“How Women Get Things Done”: Margaret Atwood’s “The Testaments”

The Testaments coverThe 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.


“Pitiless Circumstances”: Chigozie Obioma’s “An Orchestra of Minorities”

An Orchestra of Minorities coverEach 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, The Fishermen, 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.

“The Numbness of Muted Beings”: Lucy Ellman’s “Ducks, Newburyport”

Ducks, Newburyport cover

In “Raise The Dead”, one of the songs that appears on Santiago, an album released last year by my friend Amit Dattani, he sings, “We can’t worry about those things / That might not become things / But they could still be things / So we should worry”. Every time I’ve seen him deliver these lines live (you can watch for yourself here), he gets a laugh – and rightly so, since Amit’s raconteur spirit is a central part of what makes him such a wonderful performer and songwriter. But it’s also true that the song – it’s called “Raise The Dead”, guys – is an awful lot darker than that. In the circular logic of those lines lies the true, inescapable and corrosive terror of anxiety and obsessive compulsion.

Lucy Ellman’s Ducks, Newburyport arrives on the 2019 Booker shortlist to anatomise exactly this phenomenon – but does so with considerably less interest in economy. At a thousand pages and for the most part just a single sentence, the novel rolls along for much of its vast bulk without a single full stop appearing in the main narrative. If indeed “narrative” is a word that is meaningful in the context of this text: the narrator, an Ohio housewife who used to teach college-level English literature but who, following the traumatic illness and death of her mother, now bakes pies for a living, spends much of the novel in the kitchen; she spends some of it in a broken-down car when it’s quite cold outside; then she returns home to bake some more pies, because the ones she baked before have spoiled during the wait for the rescue vehicle; around nine-tenths in (really, precise figures cease to be relevant) something quite significant happens, but I wouldn’t want to spoil that for you. Interspersed among all this are very short vignettes – never more than a page or two – that focus on the life of a lioness and her cubs; they are written in beautiful, stately prose that comes as a soothing balm amidst the endless run-on sentence they interpolate.

The lioness is a relief from the housewife because the latter’s internal monologue is an endless, free-associative flood of triggers and terrors:

the fact that Mommy’s illness wrecked my life, the fact that it broke me, the fact that I am broken, the heartbroken, heart operation, heart scar, broke, Yueyaquan, Leo, the fact that that mean doctor gave me antibiotics for bronchitis, but so reluctantly, the fact that he seemed to hate me, and I never knew why … [p. 27]

And so on. These fears sit alongside others occasioned by the state of the world – “everything seems so aggressive now” [p. 367], she reflects – and, indeed, by its apparently imminent and fiery destruction: “if it’s the end of the world, bud, it’s the end of the world” she mentally shrugs [p. 186], and yet worries away at the idea that the Ohio river is too polluted, or that polar bears may soon be extinct, or “the fact that there are men who cut the fins off sharks and toss the sharks back into the sea, where they sink to the bottom and suffocate, the fact that I shouldn’t think about it” [p. 928]. She worries constantly about guns, too, and “the fact that” people are “armed, just to deliver garden compost and turf and chicken feed” [p. 143]; she worries about her children getting shot at the mall, her husband getting shot at the university where he teaches; she worries about being shot in her own kitchen, about her friends being shot; she interviews every parent at whose house her own children play about their gun ownership. She worries that “Republicans prefer respectful, obedient children to independent, curious, rebellious ones” [p. 342]; she worries about “what will happen to the White House vegetable patch now” [p. 396].

The narrator is in other words tortured by knowledge, feels adrift within it and the verities that are used to explain it all away: “the fact that people are always saying this isn’t ‘who we are as a nation’, but, well, it kind of is who are are” [p. 86]. And alongside these external pressures are all the petty trivialities of modern life: whole pages go by describing ingredients and recipes, listing towns that end in “ville”, remembering “the fact that Iwo Jima was trapezoid” [p. 702]. No thought is too trivial not to appear in the monologue – for example, we are treated to “the fact that Henry Higgins could have gotten two different sound tattoos tattooed on himself” [p. 892] (I don’t know either). Recurring themes – Jane Austen, David Attenborough, the Amish, the catchiness of pop songs – pepper all this and provide something approaching a structure or a sort of unity, but the real point of Ducks, Newburyport is onslaught, the impossibility of containment: “who has time … anymore,” the narrator asks, “leisure time, mod cons, the fact that Abby liked to do all those sorts of things but I don’t have time to stitch a nine-patch” [p. 348]; “there will always be monkeys in the zoo” she supposes [p. 672].

What makes all this compelling – and I did find it compelling, affecting, evocative – is that taken together the prose depicts a person – and also possibly a culture – in collapse. Despite “the fact that it begins to seem positively unAmerican to internalize things” [p. 400], our narrator is incapable of switching off: indeed, she realises that “when this monologue in my head finally stops, I’ll be dead” [p. 514]; even if that makes Ducks, Newburyport in some ways a vital celebration of life, it is also and at the same time a rather bleak portrayal of it, in all its exhausting intensity. “I must be at a low point,” the narrator remarks, “to get so riled up like this about something that happened years ago” [p. 393] – but in fact it is her constant condition. She is always low, and she is in part this way because there is no other way to be: people “can’t just be thinking about coffee and ham on rye, the fact that they’re probably worrying about a lousy fiancé or an ominous lump or if they’ll make the mortgage repayments this month” [p. 187]. The monologue doesn’t stop; the worries always metastasise (and, yes, the narrator has had cancer and is anxious constantly that it will return).

Time is out of joint; humans have built a society and a culture in which they do not feel secure (“the fact that it’s best not to know why Trump does the things he does, the fact that he’s making everyone dizzy and nauseous” [p. 235]). In contrast, the lioness is confident and commanding, becalmed in the knowledge that “all of life is really recoil and leap, recoil and leap” [p. 11]: “you’re linked to the pleasures, pains, and drama […] All living things are” [p. 407]. What separates human and animal, then, isn’t higher reasoning but terror; the irony is that it is the lioness whose habitat is being destroyed, her species that is being hunted, by the humans who are barely conscious of the world through which they crash. Late in the novel, the narrator’s daughter develops “some kind of rapport with that woebegone creature” [p. 998] – and in that line is what approaches in this novel hope.

This recreation of a single individual interacting with an over-riding culture – a technique that requires the reader constantly to inspect the space between what is said and what might be signified, in order to understand both context and plot – isn’t without its quirks. The narrator routinely corrects herself – “tax papers, taxpayers, I mean” [p. 370] – which feels pretty artificial given that the text poses as a pure representation of a monologue without an audience (who clarified oneself to oneself in this way?). Likewise, I can imagine a shorter novel – perhaps not much shorter, but shorter all the same – that achieved the same sense of totality. That is, Ducks, Newburyport – for all its internal rhymes and rhythms – could still have used a bit of editing. The typographic sallies – big numbers to represent the sizes of pots and pans, or reproduced advertisements – add little. But, in the face of the sheer scale of Ellman’s novel, these are tiny quibbles indeed; they are washed away in the flood – and, compared with a similar attempt to write a contemporary modernist novel such as Will Self’s Umbrella, Ducks, Newburyport achieves all this whilst also managing to be eminently readable (if, ultimately, also and necessarily a feat of endurance).

There’s another song that the novel reminds me of, however, and that’s Sheryl Crow’s “The Na-Na Song“: when Ellman routinely pens lines such as “sex slaves, trafficking, porno pics, ISIS, beheadings, 9/11, 9/11, Oprah […] grab ’em by the stars and stripes” [p. 828], it’s impossible not to think it might just be incantatory nonsense. Does the novel capture a moment, or does it over-inflate one? Perhaps only time – and repeated readings – will tell. But, perhaps especially in a book like this, it is remarkable that we can’t dismiss the possibility that here is a work of lasting value; if the Booker judges are feeling brave they might be tempted to recognise that.

“The Battles That Are Your British Birth-right”: Bernardine Evaristo’s “Girl, Woman, Other”

Afua Hirsch’s Brit(ish) is one of the best books yet to have been written about the curious experience of being Black while British. It somehow succeeds in being both memoir and history, specific and general. It is evocative while also being rigorous. It’s pungent and composed, all at the same time. “Britishness has not yet fully rejected its roots in ideological whiteness,” she argues, “and the pain that has inflicted on blackness. For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion” [p. 214].

For Hirsch, the question of identity is too important to ignore, to get wrong (she has, of course, much sense to speak on Brexit): it concerns “the relationship between … the individual and the group,” and in this way cuts across every boundary and every question [p. 21]. When it is increasingly fashionable on both left and right to decry “identity politics”, Hirsch makes the vital case for it. It isn’t at all a surprise that she has in recent weeks been at the forefront of the defence of Naga Munchetty.

Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other is an attempt to depict in fictional form many of the feints, slights and nuances of identity about which Hirsch has written and campaigned. Less a novel than an inter-linked set of short stories (indeed, the book has been written over a period of many years – which longue durée may have led to the novel’s lack of momentum, of building argument), it features twelve chapters that focus each in turn on a single individual – almost all black, many immigrants but all in dialogue with Britishness – and closes out on a final chapter which brings them all together at the première of a black-authored play at the National Theatre.

In this way, it’s a curiously Radio 4-friendly version of British blackness: it opens with the writer of that new drama, with whom any regular listener of Woman’s Hour will feel readily comfortable (“she wants people to bring their curiosity to her plays, doesn’t give a damn what they wear, has her own sod-you style … which has evolved from the clichéd denim dungarees” [p. 3]); if the novel then slowly moves away from this archetype to other, less familiar ones, then somehow the narrative arcs remain familiar: the successful City banker tormented by memories of being raped at thirteen, shut down and shuttered; the frustrated suburban school-teacher in her John Lewis twin-set, her faith in the transformative power of education worn down over the years; the struggling super-market manager full of life and vitality even as the shelf-stacking denies her humanity. You won’t feel alienated by Girl, Woman, Other is my point.

Nor is this – necessarily – a bad thing. Evaristo is aiming for accessibility so that she can attract readers who usually avoid the “black fiction” section. This is a trick pulled off by the TV series Orange Is The New Black, which used Taylor Schilling’s Piper Chapman as a Trojan horse for a set of more diverse, less familiar stories. Also in this book, for example, is the tale of Winsome, the Jamaican grandmother who has a passionate affair with her son-in-law; of the transgender Megan/Morgan, “part-Ethiopian, part African-American, part Malawian and part English” [p. 311]; of Dominique, who travels to America only to be consumed by her partner’s coercive control (“Nzinga created an atmosphere glutinous with tension” [p. 99]). These are interesting – even educational – stories, and ones which might otherwise go under-read.

The real problem is that they are here perhaps under-written. For a novel that shifts perspective so much, the narrative voice shifts rarely. Evaristo adopts a broken-backed sort of prose-poem style, which isn’t entirely consistent by can be occasionally effective:

the next week when she went to the meeting
Elaine was canoodling with another woman
and blanked her completely
she never went again [p. 13]

It is at other times – in fact, perhaps even when effective – a bit sophomoric:

she told them until she was bored of repeating herself
in [p. 238]

The purpose of this novel is primarily to compare and contrast the varied experiences of the women it depicts, with a view to building a more complete picture of what justice might mean. If we are all feminists, what can that mean when “millions of women are waking up to the possibility of taking ownership of our world” [p. 438]? If gender equality is the goal, what is the appropriate response of or to a transgender person who is “cool with it when people don’t use or understand their preferred pronouns” [p. 328], and how rich can intersectionality be when there is only “one [person] Yazz can’t tell to check her privilege” [p. 66]? Evaristo successfully builds a cast of fully alive characters who help us investigate these questions, and she doesn’t shy away from wryly dismissing the excesses of even the most well-meaning seeker of truth. In a tower block loosely modelled on squatter communes like Frestonia:

the Marxists demanded they set up a Central Committee of the Workers’ Republic of Freedomia, which was a bit rich, Amma thought, seeing as most of them had taken “a p[rincipled stand against the running dogs of capitalism as an excuse not to work

the hippies suggested they form a commune and share everything, but they were so chilled and laid back, everybody talked over them

the environmentalists wanted to ban aerosols, plastic bags and deodorant, which turned every against them, even the punks who weren’t known for smelling minty [p. 17]

The problem is that Evaristo’s radical intent is undermined by this sort of soft-centredness, a fear of the follow-through. Even the novel’s style – no full stops, but copious paragraph breaks, no speech marks but plenty of dialogues – gestures towards danger before stepping back from it. Mostly, Evaristo contents herself with putting her message in the mouths of her characters rather than the fabric of the novel itself – “I was born in the nineteen-twenties,” an elderly woman scolds a younger, more radical one, “you’re expecting too much of me” [p. 352] – and so Girl, Woman, Other sort of passes by in its monotone way, neither pushing us nor itself. The novel has a didactic element while at the same time pulling its preaching punches; its characters advocate for progress, but the novel that encloses them seems stuck in neutral.

Perhaps the most moving of the chapters is the one devoted to Bummi, the Nigerian mother of a girl who does so well at school that she makes it an ancient university – where, in line with the Oxbridge tendency to make of its every student a copy of its most stereotyped, she adopts a cut-glass accent and a taste for cuisine other than the Lagosian. A successful small business woman, Bummi is intensely proud – rather than awkwardly ashamed – of the distance she and her family have come. “My point is that you are Nigerian,” she scolds her child, “no matter how high and mighty you think you are […] no matter how English-English you yourself pretend to be” [p. 158]. Her sense of loss is palpable, and the chapter’s willingness fully to embrace the story’s over-riding sentimentality – and in so doing striking a balance that, elsewhere on the Booker shortlist, Shafak fails to achieve – powers that success. Girl, Woman, Other would have benefited from such commitment elsewhere, too.

In Bummi’s insistence on the persistence of her daughter’s Nigerian heritage, we return to Hirsch’s vision of identity as difficult and knotty. Evaristo has herself reviewed Brit(ish), in the TLS: in her words, it “teases out … the contradictions inherent in a racially stratified society,” and both she and Hirsch are to be commended for their efforts in holding up a mirror to this strange old country, at a time when it sorely needs to see itself more clearly. One of the best things about this year’s shortlist is that, in its diversity, it queries and complicates the response of the white, male critic; my reading, then, is far from authoritative. For what it’s worth, however, I couldn’t shake the feeling as I read Girl, Woman, Other that the angle at which it was held to its subject was slightly off; if not quite flattering to the viewer, Evaristo’s novel is never quite as honest as it might have been.

“Discontinuity Ruled”: Salman Rushdie’s “Quichotte”

In his recent This Is Not Propaganda, Peter Pomerantsev asks what may be the killer question of our time: “if the need for facts is predicated on a vision of a concrete future that you’re trying to achieve, then when that future disappears, what is the point of facts?” [p. 166] Pomerantsev’s book is a sort of sequel to his Nothing is True and Everything is Possible, in which he expands that first book’s focus on the former Soviet Union to the worldwide breakdown in consensus reality. “The futureless present arrived first in Russia,” he argues. “We are just catching up” [p. 255]. What he means is simple: the confusion of the modern media space, the lack of cohesion, the impossibility of divining a single narrative or crafting a unity position, is a function of our broken societies, our struggling systems: we’ve lost faith in the futures they once promised us, and so we’ve lost faith in fact.

Salman Rushdie tackles this curious cultural moment in his Booker-shortlisted Quichotte. With his typical intertextuality, Rushdie does so by going backwards, to the birth of his chosen form. He revives Cervantes’ romantic prose narrative, Don Quixote, transplanting its eponymous and absurd idealist to modern America. Quichotte is a sobriquet for a down-at-heel Indian immigrant, who, having lost his job as a salesperson for a pharmaceutical conglomerate, fixes the purpose of his existence on the presenter of an Oprah-ish chat show, the former Bollywood star Salma R. Quichotte is, however, himself a fiction: he is the character in a novel written by a character in Quichotte, Sam DuChamp – himself an Indian immigrant who has for some years made a living by writing workaday spy thrillers, but who in this new novel is being somehow drawn towards a stranger form of fiction.

Already there is a cuteness to all this fragmentation, and this is indeed an often gratingly arch novel. Here’s an interjection from Sam:

An interjection, kind reader, if you’ll allow one: It may be argued that stories should not sprawl in this way, that they should be grounded in one place or the other, put down roots in the other of the one and flower in that singular soil; yet so many of today’s stories are and must be of this plural, sprawling kind, because a kind of nuclear fission has taken place in human lives and relations, families have been divided, millions upon millions of us have travelled to the four corners of the (admittedly spherical, and therefore cornerless) globe, whether by necessity or choice. Such broken families may be our best available lenses through which to view this broken world. [p. 54]

It’s hard to argue with all this, but also difficult not to recall that a previous Booker shortlistee – Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West – very recently made the same argument with greater concision. How much you enjoy Quichotte, then, will depend very much on your patience for its loquacity, the way DuChamp and then Quichotte alternate chapters, the way that Quichotte in turn conjures into being an imaginary son, Sancho, who reflects on what reality might mean if one is fictitious; on how far you’ll allow a real-life spy to enter the life of the writer of spy fiction, or how keen you are to read the stories of Sam’s sister, a famed human rights lawyer in England who has no connection at all to the Trampoline, the estranged sister of Quichotte who is ultimately robbed and assaulted by Sancho, himself an echo of Sam’s estranged hacker son. There comes a point where this game of echoes and parallels begins to obliterate itself, especially when the prose in which it is contained can prove so baggy:

Brother, the Author, had lost touch with his only son several years ago. The young man, tall, skinny, nerdy, bespectacled, had never seemed like a potential runaway, but after he dropped out of college, which he described as “worse than useless”, adding “nobody will ever need me to write an essay in the whole rest of my life”, he began to act strangely, to lock the door of his room and spend all day and all night lost somewhere inside his laptop, listening to music videos, playing online chess, watching pornography, who knew what. [p. 213]

Exhaustion, though, the breaking-down of borders of taste and form, is part of Rushdie’s purpose. Much is made of muddle throughout: for Quichotte, New York City “had always struck him as being chaotic, formless, overcrowded, harsh, and possessed of no dominant narrative hue” [pp. 202-3]; wider still, we read that the “universe has no interest in right and wrong” [p. 103]. As Quichotte and Sancho proceed through their quest towards Salma R – herself revealed to be addicted to the high-grade fentanyl manufactured as an illegal side-project by the uncle who owns Quichotte’s former employer – they go through a series of increasingly surreal vignettes: at one point, they do battle with a village of mastodons, at another Quichotte spends days in conversation with his television. These episodes form the “seven valleys” that Quichotte declares must be passed through to reach his goal; but by the end of the novel he has abandoned all illusion of programmatic progress, and the novel in which he stars veers towards wild science fiction as an Elon Musk stand-in invents a machine capable of punching through the membranes between alternative worlds.

Inevitably, one of these worlds is DuChamp’s own, in which he has become embroiled in an international incident linked to his hacker son. When Quichotte and Salma R finally break through into this universe, however, they do so as tiny versions of themselves, unable to breathe the too-large molecules in the air that DuChamp breathes by default, “unassimilable, helpless, puny, gasping for air, not finding it” [p. 390]. In other words, the fictional is insufficient for survival in the “real” world. Now this, coming at the very end of a discursive and sometimes shapeless novel, is properly interesting: in its final pages, Quichotte suggests that the very activity in which its author and its reader have been engaged for nearly four hundred pages is … pointless. It is “puny” in the face of the size and scope of the world beyond the pages of the fiction. Faced with the sheer proportions of the world of the creator, fiction shrivels and dies.

The world ends for Quichotte; so what? Well, we have come to know him and many other inhabitants of his world enough to find it sufficiently real to care, to see ourselves in it. The levels of creation that overlay each other in the novel admittedly encourage the reader to look upwards: if our world ended, would anyone notice or care? But, more incisively, the novel acknowledges and approves of what we may learn from fiction – while explicitly emphasising its subordinate status to our own reality. It rejects – like Don Quixote before it – the idea that the real and the fictive are equal (there’s no point in tilting at those windmills). Both are important in their own ways, both matter; but it’s crucial to recognise and acknowledge their division:

Cyberwar was the attack on truth by lies. It was the pollution of the real by the unreal, of fact by fiction. It was the erosion and devaluation of the empirical intellect and its replacement by confirmations of previously held prejudices. How was that any different from what he himself was doing, Brother asked himself, how was it different from the fictions he was making and which were now ensnaring him? Except that he was not trying to bring down Western civilisation, excuse me. That was a small difference. And he was tying nobody up in knots except himself. [p. 231]

The reader may find this to be an obvious distinction for so chaotic a novel to be making: “all the boxes got pushed up against all the other boxes and opened up” [p. 195], is how one character explains the sudden mess of the world’s previously compartmentalised stories, and Quichotte represents this process in often noisy polyphony. You have to get through a lot to reach the meat here. And in a curious way, none of it ever seems quite so dense as (for example) Midnight’s Children, almost as if the archness of its prose style can’t quite commit to the project, or as if all of the pop cultural references – Game of Thrones, Anonymous, reality TV are all here – act as placeholders for a proper centre of gravity (“we are being crippled by the culture we have made,” Rushdie writes [p. 362]).
But this is easily Rushdie’s best novel for some time, and it at least attempts to grapple with this world in which “yesterday meant nothing and could not help you build tomorrow” [p. 236]. Underneath all the often lame joshing – the novel begins with the first of many apparently irresistible Dad jokes, a “Quixotic Note on Pronunciation” – Rushdie has seen something true, and makes an argument for the enhancement of apprehension, not the remaking of reality, being the proper purpose of fiction in a factless age.

“Hope Is A Hazardous Chemical”: Elif Shafak’s “10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World”

shafak10minsAt the end of August, BBC Radio 4 dramatised in its entirety Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. This was an ambitious project, and not just because of the novel’s length: as Belinda Jack argued in an edition of Open Book that previewed the series, every character in Proust is a figment of the narrator’s memory, his imagination; not one other figure who appears anywhere in the novel is fully, or perhaps remotely, themselves. In a dramatisation, it is almost impossible to capture this intermediary quality – but it is essential to the novel’s approach to the quest that gives it its title.

I mention this by way of introduction to Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World for two reasons: number one, the novel is obviously indebted to Proust’s madeleine, in the way that its protagonist – a woman who has just died and whose consciousness spends the rest of the novel unravelling by way of revisiting key moments in her life – recalls episodes based on the prompting of flavours – the salty taste of the Bosphorous waters in which her body floats, but also, and without any particular immediate cues, the remembrance of cardamom coffee, chocolate bonbons or watermelon; and number two, as this idiosyncratic approach to memory may imply, because Shafak’s novel is, in the absence of Proustian discipline, a great deal less cohesive and coherent than it might otherwise have been.

Shafak’s narrator, Leila, lives at the time of her murder in Istanbul. A semi-retired sex worker, she grew up in the rural east of Turkey, in a conservative family whose strictures she chafed against – but escape from which was itself far from frictionless or without cost. Two thirds of the novel constitute her biography, an obituary by way of reminiscence that floats through Leila’s mind – or soul, or whatever other ineffable aspect of Leila is proposed by Shafak to outlive her physical death – during the posthumous duration of the title. This tour of Leila’s troubled life permits the novel to take up the cause of the marginalised women of Turkey.

“Until the year 1990, Article 438 of the Turkish Penal Code was used to reduce the sentence given to rapists by one-third if they could prove that their victim was a prostitute,” Shafak writes in a note to the reader. “In 1990, in the face of an increasing number of attacks against sex workers … Article 438 was repealed. But there have been few, if any, legal amendments in the country since then towards gender equality” [p. 307]. 10 Minutes is in this sense an eloquent rejection of the judgemental fundamentalism of patriarchal authority: it creates in Leila a woman who exhibits many of the characteristics ordinarily applied to “fallen” women undeserving of sympathy, and yet in plotting her life story makes clear that these qualities are responses to circumstances created by precisely the dogmatism that seeks to mete out punishment for them.

When Leila is six, her forty-three-year-old uncle asks her to “Hold it”, pushing “her hand down the front of his pyjama shorts” [p. 66]; this abuse goes on for some time, and of course is never reported. Leila is plagued by guilt: “she had done something terrible, and not just once, not twice, but many times” [p. 97]. When she flees to Istanbul, without a penny to her name, she is trafficked; when she meets a good man at the brothel where she eventually finds something like a home, and then marries him, he is quickly killed by the police while taking part in an anti-government protest; she reverts, of course, to the sex work for which she is condemned by those self-same officials. “I don’t know who’s normal in a system so crooked,” a character comments at one point [p. 143], and this might be the motto of the novel as a whole. There is little justice to be found in its pages.

What Shafak offers instead is consolation. In the absence of radical change – much hullaballoo is made in the novel about as incremental a development as “the repeal of the constitutional requirement for a married woman to get her husband’s permission to work outside the home” [p. 29] – Shafak offers us the respite of community, of found family, or what she calls a “water family”: “a good water family could wash away the hurt and pain collected inside like black soot” [p. 199]. During her time in Istanbul, Leila makes five close friends: the transgender Nalan, the gentle Sinan, the Christian Jameelah, the dis/abled Zaynab, the plus-size Humeyra. Each of these five is given a nickname – Nostalgia Nalan is given hers for the intense homesickness she feels, Hollywood Humeyra because of her connection to showbusiness. These don’t quite ring true, but are put into service as markers of Leila’s familiarity with her “five”. In the final third of the novel, when Leila has conclusively passed on, this group of friends become the focus of the narrative, as they seek to pay the proper respects to the body of a woman who is deemed by the authorities only good enough to be buried in the  desolate “Cemetery of the Companionless”.

This isn’t subtle stuff: five close friends seek to reclaim the demonstrable humanity of a person whose body is disrespected as without connection to the world by the pitiless system. This on-the-nose quality is characteristic of the novel as a whole: the good man who rescues his wife from a brothel, and seduces her by painting her portrait; the damaging abuse leading to a broken life; the immigrant’s stories – internal and external – that define Leila and each of her friends: it’s not that these aren’t important perspectives, and Shafak’s messages themselves of value; it’s that each are deployed more or less precisely as you’d expect, almost by rote, and that what emerges is therefore less empathetic and more sentimental. Like the friends’ nicknames, it all feels a bit unearned, a bit bolted-on – much like that final third of the novel, which reads like an over-long coda to the book’s main project, and consequently lacks much pith and moment. This can be a soggy novel.

Indeed, 10 Minutes poses a different problem to A la recherche du temps perdu. It isn’t that all of the characters bar the protagonist are unreal, in the sense that they are recreations of a single fictional consciousness; it’s that all of them lack what Proust’s narrator has in spades – a reality, a set of complexities and contradictions which grants them at least the illusion of being more than a vehicle for a writer of fiction.

At one point late in the novel, Nalan considers Leila’s old Zippo lighter, given to her by her late husband:

this antique … was not the simple onject it seemed to be, but a perpetual wanderer. It travelled from one person to another, outliving each of its owners. Before Leila it had belonged to D/Ali, and before D/Ali, to an American soldier who had been unfortunate enough to come to Istanbul away from the Sixth Fleet in 1968. [p. 229]

Which, OK, is fine. But it is also intensely novelistic, queasily artificial for a book so interested in creating real human lives with which to contrast the inhumanity of authoritarianism. In her acknowledgements, Shafak recounts that her grandmother died as she began to write this novel, and that – because she was afraid for her safety in Turkey – the author of 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World and The Bastard of Istanbul and The Forty Rules of Love was unable to attend her Grandma’s funeral. This, of course, is a small inconvenience compared to the depredations she recounts in this novel, and which take place daily in Erdoğan’s Turkey; as Ron Charles has argued, her writing is among the most visible and therefore powerful acts of defiance against the regime that commits those violations as currently exists worldwide. But a novel isn’t merely a manifesto; and for this reason I’d be surprised if this particular volume won the 2019 Booker Prize later this month. But long may the impacts of its sentiments vex the over-mighty.


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.

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]


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]


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 [who] 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 situate texts side-by-side for the purpose of comparing their qualities. In truth, the two novels are doing such different things with their material that 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.