September Superlatives

Quite a lot going on in September, all of it good—more writing, more walking, more singing, more seeing dear friends whom I don’t see often enough. Work is very busy, and I have two new colleagues to help me in the bookshop, and I have just started working on our bespoke subscription service, with new clients of my own. Not many reviews this month, but 17 books read, and a sense that, going into winter, I may just preserve my sanity. An unexpected gift, that: I don’t fare well in the dark season.

roughing it

most uneven: Mark Twain’s travelogue Roughing It, which is partly set in Nevada, Utah and California Territories (where he originally went to accompany his brother, who was appointed to a government position in Nevada), and partly in Hawaii. Twain is amusing as ever (if a little distressingly casual) on Mormon society and the surreal bubble of Western gold prospecting, but he’s also breathtakingly racist about Chinese labourers in California Territory, and things don’t improve when he meets native Hawaiians. Worth reading, but hardly essential.

most incendiary: Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie, longlisted for the Booker Prize, which retells Sophocles’s Antigone with a British Muslim family front and center. Dutiful daughter Isma, bold and beautiful Aneeka, and radicalised, immature Parvaiz play out a story that feels inevitable, but ought to be read by everyone interested in current debates about the West’s role in creating a new generation of terrorists. (review)

best fun: K.J. Whittaker’s False Lights, the tagline of which is the intriguing “What if Napoleon had won the Battle of Waterloo?” Featuring Cornish separatist rebels, Napoleon’s brother Jerome on the English throne, and a mixed-race heroine (not to mention another particularly wonderful depiction of a working-class woman whose capacity for military strategy wins her the Duke of Wellington’s respect), it’s like a glorious mashup of Frenchman’s Creek and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (but without the magic.)

most stylish: My Cat Yugoslavia, the debut novel from Pajtim Statovci. Examining the psychic fallout from the war in Kosovo through the eyes of Bekim, a Kosovan Muslim resettled in Finland as a child, it’s an elegant, if sometimes slightly self-conscious, treatment of the lingering traumas of conflict. (review)

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best atmosphere: That of immediately post-war London in Patrick McGrath’s The Wardrobe Mistress. It’s set in the notoriously cold winter of 1947, and follows Joan Grice, who runs the wardrobe department at the Beaumont Theatre, as she mourns the death of her famous actor husband, known to all as Gricey. The revelation that Gricey had a secret life—one that was almost diametrically opposed to his domestic life with her—drives Joan to the brink of madness. McGrath writes with beautiful restraint and finely calculated tension; it’s a masterpiece.

sheerest delight (and most inspirational protagonist): Like A Mule Bringing Ice Cream To the Sun, by Sarah Ladipo Manyika. This is not exactly news to anyone who reads Naomi’s blog, but good Lord is this novella ever charming, cheering, and a bit of a kick up the ass. Dr. Morayo da Silva, Manyika’s protagonist, is in her eighties and still lively, sharp, and sexy. (A young chef, seeing her dancing, gets a little hot under the collar, despite knowing she’s his grandmother’s age.) Manyika doesn’t ignore the painful elements of aging, but she has also written the only elderly female protagonist I’ve ever read whom I wouldn’t actually mind becoming. What a gem.

most addictive: Munich, Robert Harris’s new book. I had never read a single Harris book until July, when I finally bought the paperback of Conclave because I was going to be on a train and what if I happened to finish the book I already had in my bag OH NOES. It turned out to be great, and Munich is even better. While sticking to the historical record of what happened in 1938 when Chamberlain and Hitler met and signed the Munich Agreement, Harris also gives us the perspective of two men—one in the British government, one in the German—who try to persuade Chamberlain of the real danger. Harris succeeds as no other novelist has in conveying Britain’s desperation not to start another war, and somehow, knowing from the start how it will end doesn’t diminish the tension.

best surprise: This year’s Booker Prize dark horse, Elmet, by Fiona Mozley. Initially this seemed rather Cormac McCarthy Does Yorkshire, but in the end it’s much more than that: a siren song of violence and independence and rage. There are shades of Winter’s Bone and My Absolute Darling and the queasy individualism of Paul Kingsnorth’s novels in the story of bare-knuckle fighter John and his children, gentle Daniel and hard-as-nails Cathy. It’ll be interesting to see what Mozley does next.

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biggest disappointment: Dunbar, Edward St. Aubyn’s reimagining of King Lear for Hogarth’s Shakespeare project. In this case, the failing is partly that of the utterly mediocre prose, but mostly due to a lack of moral scope: Dunbar isn’t a tragic figure because he isn’t an Everyman. (Neither is a king, you might say, to which I would reply that Lear is humanised through his madness, and also—crucially—through subtle choices made by every actor who plays him. Dunbar, meanwhile, is simply an aggressive and deeply unpleasant media mogul who’s suffered a drug-induced psychotic break: a bizarre choice on St Aubyn’s part that utterly removes his protagonist from our sympathy.) I may write a full review of this, if my brain ever stops feeling like a wrung-out dishtowel every evening after work.

best short story collection: And only short story collection, but it’s difficult to phrase what I want to say about 2084, edited by George Sandison, which is that it’s an almost flawless assembly of stories, all explicitly set in the eponymous year as part of a project conceived as a response to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. From the ultimate assimilationist technique among refugees to haute couture-induced lunacy, from drowning cities to a bonkers future youth dialect that draws on Doge memes (“Such approach! Very arriving!”), these stories are never less than fully committed to their visions of the future, and the writing is never less than sterling. It’s a phenomenal achievement.

most thought-provoking: The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor, an Afrofuturist novel(-la?) about genetically modified speciMen (the book’s word). I liked it okay, but not more than that, and the reason that’s thought-provoking is because my lukewarm response had a lot to do with the rhythms of the prose. Okorafor’s sentences are shaped in a way that clearly owes much to African and oral storytelling beats, and I find that hard to deal with in written work. The fact that The Book of Phoenix has revealed this prejudice means, of course, that it’s done its job.

most LUSH: John Banville’s new novel and sort-of sequel to The Portrait of a Lady, Mrs. Osmond. It follows Isabel Osmond, née Archer, as she tries to free herself from the horrendous, controlling marriage to which Henry James condemns her. As a technical achievement it’s stunning; attempts to mimic late-C19 prose often end badly, reading as parody or pastiche, but Banville’s control and intelligence means that he manages precisely to ventriloquise a Jamesian style (albeit a slightly less thicket-y one). I’ve never seen anything like it.

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most quietly devastating: The Noise of Time, Julian Barnes’s fictionalisation of the life of Dmitri Shostakovich. It would read well in conjunction with Do Not Say We Have Nothing; Barnes is more interested in his ideas than his plot, whereas Madeleine Thien manages to integrate the two, but Barnes has equally interesting things to say about how artists (specifically musicians) survive under tyranny, and the intellectual compromises that survival requires.

most surreal: I’ll Sell You a Dog, by Juan Pablo Villalobos. Set in Mexico City and narrated by foul-mouthed, cheekily lecherous pensioner Teo, it covers mid-century Mexican art, Marxism, young love, disappointment, intellectual pretension (embodied by his apartment complex’s reading group, who pay a young boy to ferry their copies of Proust around in wheelbarrows), and tacos. I read it in a day and walked around feeling a bit cross-eyed for a while afterwards.

warm bath book: Every month must have one, apparently. It’s often a reread. This month there were two: one was Lirael by Garth Nix, which was about 99p on the Kindle store, so I bought it and read it on my phone. I’ve loved Nix’s Old Kingdom series from childhood, and I especially love Lirael because, for the book’s first half, its painfully shy heroine works in an enormous magical library. Swoon.

The other was Alanna: the Song of the Lioness, which is part of the new Puffin Originals series of “classic” YA. It’s actually the first two books in Tamora Pierce’s Alanna quartet, bundled together. The story of a girl who wants to be a knight in the fantasy realm of Tortall, and disguises herself as a boy for eight years to do it, is also a childhood favourite. As an adult, it’s easier to see where Pierce relies on heroic exceptionalism and a wide-eyed “who, me?” attitude in her heroine, but they’re still great stories.

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most defiant of genre convention: Jane Harris’s third book, Sugar Money, which is out this week, tells the story of two Martiniquais brothers, slaves to the French priests who run the island’s hospital. They are charged with returning to Grenada and “stealing back” the forty-two slaves left there when the French were defeated by the English several years ago. Harris doesn’t saturate readers with baroque depictions of violence, as, say, Marlon James or Colson Whitehead do (though there is some); her time period is about a hundred years earlier, and what she conveys best is the way that coming to adulthood, as a slave, means a psychological reckoning with your own powerlessness.

up next: In general life, October holds a trip to Liverpool to sing at the cathedral there, a trip to Canterbury for my cousin’s hen weekend, and my housemate’s book launch. (He’s an academic and has just done a book on Bloomsbury’s cultural effect on the rest of London. Buy it!) In reading, I’m about to finish The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, and I’ve got a million proofs from work, and I went book shopping over the weekend because I guess I’m some kind of masochist, and…you know, I’m definitely set.

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Home Fire, by Kamila Shamsie

A man needed fire in his veins to burn through the world

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caution: some spoilers ahead

I didn’t think I was going to write a full-length review of this, but two things have changed my mind. One is this post from Victoria Best at Tales From the Reading Room, which poses the question “what kind of critic are you?” and, just as importantly, “what kind of criticism is most helpful to you?” while examining Deborah Levy’s symbol-heavy novel Hot Milk from both a critical academic perspective and a more general reader’s one. The second is Victoria Hoyle’s Booktube review of three Booker-longlisted novels, including Home Fire, where she elegantly dissects her contradictory reactions to Shamsie’s book: frustrated by having been emotionally manipulated, let down by characters that feel stereotypical, but – despite all that – effectively moved. My initial reaction to Home Fire was more positive than hers, but after watching her video, I began to wonder about the extent to which I’d been reading as a critic versus as a general reader, and why I had – at least initially – felt no ambivalence about Shamsie’s admittedly opinionated storytelling.

Home Fire is a retelling of Sophocles’s Antigone, but I read it without brushing up on the older story, and can confirm that it didn’t noticeably hamper my experience to read it simply as a hyper-contemporary literary political novel. Shamsie uses five point-of-view characters: Isma, the daughter of a jihadi who died on the way to Guantanamo, who has been supporting her younger siblings for years and is now—freed by their accession to adulthood—starting a PhD program in the States; Aneeka, her passionate and beautiful younger sister; Parvaiz, Aneeka’s fraternal twin, desperate for direction about how to be a man; Karamat Lone, a Home Secretary of Pakistani origin whose hard-line stance on Muslims and immigration has been at the centre of much controversy; and Karamat’s son Eamonn, born into privilege, who becomes Aneeka’s lover. As the story progresses, each character gives us their own perspective on the issues of freedom, citizenship, love and duty that the story circles.

Much of the negative commentary I’ve seen about Home Fire has focused on Shamsie’s construction of these characters: they’ve most often been called “one-dimensional”, “stereotypical” or “flat”. I would contend that this is a reductive way of reading, not a quality inherent to the characters. Take Aneeka, for instance: a devout nineteen-year-old Muslim who prays at dawn, has extra-marital sex, and makes her hijab the last thing her lover is allowed to take off. Take Isma: both sister and mother to her siblings, the proverbial “strong woman”, yet too afraid, when she finally launches into the world, to make the first move towards a man who attracts her. These are unusual women, unusual heroines, especially of contemporary literature; they are serious and convicted. Their faith is significant to them, and therefore must be taken seriously by the reader. Their wounds are not merely personal; they have inherited distrust and division, their father’s death as a terrorist in captivity marking them out permanently to the governments of the West as Persons Of Interest. The Pasha siblings are slightly cold fish, but that’s the point: when you live under the weight of suspicion from everyone around you, for things you didn’t even do, that happens. (Aneeka speaks, sarcastically, of the dangers of Googling While Muslim.) It is not, I think, the sort of dynamic we are accustomed to. We tend to want our heroines feisty—or failing that, broken, but, you know, picturesquely. (Whitely. Middle class-ly.)

I’ve long been suspicious that people who find novels “too political” are people who don’t need to think about politics all the time. Lots of us would love not to have to politicise everything, but our lives and opinions are valued at a lower price, and so everything is political; when you struggle to thrive in a society that mistrusts, scorns, or blames you, life itself is a political act. I’m white and well-educated, but I’m also female and disabled. There are elements of daily living that are a constant uphill struggle for me: balancing meals and a social life with medication and self-care. Convincing a GP to change my prescriptions when things aren’t working. Getting a pharmacist to re-dispense that prescription when it hasn’t come through for seventy-two hours and I no longer have enough insulin to last through the night. I don’t talk to anyone about these things—partly because they are quotidian for me, and partly because no one else I know will really have had that experience.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that Home Fire’s “political” nature is necessary, inherent even, to telling a story about a Muslim family in contemporary Britain. Of course not every Muslim family has a brother who runs away to join IS, or a father who died on the way from Bagram to Guantanamo. But the constant surveillance of the state, particularly the eyes that are fixed upon Muslim children lest they show the slightest sign of the dreaded radicalisation—that is a reality for so many immigrants to this country, and it’s foolish to be surprised by how abundantly clear Shamsie makes that fact. Googling While Muslim is the least of it. Visas can be refused, careers cut short, degrees torpedoed. When Parvaiz is a little boy, the Pashas are visited by a man from the security services who takes from Parvaiz’s bedroom the only thing he has from his father: a photograph album containing pictures of Adil Pasha toting guns in Bosnia, Chechnya, Afghanistan, and inscribed When you’re older, son. After the story’s first tragedy, this same security officer is interviewed on television: he describes that visit and that album, and suggests it’s a shame that Child Protection Services weren’t involved immediately. Nowhere do we see that officer—or the country he works for—offer Parvaiz, and his sisters and mother, anything substantial—no financial assistance, no mentoring, no help obtaining apprenticeships or scholarships—in return for what is taken from them in dignity and in trust.

So much for the emotional potency of Home Fire, which even its detractors have admitted is one of its strengths; what of its weaknesses? Shamsie’s prose is capable, but often slides into melodrama. Especially in dialogue and at the ends of chapters, she has a tendency to seek significance and profundity for every plot point. In fact, the whole book skirts melodrama almost as a matter of course. (It’s based on a Greek tragedy; how could it not?) Some credibility is lost with Aneeka’s mad vigil over Parvaiz’s body in the park, with Eamonn’s wild flight to find her there, and with the last two pages in their entirety. (Some of this is down to the fact that Aneeka and Eamonn are, at least to me, not especially credible lovers. Eamonn’s and Isma’s interactions, showcased by the misdirection at the beginning of the book, are much more interesting.) Karamat Lone, also, is a little too purely villainous to be convincing, despite Shamsie loading him with a backstory that at least makes sense of his stubborn championing of assimilation. (That said, the shenanigans that Theresa May pulled when Home Secretary, particularly towards LGBTQ asylum-seekers, are almost enough to make Lone look eminently reasonable and pleasant.)

For all that, I still think it’s an incredibly important book, and the fact that it’s set so firmly in the present day—engaging so firmly with present-day concerns—doesn’t diminish it, but instead makes it essential reading. Shamsie is presenting a world here that many of her readers will never be forced to engage with or have to navigate; we can choose to read this story or to put it aside. It is a story fraught with fear and tension and the possibility of betraying someone no matter what you do, and the fact that it is being billed as a retelling of an ancient Greek tale suggests to me that its significance will not fade as its cultural referents do. It does deserve to be on the Man Booker Prize longlist; it also deserves to be widely read.

Man Booker Prize 2017 Longlist Feelings

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The filter on this photo is oddly pale.

 

Initial thoughts:

Very little of this is surprising, and very few of these authors are new. I think the only debuts are Emily Fridlund, Fiona Mozley, and (technically) George Saunders, since it’s his first novel, although I’m inclined to say that doesn’t exactly make him a debut author. On the one hand, this pleases me – I’ve been bitching for years about how publishers fetishize novelty, and about how dangerous it is to cease supporting novelists once they’ve written their Big First Book or are no longer as photogenic as the next young thing. On the other hand, this makes for a list that, despite Baroness Young’s proclamations of its diversity, doesn’t look particularly diverse to me. There are a lot of big, established names – Zadie Smith, Ali Smith, Colson Whitehead, Paul Auster, Sebastian Barry – and only a handful of authors that you might imagine the general public not recognising.

Thematically, there seems to be a strong focus on social issues: slavery and its repercussions, political repression, neo-liberalism, celebrity charity, the refugee crisis. Personal relationships are also at the heart of many of these books: Barry’s soldier-lovers in Days Without End, McGregor’s traumatised villagers in Reservoir 13, an old man and a young woman in Ali Smith’s Autumn, Zadie Smith’s rivalrous dancers. In terms of formal experimentation, the field seems decidedly conservative, with Saunders, Auster and McGregor the most obviously innovative. (Mozley might be interesting, too, but as no one seems to know much about it, it’s hard to say yet.)

What I’ve read:

Of the longlisted thirteen, I’ve read six: Days Without End, Reservoir 13, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Lincoln In the Bardo, Swing Time and The Underground Railroad. At least four are strong contenders to be among my books of the year, although I found The Ministry of Utmost Happiness more ambitious than successful, and liked Swing Time a lot without thinking it a work of genius.

What’s missing:

More big names, although in honesty this is probably the right decision; Salman Rushdie seems to me to have been curdling for some time now, and The Golden House looks depressingly like another of those let’s-mock-Trump novels that writers seem to think are appropriate stand-ins for actual social engagement. Hanif Kureishi’s The Nothing also deserves to have been left off; the first few pages read like an aggressive Roth parody, which is not a compliment. I’m slightly surprised by the exclusion of Edward Docx’s Let Go My Hand, which is a very skilful piece of writing in the way it balances a wide range of emotions; Nicola Barker’s H(A)PPY, which if nothing else is balls-to-the-wall committed to its own zaniness; Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, which I actually wouldn’t have put on the longlist anyway but which does have legions of devoted fans and is a pretty good book; and House of Names by Colm Toibin. The Nix, Christodora, First Love, The Power, English Animals, and Spoils were also strong contenders that I wouldn’t have been surprised to see on the list.

What shouldn’t be there:

Harsh, I know. Maybe this is better phrased as “what surprises me by its presence”. As Baroness Young also pointed out, every book is the result of vast amounts of time and effort and dedication and sweat and tears. At the same time, if this is meant to be a list of thirteen of the year’s best books, I’m not sure why The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is on it. As a piece of fiction, it’s so unmoored, so unclear about which stories it wants us to care about, that I found its ultimate effect was to alienate me from any of them.

What I’d like to read:

Of those I haven’t read, Solar Bones, History of Wolves, Exit West and Autumn are immediately appealing. We’ve also been offered proofs of Elmet from the publisher, which I’m very excited about (the author is a bookseller at Little Apple in York! How great is that?) I might be more thrilled by the prospect of 4321 if it weren’t about seven thousand pages long and still only available in hardback. Mais non, my friends. On the basis of available time and wrist strength, non.


The full list:

4321 by Paul Auster

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry (Faber & Faber) (scroll down for February Superlatives entry)

History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Solar Bones by Mike McCormack

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor (my full review)

Elmet by Fiona Mozley

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy (my full review)

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (scroll down for June Superlatives entry)

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

Autumn by Ali Smith

Swing Time by Zadie Smith (scroll down for February Superlatives entry)

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (scroll down for January Superlatives entry)

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…

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.

The Many, by Wyl Menmuir, & The Mare, by Mary Gaitskill

There’s very little that connects these two books, I’m afraid; they’re not being reviewed together for any clever reason on my part. One is short, the other long. One is by a man, the other a woman. One is a claustrophobic little quasi-horror tale, the other is a chunky social realist novel that thoroughly imbues the political with the personal and vice versa. They’re both published by independent publishers, but other than that, there’s not much similarity between them, either superficially or thematically. Sorry! On the other hand, at least today’s post has got something for everyone… (or something like it.)

The Many, by Wyl Menmuir (Salt Publishing)

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~~here be spoilers, sorry~~

If this looks familiar to you, it’ll be because it’s on the Man Booker Prize longlist. (My copy doesn’t have that neat little marketing sticker—proof that I got my request in just before they were inundated with book journalists’ emails and did a reprint. Haha.) It’s so short as to be almost a novella; at 141 pages, it’s readable in a day. There are two point-of-view characters: Ethan, a fisherman in a remote Cornish coastal village, and Timothy, an interloper in the village who has bought a house that’s lain dormant for a decade. The former inhabitant of Timothy’s new home was Perran, a member of a fishing crew who, it’s vaguely suggested, had some sort of learning disability, and who drowned one night in a storm. Timothy’s presence in Perran’s house is displeasing to the villagers—like all villagers, they have long memories. Ethan is struggling with his own problems: fishing trips are bringing back strangely emaciated hauls, and the sea has been declared contaminated. The fishermen are prohibited from working outside the boundary of a line of old container ships moored on the horizon, and their skeletal catches are purchased wholesale by a mysterious woman in a grey coat whose besuited goons do most of the (literal) heavy lifting.

For atmosphere, The Many cannot be faulted. In fact, its perfection in that regard is kind of the problem. Menmuir creates this setting where reality bumps up against genre trappings—eco-thriller, conspiracy—in a truly unsettling way. The sea and the sky are so encompassing, Timothy and Ethan’s emotional isolations so perfectly mirrored by their bleak surroundings, that you find yourself on tenterhooks to see what the hell is going to happen. It reminded me of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, particularly those awful dead-eyed fish: a Nature that has soured somehow, a government agency that exists, morally speaking, well within the shades of grey. And yet there is (here come the spoilers) never any resolution to this at all. The woman in the grey coat is such an obviously menacing and important figure that for us to get to the end of the book without any indication of who she is or what she’s doing there feels alarmingly like cheating. Meanwhile, Timothy’s marital troubles, we learn, stem from the stillbirth of his son, a little boy named…Perran. This was the detail that really threw me. Perran’s an unusual name. Is it meant to be a coincidence? There’s enough mystical stuff going on in this book (Timothy has Symbolic Dreams; that barrier of container ships) that I thought perhaps Timothy’s Perran and the village’s Perran were…the same person? Or is Timothy insane? Is he projecting this village and its loss?

They’re good questions. They’re the sort of questions that I like a book to provoke. 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 (which, incidentally, is what Timothy eventually does.) 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?!

(Or am I just an idiot who missed the obvious? Anyone else read this and have an idea?)

Thanks very much to Hannah Corbett at Salt for the review copy. The Many was published in the UK on 15 June.

The Mare, by Mary Gaitskill (Serpent’s Tail)

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Sometimes if you’re a pretty well-known person in your field, you develop this face that you use every time someone takes a picture of you. (Natalie Dormer is an excellent example of this.) Mary Gaitskill has either learned to do this, or it came naturally to her: she is a pouty glarer. Her every photo pulses with the subtext “and just what the fuck do you want?” This is great, because I imagine that Velveteen Vargas, the teenaged protagonist of The Mare, would photograph similarly, although probably without intending to. Velveteen is one of the most impressive fictional creations I’ve come across all year: a pre-teen of Puerto Rican descent when we meet her, she grows over the course of several years into a beautifully complex fourteen-year-old, full of age-appropriate longing to fit in and to meet boys, as well as distinctly mature concerns about her physically abusive mother, and, above all, a driving passion for horses.

Velvet doesn’t know that she’s a natural horse rider until a summer trip courtesy of the Fresh Air Fund. For two weeks, she stays with Ginger, a childless artist in her late forties, and Paul, a professor at a small college in upstate New York. Across the road, there’s a stables. It’s there that Velvet meets Fugly Girl, a seriously damaged mare, learns to ride, and becomes invested in salvaging Fugly Girl’s spirit. It sounds cute and vaguely saccharine, right? It is not. There is weird coerced sex and drive-by shooting in this book; there is the agony of first love and the sadness of an affair; there is the pain and sacrifice and bewilderment of Velvet’s mother, Silvia, who has to be tricked into allowing her daughter back in the stables at all. Silvia, incidentally, is one of this book’s best-drawn characters. She’s almost completely inexplicable to soft, middle-class Ginger: a woman who tells her only daughter that she’s ugly, a woman who hits her kids, a woman who loves her kids so hard that she won’t show them any love. We only realize slowly, by the way, that that’s what Silvia’s doing. We get chapters in her voice, as well as in Ginger’s, Paul’s and Velvet’s. We learn what she’s been taught about love. We see how vulnerable she knows love can make you. We recognize that she is determined to keep her children safe by making them hard.

How Gaitskill renders the pretentious, precious awkwardness—and the warmth and good intentions—of Paul and Ginger and their intellectual friends, as well as the slang and posturing and deep loss and vulnerability of the teenagers Velvet hangs out with in Brooklyn: it all reminded me forcefully of Orange Is the New Black. That’s the only other piece of art (is TV art? whatever) that I know of that has so completely given its characters their own voices. That show’s every sentence, no matter who’s saying it, is meticulously pitched to reveal bias and weakness and at the same time to build our sense of a character, of why they are precisely who they are. It’s fucking hard to do. Gaitskill nails it. She’s written a great book. Go on.

Thanks very much to Hannah Westland at Serpent’s Tail for the review copy. The Mare was published in the UK on 21 July.

June Superlatives

June. Man. To paraphrase Mean Girls, how can I even begin to explain June. It contained 30 days; I was busy—proper, event-in-my-calendar, several-hours-at-least busy—for 20 of them. (Some of those days involved two separate events, usually something like lunch and then the theatre.) I’m very grateful for a busy social life and friends whom I like enough to hang out with a lot, but that was way too much for one month. In July I need to pull right back. (The fact that my parents and brother were visiting from America this month, admittedly, added to the socializing somewhat, although it was fabulous to see them.)

I managed to finish ten books anyway, though. Which I’m proud of.

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most heartbreaking: A Crime in the Neighborhood, by Suzanne Berne, winner of the 1997 Orange Prize. Narrated by ten-year-old Marsha, it tells the story of a summer in which a little boy is killed in a Washington DC suburb, and in which Marsha becomes convinced that their next-door neighbor, Mr. Green—a shy, awkward bachelor—is the murderer. It’s one of those books that describes an outsider in terms so unflinching as to be painful. The scene where Mr. Green throws a barbecue for the neighborhood, to which no one turns up, is one I can hardly bear to think about even now.

most “important”: I suspect that lots of reviewers are going to use this word to describe Negroland, Margo Jefferson’s memoir of growing up black and middle-class in 20th-century  Chicago. It’s a favored word when the subject matter is vaguely political or controversial. That shouldn’t in any way diminish Jefferson’s achievement, though; the whole point of her memoir is to describe how oppressive it is to grow up feeling like you carry the reputation of an entire people on your shoulders. It’s a thoughtful and expansive book, for all that it’s not very long, and well worth a read.

most frustrated potential: Petina Gappah’s novel The Book of Memory, which was long listed for the Baileys Women’s Prize and which I felt had a good deal of potential that got lost in the telling. The opacity of the characters, and the vagueness of Memory’s, well, memory, was probably a smart thematic move, but wasn’t executed with enough conviction (or, in a sense, time – I wondered if the book should have been longer, which is a rare thing to wonder.)

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most swiftly gobbled: The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver, was definitely one of the longest books I read this month, but also one of the books I couldn’t bear to put down. Kingsolver’s prose has always lent itself to being galloped through, not because it’s simplistic but because it’s completely lucid. She’s also writing about such gorgeous, tactile things in this book: the sea, food, the sun, paintings, buildings, Mexico.

most thoughtful: Carol Shields’s novel Larry’s Party, which is one of the quietest and also one of the most illuminating books I’ve ever read. It was nice to read a book about a man, and about manhood, that wasn’t infuriating or upsetting. Maybe there’s something in that that modern discourse about gender could look to emulate. Or maybe not; I haven’t made up my mind.

sneakiest: The Siege of Krishnapur, by J.G. Farrell, wrong-footed me more than any other book this month. It starts out masquerading as a fairly standard Victorian pastiche about some colonial prats in India, and it turns into something much deeper and darker, an exploration of what makes people “civilised” and what war does to your psyche.

most soothing: Trio, the new novel by the highly prolific but criminally under-recognised Sue Gee. Set in Northumberland between the World Wars, and skipping forward in time to contemporary London, it tells a story of music, grief, recovery, friendship, and love. I absolutely adored it for not buckling to sentimentality while still expressing so much emotion; if you liked the Cazalet Chronicles, you should read it.

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hardest: I’m interested in science, technology, and engineering, but I have no formal academic background in it. I am so poor at arithmetic that I still don’t know how to do long division (without looking up the steps), which at school meant that I wasn’t allowed to progress past algebra, so there’s a huge void in my mathematical knowledge too. Reading Darwin Among the Machines, a study of how “artificial” (machine) intelligence might arise through biological/evolutionary mechanisms, meant I had to reach towards the meaning of what George Dyson was saying, instead of understanding it intuitively – which was a really good experience.

most novelistic non-fiction: John Demos’s The  Unredeemed Captive, a study of the Williams family of Massachusetts, and particularly Eunice Williams, who was kidnapped in 1703 from the village of Deerfield by Canadian Indians, along with the rest of her family. All of the Williamses were eventually ransomed or returned, “redeemed” spiritually in the eyes of their Puritan god and neighbours as well as literally brought back, except for Eunice, who married an Indian man and had children with him. She never returned to Massachusetts, though she met her brothers and nephews several times. It’s a fascinating story, a little-taught part of American history, and Demos really understands the drama as well as giving the historical context.

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party I’m late to, again: Lucia Berlin. Specifically, the collection of her short stories entitled A Manual for Cleaning Women. Everyone freaked out about them last year in a non-specific way that didn’t make me interested enough to pick them up, but I got them for Christmas and I’ve got round to them now and they are worth it. She’s writing about herself or a thinly veiled version thereof a lot of the time, but they achieve a tone that’s simultaneously conversational – really intimate, you feel you know this woman and like her – and yet also beautifully constructed, measured, balanced. It’s all intentional but none of it is artificial. Her stories are set in laundromats and abortion clinics and emergency rooms, and they’re hilarious and painful. If you’ve also missed them up til now, don’t miss them for much longer.

what’s next: I’ve just started Alexander Chee’s debut novel The Queen of the Night – about a soprano in Paris in the 1870s (?) and the secrets of her past. I’m having an absolute ball with it; the world is lush, the writing is evocative, the plot is mysterious enough to stay interesting. It’s so my thing.