Young Writer of the Year Award Reading: The Lauras, by Sara Taylor

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Being a series of short reviews of the Young Writer of the Year Award shortlisted titles. Spoilers ahead.

Sara Taylor’s first book, The Shore, made me sob openly in a coffee shop. It’s a novel composed of interlinked stories, all set on Virginia’s Atlantic shore, and despite its great beauty, it is dark: the scene that made me cry is a rape scene, and it represents better than any I’ve ever read the way in which an assault is so often a betrayal of trust, that stomach-flipping slide from joyful banter with someone you consider a friend to the queasy realisation that that friend wishes to—is about to—hurt you. Her second book, The Lauras, is on the Sunday Times/PFD Young Writer of the Year Award shortlist, and on paper it’s nothing like The Shore, being a road trip novel and an exploration of mother/child relationships and a hymn to living unconventionally. But there is a genetic similarity: an interest in that same kind of darkness, a willingness to peer at the moments in which we realise ourselves to be in danger.

The title of the book is a bit of a red herring; yes, in theory, Ma and Alex are embarking on a two-year road trip across America to track down the five women—all named Laura—who played important roles in Ma’s life. But the focus of the book is not really on these women, or even necessarily on Ma’s past. Alex, who identifies as neither male nor female, is our narrator; we spend all of our time in their head, and what The Lauras is really about is the slow journey of a person towards comfort in their own skin.

(Rebecca posed the question, in an email thread between the shadow panelists, of how we see Alex’s sex or gender. I didn’t think very much about it until the point at which the book began to emphasise Alex’s non-binary identification, which doesn’t happen for some time. If I had to put money on it, I would say that Alex is probably biologically male. Obviously this isn’t the point of the book, but it makes the front cover design far more interesting: the person on the front is plainly coded as feminine—long hair, wearing a dress, seen from behind—which makes me think the whole design process was a piece of marketing bluff. The other option is that the design is a huge, ironic wink: there’s absolutely nothing in the text that suggests Alex is a girl, but because the book begins with a grown woman and a child fleeing a man in the middle of the night, our reading protocols are heavily weighted towards seeing them as such. One does not so readily picture adolescent boys escaping their fathers. It would probably be too much to hope that a commercial publisher’s design department would be so witty, though.)

Much of the book is told in flashback, as Ma tells Alex the parts of her story that are necessary for each new encounter. Most of these are interesting enough in themselves that the somewhat episodic nature of the tellings doesn’t drag: the story of Margaret-Mary, for instance, who is Ma’s friend and partner in crime at college until she meets and marries a devoutly Christian—and dour, humourless, repressive—man. Ma and Alex rescue Margaret-Mary’s eldest daughter, Anna-Maria, from the same fate, and Alex resents the way the two older women bond. It’s a clever way of incorporating another angle on what it means to be a good child, what it means to be a good parent, and whether, in the end, neither of those things is as important as developing your own sense of honesty and self-sufficiency.

There’s not a huge sense of urgency about The Lauras, so it helps that Taylor is capable of some really lovely turns of phrase: “We were caught on the thin, hungry edge of the morning,” she writes early on, “before the sun sliced itself open on the horizon and bled out across the sky.” There is also an emotional honesty to her treatment of potentially traumatic events that lifts them out of sordidness. Alex, trying to hitchhike back to the town where they’re staying after an ill-conceived jaunt to the next state over (so that they can send their dad a postcard without being traceable), is picked up by a classic Guy In A Car who ends up forcing them to give him a blowjob as payment for the lift. Taylor deals with it in the most astonishingly open and honest way: Alex is kind of grossed out, sure, but they’re also fourteen and desperate to get laid, and there’s a sense of grim determination in their efforts to get the guy off. When they think about it later, it is with disgust and fear, but never also without a faint tinge of excitement. That’s as true a reaction as any I can think of: reactions to assault are often complicated and inconsistent. Taylor’s willingness to explore that makes her an extremely brave writer, and she achieves the effect subtly.

Final verdict? Given that it’s the first of the shortlist that I finished, it’s impressive. Are there points at which the plot drags a little? Perhaps. But in a way, that is the purpose of the genre in which Taylor is working. A road trip novel, like a road trip, is never about where you’re ultimately heading, but about what you experience along the way.

The Young Writer of the Year Award winner is announced on 7 December. For more commentary, see the rest of the Shadow Panel: Rebecca, Clare, Dane and Annabel. The Lauras is published by Windmill, and is available in paperback.

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October Superlatives

Thirteen books this month; an appropriate number for the month of Halloween, although I don’t really keep the feast anymore. Certainly not when it falls on a Tuesday. It’s been a busy old month and the near future won’t slow down much; maybe by the middle of November I’ll have a Saturday or an evening where I have time to cook a meal, stay up late reading, lie in bed doing nothing in particular. (Write a few book reviews?)

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party to which I was late: The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, the novel that made John Le Carré’s name. The most astonishing thing about it is its absolute, even-handed refusal to permit heroism to any of its characters. Everyone—the British, the East Germans, our protagonist, his boss—is weak, petty, self-serving, or cold. Sometimes all at once. It’s a devastating book, with a devastating ending: no one wins.

for Wodehouse fans: Max Beerbohm’s frothy Edwardian novel Zuleika Dobson, whose titular heroine visits her grandfather’s Oxford college and wreaks havoc amongst the undergraduates, who all end up committing suicide en masse in her honour. To be perfectly honest, it’s a slightly weird read, because Beerbohm never seems totally sure of how serious he wants to be; there are some moments between Zuleika and her most devoted lover, the Duke of Dorset, which I found quite moving, and yet the whole point of the book is this moment of comically extreme violence, which we’re apparently not meant to take more seriously than your average Tom and Jerry maiming. Still bloody funny, though.

most thought-provoking: American War by Omar El Akkad, a new novel set in the 2070s, after a ban on fossil fuel usage has provoked a Second American Civil War. Our protagonist, Sarat, is a young displaced girl from the South, and the novel charts the course of her radicalisation and eventual deployment as a terrorist. A lot of El Akkad’s extrapolations about the future are surprising: he totally ignores issues of race, for example, which I can’t see completely disappearing in fifty years unless something socioculturally cataclysmic happens before the start of the book, and none of his characters make any reference to such an event. And his Southerners don’t feel like Southerners to me: first of all, race is always a major if unspoken factor in the South, and secondly, there is a semi-feral attachment to land and land’s history there that I don’t see in his characters. But what American War did was force me to reevaluate how children are radicalised, simply by making me watch it happen in a landscape I was familiar with and to people whose cultural referents are roughly my own, and that’s a hell of an important thing.

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most a victim of its time: I actually quite enjoyed most of The Black Cloud, a hard sf novel from 1957. It’s a fascinating insight into the status of science fiction at the time—one of its major selling points is that it’s written “by a scientist”, and Hoyle clearly cares a thousand times less about characterisation and the social implications of global natural disaster than he does about explaining to us exactly what kind of natural disaster we’ll get, and why. (There are equations.) But his protagonist (who, intriguingly, holds the same post at Cambridge University that Hoyle did) is not to be borne: he’s a patronising, info-dumping egotist with a Messiah complex who doesn’t understand a) why it’s not okay to kidnap a beautiful young pianist and hold her hostage in your Science Lair so that you can have some culture and eye candy whilst saving the world, and b) why your government might be completely justified in thinking you’re a megalomaniacal world-dictator-in-waiting, given that YOU HAVE A FUCKING SCIENCE LAIR. And the less said about attitudes towards women, the better. (They literally make the tea, I cannot.) File under enjoyable but deeply flawed.

most jaw-droppingly transcendent of its genre: Dodgers, a crime novel by Bill Beverly that won the CWA’s Debut Dagger Award. My God, this book. It’s a crime novel in the sense that Crime and Punishment is. East is fifteen years old. He used to supervise lookouts at a crack house in LA, running a yard full of boys ready to sound the alarm at a moment’s notice, but his house gets busted. He’s given a last chance to prove himself, a drive with three other boys from California to Wisconsin to assassinate a judge. Things get complicated. Beverly nails interpersonal dynamics, the Morse code of young men communicating with few words, and the sense of responsibility and despair that East feels for his younger brother Ty, who’s already much better at this life than he is. And he nails atmosphere, most particularly the atmosphere of the road trip: the jittery smeared-neon eye-gritting blur of America, the cold blue light in the front of a gas station just before sunup. It’s an astonishing book; it left me with a hole inside.

most humane: Autumn, by Ali Smith, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and might easily have won it. It’s rather difficult to summarise this book, which is presumably why most of the writing I’ve seen about it online hasn’t tried. Effectively, there are two main characters: Daniel Gluck, now an old man, and Elisabeth Demand, once a precocious schoolchild who was his neighbour, now teaching art history. Woven in between their stories are the stories of Pauline Boty, one of Britain’s few female Pop Artists (in fact, identifying her as such is the source of an argument between Elisabeth and her initial postgraduate supervisor), and of Christine Keeling, the model involved in the Profumo Affair of the 1960s (Britain’s Watergate, in that you can argue for its being the modern moment when the public stopped trusting politicians). Smith is, I am convinced, a genius; she thinks on the very highest level, then tells her stories as though she is sitting cross-legged on a sofa.

most utterly predictable reread: The Likeness, by Tana French. It makes me weep every time, that last page. You know how much I like Tana French. Moving on.

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most disorienting: The Rules of Attraction, by Bret Easton Ellis. Unusually, this was a book someone recommended to me (it doesn’t happen often); my childhood best friend’s partner heard about the book I’m writing and told me I should read this. There’s a rough similarity—college students, a love triangle, people who refuse to deal with their sexualities—but the odd thing about Ellis’s book was that I couldn’t find the heart of it, I couldn’t sense where my attention and investment was meant to be directed. It’s written in a lot of short, choppy sections, from the perspectives of about half a dozen different people; you often get wildly varying versions of the same situation. The experience of reading it is a lot like wandering through a party in a darkened flat that you’ve never been to before, six glasses of wine down, looking for your friends, your shoes, your coat, and/or somewhere to throw up: everything goes past at the wrong speed, seems to be in the wrong place, keeps happening for too long, and you really want to just lie down. Not that drugs and sex aren’t valid subjects for fiction, it’s just…awfully hard to know what Ellis was getting at with this one. (Patrick Bateman makes an appearance, though; Sean, one of the main characters here, is his younger brother.)

most intriguing opening: I read a graphic novel this month, volume 1 of Y: the Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan of Saga fame and drawn by Pia Guerra. The premise is that a virus has killed all men and male animals – everything with a Y chromosome – simultaneously, except for one man (Yorick) and his pet monkey Ampersand. Various groups want them, for experiments or vengeance or other things, and all Yorick wants is to find his girlfriend Beth, who was in Australia when global communications broke down. Yorick’s an infuriating character, full of a young man’s arrogance, and I’m not sure that Vaughan always does a totally convincing job of standing outside of that character inviting us to assess it, as opposed to appearing to endorse it. Still, there are some great scenes, including one where the wives of now-dead Republican congressmen storm Capitol Hill, armed, demanding their husbands’ seats.

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most balls-to-the-wall bonkers: This, mind you, is a good thing. The honour goes to China Miéville’s novel Kraken, which is universally considered to be not one of his best, and I can kind of see why, since it tastes very similar to Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and indeed to Miéville’s own early works like UnLun Dun and King Rat. However, it has still got the theft of a giant squid, a section of the Metropolitan Police that deals entirely with cult activity, a mysterious society of Londonmancers, a strike by the Union of Familiars, and just in general quite a lot of good mad stuff. I love the idea that the places of great inherent power in this city aren’t always where you think they might be (though of course there’s plenty of it round the London Stone); that you could also find it round back of a chippy on the Edgware Road, or in a lock-up in Hoxton.

most unnerving to my boss: E. Gabriella Coleman’s seminal book, Coding Freedom: the Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking. I picked it up because of my interest in the intellectual struggles around copyright and freedom of information, and because in the spring I read an incredible biography of Aaron Swartz, who helped to develop Reddit and Creative Commons before being arraigned by the FBI for mass-downloading a bunch of JSTOR articles. Coleman’s focus is actually much less on the law and much more on the anthropological structures of hacker culture, but as these have a lot to do with shared, deeply internalised ethics, there’s enough overlap for it to be fascinating too.

most moving: Another road trip novel, this one by Sara Taylor, who wrote The Shore. Her second novel, The Lauras, follows a mother and child (we never know what sex Alex is, or what gender, and Alex themself is pretty clear: they don’t feel they fit into either box) as they drive across America. It’s sort of an escape from Alex’s father, but he’s not exactly a villain, just a mediocre guy; it’s more to do with Ma’s need to visit pieces of her past. Taylor evokes rootlessness well, and she’s tenderly open-minded on the complexities of maternal love, and the myriad ways in which it’s possible to make or have a family. Beautiful writing, too. (review)

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most gonzo: Is that actually the right word? I don’t know. It feels like it, for Julianne Pachico’s short story collection The Lucky Ones. They’re interlinked, so that characters who appear peripherally in one story become the centre of another. Set in Colombia, mostly during the drug wars of the early 1990s, they circle around a group of schoolgirl friends and frenemies – Stephanie, Betsy, La Flaca, Mariela – with other stories from the point of view of a kidnapped teacher, a teenage soon-to-be-paramilitary recruit, and (really) a bunch of pet rabbits hooked on coca leaves. It’s an absolute knockout.

up next: The last two books in October were read as part of the Young Writer of the Year Shadow Panel, which I’m delighted to be on this year. I’m now reading The End of the Day by Claire North, a novel about the Harbinger of Death, who turns out to be a nice, kind of schlubby guy called Charlie. It’s an odd mix, the witty apocalypticism of Good Omens mingled with a more serious humanitarian flavour. I think I like it.

Dunbar, by Edward St Aubyn

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Back at the energy level where full reviews are hard but I still want to write about what I’m reading, I’ve decided to try—for probably the seventeenth time—just writing shorter ones. Dunbar is the most recent installment in Hogarth’s Shakespeare update project; this time, Edward St Aubyn takes on the monumental King Lear. Of the aging king, he makes a self-made media mogul, Henry Dunbar, who has signed over most of his assets and all of the real decision-making powers to his daughters Megan and Abby. They, in turn, have colluded with the crooked Doctor Bob to medicate Dunbar to the point of paranoid insanity, and after an unfortunate incident on Hampstead Heath, he’s been relegated to a nursing home in the Lake District. Escaping with his roommate, the alcoholic ex-comedian Peter Walker (who bears a personality resemblance to Tommy Cooper), Dunbar must brave a stormy night in the fells, and the good daughter Florence must find him before it’s too late.

Dunbar, like most of the Hogarth series, fails, and like the others, it fails for several reasons. Most particularly, it fails because it entirely lacks a moral component, and—relatedly—any sense of universality. Shakespeare’s Lear is a King, of course, so hardly an Everyman, but the actors who play him have the opportunity to invest him with the most human of fears: “let me not be mad”. Dunbar says this too, but St Aubyn doesn’t give him the chance to be an Everyman; instead he’s an aggressive and deeply unpleasant businessman who’s suffered a drug-induced psychotic break. Where is the tragedy in this? Where is the audience’s self-identification with the fallen man, the terror and the catharsis? Nothing in Dunbar’s state of mental collapse is inherent to him; it is all the result of Doctor Bob’s prescriptions and his daughters’ machinations. By contrast, Lear’s fall comes about precisely and only because he is who he is. A different man would not have made the decisions he makes. That’s the heart of tragedy—the fatalism of it—and St Aubyn misses it entirely. Glimpses of Dunbar’s childhood—a cold and distant mother, a stint in provincial Winnipeg—might have made it possible for a reader to identify the events and experiences that have warped Dunbar from the start, but St Aubyn never does more than glance at them. (The mother, clearly, is meant to explain some of the Lear story’s misogyny).

Additionally, there are technical issues. The characterisation is both tissue-thin and daft. Abby and Megan are psychotic vamps without a shred of psychological realism between them; it’s totally possible to write believably empty characters motivated only by sex and violence, cf. Patrick Bateman, but these women are cartoonish nymphomaniacs, first presented having sex that terminates with the biting off of a man’s nipple. Doctor Bob (that very man) is a helpless, hand-wringing fool without any clear motivations or passions. (He’s also an instance of bad naming; quite apart from the fact that his name is inexplicably bland, anyone who’s ever seen The Simpsons will think of Sideshow Bob whenever the good doctor is mentioned.) Florence, as is often the case with Cordelia, is sweetly dull. Mark, the Albany analogue, could have been interesting given more time and attention—Albany’s horror as he realises what his wife has done is one of the more moving and distressing elements of Lear, like Emilia standing up to Iago at the end of Othello—but in this treatment, he comes across simply as a pawn, doing what he does because that’s what happens in the play. St Aubyn’s much-vaunted prose style, meanwhile, is nowhere in evidence. I’ve read one of the Melrose novels, Never Mind, and am willing to accept that he could write a good sentence in 1992. But this is 2017, and the sentences in Dunbar are, at best, fine. Absolutely none of them stands out. Taken together, they comprise a thoroughly medium-roast reading experience.

I’m left wondering, as always, whether this is an inherent problem of form; whether these stories are so plainly play-shaped that making them into novels is doomed; or whether there is something about consciously attempting to adapt Shakespeare that makes even revered writers choke; or whether (shall we whisper it?) these writers have been ill-chosen, whether they have been selected on the basis of name recognition or other dubious merits, and whether the Hogarth committee ought to have looked further afield for their project. It is clearly not impossible to write an excellent novel that brings the concerns of King Lear into the present day: Jane Smiley did so years ago, with A Thousand Acres, and Preti Taneja has just done the same thing in We That Are Young. But maybe we ought to stop expecting such a thing from established literary names. There have been too many disappointments already.

Dunbar was published in the UK on 5 October, 2017, by Hogarth Press.

September Superlatives

Quite a lot going on in September, all of it good—more writing, more walking, more singing, more seeing dear friends whom I don’t see often enough. Work is very busy, and I have two new colleagues to help me in the bookshop, and I have just started working on our bespoke subscription service, with new clients of my own. Not many reviews this month, but 17 books read, and a sense that, going into winter, I may just preserve my sanity. An unexpected gift, that: I don’t fare well in the dark season.

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most uneven: Mark Twain’s travelogue Roughing It, which is partly set in Nevada, Utah and California Territories (where he originally went to accompany his brother, who was appointed to a government position in Nevada), and partly in Hawaii. Twain is amusing as ever (if a little distressingly casual) on Mormon society and the surreal bubble of Western gold prospecting, but he’s also breathtakingly racist about Chinese labourers in California Territory, and things don’t improve when he meets native Hawaiians. Worth reading, but hardly essential.

most incendiary: Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie, longlisted for the Booker Prize, which retells Sophocles’s Antigone with a British Muslim family front and center. Dutiful daughter Isma, bold and beautiful Aneeka, and radicalised, immature Parvaiz play out a story that feels inevitable, but ought to be read by everyone interested in current debates about the West’s role in creating a new generation of terrorists. (review)

best fun: K.J. Whittaker’s False Lights, the tagline of which is the intriguing “What if Napoleon had won the Battle of Waterloo?” Featuring Cornish separatist rebels, Napoleon’s brother Jerome on the English throne, and a mixed-race heroine (not to mention another particularly wonderful depiction of a working-class woman whose capacity for military strategy wins her the Duke of Wellington’s respect), it’s like a glorious mashup of Frenchman’s Creek and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (but without the magic.)

most stylish: My Cat Yugoslavia, the debut novel from Pajtim Statovci. Examining the psychic fallout from the war in Kosovo through the eyes of Bekim, a Kosovan Muslim resettled in Finland as a child, it’s an elegant, if sometimes slightly self-conscious, treatment of the lingering traumas of conflict. (review)

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best atmosphere: That of immediately post-war London in Patrick McGrath’s The Wardrobe Mistress. It’s set in the notoriously cold winter of 1947, and follows Joan Grice, who runs the wardrobe department at the Beaumont Theatre, as she mourns the death of her famous actor husband, known to all as Gricey. The revelation that Gricey had a secret life—one that was almost diametrically opposed to his domestic life with her—drives Joan to the brink of madness. McGrath writes with beautiful restraint and finely calculated tension; it’s a masterpiece.

sheerest delight (and most inspirational protagonist): Like A Mule Bringing Ice Cream To the Sun, by Sarah Ladipo Manyika. This is not exactly news to anyone who reads Naomi’s blog, but good Lord is this novella ever charming, cheering, and a bit of a kick up the ass. Dr. Morayo da Silva, Manyika’s protagonist, is in her eighties and still lively, sharp, and sexy. (A young chef, seeing her dancing, gets a little hot under the collar, despite knowing she’s his grandmother’s age.) Manyika doesn’t ignore the painful elements of aging, but she has also written the only elderly female protagonist I’ve ever read whom I wouldn’t actually mind becoming. What a gem.

most addictive: Munich, Robert Harris’s new book. I had never read a single Harris book until July, when I finally bought the paperback of Conclave because I was going to be on a train and what if I happened to finish the book I already had in my bag OH NOES. It turned out to be great, and Munich is even better. While sticking to the historical record of what happened in 1938 when Chamberlain and Hitler met and signed the Munich Agreement, Harris also gives us the perspective of two men—one in the British government, one in the German—who try to persuade Chamberlain of the real danger. Harris succeeds as no other novelist has in conveying Britain’s desperation not to start another war, and somehow, knowing from the start how it will end doesn’t diminish the tension.

best surprise: This year’s Booker Prize dark horse, Elmet, by Fiona Mozley. Initially this seemed rather Cormac McCarthy Does Yorkshire, but in the end it’s much more than that: a siren song of violence and independence and rage. There are shades of Winter’s Bone and My Absolute Darling and the queasy individualism of Paul Kingsnorth’s novels in the story of bare-knuckle fighter John and his children, gentle Daniel and hard-as-nails Cathy. It’ll be interesting to see what Mozley does next.

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biggest disappointment: Dunbar, Edward St. Aubyn’s reimagining of King Lear for Hogarth’s Shakespeare project. In this case, the failing is partly that of the utterly mediocre prose, but mostly due to a lack of moral scope: Dunbar isn’t a tragic figure because he isn’t an Everyman. (Neither is a king, you might say, to which I would reply that Lear is humanised through his madness, and also—crucially—through subtle choices made by every actor who plays him. Dunbar, meanwhile, is simply an aggressive and deeply unpleasant media mogul who’s suffered a drug-induced psychotic break: a bizarre choice on St Aubyn’s part that utterly removes his protagonist from our sympathy.) I may write a full review of this, if my brain ever stops feeling like a wrung-out dishtowel every evening after work.

best short story collection: And only short story collection, but it’s difficult to phrase what I want to say about 2084, edited by George Sandison, which is that it’s an almost flawless assembly of stories, all explicitly set in the eponymous year as part of a project conceived as a response to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. From the ultimate assimilationist technique among refugees to haute couture-induced lunacy, from drowning cities to a bonkers future youth dialect that draws on Doge memes (“Such approach! Very arriving!”), these stories are never less than fully committed to their visions of the future, and the writing is never less than sterling. It’s a phenomenal achievement.

most thought-provoking: The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor, an Afrofuturist novel(-la?) about genetically modified speciMen (the book’s word). I liked it okay, but not more than that, and the reason that’s thought-provoking is because my lukewarm response had a lot to do with the rhythms of the prose. Okorafor’s sentences are shaped in a way that clearly owes much to African and oral storytelling beats, and I find that hard to deal with in written work. The fact that The Book of Phoenix has revealed this prejudice means, of course, that it’s done its job.

most LUSH: John Banville’s new novel and sort-of sequel to The Portrait of a Lady, Mrs. Osmond. It follows Isabel Osmond, née Archer, as she tries to free herself from the horrendous, controlling marriage to which Henry James condemns her. As a technical achievement it’s stunning; attempts to mimic late-C19 prose often end badly, reading as parody or pastiche, but Banville’s control and intelligence means that he manages precisely to ventriloquise a Jamesian style (albeit a slightly less thicket-y one). I’ve never seen anything like it.

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most quietly devastating: The Noise of Time, Julian Barnes’s fictionalisation of the life of Dmitri Shostakovich. It would read well in conjunction with Do Not Say We Have Nothing; Barnes is more interested in his ideas than his plot, whereas Madeleine Thien manages to integrate the two, but Barnes has equally interesting things to say about how artists (specifically musicians) survive under tyranny, and the intellectual compromises that survival requires.

most surreal: I’ll Sell You a Dog, by Juan Pablo Villalobos. Set in Mexico City and narrated by foul-mouthed, cheekily lecherous pensioner Teo, it covers mid-century Mexican art, Marxism, young love, disappointment, intellectual pretension (embodied by his apartment complex’s reading group, who pay a young boy to ferry their copies of Proust around in wheelbarrows), and tacos. I read it in a day and walked around feeling a bit cross-eyed for a while afterwards.

warm bath book: Every month must have one, apparently. It’s often a reread. This month there were two: one was Lirael by Garth Nix, which was about 99p on the Kindle store, so I bought it and read it on my phone. I’ve loved Nix’s Old Kingdom series from childhood, and I especially love Lirael because, for the book’s first half, its painfully shy heroine works in an enormous magical library. Swoon.

The other was Alanna: the Song of the Lioness, which is part of the new Puffin Originals series of “classic” YA. It’s actually the first two books in Tamora Pierce’s Alanna quartet, bundled together. The story of a girl who wants to be a knight in the fantasy realm of Tortall, and disguises herself as a boy for eight years to do it, is also a childhood favourite. As an adult, it’s easier to see where Pierce relies on heroic exceptionalism and a wide-eyed “who, me?” attitude in her heroine, but they’re still great stories.

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most defiant of genre convention: Jane Harris’s third book, Sugar Money, which is out this week, tells the story of two Martiniquais brothers, slaves to the French priests who run the island’s hospital. They are charged with returning to Grenada and “stealing back” the forty-two slaves left there when the French were defeated by the English several years ago. Harris doesn’t saturate readers with baroque depictions of violence, as, say, Marlon James or Colson Whitehead do (though there is some); her time period is about a hundred years earlier, and what she conveys best is the way that coming to adulthood, as a slave, means a psychological reckoning with your own powerlessness.

up next: In general life, October holds a trip to Liverpool to sing at the cathedral there, a trip to Canterbury for my cousin’s hen weekend, and my housemate’s book launch. (He’s an academic and has just done a book on Bloomsbury’s cultural effect on the rest of London. Buy it!) In reading, I’m about to finish The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, and I’ve got a million proofs from work, and I went book shopping over the weekend because I guess I’m some kind of masochist, and…you know, I’m definitely set.

My Cat Yugoslavia, by Pajtim Statovci

We should come up with another word for evil, and that name should be laziness.

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Pajtim Statovci’s debut novel, like a lot of debut novels, has some parallels with the writer’s own life: it focuses on a young gay man living in Finland named Bekim, whose family moved from Kosovo during that country’s political unrest in the late 1980s. Statovci, too, was born in Kosovo and now lives in Finland. Bekim’s sense of displacement and awareness of the hatred directed at him from native-born Finns is surely based on personal experience—though the rest of the novel, in which Bekim, friendless and living alone, buys a pet snake and shacks up with a large and abusive talking cat, is surely not. My Cat Yugoslavia is a delicate, highly constructed book, full of symbolism and surrealism, and as such the story can feel difficult to connect with. But at its most effective, it combines the playful weirdness of Murakami with the satirical wit of Bulgakov, and tops it off with a style and an aesthetic that’s reminiscent of Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs To You. It is, in short, not a book for which I am the ideal reader, but it is an objectively impressive achievement.

We first meet Bekim as he is arranging a casual hookup through Grindr or an equivalent (the book opens with a forum message from username blackhetero-helsinki). The sex goes well, but he asks the man to leave directly afterwards, and from glimpses we get of his life as a student, it’s obvious that he is deeply lonely. When he buys a boa constrictor from a pet shop—despite being terrified of snakes—he is kind to it, and Statovci describes his first interactions with the snake with a tenderness that nearly brought me to tears. Yet there’s also an edge of hazard to the whole transaction; the snake is large and permitted to roam freely about the flat, since it hates its terrarium, and when it gathers enough confidence to approach Bekim, it ends up twined around his chest and arms, lying heavily in his lap. (It’s a constrictor, remember.)

The book thus starts by inducing a sense of unease, which is only compounded when Bekim meets a handsome talking cat in a bar. My Cat Yugoslavia is the sort of book in which readers are not expected to be remotely surprised at a character’s commencing a romantic relationship with a cat, or to undermine the conceit by asking prosaic questions like how do they have sex? The point is not that the cat is a cat; rather, he represents an abusive authority to which Bekim becomes enslaved. The title of the book suggests that we should be thinking about the cat allegorically, though the terms of the allegory are not clear-cut: is the cat representative of the country that Bekim’s family left behind? Is he, rather, an embodiment of the abusive relationship of Bekim’s parents? His homophobic remarks and personal attacks echo the racist bullying that Bekim recalls suffering in school from Finnish children; perhaps the cat is a reminder of the legacy both of political turmoil and of violence within the family.

Bekim’s mother Emine is the second point-of-view character, and her chapters are more immediately engaging than her son’s. She begins to narrate her life for us at the age of sixteen, when she happens to accept a ride in a car from an older man who eventually asks her parents for her hand in marriage. Knowing nothing about him, her parents accept, and she becomes the wife of Bajram, who showers her with gold and jewels, then has entirely inconsiderate sex with her on their wedding night and becomes a predictably appalling husband. (Statovci is careful to make him, not ogre-ish, but aggressively, exhaustingly entitled; Emine’s greatest grudge against her husband is that while she cooks, cleans, waits until he’s finished his meal before beginning her own, bears him several children, and brings them all up with the strictest discipline, he has never once said the words “thank you” to her.) Where Bekim needs to become trusting—to fall in love—in order to work through the pain of his past, Emine needs exactly the opposite: her victory comes on the morning when she packs a small bag and leaves Bajram without explanation or excuse. Living alone, befriending a cashier at the local grocery store who is widowed (and pretending that she too has lost her husband to an untimely death), she begins to be more of a person than she has ever been.

I have an occasional problem with novels in translation, especially novels that rely for their effect upon a whimsical quality in the prose. Statovci’s book was first written in Finnish and translated into English for Pushkin Press by David Hackston; I can’t know whether the problem I had with My Cat Yugoslavia is down to the original or to the translation. Ordinarily it’s an excess of tweeness that gets me; in this book it’s a kind of randomised specificity. The most indicative passage is when Bekim describes driving past billboards in Prishtina: red, orange, yellow and blue ones. Why? Why do we have to know what colours they are? Why would you write (and I’m not quoting directly here because the book isn’t with me, but this is the structure of the sentence) “I drove past red, orange, yellow and blue billboards”? It’s outrageously dull. You can’t even say that it’s like writing a shopping list, because at least a shopping list tells you something (a person shopping for artichokes, preserved lemon, salmon and kale is not the same person as the one buying lightbulbs, sanitary pads, orange juice and chocolate biscuits, or at least not on the same day.) It’s not as though Bekim is a Curious Incident-type savant, either; he doesn’t go around telling us the colours and numbers of everything he sees, just occasionally gives us this oddly pointless level of detail.

That problem is particular to me, though, and it may not have any bearing on your reading of the novel at all. I have to confess that My Cat Yugoslavia left me feeling a tiny bit empty: there’s a happy ending, which is nice, and the snake meets a fate that will devastate you if you’ve anthropomorphised it as much as I did, but the way that the book signposts its own symbolic nature makes it hard to take the whole thing very personally. It is, however, a fresh and subtle way of looking at the Balkan conflict of the 1990s, and I prefer Statovci’s approach to that of, e.g., Sara Nović in Girl At War. His focus on the lives of refugees after they’ve escaped the immediate danger is an important reminder to a Western world currently struggling with the consequences of global conflict: for a migrant, the past is never dead.

Many thanks to Tabitha Pelly at Pushkin Press for the review copy. My Cat Yugoslavia was published in the UK on 7 September.

Home Fire, by Kamila Shamsie

A man needed fire in his veins to burn through the world

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caution: some spoilers ahead

I didn’t think I was going to write a full-length review of this, but two things have changed my mind. One is this post from Victoria Best at Tales From the Reading Room, which poses the question “what kind of critic are you?” and, just as importantly, “what kind of criticism is most helpful to you?” while examining Deborah Levy’s symbol-heavy novel Hot Milk from both a critical academic perspective and a more general reader’s one. The second is Victoria Hoyle’s Booktube review of three Booker-longlisted novels, including Home Fire, where she elegantly dissects her contradictory reactions to Shamsie’s book: frustrated by having been emotionally manipulated, let down by characters that feel stereotypical, but – despite all that – effectively moved. My initial reaction to Home Fire was more positive than hers, but after watching her video, I began to wonder about the extent to which I’d been reading as a critic versus as a general reader, and why I had – at least initially – felt no ambivalence about Shamsie’s admittedly opinionated storytelling.

Home Fire is a retelling of Sophocles’s Antigone, but I read it without brushing up on the older story, and can confirm that it didn’t noticeably hamper my experience to read it simply as a hyper-contemporary literary political novel. Shamsie uses five point-of-view characters: Isma, the daughter of a jihadi who died on the way to Guantanamo, who has been supporting her younger siblings for years and is now—freed by their accession to adulthood—starting a PhD program in the States; Aneeka, her passionate and beautiful younger sister; Parvaiz, Aneeka’s fraternal twin, desperate for direction about how to be a man; Karamat Lone, a Home Secretary of Pakistani origin whose hard-line stance on Muslims and immigration has been at the centre of much controversy; and Karamat’s son Eamonn, born into privilege, who becomes Aneeka’s lover. As the story progresses, each character gives us their own perspective on the issues of freedom, citizenship, love and duty that the story circles.

Much of the negative commentary I’ve seen about Home Fire has focused on Shamsie’s construction of these characters: they’ve most often been called “one-dimensional”, “stereotypical” or “flat”. I would contend that this is a reductive way of reading, not a quality inherent to the characters. Take Aneeka, for instance: a devout nineteen-year-old Muslim who prays at dawn, has extra-marital sex, and makes her hijab the last thing her lover is allowed to take off. Take Isma: both sister and mother to her siblings, the proverbial “strong woman”, yet too afraid, when she finally launches into the world, to make the first move towards a man who attracts her. These are unusual women, unusual heroines, especially of contemporary literature; they are serious and convicted. Their faith is significant to them, and therefore must be taken seriously by the reader. Their wounds are not merely personal; they have inherited distrust and division, their father’s death as a terrorist in captivity marking them out permanently to the governments of the West as Persons Of Interest. The Pasha siblings are slightly cold fish, but that’s the point: when you live under the weight of suspicion from everyone around you, for things you didn’t even do, that happens. (Aneeka speaks, sarcastically, of the dangers of Googling While Muslim.) It is not, I think, the sort of dynamic we are accustomed to. We tend to want our heroines feisty—or failing that, broken, but, you know, picturesquely. (Whitely. Middle class-ly.)

I’ve long been suspicious that people who find novels “too political” are people who don’t need to think about politics all the time. Lots of us would love not to have to politicise everything, but our lives and opinions are valued at a lower price, and so everything is political; when you struggle to thrive in a society that mistrusts, scorns, or blames you, life itself is a political act. I’m white and well-educated, but I’m also female and disabled. There are elements of daily living that are a constant uphill struggle for me: balancing meals and a social life with medication and self-care. Convincing a GP to change my prescriptions when things aren’t working. Getting a pharmacist to re-dispense that prescription when it hasn’t come through for seventy-two hours and I no longer have enough insulin to last through the night. I don’t talk to anyone about these things—partly because they are quotidian for me, and partly because no one else I know will really have had that experience.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that Home Fire’s “political” nature is necessary, inherent even, to telling a story about a Muslim family in contemporary Britain. Of course not every Muslim family has a brother who runs away to join IS, or a father who died on the way from Bagram to Guantanamo. But the constant surveillance of the state, particularly the eyes that are fixed upon Muslim children lest they show the slightest sign of the dreaded radicalisation—that is a reality for so many immigrants to this country, and it’s foolish to be surprised by how abundantly clear Shamsie makes that fact. Googling While Muslim is the least of it. Visas can be refused, careers cut short, degrees torpedoed. When Parvaiz is a little boy, the Pashas are visited by a man from the security services who takes from Parvaiz’s bedroom the only thing he has from his father: a photograph album containing pictures of Adil Pasha toting guns in Bosnia, Chechnya, Afghanistan, and inscribed When you’re older, son. After the story’s first tragedy, this same security officer is interviewed on television: he describes that visit and that album, and suggests it’s a shame that Child Protection Services weren’t involved immediately. Nowhere do we see that officer—or the country he works for—offer Parvaiz, and his sisters and mother, anything substantial—no financial assistance, no mentoring, no help obtaining apprenticeships or scholarships—in return for what is taken from them in dignity and in trust.

So much for the emotional potency of Home Fire, which even its detractors have admitted is one of its strengths; what of its weaknesses? Shamsie’s prose is capable, but often slides into melodrama. Especially in dialogue and at the ends of chapters, she has a tendency to seek significance and profundity for every plot point. In fact, the whole book skirts melodrama almost as a matter of course. (It’s based on a Greek tragedy; how could it not?) Some credibility is lost with Aneeka’s mad vigil over Parvaiz’s body in the park, with Eamonn’s wild flight to find her there, and with the last two pages in their entirety. (Some of this is down to the fact that Aneeka and Eamonn are, at least to me, not especially credible lovers. Eamonn’s and Isma’s interactions, showcased by the misdirection at the beginning of the book, are much more interesting.) Karamat Lone, also, is a little too purely villainous to be convincing, despite Shamsie loading him with a backstory that at least makes sense of his stubborn championing of assimilation. (That said, the shenanigans that Theresa May pulled when Home Secretary, particularly towards LGBTQ asylum-seekers, are almost enough to make Lone look eminently reasonable and pleasant.)

For all that, I still think it’s an incredibly important book, and the fact that it’s set so firmly in the present day—engaging so firmly with present-day concerns—doesn’t diminish it, but instead makes it essential reading. Shamsie is presenting a world here that many of her readers will never be forced to engage with or have to navigate; we can choose to read this story or to put it aside. It is a story fraught with fear and tension and the possibility of betraying someone no matter what you do, and the fact that it is being billed as a retelling of an ancient Greek tale suggests to me that its significance will not fade as its cultural referents do. It does deserve to be on the Man Booker Prize longlist; it also deserves to be widely read.

August Superlatives

Plainly, another terrible month for reviewing. I’m sure I will get back on the horse eventually. Writing reviews seems to take so much mental energy, though, and so much of my stock of that is being expended on other things right now. I didn’t read a whole lot of books, either—at least, not a whole lot for me—August’s total being eleven. Still, I had a holiday and I saw my folks and some dear friends, and that’s a pretty good trade.

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easiest to analyse: Fiona Melrose’s second novel, Johannesburg, which I did actually manage to review. A reassessment of Mrs. Dalloway set in contemporary South Africa, it neatly captures the feeling of Woolf’s original while also intelligently updating several key aspects. A couple of unnecessary elements weren’t enough to mar the thing. (review)

weirdest: Bogmail, by Patrick McGinley, an Irish Gothic novel about murder and blackmail and mushrooms that came out in the early ’90s and is being reprinted. This was probably a wrong-book-wrong-reader problem; it just didn’t land with me, the blackness of the humour seemed jarring instead of cheeky, and I had a hard time differentiating, or indeed giving a damn about, any of the characters.

best romp: Frenchman’s Creek, Daphne Du Maurier’s novel of forbidden pirate love in seventeenth-century Cornwall. It’s romantic and silly, somewhat reminiscent of The Princess Bride, but quite charming in its own way. Dona St Columb is a marvelous heroine, and her goofy idiot husband Harry a well-drawn aristocrat, benign but totally entitled.

most nearly: Sarah Franklin’s WWII saga, Shelter, which follows a member of the Women’s Timber Corps and her growing friendship with an Italian prisoner of war. On a thematic level, Shelter is brave and bold, dealing with pre-marital sex, toxic masculinity, and a woman who isn’t a natural mother; on the more basic level of sentence and character, it’s a little overblown and relies too heavily on cliché. Fun, though. (review)

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most HELL YEAH: This year’s airplane reading, The Resurrection of Joan Ashby, by Cherise Wolas. A 500+-page tome exploring the life of a promising young writer who has children and is thwarted from writing for about the next twenty-five years, it is all about ambition, expectations, art, family, and how these things interact and compete with each other. It’s brutally honest and also incredibly well written. The final hundred-odd pages, set in Dharamshala, didn’t quite convince me (can we stop sending Western women East to find their True Purpose, plz?), but they too were faultlessly composed. This is out in September and I highly recommend it.

most good clean fun: John Grisham’s new novel, Camino Island. It opens with the theft of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s original manuscripts of Gatsby and others from the Princeton University library, and a lot of it is set in the world of rare books and antiques dealers. It’s the first Grisham I’ve ever read; I conclude that he can’t write a three-dimensional character to save his life, but he can show you a good time. Worth it.

most nostalgic: Guess what I reached for when I was at home? That is correct: Tolkien. He soothes me; he’s what I read when I was ten or eleven and hungry for something meaningful and more important than real life seemed. The Two Towers will always be my favourite of the books, and of the films: the battle of Helm’s Deep is simply superb, though when you read it you realise how much Jackson compressed and altered in the film version. (Whisper it: his pacing is actually a lot better than Tolkien’s.) The Return of the King, meanwhile, is dramatically satisfying and proper scary, although again, the pacing is off. Still, I’m glad I went back to the books. They take themselves so seriously, and it feels like there’s a lesson in that somewhere.

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breeziest: The Case of the Team Spirit, a collection of the strips that comprise John Allison’s first Bad Machinery story. Mystery-solving teens! Implausibly witty dialogue! Hilarious Yorkshire accents! A wall-eyed Russian lady! A character named Mad Terry! You gotta love it.

most parent-shocking: Saga, vol. 3, a continuation of Brian K. Vaughan’s intergalactic love story. This time, Marko and Alana are hiding out with their illegal baby daughter Hazel and Marko’s irascible, recently widowed mother, at the home of romance novelist D. Oswald Heist. Things get weirder from there: bounty hunters are still on their trail, not to mention Marko’s ex Gwendolyn, who is severely pissed off. There’s enough explicit sex and violence in this one that my dad, leaning over my shoulder to look at one particularly unfortunate spread, recoiled. That’ll learn ‘im.

best rediscovery: White Teeth, by Zadie Smith, which I read years ago but had sort of forgotten about until my brother got me a signed and personalised copy (best.brother.ever.) and gave it to me on holiday. It is a bloody amazing book, so full of character and incident, knowing and mouthy but also quiet and wise. How does she ventriloquise all these characters, all their cultural baggage? How does she tie things in so neatly and also make it so clear that nothing can fully be tied in, or mopped up, that the past isn’t even past? And she was twenty-four. God.

up next: I’m about to finish Mark Twain’s Western travelogue, Roughing It, and have a couple of options for where to go next. Maybe Pajtim Statovci’s forthcoming book My Cat Yugoslavia, from Pushkin Press; maybe a book from my US purchases stack; or maybe something left over from a pre-holiday Waterstone’s binge—I’ll Sell You A Dog or China Mountain Zhang. Unless I get a lot of overwhelming feedback, I’ll probably leave it up to the random number generator…