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.
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.”
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.
In one way, Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet has not, in its effort to win the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction, chosen its moment well: a historical novel set in the sixteenth century, it must defeat Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror & The Light in its own Tudorbethan sub-category before even having a hope of triumphing in the tournament proper. It’s not that the novels’ approaches to the period are entirely similar – O’Farrell does not restrict herself to the third-person limited, and she opts for the economical over the encyclopaedic – but equally, and beyond the jerkins and the ruffs, they certainly share a lyrical, empathetic approach to the Tudors that inevitably situates them side-by-side on a shortlist.
In another key way, however, Hamnet is the perfect novel for the moment – because it is a plague book. No one really knows what killed the only son of William Shakespeare – he is primarily remembered by his orthographic near-double, the Prince of Denmark. But O’Farrell has chosen to have him bitten by fleas, and in so doing has written, quite without planning it of course, a novel that became in 2020 simultaneously rather too close to the bone and also unusually comforting. We should all, of course, still be paying attention to the high politics and state-making with which Mantel concerns herself; but in 2020 much of our attentions have also turned inward. Hamnet speaks to the smaller world of the domestic space, riven by disease and shattered by grief, out of control and yet also the only unit left to us in making sense of events. “Every life has its kernel, its hub, its epicentre,” we read early on, “from which everything flows out, to which everything returns.” Hamnet is about that hub, where The Mirror & The Light is about – seeks to encompass – all its many spokes.
The novel begins with Hamnet running. He is, like most young boys, in persistent motion. At this particular moment, his family are nowhere to be seen, distracted by concern for his sister, Judith. Of course, this activity will end soon and the familial fretting will guiltily shift focus – and, equally naturally, the contrast is O’Farrell’s point. Also part of the purpose of the novel’s opening pages is sketching the geography of the very small world in which its events are set. When William eventually leaves for London and Southwark, we do not follow him; we instead stay in Stratford, and mostly on Henley Street – though occasionally we, like the characters, make the trip to the space of Shottery, where the Hathaways reside. This tight mise en scene offers O’Farrell the opportunity to paint the intimacy of the enclosed spaces in which most of the characters spend much of their time: the kitchen, the glover’s workshop, the bedchamber. The few streets of Stratford, too, become material in our reading the novel, and even a funeral procession to Holy Trinity is given the ballast of attractively quotidian detail.
By centring the novel in this way, its comparatively rather small stakes in fact come to matter a great deal – as of course they should. Hamnet isn’t really concerned with William except in his role as a father and husband; we spend most time with him early on, as a frustrated Latin master, and he becomes a mystery to us once he adopts the earring of the rakish playwright. The novel is, despite its title, in large part the story of his relationship with Anne – here known by her own insistence as Agnes. Agnes, the sister of the boys to whom William is assigned as Latin master, is given by O’Farrell the same gifts of human sympathy and understanding which are so often assigned to her husband; his self-actualisation becomes as much her project as his own. “She can look at a person and see right into their very soul,” he says of her, before London and Hamnet’s death drive wedges between them. “There is not a drop of harshness in her. She will take a person for who they are, not what they are not or ought to be.”
This comes as special relief to William, since his own father – the harsh glover, John – has no patience for his son’s sense of displacement, nor his apparent lack of interest in the practical trades to which John has devoted his life. Agnes, however, recognises that William “had more hidden away inside [him] than anyone else she’d ever met.” When William chooses to leave for London and not take his family with him, this hidden part bites the hand that has fed it. “It is evident to Agnes now … that her husband is split in two,” and duality feeds much of the rest of the novel: life and death, brother and sister, husband and wife, London and Stratford, sickness and health. Unusually, in doubleness the novel finds much not just of its conflict but also its consolation. In the novel’s denouement, for example, Agnes steals away to London, unbidden by her husband, to discover what his double life involves – adultery, probably, dissipation surely. But instead she attends the Globe, and sees a production of Hamlet, in which William plays the ghost of the young man’s father.
Her husband wrote these words, these exchanges, but what has any of this to do with their boy? … Why would her husband have done it? Why pretend that it means nothing to him, just a collection of letters? How could he thieve his name, then strip and flense it of all it embodies, discarding the very life it once contained? How could he take up his pen and write it on a page, breaking its connection with their son?
[… But] her husband has pulled off a manner of alchemy. He has found this boy, instructed him, shown him, how to speak, how to stand, how to lift his chin, like this, like that. He has rehearsed and primed and prepared him. He has written words for him to speak and to hear. She tries to imagine how her husband could have schooled him so exactly, so precisely, and how it might have felt when the boy got it right, when he first got the walk, that heartbreaking turn of the head.
[…] Hamlet, here, on this stage, is two people, the young man, alive, and the father, dread. […] He has taken his son’s death and made it his own; he has put himself in death’s clutches, resurrecting the boy in his place.
Having spent hundreds of pages, and in novel-time several years, with this family – who are in many ways historically, culturally, religiously distant from us – this passage, in which William at first has no idea his wife is present, is profoundly moving. This is because O’Farrell has picked apart the grief of the Shakespeares, the absence in their life that the plague has created. When Hamlet first dies from his sickness, which he has suffered while all the while his father is in London or travelling belatedly back, Agnes can barely believe it: “It is an impossible idea that her son, her child, her boy, the healthiest and most robust of her children, should, within days, sicken and die.” William, at first so distant as to see confoundingly unmoved, ultimately admits the same: “I am constantly wondering where he is,” he confides to her. “Where he has gone It is like a wheel ceaselessly turning at the back of my mind.” The complexity of this family, the doubleness of the individuals that make it up, the tight confines in which they share space, are laid bare – rent open, cast into chaos – by the random event of illness. Each member of the family must first identity, then acknowledge, then somehow accommodate, the knowledge that “[what] is given may be taken away, at any time. Cruelty and devastation wait for you around corners, inside coffers, behind doors: they can leap out at you at any moment, like a thief or brigand.” Hamnet is in part a book about how one family might do that.
Their pain is heightened by how arbitrary is Hamnet’s death. In a bravura passage, O’Farrell proposes sketches how, for “the pestilence to reach Warwickshire, England, in the summer of 1596, two events need to occur in the lives of two separate people, and then these two people need to meet” – but, in the telling, she makes clear how reductive even this emphasis upon chance proves to be. In fact, the necessary connections are even more rosicrucian and random. The two people are a Murano glassmaker and a cabin boy: the second contracts fleas from a monkey he plays with; the first is sick one day and his understudy fails to pack a shipment of beads safely, instead using rags the cabin boy’s fleas eventually migrate to onboard the vessel. When the beads are eventually delivered to Stratford-upon-Avon, as a result of yet more coincidence and hundreds of miles from Alexandria and Murano, a young boy dies. The almost improbable chain of events encourages fear – buboes send Stratford into cold shivers – and also, of course, superstition and foolishness: when a doctor arrives in a plague mask, Hamnet asks why he wears the strange device. “Because he this it will protect him,” Agnes explains. Will it? the boy responses. “His mother purses her lips, then shakes her head. ‘I don’t think so.'” But wear it he does.
All of this, needless to say, feels grimly relevant. But there is also a certain consolation in reading of plagues past, of quarantines and isolations and cumbersome prophylactics that – though terrifying then as now – also connect us to other human beings through shared experience and the empathy we can, with effort, practice in its presence. Hamnet adopts a laconic style that is never lachrymose or over-laden with pathos; but it is also deeply sad while finding room for hopes: of reconciliation, of memory, of love. I don’t think, in the quality of its execution or its clarity of vision, it has much in fact to fear from the mirror or the light.
If I was hoping that reading through the Women’s Prize shortlist might offer some timely distraction from the currently parlous state of the world beyond it, Jenny Offill’s Weather was here to ensure I had nowhere to hide. Narrated by a librarian convinced – like a monk awaiting the Viking horde – that the collapse of civilisation is fast approaching, I cannot imagine it will prove a comfortable read for anyone, much less someone – like me – who can’t quite shake the feeling that she might be right.
Weather reminded me of no book quite so much as Paul Kingsnorth’s Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist, a volume of essays rather than fiction which adopts a fatalism about the planet’s predicament that proves hard to shake having completed it. “[S]uicide is protest,” Kingsnorth writes, “suicide is wilful disobedience” [p. 15], and one leaves the book with the sense he wishes that society could just put itself to sleep. Offill’s narrator, Lizzie, has achieved Kingsnorth’s certainty but not his equanimity: she is instead fixated on what she might do, not so much to prevent the collapse as mitigate it. “It is important to be on the alert for the ‘decisive moment,’ says the man next to me who is talking to his date. I agree. The only difference is that he is talking about twentieth-century photography and I am talking about twenty-first-century everything.”
This sense of overwhelm pervades the text, and is a large part of why it proves so difficult to experience. It is an effect that Lucy Ellman evoked in Ducks, Newburyport, but differently: in that novel, the anxious narrator’s flood of thoughts drowns the reader in concerns big and small, relevant and trivial, founded and unfounded:
stranger danger, buckram buildings, the fact that I just don’t get why anyone would do that, Pottersville, the fact that people in the food business could poison people too, every day, if they wanted to, but they hardly ever do, Grant township, the fact that some people in Illinois declared rivers and streams have a right to exist, a right to flourish, but that’s in Illinois […] the fact that officially Illinois, Michigan, Indiana and Ohio make up the Midwest, just those four states […]
And so on. In Ellman’s novel – which due to its stylistic choices is eight times the length of Offill’s – a culture in crisis is depicted through the consciousness of a single individual, and the manner in which it cannot contain all that it is being asked to hold in place. In Weather, on the other hand, Offill’s protagonist is far more successful in shaping her anxiety into a single frame, a complete – if uncomforting – understanding. I think this, more than anything else, is why the novel reminds me more of Kingsnorth’s essays than Ellman’s novel: because it curates itself. This isn’t entirely to the subject matter’s benefit.
“Have you read all of these?” Lizzie’s neigbour asks her upon seeing her apartment’s collection of books. She has, but it hasn’t really helped – yet the craft of the prose that presents Lizzie’s crisis can sometimes contrive in its smartness to make everything a little too pat. There is a sense that Offill knows this, and in Sylvia – a travelling lecturer whom Lizzie once studied with and whose PA she becomes in the course of the novel – Weather casts a quizzical eye at the profiteering certainty of environmentalist prophets. “If you think you are lost,” we read at one point, “beware bending the map.” Sylvia has no answers, particularly – “Nothing lasts forever is the conclusion reached” – and her lectures increasingly feel like another symptom of the crisis, rather than a cogent analysis of it. “I’m starting to understand why all those people want to go to Mars,” Lizzie remarks.
Despite this, Weather – in all its well edited concision – can seem a tad insistent, exclusive and even closed; it is sometimes rather more certain than its narrator is meant in fact to be (“I wake to the sound of gunshots. Walnuts on the roof, Ben says”). Its signal is perhaps not sufficiently open to noise: “the impacts are going to be big,” Lizzie worries about the collapse – but the impacts are also going to be unpredictable. For Lizzie, however, they are always imagined as some sort of doomsday action flick: “one day I have to run to catch he bus. I am so out of breath when I get there that I know in a flash all my preparations for the apocalypse are doomed. I will die early and ignobly.” I was a fan of Offill’s previous novel, Dept. of Speculationprecisely because it constantly risked seeming preachy – but in its structural play always managed to achieve polyvalence. I’m not sure Weather quite manages the same trick.
In fairness, this is a novel about a woman’s inability to identify which events are catastrophic and which are not. “There is a period after every disaster in which people wander around trying to figure out if it is truly a disaster,” she muses at one point. “Disaster psychologists use the term ‘milling’ to describe most people’s default actions when they find themselves in a frightening situation.” Weather is a novel of milling: Lizzie worries about leaving her job, about having an affair, about leaving her husband Ben, about going on a day trip to Washington DC, about Sylvia; but nothing actually happens. She is milling – but perhaps so too is the culture that sits around her, that it is her professional calling to categorise and catalogue. In that sense, Weather is a novel of our time, murkily certain of the likelihood of collapse and also ill-equipped to imagine or encompass it. We are all of us milling.
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.
The Testaments is by some way the most traditional novel on this year’s Booker shortlist. It proceeds chronologically, for the most part, and it passes sedately between three more-or-less transparent narrative voices. It has a very clear plot – a lot happens in this novel – and its prose style has crystal clarity but nary a nod to experimental hi-jinx. Perhaps for these reasons, but also I think for others, it is also by a good distance the most readable of this year’s clutch. It is, in the lingo of the capsule review, a cracking read.
Indeed, it may well be the first proper science fiction thriller ever to make it onto the Booker shortlist. Two of its three narrators are young adults, and this gives the book a decidedly YA-ish verve – again, The Testaments is written to be read. It has a rehabilitated villain at its heart – who, if not entirely redeemed, is depicted in sufficient full, compromised technicolour to win our empathy – and its events have decidedly high stakes. The Testaments proceeds at the civilisational level.
All this makes it a very odd frontrunner for the gong this evening – but ahead of the pack it is, at least according to the bookmakers. At the same time, I am an unusual reader for it: here is where I confess to you, sotto voce, that I have never read The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), to which this book is a sequel, and have never watched the Hulu TV series of the same name, from the success of which this novel undoubtedly proceeds. I know the basics of the world of Gilead – the triumph of patriarchy, the subjugation of women, the terror of reproductive tyranny – but The Testaments is my first proper entry into this world. This no doubt makes me weird and even wrong; but it does at least mean I’m approaching this novel only on its own terms, as surely the Booker jury also must (if they can).
For my part, then, the other text I couldn’t stop thinking about as I read The Testaments was not The Handmaid’s Tale but Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman; that book, too, came a long time after a beloved original, a bona fide modern classic; that novel, too, had an extremely clear – even jejune – style, a bald approach perhaps; and that novel, too, cast new light on old characters (I know enough to realise that the newly rounded villain who powers The Testaments, Aunt Lydia, is a rather less complex figure in the original novel). Of course, Go Set A Watchman is also – undoubtedly – not a great novel. The Testaments feels similar to me in this respect, too.
I’m steering clear of spoilers – unusual for these Booker reviews of mine – because in some ways plot is all this novel has: the fate of Baby Nicole, the plots and stratagems of Aunt Lydia; the relationship between witness 369A and 369B, the novel’s other narrators; the ultimate fate of Gilead (in her Acknowledgements, Atwood says that she wrote the book to answer the most-asled question about The Handmaid’s Tale: “how did Gilead fall?” [p. 417]). Otherwise, there is world-building – beautifully, subtly done, although of course also reliant on the cultural penetration of that image of the Handmaid, meme-like in its ubiquity in the age of Trump. There isn’t a lot of character – other than Lydia, the characters all tend to speak in the same way (even the Canadian ones, whom one might assume are immune from the brainwashing of the Commanders). There isn’t a lot of atmosphere – we are told about a lot of terrible things (mass shootings, public dismemberments, forced executions), but most often in the style of reportage, our reactions doing the work for the economic prose:
“God will prevail,” concluded the speaker.
There was a chorus of baritone Amens. Then the men who’d escorted the blindfolded women raised their guns and shot them. Their aim was good: the women keeled over.
There was a collective groan from all of us who were seated in the bleachers. I heard screams and sobbing. Some of the women leapt to their feet, shouting – I could not make out the words – but were quickly silenced by being hit on the back of their heads with the butts of guns. There were no repeated blows: one sufficed. [p. 118]
The starkness of the prose tells us all we need to know; but it doesn’t conjure with the details. Atwood adopts this rather passive approach throughout (“Fists were raised, clutching clumps of bloodied hair torn out by the roots” [p. 279]), and it is certainly by design: first, it emphasises the powerless of the observers, who are always women; and second, I think, it allows the novel not to strain to tell us the obvious: this is wrong. It is so plainly, self-evidently wrong that why should the novel waste words persuading us of this? The problem, I think, is that the reader becomes an observer themselves in this process, rather than an intimate actor; it keeps us at one remove.
This is a shame, because the novel’s primary argument is for community, and specifically solidarity between women. Time and again, gossip acts as a lever of not just the plot but of the weakening of patriarchal authority: “The Aunts, the Marthas, the Wives: despite the fact that they were frequently envious and resentful, and might even hate one another, news flowed among them as if along invisible spiderweb threads” [p. 232]. When one character protests that, “I can’t destroy Gilead […] I’m just a person,” the retort comes: “Not alone, of course not” [p. 198]. Those who escape Gilead do so through “densely interconnected … networks of marriages” in the “liminal patches of Maine and Vermont” [p. 112]. In other words, fellow-feeling gets us through: “Is your mother the one who gives birth to you or the one who loves you the most?” one character asks of another [p. 89], and the truth is that there are many and multiple mothers in this text. Women nurture each other towards a better future.
There are compromises in all this, too: to fight the future, you have to get angry. One character is taught despite their protestations how to kill someone by gouging out their eyes; another proves her loyalty by murdering someone. Another reflects that women must be “prepared to wheedle, and lie, and go back on their word” to strike a blow against Gilead [p. 234]. The Testaments doesn’t think that craftivism will save the world; but it does believe in connecting the cracks in a system which appear in each individual – that woman who doesn’t want to get married, that one who can’t see why she should become pregnant – in order to create a fatal flaw in the broader façade. Many characters and plotlines come together in the course of the novel to achieve exactly this.
Any novel so tightly plotted can be accused of making complex events seem too easy, and the YA overtones of the piece do occasionally tell. Some of the novel’s best lines – “Wedlock: it had a dull metallic sound, like an iron door clicking shut” [p. 158] – are also among its most aphoristic, its most schematic. One character berates themselves for believing the checks and balances of the US constitution, that document that was so easily pulled apart by the forefathers of Gilead; The Testaments sees itself as a guide for the lost: how to avoid the mistakes of this world … and how to survive those of our own. This is a novel the last lines of which are, “Love is as strong as death” [p. 415].
Each reader’s mileage will vary as to how well they react to this. For my part, I found The Testaments moving and compelling – I read it at a clip, and was entirely captured by its events. On the other hand, I also experienced it as a teensy bit pat, perhaps a little lacking in layers. It’s remarkable that Atwood has set out to stamp her mark on a world she created and which has now become common property – presumably, The Testaments is canonical, and that means the TV series must reckon with it. It would be equally remarkable, I think, if the Booker rewarded such a novel tonight; not a bad thing at all on many levels – at last, a blow struck for genre! – but it would be a decided departure for the prize.
Each of the novels on this year’s Booker shortlist deals with outsiders: Shafak’s sex workers, Rushdie’s unemployed immigrant; Ellman’s Ohioan housewife is the closest to middle-class comfort the shortlist managers, but the intense anxiety that suffuses those pages robs the character of any of the assured confidence we might ordinarily associate with the insider. In the main, these novels seek to align their reader with their marginalised characters: as I discussed with Abigail Nussbaum in the comments to my review of Girl, Woman, Other, identification may indeed be at least one of these novels primary aim. In An Orchestra of Minorities, however, Chigozie Obioma isn’t quite playing that game: his oppressed character is so damaged by his experiences that the reader risks entirely losing sympathy.
Indeed, this tug of war gives the novel its structure: the narrator is not the protagonist but his chi, a sort of guardian spirit in the Igbo cosmology who pleads on its host’s behalf to its presiding demiurges. The human host, Chinonso, “has committed this great crime in error, unknowingly” the chi insists [p. 4], and in order to save its host from retribution the spirit proposes to impart the story of his life up to the date of the infraction. Like the best advocates, it couches its defence in precedent, in the received wisdom of existing authorities. In this case, the chi calls on a seemingly endless store of Igbo aphorisms. Most chapters begin with one of these, and indeed are peppered with gnomic pronouncements throughout, of which the following is a decent sample: “the old fathers say that a mouse cannot run into an empty mousetrap in broad daylight unless it has been drawn to the trap by something it could not refuse” [p. 130]. The old fathers, it turns out, are verbose.
The chi’s dilatory style, which is a unique and original a voice perhaps because of its excesses, ensures that we do not reach the details of Chinonso’s crime until the novel’s final chapter. Instead, we learn much about his early life as a chicken farmer – difficult, due to the filthy conditions of his work, but also not entirely without promise, since the farm is owned by his family. When he comes across a woman, Ndali, who is about to drown herself in a river, Chinonso persuades her instead to continue to life – her betrothed has married another after only a short time living in Britain, but he encourages her to see that this is not worth her own life. They fall in love; but Ndali’s family are rich – and Chinonso is a chicken father without an education. Ndali’s parents do not approve, and oppose the marriage.
Here the novel places culture front and centre: the Igbo traditions and language of Chinonso, and the Western, Christian, English-speaking culture of Ndali’s family. This postcolonial snobbery persists throughout. It darkens even the final pages of the novel, when the Christianity of Ndali’s milieu is seen to be both hollow and yet strangely suffused with the forgiveness of which Chinonso is incapable: when, in a bid to win the favour of Ndali’s father, he pays a friend up-front to send him to university in Cyprus (using the proceeds of his farm’s sale), he soon finds himself penniless and unregistered on the Greek island that once shipwrecked Odysseus. He proceeds to repeat Odysseus’s period of exile from Penelope (“he will not know that it happened long ago, and had merely been patiently waiting for him to notice” [p. 512]).
The novel does not, then, eschew the culture of the coloniser as Akwaeke Emezi chose to do in her recent Freshwater (a novel that also rendered Igbo cosmology in the contemporary, material world); rather, An Orchestra of Minorities seeks to hold them in tension. This isn’t entirely successful, and asks difficult questions. The Greek killed Penelope’s suitors, but he didn’t plot this retribution while away – and he didn’t punish his wife (though for some reason he did hang her handmaidens). Does Chinonso’s more wrathful, more premeditated, response to his travails say something about the Igbo tradition when contrasted with the relative stoicism and impersonal character of Odysseus’s? Does the manner in which the man who connected Chinonso with the fraudulent university enrolment goes on to embrace Christianity and, on his return, Chinonso himself point to the hypocrisy of the religion of the coloniser … or to the relative rigidity of the native theology? These often implicit questions are usually left unanswered.
Certainly the novel undermines the apparent wisdom of its chi by depicting the cluelessness and increasing malice of Chinonso. When it declares that “the great fathers in their discreet wisdom say that seeds sown in secret always yield the most vibrant fruit” [p. 172], it is practising wilful blindness: the silences in Chinonso’s life ruin him; they bear bitter – rotten – fruit indeed. Even the apparent omniscience of its narration (“his voice is my voice” [p. 4]) is explicitly rejected: “I have spoken many times this night about this peculiar lack in man and his chi,” it admits, “that they are unable to know that which they do not see or hear” [p. 510]. Obioma is not entirely patient with the pretensions of his spirits – or perhaps with any. For him, human experience is darker and dingier than all that.
Chinonso, for example, is hard to like – particularly in his objectification of Ndali. Early on, he focuses primarily on her “ponderous breasts” [p. 37], and he never really moves beyond them. When finally reunited with her after many years, he notices first that she is “weightier than the slender woman whose image he carried in his head all these years” [p. 449]. Chinonso’s chi is challenged, at the close of the novel, by Ndali’s: “I warned you to desist long ago but he kept coming after her, chasing her, until he disrupted her life” [p. 509]. Chinonso, for whom “loneliness is the violent dog that barks interminably” [p. 19], and who suffers from a “poverty of anticipation and the emptiness of hope for the future” [p. 223], is a sort of incel: entitled and affronted, someone for whom a woman is less an individual and more a set of imagined virtues, a reflection of their own needs (for these are all that matter). In pleading for him, the chi makes a serious error of identification.
Yes, Chinonso is the victim of racism in Cyprus – in one painful scene he is mistaken for Ronaldinho and forced to sign footballs. In others he is mocked for not being able to speak Turkish, or refused help because of his country of origin. And yes, he is the victim of a cruel trick, a form of human trafficking that profits from the forlorn hopes of the disadvantaged. But when he is rejected by a woman we are told he “quaked in his seat as a possessive form of violence perched on his mind” [p. 484]; it is hard, despite all the depredations to which he falls victim, to feel sympathy for him. When the chi argues that “my host would have done things differently if he had more capabilities” [p. 457], it feels like special pleading – and rings hollow.
Is this the author’s intent? I’m not sure: his debut novel, TheFishermen, spooled out a similarly grisly plot and managed to maintain the reader’s sympathy for those caught up in it; one of the novel’s three epigram’s is another Igbo proverb that maintains “if the prey do not produce their version of the tale, the predators will always be heroes”; and in an Author’s Note he suggests that he hopes the novel can “serve as a sufficient reference book” for anyone interested in “Afro-religions” [p. 513]. So there is a sense that, perhaps, An Orchestra of Minorities isn’t quite aiming for the ambivalence that ultimately it inspires. The novel takes its title from a saying of Chinonso’s father: that the English would translate the Igbo for “little things” – chickens – as minorities. “He was always saying the chickens know that is all they can do: crying and making the sound ukuuukuu!” [p. 98]
If Obioma thinks his novel is a story of the effects that prejudice and marginalisation can have on a man, then he is only half-right: but the man comes to that suffering already half-broken, and this is not his vision of the Igbo culture, which is rendered here in full and deep detail (there are even diagrams). Perhaps the girth of the novel, and the sometimes glutinous quality of its prose, is evidence that it got away from Obioma in this way; or perhaps the ambivalence is baked in but quietly, a less trumpeted part of the project. Either way, if not wholly successful or balanced, the novel is meaty and full of the sort of ingenuity and creative clash that prizes like the Booker often reward. It may, then, have a shot at this year’s gong – and for Obioma it is already his second such opportunity, an achievement in itself. But I wonder if they, too, will be given pause not by the novel per se … but by Chinonso.