When Revenge Goes Bad…

Frank Herbert offers us an insight into the darker side of human nature in The White Plague, an apocalyptic tale of revenge.

The cover of the book is very apt – murky fog, a solitary figure, a town shrouded in obscurity. Even if the weather is fine, or we are indoors, this novel revels in the unknown. The words not said, agendas not revealed, or the problems or changes that might be lurking just around the corner. The message is clear: no-one is to be trusted.

In Ireland, a man is visiting with his family. In one push of a button, his life is destroyed. The provisional IRA detonate a bomb, killing his wife and two children. From this, a desperate revenge unfolds. He creates a virus that attacks only women, the worst possible curse he can imagine to harm the nations that have wronged him.

We are offered a fairly universal viewpoint as the book develops, rather than being ‘on the ground’ in one country, as most dystopias tend to be. We shift between Irish, English and US perspectives, with some French and Russian characters thrown in to counterbalance it all. This gives a true sense of the scale of this hypothetical virus, and allows the author to imagine the global conflict and power struggles that would erupt under such conditions.

There are a few questionable plot points, which didn’t gape wide enough to unhinge the story. How, for example, is it possible that one scientist, in a makeshift lab, can disprove theories of molecular DNA? His science also feels overstated, and for that purpose, doesn’t ring quite true, almost as though he’s trying to labour the fact that he’s done his research. Having said that, his prediction of the use of genetics in warfare was pretty spot on, with the book being written in 1982.

These questions make the book feel more like a ‘what if?’ than a genuine scientific possibility. This perhaps impacts on how much we care about outcomes, but it still explores these ideas in an incredibly interesting way.

The later parts of the book are mostly set in Ireland. We follow a tortuous journey through the Irish countryside – devastated as it was one of the first areas hit, with the characters arguing over the long-term problems of Ireland and the possibility of hope and faith in such a world. We follow the man who created the virus (slightly dodgy use of schizophrenia as a plot tool), the man who blew up his family, a priest, and a young boy silenced by the horrors he has seen.

It’s certainly compelling. I found myself unable to put the book down. Each character had enough depth that I cared what happened to them. The setting was very atmospheric and moody, painting a bleak picture of how humanity might behave if it were faced with such problems.

I did find, however, that the rambling conversations of the troupe in Ireland were unnecessarily long. It almost felt like the author had an interest in philosophy, especially in relation to religion, and wanted to debate a series of arguments. In an extreme setting, questions of God and morality are important, but at times it felt laboured.

Of course, what Herbert is really questioning is the extent to which scientific understanding, in the wrong hands, is perhaps the most dangerous knowledge on earth. Which makes for a pretty good book.

We Are All Disordered

41gkmvzpzwl-_sy344_bo1204203200_This month I started teaching AS Media Studies. What a treat. I’d forgotten the delights of delving into the signs and representations that we are bombarded with in daily life, and unpicking the institutions behind them, the messages they send us, and why. Of course, it can lead to a few rude awakenings. Poring over Lynx’s ‘ironic’ adverts depicting a scantily clad woman pulling a turkey out of the oven, it was clear that some of my students were already hyper-aware of the skewed views we are exposed to every day. Others, perhaps more worryingly, were not. For their coursework, they need to come up with a range of media products. One of the areas they need to research and analyse is representation. Keen to link into modern debates, I talked to them about black representation in the music industry, and the distorted view of mental health and its institutions in the film industry. From psychotic killers to psychiatrists who are just waiting to meet the right patient so they can marry them, Hollywood does very little to broach the myriad issues surrounding mental health and stigma.

To be honest, it seems that the system is frightening enough, without needing to be fictionalised. I’ve just finished reading The Last Time I Wore A Dress. It’s a memoir of the teenage years of Daphne (now Dylan) Scholinski. You’d be forgiven for thinking it told a series of events that happened in the fifties, back when electric shock therapy and lobotomies were still considered normal practice. Alas, no. We are in the relatively recent time of the early eighties. A time when Channel 4 arrived, mobile technology was in its infancy, and a young girl was hospitalised for three years for not fitting into socially accepted standards of what it meant to be a ‘girl.’

On reading this, perhaps its easy to forget how recent a more globally accepting culture has become. Gay characters on TV, transvestites hosting chat shows, it wasn’t that long ago that these people were used as freak value, rather than the very normal members of society they actually are. I also have to remember that, as a Londoner, I perhaps have a slightly unusual view of the world. But still, the book is heartbreaking. From an abusive and neglected childhood, a young Daphne enters into highly risky behaviour. She is deemed unmanageable by her parents and school, and turfed off to a mental hospital. What is most distressing is that, rather than take the time to develop trust, dig into her issues and help her, the doctors quickly slap an odd diagnosis on her, and spend the rest of her time incarcerated trying to get her to behave in a more ‘appropriately’ girly way.

The technical term, taken from the American Psychiatric Association, as recently as 1994, is ‘Gender Identity Disorder.’ Included in the diagnosis are references to clothing and play behaviour, that do not fit with the ‘gender identity’ of the individual. Excuse me? If that’s the case, then frankly, I was a disordered child. I wore jeans or dungarees for most of my childhood, was forever climbing trees, making bow and arrows, riding my bike, generally going against what is apparently my ‘gender identity.’ And don’t we all? My sister loved her chemistry set, while I had male friends who liked plaiting hair.

For most of us, this behaviour will lead to little more than social disengagement. Perhaps teasing, bullying, until we learn our lessons and revert to a more ‘acceptable’ way of behaving. For Daphne, she had to pretend to like makeup, show interest in boys and plaiting hair, in order to earn ‘points’ that allowed her to leave the confines of her ward, if only for a few minutes. It made me feel sick.

Why are we so obsessed with males and females acting in certain ways? And persistently suspicious of those who fail to meet our expectations? A recent study by Lancet has, not at all shockingly, found that the mental distress that many transgender people face is largely due to social reactions to them, not because being transgender is a ‘mental disorder.’ With so many deaths associated with this issue, it’s surprising that it has taken so long to challenge the WHO’s classification.

The signals young people get from all around them are not helpful. The media tells them to conform, the establishment tells them that variance is a mental illness. As someone who has received enough gender-biased issues solely based on being a woman, I cannot imagine the level of persecution that might get levelled at me if I didn’t fit with the gender binary. But you know what, I can, and should, have a go. Empathy is a powerful tool, and literature a brilliant way to create it. Through reading this book, and sharing in the writer’s experience, I can try to understand the world through a different lens.

Perhaps in years to come, Media students will look back on the programming, advertising and news media of our generation and be terribly amused at how limited it was. Until then, marginalised voices need to be amplified and celebrated, so another young girl is not subjected to the same tortuous treatment.

We Need to Keep Talking About Kevin

In the book I’ve just finished reading, several rather unpleasant things happen. Arguably the first most significant even is when, about 200 pages in, a mother throws her six-year-old son across the nursery so hard he breaks his arm. Upsetting, yes, but not for the reasons you might think. Because as the arc of the small child was described in detail, I felt joyous. Fantastic, I thought, that little sod is finally getting his just desserts. Serves him right. My emotional reaction so unnerved me that I had to put the book down for a minute. Did this mean there was something wrong with me? I am an aunty of six beautiful children, and would react with horror at any physical violence befalling them. I certainly wouldn’t put the seat of blame on one so young. So what was different?

Here we have the clever work of the author. In We Need to Talk About Kevin, Lionel Shriver walks the balance so carefully and so adeptly that you could consider it, at one and the same time, a story of a dreadful mother or of a dreadful son. It’s clear, at that point in the novel, I was rooting for the mother. But now I have closed the pages, reached the awful twist at the end that, had I thought about it, I knew was coming from quite a long way back. And I’m left feeling rather torn.

Perhaps I am a little too overly aware of the techniques at use here. From the beginning, the book is written as a confessional: heartfelt letters to a missed lover, full of deep meditation and self-examination. On more than one occasion, we hear her decry her lack of emotion, how much she wished she could have done things differently. In using this style, both the first person and the tone of the language, the reader is angled towards her side. I’m also becoming more aware of structure. Before the dreadful arm incident, we have already found out how many people Kevin has killed, and met him in prison, where he comes across as a narcissistic, remorseless, spoiled teenager. The inclusion of particular parts of a narrative, at different points in the story, only allows the reader to see things bit by bit, therefore colouring our experience of the characters.

But then, as we move through the story, we realise how little we know of the truth. We are seeing the world through a very narrow lens, which can be distorted in any way the narrator chooses. While the book might ostensibly be set up to answer the question of why such terrible things happen, I rather think it’s far more about being a parent. The assumed narratives surrounding parenting are so established that it feels awful to veer from them even for a moment. I’m almost certain that all parents have looked at their children at one point in their lives and wished that they’d never been born, loathe as they may be to admit it to themselves. In crafting a complex narrative, Shriver has allowed for the full fears of the worried parent to be realised, either through massive overcompensation or suspicion. Because it’s a novel, the stakes are placed so much higher, and the end result of your decisions result in tragedy. What I like to think Shriver is also saying, is that being a parent is damned hard work. Despite the fluffy images you see on the TV, or the exuberant posts of your friends on Facebook, all families experience times when they feel like they hate each other, and they make bad decisions. And that’s ok.

It also points a few fingers at the voyeuristic nature of the media. While in prison, Kevin can only talk about perpetrators similar to him. How they ‘rate’ compared to his body count, execution, what happened next. Which always seems to be what is reported. In the book, the mother commits to memory the names of two victims, because they barely get a mention in news coverage. All too often we gleefully rub our hands together, wanting to find out more about the sick, twisted individual, when actually our time should be spent on those who lost their lives. Let’s not give these people any more airtime, it only exacerbates the problem. And by the end of the book, the reader is just as bad. We have spent the whole novel dying to found out what actually happened on Thursday. Yet, by the time it was told, I felt disgusting. I, too, had been anticipating the gory bit. Her dispassionate reporting of an horrific event reveals to the reader their voyeurism, and that there is nothing positive to be gained here.

It is worth considering the question of blame, in both the specific and the general sense. Ultimately, it’s not an easy question. It saddens me that mass shootings are so common in the US now it almost isn’t news. This book was written in 2003, and yet still the scrolling list of dead people persists. I don’t know if it’s the lack of clear motive for some of these crimes, or the awful thing it does to our view of children as innocents if we imagine them killing each other. But I do think this book is important. In the background of the novel there is the media, and society, and all of the things that we are told are supposed to make you happy, are things that Kevin has. And he still isn’t happy. He seeks infamy because he can’t see how else to make an impact on the world.

It could be mental illness, it could be a lot of things, but acknowledging that tragedies like this happen and that blame is hard to apportion is important. There are no easy solutions to complex problems. The mainstream media could do with reminding of that.

Perhaps it was easier to make Kevin seem like a horrible child from the outset, because otherwise it might be a little too unnerving to see the violent outcome. Or perhaps it was also easier to make his parent someone who was unsure in her status as a mother, because then we can look at her coldness and think that there must be some explanation. How much harder it is to imagine a pretty normal family involved in something like this.

The truth is, there often isn’t a ‘why’. Or at least, not in the nice, neat way we would like there to be. People are greedy, and mean, and cruel, and they can do awful things to each other. Authors are there to remind us that the most seemingly horrific acts have a whole set of tiny steps that led up to them. Encouraging us to see from the perspective of those we make into monsters is exactly why literature is important.

Politicians should be there to protect the public from people so easily getting hold of firearms. This is where the US has failed its citizens, again and again. As fascinating and clever as it is, it would be far nicer if this book existed as a hypothetical study, rather than as a reflection of too many true stories.

Squirrelling About – The Portable Veblen

It’s not often I finish a book in which the plot is almost entirely about a relationship, and I feel that it has been time well spent. Perhaps because of the squirrels, or the light-hearted take on the evils of big pharmaceutical companies, but whatever it is, The Portable Veblen has it.

I really don’t like the word ‘quirky.’ While it technically is just a way of describing something a little bit different, I always associate it with despicable practices like wearing a small hat at a jaunty angle on your head, or a hand-made printed T-shirt, just to be different. But I’m finding it hard to attribute another adjective to this novel. Our main character, Veblen, works at a dismally mundane job, taking into her hands the thankless task of translating, amongst other things, the works of the great Thorstein Veblen, into Norwegian. Add to that a propensity for finding spiritual connections with squirrels and a mother with severe hypochondria and you have, well, a quirky character.

The novel opens with a proposal. That, in itself, is refreshing. At least we’re avoiding the simplified notion that this is what comes at the end of a narrative. Paul, her new fiancé, is attempting to be as unquirky as he possibly can. Raised by hippy parents in what can only be described as a commune, with a disabled brother, Paul is desperate for the boring life of tamed suburbia. Put the two together, and of course you can see that this is not a story of love that will run smoothly.

But this novel is far more than a funny romance. Shortlisted for the Bailey’s Prize for Fiction, it has a wry wit that enables Elizabeth McKenzie to embark on an exploration of everything from a nation obsessed with war-mongering to mental illness. Her sharp observations are often uncomfortable, although she always seems to find the ridiculous and touching moments, even within the truly horrifying.

A quick flick through the book will reveal that a huge percentage of this book is written entirely in dialogue. This is no mean feat. New writers (myself included) often shy away from using too much dialogue, as it is incredibly difficult to not come across as cheesy, clichéd or downright clumsy. Of course, allowing your characters to speak is exactly what will bring them to life, but creating words that not only reveal personalities but also move the plot forward is more than tricky.

At its core, this is a book about all human relationships. The sacrifices, allowances and annoyances that we endure and cherish in order to develop the most important thing we can on the planet – a connection with each other.

The Unbearable Inconsistency of Levin

While I’m not the first, and I very much doubt I will be the last, I thought I’d share some ideas that were roused in me after reading Anna Karenin (even that sentence shows I’ve been reading Tolstoy). Seeing as it is such a well-read tome, I won’t go into the overall plot too much. Needless to say, at 900 pages, it is a little hard to summarise anyway. If you haven’t read it yet, or seen the film, there are a few spoilers here. You’ve been warned!

It goes without saying that of course I was troubled by his female characters. From the ridiculous Kitty, who flitters about at the beginning of the book, only to find her true solidity and sense of purpose when nursing someone or becoming a mother. Of course, now she has started fulfilling her role as a caregiver, the true calling of womanhood, she is complete. Perhaps the most raucous statement of her feelings are when she is in the throes of childbirth. “She rejoiced in her suffering,” apparently. If ever a man had a romantic notion of the intense pain of giving birth, that was it. Although perhaps he most truly captures the suffering of women in poor Dolly. At the whim of her cheating husband, she finds herself trapped in an endless cycle of pregnancy and nursing, the appeal of her good looks long gone. Nothing but the management of a household that is losing money because of her husband’s careless attitude and gambling is left to keep her busy. If ever an early argument were put forward for contraception, it is in Dolly’s musings over how her inability to control when her womb will be filled completely dominate her life.

And then, of course, there is Anna. From the outset she is insufferable, and only gets worse. Proudly showing off her beauty, by the end openly using it to attract the attention of another woman’s husband, she winds up in a sorry state, consumed by unfounded jealousy. To be honest, by the time it got to the point where she was thinking about topping herself, I was quite pleased. Anything to shut up her incessant whining about her life. And such a jealous, narcissistic being.

From this, it’s quite clear what Tolstoy’s lesson is. The evil woman who gives into temptation meets a sorry end, and is never made to be particularly pleasant, only charming in a superficial way. While Oblonsky, who is guilty of exactly the same crime, winds up getting bailed out by his brother-in-law. While it may well be argued that this is exactly Tolstoy’s point – the inequality in treatment for the two, and the very different outcomes, I feel that the way he created their characters is quite different. While at the end the reader is encouraged to be incredibly weary of Oblonsky, one is not positioned into finding him as objectionable as Anna, and so we are led to believe that perhaps Tolstoy shares society’s view.

To move to other matters, I loved the way that he ridiculed the life of the gentry. Through the simple eyes of Levin, the indulgent eyes of Oblonsky, or the vain eyes of Vronsky, the cream of society is revealed in all its flaws. A greedy and opulent set of people, who argue heatedly about matters they seem to know nothing of. It feels like a precarious nobility on the verge of collapse, doomed for their own frivolities and for the lack of understanding of themselves and those around them. Yes it is a little indulgent in the praise of the pastoral, the beautiful simplicity of a peasant’s life is overly romanticised, but I did appreciate the way that, even then, no-one is entirely sure if what they are doing is the correct way to go about living your life.

What struck me particularly was the way he presented the arguments happening between the gentry. For the most part, each man has his own singular opinions, and repeats them ad infinitum, especially when he is met with confrontation. Levin provides a counterpart to this. When someone presents a decent argument, he is swayed, and takes the time to consider the other side. This often means that he ends up contradicting himself, or changing his mind. While to others this habit shows nothing but weakness and inconsistency, I found it rather charming. At the end of the book, Tolstoy gives Levin a sense of purpose through religion, after throwing him into philosophical turmoil. In a way, I rather wish he hadn’t. It is his ability to weigh other opinions, consider ideas carefully and try out new ideas that makes him by far the most appealing character in the book (not that he doesn’t have his flaws).

It reminded me of a TED talk I listened to, with regard to trial and error. It is something that economics writer Tim Harford calls the God complex – this ridiculous idea that, despite all evidence to the contrary, humans have the definitive answer when solving problems. In an example in the talk, he tells us about a nozzle produced by Unilever for a particular brand of detergent. Scientists spent ages putting together what should have been the perfect nozzle. It didn’t work. Instead, they decided to use trial and error. They made a number of prototypes, and then each time carried forward the elements of it that worked best. In the end, they came up with a perfect nozzle, but none of them could explain what it was that made it work so well.

This, to my mind, is the genius of Levin. Rather than assuming that he knows better than everyone because he’s an educated nobleman, he looks at those around him, reads a huge variety of texts, and struggles to understand things. It is only he that fully grasps the complexity of the world around him. To be fair, this does mean that he spends a fair part of the novel being rather vexed, as he can’t find the answers to life in his approach to the world.

But we could all learn a lot from Levin. As Tim Harford says in his talk, we all claim to know that trial and error is the way forward, but how much would we trust a politician if they said they were committed to raising educational standards, but weren’t exactly sure how? Arguably, until we begin to use this sort of approach to complex problems, rather than assuming we know what is best, things will not improve. We all know what happens when politicians who have little knowledge of a topic start making bold claims and legislation. It doesn’t end well.

So, rather than a tale of obsession and vengeance, I would rather see Anna Karenina as a novel of questions. If we take this reading, we can see very clearly Tolstoy’s wisdom, as he mocks all of his characters, no matter what their choices are, and doesn’t encourage us to particularly side with anyone. Except possibly Levin. If there were anything this novel could teach us, it’s that perhaps we shouldn’t take our own ideas too seriously, and need to be more open to moulding our ideas in light of new discoveries and perspectives.

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.

A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing

Personally, I’m not a fan of the word ‘genius.’ It’s derived from ‘genie.’ The idea that a little imp comes and sits on your shoulder and gives you an idea, and that’s where your fantastic work comes from. To me, that detracts from the graft, the inspiration, the dedication, needed in order to produce something of wonder and beauty. As Adam Grant points out in his TED talk, one of the reason people end up with beautiful creative things is that they create lots of average or crap things first, which means that their practice and honing of talent produce something pretty impressive in the end. The word also implies a disconnection, as if a celestial firebolt has been flung at the head of some unsuspecting person.

For that reason, I wouldn’t describe Eimear McBride as a genius. She has produced something singular and beautiful that no doubt shows flair, imagination and rare talent, but I don’t want to give the credit to the little green guy whispering in her ear.

A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is a tough read, for many reasons. Firstly, the prose. It is disjointed and poetic, freely flowing with unusual syntax and grammar (no commas!). This fluid style takes a while to get into and absorb, but somehow it seems to capture the voice of the narrator so much more internally than ‘regular’ writing does. The second reason is the ordeals that the central character goes through. It’s not light reading, but it is important reading, for many reasons.

Most reviews I’ve looked at tend to focus on the prose style. Which is understandable. At times it moves into something almost incomprehensible – when the protagonist is undergoing some deep trauma, the prose becomes barely anything but noise; a deep, guttural response to the awful things she is subjected to. It’s one of the things which makes this novel so special. The other, which I’ve not encountered nearly as much, is the exploration of female sexuality. Perhaps the interviewers were too embarrassed to ask, suspecting it was autobiographical (an assumption levelled far too often at female writers) or perhaps, like so much of the world, they’re terrified of the possibilities of female sexuality. An intellectual debate about her language neatly sidesteps the incredibly important issues she exposes.

Early on in the book, she is raped by her uncle when she is thirteen. The way she recounts this event is very important. She does the unthinkable – she acknowledges that a young teenage girl is a sexual being. Feelings she cannot name arise within her. She hears and knows of sex but cannot comprehend the implications of what it is. These feelings are aroused by her uncle. From her perspective, she feels as if it is reciprocal, that she has led him on, that it is a mutual act. Exposing this complexity is important. Grown men have claimed underage girls were ‘asking for it’ in order to defend themselves from statutory rape. Judges have even accused schoolchildren of ‘grooming’ adults in abuse cases. The graphic and uncomfortable scene in McBride’s book reveals the obvious truth – it is the adult that carries the responsibility. No matter how ‘flirtatious’ a young girl may seem, she is merely beginning to explore the sexual possibilities of her body, she is certainly not begging to be raped. Her inability to understand her abused nature is a central point in this heartbreaking narrative.

If female sexuality were not so feared, perhaps little girls would not feel the need to police their clothes, actions or speech in order to maintain archaic ideas of ‘propriety,’ be it inflicted by religious dogma (as it is in the novel) or to fit into societal expectations. The mantra that ‘boys will be boys’ and cannot help themselves is as insulting to men as it is to women. In the book, McBride shows us how the shame she is encouraged to feel for her sexual activities places the blame squarely in the lap of the victim, not the creepy uncle who continues to hound her into adulthood.

Later, too, we see highly promiscuous behaviour. While we can see that the girl is damaged, it is not necessarily saying that a sexually promiscuous woman has to be broken in some way. In fact, she uses it as a tool for power and control, in situations where she feels she has none. Dealing frankly with what young people actually do in bed and why is far more important than pretending that males still prowl around looking for targets, while females ‘let’ themselves be preyed upon, or not. The protagonist actively seeks out sexual partners, and enjoys it. That’s not to say her experiences are entirely positive, and all too often she is taken advantage of and abused, but it is interesting to see a female character so open and experimental.

I wasn’t entirely convinced by the ending. Wouldn’t want to put spoilers in, but it did seem a bit of a disappointment, a nice arty way to round it off but not particularly convincing in light of the harsh realism that we were treated to up to that point. But endings are always tricky. What’s more important, is what we’re left with.

The ‘half-formed thing’ that Eimear McBride leaves us with is an objectified female, but not just a victim. She is marginalised and judged for her sex and her sexuality, and demonised for her knowledge and understanding of those restrictions placed upon her. Because she refuses to bow to religious dogma or traditional roles for herself, she is pitted against her family, her peers and the religious establishment. But she is so much more than this. The novel is a jarring yet harmonious call for the status of females to be reimagined outside the cages that are set up for them. I like to think that McBride is hopeful, that, for some girls, they flower into a fully-formed woman, and are given the grace and freedom to do so.

The Dark Rooms Writers Have to Enter

Yes I’m a little late, but I have just devoured Emma Donoghue’s wonderful book, Room. Not since Christmas have I found a book that made me pause at every moment I could on my journeys around London, and even had me walking down the street reading in order to just get a few pages in before work.

One of the most beautiful things is the voice. A child narrator can sometimes be a little trite and affected, but Donoghue’s use of subtle syntax, vocabulary and slightly skewed perspective creates a powerful voice that’s delightful in its intimacy and disturbing through the reader’s external knowledge of the real situation Jack finds himself in.

With all the hype about the film, you probably already know the story. Just in case, we are seeing the world through the eyes of Jack, a five-year-old boy who is trapped, with his mother – ‘Ma’, in a high-tech cage created by a man who kidnapped her at the age of nineteen and repeatedly raped her. The idea for the book is taken from the disgusting Fritzl case in Austria, where a man trapped his daughter in a basement and repeatedly raped her, resulting in three children. Having looked at images of where she was held, it was interesting to note the level of detail Donoghue has used, right down to the cork on the wall. The imagination and logic she must have used to put together exactly how this tiny world works is in itself impressive.

To see this harrowing story through the eyes of the child is to offer us a unique perspective. On the one hand, it gives us hope. The delicate and intimate relationship between the mother and her son is a truly beautiful thing. In the words of the character of Ma – ‘he saved me.’ Through each other, they find solace in their captivity. Later in the book it also allows for a possibility of recovery, although I was pleased to see that this wasn’t made too simple.

The other thing it does it heighten the claustrophobia and shudder-inducing reality that these women (and there have been a disturbing number of them over the years) have been subjected to. His tiny voice repeating the actions they do over and over again every day, the tiny space they do ‘laps’ in, all of it creates a stifling atmosphere that is unnerving.

But I think there’s more going on here, something that was missing from a lot of the reviews I’ve read. Once the pair have escaped, it’s the reaction of the world that really allows the author to critique society. Firstly, on gender roles. Jack is referred to as ‘sweetie’ and ‘little lady’ because he has long hair and likes Dora the Explorer. The adults he meets are perplexed by his lack of interest in ‘boy’ things, and find it difficult to interact with him. Parenting itself is up for scrutiny. While Jack of course has had the extreme of constant contact with his mother, the activities they do together are fantastic, and he shrewdly observes that most of the parents he sees in ‘Outside’ tend to ignore their children, preferring to look at their phones or chat to other adults rather than interact.

Perhaps most poignant is the general hype and hysteria surrounding their story. Much like the real case, they are hounded by the press. Through Jack catching some of the news stories in a desire to see himself, the response is everything from sainthood to some sort of psychoanalytic deconstruction of us all being in our own ‘cages.’

Most horrific for the reader and damning for the media is the interview she gives. I loved the sideways dig at people that are prudes about breastfeeding; when the interviewer raises it as a shocking detail (she continued to breastfeed him), ‘Ma’ laughs at the absurdity that this intimate sharing between them is the most surprising thing about her story. The ‘hype’ of the media is beautifully illustrated by Ma’s unwillingness to accept herself as a hero. She is a woman that has survived an awful situation. She gives a list of others that are worse off than her (the only place I felt the slight touch of the author was how she knew the statistics for solitary confinement in the US), that go through difficult things every day, but lack the ‘freak’ quality that makes stories like this so lauded by the media.

The language of difficult situations is rife. How the boy must be ‘damaged,’ how she must want to ‘forgive.’ I very much appreciated the pragmatic approach that the author took. Yes, of course there are repercussions and both will have echoes of their ordeal in their later life, but I liked the way it was seen as a problem to overcome, not a life-defining change.

So why on earth write a book about something so horrible? When I told a friend what I was reading, he laughed. ‘Light reading, then?’ was his question. And my answer is, not exactly, but this stuff is vital. In the words of Ma, people are not good and evil. Hitler was not Voldemort, Pol Pot was not Sauron. We like to simplify narratives but, as Ma says, ‘people are both.’ Confronting the darkest parts is incredibly important. In this most specific case, and in lots of others such as rape, sexual abuse, discrimination, the list can go on. Hopefully this is something we won’t have to face ourselves, but it is vital that we struggle to understand that these things can and do happen. A narrative has the power to fully absorb you in a situation that a news report simply cannot. Once you understand the feelings of those involved, it opens our eyes to the possibilities – good and bad – of everyone. Only by moving away from easy stereotypes and confronting the terrible things that happen can we hope to understand ourselves and each other more.

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.