March 2021 Wrap-Up

Hahahahaha. Well, that didn’t last: I managed two months of reviewing pretty much everything I read, and then this month, it all went wrong.

In my defense, that is because I was reading for, and writing up, an application for an MPhil/PhD programme in English, which consumed a lot of time and brain energy. It also led me to read several academic books in quick succession, none of which I could really adequately review, and to reach mainly (although not entirely) for palate-cleansers in between.

So, this month, I read fourteen books, which is a lot more like the olden days. Of those, I have managed to review one, Revolting Prostitutes by Juno Mac and Molly Smith. Of the rest, five were new releases and/or proof copies: The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex (a truly wonderful, eerie novel set in Cornwall and based on the true story of three lighthousemen who disappeared without a trace; Stonex’s ability to depict human emotion and her firm grasp on the nature of insanity is never less than bracing); The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans (I never read anything billed as “stories and a novella” and good Lord am I glad I made an exception for this, a near-flawless collection on emotional loss and the deceptions of American historio-mythology; my two favourite stories are “Richard of York Gave Battle In Vain”, set during a wedding that doesn’t happen, and the title story, a novella that makes devastatingly clear the cost of being honest about history); Hot Stew by Fiona Mozley (a rather broadly drawn but engaging romp through all levels of society, centering on the attempted demolition of a Soho brothel and gentrification of the neighbourhood; Mozley works in types here, and the prose is less remarkable than in her debut, Elmet, but Hot Stew is in a Dickensian tradition of London novels that connect the homeless with the high and mighty and everyone in between; it’s a lot of fun); Harvest by Georgina Harding (the third in a loose trilogy–I’ve read the second but not the first–and a book that grows on you, quietly, the further you read; dealing with the unspoken traumas and losses of a Norfolk farming family which are revealed when Kumiko, the Japanese girlfriend of youngest son Jonathan, comes to stay; Harding moves from perspective to perspective seamlessly and with great empathy, and although the book is certainly a rural tragedy of a sort it never feels melodramatic or Hardy-esque); and The Left-Handed Booksellers of London by Garth Nix (sadly, mildly diverting but there’s nothing going on here that China Mieville, Neil Gaiman, Ben Aaronovitch, Michael Moorcock, CS Lewis, Susan Cooper, Alan Garner and JRR Tolkien–the latter four of whom are frequently name-checked–haven’t done already, and better; the story of a half-mortal girl discovering her parentage, aided by an eccentric and sometimes violent extra-governmental secret agency, spirits of ancient wells and mountains evoking a deep-time England, etc; it should all be very evocative but Nix never really grounds his setting in a feeling of place: he gets street names and geographies right (down to his booksellers’ headquarters on, ahem, Curzon Street, in a Georgian townhouse, right across from Shepherd Market… looks a lot like home…) but unlike Cooper, Garner, Mieville and Tolkien (at least), he never manages to make me feel as though I understand the spirit of his settings. Which is fatal for a book about topographical magic.) A final, and unexpectedly wonderful, read for March was Sylvia Townsend Warner’s 1920 novel Mr. Fortune’s Maggot, which Penguin Modern Classics have reissued in one of their lovely eau-de-nil-backed editions; the premise–a middle-aged English bank clerk receives a small inheritance, becomes a missionary in Polynesia, feels a call to convert the inhabitants of the tiny island of Fanua, but makes only one convert, a boy, and finds himself put to “a terrible test”–seemed fertile ground for Graham Greene-ish misery, but Warner is nothing like Greene, nowhere near so predictable in her belief in human wretchedness, and instead the novel is profoundly moving: Mr. Fortune’s friendship with the boy Lueli changes his life, and eventually it is love that compels him to give up his own happiness, because he realizes the damage he will do to the Fanuan way of life if he stays. Quietly stunning and under two hundred pages long; I urge you to give it a go.

Three of the other books I read were for background purposes as I worked up an abstract and then a research proposal: Infamous Commerce: Prostitution in Eighteenth-Century Literature and Culture by Laura J. Rosenthal (a broad overview of 18th-century literary depictions of prostitutes), Prostitution and Eighteenth-Century Culture, an anthology of literary and historical essays edited by Ann Lewis and focusing on British, French and Dutch sources, and Mastery, Tyranny and Desire by Trevor Burnard, an in-depth look at the diaries of Jamaican slave-owner Thomas Thistlewood, from whose extensive journal-keeping comes much of what we know about the experiences of enslaved people and Anglo-Jamaican colonialists during the eighteenth century. It’s both genuinely fascinating, and utterly horrifying.

In between, I’ve read two science fiction novels as palate-cleansers: a re-read of Alastair Reynolds’s gripping and entirely inessential Revelation Space, whose failings on the level of character become more obvious the second time around but which still has a pretty compelling mystery at its heart, which rescues it, and Tricia Sullivan’s 1999 Clarke Award-winner Dreaming In Smoke, a planetary colonization novel whose plot is catalyzed by the apparent implosion of the AI, Ganesh, that keeps operational a fledgling human outpost on the fiery planet T’nane. (Verdict: also pretty compelling, though with great lashings of cyberpunk-ish technobabble, which I always find myself having to skim, and a protagonist whose profound insecurity and passivity is both infuriating and a fascinating character choice in a genre where indestructible badass bitches are more the order of the day.) I also reread Adam Roberts’s collection of sci fi and fantasy criticism, Sibilant Fricative, which, like all of Roberts’s criticism, is always amusing and largely illuminating. Finally, I read the short story/novella Bloodchild by Octavia Butler, which is utterly brilliant, revolting and entrancing and poignant and horrific all at once, about a reproductive relationship worked out between future humans on an alien world and that world’s indigenous insectoid race, the T’lic. The story’s thirty pages long and says more about consent, bodily autonomy, love, coercion, and choice than most novels can hope for.

What did this all mean for my self-imposed reading resolutions? Oddly, not everything was a loss: nearly half of this month’s books were nonfiction. Only two were by an author of colour, though (The Office of Historical Corrections and Bloodchild), and only one by a queer author (Hot Stew). No translations, and my progress through the Great Unread stalled entirely (although I enjoyed my rereads). I did, however, set myself the goal of reading “eighteenth-century stuff” and “stuff on sex work” in March, which, I think we can all agree, has been a success. And did I succeed at “generally not stressing myself out too much”? Not really. But that’s an ongoing project.

In April, I’ll have little to do but wait for a reply to my application, so my reading can be a touch more expansive. Certainly, maintaining reading diversity and getting through the Great Unread are still general aims. I’m also enjoying my rereads so much, and usually give rereading so little thought, that I’d quite like to do more of it. Finally, I went hog-wild during a Gollancz 99p ebook sale yesterday and bought eight titles for the price of one, so I really must attempt to justify that by actually reading them. (The first I read was the underwhelming Nix, mentioned above, but most of the others are in the SF Masterworks series – aka classics of the genre – so I expect better things to come.)

I can’t think too much about the fact that it’s been a year since lockdown one. I remember it felt like a strange, hallucinatory holiday – I bought a Disney+ subscription and ordered a lot of sushi and drank a lot of gin, and it was a sunny spring, although a lonely one. That feeling is long gone. We’ll readjust, of course, in a superficial way, once we’re allowed to see our loved ones and go out and about again, but we’ll be experiencing the effects of these two years in a more subtle fashion for a long time, I think.

Revolting Prostitutes

Eye-catching post title, no? And eye-catching book title. Anyway—this is going to take the form of some reflections upon, and consolidations of, what Molly Smith and Juno Mac lay out in the above.

Smith and Mac are both sex workers, and their stance on the legal status of sex work is that, first and foremost, it should proceed from the standpoint that a) sex workers are working, and b) workers deserve access to labour rights. These are two seemingly straightforward premises, but, as the current global status of sex work demonstrates, they are remarkably difficult ones for politicians and anti-prostitution feminists (a term Smith and Mac use and which I will adopt) to get their heads around. Using interviews with current sex workers and activists all over the world as well as former sex workers, they draw attention to two false figures, the Happy Hooker and the Erotic Professional. They are closely related, and are often used in media pieces by or about sex workers who are among the most privileged in their profession, the “elite” or “high-class” escorts, many of whom say that they love sex work, find it empowering, and don’t think there is any need for further regulation. As Smith and Mac demonstrate, any emphasis on fulfillment misses the point. An individual in the highest rungs of any industry may love their job and find it empowering (or that may all be part of the marketing material, since many elite escorts are selling emotional intimacy and “the girlfriend experience”, as well as sex). That does nothing to change the fact that there are workers of lower status in the industry who require access to labour law. Whether a high-class escort feels empowered by her work or not is irrelevant to the question of whether we should give workers in her industry legal protections from harassment, rape, eviction, and prosecution simply for trying to exist. One would not expect a representative worker in the retail, hospitality or media industry to find their job “empowering”, necessarily; one would expect that they are undertaking work in order to survive, and that they therefore have the right to work reasonable hours, not be harassed by management or customers in their workplace, and not be subject to punitive measures outside of their workplace (such as being arrested themselves simply for, let’s say, looking like a barista, if they call the police to report a crime committed against them). Yet this is exactly what mainstream media and much contemporary feminism tends to expect of its sex workers—that they either claim to represent all sex workers in their empowerment, or be made to represent all sex workers in moral panic-mongering about degradation and “trafficking”.

Trafficking, as Smith and Mac also point out, is a real phenomenon; it is just that it merges into a wider phenomenon, which is that of people smuggling and undocumented migration. In their early chapters, they skilfully demonstrate that the criminalization of sex work is inextricably connected to much wider issues, like the ongoing tightening of borders, the ongoing criminalization of drugs, and austerity policies that drive more and more people into poverty and homelessness, then punish and humiliate them for being poor and homeless. In these circumstances, it is not at all surprising that people turn to sex work. (Smith and Mac mostly figure sex workers as women, both cis and trans, which reflects the realities of the industry, but they do acknowledge cis and trans male sex workers, and use studies focusing on them, as well.) Smith and Mac are pragmatic about this, and their proposed solutions are radical in the truest sense, in that they strike at the root of the problem: liquidate borders, decriminalize drug use, reinstate (or instate, in some countries) a proper social safety net, and decriminalize sex work. Using both statistics and anecdote, they demonstrate that in every place where drug use and sex work have been rendered safer (which decriminalization would do), and where so-called “exit programmes” prioritize the needs of workers in giving them money and genuine career development pathways, instead of patronizing them with punitive benefits measures and lower-paid jobs making garments or jewellery, neither drug use nor sex work has increased in frequency; in many places, it has decreased, because workers are no longer in such desperate need; and deaths have decreased substantially.

I say “in every place” where drug use and sex work have been made safer; there is only one country in the world that has pursued full decriminalization, and that is New Zealand. A case study on NZ makes up the final chapter of the book, and interviewed sex workers are palpably more confident in their safety at work, their ability to access labour law, and their security from police brutality and abuse. Police abuse of power is a horrifying constant throughout the other chapters. These explore countries that have fully criminalized sex work; the “Nordic model”, which criminalizes buyers but not sellers, and is not the silver bullet its proponents claim it is (clients who are frightened they will be arrested can demand increasingly unsafe environments and practices from their sex workers, who find themselves less and less able to refuse because they need money, while the client can always choose not to purchase sex from them); “legalization”, which is the model used in Germany and the Netherlands, requires things like registration for sex workers and mandatory health checks, the former of which leaves undocumented migrant sex workers out in the cold and the latter of which is a human rights violation; and full decriminalization, which only New Zealand currently uses and which essentially removes state apparatus, and policing, from the sex industry altogether, except in the sense that police officers are required to protect the rights and safety of sex workers at work in the same way they are required to protect the rights and safety of office workers or waitstaff. Sex workers are safer when they do not have to fear the police, either while a transaction is taking place or afterwards. (The numbers of arrests for “brothel-keeping” in countries that criminalize are ridiculous, and include such people as a sex worker’s pal who lets her crash at their place for a few weeks, and, memorably, a seventy-year-old cleaner in Melbourne, Australia who called an ambulance when a client had a heart attack and was promptly arrested under anti-pimping legislation, thus ensuring, as Smith and Mac write, that no one in any part of Melbourne’s sex industry ever again calls an ambulance for a client or worker in need of medical attention.)

If Smith and Mac sometimes seem to focus on the negative or dangerous elements of sex work, it is not because they wish to shame or stigmatize members of their own community; it is because they wish to draw attention to the fact that workers of any kind, anywhere, have a right to safety and comfort, and that when those rights are ignored, the consequences are devastating and unjust. Putting current sex workers at the centre of the movement for their rights seems so obvious, yet so many policymakers, governments and institutions appear not to understand the principle; Smith and Mac never lose sight of it. As a starting point for anyone interested in the political dimensions of sex work, or in how to reduce harm to vulnerable people, or in the interconnectedness of many of today’s most pressing social issues, Revolting Prostitutes is essential reading.


Revolting Prostitutes was first published by Verso Books in the UK in 2018; my paperback edition is from 2020.

The Dead Are Arising

Over at Litro, my review of The Dead Are Arising is up! It’s a new biography of Malcolm X, nearly 30 years in the making, and although it’s a landmark piece of work, it’s not without its weaknesses. You can read the full review for free here.

Gilead

Last Sunday was a very good day and a very beautiful one: I did the work I intended to do in the morning, finishing up a review for Litro and doing the research I’d planned, and then I went for a walk to the nearest Little Free Library to drop off some proofs and old books, which is a roundtrip of about forty minutes. The weather was beautiful; it was the first day of this year that the air didn’t bite, which is always a good day, and the sun was shining in between scraps of drifting cloud. I started off in my jacket but didn’t need it. There were crocuses and snowdrops and daffodils in gardens every other block. On the way home, I bought a fourpack of tinned cider. We no longer have access to a garden, so instead I sat on our front step, barefoot and wearing sunglasses, and drank my way through three tinnies (waving at the downstairs neighbours through their front room curtains when I returned with refills), and re-read a book both completely beautiful and completely irrelevant to any other project I’m working on right now, which is Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. According to my book journal, the last time I read this was in February 2008, which would have been my sophomore year of high school. I’ve read Robinson more recently than that—her fourth novel, Lila, made a huge impression on me over Christmas in 2015—but although I did remember the outline of Gilead, much of the detail was lost on me as a fifteen-year-old reader, and probably rightly so. Returning to it at twenty-eight was a good choice.

Better criticism on Marilynne Robinson’s work has been written than I can muster in the morning hour before work, I’m afraid, so this is not going to be a critical essay, just a few comments and responses to what I saw in Gilead this time around. First of all, it is almost the only mainstream contemporary novel I can think of that takes seriously, and allows its characters to take seriously, the notion of divinity as Christian tradition frames it. (The only other one that springs to mind, apart from Robinson’s other work, is Jamie Quatro’s Fire Sermon. Possibly William Kent Krueger’s Ordinary Grace, though there’s a distance between the characters and the narrator, who is looking back on events after several decades, that renders faith less potent somehow. Leif Enger’s Peace Like a River is not in the same category, to my mind, because the purpose of God in that novel is to dazzle the reader with miracle and sentiment, and in my experience that is not a representative modus operandi for God in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. I’m willing to change my mind, though.) John Ames, the minister who is writing the entire book as a letter to his young son, born to him in old age, has lived his entire life within this framework of religious belief, although he has not been without doubt. It allows him, and Robinson, to wrestle genuinely with the ideas of grace and redemption that other writers can only gesture at because the stakes in those novels are not as high. In Gilead, it is not only Jack Boughton, the prodigal son, who needs redeeming; it is also, and urgently, John Ames himself, whose jealousy, misunderstanding and distrust must be overcome if he is to die well and rest peacefully. Blessing Jack, as Jack’s father (also a minister) cannot do, is the crowning redemptive act of John Ames’s life, and when he does it at the end of the book, he has reached a peace with God and himself, the legacies of his own father and grandfather, and left a good legacy for his son. (Significantly, also, Jack’s full name is John Ames Boughton; he is named after Ames, who lost a wife and child of his own as a young man, and Ames acknowledges that Jack is as much his son, in the ways that matter, as Boughton’s. Jack’s fate, in other words, is tied to Ames’s own. He carries the name forward into the world, making his forgiveness and redemption that much more a matter of personal urgency.)

Noticeable, also, is the presence of the American Civil War, which is threaded through the book with Robinson’s characteristic narrative subtlety. This was something I almost entirely missed when reading it as a teenager. John Ames’s grandfather, we learn, was a radical abolitionist preacher who came to “Bleeding Kansas” in the days when the fate of that state—it was about to enter the Union; would it be slave-holding or free?—seemed to hold the key to the fate of the nation. Old Ames, as I’ll call him, was uncompromising: he fought with the rebel John Brown, was hunted by Confederate soldiers, founded hamlets that existed only for the safe passage of fugitive slaves headed for Canada, and converted indifferent settler towns to the anti-slavery cause through tireless preaching. He is, of course, an impossible figure to live up to. As an old man, we are told, he was a pathological giver-away of things, to an extent that distressed and embarrassed his children and other townspeople: his adult daughter takes to hiding coins in jars of food in the pantry; more than once Ames remembers him taking clothes off of washing lines to give to vagrants; there is a memory of him emptying the entire collecting plate at the Presbyterian church into his hat one Sunday. Near the end of his life, he flees Gilead altogether and returns to Kansas, without telling the rest of his family where he has gone. Old Ames is haunted, in other words, by abolition and by what he has seen in the war. He has given his life to a cause and now it consumes him. A preacher who has killed, a freedom fighter who sees the rise of Jim Crow laws and sharecropping, and knows that little has changed despite the blood that was spilt, cannot rest anywhere. John Ames writes that he knows his father was a disappointment to his grandfather, and that he disappointed his father in turn: they are, not to put too fine an allegorical point on it, representative of the generations of post-Civil War America. They cannot help but fail to live up to the demands of their ancestors, who also failed themselves by speaking of liberty and perhaps believing in it, all while founding a nation upon the sin of keeping others in bondage. When John Ames blesses Jack Boughton because Boughton’s father can’t, it’s not only because old Boughton is dying; it’s because Jack has returned to tell Ames that he is married to a “colored woman”, Della, and has a mixed-race son.

Parents and children—specifically, though I think not exclusively, fathers and sons; sin and redemption; freedom and slavery; black and white; God and human. These are huge concerns and cannot necessarily be reconciled by intellect or ingenuity, no matter how hard or how cleverly we try. Ames acknowledges the nature of the problem in one of his theological asides:

Existence is the essential thing and the holy thing. If the Lord chooses to make nothing of our transgressions, then they are nothing. Or whatever reality they have is trivial and conditional[…] After all, why should the Lord bother much over these smirches that are no part of His Creation?

Well, there are a good many reasons why He should. We human beings do real harm. History could make a stone weep. I am aware that significant confusion enters my thinking at this point. […] Though I recall even in my prime foundering whenever I set the true gravity of sin over against the free grace of forgiveness.

Gilead, Marilynne Robinson, p. 190

The only peace and reconciliation that comes to Ames is through blessing a young man who has, in the past, hurt others terribly. Where is the justice in that? Is Jack Boughton held accountable for the damage he did in his youth? Ames may blame him, but he cannot judge him. That, we are given to understand, is God’s job, as is forgiveness. Ames can only forgive him, too, in his own heart, and bless.

(It is also, to my surprise, a very funny book. Ames is alive to the ridiculous and the joyful as well as to the sacramental and solemn. Robinson’s descriptions of Ames and some friends as children baptizing a litter of cats, some of whom escape, rendering their status of salvation uncertain; or of a story told by his grandfather in which a stranger’s horse sinks through a weak road and a shed has to be moved on top of it; or of his young son camping out with his best friend Tobias but being kept awake all night (“You heard growling in the bushes. T. has brothers”), are all beautifully judged, with the lightest of touches. Nothing is ever grotesque, but there is a lot of joy in Ames’s recollections of what it has been like to live, and that includes, of course, the many things to be laughed at in the world.)

Worth returning to repeatedly. There was a very good long piece on Robinson’s fiction, relatively recently, in the New Yorker, which I think came out when her most recent book, Jack, did (retelling Jack Boughton’s life from his own perspective). I’ll try to find that again, too.


Gilead was first published in the US in 2004 by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. My edition is the 2006 Picador paperback.

Fanny Burney: Her Life

Without wishing to underestimate anyone, I think you’d be hard pressed to find the general reader in 2021 who has even the remotest idea of who Fanny Burney is. Fantastically famous and well-regarded in her own time, and a favourite author of Jane Austen—indeed, influential enough that the title of Pride and Prejudice is taken directly from the final chapter of Burney’s novel Cecilia—she’s now largely read by students, professors, and nerd-types. This is unjust: her work is not only fascinating as a direct literary forebear of Austen’s, but in its own right. Her novels of young women beginning the world, heiresses forced to reckon with the culpable greed of marriage brokers, and heroines fleeing political upheaval are not only diverting for their plots; they’re also studded with minutely observed dialogue and social interactions. Burney’s shrewd ear for phrasing and tone was first honed upon the famous connections of her musical father, such as David Garrick, Hester Thrale, and Samuel Johnson; then upon Queen Charlotte, King George III, and their court, when she was a member of the Queen’s household; finally, as a married woman whose husband’s identity as a French national and a professional soldier, in the era of the Napoleonic Wars, put her family in a constant state of instability for nearly twenty years. Kate Chisholm’s marvelous biography, now rather over twenty years old itself (see bibliographical information at the end of this piece), is a wild ride through the events of Burney’s life—a very full one for a woman as shy and retiring as she was—as well as the general history of mid-eighteenth- to early nineteenth-century Europe, and a vivid introduction to Burney’s fiction and drama.

Chisholm starts with Burney’s father, a man who was to have a significant claim on her affection and loyalty throughout her life: Dr Charles Burney, an eminent musician, teacher and musicologist, whose ambitions to mix in the highest society were realized in a manner almost impossible for even the most talented to emulate. (One of Fanny’s brothers-in-law, also considered an extremely gifted musician, never attained a fraction of the acclaim, money, or access to elites, suggesting that Dr Burney’s achievements were exceptional and owed as much to his personal charms, and to good luck, as to his technical abilities.) She also had a mentor figure in the person of Samuel Crisp, a family friend to whom she repeatedly referred as “my Daddy”. Twenty-first century readers will have some questions about this, and I think rightly so; Crisp was one of the few adult men who took Fanny’s mind seriously, and with whom she could have conversations about art, literature, history and culture, but it came at the price of a level of control. Crisp’s letters show that he was unusually fond of the company of young women; it seems unlikely that his interest in Fanny was menacingly inappropriate, since they remained affectionate towards each other throughout their lives and we know Fanny to have been an almost prudish person with regards to perceived impropriety, but certainly it appears to have pleased him to have such a clever, and such a seemingly malleable, young woman in and around his house and at such close emotional proximity, so regularly. Crisp gave her some very good advice, but also some very bad: her play The Witlings was suppressed because Crisp and Dr. Burney believed it too bluntly satirical towards people who had offered Fanny specifically, and the Burney family more generally, their patronage and support, such as the literary hostess Mrs. Thrale. She may have listened to them, but she wasn’t happy about it: when Crisp’s “patronising response” (Chisholm, p. 95) to her disappointment was to suggest another topic for a more straightforward comedy, she didn’t bother to reply to the letter.

By this point she was already famous, since her first and still most widely known novel Evelina had been published in 1778. Her protagonist is a young woman trying to enter society whilst labouring under the disadvantage of being unacknowledged by her father: she knows who he is, but until he will publicly admit to her being his daughter, she is a nobody despite the upper-middle-class milieu in which she has been raised and educated by her kind guardian, Mr. Villars. The book takes the form of a series of letters, mostly from Evelina to Villars back home, as she navigates London society for the first time. It is, technically, a romantic plot, as she ends up married by the end, but what really brought the novel to critical attention and acclaim, as well as that of readers, were Fanny’s skewering powers of observation. Her ear for dialogue was exceptional and was to be her trademark as a fiction writer all her life; she depicts the conversation of vulgar City upstarts, country-bred gentlemen, young women, conniving older women on the make, foreigners and servants, with a precision that creates comedy. She rarely physically describes anyone (we never know what colour Evelina’s eyes are), but her powers of scene-setting and creation of atmosphere are immense. Her perceptiveness and memory gave her both the ability to reproduce conversations word for word and great power over fictional tone, but this initially worried her: “if you do tell Mrs Thrale [that I am the author of Evelina], —won’t she think it very strange where I can have Kept Company, to draw such a family as the Branghtons…” (quoted Chisholm, p. 57) Her identity was at first anonymous; all of her communications with her publisher took place through a brother or cousin, suitably disguised (both of the male relatives she pressed into service for her here seemed to relish the amateur theatrics of it all). She was terrified to be thought unladylike. When the secret was finally revealed (by her father), she was only persuaded of the acceptability of her public authorship by the knowledge that both Mrs. Thrale and Dr. Johnson (another family friend) regarded Evelina very highly.

Fanny occupies an intriguing place in women’s history, and particularly in the history of women writers: she was not a political radical or a feminist by any means, deferring to her father frequently and eventually marrying a French aristocratic emigré, General d’Arblay. (Their marriage seems to have been the happiest of all her siblings’; they were very much in love, and remained so throughout their lives. She was forty-one when she married him, forty-two when they had their first and only child, Alexander.) Yet her writing—she produced three other novels, Cecilia, Camilla, and The Wanderer, and many other plays, though few were ever staged and one at least that was staged was disastrously received—is consistently interested in how women can make their way in the world without patriarchal protection; in what happens to a woman who perhaps has money but no one to represent her interests, and little or no respect from her guardians; and in representing events occurring in the world without attaching an obvious moral. Her work was satirical but does not partake of the clear agenda to “improve” that defines Richardson’s and Fielding’s writing; she trusts her readers to understand the rights and wrongs of her characters, but is much more an observer than a moralist. Particularly in her early work, there are eruptions of violence (a monkey bites off a dandy’s ear) and cruelty (two lords make two elderly peasant women race each other so that they can have something to bet on) that are, even now, grotesque and shocking to read; there are encounters with sex workers at Vauxhall in one novel, frank and funny dialogues between servants, milliners, and other working women in her plays. Fanny is never easy to categorize, either as a person or as an author.

She was restored to public attention primarily through the publication of her journals and letters, which made it clear that she was present at many of the great historical moments of her time. As a child, she plays with the famous actor David Garrick, a frequent house guest thanks to her father’s musical work in the theatre. As a young woman, she matches wits with Dr Johnson, Mrs. Thrale, Mrs. Montagu, and Richardson. As an unmarried woman in her thirties, a friend introduces her to Queen Charlotte and she is appointed Second Keeper of the Robes; although miserable as a courtier and eventually released from royal service, she becomes close to the royal family, witnesses the first illness and madness of King George III, and is present in Kew Gardens for his recovery (she runs away from him, unaware that he is now well again, and he chases her through the shrubbery with his doctors). In her forties, she becomes part of a circle that includes French emigrés fleeing the Revolution, and falls in love with one, whom she marries. In her fifties, her husband is part of the army of allies that challenges Napoleon at Waterloo; she is in Brussels while the battle takes place, and her account of the confused intelligence coming from the battlefield regarding the victor is an extraordinarily immediate portrayal of that historical moment.

One of the most famous accounts from her journals describes her endurance of a seventeen-minute mastectomy; she had a cancerous lump in her right breast and was operated upon in 1811. It took her nine months to complete her account of this ordeal, and it is frankly a wonder that she managed it at all. I defy anyone, with or without breasts, to read her testimony unmoved. She was without anaesthetic apart from some wine mixed with laudanum, and refused to be held down by the surgeon’s assistant; she held her own breast for him to cut, and describes the linen handkerchief that was placed over her face for a measure of dignity and discretion. “[w]hen, Bright through the cambric, I saw the glitter of polished Steel,—I closed my Eyes,” she writes (quoted Chisholm, p. 214) She did this without her husband, forbidding her servants to fetch him from his office; in a foreign language and land (they were living in France at the time, and although she spoke the language well, it must have added another layer of fear and estrangement to proceedings); and her own maids, save one, had been sent out of the room by the surgeon and “7 Men in black” (ibid.) who were present to assist him. Her bravery, and her suffering, is unthinkable, and the fact that she left a record of the experience makes her braver still. If you read one thing by Fanny Burney, make it that account. (If you read a second thing, make it Evelina.)

Responding to such trauma by memorializing it verbally is more indicative of Fanny than anything else that can be said: she was a writer through and through, an observer and recorder. We’re lucky to have her words, and lucky to have Kate Chisholm’s biography, which gives such an exciting and entertaining yet scholarly account of her life and world. As Stella Tillyard has already said, if the best literary biographies make us want to seek out the work of their subjects, Chisholm succeeds admirably. I read Evelina over a decade ago, but will be returning to it, and seeking out her other novels too.


Fanny Burney: Her Life was published by Vintage in paperback in 1999. It is now out of print, but can be found on AbeBooks. My copy is from The Second Shelf. Burney’s novels are all in print from Penguin and/or Oxford World’s Classics, except for The Wanderer, a 1991 edition of which is also available secondhand through AbeBooks. The Second Shelf might also be able to find you a copy if you ask nicely.

A Still Life

Josie George has been ill most of her life, on and off. She’s never had a diagnosis, or more accurately, she’s had many: chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, psychosomatic, and a dozen more. None has quite described what happens to her body: the dragging fatigue, the hot leaden pain in her legs, the fainting, the immobility. She has a mobility scooter, and her mother and best friend both live nearby, so she’s not without help, but the pain and the indignity are still there. Her young son, age ten at the time of this book’s writing, knows her bad days well enough to be able to get himself dinner or entertain himself in the evenings, when he has to.

The book is structured in four parts, seasonal: winter, spring, summer, autumn. In every part, George oscillates between past (“Then”) and present (untitled sections). Then contains the story of her childhood, the early manifestations of her illness, the way it has affected her relationships—an early, terrifying boyfriend from her church, who controlled and manipulated her and coerced her into sex at the age of thirteen; an ex-husband who did nothing bad except to be the wrong person for her—and the work she has loved to do: early jobs in an office, typing up invoices; in a care home for the elderly, which she loves with the passion of someone called to the work; at a library in a high school, where she reads and talks to the children for whom that room is a refuge. The present is the story of the year she spends writing the book—2017-2018, I think, judging by the date of the foreword—during which she raises her son, spends a lot of time observing the motions of the world around her, and, most unexpectedly, falls in love.

George’s response to physical limitation is an extraordinary attentiveness to what is around her. Her capacity to attend, to note, to see, to connect, is heightened by the extra time and effort it takes her to get anywhere. In one beautiful, bravura passage, she’s in her local community centre, listening to Vivaldi, and the movements of everyone around her in the cafe become somehow, miraculously, rhythmically entwined with the music:

A pause in the arrangement followed by a considered, swelling note coincides with a man bracing to leave his armchair opposite, veins thick on his hands, and a nose-scratch behind him catches the staccato note that follows. I watch a coat shrugged off in perfect 3/4 time. A slow cello joins and I watch an elderly woman raise knife and fork with each glide of the bow: a fragile, hesitant conductor […] Thank goodness for the days when my tight, egotistical hold on a hoarded reality slips and I can see it all for what it is again: that nothing and no-one is separate.

A Still Life, Josie George, p. 316

It’s common, in works about chronically ill and disabled people, to either find or seek a sense of inspiration in them; to gain the impression that the life of a sick person is designed specifically in order to make you, in your whole body, marvel at the wonder of their continued ability to exist. It’s patronizing, and wrong, and I also have a complicated relationship with it, since I too am a chronically ill and disabled person (one entire organ has failed to work since I was three, for reasons best known to itself). George could be seen, I suppose, as inspirational, but that would be to ignore the thread that runs through her work, fierce and gentle, of choice. She writes about choice throughout A Still Life, and it’s not the frantic, choose-not-to-be-sick capitalistic fetishization of productivity and well-being and mindfulness, although she talks about a time when she tried to be that person. It’s about raising her son to see that the body does not limit the mind, that pain and suffering and difficulty are never all that there is, and that, to a very large extent, you can decide whether to despair or not. You can decide what stories to tell yourself; you can decide how you see your own life.

I carry power inside of me. I carry it hot and ripe. I need only point my will and move, infinitesimally slow and ordinary but forward. It doesn’t need to be dramatic or impressive. No one need see it but me and him, as we hang the laundry together, as I pull the plug on the dirty dishwasher, as we decide to watch nature programmes on my laptop in bed.

Power is given and taken, but not all of it. Never all of it.

A Still Life, p. 119

A little later, she talks again about how to approach life from a slowed-down vantage. It’s not all calm acceptance; there are days when she is furious, frightened, when it takes too long to walk from room to room and she feels like time is wasted; when she has fallen on the bathroom floor and must crawl to her bed, grateful her son is at school; when she is so sick and in pain that she can’t move from bed in the first place. Buddhist teaching helps her with some of this: to understand that pain is occurring to her but is not all. She writes about acting where and as she can, about the nature of resting in a world that glorifies work, and about how it is possible to rest badly as well as to rest well. (Anyone who has stuffed their brain with Netflix and Twitter late into the night, then felt vaguely hungover the next morning, will recognize this. She admits she’s done it too; among George’s great qualities as a narrating voice, one of them is the distinct lack of judgment or superiority. One gets the impression she would find any assertions of superiority intensely funny.)

I believe in gentle, creative, practical action now above all else: conscious, malleable, chosen. Action not to prove my worth or meet anyone’s expectations, but an unseen, calm momentum. Action that looks life straight in the eye.

A Still Life, p. 142

In the twenty-first century, especially in the past twelve months, where it has been proved one hundred thousand times in the UK alone that a human life has value to our government only insofar as it can perform as a productive economic unit, this is a radical assertion. George invites us to the quietest of revolutions. It’s not uplit or #inspo; it’s something much better. It’s the idea of becoming. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see this book on the Barbellion Prize shortlist next year.


A Still Life is published by Bloomsbury on 18 February, 2021.

Without Prejudice

~~Some spoilers may follow. Trigger/content warnings for open racism and sexism, rape, sexual coercion~~

Without Prejudice, one of the six entries in Penguin’s new Black Britain: Writing Back reprint series (curated by Bernardine Evaristo), is a crime novel from 1997 that both speaks urgently to contemporary issues and reveals just how far we’ve come in twenty-odd years–though often this is less a question of battles being won than of the fight simply moving underground. Lee Mitchell, the protagonist, is a barrister from a working-class Caribbean background; one of only two women in her chambers, and the only Black person at all, she comes up against constant institutional resistance, from colleagues as well as clients. When a tasty, high-profile fraud case involving the Omartians, a City investing family, lands on her desk, she takes it in the knowledge that this could be The Case, the win–or at least the media attention–that catapults her into the big-time. It wouldn’t be a courtroom drama, of course, if things went exactly as planned, and soon it becomes clear that Lee’s client, Clive Omartian, could destroy everything she’s worked so hard to achieve.

One of the great features of Without Prejudice is that it is likely to surprise even relatively sanguine and realistic people about the prevalence of biogtry in English society. It’s not that it exists, but the sheer nakedness of its expression, that is so jolting. Clive is pretty clearly some degree of wrong’un from the start, so perhaps his increasingly sexualized remarks come as less of a revelation, but even Lee’s head of chambers, the odious Giles Townsend, thinks of her as “abrasive” (whilst also secretly pulling strings to get his 23-year-old lover, to whom he grotesquely refers as his niece, installed as Lee’s pupil), and the celebrity barrister George Amery reflects, unbecomingly, on how much he’ll enjoy “taking this arrogant bitch down a peg or two”. These are such classic instances of sexist-inflected language that I felt almost impatient with them; I learned that “abrasive”, “brusque”, “intimidating”, “rude”, “cold” and “arrogant” were dog-whistle euphemisms when I was eighteen or so–which admittedly was late; I got lucky not having to learn sooner, and I was at university in the early 2010s, when fourth-wave feminism was just stirring and #MeToo wasn’t even a speck on the horizon. (None of us, as far as I can recall, had Twitter.) So the language and undisguised nature of the prejudice on display in this novel from 1997 struck me as rather self-evident, or even quaint. Which, of course, is the most perfect illustration of how we’ve changed since then, or how we haven’t.

Although it’s a subplot and not particularly connected to Lee’s Omartian trial, the aspect of the book that conveys this most effectively is the way Lee’s friend Simone is treated when she makes an allegation of rape against a man whom she had been seeing casually, and whom she let into her house to use the bathroom one evening. Simone doesn’t want to prosecute at first, and when her rapist leaves the house, she washes herself thoroughly and bleaches everything (including, horrifyingly, herself; Williams writes that a juror winces at this). Both of these actions, plus the fact that she is still legally married to but separated from her husband, who has left her because she has miscarried a much-wanted baby, and the fact that she was sleeping with her rapist but (horrors!) not in love with him, torpedo her case in court. Here, for instance, is a portion of her cross-examination by her rapist’s defence barrister:

“Mrs Wilson, let’s talk about the pictures. I suggest that those bruises were due to sexual activity that was a little, shall we say, more energetic than usual.”

“I don’t get excited by being hurt, Mr. Amery.”

“And what does, to use your words, Mrs. Wilson, ‘excite’ you?”

Without Prejudice, Nicola Williams, p. 259

It is not inconceivable now that a defence barrister would take such a line: the rough-sex defence for serious harm or murder was only outlawed in the UK in July of 2020, less than a year ago. (Please note, by the way, that the URL for that article shows us that it is not archived on the Independent’s website under “news/uk/crime”, but under “life-style/women”. Clearly, we haven’t made all that many intellectual and cultural leaps since 1997.) It is slightly less conceivable that a vulnerable witness would be allowed to take the stand, in a highly emotive case, before a jury, with apparently no guidance from her lawyers with regards to how to give her testimony, and these days Simone might not have to appear in court in person at all (page 35 of the government’s Victim Strategy from 2018 suggests as much, anyway). For which, reading Williams’s meticulous account of her cross-examination by the defence and the Crown’s failure to assist her, one can only say thank God.

There are other, telling moments that bring class into the equation, as must always eventually happen in discussions of British inequality. Lee is at last alerted to the presence of a mole in her team by a former client, Ray Willis, a career criminal whose defence she has conducted many times. Ray manages this under the nose of a minder from a higher-up, by giving her a copy of Julius Caesar, which was, he tells her, the only thing he paid attention to in school before he dropped out. Paging through it, Lee finds that he has highlighted the famous statement about “yon Cassius”, with his “lean and hungry look”, and realizes to whom it refers. Williams knows that this is something a snob would consider implausible; when Ray is visited later by the truly awful Clive, “he had a bemused look on his face: ‘So it’s true, a Peckham lad who reads Shakespeare as well as Loaded.'” To Clive, it’s incongruous, even suspicious; but poor people read Shakespeare, and like and understand him as well as Harrow-educated fraudulent financiers do. Perhaps better: Ray loves Caesar so much because he sees reflected in it a relentless jostling for power that he recognizes from his own life. In another incident that blends class and race prejudice, Lee is mistaken for a defendant in a drugs case by a young Oxbridge clerk on summer work experience (who is, to top it all, late for the relevant trial). Her response is delicious (“Please, don’t say anything more. We’re done here.”), but she faces it every day, from every conceivable angle.

Something my housemate and I like to talk about is: where are our blind spots now? Broadly speaking, racism, sexism and homophobia are the “how did you not get that was bad?” issues of our grandparents’ generation; our parents struggle with neurodiversity and transsexuality; we, I suspect, will be intolerant of transhumans, people who believe themselves to be a consciousness which belongs more rightly in a mainframe than a body. It’s interesting to see an author twenty-five years ago trying to grapple with that herself. Williams introduces, very briefly, a trans woman named Tonia, who used to be Winston and who went to school with Simone and Lee. When Simone cannot acquire justice through the courts, she turns to vigilanteism. [trigger warning now for rape/revenge rape] Her rapist, Steve, is “fooled” by the stunning Tonia in a club, goes back to her place, and is promptly beaten to the ground and raped by that same Tonia, who still has a penis, while Simone looks on dispassionately from the shadows. As trans representation goes, it’s very, very bad. Cis straight men have historically responded to their fear of being “fooled” or “tricked” by enacting murderous violence upon the bodies of trans women; to suggest that the threat is the other way around may look like empowerment, but is in fact an early manifestation of what’s now turned into the bathroom debate. Tonia endangers her own life to enact vengeance for Simone. (And are we to assume that she can simply summon an erection on command?) That scene is hazardous, and more than anything else, that’s what marks this novel as out-of-date. The rest of it, though, is eye-opening. I have two more reprints from the Writing Back series–one a historical novel, one an exploration of ’90s Britain’s mental health system–and look forward to exploring them both.


Without Prejudice was originally published in the UK in 1997; my edition, from Penguin’s Black Britain: Writing Back series, is published 4 February 2021.

The Summer Without Men

I’d read three of Siri Hustvedt’s books before this one: What I Loved, which haunts me in the best possible way with its intimations of conceptually-artistic murder and child death; Memories of the Future, a Woolfian excavation of a woman’s recollections of early adulthood in New York City; and A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women, a brilliant but dense collection of essays on art, sex, and neuroscience. I was told to expect lighter fare with this, and I can see why: that Jane Austen comparison (from the Daily Mail, no less—boak), the jaunty readeress on the front cover, a plot that promised to retread old midlife-marriage-crisis ground. Mia Fredericksen, a middle-aged moderately successful experimental poet, is told by her husband Boris, a neurobiologist, that he wants “a pause” in their marriage in order to pursue a relationship with a much younger French colleague. Mia experiences a brief bout of psychosis, and a stay in hospital, then goes back to a Midwestern town where her mother is now in an assisted living facility to recover for the summer. There she becomes embroiled in the social drama of several twelve-year-old girls to whom she teaches a poetry workshop; befriends her neighbour Lola, a twenty-six-year-old woman with two small children and a deeply unstable, angry husband; discovers the subversive art produced over many decades by one of her mother’s friends in the facility, Abigail; and tries to come to terms with the possibility that her marriage is over. Sounds a bit like Frederick Backman or Joanna Cannon, right? Charming. Inoffensive. A trifle twee.

Noooo. No no no no no.

Hustvedt’s work is intensely metatextual and allusive; always has been. It makes perfect sense that Mia, a poet and professor, should have quotations at her finger’s ends. Throughout the book, she refers, inter alia, to the works of: Emily Dickinson, George Trakl, Alice in Wonderland, Friedrich von Klinger, a whole sublist of mad poets (“Torquato Tasso, John Clare, Christopher Smart, Friedrich Holderlin, Anontin Arnaud […], Edna St Vincent Millay […], Anne Sexton, Laura Riding, Sara Teasdale, Vachel Lindsay, John Berryman, James Schuyler, Sylvia Plath, Delmore Schwartz…”), Jane Eyre, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129, Tom Lehrer, the Book of Job, Soren Kierkegaard. That’s only the first fifty pages. I just flicked through; there’s something every two or three pages or so. There is also, consistently, the Jane Austen novel Persuasion, which Mia’s mother’s book club is reading and discussing. Persuasion, of course, is known best for being Austen’s most middle-aged novel, a book in which youthful mistakes and arrogance, and the pain they cause, are not ignored—the effects of Anne’s initial rejection of Wentworth are not undone—but in which a second chance, another choice, is made possible. (It’s Austen’s version of Shakespeare’s late romances, her Tempest or Winter’s Tale, perhaps.)

Hustvedt is a sophisticated enough writer not to suggest that better worlds are likely, but she does offer chances. The girls to whom Mia teaches poetry are not all natural readers or writers, and the one who is—Alice—is shunned and bullied for being what the other girls incoherently refer to as “stuck up”. What they mean is that Alice’s feelings are strong and external; that she makes herself vulnerable; and that the sight of her vulnerability in conjunction with her access to imaginative (if overheated) self-expression is enraging, that it makes them want to hurt her. Mia’s method of dealing with this crisis, when it comes to a head, is to force all of the girls into writing accounts of the debacle from each other’s points of view. It looks, at first, like the old, hoary notion that fiction fosters empathy, but that’s not Mia’s purpose, or Hustvedt’s:

By Thursday it was obvious that a tacit script had already been written, and the children had thrown themselves into their own melodrama with gusto. Alice lost something of her stature as a romantic heroine, but her suffering was acknowledged by all, and she entered the lives of her tormentors with such zeal that by Friday, Nikki cried out, “Oh my God, Alice, you like being the mean one!” […] The story they all took home on Friday was not true; it was a version they could all live with, very much like national histories that blur and hide and distort the movements of people and events in order to preserve an idea. The girls did not want to hate themselves, and, although self-hatred is not at all uncommon, the consensus they reached about what had happened among them was considerably softer than [“homo homini lupus“].

The Summer Without Men, Siri Hustvedt, p. 201

The way to start over again, then, in life, is to tell a different story. What I love Hustvedt for is that she never says that. She just has her characters doing it. Mia, for instance, runs through Boris’s many tics and quirks and downright thoughtless habits, and those are stories; she also tells herself differing versions of the same tale when her daughter Daisy reports that Boris is now living in a hotel: he has broken up with The Pause, The Pause has broken up with him, they’re still together but the apartment isn’t big enough so they’ve moved in to a hotel, they’ve mutually broken up, none of the above. Her ability to cope with her life is determined by her ability to narrativize it. The same is true of Abigail, her mother’s friend. It transpires that she has spent much of her adult life making entirely unobjectionable-looking needlepoint pieces which, on further inspection, contain secret unseemlinesses: a button is the knob of a door that opens onto a scene of cavorting naked women, or flying Hoovers, or flaming female dragon-monsters. Abigail was in love with a woman but married a man—a man who failed her—and it is not hard to start drawing parallels between her story and Persuasion and Austen’s biography and the long history of furious, hidden, secret female art.

Mia’s metatextual playfulness extends to the very book we’re reading. She is its author as well as its subject, we are given to understand. As with all of Hustvedt’s work, Virginia Woolf’s ghost hovers when it comes to discussions of time and the fictional representation thereof:

How to tell it? asks your sad, crack-brained, crybaby narrator. How to tell it? It gets a bit crowded from here on in—there’s simultaneity, one thing happening at Rolling Meadow, another at the Arts Guild, another at the neighbouring house, not to speak of my Boris wandering the streets of NYC with my confused Daisy on his heels; all of this will have to be dealt with. And we all know that simultaneity is a BIG [sic] problem for words. They come in sequence, always, only in sequence, so while I sort it out, I will refer to Dr. Johnson.

Ibid., p. 134

It’s not a light book; it’s just not heavy. It’s a Trojan horse for deep levels of thought about time, cause and effect in relationships, action, structure, narrative. It is, in other words, not far from what my friend and former colleague Faye means when she talks about “soft metafiction”. I already know it’ll be a book to revisit.


The Summer Without Men was published in 2011; my copy is from Sceptre.

The Prophets

In the past year or so, several books have been compared to the masterworks of Toni Morrison. I’ve read at least two of them–The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Conjure Women by Afia Atakora–and it’s been easy enough to see where the comparisons come from–both have been novels about enslaved people and the toll that slavery exacts upon the humanity of oppressors and oppressed–but none of those books has been as deserving of the accolade as Robert Jones Jr.’s The Prophets.

The novel deals with the love between two enslaved men on a Mississippi plantation in the late 1700s or early 1800s (no clearer assessment can be made regarding the time period; it seems likely that it’s before Britain ceases to participate in the transatlantic slave trade, since the master’s long-lost cousin, now an overseer on the plantation, works his passage over from England as a deckhand on a slave ship.) These two young men, Isaiah and Samuel, share a love that every slave on the plantation recognizes as nourishing; it seems to light them up from the inside, and their movement through the world is evidence of their love’s power. What it renders difficult, however, is the forced breeding programme run by the plantation’s owner, Paul. When one of the boys not only refuses to rape a fellow slave woman but is actually physically unable to, Paul turns to another slave, Amos, who wants to preach. Giving Amos the power of literacy via the Bible and the license to talk about Jesus on Sunday mornings, Paul hopes to convert his whole slave population to Christianity, foment hatred of Isaiah and Samuel as sodomites, and keep potential rebellion unfulfilled by dangling the hope of eternal heavenly reward for patient earthly suffering.

One of the most interesting things about The Prophets is its integration of African religious and spiritual practices into the lives of its characters. Because it’s set at a point in history when Christianity has not yet become a default worldview for Black enslaved people living in America, Jones can explore blood memory, which lives in many of the enslaved women whose perspectives litter the book. (Almost every named character gets a point-of-view chapter; it’s fortunate that Jones generally leaves each perspective behind him once he’s used it, or things would get unwieldy. However, the skill with which he inhabits the subtle distinctions of each character’s thoughts and feelings about their position in the world makes such a proliferation feel less superfluous than it usually does.) Maggie is the gatekeeper of blood memory on the plantation (which, though named for Paul’s mother Elizabeth, is known by a more colloquial, and more telling, name: Empty). She brings other women together to perform healing rituals with herbs and recitation when Isaiah and Samuel are whipped. She sees shadows move. She feels the presence of ancestors. She knows there were other ways. Some of the other women also have this ability: in particular, Puah, a teenage girl in fruitless love with Samuel, and Sarah, a woman who once loved another woman as Isaiah and Samuel love each other.

Perhaps the aspect of traditional religion as Jones portrays it that will surprise the greatest number of readers is its acceptance of queer sexualities. Intercut chapters show life in a pre-slavery Kosongo village ruled over by a female king, Akusa. Akusa has six wives, some of whom are women and some of whom are men. There are more than two possibilities, anyway: you can be woman, man, free, or all. When Akusa’s village first encounters a white person, a “skinless” Portuguese missionary named Brother Gabriel brought to them by an emissary from a neighbouring village that has turned quisling, he is invited to participate in a feast celebrating the marriage of two warriors, Kosii and Elewa. His inability to understand the nature of the celebration is grounded in the fact that they are both men. To King Akusa, Gabriel’s incomprehension is proof of idiocy:

“Two men?” These colorless people had the strangest system of grouping things together by what they did not understand rather than by what they did. He could see bodies, but it was clear that he could not see spirits. […]

“Impossible,” she said with a laugh. “They are bonded. Do you not see?”

“I think your people would benefit from our religion,” Brother Gabriel said.

The Prophets, Robert Jones Jr., p. 208

This has not quite been destroyed by the time Isaiah and Samuel are living in Empty. Amos, the aspiring preacher, himself thinks of a slave he knew named Henry who would answer only to Emma, and is able to absorb this: Henry/Emma is clearly a woman inside. Jones’s thesis is very clear: the damage wrought on cultures that functioned perfectly, indeed better than contemporaneous white culture did, was perpetrated not merely with guns and shackles, but with Bibles.

There are also interlaced chapters in which the voices of the ancestors speak. Unattributed, lyrical, often contradictory and confusing, impossible to pin down, these polylogues are simultaneously the most “difficult” aspect of The Prophets and the aspect that elevates it to greatness. Jones is not content to tell a simple historical story of love and struggle and failure and death. The ancestors’ voices are what make that struggle both a source of rage and a source of pride. I am not Black and have (as far as I know) no Black ancestry, and these sections were not written for me, but I can see in them the harnessed artistic expression of fury and dignity, of people whose past, present and future is channeled through shared memory and tradition. If I’m waxing unbecomingly lyrical myself here, it’s because the power of these sections renders commentary somewhat presumptuous. Jones taps into a voice that speaks down generations, through centuries. The shivers that he’s able to raise on the back of the reader’s neck with this voice are the clearest indication that his book truly does approach Morrisonian heights.


The Prophets was published by riverrun on 5 January, 2021.

Water Music

~~contains spoilers, but don’t let that stop you~~

In 1795, Ned Rise is trying to make a bit of money by producing a live sex show in a London tavern. Mungo Park, meanwhile, is on his first expedition into Africa, bankrolled by Sir Joseph Banks and the aristocratic subscribers of the African Association, trying to be the first European to see the Niger River. Rise and Park are the twin poles of Water Music, TC Boyle’s debut novel (published in 1981). In usually-alternating chapters, we see them succeed and fail, following each man through years of misadventure. They will meet in Africa, on Park’s second expedition, but their lives run in curious parallel, often almost but not quite overlapping. An additional strand details the tribulations of Park’s fiancée and then wife, Ailie Anderson, who waits for years for him to come home and marry her, only to lose him to Africa a second time when Banks et al. commission him to find the Niger’s source in the early 1800s.

Water Music reminds me a good deal of Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver, though less single-mindedly scientific and with a less overt thesis. It is tremendously diverting, scurrilous, funny, sad, but one of the most significant criticisms I’ve seen leveled at it is that it seems not really to have a point; that it’s an incredibly virtuosic performance for no real purpose, other than to entertain. There’s nothing wrong with a book being merely entertaining, especially when it’s done this well, though when it’s done this well, one can’t help feeling that it could have accommodated more meaning. However, having finished the book, it’s apparent that Boyle does pull out a thematic conclusion. Rise and Park, having come together only one hundred pages before the end of the book, are forced into situations that change them: Rise for the better, as he suddenly develops a clear-eyed sense of other people’s characters and his own capacities and responsibilities, and Park for the worse, as the relentless pursuit of their expedition down the Niger by indigenous Africans turns him from a naive, excitable young man into a naive, infuriated one, his soul crabbed by racist hatred and megalomania. When, in the book’s final pages, they are faced with almost certain death, Rise at last rises (haha) to the occasion, preventing Park from murder and narrowly saving his own life (for probably the fifth time) in the process.

Rise’s miraculous ability to escape death is threaded throughout the book. As a baby, he’s saved by a mysterious harridan who reappears periodically in the narrative, haunting and mocking, perhaps a personification of street London itself. Fleeing an abusive master who mutilates him to make him a more convincingly crippled child beggar, he’s taken in by a kindly clarinetist named Barrenboyne who trains and feeds him, though Barrenboyne is shot and killed in a duel with a black man over a racial insult (who is later revealed to be Mungo Park’s first and best guide through Africa, Johnson). Jumping into the freezing Thames to escape justice when the police break up his live sex show, he should drown, but instead washes up at a fish shed in Southwark, where two brothers take him in. Sentenced to hang by the neck until dead for a death pinned on him as murder by the vindictive landlord of the raided tavern, he wakes up coughing on a dissecting slab, not a cadaver after all. Thrown down a well, locked up in a prison hulk, sent to the malarial swamps of the Goree as free labour, Rise survives time after time after incredible time. So does Park, curiously: we first meet him as a tortured prisoner of the Moors, but he endures many more tribulations–flash floods, crocodile attacks, curious cannibals, territorial leopards, Moors again–before his final voyage down the Niger. The two men are defined by their tenacious relationship with existence. At one point, wedged into a well several feet from the bottom so that his friend Boyles can take his turn sleeping on the ground, Rise wonders whether he really did die on the scaffold and everything since then has been hell; Park, wedged into the fork of a tree to avoid ravening nocturnal predators, wonders something similar. Boyle draws these connections lightly and many dozens of pages apart, making him a good deal subtler than Dickens, of whose work Water Music is also reminiscent (though really the aptest comparison would be Hogarth, with his etchings and engravings teeming with faces and bodies, grotesque and gorgeous, drinking, spitting, swearing, laughing, eating, pushing each other over. And indeed, the front cover of this edition is a Hogarth painting.)

If we didn’t already know that this was the debut novel of an aggressively clever young man, the style would make it clear. Water Music is defined by its frenetic energy, which is partly what makes it difficult to detect a purpose to its narrative: it can be hard for an author to maintain a thematic throughline when they’re so busy hopping up and down. Detail and abundance are the watchwords here, and never once does Boyle’s energy flag. Here, for instance, is the beginning of a brief (for this book) history of Johnson, the guide. It is on page ten of my edition:

Concerning Johnson. He is a member of the Mandingo tribe, they who inhabit the headwaters of the Gambia and Senegal rivers and most of the Niger valley as far as the city of legend, Timbuctoo. His mother did not name him Johnson. She called him Katunga–Katunga Oyo–after his paternal grandfather. At the age of thirteen, Johnson was kidnapped by Foulah herdsmen while celebrating the nubility of a tender young sylph in a cornfield just outside his native village of Dindikoo. The sylph’s name was Nealee. The Foulahs didn’t ask. Their chieftain, who took a fancy to Nealee’s facial tattoos and to other features as well, retained her as his personal concubine. Johnson was sold to a slatee, or traveling slave merchant, who shackled his ankles and drove him, along with sixty-two others, to the coast. Forty-nine made it. There he was sold to an American slaver who chained him in the hold of a schooner bound for South Carolina. The boy beside him, a Bobo from Djenné, had been dead for six days when the ship landed at Charleston.

Water Music, p. 10

And here, for comparison, is a passage from page 419:

And so here they are–guideless, cowryless, goodsless, anchorless, their clothes in rags and their bodies devastated with disease, sunburn and culinary fatigue, the current carrying them where it will, the water level dropping as the dry season advances, sandbanks lapping at them like tongues, humped white rocks protruding from the sickly wash of the current like picked ribs, mites, flies, ticks, chiggers and mosquitoes biting, the odor of dead fish and exposed muck so rancid and oppressive they can hardly breathe–here they are, overjoyed, celebrating, heading south.

Ibid., p. 419

Not an ounce of the hyperactive drive from the first pages has been lost. Clauses pile on top of one another like waves. It’s not always forward movement–Boyle loves to circle, as in between the two dashes above–but it doesn’t stagnate. It’s like a spun penny that never falls over. I would argue that Boyle doesn’t need 438 pages to tell this story, and that his stylistic exuberances are in large part responsible for the book’s unnecessary length, but I’m also not sorry to have read a single one of those pages.

I haven’t even gotten to Ailie, the woman and then wife whom Park abandons again and again, or Fanny, the much-loved chambermaid who sacrifices herself to a sadomasochistic young lord who is obsessed with her, in order to ease Ned Rise’s time in prison. Neither of them has quite what you would call a happy ending. Ailie glimpses happiness with a man she’d previously rejected, but a sort of vision recalls her to her responsibilities, and although she never sees her husband (or brother, who accompanies him on his second expedition) again, she spends the remaining decades of her life determinedly fostering the cult of Mungo Park, the great lost explorer. Yet she also loses her youngest son to the lure of exploration, and in our final glimpse of her, she seems drowned in despair: Africa, empire, conquest, has destroyed nearly everyone she has ever loved. Fanny, meanwhile, dies a terrible death: sex-trafficked into Europe, kept half-unconscious by laudanum (to which she becomes addicted), repeatedly gang-raped for years by an aristocratic group of sex-cultists, she escapes back to England with her toddler son after a particularly violent orgy, but loses him. Penniless, friendless, she falls from Blackfriars Bridge, even as Rise continues to search for her. It is difficult to read these passages. Ailie starts off spirited and bright, funny, sarcastic, impatient; Park’s self-centeredness and inability to trust his wife with the truth makes her life a waste, and renders her a husk of her former self. Fanny is beautiful, good-natured, and brave; the choice she makes for her man brings her nothing but humiliation, pain, shame and death. What are we to make of this, other than to nod in recognition as, once again, patriarchal societies that fundamentally despise women end up destroying them? They are very skilfully rendered sections, and there is no doubt that the 1790s and early 1800s were not forgiving times for women whose lives did not follow the prescribed track; it’s just that we do already know this. Is dwelling on the point realistic, or cruel? Hard to say.


Water Music was first published in the US, by Little, Brown, in 1981. My edition was published by Granta in 1998.