How to be both – Ali Smith

Depending which version of the book you have in front of you, How to be both either begins with George in the car with her recently deceased mother discussing a moral conundrum or it begins with a 550 year old painter returning (sort of) to see his painting in an art gallery and to tell us about his life. As my copy begins with George, I’m going to start there.

It’s New Year’s Eve. George, a teenager, is remembering a conversation between her and her mother the previous May. They were in the car when George’s mother tells her to consider a moral conundrum, one that begins with George imagining she is an artist.

This will be the first year her mother hasn’t been alive since the year her mother was born. This is so obvious that it is stupid even to think about it and yet so terrible that you can’t not think about it. Both at once.

George is spending the beginning of the New Year looking up the lyrics to Let’s Twist Again. She’s decided she’s going to begin the remaining days of the holidays dancing to a song like her mother used to. This happens while George recalls the conversation she had with her mother about being an artist.

Okay, I’m imagining, George in the passenger seat last May in Italy says at exactly the same time as George at home in England the following January stares at the meaninglessness of the words of an old song. Outside the car window Italy unfurls round and over them so hot and yellow it looks like it’s been sandblasted.

The conundrum is whether an artist working on a project with other artists, all of whom are being paid the same, deserves more money because they believe their work is worth more than the others.

Smith uses this beginning in two ways; it serves as an introduction to George and her mother, particularly their relationship with each other, and it links to a key element of the other story, although this doesn’t become obvious until some way into the other section.

George’s section goes on to tell the story of her family life, both before and after her mother’s death. It focuses on George, particularly on school where she has counselling sessions Mrs Rock and becomes close friends with Helena Fisker.

The other section begins with a fifteenth century, Italian artist, Francescho del Cossa returning to consciousness and finding himself standing behind a boy looking at a painting.

A boy in front of a painting.

Good : I like a good back : the best thing about a turned back is the face you can’t see stays a secret : hey : you : can’t hear me? Can’t hear? No? My chin on your shoulder right next to your ear and you still can’t hear, ha well, old argument about eye or ear being mightier all goes to show it’s neither here no there when you’re neither here nor there so call me Cosmo call me Lorenzo call me Ercole call me unknown painter of the school of whatever you like I forgive you I don’t care – don’t have to care – good – somebody else can care…

Francescho tells the story of his youth, living with his parents – his father a bricklayer – and discovering he had a talent for art. He goes on to talk about his apprenticeship and how he came to create the painting which survived him. Throughout this, he follows George from the first section as her story continues.

There are many impressive things about this novel: it’s tightly structured with reference to its themes; the two parts of the book interweave and reference each other throughout; there’s some beautiful wordplay, particularly in the George section.

Smith considers what is art and what is its value throughout the book. George’s mother was one of the ‘Subvert interventionists’. A movement who used early pop-up technology to make ‘a random visual or a piece of information’ appear on web pages. Her mother’s job was ‘to subvert political things with art things’ and vice-versa. One of her mother’s most retweeted Subverts is:

Art makes nothing happen in a way that makes something happen.

This links to Francescho’s idea that ‘A picture is most times just picture : but sometimes a picture is more…’. He talks about the ways in which paintings go beyond the frame and what occurs then:

Cause then it does 2 opposing things at once.
The one is, it lets the world be seen and understood.
The other is, it unchains the eye and the lives of those who see it and gives them a moment of freedom, from its world and from their world both.

This idea of being ‘both’/two things at once runs through the book too. The idea that someone can be both alive and dead, watched and the watcher, male and female. It’s about things moving on while continuing to reference the past. One of the joys of the book, is spotting the links – of which there are many – between the novel’s two sections.

I do have one criticism, however, and that’s that the Francescho section of the novel doesn’t seem to be as strong to me as the George section. There’s two reasons for this: firstly, the George section could stand on its own and still make sense but I don’t think the Francescho section could; this is mostly due to the points where it intersects with George’s story – they occur after the reader leaves George’s story and are too vague to make sense without an understanding of her situation. Secondly, the wordplay of George’s section – mostly instigated by George being pedantic over her mother’s grammar – is largely absent from the Francescho section which was a shame, as it’s very enjoyable to read. There is a caveat to this in that, so far, I’ve only read the novel starting with George’s story so it will be interesting to see if I change my mind once I’ve reread it the other way around.

How to be both is a smart, playful novel that considers its themes in great depth while being an absolute joy to read.

After Before – Jemma Wayne

After Before tells the stories of three women – Emily, Vera and Lynn. The novel begins with Emily signing up with a cleaning agency:

She said her name was Emily. It had always seemed easier for English people to pronounce than Emilienne, and she refused to offer this part of herself, also, for sacrifice.

“Okay, do you have any cleaning experience Emily?” asked the thick-necked, white woman behind the desk. She shuffled the forms in front of her, impatience spilling into Emily’s pause, but it wasn’t a simple question to answer. The woman said it so easily, rolling off her tongue as smooth as the flesh beneath the skin of a sweet potato, the same as most of the words Emily had thrown at her over the years: stupid, ungrateful, cockroach. Emily’s mind ran over the dirty floors of her flat that she hadn’t so much as threatened with a vacuum; then to the sparkling windows and door knobs in the house she’d cleaned and lived in once, belonging to Auntie; then tentatively to the dark puddles of blood she’d scrubbed from her father’s floor.

“Yes,” Emily decided upon. “I have experience.”

Emily lives in a tiny room in Golders Green. She likes being alone away from daylight. She has frequent flashbacks to her past, to the Rwandan genocide.

We meet Vera as she says ‘yes’ to Luke’s marriage proposal.

It is after all now 602 days since Vera last took cocaine, 433 since she’s smoked anything heavier than a regular Camel Light – though Luke believes she’s given those up too – and exactly 366 days since she’s had sex.

Luke’s a devout Christian and Vera’s been attending his church since she met him. She has a prayer/mantra she repeats frequently:

Dear God, help me to be better, to be worthy, make me clean.

She too has a past, a past that Luke’s unaware of.

Lynn is Luke’s mother. When Luke and Vera arrive to tell her of their engagement, she has news of her own: she’s dying of cancer. Vera decides that taking a sabbatical from work to care for Lynn is the right thing to do; Lynn’s not so keen though, she has her own reasons for disliking Vera.

“You’ve been asleep,” Luke said as he entered. “Mother, how are you?”

Rolling her eyes, Lynn sighed overtly back at him. Her son. One of only two accomplishments in her life. Not like women nowadays who could have it all. Like bright, career-driven, youthful Vera. Vera would live.

Lynn should have lived. She should have dared. The problem was she’d always liked to excel. Having taken on the role of wife, mother, it followed that she should strive to be the ideal version of that. No affairs, no complaints, no help, no excess; just church and family and rules and principles and propriety, and everything done properly from scratch. Doing what was right, what was expected. Not that suddenly losing one’s husband – and validation, and dreams, and future – was right, or proper, or expected.

A series of events lead to Emily becoming Lynn’s carer. Lynn decides that Emily needs to tell her story and forces it from her. Vera, meanwhile, confides in Charlie, her ex about past deeds and discovers it’s more complicated that she thought.

A lot happens in After Before; everyone has an issue, including minor characters. Many of the characters are cruel, Lynn and Charlie in particular. Lynn’s behaviour towards Emily, in which she places her in positions which force reminders of her treatment in the Rwandan genocide so she will tell her story are vile acts, regardless of Lynn’s belief that by making Emily confront her past, it will help her.

The transitions between Lynn and Emily in Lynn’s house and Rwanda are forced in the writing too. It’s a shame as the scenes in Rwanda are the best pieces in the book. Wayne’s clearly researched these sections but made them human by having the reader relate to one particular family. She shows how friends and neighbours turned against people and the extent of the violence inflicted.

The end of the novel for Luke, Emily and Lynn is a little too neatly tied up. Only Vera’s ending is more precarious, largely because Charlie’s behaviour is unpredictable after his actions changed radically in the middle of the book.

After Before has some interesting ideas and some interesting characters. Unfortunately though I found it uneven, both in terms of plot and character, and ultimately, unsatisfying.

 

Thanks to Legend Press for the review copy.

A God In Every Stone – Kamila Shamsie

A God In Every Stone begins with Vivian Rose Spencer travelling up a mountainside in Labraunda. She’s there to join her father’s oldest friend, Tahsin Bay on an archaeological dig of Zeus’ Temple.

Her father, a man without sons, had turned his regret at that lack into a determination to make his daughter rise above all others of her sex; a compact early agreed on between them that she would be son and daughter both – female in manners but male in intellect. Taking upon himself the training of her mind he had read Homer with her in childhood, took vast pleasure in her endless questioning of Tahsin Bey about the life of an archaeologist every time the Turk came to visit, and championed her right to study Egyptology at UCL despite his wife’s objections…

Before the end of the dig, Vivian has reminded Tahsin Bey he told her about his desire to find the Circlet of Scylax, given to Scylax by Darius:

…a mark of the highest honour. But twenty years later when Scylax’s people, the Carians, rebelled against Darius’ Persians, Scylax was on the side of his countrymen, not his emperor.

Vivian and Tahsin Bey have also agreed to marry; he will visit London at Christmas and approach her father. But when they reach the coast to board a ferry, they discover war has broken out in Europe. Before they part, Tahsin Bey reveals that his grandmother’s family are Armenian and one day he intends to write about the bravery of the Armenians rebelling against the Ottoman Empire.

The outbreak of war prevents Tahsin Bey’s visit and only one letter reaches Vivian and her family. She takes work as a nurse and her father, a gynaecologist, pulls strings to have her transferred to a Class A auxiliary hospital, work that he says is almost as worthy as a son fighting at the front. Before she moves to the hospital, however, a man from the War Office visits her and wants to make copies of her maps from the dig in Turkey. He’s also keen to know about the Germans on the dig. Before the end of the meeting, she has betrayed Tahsin Bey.

Once Vivian’s established, Shamsie introduces Qayyum Gul, a Pashtun from Peshawar. He’s fighting in France for the allies. By the end of his first chapter, he’s fought at Ypres and the injury he’s sustained will see him sent to hospital in Brighton before being discharged and sent back to Peshawar.

Qayyum’s body jerked in anticipation of the bullets that would rip though him, but Kalam had a hand on his chest, telling him to hold still, the gunners were aiming at something else. You stay still too, Qayyum said, but Kalam braced on his elbows and used them as a pivot for arms, the rest of his body motionless as – again and again – he lowered his palms into the stream and slowly, hardly spilling a drop, brought them to Qayyum’s parched mouth, washed the blood from his face and tried to clean the mess that was his eye. With the stink of blood all around, the only light in the world came from those cupped palms, the shifting water within them.

As Qayyum returns to Peshwar, Vivian has left the war effort – to the horror of her father but delight of her mother – and is also on her way to Peshwar in search of something she thinks Tahsin Bey has pointed her towards. Their paths cross on the train and they will remain linked although their stories will play out separately for many years.

A God In Every Stone considers British rule in India from both the point of view of the Peshwars and the British. The Peshwars are largely represented by Qayyum and his brother, whose views differ, although other people’s views are considered later in the novel. The British view is filtered through Vivian and this gives Shamsie an opportunity to consider gender and the treatment of women as well as imperialism. She considers the point where the personal and the political meet and how the decisions of a country and its leaders affects individuals – friends and family.

The book’s very well written; sentences are balanced and conjure vivid images, particularly during the scenes of the Peshawar Disturbance at the end of the book. The themes are interesting. Despite this, I found the book as a whole unbalanced; there were parts I fully engaged with and others where I struggled although I found it difficult to articulate why. I wonder whether it was the structure, in the first half particularly, as the novel moves from place to place and its focus seems to shift. This is not a bad book but it was my first written by Kamila Shamsie and everything I’d heard meant that my expectations were probably a little too high.

I Am China – Xiaolu Guo

Iona Kirkpatrick lives in a two-room flat near Islington. We meet her the morning after a one-night stand.

For Iona, there are two modes of expression that open her to life. One is the sexual act…Her other world is through words. To delve into words, to live with them circling in her mind, allows her to regain something of her life.

Iona is a translator. Usually, she translates business or legal documents along with the occasional literary work but a few weeks before the novel begins, she was sent a collection of Chinese letters and diary entries. They’ve arrived, photocopied, in no particular order but they span twenty years.

The first letter she selects was written in November 2011 in Beijing 1540 Civil Crime Detention Centre by someone called Jian to someone called Mu.

I know you cannot visit me, but I wish you would write to me. Your silence since I showed you my manifesto is just unbearable. How can you say you don’t believe in what I’ve written? Does it sound extreme to say that if you don’t believe in my manifesto, you don’t believe in me? Not to me it doesn’t, though you may laugh and call me naïve, call me too idealistic. For me the arts, politics and love are all connected. You have seen how I lived for all these years – this is nothing new. It’s been nearly twenty years since I wrote my very first song, Mu! Twenty years is half a life! Half our lives, and all the time I’ve known you. And all that time you knew me You’ve lived with me. You accepted me by loving me. So what’s different now?

The next chapter finds Jian incarcerated in the Winnie Mandela Unit, a psychiatric hospital in Grantham, Lincolnshire, from where he writes to the Queen to ask for her help. He has been wrongly sectioned, he says, after being turned down for asylum in the UK. After being taken to a hospital with a sharp pain in his intestines which the doctor seemed to think was psychosomatic, he hit a doctor. The psychiatrist has diagnosed him with borderline personality disorder and schizoaffective disorder.

In this way, Guo combines the letters and diary entries Iona is translating with Jian’s, and later Mu’s, current situations.

Iona attempts to discover more about them. As Jian was a musician, she expects to discover more about him fairly easily:

Iona instantly types ‘Kublai Jian and the Wild Sprouts’ into Google. She waits a few seconds, the timer spins, the laptop whirrs and a blank window pops up. The great Chinese firewall, it seems. Iona tries a few more options but she just gets the same result. All that comes up is the cover of Yuan vs Dollars in Google images. She can only presume it’s Jian’s most well-known album, or the latest perhaps. It’s a powerful picture: a headshot of a young man with a blindfolded face. It has punch, she thinks. There are no articles about him. She sighs, she really knows so little about Chinese cyber-policing and Internet censorship. They’re clearly doing a great job.

As the novel progresses, the reader and Iona discover more about Jian and Mu and Iona gets more involved with this translation than anything she’s worked on before.

The idea of writing a novel about translation, is a good one. It’s interesting, I think, to see the decisions a translator has to make about the way to express ideas, thoughts and feelings in a different language. I Am China could’ve been a great book. However, all too often Xiaolu Guo’s hand is just off the edge of the page, clearly manipulating events.

There are two ways in which this happens; the first is that as the Iona’s work progresses, parallels between her life and Jian/Mu’s are made. This would be okay, I think, if they weren’t signposted so obviously by Guo. Iona also comments on the story that’s unfolding during this out-of-sequence translation, making the links between sections for the reader rather than allowing us to make the connections. The second is that the diary entries and the letters feel staged. It’s difficult to impart information to a reader through these forms without it feeling like an information dump but as Guo chose to write chapters in third person subjective from both Jian and Mu’s points of view, I thought this could’ve been handled more subtly.

The other problem I had was that I didn’t find Iona’s behaviour as a translator convincing. Her involvement in these people’s story and a choice she makes towards the end of the novel didn’t seem plausible to me.

I Am China is based on what should be an interesting premise and if you know little about China and the behaviour of the state, it’s an insight into the country. However, as a novel, it doesn’t work as well as it could.

 

Thanks to Chatto & Windus for the review copy.

The Country of Ice Cream Star – Sandra Newman

When the light shine clear, the broken glass make paths of sparkling moon. Then the bricky walls gleam warm, and all my courage wake. I think: Roos got this cure, we rob it. For my Driver, I face guns and hells, this be my treasure chance.

The north coast of the Nighted States (we know it as the United States of America), sometime in the future. Our narrator is fifteen-year old Ice Cream Star. She introduces herself to us by telling us about her family – her eighteen-year old brother, Driver and her younger brother, Mo-Jacques, who died when he was five and she was six; ‘Still my heart is rain for him’ – and the people she belongs to, the Sengles.

Our people be a tarry sort, and we skinny and long. My brother Driver climb a tree with only hands, because our bones so light, our muscles fortey strong. We flee like dragonfly over water, we fight like ten guns, and we be bell to see. Other children go deranged and unpredictable for our love.

They live in the Massa woods, or at least they do until they’re eighteen or nineteen when they die of a disease they call posies. Some of them think that posies is the same as WAKS, the sickness that killed the white skinned people in America, eighty years previously. Those who weren’t killed were evacuated to Europe, although there’s some anxiety over whether Europe actually exists:

Truth, this Europe mostly be a tale for pacifying littles. Most older children think the sleepers all be dead, but ain’t no proof. If sleepers gone to Europe or to hell, they leave the same bad silence.

On the day the novel begins, Ice Cream, Driver – the Sengle sergeant – and some of the others have been out looking in the evac houses for food, medicine, cigarettes and clothes. In one of the houses are two sleepers, long dead. They set fire to the house to cleanse it but as they watch it burn, someone runs out of the house. The ‘boy’ is white skinned with blonde hair. (I put boy in quotation marks as he soon claims to be thirty-years-old, which, if true, means that his people have a cure for posies.)

Ice Cream Star is the only Sengle to have seen a ‘roo’ (a white person) before. After spending the night in an old library when she was younger, she saw a doe-deer killed by a group of roos first thing in the morning. She believes that roos all have straight hair, are all males, wear the same clothes and ‘run in packs and hunt our people…They slavers, maybe – or they eating children…’.

Driver tries to catch the roo but the roo pulls a gun on him. Ice Cream Star stands between them and takes the gun. And so Pasha Roo joins Ice Cream Star’s world.

Everything I’ve written so far – bar the quotation at the very top of the review – happens in the first eighteen pages of this 629-page novel. And the pace never lets up.

We’re also introduced to the groups who live close to the Sengles. There’s one house of Christings remaining:

Ya, in time before and time remaining, Christings live the same. House got one husband ruling it, with any number of wives and every enfant that they breed. And all believe a god who live in two sticks. Each Christing wear around their neck a string with two sticks crossing – and truth, is healthy people. Can think, this god do something, they live fatter than no Sengle child.

There are the Lowells who live in Lowell mill in Lowell City. They have electricity, generated by the mill’s turbine wheels; ‘water toilets’; their own individual rooms with beds and blankets, and they make paint, furniture and tiles. They breed and sell horses. Ice Cream Star’s own horse, Money, was a ‘flirtation gift of El Mayor himself’.

While introducing us to these groups of people, Ice Cream Star learns two things herself: firstly, that NewKing Mamadou from the Army, the fourth group, has visited the Christings to tell them their queen is dead. They usually take their queens from the Christings but they’ve stood up to him this time. Later, Ice Cream Star will discover that Mamadou intends to take her for his wife. Secondly, El Mayor tells her that Driver’s coughing, which Ice Cream Star’s been excusing, is the onset of posies.

Posies take each person in their sort. Popsicle cough his spirit out. Jay-dee’s belly swell and hurt until she claw it to the blood. Mailman strangle in his throat. He strangle once, then find his breath. Strangle again, and beg for help. Then he cannot bear to wait, he shoot himself in desperate fear. Jennifer been sergeant last. She scream but she forgotten words. Ain’t recognize our faces. Scream a week, then she ain’t speak no more. She stare and dribble her mouth.

And all their face and skin eat up by red and blackish posies. Posies scabbing and they open into sores and horrors. Posies grown inside and outside, blackish death put roots into your body and its flowers bloom.

My death must come before his death. I start a murder war, and all my Sengles die in blood. I blind my eyes and never see the posies come. I shoot my heart.

To simplify The Country of Ice Cream Star to its basic plotline would be to say that the rest of the novel concerns itself with Ice Cream Star’s pursuit of the cure for posies in order to save her brother. But Newman hasn’t created a basic novel, she’s created a complex work with a plot that twists and turns and considers race, religion, politics, class, war and love.

By making people with black skin the dominant race and narrating the story from the point of view of a black skinned woman who speaks in dialect, Newman places the reader – white, standard English speaking readers, more specifically – in a position that is meant to make them feel awkward. They barely exist, this world is not their world and it’s difficult for them to negotiate the language and the way in which this world works. There is no glossary in this book, you have to immerse yourself in it.

Reading the novel reminded me of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. In it, she has a photograph of Glenn Ligon’s Untitled (I Feel Most Colored When I Am Thrown Against a Sharp White Background), which she also references in her writing. It’s as though Newman’s taken Ligon’s work and wondered what the world would need to look like for it to become ‘I Feel Most White When I Am Thrown Against a Sharp Black Background’. And it works superbly, partly because it’s disorientating but mostly because the use of the first person narrator means that you see the world as Ice Cream Star sees it and if you’re white, you’re a roo.

As Ice Cream Star pursues her quest, she meets more groups and more roos and her knowledge of the world grows deeper, as does her understanding of people – black and white.

The protagonist is a brilliant creation. She’s the type of hero Buzzfeed would include in an article about ‘women who give no fucks’ (and in this world, at fifteen, she is a woman and she acts like one). She does care though: she cares about the littles who look to her for direction; she cares about her brother and the men who surround her; she cares about people treated badly and placed in danger. She’s determined to lead her people, regardless of the men who try to take her for themselves/install her as a religious icon/protect her from the brutality of war. But she’s also determined to get the cure at whatever cost it comes at. Of course that price is going to be high.

I’ve been avoiding writing this review for ten days because I didn’t know if I could do this book justice – I still don’t think I can. The language and the ideas in it are worthy of a post-graduate essay; I certainly haven’t teased out everything this book has to offer yet, I expect it to take several re-reads to do so. What I do know is that the language is inventive, playful and thoughtful; the themes are complex and explored through the story, without the heavy-handedness that some literary novels employ, and Ice Cream Star is a wonderful, complex, living hero who acts like a person (as do the supporting cast). I’ll end with my favourite lines from the book, which, I hope, helps show all three of these things. They come from a point where Ice Cream Star is being held up as a religious icon but is about to wage war with the support of the church. One of the apostles is reading to her from the Bible:

Here my patience run entire. Known these metaphorical tales. Metaphorical mean, the story be stupidity beyond. So they pretend it mean something else, whatever they like most.

The Country of Ice Cream Star is definitely a great book. It’s also an important book. Only time can confirm my suspicion that this book will become a classic.

 

Thanks to Chatto & Windus for the review copy.

The Offering – Grace McCleen

Lentham Park Mental Infirmary has a new doctor on staff.

He roared into a parking space beneath the startled horse-chestnut trees two weeks ago in a low-slung sports car. A door like a wing rose up. Two lucent brogues appeared on the gravel. The door swung down, the brogues advanced. I watched it all from my window.

His name is Dr S. Lucas, he is over six feet tall, speaks with a booming voice and has a laugh that rings down corridors. He has blue-black hair that is swept straight from his brow and piercing black eyes. Staff and patients part before this person like the waters of the Red Sea, from which he emerges without a drop adhering to his shiny suit.

Dr Lucas has come to get results; he changes the systems and he changes the treatments. We see the effects of his decisions through a first-person narrator, a patient, Madeline.

Madeline has been resident at Lentham Park since she was fourteen, twenty-one years ago. She was suffering from depression and ‘psychotic breaks’ following an event which she cannot remember. As there are no eyewitnesses and both Madeline’s parents are dead, Lucas decides to hypnotise her to work towards a full recall of the night she was found ‘dishevelled and incoherent’.

When she was thirteen, Madeline’s family moved out to ‘the island’. Her father thought the need for preachers was ‘great’ there. He was a ‘zealous’ Christian. ‘My father had his own faith, a creed of one.’ There is only the three of them – Madeline, her mother and father – and their dog, Elijah. Life on the island is hard for them; the banks are on strike so Madeline’s father has difficulty cashing cheques; the locals find them odd, and Madeline’s father has difficulty finding work.

As life gets harder, her father becomes stricter and her mother slides into depression. Madeline is desperate to find God, believing he can help them if she does so. The moment she thinks she’s discovered him coincides with her sexual awakening. Soon, she is making sacrifices to him to try and protect their family.

Events on the island are told through Madeline’s hypnosis sessions and, later on, the journal, which she wrote during her time on the island and which Lucas forces her to read. Her recall of that time is interspersed with events at Lentham Park, most of which are a direct result of Lucas’ intervention.

The Offering considers two heavy subjects – religious devotion and mental health care – but does so without casting judgement or leaving the reader in complete despair. (Although McCleen does suggest there might be similarities between the two things.) This is mostly due to McCleen’s excellent writing which is crisp and precise when necessary but often lyrical and soaring, particularly when describing the island:

Before the dew had dried each morning, the sun appeared to be pulsing. Small breezes faltered and expired. The horizon was hazy, the ground scorching. Only late in the day did the heat lessen a little, shadows ticking by at the base of the pine as the sun slipped lower, warmed lips and eyes, flared sudden through apple tree boughs, lit grasses and leaves and dragonfly wings, as if concealed within each was a living coal, and veins held not sap but blood; skeins of jewel and flame.

The only problem I had with this novel is an event near the end which felt unnecessary. It was a jolt from what had gone before and, although it wasn’t completely implausible, it didn’t seem to have been sufficiently signposted throughout the book for me to really believe it. It was a shame because otherwise I think this is a very good book. It’s well structured and paced; the journal entries felt realistic; Madeline is an engaging narrator, and the story of her family and her coming-of-age were interesting and unusual.

As with some of the other writers longlisted for this year’s Bailey’s Prize, I’ve had McCleen’s earlier novels on my shelf for some time but have never got round to reading them. I’ll be remedying that shortly.

The Offering has also been reviewed by fellow Bailey’s Prize shadow panel member Eric on his blog.

Outline – Rachel Cusk

An unnamed narrator – a writer – flies to Athens to teach on a creative writing summer school course ‘entitled “How to Write”’. On the plane from Heathrow, she sits next to a man with whom she has a conversation about his life in the way that only seems possible when you converse with a stranger you never expect to see again. He talks about his upbringing, his two wives, his children and the way the second wife treated one of the children from the first marriage.

The narrator reveals little of herself during this time. The only real comment from her is that she’s recently moved to London with her children, having lived in the countryside for ten years – seven with her then husband and a further three following the end of the marriage.

It had been, in other words, our family home, and I had stayed to watch it become the grave of something I could no longer definitively call either a reality or an illusion…a marriage is a system of belief, a story, and thought it manifests itself in things that are real enough, the impulse that drives it is ultimately mysterious. What was real, in the end, was the loss of the house, which had become the geographical location for things that had gone absent and which represented, I supposed, the hope that they might one day return. 

As they arrive in Athens, the man (who she refers to as ‘my neighbour’) asks for her telephone number. They go on to meet twice more when he takes her out on his boat.

The narrator goes to meet Ryan, another tutor on the course, and then establishes herself in the flat she’s staying in for the duration of her time in Athens. The rest of the book concerns her teaching and meeting up with a number of people – other writers, friends and ‘my neighbour’ – before the tutor who will take over from her arrives and they spend a brief amount of time together. There are no spoilers there as the plot is scant. The book concerns itself with the stories of the people the narrator meets. This is a novel of ideas, rather than one of plot or character; it’s about narratives – the ones we construct and what they tell us about how we see ourselves and what other people take from them.

Before the narrator leaves ‘my neighbour’ at the end of the plane journey, she tells him:

I remained dissatisfied…by the story of his second marriage. It had lacked objectivity; it relied too heavily on extremes, and the moral properties it ascribed to those extremes were often correct…I found I did not believe certain key facts…Reality might be described as the eternal equipoise of positive and negative, but in this story the two poles had become disassociated and ascribed separate, warring identities. The narrative invariably showed certain people – the narrator and his children – in a good light, while the wife was brought in only when it was required of her to damn herself further. The narrator’s treacherous attempts to contact his first wife, for instance, were given a positive, empathetic status while his second wife’s insecurity – well-founded, as we now knew – was treated as an incomprehensible crime…this was a story in which I sensed the truth was being sacrificed to the narrator’s desire to win.

The ideas in the book are interesting and it’s mostly well written – there are some terrible similes (if, like me, you have a problem with similes in general). However, I’m not convinced this works as a novel. We meet the people the narrator meets and learn their stories – or the stories they want to tell her – but we barely get to know the narrator and it’s here the issue lies; she distances us from the stories and herself, leaving the reader nothing to grasp to help us through the narrative. I don’t mind a protagonist being unlikeable; I enjoy character studies as much as a plot-driven novel, but to give us nothing, is asking a lot. The point of this seems to be explained by the writer who arrives at the end of the book. She too has flown – this time from Manchester – and has spent the flight in conversation with the man sitting next to her – a diplomat.

He was describing, she realised, a distinction that seemed to grow clearer and clearer, the more he talked, a distinction he stood on one side of while she, it became increasingly apparent, stood on the other. He was describing, in other words, what she herself was not: in everything he said about himself, she found in her own nature a corresponding negative. This antidescription, for want of a better way of putting it, had made something clear to her by a reverse kind of exposition: while he talked she began to see herself as a shape, an outline, with all the detail filled in around it while the shape itself remained blank. Yet this shape, even while its content remained unknown, gave her, for the first time since the incident, a sense of who she was.

As a reader, I would have liked the protagonist to have let us in, to give us more of a sense of who she was.

Outline has also been reviewed by fellow Bailey’s Prize shadow panel members Paola and Eric on their respective blogs.

Dear Thief – Samantha Harvey

In answer to a question you asked a long time ago, I have, yes, seen through what you called the gauze of this life.

So begins the letter the unnamed narrator of Dear Thief writes to her former friend, Nina or Butterfly, as she came to be known, over the six months between December 2001 and June 2002.

It’s seventeen years since they’ve seen each other but on Boxing Day night as the music from the jazz club a few doors down comes to an end and it begins to snow, the narrator thinks of Butterfly standing over her bed.

Does she think it was worth it? I wondered. This is what came to me when I pictured you there. Not: Is she happy, is she free, is she alive? – no. Does she think it was worth it?

The narrator goes on to intertwine stories about her current life with stories about the past and particularly her friendship with Butterfly.

She begins with a story about visiting her grandmother knowing she was on the verge of death. During the night, the narrator walked down to the river where she found a collection of bones before returning to her grandmother who died in her absence.

Currently, she lives in central London, near Russell Square, where she’s become friendly with Yannis, a Cretan who runs a Greek store, who is in the middle of a marital crisis. She’s lived there for two years, the flat paid for by the sale of her parents’ home which she inherited. She works full-time in a care home.

Working in the care home, talking to the residents and observing their behaviour, leads her to contemplate life and, of course, death:

…and it seems to me that this whole universe is a crime of passion. So reckless in its short-termism, wreaking such magnificent havoc on those who come to live in it, so unreasonable and grotesque and glorious and rampant and murderous, because nothing escapes it alive, yet nothing escapes it without having lived either, without having been zealously loved and brought to its knees – even if only once for a moment – by it.

Death – and, to some extent, life – could be the thief referenced in the title. The novel begins with a death, there is the death of a relationship, the death of a friendship, the death of members of the care home, the death of who you were when you were younger:

…I am talking about splintering. We hit certain points, we splinter, and bits of ourselves are left behind. I don’t know why this should be, only that time isn’t a slick medium that we slide through into old age, it is lumpy and irregular and breaks us into pieces…there is always freedom in the past. The self you left behind lives in endless possibility. The older you get, the bigger and wilder the past becomes, a place that can never again be tended and which is therefore prone to that loveliness which happens on wastelands and wilderness, where grass has grown over scrap metal and wheat has sprung up in cracks between concrete and there is no regular shape for the light to fall flat on, so it vaults and multiplies and you want to go there. You want to go there like you want to go to a lover.

What happened between the narrator and Butterfly for them to end their friendship is easily anticipated by the reader – it’s hinted at in the novel’s title. However, although the narrative partly drives us to the moment of revelation, it is Harvey’s language which is the most compelling feature. The structure of the letter meanders somewhat, as a real letter to a long lost friend might. We are told about Butterfly; about the narrator’s (ex)husband and son; about Yannis; about her work. But the language is stunning throughout. (I could have chosen so many quotations for this review; my copy of the novel is heavily highlighted.) Harvey considers the major themes of life, death and relationships, often referring to the ideas from major philosophers and theology. (She has a postgraduate qualification in Philosophy.)

Recently, Harvey was interviewed by Gaby Wood of the Telegraph. Wood questioned why Dear Thief hasn’t had more attention. Harvey’s editor, Dan Franklin says:

The really difficult thing about her is that she writes serious books, which is not to the modern taste. People like easy-peasy books that slip down without any trouble. How do you have a career in 2015 writing really thoughtful, philosophical books?

I’m not entirely convinced by this but I do think that because there are so many books published some that should have had more recognition get lost along the way. The thing I love most about the Bailey’s Women’s Fiction Prize is every year I come across two or three writers whom I’ve been intending to read and have never got round to. This year, Harvey is one of those.

Dear Thief is a stunning novel. When I said so on Twitter, people began to tell me that Harvey’s debut, The Wilderness, is even better; if that’s the case, I’ve a real treat in store.

 

Thanks to Jonathan Cape for the review copy.

The Bees – Laline Paull

She dragged her body through and fell out onto the floor of an alien world. Static roared through her brain, thunderous vibration shook the ground and a thousand scents dazed her. All she could do was breathe until gradually the vibration and static subsided and the scent evaporated into the air. Her rigid body unlocked and she calmed as knowledge filled her mind.

This was the Arrivals Hall and she was a worker.

Her kin was Flora and her number was 717.

Flora 717 is a worker bee, born to serve in the lowest class of the hive – sanitation. However, Flora is unusual. Catagorised as ‘Excessive variation. Abnormal’ by the hive police, she is saved from certain death by Sister Sage, one of the priestesses. Flora ‘is obscenely ugly…excessively large’ and can speak – highly unusual for her kin. Taken under Sister Sage’s wing (sorry), Flora travels through the hive with her to the Nursery. There she is left as an experiment to see whether she can produce Flow and feed the babies but not before she learns of the concerns of Sister Teasel:

‘They say the season is deformed by rain, that the flowers shun us and fall unborn, that foragers are falling from the air and no one knows why!’ She plucked at her fur convulsively. ‘They say we will starve and the babies will all die…’

Flora’s time in the nursery is successful but it comes to an abrupt end when the fertility police arrive on the ward following the discovery of a wing deformity on one of the newly hatched bees. This can’t possibly be the Queen’s offspring – it would be treason to suggest she could produce a deformed baby, regardless of the impact of climate change – so the imposter’s spawn must be destroyed. A baby is taken from a crib and Flora is ordered to destroy it. Holding the baby, she is unable to do it. The fertility police wrench it from her and devour it. Flora is sent back to sanitation though not for long.

Through a series of not entirely plausible events, Flora manages to work her way through the hive, playing different roles. This way the reader gets to see the entirety of the hive and to understand how it works. Three things are notable here: the Drones, the Queen and the religious aspect of the hive.

Flora first comes into contact with a drone as she walks through the hive with Sister Sage. As one emerges from his compartment in the Drones’ Arrival Hall, the bees treat him like a member of The Beatles in 1964:

…to the sisters’ fervent applause, he showed himself off from many angles, stretching out his legs in pairs, puffing his plume and even treating them to a sudden roar of his engine. They screamed in delight and fanned each other, and some scrambled to offer him pastries and water.

The drones are lazy, vain, selfish, gluttonous, sexist characters. They preen and swagger about the hive but they also bring some comedy to the novel – sometimes with their bawdy lines, but mostly as we laugh at them.

The Queen is obviously important but more so as Flora gets to meet her – not a privilege afforded to many bees. Flora accesses the Hive mind during a crisis in which she fights a wasp who attacks the hive and it is this which earns her the visit to the Queen. During her time in the Queen’s chamber, she learns the stories of the bees and the Queen’s secret.

The religious aspect of the hive is used as a control mechanism. The hive has a very strict power structure, every bee is born knowing their place. The Sage priestesses are the ruling elite, maintaining order through overzealous police officers, the catechism – ‘Desire is sin, Vanity is sin, Idleness is sin, Discord is sin, Greed is sin’ – and the first commandment – ‘Accept, Obey and Serve’.

The Bees is overlong and the way in which Flora moves from role to role is overly contrived to allow the reader to see the workings of the hive through a third-person subjective narrator. However, it is also hugely imaginative and handles its themes with care. Paull takes ideas about climate change, power, religion and sexism and weaves them into a narrative which in it’s best moments is gripping.

I was mostly impressed with this – the imagination at work here gives some compensation for the length and initial structure – and I’m keen to see what Laline Paull comes up with next.

Fellow shadow judge Paola has also reviewed The Bees on her blog. Click here to read it. As has Eric on his.

Thanks to Fourth Estate for the review copy.

The Shore – Sara Taylor

The Shore is as flat as a fried egg; on a clear day from our upstairs porch it feels like you can see into tomorrow, and usually you can just about see the dark smear that is Chincoteague Island off to the northeast. We are one of three islands, off the coast of Virginia and just south of Maryland, trailing out into the Atlantic Ocean like someone’s dripped paint. We take the force out of hurricanes, grow so much food that a lot of it rots on the vine because there’s too much to pick or eat, but people say the government doesn’t ever remember we’re here, that we get left off when they draw the big maps.

The Shore begins in 1995 when Chloe, 13, is out buying chicken necks to use for crabbing. Chloe overhears a customer and the cashier discussing the murder of Cabel Bloxom. He’s ‘ “had his face shot to pieces”…[and] “They done cut his thang clean off!” ‘ By the middle of the chapter we know who’s shot him and why; by the end of the chapter there’s a second killing. It’s an explosive and shocking start to the book but the scenarios that surround both killings are sadly all too familiar.

Chloe, her younger sister, Renee, and their father live in a small house on Accomack Island, the largest of the three islands that make up The Shore.

It’s a little house, our house, one room downstairs and two rooms upstairs and a porch for each, and according to the phone company and the electric company and the taxman it doesn’t exist.

They’re poor. The girls are crabbing because there’s no food in the house. Their father works on the killing floor at one of the chicken plants because it’s the only work available. Their childhood is brutal – more so because they’re girls.

But this isn’t Chloe and Renee’s story; it’s the story of two families and the islands from 1876 to 2143.

In thirteen connected stories, Taylor tells us of women who leave and return, who can control the weather, who are smart and fight for their freedom from men, who find ways to survive despite the brutality that’s inflicted upon them. They’re tales of family and survival.

What’s most impressive about the book is the way Taylor moves between different characters and stories, making them and their voices unique. She experiments with different types of story telling – moving between past and present tense, using conventions of different genres. It’s this that’s led to the book being compared to David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which – and I say this as a huge fan of David Mitchell’s work – does Taylor a disservice; she nods to different genres rather than immersing the stories in them and the links between the tales are much subtler and require more work from the reader than those in Cloud Atlas. One of the joys of the book is working out how the characters link together.

However, on occasion, this is also the book’s downfall. There was one story in particular which seemed out of place and although at the end of the novel, it’s clearly connected, it took me out of the story and the atmosphere created before that point.

Regardless, The Shore is an impressive debut. It shows Taylor has an ability to write many different stories – there is no lack of ambition here and that more than makes up for any perceived shortcomings.

Fellow shadow Bailey’s Prize panel member Eric has also reviewed The Shore on his blog.

Thanks to William Heinemann for the review copy.