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.



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.


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.



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.


June 8, 2014

Kevin Brooks, The Bunker Diary

The second of a series of posts about this year’s Carnegie Award shortlist. As with all the books on this list, there are probably (definitely) spoilers ahead.


My copy of Kevin Brooks’ The Bunker Diary has a quote from the book as part of its cover. “I thought he was blind—that’s how he got me”. It seems to promise the existence of a definite “he”, the villain of this particular piece. If so, it is not a promise the book is going to keep.

Linus is captured while trying to do a good deed, and taken to an underground bunker accessed only by an elevator that he cannot operate. There are six bedrooms and six empty notebooks (one of which becomes his diary, i.e. the book you’re reading), and as time passes five new captives join him. They are being observed constantly; they have to try to get along; occasionally they try to escape. Food sometimes arrives via the elevator and sometimes doesn’t, and sometimes they are punished or knocked unconscious by sleep gas for unknown reasons. Once a rabid Doberman comes down the lift and tries to kill them. We don’t know who the overseer of all of this is, unless it’s us—Linus’ diary is often addressed to a “you” that conflates his capture and his reader.

The diary format drives the plot forward in short, dated segments—Linus clings to control by trying to keep track of time before realising that this is hopeless—and its sense of a series of awful things coming one after the next. But, as one of the people with whom I read it complained, Linus isn’t young enough for his words to be linguistically interesting (as it would be if told in the voice of the much younger Jenny), and his teenage perspective only serves to absolve the book of certain biases. Linus is unfailingly good, Jenny is unfailingly kind. The attractive, career-driven Anja is selfish and shallow, Bird, who is fat*, is weak and horrible and the first to crack under the strain of their ordeal. However.

The Bunker Diary could be a comment on the relationship between reader and text (I’ll return to this), or a comment on reality TV, or on religion, or the fundamental unknowability of life (we’re here, we don’t know why things happen, who is in control, why a Doberman is trying to kill us). Brooks seems to be trying hard not to commit to any of these readings. This makes a resolution hard to come by; in rejecting all the potential solutions on offer, Brooks leaves himself very little room to do anything. And so Linus doesn’t find out why he’s here, he doesn’t save himself or Jenny; at the point where his diary ends it seems clear that he is doomed. There is no moment at which it all makes sense. That quote on the cover is either a red herring or just very badly chosen.

I think this might be quite important. There’s no shortage of narratives where a character is shut in an enclosed space, of course. But I think there’s something else that Brooks is doing here.

There’s a set of relations between reader and character, author and character, plot and character that we often take for granted because we’ve been telling stories for centuries and we’re used to them now. There is, for example, a sort of hierarchy of character disposability that comes into play with stories about death and destruction—protagonists rarely die because then the story would end midway with no resolution, but other characters must die so that we know the danger of death to be real. The Bunker Diary refuses this. If one character has to die, they all must; there can be no last-minute rescue for a favoured few. On this level at least, it is brutally democratic. Because we see Linus’ perspective, we see him more than once wondering what it is about him, as an individual, that may have led to his selection for this ordeal. The answer might be nothing at all.

Brooks explains on the Carnegie website that he refused to think about the who/why of the situation for fear that this would influence the way he wrote it. Even at the most basic level, then, the book resists the consolations of plot or closure. We are presented with an author who refuses to impose meaning or structure upon the events he depicts**. This makes The Bunker Diary pretty much the opposite of a novel, but at least it is committed to what it’s doing.



*The way in which Linus breaks down their characters is revealing. “We’re all something. I’m smart. Fred’s strong. Jenny’s kind. Anja’s beautiful. Bird’s … fat.”

**Penguin in their infinite wisdom have chosen to put the publisher’s logo at the beginning of each chapter of the kindle edition. This imposes a far more alarming possible narrative upon the story.

June 4, 2014

May Reading

A certain amount of reading seems to have got itself done this month, I don’t know how. Not enough (never enough!), but then it has been a busy time.  


Evelyn Smith, Seven Sisters At Queen Anne’s: You know how in a lot of classic school stories the new girl travels to the school and is different and has to learn the ways of the school and it all ends well? Here, the new girl doesn’t change much, and nor does the school, and everyone still manages to quite like and respect one another. And it’s smart and funny and I would like to read more Evelyn Smith please.


Jenny Offill, Dept. of Speculation: Gorgeous, and likely to be one of the best things I read this year. Column here.


Nnedi Okorafor, Lagoon: I ended up really liking this despite (because of?) its messiness. Column here.


Sarra Manning, The Worst Girlfriend in the World: My track record with Manning is that she either leaves me a feels-y mess (You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me) or leaves me entirely unmoved (Adorkable). This book did neither of those; it did make me happy because it’s a book about female friendship where love interests are either entirely secondary or entirely ridiculous.


Sophia McDougall, Mars Evacuees: I’ve been reading a lot of children’s books about Issues this month—lots of death and war and trauma. Mars Evacuees is also set during a war and it never forgets that, or neglects to take seriously the fact that people are at risk of death—and one of the ways in which it treats these issues more seriously than a lot of the other things I’ve been reading is that it sees actual people caught up in them. And yet it’s also funny and warm and warming. It’s not perfect, but it is very, very good and made me very happy.


Kathryn Allan (ed), Disability in Science Fiction: I have a review of this up at Strange Horizons, here.


Sara Levine, Treasure Island!!!: Last week’s column, here.


Rachel Campbell-Johnston, The Child’s Elephant: I’m part of a Carnegie shadowing group (the award winner is announced later this month) and so read this for that. I was not impressed.


Karen Joy Fowler, The Science of Herself: PM Press have put out an e-chapbook containing “The Science of Herself” (a story about Mary Anning), “The Pelican Bar” (which I’d already read) along with another short story, an essay titled “The Motherhood Statement” and an interview. I was between Carnegie books and thought I’d read the first story, and naturally sat and read the whole book instead, including the story I’d already read. I hadn’t known, or had forgotten, that the title story was about Mary Anning—this was a day or so after the google doodle in her honour. This was an even better tribute, and I should have something longer on it soon.


Kevin Brooks, The Bunker Diary: Another of the Carnegie shortlisted books. I’ll be writing about this at greater length soon; I’m not sure it works, but I am sure that I respect it.


Anne Fine, Blood Family: Also on the Carnegie list, and will also be written about soon. I was not exactly blown away.


Katherine Rundell, Rooftoppers: Another Carnegie book. Treads a precarious line between charming and twee and sometimes slips, but is also sometimes great. I don’t know if it’s the SF fan in me that demands more worldbuilding, better fleshing out of this particular iteration of oppressive state and secret lives of vagabonds, but its lack of substance did annoy me at times. On the other hand, it would make the most wonderful Disney movie.

June 3, 2014

Sofia Samatar, “Ogres of East Africa”

Over the next few months (I anticipate that it will take at least that long) I’m planning to do a series of individual responses on this blog to the stories in the Rose Fox and Daniel José Older edited anthology Long Hidden. I’ve been wanting to do this for a while now; I don’t read enough short fiction, and reviewing an entire anthology as a whole doesn’t allow for much attention to be paid to the workings of individual stories. Long Hidden looks great and features a number of writers I really like (some more about the collection here) and so here we are.

We begin with a Sofia Samatar story, which is great because about half of what I’ve read that has meant anything in the last year has been by Samatar.


Something I’ve had to keep coming back to lately (partly for work reasons) are the ways in which the enlightenment model of understanding the world and its contributions to the imperial project map (hah) onto so much genre fantasy, with its maps and exhaustive anthropologies and entirely knowable secondary worlds.

“Ogres of East Africa” features such a project. Alibhai’s employer (he is never named) is creating an index of ogres—for the purpose of hunting them, we’re told, though merely knowing them would be dangerous enough. Alibhai collects names and stories of ogres from a woman named Mary and records them in alphabetical order; then, in writing that the employer cannot read, fills the margins with additional information as well as his own reflections.

Samatar uses square brackets to differentiate these marginalia from what the employer would consider the real text of the book, and I’ve been thinking recently about what brackets do and how one might use them (here is a storify of other people’s thoughts). The bracket as a space for the “and meanwhile” as Cole puts it there, or as hijacked space, or experimental space. At least two of those are things that Alibhai’s marginalia are doing here, in the plainest, literalising-a-metaphor-est sense. But as for the third—I know that I also use parentheses specifically to destabilise. This is not official, this is a thought I’m trying out but unwilling to grant the status of capital T Truth, I want this to exist but under the radar. I find certainty suspicious, it feels like it belongs to catalogues of ogres. (I feel much envy for people who can affect such a tone though. I struggle with this in my critical and academic writing all the time.) I sit uncomfortably with the un-qualified/ un-annotated/ un-undermined sentence.


The dates, he reminds me, are strictly for the Somalis, who grow sullen in the absence of this treat.

My employer is full of opinions. The Somalis, he tells me, are an excitable nation. “Don’t offend them, Alibhai! Ha, ha!” The Kavirondo, by contrast, are merry and tractable, excellent for manual work. My own people are cowardly, but clever at figures.

There is nothing, he tells me, more odious than a German. However, their women are seductive, and they make the world’s most beautiful music. My employer sings me a German song. He sounds like a buffalo in distress. Afterward, he makes me read to him from the Bible.

He believes I will find this painful: “Heresy, Alibhai! Ha, ha! You’ll have to scrub your mouth out, eh? Extra ablutions?”

Fortunately, God does not share his prejudices.

I read: There were giants in the earth in those days.

I read: For only Og king of Bashan remained of the remnant of giants; behold, his bedstead was a bedstead of iron.]


There’s a growing identification of Alibhai with the ogres he’s cataloguing. Most clearly near the end when the ogre Ntemelua, like Alibhai, has a back that “will never be quite straight”. But also because we know, because we know history, that Alibhai, and Mary, and the Somali cook and the headman and the Kavirondo porters, are the sort of people creatures people who get written about in catalogues that say things like “the Somalis are an excitable nation”.

Alibhai’s notes are a series of “no, actually”s that dismantle piece by piece the employer’s ordering of the world. His Sunni and Shia employees get along well and pray together, his scribe is of subcontinental ancestry but also African, there is information he simply cannot access because of his limited language. The marginalia at this point are crowding out the main text; I imagine this book as looking like those occasional pages in which the footnotes have taken up most of the page and the text is reduced to a couple of lines at the top. Those are the best pages.

It’s tempting for me to read this story as carving out a space for uncertainty as well as the other things it is more obviously doing. We’re not led to believe that ogres are killable with the finality of lions. This is dangerous territory for someone who likes the world to be ordered. What if the employer did “acquire the ear of Dhegdheer” and she still had her ear because that is the shape that she is?

And perhaps most important (and so obvious that it’s almost unnoticeable) is the question of scholarship. Not only is Alibhai doing all the work, but his employer doesn’t even have access to most of what he’s learning/writing. It’s not just that this story centres writing from (literally) the margins; it’s that it has its marginal character have been in the centre all along. There’s a nice metaphor for the book, anyway.


June 2, 2014

Sara Levine, Treasure Island!!!

Besides being incredibly funny, Treasure Island!!! is a useful reminder to myself that readers in books aren’t always people I want to identify with.

It also provided a nice excuse to talk about Antonia Forest (again) and Among Others (again) and the Swallows and Amazons books (again) in last weekend’s column.



Books about books, specifically books about readers, are a weakness of mine. I which I do not mean characters simply who like to read (reading has also often been used as a sort of shorthand to signify that a character is virtuous and introspective) but readers whose lives we see being affected and shaped by particular books. Like Jo Walton’s Among Others, told through Mori’s diary as she works her way through books, teenage feelings, and supernatural peril. Or Antonia Forest’s Nicola Marlow, who frequently hearkens back to the literature she’s read to help her think through real life situations. Or, further back, the children of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons books, who filter the real world landscape of their summer holidays through a tradition of adventure novels that allows them to sail the high seas, fight pirates and find hidden treasure without ever really having to go too far from home.

R.L. Stevenson’s Treasure Island is an important book to Ransome’s characters, and informs much of their understanding of adventure. And since most readers of books are (hopefully) people who like reading books, it makes sense to us that these characters should see books as important, even talismanic, and that that can be a good thing.

It can also go horribly, hilariously wrong.

The narrator of Sara Levine’s Treasure Island!!! Is a young woman in her mid-twenties, with no particular talents or ambitions. Drifting from dull job to dull job, she chances across her sister’s library copy of Treasure Island. Where her sister rejects the book for its lack of interiority and the absence of female characters, the narrator falls in love with it, identifying as its core values “BOLDNESS/ RESOLUTION/ INDEPENDENCE/ HORN-BLOWING” and taking these for her own motto.

In another book, this would be the cue for a (potentially cringeworthy) journey of self-discovery. In this one, it is the cue for buying a parrot.

‘In Treasure Island, Long John Silver’s Parrot shouts, “Pieces of eight! Pieces of eight!” Mine would shout, “Be bold, but be kind, be yourself but be plucky, be flexible and yet tenacious,” assuming a parrot could be trained to say such a long and syntactically complex thing. If not, I would accept “Steer the boat, girlfriend!”’

If bookish readers tend to identify with, and ascribe virtue to, bookish characters, Levine’s narrator renders that impossible. She has no interest in making this woman likeable or relatable—traits often dumped upon female authors and characters as an unasked-for duty. The narrator is monstrous, and far from becoming aware over the course of the book, she becomes more and more detached from the reality of her own awfulness. Over the course of the book we see her indulge in negligence that causes several deaths, theft, stalking, murder. Her lack of remorse, and seeming inability to see that any of this is unacceptable, would be chilling were it not so funny.

And it is truly hilarious. As her own life and the lives of those people who (for some reason) love her fall apart around her, our narrator continues to find ways to believe in her own blamelessness. Some of them are almost convincing. I said above that it was hard to relate to this woman, yet that’s not always true. Her worst traits are exaggerated but some are terrifyingly familiar. If the reader is an irresponsible twenty-something year-old this can be a little unsettling.

Treasure Island is seen as a “boy” book; it’s a plot-heavy adventure novel with pirates, and it is certainly lacking in deep philosophical statements. But at one point in Treasure Island!!! its heroine almost evolves a system of governing her life by the book. It seems entirely random, and also quite capable of working (for a different, less monstrous, heroine). It’s a useful reminder that perhaps books are not imbued with the magical moral force with which we sometimes credit them.



June 1, 2014

Rachel Campbell-Johnston, The Child’s Elephant

As some readers of this blog know, I’m currently working towards a PhD and am part of an English department that really likes its children’s literature. Some of us have been shadowing the Carnegie award shortlist for this year, and in a moment of poor judgement I decided to write about all of the books on the shortlist for this blog as well as for our official one (to which I will link when we have more on it). The winner will be announced on the 23rd of June, and I’m hoping to have written about all of the books by then. First, Rachel Campbell-Johnston’s The Child’s Elephant.

[There may be spoilers]


I may as well expose my personal biases at the outset: I came to The Child’s Elephant already wary. Because it was part of a Carnegie shortlist whose primary theme appeared to be Bad Things Happening; because it had an animal in the title and faithful animal companions in literature sometimes die; because it was a novel set in Africa by a non-African writer, and I’ve read far too many of those that are a mess of offensive clichés.

In Rachel Campbell-Johnston’s defence, the elephant does not die.

Bat, the protagonist (named after the flying rodent by “the white people with sky-coloured eyes”), and his friend Amuka find an orphaned baby elephant and bring her home to raise. Everyone in the village thinks this is a great idea (apparently their people have a historic affinity with elephants) and Meya is allowed to rampage around being cute and occasionally saving the village from snakes. Eventually she grows up and has to be taken back to the herd.

There’s probably something to be said about Campbell-Johnston’s decision to base her title on Rudyard Kipling, and the implications of this, but I refuse to say it.

Weak writing about Africa (the events of the plot suggest that this is Uganda, but the country’s name is mentioned nowhere in the text) often rests on one of two extremes. There’s Africa as wild, magical place full of innocent, happy villagers and wild animals, and then there’s Africa as home of awful news stories about war and starvation. The Child’s Elephant achieves both of these at various points. Soon after Meya has left the village, Bat and Muka are kidnapped … by Joseph Kony’s army. The “about the author” section explains that Campbell-Johnston learned about Kony as a leader writer for The Times—I only hope it wasn’t in 2012. At least the “about the author” section informs us that she has visited Uganda.

The children’s time in the Lord’s Resistance Army forms a relatively small portion of the book itself, which is in some ways a relief, and in others deeply unsatisfying. It’s closely observed and horrifying, if in a very news-report-y way, and then it ends and we’re allowed to move on. And perhaps it’s ridiculous to ask for more awfulness in a book that already contains plenty of violence and trauma, but I do think that if a book is going to invoke something painful it needs to give it its full weight. I’m not sure The Child’s Elephant does.

The main characters are given a sort of constructed naiveté that continues well into their maturity—between the ages of 7 and 15 or so Bat doesn’t seem to have aged at all, despite becoming the primary earner for his household, raising an animal to maturity, and having spent some time captive in the army. Amuka lives walking-distance from the town where there are electronics shops, yet is utterly baffled by the existence of television even after several visits. Puberty doesn’t seem to happen to anyone (except a sexually-threatening villain) until the book’s epilogue tells us that the main characters have married and had a child. What interiority Bat might have is always deferred—more than once we are told that he is overwhelmed by emotions that he can’t articulate, though not why the author, writing from his perspective, can’t articulate them either. All this makes for a set of flat stock characters; feisty, beautiful girl, wise and infinitely patient grandmother, sexually threatening bully, talkative, fat neighbour. The closest we get to character development (and the closest we get to trauma) comes in the form of Bat’s friend Gulu, who carries the weight of his own guilt over the awful things he has been forced to do, and who does not believe (and perhaps he’s right) that he’d be able to live a normal life after these experiences.

After all this, the final section of the book comes as something of a relief. The three children escape with some help from Meya the elephant and begin a long trek back home, starving and dehydrated. It’s almost dreamlike; partly due to the characters’ own lightheadedness, but partly also because some of the events it describes don’t entirely belong to the realm of the real. To me, this is a good thing; many of the novel’s flaws exist in the context of a larger tradition of writing the other, and an extra remove from reality can only be a good thing (though it doesn’t fix things). In any case, I found myself more reconciled to the book here than at any point in the previous pages.

But the best I can find to say about The Child’s Elephant is that it annoyed me less in its final third. It’s tempting to blame (and I do) a wider literary culture when I can find no reviews of the book that raise questions of representation at all—to the point that I almost convinced myself I was overreacting. But I read this book alongside a group of other people with an academic interest in children’s literature and to all of us it was glaring.

I wish I had been overreacting though.