08. The Bedlam Stacks, by Natasha Pulley

51vdoyi9zgl-_sx331_bo1204203200_It’s really hard to sum up The Bedlam Stacks. We start in 1859. Merrick Tremayne used to smuggle plants out of colonial Asia for the East India Company, but now, thanks to a badly injured leg, he has been sent home to Cornwall. He is quietly stewing in the family manse, relegated to a bedroom at the top of three flights of stairs despite his injury and unable to do anything at all without the approval of his older brother, when he receives a letter: the East India Company wants him back. Malaria is on the rise in India, and it’s bringing down too many colonial administrators; there is a way of treating it, with quinine, but the supply is tightly controlled. Merrick’s job is to find a rumoured forest of cinchona trees, from which quinine is made, in the highlands of Peru; he is to take cuttings from the plants and bring them back to London, so that the East India Company can grow its own supply. Initially dubious, he is convinced to take the job by an old friend, Clem, and Clem’s wife Minna, both of whom will be accompanying him. But the situation in Peru is far stranger than Merrick imagines: his guide, Raphael, is a Catholic priest, but rumours swirl around him of stone saints and mysterious wild men, and an uncrossable border in the forest…

There’s also a city perched on a natural bridge spanning a river, the columns of stone criss-crossed with streams of obsidian from an ancient volcanic eruption, so that sunshine on the river is refracted by the glass, causing the water to boil. There’s luminescent pollen that infuses a whole rainforest. There’s irresistibly funny dialogue, first between Merrick and Clem and then between Merrick and Raphael; both friendships are fractious, but witty. In fact, the relationships between all of the characters are so convincing, and so endearing, that I kept imagining the book as a mini-series, something cast and shot with the same sort of mindset that produced the BBC’s adaptation of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.

Pulley excels at creating a sense of the alien, and because the book is set in 1859, there is a sense of slippage between the merely foreign and the truly supernatural; the mysteriousness of The Bedlam Stacks is that, for a long time, the reader is never sure whether the oddness Merrick encounters is just a result of the limitations of mid-Victorian knowledge. I described it earlier as part David Mitchell, part Haruki Murakami; like those writers, Pulley’s version of the fantastical is a kind of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it uncanniness. That her book understands the political ramifications of the phenomena it describes, particularly when its characters belong to an era and nation convinced of its own right to commit rapacious conquest, brings me back to comparisons with Strange and Norrell, though I think, like Clarke, Pulley could have committed herself more thoroughly to exploring the power dynamics that she draws attention to. Perhaps most to the point is the fact that I simply could not put The Bedlam Stacks down: it’s suspenseful, the writing is more than competent, the jokes land every time. Really marvelous.

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.

01. Altered Carbon, by Richard Morgan

51dwaae3rzl-_sx320_bo1204203200_At last, I’ve read Altered Carbon! It’s interesting to have read this just before William Gibson’s Neuromancer; it’s like seeing influence in reverse, tracking details of Morgan’s worldbuilding and plot to their antecedents in Gibson. Anyway, Morgan’s innovation is the idea that humans have developed a way of remotely storing consciousness, so that your body isn’t the vehicle for your life in the same way as we understand it. Instead, that which is you—memories, cognition, personality—can be found in a small implant near the base of the neck, known as a stack. Bodies are referred to as “sleeves”; poorer people go “on stack”, their consciousnesses divorced from their physical selves, and rent out their bodies to those who can pay, who upload their own stacks into these sleeves. Incarceration happens along the same lines: a particularly egregious crime can see the offender being placed on stack for perhaps two hundred years, during which time their body, or clones thereof, can be used as a sleeve by whoever particularly wants it.

Prisoners can also be remanded in order to do particular jobs while they’re serving their time. This is what happens to Takeshi Kovacs, a former Envoy (or special forces officer) who finds himself decanted into the sleeve of a man whom he eventually discovers is an ex-cop from Earth, currently on stack for corruption. In this sleeve, he must do a job for Laurens Bancroft, an obscenely wealthy entrepreneur who “committed suicide” two months previously by taking his own head off with a flare gun. Bancroft, however, maintains that he was murdered: since he always has multiple clones on ice, and backs up his stack to a remote location every forty-eight hours, he argues, he would have known that shooting himself wouldn’t exactly be permanent. (One of the great weirdnesses of Morgan’s world is the distinction between killing someone’s body, and causing Real Death; the former is quite routine, while the latter—effected by destroying a stack, and the backed-up data if there is any—is considered a serious offense.) Kovacs must find out who shot Bancroft, and why, and who wants him on (or off) the investigation in the first place. And he’s got some demons of his own to exorcise, related to a military operation in his past that went horribly wrong and to a crime boss whose path he’d hoped never to cross again.

The resulting novel is hardboiled science noir, and it is a huge amount of fun. Morgan treads in cyberpunk territory, but he is happier to make things readily comprehensible than the great names of cyberpunk usually are. The action scenes are terrific, violent and delivered with cynical flair by Kovacs’s first-person narration. If it sometimes gets a little difficult to work out who’s on which side, well, that’s the point of the mystery. (I’ve read criticism that finds Morgan’s resolution of the mystery plot a bit of a let-down. Perhaps it is. I found it convincing enough, and also found that there was more than enough atmosphere and verve to carry me over whatever plotholes or lack of plausibility there might be.) Morgan’s female characters err somewhat on the side of being Tough Cool Girls; they are undeniably both tough and cool, but they tend to function as vectors for Kovacs’s feelings. Abigail Nussbaum notes that Morgan’s novels are “a rare example of the gap between taking the problems of masculinity seriously, and being interested in feminism”—in other words, feminist novel Altered Carbon is not, but it does engage seriously and thoughtfully with toxic masculinity, and the culture of violence and damage that it promulgates.

It’s worth noting that Altered Carbon contains graphic scenes of both torture and (consensual) sex, and the fight scenes are often also explicitly violent. If, like me, you find it much easier to read such things than to watch them on a television screen, you may not have much of a problem with the book—you can always read faster, or even skip ahead a few pages. (The fact that Kovacs is downloaded into a female sleeve for the torture is interesting from a critical point of view; for a noir hero to be personally subjected to the particular vulnerabilities of having a woman’s body is one of those things that Morgan does that both acknowledges female experience and makes it not quite the point, since Kovacs identifies firmly as a man, and is in a male body at all other times. It is also, however, one of the things that might make it harder for women to read this book.)

What remains is the fact that Morgan writes like a demon—gripping, compelling, bursting with brilliant, weird, revealing ideas about how societies work—and that makes me want to read his Clarke Award-winning novel, Black Man, as soon as possible.

Reading Diary: Apr. 7-Apr. 14

32508630It’s been a long time since I read a book about which I feel so completely ambivalent as I do about Miss Burma. It is based on the lives of Charmaine Craig’s mother and grandmother, and opens with a prologue detailing the success of Louisa Bension (Craig’s mother) as a contestant in the Miss Burma pageant. The fact that she wins it, as the daughter of a Jewish man and a Karen (pronounced Kar-EN) minority woman, is held up by General Aung San as proof that the new independent Burmese regime, no longer under British rule after WWII, offers opportunities to members of all ethnic groups. Most of the rest of the book, however, is told in flashback; we go right back to the beginning of the marriage between Louisa’s parents, Khin and Benny, and follow them through Burma’s long civil war/genocide against the Karen people. Their marriage waxes and wanes; imprisonment, torture, and abandonment leave their mark on the relationship, which eventually deteriorates into mutual infidelities, mistrust, and coolness, even as Khin and Benny build a business empire together.

Like several other books on the Women’s Prize longlist (When I Hit You and, in some ways, Sight), Miss Burma makes more sense to me as creative non-fiction than as a novel. Craig is constrained by the events that actually occurred, and the work that she puts into characterising Khin and Benny early on comes to nothing when she skips several years in a single sentence and then presents us with characters who appear to have changed almost beyond recognition during that skipped time. It’s not that this doesn’t happen to traumatised people; it’s that if you want readers to believe your fiction, you need to show them some level of consistency. Biography and memoir, perversely, don’t require nearly as much verisimilitude: those genres, unlike fiction, do not need the reader to believe that things happened, because they can mobilise primary and secondary sources to prove what did. Meanwhile, the skip into Louisa’s point of view near the end is actually not as jarring as some reviews led me to believe, but her sections feel under-served: she gets far fewer pages than her parents, and the action stops at a point that, while not completely nonsensical, doesn’t feel obvious, either.

Thematically, Miss Burma is ambitious: the persecution of the Karens and the persecution of Jewish people around the world are linked by Benny’s decision to become a member of the Karens, irrevocably throwing his lot in with his wife’s people and putting a target on his own back during the genocide that follows the Second World War. Craig doesn’t follow this line of thought very closely, though; unlike Do Not Say We Have Nothing, another novel about how families splinter under political pressure, the big ideas aren’t seamlessly integrated into the plot, but rather are mentioned every few chapters by one character or another, presumably so that we don’t forget about them whilst reading about affairs or escapes through moonlit jungles. For readers who want their reading to teach them something, Miss Burma will probably be a hit; but such readers could have been just as well served with a biography/memoir blend. For others, including me, the book feels like something of a letdown, and it’s not at all clear why it should be on the Women’s Prize longlist.

9781925498523I can’t remember now where I first read a review of The Trauma Cleaner, but it was so immediately fascinating that I determined to get my hands on a copy as soon as it was available in the UK. It is a non-fiction account of the life and work of an Australian woman named Sandra Pankhurst, who was born male, and who – after an extremely varied life – now runs a service called STC Cleaners. When a murder or a suicide occurs indoors; when someone dies and isn’t found for weeks; when social services has a hoarder on their hands: these are the times when Sandra’s team is called in. Police departments and paramedic teams do not provide cleaning services: they get folks like Sandra to do it for them.

This involves an incredible amount of patience, persistence, humanity, compassion, a blend of firmness and sweetness. That Sandra possesses these qualities makes her uniquely good at her job. Sarah Krasnostein, the journalist who wrote the book, follows her from case to case, noting the way that she talks down one client, a registered sex offender; bolsters another, a compulsive hoarder with three children who are no longer permitted to live with her; instantly wins the trust of another, an old woman who was once brilliant and now lives in a nest of old water bills and groceries liquefying inside the plastic bags they were bought in because she no longer has the energy to put them away. The gruesome details of the jobs that Sandra has taken on form part of the book’s appeal, of course, but so, in large part, do the psychological tactics that she adopts for each client. Much of what Sandra and her team are doing, Krasnostein notes, is acknowledging pain. No one becomes a compulsive hoarder, or dies alone in their flat of a drug overdose or a gunshot wound, without the push of serious mental suffering. Sandra sees that suffering, and does something about it.

The other half of the book, interwoven with the clients’ case studies, is Sandra’s own story of pain. Adopted as a baby boy by a couple in Victoria, Australia, she was immediately pushed aside when her adoptive parents realised they could still have their own biological children. She (at that point still a male, referred to in The Trauma Cleaner as Peter) suffered an abusive childhood, married – very young – a woman, had children with her, began visiting gay bars, was found out, left her family, and began living full-time as a woman. She supported herself mainly as a sex worker, and completed gender reassignment surgery in (I think) the ’80s. When she and another sex worker were assaulted and raped, she pressed charges; their rapist was not only tried, but convicted and imprisoned. Krasnostein impresses on the reader what a remarkable thing this was, how deeply unlikely that, in the cultural climate of Australia in the 1980s, a transgender prostitute might win a rape case. But Sandra did.

The only weakness of this book is that Krasnostein removes herself from it to an extent that makes little sense: she’s generally not a presence, which feels right, but occasionally interjects in the first person, in ways that suggest she might have an emotional connection to Sandra’s work that would have been worth sharing. (We learn, for instance, that her mother left the family when she was very young, leaving her with a permanent sense of abandonment.) The book started out as a long essay online, and perhaps could have used just a touch more rigour when being given a bigger skeleton. But it is engrossing and inspirational and quite beautiful; anyone who enjoyed The Fact of a Body would do well to get hold of The Trauma Cleaner.

coverAlthough it’s subtitled “Detective Stories From the World of Neurology”, Suzanne O’Sullivan’s new book, Brainstorm, is really a series of case studies of epilepsy. “Detective stories” isn’t too far off, though: all stories of diagnosis are stories of detection (which is why House is so weirdly addictive, and also maybe why Hugh Laurie’s character in it has the substance abuse and anger management/personal life issues that we expect from our noir detectives; discuss.) In twelve chapters, each focusing on one of O’Sullivan’s patients, we get glimpses of epilepsy symptoms that are rare, misunderstood, misdiagnosed, and sometimes not epilepsy at all. At the very least, Brainstorm is a very illuminating book about what seizures sometimes look like, and the ways in which they can be completely misinterpreted by the public. One of her patients, for instance, gets a kind of localised Tourette’s; his seizures involve swearing and spitting. If he has a seizure in public, he risks not only disapproval and embarrassment, but arrest. (I wanted more of this from O’Sullivan, actually. She doesn’t, for example, acknowledge that her black male patients face a much higher chance of being arrested, injured or killed for displaying abnormal social behaviour.)

As in The Trauma Cleaner, there is a certain level of voyeuristic fascination in O’Sullivan’s case studies that drives readerly interest. We learn about August, a bright young woman whose seizures make her compulsively bolt from rooms and across streets; Maya, an elderly Nigerian woman who suffers blackouts and sometimes finds herself miles from home; Wahid, whose family paid thousands to various local healers and pastors before his condition was diagnosed not as spirit possession but as epilepsy. O’Sullivan is simultaneously compassionate and objective about each of her patients: she clearly cares for their well-being, but also strives to view the evidence as thoroughly and impartially as possible. Her notes on the development of technology used in diagnosing neurological problems – CAT scans, MRI and fMRI machines, the merits and demerits of brain surgery – are informative, detailed and accessible. Sometimes there’s a slight stiffness to the prose, but she’s a doctor who writes, not a professional poet, and it’s a small price to pay for the rest of the book’s informativeness and optimistic outlook on the future of neurology.

9781408893302And back to fiction for the end of the week. Happiness is the first novel by Aminatta Forna that I have read, but on the basis of it, I’d like to read some of her earlier work. It reminds me of nothing so much as a cross between Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border (one of my most beloved books) and John Lanchester’s Capital: Forna melds observations about urban wildlife, and the irrational levels of fear and hate that city-dwelling humans direct towards animals, with wider commentary on the invisible interconnections of all the people who share space in a metropolis. There are two protagonists: Jean, an urban wildlife biologist whose marriage disintegrated because her husband wanted more of her time than she was willing or able to give, and Attila, a Ghanaian psychiatrist who works with international victims of war trauma. Attila is in London for a conference; Jean is there on a grant that sees her gathering data on urban foxes for Southwark Council. They meet cute(-ish), when Jean bumps into Attila on Waterloo Bridge, and continue to collide over the course of a week, as Attila tries to ease the demented old age of a former lover, Rosie, and to locate his missing nephew Tano, who fled his home in Elephant and Castle when his mother was wrongly detained on an immigration charge.

There is a rich history of London novels, and Forna draws on a lot of techniques that were first introduced by great writers like Dickens and Woolf, particularly the almost cinematographic sweep that plunges us from one mind or life into another. My favourite of these is when she tracks the movements of foxes. One of Jean’s study cohort is fed by a kitchen porter at the Savoy Hotel, who plays a part later in finding Tano; the leftovers that fox consumes originated in a meal which, Forna says in passing, now resides largely in the belly of a hedge fund manager, currently in a taxi heading west. It’s a nice sharp swoop, in and out, and it perfectly captures those interconnections that I mention above, and how, in a large city, it’s easy not to know those connections exist. The characters are also drawn with skill and compassion: Jean is like an older version of Rachel, the protagonist of The Wolf Border, in her passionate dedication and her bemusement at negative reactions to wildlife. Attila is one of the most embodied characters I’ve ever read: as a Guardian review says, we’re always aware of his size and height, the space he takes up, his love of dancing. The network of street sweepers and hotel doormen that the pair mobilise to spot foxes, and to find Tano, are given names and histories and tics. They feel like real people, reticent and flawed as real people sometimes are.

My only real complaint is the number of comma splices in my proof copy; there are dozens per page. Hopefully Forna’s proofreader is a bigger fan of the semicolon and the full stop. Other than that, Happiness is a brilliant spring read: colourful, detailed, hopeful, a breath of fresh air. (It also makes a good corollary to The Overstory.)

Thoughts on this week’s reading: A longer commute means more time to get through books! I’m finally working my way through spring proofs, and a recent spate of three-star reads is receding into the distance. Hooray.

Reading Diary: Mar. 18-Mar. 24

methode2ftimes2fprod2fweb2fbin2f68b321b2-7061-11e7-8eac-856e9b33761e-1H(A)PPY, by Nicola Barker, is the second book I’ve read as part of the Women’s Prize Shadow Jury this year. It’s different in almost every conceivable way from most of the other Women’s Prize longlisted titles that I’ve read so far; primarily, as readers should by now expect from Barker, it’s much more formally challenging. Which is to say, H(A)PPY looks weird. Right from the start—as certain words are highlighted in blue, or red, or pink, or a slightly darker shade of pink—all the way through to the end, by which point the text is in a state of permanent breakdown, riddled with images and figures. (There is a magnificent page of a cathedral, of sorts, composed of typographical symbols; on another page, words appear to be literally floating in bubbles. Barker won the Goldsmiths Prize, which is awarded for the most formally inventive book of the year, but I reckon whoever did her typesetting ought to win some sort of award too.) The plot is minimal, but revolves around Mira A, an inhabitant of a utopian future Earth where The Young are cared for, and relentlessly surveilled, via The Information Stream and The Graph. (There are a Lot of Capitals. I am pretty sure they are Satirical.) Mira A’s brain, however, seems not to work seamlessly in conjunction with the Graph, and H(A)PPY is a story, ultimately, about what constitutes happiness, and what freedom. Into this fairly standard speculative plot is woven information about Augustín Barrios, a famed Paraguayan guitarist, to whose story Mira A—also a guitarist, of a sort, since she plays a perfected version of the instrument—is drawn.

I think I understand, in a general sense, what Barker is going for: an interrogation of the relationship between perfection and art, best represented by Mira A’s relationship with her instrument, as she tunes and untunes it, makes it imperfect and then perfects it again. (It’s this sort of behaviour that brings her to the attention of the authorities.) What I don’t quite understand is the evident disconnect between the formal inventiveness and the underlying ordinariness of the plot. It’s not a particularly interesting or unusual story: Helpless Rebel Cast Out Of Deceptive Utopia powers plots from Nineteen Eighty-Four through to The Matrix. (Candide might even qualify. Dicuss.) There are two questions a book has to answer to justify its existence: why this story, and why this way? Barker seems much more interested in the second question than in the first, and although her focus as an author is entirely her own prerogative, it gives the impression of there being a missing step, somewhere.

51z8wf6y64l-_sx321_bo1204203200_You know what it’s like when you’re happily munching away on a pastry, a muffin perhaps, and suddenly—unexpectedly—you hit a raisin? (Don’t @ me if you love raisins; maybe the equivalent scenario for you is a walnut in a brownie, or shredded coconut on a cake.) And you’re like Goddammit, this raisin has just ruined my bite, but you keep calm and remove the raisin and carry on eating the pastry. And then, not three chews later, there’s another bloody raisin, and now eating the muffin has become an exercise in wariness, but you can never be vigilant enough and every new raisin just knocks you for six all over again?

That’s what the experience of reading Greeks Bearing Gifts is like, except for raisins, substitute blink-inducing misogyny, fatphobia, and ageism.

I was sort of hoping that my first experience with a Philip Kerr novel was going to be completely great, á la Robert Harris, whose work I found surprisingly compelling last summer. Greeks Bearing Gifts is Kerr’s thirteenth thriller starring Bernie Gunther, an erstwhile—and reluctant—detective under the Nazis in Berlin (he does not like being reminded of this), now trying to go straight in post-war Europe. The plot of this one involves the theft of all the gold belonging to the Jewish population of Salonika in the ’40s, an insurance claim on a burned-out sailboat, and bribery and corruption at the highest levels of Greek and German government. It’s complicated, there’s a lot of double-crossing, and Kerr writes satisfyingly noir-ish dialogue, even if it does get a bit self-conscious at times. (Gunther is so relentlessly cynical that it borders on the parodic.) But the sexism! All female characters are described in terms of their sexual value to Gunther. If they are approximately his age or older, they are worthless; if they are ten years or more younger than he is, they are voluptuous, panting beauties. Women are also, apparently, liars (they can’t help it), and there’s one particularly nasty line about women being like tortoises (the punchline, in case you can’t work it out, has to do with being on your back). For a while I thought this must be meant as a sign of the times (the book is set in 1957), but it went on and on, and as it mostly comes from Gunther—a character we’re meant to see as a loveable anti-hero—it’s difficult to determine whether we’re to take it as his actual opinion, or as a kind of wry tongue-in-cheek attitude. Either way, asking a reader to overlook that aspect of Gunther’s character is asking a lot. Elli, the love interest (you will be pleased to learn that it all comes to naught), at one point tells Gunther how nice he is. Reader, he is not nice—and no, a fictional detective doesn’t need to be pleasant, but to be repeatedly informed, both explicitly and implicitly, that Gunther is merely a charming cynic is to feel that the book, and the author, are somehow gaslighting you. It’s not cool.

51dgrxyerhl-_sx304_bo1204203200_After the relentless masculinity of Bernie Gunther, Elizabeth J Church’s novel All the Beautiful Girls was something of a relief. Church tells the story of Lily Decker, who transcends a tragic childhood (parents die in a car accident; the aunt who raises her is cold and the uncle is a child molester) to become a high-earning showgirl in Las Vegas under the name Ruby Wilde. It’s a story with solid forward momentum: Lily’s childhood has left her vulnerable to predatory men, dependent on self-harm to quell the constant tide of shame and loathing inside her, and unable to trust the good intentions of her friends. With the help of the man who killed her parents – whose guilt is such that he provides for Lily as if she were his daughter – she begins to learn the consequences of abuse in childhood and to connect her trauma with her later behavior. Church’s writing isn’t quite strong enough for this to happen without all the seams showing; every time Lily has a moment of growth, it’s signposted, in case readers can’t see it on their own. The descriptions of Las Vegas in the ’70s, however, are great: the way it caters to middle America’s nostalgia for simpler times, the glitter and the glamour masking a culture stubbornly unwilling to engage with the pace of social change. The sorority of showgirls is especially well drawn; Lily’s friends, Vivid and Rose, sometimes feel more believable than she does.

Thoughts on this week’s reading: A slow week, not helped by the enormity of Greeks Bearing Gifts and my reluctance with it. Still trying to balance proofs with Women’s Prize reading, too.

My Cat Yugoslavia, by Pajtim Statovci

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

41smp-foj7l-_sx329_bo1204203200_

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Home Fire, by Kamila Shamsie

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

9781408886755

caution: some spoilers ahead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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