Friday 27 February 2015

Harvest - Jim Crace

Harvest was shortlisted for the Man Booker and won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 2013. I ended up enjoying it a great deal (as I did with so much of that year’s literary fiction). I’ve now read nearly all the books on that year’s shortlists – there were some cracking novels:
Women’s Prize
  • Kate Atkinson: Life After Life
  • A.M Homes: May We Be Forgiven
  • Barbara Kingsolver: Flight Behaviour
  • Hilary Mantel: Bring Up the Bodies
  • Maria Semple: Where’d You Go, Bernadette
  • Zadie Smith: NW
(Elif Shafak’s Honour should have made it over Semple)
Booker Prize
  • NoViolet Bulawayo: We Need New Names
  • Eleanor Catton: The Luminaries
  • Jim Crace: Harvest
  • Jhumpa Lahiri: The Lowland
  • Ruth Ozeki: A Tale for the Time Being
  • Colm Tóibín: The Testament of Mary
It is the first Crace novel I’ve read and I think it’s unlike anything I’ve read before. Normally your brain starts buzzing with contexts, contrasts and comparisons when you’re reading but I couldn’t conjure anything. This in itself is really weird. So I felt a little set adrift but I soon settled into the lovely prose and the kind, enquiring and thoughtful musings of the novel’s narrator, Walter Thirsk. The writing is often sublime and gets better the more you became attuned to its rhythms and subtlety.

The plot is fairly straight forward. Strangers come to a remote village to settle just as another stranger, employed by Master Kent, has started to map the village: “A gentleman we did not recognise was watching our barley field to stub: a visitor, a rare event, exciting and unnerving” (4), but “What was he wanting from our soil, what were his charts securing” (8). This is a prelude to the enclosure of the land: “the closing and engrossment of our fields with walls and hedges, ditches and gates. He means to throw a halter round our lives” (40).  The unease created by the appearance of this map-maker prompts a first act of violence but the villagers come together to blame the other set of strangers: they are unjustly punished and brutally mistreated.  Finally another set of strangers appear, led by Master Kent’s cousin, the rightful owner of the land. The novel is full of the tragic consequences of these visitations – some caused by doubt, confusion and uncertainty, some caused by the desire for revenge and rough justice, some caused by the cruelty and destructive energy of the new lord. The narrator is Walter Thirsk, who was once, some twelve or thirteen years ago, himself a newcomer to the village before he married and settled down. The events cause Walter to question his status as insider or outsider as suspicion blooms everywhere.
Harvest is poetic and enigmatic but is nonetheless a vivid imagining of how people might have thought living in an isolated village some centuries ago – their habits of thinking that is, and a meditation on how people were connected to land, landscape and each other. Through that you get quite an acute sense that Crace wants us to think about insiders and outsiders today; immigrants and nation, belonging and exclusion, as well as our use of the land and the parlous state of the environment. I even worried a little the novel that was often speaking too directly about today rather than generating metaphors that resonate and play.
It’s easy to think that the novel is overly concerned with unreliability and that sense that history cannot be known – the preoccupations of so much modern fiction. Walter doesn’t see much of the action so his narrative is based on reports and stories of others and his hypotheses of what he believes or suspects. He is a brilliant creation, aware, often, of his faults and self-deceptions but also perceptive, knowledgable, philosophical and funny:
 “This morning I persuaded myself that probably it’s wise for all of us to hold our tongues for the time being and let these newcomers soak up the blame. But now, beneath these weighty clouds, I recognise my foolishness; no, let us name it as it is, my lack of courage and of honesty. Soak up is not a happy phrase, I think. The rain is pleasurable only for those not fixed in it, those who can look forward to a square of drying cloth, a roof, abed, sweet dreams. Tonight’s beneficiaries of Nature’s dowry do not include Mistress Beldam’s family” (51)
Actually, this narrative strategy is much more concerned with a fierce imagining of the way people thoughts and habits of thinking are bound up with the work they do. One would imagine that Crace is a bit of a leftie.
The text gives you a sense that the bonds between people are irreconcilably caught up in their relationship to labour and the land. Morality and religion are secondary to the rough, hard economy of everyday life and survival. Custom, tradition and family life are significant, yet loose, bonds in constant dialogue with desire, hunger and pragmatism. Crace gives his narrator a rich and rhythmical syntax and the specificity and range of vocabulary to identify satisfactions too. In this isolated village existence (in the face of omnipresent uncertainty – “the rule of seasons” (69) - a bad year’s crop could make life very hard indeed) there is, above all, a connectedness to the environment that is both necessary and deeply pleasurable. It does so, I think, without romanticising that pleasure: “Our great task each and every year is to defend ourselves against hunger and defeat with implements and tools. The clamour deafens us. But that is how we have to live our lives” (75). The novel also gives witness for the need of such communities for expert husbandry of the land and collective decision making; this has consequences too for the passing down of knowledge and history. This idea, that Walter is constantly trying to make sense of the world – out of necessity and habit - and turn it into knowledge, wisdom and story, is one of the huge pleasures of the novel
Yet the bonds between people are shown to be extremely fragile. Distrust, uncertainty, dishonesty are never far away – certainly when it comes to outsiders. The novel argues that without labour and land, or power, families and individuals become will be become fearful and isolated. I’m think Crace wants us to consider that the bond between humans labour and land is what creates community and that a greater alienation takes hold when it is sundered, rather than communicate some essential truth about the fragility of human behaviour and human existence - though readers might draw that conclusion. He offers us a conjunction – how the land was stolen from us during the enclosures and how everything is being taken from us again due to privatisation, the clamour for profit and capitalism’s masters’ disregard for the environment.
The novel also has much to say about the frontiers, expectations and dangers of these people’s lives, especially women’s: “The local women were like land – fenced in, assigned and spoken for, the freehold of their fathers, then their husbands, then their sons. You could not cross their boundaries, or step beyond your portion” (29) but one of the strangers is a woman, and “no better than any other wild quarry on common ground. Like any pigeon, any hare, she was fair game” (29). This woman will stay literally and figuratively on the margins of the text, and Walter’s village, thwarting expectation at every turn. Thirsk only sees this woman in glimpses and never gets to speak to her – he is enthralled and mystified by her. Her portrayal intersects with the brutality with which the new lord uses his power to bring chaos to the village. Crace wants us to think about the labels given to women in this society – mother, daughter, wife, witch, harlot – and the way Thirsk constructs ‘woman’ in his deliberations and imaginings.
Harvest is a deeply pleasurable book and the more I reread sections and think about it the better it gets. You get the satisfactions of apposite and finely wrought figures of speech, of irony and dramatic irony, the fine margins of a sympathetic and eloquent unreliable narrator trying to be reliable. The text also invites contemplation and discussion, not just about the layers of meaning in the text, but about what awaits us in the decades to come:

“this ancient place would soon be new…We’re used to looking out and seeing what preceded us, and what will outlive us. Now we have to contemplate a land bare of both. These woods that linked us to eternity will be removed by spring, if Master Jordan’s saws and axes have their way. That grizzled oak which we believe is so old it must have come from Eden to our fields will be felled and rooted out” (196)

Wednesday 25 February 2015

Lagoon - Nnedi Okorafor

Lagoon is full of stuff to think about – here’s my list: Nigeria; Africa; Science-fiction; magic realism; satire; YA; carnivalesque; feminism; Bollywood; Nollywood; melodrama; spectacle; blockbusters; B-movies.

I include Bollywood because my knowledge of Nollywood is virtually zilch. I’ve only read three other Nigerian novelists - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Chinua Achebe and Ben Okri but no other African sci-fi except Lauren Beukes’ Zoo City; my knowledge of Africa in general is largely political and historical but without personal experience – I’ve never been. I write all this because though I’ve done my best to think about context and to cherish the novel for its vibrancy and is difference – and I did enjoy it,  I just didn’t enjoy it half as much as I thought I was going to. It’s had great reviews; it’s on the BSFA shortlist and the Kitschies shortlist so I feel like I’m the one that’s got it wrong. Ho-hum.

Most people will have an inkling of the plot – aliens visit Lagos. At the beginning, three people – Adaora, Agu and Anthony - are chosen to meet the representative of the aliens, Ayodele. In the first section various characters are introduced – Adaora’s bully of a husband Chris, a brutish evangelical priest, a group of students hoping to try and kidnap the alien and a gay and lesbian activist group all have encounters with Ayodele. And this is just the beginning – you will also meet all manner of gods and monsters, superheroes and aliens. It’s frenetic, it’s a romp, it’s weird, it’s political; it’s antagonistic and daring, provocative and silly – all good things: very good things.

Furthermore the writing is functional and clear, and that’s OK - there is so much going on in terms of ideas that any kind of ornate writing could easily get in the way. Style and tone are fascinating. When you love Bollywood as much as I do you become used to different styles within a single work - melodrama as mode and hyper-dramatic plotlines - so as soon as I understood some of the things the text was doing, and playing with, I relaxed into it. The first section is often very funny though it becomes less so, by design, as the novel progresses. The middle section where the Nigerian gods appear is often intriguing. Overall, in terms of craziness, I was reminded of Ismael Reed, though it’s fifteen years since I read him so I could be wrong.

I thought about Pynchon too. Its kind of hard to care about the characters in a Pynchon novel but there are other compensations - the language, the humour,  the ideas and the complexity. Some people will find satisfaction in how Lagoon's challenges sci-fi orthodoxy, in the verve of its playfulness, its conceptual daring and the belligerence of its satire. Still, mixing the novel of ideas with melodrama and comedy is hard to get right and there are fine limits. Unfortunately I never really believed in Adaora or Chris, I wasn't really interested in the characters and some of the dialogue pushed at the limits of dramatic and dropped off the other side. There was something too about the novel's sensibility that I didn't warm to.

In the middle I actually went off and reread a little Bakhtin – just for inspiration, but it didn’t help.
Of that original list above the only thing I’m bored of, and grumpy about, is blockbusters. Right now I’d be happy if I never saw another one. Unfortunately there are moments in this book when I couldn’t think about anything other than blockbuster movies – I kept having flashbacks to Independence Day for instance – not good. Some of the action scenes – the one in the boat in section three – are even, well, a little dull and that last third struggled to keep my interest.

And there’s worse I think, throughout my reading (and film watching life) I encounter film and literature that puzzle and confound me and make me think again. I’m sure that’s true for most people.  Watching Tarkovsky or Kiarostami for the first time or reading Kafka or Toni Morrison or Muriel Spark, though intriguing and enjoyable, made me think, quite seriously, that I was totally out of my depth – unsuited even, for understanding great art. But then you reread, investigate, look for criticism and try to expand your horizons and understand. I’ve read some of M John Harrison’s books 3 or 4 times and as much as I love them, I still don’t understand half of it. Unfortunately, though I’m sure Lagoon has hidden depths I find myself not caring overly much. I appreciated some of the things the text is doing more than I enjoyed it.

I’m really sorry that I can’t fully embrace this novel. It’s fascinating, intelligent and original and I’d urge everyone to read it. It’s exactly the kind of book I want the BSFA and the Kitschies to include in their shortlists. I feel mean not loving it but I don’t. Sorry. Again.

If you want a more positive spin read T S Miller’s excellent review at Strange Horizons.

Tuesday 24 February 2015

Thank you Adam Roberts

So many books - where do you start? The first book I truly loved, in my late teens - was The French Lieutenant's Woman. I read up about Fowles and discovered he loved Le Grand Meaulnes and Hardy so I read them. I discovered New York trilogy and The Invention of Solitude. Auster loved Hunger, Kafka and Melville so I read them. I started reading the Guardian. I started reading shortlists. This is not unusual I suspect.

These days it's much easier. Mike Harrison wrote lists of 'some interesting science fiction' and 'some good fantasy' on his blog a few year ago: there's still a few I haven't read. Nina Allan writes brilliantly on her blog. Strange Horizons is a fantastic resource. China Mieville is always recommending good books in interviews. There are more shortlists than ever before and there is still the Guardian. Over time you decide who you can trust and you can easily follow your favourite critics and authors.

Not in any kind of weird, stalkerish way of course.


Anyway, Adam Roberts it seems, has stopped blogging on Sibilant Fricative. I can't have any complaints obviously - I just try to enjoy things when they are there. Also, I have no idea how the man finds the time to do all the things he does. This is a simple thank you for all the thoughts and laughs you've provoked over the years (with Punkadiddle too) and all the great recommendations. Hopefully you'll still write for the Guardian, Strange Horizons, etc.

Great Kitschies shortlists btw!

Here's a bit of Love and Death too:

The Lie Tree - Frances Hardinge

“The boat moved with a nauseous, relentless rhythm, like someone chewing on a rotten tooth. The islands just visible through the mist also looked like teeth, Faith decided. Not fine, clean Dover teeth, but jaded, broken teeth, jutting crookedly amid the wash of the choppy grey sea. The mailboat chugged its dogged way through the waves, greasing the sky with smoke”

The first paragraph of The Lie Tree gives you all you need to know about this magnificent book. First, the similes and metaphors are powerfully evocative. You can feel the dreadful cadence of that ship and the tension and anxiety induced by that vista of harsh, imposing islands in the distance. Read it out loud too – feel how the sentences work; ‘jutting crookedly’ is perfect isn’t it? As always then with a Hardinge novel we know reading will be intensely pleasurable because the writing is so good. You can’t help but smile at the language and the figures of speech at the same time as they generate significance and strangeness and propel the narrative onwards. The text draws attention to itself but never gets in the way of telling the story.

Regular readers of Hardinge might also suspect something else is afoot: you’d be right. This is a gothic tale full of peril and suspense – something new in the Hardinge catalogue. Cuckoo Song was horribly scary for its first third but became an adventure for the rest of the book. The Lie Tree, whilst containing significant components of adventure and mystery, is full of preternatural dread and uncanny menace and never lets its grip on you loosen. You feel a knot of tension in your stomach throughout.
The Lie TreeThe book is set on a small island in the English Channel in the latter half of the nineteenth century (around 1869). Teenager Faith has travelled with her younger brother, mother, father and uncle, ostensibly so that her father – a Reverend and a natural scientist, can provide expertise for an archaeological dig. But there are intimations that the family are fleeing from intrigue and the shame of scandal. Furthermore it’s clear that Faith is dissatisfied, not just with her stern father and manipulative mother but with the expectations placed on her to be placid and ladylike; instead she is “full of questions, coiling and writhing like [a] snake”.

 The novel has a lot to say about the limitations of girl’s and women’s lives in Victorian England. Faith has “tumbled off the safe, hallowed shore of childhood, and now she was in no-man’s water, neither one thing nor another, like a mermaid. Until she dragged herself up on the rock of marriage, she was difficult” but the novel charts her progress to greater self-knowledge (and knowledge about the world) and reveals the difficulties and secrets at the heart of many women’s lives. It is historically fascinating, joyfully liberating whilst also, I think, despite all the improvements in women’s lives, sharply and powerfully relevant for today.

One of the best things about The Lie Tree is its richness and the feeling that you are solidly grounded in a dense, yet mysterious, forest of intertextuality.  Younger readers will be reminded of myths, fairytales and possibly some bible stories. Older readers will struggle not to think of Daphne du Maurier and all manner of nineteenth century classics, especially Wilkie Collins. There is throughout a delectable use of language to evoke period and mood; “A half-human face with a sloping brow glowered with hostile stupefaction” provides the heat-trace of Dickens or Poe whilst retaining clarity and a sense of danger.

I could quote it all day to be honest – my kindle is marked every page or so by figures of speech, details that add layers and depth or character, and frequent glimmers of the uncanny or glimpses of the darkness: “People were animals, and animals were nothing but teeth. You bit first, and you bit often. That was the only way to survive”.  It’s a novel full of ideas and intelligence but don’t think for a second that Hardinge skimps on plot. There is never a dull interlude and the narrative picks up its pace thrillingly before hurtling, breathlessly, to its denouement, shooting off surprises and revelations as it goes.

Doubts? Not really. Marcus Sedgwick is probably the UK’s best purveyor of gothic – I’m a big fan of My Swordhand is Singing for instance, but The Lie Tree is on a whole different planet of brilliant. The novel raises some good questions for debate however. There were moments when I wondered if the tensions and mysteries in the plot were perhaps overly dependent on Faith’s (mis)understanding of events. It is a difficult and delicate balance to preserve so this is being very picky indeed. Also, though Hardinge is as always, deeply aware of class and power in social relationships, it was slightly unusual for a Hardinge protagonist to be middle class and for the actions of many of the novel’s working class characters to be less sympathetic than usual. Finally I wonder if some of Hardinge’s fantasies are more complex and richly metaphorical? These are genuine questions – only answerable after a second reading and a good discussion. In the mean time I will be eagerly awaiting publication date so I can get copies in the library and buy copies for friends. The Lie Tree is brilliant; I finished it delirious and deeply happy.

This is how I finished my review of Cuckoo Song last year:

What is more astonishing, and downright weird, is that Hardinge hasn’t picked up an award or three along the way and isn’t being heralded up and down the land as a national treasure.
I’m glad to say that that Cuckoo Song has made two shortlists and a long list in the last month: the BSFA Award shortlist, the James Herbert  Award shortlist and the Carnegie longlist. Furthermore she is also a judge for this year’s Kitschies. Hopefully the times they are a changing.

Friday 13 February 2015

A Man Lies Dreaming - Lavie Tidhar

A Man Lies Dreaming

The first books I really fell for, that made me a reader, I discovered in short succession back in the late 80s. Reading Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy, John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman and Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit was exhilarating and opened my mind up to all kinds of new possibilities. I didn’t understand then about metafiction or slipstream but it didn’t matter because I realised that playing with the structure of narrative and stressing their fictionality didn’t make me care any less about the characters or about what was going on but did start me thinking about the nature of ‘realism’ and many more questions too. Reading  two novels by Lavie Tidhar and Nina Allan (The Race) over the last week has reminded me of that sense of wonder, though not, I should stress, with any hint of nostalgia – both novels feel excitingly relevant, political and necessary. They remind me too of how much I loved Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries last year.

So, A Man Lies Dreaming. I already admire Tidhar’s two previous novels Osama and The Violent Century so my expectations were high.  To begin with I wasn’t sure what to make of the novel’s pulp sensibility - Hitler as main character in a text laced with lashings of sexual violence, sex and kink! However as with lots of great novels, especially metafictional texts, this one teaches you how to read as you go along and keeps on accruing depth as it progresses*.

A Man Lies DreamingThe novel is set in November 1939 - a very different 1939 where the Communists won the 1933 German elections and have since smashed the Nazi threat. Hitler, now calling himself Wolf has made it to London and is working as a private eye. In this London the fascist Oswald Mosely and his blackshirts are on the verge of an election victory. Or so we think to begin with. It quickly becomes clear however that this alternate history is probably the dreaming of a Jewish pulp writer, Shomer, trying to survive in Auschwitz.

The text has three different narrative parts – a diary by Wolf, a third person narrative that keeps very close to Wolf and a third person narrative that describes Shomer’s life in the concentration camp. There are also underlined notes throughout the text that refer back to Mein Kampf or other texts and sources as though an editor, or the narrator, has been searching for historical authenticity. If there are strong similarities to the noir of Raymond Chandler and his ilk at various points there is also a very playful irreverence and a different kind of sensibility that I am simply not used to. The last time I read a pulp novel was probably in the seventies – a young boy fascinated by the giant crab and the naked woman on the cover of a Guy N Smith novel (I think?) - so to begin with I was a little shocked and surprised. I’m not easily shocked or surprised these days.

Being shocked, of course, is a very good thing. Tidhar, quotes Hannah Arendt as one of the epigraphs:

“Clichés, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct have the socially recognized function of protecting us against reality.”

Tidhar wants us to think anew, primarily, perhaps about the difficulty of writing about the holocaust. The novel is also a significant and grave examination of the dangers of racism and the scapegoating of immigrants and Muslims in Europe today. We are so used to our politicians and media playing the race card that it’s all too easy to become inured to it and regard it as just the usual crap. Tidhar wants us to follow the logic through however and investigate the consequences. Perhaps it could mean the construction of another state like Israel, with all the imperialism, nationalism and racism that go hand in hand with such a project. Perhaps it could be even worse: he suggests that if we assume that nothing as bad as the Holocaust could ever happen again we are, most probably, terribly and vainly mistaken.

The text is deliciously clever. Tidhar lets us imagine that Shomer gets some pleasure from putting his Hitler through a series of horrific beatings and enjoys humiliating him with the portrayal of his sexual deviancy. The reader gets pleasure too of course but Tidhar is searching for much more than humiliation. A Man Lies Dreaming is one of the funniest novels I’ve read in a long time: “Wolf went into the small closet to urinate and stared in horror at his circumcised penis before tucking it away again”, but as I laughed it was hard not to remember the horrific scene when Wolf is circumcised. It’s incredible that the novel contains history’s most unsympathetic man, uses him as character and narrator, to provoke not just horror and ridicule but to overcome lazy, binary thinking and inspire empathy and a desire to understand too. There is a diary entry (in Chapter 10) where Wolf dreams that he is in a concentration camp and there are other moments, especially when Wolf remembers his love for his mother, that are incredibly powerful. There’s another bravura section where Shomer lies injured in a hospital bed just as Wolf is pumped full of opiates after a particularly bad beating. It’s a woozy, hallucinogenic and uncomfortable section where the characters start to bleed together and become confused – again, brilliant, suggestive and structurally precise.

To say too much more would be to spoil the novel and explain it away – you’ll have to see how the pieces fit together for you. Tidhar seems to be in complete control of his prose, the structure and the historical material. There are so many brilliant details and finely judged set-pieces. I loved it – it’s fearless and audacious, raucously enjoyable and yet deadly serious.

Just in: I’m writing this just as the Kitschies and BSFA shortlists have been released and I’m disappointed A Man Lies Dreaming made neither. That said it’s hard to criticise either list as 2014 was undoubtedly an unusually rich year for speculative fiction (and secondly because two of my favourite authors are on the Kitschies judging panel!). It’s worth noting that there is no room for Jeff VanderMeer’s brilliant Southern Reach trilogy or Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven either. All three works deserve a wide, wide readership.

*Shouldn’t all novels accrue depth and significance as they progress? Probably, but the majority don’t – they really don’t. A subject for another day….