Archive for November, 2012

November 29, 2012

Balaraba Ramat Yakubu, Sin is a Puppy That Follows You Home

Blaft recently published an English translation by Aliyu Kamal of this Hausa novel. Quite besides the merits of the book itself (and I enjoyed it) what I’m really excited by is what it represents to have an Indian publishing company commissioning and publishing Nigerian genre fiction. There’s already a lot more south-south collaboration than a lot of people are aware of (apparently Bollywood is an influence on Hausa literature, though I don’t think that’s so much the case with this particular novel), and I’d be even more thrilled if someone would publish translations directly from, say, Hausa to Hindi. But I’ll take English too.


From last weekend’s Left of Cool column.


Judging by past example, when a form of literature becomes associated with a particular place it’s probably not going to be spoken of in the most flattering of ways. In the eighteenth century, Grub Street in London was famously associated with literary hacks and news writers – some of whom were probably perfectly good writers, though you wouldn’t think it to hear some of the more respectable contemporary writers on the subject.

In Nigeria in the 1980s, the label “Kano Market literature” began to be applied to Hausa language popular fiction, also known as Littattafan Soyayya, or “love literature”. These books, apparently, have often been condemned – for corrupting young minds, for being too heavily influenced by Bollywood, for being vulgar, or formulaic, or trivial. The usual complaints, in fact; particularly since this is now a field of literature dominated by women. Early critics of the novel made similar arguments (though maybe not the Bollywood one), and even now the same arsenal is regularly brought out to criticise the romance genre, another field dominated by women writers. Which isn’t to say that some of these criticisms aren’t true.

Indian publishers Blaft recently brought out Sin is a Puppy That Follows You Home, a translation by Aliyu Kamal of the soyayya novel Alhaki Kuykuyo Ne… by Hajiya Balaraba Ramat Yakubu.

At first glance, this is clearly a novel of wish fulfilment. Rabi is the virtuous wife of Alhaji Abdu, a prosperous man who despite his wealth hardly gives her enough money to pay for the household goods to feed herself and their nine children. Matters get worse when Abdu takes another wife, who fights with Rabi. Soon, Rabi and her children have been kicked out of the house with no means to support themselves other than the help that Rabi’s and Abdu’s horrified families can give them. Despite this, Rabi prospers, setting up a successful cooking business, sending her oldest son to college, and finding a wealthy husband for her eldest daughter. Meanwhile, things rapidly go downhill for Abdu. His wife is unfaithful to him and his business fails when a fire in the market burns down his stall and most of his stock.  In the end, destitute and remorseful, he is forced to come back to his wife, hoping that she will take him back.

In her introduction to the book, Balaraba Ramat states that she’s purposely writing against men who treat women “as a sort of slave to be bought or sold at the marketplace”, “[believing] her to be completely worthless”. Yet although the book’s primary impulse is against treating women as discardable, as a woman I sometimes found it an uncomfortable read. In the world of the novel, women are constantly pitted against one another in order to better their own positions. Rabi’s situation at the beginning of the novel is bad enough, but it’s the presence of the new wife, Delu, that makes it intolerable. And then there’s the marriage of Rabi’s daughter Saudatu to Alhaji Abubakar, who has already discarded his two quarrelsome previous wives, after beating up one of them. What seems to be a happy ending for Saudatu thus has an undercurrent of unease. At the beginning of the book Rabi consoles herself with the thought that at least Abdu “didn’t marry and divorce his women friends at will”. Saudatu has been the perfect wife and daughter-in-law, but is she really safe from the same fate as her mother’s?

There’s also the discomfiting situation at the end of the book, when Rabi states repeatedly that she does not want her husband back (and why would she?) but is pressured into doing so by the men around her. Power has shifted drastically within the household, but Rabi is still in a marriage that she does not want, and it’s clear that the novel recognises this.  And it’s at moments like these that Sin Is a Puppy That Follows You Home leaks out of its formulaic structure and becomes something darker and more complex.


November 27, 2012

Some Peake

From here, Mervyn Peake’s original drawing for Irma Prunesquallor. Included in my copies of Titus Groan and Gormenghast, and for some reason on the cover of one of my copies of Titus Alone (in which the character does not appear).

Irma Prunesquallor


The Knitting Sheep

And the Knitting Sheep, from Peake’s illustrations of Lewis Carroll’s two Alice in Wonderland books. Long before I found a copy of the Peake-illustrated editions for myself, I saw this particular one in a Lewis treasury at a friend’s house. I may have shouted “Irma!”. Now that I see them side by side (or in this case one on top of the other) the differences are slightly more visible- including, obviously, the fact that one subject is a sheep and the other a human woman.

The sheep looks happier.

November 25, 2012

Alan Garner, Boneland

I struggled with this piece on Alan Garner’s Boneland, and even with the benefits of Mint’s excellent editors I’m not entirely happy with it. In part because so much of what fascinated me about Boneland had to do with where it stands within Garner’s career, something that’s impossible to convey to anyone who has not read the rest of his work. And in part because where Garner is concerned I have, since this is on the internet, Many Feels.

A version of this piece was published in Mint Lounge this weekend.



2010 marked the fiftieth anniversary of Alan Garner’s first novel The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. This and its 1963 sequel The Moon of Gomrath followed the adventures of two siblings, Colin and Susan, and their encounters with the legends around Alderly Edge in Cheshire.  It’s in the atmospheric writing and descriptions of the Edge that most of the power of these books lies. Garner would later experiment with the form of the children’s fantasy novel (most notably in 1965’s Elidor); but in most respects The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath are ordinary, if high-quality, adventure stories.

One of the ways in which Garner deviates from the usual is in providing no easy resolution. The Moon of Gomrath ends on an uncomfortable note as the Daughters of the Moon whom Susan so desperately wants to join disappear, leaving her alone and desolate. Children’s fantasy rarely deals with the question of return; can it ever really be so easy to come back to ordinary life?

Almost half a century later, Garner has written a sequel to the earlier two novels. Boneland is set in or around the present and focuses on Colin, now an adult and an astronomer, with no memory of his childhood before the age of thirteen. Susan has disappeared; Colin can’t be sure that she ever existed, yet he is haunted by the spectre of his sister. At the beginning of the book he is slowly unravelling, and seeks the help of Meg, a rather unorthodox psychoanalyst.  Interwoven with Colin’s story is that of a prehistoric man whose own arcane rituals (connected to his own search for a particular woman) appear crucial to keep the world going.

What is one to make then, of an oblique, allusive book for adults that is meant to follow two reasonably straightforward books for children; a sequel separated from its predecessors by not just time and audience, but by genre as well? If we understand a sequel to be a continuation of the original story, Boneland functions only partly as one. Even at the end the details of Susan’s disappearance (her name is never mentioned in this book) and of Colin’s loss of memory are tenuous.  Yet through its allusions to the earlier books  –Colin’s fear of crows and fascination with the Pleiades, Meg’s house shrouded in rhododendrons–  it not only draws on their significance to deepen its own, but acts as a sort of meditation upon those books as well.

Garner has hinted that Boneland is likely to be his last book. It’s possible to read this not just as the final volume of a trilogy but as the culmination of his career. References to his earlier works are scattered through this one; including the sacred axe-head and flashes of “blue silver” of Red Shift and the “Who-whoop! Wo-whoop! Wo-o-o-o!” refrain of The Stone Book Quartet.

Over and over in his writing Garner has returned to the history and myths of this part of England. The legend of the sleeping knights under Alderley Edge forms a significant part of his first book.  Red Shift moved in time between Roman and Civil War Britain but in place stayed firmly in Cheshire. The Stone Book Quartet was a collection of interlinked stories spread over four generations of a family, possibly Garner’s own. In Boneland this concern with history is stretched to the geological. Colin, who is something of a savant, is able to give erudite lectures on Permo-Triassic rock even as he refuses to leave the Edge at night because he believes that he must watch it. The mythic and the scientific sit together in uneasy companionship here.

Questions of myth versus science are frequently raised. In a sense this difference between the truth of science and the truth of myth is roughly analogous to the difference between Boneland and its prequels. Colin admits that his mistake all along has been to mix the two, “using the telescope to find a myth, an object to trace a metaphor”, while Meg compares this endeavour to “chasing love with a scalpel”. There’s the suggestion that the truth, whatever it is, may be as a metaphor here and narrative an object, so that we are doomed to frustration. But the book’s cryptic first lines, in which someone is reassuring Colin that it is “just a scratch” also suggest that he has been unconscious in a hospital throughout, and the whole of the narrative is only a metaphor for the processes of his brain. And the book’s use of psychology occasionally serves as a reminder that this is a discipline in which science is arrived at in part through metaphor.

Boneland shows all the lyricism (“He cut the veil of the rock; the hooves clattered the bellowing waters below him in the dark. The lamp brought the moon from the blade, and the blade the bull from the rock. The ice rang”) of which Garner is capable, and is resonant with echoes of his own and other works. It is by parts frustrating, emotionally exhausting and beautiful. And it is a resolution of sorts to Colin and Susan’s story, if not quite the one we might have expected.


November 21, 2012

Sam Thompson, Communion Town

A longer version of last weekend’s column. I liked Communion Town rather a lot, though not in ways that made me particularly indignant that it didn’t make the jump from Booker longlist to shortlist.



“Have you noticed how each of us conjures up our own city? You have your secret haunts and private landmarks and favourite short cuts and I have mine, so as we navigate the streets each of us walks through a world of our own invention”.

There’s a sense in which any novel about a city is doomed to failure. Cities contain such vast numbers of people (stating the obvious here); strangers from different classes and backgrounds and cultures all living together within a comparatively small space. A writer writing the city is provided with an almost infinite number of stories to tell. But then there can never be one representative story of the city.  Whose experience is this, and whose does it exclude? Perhaps the only way to write a city is to tell all of its stories; or at least a representative sample that gestures towards the stories not told.

Sam Thompson’s Communion Town calls itself “A City in Ten Chapters”. It does not refer to itself as a novel, and this is perhaps justified. The ten stories that make up Communion Town are interlinked, in that they take place in the same city, occasionally echo the same phrases and share some of the same concerns. But they do not usually share characters, and they do not add up to one story.

These stories deliberately span a range of genres, from horror to crime to Chandleresque noir. It doesn’t always work – the noir is particularly weak – but where it does it is a loving tribute. “The Significant City of Lazarus Glass” is particularly good, a detective story whose somewhat predictable ending is nonetheless likeable for its skilled pastiche.

In Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Marco Polo admits to the emperor that all his fictional cities are aspects of his own city; that to talk of them he “must speak of a first city that remains implicit”. For him that is Venice, for a fairly large chunk of the Western canon it is London. It seems obvious at first that Communion Town is in many ways “about” London. And yet when Thompson speaks of a terrorist attack on an underground train station I am not thinking of the 2005 London bombings (or even the 2004 ones that targeted Madrid), but of 2008 and particularly the bomb that went off inside Palika Bazaar. When his narrators warn newcomers to the city not to acknowledge certain sorts of people, I can only think of countless pieces of advice from well-meaning city-dwellers about how to “deal” with beggars. I think Delhi may be my implicit city, though I’m not sure if this universal applicability is among Communion Town’s strengths. Surely this would be a braver work if it was more specific?

The cover of Communion Town carries an approving blurb from the British writer China Miéville. Miéville a few years ago wrote The City and The City, a novel about the acts of unseeing that we perform in normal urban life. There’s a nameless horror that stalks the streets of Communion Town, appearing in many of these stories and demanding that it be acknowledged. In the first, title story, we learn that the town contains creatures known as “ingrates or the abject, the pharmakoi or the homines sacri”; scapegoats whom one does not acknowledge directly, but whom one knows to be “intrinsically wrong” and who are in some way connected with the “Cynics” who perpetuate a terrorist attack upon a major train station. In “The Rose Tree” we learn that the people of the town dare not go out at night for fear of the creature that will tell you its story, an act that will have awful consequences. “Outside the Days” has a young man who rashly seeks it out but cannot bear to hear its truth – the half-told tale haunts him ever after. One of the protagonists of “Ways to Leave” has turned his search for the creature into a pilgrimage, but he repeatedly thwarts his own goal. He does not want to find it just yet. By this last story the thing that stalks the town begging to tell its story has become an urban legend, and a figure of pity. But it has also become conflated with The Flâneur, a who features in an earlier story as a much less pitiable killer- and in yet another as the subject of a statue in a public place. Are they the same? Are all of Thompson’s narrators aspects of the flâneur? Do they all fall into that weird gap between unsee-r and unseen, pitiless killer and pitiable victim? What is it like to live in the city?

Miéville is not the only possible literary ancestor to this aspect of Thompson’s book. A 1973 short story by Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”, tells of a city that is perfect in almost every respect, but in order to keep it that way, one child must be kept captive in perpetual torment. All citizens learn this truth when they reach a certain age; some cannot reconcile themselves to continuing to live in the city. They are the ones who walk away from Omelas.

Thompson seems concerned with the ones who do not walk away from Omelas. What does it mean to live in the city while constantly aware of its victims? How does one do this? “We’re talking about your conscience,” says a character in “Good Slaughter”. “Find whatever proof you need, search your memory, watch for clues. But you have to tell yourself a story you can believe”.


November 16, 2012

J.K. Rowling, The Casual Vacancy

Shorter version: not as awful as some of the quotes made it sound, but still weak.

Longer version (forthcoming post): why does Rowling hate fat people so much?

This appeared over the weekend in the Sunday Guardian.


A casual vacancy, according to Charles Arnold-Baker’s Local Council Administration (quoted at the start of every chapter of J.K Rowling’s new book), is said to have occurred when a councillor’s seat is vacated during the term of office due to the councillor’s disqualification, resignation or death. Such a situation befalls the council of the small town of Pagford when councillor Barry Fairbrother dies suddenly of an aneurysm.

Fairbrother’s death has far greater implications for Pagford than it might first appear – potentially affecting even the limits of the town. The Fields, a council estate populated by people from a distinctly different social class to most of Pagford, technically comes under the purview of the town. For a long time now, various members of the council have been trying to have the Fields declared a part of a nearby city instead. Fairbrother, himself a former resident of the Fields, led the faction in favour of keeping the area within the town.

Rowling’s first adult novel, The Casual Vacancy uses the politically fraught atmosphere after the councillor’s death to tell the story of the interlocking lives of a number of residents of a small town, all of whom have in some way been touched by Barry Fairbrother. At one end of the social scale is Krystal Weedon, one of Fairbrother’s pet projects. The daughter of a drug addict and frequently in trouble at school, Krystal is also the backbone of the school rowing team and is singlehandedly trying to look after her baby brother lest social services take him away. At the other end are the Mollisons, socially aspiring snobs and Fairbrother’s rivals on the council, who are seemingly possessed of every possible vice; Howard is fat, Shirley is homophobic, both are racist.

Indeed, a large portion of The Casual Vacancy seems dedicated to showing us just how unpleasant and how banal its characters’ lives are. They speak and think in cliché; “Christ, it puts everything in perspective though,” sighs Miles Mollison. “Goes to show, doesn’t it,” says Simon Price (“portentuously,” in case the reader somehow missed the point).

No one here is entirely pleasant. Parminder Jawanda, Fairbrother’s ally on the council, may have the right politics (and it’s always clear what those are) but she is a terrible mother to her youngest daughter. Kay Bawden, a social worker, clings desperately to a relationship that is over. Simon Price is abusive and violent; his wife Ruth enables and excuses his behaviour.

Even the characters who live in the Fields don’t escape this treatment. Worse still, as readers who cringed through some of Hagrid’s speeches in the Harry Potter books will be alarmed to hear, Rowling has chosen to try to render their accents phoenetically. Presumably the rest of the residents of Pagford speak with crisp RP accents.

The only characters who emerge from all of this as people are the children. Each of the teenaged characters in The Casual Vacancy feels (like most teenagers, presumably) powerless and isolated, and all of them are victimised and disgusted by the behaviour of the adults around them. Yet the entire focus of the book is on these young people; from the debate about schooling that divides the council to the mysterious hacking of the council website that allows the teenagers to influence their town’s politics – to the tragic double funeral at the end of the book. Adults are mocked for not being young; a grown woman who tries to dress like a girl and another who is fascinated by a boy band are both portrayed as ridiculous. In a move that will certainly date this book, the novel takes for its refrain Rihanna’s “Umbrella”. The only adult character to come out of this looking good is Barry Fairbrother himself, and he is dead.

The result of all of this is that there are two books at war within this one. The first is a structured, precise (one suspects diagrams were involved) satire about nasty, small-minded people in a small town. The other is a tragedy involving children caught up in forces they can’t entirely control. The opposition between these two results in some scenes that are frankly embarrassing – at one point the vision of evil, fat (and to be fat is treated here as a serious moral failing) Howard Mollison, receiving good medical care with his family around him is juxtaposed with that of an innocent, dead child.

One of the complaints often levelled at the Harry Potter series was that, as it grew in popularity, the books became more and more bloated. Rowling may have left behind the wands and unicorns, but The Casual Vacancy has more in common with those later Harry Potter books than one could wish. There’s probably a sharp, cutting work of social satire in here somewhere, but you’d have to hunt around to find it.



November 14, 2012

Joyce Dennys, Henrietta’s War

From this weekend’s column:


I’m not sure why it is that books published in the year of my birth should exert such a fascination upon me. For absolutely no logical reason I find myself feeling more kindly towards a book when I realise that we are in some way the same age.

1985 was the year of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ Love in the Time of Cholera, Carl Sagan’s Contact, Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. It also, somewhat improbably, marked the publication of Henrietta’s War by Joyce Dennys, an account of life on the Home Front during the Second World War.

Henrietta’s War takes the form of a collection of weekly letters written by a doctor’s wife in a small seaside town to “My Dear Robert”, a childhood friend who is stationed at the front. In reality these letters were a series of columns for Sketch magazine during the war. In the 1980s Dennys discovered the columns while spring cleaning and had them published. Dennys was born in 1883, which means that she was over a hundred years old when the book came out (she died in 1991). I wonder if that’s a record.

As a result, Henrietta’s War feels like something of an anachronism. It’s very much of its time – but its time is the early 1940s. Yet the book begins with an introduction written by Dennys herself. It’s disorienting, this strange telescoping of history. I realised recently while watching the film Argo that I’m still young enough for things that happened in my lifetime to be rarely presented to me as “history”, but it’s only a matter of time.

Henrietta writes of the terrible privations experienced by English people during the war – blood donations, reduced supplies of things like meat and sugar, and the difficulties of doing one’s hair at night without accidentally breaking blackout. There are fewer garden parties, and awful government forms have to be filled if one wants to do something as basic as keep chickens so that one can have eggs. The bathing huts on the beach have been taken away, so that the enterprising Mrs Savernack has taken to changing “under a large sheet with a hole in the middle for her head to poke through”.  It’s not clear how much of this is autobiographical, but it’s always well observed and funny.

In tone, Henrietta’s War often sounds rather like E.M. Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady. The two books deal largely with the same class, and both employ similar self-deprecating humour. There are important differences, though. Delafield’s book was written in 1930, years before the war. Henrietta’s letters to Robert may adopt a tone that is light and frivolous, but there’s always an undercurrent of seriousness. The Henrietta who feels guilty about enjoying herself while there’s a war on, who breaks down during Christmas carols and who worries about the effects that a reduced meat diet will have upon her dog is not the carefree creature that most of the book would seem to suggest. Occasionally we’re reminded that her son is in the army, and that she worries about Robert (and how nice for a seemingly platonic friendship between a middle-aged man and woman to be the centre of a book).

Of course the war brought with it much larger tragedies than Henrietta’s inability to cook interesting desserts or the looming threat of porridge for breakfast. Most of the characters here have the privilege of being able to regard the war as an inconvenience rather than a life-shattering event. Henrietta herself acknowledges this, but as a reader it can feel uncomfortable to care about the dog’s diet or the necessity of new coats in the face of the larger, horrifying context. But then, this context is vital to appreciate Henrietta’s War for the bright, funny thing that it is.


November 12, 2012

Sarah Caudwell, The Shortest Way to Hades

Except that this is really about all the Caudwell books. It is in fact a shameless attempt to bully the world into reading them.

An edited version of last weekend’s column.


The life of an evangelist is a lonely one. We know that we’re onto something amazing, we know beyond all reasonable doubt that the lives of those around us would be enriched by our discovery. We’re not sure why their eyes glaze over and they start to back away when we start in on our favourite subject, but if we persist, surely someday they’ll see the light.

I suspect that I may often be this boring on the subject of Sarah Caudwell, the author of four relatively unknown mystery novels. I first discovered Caudwell in a second-hand bookshop in Bangalore many years ago when I picked up The Sybil in Her Grave on the strength of its cover art (which I later realised was the work of Edward Gorey). In the years that followed I found the other books in various unlikely places- all second-hand, somewhat battered and often mis-shelved.

This series of novels is sometimes called the Hilary Tamar series, after its narrator. Hilary is an Oxford don who seems incredibly talented at wriggling out of research and classes in order to spend time in London with a group of former students. These ex-students, now barristers in Lincoln’s Inn, find themselves regularly mixed up in murders and call on Professor Tamar’s expertise to solve them.

The earlier books are some of the brightest and funniest mysteries I have ever come across. Caudwell’s characters often sound as if they had come straight out of a Wodehouse novel – if one could imagine a Wodehouse novel in which sex, violence and drugs were things openly indulged in and discussed. Her scatty Julia Larwood has all the gormlessness of Bertie Wooster, combined with a susceptibility towards beautiful young men that often leads to difficulties. She is usually backed up by the rather more competent Selena and Ragwort, and by Michael Cantrip who is the only member of the group not to have been taught by Hilary (he, poor boy, was educated at Cambridge).  I love the bleak humour of The Sybil in Her Grave, the last of the series, but in a way I’m glad I got to read them backwards, discovering the first books last.

It may not say much about me as a reader that for a long time I failed to notice one of the most fascinating things about the series; that its narrator’s gender is never revealed. Hilary has a gender-neutral name, and none of the characters ever reveals the pronouns that would make it all clear. This is done in such an unobtrusive way that it’s easy to just make your own gender assumptions (in my head Hilary’s particular type of self-satisfaction codes him as definitely male) and carry on reading without ever noticing that you might be wrong. If I didn’t know how difficult it was to craft a sentence about a person without referring to their gender – and writing about Hilary Tamar has certainly shown me this – I’d be tempted to think it wasn’t a deliberate omission at all.

If I have a favourite of the books it’s the second in the series, The Shortest Way to Hades. The group get involved in the affairs of an heiress and her extended family. Soon a member of the family dies in mysterious circumstances – but it’s the wrong girl. Surely tradition dictates that it is the heiress who ought to have been murdered? The solution lies in the application of textual criticism to the works of Euripides. These books are not afraid to be clever.

I discovered Caudwell before internet book shopping was an option, and as a result each of my copies of her books has a story attached to it. But the internet has made things infinitely easier, and nowadays when I demand that a friend read this writer I can do so in the knowledge that her books are available online, and at a reasonable price. No one has any excuse any longer.


November 9, 2012

October Reading

Adalbert Stifter, Rock Crystal: Almost a short story and close to a children’s book. I’d never read Stifter before but if this translation (by Elizabeth Mayer and Marianne Moore) is anything to go by he’s quiet and polished and a bit amazing. I wish I’d left this for Christmas.

Jeff Noon, Channel Sk1n: I’m just surprised I managed to resist buying and reading a new Jeff Noon book for weeks after it was published. The last time that happened (in 2002, I think) I was in school, in the middle of exams and bought the book anyway and promised I wouldn’t read it yet and found myself tearing the house apart to find where the parents had helpfully hidden it. Um. The book itself I wrote about here.

M. G. Vassanji, The Magic of Saida: Reviewed for the Hindustan Times, with a longer version posted here. The very short version: I was unimpressed.

Sarah Caudwell, Thus Was Adonis Murdered and The Shortest Way to Hades: I gushed about the Hilary Tamar series in one of my Left of Cool columns and also mentioned the first book in one of my National Geographic Traveller pieces (out in December, I think). Can it be that I am carrying my Caudwell evangelism too far?

Alexander McCall Smith, Portugese Irregular Verbs: McCall Smith is best known for his Precious Ramotswe books, detective novels set in Botswana. I’m not a huge fan of the series, and I’m made a little uncomfortable (possibly unfairly? I don’t know) by the white guy writing African setting/black woman as main character aspect of it all. I’ve quite enjoyed his Isabel Dalhousie books (set in Edinburgh) despite the fact that, as a friend complains, he tends to treat his forty-year-old protagonist as if she were middle-aged. (My friend is forty). I do like the gently mocking Von Igenfeld books though. I read Portugese Irregular Verbs because of its last chapter, an extended parody of Mann’s Death in Venice (Clever readers will notice a theme in this month’s reading and may deduce from it the topic of a future NatGeoTraveller column). But then at the end McCall Smith ruins it by explicitly invoking Mann’s story – in an unsubtle hey, you know what this situation is kind of like? manner. I was a bit surprised by how much this annoyed me, but it felt like a contract had been broken.

Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower: Is it okay if I think this is overrated?

P. G. Wodehouse, Leave it to Psmith: This, on the other hand, is perfect.

Anna Carey, Rebecca’s Rules: The sequel to last year’s The Real Rebecca. Anna is a friend and I’d probably be well-disposed towards her books in any case, but I enjoyed the first and I liked this one even better. This despite her having created the most irritating teenage boy I have encountered in fiction or in life in a long time. And her choosing not to tell us Paperboy’s name (Anna, how could you?)

Nicholas Blake, The Morning After Death: no.

Ian McEwan, The Comfort of Strangers: This is an incredibly effective book, in that it made me feel physically ill the first time I read it (and I assume that that was its intention). I managed to avoid nausea this time round, but it’s still horrible and powerful.

Various, The Nightmare Factory: Wrote about this here, was not that impressed.

Sheila Heti, How Should a Person Be?: I have very strong feelings about this book and I’m still struggling to articulate some of my dislike. Subashini’s excellent review at Popmatters hits most of the same points though.

Amanda Quick, Mischief: Reread so I could write a thing about alternate histories. Have so far not written a thing about alternate histories. It is very funny though.

Lavie Tidhar, Osama: This is uncomfortable (that random awkward moment with the trans character near the beginning, really?), but also smart and otherwise pleasing. And it just won a world fantasy award – i.e. a model of famous racist H.P. Lovecraft’s head. I wrote about it here.

Thomas Mann, Death in Venice: I’m not sure it makes sense to class Death in Venice as a novel here; my copy of it is in an edition with multiple short stories by Mann. Then again, it’s probably as long as Rock Crystal – incidentally, Mann is supposed to have been a big Stifter fan. I’d last read Death in Venice in school; while I still thought it was wonderful this time around, I found it much harder to immerse myself in the mood of it. I’m not sure if that means I’ve weakened as a reader.

J.K. Rowling, The Casual Vacancy: Review (and separate rant about the politics of fat in the novel) to follow. It’s not very good.

Maud Hart Lovelace, Carney’s House Party: This is the second of the Betsy-Tacy (or related) books that I’ve read, and while I quite enjoyed both I’m not sure I’ll be seeking out more. Still, it’s nice when characters in books act like grown-ups about relationships, so there’s that.


Also in October, I became 27. This was less life-changing than you might expect.

November 7, 2012

Not My Nigel*: on Strangeways’ women

From here:

Literary detectives might also like to try out a pet theory of Stephen Spender, namely that the outwardly courteous and gentlemanly Poet Laureate used his Blake books to revenge himself on his mistresses. The habit has its origins, arguably, in Thou Shell of Death, when Strangeways is first given a love interest, a free-spirited explorer, Georgina Cavendish, loosely based on Margaret Marshall, an older, sexually adventurous woman with whom Day-Lewis was entangled when at Oxford, to the great distress of his vicar father. Cavendish then dies in the Blitz in 1941 in Minute for Murder at precisely the point that Day-Lewis himself falls in love with the novelist Rosamond Lehmann and turns his back on his first wife, Mary. In 1957’s End of Chapter, there is more than a passing resemblance between the victim, young, highly strung female novelist Millicent Miles, and Day-Lewis’s mistress, Elizabeth Jane Howard, best friend of his second wife, Jill Balcon. And then in The Deadly Joker (1963), the corpse belongs to Vera Paston, who shares much in common with the Indian novelist, Attia Hosain, with whom Day-Lewis had been involved.

When my friend Kajori first demanded that I read the Nigel Strangeways detective novels, written by Cecil Day-Lewis under the pseudonym Nicholas Blake, it was her gushing about the women that convinced me. In the early books Strangeways meets, then marries, Georgia Cavendish, who is – like Margaret Mashall, apparently – older than him and sexually adventurous. She’s also a well-known explorer in her own right; she’s good at what she does, she’s not conventionally attractive. In The Smiler With the Knife she gets to be the protagonist of a book that is nominally part of the series about her husband. I was in love. It helps, of course, that there’s so much else to love about the Strangeways books, that they’re clever and literary and often gorgeously written.

Clare, Nigel’s next partner, was never going to live up to Georgia and I’ve been a bit biased against her for this reason. Yet I recently read one of the later books, The Worm of Death, and she stands up reasonably well. Clare is also famous in her own right (everyone around Strangeways seems to be) – she’s a well-known sculptor, shouts at people when necessary, and occasionally [SPOILER] kills them.

But there’s another woman in The Worm of Death, Sharon, with “blood-red nails”, to whom Nigel is apparently irresistable. But Nigel “never consider[s] propositions before breakfast”, and besides a kiss that seems meant to humiliate her more than anything else, there’s little between them. But what this does is to turn Nigel into the sort of character that women throw themselves at – a hero stereotype that had been missing from the earlier books (as far as I’d read them) in the series.

And so we come to The Morning After Death, the last book in the series. This is set in the literature and classics departments of an American university, and is therefore particularly amenable to the sort of literary referencing that litters the series. It’s also a very male university, with only one prominent woman in academia – she is, of course, doing a PhD on Emily Dickinson.

An early suggestion that things are about to go horribly wrong with this book comes when a prominent visiting poet decides to assault said PhD student. I’ve highlighted the particularly fun bit.


(wouldn’t it be nice if I could have just copied and pasted that? This isn’t the place to rant about DRM, but honestly.)

Sukie herself later downplays this rape.

And then there’s Sukie’s attraction towards Nigel, whose irresistable sexual appeal to women seems to have carried over from the last book. After a number of attempts to sleep with him, she finally ends up in his lap. “Oh, well, he sighed to himself”, before apparently having sex with her as an act of charity – one that he presumably enjoys, since we’ve been hearing all about her “supple” body since the beginning of the book. Luckily Sukie knows better than to ask for more, and is sufficiently grateful.

tonstant weader fwowed up


Alright then.

Since this is the last ever Strangeways novel we’re never told if Nigel’s giving pity fucks to beautiful young women affects his relationship with Clare. But The Morning After Death does this, and it does blackface, and it does grateful black families who will do anything for white people who are pro-civil rights, and it’s utterly tragic that such an excellent series of books should end this way.


*see here.

November 4, 2012

But surely you’re going overboard with the pessimistic travel pieces?

A slightly longer version of the Paper Trails column from October’s National Geographic Traveller India. The November edition is out now, and you should buy it because of the pretty pictures and me talking about Lovecraft and Poe (and some other articles also).


[Spoiler alerts for some Agatha Christie novels, I suppose]


One of the staples of the mystery story is to set a crime in such a place that only one of a limited group of people could have done it. After all, it’s not much fun for the reader who has spent the book struggling to solve the puzzle, if any random passer-by could have committed the act. This is probably one reason why the ‘country house’ murder mystery has been such a classic and successful staple of the genre. In such a story, the criminal can only be one of the house’s inhabitants, guests or staff; and over the course of the novel the reader is given reason to suspect many of them.

But there are ways to limit your pool of suspects other than isolating them in a country house. Agatha Christie offers us multiple examples of this – in her book And Then There Were None a group of people on a deserted island are killed off one by one and the murderer can only be one of themselves. And in Murder on the Orient Express it seems obvious that only a passenger on the train would have had the opportunity to kill the dead man.

Perhaps even more than a train, a ship is the perfect venue for a mystery of this sort. It’s particularly obvious that the criminal must be one of those on board when there are miles of empty ocean all around. Plus, all you need to do to get rid of the evidence (or indeed the body) is drop it overboard! A comforting thought, should one ever go on a luxury cruise.

It’s unsurprising, then, that so many mystery writers have turned to the cruise ship as the scene of the crime. An early example is that of Earl Derr Biggers’ Charlie Chan Carries On. Biggers’ novel begins in London, with the death of an elderly man who is on a world tour. Inspector Duff of Scotland Yard is baffled by the case. He follows the tour to France, where there is another death. It’s clear that the criminal is one of the tour-goers, and the novel follows them to Aden, Calcutta and Singapore before the murderer is finally apprehended in San Francisco. Charlie Chan, Biggers’ Chinese-American detective, does not appear until a good two-thirds of the way through; but that might just be a good thing. Biggers may have been racially tolerant by the standards of his day, but Chan’s comically broken English and ‘Oriental’ wisdom are rather cringeworthy.

Later writers have adopted the cruise as well. The eight books in Conrad Allen’s Dillman and Masefield series (the first is Murder on the Lusitania) have the two detectives investigate a series of crimes aboard various ships. The protagonist of Carl Hiaasen’s Skinny Dip begins the novel as the victim of attempted murder by her (clearly very incompetent) husband – he has thrown her overboard in the hope that she will drown. Ngaio Marsh’s A Clutch of Constables takes place aboard a river cruise. One might even make an argument for Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table, published last year. Ondaatje cleverly chooses not to make it the focus of his book, but the plot to free a captive criminal forms a big part of the story’s background.

So popular is the cruise trope that there exists an anthology of short stories that deal with the subject. Death Cruise was edited by Lawrence Block and contained writing by Nancy Pickard, Jose Latour, and of course Christie herself.

Christie’s most prominent ship story is Death on the Nile, in which a beautiful millionairess is murdered on an African cruise.  Less popular is the short story “Problem at Sea”, which also involves the death of a rich woman in a locked ship’s cabin. Both stories feature husbands with seemingly unbreakable alibis that prove to be somewhat less so. (In Skinny Dip, Hiaasen’s rich heroine Joey has willed her money to a charitable organisation – one sees her point).

If I had to pick a favourite cruise ship mystery it would be John Mortimer’s short story “Rumpole at Sea”. This week I reread it directly after rereading “Problem at Sea”, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that Mortimer had written his story partly in response to Christie’s. Rumpole and his wife Hilda (“She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed”) attempt a second honeymoon aboard a cruise ship but the mood is somewhat disrupted by the presence of a judge whom Rumpole particularly abhors, and by an overimaginative crime writer.  Here too we see the oddly-behaved husband – though his fellow passengers, having presumably also read their Christie, are immediately suspicious when his wife seems to disappear from their midst. Rumpole solves it all, while strenuously defending the right of every man to be considered innocent until proven guilty. Mortimer makes the cruise ship a less sinister place than some of the other writers mentioned here. But I’m not sure, all things considered, that I’ll ever have the courage to board one.