Between 2014-2015 I contributed book reviews, interviews and articles to Quadrapheme, a literary magazine. Here’s a selection of my stuff.
‘Everything unravels’ – an interview with Stav Sherez
A man stands in a room, the light is on, the window reflects his face to us, a bearded man staring at the wallpaper of which he can undoubtedly tell you more than you’d ever want to know.
This line comes not from one of Stav Sherez’ four celebrated crime novels but from an interview piece he wrote way back in 2002 for now-defunct music magazine Comes With A Smile. The man in question is David Berman, singer with indie rock band The Silver Jews. Berman smokes, Sherez writes, “like it’s 1959” and is “the most distracted man I have ever met”. About halfway through their interview, a management bod interrupts and hands Berman a passport. Sherez can’t work out if it belongs to Berman or not. “All I can tell”, he writes, “is that nestled inside its pages is a small paper wrap. I pretend not to notice”.
I quote the article at such length for two reasons. One, because it’s rich with the kind of seamy, noirish moments that have come to characterise Sherez’ fiction. Eleven Days, his most recent novel, is full of them, and evokes modern London in all its beautiful and banal detail, from the “black snow falling on the streets of Bayswater” following an arson to the pull of gravity a driver feels heading up the ramp onto the Westway road that leads out of the city. And two, because such prose makes it all the more surprising to learn that Sherez hadn’t set out to become a crime novelist.
“I wrote my first novel as a literary novel but it was sold as crime,” he tells me, in reference to The Devil’s Playground, published in 2004. “Ian Rankin calls himself an ‘accidental crime writer’ and I like that description a lot.”
Yet the genre turned out to be the ideal venue for his ideas, as critical praise for his work – The Devil’s Playground and A Dark Redemption were shortlisted for the CWA John Creasey Dagger and Theakstons Crime Novel of the Year awards respectively – would show.
Sherez: “The themes I keep returning to in all of my novels – idealism turning into fanaticism, the moral ambiguities in the representation of violence, the clash between cultures – all of them slot perfectly into the crime novel. It’s become a sleek compelling Trojan horse for them. I also love the intellectual and logical rigour. The crime novel has taken on the role of what used to be known in the 1920s and 30s as the social novel.”
Eleven Days takes place in the run up to Christmas, as detectives Jack Carrigan and Geneva Miller (who previously featured in A Dark Redemption) are sent to investigate a suspicious fire at a West London convent in which the ten resident nuns have all been killed. As the pair establish the basic facts of the case, a number of further mysteries present themselves. The nuns appear to have made no effort to escape the fire. There are suggestions that they may have been facilitating radical activists in South America and helping trafficked women at home. And, most disturbingly of all, there’s the body of an unknown eleventh victim.
The novel has all the hallmarks of the classic cop story. Each new person Carrigan and Miller meet is a potential suspect; every avenue they pursue seems leads to a dead end; and the detectives’ dedication to the case appears to be fuelled by a need to escape some gaping sorrow in their own lives as much as by a desire to deliver justice for the victims. But it’s also shot through with a thoroughly modern questioning of the nature of morality. Evil and violence are preoccupations for all crime writers, but in Eleven Days Sherez addresses them more overtly than most. The convent setting isn’t just a hook for the author to snag the reader’s sympathy (after all, is there anything more innocent than a nun? It kind of comes with the job); it allows him to explore the contemporary response to violence, and to consider the delicate poise between a 21st century, secular interpretation of evil and its older, more spiritual counterpart. For Sherez, who is agnostic but whose day job is literary editor at the Catholic Herald, it’s never a simple matter of choosing one perspective over the other.
“Evil is too general a term,” he says. “Each act deemed ‘evil’ has to be addressed in its own right. Generalities won’t work. It’s the inclination towards darkness stitched into our DNA that we must combat daily. On a larger scale, we need law and order. Society cannot function and progress without it. In places where there is no law, or it is corrupt, we always see a flourishing of evil deeds.”
Early on in Eleven Days, a character representing the church elaborates on this, explaining to Detective Miller that “ultimately, our roles are not so different… we both have a set of rules to follow and we both try to stem the flow of evil in the world.” I ask Sherez what such an outlook, if correct, might do to our collective sense of hope. Isn’t it pessimistic to think that ‘stemming the flow’ is the best we can do?
“Any other outlook seems illogical to me,” he says. “An idealist, a person who thinks they can make the world better, is often someone who’d gladly sacrifice half the world to save the other half. We need to be realistic. Entropy is the defining feature of the universe. Everything unravels. From the furthest star to the button on your shirt. That’s physics. We can’t change that.”
“I don’t think that’s pessimistic as much as realistic,” he continues. “I think a lot of the pain in the world comes from unrealistic expectations and the subsequent disappointments of their non-manifestation. Violence and crime have always been with us and will always be. Anyone who thinks they can be eradicated is delusional of history.”
There’s something about this view that is at once bravely unfashionable yet intuitively reasonable. In the West, at least, we don’t like to think of anything as being “stitched into our DNA” – least of all badness. We prefer to think that there’s no such thing as human nature, that all truths are relative, mere constructs of our individual moral environments. But even if it’s accurate, how has that realisation helped us in real terms? It’s done exactly nothing to diminish humanity’s capacity for violence and very little to lessen its occurrence.
That’s not to endorse the doomsayers’ belief that evil is a real and verifiable entity, like gravity. But maybe it does suggest that understanding bad acts isn’t enough; we need the conviction to act against them, too. Or, as Detective Carrigan puts it in a neat echo of the churchman’s sentiments:
“We have these great new technological advances – DNA, CCTV, all the rest of it – but none of it stops the crime. Sometimes I think all we are is janitors, clearing up the mess after everyone else has gone home. At least the nuns were doing something.”
Blackass – A Igoni Barrett
(Chatto & Windus)
With a title like Blackass you might think A Igoni Barrett is out to provoke and enflame his way to recognition, but he’s a better writer than that. His debut novel is constructed with some blunt old tools, among them satire, metafiction and a plainspoken style that often focuses on the banal detail of its characters’ days. But its name is the only hammer blow in a flexible, occasionally odd, always nuanced narrative. Barrett writes calmly and calmingly, and that allows Blackass to do more than just rage at the pervasiveness of racial inequality. It’s also by turns a forlorn love letter to Lagos, a broad comedy, and a critique of materialism.
The posterior of the book’s title belongs to one Furo Wariboko, an unemployed Nigerian man who wakes on the morning of a job interview to discover that he’s turned almost entirely Caucasian overnight. Almost. It takes a while for Furo to notice, but while his red hair, green eyes and pale skin allow him to pass as an oyibo, his backside remains stubbornly African.
What follows is a sort of tragicomic literalising of the ‘one-drop’ theory of race, as Furo struggles in vain to shake off his history as a black man and profit from the advantages that come with whiteness. And what about those advantages. It’s hardly surprising that Furo’s job interview goes far better as a white man than it would if he’d remained black. He’s pretty much waved past the queue of aspiring salespeople waiting outside the offices of Haba!, a publisher of inane business books with titles like 1001 Ways To Take Initiative at Work and The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and he hardly has to speak in the resulting ‘interview’ before being offered an executive role, complete with company car. This would all seem like the stuff of sitcoms if it weren’t so wincingly plausible.
Equally believable, though, is the knife-edge cordiality that attends Furo’s newfound identity. For all the obsequiousness the Caucasian Furo attracts from his boss, there are individuals like one of his co-interviewees in line at Haba!, or the elderly food seller he later encounters at a roadside shack, whose friendliness turns to nearly violent resentment like the flick of a switch. Again, Barrett hardly needs to exaggerate the tension in these scenes – it’s all too painfully recognisable, and impossible to deny.
If Furo’s presence puts those he meets on edge, it is of course less to do with his skin tone than his money – or at least people’s perception of his access to it. At no point does Blackass question the existence of white privilege, and nor should it, since it’s obvious. What it does instead, and what gives the novel a large part of its wonder, is to show what that actually means: how it’s inseparable from economic inequality, how it plays out in everyday situations, and most poignantly how it destroys the humanity of those with power as much as those without it. It’s a point Barrett returns to again and again, be it in Furo’s saddening and maddening experience of taxi drivers who have to be “tricked into an honest fare”, or of his new girlfriend Syreeta’s educated Lagos peers, who have no greater ambition than to become Westeners’ WAGs. “A white man in Lagos has no voice louder than the dollar sign branded on his forehead,” as Barrett puts it elsewhere. At the individual level, neither the non-Nigerian nor the local is to blame for this state of affairs, but both are diminished by the bitterness it causes.
Despite its surreal premise, Blackass only becomes truly weird about a third of the way through, when Barrett left-turns into a metafictional subplot told from the point of view of a short story writer named Igoni (Barrett’s two previous publications are story collections, and in 2005 he won a BBC World Service competition for ‘The Phoenix’). I’m not sure how successful this strand of the novel is. It’s not that Igoni-slash-Barrett doesn’t try to do new things with the device, because he does. You can go right ahead and follow him using the Twitter handle he quotes; or, if you can’t be bothered with that, you could just keep reading till the fictional Igoni starts shapeshifting in a way that parallels, but is distinct from, Furo’s own transformation. No, it’s simply that in 2015 metafiction is so profoundly uninteresting, so totally done to death, that not even Barrett’s witty modernising can bring it back to life.
That said, Barrett wields it confidently, as he does with all his influences. Blackass makes a virtue of its debt to Kafka, for instance, rather than trying to slip it in unnoticed. The novel opens with a quote from Metamorphosis, and in its first pages Furo watches a cockroach crawl across his bedroom floor, all but offering a knowing insectoid wink as it goes.
Nor do Barrett’s uber-precise accounts of his characters’ behaviour seem laboured. We’re frequently told stuff like which hand Furo uses to hold a cup, how Syreeta puts her legs into her jeans, and so on. With many writers this might seem like paragraph-padding, but in Blackass it all contributes to the sensuousness of the world that Furo inhabits. I’ve never been to Lagos, but thanks to Barrett’s placid, unhurried descriptions, it’s no trouble at all to picture the white-person silos that are the city’s air conditioned shopping malls, or the heavy rain storms that approach from afar “like a crashing airliner”, or the egusi soup eaten with the hands. His dialogue, too, is snappy and rich, full of the pidgin dialect that he perceptively diagnoses as “the shortest distance between two thoughts”. Barrett’s style makes Blackass a delight to read, and it adds a spectrum of colour to the sad, amusing story of a character forced to live in black and white.
Orient – Chrisopher Bollen
(Simon & Schuster)
The real-world village of Orient sits at the north-easternmost edge of Long Island. Despite being only a hundred miles from New York, its isolated, Atlantic-facing position makes it as psychologically distant from the city as any remote population on America’s opposite coast. This enticing combination of geographical proximity and small-town authenticity makes it attractive to jaded Manhattan artists who arrive toting bags of cash and prestige, keen to buy up local land and make it a haven for similarly creative, aspirational types. Fortunately it’s also fertile soil for skilled storytellers like Christopher Bollen, who has used the social unease caused by gentrification to fire his excellently suspenseful and highly enjoyable second novel.
This tension – between the metropolitan and the homespun; between the elite and the proletarian – runs through Orient like a fault line, and when the plates collide it leads to the disintegration of community and, more gruesomely and explosively, to a string of murders. The novel opens on the road to Orient, where Mills Chevern, nineteen years old and already burned out by the city, is being driven to the village for a period of convalescence by Paul Benchley, an Orient native who’d recently found Mills strung out on drugs in the hallway of his New York apartment. Mills is touched by Paul’s kindness, but soon finds it isn’t endemic: the villagers initially distrust Mills, seeing him as symbolic of all that is debauched and corrupt about the city, and then they scapegoat him, casting him as the probable killer of a well-liked local man who drowns in suspicious circumstances shortly after Mills’ arrival. With the local police showing a similar coolness towards him (not to mention some classic incompetent-cop bungling in the face of big crime), Mills comes to understand that the only way to prove his innocence is to solve the mystery of the drowned man himself, alongside the one friend he’s made in town.
Beth Shepherd is Orient’s other main character, a similarly failed New Yorker who has lately returned to the village of her birth, “replacing the futile dream of artist with the more realistic one of mother and wife”. Having grown up in Orient, Beth is immune to the locals’ resentment of the urbanites, but, being intelligent and ambitious enough to have escaped to the city when she was younger, she no longer feels like one of them. Mills may be a literal orphan, having grown up among a string of chaotic Californian foster families, but Beth is no less of one for having figurative homes in both New York and in Orient. Caught between two worlds, she can’t force herself to belong in either. Fittingly, much of Orient sees Beth helping Mills in order to take her mind off her pregnancy, about which she is ambivalent and indecisive.
Mills and Beth’s DIY detective work gives Orient its plot, but it’s one that Bollen urges forward patiently, creepingly. Many chapters feature neither of the two main characters, and instead range across various other Orient residents, both indigenous and imported. There’s a double-sided advantage to slowing down the pace like this. On the one hand, it allows Bollen to implicate as many people as possible into the drowning and subsequent, related murders, creating an ever more suffocating atmosphere along the way – for, despite its size, Orient is a taut novel, its skin pulled as tight as a balloon thanks to the huge amount of detail that hides in Bollen’s confident, unobtrusive prose.
On the other, this expansiveness allows him to pit small-town, old-world values against postmodern metropolitanism, a clash whose consequences seem sadly inevitable. It would have been easy for Bollen to portray the incoming artists as hateful parasites, siphoning all that is decent and real from the village. But, as individuals at least, they are never two-dimensional villains so much as misguided idealists. Beth’s husband Gavril, for instance, is shown to be a decent if occasionally ludicrous man (“Pretend to live the ultimate suburban American dream with wife and child and only on deathbed reveal it had all been a charade,” reads one of the notes-to-self Beth discovers in his papers). Meanwhile an older wealthy couple, Isaiah and Vince, help Mills after he is subjected to a partly homophobic attack by a group of local men.
Yet Bollen doesn’t avoid the uncomfortable truth that while the artists and out-of-towners may be sympathetic as individuals, as a collective their impact on the village is indeed parasitical. Their presence in Orient has a destructive Midas effect, driving up property prices, increasing the cost of living, and compromising the livelihoods of the indigenous population. In that context, the intimidation and threats Mills suffers are still unequivocally, profoundly wrong, but they seem tragic rather than purely hateful.
Is Orient a sophisticated murder mystery? A literary thriller? Or as Luz, one of its precious and faintly despicable ex-Manhattanite characters might put it, is it a meditation on Western, postmodern anomie as told through the sturdy, pre-postmodern prism of the crime novel? The answer is all of the above, but Orient is so good because it makes those sorts of questions seem dreary and irrelevant. Bollen has deep things to say about late capitalism, the loss of innocence, and the role of art (or rather, artists) in the modern world, but his great achievement is that he treats his story as importantly as his subject matter. In discarding the silly and fallacious hierarchy of fiction, whereby literariness sits immovably above genre, he’s created something that contains the best of both.
The Faithful Couple – AD Miller
At no point in The Faithful Couple are you unaware that it is the work of A Serious Writer. Even after the novel finishes we’re reminded of the fact by one of those imperious full-page author photos. There’s AD Miller, smouldering seriously for the camera in very serious black and white above a biographical paragraph detailing his seriously impressive career as former political editor of The Economist and Booker-shortlisted author of 2011’s Snowdrops. At its best, The Faithful Couple burnishes this reputation, and is a sensitive and perceptive portrait of a friendship formed in and buffeted by the last two decades. For far too long, though, it pulls off the unappealing trick of being both haughty and banal at the same time, and this makes it difficult to love.
The Faithful Couple ranges across twenty years, several countries and one tumultuous, life-defining night. Adam and Neil are two likeably naïve English twentysomethings who meet while travelling through California in 1993. They’re improbable candidates for friendship – Adam is tall and blond and has the “bone-deep confidence” of one from a privileged background, while Neil is shorter, “unmuscular” and shy, and comes from a family of shopkeepers and labourers – but they’re drawn to each other by some mysterious magnetism that Neil, at least, can’t identify. The pair bond over beer and their common nationality, as travellers often do. They later decide to join a group trek in Yosemite, and it’s here that the men are bound to each other forever as they encounter a young American girl whom they discover, too late, to be too young for what she and Neil get up to under the starry Californian sky.
The Englishmen avoid official punishment for the scandal (and although Neil is the more culpable of the two, Adam is understood, correctly, to be only slightly less implicated). But both are haunted by the act for the rest of their lives, and it comes to define their friendship as much as their more benign connections. If Neil couldn’t see the force between himself and Adam on the day they met, it wasn’t because it didn’t exist. It’s simply that it was destined to appear slowly, creepingly, over the years that follow. As Miller puts it, when the young men bid each other a temporary farewell at Heathrow, “They didn’t register the pivot in their lives, as you might notice a scratch without anticipating the infection.”
The remaining three quarters of The Faithful Couple track Adam and Neil over the next two decades, as they move through life’s occasional successes and, more frequently, its failures. As in Snowdrops, Miller puts a parallel focus on the hyper-capitalist world of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. He’s very good at taking these wide-angle views, both across time and place. Wealth is all over The Faithful Couple, and, where it’s not, its absence is felt keenly. Neil turns out to have a talent for acquiring it, and we see him become extremely rich in the mid-noughties via a series of risky – and occasionally shady – business ventures that pay off. Adam, meanwhile, opts for a cosy civil service career, hoping to cling on to the money he was born into rather than try to acquire more in the pre-2008 digital gold rush. But neither man’s choices allow him to escape a life of quiet desperation, and The Faithful Couple is studded with moments of sad beauty as each of them ages and feels, in his own way, “that a lot of his life was behind him, and that little of his life was his.”
The early chapters of The Faithful Couple are by far its strongest, and this is plainly because it’s the one part of the novel when stuff actually happens. The beginning of Adam and Neil’s friendship is subtly developed and easy to relate to, while the air of menace that pervades their time in Yosemite, even before Neil’s behaviour with the teenage American, is worthy of Patricia Highsmith.
If only the atmosphere were maintained for another two hundred pages. An awful lot of the rest of Adam and Neil’s story sees them sitting at their desks or standing around at parties, worrying about their lives. Worse, Miller has an irritating tendency to compensate for the lack of action by overwriting the little he does have them do, which means we’re asked to sit through a lot of turgid and unnecessarily difficult constructions like “The urgent ratiocination was legible in the microspasms of her cheek muscles and the darts of her pupils” and “Dan was the only sublunary party available for his blame.” A couple of these purple stretches per chapter would be tolerable, maybe even enjoyable. Sitting through several of them per page is wearying.
The crux of it is that Miller seems more concerned with his own ability to interpret a moment – and to let us know all about it – than with producing a compelling and immersive plot. As the more overtly moral of the two friends, Adam lives with a constant low-level fear of repercussions from that night in California. As the years tick by and technology evolves, Adam’s anxiety leads him to track down the American girl on social media. Rather than inspiring some kind of denouement, though, the main function of Adam’s search seems to be to allow Miller space to muse on the nature of the internet. With only pages of the novel remaining, when we could be holding out for some kind of reckoning, Miller instead gives us a patience-testing description of Adam’s struggle to remember his PC’s password. It’s true that a dramatic climax of sorts is supplied by another thread of the novel’s plot. But, like so much else in The Faithful Couple, this too is overinflated, its impact overestimated, and its gravitas taken for granted.
‘A radical spirit is crucial’ – an interview with PM Press
PM Press was co-founded in 2007 by Ramsey Kanaan, a veteran of the ‘70s punk rock scene and organiser of anarchist book fairs. Based in Oakland, California, it’s a hard-working and fiercely independent operation whose range of output is as broad as its motivation is singular. A browse of its online store shows not just the publisher’s staple stock of literature and non-fiction books, but much else besides. Graphic novels, CDs, videos and DVDs, and even PM-branded merchandise such as posters and T-shirts are all up for grabs. It might all seem a bit muddled if it weren’t for the political and creative idealism that threads it all together.
“A radical spirit is crucial,” Kanaan tells me during a visit to London to promote Futures, the new novel by John Barker, “but so is an enquiring mind, and an accessible writing style. In one sense, it’s a given that we publish books that are progressive, unabashedly lefty and even revolutionary. But more than that, we strive to actually publish and disseminate really good books, content-wise and aesthetically.”
Kanaan seems relaxed about describing PM as an anarchist project, and I’m glad about that. ‘Anarchy’ must be one of the most misunderstood and misapplied words in the English language. Practically speaking, anarchism has very little to do with the stereotypical images of wanton destruction (although, like all stereotypes, it may contain an unfortunate grain of truth; Churchill’s statue didn’t give itself that green mohawk). More often it’s about co-operation, self-reliance and freedom from traditional organisational systems – in this case, freedom from the corporate publishing industry.
“As someone who came out of the punk/so called DIY underground, I agree absolutely,” says Kanaan. “DIY, of course, is a complete misnomer, since we weren’t – and aren’t – doing it ourselves. We’re actually doing it together, in concert with others. We like good old fashioned concepts like solidarity and mutual aid. PM Press is a political project as much as a literary one, so we’re as much a reaction to capitalism and the state as we are to the legion of negatives involved in corporate publishing.”
With its rejection of profit as motive, it’s safe to assume that PM can’t offer its authors the kind of eye-watering advances that are still occasionally forked out by the big publishing houses. But that doesn’t mean it’s in any way an amateur outfit. In accordance with its aesthetic concerns, PM’s books are finely-crafted artefacts in their own right. They often also feature the work of major mainstream authors: I discovered PM through The Wild Girls by Ursula le Guin, who is without question one of the most important writers of the last fifty years in any genre.
Despite existing as a kind of antidote to traditional publishing, PM faces the same challenges as the rest of the industry. Kanaan is very aware of this. “Undoubtedly, in this age of hyperlinks, texts, short attention spans and instant gratification, not only is reading and writing increasingly an anachronism, but in particular, long-form reading and study is an endangered species.”
But, equally, the combination of pragmatism and idealism that has got them this far means he’s optimistic about PM’s future. He describes the job of a good publisher as “editorial and curatorial” – a crucial service in a world where self-publishing, while democratising the creative process, also drops the reader in an unnavigable sea of content. As Kanaan puts it, “we actually help produce the nuggets of the good stuff, amongst an ocean of garbage, and help make them known.”
The Hourglass Factory – Lucy Ribchester
(Simon & Schuster)
A few weeks ago I reviewed Ridley Road by Jo Bloom. It wasn’t a bad book – in fact it was a solidly crafted one – but it was unambitious. Its real-life inspiration (that of grassroots activists using street violence to resist a new wave of fascism in 1960s London) should have been rich material for a novelist, so it was a shame to see it used mainly to add grit to a fairly bland love story. There was a sense in reading Ridley Road that its author really just wanted to write a piece of traditional romantic fiction. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, of course. But it felt like she was only able to justify doing so by giving it a reasonably edgy premise to ride in on. That raises a dispiriting question: is this all we can expect from commercial fiction – that its use of social and historical material is likely to be functional at best?
The Hourglass Factory responds with a loud and thrilling no. Like Ridley Road, it’s set at a pivotal moment in 20th Century British history. Also like Ridley Road, it’s being pitched by its publisher as a page-turner novel aimed for a wide audience. The difference is that its characters’ stories don’t simply play out against the backdrop of a society in flux; their stories are those of a society in flux. Lucy Ribchester offers us a ripping yarn, for sure. But, through her meticulous research and abundant imagination, she paints a complex picture of the fight for women’s suffrage. As a result The Hourglass Factory is that rare thing – an entertaining novel that you come out of feeling smarter than you were when you went in.
Set in London in the winter of 1912, the novel follows young reporter Frankie George as she tries to track down Ebony Diamond, a circus performer and suffragette who vanishes, apparently literally, into thin air during a trapeze routine. Ebony’s disappearance is a tantalising mystery for Frankie, who’s looking for the scoop to lift her out of her miserable post as a tabloid hack writer and into the world of serious journalism. Frankie’s investigation draws her into a London underworld of social outcasts, Edwardian-era fetishists and radical politics. But the intensifying search does more than just fire up Frankie’s career and burn off her post-adolescent naivety. Clues that she uncovers in relation to Ebony’s disappearance point to the militant Women’s Social and Political Union, who may in turn be behind a murderous plot against the government. Finding her involves going to the extreme edges of the suffrage movement, and encountering the violence it’s willing to commit in the name of women’s rights – or so it seems.
The Hourglass Factory takes us through several enjoyable set pieces and gives air-time to a number of memorable characters. Here’s Twinkle, the florid, Barbara Cartland-ish gossip columnist; there’s Mr Smythe, a masochistic corset-shop owner with a grotesque, artificially narrowed waist. The period is also conjured in amazingly fine detail as we roam across the city with Frankie. We encounter publicans hiding half-pints of ale in side roads for constables on the beat, and convent school mistresses “who kept the birch pickling in water to keep it smart”. Cute little observations like these pop up in almost every chapter, and are no doubt thanks to the remarkable depth of Ribchester’s research, some of which she lists in the book’s afterword.
It’s a great compliment to The Hourglass Factory, then, that these surface details of plot and atmosphere aren’t even its most interesting features. In fact it’s through Ribchester’s willingness to get involved in the politics of the society she’s portraying that The Hourglass Factory really comes alive.
The real-world Women’s Social Political Union was as controversial as the fictional version that Frankie encounters here, largely because of its endorsement of violence and arson as a means of protest. As that organisation’s founder, Emmeline Pankhurst too has come to be seen in an ambivalent light, especially due to her infamous apathy toward outcomes for working-class women. On such broad evidence, it’s easy to write off Pankhurst, and by extension the WSPU, as a bad job. Ribchester doesn’t shy away from the suffering that may have been caused by the WSPU’s militancy, and she shows how Pankhurst’s hypocrisy set public opinion against her. However, she also gives Pankhurst space to explain her methods in a remarkable police interview scene apparently inspired by genuine articles and speeches. Pankhurst isn’t exactly redeemed by her cameo, but Ribchester’s careful portrait suggests that she was a more complicated woman, and her theories more nuanced, than her detractors might imagine. It’s an utterly gripping section in the book.
Jailed WSPU members and suffrage campaigners would often go on hunger strike, and this tactic informs another of the novel’s most vivid and morally juicy scenes, in which a male suffragist is subjected to a brutal (but legal) force feeding. The notion of men campaigning for women’s rights is laudable though maybe not all that remarkable, even for 1912. What makes the moment compelling is the way it shows the influence of class in individuals’ attitudes to gender equality. The male suffragist, who is middle-class, later becomes a point of discussion between a working-class detective and a hospital matron, the latter asking
Do you think I will be any better off with the voices of ten thousand Tory-voting well-to-do women representing my opinion than I am with the voices of men? No one is trying to win me a vote, Inspector.
This is half-echoed in the thoughts of the detective himself, who has earlier puzzled “over the mystery of a man who would sacrifice himself for a woman’s cause in a way his own wife would not”. Ribchester doesn’t pretend there’s an easy answer to any of this, but she deftly suggests where the questions might come from.
If there’s a mild criticism to be levelled at The Hourglass Factory, it’s that it doesn’t need all of its 500-odd pages. The novel reaches a satisfying conclusion, yet it’s one it easily could have got to a hundred pages earlier. The answers Frankie seeks are deferred for a few too many chapters. If it’d gone on much longer, her hunt for Ebony would have started to look like a MacGuffin.
Even so, there’s a heartening implication to the popularity of bumper-sized novels such as this. It’s the suggestion that, despite all we’re told about our infantile culture and concentration micro-spans, people aren’t simply still able to read for long periods, but they want to. It’s just possible, then, that they also want fiction that leaves them feeling expanded as well as entertained. Clever and fun, humane yet deeply readable, The Hourglass Factory offers exactly that.
Ridley Road – Jo Bloom
(Weidenfeld & Nicholson)
It’s not necessarily an insult to Ridley Road to say that its author, first-time novelist Jo Bloom, may have written it with one eye on the Sunday night TV schedule. Like many prime time BBC or ITV series, it uses real-life moments of historical crisis – in this case the resurgence of fascism in the decades following World War II – as the backdrop to a very traditional love story. It’s a warm-hearted, unchallenging, not-quite nostalgic novel, and even an optimistic one too, despite the darkness of its subject matter.
It’s June, 1962, and twenty-two year old Vivien Epstein has just arrived in London. She’s been compelled to move to the capital by a heady brew of emotions: her need to recover from the death of her father in her native Manchester, her desire to tap into the glamour and excitement of Sixties London… and her wish to find Jack Fox, the dashing young family friend with whom she’s recently had a brief and passionate affair.
Vivien finds a job at a hair salon in Soho, and it’s from here that she sets about finding herself – and, moreover, Jack Fox. One day Vivien visits some local associates of her father, who’d been a prominent anti-fascist activist. After accompanying the men to a rally in Trafalgar Square, she miraculously spots Jack among the protesters. Initially elated at the discovery, Vivien is subsequently shocked to witness Jack apparently supporting the anti-Semites rather than the anti-fascists. She tries to reach him through the tumult, but then violence erupts. Jack slips from view, and Vivien falls away too, stunned and confused.
As the novel unfolds, the truth of Jack’s involvement with the extremists is revealed, as are its dangerous consequences. It’s a strange and complicated relationship, and one that would sound improbable if summarised here, so Bloom deserves credit for making it believable. Equally, she shows admirable restraint in her descriptions of London at the beginning of the swinging Sixties. I’d been dreading yet another portrayal of the era as a shagadelic cartoon, so it was actually a relief to read instead of musty bedsits and station bars that “smelled of bacon and rain”.
The socio-historical context of Ridley Road is the real draw. The activism of Vivien’s father and his friends is based on the 62 Group, a real-life grassroots coalition which resisted the return of fascism to Britain after the Second World War, and which used violence against Oswald Mosley’s Union Movement and the original BNP, among others. This is an important and unique aspect of recent British history, and until now it’s one that hasn’t received much attention in fiction. Imagine you’re an adult Jewish Londoner in the 1960s. You’ve probably got living memories of the Holocaust. How terrifying would it be to see the tendrils of that supreme evil re-emerge on your own soil just a few years after it was defeated? Wouldn’t you want to stamp it dead as soon as possible, and by any means necessary?
These are profound moral questions, so it’s hugely disappointing that Ridley Road chooses not to prioritise them over Vivien and Jack’s boilerplate romantic drama. Vivien too seems less like a real human being than a cipher for the (presumably female) reader’s fantasies. We’re repeatedly reminded by peripheral characters of her beauty; she’s adored not only by the handsome and complicated Jack, but also by the dopey Stevie, whom she flicks away like an irritating fly. Vivien’s concerns might only reflect her youth and passion, but they often make her seem shallow and self-involved. At the rally, she only seems bothered about the bloodshed to the extent that it stops her getting to Jack. For a novel that strains at every turn to emphasise what decent people its main characters are, it’s not a good look.
In short, your enjoyment of Ridley Road is going to correlate pretty closely with the extent to which you can enjoy the easy viewing of Downton Abbey and the like. Were you moved when good old Hugh Bonneville interrupted the garden party to solemnly announce that Britain was at war with Germany? If so, great, and you can look forward to an enjoyable few afternoons on Ridley Road. If not then this borderline chick lit probably isn’t for you.
Woman on the Edge of Time – Marge Piercy
Connie Ramos is a 37-year-old Mexican-American woman living in grinding poverty in New York. Having recently completed an enforced spell in a nightmarish psychiatric hospital, her days of ‘freedom’ are in fact a grim procession of hardships: scratching around for a meal, dealing with the emotional distress of having her small daughter taken from her care, and trying to protect her teenage niece from a violent pimp.
Relief from her depressing present comes from the distant future. Connie, we soon discover, is a ‘catcher’, a rare individual who has the ability to communicate with people from another age – the year 2137, to be precise. Through her friendship with Luciente, an androgynous ‘sender’ from the 22nd-century town of Mattapoisett, Connie is given insight into a future in which all the social inequalities of her own time – sexism, racism and consumerism, to name just three of many – have been eradicated.
Is Connie genuinely gifted with telepathic powers, or are we simply witnessing the hallucinations of a deeply disturbed mind? We never find out. Real or not, Luciente hasn’t come simply to dangle a happier life before Connie in an act of trans-temporal Schadenfreude. The utopian world of 2137 is under grave threat. As Luciente explains, the seeds of humanity’s safety or destruction lie in events happening in the late 20th century. As a chosen individual, Connie has the power to change the course of civilisation. If she’s willing to commit an act of extreme violence in the present, she will be a saviour to the future.
Published in 1976, Woman On The Edge Of Time tumbled into that narrow and unfairly maligned niche of 70’s feminist sci-fi. It’s an angry and occasionally bitter book, and its author’s bile sometimes sours her art as a result. But while it’s by no means a perfect novel, it is one of enduring importance.
In her haste to communicate the injustice of Connie’s situation, Piercy commits the cardinal creative error of telling and not showing. This is especially so in a suite of repetitive chapters in the book’s middle third when Connie, having been readmitted to the psychiatric hospital, ‘escapes’ and visits Luciente in 2137. Without fail, these chapters begin with Connie feeling bored and lonely in hospital, then psychically dialling up Luciente for distraction. As the pair later walk around Luciente’s village, Connie asks what this does and what that’s for, and Luciente responds with didactic info-dumps that are wonderfully fluent but emotionally dead. This goes on for tens of pages at a time, until Connie’s called back to her grey, institutionalised reality by some event that breaks the telepathic connection between them. It gets pretty wearying, even if the arguments Piercy makes through Luciente are valid. Good art, even at its most polemical, works by raising doubt in the mind of the reader, not flaying her with one’s own certainties. What’s more likely to make you question your beliefs – being asked why you hold them, or having someone declare that they’re wrong?
And yet, despite its structural flaws, Woman On The Edge Of Time stands to this day. Piercy’s utopian future is a strange place, but it’s fully imagined. True, it’s hard to picture a world where babies aren’t born but cooked up in huge semi-synthetic vats, but it’s easy to sympathise with Connie’s despair at seeing women’s one undeniable privilege – childbearing – not just taken away but redistributed, like so much else, to men. In 2137, ‘mother’ is a generic term attributed to any of a child’s caregivers, be they male, female – or neither, in the case of androgens like Luciente. (Piercy’s utopia is one that has conquered not just societal gender roles, but biological sex too). Elsewhere, the unsustainable and destructive forces of globalisation have been wound right back. For all the genetic engineering that Mattapoisett’s space-age technology permits, its people value a largely agrarian lifestyle. When not working the land they spend a lot of time making art, much of which Connie finds silly.
Wacky stuff, then, but Woman On The Edge Of Time is also not as far-fetched as it might sound. Four decades on from its publication, some of its speculative aspects are in fact starting to look worryingly prescient. At one point Connie slips into an alternative future in which Luciente’s battle has been lost and the communitarian world of Mattapoisett is replaced with a brutal capitalist dystopia. All right, in 2014 we still don’t foresee a world where the rich live on space platforms away from the repulsive poor. But in a culture sagging under the weight of sexual imagery, is it really so hard to imagine women using plastic surgery to achieve cartoonishly exaggerated curves, while men are rewarded for their corresponding hyper-aggressive masculinity? And if it once seemed extreme for Piercy to suggest that the rich could one day buy themselves longer lives, bear in mind that, as you read this, scientists are developing costly drugs that might stave off death for 120 years or more.
Given its author’s convictions, you might expect Piercy to have written Connie as a flawless heroine to match the alpha-male stars of classic adventure fiction. But no. The removal of her daughter turns out to have been justified: Connie really did assault her. Elsewhere, Connie’s reaction to some of the sexual freedoms enjoyed in Mattapoisett suggests she might harbour homophobic attitudes. Piercy doesn’t position Connie’s inequality as an excuse for her behaviour, though. Rather, it’s in showing the unsavoury side of her personality that we see her as a three-dimensional human being. The dominant fictional perspective of the ‘70s was overwhelmingly white and male. For evidence, just see the career trajectories of Updike, Mailer and the club of phallocentric writers that David Foster Wallace would later call the ‘Great Male Narcissists’. By contrast, Piercy’s foregrounding of a non-male, non-white figure such as Connie, in all her complexity, wasn’t just contrarian but deeply radical. That the novel was published by the specialist Women’s Press shows just how marginal a figure Connie represented.
But she shouldn’t be seen that way. For all its bleakness, Woman On The Edge Of Time communicates itself most compellingly in a rare moment of tenderness that makes Connie intensely relatable. One of her sojourns to 2137 coincides with a harvest festival-type celebration in Mattapoisett that climaxes with a sex scene between her and a local man. Like everything else about Connie (and borrowing an Orwellian sentiment from 1984 in the process), her love-making is a political act. If having a minority-ethnic woman as protagonist was iconoclastic, imagine the statement made by having that woman unashamedly enjoying sex. Yet this meta-narrative argument is less powerful than the scene itself. In clear, gentle prose, Piercy describes sex from Connie’s perspective. She emphasises the physical pleasure Connie feels, but the scene is backlit, as all sex is, with all the emotions that also well up in intimate moments – all the joy, all the sadness, and all the longing that are somehow compressed and felt as a single urgent thing. It’s a beautifully crafted passage, and one that was as comprehensible for this male reader as it would be for any female one. It’s in this act of communion – between Connie and her lover; between Connie and the reader – that we see most clearly Piercy’s message that, regardless of our demographic attributes, there’s very little space between us. But it’s also a warning of the horrors that are possible if we’re not willing to bridge that empathy gap.
The People – Selina Todd
(Hodder & Stoughton)
The People is the kind of book that reinforces its reader’s beliefs rather than challenging them. For those on the left it’s a cornucopia of evidence proving that class inequality is and always has been the defining feature of our society. These readers will be appalled at the treatment of working class Britons at the beginning of the 20th century, which is the beginning of the book’s historical scope, and angry at how little change there’s been in our governments’ attitude in the decades since. They’ll admire Selina Todd’s scholarliness, and will find her arguments clear-headed and her prose diamond-hard. Those on the right, however, are more likely to see it as a relentlessly dour exercise in Tory bashing with little to commend it over a student newspaper editorial. There’s a lot more to support the liberal perspective than the conservative one, even if it’s sometimes a close-run thing.
Dr Todd, an Oxford academic from a working class north-eastern family, set out “to uncover a huge, hidden swathe” of Britain’s past. Over a decade of research went into uncovering the stories of ordinary working people during the last hundred years, from the servant classes of the pre-First World War era to the debt-ravaged zero-hour contract workers of the present day. It’s a brief she more than fulfilled. We hear from “bobbed-haired belligerents”, domestic workers who become increasingly feared and hated by their masters for their uppity behaviour. We’re shown the idiocy of the myth of the patriotic Tommy gleefully running off to war, when in fact most men were “wary of doing the dirty work of a government that had offered them nothing worth fighting for”. We meet factory workers and housewives. We hear from parents of bright kids at first elated by the introduction of the eleven-plus exam, believing a grammar school education would offer their children a better future, but later dismaying of a system that still disproportionately advantaged more affluent families and which “equated success with middle class status”. And there’s everything in between: miners, low-level office clerks, dock workers. All of a century’s lower-status life is here.
Faced with such a huge cohort of disaffected ordinary citizens, Todd’s simple but emphatic central argument – that “class always testified to pervasive inequality” – can’t be denied. The People’s early chapters bear this out particularly vividly. It’s impossible not to be moved by the experience of young women working unimaginably hard, for obscenely low pay, and usually without even the right to choose their own rulers as reward (in 1918 a woman could vote, but only if she was over thirty and a householder; servants were almost always neither).
But ironically the sheer volume of Todd’s research impoverishes her case as well as bolstering it. By giving voice to as many individuals as possible, she doesn’t have space to let anyone speak for long. As a result there’s very little on the working class experience of life apart from work – to judge from The People, sport, hobbies and creative projects are luxuries of time and money affordable only to the bourgeoisie and above. The book also gives the impression that all working class people are, by dint of their political status, nailed-on socialists, when the opposite is often true (as my family full of Tory-voting Essex geezers will tell you). I suspect Todd was actually aware of this, and that, by returning in several “Interludes” to the story of Viv Nicholson, the 1961 pools winner who vowed to “spend, spend, spend” all her winnings, she wanted to show that working class lives are as contradictory and eventful as anyone else’s. But it wasn’t enough. Nicholson is an outlier, and her experience too extreme to be representative of anything on its own – even paradox. Todd’s point might have been better made by giving more time to fewer case studies instead of cramming in so many, so briefly. The upshot is that The People is a dense and sometimes monotonous read, and won’t upset the right-wing prejudice that socialism leads to a grey world rather than an infinitely varied and colourful one.
Tellingly, The People’s most powerful moments come when Todd shuts off the torrent of her subjects’ voices and finally lets her own be heard. She calmly deconstructs the offensive notion that poor people are responsible for their hardship – or at any rate any more responsible for their circumstances than the powerful and privileged are for theirs – which is as apparent in our present government’s relentless talk of “shirkers and strivers” as it was in the late Edwardian belief that increasing working people’s freedoms would make them “feckless and irresponsible, a drain on society”. (It doesn’t, by the way: less than one per cent of the current welfare budget is fraudulently claimed.) As she cogently goes on to explain, it’s equally bad to claim that working people today do not believe in helping themselves, and prefer to complain about society’s failure to provide for them. The difference is that they believe in collective self-help “facilitated by the state”. After 35 years of the radical individualism promoted by Thatcherism and New Labour, no wonder so many people question “the logic of a society that demanded harder and harder work at the expense of family life, friendship and public service”.
The Gospel of Loki – Joanne Harris
The Gospel of Loki (Gollancz, February 2014) is the first fantasy novel for adults by bestselling author Joanne Harris, but not her first use of Norse mythology as a source of inspiration. Two young adult works (Runelight and Runemarks) precede this novel, which is a retelling of various anecdotes from the ancient ‘Edda’ texts up to and including Ragnarok, the famous end-times battle that killed off many of the pantheon’s major gods. While much of what happens between its covers is faithful to the original folk tales, this novel’s unique angle is that, as its title suggests, it tells the story from the point of view of Loki, the trickster god.
When we meet Loki he’s flitting about formlessly in the realm of Chaos, but soon he’s recruited into the world we recognise by Odin, the “Allfather”, where he’s kitted out with a human body. Odin doesn’t entirely trust the mischievous Loki—no one does—but “the Old Man” needs his help protecting the kingdom of Asgard. Thereafter we follow Loki’s career as Odin’s unreliable right hand man, and witness his struggle to be accepted by his reluctant god-peers. For a time he is able to win their favour by using his wit and ingenuity to help get them out of a few scrapes. But Loki is an inveterate troublemaker and can’t stay on their good side for long. Of course, it hardly matters in the end. Come Ragnarok, the old world is destroyed and Loki is returned to Chaos, where even now he’s presumably twiddling his non-corporeal thumbs and waiting for the next world to emerge. Loki’s demise isn’t the point of his gospel, though. The source material is centuries old, and so Harris wisely flags up her narrator’s fate early, letting us know she doesn’t intend to rewrite it. The point is to have some fun along the way to that fate.
If you’re not familiar with the Edda’s original stories (I wasn’t) then The Gospel of Loki will function as an easy-to-follow historical literature lesson by proxy. Harris claims to have a lifelong obsession with Norse mythology, and she even reads ancient Icelandic, so we can take her recounting of events on good authority. She also peps up some of the more arcane elements of godhood in an appealing way, for instance via frequent reference to their ‘glam’, a tell-tale aura that surrounds deities like Loki and which in his particular case allows him to shape shift, cast magical runes and generally act like a trans-dimensional rock star. Her portrayal of Chaos, too, has a vague, woozy quality that fits with Loki’s conviction that dreams have as much potency as actions in the real world. These features of the novel are all very welcome. However they’re meagre rewards when measured against its many flaws.
The tricky thing about telling a story whose climax is both well known and foretold in its first pages is that it can suck all the drama out of what happens for the first four fifths of the book, and that’s just what happens here. The Gospel of Loki exists mainly as a succession of set pieces reinforcing the supposed wiliness of its narrator and the corresponding stupidity / vanity / dastardliness of everyone else. A mildly perilous situation is lined up, Loki pulls off some improbable feat of derring-do, and two pages later he’s clicking his heels and doing whatever’s the fictional equivalent of a smug wink to camera. At least until the novel’s apocalyptic final section, he’s the most boring kind of hero: one whose victories are never in any doubt, and who is neither compromised nor expanded by the effort to gain them.
The clunky narrative would be easier to bear if its protagonist was half as likeable as we’re expected to believe he is. Harris’ primary attempt to make us relate to Loki comes through the chummy, 21st century voice in which he narrates. There’s nothing wrong with this as a device. Wells Tower pulls it off brilliantly in Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, in which the Vikings raiding Lindisfarne in 973 are given chewy US accents and a slacker demeanour. But where Tower’s short story is comic fiction of the highest order, Loki’s direct appeals to the reader (“I know what you’re thinking”; “Don’t laugh,” and so on) are grating, and just look like cheap gags.
Cheapness: that’s the real issue here. Forget its irritating narrator. Forget its overreliance on well-known source material. Forget its endless cast of one-dimensional characters whose flatness makes them hard to distinguish. The soul of The Gospel of Loki is betrayed in its prose. Chapter for chapter, sentence for sentence, I can’t remember the last time I read a novel this sloppily written, this knocked-out.
Logical howlers, creative shortcuts and dead language pile up on almost every page. As a god only recently given three-dimensional form, Loki at first doesn’t comprehend something as fundamental as physical pain, yet somehow he does know the meaning of the word ‘chillax’. At least five chapters begin with pedestrian constructions like “After that” and “Meanwhile” A character in a dream speaks “in a dreamy voice”. At a feast, Loki has to usher a colleague to another part of the room to prevent him coming to harm. How does he do it? “I cleverly manoeuvred Thor away,” he says. Cleverly. On more than one occasion elsewhere, Loki is brought to the brink of action only for the author—audaciously, incredibly—to have him say “I won’t bore you with the details” and press breezily on. Harris is either unaware that it’s absence of illuminating detail that makes a story tedious, or she just doesn’t care.
The shoddiness continues right down to the level of syntax. When Loki says, “I doubted even my best shot would have even singed their feathers,” the repetition of ‘even’ seems less like an attempt to mirror the little blips and errors of everyday spontaneous speech, and more like Harris and her editors not being arsed to give her manuscript a second read through before submission. Similarly, look at: “And with responsibility comes fear. And with fear, comes violence.” The two sentences are grammatically identical, so why the inclusion of a comma in the second but not the first? And let’s not even get into the wildly excessive—and often inaccurate—use of semicolons. It all adds up to the suspicion that The Gospel of Loki was dashed off in the hope of extracting maximum profit from minimal effort.
The sly magic of commercial fiction is that you can’t criticise it without appearing to disparage its readership. Any negative appraisal has to be poked out there indirectly—‘it is what it is’ tends to be about as bad as it gets. Maybe it’s related to the fact that, in the end, the only index for a commercial book’s strength is its popularity: the bigger it sells, the better it supposedly is. There’s no way of knowing whether reviewers are resigned to that fact and think it’s pointless testing for quality in a product designed for quantity, or whether they’ve fallen under the spell and are scared to speak ill of the thing through fear of looking like a snob. Either way, please believe me when I say that in this case the problem isn’t you, dear reader, but the novel itself. The Gospel of Loki is charmless not because it’s broad, but because it’s so shallow.
‘Neither right nor left’ – an interview with Paul Kingsnorth
Talking to Paul Kingsnorth reminded me of a line from George Orwell’s 1942 essay, ‘My Country Right or Left’. “To this day it gives me a faint feeling of sacrilege not to stand to attention during ‘God Save the King’”, he writes, at the end of a moan about the harrumphing, militaristic culture of his youth. “That is childish, of course, but I would sooner have had that kind of upbringing than be like the left-wing intellectuals who are so ‘enlightened’ that they cannot understand the most ordinary emotions.”
Kingsnorth himself isn’t an unquestioning Orwell fan. “He called Kipling‘s poetry ‘good bad poetry’”, he tells me via Skype on a grey winter’s morning. “That’s what I think Orwell’s poetry is as well. Maybe some of his novels too.” All the same, the sentiment seems to mirror Kingsnorth’s own character as a writer, for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, he too seems as disdainful of liberal shibboleths as conservative ones – even if, from a distance, his output appears almost comically leftist. Initially a staffer at The Independent, he later deputy-edited The Ecologist. His first book, One No, Many Yeses, reported from the front line of the anti-globalisation movement, and saw him at one moment tear-gassed during protests at the G8 summit in Genoa, and at the next politely declining a New Guinean tribesperson’s offer to slaughter a pig on the grounds of his being a vegetarian. So far, so hippyish.
But lean in a little closer and his work shows far more nuance than that caricature allows. His second book, Real England, may have sprung from the same anti-corporate source as One No, Many Yeses. Yet it also risked (and to its credit largely avoided) liberal criticism by arguing that England’s cultural and geographical identity deserved protection like any other. It’s a bicameral sentiment he’s carried over into his directorship of Dark Mountain, an international collective of environmentally-conscious writers and artists who try, as he puts it, “to engage with the world as it is rather than as they’d like it to be”. If you’re determined to summarise a writer so keen to avoid categorisation, try this: his preference is always for the locally-occurring over the distantly-planned; for the individual, with all their flaws, over the bland perfection of the general. In a globalised world, neither the left nor the right wing can accommodate that kind of mentality on its own.
Secondly, and as the title of Real England would suggest, Kingsnorth shares Orwell’s deep connection to his country, in all its political and emotional complexity.
“We’re at a real period of uncertainty in England”, he says. “There’s an appetite coming up again among the English as Britain starts to break up. It would appear that the world is changeable at the moment. Globalisation is turning everything upside down and with the movement of populations people are wondering who they are again.”
If the bombs exploding overhead sharpened Orwell’s focus to the time he was living in, Kingsnorth has been able to take a longer-range view. In The Wake, his first novel, he goes back a whole millennium. It’s 1066, and the Normans are tearing up the land. We all know they’ll make short work of it, and will soon install their duc, Guillaume, onto the English throne as King William. What we rarely consider, though, is what happened to the natives who tried to fight back. The Wake sees Kingsnorth imagining what did happen via the story of one Buccmaster of Holland, a native guerrilla trying to corral his countrymen into forming a resistance.
Despite his background, Kingsnorth insists it isn’t a political book. “Art has to be about ambiguity and it has to be about the gaps in your certainties, and politics has to be about finding solutions to problems and rallying people behind positions.
“It’s about Buccmaster more than anything else”, he continues. “It’s about what happens when a certain kind of man has his world taken away from him. If there’s any contemporary resonance in that, it’s asking ourselves how we would deal as individuals with our certainties falling away.”
Ambiguity, the erosion of certainties: The Wake delivers both in spades. Buccmaster might be a thousand years dead, but within the novel’s pages his troubled mind feels intensely real. His suffering – and his particularly male stubbornness in the face of it – can be seen in plenty of modern people struggling to cope with a rapidly changing cultural environment. You don’t have to like those people’s attitudes to change to sympathise with the anxiety it causes. So it is with The Wake’s narrator.
As well as being a beautiful physical artefact with a unique method of publication – The Wake was crowd-sourced via Unbound and comes in Coptic-stitched covers – two things separate the novel from the historical-fiction genre it might appear born to. One is a hard-headed refusal to view its characters from a 21st-century perspective. At its most literal, this makes itself felt in the language in which the book is written—a ‘shadow tongue’ resembling Old English that its author invented specifically for this project. (One of the elusive certainties Buccmaster pines for is a nation of “triewe anglisc folc”; the rest of the book’s prose is similarly jagged.)
“Historical novels and historical TV series and films feature characters who basically have 21st-century values,” Kingsnorth explains. “They’re full of liberal, antiracist feminists, which may be admirable values, but they weren’t like that [in the past].” Since we inevitably betray contemporary biases with the words we speak, Kingsnorth saw it as only proper to mimic 11th century language in order to access 11th century thought.
Another is its interest in—no, let’s call it love of—old English mythology. The Normans did more than import a language, some social customs, and a monarch whose descendant features on our coins to this day; they also created a more institutionalised form of Christianity. Kingsnorth imagines a world before the Norman invasion in which the pagan pantheon claims a more dominant position.
“It’s interesting that English people don’t seem to have a connection to the deep mythic past that some other countries have”, says Kingsnorth, who freely admits he wanted to breathe new life into the legends of Woden, Frigg and Wayland the Smith, among others.
“If you look at the Welsh reconnection to their traditional stories, that’s tied up with 18th-century and 19th-century Celtic nationalism. The same is true of Scotland and Ireland. They’re defining themselves in opposition to England, which is the dominant nation. They have a political incentive to look to their own past and to define themselves as not English.” As the historically dominant nation in Britain, the English, “have never had that kind of incentive.”
This cultural amnesia intensified after the Second World War and the crumbling of the British Empire, something Kingsnorth attributes to a heady brew of postmodern intellectual thought and colonial shame. It’s at this point that our conversation morphs into something more explicitly political and those “contemporary resonances” start to register.
“There’s a strange clinging to this burden of guilt,” he says of the post-war imperative to deconstruct Englishness, “which doesn’t help anybody, doesn’t solve anything, doesn’t make anything better.
“You had to lose this bombastic Victorian notion of us being the chosen people” he says, arguing that uncritical patriotism can be a breeding ground for nationalism, and “that isn’t what we need in the world. We’ve seen enough of what nationalism can do when everyone thinks they’re a chosen people to know that it’s good to have a bit of distance from those myths.”
Yet if benign intentions lay behind the unravelling of England’s more harmful enthusiasms, it may not have been right to unspool them all.
“I think we’ve certainly suffered from a surfeit of post-modernism” he goes on to say, and If he’s unsure about how the world can move beyond postmodernism’s deconstruction of perfectly natural emotions, then that’s because nobody else knows yet either. What he does observe though, is that “in Western Europe, there’s a sense of wanting to reconstruct a bit after decades of deconstructing ourselves”, which suggests that he believes his disaffection to be shared by many.
The Wake is a historical and not a political novel. Kingsnorth is explicit on this point, drawing attention to the fact that he has written two political books already and that he didn’t want The Wake to cover the same ground. But as an exploration of man’s sense of connection with place and tribe, The Wake does inevitably resonate with contemporary concerns about the loss of a national identity. When pushed on the question of contemporary English identity it’s clear that Kingsnorth sees the value of a clear identity, while recognising the complex historical reasons for its loss: “for a long time the globalist left has supported the idea of a borderless world: a world without national boundaries and without petty feudalisms. We now have an increasingly borderless world, but it has been provided by global capitalism, and this has brought its own problems—a sense of place and belonging can, ironically, be some sort of bulwark against the forces of global capital”
But if Kingsnorth recognises that “a sense of place and belonging” is useful in some circumstances, he is certainly no anti liberal patriot. The Wake can be read as an exploration of a particular mindset at a particular time in history. It is not a political treatise, and Kingsnorth won’t commit to illustrating, in concrete terms, how a national identity might be rebuilt. Instead he reiterates both its dangers and necessity: “A lot of nationalists have an idea that there was a time when England was ‘true’. As soon as you think yourself in a rigid time, you’re in trouble. You’re equally in trouble when you imagine you can deconstruct anything and put nothing back in its place. It’s a question of finding a delicate middle ground.”
As our conversation wraps up, it becomes apparent that we’ve covered all this without straying far from The Wake. Kingsnorth insists his novel is not a political work, and that it is not intended to be read as an allegory for a contemporary England. Nevertheless, resonances can suggest themselves to the reader if they are looking for them.
It certainly seems to be groping towards some broader notions about the English mentality. Consider Buccmaster for a moment more. At the start of The Wake, his love of England is simple and unequivocal. But as the country breaks apart under Norman steel, his patriotism becomes more tortured. What’s left is a kind of deeply melancholy ambivalence about his homeland that’s observable today in English people at all points of the political spectrum. Sure, it’s in the gone-to-the-dogs rhetoric of The Daily Mail. But it also comes from other sources, such as the voice of the musician PJ Harvey when she sings “I live and die through England… To you, England, I cling.”
That might sound like a pessimistic diagnosis of the national mood, but it needn’t be. After all, ambivalence is rooted in self-awareness, and self-awareness is a powerful thing. It gives us the ability to choose what to value from our history; what to cherish, and what to steer ourselves away from in the future. And what could be more liberating, more hopeful, than that? In the end, maybe it’s ambivalence that lets us understand the complexity of the past, and which may help answer a dilemma Kingsnorth framed in writing The Wake: “How can we have ancestors in the modern world without that becoming an excuse for war?”
Later this year Scotland will ask itself a different but hugely significant existential question. Regardless of its answer, the referendum seems destined to force similar introspection onto the nations of the UK: about who they are, and what they’re for. For the English in particular, who have for decades lacked the conviction or courage to think about the issue, it’s a discussion that needs to happen.
Kingsnorth seems optimistic about its potential outcome. Indeed he already sees the shoots of a new kind of Englishness appearing, for example in people beginning to fly the national flag without fear of being seen as fascist; in the popularity of the play Jerusalem (the programme for which he wrote a foreword); and in non-white communities beginning to join in on St George’s Day celebrations. Ordinary emotions, in other words, and ones which may finally be slipping free of the extremes they’ve been tethered to for so long.
The Wake – Paul Kingsnorth
Paul Kingsnorth’s ear has always been tuned to the quieter voices. In his two books of non-fiction, he tells the stories of communities trying to remain autonomous in the face of pressure from external bodies that have little understanding of the lives they are overwhelming, be they the World Trade Organisation (in One No, Many Yeses) or Tesco (in Real England). The Wake might be a work of fiction, but it shows that same concern for the individual being buffeted by external forces. The Norman invasion of 1066 is a tale that hardly needs retelling. Far less well known is the story of the guerrillas who tried—and failed—to stop them. The Wake is Kingsnorth’s attempt to imagine his way into the mind of one of those fighters.
As a title, The Wake is fitting. Like removing the skins of an onion, each turn of a page seems to reveal a new and deeper meaning. At first it’s a reference to the setting: England – or more accurately the devastated terrain of the English psyche – in the grieving aftermath of the conquest. Not long afterwards, it alludes to the political awakening of a band of Lincolnshire insurgents, and specifically that of their self-declared leader. Buccmaster of Holland is a passionate, proud, and not exactly likeable man, but it’s through his maniacal eyes and strange tongue that we witness events. Later still it serves as a direct nod to Hereward the Wake, the period’s most famous (and real-life) leader of popular resistance and a figure of jealous hatred for Buccmaster, who turns out to be driven as much by his own ego as a love of his land. Hereward’s other epiphet is ‘the Exile’, and this word too has an important meaning. As the novel moves along its bleak path what starts, for Buccmaster, as a fight for his people against the Norman invaders threatens to become a fight for himself against rejection by his people.
The Wake won’t be for everyone. Written in an invented language which is based on Old English and with an emotional range that peaks at melancholic and dials way down into gore-soaked horror, it’s a difficult and uncompromising read. It’s also a deeply powerful one.
Chief among its challenges is that style. As Kingsnorth points out in the book’s afterword, it would have been unrealistic to tell the story using 21st century vocabulary. After all, the citizens of 1066 wouldn’t yet have access to the numerous modern English words that evolved from the Normans. But Old English proper wouldn’t do, either, unless he wanted to restrict his readership to about six leather-elbowed scholars. So instead Kingsnorth set about constructing a ‘shadow tongue’ in which to narrate. As an act of invention this voice is hugely impressive. The first thirty pages or so are brutal, and your index finger will spend more time wedged into the glossary at the book’s back end than it will turning pages at the front. But clarity does soon emerge from the muddy gargle of Buccmaster’s voice and The Wake becomes surprisingly readable. Take this line:
We was in his boat again… and in litha with all bright and hued wyrmfleoges and all the heofon writhan with lif and with the risan sunne on the nebb of the water the fenn what can be so deop and cold on this mergen was a thing of great wundor
It does look fairly hideous when taken out of context, but this is actually a beautiful passage in the book. Oddly, that beauty is all the starker for requiring some effort to access. The same applies to darker episodes in the narrative. On at least one occasion later on I recoiled as the nauseating reality of a particular sentence became clear. The Wake is full of moments like this. Kingsnorth forces you to read slowly, and that’s always worth something.
Still, some readers might think he’s cutting off his nose to spite his nebb. The historical fate of the resistance might not be what pulls us through the book—with a millennium of hindsight, we know it doesn’t pan out too well for them—but The Wake has a very definite plot, and there’s no doubt that it’s slowed by the opacity of the prose. For some the poetry in Kingsnorth’s invented tongue and the vitality of his vision won’t be enough to make up for the effort of getting through the text. They might find The Waketoo murky to wade through.
It would be a shame if they gave up too easily. Its style might take some getting used to, but it’s emphatically not there to alienate anyone. While some of the vocabulary might feel foreign at first, it’s applied in a consistent manner, with direct modern translations, and has the single purpose of making the inner life of its speaker feel more real. And doesn’t the world at Buccmaster’s fingers seem somehow more tactile when you understand that his word for July – ‘weodmonth’ – means ‘the month of weeds’? Doesn’t ‘scramasax’ evoke a notched and rusted Anglo-Saxon blade better than plain old ‘knife’? Kingsnorth is no modernist goatee-stroker, and nor is The Wake a book of syntactical riddles. Kingsnorth’s point is that our own language reflects our contemporary concerns. The modern reader cannot conceive of a world which is so unrecognizable, so other, unless it is presented to them in a language which is reflective of its time.
There are plenty of other rewards for sticking it out. They’re in enjoying the audacity with which certain clichés about England and the UK are reversed. It’s not often we sympathise with the English as the victims of imperial oppression rather than its perpetrators. Still less do we see the British landscape portrayed as epic and unconquerable, as the Welsh mountains are here, rather than as a toy-town replica of a wilderness. They’re in the resurrection of all but forgotten English folk gods like Woden and Wayland the Smith, in psychedelic fugues that show just how alien to us the eleventh-century mind really was. And they’re in witnessing a storyteller reclaim fictional ground from fantasy and make it his own. Buccmaster and his followers do have a superstitious wariness of orcs, elves and faeries, but these monsters only ever exist in the characters’ nightmares. In the end they’re no more verifiable than Woden himself, who appears in the novel’s most hallucinatory, ambiguous and poignant scene.
As a writer, Kingsnorth is clearly concerned with social issues, and many of the themes he’s covered in his journalism—humanity’s dissociation from nature, the futility of much of what passes for modern political discourse—do present in The Wake. But, just as with similarly engaged authors as diverse as China Mieville or James Kelman, you don’t need to share his convictions to be moved by Buccmaster’s story. This is undoubtedly a book of ideas, the most compelling of which is the attempt to understand the English self-concept both now and throughout our long, red-spattered history. Ultimately, though, these abstractions are writ small and put in the mind of one complicated, pig-headed and heartbroken man, and it’s this connection with the humanity of his protagonist which makes The Wake truly engaging.
Hello Darkness – Anthony McGowan
Johnny Middleton has problems. Some of them are long-term and will be familiar to many of his story’s young adult readers – his loner status, his (undefined) mental health issues. Others are more urgent, not to mention very weird. Somebody is slaughtering the school’s pets, and Johnny, first on the scene of the initial killing, is the main suspect. If he can’t crack the case, he’ll be expelled. Even more terrifying than expulsion, though, is the beating Johnny will take if he doesn’t find the true culprit. His headmaster is a sap; the school’s de facto leader is The Shank, the shady deputy head who rules with the fists of prefect-level enforcers. And these bullies would take horrible pleasure in carrying out their duties on Johnny, the school’s resident “nut-job”. On top of all that, Johnny’s parents have left him home alone for a week, during which time he neglects to eat properly and refuses to take his medication. One evening, as he sits on his rooftop worrying about his predicament, a local stray cat Johnny has befriended suddenly starts talking to him about metaphysics and the nature of truth. And you thought being a teenager in 2013 was all selfies and binge drinking.
Hello Darkness (Walker) is the ninth novel by Anthony McGowan since 2005 and his seventh for younger readers. His second young adult book, Henry Tumour, won the 2006 Booktrust Teenage Prize, and he’s an alumnus of the increasingly prestigious Faber Academy creative writing course. This is all alongside an M.Phil in Philosophy and a PhD on the concept of beauty, by the way. So there’s clearly a big brain hovering above the pages of Johnny’s story. The most charming and interesting thing about this novel, though, is that the skill and intellect used in its conception aren’t as important as the passion that drives it. Depending on how you look at it, Hello Darkness could be a semi-satirical riff on the noir thriller, or an induction for younger readers into a literary tradition that its author genuinely loves (look at the novel’s title again – perhaps McGowan’s subtle way of saying “Welcome to noir?”). There’s a lot of fun – and the odd cringe – to be had by going with the latter.
McGowan certainly borrows every noir device he can lay his hands on. As well as its protagonist, who is every inch the archetypal flawed hero, Hello Darkness features corrupt authorities, a smouldering femme fatale in the form of school new-girl Zofia Novak (actually there are two if you count Mrs Maurice, Johnny’s ridiculously flirty science teacher), various warring gangs, and of course a steadily growing pile of bodies. These are some dog-eared old tropes, but McGowan is a witty and inventive writer, and he puts an enviably unique spin on each of them. One of those gangs is “a kind of overweight Mafia” called the Lardies, while another is a bunch of precious but deadly artistes known as the Drama Queens. Meanwhile the “Interzone”, a no-man’s-land between two parts of Johnny’s school, serves as the grim hangout of the bacon-heads, a bunch of addled low-lifes who’ll do anything for their next hit of savoury snacks. Johnny’s school is a microcosm of the corruption-blasted societies of pulp-fiction lore. This stuff gets done a lot in modern culture – there’s a cartoonish quality to some of the more comedic scenes here that resembles The Simpsons’ regular pastiches, while Johnny’s ability to crack wise even as he’s about to take a pounding from The Shank’s goons is more than a little Bart-like. But it’s rarely done this well.
However, there are times when McGowan sticks with clichés he should have twisted. This is especially so in his portrayal of women. Every single female character here is described wholly and exclusively in terms of her attractiveness, or lack of. Even Miss Budbe, the one teacher Johnny appears to have genuine sympathy for, “one day… would wilt, but for now she was still pink and fresh and fragrant.” Just how dismissive is that? McGowan gets a lot of mileage out of male characters’ looks too, often for laughs, but they’re never simply placed along a spectrum of physical appeal, as the women are. When he’s so able to adapt other aspects of twentiethcentury American noir for a modern British high school setting while losing very little in translation, I wonder why he didn’t attempt the same with this one.
Another problem with this dubious trope is that it leads to inconsistencies in Johnny’s character. For a barely pubescent social pariah he sure has a lot of success with the ladies, and most of it apparently effortless. At various stages in the book Johnny runs into Ling Mei, a beautiful and exotic student with whom he’s had a doomed but intense previous relationship (what, when they were nine?). His encounters with Zofia Novak start at ‘sexually charged’ and go forward from there. And then there’s the outrageous Mrs Maurice, whose behaviour with a minor, were this real life, would get her arrested. Johnny also demonstrates levels of self-assurance, eloquence and romantic insight that jar with his status and which, more to the point, men twice his age would kill for. Witness this encomium to Ling Mei’s wonky teeth: “She was not perfect. She was something beyond perfect, because utter perfection engenders within itself the flaw of unattainability.” Any 14-year-old lad who knew this much about girls would be carried through the school on the shoulders of his peers, not beaten up in the toilets. Then again, Johnny’s erudition also means he can describe the “Euclidean directness” of a ball’s flight, and he not only knows what a ‘cur’ is but will drop the word into conversation, so it does make a kind of sense that those kids might want to duff him up just to shut his smug gob.
Yet despite these kinks the novel is a success, and occasionally even a triumph. If he’s sometimes hamstrung by the style, McGowan isn’t afraid to ignore convention when it serves his own story rather than the genre. As time goes on, pressure on Johnny mounts to the point where his own identity begins to fracture, and even he can barely tell what’s real any more. It all leads to a climax that feels conclusive while remaining delightfully opaque. There is a pay-off, but McGowan refuses to tie Johnny’s story up in a bow, at least in terms of his mental and emotional state. The novel is all the better for that.
You could wonder how deep the irony goes in Hello Darkness. You could ask whether McGowan is using noir’s corniness as a comment on that very corniness, a way of priming younger readers for the kind of stuff they might encounter and would occasionally do well to question when they get around to this novel’s adult precursors. But that doesn’t feel right to me. It seems far more likely that McGowan just loves a ripping yarn and wants his readers to love them too. Hello Darkness only takes a few hours to get through, and at the end of it you’ll admire McGowan’s passion and want to pick up the Chandlers, Leonards, Cains, and Thompsons he nods to.