Archive

Tag Archives: kit whitfield

Hmm.

This post is brought to you by an unseemly urge to over-expound.

Anna and I are now both on Twitter. Already, I’ve been involved in genre wrangles. Jonathan McCalmont is currently reading In Great Waters, which you might remember I liked, though not as much as some. Apparently, he’s been reading some classics, too, and remarked that moving from Fitzgerald and Camus back to genre writing was a curious experience: like moving, I guess, from cordon bleu to pub grub. I’ve some sympathy with this feeling – rare has it been that I’ve moved from a out-and-out literary text to a pure work of genre (which In Great Waters is not, despite its clear relationship to SF&F) and not felt the downwards gear change. This, however, is also true of moving from a canonical author to a contemporary novelist yet to prove his mettle – so the contest is somewhat rigged.

In Whitfield’s defense, her own eatery is a gastropub rather than a boozer with a few sarnies on the bar. And here lie the limits of Twitter – Niall Harrison objected to Jonathan’s use of the word ‘simplistic’ to characterise In Great Waters. I’d agree with him that ‘simplistic’ is not the word to use – because, yes, it suggests distorting naivety – but by the same token I think we both agree that In Great Waters doesn’t quite pull itself together. That is a fault, ultimately, of its prose style, which cannot sustain and stretch itself across the novel’s length and breadth. To this extent, then, the spirit of what Jonathan was saying was spot on – he was experiencing less powerful prose.

Twitter, however, is not the place to have a semantic debate – it pretty much demands poor choice of words. How is it possible to have a proper debate about difficulty in prose (and there is now a putative Obfuscatory Writers project abroad) when you are being forced to limit your own words to 140 characters? Whitfield’s writing is not simplistic in the way that – as again we all agreed – much genre writing can be; but it isn’t as rewardingly complex as the writers Jonathan cited. Again, important semantics are unexplorable in a Tweet.

What are the pleasures of difficult writing, though? A plain, unadorned style can be a thing of beauty – Kurt Vonnegut remains one of my very favourite writers, and it is stunningly difficult to emultate his spare, skeletal style. Whitfield’s own writing is comparably full of allusion and play, and, if it is without the on-the-other-hand poetry of a Fitzgerald, is that so bad a thing? Some baroque edifices are ugly; there is a limit to the virtue of ornamentation. But it also seems to me that the fault of Whitfield’s style – its ultimate failure completely to encompass its theme – proceeds from what Jonathan may or may not still call its ‘simplicity’. Moby Dick, for example, is a forbidding novel; but its success lies in that repulsion. Its discursive, Biblical, roiling style provides the echoing space and inward movement required fully to explore depths not entirely divorced from Whitfield’s. The difficulty of the style supports the easing of the theme.

Not all books benefit from an excess of style. Dorothy Parker wrote of Ernest Hemingway (not a writer I care for, but still) that “Hemingway stands as a genius because Hemingway has an unerring sense of selection. He discards details with a magnificnet lavishness; he keeps his words to their short path.” This control – a word used by Niall to describe (some of) Whitfield’s prose – is, like Vonnegut’s, key not only to the merits (as they may be) of Hemingway’s writing, but also the success of its content. It’s missing the point, of course, to think all good writing must be difficult; but there is still a difference between Hemingway’s unadorned prose and the simplistic failures of genre: a clarity, a precision. It may well be harder to achieve this trick, this stripping back, than Melville’s deep soundings. Parker on Hemingway again: “The simple thing he does looks so easy to do. But look at the boys who try to do it.” Even unadorned prose is difficult.

Jonathan was aiming, perhaps, at the descriptive rather than the evocative function of genre prose versus its literary counterpart’s. In this lies the real issue, not the ‘simplicity’ or ornament of the styles in question: it is not enough to tell; prose, as much as the story it strives to contain, needs also to show.

"In Great Waters" by Kit Whitfield

“I thought you meant to begin by umanning me,” admits Henry, the bastard half-breed protagonist of Kit Whitfield’s second novel, In Great Waters. He is speaking to Anne, a legitimate half-breed who is third in line to the throne of England. It’s a curious construction Henry uses: not only are neither he nor Anne entirely human; the genitals of which he is in fear are one of the more human things about him. Henry has just accused Anne’s murdered mother, Queen Erzebet, of wantoness: “He had not really meant that Erzebet fucked landsmen; if he thought about it, this girl must have been the child of a half-caste, her parents the children of half-castes, back and back, generations of hobbling spiders like her. She had understood what he meant, which was odd in itself; John or Allard would have frowned, made him explain.” [pg. 224]

Questions of otherness and similarity, race and ‘purity’, resonate throughout this accomplished novel. Henry and Anne are at such loggerheads on only their second meeting because their interests have been opposed, by the John and Allard Henry recalls above: the throne to which Anne has a claim has a weak royal family, populated beneath an elderly king by enfeebled men and youthful girls; Henry, washed up on the shore and discovered by Allard, represents a rival claim to that throne – a figurehead behind whom an army of renewal might rally.

Whitfield’s medieval England exists in an alternative past, in which the seas are inhabited by what appear to be adapted humans, deepsmen, who – following an invasion of Venice in the 9th century – have come, through interbreeding with the royal houses of the ‘landsmen’, to dominate European courts. (Only the landlocked ‘Switzers’ have fully human kings.) Simply put, alliances with deepsmen – possible only through half-breeds because of the vast linguistic and cultural differences between deepsmen and landsmen – are the sole means of establishing secure borders against rival states. A strong monarchy, as was of course the case in our own medieval world, is therefore crucial. Anne’s enervated family are ill-equippped to defend England; Henry, untainted by the consequences of in-breeding, represents a stronger future. The alternate history is too total to allow for exact parallels – is this the War of the Roses or the Northern Rebellion? – but the echo of all medieval unrest is here.

The novelty of the concept, then, is skilfully handled, deepened and textured throughout: this is no excuse for a generic fantasy with medieval trappings, but instead the placement of a recognisable medieval mindset upon a different world. Kari Sperring questions the novel on the basis of Whitfield’s assumption of “political stagnation”; the medieval world was neither stagnant nor uncreative, but it was fond of systems, precedent and order – Whitfield dramatises this nicely. If she doesn’t quite explain how Christianity – which, through the sympathetic character of Bishop Samuel Westlake, features heavily – remains in a recognisable form despite the total absence of the deepsmen from its sacred text and theology, she does much to show how a medieval world might have accomodated them. This refusal to reshape – but instead to adapt – is also shared by the novel’s characters, and, though at times a poorly wrought adaptation might let down a reader and appear as fudge, I think Niall Harrison is right to detect a Darwinian subtext to all this.

Indeed, the principle pleasure of the novel beyond its conceit is the way in which Whitfield shows Henry and Anne building their worldviews around their circumstances – adapting. A good chunk of the novel deals with Henry’s education by Allard, which proceeds fitfully because the deepsman’s mind is not adapted to concepts and dialogue in the way that the landsman’s is: “Understand, in Henry’s mind, was a word of imprisonment.” [pg. 41] Placing herself in a venerable literary tradition (Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea comes particularly to mind, but so too might The Seafarer or Moby Dick), Whitfield’s sea is unknowable and untameable, and her deepsmen accept this by speaking a booming, musical language of simple commands and warnings, unadorned with the proprietary aspect of defintion. But Anne, too, though from birth more part of the landsman’s world than the deepsman’s, must be educated about the world – in her case towards a broader and more flexible view of people and all, good and ill, of which they are capable.

Henry and Anne thus ultimately meet halfway – a marriage of convenience to save a monarchy. At times, alas, Whitfield is as awkward as her central couple: her exposition, in particular, is often poorly handled, and too often a character’s epiphany is experienced as an internal question-and-answer session. So on the level of technique In Great Waters is less impressive than it is on the level of concept. It is still, however, a solidly written novel with three good characters (Henry, Anne and Westlake), a colourful, if occassionally one-note, supporting cast, and a robust, memorable world. As Martin Lewis implies at The SF Site, the book is a confident and entertaining entry in the human-as-alien/learning-the-world stable of SF&F novels; Owen Jones, too, has the book’s number when he says at SFF World that, “With any number of reasons why this novel could have failed, many inherent to the type and style of story chosen, this is a highly crafted piece worthy of a far more experienced writer.”

All of this suggests (though Martin in particular stretches further in his review) a book which is competent but not explosive: Whitfield has written a thoughtful and entertaining novel which may at times lack elan but never good intentions. It’s hard, then, not to like In Great Waters. It is also a book with a good deal to admire about it – although ultimately you may be more fond of than impressed by it.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 90 other followers