[3.5] Don't be surprised if I change that rating back and forth between 4 and 3 a few times. During the last couple of days I've felt warm-and-fuzzy t...more[3.5] Don't be surprised if I change that rating back and forth between 4 and 3 a few times. During the last couple of days I've felt warm-and-fuzzy towards this book despite its flaws, but for the first 150 pages I was often intensely irritated.
First off though, this really isn't sci-fi or fantasy. It's magic realism plus a few pages of alternate history. Ursula is simply reincarnated many times into the same life - always born on the same day in 1910, but living anything from a few minutes to retirement age. She experiences a lot of deja-vu and other echoes which prompt her actions, and they become stronger the more times she experiences things, as if they are held in implicit memory. The other people around her don't seem to be experiencing the same and there aren't all that many differences in the world on each trip (though there are some). It's much like a video game: Game Over, start again; the 1918 flu and the Blitz are two of the trickiest bosses to beat. Most readers are probably glad that only short instalments from each life are in the book, whereas a more avant-garde use of the idea might have produced something like a spot-the-difference game in words.
I only picked this up because this year I wanted to read a good few new novels in advance of the Booker longlist announcement so for once I could have the informed opinion about it I'd often wanted to have when I was younger. Kate Atkinson has many great book titles but I've never read any of her novels because the actual stories are a huge let down compared with what I imagine and want. (Behind the Scenes at the Museum: if only that were a good old fashioned British comic novel about the staff of a museum, Douglas Adams-esque with some Tom Sharpe style farce. Emotionally Weird: a goth / emo teenager who's taken seriously by no-one but the narrative. Human Croquet: vicious observations about the upper classes, like Edward St. Aubyn's world without quite so much abuse and addiction. Case Histories: an austere and sensible female doctor, rather like Samantha whatsername in Silent Witness but not so sensationalist and rarely if ever about murders. Started Early, Took My Dog: a tweedy old man who does a lot of walking.)
The things that annoyed me in Life After Life are mostly things I might expect to be annoyed by in any market-positioned middlebrow historical novel. I can be pretty merciless about historical fiction and wouldn't be reading much of it if it hadn't been for this pre-Booker exercise, but I kept being attracted to the synopses when deciding which new novels to read.
There were occasional clumsy comments about the future or the nature of life that sounded like klaxons in incidental conversations: e.g. "one day there'll be a woman prime minister, maybe even in our lifetime"; "you only live once". (Conversely I liked the knowingness of things like 'Admiral' Crighton and "don't go to sleep Susie".) In the earlier part of the book the narrative focuses on Ursula's mother, Sylvie, and her musings seem designed to strike a chord with some average Mumsnet woman of now - not to produce any sense of how people in the past thought. Later on Sylvie seemed appropriately stuffier, and I liked the book more when the focus was handed over to Ursula's own thoughts when she succeeded in living to be older. She was born in the same year as one of my grandmothers but seems more sociable and less stuffy, like other people's grandparents or someone I could see being interviewed in a documentary; in plenty of her later grown-up iterations she was very likeable and reminded me a little of Bel from The Hour.
A lot of people have called this book bleak, so it possibly says more about me than about it when I say that - aside from a few scenes - it was very cosy. I've been known to say the same about black & white French films with sad endings... But this really does seem like a cosy English novel, just with a few more difficult events. A minute ago I was decrying historical fiction, now I feel like it's taught me something - but then I'm quite amenable to the stuff when it's about the Second World War onwards. Possibly because when you've heard living people talk about their experience of something, it's not "the past" in quite the same way as things you can only know from books & artefacts. Life After Life made me really understand that English nostalgia for the war. Ursula usually works in Civil Defence and that sense of working together to get important things done amid tides of drama, the way it makes you meet people, and so bloody much to do that there's hardly time to think about anything difficult reminded me of all the good bits of work before each time I burnt out. And she has so many more friendships and is surrounded much more warmth than my grandmothers were in their accounts of the time (both were foreign so were fairly isolated but were just not especially sociable anyway). Films or talking head accounts usually only have space to include a few friends, but here there are so many friends and colleagues it does feel like an account of a full life. Not that it wasn't horrific as well. As an adult I've heard surprisingly few accounts of the Blitz and always just imagined people crushed by buildings. Not random lumps of flesh found in the street, or drowning in a cellar because of burst pipes. I finally experienced a vivid sense of that happened here? about the whole wartime era which you're probably supposed to get when you're about eight.
One thing I was braced to dislike was the "let's go back in time and kill Hitler" storyline which has already been covered countless times in fiction. I've found Stephen Fry's later novels, and general present ubquity, embarrassing but in Making History I think he gave the definitive take on this trope: that the War had led to such liberalisation and rejection of prejudice (to which I'd add the golden age of the post-war Butskellite consensus) that it's best to leave things as they were. Fry also had relatives who were victims of the Nazis, so it's hard to dismiss this as mere cold, callous theory. The "let's kill Hitler" stuff, whilst still a cliché, actually takes up very few pages in Life After Life.(not that much of a (view spoiler)[ And because each narrative ends when Ursula dies, we never hear what the effect was (or even if the plot was successful). (hide spoiler)] And Atkinson had pretty much pre-empted my criticism. (view spoiler)[ Ursula doesn't see the same effects because she considers Hitler's legacy from at least 30 years earlier than Making History - and as she's older, she's more detached from the social changes of the 60's when she witnesses them and instead sees the Arab-Israeli wars as significant. (hide spoiler)])
Whilst I was glad to finish a long book, I wasn't tired of the new incarnations as some readers have been. But then I've always been fascinated by ideas like time travel, the minute chances and events that make people who they are and aren't, and parallel universes. (Can I have the one where I've always been in good health and wrote the Guardian review of this book 3 months ago next please?) Still, I very much liked the existential sense of not knowing why Ursula kept coming back, the absence of any delineated higher power indicating what it is to "get it right" - and that the book started and ended in the middle of incarnations as if we were only seeing a slice of a far longer story. Perhaps the story is [part of] an ouroboros, as drawn by one of the child Ursulas.
This isn't the first 2013 novel I've read which looks at choices and chances that make a life what it is. How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is better in that respect because it considers the circumstances around a person. In Ursula's lives everyone stays the same and does almost the same things, and international events happen at the exact same times. Her family are never desperately poor or aristocrats, she's never born with a genetic disease or orphaned at an early age or sent to boarding school or... It's all and only about what she chooses. (Just like a video game.) Which is in itself a philosophy, but an erroneous one with a limited scope. And which doesn't even resemble the theory of parallel universes.
But the story could also be a look at the possibilities that exist for choice within the same circumstances, showing that the biggest differences to life are made through choices whose effects can't be predicted. People still can't really help it: they're often stumbling about in the dark. Is there a satire here of people who feel the world revolves around them? Or of New Agers who think we chose what happened to us even though we couldn't possibly know the long-term consequences of some things? I can't tell whether I'm reading too much into the story or if it was meant to be considered this way.
"Boring" is something I've also seen the contents of many of the incarnations called in some reviews. But before I was enveloped by the cosiness, as by a nice big squashy sofa, I wished the book was more "boring". In an arty way: more Jeanne Dielmann than Mumsnet. Atkinson has quite rightly shown that most of life is mundane interspersed with flurries of eventfulness but in a way that is more accessible and easier reading than what I'm getting at. It's the sort of work she produces, and it's the sort of work that sells tons. I'm sort of frustrated with it for not pushing the conceptual angles further and not being a bit more "highbrow" but I also sort of love it and can see myself reading bits of it again just to relax, as I do with favourite books. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
I started this biased towards Rob Newman (yes, that Rob Newman, the sexy one from The Mary Whitehouse Experience, as probably only British comedy fans...moreI started this biased towards Rob Newman (yes, that Rob Newman, the sexy one from The Mary Whitehouse Experience, as probably only British comedy fans in their 30's & 40's will remember)... but whilst the book's not bad when it's being a ripping historical adventure yarn - and it has the best of intentions politically - I wasn't half so impressed as I wanted to be.
Unlike most fiction I read, The Trade Secret has an almost didactic aim: to show the beginnings of global capitalism and oil dependence, from an anti-capitalist perspective. (Newman's previous book The Fountain at the Centre of the World - which I haven't read - was about "late capitalism".) You might, then, expect sledgehammer politics ... They weren't exactly obscure (pondering on the discovery that the Mayflower was once a slave ship; well-meaning people finding they've bought into the wrong side; or a collective of small traders banding together) but a lot of this is simply an adventure story about two lads trying to make their way in the early modern world, and getting into lots of coincidence-fuelled scrapes along the way.
The Trade Secret might perhaps work best read on public transport or when a bit tired; there are lots of nice short chapters, it's not hard work and there's probably more fun to be had here without close concentration. There are some very nice paragraphs but for the most part I was often reminded of the title of a blog post I read a while ago, "Reliable sorts who get the story told" (actually about the Granta Best Young British Novelists).
If you're pedantic about history, it's a frustrating book. A lot of research has evidently gone into this in the detail about early modern Persia, Venice & London. But there are some errors: e.g. a seventeenth century opium addict couldn't have had trackmarks as hypodermics weren't invented yet (also would anyone really mistake healed burn scars for trackmarks?); a conversational reference to "the laws of physics"; and one that Newman's Soho Jarvis character probably wouldn't have got wrong, bastinado would involve an assault on the feet and not about the head.
More than that sort of point of fact, sometimes the book just doesn't feel historical in ways such as "would people have actually thought that then?", or characters' unlikely lifestyles. One of the heroes has a love interest, Gol, who seems to have been transposed from a twentieth-century set story about a fickle, feisty, hard-to-get girl who's in a band. She seemed so unlikely that I did a bit of reading about women in the Safavid empire; there were bands of female musicians but they were courtesans, not virginal lower-middle-class girls living with their parents whilst slowly deciding who to marry. I'm sure the inclusion of this character has the best of intentions- after all this is a left-wing political novel - she's a woman with a strong sense of agency and high standards, but historical inaccuracy is a very blunt way of trying to show that. The scenes in Persia were often easier to read as a fantasy novel than a historical one, and a scene at a dance felt more like a rave or modern house party. Yet there are other scenes, especially those in London, which use more archaic language and have more of a sense of history.
I've been thinking it might be satisfying if historical fiction had demarcations like hard sci-fi and soft sci-fi - with the former supposed to be so theoretically accurate that geeks would struggle to pick holes in it. But if there were, The Trade Secret would be neither one nor t'other.
This very pickiness (not big, not clever, not even enjoyable to do) is why I don't read much historical fiction now. I used to devour the stuff when I was a kid though - and this book, with its two young heroes, does have a similar feel, and a similar sense of fun punctuated by episodes of relative boredom, to a lot of those old children's books.
I haven't actually read one of Newman's books since I was a fangirl who bought Dependence Day as soon as it was released in 1994 so haven't really got anything to compare this one with. It does make me think that writing a really good novel must be even harder than it looks: he's a clever, funny guy but this book, whilst not bad lacks the spark of brilliance his comedy sometimes had. You couldn't accuse it of being overly serious, for thankfully it isn't yet more lyrical realism, but equally it's not an outright comic novel. Someone like me would probably be happier reading factual history to find out about the subjects here, but for those who aren't incredibly picky about historical accuracy or writing style, this will be a pretty decent book.(less)
[3.5] I’ve started to associate Nicola Barker’s books with summer. It’s just that’s when I’ve read all of them so far, but there’s good reason with th...more[3.5] I’ve started to associate Nicola Barker’s books with summer. It’s just that’s when I’ve read all of them so far, but there’s good reason with this one: it’s set in June 1981. (I didn’t consciously pick it up for that reason, but in that way that recently-read books often unexpectedly connect with each other, the last one I finished [Dorian by Will Self] also opened in 1981 and mentioned ‘Tainted Love’ early on.) Five Miles from Outer Hope should be set in late July or August though as there's no mention of school.
It was a nice breather to read something which had no deafening personal resonance or overwhelming beauty, yet which I nevertheless quite liked, and which doesn’t raise any Important Issues I feel the need to pontificate about. "Funny, sordid and silly", says MJ's review, and that's as good a description as any.
Six foot three, sixteen year-old Medve, her family and their dodgy lodger are typically bizarre early Nicola Barker characters. No sense of oxymoron in saying “typically bizarre”: it’s been about a year since I read any Barker, making the contrast with all the other characters in all the other books obvious. Would I rather be reading this than some more sedate, realist domestic saga with lots of earnest cookery scenes and predictable litfic accounts of what wife and husband think of one another? Absofuckinglutely.
Medve turns out to have the temperament of a mythological trickster goddess or a character in one of Angela Carter's debowdlerised fairytales. And her big weird family living in a run-down hotel are uglier, grubbier, and not as posh or clever as the Tenenbaums or the Bagthorpes or the people in I Capture the Castle, whatever they were called. They're more real and more surreal.
The voice here is one which developed into the third-person style in many of Barker’s more recent books, a clause-packed extravaganza more hyper than her first short stories. Medve’s narrative is forever trying to breathlessly pre-empt a reader’s imagined reaction to the last thing she said. It's typically Barker but its register is not so startling here; it's easier to place, in this slightly modified form, as first-person teenager: very strong personality and very much herself yet kind of defensive at times; smart-alec, exuberant, eccentric but not intellectual, definitely not girly but not a conventional tomboy. It’s a voice utterly recognisable from the internet (although this was first published in 2000).
Agreed with MJ again: the final chapter is unnecessary and jarring - though a handful of the more flippant details about the characters' futures were fun.
2004: The Books sections of the papers are full of this. It's about David Blaine *yawn*. And it sounds b...moreMy 2000th 'read' book catalogued on Goodreads.
2004: The Books sections of the papers are full of this. It's about David Blaine *yawn*. And it sounds both boring and gimmicky. What could be a worse combination? I wish they'd move on to something more interesting so I can forget about it and hear about stuff I might actually read. 2013: Nope, one day the author will be one of your favourite writers. Only three years later, not recognising her name, you'll find a gigantic historical-looking tome called Darkmans just below hip-level on a bookshop display and it'll be pretty much everything you wanted in a book. A few years later again and you'll be devouring her earlier works as you devoured almost any book in your teens, and Pratchett et al shortly after you graduated. Can't blame you - what you never would have guessed about Clear from the cover or the reviews is how deliberately bloody ridiculous it is. (You still find stage magic and illusionists fairly boring to watch, but that doesn't seem to stop you from enjoying films and novels about them.)
The last Barker book I read was Small Holdings (1995) and WOW has her style come on in leaps and bounds here: just before Darkmans, a writer fully confident in her powers: freewheeling, silly, erudite, trivial and expansive.
Narrator Adair Graham MacKenney is possibly the most conventional Barker character I've encountered yet. Handily, this jack-the-lad is an English & Media graduate of UCL so he provides the perfect combination of 'typical' young male attitude alongside the plausibility of his making the references the author wants to slip in. It's those around him who are spectacular Barkerian eccentrics and who draw him into their weirdness. Especially Aphra - whom he encounters whilst watching Blaine - a sort of White Rabbit/ manic pixie dream girl (who's nonetheless non-tropish enough to remind me of an old friend ... but one who is rather elusive and magical).
There's a lot of satire of public intellectuals here - interesting timing; having by now won the IMPAC award, Barker is making fun of a class she's probably being perceived as part of, more and more. That sort of contrarian, playful kicking is something I very much like and can understand.
Am I comfortable with a white writer satirising black intellectuals? It's a great piece of writing about opinionated people generally and excellent use of intelligent characters to transmit the author's research in a way that doesn't jar, but... Perhaps if my social circle had been as diverse as the one I've recently been reading about in NW (or the sort of circle I tend to imagine Barker has) it would more just be a case of hearing about people a bit like some of those I knew... But still not sure. What do highly educated black people think of these characters? Regardless of quibbles I really like Jalisa, Adair's pundit housemate's girlfriend who never shuts up - I'm not sure how much you're meant to like her but I found all her conversations very interesting. And admire the way that without being obnoxious, she really cares far more about her own opinions - which generally are right - than about what anyone else, including Solomon, thinks of them.
Not sure Clear will age well given that it's stuffed with ephemeral references - if you weren't consuming a lot of British news and entertainment media in 2003 you might be a bit lost. (Or unless you are an early-2000's vintage nut... Do they exist yet?) But on the whole this is the sort of fun silly book I never thought it would be. (less)
[3.5] It's getting kind of difficult to review Nicola Barker because it's just her sheer Nicola Barkerness that I love. And I like her writing so much...more[3.5] It's getting kind of difficult to review Nicola Barker because it's just her sheer Nicola Barkerness that I love. And I like her writing so much that again I find myself turning to one of her books as a breather or recovery from something else (in this case the intense inner dialogue of Confessions of a Child of the Century). But I only know one other person - and then only on this site - who's also a fan, so I get too caught up in trying to explain why in general I like her work. In a way that I just wouldn't with, say, Terry Pratchett. Former comfort-reading of mine, which almost everyone loves. (She's not actual-lolzy like him, nor does she write in a particular fantasy universe, but she does have a distinct world of odd characters who are taken seriously and yet not.)
This book in particular, then. Phil is a mild-mannered gardener in an Outer London park; in the run-up to a meeting on which everyone's jobs depend, his already bizarre colleagues go increasingly, sometimes violently nuts. The plot has something of the absurd pace and general ridiculousness of Tom Sharpe, but with the characters' feelings and fate given rather more weight.
I enjoyed Small Holdings pretty much as I expected to, but if I were more objective the rating may be a little lower. There are a couple of PC-type issues I can't be arsed writing about right now, there's the odd vocab misfire (a gardener wouldn't call a sunflower a bulb in metaphor, I'm sure) and in the last chapter one or two actions that don't fit the characters. The first two of the three chapters are better for the sort of surreal serious fun I like so much in Barker's books. Occasionally conversation slips inauthentically into the authorial voice, and I'm not sure the narrative voice always fits Phil's character, but because I like that voice so much anyway, I didn't mind at all.
Barker rarely gives interviews, but this quotation is often mentioned when she is profiled: 'There are writers who exist to confirm people's feelings about themselves and to make them feel comforted or not alone. That's the opposite to what I do. I'm presenting people with unacceptable or hostile characters, and my desire is to make them understood." Yet that is exactly why I often feel so much at home (i.e. "comforted or not alone") in her books.(less)
A social realist novel about life in a mixed-race family in London slums in the late 60s and early 70s. It doesn't have a traditional beginning-middle...moreA social realist novel about life in a mixed-race family in London slums in the late 60s and early 70s. It doesn't have a traditional beginning-middle-and-end plot , though that's not to say that nothing happens: it's a slice of life type thing made up of a series of events experienced by Michael, the youngest of four kids, whilst he's between the ages of about 4 and 10, as the council slum clearance project gradually nears his family home. Movement forwards in time isn't signposted and instead becomes apparent from mentions of seasons, fashions, the news and what Michael is getting up to. Gbadamosi was a poet before he was a novelist and that shows in the structure.
When I read the preview I was struck by the poetic language: beautiful sentences that went straight to the heart of things - I had to read this. By the time I got round to reading the whole book I may have been jaded by reading a lot of contemporary fiction in a short space of time, but these gem-like sentences seemed to become very rare after a couple of chapters. The writing was always pretty good - there were never sentences I wanted to rearrange and the style never annoyed me - but after the early chapters it didn't sparkle: it simply got the job done well.
For a while I was frustrated that the children's adventures - whether Just William type scrapes or being harrassed by racist Gene Hunts of coppers - weren't made to sound a bit more exciting. (It didn't feel like a children's book for adults in the way that The Ocean at the End of the Lane did.) Yet somehow the story grew on me; I don't know whether the narrative became more interesting as Michael grew older, or if I got into the book more. I really warmed to it and found it quite a fast and easy read once I got going. The physical copy helped too: it's so unusual now to find a novel that stays open by itself without effort or spine-crunching. Shame it has one of those increasingly common unlaminated covers, but to handle, and to be able to read hands-off, the copy was excellent.
Michael is one of that much-maligned group, child narrators of adult fiction, though at least he isn't "quirky" or "precocious". You could call him ordinary, but to be Nigerian-Irish circa 1970 was definitely not ordinary and that's the appeal of the story. I prefer the extra perspective and analysis of an adult narrator looking back - as in Tessa Hadley's Clever Girl, whose protagonist is about ten years older than Michael - but the boy's awareness almost imperceptibly increases as the story progresses, making the narrative, to me, more engaging in its second half. This subtle sense of growing up, without overt commentary, is one of the cleverest aspects of Vauxhall.
It isn't a book that appears to project any big ideas other than this is what it was like but it does tell that well. And as a fan of kitchen-sink drama, and someone who can relate to an upbringing that drags you between two cultural identities, I enjoyed it. It's a book that deserves some more publicity as quite a bit of the contemporary litfic audience would probably like it.(less)
I'm grateful to the review on John Self's Asylum for prompting me to read this little book, which I'd had lying around for a couple of weeks*. There w...moreI'm grateful to the review on John Self's Asylum for prompting me to read this little book, which I'd had lying around for a couple of weeks*. There was no need to delay because it really does zip along for most of its 234 pages, with the possible exception of a few paragraphs about philosophy. The pliable, flippy texture of the book and a very reasonable font size made it all the easier.
As Self's post says, it's not easy to review this book without giving too much away; this is a mystery, an unconventional one. At the heart of the story is a rediscovered avant-garde classical sonata from 1913, also named 'The Secret Knowledge', by obscure and tragic composer, Pierre Klauer (fictional). With faint echoes of The Ring or Infinite Jest, those who come into contact with the work appear to be in danger - here from a cabal of shadowy conspirators. One narrative follows the work and associated papers forwards through time and various owners, and the other, in the present, involves Paige, a music student, and David Conroy, a brilliant concert pianist who was on the brink of success before everything went wrong and has spent the years since in teaching and occasional small-time performance. (Those who are as tired as I am of the academic affair trope will be glad it's absent here.) Conroy is drawn to the works of those who have been almost as forgotten as he is.
Whilst I don't believe the character to be any sort of Mary-Sue, on reading about this side of him I couldn't help notice the similarity of the names "Crumey" and "Conroy". Crumey's books had quite a bit of attention in the past, yet now he's back with a small publisher and teaches. As if in retort, Conroy later says People can interpret it how they like, I don't care for biographical analysis. Too much room for error. I do love a book which seems to talk back to me without becoming full-on metafiction. The whole thing contains a lot of ideas and quotations I love.
This is an idea-driven, puzzlish story - I sometimes thought of Peter Greenaway - not one which strives for emotional connection. Yet it never treated its characters coldly. My enjoyment was, admittedly, enhanced because I was bewitched by Conroy. Especially he is in the first hundred pages or so, I could listen to him for hours.
Despite occasional allusions to the internet in the present day sections (wisely without buzzy site names) the book seemed rather timeless. Perhaps it was the influence of the cover. You can't see on here but the title font, the spine, the back, made it look like something I should have found in a charity shop, 20-40 years old, musty, battered and out of print, in harmony with its central characters. The current fashion for two or more narratives usually (based on the small sample I've read) now involves characters telling a story in succession, rather than seeing different sides of the same events as we do here. The Secret Knowledge uses the present tense and a historical storyline which are both very current - and like Life After Life it uses the 1910s-1960s period and some allusions to the multiverse idea. Yet it felt like a refreshingly unfashionable change from a lot of the new fiction I've read recently. Perhaps it's the focus on ideas. At the beginning of What Ever Happened to Modernism? Josipovici mentions how insubstantial English novels seemed to him compared with the European. In that way The Secret Knowledge - which also alludes to Modernism and Futurism - does feel relatively weighty, though it lacked the seriousness of characterisation in The Leopard (which I started a few days ago). And the seriousness in this book is done well - it was never laughably precious.
The Secret Knowledge is appropriately titled as far as I'm concerned. It's full of material about subjects I don't know huge amounts about, so I can't comment on the way they're handled: Marxism, quantum physics, Theodore Adorno (who, faced with the fictional depiction of a real person thinks outrageous... This ... is the limit point of historical sentimentalism. His gorge was rising even before the first words). And the conversations spoken from that virtuoso level of felt insight into music which, when I first witnessed it in reality, made me feel as if all my life I'd been missing, or entirely failed to develop, an entire sense without knowing it. It's never just the sort of stuff that you can check in Wikipedia. Even when I did see fit to quibble - it is in opposition to the crowd [in the nineteenth century] that the modern concept of the individual arises - it was something I'd be happy to see suffixed by "Discuss. (3000 words)".
Intriguing but approachable. One of those books that makes me feel there is some point to reading all these new novels after all.
* = There's some confusion over the release date; I've seen another recent blog post saying it isn't published yet, Amazon is selling it now but says 19th July, yet the site where I bought it said 1st July and sent it to me then after pre-order. (less)
[4.5] This, to me, is the breathtaking panorama of multi-everything London life that everyone else thought White Teeth was. (That's pretty much the on...more[4.5] This, to me, is the breathtaking panorama of multi-everything London life that everyone else thought White Teeth was. (That's pretty much the only sentence you need from this review... It's a really excellent book; the 0.5 off just constitutes several minor personal irritations.)
Most of the reasons I was less keen on Smith's first book – though I still did think it was good - could be bracketed as “in the shadow of Salman Rushdie”. (I've started four Rushdie books and never finished a single one. I just don't like so many things about his writing.)
But in NW she's left that shadow, and it's also far from the cliched campus novel On Beauty that actively annoyed me. This seems to be a critics' book – lots of reviews on here disliking the “experimental” approach. It's more often with films that I click with works that fit this profile: usually I find “experimental fiction” makes things more opaque and less enjoyable (the most recent example I've encountered was Steven Hall's story in the Granta Best Young British Novelists 2013 collection); whereas in film “experimental” often conveys to me the feeling of thoughts as they are in the head - rather than going to the trouble of hammering them into a traditional Hollywood-friendly narrative arc - and can even be less hard work to watch.
I like the short sentences and internality and gaps that do feel like thoughts. I like the inconsistency of the way speech is displayed (TBH I didn't even notice at first, until I read a review by someone who was annoyed by it) … it gives a sense of how we feel and perceive differently on different occasions. I like the way the section 'Host' is divided into numbered headed paragraphs: practically, it's much easier to concentrate on and it also reflects the way that memory, inside, is made up of episodes - and that narrative is just something we impose on these to join them together.
The section names, referring to the characters' class roles, seemed entirely un-mysterious after this sentence, as Natalie (formerly Keisha) a determined young black woman from a tough estate who's now training as a barrister, sits at one of her first Inn dinners: “No longer an accidental guest at the table – as she had always understood herself to be – but a host, with other hosts, continuing a tradition.”
Other reader reviews also led me to expect a formidably complex time structure I'd struggle with, but it actually seemed no more so than in hundreds of other novels which have characters leading parallel lives, and way simpler than many big modernist tomes beloved on Goodreads, with which I was assuming NW had parity. (I still need to stop reading reviews by random people because too often I end up bitching about them implicitly ...)
Some of the characters in NW do have trajectories exceptional for their backgrounds (especially Natalie, whose meteoric rise has similarities with Smith's), yet there is something essentially ordinary about all of them and their monoganormative dramas. I think this is what makes it so successful as something akin to a state of the nation novel about class, race and social circumstances. The more flamboyant characters are in the background – I craved to hear so much more about Annie Bedford, a druggie Soho Norma Desmond (who reminded me of a few men I've known – not that they were junkies like her I feel obliged to add), Natalie's brother Jayden, and her husband Frank, son of an Italian aristocrat and a Trinidadian train guard. This balance of character types feels real to me, wanting more of the people I find most fascinating, many of whom have more or less elusive tendencies.
This is an awesome book, but there were a few things that annoyed me. Poor research. Smith has assumed that degree length and typical houses for students at Scottish universities are identical to those in English university cities, when they aren't. That sort of thing always makes me distrust a novel a little. But on the other hand, having worked in organisations similar to a couple of the characters, I feel she got those right. The chronology is also slightly jumbled at times. I know I should disregard it as artistic licence and just not really mattering, but my pedantic historian side always wants to be able to place everything clearly on a timeline.
Question particularly for those who know London well if any are still reading ... Do people often use simply the abbreviated, numberless "NW" - for instance - as an identifier and locator? I've never noticed it outside this novel, other than in other poetic contexts.
I've tended to think of myself as someone who doesn't read many books by women, although statistics contradict this. One of my reasons is that I get alienated by the way “a lot of female authors” generalise their experiences, or experiences I particularly don't share, to all women. And see what I'm doing there... (My favourite female writers don't do this, or only have characters do it, not an omniscient narrative voice. But I'm not a fan of gender-based generalisations generally and I find them very lazy in modern third-person narratives.) In NW, these mostly take the form of allegedly immutable laws about female friendships, and also one about the fine detail of what gets women off physically (All women? Because everyone's bodies respond identically? Really the writer's preferences?...which is intriguing... And/ or the character?)
The above is basically just a lot of ranting, but it felt partly relevant, because of this quote from Smith - which I used in a review the other day - about steering away from omniscient narration in this book. I had heard her criticised before for a superior/omniscient tone; I can imagine it must be difficult to escape entirely when writing a long novel in the third person - but at least the writer is conscious of it. Also, some research I read the other day which shows that people do implicitly start to accept generalisations or descriptions of places in novels as facts. I tend to be very aware of the fallibility and subjectivity of these descriptions days, but as a teenager I took them constantly as facts which embedded themselves in me, especially about social behaviour in more “normal” worlds. So I half have a terribly unartistic and limiting thought that things ought to be clearly presented as subjective.
I've spent about half this piece picking at details which personally annoyed me but these really make up only a very small number of sentences in the book, and which rarely detract from its grand sweep. For personal reasons mostly unmentioned here it was difficult reading - though it's really not a book that is generally going to be upsetting to readers - so I'm rather glad I set myself the strictures I did. Having abandoned NW at p.25 a week or two earlier after finding it emotionally too much, I noticed that the Women's Fiction Prize, for which the book was nominated, was to be awarded that evening (5th June). I resolved to finish the novel before I looked at any book-related website or anywhere I could possibly see the result. The experience of reading it did rather put me through the mill, and I couldn't hack that sort of thing every week – but as a one off it was worth it because it really is an extremely good novel.
ETA: As I remember the book a couple of months after reading, it seems bottom-heavy - the last section is proportionally too long and concentrates too much on one character, Natalie. (Remembering that Smith scrapped her original ending and re-wrote this bit.) I still find NW more interesting than her other books, it's just not so near perfect as it first seemed. (less)
[3.5] Sarah Hall is a sorceror when describing the life and land of her native Cumbria. I am there; I can feel the biting breeze whipping hair into my...more[3.5] Sarah Hall is a sorceror when describing the life and land of her native Cumbria. I am there; I can feel the biting breeze whipping hair into my eyes. Her descriptive powers are still pretty strong in other places but not so great that I didn't long for some humour and a sense of the ridiculous that, as in much cold, detached literary fiction are too obviously absent.
The two stories set in Cumbria are unquestionably my favourites. 'Butcher's Perfume' is a rollicking start, a story of a teenage female friendship between the narrator and a scion of a hard gypsy family grown nouveau-riche on horse-racing, who rule the town, gutter and courtyards both. They are exactly unusual enough to make you feel no doubt that they really exist. It was a vivid reminder of how the bit between Yorkshire and Scotland always felt to me like a different remote country, uncouth as its strange-shaped vowels; further north than The North. (These lasses like it there though; I just felt marooned.) Another female friendship in 'The Nightlong River'. Only as a reader can you work out that hundreds of miles away the Twenties were starting to roar. Aside from mention of the Great War and the escaped mink crucial to the story, these people could have been hundreds of years earlier. (And such is the way the narrator speaks of tragic Magda I wonder if their relationship would have been different had they known of Vita and Virgina and Raclyffe Hall.)
I had high hopes for the final 'Vuotjärvi', that Hall would conjure the Finnish landscape as well as the Cumbrian; sadly not. It's certainly not bad but as a tourist she is only on acquaintance terms with the genius loci. As I read The Kalevala a few weeks ago, there was a lot to live up to. Most of it was another chilly, serious relationship story like the rest of the collection.
The sort that starts in the middle and delineates emotions and moments frozen in ice, waiting for ages and pages to reveal details that if I'd heard them at the beginning would have made a more old fashioned but warmer and friendlier story that I may have liked more. Hall certainly is a very good writer and a good few notches above many exponents of litfic in her descriptive powers, but most of these stories seem to demand moments of satire, sarcasm and absurdity which are just not there. There are times when characters might even be having fun but it never feels like it.
Nonetheless I think I'm still really looking forward to her forthcoming book The Hunting School if it's the one about the reintroduction of wolves previewed in Granta.(less)
[4.5]What a poorly-skewed ratings graph this book has on Goodreads. But the reviews here (and on Amazon) explain why: it's been mis-marketed. Does tha...more[4.5]What a poorly-skewed ratings graph this book has on Goodreads. But the reviews here (and on Amazon) explain why: it's been mis-marketed. Does that cover look like quite a serious philosophical novel to you? Nope, I didn't think so. Only this cover suits it. People will judge and choose by covers, no matter what old adages say. And a lot of the blurbs sound altogether too chicklitty. The quotes from the serious press make sense but "Smart, funny and warm"? I think someone sentElle a Kathy Lette novel in the wrong cover for them to come up with that melted cheese. No-wonder there are so many reader reviews that seem to be missing the point and often the references in the book, saying it's miserable, or criticising the lack of a shiny happy self-helpy conclusion.
Dropping out of society and being all existentialist is, in art and fiction, historically a male occupation. That hadn't bothered me especially as I didn't see it as meaning women couldn't, just that fiction - not reality - considered them to have different preoccupations, plus I'm perfectly capable of identifying with different gendered characters. In an interview Joanna Kavenna said:"I remember as a teenager reading all these canonical books by Lawrence and Camus on what was always billed as 'the human condition'. It's only much later that you start to think, 'where are all the women?'" Whereas my conclusion was that hardly any female writers were interested in producing work along those lines. I hoped I would at some point they would and I'd notice it; those I'm now aware of have all been very recent creations. The film Wendy & Lucy was the first one I remember. And now this and Come to the Edge - a novel which Joanna Kavenna wrote straight after Inglorious but which wasn't published until seven years later.
Both are novels of (similar) ideas but with different tones. Inglorious is serious though there are lines at which some might laugh in dark humour, and it doesn't explain itself directly. As in the later book, which I read first, there is a critique of capitalist society and the expected trajectory of an orderly life, which simultaneously understands the love of that society's trappings. (The heroine, Rosa, visits the home of some married friends: "Three children, it was a towering achievement. And the place was a work of art...Everything was immaculate.” ... Her covering letters on job applications have all the satiric rage and righteousness of the newly manic Dennis Bagley in How to Get Ahead in Advertising.)
Rosa's journey, most of which is around the streets in duller areas of West London, closely mirrors the protagonist's experience in Knut Hamsun's Hunger and the narrative often reminded me of the Norwegian book. Another review alludes to Dostoevsky. Her swing from colour-supplement success story with a happy family background, to starving, uncompromising, occasionally hallucinatory, dropout intellectual is precipitated by events that populate mainstream fiction: the death of her mother, walking out of a media job, the end of her moribund relationship - things sometimes trivialised when they belong to certain types of people in stories, especially younger middle-class women. But these things can be harrowingly painful with the depth of centuries, even though their surface outlines are templates for cheap station novels with pink covers, or films starring Jennifer Aniston. And I think Kavenna is trying to point this out in Inglorious. She said in the same article I quoted above: "what happens if women write books that are solely about women trying to struggle with life – do they get accepted as representations of the human condition, or is it just the female condition?" No, I don't think people have a problem accepting them as part of the human condition if the work is intellectually serious - and I've seen at least as many men as women give high opinions of such works. (However, chicklit is perhaps regarded more dismissively than the smaller number of similar popular novels by and about men.)
The modern setting made aspects of Hunger even clearer to me, and more pertinent, in particular its illustration of the mismatch between the money system and the human need for self-expression and actualisation - which is insoluble for most except the relatively well-off and a few off-grid survivalists. There is also a fantastically evoked sensation of grasping around for things, for the levers which work the world, through a fog which has descended. Part of the fog is unfortunately others' lack of understanding. Most of Rosa's friends can't comprehend life off their own tramlines and sneer at her - yet she is acting like the subjects in many works of art they no doubt admire, with her unusually idea-based depression. Though their worst actions are to catalogue cruelly to her face her failings during the last days of her dying relationship, as if they hadn't realised that everything which had happened was more than enough. Those who try to be helpful are ultimately very boundaried and intent on remaining immersed in their own lives and convenience. But then what else is anyone supposed to do? Co-dependent helping would be "unhealthy" or smothering or both. Another insoluble problem of how society works.
If I hadn't read Granta 123: The Best of Young British Novelists 4, I can't imagine I'd have picked up a book that looked like this, or gone beyond dismissing its synopsis (the old one on here ... I replaced it on Goodreads with one from the author's website mentioning "Dante's centre point of life", which gives a better impression of what's inside). hopefully a few more readers who'll like this will find it now, undeterred by average ratings from those who wanted to read something completely different.(less)
[3.5] A simple bittersweet romantic story, which I liked all the better for its historical setting, although it's so obviously transposed from some mo...more[3.5] A simple bittersweet romantic story, which I liked all the better for its historical setting, although it's so obviously transposed from some more modern time. But that setting also gives it a problem: first-person historical narration is harder to pull off the further back in time you go. There are reasonable hints at a seventeenth-century voice but the need to make something readable for a modern audience (I remember this balance being mentioned on creative writing courses) means there are phrases which, if you know works of the time, jar: "you preferr'd to deal with it alone, I think."
And I learnt something: Birdcage Walk, so often mentioned on commentaries of the London Marathon, royal events &c, was so named because during the Restoration it was in summer lined with birdcages, containing exotic fowl belonging to the king - and in winter they would be taken indoors.(less)
Priggish private secretary Agnes Simkin is annoyed that her favourite park bench has been invaded by a male interloper. She's an old nearly-40 by toda...morePriggish private secretary Agnes Simkin is annoyed that her favourite park bench has been invaded by a male interloper. She's an old nearly-40 by today's standards, but this is 1949 so she'd have been born about 1910 ... Oh, the same age as one of my grandmothers. Not the most original of pieces, and occasionally exposition was too noticeable (always difficult in short stories) but I very much liked the sentiments and tone. (less)
A protagonist who perhaps mirrors imagined readers for this series: a stressed woman on her way to a meeting (about funding, so third sector or arts)...moreA protagonist who perhaps mirrors imagined readers for this series: a stressed woman on her way to a meeting (about funding, so third sector or arts) wanders into the park to collect her thoughts, having not been there, or really relaxed, for years.
I like this mundane romanticism. "I had no idea where you were today in the world. But I remembered, sitting there in the park, what it meant that our paths had crossed."
But the middle section is off-key, or rather off-tense. Recounting things that go on in the park, it doesn't work as part of the present tense first person - the narrator wouldn't know unless she was reading lots of signs. If it were in various forms of past tense and "I wonder if they still...?" it would work. The end is a little predictable but I think it works for the context of these stories.
[4.5] Shorter even than the other Park Stories as the booklet contains the original story in Arabic, and the other half an English translation.
This s...more[4.5] Shorter even than the other Park Stories as the booklet contains the original story in Arabic, and the other half an English translation.
This story about a Kuwaiti girl who temporarily escapes her strict family in London made me think about many of the same ideas as the 2013 Granta Best of Young British Novelists collection. This is the sort of thing I hoped to read in that: being made to see something slightly familiar through different eyes and different metaphors, ones that belong to another culture that's existing in parallel to me and rarely meeting. "I stepped on to the green grass. I imagined I was treading on chickpeas. I used to wrap chickpeas in cotton and soak them in water for a day until green shoots appeared..."
And there were moments which exemplified why if I'm reading about a country I've never been to, I like it to be through an author who lives there and unquestionably knows it well - the sort of thing you can only spot as inaccuracy if you know a place. But as this writer or narrator is talking about here, I know she is seeing what she knows, saying something about what she is used to, not relating an accurate observation and that is very interesting and worthwhile in itself. (less)
[4.5] I've posted reviews for these eight stories individually, but as they're 16-page pamphlets, it really only feels like having read a book after r...more[4.5] I've posted reviews for these eight stories individually, but as they're 16-page pamphlets, it really only feels like having read a book after reading them all.
As a whole collection it could seem a little safe and twee to fans of some of the writers included, but bearing in mind that it's meant for sale to visitors and tourists in London parks, (stack of the relevant booklet by the till in the cafe ... oh, it's only £2, why not?) and therefore specifically not meant to frighten the neighbours, some of these do very well to be slyly subversive with little sex and violence and no swearing. And anyway, sometimes it's nice to read something cosy.
I was hardly likely not to like these, as a big fan of some of the writers, and of stories with a strong sense of place and history (even more so if it relates to places I've been to or at least know about). My favourites were the ones I bought it for, Will Self's and Nicola Barker's; the weakest were the stories by Shena Mackay, Ali Smith and Clare Wigfall, but they were all still lovely things I took to my heart and would very happily read again.
It's a very cute box set which would make a very good present for someone who likes this sort of thing, but the cardboard case is a) slightly too big for the booklets and b) made from rather thin card so it got all squashed in the post, meaning that I couldn't quite reuse this one as a gift.(less)
[4.5] Wow. I seriously underestimated this novel. Just because it has a comic tone that's very easy to read, and begins with the female first-person n...more[4.5] Wow. I seriously underestimated this novel. Just because it has a comic tone that's very easy to read, and begins with the female first-person narrator's husband leaving her - whereupon she abandons her perfect consumer lifestyle and drone job with absurd lack of difficulty - doesn't mean it's chicklit. There is a strapping younger man who turns up later, but as a lust-interest he's only relevant on about 5 pages out of 300. What this actually is, is a manic political satire.
The nameless narrator answers an ad to assist on a smallholding in the Lake District, and finds herself living in a tumbledown house with paranoid survivalist environmentalist widow Cassandra White. Some of those details seem to indicate that the pair are specifically a Withnail & I reference as well as more generally a "riff on the old relationship of the prophet/sage and their interpreter, or the fabulous freak and their less charismatic companion: [e.g.]On the Road by Jack Kerouac". (Wikipedia) White devises a scheme to move impoverished local residents into luxurious empty second homes. Events and ideas and big personalities snowball in a way that reminded me of some of my favourite children's books, The Bagthorpe Saga, as well as other things I can't currently remember. Capitalism, Romanticism and Greens are all mocked though it's clear that the book is more sympathetic towards the two latter. And by the end I thought that Kavenna may also have been poking fun at chicklit rather than writing an intelligent version of it.
Now that the author has been named as one of Granta's Best Young British Novelists this book will surely get a little more attention as it deserves. I suppose I'm part of that really; I don't routinely keep up with new books so hadn't heard of her before reading the Granta collection.
Come to the Edge may not have the stylistic complexity favoured by some of the regular posters I know from Goodreads, but it's a book I'd recommend to some other friends on and off the site who'd enjoy an easy contemporary comic novel with a political side. It may not be faultless, but it's one of the most fun books I've read in the 18+ months since I started posting on here.(less)
[3.5] With some Asterix panels as a first epigraph, followed by a quotation from Tristram Shandy, Hunters in the Snow announces itself as a novel whic...more[3.5] With some Asterix panels as a first epigraph, followed by a quotation from Tristram Shandy, Hunters in the Snow announces itself as a novel which plays with form.
Mingling fiction and fact in the form of memoir has become commonplace recently though it can still generate both controversy and playfulness - e.g. in the hands of Karl Ove Knausgård and Sheila Heti. But what about something which is part novel and part non-fiction information book? Such an exciting idea. I remember occasional examples from childhood, but can't think of anything similar written for adults. There's no book released this year which I've looked forward to more, and (prior to the Booker Longlist) none by which I'd been more frustrated.
Hunters in the Snow is narrated by a PhD history student in her twenties who is going through the papers of her late grandfather, once a professor of history at a barely disguised York University. (The thing I liked best about the narrator is that their gender was essentially irrelevant and rarely mentioned: interests and memories which could equally belong to a boy or a girl were what defined this person, and more than most novels I've read, that made it sound very much like the way I tend to remember daytrips or visiting relatives when I was a child.) Excerpts from his notes and historical stories he used to tell her are interspersed with childhood memories and paragraphs about sorting out his house in the East Yorkshire countryside. Anecdotal narratives about Edward IV, Peter the Great, Olaudah Equiano and Kitchener dominate the four parts of the book respectively.
The main problem: it's low on academic rigour and deep subject knowledge. It's discordant with the characters and makes a flimsy, but nonetheless cosy, scrapbook-like novel out of something that could have been an impressively playful and erudite work. It's too obvious that Hildyard is not a historian but an English Lit [postgrad] student who researched the book casually*. The historical narratives slip in and out of a detached factual style (of basic non-academic narrative history) and that of historical fiction (imagining characters' feelings and mundane scenes such as getting up in the morning). The fourth section mentions that her grandfather was becoming senile and in it he gives too much credence to a conspiracy theory about Kitchener; it seems quite an authentic change, but the rest of his work, earlier in the book, doesn't sound like it belongs to this opinionated and somewhat intellectually elitst man with particular ideas about his subject. Most of it sounds like the sort of history you used to get in children's books, which assumed a higher level of knowledge than new ones do. (Not sure what age they were aimed at, but I was reading them aged 8-12.)
Reviewing in terms of what an artist could have done instead is regarded as somewhat dubious, but here I find it irresistible. The potential inspirations that sprung to mind were David Foster Wallace's ability to take on and use the jargon and knowledge of a discipline and have it accepted by a fiction audience - 'Mr Squishy', the short story about marketing in Oblivion to take an extreme example - and Possession by A.S. Byatt. I desperately wanted to read (or write if only I were able to) a radical reworking of this book which a) writes solid footnoted academic history about real topics b) is about the practice of history on a much more detailed level and c) is the story of the historian-characters themselves.
The grandfather is a bluff character with some old-curmudgeon views about what constitutes proper history. I would have loved to know what his relationship was like with other strong personalities among his generation of historians such as Geoffrey Elton. (There could have been some comic anecdotes here along the lines of David Lodge's campus trilogy.) Or how the narrator, who would have absorbed newer ideas about the methodology and philosophy of history at university, had gone through stages of questioning and disagreeing with his approach and was now conflicted about how to finish the work he'd left behind. Which could also be about changed social and cultural attitudes in a wider sense.
Imagining this hypothetical book was more satisfying than reading the one in front of me, but that's not to say I didn't enjoy Hunters in the Snow sometimes. (I think I would have enjoyed it a lot more pre-university when I wouldn't have been able to see how much was missing.) I liked it better than several of the Booker longlisted novels, although that's not really saying much. It's more of a winter book, and not just because of the title, something to curl up with by the fire on a cold dark evening. It was quite an easy read - more so than the footnoted behemoth of my fancy - and seemed to drift by in its fragmentary way. Quite easy to take in if tired or light-headed. And it also reminded me why I probably started liking non-fiction history: the detached style which doesn't provoke so many emotions as fiction; the frisson and safety of the past ... it's dark, but it's over.
It's also a book about how some of us, at least, remember people primarily by their interests and opinions – these are what define the narrator's grandfather for her. There is a thematic link of disguise in the stories, which correlates with my view that people, if given a full choice, will study topics that are expressions of theirs own interests, opinions and experiences, however, they still seem somewhat thin and contrived and there is no sense of what project(s) he was even attempting. There is little sense of his life's work as a whole, what he published and taught on. That sounds to me like a writer who didn't burrow enough into a subject not their own. If you have relatives who have an academic or professional specialism and who talk about their subject, you do get a very good idea of their field.
One Amazon review commented on the lack of emotion (discussion of fact is usually substituted) or reflection on the grandparents' relationship. This was an interesting book because there are plenty of people like this, it's a fairly normal mode of existence (which aligns with what psychologists would see as the more functional forms of the dismissing attachment* style) yet they are rarely shown in literary novels without being marked out in the narrative, as if by, or for the benefit of, people unlike them, as a particular type of person who is relatively unemotional. A type more often associated with studying the sciences or the more fact-based arts subjects – like history – than literature, fine art etc.
There's been quite some disparity between the press and the punters' reviews of Hunters in the Snow. The professional reviewers in particular have compared it with W.G. Sebald. I want to come back to this post again after I've read more Sebald, but so far I've got the impression that Sebald makes more seamless, natural use of his non-fiction material. The Sterne epigraph makes it evident that the ragtag, sometimes almost forced, digression here (using more ordinary language) is deliberate. The book is companionable in the right mood, but it doesn't seem like great literature; it has the “lots of people could do that” feel of found-object art. As a friend said a while ago about another book, you could get a similar effect just by hanging around with some interesting people and listening to them talk.
[* It's over a year since I was pulled up on the use of such classifications and labels - regardless of the fact that I applied them to myself as well as others - by someone I greatly love and respect. I was already questioning it, and it was quite right and very welcome of him to do so. However I'd already made a bad impression by doing it. The sense of people's humanity and to describe them in other words is much stronger in me now, partly thanks to him and also to the novels of Edward St. Aubyn, however, there are times when I still can't get away from these things as the most succinct way to describe people - and which because the usage of them comes from reading a yard or so of specialist books, contains thousands of words worth of meaning in one or two.]
Half read in July, half read in November 2013. This is an amended version of a review first posted in July.(less)
[3.5] I wonder what people who read more thrillers will make of All the Birds, Singing. You may not have expected this to be a psychological thriller...more[3.5] I wonder what people who read more thrillers will make of All the Birds, Singing. You may not have expected this to be a psychological thriller set on farms, what with the author being one of the Granta Best Young British Novelists, who looks very cool and works in a London bookshop, and the book's pretty cover with twee wonky lettering. (A case of coverflip? It's not something I see a lot of in my reading but this seems like one, and it suits the protagonist very poorly. The Australian cover even features a woman with long hair and a dress - nothing like her. Without the Granta rec I wouldn't have picked up a book that looks like this, regardless of old proverbs.) The story is fairly grim, the grimmest book I've read since Sofie Oksanen's Purge - a truly all-round excellent novel also about a woman on the run from her past, that I'd recommend over this one.
Suspense is this book's greatest strength. Ever since I read the excerpt in the Granta collection I've wanted to know what happens. I read a longer excerpt on the publisher's website, and I still wanted to know more. This feeling lasted right until the end of the book. It's very neatly structured: chapters from the book's present, going forwards chronologically alternate with those from the past which run back chronologically. In typical literary fiction fashion, hints and allusions are made to a background which is only gradually and partially revealed to the reader. This usually gives the effect anyway of getting to know a somewhat enigmatic person (like the protagonist, Jake) in which part of the fascination is waiting to find out the pattern of what they will and won't tell you, as well as the facts themselves; the chapter structure really adds to that sense.
There were times, especially when I'd taken a break from the book and returned to it, that I would think, "oh, yet more lyrical realism"...but nearly every time I was hypnotically drawn back in, and away from that cynicism. It's lyrical realism well done and the novelty of the characters and their environment kept me interested.
In a way, it's a nature book, a rural book - set in Australia in the past and in its present on a fictional unnamed island off the west coast of England. [Why west? (view spoiler)[Lloyd says he is taking the ashes to the four corners of Britain and has already been to John O'Groats, Cornwall & Suffolk. The place is English, so it's not Anglesey or the Isle of Man. The community is much like a Scottish island, just English instead. (hide spoiler)]]. It's visceral and raw and full of animals (and spiders) alive and dead. The TLS review conjures its natural environment well. Yet for all that Jake lives in these places, she doesn't feel at ease in them - she doesn't feel at ease anywhere, dogged by fear and her traumatic past. Her feelings about her current location are pretty much the opposite of what mine would be in such a place, yet it's well evoked so the disagreement is irrelevant. It made me feel lonely to think about it, that old English history in the dark and the wet, the short days with no electricity. It made me want to go and sit in the truck, rev the throttle, just to remind myself of my century, just to feel the modern dry heat of the engine.
It's taken me so long to get round to discussing Jake simply because how to describe her raises questions. Her character and experiences made me realise how conventionally feminine a lot of modern literary female characters still are; she messes with commonly imposed dichotomies around masculine/feminine, weak/strong - and in a way that is more like the non-symbolic and complicated existence of a real person than a character who was drawn up to represent anything particular. It seems daft to call an adult a tomboy; what about a straight butch? Anyway, why do I have to label her for the purpose of this review? I liked a lot of things about her, and to some extent could relate: the ways she tries to be strong and almost compulsively independent even when it's a bit much, and the way she doesn't want to talk much except on her terms. Mostly, she's very well drawn but there were one or two points (below, as spoilers) which didn't quite ring true.
So, the writing, the setting, and the central character are pretty good. What's wrong with this book?
It mostly comes down to a number of pedantic points; if they'd been ironed out with really strict editing this could have been a seriously great little book. This is also where I'd love to know what detail-orientated regular readers of thrillers think. For all its well-crafted suspense, All the Birds, Singing is not original enough as a thriller and it lacks the greater significance and depth a "literary" work might have had to make up for that. I also felt that the narrator's register would have worked even better with some more humour as it's a natural bridge between bravado and fear.
Pedant's Corner - Whilst Jake has some money in the bank, it's not enough to buy a farm in the UK. The "present" setting is, if given any thought, an implausible romantic idea which is difficult to fit with the gritty elements of the story. Also, let's just assume she got her driving licence somewhere along the way and has unmentioned British-born relatives who'd make the whole immigration thing a lot easier. - Cressida Connolly notes the unlikelihood of Jake owning a gun in Britain. - She is a loner who's slow to trust people, so(view spoiler)[ why the heck doesn't she try and get rid of Lloyd as soon as she can? She doesn't even appear to be suspicious of him or to think carefully about his explanations and motives, which someone like her would. (hide spoiler)] - Related: (view spoiler)[People who live on their own and like their own space - I am one, and I know plenty of others - always find having visitors staying for more than a few days in a small house or flat to be pretty uncomfortable, and after a while you just need them to go away for a while. I've had plenty of conversations about this over the years and it's a sense and experience which is completely absent from this character whom I'd very much expect to have it. (hide spoiler)] - (view spoiler)[She had prolonged traumatic sexual experiences but in a first person narrative doesn't refer to any contrast between them and her relationship with Greg - even if she's lucky to have escaped more severe trauma symptoms. It could be because she's essentially an avoidant type who buries stuff but she doesn't say anything even once. (hide spoiler)] - A few hackneyed devices including symbolic cryptozoological beastie (this is, coincidentally, the third book I've read this month featuring one ... they're like buses). Various found items. (view spoiler)[And the validation-by-witness scene as per The Lady Vanishes - told in a way that seems like a single, off-key intrusion of magical realism. (hide spoiler)] But perhaps a few tropes like these are just necessary for a thriller? - There are quite a number of other things which raise potential quibbles, but they also leave room for assumptions that make the story flow. I like novels in which not everything is spelt out.
This book could be one of those examples of literary writing with a genre plot, but which does the "genre" element less well than experienced genre writers - as a few commenters on this Millions article allege is common. But as I haven't read a thriller for years, I'm not really qualified to say.
All the Birds Singing is definitely an interesting book with some strengths but it may not have been as great as some of the hype makes out. I've seen at least two comparisons with The Wasp Factory: to a teenager in the 90's the Banks book already wasn't half as shocking as people had said it was on release - but Wyld's character and plot don't have its level of originality either. But All the Birds is an extremely promising book, different and good enough for me to think it worth looking out for future works by Evie Wyld.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
I started this with a fairly long-standing exasperation with the sameyness of modern literary fiction – but having recently loved works by Nicola Bark...moreI started this with a fairly long-standing exasperation with the sameyness of modern literary fiction – but having recently loved works by Nicola Barker and Edward St. Aubyn among others, I knew it wasn't all a lost cause. Anyway, I'd long set great store by the Granta lists. (I'm probably not the only person on Goodreads who as a teenager had ambitious daydreams of being one of the writers on it. That's definitely not to be now as I would be well over the age limit in 2023 even if I were suddenly somehow able to do the whole 'writing a very good novel' thing.)
This being Best of Young British Novelists, and a group of them which would look great on any employer's diversity stats, I looked forward to hearing a lot of very different views of life in Britain. But don't read this collection, especially the first half of it, for that. Half-consciously, I was expecting the stories here (regardless of the writers' other work) to fill a remit like that of the BFI 100, “culturally British”, including all the many cultures & experiences that could mean in the second decade of the twenty-first century. Many of the stories – or rather excerpts from unpublished novels, which make up the majority of pieces - are set abroad, featuring characters who've never lived in the UK. These would have been interesting if they were fewer in number, but it rarely felt like what these authors had in common was a country as well as an age, even if there can be said to be a common theme of dislocation. This article gives a more considered view of the un-Britishness of the collection... I wished it was more like our version of the modern American literature its author describes. And, in the words of a literary blog"the double fact of not being responsible for the gifts of half of these, and not being able to hold on to the other [who have emigrated], must say bad things about our literary culture." Previous BYBN collections featured stories commissioned for them; this time the rules had changed: writers could submit bits of works in progress and 17 out of 20 have done so here, which makes this a less enjoyable read but reflects well on the three authors who do have original stories: Naomi Alderman, Taiye Selasi and Ross Raisin - less so on the rest, especially those who would have known they were strong candidates. The excerpts also have the cynical commercialism of effectively making people pay to take in a large number of trailers for forthcoming products.
These writers have great diversity ethnically, and there is a majority of women among them. (Many more black & asian women than men though.) But almost all either live in London or have a degree from a Golden Triangle university, and in most cases both apply. The majority went to Oxford - even the Cantabs could claim to be an oppressed minority here. A terribly narrow selection from the point of view of British regional and educational diversity; none without degrees and few without qualifications in creative writing – though at least we're not quite at the stage of the US and their MFA mafia. Philip Hensher in the Spectator says there is a lack of mention of sexual minorities: "as far as I know there aren't any". I wonder to any extent if this is part of the very modernity of it, because among young liberal people it's not something one necessarily needs to make a point about now; there may be more people who don't actively label themselves and are on a scale which can slide this way and that. Ned Beauman's writing always seems to include some man on man sex but can I find anything online mentioning the author's own sexuality? Nope.
In the book itself there is a lot of competent but unspectacular writing. None of the punk-Victorian verbal fireworks of Will Self, and remarkably little humour of the sort you can expect from him and from Nicola Barker. (The only really comic story here is Naomi Alderman's, though Zadie Smith and Sarah Hall at least have some sparky lightness at times.) Sometimes it felt like half the book was made up of stories by Oxford-educated non-white female writers who use no humour and try to write in a typical lit-fic style from the viewpoints of male characters from disadvantaged backgrounds living in non-western countries. Post-colonial writing still seems to be stuck under the shadow of Salman Rushdie. [Rewriting this in June, I have an unread copy of Mohsin Hamid's [book:How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia|17471016] which looks promising. Hamid was one of the authors the judges regretted being unable to include because he was slightly too old.]
Summaries of the stories & writers Serious post-colonial women: Kamila Shamsie, Tahmina Anam, Nadifa Mohamed, Taiye Selasie, Helen Oyeyemi. No humour and competent but unspectacular style in all these excerpts. There are surely are female writers from similar backgrounds who are funny and inventive, but not in this collection. (I Do Not Come to You by Chanceby Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani is one I'm looking forward to reading.) Some of Oyeyemi's novels sound like they're doing something interesting with a mixture of horror genre & literary styles but her piece here isn't.
White male writers, predictable subjects: Benjamin Markovits (US campus), Adam Foulds (British historical, Second World War), Adam Thirlwell (one night stand collapses or dies on guy in US hotel room, After Hours style), David Szalay (Hungarian amateur pimp, enforcer & callgirl take a trip to London), Ross Raisin (disaster tale – this wasn't quite such a predictable “young male” subject as the others but I was still a bit meh about the writing). Some of Raisin, Thirlwell, and Szalay's published books do sound more interesting to me than these particular stories though. The much vaunted Ned Beauman kind of belongs in this group too, as his story is about a young male drug dealer. But it's also got gay sex in it, and, unlike an awful lot of current literary fiction, sounds slightly futuristic. He's one of the few authors here who seems to be doing something substantially different and interesting. I'd consider reading the novel his excerpt came from, but I'm not really interested in those he's published so far.
Steven Hall doesn't fit into any of these categories; his work is more experimental than any of the others. But its structure made it especially hard work to read on a Kindle; the stress of trying to get the second half to display in the right order outweighed any enjoyment I was gaining, and so I gave up. Better read in print. Sunjeev Sahota's story about illegal immigrants in Sheffield wasn't groupable either; I was really interested in the subject but would have liked a more distinct style and more humour.
Stuff I liked: Naomi Alderman (funny, Neil Gaiman-esque: Elijah comes to stay with North London Jewish family), Evie Wyld (tough woman on Aussie sheep farm running from her past – an excellent trailer for her new novel which I'm dying to read just to find out what happens), Joanna Kavenna (safe, familiar, friendly tale of bohemian urban friends in their 30's), Zadie Smith (American kids in 50's or 60's Greenwich Village – really want to read the rest of this unfinished novella), Sarah Hall (female conservationist works with wolves in US & signs up for aristocrat's reintroduction project in UK), Xiaolu Guo (very brief snippet about Chinese immigration experience with a little more humour than the other immigrant stories ; had really wanted to read one of her books anyway, and this just reminded me), Jenni Fagan (I loved this excerpt about a middle aged bohemian guy fleeing to the country in a post-apocalyptic England. Dying to read more. But am not interested in her already published novel The Panopticon.) (All female writers - yet in the past I've tended to read more men than women.)