Friday, 26 July 2013

'My feet have always been here, in this quiet earth'

Near the end of this Foucauldian nightmare of a novel, Nathaniel Noailles, employed to implement prisoner 'rehabilitation' programmes with global security company EKK, finally converts to his employers' view of the prison population: 'Assuming criminality might in fact be innate and the first visible crime committed a form of self-identification by the criminal that he must enter the corrections rehabilitation system (in other words to take up his rightful place, a place reserved for him, in which his own purpose in the world becomes clear), then the permanent monitoring of anyone who has ever committed a crime... seems not just logical, but natural. It is the only way truly to protect the law-abiding, who are themselves, of course, also a natural group.' In one sense, this is a modern horror of stigmatisation and classification, but it also has the Calvinist ring of the saved and the damned; appropriate, therefore, that the title concerns fallen land. The further echoes of Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon in the novel, like Nathaniel's son, Copley's, tightly regulated and monitored school day at an academy also run by EKK, retain this dual vision; Copley is categorised as psychologically deviant, but also suspected of being innately wicked, tainted with original sin.

The basic premise is simple; after property developer Paul Krovik fails to make good on his vision of building hundreds of new houses in a perfect new midwest neighbourhood, he is forced to sell everything, including his own house, which is bought by Nathaniel and his wife Julia. However, they do not know that this land has a long history of loss. Louise, inheritor of the farmland after a nineteenth-century lynching, was forced to sell in her turn to Paul, and now they are both lingering on in the land they cannot bear to leave; although while Louise lives on quietly in her own battered farmhouse, Paul has created a secret hideout in the basement of the Noailles's new property. Much has been written about this novel as a description of the failure of the American dream, and so I'm going to take a different angle, if only because the aspect of the novel that interested me the most was not its overriding message, but how Flanery creates a sense of true menace from these social and political observations. James Walton criticised the novel in the Telegraph for shuttling between 'heightened social realism' and 'dystopian sci-fi', arguing that it fails to become more than the sum of its parts, especially as the sections from Louise's point of view are 'overwritten', so the individual elements 'end up undermining each other.' I would make the opposite argument; it is precisely Flanery's eclectic use of style, including the use of the conventions of thrillers and horror fiction, that allows this book to carry the weight of the didactic message it wants to convey.

Although not set in the Deep South, the novel's immediate resonances are those of American gothic, with the house weighed down with the ghosts of the past and the indefinable sense of menace in the landscape. There are traces of more traditional horror stories as well - as the plot unfolds and Nathaniel's relationship with his troubled son breaks down, the most obvious reference point becomes Stephen King's The Shining, which adds to the sense of isolation. As Copley is shipped off to the psychiatrist, another horror trope comes into play as a peculiar child becomes subject to a drug regime that cannot improve his condition. Flanery's inspired idea is to make these supernatural suggestions flesh and blood - whether in the corporeal presence of Paul, the poltergeist in the house, or in the very real systems of EKK surveillance that are beginning to pervade everyday life. And while the portrayal of global security is clearly the most dystopian element of the novel, it is also chillingly believable, and I'm not sure why we need to know whether this novel is meant to be set in an alternative present day or in some close future to appreciate that. Social realism, however, is clearly an inappropriate tag; and possibly where it becomes less useful to read the novel solely in the light of a critique of US society.

As for Louise, her sections do verge towards being overwritten, laden with nostalgia for a way of life that is disappearing. However, the sheer bleakness of the rest of the novel makes these digressions far more welcome than they would be if they dominated the text. The sort of prose that I struggled with in meditations on nature such as Robert Macfarlane's The Old Ways becomes much more resonant in the context of the literal destruction of Louise's home, which she views as an extension of her body: 'we watch as the machine approaches, raising an arm to tear off a corner of my porch with its bucket, reaching again, ripping a gash, opening wide all that should remain private... This house is my Corsian twin: each blow she suffers pulls a sob from my throat.' Louise's narrative is vital because she is the only character to perceive the importance of an organic connection between past and present; the type of connection George Eliot was thinking of when she wrote in The Mill on the Floss that 'We could never have loved the earth so well if we had no childhood in it.'

Monday, 22 July 2013

Farthest North and Farthest South #4: 'Written so deeply... I can almost taste the ink'

When Hannah Kent's fictional version of the real historical figure, Agnes Magnúsdóttir, a servant woman who was the last person to be executed in Iceland, starts to relate a harrowing story from her childhood, she begins like this: '"Do I remember?... I wish I could forget it." She unhooked her index finger from the thread of wool and brought it to her forehead. "In here," she said, "I can turn to that day as though it were a page in a book. It's written so deeply upon my mind I can almost taste the ink." It is Agnes's various retellings of her thirty-four years of life through this novel that become both its strength and its weakness, and also raise the most difficult questions for any historical novelist who chooses to use actual historical characters. While it's certainly possible to use real figures both ethically and effectively in fiction - Hilary Mantel manages it through the sheer depth of her research and the roundedness of her almost-biographical portrait of Thomas Cromwell, while Gaynor Arnold takes an easier road in Girl in a Blue Dress and After Such Kindness by renaming and reinventing Charles Dickens and Lewis Carroll - it's a hard thing to take on. Similarly, the switch between Agnes's first-person narration, and third-person narration from the points of view of Agnes's wards on the farm where she is being held, and the priest, Tóti, who has been assigned to her case, is technically challenging. There is a sense, in this novel, that Kent has taken on rather more than she can chew - but also evidence that she is already a very accomplished historical writer.

It's in the first-person sections of this novel that Kent's inexperience as a writer shows the most. Alongside beautiful third-person passages and carefully-written dialogue such as the section I've already quoted, much of Agnes's narration, seems, unfortunately, like it emerged from a creative writing class, especially in the melodramatic prologue: 'They said I must die. They said that I stole the breath from men, and now they must steal mine. I imagine, then, that we are all candle flames, greasy-bright, fluttering in the darkness and the howl of the wind, and in the stillness of the room I hear footsteps, awful coming footsteps, coming to blow me out and send my life up away from me in a grey wreath of smoke.' The first-person narration poses problems beyond the stylistic, however. Kent's sympathetic portrayal of Agnes seems to contradict the current historical consensus on her case (though I have barely any knowledge of Icelandic history, and this is taken from Kent's own comments in the epilogue, so I may be wrong) and I felt uncomfortable about her presentation for historical reasons. Furthermore, from a literary point of view, it seemed to me it would have been simply more interesting to present a morally ambiguous heroine constrained by the mindset of her time, rather than a character who is easily accessible to modern readers because she defies convention and is 'strong'. This is a type of story that has been told before - told well, in Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace, and told badly, in Susan Fletcher's Corrag, for example - and I wanted something new from both Kent and Agnes rather than the usual tropes about the horror of Agnes's undeserved fate. In the first-person passages, I found it difficult to sympathise with Agnes or care about what happened to her because she seemed so idealised.

Both these concerns could have been addressed, I think, if Kent had kept to third-person narration throughout the novel, and I say this not only because I think the first-person sections don't work, but because the third-person narrative works so well. It's in these chapters that Kent's abilities as a novelist come to the forefront. She effortlessly manages the difficult balancing act that every historical novelist has to attempt, bringing early nineteenth-century Iceland to life without overloading the story with historical detail, using small oddities such as its unusually high literacy rates and lack of prisons to great effect. The characterisation of the family who shelter Agnes in her last weeks, and of her priest, is sparing but convincing, and even Agnes herself seems to come to life when seen through other people's eyes, or when she narrates her past through dialogue rather than first-person monologue. Avoiding first-person could also have kept Agnes's story more ambiguous, and addressed some of my historical concerns. While this novel is already gripping and memorable, my frustration lay in the fact that I felt it could have been even better, and perhaps this is why this review seems more negative than the novel truly deserves. The ending, in particular, is hauntingly vivid, and on the strength of that alone, I'll be waiting for Hannah Kent's next book.

Thursday, 18 July 2013

'Be careful what you make up'

Warning: this post will contain spoilers for both Ian McEwan's Sweet Tooth and Lionel Shriver's The New Republic. I've made my general feelings about 'spoilers' clear, so believe me when I say these are two novels where spoiler warnings actually carry some weight!

The first paragraph of Sweet Tooth is strongly reminiscent of Kazuo Ishiguro's ominous opening to Never Let Me Go: 'My name is Kathy H. I'm thirty-one years old, and I've been a carer now for over eleven years. That sounds long enough, I know, but actually they want me to go on for another eight months, until the end of this year. That'll make it almost exactly twelve years.' While this may not have been intentional, McEwan's version certainly strikes similar chords in the reader: 'My name is Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) and almost forty years ago I was sent on a secret mission for the British security service. I didn't return safely. Within eighteen months of joining I was sacked, having disgraced myself and ruined my lover, although he certainly had a hand in his own undoing.'

The thing about both these openings is that they suggest a false confidentiality, an openness about the narrator that is not borne out in the text, and also adopt the style of a straightforward autobiographical narrative, even though this is already called into question by the information they choose not to give. Serena is more direct than Kathy, but even her summary of the events of the novel we are about to read is distinguished by what it omits; interestingly, re-reading it again having finished the novel, it seems entirely unrelated to what we have actually read. In the same way, Kathy's use of sanitised vocabulary such as 'carer' hides the horror at the heart of her story, although the reader is positioned differently; in Kathy's world, we're an insider, someone who will know what she's talking about, whereas in Serena's, we are privileged tourists. Both novels, however, lull us into a false sense of security by the smoothness of their prose; they are both so easy to read that we forget to question at first.

McEwan is rightly famous for his opening scenes, and while the opening of Sweet Tooth is the inverse of his usual set-piece, summarising the first twenty years of Serena's life without pausing for breath, it's immensely effective. Where Sweet Tooth fails to live up to the promise of its opening lines is in the closing of the novel. This is a consciously postmodern read, full of mistaken identities, reveals, lies and switches, and it's only at the end that we realise we have fallen victim to the biggest narrative trick of all - Serena herself is the creation of Tom Haley, the writer at the heart of the novel, and her life story has been carefully constructed. Her confidential moments - 'Now that the mirror tells a different story, I can say it and get it out of the way. I really was pretty' - and her experience of being a woman in the man's world of MI5 - 'I absorbed the general spirit of the place, and... began to accept that in this small part of the adult world... women were of a lower caste' - have been imagined by a male author. Of course, the irony of this is that we always knew we were reading a novel by a middle-aged man, not a twenty-year-old woman, and much has been made of the way in which Tom Daley's early writing career mirrors McEwan's. But although superficially fascinating, I ultimately felt that McEwan's twist ending - especially as he's already done something very similar in Atonement  - was something of a cop-out.

In one sense, the writer who uses a device like this has given himself the ultimate out. Any uncertainties about the internal workings of MI5, any inconsistencies in Serena's voice, and any criticisms of how long she spends lingering over Tom's short stories, can be fielded by saying that Tom wrote this, and the problems are his. This makes it important that the device is used not just for temporary literary fireworks, but to say something significant about the nature of identity, and the ways that we tell stories about ourselves and others. It's here that I think Sweet Tooth fails. While Atonement explored how easily we can fall into the satisfying traps of narrative, and Sweet Tooth plays with similar ideas in its use of the 'marriage plot', I didn't feel that anything had really changed once I learnt that the novel was Tom's narrative, not Serena's. In a way, her self-construction was always so conscious that, even if she had 'written' the text, the reader would still have been left questioning what the true story really was, and perhaps this would have been a more interesting experiment to try altogether. Indeed, the one question worth asking that Sweet Tooth leaves open is how this story fell into our hands. Tom implies that he will not be able to publish it for forty years, and, in the meantime, asks for Serena's input - but we don't know if she did edit this work, or if we simply have access to his initial version before he put it into the fire.

Perhaps Sweet Tooth's twist simply came too late, leaving us with a solid block of novel that is called into question by the last-minute revelation, but not shaken apart at its core as a truly daring narrative of self-identity would necessitate. Serena's smooth narration is, ultimately, too convincing; it lacks the cracks that Kathy allows us to see, and we fall for it too entirely. It's in this context that I started thinking about Lionel Shriver's The New Republic, which I read alongside this novel. Although I don't have the time to review it fully here, it differs from Sweet Tooth in placing its key narrative twist at the centre of the novel, and I think that works much better. In brief, novice journalist Edgar Kellogg is sent to the fictional Portuguese province of Barba to report on terrorist group SOB who are fighting for Barban independence, only to discover that SOB are the fictional creation of his predecessor, Barrington Sadler. By having Edgar discover this halfway through, however, and continue Barrington's deception, Shriver is able to ask a whole series of questions that she would otherwise not have been able to explore, and this makes for much the most interesting section of the novel, as the early narrative drags slightly. Although the two cases are not identical - the SOB is not a self-narrative - Shriver does raise the theme of self-presentation, as eternal underdog Edgar muses on why he always seems to be second-best to an emulated hero, from his high school experiences as an overweight teenager to his attempts to compete with the popular Barrington in the present day. After finally meeting Barrington, who has run away from his own cult of personality in the fear that he might start to believe it, and become ridiculous, Edgar revises his conclusions. This mirrors the external political situation, as the SOB comes into true existence in Barba after claiming increasingly serious terrorist attacks as their own.

The moral of the story, Edgar believes, is 'Be careful what you make up', but the more daring his invention becomes, the more of a life of its own it takes on, moving from the subdued SOB of Barrington's day to an international threat, and in the process, becoming real. Shriver takes huge risks with her invented geopolitics in this satire, and perhaps doesn't pull all of them off, but it is the riskiness of her creation that gives it wings. Despite the superficial flashiness of McEwan's switchback, Sweet Tooth is not a novel that seems to have tried anything too daring, or provoked much thought; it's an enjoyable read, but little more, and perhaps it stays just a little too close to reality to take off as a fiction.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013


As a karmic lesson for purchasing a Kindle, I managed to leave it at Stansted when off for my recent conference in Salzburg. Although I've now managed to recover it from lost property, its absence for the past week has scuppered my blog post schedule somewhat, as I've had to read entirely different books to the ones I planned. I managed to get hold of a paperback copy of Ian McEwan's latest, Sweet Tooth, which I will be reviewing shortly, and I also read Elizabeth Gaskell's The Life of Charlotte Bronte, which I had with me, and Annie Proulx's The Shipping News. Apart from the Sweet Tooth review, the updated schedule should look like this:

Friday 19th July: Farthest North and Farthest South #3: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Friday 26th July: Fallen Land by Patrick Flanery

Friday, 5 July 2013

'My life will be over if I stay'

 About halfway through this novel, our heroine, Eeva, a young Finnish woman sent to an orphanage after her father's death, and having escaped from there into service, reflects on her role as a servant in an ageing doctor's house, and how she may be settling into it too easily. 'In the House of Orphans Sirrka used to talk about 'my floors' or 'my tiles'... And then Sirrka would stare down the river of waxed, glowing wood with possessive pride. Eeva smoothed her hand over the silky top of his desk. I could get like Sirrka if I stayed here too long. I must not get like her... In the House of Orphans they made us afraid. They made us obedient on the outside, no matter what we felt like inside... So you look at Sirrka... She's decent, she works hard. But she's living a life which has already been taken away from her... I've got to go now. My life will be over if I stay. I'll go on living, I won't be able to help it, but it won't be my life. I'll grow pleased with how well I serve him. I'll start talking about 'my kitchen', just like Sirrka used to say...' Eeva expresses a similar thought earlier in the novel, when she talks about not wanting to be made back into an 'orphan', with a clear awareness that this is an identity, rather than just a statement of fact.

I think that I've read too many books like this - although I'm not quite sure what I mean by 'like this'. (I didn't enjoy Helen Dunmore's earlier novel The Siege, either). Perhaps it's something about the paint-by-numbers feel to the narrative. Firstly, take a relatively unknown nineteenth-century or twentieth-century snippet of European history, which, to be fair, is usually genuinely fascinating - this account of Finland's suffering under Russian rule before the First World War is something that I enjoyed learning more about. Secondly, super-impose a somewhat cliched plotline onto this historical backdrop, with bonus points if it can 'mirror' present day events and therefore have 'relevance', although, to continue to be fair, this is often as much a creation of the publisher's marketing for the novel as the author's intentions. (The hook for this novel, by the way, is 'terrorism'.) Thirdly, add a 'spirited' heroine - Eeva is clever, independent and determined to carve out a life for herself under unfavourable circumstances. Unfortunately, she isn't much else.

Eeva's 'spirit' seems to prevent the story from carrying any real historical weight, by focusing on the 'exception' who manages to escape from the drab life of the orphanage, rather than the orphans who have to stay, the ones who, by her account, have no lives left to live.  I found myself wondering if it would have been more interesting to think more closely about these orphans, who, after all, do have to carry on living, and the psychological strategies - such as pride in clean floors - that they find to survive. Instead, we get a character like Eeva, who, of course, is middle-class, educated, and so essentially not an orphan, not like them. In service, an interfering friend of the doctor's, Lotta, insults Eeva by assuming she is illiterate, but of course the irony of the situation is that Eeva cannot only read but has studied several languages. What if Eeva had been illiterate - what if she had been less spirited, less impulsive, more normal? I wanted to know what would have happened to her then.

Eeva's story, although a dominant strand, is not the only voice in this book; we also hear from the doctor, Thomas, who is predictably in love with her, and her old childhood friend Lauri and his new friend Sasha, who is becoming increasingly enmeshed in the ideological struggle against Russian rule in Finland. However, this strand, too, is largely patterned and predictable, especially as I read it alongside Lionel Shriver's much more illuminating terrorist satire, The New Republic. Finland, too, failed to come alive for me in this narrative. Dunmore chooses to modernise the dialogue to an extent, which I don't think is necessarily a bad thing; historical novels can become bogged down by the weight of accuracy, and attempting to imitate a style of speaking which no living person has ever heard is largely a lost cause. However, having made this narrative choice, she needed to strongly convey her early twentieth-century Finnish setting through description, mindset and everyday detail, and I don't think she does this. Her descriptive writing is sparse and commonplace; for example, 'Autumn was on its way. You could smell it, even though the sun still shone and the leaves on the birches hadn't yet changed colour. But they were stiff and dry. They rattled when the wind blew through them, and the early mornings were chill.' There is little in this to convey either a specific autumn or a specific country.

Most frustratingly, though, Dunmore seems to deliberately create characters, like Eeva, who don't conform to their time, and explores their modern mindsets - even Sasha would hardly be unfamiliar to a modern-day audience. Laurie fits into this category as well, with his speculation about women's rights, and even Dr. Thomas challenges traditional orthodoxies with his charitable care for the poor. Although I don't necessarily think that it is historically inaccurate to portray characters like this, again, I would find it more interesting to enter the heads of those who did conform, or who were more muddled or conflicted about what is right. This is a historical novel, like so many, that avoids the restrictions imposed by history, and tells us modern-day stories translated into a more exciting setting.

Next week's post will be on Monday 15th July instead due to holidays, conferences, and hen weekends.