The Evening and the Morning by Ken Follett

As would be expected from a Ken Follett novel, The Evening and the Morning is long. It is 832 pages, weighing in at a whopping 1.042kg in hardback. While toning your forearms you can indulge this epic and turbulent story, with conventional bad guys who revel in victory after victory until the very end, when good inevitably overcomes evil.

It is the long-awaited prequel to Follett’s hugely successful The Pillars of the Earth (1989), and some fan service is overdue. At the end, it is announced that Dreng’s Ferry, a formerly bridgeless backwater, will now be renamed Kingsbridge. For any Follett aficionado, this is a moment as satisfying as finding the perfect apex stone to top off a cathedral arch.

“The stars were brilliant; the beach glowed white and, when his oars broke the surface of the water the curling foam was like the fall of her hair on her shoulders.”

The novel spans a decade (997-1007) in an English earldom, with coasts that are constantly under threat from Viking raids and with northern territory frequently invaded by the Welsh. There are also a couple of enjoyable stints in Cherbourg, where Follett once again exercises a robust knowledge of medieval politics.

Our three heroes include Edgar, a bright and quick-witted craftsman with ambitions of building immortal structures. Aldred, a monk/bookworm, who is prepared to do whatever it takes to weed out corruption in the church. Rounding the trio off is Lady Ragna, a noblewoman who made an unfortunate choice of husband but nevertheless rules her lands justly and with a gorgeous head of hair. These three talented friends withstand blow after blow, but remain resilient and patient, all while clinging onto the hope of a better future.

“She had embarked on this adventure eagerly, impatient for the pleasures of marriage with the man she loved, careless of perils. […] She had never seen him in his own place, never watched him move among his people, never heard him talk to his family, his neighbours, his subjects. She hardly knew him.”

As with any Follett book, there is also a very obvious villain. Wynstan, a malevolent bishop, might as well be rubbing his hands together and mwahahaha-ing in between his frequent brothel visits. He is perfectly awful and receives an unsurprising, but well-deserved, syphilitic end.

Although designed as a prequel, the novel stands up well on its own. A strong, if predictable, plot is interwoven with excessive descriptions of building – and there is a lot of building. Boat building, brewery building, bridge building, church building, and even more bridge building.

And agriculture is not neglected. Follett gives us ploughing, scything, threshing, sifting, and with some eel trapping thrown in for fun. All this detail is constructive, it doesn’t slow the pace or wound the narrative, but it emphasises its authenticity. There is a considerable amount of energy and charisma in this novel, making it rich and easy to devour.

Edgar battles with Vikings during a raid, stealing an axe and cleaving an enemy’s head in two. His mind is brilliant – only he could make stonemasonry sound interesting – he respects women, abhors slavery and is accepting of his friend’s homosexuality. Although at times he comes across like a fourth wave feminist, with several 21st Century sensibilities, everything Edgar puts his skilled hands to, he elevates.

Brother Aldred has a friendly magnetism and endearing fearlessness that lifts off the page. His tragedy is that he is gay and he must endure the pain of unrequited love, but it is a passion that comes second to his greatest love: books. Preferably the biblical and saintly kind.

Quite rightly, Follett should be knocked for centring yet another book around a heteronormative romance – and in this case he may even be accused of queer-bating – but through Aldred we see, at least, an effort in inclusivity. There aren’t many other queer characters from works of historical fiction set as far back as this.

“Aldred was familiar with impossible love. He almost said so, but bit his tongue. He did not want his tendresse for Edgar to become embarrassing to them both. That might end their friendship, and friendship was all he had.”

Of course Follett must remain as true as possible to how people lived in this era; but the moments of darkness in this book are almost exclusively felt by women. Rape is an everyday occurrence. Slavery enables it to happen more frequently and more brutally; Blod, a Welsh slave girl, is only a teenager and she is violently abused every waking minute. Lady Ragna, despite her noble position, is no stranger to rape either.

Perhaps Follett is demonstrating that any woman, no matter her background, would had to have to lived with rape as a part of their lives. This may have been likely, but witnessing it again and again was exhausting, even sickening. Neither women received time to examine their trauma, and this omission comes across as insensitive and incomplete.

“At the end of the evening Ragna stood on Edgar’s bridge, listening to the ever-present warble of the river, watching the red sun set downstream, remembering the day she arrived here for the first time, cold and wet and muddy and miserable, and had looked with dismay at the settlement where she had to spend the night. What a change.”

There is a lot to love in this novel, but also a lot to criticise. The detailed historical research should be acknowledged; Follett has created an impressive and enigmatic piece of writing, but its greatest fault is carelessness, not inaccuracy.

The Evening and the Morning is exactly what I thought it would be; clumsy but endearing, dramatic yet hopeful, flawed and also compelling. Anyone with an interest in historical fiction, in extensive world-building, and in stories that revolve around good and evil, will enjoy picking it up – even if their wrists ache from the effort.


The Evening and the Morning by Ken Follett (Macmillan, 2020)

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Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

We like to think of science and arts as being distinctly separate fields. Science is logic and reason, art is creativity and passion. You are this type of person, or this type of person. A Bachelor of Arts or a Bachelor of Science.

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens combined these two halves into one fluid whole. As both a novelist and scientist, Owens was well equipped. She did this so seamlessly that by the book’s close, it’s difficult to know where one world ended and the other began.  

The story is set between 1952 and 1970 and follows Marsh Girl, Kya, from abandoned child, running wild in the swamps of North Carolina, to a young woman. She becomes a talented naturalist, analysing every lichen, leaf and feather, and drawing intimate portraits of them. But she is unable to shake off her reputation with the townsfolk. She is an outsider, in the truest sense of the word.

Kya is “bonded to her planet and its life in a way few people are”. She has spent most of life alone, but not without friends – characters which lift this novel into life. In a sometimes confusing switch between timelines, Where the Crawdads Sing centres around a murder. It climaxes with all the flurry and drama of a court case, but only after a succulently slow build.

“And just at that second, the wind picked up, and thousands upon thousands of yellow sycamore leaves broke from their life support and streamed across the sky. Autumn leaves don’t fall, they fly. They take their time and wander on this, their only chance to soar. Reflecting sunlight, they swirled and sailed and fluttered on the wind drafts.
Tate sprang from the log and called to her, ‘See how many leaves you can catch before they hit the ground!’”

Owens describes the swampland with wonder, paying equal attention to its complexity and its simplicity. This helps the reader see the landscape through the eyes of naturalist. It felt like a privilege to be privy to this world, to bare witness to its inner mechanics and whimsies.

The nearby town of Barkley Cove has a buzzing life of its own, but Owens does not gloss over its flaws. Many of the people are prejudice, racists, classist and any other kind of -ist. But there are some good ones too – Mrs Culpepper from social services, Miss Pansy from the local store, and most of all Jumpin’ and his wife Mabel.

The novel enjoys dichotomies – the most obvious being a conflict between the rule of law and the rule of nature. Even though the story has an obvious villain, the concept of morality is played with; people are not simply good or bad, but a blend of both. People make mistakes and they deserve forgiveness if they ask for it. Different sides of Kya’s self rise surface and sink back down, revealing a contrary moral compass.

“If anyone understood loneliness, the moon would.
Drifting back to the predictable cycles of tadpoles and the ballet of fireflies, Kya burrowed deeper into the wordless wilderness. Nature seemed the only stone that would not slip midstream.”

At its heart, this is a novel about loneliness. Kya is abandoned by her brothers and sisters, her mother and then her father. In some truly heart-wrenching scenes, she continues to hope that her mother will return – based on her understanding of the world, which is purely the natural world, she cannot comprehend why a mother would leave her child.

Kya has to learn independently, using the environment as her guide. Her understanding sexual relationships is learned by observing fireflies; females send signals to the males with flashes, so that the ones they want to mate with come to them. But they also send out false signals. Traps. They ensnare and kill unwanted males who are drawn by the light.

“It happens in humans too. Some behaviours that seem harsh to us now ensured the survival of early man in whatever swamp he was in at the time. Without them, we wouldn’t be here. We still store those instincts in our genes, and they express themselves when certain circumstances prevail. Some parts will always be what we were, what we had to be to survive – way back yonder.”

This is a novel that is desperately needed. It felt contemporary, it brought to the fore how little we consider ourselves as human beings, as animals, as also being integral parts of the natural world.

Kya is held up to be almost aspirational; she is “rooted solid in this earth” and “born of this mother”. Having a respect for nature is no longer good enough, we must also make efforts to understand it. Only then can we appreciate its intelligence, its intricacies, and its beautiful savagery.


Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens (Corsair, 2018)

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Bolt from the Blue by Jeremy Cooper

Jeremy Cooper’s Bolt from the Blue documents the evolving relationship between artist and filmmaker Lynn Gallagher and her mother. Their story is told through a thirty-year postcard exchange, and while sometimes their conversations are affectionate, they can also be sharp, wounding and brutal. Cooper manages to flit across this spectrum with agility in a wonderful reinvigoration of the epistolary form.

The correspondences are dated between October 1985 and August 2018, from when Lynn leaves home to attend university until the death of her mother. They have an intimate, if unconventional, relationship. They pull apart and spring back together, all while communicating in a language known only to them.

Bolt from the Blue is a book to be read in a flurry and at times it is difficult to keep up. The two women can navigate swiftly between political opinions, on Margaret Thatcher for example, to insightful analysis of their relationship, and to news that is utterly banal.

This is never relentless, in fact it is quite pleasurable; reading it felt like a fascinating invasion of their inner lives. A topic of particular tension is their respective fathers. On a few occasions, Lynn expresses frustration for never knowing much about hers, but these are met with a brick wall. However, Lynn is responsive when her mother mentions her own late father, when it’s clear she still feels his absence keenly:

It was he who arranged for my singing lessons, in Thetford, when I was sixteen. After the school told him I had a special voice. He used to drive me over on a Sunday morning, his day off, and wait outside in the car, chain-smoking […] The lessons were cut short by dad’s death. You’re right, I never did learn to read music.

“That’s sad about the singing. Without you dad I guess there’d have been no way for you mum to find the money to continue the lessons. Coincidence that yesterday I went to something called the Fête Worse Than Death.”

The novel is certainly funny, and it is cringingly relatable how both women repeat the same arguments over and over again. Despite her mother saying that she is not interested in updates on the “art scene”, Lynn ignores her wishes completely.

Throughout the novel their communication slips in and out of comprehension, sometimes they are thinking as one and other times they miss each other completely, like ships passing in the night. As time passes, their relationship changes. Cooper demonstrates this subtly, all while acknowledging the profundity of this shift.

Their words are often used as weapons, but what is refreshing is how Lynn and her mother let their pain fall to the wayside. Bolt from the Blue makes as much use of silence as it does with correspondence. A significant gap between replies gives them space to recuperate, as if it is a place to go and lick their wounds, whereas conversation can be far more inflicting.

One particularly impressive tool was the use of novels. Lynn gives her mother book recommendations, something that is deeply personal to her. Books are precious, lively things, and this exchange works as a sort of reverse inheritance, something of extraordinary sentimental value that Lynn can give her mother.

“With a house of my own I’ve become conscious how important books are to me. Physically. The sight of them on my shelves, the knowledge that when I’m not there, they are, in the place assigned. It matters to me that I own them. Books never dessert you. If you take care of them, they pay you back, by existing in your room, perpetually open-able. By you.”

Their roles are never reversed, the grow independently yet somehow in tandem. They begin to ask each other for advice; Lynn’s mother experiences reoccurring nightmares and she says: “but it doesn’t explain how those awful pictures appear in my head. Where do they come from? What can I do?” Lynn carefully replies:

“Everyone dreams, and it’s generally accepted that the process is essentially restorative, that subconscious night-thinking is one of the protective methods open to all of us to help deal with our unpalatable imaginings. Might it be less frightening if you accepted that the demons are of your own making, rather than infernal creatures attacking from outside?”

The pair share phraseology, their language overlaps, and their tone is clearly related. While on the outside their relationship would appear bizarre, it is powered by commitment and a mutual respect for one another’s privacy.

Bolt from the Blue, although simple in structure, is ambitious in form. Its themes of isolation and loneliness are delicately handled, and the undulating nature of mother-daughter relationships is told with a refreshing sensitivity. For an author to demonstrate this within such a convoluted relationship, and one that is told only though letters, is a lesson in how clever and effective subtle writing can be.


Bolt from the Blue by Jeremy Cooper (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2021)

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Home Stretch by Graham Norton

As a writer, Graham Norton has proven himself to have a refreshingly light touch. When combined with his insight into rural community life in Ireland, the result is a slice of uncomplicated escapism.

His latest novel explores the weighty subjects of tragedy and shame, but without a leaving behind a gloomy or sombre residue. Instead, reading Home Stretch is a revitalising experience, and perhaps even a hopeful one.

“There are moments in any life that are to be treasured, but only sometimes are they recognised as they happen. That was how the five people in the blue estate car felt that day. The windows down, an optimistic glow about the town, two of their number about to embark on a whole new life together. It felt special. This was not a day to be forgotten or confused with all the others.”

The novel opens in the 1980s and as a young man Connor Hayes causes a car crash while on the way home from the beach, killing three of his passengers. He is haunted and shaken by the events of that day, which are shrouded in ambiguity. He was not close friends with the others, and he was driving a car that wasn’t his. When his local town, Mullinmore, turns its back on him, he leaves for good in a futile effort to outrun his past.

Connor is gay and throughout the novel he battles with self-loathing and self-protection, often to his own detriment. While this is a mystery novel, at its heart it is a book about loneliness, self-acceptance and modernity.

Everything is laid bare in an authentic and sometimes even deprecating way, but there are certainly moments of beauty and poignancy too. While there were an unfortunate amount of typos, they didn’t detract or lessen the novel’s impact.

The writing is not extraordinary, it is comfortable and easy to navigate as the author takes the reader by the hand and gently leads them through the narrative. The stakes are never high and there is a reassuring sense that there will be a nice, tidy resolution. As this book was released during a global pandemic, this is a particularly welcome quality.

Connor’s sister Ellen is flawed and naïve, but also kind, open-minded and forgiving. Her marriage is without passion, care or sexual satisfaction and Ellen is scarred by it from the outset.

With her infamous brother gone, her romance with Martin causes a crisis of confidence. She is in love with him, but she doesn’t trust his motives and fears he only married her out of pity. She carries this fear with her into adulthood, but when she cuts herself loose from her shame, it is delightful to behold.

“The attention made her feel almost physically sick as she walked around the town. After work she had taken to hiding at the back of the town library leafing through big photography books, taking solace in images of people with lives that looked harder than her own.”

She married a man who did not love her and pressured her into being the perfect housewife. It was satisfying to watch Ellen grow a backbone and break away from this expectation, and it was a pleasure to engage in her small acts of subterfuge, when she passes off ready meals as her own cooking and sneaks glasses of her husband’s precious Pouilly-Fuissé.

By comparison, Connor is somewhat hollow, like a rough sketch of the person he could have been. Having never been able to accept himself, it makes sense that Norton writes Connor as a rather lost, incomplete sort of man. Trapped in his adolescence and imprisoned in his trauma, he is hyper-emotional, yet entirely unable to express his true self.

“How many gay young men had made the same excuses, when in reality it was all about their own self-loathing? They were the ones who believed that they were lesser beings, not worthy of love. Running away meant never having to put their families or friends to the test.”

The twist is not sensational, but the pace of the book has enough momentum to make it a quick and indulgent read. In one word, it is wholesome. It serves as a reminder that love and acceptance cannot be indefinitely lost, and that, with a bit of hope, there is always a way back home. A novel about family and self-acceptance was simply lovely to step into, even if just for a couple of hours.

Norton has said this was his most personal book and that is very apparent in the acknowledgements. He admits that he “took the easy way out” by leaving Ireland as a young man, so he takes the time to thank those who stayed, the campaigners, the activists and protestors, the ones who carved out their own space to make Ireland the “modern, tolerant country it has become,” and this was the perfect sentiment to end on.

 

Home Stretch by Graham Norton (Coronet, 2020)

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City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert

City of Girls is certainly the most sugary book in Elizabeth Gilbert’s canon. A tumultuous coming-of-age novel, it follows Vivian, a nineteen-year-old college drop-out with very few prospects and an entitled disposition. She is shipped off to her Aunt Peg, the black sheep of the family, to New York City’s Lily Playhouse, and for the first time in her life Vivian gets a taste of freedom.

She parties with showgirls, sleeps with countless men and enters every new day with a hangover. She is arrogant and completely lacking in any kind of self-awareness, but she is self-effacing and generous too.

However, when Vivian’s downfall inevitably comes, Gilbert switches the narrative away from a vaudevillian jaunt in the Big City, to a thoughtful inspection of women’s agency and liberation, and an exploration of shame and sexuality.

The novel is presented as an exceptionally long letter to a mysterious Angela, which is rather implausible given that the novel is almost five hundred pages long. But it is clever; there is a distinct difference between the Vivian the reader sees cavorting across the city, and the older, wiser woman telling her life story. It felt almost cinematic, like watching the story unfold while listening to an omniscient narrator voiced by Jessica Lange, someone with voice that is simultaneously warm, reassuring and a bit sexy.

“When I was younger, I had wanted to be at the very centre of all the action in New York, but I slowly came to realise that there is no one centre. The centre is everywhere – wherever people are living out their lives. It’s a city with a million centres. Somehow, that was even more magical to know.”

Vivian is part of the Silent Generation, which consists of those born before 1945 and who lived through World War II. Countless column inches, web articles and podcast episodes have been devoted to talking about the differences between generations, but Gilbert shines a refreshing light on this tired debate.

Baby Boomers hate Millennials because they are entitled and selfish, and Millennials hate Baby Boomers because they are entitled and selfish, just in different ways. We are all jealous of Generation Z for their self-assuredness, but will also say quite sincerely I’m glad I’m not growing up these days.

However, Gilbert suggests that these are differences that come with age, and if we all met in our youth, perhaps we would not be so different at all. As the saying goes, every generation thinks they are the first to discover sex. Add to that list: alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, and most importantly, freedom.

Vivian sleeps with her friend’s husband in a moment of jealousy and misguided rage. The friend, a glamourous and extraordinary actor, puts her down in a way that would hit any young person, no matter their generation, with painful acuity:

“At last Edna said in a disturbingly mild tone, ‘The thing that you don’t understand about yourself Vivian, is that you’re not an interesting person. You are pretty, yes – but that’s only because you are young. The prettiness will soon fade. But you will never be an interesting person. I’m telling you this, Vivian, because I believe you’ve been labouring under the misconception that you are interesting, or that your life has significance. But you are not, and it doesn’t.”

Gilbert revels in Vivian’s sexual freedom, and it is a joy to read. Vivian sleeps around, not because she doesn’t respect herself, but because she has little respect for the men she sleeps with. She uses them to validate her, to fulfil her need to be seen as a woman who is confident, glamourous and desirable.

Only after the war, when the tired and broken soldiers return home, does Vivian begin to understand that she was sleeping with real people, men with dreams and emotions of their own, many of whom will likely have died. As they disembark at the pier, she wants to kiss every single one of them. It was a transformative, humanising moment; a profound remark on what it truly means to be young and alive.

As the novel progresses, Vivian’s practise of sex evolves. As an older woman, she has sex with deep consideration. She doesn’t seek out emotional attachments, she is only looking for the act itself. She is selective about the men she sleeps with and communicates with them openly that she won’t spend the night. This is not radical, but it is refreshing. It is an example of how casual, unattached sex that can be also be intimate, respectful and shameless.

“How could I explain that by ‘darkness’ I didn’t mean ‘sin’ or ‘evil’ – I only meant that there was a place within my imagination so fathomlessly deep that the light of the real world could never touch it. Nothing but sex had ever been able to reach it […] And when a man went to that darkest, secret place within me, I felt as though I had landed in the very beginning myself.”

The novel has a strong authorial voice that is also light, playful and witty. However, it is too long. A tighter edit was needed, especially as the second half began to drag; overall it could have been shorted by at least one hundred pages. With all the drama contained in the middle, the ending was slow and it petered out with less impact than it could have had, had Gilbert shown some restraint.

However, City of Girls is a celebration of youth and femininity that, while not revolutionary, is pleasurable to delve into. Youth is a time to make mistakes, and there was something mesmerising and cathartic about watching someone else stumble and fall, and come out bruised but whole on the other side.

 

City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert (Bloomsbury, 2019)

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Men at Arms by Terry Pratchett

I stumbled on this edition of Terry Pratchett’s Men at Arms in a charity book shop. Despite already owning a copy of this book, I couldn’t resist the £2.99 price tag and its garish but strangely spectacular cover.

It’s an old edition and I couldn’t stop myself from buying several other similarly early Pratchetts shelved alongside it. Whoever generously donated these books to the Oxfam book shop in Herne Hill, thank you.

Men at Arms is the second novel following Ankh-Morpork’s City Watch, which now has among its ranks six-foot-tall adopted dwarf Corporal Carrot, actual dwarf Lance-constable Cuddy, actual troll Lance-constable Detritus, feminist and werewolf Lance-corporal Angua, and Corporal Nobbs. I can’t begin to describe Corporal Nobbs.

Last but not least, the watch’s long-suffering Captain Sam Vimes, who leads his men on an investigation into a series of murders across the city carried out by assassin Edward d’Eath, who is on a quest to restore the Ankh-Morpork’s monarchy.

Among the Discworld novels, I have always loved those centred on the City Watch – I’m afraid they come second only to the Death books, in particular Mort. However, Men at Arms has all the qualities of an excellent Pratchett: haphazard comradery, a bizarre yet somehow comprehensible unfolding of events, and most importantly, nimble and sharp prose.

Humour is used dexterously and in a variety of ways, mostly through puns and a distinctly Pratchett turn of phrase. For example, d’Eath steals a gonne, which is a gun that makes people ‘gone’. But most of all, it is played out in conversation:

“’This,’ said Corporal Carrot, ‘is the Hubwards Gate. To the white city. Which is what we guard.’
‘What from?’ said Lance-Constable Angua, the last of the new recruits.
‘Oh, you know. Barbarian hordes, warring tribesmen, bandit armies… that sort of thing.’
‘What? Just us?’
‘Us? Oh, no!’ Carrot laughed. ‘That’d be silly, wouldn’t it? No, if you see anything like that, you just ring your bell as hard as you like.’
‘What happens then?’
‘Sergeant Colon and Nobby and the rest of ‘em will come running along just as soon as they can.’
Lance-Constable Angua scanned the hazy horizon.
She smiled.
Carrot blushed.”

And of course, footnotes:

“A swamp dragon is a badly run, dangerously unstable chemical factory one step from disaster. One quite small step.
It has been speculated that its habit of exploding violently when angry, excited, frightened or merely plain bored is developed as a survival trait.*

*From the point of view of the species as a whole. Not from the point of view of the dragon now landing in small pieces around the landscape.”

“’Everyone knows that trolls can’t even count to four!’*

*In fact, trolls traditionally count like this: one, two, three … many, and people assume this means they can have no grasp of higher numbers. They don’t realise that many can be a number. As in: one, two, three, many, many-one, many-two, many-three, many many, many-many-one…”

It’s very hard to review this book without taking up a lot of space with quotes. Perhaps this comes across as lazy, but I think for a writer like Pratchett, it’s best to let his writing speak for itself.

He often reminds the reader that this is, in fact, a book and he, the author, likes to talk directly to them. He may be the only writer who I enjoy doing this, from anyone else it would be impertinent and even a bit rude.

The characters arrive on the page fully-fledged. Angua is shrewd and observant, and her added werewolf-ness is a clever device. She is simultaneously marginalised and empowered. She teams up with Gaspode, a loquacious and streetwise stray dog, because of their shared canine sensibilities and she uses this friendship to her advantage.

“Other trails, faint or powerful, criss-crossed the street.
There was one that smelled like an old privy carpet.
‘Yo, bitch,’ said a voice behind her.
She turned her head. Gaspode looked no better through canine vision, except that he was at the centre of a cloud of mixing odours.”

It’s a simple book with simple characters, and a cosy and familiar beginning, middle and end. But Pratchett, being the brilliant writer that he was, elevated this format to something more.

He was able to lift things that were considered mundane into significance; he made small things seem important. At the same time, he demoted the extraordinary and exposed its ridiculousness, encouraging the reader to question our ideas of what is exceptional and worthy of praise.

Ankh-Morpork is a fictional city with realistic divides. Trolls and dwarves hate one another and there are many conflicts that dissect and weaken its society. However, the Watch forces differences to collide, and while this is certainly told in an entertaining way, it points to larger issues of prejudice and hate, which seem as relevant today as they did at the time of writing.

Racism, sexism, classism, among other themes, play out in this book and they are not discussed delicately, but with a heavy hand. However, they are explored with humour, which I found to be quite resonant. Witnessing the baseless hate between trolls and dwarves, humans and werewolves, just goes to show how absurd any form of prejudice really is.

It irritates me when I hear people dismiss fantasy as a genre that is merely about other worlds, magic, dragons and elves. I understand it’s not to everyone’s taste, but as a genre I’ve heard it being talked about like it is a literary punching bag, worthy of little more than an endless series of jabs and low blows.

It takes the very best writers, no matter what genre they write, to communicate, investigate and comment on significant issues that dominate conversations our own lives.

Fantasy tackles every issue under the sun, from racism and prejudice, to trauma and survival, and it does so often in the safety of another universe. Creating a new world is not a tool to escape important discourse, it is a vehicle in which to explore them in a new and perhaps more inoffensive light. 

Men at Arms by Terry Pratchett (Corgi, 1994)

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Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi

Back in September, rapturous reviews of Avni Doshi’s Burnt Sugar piqued my interest, and while this book is not without its flaws, it certainly lived up to the hype.

The novel follows artist Antara, a recently married young woman living in her hometown of Pune, India. Her mother, Tara, is beginning to lose her memory with what the reader assumes is early onset dementia. As a result, mother and daughter are hauled back into one another’s lives.

There is a great deal of love, bitterness and pain in this collision, the reasons for which are revealed gradually as Antara recounts her childhood, which is scarred by trauma and abandonment.

“My year in boarding school would be the last time we’d be apart until I was much older and left of my own accord, against her will and without consent – but we did not know that at the time, having only known the past, when my will and consent were the ones in jeopardy. When I returned to Pune, I entered my mother’s new home like a stranger.”

While the novel focussed on captivating, compulsive characters, the narrative lacked propulsion. The story felt somewhat inconsistent and the pace faltered from time to time. Just when the it gained traction, it would abruptly break off into long-winded side stories. These were sometimes fascinating, but other times incomplete, and they prevented the story from unfolding in a satisfying way.

The first half was sluggish, albeit beautifully written. I was bored and unsure of whether to continue, but before you think this is a condemning review, I am glad I persevered.

The second half was mesmerising and commanding, and I didn’t mind at all when its structure became increasingly chaotic. It felt to me like the writer was in full creative, boundless expression. On reflection, the first half felt contrived, contained, imprisoned almost, and by the end I wondered if I had read separate halves of two different novels.

There is a sharpness and intelligence to Doshi’s writing, most apparent in her cutting and insightful remarks – a writing style that is particularly popular on the literary scene at the moment, which is why a place on the Booker shortlist comes as no surprise.

I have read reviews that have praised Doshi’s book for its authenticity and truthfulness, but to me this novel is far more about human fallibility, the fragility of memory, and the inconsistency of ‘truth’. Dementia is presented as confusing, painful and ultimately heart-breaking. It serves to exaggerate contradictions, expose harmful behaviours and is used a tool to explore human memory as a whole.

While Tara, as a symptom of her dementia, has her memories taken away from her, Antara clings to hers through her art. She draws the same face every day, over and over again, but each new edition is changed in small, subtle ways, until the original image becomes increasingly lost.

As Antara narrated her childhood, I got the sense that this was a story she has told herself over and over until she has forgotten which parts are true and which are not. It is a desperate attempt to avoid confronting her present, painful reality, which is that her mother’s suffering is entirely Antara’s fault.

“I try to calm her, to pull her away from the glass, but she moves back, her eyes feral, and I’m not sure she recognises my face. She recovers quickly, but that look is enough to take air out of my lungs. For a moment she did not know who I am and for that moment I am no one.”

Alongside this, there is the question of the reliability of the narrator. For example, the punchy sentence “I would be lying if I said my mother’s misery has never given me pleasure”, while one of the best opening lines I’ve read in a long time, was enough to make me sceptical.

I did not read this simply as some rendered, shameless truth. Antara says this, most likely, to reiterate to herself what she wants to be true. She wants to hate her mother, but she cannot. Their relationship is too taut, too convoluted, and too co-dependent to be distilled down to one, overarching definition.

“She named me Antara, intimacy, not because she loved the name but because she hated herself. She wanted her child’s life to be as different from hers as it could be. Antara was really Un-Tara – Antara would be unlike her mother. But in the process of separating us, we were pitted against each other.”

There is something mechanical about Doshi’s writing. Those previously mentioned sharp, insightful lines are divvied out at regular intervals – perhaps too regular, which weakens their overall effect.

By the end, the novel becomes rather heavy handed, which I quite enjoyed. I liked that the reader could finally see Antara in an impulsive, emotive state, completely removed for the narrative she has created for herself. It felt wild, animal and primal, and I think here Doshi is in her element.

She writes with flare and a ferocity that cuts through the story like a shard of glass, but she also relies on simplicity. She utilises that concise, spare writing style, and she executes this style well, but to the detriment, I think, of carving out her own voice.

However, given that this is a debut, I am sure that when her voice becomes more pronounced, defined and crafted, it will be an exceptional one.

Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi (Hamish Hamilton, 2020)

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The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

Feminist retellings of Greek myths are flooding book shelves, and they seem to be occupying an ever-growing corner of the market. Arguably, this trend picked up steam following the publication of Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls in 2018.

This is undoubtedly a powerful novel; it is based on Homer’s poem The Iliad, one of history’s most epic stories. Many of us are familiar with its cast: Achilles, Hector, Paris, Agamemnon, Priam – and of course Helen of Sparta. A woman famous only for her face.

But Barker reframes the story of the Trojan War to centre on Briseis, a former noblewoman who is abducted and enslaved to Achilles as a prize of war. She is raped, brutalised, and imprisoned, but through her eyes we are given an alternative vision of war, and of the man who was defined by it.

It had all happened so quickly: hauled from darkness into light, stripped of my veil, displayed barefaced like a whore in the marketplace… like being in the arena that first day all over again. And, at the end, that one moment of disturbing intimacy when Achilles had looked straight into my eyes and suddenly there was nobody else in the room and I knew I couldn’t lie.
Tell him he can fuck her till her back breaks.

The book opens and closes with the fall of a city. Barker emphasises the inevitability of the fall, the dreaded anticipation of it, and ultimately its anti-climax. She demonstrates that war is not something that simply ends, it is a violent, penetrating force that irreparably damages everything it touches.

Barker accentuates Briseis’s humanity by demonstrating Achilles’s inhumanity. He is portrayed as a contradiction, a shadow of a man with an obvious and gaping hole inside of him. But at the same time he is formidably present; strong and terrifying, the smells and textures of him are wrenched out with voyeuristic detail, leaving him exposed and gutted:

Achilles’ body was hot and heavy. Cautiously I moved my thigh, and my skin unpeeled from his. I felt sticky, full of him. On any other night, I’d have been longing for the cold slap of waves as I walked into the sea, but not tonight.

Achilles is a dichotomy. He experiences constant pain and disillusionment by believing in two contradictory things at once. He understands that war is essentially futile, but he is compelled to fight nonetheless.

The sections which describe the relationship between Achilles and his unearthly mother stood out to me. He is torn in many ways, between the pain of loving his absent mother and lashing out violently against other women. His love of other men, however, is unbounded. I get the impression that he punishes himself for his own contradictions, and this manifests most obviously is in his erratic wrath, uncontrollable anguish and inability to successfully grieve.  

Every morning he goes to stand on the beach, on the strip of hard sand, and strains his eyes for the first glimpse of his mother.

At first, she’s no more than a dark stain on the white gauze of mist, but then, as she wades towards him through the shallows, he catches the silvery gleam of her skin. He both longs for and dreads this moment, because every meeting now is a prolonged goodbye.

The world building is strong. Reading it, I felt like I could smell the camp, the food, and the fatigue and filth of battle. Magic is not neglected, but it is used sparingly – for example the restoration of Hector’s corpse and Achilles’ mother, a Nereid called Thetis, emerging from the sea.

I was knocked sideways by the descriptions of war, which rain down like heavy blows: “Blood, shit and brains – and there he is, the son of Peleus, half beast, half god, driving on to glory”, although I understand that for some readers the relentlessness of these sections will be off-putting. It is the least flowery story you will ever read. It hit me again and again and again, and yes, it was wearisome, but it undeniably packed a punch.

For this, I’m happy to forgive the odd out-of-place phrase and heavy-handed sentiment – when Helen’s internal voice remarks “I’m here. Me. A person, not just an object to be looked at and fought over” – because they serve to push a valid story: the struggle of women who try to extricate themselves from a narrative dominated by men. Briseis’s story is a tale as old as time, yet has been consistently and unapologetically neglected.  

It is a simple book in this regard, and does away with the mythological tropes of great heroes and damsels in need of saving. Instead, it is brutal and bleak. Barker is clear: war should never be portrayed as a vehicle for heroism, because it can only ever be a tragedy, and being unable to confront this truth dooms us to repeat the same mistakes, time and time again.

As a title, The Silence of the Girls feels like an incomplete slaughter. The women are killed, literally and figuratively, and yes, their voices are indeed silenced by history. But their death is not complete, and as such they become symbols of a faint, glimmering hope.

Briseis’s survival signified, to me at least, a cycle of ironic regeneration. That those who have suffered and survived are the ones best placed to learn lessons from history, but are they are also the ones who are forbidden to implement them.

 

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker (Hamish Hamilton, 2018)

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Get in Trouble by Kelly Link

Demon lovers, summer sprites, robot Boyfriends, pocket universes, superheroes in need of agents, shadows that turn into twins and iguana infestations, to name a few, populate Kelly Link’s giddying short story collection Get in Trouble.

If this collection needed ten years to write, then it was certainly time well-spent. While some stories lacked impact, as is always the case for any collection, they are more than made up for by several stunners. The first story, “The Summer People”, follows Fran, a teenager who has been abandoned by her father to care for several beautiful vacation homes. She goes to these houses, cleans, restocks and launders, and for one in particular, she must occasionally duck out of the way of flying missiles in the ominously named “war room”. Her masters, the mischievous, fairy-like creatures called the “summer people”, communicate with her telepathically, at times pinching Fran to signal dissatisfaction with her performance. Fran recruits an old friend, the unfortunate Ophelia, only to trick her into agreeing to what we can only assume is a similar caretaking contract with the spirits.

“The house, dry-stack stone, stained with age like the tumbledown wall, two stories. A slate roof, a long slant porch, carved with wooden shutters making all the eyes of the windows blind. Two apple trees, crabbed and old, one laden with fruit and the other bare and silver black. Ophelia found the mossy path between them that wound around to the back door with two words carved over the stone lintel: “BE BOLD“.”

In “The New Boyfriend”, middle-class girls can purchase their dream partners, dedicated only to them. For some, the fantasy far outdoes reality. Immy manipulates and steals her friend’s Ghost Boyfriend, bizarrely named Mint, who can take on either an embodied or spectral form, depending on the adolescent desires of the day. Mint, despite his soft, phantasmagorical appearance, is capable of violence, and is terrifyingly well-practised at it.

The stories blend fantastical elements seamlessly with our visions of our own popular culture, science fiction, and dystopian futures, all with a dark but playful voice. In “Secret Identity”, superheroes are real and require sidekicks to audition, although whether or not they fight crime and save the world is never touched on. They have counterparts, villains, immortalised in butter.

 “What’s inside the supersized freezer? Supervillains. Warm Gun, The Nin-Jew, Cat Lady, Hellalujah, Shibboleth, The Shambler, Mandroid, Manplant, The Manticle, Patty Cakes. Lots of others. Name a famous supervillain and he or she or zhe is in the freezer. They’re life-sized […] Conrad Linthor touches Hellalujah’s red, bunchy bicep. Presses just a little. The colour smears. Lardy, yellow-white underneath.”

Enslavement and servitude are inescapable themes, as is paranormal romance, and they are unfurled with intelligence and dexterity. Often the protagonists are young women, old enough to be aware of their incoming adulthood, but young enough to be on the brink of it, on the edge of change, making them seem innocent and vulnerable. As a reader I felt oddly protective of them, wanting to scoop them up and away from the strange and dangerous world the author has created.

Link may be one of the best short story writers out there today, who writes with considerable authority and daring. However, this book is incredibly divisive. I for one adored it. I revelled in how it forced the reader to behave as they would in a dream, going along with every mad turn of events, accepting each new reality with immediacy in order to keep up with Link’s relentless pace. Other people certainly won’t get on with it, partly because of the bizarre nature of the stories, but also because of the meandering narrative. The stories rarely start at the beginning, instead opting for somewhere in the middle. Their plots are disconcertingly ambiguous, and endings can be listless, neither open nor closed. Very often, not much happens at all.

At its heart, this is a collection of ghost stories, shadowy reflections of our world, instantly familiar yet obviously and frighteningly not. Whichever side of the fence you fall, Link’s work in unifying, in love or in hate. I was hugely impressed, captivated, and eagerly and gullably led by her, keen to keep up. In my mind, Link must have taken the advice of the summer people quite literally, having never forgotten to “BE BOLD“.

Get in Trouble by Kelly Link (Cannongate Books, 2015)

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Other Minds by Peter Godfrey-Smith

Humans and cephalopods, a group including octopuses, squids and cuttlefish, diverged on their evolutionary paths around 600 million years ago, and two very different forms of intelligence developed along each fork. Peter Godfrey-Smith, author of Other Minds: The octopus and the evolution of intelligent life, is best placed to offer a concise introduction:

“Cephalopods are an island of mental complexity in the sea of invertebrate animals. Because our most recent common ancestor was so simple and lies so far back, cephalopods are an independent experiment in the evolution of large brains and complex behaviour. If we can make contact with cephalopods as sentient beings, it is not because of a shared history, not because of kinship, but because evolution built minds twice over. This is probably the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien.”

Godfrey-Smith, an Australian philosopher of science with a penchant for scuba-diving, has written something exceptional. For the lay person, the thought of reading a book about evolutionary history, combined with academic philosophical thought, evokes terror and an instinct to flee. However, Other Minds should not be approached with fear and alarm, because it brilliantly captures its radiant, enigmatic protagonist while providing scientific clarity in an effective, two-pronged strategy.

Other Minds moves through evolutionary history into modern day biological manifestations with ease. Godfrey-Smith is clearly enraptured; he has observed octopuses with affection, describing their bodies, which seem “to be everywhere and nowhere”, and their unique dispositions with acuity and tenderness. Octopuses have strange, inverted cat’s eyes, they either move with mesmerising fluidity or erratic jet propulsions. He describes interacting with them, their suckers grabbing his skin with a hold that is “disconcertingly tight”.

“Having attached the suckers, it tugs your finger, pulling you gently in […] It’s tasting your finger as it draws it in. The arms itself is alive with neurons, a nest of nervous activity. Behind the arm, large round eyes watch you the whole time.”

Octopuses do not have a body/brain divide like we do, their whole body is webbed with neurological activity. They have a mischievous and crafty nature that can flit quickly between aggression and playfulness, interest and nonchalance. They are known to squirt jets of water at researchers they don’t like, and worse, display extreme indifference to eager and curious divers. You get the feeling while reading this book that Godfrey-Smith is both an objective scientific observer and desperate seeker of his subject’s approval, or perhaps acceptance. This dichotomy does not detract from the book’s impact, but emphasises its probing and inquisitive nature.

While the book is at times a wonderful, whimsical read, there are long passages that run dry. For example, I preferred the authors descriptions of an octopus’s dynamic mosaic colour schemes, rather than the section dedicated to describing exactly what mechanisms are needed in order to make them so. However, that did not take away from the book, merely added the necessary, if a little dull, context.

The overarching question Godfrey-Smith asks is on the nature of consciousness. It opens with a quote from William James (The Principles of Psychology, 1890):

“The demand for continuity has, over large tracts of science, proved itself to possess true prophetic power. We ought therefore ourselves sincerely to try every possible mode of conceiving the dawn of consciousness so that it may not appear equivalent to the irruption into the universe of a new nature, non-existent till then.”

I have been thinking about this quote endlessly, with far too much meandering indecision to include in this review. What Godfrey-Smith queries, essentially, is what is it like to be an octopus? My imagination runs dry. It is a terrifying question in some respect, because it not only asks us to imagine existing in body that lives, thinks and senses in a wholly alien manner, but one that demands a new definition of what consciousness means, because our current thinking is disappointingly insufficient.

That’s why I chose to write about this book. It was not an entirely captivating read, but its prodding and poking inquisition was enthralling in its own way. Through a small, cat-sized animal, with eight arms and three hearts, Godfrey-Smith managed to develop a creative and empathetic portrayal of an utterly independent and hypnotic creature, one that is strikingly more familiar than it ever was before.

 

Other Minds: The octopus and the evolution of intelligent life by Peter Godfrey-Smith (William Collins, 2017)

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