Archive for ‘reading while brown’

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.

April 9, 2016

In which Rhodes falls and doesn’t, Britain faces its imperial past and doesn’t, several large cats are featured, and nothing is propelled into outer space.

One Year in the Afterlife Of the British Empire:

 

April 9, 2015: A statue of Cecil Rhodes is removed from the University of Cape Town, a result of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign

November 8, 2015: (approx, that’s when the news stories seem to be published) A group calling themselves “Mountain of Light” demands the return of the Kohinoor diamond to India. British historian Andrew Roberts explains that the Kohinoor belongs in Britain “in grateful recognition for over three centuries of British involvement in India, which led to the modernisation, development, protection, agrarian advance, linguistic unification and ultimately the democratisation of the sub-continent.”

November 10, 2015: Karnataka decides to celebrate Tipu Sultan Jayanti; public debate (also riots, violence) about whether he was an anti-colonial hero, religious tyrant, or both. (I suspect forced religious conversion may have been an effective rulerly practice; I suspect his tyranny may have been exaggerated by British historians for their own ends; I suspect that the decision to celebrate his steampunk tiger2birthday ten days before his actual date of birth was not an innocent one. I have a suspicious mind.)

November 25, 2015: An exhibition titled Artist & Empire: Facing Britain’s Imperial Past opens at the Tate Britain. Of this more anon.

Sometime in November, 2015: I write a trollish column about Tipu, the Kohinoor, memorialising history, and museums. (I don’t publish it, for reasons that are not political ones.) (If I was cleverer at formatting that whole column would go here: please scroll down and read it and imagine it here, in these parentheses.)

Sometime in November, 2015: I discover that Tipu’s Tiger, on display at the V&A in London, can also be viewed on the museum’s website:

 

V&A Conservation in Action: Playing Tippoo’s Tiger Part 2 from Victoria and Albert Museum on Vimeo.

Yep, they’re playing God Save the Queen.

Multiple sometimes in December, 2015: Various (three) British men explain to me that the while the British Museum makes them personally uncomfortable, at least some of the artefacts are safer there than they would be in their countries of origin, and at least it’s free. I am polite and do not draw up a list of expenses for my own visits to the British Museum (but if we are, let’s start with the cost of a language test for my visa application).

January 17, 2016: Rohith Vemula kills himself. This is a post about Britain and empire, and I don’t wish to usurp for Britain any of the credit for the violence that India’s savarna state (the HRD minister was directly involved) and society inflict upon young Dalit students. But the role of the state, the memorialising of particular national narratives (Rohith was accused of anti-national activities, obviously), the university as a site of protest against these, all are in play here.

January 19, 2016: Oxford Union students vote to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes from Oriel College, following the Rhodes Must Fall movement’s campaign.

January 29, 2016: Angry donors threaten to withdraw millions in funding, unless the college continues to honour Rhodes and his (racist) legacy. The statue stays.

January-present, 2016: Protests on Indian University campuses, protests off Indian University campuses, more students’ lives being threatened, fascinating use of colonial laws against the country’s citizens. I’d say something obvious and platitudinous but true about university campuses being a space where debating national legacies, histories, narratives, etc is possible and necessary and how that space is being gradually threatened, but this week Baba Ramdev wants to behead you for not saying “Bharat Mata Ki Jai” and it’s hard to imagine what one could say.

Steampunk tiger

February 13-18, 2016: Everything is burning. It’s also Make in India week. (Is this linkable to everything else we’ve been talking about? Probably, but at the risk of losing focus. Still,) I’d be remiss if I failed to point out that the Modi government’s big development initiative also has a big steampunk cat for its symbol.

March 26, 2016: I finally go to Artist and Empire: Facing Britain’s Imperial Past (it is important to write out that title in full), and have cleverly timed things so that three of my favourite critics can come to it at the same time. By this time we’ve read some unfortunate reviews of the exhibition, so we’re aware that this isn’t going to be all that we could wish.

It is not all that we could wish. Here is a storify of our reactions, which (alas) omits the annoyed people who edged away as Maureen or I started muttering, or Paul’s amused tolerance or my face upon seeing Niall Ferguson’s Empire prominently displayed in the shop outside, next to Fanon.

Possibly the closest we can get is this George Stubbs painting (“A Cheetah and a Stag with two Indian Attendants”), which was one of the better things on display. The cheetah’s name is Miss Jenny and she has a most expressive face. I know just how she feels.

miss jenny

 

March 28, 2016: I stop by the V&A to pay homage to Tipu’s Tiger, as you do. I’m surprised by how uncomfortable its presence there makes me feel, even though I quite like the V&A. There’s lots of wandering through the “Nehru Gallery” (of course) and muttering to myself and having rude thoughts. In front of the Tipu’s Tiger display case a toddler is fascinated, and asks her mother why the tiger is eating the man. The mother pauses and then explains that the man has been very naughty. That makes me feel better.

 

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(That unpublished column from November)

I’m a little worried about our current obsession with the Kohinoor diamond, an artefact that has for a good portion of its history passed from empire to marauding empire, even as I feel instinctive glee at the thought of Taking Back Things the British Stole. The most recent attempt to reclaim it comes from a group comprised, apparently, of Bollywood stars (of whom I’ve never heard) and businessmen. This does nothing to disprove my suspicion that this particular object is a bit like political power and the Elder Wand, in that anyone who wants to claim them is too morally suspect to be allowed to.

There is an artefact I’d like ‘back’, though. In the Victoria & Albert Museum (the V&A) in London is a musical automaton, created in the eighteenth century, featuring a tiger mauling a European man. The man is wailing piteously, the tiger is making tiger-ish noises, and contains within its stomach a small pipe organ (for, presumably, more dramatic sound effects). Once you know that this thing once belonged to Tipu Sultan it all makes a lot more sense as a symbol. It also makes the fact that it’s in a London museum rather depressing; it’s clear who “won” that round. On the museum’s website you can watch a video in which “God Save the Queen” is played on the pipe organ, which is frankly perverse. But then, historical legacies frequently are.

tiger toy machineIn India this month (had I been there, and I wish I had), and in the UK always, it would have been tempting to walk around with my copy of Tippoo Sultan’s Incredible White-Man-Eating Tiger Toy-Machine!!!, Daljit Nagra’s second collection of poems, just to provoke. Nagra is British-Punjabi and the son of immigrants, and in his first two collections he draws on all his languages (various Englishes, Punjabi, Hindi), refusing to privilege one register over the other. But to speak and write in English at all is to grapple, in some way, with history and our imperial heritage; and Tippoo Sultan’s Incredible White-Man-Eating Tiger Toy-Machine!!! is often explicitly engaged in that work.

Some of this is done through references to canon. So you have “This Be the Pukka Verse” which begins “Ah the Raj! Our mother-incarnate”; the reader can’t not have Larkin’s “This Be the Verse” and its opening “They fuck you up, your mum and dad” in her head as she reads, and so can’t help but be reminded of the effects of empire upon the rest of us. Sometimes Nagra writes his history into the canon in other ways—“The Balcony Song of Raju and Jaswinder” has its star-crossed lovers confronting the realities of caste, alcopops and Bally Sagoo before a reference to the Hampton Court maze where “we stayed in the deep trying to murder our names”. Kevin Keegan is absorbed into kabbadi; the gaze of history writing is reversed in “A Black History of The English-Speaking Peoples”. Colonial-era spelling (including that “Tippoo” in the title) is adopted and discarded at will. In “The Ascent of a Victorian Woman”, ostensibly an excerpt from a travel journal, our narrator sits in a bullock cart and listens uncomprehendingly to a stream of “Bettychudes and Banchudes” from the Indian driver who often slips seamlessly into a Shakespearean register. It’s clear who has mastery of whose language. It’s not subtle, but why would it be? The poem which shares the collection’s title begins with the poet “rifl[ing]/ through your stash/ of coolly imperial/ diction”; it ends with the word “Raj” transmuted into a tiger’s roar.

This isn’t likely to come as a revelation to anyone who hasn’t somehow missed the last century or so of English literature. Of course we deal with the legacies handed on to us by wresting control of language, of course we hybridise, of course we face, embrace, distort, play with the history that weighs us down; we show our working, are unsubtle, roar. Nagra isn’t here to offer a revolutionary theory of language but to make from it poetry that works.

None of which really explains what we should do with the Kohinoor; diamonds are notoriously less malleable than language. Perhaps we could send it (and the British royal family, and statues of Cecil Rhodes, and memorials to Winston Churchill, and everything all of this stands for) into space?

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Coda

March 29, 2015: A visit to the V&A Museum of Childhood to look at a mini exhibition on Oliver Postgate and Nicholas Firmin’s work, and pay homage to another great cat. (Bagpuss has nothing to do with empire, probably.) We also go through some of the permanent exhibitions on the history of children’s culture. It turns out there are several golliwogs, scattered about the place and uncontextualised. (Okay, but it’s a child-friendly space, how much context can you give?) (Okay, but it’s a child-friendly space, how are you just going to leave those there?) (Upstairs there’s an exhibition on British child migrants, complete with a video in which adults who survived physical and sexual abuse as children talk about their experiences and we’re sickened and furious and yet I’m still thinking something like “this you felt you could address.”)

September 1, 2015

Nikesh Shukla, Meatspace

This isn’t really a column about Nikesh Shukla’s Meatspace, which I read many months ago and quite enjoyed (or about the Anouk ad, which features two queer women who look and sound nothing like me). It might be about naming in the present and the future–about the half-assed but (to me) vaguely endearing thing Jupiter Ascending did by having a white, blonde space!cop called Gemma Chatterjee and a black space!cop (Nikki Amuka-Bird, who was astonishingly, unfairly beautiful throughout) called Diomika Tsing.* Or the thing Arthur C. Clarke does in Rendezvous with Rama with the information, just thrown in there, that Norton’s full name is William Tsien Norton. These names work as quick signifiers (but then they assume that you will notice what they’re doing, and I don’t know if Shukla can make that assumption) for the sort of future, or in Jupiter Ascending‘s case the sort of genocidal multicultural galactic capitalist empire, that this is.

And I’m pretty sure it’s a column about Sofia Samatar’s fantastic tweets about authenticity some weeks ago.

And possibly about who has the right to write inauthentically? I don’t know. Anyway.

 

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I don’t know what to make of Kitab Balasubramanyam.

Kitab is the social-media-obsessed protagonist of Nikesh Shukla’s Meatspace, a book that is, depending on my mood, either a smart, and often moving satire of the way we live now or daddish panicking about social media taking over our lives. But my mixed feelings about the book are pretty slight, when compared to my mixed feelings about Kitab himself.

Kitab Balasubramanyam has a brother named Aziz (Balasubramanyam?), and a father who notes that it’s nice that Kitab and his Indian cousins all speak the language of the internet so that “you don’t have to pretend you know Gujarati anymore”.

The paper in which this column is to be published is read in the main by people who will be well aware that Kitab Balasubramanyam is an unusual name. When, early in the book, the character meets, apparently, the only other Kitab Balasubramanyam in the world, the real surprise is that there are two of them. (Were I to hunt down every Aishwarya Subramanian in the world I’d probably collapse from exhaustion somewhere in the middle of Chennai.)

Implied context and assumptions about what audiences (and authors) know are central to my Kitab-confusion. As an Indian reader in the genres I read, I’m all too familiar with books by British or American authors who haven’t done their research (or who have decided that Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom constitutes research); when the Indian character shows up I’m often already bracing myself to laugh or cringe. Nine times out of ten I’d assume that the improbable Mr Balasubramanyam was the result of similar ‘research’; half-knowledge of friends’ names and experiences cobbled together. That I don’t make that assumption in this case is entirely due to the fact that Shukla is of Indian origin himself. Perhaps that’s unfair and I should grant him the same right to ignorance as any British author (it is possible that I have been overthinking this).

And yet, and yet, and yet. Kitab Balasubramanyam is unlikely, but he’s not impossible.

Earlier this year an advertisement for the clothing brand Anouk, featuring two young women in a relationship, went viral. Amidst the several conversations that immediately sprang up were those who questioned the authenticity of one character’s speaking Tamil over the phone to her parents—no one spoke Tamil like that. I found myself bristling each time (some of these critics weren’t even Tamil speakers)—my own Tamil is significantly worse, but then I’m a very inauthentic Indian (and Tamil person, and probably several other things) myself. I have the sort of roving accent that comes of a lot of moving around, a lot of code-switching, and an excess of self-consciousness. Demanding authenticity from characters in literature, film, or even advertising is a dangerous path to tread because it can only ever mean deciding that certain people/identities are inauthentic, or impossible, or unreal. Less (?) seriously, it means distilling characters down to their most obvious traits, making them the most average they can possibly be. I’d say it was the equivalent of populating entire universes with people called John Smith, except that we know the John Smiths of the world are the least likely to have their identities policed. But think of every western TV series you’ve ever watched with the one Indian guy either in I.T., or a doctor, named Ravi or Raj.

If all of this seems like it’s drifted rather far from the book in question, I’m going to claim that it has not. Because of its subject, Meatspace is very strongly about identities, real and projected, and implied audiences. I don’t know if I want to claim that the naming of the main character is part of a cunning strategy; maybe Shukla just wanted to write about a character whose complex family history could lead to his having that name without the need to justify his existence to his audience; maybe he just didn’t care. Either way, I think I prefer Kitab Balasubramanyam to Ravi from I.T.

 

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I’m … less convinced, shall we say, about the movie’s choice to have an elephant-headed alien space cop called “Nesh”, but friends who have seen Sense8 tell me this isn’t the most hilaribad invocation of Ganesha in the Wachowskis’s oeuvre (or even in said oeuvre in 2015) so hey.

August 22, 2014

Frank Cotterell Boyce, The Unforgotten Coat

I’ve been away for a couple of weeks and so have been slow to put the last few columns here. But from two weekends ago, here is a thing on Frank Cotterell Boyce’s The Unforgotten Coat which does some things that I love and one thing that I really, really do not.

 

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Last week I spoke about the ways in which things like cover art, blurbs, epigraphs affect the ways in which we read books. They’re meant to; the text may be the real substance of the book, but all of these elements affect the lens through which we read it. All of this is obvious, of course, but it’s useful to remember that reading is rarely a completely unmediated experience, and to expand this understanding further. Our reading is affected by where in the bookshop something is shelved; it is affected by the gender of the name on the cover; it is affected (however grudgingly) by things we may know about the author’s life and opinions.

It stands to reason that the afterword of a book might also entirely change the way in which we read it. But this has never happened to me until quite recently, with The Unforgotten Coat, a novella by Frank Cotterell Boyce with photographs by Carl Hunter and Clare Heney.

In Julie O’Connor’s last year at primary school two new students show up. Their names are Chingis and Nergui (not his real name), they are from Mongolia, and Julie is entirely fascinated by them. She undertakes the job of being their “good guide” to the considerably less exciting town of Bootle, reads everything she can find about the history and culture of their country, and over and over, unsuccessfully, tries to get them to invite her home. Their world, as she experiences it through their stories of hunting with eagles, her own research and the polaroid pictures that Chingis shows her, is rich and strange and she cannot get enough of it. It’s new and unknown, and the mere realisation that there are unknown things makes her world a bigger and more magical place. The polaroid pictures, included throughout the book, depict a series of uninhabited landscapes or close-ups of unfamiliar objects. It’s another world, rich and strange. When Julie finds out that Nergui is being pursued by a demon, that his nickname means “no one” in an effort to throw this creature off the scent, in this new world it is no less believable than all the rest. “If there were seas of grass and woven palaces in this world, why wouldn’t there be demons too?”

Of course, the reality of Chingis and Nergui’s world is more mundane than Julie wants to believe. The bare flat in an unsavoury part of town, the crying mother. Rather than keeping up the mystique, they insist on learning about football, trying to fit in. “I’d been hoping he would turn me into some kind of Mongolian princess, but instead he was turning into a Scouser”.

And then we discover that the strange landscapes in the pictures aren’t so strange after all; that Chingis has used both his adopted Englishness and his perceived exoticness as shields from the truth. The boys are refugees fearing deportation, the photographs were all taken in Bootle. In a gorgeous sequence towards the end the three children go on a walk through a landscape that is strange and familiar by turns.

The whole thing is framed through the adult Julie looking back on this short period of her childhood. And there sometimes appears a rueful recognition of the ways in which the child Julie exoticises these two boys, speaks over them, demands that they be foreign enough for her story, even as everything about them undercuts her assumptions. So what are we to make of the Afterword, in which the author explains that the whole thing is based on a child he met at a school, where “the other children were touchingly proud of her” and “her presence massively enriched their lives”? It seems inconceivable that the intelligent (if imperfect) book about exoticism and its uses and this cringeworthy section that treats a child as if she were a sort of class mascot should have come from the same source but they have. I am completely thrown by this. And while The Unforgotten Coat is a far better book if I pretend that this afterword doesn’t exist, I’m not sure that I can.

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Also here, with bonus comment from the author.

July 31, 2014

Robin Stevens, Murder Most Unladylike

I bought Stevens’ book about ten minutes after I’d discovered its existence (via Daisy Johnson and Farah Mendlesohn, who both had good-to-gleeful things to say about it). So obvious was it that it was for me that a friend asked if I was sure I hadn’t written it myself. I hadn’t, I’m not good at fiction.

Part of the reason this was such a wonderful discovery is that I’ve been in a school story murder mystery mood for a few months now. I reread the Blake and Crispin books mentioned below, two Gladys Mitchell books (I discuss Tom Brown’s Body below. Laurels Are Poison does not have a non-white student; it does have an Amusing Black Servant. Fun times!), and Gaudy Night. And earlier this year I read Missee Lee, which is not a murder mystery or a school story, but which also has that incongruous figure, the brown student who worships everything English and tries so hard. And I cringed a bit when Hazel speaks about her family’s obsession with England; it’s heavy and unsubtle and one of the few places the book slips up for me. But for the rest of the book, the ways in which Hazel does not fit that stock character type came as such a relief.

Plus, how nice to have a prominent character (okay, the murder victim, but she wasn’t murdered for this reason at least?) be bisexual, and have no one within the book’s universe be surprised or puzzled.

From this weekend’s column.

 

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I am a very limited crime fiction reader, and I know what I like. Amateur detectives, not much gore, a focus instead on the web of individual human dramas that make up the small community (golden age detective fiction is very fond of small communities) and a comparatively low stakes (though not for the victims, presumably) approach to murder. There’s a reason they call more modern iterations of this genre “cosy crime”. It’s soup on a cold day, or an airconditioned room in summer; at least as far as any of these comforting things can be built upon violent death.

For the lover of school stories (and readers of this column know that I am one), the detective novel set in a school or college is particularly magical. And so much great crime fiction has this setting. There’s Edmund Crispin’s wonderful Love Lies Bleeding (which combines crime, a school setting and Shakespeare and therefore almost deserves a genre of its own); Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes, Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night. John Le Carré ventures partway into the genre with A Murder of Quality. The first of Cecil Day-Lewis’ Nigel Strangeways novels, A Question of Proof, has a school setting as well. And I have a fondness for Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons and Val McDermid’s Report For Murder, even if neither of these is an example of either author’s best work.

But most of these authors belong to an earlier time, and reading them today it’s hard not to notice that it was apparently a time in which casual racism was acceptable, the working classes are fundamentally slack-jawed and superstitious, and if occasionally a character is not upper-class or white, the reader is very quickly made to wish they were. I recently read some of Gladys Mitchell’s classic crime novels; the “African prince” in Tom Brown’s Body has an unfortunate habit of biting opposing footballers due to his ancestry.

And then there’s Murder Most Unladylike, the first in a modern series of crime novels for younger readers by Robin Stevens. Set in 1934 (but published in 2014), it follows the adventures of thirteen year old boarding school detectives Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong, after Hazel finds the body of one of their teachers in (where else?) the gymnasium. Both Stevens and her characters are very genre-conscious; early in the book we learn that the girls have been reading Agatha Christie and Margery Allingham, and we will discover that Hazel is a school story reader as well. The whole thing opens with one of those terribly useful floor plans, and we have all the school politics and crushes and annoying juniors of an Angela Brazil book. The references to earlier literature are sometimes blatant, sometimes subtle enough to be in-jokes. More than once I laughed out loud in recognition.

But it’s unfair to Stevens to treat this merely as a pastiche of two genres, and it’s where she deviates from them that Murder Most Unladylike is at its best. Because Hazel, our narrator, is from Hong Kong (she is, as far as we can tell, the only non-white pupil at Deepdean school); she’s clever and pretends not to be; she has a complicated relationship with her overbearing, popular best friend. This is about as far as it’s possible to be from Gladys Mitchell’s African prince, or the Hurree Jamset Ram Singh of the Billy Bunter books—or even Christie’s precocious Princess Shaista. Stevens’s depiction of Hazel’s cultural background is sometimes clumsy, but it always acknowledges her as more than a stock character, and depicts a world in which casual racism exists and affects those who are its targets. It’s unlikely that most of the target audience for this book will recognise these deviations from a pattern with which they are not yet familiar, but they mattered to me. In more ways than one, Murder Most Unladylike felt like being given a place in a genre (two genres) that I love.

 

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Apparently Stevens’ next book in the series is a country house murder. Which, as far as I’m concerned, just proves that she is writing for me.

June 22, 2014

Susan Cooper, Ghost Hawk

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

As always, there are spoilers.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I say suddenly, “Are you Wampanoag?”

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

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

June 1, 2014

Rachel Campbell-Johnston, The Child’s Elephant

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

[There may be spoilers]

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wish I had been overreacting though.

 

February 27, 2014

Two posts about Courtney Milan

I’ve said in the past that I like to think of the regency romance as being set in a sort of fantasy world where things like the slave trade and gross economic inequality don’t exist—because if they do, our protagonists are thoroughly implicated in them. Even if they’re the ‘nice’ ones who think that small poor children should not be forced up chimneys, or that one should be kind to one’s servants, or at least learn their names, or that the slave trade is maybe not that good (standards for ‘nice’ being pretty low here), it’s hard to think of them as sympathetic in any way. Romances that draw our attention to these social realities as part of their elucidation of their protagonists’ characters manage to annoy me far more than ones that don’t mention any of this.

Courtney Milan’s books, though, are in one sense set firmly in the past of the real world. Recently I’ve been reading her Victorian-England-set Brothers Sinister series—I cringe a bit (a lot) at this title, but at least Oliver, Sebastian and Robert (none of whom are actually brothers, though they are related) are left-handed. And also these books are kind of great.

It’s obvious that there’s research involved; specific parliamentary reform acts, medical and scientific developments, social history, all of these are placed at the centre of the various stories in ways that ought to jar with the genre-romance format, but usually don’t. There’s an amusing moment in the afterword to The Duchess War where Milan, describing the radicalisation of workers in 1860s Leicester, admits that they really did not need a pamphlet-writing duke to stir them up, since they were managing quite well on their own. Why is Robert there, then? Because romance novel. It’s a concession I’m willing to grant her (though unlike pretty much every other minor historical change she makes, it doesn’t make 1800s England a better place). Apart from stray moments like this, though, it’s fiction that is solidly grounded in the material reality of its time. More realist than most realist fiction then, despite its basis in a genre one of whose strengths is a frequent departure from reality.

But then there’s the science thing, and I think it might be the most important of all. A minor character in the first few books in the series is Sebastian Malheur, the most reviled scientist in England, a Darwin supporter and a scandalous discusser in public of the sex lives of plants. These minor references are more serious than they might at first seem. As Milan herself says in the afterword to The Duchess War, “[e]very piece of historical fiction alters history in at least some tiny regard”. But this is more than a minor change; putting a geneticist in the same time and place as Darwin (Milan’s drawing on a lot of Mendel’s work, as she explains) could have enormous consequences.

Then in The Countess Conspiracy (spoilers all over this, sorry) we discover that what has been presented as Sebastian’s work so far has been that of his friend Violet Waterfield, who was in no position to publish (or be read, or taken seriously) because she’s a woman. This particular book has Violet discovering the chromosome, considerably earlier than was done in our world. Milan has already suggested, as I say above, that the minor changes she makes in her universe could have larger consequences, and this one is pretty huge.

So that’s where we end the series (I think there is to be one more book, but I’m not sure how far into the future it takes us), with scientific knowledge considerably further advanced than it was at this stage in our own world’s history. And while I’m not convinced that this makes The Countess Conspiracy science fiction (it is definitely fiction about science), I’m willing to argue for it, and I’m pretty sure that any sequel to it would be at least alternate history. Can SF claim Courtney Milan? Probably.

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In The Heiress Effect, we are introduced to Anjan Bhattacharya, an Indian student in England. Particularly in the years since RaceFail, I’ve seen a lot of Writing The Other conversations in my various corners of the internet– why it’s important, how to do it, how to react to criticism of how one is doing it. I don’t know if Milan hangs out in the same parts of the internet as I do, but in many ways she’s done everything right; she’s read first-hand accounts of Indian students in 19th century Britain (including Gandhi’s, but she names a few less obvious ones at the end of the book), the 1857 war is namechecked*, there’s even an almost-reference to the Bengal Renaissance. Anjan isn’t only an angry freedom-fighter, though there’s plenty of anger there, he recognises that his own presence in England, studying law, requires a certain amount of complicity; his relationship with Britain is as tied up in his class position and family (and caste, though the word isn’t mentioned) as it is in the fact of being a brown man in 19th century England.

Here’s the thing, though. When Milan writes about, say, anxiety disorders, as she does with Oliver’s aunt Frederica, she doesn’t feel the need to have the character speechifying about it. I assume that this is in part because none of the characters is in a position to speechify; normally, when the books deal with historical fact that doesn’t commonly show up in romance novels there’s a note in the afterword. Anjan, on the other hand, is constantly explaining himself–to Emily he explains that brown people can have complex feelings towards their colonisers, that the British Empire is kind of bad, and that vegetarians exist; to her uncle Titus he explains that Indians don’t all force their wives to commit sati and that Hindus are generally monogamous. 19th Century English people had a number of fascinating ideas about Indians and I’m well aware of this, but underlying all of these authorial choices is what feels to me like an assumption that Indians in books still need to be explained, that their literary presence is an opportunity for a teaching moment. And I’ve read historical novels whose authors have clearly done no research at all into India (*cough Libba Bray cough*) and as long as that sort of thing is seen as normal and acceptable perhaps we do need to be explained (no wonder Anjan falls in love with the first person who bothers to learn to pronounce his name). And perhaps posts like this are proof that You People Will Never Be Satisfied. I’m not, though.

 

*I know Emily is very sheltered but the only way in which I can account for her not having heard of the ‘Sepoy Mutiny’ at all is that her uncle is deliberately keeping the newspapers away from her. Which is plausible, I suppose, but it seems unnecessary unless as an excuse for Anjan to also explain that conflict; another teaching moment.

September 29, 2013

Strange Horizons is a good thing

I feel the need to point this out because they’re entering the final stages of their yearly fund drive.

I sometimes write for Strange Horizons. This year I have a review in their bonus fund drive issue (the full issue can be found here) and a piece in their forthcoming issue on Indian science fiction. But when I linked to the fund drive a couple of weeks ago on twitter, I said that while I would like the magazine to continue as one of its occasional writers, it’s as a fan that I’ve found it most vital to me, and it’s as a fan that I’m speaking of it here.

Other people have written about the fiction that the magazine publishes, and obviously a lot of it is very good (See this and this and this). Lots of places publish good SFF short fiction though*. What I really value about SH are the nonfiction parts–the reviews, articles and columns, which are often brilliant. (I’ve been unforgivably late with my own reviews for them in the past, simply because having a standard to live up to is unnerving and makes me want to curl up and read fanfiction instead).

SH is the sort of place that will review mainstream literary fiction which has elements of SF, or epic fantasy from a major publisher, or self-published work, or academic work on SF, or translated fiction, or My Little Pony (before it became a Thing), or the occasional video game, and it is always taken for granted that all of these are worthy of serious thought, and that engaging with things is an enjoyable activity. Sometimes they publish academic work. Recently a review linked to a cat gif.

It’s also the sort of place where it is almost taken for granted that lots of contributors (both fiction and nonfiction) will be from outside the USA, will come in skin colours other than white, and gender identities other than male. Conversations about diversity within fandom often make me feel uncomfortable; here, I don’t particularly stand out and it’s great.

There isn’t any single conversation around books and films or other media on the internet or off it; it’s always a set of overlapping sub-conversations (stating the obvious here, sorry). The set of conversations and (I just wrote “reader-book interactions” and deleted it because *shudder*) that make up Strange Horizons has felt sometimes like coming home. I’m rarely sure of my ability to contribute something of value to the conversation, but this is a literary (and fannish?) culture that I value and want to be a part of.

I spend a lot of time on this blog trying to think through half-formed ideas, and feeling inarticulate and not very bright. If you don’t read Strange Horizons and you do read this blog, and if any of the sort of writing I want to be doing is coming across at all, it’s possible that you will also find SH valuable and important.

Plus, there are prizes to be won.

 

*Or so I assume; I’m very lazy about reading short fiction.

September 26, 2013

Maria Semple, Where’d You Go, Bernadette?

Apparently I have reached a point where “not enough Indians” can be my stance on a book. It’s a good book though.

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For me, the most fascinating character in Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette? was one who was offscreen (or whatever that term’s literary equivalent might be) the whole time, and eventually, it turned out, may not have existed.

Semple’s book tells of the disappearance of its title character through a collection of documents—emails, letters, bills, transcripts, even a school report card—all put together and interspersed with narrative by Bernadette’s daughter Bee as part of her search for her mother. We learn that Bernadette was, several years ago, a celebrated young architect, a recipient of a MacArthur Genius Award, that her insistence on using local materials was way ahead of its time. We also know that her husband Elgin is a genius computer programmer. In the years since her finest work was destroyed, however, Bernadette has withdrawn from the world. She drops her daughter to school by car, never getting out to meet the other parents, or volunteering for school activities. She accomplishes most household tasks through the offices of an online personal assistant. She certainly hasn’t worked as an architect in several years.

If Where’d You Go, Bernadette? is overly quirky at times, it’s also a smart, lighthearted exploration of creativity and depression, as a precocious teenage girl might see it. We have here the snappy dialogue and observational comedy that are probably the legacy of Semple’s time as a TV writer, and the broad stereotypes with which we’re presented at the beginning of the book remain unchanged at the end, though perhaps we’re encouraged to see them more kindly.

But then there’s Manjula. Early on, we’re told that Manjula Kapoor is an associate with an organization known as “Delhi Virtual Assistants International”. For the rather exploitative fee of seventy-five cents an hour, she manages her client’s life entirely. New clothes and other items are selected and bought online by Manjula, and delivered to Bernadette’s house. She arranges flight tickets and makes restaurant bookings. She is superlatively efficient. She even manages to sound polite and friendly when faced with Bernadette’s ramblings about Ikea (“You know what it’s like when […]Of course you don’t.”) or her frequent rudeness (“You are able to place calls, aren’t you? Of course, what am I thinking? That’s all you people do now”, “you bet your bindi that’s how big I want it”). She is the ideal assistant, made all the more so by the fact that she’s never seen. It’s easy to compare her to Elgin’s administrator, Soo-Lin, who is too present, and with whom Elgin cheats on his wife.

Elgin disapproves of his wife’s employment of Manjula, and later events seem to prove him right. Delhi Virtual Assistants International doesn’t exist, and nor does Manjula. The whole thing has been a scam, a front for a Russian crime syndicate who are now in possession of the family’s financial details. Incidentally, this means that a book with characters named Manjula and Balakrishna (Bee’s real name, because she was blue when born) and set in part among computer programmers in America has no Indians.

And yet, all of this only makes me more curious about the perfect assistant. Her name (or his name, or their name) may not have been Manjula Kapoor, but someone has been reading and replying to emails, negotiating with chemists for stronger anti-seasickness drugs, making dentist’s appointments and booking flight tickets and restaurant tables.

To wish that a book had been written from a different perspective altogether is like wishing it had a different ending, or different characters; it is to want change something fundamental about it. Semple’s an author fully in control of her book; there’s a reason that it is narrated by Bee and not Manjula. But perhaps it’s something fundamental that I want to change. Where’d You Go, Bernadette? is a book that suggests that its various wealthy and privileged characters are worthy of a lot more kindness than we are at first inclined to give them. I wonder whether Semple could have made a convincing case for doing so from Manjula’s perspective.

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