Books to Build a Person

In the middle bedroom of my mum’s house is a treasure trove. A collection of the books that me and my two sisters read when we were growing up. Oh, the adventures to be found. In one place is What-A-Mess, the Afghan hound who always ended up in a state, despite the purity of his breeding. In another is Mildred Hubble, the Worst Witch, who was perpetually disorganised, had her hair undone, was late for lessons, had her socks round her ankles and never quite got her spells right.

Each time I stay in that middle room, I pull another book out. Perhaps a tale of Narnia, the putting on of rings in an attic that takes the wearers to a strange pool, or a girl who goes to a party and picks all the jelly sweets and cream off the top of a trifle.

Something familiar joins these stories. A girl, who isn’t quite sure of herself. Perhaps it’s her general organisation, or her desire to look outside the limitations of the world around her. A girl who is fascinated by anything and everything, even if she isn’t always organised enough to put the right sock on her feet in the morning.

Yes, that’s me. While I was reading these books, clearly I was finding characters in which I found a mirror of myself. In the mornings, my mum would despair at getting me out of the door on time. At school, my teachers would despair at my lack of pencil, pen, homework, the general paraphernalia that always ended up a bit outside my capabilities. Most of it was because I was too distracted by a book, or the TV, or an idea I had, forever in the muddle of my ideas. These books helped me to identify my place in the world, and to get a sense of worth. Arriety and Mildred always had wonderful adventures.

What it also led me to discover was the power of the books I read when I was young. The top three books were there: Paddington, The Borrowers and Narnia. Not just one book, but anthologies, three collections of books that I read over and over, absorbing myself in the worlds that took my behind the clock with Arriety, into the home of the Browns with Paddington, and into another world with Polly and Digory.

There’s something strange about reading those same words, the ones I turned to so often when I was a child. For starters, it makes me feel bloody old. All too often, I don’t really think as myself as particularly grown up, but there’s nothing like a childhood book to remind you it was over twenty-five years since you last read a book. At the same time, it’s comforting. Snuggling down under a duvet, I can pretend I’m still in that place, sheltered by a secret world, where, at least for that moment, it felt like it only existed for me.

The magic of my childhood resided in books. I was also lucky enough to grow up with books; Steven King making my teenage years even more scary than they were anyway, and the Discworld providing light relief from teenage angst. In fact, I went on to write my dissertation about Terry Pratchett, so his influence stretched beyond spots and hormones.

Now, as a (sort of) adult, I continue to drown myself in words. Sometimes it’s the classics that I really should have read by now, other times it’s new fiction that’s just been released, or just random stuff recommended to me by other people. I find that I look more and more for people different to myself, to allow me to explore through books, rather than find solace in recognising something familiar.

What I’ve also come to realise is that, while my days are often shaped around reading (on the bus, before sleep, a sneaky few chapters over lunch) I have also been shaped by the books I read. My sense of adventure, encouraged by Arriety’s desire to see what was outside the door. My desire to create, boosted by Paddington’s stubborn insistence on getting to the end of whatever he was doing, no matter the outcome. There’s politics and social codes in there too. I’ve seen the world through the eyes of wizards, witches, homosexuals, Islamic fundamentalists, young children, old people, and perhaps most importantly, people from cultures I have never visited. I will never know what it’s like to be a Korean living in the US, or a Nigerian, or a Chinese person in the UK, but all of these voices have been experienced by my little lump of grey matter. Now that’s a powerful thing.

Reading goes far beyond providing a simple way to kill a few hours. It cannot match up to a film or a game, simply because, only in reading, are you active in constructing the meaning, shaping the world in your imagination that the words suggest to you.

That’s why, sorry everyone, I will continue to buy every most people I know a book for Christmas (I do hope you’re enjoying reading them!), because I want them, too, to be able to touch the spine of a treasured item, and recall the times that paper, ink and glue took them to places they never imagined.

The Blackest of Fridays

She crept to her door, iPhone pinging deliriously in hand. It was out there. Waiting, just for her. She peered out. Nothing could be seen through the bobbled glass. She would have to go outside.

Stretching between the hedge and next door’s wall was a web, a brown-speckled spider brooding in its middle. She walked past it and out, seeking those things that were promised to her. The sky was cold blue, remnants of leaves squadged into mounds. She would need to go further.

The bus lurched, gorged full of swaying bodies. Each of them clutched phones, trolleys, bags, waiting to be filled. At their destination the bus vomited them onto the grey pavement. Hard concrete under her feet, huge signs shouted from windows. All those things, just for her.

She checked her phone. It took her hand, guided her to the best place. The one where she could get the most.

Hours spent dragging other people’s food over a barcode scanner. Mopping up the spilt orange juice in Fridge Aisle Three. Pinning the laminated badge over her shirt-enclosed breast. She was happy to help. And this was her reward.

Bargains dripped from the walls. Scavengers looted the racks, garments falling to the floor, trampled under shoes bought two weeks ago, ready to be replaced. In the distance were the electronics, recognisable from the heaving mass that throbbed around the shelves.

That could wait. A gaudy blue dress squawked at her from its hanger. But there were others it called, too. Applying her elbow firmly to the nearest set of ribs, she clambered over a heap of clothes, something solid under the fabric, and clawed it from the hanger. Such a bright blue. And that fabric, the hang of it. Hot For This Season, and definitely suitable to Transform From Office To A Night Out. She clutched it close, the scent of newness hanging over it.

But there was a jacket, too. Stripes To Flatter Your Figure. This was harder to get to. Another had it already in her grasping fingers. She reached over, smiled, scraped her fingernails up the exposed length of arm. The woman shrank back, easing her grip. Perfect. All it needed was some jewellery to go with it. Perhaps those people, the reporters, would stop her on the street when she wore it, her face smiling from those coloured pages, a beacon of fashion to the dowdy.

Scattered finery littered the floor. Necklaces, jangling bracelets, it was like walking over a dragon’s hoard. What she needed was gold. Something to Stand Out From The Crowd. A glitter caught her magpie eyes. Chunky chain, adorned with fake-diamond lumps and a cross at the bottom. Perfect. But there was only one left.

She watched as another swooped in. Lacquered nails clasped around the treasured item. The usurper started to walk away. She would have to act fast.

Grabbing a set of earrings, she lunged forward, tripping, falling to her knees. In one movement she drove the studs into the back of the woman’s leg. A trickle of blood could just be seen through the 20-denier tights.

With a shout, the trinket fell to the floor. She scooped it up, dodging round the display filled with hair accessories to avoid recriminations. Her prize was clutched in her hands. Such a good start, after only thirty minutes of shopping time. Imagine what she could achieve in a whole day.

Her key scraped in the lock. Heaving herself up the stairs, she collapsed onto the sofa in a satisfied lump. Bags were lined up each arm, a huge box clutched between her hands. As she leaned forward to put it on the coffee table she winced, the twinge in her back attending to the distance she’d walked back with this lot, unable to fit on the bus.

She peeled the packaging off the black hulk – Active Shutter 3D, curved screen, LED, 720p, High contrast ratio, Internet connected HDTV. Her reflection was muted in the 50-inch display. The smudge of a bruise on her cheek, the red ribbon of blood trickling down from her split lip. She dropped the bags, wincing at the pain from her cracked rib. They healed on their own. Better to try these things on, parade her body in front of a mirror, fragrance it, shave it, moisturise it, daub it with colour, style it, dry it, freeze it in a single click of a glorious selfie that would capture her in this beautiful peacock dress, sitting amongst her purchases after the Blackest of Fridays.

The Jacket

It was bought for Harry’s christening. Sharp darts in the waist and a slippery blue lining. Mum kept it at the back of the wardrobe, shielded in a cover. Black makes anything look smart.

A baked late-September day; the interview. Perched at the back of the bus, the hum of the engine vibrated sweat into my skin. Keep the arms down. CV printed at the internet cafe with grades in a bigger font than the school name.

I’d tried to press out the cardboard shape from the shirt packaging. Iron too hot; a shine-streak down the front, a whiff of polyester plastic.

They put us in a room. The other candidates were beige flowing lines, rippling pages of magazines. I was the cardboard leaflet jammed through the letterbox.

The slick from the bus crept from beneath the fabric. That prized item. It didn’t belong here.

Supermoon

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Tonight the moon was huge. There was a tweet, an article on my feed, a pop up ad. Don’t miss it.

Scuttling out into leaf-speckled roads, I looked. Peered between the dark branches of chimneys, stretched my eyes to look beyond the splashes of brightness dropped from streetlights.

Something was glowing behind the house opposite. I imagined the size of it, the golden glow, the ballooning of it in the navy sky.

To get a clear look, I had to walk to the end of the road. Reach the onslaught of traffic on the corner. The crossing beeped, sparse fireworks popped, bodies hurried past. No-one was looking up.

Past the corner and up the road, I turned back and saw it. Golden, yes, but no more than the electric hum nearby that guided children on scooters. Huge, probably, but tucked between rooftops it was apologetic, an urban intruder.

Tonight I want the moon to be huge somewhere else, not trapped here where the sky is too small. 

The Fragrance of Blood

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She lets the sun touch her through the window. Dips her head, past the dark line drawn on the table, sits her face into the sharp heat. Magnified warmth. It could be Ghana outside – thick orange dust, women piling yellow fruits. Amplify the squawk of a hedge-bird, it could be a gull – clawing its way into the sky, scissored feathers in glossy blue. She squints at the shaking strands of light shredded through the Volvic water bottle – a reflection of a swaggering pool, a shard of light cut from the shifting sea.

The minute hand of the clock stabs. They’ll be back soon. She pulls her face back into the shade, reconciles her eyes to the brown lines of houses across the road, next door’s terracotta fence too orange, like a beach with a fake tan. Crushing the waxy wrappings, she cups her hand and drags it over the wooden surface, scraping her skin white to make sure all traces are gone.  She picks up a bit of gristle and grinds it between her teeth.

The evidence goes in a sealed freezer bag, the air hushed out, then the rigmarole with the chair so she can reach all the way to the back of the airing cupboard, nestled with the others between the folds of the ruched curtains they took down last summer. Two slices of ham and a sealed pack of pastrami for next week.

It might start to smell. A quick squirt of Berry and Shimmering Mist, thorough hand wash, everything is hidden. She slips back the lid of the piano and smears some fingerprints on it, puts some pans on the hob and a willing carrot on the chopping board. The last moment before the clatter arrives at the door, she lifts one hand into the beam of evening light, dancing the warmth in her fingers.

Once they’re here, she changes. Three other bodies, shifting around hers, demanding, placating, the, ‘yes-but-I-didn’t-mean-it,’ and, ‘what-are-you-telling-me-for,’ dips up and down like a chorus, a tape-loop of grievances and defences, repetition smoothing them to melody. Her movements are easier, guided by expectations, pinned by these male eyes. Once separated from her body, they lifted and turned against her.

When they are almost at the table He will arrive, then is the ritual of the eating and the asking. The Requests, now the wallet is near, before they disperse into corners, leaving her to cleanse the portions of the house they have touched, to make it ready for their onslaught again.

Something sticks. Before the clatter of his key, a jump in the rhythm, a caught needle. It’s like a lump, a hard thing, too early in the month for that, and too high up, but a similar clenching around a hard mass, something she swallowed perhaps. The boys gape at her, this unexpected stillness. One finger under a rib – poke, rub, it will go soon.

It resumes, their dance exhaling back into what it was. Lentil bake today, followed by yoghurt and raspberry compote.  He arrives; ‘oh-what-did-you-get-for-homework,’ and, ‘you-won’t-get-better-unless-you-practise,’ until they scatter.

The obstruction persists, an accusation under her skin as she smooths on the thick blubber of face cream and reads five pages before sleep.

Mince sits in sops of it, gleaming on the edge of chops, the steak carved out from the redness itself. Blood smells more fragrant than Purple Lavender Meadow. Last time it was just a pork pie, a pink hunk hidden inside a clump of pastry. It could have been cheese, vegetable. Easy to hide. Before that a sausage roll, a turkey stick. All so hard and cold. She wants something with juice today, for it to leak between her lips as she eats it. Cooking is too risky, they might smell it.

Impaled chickens rotate in an oven, brown fat glistening on their hides. The largest one is sealed in a foil bag, pressed into her hands. So warm. She double bags it, shoves it in her large handbag, escapes into the street, planning her route.

“Lina!” Joanne, who runs the knitting and mindfulness class on Tuesdays, lumped across the whole pavement. A whisper of escape to her left, but now she’s hesitated too long.

“Didn’t think you’d be going in there.” Joanne nods through the glass, lumps of squashed red things delicate in their displays. “Although knowing you, more guests for dinner, yes?” Joanne leans in, her nose edging towards the bag. A silver chain drops out from under her chin, a drop of blue at the end, darkening to purple under the bloody awning of the butcher’s. So pretty. Just like the thing she lost.

Another dance will begin – the swaying of compliments, a dangled invitation to be snatched at or dodged. The heat is leaching from the bag, each minute solidifying the glorious fat.

“Sorry, got to get back, the boys.” It’s an easy excuse.

There’s a poke, lower down this time, shifted over to the left. Like it’s working down through her, dragging something with it. She walks past Joanne, a wince in her step as it nags at her all the way to the car, round the ring road and out to the industrial estate. She sits on a wall and buries her face in the grease of the chicken, sucking the meat from the white rounds of gristle and spitting them on the floor among the dandelions.

The thing she lost, was tricked into giving away. It had been a gift, from Aunty Fran, the cold chain dropped into her palm without a box, so Mum wouldn’t see. An upside-down V curved in gold, for wishes. She secreted it under her school shirt, sweated in a vest so it stuck to her skin. Mum worried the mark it left with a sponge in the bath. Before sleep, she slid her middle finger along the curve of it, soothed by the up and down, her hands aching from all the piano scales. A smile was given, if she completed the hours, ticked off the things on her list.

On Sundays they trooped to church. The new man came for a one-off guest appearance, highlighted on the leaflet like a headline act. He walked among them, gesticulated, had the first button of his shirt undone and a scruff of beard. You should give something precious, he said, to show your love. There was a bin bag, he rattled it, already full with his things. Stuff, he said, it isn’t important. A sniff of something as he walked past. Perhaps he had a bacon sandwich for breakfast, while they ground down cereals like cattle, spooned quivering egg folds onto toast.

She reached behind her neck, hid the strand in her hand, put the scratchy gloves on top, as if that were her gift. Her hands splayed flat, so he could see the flash of it as it fell into the bag. It had seemed obvious then, her way to an unspoken salvation. If not, she’d find a way to retrieve it, later. After the droning of the last hymn he led them out, breath claggy in the cold, out over the graveyard, to the river. She teetered at the back, craning her feet in the stiff shoes, enough to catch the carelessness of his hand as he flung the bag over the edge. Her wishes, submerged in scudding water.

There’s a spot of grease on her chest, bits of skin in her hair. She’s gasping, as full of breath as when the babies squeezed out. Different though, to be filled. A lemon wet wipe takes care of the worst of it. In the rearview mirror she finds a speck of rubbery pink on her chest. Where the wishbone used to sit.

No sun today. It could be Estonia – sharp spires, the rain a shivering waterfall, frothing mist in a green valley. Leek and mushroom pasta.

It digs in her stomach, this hard thing. Worse tonight. It must be the size of the large dollops of creme fraiche she spoons in. A little lower again, in the middle, where she got the first jabbing sensation. You’re a woman now, Mum said, cleaning her up and pressing flower-crusted pads into her hand. It felt like being emptied out.

Plates on the table, it resumes around her, the ‘but-it-isn’t-fair’ and ‘I-expect-better-from-you.’ After the first gift in the bag, it continued. Things to be bestowed on others. Your appreciation, your virginity, your grades, your debts from University, your hope of being an architect, travelling, your hand in marriage.

The clatter has stopped. She scans the faces, reflections of herself, cut into more angular shapes. They look confused. She feels something wet in her hand. A loop of spaghetti, draped around her neck, her middle finger sliding over it. Quite cold now, it must have been there a while. She slops it onto the plate, moves too early into the after-eating tempo, ignoring the resistant hands as she takes plates still strewn with food. Wincing over the bubbles, it feels like it’s growing.

On Wednesday the school calls. She was stooping her back in the sun, Guyana outside the window. Now there will be traffic and snivelling, vomit and soothing hands required. She takes the big handbag again, decides to pop in on the way, maybe something to have in the cupboard, to waft her nose over when it gets a bit much.

The lamb chops cling to the severed bone. On special offer. Thick steaks, seeping redness onto their little plastic tray. She asks for two, three, four. A squashy parcel of waxed paper, placed at the bottom of the bag.

The school is two roads down on the left. Outside, a necklace of yellow V shapes mark the boundary of it on the tarmac. She traces the inverse shape on her collarbone. Drowned, in such a beautiful stream. Her foot reaches for the pedal.

The ring road is quiet at this time of day. On the motorway, it’s surprising how quickly the miles are eaten up. At twenty, she throws the mobile phone out the window. At thirty, the keys to the house. Forty brings the remembrance of the thick packet of waxed paper. She pulls it out, opens it in her lap. With one hand steering, the other frees the hunks of meat. It wafts up to her – a metal tint of rotten fruit. Impossible to wait. She rips at the corner of one with her teeth, juice spilling down her chin. The hard knot dissipates, wetness between her legs. At fifty she’s onto the second fillet, cheeks red in the bleeding sky.

The Versions of Us

A very interesting concept – three possible outcomes for the same couple. We’ve all questioned the ‘what ifs’ in our lives, so this novel has a go at unpicking the actual outcomes of decisions made over the span of an entire lifetime. What keeps you flicking the pages in this book (and I did read it very quickly) is the short chapters and the unusual concept. I would have liked for it to be executed with a little more finesse.

Eva and Jim meet at a chance encounter while at University. But while the first time they see each other doesn’t change, the way their lives play out following that moment is explored in three alternatives. In one, they stay together, in the second, they keep missing each other, while in the third, things go rather disastrously wrong, at least at first. We follow both of them from their twenties through to their seventies, from London to New York to Paris, and untangle the confusions and delights of two lives, lived to the full, and the effect that certain decisions have on them and those close to them. It’s a clever premise, and it’s certainly engaging to be taken to many different locations, intimately described, and to have the opportunity of seeing the parallel universes of two people and the way they shift and fluctuate towards and away from each other.

I saw Laura Barnett at a reading of her next book, Greatest Hits, which also sounds interesting. In her new novel, she explores the idea of a life lived through one day, and the memories and ideas that this day throws up allows the reader to see their whole life. In the interview, Laura said she didn’t have a carefully mapped out plot for The Versions of Us with lots of post-it notes or charts, that it was all in her head. I would say that this is perhaps clear from the reading of it. While the stories were certainly interesting, I wasn’t particularly compelled or surprised by what happened in each of the threads, and the different plot points didn’t necessarily drive the novel forward. What does, of course, is the varying relationship between the two central characters, and the way the outcomes are different. It also perhaps explained the missed facts and time inconsistencies that were littered throughout. The method of narrative is a clever device, and it is a clever book, but I was disappointed that more wasn’t made of the interweaving, as it could have allowed for some really unusual storytelling.

The other issue is, in itself, the threading together of three narratives. Because the chapters are so sparse, I found myself losing track of which daughter or son was which, the main problem being that I no longer cared as much what happened to them. This was especially the case with the ‘extra’ characters, that really didn’t get fleshed out enough to make it off the page. It is certainly a difficult thing to do, threading all of these narratives together, but I wonder if giving us longer chapters as the book progressed would have allowed us to be better immersed into each specific world, as I found myself flitting through the book, not very invested. The other problem that this multiple narrative throws up is the need to ‘tell’ so much. With gaps of months or even years between each episode, we find the character quite awkwardly reflecting on something that doesn’t always seem natural, simply because the reader needs to be filled in on what has come before. I can understand that this was a difficulty in leaving gaps, but perhaps it would have been nice to tackle them in slightly different ways each time, to avoid the ‘she/he remembered…’ feel that gets a bit repetitive. It also meant that feelings were often reported rather than experienced, which again left me feeling emotionally distant from the character’s journey. Perhaps two threads might have meant that the stories could be more intimate and fully developed, rather than spread so thinly between three.

Her prose is flowing and smooth, with the occasional touch of beautiful phrase. This gives it a nice pace, so that in between your brain catching up with who is who and what was happening last time you saw them, there are elegant descriptions that I found delightful. In fact, the nuance of language just edges it out of being a beach read, as it doesn’t (always) fall for easy clichés and offers a far more subtle exploration of relationships (in all their forms) than you would expect from a different kind of book.

To be clear, this is a very engaging and interesting novel, and I did really like the interplay between the character’s lives. It’s an interesting concept, as we so often cite ‘timing’ as such an important factor in relationships, that to see the actual result of three different timings between the same two people is a very interesting exercise. I just would have liked to be more emotionally engaged with the story.

An Instruction

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His breathing labours over my shoulder, huffing out breath perfumed with ham and disappointment. My hands clunk over the keys, slip off the C sharp, snag on the C. I can feel the wince behind me.

Eight bars to go. I stretch out the middle finger, labouring too long in the shift in chords on the left hand, out of time. Rest for one, back in on an F. Should be sharp, it’s in the key signature. My shoulders tighten.

No retribution. Maybe he didn’t notice. The last bit is easier. I accelerate the movements, trying not to let the slick of sweat affect it. The last chord is fiddly. Shuffle the fingers around, make sure it’s in the right key. A bit of a pause, but there it is. A harmonious exhalation.

I slump back, twitching my feet off the pedals. Last week he let loose a tirade, the importance of practising every day, little flecks of white gathering at the edges of thin lips. He must be gathering the words, preparing the shape of his discontent.

A soft gurgle. I shift around, my school skirt rucking up against the piano stool. His chin is stooped against his chest, breaths ruffling the hairs poking out of his nose. He’s asleep.

I could wake him, dart my hand out to those skin-wrapped bones, slackened on the edge of his navy trousers. They always move slowly, look like they won’t be able to grip the cheque I place between them every four weeks, carefully filled in with Mum’s looped letters.

Until they’re on the keys. Swooping over them, barely touching, the pressure so light. Reaching impossible distance in semiquaver speed. Not like the plodding gait of mine. So smooth and pink, you’d think they could race, leap over the spaces.

The clock slices out time, gold against flowered wallpaper. Each minute costs 50p. Mum shoved that comment at me over the dinner table the other day when she asked why I hadn’t done my scales. Waste of money, she said.

His head pops up.

“Let’s have that again,” he says.

I bring my hands back up, clawing the ends like he showed me, the top of the pads on the keys. Another attempt is granted, possible redemption.

Even if it did cost mum £3.50.

It’s All About Perspective

One of the most powerful things in the world to experience is someone else’s perspective. It’s also one of the most frustrating. As anyone who’s encountered a view or opinion that they find utterly objectionable on social media, the TV, overheard in a bus (a broadcast of anything Donald Trump has ever said) the initial reaction is that they are wrong. Utterly, idiotically wrong. The interesting thing is, no-one thinks they’re ill-informed. No-one thinks they’re simply regurgitating biased news sources in place of an opinion. Everyone thinks they’re a nice person. Which is all the more reason we need to examine why these opinions exist, where they come from, and why the people who hold them think they’re so reasonable.

A fascinating and absorbing way to do this is though fiction. I would argue it’s the best way. In a first person narrative, even if you are infuriated with the character, you have no choice but to see the world through their eyes. You are forced, in some way, to empathise with them, even if you don’t agree with them.

Arguably, one of the most important times to be reading books like this is in your teens. All too often it seems like the world is revolving around your tiny little sphere of existence, and that no-one could possibly have it worse than you. Enter Almost Perfect by Brian Katcher, a young adult novel about a transexual MTF and the problems they have. But, interestingly enough, it isn’t told from the point of view of the trans character. It’s the teenage boy who meets her and how he copes with the discovery.

It’s a story of hormones and lust, coping with growing up and dealing with your feelings. In this sense, a pretty typical young adult story. Jason is an eighteen-year-old boy who has recently been dumped by his girlfriend, who refused to sleep with him. He’s reasonably clever but lives in a trailer with just his mother who works as a waitress. When Sage moves to town, he is immediately attracted to this mysterious new girl. In time, he discovers that she was born a male. Not before he’s had time to fall in love with her and kiss her. The prose is readable and the narrative interesting, it almost made me miss my stop a couple of times, which is a fair measure of the level of engagement.

I’ve read a lot of criticism of this book, based on the awful things Jason thinks and says when he finds out the truth about Sage. That the character is fundamentally shallow and unlikeable, and the addition of the new girl in his life is the only thing that makes him interesting. I would argue that this is exactly the point. By putting us in the shoes of a very narrow-minded young man from small-town Missouri (my US geography isn’t fantastic but I gather they’re not famed for being the most open-minded of states) we can experience the genuinely awful responses trans people can experience. First hand. And that’s important. We don’t like it, we certainly don’t agree with him, but it allows us to share his head, the ridiculous way he would do absolutely anything to not be considered ‘gay’ by his friends and family, and that he feels unable, emotionally, to open up to anyone around him. That in itself is just as much of an indictment of the hyper-masculinised ideals placed on lots of young men, as it is a criticism of how open-minded people are.

What this book allows then, is both the appreciation of how difficult growing up transgendered and going through a transition can be (yes the hormone therapy is a bit of a plot hole) and an appreciation of where the stigmatism and hateful attitudes come from. In order to make progress, we need to address both sides. To understand that people who are violent and cruel to trans people is based on skewed ideas of ‘manhood’ and lack of open conversation is just as important as understanding how traumatic it can be to feel you are born into the wrong body, with a family (or in this case, a father) who refuses to accept your true gender.

There was a fashion not long ago for perspectives of ‘monsters.’ Books like American Psycho that allowed us to see into the minds of truly disturbed characters. What seems to be happening now, is more books where there is less of a division. People acting hatefully but with their own stories behind it. Simplified ideas of us v them or monster v villain aren’t going to help educate and inform anyone because they oversimplify the myriad of issues and feelings behind the scenes. Books like this that lay bare all the feelings involved, both good and bad (and Jason is really a lot less of a judgmental idiot by the end) are what is necessary to move conversations forward, open up dialogue and discussion, rather than shutting them down by pretending they are too straightforward. And hey, it’s fantastic to have a trans character in mainstream young adult fiction.

There are a million quotes about why you should walk a mile in someone’s shoes, but I, as ever, tend to prefer Terry Pratchett: “They say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but it’s not one half so bad as a lot of ignorance.” Can’t say fairer than that.

100 Books of Me Part III

This is an interesting bunch. At a time when I was searching to find my own ‘voice’ in my  writing, I turned to as many varied authors and narrative perspectives as I could. From DeLillo to Atwood, from a story that explored the entire basis of christianity (The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ) to childhood incest (The Cement Garden), I was on the hunt for as much exposure as possible. Even when I turned to ‘classics,’ or at least books that I felt I really should have read by now, the voices were always varied or unusual.

It didn’t always work out, at least in terms of enjoyment. A couple of books on this particular list did not fill me with enthusiasm, and one I finished out of sheer annoyance. It can be risky, getting out of your comfort zone with books. But it’s definitely worth it. If you don’t sample a few diverse and unusual books, there is no way you are going to be exposed to as rich a taste of human experience, and the possibilities of what a book can really offer. For that reason, my reviews focus mostly on the narrative perspective, and what I feel it brought to the book.

In fact, after this particular reading phase, I haven’t looked back. It got me into very good habits. Even when I’m a bit tired of an evening, I have managed to resist the urge to return to old familiar voices. Each book I’ve read since this point has been new, and, in most cases, something I wouldn’t have necessarily considered to be a ‘me’ book. The bedside pile tends to be a little easier going, while the ones that accompany me around London on means of transport can be anything from non-fiction, to experimental fiction, to books in French.

If you need something new to read, have a look at my list. Hopefully it will inspire you!

The Touch, Julie Myerson. From the point of view of structure and style, I thought this novel did some interesting things. The interweaving of the different narrative perspectives and voices allowed us to see situations from different character’s POV and allowed us to empathise with them. It was also interesting the way each chapter was cut up into chunks of prose. These became shorter as the novel progressed, increasing narrative tension and leading to a climax. This made it very readable as you were changing around so much, and characters and narrative were established through a series of short scenes, like looking through the keyhole into someone’s house to see what they’re like.

Life! Death! Prizes!, Stephen May. What is lovely about this POV is that it doesn’t reveal itself in a big way, it just gradually seems like things are not quite as the narrator is telling us, which I liked. We are in the head of someone who has a personality disorder which means they avoid things. The character keeps making bad decisions which the reader can see are damaging but the character is unaware, making it more compelling and tense to read.

Mating, Norman Rush. I finished reading this out of sheer annoyance. Personally I think that any character, real or imagined, that spends their time quoting Latin is a pretentious idiot. It was full of lots of high-minded ideas about society and feminism and matriarchy but, to me, was fundamentally a chick-lit novel that was slightly more self aware and used bigger words.

White Noise, Don DeLillo. Beautifully haunting prose. The rendering of mundane and bland elements of life into vivid and artistic imagery is lovely. His style if very jarring, with lots of jumps around subjects and ideas within paragraphs. As you go through the novel, you realise these are threads that are being carried deftly throughout the novel. The risk here is that it could get a little repetitive, especially the ‘asides’ that come in from the TV and the radio. It is managed well enough for this not to be a huge problem, although there were a couple of times I felt pulled out of the narrative and it felt al little more like an author’s trick than a necessary insertion. The characters manage to be interesting and engaging even though they are so susceptible to the whims of others, and clearly a product of their environment, they do come out as genuine characters rather than representations of a certain type of American, which could be a potential outcome of the way the book is written.

Atonement, Ian McEwan. Started off well, intriguing style, nice narrative ideas, definitely got drawn into the story. Then the twist about the writer being the person that has been telling the story all along. Which, for me, ruined it. I guess this comes in the vein of ‘classic’ British novels, which often have clever little tricks in them, and maybe that’s why, apart from objecting to all the posh people everywhere, I’ve never been a big fan. It was such an interesting and emotional story and then he just lost me completely.

Chocolat, Joanne Harris. A delightful book that has a lot of subtle touches. The rotating first is not always completely obvious, although the subject is usually an indicator, but because they are talking about the same people it is sometimes difficult to notice which voice we are hearing. There are some lovely touches of colour in the descriptions, especially about chocolate, which lends it more gravity and gives it more depth. The characters are conflicted and rounded, although as the story progresses they do tend to morph a little into overly caricatured good and evil characters

Black Venus, Angela Carter. I love this writer. She has such an amazing way with words. Theres also something refreshing about reading short stories for a change. No I can’t analyse them in quite the same way in terms of progression but there’s something to be said about looking at shorter works that really condense language down. That’s what really hit me when I first started reading these, I think because I have read so many novels recently. Also because of the content, we have a range of intriguing female characters, everything from Lizzie Borden to a black slave woman to a woman taken in by an indigenous Native American tribe at the time of the pioneers. What is wonderful about each of these women is the way she paints their complexity, in terms of their femininity and how others perceive that, the accepted ways of being a female in society, the way the body is treated, the dealings with motherhood or the desire to be a mother, along with more subtle ideas like race and culture and being neither male note female (in the imagined opening for A Midsummer Night’s Dream). I also love the audacity that she has, to take established texts, real people, and paint them in her own way, bringing them to life in the way she imagines them to be.

Life Before Man, Margaret Atwood. The prose is just brilliant. What I liked most about it was that it was so deftly insightful. There are such delicate brush strokes in her prose, little touches which tell us so much about a character and how they feel. The advantage of having the multiple POV is that we, in some cases, get to see the same day through all of their eyes, which really adds to the sense of otherness and misunderstanding that all of the characters have from each other. It also really toys with the reader’s sympathy, as we can look at one character through another’s eyes and feel the spite, anger, and bloody mindedness they’re showing, while then seeing the same thing (or at least similar) through their eyes personally, we then empathise with them instead.

Oranges are not the Only Fruit, Jeanette WintersonOverrated. I’ve never been a massive fan of Jeanette Winterson. I find her parables clunky and her moral messages a bit too in your face. Despite that being my overall initial personal impression, there are some lovely touches here. Firstly in the voice of the main protagonist. She captures the innocence and innocuous nature of the main character well, the way she goes along with her surroundings without questioning them and the way the sexual encounters are so innocent fits fantastically with this voice. The ‘looking back’ voice allows her to capture that innocence but allow a sense of overall knowledge to pervade, as the protagonist is looking back from a further point, where she knows more.

Full Dark, No Stars, Stephen King. Gripping, really a lesson in how to create tense and exciting plots. Far too obvious in places in terms of emotions and not very subtle but compelling reading. These aren’t so much short stories as little novellas, that explore, through his only admission, the darker side of humanity. He takes a few unpleasant situations, and shows us what happens when things go wrong.

The Third Man, Graham Greene. First person, although this sneakily goes into third when the character is relating something that happened when he wasn’t there. Greene combines really compelling plot with subtle prose and description. Lovely. I guess the plot would fall into a typical ‘crime’ novel, although it does it with such elegance, it really feels like it’s doing far more than that.

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, Philip Pullman. Very clever. Incredibly impersonal writing, very clever portrayal of an already very well known story. Ultimately allows an aspect of political wrangling and manipulation to be behind the function of the entire Christian religion. Looks at the way propaganda and hype are wanted by people and that a simple story about a good person is not enough for change. The utter simplicity of the storytelling is what is brilliant here. There are no fancy descriptions, no mood or atmosphere, it’s a very straight telling, which ultimately is what makes it so powerful.

The Road, Cormac McCarthy. Bleak, stark and compelling. Lyrical prose that in times feels more like poetry, especially when describing the setting they are walking through. Plot very subtle, does have key points and junctures in it even though it seems to be largely two people walking down a road for a really long time. The attention to detail forces the reader to imagine exactly how different life would be in this sort of world and how priorities would change. What’s interesting here is the amount that is captured between the two characters with very little dialogue and interaction.

The Behaviour of Moths, Poppy Adams. Interesting for both its treatment of old age (so often missed out in, well, everything) and the effect of a long-term autism sufferer who is unaware of their own condition. For some reason it reminded me of Atonement, probably because of the large house and the intimate description given to events leading up to a tragedy. The gap between what the narrator knows and the reader figures out is well handled, and I like the way that there are a lot of questions that are never really answered, even when we get to the end of the book. In terms of plot, we are basically being given a dual narrative, split between the current events when she is old and the growing up of her and her sister. There is also a nice balance between how much each character in the family takes advantage of the other, so we are never left with one particular character feeling like the victim.

Arlington Park, Rachel Cusk. Beautifully written but ultimately incredibly depressing look at middle-class suburbia. One of the main strengths is the shifts between the POVs and how well they are handled, in that we have characters who are arguably all the ‘same’ on the outside, whose subtle differences are revealed through each chunk of the narrative. The description is another area that is beautifully executed, although there were places when I got a little annoyed with the minute attention to detail and didn’t feel that it was necessary.

The People’s Act of Love, James Meek.  A big, bold novel that deals with rather unusual subject matter. Set in Siberia, we follow various characters through their trials surrounding the second world war and the relationships they form with each other. Underpinning it is the threat of a cannibal in the wild. What the writer does is draw us into this erudite and strange world and reveal the humanity in the tiny actions of everyone. I haven’t read a book for a while where I’ve been so convinced by the characters, their motivations and desires. Most of them I didn’t like very much, but they were created with such deft touches that they felt truly alive on the page. It stayed with me for a while after reading, always a sign that a book is something special.

Waterland, Graham Swift. A touching book that is securely fixed in its own geography.

The Cement Garden, Ian McEwan. Remarkably odd. Manages to paint a minute picture of a family and their desires, and present utterly outlandish feelings and decisions in such a way that feels plausible and touching. Short yet impressive.

The View from Castle Rock, Alice Munro. An example of how the truth can be more interesting than fiction. An account of growing up in Canada through the eyes of various members of her family, this is a sprawling book that manages to capture nuance and spectacle at the same time. Beautiful.

The Other Hand, Chris Cleave. We shift between a young Nigerian immigrant in a detention centre and a middle-class woman. Both are handled very well, and come across as very convincing. It’s a touching book that probes the issues around immigration, by making it a personal tragedy for a small group of people.

May We Be Forgiven, A.M. Holmes. An expansive, splurging and awful novel, that makes you at one and the same time despair for the human race and see a glimmer of hope for our redemption. A hyperbolic treatise on the foibles of modern American culture.

Larry’s Party, Carol Shields. Fascinating read. Very cleverly structured, manages a subtle shift in voice as the novel progresses, and manages to be touching and insightful through what is, on the surface, a rather prosaic series of events.

The Act of Love, Howard Jacobson. A novel of obsession and love, all from the POV of a middle-aged man. Got a little self-obsessed in places, but clearly a secure and profound writer.

Oryx abd Crake, Margaret Atwood. The level of her imagination baffles me. A complex and completely rounded future world, where technology takes us away from ourselves. The shifting POV from present to past is handled brilliantly, leaving us to identify with the last remaining human on the earth. Wonderful.

The Seas, Samantha Hunt. Haunting prose, well sculpted book. From the outset, this has a very distinct voice. The prose is flooded with (har har) metaphors for the sea and water, the style is quite childlike and innocent, and it is clear from the outset that the reader is seeing the world through a very distinct and warped lens. What’s interesting about this novel is that it also manages to put an interesting and compelling story together, without relying too heavily on the prose style to simply take us through and hold our interest.

 

The Self-Conscious Writer (Review of The Blind Assassin)

Ah, I love the holidays. I’ve been putting off reading The Blind Assassin for ages, simply because I despaired at how long it would take me to read, never mind the extra weight it would add to my bag. A combination of relaxing holiday time, a six-hour train journey to France and a bad back (I’m getting old) all conspired in me finishing the 600-page tome in less than a week. A merry Christmas indeed.

How I love Atwood. Her combination of engaging characters, subtle plotting and lyrical style make her the literary equivalent of a Christmas cake. It’s not lacking in substance, but also beautifully embellished. And it is layered, with each part enriching the next.

I kept stopping to read out delicious nuggets, little nibbles of visual detail like, “wild geese fly south, creaking like anguished hinges,” or my personal favourite, “I sometimes picture the entire town rising out of the shallow prehistoric ocean, unfolding like a sea anemone or the fingers of a rubber glove when you blow into it – sprouting jerkily like those brown, grainy films of flowers opening up that used to be shown in movie theatres.” It’s so evocative, yet not overly embellished. Her quirks of imagery allow – at one and the same time – a vivid imagining of the world she invites you into, as well as a new appreciation for the mundane things around you. It’s what great writers do; make you see the world differently.

It’s also inherently readable. Obviously, you cry, it’s a book – but all too often Booker prizewinners can be mired in their own subtext, wading around in complexity and obscurity until you lose the thread of interest. This book has an evocative sense of place, it grounds you firmly in a time and a setting, snags your interest on a range of hinted-at characters in the opening, with the promise of sinister things lurking beneath. We follow a pair of sisters, the story of their fraught childhood in Canada at the start of the First World War and beyond, and dig up the secrets and lies that lurk beneath the surface.

There are three completely different prose styles. One is the interruption of ‘factual’ newspaper articles that blithely report the events that happen to our protagonists. The other is the mysterious novel The Blind Assassin, hailed by those within the world of the book as a literary giant, a work of staggering weight. The amount we are allowed into this novel is handled deftly. Sometimes we read huge chunks of it, getting fully absorbed into this ‘other’ narrative, while at other times we are taken further away, and given brief glimpses of this life between pages. Then there is the overarching narrative, an old woman looking back over her life. The three are interwoven, quite abruptly at the beginning of the book, leaving you a little lost, but soon the threads of it draw out, and we are fully embedded in each nuance, as it is woven deftly throughout.

What I find most compelling, is the level of self consciousness employed in the writing, seen through the main protagonist. There are times when (see my review of Atonement) I find the ‘narrator as writer’ incredibly fake and frustrating. It can seem like a cop-out, a way of snagging the reader into believing something that isn’t really ‘true.’ While I didn’t mind it in The BFG, it certainly has its limitations elsewhere. Here, it’s brilliant. The narrator keeps asking herself why she writes. Who her audience is, what she hopes to gain from it, and what the product of it might be.  “Do I have some notion of leaving a signature, after all?”

What this does, of course, is open this out in a wider sense. Why, indeed, does anyone write? To look at modern opinions, many make the assumption that it is related to fame. That having a best-seller is the literary equivalent of hitting the front page of Heat magazine. However, I think it might be a little more subtle than that. Having read Atwood’s On Writers and Writing, she extends this even further, looking at what society perceives to be a ‘writer,’ the process of feeling like you are one yourself, and that you have something worth sharing with the world. All of these things are steps on the road. Examining the purpose behind writing and reading, for both people involved, is a quest for recognition, perhaps, but more importantly, a quest for identity.

It’s the metaphor of spinning or weaving that really resonates, as she is constructing the story: “I pay out my line. This black thread I’m spinning across the page.” This creates the sense of something tangible, a physical testament to time spent writing. Which has a sense of a legacy, an imprint to leave behind. “At the very least we want a witness. We can’t stand the idea of our own voices falling silent finally, like a radio running down.” Perhaps, like many things, we write in order to simply record the act of existing, even if we’re not sure how many people will listen to it when the source has disappeared.