One of the Boys, by Daniel Magariel

I’d seen him whip my mother with a belt before. The difference was: she deserved it.

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I know—it’s not a very promising quotation to start a review with. Don’t run away. The ugliness of that “she deserved it” is the point; it’s where everything you need to know about this novel is located, and what you need to know is more complicated than simple, shopworn misogyny (although that’s a large part of it.) Magariel’s debut novel is told through the eyes of a twelve-year-old boy, whose name we never learn. As the book opens, he and his brother—also unnamed—are driving to New Mexico with their dad. They’ve won “the war”, their father’s name for the divorce and custody battle they’ve just gone through, and they’re about to start afresh. Except, of course, that they aren’t, or rather their father isn’t; he is simply moving the boys to a place where nobody knows them, where they’ll be isolated and easier to manipulate and control, and where he can fuel his cocaine habit unbothered by family or acquaintances. The reader clocks all this within the first chapter. The boy takes much longer, and the book—it’s very short, almost a novella at 165 pages—is about his journey towards understanding his father’s abusiveness and being able, finally, to reject it.

Unsurprisingly, this makes for tough reading. The reason it’s bearable is, largely, because it’s so short; this is no A Little Life, no relentless slog through hundreds of pages of sadism and misery. This is short sharp shocks: like that “she deserved it”, like the bizarre scene where the boy skips school, flirts with an older neighbour at the swimming pool and is nearly indoctrinated by her into the world of sex, like the father’s ability to flip from tender protectiveness to beating his naked child with the buckle end of a belt in the space of a second. The reader learns to be on edge, our constant bracing a mirror image of the permanent strategising going on in the boy’s brain.

The father is perhaps the best drawn character in the book. He is, of course, terrifying: Magariel shows us violent rage in ways that will make people who’ve experienced this sort of thing shake.

I was pulled from my brother’s body by my hair. My father’s backhand sent me staggering across the room. I crashed into the coffee table. Glass shattered around me, which seemed to send my father into a fury. He screamed that this was exactly what our mother had meant to do—divide and conquer. How had we forgotten? Why were our memories so short? Why weren’t we on his side? […] “Tell me you’re sorry. Tell me you’ll never do it again,” he said.

Upsetting though the physical violence is, it is not the most disturbing element of One of the Boys; that’s the last sentence in the quote above. Tell me you’re sorry. Hitting someone is one thing; trying to create a mindset that forces them to apologise to you for having been hit by you is a whole different level of manipulation and—although I don’t often use this word—evil. The incredible thing about One of the Boys is how it complicates that evil, how it acknowledges it and also shows us the father as, essentially, still a child himself. That doesn’t mean that he bears no responsibility for his actions, but rather, allows us to see that he isn’t an undifferentiated Big Bad to his children. “He could be so good to us sometimes,” the boy says, in heartbreakingly wistful retrospect. And he can: he often presents as a classic dad figure, providing fun and mischief and guidance. Even while the reader recognises that the father gets a self-aggrandising kick out of these sorts of performances, the appeal is obvious.

The father’s assumption of the heroic role is dependent on his making a villain of the mother, of course. He’s aided in this by the fact that she’s demonstrably imperfect: a weak-willed drunk whose immaturity apparently rivals his. Magariel makes the same point, with greater punch, that Emma Flint makes in Little Deaths: a woman needs to deviate only slightly from a norm in order to be open to charges of monstrosity. This is doubly the case when approval from a father is the reward for hating the mother; the boy notes that his mother’s approval never even seemed relevant to him as a child. There are some painful flashbacks to a moment when the boy and his brother decide to punish their mother in their own way: they throw water in her face and scream “We hate you! Fuck you!” That they’re doing it to demonstrate their loyalty to a man who repays perceived disloyalty with brutal physical assault doesn’t make it any less horrifying.

All the more of a relief, then, is the book’s ending: the boy has an opportunity to save himself and his brother by presenting himself, purple and bloodied from a recent beating, to a police officer. That’s where Magariel leaves us: blinking into the light along with our protagonist, hoping that this final act of “disloyalty”, this refusal to be “one of the boys”, complicit in his own destruction, will be enough to save him. As readers, we’ve seen the poisonous effects of silence and solidarity, but we haven’t yet, in this book, been taught to distrust the state. Where many books about abuse zero in on the indifference of police, children’s homes, and teachers, One of the Boys gives us reason to hope that these figures of public authority – unlike the private authority figure of the father – will do their jobs.

Which makes Magariel’s book, while definitely about the experiences of one particular child, also about something bigger: the abuses perpetrated more generally by a toxic ideal of masculinity. The boy and his brother are silent for so long because they want to belong to a social unit that is the familial equivalent of a treehouse with a NO GRILS ALLOWED sign. The father’s attempts to mould his children’s lives into a narcissistic male utopia is immature and destructive, but it recalls so much else: the worst of college fraternities. The worst of organised sports, with their “locker room banter” and their internal cruelties. The worst of private schooling. The worst of the military. These are worlds built on hierarchy and loyalty, on creating an image of a family, blood or chosen, allegiance to which is more important than individual lives. In showing the madness of this attitude through the microcosm of a family, Magariel offers a different way to be a man: sometimes the way to step up is to ask for help.

Many thanks to the publicity folks at Granta for the review copy. One of the Boys was published in the UK on 6 April.

February Superlatives

February! I started working at Heywood Hill. I followed the Jhalak Prize long list. In a perhaps not shocking turn of events, my to-read list grew significantly. I am beginning to worry about bookshelf space again. Not as many books this month—only fourteen update: fifteen! I forgot one!—but in a month as short as February, that’s a book every two days, which isn’t bad at all.

most whimsical: Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, the tale of a Danish woman’s travails in learning to drive as an adult, by Dorthe Nors. Poor Sonja; somehow her life has become something she never intended it to be, but she doesn’t know where she went wrong. It’s a fairly plotless book, but I think that suits its subject matter.

best short stories for people who don’t like short stories: Rick Bass’s beautiful, monumental collection from Pushkin Press, For A Little While. Bass writes stories the way Maxine Beneba Clarke does: they seem like miniature novels, tiny but perfectly formed and evocative, little jewels of description and characterisation. He writes like a dream on the sentence level, and his interest in the lost or confused people of the world is sincere and generous and kind. This collection is a marvel.

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THIS COVER. I DIE.

most thoroughly engrossing world: The Ghana/America splitscreen through the ages that you get in Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing. Starting with two estranged sisters in eighteenth-century Asanteland, the novel follows each woman’s descendants through history. Comparing the lives of the Ghanaian branch of the family to the American branch over the centuries is fascinating—such a tiny difference to start with, but such a huge gulf in only a few years’ time—and the ending is crazy satisfying without being completely unrealistic.

so close! so close!: Irenosen Okojie’s short story collection Speak Gigantular, which has fantastic, surreal ideas rendered in a highly original way, but which is let down by a general failure on her publisher’s part to check for things like typos. It’s an amazing collection, and it could be even better with a little attention to detail.

most skillfully written: This is a tough one to award elsewhere while Rick Bass’s stories are on the list, but Kei Miller’s prose in Augustown is so controlled, so subtle, so confident in itself, that from the very first page you can feel yourself relaxing, knowing you’re in good hands. It’s a lovely feeling to have when you open a book, that total trust in the writer’s ability.

best book to give someone who “doesn’t read YA”: Patrice Lawrence’s novel Orangeboy, which is significantly better than many adult novels. Marlon’s teenaged attempts to protect his family are rendered with such sympathy and lack of judgmentalism, I think it’s a book a lot of young people (and those who work with them) should be reading.

most fascinating: Not a shadow of a doubt here: Black and British, David Olusoga’s overview of black British history. I guarantee that you will learn something new from it, and that this new thing will be, moreover, wildly intriguing and contradictory to the history you remember from school.

most accidentally forgotten: Do not make assumptions about the fact that, in the first version of this post, I forgot Shappi Khorsandi’s Nina Is Not OK! It’s about a teenager who slowly comes to terms with the fact that, like her beloved and now dead father, she is an alcoholic. Nina’s situation is complicated by a trauma that happens at the beginning of the book and which she must acknowledge before she can begin to handle her alcoholism. Khorsandi is bitingly funny, sad, spirited, and never sentimental. I loved it.

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most grudgingly liked: I do not want to like the work of Paul Kingsnorth. It subscribes to a philosophy of back-to-nature manhood, unfettered by things like infants or women, that I find at best eye-roll-worthy, at worst destructive and juvenile. But his writing is none of these things; it is evocative, assured, and bold. His second novel, Beast, is about a man slowly unravelling on what seems to be Dartmoor. It’s short and very impressive.

best comfort read: The Uncommon Reader, Alan Bennett’s charming fable about what might happen if the Queen took up reading for pleasure. It’s so tiny and cute that you can read it in an hour, then go about the rest of your day with a small smile on your face. I particularly like the way Bennett characterises the Duke of Edinburgh—so succinct, so efficient!—through his curmudgeonly dialogue.

best reread: So, guys… whisper it. I didn’t really get all the love for The Essex Serpent when it came out. I mean, I liked the book, I thought the landscape and food descriptions were gorgeous, Perry’s writing is lush. But I also thought her first book hung together better, was a more perfect object, and I didn’t feel the same adoration for Cora and Will that lots of people seemed to. They were fine. I just didn’t love them. Then I read it again, really really slowly, over the course of about six weeks—mostly on my phone during five-minute bathroom breaks at the restaurant—and finished it this weekend, and although I still don’t feel fanatical about it, I think I understand it better.

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most serviceable thriller: I read William Shaw’s Kent-set murder mystery, The Birdwatcher, because it’s gotten a lot of love from people at work and it seemed worth checking out. It was perfectly acceptable, but my benchmark for thrillers/mysteries is now Tana French. Not many people can meet that standard—certainly not on the qualities of dialogue, descriptive writing and psychological depth—so, while Shaw’s book was a pretty solid example of the genre, and gripping as hell, it won’t knock French from her pedestal.

most evocative: Days Without End, Sebastian Barry’s Costa Award-winning novel about nineteenth-century Irish-American soldiers John Cole and Thomas McNulty: best friends, brothers-in-arms, lovers. The way that Barry allows their relationship its proper dignity, the way that he balances maternal feeling with military prowess in the character of McNulty, the way that he writes about the American West, is both roughly beautiful and incredibly elegant. It reminded me a lot of True History of the Kelly Gang.

best holiday reading: My dilemma about what to take on a four-day trip to France was solved by my friend Helen, who recommended Zadie Smith’s Swing Time. It’s a long and thoughtful novel but it never fails to be interesting – on dance and the body, on opportunity, on girls and friendship and hateship and growing up, on selfishness and revenge. I know it’s had mixed reviews, but me, I really liked it.

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most pleasant surprise: Anthony Horowitz’s reboot of the Sherlock Holmes universe, The House of Silk. I bought it on my phone mostly because it was 99p, and read it because I didn’t fancy anything too involved given my levels of sleep-deprivation at the time. It turned out to be a pretty gripping and not ill-written book; maybe a little mannered, but then so is Conan Doyle, and Horowitz always has a sense of humour about the project. The dénouement could conceivably lay the book open to charges of homophobia, but I think Horowitz is aiming less at closeted men and more at men who exploit the powerless. Anyway, I enjoyed it.

up next: Currently reading Sand, another crime novel (I think I’m becoming old) by a German author called Wolfgang Herrndorf. It’s set in Morocco circa 1972 and extremely diffuse; only now, at 100+ pages in, do I feel I have a sense of what’s going on. Review to follow.

2014 in First Lines

I was inspired to do this by this post at Annabel’s House of Books, but instead of quoting myself, I wanted to show a sliver of what I’ve been reading this year. These are the opening lines of the first book I’ve read each month, with a little bit about said book, and what I thought of it. Reach for your TBR lists now, because most of these were great.

January: “I was twelve years old the first time Master Georgie ordered me to stand stock still and not blink.”–Master Georgie, by Beryl Bainbridge. This is a tiny explosion of a book about the Crimean War, narrated from the point of view of the eponymous Georgie’s adoptive sister Myrtle, who follows him to war but has a terrible secret. I completely loved it. Start your New Year off right with this.

February: “I am staring at myself in a hotel bathroom mirror.”–This Secret Garden: Oxford Revisited, by Justin Cartwright. One in a series of slim volumes called The Writer and the City, Cartwright’s book sees him returning to Oxford (where he was a student) some decades later, to discover how it and he have changed. As a recent graduate, I loved how clearly he describes the impact this city had on him, and identified completely with his love for and connection to it. Very much indulgence reading, because that’s what February is for.

March: “Dombey sat in the corner of the darkened room in the great arm-chair by the bedside, and Son lay tucked up warm in a little basket bedstead, carefully disposed on a low settee immediately in front of the fire and close to it, as if his constitution were analogous to that of a muffin, and it was essential to toast him brown while he was very new.”–Dombey and Son, by Charles Dickens. Dickens for winter, always. I got to him late this season, but as usual it was worth it. There is the usual infuriating feminine martyrdom (in this case Florence Dombey, who is a poster child for emotional abuse and daddy issues), but the writing, as you can see, is ace.

April: “The dead die hard, they are trespassers on the beyond, they must take the place as they find it, the shafts and manholes back into the muck, until such time as the lord of the manor incurs through his long acquiescence a duty of care in respect of them.”–Echo’s Bones, by Samuel Beckett. Read for a review in Quadrapheme, and, as you may be able to deduce, pretty tough going, although I found deciphering Beckett’s fevered musings pretty rewarding too.

May: “I’ve been called Bone all my life, but my name’s Ruth Anne.”–Bastard Out of Carolina, by Dorothy Allison. Be careful with this book: an intense, frightening depiction of violence, hate and poverty in the rural South. It will move you. It’s very good. Maybe don’t read it if you’re already feeling a little delicate.

June: “The dying actress arrived in his village the only way one could come directly–in a boat that motored into the cove, lurched past the rock jetty, and bumped against the end of the pier.”–Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter. A light but touching and remarkably well-written novel about an elderly Italian man who goes searching for the story of the American woman he fell in love with fifty years before. A perfect summer read, proving that happy endings don’t have to be stupid or far-fetched.

July: “I’m not sure that I can claim to have taken my place in the human alphabet, even as its honorary twenty-seventh letter.”–Pilcrow, by Adam Mars-Jones. Given that this novel is narrated by a little boy who is essentially bed-bound by a wasting disease, bits of it aren’t exactly fast-paced. And yet it’s sweet, solemn and captivating.

August: “You are the man with the slow resting heartbeat, the calmest person in any room, the best man in a crisis.”–Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies: RSC Adaptation, by Hilary Mantel and Mike Poulton. Sorry but do I even need to discuss this? It’s the play adaptation, with commentary on the characters, of two of the best novels written this decade. It’s amazing.

September: “In later years, holding forth to an interviewer or an audience of aging fans at a comic book convention, Sam Clay liked to declare, apropos of his and Joe Kavalier’s greatest invention, that back when he was a boy, sealed and hog-tied inside the airtight vessel known as Brooklyn, New York, he had been haunted by dreams of Harry Houdini.”–The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon. I only ever seem to read this book when I’m going through some sort of personal crisis. Maybe because, being about the comic book superheroes of the 1940s and 1950s, it provides some truly epic escapism.

October: “The two young men–they were of the English public official class–sat in the perfectly appointed railway carriage.”–Parade’s End, by Ford Madox Ford. All the rest of the novel is in that precarious word “perfect”. Because when things are perfect, there’s nothing else to do to them except destroy them. This is a hell of a book, and very long, but the most authentic portrait of English society in the years leading up to, during and after WWI that I know of.

November: “It was the closest kingdom to the queen’s, as the crow flies, but not even the crows flew it.”–The Sleeper and the Spindle, by Neil Gaiman. Pretty sure I’ve already discussed this here, but my God is this a wonderful, beautiful book. Like all the best fairy tales, it is not really for children.

December: “The Elite Cafe was entered by a staircase from the foyer of a cinema.”–Lanarkby Alasdair Gray. I’m still working on this; it’s not easy either, and it’s very long, and the section I’m in at the moment is like a weird hybrid of James Joyce’s Ulysses and those whacked-out cartoons that Monty Python did between sketches, but it’s becoming progressively more interesting. It’s also supposedly the greatest Scottish novel of the last century, so there’s that.

Looking at them, I wouldn’t say these are a perfect representation of my reading in 2014–it ignores the swathe of eighteenth-century novels and criticism I covered, the nineteenth-century social history and literature, and most of the best contemporary novels I read, as well as the poetry and the ridiculous number of war books I ended up with in the latter half of the year. But it does provide a slice, and suggests that my reading is pretty much evenly balanced along gender lines, although I need to do better with writers of color. I’ll be posting again soon about the end of the 30-day reading challenge and my personal top books of 2014 (who doesn’t love a good end-of-year list?)