Archive for November, 2014

November 26, 2014

Susan Scarlett, Pirouette

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

From a recent column.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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November 17, 2014

Meena Kandasamy, The Gypsy Goddess

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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November 14, 2014

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

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

From a recent column.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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November 2, 2014

October Reading

October 2014 really could have been better. But it did involve some quite good books, which are the only thing in its favour.

 

Rick Riordan, The Blood of Olympus: At this point I have trouble keeping the plots of these books straight in my head, but they are generally enjoyable and satisfying and nice in ways that not enough things are.

Susan Scarlett, Pirouette: I have a couple of thoughts on this, probably best left for a future column. It is not among the better Streatfeild/Scarlett books I’ve read.

Courtney Milan, The Duchess War: A friend and I exchanged a couple of casual text messages about Courtney Milan and the next thing I knew I was involved in a large twitter book club reading (in my case and that of some others rereading) the first book in this series. I stand by my belief that Milan has grown into a better writer as the series has progressed; but I’m willing to test this by reading all the books again, obviously.

Meena Kandasamy, The Gypsy Goddess: Review to come.

Monica Byrne, The Girl in the Road: For various reasons that don’t belong in a reading round-up I’m hesitant to write much about this book. But I am genuinely impressed by it, I’d love to see more of Byrne, and I’ll be disappointed if this doesn’t show up on the Clarke shortlist next year.

Deirdre Sullivan, Improper Order: Sequel to Prim Improper, which I wrote briefly about a couple of months ago, and which made me very happy. This series is managing to be very funny and sweet and also to deal with bereavement in ways that give it its full due; it’s a difficult balancing act and yet it is clearly working.

Garth Nix, Clariel: I’m not sure Clariel is good; from a genre perspective it’s fascinating. I have about half a review’s worth of scribbled notes that should probably be turned into something more substantial.

Angela Thirkell, Pomfret Towers: The last book by Thirkell that I read was charming but made me uncomfortable on many levels–and not in good ways. This is far more to my taste; Thirkell’s still ruthless with her characters’ flaws, but the book as a whole is far kinder, far less snobbish, and less obsessed with people’s antecedents (High Rising’s treatment of its Jewish and Irish characters was a huge part of my discomfort with it) than the earlier one. Plus the shy, awkward main character is the sort-of heroine and doesn’t end up with the handsome heir to the title.

Kuzhali Manickavel, Things We Found During the Autopsy: I’d read many of these before in the various venues in which they appeared, but a new collection is a lovesome thing. Manickavel is still weird, and still funny, but it’s the overwhelming sense of anger transmuted into bitter laughter that has made them so powerful to me this time.

Jenny Boully, Not Merely Because of the Unknown that was Coming Towards Them: A short piece on this soon, which I’ll be expanding from the column. I’ve been wanting to read this for three years now, and it is gorgeous.

Patricia McKillip, Ombria in Shadow: Read in order to follow the discussion at the Strange Horizons book club. I’ve loved the few things by McKillip I’ve read in the past and I loved this. More thoughts at that link, and for those who’d like to follow future book discussions, next month’s book is Nick Harkaway’s Tigerman.

Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre: A reread, for work-related reasons. I don’t think I’d read it properly since my first year at university, ten years ago, and it was fascinating to see how much I’d changed as a reader in that time. Still great.

Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Also a reread, also for work. I don’t think I’m ever really going to be a fan.