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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Both couples in the novel Рone married, the other not Рare acted upon by this entropy. Neither member of either relationship comes out of the book with our admiration for them entirely intact. On one level, by the close of Ordinary People the stakes have been proven to be rather low Рno one has died, and each individual has a functioning relationship with all of the others Рbut by the same token the novel paints a convincing portrait of emotional lives that are sometimes solipsistic, sometimes noble Рoften foolish, often kind Рand which therefore rather resemble our own. This is a genuinely novelistic project, and Diana Evans emerges from these pages as a sort of latter-day Jane Austen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you angry at me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or:

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

Or:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Albums of 2018

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

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

U.S. Girls – In a Poem Unlimited

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

Natalie Prass – The Future and the Past

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

Kyle Craft – Full Circle Nightmare

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

I’m With Her – See You Around

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

Anna Calvi – Hunter

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

“More Beginnings Than There Are Ends”: Daisy Johnson’s “Everything Under”

When is a selkie story not a selkie story? When it’s crossed with Sophocles.

Daisy Johnson’s debut novel,¬†Everything Under,¬†is this year’s¬†Elmet: the precocious, lyrical, off-piste British debut which the Booker is recognising to signpost new, native talent. A little like the English Premier League, the Booker, in the international perspective it has taken since 2013, has been routinely the subject of criticisms that it is failing to protect its own. No less a luminary that Peter Carey recently argued that,¬†‚Äúthe Booker prize has always had a very distinctive quality, which comes from ‚Äď I might not describe it as excluding Americans ‚Äď but has to do with what is still the Commonwealth, and the leftovers of empire, which still have a lot of cultural connections.‚ÄĚ It’s hard not to think that including a novel like this on the shortlist is one way that each year’s clutch of Booker judges feels it can pay homage to the prize’s roots.

This is not to say, of course, that¬†Everything Under¬†is without merit – it is stylistically supple and impressively atmospheric, all dun and muddy river landscapes and quietly desperate suburbias. Rather, it is to suggest that the novel doesn’t exhibit the maturity, the sureness of touch, that other books on the shortlist, and the sorts of book that traditionally have found their way onto the shortlist,¬†do. This is a novel which begins with the words, “The places we are born come back” – but at the end of that paragraph admits that “cut wrong side into my skin are not canals and train tracks and a boat, but always: you” (p. 1). That is, within a few lines Johnson manages to mix her governing metaphor, between place and person. This isn’t an unforgivable slippage, but nor does it seem quite fully baked, either.

Take, too, the novel’s structure: its events take place along a jagged timeline, parcelled out in short chapters separated by time, place and perspective; these are never dated, and often seek, especially at first, to obscure their place in the chronology; they have vague titles which recur as the only clue to their purpose or significance (“The River”, “The Cottage”, “The Hunt”). Obviously this is designed to add a breadth to the narrative, as in Marlon James’s perspective-hopping¬†A Brief History of Seven Killings, or to confound until the crucial moment a reader’s understanding of precisely how the story fits together and plays out, as in Eleanor Catton’s jigsawish¬†The Luminaries.¬†But¬†Everything Under¬†sometimes slightly lacks the confidence to shift the voice too much – each chapter, whether first-, second- or third-person, reads otherwise like the others – and also not to include sufficient clues for the reader that by half-way it is more or less clear what is going on.

That is, the novel is never quite as mysterious as it means to be – and this is a problem, because what it aims most to resemble in tone is myth, legend,¬†faerie. Jeff VanderMeer has given the book an approving notice; it wishes to be, and can most usefully be read as, weird. Little Gretel and her mother, Sarah, are river people; they live on a boat and forage in the forests, keeping a watchful eye out for the approach of a water-dwelling monster, the Bonak. They speak their own language and stay away from outsiders, “as if the place we were moored wasn’t on the maps” (p. 61); Sarah seems to not be fully human in ways ineffable and never fully confirmed (“even mothers need to have secrets” [p. 17]). When another young person, known as Marcus, arrives in their small world, the pair find themselves in the unusual position of taking someone in. But Marcus has their own past – born Margot, and strapping themselves down with clingfilm and repressed guilt, he has fled his parents in order to avoid fulfilling a prophecy made by their next-door neighbour, Fiona, that he will kill his father and sleep with his mother. When he arrives at Gretel and Sarah’s boat, he has already killed one man – another boat-dweller named Charlie – and his world is consequently all fear that Fiona will turn out to be right.

So far, so¬†Oedipus Rex. Just as in Sophocles, forgetting is key: Marcus, adopted, has no idea who his biological parents might be; Sarah’s origins and precise powers are dim and mysterious; Gretel, when she leaves home, spends sixteen years apart from her mother, and loses track of her entirely, spending a whole strand of the novel searching again for her. Most obviously, in old age Sarah suffers with Alzheimers. “Everybody forgets,” she told Marcus years before (p. 214) – and for her, too, it becomes true. But Johnson doesn’t quite do much with this. Marcus is forgotten, his fate erased from Gretel and Sarah’s knowledge just as his past and origins have been from the record. At the close of a novel full of quite awful pain, Gretel decides, “I must move on. I return to the office, work at my desk. […] There are more good days than bad” (p. 263). What does it mean that, unlike in Sophocles, tragedy and circumstance can have such little consequence?¬†Everything Under¬†isn’t sure, its ideas greater than its wisdom; and so for the most part it reads like a shrug.

The fusing of the Oedipus myth with the Selkie legend, too, doesn’t seem to go anywhere especially interesting. It’s a potentially diverting juxtaposition, but the co-location of the novel’s Oedipus cognate, Marcus, with a woman whom the young Gretel claims is “a sealady [… with] fins for feet and gills” (p. 146) appears to have no particular significance. Sofia Samatar’s “Selkie Stories Are For Losers” did more to renovate this hoary old myth in rather fewer words (and covers all the ground Johnson manages, to boot); Kamila Shamsie’s¬†Home Fire¬†(2017) refigured Sophocles (in that case¬†Antigone) with more fluidity and clarity, too.¬†Only in the Bonak – a terrifying, shadowy creature not unlike M John Harrison’s Shrander from¬†Light¬†(2002) – does Everything Under create a truly memorable imaginative locus. The Bonak is a sort of wandering agglomeration of fear, a monster with not just a made-up name but one almost conjured into being by the sense of siege which characterises Sarah, Gretel and later Marcus’s existence. “Do you think we [… t]alked it into being?” Gretel asks Marcus’s adoptive father, Roger, at one point in the novel. “I don’t know if it matters,” he replies (p. 168); even the novel’s most effective aspects are afforded little purchase.

I’m more open than I am in the case of The Long Take¬†to the idea that I’m missing something here.¬†Everything Under¬†is a well-realised novel with something to say. But I also experienced it as too often clumsy, as a book which shows a lot of promise but which isn’t always flattered by its inclusion on the Booker shortlist (though its sales will surely, and happily, be lifted). Its relative lack of sure-footedness is perhaps most notable in its treatment of its transgender elements: not just in the siting of Tiresias in the gender fluid Fiona or in the switching of the Oedipus role from male to female (everything else about the figure’s experience is, alas, identical), but also in the manner and outcome of Marcus’s journey from being Margot to becoming the boy found by Gretel in the forest. Even when it is a novel intensely concerned with a deterministic view of human agency, does¬†Everything Under¬†really intend to be quite so biologically fixed as it ends up being? Sarah and Gretel define their own special world by inventing their own language; Marcus’s fate is sealed not by the gods, as in Sophocles, but by the way in which human patterns of thought are conditioned by the words given to us to shape our selves. But none of this, despite some invariably lucid prose and genuinely seamless generic play, seems quite considered enough – and, in the end,¬†Everything Under¬†meanders like a stream rather than roaring like a river: the stretch is beautiful in its way, but it might have been better for us to arrive later, at the confluence.

Gone Fishin’

We’ve been neglecting this blog: apologies. Life dictates we spend online time elsewhere … but we’ll be trying to get back here and direct content your way. It’s not that we’re not thinking about anything; it’s finding the time to put it in words.

Stay good, peoples!

Christmas 2010

2010’s been a year of high highs and low lows for us, and Christmas has served as a welcome caesura: a time to pause for breath, relax, and make sense of it all. The good news is that the lows are on the up whilst the highs maintain their trajectory. The build-up to Christmas, all snowy Cotswold stone and cosy meals in the new home, was just right. And the festivities themselves have left left us feeling very much refreshed.

So, all in all, a pretty positive Yuletide. Hope you all had a great Christmas, too!