In a year when there was a lot to keep track of – and in which I began working on another album of my own – music was most often a source of comfort as much as new experiences. This meant a lot of play for old favourites – Fleet Foxes, Fiona Apple, Iron & Wine – and getting more closely acquainted with hold-overs from 2020 – Charley Crockett, Kris Drever, beabadoobee.
This did something of a disservice to poor old 2021, however, since musically it was a pretty progressive year, even if much else about it felt weirdly cyclical. St Vincent released Daddy’s Home, her best album since her last one (everything Annie puts out belongs on that year’s top-five, but let’s accept this and pretend she waived her nomination); Villagers returned with a really interesting record which made demands on the listener while also being an obvious extension of Conor O’Brien’s well-established mien; and Teleman released an EP so full of life it may as well have been an album (but wasn’t). More locally, new releases from Sam Draisey, Howard Sinclair and John Napier were welcome filips of grassroots creativity.
But my traditional quintet of “best” albums this year reflect a combination of my gratitude for new music and my need for comfort. All of these records fulfil the usual criteria I set for these lists – that they do something different, whether for genre or artist or something else. But they’re all also pretty convivial, all told – they focus on songwriting and for the most part approach that practice fairly straightforwardly. This wasn’t conscious on my part, but that’s how the five records below looked to me once assembled. Your mileage may vary – you should listen to all of them and make your own mind up, of course.
The Staves – Good Woman
Now this is a smart record. It is both instantly welcoming and subtly sly in its innovation, quietly twisty in a way that doesn’t announce itself. The Staves might have previously answered to the description twee, even smug – the accusation would have been unfair, but their debut album in particular and even their work with Justin Vernon mixed pastoral and indie in a way that listeners in bad faith might easily have lampooned. Good Woman, though, is a properly mature work which incorporates its influences, and the sisters’ skills, in ways both seamless and productive. This is a record to put on and live with, a warm fire on an autumn’s evening.
Sierra Ferrell – Long Time Coming
If Good Woman is quiet but clever, Long Time Coming is loud but charming. Its honky-tonk instrumentation is never less than tasteful, but the country twang here isn’t exactly sanded off – if anything, the edges are given ample room to catch you. Some of Ferrell’s long-term fans have disliked this album for filling in the spaces of these songs, which Ferrell usually performs solo or with one or two other musicians. But I think the approach really works to emphasise both the attitude of Ferrell’s songwriting and the clarity and quality of her voice. These are country standards in waiting, and yet they are also sufficiently contemporary in their approach that they do not read as pastiche or museum-piece. Difficult balancing act, that; quality record, this.
Nubiyan Twist – Freedom Fables
If there’s a wild card on this list, Freedom Fables is it: Afro-Jazz heavy on improvisation, it doesn’t quite hit the songwriting bill that most of these other records slot into easily. But musically this LP really struck me: not only is it properly joyous, it also avoids the pitfalls of its concept with a fixed focus on musical structure, an unceasing commitment to keeping the core of a song clear throughout (compare this with an act like Sons of Kemet, who take their songs far more brutally through a wringer of abstract deconstruction). Given the range of influences here – from dub to Ghanain pop – this sense of focus is a really impressive achievement, especially when aligned to the album’s trademark sense of fun.
Orla Gartland – Woman On The Internet
This album might include my favourite examples of pure songwriting all year: both “You’re Not Special, Babe” and “Codependency” are as arch and knowing as the album’s title (Gartland was discovered via her YouTube covers videos) – but they also share its sense of fun, and its absence of self-importance. Given these are also vital songs with a sense of urgency, this speaks to Gartland’s rare skill in turning a phrase both witty and musical. And the melodies and arrangements here are a real thing: very often on records this smart, a production choice is made to focus on the words, and if the singer is always the centre here she is never the only focus – or rather, her focus is on songs understood holistically, as little hybrids of lyric and tune. This album more than any other on the list made me excited about songwriting again. Don’t take this sort of gift for granted.
Self Esteem – Prioritise Pleasure
She’s not “Rebecca from Slow Club” anymore. Don’t get me wrong: I’m a particular fan of that duo’s 2011 LP Paradise, but Self Esteem – and this record in particular – is another thing entirely, and yet despite its impressive experimentation and provocation it has caught the zeitgeist and appeared on any number of 2021 “best of” lists. From the title track to “I’m Fine”, “I Do This All The Time” to “How Can I Help You”, this is songwriting without fear (or indeed favour), with bags of humour but also entirely earned seriousness of purpose. It isn’t afraid of making the listener uncomfortable, yet also wants them to dance; it faces down any number of cultural and musical shibboleths and yet somehow crafts instantly accessible tunes. It’s blummin’ alchemy, this record, and it is something else. 2021 was a year indeed.
In a quick exchange of tweets the other day, I reflected with some fellow amateur Sherlockians on the close of “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle”, that Holmesian adventure I read every Christmas Eve.
It struck us that the story ends in a far more perfunctory manner than do many of its adaptations, most obviously the Granada version with the peerless Jeremy Brett. In that iteration of the story, Holmes is persuaded – after some brief cajoling by Watson – to go out of his way to ensure the release of John Horner, the man wrongly accused of the crime that the great detective has just solved. The scene is touching in its seasonality: as the snow floats downwards, an innocent man emerges from a forbidding Victorian jail to embrace his wife and young children. In this telling, Holmes’s yuletide triumph is to save this family from disgrace and penury. Merry Christmas to all!
In the original story, however, this isn’t quite what happens. In fact, Holmes is fairly perfunctory about the fate of the wrongly accused, relying on the true thief’s promise not to testify: “If Horner were in danger it would be another thing, but this fellow will not appear against him, and the case must collapse.” Anyway, moving on: it’s wildfowl for supper. Holmes’s Christmas gift here is really to himself – the satisfaction of a case well solved – and to the perpetrator of the crime, who is allowed to leave 221B a free man, on the proviso that he flees the country. Horner is left rather on the hook, in what modern readers can find an unsatisfactory resolution – particularly at Christmas.
In a recent episode of the excellent However Improbable podcast, Marisa and Sarah also pause over this moment, and have some fun expanding on Holmes’s curious politics: he is simultaneously anti-establishment, berating the deficiencies of the police, but also fundamentally conservative, never acting in anything like an activist or revolutionary capacity. The crime is solved, and the miscarriage of justice is a sort of second-order event. In this, Holmes is a common type of the English gentry – the genteel bohemian, at odds with society but also comfortably above it.
It occurred to me that in this the story is at odds with another Victorian Christmas staple, Dickens’ AChristmas Carol. This story is famously engaged with social issues, taking its own protagonist on a journey from active malevolence (as opposed to Holmes’ detached ambivalence) towards enlightened fellow-feeling with those less fortunate. Next to Ebeneezer Scrooge, Sherlock Holmes is in danger of seeming stubbornly complacent, a full forty years on from the Ghost of Christmas Future’s dire warnings.
The animating ethics of A Christmas Carol are of course Christian. Conan Doyle, however, was, while writing “Blue Carbuncle”, a lapsed Catholic, an agnostic in search of a new faith. He had explored Mormonism (and fed much of what he’d learned into A Study in Scarlet), but abandoned it primarily because of his views on polygamy – and, importantly, also because he professed to have originally abandoned Catholicism to escape a priestly elite that in Mormonism he found in altered form retained. He was en route, of course, to his embrace of Spiritualism, but had yet to reach full conversion. In “Blue Carbuncle”, we find Holmes figured not as an intercessor between Horner and justice, powered by an almost evangelical zeal to do good; but as a man full of doubt in the judicial system – and yet unable to offer a wholly imagined alternative. This is an unresolved tension, but then perhaps this is a characteristic of the agnostic.
On one topic, however, let there be little doubt: this blog wishes everyone the very best of the holiday season. May we all feel the joy of a John Horner redeemed.
There was a moment late in Anuk Arudpragasam’s A Passage North when I experienced if not a revelation then certainly a realisation. It came as the novel’s protagonist, Krishnan – a young and bookish Tamil academic who knows Sri Lanka has been through trauma but who has been displaced from it both while studying in India and as a function of his wealth and status – is part of a rural funeral procession. As the mourners carry the bier holding the body towards the place where it will be burned, Krishnan looks out across the beautiful landscape of the deceased’s native Northern Province, and is in particular drawn by a beautiful body of water he feels he has seen before. I quote at length because, in this novel, style matters:
It was hard to say whether the lake had formed naturally or whether it was one of the man-made tanks constructed centuries ago by old kings and chieftains, tanks that had been around so long that they were now an intrinsic part of the ecology, but studying it as he continued walking, the water calm and waveless, lapping softly and peacefully upon its banks, the feeling grew in Krishnan that he’d been to this place before, that he’d walked across this same path and sat there by the banks of this same lake. There couldn’t have been many bodies of water this size in the northeast, he knew, and taking out his phone he tried to see if he could find the place on Google Maps, which was unhelpful since there was, he saw, no signal on his phone. He wondered whether it was possible he’d passed it on one of the visits he’d made to the district back when he was based in Jaffna, but he knew for certain that he’d never been to Rani’s village before, and couldn’t remember having spent much time in the general vicinity before either. He could ask one of the men in the procession for the name of the lake, but none of them seemed to be paying it any attention and it would have been out of place to ask in any case, he felt, especially when everyone seemed so lost in their own thoughts. (p. 237)
Out of context, no doubt, this passage lacks the flash of light I experienced when first reading it. But it comes at the end of a novel which emphasises the dilatory, and after a series of persistent – and lengthy – sidebars in which Krishnan occupied himself with a range of reveries which rarely, if ever, felt apropos of much at all. This passage is the first time that he acknowledges – as if he is himself experiencing a revelation about subjectivity – that his own preoccupations may not be central, that in fact everyone experiences the same uncontrolled streams of consciousness, the same uncertain and often inapposite enthusiasms, very similar senses of their own disjunctions. In the novel’s final pages, Krishnan reflects that “people also carried deeper, more clandestine trajectories inside their bodies … trajectories which were sometimes strong enough to push people in certain directions despite everything that took place on the surface of their lives” (p. 283). A Passage North’s exercise in disconnect, then, may well be its point.
A Passage North has an extremely simple plot. A woman who has until recently been the carer of Krishnan’s sick grandmother – herself having in her dotage retired to the countryside of her childhood – dies after falling into a well. Krishnan travels from Colombo to the Northern Province to represent the family. That’s it. That’s the book. The key element of the novel that is missing from this summary is Krishnan’s relationship with Anjum, a Sri Lankan activist whom he met during his student days in Delhi; he still mourns their break-up, and he is reading a new email from her when the news of Rani’s death reaches him. “He felt not so much sadness as a kind of embarrassment for the way the news had caught him, in the midst of his self-involved thoughts about Anjum’s email” (p. 14), and this tension between what Krishnan feels deserves his attention and what in fact is absorbing it persists throughout the novel.
Krishnan and Anjum’s romance was intense but brief, meeting in the faintly radical confines of student social spaces but drifting apart as Anjum’s activism proved to be rather more consistent than those of her peers – Krishnan’s included. Nevertheless, Krishnan pours over their short relationship, “the sterm beauty of her face and her distinctly southern darkness” (p. 105), seeking meaning and significance where perhaps there is none:
Falling in love, or what deserved to be called falling in love, he had realized that night, was not so much an emotional or psychological condition as an epistemological condition, a condition in which two people held hands and watched in silent amazement as the world around them was slowly unveiled … (p. 157)
There is a lot of this stuff, and it ultimately goes nowhere: “she was resistant to becoming too close to him” (p. 138). The ever-decreasing circles become tiresome because, short of that email at the opening of the novel, Anjum’s voice is entirely missing – she is an object only, a focus of attention rather than an attending entity herself. This might again be fitting – given that Krishnan’s student relationship proves really to be a proxy for his sense that he has not been sufficiently connected to or active in Sri Lanka’s civil war and its aftermaths, his knowledge that “some forms of violence could penetrate so deeply into the psyche that there was simply no question of fully recovering” and yet his absence of any such experiences of his own – but it remains undeniably recursive.
Still, Krishnan does little except reflect in this novel, which after all primarily takes place over the period of time he spends travelling – slowly, by train, with only himself for company – from Colombo to the Northern Province. Arudpragasam is often praised as a prose stylist (Peter Gordon in the Asian Review of Books: “what might feel affected or even tedious in the hands of a lesser writer becomes atmospheric in Arudpragasam’s extraordinary prose”); but for me his writing – in the curiously diffuse precision that is so often lauded by critics – fails really to grasp how humans truly think. Routinely throughout the book, Krishnan remembers texts or films or speeches that he first read or saw or heard years ago; he remembers them in perfect detail, his précis of one poem or another often lasting for many pages, his plot summaries of this or that epic or documentary offering granular detail which matches not the true nature of human recollection but Arudpragasam’s literary purpose at that juncture in the text. In particular Krishnan’s recollections of Sri Lankan literature certainly place A Passage North in important dialogue and relation with the culture its characters inhabit; but they only work to enhance, rather than illuminate, the feeling the novel creates – and which was for me only broken at the climactic funeral – that much of its contents is orthogonal to its matter.
If the violence of a civil war that has largely passed him by is what most animates Krishnan beneath the surface of his concerns that Rami’s death was a suicide and not an accident, or only one layer deeper his obsession with Anjum, then the implications for human beings of the sort of trauma it represents is the end-point of the novel’s philosophical journey.”Krishnan’s notion of the elderly had always been of people who accepted [their] condition” (p. 53), but in the figure of Rani – who fled the Northern Province to serve as a carer precisely to escape the war, and whose sons were killed in it – the true consequences of conflict are made flesh for him. Despite this, he still struggles to connect: Rani’s habit of chewing betel had been a response no doubt to everything she’d seen and lost during the war, but […] Rani was so different from them […] Krishnan found it hard to believe […] that their lives intersected in any substantial way at all (p. 72). Similarly, years earlier it took Anjum to show Krishnan how “years of being subject to these [male] gazes [had taught] women who lived in the capital […] to curb the movement of their own eyes” (p. 119) – that is, Krishnan finds it hard to see how people are shaped by experiences he does not himself share. But his solipsism – the novel’s bug – is a feature of the continuation of those experiences for others.
A Passage North is in this way an argument for presence in the world. It begins by propounding that “the present […] eludes us more and more as the years go by” (p. 5), but ends with Krishnan newly alive to focusing not on the lake on the horizon but the people around him. None of this is simple – “moments of violence [are] for some people were just as much a part of life as the moments of beauty [… and both limit] how far we [are] subsequently able to see” (p. 261) – but there remains in the novel a clear sense that some have more privilege than others – “those for whom coming and going wasn’t simply a matter of choice” (p. 191) – and that it is for those people to offer service to those with less. “The purpose of all the government’s demolition and renovation in the northeast had, of course, been to erase any memory that might spur the Tamil population back toward militarism” (p. 226); bearing witness has value and force.
Ultimately, however, I think the novel makes heavy weather of all this. Even reviews which are broadly positive about this “intensely introspective” novel – such as Tara K. Menon’s in the New York Times– note that “sometimes sentences strain under this heavy burden”. Arudpragasam is routinely compared to WG Sebald (here’s Nilanjana Roy doing this in the FT), but Sebald – while superficially adopting the same air of immersive reverie as is attempted here – is far less programmatic, his prose much less leading, his allusions always lighter. Much of this is because, I think, Sebald’s preference – albeit in Anthea Bell’s crystalline translation – for shorter words and tighter sub-clauses works against their container – those dilatory, drifting recollections. A body of water features, too, in Austerlitz:
And then, Austerlitz continued, somewhere beyond Frankfurt, when I entered the Rhine valley for the second time in my life, the sight of the Mäuseturm in the part of the river known as the Binger Loch revealed, with absolute certainty, why the tower in Lake Vyrnwy had always seemed to me so uncanny. I could not take my eyes off the great river Rhine flowing sluggishly along in the dusk, the apparently motionless barges lying low in the water, which almost lapped over their decks, the trees and bushes on the other bank, the fine cross-hatching of the vineyards, the stronger transverse lines of the walls supporting the terraces, the slate-grey rocks and ravines leading off sideways into what seemed to me a pre-historic and unexplored realm. While I was still under the spell of this landscape, to me a truly mythological one, said Austerlitz, the setting sun broke through the clouds, filled the entire valley with its radiance, and illuminated the heights on the other side where three gigantic chimneys towered into the sky at the place we were just passing, making the steep slopes on the eastern mountains look like hollow shells, mere camouflage for an underground industrial site covering many square miles. (Austerlitz, pp. 317-8)
The precision, the humour, the diction, the frame: I’d suggest that in every aspect Arudpragasam’s purported cover version of Sebald’s style is much the inferior. Indeed, I’m not at all sure the comparison does either writer any favour, and that Arudpragasam should be afford the courtesy of standing alone as a writer of much promise but as yet an under-developed sensibility. In this, I’d echo Marcel Theroux in the Guardian: “the detail and particularity of memorable fiction requires a form of wondering that is both deeper and less abstract than this.” I can see why the Booker jury felt that A Passage North, in its ambition, theme, subject and promise, deserved a place on the shortlist; I am much less sure that it should detain them for long when they meet to arrive at their winner.
I was a great admirer of Damon Galgut’s 2010 novel, In A Strange Room. At the time, some questioned whether the book – a sequence of three linked novellas (short stories, really – the novel as a whole was rather short, much less its constituent elements) – could properly be called a “novel”. This hoary old debate need not detain us – the pieces fitted together thematically, and shared a main character. The book was a novel, and a good one.
It did not, however, win the Booker Prize, for which it was shortlisted that year; perhaps the judges disagreed that the question of what a novel can be so easily resolved (though since the Booker rules avoid the word “novel” in favour of “long-form fiction”, perhaps they’ve found their own circumlocution). Certainly it was beaten out by a far more traditional novel, Howard Jacobson’s amusing – but ultimately surely minor – comedy, The Finkler Question. That Galgut now has his second chance, with his rather more novelly novel, The Promise, is reason for celebration.
The Promise, though, again splits itself across separated sections. Each about eighty pages long, the novel’s four parts focus in turn on a different protagonist, although in each case the through-narrative is far clearer and the support cast entirely shared. This, after all, is a family saga, although as is Galgut’s wont it is a pared-down saga, a pithy kind of epic tragedy. It is set across three or four decades of South Africa’s recent history, from the final years of apartheid through to the presidency of Jacob Zuma. Its focus, however, remains tightly on the Swart family, a white family with a grand house and a large-ish estate in the countryside outside Pretoria, “a big mish-mash of a place, twenty-four doors on the outside that have to be locked at night, one style stuck on another“ (p. 12). History passes around and through this house; its inhabitants don’t live the great events – “trouble in all the townships, it’s being muttered about everywhere” (p. 9) – but are carried along, almost unknowingly, in their wake.
The Swarts’ bigotry is of the banal kind. The eldest child of Manie and Rachel Swart, Anton, is in a last-flush-of-adolescence relationship with the daughter of an NNP government minister whom we later learn confessed to some awful deeds as part of Truth and Reconciliation; but the Swarts don’t involve themselves any more than that with matters of state. They simply squat on their land, heedless of their own absurdity, and of the frustrated humanity of the Black people who serve them – most especially Salome, who lives with her son Lukas in another house on the Swart lands.
The titular promise of Galgut’s novel is an agreement between Rachel and Manie, overheard by their third and youngest child, Amor, that Salome will be given ownership of her house upon Rachel’s death. It is in the aftermath of this event that the novel’s first part takes place: Amor is collected from her boarding school by Manie’s domineering sister, Tannie Marina, and returned to the Swart family home for a period of mourning and fractious family politics.
Religion is a recurring theme of the novel, and the first part’s principal drama is driven by Rachel’s return to her family faith, Judaism. Years ago, in order to marry Manie, she converted to his strict Dutch Reformed Protestantism, but, as the reality of her long illness became impossible to deny, she began to insist on a Jewish funeral. When Rachel’s family arrive at the house to ensure her wishes are met, they are not greeted amicably. This despite the fact that Manie’s faith is far from strong: he is a gambler and a philanderer, and long ago Rachel “judged him and found him greatly wanting” (p. 29), in one of the unsatisfying moments of absolution that litter the text. One person’s wishes, another’s desires: this tension, too, permeates the novel, and, when Amor tells Lukas that Salome’s house is now theirs (“It’s always been his house … what is the white girl talking about?” [p. 21]), the family’s competing wills are brought into even greater tension than they are over Rachel’s funeral service.
Anton takes up Amor’s insistence that Manie keep his promise while the middle child, Astrid, desperately – and with some vanity – seeks to make the peace. But Anton’s attempts are driven not by Amor’s sense of charity but by his pronounced vengeful streak. He has returned to the family home from a compulsory tour of duty with the South African army – he has recently shot a woman dead in a township, and is racked by a self-regarding guilt – and finds himself resentful of all the trappings of Afrikaner respectability. “This country! he exclaims. He’s not sure why the country is to blame, but he repeats it. This country!” (p. 66) Anton’s diffuse anger, his lack of willingness to name the problem, persists throughout the novel.
In this way, The Promise isn’t a broad satire of apartheid, or even an angry denunciation of white privilege. It is a novel of character, living with these white characters. It puts us inside their milieu rather than within the wider context of the well-known heroic story – “When Mandela appears in the green Springbok rugby jersey to give the cup to Francois Pienaar, well, that’s something” (p. 151) – and certainly not in the day-to-day experience of Black South Africans, who are as mysterious to the narrative as they are to the Swarts. In the novel’s second part, Manie follows Rachel to the grave (though as we learn in The Promise, “the dead are frequently unable to accept their condition,” and haunt us in myriad ways [p. 43]); the family reunite again, Anton from a long period in self-exile (“the surface closes over as if you were never gone” [p. 98]), Amor from a period of post-school travelling. Only Astrid has stayed put, wracked by an eating disorder but marrying and in some ways modelling the role expected of her: wife, mother, homemaker.
Apartheid, too, has gone, though its primary impact is that Manie lies next to a Black man in hospital: “we die right next to each other now, in intimate proximity” (p. 99). This equivocation over the story of South Africa, the value of its progress, is another of the novel’s unifying characteristics: The Promise isn’t the story of a victory, but of a series of contingencies. Amor knows that “one day she will have to answer” (p. 113) – for Manie’s promise, but perhaps also for everything else – while Anton is equally aware that “Holding on, holding out, [is] an old South African solution” (p. 95). Little is resolved, except for the fate of some land at the extremity of the Swart estate: Manie has been persuaded to leave it to the Dutch Reformed Church that Anton so despises, and the minister of the congregation, Alwyn Simmers, is the most viciously filleted of all Galgut’s characters: “he’s a pastor these days, peddling a softer line in salvation to his customers, ahem, that is to say, his flock, so that everyone benefits” (p. 120). He is a knowing hypocrite; the Swarts are simply oblivious.
Both obliviousness and salvation come to be key focuses of the novel in its third part, in which Astrid – now in a second marriage while having an affair with an ANC politician (she “always used to find blacks unattractive, but she’s noticed lately that they’ve started to carry themselves more confidently” [p. 169]) – attends a Catholic confessional and her priest refuses her immediate absolution (again, holding on and holding out). The reader is by now conditioned to expect the title of each section to feature the name of the person whose death will be its focus, and so Astrid’s passing is not a surprise – but its violence is shocking, and its suddenness seriously disconcerting. The family again regroup, with the omniscient narrator once more skipping preternaturally fluid between them. The novel’s voice is a rare feat of prose. Sometimes, in moments of telling and equally supple slippage, it adopts first-person pronouns briefly to ground the narrative in a sense of self; at others, it explains away supposed structural defects or lapses of attentions – “the conversation takes place in the garden behind the church … [no,] more likely it happens inside” [p. 186] – in ways that both add a pleasing wryness and emphasises the novel’s conditionality. It is capable, then, of reintroducing us to characters and developing them at the same time. Anton is now the family patriarch, Amor a nurse on an HIV ward – and now they discuss once more Manie’s promise. Its keeping is again deferred, the Swarts’ knee-jerk insistence on their land much like Astrid’s need for absolution: “like a furnace that consumes whatever you throw into it and requires more” (p. 171).
Anton has become man who “appreciates it when people do their suffering offstage, out of sight” (p. 191), and this leaves he and Amor “on opposite sides”– but of what he can’t quite say: “what that division is, and where it lies … [there is] no answer to that” (p. 206). In the Catholic priest’s sermon, however, is the clue: “we are in exile, among the seed of Cain,” he tells the congregation, while reflecting privately that “he can’t entirely quell the unpleasant thought, which has stayed with him, of what he failed to do. Much easier to blame Cain!” (p. 216) All of this refusal to grasp the nettle – that he “can see the right action and will not perform it” (p. 242) – tortures Anton as it tortures South Africa, and the novel’s fourth and final part is named after him. We know, then, what his fate will be – but it is Amor’s which is most interesting. The novel has posited her as a sort of martyr, working off her sin by ministering AIDS patients; but when she finally goes to Salome’s tiny, almost ruined, house and gives to her and Lukas the deeds, she is treated only to anger. “My mother was supposed to get this house a long time back,” the now middle-aged Lukas sneers. “Thirty years ago! Instead she got lies and promises. And you did nothing” (p. 285). Amor, the ANC politician having an affair with Astrid, the churches: none have done anything. Even the token reparation which has been established in the characters’ minds throughout the novel as the crucial act of atonement cannot make up for this. “Three fucked up rooms with a broken roof. And we must be grateful?”
Anton’s wife Desirée – his teenage lover and the daughter of the “morally repugnant” NPP minister – has a close friend (Anton thinks a lover) named Moti. He is a new-agey sort of yoga instructor, a motivational speaker with a line in vapid self-fulfilment. When, attacked by a drunk and angry husband, he intones righteously, “Aggression ultimately hurts the aggressor,” the reader might agree that this is on a certain true – but that it is also partial. Anton – a morally bankrupt character, but also an unerringly insightful one, tortured by his ability to understand but his refusal to know – snaps back, “I don’t know, I find the object of aggression suffers more” (p. 243). Everyone in The Promise suffers, but Lukas and Salome most of all – and only in its last pages do they even think to take the chance to express that. In this way, The Promise – a remarkably subtle, coherent, composed and balanced a novel – is not about the Swarts at all, but about the consequences of their solipsism. “Oh, I can deal with the tragedy,” Anton groans at one point (p. 245), “it’s the farce I can’t handle.”
I have tended, in the past, to review literary awards shortlists before their winner is announced. In this, as in so many other things, I suppose I am disappointingly conventional: joining in the game of guessing the victorious volume is part of the generally accepted point of shortlists, which encourage us after all to buy six novels where we might otherwise only buy one. This is the way it’s done: read the shortlist, pick a winner, explain your reasoning. Then rage at the jury who choose otherwise (and therefore unwisely).
Fortunately I – and you – have been spared that spectacle this year, at least when it comes to the Women’s Prize for Fiction. Mostly because I simply didn’t manage to read the whole shortlist before the announcement of the winner on September 8th (about which more anon), I’m left offering this somewhat redundant post-match analysis. Except – and here you’ll forgive me for rationalising my own failures – reading the shortlist from this perspective is probably more instructive than doing so in the usual way: it guides the reader towards not bemoaning the jury’s selection but seeking to understand it.
In fairness, the Women’s Prize jury for 2021 picked what for me was the right book – in other words, we agree, and so I don’t need to work their decision backwards in order to parse it. I read Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi some months ago, and Facebooked briefly about it at the time. As I began to read the shortlist – starting with Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom and continuing on to Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This – I began to suspect that my love for this novel was not about to be supplanted by any other volume on the shortlist. It turned out I was right: I completed my reading of the shortlist well after the announcement (I came to Claire Fuller’s Unsettled Ground last of all), and none of the five other books struck me as better.
What is odd about this in the context of the Women’s Prize, however, is that Piranesi is very much the shortlist’s odd-one-out. Each of its other five books are quotidian and granular: they focus on the everyday lives of a relatively narrow set of characters, lingering over the details of how they live them. In Cherie Jones’s How The One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House, for example, we are treated to pungent descriptions of its Barbadian milieu: “The beach stinks of stewing moss, sargassum seaweed and the putrefying guts of beached fishes, rotting in the warming air” (p. 139). In Unsettled Ground, Fuller’s no less degraded English countryside is similar picked over, in a sort of sub-folk horror mode that reminds one of Fiona Mozley’s Elmet: “The sun turns the tomatoes a deep red, searching the skins until they split, while its heat dries out the cottage thatch and drives the mice and insects further in” (p. 263).
This recurrently lyrical focus on the rather ugly features of their characters’ daily routines lends the five losing books on the shortlist the air of a shared approach, a similar mode. This will be a familiar style to many, since creative writing classes often emphasise the important of an accumulation of detail in achieving a sense of versimilitude. According to this orthodoxy, lists lend authenticity. Here’s a passage from The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett (MFA, University of Michigan), the story of two twins and their daughters who must negotiate the racial politics of the second half of the USA’s twentieth century:
The winter she saw Jude Winston again, Kennedy starred in an off-off-Broadway musical called Silent River. She played Cora, the sheriff’s rebellious daughter who longs to run away with a rugged farmhand. For months, she obsessed, more than normal, about getting sick. She drank so much hot tea with lemon that by February she could barely stand the smell of it and pinched her nose, gagging it down. She swallowed chalky zinc pills and triple-wrapped her neck in a scarf before stepping outside. She scrubbed her hands furiously after she climbed off the subway. She wasn’t build for a New York winter under any circumstances; landing her biggest role since she’d moved to the city certainly fit the bill of extraordinary. (p. 294)
None of this is important to the main plot, except the final – in context, rather pathetically phrased – note that the role is Kennedy’s biggest to date. The Vanishing Half piles incident and information up in this way to create a sense of reality which ultimately it doesn’t quite know what to do with. At times – for example, its scenes set in an arid sixties suburbia familiar to readers from the first seasons of Mad Men – the details work to create atmosphere. In others – and 1980s New York is one of them – they simply … exist. Increasingly, The Vanishing Half lacks follow-through. It proves to be all set-up, all scenery.
This is a fault not limited to Bennett. I mentioned that my progress through the shortlist was slow, and unfortunately the book I stumbled most on was the fifth I read, Jones’s. Like Bennett’s, How The One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House seeks to be a multi-generational family epic; but these are hard to do well, and sweep can sometimes come at the expense of nuance. Lists are no replacement for avoiding cliche. Where Bennett ticks all the boxes of a received vision of post-war America, Jones at least gives us a vision of Barbados which deliberately sets itself against the common-in-the-West positioning of it as a joyful paradise. The novel derives its title from a tale told to its protagonist, Lala, bu her grandmother, Wilma, in which a curious girl loses her arm to a monster living in the hole into which she thrusts her limb; Jones tells us to watch where we put ourselves. But it doesn’t feel to me that she achieves this as well for Barbados as for example Tsitsi Dangarembga achieved it for Zimbabwe: How The One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House lacks the cross-currents of the latter’s This Mournable Body, and the reader misses that ambivalence. The novel closes with the contrast of a police car – a prison on wheels, a moving cell – and a aeroplane – movement, freedom, escape. For all the novel’s detail and sense of place, that still feels a contrast too pat to sustain itself.
Patness is a fault also found elsewhere in the shortlist’s quintet of runners-up. Patricia Lockwood is a poet and critic I’ve come to rely on, especially in her pieces for the LRB (her 2019 review of Updike was in particular resplendent). But in No One Is Talking About This, her debut novel – which pushes the list approach to a calculated breaking point, eschewing traditional narrative in favour of a constant barrage of bite-size vignettes and reflections – she ultimately falls into an unfair and unproductive bifurcation not dissimilar from Jones’s. M’learned friend Adam Roberts has sought ingeniously to spring Lockwood out of this trap she has set herself, arguing that her novel adopts a deliberate “two-ply” structure to introduce precisely the countervailing tendencies I argue above are missing in the Jones. I think this is an overly generous reading of a novel which, in its first part, skewers Twitter (what Lockwood calls the “portal”) for its emptiness and immaturity, following its protagonist in her successful but ultimately pointless manipulation of, and celebrity within, this atomising algorithms – and in the second hits the rather mawkish breaks when a very sick baby is born to her entirely innocent and rather decent sister. Her intent here is entirely obvious, and – alas and again – rather bathetic: “No vehicle ever invented for the transmission of information – not the portal, not broadcast radio, not the printed word itself – was as quick, complete, or crackling as the blue kiosk ball that the baby kept tucked against her chin as she slept, her small mouth open to say oh my answers” (p. 179).
That said, Lockwood writes beautifully. If her aphoristic style – all short, summative sentences, whip-smart references and hipster ennui – doesn’t quite nail the psychological experience of living in an information age with the same totality as something like Lucy Ellman’s Ducks, Newburyport, I’m not sure that is either quite its aim. Despite its ultimately unconvincing – because overly loaded – juxtapositions, I think No One Is Talking About This is the work of a great prose stylist who has yet to find the appropriate mode or subject. Indeed, I enjoyed Transcendent Kingdom far more in terms of its rather better balanced story – even if structurally and on the sentence level Yaa Gyasi cannot yet quite match Lockwood’s verve. The story of a Stanford biology grad student whose Ghanaian mother’s deteriorating health means she must learn once again to share her life, the novel reminds one a little of Brandon Taylor’s Real Life – another recent laboratory-bound story of coming to terms with one’s past, and with the structural racism of one’s host society. But it has more charm, and more hope, than Taylor’s novel (though perhaps neither of these things are warranted or desirable). In particular, though, I found its exploration of the place of Christianity in modern society fascinating: the novel ends with the protagonist gazing on Christ’s ecstatic face, and in examining the pressures she feels both to hide her faith and accept its failings, the novel offers a subtle treatment of a theme that is not often explored with this kind of sensitivity and insight.
Transcendent Kingdom boasts a genuinely unique flavour, then, that its competitors, for all their superficial differences, could occasionally lack – although its ending is rushed and its prose itself is usually more transparent than it is characterful. On balance, it belongs in the top tier of the shortlist alongside Piranesi and for me what is the shortlist’s sleeper hit – Fuller’s Unsettled Ground. It’s not that this novel is surprising or revelatory, transformational or even shocking (of its several plot twists, I was surprised by only one); it is simply that it is extremely well tooled. It’s a professional job, is Unsettled Ground. It is also quietly bold: in order for the novel to work, Fuller must ensure that its protagonists – two fifty-one year old twins who have lived their whole life in an isolated cottage with their apparently hermit-like mother – have our sympathies; but she insists upon their oddness, and in many ways the reader cannot engage with them. Julius and Jeanie are stiff and forbidding, frustrating and forlorn; their absence from society has rendered them unable to participate properly in it, but driven them towards often harshly partial judgements. In its quiet weirdness, it reminded me of Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under, tracking as it does the unsightly underbelly of the English pastoral. Had the shortlist been rounded out by a sixth quotidian novel seeking to immerse its reader in telling detail, Unsettled Ground may well have been my pick of the pack.
But instead – and I’m not sure why or how – the jury topped off its half-dozen contenders with Piranesi, a novel which so entirely eschews the quotidian as to punch right through to it. In other words, this depiction of a man who lives in a huge, ruined and possibly endless neoclassical country house, who spends his days inspecting statues and avoiding floods, captures in its neat evocation of ontological disorientation precisely the feeling of living in a period of dislocating change, in which all that is solid melts into not just the air but the ephemeral ether. As the novel’s protagonist undertakes the tasks given him by the Other, the reader cannot fail to ask hurriedly: where is this? Another planet, an apocalyptic future? An experimental lab of some sort, a parallel universe? Purgatory? The answer is none of these – Clarke offers something genuinely new, and she does so by expertly walking the line between realism and fantasy that David Mitchell has of late been routinely tripping over: when, as in all the shortlist’s other novels, Piranesi‘s mysteries and questions begin to break down into something clearer and more resolvable, there is no sense of let-down, no sense that the set-up has not been worth the pay-off. Piranesi holds the attention to the last.
Why? I think because it is a distillation. I was not a fan of Clarke’s previous novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, which though popular with SFF fans and even general readers – it was dramatised by the BBC, no less – felt to me of a mid-2000s piece with novels such as The Crimson Petal and the White, mistaking mere girth for seriousness or world-building. What’s so fascinating about Piranesi‘s relationship with he other novels on this shortlist is that it has no interest – despite what might have been the understandable expectations of Clarke’s readers – in the accrual of detail as an end in itself. Instead, it contains so much history and philosophy and art and metaphysics but also reads like a dream. It is no portmanteau of ideas – it is, like the house in which the protagonist finds himself, a singular construction that is entirely itself whilst also suggestive of much more besides. This is a – perhaps the – singular artistic achievement. As I suspected, the other books didn’t stand a chance.
Every Christmas Eve I read “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle”, Sherlock Holmes’ only festive adventure. This year, I offer a little marginalia from what I surmise to be the still-unpublished diaries of Holmes’s amanuensis, Dr John Watson. The entry seems to have been written towards the end of the Great Hiatus, with Holmes still believed to be dead. I’ve transcribed it below, as my response to this year’s re-reading of BLUE.
May you all have a peaceful Christmas.
It has been my habit of the last three years to visit, on the second morning after Christmas, the area around Baker Street, from where in earlier days I enjoyed a number of memorable adventures with my good and unusual friend, Mr Sherlock Holmes.
Some of these adventures I have compiled into small stories as well as my talent allows, and these have gathered around themselves a small readership who seemed enthusiastic for them – and of course most especially for the great detective who sat at their heart. Indeed, it may be not so bold as to say that for many readers these curious – sometimes macabre – tales became a part of their routine, an aspect of their everyday ritual that has, in its absence from their lives, created something of a cavity.
It is undeniable that I, too, have experienced a sense of loss in the years since the disappearance over the waters at Reichenbach of my erstwhile companion. There he fell in mortal combat with a foe whose demise – won entirely through the sacrifice of that former inhabitant of Marylebone’s most storied address – brought England and Europe more peace than they might otherwise possibly have hoped. Somehow, I regret to admit, even this posthumous victory cannot, on a personal level at least, make up for the withdrawal from my own life that his death occasioned. I am, as are perhaps we all, the poorer for Sherlock Holmes’s passing from this world.
It is on the second morning after Christmas, then, that I choose to pay my seasonal respects to this most irreplaceable of figures. It was at Baker Street upon this day in the year 1887, now six years ago, that I witnessed Sherlock Holmes show Christian mercy to a villain of rare duplicity. It has been said of my friend in the years since his death that he was cold, uncaring, perhaps inhuman; in his sitting room at 221B during that Christmas, he proved this partial understanding of his singular nature quite wrong. He let free a thief, and hoped in so doing to avoid a role in the forging of a fiend. I have scoured the newspapers internationally in the years since for further mention of the scoundrel that stole the Countess of Morcar’s blue carbuncle and sought to blame an innocent man for the act; I have found none. Sherlock Holmes, it seems, indeed that day saved a soul.
Would that he were still here to do so. As I perambulate down first Thayer Street then Paddington Street, and finally turn onto Baker Street, I am filled with the stirrings not just of nostalgia but what I believe I am not over-hasty in terming grief – a yawning sense within myself of an irretrievable lacuna which cannot be filled. Mary tells me that this is normal and to be expected, but when I imagine the widows of the men with whom I fought in Afghanistan, or the children of the murdered parents whose killers Holmes would so often and ingeniously uncover, I feel somehow unworthy of the emotion they would apply to their own predicament: am I not happily married, comfortable in my station and ensconced in successful practice? Is my material wealth, and physical health, not the best it has ever been? On what basis should I complain or mourn?
As I pass by Mrs Hudson’s door, too shy to call in unannounced on this unusually emotional of days, the pangs that I seek to suppress are at their strongest. There are children in the streets, proudly holding aloft the toy brought to them by Father Christmas only a few days before; courting couples take a stroll and exchange news of their respective family Christmases; old men pause by shop windows, filling their time in idle consideration of the wares on offer in Baring-Gould Books or Gattis’s butchershop. Families promenade; hansoms clatter. Doors sport beleagured wreaths, placed upon their persons in some betokening of the Yuletide.
The spirit of the season, in other words, hangs heavy in the air, and returns me to those events of six years ago in manners both pleasant and painful. Yet reminiscence, perhaps – a paying of tribute to the happier times of yesteryear, and the people with us then who, though here no longer, contributed their jollity and character so definitively to the agreeableness of the day – is the keener sensation. Therefore the pleasure of recollection must and will over-ride the sadness of loss, and perhaps create a space for yet further improvement. It is Christmas, after all, and a time for hope – if also, in each of our own ways, for reflection.
Let us raise a glass on this curious Christmas, then, to perhaps a better year to come – though, most of all and abidingly, to absent friends.
When 2020’s Booker shortlist was first announced, media coverage largely focused on its “diversity”. The primary lens through which these six books were viewed was its “giant-killing” character: Mantel and Amis, for example, had been expelled from the inner sanctum of the prize – one which many had already decided was Mantel’s to lose – in favour of debut novelists and “little-known” names. But hidden only barely behind this headline was, in the summer of Black Lives Matter, the shortlist’s Booker-unusual heterogeneity: two African women, the Ethiopian-American Maaza Mengiste and the Zimbabwean Tsitsi Dangarembga, were accompanied by Avni Doshi, an American-Indian based in Dubai, and Brandon Taylor, an African-American gay man. The two white authors were both US-based: Douglas Stuart, an ex-pat Scot, and Diane Cook, a former producer of This American Life. Not one of these books is written by a novelist currently working in the UK. On the one hand, given the heavily American slant of the authors, this was proof that those concerns of some years ago – that the Booker would drift away from its “Commonwealth” roots and begin to reward authors eligible for prizes elsewhere – were not necessarily misplaced (although this isn’t the same as them mattering); on the other, it was hard to remember a Booker shortlist that had offered so varied and exciting an array of voices.
What this coverage missed, however, was how cohesive a shortlist these six novels in fact make. The events of all but one take place within about seventy years of each other; that odd-one-out, Cook’s The New Wilderness, is also the only novel that does not adopt a rigorously realist approach. All of these novels hinge on parent-child relationships; all investigate the impacts of trauma; almost all exhibit a tight grain, focusing on quotidian detail and sometimes exhausting list-making. Ultimately, most of these novels also don’t add up to the sum of their parts, or don’t quite meet their potential. Three are of a quality that might, in this reader’s view, commend them as a winner of the prize. But almost every one of these books is in one way or another a flawed attempt by a talented author to address the violence of our times. Only one book even of the shortlist’s best three, I think, escapes the traps into which the others fall.
I’ll get to which of these novels I think uniquely meets its mark, but let me start with a good example of one which doesn’t, and why: Stuart’s Shuggie Bain, a novel which traces the life of its titular Glaswegian youth from poverty-stricken childhood on a 1980s housing estate to a poverty-stricken tenement in the 1990s. Stuart has been clear that the novel is semi-autobiographical: like Shuggie’s, Stuart’s own mother experienced alcoholism; her addiction destroyed her relationships, her body and her mind. Shuggie’s mother is Agnes, who stumbles from ill-advised affair to ill-advised affair, and who – we are shown – was subject to abuse from her own parents. Stuart renders Thatcher’s Glasgow as an unremittingly grim place, with even those moments of something approaching consolation that are grasped by his characters ultimately feeling empty or disappointing. In this, Shuggie’s milieu mirrors how he feels about life with his mother: “the stretches of sobriety were fleeting and unpredictable and not to be fully enjoyed” (p. 219). Shuggie Bain is not a novel to have fun with.
It is, though, hugely successful in its feat of misery-building: whenever a moment seems to have happened that might herald better times ahead, Stuart swipes it away again. “At first the gaffer, a sinewy pragmatic man, had given the well-practice speeches,” we read about the first employment of Shuggie’s elder brother, which it is hoped will provide the family with an income and teach him a skill. “As the apprentice went on, and Leek kept staring through him, the speeches slowly filled with bitter bile” (p. 147). Amid these unremitting degradations, Agnes keeps going – “everyday with the make-up on and her hair done, she climbed out of her grave and held her head high” (p. 268) – and this gruelling endurance is encouraged, too, in the reader. Within this context, there are many memorable episodes and lines – at times Shuggie Bain reads more immediately and truly than any other novel on this list. But it does tend to meander, and its wider purpose feels opaque. Economic inequalities of the sort experienced by the Bains remain rife; alcoholism still destroys families; children are still exploited. But Shuggie Bain is – as these quotations may have shown – too sunk in the direct experience of Shuggie necessarily to read outwards beyond it. Still, a novel can reserve the right to aim only to create empathy in the reader for its main character. The issue here is that the protagonist of Shuggie Bain is really Agnes – and yet the novel can’t quite bring itself into sufficient proximity to her. She remains closed off from us throughout, distant and mysterious. The book struggles, then, to bridge several of its gaps. It could have done with some tighter editing: a trimming of its sometimes leaden prose might have helped its purpose peek more proudly out.
Avni Doshi’s Burnt Sugar, on the other hand, performs some similar tricks but much more supply – and therefore successfully. Its protagonist, Antara, is an Indian woman living in Pune with her American husband; as her mother, the tellingly named Tara, succumbs to dementia and becomes more and more dependent upon her daughter, Antara must reckon with their troubled past and fraught relationship. Like Agnes, Tara is the pivotal character of the novel; but, unlike Stuart, Doshi provides us through flashbacks with just enough access to her life to understand its impacts. Tara was forced into a controlling marriage, and squeezed into an uncomfortable domestic shape by a commanding mother-in-law; she spent the rest of her life – and all of Antara’s itinerant childhood – trying to escape from other people’s control (she “always ran from anything that felt like oppression” (p. 52). This results in an almost deliberately dysfunctional life for the both of them, and Antara is brought up first in an ashram and then at a convent school. Neither of these cultish environments encouraged her to develop a self. As Tara grew older and more bitter, she too took to blocking off Antara’s paths and permitted self-expressions. As Antara in turn grows older, and begins to reckon with the prospect of her own motherhood, we see in economical detail how the consequences of parental abuse can travel through generations.
Perhaps Burnt Sugar works so well because all of its characters, not just the mother figure, are distant and attenuated: at one point, Antara muses that “she cannot remember what I felt for Ma at that time because the feeling lacked a familiar name” (p. 112) – in other words, she is unable to express her emotions, and cannot therefore fully experience them. This is not an usual feeling for Antara: the novel ends with her literally shut out from her own family, waiting to be let back in. Self-discovery is threatening to her: at one point, she ceases to see a therapist “because she asked too many questions” (p. 178). This is a novel, in other words, about the inability to connect – and it succeeds beautifully in creating a hugely compelling narrative which nevertheless exhibits the coolness its characters feel. Antara’s husband – a gently abusive presence himself, more from ignorance than intent, but no less damagingly – “tells everyone there were no jarring charges when [she] moved into his flat, that [her] life merged seamlessly with his” (p. 21). This is a novel about people learning how to live in a way that has weight.
If it sounds as if Burnt Sugar might be the solitary success of this shortlist that I proposed earlier, it isn’t, quite: it is beautifully written and wrought, if by its end a little on the nose; yet it cannot fail but to leave the reader locked out by novel’s end, like its protagonist. It is, though, a very good book – which alas Mengiste’s The Shadow King never quite manages to be. Baggily structured and written in a curiously prolix style, in its better moments it reminds me, and comes with the endorsement, of Aminatta Forna – but without the passion, the fire, that fills that writer’s prose. The story of an orphan, Hirut, who is taken in as a maid by an aristocratic family in 1930s Ethiopia, the novel seeks to provide an alternative narrative of Mussolini’s invasion of Haile Selassie’s kingdom of 1935. Hirut’s master/guardian is one of Selassie’s leading generals, but as the war becomes one of partisan attrition in the peaks and dips of Ethiophia’s Highlands, it is the women who have fled the towns and villages that become more and more central to the story – and critical to the conflict, or at least the survival of the Ethiopian nation as embodied in its people (the Emperor, after all, flees to Bath to listen to classical music on his phonograph). The binaries of war, however, are broken down when Hirut encounters an Italian war photographer, Ettore.
Few of these strands are fully fleshed-out, however: Selassi gets some interludes which feel almost like satire or parody, except they are imbued with what one assumes is meant to be emotional significance; Ettore and Hirut’s relationship – if that’s what it is – is under-developed and swamped by events; the eponymous Shadow King – a sort of guerrilla figurehead almost conjured into existence by the women of the war – doesn’t appear until half-way through the book. There is a lot going on: Hirut’s interactions with her adoptive guardians, theirs with each other; the war, but also the culture that predates and survives it; the Italians get some chapters in an attempt to depict events from their perspective; there’s a frame narrative which shunts the action forwards to 1974, the year before Selassie’s death. If Burnt Sugar is a novel about people who feel little, The Shadow King is one about people who do too much. This is part of the novel’s project – its women achieve more than is imagined for them, and in the face of obstacles worse than they might have feared. But it asks a lot of the novel’s spine, and it bows to accommodate the weight.
Tsitsi Dangarembga’s This Mournable Body – which takes its title from an essay by Teju Cole, in which he shows how Western society’s reaction to the Charlie Hebdo attack of 2015 emphasised the manner in which it under-values suffering in the global south, but also how societies are more capable of damaging themselves than any external enemy – is also a book in which much happens. But its characters – in particular the protaginist Tambudzai, who has previously appeared in Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions and The Book of Not – are much more clearly and confidently drawn, and they therefore carry the burden of the eventful plot through which they move. The setting here is Harare of the late-1990s, and the reader finds Tambudzai close to rock-botton within it, living in a hostel and out of work, the economy of post-independence Zimbabwe has not proven to be good for her – or for many of her contemporaries. This is simultaneously a novel of the Western tradition and thoroughly done with it, aware of the damage it does to people like Tambudzai.
This Mournable Body is therefore a novel suffused with righteous anger – but also the frustrated selfishness it can encourage. In an early scene, she refuses to help a woman she knows from the hostel, beset by a crowd because of the way she is dresse, mostly so the crowd will never know of the conditions they share; throughout, she openly expresses emotions often coded as ugly in the novels of the Western bourgeoisie, such as envy and bitterness. She imagines that everyone has it better (“You had not believed there was such a thing on this earth as a European without money” [p. 164]); but then – particularly in the case of Zimbabwe’s white elite – she is not exactly wrong. Indeed, Tambudzai is only in the straits she is in because she could not stand to bend to the unspoken rules of the post-colonial economy: at the PR agency where she worked, her copywriting was routinely claimed by her white colleagues, and she resigned in protest. Harare, however, wears her down. When she reconnects with on her co-workers, she learns that their new firm’s clients “are from Sweden, Denmark, some from Germany. Places like that” (p. 242). Zimbabwe, in other words, still does not work for Zimbabweans. But this time, Tambudzai signs up.
Dangarembga writes some very funny scenes about the tourist company Tambudzai joins – they specialist in “ghetto safaris”, touring rich Westerners around poverty-stricken neighbourhoods and villages, but in an entirely sanitised way that allows the travellers to feel worldly without risk. The novel’s dialogue is often fizzing with dark humour. No one emerges well from such close proximity to the compromises of Mugabe-era Zimbabwe; and yet the novel’s ending is hopeful in its return to Tambudzai’s ancestral home, its recommitment to heritage and community – even in the face of all that assails it. Dangarembga paints a picture of a complicit society – one which, in her words during a recent interview of the LRB Bookshop podcast, allowed guerillas to become their government, and which now faces those consequences. But she also shows how, in the context of a world which still seeks to oppress its people, Zimbabwe can reclaim itself by reimagining itself. “Your education is not only in your head anymore,” we read at the very end of the novel. In this moment, colonial education becomes of utility to the educated, rather than merely the educator. Tambudzai is compromised – but also contains the potential to move beyond the one-way exchange that has placed in such subordination. This is a powerful ending, and the novel is a powerful embodiment of the theme, and I can see it taking the prize for its temerity and tenderness.
This Mournable Body, then, is one of the three best novels on the shortlist. It is a picaresque, an episodic litany, and this may not be to every reader’s tastes (mine included). But it is very smart, and builds a world and a cast of characters which feel not just extremely real – but urgent. Diane Cook’s The New Wilderness, too, aims for urgency – its vision of a relatively near-future, in which the planet is a blasted heath and its environment ruined by human activity, is created expressly to shock the reader, to scare us into action. It reads a little like Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven, both in that it is modishly dystopian and a little like a novel treatment for a movie which does not yet exist. In this it is extremely well turned: it is probably the most readable novel on the shortlist, and easily the most tightly, intelligently plotted. All of its characters – even this novel’s central mother-daughter relationship of Bea and Agnes – are, however, more like casting-call sketches than fully realised human beings: the cynical alpha male, the thoughtful professor, the regretful female collaborator. In part, this might be deliberate – the novel centres on a group of people who have opted to leave the poisoned, polluted City to live primitive lives in nature’s last bailiwick, the Wilderness State; primitive lives lead, perhaps, to primordial types, the very notion of character breaking down as bourgeois reality disintegrates. Certainly the opening scene of Bea giving birth to a baby already dead, burying it and then walking away from the grave as if little has happened suggests that the hard-scrabble stuff of mere survival alters her perceptions of what can be coped with. Similarly, the cynical alpha male, Carl, predicts that the thoughtful professor’s style of consensual leadership “won’t last forever” – in other words, mores change as circumstances do. But the novel doesn’t quite make – and certainly does not sell – its putative case that this requires a different approach to characterisation, and besides I’d be troubled by the idea that somehow humans without the trappings of Western civilisation are not-quite-humans. The apocalypse may come and go, but interiority needs closer attention than this.
The novel’s world-building, too, feels less fleshed-out than it might have been. The literary readers that the Booker attracts will perhaps feel this less keenly, but for a reader who even dabbles in the science fictional there will be too many gaps in this future for it quite to convince. Human civilisation has retreated into a huge City, for example, which has taken over almost all land and in which people live in endless high-rises, supported by barren industrial landscapes which harvest resources and play host to servers. How did this happen? We’re not told. Why do only children seem to sicken from the pollution? This is unclear. How has there not been political instability brought about by these clearly intolerable conditions, particularly given the rumours of the Private Lands where the elite live in luxury? We don’t know. Likewise, the mechanics of the Wilderness State – which is surrounded by a road and kept in pristine, edenic purity by a network of Rangers with whom Bea’s group must periodically check in – feel decidedly uncertain, not least in how it – and only it – has been spared the ecological devastation clearly in place elsewhere, or how a region traversible by foot and ringable by road can also contain the range of landscapes the group hike through and over. In other words, both characters and setting serve the specific story Cook has designed them to tell – but in the absence of cromulence in its underpinnings that story can, whatever the virtues of its purpose, feel rather thin.
This question of texture brings us to what I think is not just the best book on this shortlist, but possibly the best I’ve read all year: Brandon Taylor’s Real Life. The story of a gay African-American from the gritty end of the deep South, it is a campus novel with many layers, in which the protagonist is quietly, but viciously, excluded from the campus. Every one of this novel’s interactions is slick with fraught social tension, tiny micro-aggressions and entirely unspoken, always unacknowledged and sometimes (though rarely) unintended injustices. Taylor manages to conjure these moments in which nothing and yet everything is said, and does so magnetically. He limits himself to only a few set-pieces – a lake-side night-time party, a dinner at a friend’s house, a meeting in the laboratory where the novel’s protagonist, Wallace, works away at his thesis – and yet pours so much significance into these moments that they reveal the volume that events truly contain, however placid their surface. A characteristic formulation might be: “She hates him because he works, but he works only so that people might not hate him” (p. 98); in other words it is impossible in the world of Real Life to do right. Wallace himself is beaten out of shape by the ways in which his background of poverty, his race and his sexuality not just lock him out of the society to which he strives to belong, but actively encourage or cue people to attack him; we learn later on that he is the victim of childhood sexual abuse. As in Burnt Sugar, the sins of one generation pay dividends in the next.
Wallace is a repressed character, one who rarely acts on the dark observations some part of him is constantly making (on one of the few occasions he does, disaster ensues). “When I left it behind me,” he confesses late in the novel, “when I got up the money to go to school and get away, I sealed it all behind me, because when you go to another place you don’t have to carry the past with you” (p. 201). But, of course, you do; and, likewise, every present will beset you with further obstacles, different kinds of violence. To learn to deal with one kind is to learn to accept there will be others. Instead, Wallace is for much of the novel caught between knowing he is a victim, understanding the impacts of injustice, but incapable of doing anything about it. Like Burnt Sugar, Real Life deliberately keeps the reader at arm’s-length; unlike that otherwise excellent novel, Taylor’s turns this into a positive, into part of the effect – the message – of the novel. Taylor has written an acutely elegant, if also deeply discomfiting, depiction of the Catch-22 in which so many are trapped:
He could say any of the thing he has wanted to say since he came here, about how they treat him, about how they look at him, about what it feels like when the only people who look like him are the janitors, and they regard him with suspicion. He could say one million things, but he knows that none would matter. (p. 255)
Real Life is beautifully written in its furious restraint. In how it expresses itself, the novel captures something true about the ways in which many people are forced to express themselves. Every part of Taylor’s novelistic project, then – its prose, its structure, its characterisation, its setting – complement and conspire with the others. Some readers have accused its remarkably crisp prose of betraying its roots in an MFA programme, of reading superficially or obnoxiously; all this misses the novel’s point, and the manner in which it refines the vulgarities of the society to which Wallace so desperately seeks admission. It is the debut novel of a writer already praised for his short fiction, but it is preternaturally mature and alive to what the novel can do. I can’t think of a foot it puts wrong, once on admits its project – from complicating the cliché of the strong, silent Black man to rejecting the common frameworks of the “queer” novel, even the tropes it brushes past are eschewed and transformed in the course of its pages. If ultimately the 2020 Booker shortlist is rather less diverse in its subject matter as it is in the backgrounds of its authors, or if many of these books unbalance themselves in one or another, Real Life is as deserving a Booker winner as any novel that has ever won the prize. And, yes, it is better than the Mantel.
On September 12th, 2015, Anna and I drove for lunch to the home of some good friends. The journey took about an hour, and on the way we tuned in the radio; the winner of that year’s Labour leadership election was about to be announced.
By the time we arrived at our destination, our friends were genuinely excited; during Jeremy Corbyn’s remarkable campaign throughout that summer, they had attended one of his many rallies and been both surprised and inspired by the sense of energy and enthusiasm he had been evoking everywhere he spoke. More or less their first words to us as we crossed their threshold were, “Isn’t it great?!” I felt like a terrible Eeyore when I replied, in what I imagine to have been something of a whine, “Is it, though?”
Corbyn was re-elected leader in 2016, of course; in 2017, he led the party to a dead-heat with Theresa May’s Conservatives, in what was widely seen not just among the party faithful as something of a personal triumph. His defeat to Boris Johnson in the 2019 General Election, however, was perhaps not the moment of his ultimate humiliation; that came on the day before Halloween 2020, when he was suspended from the party he had just months before led for questioning the findings of the EHRC’s report into Labour anti-semitism during his tenure.
I have spent much of the last five years suspended in precisely the uncomfortable position in which I found myself on that day in September 2015: not wishing to pour cold water on the phenomenon of Corbyn’s revitalisation of the left, and yet entirely unconvinced that its – geddit? – centre could hold. I wrote a little about this right here back in 2016. But the truth is that I have also spent more of the last five years than I might have imagined during that drive through the Oxfordshire countryside on trying to persuade people that anti-semitism not only exists, but does so in plain sight – and often dwells deeply in their own thinking. I could in fact link now to multiply recursive Facebook threads; but I won’t. Thank me later.
In Julia Neuberger’s useful formulation, “What marks out antisemitism from other forms of racism … [is] that Jews are to blame for everything, and are simultaneously useless and too powerful” (Antisemitism, p. 27). I’ve seen this time and again during Corbyn’s tenure (and will no doubt continue to do so); anti-semitism is so difficult precisely because it is so supple, so internally inconsistent. Similarly, the manner in which it came to be the principle objection to his leadership among Corbynism’s enemies on Labour’s right simultaneously emphasised it as a racism so toxic that the left would aggressively denounce it – but also rendered it a totemic dispute on which his supporters could not allow themselves to act. That Corbyn himself adopted this position – unable to act on antisemitism because he saw accusations of it not as an attack on antisemites but upon himself – was one of the defining tragedies of his leadership. Corbyn was perhaps the least ready for leadership of all the Campaign Group MPs who might otherwise have stood in 2015, had they not already done so in prior contests. But it would still have been so easy for him to act against antisemitism; yet still he would not.
Corbyn’s leadership was in this sense a Greek Tragedy, undone by its own weaknesses, its own peculiar forms of arrogance. In the original Greek, the name of the goddess of retribution, Nemesis, translates as “to give what is due”. When the greek poet Mesomedes wrote – in a hymn to the goddess composed during the second century AD – that she was the “winged balancer of life, dark-faced goddess, daughter of Justice”, I think he hit upon the essential unfairness of many of her retributions: she is of Justice, but at one remove from her; she is dark-faced, not bathed in the calm light of blind equity. Corbyn’s fate – and that of Corbynism – isn’t necessarily a just dessert for his actions (or, more appropriately, his inaction) on antisemitism; but it was almost crushingly predictable in a way that Aesychlus would have surely recognised, and it seems odd to me that so few of his supporters seem to have seen it coming – much less prepared themselves for it.
The followers of Q, too, are currently dumbfounded by the fates. In the Daily Beast last week, we read that, “Aside from perhaps Donald Trump himself, no one is struggling more with the president’s re-election defeat than QAnon conspiracy theorists.” If Trump was the leader of a uniquely just quest to bring to justice baby-eating Democrats and the Satanic Deep State, if The Storm was inevitable and every step towards it safely in Trump’s quasi-Arthurian hands, then how to parse defeat? The likelihood, of course, is schism and fragmentation – even in the face of Trump’s continuing insistence on questioning the results of the election and pretending as if he is will still be the legitimate Commander-in-Chief after January 20th. But the faithful must each make their own way through the wreckage.
The nemesis of the QAnon faithful was – as for the Corbynistas – brute reality. Trump supporters of all stripes had convinced themselves that their man was headed for a landslide victory. This was always unlikely – as indeed was the converse, with Democrats hoping to turn Texas blue (though doing the same in Georgia also remained beyond the hopes of self-appointed realists and yet has come to pass). Trump’s downfall was not that he lost huge numbers of votes – in fact, he gained them. American politics is today a close-run thing, a matter of a few percentage points here and there. In this sense, and beyond any fundamental objection to his politics, Trump’s strategy was poorly considered. He bet the farm on anger in an election which ultimately seems to have hinged on safety. During a global pandemic, this might have seemed an obvious direction in which the wind might blow; but Trump still made the wrong call, and his presidency is now all over bar the crying.
The COVID-19 pandemic was a unique check on Trump’s capacity to shape the world of those whose votes he wished to win. A would-be strongman who has inhabited, almost instinctively, the Surkovian style could not possibly flood the zone with enough shit to distract from the impact of a novel pathogen to which no one in the world has immunity. My unpopular opinion about the US election is that coronavirus enhanced Trump’s performance rather than stymied it: despite his inability to control it, he nevertheless adopted it as a wedge issue with which he could energise and revitalise the cultural divisions on which his 2016 candidacy thrived. Without that clear cultural marker of the facemask, it isn’t clear to me what similarly evocative purchase Trump might have had on his tribe’s imagination. In the final analysis, however, the pull of calm in a period of such turmoil was always going to be an unequal but opposite reaction to any culture-war strategy, and so it has proven.
Perhaps Trump felt he had no choice in the face of a pandemic that moved faster than his capacity to shift and pervert the media narrative, the Overton window of not just US but global politics. He may have missed a trick: he could at least have tried to sitting behind a cheap desk in a rose garde, lying shamefacedly to all-comers about a trip he’d made to a resort town in County Durham. This was certainly the option taken by Dominic Cummings, the senior advisor to “Britain Trump” Boris Johnson, when in the summer it was found he had broken his own government’s lockdown rules: he was checking his eyesight, his children needed the toilet, he had a right to interpret the guidelines. In an approach that has defined his entire career, the story he created to reach the goal he had adopted simply did not stack up, but he stuck by it regardless – and a supine PM supported him, at significant cost both to his political capital and the public health of the whole country.
Cummings, too, however, has now left the stage – preceded by a cardboard box. He is perhaps more guilty even than Trump of the crime of hubris, that unforgivable infraction which classically must be punished by Nemesis. At least Trump won an election under his own name; Cummings has never had the boldness to do the same, and yet has acted since the Tory victory that saw Jeremy Corbyn finally ejected from the Labour hotseat as if he, in fact, was PM. I’ve written before about the darkness of Cummings’ wry arrogance – the manner in which his fundamentally flawed analysis of that which ails us leads inexorably to deeply troubling, if also superficially trolling, solutions. It does not take a genius, as Chaminda Jaynetti has just now been pointing out on Twitter, to create, play to and then profit from public misconceptions. More or less anyone can tell lies and then leverage their effects. Cummings’ reputation was built on his willingness to act unethically, and to do so with rare relish for combat. But this approach, like Corbyn and Trump’s strategies before it, has a shelf-life, cannot survive the rubber hitting the road. As the deadline for a Brexit deal approaches, Cummings’ formula seems – for now at least – to have reached its particular use-by date.
Where politics is left at the end of November – especially in the light of news about the apparent efficacy of Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine that is more positive than many had allowed themselves to hope – could not have been imagined at the start of October. After a period in which the Western democracies felt first shocked, then stunned into stillness by first the march of national populism and then the onset of a once-in-a-generation crisis, what Mesomedes called “the frivolous insolences of mortals” seem at least briefly checked, as if a splash of cold water has been applied to the face of the body politic. The wheel turns, and Nemesis sharpens her sword.
In my review of Mantel’s The Mirror & the Light, I hewed closely to my now rather hoary complaint about the entire trilogy that this latest volume caps: that is, what I perceive to be the essential contradiction between the series’ attention to period detail and the manner in which it conjures a contemporary consciousness for its protagonist. I am among the very small minority for whom this simply does not work; I am a record broken, and unlike the unfixed clock I’m right not even twice a day.
I embarked upon Natalie Haynes’ A Thousand Ships, then, with trepidation: not only is it the latest in a long recent line of feminist retellings of Classical myth (no bad trend, but like any zeitgeist it is one with finite fuel); it is also another novel set in the distant past that could likewise have been tempted to present post-modern personalities within a pre-modern milieu. That I ended up enjoying this novel so much must in part be a function of its contrast with Mantel – because Haynes rather cannily avoids this trap, and her women, while alert to the injustice all around them, would not quite fit in at #metoo rally, either.
Theirs is a fatalism present throughout Classical literature – in the bleak tragedies of Euripedes or the shocking violence of the source myths. Haynes’ women are entirely inured to their society, and in some cases even share its values: Clytemnestra, for example, “never wished to be compared to other women, unless it was for the purpose of demonstrating her vast superiority to the rest of her sex”; Helen, too, does not get off lightly – the text does not try to rehabilitate her so much as show how even other women find her impossible and culpable (“I have not wished anyone dead with quite so such enthusiasm as … Agamemnon,” admits Penelope of the king who takes her husband to war, “and bear in mind that I grew up in Sparta so have spent more time than most with Helen”).
The novel has room, too, for countervailing notes. It is essentially the story of the sack of Troy, but told from many female perspectives. Each one has its own voice and tenor – from the Muse Calliope’s wry impatience (“it is surprising that he hasn’t considered how many other men there are like him, every day, all demanding my unwavering attention”) to Penelope’s passive-aggressive and performative faith in her husband (“Obviously you would not have spent, as the bards have it, a year in [Circe’s] halls, living as her husband, for the excellent reason that you are my husband”). Even Helen gets her say: “That was my crime,” she sneers at Hecabe, erstwhile Queen of the Trojans. “To give your handsome son everything he asked for, like everyone else did”.
This polyphony really works. Some of the voices – Calliope and Penelope, yes, but also women who get only one chapter, such as Iphigenia – inevitably linger longer than others, but such is the nature, and indeed strength, of patchwork narratives. The over-riding vision – again, entirely fitting of the source material – is of the abitrariness of fate, the fickleness of the gods. “If her husband had not sought her hand,” observes Briseis, “if the Greek men had not noticed her, she might have remained a free woman. Or she might have been slaughtered where she stood.” The selfishness of the men who have more freedom is of course lampooned and even revenged – when Paris, dying, flees Troy to find the nymph-lover he abandoned a decade prior in favour of Helen, declaring that he is “prostrate before” her magical powers, the spurned woman Oenone remarks, “But for yourself. I cannot heal you, Paris”. But the focus is instead on the hard choices women must make in a world that is unjust: “She was afraid,” Andromache says of Polyxena, who gives herself for sacrifice by the Greek fleet. “But she was more afraid of slavery.”
In other words, A Thousand Ships is a study of women who find themselves in impossible circumstances – much in the way that The Iliad is a poem about warriors whose fates are sealed before they pick up spear or shield. Calliope rolls her eyes at epic poetry – “Too many men telling the stories of men to each other,” she says of it – but what Haynes does here is not therefore rip up the form and replace it with something more amenable to modern sensibility. Instead, she inhabits the mores of the mode and tells the other story that has always sat alongside it. “I know the poet grows weary of these women who appear and disappear from his story,” the Muse admits, “but even he is starting to grasp that the whole war can be explained this way.” In other words, the siege of Troy is the story of pain. Haynes recentres Homer’s focus but somehow in a way that does not invalidate his frame.
This is clever stuff, and especially so since the novel never collapses into the male stories we know so well, nor betrays its emphasis by endorsing the unjust world while inhabiting it. In the story of the traitor Antenor, for instance – who opens the Trojan gates for the waiting Greeks in exchange for his family’s safety – Haynes admits the “behaviour was despicable,” but equally accepts that “there was no denying that he had won a better fate for his women than Priam”. This is a remarkably even-handed novel for one that is avowedly partial – “I have picked up the old stories and I have shake them until the hidden women appear in plain sight. I have celebrated them in song because they have waited long enough,” declares Calliope – and this empathy for the material and the peoples it depicts lends it a sort of moral and philosophical depth that is quite rare in a book that reads so lightly and in so otherwise contemporary a way.
In other words, Haynes has squared the circle Mantel has been wheeling around for years. But – alas! – it is still unlikely, I think, that she will beat out her rival for the Women’s Prize when it is announced in September. The Mirror & the Light has a prose style which the arch and accessible A Thousand Ships does not attempt to match, and that may count for much. But, for this reader at least, Haynes’ core conceit boasts a great deal more internal consistency – and that should count for something too.
Abigail Nussbaum has already written about The Mirror & theLight, Hilary Mantel’s third and final Cromwell novel, in so circumspect a way as to render this post redundant. She has in the past been more of a fan of this series than me – I enjoyed Bring Up The Bodies but find the way Mantel deals with historical context difficult to wash over – but her critical reading of this concluding volume is generous enough to encompass both its merits and its failings:
All of it is expertly turned, beautifully written, absolutely fascinating. But it also has the feel of marking time. Quite a lot happens in The Mirror and the Light, for all that one might go into it expecting it to be a mere period on Cromwell’s life. It’s 450 pages before Jane Seymour dies. 600 before Anne of Cleves shows her face. In between there are crises galore—Henry’s daughter Mary nearly talks herself onto the gallows through her refusal to acknowledge her father as the head of the church; the peasants’ army nearly reaches London, baying for Cromwell’s blood the entire time; the Poles and the Courtenays scheme while pretending loyalty to Henry and cooperation with Cromwell. But rather than come together into a crescendo, there’s a certain episodic feeling to it all.
This was my experience of the novel, too. Bring Up The Bodies remains for me the best of the trilogy because it is also the leanest, hemmed in both by the volumes around it but also the events and timelines they set in motion and bring to a close. Structure was forced upon Mantel in that intermediate novel, in other words, but in The Mirror & the Light she seems – just as Wolf Hall struggled at times to get going from a standing start – to be reluctant to reach the end. What results is a dilatory experience, and one in which – uniquely in this series – the historical material, Mantel’s undoubtedly deep and broad research, starts to show. We get a lot of this:
It was like killing a cripple; but Henry Tudor did it, so as not to lose the Spanish bride. With Warwick dead, his sister Margaret was in the hands of the king; he made her safe with marriage to a loyalist. “My grandmother wed her to Arthur Pole,” the king says. “I made her Countess of Salisbury.” [p. 99]
Reader, you don’t need to know this. The conceit is that Cromwell does – or rather, that he may. Cromwell’s challenge at all times is to know everything, map out all potentialities, in order to make up for his absence of position, standing and force. The novel thus drowns him slowly, piling incident upon incident until the deluge is too great even for him to withstand. Cromwell loses because he loses control. This is an effective explanation of his downfall – and at the present time a compelling depiction of a society so beset that radical change and personal destruction is inevitable. But the novel, too, loses control.
February, the king sends Philip Hoby into France. Hoby is a gentleman of the privy chamber: a gospeller, good-looking and keen, and well-briefed by himself, the Lord Privy Seal. The king thinks he has a chance of Madame de Longueville, despite the King of Scots’ claims that they are affianced. But there is no harm in looking at her sister, Louise. There is another sister, Renée, who they say is bound for a covent. [p. 534]
It goes on and on. There are walk-on parts for every vaguely famous Henrician notable, and many more besides; the cast of principal characters grows as Cromwell’s own star wanes; the plots become, again no doubt deliberately, impossible to contain. In an episode-long Start The Week interview to mark publication of this novel, the BBC’s Andrew Marr interviewed Mantel as if she were not a novelist but a historian, asking questions of motivation and meaning, interpretation and incident, that might have been better directed towards Diarmaid MacCulloch. But what was fascinating is that Mantel could answer them as if she were a historian, too. The Mirror & the Light, with its compendious qualities and apparent need to encompass not just its own story but all the ones that might have happened instead or did happen to one side of it, betrays this shift in her style.
In another way, though, I was reminded most keenly of fantasy as I read this novel. The Mirror & the Light shares little with George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, and in one respect they are particularly alike: their scope. Both series take in a huge number of characters, each with their own agendas and desires, and both range across a number of years and a complex sequences of world-defining events. Where Martin conveys these via multiple perspectives, the defining quality of Mantel’s series is its fixation on only one; her literary achievement in creating a convincing consciousness out of this choice is of course these novels’ crowning glory, and what elevates them to the presumed pantheon of early twenty-first-century greatness. But A Song of Ice and Fire in fact balances its many plotlines and coincidences, vignettes and cameos, with more finesse. Much in Martin happens off-screen, imparted by rumour or letter; so, too, in Mantel. Much proves to be irrelevant or tangential, as in Mantel. And much of Martin’s narrative, too, cannot possibly be held in the reader’s mind constantly and at all times – or even requires itself to be. In Mantel, this becomes wearying, even over the course of a single instalment; in Martin, it often does not.
Perhaps this is because Martin’s popular fiction includes the sort of signposting or summarising – the telling and the showing – that literary fiction eschews. Mantel’s novels are Henrician courts in miniature – difficult to navigate, impossible to unravel, both compelling and claustrophobic. “That is how the enemy is hoisted, flying into the air while his horse carries on without him,” we read of a joust. “You hardly hear him hit the ground because the courtiers are yelling like drunks at a bear-baiting” [p. 790]. The noise, in other words, is part of the experience; and it’s meant to be distracting. The telling is secondary to the effect.
How much you get on with this novel will depend a great deal on how much you mind its approach. For me, the hyper-granular world-building feels both overwhelming and unconnected to the novel’s real project – to create in Cromwell a convincingly modern personality, a character we can relate to even as the world through which he moves is alien and strange. Given these novels are so loved by so many, I’m open – as I was back in 2009 – to the idea that this is my failing not the novel’s. Another of this year’s Women’s Prize shortlistees, Bernardino Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Otheris also a garlanded novel I admire but cannot love – and in which I don’t quite see the transcendental virtues others can perceive.
As The Mirror & the Light expands ever outwards across its remarkable length (and we should pause here to marvel at Mantel’s ability to stretch her novel across this sort of page-count without ever once making a prosodic slip), it only becomes more and more itself. And it is too late for this trilogy, as it becomes too late for poor old Thomas Cromwell, to win your allegiance if it has not already.