Review – The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

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This is probably the angriest book I’ve read all year. The Mars Room is not just an indictment of the American prison system, but an exploration of how society itself fails many of those who get caught up in that system.

Romy Hall, a dancer at the infamous stripper joint ‘The Mars Room’ ends up in a high security Californian ‘Correctional Institution,’ having murdered the man who stalked her. At the same time she discovers that her mother – sole guardian of Romy’s little boy Jackson – has died, and that her own parental rights have been revoked. With no say in the matter, Romy is left estranged from her own child; unable to trace him from prison.

Part furious satire, part invective, Kushner’s novel exposes the farce of a system which leaves the most vulnerable in a position where they will almost inevitably end up behind bars. It is a system characterised by institutional violence. People like Romy – or her cell mate Button Sanchez – are victims of the conditions it creates; punished hypocritically by a society which refuses to examine the way it fails so many of its own citizens.

“The word violence,” narrates Romy, “was depleted and generic from overuse and yet it still had power, still meant something, but multiple things. There were stark acts of it: beating a person to death. And there were more abstract forms, depriving people of jobs, safe housing, adequate schools. There were large-scale acts of it, the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians in a single year, for a specious war of lies and bungling, a war that might have no end, but according to prosecutors, the real monsters were teenagers like Button Sanchez.” (Kindle Loc 3292)

The Mars Room prises apart the myth of a judicial system aimed at rehabilitating prisoners. Such people are thrown into a cycle of violence and counter-violence from birth; the scapegoats of a society which refuses to examine itself and its own crimes.

A hard read, but an essential one.

 

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Review: Normal People by Sally Rooney

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Sally Rooney has been described as the “Salinger for the Snapchat generation” (Guardian): a writer who explores the loves and lives of Millenials, turning accusations of shallow self-absorption on their head. That’s simply not who her characters are. Her books may brim with references to lives lived online, to friends with benefits and clicktivism, but the young adults who populate her novels are politically tuned-in; emotionally astute; voracious readers and sparkling conversationalists.

To a large extent, anyway, this is what I took from Normal People: Rooney’s Booker long-listed novel about a pair of Sligo teenagers who fall in love – and then somehow seem to keep on almost wilfully missing each other. Both Marianne and Connell are attractive, frighteningly intelligent and both are, in their own ways, damaged – Marianne by her own family and Connell by the pressures of small town life and social class.

In this respect, Rooney plumbs deep psychological depths to establish why Marianne – so gifted and so beautiful – should experience such self-loathing. And why it takes a real tragedy before Connell is able to shake himself free of his own complexes and prejudices.

While Connell and Marianne came across as fully realised and recognisable individuals however, I felt this book could have been twice its length if Rooney had given more substance to the supporting characters. We only hear of Marianne’s mother through second-hand reports, for example, yet she is so pivotal in her daughter’s decline. And then there are the endless succession of boyfriends and girlfriends who never quite match up to the real thing: overprivileged, or intellectually challenged, a series of   emotional stooges contrasted with Marianne and Connell’s perfect pairing.

At its heart, Normal People is a love story – at times achingly painful, at others joyous, and there is obviously something timeless about that which goes beyond immediate concerns around technology and peer group prssures. I think, though, that I would have enjoyed a richer background texture to the book – a more in depth exploration of those forces which steer Marianne away from what she views as ‘normal’. And to which Connell sacrifices so much.

A fascinating read, but I’m not convinced it lives up to the hype.

Review: Everything Under by Daisy Johnson

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I like kind of drifting into and across books. Sometimes finding a new author is like being involved in a massive paper chase, in which one good read leads to the next. The reason, for example, why I picked up (or rather downloaded) Daisy Johnson’s novel Everything Under was because it was recommended by Fiona Mosley, whose novel Elmet I greatly enjoyed. And I read Elmet due to a fascination with the concept of the Celtic/English hinterland of Elmet presented by Nicola Griffith in her work of historical fiction, Hild.

Indeed, there are a lot of points of comparison or overlap between Everything Under and Elmet. Both stories concern people who live on the peripheries of society. Both explore the relationship between gender and identity. And both use myths, history or legend as a base point for exploring contemporary British culture. Thus, the myth of Oedipus leaks into the lives of Johnson’s characters, steering them inexorably towards tragedy.

Gretel is a lexicographer, whose lonely existence is shored up by a fascination with language and semantics. She embarks on a journey in search of her mother, Sarah, who abandoned Gretel when she was just thirteen years old. But it now emerges that Sarah is suffering from Alzheimer’s, and her fading grip on language means a loss of the past itself; her story delivered up in half-remembered fragments.

Through this confused web of time and memory, Gretel gradually pieces together the story of how the almost idyll of her childhood – spent amongst the ‘river people,’ drifting physically and metaphorically along the fringes of society – was splintered and destroyed by the arrival of a boy named Marcus. And of how Marcus may in fact have once been a girl – Margot.

There are so many strands to this complex and disturbing narrative that one reading doesn’t do the book justice. Johnson reveals the way in which we become trapped or ensnared by language or stories in so many different ways. Both Gretel and Sarah are haunted, for example, by the idea of the Bonak – a water creature hunting the river banks. Yet the border between genuine danger and self-imposed fear is a fluid one, and the Bonak turns out to be a term coined by Sarah herself, as she and Gretel share a private language.

In a sense, language in Everything Under takes on the role of fate in Oedipus Rex. It condemns people to relive the same, inescapable narratives; unable to veer course from self-imposed systems of semantics and association. “Again and again,” says Gretel, “I go back to the idea that our thoughts and actions are determined by the language that lives in our minds. That perhaps nothing could have happened except that which did.” Only with the disintegration of language, ultimately, can release from the past be found.

Everything Under has been longlisted for the Man Booker prize, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s a novel which reads like a river, meandering, free flowing, and at times sucking the reader into dangerous and disturbing depths. And ultimately, it reminds us of why myths like Oedipus still carry resonance in our fractured, fragmented times. Highly recommended.

Review: Autumn by Ali Smith

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This was a re-read of Ali Smith’s novel Autumn, the first instalment in her ‘Seasons’ Quartet. It is, after all, a book which you can only take so much from on a first reading, since it is so wide-ranging in terms of its frame of reference, and it is crammed with internal echoes which are easily missed.

Shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2017, Autumn has been described as a post-Brexit novel, but it’s much more than that. True, it considers the way we become victims of our own lies and prejudices; erecting fences and borders in a deluded attempt to keep ourselves safe. But it also has a lot to say about the way we construct stories, about the way those stories unfold in time and space, and in turn construct our own sense of identity. And deep down, it’s also a love story of an extraordinary kind.

Danie Gluck is 101 years old, sleeping and suspended in his own subconscious; his memories merging with his dreams until it becomes impossible to know where the past ends and imagination takes over. His sole visitor at the Maltings Care Providers Plc is young art historian Elisabeth Demand, who befriended Daniel when he was her neighbour over twenty years earlier. Daniel’s conversations with young Elisabeth about art, books and story-telling, time, truth and lies, created a bond between them which Elisabeth later recognises as a kind of love. The love which enables one person to see another clearly. For as Daniel says, “we have to hope…that the people who love us and who know us a little bit will in the end have seen us truly. In the end, not much else matters.” (160)

Flitting freely between perspectives and time, Autumn is a bit like being on the inside of someone else’s memories. “Time travel is real,” Daniel claims. “We do it all the time.” This does not just concern personal memories but myth, literature, art, politics and popular culture, all of which get incorporated into Daniel and Elisabeth’s sense of self; their lives fusing with the books they read and the art they witness. Memory, then, emerges as a kind of mental collage, analogous to the collages of pop artist Pauline Boty whose joyous life and tragic death forms another narrative strand of this complex and beautiful novel.

As Smith states in an interview with Norwegian writer Linn Ullmann, “…love is multiple, various, takes all forms, is non-exclusionary; it will not be coralled, will not be given a shape, refuses to be fixed, and in that way unfixes us all. Thank God.” Few people can write with such truth about love, and of how much we lose in its absence.

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.

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