February 4, 2015

January Reading

As I said in my post about my reading in 2014, I’m not counting rereads (unless they’re for writing-about or mark a big shift in how I’ve read them) this year, and I’m interested in seeing what that does for my reading stats.

Unfortunately, by these criteria I read all of two new books in January. I was travelling, attending a funeral, attending a wedding, marking papers, writing half a draft chapter, and crime rereads were all I could manage. I read some Sarah Caudwell, some Edmund Crispin (including the title below, which I hadn’t read before), I started and did not finish Jill Paton Walsh’s Dorothy Sayers continuation (it did not work for me at all) and Jennifer Cruisie’s Faking it; started and plan to finish Perumal Murugan’s One Part Woman.


What I did read:

Edmund Crispin, Beware the Trains: Collection of short stories, feat. Fen or Humbleby. I’d read a couple before, in other places. All quite good, but I don’t find detective fiction satisfying in short story form.

Shandana Minhas, Survival Tips for Lunatics: I read this on Sridala’s recommendation and because there were extinct and fantastical creatures on the cover. Changez and Timmy are camping with their parents, things go horribly wrong and suddenly they’re walking across a Balochistan that is suddenly peopled by velociraptors and literary-critic dragons, and trying to get home. It’s very silly and funny and just thoroughly endearing.


January 11, 2015

Himanjali Sankar, Talking of Muskaan/ Payal Dhar, Slightly Burnt

This was a bit uncomfortable to write, and I’m not even sure how objective I can be (one author’s a friend, both books were edited by friends), but there you go.

(Published column here)


A couple of weeks ago saw the anniversary of December 2013’s Supreme Court decision overturning the Delhi High Court’s ruling that Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code was unconstitutional. It felt like an important occasion, particularly since I was at the time reading two recent YA novels, both of which structured themselves in part around that moment in our recent history.

Himanjali Sankar’s Talking of Muskaan has been heralded as India’s first queer YA novel. The action opens on the day after the Supreme Court ruling, which is also the day after the title character has attempted to kill herself. The narrative then shifts to a few months earlier, and through the voices of three of Muskaan’s teenaged classmates (best friend Aaliya, clever-but-poor Shubhojoy, spoilt, rich Prateek) we piece together the events leading up to this moment.

Komal, the narrator of Payal Dhar’s Slightly Burnt, is another teenager who is shocked to discover that her best friend Sahil is gay. Even as she is absorbing this new information, the news about Section 377 breaks, forcing her to confront the levels of intolerance that still exist around non-normative sexualities among her friends and family.

Komal’s initial reaction to Sahil’s coming out is far from ideal—and perhaps this is realistic. She feels uncomfortable with his sexuality, resentful of his lack of normalcy, betrayed because he is not who she thought he was. So shaken is she that she must go to the school counsellor for advice on how to process things. Dhar doesn’t entirely indulge her in her discomfort—the counsellor gently, and the internet less gently, remind her that Sahil is probably suffering more than she is.

But this doesn’t change the fact that Komal’s discomfort, and the process by which she overcomes it, are the story of Slightly Burnt. Sahil probably is going through a lot, but we don’t see it directly. Sankar’s book too is talking of, about, around but never by, or to, Muskaan.

Dhar and Sankar’s choice of (mostly) heterosexual narrators makes sense in a way, and the references to Article 377 form a part of this. We’re reminded over and over that all non-heteronormative sexualities (it’s to both books’ credit that they do not erase bisexual, transgender, or other queer identities) are the subject of ignorance and prejudice, and that people need to be educated about them or risk causing unimaginable harm to vulnerable people. Komal’s change of heart comes when she reads up on LGBT suicide rates; Aaliya’s comes after her best friend nearly dies. There’s a sense in which the reader too is being educated along with the characters.

Both books, for all that they adopt the idiom of contemporary YA, are very much in the tradition of the teenage “problem novels” of the ‘70s and ‘80s, which brought their protagonists face to face with a social issue, and over the course of their pages educated, unpicked said issue, and generally promoted tolerance. In a country where the sex lives of consenting adults can be criminalized and queer youth must constantly be reminded that they are “unnatural”, education and tolerance can only be a good thing. And yet.

As an (admittedly very lucky) young adult, I didn’t think of my own feelings as a burning social problem. I looked for myself in poetry, in romance, in tensions simmering under the radar; not in novels that explained me and the harmlessness of my tastes to the world. Both of these books assume a heterosexual reader who needs to be educated past her prejudice and reflexive (both books seem to assume that this is inevitable) disgust, not a queer teenager trying to find herself in fiction.

“At some point it has to stop being about you,” says Usha, Komal’s counsellor. Perhaps as long as this law exists that point cannot be reached. For now, queer readers will have to resign ourselves to reading books about, not for us.



January 9, 2015

2014 in books (and stats, and angst, and possibly resolutions)

Firstly, the Strange Horizons reviewers’ picks for 2014 are up here. My section is right at the end, and I recommend books by Ghalib Islam, Kuzhali Manickavel, Jenny Offill and Megan Milks. They’re all brilliant, and the highlights of a year that included some very good things. There are other things I read and loved in 2014 but they weren’t necessarily speculative; most of them I’ve written about in some form or another on this blog.

A quick count through my monthly reading posts suggests that in 2014 I read:

  • 200 books total
  • 140 books by women
  • 40 books by POC*

All of which, particularly the last, are numbers that need unpacking. I don’t feel like I read 200 books this year, and I’m pretty sure that is in large part because most of them were rereads–children’s books for the thesis, and romance novels for downtime. I’m toying with the idea of not counting rereads at all in 2015 unless they mark a huge change in how I read the book in question. Particularly since cutting out my romance novel and school story rereads might also provide a less flattering account of the number of books by women I read in any given year.

But more importantly, I’ve somehow managed to read less books by people of colour in 2014 than I did in 2013, and that is unimpressive. I have a bunch of excuses lined up: I read a couple of awards shortlists, which tend to be pretty white; much of my reading was for my thesis (though the fact that I’ve chosen to study white-men-who-wrote-series-fiction is a pretty poor defense); I read a LOT of Diana Wynne Jones; but still.

So, plans for 2015?

  • Read less. Too often I’m lazy and don’t want to waste effort on something new and go back to something I’ve read a million times before that I can race through. I can’t need this many comfort reads. Genre series fiction (across a range of genres) is a major culprit here.
  • Bow out of SFF. Recent events have made this feel necessary; I’ll still be involved with the community aspects of Strange Horizons, as well as editing some of the reviews (here and here are some great recent book club discussions I’ve participated in), but other than very occasional reviews (I thought about giving this up as well but as all editors whom I owe things know, it wouldn’t really be very different), I don’t see myself being active in the community as a whole. No cons, no reading awards shortlists or arguing about things that clearly are not going to change, significantly less twitter. I’m looking forward to the extra time this is going to give me.
  • I will read the Carnegie shortlist, probably.
  • I committed to doing the South Asian Women Writers Challenge a couple of years ago, and suspect in 2014 I failed it. In 2015 I’m planning not to.
  • Maybe write some thesis, even.


* Disclaimer: given that some books are by multiple authors of various genders and races, some are by authors and illustrators, and people’s race or gender identities are not obvious (“poc” and “women” may not be very useful categories at all and “queer” would probably be impossible), these numbers are of necessity only approximate.

January 7, 2015

December Reading

Late, because I went on holiday without my laptop and consequently did a reasonable amount of reading. I have left out my ritual Christmas eve reading (The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, A Child’s Christmas in Wales, a bit of The Sword in the Stone) because my feelings on these are known. I’ll be doing a round-up post about my year’s reading at some point in the next few days.


Tan Twan Eng, The Garden of Evening Mists: For work, and I really didn’t like it. It’s almost tick the boxes literary fiction: war, memory, nostalgia (thesis: the presence of nostalgia is what makes litfic litfic?), a postcoloniality that doesn’t feel very challenging, and that annoying thing where it keeps telling you what it’s doing. My students also did not like it, but for very different reasons.

Alan Garner, Elidor: Still really powerful. I happened to attend a paper on haunted technology a few days after I read it, also, which made me read the static electricity sections in a completely new light.

Sylvia Townsend Warner, T.H. White: I’ve been planning to read Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk for a while now, and thought a good way to do this would be to also read T.H. White’s The Goshawk and STW’s White biography first. I don’t know whether these are really going to affect Macdonald’s book for me, but this is a good biography of a writer who fascinates and confuses me.

T.H. White, The Goshawk: This made me cry, as it always does.

Leslye Walton, The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender: I came to this after a couple of people who I trust raved about it. It’s a little bit Chocolat-era Harris, a bit Angela Carter, and is odd and lyrical and whimsical and it … did nothing for me. I’m missing something, clearly. Meanwhile, I’m waiting for someone to write the essay on Maleficent’s sheared-off wings and Ava Lavender’s climatic scene.

Karthika Nair and Joelle Jolivet, The Honey Hunter: This is gorgeous. I read the earlier version; it seems in the wake of the Sunderbans oil spill the authors are reworking the book. And that is fascinating in itself.

Janice Pariat, Seahorse: A thing that Pariat succeeds in capturing both here and in her earlier Boats on Land is this sort of hazy, adolescent-ish atmosphere that I find really compelling. I have other thoughts about this book–its use of the DU English syllabus (did Nem only do the third year modernism paper though?), its use of myth, its cast of multiple bisexual characters; I liked it a lot, in short.

Niveditha Subramaniam and Sowmya Rajendran, Mayil Will Not Be Quiet: I suspect other people have spoken about this book in great detail, and I haven’t got much to add, but it is SO good.

Niveditha Subramaniam and Sowmya Rajendran, Nirmala and Normala: Will write about this at length soon. It is hilarious, but surely there has to be a happy medium between literally living a movie-star life and having to settle for a Chetan Bhagat-reading engineer?

Michael Rosen and Quentin Blake, Michael Rosen’s Sad Book: My grandfather died a couple of weeks ago, and this was one of the things I turned to (other things: poetry, though not complete books’ worth of it, some Terry Pratchett, which features heavily in my January reading). It’s quiet and truthful and I love it.

Judith McNaught, Almost Heaven: I was on a plane, it was okay.

Himanjali Sankar, Talking of Muskaan: I am not really in a position to review this, as Himanjali’s a friend and former colleague, but I did write a column about it and Payal Dhar’s Slightly Burnt, which I’ll be putting here on the blog soon.

Payal Dhar, Slightly Burnt: (see above)

Helen Oyeyemi, Boy, Snow, Bird: I love Oyeyemi’s work, but I did not love this. Of the three main characters Boy was the only one that really worked for me (the first part of the book, narrated only by her, is excellent); the climax is massively problematic (a character is revealed to be transgender; Boy does not react well, which might be understandable, but the real problem is in the book’s portrayal of this character–his transition is a response to rape, and his belief in his own masculinity becomes an enchantment that needs breaking.), but also structurally throws the book off balance to me. I’ll be discussing this at length elsewhere, but it was deeply disappointing.

Katherine Addison, The Goblin Emperor: Partly because of the column, partly because of other things, I rarely read genre fiction that isn’t doing something unusual or spectacular, but I’d heard good things of this particular book. I genuinely enjoyed it- towards the end I was worriedly checking how many pages were left because I was having a good time and didn’t want it to end.

Jai Undurti and Harsho Mohan Chattoraj, Hyderabad: A Graphic Novel: You know how when you’re a teenager and discover Foucault’s Pendulum and the world is full of all this cool stuff and you want to know all of it and talk about all of it? That is this book. It’s me at sixteen, it’s every quiz-attending, funda-loving boy I ever had a crush on, and I suspect what it would have benefited most by would be a cynical friend to occasionally ground it a bit. Some of the art is gorgeous, though.

December 15, 2014

Manuela Draeger (trans. Brian Evenson), In the Time of the Blue Ball

What a glorious thing this book is.

(From last weekend’s column):


Are the three Manuela Draeger stories in In The Time of the Blue Ball: Three Post-Exotic Tales, set before or after the end of the world? It’s hard to tell. Meteors rain down upon the earth; the police have disappeared; fire hasn’t quite been invented (though everyone knows what it is) but electricity and marshmallows have.

Approaching In the Time of the Blue Ball in translation (the translator is fantasist Brian DraegerEvenson) means that those of us who do not read French come to it without much context—the publisher’s note that provides some of this context is placed at the end of the book. So it’s only after the un-spoiled reader has read to the end that she learns that these are three of the (so far) ten Bobby Potemkine stories, that in France they are published in separate volumes for adolescent readers. She also learns that Draeger, as the book wonderfully puts it, “belongs to a community of imaginary authors”. She’s a pseudonym for Antoine Volodine, who is himself a pseudonym (or a Pessoa-style heteronym) for an unknown writer.

I was not an entirely unspoiled reader, but there’s something very appealing about taking these stories on their own terms.

Bobby Potemkine is this world’s version of a private detective. In the title story he and his dog Djinn investigate the disappearance of Lili Soutchane, the woman who invented fire. They do this with the help of the battes, insolent flying creatures (on one of whom, Lili Niagra, Bobby Potemkine has a crush), and an orchestra of flies.

There’s an emptiness about the world; a sense that it has been lived-in but then abandoned. Everyone is cold. Factories have been shut down and towns and houses appear un-occupied. The railway station has been destroyed by a meteorite and lies in ruins, still smoking. Children have become increasingly rare. Bobby Potemkine’s world has a past, but it’s impossible to imagine what that past might be.

And yet there is newness everywhere that speaks of beginnings, not endings. In “North of the Wolverines” Bobby Potemkine and his companions must rescue Auguste Diodon, one noodle among many on every plate, indistinguishable from them except for the fact that he has a name and that there’s something not quite right about eating something with a name (though “it can happen to anyone to be eaten by someone or to eat someone. It’s strange, but that’s how it is.”) In “Our Baby Pelicans” (translated by Brian and Valerie Evenson) baby pelicans appear across the city but display no sign of life. Not that our characters think of them as dead; Bobby Potemkine carries his around, strapped to his chest, and speaks to it reassuringly—to no response. It turns out the baby pelicans are merely waiting for their mothers to be invented and thus come into being—which they do when Soraya Gong, a creature who from Draeger’s description I imagine as a gigantic mass of foam, transforms into a mother pelican. Noodles and foam may come to life, living creatures may turn into other things (Lili Soutchane turns into a batte); nothing is fixed in this world and everything has potential.

Volodine/Draeger’s larger project is something he (?) describes as the post-exotic, a concept he’s written on at length in various venues, most of which remain un-translated. But it is a literature of estrangement, one in which things have gone badly wrong, one which treats French as if it too were a foreign language. All of that is visible in these three stories, but so are other things—like kindness, and hope and possibility. A friend compared them to Jansson’s Moomin books, with their small, kind stories against a vast bleak backdrop (“Everything’s happy, yet you feel like everything is destroyed.”) Yet the comparison that sits most comfortably in my head is with Kipling’s Just-So Stories, for their sense of being told, and of being of a time when the world is being set into shape. Volodine again describes the post-exotic as “a literature of elsewhere, from elsewhere, headed elsewhere,” and in In The Time of the Blue Ball I think we may have the Just-So Stories of another world.




December 8, 2014

Douglas Gresham and Pauline Baynes, The Official Narnia Cookbook

Still in the middle of the Narnia section of my thesis, and trying to convince myself that reading things like this counts as work.

It doesn’t.

From a column a couple of weeks ago.



The literary cookbook feels like it ought to be a recent phenomenon, another example of a marketing tie-in. But literary cookbooks have been around for a while—I’ve read, for example, a copy of the Chalet School Cookbook (first published in 1953) in which the characters of that series attempt to create a recipe book for a friend who is about to be married. Not all of the recipes that emerge look particularly tempting; though the book’s take on Chinese food might provide for interesting historical perspective.

Of the hundreds of literary cookbooks that now exist, many have only a tenuous connection with the literary works that inspired them. It’s possible to hunt down foodstuffs eaten in the novels of Jane Austen or the plays of Shakespeare, of course, but arguable whether food is really central to the ways in which we feel about those works.

But then there are the books where food is really a part of the experience. For fans, a big part of the pleasure of reading George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (or watching Game of Thrones, the TV series based on the books) is in the world these stories exist in—one in which food plays a significant part, and it’s no surprise that a blog, then a book, based on the food mentioned in the series should have become a major success.

And then there’s children’s literature, in which food is everything. Like every postcolonial, English-reading child I grew up reading foods that seemed to come from an alien world—as removed from us by time as by space. It’s a cliché that Indian children grow up not knowing what kippers are and are disappointed by scones when we finally encounter them—what’s more interesting is that the picnics, and not the plots are what we remember the most.

C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books are not only filled with descriptions of fantastical meals, but assign food (like everything else, to be fair) great moral import. In the first book within the series’ internal chronology, the not-eating of an apple (Lewis is not subtle in his religious references) is an important plot point. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Edmund Pevensie gorges himself on tainted Turkish Delight from the evil White Witch and is so unable to appreciate the wholesome fried fish and boiled potatoes offered to him by the good beavers shortly afterwards.

In The Official Narnia Cookbook Douglas Gresham claims that Turkish Delight is (un-ensorcelled) also a common Narnian treat. I rather suspect this is not the case; to me it seems clear that the exotic Eastern-ness of it forms part of the contrast with Mrs Beaver’s properly English marmalade roll. This is part of the usefulness of Narnia, and of so many other fantasies; that it can be familiar and strange, self and Other, as required. Even the mud in Narnia is desirable; in a scene in Prince Caspian we see dryads eating different sorts of loam and Lewis makes it somehow appealing.

This might not be the case with the Official Narnia Cookbook, however. Recipes for sherbet and Turkish Delight sit here next to others for sausage rolls and porridge, and those in turn are next to boiled potatoes and scrambled eggs. Distance flattens out difference; Gresham’s book is clearly pitched at American children who are young enough that cooking itself is new, so that things like boiling potatoes might need instructions. And the British food of 1950s children’s fiction is as far removed from them as lobster patties and sherbet might have been to Lewis’ original audience.

It’s this that makes the whole thing rather unappealing to an adult. There’s so much to do with food in the Narnia books—and a lot of it relies on a reader with some level of knowledge. In assuming a reader who knows very little (and perhaps those behind the book are right, though it’s hard to see why such a reader would want such a cookbook) the Official Narnia Cookbook leaves itself little to do but give us recipes for egg and cheese sandwiches.


December 5, 2014

November Reading

Mostly for work, as is probably obvious.


Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway: A reread for work, and another of those books that I have a very intense memory of reading when I was younger (I loved it then, I love it now), so that a reread now makes it very clear how differently (how much better) I read now. Perhaps it is also time to revisit To The Lighthouse.

Ghalib Islam, Fire in the Unnameable Country: Years ago my best friend spent ages trying to read Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast and failing because she was enjoying the first few pages so much that she couldn’t move on from them. I felt a bit like that about Ghalib Islam’s book. It took me months to read, a bit at a time, but I loved it. It’s also the subject of December’s Strange Horizons book club, so more detailed thoughts will be available there in a few weeks.

William Mayne, A Grass Rope: With a group of people who research children’s lit I’ve been reading through the former recipients of the Carnegie medal, one book per decade. I insisted on A Grass Rope because I love it and have complex feelings about it; most people did not feel about it as I did. They were wrong, obviously.

Mhairi McFarlane, It’s Not Me, It’s You: I enjoyed McFarlane’s first two books so got this pretty much the moment it came out. It’s a romance, and it’s partly set in Newcastle, and there’s a comic-within-the-story, so it really ought to be all the things that I like. Except that I found the scene-setting of the Newcastle bits awkward (yes, tell me again about how you had dinner at Rasa and exactly what you ordered) and the comic stuff didn’t feel like it added much, and a dog died. Still, it managed to be nuanced and realistic about break-ups, and often funny, and involved a heist sequence and so made for a good afternoon.

Sam Selvon, The Lonely Londoners: For work, and often gorgeous.

Douglas Gresham and Pauline Baynes, The Official Narnia Cookbook: I did a column on this and should probably put it here soon.

Lucy Boston, A Stranger at Green Knowe: For the abovementioned Carnegie reading project. I love The Children of Green Knowe, as readers of this blog are probably aware. I loved large parts of this as well–despite the sometimes clumsy depiction of the main character, an orphaned refugee from China. There’s a surprising amount Boston gets right in simply giving us the quiet, believable perspective of a non-white character (even if she imposes a name upon him that is clearly not his own), but perhaps the best way to talk about how awful it is to be a refugee is not to compare that situation to a gorilla in a really awful zoo. It is still less bad at writing about non-white characters than The Child’s Elephant, so well done the 1960s..

Manuela Draeger (trans. Brian Evenson), In the Time of the Blue Ball: Glorious. I wrote a column about this which will also be on the blog soon.

Eloisa James, Desperate Duchesses, An Affair Before Christmas, Duchess By Night, When the Duke Returns, This Duchess of Mine, A Duke of Her Own: During the Courtney Milan accidental book club, the book’s lack of  sexy chess (chess is central to The Duchess War) was raised, and Tansy Rayner Roberts recommended this series as one that contained such a thing. In the event I found the sexy chess itself a bit disappointing (they abandon it for actual sex; anyone could do that, I wanted to know who won the game) but the series itself was enjoyable. I normally like Eloisa James, I’m not sure why I hadn’t read these before.

Romilly and Katherine John, Death By Request: Also the subject of a column, which will be up here soon. I picked this up at Barter Books because it was part of the Hogarth crime series that has in the past contained things I like. I was surprised by it, and that is a good thing.


November 26, 2014

Susan Scarlett, Pirouette

Everything relates to my thesis right now, even when Noel Streatfeild is writing ballet stories.

From a recent column.


 Until quite near the end the most (or possibly only) surprising thing about Susan Scarlett’s Pirouette is that its author is really Noel Streatfeild. The author, who is best known for the children’s classic Ballet Shoes, though her brilliant The Painted Garden has featured in this column before, also wrote fiction for adults – including twelve romances under this pen name.

Ballet Shoes is the story of the Fossil sisters, Posy, Pauline and Petrova. Posy is a naturally talented dancer who is given private lessons by the kindly Madame Fidolia, negotiates poverty, learns not to be insufferable to her sisters, and grows up to bepirouette a successful ballet dancer. Pirouette is very different. It is the story of Judith Nell, a talented young ballet dancer acting out her mother’s thwarted ambitions for her without really thinking about it much (Judith’s lack of thought or personality is as valuable to her employer Madame Tania as her dancing skills), when she meets, and is proposed to by, a friend’s brother and has to choose between marriage and a career. Unsurprisingly, she chooses marriage. Streatfeild is brilliant at character in her children’s books as well as her adult ones, but Judith doesn’t give her much scope. For plot purposes she’s something of a cipher, and that fact makes her romance uninteresting—and makes Paul Conquest’s love for her a bit foolish (what is there to fall in love with?) as well.

Far more interesting is Judith’s mother, flawed and infuriating in the manner of one of the less pleasant L. M. Montgomery characters, and contrasted with her kindly husband in familiar Mr and Mrs Bennet style. Mrs Nell’s neglect of her Judith’s younger brother in favour of her daughter (Mr Nell’s neglect is less of an issue) leads young Tim Nell to act out, lie, and eventually steal. And this is where things possibly get interesting—friends of the family advise the Nells to send him abroad.

“The right place for a boy to make a new start is the Commonwealth; more room for a boy who’s kicked over the traces a bit at home.” This in itself is not unfamiliar—Victorian literature often suggests that the whole of the British empire exists as a sort of reformatory school for British children, there solely to provide an occasion for said children to develop their characters. Adventure novels have their protagonists develop heroism through traversing unchartered terrain; more domestic novels send off the unsatisfactory younger son or the school bully to the colonies to sort them out (the Flashman novels by George MacDonald Fraser do wonderful things with this trope). And that’s not even touching on the real history of penal transportation. What’s interesting to me is that the Nells do not choose to avail of this opportunity. “No, I think the Commonwealth deserves nothing but the best and I’m sorry to say the best is not my Tim, not as he is now.”

Pirouette was published in 1948, well into a number of freedom movements across the empire and after the independence of India. But this idea that Britain owes the Commonwealth a duty of care, rather than the latter existing for the convenience of the former, interests me. It’s far from being an ideal political stance—the comic image it creates is of Britain as nurturing patriarch to a loving global family—but I’m curious as to when and by what degrees this attitude crept into the mainstream. I’ve been reading Nick Harkaway’s 2014 novel Tigerman recently, and that too is struggling with the question (in a very self-aware, 2014 kind of way) of the question of Britain’s relationship with what was once its empire.

In the event, the Nell and Conquest families each send their two eldest children to Rhodesia on the promise that an uncle in that country will find jobs for them. It remains to be seen whether these young people are examples of “the best” that Mr Nell thinks the Commonwealth deserves.



November 17, 2014

Meena Kandasamy, The Gypsy Goddess

(I was a bit nervous about the title of Kandasamy’s new book. “Gypsy” is a term with a huge and uncomfortable history, and I’m sometimes surprised by how many people who are otherwise careful about language will still throw this one around casually. I don’t think Kandasamy is using it casually, though; as I understand it within the book it’s a reference to the Narikuravar.)

I’ve only read scraps of Kandasamy’s poetry before; in the later stages of this book there’s a control over the prose that feels like it comes from poetry but that I haven’t seen before in the little of her work that I’ve read.

A version of this piece was in last week’s Hindustan Times.


There’s so much about narrative, about the process of turning lives and events into story, that we take for granted. It’s easy to forget that books and narrative formats mold stories into particular shapes, that the truth, to whatever extent such a thing exists, is only available to us mediated through those shapes.

Yet this is a useful thing to remember, perhaps particularly so when we’re writing about real people and happenings. Meena Kandasamy’s The Gypsy Goddess is a novel about the (real) events of the Kilvenmani Massacre of 1968, but it’s also a novel about the process of narrating those events. The book is divided into four segments and in the first two, “Background” and “Breeding Ground” the author treats us to a range of ways of telling a tale. We are never allowed to forget that this is a story that is being told to us; Kandasamy (assuming the narrator and the author to be the same, as dangerous as that may be) will stop, restart, reflect on her narrative choices as she is making them, address her readers directly to inform them that they will not be getting what they expect. Occasionally she will parody the style of the propaganda from one side or the other of the conflict between the landlords and the exploited labourers. The Gypsy Goddess exists in a world of readers who watch viral internet videos (“Is there a single story? No. Of course, I’ve consulted Chimamanda on this too.”), who read widely, who have seen the impossibility of telling stories paraded before them in the past, and who know that it is not a new idea, and Kandasamy acknowledges this as well.

“How does this work of art seek to declare itself? It plagiarizes the most scathing criticism, it prides itself on its ability to disappoint. Why bother about the pain of accomplishing something and arriving somewhere, when failure has been made a flashy trophy in its own right?”

It’s a criticism that the book accepts as valid even if, by pre-empting it, it puts the reviewer in something of a double bind. This sort of self-referential, self-critical writing can become a closed circuit, too focused on its own mechanics to say anything about the world outside it. Which is fine, in some cases, but Kandasamy has chosen for her subject a story that does, for sound political and moral reasons, need to be told more often; and a story that deserves not to be crowded out of the book (and subsequently out of reviews like this one) by the literary pyrotechnics of the author. It’s in this unresolvable clash of writerly ideals, the reporter’s duty to bear witness versus the 21st century novelist’s need to re-examine the act of telling, that The Gypsy Goddess situates itself. Failure is inevitable.

Kandasamy does eventually come to the narrative that we (by this time, somewhat guiltily) crave; in the latter half of the book she tells it effectively and well. “Battleground” and “Burial Ground” form a powerful account of events, with lyrical writing saved from becoming treacly by being undercut with anger. And—this is where the earlier sections pay off—having dwelt so much on structure earlier, we are rarely in danger of losing the critical distance that the author has demanded of us.

A project like this one is never going to work; that is part of the point. Every criticism that the book has already made of itself is valid, and I’d add to that the complaint that a book that sets out failure as a goal renders itself invulnerable to any pointing out of flaws. But there’s something compelling about a political story (and that a story of a massacre) that refuses to sweep the reader up in its narrative. The Gypsy Goddess sets out to do the impossible and (naturally) does not succeed, but it’s the sort of ethical, ambitious failure that we need more of.



November 14, 2014

Jenny Boully, Not Merely Because of the Unknown that was Stalking Toward Them and J.M. Barrie, Peter and Wendy

Though it’s not really that much about Boully’s book, since I can only speak of it slantwise. Always useful to be reminded of how big and lonely and yearny a book Peter and Wendy is, though.

From a recent column.


There’s a play, first performed over a century ago in 1904, and a book, first published in 1911, that is about two children and the inevitability and horror and okayness of growing up. The book is named after both of the children, but it (and the play as well) is really about the girl. It begins with the revelation that a two year old girl cannot stay two forever, and it ends with her, an adult, no longer “gay and innocent and heartless” and aching a little for it. The girl is the plot. But everyone forgets her.

I feel a great deal of anger on behalf of Wendy Darling. Possibly more than is merited by the side-lining of a fictional character.

Because of course J.M. Barrie’s most famous work was originally published as Peter and Wendy. And then it was Peter Pan and Wendy, and so over the course of a few title changes Wendy was eventually as cast out of the title as she is from Neverland.

Of course this is all about sex, and not just in the sense that everything ultimately is. Peter and Wendy (I will stubbornly continue to give it that title) emerges from a nineteenth century in which the image of the child is fetishized, in which childhood and desire and death are all tied up in one another in complex (and to this twenty-first century reader often disturbing) ways. The book may begin when Wendy is two years old, but the main action of the plot can only occur when she is on the cusp of adulthood, playing at “mother” in the knowledge that that is a fate that will be hers, about to be banished (and the book always makes it a banishment) from the nursery to a bedroom of her own. Peter is one of Wendy’s pretend children, but also her pretend partner. Peter is surrounded by girl-women who want him to be something other than “a devoted son”; Wendy, Tiger Lily, Tinkerbell, even the mermaids. Everyone desires Peter in his unchanging, unsatisfying youth—even Captain Hook spends an unreasonably long time looking at his sleeping form. Everyone desires Peter and it’s easy to see why he, rather than Wendy, is the iconic figure (Wendy does at least give her name to the “Wendy Hoboully-merely-cover-largeuse”). And yet. That long line of generations of women, growing up and passing through Peter Pan’s life as a line of indistinguishable “mothers” before passing the mantle on to daughters of their own. It’s a compelling image, and an upsetting one. I can’t help but think that the heart of the book is Wendy.

Which is only one of the reasons that Jenny Boully’s Not Merely Because of the Unknown that was Stalking Toward Them is as stunning as it is. Taking its title from the moment of the pirates’ first appearance in Peter and Wendy, Boully’s short book picks up, plays with and refracts everything in the original that is unsettling and intense, all its sex and death and yearning—and of course Wendy is at the heart of it. It’s hard to know what to call this; a monologue or a critical essay or a prose poem or a remix (quotes from Barrie’s novel make up a sizeable part of the text). It’s a joy to read aloud, but we’re never allowed to simply sink into the flood of words—in part because the doubled/split format doesn’t permit this. There are two parallel and intertwined texts here; Boully divides her pages horizontally as if the lower text functioned as a footnote, but sometimes the footnotes overwhelm the “main” text. You’re forced as a reader to read the two simultaneously, holding both in your head at once.

The result of this is a connection with the original work that is multifaceted and intuitive and very hard to write about. It’s a reminder of the ways in which complex texts work, of the sheer volume of meaning contained in a work, that these meanings can be contradictory or unrelated and still sit together in our heads. It’s the adaptation Wendy Darling deserved.