Young Writer of the Year Award Reading: The Lucky Ones, by Julianne Pachico

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Being a series of short reviews of the Young Writer of the Year Award shortlisted titles. Spoilers ahead.

Julianne Pachico’s book The Lucky Ones is a collection of interlinked stories, set in Colombia between 1993 and 2013. During that time, the country was convulsed by drug wars, and Pachico focuses on the effect of those conflicts on a loosely connected group of characters: mostly schoolgirl friends (and frenemies), with forays into characters such as their English teacher, a maid who might or might not be employed by the family of one of the girls, and a rabbit: formerly a pet, now living wild in the tunnels beneath an abandoned country estate, hooked on coca leaves.

The latter story, Junkie Rabbit, gives the best sense of the lengths to which Pachico is willing to go in her writing. It is, for want of a more sophisticated word, bonkers. The whole concept—domesticated animals displaying alarmingly human vices—is a bold one, flirting with allegory, which isn’t a very popular form these days; making your narrator an animal is bolder still. Yet the premise rings surprisingly true. Does it seem all that unlikely that young men working in drug trafficking might find it funny to get their boss’s daughter’s pets addicted to cocaine? The storied excesses of Saddam Hussein’s sons aren’t more extreme, and they are nonfiction. It’s that interplay of incredulity and plausibility at which Pachico excels, and it’s that which gives her writing a quality best described as “hallucinatory.” (I’m pretty sure every one of the shadow panel has used that word in our reviews of this book.)

Another reason, I think, for this sense of the uncanny or dreamlike, is that Pachico is often writing about the effects of trauma on a person’s perception of reality. Lemon Pie, the story that convinced me this collection wasn’t just good but brilliant, follows the schoolgirls’ former middle school English teacher—an American guy who has settled in Colombia, and has now been kidnapped by paramilitaries. Well into his second year of imprisonment, he attempts to retain his sanity by teaching his old Hamlet lessons to groups of sticks and leaves, but the combination of constant fear, exposure, malnutrition, and a jungle parasite is wearing him down. When, in a later story, we encounter another formerly imprisoned teacher who has been badly disfigured by the same parasite, it’s natural for us to read him as the character we knew several stories ago—but he isn’t; the points of overlap are mere coincidence, our sense of familiarity shaken in the same way that both teacher characters’ perceptions have been permanently altered.

The microcosmic consequences of Colombia’s drug wars play out on a personal level, inside individual human hearts, and two of the stories are particularly effective at conveying this: Honey Bunny, which follows one of the middle school girls after she moves to New York with her family (as a college student, she’s now dealing the cocaine that is ruining her home country), and Beyond the Cake, in which another of the girls visits Colombia with her boyfriend after a decade away. Beyond the Cake opens with a description of the birthday party that features in the first story and throughout the book; our main character in this story, Betsy, is recounting it to her boyfriend. She attends, but is embarrassed by the present she’s brought and calls her parents to come and pick her up. We know, from reading the rest of the collection, that this party turned into a massacre: the birthday girl’s father, a crooked businessman, was probably the target, but there’s no suggestion that anyone else survived. Betsy’s early departure saves her life. It’s one of those hairpin moments in time, and by positioning it at the very end of her collection, Pachico drives home the random nature of luck: in this kind of environment there’s nothing special about a survivor, she seems to be saying, except for pure chance.

Pachico has a broad range, and The Lucky Ones reads almost as though it was designed to show that off: there are stories in first, third, and the elusive second person. We see through the eyes of maids, warlords, waiters, children. Throughout the collection, the sense of something being off-kilter competes with an evocation of place and atmosphere so strong that the book practically creates its own weather. (It would be very interesting to see it adapted as an anthology mini-series.) So far, this is my favourite to win: the prose is flawless, the structure is complexly conceived and smartly executed, and it is the only book on the shortlist, out of the four I’ve read so far, that has left me feeling winded after closing its covers.

The Young Writer of the Year Award winner is announced on 7 December. For more commentary, see the rest of the Shadow Panel: Rebecca, Clare, Dane and Annabel. The Lucky Ones is published by Faber, and is available in paperback.

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Reservoir 13, by Jon McGregor

The missing girl’s name was Rebecca, or Becky, or Bex.

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I’m growing more and more interested in the idea of reading protocols: roughly speaking, ways that we are primed to read and interpret a book given its genre, or its front cover design, or the name of its author. Jon McGregor’s name was familiar to me when I picked this up, but I’d never read any of his work before, so I had no real expectations. The front cover design gives little away. All you have to go on is the opening pages: a community-wide hunt for a thirteen-year-old girl who goes missing on the moors above an unnamed Peak District village, not far from Manchester. The reading protocols that most of us, I would guess, have developed by now prime us to expect that Reservoir 13 will focus on this disappearance: maybe it will flash back to the week before the girl vanishes, bring us forward in time; maybe it will take us into the police investigation, into the heads of the detectives trying to find her. Maybe we’ll learn what horrible thing happened to her, and why.

We don’t. That’s one thing worth knowing before you crack the spine of Reservoir 13: you never find out what happens. It’s a book that doesn’t so much challenge your expectations as ignore them. There is no point even in guessing what happened to the missing girl: we’re told, many times, that it could have been anything; an accident; something deliberately planned by her parents; a running away, a walk to the nearby motorway and a jump into a friendly-looking car and later a burial somewhere miles away, or maybe just the start of a new life. Although, over the years, two clues emerge from the surrounding landscape, they remain inconclusive. One of them isn’t even recognised as a clue and is discarded by the character who finds it, though we as readers are braced for it to be a breakthrough in the case.

Instead, the focus of the book is on the life of the village where the girl disappears. She and her parents are holiday-makers, passersby; the village, by contrast, is full of people who have lived there for years, people who farm and trade there and are making a life. The time period is never specified, but from context about what’s on the news, it’s probably the early 2000s. McGregor structures his book in thirteen chapters, each representing another year after the disappearance.

We are not permitted even the illusion of a single focal point. Unlike The Virgin Suicides, another novel set within and defined by a particular community, Reservoir 13 is not narrated by a “we”, and there is no main character. Instead the book’s voice is omnipotent and omnipresent, a godlike third-person narration that gives the impression of a village whose identity is a bit like that of Trigger’s broom: its composition is ever shifting, its inhabitants dying or moving or being born, but through some ineffable alchemy it remains recognisably the same place.

The other technique that contributes to this effect is McGregor’s use of the natural world, and the events of the farming year, as touchstones. Lambing, for instance, occurs every year and in every chapter. In the opening pages of the book, we are told that Jackson’s boys are seeing to it under the supervision of their aging father. By the end of the book, Jackson is confined to his bed after a stroke; it’s out of the question for him to play any sort of active role in the day-to-day workings of the farm, let alone the major events of the year. McGregor is quite willing to let his characters age and weaken—or age and mature, as in the case of Susanna Wright, who enters the village as an object of some suspicion, a yoga-practicing divorcée, and becomes embedded in the life of the community.

That is a particular beauty of Reservoir 13: all human life is here, and not in the Midsomer Murders sort of way that sees incest behind every rose bush. Instead McGregor introduces stories and characters that initially seem typically “English” (for which read: white, well-to-do, nuclear families) and gradually causes us to recognise that they’re more complicated. In one of the early chapters, Austin Cooper, the editor of the local paper, is complimented in the village shop on his wife Su’s pregnancy. Oh, okay, we think; young couple, probably yuppies or refugees from urban life, playing at journalism and housewifery. It’s only gradually that we learn that Su’s name is Su Lin; that her parents are Anglo-Chinese; that she works for the BBC; that Austin is sixty, and that for him marriage and fatherhood have long seemed unattainable joys. Likewise, Sally and Brian Fletcher appear to represent a classically dull village marriage: Brian is a permanent fixture on the parish council, Sally does volunteer-type things at the church and tracks butterflies in the nearby nature reserve. It’s with something of a shock that we learn they met online.

The obvious question, of course, is why tell this story, and why tell it this way? The missing girl vanishes on page one and as far as narrative closure goes, that’s pretty much it. Her parents hang around the village for several years, returning every so often, to be seen as objects of pity and bafflement. But we never get even the tiniest inkling of what happened to her—the police seem to have none—and though McGregor invokes her as surely and regularly as he does the New Year’s fireworks and the springtime well-dressing ceremony, with the quotation used at the top of this post, there is never much in the way of elaboration. Reservoir 13 is not about Rebecca Shaw’s disappearance.

But it could not be the book that it is without her. Everyone in this village carries a burden, even—especially—those who seem the most secure. Bossy matriarch Irene is becoming increasingly physically threatened by her developmentally disabled son Andew; Jones the school caretaker, convicted of possessing child pornography (charges he denies), is a full-time carer for his sister. Susanna Wright’s ex-husband is dangerous. Young James kissed Becky Shaw the day she disappeared. Wherever there is a community, there are people living in the shadows of their own secrets, in the light of the inexplicable secrets of their neighbours. Jon McGregor’s genius, in Reservoir 13, is to tell stories about the people who continue to live in such a place, the people who have to continue existing on land that holds great suffering and great sorrow and great mystery. The fact that Rebecca Shaw disappears there only serves as the most extreme example of that mystery. That place is our neighbourhood, and everywhere; the people are us, and everyone.

Reservoir 13 was published in the UK on 1 April 2017 by 4th Estate.

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.

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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)

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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.

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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.

A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

English Animals, by Laura Kaye

English animals drinking and playing games in the sunshine

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

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

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

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

“I had a girlfriend,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Could you make us some more Pimm’s?”

“Yes, of course.”

“I’ll do it, Dad,” Sophie said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Golden Hill, by Francis Spufford

By morning, the news was all around town that a stranger had arrived with a fortune in his pocket.

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In an attempt both to write about more of the books I read—not just the ones I get for free off of publishers—and to make that process less intimidating, I’m experimenting with different ways of posting, e.g. not always my usual essay. I like the idea of “journaling” about a book; in particular, books that have been released for a while don’t, I think, need to be “reviewed” as much as they simply need to be considered. As always, feedback appreciated.

I am not at all sure that I have read a more purely enjoyable book this year than Golden Hill. It ticks many of my personal-preference boxes: set in the eighteenth century (New York City, 1746), exploring finance and trade and the intersection of the political with the personal. I was hoping that it would be a bit like Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Trilogy. And in many ways, there were similarities, but Spufford is doing something with the material that is totally his own, and with such confidence in his plot and such exuberant yet finely controlled language that I smiled more times than I could count. One of 2016’s most unalloyed reading highlights; I keep trying to think of reasons to dislike it, and am unable to come up with any.

Further to journaling, here is some elaboration on the reasons that I did like it:

  • Its echoes of David Simple/Tom Jones/Roderick Random (eighteenth-century English picaresque novels) are entirely intentional. David Simple in particular is referred to repeatedly, explicitly, throughout the text; I like that Spufford has done his homework. I also like how good-humoured he is about these novels, and about novels in general, often in quite a meta way. For instance: his protagonist is Richard Smith, who appears in New York with an order for a thousand pounds in his pocket. Smith falls in love with his banker’s prickly eldest daughter Tabitha. At a dinner one night, Tabitha’s sister Flora, who loves novels, asks Smith to pass her his copy of David Simple. He hands it to Tabitha to pass down the table. Mistake: Tabitha is a self-professed hater of novels (though she is by far the brightest woman Smith meets). She hurls it down the table in disgust, where it lands in a soup bowl and is fished out by another dinner guest.
  • It is intensely atmospheric; more specifically, it evokes in great detail just how provincial colonial New York was. In 1746 there was still a strong Dutch presence there; Richard meets the influential Van Loons, and a powerful judge drives in to town from “his farm in the Bouwerij” (the Bowery). There are just enough surprising touches like that—moments where Spufford’s use of the old name for a place meets my awareness of our contemporary name for the same place—to make the setting seem both utterly familiar and utterly alien, and yet it never becomes an end in itself, it never yanks you out of the story. I spent several pages eagerly following Smith’s progress up a semi-rural road referred to as the Broad Way. It took me quite a long time to work out that this was, of course, what the famous Broadway had been in 1746.
  • Language and syntax are just antiquated enough to be interesting and believable, without being actual pastiche. Through various plot twists (again paralleling the picaresque tendencies of eighteenth-century novels), Smith is imprisoned; his letter to his father is both painfully poignant to read, and a sheer delight because of how perfectly it adheres to the style of the time. The main body of the narrative doesn’t use archaisms very often; instead, the structure of the sentences and judicious word choices (“I am become”, “a civil attention”) keeps the historical flavour correct.
  • The male gaze is repeatedly flipped, challenged or interrogated. Smith is, at one point, seduced by an “aging” (she’s forty-six) actress in a bathhouse; the narrator, delightfully, breaks off mid-sentence (this is another eighteenth-century thing, though people forget it: narrators that directly address, manipulate, and often annoy, the reader). “But why always Smith?” we are asked. “Was it necessarily true, that because she seemed to him the ripe, round, straightforward antidote to the complications of his hopes, the scene looked as simple through her eyes? Was she not taking the greater risk here? Did she not have to set aside cautions, sorrows, hopes, fears, loyalties, to permit herself the role of the plump and ready siren in the steam-room? …Should we not, at least, pay a little attention to [her] view of him?” It’s good; it maintains that lightness of touch that I mentioned earlier in relation to the way novels are discussed, though the point is serious. Plus, the late revelation of who, exactly, is narrating this story flips much of what we’ve seen and been told over the past 300 pages, which I very much enjoyed.
  • Related to the above, I think, is the fact that Spufford addresses homosexuality, slavery and women sensitively but, broadly, within the mindset of the times. He writes, for instance, a relationship between an African slave and a young white male secretary for the Governor, and picks his way delicately but confidently over and around the many faultlines of power and secrecy that their relationship implies. When Smith finds out, he tells the secretary—Septimus, one of his few friends in New York—that he does not think the less of him for sleeping with a man, or even for sleeping with a black man, but “for taking your pleasure where there is no possibility of it being refused.” (The relationship is consensual, but for Spufford to characterise Smith by making that his major concern is efficient to the point of mastery.) Smith’s relationship with Tabitha is equally complicated by the fact that she is what Kenneth Clarke would call “a bloody difficult woman”. Although Smith is attracted to her—and although he is also a highly unusual man—he has to devise his own script for interacting with her; his society and upbringing have given him one that is too limited to be helpful. In devising that independent script, he frequently makes mistakes, sometimes approaching the unforgivable, and Tabitha likewise. Spufford doesn’t shy away from that, which I think is a mark of real emotional honesty in a writer.
  • That emotional honesty leads to another thing: he’s not afraid to make bold plot choices. A major character dies three-quarters of the way through the book. Smith is in jail, then out of it, then in again. The first chapter is hardly over before he’s had his order for a thousand pounds stolen from his hands. And the ending—when we finally learn why he is in New York, where the money is from, and what he has been charged to do with it—is both brilliantly unexpected and makes perfect sense.

I’m so glad this book is in paperback now. I want everyone to read it. It would make an ideal Christmas holiday escape: cracking plot (you’ll be up past midnight reading) meets the vivacious clarity of truly excellent writing. It’s on my shelf of Books To Save From Fire now; I can’t praise it more highly.

Golden Hill is published by Faber and Faber.

November Superlatives

I’ve sort of forgotten about the end of November. It seems to have been an infinite month, on and on and on, late nights, late shifts, weekends alone or away. It doesn’t feel like the end of anything, especially given that things are only going to get busier at the pub from now until New Year. I’ve read twelve books this month, though—some of them quite long. I won’t lie, there was definitely some post-election comfort reading going on.

most disproportionately affecting: By size, I mean. The playscript for Camilla Whitehill’s play Where Do Little Birds Go (which I reviewed at Litro) takes a quarter of an hour to read, but the play is haunting. A one-woman show that dramatises the experiences of Lucy Fuller, a barmaid kidnapped by the Kray twins in the 1960s, it’s spare, effective, and completely engrossing.

best glimpse of another world: Alfred Russel Wallace’s The Malay Archipelago, his writings about the years he spent in Southeast Asia collecting specimens of birds, insects and mammals. He’s thoughtful and reflective, but still a product of time; reading his ruminations about the “natural character” of the indigenous people is an insight into a mindset that may not be cruel but is still limited. His writings on landscape are beautiful.

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most obscurely disappointing: There is nothing at all wrong with Fiona Melrose’s debut novel Midwinter. I just wanted more… juice, I said to Rebecca when she reviewed it, though I’m not sure that’s the right word. The story of a father and son struggling with the decade-old loss of mother and wife Cessie, it’s a quiet novel about quiet men, whose thoughts Melrose infiltrates and describes fluently. The writing is good. I can’t complain about it. I think it has been the victim of Twitter hype.

most relevant: The Dark Circle, Linda Grant’s new novel, which takes in the beginnings of the NHS and the global social changes of the 1950s, and leaves us believing that the strength of the individual character is our best hope. I reviewed it just after the US election and was comforted by its vision of a new, happy, modern life, despite the constant presence of the past.

warm bath books: The US election was hard. I woke up at eight the morning after, checked my phone, and began to cry, at which point the Chaos made me return to bed. I cried and demanded to be held and cried some more, went back to sleep for a few hours, woke up, cried again. I was very glad I had the day off. I read the second and third of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy: The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. It had been years since I’d read them and I was pleasantly surprised to find that they are not as intellectually antagonistic as I remembered; they are instead profoundly humane books, framing the human mind and human evolution as a source of wonder and power. They are soothing without being mindless or saccharine, and just about perfect.

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weirdest: I think Shena Mackay just writes weird books, and her novel Dunedin, though the first of hers that I’ve read, is probably pretty representative. It’s a split timeframe—the first half is set in nineteenth-century New Zealand; the second half follows the descendants of our original protagonists in southeast London—but the New Zealand bit is short-changed in the word count, and the plot of the south London bit has no obvious centre. She writes the same kind of tactile, color-and-light-filled prose as A.S. Byatt, though, so I liked it anyway.

most potential: This is, I admit, a backhanded compliment indeed. Stephanie Victoire’s debut story collection, The Other World, It Whispers, addresses issues of gender and sexuality through a fantasy lens that is fueled by a huge imagination. I also, unfortunately, found it under-edited and uneven. Swings and roundabouts…

second most potential: Wendy Jones’s collection of interviews with English women about their sex lives (helpfully entitled The Sex Lives of English Women) is, yes, totally fascinating. She has a decent spread of age, class, race and preferences—there is a 19-year-old devout Muslim, a 33-year-old ex-Buddhist nun, a 94-year-old former Land Girl who recalls having sex by the side of the road—but I wanted a little more structure; the chapters read as transcriptions of one half of a conversation, which is a bit disorienting, as it sometimes is in magazine interviews.

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best impulse buy: I’m not sure I’ve ever bought a book on the strength of one review, but I did it for Treasure Palaces: Great Writers Visit Great Museums, an anthology from The Economist whose subtitle tells you all you need to know. The museums range from the Pitt Rivers in Oxford to the Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb, via the Frick Collection, the ABBA Museum, Kelvingrove in Glasgow, and many more. The authors range from Frank Cottrell Boyce to Don Paterson, Ali Smith to Jacqueline Wilson. The essays are elegiac, descriptive, lyrical, hilarious, strange. A total treasure box.

best debut: Eric Beck Rubin’s novel School of Velocity, ONE Pushkin Press’s new release. The control Rubin exercises in this tale of charisma, friendship, music and obsession is worthy of a veteran novelist. I’m very interested to read his next book.

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big fat fucking awesome book: C.E. Morgan’s The Sport of Kings has divided opinion since its release. Me, I like it. A chunkster indeed, but its tale of Thoroughbred horse racing, interwoven with a Southern family saga and the attendant agonies of racial prejudice right through to the present day, makes it all forgivable: its flaws are immense because its ambitions are immense, as someone once said of Dickens. I read it on many trains over about three days, and was delighted to have had it with me to pass the time.

up next: I’m reading Sarah Moss’s Signs for Lost Children and loving it. I loved The Tidal Zone, so this is hardly surprising, but still.