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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you angry at me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or:

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

Or:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I had called upon my friend Sherlock Holmes”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“All The Colours of the Spectrum”: Esi Edugyan’s “Washington Black”

I spent much of the weekend at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, and managed to hear five of the six shortlisted Booker authors speak: four – Rachel Kushner, Daisy Johnson, Richard Powers and Robin Robertson – appeared together on stage on the Saturday; the fifth, Esi Edugyan, was on Sunday interviewed alone by the excellent Afua Hirsch. This means I’ve only missed Anna Burns, which is a shame – because for my money her novel, Milkman, is in the top flight of this year’s shortlist. But it’s Edugyan, I think, who is the author to beat this year.

Her novel, Washington Black, begins on a Barbados plantation known as “Faith” in 1830. The titular narrator, George Washington Black (or Wash for short), is a young slave of around ten years old (“I cannot say for certain” [p. 3]), and in the opening pages he gives us everything we might expect from this sort of story: cruel overseers, caring-but-cowed fellow slaves, brutal work, distant memories of earlier identities (“If you dead, you wake up again in your homeland,” insists Big Kit, one of the older slaves and one of the few with knowledge of Africa [p. 9]). Very early on, too, Edugyan makes clear that slavery was not merely an economic system, but a cultural and social one – a means of production as linked to white self-image as it was any particular business model:

Faith itself darkened under our new master. In the second week, he dismissed the old overseers. In their place arrived rough men from the docks, tattooed, red-faced, grimacing at the heat. These were ex-soldiers or old slavers or just island poor, with their papers crushed into a pocket and the sunken eyes of devils. Then the maimings began. What use could we be, injured so? (p. 8)

None at all, obviously. But that was not the point. Rather, slavery was – and, alas, can continue to be – as important in how it shores up, confirms and reflects on white supremacy as it was in providing for the ever-increasing demands of the proto-industrial economy. Very late in the novel, Wash will tell a white man: “You were more concerned that slavery should be a moral stain upon white men than by the actual damage it wreaks on black men” (p. 405). (It’s surely deliberate that even Wash isn’t free of another prejudice of the time: phallocentrism.)

The corrupting influence of slavery as an institution, then, is one of Edugyan’s key themes. But in her talk at Cheltenham, she emphasised that she considers Washington Black a post-slavery narrative, one which shifts the emphasis from bondage to what happens after the bonds are if not slipped free then loosened, little by little over time. This is a wise vision of a novel such as this, since I have some sympathy with the criticism that the recent preponderance of slave fictions can crowd out important stories of other sorts. For the first fifty or a hundred pages of Washington Black, then, I was impressed but uncertain: here was another brilliantly written novel of slavery which was going to rightly argue that the institution was wrong – and then move on. I was left feeling like Wash when he is first allowed by Titch, the naturalist brother of Faith’s master, to climb a hill in preparation for assisting in an experiment: “I was troubled by the enormous beauty of that place, of the jewel-like fields below us, littered as I knew them to be with broken teeth” (p. 60).

Washington Black is indeed very finely written. It has by far the smoothest, most controlled prose style on the shortlist. There is never a dip or a jagged edge, except where one is intended to be; every character emerges from the pages fully-formed and of crystal clarity; the characters’ speech reads redolently of their period without falling into pastiche; description is eloquent and evocative without being over-wrought; there are where necessary flashes of absolute wit and insight – “Mister Wilde had told me I was born with a ring of luck at my neck. Luck is its own kind of manacle” (p. 231) – and elsewhere, where appropriate, of more dilatory and yet no less apposite virtues. In one astonishing passage, Wash oversees the ferrying of live cargo across the Atlantic:

The winter crossed was rough, and some of the less hardy genera began to die off. When the octopus I’d caught in the cover grew colourless, lethargic, we stopped paying the steward to bring us sea water. Goff and I descended to the clanging, grim lower hold on the rare days we were in port and, stepping out into the blanched air, we’d disembark alongside a crewman to gather clean sea water into fir-wood casks. Using some rude instrument of my devising, we tested for impurities. The breeze would lift my hat, and I’d crouch there with my sticks and papers, sometimes cupping the water to my face to taste for deadly metals. Occasionally, a small, curious crowd would gather at the boats glistening rail to peer down at the strand old man and his ugly burnt slave who drank straight from the sea. (pp. 317-8)

No one line in this passage stands out, and yet the whole thing taken together reads as improbably moving. In boasting such complete control, but also in being willing to push its characters into situations which demand she move past the politeness of polished prose into something rawer and yet still beautiful, Washington Black is orders of magnitude better than Edugyan’s previous novel, Half-Blood BluesIt is much broader and deeper, following Wash in four parts from plantation to initial freedom – and on to, ultimately, residence in England – via a series of perhaps unlikely but never less than credible events. At each stage of his journey away from slavery – first as fugitive and finally as a “free” man – Wash perceives more and more a piecemeal process which at first had at first been invisible to him. Here is where the novel becomes the post-slavery narrative it prefers to be: in establishing clearly, but then not dwelling on, the depredations of the slave trade, Washington Black is able more fully to understand its legacies – and those individuals who might once have been a part of it.

Most importantly, Wash comes to live in a world still defined by white supremacy. He can achieve nothing without a white sponsor or benefactor – and, even when he finds one, his talents are co-opted by them without permission or second thought. A prodigiously talented illustrator, via Titch Wash becomes fascinated by the natural world, and marine biology in particular. He comes to make a huge contribution to that discipline – and yet, in the sort of act of erasure that the recent movie Hidden Figures made so palpable, his name appears nowhere close to the record of that invention. It will be remembered instead as the work of a white man, Wash having merely drifted from an explicit slavery to another sort of indenture. “I had been a slave, I had been a fugitive […] and I had survived it only to let the best of my creations be taken from me,” Wash sighs (p. 337).

Not everything is perfectly balanced in the novel, however. Edugyan also said at Cheltenham that she was keen not to allow her white characters to become cruel caricatures – but rather to show how slavery came to erode their senses of self and personal relationships, too. In treating the figure of Titch with such care and even sympathy, however, the novel comes perilously close to centring the experience of a white man in a narrative about black slavery and emancipation. Prior to the moment at which she wisely removes Titch from the narrative, Edugyan cannot help but lead us, fascinated, by the nose in Titch’s wake. Perhaps we are meant to feel some of the unearned hero-worship Titch encourages in Wash, the slave he “frees” from the oversight of his master; but later in the novel Wash still believes that Titch “had risked his own good comfort, the love of his family, his name […] His harm, I thought, was in not understanding that he still had the ability to cause it” (p. 406). This is an extremely forgiving vision of the scion of a slaveholding family, whatever abolitionist identity they may adopt in reaction to that practice; and there’s even something of the tragic to it, a poignancy which renders Titch some kind of hero, a figure of unusually poetic proportions who inevitably takes some of the narrative’s momentum with him when he leaves.

Crucial to all this is Edugyan’s concept of freedom. She sees it not as an unalloyed good so much as a tool we must all be given so we may be the person we truly are – good or bad. Wash is spun a story on the plantation by Big Kit, who tells him that freedom is about doing what you wish at all times. The novel is a journey away from that simplicity. “Freedom, Wash, is a word with different meanings to different people,” Titch at another point lectures him, “as though I did not know the truth of this better than he” (p. 154); when Wash learns that the Faith plantation has been sold and disbanded, he comes to wonder about his old friends – “did they use their freedom wisely or foolishly?” (p. 183)  We never know. What we are sure of, however, is that they will have been able, to one extent or another, to pick their path, unlike when they were held in bondage. “You speak of slavery as though it is a choice,” Wash later upbraids another character. “As if there are those who are naturally slaves, and those who are not” (p. 268). This, of course, is a calumny – and Wash is a proof of that, but one which the white scientists around him never quite fully perceive. Only in the Arctic wilderness where Titch’s father toiled in cataloguing natural phenomena is racism seen to be on hold, the exception proving the rule:

“And who introduced you to this delicacy?” said Titch. “Your man? […] Your Esquima, I mean. The one who brought us here on his sled.”

“Hesiod? But he is not our servant. […] He comes and goes at his own choosing. There is no word for ‘servant’ in his tongue.” (p. 203)

(No servant, perhaps; but he is named nevertheless by white men.)

Again, you’ll notice, Titch is the vehicle through which the lesson is dramatised. He is the crease in Edugyan’s philosophy, the anchored line that keeps the big ideas of her novel rooted a little too squarely in place. This is the primary reason I can see for the other big book on this year’s shortlist, Richard Powers’s The Overstory, pipping Edugyan at the post. As distinct from what I still consider to be Milkman‘s unique qualities, both Washington Black and The Overstory feel like weighty novels addressing universal concerns – works which escape the particular. I won’t have time before tonight’s ceremony to write up my thoughts on The Overstory, but it is almost monumental in its solidity, its fixedness of purpose. It, too, is a philosophical novel: in Powers’s case, the governing principal is environmentalist unblinding, the book as a whole a sort of arboreal DeLillo, an American epic following nine disparate characters through a twentieth- and twenty-first-century reckoning with trees (“a tree is a passage between earth and sky” [p. 57]). As one has come to expect from Powers, an intellectual novelist whose books are influenced very much by his previous life as a computer programmer – all flawless logic and clarity of parameters – The Overstory is as complete as a megalith. It has no ideological flaws or accidents, no Titch to skip disruptively through the text. It is insistent, oddly monomaniacal for a novel so gloriously baggy, focusing squarely on its vision of the necessary reorienting of our understanding of what the world is, of “what life wants from people, and how it might use them” (p. 494).

Perhaps it is part of this project that The Overstory is never quite human, however. Washington Black, on the other hand, is only ever over-generous in its extension of sympathy, too readily understanding of individuals’ perfidy and weakness. “I rather underestimated the intrepid nature of human stupidity,” we read at one point in the novel (p. 200), and it seems a lodestar for the book’s vision of us. The seminal line is given, of course, to the patriarch of a slaveholding family. I think it may be this clear-sightedness, but also this compassion, which wins Edugyan the prize this evening.

“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, “the Booker prize has always had a very distinctive quality, which comes from – I might not describe it as excluding Americans – but has to do with what is still the Commonwealth, and the leftovers of empire, which still have a lot of cultural connections.” 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.

“This Whole City Is A Trap”: Robin Robertson’s “The Long Take”

There’s an episode of the venerable Buffy the Vampire Slayer spin-off, Angel, entitled “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been?” (“AYNoHYEB”). It takes place in 1952, when the immortal vampire of the series’ title is living an amoral existence in downtown Los Angeles, passing through but not mixing with a series of avatars from the period: the out-of-work scriptwriter, the meathead actor, the sassy broad. The milieu is paranoid, informed by the Red Scare and McCarthyism; Angel first engages compassionately with these lost souls … and then, despairingly, gives up on them. “Take ’em all,” he sneers in the direction of a demon seeking to feed on the humans’ souls. Such is LA at the twilight of the golden age of Hollywood.

It might be odd that a work of epic poetry brings to mind a seminal forty-three minutes of network television from the earliest 2000s; but, certainly unknowingly, in his Booker-shortlisted The Long Take, Robin Robertson covers much the same ground as “AYNoHYEB” writer Tim Minear: his detached, damaged protagonist, known almost exclusively simply as “Walker”, stalks the cities of post-war America – specifically New York, San Francisco and primarily Los Angeles – and consistently fails to engage with the people around him, even as he pines after a sense of community he at first cannot access and then, ultimately, sees destroyed. Walker is a Canadian veteran of World War II, fleeing the violence of a past which recurs to him, interrupting the free verse in which the majority of this “novel” is written, in italicised prose:

Mackintosh took up a Sten gun, shouting, spraying it like a hose at the Germans. He ran out of ammo, turned back toward us, then we saw how his chest just spat – then petalled open – and with a great convulsion he flopped down dead. (p. 160)

If it feels bathetic to compare the literary tale of a traumatised veteran with a popular TV show about a supernatural detective, then I may be conveying something of my feelings about The Long Take: that it never quite justifies itself, never really leaves behind the stuff people have already said about the subjects it seeks to address. “Manhattan’s the place for reinvention,” we’re told at one point as if this is news (p. 17); we are asked to marvel repeatedly at the “Chinese, Japanese, Negroes, Filipinos, Mexicans, Indians / even Hindus and Sikhs” apparently – guess what? – to be found in American cities (p. 43); and as the years of Walker’s narrative pass by, his beloved post-war cities change, “buildings gone, / replaced by parking lots” (p. 184), as Joni Mitchell very nearly once sang. For an epic poem taking in these years of great change in the US immediately following 1945, The Long Take feels curiously familiar.

In part, this is deliberate. Robertson is seeking to encode in verse the grammar of film noir – the hard drinking journos who work alongside Walker at the LA Press, the quick-bitten dialogue in the bars and on the trams, the sense of despair and of place. Indeed, in its evocation of this grimy atmosphere The Long Take earns some spurs. You have to forgive epic poetry some water-treading – a number of its lines will always exist only to pass from one section to the next. But Robertson scores some big hits nevertheless, and usually it’s when he’s describing cities (Walker, a wandering psychogeographer before the genre was coined, has a thing for the built environment, its “straight lines / and diagonals” [p. 4]). The writing in these sections is often properly lyrical:

The smell of orange blossom on a Sunday morning
in the dead streets of Los Angeles –
the Spanish-style courtyard apartment complexes,
Mediterranean villas with arrow-loops, Mexican ranch houses
with minarets, Swiss chalets with fire-pits and pools,
Medieval-style, Prairie-style, Beaux-Arts-style –
stretching in its long straight lines down to the gray Pacific Ocean. (p. 81)

This is lovely stuff, and to sustain an entire novel across more than two hundred pages of verse is a formal achievement of remarkable proportions – and one that Robertson fully realises. But what’s new about LA-as-architectural-pastiche, or the smell of orange blossom on a Californian breeze? Robertson ticks the boxes of his noir checklist even as the returns from doing so diminish. The hard-boiled pose of his noirish lead doesn’t help, either: not only is Walker a, to be fair understandably, distant figure; despite his radical politics, even his theoretical fraternal feeling for his fellow man is insufficiently expressed to make sense of his horror as the area of Bunker Hill he has called home begins to be demolished. Instead, he just comes across as the worst kind of architecture fan, initial enthusiasm shading into reactionary distaste for the new:

The open cupola of the Seymour Apartments no longer looks out
over the steel frame of the courthouse.
The new concrete of the courthouse
looms over what was once the Seymour, levelled that afternoon. (p. 199)

From early on, Walker is interested in cities and “how they fail” (p. 56), but do they really fail through concrete? Walker is a complex, ambivalent character … but in other ways he’s just a bit dull. His motivating principle comes down to needing to unburden himself: “He had to finish telling Billy what he’d done, back in France,” he resolves late on, thinking of his only constant friend throughout the novel. “It was eating him up. Eating him alive” (p. 216). Reader, if indeed “the only American history is on film” (p. 137), then I’ve seen this one.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that The Long Take has been recognised by the Booker for its undoubted stylistic achievements, and for its regular, but brief, flashes of poetic invention: a woman dances “tipping her toes like a cat / at the end of a rope” (p. 157); cities are “locked geometries of shadows” (p. 5); and everyday diner meals are elevated in metre:

He went down to Clifton’s for some split pea soup;
chili and beans,
corned beef hash if he could. (p. 62)

An epic needs more than some decent lines to keep itself in motion, however: it needs fire, a forward momentum, an almost delirious energy. The Long Take instead has too many longeurs, which perhaps mimic Walker’s sleepless urban perambulations, but which also rob these lines of their roll. Robertson winds up repetitive, circling the blocks of Bunker Hill in ever decreasing circles; and no amount of admiration for the formal discipline, the super-human acts of poetic will it takes to write a book like this, can quite make up for that vague air of the waiting room. For me at least, this novel – if that is what it is – ultimately felt just a little bit like a chore, worthy and even improving … but rarely entertaining. If The Long Take were the kind of movie it seeks to ape, some among its audience might clap and admiringly murmur “bravo”, but few – surely – would be enthusiastic enough to demand, “Encore!”