July 1, 2014

June Reading

Not the most productive month, readingwise. Perhaps I’ll read some Hugo-nominated short fiction in July?

 

Rebecca Stead, Liar and Spy: Part of my attempt to read through the Carnegie shortlist. This was my favourite book on the list by a considerable margin; Stead may be an actual genius.

Tracy Chevalier, Remarkable Creatures: I enjoyed this, but coming after the brilliant KJF story (I wrote about both here) it felt rather insipid.

Susan Cooper, Ghost Hawk: No.

Michael Faber, Under the Skin: I read this a couple of months after watching the film and should probably write more about it at some point. For now, a column here.

Stephanie Laurens, The Masterful Mr. Montague: There is a murderer, there are Cynsters and Cynster-adjacent people, an attractive, competent woman finds love. I’ll have forgotten the plot of this by next month, but I enjoyed it.

Theresa Romain, To Charm a Naughty Countess: Why must genre titles be this way? Again, a book I enjoyed (virginal man with anxiety issues, beautiful, poised woman who has loved him forever, science and irrigation and science) but that I’ll forget quite soon.

Julie Berry, All the Truth That’s In Me: This was often gorgeous, and I’m glad it was on the Carnegie shortlist.

William Sutcliffe, The Wall: About as horrifying as it needed to be, but far less nuanced than I’d have liked.

Loretta Chase, Vixen in Velvet: A thing I thought particularly interesting about this: the plot apparently has our hero and heroine make a bet over her makeover of another woman, with the stakes being a Botticelli painting (if she wins) and two weeks of her time (if he wins). Which is the sort of thing historical romances occasionally do; but unless I misread one particular scene entirely, this one had its hero declare that this time spent together is just supposed to involve general getting-to-know-one-another activities. Meanwhile the made-over woman (his cousin) does get her man, but not through her improved looks. This is interesting because we have here two well-worn genre tropes made … not particularly feminist, but certainly less regressive. I’m not, however, a huge fan of this particular subseries; it’s enjoyable, but nowhere near some of Chase’s best work.

Megan Milks, Kill Marguerite: I’ll be writing about this at length, but it’s the sort of book that feels to me like coming home, if home is also really gross and kind of nauseating. It’s so good.

 

 

 

 

June 23, 2014

William Sutcliffe, The Wall

A mere couple of hours before the award is announced I come to the last book on the Carnegie list.

 

As has probably become clear over the course of the last couple of weeks, I’m suspicious (usually with good reason) of issue books by outsiders. William Sutcliffe’s The Wall is about the Israeli occupation (apparently Sutcliffe describes himself as a Jewish Atheist) but it also comes with an approving blurb from Raja Shehadeh, the author of Palestinian Walks, which seemed promising.

I don’t think The Wall ever actually uses the words “Israel” or “Palestine”, but unless the child reading it is genuinely unaware of the existence of either (it’s recommended for children aged 11+, for what that’s worth) it’s so obvious as to not need stating. Joshua lives in a new settlement near the Wall between his own people and the others. Travel between the two areas is carefully regulated and all around him Joshua hears about how unsafe he is, how he and those around him are constantly under threat of attack. Then one day he finds a way to cross the wall and sees what conditions on the other side are like.

It’s almost an anti- portal fantasy. Joshua finds his secret tunnel, and is continually drawn back, but the other side is not exactly filled with friendly talking animals who think he’s special and want to give him tea. He is in danger all the time he’s there, and eventually is permanently disabled as a result of his injuries.

It’s tempting to read The Wall alongside Ghost Hawk, and the two do fit neatly into what feels like an established genre of children forming friendships across conflict lines. Where I think The Wall wins out on this front is in its highlighting of how deeply fraught these friendships are (since half of Cooper’s pair is dead for most of their acquaintance the question doesn’t really arise). As a direct result of Joshua’s association with Leila’s family, her father is brutally beaten, his health deteriorates and the family garden that means so much to him is destroyed. Joshua is forced to learn that his good intentions mean very little when set against the vastness of this disparity in power. And yet these relationships are worth something. Joshua and Leila’s friendship feels rather perfunctory, but his bond with her father, for whom he digs the garden, tries to save the trees, risks his life, is difficult, but to both characters very real.

Another way in which the two books are similar is in their family structures. Both Joshua and Cooper’s John have widowed mothers who marry abusive religious fundamentalists who don’t really see the other side as human. I have to say I’m a bit tired of this. I have no personal stake in defending religion against denigration, I’m an atheist myself. But bad religious types have showed up in the last three books on this shortlist that I’ve read and Liev, Joshua’s mother’s partner, is far from rational in his hate. To the extent that: “His cheeks are flushed and his breath is short. Two off-white curls of foamy spittle have settled in the corners of his mouth.”

I may not have a stake in defending religion, but I do have one in the idea that children’s lit can depict a world that is vast and morally complex and in which, if there were no religions (thank you John Lennon) everything would not magically come right. There are enough people who support Israel’s actions who are not conveniently foaming at the mouth; to refuse to engage with that fact is to ignore most of the problem. Joshua’s mother offers a potential candidate to undo this, but we’re never sure how much of her stated hatred for the Palestinians is toeing the party line for peace within the home.

That it’s all filtered through Joshua’s consciousness is probably an indicator of Sutcliffe’s intended audience, or possibly of the author’s own experience learning the full extent of the problem. Joshua’s ignorance, a consequence of his privilege, might be read to parallel the hypothetical reader’s education. But there’s power in operation even at the level of narrative—the consequences of these events are painful and awful for Joshua but we know his story. Part of his privilege over the Palestinian characters is the privilege of narrative. I don’t know if Sutcliffe intended this to be part of the point, but I think it’s an important one.

 

 

As I write this, the Carnegie Awards ceremony is in progress. I’m not going to try and predict a winner, but I know what I’m rooting for. I’d be quite happy for Julie Berry, Kevin Brooks or Katherine Rundell to win, and William Sutcliffe and Anne Fine’s books are both good, but Rebecca Stead’s Liar & Spy is perfect; I won’t be surprised if it doesn’t win this, but I will be disappointed.

 

 

June 23, 2014

Julie Berry, All The Truth That’s In Me

The penultimate part of my Carnegie Award shortlist readthrough.

A trigger warning for rape might be necessary. (There are also spoilers, as always)

 

Apparently Julie Berry’s All The Truth That’s In Me began as an experiment in writing in the second person. I expected this stylistic choice to feel more forced (certainly more visible) than it does—but to me it flowed quite naturally. It does raise questions about the book’s framing narrative; the context in which Judith is addressing the story to Lucas and where this telling exists, chronologically in relation to the story weren’t clear to me. I mention this because one of the official criteria upon which the Carnegie is to be judged (not that this series of posts has paid much attention to those criteria) is control over plot, and in this instance I’m not sure that control is fully exhibited.

All The Truth That’s In Me is set in what feels like a puritan settlement called Roswell Station. Berry deliberately omits real detail, so apart from the general mood of things this could be any settler colony of history or fantasy. A couple of years before the story opens two young girls, Judith and Lottie, went missing. Lottie’s body was found in the river shortly afterwards. Now Judith has returned, her tongue cut out, unable to tell what has happened to her or who is responsible.

In a sense, then, this is a murder mystery told by the only person (other than the murderer, obviously) who knows what has happened. In most books this would require some pretty elaborate narrative strategies for concealing and revealing information. I don’t see them here, and yet somehow the whole thing works. For much of the book we’re led to believe that the villain of the piece is Ezra, the father of Judith’s childhood sweetheart Lucas. The village believe Ezra to be dead; as the novel progresses we learn that he is not, and not as straightforwardly villainous as he appears at first to be—though that still leaves him plenty of villainy.

As the novel progresses we see Judith’s increasing urge to communicate, and her finding ways to do so. An attempt to learn how to read is thwarted by her mother, but she finds an excuse to go to school with her brother—where the schoolmaster sexually harasses her (it’s all rather grim). She befriends another young woman, and in her finds a friend in front of whom she’s not afraid to attempt to speak. Among the things the novel does extremely well are these small personal relationships and character sketches. Judith’s relationships with her brother and mother, female friendship and solidarity when they are needed, people who are not the main couple but who care for one another deeply.

Her relationship with Lucas I was occasionally less sure about, if only because it’s easy to be tired of these always-meant-to-be romances in fiction. It’s nice, however, to see young women’s desire placed at the centre of a narrative—and it’s almost refreshing when she does a sort of reverse-Twilight and creepily snuggles down to lie under a blanket with him while he’s asleep.

At more than one point we’re asked to consider how this relationship can have a future when first we, then Lucas, believe his father to have raped and killed one girl and mutilated another—a shadow like this one is bound to hang over a relationship. Yet the big twist at the end when Judith finds her voice does away with this particular concern. Ezra is not Lottie’s killer or Judith’s torturer after all.

It’s this ending that disappoints me a little, coming after what is mostly an excellent novel. Everything is made easy for the reader—the villains is a religion-obsessed sexual predator, Judith’s lover’s father turns out to be her protector (so awful are many of the other men in the book that Ezra’s choices to kidnap Judith for her safety, struggle not to rape her for two years, and finally to cut out her tongue and send her home when the stress of not raping her grows too great are made to sound positively benign in comparison—this is not treated as a cloud that will hang over the characters), Lucas has loved her all along.

Ending aside, though, this is a strong, often beautiful book. It’s not my choice for the award, but would be a worthy winner.

June 22, 2014

Susan Cooper, Ghost Hawk

The sixth in this series of posts about this year’s Carnegie Award shortlist. I love Susan Cooper’s work so much, and I wish I’d been able to love this book.

As always, there are spoilers.

 

My people still live in some parts of this New England, a few thousand of them, on tribal reservation lands. They keep alive our traditions and our spirit; they struggle to revive language in places where it has faded away; they fight for the rights of the tribes under the nation’s law. They are the soul of the land to which we belong, where once we roamed free. But now they share that freedom with others, in the new nation to which they too belong. They are Americans.

Most of what is wrong with Susan Cooper’s Ghost Hawk (and this review is going to take the position that a number of things are wrong with Ghost Hawk) is present in the paragraph above.

Hiromi Goto recently began her Wiscon Guest of Honour speech with a version of an Acknowledgement of Country—that link is to a Wikipedia page on the Australian custom, and I don’t know if the US (or Canada, which is where Goto is from) have a similar tradition in place, but it’s one I wasn’t very aware of before, and one that I think is important. Because surely one of the ways in which we deal with legacies of settler colonialism is through acknowledgement—through not forgetting who was here before us and why, in many cases, they are not here, or their presence is significantly diminished, now.

I mention this because I think at the heart of Ghost Hawk there’s an attempt to reconcile this past with America’s present, and with the rights of those who have immigrated since to feel themselves at home there. And to do Cooper justice, I think that she’s right that this difficult thing has to be done (centuries of history cannot now be wiped out) and that it is difficult.

Ghost Hawk begins with two epigraphs; a Roger Williams quote about how the ‘Indian’ is as good as any Englishman, and a bit of Woody Guthrie’s “This land is your land”. I’m not sure to what extent we’re supposed to take either quote uncritically— I’ve only heard Guthrie’s song used in a folk-y, claiming back the land by the disenfranchised sort of context. In the context of white settlers in America, the recurring “this land was made for you and me” gets really uncomfortable, unless we clarify exactly who the yous and mes in this equation are. The Williams quote is unremarkable besides being quite progressive for 1643.

The story itself—the first half is the story of Little Hawk, of the Pokanoket Tribe, of the Wampanoag Nation, who goes into the woods in the dead of winter to prove himself ready for adulthood by surviving alone and off the land. He returns many weeks later to find most of his village dead, killed by a mysterious disease bought by the white man. The survivors of other, similarly affected villages band together and begin to forge new bonds, and all the while there is the question of the white men and how they are to treat with them. Little Hawk meets a boy named John Wakeley and though they can’t speak to one another they manage to share names. Then, about halfway through the book, John’s father is trapped under a fallen tree. Hawk lifts his tomahawk to help, two Europeans assume he has violent intentions and shoot him dead.

It’s both a bit awkward and a great idea because one generally expects the narrator of a book to survive it, even when the title promises ghosts. Having died, Little Hawk’s spirit attaches itself to John for most of the rest of the book, magically teaching him the language and allowing us to see things from the settlers’ perspective until John dies, many years later, as an old man.

There’s never any reason to believe that all this isn’t meticulously researched (though I gather that the choice of which materials to research might be an issue). Nor is there a flinching from violence; and in an afterword Cooper lays out a timeline and statistics that make the sheer scale and duration of that violence, and which side bore the brunt of it, clear. But so much of this is just not good. It plods along (and I hate this, because plodding is not a thing I’ve ever had to accuse Cooper’s work of), it flattens most of the white characters into noble anti-racist or evil, foaming at the mouth racist cartoon. For his new stepfather John gets saddled with what may have been the only man in Plymouth hostile to reading. It seems weird to say of such a book that it’s unfair to the European settlers, but it is. On the other side of the divide, the Native American characters are stoic and noble or hot-tempered and noble. No one is coming out of this well.

John is made important at the cost, I suspect, of other interesting Plymouth natives (Williams in particular is rendered dull) and of various Native American characters. He’s made into the saviour of Metacom/King Philip’s life, and we’re never given an in-text reason why Little Hawk should attach himself to this person after death, as if we’re to take it for granted that his spirit should gravitate to a white boy he’s met once, rather than, say, go and check up on what remains of his family.

And then John is killed (by Little Hawk’s friends and kinsmen, oh tragic irony) and Little Hawk is stranded, attached to the earth by his tomahawk, forced to watch as things get increasingly bloody and he wants to be released. And then there’s that passage I quote at the beginning of this piece. And … no. “they share that freedom with others, in the new nation to which they too belong”, this to me is an offensively glib elision of the disparities in that “freedom”. I’m not sure how one goes from the bloody history portrayed here to a present filled with forgetting and systemic racism and sports teams called the redskins and comes out with the message that this land belongs to everyone now, hurrah!, but here we are. 

We move on to an epilogue, in which Little Hawk’s salt marsh island is now the home of a woman named Rachel who only plants “native” plants and trees in her garden, but has brought a decidedly non-native dog named Pan to live here. Rachel’s gardening causes the head of Hawk’s buried tomahawk to be uncovered, and she can see him. And this is where things get uncomfortably personal because in her author’s note Cooper states that seven years ago she built a house on Little Hawk’s island. I’m forced at this point to read Rachel (“a wise woman, even though she is not old”) as an authorial insertion.

She says, “I’m trying to take care of this piece of land, Little Hawk. I’ll do my best.”

Something about the tilt of her head reminds me of Suncatcher again.

I say suddenly, “Are you Wampanoag?”

She shrugs. She says, “There are all kinds of tribes in me, most of them from across the ocean. And I don’t belong to any of them. If human beings weren’t so big on belonging to groups, I don’t believe they’d fight wars.”

It’s Rachel, the nice, wise, English lady, who manages to devise a completely made up ritual that will release Hawk from the land; who suggests, groundbreakingly, that if people didn’t have any sort of group affinity they wouldn’t kill each other so much; who swoops in and fixes things. I said at the beginning of this piece that I read Ghost Hawk as trying to tease out the difficult question of belonging to a place and also acknowledging the horrors that led to one’s own belonging there; that Cooper is speaking of her own home and its history I think bears this reading out. Which is all well and good except that Ghost Hawk flattens this as it flattens so much else; the discomfort with which this question begins is jettisoned in favour of these glib answers, and the whole, bloody history of the land is turned into reassurance that yes, people like Rachel can call it home as well.

June 19, 2014

Michel Faber, Under the Skin

At some point (which is beginning to feel like “never”) I feel I should sit down and write a proper-sized thing on the Glazer movie and my many issues with it, though I liked some things about it very much. Reading the book made some of those issues stand out in sharper relief; but one, the movie’s androcentricity, I find myself more lenient towards.

Basically, this week’s column is me complaining that no one is writing the impossible, unwriteable alien stories I want, with properly alien aliens.

 

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Reading Michel Faber’s Under the Skin recently, I realised how rarely I read a book after watching its adaptation to screen. I’m not sure if this is a hangover from my teenage conviction that the book would always be better; if I am interested in something I tend to read the book first or not at all. But Jonathan Glazer’s recent adaptation of Faber’s novel, starring Scarlett Johansson as its mysterious main character left me both intrigued and disappointed; because it was beautifully made and speculative, but also in many ways so tame.

In both book and film a young woman drives around Scotland picking up hitchhikers whom she proceeds to evaluate by criteria that may take us a while to work out. She then either drops them off safely, or takes them home (drugged in the book, though not in the film). It soon becomes clear that the young woman is not from this planet at all. Faber’s novel makes explicit that the men she kidnaps are being processed and sent to her home planet for food.

Both book and movie, then, have a non-human protagonist looking upon a human world, but what they do with her is very different. In the film Johansson’s character remains an enigma, never even named. Glazer’s alterations to the plot shift the action to cities and we’re given far more chance to watch human interactions from the outside, as it were. Yet, for all the invocation of the alien gaze, the film treats its humans as human, vulnerable (particularly its naked men) and familiar. It even gestures towards a narrative arc in which the alien observer is gradually humanised, or wants to be. It’s a deeply androcentric film.

This may be less true of Faber’s book. Our access to Isserley’s perspective (and her name!) gives us a connection to a completely alien world, fragments of class, economic and gender politics that hint at an entire existence to which our own species is largely unimportant. The word “human” is often used, but it’s very quickly made clear that Isserley is referring to her own kind, not ours. She is wholly matter-of-fact about the place of the creatures she calls vodsels; they (we) are a resource and her professional responsibility, but no more. Unlike sheep (Isserley’s people are furry quadrupeds who I imagine to resemble llamas), they don’t even look human.

The thing about vodsels was, people who knew nothing whatsoever about them were apt to misunderstand them terribly. There was always the tendency to anthropomorphize. A vodsel might do something which resembled a human action; it might make a sound analogous to human distress, or make a gesture analogous with human supplication, and that made the ignorant observer jump to conclusions.

Isserley knows that we turn things into people by recognising that they are like ourselves; at one point in the book she lies to a visitor from her own land, telling him that the shapes scratched out by the captive vodsels (they form the word “mercy”) are meaningless—to recognise that they too have a language would confer personhood upon them and jeopardise the whole enterprise.

And I wonder if this notion, that we cannot speak of aliens or grant them subjectivity without humanising them is at the heart of this book as well. Above, I praise Faber’s book for giving us an alien character whose life does not revolve around the human; but the conditions of Isserley’s own culture very deliberately echo those of our own. Under The Skin is too sophisticated a novel to be merely a satire on the economics of food production, but that aspect is there. In this sense, Glazer’s rendering of Isserley as a nameless, unreadable creature may come closer to the sort of truly alien (and perhaps alienating) narrative I crave.  I don’t know if such a narrative is even possible, and yet I wish someone would attempt it.

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June 16, 2014

Rebecca Stead, Liar & Spy

 

The fifth in this series of posts about the Carnegie shortlist. At the time of writing I’ve read all but one of the books on the list and I have a very clear favourite. This is it.

Georges (the “s” because his parents really like Georges Seurat) is twelve. His family have had to move into a smaller apartment since his father lost his job; his mother, a nurse, is always at the hospital; the weird boy upstairs has involved him in a plot to thwart a possible murderer; he’s being bullied at school. It’s not the best of times. Worst of all, looming in the immediate future is the Science Unit of Destiny’s taste test, which will probably prove to the world that Georges is a freak.

One of the many things I like about Liar & Spy is how seriously it takes its concerns. In the context of the rest of the Carnegie list, those concerns may seem quite trivial, but even within this book there’s a constant tension between the big and small pictures (Stead’s use of pointillism is not exactly subtle) and it, and we, come down on the side of small things mattering very much in context. The book treats events as seriously as they loom in Georges’ perspective, and it’s a form of respect for child readers and child characters that I admire very much.

Late in the book Safer, the boy upstairs and Georges’ spy club companion, blurts out that he knows Georges’ secret and has known all along. Georges, understandably, does not take this well. Soon after, Safer starts again, beginning by sharing his own secret. It’s one of several moments in the book where you see young people figuring out how it is that one relates to others, which barriers we maintain and which ones we breach, how trust and vulnerability are reciprocal. This whole business of human interaction.

And I speak of secrets because naturally (with a title like that!) Georges has them. As an older reader I’m trained to notice omissions; both Georges’ and Safer’s accounts of themselves have important holes in them. The only surprise for me was in how not-heartbreaking the big reveal was (I spent much of the book concerned that the absent mother was really dead, and was pleasantly surprised to find out that she wasn’t). This isn’t meant for a criticism of the book, and I have no way of knowing how a less suspicious reader might encounter this twist. But being aware of what was left out was a large part of my appreciation for the book’s structure, and that appreciation increased when all was revealed at the end. Everything fits together so well, and the whole thing really rewards time spent dwelling on it.

It’s still less complex than Stead’s previous novel, When You Reach Me, which also feels slightly older (though the characters are about the same age, from what I remember of it). But they’re both set in apartment buildings in a New York that is full of summer evenings and personal relationships with neighbours and shopkeepers and there’s such a strong sense of place (apparently the author is drawing a lot on her own childhood homes) that it’s tempting to see them both as existing in the same universe.

Liar & Spy is skilful and kind and deadpan funny and just so good. I don’t know if it has a chance at winning the award, with a shortlist so filled with big, impressive names (if not impressive books) but it clearly should.

June 14, 2014

Karen Joy Fowler, “The Science of Herself” (and Tracy Chevalier, Remarkable Creatures)

I did say I’d be writing more about Fowler. From the past weekend’s column.

 

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Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures begins with a superhero origin story. A baby is in a field with a crowd of people watching a performance. A storm blows up, and one woman picks up the baby and shelters under a tree. The tree is struck by lightning, and lightning runs through the child’s body—and the body of the woman holding her, who is killed along with others standing nearby. The child survives, but from that day is marked out as different. The child has powers that no one around can understand.

The child is Mary Anning, self-taught palaeontologist and fossil-collector and remarkable creature herself. Her superpowers (somewhat less spectacular than invisibility or unnatural strength but no less world-shattering) were finding fossils, understanding fossils, and making a huge contribution to the nineteenth century’s overturning of what was known about the world, while being lower-class, not very educated, and female.

I read Chevalier’s book about Anning shortly after another writer’s depiction of her—Karen Joy Fowler’s short story “The Science of Herself” which I found, coincidentally, a few days after Anning’s 215th birth anniversary. One of the (many) things I love about Fowler’s writing is her constant questioning of how a story is being told even as she tells it. It’s a question that comes up frequently even in this short piece; what are the ways in which we create a narrative of Mary Anning’s life? It’s this question that makes Fowler’s story work so well in conjunction with other accounts of that life, such as Chevalier’s. What choices have been made, we’re forced to ask, what forms do we try to fit this story into?

“Austen would have seen the possibilities”, Fowler says, as Mary meets the geologist Henry de le Beche for the first time when both are in their teens. “[T]he older boy, in disgrace, but with the confidence of wealth, education, and good looks. Then Mary, who should have been quiet and deferential in his company, but was not.” We know this story. It isn’t Mary Anning’s.

Austen and Anning have an unlikely connection. Austen visited Lyme Regis, Mary’s town, more than once, and in 1803 called in Mary’s father to fix a cabinet. She thought the price he quoted too high and refused it, and wrote about it in her diary and that was that. Fowler imagines a teenaged Mary selling ammonites on the beach in 1814, the year in which the characters in Persuasion visit Lyme Regis, three years after Mary and Joseph Anning unearthed the first ichthyosaur, unnoticed by Anne Elliot. Unnoticed by Austen too, but it’s hard to see what Austen would have done with her.

Among the other narrators of Anning’s life whom Fowler quotes is the teenaged Anna Maria Pinney. “Had she lived in an age of chivalry she might have been a heroine with fearless courage, ardour, and peerless truth and honour.” But Pinney was sixteen, and she relates a story of Mary’s own teenage years, and “[t]he romance may well have doubled in the double adolescent telling of it.”

Chevalier splits her story into two voices; Mary’s own and that of her mentor of sorts, Elizabeth Philpot. Mary speaks in an odd mix of registers, presumably to indicate her incongruous position; Elizabeth provides the (excessive) period detail. There is a definite narrative arc.

Fowler, on the other hand, resists trying to capture Mary’s voice or story, and when she does, she immediately undermines herself. On noting that Mary was “a complete romantic” and had a Byron poem copied into her commonplace book, she suggests that the lines she’s quoted as significant might not have been the ones that mattered to Mary. She acknowledges the temptation to give her a secret sorrow (“The world dislikes a story in which a woman is merely accomplished, brave, and consequential”).

So what can an author do with another person’s life, particularly such an extraordinary one? Struggle, perhaps and remind herself constantly that people’s lives don’t fit neatly into narrative tropes. Turn it into a famous tongue-twister (she sells sea shells etc). Tell the truth slantwise; read Anning’s monsters into Verne’s science fiction, as Fowler does. Or write superhero stories.

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June 13, 2014

Katherine Rundell, Rooftoppers

The fourth in this series of posts about this year’s Carnegie shortlist.

I’ve ranted spoken elsewhere about the irritating persistence of the idea that literature (and film, and art in general) must be grim to speak of important things. And that good children’s literature must be about important Issues. This shortlist is quite heavy on both grimness and issues. Rundell’s Rooftoppers, though, is pure froth, and comes as a welcome diversion from some of the rest.

Set in an alternate-Victorian timeline (in that it didn’t feel particularly faithful to history but did feel quite faithful in tone to, eg., Joan Aiken), it is the story of Sophie, shipwrecked as a child and found floating in a cello case by Charles, an eccentric bachelor. Sophie grows up (despite Charles sometimes clothing, and only occasionally feeding her) believing that she remembers her mother and that said mother might still be alive. So when Miss Eliot, who works for the government and finds Charles’ parenting methods as dubious as I do, has him declared unfit to raise a child, Charles and Sophie escape to Paris to look for Sophie’s mother. In Paris Sophie meets the sky-treaders, orphans who have escaped the state system to live on the city’s rooftops.

There’s something very classic children’s book about all of this. I’ve mentioned Aiken already, there’s also a healthy dose of Streatfeild, possibly some E. Nesbit. Which isn’t to call Rooftoppers derivative of those books, merely to place it in that tradition. It is a little too familiar at times, though; the whimsy of Charles, the fact that state oppression manifests itself in trying to keep Sophie in skirts rather than trousers.

I’ve seen reviews comparing Rooftoppers to a Disney movie and it’s easy to see it working as an animated film. It’s warm and whimsical and visually has so much potential—there’s a scene about halfway through in which Sophie and her friend Matteo are standing on a tightrope high above the street and calling to and befriending birds, and it’s magical.

There are minor annoyances; structure, which should be a major annoyance. A lot of plot threads are picked up and dropped; the possibility that the shipwreck at the beginning of the book was a deliberate one, the history of the sky-treaders and gariers, the suggestion that Sophie’s mother might have been a sky-treader herself at one time, the larger question of how this whole system works (this is my inner SF fan talking, I suspect). Obviously no one’s suggesting that everything in a book needs to be explained, but there’s a difference between the sort of invoking-and-leaving that fleshes out a world by making it big and unquantifiable and full of stories and the sort that suggests that something has been invented only to service the plot and let’s not talk about it again, and I’m not sure Rundell’s always on the right side of this. I was enjoying myself too much to care most of the time, but I refuse to be entirely charmed into uncriticalness.

I find myself wishing I’d read this alongside Anne Fine’s Blood Family, another book that concerns itself with the workings of child services (in Fine’s book a much more noble profession) and attitudes towards biological relations to whom one bears a physical resemblance, in ways that make for a hilarious contrast with Rooftoppers. (As an aside: Sophie’s hair, and that of her mother, are frequently described as “the colour of lightning”, which makes it very tempting to believe they have blue rinses.)

I described Rooftoppers above as “froth”. And as froth it is very welcome, but I do feel that the Carnegie ought to be reserved for something more substantial. As happy as this made me, I don’t think it made a lasting impression and don’t think I’ll be backing it to win—but I hope that movie happens.

June 12, 2014

Anne Fine, Blood Family

The third of a series of posts about the books on the Carnegie Award shortlist.

 

Eddie is a very young child, the son of a mother whose abusive partner has left her entirely unable to care for herself. They are rescued by social workers called in by a concerned neighbour, and Eddie is placed with foster parents, then adopted. Thanks in part to a pile of video recordings of an old television show he is better adjusted than anyone expects, and is able for some years to live a relatively normal, happy life. Then, in his teens, he recognises the face of his mother’s abuser in his own, realises that this was his biological father, and falls apart.

Blood Family is told through multiple perspectives, of both minor and major characters. Eddie himself, his family, the couple who fostered him; a wide supporting cast of social workers, teachers, psychiatrists. Only his parents are silent, in both cases for obvious reasons. This piecing together of multiple perspectives amounts to almost a lesson in how society functions, how different people in different circumstances fit together.

It all feels (speaking as a relative outsider to the British system) very thoroughly researched. A thing I like very much is how sharply observed it can be. Young Eddie’s early years in school, where he protects himself by copying what the other children are doing rather than make himself vulnerable by showing himself a stranger. Later in life, his discomfort with being around his mother for a long period, and his inability to communicate with her. The social workers who work out at what point he was taken out of school as a small child by determining whether he remembers pedalling toy cars or pushing them along with his feet. These are all small things that feel real. And I like the imperfection of Eddie’s adopted mother Natasha, and the quiet support of his sister Alice. I like that trauma iis both something you can get past and live normally and happily, and something that can rise to the surface at any moment and overwhelm you.

Looking at various reviews of the novel I see that many of them claim that it is tackling the nature/ nurture debate– and obviously this is signalled in the title and in the particular form that Eddie’s crisis takes. But I don’t think it is, particularly (and that’s fine because surely we’ve all reached the point where everyone is willing to admit that the answer is neither-both-it’s-complicated). I do think Blood Family is working around ideas of how we deal with our pasts and how far we can control our relationship with it, and I think it treats these questions in a nuanced, respectful way. Though the story of how we go through lives affected at different times by our prior selves is not one with a strong narrative arc.

Perhaps this is why I find myself not caring very much. Or perhaps it’s the format, with its breadth of perspectives that never has us spend much time with anyone (except Eddie, but even for him I was rarely more than lukewarm), or simply the fact of reading in the context of an award. I admire many things about Blood Family, and even (for what that’s worth) approve of its politics on the whole, but emotionally and intellectually I all but bounced off it. It’s good, and while I don’t think it’s the best book on the shortlist I wouldn’t be upset if it won. But it’s not a book I’ll be going back to.

June 10, 2014

Diana Wynne Jones, The Islands of Chaldea

Posted at Global Comment a few weeks ago.

 

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Three Diana Wynne Jones books have been published since the author’s death in 2011, and I have bought each and mourned a little anew. There’s something particularly final, though, about The Islands of Chaldea, the author’s unfinished last book which has now been completed by her younger sister.

The titular Islands of Chaldea number four, all suspiciously reminiscent of the countries and topography and national clichés that make up the British Isles (the Wales equivalent is also a bit Mediterranean, presumably because Britain doesn’t offer enough diversity). Years before this story opens, the inhabitants of the island of Logra kidnapped the prince of all the islands and erected a magical wall between their own island and the others, with unfortunate trade and climate effects. Years of attempts to break the barrier have failed, until a prophecy that a Wise Woman of Skarr, travelling with a man from each of the islands, will be the one to bring it down. Aileen, our narrator and protagonist, travels through the islands with her aunt Beck (who doesnotlike being called a witch) a prince of Skarr, a priest from Bernica, and an awkward young Logran who was abandoned on the island of Skarr when the wall came up. Also on the journey are a disappearing cat and a wise parrot; and Moe the donkey, who doesn’t appear to have any supernatural powers.

In most ways, this is a classic quest novel. A band of companions, subjects of prophecy, travel through often-hostile terrain and face great danger, meet new companions on the way, eventually save the world. One of the best things about Diana Wynne Jones, though, has always been the use she makes of the reader’s knowledge of the genre. It’s more in evidence in her books for older readers but even here it works to transform what is often a generic plot to something that feels fresh. This is in large part due to Aileen’s voice, which treats the sublime and the ridiculous with the same matter-of-fact resignation. “Porridge is my Aunt Beck’s answer to everything,” she begins her story, and as ever it’s the simplest lines that are the most effective. “The next day, when we stopped for lunch, we were mobbed by donkeys”.

Aileen’s own romance is treated with the same prosaic quality. We know from the beginning that the young man she has set her sights on (“Although he doesn’t know it yet, I have chosen him to be my husband when the time comes and, until then, I feel free to admire him greatly in secret.”) is unworthy, and we are aware throughout of his deviation from the pattern of romantic hero.

It’s classically Diana Wynne Jones in other ways as well. Family is a source of both strength and pain in Jones’ books; family members are often genuinely villainous, sometimes (merely!) cruelly neglectful, and their failures to look after our child protagonists are treated as a matter of course. The Islands of Chaldea signals at least one of its villainous relatives disappointingly clearly, and it’s tempting to think that had Jones been able to complete her book she would have tempered things with less figurative moustache-twirling. Yet we’re also presented, in passing, with the grandmother who raised Aileen’s mother and aunt and forbade them dancing and music; with Aileen’s own mother, whose romantic tastes are both suspect and inconvenient for her child, and who is never reproached by the book or its characters for being a grown woman with priorities of her own.

And family, and community, and friendship, can provide strength and succour as well; the long line of Wise (and irascible, though that’s not in the title) Women of which Aileen is the youngest, generations of knowledge and tradition behind her. The Queen of the fairy-folk who instantly recognises Aileen for what she is, suggesting a world full of strong women who know and respect each other, even if that respect does not necessarily translate into liking. On her father’s side of the family Aileen finds a whole community of cousins and extended family. Aileen’s own quest is at least partly for her father, and if her feelings for him are rarely expressed, we’re never in any doubt that they’re there. And there’s the Lone Cat, which can turn invisible at will and is both powerful and comically ugly—it attaches itself to the party, and frequently we see Aileen reaching out to it for comfort that is given.

It’s tempting to treat this book as a sort of puzzle, and to try and work out which parts of it are Ursula and which Diana. In her afterword, Ursula Jones explains that her sister did not leave notes or discuss her work in progress, and that she tended to write stories in a linear fashion; the implication is that there is a single moment in the narrative before which everything is Diana’s and after which everything is Ursula trying to channel Diana. She also claims that no one has yet been able to spot the exact moment unprompted. It almost reads like a challenge, and if it is it’s a brave one to throw out to fans of her sister’s work. My own instinct is to attribute everything I like about the book to Diana Wynne Jones, turn a great author into an infallible one. It’s probably untrue and unfair to her sister. Yet to me the later sections of the book are among its weakest. Somewhere in the island of Bernica things begin to get a little slack, and the Logra sequences are oddly paced. Things fall into place in ways that are more predictable than one might like, and everyone is happy and important and of sufficiently noble birth.

But then we come to the final paragraphs of the story, which must be Ursula Jones’ work. We are introduced to an older Aileen, looking back at past events and pondering the changes which they brought. The book ends with an image of the adult Aileen occasionally sailing to visit the Lone Cat on his island. “I hear his cry from above me, and the Lone Cat, the ugliest cat I ever beheld, bounds gladly from pillar to pillar towards me. We stay a while with each other, then part.” It’s not entirely structurally sound—this older, wiser narrator has never been hinted at earlier in the book—but she knows as we do that things can’t always stay the same, that sometimes there are unavoidable reasons to be separated from the people we love, that life goes on.

Ursula Jones’ afterword to the book is beautiful, reminiscing about bedtime stories that were made up in parts, night by night, and read out up to the point where a young Diana had stopped writing. “It always duly turned up the next night, which is where the present day diverged so unhappily from our childhood past. This time, the next section couldn’t turn up. Her book had ended without an ending.” It’s rather a horrifying image, the unfinished story like an open wound.

When I heard of Diana Wynne Jones’ death in 2011 I immediately reached for one of her knottiest books, the flawed and brilliant Fire and Hemlock, and stayed up all night to read it in tribute. There’s nothing particularly knotty (or particularly brilliant) about The Islands of Chaldea. But whether it emanates from the author, her sister, or is something I’ve brought to the book myself, the whole thing seems to me to be infused with love and generosity. It begins with porridge and ends with bittersweet parting, and if it’s not the best thing either of its authors has written it is exactly what I needed it to be.

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