Review: The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

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I decided to read The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock after listening to an interview with the novel’s author, Imogen Hermes Gowar on the Guardian books podcast (which is, by the way, always worth a listen). You can find the interview here:

https://www.theguardian.com/books/audio/2018/mar/13/man-booker-international-and-the-womens-prize-for-fiction-where-to-start-reading-books-podcast

What attracted me to the story was the way Hermes Gowar has isolated an aspect of late eighteenth century London society – its fascination for exotica and curios – and taken that as a reference point for exploring the city at large, in terms of its changing physical and cultural landscapes.

The story hinges on the moment when merchant Jonah Hancock discovers that his ship has been sold in exchange for what is claimed to be a mermaid. Devastated over the loss of his vessel, Hancock nevertheless endeavours to recoup his losses by putting the mermaid’s mummified remains on display.

In fact, public fascination with the mermaid gains Hancock access to social spheres which, as a ‘middling’ kind of merchant he has never previously enjoyed: from the luxury and sensuality of an upmarket King Street brothel to the newly moneyed circles of Mary-le-Bone and Blackheath. In the process, he meets renowned courtesan Angelica Neal who proves as alluring as the mermaid itself.

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock emerges as a work of textual archaeology, revealing the hidden histories of those people who frequently serve as little more than ‘local colour’ in received versions of national history. In contemplating her future as Hancock’s wife, for example, Angelica realises the extent to which her own identity will ultimately be lost; concealed beneath a series of socially-prescribed roles:

These claims upon her will only multiply – she will be mother-in-law, grandmother, widow, dependant – and accordingly her own person will be divided and divided and divided, until there is nothing left. (p.372)

The novel also references characters who slip through the net of white-washed historical narrative such as Polly – a mixed race prostitute, displayed like the mermaid as a curiosity.

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock throws the reader headfirst into the murky waters of a city on the brink of change: into its new role as a capitalist powerhouse. In this respect, London itself emerges as a protagonist in the novel, transformed by a burgeoning economic reality which sees social climbers like Mr Hancock encroaching on the terrain of the upper classes.

This is a multi-layered jewel of a book, injecting London’s past with an immediacy which makes you question how far removed we are from such a reality. The fetishising of women’s bodies and the hunger for what we perceive to be exotic or grotesque are after all as characteristic of our contemporary media as they ever were for 18th century London society.

A beautifully written, startling and disturbing piece of fiction.

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Review: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

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Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi is a novel which confronts the legacy of slavery head on, tracing the lives of generations of Ghanaians and Americans who live, consciously or not, in its shadow.

The story opens in the eighteenth century with the arrival of British traders to west Africa, who manipulate tribal antagonisms in order to further their aim of capturing and transporting local people across the Atlantic. Half-sisters Effia and Esi are caught up in the violence and trauma of this experience: Effia marrying one of the slave traders, while Esi is put on board a slave ship and taken to the United States. The novel follows the lives of their descendants up to the present day; their lives transformed by colonisation and by segregation; by casual hatreds and prejudices, but also through solidarity and love.

Gyasi’s prose style is delicately poised and detached, serving to emphasise the horrors that her characters are forced to endure. As each generation dreams of a better life for their children, reductionist narratives of race and skin colour serve to impose apparently insurmountable limitations. Yet this is also a story of healing – of homegoing – of roots first ripped out but ultimately replanted. It is, therefore, against all the odds a tale of hope.

Anger simmers beneath the delicate prose of Homegoing. But at the same time, it is an extraordinarily compassionate book, and a novel which subtly picks apart its complex subject material. A must read.

Review: A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimar McBride

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This was quite the most challenging work of fiction that I’ve read for a long time: a novel which is brutal in its honesty and honest in its presentation of brutality. It shocks, it disturbs, it confounds and it never, ever spares the reader.

I guess, on one level, this might be Eimar McBride giving her literary forebears the finger. After all, the narrative which unfolds is couched in fluid, stream of consciousness monologue – a nod perhaps to the ‘Penelope’ chapter of Ulysses and to Joyce’s male centric Bildungsroman A Portrait of the Artist. But the nameless protagonist of A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is no worldly-wise, self-satisfied Molly Bloom, and the focus of this book is fully on female sexuality. And if McBride’s work offers any kind of release, it is not in an affirmative portrayal of that sexuality. In fact, it stems from a gradual process of disintegration: from the girl slowly stripping herself of all she is and of all that is expected of her.

This is fundamentally the story of the destruction of a sensitive, intelligent child. Her mother – a devout, almost fanatical Catholic – never truly succeeds in engaging with her daughter in a meaningful way and seems to almost wilfully refuse to understand her. Sexually assaulted at the age of thirteen by her uncle, the protagonist is left with serious psychological scars and can only find an outlet for her pain in degrading, sexual encounters. At the same time, she positions herself between the world and the one person she ever really loves – her brother – who has suffered a brain tumour.

The girl is constantly perceived by others; objectified in so many different ways. Yet her monologue reveals the extent to which she is internally fragmented and incapable of sustaining a coherent sense of her own identity. It’s a hard and at times excruciating read. But it takes the reader places few other books dare: into another human being’s tormented psyche.

 

Review: Elmet by Fiona Mozley

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I arrived at this novel by a vagarious route. I recently finished Hild by Nicola Griffith in which the last Celtic kingdom of Elmet is a central motif. To my shame I had never heard of Elmet, even though I lived for about two years in Yorkshire (Elmet was located over roughly what would later become the West Riding.) After reading Hild I began to realise just how politically complex 7th century England was. The term Anglo-Saxon is conceptually inaccurate as it implies a dominant, monolithic culture when in fact Angles and Saxons were already fragmented and warring groups. In this context, the idea of a residual Celtic Kingdom in the north of England appears less of an anomaly and more a kind of proof of just how porous British identity always has been.

Anyway, I found the idea of Elmet a fascinating one, and I happened to be at an airport bookshop when I saw Fiona Mozley’s book, read that it had been shortlisted for last year’s Booker prize and immediately went and downloaded it. What I love about this novel is the fact that it plays on that original idea of Elmet as a kind of badlands: a world away from the norms, a place where ancient values and beliefs still frame the way people live and think. Yet at the same time, Mozley repositions that idea in a more recent context: in a Yorkshire scarred by the destruction of mining communities and on the cusp of entering a new, unforgiving reality of hard capitalism and privatisation.

The novel foregrounds a pocket of resistance to such change in the form of Daddy (John Smythe), a prize fighter who brings up his children Kathy and Daniel in the middle of a forest, schooling them in self-sufficiency and resourcefulness. Daddy makes his money through violence – through boxing in illegal fights – while going at any length to protect his family against the threats which encroach upon their little world.

The fascination of this story is not what is said but what is left unsaid. Its impact lies in its ambiguity: in the frayed edges around the tale which Daniel, its narrator, weaves. It gives the novel a mythic, lyrical feel which contributes to the sense of this being a kind of latter day legend, just as Elmet itself became the subject of myth making.

It’s a novel which is at once rooted in a keen sense of geography and history but which at the same time transcends time and space. Mozley’s prose rings with innovation and with imagery which throws into relief the wild, stark, beautiful world which Daniel inhabits. It’s a story of survival and of loss, of the clash of value systems, and of our sense of how the past invades the present. Elmet is also violent territory, and the fact that this violence is muted in Daniel’s narration makes it all the more shocking. Abuse and conflict, the book suggests, are as much a part of our cultural inheritance as the land and traditions which Daddy is so desperate to hand onto his children. This is a book which you carry with you long after you’ve finished. Highly recommended.

Review: Winter by Ali Smith

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As with all of Ali Smith’s work, Winter is couched in deceptively simple prose, lulling the reader into a sense that this will be a straightforward tale of loss and redemption. And while it is both of those things, it is also a charged, complex and astoundingly beautiful meditation on the way, as a society, we stake out ideological battle lines; on the relationship between art and nature, the fake and the real; on our attitudes to the environment and on our obsession with technology.

This is the second part of Smith’s seasons quartet, and as might be expected there is thematic overlap with Autumn, most saliently perhaps in the references to memory and loss. One particular character is also referenced, who may well prove to be a link throughout the series. The story pivots around the relationship between two women: Sophia, a self-made business woman in her sixties, and her older sister Iris who has been a lifelong defender of the environment and human rights. Ideologically worlds apart, the sisters have grown to despise each other’s life choices; Iris living in a commune and protesting at Greenham Common while Sophia emerges almost as the model Thatcherite business woman, building up her small empire of department stores. Sophia’s son Arthur is the casualty in this family war: a sensitive child who has been severed from his roots and left to fend for himself at a private boarding school. As an adult, he seems to live life in proxy via his blog on which he posts fictional encounters with the natural world.

The feud played out between Sophia and Iris mirrors in microcosm those social and ideological fractures which often seem insurmountable on a broader, social level and the book widens its references to take in Brexit, the Bosnian conflict and the Second World War. Yet Winter ultimately considers the potential for healing and reconciliation even in the most unlikely of circumstances. It is a book which refuses to take sides, and which foregrounds dialogue and the understanding of difference as key to a future which will rise above and beyond the hatreds of the past.

Winter is a novel which confirms Ali Smith’s status as one of the greatest living British novelists – she was recently placed first in a TLS poll of academics and authors (theguardian.com/books/2018/apr/05/). I am always grabbed by the playfulness of her writing: her love of invention combined with her unquenchable curiosity, and the way her sentences seem to feed off and into each other. Reading Winter for the first time, I felt I was only scraping at the surface of the story, and I am certain that this is a book I’ll be revisiting on more occasions in the future.

Review – Nutshell by Ian McEwan

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To be honest, I was in two minds as to whether or not I ought to give Nutshell a read. I mean, I love Ian McEwan’s novels – he’s an absolute master when it comes to manipulating the reader’s expectations. But I just had this feeling that this was one literary conceit too far. Hamlet retold from the perspective of an unborn child? Please.

I don’t think I’ve ever been so mistaken about a book before. This is such a masterpiece in terms of the way McEwan turns his source material on its head and also because of the dark simmering wit which runs through the entire novel. Our foetus soliloquizes – because I guess the unborn are natural soliloquists – on the impending betrayal of his father, on his mother issues and on the nature of the world he’s about to be born into with all the verve of an accomplished raconteur. And he’s also something of a wine connoisseur – his mother Trudy is drinking for two – a uterine philosopher and ultimately, like his father, a poet. But this isn’t just one long Shakespearesque monologue. The story also works perfectly as a thriller, and it leaves you guessing right up to the end how on earth McEwan will translate the bloody, corpse strewn finale of Hamlet into a contemporary tale of marital betrayal. Take it from me, it’s worth waiting for.

 

After reading Nutshell, I decided it was time to revisit Hamlet itself. There’s a great podcast discussing all aspects of the play from the BBC radio series In Our Time here:  

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09jqtfs

Review – The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry

Sarah Perry’s latest novel proves to be as elusive a beast as the Essex Serpent itself: a story which coaxes the reader into a literary terrain every bit as shifting and unstable as the salt marshes amongst which it is set.

Following the death of her abusive husband, Cora Seaborne sets about reinventing herself – stretching her wings and re-evaluating her relationship with her friends, and with society in general.  Freeing herself from the disapproving gaze of Victorian London, Cora moves to Essex in the hope of scouring the local beaches for fossils. Intrigued by the possibility that a “living fossil” may have been sighted near the village of Aldwinter, with local sightings of a winged sea beast reported, she moves there with her friend Martha and autistic son Frankie.

In truth, if there is any geology to be had in this novel, it is of the personal sort – the gradual chipping away at layers of emotional sediment to discover the uncomfortable truths which Cora – and many of her friends – keep deeply buried. On encountering local Vicar Will Ransome, Cora dredges her own sense of self to make sense of her feelings for him, while Will finds himself torn between the superstitions of his congregation and the foundations of his own religious belief. This is a story which explores the porous boundaries between pleasure and pain, between faith and superstition and between love and hate. Imbued with all the rich ambiguity of a Turner painting, it throws an alternative view of the Victorian age into relief – one in which sexual desire and sexuality lurk just beneath the surface of public consciousness, and are easily implied if not expressed.

Comparisons have been drawn between Perry’s sublime work of Victorian pastiche and Bram Stoker/Dickens. I didn’t quite feel that myself – it doesn’t really function as gothic, or as social commentary – at least not directly. I did, however, find myself thinking about Hardy as I read it: of his pivotal themes of sin and redemption, and of his exposure of the hypocrisies of nineteenth century British society. But what I really find most valuable here, is the uniqueness of Perry’s writing, and the way she gives a voice to characters whose stories are repressed or never heard at all in Victorian literature. A book which very definitely deserves to be re-read.

Review – ‘The Bone Clocks’ by David Mitchell

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I’m in two minds about The Bone Clocks. If I hadn’t read anything by David Mitchell before, I’d probably be bowled away by its ingenuity: a story which begins in the recent past and stretches into an apocalyptic future, framed through the perspectives of a set of well drawn and irresistably flawed characters. I’d also have marvelled at Mitchell’s genre-bending antics, flicking with almost casual ease from thriller to fantasy to sci-fi by way of some biting social and political satire. And there is no doubt that the sheer audacity of inventing an entire metaphysical system – a metaworld populated my metalives – would have had me on the edge of my seat.

But there was one problem, which is that Dave’s kind of done all of this before, and he’s done it so much better. He’s done it better by allowing the reader to fill in the gaps, as is the case in Ghostwritten, or by taking a very simple idea but playing it out on a massive scale as in Cloud Atlas. What seems a weakness in The Bone Clocks is that this is where Mitchell sets out his stall. He literally tells us, the readers, what’s going on. Granted, there’s the great opening mystery – a missing child, an apparent double murder, a hint at psychic abilities. But that air of mystery gradually collapses in on itself as we learn about the Horologists and their soul-sucking foes the Anchorites. And worst of all, those mysteries which were so elegantly played out in earlier novels such as The 1001 Autumns of Jacob de Zoet are now revealed, laid bare and somehow lose something in the telling. Laid bare, furthermore, in dialogue which is sometimes more cheap sci-fi flick than Booker long-listed novel.

So while I’m still in thrall to the literary magician that is David Mitchell – a writer capable of creating an entire parallel universe over the course of his writing career – I do wish he’d delivered up his secrets with a little more subtlety in The Bone Clocks. Unless, of course, there are more secrets to be delivered…

 

Review – Hot Milk by Deborah Levy

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“What is a myth?” That is a big question. It would be true to say that I was probably obsessed with it.

This is Sofia, protagonist of Deborah Levy’s novel Hot Milk attempting to establish her place amongst myths. And just as those stories are part of our cultural DNA, so Levy’s narrative creeps under the reader’s skin, stitching and unstitching its plot until Sofia arrives at a position if not of understanding, at least of wisdom, as her name indicates she ultimately must do.

Arriving in the Spanish resort of Almeira, Sofia accompanies her mother Rose who seeks a diagnosis for the paralysis which affects her legs and sometimes her entire body. But in fact it emerges that Sofia is as much in need of a cure as her mother – a cure that will free her from her own psychological paralysis, for Sofia has become  a prisoner to her mother’s whims and to her own personal sense of failure.

Trained as an anthropologist, Sofia uses her awareness of myth, of kinship ties and cultural encryption to make sense of the people she encounters. But such categorisation of human behaviour proves inadequate in comprehending her love for the powerful German seamstress Ingrid Bauer, or her relationship with her absconded Greek father, Christos. Ultimately, it is a much keener sense of reality and of the deep, deep ties which bind us together which promises to release Sofia from her limbo. This is a study in self-liberation, couched in  achingly beautiful prose. It is the first book by Deborah Levy that I’ve read,  but it certainly won’t be the last.

Review – Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

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Oh Ian McEwan, the big tease – master of the great turnaround, the twist that has his readers jumping from their seats, hurling the book across the room in amazement. A twist you instinctively know must be coming, but which nevertheless fails to shock. You think you’ll see it before it hits, and then at the very last moment, McEwan pulls the rug out from under your feet.

But it’s not the twisty-turny aspect of McEwan’s narratives which gives them their sap. It’s rather the handle he has on his characters’ moral tuning: the way he gradually raises the emotional temperature until the story is, to overcook a metaphor, on the boil. As Serena Frome agonises over her role in Sweet Tooth, an MI5 operation aimed at wringing political purchase from cultural endeavour, so does the reader.

Posing as the representative of a foundation which supports the work of young artists, Serena offers young novelist Tom Haley a stipendium which will enable him to give up his work as an academic and focus purely on writing his first novel. The rightist bent of Haley’s short stories is considered another potential weapon in the cultural war against communist propaganda. And the fact that Serena then falls in love with her mark prevents her from warning him of the potential trap into which he is about to fall as a dupe of the secret service.

One suspects that McEwan also had a lot of fun while writing this book, with his knowing references to the ‘up and coming’ authors of the 1970s, like Martin Amis, or the ‘new-fangled’ Booker prize. But at its heart, this is a novel which has very serious things to say about artistic integrity and the precarious relationship between politics and literature. And fundamentally, it’s a love story, and a beautiful one at that. Reading Sweet Tooth was yet another reminder of just how adept McEwan is at calibrating the vagaries of the human heart.