Archive for October, 2014

October 27, 2014

Nitasha Kaul, Residue

A short review, because it was originally meant to be for a newspaper. I haven’t been able to resist the urge to add more quotes to this version. Friends who happened to be around me (in person or over the internet) while I was reading the book will recognise some of them.

 

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Leon Ali is a Kashmiri Muslim with a British passport, named after Trotsky, searching for the revolutionary father who went missing in Berlin in the 1980s. Keya Raina is an academic from a family of Kashmiri Pundits, who is caught up in Leon’s search for his father. Nitasha Kaul’s Residue moves between England, Germany and India in the months after 9/11 and centres itself on the mystery of Mir Ali’s disappearance.

It’s hard to say much that is new about the experience of being brown-skinned in the post-9/11 Western world, or about being Muslim in India post-December 1992, or even about the displacement that so many with ties to Kashmir feel; or how these issues tie in with larger questions of home and belonging and memory. Kaul’s choice to focus her novel around a central puzzle is a wise one as it imposes a particular narrative structure upon what might otherwise have been a set of not-very-original musings on identity. The manuscript was shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2009, and it’s narratively ambitious, with its switches from first to third person and between past and present, an extended section in which Leon becomes Nobody and travels across Berlin on public transport (with maps included).

But Residue is badly let down by its prose. Far too often Kaul mistakes detail for insight; insignificant actions are described step-by-step, as when we’re told that Keya “connecting her laptop to a wireless network […] checks her university email”. We’re shown academic meetings where people say things like “Moreover, she had verified extenuating circumstances on one exam at least”. Weirdly enough, the text occasionally mocks Keya for speaking in just this way, so that it would be possible to read it as self-aware, if only we were not subjected to this sort of thing throughout the novel. Brand names, book titles, film directors all show up frequently as signifiers, but don’t add much weight. This isn’t writing that trusts the reader to do any work—when Kaul’s characters make a joke it must be followed by “I jest”. We’re offered lots of descriptors, often to the point of redundancy (“booming, sonorous voices”). So worried is the prose that it will not be understood that we’re given summaries of things that have just happened—at one spectacular moment, as the protagonists discover through conversation that they both have Kashmiri roots and have lived in Delhi and the UK, Kaul ends by having Leon think “we realize we are Kashmiris who grew up in Delhi and live in England”—for the benefit of the reader who has somehow found this too complex to grasp the first time around.

[Dropping the whole passage in here because I can.]

‘You grew up in India,’ I say neutrally, tone between a statement and a question.

‘Yes, I was born in India, though I have lived in England for many years now.’

Then she adds, ‘I am actually from Kashmir, but I grew up mostly in Delhi. You?’

‘I am from Kashmir too, though I was born in England. Like you, my city has been Delhi.’

We realize we are Kashmiris who grew up in Delhi and live in England.

‘So we are both from the same state in India, grew up in the same city, have connexions to the same country, and now meet in Berlin. That is some coincidence!’

This is not merely a question of aesthetics (if aesthetics are ever “merely” anything). Residue positions itself, both in terms of its subject matter and by having its characters frequently pontificate, as a serious novel of complex ideas. What these complex ideas are it’s hard to discern; I find it hard to believe that we’re expected to take Keya seriously when she has thoughts like this: “Keya formulates a statement: modernity was enabled by a mutation of speed”, or when she contemplates discussing French philosophy with a random Frenchman on a plane “but desisted. He didn’t seem intellectual and may not know,” and yet it seems the book does expect us to see these as deep thoughts.

Perhaps some continental philosophy would have been a good idea, if only for some of that famous prose. Very little can be achieved in the way of complexity if a book cannot trust its readers to follow a sentence.

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October 12, 2014

Courtney Milan, Talk Sweetly To Me

Because why not write the same piece over two weeks and have one half be about narrative poetry and the other be about romance?

Here is that second part; it’s from last weekend’s column and much of what’s in it will be familiar to anyone who has read this earlier piece on Milan’s series and this one on historical romance in general.

 

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Last week in this column I wrote about Bernardine Evaristo’s The Emperor’s Babe, and the ways in which it can be useful to challenge our received understanding of history through competing narratives that focus on the things that those better known accounts tend to gloss over. Evaristo’s novel told (in verse) the story of a young black woman, a member of a minority community in the London of Roman Britain. This week I read a very different piece of historical fiction about another young black woman in London, this time in 1882.

I’ve said in the past that I do not often like politics to be explicitly raised in the historical romances I read. Such books tend to focus on aristocrats, and it’s hard to sympathise with them when reminded of things like slavery and oppressive class and gender constructs, especially when the author is pleading with us to appreciate these characters merely for being slightly less awful than everyone else. If I want to read about handsome dukes in period costume, I need to pretend they exist in a magical universe that does not share a history with our own.

Courtney Milan is one of my exceptions to this rule. Her Brothers Sinister series, concluded recently with the novella Talk Sweetly To Me, is set in a 19th century England full of political agitations, strikes, suffragettes. It’s also populated by, among others, clever women who work, queer people, non-white characters, and people with disabilities. Talk Sweetly To Me has for its protagonist a mathematical genius who happens to be a black woman.

The general narrative of the erasure of non-white people from European history tends to insist that such people simply weren’t there to be represented. It’s harder to make this claim about women, but we’re often told that historical gender roles were so rigid that any narrative of a woman doing something spectacular is simply ahistorical (as opposed to unlikely, which tends to be a feature of stories about heroes). An important feature of Milan’s books are their afterwords which, by providing more historical context and pointing to some of the sources she drew upon for research, validate these characters’ and these stories’ right to exist. There’s data on the presence of black doctors in London, as there is on the erasure of women’s work from the history of science. She’s least successful when she puts this justification of these characters’ presence into the text itself (a Bengali character in the book The Heiress Effect is constantly explaining himself), but it’s easy to forgive this.

Which isn’t to say that the world of the books is in any way the historical truth, whatever that may mean. Milan’s occasional deviations from historical records are flagged up when they occur, and some of them are significant enough to turn the whole into alternate history. What is not flagged up but is no less important is the way in which these books joyously take part in the wish-fulfilment that is a part of every hero story: of course we know that in most cases the social forces against them would break these characters, but sometimes we need stories of success, or simply happiness. Talk Sweetly To Me is lighter on both politics and drama than most of the full-length novels, and is certainly not the best of the series, but there’s something wonderful in reading a romance that we expect to be difficult (well-educated and tenuously-socially-accepted Irish writer of low birth falls in love with genius black female mathematician?), and to have it be joyous and pun-filled instead.

In her afterword Milan points out, pointedly, that while her protagonist Rose’s community was certainly a very small minority, there were “at least as many black doctors as there were dukes”. Milan is writing in a genre where dukes are plentiful (they even show up in her other works); to invoke them here is a reminder that we choose which stories to tell, which stories we allow to frame our understanding of the past.

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October 7, 2014

Bernardine Evaristo, The Emperor’s Babe

From last weekend’s columnthing.

 

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Marriage is hell for Zuleika, sold off far too young to be the bride of a rich man. The daughter of immigrant shopkeepers in London, Zuleika has spent her early life wandering freely around the cosmopolitan city with her best friend Alba. All that is changed when she is eleven, when the wealthy Felix comes into her life offering her father business deals; her father, still not fluent in the language, more interested in his son than his daughter, needing the financial benefits of an alliance with Felix, accepts the offer. Zuleika finds herself trapped in his house, in a loveless marriage and desperately unhappy except when she can escape to spend time with her two close friends; the cynical housewife Alba and the more romantic transwoman Venus. And then she falls in love, and this changes everything.

Two things are not particularly evident from this summary. The first is that Bernardine Evaristo’s The Emperor’s Babe is a novel told entirely in verse. The second is that it is set in the London (Londinium) of around 200 CE.

In her acknowledgements Evaristo mentions Peter Fryer’s Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain, from which she first realised that people of African descent had been living in Britain at least since the Roman occupation. Narratives of history that are presented to us even today (Fryer’s book was published in 1984, Evaristo’s in 2001) tend to elide the ways in which people have always travelled, mingled, shared culture, crossed supposedly rigid boundaries. Fiction that includes characters who do this may be panned for being unrealistic. Authors of fantasy novels based on medieval Europe will give interviews explaining that their lack of non-white characters merely reflects the world as it was at the time. Attempts to redress these assumptions aren’t always taken well; witness the recent hostility directed at the blog Medieval POC (medievalpoc.tumblr.com) merely for providing evidence that Europe before the Enlightenment was more culturally diverse than people might believe.empbabe

Evaristo’s book opens with an epigraph from Oscar Wilde—“The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it”. To me it seems clear that this is a conscious writing back, wielding historical fact (the book was written when the author was writer in residence at the Museum of London) to create a world in which the very scope of the Roman Empire means that people from all over the world are present in Londinium.

And this is best done through language. Evaristo combines Latinised words and phrases with colloquialisms and the rhythms of contemporary speech to create something joyous and alive. Often it’s seamless, as when Zuleika rants about “the city of Roma which everyone/ went on about as if it were so bloody mirabilis”. At other points it draws attention to itself: Zuleika’s father calls Felix “very benignus gentleman, sir […] a boost to oeconomia most welcome, sir”. No opportunity to (cod-) Latinise is missed (“futuo-off, you little runt”) and there’s no reason why it should be. Sometimes it’s beautiful. “And then it rained, it rained et pluviam,/ et pluviam et plurimam pluviam”.

The language adds to the sense of historical and contemporary London as being the same space, inhabited by the same sorts of people and concerns, so that Alba’s thinness can be due to either anorexia or worms, and characters can slip seamlessly into cockney rhyming slang. This sense isn’t necessarily historically accurate either (cities do not transcend time) but it’s a necessary corrective to the dominant narrative, as well as making for gorgeous prose.

With all this challenging of received history, it’s easy to overlook that there’s a domestic story of marriage and love and heartbreak in the middle of all of this. We’re never allowed to, with Zuleika, entirely romanticise her relationship with the Emperor. We know that this is going to end painfully; with her friends, we see most of the signs before she does. It doesn’t matter though because what matters is what love does to Zuleika, setting her free as a poet and a person, even as that person edges closer and closer to death. Her lover may not see her (“Somewhere over my left shoulder,/ had appeared an audience. All the men/ in my life did this, as if their words/ were too important for my ears alone.”) but to the reader he only counts as a necessary step to Zuleika’s love poetry anyway.

 

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October 6, 2014

September Reading

At least September was a better month for reading than August.

 

Nitasha Kaul, Residue: Review forthcoming, but I really did not think much of this.

Diana Wynne Jones, Charmed Life, The Lives of Christopher Chant, Conrad’s Fate, The Pinhoe Egg, Mixed Magics, The Magicians of Caprona, Witch Week: I helped organise, then attended and presented a paper at, a conference on Diana Wynne Jones. It was exhausting and I rather assumed I’d be quite happy not to think about DWJ for a good few months after. Naturally, in the week or so following, I reread all the Chrestomanci books, and out of order. All still great, but now I’m having all these thoughts about The Pinhoe Egg and it turns out I could probably think about DWJ forever.

Ava Chin, Eating Wildly: Review here. I enjoyed this.

Jared Shurin (ed), Irregularity: Review forthcoming. Mixed feelings, but there’s that Adam Roberts story and it is perfect, and there are E.J. Swift and James Smythe being pretty good at this writing thing too.

Susan Scarlett, Peter and Paul: I’m still failing to work out what this reminded me of. Weirdly moralistic, considering that Scarlett was a pseudonym of Noel Streatfeild. But I suppose that’s genre appropriate, and I did genuinely enjoy it.

E. Nesbit, The Story of The Treasure-Seekers, The Wouldbegoods: Always charmed by these, love Nesbit forever, etc. Perhaps I can make time to reread the Psammead books soon as well.

Georgette Heyer, These Old Shades, Devil’s Cub, Sylvester, Pistols for Two, The Foundling, The Corinthian, The Nonesuch, The Talisman Ring: I was exhausted and sick and retreated into Heyer. Where is the Talisman Ring caper movie we deserve?

Bernardine Evaristo, The Emperor’s Babe: I’ll have a piece on this on the blog in a day or so. The book is excellent, obviously.

Sophie Hannah, The Monogram Murders: This seems to have got some good reviews, which suggests that I am failing at reading it because I thought it was dreadful; inconsistent in voice, weak of plot, and generally poor on multiple levels.

Courtney Milan, Talk Sweetly To Me: I’ll have a piece on this on the blog soon also. It is not as perfect a thing as The Suffragette Scandal (but what could be?) but I enjoyed it anyway.

Deirdre Sullivan, Prim Improper: I bought this because the author is a) funny on twitter and b) compared to Anna Carey (who is great), and read it on a sick day and it was exactly what I needed. Just very kind and funny about adolescence and other people and rats and death.