06. The Waters and the Wild, by DeSales Harrison

35576092I’ve always thought Benjamin Britten would have written great music for it, the Yeats poem that gives this book its title:

Come away, O human child!

To the waters and the wild

With a faery, hand in hand,

For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

The poem appears in an envelope addressed to Daniel Abend, a psychoanalyst who lives in New York City. Along with the poem—handwritten, in the distinctive block capitals of the woman whom Daniel loved twenty years ago in Paris, who killed herself shortly after they ended their relationship—there is a photograph of Daniel’s former patient Jessica Burke, who died in her bathtub of a heroin overdose. She is supposed to have died alone, but the photograph suggests otherwise; someone else was there, someone who knows Daniel’s life and history, and who is bent on revenge.

Daniel reveals his story through a long confession written and sent to Father Nelson Spurlock, the vicar of the church in New York that conducts Jessica Burke’s funeral. Thus, as Spurlock reads the document, we too discover the secrets that Daniel has been living with, and keeping from his daughter Clementine. By its very nature, the confessional structure is a slow reveal; it takes almost the entire book for us to learn things that Daniel knows from the start. Sometimes it’s too slow. Harrison, like Benjamin Wood, wants us to see this story as somehow special or profound. He uses as many tricks as he can to imbue the narrative with weight: heavy foreshadowing, complex or inverted sentence structure that echoes biblical or poetic phrasing, introduction of religious themes (Daniel’s beloved is on track to become a nun), and of course that Yeats poem. Again, though, I don’t see that it works, and I don’t see why it’s even necessary to reach for it: the particular sins of Daniel’s life, his failures and his lies, are so commonplace and human. They have extreme consequences—a person’s death, a child’s life—but Harrison seems to want to introduce a metaphysical significance to the events of the plot that simply isn’t supported. There is a lot about shame and guilt and God, but these things can and should be invoked and felt deeply by the characters, without necessarily being a moral framework through which the reader ought to perceive the book.

The Waters and the Wild is helped, though, by that confessional structure: you want to read it all the way through because you do—even if frustrated by Daniel’s withholding—want to know what happened in the past, and how it is affecting the present. You want, perhaps most of all, to know his level of culpability: how much is he at fault? He is a thoroughly realised character, seemingly open but concealing much, perhaps because he is deceiving himself. That particular brand of unreliability makes a nice change from the other unreliable narrators of domestic noir, who tend to be alcoholic women. The Waters and the Wild is flawed in conception and execution, but it sets its sights much higher than most other books of its genre.

Reading Diary: Apr. 22-Apr. 30

9781786697080There ought to be a law that if your book has a crackerjack premise, you must execute it with commensurate panache. I don’t know how this might be enforced – through the imposition of a fine, perhaps? – but it might stop books like In the Cage Where Your Saviours Hide from getting me really excited and then letting me down hard. It’s a crime novel set in a Scotland that never signed the Act of Union, so the country has always been independent of England, and has relied for the past several centuries on its Central American empire, the Caledonian States. (In this version of history, the Darien scheme was a smashing success.) Malcolm Mackay sets the novel in the northwest port town of Challaid, which is slowly dying as industry dries up. Darien Ross, a private investigator with a jailbird ex-cop dad, a mildly criminal older brother, and a lot of fine lines to tread, takes a case from a classic noir femme fatale: Maeve Campbell walks into the office he shares with his boss and asks him to track down the man who stabbed her boyfriend, a money launderer descended from Caledonian immigrants. Ross, of course, takes the case.

The setup is great. It’s a shame, then, that the pay-off is so minimal. For what Mackay does with his cleverly imagined setting is to write a noir crime novel so straight that it could just as easily be set in Cardiff, or Manchester, or anywhere vaguely northern and rainy. As a novel about a private investigator goes, it hits all the beats it needs to  (although there are some frustrating choices in Maeve’s characterisation, and in the revelation of the killer). But there are a million things about an independent Scotland that could have been developed: what are its relations with its southern neighbour? Why are its industries in decline? (It must be a reason that has nothing to do with English rule and/or political decisions, but we don’t get to hear it.) There are hints of unrest regarding immigration from the Caledonian states, which are agitating for independence; Ross interviews a waiter from Costa Rica who will be entitled to a Scottish passport if he can just keep working in Challaid for another two months. But nothing is made of it, it doesn’t go anywhere. You can’t entice readers with the promise of world-building and then avoid building the world. The “primary source” documents which interleave the chapters – historic newspaper articles, investigative reports, etc. – are perhaps an attempt to do this implicitly, but they are not elegantly integrated into the main narrative, and therefore are less of a help than an obstacle. It’s a shame, especially given that the last alternative-history book I read (KJ Whittaker’s phenomenal False Lights, back in September) managed its world-building so well.

33590210Roy and Celestial are a middle-class black couple from Atlanta. He’s a banker; she’s an emerging artist. They’ve been married for a year when Roy is arrested, tried and convicted for a crime that he didn’t commit. Sent to prison for twelve years, he’s let out after five, but the damage to his marriage is already done: how can he and Celestial, and their mutual friend Andre, figure out a way to live after their lives have been destroyed?

An American Marriage is a lot like Diana Evans’s Ordinary People, which I read last week, in that it asks questions about how marriages and relationships actually work, or don’t work, and doesn’t shy away from the fact that the answers might be devastating. It is never in question that Roy and Celestial love each other, but the strain of incarceration on a brand-new marriage is intense. Jones gives Celestial some wonderful, incisive dialogue about what it feels like to be a black woman standing in line for a prison visit with your husband: how you know the guards are judging you, how you’re judging yourself, how desperately you don’t want to feel part of the sorority of black women all around you who are also there to visit their men. It’s not just romantic relationship dynamics that are under scrutiny here: Roy’s mother’s husband, the man who raised him, is not his biological father. While in prison, he meets the man who fathered him, and Jones explores, through their oddball, tentative relationship and through the love between Roy and his adopted father, Big Roy, the various ways in which boys can become men. Characterisation is deep and convincing, dialogue is on point – there’s nothing about An American Marriage that rings false. It’s a highly addictive story told with great powers of observation and empathy. UK readers are lucky that the brilliant publisher Oneworld has made it available in this country.

cover2Even though I’m trying hard to read more nonfiction, A Spy Named Orphan still isn’t the sort of thing I generally go for. It looks like a book on the “hard” edge of the spectrum: the history/biography lists that are still overwhelmingly white educated male-centric. For some reason, I rescued a proof from oblivion a few months ago, and now I’m very glad I did. Roland Philipps has written a sympathetic, nuanced and informative biography of Donald Maclean (one of the original Cambridge Five who passed large amounts of classified information to the Soviets from posts within the British establishment during the Second World War and for decades after it). Not only that, but Philipps’s style is easy, combining erudition with accessibility in a way that alienates neither the casual reader nor the aficionado. It’s a very impressive piece of work.

Maclean himself was also an impressive piece of work: he possessed a first-rate ability to synthesise and summarise information, a genuine desire to make the world a safer and more peaceful place, and a self-destructive alcoholic streak that very nearly killed him. The combination of these traits makes for gripping reading. Philipps also – unusually for this sort of history/biography, I feel – acknowledges the central role that Maclean’s wife Melinda played in his life: loyal to him throughout their marriage and despite his frequently appalling public behaviour, she stuck by him even after he vanished behind the Iron Curtain, not knowing if she would ever see him again. Despite the evident faults of both husband and wife, and the cruelty of various acquaintances from the diplomatic world who generally described Melinda as a simpleton, Philipps makes it clear that they loved each other. (All things come to an end, however: when Melinda and the Maclean children were eventually exfiltrated and allowed to join Donald, she ended up running away with Kim Philby, which is the sort of thing you couldn’t make up.) A Spy Named Orphan is a genuinely gripping story, told with clarity and verve. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Thoughts on this week’s reading: I’m still reading a lot of books which, if not exactly crime, certainly involve being on the wrong side of the law. This continues with my current reading, Kirk Wallace Johnson’s The Feather Thief. (I read nothing from Thursday night until this morning, due to being the maid of honour at a family wedding over the weekend, which went smashingly.)

Reading Diary: Apr. 15-Apr. 21

814ysf3sdjlI’m going to go ahead and call it now: The Secret Barrister is probably the best non-fiction book I’ll read all year. (It’s actually called Stories of the Law and How It’s Broken, but that seems more like a subtitle to me, and the author’s name is the big sell on this one, since the Secret Barrister is a massive blog that’s twice won Independent Blogger of the Year at the Editorial Intelligence Comment Awards. So I’m referring to it as The Secret Barrister and that’s that.)

Readers of the blog will be familiar with the impetus behind the book: to reveal the myriad ways in which the English justice system – which, schoolchildren are taught, is the best in the world – is desperately broken. The anonymous author, a junior barrister practicing in London, ultimately agrees that the adversarial system in the UK is the best one that there is, but the persistent under-funding of the Crown Prosecution Service, the absurdly arbitrary nature of sentencing guidelines, and the frankly alarming power wielded in magistrates’ courts (presided over by magistrates, who, unlike Crown Court judges, have no legal training or qualifications whatsoever, and whose presence is a hangover from medieval times, when it was less important that justice be fully served than that it be quickly served) are crippling the justice system. Though the Secret Barrister never explicitly allies themselves with a particular political party, it is quite clear that the budget cuts and benchmarks set by successive Tory governments are in large part responsible for the absolute chaos in which most criminal cases are prosecuted and/or defended.

The best thing about this book – apart from the statistics, and the clear, quantitative analysis of just how many things can go wrong in a court case, and the outstanding job the book does of impressing upon the reader that anyone can end up in court, anyone can be burgled or assaulted or even falsely accused, and that therefore it is in everyone’s interests, even us smug middle-class wankers, to make sure that criminal justice works properly, which is to say that it is properly funded and less subject to dog-whistle knee-jerk bullshit from politicians and the Daily Mail than it currently is – is that the Secret Barrister can really write. The book opens with a cross-examination of a man named Mr. Tuttle, accused of punching his neighbour, who happens to be both blind and on crutches, rendering Mr. Tuttle’s defense (“he punched me first”) somewhat incredible. The scene feels immediate, funny, even absurd – I laughed within seconds – and it works because the prose is flawless: well-oiled, conversational, competent in the little things, like exactly where a comma or a hyphen makes a sentence more effective. It’s a joy to read, as well as deeply informative, and scary as hell. I am sending it to everyone.

51my9o-wxml-_sx327_bo1204203200_In 1622, Diego Velazquez traveled to Madrid from Seville. In December of that year, he was appointed painter to Felipe IV of Spain and invited to bring his wife and daughter to court. He would retain that position – painter to the king – until his death in 1660. Amy Sackville, in her third novel, zooms all the way in on Velazquez’s life and work at court.

While it might be described as a fictional biography, what Painter to the King does most consistently and remarkably is convey what it feels like to be someone who sees the world as a painter – as this particular painter – does. Velazquez’s naturalistic style, his insistence on using live models, his relatively limited colour palette, all attract mockery, even scorn, from other painters, but it is the quality of his vision that makes Felipe value him. He sees people, and what he sees is, not unkindly but nevertheless with great fidelity, what he paints. Sackville’s prose style here is tactile, interested in texture and colour, lights and darks, the encrusted paint on Diego’s fingers, the heft and bulk of a water jug. It also constantly interrupts itself; we feel we are inside the head of the artist, particularly in scenes like the one in which he tries, again and again, to capture exactly the musculature of a horse’s leg, the swell of its belly, the flick of its tail. The sentences are breathless, fragmented, em-dash-heavy:

…dip, swipe, dip, swipe: The leg of the horse curves up into the belly here, like –– Here, the top of the leg rounding into the socket like –– The curve of the belly barrel-like –

–– No

It’s maybe the most effective technique for describing the process of artistic creation that I’ve ever seen.

There is another intruding narrative voice: that of someone who might be the author, and is certainly an observer; someone who knows Velazquez’s paintings well, through long acquaintance with them in galleries and museums. That voice lifts you out of seventeenth-century Spain, but not, I would contend, in a distracting way: on the contrary, it provides necessary breathing room, amongst all that painterly detail. All together, Painter to the King is a little like the bastard child of How To Be Both and Wolf Hall, but to compare it is to diminish it: it is its own thing, and that thing is very good.

cover1The title of Diana Evans’s new novel, Ordinary People, comes from a John Legend song. “This ain’t the honeymoon, past the infatuation phase,” he sings. “Right in the thick of love, at times we get sick of love…” And then: “We’re just ordinary people/we don’t know which way to go.” This, in a nutshell, is the problem for Evans’s protagonists: two couples, Michael and Melissa, Damian and Stephanie, trying to keep their relationships alive after marriage and/or children, moving to the suburbs, losing a parent, discovering that they will very soon no longer be young.

Evans would be most easy to compare to Zadie Smith, although the hyperactivity, focus on working-class second-generation immigrants, and high intellectualism of Smith’s work is less evident here; instead, Evans has written a literary novel about the domestic lives of black people in London who—though some of them are second-generation immigrant stock—have entered the middle class. There is, of course, a political aspect to the book: Damian’s father was a Jamaican intellectual obsessed with the black struggle; Michael’s increasing comfort in a suit is a quiet metaphor for his assimilation into a professional world that is overwhelmingly white; Melissa finds herself thinking of de Beauvoir and Kristeva when her children whine, feeling that she’s sold out feminism but unable to turn back now. Evans’s writing decisions, especially her plotting, is brave: not everyone gets a happy ending, and we’re forced to question what happiness can look like, the possibility that finishing things amicably with your partner can actually be the right choice, and no one’s fault. Ordinary People is an extraordinary book for posing those possibilities while also telling an apparently familiar story about domestic strife; it’s very impressive.

35654063Salt Lane is the newest novel from William Shaw, the beginning of a series featuring DI Alex Cupidi, who made an appearance in the book Shaw released last year, The Birdwatcher. Salt Lane too is set in rural Kent, that strange flat marshy part of England where the sea and the sky and the land flow into one another. This time, Shaw sets his sights on immigrant labour: the illegal fruit picking and farm work that goes on under the noses of police. Two murders in quick succession—a local woman who has been living under an assumed name for twenty years, found in a ditch, and a migrant labourer who has been drowned in a farm’s slurry pit—assume sinister proportions when it turns out that they’re related. Cupidi must find who’s responsible while also developing her relationship with her teenage daughter Zoe, acting as a mentor to the insouciant and pretty DS Ferriter, and protecting her own reputation on a squad to which she is new, and which knows all about the scandal that drove her away from London.

There is slightly too much going on in Salt Lane; some of the supporting characters confuse the arc of the investigation, rather than adding to it, as does the fact that the dead woman is connected to a cold case from 1995. (We learn about this in the prologue, a flashback which misleads us into thinking that the old crime is going to be more significant in the present-day storyline than it actually is.) I’m also not certain about Shaw’s portrayal of immigrant workers; he’s not offensive about them or about the hell in their countries of origin that drives them to the UK, but I wasn’t convinced that he’d ever spoken to a refugee. Najiba, a migrant worker who acts as a police informant, is fairly well-rounded, but the others seem like ciphers; Marina Lewycka’s Strawberry Fields is a more moving and humanising portrait of this world. As ever, though, Shaw’s grasp of pacing and procedure makes it hard to put Salt Lane down.

macbethThere are, plainly, as many ways to fuck up adapting Shakespeare as there are Shakespeare plays. Jo Nesbo has chosen the path of poor judgment: he tends to make the wrong choice about where to diverge from Shakespeare and where to follow him. His Macbeth is set in an unnamed, rainy, context-less Scottish port town ravaged by drug wars and the death of industry; Macbeth is a corrupt policeman. It’s an excellent idea, but in execution, it feels like reading Grand Theft Auto for 500 pages: not so much because of the action sequences (though there are many, and they’re generally the best bits) but because of the odd sense of complete inconsequentiality. The town never feels like a real town; even its architecture and geography lacks substance. Why is there an enormous disused train in the middle of a public square flanked by a James Bond-esque casino and a railway station populated only by junkies? None of it is how anything—urban planning, police procedure, drug-empire-enforcing—actually works.

Nesbo makes another unfortunate decision, which is to follow the beats of the major monologues and some of the better-known dialogue. While he occasionally manages this well (the “Out, out, brief candle” speech feels contemporary and convincing, mostly because it’s not spoken but thought), it also results in hardmen calling each other things like “good Duff”, which jars. When Macbeth or his scheming partner Lady breaks out into an expository paragraph that’s completely at odds with the tone of the rest of the scene, it feels awkward and noticeable. One particularly odd choice involves Nesbo’s failure to update Lady’s reproductive history: he keeps the part about her plucking a child from her breast and dashing its brains against the wall, but makes that an actual recollection, not a hypothetical about promise-keeping that she throws at Macbeth, as it is in the play. Wouldn’t it make more sense—and be more emotionally resonant—in a contemporary updating, to give Lady a history of multiple abortions about which to feel guilty? To unthinkingly plug in Shakespeare’s words plunges the scene, and Lady’s characterisation, into a grand guignol that feels cheap and tone-deaf.

All of this said, there are lots of reasons why someone might want to read a video game, particularly this video game. The action sequences are generally excellent, high-octane and well choreographed. A level of artifice—one might say, of theatricality—is inherent to much genre writing, and Macbeth is a genre novel; Nesbo writes noir thrillers and has never claimed otherwise. For my taste, though, his version of Shakespeare lacks sufficient thought, fun and pacy though it may be.

Thoughts on this week’s reading: A lot of crime, which will carry over into Monday as I’m currently reading another Scottish-set thriller, In the Cage Where Your Saviours Hide. Overall an excellent week, with three great books, one decent one, and one that was at least fun to dislike.

In 2017

I never used to believe in New Year’s resolutions. I never used to believe in the New Year starting in January, either; for me it has usually started with a new academic year, in the autumn, and all of that post-Christmas guilt stuff was just an excuse for self-flagellation and meanness. This year I’ve kind of changed my mind. There are some things I want to do in 2018, including taking up yoga again, finishing a first draft of this goddamn novel, and eating more mindfully. But resolutions, like dreams, are rarely interesting to anyone else, and, like dreams, rarely appear fully-formed.

My most long-standing New Year’s tradition is to look back over what I’ve done during the past twelve months. Usually the good outweighs the bad. This year was a decidedly mixed bag. Miserable shit happened. There was also much rejoicing. A lot of 2017 was about surviving and persisting and taking control of my own thoughts. I did that, and I’m proud of that.

In 2017, in roughly chronological order, I:

landed my dream job

bought some spectacular gold shoes for £3

showed my mama around the London I know

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learned to love Bach

served on the Baileys Prize shadow panel

had my heart broken

moved house

survived a sexual assault, in the same week that I moved house

…and now disclosed it to more people than ever

used my dining rights at my old college with friends

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explored my new neighbourhood

found some great free museum cafes to write in

writing cafe

turned 25

visited home for the first time in almost two years

went vintage shop-hopping with my badass brother

witnessed a solar eclipse

was reunited (and got absolutely shirt-waisted) with my Govies: Matt, Jon, and Red

took a Greyhound bus

watched the sun rise over London from the roof of my new house

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welcomed dear friends to my new home

bought my first ever house plant

celebrated my goddaughter’s first birthday

consulted on hair, makeup, dresses and shoes for my cousin Sarah’s wedding next April

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sang at Liverpool Cathedral (during the aftermath of Storm Brian!)

bought the most majestic floor-length velvet dress the world has ever seen

served on the Young Writer of the Year Award shadow panel

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rejoiced in the marriage of two wonderful humans, Helen and Charlie

made it to 120K words of my novel

led the music on Christmas Day at my grandparents’ parish church

earned the trust of my auntie’s traumatised rescue puppy

traveled to Scotland to celebrate the New Year with my godparents

read 181 (and a half) books

 

Of men and land

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Once I wrote a poem, and called it “to all the men I’ve slept with”. It wasn’t the sort of poem you might think. It was about leaving the city and going North, as far North as you can go in this country, to stand on a green cliff and look at the sea. I wanted, when I wrote it, to be able to walk with someone, quietly. “Shiver/in your sleep,” I wrote, “and we’ll wake each other warm./Up there the sky throws salt to tell a fortune/you can’t read.” It did not seem necessary to imagine conversation, or interpretation; we would see what was in front of us, we would see the land and know it, and that would be enough.

I have always wanted to show the men I loved a piece of land. I have taken them to the top of the South Downs and made them see the green turf and the white chalk and the trees in the valleys, demanded that they love it and understand it as fiercely and fully as they loved me. I have wanted to take them to the place I grew up, where the grass reaches to your waist in the summer and the sky bakes white, but the mountains loom blue. One of them, at least, wanted the same, and I obliged him by loving the naked hills and cold streams of Cumbria with all my heart. For some of us, it is land that makes and ties us—even those of us who belong not to one place but to many—and I wonder sometimes how a person might turn out differently if they were born to more or less dramatic landscapes: to mountains or plains, plains or deserts.

Owning the land is not important. A title deed makes no difference one way or the other. It is not a legal right that I claim, but a spiritual one. My heart owns a place in front of a spinney on top of a hill in Sussex; it owns a field spanned by curving mown paths and dotted with tangles of blackberry vines; it owns one particular fell, at one particular violent sunset. I have no more of a right to these places than anyone else, but I certainly have no less.

And why is it that places to which I truly have no right, places I have only ever entered as a guest, seem to have a claim on me? That, for instance, a freezing chateau west and south of Paris, where I sat on a green sofa and wrote part of my book by candlelight with numb fingers; where I went so hungry that it felt like sickness, until a late supper—steak and pasta, nothing fancy, but still perhaps the most welcome meal I have ever eaten; where I drank French whisky and talked about concert pianists with the friend who owned the place; that it should feel as terrible a loss, now that I can never go there again, as the loss of a person does? Why should the smell of cigarettes and the taste of weak tea and cold February morning sunlight make me think of this place with what I can only call homesickness? How can merely having been happy—even as happy as I was there—have such a long half-life?

It goes the other way, too, of course. Places have been poisoned for years. There are buildings, streets—there are whole towns—which have been so out of bounds to me that even seeing the names of the places written down, or hearing them in passing on the news, was sharply painful, so that I would have to stop, or sit, or turn away. To lose a place has always seemed a peculiarly terrible punishment. It is not only the past that is taken from you, then, but the future too; you must shape your steps in other ways, take different roads home or avoid a certain intersection at a certain time of day, and you feel you will never walk whole and carelessly again.

A few years ago, a man showed me a place. I didn’t know what to expect; we knew each other well enough, as these things go, but I could not guess what he might want me to see. We drove for an hour or so, quiet almost all the way, because I was afraid to say something that might sound stupid. And then we crested a hill, and this valley opened out—all steep sides and soft grass, with sheep grazing in it, and a little river running through it, and some half-hidden stone houses—and I have never felt so much as though someone were tossing me a gift. How can I explain it? I had probably said, in passing, that I liked this sort of thing: open hillsides, swift water, that feeling of being both outdoors and within a space as structured, in its own way, as a great cathedral. But to be taken to such a place, almost without explanation, by someone who also loved it… It was as though a friend, pawing through clothes to take to charity, had found a ballgown and handed it to me.

There is something of sex and something of death in this obsession, I’m well aware. The giving of precious things doesn’t have to happen in bed—or at least not always—and the bestowing of a beloved prospect is an act of trust, as much as taking off your clothes is. The love of a place is intensely bound up with a sense both of freedom and of safety. Love itself is the mixing of those things: a beloved person is one with whom I feel both free and safe. And where I feel free and safe, I feel I could die with perfect happiness. In every place I’ve loved, at some point I have had the same compulsion—whether I act on it or not—to lie down on the ground, to try to melt and mingle into the earth. To consummate, or be consumed. Sex and death. Would it be so bad? Like Wordsworth’s Lucy: “roll’d round in earth’s diurnal course,/With rocks, and stones, and trees.”

I am still a young woman, still seeking a future. Maybe, every time, it is simply a way of posing a question, an idle curiosity that is also—as all questions are—a test. Will you come away?

Baileys Prize Longlist Reading 6: Adébáyò

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.

Stay With Me, by Ayòbámi Adébáyò

31349579(Quick note: I tried to put the proper accent marks in Adébáyò’s name, but some of the vowels have marks both above and below the letters, and WordPress’s symbols dictionary isn’t advanced enough to handle that, apparently. I’ve done my best. Of interest to some readers may be that the US jacket for Stay With Me makes no effort at all to reproduce the accent marks, while the UK jacket has all of them.)

Stay With Me is, in its most elevator-pitch description, about infertility. (It actually isn’t, quite, but we’ll talk about that later.) Yejide and Akin Ajayi have been married for several years. It is the early 1990s and both are degree-holding Nigerians living in Ilesa; Yejide owns her own business, a hair salon, and Akin is a banker. Yet they remain childless. Akin’s family is growing restless. As the book opens, Yejide is presented by her in-laws and husband with a fait accompli: Akin has taken a second wife, the much younger Funmi. Though she will be technically of lower rank than Yejide, the hope is that she will be able to bear a son—ideally many—to carry on the family’s name. We also learn, through a flash forward to 2013, that Akin and Yejide somehow become estranged, and remain so for decades. Adébáyò spends the rest of the novel flipping us back and forth between the events of the early ’90s that destroyed the Ajayis’ marriage, and the opportunity for reconciliation that arises in the chapters set in 2013.

The first half of the novel is the strongest, although it is treading on familiar ground. It does not, of course, occur to anyone that the problem might not be with Yejide’s womb but with Akin, and her family and in-laws’ patronising, dismissive, often downright cruel attitudes towards her are painted vividly. Yejide herself is a force of nature: infuriated with everyone who has sanctioned the match between Akin and Funmi, she prepares a meal for the matchmakers and the new bride that is significantly less glorious than protocol demands—which also happens to bring them all down with explosive diarrhoea. Her rage has deep roots: her mother was a nomad whom her father never married and who died in childbirth, and she was raised by stepmothers who considered her the child of a whore. This is rarely played for sentiment or even dwelt upon very heavily, but it explains everything about Yejide that might otherwise seem excessive: her passionate attachment to the ideal of a family, her refusal at one point to accept that she is having a phantom pregnancy, her explosive temper, and her strength of will. Where Akin is mostly passive and rational, often asking her to calm down, she is presented as an active, aggressive, emotional dynamo.

SPOILERS DEAD AHEAD – It is because of this that the book’s twist and development works as well as it does (and whether it works particularly well is another question, but this is why it works at all.) We learn partway through the novel that not only has Yejide’s affair with her brother-in-law Dotun been fully engineered, without her knowledge, between Dotun and Akin—so that she can get pregnant—but that the reason it is necessary is because Akin is impotent. He has known this for decades, but has lied to Yejide (a virgin before their marriage) about what constitutes “normal” sex, and so she has spent their entire relationship believing that Akin’s inability to achieve an erection has nothing to do with her failure to conceive. Whether it’s at all plausible that a woman pursuing a degree in Nigeria in 1985 would be so painfully ignorant about the logistics of sex—and I’m perfectly willing to accept that it is plausible; I simply don’t know—is a potential problem, but the thematic perfection of this twist is in its reversal of that earlier established dynamic between Yejide and Akin. We’ve thought, all this time, that she’s the one making choices (albeit desperate ones, like paying a faith healer and lugging a goat up a mountainside for a fraudulent fertility ceremony). Instead, she has been acted upon, without her knowledge or consent, all this time: not just for the duration of their marriage, but for as long as they have known each other. And by extension, so have we.

After this revelation, which is pretty melodramatic in itself, things get more melodramatic. (Oh, there’s also a sort-of-murder—if I were a prosecuting lawyer I’d call it something like second-degree manslaughter.) When Yejide conceives, the first baby dies, apparently a random victim of SIDS. Her second and third children are both born with sickle-cell disease. There is more death. There is a military coup. There is another coup.

This is the source of my other problem with the book, which is the war. I appreciate that if your novel is set in Nigeria in the early ’90s, you’re going to have to handle civil war; the problem is that reading protocols (at least for literary fiction) prime us to think of civil war as a Big Deal, a Major Theme. We expect civil war either to be the whole point of a book (for which, see Half of a Yellow Sun) or we expect its relatively small impact to be part of a more satirical or nihilistic general flavour (as in Beauty Is A Wound, where atrocity’s commonplaceness dulls individual horrors, and where that’s exactly the point.) Instead, in Stay With Me, we get the coups and the war as a kind of wallpaper; fighting is what prevents Yejide from reaching Akin and her third baby at a crucial point in the plot, but there’s no sense that the conflict is thematically important. In a way this is in the novel’s favour—Adébáyò isn’t writing a political novel, but a domestic one—but under other circumstances, I would have suggested that, if your novel isn’t political, it’s possibly not necessary to introduce a civil war. Adébáyò, however, is trapped by history. You can’t write a novel set in this time and place and pretend nothing happened, but then you have to make the conflict seem relevant to the story you’re trying to tell, and it just isn’t here.

All of this makes it sound as though I didn’t enjoy the book very much, which isn’t the case. It’s a very affecting page-turner about the way that men and women relate to one another, especially in situations where their capabilities are equal but the expectations surrounding them are wildly different. Yejide and Akin struggle to balance tradition and the demands of their relatives and heritage with their own awareness of modernity, in terms both of medical science and of relationships. Their struggle is sympathetic and engaging, and the book’s ending—though a little unbelievably sunny—satisfied. I can’t help thinking, though, that I’ll have forgotten about it in a few months’ time; it will have blurred together with other depictions of domestic turmoil and gendered hypocrisy. That doesn’t make it a bad book; it’s just not enough to shortlist it.

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. Stay With Me is published by Canongate and is available in hardback.

Diary of an Oxygen Thief, by Anonymous

The point is to tell you how I purged myself of my sins against women, and indeed, against myself.

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I almost didn’t read this book at all. Its very first line is “I liked hurting girls”, and the second line is “Mentally, not physically.” If you’ve spent much time around here at all, you’ll know that I have personal experience of men who like hurting girls mentally-not-physically, and that I don’t have a whole lot of time for that anymore. Furthermore, The Pool describes the whole book as “as hipster as a £3 bowl of Rice Krispies on Shoreditch High Street.” So, am I its ideal reader? Is it even remotely my aesthetic? Hell to the no. And did it completely redeem itself in my eyes? Not completely. But there are parts of it that I think are very valuable. They just might not be the parts the author intended.

Something that might comfort you (it did me) is that although this is written by “Anonymous”, although the narrator presents it as a memoir, and despite all of the seductive marketing around it that suggests its author has embarked on a decade-long guerrilla social media campaign, it is not non-fiction. It is a novel written by a Dutch person and originally published in Amsterdam ten years ago. Its narrator is an Irishman living in London and then in Minnesota. The knowledge that this particular Irishman does not actually exist was, in places, the only thing that kept me reading. He is not very nice. You can gather this from the first sentence, and also from the part where he talks about purging himself of his sins against women. Handy hint: if you’re a man and you want to purge yourself of your sins against women, you will never be able to. You will never be forgiven.

The blurb compares the narrator to Holden Caulfield, a comparison which I guess derives from prose like this:

Also, I’m completely paranoid. I mean, seriously paranoid. Not just mildly interested in the fact that there may be people who don’t necessarily have my best interests at heart. No. The word is “paranoid”. Another word is “self-centered”. I don’t like that one as much, though. Doesn’t sound medical enough.

The thing is that writing like this is totally passable to a lot of people. It achieves the effect of being wry and conversational and ironic. Millennials and hipsters like these things. And they’re not as easy as you might think: there’s an art to being casual. I’m unwilling to call this the inheritor of Salinger’s mantle, though. Holden is a lot more innocent than this guy. Holden is not calculating anything for effect. He’s not jaded or cynical. He kind of wants to be, but he’s just too young to be there yet. Our oxygen thief, on the other hand, is plenty jaded, and so instead of being a howl of raw adolescent longing and confusion, his anger and bitterness curdles.

This, however, is where the book becomes valuable, at least to me, because what the oxygen thief does par excellence is describe the myriad horrors of corporate culture. He works for an advertising agency in London, but gets headhunted for an agency based in Saint Lacroix, Minnesota. (We will gloss over the fact that a “Saint Lacroix” is unlikely, since “Lacroix” means “the Cross”. I reckon he’d have done better to call his Minnesotan town either Lacroix on its own, or Saint Something-Else. /digression) During his phone interview, he tells the interviewer

…that I was at the age where I was thinking about getting married. There followed a long moment of silence, which could only be satisfactorily explained by him punching the air in triumph and straightening his clothes before continuing. He began to talk like someone I’d known for years, dropping all use of the conditional tense in favor of the future.

When he arrives in America, the ad agency helps him out with the purchase of a beautiful old Victorian house, which turns out to be a major millstone. He only wants to be in the States for a year or two at the most, but suddenly here he is with a mortgage. He thinks of it, initally, as an investment, money he can make back when he sells. But then the house doesn’t sell. And his boss starts to point out to him the eligible girls in the office. When he doesn’t come to the Christmas party, the agency arranges for two ice sculptures to be placed either side of his front door. You can see pretty clearly why someone might begin to feel paranoid in this environment. And then there’s this, which is one of those observations that so neatly encapsulates a difference, you actually want to put the book down and gaze into the middle distance for a minute or two:

[In Minnesota] there also seemed to be a great deal of pride in the bulbous nature of a pregnant belly, a phenomenon I had not yet encountered. In London, pregnancy was associated with failure and social death. Here it was encouraged. People got promoted after having a kid. A little fleshy anchor prevented the minds of America’s corporate soldiers from drifting too far from its assignments.

Weird pronoun inconstencies in the final sentence aside, how spot on is that? Can you even imagine getting a promotion after procreating in this country? Lololololol, as a university friend of mine would say. Not that it doesn’t happen sometimes, but please look at these case studies if you’re under the illusion that it’s standard. In the US, however, the fear of poverty and the pressing need to save up for a kid’s university tuition from the minute they’re born makes parents fantastic employees. A parent will put up with all kinds of workplace bullshit to guarantee their baby’s college fund.

And our oxygen thief’s cynicism actually works really well in this environment: he notices things that most other people are too polite or too embarrassed or too idealistic to mention. For instance: the gross imbalance that enables major charities to be absolutely huge (think of all the LA and New York charity balls!) is largely down to consumers and taxpayers. Which is to say, you and me.

Every ad agency likes to have a charity on their books for which they’ll pull all sorts of outlandish favours… There are tax concessions and write-offs. But it’s important which charity you affiliate yourself with. …For instance, a charity that raises funds to help addicts get off heroin isn’t nearly as reliable or photogenic or even pitiable as one that treats kids with AIDS. Adults with AIDS are no good. It could be their own fault. …Sorry, but it’s true.

Whoever this Dutch guy is, he’s clearly spent time in the States, because this is exactly how American public morality works. “Adults with AIDS are no good. It could be their own fault.” That bit really deserves to be quoted twice; it’s so cruelly accurate.

Supposedly, the main point of this book is how he gets his heart broken by a cruel bitch of a girl who does to him exactly what he did to all those other women, back when he was an alcoholic and a Bad Guy. And in many ways, that is a glorious trajectory. Aisling, the villainess, is a million times smarter and more ambitious than our narrator; she’s like a modern-day Becky Sharp. In fact, I’d have preferred that comparison to the Lolita one on the back cover (and it strikes me as weirdly distasteful, too, since Lolita is an underage victim of a creepy rapist, and Aisling is a fully autonomous vengeful goddess. You can hardly draw parallels between the two of them. Lolita was never a vamp; she was a kid.)

But to be honest, that story—the story of an asshole who gets his comeuppance—it’s not a new story. It’s not told, here, in a particularly new or exciting way. Don’t read Diary of an Oxygen Thief for the personal relationships. Read it for the distressingly bright light it shines on the way companies manipulate people: the ones who work for them, and the ones who buy the stuff they flog. If this book is “hipster”, and if “being hipster” now means “making people want to advocate the violent overthrow of capitalism”, then okay. I’m down for that.

Thanks very much to Poppy Stimpson at Corsair Books for the review copy. Diary of an Oxygen Thief was published in the UK on 25 August.

V Daze

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2011: My first year of university, four months in. I have developed a fierce obsession with a boy who seems to sincerely like me half of the time, and to be incapable of talking to me, or anyone else, the other half of the time. We’ve already tried going out and it was disastrous, so now we’ve been split up for the better part of a month. I’m eighteen and still haven’t grasped that you don’t have to live your life like it’s a movie—that, in fact, it’s easier and more interesting and less suffocating if you actively avoid living like that—so of course I am miserable about Valentine’s Day. My misery is dramatic and self-pitying, but no less real for that. AdventureSinCake (formerly known as the lawyer) has just come out (surprising no one, least of all his mother, who merely said, “Oh, I know!”) and he suggests a Valentine’s Day straight out of Bridget Jones. The wallowing aspect of this appeals to me, so we go to Tesco and buy mugs with hearts on them, pink cava (because we’re students), and two boxes of Thornton’s milk chocolate selections. Then we retire to his double set and watch Burlesque, about which all you need to know is that it’s a major motion picture starring Cher and Christina Aguilera. We wake up the next morning on his bed under a pile of duvets and cushions, still in our clothes from the night before. The cava and chocolates are, of course, all gone.

*

Here’s the thing about Valentine’s Day: you’re meant to be miserable about it, either way. You’re meant to be miserable if you’re single, because singlehood is commercial, capitalistic code for “ultimately unloveable and freakish—and nothing will ever make you better, but here, these expensive food and drink and jewelry items might staunch the wound for a few minutes, you pathetic loser.” You’re meant to be miserable if you’re coupled up, because Valentine’s Day for a couple means “make declarations about moving the moon and stars for your lover, then actually do it. Oh, you can’t? Or you don’t want to, or they don’t want you to? Too bad, you inadequate, miserable schlub. This is what Real Grownup Love is about. Go big or go home.” You are meant to be miserable no matter what, because miserable people buy shit.

*

2012-2013: I don’t remember these. In 2012, I was probably out somewhere, studiously pretending that it wasn’t Valentine’s Day so as not to weird out the guy I had been sleeping with. I know that a few days afterwards, that other guy, the one from first year, told me he still fancied me really, so we got back together again. We were still together in February of 2013, but not happily, although if you’d tried to dissuade me at the time, I’d have ignored you. In fact, people did try, and I ignored them. The February of 2013 was the February before I sat Finals. Disastrous things happened: my boyfriend and I decided to “take a break”, which didn’t work because we still lived in the same house and were basically codependent. I slept with someone else, a guy he was actually trying to make friends with. He found out, and shook me, and called me a whore. He apologised later. Things were awful for a long time, partly because I thought we could all still be friends. (I was twenty. I should have known better, but I didn’t.) I’m not sure where we were in this timeline by the time Valentine’s Day arrived. I gave him cufflinks. They were made of antique coins from the end of the Roman Empire. I’d bought them in a tobacco shop in Georgetown when I went home for Christmas, and my debit card company had called me to make sure the transaction wasn’t fraudulent, since I didn’t usually spend hundreds of dollars in tobacco shops. He got me a pair of earrings. They were sparkly and shell-shaped and elegant. I still wear them sometimes, but the metal of the posts has tarnished over time.

*

Saint Valentine was an early Christian martyr. No one really knows anything about him. We don’t even know for sure whether he was one person, or more than one. (It would be nicely appropriate were he to have been two people, I think.) He was buried at a cemetery on the Via Flaminia in north Rome on the day he was killed. That’s all we know for sure.

In the Middle Ages, he came to represent courtly love. Courtly love was a type of behaviour which tended to manifest itself thus:

  1. the bestowal of favours (like a handkerchief) by a (noble) lady to a (noble) man, one to whom she wasn’t married.
  2. the chaste but emotional worship of a (noble) lady by said (noble) man, from afar, and without hope of consummation
  3. the writing of poetry all about frustrated desire.

Elements of courtly love are ridiculous, of course, and hedged about with sexism and classism. It’s where we get the idea that “chivalry” means holding a door open for someone. But it’s also the reason we have Petrarch, who is the reason we have Shakespeare’s sonnets; it’s the reason we have Dante, who is the reason we have Milton. Some things are worth saving.

*

2014: I graduated last summer and I’m still living in Oxford. At least I have a job now: I work for my old college’s Development Office, helping to plan the events that will comprise, in April, a weekend of celebrations for the 700th anniversary of our founding. I never thought of myself as a natural flesh-presser or sweet-talker, but here I am five days a week, on the phone to bankers and winemakers and authors and academics, getting donations, arranging tastings, printing out name badges. My coworkers are a small team of highly intelligent, incredibly pleasant people. In retrospect, I’ll probably never work in such an ideal office environment again.

At this point in time, most of us are single, so Emily arranges a Valentine’s Day dinner for us at her house in Jericho. She’s an amazing cook—she makes salmon en croute and chocolate melting hearts in little ramekins, and we eat until our stomachs are distended. She’s bought us things, too: tea mugs, chocolates, tiny tealight candles. We’re all sitting around digesting (Aileen and Will are actually lying on the floor wrapped in a blanket) when my phone rings. It’s my ex. We broke up in May, before graduation, but we’ve maintained a high-stress, high-contact “friendship” which tends to include having sex every time we see each other. I know this is not smart. I can’t seem to help myself.

I hold up the phone. “What do I do?” Every head swivels in my direction. A moment of silence. Then Aileen bawls, “DON’T FUCKING ANSWER IT!” and everyone else chimes in, a chorus of support and defiance and anger. “How fucking dare he?” “Put it down.” “Turn it off!” “Give it to me!” I don’t turn it off, and I don’t let anyone else pick up, but I do put it down, and on silent. For the rest of the night, we put on music and dance in the living room. When I check my phone later, I have fifteen missed calls.

*

You can’t even really win by ignoring the day. It’s a mere Bah Humbug gesture. Getting angry about Valentine’s Day only reinforces the narrative that angry people are losers, or (worse) just jealous. Pretending it doesn’t happen is like pretending Christmas doesn’t happen: it’s not impossible, but you’re swimming against a very strong tide.

*

2015: I’m staying with my grandparents: the school where I work now is on half term. The man I’m currently seeing is unsuitable and the fact that I’m seeing him at all is morally suspect, but it feels safe to me, like a halfway house between unmoored singlehood and actually being in a relationship. You could describe it as a rebound, a way to get over my ex without having to make myself too vulnerable. I don’t tell the man difficult things, like how ill my mother is. I think of this affair as a sort of job, and telling him things is not in my job description. “This will only work”, my friend Roy told me, “if you don’t catch the feels.” I have not caught the feels. I don’t think he has either.

My grandparents go out in the evening to a village dinner they signed up for months in advance. The unsuitable man I am seeing is with his family. I’m alone for the evening. I order pizza, ransack the cupboards for a bottle of wine, reorganise my books, watch Wolf Hall on iPlayer. I’m not happy, I think, but I’m not unhappy about it. The unsuitable man texts me. I wonder what he thinks he wants.

*

Medieval literature figures love as a garden. Your lover at the centre, something pure and secret and confined. You have to penetrate those hedged boundaries, prove yourself worthy of the maze of flowers and trees, meet her at the fountain. It’s about sex (obviously), and it’s about outdated religious notions of purity, too, but you can choose to read it more generously. You can choose to see it as an allegory about trust, about acknowledgment, about letting someone in to the innermost part of you. You can choose to view it as a challenge: to sit, in all of your weirdness and glory, at the centre of your life’s whirling network of people and places, and see who sees you.

*

2016: I met a man. I love him. I moved in with him. A year—three hundred and sixty-five uniform days, a mere eight thousand seven hundred and sixty hours—changed everything: my job, my home, happiness.

He says he doesn’t want anything for Valentine’s Day, except for an almond croissant. I buy him four, each one from a different place, and he tests them all. We discover that the one from Mimi’s, the deli on the corner, is the best. Almond paste, almost liquid, oozes out of its layers of flaky butter pastry. We finish the croissants, one by one, the night of the 13th.

When I asked him what he wanted to do on the day itself, he said, “An indoor picnic. And indoor croquet,” and I thought he was taking the piss. I got so annoyed at him for that, until the look of bafflement on his face made it clear that he was quite serious. “Do you have an indoor croquet set?” I asked him. He just grinned. I assumed that meant yes.

He’s ill today. I was going to make roast chicken for us to eat on a blanket on the floor, in between croquet shots, with prosecco and Guylian. It wasn’t going to be huge, but it was going to be something. Then last night I discovered that you have to defrost chicken for 24 hours, and this morning he woke up with a headache and a sore throat and aching joints. He had to go out to work briefly this morning—he’s a singer, and Sundays are singing days—but overall, I don’t think we’ll be drinking any prosecco this afternoon. Or eating Guylian, or doing anything really. I want to be upset about it: it would have been nice, finally, to do something on the day itself. Just to mark it somehow. Just to say, You are precious to me and today is about telling you so.

But it’s not his fault he’s ill, and in any case, this seems right somehow. It’s a frequent criticism of Valentine’s Day that it fetishizes romantic love and ghettoizes it at the same time: why save up your love and demonstrativeness for one day only? Why not just love fiercely every day? Why wait, since life is so short?

He comes back from work bearing white tulips, and smiling. We have cheese on toast and listen to the radio in bed.

*

If ever any beauty I did see/Which I desired, and got,/’Twas but a dream of thee.