The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, by Arundhati Roy

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A second novel is a tricky thing. If your first novel was a barnstorming global sensation that won the Booker Prize, doubly so. If you then take twenty years to produce that elusive follow-up, well. With the weight of all that expectation, you could sink. Arundhati Roy’s second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, does not sink. It is in many places gripping, moving, and fueled by a burning rage at India’s human rights record. If it doesn’t entirely float, either, that is due not so much to the inclusion of political material per se as to the sheer quantity that Roy is willing to include, a proliferation of detail that doesn’t always pull its weight within the framework of the story.

Roy opens with the birth of a Hijra: born as Aftab, our protagonist is quickly found to have two sets of genitals—one male, one female. Though Aftab’s parents attempt to raise their child as a boy, by the time Aftab is old enough to be aware of difference, he knows that he’s a she. A chance sighting of a famous Hijra who goes by the name of Bombay Silk sparks a series of reactions that finish with Aftab’s name change (to Anjum), a move out of her parents’ house and into the house known as the Khwabgah, or House of Dreams, where other Hijras live and work, mostly as specialist courtesans. For a while all is well: Anjum has a career, a chosen family, and adopts a small child whom she finds in the street one day, naming her Zainab. A visit to a shrine in Gujarat, however, coincides with the massacres being perpetrated upon Muslims in the area at the time, and results in trauma that Anjum, upon her return to Delhi, refuses to discuss. Her internalised distress forces her to move out of the Khwabgah and into a nearby graveyard, which she slowly sets about turning into a complex of rooms to which she refers as the Jannat (“Paradise”) Guest House.

Anjum’s story intertwines with the story of Tilottama, or Tilo, a trained architect who becomes a political activist, and the three men who love her: Musa, who takes advantage of the rumours of his death to become a major figure in the Kashmiri insurgency; Naga, a respectable official whom Tilo marries in order to ensure her own safety; and Bilqab, the least assuming of the three, who works in the Intelligence Bureau and engineers Tilo’s release when she is captured by the sadistic captain Amrik Singh. In this strand, too, an unclaimed child generates redemption: Tilo adopts a dark-skinned baby found on the street during a mass protest. The child is named Miss Jebeen the Second in honour of Musa’s daughter, shot by police while on the fringes of a Kashmiri martyr’s funeral.

There is a sense in which Roy’s inclusion of many characters and forms of oppression is generous, giving the reader many points of view from which to access the story. “How to tell a single story?” Roy muses near the end of the book, in a paragraph reproduced in its entirety on the back of the proof copy. “By slowly becoming everybody. No. By slowly becoming everything.” It is an admirable idea in theory, but there are pitfalls to that approach from which The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is not exempt. It is extremely difficult, for example, to differentiate characters. Writing the previous paragraph, I had to pause and think, long and hard, about which lover was Musa, which was Naga, and what Bilqab had to do with it all. There are many minor characters so similar to each other that they might as well be the same person: Saeeda and Nimmo Gorakhpuri, for example, both of whom are flamboyant and confident young Hijras known to Anjum. Both appear, and are named, throughout the book, but there is no sense of each woman as a separate, rounded entity. There is a young man called Saddam Hussein who lives in Anjum’s graveyard and ends up marrying her daughter, but by the end of the book it’s a challenge to recall why he’s there, what narrative function he is fulfilling.

In a way, this might be precisely against the point. Questions of literary efficiency—of narrative function, of plot rationalisation, of what a given adjective or character or event is actually doing in the novel—are mostly absent. That kind of novel, one where every word is weighed carefully, every action accountable for, doesn’t seem to be the kind of novel that Roy is writing. She has said in interviews that she wants to “wake the neighbours”, and if your ultimate goal in writing a novel is to raise awareness, then indeed it can seem entirely right to leave in as much as possible. By following this strategy, Roy achieves inclusivity, but she also gives the novel the appearance of ticking a lot of boxes. Homelessness amongst Delhi’s transgender population? Tick. Drug addiction? Tick. Blameless (indeed, mentally disabled) martyr? Tick. Rape and torture? Tick.

I’m not leveling charges of gratuitousness at The Ministry of Utmost Happiness; quite the opposite. Roy treats these topics seriously and renders to her characters a level of dignity generally not afforded them by Western writers of atrocity porn. To write a good political novel, though—and it is more than possible to do that—you need an emotional core. Roy gives us plenty of personae and detail, but in opening up the focus of her story, she diffuses it. Perversely, an authorial choice that was clearly motivated by a desire to provoke empathy obstructs the fiction reader’s ability to empathise.

This review originally published in Litro.

Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts

  1. Today I went to the hospital for a diabetes clinic appointment. I have them every three months or so. I try not to think about them too much. I try not to think about being diabetic too much. It’s been the case for twenty-one years, so there’s not much point in dwelling on it. Clinic appointments stress me out, especially in a large hospital instead of the smaller outpatient centre I attended as a kid. They’re often embarrassing or frustrating, or both: navigating the brusque guy on the ward desk; peeing in a cup; answering inane NHS questionnaires on an iPad; waiting in an ugly, humid room with a bunch of other broken humans; all these things make me want to claw my skin off. That’s even before we get to the part where I have to be weighed, or where a diabetic nurse has the chance to scold me for lax attitudes to medicating, or where a dietitian tells me, for the seven thousandth time, about food groups.

This time, I didn’t get a nurse; I got a consultant. She was young, and kind, and smart, and she didn’t push me. At some point, when she went away to check something with the phlebotomist, something new happened: I started crying. When she came back, I tried to stop, and to apologise. “I’ve had this for twenty-one years,” I said. “I should be able to—” and then stopped. The doctor looked at me and said, gently, “Do you know how common depression and anxiety are amongst diabetics? Especially ones who’ve had it since they were children? I see this all the time.”

And to my own surprise, I looked up and said, “I’m so angry.”

The long and the short of it is that there’s counselling available, and I’ve asked for a referral. The NHS may be cumbersome and bureaucratic, but it came through for me today. It’s taken me this long, but it’s time to sort some things out. If you feel the same way, but you’re scared or uncertain, take this story as a good omen. People pay their taxes for this; for you; for me.

2. Relatedly: I hope you all voted Labour.

3. You know that “one like = one fave book” Twitter meme that’s been going around? I did it through my work Twitter account (@HeywoodHill). It was what you might call successful.

4. I did one from my personal account too. You know, if you want to.

5. Many congratulations to Naomi Alderman for winning the Baileys Prize with The Power! I can’t say that I’m surprised, or indeed disappointed, although my personal favourite was Do Not Say We Have Nothing, for the sheer high-level thinking that it displays at every turn. But The Power is a terrific, deserving, and very timely winner.

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Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts is hosted by Christine at Bookishly Boisterous. Pop in, say hi.

Down the TBR Hole, #2

This is a meme started by Lia, and it goes as follows: set your to-read list on Goodreads to “date added” in ascending order, then go through five to ten books in chronological order to decide which ones are keepers and which ones you’re really, for whatever reason, never going to read. (My TBR, by the way, only represents books I’d like to read—they’re not necessarily books I already have.)

unapologeticBook #11: Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense, by Francis Spufford

Why is it on my TBR? Look at that subtitle, and consider that I was raised in the Episcopal Church by a Christian mother and an atheist father, that music kept me in churches and chapels for most of my early adulthood, and that my crisis of faith started when I was eight and continues unabated to the present day, such that I now find it impossible to talk about religious belief with anyone at all, so complex and snarled is my relationship to it.

Do I already own it? Nope.

Verdict? Keep. I go through phases of reading around this topic – liberal theologians trying to sort their own heads out – and I’ll get to Spufford.

Book #12: Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallacedavid-foster-wallace-infinite-jest

Why is it on my TBR? I’m both pretentious and ambitious.

Do I already own it? No.

Verdict? Oh, keep, I think. I really do want to read it.

4110716_458745Book #13: The Flavour Thesaurus, by Nikki Segnit

Why is it on my TBR? Because the concept is fantastic: a compendium of how flavours relate to one another, the idea being that if you understand flavour relationships, your own cooking can be both more inventive and better quality.

Do I already own it? Nope – I’ve come close a few times though.

Verdict: Surprisingly, discard. It is still a brilliant idea and a gorgeously produced book (and the Chaos knows the author and her husband, which makes me feel guilty) – but my cooking at the moment isn’t at the experimental level that would make this book indispensable. If I ever start working from home again (aka writing half the day and pissing about in the kitchen the other half), maybe.

Book #14: Mason & Dixon, by Thomas Pynchon9781101594643_p0_v2_s260x420

Why is it on my TBR? Haven’t any idea.

Do I already own it? Nope.

Verdict: Discard – if I can’t remember why I wanted to read it… It looks interesting enough, but life is short.

gravitys-rainbowBook #15: Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon

Why is it on my TBR? Hmm. There must have been some kind of Pynchon-fever going on at some point, given this and the above.

Do I already own it? Nope.

Verdict: Keep. A classic of post-war literature, something I should have under my belt.

Book #16: Independent People, by Halldor Laxness41x7fyx4QtL

Why is it on my TBR? I read about it in Jane Smiley’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel and thought it looked fantastic. Also, taciturn Icelandic farmers are auto-approved.

Do I already own it? Yes, there’s a copy in my room at my parents’ house.

Verdict: This is a hard one. I’ve tried to read it three times and failed every time. I know Victoria loved it, though. I want to try again.

Book #17: Oscar and Lucinda, by Peter Carey oscarandlucinda_cover

Why is it on my TBR? I think I read the blurb and thought it sounded magical – card tricks and floating glass palaces in Victorian Australia! – and perhaps a bit like Possession.

Do I already own it? My parents have a copy with the (unforgivably ugly) Faber cover pictured. 

Verdict: Yeah, keep.

Book #18: The Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James264

Why is it on my TBR? Acquired a copy for a quid at an Oxfam during university, put it on Goodreads in a vague attempt to keep myself accountable

Do I already own it? Not anymore.

Verdict: Discard, in this particular sense. I’d still like to read it, but I’m not going to try very hard.

21071Book #19: Landscape and Memory, by Simon Schama

Why is it on my TBR? See previous TBR Hole post for an explanation of my former obsession with Simon Schama, but I got this one in particular because of an interest in the connection between landscape and cultural history.

Do I already own it? Yes, hurrah.

Verdict: Keep, although it’s difficult to imagine when I’ll have the time to read it—it’s very long and the physical book is huge, as well, so it’s hard to carry.

Book #20: Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their breach-of-trustCountry, by Andrew J. Bacevich

Why is it on my TBR? Not at all sure. I must have read a review.

Do I already own it? Nope.

Verdict: Discard, unless it turns out to be the most important book ever written on the subject. There are a couple of similar titles further down the list, anyway.


Conclusions: A little more success in discarding this time, mostly because I’m either no longer interested in a book’s subject or because it no longer has the relevance to the way I’m living that it used to. This project is helpful, too, in allowing me to realise that being open to reading something without actually making a plan to do so is legitimate.

What do you think—is Henry James indispensable? Should I give up on Halldor Laxness? (I doubt it, but you never know.) How much of Pynchon is worthwhile? Comments much encouraged, as always.

The Patriots, by Sana Krasikov

“The point, my friend…is we’re all leashed pretty tightly to the era we’re living through.”

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I went into The Patriots with only the vaguest and most limited of expectations: I knew the main character’s name, and that the action took place between the Soviet Union and the US, but almost nothing else. In part this is because the promotional materials, and the jacket copy, are also vague, and in part that is because The Patriots is difficult to summarise neatly. Were I to try, though, I would say this: that it’s about Florence Fein, an idealistic young Jewish woman from Brooklyn, who, disgusted by the failures of capitalism in Depression-era New York and chasing a summer romance with a Soviet she meets through work, decides to move to Russia. Once she’s there, she can’t go home again, and the book follows Florence and her young family through the depredations and the terror of mid-century Soviet life, as her innocence and fervour crumble. A secondary plot strand follows her son Julian, now in late middle age, as he returns to Russia on a business deal and tries to get his mother’s KGB file opened.

What The Patriots is really about is corruption, and not just corruption of the palm-greasing kind, but a profounder kind that destroys innocence. Florence’s and Julian’s timelines both follow this path. When Florence starts out, she’s almost invincible with belief. To move to the USSR is such a huge leap, and is something her parents are so discouraging about, that she finds herself almost forced into this level of conviction, just to survive the humiliation of being uncomfortable. As an American, she is all but expected to give up and go home after a month or two of being disillusioned by real hard work—but she’s stubborn, and she’s proud, and she refuses to give in. Cramped lodgings and poor food can be ameliorated by her special privileges as a foreigner, which means she gets to use better-stocked shops, but she finds this shameful; why should she be allowed to buy caviar and sun-dried tomatoes, when other honest comrades queue for bread?

The destruction of Florence’s innocence comes slowly. Trying to get an exit visa to visit her parents, she’s refused entry to the US embassy. Her American passport has already been taken by a clerk at a different office, and she’s issued a worthless “receipt”. Frightened and unprotected, and coming to terms with the fact that the country of her birth has abandoned her, she’s spotted leaving the embassy gates by Captain Subotin of the Cheka, the secret police. Subotin calls her in repeatedly over the next five years, demanding to be given the names and details of counterrevolutionaries—first in her workplace at a higher education institution, then from her time as a translator for the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee during the war. Krasikov tracks Florence’s state of mind over the course of her meetings with Subotin, from her naive belief that she can simply be “a mirror” of the world around her without implicating anybody, to her growing ability to strategise about the information she feeds him, right down to the moment when she—believing herself betrayed—gives him a name that really matters.

It can be difficult, especially from a contemporary point of view, to believe that anyone could ever be that innocent. For such skeptical readers, Krasikov has her secondary point of view character, Florence’s son Julian. Julian is also mired in some deep shit—in this case, corrupt insider trading between his (American) company and a Russian oil firm. His arc from indifference to potential complicity to moral arbiter parallels and complements his mother’s; he’s no saint, but we see how he juxtaposes American pragmatism with Russian romanticism, as Florence did, and how he chooses to reconcile those two conflicting impulses in a manner he can live with. We also learn that Julian has, historically, been Florence’s greatest critic: “She was a delusional narcissist!” he shouts at his own son, Lenny. The quotation at the top of this post is spoken to Julian in defense of Florence, by her brother Sidney, from whom she was separated by an ocean and a continent and a mountain of paperwork for most of her adult life. As a defense, it is emotive and eloquent—especially because, by the time we read it, we know exactly what Florence has had to go through as a result of the moral compromises she made—but it does not do to be ruled by emotive arguments when apportioning ethical responsibility. The fact that Julian manages to make a different choice stands as a quiet suggestion that, although we all live within our times, perhaps we don’t have to be ruled by them. Or perhaps he is merely lucky to live in a time where such a challenge is possible; we can decide for ourselves.

A minor gripe, if I can be permitted one, is that the book is slightly too long: especially in the book’s first section, before the move to Russia, the mechanics of the plot seem to creak into place very slowly. The payoff for that, though, is a world that draws you in and envelops you completely, and characters who are as vivid as friends. Krasikov tackles huge themes with aplomb, her writing as confident as a veteran’s. Particularly in the anniversary year of the Revolution, what she has to say on the compromises we make for idealism—for love of country—is worth reading.

Many thanks to the kind folks at Granta for the review copy. The Patriots was published in the UK on 2 March.

Baileys Prize Longlist Reading 2: Thien and Alderman

Being a series of short reviews of the Bailey’s Prize longlisted titles I hadn’t read before the announcement. These are mostly hack-jobs, consisting of extrapolations of my reading notes. Luckily I tend to make notes in full sentences. Spoilers ahead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

41rubuzrhzlThe Power, by Naomi Alderman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist is announced on 3 April. For more commentary, see the rest of the Shadow Panel: Naomi, Antonia, Meera and Eric. Do Not Say We Have Nothing is published by Granta and is now in paperback; The Power is published by Viking and is available in hardback.

A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens

“Tell Wind and Fire where to stop,” returned madame; “but don’t tell me.”

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In an attempt both to write about more of the books I read—not just the ones I get for free off of publishers—and to make that process less intimidating, I’m experimenting with different ways of posting, e.g. not always my usual essay. I’m structuring this review around my Goodreads updates on the book, sharing and annotating them as examples of how my feelings about the book changed as I read. As always, feedback appreciated.

page 38, 8.0%: “I read recently that A Tale of Two Cities was not representative of Dickens, and I can now say that’s pretty much true. I much prefer the fat tomes—Bleak House, Our Mutual Friend. I spent my first reading session of AToTC thinking ‘why can’t this banker arsehole just tell the girl her father isn’t dead? And why does the girl have to be golden-haired? And why do we even care? When does the guillotine come out?'”

Okay, so the opening section of A Tale of Two Cities is kind of weird. It starts with a character whose relevance to the plot isn’t at all clear; Dickens conjures atmosphere, in the meteorological sense, as well as ever (all that mist and mud and darkness on the Dover road! All that fear of being robbed by highwaymen! It’s terribly evocative) but, at least in this section, his prose reads more densely than I remembered it. It’s a little like late-period Shakespeare, where about once a paragraph you go “Hang on, what?” and have to trace the twisted syntax back to its start.

The character we meet first is Jarvis Lorry, a banker on his way to France via Dover. At the port, he pauses in an inn to wait for someone coming after him: a golden-haired seventeen-year-old girl. (In this, Dickens never changes: his ideal woman is always small, physically angelic, disgustingly sweet-tempered, and underage.) The girl, it turns out, is the daughter of French physician Alexandre Manette. Her father, thought to be dead for years, has been discovered alive: he’s been kept for eighteen years without charge as a political prisoner in the Bastille. Lorry, for reasons best known to himself and Dickens, doesn’t come right out and tell the girl (Lucie) this; instead, he fannies around saying things like “If someone were to tell you that there was a girl who thought her father was dead, and then it turned out that he wasn’t…” This is a manner of news-breaking I have never understood, and have little patience for, but it gets the job done in the end.

page 100, 22.0%: “Ok, Dickens wins this round—the trial scene is gripping and I now want to know how Darnay and Carton end up in Paris, since so far they’re still in London. I think the legal stuff has really swayed it for me; why is Dickens so good at it?”  

Having read the Introduction, I think the reason Dickens is so good at legal stuff is because he was a court reporter for a time, in his early twenties. Anyway, things pick up five years later, when Charles Darnay is on trial in London for being a French spy. Lucie and Doctor Manette are witnesses at his trial, since they were also passengers with him on the return boat from Calais five years ago. Sydney Carton, a dissolute young lawyer, saves Darnay’s life by pointing out that there’s a strong physical resemblance between the two of them, so that the witnesses can’t be completely sure it was Darnay they saw. (He isn’t a spy, of course, but that isn’t really the point.)

As seems to happen fairly often in Dickens, people who have come together publicly in this manner end up becoming bosom pals. Darnay and Carton both end up visiting the Manettes frequently, as does Jarvis Lorry. Both young men fall in love with Lucie (of course they do! Of course!), and Darnay ends up marrying her. Before he does, he confides a “terrible secret” about his real name to Dr. Manette, who is seriously disturbed by it but promises never to reveal the truth to his daughter. (Because telling the truth to women leads to all sorts of complications!)

page 185, 41.0%: “I have decided that I quite like Madame Defarge. I’m probably not meant to—at least, from everything I heard about this book in childhood, I think I’m not meant to—but she seems like a pretty boss biddy and a champion of the people, so what’s not to like?”

Okay, so here is where things are actually interesting, because I’ll be honest with you: I don’t care that much about the English party. Like, I don’t want Darnay to die, and I want Carton to stop getting wasted every night and realise his full intellectual potential, and etc., but they’re kind of dull and rich-ish and we’re so obviously meant to like them that I don’t really want to. But Madame Defarge is a Bloody Difficult Woman, and therefore worth our attention.

The thing that got me about A Tale of Two Cities—the thing that I think makes it an astonishing book, as opposed to a basically sentimental tale about self-sacrifice—is the way Dickens handles the Defarges. Around page 185, Madame Defarge is being painted as a leader of her people. The women of her poor urban neighbourhood rally around her as they would around a general. She is an intelligence channel, a node in a network of revolutionary spies, a sleeper cell. Her husband does most of the legwork, and she knits names into her register of the condemned, but basically it’s all up in her head. She carries a pistol and a dagger. She is the brains. And she takes the long view:

“I tell thee,” said madame, extending her right hand for emphasis, “that although it is a long time on the road, it is on the road and coming. I tell thee it never retreats, and never stops. …Look around and consider the lives of all the world that we know…the rage and discontent. …Can such things last?”

“My brave wife,” returned Defarge, “…I do not question all this. But it has lasted a long time, and it is possible—you know well, my wife, it is possible—that it may not come, during our lives.”

… “We shall have helped it,” returned madame. “Nothing that we do, is done in vain. I believe, with all my soul, that we shall see the triumph.”

It’s actually quite stirring rhetoric, quite beautiful and inspirational: I believe with all my soul that we shall see the triumph. It’s the sort of thing that oppressed people, from the slaves of the Deep South to the peasants of Siberia to the suffragettes of England, have said throughout history. And, in and of itself, it is righteous.

The brilliance of A Tale of Two Cities is in how Dickens shows that righteousness spiraling out of control into bloodlust. By page 345, with Darnay condemned to die for the crimes (which are serious and awful) of his aristocratic ancestors, we have this conversation occurring amongst the Defarges and their co-conspirators:

“The Evrémonde people are to be exterminated, and the wife and child must follow the husband and father.”

“She has a fine head for it,” croaked Jacques Three. “I have seen blue eyes and golden hair there, and they looked charming when Samson held them up.” Ogre that he was, he spoke like an epicure. …”The child also,” observed Jacques Three, with a meditative enjoyment of his words, “has golden hair and blue eyes. And we seldom have a child there. It is a pretty sight.”

That, undeniably, is sick. No Revolution’s aims can be achieved by murdering children, no matter who their parents and grandparents have been. And yet, as Madame Defarge says with dispassion in reply to Lucie’s pleas for mercy, “The wives and mothers we have been used to see, since we were as little as this child… we have known their husbands and fathers laid in prison and kept from them, often enough… We have borne this a long time. Judge you! Is it likely that the trouble of one wife and mother would be much to us now?”

A Tale of Two Cities also captures the sense of what it’s like to live in the midst of civil unrest as a foreigner. The English party—Jarvis Lorry, the Manettes’ servants—are basically safe, since they are not French citizens, but the upheaval in the city is so profound that they can never be sure, from day to day, whether their situation has changed. I imagine it’s a little like being a BBC correspondent in a war zone, or a Red Cross worker: your status ought to be enough to protect you, and often, in a formal sense, is; but no one can account for the mistakes, the accidental car bomb or the ricocheting bullet. In the same spirit of constant fear and vigilance, we see Miss Pross, the Manettes’ housekeeper, set out on her errands: a more English woman you could hardly hope to see, but she still wants to buy the tomatoes as quickly as possible and get back inside. I would like to see someone adapt the story to a modern-day revolutionary zone, perhaps the Sudan in the early 2000s.

Anyway, I’ve now read my Annual Winter Dickens (trademark pending) and I’m glad I did, even though it felt in many ways not very Dickensian. I’m entering the realm of the obscure Dickenses now; the ones left are Barnaby Rudge, Martin Chuzzlewit, Edwin Drood, Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop, and The Pickwick Papers. Any suggestions for which to tackle next year?

My copy of A Tale of Two Cities is published by Oxford University Press, as part of the Oxford World’s Classics series.

English Animals, by Laura Kaye

English animals drinking and playing games in the sunshine

9781408708231

Laura Kaye’s debut novel has been praised as being, amongst other things, a timely novel for our post-Brexit political climate, but what strikes me about it is that in many ways it is spectacularly timeless. Homophobia, xenophobia, and the capacity of the English upper classes for almost childish cruelty: these issues are not confined to the present moment, and British literature has a long history of exploring them. But English Animals is no Brideshead redux; instead it’s a savvy outsider’s look in, at an establishment struggling to reconcile its habitual complacency with the demands of modern economics. It’s also a finely drawn portrait of forbidden desire.

Mirka is nineteen, from Slovakia. She has spent the past year in London, living with flatmates she hardly knows, so alone that on Christmas Day her celebrations consisted of a solitary walk to a McDonald’s. Answering an advert for live-in help, she travels to the countryside (we’re never told exactly where, but at a guess, it’s somewhere like Suffolk or Sussex) to live at Fairmont Hall with Richard and Sophie Parker. Mirka expects that she’ll be caring for children, but the job is stranger than that: Richard, who’s married into the estate, runs a small taxidermy business and hosts shooting parties to make money. Mirka is expected to help him skin, stuff and pose the animals, and to act as a beater for the shoots. Initially, she doesn’t think she can handle it, but with practice, she discovers she’s more skilled than Richard is, and business picks up.

We learn that Mirka is gay before the end of chapter two. As a character, she is straightforward, principled, and honest in a way that marks her out from her British employers: she doesn’t do ambivalence or circumlocution. Her “coming out” to Sophie occurs on a walk through the house’s grounds:

“Did you have a boyfriend before you came to England?” Sophie said.

“I had a girlfriend,” I said.

“Oh,” Sophie said. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to assume… Oh, that’s terrible of me. I just thought—”

“It’s OK,” I said. “Everyone is the same.”

[…] “I mean, so you’re gay then? Or was it only one girl?”

I already knew all the questions she would ask. “I’m completely gay.”

(How many times, in your reading experience, has a character said the line “I’m completely gay”? How rare and important is that even now?)

Sophie, in perfectly calculated dialogue, reveals that she had “a couple of flings” with girls at university, though she’s keen to emphasise that she wasn’t, like, in love with them or anything. The stage is set for a sort-of love triangle, which we duly get, with Mirka and Sophie carrying on an affair during the hours Richard spends out of the house, in the pub or on the far reaches of the estate.

Antagonism comes from two sources: David, the part-time groundskeeper at Fairmont, and William, Sophie’s father. One of Kaye’s biggest successes is conveying the real grounds of the discontent that people like Nigel Farage took advantage of during the Brexit debate. David only works every other day at Fairmont; the other local big house employs him for the rest of the week. Clearly, neither estate can really afford to keep him full-time. When the owner of the neighbouring house sells up and the new owner, an Australian, decides to let David go, he’s in trouble: two days a week, or even three, isn’t enough, but the money is less the point than the sense of humiliation and diminished professionalism. David’s hatred for Mirka would be implacable even if she were straight: in several brief but chilling scenes, he tells her to go back to her own country, and we can see his thinking. What is this foreign woman doing here, when red-blooded Englishmen like David who’ve worked the land for generations can’t get a full-time job?

It’s Sophie’s father William who is both the most broadly-drawn character and, oddly, one of the most convincing. Kaye’s touch is light, but her point is made: he sees Mirka, literally, as a servant.

“Could you make us some more Pimm’s?”

“Yes, of course.”

“I’ll do it, Dad,” Sophie said.

“I think Mirka and I have this under control,” William said to her, then turned back to me and put his finger and thumb against the jug. “You want about that much Pimm’s and the rest lemonade. And ice.”

[…] When I came back, William held out his glass and I poured the Pimm’s into it. Then I walked around the edge of the rug filling everyone else’s glass.

Hard to read, very hard, without feeling pure rage. The conversation doesn’t improve: William holds forth on the iniquities of gay marriage (“What I object to is them trying to normalise something that patently isn’t”). Sophie is nervous and uncomfortable, and tries to change the subject, but she doesn’t make a stand. It’s a conversation we’ve probably all had, with some asshole relative or coworker, but to see it written down is a stark reminder of how often we fail to challenge them. “I knew people thought those things,” Mirka tells us, “but I did not think I would ever hear them on a lawn in England.”

One of the most impressive instances of integrity in English Animals is that Mirka never has a single thought along the lines of “I need to do [something] because they’re paying me.” There are things she absolutely refuses to do, things which involve self-respect and boundaries, and she will not be dissuaded. She is a real person with a real will and real preferences; Richard and Sophie are never allowed to forget that. When the estate books a large wedding and Sophie asks her to help out, she agrees but won’t wear a dress. Instead, she asks to borrow a tux from Richard. I don’t know quite why I like this scene so much: whether it’s the way a character’s autonomy is respected both by the author and by the other characters, or the way Kaye shows us how Mirka’s feelings towards the tux are exactly those that another woman might have towards a beautiful dress, or some combination of those and other things. It makes Sophie’s (inevitable) betrayal of Mirka all the worse: we know that she doesn’t take things like feelings and relationships lightly, that she can’t make compromises for social acceptance the way Sophie can and does.

The difference, though, is that despite her deep capacity for feeling, Mirka is an adult in a way that Sophie and Richard fundamentally aren’t. Their posturing friends (there’s a great scene at a house party where Mirka quietly punctures a man’s adolescent attempts at edginess), their frantic attempts to make money to keep the house afloat, their relationship’s reliance on alcohol and weed and a cycle of fighting and making up: these are all signs of a pervading and corrosive immaturity. Despite their pedigree, it’s the Parkers who can’t take care of themselves. Mirka, who’s had to leave Slovakia in the face of homophobia from her parents and community, who’s suffered hideous loneliness in London, and who’s been let down by the woman she loves most, ends the book walking away from Fairmont Hall on her own two feet. She’s walking uphill, towards the village, but she is not afraid: “I will find something for myself, I thought.” Maybe that resilience is what the British voting public so resents about immigrants; maybe it’s jealousy, conscious or not. So many of us have never really had to be adults. From characters—from humans—like Mirka, we could learn something.

Many thanks to Hayley Camis at Little Brown for the review copy. English Animals was published in the UK on 12 January. This piece is part of the official English Animals blog tour: check out the banner below for the rest of the week’s features!

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