Review: Circe by Madeline Miller

It’s been a while! Mostly because of work commitments this semester. Teaching literature often requires a reacquaintance with some of the classics and I don’t really see much point in writing reviews of Oliver Twist or Mrs Dalloway since those ships have kind of sailed. Having said that, I might post some of my teaching materials in the near future in case they’re of use to anyone else lucky enough to be teaching British and Irish literature.

Anyway, having revisited a few old favourites, I’m now back into uncharted territory so far as my reading is concerned, and this week’s review is for a book which was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for fiction this year (https://www.womensprizeforfiction.co.uk). It’s a novel which succeeds in merging the old and the new; the ancient and the contemporary, since the whole point of myth is that it never goes away. It feeds into the historical and cultural contexts it encounters, and is affected by them in turn.

The great current shift in myth-telling has seen many women writers reclaim ancient stories from a gendered perspective. There’s been – to name but a few – Ali Smiths’ rewriting of Ovid in Girl meets Boy (katecudahy.wordpress.com/2016/02/12/review-ali-smith-girl-meets-boy); Daisy Johnson’s incredible rendition of Oedipus Rex in Everything Under  (katecudahy.wordpress.com/2018/09/16/review-everything-under-by-daisy-johnson); Pat Barker giving voice to the women of Troy in The Silence of the Girls (https://www.amazon.co.uk/Silence-Girls-Pat-Barker/dp/0241338077) which was also shortlisted for the Women’s Prize this year, and Circe by Madeline Miller.

Circe  is a book to be devoured and revelled in. While the titular character is limited to her role as witch and deceiver of men in The Odyssey the sorceress/goddess/nymph who transforms sailors into pigs – and to a few brief mentions in other areas of Greek myth, Miller spins a complex tale of growth, maturity and self awareness. It’s a book which fleshes out the bones of its main character to give us a full-bodied woman who errs and stumbles, but who ultimately finds her way. She stands up to both gods and men, ultimately refuting her fate to forge her own path.

“I find in myself no taste for fighting Trojans or building empires. I seek different days’ (p. 304) Though these lines are not uttered by Circe herself, for me they spell out the message of the book. Its characters live of fall not through the enacting of heroic deeds, but in self-acceptance and self-awareness. And ultimately  – without throwing too many spoilers in readers’ direction – the characters that ultimately fail are those like Odysseus, so caught up in his own legend that he never truly sees himself.

The novel reads like a who’s who of Greek mythology – with Titans, Olympians and famed mortals such as Daedalus or Medea all putting in appearances. And yet, while the book could so easily have swung into mere Hellenic name-dropping or soap opera, it never does. These characters are here for a reason, and it’s more than clear that Miller has put in the hours as far as research is concerned. The story is captured in a lush prose which conjures and transforms just as Circe herself gives shape  to the world around her.

This is  a book which reveals why we still need myth, and why, if myths are to survive, they need rewriting – with one eye on the past and the other on the present. A literary marvel and a great start to my summer reading.

Review: Spring by Ali Smith

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I’m tempted to think of the third instalment of Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet as a literary sucker punch. But that does the book a disservice, as it’s so much more than a simple wake up call to the damage and division caused by hate speech and our failure to genuinely connect in the age of social media.

Surely, however, this is the angriest and most bitter of Smith’s works to date, with its attack on the dehumanising apparatus of Britain’s immigration service: the UK Immigration Removal Centres, in which detainees are reduced to ‘deets’ – stripped of all rights and dignity. And, importantly, Spring is also an exercise in how that process  transforms the people who work in such places into machines. And how, in fact, we are all in some way contaminated by that system; by the fact that we live in a society which allows it to happen and engage with media that condone it.

Spring is littered with sections in which the author hurls that sense of social atrophy in our faces: condensing, for example, the hate speech of trolls (together with punctuation issues and typos) to frightening effect:

SHUT UP just shut the fUck Up can someone tape her mouth shut she deserve to be relentlesly abused what a Cunt go and die hang yourself you ugly Cunt we are all having a laugh at you You are a shit show nobody couldn’t play fuck marry kill with you its just Kill you are a Tampon you are odios you deseve to be raped left for dead your Daughter deserves to be raped and stabed to death with a Kitchen KNnife your like a broken record bleeding heart liberal fuck WE know where you Live

Smith, Ali. Spring (Seasonal Quartet) (p. 223). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

Painful to  read, these are moments which prove just how normalised such discourse has become. Smith picks apart facile claims to freedom of speech. Language is no longer a system of communication, but a signifier of difference. And while the language of division comes cheaply, our failure to engage in genuine dialogue costs us dearly.

Language, then, is both barrier and bridge, depending on where you stand, as IRC officer Britt discovers, on hearing her fellow worker speak in Gaelic:

For some reason just hearing it made her angry. It made her near tears. It felt like being bullied did, back when she was at school and had to pretend she wasn’t clever. Then Torq made it worse by smiling at her like he really liked her while he made the impossible sounding sounds. Her throat started to hurt like it does when you try to stop yourself crying. It was the language that was making it hurt.

Smith, Ali. Spring (Seasonal Quartet) (p. 326). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

Spring also picks up on Smith’s preoccupation with the act of storytelling. “All my work is about books,” she tells Christina Patterson in an interview for The Independent. “It’s all circular and it all comes back to books and what they do.” www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/ali-smith-the-power-and-the-story-226080.   Thus Spring zings along with the intertextual mastery so characteristic of her other work, intertwining its own stories with those of other narratives – such as the (almost) encounter between Katherine Mansfield and Rainer Maria Rilke in 1921, or tales of Scottish history. All of this reinforces the sense that it is narratives which make and break us. But that stories also feed in and off each other – and that in this respect, it is impossible to ever truly end a story. Continually surpassing their boundaries, stories spill into our lives and offer points of resistance and change. And that, at the end of the book, is what perhaps  Spring offers by way of hope.

While Spring can be read by itself, I would recommend reading it alongside Autumn https://wordpress.com/post/katecudahy.wordpress.com/1358 and Winter https://wordpress.com/post/katecudahy.wordpress.com/1292 as this reveals the way in which Smith is pulling a yet larger narrative together in startling and beautiful ways as she works through the seasons. It is also a novel which requires a second reading in order to allow all the hidden quirks and twists to fall into place.

Yet another masterpiece which reinforces Ali Smith’s status as perhaps the greatest writer of her generation.

 

 

Review: Hotel World by Ali Smith

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In America, Jean Baudrillard maps out the Bonaventure hotel in Los Angeles as one of the ultimate sites of postmodernity. The building, he claims, is a “box of spatio-temporal tricks” (1988: 59). Decentralised and detached from the world outside, it creates and orders its own utopic reality; its guests and visitors seemingly stranded in a dislocated, sanitised hyper-reality.

This is surely the same environment into which Smith plunges the reader in her 2000 novel Hotel World – territory which is disturbing in its familiarity. Seen from a variety of vantage points, the hotel is a place of work, of life and – in one case – of death, a symbol of social inequality and a site of grief and memory. This is in spite of the hotel chain’s claims to uniformity – the obliteration of difference which extends to the people who work there: “…it is important, behind Reception, to wear hair tied back and to wear ‘subtle’ make-up. There Lise is, there she can see it, her subtly made-up face above her Name Badge, sleek and smiling, emptied of self, very good at what she does.” (112)

Yet, despite every attempt to erase the personal or the temporal, bits somehow get left behind. There are the physical reminders – “…the Left Behind Room; this is where all the things guests leave behind are stored…alarm clocks; batteries; books…” (105) or the dust “made of human skin,” (191). And there are the grieving friends and relatives left behind in the wake of a death. And no amount of regulation – no artificial measure of control – can, it seems, prevent the random accidents and encounters which live on in people’s minds and memories, in spite of the transience of hotel life.

There are few writers, I believe, who quite succeed in occupying the minds of their characters to the extent that Ali Smith does. She renders them instantly recognisable, their traumas, dilemmas and joys our own. And they also offer a point of resistance to the apparent pessimism of Hotel World and its inhuman territory of pressed, starched sheets; numbered doors and static. They break down barriers, and refuse to submit to the sterility and quiet tyranny of postmodern existence.

This is another book which proves that Smith is one of the most outstanding authors of her generation.

Review: Milkman by Anna Burns

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“Whatever you say, say nothing,” Seamus Heaney famously wrote. That, surely, is also part of the message of Anna Burn’s Booker winning novel Milkman, in which nameless people constantly talk around everything but the truth. Told from the perspective of eighteen year-old “middle-daughter”, Milkman recreates the world in which the unmentionable troubles of 1970s Northern Ireland took place. This is a world in which a single misplaced word or misunderstanding can result in a whole level of community conspiracy: a kind of fantasy shared by people whose every thought and action seems to be governed by a specific set of sectarian values.

Thus, the narrator is assumed to be the lover of a high-ranking ‘renouncer’ or republican paramilitary known locally as Milkman, when in fact she is being stalked and intimidated by him. As local narratives do not appear to authorise any alternative to the idea that she might be his lover, she is both hounded and feared, becoming as much a part of local political mythology as Milkman himself.

What I think is really important about this book is the way it suggests that, amid the very public horrors of events like The Troubles, more private horrors are ignored or even denied. And that merging of the private with the public or political is part of this problem. Women’s lives are policed, and anything which appears to violate borders or the unwritten code of sectarianism proves threatening.

The other surprising aspect of this book, given what I’ve just written is how funny it is. Written with more than a few nods to the digressive style of earlier Irish writers such as Laurence Sterne and Jonathan Swift, this is a novel which seethes with inventive language. And which proves how  language can be used to obfuscate or even annihilate truth.

I will admit to not actually wanting to like this book, purely because I really thought Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under deserved to win the Booker in 2018. And part of me still feels that. But I have never really read a book which is so relentlessly obsessed with its own linguistic medium, and which uses that self-referentiality to interrogate how we use language for political ends. A hard read but a mind-blowing one.

Review: The House on Vesper Sands by Paraic O’Donnell

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I recently mentioned how much I was enjoying the recent strain of gothicism which is emerging in British literature (https://katecudahy.wordpress.com/2018/12/20/review-melmoth-by-sarah-perry/). My latest foray into this territory was The House on Vesper Sands by Paraic O’Donnell, which has received much praise for its cunning nod to older literary forms. Part Conan-Doylesque mystery, part Wilkie Collins style chiller, this is a story packed full of malevolent aristocrats, charismatic detectives, unexplained deaths and disappearances, and cunning twists.

The story is largely told from the perspective of Gideon Bliss – an impoverished Cambridge undergraduate – and Octavia Hillingdon, an orphan adopted by a wealthy newspaper magnate. Octavia’s indeterminate social status turns out to be to her advantage in her role as journalist and society columnist, with one foot in the banqueting halls of the upper classes and the other in the treacherous streets of Whitechapel. Both characters find themselves gradually sucked into the sinister world of the so-called ‘spiriters’, who may or may not be responsible for the unexplained deaths of several young, working class women.

It is, however, O’Donnell’s sleuth – Inspector Henry Cutter – who proves the most memorable character of all: a Scotland Yard police officer with a mouth like a sewer, who has a history with the spiriters and aims to see true justice served – a kind of Dickensian Spooky Mulder. Cutter takes Bliss under his wing and the two form a perfect old cop/young (fake) cop pairing – Cutter as world weary father figure to Bliss’s innocent, geeky son.

The book melds its supernatural theme into a realistic depiction of Victorian London and O’Donnell has the most amazing handle on imagistic language, conjuring, with a few deftly chosen words, the glamour of a society ball or the bleakness of the Kent coast. It’s a book you feel rather than read: a novel which slings the reader head first into a maze of dark, forbidding streets, flesh and blood characters and dialogue which captures speech rhythms and idiolects so well that it reads like eavesdropping.

This was a great read to start the year with, and left me with the feeling that if ever a detective deserved his own spin-off series, it is surely Inspector Cutter.

Review: Public Library by Ali Smith

Public library and other stories by [Smith, Ali]

Recently I ordered a couple of ‘real feel’ copies of works by or about Ali Smith – Girl Meets Boy, and a collection of critical essays on her work. I already had one of these books on my Kindle, but as I needed volumes with page numbers, I decided to order from second hand bookshops. When both books arrived, they were coated in library issue plastic covers, and one of them still contained stamps from Dulwich public library. Coincidentally, I was just reading Smith’s volume of short stories Public Library, which addresses the demise of this treasured institution across the UK following a decade of local government cuts and austerity.

It was both ironic and deeply saddening, and it made me think of what a focal point the library was in the small Derbyshire town where I grew up. (I’m happy to say that’s one book palace which survived the chop). A visit to the library meant opening up new worlds: a very private new world as a reader in a very public space.  And it meant measuring one’s progress from childhood to adolescence when you received the adult reader card – a rite of passage noted by a few of the contributors to Smith’s volume. Libraries are communal spaces and democratic spaces. They function like an enormous secret we’ve all been let in on. Downloading an ebook is just not the same – you don’t have that same sense of sanctuary, or of paying books their due respect while celebrating the fact that this is one of the few times life genuinely gives you something for free. Because without an internet connection and a credit card, you’re mostly forced to source your books the pirate way. And that demeans all of us – authors and readers.

The short stories in Public Library are also a celebration of the act of reading itself, of words and their power, of writers and their histories. Smith has the most amazing ability to mine for joy and subversion in all of her work; to eke out a space in what we take for granted, enabling the reader to see it from new perspectives. I can think of no other author who could effectively pair a tale on credit card fraud with an investigation into the death of D H Lawrence. Or who could trace the breakdown of a marriage to an obsession with Katherine Mansfield. Smith is best at making the incongruous seem a vital part of lived experience – at tracing analogies and associations between the most disparate of pairings. She’s a rebel writer whose work casts an even light over popular culture as much as the literary past, if it will draw her reader’s attention to an idea or image. And snaring our attention is something she never fails at.

Public Library is a paean to our most treasured communal spaces, and to how books connect us across geographies and across time. An essential read and a provocative one.

Review: Melmoth by Sarah Perry

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Review: Melmoth by Sarah Perry

Neo-gothicism seems to be the order of the day in contemporary British literature, with writers like Sarah Perry, Sarah Waters and Andrew Michael Hurley all offering new takes on a much out-moded genre. What all these authors have proved is that the gothic – with its hauntings and secrets, its dark retreats and the way it plays on our most hidden fears – offers perfect territory for exploration of all that we would still repress, even in our current age of confession, self-expression and over-sharing.

What Perry achieves in Melmoth is nothing short of astounding, and I have to admit that as much as I enjoyed her previous outing The Essex Serpent, Melmoth proved a more satisfying read, abounding in cunning devices which deceive and challenge the reader. To such an extent, in fact, that Perry claims one American newspaper was entirely taken in with the myth of Melmoth when in fact it was her own invention! Taking her cue from Charles Maturin’s 1820 novel Melmoth the Wanderer, Perry transforms Melmoth into a biblical figure – one of the women who witnessed the resurrection of Christ, but refused to acknowledge it. As a result, she is forced to walk the earth until the day of judgement, watching the guilty and, in her loneliness, summoning sinners to walk with her.

Though set in 21st century Prague, Melmoth has a timeless feel which Perry creates through artful use of dialogue and description so that, in her own words, she renders the present ‘strange’ (podcast: The Guardian) or uncanny, thereby creating the perfect gothic backdrop to the horrifying story which unfolds. And what emerges is a story which terrifies far more through its exploration of human cruelty than its supernatural references. The narrative pivots around the shy, shrinking figure of Helen Franklin: an English translator enduring self-imposed exile for a crime committed long ago. Because Helen refuses to confront her past, the reader is denied knowledge of what that crime might have been until the very end of the novel. In stead, Helen sets about uncovering the myth of Melmoth through stories left behind by the Wanderer’s victims, each of which reveals an aspect of human cruelty and weakness. And by the time Helen is ready to examine her own conscience, we are left in no doubt that her sin was truly grave.

What I really loved about this book was its structure: the stories slotting inside one another like the matryoshka dolls sold to tourists on the Charles Bridge, with Helen’s own personal narrative both framing and nesting inside each one. Perry’s skill as a writer means that the novel glides over a range of genres and styles, from biography to travel diary, with subtle intertextual references ranging from Maturin to Kafka. And the story pays out its surprises with such perfect pacing that its finale leaves you breathless – and in no doubt that while the author has dredged humanity’s dark side, it’s the light which remains. This is literary sleight of hand at its most dexterous – an absolute masterpiece.

Review – Devil’s Day by Andrew Michael Hurley

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So the first thing to say is that no one does bleakness like Andrew Michael Hurley. And there’s something attractive – and underrated – about bleakness. He did it so well in The Loney (review here) that you could almost feel yourself sinking into the sludge and fog of the Lancastrian coastline. And this time, in Devil’s Day, he creates the impression of a farming community so lost, isolated and ill at ease with itself that you really start to believe the devil might be haunting the moors and forests of the Ribble Valley – and exacting his price from the humans he preys on.

Born into the Endlands – said claustrophobic little farming community – John Pentecost has left to become a teacher in staid, sober Suffolk. He heads north, however, with his wife Kat and an agenda. John wants to return to the Endlands, and he wants Kat there with him. But the valley can’t hold back its secrets for long, and what at first appear to be quaint traditions and beliefs may reflect a darker truth – a truth which Kat refuses to accept.

Hurley excels at drip feed horror – at a gradual revelation of phenomena and events which may or may not be connected, and which may or may not have supernatural origins. And that is where the real complexity of his stories lie – in their ambiguity. Just as in The Loney, it’s hard to say with Devil’s Day where human work ends and the devil’s might begin. And evil itself might as easily be found in nature as it is in any external force for ill will.

It’s possible that Hurley might have overstretched the pacing somewhat with this one. The Loney paid out its surprises more evenly – with Devil’s Day, a good 50% of the novel is devoted to detailing The Endlands, its history and inhabitants. But then again, this contributes to a sense of a world that is lived in, that is real, and that could very well have settled into practices that set it beyond boundaries and belief systems.

Devil’s Day is a story that chills to the core. Perfect Halloween reading.

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.

 

Review: Snap by Belinda Bauer

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I don’t read thrillers very often, but I’ve recently been on something of a crimefic roll after reading Alias by Cari Hunter  https://katecudahy.wordpress.com/2018/09/20/review-alias-by-cari-hunter/

Snap, by Belinda Bauer, was on the Booker longlist – a major achievement for a work of genre fiction – and comes with enthusiastic endorsement from Val McDermid, who has described it as “the best crime novel I’ve read in a long time.”

What attracted me to the book, however, was its intriguing subject matter. Based on the unsolved murder of Marie Wilks, Snap focuses very much on the trauma suffered by a victim’s family in the wake of their a loss. Jack Bright’s mother is brutally killed when he is just eleven years old. She leaves her car at the side of the motorway to make an emergency call and never comes back, leaving Jack to fend for himself and his two young sisters, Joy and Merry.

Cut to three years later and the kids have slipped off social services’ radar. Supported by Jack’s talent for breaking and entry, they are living in hand to mouth squalour. When an opportunity to track his mother’s killer presents itself, Jack seizes it, endangering both himself and his siblings.

For me, the thing which really shone through the whole book was Bauer’s portrayal of Jack – quickwitted and resourceful, yet the psychological damage he has endured and his age make him incredibly vulnerable. The plot never stalls, and there are sufficient twists to turn this into both a real page turner and a story which pivots sympathetically around a young boy’s deep sense of loss.

What I wasn’t so convinced of, however, were Bauer’s portrayals of the ‘supporting cast’, who  emerge at times as mere thumbnail portraits, veering towards stereotype and caricature without true depth. This was particularly the case with the crew of police officers introduced later in the story, ranging from the hard bitten, unorthodox veteran detective, to his fey, vein assistant, both of whom came across more as cliche than rounded character.

A really entertaining read but not Booker material.