Friday, 27 June 2014

'This memory is only as vivid to me as the one it replaces'

This is a difficult book to review, or indeed, recommend, without giving away a key plot twist, and it is important that you begin reading it without knowing the catch - although, I would never have picked this up without being spoiled, so there is that. Rosemary, our narrator, started life with two siblings but now, at college, may as well be an only child. Both her sister, Fern, and brother, Lowell, have vanished, and she does not know how to find them. Rosemary is twenty-two, but she sounds young for her age as she tells us she's going to 'start in the middle' of her story, and her early involvement with a girl who makes a scene in the college cafeteria seems to confirm our first impressions. The girl enters, shouting and smashing things, but as she's escorted from the premises by the police, Rosemary draws attention to herself by deliberately throwing her glass on the floor. Though she began as a shocked, innocent bystander, Rosemary is suddenly in custody as well.

It's Rosemary's voice that will make or break this story for the reader, and I'm afraid I never warmed to her, even as we find out the reasons behind her peculiarities. I found her irritatingly whimsical, even in the face of some of the darkest parts of the story she tells - perhaps this is her defence mechanism, but I often wanted to see things from the point of view of her older brother, Lowell, much angrier and much less passive. She also indulges in twee asides too frequently: 'When I run the world, librarians will be exempt from tragedy. Even their smaller sorrows will last only for as long as you can take out a book.' This voice culminates in the ending of the novel, which feels too convenient and too easy, good as it is to see some of the things Rosemary has hoped for coming to pass. Similarly, I found Rosemary's explicit reflections on whether she is telling us the 'middle' of her story now, or 'the beginning of the end', or 'the end of the beginning' too obvious. I love novels told out of order, but somehow We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves managed to feel simultaneously too structured and too confusing. Some of Rosemary's narrative choices made sense, but others seemed unnecessary.

There was a lot that I genuinely liked about this novel, despite not being able to fall in love with it. Rosemary's subtle reflections on how she has never been able to escape the experiment she took part in as a child are fascinating, as is the implication that the experiment has achieved opposite results to those intended. More broadly, the story made me reflect on childhood and how difficult it is for children to communicate with adults. Rosemary's father is a psychologist, and so Rosemary's musings on psychology and the findings of figures such as Piaget throughout the novel feel natural, and the challenges she poses interesting. Miscommunication dogs Rosemary's story, not because it is impossible to understand each other but because we believe we can't. Another well-written thread focuses on the unreliability of Rosemary's childhood memories, as she tries to work out why she was sent away aged five; again, Karen Joy Fowler interweaves Freud into the narrative with the lightest of touches. Ironically, once the bulk of the mystery is cleared up, I found the last third of the novel much more gripping, as Rosemary finally faced up to issues I felt she'd been dodging for a long time.

Given its subject-matter, I thought I would adore We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, but instead I'm left with a sense of wasted potential. I wish we'd been able to escape Rosemary's narrative, and that the plot had been less focused on the family-story tragedy elements and more on the broader ethical and political questions that the topic raises. Nevertheless, there's more here than in most novels to make you think.

Friday, 13 June 2014

'I would rather be gulled than do the gulling'

As this novel opens, its narrator, Nell Benjamin, is silently arguing with her husband, Charlie. After a few minutes of brooding, she eventually confronts him over the behaviour of one of their old friends, Frank Tucker, at a party last night. Despite his distinguished record of civil rights activism and liberal journalism, Frank is an old-school misogynist, and Nell has always struggled to reconcile her admiration of his achievements with the ease with which he can say things like 'women are too dumb to do anything but type, file and fuck'. As Charlie leaves for work, things are still tense between them. However, when Nell receives a phone call half an hour later, she receives devastating news that throws her life into chaos. Then, only a little while later, JFK is shot dead in Texas. Unknown to Nell, this day both marks the end of the happiest period of her life and her idealistic, unswerving commitment to the liberal ideals she expresses through her journalism.

Pivoting around November 22nd, 1963, the novel jumps back to the early 1950s to explore the beginnings of Nell and Charlie's relationship. Soon after they meet, Charlie is offered a job on a liberal, anti-Soviet journal, Compass. Nell is equally committed to the journal's remit, to oppose both 'the totalitarianism of the left' and that of the right. In the McCarthy era, a number of its writers fall under suspicion, including Charlie himself; and Nell is, dimly, suspicious of where Compass's financial backing is coming from. In the loose-living circles that they frequent, it would be easy for Nell to lose her trust in Charlie, and suspect he was cheating on her, but she trusts completely in his faithfulness. What niggles at her is the loose threads that never quite seem to make sense - like the story on the coup in Guatemala that she wrote for Compass, but which was rejected at the last moment. Flashing forward beyond 1963, we see Nell uncovering the truth behind her suspicions, but also realising that some of her questions will never be answered. A particularly satisfying thread in The Unwitting is the way in which Feldman turns the traditional plot - a woman's happy marriage is shattered by the discovery of adultery - on its head, by suggesting that, for Nell at least, there are worse crimes than sexual unfaithfulness.

As in Scottsboro and Next to Love, her two previous novels, I admired Ellen Feldman's deft, precise and clever writing in The Unwitting. Like Next to Love, it can occasionally read like a bit of a 'tick-box' approach to social inequalities, covering race, religion and gender. I felt that Feldman's approach was more subtle here than in the earlier novel, however; for example, in her handling of Nell's relationship with the one major black character, Woody, an old boyfriend from her college days. Here, Nell's ideals trip her up; when travelling with a group of Americans, including Woody, to Russia in overcrowded sleepers, she is placed in a sleeper with Woody and another black couple. Worried that Woody is trying to rekindle the spark between them, she starts to protest, and the organiser of the trip reacts immediately: 'Oh, lordy, what was I thinking? Putting a white woman in with three Negroes'. Nell has no choice: 'I told her I'd bunk with Woody and the Delaneys.' At other times, however, The Unwitting feels a little shallow, a little too neatly-constructed, although it is never less than gripping. Feldman undercuts the tidiness of her plotting occasionally, and the story becomes stronger when she does. For example, near the end of the novel, Nell re-encounters Frank Tucker, her boorish dinner guest; although she still deplores his sexism, his penchant for 'pretty, leggy girls', she has to admit that he is one of the few figures from her 1950s circle who really stuck to his principles.

Feldman's grasp of structure and suspense is incredibly assured. Nell, too, is a convincing character. However, I doubt there is enough depth in The Unwitting for me to want to read it again. Some of the publicity compares the book to Ian McEwan's recent Sweet Tooth (which I was dubious about for entirely unrelated reasons), but, outside the Cold War setting, the comparison isn't that accurate. It reminded me most of Curtis Sittenfeld's American Wife, which also negotiates a marriage that is 'political' in the broadest sense - although under far more scrutiny than Nell's and Charlie's - and a wife's ultimate choice between her husband and her own principles. In comparison to Sittenfeld's writing, however, Feldman gives us less to think about beyond the obvious, and is so economic with her narrative choices that the novel feels over-schematic. Nevertheless, I will certainly read her next book.

Monday, 9 June 2014

Lovesongs lovesongs

Henry, Lee, Kip and Ronnie have grown up together in the tiny rural community of Little Wing, in Wisconsin. Later, their paths diverged; only Henry has remained true to his roots, farming the land like his father did and marrying his lifelong friend Beth. Both Kip and Lee remind Henry of how small and insignificant his life might seem to outsiders; Lee is a famous musician, and Kip a wealthy businessman who leads the high life, making martinis in women's high heels and generally misbehaving. Their different reactions to Ronnie, now a brain-damaged alcoholic, when back in town for a wedding, show Henry what these men are really worth. But Henry's loyalties are soon to be shaken in an even more fundamental way...

Shotgun Lovesongs sways between being easy, pleasant and totally forgettable to saying something much more interesting. Told in the alternating voices of the four friends and Beth, it was Lee's story that I found the most gripping. His vivid account of his early days as a musician, living on a hundred dollars a month and working in a freezing outhouse warmed only by coffee and an open fire to force himself to finally do some songwriting rings true. So does what happens during that time to inspire his first album, Shotgun Lovesongs. Similarly, Beth's narrative is interesting because it is the flipside of Lee's; as she admits, she is 'untalented', but her evident kindness, intelligence and empathy makes her stand out as much as Lee does as she helps a succession of wives and girlfriends negotiate both the men's tight friendship group and the unfamiliar landscape of Little Wing, whether that is by sharing lipstick or buying 'buttery nipple' shots and bemusing the local barmaid.

It is Henry's voice that was the weakest aspect of this book, for me. Kip and Ronnie's chapters feel like sidelines to the main narrative, but Henry is clearly meant to be the heart and soul of the story. However, unlike Beth - a seemingly ordinary woman made less ordinary by her inter-personal gifts - Henry seems genuinely run-of-the-mill, although Butler seems to be going for a 'salt of the earth' depiction of the goodness of an everyday man. Indeed it is Lee who is more distinguished by his generosity, which is not merely financial. Butler's writing is competent and readable, but not special enough to elevate Henry in the way I felt he needed to be elevated if the ending of the novel is to work. The Wisconsin setting, similarly, had great potential, but is presented through a soft-focus Instagram filter, which means that it never feels quite real. In general, the novel balances realism and romanticism fairly well, with a strong depiction of rural poverty, but loses its grip occasionally - for example, in the sappy depiction of another wedding celebration near the end of the novel, which relies too much on cliche in its description of a close-knit community.

This is a heartwarming and feel-good read which I have no doubt will be genuinely enjoyed by a lot of readers; and as I've suggested, it also has real strengths. I personally was looking for something with a bit more bite - more of the 'shotgun', and less of the 'lovesongs'.

Friday, 6 June 2014

'It is only my eye that fixes things'

Mia Morgan is in her late thirties and adrift after the sudden death of her older lover, John. Returning to her roots in the Welsh marches, her complicated relationship with her now-blind father also drags her down. What's keeping her afloat is the book she is helping to research for one of John's friends, which focuses on the life of Lady Brilliana Harley, a Puritan noblewoman who successfully defended her home when it was under siege during the Civil War. (Though the novel doesn't mention this, Brilliana was only one of several women on both sides of the conflict who were left in charge of ancestral seats when their men went off to war; another was the Royalist Charlotte de la Tremouille, who also saw off the first parliamentary siege of her home, Latham House; Charlotte is commemorated in the fabulous Steeleye Span song They Called Her Babylon.) As Mia puts it, she is 'no scholar… no academic'; she's simply helping a friend. However, she becomes increasingly enthralled by Brilliana's life as she becomes bemused by academic research methods. In a memorable scene in the parish record office, she muses over how she can be expected to piece together all these fragments of skin and dust into a living human being again, dutifully copying a list that itemises Brilliana's household furniture. In a slightly overwritten later incident in the British Library, she follows the same train of thought as she watches her fellow readers gorging and regurgitating books.

Darkling, which is the first of Laura Beatty's two novels I've read, is a beautifully-written, but slow and meandering read. The opening is reminiscent of Hilary Mantel's Bring Up The Bodies, as Beatty focuses her attention on a hawk circling in the Welsh air: 'To the hawk, whose ground this is, the world is not an anchored place. It is more like a tray, tilting its grass surface this way and that, as he swings it about on his eye-beam… It is only my eye, he thinks, which fixes things. Because he can do that.' The strength of the writing, however, was not enough for me to fall in love with this novel. A major problem for me was Mia herself. Despite her virtues - her love for her father and loyalty for John - I found her increasingly irritating. This was largely because I disagreed strongly with her musings on history. As an historian, I'm always super-critical of this sort of thing, and this probably won't bother most readers at all. However, I found myself taking issue with her low estimation of the historian's craft - and craft, I think, is the appropriate word. While she seems to find her fellow readers in the British Library divorced from the reality about Brilliana that she wants to perceive, I wanted to ask what she thinks they're searching for in all those books; how else she thinks she will get closer to Brilliana now. I'm not an early modern historian myself, but I'm continuously impressed by how much can be discerned from limiting and unpromising records like Mia's wardrobe list, which I found fabulously evocative. Indeed, given how many of Brilliana's letters survive, she's a fantastic subject - and Beatty makes liberal use of the surviving sources by quoting them, probably a bit too heavily, throughout the text. The novel, as indicated in its opening lines, seems to be grasping at a post-modern theme that history is created in the mind of the historian, but I found this both too tired a question, and signposted too heavily, to be really interesting.

Aside from my quarrel with Mia over history, neither strand of the novel really took off. Brilliana's sections, while taking novelist's liberties with the material, stick closely to the historical record. The result is a bit of an awkward compromise between history and fiction. While I accept that may have been the point, I would have been more gripped if Beatty had allowed her imagination to run more freely. Brilliana's Puritanism, for example, is frequently mentioned, and while she muses over the puzzle of the elect, I never got a sense of the sheer weirdness of this Calvinist streak in the Church of England (as I have from brilliant history lecturers like Mark Goldie in the past). Brilliana is, almost deliberately, not brought to life, but left in a two-dimensional state where we perceive what she may have been like but cannot really get through to her. Perhaps if Mia's story had been vivider, this would have worked, and served as an illustration of Mia's point about the limitations of history - but I wasn't engrossed by Mia either, save for the strong and moving scenes between her and her father. Beatty is a gifted writer, but as a story, this didn't work for me.

I received a free proof copy of this book via NetGalley. It's been out since 22nd May.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

And the winner of the Baileys Prize is...

A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride. Congratulations to her!

I feel both glad, because the novel is very good, and sad, because my two outstanding contenders from the longlist didn't even make it to the shortlist: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton and All The Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld. Overall, I'd have loved to see Wyld take it. But this year was an exceptionally strong one, and McBride is certainly a worthy winner.

(Also, for the FIRST TIME EVER I predicted the winner correctly! I'm extremely excited about this because it will probably never happen again.)