2016’s Dishonourable Mentions

I was really lucky with my reading this year. Maybe it’s because as I get older, I have a better sense of what I’m going to like; maybe it’s the opposite and I’m just developing the ability to appreciate a wider range of writing. Whatever the reason, most of the books I read this year were not just good but really good, worth rereading at the very least—even the ones that didn’t make my Best Of Year list. But…no year is perfect. Here are the few books that just completely misfired for me in 2016. (This is all, of course, highly personal and subjective. What didn’t work for me may work brilliantly for you! And vice versa. I’ll still try to explain, succinctly, why I felt these books faltered, but don’t feel you need to take my word for it. All links are to my reviews, if you want to read more.)

the-expatriates

The Expatriates, by Janice Lee

What’s it about? The intertwined lives of three women living in Hong Kong: Hilary Starr, the childless stay-at-home-wife of an expat lawyer; Margaret Reade, whose youngest child went missing last year; and Mercy Cho, the childminder who was meant to be looking after the lost boy at the time of his disappearance.

Why didn’t it work? From my review: “Over the course of the novel, all three women will come to understand and accept motherhood as the highest possible goal of a life—a conclusion which, couched as it is in a foreign setting and an occasionally melodramatic plot, could be overlooked on first reading, but which becomes increasingly uncomfortable the more you think about it.”

9780804141321Shylock Is My Name, by Howard Jacobson

What’s it about? It’s the second entry in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, which novelises and updates some of the Bard’s most famous plays. Jacobson resets The Merchant of Venice in Cheshire’s Golden Triangle, throwing celebrity footballers into the mix.

Why didn’t it work? From my review: “It’s not just the gross dehumanisation suggested by the use of the word “Jewesses” (though [the characters] Plury and D’Anton use it frequently); it’s also that, basically, they’ve pimped a teenager, and none of the resulting brouhaha treats that as a big deal. Combined with Strulovitch’s original pervy possessiveness, and the many approving references to Philip Roth, it just all made me hideously uncomfortable.”

ten daysTen Days, by Gillian Slovo

What’s it about? The development of riots over the course of ten days in south London, as a result of a death in police custody. There are some clear parallels to the Tottenham riots of 2011.

Why didn’t it work? From my review: “The problem may be that I’ve seen all of this before, and not too long ago at that, and done with greater flair: in House of Cards, obviously, but also in The Politician’s Husband. (I hope other people remember that show. It starred David Tennant and Emily Watson, and aired in 2013. It was fucking devastating.) It’s suggestive, I think, that both of those instances are television shows. I suspect that this is material we don’t actually expect to read anymore; political machinations and back-room deals are the domain of the small screen now, and a good actor can raise a thinly written politician stereotype to a higher level, whereas a novel…well, a novel has to rely on its writing. The writing is all that a novel has.”

9781408862445The Improbability of Love, by Hannah Rothschild

What’s it about? A down-on-her-luck woman working as a private chef finds a priceless Watteau painting in a junk shop; everyone from a Saudi sheik to a shady art dealer decides they want it.

Why didn’t it work? From my Superlatives post: “It’s a sweet idea but executed in a very Eat-Pray-Love sort of way. The main character’s mother is an alcoholic and the conversations they have are so full of psychological jargon that I wasn’t at all convinced two people would talk to each other like that. Also, Rothschild doesn’t get contractions: all of her characters say things like ‘I will’ or ‘You do not”, instead of ‘I’ll’ or ‘You don’t’. It’s not for emphasis, either, and it happens for 404 pages, first to last.”

51n8dqdd2wlRaw Spirit, by Iain Banks

What’s it about? Banks, a famous science fiction writer but also a well-known lover of whisky, takes a road trip with several of his old drinking buddies to visit, and sample the wares of, every single-malt distillery in Scotland.

Why didn’t it work? From my #20booksofsummer roundup: “This book suffers appallingly from two interrelated things: an excess of privilege, and a deficit of self-awareness. …There were times when so very little of this book had anything to do with whisky that it honestly felt like he was taking the piss. Like the five pages about a Jaguar he once had, followed by a cursory page and a half on a distillery’s history and product. Or the long anecdotes about his friends and what they’re like when they’re drunk. Real talk: no one is a hilarious drunk to a stranger.”

9781784630485The Many, by Wyl Menmuir

What’s it about? Timothy buys an abandoned fishing cottage in a tiny Cornish village and sets out to restore it, temporarily leaving his wife behind in London. But the village has its own secrets: the fate of the man who lived in the cottage before Timothy, the bizarrely etiolated fish being pulled from the sea, the identity of the mysterious grey-coated woman who buys every catch…

Why didn’t it work? From my review: “The reality of reality, and the sanity of sanity, have long been uncertainties for authors to engage with. But the strength of a book lies in how satisfactorily it deals with those questions—it doesn’t have to answer them, but it has to deal with them—and The Many doesn’t deal with anything. It just shrugs and leaves. It’s a mark of my frustration that, after finishing it, I realized I still had not the slightest clue what the title meant. The many what? Fish? Deaths? Portentous pronouncements by old Clem the winchman? I don’t mean to sound bitter, but reading this book felt like being ghosted by someone on Tinder. There was so much promise here! What happened?!”

c836babd417bc41a990f6a706700b1b5Diary of an Oxygen Thief, by Anonymous

What’s it about? The supposedly non-fictional (but, thank heavens, clearly actually fictional) account of an alcoholic Irishman who, after years of recreational cruelty to women, gets a taste of his own medicine.

Why didn’t it work? A lot of reasons, but this, from my review, might give you a clue: “The knowledge that this particular Irishman does not actually exist was, in places, the only thing that kept me reading. He is not very nice. You can gather this from the first sentence, and also from the part where he talks about purging himself of his sins against women. Handy hint: if you’re a man and you want to purge yourself of your sins against women, you will never be able to.”

51fxpzhkbwlThe Countenance Divine, by Michael Hughes

What’s it about? In 1999, a programmer working on a fix for the Y2K bug becomes entangled with a tradition of British millennarianism involving Jack the Ripper (in 1888), William Blake (in 1777), and John Milton (in 1666).

Why didn’t it work? From my monthly Superlatives post: “The execution is so inconsistent (the sections set in 1999 are written in especially dull tones), and none of the book’s internal logic is really conveyed to the reader. Also, it features what has to be the drippiest Messiah EVER. (Unless the actual Messiah isn’t the character just referred to… Doesn’t change the rest of the book, though.) Oh, and either the Apocalypse in this book actually does rely upon horrific violence against women, or Hughes hasn’t sufficiently explained the reasons a reader should resist this interpretation. Which is such an old, and boring, story.”

9781784630850The Other World, It Whispers, by Stephanie Victoire

What’s it about? A debut collection of fantastical short stories focusing on transformation, metamorphosis, and literal and figurative identity.

Why didn’t it work? From my review: “I don’t know, it’s just a little too much, or not enough: the casual colloquialisms when the rest of the story is on a higher thematic plane (“didn’t have any more cash on her”; “been sorted”), the tang of cliché (“gulped down”, “lump in her throat”). It didn’t work for me at all. …The story needs, in effect, a more judicious editorial eye. I know I say this a lot about contemporary fiction but I think it’s true; there are many, many competent stories and novels being published which could have been excellent with a little more attention and criticism.”

Did you read any of these this year? What did you think of them? Am I a lunatic fool for missing the point of The Many? Am I a horrid killjoy for wanting to roll my eyes on every page of The Improbability of Love? Let me know…

The Other World, It Whispers, by Stephanie Victoire

I want to find her and ask her to show me what other creatures I could be.

9781784630850

Fabulism isn’t a literary mode that I have a particularly easy time with. The discomfort that I often feel when reading something with an overtly “magical realist” tinge is, I’ve discovered, the same as the discomfort I get from “contemporary” translations of texts from classical antiquity. It’s a form of register clash. Reading a translation of Virgil’s Eclogues that includes the phrase “Put up or shut up” (as I once did) is jarring, a yank out of the clearly established classical context into a slangy modernity that feels false. In the same way, reading a story obviously set in a world like our own becomes bewildering when elements of fantasy creep in: witches, spells, sculptures that come to life, but also Paddington station, a bar called the Red Oak, Paris’s Sacré Cœur glimpsed from an apartment window. More often than not, when stories like this work, it’s because the author has planed her prose smooth, every word chosen to encourage and nourish the reader’s belief.

Stephanie Victoire’s stories manage this about half the time, and half is a pretty good ratio for a young author (she graduated from London Met in 2010) whose first collection this is. The first story, “Time and Silence”, and the third, “Layla and the Axe”, work very well because they remain basically unmoored from an easily identifiable contemporary world. “Time and Silence” is told from the perspective of an adolescent boy who is abused, Cinderella-fashion, by a mother who believes in the fundamental badness of males. A mysterious girl with no name appears outside their forest-bound shack. His friendship with her gives him the strength to defy his mother and leave his situation of domestic slavery, but the world into which he escapes is, in many ways, no safer:

As for me, there’d be new lands and the sea, and that thought got me excited. I only looked back once to see the small glow of light from the house disappear behind the arms of the trees. Snow tugged my arm, urging me on. There was no way I could let go of her now. I looked up one more time at the moon before moving quicker, because it was then I was sure I heard the howling of a wolf.

I have always liked ambiguity in short stories, especially in their endings. “Layla and the Axe” also derives its strength from the ambiguity of its ending, indeed of its whole plot: a young girl moves through a similar forest, her faithful fox by her side, carrying an axe. She is on her way to wreak vengeance on a mysterious man who has emerged repeatedly from the trees to seduce, or rape, girls from the village. She finds a house at the story’s end:

“Come in! Come in!” says the voice again and, at the turning of the handle and the creak of the door, Layla pushes through the aches in her arms, ready to swing, and thinks Pa’s axe could be a hero.

There the story ends; we never find out whether she brings the axe down in time, whether the person she kills is the person she is looking for. There is just enough uncertainty about the mysterious man’s provenance to make the reader wonder: is it possible that Layla doesn’t, can’t, succeed?

The stories I found less convincing were “The Animal Ball” and “Dark Arts and Deities”, the penultimate story in the collection. “The Animal Ball” is a brilliant idea wrapped in an execution that feels too hurried. A wealthy couple, the Barringtons, invite everyone they know to an animal-themed costume ball. Over the course of the evening, there is a murder, and the Barrington marriage—thanks in no small part to the presence of a fortune-telling guest dressed as a snow owl—begins to disintegrate under the weight of lies, jealousy, and revenge. My problem with it is that the writing just feels undercooked. The story asks the reader to do quite a lot of emotional work as it progresses, but there’s no sense of the words being arranged artfully in order to help the reader do that. It’s probably easier to illustrate this by quoting:

The swan went over to the snow owl to explain that she’d have her payment the next day as she didn’t have any more cash on her.

“Oh no, all that has been sorted with your husband,” the snow owl replied, stroking the feathers of her cloak.

“What do you mean?” The swan gulped down the lump in her throat, discreetly she thought, but the snow owl saw it.

“I think you ought to talk to him about it.”

I don’t know, it’s just a little too much, or not enough: the casual colloquialisms when the rest of the story is on a higher thematic plane (“didn’t have any more cash on her”; “been sorted”), the tang of cliché (“gulped down”, “lump in her throat”). It didn’t work for me at all.

A similar set of problems plagues “Dark Arts and Deities”, which focuses on a twenty-something wild child summoning a pantheon of historically and culturally diverse gods to wreak revenge on the small town whose provincial inhabitants have snubbed her. Why would any of these divine powers give the slightest damn about a vaguely sexy woman being misunderstood? What about our protagonist is compelling enough to make us believe that she is herself a candidate for apotheosis? The sex scenes are just embarrassing, the info-dumping is excessive, the clichés reach new heights (“the usual suspects”; “sobbing her eyes out”; “all of her emotional cuts were closing up”). The story needs, in effect, a more judicious editorial eye. I know I say this a lot about contemporary fiction but I think it’s true; there are many, many competent stories and novels being published which could have been excellent with a little more attention and criticism.

The collection’s triumph, though—and it does have one—is the presence of two stories which deal with gay and transgender themes. “Shanty”, the inner monologue of a biological male who knows he is a girl, invokes the archetype of the mermaid:

I wish I’d been created so. Imagine being that magnificent, that magnetic and that ethereal… Just a tail that allows you to soar and pirouette, like a ribbon being twirled in the air…in pure, blissful freedom.

Freedom is the key. In the final story, “Morgana’s Shadow”, a young girl from a deeply religious family is imprisoned after she’s seen kissing a woman in the forest. “It was a kiss to seal a deal”, she explains, the deal being that in exchange for the kiss she acquires the power of shape-shifting. It’s one of the shorter stories, but in it, Victoire seamlessly literalises the feeling of not being oneself, or of not being the self that others believe one is or should be, that often haunts people struggling with their sexuality. Her interest in liberation—physical, mental, emotional—is rooted in a belief in the power of transforming magic. But it is very easy to see how literal magic can stand in for the intoxicating feeling that comes from finally, finally being true to yourself:

I rip myself free from the rags and my large wing bats Joshua away from me. …I test out my new lungs and a loud cry sweeps across the room with my breath—the sound of freedom.

Many thanks to the publicity folks at Salt for sending me a review copy. The Other World, It Whispers was published in the UK on 15 November.

The Many, by Wyl Menmuir, & The Mare, by Mary Gaitskill

There’s very little that connects these two books, I’m afraid; they’re not being reviewed together for any clever reason on my part. One is short, the other long. One is by a man, the other a woman. One is a claustrophobic little quasi-horror tale, the other is a chunky social realist novel that thoroughly imbues the political with the personal and vice versa. They’re both published by independent publishers, but other than that, there’s not much similarity between them, either superficially or thematically. Sorry! On the other hand, at least today’s post has got something for everyone… (or something like it.)

The Many, by Wyl Menmuir (Salt Publishing)

9781784630485

~~here be spoilers, sorry~~

If this looks familiar to you, it’ll be because it’s on the Man Booker Prize longlist. (My copy doesn’t have that neat little marketing sticker—proof that I got my request in just before they were inundated with book journalists’ emails and did a reprint. Haha.) It’s so short as to be almost a novella; at 141 pages, it’s readable in a day. There are two point-of-view characters: Ethan, a fisherman in a remote Cornish coastal village, and Timothy, an interloper in the village who has bought a house that’s lain dormant for a decade. The former inhabitant of Timothy’s new home was Perran, a member of a fishing crew who, it’s vaguely suggested, had some sort of learning disability, and who drowned one night in a storm. Timothy’s presence in Perran’s house is displeasing to the villagers—like all villagers, they have long memories. Ethan is struggling with his own problems: fishing trips are bringing back strangely emaciated hauls, and the sea has been declared contaminated. The fishermen are prohibited from working outside the boundary of a line of old container ships moored on the horizon, and their skeletal catches are purchased wholesale by a mysterious woman in a grey coat whose besuited goons do most of the (literal) heavy lifting.

For atmosphere, The Many cannot be faulted. In fact, its perfection in that regard is kind of the problem. Menmuir creates this setting where reality bumps up against genre trappings—eco-thriller, conspiracy—in a truly unsettling way. The sea and the sky are so encompassing, Timothy and Ethan’s emotional isolations so perfectly mirrored by their bleak surroundings, that you find yourself on tenterhooks to see what the hell is going to happen. It reminded me of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, particularly those awful dead-eyed fish: a Nature that has soured somehow, a government agency that exists, morally speaking, well within the shades of grey. And yet there is (here come the spoilers) never any resolution to this at all. The woman in the grey coat is such an obviously menacing and important figure that for us to get to the end of the book without any indication of who she is or what she’s doing there feels alarmingly like cheating. Meanwhile, Timothy’s marital troubles, we learn, stem from the stillbirth of his son, a little boy named…Perran. This was the detail that really threw me. Perran’s an unusual name. Is it meant to be a coincidence? There’s enough mystical stuff going on in this book (Timothy has Symbolic Dreams; that barrier of container ships) that I thought perhaps Timothy’s Perran and the village’s Perran were…the same person? Or is Timothy insane? Is he projecting this village and its loss?

They’re good questions. They’re the sort of questions that I like a book to provoke. The reality of reality, and the sanity of sanity, have long been uncertainties for authors to engage with. But the strength of a book lies in how satisfactorily it deals with those questions—it doesn’t have to answer them, but it has to deal with them—and The Many doesn’t deal with anything. It just shrugs and leaves (which, incidentally, is what Timothy eventually does.) It’s a mark of my frustration that, after finishing it, I realized I still had not the slightest clue what the title meant. The many what? Fish? Deaths? Portentous pronouncements by old Clem the winchman? I don’t mean to sound bitter, but reading this book felt like being ghosted by someone on Tinder. There was so much promise here! What happened?!

(Or am I just an idiot who missed the obvious? Anyone else read this and have an idea?)

Thanks very much to Hannah Corbett at Salt for the review copy. The Many was published in the UK on 15 June.

The Mare, by Mary Gaitskill (Serpent’s Tail)

51znfvoiawl

Sometimes if you’re a pretty well-known person in your field, you develop this face that you use every time someone takes a picture of you. (Natalie Dormer is an excellent example of this.) Mary Gaitskill has either learned to do this, or it came naturally to her: she is a pouty glarer. Her every photo pulses with the subtext “and just what the fuck do you want?” This is great, because I imagine that Velveteen Vargas, the teenaged protagonist of The Mare, would photograph similarly, although probably without intending to. Velveteen is one of the most impressive fictional creations I’ve come across all year: a pre-teen of Puerto Rican descent when we meet her, she grows over the course of several years into a beautifully complex fourteen-year-old, full of age-appropriate longing to fit in and to meet boys, as well as distinctly mature concerns about her physically abusive mother, and, above all, a driving passion for horses.

Velvet doesn’t know that she’s a natural horse rider until a summer trip courtesy of the Fresh Air Fund. For two weeks, she stays with Ginger, a childless artist in her late forties, and Paul, a professor at a small college in upstate New York. Across the road, there’s a stables. It’s there that Velvet meets Fugly Girl, a seriously damaged mare, learns to ride, and becomes invested in salvaging Fugly Girl’s spirit. It sounds cute and vaguely saccharine, right? It is not. There is weird coerced sex and drive-by shooting in this book; there is the agony of first love and the sadness of an affair; there is the pain and sacrifice and bewilderment of Velvet’s mother, Silvia, who has to be tricked into allowing her daughter back in the stables at all. Silvia, incidentally, is one of this book’s best-drawn characters. She’s almost completely inexplicable to soft, middle-class Ginger: a woman who tells her only daughter that she’s ugly, a woman who hits her kids, a woman who loves her kids so hard that she won’t show them any love. We only realize slowly, by the way, that that’s what Silvia’s doing. We get chapters in her voice, as well as in Ginger’s, Paul’s and Velvet’s. We learn what she’s been taught about love. We see how vulnerable she knows love can make you. We recognize that she is determined to keep her children safe by making them hard.

How Gaitskill renders the pretentious, precious awkwardness—and the warmth and good intentions—of Paul and Ginger and their intellectual friends, as well as the slang and posturing and deep loss and vulnerability of the teenagers Velvet hangs out with in Brooklyn: it all reminded me forcefully of Orange Is the New Black. That’s the only other piece of art (is TV art? whatever) that I know of that has so completely given its characters their own voices. That show’s every sentence, no matter who’s saying it, is meticulously pitched to reveal bias and weakness and at the same time to build our sense of a character, of why they are precisely who they are. It’s fucking hard to do. Gaitskill nails it. She’s written a great book. Go on.

Thanks very much to Hannah Westland at Serpent’s Tail for the review copy. The Mare was published in the UK on 21 July.

Trio, by Sue Gee

something beautiful and strong

9781784630614_7ae9c581-ef2f-4806-bfca-c7a6356497f3

~~warning: here be one or two spoilers~~

Sue Gee seems to be one of those authors who’s both prolific and successful, and yet is still relatively unknown. She was long listed for the Orange Prize in 2005, which is exactly the sort of thing that happens to good writers who, for some reason or another, don’t please the mainstream as well as they might. That she isn’t better known is, on the basis of her new book Trio, a travesty, though perhaps not a surprise. It’s the sort of book that tends to suffer in an industry that has taken Twitter to its bosom. (I am not knocking Twitter. I mostly love Twitter and am increasingly coming to depend on it, which is a whole ‘nother story, as Americans say.) The point is that Trio is tender, nuanced, and although it contains plot points which could easily be played for melodrama, Gee’s writing is so fine that when you read those moments in her book, they pass in front of you in a thoroughly natural way. That’s terribly difficult to explain in 144 characters.

And then there’s the plot: a school teacher in Northumberland in 1937 grieves the loss of his wife, whom we get to know in the first chapter. (She dies at the end of it, but I felt real sorrow and pain when I read it—sixteen and a half pages in, and Gee had made me care about someone. That, boys and girls, is rare.) Anyway, Steven Coulter, the school teacher in question, meets a group of new friends through a work colleague. They’re all tight-knit and slightly secretive, their relationships reminiscent of The Secret History albeit rather more realistic. There’s beautiful Diana Embleton, who plays the cello; her charismatic brother Frank (with whom Steven teaches); talented violinist George Liddell; and enigmatic Margot, a pianist. These four grew up together, and Diana, George, and Margot have formed a musical trio, which plays regular concerts around the county. It doesn’t sound pacy or intriguing—but it is, it bloody well is.

Writing a book set in 1937, and partly in a large country house, you have to choose, I think, whether to give in to the inevitable echoes of early Downton Abbey, or whether to subvert them. Gee chooses to subvert, and she does that by investing a lot of authorial energy in characterisation. When I say that the death of Steven’s first wife, Margaret, made me feel sorrow after sixteen pages, I mean it; and she achieves that immediacy of feeling by using those sixteen pages to dive deeply not only into Margaret’s immediate bodily experience of tuberculosis, delirium and death, but also into her memory. Memory is what binds together most of the characters in Trio; it’s a sense of shared history between the Embletons, Margot, and George that makes their playing so intimate. It’s also what connects the book’s first section to its second, which is told not by any of the characters we’ve previously met, but by Steven’s son, sixty years in the future.

Although some of the characters fulfill certain stereotypical functions (Diana the beautiful; Margot the quietly enigmatic; George the closeted, tormented and brilliant), they each do so in a way that feels particular, not generalized. Diana, for instance, has many flaws, one of which is a self-centeredness that prevents her from understanding wider social or political currents. In a more Downton-esque novel, this flaw would be emphasised, but never explored; she would simply be dim, arrogant, gorgeous, and distant. In Trio, by contrast, that trait has a huge effect on the plot: Diana doesn’t realize that Margot’s father, whom she too has known as a father figure for twenty years, has fallen in love with her. When he finally declares himself, she is horrified, distraught, and rebuffs him in no uncertain terms, which shatters him and leads to tragedy. It’s the subtlety with which Gee builds up the situation, though, that shatters us, too, as readers: we know, long before Diana does, what Mr. Heslop’s feelings are for her. But we also know how easy it’s been for Diana to misunderstand his attentions as simple courtesy–his offers to carry her cello case, his solicitousness in keeping her wine glass topped up, seem perfectly natural, but Steven, through whose eyes we see everything, has observed that he can’t stop looking at her. We see because Steven sees, but Diana doesn’t have that kind of perspective.

For a book that revolves so explicitly around music, though, there aren’t many descriptions of it. When Gee writes about the trio working together, her focus is on their personal connection, the look that runs between them before they begin to play. She gets that spot-on; anyone who has performed music in a group small or large knows what that feels like, and anyone who has seen music performed live will recognise that electrified atmosphere, that awareness that you are witnessing intimate, non-verbal communication of the highest order. I have to confess that I wished for precise descriptions of the music, though; you can appreciate more fully the connection that enables a Beethoven trio to be performed when you understand what that piece sounds like. Writing prose descriptions of music is hard, but it can be done: Helen Stevenson, in Love Like Salt, released in February of this year, writes at length, and evocatively, about Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater.

The second half of the book is a curious decision; it’s narrated by the eldest child of Steven and Margot’s eventual union (not the biggest spoiler in the world, I venture, since their relationship and marriage is signposted fairly early on.) It follows him as he drives from London back to Northumberland to celebrate Christmas with his sister, after the death of his parents and the sale of Hepplewick Hall, the house where the trio grew up together and which Margot eventually inherits. The point of this sudden shift of era and perspective, I think, is to demonstrate how things change, how time erodes even the most intense of relationships. While I was reading, it didn’t strike me as out of place, but looking back on the book as a whole, I’m hard-pressed to determine exactly why this second half was as long as it was. It would have worked perfectly well as an epilogue. And yet perhaps Gee wants us to feel a little bit off-balance; the story of the subsequent generations is given as much air time as the story of the Greatest Generation, even though, at least for me, it carried less immediate emotional weight.

Fundamentally, though, Trio is a book that rewards your careful attention; you will probably, if you are like me, want to gobble it up, but its observation of human behaviour, of the fault lines of friendships and the limitations of love, is of the subtlest sort. Its generous anatomization of grief and fallibility, and the immense trust it places in the power of music, has earned it a spot on my shelf of Books To Save From Fire. This summer, you really should be reading it too.

Many thanks to the kind folks at Salt for the review copy. Trio was published in the UK on 16 June.

The Black Country, by Kerry Hadley-Pryce

Fact is, if we chose to live the way she does, in that kind of Hell, it would change us. It just would.

There are two kinds of ways to write a book that is genuinely startling: you can do it with the plot, or you can do it with the style. (You can, of course, do it with both, but the vast majority of authors, in my experience, pick one or the other. Those who do both tend to be absolute knockouts, though.) Kerry Hadley-Pryce, in The Black Country, mostly does it with the style. The plot is basically something we’ve seen before: Maddie and Harry, a couple who have been together since they were too young, now hate each other. They relate to each other mostly through silence and lies. They attend a memorial service for the university tutor who introduced them; at the party afterwards, Maddie meets someone else, a man named Jonathan Cotard, and fucks him. On the way home, in the icy darkness of a West Midlands winter night, they run someone over by accident. It’s Jonathan. They leave him there in a panic and drive home. When they return in the morning, he’s not there. From here, the plot descends into a whole mess of infidelity, underage sex, and further developments which are even more tabloidesque. (Spoilers later.) So in some ways, it’s not a surprising or innovative book. But in other ways, it’s disturbing and haunting and queasy-making in a manner that suggests there’s more to it than a bare summary makes it seem.

Hadley-Pryce’s world is nasty, and its nastiness is tactile. People have “bluish” skin; their hair is greasy; kitchens are cold and dirty and have little bits of grit underfoot. Smell is omnipresent, usually bodily–people’s breath, their hair–and always faintly repellent: “cat-food and chemicals”, “halitosis-like”, “metallic”, “sour”. Landscape gets the same treatment; urban or rural, there is something chilly and corrupted about it:

And Maddie kept walking, away from the city, out, past the edges of disused factories, beyond the metropolitan blocks and buildings. Not far really. It isn’t far before the city limits quite suddenly become an abandoned, unimproved no-man’s-land. Here, black weeds and oily mud line the water’s edge, and that day, puddles of gradually icing mud had breached the earth to offer up dim reflections of overhead power lines.

It is land that could be beautiful, or at least dignified, in another novel, but the significance of landscape is a matter of perception–in the eye of the beholder, as it were–and no one in this novel is in any fit state to see beauty anywhere.

Which brings me to the next curious thing about The Black Country: its narrator. Someone who occasionally refers to themselves in the first person is telling us this story, but it is neither Maddie nor Harry. It appears to be someone to whom they’ve both confessed; most events are mediated through “he says” or “she would have”. This has the effect both of being slightly jarring and of making everything contingent:

And then, quite suddenly, the traffic moved. Jerked forward. Harry would have driven forward with the flow, and Maddie ran her hand across her own flat belly and says she thought something about orders of bliss, or some such philosophical nonsense, and she felt her face crimp with the worry of it.

Harry spoke.

“Jesus”, he said, or something like it. And Maddie knew exactly what he meant.

The implication is that the details aren’t really important; we can get a good enough sense of what’s going on even with the imperfections of memory. Whether we’re meant to agree with the narrator on this isn’t clear. There aren’t really any major events whose interpretations are contested, though; the only things we’re given to doubt are relatively small, like the order in which people spoke, or the precise things that they said. The big picture is never all that controversial. I’m still not certain whether this is clever, deterministic, or accidental.

That narrative style, with its short declaratives, its fragmentation, its sentences starting with “And” or “But”, and its frequent repetition, is the backbone of the book. The Black Country is fortunate in being short (under 200 pages); any longer and that style would start to grate severely. As it stands, though, it’s a clever way of building the narrator’s personality without actually telling us who he is. The insistence behind phrases like “It would. It really would”, or “She does. She really does” grows ever more revealing. What kind of person needs to repeat these things? What kind of person needs to convince themselves so constantly of reality?

We eventually find out, of course, and this is where the plot starts to get tabloid-y. (SPOILERS AHEAD) Sure, all of this has been set up from the beginning: the hints that Maddie left Harry for a year, fifteen years ago; the revelation that Harry has had an affair with a schoolgirl; the fact that that schoolgirl has recently disappeared; the slow reveal that the narrator is someone whom Maddie keeps going to see. But the sudden Josef Fritzl turn that the plot takes is pretty unexpected, and I couldn’t help wondering whether it was entirely necessary. We’ve already got two people who hate and hurt each other, paedophilia, prostitution, paedophilic prostitution (which I haven’t even discussed here), self-harm, and corrosive guilt and shame. Even though the man-crazed-with-jealousy-kidnaps-people-and-hides-them-in-basement device ties up the plot neatly, I couldn’t help wishing that Hadley-Pryce had stuck with the more banal evils.

Unlike most novels with crimes in them, though, this one ends on a deeply ambiguous note, and that resonates strongly with a major preoccupation of the book: consequences, or the lack of them. The way we deal with the fallout of our actions reveals, in large part, who we are; people are vulnerable when stressed because often stress makes us our worst selves, and those worst selves are parts of us that we need other people not to see. Maddie and Harry are terrified they’ll be arrested for hitting Jonathan, so they flee; then they’re terrified they’ll be in even more trouble for fleeing. When they return and see that he’s not there, their relief makes them physically weak. When Maddie sees Jonathan’s watch under the hedge–a proof that it really did happen–she starts to cry:

Not for Jonathan, she’s perfectly honest about that. No, she was crying for herself. She was crying for the hope that had been snatched away. She says she was crying because she lost faith.

They don’t, as it turns out, need to worry, because nothing ever comes of it. Jonathan’s body turns up a few days later, but it wasn’t them who killed him; he’s suffered twenty-four stab wounds, after which no policeman would think to look for signs of having been bounced off a car bumper. Harry, who’s a teacher, is several times called into the office of the headmaster. Each time he thinks they’ve discovered his affair with a teenager, but it’s always about something else. Official repercussions don’t exist in this book, or at least they don’t catch up in time.

But unofficial repercussions very much exist, as exemplified not only by the aforementioned Fritzl plot twist, but by the weary horror of Maddie and Harry’s lives. They’re helpless, pathetic, mean, controlling people caught up in a nightmare of their own making, and they can’t escape. The ending only literalizes the trapped nature of their lives. It’s an unsettling, odd book, and I can’t quite figure out whether it works entirely as it’s meant to, but if you take one thing away from it, it should be this: be a person who can change. Otherwise, you’re on a path to your own private hell, and it won’t be fun when you get there.

Thanks very much to Salt Publishing for the review copy!

The Beginning of the End, by Ian Parkinson

It would have been possible to live for an entire year at the villa without ever hearing a single human voice. 

Parkinson

The first thing any potential reader of this book ought to be aware of is that there is a lot of fucking. And when I say fucking, I say it advisedly: this isn’t romance. About 50% of the sex scenes are descriptions of porn videos. Nor is Ian Parkinson a euphemistic soul: I’ll keep the quotations to a minimum, but there’s no “throbbing engine of love” here—it is “penis” and “vagina” all the way. (Sometimes “glans”, which is so far in the opposite direction from euphemistic that it takes on its own sort of comedic value.)

Although The Beginning of the End is, then, sexually explicit, I would argue that it is so for a good reason. The narrator and protagonist, Raymond, engages in and describes industrial quantities of sex as a mere byproduct of his more serious problem: chronic loneliness. Raymond is a product designer working for Siemens in Belgium, and he is already quite an odd duck from the first paragraph:

I always wondered whether I was going to find the body of a young woman while I was out walking the dog. That’s how they’re found every other week on the evening news—by men walking their dogs. I liked the idea of visiting the corpse every other week to see how things were progressing. I didn’t see why you had to go and immediately call the police. Besides, it would have given me something to do.

Raymond isn’t precisely a psychopath, despite this unpromising start; he’s awkward, apathetic and fearful of talking to people, making him friendless and more or less incapable of non-transactional relationships with women. The whole novel is a working-out of the implications of this handicap on a person’s life. Although never diagnosed with any autism spectrum disorder or specific mental illness over the course of the novel, Raymond’s behaviour and personality are clear indicators of an untreated condition. That Ian Parkinson, as a debut novelist, has been interested enough in the consequences of going untreated to write this book says a great deal for him already.

Raymond’s only contact at work, an IT assistant called Bernard, suggests that he visit Thailand as an alternative to Belgian porn websites and an unrequited crush on a younger female colleague. The holiday yields an arranged marriage; Raymond’s new wife, Joy, is an aspiring porn star whose marriage visa will allow her to live and work in the EU. But Raymond’s father dies just before the wedding, leaving his villa by the sea in his will. It’s not as nice as it sounds: subsidence and erosion are causing seaside homes to slide into the ocean year on year. The property will require renovation and maintenance. To renovate and maintain property demands initiative, perseverance, and a sense of responsibility. None of these are qualities which Raymond possesses.

Living separately from Joy, who is now breaking into the Dutch and German porn industries, Raymond makes a start on the cottage, but quickly descends into daytime drinking, daytime television, reliance on unspecified prescription medication, and microwave dinners. One of the strengths of Parkinson’s writing is how absolutely it captures a sense of bleak inertia, that sucking encroachment of indifference to everything, which characterizes extreme depression:

It was three o’clock in the morning. Joy was probably in bed. I went into the kitchen and put a meal-for-one into the microwave, one from the Italian range, tagliatelle with wild boar sausage and parmesan. The kitchen looked disgusting. The sink was piled with plates and dishes and the bin was overflowing with half-eaten microwave meals. The remnants of a chicken curry were rotting on the floor. A few nights before, I’d seen a rat disappear behind the fridge as I turned on the light.

That deliberate flatness in the writing, factual and unflinching, reflects what we know of Raymond’s character: his slight oddness, his lack of self-awareness or self-analytical skills, and his propensity for passivity. It’s a clever move, creating a tight relationship between plot and character through the narrative voice. For a character who is defined by his isolation, especially, it works well.

One of the more interesting elements of this book, too, is its glancing—albeit obliquely—at modern sex work, how it intersects with the amateur swinger/BDSM scene, and the more general societal connection of sex and violence. Because Raymond is such an unreflective character, none of this is given to the reader directly; instead, we make inferences about the normalization of sexual violence through Raymond’s descriptions of the pornography he watches, of the sexual encounters that he and Joy engineer with other Belgian couples, and of a significant plot point which I won’t give away except to say that it involves violence against women. There is also the question of Joy’s authenticity: she is a very good porn actress, a skilled professional who gains a cult following, and pornography is certainly portrayed as a professional industry like any other, at least in Europe. Yet her premarital life in Thailand is also hinted at, and it doesn’t give the impression of an atmosphere where sex workers are necessarily autonomous. Raymond finds a picture of Joy’s baby son, left behind with her grandparents in a rural village; if working as a bar girl or becoming a mail-order bride was the most likely way to secure her son’s quality of life, how independent can Joy possibly have been to make that choice? These are hugely important considerations for contemporary society if it is to both respect the rights of sex workers and work to prevent the exploitation of the vulnerable. None of this is straightforward, and Parkinson’s obtuse narrator succeeds in making us aware of the scale of the issue precisely by skirting around it.

In a way, The Beginning of the End is sort of a dark comedy. I particularly liked Raymond’s early complaints about the dog which he agrees to look after for his neighbour, a gay man who then kills himself and lumbers Raymond with a pet. There is also some rather poignant comedy in his discussions near the end of the book with a man called Eric:

I asked Eric if he ever went to the Carrefour Hypermarché but he said that he didn’t like Carrefour. I told him that I like Carrefour Hypermarché, but that I like going to Match sometimes because they have really interesting special offers. Eric shook his head and said that it’s good that we can disagree about things and still remain friends. I said that I knew what he meant, that going to a new supermarket can be a really strange experience.

It’s the sort of awful sad absurdity that the League of Gentlemen, for instance, might have gotten some cruel mileage out of. Instead of cruelty, though, Parkinson’s touch on the absurdity is gentle; we are allowed to feel pity, instead of disgust.

The Beginning of the End is not a cosy read, certainly, but it’s brave in subject matter and assured in style. If you are truly put off by graphic sex scenes, it’s probably not for you, but if you don’t mind that, lurking underneath the shock-and-awe tactics is a novel with something unique to say. The book has been gathering blurbs comparing it to the work of Michel Houllebecq and J.G. Ballard. I’ve never read either of those authors, but if their work is anything like Parkinson’s novel, perhaps I’ll give them a chance.

Thanks to Salt Publishing for the review copy!