May Superlatives

The less said about May, the better, frankly. Or perhaps that’s unfair: it’s been much too busy, but I’ve seen old friends, and family, and done a lot of singing. At the end of the month, though, my personal life has—quite unexpectedly—gone to shit. It’s no one’s fault, but it’s incredibly painful and it means my present, and my future, are in a state of upheaval. I don’t want to talk about it on here, beyond that. I have read 12 books, and my brain is like a wrung-out sponge: reviewing capacities are at a pretty low ebb.

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biggest mindfuck: The City and the City, China Miéville’s novel about two cities which, topologically, exist in the same space, but are ontologically not the same places: Beszél and Ul Qoma. Miéville’s said he wants to write a novel in every genre, and this is his noir, with Inspector Borlú our hardboiled detective. As is the case with a lot of his work, the conceit is adhered to with such astonishing tenacity that the sheer comprehensiveness of it mostly makes up for a certain thematic thinness. (After all, if the point of The City and the City‘s overlapping spaces is to illustrate urban alienation, all you need to do that is the conceit itself; you don’t really need to hang a whole novel on it.) Still, I never regret reading a Miéville book.

hardest to discuss: As a bookseller, I can tell you right now that any book about a paedophile is going to be a hard sell. Tench, by Inge Schilperoord, is nevertheless a very compassionate and terribly lucid exploration of the circumstances that surround people who commit this nature of offense, and the ways that they’re so often unsupported, and left to offend again. A heartbreaking but very good book. (review)

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hands-down favourite: The Time of Our Singing by Richard Powers—recommended to me by a colleague—a six hundred-page novel about the musically talented mixed-race children of a black Philadelphian woman and a German Jewish man, growing up in the 1960s. The best novel I have ever read about classical singing, it also encompasses over a hundred years of American racial history. It’s a total knock-out and should be much better known.

most like a feminist rewrite of The Road: There’s one every year now, in the vein of Emily St John Mandel’s excellent Station Eleven. This year it’s Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From, an extremely brief and spare book about a woman raising her newborn son alone in a flooded England. The woman (unnamed) navigates the loss of her husband, her home, and everything about her old life with grief, but also with aplomb; the baby, curiously, anchors her. You could read it, I suppose, as an extended metaphor. That might be the most productive way to do it, given that, at the end of the book, the waters recede, the husband returns, and the baby starts to walk—this confluence, I suspect, not coincidental.

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nimblest: Let Go My Hand, by Edward Docx, is a book that could have run into a lot of problems: it’s about three brothers unwillingly escorting their dying father to Zurich in a camper van. He intends to take his own life at the Dignitas clinic. On the way, there are emotional and physical reckonings from decades of parenting failures, both standard and particular. Docx avoids every one of the places where he could have bogged down in sentimentality or crassness; it’s a superb piece of work, moving and realistic and often bizarrely funny, with some perfect dialogue. Imagine a Wes Anderson movie, but not annoying. (It’ll probably be a Wes Anderson movie soon, so read it first.)

most rage-inducing: Maxine Beneba Clarke’s memoir about growing up black and middle-class in white suburban Australia, The Hate Race. It’s just won the Multicultural NSW Award there, which is both heartening (it’s a fantastic book and it deserves prizes) and kind of hilariously ironic (it’s mostly about the appalling racist bullying Clarke suffered as a child in “multicultural New South Wales” barely 25 years ago). (review)

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best newcomer: Ocean Vuong’s poetry isn’t completely new to me—I’d read “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” and a couple other pieces online in Poetry Magazine—but his first full collection is just out in the UK. Night Sky With Exit Wounds is an elegiac, sexy, pull-the-rug-out compendium of poems, absolutely unforgettable. “Because It’s Summer” might be one of my new all-time favourites.

oddest: Sudden Death, by Álvaro Enrigue. Fictionalising and retelling the story of a tennis match-cum-duel that was once fought between the painter Caravaggio and the Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo, it’s sort of a novel. It calls itself a novel. It frequently digresses, however, to take in historical footnotes such as the ultimate fate of Anne Boleyn’s hair (used to stuff the world’s most expensive tennis balls), the ultimate fate of Anne Boleyn’s executioner (executed himself, his throat professionally slit in a French courtyard), and the conquest of the Aztecs. I think I can see what it’s trying to do, and I think I’m intrigued and impressed. I’m just not quite sure it comes off: partly it’s hampered by its own cleverness, which has Enrigue writing these footnote sections in the tone of a chatty media don, giving the impression that they’ve migrated into the novel from a popular history book.

pleasantest surprise: This is going to sound so weird, but: It, Stephen King’s killer-clown novel. I’d never read Stephen King, and picked this up really on a whim. It turned out to be astonishingly addictive, which for me means that the writing is high-quality and frictionless. It’s also genuinely terrifying—more so when focusing on events that happen to the central group of characters as children; slightly less so when focusing on them as adults and the final reckoning with It, but still pretty good then. I’ll be trying King again. (review)

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most hmm: Kevin Wilson’s new novel, Perfect Little World, which is out in June. The idea is cool: a child psychologist with his own issues around nurture and stability is funded by an eccentric billionairess to run a ten-year study called the Infinite Family Project, where ten couples raise their babies communally to see how this affects child development. Our main character, teen single mother Izzy, is delightfully down-to-earth and the way Wilson introduces conflict to the “perfect little world” is pleasingly realistic, but his prose style creates a kind of distance between the reader and the characters; I always felt I was on the outside, looking in. Perhaps that was the point, though I’m still not sure how I feel about it if so.

hardest to read: When I Hit You: Or, Portrait of the Writer As A Young Wife, by Meena Kandasamy, a novel about an abusive marriage between an Indian feminist writer and her passionately Communist husband. The title should tell you why. (This has got nothing to do with the shit thing that has just happened, though.)

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biggest relief: Tana French’s most recent novel, The Trespasser, is finally 1.99 on Kindle. It’s the only thing I’ve been able to read since the shit thing happened—I can’t focus enough for anything else—and I should take this opportunity to again state how thoroughly French as a writer has earned my trust as a reader.

up next: No idea. In any sense.

Baileys Prize Longlist Reading 2: Thien and Alderman

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. Spoilers ahead.

do-not-say-we-have-nothingDo Not Say We Have Nothing, by Madeleine Thien

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is comprised of nested narratives. Li-ling (or Marie), in ’90s Toronto Vancouver (thanks to eagle-eyed reader Shawn for catching that), is a maths-obsessed teenager whose father has disappeared back to China. They learn that he has committed suicide there, in Hong Kong. Later, a Chinese girl comes to stay with Marie and her mother. Her name is Ai-ming. She is only eighteen, and a political refugee, in trouble for having participated in the uprisings in Tiananmen Square. Her father, now dead, was Marie’s father’s former music teacher. Ai-ming begins telling Marie her family history, but these stories quickly take on a life of their own and the framing device drops out for chapters at a time, leaving us fully immersed in the lives of sisters Big Mother Knife and Swirl; then in the lives of their children, Sparrow and Zhuli, and of Sparrow’s student and best friend Kai.

The book spans seventy years in the middle of the twentieth century, during which time China underwent traumatic political and social change. From the time of the Civil War to the Cultural Revolution, this family is forced to adapt in ways that deny its members love, fulfillment, and security. Most of the book focuses on music: Sparrow is a promising composer, Zhuli a talented young violinist, Kai a pianist. All three of them attend Shanghai Conservatory. When the denouncements ramp up and the witch-hunts for counter-revolutionaries increase in the ’70s, the pressure to play only certain kinds of music, and in a certain style, becomes nearly unbearable, and the three young people bend or snap in different ways according to who they are.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is the most intellectually sophisticated book of the longlistees that I’ve read, so far: the questions it poses and the assertions that it makes about the ideology of making art are subtly framed and yet don’t detract from the actual story. Thien faces the fact that music and art in general cannot save you— that “poetry makes nothing happen”—and yet when Zhuli thinks “It belongs to me”, she recognises that you can hold onto music or beauty, you can claim it, and its significance comes from the assertion you make of its value to yourself. The number zero is also significant: Marie, the current-day Chinese-Canadian mathematician, talks about how zero can represent a value of both everything and nothing. It’s not hard to see the links between the idea of zero and the value of creativity in a society that hates and fears it. To write a Western-influenced sonata or to play Bach like an angel is worth nothing in post-Cultural Revolution China. And yet it is also worth everything

SPOILERS DEAD AHEAD – Thien achieves this depth of thought, this endless wrestling with value and the ethics of making art, while maintaining the reader’s investment in her multiple characters and their fates. When Zhuli kills herself, we care terribly; when Sparrow, near the end of his life, begins to engage politically, we see how hard it is for him because he has survived awful loss only by cultivating indifference. And she doesn’t do it through simplistic structure, either: on the page, it looks simple—there are no chapter headings telling us what time we’re in, for instance—but it develops in complexity as it follows this enormous tree of extended family and friends. Thien ensures that we don’t lose sight of our main characters, and the development of the framing story into part of the actual narrative near the end of the book is seamless, which is a lot harder to do than it looks.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is very affecting and deeply intelligent. So far, it is my favourite to win overall; I would be surprised if another longlisted book came near it, at least on its own terms.

41rubuzrhzlThe Power, by Naomi Alderman

One book that might challenge it—though with a very different flavour—is The Power. I am indebted to Abigail Nussbaum for helping me sort out my whirling, love-and-terror-addled thoughts on this book. Her review of it, at Strange Horizons, is really the place to go if you want someone intelligent and critically acute to open up The Power‘s complexities for you. Much of what I write here will be borrowed from that piece.

Everyone, by now, knows the premise of The Power: what if women and girls were suddenly capable of shooting bolts of electricity out of their bodies? As Nussbaum notes, this premise is the sort of thing that it’s easy to run away with in your own head, which sets you up to be disappointed by whatever the writer actually executes. Fortunately I went into The Power with little in the way of preconceptions (not because the premise didn’t excite me but because I hadn’t had the time to think about it much), and I was completely bowled over by it.

There are four strands to the book, four main point-of-view characters. Three of them are women. There’s Roxy, the child of a London crime boss who quickly takes over the business after what becomes known globally as the Day of the Girls; Allie, a fostered and abused girl who hears a “voice” that might be her own survival instinct or might really be the voice of God; Tunde, a Nigerian journalism student who gets the first footage of the Power being used in public, and drops out of college to follow the stories, broadcasting from YouTube; and Margot Cleary, a public servant whose response to the Power clears the way for her meteoric rise to the top of American government.

Critical responses to The Power have mostly been of the who’d-have-thought, women-can-be-just-as-violent-as-men school. It’s true, obviously, but as analysis goes it’s not very deep. Alderman is using gender as a focusing lens, but I don’t think this book is really about gender; if it were, there would be a lot more in the way of retributive justice, and what we get instead is a horrifying breakdown of the comforting cause-and-effect that justifies vigilantism. In the most brutal scene of the book, a gang of women attack a refugee camp full of men in the mountains of Moldova. Tunde, who survives—just—notes the complete absence of sense and logic: these women are not attacking men who’ve wronged them. They are torturing, raping (yes, really, and the way Alderman makes that work is terrifying and illuminating about the fundamental point of rape as an act of war: to humiliate) and killing because they can. And it’s that motive—because you can—that runs through the book. It’s not about gender; it’s about power.

Which makes Alderman’s project, and her book’s ending, a lot more fundamental. The question that The Power asks is: is it even possible for humans to create and exist in an egalitarian society? Or, as Nussbaum puts it in her review, “If you can completely upend the foundations of human civilization and yet end up at exactly the same place, then isn’t there a greater flaw at work? Is there another way, or do there always have to be winners and losers, strong and weak, powerful and powerless?”

There are flaws (fortunately I managed to notice these before reading Nussbaum’s review, though she discusses them more deeply.) One of the most curious omissions in The Power is any discussion of transgender individuals. The electrostatic power in women is biological; it comes from an organ at the base of the throat called the skein. A very, very small number of biological males develop it, too, but they’re seen as freaks and outcasts. Does that mean that most trans women don’t have it? What about trans men? What does that do to their status in society? Racial difference, too, is erased or ignored. From a writer’s point of view, I can see why—there are only so many stories you can tell at one time—but it’s odd, given the book’s fascination with the arbitrary exercise of power, not to include the effects that the Power might have on other forms of societal oppression.

Regardless. The Power is nightmarish and profound and one of the ballsiest books I have read in years. This must be what is meant by “the best of women’s writing”; if it’s not this, this deep engagement with the terms of human civilisation’s very existence, what is it? If it were up to me, I would put it on the shortlist without hesitation.

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 Eric. Do Not Say We Have Nothing is published by Granta and is now in paperback; The Power is published by Viking and is available in hardback.

In 2016

I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions. I don’t believe in the New Year starting in January, either; for me it has always started with a new academic year, in the autumn, and all of that post-Christmas guilt stuff is just an excuse for self-flagellation and meanness. What I do for New Year’s, instead, is to list what I’ve done over the past year. That seems more likely to produce, on the whole, happiness. And even bad memories are worth more than half-assed, panic-induced vows to improve my life.

So, in 2016, I:

started writing and reviewing for Litro Magazine

navigated the French train system alone

stayed in a chateau owned by a friend of the Chaos, who runs a restaurant there

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hosted my first author Q&A on the blog

decided to reclaim the word “fat”

wrote a series of posts on digital literature (finale coming soon!)

started singing again

attended an underground play

partied like it’s 1944

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started my first novel (I’m now at 74K words)

mourned the results of the EU referendum

welcomed my parents to our London flat for the first time!

walked fifteen miles through London at night in support of breast cancer research

went to Glyndebourne

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left my job

threw a summer drinks party

turned 24

visited St. Ives (and decided to write my second novel about Barbara Hepworth)

bitched mightily about having to walk uphill in Cornwall

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overcame massive social anxiety to go to my very first music festival

participated in a mass read-through of Henry VI, Part 1

sent my brother a postcard at college every week of his first semester

welcomed a goddaughter, Beatrice Illyria

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sang at the Royal Albert Hall

met Carlos Acosta (and decided to write my third novel about ballet dancers)

waited tables during the pre-Christmas period (this is hard)

mourned the results of the US election

got wazzocked with the lay clerks of Westminster Cathedral on Christmas morning

read 141 books

It hasn’t been a good year, though. On a personal level, it has mostly been really pretty good, but posting about how good my year was is solipsistically gross if I fail to include the fact that it has been a bad year in many other ways: for the LGBTQ+ folks in Orlando’s Pulse nightclub and their friends and family; for pretty much everyone in Syria; for the women of Ohio, where the state legislature has just pushed through a six-week abortion ban; for a substantial portion of Trump voters who didn’t realise that Trump’s promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act would make their lives literally unlivable; for the people of Valence and Berlin and Nice and Baghdad and Brussels and Istanbul and Quetta. For Jo Cox’s husband and children. For the families of the 258 black people murdered by police in America this year: Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Korryn Gaines, Laronda Sweatt, Deresha Armstrong.

If you think for one minute that this is in some way not your problem, you’re wrong.

2017: if you want it to be a better year, there’s only one way to go about it—you can’t stop celebrities from dying or TV networks from moving your favourite show. You can give your time, and you can give your money. Here are some ideas:

Richmond Reproductive Freedom Project – I donate to this institution because it’s in my home state. I guarantee there’s something similar near you, or you can give to Planned Parenthood.

Safety Pin Box takes the nice-but-not-exactly-super-effective idea of safety pin allyship and makes it a real thing: your subscription gets you two or three “ally tasks” a month, all of which are directly effective in the fight against white supremacy.

Liberty is England’s premier human rights organisation and it is RIDICULOUSLY cheap to become a member. You can give as much as you want/can afford, but some subscriptions are as little as £1 a month; the highest individual subscription fee is only £15.

Do what works for you. Do something that you’re just a little bit uncomfortable with: a couple of hours a week volunteering, or donating £5 more per month than your budget can absorb without having to change. Or call people out at your school/workplace/kitchen table: it can be just as uncomfortable, and just as important.

Anyway, whatever you do, have a very happy New Year. Onwards!

School of Velocity, by Eric Beck Rubin

There were also things we didn’t talk about, not even to each other. The things we couldn’t explain, but just did.

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~~here be (one or two) spoilers~~

Jan de Vries is a student at Sint Ansfried, an elite performing arts high school, when he meets Dirk Noosen. He is a pianist; Dirk is an actor. “I saw him several times before I even knew his name,” he tells us. “He was like a new word that, once learned, you heard spoken everywhere.” That is the reader’s cue to be aware that this book is going to be about charisma, about power, about the ways in which the charismatic behave that make them, at best, dubious idols. It’s also, because of this, highly relevant to the book I’m currently writing, which also wrestles with questions of charisma, school days (or adolescence in general) and power games.

Well. Reading School of Velocity has made me think two things: a) thank God someone else has written a book about this, it’s obviously possible; and b) bollocks, maybe I shouldn’t bother; how can I improve on this?

For this review I shall take a leaf out of Naomi‘s book and write, overtly, about what made this book so effective for me.

Thing one: the setting

Reviewers talk about setting a lot; often, I think, more than is necessary, because setting is very rarely “a character in its own right”. If you’re talking Wuthering Heights or, I dunno, Wolf Hall, or Ordinary People, then yeah, sure, but otherwise, setting isn’t always that big a deal. What I liked very much about School of Velocity is the mysteriously seamless way in which Rubin places the action in the Netherlands. He doesn’t drop a whole lot of place names, but he situates his characters in their provincial home town, and later in the city of Maastricht, so coolly and confidently that I thought he must hail from thereabouts. Evidently he doesn’t, which makes me wonder how on earth he managed such casually intimate descriptions of the place.

Thing two: the pacing

Really good authors know how to fast-forward. Rubin covers whole years of friendship in a couple of pages, with smartly structured montage flashbacks like this one:

During the years at Sint Ansfried, I must have had my own classes, spent time alone practising, spent lunches by myself, and I remember leaving Dirk’s house on Saturday afternoons, which means I must have spent the rest of the weekends away from him. But I cannot pick out a memory from those years that does not find Dirk by my side. We spent what felt like years at the movie theatre… We listened to experimental music in record shops and in his room and went to watch bands play in bars and small clubs. We walked every street in Den Bosch, where he lived, and Vught, where we cut classes, something we did with increasing frequency, ducking out of math and languages and going to sit in a cafe to talk, argue, laugh.

When, at the end of the novel, he tells Dirk it’s been thirty years since they saw each other in Maastricht, the reader is as vaguely surprised as Dirk is. Thirty years? Really? Well, that went by quickly.

Thing three: the descriptions of Jan’s illness

Jan and Dirk, as you might have guessed, stop speaking to each other at some point after they graduate from high school. It doesn’t quite happen slowly—they don’t call or write to each other at all during that first term at university. At Christmas, Dirk calls from America to say he’s spending the holiday with his girlfriend, leaving Jan, who’s turned down an invitation from his parents in anticipation of spending time with Dirk, alone on Christmas Day.

For a long time—years—this seems, both to Jan and to us, reasonably normal. Jan meets a girl, Lena, who believes in his playing. His career begins to take off. But he begins to develop strange auditory hallucinations: kettles boiling, buzz saws, roaring waves. The music that he ordinarily hears in his head just before a performance is transformed into something dissonant and violent. It begins to affect his playing. It begins to affect his sanity. He doesn’t tell Lena.

Thing four: the ending

It is, to be short, spot on. Jan’s quest to see Dirk again, to recapture the magic and the headiness and, yes, the romance of their school days, is doomed from the start. The savvy reader knows it, but still hopes, horribly, desperately, pathetically, as Jan hopes, that something can be salvaged from the wreckage. Dirk’s disappointingly ordinary life—his reversion to Sint Ansfried, where he is now the head of the drama department—is our first warning: promises don’t always come true. Potential isn’t always realised. Dirk’s kind of charisma, his flamboyant irreverence, doesn’t necessarily go down well in the real world, the adult world. For Jan to seek it out again and believe that it is the key to his salvation is at best immature; at worst, it romanticises the past in a way that could stunt him for good. Indeed, when he does find and reunite with Dirk, the terms of that meeting are so unexpected that he cannot recover.

Thing five: the title

School of Velocity is the name of a set of piano pieces by Carl Czerny, designed to help train pianists in passage work by exercising them at different tempi. It’s also a clever reference to the games of chicken that Dirk and Jan play on their bikes—who can cycle the furthest with their eyes shut? Dirk claims to be able to count thirteen; Jan only manages twelve. And, not least, it suggests the philosophy that gets Dirk—who is, we suspect, more lonely and conflicted than Jan ever realises—through school and early adulthood. Go faster; be louder; never stop moving. But Dirk doesn’t die young: he burns out. And perhaps it’s Jan, in the end, who suffers most from adhering to the School of Velocity.

It’s a small and compact book, this one, a square shape easily hefted in the hand, slipped into a purse (or, dare I say it, a Christmas stocking). Its subject matter may look obscure—classical piano playing isn’t everyone’s bag—but at its heart, it’s about huge and basic emotions: insecurity, friendship, need, sex. It delivers all of this in elegantly readable prose, efficient and yet deeply moving. I loved it. I hope, this season, it receives the attention it deserves.

Many thanks to Tabitha Pelly at ONE Pushkin for the review copy. School of Velocity was released in the UK on 21 November.

07 & 08. A Manual For Cleaning Women and The Queen of the Night

I feel awful. I’m 14 books into #20booksofsummer and I’ve reviewed LESS THAN HALF of them. Fortunately, I now have some time on my hands: I’ve just left my job (more on that later, if I feel like it), and due to family circumstances, I’ll be popping down to West Sussex over the weekend to hold down the fort at my grandparents’ house. Both things should afford me some time to catch up. Meanwhile, I’ve just finished series 4 of Orange Is the New Black and can’t sleep—images from the past few episodes keep flashing through my head; is it normal to be this haunted by a television show? It’s because it’s so brilliant—so here are two very quick, embarrassingly quick, catch-up reviews of books I loved.

07. A Manual for Cleaning Women, Lucia Berlin

a-manual-for-cleaning-womenWhere I read it: On the way back from a singing lesson in Highbury, amongst other places.

I missed out on Lucia Berlin last year. Last year was her moment in the spotlight, really, her rediscovery after decades of brilliant and productive obscurity. Fortunately the paperback of this collection is coming out soon, so perhaps I can pass this off as a timely appreciation. Anyway, the thing is, I’m not really a short story kind of person. I find them contrived most of the time, and they make demands of you: emotional engagement, intellectual flexibility (so many of them open in medias res and expect us to be able to follow the situation at once). It’s not that I mind stories making demands of me; it just pisses me off to make the investment when the product is so…brief. (I know this is a tormented metaphor, I’m giving it up now.)

The nice thing about Berlin is that she beckons you in. She doesn’t ask you to do anything but listen. She’s not going to get smart or existential or pretentious with you. She’s just going to tell you about this thing that happened and was interesting, or sad. Her narrating persona could be the same woman all the way through, which lends the collection a more novelistic feeling; you get the impression you’re seeing someone in a fragmented way at different stages in her life, but her character is consistent enough for this not to be disorienting. Most of her stories are set in Mexico, the American Southwest, or California. It’s Cormac McCarthy country—dry wind and desert grass—but there’s more kindness and grace than McCarthy is ever willing to squeeze out. She writes about abortions, and alcoholics helping each other out in laundromats. She writes about prison and hospitals. She writes about being a writer and being poor and having two small boys. Most of her work is autobiographical (the foreword by Lydia Davis is especially illuminating about this); none is self-pitying. She mastered the art of conversational prose. You feel as though she’s standing right there next to you, smoking and looking at you with those huge heavy-lidded eyes, cracking a smile. These are 100% worth seeking out.

08. The Queen of the Night, by Alexander Chee

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Where I read it: Probably everywhere, I don’t remember actually putting it down at all.

 

When I finished The Queen of the Night, I went back to the manuscript of my own novel and wrote a scene that allowed me to describe music (Ombra mai fu from Handel’s Serse, if you’re keen); this book is that evocative and inspirational. Liliet Berne is the toast of Paris in the 1860s, an opera singer whose Fach, or voice type, is that of a Falcon soprano—a tragic voice, powerful as steel and utterly unpredictable in its delicacy. But Liliet has a secret; in fact she has many, and most of the book consists of her re-telling her own life in an attempt to find out who might be blackmailing her now.

Chee gets so many things right: the lushness and corruption of Napoléon III’s France, the helplessness of a woman without money or connections, the things that such women do to get ahead. He’s also bang on with his opera descriptions. I’m demanding about classical music in fiction because I know about it; plenty of writers get the atmosphere of performance and professionalism all wrong. He gets it just right, with enough of the basics to interest you if you don’t know much about opera while placating you with high-level detail if you’re more knowledgeable. Several times during the book I wanted to put it down and sing—but we have neighbours, and I couldn’t put it down anyway because the plot was roaring ahead at full speed.

There are places where it slows down, and I was never entirely sure of the precise mechanics behind all of the plotting and conspiring. Liliet’s life is clearly in danger throughout much of the book, but I often had to stop and reassemble the reasons for her jeopardy in my head. It’s a long novel, and confusion would be easy. And is there a faint element of the soapy to the many twists and turns of Liliet’s identities? Perhaps—though I could also easily argue that the right word is”picaresque”. But give yourself a clear run at it, and you’ll be richly rewarded: this is definitely one for the holiday (even for a long-haul flight, if you’ve got strong wrists).

A Manual for Cleaning Women, Lucia Berlin. (London: Picador, 2016 [2014])

The Queen of the Night, by Alexander Chee (London: Michael Joseph, 2016)

Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts

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Tristan (Stuart Skelton) and Isolde (Heidi Melton) at ENO

  1. Gadgette is a site aimed at techy women–like The Pool for geeks. I barely qualify, but I’ve been really enjoying their stuff, especially this article on 6 lessons to forget before you start learning to code.
  2. My parents and brother are in the country. We saw them last weekend, at my gran’s 80th birthday tea, and will see them again soon;  my brother is coming to London for a graduation-present dinner on Friday, and my parents are visiting on Saturday.
  3. It was great to see them and I’m looking forward to seeing them again, but trying to make plans to do so around the rest of my life is so.damn.stressful. I work full-time, so my only weekday options are in the evening. Plus, unfortunately, June is the month when everyone else wanted to plan stuff. Between last Wednesday and next Sunday I’ve had a grand total of three days with nothing penciled in, and those days don’t really coincide with my parents’ availability.  So there’s guilt on my side, frustration on theirs, and dissatisfaction everywhere.
  4. Relatedly, I’m really, really tired. I’ve already canceled one book event last week out of pure exhaustion, and I’m probably going to need to bow out of a dinner party this week as well. Mental health has also been suffering: I’ve developed a new strategy for when I want to self-harm which involves imagining it in great detail without actually doing it, or writing on my arm instead of cutting or scratching. It’s okay, but it’s not exactly a permanent fix. Mother-out-law has been in hospital this week, too, precise nature of ailment unknown. So now that I think about it, there’s been a reasonable amount of stress circulating.
  5. Women With Tattoos is another one of my new favourite sites–beautiful portraits of tattooed ladies, plus interviews. Through it, I’ve also found the woman who I want to do my first tattoo, if and when I get brave enough to follow through.
  6. I went to my first live Wagner performance last weekend: English National Opera is doing Tristan and Isolde (yes, in English; oh well.) It was five hours long and it was excellent; the band made some ravishingly beautiful sounds and Heidi Melton, who sings Isolde, is a new vocal inspiration. The costumes were weird (design aesthetic ranged from “Belle Epoque crazy hair” to “Japanese samurai face masks” to “Beckettian void”), but the singing made none of that matter.

Trio, by Sue Gee

something beautiful and strong

9781784630614_7ae9c581-ef2f-4806-bfca-c7a6356497f3

~~warning: here be one or two spoilers~~

Sue Gee seems to be one of those authors who’s both prolific and successful, and yet is still relatively unknown. She was long listed for the Orange Prize in 2005, which is exactly the sort of thing that happens to good writers who, for some reason or another, don’t please the mainstream as well as they might. That she isn’t better known is, on the basis of her new book Trio, a travesty, though perhaps not a surprise. It’s the sort of book that tends to suffer in an industry that has taken Twitter to its bosom. (I am not knocking Twitter. I mostly love Twitter and am increasingly coming to depend on it, which is a whole ‘nother story, as Americans say.) The point is that Trio is tender, nuanced, and although it contains plot points which could easily be played for melodrama, Gee’s writing is so fine that when you read those moments in her book, they pass in front of you in a thoroughly natural way. That’s terribly difficult to explain in 144 characters.

And then there’s the plot: a school teacher in Northumberland in 1937 grieves the loss of his wife, whom we get to know in the first chapter. (She dies at the end of it, but I felt real sorrow and pain when I read it—sixteen and a half pages in, and Gee had made me care about someone. That, boys and girls, is rare.) Anyway, Steven Coulter, the school teacher in question, meets a group of new friends through a work colleague. They’re all tight-knit and slightly secretive, their relationships reminiscent of The Secret History albeit rather more realistic. There’s beautiful Diana Embleton, who plays the cello; her charismatic brother Frank (with whom Steven teaches); talented violinist George Liddell; and enigmatic Margot, a pianist. These four grew up together, and Diana, George, and Margot have formed a musical trio, which plays regular concerts around the county. It doesn’t sound pacy or intriguing—but it is, it bloody well is.

Writing a book set in 1937, and partly in a large country house, you have to choose, I think, whether to give in to the inevitable echoes of early Downton Abbey, or whether to subvert them. Gee chooses to subvert, and she does that by investing a lot of authorial energy in characterisation. When I say that the death of Steven’s first wife, Margaret, made me feel sorrow after sixteen pages, I mean it; and she achieves that immediacy of feeling by using those sixteen pages to dive deeply not only into Margaret’s immediate bodily experience of tuberculosis, delirium and death, but also into her memory. Memory is what binds together most of the characters in Trio; it’s a sense of shared history between the Embletons, Margot, and George that makes their playing so intimate. It’s also what connects the book’s first section to its second, which is told not by any of the characters we’ve previously met, but by Steven’s son, sixty years in the future.

Although some of the characters fulfill certain stereotypical functions (Diana the beautiful; Margot the quietly enigmatic; George the closeted, tormented and brilliant), they each do so in a way that feels particular, not generalized. Diana, for instance, has many flaws, one of which is a self-centeredness that prevents her from understanding wider social or political currents. In a more Downton-esque novel, this flaw would be emphasised, but never explored; she would simply be dim, arrogant, gorgeous, and distant. In Trio, by contrast, that trait has a huge effect on the plot: Diana doesn’t realize that Margot’s father, whom she too has known as a father figure for twenty years, has fallen in love with her. When he finally declares himself, she is horrified, distraught, and rebuffs him in no uncertain terms, which shatters him and leads to tragedy. It’s the subtlety with which Gee builds up the situation, though, that shatters us, too, as readers: we know, long before Diana does, what Mr. Heslop’s feelings are for her. But we also know how easy it’s been for Diana to misunderstand his attentions as simple courtesy–his offers to carry her cello case, his solicitousness in keeping her wine glass topped up, seem perfectly natural, but Steven, through whose eyes we see everything, has observed that he can’t stop looking at her. We see because Steven sees, but Diana doesn’t have that kind of perspective.

For a book that revolves so explicitly around music, though, there aren’t many descriptions of it. When Gee writes about the trio working together, her focus is on their personal connection, the look that runs between them before they begin to play. She gets that spot-on; anyone who has performed music in a group small or large knows what that feels like, and anyone who has seen music performed live will recognise that electrified atmosphere, that awareness that you are witnessing intimate, non-verbal communication of the highest order. I have to confess that I wished for precise descriptions of the music, though; you can appreciate more fully the connection that enables a Beethoven trio to be performed when you understand what that piece sounds like. Writing prose descriptions of music is hard, but it can be done: Helen Stevenson, in Love Like Salt, released in February of this year, writes at length, and evocatively, about Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater.

The second half of the book is a curious decision; it’s narrated by the eldest child of Steven and Margot’s eventual union (not the biggest spoiler in the world, I venture, since their relationship and marriage is signposted fairly early on.) It follows him as he drives from London back to Northumberland to celebrate Christmas with his sister, after the death of his parents and the sale of Hepplewick Hall, the house where the trio grew up together and which Margot eventually inherits. The point of this sudden shift of era and perspective, I think, is to demonstrate how things change, how time erodes even the most intense of relationships. While I was reading, it didn’t strike me as out of place, but looking back on the book as a whole, I’m hard-pressed to determine exactly why this second half was as long as it was. It would have worked perfectly well as an epilogue. And yet perhaps Gee wants us to feel a little bit off-balance; the story of the subsequent generations is given as much air time as the story of the Greatest Generation, even though, at least for me, it carried less immediate emotional weight.

Fundamentally, though, Trio is a book that rewards your careful attention; you will probably, if you are like me, want to gobble it up, but its observation of human behaviour, of the fault lines of friendships and the limitations of love, is of the subtlest sort. Its generous anatomization of grief and fallibility, and the immense trust it places in the power of music, has earned it a spot on my shelf of Books To Save From Fire. This summer, you really should be reading it too.

Many thanks to the kind folks at Salt for the review copy. Trio was published in the UK on 16 June.