Reading Diary: Apr. 15-Apr. 21

814ysf3sdjlI’m going to go ahead and call it now: The Secret Barrister is probably the best non-fiction book I’ll read all year. (It’s actually called Stories of the Law and How It’s Broken, but that seems more like a subtitle to me, and the author’s name is the big sell on this one, since the Secret Barrister is a massive blog that’s twice won Independent Blogger of the Year at the Editorial Intelligence Comment Awards. So I’m referring to it as The Secret Barrister and that’s that.)

Readers of the blog will be familiar with the impetus behind the book: to reveal the myriad ways in which the English justice system – which, schoolchildren are taught, is the best in the world – is desperately broken. The anonymous author, a junior barrister practicing in London, ultimately agrees that the adversarial system in the UK is the best one that there is, but the persistent under-funding of the Crown Prosecution Service, the absurdly arbitrary nature of sentencing guidelines, and the frankly alarming power wielded in magistrates’ courts (presided over by magistrates, who, unlike Crown Court judges, have no legal training or qualifications whatsoever, and whose presence is a hangover from medieval times, when it was less important that justice be fully served than that it be quickly served) are crippling the justice system. Though the Secret Barrister never explicitly allies themselves with a particular political party, it is quite clear that the budget cuts and benchmarks set by successive Tory governments are in large part responsible for the absolute chaos in which most criminal cases are prosecuted and/or defended.

The best thing about this book – apart from the statistics, and the clear, quantitative analysis of just how many things can go wrong in a court case, and the outstanding job the book does of impressing upon the reader that anyone can end up in court, anyone can be burgled or assaulted or even falsely accused, and that therefore it is in everyone’s interests, even us smug middle-class wankers, to make sure that criminal justice works properly, which is to say that it is properly funded and less subject to dog-whistle knee-jerk bullshit from politicians and the Daily Mail than it currently is – is that the Secret Barrister can really write. The book opens with a cross-examination of a man named Mr. Tuttle, accused of punching his neighbour, who happens to be both blind and on crutches, rendering Mr. Tuttle’s defense (“he punched me first”) somewhat incredible. The scene feels immediate, funny, even absurd – I laughed within seconds – and it works because the prose is flawless: well-oiled, conversational, competent in the little things, like exactly where a comma or a hyphen makes a sentence more effective. It’s a joy to read, as well as deeply informative, and scary as hell. I am sending it to everyone.

51my9o-wxml-_sx327_bo1204203200_In 1622, Diego Velazquez traveled to Madrid from Seville. In December of that year, he was appointed painter to Felipe IV of Spain and invited to bring his wife and daughter to court. He would retain that position – painter to the king – until his death in 1660. Amy Sackville, in her third novel, zooms all the way in on Velazquez’s life and work at court.

While it might be described as a fictional biography, what Painter to the King does most consistently and remarkably is convey what it feels like to be someone who sees the world as a painter – as this particular painter – does. Velazquez’s naturalistic style, his insistence on using live models, his relatively limited colour palette, all attract mockery, even scorn, from other painters, but it is the quality of his vision that makes Felipe value him. He sees people, and what he sees is, not unkindly but nevertheless with great fidelity, what he paints. Sackville’s prose style here is tactile, interested in texture and colour, lights and darks, the encrusted paint on Diego’s fingers, the heft and bulk of a water jug. It also constantly interrupts itself; we feel we are inside the head of the artist, particularly in scenes like the one in which he tries, again and again, to capture exactly the musculature of a horse’s leg, the swell of its belly, the flick of its tail. The sentences are breathless, fragmented, em-dash-heavy:

…dip, swipe, dip, swipe: The leg of the horse curves up into the belly here, like –– Here, the top of the leg rounding into the socket like –– The curve of the belly barrel-like –

–– No

It’s maybe the most effective technique for describing the process of artistic creation that I’ve ever seen.

There is another intruding narrative voice: that of someone who might be the author, and is certainly an observer; someone who knows Velazquez’s paintings well, through long acquaintance with them in galleries and museums. That voice lifts you out of seventeenth-century Spain, but not, I would contend, in a distracting way: on the contrary, it provides necessary breathing room, amongst all that painterly detail. All together, Painter to the King is a little like the bastard child of How To Be Both and Wolf Hall, but to compare it is to diminish it: it is its own thing, and that thing is very good.

cover1The title of Diana Evans’s new novel, Ordinary People, comes from a John Legend song. “This ain’t the honeymoon, past the infatuation phase,” he sings. “Right in the thick of love, at times we get sick of love…” And then: “We’re just ordinary people/we don’t know which way to go.” This, in a nutshell, is the problem for Evans’s protagonists: two couples, Michael and Melissa, Damian and Stephanie, trying to keep their relationships alive after marriage and/or children, moving to the suburbs, losing a parent, discovering that they will very soon no longer be young.

Evans would be most easy to compare to Zadie Smith, although the hyperactivity, focus on working-class second-generation immigrants, and high intellectualism of Smith’s work is less evident here; instead, Evans has written a literary novel about the domestic lives of black people in London who—though some of them are second-generation immigrant stock—have entered the middle class. There is, of course, a political aspect to the book: Damian’s father was a Jamaican intellectual obsessed with the black struggle; Michael’s increasing comfort in a suit is a quiet metaphor for his assimilation into a professional world that is overwhelmingly white; Melissa finds herself thinking of de Beauvoir and Kristeva when her children whine, feeling that she’s sold out feminism but unable to turn back now. Evans’s writing decisions, especially her plotting, is brave: not everyone gets a happy ending, and we’re forced to question what happiness can look like, the possibility that finishing things amicably with your partner can actually be the right choice, and no one’s fault. Ordinary People is an extraordinary book for posing those possibilities while also telling an apparently familiar story about domestic strife; it’s very impressive.

35654063Salt Lane is the newest novel from William Shaw, the beginning of a series featuring DI Alex Cupidi, who made an appearance in the book Shaw released last year, The Birdwatcher. Salt Lane too is set in rural Kent, that strange flat marshy part of England where the sea and the sky and the land flow into one another. This time, Shaw sets his sights on immigrant labour: the illegal fruit picking and farm work that goes on under the noses of police. Two murders in quick succession—a local woman who has been living under an assumed name for twenty years, found in a ditch, and a migrant labourer who has been drowned in a farm’s slurry pit—assume sinister proportions when it turns out that they’re related. Cupidi must find who’s responsible while also developing her relationship with her teenage daughter Zoe, acting as a mentor to the insouciant and pretty DS Ferriter, and protecting her own reputation on a squad to which she is new, and which knows all about the scandal that drove her away from London.

There is slightly too much going on in Salt Lane; some of the supporting characters confuse the arc of the investigation, rather than adding to it, as does the fact that the dead woman is connected to a cold case from 1995. (We learn about this in the prologue, a flashback which misleads us into thinking that the old crime is going to be more significant in the present-day storyline than it actually is.) I’m also not certain about Shaw’s portrayal of immigrant workers; he’s not offensive about them or about the hell in their countries of origin that drives them to the UK, but I wasn’t convinced that he’d ever spoken to a refugee. Najiba, a migrant worker who acts as a police informant, is fairly well-rounded, but the others seem like ciphers; Marina Lewycka’s Strawberry Fields is a more moving and humanising portrait of this world. As ever, though, Shaw’s grasp of pacing and procedure makes it hard to put Salt Lane down.

macbethThere are, plainly, as many ways to fuck up adapting Shakespeare as there are Shakespeare plays. Jo Nesbo has chosen the path of poor judgment: he tends to make the wrong choice about where to diverge from Shakespeare and where to follow him. His Macbeth is set in an unnamed, rainy, context-less Scottish port town ravaged by drug wars and the death of industry; Macbeth is a corrupt policeman. It’s an excellent idea, but in execution, it feels like reading Grand Theft Auto for 500 pages: not so much because of the action sequences (though there are many, and they’re generally the best bits) but because of the odd sense of complete inconsequentiality. The town never feels like a real town; even its architecture and geography lacks substance. Why is there an enormous disused train in the middle of a public square flanked by a James Bond-esque casino and a railway station populated only by junkies? None of it is how anything—urban planning, police procedure, drug-empire-enforcing—actually works.

Nesbo makes another unfortunate decision, which is to follow the beats of the major monologues and some of the better-known dialogue. While he occasionally manages this well (the “Out, out, brief candle” speech feels contemporary and convincing, mostly because it’s not spoken but thought), it also results in hardmen calling each other things like “good Duff”, which jars. When Macbeth or his scheming partner Lady breaks out into an expository paragraph that’s completely at odds with the tone of the rest of the scene, it feels awkward and noticeable. One particularly odd choice involves Nesbo’s failure to update Lady’s reproductive history: he keeps the part about her plucking a child from her breast and dashing its brains against the wall, but makes that an actual recollection, not a hypothetical about promise-keeping that she throws at Macbeth, as it is in the play. Wouldn’t it make more sense—and be more emotionally resonant—in a contemporary updating, to give Lady a history of multiple abortions about which to feel guilty? To unthinkingly plug in Shakespeare’s words plunges the scene, and Lady’s characterisation, into a grand guignol that feels cheap and tone-deaf.

All of this said, there are lots of reasons why someone might want to read a video game, particularly this video game. The action sequences are generally excellent, high-octane and well choreographed. A level of artifice—one might say, of theatricality—is inherent to much genre writing, and Macbeth is a genre novel; Nesbo writes noir thrillers and has never claimed otherwise. For my taste, though, his version of Shakespeare lacks sufficient thought, fun and pacy though it may be.

Thoughts on this week’s reading: A lot of crime, which will carry over into Monday as I’m currently reading another Scottish-set thriller, In the Cage Where Your Saviours Hide. Overall an excellent week, with three great books, one decent one, and one that was at least fun to dislike.

Reading Diary: Jan. 28-Feb. 3

9780241982884One of the fun things about my job is that, as part of the reading consultation that precedes our bespoke book subscription service, a lot of people tell me what their favourite book is. The Secret History turns up frequently. (If you’re interested, so do Sapiens, All the Light We Cannot See, and the works of Jane Austen, these last usually referred to in aggregate as opposed to individually.) Honestly, who can blame anyone for loving The Secret History? Tartt’s signature combination—an almost obsessive accretion of physical and emotional detail, and the distinct intellectual coolness of her phrasing—is seductive and very effective; never mind that she’s not quite managed to replicate it in the years and books since. Perhaps that’s because her setting, in this first outing, is the perfect backdrop for that kind of style: her overanalysing, overprivileged, overeducated New England college kids, with their total inability to recognise their self-centeredness and the monstrosity of what they eventually do in the name of intellectual curiosity. It is almost an anti-intellectual book, in the sense that it shows you so very clearly how easy and how fatal it is to lose sight of consensus reality when you live much of your life in your head. Two things stick out enormously on rereading: one, the extent to which Tana French’s The Likeness is an homage to this book (it’s not exactly hard to notice the parallels, but a reread brings it all back: Henry and Daniel are basically the same character), and two, the pacing issues that somewhat marred The Goldfinch are evident here, too, in utero as it were. The Secret History is a brilliantly plotted book, but it is extremely luxurious, almost languid, in its transitions. In a way that’s what makes it so phenomenal: it manages to be a thriller and a page-turner while looking like exactly the opposite. But with the benefit of hindsight, you can trace that languidness right through to the occasional bagginess of Tartt’s later work.

51xgptmawcl-_sx321_bo1204203200_The Wanderers is actually the second book of a trilogy,  but you don’t need to have read the first to enjoy Tim Pears’s writing, or to become fully immersed in the world he recreates. This volume is set in Devon and Cornwall in 1913, as Leo Sercombe is cast out of his home on the Prideaux estate in Devon for some crime which remains unspecified. (This is where having read book one, The Horseman, might be handy, but as the plot of The Wanderers doesn’t concern itself overly with what happened in the past, I found it didn’t noticeably dim my understanding of the book.) Pears gives the reader two perspectives: Leo’s, as he journeys across the West Country, making his way slowly towards Penzance, and that of Lottie, Lord Prideaux’s daughter and Leo’s former playmate. Leo’s sections read like slow-motion picaresque in a minor key, with awe and respect at the beauty of the natural world taking the place that humour and the grotesque usually occupy in that genre. He spends time with “gypsies” (Romany travelers), Cornish tin miners, and a vagabond named Rufus who served in the Second Boer War. Lottie’s story, meanwhile, follows a Bildungsroman arc, as her father remarries and Lottie fights to pursue an intellectual fascination with anatomy and dissection. What saves this arc from being a tired “feisty-girl” trope is Pears’s ability to express, sensitively and subtly, Lottie’s deep grief at Leo’s disappearance, and her isolation from her father and from any friends her own age. His writing, both about nature and about the complexities of the human heart, is delicate and precise and always slightly oblique; he is the master of presenting a situation or a piece of dialogue without comment, and letting the reader conclude what she will. I’m shocked that I haven’t read his work before now.

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Jamie Quatro’s debut novel, Fire Sermon, does something that I have never seen in a mainstream contemporary novel: it introduces an objective moral dimension to a fairly standard emotional dilemma. In other words, Quatro’s protagonist Maggie believes strongly and passionately in God, and also enters into an emotional affair (which, don’t you worry, becomes very physical) with a fellow writer, James. What saves this book from being another novel about sad white writers in bad marriages (thanks to Roxane Gay for that spot-on category) is precisely the presence of God in it. It’s not a novel that requires its reader to believe in God; it does require its reader to believe that other people can believe in God – intelligent, intellectual people – sincerely and without irony. Quatro’s adulterous lovers are drawn to each other first for the quality of one another’s minds: if your idea of flirtation is verbal sparring about metaphysical poetry and the Western apophatic tradition, then you’re going to find Fire Sermon very sexy. This also allows for a novel where adultery actually matters. The stakes are much higher, and the agony more pronounced, here than they strictly need to be; these people suffer not because society makes them, but because they want to hold themselves to a standard of behaviour and feeling that is incompatible with most of the other things that they want. That kind of suffering, the kind you enter with open eyes, has a very different quality to the more socially-ordained kind; you are not a victim of it in the same way. Faith is a hard habit to shake, and some people are built for it; consider Flannery O’Connor’s “Christ-haunted” South. In addition to this deep sense of conviction, Fire Sermon is also richly allusive (C.S. Lewis! T.S. Eliot! Jane Gardam! Maggie Nelson! Sharon Olds!) I want more books about Christians like this: confused, fucked-up, questioning, questing.

Thoughts on this week’s reading: It’s nice to have read a book this week that’s just come out (as opposed to one that’ll be out next month), so that I can recommend it immediately. Reading ahead of release dates has its advantages and its disadvantages.

The Tidal Zone, by Sarah Moss

It is not all right, but there is beauty.

9781783783076

Sarah Moss’s new novel begins with a fifteen-year-old girl who, one day, for reasons no doctor can quite discern, collapses on the field at school and stops breathing. Her name is Miriam Goldschmidt, known to her family as Mimi or Mim, and although the novel starts with her “incident”, as others call it, what it’s actually about is Mimi’s father Adam and the way he responds to this inexplicable medical hazard that now hangs over his daughter. Adam is a stay-at-home father, and I think it highly telling that, although there are plenty of stay-at-home fathers in the world, and although I read at least a hundred books a year, I cannot think of a single book I’ve read that adopts the point of view of such a man. Moss uses Adam’s maleness as a way of turning on their heads all of the stereotypes about women who have children; it achieves the effect that one of Helen Simpson’s short stories in Cockfosters, “Erewhon”, is going for, when it gives to a late-middle-aged man an internal monologue of fears and worries about undesirability and how to have an equitable marriage when you’re not the breadwinner. The Tidal Zone works where “Erewhon” doesn’t quite, because it’s very firmly grounded in reality: Adam and his wife Emma exist in our world, where their division of household labour is viewed as progressive and vaguely alien, whereas “Erewhon” is essentially a social fantasy.

This is the first novel by Sarah Moss that I’ve read, but you can tell, from reading it, what her strengths as a novelist must be in her other books too: voice, character, and weaving poetic interstices among the episodes of action that draw them all together, give the reader a chance to breathe. The Tidal Zone is full of social commentary that passes off so casually, usually in dialogue and quite often in sarcasm, that you don’t see it until it’s already happened. Miriam, for instance, is a very clever and very infuriating fifteen-year-old with all of a fifteen-year-old’s rage and idealism: she’s awake to feminism, to the iniquities of global capitalism, to the way that the older generation seems to have so comprehensively fucked over today’s adolescents and young adults. She’s annoying about it, because she is persistently cynical and refuses to admit any comforting pabulum in any form (she mocks her father for suggesting, after her cardiac arrest, that they move to the country; she knows the narrative he’s trying to follow, and she knows that it’s “all fantasy and self-congratulation”, as she puts it). But she’s also bang on the money most of the time, and sharply funny with it. When a family friend sends her a copy of his latest book to read while she’s in hospital, she is disgusted:

“No, Dad, that’s monstrously egotistical. Oh, sorry you nearly died, you’d better read my book. My monstrously egotistical book about how when I go for a walk it’s a profound moral and spiritual experience that makes me a better person than you, but when you go to the same place you’re just a tourist messing things up… It’s a pile of bullshit about how he’s weighed down by sorrow for my generation, only not like normal adults are because we’re being badly educated for jobs that don’t exist in an economy that condemns us to poverty and homelessness, but because we can’t tell the difference between the lesser marshwort and the – the flowering marsh grass, which all goes to show that we’re losing our vital and precious sense of being at one with the natural world, rather than for example showing that the world’s moved on and by the time we’re grown up two-thirds of the global population will be living in cities and not actually giving a fuck about the lesser marshwort, and it doesn’t seem to have crossed his sorrowful little mind that if we all went and joined him communing with the fauna of furthest outer Scotland it would in fact be full of people and he’d have to find somewhere else to be superior—”

Which actually made me grin with black-hearted glee, because Miriam pinpoints so unmercifully, of course, a particular kind of bullshit nostalgia evident in contemporary nature writing (I’ll name no names), and links it so acutely to a need for superiority. It’s incisive and wonderful, and it’s also expressed in a manner entirely in keeping with a fifteen-year-old: she doesn’t sound implausibly adult, here, but like a smart, articulate, really pissed off teenager, which is exactly what she is throughout the course of the book.

Likewise, Adam’s existence as a very part-time academic (he’s working on a book about the reconstruction of Coventry Cathedral) and full-time dad is laid bare for us in a conversation that he has with the father of one of Miriam’s friends:

He came to lean on the kitchen counter, watched me run a spatula round the springform cake tin… “Looks as if you really know what you’re doing. I don’t get much beyond a ready meal myself. Well, apart from the barbecue in the summer.”…He shifted his feet, as if his balls were too big for him to stand straight. I never know what I’m supposed to say to remarks like his.

…”They’re not keeping you too busy up at the University then?”

“Oh, I’m very part-time there. Just teaching once a week.” Just to get me out of the house, I didn’t say, to make a change from Pilates and getting my hair done; look, mate, it’s a job, the making of cakes and the washing of sheets, the coordination of laundry with PE lessons, the handling of the Christmas shopping and the girls’ dental appointments, and the fact that your wife does it on top of her paid work without you noticing does not make you clever.

To which, obviously, one says, Amen.

Not that Adam is a model of meek domesticity—he and Emma have marital problems aplenty, one of which is that they don’t communicate with one another very well and another of which is that they seem not to have had sex for an unbelievably long time. Both of these have to do with the fact that Emma is a GP working twelve-hour days, and although Adam knows well enough that Emma’s paycheck is what enables them to live as comfortably as they do, there is still a level of resentment there. It’s a low-level toxicity, the kind that results in a slow accretion of petty frustrations. You’re never really sure, reading The Tidal Zone, what the stress of Miriam’s “incident” and subsequent diagnosis (such as it is) is going to do to Adam and Emma’s marriage. At several points in the novel, I was almost positive it was going to end in divorce.

Moss is too canny to let us feel as though it’s all definitely going to be okay at the end—it would be nonsensical for us to feel that way given that the entire preceding novel has been precisely about the impossibility of knowing that it’s all definitely going to be okay. Her prose is fluid and sensual and gorgeous, and it is particularly well suited, I think, to describing the emotional phenomena that surround medicine and un-wellness. Adam is so badly affected by the suddenness of Miriam’s collapse, by its inexplicability, that he wanders the house unable to do anything after she returns to school. Every siren could be going to her, or going to Rose, their younger daughter. He monitors their sleep. He reminds Miriam with a zealousness bordering on mania to take her epipen with her at all times. He is afraid that the anaphylaxis will be triggered by cold, or hunger, or by running too fast. He reminded me, more painfully than I had expected, of my mother, who must have gone through precisely the same agonies when I was diagnosed with Type I diabetes at the age of three; who spent most of my childhood making sure that there was a juicebox and some peanut butter crackers in my emergency bag; who made me run up and down the stairs when it rained, to get enough exercise. Terror; love; the same thing.

The Coventry Cathedral project that Adam is working on forms a secondary strand to The Tidal Zone (the story of Adam’s parents—his father, born the child of Jewish refugees in Brooklyn, now in Cornwall; his mother, who drowned in a freak accident when Adam was a boy—is the third and final subplot.) His monograph (or, rather, his “geolocative media app”, since that is the sort of academic project that gets funded now, he tells us) is about the reconstruction of the cathedral after it was bombed to bits in the Second World War. The story of Coventry Cathedral is a story not just of recovery after great trauma, but of how that great trauma forges great beauty. The deaths of Coventry’s citizens, and the murder of the Jews in the Holocaust, are everywhere reflected in the new cathedral’s design: in the tapestry, Christ In Glory, that rises the height of the building; in the saints and angels of the West Screen, “angular, emaciated… in the image of those liberated from Nazi concentration camps.” In the roofless ruins that are left as they stand. That’s how you transform an experience that could destroy you: you make it beautiful. You tell a story.

Moss integrates her themes so well that, as I thought about the book after reading it, I kept pulling out new strands and thinking, “Ah, yes! Oh, that makes sense too, in conjunction with this, and with that bit…” If I’m honest, I’m still not entirely sure how she does it—maintains that limpid, vivid prose while being so elegant with the big ideas underpinning it all. It’s an extraordinary book, an unforgettable one, and one I’d urge on anyone, really. Perhaps by reading her other books, I’ll work out how it’s done.

Many thanks to Lamorna Elmer at Granta Books for the review copy. The Tidal Zone was published in the UK on 7 July.