Forgive me lovely people for I have slumped, both in my reading and in my blogging.
It's been over a month since my last confession and I've had to drag myself back to the keyboard like a stroppy teenager.
After a phenomenally good January to May of books, June was a bit of a wasteland. Thankfully July is looking up, but after an absence it's always difficult for me to get back on the horse and write again. The longer the gap the more books there are to be read for review, the more reviews there are to write, the easier it is to retreat into my cave and forget Alexandria until Christmas rolls around. I promised I wouldn't do that this year though, so here I am, doggedly. I'm going to round up all the books I've read during the slumpy time (including some absolute corkers) all in one post and I'm not going to beat myself up about not writing 2000 word reviews on each one. Short, sweet and to the point is the name of the game (let's see how that goes), and then I can start again fresh as a daisy.
A Girl is Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride
Galley Beggar Press, 2013
Paperback, 227 pages
*My copy bought from a lovely independent bookshop in Whitby.
First up, the book that caused the slump. Yes, I can definitely trace it's origins this time and I'm pointing the finger firmly at A Girl Is A Half Formed Thing by Eimear McBride. If you follow me on Goodreads you may have seen my less than positive response to it. I picked it up finally because I was hosting a read-along in celebration of the Bailey's Prize at my library at the beginning of June. I read it fast over the course of the weekend before the event and it absolutely utterly destroyed me. The bombardment of suffering, abuse, neglect and rape flooded my system, killed off my good reading bacteria and left me desperately sad. I suppose everyone knows by now that this Irish novel is deeply experimental, telling the story of a nameless young girl from childhood to early adulthood in frantic and baffling fragments. It begins when she is still in the womb, against a backdrop of her older brother's near-terminal brain tumour. His miraculous survival and the permanent damage the cancer does both to him and his parents will shadow the narrator for the rest of her life.
It was not the book for me; or rather I was not the right reader for this book. I'm not surprised it caused a literary furor or swept the academy of prizes because I recognise, in my head, that it is a sensational achievement. The style is a babble of consciousness and unconsciouness, addled with snatches of dialogue, internal monologue, overheard noise. It's intriguing. In places I found it very powerful; the set piece of the narrator's grandfather's funeral is a particular example. The visit of a hospice doctor towards the end of the book is another. What I couldn't attune to though was the unrelenting vileness of the human world that the book portrays. The lowest of ebbs of sympathy and love, the absence of joy, the harshness of judgement and, above all, the incessant sexual violence. The latter turned the novel into a bludgeon that beat me bloody. It left me in a cornered state of mental anguish and I found it very difficult to understand or justify its extent. While I admire the determination of any writer to face reality with eyes wide open - to recognise abuse where it is found and catalyse change - it felt to me as though A Girl is A Half-Formed Thing was about damage for it's own sake. I recognise the art in this, but I give myself permission not to hurt myself with it.
So yes, the novel left me troubled, and I didn't read again for over 10 days, barely a word. I went on a four day trip to London on my own, and stayed in a room without a TV, and still didn't crack open a book. I had plenty with me, but was so uninspired. I spent long evenings watching YouTube videos.
First Class Murder by Robin Stevens
Paperback, 336 pages
*My copy borrowed from the library.
It wasn't until the three hour train journey home that I cracked from utter boredom and found some solace in First Class Murder, the third in Robin Steven's middle grade Wells and Wong series. I wrote about the first two books earlier this year here and here. In this installment Hazel and Daisy find themselves aboard the Orient Express for their summer holidays. Following the scandalous murder at Daisy's home earlier in the year, Hazel's father Mr Wong is determined to stop them investigating any more unladylike crimes. But even before the train has pulled out of the station a tantalising new case has presented itself. The female secret agent we met in Arsenic for Tea hops aboard at the last minute, pretending to be the wife of a wealthy copper magnate. What is she doing there? Who is she chasing? Soon enough there is a murder in the first class compartment, and the game is afoot.
I can't resist Daisy and Hazel. Now nearly fourteen and determined to be their own women, they are just the right mix of cunning and guilelessness. I continue to admire the way that Stevens draws out themes about inequality, privilege and trust through their friendship. In this book we glimpse the 1930s through Mr Wong's eyes, and are exposed for the first time to the adult world of racism that Hazel has been somewhat sheltered from thus far. Contemporary events in Europe - the rise of fascism, the persecution of the Jews - also begin to creep in. I'm interested to see how Stevens deals with these issues as the girls grow up in this increasingly troubled climate. Book four is out already and sees a return to the school setting of the first installment, a treat I'll hold on to for another slumpy day.
Then. Then. I read two absolutely astonishing novels, both contenders for my books of 2016. After the slump it was quite astonishing to pick up a book with a sense of excitement. You will have already heard about both multiple times. I feel as though if people aren't talking about The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry it's because they're talking about The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss and vice-a-versa.
The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
Serpent's Tail, 27th May 2016
Hardback, 432 pages
*My copy kindly supplied by the publisher.
I read Perry's debut in April in preparation for The Essex Serpent coming out and I'm so glad I did. It prepared me for the hot-house effect of her writing, the full body immersion of her world-building. This time the conjured world is from the past - the book is set over the course of 1893, from New Year's Day to the following New Year's Eve - and the setting is the Essex marshes. Cora Seaborne is widowed in the opening days of the year, a loss that leaves her giddy with relief and freedom. She is already being courted by her late husband's doctor, Luke Garrett, a surgeon as gifted as he is ill-favoured. She affectionately calls him her Imp and teases him with the possibility of a life together. Her real passion, though, lies elsewhere, embedded in the cliffs and scattered on the beaches of the coast. She is a keen fossil-hunter, and dreams of discoveries like those of Mary Anning. Uprooting her small well-to-do household - her companion Martha and her autistic son Francis - she embarks for the Essex coast, settling eventually in the village of Aldwinter. She finds it in the grip of a legend. The infamous Essex Serpent, last seen in 1669, has resurfaced in the tidal marshes and is menacing the region, taking children and livestock. Local preacher William Ransome is at a loss to convince his parishioners of the Word of God in the face of the mythical beast, arguing for the rationality of one set of beliefs over another. Cora arrives with an alternative explanation: perhaps the serpent is neither a myth or demonic monster, but a prehistoric creature, a living dinosaur. She and Will become unlikely friends, friends of the most extraordinary kind, as science, religion and legend play out in the watery region between the ocean and dry land.
What a finely tuned and delightful book The Essex Serpent is; the rare kind of historical fiction that speaks both to the past and to the present with equal clarity. It may seem very different from After Me Comes the Flood, but underneath its surface there are some clear similarities. It has the same fascination with obsession, with mental disturbances, with repression, with the twisted threads that bind people to one another in love and friendship. Both are tightly structured, using constraint and intertextual reference as a device for exploring emotional extremity. At the same time there are sharp differences, stylistically. After Me is contemporary stoner realism, while The Essex Serpent is a powerhouse of Victorian pastiche, with an impressive repertoire of late nineteenth century mimicry. Also, and this is the most powerful difference, Perry's second novel made me feel strong emotion. While I liked After Me a great deal, it had a reserve to the very end that held me at arms length; The Essex Serpent is tightly buttoned but the deep running currents of love that round out the book are within reach. I'm shelving this one next to Wolf Hall.
The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss
Granta, 7 July 2016
Paperback, 336 pages
*My copy kindly supplied by the publisher.
How do you follow up a book like that? I decided there was no point whatsoever in picking something speculatively; I had to go into something confident that I would love it. Hence The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss. Moss is quickly becoming one of my favourite writers and this is the third of her books I've read this year. (I re-read Bodies of Light and followed it with the sequel Signs for Lost Children back in April.) It's a return to the contemporary for her after a sojourn in the nineteenth century, but a book that echoes and develops the themes of her earlier work. Our narrator is Adam, a stay-at-home dad to two daughters - fifteen year old Miriam; nine year old Rose - and husband to Emma, a desperately overworked GP. In the interstices of the school run, the house work, the preparation of nutritionally balanced meals he is working on a project to create a history app about Coventry Cathedral. It's one of the small uses he makes of his now-distant PhD on the Arts and Crafts movement in the modern revival, along with some teaching at the local university, ordinarily the preserve of 20-something post-docs. Life is comfortable, middle class, ongoing.
Then, for no reason that anyone can discover, Miriam's heart stops. She is at school, it's lunchtime and she has been chatting with friends; when the bell rings she has to dash back to where they were sitting to grab her forgotten mobile phone. During this two minutes alone she collapses and dies. It's a terrifyingly mundane scenario. She is clinically dead for some minutes before a passing teacher manages to revive her. By the time Adam arrives breathless and desperate she is sitting up chatting with the paramedics. Some times, the doctors say, these things just happen. Parents grow accustomed, I imagine, to fleeting worry over the many accidents, illnesses and other evils that could befall their child in the world. But what happens to Miriam is so basic, so fundamental, that Adam's whole life is collapsed in on it. How, the novel asks, is one to reconcile oneself to a world in which the people you love can just stop working like that? If it happened once, it could happen again. It could happen to Rose. It could happen to them both. The book is an exercise in re-telling, of rewriting his life and the lives of his family around this single moment.
Which makes The Tidal Zone sound maudlin and tragic, but it doesn't read like that. Adam's first-person voice is sometimes frantic, but equally often he is wry and sharp, witty about himself, modern parenthood, academia, the National Health Service. He has a dry tone that will be familiar to readers of Night Waking, Moss's last contemporary novel, another book in which a parent struggles to reconcile the realities of parental life with a rarefied academic world. Miriam too is far from the victim of the piece. In spite of her almost-death, she values her self-determination and has a strong sense of her moral and political beliefs, scorning gender and capitalist norms. Like her father, she perceives the irony of protesting against inequality while eating chia smoothies and organic wild salmon.
It also makes it sound like the book is thin on plot, and this is more true. Apart from brief interludes that tell the story of Adam's father's experience of commune life in 1970s America, told to Miriam in her hospital bed, and historical snippets about Coventry Cathedral, The Tidal Zone is one long fret. It isn't so concerned with things happening; it's an exercise in thinking along with someone. It riffs off some common phrases that Adam hears from fellow parents - 'I can't imagine how you're feeling' and 'Some things don't bear thinking about' - and asks us to think about the unthinkable. In so doing it muses on memory, history-making, politics, the state of the NHS, the meaning of academic endeavour, the ties that bind us to others. One of the most fascinating exercises in the unthinkable, Adam considers, is the fictionalisation of the past. He says:
"It is a newer problem that we incline to treat the historical past as a mood board. I don't want to tell endearing little stories about Blighty in the Blitz. Fiction is the enemy of history. Fiction makes us believe in structure, in beginnings and middles and endings, in tragedy or comedy. There is neither tragedy nor comedy in war, only disorder and harm."
Putting aside the fact that I heartily agree (and that the heritage 'mood board' is a chapter of my own PhD - more irony), this is an interesting thought for a one-time historical novelist to put into the mouth of a character. It underlines something I had started to suspect, which is that Sarah Moss is a writer who thinks through her fiction, using it as an intellectual territory for exploration, for everything from hyper contemporary political debate (What should we do about the NHS?) to deep dilemmas of the heart (How do we move past the possibility of losing those we love?). I'm excited to see what she does next.
Blimey, that turned into a longer post than I expected. (I don't know why I expected anything else.) I've just looked down at the time on my laptop and realise that a couple of hours have drifted by, and my stomach is rumbling for good reason. There are a couple of books that I didn't get to and will have to wait till next time. Amongst them is Annie Proulx's Barkskins. Have you noticed how I keep promising to talk about that and then failing to? Possibly a spoiler for how I felt about it.
Until then, happy reading all. Let me know what you thought of any of the books in this round-up!