Recent Reading Roundup 52
This latest batch of books is a bit of a grab-bag, stuff I've read in the last few months that felt worth talking about. Not listed here, but discussed at Lawyers, Guns & Money: Lauren Wilkinson's American Spy, an espionage thriller about a black FBI agent recruited to spy on a left-wing African leader that overcame my skepticism towards its genre with its handling of an uncommon subject matter. Highly recommended.
- Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo - I read two books by Evaristo a few years ago, and my reaction at the time was that she was an author ahead of the curve. We've seen a flowering of high profile books about the African and African diaspora experience in recent years, as publishers finally wake up to the financial viability of such works and start putting money and publicity muscle behind them. Evaristo's playful, quasi-experimental books—one a novel-in-verse, the other an alternate history—felt perfectly suited to the late teens, except that they were published in the mid- and late aughts. When she announced a new novel in late 2018, I was thrilled to see her claiming her space in this moment. And yet Girl, Woman, Other is a far more conventional work than I'd come to expect from Evaristo. This isn't exactly a complaint, as Girl, Woman, Other is an excellent, intriguing, thought-provoking novel. And it's a choice that certainly hasn't hurt Evaristo, who has gotten a tremendous boost in visibility from the success of this novel, and of course, a Booker win (a much-deserved award that is only slightly marred by its being shared with Margaret Atwood's The Testaments, a book that falls short of Girl, Woman, Other by every possible metric except, obviously, the fame of their respective authors). But I also hope that it leads to more people discovering Evaristo's back catalogue, and to her producing more work in that earlier vein.
Girl, Woman, Other is made up of twelve character portraits, mostly women, mostly black, all English—by birth or choice. Though grouped in four segments centered around family and extended family—in the first chapter, for example, we meet rising playwright Amma, her college-age daughter Yazz, and her lifelong best friend and creative partner Dominique—nearly all twelve characters end up being connected to one another in ways that are puzzled out throughout the novel, and often quite surprising. Evaristo's language has the feel of poetry—most chapters are told in short, dreamy sentences that feel less like prose than free verse (though this is a device that fades in some parts of the book and is more dominant in others). The result is a sort of memory play, diving into each character's past to show us how they arrived at where they are today, and often revealing long-hidden secrets—an affair, a lesbian romance, a sexual assault, a baby given up for adoption. Evaristo's subject matter is far-ranging. In one chapter, a free-spirited young woman falls head over heels for an opinionated, strong-willed feminist and anti-racist activist and follows her to the US, only to find herself ensnared in a toxic, abusive relationship that is all the more difficult to escape from because of its being couched in the terms of equality and liberation. In another chapter, an elderly biracial farmer muses on her experiences trying to keep a century-old family farm running, facing challenges not only because of her race but due to worsening conditions for rural, Northern communities. Brexit comes up in contexts both expected and unexpected, and even the UK's dangerous descent into anti-trans hysteria rears its ugly head.
There are times when one feels that Girl, Woman, Other is checking boxes—one character is genderqueer, one character is a working class single mother, one character is a painfully woke university student, one character is a self-consciously respectable social climber. But always there are nuances to each portrait that remind us that the richness of their life and experiences can't be summed up with a simple categorization. This is particularly true of the older characters, the immigrant women who scraped and served to give their children better opportunities, but still possessed greater depths than those children, or the white people who employed them to clean and caretake, ever suspected. And as much as it is a multifaceted, multigenerational portrait of black English womanhood, the fundamental point of Girl, Woman, Other is that it is also the story of England itself. Again and again, we discover that these characters, who are immigrants, whose most successful children are interlopers in historically white institutions, have hidden, generational connections to even the bastions of whiteness. The book concludes with a final blurring of racial boundaries that is perhaps a little rose-tinted in its belief that family connection trumps racist conditioning, but whose point is nevertheless strongly felt—that these people can't simply be excised from England's past or present, that they are here, at every level of society, building their lives and the world around them.
- Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor - Mexican author Melchor's 2017 novel (translated into English this year, and nominated for the International Booker prize) is slim but harrowing. It follows the immediate aftermath of the discovery of a body in the small, economically ravaged village of La Matosa. The body is of a woman known as The Witch, a healer, mystic, abortionist and general advisor to the village's women who lived alone in a dilapidated house, rumored to contain a hidden treasure. It doesn't take long for the Witch's killer to be revealed, but the business of the novel is in untangling the ties of family, love, lust, and hatred that ensnare its characters, and which ultimately led to the murder. Told in eight chapters, each from a different character's point of view, Melchor delivers her story in a near-stream-of-consciousness, spinning run-on sentences that go on for pages and reveal secret histories, simmering grudges, psychic wounds, and most of all the unrelenting brutality of life for the poor, disenfranchised, mostly non-white community of La Matosa and its environs. Women are abused so routinely that they come to expect it, turning their rage not on the men who have hurt them but on other, more vulnerable women: on the daughters they've raised with no options or protection and then decry as sluts if they're taken advantage of; and on the prostitutes and mistresses around them, who are seen as temptresses out to steal their men. Men go through life in a stupor of alcohol, drugs, and violence, constantly surprised when their bad choices yield even worse results. Queerness abounds, but is vociferously denied and punished. Nearly every man in the novel is some flavor of queer, but all are so suffused with self-hatred that they are as often the instigators of homophobic violence as the victims of it. Even the seemingly innocent are barely holding back their rage and potential for violence: one of the novel's most gentle characters, a gay man who takes in a pregnant teenager and dreams of starting a family with her, also commits one of its most shocking betrayals.
It's a stunning portrait, read almost in a single breath despite (or perhaps even because) of the challenges of its format. But it is also a punishing experience. The chapter told from the perspective of one of the Witch's killers, for example, is rife with graphic violence and misogynistic, homophobic imagery, often rooted in the character's obsession with violent pornography. It's not just hard to read, but at some point you have to wonder why you're putting yourself through it. What is Melchor trying to accomplish with this assault? The novels that Hurricane Season most reminded me of, books that similarly focus on insular, poor communities rife with violence and quick to police women and people who deviate from gender norms—books like Anna Burns's Milkman, Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Quartet, and Olga Tokarczuk's Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead—nevertheless take it as a given that the communities they depict also possess rudimentary social institutions, norms that may be restrictive, but which also provide some degree of protection and mutual accountability. Nothing like that exists in Hurricane Season. Its community is completely broken down, with no expectation of compassion or mutual aid, only the furious gossip and delighted jeering of neighbors as they watch the families around them be torn apart by violence and its comeuppance. This is, presumably, Melchor's point—the final chapters of the novel emphasize that the violence in La Matosa, the particular tragedy of the Witch and her increasingly toxic relationship with her community that eventually boiled over into murder, is only one eruption in a society that has rotted from its core due to rampant crime, government corruption, and neglect. But coming to the story from so far outside its context, it's hard to tell the difference between a hard-headed, no-holds-barred depiction of a harsh reality, and mere prurience. I find myself wanting to recommend Hurricane Season, but also hesitant to.
- The Need by Helen Phillips - The opening segment of Phillips's novel is a wrenching, beat-by-beat description of a home invasion that is all the more tense for constantly suggesting that the whole thing might be merely in the heroine's head. Young mother Molly, alone at home with her toddler daughter and one-year-old son, thinks she hears someone in the house, then convinces herself that it's just her imagination, then hears or sees something that makes her newly suspicious, and so on again and again. Intercut with this back-and-forth progression—which is told in short, economical chapters—are glimpses of Molly's life, particularly her work as a paleobotanist. The pit from which Molly and her colleagues have been pulling out fossils that often don't fit the known record has recently started disgorging modern objects whose strangeness is more difficult to deny—a Coca Cola bottle with the logo slanted in the wrong direction, an Altoids tin with the wrong shape, a 19th century Bible in which god is referred to with female pronouns. These artifacts—and particularly the last one—have been attracting media attention, tourism, and hate mail to Molly's small roadside operation, and her anxiety over the people who have started showing up at the site bleeds into her conviction that she isn't alone in her home.
I won't spell it out here, but even before Phillips pulls back the curtain to reveal the particular kind of strangeness that Molly has become ensnared in, it's not hard to guess where The Need is going. Once that strangeness is revealed, the novel changes its tone, from a mystery and a thriller to a more measured, and yet no less nerve-wracking, horror story. We never find out the reason for Molly's predicament (though some intriguing hints are dropped near the novel's end), and instead our focus is on motherhood. When she thinks that she needs to protect her children from an invader, Molly is frantic and over-extended. How to keep hold of these two floppy, uncooperative, helpless bodies? How to put herself between them and danger without terrifying them? When that danger changes its face, becomes less obviously a threat—while still undermining the foundations of Molly's self-image—the novel's discussions of motherhood become more contemplative, but no less frantic. Motherhood, in The Need, is both a joy and a horror, a pleasure that is sometimes visceral—Molly is still nursing her son, and the physical discomfort of her milk coming in, as well as the pleasure of feeding him, are recurring touchstones for her—and an all-consuming monster that threatens to obliterate one's personhood. Phillips makes Molly's children people in their own right, despite their young age, with their own quirks and point of view. But she also makes it clear how demanding they are, how the nonstop effort and consideration they unthinkingly expect Molly to provide can only be met by someone biologically compelled to care for them, and even then, at a profound physical and psychological cost.
The crux of The Need is a threat to Molly's identity as a mother that reveals just how deep, and yet also how irrational, her need to define herself that way is. Given how all-consuming motherhood is in Phillips's depiction, one might think that Molly would welcome the respite from it that the strangeness at the heart of the novel offers her. And yet when prevented from caring for her children, she seems to lose all sense of self, passing hours and days in a stupor until she can reclaim the mantle of motherhood. Phillips is hardly the first author to find horror at the heart of the maternal connection, but what her 21st century take on it—featuring breast pumps, texts with the babysitter, househusbands, and toddlers who casually drop words like "vagina"—argues is that there is no aspect of modernity that can alter its primal, animalistic nature. It's a point that the novel makes long before it wraps up its story, and in some ways The Need peaks in its first, riveting segment, before the full contours of its horror have even been established. But even as the novel approaches a conclusion that is fairly easy to anticipate, it never stops horrifying us with its heroine's mingled joy and terror at what becoming a mother has made of her.
- The Corner That Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner - The Warner renaissance continues with NYRB Classics's republication of this 1948 historical novel, set in a medieval nunnery in rural England. To call it a historical novel, however, might be a misleading way of describing Corner. Though it references some of the major events of its 14th-century setting—the Black Death, the Peasants' Revolt—the whole point of the novel is that for the nuns at the convent of Oby, life is a constant now, marked by the turn of seasons, and by the lifecycle of individual nuns, from novices to junior members of the order to its leaders, but never really changing in its fundamentals. Prioresses die and are replaced; the bishops who oversee the order come and go, each with a different agenda; various schemes to put the convent on a solid financial footing are attempted, rarely with much success; a spire for the convent's church is erected, falls down in a storm, and is then erected again. These events are recorded in great detail and with Warner's typical sardonic wit, but they don't come together into a narrative. The novel doesn't even end so much as stop, and it is easy enough to imagine Warner going on for hundreds more pages, or picking an earlier stopping point for her ending.
Given how chilly and hard to get through I found my previous foray into Warner's writing, Kingdoms of Elfin, one might expect The Corner That Held Them, with its deliberate refusal to be bound by a plot structure or provide anything in the way of a climax, to be similarly alienating. And yet I found the novel almost effortlessly readable. Warner is great at charting the day-to-day details of the lives of the nuns, the kind of characters and the kind of life that historical fiction doesn't tend to turn its attention to. She also focuses on the community that forms between the nuns, one that owes its nature and rhythms less to religious faith than to ties of family, class, and wealth. The nuns at Oby are at once removed from the world and very much a part of it. Many of them have familial and political connections that they use to advance the convent's cause by soliciting donations or recruiting novices with rich dowries. But those political connections end up impacting on the society within the convent, such as the selection of the prioress, or the upheaval when a reformist bishop saddles the convent with novices from lower-class backgrounds, who bring no money with them. Religion ends up playing less of a role in the novel than you might expect, more of a background hum—an opening segment chronicles the nuns' concern when their priest leaves them just as the Black Death appears in their part of the country, leaving them with no one to administer last rites—than the purpose of anyone's life. When one of the nuns begins experiencing visions, another reacts in alarm, reasoning that fervent faith is the worst thing one can have in a nunnery.
To describe it this way, however, is perhaps to create the impression that Corner is a novel of political intrigue or communal dysfunction, and nothing could be further from the truth. Not only is it told in a gentle, unsensational tone, which describes even shocking events like murder with equanimity, but the thrust of the novel's events is always towards entropy. Political scheming inevitably comes to nothing—the reformist bishop who saddles the convent with freeloader nuns and assigns a clerk to oversee its finances dies soon after from an illness, and his agent ends up in sympathy with the convent and its administration, doing nothing to curb its excesses (or help cover its debt). The prioresses who hatch plans to make Oby solvent and more attractive to families looking to place a daughter end up being defeated by mundane forces—tenants who can't pay rent but are too much trouble to evict and replace; serfs who prioritize their own farms over their service to the manor. Even successes end up feeling less triumphant than you'd expect, as the prioress who erects the spire realizes when she considers the fruits of her labors. Corner is, instead, about the constant, largely-unchanging—despite the stream of new faces and minor incidents—flow of life at Oby. Like the lives of the nuns themselves, it is at once depressing and rewarding, discovering deeper truths and a sort of beauty in the lives of people who have deliberately turned away from the world, and seek to leave no mark on it.
- The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley - If someone had told me, before picking up Hurley's latest novel—which has been shortlisted for both the Hugo and the Clarke—that it was a hardboiled, war-is-hell MilSF novel making overt references to classics of the genre like Starship Troopers and The Forever War, I might have hesitated to read it. Which would have been a shame, because The Light Brigade is not only a gripping and engrossing read, but offers a twist on its genre that feels both modern, and absolutely necessary for our present moment. Our point of view character is Dietz, a "resident" in a South American corporate state (one of six who rule the world and govern most of its population) who has joined the corporate military to fight a war against the Martians—actually, humans who colonized Mars decades ago and have recently attacked Earth. Dietz's motives for joining up are partly self-serving—military service is one of the few paths to citizenship available in the novel's world, and citizens enjoy access to jobs, education, and medical care that are denied to residents—but also rooted in personal conviction. Most of Dietz's family, who were not corporate citizens or residents but "ghouls", stateless people often relegated to work camps or left to starve, were living in São Paulo when the Martians destroyed it, and Dietz wants revenge.
In accordance with the classic template of MilSF novels, The Light Brigade follows Dietz through enlistment, basic training, and deployment, in a tight first person that emphasizes both the casual brutality and indifference that the military higher-ups have towards the wellbeing of their soldiers, and Dietz's own narrow worldview, which is focused on getting through the next day, scoring a bit of R&R, and physical outlets of both the violent and sexual varieties. It doesn't take much familiarity with MilSF (or with Hurley's back-catalogue) to be suspicious of the narrative of the war, and The Light Brigade quickly makes it clear that Dietz's take on it is untrustworthy, not least because the news sources made available by the corporations are entirely coopted. One of the most striking aspects of The Light Brigade's early chapters is the degree to which Dietz and other recruits are thoroughly propagandized, even when they see themselves as savvy (which usually translates into a defeated cynicism). None of them, for example, question the citizenship hierarchy, even when their own history exposes its unfairness—Dietz's friend Jones, for example, lambastes another recruit for gaining citizenship by being young enough to draft on her mother's elevation to it, when he himself has inherited it from his grandparents; and all of them, even Dietz, take it as a given that ghouls deserve nothing, and dismiss their desire for a better life as mere envy.
The Light Brigade is a novel about Dietz's radicalization, and the method it uses to achieve this also makes it a twisty, thoroughly satisfying time travel novel. To transport its soldiers, the corporations use a teleportation technology that, as Dietz rather poetically puts it, turns the soldiers into light. But Dietz's reaction to the technology is abnormal. Traveling not only through space but through time, Dietz experiences missions out of order, jumping from the earlier stages of the war to its end and back again, witnessing atrocities committed by the corporations, and learning that winning has a cost even greater than losing. This has an effect that is first psychological—Dietz meets hardened soldiers, then encounters them as green recruits; witnesses the deaths of friends and lovers, and then meets them for the first time. But it also serves to open Dietz's eyes to the lies the corporation has told about the war. As the reader pieces together the narrative's non-linear components—as missions that we know were little more than meat-grinders or the wholesale slaughter of civilians are sold to the soldiers about to embark on them as necessary components of a considered strategy—Dietz is confronted, again and again, with lies so flagrant that one would never think to question them. This includes, finally, the very question of who the war is against and what it's about.
The Light Brigade is blatant in its homages to novels like Starship Troopers and The Forever War (and probably others I've missed) but it also takes care to update and subvert the tropes these novels are most famous for. Like Troopers, The Light Brigade associates citizenship with military service. But Hurley makes it clear that the philosophical underpinning of such a policy is merely an excuse to supply the corporation with expendable bodies, and Dietz even muses that hardly any soldier will live long enough to serve the ten years required to earn citizenship. And like The Forever War, it uses time-hopping to illustrate a soldier's growing disconnect from the society that deployed them, but in The Light Brigade this disassociation doesn't require physical distance or time dilation, merely military indoctrination. When Dietz's platoon is deployed to suppress civil unrest in the ruins of São Paulo, it doesn't take much to goad them into seeing civilians as just as much of an enemy as the Martian soldiers. This last sequence is only one of the ways in which The Light Brigade feels entirely of its moment—not to mention, a very apt book to have picked up in June 2020. (The Light Brigade is also a lot better than earlier MilSF works at poking holes in assumptions about gender and sexuality, achieving with an unaffected naturalness what those novels did with tremendous self-consciousness.) It's all leading to a conclusion in which Dietz tries to wrest control of the time travel technology, and a tying-together of the novel's fractured timeline that is both satisfying, and a powerful statement about an individual's power against the state.
- The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton - Catton's 2013 novel—which won the Booker award that same year, making her the youngest author to claim the prize—has been sitting on my TBR stack for the better part of a decade. As is too often the case, I only picked it out of the pile because of a forthcoming screen adaptation (though having read the novel, I'm having trouble imagining how the BBC's six-part miniseries treatment could do anything but skim its surface). A big part of my reason for holding off was the commitment that the 800+ page Luminaries seemed to represent. But once you get into it, the doorstop-length of the novel zips along in a way that is both surprising and delightful. Equally surprising—and also delightful, albeit with some caveats that I'll get into shortly—is the fact that The Luminaries is such a perfect pastiche of 19th century sensation novels. One can almost feel the spirit of Wilkie Collins wafting over the novel, with its copious coincidences, its plot driven by fortuitous meetings of people who have unsuspected connections, its myriad storylines that just happen to all have the same inciting incident, and its strong lashings of the supernatural. All the classic tropes of the genre are in attendance: missing wills, stolen identities, secret half-brothers, star-crossed lovers, long-simmering vengeance, and a seance.
Set in 1866 on the Western coast of New Zealand, The Luminaries takes place mostly in and around the town of Hokitika, a mining settlement that is the most recent frontier for Europeans looking to strike it rich on the goldfields. One of these is Walter Moody, who on the evening of his arrival stumbles onto a meeting of a dozen of the town's most prominent citizens, who have gathered to discuss a series of strange events that, they believe, may all be connected to a single dastardly act. In typical sensation novel fashion, the men invite Moody to listen to their narratives, and the first segment of the novel—which is almost the length of a regular novel in its own right—is made up of their varied accounts. The incidents they report—a missing prospector; a dead hermit; a prostitute found unconscious by the side of the road; a politician who is being blackmailed; a fortune with no discernible provenance—all seem to connect back to a single man, Francis Carver, a sea captain with a shady past and a violent temper. By the end of this first segment, the general contours of the novel's mystery are easy enough to discern (and Moody is a clear-headed, disinterested detective type who helpfully lays them out for the reader), but it will take the rest of The Luminaries for all of its open questions to be resolved.
The plot of The Luminaries skips forwards and backwards over the course of a year, with each segment taking place during a single day, following multiple characters as they each discover different pieces of the puzzle. Catton's omniscient, third person narrator delves into each characters' psyche in their turn, puzzling over the type of dysfunction that leads people to wash up on what is, to them, the ends of the earth. Alongside criminals and fortune-hunters, the community of Hokitika includes blustering bullies, their weak-willed enablers, disappointed clerks and functionaries, and lost souls. Much of the novel's events are rooted not in decisive action but in people acting according to a nature they are too weak to overcome, spending money they don't have, withholding kindness because their pride has been wounded, lying to avoid embarrassment and discomfort. Like a lot else about The Luminaries, however, this is a concept that Catton raises and then lets drop. Having established the complexity of her characters and their motivations, she ultimately loses sight of both—and of many of the characters themselves—as the story barrels towards its ending. This is true of many other interesting ideas raised throughout the novel. In one scene, a character observes that a place like Hokitika, where men who are nobodies can strike it rich in a day and become pillars of society, defies the unspoken rules of "civilization", and that its inevitable enfolding into normal society will mean shutting off those avenues for unanticipated, sudden social climbing. It's a thought that could have fueled an entire novel in its own right, but in The Luminaries it is simply raised, and then forgotten.
If I have a complaint about The Luminaries, in fact, it is its absolute refusal to be about anything. For all its breadth, and despite how much fun it is to unravel its mystery, there really doesn't seem to be much substance to the novel. You see this, in particular, in Catton's steadfast refusal to work against any of the standard assumptions of a 19th century novel. The female characters in The Luminaries are a conniving villain, a perennially acted-upon innocent, and a cowed victim. Non-white characters, though their exploitation and mistreatment by white settlers is commented upon, are ultimately used in much the same way by the novel itself, one of them even dying to fuel the plot's progression. Native characters—or rather, character, singular—show up to acknowledge the malign transformation being wrought on their home by colonization and resource extraction, but having made that acknowledgment, the novel moves on, clearly more interested in the story of its white characters. Finally, one has to concludes that it's this emptiness, this refusal to be about anything, that is the point of the novel. By its end, Catton seems more interested in games with structure, such as the way that later segments grow shorter and shorter, while the summaries that preface each chapter become longer and more informative than the chapters themselves. Or the preoccupation with astrology that runs through the novel, extending to accompanying each segment with an astrological chart that shows which planet is affecting which character (because it's all fated, you see). It's all clever enough, I suppose, but it can also end up feeling like a rather flimsy excuse for an 800-page behemoth. The Luminaries may be a fun read, but it's one that leaves very little behind when you turn the last page.