Recent Reading Roundup 55

As I promised in my last roundup, this bunch of books contains reviews of several that I read while on vacation with a large bunch of fellow voracious readers. Having access to other people's TBR stacks exposed me to a few titles that I would probably have never picked up myself, which just happen to have become some of my favorite books of the year. (Over at LGM, I wrote up another of my vacation reads, Tower by Bae Myung-hoon, a fascinating exploration of extreme urbanism that joins recent Korean blockbusters, like Parasite and Squid Game, in discussing inequality and the disordered relationship between capital and citizens.)

  • Cwen by Alice Albinia - On a stormy night on a little-known archipelago off the coast of England, local landowner and philanthropist Eva Harcourt-Vane sets off in her boat towards the uninhabited island of Cwen, and is never seen again. The reading of Eva's will causes an uproar that cascades into a national scandal, bringing scrutiny onto Eva's charitable works—the institutions she founded and supported, the people whose political and public careers she promoted, and the causes she adopted. We're told all this in the opening chapter of Albinia's debut novel, but the specifics of what Eva did to cause such outrage are left vague (the details of the will, for example, aren't revealed until the novel's final chapter). What we are told is that in the wake of the outcry over Eva's actions, a commission of inquiry is convened. Only the title of the commission—An Inquiry Into Unfair Female Advantage in the Islands—gives a sense of what Eva's sin was, and what Cwen's focus will be.

    The investigation structures the novel, with each of its chapters focusing on a different woman in Eva's inner circle—the historian whom she inspired to study matriarchal pre-Christian island societies, the local councilwoman whose career she advanced; the headmistress she encouraged to rebuild the local school's curriculum to encourage female solidarity and activism, and unteach toxic masculinity; the nun whose women's shelter she bankrolled; the cafeteria manager at the local museum, whom she sweet-talked into giving her café a makeover and transforming it into a meeting spot for women's groups. But Cwen's focus isn't purely on the relatively short period during which Eva set out to subtly transform the archipelago into a quasi-matriarchy—a period that spans, it is eventually revealed, less than her teenage granddaughter's lifetime. It is just as interested in the story of Eva's halting, decades-in-the-making feminist awakening. A former travel writer who made an unwise marriage to an up-and-coming Tory politician, Eva arrived on the island as an outsider in many different ways—a mainlander, a Jew, the ex-Bohemian wife of a wealthy landowner. Discovering feminism is, for her, a journey of self-discovery, a way of articulating why her marriage has left her unsatisfied and stifled her sense of self. It's only after her husband's death that Eva returns to herself, and embarks on a plan to remake her corner of the world into a place where women don't have to make the kind of compromises she did.

    A secondary storyline focuses on the titular island, or rather, on the prehistoric shamanness from which it takes its name, the guardian of a healing spring. These chapters recount Cwen's life on the island, the incursions she fought off by men who wanted to control her power, the female cult that developed around her, and her death. They also make it clear that Cwen is not gone. She observes the happenings on the archipelago, looks over visitors to her island, grumbles over the theft of her remains by male archeologists, and calls out to people—including Eva—who seem susceptible to her influence. Cwen's presence in the novel gives a context to the gender-essentialist slant of much of Eva and her group's activism, which involves a lot of woo-woo about wombs and periods, resurrects the rituals of the prehistoric cult, and argues for innate differences between the worldview and mentality of men and women—when Eva's granddaughter and her friends stage an anti-climate-change protest, they insist that only men could exploit the planet to the point of non-viability.

    Albinia is clearly aware of some of the pitfalls of the essentialist worldview, because the matriarchy that Eva constructs just happens to be inclusive along lines of race, sexuality, class, and religion, not merely a club for middle class white women as a lot of its real-world counterparts ended up being. (One even suspects that the brief but heavily signposted inclusion of a trans woman in Eva's inner circle was intended to reassure readers that the novel's author isn't a TERF.) Albinia also leaves space in the novel for women who disagree with Eva or who find her brand of feminism alienating. The historian of matriarchal cults is included in one of the modern cult of Cwen's rituals and reacts with horror. One of Eva's daughters-in-law, the cosmopolitan daughter of immigrants, tries to forge a connection but finds the archipelago's community insular and alienating. Most importantly, the mother of Eva's granddaughter—a local girl impregnated by her son while on vacation from university—has, at best, chilly relations with Eva, whose message of empowerment and solidarity always seems to skip her over. 

    Ultimately, however, the central question of Cwen isn't whether we approve of Eva's brand of feminism or would like to live in the society she shepherds. What the framing story of the commission of inquiry serves to reveal is, first, how little of what Eva did was actually outrageous or out of bounds, and second, how virulently society will nevertheless react when this kind of social engineering is embarked upon on behalf of women. Cwen is thus more interesting as an act of worldbuilding, as an exploration of an older woman's growth into feminist awareness, and as a portrait of a vibrant feminist activism, than it is as a treatise on how a feminist world would look like. The novel's ending, which suggests that Eva's death was part of Cwen's plan of resurrection, is hopeful less because of any specific promise it makes, as for the vision it offers of female power.

  • The Animals in That Country by Laura Jean McKay - Winner of this year's Kitschie and Clarke awards, McKay's debut novel has a great selling point even before its SFnal conceit is established, in the form of its narrator Jean, a sad-sack, perennial fuckup, drug-and-booze-addled grandma. A guide at a wild animal reservation in rural Australia, Jean has a big heart. She loves the animals at the reservation, especially a dingo, Sue, whom she rescued as a puppy; and she loves her granddaughter, Kimberly, the product of a fling between her wastrel son and the reservation's up-and-coming manager, Angela. She has dreams of becoming a fully certified park ranger, and of taking a more active role in Kimberly's life, which the people around her tolerate while making it clear that they don't believe in her ability to stay sober long enough to make them come true. She's the sort of person who is mostly pitiful and exasperating, but whose total lack of guile, coupled with her desperate desire to please and be of use, make you want to root for her even though you know she can never win. 

    It's rare enough to see female characters of this type that The Animals in That Country would have been worth reading for Jean alone, but within a few chapters McKay establishes her SFnal novum: rumors of new type of flu, whose symptoms are mild and short-lasting, but which leaves its sufferers with the ability to understand animals. The actual mechanism, as the novel is explains it, is that the disease activates a part of the brain that can learn to read animals' body language. So the speech, when it manifests itself in the novel, is often incomprehensible, a stream of disjointed thoughts that come in response to the environment, to triggers that humans can't discern, or to primal desires like food, shelter, and companionship. Affected humans are often driven insane by the sheer din around them, or moved to release animals from captivity and follow them into the wild. Upon hearing of the disease, the reservation prepares for a lockdown, but this is quickly broken by Jean's son (with Jean's unwitting help; which, even only a few chapters into the novel, already feels like a classic fuck-up from her), who spreads the disease throughout the park before absconding with Kimberly. With Angela disabled due to an animal-related mishap, Jean sets out in pursuit, accompanied by Sue the dingo, who can track Kimberly's scent.

    This obviously creates the expectation of a journey of redemption, in which Jean finally discovers her life's purpose, proves her fitness to care for Kimberly, and maybe even learns a few important life lessons from her inhuman companion. Instead, The Animals in That Country is more a catalogue of human collapse, with Jean a full participant rather than an observer. The middle chapters of the novel have a certain baggy quality to them, as McKay revels in the opportunity to explore her premise—the effect the disease has on its sufferers as their ability to parse animal language progresses through the kingdoms (first mammals, then birds, then insects); the breakdown of social order as people discover an entirely new worldview; most of all, the different ways that animals see the world, a perspective that often glosses over humans as irrelevant or out of touch. A shipment of live pigs whose truck has overturned nevertheless express hope for a better future. A pod of whales calls out to humans to join them in the deep. Most interesting is the revelation the book makes about the relationship between Jean and Sue—that far from being Jean's loyal hound, Sue perceives herself as the leader of their pack, with Jean as the lovable puppy who must be steered away from harm. 

    Given Jean's behavior, it's hard to fault Sue's analysis. And yet the fact that Jean accepts, rather quickly, her role in the power dynamic between the two illustrates the real danger that the flu poses to the world. It's not that the disease is dangerous or that it kills (though many people die under the influence of what it reveals to them about the world), but that it upends the established hierarchy, in which animals exist on human sufferance and for human purposes. The discovery that animals have their own world that coexists with ours, and is in some ways far richer and more complex than ours, upends the worldview of many humans—though not Jean, who was already used to feeling as if the world was too complicated, too difficult, for her to function in. In another novel, this would make her the survivor, the one person suited to navigating the apocalypse. In The Animals in That Country, it makes her a threat to the still-existing authorities who are scrambling to reestablish the status quo (though not really a threat, since she is, after all, an elderly alcoholic; more like an inconvenience). The novel's ending sees that normality reasserting itself, with Jean faced with a choice between rejoining humanity—and the limited space it has granted her—and sticking with a pack, with whom she will always be an outcast. It's a heartbreaking moment—all the more so because Jean, in typical fashion, doesn't really understand what she's choosing until it's too late—and it makes for a shocking capper to what was already an extremely impressive debut.

  • This One Sky Day by Leone Ross - Ross's third novel is set in yet another archipelago, this one a fantasized Caribbean. On the islands of Popisho (also the novel's US title), the outside world is mostly a rumor, the long ago enslavers of most of the population's ancestors (though there is also a native community, mostly intermarried with the incomers but still present as an underclass who are relegated to the "Dead Islands"). Nowadays, they are the clients for the island's major export, the fantastical toys that are so prized, none of the local children have been able to get their hands on one. The islands are also suffused with magic, and every Popishan is born with a magical ability called "cors". These are a dizzying array of physical attributes—a girl whose lungs are outside of her body, another whose chest bears the age she will die at—and magical powers—a man who is physically pained when he hears a lie, another who can flavor food with his touch. 

    One can easily imagine the traditional fantasy story (trilogy?) that could be told in a setting like this, but Ross veers more in the direction of literary fantasy and magical realism. Her worldbuilding is detailed but not detail-oriented, with important aspects of the island's culture and history emerging like islands from the mist, and then receding—mentioning that Christianity and traditional African religions coexist on the islands, for example, or waiting until more than halfway into the novel to reveal that most Popishans are the descendants of freed slaves. This One Sky Day is full of striking set-pieces—a tour through the Dead Islands that includes walking on water; a sojourn in a living house that rearranges itself according to its residents' needs; an enlightening drug trip under the auspices of the Fatidique, the council of women who offer guidance to those befuddled by their cors—but its climax, if it can even be said to have one, is consciously downplayed. This tracks with the smaller scale of the novel's plot. It is set, as the title suggests, over the course of a single day, and its concerns are mundane ones—the upcoming election for governor; the wedding of the current governor's daughter; the annual all-island beauty contest. Perhaps the best encapsulation of the intimacy of This One Sky Day's concerns (and of the none-too-serious way in which it regards its setting and characters) is the fact that the biggest act of magic that occurs within its pages is the simultaneous detachment of all of the vulvas on the archipelago. (Most are reattached without much fuss; a few are lost, to greater or lesser dismay by their owners; a couple end up with the wrong owners, which actually ends up solving their respective problems.)

    This One Sky Day is wide-ranging, switching between many different characters and locations, and inhabiting the minds of even its least sympathetic figures. The main story, however, concerns two characters, and their travels across the islands as they try to come to a major decision about their lives. Xavier is the aforementioned food-flavorer, also an accomplished chef and the archipelago's "macaenus", the man whose job it is to cook one meal for every adult on the islands, a meal that gives them exactly what they need at that moment in their lives. Xavier has been strong-armed by the governor into catering the latter's daughter's wedding feast, to which end he is expected to go on walkaround, sampling the various ingredients on sale in the archipelago's markets, discovering new recipes, and gaining inspiration. The problem is that Xavier has been in a year-long depression since the death of his wife—not least because her ghost has not appeared to him, as the dead on Popisho do, to be laid to rest, which he takes as silent acknowledgment of the fractured state of their marriage. The other character who goes on walkaround is Anise, a healer whose marriage is on the rocks after multiple miscarriages, and who learns that her husband has a mistress with a baby on the way. Going in search of this woman, Anise muses about her life, the choices that led her to marry this man and cut off other possibilities—including the chance of a great love with Xavier.

    Xavier is a troubled man, haunted by his family history, by a drug addiction, by his loveless marriage, and by his path to becoming the macaenus—most notably, the sexual relationship he had with his predecessor and mentor, which the novel ultimately concludes was exploitative, while leaving room for this woman to admit her mistake and forge a healthier bond with Xavier in the present. This One Sky Day gives him a lot of space to work through these issues, and for Anise to face up to her grief and her realization that her marriage was maybe never right for her. As it does so, it also becomes clear that though Ross deviates quite a bit from our expectations of a fantasy novel, she is working well within the traditions of the romance genre. She constructs a classic tale of star-crossed love for these two characters, making it clear that they have just missed each other many times, and that they belong together. By the time the day draws to a close, and the novel's pages begin to dwindle, the reader will be desperate for the two's paths to cross. (As is only fitting for a novel as panoramic as this one, there are several other romance subplots woven through Xavier and Anise's—the governors' daughter, Sonteine, struggles to communicate with her betrothed, especially where sexuality is concerned; and her twin brother, Romanza, whose queerness is only barely tolerated by Popishan society, spends the day longing to be reunited with his lover.) It's this, as well as the lovingly constructed world of Popisho, with its gentle scandals (the governor turns out to have been skimming the toy export money) and absurd incursions of magic (a red hurricane that, according to island tradition, is meant to force people who are strangers or enemies to shelter together and learn to bridge their differences), that makes This One Sky Day an utterly unique fantasy novel, as well as a delightful read.

  • The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen - Nguyn's debut novel sat on my kindle for a few months before I got around to reading it, and by the time I did, the only details I remembered about it were that it was well-regarded and had won the 2016 Pulitzer prize. It was therefore a bit of a shock to read the novel's opening chapter, in which the narrator, the aide-de-camp of a general in the South Vietnamese army, makes an increasingly undignified, and eventually horrifying, escape on one of the last planes out of Saigon in 1975, in the same week in which similar images (and similar questions about the US's foreign adventurism) were being broadcast from Kabul. That sense of timeliness—or perhaps, of lessons having been determinedly not learned—suffuses the novel, but so does its strong sense of wartime Vietnam, and of the war's aftermath for the people on the losing side.

    The Sympathizer's narrator (whose name we never learn) is, as he tells us in the novel's opening sentences, a man constantly caught between extremes. He's biracial, the bastard son of a French priest and the woman he impregnated, and thus derided by both parts of his heritage. He's American-educated, which makes him suspicious to both communists and republicans, while Western academics regard him as little more than a novelty act, capable of regurgitating their own ideas about "the Orient", but not of offering anything meaningful of his own. He's a member of the post-war liberation movement, which dreams of toppling Vietnam's communist regime, but also disgusted by the violence this organization engages in (and by the right-wing American politicians with whom it curries favor and from whom it receives under-the-table financial support). And, as we also discover almost as soon as the novel begins, he is a communist spy, who has been embedded in the south, and passing information to his handlers in the north, for his entire adult life. That last fact places the narrator in constant conflict between his two childhood friends—Man, his Viet Cong handler, and Bon, a member of the CIA-backed Phoenix Program, a violent, clandestine counter-insurgency group.

    It's a premise, and character, that can end up feeling rather contrived, but what makes The Sympathizer work is Nguyen's eye for details, and the acidic voice with which he relates them. The novel, which straddles the divide between literary fiction and spy story, is filled with gripping set pieces—the narrator's escape from Saigon, along with the general, his family, and many other hangers-on; the murder of a suspected informer; a long interlude in which the narrator travels to the Philippines to consult on the set of a Vietnam-set movie (a sort of cross between Apocalypse Now and Rambo); finally, the doomed mission in which the narrator, Bon, and several other die hard "freedom fighters" try to cross back into Vietnam and jumpstart the counter-revolution. The tone throughout is sardonic, even blackly humorous, but the narrator is also incisive in analyzing both the faults and good points of all the sides he observes and pretends to be on. He captures the agony of exile for the former Vietnamese officers, emasculated and made to feel useless by their newly reduced circumstances, but also by American society's racism towards them. But he also makes no bones about the fact that these men are reactionaries, in denial about the violence and corruption that characterized their government, united in the delusion that the Vietnamese people are just waiting to be liberated. Most of his scorn, of course, is reserved for Americans, whether for of against the war—all of them, he ultimately concludes, are incapable of seeing Asian people as human, their country as more than an object to be worked upon, and the loss of life in Vietnam as anything more than an abstraction. It's a bracing, incisive analysis of poisonous habits of thought that, as we've so recently seen, persist to this very day.

    The Sympathizer flags a little in its final segment, in which the narrator and Bon are captured by the Viet Cong and sent to a reeducation camp. With no more exciting set pieces to describe, the novel instead looks inward, into its main character's fractured, self-contradictory psyche, which has the unintended effect of revealing how artificial this construct actually is. In these chapters Nguyen also tries to offer the same even-handed look at the Viet Cong and post-war Vietnamese communism as he did the south and the US, but, perhaps because the narrator remains trapped in the camp, these descriptions end up feeling a bit perfunctory. It's not hard to make communism look bad when your protagonist is being tortured for not sufficiently quoting revolutionary poets in his self-criticisms. But the complexity that characterized other parts of the novel feels absent. Despite this drop in energy towards the end, The Sympathizer is an excellent novel, furiously smart but also suffused with genuine sorrow at the suffering of all its characters. Nguyen published a sequel featuring the same protagonist earlier this year, and I'm very curious to see where his story will take him, and what analysis of the state of the world he will offer along the way.

  • Oligarchy by Scarlett Thomas - Thomas skyrocketed to international fame in 2006 with The End of Mr. Y (a book that enjoyed a lot of crossover appeal with SFF fans, but which I was rather lukewarm towards). Rather than capitalize on that success by making herself the go-to author for literary weirdness, she seems to have spent the last decade and a half doing her own thing, publishing a novel for adults every five years or so (plus a series for young readers), none with the obvious hook of her big success. Her latest novel, Oligarchy, is as different from The End of Mr. Y as one can imagine, and perhaps that's why I liked it a great deal more. It's a brief, blackly comedic school story, and a brutally effective examination of the pressures that are brought to bear on teenage girls—from their caretakers, from society and mass media, and from each other.

    Natasha is the daughter of a Russian oligarch who has been packed off—for reasons that are only dimly expressed at the beginning of the novel and only partially explored by its end—to an obscure boarding school for rich girls in the English countryside. Though Thomas is unsparing in her descriptions of the norms and rituals of the school, and of the grotesque idiosyncrasies of its teachers—the latter captured with a judgmental cruelty that only teenage girls are capable of—what really interests her is how the girls entertain themselves in their off hours, their desperate quest for entertainment and, through that entertainment, for some way of defining themselves as they enter adulthood. The girls browse online shopping sites, try to get past the school's porn blockers, and obsess over each other and celebrities' instagram feeds. The latter paves the way—as recent real-world discussions have reminded us—to the book's main focus, eating disorders. Each of the girls has her own, fundamentally disordered approach to food and to her body. Each has her own dissatisfactions with how she looks—too fat, too thin—and her own catty reactions to the other girls' appearances and their attempts to alter it.

    Thomas's narrative, a tight third person that switches between the different girls' perspectives, offers no reprieve from her heroines' worldview. Nor does it shy away from their faults. Natasha and her friends are shallow, snobbish, and their single-minded obsession with weight, booze, and boys makes them more than a little boring. But the novel also observes how these obsessions are reinforced by almost all the authority figures around them. When one of the girls dies, apparently from complications of anorexia, the school brings in counselors and motivational speakers, each one more clueless and harmful than the one before. A recovering anorexic spends her talk counting calories and explaining to the girls how you can stay just above the line where your diet obsession becomes a disease. The new biology teacher makes a game out of calculating BMI and body fat percentage. And the women at the Weight Watchers group in the nearby village angrily chase the girls away, too upset by their thinness to realize that something must be wrong. Throughout all this, Natasha and the other girls sink deeper and deeper into diet obsession, and Thomas is sickeningly good at articulating how the self-starvation mentality is at once appealing, with its emphasis on purity and self-control, and a psychological trap from which it is nearly impossible to escape—when the girl who most successfully shed the pounds starts gaining them back, her self-loathing is worse than if she had never lost them, and her response is terrifyingly extreme. (It should go without saying that Oligarchy could be extremely triggering to people who suffer from disordered eating; I've avoided diet culture my whole life and I still found it hard to get through.)

    When it comes to its titular subject, on the other hand, Oligarchy feels strangely unfocused. It tries to draw a connection between weight and class—women like Natasha, or her successful but miserable aunt, are expected to be thin in order to participate in the rarefied world to which their wealth gives them access; and the girls' snobbishness towards those they deem "plebs" is tied up with disgust at their obesity. The novel also makes the point that, even as it becomes clearer that what's happening at the school is the product of malice, not neglect, the society outside the school will find it hard to care, assuming that rich, appearance-obsessed girls don't have any real problems. But ultimately, the fact that Natasha comes from dark money and that she and her friends are massively privileged ends up feeling unrelated to the book's primary concerns, and Thomas has very little to say about it—it feels more like a way of jumpstarting the plot than something she wants to explore. It's perhaps for this reason that Oligarchy's ending—which is half coming of age, half plucky heroine solves a mystery—is a bit of a hard sell. It resolves some problems too easily, and leaps over the failure to solve other problems too quickly. By that point, however, we've come to love Natasha and her friends, for all their stupidity and selfishness, to see them for what they are—children, who are nevertheless more capable of growth than many of the adults around them. Despite a wobbly ending, it is the novel's characters—and our horror at what the world puts them through, and what they do to themselves—that linger when the book is finished.


Richard said…
This One Sky Day is currently heavily discounted on Kindle, and I've immediately picked it up on the back of your review (which is as insightful as ever).
"The Animals in That Country by Laura Jean McKay - Winner of this year's Kitschie and Clarke awards" - 2020 Kitschie winners were Piranesi and "The Space Between Worlds", and 2021's winner's will be announced in 2022.
S Johnson said…
Tried to read The Sympathizer, couldn't finish. The observation that the final segment of the novel, being captured in Vietnam, loses "energy" doesn't seem quite right. The narrator is always in the prison camp and the anti-communist commitment is there from the beginning. And it is pervasive. There is no comparable condemnation of the Phoenix Program. The prison camp, there from the first page, is the antipathy for the Communist people of Vietnam.

It is true I think that there is such a condemnation of all Americans as such. I couldn't feel how that was relevant to the narrator's sympathies/political views. I do strenuously disagree that the movie was ever meant to reference Rambo in any sense at all. It was all about Apocalypse Now, and Francis Ford Coppola. If the attack on that seems rather overdrawn, hitting the likes of Rambo, it may be that the author's contempt doesn't serve as a deep understanding. If it's all just because white people are racist, there are no politics, just moralizing.

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