Red Wolf over and over again. And for all that it’s baggy, it’s also intense and immersive; I read it over four days and could barely stand having to do other things like sleep and go to work. The book is rich in brilliant imagery–a city built in the trunks and branches of enormous baobab trees; a fish the size of an island; murderous spirits who walk on the ceiling–and much of that is imagery that white readers won’t be automatically familiar with. James also does Tolkien one better by making (gasp!) explicit sex, and explicit queerness, part of his world. Black Leopard won’t be for everyone, but it’s an incredible experience.
The Hook, by Raffaella Barker: Books like The Hook fascinate me because they are clearly the products of skilled professionals, and yet they would be virtually unpublishable if anyone tried to sell them to an editor tomorrow. The Hook was first published in 1996 and there must have been something in the water in English literature in the ’80s and ’90s, because those decades are full of books like this, where–it seems–the author is just telling us a story. How crazy that sounds now! How crazy that it sounds crazy! It’s not that The Hook has no plot; au contraire; the minute we meet eighteen-year-old Christy and learn that her mother’s just died, she’s dropped out of sixth form, her father’s bought a trout farm in the countryside, and she’s met a man named Mick at a bar, we know bad things are afoot. Maybe it’s just that Barker appears to be writing without an agenda. She does tell a story about a young woman being led astray by an older man who is not all he says he is, and let down by the people who ought to be protecting her, but it’s hardly #MeToo territory. There is nothing in the narrating voice that forces us to see the novel’s events in a political light or even in the light of wider society. I can’t decide whether that makes it incredibly subtle and delicate in a way that publishing is missing out on now, or whether The Hook simply has…well…no hook. Or maybe a bit of both. Has anyone else read Barker? What do you think?
Quarantine, by Jim Crace: Crace is an atheist, but this book–maybe the one for which he’s best known–reimagines the experience of Christ’s forty days in the wilderness, during which, according to biblical authority, he was tempted by the devil but rejected his advances. In Crace’s version, Jesus isn’t in the same place on his life trajectory: he’s a much younger man, almost a boy (and he never goes by the name Christ, being referred to by the narrating voice always as “Jesus”). The “devil” is a man named Musa, a merchant, wife-beater, and, later, a violent rapist, whose near-fatal fever is unwittingly cured by Jesus on his first night in the desert. The caves of quarantine are not as deserted as he would like; others are in them, seeking other things. Aphas, an old man, wants a cure for his cancer; Shim wants the enlightenment that he believes he’s entitled to; Marta wants to get pregnant; Miri and Musa are there simply because the caravan in which they were traveling left them behind. Throughout the novel, characters wrestle with what they want. Crace shows us that desire is often better left unfulfilled: one of the primary questions of the book is whether everyone would have been better off if Musa had not been miraculously cured. And yet Crace’s vision doesn’t seem so bleak, at least not to me. Jesus doesn’t survive his forty-day fast–no one could–but Musa seems to see him at the end of the book. In a sort of Schrodinger’s resurrection, Jesus is neither clearly living nor clearly dead, and it’s suggested that Musa’s inveterate storytelling habit becomes the catalyst for the New Testament narrative that we know now. Meanwhile, Marta and Miri’s friendship and eventual emancipation is, for me, the most Christian element of the book: two people finding comfort, acceptance, and courage in each other’s presence. It’s a gorgeous piece of work.
The Dreamers, by Karen Thompson Walker (out in Feb): This is exactly the sort of science fiction that will receive extremely positive mainstream press attention and high sales; like Station Eleven, another of that kind, it deals with the fall-out of a world-changing event, not so much with the nature or provenance of that event itself. In a small college town in California, students start falling asleep. They’re not in a coma–they’re just sleeping–but nothing will wake them up. Brain scans reveal that they’re dreaming, and not only that, but they’re dreaming more vividly, with more intense cerebral activity, than any normal person. Thomspon Walker follows several point-of-view characters (a few more than she needs to, although she keeps an omniscient narrator throughout, so that pesky problem of differentiating voice doesn’t arise): an isolated freshman named Mei; the idealistic and unusual boy she falls in love with, Matthew; one of her professors, who left his wife for another man decades ago; another college student, Rebecca, who becomes pregnant just before succumbing to sleep; a young couple, Annie and Ben, and their newborn baby, Grace; and two little girls whose father is a doomsday prepper. On the whole, I agree with other assessments I’ve seen of The Dreamers around the Internet: the style is lovely and languid, there’s a bit too much fetishizing of babies and breeding, and everything that’s written about Rebecca’s situation reads painfully like an anti-abortion manifesto. I’d quite like to read The Testament of Jessie Lamb, by Jane Rogers, which deals with similar issues and won the Clarke Award in 2012; The Dreamers, meanwhile, is diverting and interesting while you’re reading it, but has faded fairly quickly from my memory.
The English Gentleman’s Mistress, by Douglas Sutherland: This was published in the late ’80s by Debrett’s (yes, that Debrett’s), and constitutes a sort of tongue-in-cheek nature guide to that most peculiar inhabitant of high society, the gentleman’s mistress. In many ways, it’s funny and charming and contains some cracking anecdotes, including one meant to illustrate the difference between Frenchmen and Englishmen, in which one Frenchman casually informs another that he is sleeping with the latter’s wife, only to be met with “Oh yes? Tell me, is she any good at it these days?” In many other ways, it’s a startling reminder that the late 1980s were as rampant with gross sexism as the late 1880s: women are referred to as mares, for instance, with all of the sexual value judgments that the word implies, and this is clearly not a world in which any sensible woman would prefer having a career to being “kept”. A weird, often enjoyable, often really distressing little volume. I’m glad I have it, if only for self-educational purposes.
Devotion, by Ros Barber: In the near future, just after the death of Richard Dawkins, moves are afoot to reclassify religious fundamentalism as a form of mental illness. In this climate, Dr Finlay Logan must assess the sanity of April Smith, a ninteen-year-old woman who has committed a religiously motivated act of mass murder. Logan himself is struggling to come to terms with the death of his daughter Flora in a skydiving accident; his grief is threatening to destroy his marriage, as his wife–Flora’s stepmother–is increasingly stymied by his inability to communicate his pain. Meanwhile, in the course of investigating April’s condition, Logan comes across a charismatic researcher named Gabrielle Salmon, who offers both him and April the chance to undergo a procedure that, she claims, will allow them to experience direct contact with the divine.
The ideas in Devotion are in many ways more compelling than the characters whose actions are meant to express those ideas: Logan is frustrating, selfish and self-pitying, while the event that drove April to murder is at best predictable, at worst a reduction of female pain to an inevitable origin in sexual trauma. I’m also uncertain about Barber’s portrayal of faith. She writes about it in a way that seems to see only three options: crazed, God-talks-to-me fundamentalism, pure atheism, and a kind of “spiritual-but-not-religious” state that manifests in a vague, fuzzy feeling of one-ness with all life. There are many other ways of experiencing what is generally referred to as the divine–there is an enormous distinction between “religious faith” and “religious fundamentalism”–and it would have been refreshing to see some more acknowledgment of that; it’s still so rare in mainstream literary fiction. Devotion is absolutely worth reading, though, even if it only goes halfway, and I’m slightly surprised that it was never on the Clarke Award shortlist.
Don’t Hold My Head Down, by Lucy-Anne Holmes (out in Feb): The subtitle should make it pretty clear why I was interested in this. Holmes hit her mid-thirties and became aware–after a disappointing wank to Internet porn–that she wasn’t having nearly as good sex as she wanted. So she made a list (slow sex! A bit of kink! Maybe some bum stuff! Full-body orgasms!) and set off to see what she could find out about how to bang better. It’s a fun read, certainly, but much of it feels (and I accept that it’s very easy to criticize) a bit…basic? Not in terms of the sex she has–Holmes does more stuff in the name of let’s-see-what-this-is-like than I ever have–but in terms of the tone and the attitude, which is all a bit jolly-awkward-Bridget-Jones-falling-into-a-mud-puddle-whoopsy-I’m-such-a-silly-tit. There is a lot of caps lock. There are many exclamation points. A writer can’t help the person that they are, but I was hoping for something that I’d be able to connect to on an emotional level a bit more. Instead I found myself repeatedly thinking “for Christ’s sake, woman”, not helped by the fact that Holmes meets a man halfway through the book and ends up entering a serious relationship with him, eventually having a baby. Perhaps that’s meant to be a happy ending, but it did rather close off some avenues of exploration. Maybe I’ll have to write my own version of this book.
John Henry Days, by Colson Whitehead: Before this I’d only read The Underground Railroad, but Whitehead’s reputation preceded him: he’s versatile and has a permanently active, connection-making mind that’s on full show in John Henry Days. John Henry is an American folk hero, although he probably did really live, in some form or another, a steeldriver on the C&O railroad. Faced with the prospect of losing his job to an automated steam drill, he’s said to have challenged the drill to a contest, and won, before dropping dead of exhaustion. Using this semi-historical, semi-mythological event as a thematic focal point, Whitehead riffs on the value of work, particularly on the value of work done by undervalued bodies (brown ones and/or female ones, predominantly), in late-capitalist America. His other protagonist, J. Sutter, is a black journalist who is on a junketeering streak: for months, he’s been at a PR event every day or night. His latest assignment is the official unveiling of the new John Henry postage stamp, and the John Henry Days festival, in the town of Talcott, West Virginia. Whitehead is so exuberantly creative, both with language (which he uses in the manner of an extremely skilled and show-off-y chef wielding a very sharp knife) and with the scope of his ambition (chapters range from the recounting of a violent Rolling Stones concert to the story of the first musician to put the folk ballad on paper), that sometimes the book feels unfocused. But who gives a shit when there’s this much going on?
Thoughts on this batch of reading: So much God stuff! So much sex stuff! An extremely long book and several pretty short ones! Also, I love how excited I’ve been by reading the paperbacks that I chose for myself in Crouch End a few weeks ago (in this batch, that was The Hook, Quarantine, Devotion, and John Henry Days).