The first paragraph of The Pisces nearly wrecked everything for me: featuring the rancid breath and un-self-conscious shit of our protagonist’s sister’s beloved foxhound (named Dominic), it seemed to represent exactly the sort of Moshfeghian abject devotion to the grossness of the body that starts to pall after about two sentences. But then Broder’s protagonist, Lucy, saved everything: “I thought, This is the proper use of my love, this is the man for me, this is the way.” It’s such a weird, sweet(-ish), innocent(-ish) thought to express: wrecked by a breakup she realizes too late she doesn’t want, recuperating in her rich but kind sister’s fancy Venice Beach pad, perhaps a dog can represent a safe locus of all the love she has to give.
It’s something that Broder returns to again and again over the course of The Pisces: who is truly worthy of our love? And how can we stop ourselves from lavishing it on someone who doesn’t deserve it? The way of framing the question is sneaky, because it subverts not only the way women are taught to think about relationships and desire, but many of the connotations of the way The Pisces itself is structured. Lucy, as we learn early on in the novel, has broken up with her long-term boyfriend, Jamie–mostly because an idle threat issued in a moment of frustration took on a life of its own–and has moved to Venice Beach for the summer, nominally to house-sit for her sister, but really to mend her broken heart. We know how this is going to go; it’s how many romance novels, wish-fulfillment tales, are written: a newly single woman escapes to some place where it’s sunny and warm and she doesn’t have to work, spends time and energy recreating herself, and is narratively rewarded for her efforts, at last, with a romantic relationship. But even from the start, Broder is messing with these tropes and with us. Lucy is unemployed because she’s a graduate student trying to finish her thesis, on how to read the textual lacunae in the extant works of Sappho. She is having a difficult time doing this, but she is meant to be doing it; she is meant to be working, and working intellectually. Already, her California beach retreat is shown to be tethered to real life, to responsibility and maturity.
In her romantic encounters with men, too, Lucy has experiences that possess the structure of a classic romance novel, but the import of which is very different. That incongruity forces the reader to reassess traditional perspectives on the situations Lucy finds herself in. There’s an excruciating sequence, for instance, in which she meets a man on Tinder and plans to have no-strings sex in a hotel with him. She buys $300 lingerie, they maintain the fantasy via text, and then the reality–he meant a hotel bar bathroom, not an actual room; the anal that he wants is painful and the attempt swiftly abandoned–reveals how empty and shallow their interactions have actually been. Crucially, Broder is not saying that having no-strings sex in a hotel bathroom is bad in and of itself; what she’s criticizing is the pressure to lavish huge amounts of time, effort and money, in the name of sexiness, upon someone whose fundamental superficiality and indifference to you renders them unworthy of that effort. The reason Lucy’s fellow patients in group therapy are all so spectacularly unable to get over their various issues with intimacy and relationships, likewise, is because all of the energy they’re expending in “self-care” is intended to make them more desirable. It’s not self-care at all; it’s an investment in product development, in the hopes that it will increase that product’s market value.
When Lucy finally does meet someone who seems to be worth it–the sexy merman Theo, who loves giving head–it looks like the romantic payoff we’ve been expecting. Or at least, it does from one angle. From another angle, it looks a little too good to be true: who actually has cosmic-level period sex? Who actually has this level of connection with a lover they barely speak to (or rather, whose dialogue with their lover is only minimally reported)? And in choosing a man who mostly lives underwater, hasn’t Lucy rather conveniently selected another person who is, at best, only half available? (“Available”, as a concept, is something Broder touches upon frequently.) The way the novel ends is confirmation of this more suspicious reading of Theo. He may be hot and good in bed, but he’s also a bottomless pit of need: almost literally, since Lucy discovers that he’s dragged seventeen women before her to the bottom of the sea.
The Pisces, therefore–if you’ll forgive me for mixing my animal metaphors–is something of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It’s a romance novel that eviscerates romantic tropes; it’s erotica that revels in the awkward; it’s the story of a woman finding herself by, eventually, forgoing her narrative reward of A Man’s Attention (Labeled Love). It’s smart as hell, and not too far below the surface of the irony there’s an acknowledgment of what Lucy calls “nothingness” or “the void” that lends the novel ballast. Is it sexy? Sure. But it’s also sincere, and profoundly unexpected. I wouldn’t be sad at all to see it on the Women’s Prize shortlist.
Continuing with my desperate catch-up (I WILL write words about every book I read this year, I will do it if it kills me) with four titles I read at the beginning of September, before starting my holiday.
The Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer: It took two and a half goes to get into this, for some reason, but when it finally clicked for me, it was superb. Wolitzer takes a group of smart, talented teenagers who all meet at a kind of hippie artistic summer camp in the 1970s, and catapults them forward in time, mapping the ways in which their relationships to each other, and to other people, change. I’m a real sucker for writing about other art forms, and also for books about friendship groups developing (as opposed to static friendship groups, as in The Secret History, although I love that too in its place), so The Interestings really did it for me: Wolitzer perfectly grasps the unpredictability of adult life, and the tenacity of youthful love. One to look up.
The Ravenmaster, by Christopher Skaife: One of the more delightful memoirs of the latter half of the year (it’s out in October). Skaife is a Yeoman Warder at the Tower of London, and more specifically, the one in charge of the Tower’s ravens: legend has it that their departure will cause the kingdom to fall. It’s obviously not true (the Tower didn’t have ravens at a point in the ’40s, and we won the war, didn’t we?), but Skaife takes great joy in describing his daily routine, the awe-inspiring intelligence of corvids (they’re about as clever as a five-to-seven-year-old human child), and the Tower’s many myths and legends. I got to go on a private tour of the Tower with him, thanks to his publishers, and can confirm that he really is as jolly and eager to share knowledge as the book makes him appear. Follow him on Twitter, and pick this up for any history buffs, Anglophiles and/or bird-lovers you know this Christmas.
The Rise and Fall of Becky Sharp, by Sarra Manning: I wang on a lot about how Vanity Fair is my favourite novel of all time and Becky Sharp is perfection (I hate being asked about favourite novels, but it’s as close to a truthful answer as I can provide). So Sarra Manning’s update of the book was destined to be read as soon as the proof was available on NetGalley. As far as rendering Thackeray’s events and characters contemporary goes, Manning does a flawless job: Becky and Amelia now meet on a reality TV show, Amelia’s father is an investment banker whose disgrace comes when he’s found to have made some dodgy deals, the Crawleys are an acting dynasty (Dame Matilda Crawley is clearly modeled on Maggie Smith, down to her role as the purse-lipped matriarch of an ITV costume drama about an aristocratic family), and Becky’s dazzling rise to fame is boosted by sponsored Instagram posts and charity fashion shows. Is the writing on Thackeray’s level? Nope. Does it matter? Not at all. Great, intelligently executed fun, and hopefully will push people to seek out the original too.
A Field Guide to the English Clergy, by Fergus Butler-Gallie: The community of Anglican priests is well-known for having more than its fair share of weirdos. Fergus Butler-Gallie draws back the curtain on some prime historical specimens. The back cover lists, for example, the Reverend Edward Drax Free, whose reaction to the attempts of his congregation to oust him for (amongst other things) repeated public drunkenness and stealing the lead from the church roof to sell for scrap was to lock himself in his study with “his favourite maid, a brace of pistols, and a stack of French pornography”. Eccentricity doesn’t mean awfulness, though; there’s a great charm in the vicar who insisted upon traveling only by horse (which he named Sabbatical, so that his secretary could quite honestly tell callers that the good reverend was “away on Sabbatical”), or in Launcelot Fleming, Bishop of Portsmouth, who once commandeered a Navy helicopter when he was late for services. Another one for the Anglophile, Anglican, or, indeed, eccentric of any persuasion, come Christmastime.
Believe it or not, I have been reading things that aren’t #20booksofsummer, and I’m reliably informed that some people miss the reading diary format. So here’s a longer roundup post for y’all; I’ll continue to write reviews that count towards the challenge as individual posts.
Femme noir beach read, I see you! I see you so hard! Sunburn is Laura Lippman’s latest book, and given how minutely it dissects the ways in which men can be manipulated by women using patriarchal entitlement as a weapon, it’s the closest thing I’ve read to a successor to Gone Girl. Our protagonist, Polly, has walked out on her dying marriage to Gregg and her toddler daughter, Jani. We first meet her in a bar in Belleville, Delaware, a nowhere-town that comes to life only during beach tourist season. She soon takes up with Adam, a regular at the bar who quickly becomes the chef, but Adam is hardly an ideal summer fling: he’s a private investigator who’s been hired to find her, by someone who’s not Gregg. Meanwhile, Polly is trying to keep more than one layer of secrets about her past under wraps… It’s been two and a half weeks (?) since I read this, and honestly, much of the plot has already left my head (though I can at least recall that it’s got insurance fraud and arson). The reason to read it is Polly, who can twist men (always men; women never like her) around her little finger, but who has also had such a rough shake from life that the more we learn about her, the more we think she deserves whatever she can garner for herself. Lippman’s plotting sags a little in the third quarter, but the tightness of the denouement makes up for it. This should be at the top of the stack of paperbacks next to your sun lounger.
The Wonder is not a book that fears to wear its allegiance on its sleeve: its central character, Lib Wright, is a nurse trained by Florence Nightingale who has seen active service in the Crimea, and she is intellectually dedicated to the rigours of the scientific method. She is therefore both uniquely prepared for, and uniquely disadvantaged to play, the role that she takes on at the start of the book: to keep a two-week, twenty-four-hour watch on a young Irish girl who claims to have been living on air (or, as she puts it, “manna from heaven”) for the last four months. Ireland in the 1880s is still so deeply enmeshed in the twin grips of rural poverty and the Catholic Church that Lib finds herself totally alone in her skepticism: the local priest, Mr. Thaddeus, waits for proof of a miracle, while the half-cracked elderly village doctor is convinced that Anna represents the first step in humanity’s evolution into something superhuman (“perhaps reptilian”, he suggests). It’s only when Mr. Byrne, a journalist from Dublin, enters the village that Lib has an ally, but time is running out for Anna… The Wonder isn’t perfect; Donoghue hammers home the price of superstition, making even supposedly educated people into credulous caricatures. The ending, too, although deeply satisfying in a certain emotional sense, is a little neat. The chances of a happy ending to this sort of story are so slim, after all. What saves the book from mawkishness is Donoghue’s ability to get us desperately invested in the truth: as Rebecca rightly notes, the geographical isolation of the setting makes The Wonder almost a locked-room mystery, and the satisfaction of figuring it out is compelling.
At a christening party in Los Angeles, Albert Cousins kisses his host’s wife. What might have been a mildly embarrassing social faux pas becomes much more when Beverly Keating divorces her husband and marries Bert, moving across the country to live with him in Northern Virginia, nearer his parents. Complicating the situation are Bert’s and Beverly’s children, a multifarious brood who sometimes get along, sometimes don’t. A tragic accident one summer haunts the whole extended family; years later, Franny Keating, whose christening party was the scene of the initial forbidden kiss, is grown up and working as a cocktail waitress, having dropped out of law school. At the bar where she works, she meets Leon Posen, a Great American Writer clearly imagined in the vein of Roth or Bellow. Her family’s story becomes the plot of Posen’s comeback novel, and the repercussions of this second betrayal follow her and her siblings for decades to come. Ann Patchett’s grasp of family dynamics and the way people speak to each other is majestic; Commonwealth has a large cast of characters, complexly interrelated, but for the most part Patchett keeps them all clearly differentiated. The book is an exploration of what families owe to one another, and of where, if anywhere, the boundaries of “family” can be drawn. Franny and Posen’s long-term relationship is drawn exceptionally well: a long chapter during which friends from the publishing industry impose on Franny’s hospitality for weeks at a time reveals so much about the inequalities of age, wealth, and social capital that will eventually capsize their lives together. I’d rather read Patchett on dysfunctional families than Franzen, any day: she’s funnier, and kinder.
The Burning Chambers is brain candy, there can be no question, but it’s the sort of brain candy that does you no harm. It is set during sixteenth-century France’s Wars of Religion, in the old medieval town of Carcassonne and in the city of Toulouse. Although religious conflict does play a role in the plot, the real story is about the heritage of our heroine Minou. (This, I am told, is the equivalent of naming an English character “Pussy”, with all of the same connotations. Whoops.) She is a classic romantic-adventure protagonist: gutsy and morally sound without being moralising, remarkably openminded regarding an individual’s freedom to worship as they see fit, bookish but not intellectual, and possessed of a single defining physical characteristic (mis-matched eyes. Her love interest, Piet Reydon, has another standard iteration of this: red hair.) Minou and Piet are caught up in the machinations of the evil cleric Valentin, once Piet’s best friend at university, now a zealot whose interest in maintaining the iron grip of Catholicism is motivated less by religious passion than by a lust for worldly power. He all but rubs his hands together and cackles, á la Frollo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. (He also has one distinguishing feature, a streak of white in an otherwise-black head of hair.) And Valentin is entangled with a woman who has never met Minou, but who, for reasons we slowly come to learn, wants her dead. It all sounds quite ridiculous and indeed, it is—the denouement, which involves an enormous pyre in the middle of a mountain forest, becomes almost farcical as various characters run in and out of the scene—but it works. Mosse keeps all of her plates spinning, never seeming to lose each character’s place in the plot; her action scenes are exciting and fast-paced, just begging the eye to fly down the page; and she’s done her research. Minou’s politics might be conveniently progressive, but sixteenth-century Carcassonne comes to life in Mosse’s brisk but detailed prose.
“Progressive” is not the word anyone would use to describe the politics of the characters in Cressida Connolly’s After the Party. Focalised through the memories of one woman, Phyllis Forrester, the book is a dissection of the Sussex “county set” in the late 1930s, and particularly of the upper-middle-class people who believed passionately in the values being preached by the British Union of Fascists. The word “fascist” is never used; nor are the names of Oswald Mosley or Diana Mitford, as far as I could see, but that is, self-evidently, who and what they are. The book’s marketing is slightly misleading, in that it emphasises a tragic death that occurs after a party held by a local couple, and Phyllis’s sense of responsibility for it; that event does have some significance, but it is not the reason why she goes to prison, which is the other thing that we know about almost from the outset. What Connolly seems to be doing—and it’s not at all clear to me whether she means to do this or not—is inculcating in the reader a sense of sympathy for the average British fascist, the sort of people whose analogues in Nazi Germany were spending these years “just following orders”.
Although I had no idea that members of the Union were interned in the early 1940s without trial or explanation—and although that is a horrifying thought, particularly as many of those imprisoned were profoundly low-level and did little more than file reports or make tea, while far more senior organisers and theorisers were left alone—there is something about the very attempt to make British fascism palatable, or understandable, or even mildly sympathetic, that I pull strongly against. It does not advance the cause of global peace and dignity, in these days, to dehumanise your opponents; I understand that, and I appreciate that Phyllis is so very human a character, slightly weak, slightly bored, clinging to fascism well after it’s fashionable because without it, all the losses of her life will have been for nothing. But I am very wary of what a conservative or right-wing book review page (The Spectator, perhaps) could do with After the Party, very wary of anything that lends itself to the interpretation that we should all hug a fascist. The past eighteen months have made it abundantly clear that Phyllis Forrester’s time is not over and gone; last Sunday, supporters of Tommy Robinson marched in London; and to ask one group of people to try and understand the humanity of another group that refuses to extend that same dignity to them is revolting and absurd. That’s not to say that those adjectives apply to After the Party—it’s an extremely nuanced novel, and literature abounds with protagonists whose personal convictions the reader finds appalling (Humbert Humbert, anyone?)—but it is, without a doubt, a book that could only have been conceived and written in this particular way by someone in a position of significant relative privilege.
From boom times to penury: The Death of Mrs. Westaway, Ruth Ware’s latest novel, opens on our protagonist Harriet—known as Hal—trudging through rain and wind with a fish and chips she can’t really afford under her arm. Hal does tarot readings on Brighton pier: she inherited the booth from her mother, who died in a hit-and-run accident three years ago. Now twenty-one, Hal has unwisely taken money from a local loan shark, and is in desperate need of three thousand pounds before his steel-toed-boot-wearing enforcers come around. So when a case of mistaken identity results in a letter from a lawyer’s office in Penzance, referring to her as the beneficiary of her grandmother’s will, she decides she might as well use her cold-reading techniques to see what she can get. When it turns out that the bequest isn’t just a few thousand pounds, but most of the estate, Hal realises she has two choices: confess now, or stay in it for the long haul. She chooses, of course, the latter, but things at Trepassen aren’t what they seem, and she finds herself unraveling a conspiracy of silence that stretches back decades. This is the first of Ruth Ware’s novels that I’ve read (a shocking admission given how well they go down at Heywood Hill), and it’s highly impressive. It’s so easy to lose the thread of thriller plotting, particularly when your subgenre is psychological intrigue, where so many of the significant plot points happen inside characters’ heads, but Ware never does: there’s always that sense of forward momentum, no scenes that feel like they’re treading water. Tarot, and the interplay between superstition, fate, and self-determination, is woven through the book: is life something Hal can navigate for herself, or does the past determine the present? Ware deals with these questions subtly, and creates a protagonist whose constant calculations are made necessary and sympathetic by the precariousness of her situation. Very good stuff indeed.
Thoughts on recent reading: All female authors, all highly readable, and a surprising recurrence of themes around lost or thwarted heritage. Quite pleased with the summer’s start.
It took me a long time to read Pat Cadigan’s novel Synners: three and a half days, which is half a week and a timespan in which I can usually dispatch two books. It’s been a while since I read something that forced me to work out its rules as I went along, and the mental stretch felt good, although possibly also ill-timed; by the end of April, I won’t have had a weekend to myself for over two months, and for an introvert in a customer-facing job, that doesn’t put my brain in a happy place. Still, the unmerciful in-your-face-ness of cyberpunk is something I find quite charming. Cadigan’s novel is set in a future LA, a city where big business, entertainment and media conglomerates are even more obsessed with capturing the consumer’s attention than they are now. Into this maelstrom of competing adverts, music videos, and immersive games, Cadigan introduces a technology called sockets, which allow humans direct neural contact not only with the Web (which, fyi, didn’t exist at the time she wrote the novel), but with each other’s brains. The implications, both for business and for things like, you know, human rights and privacy, are huge and not altogether positive. The novel’s final fifth is a huge set piece in which our heroes and heroines – a team of misfit hackers and makers – try to stop the global Internet from having, basically, a stroke. It’s a very exciting book, and incredibly prescient; it was 1992 when it won the Clarke Award, and, as other people have noted, apart from the curious lack of mobile phones, Cadigan’s vision of future tech is not terribly far off where we are now (although I don’t think music videos are quite the cultural force in our world that they are in Synners. It was clearly written when MTV was more of a thing.)
Its major problem is that sense of disorientation. I wouldn’t give this to anyone who was a novice science fiction reader; it asks a lot of you from the very beginning, jumping point-of-view character each chapter for the first five or six chapters while also throwing tech-speak at you with both hands. (There are slightly too many characters, I think, and Cadigan opens with a chapter focalised through someone who turns out to be not very important, which is sort of representative.) The big set piece at the end is hard to visualise, too; it takes place inside various systems, consoles, programs and augmented-reality environments, as well as the “real” world, and the action can get hard to follow. What Cadigan does do very well, however, is achieving emotional roundedness for her characters. Sam, a seventeen-year-old hacker who has emancipated from her parents, has some wonderful moments: pragmatic, with an agile mind, an insouciant attitude, and a crush on someone too old for her, she makes a believable smart teenager. Gina Aiesi, whose lover, Mark, is the reason for the net-wide stroke, is given an incredibly engaging emotional arc—the need to decide between having her own life and sticking around for someone who has never been there for her—and a characteristic rage that prevents her from being a passive figure. In a novel that sees the melding of human and machine as virtually inevitable, the fact that I came to care deeply for the humans in the pages says a lot about Cadigan’s skill as a writer.
Richard Powers is fast making his way into my favourite writers of all time (a permanently shifting category that at the moment includes A.S. Byatt, Sarah Hall, and William Thackeray). The Overstory, his latest book, is maybe his most ambitious yet: it seeks, essentially, to instill in its reader a sense of sympathy and identification with trees. That Powers actually manages it is confirmation that he is one of the most skilled writers currently working that I can think of.
The Overstory starts with a section called Roots, divided into six separate strands that introduce us to our main characters. They range from Nick Hoel, whose family farm houses virtually the only chestnut in America to be spared the blight that kills other specimens, to Douglas Pavlicek, a Vietnam vet whose life is saved by a banyan tree, to Olivia Vandergriff, a feckless college girl who experiences a short period of death (shower, light switch, poorly wired house) and emerges back into life convinced that she has been chosen by mysterious entities to help save the California redwoods. There is also Neelay, a paraplegic video game designer; Adam, an academic psychologist; Patricia, a botanist disgraced by her assertion that trees form communities; and Dorothy and Ray, a couple constantly on the brink of disaster. Over the course of the book, these characters will (mostly) become intertwined with each other’s lives, and with trees: studying them, living in them, trying to protect them, listening to them.
The reason it works so well, I think, is partly because Powers takes his time to establish the stories of each character, and partly because his writing about geological time, and about the biological miracle of plant life, is so stunningly beautiful. It is easy to love and feel for the people in this book, but it is also impossible to come away from it without the understanding that they – and, by extension, you – are the least significant parts of a story that has been going on for a much, much longer time, of which they – and you – can only ever be a tiny fraction. The Overstory doesn’t preach about environmentalism, but it does lay out facts, and those facts reach for you. It has made me reconsider, once again, whether I can in good conscience choose to have children. It is an astonishingly well-written, empathetic, heart-rending, blink-inducing book, and I recommend it without reservation.
Jodi Taylor is, I think, the nearest anyone has yet come to being the obvious successor to Jasper Fforde. Instead of rootling through the backstage area of literature, however, her protagonists jump into the past; her Chronicles of St Mary’s is basically The Eyre Affair for historians. Taylor’s writing isn’t quite as nimble as Fforde’s was at the start of his series: you can generally see the jokes coming from a mile away, although one or two of them are a delightful surprise. In this first volume, we’re introduced to our heroine, Madeleine Maxwell (more often referred to as Max), who embodies a lot of the badass-tough-girl tropes that genre fiction is often guilty of endorsing, but manages also to be sympathetic. Mostly, Taylor achieves this by juxtaposing Max’s relentless up-for-it-ness with another set of tropes: the hopeless klutz. But she has a sense of humour, and it’s not difficult to see why her friends like her, so the reader is pretty much along for the ride.
The plot of Just One Damned Thing After Another can best be summed up by that title; there are at least three natural ends to this novel, and it might have made more sense if Taylor had chosen the first or the second. The main action centers around a jump to the Cretaceous period; St Mary’s is a historical research institute whose employees “investigate historical events in contemporary time.” (They’re instructed not to call it time travel. It’s time travel.) Taylor takes my personal favourite way out of the science-y bit of all this: she acknowledges it before refusing to engage (Max asks how it all works, and is met with stony looks and a sarcastic “Really?” from a tech). It’s as good a strategy as any, and better than either pretending the reader doesn’t know how bonkers time travel is, or going full metal technobabble and over-explaining. The Cretaceous jump is meant to be a simple observe-and-report mission, but Max’s partner betrays her, leading to the discovery of a plot from the future to monetise St Mary’s’ activities and develop a chrono-tourism trade. The rest of it is buddy-adventure with a big old beating heart, a bit of romance (and a surprisingly good sex scene), and a delightful cliffhanger at the end. Great fun, and you don’t have to check your whole brain at the door.
The next book on the Women’s Prize longlist for me was Sight, by Jessie Greengrass, a novel which I’d been anticipating, since Greengrass was shortlisted for the Young Writer of the Year Award back in 2016. If Sight hasn’t quite made me a rabid fan, it’s at least made me understand that shortlisting. Greengrass is at ease with language, and her sentences reflect that ease; she’s never uncomfortable or dull to read.
Where Sight is open to criticism is in its relentlessly autobiographical-seeming and narrow focus. I’m wary of saying this, especially because it is a book about motherhood, pregnancy, daughterhood, and grief: all subjects that women seemingly cannot write about without being asked if they too have experienced such things as their characters experience. But the choice of person and narrative style in Sight pushes us towards such an interpretation: it’s an extremely tightly focalised first person throughout, except for sections on the history of medicine (Röntgen, Freud, and John and William Hunter are of main interest, for their relevance to the protagonist’s physical and mental state throughout the book). Insofar as it has a plot, Sight is focused on the protagonist’s choice (or not) to have her first child, but we know from flashes back and forward that she has a daughter, so her agony of indecision is not especially suspenseful for the reader. What we’re left with, essentially, is a collection of meditations on the body and on grief, but the protagonist’s voice so rarely makes connections between her own experience and anything in the wider world—she doesn’t seem to have a job, for example, or any friends except for her partner; there’s no discussion of how societal pressure might be affecting her decision-making about children—that it reads more like disconnected autofiction. This is absolutely a matter of taste, but the trend towards fiction writing that might have been better off as memoir is not one that I feel very positively about, so although Greengrass is a skillful and thoughtful writer, I’d feel obscurely frustrated if Sight made the shortlist.
The Guardian’s books site wrote a piece not long ago about “up lit”, and cited titles like The Trouble With Goats and Sheep, Joanna Cannon’s first novel, as examples. Naomi then tweeted about how inaccurate she found this: neither Cannon’s work, she said, nor some of the other examples (Eleanor Oliphant, for instance), are particularly cheery or uplifting, they’re just marketed that way. Opening Three Things About Elsie, I was dubious (look at the cover, for Christ’s sake); closing it, I was in agreement with Naomi. It is not a jolly, Jonas Jonasson-type romp about picturesque elderly people getting into scrapes. It is a book about dementia, and terrible loneliness, as well as about the pasts that people choose to forget. Its ending is, in a strange sort of way, uplifting, but I suspect there will still be readers who are less uplifted than distressed by it.
This means I liked it a great deal more than I was expecting to. The plot is, in many ways, the weakest thing about it: it revolves around eighty-four-year-old Florence’s belief that she has spotted a menacing figure from her past, one Ronnie Butler, in the nursing home where she now lives. His attempts to discredit her are made easier by the fact that paranoia is the one symptom of dementia everyone knows. As Florence remembers more and more about the past, the coincidental connections with staff and other residents of the care home start to seem a little too good to be true, and the comments made in dialogue about the effect of even an insignificant person’s life on those around them are rather heavy-handed. Where Three Things About Elsie absolutely shines, however, is in Cannon’s slow revelation of the huge gap between how someone believes they are perceiving the world, and how the world perceives them. Florence’s narration initially makes her seem a crotchety, but basically sound, old lady. As the book progresses, other peoples’ reactions to her make it clearer to us that she is fairly far gone (which makes it easier for Ronnie to cast doubt on the legitimacy of her allegations), and also that she is painfully lonely: she daydreams about inviting the carers, or the man in the corner shop, round for tea and cake; she stockpiles shortbread for visitors who never drop by. That’s a state of mind we need to be reading more about in fiction, and for my money, Cannon writes about it more effectively and movingly than Gail Honeyman in Eleanor Oliphant, a book touted as being all about loneliness.
Thoughts on this fortnight’s reading: That I’ve read at all, in between a flying visit to Dorset, preparations to move north of the river, and an Easter weekend hen do, feels vaguely miraculous.
** spoilers follow** Look at that cover, eh. That’s pretty much what London’s looked like for the past week or so, although it hadn’t started snowing when I picked up The Secret Agent. It’s subtitled “A Simple Story”, which I think is some sort of bleak sarcasm on Conrad’s part, since much of the plot revolves around a young man whom we would now refer to as having learning difficulties. This is Stevie, the brother of Winnie Verloc, a young woman who is married to Mr. Adolf (yes, really) Verloc, a dealer in pornography and also a closet anarchist who has been employed by the Russian Embassy in London as an agent provocateur for thirteen years. The novel opens as Verloc’s handlers inform him that he’s been sleeping on the job, and that they wish him to precipitate some sort of public scare, so that the British government will be more likely to support Imperial Russia’s moves towards authoritarianism. The plan is to blow up the Royal Observatory at Greenwich (an attack on the prime meridian! On time itself! What could be more disturbing?) but things go awry and poor Stevie is killed.
The cunning trick of the novel is in the way its focus pivots from Adolf Verloc, whom we think is going to be the protagonist of the piece, to Mrs. Verloc, whose tragedy it turns out to be. Realising that her marriage, which was contracted almost entirely in order to provide Stevie with a safety net in the event of her mother’s death, was actually the instrument of Stevie’s destruction, Winnie murders her husband and then, it is heavily implied, leaps from a cross-Channel ferry to her own death. I’m not wholly convinced by the way that Conrad effects this shift of focus; it works, but it seems very sudden, and the entire novel is profoundly nihilistic in a way that makes one wonder why he thought he was writing it. (An Author’s Preface is included; clearly Conrad came under fire for the supposed immorality of the story, and felt the need to defend his choice. He makes it clear that he didn’t set out to offend, but he doesn’t entirely explain why he thought the story worth telling in the first place.) The prose is quite dense, and requires focus, which will put some readers off, but in its mercilessness, The Secret Agent is not unlike The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, and fans of early Le Carre would benefit from reading it.
Having been in a bit of a reading funk since the previous week, and having expended considerable mental energy in elbowing my way through The Secret Agent, I picked up something completely different: Happiness For Humans, by P.Z. Reizin. It is essentially a rom-com with the part of the matchmaking friend played by two AIs, or rather “machine intelligences”. Jen’s job is to teach one of them, an AI called Aiden; he’s super-efficient but needs help learning how to behave like a human, so Jen spends every day talking to him about books and movies, watching the news with him, expanding his conversational and cultural repertoire. Unbeknownst to her, Aiden has escaped from his “twelve metal cabinets in Shoreditch” onto the Internet, and can now roam at will. In this way, he discovers that she’s broken up with her boyfriend and is sad; he runs the numbers and decides to find her a new man. There’s more to the story, involving another escaped AI, Aisling, and a malevolent one, Sinai, but suffice to say that hijinks, missed connections, and true love with a divorced ex-adman named Tom ensue.
There are issues with Happiness For Humans: it doesn’t manage to totally avoid some gender-reductionism with regards to characterisation, the evil AI is fairly cliched and gets a deeply unsatisfactory (and somewhat disturbing) ending, and Reizin is suprisingly patronising about a) anyone under thirty, and b) computer programmers. But it completely snapped me out of my reading slump: it’s funny and charming, and although there’s what film rating boards would call “mild peril”, we’re never in much doubt that our hero(es) and heroine(s) will prevail. A warm bath book in the dying days of February.
All the Perverse Angels is a book I feel quite personally about, because I inititally came across it about two years ago, when it was still being crowdfunded on Unbound. At the time I was skint, and couldn’t support it financially—but now that it’s been published, I can support it by selling the hell out of it. A dual-timeframe narrative is one of those techniques that either works brilliantly, or fails miserably; Marr manages hers very well, by keeping her point of view characters to two, and by not belabouring the parallels between her present-day protagonist (Anna, a curator recently released from a psychiatric hospital after a breakdown precipitated by her female partner’s infidelity with a man) and her past one (Penelope, a first-year Oxford undergraduate in 1887—when female students were just starting to be accepted—has an unfortunate affair with the husband of a don at her college, and discovers true love, and disaster, with a fellow student). All the Perverse Angels isn’t afraid to reflect its difficult themes in its style; Anna’s narration is often just a tiny bit disorienting, as her mental associations run riot, leading her to conflate memories of childhood and the recent past with her present experiences. Marr is also an excellent describer: one of my favourite subgenres of fiction is “books about other art forms”, and the way she writes about paintings had me reaching for my laptop at least once a chapter to see for myself. (Note: Cornelius van Haarlem’s 1588 painting Two Followers of Cadmus Devoured By A Dragon is absolutely horrible enough to cause a panic attack, as it does in the book.) Anyone who loves art and art history, or who is interested in fictional treatments of marriage, fidelity and relationships, should read this.
Thoughts on this week’s reading: Three books instead of four in a week represents the slump’s effects, though I’m well out of that. Both Reizin’s and Marr’s books are very new on the market—I’m thrilled to be able to promote them even more assiduously—and I’m equally pleased to have managed a classic that had escaped me til now.