English Animals, by Laura Kaye

English animals drinking and playing games in the sunshine

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

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

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

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

“I had a girlfriend,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Could you make us some more Pimm’s?”

“Yes, of course.”

“I’ll do it, Dad,” Sophie said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Virgin and Other Stories, by April Ayers Lawson

not being comfortable at church but always pursuing a belief in something

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Things I really like about Virgin:

  • The way it nails fundamentalist Christianity, but from the inside out, so that you see all the seams and the inconsistencies. A lot of writers who skewer this kind of religious atmosphere in their work seem to be setting out to do just that—skewer it—and Lawson’s take is so much more complex. Many of her narrators are raised in fundamentalism, but aren’t necessarily of it, so that you get kids like Conner in “The Negative Effects of Homeschooling” trying clumsily to woo Ally Kapawski in the half-hour after church when the kids are running around and the adults are being sociable. Ally, meanwhile, is not unaware of Conner’s advances, but instead of being either a “slutty hypocrite” stereotype or a bible-thumper, she’s just massively, entirely disinterested:

So I pressed my mouth against hers. She didn’t kiss back but she didn’t move away, either. I just pressed my lips to hers until I got embarrassed for not knowing what to do next… and then I got out of the car. She followed.

  • The way Lawson can take a narrative concept that seem predictable—older man preys on younger girl—and make it special to our eyes by particularising it. Take, for instance, “The Way You Must Play Always”, one of my favourites of the five stories. Here, the “older man” is dying of a brain tumour, and he is not that old, maybe in his late twenties. The young girl is Gretchen, who narrates the story; she is thirteen and the piano student of the older man’s sister. Gretchen is falling in love with the older man, or at the very least obsessed. She finds him a source of endless fascination—not explicitly sexual but not quite not sexual, either—and spends the week in between lessons planning how best to be alone with him for a few seconds. The fact that he makes her touch him is, undeniably, wrong, but Lawson makes us see how wrongness is not incompatible with a huge and shifty complexity. Gretchen does not invite her molestation, but there is something about the whole act that interests her, and that changes the way the reader sees it. It’s uncomfortable to catch yourself reading this way, but also highly unusual for a writer to actually make you do it, as Lawson does.
  • The first story, “Virgin”, does this same particularising work with a seemingly predictable narrative: a man cheats on his wife at a party. But it’s not just any man, and not just any wife: it’s Jake and Sheila, they’ve been married a few years, and Sheila won’t let Jake have sex with her. They’ve managed it once; afterwards,

she sighed with what he at first mistook for contentment and said, “I guess that’s it, then.”

…He felt as if she’d struck him again; his whole body rather than just his head. “You mean you don’t feel anything for me.”

“No. No. I love you… I just… It’s me. I try to look in your eyes and I can’t, and I know I’m supposed to, but I can’t. It’s fun, though. It’s great. It’s just me, is all. I shouldn’t have said anything. I talk too much.”

Sheila is also from a fundamentalist family, is a virgin when she marries, is working through the trauma of childhood sexual grooming by an uncle. The sad bewildered blundering of their marriage is given a counterweight in the mother and child Jake meets in his work as a press officer for the local hospital. The woman has given a lot of money for a mobile mammography unit; she wasn’t born rich, and she has an open, straightforward way of speaking and of being. So does her three- or four-year-old daughter, who, on a visit to Jake’s office,

began to pick up and examine objects on his desk: his brass paperweight, his Post-it notes, his pens. She looked at these things as if they were fantastic, turning them in her small white hands while the water-coloured eyes contemplated their sides from multiple angles. …He quickly began to sift through the contents of his desk for something that might interest the child. Found himself handing over pens, an old Rolodex, a small green clipboard bearing the logo of a pharmaceutical company. The child accepted these things with the air of one accepting precious gifts. Suddenly he had the feeling that all things in his office were sacred, were less and also more than what they were.

There’s something so gravely farcical about it, I can’t help smiling every time I read it back. The solemn little girl, the slightly flailing professional man paying her homage, the faintly amused mother watching the scene. The way it could be a parody of the shepherds and wise men visiting the infant Christ, or it could just be an awkward guy and a self-possessed kid, or—best of all—it could be both at once. It all just works so nicely.

Things in Virgin that don’t work quite as nicely:

  • Most of the final story, “Vulnerability”, which is long, is set in New York City as an artist falls for her art dealer. The artist isn’t from New York; she’s settled long ago into a life where her husband supports them and she paints and faintly despises or resents him while also loving him while also being exhausted by the whole situation for reasons she doesn’t really understand. She is the sort of character who continually tests the reader’s patience because, Jesus, what does she have to complain about? And yet there’s something about her that’s a little socially weird and deeply observant and, we sense, she’s not just complaining for the sake of it but because something about her life really does feel wrong to her, and it’s easy to understand that. Maybe the story goes on for a bit too long, but it is painfully precise: Lawson draws the lines of a burgeoning affair that’s happening only partly for reasons of attraction or mutual affection or interest with such clarity, such attention to detail.

What I really like about Virgin, though, is something it doesn’t often occur to me to like, because the whole point is that it doesn’t draw attention to itself: her prose is like glass. Totally clear, totally unobtrusive; perfectly capable of style, but generally more elegant than in-your-face. It’s a hard, hard effect to achieve, but it’s what makes these stories both emotionally incisive and gloriously readable.

Many thanks to Natalie Shaw at Granta for the review copy! Virgin and Other Stories is published in the UK on 5 January.

Difficult Women, by Roxane Gay

She was smart enough to want more but tired enough to accept the way things were.

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Someone on Goodreads wrote that this book could be equally well titled “Sad Women Having Sex.” They’re not wrong. They don’t mean it in a pejorative way, though, which is good because Gay’s stories shouldn’t be patronised or belittled just because they are, in fact, about sad women having sex. Plenty of critics, I think, have been taught that women, let alone sad women, let alone sad women fucking, aren’t serious subjects. One of the great significances of Gay as a writer is how she affirms that they are.

In Difficult Women, she circles the same thematic territory over and over again. Many of these stories feature sexual abuse, rape or molestation. Many of these protagonists conceive a child and lose it, through miscarriage or tragic accidents. Many of them work through their damage by demanding to be hurt: rough sex, verbal abuse, slapping, choking. Several of them are set in Michigan; one of my favourites, “How”, is about a woman of Finnish descent, Hanna, who finally shucks off the thankless life she has lived in the service of her parents and husband, in favour of escape with her sister and her female lover. Another, “North Country”, follows a light-skinned black academic as she moves to a Northern town, fields constant queries about where she’s from Detroit (why else, her white neighbours assume, would a black person be in Michigan?), and lets go of her protective carapace enough to fall in love with a woodsy guy called Magnus.

Those stories have happy endings, more or less, endings where people meet their trauma on their own terms and force it into a shape they can handle. There are other stories, like the first one, “I Will Follow You”, where a happy ending is contingent and constantly marked by the shadow of the past. The narrator here follows her older sister, Carolina, to Nevada, where Carolina’s husband Darryl works. Slowly, the secret of their past is revealed: the younger sister was kidnapped as a child by a paedophile known to them only as Mr. Peter. Carolina, instead of running for help, jumped into Mr. Peter’s van just before the door closed—”I couldn’t leave my sister alone,” she says when asked why she did this. The narrator recalls the settlement they were awarded by a jury, after Mr. Peter released them and was arrested:

The jury awarded us a lot of money, so much money we would never have to work or want. For a long time, we refused to spend it. Every night, I went online and checked my account balances and thought, This is what my life was worth.

The worth of women is another recurring theme in this collection, often intertwined with race and class. “La Negra Blanca” is a story about Sarah, who strips to pay her way through college and who goes by “Sierra” while she’s working. She’s mixed-race but has white features and straight Caucasian hair. One of her regular clients is a man named William Livingston III, a white guy from a Southern family for whom blood purity is an unshakable tenet of the universe, but who also has a fetishising obsession with street culture, African-American music, and black women’s bodies. It is not the subtlest story I’ve ever read, although there is something convincingly, pathologically pathetic about Livingston’s secret forays into the hood aesthetic:

When he’s not watching his housekeeper, William listens to his music and repeats the lyrics about skeeting and Beckys and backing that ass up and living the gangasta life. His office has a small closet where he keeps urban clothing he sends his assistant to West Baltimore to purchase—Sean John jeans and Phat Farm hoodies and Timberland boots. His understanding of what the kids are wearing is dated. Sometimes he poses in front of the full-length mirror, grabbing a handful of denim-clad crotch, and sets his chin to the side and tries to recreate gang signs with his fingers.

It’s not the kind of behaviour I can even remotely imagine someone in Livingston’s position actually engaging in, but the story works if you view him, not as an individual, but as an embodiment of the way black culture gets turned into something that Western companies can use to make a quick buck. Isn’t Livingston just a logical extension of the way white people have stolen black people’s words, stories, hair, clothes? (See: Bo Derek’s dreadlocks; Miley Cyrus twerking at the VMAs.) He happens, also, to be a literal rapist. When he finds out that Sarah/Sierra is actually half-black, he is consumed not with guilt but with horror: “He has done something generations of Livingstons have had the discipline to avoid.” The truth is that they probably haven’t: the supposed purity of white Southern women has always rested on the fact that their men have been able to satisfy themselves on the bodies of black women. Livingston may think his father “looked but didn’t touch”, but that’s naive.

“A Pat” is a very short story, only two pages long, but it’s one of the subtlest in the collection: the narrator sees a man eating a burrito alone in a fast food restaurant. She sits down across from him, keeps him company, invites him back to her house “for a proper meal”. She cooks for him and he eats her dinner and they have sex and then he leaves. The narrator remembers her mother’s advice from her first day of school:

“You make friends with the ugliest kids in your class and you make friends with the loneliest kids in your class, the ones off by themselves. They will be the best friends you’ve ever had and they’ll make you feel better about yourself.” With a pat on the head, she pushed me.

It’s so short and it works so hard, this paragraph: the way it shows you that kindness can be pity can be mercy; the way that generosity can be selfish; the way that, somehow, it doesn’t matter what it is.

There are a lot of stories in this collection—twenty-one—and some of them are better than others, more purposeful or more interesting or with more varied sentence structure. (This has been, for me, a semi-permanent stumbling block with Gay’s style: when she’s writing straightforward, linear, present-tense prose, it’s often not very interesting on the sentence level; the effect is more cumulative and thematic, and sometimes I don’t have the patience.) But let’s be honest: you’re probably going to read Difficult Women anyway, because it’s Roxane goddamn Gay and no one wants to miss one of her books. This is worth reading not just to keep up with the zeitgeist, but because it contains stories and endings like “A Pat” and “How” and “North Country” and “I Am A Knife” and “Break All the Way Down”, stories that approach pain and sex and humanity from many different angles, stories that are considered and honest and, in the most important sense, true.

Many thanks to Susan de Soissons and the team at Corsair Books for the review copy. Difficult Women is released in the UK on 3 January.

Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts

Orlando. Jesus. I have nothing to say that will be in any way new or incisive. I have not got the right to say very much at all – I am straight and white and this is not about me. But here are some extraordinary, beautiful things:

  • The solidarity rally in London’s Soho was attended by Sadiq Khan, our new mayor (try to picture Boris Johnson doing that.)
  • Over 2,500 people attended in total. Here is a photograph of Old Compton Street from above:

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  • A friend of mine wrote this on Facebook. I can’t improve on it. “To all my friends in the LGBTQ+ community…you are so loved. I’m thinking about you right now and sending a metric fuckton of hugs and kisses your way. I wish we all lived in a world where you could feel safe to dance with and love and kiss whoever you wanted, wherever you wanted. I wish I could give that to you, but I can’t. All I can do is let you know that I’m not ever going to stop being here for you. Stay loud and proud as fuck—I’m going to be right behind you, fighting alongside you every step of the way. To those who are searching for a scapegoat out of grief and rage, please remember that one man does not stand for or speak for his entire community or religion. Don’t fight hate with ignorance; be compassionate and listen.”
  • Here’s a Tumblr called the Queer Muslim Project. It’s fantastic, and in less than ten minutes of scrolling through it, I felt my own expectations and prejudices challenged. (“But he doesn’t look Muslim…but she doesn’t look gay.” And then “…oh.”) Go look at it.

It seems, frankly, churlish and ridiculous to talk about anything else at the moment. All of the minor problems and developments of one’s own life look so irrelevant when you pick up a copy of the Evening Standard and the leading article is headlined with the last text message of a man hiding in a bathroom, knowing he’s about to die. There is, however, one other thing I read last week that I loved, so here it is, as an aside:

There are so many quotes that resonated with me from this Bryony Gordon article about mental illness and love, but my absolute favourite is: “It wasn’t fireworks and drama – it was a warm front moving in after winter. It was the realisation that drama was not the key to happiness.” I probably talk about this stuff (being crazy, hating yourself, destructive relationships, changing that cycle) too much, but at least one other woman is talking about it too.

Love yourselves, love others, don’t let the bastards win.