Bailey’s Prize Longlist Reading 1: Tremain, Atwood, Omotoso

Being a series of short reviews of the Bailey’s Prize longlisted titles I hadn’t read before the announcement. These are mostly hack-jobs, consisting of extrapolations of my reading notes. Luckily I tend to make notes in full sentences. Minor spoilers ahead.

The Gustav Sonata, by Rose Tremain

9781784700201Gustav Perle lives in Matzlingen, Switzerland, with his beloved Mutti. The second World War has just ended. His father, Erich, is dead – a hero, his Mutti says, but Gustav doesn’t know anything about him, not why he died or what he was like when he was alive. Gustav adores Mutti, but she spends a lot of time ignoring him, or crying. When Anton Zwiebel joins the local kindergarten, Gustav has a friend for the first time in his short life. The rest of Rose Tremain’s poised and beautiful book is dedicated to the story of Anton and Gustav’s friendship, and to the story of the truth of Erich and Emilie Perle’s marriage.

It has been said that The Gustav Sonata is about neutrality, and it is, sort of, but the word I thought of most when I was reading it was “caring”, which is another way of talking about neutrality. The book is intensely focused on care: giving care, receiving care, in the sense of love and attention, is at the heart of Gustav and Anton’s relationship. It is also Gustav’s problem. He is pushed into adulthood early by a lack of care from his mother Emilie (who tells him frequently as a child that he must “master himself”); he is forced into a caregiving role vis-à-vis Anton by Anton’s parents, who are kind to Gustav but surprisingly willing to place the burden of Anton’s emotional well-being on a pre-adolescent’s shoulders. Meanwhile, Gustav’s family history is characterised by a generational withholding of care: Emilie, his mother, was constantly chastised and neglected by her mother, Irma, and the book’s second section, on the Perle marriage, charts the decline of care between two people in a way that illuminates everything about Gustav’s life. Meanwhile, excessive care damages people: Anton is hurt by it – his major adult relationship is passionate, but deeply abusive – and the affair between Erich Perle and his boss’s wife is unhealthy in its obsessiveness.

Tremain plants her thematic seeds carefully and tends them throughout the novel, so that resonances spring up at you as you read. Switzerland’s political neutrality, the destructive neutrality of one human being towards another, and Erich Perle’s rejection of official neutrality in order to save refugees are all tied together. Tremain writes like Kate Atkinson: her prose is accessible and clear without making the treatment of her subject light or superficial. The ending could, I think, be more delicate and also more believable: there is never any sense of sex in Gustav’s life, either before or after the final revelation of Anton’s love, and I think it is a disservice to deny him this. If it’s intentional, it isn’t leaned on enough to make the intention clear. But this is a question of verisimilitude versus thematic coherence – whether something is entirely believable versus whether it reinforces the novel’s general concerns – and so my reservation is pretty minor.

Hag-Seed, by Margaret Atwood

29245653Atwood’s novel is the fourth in the Hogarth Shakespeare series that seeks to “retell” some of the most famous of the plays as novels set in the present day. Some of these have been more successful than others; Atwood’s, I think, is the best so far. The reason it works is because she fully acknowledges the existence of The Tempest inside the world of her novel, which frees her: she doesn’t have to pretend, like Jeanette Winterson and Howard Jacobson, that the uncanny similarities between her characters and the plot of Shakespeare’s play is mere happenstance. She can delve right into those parallels, explore them explicitly, instead of making us wonder why no one in the book has yet noticed how unlikely this all is.

Her Prospero is Felix Phillips, a disgraced and deposed theatre festival director now going by the name Mr. Duke and teaching a theatre course in the local prison. Miranda – brilliantly – is dead (because the late plays are all about dead daughters, losing daughters, coming to terms with grief); she died of meningitis as a three-year-old, a horribly plausible scenario. After twelve years of living in hiding from his former associates, Felix chooses his method of revenge: he will stage his own production of The Tempest at the prison, and take down the men who betrayed him—now high-ranking politicians—along the way.

Whether this revenge fantasy would actually work or not (and I admit it would rely heavily on excellent timing, which usually doesn’t work out in real life), you have to admire the way Atwood takes on the play. Felix walks his convict players through The Tempest with a thorough thoughtfulness that I found genuinely illuminating. It might, I suppose, be considered a little academic, but the tone is always that of an interested and informed person talking to other interested people; Felix neither talks down to nor bamboozles his actors, and by extension, he doesn’t do these things to us. The Tempest is a play uniquely well-suited to prison. Felix and Atwood allow us to watch the dawning awareness, among the convict-actors, of the story’s relevance, and it is a gorgeous, shiver-inducing thing. The only major concern I had was when Atwood ventriloquised the rap songs that the actors invent to make the play more contemporary: would it sound like a White Lady Author “doing” street? Answer: sort of, but mostly, I think, because raps look awful written down. When I did them in my head, they…well, they worked. Though I don’t envy whoever does the audiobook.

The Woman Next Door, by Yewande Omotoso

cover

Hortensia James and Marion Agostino are next-door neighbours in an upmarket area of Cape Town. Hortensia is black, married to a white British husband; Marion is white (and racist, which we’ll learn about later.) They are eighty years old, they have both run successful businesses—Hortensia as a textile designer, Marion as an architect—and they hate each other. The Woman Next Door is an account, if not quite of how they become friends, then of how they come to hate each other a little bit less.

Marion’s racism is breathtaking. She’s a woman of her generation—apartheid was her normal. Her housekeeper, Agnes, is a black South African who is expected to eat from separate containers and use separate (and inferior) toilet paper. Agnes spends no energy in contesting any of this; she simply, quietly, gets on with the business of being a real human with some level of agency. When Marion eventually discovers that Agnes has stopped using the toilet paper bought for her, she is shocked and dismayed, until Agnes reveals that she’s simply paying for her own bogroll. But Marion’s relief is shortlived: it turns out that Agnes has started buying better-quality stuff than Marion allows herself. This scene is the sort of thing Omotoso excels at, the delicate dance of social oneupmanship. She tells a little bit too much more than she shows, though I think that’s a common misstep with social comedy.

The biggest stylistic hiccup with The Woman Next Door is the occasional register clash, or what feels like it. Omotoso uses words like “peeved” and “messed up”, which sound either euphemistic or childish, or both, and represent a linguistic cautiousness I wouldn’t expect from two old women who, we’re told, can “cut the legs off people” with their words. In general, on the sentence level, this book isn’t going to set you aflame. I do think its political content is sly and significant; the kinds of people who will read a book blurbed by Helen Simonson are not necessarily going to respond well to polemic, but Omotoso does slip in commentary. There’s a subplot about reparations in the form of a land claim (which I’d have liked a lot more of) and another about the descendant of a slave who lived on the farm where the neighbourhood now stands. I’m pleased that these points are present; they might find an audience that would otherwise have missed them. It’s also a book about old women, and about friendship, and we don’t get many books about old women; as Naomi said, more please. I like it fine, and will probably recommend it to quite a few bookshop customers. I’m just not sure it’s a shortlister.

The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist is announced on 3 April. For more commentary, see the rest of the Shadow Panel: Naomi, Antonia, Meera and EricThe Gustav Sonata is published by Vintage and is now in paperback; Hag-Seed is published by Hogarth and is available in hardback; The Woman Next Door is also published by Vintage and is also now in paperback.

We have a Stone Mattress winner!

The lucky reader is Tarzanman (also winning the prize for Most Amusing Username, so well done.) Congratulations, and enjoy the book—if you post a review of it, be sure to link me to it!

Lovelies who didn’t win, fear not, for I am sure there will be more giveaways to come. Thank you so much for participating! It’s tremendously exciting to watch this blog grow and YOU are helping to make it possible by reading it, which encourages publishers to send me more things.

I’ll have more reviews up for you soon (I just finished A Little Life and feel remarkably positive about it, and I will also soon be reviewing The Tokyo Zodiac Murdersand Naomi J. Williams’s beautiful Landfalls before its publication date on the 22nd.) I also have a Most Thrilling Announcement (well, for a given value of “thrilling”), so keep your eyes peeled for that too.

FREE BOOK: Stone Mattress, by Margaret Atwood

The lovely folks at Little, Brown have teamed up with a bunch of different bloggers to offer you a whole bunch of prizes, along with free copies of Margaret Atwood’s short story collection Stone Mattress, now out in paperback. The first one has already launched, over at The Writes of Woman. And one of the bloggers they’ve teamed up with is me!

Entering is very simple: add a comment below. It can be about Atwood–your favorite book of hers, your least favorite of hers, whether you think Oryx and Crake was an effective dystopia or not, how The Handmaid’s Tale changed your life–or it can be about the fact that you’ve never read her before, or it can just be your name. Anything goes! The winner will be chosen utterly at random, so you don’t need to worry too much about being witty.

Apart from a lovely (signed!) edition of Stone Mattress, the winner will receive a gorgeous yellow Lamy fountain pen, which is apropos, as the excerpt I shall give you is from the collection’s opening story, “Alphinland”–which is about a writer:

The freezing rain sifts down, handfuls of shining rice thrown by some unseen celebrant. Wherever it hits, it crystallizes into a granulated coating of ice. Under the streetlights it looks so beautiful: like fairy silver, thinks Constance. But then, she would think that; she’s far too prone to enchantment. The beauty is an illusion, and also a warning: there’s a dark side to beauty, as with poisonous butterflies. She ought to be considering the dangers, the hazards, the grief this ice storm is going to bring to many; is already bringing, according to the television news.

The TV screen is a flat high-definition one that Ewan bought so he could watch hockey and football games on it. Constance would rather have the old fuzzy one back, with its strangely orange people and its habit of rippling and fading: there are some things that do not fare well in high definition. She resents the pores, the wrinkles, the nose hairs, the impossibly whitened teeth shoved right up in front of your eyes so you can’t ignore them the way you would in real life. It’s like being forced to act as someone else’s bathroom mirror, the magnifying kind: seldom a happy experience, those mirrors.

You have until October 8th to enter. Good luck! (I’m also super nervous because I’ve never done a giveaway on the blog before, so…save me from embarrassment!)

Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood

Snowman in his tree-picture credit Jason Courtney at perdador.com

If you’re an English student, it is guaranteed that at some point during your degree, you will have the arts-vs.-sciences argument. It’s a stupid argument for many reasons, not least of which is that it presupposes a sort of irremediable divide between the two disciplines, as though people who love poetry cannot possibly appreciate physics, or a mathematician is constitutionally incapable of understanding metaphor. By and large, that kind of assertion is just not true. It should be obvious from looking at the life’s work of people like Barbara Kingsolver, Carl Sagan, Richard Feynman, and, among others, Margaret Atwood.

Oryx and Crake is set in the future, but not a terribly distant one. We never know what year it is because time has, for all intents and purposes, ceased to exist. As the novel opens, we know only that our protagonist–a man who calls himself Snowman but was once called Jimmy–believes himself to be the only human left alive on earth. He lives by the sea, but the landscape is ravaged; some sort of concrete barricades stand just offshore, and discarded rubbish litters the sand. To anyone who has watched Wall-E (a film which may have been indebted in some measure to Atwood’s novel, standing as it does in the proud tradition of apocalyptic fiction), the scene is recognizable: evidence of humanity’s self-induced last days.

Snowman’s only company are the Crakers, green-eyed humanoids who are, nevertheless, distinctly not human. Their skins are all different shades; they wear no clothes; they are perfectly physically beautiful; they have no religion, no sex (well, sort of, but I won’t spoil that for you), no conflict. They refer to themselves as the Children of Crake; animals are the Children of Oryx. The question of who Oryx and Crake are or were, and how Snowman knew them, drives the novel.

Much of the plot is told in flashback, in the form of Snowman’s memories (in which, of course, he is named and referred to as Jimmy). Crake, we soon learn, was a childhood friend. His talents for science, particularly genetic modification, catch the attention of the world’s most prestigious “institution”, Watson-Crick (being a graduate of which is as impressive as going to Harvard was, “before it drowned.” The world which Jimmy and everyone else inhabited before its destruction, apparently, still wasn’t all that great. Atwood drops a lot of this sort of thing–casual mentions of East Coast cities sinking, etc.–and it’s not what anyone would call subtle, but then again neither is climate change. It works.) Crake’s efforts at Watson-Crick, and later at a compound called RejoovenEsense, are, as you can probably guess, intimately connected with the burned-out shell of a planet which Snowman now inhabits. Oryx, too, is involved–a woman, obviously, for whose love and loyalty Crake and Jimmy develop a mutual rivalry, also obviously.

I have my doubts about Oryx, actually. Atwood does a first-class job of portraying a woman who is not destroyed by her function as sexual commodity, but rather does what she does because she’s good at it. In a sense it’s a much-needed portrait of a female character who rejects the prevailing idea that women must be either victimized and sad, or massive thumping whores. In another sense it makes her completely inscrutable, and therefore, problematically, boring. Any attempt to analyze Oryx slides off like water, and not because she’s hugely complex; it’s because there’s nothing in her character that you can hold on to. She might be hugely complex, but she never really says much about it, one way or the other. It’s not that I can’t decide how I feel about her, but more that I can’t decide whether to bother. This is probably an indicator of my foolishness. Perhaps if I read the book in a few years, it will change–that’s usually the case.

Oryx and Crake is, despite its few flaws, very good. It is an example of addictive storytelling, without frills and without self-pity. The imagination at work is boundless; just as the geneticists played around with endless combinations for a while, producing creatures like rakunks (adorable skunk-raccoon creatures without the smell or the bad temper, perfect as house pets) and snats (a rat with the fangs and guile of a snake; terrifyingly capable of entering homes through the plumbing system), Atwood plays around with ideas and creates some brilliant fiction while she’s at it. Not a perfect book, but it might as well be.