It’s ADVENT, season of the best carol ever! It’s also been rainy for the past fortnight (or, at the very best, cloudy all day), so, you know, doubly appropriate.
Out of Africa, by Karen Blixen: I picked this up on a whim and I’m so glad I did. Karen Blixen moved from Denmark to Kenya in 1913 to run a coffee plantation with her husband (who, magnificently, she fails to mention in this book until after page 300. There are only 336 pages in total, in my edition.) This is a collection of her writing about the farm, her experiences with the Kikuyu people who worked for her and those who didn’t, and with the Masai who lived in the Reserve that bordered her property. It is, of course, a record of a vanished way of life: as a farmer, she shoots any and all lions, which one can hardly imagine a landowner getting away with now. There is also a certain level of paternalism with regards to her musings about “Natives”, even though she clearly respects the individual men and women who work for her, and they were obviously fond of her. On the whole, though, the impression is of a woman almost totally without ego – she wants to describe Africa, not to foreground her personality – and deeply observant. She is also, to my surprise, highly spiritual; a section late on in the book consists of short segments that often focus on the presence of God in the beauty of the natural world. Her sensibilities are deeply literary and allusive, and as a European aristocrat, she moved casually in the circles of high society (she talks of the Prince of Wales having dinner at her house, and she was extremely close with Denys Finch-Hatton, eventually having an affair with him after her divorce). She could also write with an extreme simplicity and clarity which seems characteristic of her time: “I had a farm in Africa,” the book begins, “at the foot of the Ngong Hills.” That sentence speaks directly to you; it’s rhythmic, even musical. Outstanding.
The Flower Girls, by Alice Clark-Platts: Bloomsbury’s Raven imprint started out really promisingly, with work from Laura Purcell, Alex Reeve, Stuart Turton and Eva Dolan making it clear that this was no ordinary crime label. The Flower Girls, unfortunately, is something of a downward turn. It focuses on a crime committed by two sisters, Laurel and Primrose, who lure a toddler away from a playground and kill her, in a manner clearly calculated by Clark-Platts to recall the murder of Jamie Bulger. Laurel, aged ten, is deemed capable of standing trial; Primrose, who is only six, is not. Laurel is found guilty and sent to prison, but nineteen years later, as Laurel’s potential release date approaches, another little girl goes missing in a hotel where Primrose – now living under the name Hazel Archer – is staying with her new partner and his teenage daughter. The novel is hampered by a number of things: there are too many point-of-view characters, nearly every plot point and emotion comes fully explained in case the reader somehow fails to grasp its import, and the twist ending is visible from a mile away. (It’s still horrifying, but being horrified by horrifying things is a reaction based in a reader’s human decency, and does not constitute masterful plotting or pacing.) The entire plot requires a reader to accept that Laurel has made a particular decision for a particular reason, and it is simply not clear enough. There are things Clark-Platts is trying to do and say with which I sympathise, especially things to do with the nature of victimhood, but it’s all a little…I don’t know…clumsy.
Foe, by Iain Reid: Foe is a weird book. It starts off as a kind of Black Mirror episode-type story: Junior and Henrietta are apparently happily, if quietly, married, and they live on a farm in the middle of nowhere. One day a man from the government turns up in a shiny car and delivers the news that Junior has been selected as part of an exploratory mission to create a human community in space. It is not possible to refuse. However, Junior is told, his wife will be kept company during his absence by an entirely lifelike replica of him. After this, I expected Foe to split, one narrative strand following Junior as he adjusts to life in orbit (and, presumably, discovers some less-than-savoury secrets about the government’s project), the other following Hen’s adaptation to life with something that looks and behaves in every way like her husband. That did not happen. Instead, Reid keeps the action firmly on Earth and inside Junior’s head; the book is mostly concerned with his reactions to the mysterious government representative who will explain nothing and who eventually moves in with them, the better to conduct permanent surveillance for “research purposes” before the big launch. The reason that Reid maintains this narrow, even claustrophobic focus, becomes clear with the big twist, which is also visible from a mile away. So far, so clever; my problem with the big twist is that it requires us to accept that Hen has acquiesced in—even encouraged—something which has no clear benefit to her whatsoever, as well as enormous potential to damage her. If we are meant to see her as coerced, Junior’s point of view is not objective enough to convey that convincingly. And ultimately, I don’t think that big twist can carry the novel: it happens so near the end that its ramifications are barely gestured at. In a way, Foe might have been better either as a short story (with this plot), or as a novel that really did try to explore what it might be like to live with a robot stand-in husband, or to live among the stars knowing that your wife was at home with a perfect replica of you.
The Last, by Hanna Jameson: The problem with The Last isn’t so much that it can’t decide what it wants to be—thoughtful end-of-the-world novel a la Station Eleven, or classic murder-mystery-in-an-inescapable-environment a la A Christmas Murder—but more that it hasn’t realised it needs to decide at all. It wants to be both, and it can’t be. Set in a hotel in a remote Swiss forest, it focuses on the academic historian Jon Keller, who’s attending a conference when the lights of the world go out. Wisely, Jameson doesn’t spend much time trying to explain the sociopolitical situation that led to global nuclear war; at one point Jon recalls hearing a woman cry, “They’ve bombed Washington” and not even being sure who “they” are, which, in the current political climate of semi-permanent confusion and proliferating news sources, seems much more likely than anyone having a firm grasp of whys and wherefores as the world burns. Keller’s anxiety about his wife (with whom he argued before leaving for Switzerland) and children is nicely judged, and Jameson is good on the way people coalesce around a leader in times of uncertainty. She’s also, refreshingly, hopeful: the community that Keller and his fellow hotel guests find at the end of the novel doesn’t seem to be a trap or a cult, but a genuine attempt to live well in the ruins, even to build a new world. It’s just that there’s a lot going on in The Last, and the murder mystery – despite its interesting philosophical question of whether it’s worth investigating injustice in the midst of a meta-disaster – takes a back seat too often. (And the solution is…let’s not talk about it.)
Viper Wine, by Hermione Eyre: This is extremely my sort of thing, and gloriously, it did not disappoint. It is a novel about the marriage of Sir Kenelm Digby, famed sailor, alchemist and adventurer in the time of Charles I, and his wife Venetia, the most renowned beauty of her day. Venetia is aging as the novel opens (well, she’s thirty, but obviously in the 1630s that made her past her prime), and Kenelm’s refusal to provide a medical beauty aid drives her—along with several of her friends—into the arms of Lancelot Choice, a convincing quack who prescribes a tonic known as viper wine, distilled from the bodies of serpents which he farms in industrial quantities in his cellar. Eyre melds this historical narrative with what might be called flashes, or glimpses, of the future; Sir Kenelm’s ornamental obelisk at his country home, Gayhurst, becomes a radio mast, the narrative voice conflates his voyages with the space travel that humans will achieve a few centuries hence, and Venetia’s obsession with controlling not only her face, but the production and distribution of her image, is shown to be the forerunner of the modern brand management practiced by celebrities like the Kardashians. Eyre takes advantage of Kenelm Digby’s unique intellectual and historical position: one of the sources she quotes describes him as the single English mind that links the medieval and the modern, just as happy distilling mercury in alembics as he is keen to follow the latest scholarship from Galileo. She figures him, and Venetia, and the age in which they lived, as a kind of conduit, through which the past and the future can mingle. Viper Wine‘s a clever book; it’s also witty and contains some marvelous setpieces, including a voyage in a sort of proto-submarine. Not to be missed.
How Should A Person Be?, by Sheila Heti: Some books are ahead of their times. Some books don’t need to be that far ahead to still be ahead. Such is the case with Heti’s first novel, which was published in 2010 and was well received, but which didn’t create nearly such a stir as Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends, which followed only seven years later yet which has somehow become a sort of cult novel, a touchstone for young tormented artistic types who find themselves beset by the difficulty of justifying creative endeavour in a world that manifestly doesn’t give a damn how special you think you are. How Should A Person Be?, which is autofiction, is filtered through the eyes of Sheila, who, in her twenties, has gotten married and been commissioned to write a play. The marriage and the play fail, and she meets a painter called Margaux with whom she develops a friendship both intense and somehow laissez-faire. What Rooney has most clearly taken from Heti is the voice: dry, ironic, detached, yet possessed of an increasingly obvious vulnerability. Something about How Should A Person Be? is less annoying to me than Conversations With Friends was, though. Perhaps it’s the sex, which, although Sheila has it with a plainly dreadful human being, is obviously great; I could never convince myself that Rooney’s Frances and Nick were having sex that good. There’s also something to be said for the clean dirt of Heti’s plotting choices: Sheila knows perfectly well that she’s having sex with the divinely awful Israel for bad reasons; they’re both single, so there’s none of the mess of an affair that Rooney’s characters struggle with; and, most importantly, Sheila decides to end the whole thing when it becomes clear that Israel is both stupid and obsessed with humiliating her. How Should A Person Be? is a weird book, but it’s certainly emotionally compelling.
Dream Sequence, by Adam Foulds: I requested this because, you know, Adam Foulds, but I wasn’t expecting to like it nearly as much as I did. It’s the story of two people: one, Henry, is an up-and-coming actor who’s about to break out of the TV period drama circuit with a starring role in a film by a major director; the other, Kristin, is an American divorcée who bumped into him at an airport a year ago, and who has since been consumed by the delusion that they are meant to be together. It’s not anything like the last Foulds novel I read (The Quickening Maze, about the institutionalization of the poet John Clare in the same asylum as Tennyson’s brother Septimus). Foulds is exceptionally talented at putting us inside Henry’s and Kristin’s heads; his insights into the acting industry, particularly into the world of cinema and celebrity, auditioning and waiting to hear back, are brilliant and convincing. Henry’s permanent semi-conscious awareness of his body—hunger, muscle, fasting, lightness, the unusually beautiful structure of the bones of his face—is especially well rendered. In the sections involving Kristin, meanwhile, Foulds climbs into her head such that we not only see her madness, but understand it, intimately; her divorce has cost her a young stepson and the loss of his small, innocent love is something that she keeps coming back to, a hole in her heart that her obsession with Henry cannot fill. The story clearly can’t end well, but Foulds shows tremendous restraint right up to the finish line. Dream Sequence is very good, and very hard to pigeonhole.