The Women’s Prize for Fiction: “Ordinary People” and “An American Marriage”

When Tayari Jones’ An American Marriage was announced last night as the winner of this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, I’m not proud to report that my heart sank a little. Jones’ novel is a worthy one – it anatomises the impact of unjust incarceration upon African-American communities at a time when members of that demographic are being imprisoned at a rate five times greater than that of the white population – and it comes with endorsements from Barack Obama and the National Book Award, for which it was shortlisted.

The question, though, must be why An American Marriage had, for all its garlands (and positive blurbs take up the first four pages of its paperback edition), until last night failed to win any other award. Having read it alongside the other examination of modern matrimony on the Women’s Prize shortlist, Diana Evans’ Ordinary People, the answer to this question seems to lie in the absences at the heart of An American Marriage – its pulled punches, its partial moralities. Jones has written an emotive polemic, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a complete novel. Granting it the Women’s Prize feels like something of a missed opportunity, then – and, alas, that’s why my heart sank when this well-intentioned book was given recognition which will no doubt expand the reach of its important message.

Readers of my previous reviews of works from the shortlist will know that I believe Anna Burns’s Milkman to be its best entry; they’ll also be aware that I’m also an admirer of Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls. It seems to me that, in terms of psychological depth and sophistication of prose style, Evans’ novel comes closest to the level set by these books than Jones’. The story of two distinct couples – Melissa and Michael and Damian and Stephanie – Ordinary People takes place in south London and its suburbs, opening on the night that Barack Obama was first elected US President. The diverse communities of a great world city come out in force to celebrate:

There were parties all over the city that night, in Dalston, Kilburn, Brixton and Bow. Traffic sped back and forth over the Thames so that from far above the river was blackness crossed by dashing streams of light. [p. 3]

If that last sentence reads a little too on-the-nose to you, then Ordinary People will routinely hit that button. This is a novel that shares its title with a John Legend song, and isn’t so cool-for-school that one of its main characters, ostensibly in his thirties, doesn’t walk around listening to the album from which that song is taken, Get Lifted, on repeat and as a set of waypoints for his emotional life. This is a novel in which the effects of post-natal depression and relationship breakdown are embodied in a haunted house.  It is a novel in which two best friends from university – Michael and Damian – reach late youth or early middle age frustrated and forlorn, and come into inevitable conflict as a result. It isn’t, in other words, always terribly subtle or surprising.

That said, Ordinary People is never melodramatic, and it might be. That post-Obama setting is coloured for the reader, of course, with the knowledge that the moment of dawn the novel’s characters experience is temporary. The shadow of Trump does not cross the novel’s pages except in our own experience of it, but it is nevertheless present. The celebration that opens the novel is all shiny and superficial – “he wore lose black jeans with a sleak grey shirt … [she] a mauve skilk dress with flashing boho hem” [p. 3] – and the rest of the novel unravels all this into a messy, but ultimately quotidian, reality:

Marriage, it was all about the kids. He himself had accepted this a long time ago, that children claim the love, they change it, they drink it, they offer it back to you in a sticky cup and it never quite tastes the same. The romantic love from which they sprang becomes an old dishevelled garden visited on rare occasions fuelled by wine and spurts of spontaneity, and the bigger, family love is where the bloom and freshness lie. [p. 128]

Both couples in the novel – one married, the other not – are acted upon by this entropy. Neither member of either relationship comes out of the book with our admiration for them entirely intact. On one level, by the close of Ordinary People the stakes have been proven to be rather low – no one has died, and each individual has a functioning relationship with all of the others – but by the same token the novel paints a convincing portrait of emotional lives that are sometimes solipsistic, sometimes noble – often foolish, often kind – and which therefore rather resemble our own. This is a genuinely novelistic project, and Diana Evans emerges from these pages as a sort of latter-day Jane Austen.

Jones’ novel often feels to be the opposite of Evans’, for all they share. Instead of four main characters, An American Marriage has three. But their interiorities and inter-relationships are again key. The difference is that Jones strains for portent where Evans does not, and fails to achieve complexity where Evans arrives at nuance. An American Marriage begins with a koan of an opening sentence – “There are two kinds of people in the world, those who leave home, and those who don’t” [p. 3] – and never quite leaves behind this sort of incomplete simplism, this insistent dogmatism (or this bargain-basement irony – ultimately the character speaking here cannot escape his past). Partly, this is because one of its three narrators, Roy, is a lot less sophisticated than he thinks he is – he holds consistently archaic views, particularly about women and a man’s role in “supporting” them, which he never acknowledges or abandons – but it’s also because the novel’s seamless surface itself works against the application of any cross-grain.

Roy meets an artist, Celestial, while he is at college – the first of his family to make it that far. They start a relationship which seems to the reader almost comically ill-suited, in which from day one Roy admits that he “liked the ladies … a little flirtation” [p. 10], and yet in which we are asked to invest heavily: “Celestial and me are something Hollywood never imagined,” Roy protests too much [p. 11]. But the pair are rapidly separated when Roy is imprisoned for a rape committed while Celestial knows he was with her. “When something happens that eclipses the imaginable,” Celestial writes to Roy using the rather fattened prose that characterises every narrator in the novel, “it changes a person” [p. 41]. Inevitably, Celestial and Roy grow more and more distant. The issue here, of course, is that they were never especially close prior to Roy’s incarceration, and in this manner their separation isn’t something to mourn – their relationship would likely have also been lost had Roy remained free.

Except, of course, that Celestial admits to having an abortion. “Yes, I get it,” snarls Roy in response. “Your body, your choice. All of that they taught you at Spelman College. Fine” [p. 52]. In this line and others (“I know that we had a choice, but really, we didn’t have a choice,” says Celestial [p. 55]), the novel posits a woman’s right to choose as a sort of tragedy, and this conservatism underlies the whole novel – and is the only force that Jones can call on in her attempt to convince us of the currency of Roy and Celestial’s marriage (we also learn, for example, that “you had to be married to cheat at all” [p. 11]). When Roy is released early, he arrives at Celestial’s home, where she is now living with their mutual friend Andre, as “a commanding stranger breathing hot on my neck” [p. 247]; while Celestial seems most concerned to be “ashamed of my body, five years older than when he last saw me this way” [p. 247], the reader is left perhaps expected to admire Roy’s restraint when he declares at the close of a scene suffused with incipient violence, “I could, but I won’t” [p. 249].

There is in all this a lot of class and gender politics at play, perhaps: Roy is from a hard-scrabble, dirt-poor background, brought up by a mother and step-father and entirely alien to the college environment in Atlanta where he meets Celestial, who is a native within it. Their conflicting expectations are par for this course. Similarly, the social conservatism of the Deep South that they both call home – “she’s a ‘southern woman’, not to be confused with a ‘southern bell'” Roy tells us of Celestial [p. 3] – would also be as conspicuous in its absence from the novel’s milieu as it is often is in its brutish presence. When Roy’s step-father bemoans that “back when I married Olive, marriage was so sacred that everyone aimed for a wife that was fresh” [p. 222], are we meant to perceive Roy and Celestial as a generation making their difficult way out from under oppressive and repressive expectations, or as one that has abandoned them to its cost? Jones is never quite clear.

Perhaps this enforcement of norms is the real violence done to Roy and Celestial in the course of the novel. Early on, middle-class respectability applies at least the veneer of a civilised feminisation on Roy; prison has him demanding of his estranged wife, “Why can’t you talk to me like I’m a man?” [p. 268] The way in which wider society looks at Roy – at any young black man – and sees not his achievements and effort, but only his race, results in an arrested development across the community:

“That’s really the main thing about being in prison. Too many men in one place. You’re stuck in their knowing that there is a world full of women who are putting out flowers, making things nice, civilizing the whole planet. But there I was stuck in a cage like an animal with a bunch of other animals.” [p. 274]

But this gender essentialism is itself destructive, is itself part of the problem. In other words, by promulgating precisely the problematic motifs that it situates as corrosive, An American Marriage contributes to the injustices it depicts. The novel is a simple story with a clear through-line, if sometimes over-heated prose and an imbalanced structure. It offers a clarity of vision. But in achieving that leanness, in foregrounding its single and singular message, the novel cartoonishly replicates the cultures that conspire against its characters.

In Ordinary People, Michael considers how best to raise awareness of race in his children. “Those words, blackness, black people, whiteness, they were crude, contagious. The children would be infected by them, dragged also into this prison, this malady, this towering preoccupation, robbed also of a love for canyons, for particular lights” [p. 233]. An American Marriage makes an emotive plea, and many have responded to its clarion call; but it isn’t a terrible well-formed novel, and in that sense the Women’s Prize has missed a trick. Despite all my admiration for what Obama referred to as Jones’ “moving portrayal of the effects of a wrongful conviction”, that’s why my heart reluctantly sank a little last night. But one hopes, of course, that Jones’ success will help contribute to real change.

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The Women’s Prize for Fiction: “Milkman” and “My Sister, The Serial Killer”

I was happier about literary prizes than I’ve been for a long time when Anna Burns’s Milkman won the Booker Prize last year. I was thrilled when Paul Beatty’s The Sellout won, too; but there was something about Milkman‘s idiosyncrasy and humility – about, dare I whisper it, the people it chose as its subjects – which had led me to assume it might be over-looked in favour of something splashier. That the judges got the call so right in the teeth of my low expectations was a surprise especially sweet.

You’d expect me, then, to advocate for the novel also to win the Women’s Prize – and, on the basis of the five shortlisted novels I have so far read, indeed I will. I called it “magnetic”, “expansive” and “special” in my review of it last year, and my opinion has not changed. Indeed, in one of those critical tests of a novel, Milkman has only expanded in my imagination since. Having already won the Booker might I suppose count against its chances in the current contest; but if the Booker judges can respond to literary quality regardless of extraneous considerations why can’t the panel awarding the Women’s Prize? Milkman is a novel to remember when few of these are published; it’s a tough year for its rivals.

In this way, it’s really unfair on Oyinkan Braithwaite to twin her debut novel, My Sister, the Serial Killer, with Burns’s. Where Burns’s novel is dense and immersive, Braithwaite’s is flip and self-aware; where Milkman aims for poetry, My Sister, the Serial Killer – though Braithwaite i sperhaps  best known as a poet – aims for Ellroy-ian conscision. That said, both books are powered first by a very strong sense of place and secondly by violence, and its consequences on intimate social relationships. They are in this sense closely related to one another, one as tragedy and the other as farce.

Braithwaite’s narrator is Korede, a senior nurse at a Lagos hospital, who lives with her younger – and much more beautiful – sister, Ayoola, and their mother, in a large mansion in a prosperous suburb of Nigeria’s most populous city. We learn early on that the women have inherited the house from Korede and Ayoola’s father, a presence who hovers in the backdrop of the narrative as a malevolent, impatient ghost. More viscerally violent at first blush, however, is Ayoola herself. The reader first meets her when she calls Korede to the scene of a murder:

“We need to move the body,” I tell her.

“Are you angry at me?”

Perhaps a normal person would be angry, but what I feel now is a pressing need to dispose of the body. When I got here, we carried him to the boot of my car, so that I was free to scrub and mop without having to countenance his cold stare. [p. 3]

This is the third time Korede has cleaned up for her homicidal sibling. Ayoola’s narcissism is total. In that “are you angry with me” we see a sociopathic self-involvement that never leaves her: “How was your trip?” Korede asks Ayoola upon her return from vacation mid-way through the novel. Her response: “It was fine … except … he died” [p. 126]. Despite this, Korede acts as an accessory for her sister largely without question. At first, we think this is because the elder sister is a stickler for order, for cleanliness, for forcing everything into a proper place. When Ayoola calls her at the start of the novel Korede:

had laid everything out on the tray in preparation [for dinner] – the fork was to the left of the place, the knife to the right. I folded the napkin into the shape of a crown and placed it at the center of the plate. The movie was paused at the beginning credits and the oven timer had just rung. [p. 3]

But over time the novel attempts to ask deeper questions, leaning less queasily on the half-baked “explanation” of OCD. Most significantly, Braithwaite begins to revolve around questions of culpability. “Ayoola never strikes unless provoked,” Korede tells us [p. 129], but we never really see this – leading us either to believe that Korede is deluding herself, or that the provocation is less immediate, less obvious, than mere physical threat. “You never knew with men,” Korede says at one point, “they wanted what they wanted when they wanted it” [p. 8]; the two sisters exist within a patriarchal structure made clearest by the hospital hierarchy, in which nurses are women and doctors, their bosses, all men.

One of the doctors, the handsome Tade, becomes infatuated with Ayoola – much to the besotted Korede’s disappointment – and the story attempts to persuade us in this love triangle that the sisters might betray each other. Ultimately, however, it is made entirely clear that this will not happen: “Ayoola is inconsiderate and selfish and reckless, but her welfare is and always has been my responsibility” [p. 122]. All this ends, of course, in yet more violence. The lack of true psychological depth in these characters, however, leaves us as detached as Ayoola, who is barely touched by murder and conspiracy:

“You’re not the only one suffering, you know. You act like you are carrying this big thing all by yourself, but I worry, too.”

“Do you? ‘Cause the other day, you were singing ‘I Believe I Can Fly’.”

Ayoola shrugs. “It’s a good song.” [p. 105]

Perhaps this is the point. One of the novel’s targets is the superficiality of social media culture: the disappearance of one of Ayoola’s victms is within weeks “trumped by conversations about which country’s jollof rice is better” [p. 86]. But the novel also wants to make something of the corruption at the heart of Nigerian law enforcement – Korede routinely has to grease the palms of various state functionaries – and features a sub-plot about abuse and its effects on the abused. The novel’s handicap is its lightness: it feels unable truly to grapple with the questions it raises, like an Instagram snap hung in the Louvre.

Ultimately, then, Braithwaite’s novel is insufficient to its purposes, and almost tasteless in its bathos. This is partly its project, but some of it also feels unintentional. When Korede is confront by the reality of her facilitating Ayoola – “There’s something wrong with her … but you? What’s your excuse? [p. 202] – she is taken aback, and in this the novel expects us to likewise be struck dumb, to pause for thought and reflect. But Korede and her milieu lacks the grist to feed this ruminative mill: in the midst of so much surface-skating, a few brief pages of flashback to a formative event doesn’t provide us with enough material for consideration; we are ultimately left with bromides such as, “Besides, no one is innocent in this world” [p. 169].

We might compare all this with lines from Milkman, a novel that also deals with abuse and its consequences, with violence and its forms, with unspoken structures and somehow unspeakable feelings, with how we live despite them:

Hard to define, this stalking, this predation, because it was piecemeal. A bit here, a bit there, maybe, maybe not, perhaps, don’t know. It was constant hints, symbolisms, misrepresentations, metaphors. [p. 181]

Or:

Whatever he had been and whatever he’d been called, he was gone, so I did what usually I did around death which was to forget all about it. The whole shambles – as in the old meaning of shambles, as in slaughterhouse, blood-house, meat market, business-as-usual – once again took hold. Deciding to miss my French night class, I put on my make-up and got ready to go to the club. [p. 305]

Or:

Do you stand strong? Do you bear witness, even if, in the process, you cause more suffering and prolonged humiliation for your son or your brother or your husband or your father? Or do you go away, back inside, abandoning your son or your brother or your husband or your father to these people? [p. 95]

Again: on the one hand, this is an unfair comparison. On the other, these two novels appear on the same shortlist for the same prize, and one is breezy and the other isn’t. One might ask how My Sister, the Serial Killer made it out of the longlist when Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater – also a novel about violence and identity but both demotic and deep – did not. That novel might have given Milkman a surer run for its money. But, as it is, Anna Burns is still out in front.

The Women’s Prize for Fiction: “Circe” and “The Silence of the Girls”

When The Song of Achilles was shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 2012, I was unconvinced, citing its “curiously uncomfortable balancing of Homer with Home and Away“. In doing so, I was perhaps among the “Fusty – and almost always male – critics lamented the historical inaccuracies, the liberties taken with the text, the cliches”, whom Alex Preston side-eyed in his review of Madeline Miller’s follow-up, Circe:

They missed the point that Miller was seeking to popularise stories that were first popular three millennia ago, employing the tools of the novelist to reveal new internal landscapes in these familiar tales. In her Circe, Miller has made a collage out of a variety of source materials – from Ovid to Homer to another lost epic, the Telegony – but the guiding instinct here is to re-present the classics from the perspective of the women involved in them, and to do so in a way that makes these age-old texts thrum with contemporary relevance. If you read this book expecting a masterpiece to rival the originals, you’ll be disappointed; Circe is, instead, a romp, an airy delight, a novel to be gobbled greedily in a single sitting.

In making the 2019 shortlist of the Orange’s successor, the Women’s Prize for Fiction, Miller finds herself up against a novel which might precisely fit Preston’s model for Circe‘s opposite. Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls is, like Circe and The Song of Achilles before it, a reimagining of Greek myth – in its case, of the story of the Iliad from the perspective of Briseis, the woman fought over to such catastrophic consequence by the general of the Greeks at Troy, Agamemnon, and his greatest warrior, Achilles. The Silence of the Girls is a much more avowedly literary affair than Circe; it more or less announces itself as an intended masterpiece that does not quail before the poetry of Homer. It exhibits contemporary relevance, to be sure, but it does so in its peculiar focus on the violence that suffuses both it and its source, rather than in its diction or attitude. Some have argued that Barker leans too heavily on the First World War – the setting for her career high, the Regeneration Trilogy – but Homer, too, likely depicted the Siege of Troy in terms more appropriate to his own time than the Bronze Age in which the events he depicts supposedly took place. Anachronism isn’t always a sin – if it achieves something.

If you were to assume, then, that I prefer Barker’s novel to Miller’s, you would alas be correct. Here’s a passage from early in Barker’s novel, when Briseis observes her city’s fresh conquerors – and her new captors – at close quarters:

What I remember most – apart from the awful, straining, wide-eyed terror of the first few days – is the curious mixture of riches and squalor. Achilles dined off gold plate, rested his feet in the evenings on a footstool inlaid with ivory, slept under bedcovers embroidered with gold and silver thread. Every morning, as he combed and braided his hair – and no girl ever dressed more carefully for her wedding day than Achilles for the battlefield – he checked the effect in a bronze mirror that must have been worth a king’s ransom. For all I know, it may have been a king’s ransom. And yet, if he needed a shit after dinner, he took a square of coarse cloth from a pile in the corner of the hall and set off to a latrine that stank to high heaven and was covered in a pelt of black buzzing flies. [Barker, p. 36]

And then here’s Miller, at a similarly early point in her own novel, describing the punishment of the rebellious Titan, Prometheus, by a servant of the Olympian overlord, Zeus, before a throng of terrified second-tier gods:

The Fury did not bother with a lecture. She was a goddess of torment and understood the eloquence of violence. The sound of the whip was a crack like oaken branches breaking. Prometheus’ shoulders jerked and a gash opened in his side long as my arm. All around me indrawn breaths hissed like water on hot rocks. The Fury lifted her lash again. Crack. A bloodied strip tore from his back. She began to carve in earnest, each blow falling on the next, peeling his flesh away in long lines that crossed and recrossed his skin. The only sound was the snap of the whop and Prometheus’ muffled, explosive breaths. The tendons stood out on his neck. Someone pushed at my back, trying for a better view. [Miller, p. 15]

I would contend that the first of these passages is supple and allusive, and the second insistent and demotic. I’d also suggest that Miller’s prose is repetitive and lingers on spectacle, where Barker’s is more expansive and yet simultaneously laconic. The Silence of the Girls reads lightly and yet sticks; Circe can be experienced as treacle-like at times, and perhaps consequently can often fail to move.

These comparisons I make only because a shortlist is a kind of competition, and demands that one place texts side-by-side for the purpose of comparing their qualities. In truth, the two novels are doing such different things with their material than their disparate prose styles make more sense in context. Barker is writing a war story from the perspective of the civilians: Briseis becomes part of the Greek train that travels with and serves Agamemnon’s army, witnessing all manner of brutality and slaughter in the process. Miller’s novel is essentially a fantasy, taking seriously the existence of gods and monsters, and bestowing upon its eponymous sorceress real powers of magic and enchantment. Barker focuses tightly on a relatively defined set of events – those of the Trojan war and its surrounding conflicts; Miller’s novel takes place over centuries if not millennia, and mortal lifetimes pass by in the course of just a page or two. You would expect novels so separately constituted to adopt different styles, and in this context it is harder to judge Miller for some of her sicklier moments (“I had walked the earth for a hundred generations, yet I was still a child to myself” [Miller, p. 136]).

On the other hand, both novels are explicitly feminist retellings of Homeric material. Circe has been marketed as a retelling of the Odyssey, but in truth the part of the novel that deals with the events of Books 10 and 11 of Homer’s epic are a very small part of its length. Before then, it has dealt with Prometheus and Scylla, Minos and Daedalus; afterwards it dwells far more on Telemachus and Telegonus than it did on Odysseus and Poseidon. Nevertheless, it centres a female interiority within stories until recently rarely told from anything but a male point of view. The first episode we read of in Circe is the moment at which Oceanas turned to Helios and indicated a woman who had caught the latter’s eye: “My daughter Perse. She is yours if you want her” [Miller, p. 2]. This is how cheaply female life is valued in Circe’s world.

And in Briseis’s, too. At one point, Barker has her meet Helen, about whose enthusiasm for the loom it is said “that whenever Helen cut a thread in her weaving, a man died on the battlefield. She was responsible for every death” [Barker, p. 129]. Misogyny both marginalises and makes women so significant as to be morally responsible for male failings. Barker’s problem, however, is that she cannot prevent Achilles taking over her novel: his story is too expansive, too other-worldly, to be restrained within Briseis’s narrative. Later on in the novel, Barker finds herself writing chapters from his perspective, from the viewpoint of the rapist, the pillager: “He wants to go home – or what passes for home now Patroclus isn’t in it” we read [Barker, p. 228], just after Achilles’ great friend is killed on the battlefield while wearing the Greek hero’s armour, in a doomed attempt to rally troops Achilles had refused to lead. Barker seeks, then, to illicit our sympathies for Briseis’ abuser. This makes for a morally complex book, but also a lop-sided one: the first half of The Silence of the Girls is by far the most compelling, its intense allegiance with the female victims of war giving way in the second half to a more conventional heroic narrative.

Circe is a good deal more fixed on its female characters – the perspective never wavers, is always Circe’s own intimate first-person. She turns against her father when he calls her “trash” [p. 54]; enforces territorial restriction of rule upon Aeëtes, her arrogant brother whom she thanklessly brought up from an infant (“in Colchis you may work your will. But this is Aiaia” [p. 153]); she sympathises with the observant Penelope, whose ability to perceive an unjust world as it is becomes “an ugly weight upon your back” [p. 286]. Indeed, Circe is described at one point as “a god with a mortal voice” [p. 82], and her mixture of power and empathy becomes the backbone of a novel which suffers regularly from the longeurs dictated by its dilatory, episodic plot – a sort of greatest hits of Greek myth with little forward momentum. Even so, again it is men who come to define the close of the novel: Telemachus and Telegonus must come into their own, be given agency by their equally over-protective mothers – Odysseus’s two great loves, Penelope and Circe – more or less as the narrative climax of the book. “Telemachus has been a good son, longer than he should have been,” Penelope sighs pages from the end. “Now he must be his own” [p. 330]. It is ultimately the sons, not the mothers, who defy their beginnings to choose their own fates.

Both books, then, work to undermine themselves. But where Circe has little other than its tale of the under-privileged casting off the over-weening (and it is a part of the novel’s project, perhaps, not to limit this agency to women), The Silence of the Girls features so much warp and weft – the nihilist heroism of Achilles, the ersatz societies of stolen women, the bitterly won moral sense of Briseis herself – that, like ancient ruins resisting the ravages of time, parts of it remain, beautifully, standing. Circe is more traditional in the forms of its mythical retellings than either Barker’s novel or Miller’s debut – its only changes to the tales we know are always to make Circe seem more righteous, less culpable. Barker’s Briseis is instead rendered fully rounded, rescued from the flattened portrayal of Homer without having to conform to a whole new set of impossible standards.

Circe’s only and original sin is the transformation of the nymph Scylla into a monster, as punishment for stealing Circe’s beloved Glaucos from her (“I did it for pride and vain delusion” [p. 102]); all her other transformations of mortals – into various animals that meekly populate her island of exile – are seen to be acts of self-defence. Briseis, meanwhile, is a much more conflicted and conflicting being – and in this way she emerges more fully from the shadow cast by the men of her story: “Yes, there were times when I watched a young man die and remembered my prayers for vengeance. Did I regret those prayers? No” [p. 89]. This nuance, this uncertainty, better suits the intertextuality inherent in the kind of project both Barker and Miller undertake here. In this way, I’d argue, The Silence of the Girls is simply the richer text. Though I confess I’m bothered that this may just mean I’m fusty.

On Political Obstinacy

Not gonna!

There’s an arresting moment in Bob Woodward’s book about the first few years of the Trump White House, Fear: Gary Cohn, the President’s Director of the National Economic Council, is briefing Trump about the shape of the American economy. Cohn and his fellow senior advisors have each found themselves spending a lot of their time with Trump on what they consider to be “the basics”. This time, Cohn is trying to explain the way in which the American economy is now heavily based on services:

“Who’s your one retailer in the Trump Tower?” [he asked.]

“Starbucks,” Trump replied. “And a restaurant in the basement. Oh, and two more restaurants in the basement.

“Exactly,” Cohn said. “So your retail space today is services.” [p. 136]

This appeal to Trump’s own personal and financial experience does not bear fruit: the President continues to insist that the people who voted for him in Ohio or Pennsylvania or West Virginia want their manufacturing jobs back, and that it would be a virtue of his administration were it to oblige. From Cohn’s perspective, this is madness: “there were towns 100 years ago that made horse carriages and buggy whips. […] They had to reinvent themselves,” he pleads [p. 137]. Still Trump will not budge. Cohn digs out data that demonstrates the majority of job leavers are found in the manufacturing sector – and that they want to move into services jobs which are perceived to be less arduous. Again, Trump restates his insistence on the need for mining and assembly lines, coal and cars. Cohn breaks:

“Why do you have these views?”

“I just do,” Trump replied. “I’ve had these views for thirty years.” [p. 138]

In this moment, it’s possibe to perceive the centrality in our contemporary politics of a sort of faith. Trump is speaking not just for himself but for many others when he simply shrugs that he has the opinions he has because he has them. The man who rails most vociferously against fake news is, perhaps without knowing, here diagnosing why it is so prevalent and potent: because people want to believe.

The breakdown of consensus is not unique to our era. The developed world’s agreed set of assumptions and rules last collapsed in the late 1970s, and, in the Anglo-American sphere at least, was reconstituted after a period of great conflict in the shape of Thatcher and Reagan’s neoliberal trickle-down economics. There is a reason that Thatcher thought her greatest legacy to be Tony Blair: he was evidence that she had created a new political faith through which, just as Eden’s Conservatives accepted the welfare state of the Attlee government, the Labour Party of the 1990s accepted the gospel according to Milton Friedman.

The problem with faith of any kind is that, held too blindly, it can lead to a sort of obstinacy. Faced with the 2008 banking crisis, George Osborne committed whole-scale to neoliberal austerity, in the teeth of ample evidence that such a policy prescription contributed to, rather than helped resolve, the sluggishness of post-crash economies. China chose a huge programme of state investment, and its economy continued to grow; but in Europe the most obvious object lesson in austerity’s self-defeating obstinacy was found in Greece, a country which underwent punitive reforms at the hands of the Troika. All that pain indeed had little effect: according to a recent report from the Centre of Economic Policy Research, “It is [still] hard to avoid the conclusion that any solution to the Greek debt crisis that does not fall on the shoulders of taxpayers several generations removed will require conditional face-value debt relief.”

Greece, of course, exhibited its own form of obstinacy, voting “Oxi”in 2015 to its creditors’ latest set of swingeing conditions. That the Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, ultimately ignored the result of the vote and accepted the Troika’s terms can be seen in at least two ways: as a pragmatic, even honourable, acceptance of a reality that would, if denied, have hurt his countrymen more even than it hurt his own political career; or as a craven capitulation to the anti-democratic cabal of the European Union, which Greece came so close to leaving.

The notion of Grexit, of course, birthed the reality of Brexit, amidst the maesltrom of which Theresa May is straining every sinew to avoid following Tsipras in her approach to plebiscites. In so doing, she can only state and restate, after every set-back and rebuff, her commitment to honouring the referendum, to ending free movement and to finding a deal. Events – such as suffering the worst government defeat ever recorded in the history of the mother of Parliaments – insist she give ground, but, as a matter of disposition more than calculation, she cannot. Most obviously, this cognitive dissonance can be observed in her offer, following her narrow victory in last week’s no confidence motion in the Commons, that she and her government would engage in dialogue with the leaders of the other political parties. Despite this apparently conciliatory form of words, she spent the next week pursuing the same strategy – tinkering with the so-called Irish backstop and winning the support of the European Research Group – that had led her to the point of losing the support of the Commons in the first place.

Jeremy Corbyn, too, demonstrated obstinacy in the same moment. Unlike the leaders of the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party, he refused to meet with the Prime Minister until such as time as she “took No Deal off the table”. He has, perhaps, been vindicated by events – there was no dialogue to be had with the PM, as even Corbyn’s foes within the Labour Party, such as Hilary Benn, now admit. Indeed, and as Nick Clegg will attest, a lack of obstinacy in politics – an over-readiness to engage with one’s political foes – is, however noble or apparently yearned for by the electorate, very far from a virtue. Corbyn owes his position at the apex of the Labour Party to an apparent authenticity borne of never having changed his mind about anything. (The unstoppable force of Brexit, of course, is forcing him to move more than he ever has – though he gives every inch grudgingly.) Stubbornness can be seen from some perspectives simply as consistency. If one believes in one’s principles, why would one compromise on them?

Run, Achilles, run!

That word again, belief. We have moved, in the collapse of the old consensus, from a period of anonymous technocracy to one of passionate intensity. The truth about Brexit, however, is that at some point its purity as a concept must collide with reality. Likewise, erstwhile Remainers – whether appealing for a “People’s Vote” or an extension of Article 50 – at times seem to be raging against the dying of the light. MPs like Caroline Flint, who campaigned with vigour for Remain but now push for a deal at any costs with equal energy, are making a virtue of their flexibility – and in terms of practical politics there is much to commend their position. Where, after all, will faith in our democracy be if Remainers, like Tsipras, get their way?

The problem with meeting your enemy halfway, however, is that they may not move at all … and the mid-point between you and them will consequently move closer and closer to their position. This is how the UK has found itself so close to No Deal: that strategy of May’s, to retain the unity of the world’s oldest political party by assuaging the ERG, works only if Jacob Rees-Mogg is willing also to concede ground. If he is not, then May becomes Achilles to Xeno’s turtle, endlessly seeking to overtake her quarry but only ever getting closer to their position.

In other words, Rees-Mogg’s obstinacy delivers him political dividends. Stubbornness is not without its benefits. There is, however, an absence in the gaps between the political poles at which May, Corbyn and Rees-Mogg sit: a communal space in which the common good is held and can be reached. Obstinacy insists on immovability, and on the mountain moving towards Mohammed. But this assumes politics to be a zero-sum game, in which the purpose is to achieve one’s own ends at any cost; obstinacy is certainly one means of achieving this total victory, but it is in so doing fundamentally selfish. In the defence of our current actors, the two-party system, in both the UK and the US, encourages this kind of exclusivity, and casts the pursuit of compromise as a grubby exercise. The electorate in both countries routinely bemoans the lack of bipartisan action amongst their politicians; but they have also traditionally and simultaneously complained that there is little difference between the two.

They do so less now than formerly, of course – because, on both sides of the Atlantic, parties of whatever stripe are defaulting to obstinacy in order to stay close to, or mask the truth or the weaknesses of, their convictions. This is digging trenches rather than building bridges … and the no man’s land between the two sides is being shelled for all to see.

On Political Impasse

“Friendship hath the skill and observation of the best physician, the diligence and vigilance of the best nurse, and the tenderness and patience of the best mother.” Edward Hyde, MP for Saltash in the Long Parliament (elected 1640).

Edward Hyde in 1626.

In the summer of 1640, no fewer than two Parliaments received their summons from the Crown. The first was dissolved after three weeks; the members of the second were only formally relieved of their duties twenty years later, on the eve of the Restoration. Perhaps counter-intuitively, the very different fates of these two parliaments proceeded from the same fundamental problem: across the preceding half-century new pressures had emerged within the polity that the existing constitutional settlement could not contain.

The UK’s current situation resembles nothing so much as the mid-seventeenth century. On today’s Politics Live, the excellent Peter Hennessey described the European issue as “particularly fissile” – because it refracts so variously through different people’s sense of patriotism. We are not good at understanding others’ definitions of the patriotic. This, too, was the issue in the 1640s: for Charles, patriotism was owed primarily to the Crown, as the unanswerably supreme source of power and authority in the kingdom; for Parliamentarians like John Pym, patriotism was linked indivisibly with defence of the ancient constitution and the rights of the Commons; for others, such as the MP for Saltash, Edward Hyde – who began as a critic of the King but later, at the Restoration, was appointed by the monarch Earl of Clarendon – patriotism was about achieving consensus and compromise, and therefore protecting the commonwealth from conflict. The tragedy of the time was that the latter was impossible.

Last night, the Prisons Minister, Rory Stewart, tweeted on the subject of the decision by Her Majesty’s Opposition to seek the government’s collapse: “A no confidence vote solves nothing – we need consensus not party politics.” The issue, of course, is that the current government has proven incapable of achieving that consensus – and the Conservative Party from which it is constituted refuses to take the drastic action necessary to rectify this situation, for fear of its own fate. Many Tories calculate, of course, that a Corbyn government would be a disaster for the country – and so they rather bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of. Most do so in pursuit of what they have assessed to be the interests of the polity – their opponents likewise. The problem with patriotism is that it is one of the few things more mutable than the British constitution itself – and that makes it a very poor yardstick by which to measure the wisdom of policy. The Edward Hydes of 2019, then, find themselves in similarly hopeless isolation.

The Long Parliament ultimately entered into war with the Crown. We are at this stage – surely – far from civil war. We are, however, deep into the kind of political chaos which the England of the 1640s would have recognised. Partisans of every stripe publish pamphlets and proclamations; groups split and splinter with alarming alacrity; both utopian and millenarian visions of potential futures proliferate daily in the cheap press. The great student of these factions, the Marxist historian Christopher Hill, argued that, in the brief period of political freedom inaugurated by the vacuum that had suddenly appeared at the heart of the constitution, “the lower orders could [now] collect together and discuss whatever they liked, with no control from above at all.”

In 2016, David Cameron explained in a speech to Chatham House, that he would hold a referendum on EU membership in which “it will be your decision whether we remain in the EU […] Nobody else’s. Not politicians’, not parliament’s, not lobby group’s, not mine.” In doing so, he made a mistake even Charles I, famously ill-suited to power, did not: under his stewardship, the British Isles fell into political chaos as a matter of design rather than accident.

Not Charles I.

Charles at least tried to force the constitutional settlement with which he was saddled to cohere; Cameron happily promised a type of referendum that actively ate away at his own. An In/Out referendum was always an absurdly stark choice, and the last two years have demonstrated just how foolish it was to commit simply to leaving the EU upon command. Given the complexities of the legal and political frameworks involved, “Leave” was always a contingent instruction, a direction but not a route. John Pym could not unravel royal prerogative without recourse to war; Theresa May has been unable to exit the EU without plunging the country she nominally seeks to emancipate into its deepest constitutional crisis in centuries.

There is, of course, a conspiracy theory: that our political class, like Charles’s ill-fated advisors, Strafford and Laud, wishes only to have its way – and will seek to ride roughshod over any who attempt to stymie its will. In this vision, the Government could leave the EU tomorrow if it wished, and the Commons should vote against its instincts in an effort to honour the result of Cameron’s half-baked referendum. This paranoia is nothing new, and represents the long-standing wedge between the governed and the governors which acts for us in a similar way to that in which the increasing insufficiency of Tudor methods of revenue generation to meet the demands of Stuart expenditure and statecraft acted for our early modern ancestors.

In her Why We Get The Wrong Politicians (2018), Isabel Hardman attempts to identify the ways in which we might heal “this endless hostility to MPs” (p. 171). Her prescription is based on the analysis that we don’t so much get the wrong politicians as we have inherited and maintained the wrong political culture: “far more insidious [than conspiracy] is the way [that even] politicians try to seem different to their colleagues by disparaging politics itself” (p. 211). The former soldier and backbench Tory MP Johnny Mercer is a good example of this breed, and they do not help. What, ultimately, is the solution to apparently insoluble questions? How do we as a nation change a general direction into a specific route? Politics. There is no other mechanism of conversing as a community.

“We are divided because we are stuck as much as we are stuck because we are divided,” writes David Runciman in the most recent issue of the London Review of Books. This gets pithily to the heart of things, and Runciman like Hardman sees political (note: not necessarily constitutional) reform as the only long-term means out of our current bind. There are currently no good outcomes open to us: a disorderly, or No Deal, Brexit would be disastrously chaotic; overturning the 2016 referendum and remaining in the EU seems, well, cavalier in its subordination of the popular will to Parliament; a second referendum would be improbably fractious; a general election would simply roll the dice on the current parliamentary maths, and if polls are anything to go by would deliver nothing like a commanding enough majority for any party to push through a deal with any more success than May’s minority government has enjoyed. We have reached this impasse for reasons much wider than Brexit – the inadequacy of our political parties as currently constituted, the weakness of our legislature in comparison to the executive, the absence of reliable and consistent subsidiarity. Brexit will solve none of them; it is merely their ultimate expression.

Reform, too, would have been the better route in 1640. It proved impossible to take. We must hope than in 2019 we are more successful in finding a way to become unstuck. That effort must start in Parliament, with honest leadership that lays out to both sides in the country the uncomfortable truths about our system, and about Brexit, that the last two years have cast into the highest possible relief. There is as yet little sign that we will get that – but good politics is ultimately the art of dialogue. Edward Hyde knew what happened when leaders ceased to speak.

Albums of 2018

2018 was an unusually good year for new music. Janelle Monae, Courtney Barnett, Christine & The Queens; Kacey Musgraves, Julia Holter and Father John Misty: all released albums that were at the very least among the best of their careers. I also enjoyed new records from First Aid Kit and The Decemberists, Jackie Oates and my pal Amit Dattani. I didn’t even get around to listening to the latest from Cat Power, Arctic Monkeys or Darlingside – and in other years I can’t imagine I’d have said that.

So we were spoiled. I’ve stuck here, then, to albums I got to know particularly well – repeat listens always being a good sign for an album, but also offering the best position from which to rate a particular record’s quality. As usual, I’ve also tried to reward freshness or – dread word, this – originality, at the same time as being, as usual, hung up on melody and lyric as much as sonic palette or structural daring. With these caveats, and a re-emphasis of just how much good stuff was released this year, let’s have at the list.

U.S. Girls – In a Poem Unlimited

Meghan Remy is herself a U.S. girl, though she has lived in Toronto now for years, making idiosyncratic indie music under this joshing moniker for more than a decade. In a Poem Unlimited seemed to explode in a way none of her previous records have, and I think with good reason: it is much more than a solo offering, and a good deal angrier and grittier than what has come before. Recorded with more than a dozen musicians, the album feels like a collective effort, a sort of emotional mosaic expertly, and surely for the most part inadvertently, timed for maximum impact and relevance. “Why Do I Lose My Voice When I Have Something to Say?” asks one of the album’s songs; and the joy of In a Poem Unlimited is that, out of the darkness of its context and across eleven tracks surprisingly that are danceable for compositions also so thoughtful and vital, Remy and her collaborators find a voice so urgent and compelling.

Natalie Prass – The Future and the Past

Prass is the only artist on this list who has featured before on one of my end-of-year lists. In all honesty, I didn’t expect this latest record to better that self-titled 2015 debut. In some ways, it doesn’t – there was something crystalline and searing about that first record that doesn’t translate here. That said, the seductive simplicity of Natalie Prass would have been entirely beside the point on The Future and the Past, a record that is a great deal more expressive and expansive than its predecessor – and which deliberately and satisfyingly explodes the chanteuse pose that had threatened to imprison an artist a great deal more interesting than her production has previously allowed. From its avante-garde funk-n-soul stylings to its pro-choice politics, like In a Poem Unlimited Prass’s second album is a defiant call to arms – but it isn’t quite angry about the issues against which it rails; the album isn’t sanguine, exactly, but it is joyous and empowered … and, in a year in which many of us did not feel that way, The Future and the Past was the best kind of tonic.

Kyle Craft – Full Circle Nightmare

Seeming at times like the second coming of Ryan Adams (I know – even I’m not sure we need that), Louisiana native Craft’s second record is improbably mature for an album composed almost entirely of break-up songs. The Dylan influences are apparent from the cover art onwards, but are worn lightly and never hugged too close; the Father John Misty-style kiss-offs, though, occasionally grate. But there is an energy, lyricism and melodic touch at work here that has kept me coming back all year. Full Circle Nightmare is in many ways the least essential record on this list, but it also has songs like “The Rager” or “Exile Rag”, which feel to me already like classics of their kind. What elevates these tunes is their healthy self-awareness: the album’s first and second tracks, for example, segue into each other perfectly, knowingly emphasising their similarities whilst also making perfectly apparent their separation. This is fair-dinkum songcraft, and shouldn’t be too easily dismissed. Stick this on your turntable, or wait a few albums until Craft has written his masterpiece and you’re way behind the curve.

I’m With Her – See You Around

I’d wager that I’ve listened to this record more than any other this year – something about the mix of Sarah Jarosz, Aoife O’Donovan and Sarah Watkins conjures something properly special in the songs here collected. The trio has been working together for some time – they chose their name long before Hilary Clinton chose her 2016 campaign slogan – but this is their first album. Letting the collaboration marinate has done wonders for the music: it is supple and tender whilst being pin-point sharp and precisely structured. The songs are glorious – “Ain’t That Fine” or “Ryland (Under the Apple Tree)” might be my songs of the year – but the arrangements are something else, never less than what each tune requires and never a scintilla more. The record easily tops anything either member has done alone – and that’s saying something, given the quality of their output (even Watkins’ previous stint with Nickel Creek has a pretender to its crown here). Wise and gentle, silly and smart, See You Around is that new-best-friend of a record you’ve been waiting for – and which doesn’t come around all that often.

Anna Calvi – Hunter

Calvi has always been extremely highly regarded among the indie cognoscenti, and her live performances in particular have long boasted the sort of power we last saw from PJ Harvey in her prime (or from Annie Clark last week). But for my money Hunter is her first album to really hit its stride from the first note – and never let up. Sonically, it is a really potent mix of styles – more than any other record on this list, or all year, its melange is total, no one element of its sound easily discernible from another, achieving a seamless hybridity where lesser albums boasted in their stretch for diversity “the funk track” or “the electronic track”. Lyrically, it’s as incisive as Calvi has yet managed. But the album’s masterstroke is its melodic sense: though the record is full of sleazy sneering and gasping eroticism, its confrontational musicality never gets in the way of Calvi’s voice delivering crystal-clear tunes with perfect phrasing and canny cadence. This makes Hunter the total package, and Calvi now rivalled only by Janelle Monae and St. Vincent in the current art-pop firmament.

“I had called upon my friend Sherlock Holmes”

In “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle”, which I read every Christmas Eve, Sherlock Holmes is at his most avuncular. He ribs Watson, teases Peterson and, famously, forgives the criminal. He’s far from the drug-addled obsessive of A Study in Scarlet, and devoid of the arrogant hauteur of “The Naval Treaty”.

This comes into particular relief in the audio play of the story which I listened to this morning: an adaptation from 1961, featuring Carleton Hobbs as Holmes and Norman Shelley as Watson. This series originally began as part of the BBC’s children’s programming, and you can tell: although the tone is a drily sardonic one that it is hard to imagine a children’s play adopting today, Hobbs’s Holmes is about as threatening as an old slipper (and not the kind in which one stores tobacco).

If Hobbs’s Holmes lacks even the sense of danger given the role by the patrician Basil Rathbone, in “The Blue Carbuncle” at least you can forgive him. The story features to my knowledge the only image in the canon of Holmes supping an ale in a back-street boozer; the story sees the Master at his homeliest.

The trappings of Victorian Yuletide are present in all this, obviously: peace on earth, good will to all men, and all that. As the gender exclusion of that phrase implies, however, Holmes’s festive spirit isn’t total in its embrace. There is the distinct whiff of snobbery in his approach to Henry Baker, the down-at-heel museum worker whose lost Christmas goose sets the story in motion, and, when the great detective requires advertisements to be placed in the newspaper, he demands, of course, that Peterson, a man who wears a uniform rather than a dressing gown to work, should be the one to wear out the necessary shoe leather.

There are the survivals of all this in Hobbs’s clipped tones and air of assumed authority. But, whether tucking into a woodcock or wishing a barkeep good health, there is primarily, in “The Blue Carbuncle” in general and in Hobbs’s version in particular, a domestic humility one otherwise rarely sees in Sherlock Holmes. You even get a sense of why Watson might have put up with him all those years – he could, when in a good mood, be fine company indeed.

May those with whom you spend the festivities be similarly well-disposed to you, and as suitably warm-hearted. Merry Christmas.