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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you angry at me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or:

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

Or:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“These Queer Enthusiasms”: Sarah Waters’s “The Paying Guests”

51sqHh5h3PL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_It is a Very Good Thing that Ali Smith last night won the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction: here is a British writer interested in serious innovation of form – something not always associated with the prose writers of these isles. That she does so demotically and entertainingly only makes her win all the more deserved. Smith re-energises the novel without making it inaccessible.

There is, of course, a pejorative usage of “accessible”: “a good read” is so often a euphemism for “a bit slight”. The only novel on the prize shortlist I’ve not yet read is Anne Tyler’s¬†A Spool of Blue Thread,¬†but others have already written “defences” of her more traditional style: “the question of whether Tyler‚Äôs work errs too heavily on the side of¬†consolation has lingered, despite (or¬†because of) her immense and loyal¬†readership and high-profile fans such as Nick Hornby and John Updike.” In this context, it is interesting that the another of the shortlist’s more traditionalist authors, Sarah Waters, is conversely so widely f√™ted¬†that the idea anyone might need to speak up on her behalf is absurd.

“Absolutely brilliant,” wrote Jacqueline Wilson of Waters’s novel,¬†The Paying Guests. “Read it, Flaubert, Zola, and weep,” applauds¬†Charlotte Mendelson. “A joy in every respect,” intones¬†Lionel Shriver. And yet Waters writes old-fashioned novels in many ways, with beginnings and ends and gripping plots, which read quickly despite their often vaguely Victorian girth.¬†The Paying Guests¬†is set in 1922, precisely because, Waters has said, her previous novels have focused on squarely on either the nineteenth century or the 1940s. That is, Waters is a British writer producing novels in a third person limited voice and set in eras not entirely under-served in British culture.

So why is she, too, not tarred with the “accessible” brush? In large part, it’s because Waters’s project is far more subversive than her chosen form makes it appear (and this is part of the¬†project): she queers these classic ages of British history, burrowing under her copious research to imagine the stories of marginalised groups, most particularly lesbian women. Even her novel The Little Stranger, which doesn’t feature an actual lesbian couple at all, is a novel about repression: its first-person narrator hides much from the reader, whilst Caroline, the young woman of the crumbling manor house with whom (which which?) he falls in love, is heavily implied to be closeted. That is, Waters writes terrific yarns which present familiar contexts in familar ways – and then peoples those settings with feelings, perspectives and experiences which are under-represented in the record and in fiction.

The Paying Guests, then, is told from the third-person-limited perspective of Frances, a twenty-five year-old woman eking out the disappointed, disappointing years following World War I in the suburban villa she shares with her mother. They are, like the rather grander country gentry of¬†The Little Stranger¬†thirty years later, struggling for money: her father dead, and economics changing, Frances persuades her mother to take in lodgers in order to supplement their meagre income. The couple who answer the advert, the Barbers, are from Peckham and Walworth rather than Champion Hill: vulgar and jejune to Frances and her mother’s eyes, they fill Mr Wray’s old room with dinky little Buddha statues, and share a little too much of themselves for the landladies, who tuck the weekly rent into their pockets “in a negligent sort of way – as if anyone […] could possibly be deceived into thinking that the money was a mere formality.” [p. 11]

Class and deceit come to be the guiding stars of the novel: throughout, Waters paints in understated but terrifically evocative ways the careful gradations of class struggling to reassert themselves in an England disrupted by war. Men resent the women who have taken their jobs; a clerk like Mr Barber looks down on mere manual workers, amongst whose numbers he would once have certainly sat; Mrs Barber’s clothes are a little too flighty; Mrs Wray’s friend from over the road clearly imagines herself one step above poor old struggling Frances. All of this is more or less unspoken, however, and the manner in which no one quite says what they mean comes to power not just the social whirl – from Walworth dances to Champion Hill soir√©es – which Waters depicts beautifully, but the scurrilous plot that bubbles underneath the surface.

That plot only really takes full hold of the novel in its final third, and yet the reader never feels played with. In part, this is down to, yes, readability: Waters writes so well that 600 pages simply speeds by. It’s also, however, because she peels back the novel’s layers at precisely the right pace. When we first meet Frances, she seems much older than she is, not a little stuck up and certainly rather grey. As we slowly learn that, during the war, she was a violent suffragette and had a romantic¬†relationship with a fellow suburban bohemian, Christine, we are at first surprised; as her sexual repression becomes evident in her uncomfortable responses to Mr Barber’s proximity, we first think the novel might move one way; when her passion for Christine, and her misplaced fear of her mother become clear (when her new lady lodger¬†cuts and crimps her hair in a contemporary style, Frances is shocked that her mother finds it smart),¬†we are quickly plunged into a slow but compelling blossoming of a relationship with Lillian Barber herself.

Lillian is a good example of the novel’s strength in depth: she is in many ways unknowable. Apparently kind and straightforward, throughout the novel we with Frances worry that she may in fact not be all that she seems – that she may be manipulative or foolish, impetuous or selfish. Frances must learn to trust Lillian, as we must – as everyone who wishes to love must – and this process gives the novel a great deal of its shape prior to its final-third crisis. If anything, I rather preferred the involvingly plotless parts of the novel more: everything happens, and is then wrapped up, rather quickly, and the novel takes on the feeling of the 1920s melodramas which first inspired it. At one point, for example, the lawyer for a wrongly accused defendant announces to the court in which we know the true culprit sits, “the person or persons […] must certainly be looking at these proceedings with very mixed feelings indeed.” [p. 581] ¬†Oh, the tension of irony!

What unites all this is a study of the effects of lies. “The rest of us become narrow and mean when we live falsely,” sighs Frances [p. 302], having spent years denying herself – indeed, hiding even the fact that she has maintained a loose friendship with Christine. Frances goes back and forth between having the courage of this conviction and fearing its logical conclusion, and this terribly human inconsistency is, like everything else in this humane and careful novel,¬†delicately depicted. She and Lillian endlessly debate who is braver, but in point of fact they are brave in different ways: Frances can imagine different ways of living, and Lillian, who lacks that capacity for the bigger picture, nevertheless often takes the action which make them possible. What develops between them, then, is a thoroughly believable – because riven with tension – love affair.

Ultimately,¬†superb characterisation of this sort¬†is a laudably old-fashioned virtue for a novel to exhibit.¬†The Paying Guests¬†is rather unfashionable in this respect: compared with¬†Outline¬†it is fervently traditionalist. That, as I was reading the novel, I could see an argument for it pipping¬†How To Be Both¬†to the Baileys post, says many things – as does the universal acclaim for Waters’s skills as a writer and a storyteller. Hers are novels of huge warmth and heart, but also skill and cunning. Smith’s victory is excellent news for the health of the British novel –¬†but that’s because Smith understands, like Waters (who will surely have her year), that accessibility isn’t a dirty word. Read The Paying Guests, and then read it¬†again … and again.

“Blindly Following The Lead of Others”: Kamila Shamsie’s “A God In Every Stone”

agodineverystoneWhere all three of the Baileys Prize shortlistees I’ve so far read have opted for depth in one way or another, Kamila Shamsie opts in¬†A God in Every Stone¬†for breadth: this story opens at the dawn of the First World War and continues across Turkey, France, England and colonial India, only ending in 1930 (and with an epistolary epilogue written from¬†1947). All this leads to some reliance on the readers’ received knowledge of a given period – British women of the Great War got jobs they hadn’t before been permitted¬†when all the men went away, Edwardian men felt excited by the glimpse of a female ankle, the British Empire was a bit racist¬†– which at times feel like gestures at detail rather than the real stuff of these characters’ lives. “‘MORE ARMENIAN HORRORS,'” reads one character in 1915 at one of the novel’s particularly heavy moments of eye-rolling irony. “Surely the propaganda department was overplaying its hand?” [p. 116]

In the summer of 1914, Viv Spencer, the headstrong 23-year-old only child of a British chap¬†thoroughly of the nineteenth century, joins her father’s old friend Tahsin Bey on an archaeological dig in Turkey (the ambitious Spencer patriarch wishes for her to be “son and daughter both – female in manners but male in intellect” [p. 13]). When the war begins, she is quickly whisked away from Ottoman territory, carried to English travellers by her new German friends (“The Germans said they shouldn’t be with her when the English couple arrived, it would only create discomfort” [pg. 29]) – but not before Bey, with whom she is falling in love, reveals himself to be an Armenian patriot. Back in England, the na√Įve¬†Viv lets slip this information to impress a young intelligence officer. Two years later, whilst on a dig in Peshawar, she learns that just days after the German interception a British wire containing his secret, Bey was shot dead in Turkey.

Betrayal, then, is a key theme of the novel, and is mirrored in the journey¬†of its other protagonist, the Pashtun¬†Muslim, Qayyum Gul. We first meet Qayyum as a soldier in the 40th Pathans, in which capacity he quickly loses an eye at Ypres. Back in Peshawar, his younger brother Najeeb misses the train on which Qayyum returns home from his Brighton¬†military hospital, but does meet up with Viv, who has unbeknownst to them all shared a carriage (scandalously) with Qayyum on the train from Kabul. Najeeb consequently becomes a lover of European culture; Qayyum falls in with Ghaffar Khan. “Everyone, even Najeeb, assumed Qayyum’s stand against Empire stemmed from Vipers […] But he had never felt closer to the English than on that day. […] It was later, at Brighton, that the questions began. It was because of the nurses.” [p. 293] ¬†That is, his shabby treatment in England had betrayed his sacrifice to the British Empire, which he in turn betrayed with Khan; and Najeeb betrays that emergent Indian identity by wearing a frock coat at the Peshawar Museum.

Again, then, we arrive at breadth. The novel foregrounds this sweeping aspect of its narrative by imposing a Classical frame around the interlocking stories of betrayal: it begins with a prologue set in 515BC, when the Persian strongman Darius sends his trusted Greek friend and adviser, Scylax of Caria, on an exploratory expedition¬†beyond the bounds of his empire to Caspatyrus (modern-day Peshawar), from which distance Scylax begins to write great anti-imperial tracts. The circlet that Scylax was granted by Darius before his departure to Caspatyrus is the archaeological artefact which powers first Tahsin Bey’s excavations, then Vivian’s, and then Najeeb’s: it becomes a symbol not of betrayal but of potential redemption. What comes to matter most to each of them is not the imperial bonds between Darius and Scylax, which the latter broke in supporting his people’s revolt against the Persians, but in their personal friendship – and in the individual bonds which link people to those around them rather than to distant powers, such as those between Scylax and Heraclides, the Carian hero whose history the former wrote: “Continents are cut up this way, and that way,” Najeeb imagines Scylax telling Darius’s widow. “Islands extend themselves across seas and mountains. What is any of that when compared to Heraclides?”[p. 386]

Perhaps inevitably, not all of this comes quite to line up in the course of just 350-odd pages – Shamsie has taken on just a little too much. How do the biological brothers, Qayyum and Najeeb, map onto Darius and Scylax? How does the feintly¬†inappropriate burgeoning relationship between Tashin Bey and Viv relate to the frowned-upon yet somehow more wholesome love between Najeeb and a girl originally promised to another man? Shamsie is interested in how layers of history fall one upon the other to create a texture which surrounds and perhaps defines us despite ourselves – “I know the stories of men from twenty-five hundred years ago,” Najeeb sighs, “but I’ll never know what happens to you [today]” [pg. 160] – and so exact parallels aren’t necessary. But in the competing architectural styles of Peshawar, or the city’s urban myths featuring real historical figures – “children were still threatened into good behaviour with warnings [of] the terrible [Maharajan Italian mercenary Paolo Avitabile, or] Abu Tabela” [p. 183] – Shamsie conjures with history without producing the trick. Perhaps the novel is ultimately about throwing off history – “To you history is something to be made,” Najeeb says to his brother, “not studied” [p. 228] – but if so it spends rather a lot of time in the past.

Within these broad and slightly sketchy bounds, however, Shamsie alights upon a range of the competing power dynamics of colonial Peshawar to some good effect. In the relationship between men and women, and English and Indian, in particular she shows how segregation and delineation serve to preserve and empower existing privileges and elites. Perhaps most memorably, Viv reflects on a peculiarly Anglo-Indian example:

Memsahib. […] In this country filled with titles and honorifics nothing pre-existing had suited Englishwomen; while the ubiquitous ‘sahib’ came to rest comfortably on the shoulders of Englishmen, something other than ‘begum-sahib’ had to be devised for their female counterparts. As if to say that Englishmen and Indian men, for all their differences, could still be described in the same language but the women of the two races were so far apart that they had to be categorised separately, kept separate. [p. 300]

A God in Every Stone¬†is at its most perceptive in moments like this. History again plays a part here, as a¬†story told by whichever party wishes to control another: “Of all the fantastic tales you’ve ever told,” Qayyum writes to Najeeb, “none is more fantastic than that of the kindly English who dig up our treasures because they want you tk know your own history. Your Museums are all part of their Civilising Mission, their White Man’s Burden, their moral justification for what they have done here.” [p. 232] Najeeb never comes quite to agree, but by the same token comes to be the novel’s balancing figure, the one the reader assumes embodies its core message: he ends the novel both as as “campaigner for freedom from Empire for the people of India and Britain”, and, despite his mother’s intitial refusal to allow him to study “this English word, this ‘Classics'” [p. 168],¬†also Viv’s archaeological assistant. That may be an over-neat resolution for a tightly-plotted, immensely readable, but thematically baggy novel; but perhaps indeed all fruitful new relationships¬†involve just a little betrayal of the past.

 

“In Flight From Her Own Desires”: Laline Paull’s “The Bees”

¬†I struggle now to remember how, but in my first years of high school I discovered Duncton Wood. I knew of Watership Down only through the cartoon movie of the novel, and the allegorical elements of this first in what would become William Horwood’s six-volume mole series similarly passed me by. I read it, then, as a standalone tale, and I remember being very fond of it: whatever I might make of it now (and I have never re-read it), at the time I was thrilled, surprised, enlightened and immersed. As I proceeded to the sequel novels, however, I became less and less engaged. As Horwood went on, his allegories became ever more obvious, and the mole society increasingly baroque; at he same time, the structure of the story grew slacker and slacker, more and more expending energy upon exposition and scene-setting. I became sceptical.

Perhaps none of this was a characteristic of the real progress of the series; perhaps I was simply developing as a reader as I made my way through the novels. I suggest this now because, as I read Laline Paull’s The Bees I saw many of the flaws I came to see in Horwood. Its place on the Baileys Women’s Prize shortlist is surely down to its remarkable feats of imagination: like Duncton Wood, The Bees conjures an entirely alien civilisation for its chosen species, complete with social strata, religious belief, political division and personal conflicts. That bees are significantly harder than cute little moles to anthropomorphise, and thus to encourage sympathy for them in the reader, makes Paull’s achievement all the greater.

But I’m still left asking a question: what are animal fantasies for? From Aesop’s Fables to¬†Animal Farm, that whiff of allegory is never far from the bouquet of the mode. Predictably, then, in¬†The Bees¬†we experience a fantasy of societal collapse: the hive is in danger, crumbling as a result of environmental pressures beyond the bees’ control. This is grafted onto specific real-world danger, however: these bees are absolutely a part of our own world (an extremely slight frame story features humans), and the decline of bee populations so worried at in recent years is affecting Paull’s particular colony, too (indeed, she offers some of her own explanations for them). This means that the bees in this novel are real bees – victims of events we can identify, resident in our own world – but also a sort of abstraction – human in their confused, doomed attempts to adapt to the natural changes around them.

So what are animal fantasies for? Do they help us understand the other better, or do they help us understand ourselves? Paull might want us to leave her novel believing it can be both – and certainly The Bees attempts to prove its case – but its dual purpose also leads to an uncertainty which can trouble the reader as she makes her way through the novel.

Paull’s protagonist is Flora 717 – all bees are of a particular kin-type (Flora, Sage, Lily) and assigned a number within their clan. Those clans have very strict roles, and Flora is a member of the lowest order, tasked with cleaning the hive. She is also large and exceptionally ugly, and yet despite these impediments she is, upon birth, rapidly saved from immediate execution for abnormalities – the bee society is brutal and violent – by a high priestess of the bee religion, which revolves around worship, of course, of the Queen. Though the Queen, the bees’ faith, and the priestesses become key to the novel’s plot in its second half, Paull never really makes clear if this initial rescue is part of that later narrative. Indeed, the novels’ first and second halves feel quite separate: one focuses on world-building, often dilatory and even when rather beautiful always a little episodic; the second quickly develops into a sort of political thriller.

Nevertheless, saved Flora is and swiftly are we introduced to the novel’s themes: “knowledge only causes pain” [p. 10]; “variation is not the same as deformity” [p. 16]; “that is the seed of it: you wanted” [p. 25]. This is a novel about the interaction between community and individual. It’s also a dystopia: the hive is hell-bent on the collective good, and in its pursuit commits all manner of atrocity against members of the hive. Only foragers – those bees sent out to seek pollen, and who upon their return ‘dance’ the story of what they have experienced to a hive hungry for shared knowledge – are allowed, “in the Air, […] to think for yourselves” [p. 193]. All but the Queen, then, are denied the right to reproduce (though Flora does, in secret, with significant consequences). Bees seen to have pursued their own wants are executed immediately and brutally. And, as we see in one of the most memorable scenes of joyous misandry I may have ever read, each year the male bees produced to leave the hive and found new colonies are, upon their occassionally failed return, massacred by the majority-female hive in an orgy of ¬†sexualised blood-lust (“She ripped his abdomen open down to his genitals, then tore out his penis and ate it” [p. 213).

That is, The Bees is full of evocative and striking writing. It is with this prose that Paull absolutely wins, despite their thorough other-ness, our sympathy for Flora and the other bees – for example, Sir Linden, one of the puffed-up and preening males whom is first worshipped and then turned on by the hive. As the plot picks up pace, the time we have spent learning the bees’ world pays off in our rooting for them. There is a Name of the Rose-ish awakening at work: “She tried to remember which scripture ordained the Sage the power of life and death.” [p. 228] The second half of the novel culminates, like the Duncton Chronicles, in a religious schism out of which we urgently hope for Flora to emerge emancipated: “every girl child is born a worker but it is how we feed her that makes her Queen!” [p. 304]

But here the novel’s unresolved dual purpose tells against it. The reader spends much of¬†The Bees avoiding being bumped out of the text by odd moments in which the bees – these real insects behaving with their royal jelly and hive mind in the ways in which we know our own, depopulated, bees behave – also act as the human analogues the novel insists they must equally be. They open doors and serve pastries, have hands and arms; they take part in debates about the individual and the community. But then, at the novel’s end, they also fly off and form a new hive which we know – because these are bees and bees in the real world do not have religions and political disputes – will be governed in exactly the same despotic, hive-mind, collectivist way as the one Flora has spent a novel fighting against. That is, the novel wants its cake (or pastry) and it also wants to eat it, and in the resulting ¬†imbalance – repeating at every level of the text – it hobbles itself.

When I read Duncton Wood, I understood that its characters were moles, not humans. That the lead antagonist was named Mandrake, and shared this name with the magician from¬†Defenders of the Earth, meant, however, that I imagined one, and only one, of the moles as wearing human dress (the terrifying villain of the piece war a mole-sized top hat). My mind’s eye just ¬†couldn’t help it. But Horwood pitched his animal society in such a way that it didn’t quite matter – these moles resembled our own, but were not. The top hat was absurd, but not fatal to my immersion in the story. The Bees, however, is, for all its arresting moments and the often soaring poetry of its imagination, a little less well-pitched, and, in its attempt to contain both aspects of the animal fantasy, a little – and, yes, I’ll go there – over-pollinated.

“As Though Context Were Also A Kind of Imprisonment”: Rachel Cusk’s “Outline”

¬†I’ve already reviewed Ali Smith’s How To Be Both in the context of a different awards shortlist, but its place on the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction is just as deserved and its chances, it seems to me, are just as strong as for the Booker (which, er, it rather sadly did not win). Rachel Cusk’s Outline, however, gives it a run for its money: it is just as interested in form as Smith’s novel, and at least as supple in its prose. If its first person singular focus doesn’t quite break the perspectival glass ceiling in the way¬†How To Be Both manages, Outline is perhaps more focused and arguably deeper – at least in so far as that can be taken to mean unfathomable.

This difficulty the reader might find in plumbing Outline‘s depths is appropriate for a novel which begins with the narrator taking a flight over water, and includes a lengthy outing on a boat (indeed, the UK paperback edition foregrounds this motif with a blue cover across which ripples proceed outwards from the title). There is an extent to which the word ‘Outline’ represents very well the paring away of context and characterisation from the narrator, a novelist in the aftermath of a marriage breakdown who flies to Greece to teach a creative writing course: Cusk is engaged in a quite radical novelistic project which seeks to render the narrator a cipher, an almost passionless listener who simply imparts the many stories told to her by her various interlocutors (the novel is more or less a series of conversations) without judgement, comment or conclusion. In a typical exchange, an old friend declaims over a lunch served by a waitress he insists on ogling:

And so I learned, he said, that it is impossible to improve things, and that good people are just as responsible for it as bad, and that improvement itself is perhaps a mere personal fantasy […] We are all addicted to it, he said, removing a single mussel from its shell with his trembling fingers and putting it in his mouth, the story of improvement, to the extent that it has commandeered our deepest sense of reality. It has even infected the novel, ¬†though perhaps now the novel is infecting us back again, so that we expect of our lives what we’ve come to expect of our books; but this sense of life as a progression is something I want no more of. [p. 99]

All of this, of course, is intensely metatextual: in not offering judgement, in providing this opinion unadorned, the reader might usually assume the writer was endorsing the point of view, or at least presenting it as a position to be seriously considered; but Outline is also a novel implicitly seeking to prove the narrator’s old friend wrong, and show how the novel might infect be inoculated against the unbeatable virus he describes; by the same token, the novel ends with the disengaged narrator improved, arriving at the classically novelistic epiphany that “if people were silent about the things that had happened to them, was something not being betrayed, even if only the version of themselves that had experienced them?” [p. 245] ¬†That is, nothing in Outline is straight-forward or final. It is a tessellation of perspectives, none crowding out the others.

“Without structure,” muses another of the narrators companions, this one a man she meets on the aeroplane to Athens, “events are unreal.” [p. 24] ¬†He is talking about the curious ways in which he finds each of his series of failed marriages evaporates when the habits that held them together – shared houses, regular conversations – are taken away. But it goes just as much for the ghost-like way in which the narrator drifts through the lives of others, reporting their words and imparting their lives but not becoming part of them and refusing to allow one to dominate her world. ¬†Unlike many novelistic narrators, endlessly and unrealistically curious and prying, this one is tired of being intimately connected with others – she is exhausted by it. At one point, she sits on the edge of a boat and contemplates the sea. “The thread led nowhere, except into ever expanding wastes of anonymity,” she muses of her mooted swim. “Yet this impulse, this desire to be free, was still compelling to me: I still, somehow, believed in it, despite having proved that everything about it was illusory.” [p. 74] ¬†There’s despair in that.

Now, look. Cusk has her weaknesses, and they are well discussed; a sort of humourlessness, a tendency to over-dramatise. And you might argue that, in depicting someone looking at the Aegean and musing about the impossibility of disconnect, Cusk again falls into the trap she habitually sets herself. There’s a lot of that in Outline. But it’s a too-easy criticism of an intelligent writer (particularly an intelligent female writer) to say she lacks jokes. Even if, to reprise the comparison with Smith, How To Be Both¬†manages to be both serious and playful, it is not to Outline‘s discredit that it chooses a different tone. Indeed, the at times exhausting effort of reading a novel in which the narrator does not care is part of its point: here is a novel, perhaps, about depression; and here, too, is also a novel, undoubtedly, about the novel. That is, it is serious becomes its questions are existential.

When the narrator first meets her students, she asks each of them to describe something they observed on the way to the class. This results in a series of personalised exchanges – all described in that same, detached way – which provide an awful lot of fictive matter, but which do not read like fiction:

“This morning” he said, “I was crossing the square opposite my apartment building, on my way to the metro, and I saw on one of the low concrete walls around the square a woman’s handbag. […] But I realised, while I was walking, that I should have taken the bag to a police station.” [p. 135]

That ellipsis of mine omits an entire page of further discourse, and yet the story remains the same: it’s a structure and a narrative, but one without consolation. In part, this is pure distilled Knausgaard (“there is no story of life” [p. 137]), and Cusk knows it. On another level, however, it is Cuskian, at least in so far as it speaks to Outline‘s central experiment: at the end of the class, one student stands up and complains. “She had been told that this was a class about learning to write, something that as far as she was aware involved using your imagination.” [p. 158] Like many of Cusk’s readers (and, you assume she hopes, you yourself), the narrator’s student feels she has been punked: by autobiography, by the absence of the traditional consolations of narrative, by the sheer po-facedness of the whole enterprise. ¬†In fact, you might imagine a smile on Cusks’ face as she wrote this paragraph. You might imagine it’s a joke.

At the end of the novel, a tutor arriving just as the narrator is leaving describes her own failed relationship: “she had become, through him, someone else.” [p. 237] Perhaps tellingly, by this point the narrator has severed her developing ties with the man from the plane, who has so abandoned the idea of the lasting effects of relationships. In transparent, sometimes glacial, prose, Outline has contrived to go on a journey without appearing to move at all.¬†What Outline does is demonstrate, through a narrator without a perspective, how points of view can shift almost totally and yet almost invisibly, and how they do so in interaction with others. Though it¬†at times presents as an anti-novel, it is in fact a champion of the form, finding a startlingly new way to demonstrate its continuing power to depict and, yes, (over-) dramatise human interaction.