2016 In First Lines

I did a post like this two years ago, and forgot to repeat it last year. (Don’t worry; there’ll still be a good end-of-year roundup!) These are the opening lines of the first book I’ve read each month, with a little bit about said book, and what I thought of it. Reach for your TBR lists now, because most of these were great.

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January: “Inspired by Beyoncé, I stallion-walk to the toaster.” – American Housewife, by Helen Ellis. This somewhat manic collection of short stories, some very short indeed, tackles domestic femininity, pop culture, and societal double standards. It’s a little like a book version of Lucille from Arrested Development, delivering tart one-liners and clutching a martini. I didn’t love it, but I can respect what it was doing.

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February: “Enoch rounds the corner just as the executioner raises the noose above the woman’s head.” – Quicksilver, by Neal Stephenson. Book one of Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle—one of my favourite reading experiences this year—wherein we meet erstwhile member of the Royal Society Daniel Waterhouse, and follow him on the beginning of his mission to reconcile Newton and Leibniz.

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March: “I looked like a girl you’d expect to see on a city bus, reading some clothbound book from the library about plants or geography, perhaps wearing a net over my light brown hair.” – Eileen, by Ottessa Moshfegh. Nyer nyer, I read it before it was longlisted for the Booker Prize. Highsmith-esque noir plotting meets serious psychological ishoos; Eileen is an unforgettable character.

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April: “My name is Sister.” – Daughters of the North (published in the UK as The Carhullan Army), by Sarah Hall. An absolute belter of a book that takes the ideas of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and pushes them further, to more interesting places, than Atwood ever does. Another of 2016’s highlights.

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May: “They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days.” – My Cousin Rachel, by Daphne du Maurier. Start as you mean to go on, Daphne: ominous as all hell. This tale of a femme fatale—maybe—and a hapless young man—maybe—is an ideal stepping stone to the rest of du Maurier’s work after Rebecca.

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June: “In 1972 Spring Hill was as safe a neighbourhood as you could find near an East Coast city, one of those instant subdivisions where brick split-levels and two-car garages had been planted like cabbages on squares of quiet green lawn.” – A Crime in the Neighbourhood, by Suzanne Berne. What I loved about this book was how adroitly Berne makes us sympathise with a kid who does a cruel and terrible thing: how completely we enter her head.

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July: “When it began, it began as an opera would begin, in a palace, at a ball, in an encounter with a stranger who, you discover, has your fate in his hands.” – The Queen of the Night, by Alexander Chee. I’ve raved about Chee’s book here before. Opulent, atmospheric, full of detail: it’s not only a great summer holiday read, but would make a great Christmassy one, too.

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August: “That day I woke up from a dream the way I always woke up: pressed against my mom’s back, my face against her and hers turned away.” – The Mare, by Mary Gaitskill. A raw and absorbing book about Velveteen Vargas, a Dominican teenager, and the world of horse-riding to which she’s exposed during a Fresh Air Fund trip. How Gaitskill inhabits her characters so faithfully is beyond me, but I’m not complaining.

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September: “I liked hurting girls.” – Diary of an Oxygen Thief, by Anonymous. One of the less impressive books I’ve read this year, in all honesty (and perhaps unsurprisingly, given that opening gambit). More on that in an end-of-year post.

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October: “One afternoon on a weekend in March, Dewi Ayu rose from her grave after being dead for twenty-one years.” – Beauty Is a Wound, by Eka Kurniawan. I was initially bowled over by this book, but Didi’s comments made me look at its use of sexual violence afresh, and I was a bit less pleased with it after that.

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November: “On my 18th birthday my Uncle Keith took me to see Charlie Girl, starring the one and only Joe Brown, who I was in love with and was very much hoping to marry.” – Where Do Little Birds Go, by Camilla Whitehill. Whitehill’s words, plus the acting of Jessica Butcher in the production that I saw, combine to make this one-woman show about exploitation and power dynamics in the Kray twins’ London one of the best plays I’ve seen this year.

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December: “There is a boy.” – Signs for Lost Children, by Sarah Moss. Moss’s latest novel, The Tidal Zone, was the first of hers I’ve read, but I honestly think Signs for Lost Children is better: in the late 1800s, Tom Cavendish and Ally Moberley, recently married, are separated by Tom’s engineering work, which takes him to Japan for a span of months. While he is gone, Ally, a qualified doctor, works at Truro women’s asylum. In each other’s absence, both of them must face their fears and, eventually, trust each other again.

So! What do these say about my reading this year? (Well, this year so far; December has hardly started.) Two-thirds of these titles are by female authors, though I went through phases of reading mostly men, then mostly women. None of the authors of colour I’ve read this year are represented, which suggests the limitations of this method (showcasing only the first book read in each month). Nor are the genres, which included a little more sci fi, fantasy, memoir and short story collections. What this selection does suggest, though, is that this was a good year for reading. There were very few books I didn’t enjoy at all, and many that I truly adored.

Soon to come: my top books of 2016, or The Year In Reading, to be followed by the year’s dishonourable mentions.

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Meanwhile, At Litro: Hubert and Urban Isolation

My latest column for Litro is up. In it, I talk about Ben Gijseman’s graphic novel Hubert, about loneliness as opposed to being alone, and about how creating art requires a connection with another person. It’s not quite a review. Hope you enjoy it!

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Freya, by Anthony Quinn

“Did it ever occur to you that I might have different priorities? What about getting my first salaried job, or my first cover story on the magazine – aren’t they milestones?”

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Anthony Quinn came to my attention last year with Curtain Call, which many book bloggers raved about. I still have only a limited idea of its plot, but I gathered that Quinn’s great strength in it was to evoke the 1930s London theatre scene without sacrificing any of the nuances of the historical setting to the murder-mystery plot (something that lots and lots of historically set works do. Lookin’ at you, Downton Abbey.)

His second novel, Freya, does much the same thing for the mid-century world of the highly educated and opportunistic. Beginning on VE Day, when Freya Wyley meets Nancy Holdaway in the beginning of a beautiful friendship, the novel tracks the two women through their Oxford years (or, in Freya’s case, one year; she’s sent down after failing to appear for Mods, her first-year exams) and into their adult years in London during the social upheavals of the 1960s. Robert Cosway, whom Freya and Nancy both meet at Oxford, is a third player in both their lives, while other friends and acquaintances from university crop up regularly too.

It feels a bit unfair to refer to Quinn’s novel as “good old-fashioned storytelling” (in part because prefacing anything with “good old-fashioned” is a great way to convince people it’s worthless, or that you’re a Little England weirdo). Nevertheless, that was the phrase that kept bumping around in my head as I was reading it. It’s not exactly what you’d call a pacy plot, although there are two subplots that could have made novels on their own: one is to do with the outing of a gay civil servant whom Freya was briefly in love with at university, the other to do with the death of a teenage model and It Girl during the London years, whom Freya has been profiling for a newspaper. The fact that Quinn doesn’t make his novel a domestic espionage thriller or another murder mystery is testament to what he’s trying to do instead: anatomize a particular slice of English society at a particular time in (relatively) recent history.  He’s also trying to write about female friendship. Freya and Nancy’s relationship isn’t always the most prevalent strand in the book, but it’s omnipresent; they define themselves through how they relate to one another. I read somewhere recently that books about “female friendship” are usually about how women hate one another. Freya isn’t. It wants to explore the fact that people construct ideas about themselves, how they choose friends who can reflect those ideas back to them, and how the deepest kind of friendship very often results in the recognition that your original self-image was skewed or flawed or incomplete.

Although the book is nominally about their friendship, the title of the book isn’t misleading: it’s really a novel about Freya. The Independent’s review compared it explicitly to William Boyd’s Any Human Heart, the protagonist of which is rather conveniently present (though peripheral) at many of the defining events of the twentieth century. Quinn doesn’t quite do that, but the first third of the book sees Freya chasing an elusive journalist, Jessica Vaux (possibly based on a Mitford sister?), to Nuremberg, where the world’s press have gathered to report the Nazi war crimes trials that are dragging on there. While there, she nearly misses Vaux altogether, but a chance encounter on the last night of the week leads to an exclusive, and she stays on, impulsively, for another three days (missing her exams altogether and consequently being sent down). It’s classic Freya: lucky enough to have had some connections, but also daring enough to make the leap, and arrogant enough to believe she’ll land on her feet.

Nancy, on the other hand, is a vaguer character, an aspiring novelist (and eventually a successful one) who tends to be amalgamated into little more than a series of traits: auburn hair, gentle voice. You could object to this, I suppose, on the grounds that she’s made into a sort of soft-focus “lady novelist”; some reviewers have. On the other hand, you could see that Quinn is approaching her characterisation this way because he’s writing from Freya’s point of view, and Freya is first and foremost concerned with her own appearance to others, her own success. She loves Nancy deeply and honestly, but she doesn’t often pay that much attention to her. When, late in the novel, she reads one of Nancy’s own books after a long estrangement, she’s taken aback by the sharpness, the perspicacity, in her friend’s prose. This is a woman with a gift for observation and analysis, one that Freya finds hard to reconcile with the gentle, encouraging friend that she knows.

There are other marvelous characters as well, including Nat Fane, an actor, playwright and impresario whose arrogance outstrips Freya’s and whose penchant for spanking is returned to several times throughout the course of the novel. Fane is fascinating because he could so easily tip into caricature; in many ways he genuinely is a caricature, albeit a self-created and self-maintained one. What Quinn captures, though, is the fundamental sincerity of self-creation, the deep investment that such a person has in others’ opinions. Fane may be supremely convinced of his own talent, but when he lands in London, his reputation as a “brilliant boy” doesn’t do him any favors. He finds his niche, but it’s not quite the one he expected to fill. There’s also Robert Cosway, whose charisma and coldness in pursuit of a story are also a match for Freya’s. The major crisis of the novel is precipitated by Robert’s betrayal of an old friend for a front-page scoop; Freya, whose judgment is as unyielding as her self-confidence, can no longer work with Robert or even see him socially, and the repercussions of her decision on her relationship with Nancy (who by this time has married Robert) are severe.

In the end, it’s the characters who really run the show. That major plot crisis is indeed significant, but only because we have come to know and care about the people to whom it unfolds. There is an incredible texture to Quinn’s world: colors, smells, architecture, music. Oxford squares and London streets are delineated with a casual precision that makes us feel we are really there, that we can see the golden stone of Banbury Road or the sooty brick of Islington. There is, too, a lovely resilience to the friendship of Freya and Nancy. Circumstances and principles may separate them temporarily, even for years, but by the end of the book, we know that their love for each other is the most important thing. The novel is crammed with incident, but the incidents aren’t as significant as the long, slow process of getting to know and trust another person. Other critics have seen it as a failure of plot; I prefer to think of it as a triumph of scene-setting, and of a subtle, masterful grasp of emotions.

Thanks very much to Joe Pickering at Jonathan Cape for the review copy. Freya was published in the UK on 3 March.

Capsule reviews: Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh + This House Is Not For Sale, by E.C. Osondu

Once again, my eyes are bigger than my stomach, metaphorically speaking—I requested an arseload (that’s a technical term) of pre-pubs that were all releasing at the beginning of March, and despite my best efforts with a color-coded Google Sheets spreadsheet, I am at least a week behind on reviewing. Capsule reviews to the rescue! (The great virtue of capsule reviewing these two books in particular is that there is so much to be said about them, and enjoyed about the experience of reading them, that I can just give you the tiniest sense of it, and then you can go buy them and enjoy them for yourselves.)

Eileen, by Ottessa Moshfegh (Jonathan Cape)

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You probably know a good deal about this already, so I’ll keep it brief. The plot: Eileen Dunlop’s mother is dead, her father a neglectful alcoholic. She’s twenty-four years old, a virgin, and works as a secretary in a boys’ prison outside an unnamed New England town (she calls it X-ville.) “This is the story,” she proclaims early on, “of how I disappeared.” The week before Christmas, the charismatic Rebecca St John comes to work at the prison as a child psychologist. Her beauty and mystery completely captivate Eileen, and lead her to commit a dreadful crime.

There are a couple of brilliant things about this book. One is the character of Eileen herself, who is undeniably very, very strange. Her relationship to her own body is one of mingled fascination and disgust. She finds herself revolting, almost wallowing in the idea of other people’s revulsion. The very notion of sex seems both ridiculous and defiling, but at the same time, she’s obsessed by it. She doesn’t masturbate, but she’s something of an emetophile, taking copious amounts of laxatives in order to empty her body into a state of vacant, semi-conscious ecstasy. Reading Eileen’s comments on her own physicality (which she makes, as she narrates the whole novel, from a position of adulthood, nearly sixty years in the future) is an intensely disturbing experience, but it rings so true. Teenage girls are still taught that their bodies are shameful, that they take up too much space, that their smells and sounds and tastes and very existences are somehow foul. Eileen captures the adolescent awkwardness of it (“Breathing was an embarrassment”) while also going far, far beyond the norm.

Rebecca St John, as the villain (or something like it), is simultaneously utterly false and utterly compelling. Her description–coppery hair, lithe and stylish–made me think of her as a physical cross between Daphne from Scooby-Doo, and Erin Winters from John Allison’s Scary Go Round comics. She’s a cardboard siren, but that’s absolutely the point: Eileen is such a naif that Rebecca’s attention bowls her over completely, even though we see both the calculation and the ease of deception. Rebecca barely needs to try. Eileen’s half in love with her, even though she goes to tremendous lengths to assure us that she’s not a lesbian.

The other brilliant thing about Eileen is the pacing. You know something awful is going to happen, because you’ve been told so from the very beginning, but you’ve got no idea what it is. The way that older, narrating Eileen mentions Rebecca (“I wonder if she’s married now”) makes it clear that she doesn’t kill her, but also that when she runs away, Rebecca’s not with her. Those two obvious avenues of plot being closed, the novel has to twist pretty hard, which it obligingly does. When you finally realize what’s going on, as in the best noir and thrillers, you think, “Oh, of course!”, but you also hadn’t quite guessed it. (Or I hadn’t. Although I am notoriously bad at this sort of thing.) The action is drawn out over the course of a week, and since it’s told in retrospect, you get little hints from the narrating Eileen, but it’s still a pretty sharp surprise when the point that everything has been building to finally arrives. I read it with my pulse racing. Writing a book that actually does that is hard. Moshfegh’s imagination is a dark and unapologetic place. I hope she writes another novel soon.

This House Is Not For Sale, by E.C. Osondu (Granta Books)

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From freezing New England to sweltering Nigeria: E.C. Osondu’s second book is sold as a novel, but feels much more like a collection of short stories. vignettes concerning the inhabitants of the Family House in an unnamed city (though, given its topography, it’s probably Lagos). The self-mythologising that surrounds the house, and the family that lives there, starts on page one, when we learn “How the House Came to Be” through a kind of Just So Stories parable: a man who gives a king the secret to long life is given the land as a reward, and eventually, the king builds him a handsome mansion there. But the gift is two-edged: sure, it’s to say thank you, but it’s also so that the king can keep an eye on the man. He’s to be killed in the event that the king dies of anything other than simple old age. That dynamic–of debt and power, bestowing and withholding–defines the Family House from its inception.

The narrator is a little boy who lives there. We know almost nothing about him, though he refers to the patriarch as Grandpa. He does not intrude much into his own stories: instead, he’s a preternaturally observant child, watching the currents of favour, disfavour, money and prestige flowing through the Family House’s rooms. Grandpa can give, and Grandpa can take away. He bestows wives upon husbands (women are commodities); he takes cruel retribution upon a woman accused of stealing from him. He does provide shelter, clothing, and a livelihood for many of his poorer family members and hangers-on from “the village”, but those gifts are always Faustian bargains. If you receive anything from Grandpa, you belong to him.

Increasingly, the book features a Greek chorus of voices–disembodied, floating in the text–which belong to the neighbours. There are murmurings about the Family House, as well as about its individual denizens. People’s reputations rise and fall. The general chatter of the neighbourhood is characterised by hypocrisy: when someone is on the upward swing of popularity, their praises are sung far and wide, but if they challenge Grandpa, or behave in a deviant manner, they’re publicly denigrated. There’s very little room for difference here, although sometimes accommodations are made. Baby, a brain-damaged young woman, is married off to a prosperous female trader named Janet; the arrangement is that Janet provides for her as a husband would, while at the same time any children that Baby bears by other men will be generally considered to belong to Janet, not Baby. It’s a curious combination of pimping and problem-solving. In the event, Baby disappears after the wedding (she claims to have been kidnapped by witch doctors) and returns several months later in a state of disarray, prompting Janet to seek an annulment. Meanwhile, a prodigal son returns from America with a degree (in what, no one can quite grasp) and begins to throw “salons” frequented by community outliers such as “Man-Woman” the hairdresser. Unable to countenance the growing gossip about his son’s predilections, Grandpa quietly orders him away again, with the understanding that he can never return.

It’s a very slim book–I finished it in a day–but an oddly powerful one. There’s a lot of pain in it, but you get an excellent sense of the interconnectedness of family relationships, the importance of supporting your own and the power that accrues to people who are in a position to lend others a hand. Of course it corrupts; we shouldn’t be surprised that Grandpa has turned into a tyrant. He is paying the piper, after all. The book ends as the narrator and his cousin, Ibe, watch the house being bulldozed. The bulldozer runs out of electricity, which is blamed on the many layers of curses that cast-off family members (mostly women) have laid upon the house over the years. But a battery is found; time marches on; the balance of power shifts. The Family House, with its complicated freight of cruelty and community, warmth and hatred, inevitably comes down.

Thanks very much to Joe Pickering at Cape, and Natalie Shaw at Granta, for the review copies. Eileen and This House Is Not For Sale (in paperback) were published in the UK on 3 March.