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 Many of the stories – or rather excerpts from unpublished novels, which make up the majority of pieces - are set abroad, featuring characters who've never lived in the UK.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.)
[4.5] For a while I'd assumed from its place near the top of that list that this Irish novella was one of those Goodreads fads you practically never hear of anywhere else. Then I noticed it had won two awards for Irish books in 2012 but wasn't yet officially published in the UK. (It is now.) And - as I'd read very little new fiction for a few years - I wasn't even aware of the Waterstones Eleven until recently, let alone this book's inclusion in it.
The Spinning Heart is one of the best-constructed new books I've read so far in 2013. I just wasn't captivated by it quite so much as by the arguably slightly faultier How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia or The Friday Gospels. This sort of solid quality workmanship seems to be what wins awards though.
Having heard that it was narrated by 21 different characters in an Irish village and nearby town wrecked by the recession, I didn't expect quite so much of a story but that it definitely is, as well as being a very good portrait of a community. (The spinning heart of the title is just a little decoration on a rusty old gate - this isn't a romance.) Most of the characters know one another, none ever narrates more than once, and sometimes events are relayed as gossip, sometimes first hand. I'm quoting reviews from The Spectator a lot recently but again they describe this so well: Ryan triumphantly pulls off a trick more usually associated with the best theatre: that of entirely convincing heightened speech. These monologues, you feel, may not be exactly what the characters would say — but they are exactly what the characters would want to say. (Article here.)
The next narrator was never who I expected it to be, and there were also several events which genuinely surprised me: I usually hate predictability in art, so was very pleased with this book. A subtle avoidance of cliché is often there even in small decisions: most authors would have made the East European builder a Pole; Vasya is instead from a former Soviet Siberian republic. There are also a few male characters who care about what women they know think whilst also being pretty confident. I'm not sure why but that seems rare in first-person narrators: perhaps writers want to present clear types or caricatures, but many male narratives in modern litfic are either arrogant chauvinists or socially inept dorks.
I've read shockingly little Irish literature but what I can say is that Ryan's writing has more beauty and artistry than Roddy Doyle's (as I remember it... It was the 90's, it seemed like you had to read Roddy Doyle even if you didn't enjoy his books much). He likewise uses a vernacular, a readable one that wonderfully captures a sense of people and place but doesn't have the altered spellings of, say, Irvine Welsh - and where nearly all the dialect words are understandable from context.
Pretty much the only criticism of The Spinning Heart that's much repeated is that there may be too many characters. I was very happy with them. A large number of characters is something I like in social realist novels as it gives a truer sense of characters' circles than long stories in which someone appears only to ever speak to four people.
No fault of the author but right now I'm tired of unreliable narrators who are planning or have committed crimes; even having a small fraction of that type in here bored me somewhat.
My only criticism of the book - and I hesitate with this because I'm getting exasperated with the levels of PC sanctimoniousness on Goodreads - is of two topics which are introduced early on: a character with schizophrenia who talks about violent tendencies and a negative portrayal of a male primary school teacher. Groups who don't need bad fictional publicity on top of what the media has already done over the years with isolated real cases.
I've grown tired of plotlines about the financial crash yet this one was fresh to me: I've only heard about it in Ireland through articles and documentaries, and most fiction deals with bankers and writers and never mentions people who work in the likes of plant hire or children's nurseries. Aside from one or two grumbles this was a very impressive little book which I wouldn't have guessed was a first novel.
ETA: In a comment on this Guardian article about the Booker longlist, the excellent book blogger John Self said "The Spinning Heart is actually a very entertaining and funny novel (albeit with a sad story at its heart)... though I did think in the end that it's a bit too much of a virtuoso performance: the author showing what he can do over and over again." Absolutely spot on - it's something I was half-thinking at the time of reading but hadn't managed to put into words. But heck, if you're a debut author without lit-world connections and already this good, then a bit of artistic pride is simply self-awareness.(less)
The Friday Gospels, told by five first-person narrators, is about a family of British Mormons, a group most...more[4.5] Like a Mike Leigh film in book form.
The Friday Gospels, told by five first-person narrators, is about a family of British Mormons, a group most people don't think about unless some come to their door. Several blogs said Jenn Ashworth should have been one of Granta's Best Young British Novelists, though she was on the BBC Culture Show's similar list a couple of years ago. She was also brought up as a Mormon in Lancashire. Wisely, this story about LDS in Lancs is her third novel, an accomplished piece of semi-comic fiction inspired by other sources as well as her own story - not another confessional debut.
If there's anything wrong with this book it's that it has so much happen in one day, such a lot of plot, in a soapy sort of way. Though perhaps farce would be a better comparison if you're willing to include some serious topics in farce as well. That one day involves the homecoming of golden-boy second son Gary who's been away on his missionary training in Utah for two years. Problems in the lives of the four other Leeke family members: mum, dad, older brother & younger sister, all come to a head over the course of the day. Some quite naturally because Gary's return is a watershed, others more absurdly.
I may have been generous to give this novel five rather than four stars but that's because not only did I love its working class provincial setting, but I really liked what it was saying about religion - the first time I've encountered a novel which has an atheist or at least anti-certain-types-of-organised-religion agenda. (But it doesn't have to be read that way.)
Ashworth has a wonderful phrase here about religion: you "feel it clanking like a chain around your ankles even when you did not believe in it any more." Absolutely spot on. I have a feeling that people with that experience will find more meaning in this book.
I went to a Catholic school but had confusing messages at home from a parent who professed atheism at times yet also went to church fairly regularly. I had a curious intermittently-devout phase between the ages of about 6-9, largely self-imposed as a sort of comfort and defence. Its principal instrument was obsessive re-reading of Sixty Saints for Girls, a gift from my late godmother,(which book I now consider to be a largely pernicious - and continuing - influence, though I don't blame the godmother in the least as she was a great person and it was a case of book + environment + personality, not just book). Aside from actual R.E. lessons, the school was not terribly severe in its religious proselytising - mitigated I think by a couple of teachers who'd experienced the horrors of Irish convent schools in the 50's and who later became politicised in the sixties. I never felt affected by fear of hell (an old-fashioned myth no-one really believed in any more, I was told more often than not) or rantings about sexual morality (religious people just didn't mention sex as anything which might affect me until long after I'd already got a plethora of info from Usborne books, novels and teenage magazines). And no-one really bothered me when I decided I didn't to be confirmed aged 12 - though it made me feel left-out and immature - but there are certain things that always stick. So it wasn't a terribly religious childhood, but enough to give me some affinity with those who were more affected. An ex, whom I lived with for a couple of years, grew up partly in a Jehovah's Witness commune (and became an atheist as eloquent as Hitchens and probably better informed about the other side). The tone of many of the Mormon morals & strictures in The Friday Gospels is familiar from his stories.
In The Friday Gospels the idea of whether there is any higher power is subtly left open: one could choose to see certain events as coincidental, as precipitated by people, or as part of a divine plan. However there is certainly indictment of aspects of religious teaching and of the stricter and more priggish members of the LDS community, and of the shame they try to impose on those who don't meet their standards. The best critique of all is contained in the events surrounding the daughter, Jeannie: of a culture which implicitly or explicitly encourages kids to act according to fables they hear, which rewards silence and a lack of questioning, and which tells girls to "defend" themselves against male sexuality whilst actually leaving them less able to deal with it than most of their non-religious peers. And perhaps worst of all (view spoiler)[black-and-white values like "Heavy petting counts as sex even if you’ve got your clothes on so by that point I was a lost cause anyway." (hide spoiler)]
The people in The Friday Gospels are very much people, characters rather than symbols for delivering a message. Ashworth isn't criticising human beings, rather teachings and beliefs. Her preparedness to find some good even in distinctly dodgy characters is what I'd associate with someone who's done social welfare work (she used to be a prison librarian) and confounds what it's usual to expect from a certain type of narrator. I felt that her prognosis for Pauline, the mother was potentially over-optimistic (view spoiler)[though thank goodness all I know about severe birth injury and what can be done to repair it comes from forums (hide spoiler)] but I could quite understand what Ashworth was trying to show. And I can't remember when I last read a book including more than one non-elderly character with a disability.
Perhaps more objectively this isn't quite a five-star book but I still think it's doing something unusual and important in containing what's usually the stuff of non-fiction rants into a very approachable work of literary or domestic fiction. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
"So my Lord is also a student of the subject?" "That's a rather strong term to use, in this island of ours. You study something, we merely have hobbies...more"So my Lord is also a student of the subject?" "That's a rather strong term to use, in this island of ours. You study something, we merely have hobbies. I dabble in the English mystics the way a retired general would set about exploring his family history. As it happens, those things are part of the family history."...
He seemed to embody a historical past the way no book ever could. My intuition told me that here was the last living example - and an exceptional one at that - of the genuine student of the arcane in the guise of the aristocrat-alchemist, the last descendant of Rudolph II of Prague, and one for whom, as late as 1933, Fludd had more to say than Einstein.
An expat Hungarian intellectual narrates a very British caper. (Perhaps this what I felt was missing in the Jeeves books: more ideas... and after all I'm not 100% English myself.) The Pendragon Legend, written after the author had spent time in England researching his serious non-fiction, is a satirical melange of many styles of popular British upper-class novel of the twenties and thirties, with a narrator somewhat less straightforwardly likeable than Bertie Wooster et al (closer to a Somerset Maugham character written in more polished prose), and it works really rather well. Had I read it before so many of its tropes were familiar - often from later stories - it might have been a five star. And the easiest way to describe it is, even more than with most books, by way of allusion.
From the long tradition of Gothic horror comes the journey to the castle with occult history (there are better books suited to the current weather...); the scientific bent of the current lord's researches recalls nineteenth century works from Mary Shelley to R.L. Stevenson to Arthur Machen. Mysteries tinged with supernatural possibilities may refer to Sherlock Holmes adventures like 'The Speckled Band' and The Hound of the Baskervilles. Twentysomething characters take matters into their own hands in a Famous Five-ish manner like they do in Ken Russell's The Lair of the White Worm. There are Rosicrucians, horsemen of the apocalypse, ninja-like assassins.
And romance swirls into all this like...Cold Comfort Farm, maybe? But it's not that simple. There are femmes fatales in the wings, there are more bedroom scenes than a similar English writer of the period would have dared, a couple of characters may be gay or at least bi, and our hero, like Wooster, is surrounded by strong-minded women he isn't always that keen on. (It's quite understandable in the none-too-bright Bertie, seems fair enough not to want to be intimidated by one's fiancee. But Janos Bátky admits to being that depressing creature, the intelligent man who doesn't find high intelligence in a woman terribly attractive. However we all have unfair turn-offs related to things people can't help, and the narrator often does appear to be sending himself up subtly.) An article I saw earlier this year compared Antal Szerb to Simon Raven as well as to Wodehouse; I'd meant to save this until after I'd read some Raven, but forgot; perhaps it's the racier element of these adventures that led to the Raven allusion. And the other way in which The Pendragon Legend isn't always as cosy as Wodehouse are the oddments of Imperial racism during scenes in London. (The Jeeves stories I've read have been so ahistorically nice in this respect that I wondered if the recent editions had been Blytoned. Although being actively rude about people in a book does involve mentioning them in the first place...)
These things are par for the course in a novel of this age though, and most of The Pendragon Legend is great fun. (The repeated use of the word "kind" to describe it in several blurbs is a touch misleading; this is a good book, simply not as twee and fwuffy as one might expect.) It has a slightly different angle on very British sorts of writing, whilst pitching the humour perfectly - an excellent translation - and it deserves many more readers among people who like similar stories of the early to mid twentieth century. (less)
[5.8/6] … It was that wonderful, so much more than any other book I've read in I can't remember how long. Though not without a human amount of imperfe...more[5.8/6] … It was that wonderful, so much more than any other book I've read in I can't remember how long. Though not without a human amount of imperfections.
I hadn't read Pynchon before, and this isn't the usual place to start. However (i) I'd loved the sound of this book ever since I saw press reviews for it, and I got a copy not long after it was released in paperback. (Yup, I – and various removal men – have been carting the thing around for fifteen years. And by god it was worth it. The opening pages are as magical a beginning as any I can think of, as good as Bleak House, and every time I thought of getting rid of the book I'd look at them and knew it absolutely had to stay. Besides, I'm ever so glad I've got this cover of lovely antique ampersands, and not the headache-inducing bastard which is now the default for the same ISBN. ) However (ii) If you're comfortable with eighteenth century British and a bit of American history, with reading the accent and dialect of north-east England, and have a smattering or more of knowledge about geography, astronomy, as well as * whisper* superstitious esoterica like feng shui and astrology, it might well be the right place to start. (I've read a few quotes from Bleeding Edge and seeing the author of this marvel writing about hipsters' jeans and how difficult it is to find your way out of Ikea, my heart sinks... Yup, M&D probably was the right book for me. Also, I disagree about the Ikea thing: it's simply a matter of ignoring the stuff on sale, and if you want to be even quicker, ignoring the designated routes and keeping moving.)
I find it easy to get disillusioned with present-day settings, but go far enough back with historical fiction and I start picking holes in it too. A book like Jim Crace's Harvest deftly sidesteps us pedants with a vaguely timeless setting and details from different eras; the amazing Mason & Dixon goes several better with meticulous arcana of its time and a proliferation of postmodern, knowing and quite often funny deliberate anachronisms. And in so doing, it's also terribly, terribly eighteenth century. The Pynchon blend of science and hippiedom suits the times perfectly too, the era of Religion and the Decline of Magic where one man could be both a mathematician and a rural wizard.
From that very conceptual level right down to a plethora of puns erudite and/ or filthy Pynchon is a master of layered recursion. (Why did no-one ever say to me, 'With that username, I bet you'd love Pynchon'? He generates the sort of wordplay once every goddamn page that these days, especially without someone to bounce off, I feel lucky to think of a few times a year.)
Ideas of modern and postmodern are just indications of popularity, not first occurrence: the very first novels were full of them and the eighteenth century could be postmodern and dirty-minded in a way that feels far more contemporary than the Victorians. (This is probably why I've always thought III works best out of all the Blackadder series. Though it doesn't hurt that the costumes of the era were so good they even managed to make Rowan Atkinson look slightly attractive.)
Even after a week to settle, I still just want to say about Mason & Dixon, “it's so everything. Wise and funny and moving yadda yadda yadda and all those adjectives cover quotes use. But this one really is. A great big exhilarating book that gives you the feeling of having lived the span of a life – two very interesting lives lived over three continents – and with much joy and fun and interestingness as well as terrible things witnessed all over the world. There's even room for pets. Most of all, it's an epic friendship with a warmth that initially surprised, found amid lots of left-brain cleverness and odd bursts of Carry On humour. Something that brought to mind the glow associated with those very few people who, almost as soon as your first conversation started, finding so much understanding yet a world's worth of contrast, you felt you didn't ever want to stop and you knew you wanted them around somewhere or other for the rest of your life. It was always exciting to pick up and read Mason & Dixon; some days I read a bit less but I never needed to space a short book in the middle. Nothing else would be as good, I was sure of it. (And in this project of reading some of the 1001 books I already own, I'm finding that not a lot of modern classics contain so much joy and fun as this one.)
But whatever could be wrong with this formidable feat of literature? Really not much at all. Getting near the end of part II some long stories-within-a-story were taking the piss a bit. Though one of those was the second time in a month I'd read a re-telling of the Lambton Worm (previously in Alice in Sunderland, which I thought told it better). Also a Sadeian yet picturesque detail from a serial in a scandalous magazine - this was another of my odd more-than-one-gender responses, for a while from an outside view I found it quite erotic and then later had a female-bodied response in which I was left me with the woman's equivalent of when a man, seeing a scene in which a protagonist gets kicked (or worse) in the balls, grimaces and cringes, and part of me was dissatisfied with the absence of mention of pain and its effects in the text.
But, bah, such a tiny tiny fraction of the book, a book which is very humane about the abuses of its times – useful for that having a hero who's a Quaker! And one which I might hazard had something to do with the generation of steampunk, shortly before it came to be called steampunk let alone the proliferation of names for its equivalent in other centuries: fantastical machinery (Vaucanson's mechanical duck takes flight, and more), and a scene in which one of our heroes decides to go a bit superhero which made me look up the publication date of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen - a few years later. I started off thinking the whole thing was “very 90's”: the musical numbers, the fantasy sequences, just like some of the great American TV series were doing at the time. But nope, I read more background: this is just Pynchon, he'd been doing that for aaaages. (The size and detail of the book also reminded me of a recent interview with Eleanor Catton in which she said the 21st century trend for doorstop novels was the book equivalent of the rise of the TV series box set.)
Yes, reading background. It does need notes and a dictionary. Quiet countryside is a pretty good place to read a great big cosy attention-devouring novel (even if its framing device is set in Advent, whilst there are so many swifts, swallows and house martins wheeling above you it's almost like being divebombed). But if you've got no dictionary, a Kindle with no charge and no cable, and mobile broadband of a speed that would make anyone long for a modem from the year of this book's publication, then you just have to make do with not looking up every weird word. There are a few sets of notes kicking around the internet which I managed to have a look at. Most of them were pretty unsatisfactory if you have a little relevant knowledge, not telling me many of the things I did want to know, so I'd given up on them by about p.100. By far the best was the Pynchon wiki, which I stuck with, though too many of the later entries are just intros and links to wikipedia entries without succinct explanation – would have been more interesting with a connection fast enough for all the click throughs - and glossing of words that you'd surely know already if you're reading a book like this (e.g. 'ubiquitous'). I've got a few extra bits and pieces I might email them once I have better internet and if I remember. In the meantime, in shorthand: p.390, Scarlet Pimpernel; that was probably my best spot. (Sorry, I probably sound a bit up m'self in this post; guess I'm just proud to have finished this book when I'd long thought I might never be up to it again.)
This was just such a wonderful book and if you think you might be relatively comfortable enough with the subjects (I know I'd have found it too much hard work if it was about a subject I knew very little of) then I would very very much recommend it. And I've no doubt it will reward re-reading too...(less)