Archive for ‘Global Comment’

June 10, 2014

Diana Wynne Jones, The Islands of Chaldea

Posted at Global Comment a few weeks ago.



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


February 25, 2012

Stella Gibbons, Starlight

This was posted at Global Comment a couple of weeks ago. I’ve noticed that Starlight has been less widely reviewed than Westwood, the other recent Gibbons reissue. I’m not sure whether this is because it’s less well-known (perhaps the Lynne Truss connection gives Westwood the advantage?) or because it is simply so strange that no one knows quite what to do with it. To make things stranger, while Cold Comfort Farm was published in 1932 and Westwood in 1946, Starlight is from 1967 and is one of the last books Gibbons ever wrote. Characters in Starlight quote C.S. Lewis as if he were the sort of well-known author Gibbons could expect her readers to know. It’s a bit disorienting.



Stella Gibbons is best known for 1932’s Cold Comfort Farm, a sublimely comic novel that satirised the grim, rural works of writers like Mary Webb and Sheila Kaye-Smith. Cold Comfort Farm is considered a classic, but its popularity has overshadowed Gibbons’ literary career. While she went on to write close to thirty novels, until recently most of these were unavailable and out of print.

Over the last year, however, Vintage have begun to publish Gibbons’ missing back catalogue. Westwood, Starlight, and Conference at Cold Comfort Farm have all been reissued, and there is the promise of more work by Gibbons to come. Of the three books republished thus far, Starlight is the latest (it was published in 1967) and in some ways shows the biggest divergence from the author’s most famous work.

A pair of joined cottages in a run-down part of London is bought by a new landlord. Most of the tenants move out, leaving only those who have nowhere else to go. These are the elderly Barnes sisters, Gladys and Annie, and Lancelot Fisher, the old man who lives in the attic and changes his name every month. But the new landlord is not the exploitative figure they have feared. Mr Pearson has bought Rose and Lily Cottages on the whim of his wife, who suffers from an unspecified illness. The flats are renovated and repainted, rents are not raised, and Mrs Pearson is installed in the newly pink-and-gold Lily Cottage.

For much of the book, Starlight is entirely domestic. A great deal of the novel is devoted to interactions between the residents of Rose Cottage and the local vicar and curate, the latter of whom is particularly bewildered by Gladys’ constant chatter. Gibbons’ insistence on showing class difference through accent is sometimes unfortunate, but these sections still provide humour of a sort that is directed as much at the public-school-educated curate as it is at the garroulous old woman.

The Pearsons seem entirely normal. He is the devoted but often crude husband; she is the fragile wife with a passing interest in the occult. Mrs Pearson’s greatest worry seems to be her distant relationship with her daughter, Peggy. Peggy works as a companion (and dog-sitter) to a rich woman, fending off the advances of the middle-aged son of the house on a regular basis. She has a secret sorrow but even that, when revealed, is found to be mundane.

“Mundane” is not a perjorative here. One of Gibbons’ great strengths is an ability to take the utterly ordinary concerns of normal people and find a gentle humour in them without ever trivialising them. And so we feel for the socially inept curate as we do for the awkward teenaged girl who is Mrs Pearson’s protégée. We understand Annie’s fears and Peggy’s doomed love affair is no less tragic for being ordinary.

It is with the introduction of Mrs Pearson that the reader gets the first sign that all is not entirely as it seems. From the first description of her there is something sinister about her illness.

The word death breathed chillingly from some cave in a mind so stuffed with cosy things that there was barely room for it. As she said afterwards to her sister, ‘That was what she put me in mind of – death. Poor soul, I thought.’ Yet – it was not only death.

As anyone who has read the back cover of the book will already know, Gladys and Annie soon begin to think that there is something sinister about Mrs Pearson. Yet everything about the kind of book that Starlight has signalled itself to be suggests that these fears will prove to have a rational (and possibly comical) solution. But there is a gradual unfolding of Mrs Pearson’s various oddities. Her hatred of the church bells ringing; her desire to “touch the pavements with my feet” (again and again the text draws our attention to the oddity of this phrasing). The book begins to refer to “the thing” behind Mrs Pearson’s eyes as a separate entity to the woman herself. Eventually the reader has no choice but to admit it; despite all evidence to the contrary, Starlight is a novel about demonic possession.

It’s even more bewildering that, having made this revelation, Gibbons feels no apparent need to dwell upon it. The book continues to pay as much attention to Peggy’s romantic life (and how is it that her mother’s being a tool of dark forces occupies her mind so little?) and to the oddities of Mr Fisher as it does to the supernatural drama taking place inside Lily Cottage. It’s hard to tell to what extent the sections dealing with the thing inside Mrs Pearson and its exorcism are meant to be scary – the juxtaposition with the pink and gold house and its inhabitants is sometimes effective, sometimes ludicrous.

After that great moment of genre-instability, though, nothing seems quite as safe. And suddenly it seems the text is throwing up all sorts of minor instances of weirdness as if to keep reminding us that we have no way of knowing what Gibbons is likely to do next. What, for example, are we to make of this short paragraph in which the universe of the novel seems to have shifted to that of A Clockwork Orange?

As she drew near to the cottages, midnight was striking from the steeple among the crowded television masts on the old roofs.

She ran the last hundred yards, keeping in the shadow of the ruinous doorways to avoid a group of boys that was attacking, almost silently, a man at the end of the Walk. She waited until they were all concentrated over his fallen body, kicking and smiting in hushed fury, then shot lightly past, on the other side of the street and gained her own front door.

We are never told why gangs of murderous boys are roaming the streets. None of the characters seems surprised when their actions lead to death.

It makes no sense that this book should exist, thus suspended between comedy and melodrama, horror and domesticity and theological fiction. But it does, somehow, and it is utterly weird, and it is bewilderingly good.



December 31, 2011

China Miéville, Embassytown

For the sake of completeness – I realise I never reposted this review (originally written for Global Comment) here. This version is slightly longer than the original.



When China Miéville’s The City and the City won the Arthur C. Clarke award in 2010, there was some debate over whether or not the book was really science fiction. With his new book there can be no doubt. The City and the City was a crime novel set in a fictional part of Eastern Europe: Embassytown is set on another planet.

Arieka (the planet upon which the city of Embassytown is located) is home to a race of aliens known to Terran settlers as “the Hosts” or the Ariekei. What they look like is never very clear. Miéville’s previous books have often contained creatures that cannot be adequately described except through fleeting glimpses – notably the Slake Moths of Perdido Street Station and the Grindylows of The Scar. We do know that the Hosts have “fanwings” which aid in communication, and that they have two mouths.

This last is important because the language of the Ariekei is unique. Firstly, they cannot tell lies. In this language there is no real boundary between the signifier and signified; the word is the thing itself. It’s a clever inversion; two tongues but only one meaning rather the the other way around. This inability to lie makes the use of metaphor rather complicated — the thing to which the comparison is being made must already exist in the world. The Terran narrator of the book, Avice Benner Cho (her initials ABC) is a simile. She is “the girl who ate what was given to her”; a description vague enough to be of use in many contexts.

Secondly, this language relies not only on sounds but on the mind behind them. The two mouths must speak simultaneously, and they must mean what they say, but they must also be motivated by the same consciousness. Most Terrans cannot speak the language: two may speak simultaneously, but unless they share the same mind to the Ariekei it’s so much gibberish. Hence the importance of the Ambassadors, pairs of Terrans who are genetically identical, and raised solely for this purpose. The Ambassadors are seen not as two people but as a single entity; with names like CalEb and MagDa, their individual components only meriting half a name. The events of Embassytown are set off by the arrival of an Ambassador of an entirely different kind, whose voice affects the Hosts in unexpected ways.

This is a setting that allows Miéville to explore various ideas around language and consciousness. There is, for example, the strange place that lying assumes in Ariekei culture. The nature of Ariekei language (referred to throughout as capital L Language) renders it “incapable of formulating the uncertainties of monsters and gods”, and so the Hosts have no religion. However, they do have “festivals of lies” at which people compete in trying to use Language to tell falsehoods. Lying has taken on an almost religious significance here; something beyond Language, impossible and yet apparently conceivable. This raises the question of whether it is even possible for something to be “beyond words”, a notion contested early in the book by Avice’s partner Scile, a linguist. The possibility of a language in which word and thing are the same brings to mind the first sentence of the Bible. If the Ariekei think of lies in semi-religious terms, various Terrans regard Language as an almost pre-lapsarian means of communication, and one that must, by virtue of its unsulliedness be preserved.

Equally, there is the question of the mind (and since religion has become involved, the soul). Are Ambassadors made up of two separate people, or are they one? Does Avice’s friend Ehrsul, an “autom”, have a soul? Can the Ariekei recognise individual Terrans as sentient beings (and not strange, half-minded creatures)? And are even regular human minds ever really that unified?

The issue of colonialism is also raised in the relationship between the Hosts and the Bremen Empire to which most Embassytown residents belong. The Hosts have advanced biotechnology, while the Terrans have the ability to travel and trade, a relationship that seems egalitarian. Yet the Terrans are backed by the larger might of an empire. Later events bear out the existence of a power imbalance, with connections made between colonialism and drug addiction (it is easy here to make a connection with imperialism in Asia) and the Hosts confronting their status as postcolonial subjects.

But this is itself is a bit of a problem for me. Because once you begin to read Embassytown as a book (partly) about colonialism and religion (and if you don’t subscribe to this reading all this is irrelevant), we have a book in which aliens who have their wonderful, prelapsarian innocence destroyed stand in for the brown people and the humans who travel around the universe spreading their culture are the white people. I don’t know how this connotation could be avoided (by making the Terrans not Terran? By having the Ariekei have a more visible cultural impact on the various groups who visit their planet?) Miéville deals with a rather fraught set of questions better than most, but it’s there, and it makes me uncomfortable.

Miéville answers very few of the questions he poses, exploring ideas without coming down on any particular side. It can feel slightly scattershot – there are more questions and leaps of thought from one idea to another than there is deep engagement with any single idea. And yet there are times when this works. Science fiction is often praised for an ability to literalize metaphor, and this is very clearly more a novel of ideas than one where plot, setting and character are central. But here we have something different. So much of the structure of the universe of Embassytown is unknown even to the characters that inhabit it – we learn early on that this is not the first universe there has been, and about the “lighthouses” in the immer, created by unknown peoples. Some of the most fundamental questions about the universe remain unknown. Such a universe is one in which questions can be debated; not necessarily one in which they can be answered.

Miéville’s language has always been both elaborate and richly allusive, and in a book about language this is even more evident. He coins words like “shivabomb” and “pharotekton” without explaining them, and in working out their etymologies the reader is reminded of just how dependant on metaphor our own language is. A number of words are derived from German, since the “Bremen” empire is involved. The indescribable alternate space through which people travel vast distances through space is called the “immer”, German for “always”, while the space we habitually exist in is the “manchmal” or “sometimes”. But “immer” also allows for the word “immersion” to describe space travel.

It’s when the characters are talking about language that Miéville stumbles a little. I’m not sure the concept at the centre of the book (how Language works) holds up, but I was willing for the duration to suspend disbelief and treat it as an intellectual exercise rather than a matter crucial for the functioning of a plot. Avice’s circumstances make it seem natural that she should be able to speak knowledgeably about language (and I appreciate the author’s willingness to use critical terms). Yet some of her explanations seem rather unnecessary. “The best we can do is say that the immer underlies or overlies, infuses, is a foundation, is langue of which our actuality is a parole, and so on.” Indeed, and it’s an apt analogy, but the reader who is familiar with such basic structuralist terms as “langue” and “parole” has probably figured this out. The linguist character, Scile, repeatedly explains things that the text is already making quite clear.

Yet Embassytown (mostly) works. It is unabashedly an intellectual exercise, and at times its characters seem rather lifeless. But it is bursting with ideas, language well used, and is occasionally a good story. These things make it easy to forgive much.


September 27, 2011

Carol Birch, Jamrach’s Menagerie

When I saw Jamrach’s Menagerie on the Booker longlist I was intrigued. By the time I’d read and reviewed it, it had made it to the shortlist. Not having read all of the other shortlisted books I can’t give it my unqualified support, but I’d be quite pleased if it won.

This review originally published at GlobalComment, here.



Jaffy Brown has lived all of his short life among the streets and sewers of London. Everything changes one day when he encounters a tiger in the street. Ignorant of what the beast is and compelled to touch it (“Nothing in the world could have prevented me from lifting my hand and stroking the broad warm nap of his nose”) he finds himself picked up in its mouth and dragged away, before he is rescued, unharmed.

The tiger’s (very apologetic) owner is Charles Jamrach – and so far, this is a true story. Jamrach did own a menagerie in Victorian London; in 1857 one of his tigers did escape and carry off a young boy and the boy did live to tell the tale. A statue in Wapping commemorates the incident.

Jaffy goes to work with Jamrach where he discovers a talent for looking after animals. This brings him into an often-antagonistic friendship with a co-worker, Tim Linver. An incident early in the book, where Tim locks Jaffy inside Jamrach’s shop for the night, is the means of introducing Jaffy to Tim’s family – including a sister, Ishbel, with whom Jaffy immediately falls in love.


This first part of this Booker-shortlisted book has been described in almost every review as ‘Dickensian’. It is accomplished, clearly the work of an extremely talented writer, but they are also in many ways (and in defiance of the title) the least interesting part of the book. The real story begins when Dan Rymer, who supplies Jamrach with his animals, receives a commission to hunt for a dragon that is rumoured to exist in the islands of Indonesia. Rymer, along with Jaffy and Tim, joins the crew of a whaling ship bound for the region. And it is the sea-bound sections of Birch’s book that raise the novel from check-the-boxes Victoriana into brilliance.

Jamrach’s Menagerie
 is very clear about its sources. At more than one point in the story characters refer to the Essex, the sunken whaling ship that inspired Melville’s Moby Dick.

Certain things I remember. The fo’c’s’le, Gabriel saying: “There’s an evil spot out there, they do say.”
Sam smiling. “Don’t frighten the little ones,” he said.
“Everybody knows about it.”
“I don’t,” I said.
Gabriel looked at me. “No? The place where things happen. Where the Essex was lost, and more since. A cursed spot upon the ocean.”
Everyone knows about the Essex, and all the others. It’s legend on the whale ships. It’s something of a joke.

Specific reference is made to Owen Coffin, a teenaged boy aboard the Essex who was sacrificed and eaten by the remaining crew after the shipwreck. “’I knew a man knew Owen Coffin as a lad,’ said Gabriel. ‘Sailed with his father, he did. Said Owen was a nice boy, and a good sailor like his dad.’” Like Melville, Birch draws on these stories for her own, and the references work to foreshadow events to come.
The whaling sections are brutal; the chase almost a seduction and the killing and harvesting utterly grotesque. It’s a relief to learn that all this is nearly at an end.

My clothes had dried upon me and become a second skin, and the bones and organs of the whale floated alongside the ship in a great snapping of sharks and a feasting of seabirds. I stood with Gabriel looking down. Morning had come.
“Take it all in, son,” he said. “Doubt you’ll get the chance again.”
“Why so?”
“The whaling’s done for,” he said, and grinned.
“No call for the oil no more. It’s all this new stuff now. They’ll always need the bone for the ladies’ stays, but they won’t be wanting all this oil no more.”
“What new stuff?”
“Oil under the ground,” he said.

This is not the only indication that the book is set at the end of an era. The quest for the dragon reminds one of the beginning of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Here Marlow, the narrator, describes his childhood fascination with maps.

I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration. At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look that) I would put my finger on it and say, `When I grow up I will go there.’ The North Pole was one of these places, I remember. Well, I haven’t been there yet, and shall not try now. The glamour’s off.

As a child, Jaffy’s lack of knowledge made of the tiger “a mythical beast”.Jamrach’s Menagerie is set at what seems like one of the last moments when it is possible to discover dragons. There are still spaces in the world that are largely unknown., The sort of knowledge with which Rymer and his companions approach the capture of the dragon (just a rumour of a rumour of a tale told by a sailor) is the most the characters have to go on. Yet this will change. At the beginning of the book Jaffy is dreaming of dragons. By its end (in a reference that would otherwise be another predictable nod to the Victorian setting) he is reading Darwin.
But for the book the dragon occupies a strange in-betweenness, halfway between the mythical creature of Jaffy’s imaginings and the scientific truth. The ‘dragon’ or ‘Ora’ is, of course, a Komodo dragon and nothing like the dragons of Jaffy’s fancy (“It’s not a dragon,” I said. “It’s like he always said. A big crocodile”). But the harsh reality of science does not entirely take us out of the world of fantasy. The ‘dragon’ may not have wings or breathe fire, but there is something supernatural about it. “How was it we became so afraid of the dragon? Not just as anyone would be afraid of a wild animal with claws and teeth, but as if it was something more”. The “something more” that is attributed to the dragon (which seems to blight the fortunes of everyone on the ship. After its capture the ship slips into an alternate state, a nightmarish sense of stasis that seems a tribute to Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. “Time changed”, as the narrator puts it:

And on and on in that dream—seven dark days and nights that had begun to feel eternal. The superstition of sailors is no more than the lone howling of millions of miles between you and dry land and home, making you know you are a thing that can die. Superstition, dark, spiky, high stepping, stalked with cloven foot upon our decks. And when superstition high-steps on a lone sea deck, far and far from every strand, as the old songs say—then, oh then …

Not just when sleeping, not just half asleep on my feet at the masthead, not just tipsy-drifting with a head full of gummy warmth, but always, every conscious second I was beautifully, startlingly afraid, with a fear crisp and invisible as the honed edge of a fine blade.

The quiet horror builds up over chapters in which nothing much actually happens – then climaxes as something does. But the sense of unreality that sets in in these chapters continues for most of the book.
A series of tragedies follows. The nature of these tragedies has been evident throughout the book – if the multiple references to the Essex had not been enough, conversations about cannibalism in the islands (and an unpleasant scene where komodo dragons feed off a dead member of their species) and the conviction that the ship is cursed would make it all obvious. But through the bleakness, the dark humour as the number of survivors in the captain’s prayer decreases day by day, there’s a dreamlike quality to everything. And of course we always know that our narrator will survive.

Jaffy is an odd narrator. Birch has his voice shift constantly between those of a child and of an educated adult looking back. Were this a particularly plot-driven book, this would be a complete giveaway of the ending. Jaffy is also entirely too good, which is a little disappointing; this may be a subjective retelling, but nothing about the plot suggests that its narrator is ever anything but blameless. The only thing that keeps him interesting despite this is the fellow feeling for the animals he encounters the whale, the tiger, Jamrach’s various creatures. Even the dragon – he is repulsed, afraid, and sometimes refers to it as a demon, yet Jaffy is able sometimes to identify with it.

A line from the Book of Job is quoted twice in the book; I am a brother to dragons and a companion of owls. By the end it seems to typify Jaffy, who is by this point running his own aviary. The final sections of the book, chronicling Jaffy’s return to London and his later life are rather perfunctory and disappointing. There are awkward encounters with families and an (in the circumstances) improbable recommencement of a romance. There is more Victoriana: a reference to Dante Gabriel Rossetti (a client of Jamrach’s; Birch resists the temptation to namecheck another client, the far more colourful P.T. Barnum). It’s never bad – at her worst Birch is still an accomplished writer. But it lacks the magic of the seafaring chapters of the book.

Jamrach’s Menagerie is on this year’s Man Booker shortlist and it thoroughly deserves to be there. But if it wins it will be on the (considerable) strength of that central section alone.



 I spent a good chunk of that review wanting to make a connection to this book, which I read last year. There are the obvious connections – undiscovered creatures; shipwreck; cannibalism; heightened, feverish shipboard imaginings – but I suppose these are in enough ship-related stories to be quite normal. Certainly I can find no evidence that Birch has read this particular Poe work. Still, it would be nice to be proved right.
June 5, 2011

Karen Joy Fowler, What I Didn’t See

A couple of months ago I reviewed Karen Joy Fowler’s short story collection What I Didn’t See for Global Comment. I’m reposting that piece here for the sake of completeness, and because apparently people are asking about brilliant female writers. Here is one.


If there is one thing that is obvious from Karen Joy Fowler’s work to date, it is that she is interested in books and how they work. The Jane Austen Book Club, for which she is chiefly known (it spent quite some time on the New York Times bestseller list and was adapted into a movie in 2007) engages with the modern romance genre and with science fiction as well as with Austen’s novels. The Case of the Imaginary Detective, also published as Wit’s End, is a crime novel about crime novels. Sarah Canary, her first book, seems to change genre with each person who discusses it.

What I Didn’t See is a collection of Karen Joy Fowler’s short stories, the first such collection since 1997’s Black Glass. Most of the stories in this collection have been published elsewhere, with the oldest (“The Dark”) first published in 1991 and the most recent (“Halfway People”) in 2010. So it’s unsurprising that they don’t immediately form a unified collection. However, while it would be reductive to say that literature is Fowler’s subject, this is a frequently recurring thread that is useful to hang on to.

The title story, “What I Didn’t See”, was published in 2002. This story about a group of people on a gorilla hunt in the 1920s does not on the surface show allegiance to any particular genre. Despite this it won a Nebula award in 2003. While not visibly SFnal in itself, the story is in conversation with one of the great short stories of the genre, James Tiptree Jr’s “The Women Men Don’t See”. Tiptree’s story is about alienation, both with regard to race and (primarily) gender and to actual aliens. Fowler’s narrator, unlike Tiptree’s, is a woman who becomes in part complicit in the unseeing of women.

“The Halfway People”, “The Dark” and “King Rat” all engage with fairytale or folkloric elements. “The Halfway People”, first published in a collection of fairytale retellings titled My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, plays off the fairytale of the six swan brothers. In the Grimm brothers’ story, the brothers are turned into swans by a curse which is eventually broken when their sister weaves shirts for them. The youngest brother, whose shirt was left incomplete, has a swan’s wing for an arm. Fowler locates the fairytale in the mouth of a woman who loved this youngest brother, and makes of his story a bedtime tale for her son.

“The Dark” manages to combine a history of plague, the Vietnam war and feral children into a disturbing story which also contains references to the Pied Piper of Hamlin. “King Rat” is a simpler piece in which the narrator remembers a friend of her family, yet again the story of the Pied Piper and his attendant lost children lurks in the background.

“Booth’s Ghost” appears here for the first time. This is a story about the family of John Wilkes Booth after the assassination of Lincoln. Edwin Booth’s acting career is dogged by his brother’s crime, and he is equally haunted by the ghost of his father – so iconic an actor of Hamlet as to make it almost impossible for Edwin to play the role. Besides the Shakespeare connection “Booth’s Ghost” is in conversation with another text in the same book; “Standing Room Only” tells the events leading up to Lincoln’s death through the eyes of a young girl with a crush on John Wilkes Booth.

The intertextual nature of most of these stories adds depth and can be stimulating, yet most of the stories could probably stand quite well without it. Fowler is marvellous at evoking beauty and strangeness, and her narrators are odd enough to be real. The central character of “Private Grave 9”, a photographer at an archaeological dig competing with Howard Carter’s, stands out here. And the teenaged characters who appear in many of the stories are among her strongest voices.

Family also plays a major role in the collection. It can be a source of happiness and comfort, as in “The Marianas Islands” in which the young narrator explains the family history that led to her owning a submarine of her own. Family here is an unmitigatedly good thing; as the narrator says “the first thing you need to know is where you are”. In most of the stories, however, the family plays a more ambiguous role.

“The Last Worders” is a story about a town obsessed with poetry and a river that doesn’t exist. But it is also the story of a long-standing and uncomfortable rivalry between two sisters (and here again we have a fairytale staple) over a man they could both love. “The Pelican Bar” chronicles years of torture meted out to a girl who is sent to a horrific reform school by parents who never see her again. Parents are unreliable; the terrified child narrator of “King Rat” seeks out her father for protection and finds him annoyed with her. The parents of a pregnant girl in “Familiar Birds” force her to carry her child to term and put him up for adoption. In “Always”, a story about immortality in a cult of sorts, there’s the impression that the narrator is trying to escape a stepfather who “was drinking again” and a mother whose life “would have been so much better without me”. In “Standing Room Only” Anna’s discovery of her mother’s plot with John Wilkes Booth comes across as a betrayal.

And there are the lost children. They form the focus of the last story, “King Rat”, but really they are all over this book. From Norah in “The Pelican Bar” whose parents remain unaware that they have lost her to Paul in “The Dark” to the adopted child in “Familiar Birds”. The final passage of “King Rat” (and therefore the book) feels as if it were coming from Fowler herself; nothing could be more appropriate than that a collection so aware of stories should end by commenting on itself:

I hate this story. Vidkun, for your long-ago gifts, I return now two things. The first is that I will not change this ending. This is your story. No magic, no clever rescue, no final twist. As long as you can’t pretend otherwise, neither will I. And then, because you once bought me a book with no such stories in it, the second thing I promise is not to write this one again. The older I get, the more I want a happy ending. Never again will I write about a child who disappears forever. All my pipers will have soft voices and gentle manners. No child so lost King Rat can’t find him and bring him home.

What I Didn’t See is dark and often painful to read. Yet it’s also honest and weird and lovely. It has all the lightness of touch that you’d expect from someone who has spent so long dancing around the boundaries of genre.


April 3, 2011

What I Didn’t See, Karen Joy Fowler

I’m pretty sure no one in India is going to read anything that isn’t cricket-related today. (Pause here for a moment to be overwhelmingly happy). But I have a review up at Global Comment of Karen Joy Fowler’s most recent collection of short stories. Short version: it’s brilliant; where can I find a copy of Sarah Canary?

Read here.