Archive for July, 2012

July 29, 2012

Where do girl orphans go?

Or, On the Absent Girl Child at the Heart of The Dark Knight Rises.  (or perhaps not).


This post will a) contain many spoilers for the most recent Batman movie and b) be of little or no interest to anyone who has not seen this movie.


At the end of The Dark Knight Rises my biggest question was not about, for example, Bruce Wayne’s ability to travel from Jodhpur to occupied Gotham without money, visas or any form of identification , or any of the other seeming plotholes that I’m sure are being discussed, dissected or retconned into making sense elsewhere. My question (and it’s one I posed to twitter as well) was – what happens to Gotham’s female orphans? I am making the assumption here that they don’t all become professional cat burglars.

In the movie, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Blake spends a great deal of his time at a home for orphaned boys. We later learn that he himself was a resident of this institution, and that it is partially funded by Bruce Wayne – to the extent that, when Wayne’s funding stops, some of the older boys are forced to leave.

So far as this goes, if it’s a bit Victorian-sounding it is also vaguely canonical. But St. Swithin’s is a home for “orphan boys”, not “orphans”. It’s possible that there are other orphanages in the city, funded by Wayne or others, and this just happens to be the one that’s relevant to the plot (except that Gotham isn’t a real city, and the bits of it that aren’t on the screen don’t exist). Wayne was orphaned as a boy as well, and the movie makes much of the connection that this gives him to other boys in this position – it’s a connection that helps young Blake to identify Wayne as Batman.

This group of boys is one of the early signs that Blake is the movie’s moral centre – almost the first thing we learn about him is that he volunteers at an orphanage. Towards the end he risks his life in an attempt to save them from the doomed city.

There’s at least one other prominent boy child in the film, and he is singing the national anthem before a football match in a scene that seems at least partly parodic (with overt patriotism I’m never quite sure).

The most important child in the film is its villain. In the mysterious foreign prison where he struggles to recover from his broken back and watches his city burn on the news, Wayne learns that only one other person has ever escaped from the pit – a child. It is partly because this story dovetails with rumours about Bane’s origins that we’ve already heard, partly because Bane has been set up as the antagonist of the film, that Wayne (with presumably most of the audience) does not stop to consider that “child” is a gender-neutral term and that no pronouns have been used.

I want to return for a moment to those orphans. I haven’t been able to find exact statistics on the sex-ratio of orphaned children in foster or group homes in America. I do remember a few years ago a spate of news stories in my own country that indicated that young boys were more likely to be adopted quickly than young girls. In an institution for “orphans” rather than “orphan boys”, it’s quite possible that the majority would be girls. (I suspect the racial distribution would also not map very well onto the sample of children that the film offers us).

I mentioned earlier that Blake is established as a kind of moral centre to the film. A running theme is his tussle with the ways in which the legal system works – quite understandable in a state where the draconian-sounding Harvey Dent Act is in play. Blake ranges himself in solidarity with other policemen during Bane’s uprising but there are moments, such as when he discovers the truth of Commissioner Gordon’s lie, when his faith is shaken. Gordon excuses himself by explaining that the rules and regulations which govern the police force feel like “shackles” (it can’t surprise anyone that the Batverse will generally fall on the side of vigilante justice, even when it examines* the massive potential flaws of such a system). At the end of the film, Blake throws his badge into the river. But what provokes this – was it the policeman whose ‘following orders’ prevented him from getting the orphaned boys out of the city, or was it the fact that Wayne appeared to have died largely unacknowledged by the city for which he had given his life? Asked about it shortly afterwards, Blake invokes Gordon’s “shackles” complaint. I’d suggest that both incidents had to do with it because they’re both largely inextricable – the unfairness of the justice system as experienced by Blake has been signalled earlier in the film by the police force’s misjudgement in targeting Batman during a police chase.

Although half the internet has already written about the politics of this film, I think it’s telling that we’re given to understand that the system is flawed by its unfair treatment of the genius legacy billionaire white guy. And so of course it’s important to make the most of his ‘similarity’ (apart from the obvious there really is none) with the boys of St. Swithin’s**; they are underdogs in this city and he is just like them.

But there’s something else going on here.

When Cotillard’s Miranda Tate stabs Wayne and reveals that she was the child who escaped the pit, it’s a revelation because nothing up to this point in the film has suggested that female children even exist (Selina Kyle has a canonical history with orphanages as well-the film chooses to omit any references to her character’s childhood).

At the end of the film, Wayne’s family home has been given over to an institution for orphaned children. Perhaps the Batman has learned that girls can be children too?



*I don’t think this film does.

**Potential school story title?

July 23, 2012

T.H. White, Mistress Masham’s Repose

Since I wrote last week’s Left of Cool column I have bought a new copy of The Once and Future King because my old one (secondhand, from Delhi’s Daryaganj Sunday book market) is now genuinely too manky to be read. I have also discussed the book to the point of actual obsession with my friend Ishita, and almost entirely dreamcast a hypothetical film. I’ve acquired a copy of White’s The Goshawk as well, and if it was available in any gettable way I’d have Sylvia Townsend Warner’s biography of the author as well.

So attempts to stave off my White craving with Mistress Masham’s Repose can be said to have failed utterly, yet I’m still glad I read it.



For weeks now I’ve been craving a reread of T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. This set of four books, based on the King Arthur legend, has been one of my favourites since I discovered it in a school library in my teens. I’ve been putting off this longed-for read until a time I feel I can really treat myself. And so a few days ago I picked up another of White’s books, Mistress Masham’s Repose.

As is traditional with many children’s books, White’s heroine Maria is an impoverished orphan from an aristocratic family. She lives with her sinister (and physically repulsive, naturally) guardians on Malplaquet, a vast estate that is going to ruin. Yet Malplaquet has had a long and respectable history, having hosted in its heyday such luminaries as Alexander Pope and (possibly) his friend and contemporary, Jonathan Swift. On an island in the middle of a lake (called the Quincunx) stands a small domed building, built there years ago for a woman nobody remembers. It is called Mistress Masham’s Repose, and no human being has set foot in it for years; the lake is too clogged with weeds, and the island too overgrown with brambles.

Naturally, Maria finds her way to the island and discovers its secret. It is only now that we realise that Mistress Masham’s Repose is set in an alternate time to our own, one in which Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels actually took place. The Repose is home to the tiny descendants of Lilliput and Blefuscu, brought back to England by the mercenary sea captain who picked up the hero of Swift’s book all those years ago. It’s immediately obvious that Maria’s discovery could mean disaster for their small civilisation. It was discovery by humans that nearly brought about the end of their race, and Maria’s guardians, if they find out the secret, will think nothing of selling the Lilliputians into slavery as curiosities. Meanwhile, the guardians themselves are convinced that Maria can lead them to the hiding place document that would allow them access to a vast fortune.

Resourceful young girl helped by faithful retainers (in this case a sympathetic cook) who defeats evil adults – there’s nothing new about any of this, though it’s wonderfully done. Readers familiar with The Once and Future King will see shades of Merlyn in The Professor, an absentminded old man who nevertheless manages to teach Maria some important lessons.

But there are things about Mistress Masham’s Repose that are genuinely startling. There is, for example, the extent to which the book works as a fable about power. Maria’s dealings with the Lilliputians are at first a disaster. It is not only a question of negotiating the vast differences in physical power, but one of remembering that the Lilliputians are people at all, and even late in the book Maria sometimes forgets this. The transport of these small people to England is at one point described in terms uncomfortably reminiscent of the slave trade. And there’s a detailed description of the Malplaquet dungeons with their torture chamber. This is a world with a bloody history.

Then there’s the extent to which the book obviously expects its readers to be familiar with Swift. White has his Lilliputians speak an English that is a parody of the language used in Gulliver’s Travels, and redolent with capital letters and archaic spelling. The Professor and Maria discuss the book both as fiction and fact – the Lilliputians clearly exist in this world, but how far was Swift have been telling the truth about the flying island of Laputa? And it is clear (to the Professor, if not to Maria) that the “yahoos” described in the voyage to the Houyhnhnms are humans like themselves.

I came to Mistress Masham’s Repose expecting a funny, charming children’s story, and I received one. I was not expecting social satire, moral lessons, politics or literary criticism, yet I seem to have received all of these as well.


July 16, 2012

Priyadarshini Narendra, Two Chalet Girls in India

And we’re back to this whole idea of sequels by other authors as criticism. I’ve had a post on the Pamela Cox books in drafts for months; perhaps this will convince me to force myself to finish it. For now, here’s a slightly longer version of last week’s column.



Literary ownership is a strange and complex thing. An author who writes a substandard sequel to her own work will be criticised, but there is still a sense in which most audiences will accept that the story and characters are hers to do as she pleases. This isn’t necessarily the most sophisticated response to a book, of course; once the text is out in the world, the writer’s reading of it is no more valid than any other. I suspect, however, that we tend to be harsher on those who write sequels to other people’s work and get it wrong. Scarlett, the sequel to Gone With the Wind, would not magically become a good book if its cover pronounced it the work of Margaret Mitchell instead of Alexandra Ripley, but I suspect it would have been less universally condemned.

Yet surely part of the joy of the sequel written by someone else is that we’re watching them read and interpret a book we already know? Perhaps it’s the lack of the air of authority that the original author gave it – if it’s not “canon”, it’s almost like discussing a well-loved book with a friend.

Recently I read my way through Pamela Cox’s sequels and fillers (books that take place in the gaps left in the original series) to Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers and St Clare’s series of school stories. In trying to imitate Blyton’s writing Cox’s books explore various facets of it in ways that are intriguing. Far more interesting to me, though, are the novels based on another set of books – Elinor M. Brent-Dyer’s Chalet School series. Brent-Dyer’s stories of a boarding school set in Austria (and then the Channel Isles, England, Wales, and Switzerland) and spanning over a quarter of a century formed a huge portion of my childhood reading.

Various authors have tried to write books set in Brent-Dyer’s universe. Perhaps the best known of these is Merryn Williams’ The Chalet Girls Grow Up; Williams brings into the world of the books all manner of unpleasant realities that Brent-Dyer carefully left out. The result is a bit mean-spirited and uncharitable, but oddly cathartic.

The example of these ‘new’ Chalet School books to intrigue me the most, however, is Priyadarshini Narendra’s Two Chalet Girls in India. The original series has two characters travel to India for some months, and there’s evidence that Brent-Dyer herself wrote a book about that journey, but it appears to have been lost.

In choosing this particular interlude for her subject, Narendra lets herself in for a difficult task. Brent-Dyer was quite cosmopolitan for her time, but her time is not ours. Should a writer in Narendra’s position attempt to imitate her style and her politics, or update them to something more in keeping with our own historical moment? It’s a problem that the book never quite manages to solve. And so her heroines (being Good characters) are made to look with disapproval upon the racism of other British characters, yet they cannot be allowed to think too deeply about the colonial enterprise.

There’s also the language problem. Brent-Dyer may have had very little knowledge about Indian languages. For one thing, she had her characters return from India speaking fluent “Hindoostani” despite spending all of their time in Coorg. Narendra does well to retcon a plausible reason for this. Unfortunately, having explained to the reader that most people in that part of country did not speak this language, most of the non-English dialogue to come after is, mysteriously, in Hindi. In addition she uses the time-honoured model of translating dialogue by having the characters speak a line in an Indian language* and repeat it immediately in English (“Ayah, baccho ko le aao, bring the kiddies here”), which gives one a very strange idea of how they must talk among themselves.

Despite this, there’s a lot to like about Two Chalet Girls in India. Narendra manages to develop a few of the plotlines from the original series, making them seem a lot less abrupt than they do in the Brent-Dyer canon. And there’s an affectionate dig at the author’s habit in her later books of having every new character discover that they are secretly related to another member of the school – one character not only finds that she has a cousin, but that said cousin is Kashmiri royalty.

Whether slavishly devoted or harshly critical, sequels and fillers can shed an interesting light upon the works from which they’re derived. Narendra’s book sits somewhat uncomfortably between those two poles, and it provides a fascinating angle from which to read Brent-Dyer’s series.



*Hindi, with a couple of instances of what might be Kannada or Coorgi/Kodava – I’m unfamiliar with both languages, so can only say my scrappy knowledge of Tamil made whatever this was seem familiar.

July 13, 2012

June Reading

Once again I’m late with this, and we’re almost halfway through the month. It will be immediately obvious that I have not been impressive in the last few weeks; not at writing about books and certainly not at reading.


Alethea Kontis, Enchanted: The first thing I’ve read by Alethea Kontis. This is a clever  mashup of just about every fairytale trope there is- families that come in sevens, woodcutters, princes turned into frogs, people called Jack, balls at which royal men choose their brides. It’s smart and charming but perhaps a little too busy – there’s so much plot (including hints of some really intriguing back stories) that the characters are rather shortchanged, and it all gets a bit muddled. This makes it hard to be fully invested in the romance or the more sinister aspects of the story. So charming, but a bit of a mess.

Joan Aiken, The Kingdom Under the Sea: Joan Aiken’s always good, but I’ll admit I bought this mostly for Jan Pieńkowski’s gorgeous art. This is a collection of folktales, often quite dark (in that deadpan style Aiken has). Aiken’s retellings, though good, are never quite as strange or engaging as her original work, but I enjoyed this anyway.

Sarra Manning, Adorkable: Sarra Manning’s You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me is one of my happy places. I like her other books for grown ups as well, but I’d never read any of her YA until this. I found myself reluctantly really liking it, after a start to the novel that really didn’t lead me to expect this. I’m going to have to read Manning’s other YA novels now.

Julia Quinn, A Night Like This: Not likely to be my favourite Quinn book. This was a fun evening’s read but Quinn’s greatest gift is her lovely frothy dialogue, and this just felt rather heavy.

Loretta Chase, Scandal Wears Satin: Not likely to be my favourite Chase book either. A weak Loretta Chase book is still a few degrees better than a strong book by most other authors, but this really isn’t turning out to be a great summer for me, Regency romance-wise. (Has a Chase hero ever been quite this annoying, or am I getting intolerant in my old age?)

Grace Burrowes, The Virtuoso and Lady Maggie’s Secret Scandal: I spoke last month about Burrowes and how her male characters are unusually close for the genre. That sense of community continues through to The Virtuoso, but it’s less present in Lady Maggie’s Secret Scandal. I’m not sure what it means that her female characters (since last month I’ve also read Lady Sophie’s Christmas Wish) are so much more solitary than her males. Or perhaps it’s just that I’m used to female communities in literature and so it’s harder to spot? Either way, she’s one of the more interesting Regency writers I’ve encountered in the last couple of years, and I’m looking forward to the next book in this series.

Helen Oyeyemi, Mr Fox: I was very impressed with White is for Witching when I read it a year or so ago. Mr Fox is better.

Christopher Logue, All Day Permanent Red: When Logue died a few months ago I promised myself a reread of his poems based on the Iliad. Of the three volumes (War Music, Cold Calls, All Day Permanent Red), this is the one I’ve been least familiar with. That has changed in the past month; I’ve returned to it and read it over and loved it. In hunting it out I also ended up rearranging some of my books so that I know have a little Greek shelf (with all the attendant dilemmas over what belongs where) which I must somehow prevent myself from turning into an Anne Carson shrine.

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities: Perhaps the best thing about my job is that occasionally I can turn rereading Calvino into legitimate work. I hadn’t read the Invisible Cities since school. There’s nothing I can say about it that won’t make me sound stupid, but I have been made happy.

Susan Cooper, Over Sea Under Stone: I don’t know why I suddenly needed to reread The Dark is Rising sequence, but I did. Over Sea Under Stone is in many ways the lightest of the series – it’s only after the genuinely menacing second book that you get a sense of the vastness of it all. I’ll be speaking more about the series next month, presumably (I finished rereading The Grey King today) but just reading it on its own, OSUS is such a good children’s book. I love the early chapters in which the children Ransomeishly explore the Grey House, and the touches of genuine terror (at night among the stones at Kemare Head, that moment where what the children thought was a tall rock turns out to be one of the enemy) are more effective than just about anything I can think of.

Mervyn Peake (illustrated), Grimm’s Household Tales: I’m a bit confused about this collection. Yes, clearly these are stories collected by the brothers Grimm, but there’s no mention of a translator, reteller or editor. Peake himself is only credited as the artist. It’s a beautiful book though, and Peake’s illustrations are less sinister than they sometimes are, but enough to remind you (if anyone even needed reminding at this point) just how weird some of the hausmärchen can be.

July 9, 2012

Georgette Heyer, Venetia

There’s a school of thought (and it’s not one I agree with, but it’s also not one I feel able to entirely dismiss) that suggests that one reason Twilight isn’t entirely a failure on the feminist front is that it respects Bella’s choices. On the face of it, from any reasonable point of view, these choices are extremely stupid – we’re told that this character is intelligent, that she has any number of choices before her, and as a teenager she still has time to decide what she wants to do with her future. Instead, she chooses to tie her fate to this vampire. She goes into an almost catatonic state when he leaves her, ignores the multiple people who care for and worry about her, and abandons plans of college in favour of marrying him and becoming envampired as soon as possible. And yet.

I’m a bit uncomfortable with how close to this my argument for Venetia as a potentially feminist text comes. I think the big difference, though (apart from the fact that Venetia is an adult woman) is in Heyer’s focus on the fact that her protagonists are friends – that we’re able to see substance and lasting value in that relationship. It’s also the case, of course, that there’s a difference between something set in the 1800s (and written in the 1950s) and something set and written in the early 2000s.

I’m sure all of this sounds like shameless justification. It probably is. Anyway, below is my column from last Sunday.



The Russian author Boris Akunin claims, according to a friend who saw him speak at a bookshop last year, that he can sort people into sixteen ‘types’ based on which of his Erast Fandorin books they like most and least. I’ve often wondered if one could make a similar claim for the works of Georgette Heyer, but this throws up an immediate problem. Not one of my acquaintance has ever managed to satisfactorily choose a Heyer novel to be their permanent favourite.

My own favourite Heyer novel is a constantly shifting entity. Does The Grand Sophy win the spot for its wonderful heroine, or does the unpleasant thread of anti-semitism taint all the rest? Which is better, These Old Shades or its sequel-of-sorts The Devil’s Cub? A Civil Contract is realistic and touching but does not always make me happy. Friday’s Child is a failure when I’m in the mood for romance, but I adore its Wodehousean side characters. I am all but alone in my love of the delicate, gendered play that is the focus of Powder and Patch. And what about Cotillion, with its subversion of the romantic tropes of the genre that Heyer herself helped to create?

Then a few months ago I reread Venetia and decided that perhaps this was Heyer’s best. Since then, unprecedentedly, my opinion has not wavered, though I’ve had to rethink what I mean by “best” a few times.

Venetia is simple enough. A young woman who has been stuck in the wilds of Yorkshire all her life meets the rake next door. Lord Damerel has a long and varied history (starting with his elopement with an older woman in his extreme youth); in typical romantic hero fashion he’s less to blame than he seems. He makes no secret of his attraction towards his beautiful neighbour but this is far less important than what happens next; the two become friends.

A friendship between the protagonists is not unusual in a romance novel, but the importance that the book places on that friendship is. Knowing that she has found a friend, that someone shares her sense of humour and recognises her literary references, is far more important to Venetia than sexual attraction. This is not to say that the attraction isn’t there – and unlike most of Heyer’s heroines Venetia, blessed with a brother who is obsessed with Greek classics, has the vocabulary to talk about it, and about her intended’s past. Venetia probably contains more iterations of the word “orgy” than the rest of Heyer’s works put together.

Naturally, no one thinks that a relationship between a hardened rake and a sheltered young woman is a good idea – particularly when, as we eventually learn, the young woman in question has been so sheltered in order to protect her from unsavoury facts about her family. Societal disapproval is a staple of fictional romance – except here, Damerel is as dubious and as overprotective as the rest.

What makes Venetia special, then, is that it’s not a case of lovers against the world, but one of Venetia herself fighting alone to claim her own choices. She will reclaim her own family history, and decide for herself what her relationship with her parents and brother is to be. She will choose her own partner even if he is foolish enough to let her go. I find it particularly wonderful that there’s no insecurity over Damerel’s reaction to any of this; it’s clear that she trusts him to love her.

I love Venetia for its likeable, flawed characters and the banter between them, and for the presence of multiple Classics geeks. But more than any of this, I love it because it centres its heroine’s desire and agency. I’m sure Heyer didn’t set out to write a feminist manifesto (and considering that Venetia’s goal is domestic bliss with a titled gentleman …) but something rather special is going on here.



July 3, 2012

Constance Myburgh, “Hunter Emmanuel”


The last of the Caine Prize stories. I’ve fallen hopelessly behind on this project, and the winner of the prize was to be announced today. I’m not sure why it took me so long to start writing about what was probably my favourite of the shortlisted stories (pdf here). This is an opinion that I don’t think most commentors on the prize share – and I suspect the difference is that I come to it as at least partly a genre reader. Because Hunter Emmanuel, Myburgh’s titular character, has read his noir.

The story begins when Emmanuel and his colleagues find a human leg hanging from a tree. Emmanuel is a former policeman who now works as a lumberjack, though we’re told nothing of the circumstances that led to this shift in career. When the mysterious leg shows up, Emmanuel is seized with a need to discover the truth. To do this he draws on his own training and contacts, but also on the crime fiction he’s evidently fond of reading.

Hunter Emmanuel’s debt to fiction is hard to miss. He’s constantly narrativising events as he experiences them, and the syntax of the story changes whenever this happens. An idle thought about the weather turns into “Either way, he knew the wind would howl tonight”; he needs the drama of story.

This concern with narrativising himself extends to the women in the story – Emmanuel is hideously sexist. Ugly women have no place in the story he’s writing for himself – he refers to the policewoman Sgt Williams as having failed in her duty somehow simply by not being attractive enough. When the leg is traced to a young prostitute named Zara Swert (“a one-legged whore. Friday nights didn’t get better than this”), Emmanuel’s attitude towards her is just creepy. He enters her hospital room under false pretenses, touches her face while she sleeps, and expects her to be someone he can confide in. “she looked like someone, someone he could talk to”. As for her physical appearance, “She looked washed-out, but after what she’d been through who wouldn’t be? Also, she was, he thought, probably prettier that way.” Later;

The world seemed suddenly very unpleasant, and Emmanuel had to imagine Zara Swart’s face and also her bandages from many different angles before it began to feel like a place he could deal with.

Zara asks Emmanuel why he is so interested in her case and his answer, I think, is central to this story.

He leaned closer to her, he couldn’t help ut.

‘I was there. I found your leg. That shit is traumatizing. I need closure.’

He loved those words. They made sense, even when they didn’t.


And so Emmanuel will pursue this mystery, not out of concern for the victim but out of a simple desire for narrative closure that is entirely focused on the mechanics of the case rather than on the people involved. But Myburgh will not give him that closure. The people responsible for hanging the leg up the tree are found; but their action was seemingly random. The people responsible for cutting off the leg are found – but Emmanuel does not learn what they wanted with it, or why they should have subsequently abandoned it in a forest. We know that the shadowy villains of this story are covered with Vaseline so that one cannot get a grip on them – this, apart from feeling utterly random (unless my reading of crime fiction is a lot narrower than I realise) could equally apply to the facts of the case. Emmanuel realises that “how” isn’t enough knowledge for him; he wants “why” as well, and it turns out that human motivations simply will not fit into the story-shaped spaces he has left for them. There’s a point to be made here about the arrogance of the detective story’s desire to know the world and to place it into ordered sequences of motive and method. And about its inevitable failure to do so.

And I think the story does its best to make the world seem alien and unknowable from the beginning. A couple of paragraphs into what seems a work of basic crime fiction we have the phrase “a hundred-year-old alien crashed to the ground” and we’re left hanging for a few further paragraphs before it becomes clear that we’re talking about alien pine trees.

It’s tempting to quote the whole of the final section of this story (please just read it and make it easier on us both); Emmanuel begs Zara for a reason, but she only connects his need for answers with a seeming masculine need to “save us” and walks away leaving Emmanuel to reflect on how differently this all should have gone.

Why was he here? He was so sure this would all end back in the forest, that whatever trail of blood he’d find would lead back to the shadows there. And yet here he was. On a fokkin street corner on Main Road. No, it was as he feared. The shadow was everywhere.

[ ... ]

If it wasn’t for the fact that I can’t even solve my own fokkin life, thought Hunter Emmanuel, I could make a best ever, real-life private investigator.


Here are some other people who wrote about “Hunter Emmanuel”:

The Reading Life
Black Balloon
Backslash Scott
The Mumpsimus



Earlier today, after rereading the story, I decided that my own favourites for the Caine Prize were this story and Rotimi Babatunde’s “Bombay’s Republic”. I think, based on the reactions of the people who blogged this award with me, that Melissa Tandiwe Myambo’s  “La Salle de Départ” was the favourite, and while I admired the story very much I’ll always pick messy and ambitious over well-executed and familiar. I stand by my seemingly unconventional reading of Stanley Kenani’s “Love on Trial”, but the very fact that it was so unconventional means that perhaps it didn’t do as good a job of conveying what I thought it was as I thought it had (read back through that sentence, weep for the English language).  Billy Kahora’s “Urban Zoning” pulled me in just with the sheer goodness of its writing but what is more important is, of all the stories on this shortlist, Kahora’s is the one that most strongly invoked in me the feeling that talking about and judging ‘African writing’ should be a complex thing, worthy of as much self-doubt as we can muster up.

The winner of the prize has now been announced on twitter, and it’s a choice I’m very pleased with. But I’d recommend going through all the stories on this year’s shortlist – it’s an exciting collection and I’m glad to have read it.

July 1, 2012

Helen Oyeyemi, Mr Fox

Why is it that everyone of my generation seems to achieve greatness in the early- to mid- 20s? Reading Helen Oyeyemi it’s tempting to (for my own sake) decontextualise her; turn her into one of the Great Writers of Our Time and forget that she is all of ten months older than me and multiple books into her career – so far into her career, in fact, that her writing has passed the raw potential stage and moved into a sort of polished finishedness.

I read Mr Fox soon after it was published and thought it was one of the better things 2011 had produced. I reread it last month and found myself appreciating it even more. Here’s last week’s column on it.



There’s something deeply intimidating about authors who are close to one in age. Helen Oyeyemi is not thirty yet and she’s published four novels, the first of which (The Icarus Girl) was written while she was still in school. 2009’s White is for Witching was one of the creepiest, most stylish novels I’d read in a long time. Last year’s Mr Fox was even better.

Mr Fox isn’t really a novel in the traditional sense of the word. It’s a collection of interlinked stories, some of which exist within one another, and which frequently return to the same set of characters. There’s St  John Fox, the title character, a novelist writing at any point between the 1930s and the present, depending on which story you’re reading. His wife Daphne, alive in some stories, deceased in others. And then there’s the mysterious Mary Foxe, sometimes real and sometimes fictional; at times St John’s harshest critic, at others his muse and lover.

Mr Fox, we learn, has a penchant for killing off his female characters. Oyeyemi makes the connection with Reynardine, the half-man, half-fox creature of an old English ballad which is itself a part of a tradition of foxes as trickster figures. Reynardine is known to lure beautiful women to his castle. From here it’s an easy step to the Bluebeard myth, which is invoked multiple times over the course of the book. Mr Fox’s treatment of his fictional women is the source of a constant tussle between him and Mary Foxe. “You’re a serial killer”, accuses Mary right at the beginning. It is of no avail for St John to protest that these are all games, that they have no bearing on real life. Mary herself crosses the border between reality and fiction by making herself a body and Oyeyemi makes it clear that the two are intimately linked. One of the book’s many short stories (possibly written by St John himself) tells of a man who chops off his wife’s head to stop her from talking. He misses her, and sews the head back on, but she has been damaged and can only repeat the same words over and over. It’s a fable, but it takes on a new and ominous significance, coming soon after St John’s own confession that he “fixed” his wife – silencing any future complaints by praising her early in the relationship for not complaining.

What St John’s stories do, according to Mary is to build “a world … a horrible kind of logic.” These tales of women being murdered, decapitated, silenced, turned into excuses for dramatic action rather than the actors themselves, all these come together to create a real world in which this treatment of women is seen as normal, rather than bizarre and inexplicable. “It’s obscene to make such things reasonable.”

Mr Fox’s concern, then, is the position women occupy in fiction. The women often try to counter this with their own stories – the Mary Foxe who corresponds with St John Fox in the 1930s is a writer of short stories, and at a late stage in the story she is seen convincing Daphne Fox to write a novel of her own. There’s a blurring of identities between these characters that goes further than their surnames- in one version of events Mary Foxe’s stories are burnt on St John’s orders, while in another she is the one burning his work. What this also means is that it becomes increasingly hard to vilify St John, even when by the book’s logic he is a serial murderer. Because, while women are the clear victims of the world St John’s stories (and others like them) create, the men suffer as well. Two young boys who free Reynardine have their lives blighted by the killing spree (targeting women, of course) he embarks upon. St John’s own relationships are blighted by the world he has created, yet Oyeyemi leaves us hope that these characters can somehow put this history of violence behind them and go forward in love.