Archive for ‘Carnegie shortlist’

May 7, 2017

Malorie Blackman, Chasing The Stars

chasing starsI have a review of Malorie Blackman’s most recent novel in Strange Horizons this week–most of my thoughts on the book are therefore to be found over there. Both as an SF novel and as an adaptation of Othello I found it … not great, but intriguing. In the review I read it in the context of the other texts that it is (both explicitly and implicitly) bouncing off, and suggest that it works better as an intervention into those works than it does as a thing in itself. Which is all fine.

But that isn’t the only context in which I’m reading the book–it’s also a children’s book, and more importantly (this year, at least) it’s a Carnegie-eligible children’s book. It appeared on the list of nominations for the Carnegie medal, as well as being shortlisted for the Guardian and Waterstones prizes and longlisted for the Jhalak prize. Some further thoughts, then:

I’ve been reading this book as an adult, a science fiction fan, and a person who knows Othello relatively well; and my particular reading of it means that I find it harder than usual to imagine how the book would work in the absence of those contexts. (The internet suggests that lots of people are coming to it that way, and many seem to be enjoying it.)  It also makes judging it in light of the Carnegie criteria seem rather meaningless.

(But let’s try anyway: with the exception of the Love At First Sight trope the characters and their development do make sense; there’s clever use of “literary conventions and techniques” though not necessarily as I think those criteria intend; the resolution is credible; I’m going to stop now because the Carnegie criteria always feel weird and limited to me.)

In the review I mention very briefly the fact that Olivia’s interest in film becomes a marker of class. I was trying not to give too much away, and also not get boring and rambly, but that is not a concern on my own blog, so here are some details.

For most of the book, the only characters we see Olivia interacting with, other than her brother, are the refugees. We know that Vee’s interest in old-timey films is weird because she tells us so, and also because when she makes movie references in conversations with her new crew they seem to be confused by them. But–these characters are also former “drones”, a sort of underclass who work in the mines, most of whom were born into these conditions. There’s a point in the book where Nathan points out that drones do not have the opportunity to watch films and read books, so that the access that Vee has always taken for granted, and which is a basic condition of her particular hobby, is specifically a function of her class position within the universe. Vee is taken aback, assimilates this into her understanding of the universe, moves on; it’s a throwaway scene, though one of many in which Nathan and his friends draw attention to the fact that Olivia has watched films and they have not.

[Here be spoilers]

Late in the book we discover that the serial killer aboard the ship is Doctor Sheen, the colony’s sole doctor who has never herself been a drone. Sheen wants to get back to Earth–with her knowledge of the drones and their allies she can easily buy her freedom–and has been killing off those on the ship towards this goal. She is, however, willing to see Vee as an equal and a potential ally, because “You have a love of literature and films and music and art, all the things that separate us from beasts and drones.”

And I’m wondering how this knowledge, that a familiarity with certain sorts of culture is both a marker of power and a weapon itself, sits with a book which is itself a reworking of a classic (and is thus made richer and deeper in the reading by the reader’s knowledge of its intertext/s), and there’s a lot here that is rich and interesting and that I’m not sure yet what to do with.

 

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The other thing that I could not fit into the review was the revelation that at one point, when Vee and Nathan are having sex, the act of cunnilingus is described as “to go where no one had gone before”. I’m not sure whether Star Trek exists within the universe of the book, but I’m choosing to believe this is a widely-used euphemism among Olivia’s people.

April 30, 2017

Another Carnegie Project

Eagle-eyed readers of this blog will have noticed that I’m not, as I was this time last year, reading and reviewing the shortlist for the Carnegie medal–and will probably not be surprised.

Last year (why make more words when I can use my old ones?), I said this:

So what have the last three years’ Carnegie shortlists had to say about British children’s literature, other than that the judges and I don’t seem to agree on very much? Well for one, that non-white authors don’t write it. In each of the last three years (and I’d be interested in going back a few more years to see if things are better at any point) the shortlist has been composed entirely of white authors. This year I was so annoyed to see it happen again that I decided I’d read all the books by non-white authors on the nominees list. There are 93 entries on the nominees list. There are 4 books that I know to be by authors who aren’t white– and hopefully some I’ve missed, because those numbers are dismal. The Carnegie shortlist loves talking about race–though as Karen Sands-O’Connor points out here, it seems to prefer it when the whole thing can be conveniently displaced onto America, as with last year’s winner Buffalo Soldier, last year’s shortlist-ee, Ghost Hawk, and this year’s Lies We Tell Ourselves. (Or Australia, in last year’s Middle of Nowhere, or another planet, as with Patrick Ness’s Monsters of Men.) (And the celebration of books like The Child’s Elephant by Rachel Campbell-Johnston and Ghost Hawk by Susan Cooper suggests a reluctance to engage with the ways in which structural racism allows certain books to be published and lauded.)

This year, the award went a step further in achieving an entirely white longlist as well, this time provoking some level of pushback from authors and critics. CILIP have announced that there will be a review (they’ve also included some of the usual “this has started a useful conversation” nonsense that makes me rageous, but moving on …), and that there may need to be structural changes–including to the existing criteria for examining the books. I’m curious to see how this turns out, but the current state of British publishing doesn’t make me too hopeful.

So why not give up on the Carnegie altogether? Honestly, I’m tempted. My academic work tends to focus on the British children’s literary canon, and like many people who work with a canon I spend a lot of time worrying that in producing more work on (e.g.) Arthur Ransome and C.S. Lewis and Mary Norton I’m just reinscribing their centrality to British children’s literature. But I work on Britishness after empire; and literary awards, and the creation of national literatures, are a key part of how this imagined community articulates its nationhood to itself.

This is particularly the case with the Carnegie, an award set up specifically as a British children’s literature award, and one whose parameters have shifted with shifting ideas of what that word “British” might encompass. Owen Dudley Edwards (British Children’s Fiction in the Second World War, Edinburgh University Press, 2007) notes that while the award at its inception in 1936 had claimed to reward “the best book for children published in the British Empire”, this wording morphed within a few years to refer to “England” (probably a result of parochialism rather than a deliberate attempt to exclude writers from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland). In 1944 the criteria changed again to specify “a British subject domiciled in the United Kingdom” and “published in Great Britain”. And so forth. (The current eligibility criteria merely require the book to have been published in the UK first, or within three months of its first publication, which avoids that minefield at least.)

All of which means that if you’re studying Britishness and children’s literature, the Carnegie medal is pretty hard to ignore. If the books rewarded by the medal change with a changing understanding of what a “British” book might be, one is compelled to notice what is not rewarded by the medal–where the limits of this Britishness lie. When, 82 years into the creation of the award, it has never been won by a non white writer … well.

 

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Here is the complete list of nominees for the medal for 2017, according to the website. On it, there are eight books that I’m aware of by authors who aren’t white. There are some omissions that confuse me (were neither of  Catherine Johnson’s two most recent books eligible?); and googling the names of unfamiliar authors and titles is of necessity a crude method for determining something like this, so there may be others I’ve missed (and I’d be grateful to be corrected if so).

 

Booked, by Kwame Alexander

Alpha, by Bessora and Barroux (trans. Sarah Ardizzone)

Chasing the Stars, by Malorie Blackman

Where Monsters Lie, by Polly Ho-Yen

Orangeboy, by Patrice Lawrence

The Girl of Ink & Stars, by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Crongton Knights, by Alex Wheatle

Everything, Everything, by Nicola Yoon

 

In an alternate universe, this might have been the shortlist for the medal (how many black and brown writers on a list is enough?). Given the rather shameful stats for the publication of children’s books by BAME authors, the last year or so has been unusually good for rewarding them.  Orangeboy was shortlisted for the Costa and won a Waterstones Children’s Book Prize, The Girl of Ink and Stars is on the Jhalak shortlist and won another Waterstones prize as well as the overall prize,  Nicola Yoon’s second book was a National Book Award finalist and is on the Waterstones list (and Everything, Everything is being made into a film, for what that’s worth), Crongton Knights won the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize, Malorie Blackman has won literally everything that isn’t the Carnegie (she was on the shortlist for Pig Heart Boy nearly ten years ago) and has been the Children’s Laureate. This is not an attempt to argue for the merit of these books (some of which I have not yet read) over the ones currently on the shortlist. It’s to say that, if one were to pick a shortlist of eight possible contenders from the nominations list (something like the Shadow Clarke), the list above would have been plausible.

 

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Alex Wheatle pointed out in this conversation on twitter that one of the reasons the Carnegie is so influential is precisely that it is shadowed–that schools (and other groups, like the one I’ve been a part of for the last few years) read and discuss the books in question, so that if books by BAME and other non white authors are not shortlisted they’re entirely removed from the conversation.

All of which is a longwinded way to say: I’m not interested in contributing to a conversation that has to take place in the absence of these authors. I don’t have the institutional power to take people with me, but instead of the official shortlist, this year* I’ll be reading and writing about my possible shortlist instead. I’m cheating a bit, since I’ve read some of them already. I wrote about Crongton Knights here and The Girl of Ink & Stars here, and my review of Chasing The Stars will be appearing in Strange Horizons in the next few days. I’m particularly curious about Nick Poole’s suggestion that “there may be a case for changing the criteria to protect the prize from unconscious bias”, so am considering returning to the books I’ve already read and reflecting on how they do or don’t work with the existing criteria upon which the books are judged. As the Millwood Hargrave and (when it’s out) Blackman reviews will show, I’m not expecting to adore these books or rage about how their authors were robbed–as a reviewer my default position is grumpy. But if I’m to direct my critical energy at anything, I’d rather it be these books than their absence.

 

 

 

 

*I’d like to say “this summer” and map this project onto the actual Carnegie timetable, but I also have a thesis to finish writing …

 

June 20, 2016

Frances Hardinge, The Lie Tree (and general remarks on the Carnegie shortlist)

I read The Lie Tree in February and didn’t write about it at the time; I’d hoped to have found the time for a proper reread while discussing and writing about the Carnegie shortlist but when is there ever time for anything? As a result, the book I think might most reward discussion is the one I’m writing about least. It seems unfair.

The Lie Tree opens in a Victorian world similar to but not quite our own–one of the people with whom I discussed the book compared this setting, and its treatment, to that of Joan Aiken’s Wolves books, and that comparison works well for me.

Faith Sunderly and her family are in the middle of a rather hurried move to the channel island of Vane. Faith’s father, a reverend and a natural scientist, is an acknowledged expert in fossils; he has been invited to Vane to help excavate the caves on the island. That’s the official story; Faith knows very well that her father isn’t in the habit of taking his family on these research trips. It soon becomes clear that the Sunderlys have left England for a reason–rumours are flying about the authenticity of the Reverend Sunderly’s research, particularly of one particular fossil. In the newspapers, he is being publicly condemned as a fraud. And when the Reverend is found dead, Faith’s family seems more invested in disguising the possibility that it may have been the result of a suicide than they are in investigating her father’s murder.

The “lie” tree of the title (referred to in the book as “the Mendacity Tree”, a far superior, and Hardinge-y, word) has been brought to the island in secret by the Reverend, and only Faith knows where it is hidden. The tree feeds on lies, absorbing them to produce fruits that give the one who consumes them knowledge. In her quest for the truth, then, Faith finds herself in a horrifying position of power, responsible for a wave of dangerous lies and rumours circulating across the island. In some ways this all feels reminiscent of Hardinge’s last book, the (perfect) Carnegie-shortlisted Cuckoo Song, with its protagonist’s growing realisation and acceptance of the fact that people have the power to hurt other people and that we have to know this about ourselves and find ethical ways to live with it–the major difference, I think, is that Cuckoo Song feels a lot more internal to its protagonist’s head than The Lie Tree does. Faith is an outsider and an observer– though she’s less detached than her own narrative suggests.

That detachment is, perhaps, one of the things that contributes to a general sense of lacking nuance–or perhaps it’s simply the fact that this book is middle-grade and set in a period its readers may need to be educated about. This is most present in the book’s treatment of gender–it’s not enough that we see Faith consistently being valued less by the people around her, or see her mother struggling to survive with the only tool she’s allowed (charm), we must have characters who say things like “a girl cannot be brave, or clever, or skilled as a boy can. If she is not good, she is nothing. Do you understand?” I don’t wish to suggest that no Victorian (or, indeed, no currently living) person would ever utter those words, but for a writer of Hardinge’s quality they feel disappointingly pat. It’s disappointing too because I am still, by inclination, a Victorianist (I seem to have stumbled into twentieth century literary studies by accident), and there’s so much to play with in a setting like this one, with regard to gender and religion and science. The Reverend Sunderly’s actions have stemmed from his growing panic at the ways in which his scientific discoveries and his religious beliefs don’t match up (I’m amazed and disappointed that no reviewers have chosen to title their pieces on this book “Crisis Of Faith”); there are fossils and accounts of weird nineteenth century travel and lady-explorers and women who are in love with other women, and this fantastic gloomy island and all of this should be the perfect fodder for Hardinge, whose prose is always delicious and off-kilter and yet doesn’t quite sparkle as much here as I expect it to.

It has to be said that the individual character notes and relationships are still done really well. Compared to, say, Fire Colour One, The Lie Tree actually does understand, and signal, the gendered power relations embedded in Faith’s initial idolisation of her father and dismissal of her mother. As Faith’s understanding of her situation grows so does her understanding of Myrtle, who may not be the best or most likeable of people, but makes sense. As far as prose, character, and general goodness go I enjoyed The Lie Tree more than anything else on the Carnegie list. But judging Hardinge by her own other works, as far as I’ve read them, this feels less impressive to me.

 

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I’ve been blogging the whole of the Carnegie shortlist for three years now, and in both previous years, even when I’ve been underwhelmed by the shortlists themselves, I’ve had a clear favourite, a book I think is genuinely brilliant, and that I wholeheartedly support. (Neither Liar & Spy in 2014 or Cuckoo Song in 2015 won, incidentally.) This year, that isn’t the case.

My posts on the individual books on this year’s shortlist are in the tag above, but to recap:

I enjoyed Sarah Crossan’s One but am dissatisfied by Crossan’s refusal to produce characters with some depth to them and by the book’s inability to face up to the questions about voyeurism it seems to want to ask; Nick Lake’s There Will Be Lies is mediocre and hates fat people (but that’s okay, I’m willing to hate it back); Patrick Ness’s The Rest of Us Just Live Here is fine I guess (but that’s about it); I found Kate Saunders’s Five Children on the Western Front manipulative and a bit too eager to give me a history lesson (and a lot too willing to leave the empire out of said lesson); Marcus Sedgwick’s Ghosts of Heaven is ambitious in plot and form but doesn’t follow through; I think Robin Talley’s Lies We Tell Ourselves is a good, accomplished book whose flaws unfortunately outweigh its positives; Jenny Valentine’s Fire Colour One just doesn’t hold together and is unthinkingly sexist. I am no fun at parties.

Clearly I should stop doing this, since apparently I just hate all books. But the Carnegie fascinates me; both as a children’s literature academic and as someone who studies empire and national identity. Prizes help make literary culture, and the Carnegie, beginning in 1936, is the British children’s literature canon of the last 80 years, and has fascinating things to say about Postimperial Britain and children’s literature. (And you should absolutely be following Dr Lucy Pearson’s Carnegie Project, here.)

So what have the last three years’ Carnegie shortlists had to say about British children’s literature, other than that the judges and I don’t seem to agree on very much? Well for one, that non-white authors don’t write it. In each of the last three years (and I’d be interested in going back a few more years to see if things are better at any point) the shortlist has been composed entirely of white authors. This year I was so annoyed to see it happen again that I decided I’d read all the books by non-white authors on the nominees list. There are 93 entries on the nominees list. There are 4 books that I know to be by authors who aren’t white– and hopefully some I’ve missed, because those numbers are dismal. The Carnegie shortlist loves talking about race–though as Karen Sands-O’Connor points out here, it seems to prefer it when the whole thing can be conveniently displaced onto America, as with last year’s winner Buffalo Soldier, last year’s shortlist-ee, Ghost Hawk, and this year’s Lies We Tell Ourselves. (Or Australia, in last year’s Middle of Nowhere, or another planet, as with Patrick Ness’s Monsters of Men.) (And the celebration of books like The Child’s Elephant by Rachel Campbell-Johnston and Ghost Hawk by Susan Cooper suggests a reluctance to engage with the ways in which structural racism allows certain books to be published and lauded.)

What else? There’s a general trend towards death and despair, but far too much has been written (and far too many pearls have been clutched) on that subject. This is intertwined with a general privileging of young adult narratives over literature for middle-grade or younger readers, which feels like a shame–this has been a really good few years for middle-grade fiction, and it has been barely acknowledged. Issue Books, to use a reductive term, are also rewarded–there have been books on all three shortlists whose presence feels reducible to what they are About.

And finally, what does this suggest about today’s winner? This year’s shortlist has one added factor thrown in–that The Lie Tree, not content with winning the Costa Children’s Book Award (as Five Children on the Western Front did; and The Ghosts of Heaven was nominated as well), has also won the Costa Book of the Year, i.e. critical acclaim among books written for adults; the judges might need to really love something to knock something with that sort of cultural heft off the top spot.

To me The Lie Tree is the best book on this shortlist, yet I find myself reluctant to wholeheartedly champion it. This goes back to the whole awards-create-literary-culture thing; I don’t want a cultural narrative in which The Lie Tree is a more celebrated book than Cuckoo Song because I value the good things about Cuckoo Song more than the good things about The Lie Tree. Still, it is the best book here, and it’s the one I must throw my weight (take that, Nick Lake) behind.

Given my lack of success in predicting the result in previous years, I suspect this means the winner will be Lies We Tell Ourselves.

June 19, 2016

Patrick Ness, The Rest of Us Just Live Here

The world might be ending. There’s … an alien invasion, or something? They’re called Immortals; and there are pillars of blue light and a mysterious, beautiful boy and a girl with a very special destiny? Her name is Satchel, all her male friends are called Finn.

You’re not supposed to care too much about the whole world-might-be-ending plot, though. Because the teenagers who do not have special destinies or particularly storyable lives are the focus of this book, and they have long accepted that “the indie kids” are going to have the occasional world-saving adventure and that’s their thing, and everyone else may as well devote their energies to the ordinary life struggles over which they have some (though not much) hope of gaining control. For Mikey, those struggles include his probably-unrequited feelings for his friend Henna, the difficulties of being thrust occasionally into the spotlight by a parent who is also a politician, his own mental health, the attractive new kid with whom Henna is spending far too much time.

These concerns are minor compared to those of the indie kids, but they are on the whole treated well. I love that, for example, the book’s emotional climax is a moment between Mikey and his best friend–friendship here is urgent and important and central. Mikey and Mel’s protectiveness of each other and of their younger sister is great, and Mikey’s anxiety (though the sessions with his psychiatrist are necessarily a bit basic) feels well done. I’m less impressed by the treatment of Mel’s anorexia: less because of any direct treatment of it (that’s all fine, the characters are on the whole great about it) than because Ness doesn’t seem to mind contributing to a larger fat shaming culture elsewhere in the book. (In a throwaway line early on, Mikey is working at a restaurant part time and “putting extra slices of cheesy toast on a plate for the really, really fat family at table two”; everyone in the place seems to be eating ridiculous quantities of all-you-can-eat cheesy toast [surely that's not a real thing, America], but still the “really, really fat” are associated with excess.) Meanwhile, there is the slight worry of larger affairs impinging upon this set of concerns (will the indie kids blow up the school, or the world end, before this group of friends can graduate?)

Basically, it’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, but with YA. That might sound delightful or cringeworthy (for me, I think it’s mostly the latter) but much depends on whether it’s a one-note joke or something fundamental to the structure of the book and how it conceives of fiction. Possibly even more than The Ghosts of Heaven Ness’s book requires you to have some knowledge of its intertexts–a solid grounding in Buffy the Vampire Slayer is useful, as is being familiar enough with the tropes that you can do a quiet “hah” when they pop up here. Each chapter is headed with a short summary of current events in the larger cosmic battle, the contrast between these dramatic events and the relatively mundane lives of our characters is frequently hilarious.

There’s something funny to be said about the ways in which other works of YA (precisely the sorts that this book is spoofing) also position their characters as oppressed underdogs or unlikely heroes. On several counts, Mikey is exactly the sort of person likely to be a hero in fiction–he’s a (we’re told) intelligent, not-fat, middle-class white kid, he doesn’t think he’s particularly attractive but other characters tell us he is, and like every other YA hero ever (I’m exaggerating, but hey) he thinks of himself as shut out of things–both the world-saving shenanigans that are going on elsewhere in the book, and the more immediate dynamics of his particular group of friends. (Of course, Mikey will discover that it’s his own preoccupation with the situation around Henna that has shut him out of some of these dynamics–he’s completely failed to notice, as the rest of the group has, that a close friend is now in a relationship.)

 

The thing is, though, the world might be ending.

 

I mentioned Rosencrantz and Guildenstern earlier in this post, and it’s been a decade or so since I read or watched the play so I may be about to say something very ignorant. But the reframing of the narrative to these sidelined characters in that play does interesting things in part because it works both at the levels of narrative (Hamlet!), and of real world power (whose decisions are indicative of power, and who gets caught up in the machinations of more powerful people?).

Questions of power and narrative come into play in interesting ways in the context of YA (and I’m going to make some sweeping generalisations about the genre, but then I’m writing about a book that also necessarily stereotypes the genre, so I absolve myself). There’s much that is ridiculous and unrealistic (in different ways to how vampires and alien invasions are unrealistic) about plucky individual teenagers saving the world, but these books make sense in the context of an audience of teenagers–i.e. people who have ethics and concerns and politics of their own, but lack the power to control their own lives. In some ways, The Rest of Us Just Live Here is the realistic counternarrative that acknowledges that most of us lack the power to thwart alien invasions, or even just protect our friends and families from hurt.

But in the process, it also manages to imply that simply not paying attention to huge, worldchanging things that are happening around one is a feasible, even desirable, response. Even at the end of the book, when Mikey and his friends have talked to some indie kids and figured out that they’re actual people with their own concerns and personalities, the implication is still that they have their lives and the normal kids have theirs. We can’t all be special and superpowered, so we’re absolved of the responsibility to participate in these huge events.

One reason this is uncomfortable is that in fiction the special superpowered kids may be the attractive, white, thin, popular Americans with funny names, but in the world the people who aren’t afforded the privilege of looking away … aren’t. I rolled my eyes a bit when I first read this review which compares the indie kids to third world refugees; it seemed to me to be missing the point. But the “point” of the book, or what there is of it, seems to require you to confine it to the world of fiction, where nothing has particular consequences and the emotional lives of a small group of privileged teenagers can have the same weight as the lives of billions of people (and all the other living things on the planet). The Rest Of Us Just Live Here wants you to think it’s so clever and funny with mockery of tropes; it does not want you to examine it too closely. No wonder our characters seem so unconcerned about this week’s apocalypse; it’s not like it means anything.

And the other reason for my discomfort is simply the reinforcement of a dynamic in which, in order to have responsibility one must have power, and to have power one must be a superpowered individual. By which I mean that there’s never any suggestion that collective action of any sort is possible, that the indie kids could work with the other kids (or even with each other–all they seem to do is fall in love with Satchel and die) or that the regular kids without powers could work together in any way. And it’s frustrating because one of the things that Ness does well is to create a sense of community in his characters–there are, for example, really lovely sections in which Mikey and his friends instinctively and unobtrusively accommodate each other’s particular illnesses and vulnerabilities. But then there’s Mikey’s best friend Jared (named after Jared Shurin, which was an amusing and distracting thing to know), who is a descendant of a god of cats and secretly bears an indie kid name. Unlike the others, Jared does have power, or at least the means to access it, and has simply opted out of the indie kid lifestyle. At the end of the book he does embrace his powers to make things better/save lives, but he does so at the cost of this sense of community–he will be turned into a god and thus cut off from his friends.

I enjoyed reading The Rest Of Us Just Live Here, and it’s nice to be reading a Carnegie-shortlisted Ness book that isn’t emotionally draining, but beyond that, I’m underwhelmed.

June 17, 2016

Marcus Sedgwick, The Ghosts Of Heaven

I took The Ghosts of Heaven at its word. The four novellas that comprise the book are, in their published form, arranged chronologically: a prehistoric story, then one set in early modern England, another in early twentieth century America and the final piece set centuries into the future. The author claims that you can read these novellas in any order, that there are “twenty-four possible combinations” in which “the story will work”. (There was a time when I’d have been able to do the maths to confirm this, but I’ll take Sedgwick at his word.) I wanted to test this so went 2, 4, 3, 1 and I don’t think this hindered my enjoyment of the book, but … I’ll come to that.

In the book’s order, then: in “Whispers in the Dark” a young woman in an unidentified prehistoric society longs to be chosen to make magic marks on the walls in a cave to ensure her people’s success in the hunt. She is not chosen, but is pondering the power of the spiral shape and on the verge of inventing writing when disaster strikes. The old man and his apprentice responsible for making the marks have failed, the tribe is slaughtered by a rival tribe.  In “The Witch in the Water” a minister has arrived in a village to replace its dead vicar, and sees devilry everywhere. Appalled to discover the villagers dancing (in a spiral) at a funeral he soon traces the source of evil to an innocent young woman, aided by the willingness of other villagers who are sexually attracted to her, jealous of her or simply scared enough to denounce her. “The Easiest Room in Hell” features Charles Dexter, a poet and a patient in an asylum in Long Island who befriends his naive new doctor and the doctor’s small adopted daughter and for various reasons is terrified of climbing up the spiral staircase at the centre of the building. “The Song of Destiny” features a spaceship carrying hundreds of bodies in suspended animation on their way to an inhabitable planet. Keir Bowman is one of ten sentinels who check the status of the ship yearly–but when he wakes after ten years of sleep he finds certain irregularities that suggest the ship is haunted.

It’s obvious from this summary that these all have very different settings, and it’s probably also obvious that some of them are very clearly pastiches of existing works or genres. To me, this was clearest in the third and fourth stories–”The Easiest Room in Hell”  with its asylum setting and its Things Under The Water would be recognisable as a Lovecraft tribute even if it hadn’t gone and named a major character after one of the author’s most recognisable works; and “Keir Bowman” is equally clearly a reference to 2001: A Space Odyssey (in which Keir Dullea plays David Bowman). The first two stories were less obviously linked to existing works for me–they could be any/every witchhunt/prehistory narrative I’ve ever read (they felt familiar, in several ways), or they could be clear references to a reader more immersed in those bodies of literature than me. (Lucy suggested that the first section might be linked to The Clan Of the Cave Bear and I’m not sure she was wrong.) I’m not sure that the intertexts add a great deal to a reading of the book, even assuming its readers have access to them–I only “caught” two references, and I’ve discussed the book with other, widely read and quite nerdy, adults who missed them. What the format does do, though, is provide a spread of styles–beyond obvious differences in shape (the first section is in verse, the third section is a first-person log of events, the second and fourth sections have third-person narrators, but while the earlier narrator appears omniscient the later one is confined in the main to Bowman’s perspective) these are all completely different stories.

Which is both great for showcasing Sedgwick’s range and bad for creating any real sense of cohesion. I said above that the order in which the stories are read made very little difference, and I don’t think that’s so much the result of brilliant, complex trickery as it is of these stories reading as four separate novellas with some themes in common. Too often the spirals are the only obvious link, so that the text has to lay extra stress on pointing out when they’re there–as when Bowman, thinking of the forward movement of his toroidal spaceship, reflects that he is spiralling through space. As a symbol the spirals themselves feel rather underwhelming to me–the book goes into some detail explaining why spirals are interesting, the golden ratio, the fibonacci sequence and (thus) the fibonacci spiral, helixes in our DNA, and yet (perhaps my mind is unreceptive to the wonder and terror of maths?) I’m rather left with a sense of “spirals are everywhere … and?” If there is a fruitful link between the stories, for me, it’s not the spirals themselves but the reactions of the characters to them–each of these main characters is hyper-aware of the hugeness and unknowability of the universe around them; each feels an awe that verges on terror (and in some cases descends entirely into terror), each is compelled towards knowledge nonetheless. Sedgwick’s choice of intertexts, as far as I recognise them, works well here–Lovecraft’s body of work as well as 2001 are both full of the wonder and terror of the vastness of space and time. In each case knowledge and oblivion are closely linked–three of the novellas end with a death. As for Bowman, perhaps he is dead–or perhaps he has dreamed all these novellas during his ten-year nights. Or we accept the ending the novella gives us, in which he arrives on a possibly-inhabitable planet and meets a young woman, much like the woman of that first, prehistoric, novella, who thinks in verse–we’ve circled round to the beginning of the text, except not quite. (Perhaps that’s a spiral too.) It’s possible to think of the whole as a single narrative across deep time, whose protagonist is the human race and our relationship to knowledge. But for that, I suspect, you should read it in chronological order. (Certainly the references between the individual novellas seem to assume that you will do so, Sedgwick’s twenty-four combinations notwithstanding.)

I’m not sure what about the book marks it out as particularly for children or young adults–none of the main characters are children by the standards of the worlds in which they live, and the things in which it expects its readers to take interest (pulp horror writers, maths) don’t seem particularly restricted by age. I’m quite sure that I would have been thrilled by exactly those elements of the book as a teenager, but I don’t know that the category “children’s literature” (insofar as it’s a meaningful category at all) should simply include everything any child anywhere is willing to read.

I’m also aware that my relative lack of enthusiasm for it now is a function of having, in the years since my teenagehood, read several books about space and time and maths and knowing and horror that do more with those things. It seems a strange thing to think about a book as intertextual as this one, but I suspect The Ghosts of Heaven is most successful when read by a naive reader. For a jaded one (me), it evokes grand, ambitious, huge ideas and then seems content not to do them justice.

June 7, 2016

Nick Lake, There Will Be Lies

“Lies” appear to be a theme with this year’s Carnegie shortlist– so far we’ve had The Lie Tree, Lies We Tell Ourselves, and now, unfortunately, There Will Be Lies.

(I frequently feel like a killjoy, both on the internet and in real world conversations about children’s books. Presumably, since this book made it to the shortlist of a major award, there are people who read and liked it; luckily, in my regular group of Carnegie readers, this week the consensus  seemed to be that the book was exactly as bad as I’d thought it was. This feeling, of not being a small, grumpy voice well-actuallying in the wilderness, is rather intoxicating.)

Shelby is nearly eighteen, homeschooled, deaf, and living with her mother Shaylene in Arizona. She has broached the subject of going to university a few times, mostly to be shut down. College is dangerous, the world is dangerous, men are dangerous; Shelby is best off at home, with her mother, without much contact with the outside world beyond weekly trips to the library and what time she can steal for herself on the internet. Clearly something’s very wrong.

Something is wrong, though it takes a while before we know what that something is. The book is structured around the “lies” (two of them, and then a truth, Shelby is told) in the title, and the plot moves forward as Shelby  meets these revelations. When she is hit by a car and has to be hospitalised, so that the hospital now has her mother’s details on record, Shaylene hurriedly takes her daughter and the two women leave town. We watch Shelby ‘learn’ that her father is alive and evil and that her mother’s running away from him; then that her father is dead and her mother’s a notorious killer; then, finally, that Shaylene is not her mother at all, but kidnapped Shelby from a hospital where she was undergoing treatment for burns after an accident. Shaylene is arrested, and Shelby is reunited with her birth family.

All of which might make for a decent thriller. Might, not does, because the narrative hurtles forward as if a series of revelations were the only way that movement was possible: and then and then and then. There’s a lot of plot and very little done with it. The short section towards the end in which Shelby is attempting to adjust and find common ground with her new family is well observed (and comes closer to having actual characters than anything the book has done so far), but that’s about it.

Unfortunately, the not-very-impressive thriller plot is not all there is to Lake’s book. The mysterious hot boy who Shelby meets at the library each week is in fact Coyote in disguise; he’s here to warn and protect Shelby, taking her into “the Dreaming” where she is to fulfil a mysterious quest, save a child, kill a crone and thus save the world.

I have none of the knowledge that I’d need to discuss the specifics of Lake’s use of Native American myths–but I found Debbie Reese’s analysis of the book, here, very useful. What I can talk about are the larger structuring assumptions inherent in this kind of use of myth.

What we have is a narrative in which the main character, coded as white throughout the book, finds herself on a quest accompanied by a mythological figure from a culture that is not her own, but who has made her wellbeing his responsibility. Even assuming that time works differently for mythological beings, Shelby seems like a strange priority for Coyote to have. For much of the quest narrative it’s not clear to Shelby what the quest is, or why she, of all people, should be undertaking this hero’s journey, but the fundamental right of a random white girl to be at the centre of this story is not something that is ever questioned, either by Shelby herself or by the text.

The “child”, most relatively experienced readers will soon figure out, is Shelby herself; the “crone” is Shaylene; the world is not ending, only Shelby’s world (but that’s the same thing, suggests Coyote, inaccurately). There’s the potential here to weasel out of the implications of the book’s use of myth, and claim that this is all taking place in Shelby’s subconscious, so that the blame for anything that may seem poorly researched, or cobbled together (see Reese’s post) can be displaced onto the character. But none of that explains what work the myths are doing here–since the Crone and Child story eventually devolves into a castle-moat-witch scenario that is equal parts European fairytale and video game, it’s hard to see what Lake wants to add to the book with this bit of careless appropriation. Perhaps the point is to create a closer link to the landscape? (Lake clearly thinks Arizona is very pretty.) Whatever it is, it does not work.

With all this, though, the thing I found most unpleasant about the book was Shelby’s deeply-felt disgust at her mother’s fat body. That Shaylene wears “pajama jeans” is so horrifying to her daughter that our attention must be drawn to it several times, including on the first page; she keeps having to “haul” herself around rather than, you know, move (there’s a charming moment a few pages in when Shelby explains that her mother’s not very active but that hey, you-the-reader will have figured that out because she’s told you Shaylene’s fat); her ass ripples in her (yep) pajama jeans; she’s sweaty so that “her hand is clammy around mine, slippery but strong, like being held by a squid”. Later, Shaylene meets, and has sex with a man who has the audacity to also be overweight: “And then an image flashes in my mind of Luke’s double chin and I think UGH again, UGH X 10,000″

 

Ugh x 100,000.

May 26, 2016

Jenny Valentine, Fire Colour One

fc1 kleinI rarely say this, but: I think I may honestly be too old to properly enjoy Fire Colour One.

Valentine’s book opens where its story ends, in the gardens of a house in (we don’t know this yet) England, where protagonist Iris has started a huge fire in honour of her father, whose funeral it is. The backstory is filled in gradually–Iris, her mother Hannah and her stepfather Lowell have been living in America, where the two adults are actors and models and Iris herself mooches about, starts fires, and has only one friend, Thurston. A combination of financial difficulties and Iris’s arsonous habits means that the three of them have moved back to England–where Iris’s biological father, Ernest, is dying. It turns out that Hannah’s stories about Ernest have been less than true–he didn’t abandon his daughter, he wants a relationship with Iris, and — this is important — he’s a millionaire who lives in a country mansion and collects famous art.

[Possible/definite spoilers.] Art is obviously important to Fire Colour One–the book is named after Yves Klein’s fc1 (used to illustrate this post because I like it better than the cover; sorry, cover artist). Thurston loves Klein, who “brought art out of the airless studio and back to life”; and who died tragically young. Both Thurston and Iris engage in forms of performance art–Iris describes her firestarting tendencies in artistic terms, and Thurston arranges public spectacles– we’re told about a mock funeral procession involving pigment bombs, a hearse and loud music, and we see him create a sort of shrine to Iris on a sidewalk, so that strangers come by and (assuming the girl in the picture is dead) pay their respects to it–they are somewhat startled to see the living Iris appear. Ernest, it turns out, is a talented artist who also happens to enjoy its performative aspects–the conclusion of the book, in which Ernest manages, from beyond the grave, to thwart Hannah and hand over his vast fortune to Iris, is as much a work of art as any of Ernest’s paintings.

There’s a lot to like about Fire Colour One. Its prose is genuinely good and willing to do more than just tell a story; though it needs to be a little infodumpy to tell the reader about Klein (I knew nothing about him other than that Klein blue was a thing), it doesn’t over-signal its constant return to the subject of art; Iris’s habit of starting fires is cause for concern to the adults around her (apart from Ernest, whose priorities are a bit dubious, really) but the book treats it as merely a part of who she is and never risks turning it into an Issue.

But then there’s Iris-and-Thurston and Iris-and-Ernest.

“I’m glad you know a little about art,” says Ernest, “and the great man”. Iris has just finished telling him (and us) what she knows about Yves Klein. “I know what Thurston taught me,” she shrugs. A shared love of art is what brings Iris and Ernest and Iris and Thurston together, but both relationships seem to take the form of the older, better-informed man “teaching” Iris. I can’t remember a moment when Iris has something to teach these characters–even her explanations of why she starts fires seem to chime with things they’ve already heard before, so that her experience is one of being understood, rather than helping them to understand. At the end of the book we discover that Thurston and Ernest have been speaking, have formed a friendship (bonding over art and Iris, presumably), and one of Ernest’s final acts (apart from the big art thing, and the big tricking Hannah out of the money thing) has been to return Iris’s lost friend to her; to restore Thurston and Iris’s relationship. That relationship may be a romantic one or a very intense platonic one, but the whole thing has for me some of the implications of fathers of the bride handing over their daughters to new designated male protectors.

I don’t think this is merely an unfortunate gender dynamic that has crept into the book, though; I think it’s fundamental to both relationships. I suggest at the beginning of this post that I may be too old to fully appreciate this book, and one of the reasons for that is Thurston. Thurston is a Vonnegut fan–of course he is. Thurston makes art. Thurston is skinny and beautiful and romantically poor. Thurston is full of information about certain sorts of artists and writers, and he loves to share this information with his younger female friend. He’s a slightly cooler version of the time in your teens when you had a crush on the guy who was obsessed with Jack Kerouac. Perhaps a reader in their teens could access some of that attraction; could have it underlay the book. (As an adult, I found myself thinking instead of Thora Birch and Wes Bentley mooching around glumly in American Beauty; I don’t think the book intended this to be as funny to me as it was.) But though I’m thankfully immune at my age to the specific charms of earnest teenage boys who Know About Art, I’m not immune to the larger desire to be approved of by men who know (or think they know, or can make me think they know) more than me. It’s a powerful thing, and it’s a specifically gendered thing.

And Fire Colour One ensures that we know that Iris has the approval and attention and adoration of these two men. Early in the book, when Iris is hurt and upset by Thurston’s fake shrine prank, he explains that the whole point is “You think people don’t see you [...] You think you’re forgettable” and “How come you can’t see how much you’re loved?” Ernest, too, has made his lost daughter the centre of his life even in her absence, and he too demonstrates this through a sort of art installation that has taken over a decade to prepare, and that becomes the climactic, closing scene of the book:

Ernest had laid traps and my mother stumbled right into them. There was something beneath the surface of every painting, written in zinc white, so it would show up under ultra-violet and stop my mother and Lowell dead in their tracks. Their world was about to end, and Thurston had made sure they had an audience. Better than my fire, better than any revenge I could ever have thought of, more than twelve years in the making, a message from Ernest for them and one for me too. Hannah checked every one, running from room to room by the end of it, followed by a stream of witnesses, hysterical, apocalyptic, catastrophic.

The same word on each of the forty-seven canvasses that filled the house. Bigger and bigger each time until it took up the whole space, waiting patiently, screaming out beneath layers of paint.

IRIS.

As I was reading the book I described it to friends as essentially a fantasy about being loved, and this is precisely what it is–about being loved by people whose love is worth something (arty men, within the book’s frame of reference; important men in general),being loved huge, demonstrable, spent-twelve-years-making-the-art-to-prove-it amounts. It’s a little bit ridiculous if it’s not a fantasy you share.

One doesn’t, of course, crave love from lesser beings. One aspect of Fire Colour One that is hard to reconcile with the rest of the book is its presentation of Iris’s mother and stepfather, for whom Iris has nothing but contempt. Which isn’t that surprising–for a teenage girl whose hobbies include Meaningful Conversation About Art and Burning Things to despise adults who seem shallow and interested only in clothes and careers makes sense. But Fire Colour One would have you believe that Lowell and Hannah are exactly as shallow, grasping, and unintelligent as Iris thinks.  If I compared Iris and Thurston to characters in American Beauty, Lowell and Hannah, as parents, seem to come straight out of Roald Dahl’s Matilda. But they become irredeemably bad, rather than comically evil, early on in the book, when rather than protecting their daughter from an attempted rape by the son of a potential employer, they disbelieve and blame her for defending herself.

About halfway through the book some reason is given for Hannah’s grasping nature (by now Lowell has largely slipped out of the plot; he never particularly mattered). We’re told that when Hannah and Ernest met she was starving and homeless and beautiful and he was rich and unable to talk to attractive women except to babble about art and show off his expensive possessions. He asked her to stay; she did.

But by this point Hannah is already irredeemable, and it’s not in the book’s interest to redeem her; to make her in any way sympathetic would undercut the triumph of Ernest’s final victory over her (“[her] world was about to end”). Hannah’s grasping nature, her insistence on the monetary value of Ernest’s art; these aren’t presented to us as the natural reactions of someone who has been poor and desperate, but of someone who Is. Just. Bad.

I don’t know, though. Telling the story of their first meeting, Ernest explains that it was outside an antiques shop, that he’d fallen and hit his head and talked to her about how each of the wine glasses in the window was worth a couple of hundred pounds. “I could live on that for a month,” Hannah says. When Hannah has moved in with Ernest, he buys the wine glasses, and Hannah drops one on the kitchen floor.

“She did it on purpose,” he told me, “because they were hers now, because she could.”

May 19, 2016

Robin Talley, Lies We Tell Ourselves

LiesLies We Tell Ourselves has by far the best opening sentence of the books from this year’s Carnegie shortlist that I’ve read so far: The white people are waiting for us.

As Sarah and her companions prepare to walk into their new school, they face an indistinguishable mob, shouting things that can’t be made out, merely a “dull roar”. The crowd gets closer but is still “the white people”; but now the words can be heard. There’s “go back to Africa,” and there are the slurs and the threats.

It is tremendously effective writing because it takes a long history of racist tropes, faceless black and brown mobs yelling incomprehensibly, pawing at white protagonists, and it turns them around and weaponises them. We recognise (because centuries of books and art are there to remind us) the horror of this mob, this faceless mass. Except that this section needs to be brutal (because the history of racism is brutal; because this mob is brutal) so we must have the slurs as well. Suddenly you’re hit by a solid wall of the n word. It might be necessary for what the chapter is trying to do, and I’ve never had that particular word thrown at me by a shouting mob, but if I hadn’t committed to reading this book for the award I might have stopped reading. I began to suspect that perhaps Talley’s book was assuming an audience that needed to know what having racist slurs yelled at them felt like. I still don’t know if that was unfair.

The plot: it’s 1959 in a fictional US town in Virginia, and a group of black children is to be integrated into a previously all-white school. Sarah Dunbar is one; she’s in her final year of school, is a brilliant student and singer, and plans to go to university. Linda Hairston, daughter of a prominent local racist and violent abuser, is one of the students most vocally opposed to integration–in part because her father’s arguments make sense to her, and in part because placating him is the safe thing to do. The narrative is divided between these two characters, as Sarah attempts to survive her school year, Linda comes up against her own racism, and both girls struggle to come to terms with their attraction towards one another.

This splitting of the narrative across the two voices may not have been a great idea. Sarah’s story works, on the whole; Talley captures some of the paranoia of being on guard all the time, the constant threat of violence, and the anger. But then we have Linda’s narrative, and the very structure of the book suggests that these two stories should have equal weight, that Sarah’s tale of quite literally trying to survive is worthy of the same amount of space as Linda’s harrowing story of having to rethink her racism. There’s an attempt to level things out a bit by emphasising Linda’s difficult situation (her father); but Mr Hairston is either an extenuating circumstance, or a result of a structural sexism that surely affects both girls (in the circumstances it’s interesting that Talley dramatises the threat of sexual assault to the black girls but never has it result in anything very concrete). To have these two (at first) opposing voices sets the book up as a sort of dialogue, and positions the disagreement (“disagreement”!) as in some way reasonable; “well obviously racism is bad, but there are arguments to be heard on both sides”. I was taken aback, when looking for reviews online, to find a review by a (presumably) teenage reader which came to the conclusion “I’m not siding with either”. [I wonder, also, if the dynamic Dani Gurira describes here is playing out in this narrative as well.]

Having made that criticism, it may seem contradictory to then complain that Linda’s racism doesn’t seem reasonable enough. Racism may not make sense (whatever that may mean), but it generally seems to generate its own logic, at least enough for people to buy into it. A different book might have had its protagonist come up against her own beliefs over and over; last year’s winner, Tanya Landman’s Buffalo Soldier, achieves something similar, though its later sections disappointed me. Linda never seems convinced by her own arguments–and perhaps that’s because they’re her father’s arguments, but then what are Linda’s thoughts? What is it like to believe this stuff? It’s interesting to me that the one moment in the book where racial difference is felt is in that opening sequence, and suggests that the book is either unable or unwilling to make its racist characters feel … racist.

In that remarkable opening chapter is a scene where Sarah, forced to face the crowd, squares her shoulders and walks forward reciting Psalm 23. It’s a beautiful moment; I love its acknowledgement of faith as a powerful factor in its characters’s lives, as well as a political force in the civil rights movement, and I love that my mind leapt to Bree Newsome reciting Psalm 27 last year. It was disappointing, then, to have Christianity all but disappear from the narrative, only resurfacing each time the girls wanted to berate themselves for their attraction to one another. This, too, felt to me like a missed opportunity to attempt to get into other heads and other mindsets or at least to treat those other heads and mindsets as significantly different to one’s own.

The school year continues [spoilers here]: the girls are forced to work together on a project and find themselves appreciating one another’s gifts more and more; Sarah berates Linda for being racist when she’s so clever; Linda is horrified that the other children in her school are being so barbaric (she didn’t mean hit them, just structurally discriminate against them at every level); Sarah and Linda accidentally kiss; Linda attempts to appease her father by way of a public barb about Sarah’s friend Chuck dating a white girl; a mob attacks him and he nearly dies; Linda is sad about nearly causing her friend’s friend’s death; the two girls decide to move to Washington and drive off into the sunset. It’s a happy ending!

It’s a happy ending if you’re reading from Linda’s perspective, anyway. Faced with the horrifying reality of racism through her guilt at (oops!) nearly causing a death, she’s forgiven, redeemed, able to escape her horrible father, and start a new life with the girl she likes. Perhaps Sarah also feels lucky to be able to get away and travel to another city with the girl who played a major role in her friend’s near death and who persists in insisting that Sarah herself is merely an exceptional member of her race. Perhaps Sarah is a lot more forgiving than I am.

One of the people with whom I discussed the book said that she found the use of “white people” throughout jarring, and again, targeted at comforting a white audience (there there, no one’s denying your personhood). I don’t have enough historical context to know what more likely contemporary alternatives would have been, so can’t speak to that, but I was surprised by the author’s note, in which she claims that people she speaks to about the book tend to ask “Was desegregation really that bad?”, which to me feels indicative of an audience that can afford not to be too aware of this history. (But I’m not American, I don’t know to what extent this history is available–to black communities as well as white ones.)  Lies We Tell Ourselves feels a fundamentally safe book that gives its audience just so much but no more racial violence and a reassuring redemption arc. If, as I say, you’re reading from Linda’s perspective.

May 12, 2016

Sarah Crossan, One

one-by-sarah-crossan-196x300Sarah Crossan is, like Patrick Ness (of whom more in a few weeks), on the Carnegie shortlist for the second year in a row. I wrote a little about that previous shortlisted work here–I enjoyed it, but found it rather lightweight and insufficiently thought through to really consider one of the best children’s books of the year. One is stronger and more interesting merely by virtue of being a novel in verse.

The plot, in short: Grace (our narrator) and Tippi are conjoined twins in their teens, about to go to school for the first time as there’s no longer money to educate them at home. Both are dreading the new school; but they befriend classmates Yasmeen and Jon and spend a few relatively normal teenage months (smoking by an old church, falling in love with the one boy in the group) before tragedy strikes.

There’s a lot going on in One. Money is a constant concern–the two major life changes that the twins face (going to school, and later allowing a journalist access to their lives) are made out of financial desperation. Their father is unemployed and alcoholic, their mother loses her job part of the way through, their little sister can’t afford her ballet lessons, Jon is at their school on a scholarship. Jon’s mother has abandoned him, Yasmeen has HIV, Dragon (the little sister) is anorexic and to all appearances no adult has noticed yet. If I’m reading this book in a good mood, all of this is a useful reminder that people generally have several things going on at once and have to cope with all of them. Some of it is done well–that Dragon’s anorexia goes unnoticed by the adults in the story while Tippi’s weightloss is a cause for concern is treated with restraint; the two incidents are placed together but not commented on.

The One of the title is Grace-and-Tippi, and it’s also Grace herself, as a separate person. A recurring complaint made by Grace is that people tend to see her and Tippi as a single unit rather than two individuals–though the same people also misunderstand the depth of their connection. I was relieved that Crossan didn’t do the dull thing and have the twins both tell the story in alternating viewpoints. (It did mean that when the tragic end loomed the outcome became easier to predict, but it’s not the book’s job to shock you.) Within the text, Grace is the bookish one; in the fine tradition of twins who love each other but are also totally different in temperament–Grace is definitely the Elizabeth to Tippi’s Jessica. That’s probably an unfair comparison (both twins are perfectly reasonable humans, and neither of them reaches anything like the extremes of self-righteousness or sociopathy that the Wakefields achieve), but it’s one I make because it speaks to an aspect of Crossan’s work that I find disappointing. Here, as in Apple and Rain, her characters seem to fit very easily into stereotype, and beyond those broad lines we’re rarely given a sense of fully-realised people. I don’t know much about Grace except that she’s quiet and bookish; I know next to nothing about that bookishness except that it seems to embrace everything that the boy she has a crush on likes (and Who Among Us, to be fair). Presumably she had likes and dislikes before she met Jon; perhaps she’s even told him about them and he too is reading her favourites feverishly? We don’t know, and Crossan never gives us the sense that there’s more to these characters than this.

Where things get interesting, to me, is with the introduction of Caroline Henley, a reporter who (or whose employer) pays the family $50,000 for the right to follow the twins around and film them. The possibility of being paid to make a spectacle of themselves is broached relatively early in the book, and it’s always framed as invasive and creepy. Tippi is more strongly against it than Grace (as far as we can tell from inside Grace’s head and outside Tippi’s); Grace seems to view it as a pragmatic choice, noting that lots of people make money from putting themselves on show (her examples are supermodels). Tippi aside, though, all of the other people being outraged by the possibility are being outraged for the twins– their father, for example, rudely asks the reporter if she’ll expect to film the twins in the bathroom.

Early on in the book Grace tells us that:

[...] the details of all our bodies remain a 
        secret
unless we want to tell
 
And people always want to know.
 
They want to know exactly what we
        share
             down there,
so sometimes we tell them.

And then she does tell us. To stop us from wondering (“it’s all / the / wondering / about our bodies that bothers us”); and the effect is to place the reader in the position of the outsider whose curiosity may be well-meant, whatever that means, but is still invasive, is still prurient. [I'm reminded, unavoidably, of trans writers talking about cis people's preoccupation with the state of their genitalia.] Like the supposed viewers of Caroline’s documentary, we’re being invited into the book at least in part for the purpose of understanding what it is like to be a conjoined twin, what it means to be a conjoined twin, how these two people and their bodies work. Crossan’s author’s note suggests that there’s been a great deal of research involved in the project for her, but it also contains things like “It might be astounding to a singleton, but conjoined twins do not see themselves or their lives as tragedies” and “writing this novel has been a huge honour,” which seem to place it in a very specific tradition of Writing The Other. It’s a tradition that the book is clearly aware of–witness the characters’ initial suspicion of reporters. And yet the book ends with Grace telling her story to that same reporter–Crossan is placing herself and her book in Caroline’s position.

None of this, unfortunately, means that One is able or willing to tackle the discomfort inherent in this situation–to face the question of whether the novel’s gaze is inherently exploitative. Caroline is willing not to film the twins constantly, to provide them with contraband snacks in hospital, to cry when things get bad. “I want to be suspicious,” says Grace, but it seems Caroline cares. “She has proven she isn’t the paparazzi / She has proven she won’t take / our lives and turn them / into a sensational story”. The book, then, performs this critical engagement–it dramatises discomfort with its premise, and then has it “proven” benevolent. Tippi and Grace trust Caroline, who are you, the reader, to complain? It raises the spectre of its (and our) spectatorship and then reassures us that we’re fine.

April 28, 2016

Kate Saunders, Five Children on the Western Front

Saunders PsammeadI want to think about what Saunders is doing with this book as a (sorry) transformative work.(Is it worth mentioning here that my favourite piece of Nesbit fanfic is C.S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew?) There have been other continuations of Nesbit’s Psammead books before–most notably Jacqueline Wilson’s Four Children and It, but the internet informs me that there’s a Helen Cresswell book as well. The Cresswell appears a pretty straightforward sequel–the same sort of thing told over again, but with a new set of Edwardian children. The Wilson is a bit different–the Psammead books exist in this world and one character has read them. While the general children/ adventures/ be-careful-what-you-wish-for theme is inevitable, there’s something being done with the idea of the book itself. The character who most likes to read, and who has read Nesbit, is the one who wishes she could visit Edwardian England–and finds herself in a workhouse. It’s a bit of a kickback against the construction of Edwardian England as a sort of golden age of childhood; one which Nesbit’s books do a lot to construct in themselves.

And that construction, that golden England, is connected to WWI as well. It’s all country houses and elaborate afternoon teas and the Empire is strong (I’ll come to that, inevitably) and people dressed like Wodehouse characters and we, with hindsight, know that this awful thing is going to befall these happy, well-dressed people and they’re so young and it’s so tragic.

(There are things to say here about pre-WWI England as a kind of childhood, but smart people whose actual area this is have already said them.)

Saunders’s origin story for Five Children on the Western Front is itself a version of this. In the afterword she writes of reading the Psammead books as a child and seeing the Pembertons “as eternal children, frozen for all time in a golden Edwardian summer,” but then, in her teens, learning about WWI for its sixtieth anniversary and connecting the two worlds. Suddenly the golden summer becomes tragic, suddenly there’s all this loss awaiting our characters.

But how does this work as a children’s book in 2014 (when it was published in the UK) though? I read the Psammead trilogy when I was quite young because I was the sort of child who would–I don’t know how well known it is even among people of my own generation (a good couple of decades older than the supposed audience for this book). Nor are this book’s hypothetical readers credited with a great deal of background knowledge; witness the clunky, infodumpy scene in which the text explains to us what a VAD is. Does this prior knowledge/lack thereof matter? That adventures and endearing grumpy magical beings are fun, and that war is horrible, are things that any random set of characters could convey–but for this book to work do you need to invoke precisely that sense of a golden past, that protectiveness towards these characters?

I think one of the ways the book tries to get round this is with its opening chapter, which is a rewritten version of one in The Story of the Amulet, in which the Pemberton children travel in time to visit “the learned gentleman”/”Jimmy” (“Professor Knight” in Saunders’s version, though I’ve read one review suggesting this is inaccurate) in the near future, where their old nurse is dead, Jimmy is old, and keeps photographs of the now-grown-up Pembertons in his home. [Pause here while I refrain from talking about how great and messy and great the reasoning behind their trip into the future is.] In 1906, when the book is published, this future really is the future; a Wells-inspired utopia (Wells and Nesbit were friends and fellow Fabians, of course). In the 2010s, we know that this is not what the 1930s looked like. Jimmy has pictures, yes, but mostly of the girls–we know that something has happened to the boys. His nostalgia for the past is transmuted into grief–we, but not the children, see him crying when they leave. In the book’s final chapter set some years in the future a grown-up Anthea visits Jimmy and we see that life has moved on, and that most of the Pembertons have happy adult lives, but Jimmy’s grief, his knowledge of what is to come, frames the book, and our experience of it. But is that enough for a reader who doesn’t come to the book already feeling some stake in these young people’s lives? And if it is enough, is that because the book is blatantly manipulative in this respect (and is that necessarily bad)?

psammead millar

I mentioned the British empire earlier, and of course it’s hard for me to separate the niceness and the romance of this setting from the empire that sustains it (and it feels necessary to me not to do so). (Nesbit’s original series occasionally wanders into questions of empire and there are things you might choose to read as critique, but it’s so clever and funny and the characters are so charming and political critique never really seems the point.)

Conveniently, Five Children on the Western Front is also about discovering that a thing that is cute and charming is also kind of evil! The Psammead, the “sand-fairy” that the Pembertons have befriended, is tubby and furry and cross and has little eyes on horns and is generally adorable–the version above, by (I think) H.R. Millar, is a good one. Impossibly ancient (it remembers the dinosaurs), the Psammead, we learn, has spent at least a part of its life as a vengeful Akkadian god. It is reticent about its activities during this time, and it’s through a combination of coaxing and Jimmy’s expertise (in The Story of the Amulet he was an Egyptologist, but I suppose it was easier to be a genius dilettante a century or so ago) that the children are able to extract some stories. I wondered if Saunders had read Terry Pratchett; there’s a definite feel of Small Gods here. It seems less likely that she’s an Oglaf fan, though from these accounts the Psammead seems to have been a bit more Sithrak-like than one would want.

While reading the book I suggested on twitter that thinking of it as an easy allegory about empire might be more fun than reading it as the billionth World War One book of the last few years. Now that I’ve finished I don’t think it works as allegory, but there’s enough there to make a case for something. The empire isn’t particularly present in the book in fact–though Cyril’s favourite book is something titled With Rod and Gun through Bechuanaland and surely Saunders cannot have put that in there innocently. I’m depressingly unsurprised to see no sign that Cyril and Robert’s fellow soldiers might be any colour other than white–I guess the soldiers from the colonies were just deployed elsewhere. However.

The Psammead, we discover, has been sent to the children and stripped of its magic in order that it face up to and repent of its various crimes. All of the stories we hear are cruel– a handsome prince turned into a donkey (and here, rather wonderfully, we circle back round to C.S. Lewis), young lovers turned to stone for disobedience, a young scholar sent off to die because he’s inconvenient. This group of British children in 1914-1917 is shocked by these acts of tyranny against the natives. They’re even more shocked to learn that their friend had slaves, and thinks little of having killed a few thousand here and there. (The Psammead is at this point a few millenia away from being a slave-holding imperialist, at least; the British Empire abolished slavery in 1833.)

In a world where a reader might be expected to make connections between the Psammead’s treatment of his subjects and Britain’s treatment of its own (But witness the book’s insistence that its readers might not know what a VAD is; and WWI history, unlike imperial history, is at least taught in British schools)  this could make for an interesting reading of the text as embodying an uncomfortable confrontation with the national past–and as I am such a reader, and I like Nesbit, I want that reading to work. Unfortunately, I suspect that discomfort is more present in the original books (you can’t ignore empire in 1902, but if you’re British it’s all too easy in 2016). What we’re left with, then, is the plot in which, at the height of the empire, the barbaric and vengeful (and Eastern) god is taught the values of kindness and compassion by a group of middle-class, white British children; where a creature that has existed since the dawn of time finds its salvation and the whole trajectory of its life bound up in said children.

I cried–of course I cried, that was never not going to happen, the whole shape of this book is one intended for crying at–at the end. I don’t know that that’s enough to make it good; in the main, it only made me uncomfortable.