Chernobyl Prayer, by Svetlana Alexievich

I’m not a writer, but I am a witness.

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

What I know about the Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident: It happened in the Ukraine, which was, at the time of the accident in 1986, part of the USSR. Gorbachev was in power. Perestroika had already begun; glasnost, the process of making governance transparent, was directly hastened by the disaster. This occurred, in essence, because a test that was running during maintenance shutdown in the plant’s Reactor Four was allowed to occur in such a way as to make the reactor extremely unstable. A power spike led to overheating, which led to the control rods becoming jammed, which led to an explosion. A graphite fire shot plumes of radioactive material into the air above the plant. This later settled across the surrounding region as radioactive dust.

What I know about Svetlana Alexievich: Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015. She is a non-fiction writer, the first (I think?) to win that award. She is Belarusian. In a way she is less a writer than a composer: her books are composed of other peoples’ voices, revealed through interviews. Chernobyl Prayer has three parts, each subdivided into “monologues”. Her art is to arrange peoples’ testimonies, and, one presumes, to be trustworthy, and to ask the right questions in the first place, and to be capable of listening.

You may need to do some background reading if you wish to tackle Chernobyl Prayer; almost all of the information in the first paragraph, above, I gleaned from Wikipedia and the official IAEA report. Alexievich isn’t writing for Western grief tourists (although, of course, in a way, she absolutely is. But she wants you to work for it.) There are no tidy maps or chronologies. Just the voices of people living in a ruined world.

It’s a book you want to quote a lot. I found myself underlining huge chunks, not only because they are tragic or beautiful, but because the people she meets are insightful on things like the Soviet character, too, and the motivations of politicians, and the fact that the people who lived near the reactor were really still peasants, country people, who didn’t understand that just because you couldn’t see radiation didn’t make it unreal.

There are themes that recur. On the implacability of nature, which is beautiful but also, in a way, what makes nuclear disaster so fatally unstoppable:

One morning, I looked into the orchard and there were boars grubbing about. Wild boars. You can resettle people, but not the elk and the boars. And the water takes no notice of boundaries, it flows where it will, over the ground, under the ground.

On the hierarchy of threats (this from a woman who has settled with her husband and child in the ghost country near Chernobyl, fleeing political violence in Tajikistan):

I meet people, they’re amazed, can’t understand it. ‘What are you doing to your children, you’re killing them. You’re committing suicide.’ I’m not killing them, I’m saving them. …This threat here, I don’t feel it. I don’t see it. It’s nowhere in my memory.

It’s men I’m afraid of. Men with guns.

Many people—probably two-thirds of the people Alexievich interviews—compare it to the war. They mean, I think, the Second World War, but it could be any war of the past century. The grannies of Eastern Europe are very used to war. Soldiers forcing them from their homes? Crucial information being kept from them? The destruction of their livelihoods? “It was just like the war”, they say, over and over again. Some of them leap from simile to metaphor: “It was war. We were at war.”

A government filmmaker is struck by the universal need for a role, the way that people cling to a cultural narrative:

I caught myself filming things exactly how I had seen them in the war films. And just then, I noticed I wasn’t alone: the other people involved in all this activity were behaving the same way. They were acting as if they were in everyone’s favourite movie… The tear in the eye, a few words of farewell. A wave of the hand. It turned out we were all searching for some form of behaviour that we were already familiar with. We were trying to conform to something.

There is some discussion of “Slavic fatalism”, a kind of gloomy (it can be cheery, if there’s vodka around) passivity. There is also mention of the way that the government fell back, instantly, into old habits:

They revived the forgotten vocabulary of Stalinism: ‘Western intelligence agents’, ‘spying forays’, ‘sabotage’… Everybody is harping on about undercover spies and saboteurs, rather than iodine prophylaxis. Any unofficial information is treated as enemy ideology…

Clean-up workers are issued lead aprons and masks, sometimes, but the ones who are working on the roof have no protection from the radiation coming up from below. In any case, most people don’t wear their masks—they are heavy and cumbersome, and the work must be done quickly. One man tells of the thirty-six hundred roof workers, how they slept on the ground, on straw taken from hayricks right beside the reactor. “They’re dying now,” he says. “But for what they did… These are still people from a particular culture. A culture of superhuman feats and sacrificial victims.” I have read nothing more chilling about Soviet Communism than this, the recognition that thousands of lives were viewed as worthless. It is not the same thing as the “Blitz Spirit” of pulling together. It is not as if protective equipment didn’t exist; it was simply not considered worth spending on these men. And the men were offered money, a bump up the queue for an apartment or a car, maybe five to seven more years of life, and the promise of postmortem heroism. And that worked. This was only thirty years ago.

And the terrifying ignorance of Party leaders:

In the villages and factories, people from the district committees of the Communist Party traveled around, meeting people. Yet not one of them was capable of giving an answer if they were asked what decontamination was, how children could be protected, or what the coefficients were for radionuclides finding their way into the food chain. Neither could they if asked about alpha, beta and gamma particles, nor about radiobiology, ionizing radiation, let alone isotopes. For them, that was all something from another planet. They gave lectures about the heroism of Soviet people, symbols of military courage, and the wiles of Western intelligence services.

Thirty. Years. Ago.

There is an interview with a man who was on a district committee, and in it, he seems to understand how terribly he and his colleagues failed. But he can’t look at it too directly. He does not want to shoulder the blame. Who can; who could? “It was our duty,” he keeps saying. “We did what we were told to do.”

This, from an engineer, perhaps explains why:

We stayed silent and obeyed orders implicitly, because we were under Party discipline. …That was not because [we] were afraid of losing [our] Party cards, but because of [our] faith. Above all, a belief that we were living in a fine and just society that put people first. Man was the measure of all things. For many people, the collapse of that faith ended in a heart attack or suicide. A bullet in the heart, as with Academician Legasov. Because when you lose that faith, when you are marooned without faith, you are no longer part of something, but complicit in it, and you no longer have any justification.

No longer part of something, but complicit in it: it’s such an articulate phrase, such an exact assessment of how ideology works, and why its crumbling can be such a catastrophe.

And man was the measure of all things. I think for a considerable portion of the twentieth century, we believed this. Why not? We had harnessed the power of the atom. We were programming computers. We had sent men to the moon. We could conquer anything, anything we wanted. And then Chernobyl happened. It wasn’t like Hiroshima or Nagasaki; it wasn’t intentional. It was a terrible accident, and man failed as the measure, and no matter how many men in green uniforms shoveled rubble off the roof of the reactor, they could not pull the particles from the skies, or the rivers, or the grass.

There is absolute rage running through this book; it is a current of fury at the lies and deceit that were fed to the people of Pripyat and Chernobyl, and it is also fury at the helplessness of the people who suffered and continued to suffer. There is almost superhuman love: the testimonies of two women whose husbands were clean-up workers (one comes near the beginning of the book, one near the end) are sobering and painfully beautiful and so sad. And there is this, from one of the children Alexievich interviews:

I want to tell you how my grandma said goodbye to our house. She asked my dad to bring a sack of millet from the pantry, and scattered it over the garden. ‘For God’s birds.’ She collected eggs in a sieve and scattered them through the farmyard. ‘For our cat and dog.’ She sliced up pork fat for them. She emptied all the seeds out of her little bags: carrots, pumpkins, cucumbers, her blackseed onions, all the different flowers… She shook them out over the vegetable plot: ‘Let them live in the soil.’ Then she bowed to the house. She bowed to the barn. She went round and bowed to every apple tree.

Chernobyl Prayer is published by Penguin Modern Classics.

November Superlatives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

KLAXON – I’m selling some books

Two things, dear bookworms:

  1. I’m now an official affiliate partner of Amazon, which means on the one hand that I am a corporate sell-out, yes, okay, thank you, please stop throwing tomatoes, but on the other hand that I’m making a tiny tiny bit of commission if you buy a book that I recommend through a link on this site. So from now on, when there are links to buy books in reviews, if you click through and subsequently buy the book, I’ll get a fraction of the book’s cost. If you totally hate Amazon and don’t even want to consider doing this, I forgive you; but if you already buy books from Amazon and have made your peace with that, this is a way to really help me out and to enable this site to keep going. I don’t get paid for anything I write about books at the moment – not here, not on Litro, not on Shiny New Books – so the affiliate program is important.
  2. I’m also now an official seller on Amazon, which means that I’m flogging books secondhand (almost all in spanking-new or like-new condition) through them. I sell under my own name (Eleanor Franzén). My “shopfront” is here – you can browse to your little heart’s content, and if there’s something you’d like but it’s not there, ask me. Again, if you spot something you fancy, buying it from me (for half, or less than half, of the original price) is a great way to tangibly support this site and the work I do here. I’ll be regularly featuring the things available in my Amazon shop over the coming weeks, so keep an eye out. Below is your first sampler:

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 Multitudes – Lucy Caldwell

A debut short story collection that bounces between Belfast and London, and which is already being touted as one of the season’s hottest books. Lucy Caldwell is earning accolades everywhere: Eimear McBride loves her; Kevin Power loves her; Emerald Street loves her. You probably will too.

 

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13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl – Mona Awad

First of all, the title is a Wallace Stevens joke, which I have a lot of time for; second of all, this is a novel about losing weight, and about how that doesn’t guarantee you the fairytale ending that we’re taught it will. It doesn’t even guarantee you better self-esteem, as Lizzie, the heroine of Awad’s debut novel, proves. Nor is this a sad or self-pitying book; instead, it’s bruisingly funny.

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Rebel of the Sands – Alwyn Hamilton

Without a doubt, the best YA fantasy to be published this year. The blurb says it all: “the first in a trilogy packed with shooting contests, train robberies, festivals under the stars, powerful Djinni magic and an electrifying love story.” It’s The Horse and His Boy for girls and without the casual racism. You know you want it.

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The House by the Lake –  Thomas Harding

In 1993, Thomas Harding’s grandmother took him to a deserted house outside Berlin. It was, she told him, the house from which she and her family had been forced to flee the Nazis. In 2013, Harding went back, and realized that the house and its grounds held tangible evidence of German history: the scar in the garden where the Berlin Wall had run through; photographs slipped through cracks in the floor. He determined to write the story of the house, and the five families who called it home. This book is the result.

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Villa America – Liza Klaussmann

From their villa in the French Riviera, Gerald and Sara Murphy throw parties that draw celebrities such as Picasso, the Fitzgeralds, and Hemingway. But the entrance of a young and handsome pilot into their charmed circle throws their lives, and their marriage, into disarray. I’d throw this one in a beach bag without a second’s hesitation.

05. Darwin Among the Machines, by George Dyson

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Where I read it: mostly on the Tube, and a little bit during lunch breaks

This was the first non-fiction book that I got to on my 20 Books of Summer list. As I think I mentioned in my June Superlatives round-up, I have almost no background in computer engineering, evolutionary biology, or mathematics, so it was, to say the least, harder going than any of the fiction I’d read so far. Fortunately, George Dyson is a solidly competent writer; confusion never arose because he was confusing, just because I often didn’t have the knowledge that would have clarified things for me. He also has a distinguished scientific pedigree: his mother was a famous mathematician, Verena Huber-Dyson, and his father was Freeman Dyson, theoretical physicist and inventor of the Dyson sphere. (More in my wheelhouse was his grandfather, the Edwardian composer Sir George Dyson, responsible for the Evensong canticle settings Dyson in F [aka the Star Wars Service] and Dyson in G. And some other stuff, too.)

Dyson’s thing is machine intelligence. This book is all about how, if and when (and it’s mostly when) machine intelligence arises, it’s likely to do so through processes similar to those that created life as we know it. Computers, in other words, are going to experience evolution, or rather,a version of natural selection. Conditions that are advantageous to a computer network will allow pieces of that network to flourish, until it’s able to respond and adapt to its own environment without any input from the engineers that built its circuits or the programmers that set it in motion.

This is the sort of thing that people (especially fiction writers) refer to as Artificial Intelligence, and AI bots already exist – they’re just not the kind of bots you really want to be hanging out with. Dyson is a science historian, though, not a fortune teller, so he focuses less on the possibilities and more on the history of the belief that humans will someday create a global intelligence. It’s older than you think. It predates Turing by centuries; Dyson pinpoints the beginning of the idea with Hobbes and Leviathan. Hobbes sees the government, the state, as a kind of collective entity composed of a nation’s people:

 “Nature is by the Art of man, as in many other things, so in this also imitated, that it can make an Artificial Animal.”

He sees the Internet as a perfect place for a global intelligence to develop: a network that spans the world, through which vast amounts of data travel in fractions of a second. Here, also, he suggests that evolution, which is generally painted as a thoughtless or “randomized” process, might be driven by considerations that could be referred to as intelligent ones. It sails close to the wind of intelligent design, but not in the way that Texan fundamentalists think of it; rather, Dyson suggests that “intelligence” may be a concept we are applying all wrong. Machine intelligence may be something that already exists but which we are simply failing to recognize because it is so far above, beyond, and/or different to, the ways in which we understand human intelligence to work. It’s an argument that allows for the existence of something like a God, in the same way that you can call “magic” a kind of science we don’t yet understand. It’s perhaps the scariest, and yet the most beautiful, idea in the book. For all that I could have done with a greater depth of knowledge while reading it, I’m very glad I did.

(I’ve now passed it on to the Chaos, who will probably have more nuanced things to say.)

Darwin Among the Machines, George Dyson (London: Penguin, 2012 [1997])

 

June Superlatives

June. Man. To paraphrase Mean Girls, how can I even begin to explain June. It contained 30 days; I was busy—proper, event-in-my-calendar, several-hours-at-least busy—for 20 of them. (Some of those days involved two separate events, usually something like lunch and then the theatre.) I’m very grateful for a busy social life and friends whom I like enough to hang out with a lot, but that was way too much for one month. In July I need to pull right back. (The fact that my parents and brother were visiting from America this month, admittedly, added to the socializing somewhat, although it was fabulous to see them.)

I managed to finish ten books anyway, though. Which I’m proud of.

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most heartbreaking: A Crime in the Neighborhood, by Suzanne Berne, winner of the 1997 Orange Prize. Narrated by ten-year-old Marsha, it tells the story of a summer in which a little boy is killed in a Washington DC suburb, and in which Marsha becomes convinced that their next-door neighbor, Mr. Green—a shy, awkward bachelor—is the murderer. It’s one of those books that describes an outsider in terms so unflinching as to be painful. The scene where Mr. Green throws a barbecue for the neighborhood, to which no one turns up, is one I can hardly bear to think about even now.

most “important”: I suspect that lots of reviewers are going to use this word to describe Negroland, Margo Jefferson’s memoir of growing up black and middle-class in 20th-century  Chicago. It’s a favored word when the subject matter is vaguely political or controversial. That shouldn’t in any way diminish Jefferson’s achievement, though; the whole point of her memoir is to describe how oppressive it is to grow up feeling like you carry the reputation of an entire people on your shoulders. It’s a thoughtful and expansive book, for all that it’s not very long, and well worth a read.

most frustrated potential: Petina Gappah’s novel The Book of Memory, which was long listed for the Baileys Women’s Prize and which I felt had a good deal of potential that got lost in the telling. The opacity of the characters, and the vagueness of Memory’s, well, memory, was probably a smart thematic move, but wasn’t executed with enough conviction (or, in a sense, time – I wondered if the book should have been longer, which is a rare thing to wonder.)

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most swiftly gobbled: The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver, was definitely one of the longest books I read this month, but also one of the books I couldn’t bear to put down. Kingsolver’s prose has always lent itself to being galloped through, not because it’s simplistic but because it’s completely lucid. She’s also writing about such gorgeous, tactile things in this book: the sea, food, the sun, paintings, buildings, Mexico.

most thoughtful: Carol Shields’s novel Larry’s Party, which is one of the quietest and also one of the most illuminating books I’ve ever read. It was nice to read a book about a man, and about manhood, that wasn’t infuriating or upsetting. Maybe there’s something in that that modern discourse about gender could look to emulate. Or maybe not; I haven’t made up my mind.

sneakiest: The Siege of Krishnapur, by J.G. Farrell, wrong-footed me more than any other book this month. It starts out masquerading as a fairly standard Victorian pastiche about some colonial prats in India, and it turns into something much deeper and darker, an exploration of what makes people “civilised” and what war does to your psyche.

most soothing: Trio, the new novel by the highly prolific but criminally under-recognised Sue Gee. Set in Northumberland between the World Wars, and skipping forward in time to contemporary London, it tells a story of music, grief, recovery, friendship, and love. I absolutely adored it for not buckling to sentimentality while still expressing so much emotion; if you liked the Cazalet Chronicles, you should read it.

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hardest: I’m interested in science, technology, and engineering, but I have no formal academic background in it. I am so poor at arithmetic that I still don’t know how to do long division (without looking up the steps), which at school meant that I wasn’t allowed to progress past algebra, so there’s a huge void in my mathematical knowledge too. Reading Darwin Among the Machines, a study of how “artificial” (machine) intelligence might arise through biological/evolutionary mechanisms, meant I had to reach towards the meaning of what George Dyson was saying, instead of understanding it intuitively – which was a really good experience.

most novelistic non-fiction: John Demos’s The  Unredeemed Captive, a study of the Williams family of Massachusetts, and particularly Eunice Williams, who was kidnapped in 1703 from the village of Deerfield by Canadian Indians, along with the rest of her family. All of the Williamses were eventually ransomed or returned, “redeemed” spiritually in the eyes of their Puritan god and neighbours as well as literally brought back, except for Eunice, who married an Indian man and had children with him. She never returned to Massachusetts, though she met her brothers and nephews several times. It’s a fascinating story, a little-taught part of American history, and Demos really understands the drama as well as giving the historical context.

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party I’m late to, again: Lucia Berlin. Specifically, the collection of her short stories entitled A Manual for Cleaning Women. Everyone freaked out about them last year in a non-specific way that didn’t make me interested enough to pick them up, but I got them for Christmas and I’ve got round to them now and they are worth it. She’s writing about herself or a thinly veiled version thereof a lot of the time, but they achieve a tone that’s simultaneously conversational – really intimate, you feel you know this woman and like her – and yet also beautifully constructed, measured, balanced. It’s all intentional but none of it is artificial. Her stories are set in laundromats and abortion clinics and emergency rooms, and they’re hilarious and painful. If you’ve also missed them up til now, don’t miss them for much longer.

what’s next: I’ve just started Alexander Chee’s debut novel The Queen of the Night – about a soprano in Paris in the 1870s (?) and the secrets of her past. I’m having an absolute ball with it; the world is lush, the writing is evocative, the plot is mysterious enough to stay interesting. It’s so my thing.

Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts

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SpaceX’s launch of Falcon 9
  1. You all should read this four-part series by Tim Urban at WaitButWhy (the link goes through to all of the content in one place, don’t worry) on space exploration (/colonisation) and Elon Musk. Not least for the two incredible videos of the Spirit and Curiosity rovers landing on Mars. I suggest that, once you get to the part about the Hubble Space Telescope, you soundtrack your reading for as long as it takes to listen to this.
  2. I saw my lovely friend Ella (long-time readers will recall her former incarnation on this blog as the Duchess) for a quick hour-long lunch last week, and it was great. She teaches in Vermont, so I haven’t seen much of her, except on FaceTime, for months. She was back for her mother’s birthday, and we went to a little Italian cafe on Kentish Town Road where the inefficiency of the service is compensated for by the outstanding quality of their pasta. We had lasagna and chorizo-mushroom penne and talked about office politics and our families and laughed a lot. I’d been having a particularly shit morning that day, so it was especially nice to just let go with an old friend, even briefly.
  3. My old college had its annual black-tie ball this weekend. This is the first year I haven’t gone. I went last year with some friends in the year below me, even though I was no longer a student or even participating in the life of the college much (despite still living in Oxford), and it was, overall, a mistake. I think one of the hardest things about graduating is knowing when to stop going back (at least for a few years); this is the time. I’ll probably return with some other friends to use High Table dining rights this summer, and it was great to see pictures of people I did know enjoying themselves and looking fly, but it’s not my place anymore. Or at least not in the same way. And that’s okay.
  4. Prince died, and even though I don’t think I’ve ever consciously listened to any of his music, let alone been a devotee, it seemed really, really sad. He was obviously a taboo-breaker and an outrageously talented instrumentalist: one of my coworkers reminisced about seeing him, in concert, hurl himself across the stage, lean backwards over a piano, and play, while upside-down, exactly the right chords at exactly the right moment. That kind of gold dust shouldn’t die at 57.
  5. I’m writing fiction again. That’s all for now. Hooray.

Relativity, by Antonia Hayes, + Q&A

“Help”, he said. “He’s not breathing.”

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Relativity takes, as its starting point, the kind of thing that you never want to experience as a parent: an emergency hospital visit for an infant displaying all the symptoms of shaken baby syndrome. The child’s father, who was alone with him at the time of injury, denies everything, but is arrested, tried, and convicted. He spends years in prison. Meanwhile, the child grows up—but when he’s twelve, he accidentally intercepts a letter from his father to his mother, and the past rushes in to fill the present.

Hayes is coy about what exactly happened when Ethan was a baby until about halfway through the book, which is a wise move. We spend time first getting to know Mark, his father; Claire, his mother; and Ethan himself. Mark is fascinating: probably, fundamentally, a good guy, but immature, prone to temper, and deeply self-important. One of the most painful aspects of the book is the section detailing his youthful relationship with Claire. She’s an aspiring ballet dancer; he’s doing a Ph.D in astrophysics. Her pregnancy is unexpected, but they’re in love and they decide to make the best of things. When the baby is born, though, Mark has a hard time feeling love for him; he’s too preoccupied by the destructive effect a newborn is having on his sleep cycle, his research, and his writing. Claire’s fear that her dancing career is over, meanwhile, is exacerbated by Mark’s apparent indifference to it. In one of their worst fights, he suggests that she should give it up altogether, since it’s not very lucrative or stable employment, and she might never make it big. This is not, needless to say, the behaviour of a supportive spouse.

So the portrayal of the strain on Claire and Mark’s relationship is certainly convincing; what I found difficult to swallow was the standardness of the gender stereotyping. Claire is repeatedly described as being deeply physical and intuitive, “thinking with her body”, while Mark is logical, rational, intellect-driven. It’s a female/male dichotomy that I find knackered, and knackering. Of course the mother is a ballerina, someone who works with their body; of course the father is a physicist, someone for whom the mind is paramount; and of course Claire not only connects instantly with their baby, while Mark struggles, but also gives up her career entirely—out of guilt—after Ethan sustains his injury. It probably frustrates me because of its very realism, because it is still the way that many relationships are framed, but I just kept hoping for something that would challenge these woman-as-nurturer, man-as-reasoner roles,  and there was nothing in the book that did.

What does work very well, however, is Hayes’s portrayal of a gifted child. For Ethan can “see” physics: the sound waves left by a lightning strike, the movement of air pressure, the Doppler effect. He’s also simply very bright, with an affinity for mathematics and physics, an excellent memory, and a boundless curiosity. He reads constantly and is forever making connections. Yet he’s still only twelve: a mature twelve-year-old in many ways, but still, as twelve-year-olds do, lacking the fundamental emotional experiences that aid maturity. Hayes nails that curious combination, the brilliance and sensitivity of a child who is, nevertheless, a child. It’s hard to put into words unless you’ve either been that child or been the parent of one, so I’m guessing Hayes is one or both of those things. (The book is based to some extent on her real-life experiences: when she was nineteen, her partner shook their baby, and stood trial for it as a result.)

The bullying Ethan withstands, too, is sickeningly convincing: you hope it’s not written from life, though it probably is. There’s nothing more awful, in middle school, than the betrayal of a former best friend trying to hang with the cool guys, or the nastiness of bullies who use your home life against you, as well as your school persona of Nerd Supreme. To be twelve is to negotiate a bizarre, unreplicable mental space where supernovae and sex are elbowing each other for your attention; where you get boners in the shower but remain fascinated by the minutiae of meteors and the possibility of time travel. Both of those impulses—the sexual and the scholastic—are neatly chronicled in Relativity. It may treat its adult characters in a way that frustrated me, but Ethan is perfectly drawn.

Very luckily, I’ve been able to ask Antonia Hayes some questions about the book and about her writing (courtesy of publicist Grace Vincent), so now it’s over to her:

Ethan is a very convincing portrayal of a gifted child – he still possesses the maturity levels of a twelve-year-old in some ways, even though he is clearly brilliant. What’s your best advice for getting inside the head of a character like that?

While I was writing Ethan’s character, I did quite a bit of research about gifted children and what effects having a preternatural intelligence can have on a child’s mindset. Even though Ethan can understand theoretical physics, it doesn’t mean that he really understands everything – especially adult relationships. At the same time, being brilliant does make Ethan a little too confident in his own abilities and judgement, even outside the world of science. So I really wanted to play with the conflict between intellect and wisdom with his character. Ethan’s intelligence is deep but it’s also quite narrow. Just because he’s a genius doesn’t mean he necessarily has common sense. Gifted kids are still kids – but Ethan doesn’t know how naive he really is.

Claire gives up ballet almost as a way of punishing herself for not being the mother she feels she should have been. Talk to me about careers and motherhood: expectations, reality, unfairness…

There’s a line in the scene about Claire’s childhood training to be a ballet dancer and the pressure her own mother put on her that I think sums up Claire’s feelings about this: “How motherhood could easily annihilate whatever came before it.”

Unfortunately, I think careers (particularly in the arts) and motherhood are both given these unrealistic narratives about complete and utter devotion, but anyone who is completely and utterly devoted to anything at the exclusion of all other things in their life lacks balance. Claire did buy into this specific fiction of martyrdom and surrender with motherhood, perhaps at the expense of her own happiness and fulfilment. With her character, I really wanted to push that motherhood guilt complex. My intention was to show the ways some mothers truly believe they’re doing the best thing by their kids when they make these sacrifices for their children, but they’re actually inflicting a different kind of damage.

My own personal view – as a writer and a mother myself – is that one informs the other. My writing is richer because I’m a parent, but I’m also a better parent because I know how important it is for me to write and pursue my dreams. I am sick of the dialogue around motherhood versus everything because it works on the assumption that motherhood is all-consuming, transactional, selfless and a sacrifice – which is wrong. There’s no conflict or dichotomy; it’s symbiotic and always changing from one phase to the next. It’s the industrial complex of motherhood that’s hostile to art, because it uses guilt and obligation and domesticity as its currency. You can have kids and not suppress who you are; it’s healthier for our kids if we don’t.

Neuroplasticity is well documented, but Ethan’s condition is highly unusual – although the novel eventually reveals that his savantism isn’t what it’s initially believed to be, is such a thing realistically possible?

Yes! Acquired savants are real, although only about 50 of them exist worldwide. One real life case I was particularly interested in was that of Jason Padgett, who became a mathematical and geometry genius after a brain injury.

How did you first become interested in writing this story? What was the initial spark: shaken baby syndrome, gifted children, physics, neuroscience, or something else altogether?

To be honest, it was actually a constellation of all of those things. The initial spark was the character, Ethan – he popped into my head one day, and I knew almost immediately that he loved physics. I’d been thinking of writing about shaken baby syndrome, and his character and interests were my way into telling that story. I’m often asked if Ethan is based on my own son (who is now 14), but he’s actually much more like 12-year-old Antonia. All those elements are different obsessions of mine, that I managed to combine for the novel.

Where do you do most of your writing?

I work at my dining table at home, mostly. Technically this room should be where we eat dinner, but it’s now overrun with books and has become my makeshift office.

Do you have any advice for a debut novelist or for someone who wants to write a novel but is too scared to start? (Asking for a friend…)

I used to be completely terrified of the idea of writing a novel! I think what made me overcome my fear was separating the act of writing itself from what follows it (publication etc). Sitting quietly at my desk, and arranging and rearranging sentences, wasn’t actually a scary thing to do; in fact, it brought me enormous pleasure. So instead of focusing on writing a novel that one day might become a published book (which is an intimidating idea), I focused on writing and after a while, I had a manuscript. Worrying about publication before there’s even a first draft of a manuscript is likely to do anyone’s head in because it creates extra stress you don’t need to trouble yourself with yet. If writing makes you happy, start there. The rest is noise and your friend can worry about that later.

Thanks very much to Grace Vincent for the review copy, and to Antonia Hayes for her incisive and thoughtful answers! Relativity was published in the UK on 7 April.