Johannesburg, by Fiona Melrose

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I seem to be writing a lot about rewrites these days. Fiona Melrose’s second novel, Johannesburg, isn’t precisely a rewrite, but it takes many of its cues from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway: from its life-in-the-day scope to its characters (Melrose’s hunchbacked, homeless protestor September mirroring Woolf’s shellshocked, suicidal Septimus) to its culmination in a grand party. These knowing echoes, and others like them, don’t always work, but when they do, Melrose achieves what Woolf does: she creates a portrait of a city, and of particular moments in time, and reminds us that a moment can contain an eternity.

We start with Gin, an unmarried fine artist in her early forties who has come home to Johannesburg from New York to throw a birthday party for her eighty-year-old mother, Neve. Neve has never apparently approved of anything Gin has done, and the party – as such parties do – has taken on a major weight of significance in Gin’s mind: if Neve likes it, sees that she has worked hard to make it look beautiful and get the details right, then that will prove, once and for all, that her mother loves her. Preparations for the party throughout the day take up much of the book’s matter, though Melrose lets us spend less time picking up food or cutting flowers, and much more time inside Gin’s head, as she worries ceaselessly about being a woman, behaving like a woman, disappointing her mother, having her own space to create.

That obsession – having one’s own space to create – is deeply Woolfian, and should give some hint as to what this contemporary Dalloway is trying to achieve. Woolf is famous for ignoring the servants and working-class women that enable her life and the lives of her creative female characters, but Melrose doesn’t make that mistake: she accords to Mercy and to Duduzile, a housekeeper and a cook/maid, the same longing for agency and independence as she gives to Gin (and to Gin’s now-dead Aunt Virginia, a novelist who drowned herself on her eightieth birthday, all of which I think is slightly too heavy-handed). Still, Mercy has her own thoughts – most of them, fortunately, not about the white family she works for – and, at one point, wonders what kind of cooking she could do if she had a little kitchen that was all her own. It’s a long-awaited way of moving Woolf’s famous “room of one’s own” into the realm of a working-class woman; Mercy thinks she’d buy a table and paint it red, hang her own curtains, cook fritters and pap to sell to stalls all over the city.

Duduzile, meanwhile, is tethered to responsibility by her brother September, a hunchbacked man who used to work as a cook in the kitchens of a large mining company, until the miners staged a demonstration for better pay and conditions. This demo, at Verloren, turned into a massacre, and September – one of the few survivors – was grazed by a bullet that ploughed a furrow through the side of his head. Now, homeless and misshapen, he is animated by the need for justice: every day, he takes up vigil outside the Diamond, the urban headquarters of the mining company, with a placard strapped to his back above his hump: VERLOREN. HERE I AM. Dudu brings him meat and fruit and water, and tries to make sure he gets enough rest; he sleeps on cardboard in an abandoned garden, since living with Dudu is impossible (he reflects that he would frighten her “madam”, and the madam’s children.)

September is the moral heart of the novel. His stand outside the Diamond is only the most obvious instance; throughout the book he represents a silent majority who have been mistreated and underestimated, but who, nevertheless, demand justice and show love. The book takes place on the day that Nelson Mandela’s death is announced, and throughout the narrative is woven a sense of the people of Johannesburg hurrying to the Residence to pay their respects and show their grief. Extra police officers and helicopters are deployed to “keep the peace”, which September views as an insult: South Africans love Mandela; to suggest that they might degenerate into violence upon his death is offensive. His presence in the book serves as a mute instance of passive resistance, a technique that has fallen in and out of favour with political activists (particularly Black activists, both in Africa and in the States), but which nevertheless has a long and distinguished pedigree. HERE I AM.

September’s outstanding act in the book is to return Neve’s runaway dog, Juno, thereby salvaging Neve’s mood and Gin’s planned party. He doesn’t hang around for long enough to receive the cash reward that Gin wants to give him; when she returns to the front door with her wallet, he’s already walking away. Later (no spoiler, this, if you’ve read Dalloway) September is killed outside the Diamond in a standoff-cum-misunderstanding-cum-suicide by cop, a tragedy which Gin’s former lover Peter is helpless to prevent. When Gin hears the news, and realises that the dead man is the very man who brought her dog back (and saved the evening by restoring Neve’s good mood), she is horrified to realise that when he left her door, he was walking to his death. Up to this point in the book, very little has been able to get through Gin’s carapace of self-pity, shame, and fascination with mortality; it is only the actual death of a person she saw mere hours before that shakes her. Here Melrose both hews closely to Woolf’s original – where Clarissa Dalloway is upset by news of Septimus’s suicide – and writes with a broader social awareness than Woolf manages. Gin, death-obsessed, is a well-off white woman with every conceivable liberty – artistic, financial, romantic. When death does enter the novel, it doesn’t come for her, but for a poor, crippled black man; she is forced to decentralise herself, to understand that while she may see death as “an option”, for others it is so much more.

There are some missteps: the story of Aunt Virginia, for instance, who doesn’t contribute much to the narrative other than a way for the reader to nod knowingly, and some of the dialogue between Gin and Neve, which is probably meant to be painfully adolescent but possibly not meant to be quite so annoying and banal. Ultimately, though, Mrs. Dalloway and Johannesburg are both – at least through Melrose’s lens – about a particular city, and what it is like to live there, and how the city becomes more than the sum of its parts. The scenes in Johannesburg where Gin drives through town – always driving, always separated from the street and the noise and the heat – are intelligent counterpoints to September’s view of the overlapping freeways that soar above his traffic island. Both characters feel embedded in the city; neither sees it whole. In that fragmentation, combined with the sense of unity provided by communal grief at Mandela’s death, Johannesburg rings wonderfully true.

Many thanks to the kind folk at Corsair for the review copy. Johannesburg is published in the UK on 3 August.

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June Superlatives

June has been about how to live and thrive in limbo, between one state and another. Doing that successfully requires you to be intentional about a whole lot of things, including what you put into your brain. So although there have been many dinners with friends, glasses of wine and chai tea and gin-based cocktails, WhatsApp messages and perfectly chosen postcards and so much love, I’ve also watched my reading die down. And then it bounced back—such that I cleared 18 books this month—which is, at least, something positive. (I thoroughly sucked at reviewing, but that’s life.)

most diverting: The final two books in Mick Herron’s Slough House series, Real Tigers and Spook Street. For about a week at the beginning of the month, reading, sleeping and eating were much harder than I usually find them. Herron’s slick, pacy espionage thrillers (from the point of view of a team of underdogs) were exactly what my brain needed: easily digestible and not too deep. He writes good books anyway, but it’s especially nice to know that they can fill this kind of reading niche.

hardest-hitting: Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson. Stevenson has worked for decades as a death row lawyer in Alabama, defending condemned men and women free of charge through his nonprofit, the Equal Justice Initiative. He’s a deeply thoughtful and compassionate man, and his writing about the flawed ways in which the death penalty is applied is so calmly, measuredly furious that it is nearly impossible to believe so many states (including my home state, Virginia) still use it. This, too, I read during the week that reading was hard, though I’m almost positive that’s due to personal associations that make me feel comfortable and secure when reading books about the law.

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best start: My first Iain M. Banks novel, The Player of Games. Jernat Morau Gurgeh is a member of the Culture, a utopian, anti-hierarchical society of plenty. He’s one of the Culture’s best game-players, and he’s dispatched in this book to the far-off Empire of Azad to play the game that gives the empire its name—and everything else; roles at every level of society are determined by how well you play, and the winner becomes the Emperor of Azad himself. As an introduction to Banks’s science-fictional work, The Player of Games works very well; it doesn’t assume too much familiarity (it was only the second Culture novel to be published), but there’s a level of sophistication to the political maneuvering that I enjoyed. I look forward to more of these; perhaps Use of Weapons next.

most ekphrastic: Edward Dusinberre’s memoir-cum-journey through Beethoven’s late string quartets, Beethoven For a Later Age. Dusinberre is the first violinist in the Takács Quartet, and he writes evocatively not only about the music itself (excerpts are printed within the text, which is extremely helpful) but about the process of making music cooperatively but not hierarchically—a very different endeavour from that of a solo artist, or even an orchestra, which has a conductor to follow. A superb insight into professional musicianship.

book that brought my groove back: The Dollmaker, by Harriette Arnow. It follows the tribulations of Gertie Nevels, a Kentucky hill farmer and mother of five who is impelled by World War II to move to Detroit, where her husband Clovis, a mechanic, gets a job in a steel factory. The rest of the book traces the fallout of that choice, and the corrosive effect of industrialised urban living on a creative mind. If anyone you know still has lingering doubts about the disadvantages imposed by poverty, hand them this. (review)

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most intelligent: Gwyneth Jones’s five-minutes-in-the-future novel, Life, which follows the adolescence and adulthood of molecular biologist Anna Senoz, who discovers a sex chromosome phenomenon called Transferred Y which might mean the end of human sexual difference as we know it. It is a novel about sex, and sexuality and gender, but also about science: the everyday practice of it, the hard work and the research and the satisfaction. Life is utterly unlike anything else I’ve read; like Madeleine Thien, Jones does her thinking on a very high level and lets it play out in her fiction through the depiction of ordinary, everyday lives.

best timing: My uncle sent me a sorry-you-broke-up book, which goes to show a) how well my family knows me, or b) how predictable I am. Or both. It was Leaving Before the Rains Come by Alexandra Fuller—a memoir of her marriage to Charlie Ross, and its dissolution, and further memories of growing up with deeply eccentric parents on a farm in Zambia. Fuller writes beautifully, and she is so good at gesturing at psychological damage without spelling it out for you.

most underrated: Michael Arditti has been writing novels for years and yet he seems to fly under the radar. I read his book Easter this month. Set over the course of a single Holy Week in a Hampstead parish, it deals with AIDS, hypocrisy, loss of faith, the legacy of the Holocaust, and love, and I really, really liked it. Like a modern-day, slightly grittier Trollope, focusing on the contemporary issues that the Anglican church faces.

hands-down favourites: Two, actually. One was George Saunders’s novel Lincoln In the Bardo, which imagines the night that Abraham Lincoln spent in his eleven-year-old son Willie’s mausoleum, from the point of view of the ghosts who haunt the place. It’s hot ice and wondrous strange snow, a truly polyphonic piece of work (it helps to read it as though it’s a play, or to think of it as a written-down audiobook) that manages to be both heart-rending and honest, and surprisingly funny in places.

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The other was Jeff VanderMeer’s new book Borne, which follows scavenger Rachel in a post-apocalyptic landscape ravaged by a five-storey-tall flying bear called Mord, the result of experimentation within the sinister Company. When Rachel finds a piece of biotech in Mord’s fur, she takes it home and names it Borne. From their relationship—semi-parental, semi-best-friendship—comes the book’s emotional core, which is made more poignant by our growing realisation (and Rachel’s resistance to realising) of what Borne is, does, and could be. The dialogue is sweet and goofy and painful, and I dashed through the book in a day. It’s wonderful.

most nearly: After a twenty-year wait for Arundhati Roy’s second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is finally here. While I enjoyed reading it at the time, and was as moved and distressed as Roy presumably wanted me to be by the descriptions of the Indian army’s program of oppression and torture amongst the insurgents of Kashmir, I ultimately felt the novel’s focus was too diffuse; in trying to present us with many different points of view, it failed to provide a strong emotional core. I wrote more about it at Litro (review text here).

most holy-fucking-shit: Gabriel Tallent’s debut novel My Absolute Darling, which is coming out from 4th Estate in August. It’s the story of 14-year-old Turtle Alveston, who can navigate through thirty miles of rough terrain in a day and shoot a playing card out of her daddy’s hand. Her daddy is all she has, and she loves him, but things are changing… It is astonishing on the psychological dynamics of abuse—that love/hate, life/death, symbiotic/parasitic framework—and there is heart-in-throat suspensefulness. A beautiful and beautifully written book about entering adulthood too soon, with all of the implications about survival and protection and decision-making that implies. I hope it’s huge.

second most nearly: My first Allegra Goodman novel, The Chalk Artist. I still really want to read Intuition and The Cookbook Collector, since I love the promise of a novelist whose work fuses an interest in technological advances with a clear dedication to artistic creativity and (at least in this book) the written word. The problem with this was the prose, which was the sort I once heard described as “medium-roast”, and the level of melodrama reached the ridiculous about halfway through and didn’t abate. If I didn’t already know I want to read her early work, this might have put me off permanently.

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party I was late to: The Loney, Andrew Michael Hurley’s Costa-winning novel from last year. It’s a good creepy Gothic, suffused with the awfulness of mid-century middle-class Catholics (the narrator’s mother is obsessed with “curing” her mute, disabled elder son Hanny) and with bleak seashore menace, and with potential satanism. I have to confess it left me a little cold, though; that melodrama, again, was too strong, and the pacing of the dénouement, the revelation of horror, felt rushed and diluted. I did read it very quickly, which probably didn’t help.

warm bath book: An odd category for this, but Nicholas Hytner’s memoir of his time at the National Theatre, Balancing Acts, was immensely soothing. He writes with intelligence and style and deep understanding about the text and subtext of plays, and he’s wonderfully witty on actors and directors too, without making the inevitable name-dropping appear too self-satisfied. (I love the way he introduces Ben Whishaw, whom he first sees as a minor character in the initially disastrous production of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials.) And Hytner on Shakespeare is superb; the book is worth its price for the sections on Othello, Hamlet and Much Ado alone.

most fun to argue with: Tracy Chevalier’s addition to the Hogarth Shakespeare novelisation series, New Boy, her take on Othello. The choices she makes about how to approach and modernise the story seem to me superficial; I don’t believe that she sat down with the play and thought deeply enough about character or motivation, or perhaps she did but wanted something that would hit all the notes a casual reader might remember from doing the play at A-Level thirty years ago. If you ignore the question of whether the book as it’s framed has any merit as a response to Shakespeare’s ideas, it’s a clean and stylish piece of work, but I’m not sure that’s enough. (review)

most apt timing: A new debut novel by Zinzi Clemmons, called What We Lose, of which I got a proof copy from work. It’s written with such urgency and clarity that it feels like a memoir, and it is all about loss – of parents, of lovers, of friendships – and displacement: what does it feel like to be neither South African nor American, neither white nor black? Short, fragmentary and strangely soothing; it’s out in July and I really recommend it.

up next: I’m reading Francesca Segal’s new novel, The Awkward Age, about a blended Anglo-American family whose teenagers seem to hate each other, and so far it’s wonderful: funny, observant, with wonderful casual descriptions of people and places.

March Superlatives

In March the Baileys Prize longlist was announced and I started duties as part of the prize’s shadow panel, which involved reading all of the longlisted books I hadn’t already gotten to. This amounted to ten (well, nine and a half; I’d already read part of The Lesser Bohemians), plus some reading for work that included a couple of thrillers, some social realism, and some historical fiction. Overall, it’s been a very good, if exhausting, reading month: eighteen books finished. This is productive even for me.

best thriller: Sand, Wolfgang Herrndorf’s newly released novel that combines the black humour of Greene with the social observation of Ian Fleming, but better written. It’s nasty, funny, irresistibly engaging, confusing, and utterly nihilistic. (review)

best surprise: I read Adam Haslett’s Imagine Me Gone because there was a damaged paperback copy at work that we couldn’t sell or return. I was expecting a basic story about dysfunctional, miserable WASPs. Instead, I got a book and a writer capable of articulating the complex motives behind emotions with such precision that I wanted to underline bits—and I never underline bits. Highly, highly recommended.

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cut nearest to the bone: Polly Clark’s debut novel, Larchfield, is about a young pregnant poet, Dora, who moves with her husband to Helensburgh, a small community in Scotland. W.H. Auden, she learns, used to teach at the local school. When Dora has the baby, a combination of neighbourly malice, loneliness, and loss of personal identity drives her to seek solace in learning about Auden’s experiences in Helensburgh. Curiously, neither working at Mumsnet nor talking to friends with babies has brought home to me as clearly as Larchfield did what a thoroughly frightening, isolating, relentless undertaking motherhood is. It seriously, seriously scared me about having children. (I think there is a longer post in this—in how fiction represents motherhood, and in how that particular thematic obsession in literature by and about women is received by women like me—young, childless, starting to wonder—but I’m leaving it for now.)

solidest thriller: Being the most solid of something is not the same as being the best at something, but Jane Harper’s The Dry is a good example of a crime novel that will please pretty much everyone. It is what people usually mean when they say “well-written”: nothing clunks or stands out; the plot is gory enough to be interesting without relying on the torture porn that seems to be the crime genre’s stock-in-trade these days; the villain is believable, and you don’t see the reveal coming from a mile away. Also, it’s set in a small Australian farming community, which is a fairly unusual setting and gives the book a sense of uniqueness. If you like decent crime, pick it up.

Mantel for the easily distracted: Sarah Dunant’s take on Renaissance Italy and the Borgias, In the Name of the Family. I found that she covers much of the same thematic ground as Mantel does—autocratic power, the role of the church in government, moral compromise in exchange for a measure of safety—but does so with a little more zip to her plotting. Highly recommended. (review)

most meh: I feel bad about saying this. There’s nothing wrong with The Gustav Sonata, Rose Tremain’s Baileys Prize-longlisted novel about a young boy growing up in post-war Switzerland and his lifelong friendship with talented pianist Anton. It just felt aimless. The writing is very lucid and the characterisation sympathetic, but it faded from memory more and more as I compared it to other longlisters. (review)

best Shakespeare rewrite: Hag-Seed, by Margaret Atwood. This is, without a doubt, the most successful installment of the Hogarth Shakespeare project so far, not least because Atwood acknowledges the existence of her source material (The Tempest) within her novel, and thus is allowed to write a book that stands on its own and can explicitly examine The Tempest’s preoccupations. Not Atwood’s best novel, but really good for Shakespeare nerds. (review)

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best reread: I got ill over a weekend and read American Gods by Neil Gaiman all over again, and it was great. It’s still the best of his books, I think (maybe a close contender with Neverwhere; I’d have to read the latter again to decide.) His take on modern gods—the sharp businessman Mr. Wednesday (Odin), the dapper and shrewd Mr. Nancy (Anansi), undertakers Jacquel and Ibis (Egyptian underworld gods Anubis and Thoth)—remains fresh and clever, and he conjures the menace of Americana like no other author I know.

most cute: This is definitely damning with faint praise, I’m afraid. I did like Yewande Omotoso’s The Woman Next Door; her portrayal of two elderly, crotchety neighbour ladies, one white and one black, is irresistibly charming, and she does engage with serious political and historical ideas. But the flavour the book left in my mouth was The Help meets Alexander McCall Smith, where people are mildly chastised for their prejudice but mostly let off the hook, and everything is okay at the end. I wanted more than that. (review)

most intelligent: Pretty much all of the books I read this month were intelligent, so this is kind of a crap category. But Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by Madeleine Thien, engages on such a high level with questions of ethics and art-making and agency in Mao’s China that it leaves much of its competition in the dust. I can’t help feeling a Baileys win would be somehow unfair (it’s already won the Giller, and been Booker Prize-shortlisted; let someone else have a go), but it would be very richly deserved. (review)

hardest punch to the gut: The Power, by Naomi Alderman. Alderman takes a simple premise—what if girls and women had the ability to discharge electricity from their bodies?—and uses it to explore some of the deepest questions about what human civilisation even is. If Thien is interested in the cerebral, Alderman is all about the fundamental. This book shook me. It’s a big deal. (review)

best sex: Unsurprisingly, Eimear McBride’s The Lesser Bohemians. Never have I encountered an author who understands so clearly that sex isn’t interesting because of who put what where, but because of who feels what when, and why. In other words, she maps sex as an emotional experience—and she also explores what sex is like when emotions are missing, and isn’t judgmental about it. (review)

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should have been on the Baileys longlist: For all my days, there are some things I will never understand about prize lists. The omission of Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border in 2015 was one of them; the omission of Danielle Dutton’s Margaret the First this year is another. It’s a short, choppy, odd little novel, just like its subject: Margaret Cavendish, seventeenth-century Duchess of Newcastle and first female science fiction writer in the Western world, as far as we know. I loved it for its utter idiosyncracy—the prose so full of sharp, well-chosen images—for the efficiency with which Dutton sketches Margaret for us (it’s a very short book and by the end of it we know her as we do a dear friend), and for the lack of sentimentality with which she closes it. Seek this out.

most missed opportunity: Little Deaths by Emma Flint is a historical noir that deals with the hideous misogyny of 1960s New York in the context of an investigation into the murders of two children. Flint rouses our fury that the police are so much less interested in really investigating than they are in punishing Ruth Malone, our protagonist, for being separated for her husband and sexually active—but she never makes us feel complicit in that kind of judgment, and if she’d done that, it would have been a more powerful novel. (review)

full marks for ambition: The 700+ page opus from Annie Proulx, Barkskins. Telling the stories of the descendants of René Sel and Charles Duquet from the 1690s to the present day, it also encompasses Manifest Destiny, forest management, racial prejudice, and legacy. It flounders at points, and it’s too damn long, but overall it’s well worth the time. (review)

most classically Womens Prize?: Not that I want to slag off novels about relationships, marriages, infertility, and the staggering hypocrisy of the way society treats men vs. the way it treats women, but this is well-worn ground and exactly the sort of thing the Women’s Prize seems to go for sometimes. Stay With Me, Ayobami Adebayo’s Nigeria-set novel, covers all these points and introduces a bit of melodrama in the form of death and war. It’s good enough but may turn out to be forgettable. (review)

best find: Mick Herron, whose first entry in the Slough House series of spy thrillers, Slow Horses, isn’t just good for a genre novel—it’s good for any kind of novel. Herron is the Tana French of espionage writers: his grasp of the way language flows is absolute, he trusts his readers, he’s funny, his dialogue is on point. Plus the story—group of disgraced spooks find themselves trying to save a boy whose beheading is scheduled to occur live on the Internet in 48 hours—is a cracker, not least because the details of the boy’s abduction are (not to spoil anything for you) so precisely not what you initially think they are. There are three more in the series thus far, and I’m in it for the long haul.

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most unexpectedly genre-bending: Black Water, Louise Doughty’s first book since the acclaimed Apple Tree Yard. It’s sort of a spy thriller, but the protagonist isn’t a spy; it’s sort of a love story, but the love is complicated by reality and history; it’s sort of a historical political novel, but the present day takes up two-thirds of the book. It’s mostly set in Indonesia and its protagonist is part-Indonesian, part-Dutch, which made a nice change from the Anglo-American-centricity of other books with a similar focus. Doughty too knows how to grip a reader, and knows how to construct a sentence that hangs together and transitions nicely to the next sentence. This is just out in paperback, and I’d highly recommend it.

what’s next: Who knows?! I’m posting my personal Baileys Prize shortlist tomorrow, and the shadow panel is posting our (un)official shortlist choices on Sunday. After that, this project will be more or less wrapped up, and I have well over twenty-five books (reading copies; damaged copies we can’t sell that we’re allowed to take home; etc.) waiting to be prioritised, so it’s not like I’m out of choices…