Johannesburg, by Fiona Melrose


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tench, by Inge Schilperoord


Tench occupied a curious space in my brain while I was reading it, a space that makes it extremely difficult to review. I accepted it from Pushkin Press’s superb publicist Tabitha Pelly, who has form for sending me things that are both very worthwhile and challenging to sum up. The problem, or one of the problems, is a common one: when someone asks you what you are reading, the follow-up question is usually “What’s it about?” In the case of Tench, the answer is “A paedophile”, which, understandably, tends to dampen any further conversation. And the experience of reading it is not unlike that exchange: it is a very brave, very sad book about a lonely and conflicted man with fatally weak support networks, and as such, it is not the sort of thing that one “enjoys” reading. On the other hand, Schilperoord’s grasp of emotional beats in the soul of someone trying hard to be good and do the right thing is superb, and moving. This book will cut you. That’s a recommendation, I promise.

Inge Schilperoord is a Dutch criminal psychologist, and her experience with men like her protagonist, Jonathan, goes a long way towards explaining why he is such a convincing character. As the book opens, he is being released from prison. Something happened to put him there – something involving the neighbour’s daughter Betsy, who seems to suffer from a developmental disability – but the evidence to keep him there is apparently insufficient, and so he is let go. There isn’t much for him to return to: his mother is a well-meaning provincial naif who suffers from asthma and needs Jonathan’s care and attention almost every hour of the day. In a way, this suits Jonathan just fine. He creates a strict daily schedule for himself built around his shift at the fish gutting factory, his daily walks with the elderly family dog, Milk, and keeping house for his mother. Built into the schedule are “exercises” from his workbook, designed to help him control his own thoughts and actions.

His days are so regimented that we know from the beginning, with sinking hearts, it can’t last. Just after moving in, Jonathan meets Elke, a prepubescent girl who lives next door with her single mother. Elke is often left alone in her house, and while Jonathan’s been in prison, she’s been walking Milk for his mother. When they meet, disaster is inevitable.

Partly, Tench is an indictment of silence. Jonathan has no one to help him in his efforts to steer clear of Elke because he doesn’t tell his mother anything. He’s not even sure that she knows precisely why he went to prison: she didn’t come to his trial and he has asked his lawyer not to talk to her about the case. For her own part, his mother never tries to find out; there’s something in her son that she doesn’t understand, and though she loves him, she fears that part of him more than she can admit. So she tries to banish Elke from their house, but she doesn’t ask him anything outright, doesn’t discuss prison or the past with him, and is therefore unable to help him change his future. It’s an understandable attitude, but a useless one: pretend it’s not happening and everything will be all right. “That’s fine, son,” she says often, of his coffee-making or his omelette-flipping. These little finenesses can’t make up for the huge not-okay-ness of most of Jonathan’s life, but she tries to make it seem as if they can.

Schilperoord marshals the symbolism of the natural world to emphasise Jonathan’s constant discomfort: the story is set in a freak heat wave, and the tench of the title is a fish – thought by medieval peasants to have healing properties – which Jonathan tries to keep alive in his bedroom aquarium. It becomes the focus of his interactions with Elke, who loves animals and seems to be just as lonely as Jonathan himself, though where she is desperate for his company, he is terrified of hers. Slowly, as the care of the fish becomes their mutual concern, Jonathan’s flimsily constructed self-discipline begins to erode: first he promises himself he won’t allow the girl within a few dozen metres of him, then within five, then within two. He is constantly trying to maintain boundaries, but also constantly self-justifying.

And all the while, the relentless hot weather: humid, oppressive, and omnipresent. It’s a perfect metaphor for Jonathan’s own thoughts. His exercises tell him that these can be unlearned and rebuilt in a more acceptable image, but although he tries, it’s difficult to do the hard work on your own, without an external force holding you accountable. Schilperoord makes very sure that we see that: that we witness him trying, that we witness him backsliding not because he’s an evil kiddie-fiddler but because he’s human, in the same way that an alcoholic might try hard not to drink but end up reaching for a beer because, dammit, they’ve had a bad day.

Throughout the book, the climactic catastrophe looms. Something is bound to happen, but it’s hard to imagine how Schilperoord will engineer it without boxing herself in: either Jonathan gives in to his impulses, in which case the novel holds out no hope for individual goodness or effort at all, or he doesn’t, which, given the amount of time Tench spends destabilising Jonathan’s resolve, seems dramatically unsatisfying. The third option – the one Schilperoord finally takes – avoids these problems, but is tripped up by its sheer unlikeliness. But that, I think, is the danger inherent in writing a story with such high stakes; on one side or the other, melodrama lurks, and the fact that Schilperoord avoids it for as long as she does is impressive.

What this book most reminded me of was Ian Parkinson’s The Beginning of the End, which I reviewed about two years ago. Parkinson too writes from the perspective of an anti-hero whose lack of sympathetic qualities are due not to a Byronic, rebellious nature but to being repellent and heartbreakingly lonely. But Parkinson’s book does not hold out hope, and while Schilperoord’s book doesn’t really either, it feels by the end as though we’ve moved beyond hope. Jonathan has done nothing, but he will probably be punished. In a way, he’ll be safer back in prison – where at least a support system of psychologists and social workers exists – than out in the wide, terrifying world of flat shores and unpredictable children.

(It is also worth reading Alexandra Marzano-Lesnevich’s book The Fact of a Body in conjunction with Tench. Both give windows onto the almost insurmountable difficulties of living with paedophilia in a society where you are more likely to be reviled or ignored than offered help, and onto the painful struggle not to hurt anyone when, to you, it doesn’t even feel like hurt.)

Many thanks to Tabitha Pelly of Pushkin Press for the reading copy. Tench was published in the UK on 27 April 2017.

April Superlatives

April was a good month in numbers (seventeen), a decent month in quality, a month that I have decided I should not attempt to repeat. I got a lot of proofs from the bookshop, probably too many: there were piles on my desk at work, piles on the desk at home, and a kind of grit-my-teeth determination to get through them all before May. The vast majority of them were very good, but that still seems, in retrospect, like an awfully joyless way to read. It also meant that I burnt out on reviewing less than halfway through the month. In May I’ll be reining it in. Which is handy, since I’ll have friends and family visiting, some singing to do, and zero free time.


most essential: If you like books or use the Internet—and, since you just read that on a website devoted to books, this means you—you need to read The Idealist, by Justin Peters. In part it’s an intellectual biography of data freedom activist Aaron Swartz, in part a tour of historic attitudes to copyright, freedom of information, and open access to literature and other works of culture. If you’re a writer, a reader, a citizen, this is fundamental, and it taps into every other contemporary political issue that there is. (review)

best exposition of little-known history: The fact that there are true things we don’t know about because they’re too weird or peripheral to make it into school history curricula is a source of neverending fascination for me, both as a reader and as a writer. Sana Krasikov’s The Patriots follows a young, idealistic American woman who moves to the USSR in the 1930s, and tracks the life she lives there, all but abandoned by the US government, as purges start to get worse. It’s a compelling, if somewhat overlong, exploration of choice, dogma, and what it means to be free. (review)

best punch to the stomach: Almost literally; One of the Boys, by Daniel Magariel, is under two hundred pages and focuses on the interactions between an abusive father and his two adolescent sons. Magariel compassionately illuminates the pressures and pitfalls of “being a man” in a world that prioritises violence and loyalty above all else. (review)

best application of essential thoughts: Cory Doctorow’s new novel, Walkaway, is dedicated in part to Aaron Swartz. Set eighty-odd years in the future, it speculates about a wholesale rejection of late-stage capitalism enabled by 3-D printers, widespread tech smarts, a communal mindset, and the fact that the 1% has become the .001%. When a walkaway group discovers a technology for cheating death, all hell breaks loose. Doctorow believes we’ll create the world that we imagine, and he wants us to imagine a cooperative one. It made me feel very hopeful. (review)


sheerest fun: Volume 2 of Saga, Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’s barnstorming space opera graphic novel. In this one, we get more of The Will and Lying Cat—two of my absolute faves—beautifully rendered interactions between Alana and her father-in-law, a planet that hatches, and (finally) the appearance of Gwendolyn. It’s slick, funny, and superb.

most fuck-the-patriarchy: Maria Turtschaninoff’s YA fantasy novel Naondel, the follow-up to last year’s Maresi. Men in general don’t come off well—they’re all evil, weak-willed, arrogant, or all of the above—which does its young readers a disservice; Maresi took care to state that men aren’t inherently bad, a more nuanced approach that showed more respect for an adolescent’s intellect. Still, Naondel is full both of badass women and of women who’ve been badly hurt but not broken. That’s a great big middle finger to oppressive tyrants everywhere. (review)

most self-aware memoir: Admissions, English neurosurgeon Henry Marsh’s second book. Marsh is completely honest about his personal faults, which largely neutralises them; he is forthright about the problems that beset the NHS, and clearly fiercely proud of his colleagues, and of the institution as it was originally conceived. He writes a lot in this second volume about aging and death, too, without either sentimentality or cynicism. His voice is wry and utterly unique. Highly recommended.

most diffuse: Sympathy, a debut novel by Olivia Sudjic, published by ONE Pushkin. I liked it well enough, but I finished it unsure of whether Sudjic had actually done anything particularly interesting with her major theme—the ease with which one can stalk and create a false sense of intimacy, using the tools of social media—or whether she had simply used it to tell a fairly conservative story of the need for origins and belonging.


most unexpected pleasure: That derived from Don DeLillo’s White Noise. Going in with no expectations was probably wise; it’s a surprisingly wistful novel, full of marital affection that is no less honest for being presented side-by-side with selfishness and existential terror.

best retelling: Colm Toibin’s reclamation of the Clytemnestra/Agamemnon/Orestes story from ancient Greece, House of Names. Toibin nails the bare-bones, primeval nature of the story and simultaneously brings us into the heads of absolutely single-minded characters. My only query is whether he gives quite enough weight to religious belief: the younger characters are convinced the gods are not there, but Agamemnon must have thought they were, and we don’t get enough of that (or a good reason to decide that he’s merely a nihilistic child-murdering monster.)

best murder: Two, actually—the deaths in Sarah Schmidt’s historical novel about Lizzie Borden, See What I Have Done. And by “best” I mean “most horribly described without being gratuitously gory” and “motives for which explored with the greatest delicacy and surprising artistry”. Turns out Schmidt can really, really write, and she cleverly resists the temptation to pinpoint the nature of Lizzie’s mental health problems, making for a gloriously uneasy reading experience.

most wasted opportunity: Queer City, subtitled “a history of gay London from the Romans to the present”, Peter Ackroyd’s latest. To paraphrase what I said in an earlier discussion, Ackroyd fails on two counts: a) to provide much in the way of sources (there’s a bibliography in the back, but he usually just recounts an anecdote without saying where or who it comes from, and without appearing to analyse the source), and b) to create anything like a narrative or a sense of development around the history of gay London. It’s all just event, event, event—court case, scandal, ballad, gossip, hanging—with no framing of these events in a wider context, no attempt more than cursory to explore social and political currents that might suggest why things changed when. And although the book purports to be about the city, it doesn’t really convey a sense of why or how gay culture flourished specifically in London.

best insults: To be found in The Blood Miracles, Lisa McInerney’s follow-up to The Glorious Heresies, which won her the Baileys Prize last year. In this volume, we follow one of the characters we met previously, Ryan Cusack. A few years down the line, he’s twenty and dealing drugs, and his girlfriend Karine, who means everything to him, is starting to lose patience. McInerney ties in many of the characters we met in Heresies, but this time the atmosphere is darker: there are more beatings, a mock-execution. There’s still humour, though, and the insults are fabulous (“his head is just something that keeps his ears apart” being one of my favourites). I’m just not sure it rises to the heights of Heresies, but I can’t put my finger on why.

The Fact of a Body

hands-down favourite: I liked a lot of the books I read in April, but none of them are going to stay with me like The Fact of a Body. Written by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich, a qualified lawyer with an MFA, it’s part true crime narrated in flawless novelistic prose, part attempt to exorcise the ghosts of Marzano-Lesnevich’s own abusive past. She does this by facing their echoes in the case of Ricky Langley, who admitted to killing a little boy called Jeremy Guillory in 1993. It’s a stunning piece of work: never sensationalistic, never sentimental, always sharply intelligent about the law and human nature, and yet full of understanding. I absolutely adored it. I want it to be huge.

most unabashed comfort reading: Turns out these days, when I need to recharge my brain, I go for spies and murder. (This is why I think I’m getting old. Isn’t this what old people do? Curl up with a cosy mystery and a crossword? At least I don’t do crosswords.) Fortunately neither of these were especially cosy: not Mick Herron’s Dead Lions, the second in the Slough House books, nor Tana French’s The Secret Place, one of her Dublin Murder Squad books, this one set in a girl’s school. Dead Lions isn’t quite as good as Slow Horses: the wisecracking humour starts to wear thin, and the plot is, frankly, farcical and unnecessary (no one cares about the Cold War anymore, and trying to revive it – especially after Herron put his finger on the pulse in terms of real national security trends in his first book – seems like a misguided attempt to cash in on Le Carre comparisons.) But The Secret Place is, I think, one of French’s best books, because it is so explicit about the things that interest her as an author: friendship as an almost mystical force, and what happens when that force is subjected to outside influences, what happens when loving people isn’t enough. Reading it almost felt like relief: she’s a writer I trust implicitly.

most unexpected surprise: Reservoir 13, Jon McGregor’s new novel, which I’ll be reviewing very soon. It starts with the disappearance of a young girl in a Peak District village, and promptly fails to fulfill every one of our expectations about stories that start with the disappearance of a young girl. It’s also the best evocation I have ever read of modern English village life.

up next: I’m currently reading China Miéville’s The City and the City, with almost equal measures of enjoyment and mild confusion, as Miéville’s fiction tends to make me feel. For the rest of the month, I’ve got some fantastic proofs, including Tench by Inge Schilperoord, Perfect Little World by Kevin Wilson, and The Things We Thought We Knew by Mahsuda Snaith.

The Idealist, by Justin Peters

Knowledge is power. Therefore, free, unimpeded access to information is an inherently political issue.


Unless you keep pretty up to date with the tech community and the news that surrounds its activities, you may not know who Aaron Swartz was. On the other hand, if you were paying attention to US news in the early months of 2013, it’s possible that you do. In January of that year, Swartz was found dead in his apartment; he had apparently hanged himself. He had helped to establish the Creative Commons, and was one of the three founders of Reddit, amongst many other projects. At the time of his death, he had been indicted by the FBI under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, and was facing up to ninety-five years in prison. His alleged crime involved downloading millions of articles from JSTOR, a database for academic papers. The FBI was convinced that he had intended to distribute them widely, and saw this as an infringement not only of JSTOR’s terms of service, but of US intellectual property law. Swartz, and the people he had spent most of his twenty-six years talking to and working with, believed that his action was a necessary step towards creating open access libraries, so that everyone—not just the people who could afford incredibly pricy journal subscriptions—could benefit from the work of publicly funded academics; that there was, in Swartz’s own words, “no justice in obeying unjust laws”, and that American copyright laws were fundamentally unjust and geared towards protecting corporations instead of empowering citizens. In The Idealist, Justin Peters sets out to explain not only why Swartz’s death was an unnecessary tragedy caused in large part by the state’s determination to hound him, but also the history and the rationale of the ideas he was fighting for in the first place.

It is outrageously informative on that history. Peters starts with the first legal battle over copyright in the United States: that of Noah Webster to protect his spelling textbook of 1783, A Grammatical Institute of the English Language, from piracy. Webster wrote this textbook out of a sense of national pride, a desire to eradicate class divisions by giving poorer colonials a set of linguistic standards which would make them sound less like illiterate rustics. By doing this, Webster laid the foundation for arguments both for and against copyright provision for the next two hundred-odd years: the speed and ease with which information can be disseminated and/or acquired was subsequently framed in terms of public benefit. The question, in other words, has almost always been: Is it more or less advantageous to the general public to expand the public domain? Will it cause American creativity to flourish, or decline? Will access to literature and culture inspire people, or make them complacent? And—tacit but omnipresent in these discussions—how do you ensure that the rights of the creator are not simply a proxy for the rights of the corporation that distributes their work?

Amazingly, it has frequently been argued that it is in fact disadvantageous to the public to expand the public domain. Those of us who work, or want to work, as creatives can kind of see the point when it’s expressed the way it was in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing:

“Every time a Napster enthusiast downloads a song, it takes money from the pockets of all these members of the creative community,” Ulrich said, remarking that the “touted new paradigm that the Internet gurus tell us we must adopt sounds to me like good old-fashioned trafficking in stolen goods.”

(That’s Larry Ulrich, the drummer from Metallica.)

As we all know, this attitude served the music industry extremely poorly. One of the great virtues of Justin Peters’s writing is that he assumes his readers are bright but not experts—possibly not surprising given his background as a journalist for Slate—and I found him a particularly effective guide when he was explaining things like why the music industry failed so badly:

…[The] mainstream culture industries operate on a mildly coercive ‘push marketing’ model in which companies use advertising and promotions to create consumer demand for the products they want to sell, and the formats in which they want to sell them. Online file sharing repudiates ‘push marketing’ by allowing consumers to unilaterally decide what they want to consume and how they want to do so. As file sharing grew ever more popular in the early 2000s, bringing with it potential opportunities for new, collaborative models of marketing and production, the culture industries instead focused almost wholly on ways to regain their lost control.

This piece of explanation is equally useful when applied to the large academic and journal publishers whom Swartz was targeting when he started crawling JSTOR. I used to work for one—Taylor and Francis, which has recently acquired Elsevier, the main target of Swartz’s, and Peters’s, frustration—and it is a little alarming to realise just how blithely I accepted the idea that subscriptions to these services ought to be paid for. Consider this:

Tens of thousands of scholarly journals exist, and since the 1970s their subscription prices have risen at a rate higher than the rate of inflation […] but academic libraries are, more or less, compelled to subscribe. Every professor expects to find his specialization’s academic journal on the library’s shelves. Thus, many academic libraries wind up spending the bulk of their yearly acquisitions budgets on journal subscriptions.

That’s assuming that a library has a meaningful acquisitions budget at all. Many of them do not—or, at least, don’t have much of one. This plight is especially common in underdeveloped countries, where librarians have enough trouble keeping their computers on […] The result is an ever-widening gap between rich institutions and poor ones.

(A footnote to this section gives an example: as of two years ago, a print subscription to the journal Applied Surface Science cost institutions $12,471 per year.)

Online content distribution was meant to be a partial solution to this. JSTOR, however—the biggest online database of this kind of academic material in the world—struck a deal with publishers when it was first founded, promising that they wouldn’t lose out on potential profits by allowing JSTOR to collect their journals content. The result is that libraries still have to pay annual subscription fees, which are still prohibitively high, and access has not appreciably widened in any way. Meanwhile, the work of academics becomes commoditised—which really is not the point of academia, where you work on arcane and often expensive projects subsidised by benevolent instutitions and sometimes governments with the tacit understanding that whatever you find out will be freely shared for mankind’s general benefit—and, moreover, that commoditisation works only to enrich their publishers, not the academics themselves. It’s a system that screws almost everyone.

Peters’s book works so well because he spends a lot of time getting the reader up to speed on the debates behind these issues. It is not, however, solely a history; it is also a biography of Aaron Swartz, who conformed in many ways to the stereotypical image we might have of a hacker or a nerd. Though he was a brilliant, articulate thinker, and a talented programmer—he was contributing extensively to mailing lists by the time he hit eighth grade, and was a major player in the launch of the Creative Commons at the age of fifteen—he was also profoundly disdainful of authority. He refused to attend high school past tenth grade, and instead took classes at a local college. He had terrible body image and self-esteem issues, which manifested in eating rituals and a series of “cleansing” diets which terrified his friends. Photographs suggest a sweet, slightly diffident young man, but he was also known for getting straight to the heart of a problem, without anything like tact or diplomacy. He was desperately afraid of being seen as dependent or emotional. Asking for help, of any kind, from anyone, was his worst nightmare. He suffered from chronic depression. And, perhaps most damningly, his convictions led him to make statements about the duty of the hacker-citizen to liberate information. Much of Swartz’s clash with the FBI was exacerbated by this sort of personality baggage; he looked like what the government thought of as a bad guy.

“Looks like he is a big hacker, i googled him,” was one MIT police officer’s response upon Swartz’s arrest. Not Reddit cofounder; not Open Library architect; not computer prodigy or applied sociologist or Harvard affiliate or any of the other lines on his résumé. A big hacker.

And, before the FBI, Swartz’s brilliance and his privilege—he grew up in Highland Park, a wealthy suburb of Chicago; he was exposed to computers from a very young age, having a father in the industry (Robert Swartz eventually worked as a consultant for MIT); he had the wealth and the support to enable him to drop out of schools, universities and workplaces when he found them too restrictive—caused problems too. There’s a reason the book’s title is The Idealist, and reasons why idealism is often, definitively, impractical. If you’re reading this as someone who tries to make a living by writing, you’ll probably already have thought of some good reasons for reasonably strong copyright laws. Another perspective comes from a librarian at UNC Chapel Hill with the splendidly mediaeval name of Bess Sadler, who approved of Swartz’s aims but, like most of the rest of us, had to live in the real world:

“I thought he was ethically right, but I was unwilling to put my own livelihood on the line with such strong statements [as Swartz’s Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto]… A librarian who issued a manifesto like that would be unemployable, and that’s something that should give us all pause.”

Which is not to say that it’s not a good idea, or that we shouldn’t strive for a world where creators and their work are sufficiently valued that they can easily afford to be generous, as people who contribute to free and open-source software very frequently are. (This isn’t to say that all F/OSS contributors are wildly wealthy. Michael Hart, the founder of Project Gutenberg, was a mercurial megalomaniac who spent most of the ’80s living on a mattress in Urbana, Illinois, living off the rent paid to him by various lodgers. Modern house price absurdity—amongst other things—has made this strategy difficult for most young creators, though. It’s much more tempting to make your money in start-ups or industry first, and be ethical when you can afford to be.)

I could go on, and I probably will in bits and pieces, because this book is probably the single most important one I’ll read all year in terms of informing and challenging my ideas about power, information, and how technology should be used. It’s currently in vogue to encourage doom-mongering about the Internet: mainstream media reports often imply that it’s causing impotence, or school shootings, or apathy, or obesity, or bigotry, or festering hatred. It does these things, sometimes (hello, Breitbart! Hey there, 4chan! And Gamergate, and Twitter Support; I see you too!) But you don’t have to believe that, ultimately, that’s all the Internet is good for. It was first designed and used by people who wanted to build an infinite library. And that, bookish chums, is an ideal worth hanging on to.

Many, many thanks to Thogdin Ripley (another excellent name) at Duckworth Overlook for the review copy. The Idealist was published in the UK on 23 March.

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.

Baileys Prize Longlist Reading 5: Proulx

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.

Barkskins, by Annie Proulx

51qccavjjel-_sx326_bo1204203200_Before we start, let’s be clear about one thing: Barkskins is extravagantly, almost defiantly, flawed. For one thing, it is far too long. Nobody needs 717 pages all at once; I know it is traditional to make exceptions for War and Peace and Clarissa but I am honestly not sure that even they make the most of their unwieldy page count. Barkskins certainly doesn’t need it; it would always have been a big book, mind you, but it could easily have been 200 pages shorter. For another, that length is compounded by Proulx’s tendency to sacrifice depth to breadth, most notably in terms of her characterisation. Characters are introduced, get married, go to seek their fortune, and die choking on river water or crushed by a falling log, all within the space of five pages—not just once, but repeatedly. As the book edges closer to contemporaneity, we’re allowed to focus more on individuals (I think this may also have something to do with the upward trajectory of the average lifespan), but there’s still a lot to keep track of, not least how all of these people relate to one another. (There are two family trees provided, but, for reasons surpassing understanding, they are in the back, so unless you flick through the whole volume first, you won’t know they’re there until it’s far too late.) It is the sort of book that could not have been published without the author being a big enough name to guarantee that it’d be worth it.

And yet, unlike most such books, Barkskins is actually pretty good. Once it settles down and starts focusing for longer stretches on individual characters, we find people who are worth caring about. There is the sexually aggressive Posey, who engineers not only the death of one husband who’s no good to her, but goes on to seduce and marry James Duke, heir to the Duke logging fortune. There is her daughter Lavinia, who from the 1880s onwards runs the business more competently and ruthlessly than any of the men on its board. There is part-Mi’kmaq Jinot Sel, who travels to New Zealand with his employer and patron and is horrified by the naive paternalism shown by whitemen towards the native Maori. (This eventually gets Jinot’s employer killed, which isn’t good news for Jinot either.) Everywhere, for over three hundred years, we are met with two things: the visceral ways in which men (and women) react to forests, and the complacent conviction of whites that they know best, wherever they are, whichever indigenous nation they’re encountering.

Barkskins is a lot like another book on the Baileys Prize longlist, The Sport of Kings, in that it refracts the history of an entire industry in North America through the focusing lens of a family (or two). Barkskins takes a much longer view—it starts in the 1690s and goes all the way up to 2013, where The Sport of Kings only starts in the nineteenth century—but Proulx’s and Morgan’s projects are almost identical. They ask us to see the ways in which racial prejudice is a definitive part of the American identity, and in particular of the business culture that America developed. Where Morgan focuses on the endemic racism of the South created by plantation slavery, Proulx looks much further back: the experience of black Americans is entirely absent from Barkskins, but only because she focuses on the displacement and total destruction of Native American ways of life. Though much of this is achieved through despoiling the natural habitat (I lost count of the number of times characters proclaimed that the forest needed no conservation, because it was infinite—literally too big to fall), a lot of it is also achieved through racial mixing. This starts in generation one, when Charles Duquet and René Sel both have children with Mi’kmaq women in New France (now Canada), and the effects of it continue to be felt for centuries: young men in later generations return to a dying Mi’kmaw village (yes, it’s spelled both ways) headed up by the long-lived patriarch Kuntaw. They’re mixed-race, poor, and looking for a place they can belong, but the old ways are disappearing fast, and there simply aren’t enough Mi’kmaq being born to replace the ones who are dying. It is also interesting to note that the Sels, who never attempt to hide or erase the Native parts of their heritage, develop into a dynasty of lumberjacks: they are professionals and have deep knowledge, but they are the workers. The Duquets, meanwhile—a line which at one point early on seems as though it might run out of boys, prompting Charles Duquet to adopt three from European orphanages—become the Dukes, owners of the greatest logging empire in North America. Their success exists alongside their utter rejection of any whiff of Mi’kmaq in their family’s past. (Proulx also dwells gleefully on the deep irony of a company that prides itself on family ownership and heredity being founded on adoption, a non-blood relationship.)

Proulx isn’t just interested in race fatalism, though; she uses race to comment on environmental choices. Whitemen are baffled by the Native American tendency not to develop and cultivate land, not to “improve” it; most white people genuinely see this as a sign that natives are unfit to live in the country. The Mi’kmaq, meanwhile, as well as representatives of other tribes and nations that we see, cannot understand what whitemen think they are doing: their “improvement” involves slash-and-burn cutting, huge amounts of wasted timber, erosion of topsoil leading to flash floods and landslides, and the total eradication of wildlife, which doesn’t seem much like improvement from an indigenous—or, indeed, sensible contemporary—point of view. Proulx mostly avoids the “magical Indian” stereotypes of inscrutable redmen in touch with the spirit of the forest, but she makes it quite clear that centuries of rapine and our current ecological disaster situation is due to the greed of white people. There’s a grain of hope: near the end of the book, a Duke son begins to take an interest in replanting, and develops a seedling nursery which later becomes a fully-fledged foundation that (in a nice touch) gives a grant to two young Sel descendants to study forestry and participate in a replanting project. And that grain of hope is appropriately complicated by the book’s final page; we want to believe that human ingenuity and determination can fix this problem, but we can’t fix everything.

So, final verdict time. There are awkward parts to Barkskins; quite apart from the length and the often-perfunctory investment in characters, we’re often treated to infodumps in the form of conversation which sounds stilted and silly even for a historical recreation. But overall? It’s surprisingly readable; when we do get the space to care about characters, they’re rounded and vivid; and Proulx’s staggering ambition is in large part repaid by the realism with which she corrals her themes and her loose ends. To be honest, I wouldn’t complain if it ended up on the shortlist. It’s trying to do something immense, and I think that’s worth celebrating.

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. Barkskins is published by 4th Estate, and is available in hardback.

Sand, by Wolfgang Herrndorf

“Are you entirely sure that you don’t know who you are?”


Let’s start with what I put on Goodreads, five minutes after finishing Sand:

Excellent and horrible. Parts of it are reminiscent of what James Bond might have been like if Fleming had been a decent writer; parts of it are like desert Le Carré; quite a bit of it is like surreal, blackly-comic Greene. You have no idea what’s happening for the first hundred pages and then it all clicks, the characters’ relations to each other make sense, and you’re off. Gloriously, there are no good guys, except perhaps for our amnesiac protagonist, who takes his name (Carl) from the designer’s label inside his suit. The ending laughs majestically in the face of narrative justice. It’s incredible.”

Now let’s back up. Sand does not start with amnesiac Carl. It starts with Polidorio and Canisades, two post-colonial policemen in Morocco circa 1972. The Olympic Games at Munich have just been defiled by the abduction and murder of Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists. The world is hot and nervous. Polidorio and Canisades are called upon to investigate the murder of four people at a hippie commune, apparently by a Moroccan national of seemingly boundless stupidity by the name of Amadou Amadou. Something about the case feels not quite right, but the evidence all adds up and Amadou is on his way to be hanged—until his prison truck is involved in a traffic accident and he is sprung free. The police seem incapable of finding him again; Polidorio is summoned to his chief inspector’s office and informed that, due to the wishes of important people, Amadou will not be found at all, full stop, end of story.

Interspersed with this are chapters following American Helen Gliese, who supposedly works for a cosmetic company but whose sample case was mysteriously and conveniently lost on the docks as she disembarked in Morocco. Helen, who has what the back cover describes as “a talent for being underestimated”, picks up Carl at a desert petrol station; he is wandering aimlessly, covered in blood, having just extricated himself from a scene of distressing violence at a barn in the middle of nowhere with no memory of who he is or what he was doing there. Helen is also acquainted with one of the residents of the commune, a dippy woman called Michelle who reads tarot cards but tends to cheat the deck by removing the Hanged Man.

Once Helen and Carl come together with Michelle, it’s clear that there are wheels within wheels. Up to this point, it hasn’t been at all clear; because Herrndorf starts us off at a point so peripheral to the main action (and, perhaps not coincidentally, to the description on the back of the book), we’re left completely disoriented for quite a long time. Being thrown off balance at the start doesn’t always impress me, but it does here because Herrndorf so obviously knows what he’s doing, even though we don’t. On he marches through the setup of his plot, unspooling authorial confidence behind him, and we follow. By the time Carl meets Helen, you’re in it for the long haul.

Carl is an innocent, and not only by virtue of being unable to remember anything. His actions and reactions (and inactions) are often inexplicably odd. Briefly captured by a white-haired crime lord named Adil Bassir, he has his hand nailed to the table by a letter-opener but does not take the opportunity to explain that he has lost his memory. Helen is baffled: “If I’d been nailed to a desk with a letter-opener I’d have told him a thing or two.” “I had the feeling,” Carl says helplessly, “that I didn’t know what he didn’t know. He just didn’t know that I didn’t know. If I had told him, what would he have done with me?” He panics at the wrong times, is calm at the wrong times. He cries a lot. He is simply, undeniably goofy. And yet we can also feel terrible pity for him, because we can project onto his blank exterior: is there anyone more deserving of kindness than someone lost and vulnerable who doesn’t understand what’s happening to them?

But it’s precisely Carl’s amnesia that also complicates his character. Late on in the book, he is captured and tortured for information that he doesn’t (of course) have. In the course of this unpleasantness, one of his tormentors pinpoints the problem with creating sympathy for the unknown:

“You have something that belongs to us. That we discovered. Our scientists. And that’s why we are the good guys: we built the bomb and wreaked havoc with it. But we learned from that. We’re the adaptive system. Hiroshima shortened the war, and you can argue about Nagasaki—but it’s not going to happen a third time. We will stop it from happening a third time. In our hands the bomb is nothing more than an ethical principle. Put the same bomb in your hands and we’d be heading toward a catastrophe that would make everything else look like nothing more than a minor headache by comparison.”

Whether this rosy picture of American military morality is legitimate or not isn’t the point of this passage; the point of the passage is to awaken uncertainty in the reader. Who, after all, is Carl? We know nothing about him. He knows nothing about himself. Can we be so certain that he isn’t—or wasn’t—involved in hideous plans? We only know what we’ve seen of him, in a very particular, impotent context. What is the difference between a freedom fighter and a terrorist? One’s point of view. And the difference between an innocent man and a guilty one, Herrndorf seems to be saying, is sometimes just the same.

Readerly investment in Carl increases as the book goes on. He is made to suffer a great deal, and by the end of the book our perspective is confined almost entirely to his experiences, so that we can’t help but identify with him. Whether he was or is a terrorist or not, Herrndorf clearly shows us a human: one who fears and tries and clings tenaciously to whatever scrap of a chance is held out to him, one who wants more than anything else to live. So when I say that the ending laughs in the face of narrative justice, what I mean is that it leaves the reader with a sense of wall-pounding noooooooo-ness that you might recognise if you’ve read Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s Waking Lions or watched the film There Will Be Blood. It’s an ending that looks sideways at your high school lit class and everything you learned there about the blueprints for fiction, then smiles wryly, puts out its cigarette on its tongue, and kicks the shit out of teleology. It is, in other words, an ending as true to true life as anything I’ve ever read, and it makes the point that Friedrich Durrenmatt is trying to make in The Pledge about falseness in genre narrative with significantly greater raw grace than Durrenmatt manages. (Sorry, Durrenmatt.)

Wolfgang Herrndorf died of a brain tumour in 2013, at the age of forty-eight. He wrote an earlier book, translated in English as Why We Took the Car, but Sand will be his last. It alone ought to assure him a place in twenty-first century literary history: it’s bold, anarchic, blackly funny, and completely unafraid.

Many thanks as always to the publicity folks at Pushkin for a review copy. Sand is published in the UK on 30 March.