Diary, Reading and otherwise

I’ve been at my parents’ house in the States for the last week, which coincided with my brother’s college fall break; we’ve been trying to cram the greatest quantity of Organized Fun into six days. This has involved a lot of visits to vineyards and ciderworks, of which there are about 200 in the state of Virginia, as well as a hike in the nearby Blue Ridge, a movie in the little town where my mother works, and an extended family get-together this past weekend. Both my dad’s parents died within twenty-four hours of each other last month, so it felt particularly important to all be together, and particularly nice that I could take part.

But, books! I don’t think I’ve updated since the beginning of the month, which is shocking. Since the 1st of October, I’ve read ten books – not great, but preparing for and staying with my parents always minimizes the available time for reading. Several of the books I’ve read have qualified for the R.I.P. challenge (Readers Imbibing Peril), too. Here’s the first half of this month’s reading:

the_little_stranger_28film29The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters: It was very difficult to decide how to feel about this: on the one hand, it’s an extremely atmospheric ghost story, set in decaying Hundreds Hall after the First World War and playing on an obsession with class and tradition that manifests itself in the character of Dr. Faraday. On the other hand, as Abigail Nussbaum points out, Sarah Waters makes genre and realism pull against each other, and therefore neither element is totally successful; the ambiguity of the ending is less richly satisfying and more of a frustration as a result, as though Waters simply can’t be bothered to decide. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the book is the phrase “the little stranger”: it was a Victorian euphemism for an unborn child, and the entity which knocks from ceilings and scrawls childishly on walls seems to suggest that it is the ghost of Susan, a little girl who died at Hundreds Hall several decades earlier – but there is also a suggestion that ghosts in general are psychic emanations of the people who live in a haunted house, non-physical children, in a sense. It’s the sort of book that will probably need another look. (RIP categories: horror; supernatural.)

51udevpxrxl-_sx330_bo1204203200_Friday Black, by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah: It seems fairly evident, simply from watching the news and following the barest minimum of the relevant folks on Twitter, that the experience of being a person of colour in America now – let alone historically – is so quotidianly bizarre as to almost register as a form of science fiction or surrealism. The literary response to this has varied (but think of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, or, maybe more relevantly, of the movie Get Out); from Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah comes what seems like a natural response, which is a collection of short stories that take the experiences of various black American characters and make of them an anthology that reads like a series of Black Mirror. “The Finkelstein Five”, the collection’s opening story, concerns the trial of a white man who decapitated with a chainsaw five black children (at least one of whom was as young as seven or eight). Adjei-Brenyah’s dialogue in these trial scenes is flawless; the arguments of white men who murder black children, like George Zimmer, barely need exaggerating. In another story, a young black man works at an amusement park which is actually named ZimmerLand, in which patrons confront and “kill” him on a suburban street. Three linked stories, meanwhile, explore the zombie-like horror of Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving that has traditionally been America’s busiest shopping day. What makes Adjei-Brenyah’s most successful stories stand out, instead of merely being exercises in grim, heavy-handed satire, is the moral detail of them. ZimmerLand, for example, gives its customers the option of taking a mobile phone or a gun, or nothing, into their scenario; more than ninety percent of them make the choice to take the gun. The young salesman protagonist of the first Black Friday story wants to win the regional sales competition that day because he wants the chance to bring his mother a nice coat for Christmas; the ludicrous violence and twitching bodies are semi-inevitable and so he continues to work that shift, in that mall, in a neat parallel of the violence and destruction behind most American consumerism, even the relatively restrained kind. Adjei-Brenyah is one to watch, I think. (RIP categories: fantasy; horror.)

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The Trespasser, by Tana French: I won’t subject you to too long a dissection of yet another Tana French novel, partly because I read them pretty regularly and partly because I not only reread a second one of her Dublin Murder Squad books this month, but also read her new standalone, The Witch Elm, which I’ll be talking about later. This is only the second time I’ve read The Trespasser; the first was the weekend after my ex broke up with me last year, so my memories of it were pretty patchy, to say the least. It’s not on quite the same level as her best books (Broken HarbourThe LikenessThe Secret Place, for my money), partly because the motive is less interesting: it circles around a girl called Aislinn Murray, found dead in her home, whose entire life seems to be a blank. Only when the detective on the case, Antoinette Conway, remembers that she’s seen Aislinn before – years ago, asking questions about the father who went missing when she was a child and who was never found – do clues start making sense, but they all point to the one place Conway really doesn’t want to go… As always, French is uniquely excellent at differentiating her detectives, making them individuals whose problems are complex and convincing, far from the dysfunction-by-numbers drunk with marital problems that often seems to pass for a detective in this genre. Conway’s got issues – trust and an absent father among them – but she deals with them in her way, and part of her need to put Aislinn Murray’s case to bed stems from a deep personal irritation with Aislinn’s way of handling problems similar to her own. The writing, also as always, is spectacular, a blend of grit and lyricism that works incredibly well for me. Long may Tana French reign, I say. (RIP categories: mystery; suspense.)

imageA Political History of the World, by Jonathan Holslag: It’s nice to think of oneself as an eclectic reader, and I think for the most part I genuinely am, but recently I’ve been experimenting with reading things that really are very off-brand for me, and a three thousand-year history of global diplomacy and warfare certainly qualifies. Jonathan Holslag is a professor of international politics in Brussels, which is both an occupation and a locale that would seem to equip him thoroughly to write this book. For the most part, it’s delightfully informative, covering Asian pre-history and antiquity as well as the obvious Western empires. There’s much less about North and South American civilisations, though Holslag acknowledges, occasionally, peoples like the Olmec and the Maya, with the addendum that the documentary evidence for civilisations in these places is thinner on the ground. (This is probably true, although it seems rather weak sauce.) The main problem, though, is that he covers so much in the way of historical event (kingdom A fought kingdom B; kingdom B, forced to defend against kingdoms C through E, declined until its overthrow by kingdom F, which had been quietly amassing strength for decades) that he leaves little room for analysis or exposition regarding diplomacy, which is, in theory, the purpose of the book. It’s of little interest to know about the vacillations of power amongst kingdoms A through F when the rationale, or the psychology, behind those vacillations remains largely unexplained.

51hnj-b63wl-_sx321_bo1204203200_The Likeness, by Tana French: The second of my French rereads this month, and my very favourite of all her books, mostly because it’s set amongst a tight-knit group of friends, postgraduates at Trinity who all live in an old and beautiful house out in the countryside surrounding Dublin. I’m increasingly convinced that one of French’s major themes is the dynamics of friendship: how people develop non-sexual intimacy between themselves, what kind of power that intimacy can hold, the potential danger of it, how far someone might go for people who are neither blood relatives nor romantic prospects. The Likeness also, like The Trespasser, contains a detective convinced that her personal issues are under control, who is forced eventually to confront the fact that those very issues are deeply resonant with her case and might well be affecting her judgment. Some of French’s most beautiful writing is in this, and the final paragraph (as I’m sure I’ve said before) makes me cry every time I read it. (RIP categories: mystery; suspense.)

The second half of October’s Reading Diary should be up in the next few days, so keep an eye out… Are any of you participating in the RIP challenge this year?

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07. The Madonna of the Mountains, by Elise Valmorbida

9780571336333One particular risk of having a reading list or challenge is that it’s easily possible to read several books in a row that, while fine, don’t really excite you; that you’re reading because there’s no reason to put them down and they’re doing their job, but which you don’t feel a pang parting from when you reach work, or the end of your lunch break. This has happened to me: MayA Station On the Path…, and The Waters and the Wild all ended up three-star reads, quite all right but not especially haunting, and not propulsive while I was reading them. (Actually, The Waters and the Wild was, but the structure did most of the work; I found that even as I was racing through the final pages, the relentlessly circuitous prose was frustrating.) The upside of a patch of average reading is that when you do find something emotionally compelling, it breaks upon you like a wave of delight. The Madonna of the Mountains is a book like that. It’s quiet, but it’s brilliant.

It starts in 1923, with a girl called Maria Vittoria embroidering sheets for her dowry trunk. She’s twenty-five, alarmingly old to be unmarried. Her papà has gone to find her a husband. He returns with a man – Achille Montanari, tall and strong and wrapped in glory as a result of vaguely-defined heroism in the last war – and they marry. From there, Elise Valmorbida spins the story of Maria Vittoria’s life: her marriage, her children, the ascent of Mussolini’s government and the onset of WWII. It finishes with her family’s eventual emigration to Australia in 1950. In between these events, Valmorbida demonstrates, life goes on: the war isn’t the point of the novel any more than the question of whether Maria Vittoria will have a husband, a question solved in chapter one. As a result of its refusal to be “about” any one particular event, The Madonna of the Mountains feels both universal (fears about infidelity, a child’s health, how to protect your family in uncertain times) and deeply, richly specific: Valmorbida is interested in process, whether that’s washing laundry in the stream, raising silkworms from eggs, or the arduous hunt for, and fiddly preparation of, snails to eat when there’s no other meat.

Because we’re so deeply embedded in its physical world, The Madonna of the Mountains also feels effortlessly emotionally engaging, without resorting to either melodrama or apparent anachronism. Third-rate historical fiction forces us to care about characters either because we identify with them (often because they have political opinions much like our own, which are suspiciously progressive for their own time, as in The Burning Chambers), or because they’re forced to endure trial after trial, which requires a grudging sort of respect from the reader. Here, neither of those things occurs: Maria Vittoria is very much of her time, a God-fearing Catholic countrywoman whose husband hits her on occasion but whom she will never dream of leaving, who feeds her eldest son first, and who disinherits a daughter with pain but no regret when she brings dishonour to the household. The challenges she faces are both personal and political (indeed, in Fascist Italy, the two are often the same), and in every adversity, her responses are so consistent that it really feels as if you are peering into the head of, let’s say, your great-grandmother; someone whose world is not your world, whose socially conditioned responses are alien to your own. The Madonna of the Mountains is one of the most restrained, yet profoundly convincing, historical novels that I’ve read in years, perhaps ever. I’m delighted to have found it.

Reading Diary: Feb. 18-Feb. 24

isbn9781473655980The week opened with two historical novels, one written some time ago, one being released next month. Towers in the Mist by Elizabeth Goudge is one of her adult novels; she wrote other books, for children, including Linnets and Valerians and The Little White Horse, both of which I loved as a kid. Towers in the Mist is set in Elizabethan Oxford and follows (more or less) a poor but very promising scholar called Faithful Crocker, who gets himself to Oxford in the hope of acquiring learning. He’s quickly adopted by the family of Canon Leigh of Christ Church, and becomes the servitor of the eldest Leigh son, Giles, also studying at Christ Church. Over the course of a year, the fortunes of Faithful and the Leighs rise and fall. There is a love story (there are two, actually), but two things really make the book: its stunningly vivid, detailed, loving descriptions of Oxford city and the surrounding countryside, and its funny, chatty, interesting asides about the real-life historical figures that people its pages. (The book features not only a young Walter Raleigh but a clever, thoughtful Philip Sidney, and Elizabeth I, amongst many other characters whose lives are a matter of record.) Goudge, of course, propagates a mid-twentieth-century view of Tudor England, one that holds up Good Queen Bess and the return of religious moderatism and Raleigh’s patriotic imperial yearnings as models of behaviour. But her characters are vivacious and irresistible, and the whole book comprises a love letter to Oxford that is more charming than I can say. She also handles religion rather well, I think; the practice and accoutrements of Christianity—prayers, relics and so on—are omnipresent in her characters’ lives in a way that feels entirely faithful to the period, probably because they were very present in her own life, too.

cover-jpg-rendition-460-707The second historical novel I read was distinctly harder to get a handle on, which feels, in its own way, appropriate: Samantha Harvey’s The Western Wind is set a hundred and fifty years before Towers in the Mist, and the boisterous wonder of the Renaissance has not yet settled on England. Nor are we in such an exalted locale as Oxford. Instead, Harvey puts us down in Oakham, a small and isolated village in Somerset (travellers who get lost in the area tend to end up in Wales). Oakham is dying: it has a river, but lacks a bridge, and therefore a port or wharf, and therefore trade. The local lord, Townshend, is under the deluded belief that cheese will make Oakham’s fortune, though there is no market for the products (anyone with a cow can make cheese, so why pay your neighbours for it?) Townshend has been losing his land, slowly but steadily, to Thomas Newman—an incomer to the area, but, we’re given to understand, a good man. As the book opens, Newman has drowned in the river, and the village priest, John Reve, is under pressure from the rural dean to find his killer.

The Western Wind is complicated in a way that Towers in the Mist is not. Those allegorical names, for instance: Townshend (town’s end), Newman (…come on), Reve (reeve; an archaic position in local government that involved law enforcement duties). Then there’s Reve himself, a man curiously slow to offer the things a priest must offer in fifteenth-century England, pre-eminently earthly judgment. Reve is passive, and not especially convinced of the sinfulness of his flock, and—relatedly—not especially convinced of his fitness to serve as their channel to God, though he never quite admits his doubts to himself. Then there is the sub-theme about technology and development; about building a bridge, and the money it’ll take to do it; about stewarding your land, and what that involves; about stewarding a people, and how ill-equipped those designated as leaders can be. It’s a very slow-rolling book, like a river after a flood but before the waters have gone back down, with a lot of unobvious things churning about in its depths. The more I think about it, the happier I’d be to see it on the Women’s Prize longlist.

9781682190760There was then a fiction hiatus while I finished The Digital Critic, which I am meant to be reviewing for Litro. I will be pretty brief about it here (although Litro nicely says I can reproduce whatever I write for them on my own site). The book is a collection of essays—more or less; some are adapted versions of talks given elsewhere, like a Will Self lecture delivered at Brunel University—on the topic of the subtitle: literary culture online. A wide selection of subthemes is represented, from literary translators’ use of the Internet (in an essay that foregrounds the online journal Asymptote and discusses how its editorial team works to place translation further to the front of readers’ brains), to working “for exposure” in the age of moribund print media, to a writer’s need for isolation and how that works when social media demands constant accessibility. My favourite, from a standpoint of professional usefulness, is an essay on publishers and how they function as the very first “critics” of a text, in the sense that the choices they make about a book—editorial but also, very significantly, in terms of marketing and cover design—create a foundational interpretation of that book that every other reader and critic builds on. Of particular interest to bloggers are the several essays in the collection interested in the collapsing distinctions between “professional” or “elite” critics, and the criticism of the general public on forums like Goodreads, Amazon, and, of course, sites like this one. I would have appreciated an acknowledgement that the ability to participate in “professional” literary culture is in large part reliant on your ability to pay your rent whether there’s money coming in regularly or not, and that, therefore, the rise of “amateur” online literary critics might be a) representative of the fact that this is an increasingly difficult proposition, and b) a potentially fertile source of brilliant criticism that comes from people who happen not to be able to afford to play the game. Still, this is a collection of essays that I would like every bookseller, book blogger, book reviewer, arts page editor, and minister for the arts to read: containing such varied points of view, with consistently solid writing and argumentation, it’s illuminating at every turn.

womenFinally, to Women by Chloe Caldwell, out on the 8th of March from 4th Estate. 4th Estate tends to be incredibly trustworthy, and I have to say that this short novel—a novella, really—is written with the same linguistic surefootedness and attention to emotional detail that one expects from an author published by the same house that published Reservoir 13. Our unnamed narrator is a woman in her mid- to late twenties who moves to an unnamed city (probably LA or SF; it’s West Coast and big) and falls in love, quite unprecedentedly in her experience, with a woman. Finn is nineteen years older than our narrator, a virtually even mix of butch and femme, and has a long-term girlfriend. Despite that, the two women embark on an affair that leaves them both hollowed out. Caldwell evokes the childishness of bad decision-making, emotional manipulation, and jealousy with almost disturbing ease, and her descriptions of being lonely and unmoored by a solid friendship group or regular work hours will prompt nods of recognition too. My main issue with Women is probably signposted by the presence of that Lena Dunham quotation on the front: it feels very much like a tourist-lesbian novel in a way that codifies structures of privilege without examining them particularly hard. One reviewer on Goodreads writes that she feels uncomfortable with the narrator, a white woman, acquiring self-knowledge by way of Finn, a woman of colour. I didn’t pick up on any details that actually confirmed Finn’s non-whiteness to me, but then I wasn’t keeping an eye out for them; and anyway, it seems sufficiently worrisome that the focus of the novel is on a woman who doesn’t seem to self-identify as a lesbian at all, acquiring self-knowledge by way of a woman who has always identified as a lesbian and who has a very great deal to lose by their relationship. That doesn’t necessarily make Women a worse book, but it does, once again, raise the question of responsible storytelling, and where the line falls between representation and exploitation.

Thoughts on this week’s reading: A heavy historical and religious focus followed by a quite alarming slump: after Wednesday, I found it really difficult to get excited about reading anything. Overstimulation is probably the issue. Everything seems too loud, too bright, too exhausting.

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.

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.