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.

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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…

Johannesburg, by Fiona Melrose

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I seem to be writing a lot about rewrites these days. Fiona Melrose’s second novel, Johannesburg, isn’t precisely a rewrite, but it takes many of its cues from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway: from its life-in-the-day scope to its characters (Melrose’s hunchbacked, homeless protestor September mirroring Woolf’s shellshocked, suicidal Septimus) to its culmination in a grand party. These knowing echoes, and others like them, don’t always work, but when they do, Melrose achieves what Woolf does: she creates a portrait of a city, and of particular moments in time, and reminds us that a moment can contain an eternity.

We start with Gin, an unmarried fine artist in her early forties who has come home to Johannesburg from New York to throw a birthday party for her eighty-year-old mother, Neve. Neve has never apparently approved of anything Gin has done, and the party – as such parties do – has taken on a major weight of significance in Gin’s mind: if Neve likes it, sees that she has worked hard to make it look beautiful and get the details right, then that will prove, once and for all, that her mother loves her. Preparations for the party throughout the day take up much of the book’s matter, though Melrose lets us spend less time picking up food or cutting flowers, and much more time inside Gin’s head, as she worries ceaselessly about being a woman, behaving like a woman, disappointing her mother, having her own space to create.

That obsession – having one’s own space to create – is deeply Woolfian, and should give some hint as to what this contemporary Dalloway is trying to achieve. Woolf is famous for ignoring the servants and working-class women that enable her life and the lives of her creative female characters, but Melrose doesn’t make that mistake: she accords to Mercy and to Duduzile, a housekeeper and a cook/maid, the same longing for agency and independence as she gives to Gin (and to Gin’s now-dead Aunt Virginia, a novelist who drowned herself on her eightieth birthday, all of which I think is slightly too heavy-handed). Still, Mercy has her own thoughts – most of them, fortunately, not about the white family she works for – and, at one point, wonders what kind of cooking she could do if she had a little kitchen that was all her own. It’s a long-awaited way of moving Woolf’s famous “room of one’s own” into the realm of a working-class woman; Mercy thinks she’d buy a table and paint it red, hang her own curtains, cook fritters and pap to sell to stalls all over the city.

Duduzile, meanwhile, is tethered to responsibility by her brother September, a hunchbacked man who used to work as a cook in the kitchens of a large mining company, until the miners staged a demonstration for better pay and conditions. This demo, at Verloren, turned into a massacre, and September – one of the few survivors – was grazed by a bullet that ploughed a furrow through the side of his head. Now, homeless and misshapen, he is animated by the need for justice: every day, he takes up vigil outside the Diamond, the urban headquarters of the mining company, with a placard strapped to his back above his hump: VERLOREN. HERE I AM. Dudu brings him meat and fruit and water, and tries to make sure he gets enough rest; he sleeps on cardboard in an abandoned garden, since living with Dudu is impossible (he reflects that he would frighten her “madam”, and the madam’s children.)

September is the moral heart of the novel. His stand outside the Diamond is only the most obvious instance; throughout the book he represents a silent majority who have been mistreated and underestimated, but who, nevertheless, demand justice and show love. The book takes place on the day that Nelson Mandela’s death is announced, and throughout the narrative is woven a sense of the people of Johannesburg hurrying to the Residence to pay their respects and show their grief. Extra police officers and helicopters are deployed to “keep the peace”, which September views as an insult: South Africans love Mandela; to suggest that they might degenerate into violence upon his death is offensive. His presence in the book serves as a mute instance of passive resistance, a technique that has fallen in and out of favour with political activists (particularly Black activists, both in Africa and in the States), but which nevertheless has a long and distinguished pedigree. HERE I AM.

September’s outstanding act in the book is to return Neve’s runaway dog, Juno, thereby salvaging Neve’s mood and Gin’s planned party. He doesn’t hang around for long enough to receive the cash reward that Gin wants to give him; when she returns to the front door with her wallet, he’s already walking away. Later (no spoiler, this, if you’ve read Dalloway) September is killed outside the Diamond in a standoff-cum-misunderstanding-cum-suicide by cop, a tragedy which Gin’s former lover Peter is helpless to prevent. When Gin hears the news, and realises that the dead man is the very man who brought her dog back (and saved the evening by restoring Neve’s good mood), she is horrified to realise that when he left her door, he was walking to his death. Up to this point in the book, very little has been able to get through Gin’s carapace of self-pity, shame, and fascination with mortality; it is only the actual death of a person she saw mere hours before that shakes her. Here Melrose both hews closely to Woolf’s original – where Clarissa Dalloway is upset by news of Septimus’s suicide – and writes with a broader social awareness than Woolf manages. Gin, death-obsessed, is a well-off white woman with every conceivable liberty – artistic, financial, romantic. When death does enter the novel, it doesn’t come for her, but for a poor, crippled black man; she is forced to decentralise herself, to understand that while she may see death as “an option”, for others it is so much more.

There are some missteps: the story of Aunt Virginia, for instance, who doesn’t contribute much to the narrative other than a way for the reader to nod knowingly, and some of the dialogue between Gin and Neve, which is probably meant to be painfully adolescent but possibly not meant to be quite so annoying and banal. Ultimately, though, Mrs. Dalloway and Johannesburg are both – at least through Melrose’s lens – about a particular city, and what it is like to live there, and how the city becomes more than the sum of its parts. The scenes in Johannesburg where Gin drives through town – always driving, always separated from the street and the noise and the heat – are intelligent counterpoints to September’s view of the overlapping freeways that soar above his traffic island. Both characters feel embedded in the city; neither sees it whole. In that fragmentation, combined with the sense of unity provided by communal grief at Mandela’s death, Johannesburg rings wonderfully true.

Many thanks to the kind folk at Corsair for the review copy. Johannesburg is published in the UK on 3 August.

July Superlatives

July: a great month for reading (eighteen [nineteen! I forgot one!] books, somehow, bringing my yearly total up to 116), a very bad month for reviewing. I won’t apologise – moving house tires the mind – but hope that these Superlative entries will be detailed enough to pique interest. I did write one review, for Litro, of Best British Short Stories 2017, which I’ll link to once it’s been posted. Meanwhile, onwards.

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most versatile: Francesca Segal’s second novel, The Awkward Age. It is a very well-written modern-relationships novel, centering on Julia—a widowed piano teacher—and her new partner, James; her resentful teenaged daughter Gwen; and James’s resentful, privileged teenaged son, Nathan. Surprising (possibly melodramatic) plot twists involving the teenagers are balanced by the presence of Julia’s former husband’s parents, whose relationship is not without its own interest and is presented with great nuance. I can’t imagine anyone, of any age, reading this book and not being able to get something out of it.

blast from the past: Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy, which I read as a result of bringing it home with me from a visit to my grandparents. I hadn’t read nineteenth-century prose for months, and what struck me about it was how dryly funny Hardy often is, especially when describing character quirks. His “rustics” are better in this than in almost any other of his novels; even the utterly goofy ones, like Joseph Poorgrass, feel convincing, which I’m not sure is the case in, e.g., The Mayor of Casterbridge or even Tess.

best crime novel: Cambridgeshire-set Persons Unknown by Susie Steiner. The standout in this book is its DI, Manon Bradshaw, who’s heavily pregnant by a sperm donor and also trying to mother her adoptive son, a young black boy named Fly. (Persons Unknown is the second in a series that starts with Missing, Presumed, which must chart Manon’s and Fly’s relationship from the beginning.) A City banker is murdered in broad daylight; Fly becomes the main suspect. Persons Unknown handles a very specifically British sort of racial prejudice with total sensitivity, and provides some delightful point-of-view characters, including Davy (trying hard to be politically correct, not entirely equipped for the task) and Birdie (a London shopkeeper who becomes embroiled in the case). Loved it.

most haha-YEP: Shaun Bythell’s memoir of running Wigtown’s The Book Shop, The Diary of a Bookseller. What can I say? It’s screamingly funny, helped along by Bythell’s rotating cast of eccentric employees (including Nicky, who is a Jehovah’s Witness, lives in her blue van, and comes to work in the winter dressed in a black snow suit that makes her look like a demented Teletubby), and Bythell’s own dry sense of humour. He’s also great on the day-to-day business of antiquarian and secondhand book selling—traveling to valuations, how to price an old book, and so on—which, as a new bookseller, I like learning about. This is out in September and you really mustn’t miss it.

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second most haha-YEP: Living the Dream by Lauren Berry, a novel which slots firmly into the modern-and-knowing-twist-on-the-being-in-your-twenties-novel category that also contains Alice Furse’s Everyone Knows This is Nowhere and Lisa Owens’s Not Working. If I had read this a year ago, when I was still at Mumsnet, I would have died of relief that someone had written a funny, relatable book about being bored in strategy meetings and feeling as though you were sort of vaguely failing at life but being too knackered and broke to sort it out. Furse’s and Owens’s books both dig deeper into the potential for real catastrophe in acquiescing to modern life—Berry’s heroines are never in any actual danger of becoming drones, because the narrative demands that they Find Themselves—but it’s a fun addition to the subgenre.

warm bath books: The Well of Lost Plots and The Eyre Affair (in that order, because TWOLP is my favourite), by Jasper Fforde. I refuse to criticise these, okay? I absolutely, unapologetically used these books as gentle, goofy balms to the soul in a challenging week, and therefore have nothing bad to say about them (nor will I ever), except to note that some of the dialogue is a bit clunky, but when you’ve got that chapter on the Global Standard Deity and those asides about registered John Miltons and kids trading Henry Fielding bubble gum cards (let alone all the rest of it—Generics! Plotsmiths! Making all the characters from Wuthering Heights attend rage counselling!), it seems churlish to nitpick.

most disappointed to be disappointed in: Meta, no? So I read Attica Locke’s new book, Bluebird, Bluebird (which is out in September, I think) and it was fine: a small-town East Texas-set murder mystery involving the deaths of a black man and a white woman. Locke off her game is better than a lot of writers on top of theirs. But the more I consider it, the more baffled I get: Locke is strangely ambivalent about her protagonist Darren’s character arc, and why, in God’s name, does it end the way it does? That ending comes out of a clear blue sky and it makes no emotional impact whatsoever, because its total strangeness hasn’t really been earned. I may have to write an in-depth review of this to be posted nearer the publication date.

most illuminating reread: I’ve reread Tana French’s books too many times this year. Oh well. After rereading In the Woods, though, I’ve got a better handle on what makes it work so well: her sterling ability to construct a narrator, Detective Rob Ryan, who is—quietly—a complete arsehole. He drops all the hints we need to work this out along the way, but, as with the final revelations regarding the crime, it’s only very late in the day that we put all the pieces together and realise that Rob—although decidedly also a victim of his own history and pitiable in that regard—is truly not very nice. It destabilises much of what we’ve felt for him up til then (he’s also funny, quick-witted and observant, which makes him an appealing narrator), and it gives the book that dark, queasy edge that moves it from good to great.

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best debut: What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky, Lesley Nneka Arimah’s book of short stories from Tinder Press. Arimah’s stories really are short, most not more than five pages, but she’s great at getting inside the heads of protagonists who straddle cultures (like the character who’s packed off to her cousins in Nigeria for the summer after a mildly rebellious year in American high school). I was also impressed by her vision in the more speculative stories, like the title one, which posits the existence of professional grief-removers. Can you imagine?

longest overdue: I’ve had W. Somerset Maugham’s massive novel Of Human Bondage on my actual, physical TBR since about 2014. My friend and former housemate Bunter (not his real name) lent/gave it to me back then, and I’ve been putting it off ever since, mostly because of the size. It turns out to be rather wonderful—a young man’s coming-of-age story, so, yes, fairly masculine, but Philip Carey’s club foot gives him a vulnerability that makes him easier to empathise with than many early C20 novels that demand a reader’s adulation for a privileged male protagonist. He has strong emotions and deals with them, for the most part, stupidly, in the way that people in their twenties do. You can’t help wanting things to be all right for him. It reminded me in some ways of David Copperfield, another classic English Bildungsroman.

best anthology: Clue’s in the name: Best British Short Stories 2017, edited by Nicholas Royle at Salt. I’m not usually much of a one for short stories, let alone a collection of stories all by different writers, but Royle’s selection is delightfully coherent; themes of the supernatural and the unspoken, the slightly uncanny and the merely surreal, recur throughout. There are some weak links, but some truly exceptional stories too (Lara Williams’s “Treats”, Daisy Johnson’s “Language”, Rosalind Brown’s “General Impression of Size and Shape”, amongst others.) (review)

best find: My uncle is the only person who reliably gifts me actual books for my birthday, for which I will never cease to be grateful to him. This year he sent me a slim collection of poems by Thomas Lux, called To the Left of Time, and I absolutely love them. Lux’s voice is a little like Tony Hoagland’s, that slightly weather-beaten, over-educated, under-employed, grown-up-farm-boy tone. His odes, especially Ode To the Joyful Ones, are the best things in the book.

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best recommendation: After my first Down the TBR Hole post, my brother got in touch with me to tell me to read Slaughterhouse Five straight away. I bought it on Saturday and read it almost in one go. It’s absolutely wonderful. A humane, good-humoured, sweetly resigned war novel that is also utterly clear-eyed about horror and fear and torment. Billy Pilgrim is an everyman with whom I might just be a little in love.

best palate-cleanser: The first Robert Harris novel I’ve ever read, Conclave. Apparently it has divided opinion, but you know what? He can write just fine, plus he can construct differentiable characters in what’s basically an ensemble novel (which is remarkably hard). His ability to make a reader care about moral issues that modern sensibilities mostly ignore is also surprising: the central question of Conclave—how can you tell whether serving God means intervening in something, or keeping your nose out?—requires us to take seriously the faith of the characters, and we do, and that’s an impressive feat for a mainstream contemporary writer.

party to which I’m late: Tove Jansson, just in general. Specifically, The Summer Book, her first novel for adults, which takes the form of a series of vignettes focusing on an old woman and her granddaughter over the course of a summer on their island in the Gulf of Finland. Grandmother is the best-written old woman I’ve ever read, perhaps because Jansson based her heavily on her own mother; she retains an actual personality, complicated and dry and cynical and not always either cuddly or feisty (the default settings for old ladies in fiction). I will be looking for Jansson’s other adult books, as well as reading the Moomin series, in the future.

best short read: Another of Penguin’s Little Black Classics, this time Trimalchio’s Feast by Petronius, a birthday present from AdventureSinCake (formerly known as the Lawyer). It’s an excerpt from a much longer work, the Satyricon, and focuses on an orgiastic party thrown by lonely, narcissistic trillionaire Trimalchio. Because it’s so short, and so absurd, you can read it as a fun interlude, or you can venture down some darker alleys of thought (however rich you are, death is coming for you, and you can’t stave it off with honey-roasted dormice or dancing girls).

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second most illuminating reread: Quicksilver, the first of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle. It is such a long book, and so crammed with incident and information, that rereading is virtually a necessity. I certainly understood more of the plot’s overall shape, and more of the characters’ rationale at various times, than I did the first time around.

[the one I forgot: Such Small Hands, a tiny creepy novella by Andres Barba about a bunch of Spanish girls stuck in an orphanage, who invent a horrendous “dolly” game that ends up, perhaps unsurprisingly, turning violent. The story is shocking, but—and maybe this is just a different approach to psychological realism—not especially moving, since all the little girls speak as one. I think the book might well be too short.]

up next: Various books I’ve said I would review, including Fiona Melrose’s second novel, Johannesburg, and Sarah Franklin’s Shelter. I’ve also got several delightful purchases to get through, including Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne Du Maurier and China Mountain Zhang by Maureen F. McHugh, and need to choose airplane reading for my trip to see family in the States – I’m thinking The Resurrection of Joan Ashby, which I have in proof, and which appears to be the sort of massive weighty tome about a female writer’s artistic development and vexed relationship to traditional feminine roles that I’ve been waiting for someone to write.

Man Booker Prize 2017 Longlist Feelings

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The filter on this photo is oddly pale.

 

Initial thoughts:

Very little of this is surprising, and very few of these authors are new. I think the only debuts are Emily Fridlund, Fiona Mozley, and (technically) George Saunders, since it’s his first novel, although I’m inclined to say that doesn’t exactly make him a debut author. On the one hand, this pleases me – I’ve been bitching for years about how publishers fetishize novelty, and about how dangerous it is to cease supporting novelists once they’ve written their Big First Book or are no longer as photogenic as the next young thing. On the other hand, this makes for a list that, despite Baroness Young’s proclamations of its diversity, doesn’t look particularly diverse to me. There are a lot of big, established names – Zadie Smith, Ali Smith, Colson Whitehead, Paul Auster, Sebastian Barry – and only a handful of authors that you might imagine the general public not recognising.

Thematically, there seems to be a strong focus on social issues: slavery and its repercussions, political repression, neo-liberalism, celebrity charity, the refugee crisis. Personal relationships are also at the heart of many of these books: Barry’s soldier-lovers in Days Without End, McGregor’s traumatised villagers in Reservoir 13, an old man and a young woman in Ali Smith’s Autumn, Zadie Smith’s rivalrous dancers. In terms of formal experimentation, the field seems decidedly conservative, with Saunders, Auster and McGregor the most obviously innovative. (Mozley might be interesting, too, but as no one seems to know much about it, it’s hard to say yet.)

What I’ve read:

Of the longlisted thirteen, I’ve read six: Days Without End, Reservoir 13, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Lincoln In the Bardo, Swing Time and The Underground Railroad. At least four are strong contenders to be among my books of the year, although I found The Ministry of Utmost Happiness more ambitious than successful, and liked Swing Time a lot without thinking it a work of genius.

What’s missing:

More big names, although in honesty this is probably the right decision; Salman Rushdie seems to me to have been curdling for some time now, and The Golden House looks depressingly like another of those let’s-mock-Trump novels that writers seem to think are appropriate stand-ins for actual social engagement. Hanif Kureishi’s The Nothing also deserves to have been left off; the first few pages read like an aggressive Roth parody, which is not a compliment. I’m slightly surprised by the exclusion of Edward Docx’s Let Go My Hand, which is a very skilful piece of writing in the way it balances a wide range of emotions; Nicola Barker’s H(A)PPY, which if nothing else is balls-to-the-wall committed to its own zaniness; Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, which I actually wouldn’t have put on the longlist anyway but which does have legions of devoted fans and is a pretty good book; and House of Names by Colm Toibin. The Nix, Christodora, First Love, The Power, English Animals, and Spoils were also strong contenders that I wouldn’t have been surprised to see on the list.

What shouldn’t be there:

Harsh, I know. Maybe this is better phrased as “what surprises me by its presence”. As Baroness Young also pointed out, every book is the result of vast amounts of time and effort and dedication and sweat and tears. At the same time, if this is meant to be a list of thirteen of the year’s best books, I’m not sure why The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is on it. As a piece of fiction, it’s so unmoored, so unclear about which stories it wants us to care about, that I found its ultimate effect was to alienate me from any of them.

What I’d like to read:

Of those I haven’t read, Solar Bones, History of Wolves, Exit West and Autumn are immediately appealing. We’ve also been offered proofs of Elmet from the publisher, which I’m very excited about (the author is a bookseller at Little Apple in York! How great is that?) I might be more thrilled by the prospect of 4321 if it weren’t about seven thousand pages long and still only available in hardback. Mais non, my friends. On the basis of available time and wrist strength, non.


The full list:

4321 by Paul Auster

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry (Faber & Faber) (scroll down for February Superlatives entry)

History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Solar Bones by Mike McCormack

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor (my full review)

Elmet by Fiona Mozley

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy (my full review)

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (scroll down for June Superlatives entry)

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

Autumn by Ali Smith

Swing Time by Zadie Smith (scroll down for February Superlatives entry)

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (scroll down for January Superlatives entry)

New Boy, by Tracy Chevalier

Get down from there, n*****!

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The Hogarth Shakespeare series continues to strike me as an endeavour excellent in theory, but almost invariably doomed in practice. Fundamentally, what you can do and want to do in a play is different from the scope and focus allowed you by a novel. Perhaps more challenging is the balance a contemporary novelist must strike: do they dig deep into the motivations, the emotion and the structure behind one of Shakespeare’s plots—sincerely trying to adapt the story to the present day—or do they hit the high notes, the stuff that an averagely well read person could tell you about the play off the top of their head if you stopped them in the street? Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed has been the most successful adaptation so far, and I think that’s partly because she chooses path A; her novel does hit some of the high notes, but she deliberately makes her book an exploration of revenge, bereavement and redemption, as The Tempest is, as opposed to a story about a magician called Prospero who has a daughter named Miranda. Tracy Chevalier, like most of the other Hogarth Shakespeare novelists, chooses path B, which accounts for many of the problems I have with her adaptation of Othello.

My problem with New Boy (and I’ve said this before, if you follow me on Instagram, but it bears repeating) is quite basic: Chevalier chooses to set it in a school playground, to make her Othello character (Osei, or O) an eleven-year-old, and to make the tension of the work entirely contingent upon O’s skin colour. I think these are all serious miscalculations. Othello as Shakespeare wrote him is a successful military veteran who has worked his way up through skill and graft; he is an older man in a relationship with a much younger woman; he is self-conscious about many things, including his blackness, but also his age and his plain manner of speech. When Brabantio, Iago and others call him “the Moor”, they’re indicating his racial difference, but—I would contend—not necessarily in a fashion more derogatory than if he were called, e.g., “the Italian” or even “the Welshman”. (Consider the Welsh jokes in the history plays. Consider, also, that Shakespeare’s other iconic Other, Shylock, is comparatively much more defined by his Otherness: he is “the Jew” by every line he speaks, every action he takes, no matter the weight you place on the “if you prick us” speech.)

But the thing that people remember about Othello is that it’s a play about a black man, and therefore Chevalier places racial difference and racial prejudice at the centre of her novel. This is possible only if she makes it impossible for any of the people young O encounters to form a positive opinion of him, and so she stacks the deck by setting the course of the action over one day, making O a “new boy”—a Ghanaian diplomat’s son at an all-white school—and giving Mr. Brabant (a stand-in for Brabantio) a personality composed of creepy paternalism and barely-veiled white supremacism. But that is not the power dynamic at play between the Venetian Senate and Othello. Venice owes him. The city is in his debt; he has done them a favour. His blackness is barely relevant, because asking foreign mercenaries to lead the Venetian army was standard practice; it prevented the ruling elite from accruing too much military power and attempting a coup. When Venetian characters complain about “the Moor”, they’re latching onto a palpable difference between themselves and an outsider, but it’s his foreignness—not his blackness, and they are two different things—that makes Venice envious and insecure. Chevalier’s constant emphasis on racial prejudice is almost insultingly simplistic, and it leads her to make bizarre authorial choices: she invents a wholly unnecessary older sister for O who becomes increasingly fascinated by Black Power and Black Is Beautiful; she writes O as an instinctive diplomat, which is both untrue to Shakespeare’s characterisation and makes him feel uncomfortably like a puppet for respectability politics; and she writes the line of dialogue at the top of this post (spoken by the enraged Mr. Brabant at the dénouement), which is such a blatant piece of authorial manipulation (Brabant bad! Racism bad!) that it backfires, or it should.

Then there is Ian, who is the Iago analogue in New Boy. Ian hates O because he can see that the other boy has the potential to dethrone him as king of the playground. It’s fairly convincing as far as it goes—thus, sixth-grade politics—but it makes zero sense in the context of reassessing the play. Iago tells us he doesn’t know why he hates the Moor, but he gives two possible reasons anyway: one, he was passed over for promotion in favour of privileged airhead Cassio, and two, he suspects Othello of cuckolding him. Chevalier gestures at both of these reasons, making Ian a feared bully and loner while Casper/Cassio is golden and popular, and giving Ian a brief flash of paranoia when he sees O making his “girlfriend” Mimi laugh. The latter, though, is usually glossed as just that—paranoia—and it’s the former (jealous rage at not being promoted) that tends to seem most plausible. For this to make any sense at all as a rationale in New Boy, O would have to have held some sort of power over Ian for some period of time before the commencement of the action, and Ian would have to feel that O is indebted to him in some way. (Iago’s hopes of promotion aren’t unreasonable; he’s fought with Othello and for him; they were colleagues, even friends.) Since Chevalier can’t do that without breaking the self-imposed unity of time, she has to settle for making Ian a tyrant who is fiercely protective of his own status. In the play, that status is never Iago’s to begin with. It’s a subtle distinction, but it changes everything about the antagonist’s emotional baggage; it makes the story a very different story, and it’s not clear to me that the change is an improvement, or even intentional.

It also ascribes a level of cunning and villainy to Ian that I am not sure Iago possesses, let alone an eleven-year-old (cunning and villainous though I am willing to admit they can be). The point of Iago is that he is a master of shaping circumstance, but he is not a planner; he’s a hyena, not a lion. He gets incredibly lucky with the business of the handkerchief, and his mind is quick enough to grasp what he can do with it. He makes blind leaps repeatedly: in goading Othello, in joking with Cassio, he is merely hoping for a certain outcome, not ensuring one. He is a chancer. Ian, on the other hand, gets the same luck dropped into his lap (with a pencil case standing in for a handkerchief), and immediately begins long-term strategic planning. (Well, long-term for sixth grade, which is to say, anticipating afternoon recess.) Iago doesn’t do things like that; he never anticipates what his petty revenge plot might lead to. Ian, on the other hand, really wants to break up O and Dee (the Desdemona character) from the beginning; he really wants Mimi (Emilia) under his thumb; he really wants to seriously damage O, and not just socially—we’ve seen him physically bully enough people by this point in the book, and he too exhibits white supremacist behaviour.

Maybe the problem is this: Chevalier tries to stick too closely to the mechanics of Shakespeare’s plot, while also making choices about characterisation and motive that undermine that plot’s power. She gives Ian Iago’s famous non-defense (“I have nothing to say for myself”) more or less verbatim, but she doesn’t make him a convincing contemporary model of a small-minded, jealous, possibly traumatised soldier; instead, he’s an ogre and a child. (She does make him a believable abusive boyfriend.) She gives Dee Italian ancestry—her full name is Daniela Benedetti—presumably in a wink to the original’s Venetian setting, but she doesn’t show us the complex power dynamics at play in her relationship with O, dynamics that encompass so much more than race; Desdemona and Othello are a compelling couple because various imbalances of knowledge, of beauty, of worldly experience, of age, of responsibility, see-saw back and forth between them. For an excellent positioning of Othello in a contemporary setting, I can recommend the National Theatre’s 2013 production with Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear, set on an army base during the Iraq War. (That production’s treatment of women is also excellent.) If you’re a Hogarth Shakespeare completist, or if you just want to decide for yourself, read New Boy—but its flaws mean that I can’t think of it as a successful reimagining of the original.