Monday, 30 March 2015

Monday Musings: The Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction Shortlist

The shortlist has been announced, and it's as follows:

The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis

The Lie by Helen Dunmore

Viper Wine by Hermione Eyre

In The Wolf's Mouth by Adam Foulds

Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut

A God in Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie

The Ten Thousand Things by John Spurling

I'm sorry to say, after seeing the wonderful longlist, that this shortlist has somewhat dampened my enthusiasm to read along with this prize. Which is silly, really, because I was actively planning to read three of the shortlisted novels anyway - Foulds, Galgut and Shamsie. It's very unfortunate that none of the novels I've already read have been shortlisted, especially the Sarah Waters, which definitely deserved to be. I'm also dismayed by the inclusion of Dunmore and Amis. I've never read any of Martin Amis's novels (shock!) but the review of The Zone of Interest in the LRB  didn't convince me that it's the place to start. And I've continuously struggled with Helen Dunmore - I couldn't get on with either The Siege or House of Orphans. I find her writing overly affected, and her historical research too heavily-worn. As for the rest, I know nothing about Eyre as a writer, but Viper Wine does sound intriguing, if I can get past the awful cover. It's nice to see a novel set in seventeenth-century Britain that's not about the civil wars or the Restoration. Spurling's novel, set in fourteenth-century China, also sounds like one to try. We'll see if I get through the whole list or not.

Friday, 27 March 2015

The Baileys Prize Longlist, #2: What difference did the war make?

I couldn't get through The Mouse Deer Kingdom, so I'm going straight into the Baileys longlist. I'm going to kick off my reviews of the longlisted novels with two novels partly or completely set in Britain in the 1940s. Despite this, they're both up for the Baileys rather than the Walter Scott.

NB. I wrote this review in September 2014 after receiving a proof copy of the novel. I instantly assumed from the way it was written that it was intended as 'crossover' fiction. It has since been reviewed and marketed as an adult novel, but I would still contend that (a) this sits in obvious crossover territory and (b) the novel feels too simple to work as straight adult fiction.

I adored Lissa Evans's last novel, Their Finest Hour and a Half, which perhaps meant that my expectations for this one were unreasonably high. However, I also think that it sits awkwardly between the adult and the children's market. There's no fundamental problem with writing a novel that appeals equally to adults and to children - novels like Goodnight Mister Tom manage it splendidly, and I'm impatient with rigid age categories in fiction at the best of times. However, in Crooked Heart, I felt that some of the qualities I'd most appreciated in Their Finest Hour and a Half were diluted in order to attain a greater simplicity for the sake of the younger reader, whereas the traditional strengths of children's fiction, such as a strong plot line, were absent. For example, I thought the characterisation in Their Finest Hour and a Half, which is also set during the Second World War, was skilfully handled - the characters, especially the more comic figures, veer close to caricature but still remained sympathetic and interesting. In contrast, I felt that too many of the characters in Crooked Heart - even Noel and Vee, at times - were too one-note, and not sufficiently complex to retain my attention.

The novel follows parentless Noel Bostock, who was living with his godmother Mattie until her decline and death sends him first to the house of his unsympathetic aunt and uncle and then threatens him with evacuation. As an evacuee, Noel meets Vee, making her living through various dubious practices such as falsely collecting for various charities, and her son Donald, who makes his money by volunteering to attend medicals in the place of those who don't want to be drafted, as he has a congenital heart problem. Unfortunately, I found it difficult to warm to either Noel or Vee - and warmth is an essential quality for a novel like this to work. Noel, who despises his cartoonish, delinquent classmates, felt like too much of a cliche, while Vee, who initially seemed more promising, failed to develop as the novel went on. As entertaining as her and Donald's antics were, I wanted a bit more to get my teeth into. Mattie was the character who most intrigued me, despite the fact that she only appears in flashbacks after the prologue.

I have extremely mixed feelings about this novel, and it is one of the very few books that I started liking more during its second half (usually I make up my mind about novels fairly early on). There will be spoilers in this review, because it's difficult for me to talk about why I changed my mind without them. Elizabeth is Missing is narrated by Maud, an elderly woman who is living with dementia, and who is therefore finding it increasingly difficult to keep track of her daily routine, let alone the clues she is trying to put together to explain her friend Elizabeth's disappearance. Emma Healey's presentation of Maud is outstanding; sensitive, thoughtful and touching, without resorting to the demonisation of the other characters in the book (Maud's daughter, Helen, her primary carer, becomes more complex and sympathetic in the second half of the novel as we see Maud relate to both Helen and to her granddaughter, and this was one of the reasons why the book picked up for me.) I felt connected to Maud as a character from the start, but the plot of Elizabeth is Missing baffled me. I made the assumption early on that Elizabeth really was missing but no-one was going to believe Maud (including the reader), so the twist would be that we so often ignore the stories of the old and/or ill in our society even though they have important things to say. I really should have realised earlier that this was not the way Elizabeth is Missing was going, but due to careless reading (I admit to skimming much of the first half of the book) I didn't get it. This made me very impatient with what appeared to be the glacially slow progress of Maud's investigations in the present-day plot line.

My main issue with the novel, however, stemmed not from my own misreadings, but from the second plot-line, which deals with Maud as a young teenager in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. There is another missing woman in this plot; Maud's older sister, Sukey. Sukey, who recently married Frank, has simply vanished, and Maud is determined to find out what has happened to her. However, like the present-day Maud, her inquiries are both ridiculed, and fruitless, until the very end. I'm afraid this plot-line didn't work for me at all, even after I had figured out what was really going on in Elizabeth is Missing. The depictions of 'austerity Britain' in 1946 felt half-hearted and cliched, and I didn't get the sense that Healey had done much research, or if she had, that much of it had found its way into the novel. As Victoria at Eve's Alexandria noted in her review of the novel, the male characters are a series of stereotypes, set up to fill certain roles in the mystery of Sukey's disappearance, and this made the 1946 sections feel even more contrived. Finally, I couldn't sympathise with the young, naive, virtually characterless Maud in the same way I could with present-day Maud, I didn't get much sense of what Sukey was like as a person, and I simply didn't care that Sukey was missing.

But I did care, very much, that Elizabeth was missing. Of course she is not. We find out - relatively early, if you are an attentive reader - that something has happened to Elizabeth, but it's not a mystery. Elizabeth has had a stroke and is in hospital, and although Maud has been told this many times, and has even gone to visit her, she does not remember. Once I twigged that the story that Maud was finally going to get to tell in Elizabeth is Missing was about Sukey and not Elizabeth, the novel became much more moving, and its exploration of living with dementia much more complex. Hence we have a cautionary tale about the perils of being a bad reader. Overall, this novel is still flawed. It could be shortened considerably, especially the sections set in 1946. Nevertheless, there are few books I've read recently that pack such an emotional punch with their final few lines. Maud is at Elizabeth's funeral. Her memory is gradually getting worse, so she only intermittently remembers who her family members are, even as they are standing around her. Nevertheless, she knows what she has to do: 'The woman doesn't think that's the answer and the man begins to explain something to me. But I can't concentrate. I can see they won't listen, won't take me seriously. So I must do something. I must, because Elizabeth is missing.'

Monday, 23 March 2015

Monday Musings: Rape as a plot device

A good example of using rape
as a bad plot device: the rape
of Anna Bates in Downton.
There's been a reasonable amount of discussion recently about 'using rape as a plot device', some of which is summarised in this Guardian article. A lot of the commentary I've read has centred around the TV series Reign, a fantasy reinvention of the life of Mary Queen of Scots, which controversially depicted Mary being raped in one of its later episodes. Rhiannon at Feminist Fiction wrote well about how such a scene has no place in a drama that has otherwise been fun and light-hearted, and I agree with her argument as far as I can without having seen the series myself. (The obvious counter-argument is: why can fun light-hearted shows depict murder, then? I don't want to get into that too deeply here, but I think the difference starts with the fact that we all know that murder is wrong, whereas 1 in 4 British people think that a victim of a sexual assault is at least 'a little bit responsible' if they've been drinking.) Downton Abbey got itself into similar problems to Reign when it depicted the rape of Anna Bates, then largely failed to depict the long-term consequences for Anna; indeed, it soon became clear that the rape was a plot device to put poor, misunderstood Mr Bates in jeopardy again. Downton lacks the emotional depth and complexity to deal with a rape scene adequately, and I don't think that such a scene should ever have been included. Nevertheless, some of the commentary on Reign left me feeling baffled. For example, in this post, Anita Little argues, 'If rape is used primarily to move a story along or explain a woman character's "complexity", it can desensitise the audience to real-life sexual violence', whereas this post goes further, stating, 'Rape is not a plot device. It is not character development.' Although these writers may well be right about Reign, their posts did leave me wondering: what place does rape have in fiction, then?

Changing a consensual sex scene to a rape scene actually
created plot problems for Game of Thrones, rather than
solving them, I would argue.
One major issue in this argument is disentangling the idea of 'rape as a plot device' from other (often valid) criticisms of how rape is portrayed in fiction. For example, shows like Game of Thrones and Outlander have been criticised for the gratuitous use of rape, but this does not mean that they use rape as a plot device - indeed, the problem with many of the rape scenes in Game of Thrones is how little they add to the show. This recent Independent article manages to conflate almost any commentary about rape with the idea that it is a (bad) plot device. I want to spend a long time unpicking many of the ridiculous arguments in this article - particularly the idea that rapists must be portrayed as unsympathetic monsters to allow us to have sympathy with the victim - but I suspect that the statements made by the speakers concerned have been selectively and badly reported, so I'm going to move on. The main point is that even if you think rapists have been made to look too 'nice' in fiction, this isn't using rape as a plot device; this is shoddy characterisation.

So what do we mean when we say 'rape shouldn't be used as a plot device'? If we mean that rape shouldn't be used solely as a plot device, that it should never be used simply to move a story along, then I'm in total agreement. But I cannot agree that rape must never play any part in the plot - whether as a motivation for a character's actions or as an event that leads to a further chain of events. For example, in Louise Doughty's Apple Tree Yard (which I've been talking about a lot, because it's a great book) a character is raped. This rape is absolutely pivotal to the plotline. However, it's also central not only to the character arc of the character in question, but to the thematic weight of the novel. In no way is rape simply a plot device to move the story along. But I would argue that it is a plot device - in the same way that any crucial event in a story can be seen as a 'plot device' - because it is a turning-point in the plot. It works because it's not only part of the plot but because the ramifications for the character are important as well. 

In this context, the idea that 'rape is not character development' is even more baffling. I think the argument here is that rape shouldn't be used to make characters 'more complex' or to give the impression of a darker, edgier narrative, and again, I'm in total agreement. But, I think, here is where fiction must diverge from the way in which we talk about, and understand, real-life rape. For real-life rape survivors, it's absolutely appropriate to say that rape is not character development, because it's an event that was not their fault, does not fit into a story that proves their guilt or innocence, and they should not be expected to learn from it or, indeed, react in any particular way. Fictional rapes, however, are a part of character development, not in the sense that the character should be portrayed as somehow stronger or more interesting because s/he has been raped, but because they must be, or what is the rape doing in this story? If rapes don't contribute to character development, or move the plot along, then the only logical conclusion is that they have no place in the novel or film. And I don't think the way to address the poor handling of sexual violence in fiction is to erase it altogether. If commentators think that we shouldn't address rape in fiction at all, then, rather than debating about its use as a 'plot device', perhaps we should have this argument instead.

Saturday, 21 March 2015

The Baileys/Walter Scott Longlists, #1: Summary

The Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction and Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction longlists have been released, and while there's no chance I will be able to review all the novels, I'm going to read along with as many as I can in preparation for reading the full shortlists when they're out. (Incidentally, I love this article on 'literary historical fiction' from a previous judge of the Walter Scott Prize; a strong argument for an important category.)
Sarah Waters' The Paying Guests conveniently appears on both longlists, and I've already reviewed it on this blog; I absolutely loved it, and think it's Waters' best novel yet, with the exception of The Night Watch. From the Walter Scott longlist, I've also reviewed Jessie Burton's The Miniaturist, which I enjoyed, but which I felt struck an awkward balance between historical fact and fantasy. Finally, Audrey Magee's The Undertaking was up for last year's Baileys Prize, and I read it then; I liked it, but I felt that the central concept was too simplistic to carry an entire novel.
I will shortly be reviewing Emma Healey's Elizabeth is Missing, Lissa Evans's Crooked Heart, Emily St John Mandel's Station Eleven and Xiaolu Guo's I Am China from the Baileys longlist; from the shorter Walter Scott longlist, I'm going to tackle Anna Hope's Wake and Damon Galgut's Arctic Summer. If there's any time left, I'll read Kamila Shamsie's A God in Every Stone, which is on both lists!

Friday, 20 March 2015

'The lifting of a burden'

Spoilers throughout this review.
Timothy Glover, with 'a head like a bowling ball sitting on his shoulders', whose T-shirts are made of 'home tie-dyed cotton from stalls at radical fairs', one 'grey as a prison flannel' is not an attractive or a pleasant character. We first meet Tim as a ten-year-old in Sheffield in 1974, but Philip Hensher is keen to assure us that he was never a nice boy. When his mother, Katherine, is looking through photograph albums when Tim is grown-up, she remembers that she had 'difficulty' with Tim even when he was only an ugly baby: 'difficulty telling Jane and Daniel that they had to love their new little brother. He hadn't slept, hadn't liked food, had pushed her away almost constantly. She'd wanted, sometimes, to push him away, to be honest.' Tim's lack of redeeming features is underlined throughout the twenty-year time span covered by The Northern Clemency, where, as a shiftless young man in 1984, he carefully dog-ears his copy of Capital before taking it out of the house so he'll never be suspected of not having read it, and hangs around at the fringes of the miners' strike spouting half-digested ideas about capitalism. By 1994, Tim is a lecturer in social sciences, but seems hardly more educated or less childish; indeed, he's presented as a caricature of the loony left. When his old neighbour, Bernie, a former employee of the electricity board, which Tim blames for breaking the miners' strike, politely invites Tim to his retirement party, Tim 'wrote a finely argued letter over five pages of the departmental writing paper explaining why... he couldn't in all conscience go to such a party.' It's not surprising, when Tim's body washes up near the end of the novel, that his brother Daniel perceives his death as 'the lifting of a burden.'

Tim Glover, however, is not just an oddity within the world that he inhabits; he's an oddity for the reader as well. In a novel otherwise so committed to nuance and, indeed, kindness, his vicious portrayal jars, over and over again. Not only does it seem unnecessary to seek out the most unsympathetic viewpoints possible for, not only the miners' strike, but for the entire left-wing critique of Thatcherism, it seems cruel to revel so thoroughly in Tim's personal failings. This huge novel is deliberately confined to a small subsection of the lower middle class in Sheffield, and perhaps the total lack of working-class viewpoints is deliberate; perhaps Tim's self-delusions are not intended to condemn all his comrades but to emphasise his failure to understand anybody different from himself. It's difficult to pretend The Northern Clemency is a novel about class, however. Despite Hensher's brilliant eye for social detail, it has more to say about individuals than groups. Some of these individuals work better than others, although none fail nearly as badly as Tim. (And yes, Tim is a failure as a character - as demonstrated by the need to fall back on the cliched idea that he was 'wrong from birth', rather than warped by the unfortunate events that happen to him later). Francis, close in age to Tim, has a small but significant arc that focuses on his loneliness as a child and asexuality as an adult - an arc that culminates in the first emotional connection he's ever made with everyone. Francis's sister, Sandra, is engagingly complex; striving to be a cool girl as a teenager, but never quite managing it, she later plays the role of a British expat in Australia without ever quite achieving the local insouciance she prides herself on (when asked where the best places to go in the country are, she falls back on "Ayers Rock. The Great Barrier Reef. The Blue Mountains.") Sandra can be thoughtless and cruel but, unlike Tim, is completely human. The other two children from 1974, Daniel and Jane, fare less well, as their narratives are inexplicably shortened to give more space to their brother.

Hensher's gifts as a novelist, however, are most on display in his depiction of the two sets of Sheffield parents - Bernie and Alice, and Katherine and Malcolm. Katherine's decision to get a job in 1974 sets her apart from her neighbour Alice, who remains a stay-at-home wife and mother. However, the thrill of working in a flower shop with the glamorous Nick turns Katherine's head, and she's soon guilty of egregious name-dropping among her family, which Hensher handles hilariously via disgusted teenage daughter Jane: 'At first Jane felt that she would never get on with her mother's conversation, the way you waited for Nick to enter it at any moment, but time wore down anything. Soon it was the same as Tim's dreaming evocation of snakes, his paragraphs of detail and longing, and they divided the long evenings between them like madmen supervising the silent sane.' When Nick is accused of money-laundering in 1984, Katherine's obsession takes a more dramatic turn - although Nick's story is one of the inexplicable loose ends in this novel. Hensher also writes Katherine and Malcolm's relationship with understated mastery. Alice and Bernie get less page-time, but Alice, in particular, is fully if quietly realised, and her ending is an understated tragedy; just as she is trying to come to terms with the fact that her husband's retirement has highlighted how little she has done with her life, she has a brain haemorrhage. As she lies in hospital, her son visits her: 'At first Francis's talk took the form of assurances of love, of telling Alice what sort of admirable person she was... It was all true, but he got to the end of it very quickly.' The reader is with Francis is both recognising Alice's goodness and realising how little there is to say.

The Northern Clemency is an oddly mixed bag; more than 700 pages long, I had the sense that it could easily have lasted another 700 without becoming any more conclusive. On one hand, its depiction of these two families (Tim aside) is endlessly fascinating, and we care no less about Francis playing games in the playground than Katherine on trial, which is a triumph in itself. On the other hand, it delivers far less than it ought to given its size, and I felt strongly that The Emperor Waltz, which is both tightly-written and lengthy, demonstrates how much Hensher has improved as a writer, especially through excising the unconvincing descriptive passages that weigh down a lot of The Northern Clemency. I enjoyed it, but I'm not sure I would read it again.

Monday, 16 March 2015

Monday Musings: What is 'literary fiction'?

The US cover. Less pink, arguably no
less 'chick-lit'.
Having just reviewed Katherine Heiny's debut collection of short stories, Single, Carefree, Mellow, I noticed that it had fallen victim to that familiar debate: what is 'literary fiction'? In Is Single, Carefree, Mellow Literature or Chick Lit?, Aimee Levitt sums up the story so far, and argues that neither sales, humour, nor what Jonathan Franzen terms 'moral complexity' sets 'literary fiction' apart from 'chick lit'. In reference to the last point, she convincingly argues 'does that mean literary fiction is less fun to read but good for you...? I don't believe that either.' Her conclusion is that these labels don't matter: 'we could just say there's good writing and bad writing.' I had a crack at a similar debate myself in an old blog post from 2011, 'The debate on readability versus literary merit'. And although I agree with much of what Levitt says in her article, especially her criticisms of Franzen, I find myself still in the same position I argued for in 2011: that it is important that we have a category called 'literary fiction', even if many definitions of what that category is are insufficient or simply wrong.

I agree with Levitt that literary fiction shouldn't be seen as something you have to choke down to become a 'better' writer or reader, and that 'moral complexity' is not a sufficient description of what it does do for us. As I argued in 2011, Marian Keyes's wonderful piece of chick lit, The Other Side of the Story, presents three very complex and flawed female characters who are, to one degree or another, at odds with each other, but who are all sympathetic. There is no easy answer to the questions Keyes poses about adultery and loyalty, although the novel contrasts with Single, Carefree, Mellow in considering the moral implications of its characters' actions much more carefully. But then, if a deep concern with morality was enough to tip a novel out of the literary canon for being too simplistic, Middlemarch had better be thrown out as well. Moreover, I would suggest, engaging a reader deeply with your text is something that a writer must accomplish if they want the vast majority of their readers to care about unpicking anything more nuanced or subtle that is going on. I have read so many novels where I suspected that the writer was doing something clever - Butterflies in November being the most recent example - but I simply didn't care enough to accomplish the necessary analytic work. In contrast, I have spent many, many words (over-)analysing George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, because he made me care about the story he was telling. If I hadn't been much bothered about what happened to Sansa or Arya, I would never have appreciated the subtleties of some of the symbolism he uses to refer to these two sisters.

The top search terms used to find this blog are 'What happens
to Arya Stark in Game of Thrones?' I wish I knew!
I also dislike the cheap value judgments made about 'readers of chick lit' or of 'YA novels' or 'fantasy' or really any genre you could name, although I agree with Jennifer Weiner that the scorn and distaste heaped on chick lit is disproportionate when compared to the relative respect afforded to 'male' genres such as the political thriller. (YA also suffers from ageist assumptions, such as the frequently-expressed opinion that it is infantilising for adults to read books intended primarily for children and teenagers, as if all adult novels were great literature, and as if it's OK to fob children and teenagers off with rubbish.) Firstly, how ridiculous to assume that because I am reading chick lit now that this is all I ever read. Secondly, frankly it is much better for me - both in terms of enjoyment, and intellectually speaking - to read a well-written romantic novel, or fantasy, or YA, than a failed attempt at literary fiction, of which there are many. The problem with bad literary fiction is that the reader tends to get nothing from it at all, whereas I've enjoyed some truly awful thrillers with exciting plots, for example. (This is not to say that literary novels cannot have exciting plots - but bad ones rarely do.)

Not literary fiction, still brilliant.
Why, then, do we need literary fiction? I think it comes back to the idea that I gestured towards in my 2011 post: the reader's expectations. While this may not be true of all readers, I do think that we usually work with a different set of expectations when we open a literary novel than a popular one, with all the appropriate caveats about how difficult the line between the two is to draw (my literary novel might be your popular one, and vice versa). And I don't think that these expectations should simply be dumped, so we toss away Kazuo Ishiguro's The Buried Giant because it is not as immediately gripping as A Game of Thrones. This does not mean that novelists who write literary fiction can be as self-indulgent as they want, safe in the knowledge that their readers don't expect to be gripped. Indeed, it is up to them to be clear about the type of reader that their novel needs. By 'type of reader' I don't mean that they are writing for certain individuals and not others. I would suggest that we all become different readers when we engage with different types of books, that the type of reader I am when I'm racing through a fantastic thriller like Louise Doughty's Apple Tree Yard, for example, is a different type of reader from the reader I am now, reading Emily St John Mandel's Station Eleven, which is equally gripping, but in a totally different way. Writers need to signal what the reader will need to do to make this book work for them (which should never include 'be bored and soldier on') and readers need to be prepared to slow down, to think differently, to adjust. And although I am not suggesting that all literary novels need to be slow-paced, I think it makes perfect sense that most of them are, at least, slower-paced than popular fiction, because they are usually grasping after something that cannot be said easily if read too quickly. (Sarah Waters' fantastic The Paying Guests does, I think, suffer from the intense pace of its second half - with the result that many reviewers felt that the latter half was shallower than the first.) This also helps to explain why readers care if a novel is 'literary' or not; not necessarily because they think literary fiction is more worthy or because they can't deal with anything that doesn't have a category, but because they genuinely want to know how they should be approaching it.

So while there are no absolute rules about literary fiction being slower, more complex and more challenging, I would suggest that the existence of a category that tends towards creating such expectations in readers is not a bad thing at all. And although regarding genre fiction (the question of 'is literary fiction a genre' is one to tackle another day!) as automatically inferior is both foolish and wrong, there is something about literary fiction that demands, I think, a greater investment, simply because it's more at odds with our idea of how we ought to be entertained. This, of course, only makes it more disappointing when that investment is wasted. Authors, be warned.

Friday, 13 March 2015

Coupled, carefree, conflicted

This collection of short stories focuses on an array of women who are very rarely 'single, carefree and mellow'. Indeed, that sequence of words seems to capture an ideal that lies beyond the reach of all these characters, tied as they are to marriages, affairs, families, and in one case, an ailing dog. These women's lives were not carefree and mellow before they committed to their current set of entanglements, but beyond the horizon they all seem to see the same fictional version of the lives they could have led - if not for the fact that they do love their husbands, their lovers and their children. While Katherine Heiny steadfastly refuses to judge the women that she writes about, the stories in Single, Carefree, Mellow are not quasi-feminist pleas to the reader to recognise the limits of these characters' lives, like Helen Simpson's Hey Yeah Right Get A Life or Constitutional - and in my opinion, the stories are the better for it. Any hint that Heiny had a point to make would quickly have become very tiresome, as these stories unfold in very similar ways, and yet, for me, they rarely felt repetitious or stale.

'The Dive Bar', the first story in this collection, was one of my favourites. Its central dilemma is introduced immediately: Sasha is invited for a drink by her married lover's wife, Anne. Yet what I found charming in this narrative is that it's not really about the relationship between Sasha and her love, but between Sasha and Monique, her best friend. Their intense closeness is vaguely reminiscent of the wonderful film Frances Ha, and is underlined by Sasha's chief worry about the meeting with Anne: 'She wishes she could shake the feeling sometimes that Monique sympathises with Anne entirely too much.' After meeting Anne, Sasha is less concerned with her lover's reaction than with the realisation that 'Monique is on Sasha's side', and when her lover chooses an apartment for them to live in, her first thought is 'Monique would love it... Finally he has done something Monique would approve of.' This story works particularly well, perhaps, because it deals primarily with female characters, and throughout this collection, Heiny's women are much sharper, more interesting and more individualised than her men, who share the same fondness for trivia and disappoint their partners with their mundanity. Nevertheless, I loved 'How To Give The Wrong Impression,' first published in The New Yorker back in 1992, which is daringly told in the second person and made me emphasise completely with Gwen, who is in love with her flatmate but cannot admit her feelings. (I disagree with the reviewer in The New York Times that this story is too 'cute' and has a 'darling ending'; the ending seemed to me to be thoroughly ambiguous.)

The other stories in the collection are more of a mixed bag, although I enjoyed reading all of them. The three interlinked stories focusing on Maya and Rhodes as they date, cheat and have a baby are somehow less than the sum of their parts, although at least two of them, the eponymous 'Single, Carefree, Mellow' and 'Dark Matter' are strong individually as well. Part of the problem, I think, is the fact that they're set within a collection of very similar stories, where many of the women are a little like Maya and the men a little like Rhodes, and they could stand better as a novella. The stories that branched away from a close exploration of relationships into a more social observational mode also worked less well for me, as I found much of the detail a little shallow - while stories such as 'Blue Heron Bridge' and 'Cranberry Relish' were amusing, they said little other than that neighbours can be stifling and our heroines can be snobbish, and failed to flesh out the secondary cast. 'Andorra', the final story in the collection, is especially forgettable; having been fully versed in how Heiny's stories work by now, I found it extremely predictable.

Overall, I recommend this collection for those who enjoy small-scale, slightly offbeat short stories about relationships, like Melissa Banks's The Girl's Guide to Hunting and Fishing and The Wonder Spot; it's a fun and easy read that is thought-provoking more often than not.

Monday, 9 March 2015

Monday Musings: Writing 'the other'

I recently read a fantastic article by Aminatta Forna in the Guardian, 'Don't judge a book by its author', where she eloquently argues that authors should not be expected to write what they know, that she doesn't want to be pigeonholed as an 'African' or female writer, and that writers not from minority groups should not be afraid to write as 'the other.' I found her account of publishing her third novel, The Hired Man, after having written two novels set in Sierra Leone, especially striking. One New York bookstore shelved it under 'African Fiction' even after Forna had given a talk at the store that emphasised that the novel was set in Croatia. 'Where should a bookshop shelve a novel set in Croatia and written in English by a Scottish Sierra Leonian author?' she wonders, and notes that 'I could count on one hand the reviewers who did not mention that I was a woman of colour writing in the voice of a rural, Croatian man.' I'm proud to say that I didn't mention Forna's race in my review of The Hired Man, but have to admit that I'm not exempt from her more general criticisms: before starting The Hired Man, I assumed that it was set in Africa. The flipside of this issue, of course, which Forna discusses in her article, is the dominance of white male writers writing about other white men, too rarely taking on the challenge of centring a novel around somebody who is very different from them. Fears of cultural appropriation, are, I think, genuine; this takes me back to my earlier post about the lack of female characters in fantasy, and the worry that one won't be able to do justice to a character of a different race or gender. But a lot of this also comes down to simple thoughtlessness.

There was one paragraph of Forna's otherwise excellent article with which I did not agree. Despite writing that 'to write a peasant woman born at the turn of the century, to imagine what it might have been like never to have read a book or seen a film, I found the toughest act of all' she suggests that 'Historical novels are exempt from accusations of "inauthenticity", presumably due to the lack of critics with first-hand experience.' Reading reviews of historical novels would surely indicate that this isn't the case at all. Two of the examples she gives - Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall and Jim Crace's Harvest - have certainly been criticised from all sides for 'getting it wrong', or in Crace's case, for not being precise enough with his use of historical detail (a criticism with which I agree). As I also discussed in a recent post, historical novels are definitely vulnerable to attacks from those who believe they have greater expertise, although this is not tied back to identity politics in the way that accusations of 'inauthenticity' are (or not always - how about if a white writer writes about the slave trade from the point of view of a slave, or a black writer takes on the court of Henry VIII? Neither of these scenarios are problematic in my view, but it's conceivable that others could think that they were.) Whatever one writes, someone who does indeed have, or believes that they have, greater expertise than the author will be able to question it. Furthermore, as Forna indicates, if you are a white male novelist, is it really any easier to write as a (white, male) Tudor peasant than a present-day woman of colour? It seems that writers are more willing to take on the former challenge, and yet, as a (white, female) historian, I would balk at trying to write a novel from the point of view of an illiterate peasant at a time when there weren't any novels at all - though I'm sure it could be done.

The answer for both historical and contemporary novelists, therefore, seems to be the same: do your research. Just as historical novelists aren't exempt from considering present-day power inequalities, contemporary novelists aren't exempt from research. Nevertheless, I would agree with Forna that trying to reach outside your own immediate cultural background isn't appropriation, if done properly, but is exactly what writers ought to be doing. Writing isn't journalism, and novels shouldn't be seen as a series of truthful accounts from a range of people with different life experiences (although of course it is important to hear from writers who are not straight white men). This is what novels are for, both for the reader and the writer: to understand people who are different from ourselves. 

Friday, 6 March 2015

Mr B's Reading Year, Seven: Lost in translation?

Translated from the Icelandic, it's almost impossible to describe Butterflies in November as anything but quirky - much as I usually dislike using the term. Our unnamed narrator, who works as an editor and translator, loses her husband and her lover on the same day after accidentally hitting a goose while driving between assignations. As she tries to put her life back together, her best friend Audur suddenly has an accident, and she becomes temporarily responsible for Audur's small, disabled son, Tumi. After winning the lottery (it's that kind of book), she sweeps Tumi off on a road trip across Iceland during which they have a host of weird and memorable experiences, and kill at least one other animal - an unfortunate sheep. Our narrator, however, tends to take everything in her stride; for example, randomly encountering her ex in one of the hotels she stays in during her trip: 'On my way up to the bedroom I meet my ex-lover on the staircase and halt at a distance of five, six steps. "Nice trousers, like the floral pattern, they suit you."' The novel, we quickly realise, is not quite realistic; how much of this is really happening seems up for grabs. The most engaging sections, for me, were the brief, italicised flashbacks to our narrator's childhood, mostly because they felt emotionally engaging and real, rather than buried in whimsy. Fans of a stereotypical idea of what 'Icelandic fiction' should be won't enjoy this novel; it's no Independent People.

Initially, I enjoyed our narrator's interesting voice while it still formed a contrast to the more mundane events happening to her. Killing a goose and breaking up with various men may be dramatic, but it's still very much within the realms of believability, even when she decides the best thing to do with the goose is cook it. I also liked the familiar back-and-forth conversations she has with her husband, even if (at least in this translation) all the characters seem to sound the same. As they sit down to analyse the problems in their relationship, he has a serious grievance to voice: "not all men are bright and chirpy in the morning, and you can't expect them to appreciate the nuances of linguistics over their morning porridge... It isn't always easy to figure out what you're on about. Other people just chat when the bread pops out of the toaster. Maybe, for example, they say things like: the toast is ready, would you like me to pass it to you? Would you like jam or cheese? They talk about cosy, homely things like washing powder, for example, things that mean something in a relationship. Have you ever asked yourself if I might like to talk about washing powder? Somehow you're never willing to talk about washing powder." At its best, the novel is funny and observant about long-term relationships, how grievances about the character of your partner are so difficult to express, so wound back into your long history, that they come out as incredibly petty. The narrator's internal reactions are also apt and interesting. For me (as so often with novels!) Butterflies in November started to go downhill when the plot kicked off, and our narrator is saddled with Tumi. As this became a quirky road-trip novel rather than a more subtle exploration of our undoubtedly interesting main character, I lost interest. The narrator starts reacting to an array of peculiar things (a cucumber hotel! black sand beaches!) rather than becoming deeper and more fully-realised, except in the flashbacks I mentioned before.

I did wonder if there is a cultural gap between me and Butterflies in November, and whether I'm just not getting it, most of the time. This is one reason why I tend to avoid books in translation, as it makes that gap even bigger. Sarah Moss, who is not Icelandic but lived and worked in Iceland for a year, had a similar reaction to me, but as far as I know, Moss doesn't speak Icelandic either, so we're still divided from the book by language. Judging from the cover, however, the publishers are very much selling this book as something that is quirky and charming, not a more serious consideration of love and relationships (our narrator is 33, but the cover recalls a teenager or a woman in her early twenties). I couldn't fathom the inclusion of Tumi, and didn't feel that the narrator's haphazard babysitting said anything more about her than we already knew - she's irresponsible and impulsive. And although I liked the occasional details about Iceland, the setting doesn't especially dominate. Most baffling of all, for me, was the inclusion of fifty pages of invented and unworkable 'recipes' (at the end of a book that's only 250 pages long!) I skimmed these, but felt a little as if I was drowning in yet more loveable craziness, so did not read them thoroughly. Would an Icelandic reader react differently? I'm not sure.

Monday, 2 March 2015

March schedule

Due to job interviews and teaching my schedule for last month was once again a failure, so quite a bit of it has been pushed into March. I finally graduated from my PhD, however, so have some cause to celebrate!

The schedule for this month is:

Friday March 6th: Mr B's Reading Year, Seven: Butterflies in November by Audur Ava Olafsdottir

Friday March 13th: Single, Carefree, Mellow by Katherine Heiny

Friday March 20th: The Northern Clemency by Philip Hensher

Friday March 27th: The Mouse Deer Kingdom by Chiew Siah-Tei