Archive for September, 2012

September 27, 2012

Brian K. Vaughan and Niko Henrichon, Pride of Baghdad

From last weekend’s Left of Cool column.



Dead or injured people are news; dead or injured animals are human interest. We’re acclimatised, to an extent, to violence against other people. It’s all over our newspapers, it’s part of our entertainment. Which is why, like many people, I can (upto a point) watch movies or read books in which human beings are tortured, mutilated, exploded, but an injured animal has me in tears.

In 2003 during the American invasion of Iraq, four lions escaped from the Baghdad zoo. They wandered about the city for some time. Eventually they were shot by U.S soldiers. The story received a great deal of international attention, and formed the basis of Brian K. Vaughan and Niko Henrichon’s graphic novel, Pride of Baghdad.

The most notable thing about Pride of Baghdad is Henrichon’s beautiful art. There’s a clever use of colour here, with a palette of oranges and reds to portray the destruction of the city. It’s a relief to us almost as much as to the lions when they encounter the green of forests or the cool blues of shadowy interiors.

The early sections in the zoo establish different animal species as having different temperaments, a fact that is illustrated when Noor, the younger lioness, is unable to negotiate an escape plan with an understandably nervous antelope. Other animals are less skittish; the monkeys are thuggish, dishonourable survivors, while the giraffes seem to believe in an apocalyptic religion (and the elephants are kindly but they’re dumb?). The lions, as protagonists, are less one-note. Noor romanticises the idea of freedom, while the older lioness Safa is more cynical. Zill, the adult male, is a pragmatist, while lion cub Ali acts as a sounding board for everyone else’s ideas.

It’s tempting to read into all of these positions a straight allegory of various attitudes towards war and freedom. It doesn’t help that Vaughan has his characters make pronouncements of the order “you have to earn freedom”. The subject matter ensures that the reader is already on high-alert for signs that this book is Really About the plight of Iraqi civilians during the war.

Even leaving aside the awkward implications of having animals potentially stand in for brown-skinned people, Pride of Baghdad is at its weakest when it attempts to anthropomorphise its characters. An example of this early in the book is when we learn why Safa is sceptical about the perfect freedom of the outside world. Safa is older and more experienced and might well be expected to understand that the world outside is a dangerous place. Instead, we’re shown that her caution stems from a gang rape by a group of lions in her youth. There’s a long tradition in mediocre writing of having traumatic rape substituted for female character development. It is depressing to see that even non-human female characters cannot escape this trope, particularly since lions in nature do not gang rape. Those are human crimes, and it is when Vaughan lets his characters act like lions picking their way through human civilisation that they seem most real.

But are the deaths of four lions really what we should be focusing on, compared with the larger horrors of the Iraq war? There’s a hint that Vaughan is alive to the problems of the choice to dwell on the (comparatively easier to stomach for an American audience) heroic story of a group of animals rather than the human tragedy of the citizens of the country upon which his own was waging war. After the death of the lions and the explanation that theirs was a true story we are presented with a full spread of Baghdad at night and the deadpan sentence “There were other casualties as well”. Which is all very well. But we are not reading of these other casualties, as they aren’t the stories the author has chosen to tell. If Vaughan wishes to draw attention to our proclivity to pay more attention to lions than to people, he has done so by writing an entire book about lions. He might want to rethink that strategy.


September 25, 2012

Alan Garner, Red Shift

I nearly read this book again today, trying to find a suitably wonderful bit of it to quote here, before finally giving up. There are passages that are gorgeous, but more than most books everything requires the context of everything else to really work.

It’s been a few years since I last read Red Shift, but I had read it as an adult. Which is why I was surprised by how much more it meant to me this time – and I’ve always found it heartbreaking. Certainly far more than last week’s (650 word) column had space for.



The big literary event of this year, for me, has been the release of Alan Garner’s new book, Boneland, a sequel to his first two books (The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath) written almost half a century after they were published. Garner is not as well-known outside the UK as he should be. This may in part be because of his intense focus on his own country – the geography and dialect of his own particular part of England. But this makes for a sense of absolute ownership and belonging to a place that is one of the finest things about his work.

As with any new book that really matters to me, I’ve been doing everything I can to stave off reading Boneland. I’m not sure if this is a natural desire to draw out the pleasure or an act of sheer cowardice. But it has given me an excuse to reread Garner’s earlier work, and I stayed up all night recently reading Red Shift.

Garner’s earliest books were for children, but with Red Shift it’s hard to be sure. The book is composed of three parallel plots that are centuries apart in time – Roman Britain, the English Civil War, and the present (it was published in 1973). All three plots take place in the same part of Cheshire, however, and to all of them the hill of Mow Cop is important.

The primary plot is the modern day romance of Tom and Jan. Tom is brilliant and poor, trying to study for a university scholarship in the small caravan where he lives with his parents. Jan has moved to London to become a nurse. The couple meet when they can and find refuge in a building on top of the nearby Mow Cop. It is here that they find an axe-head, which Jan adopts as a symbol of their relationship. Yet both the relationship and Tom himself become less stable as Tom sells the valuable axe-head to a museum and learns that Jan had an affair with an older man.

A group of Roman soldiers from the lost Ninth Legion attacks a village, killing all its inhabitants except a priestess, before settling on Mow Cop. Macey, one member of the group and the owner of a stone axe-head, is subject to strange fits during which he fights and kills. During his fits he claims to be someone else, and sees flashes of blue-silver. Macey is the only one of the group not to injure or rape the priestess, and when she poisons the others he is the only one to survive.

In seventeenth century England a man named Thomas Rowley, along with his wife Margery, survives an attack by Irish Royalists upon his village due to the charity of another of Margery’s former suitors. Thomas has found the axe-head and he and Margery decide to build it into their new home on Mow Cop. Like Macey, Thomas is subject to visions, most of them featuring a man in pain. It becomes clear that both Thomas and Macey are experiencing flashes of Tom’s anguish, passed back through time as Jan leaves on the blue-silver train.

Garner has always been an economical writer, but in Red Shift the narrative is pared down to the point that there is hardly anything but dialogue. In the case of Tom and Jan’s relationship in particular this dialogue is wide-ranging and allusive; a frequent refrain is the plaintive “Poor Tom’s a-cold” borrowed from King Lear. It’s hard work, and it’s obvious we’re expected to work at it; Garner even ends the book with an encrypted letter for the reader to decode. Sometimes it’s almost poetry.

In the three stories here, twice unstable men are rescued by the women who hold onto them. For Tom and Jan, this is inadequate. There’s a lot to say about Red Shift (its relationship to the Tam Lin ballad, its overlooked place as a Modernist classic) but more than anything it’s a beautiful, bitter story that breaks me every time.



September 22, 2012

A friend (@mycrotchetyluv on twitter)  posted this picture a few days ago. I blinked when I saw it.



Newspaper caption: Woman buys Renoir worth ₹50 lakh at flea market for ₹ 350. Virginia resident was planning to throw away the painting and keep the frame.


I’m typing this on a laptop (it’s a Dell) bought in India a couple of years ago. My keyboard doesn’t have a ₹ sign; I don’t know if that’s something that future laptops sold in this country will have. It hasn’t been a bother to me thus far. My last laptop was bought in Ireland and had both € and £ signs. It did not have the $ sign but that felt more like a minor rebellion than an inconvenience.

Longitude is measured from Greenwich, north is the top of the map, the value of famous paintings is described in currencies other than my own (unless they’re bought in India or by Indian artists and sometimes not even then). We’ve only had a rupee sign a couple of years. Have Indian companies that manufacture laptops/computer keyboards started to include a ₹ key yet?

Either way, I wasn’t expecting to be so disoriented when I saw it in this context. It is good to have a ₹ sign.

September 21, 2012

When life gives you Robinsons

As some of you may already know, I now have a monthly column in the new Indian edition of the National Geographic Traveller. It’s called “Paper Trails”, and in the three months that I’ve been writing for it I’ve managed to quote Derek Walcott, not quote Jean-Jacques Rousseau, talk about the Chalet School and inform everyone that travel writing is a lie.

I’ll be putting all the columns up eventually. For now, here’s a slightly longer version of August’s piece on robinsonades and the amazing generosity of desert islands.



The first great shipwreck survivor in Western literature is Robinson Crusoe. In Daniel Defoe’s novel of 1719, the seafaring protagonist finds himself stranded on a deserted island where, with the entire contents of his ship at his disposal, he manages to live for a number of years. The island provides him with goats to domesticate, fruits to eat, and even a native servant for company.

Robinson Crusoe seems to be the book that all future island-dwellers have read. A century later, in 1812, Johann Wyss’s Swiss family jokingly give themselves Crusoe’s name. The men who land on Jules Verne’s L’Île mystérieuse in 1874, meanwhile, seem familiar with Wyss’ work, and mention the Robinsons’ habit of giving various parts of their island fanciful names. The island survival story would draw so much from Defoe’s pioneering novel, that in 1731 (only a little over a decade since Robinson Crusoe) the German writer Gisander named the genre the “robinsonade”.

Robinsonades generally involve people stranded in deserted places who must struggle against nature to survive. Often, the characters in these stories cultivate the land; many of them settle there for good and begin to populate it. All of this sounds as if the shipwreck story were a constant struggle between man and nature. Yet this is not always the case.

At the beginning of C.S Lewis’ Prince Caspian (first published in 1949), four children are magically transported to an island where there appears to be no other sign of life. At first, the children have no idea where they are. Though they realise that they might starve to death, the thought is quickly dismissed. “It’s like being shipwrecked,” remarks Edmund, the younger boy. “In the books, they always find springs of clear, fresh water on the island. We’d better go and look for them.” There is no need to worry; these characters are familiar enough with the robinsonade to know that nature will provide. In fact,far from islands being the site of an intense struggle between man and the environment, many books give the impression that they are among the most benevolent places in the world. To be cut off from human society seems more beneficial than not.

Take Wyss’ Der Schweizerische Robinson (The Swiss Family Robinson). The island upon which the family find themselves stranded immediately provides them with safe harbour and giant trees for building in. Soon afterwards they will discover an astonishing and geographically improbable range of edible plants and animals. When they need shelter the island not only offers up caves but fills them with useful rock salt. So wonderful are the conditions of their exile that when the family are granted the opportunity to go home most of them choose not to avail of it.

R.M. Ballantyne’s The Coral Island (1858) saw three teenaged boys shipwrecked on an island in the South Pacific. Decades later in 1954, William Golding would write a much less compassionate island book, Lord of the Flies, as a counter to Ballantyne’s novel. The three boys work together in what Golding seemed to think was improbable camaraderie for a group of teenagers cut off from civilisation. Again, the island provides everything they could possibly need – food (coconuts, fruits, fish and wild pigs), fibre from which to make clothes, and candlenuts to provide light. Over and over, the boys compare their island home to paradise, and when danger comes, as it does in the form of sharks, pirates and cannibals, it is always from across the sea. Here human civilisation, rather than nature, is the greatest source of savagery. Wyss and Ballantyne’s books are both steeped in Christianity, so there’s a sense not only of the island as unsullied Eden, but of man’s ownership over all of nature.

The Romans believed in the genius loci, a protective spirit that was associated with a particular place. The protagonists of Jules Verne’s L’Île mystérieuse might well be forgiven for thinking that the islandin question had such a spirit, and one that had their interests at heart. On the surface, Verne’s novel seems more realistic about the difficulties of nature – here there are no convenient caves, and edible wildlife does not fall so readily into the palms of our heroes’ hands. More than most robinsonades, Verne centres the ingenuity of humans; his characters build a foundry and prepare blasting powder with the few resources at their disposal. Yet something seems to be protecting them, lighting fires to guide them home, killing dangerous animals and malevolent pirates, and even providing medicines and tobacco to those who need them. It’s almost disappointing when the reader learns that there is human agency behind all of this. But then, perhaps the provision of a benevolent protector is just another instance of the island’s bounty?

The first island many of my generation encountered in fiction was the one in Kirrin Bay, owned by George of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, and first encountered in Five on a Treasure Island (1942). Kirrin Island has been the site of at least one shipwreck that we know of, but for the Five it is a place of refuge. The island has a convenient way of manifesting exactly what the plot needs at any particular time; when the family are in financial difficulties it produces lost treasure, when the children are hiding from kidnappers it has a hard-to-find cave. At a crucial moment it manifests a system of underwater passages that lead to the mainland. Blyton’s The Secret Island also has children fleeing the adult world for safety. The children escape an abusive aunt and uncle for an idyllic life on a hidden island.

Islands in these novels do pose the occasional danger. Wyss’s family encounter a boa constrictor, and Verne’s island is eventually destroyed in a rather spectacular volcano eruption. And yet, judging by what books have taught me, I’d feel safer on a desert island than in a lot of places.


September 15, 2012

Justine Larbalestier and Sarah Rees Brennan, Team Human

A couple of months ago I wrote this. Readers of the Left of Cool column must think I spend a significant portion of my time thinking about the ethics around discussing Twilight. It is possible that they are right.



No one who has been anywhere near a bookshop over the last few years can have remained ignorant of the glut of vampire novels that those years have brought. The success of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight books led to a situation where, it seemed, the majority of books for teenagers involved the beautiful undead. Things seem to have died down for the present, though it’s worth noting that the bestselling Fifty Shades of Grey books seem to have started out as Twilight fanfiction.

Where there is a big literary trend there follows a series of widely recognised tropes. Obviously these tropes didn’t come out of nowhere; Meyer too was drawing on particular literary traditions. What the Twilight books gave us, then, were a popular set of widely recognised ideas about vampires for future writers to play with.

Writers like Sarah Rees Brennan and Justine Larbalestier, whose Team Human involves a high school romance between a vampire and a human girl. Except that Cathy, the girl in question, is not the protagonist here. The story is told from the perspective of her best friend Mel, who naturally has her doubts about this relationship. “Friends don’t let friends date vampires”, says the book’s caption, and it’s not hard to see Mel’s point.

Or is it? A big part of what makes Team Human interesting is an unspoken assumption that its readers have engaged with the debates around Twilight and feminism that have been so prominent in recent years. This is unsurprising –Larbalestier and Rees Brennan are both writers of young adult fiction who have consistently engaged with the politics (particularly of gender) around literature. So it’s taken for granted that we readers have heard jokes about why a vampire going to high school would be a stupid idea, and that we’ve had occasion to think about the problematic nature of a teenage girl deciding that she wants to, essentially, end her life based on her feelings for a high school boyfriend. Even the title is a reference to the “Team Edward”/ “Team Jacob” divide among Meyer’s fans. But the book also assumes that its readers have struggled with the issue of giving even lovestruck teenagers agency, and have come down on the side of letting people make their own mistakes.

Of course the Twilight books aren’t the only vampire novels that Team Human refers to. This is a world in which vampires are very much a recognised part of society, though they tend to live in particular parts of town and are avoided by humans. Unlike a lot of vampire novels, these creatures aren’t obviously superior to the humans around them – they may be better looking and immortal, but the inability to go out in the sunlight is a major disability. Worst of all, they are said to have no sense of humour. This is also a world in which they have historically faced persecution and Larbalestier and Rees Brennan use this setup to refer to various other forms of prejudice.

Team Human is, ultimately, “team Human”, in that it endorses Mel’s views over Cathy’s. But it also undercuts her constantly. We’re allowed to see that Mel is capable of both deliberate cruelty and unthinking prejudice, as are those around her. We’re even given reason to believe that some of the ‘facts’ about vampires that the book presents as true are not. There are no easy, obvious answers here.

Twilight and the whole sexy vampire phenomenon are easy targets for parody; even people who have read none of them feel entitled to dismiss them. It hasn’t always been easy to tell how much this dismissal of the works has been due to their inherent flaws, and how much of it is simply due to our culture’s disdain for anything made for or consumed by young women. Team Human manages to engage with these books critically but with respect.


September 9, 2012

Ranjit Hoskote and Ilija Trojanow, Confluences: Forgotten Histories From East and West

At Jaipur earlier in the year I attented Hoskote and Trojanow’s session on this book. One of them (Hoskote, if I’m remembering this correctly) suggested jokingly that the time-travelling VHP member section might legitimately be considered science fiction. This is not why I bought the book, though it does sometimes feel like I’m unable to escape genre.

That VHP section contained one paragraph that particularly interested me:

The way he has been taught history, Buddhism and Jainism were offshoots of Hinduism, but he has not yet come across a Hinduism he can identify with, except for a few hymns and some rudimentary rituals. Branches without a trunk?

I wonder if “branches without a trunk” might be a more fitting metaphor for cultural confluence than the river analogy that the book uses and that is carried onto the cover.

A longer version of last weekend’s Left of Cool column:


“No culture has ever been pure, no tradition self-enclosed, no identity monolithic.” This is the argument of Ranjit Hoskote and Ilija Trojanow in Confluences: Forgotten Histories from East and West.  Itself the product of a collaborative effort across continents (Hoskote is Indian, Trojanow German) the book traces a history of the world in which cultures reach out to, influence and bleed into (sometimes literally) one another. This constant merging of traditions, Hoskote and Trojanow suggest, is the “lifeblood” of culture. The metaphor of a river runs through the book. By the time the river meets the ocean it hardly matters where it originated; its identity is far more a product of the tributaries that have fed it along the way. Fittingly, it’s in the great harbour city of Alexandria that the book locates the high point of this historical melding, as well as the region of Al-Andalus and the Kushan Empire.

As with any work of history, this can never be an apolitical project. Confluences positions itself explicitly as a corrective to specific myths of purity. In “The Making of Europe”, the longest section of the book, the authors set out to undermine an idea of Western civilisation as originating with the Greeks and passing on from there via Rome to Christianity and enlightened rationalism. Instead, we’re forced to acknowledge the presence of other influences; the Akkadian and Sumerian myths upon those of the Greeks, Arab literature upon the European troubadour tradition as well as much of its secular literature, digambara Jains in Alexandria upon the ideas of Plotinus, the cultural vitality of Islam (Confluences is very much a post-9/11 book). At times Confluences falls into the trap of attempting to supplant one origin myth with another – as in a section which first traces a story in Boccaccio’s Decameron back to an incident in the Ramayana, then suggests that this is the origin of the ‘Virgin and the Unicorn’ topos within Christian iconography. Often the book is scathing about Europe’s conviction of its centrality to the world; its hygiene is suspect (which, to be fair…) and in one section it is dismissed as “a self-satisfied fortress at the land’s end of Asia”. Even if one believes this dismissal to be performative (as I do) it does occasionally trigger protest – I was momentarily startled by the waving-aside of Dante, and often felt compelled to defend Western Europe before remembering that it did not really need my help.

Late in the book Hoskote and Trojanow turn their attention to India and to the myth of a pure and unchanging Hinduism; if Confluences situates itself in a post-9/11 world it also locates itself after Godhra and the Gujarat riots. This is done through the figure of a time-travelling VHP member who, journeying to 1500 BC, is alarmed to find himself among people who call Krishna a cattle-stealer, drink Soma, and worship far less stylised phalluses than those he is used to. He is even more alarmed to discover that the elements of his religion that he does recognise are foreign imports. This is the least successful section of the book (or perhaps readers are more likely to be opinionated about this than the history of Al-Andalus) and it is followed soon after by an angry section on political Hindutva. Unfortunately it’s hard to imagine anyone being converted to Hoskote and Trojanow’s views by references to “Sri Adolf Bhagavan”.

But then, it’s not clear that Confluences is trying to convince anybody. It’s not clear what the book is trying to do- for a collaborative book with an extensive bibliography, it mysteriously chooses not to provide an introduction. At its best, Confluences is a joyous celebration of cultural hybridity – and if the constant barrage of facts early on is a little overwhelming, the sheer enthusiasm behind them makes the whole enjoyable. At its worst, it’s rather off-puttingly aggressive.



There were parts of Confluences I enjoyed very much. Other parts … if there’s a method of preaching to the converted that has the converted edging away and pretending not to know you, this book may have achieved it.

September 5, 2012

August Reading

Here is a list of what I read last month.


Alan Garner, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath: I stretched my reread of these two books out over the month, in preparation for Garner’s conclusion to the trilogy. In many ways these are Garner’s weakest novels; I have no idea what to expect from Boneland (at the time of writing this my copy still has not arrived); I only know that it’s going to break my heart.

Jack Vance, Dream Castles: The second of Subterranean’s early Vance collections. I’ll be reviewing this elsewhere.

William Mayne, A Grass Rope: I wrote a bit about this here. It’s beautiful, and I’m reminded that I really should try and collect all the Mayne I can.

Adam Roberts, Jack Glass: Firstly, the best cover art Roberts has ever had – after a series of really excellent covers (Swiftly, Yellow Blue Tibia, New Model Army, By Light Alone). Secondly, there is a character called Aishwarya, which is a feature that drastically improves any book. Jack Glass does this clever thing where it combines golden age SF with golden age crime fiction, and the result is something that feels familiar but really isn’t. Martin Lewis suggested yesterday that By Light Alone is going to be cited frequently in the next few years. I think this is true, but I’m also beginning to sense that all of Roberts’ work in recent  years fits together as a sort of unified whole in terms of its engagement with genre and the world. I’m interested to see both where he takes this next, and how this body of work as a whole will be studied/referred to in the next decade or so.

Musharraf Ali Farooqi and Michelle Farooqi, Rabbit Rap: I’ll be reviewing this elsewhere.

Anna Kavan, Ice: I wrote a bit about this here.

Jean Webster, When Patty Went to College: Webster’s best known for Daddy-Long-Legs which is either (depending on how old you were when you read it) a sweet, romantic story about a young girl falling in love with the guardian who manipulates her and deceives her about his identity or a really creepy story about a young girl falling in love with the guardian who manipulates her and deceives her about his identity. I’m both charmed and skeeved out by it; I prefer her Dear Enemy, which has intelligent adult characters getting to know each other in non-creepy ways. When Patty Went to College is an earlier work, and it’s rather dull. Patty is, within the book, one of those bright, attractive characters who gets away with thoughtless behaviour because she’s just that charming. Which is all very well, except she isn’t particularly charming. This means the whole thing is rather laboured – and when she Learns Her Lesson and resolves to be better in future it seems likely that she will be getting even less attractive.

Earl Der Biggs, Charlie Chan Carries On: I read this for an article I was writing on cruise ship murders. I was expecting to have issues with the race aspects of the book – while I’m aware that the author was liberal by the standards of his time,  those standards tended to be pretty low. I cringed frequently at Charlie Chan’s hilarious broken English and ‘oriental’ wisdom, and wouldn’t it be nice if the idiot sidekick had been a white guy? On the other hand, I do like that Chan manages to be intentionally funny and snarky even with the har har orientals can’t speak English subtext. Plus having read a book in this series means that a random reference in an Antonia Forest book makes more sense to me now. So there’s that.

Carl Hiaasen, Skinny Dip: For the article mentioned above. Hiaasen’s an odd one for me – I see (or think I do) and respect what he’s doing stylistically but it has never entertained me on any level. It’s not him, I think, it’s me.

John Mortimer, The Third Rumpole Omnibus: Because I was reading “Rumpole at Sea” for the article mentioned above, and the rest was just there and it was a nice afternoon and.

Agatha Christie, Death on the Nile: For the same article. I must get around to posting these pieces on here.

Nilanjana Roy, The Wildings: It’s possible that I’m terribly biased because Nilanjana’s a friend. But The Wildings is one of my favourite books of this year. With every excuse to be it is rarely twee, there’s an abundance of terrible punnage, and it’s in equal parts touching and dark and funny. I love that Aleph chose not to market it as a children’s book, yet I hope children will read it and be properly terrified by some of the Shuttered House scenes. To compare this to Watership Down seems too obvious, but it’s the closest thing I can think of.

Georgette Heyer, Frederica: Beth of Beth Loves Bollywood invited me to join a Georgette Heyer book club. I ended up not participating as much as I’d like to, but it did give me a chance to reread Frederica, which is always a glorious thing to do.

Valerie Krips, The Presence of the Past: I read this for academic reasons and can’t imagine that my notes would be of any interest to anyone but me. But I enjoyed it greatly, and am on the lookout for more work that discusses British history in children’s literature, if anyone has recommendations.

Jack Vance, Araminta Station: After reading Dream Castles I felt the need for more of Vance’s SF. So the Cadwal Chronicles now, and I think I’ll move on to some of the random lesser works (perhaps The Grey Prince?) next.

Eloisa James, The Ugly Duchess: I’m beginning to come around to the idea that Regency romances are not actually set in Regency England. By which I mean that the authenticity critique is pointless; characters will talk about events that take place in ‘fall’, there will be historically implausible (so I’m told; but I don’t wish to underestimate anyone’s ancestors) sex, women will regularly be allowed to do things that only very lucky/exceptional women would have got away with at the time, and things like slavery don’t really exist. There are probably some parallels with steampunk here. I also find interesting the tacit agreement among many of the writers in the genre that it is the same world – there’s a level of intertextuality that is fascinating. The other comparison I’d make is with the Lovecraftian mythos, but there’s a whole other essay there and about a paragraph of it is already sitting in this blog’s drafts. Anyway, l enjoyed this new Eloisa James book, and its occasional Americanisms and historically unlikely fashion did not bother me in the least.

Ranjit Hoskote and Ilija Trojanow, Confluences: I wrote about this in this weekend’s column, and will post a link here when I put it on the site.

Anne Carson, Antigonick: I spent a good part of July and the first half of August with this book in my head. I wrote about it here, but it hasn’t felt like enough. A wonderful book, and a beautiful object.

September 1, 2012

Anna Kavan, Ice

A confession: I’ve been collecting the gold-spined Peter Owen editions of Kavan’s books because they look so lovely on my shelf. This is the only one that is *not* gold-spined (why, Peter Owen?) and it looks distinctly out of place next to the others. Naturally, therefore, it’s the first one I read. It turns out that Kavan is unnerving and powerful and I’ve utterly failed to do her justice here. I feel rather guilty for having collected her books for so shallow a reason.

From last weekend’s column:


It’s hard to explain what happens in Anna Kavan’s Ice, since the novel doesn’t really have anything resembling a conventional plot. Ice is a series of encounters between a nameless narrator and two other, equally nameless, characters; a woman (a “girl”, according to the narrator) whose beautiful fragility is fetishised by the narrator, and her partner, a brutal, controlling man. The narrative is fractured; and moves between dream and reality so often that it’s impossible to distinguish ‘real’ events from those originating in the narrator’s own imagination. At one moment at the beginning of the novel the narrator is lost on his way to the woman’s house; in the next, he is seeing her slowly surrounded by a wall of ice. Later, he is attempting to get her away from her sinister partner, when all of a sudden she is the victim of a mob that wishes to sacrifice her to appease a dragon. This is dream logic – it all almost makes sense, until you examine the details.

And then there’s the ice that gives the novel its name. We’re not told exactly what events led to the massive climate change that Kavan’s world appears to be experiencing, but nuclear holocaust is hinted at more than once. What we do know is that the world is getting colder and colder; and that people are fleeing the country for other parts of the world. The narrator himself seems to be investigating the climate change in some official capacity; he certainly seems to have powerful government connections. At other times, however, he seems more interested in a study of a species of singing lemurs that fascinate him disproportionately.

In most other novels, this sort of apocalyptic climate change would be enough to make the work unambiguously science fictional, and Ice was certainly awarded the Brian Aldiss Science Fiction book of the year in 1967 when it was published. Yet I’m hesitant to make that claim for the book. The science of this apocalypse isn’t the point of Ice. Novels often use science fiction to explore an issue. It’s possible to read this as aspect of the book as a reference to the Cold War – the logical connection between “cold” and “ice”, the timing of the book and the suggestion that nuclear holocaust had something to do with it all make this a tempting reading. But it won’t do. Whatever the events that have led to this moment may be, they aren’t the focus of the novel. What they do, however, is to contribute to a building sense of fear – everything is collapsing around this narrator. Ice is less about exterior events than interior ones. We know that the narrator has trouble with insomnia and a history of mental illness, that he takes drugs that have strange hallucinatory side effects. My edition of the book contains an introduction by Christopher Priest, who suggests that the “ice” could also be heroin.  Kavan herself was addicted to the substance. It’s possible that there are elements of her addiction in the novel, with the narrator’s obsessive hunt for the girl and the constant focus on abusive relationships. There’s a sort of doubling (or tripling) that goes on throughout; the narrator may see himself as the girl’s saviour, but he often identifies with her abusive partner and imagines what it would feel like to inflict pain upon her, but then at points it almost seems the girl is an aspect of him as well.

So is this a study of abusive gender relationships, a cold war cautionary tale, a formal experiment with an unreliable narrator, a semi-autobiographical history of Kavan’s own histories of mental illness and addiction (she would die the year after the book was published)? None of these are entirely satisfactory, and it would be a lesser book if one could map any one meaning neatly atop it. Ice is something alien and unsettling and raw.