Recent Reading Roundup 45
This is a funny bunch of books: a few that I picked up on a whim; a few that I've been breathlessly waiting for since they were announced; and one that's been sitting on my shelves for years. The result isn't as exciting--in good ways and bad--as the last roundup of books I published, but nevertheless there are some reads here that I can already tell are going to be highlights of this swiftly-concluding year.
- White Tears by Hari Kunzru - I freely admit that the main reason I picked up Kunzru's latest was its title, which made me laugh with its deliberate provocation. The actual novel, however, starts out a lot less pugnacious than you might expect, sort of a cross between Donna Tartt and Stephen King, albeit with a much more sophisticated awareness of issues of race, class, and cultural appropriation. Carter and Seth are music producers who specialize in an analogue, "authentic" sound that hearkens back to the early 20th century. Carter, in particular, is obsessed with the blues and early jazz, African-American music that is often available only on rare vinyl records that he and other collectors--almost all of them white--hoard and covet. When Seth, on one of his trips through the city to record sounds for use in their sample library, captures an anonymous black singer singing what appears to be a true blues original, Carter turns it into a rough-sounding track and puts it online. He claims to have discovered a lost artist, Charlie Shaw, in the hopes of luring collectors from whom he can buy more albums. But the song quickly takes on a life of its own, and as it does so does Charlie Shaw, who seems to bear a particular resentment towards Carter's wealthy and shady family. Seth, a hanger-on who has basked in Carter's attention and reflected glory, suddenly finds himself at the center of the story, as the only person who realizes that there is something supernatural going on.
The early chapters of White Tears are perhaps a little familiar in how they describe Carter and his family's privileged floating through the world, and Seth's profound hunger for them--for recognition that his friendship with Carter is real and not just a paid arrangement, or for the affections of Carter's sister Leonie. Underlying all this, however, is the growing realization of how much of a role race plays in establishing the characters' positions. Carter and Seth are white men marketing to white musicians an idea of authenticity rooted in treating black people, and their suffering, as exotic. The very fact that they're obsessed with the blues is telling--it's music rooted in oppression, in suffering that the white protagonists feel free to fetishize because they have no fear of ever experiencing it. It's therefore not a surprise that part of Kunzru's project with White Tears is to remove that veil of safety, the protective claim of "yes, bad things happened, but it's not my fault".
Like so many ghost stories, White Tears is about the victims of the past coming back to demand justice, but unlike other authors, Kunzru doesn't treat these ghosts as villains or monsters (or at least, he doesn't seem to feel that this should keep him off their side). As the book approaches its end, its prose grows more fevered and hallucinatory, and the lines between past and present blur and disappear. It's all in the service of a simple truth--that the past isn't over, and that its injustices are still continuing. Ultimately, White Tears is about theft--of culture, of money, and of lives--and its ending, though gruesome, is arguing for a full restitution.
- The Accusation by Bandi - This is one of those books where the story of the book is, inevitably and perhaps even intentionally, more interesting than the story in the book. The Accusation is presented as a collection of short stories about life in North Korea, published pseudonymously because the author is still living under the regime, and smuggled out of the country by human rights activists. I have, obviously, no way of knowing whether this is true, but having read the book, I find myself believing it. There's something earnest about the stories here, a lack of ironic distance that convinces me they were written by someone grappling with a horror that was very close to them. A recurring theme in the stories in The Accusation is disillusionment--the realization of characters who had believed in the North Korean project that their government doesn't care about them, and of characters who had thought that they had the system of the country figured out that there is simply no way to embody the "good" citizens they've been trained to be. The emotion underpinning it all is very real and moving, but the portrait the stories paint isn't particularly revelatory. Perhaps because most of the stories were written in the early and mid-90s (when the North Korean economy collapsed, leading to a horrific famine that left millions dead), the details they reveal are mostly things I've read about before (for example in Barbara Demick's Nothing to Envy, a collection of interviews with North Korean defectors).
The Accusation thus ends up more interesting as an artifact than as a work of literature, but nevertheless there are moments of great emotion and horror here--a grandmother's guilt over having been randomly "favored" by the Great Leader even as her family were left to scramble for their survival; a young mine worker's desperation to see his mother on her deathbed, despite being denied a travel permit; in the background of all the stories, the growing desperation as food supplies dwindle and citizens resort to extreme measures to survive a famine whose existence the government won't admit. It's a book that leaves you feeling rattled, even if that's rooted more in what's happening outside its covers than within them.
- The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara - Yanagihara's debut was one of the most talked-about literary novels a few years ago (and then slightly upstaged by her Booker-nominated follow-up, A Little Life, which I also own but haven't read), but for one reason and another it's taken me a while to get to. Also for whatever reason, I ended up reading it at a time when its subject matter feels unpleasantly apt. Just a few weeks after the revelations about Harvey Weinstein have kicked off a flurry of conversation about the prevalence of sexual harassment and the ways in which society orders itself to protect abusers and vilify victims is maybe not the best time to crack open a novel whose first chapter, a newspaper clipping reporting that a renowned scientist has been accused of rape and molestation by his adopted children, ends with one of the scientist's colleagues calling the situation "a great tragedy"--for the accused, of course. The People in the Trees is presented as the memoirs of Abraham Norton Perina (the name is obviously significant, though it was never clear to me what the reference to America's one and only emperor was intended to evoke), the founder of the field of "medical anthropology", and a Nobel-prize winner for his discovery that a "lost tribe" in the Micronesian island nation of Ivu'ivu suffer from a degenerative disease that confers upon them seemingly eternal life at the cost of their mental faculties. In the framing story, Perina's last supporter and friend Ronald Kubodera describes the aftermath of Perina's denunciation by several of his 43 adopted Ivu'ivuan children, and laments the ease with which the world turns on this "great man".
The spirit of Nabokov wafts over this book. It is, at one and the same time, the self-justifying narrative of a child abuser trying to spin his actions as rooted in love, a la Lolita, and the final work of a renowned intellectual, annotated and heavily-footnoted by a hanger-on desperate to demonstrate his importance to a man who probably doesn't even notice him, as in Pale Fire. But Yanagihara's interests take her in directions completely different to Nabokov's, and which she handles with impressive flair. The bulk of the book is taken up with the description of Perina's first journey to Ivu'ivu as a young doctor, recruited to assist a pair of anthropologists conducting a more traditional study of the tribe, before he makes his own discovery. The descriptions of the jungle, its strangeness and fecundity, are almost overpowering, but through them it's easy to sense Perina's own detachment, his disgust with anything living that doesn't come from himself. The descriptions of the Ivu'ivuan society are similarly a masterwork of both worldbuilding and character work. Yanagihara constructs a fascinating, unusual, not always admirable social structure for her invented tribe, and through Perina's observations of them makes it clear just what a monster he is--how he sees everyone, regardless of race or culture, as inferior to him, and merely a means to his ends. Even without the accusation of child abuse, Perina's publication of his findings has such a catastrophic effect on Ivu'ivu and its people, as pharmaceutical companies race to take the island apart in search of a workable elixir of eternal life, that it's impossible not to hate him--especially when we realize that to him, this is merely a reason for self-pity, as "his" paradise is lost to him.
It's a brilliant portrait and a brilliantly constructed world, and I found myself racing through The People in the Trees, unable to put it down no matter how unpleasant its narrator and events. But as I said, I'm not sure this was the right time for me to read this book. As little as two years ago, I might have been able to read this kind of story with enough detachment to enjoy it, or at least appreciate it more. But right now we're surrounded with so many examples of how abuse is excused and ignored, how exploitation is justified and forgotten, that Yanagihara's conclusion that the accusations against Perina would cause his career to evaporate and even lead to a short prison sentence feels positively rose-tinted. More importantly, I'm just not in the mood right now to wonder about the psychology of this particular kind of monster. As we keep seeing on the news, people who see others as subhuman are a lot less interesting and complicated than we'd like to believe. Yanagihara never coddles Perina, and never expects us to feel anything other than disgust for him. But she also thinks we should be interested in him, and through no fault of her own, that's something that feels wrong at this moment.
- The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden - I don't know whether Arden's debut was inspired by Naomi Novik's Uprooted, or whether (as seems more likely) the two books ended up plugging into the same hunger for new ideas in the fantasy genre, which has landed on retellings and remixings of Eastern European folklore. Either way, Nightingale has a few too many similarities to Uprooted to stand on its own. Both books are about a young girl in a rural, medieval community slowly becoming aware of her magical powers, just as an ancient evil arises in the nearby forest. Both feature an ally character who is a powerful, ancient magical user, with whom the heroine develops a prickly relationship with an undertone of quasi-dangerous romance. Both are driven by the conflict between the restrictive role the heroine's community affords women, and her own desire for purpose and adventure. And both, as noted, take place in a lightly-fantasized medieval Eastern European setting, with strong lashings of Russian and Slavic folklore.
Having read (and enjoyed) such a close variant on this story only last year, I ended up appreciating Nightingale a lot more for its realistic details than its fantastic plot--the minutiae of how the farming community at the book's center survives the long, harsh northern winters; the protocols that govern the lives and aspirations of the heroine's gentleman farmer father and his sons; the hints of political intrigue and geopolitical scheming, especially as regards the dissatisfaction of Russian nobles, at that point still paying tribute to the Tatar empire. That's not to say that there's nothing to enjoy in Nightingale as a story. Heroine Vasya is delightful, genuinely curious about her world and clear-eyed about the flaws and strengths of the people around her. Her antagonist, the charismatic priest Konstantin, who tries to punish Vasya for his attraction to her, is fascinating precisely because you can see how much of his evil is rooted in his self-importance, and how easily he could have been a better person if he'd learned to set aside pride and male entitlement. This is also a story about the tension between rigid social conventions and human flexibility. Vasya's father and brothers, though certain that she has only one possible life path before her, also realize how easily she could be made unhappy in a life like that, and many authority figures in the novel see it as their role to balance strict rules with common sense and compassion. As enjoyable as these human details are, when they give way to the novel's fantastical plot, the result is too familiar--not just from Uprooted, but from so many other stories like it. I found myself wishing that Nightingale had started where it actually ends, with Vasya leaving her home to have adventures, finally shaking off the expectations that had hemmed her--and her story--in.
- Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado - It seems like only yesterday that I was telling everyone I could find about this amazing new author I'd discovered, whose stories were a magnificent blend of humor, horror, and an earnest handling of the myriad complications of female sexuality. In the intervening years, I've watched Machado deservedly become a superstar, both for her stories and her essays, and now with her bestselling, National Book Award-nominated debut collection. (Meanwhile, the Hugos managed to sleep on Machado in both the short fiction and Campbell categories. The latter was partly the fault of the various puppy factions, but still: not a great look, guys.)
It's perhaps inevitable that my reaction to Her Body would be less intense than that of readers new to Machado's unique voice and sensibilities. I already had the top of my head taken off by "Especially Heinous", a phantasmagorical reimagining of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit in which a critique of the show's attitude towards rape and rape culture gives way to multiple ghost stories and forays into alternate universes. Or "The Husband Stitch", a queasy tale in which a seemingly happy marriage is unmade by the husband's refusal to accept his wife's one limitation on their intimacy. Of the eight stories collected in Her Body and Other Parties, four were familiar to me, as was the general impression formed by them of an author following in the footsteps of Kelly Link and Sofia Samatar, and incorporating their use of surrealism and wry pop culture references into her own fascination with--as the title suggests--female bodies, how they're perceived, policed, used, and how they feel. The new stories continue that fascination, for example in "Real Women Have Bodies", in which a prom dress saleswoman in a world in which some women have begun to fade into nothingness discovers a horrifying connection between the disease and her wares. Or "Eight Bites", about a woman undergoing bariatric surgery whose choice seems to permanently sever her connection to her daughter. Interestingly, the collection omits several of Machado's publications, such as "Descent" or "My Body, Herself", perhaps because they didn't fit with this theme, so for a lot of readers this will be more of an introduction to Machado than a summation of the first stage in her career. Either way, it's an essential collection for anyone interested in the more slipstreamy edge of genre short fiction, and for anyone looking for an example of how genre fiction can grapple with issues of gender and sexuality.
- Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeannette Ng - The only thing I knew about Ng's debut before reading it was that it was a fantasy about Victorian missionaries in fairyland. This led me to expect something Strange & Norrell-esque, or perhaps similar to Zen Cho's Sorcerer to the Crown--a wry puncturing of Victorian self-importance in the face of the implacable strangeness of the magical world. Minus the tone, that's more or less what the novel delivers, but that tone makes a big difference. Under the Pendulum Sun is a great deal stranger and darker than I was expecting. It owes a very obvious (and acknowledged) debt to the Brontës, and particularly to Jane Eyre. It sprinkles those references onto an edifice that is pure Gothic, a story about a young woman who arrives in a mysterious castle where she keeps stumbling across long-held secrets, whose dark past continues to send out tendrils that ensnare her.
Catherine Helstone arrives in fairyland in search of her brother, Laon, a missionary whose letters home have stopped. Deposited in the twisty castle, dubbed Gethsemane, where the fairy queen has sequestered her guests seeking to spread Christianity to the fairies, Cathy finds her search for Laon stymied by the riddling answers and deliberate obfuscations of her fellow inhabitants: the changeling Ariel; the gnome Benjamin, fairyland's sole convert; and the fire-breathing housekeeper, Salamander. The early chapters do a little to sketch in the shape of a world in which fairyland is not only a known place, but a potential site for colonization and cultural imperialism. We learn, for example, that changelings like Ariel, who grew up thinking she was human, are recruited as ambassadors and go-betweens by the fairies, better able to explain their masters' strangeness to literal-minded humans. But this is not, ultimately, what Under the Pendulum Sun is about. Some readers might find the novel a bit slow-going, but Ng is working very squarely within the Gothic tradition, in which Cathy's task is not to explore the breadth of fairyland, but to delve inward into Gethsemane's secrets. When Laon returns, heralding a visit from the fairy queen herself, it becomes clear that the siblings' relationship is nearly as fraught and full of unspoken truths as their new home. Faced with a world where none of the rules--of society or of reality--seem to apply, the Helstones are forced to confront the reasons for Laon's decision to flee so far from his sister, and the question of what they do now that they've been reunited.
Another thing that surprised me about Under the Pendulum Sun was the importance of religion, not just to the novel's Christian characters, but to its plot. I was expecting Ng's handling of missionaries to veer towards the political, but in fact she spends a lot more time debating theology with Cathy, Laon, and Benjamin, as they try to puzzle out how fairyland fits in with Christian cosmology. In theory, this should have been my jam--I'm always fascinated by depictions of faith and how characters relate to it. But I'm not very interested in the kind of nitpicky conversations that the Helstones and Benjamin get into, trying to keep afloat what is essentially a rickety, patched together bit of worldbuilding that can no longer accommodate their new understanding of the world. To be clear, this is the sort of thing that did (and still does) happen, and Ng is very good at capturing the twisty, headache-inducing turns of argument that people can get into when they refuse to separate the core ideas of a religion from the edifice of tradition erected around it. But as the novel progresses, it feels less and less as if these questions are important to the characters, a way of showing us how they see and relate to the world, and more as if they're just objectively important. The question of whether changelings like Ariel have a soul ends up having a concrete significance to the plot, whereas to me the fact that Ariel is clearly a thinking, feeling person renders such discussions moot. It's possible that this is the conclusion Ng is aiming at as well--the novel's ending sees Catherine and Laon struggling with their own, possibly damning, sins, and whether they're even interested in seeking forgiveness for them. But if so it comes to that conclusion long past the point where I was ready for it. Still, it's sufficiently unusual to see fantasy grapple with religion--and particularly this branch of 19th century, empire-tinged Christianity--that even a frustrating attempt is worth exploring. Which is ultimately my conclusion about Under the Pendulum Sun as a whole. It's a strange novel, and not entirely satisfying. But it's so much its own thing that I don't hesitate to recommend it, and am extremely curious to see what Ng does next.
- A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge - One of the problems--or, well, "problems"--of Frances Hardinge being an exceptional writer who is also quite prolific is that you can end up developing an over-familiarity with her favorite tropes and themes. Hardinge's perennial focus is on characters who are damaged, sometimes by abuse, but sometimes also by difficult circumstances such as poverty or racial persecution. Her books repeatedly drum in the point that for her protagonists, the damage caused by their twisted upbringing--the isolation inflicted on Neverfell in A Face Like Glass, or the emotional manipulation to which both heroines are subjected in Cuckoo Song--can't be undone, but that they can learn to come to terms with it, and forge a good life in spite of it. It's a powerful, important message, and especially effective coming from an author of Hardinge's skill, who never shies away from the ugliness of what her characters are capable of. But especially for an adult reader, it can get a little wearying to encounter again and again. But then you get a novel like A Skinful of Shadows, which reminds you that even when she's working within a familiar scheme, Hardinge is so full of ideas that she can always find ways to make her preoccupations feel new and affecting.
A Skinful of Shadows is set in the 17th century, in the early years of the English Civil War. Our heroine, Makepeace, is raised first among Puritans, and then given work as a kitchen girl in the house of an old noble family, whose illegitimate scion she is. In both of these settings, Makepeace is forced to contend with her ability to see and manipulate the spirits of the dead. Her strict, emotionally withholding mother taught Makepeace to fight off the ghosts who tried to possess her, but her unacknowledged family, the Fellmottes, have more sinister plans for her. They're keeping her around as a "spare", a vessel into which to pour the spirits of long-dead ancestors in case one of the legitimate Fellmottes, raised to this task since childhood, should die. The ghost metaphor is evocative, especially after Makepeace, seeking to escape the Fellmottes and rescue her already-possessed half-brother James, starts amassing a menagerie of spirits to help her in her task. And Hardinge finds multiple uses for it, each of which relates in a different way to the central theme of her writing, the abuse perpetrated by individuals and systems. Early in the novel, Makepeace takes in the spirit of a sideshow bear, whom she constantly has to calm and acclimatize to her new situations. He becomes a representation of her anger, and of the difficulty that a mistreated child has in opening up and showing trust. The Fellmotte ancestors, who use their descendants as receptacles, not caring that doing so usually destroys the original personality, are a predatory system that sees everyone as subservient, a means to the preservation of the elite. Late in the novel it's revealed that the legitimate Fellmotte heirs, though raised in privilege, are subjected to routine alterations to their personality by the ghosts in order to make them more suitable receptacles. The end result of this, as exemplified by Makepeace and James's cousin Symond, is psychopathic, a reminder of what can happen when child abuse is combined with almost limitless privilege.
A Skinful of Shadows follows Makepeace back and forth across the English landscape as she tries to first escape the Fellmottes, and then accrue enough leverage against them to bargain for James's freedom. Along the way she collects a coterie of spirits--a conceited doctor, a deserting Puritan soldier, one of the Fellmotes' spies--whom she must corral and negotiate with. In her journeys, she also gains several perspectives on the war, and while the book ultimately sides with Parliament in the conflict, its main conclusion is that both sides are prone to abuse and exploitation--there's a particular emphasis on Puritan authoritarianism and misogyny, for example when Makepeace runs afoul of a witchfinder who is certain that her possession is a sign that she's made a deal with the devil. As in her previous books, Hardinge's interest in abuse isn't confined to a single abusive relationship or household. She sees abuse as a product of broader social choices, in this case the belief that some people are simply worth more than others, which is taken to irrational extremes in the form of the Felmottes, whose exploitation of their lessers continues even after death. None of the institutions Makepeace encounters in the novel--the Fellmotte estate, the court of Charles I, the Parliamentarian army, or the Puritan church--are free of this belief, and she ends up rejecting all of them. She offers a counterpoint in the form of the community she forms with the ghosts she carries, and in making an active choice to respect their right to happiness and self-determination. By the end of the novel, both Makepiece and James have committed to living as multiple beings, offering homes to people who weren't given a fair shake in life. It's the kind of ending you can't imagine any author but Hardinge delivering, and certainly not with her level of assurance and skill.