A Festive Update

holly SNBOur latest ‘inbetweenie’, the update we put out between issues of Shiny New Books is now live and lovely! Publishers brought out so many fantastic books in the early autumn that we’ve got over 30 new reviews, as well as a Christmas quiz and an amazing 7-book prize from Buried River Press in a lucky draw competition (though UK and Eire entrants only).

Time to find out what you want for Christmas, and what you can get all your friends and relatives, too.

Some Luck

some luckWhen I first began this blog back in 2006 I had scarcely read any American fiction. I had had a shameful but unrestrained passion for Sweet Valley High books in my early teens and had loved Nancy Drew and Peanuts just as fervently as a child. The first blogging challenge I ever undertook was a summer of reading American literature, and one of the first books I read for that challenge was Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres. I thought it was magnificent; a retelling of King Lear set on a midwest farm where people might so easily go a little crazy at the mercy of the elements, the uncertain income from crops and the judgemental gazes of their all-seeing neighbours. It introduced me to the American style of storytelling: simple, direct, vivid, powerful.

Now Jane Smiley has returned to farming territory with her new novel, the first in a trilogy spanning the last hundred years of American history. Some Luck follows the fortunes of the Langdons from 1920 to 1953 with a chapter for each year. If this sounds schematic, it isn’t. It’s a brilliant device deployed with Smiley’s deft, clever insight into the way stories work. Shifting perspective continually through the numerous heads of the Langdon clan gives us a taste, as sharp as vinegar and as strong as black coffee, of the flavour of each year, as the fortunes of the family interact with those of the world around them. Books are three-dimensional object – they take time to read – and as the chapters pass so we feel history as it burgeons and blossoms. We pass through the long, dusty years of Depression, aware in a newly vivid way how long that dreadful slump lasted, and through the Second World War. When the book ends, McCarthyism is in the air, all set to impinge on the family in ways we can already anticipate with a shiver.

The story starts with Walter and Rosanna Langdon growing accustomed to their new, mortgaged farm, and their new, lively son, Frank. Frank is bold and stubborn, even as a toddler, and over indulged by his mother according to Rosanna’s sister, Eloise, living with the family to lend a helping hand. Rosanna’s next son, Joe, is the product of a difficult birth and is altogether a more withdrawn character, easily hurt, rarely happy. Mary Elizabeth is good but doomed, Lilian an angel child, her mother’s favourite, Henry a book worm, Claire the best-loved of her father. Eloise leaves to further her education in Chicago where she becomes caught up in Communism. Rosanna turns to religion for support in a life that seems ever more hostage to fortune. Frank is naturally adept at fixing bullies in the playground, but torments his own younger brother. Rosanna cannot help but tell Lilian that a miracle has occurred, when a well that seems to have run dry produces more water again. She knows Walter would disapprove of such fanciful thinking. The farm horses are finally retired in favour of the tractor, electricity arrives at the farm. So life runs on in the novel. Events arise, some world-shaking but seen only out of the corner of a character’s eye, so to speak, some local but devastating. As the family grows, so the story becomes more complex, more gripping as we grow attached to the characters, who have ever more at stake.

In many ways, though, rich as the patchwork quilt of this novel is, the standout character is Frankie. Strong and fearless, restlessly seeking something equal to his talents, Frankie is a beautiful paradox. A young man with the whole world in his grasp and who eventually needs a war to find himself. He becomes the occasion for some of Jane Smiley’s most profound insights into character and circumstance. When Frankie’s headmaster recommends him for college, Walter reads the letter with a great deal of reluctance:

It was not that he felt the world would damage or hurt Frankie in any way, it was much more that there were plenty of things out in the world that Frankie would learn about, and that he would then have no scruples at all.’

Rosanna is also forced to ponder the enigma that is her son:

As soon as she looked at Frankie, she wondered what motherhood was for. Everyone said you could not ask for a better son than Frank – successful, personable, and so handsome. Even Walter was satisfied with him, at last. But Rosanna knew better, Frank didn’t care a fig about any of them, not even her, his adoring mother. But did every child have to be a loving child? When they were your brothers and sisters, you accepted without hesitation that they had reservations about your parents.’

Families are the crucibles of culture; they are where the political, economic and ideological buck stops. In the family, the most powerful changes out in the world are gradually filtered down and experienced as daily life. What Jane Smiley manages so effortlessly and so engagingly to bring together is this sense of forces colliding in family life. Frank is a great case in point; he isn’t just the product of his parents and his upbringing; he becomes a man with a whole new sensibility that is shaped by the changing tide of history. We don’t see everything with Smiley’s structure – much happens off stage, beyond the margins of the page. But everything we see has an impact on how the family lives and loves, who the children become, and we fear for the future, having some knowledge of what it holds. Amazing storytelling, in a novel that I think will have to end up on my best of the year list.

Giving Up the Ghost

giving up the ghostI often think it’s harder to write about a book you’ve really loved than one you haven’t liked at all. Just as it takes more muscles to smile than to frown (and it really does, the other way round is a myth propagated by a conspiracy of determined optimists), it takes more firing synapses to praise than condemn. I’m tempted to say of Hilary Mantel’s memoir: It’s brilliant, go and read it, and just leave this review concise. But maybe it’s useful if I say a word or two – and give you a quote or two – in justification.

Hilary Mantel grew up just outside of Manchester, the majority of her immediate family living in two neighbouring houses, her grandmother presiding over one, her grandmother’s sister in the other. In and out of their houses all the time, she’s greeted by her great-aunt, Annie Connor:

“Hello, our ‘Ilary,”… my family have named me aspirationally, but aspiration doesn’t stretch to the ‘H’. Rather embarrassed for her, that she hasn’t spotted who I am, I slip her my name of the day. I claim I’m an Indian brave. I claim I’m Sir Launcelot. I claim I’m the parish priest and she doesn’t quibble. I give her a blessing; she says, thank you, Father.’

Yes, like many a writer, Hilary is a wildly imaginative child, believing her best friend’s father to be half-man, half-plant because of the thick, knotty veins in his forearms, able to recite whole chunks of the Knights of the Round Table from memory and convinced she will at some point transmute into a boy.

Trouble comes early: a severe and unexplained fever on her first holiday in Blackpool, when she first realises in that unarticulated childish way, that her parents aren’t happy and fears she is the cause. Forever after it seems as if she were the kind of child who simply absorbed negative energy and turned it into illness. And then there were the dull rigors of school:

I kept my bounce for a week or two, my cheerful pre-school resilience; I was a small, pale girl, post-Blackpool, but I had a head stuffed full of chivalric epigrams, and the self-confidence that comes from a thorough knowledge of horsemanship and swordplay. I knew, also, so many people who were old, so many people who were dead; I belonged to their company and lineage, not to this, and I began to want to rejoin them, without the interruptions now imposed. I couldn’t read, but neither could any of the other children, and it was a wearisome uphill trail in the company of Dick and Dora… It was dull stuff, all of it, and as my head was already full of words, whole sagas which I knew by heart, I was not convinced that it was necessary.’

The story of Hilary’s life is one packed full of ghosts, spotted or sensed here and there, flitting in and out of the margins of the narrative without much in the way of time or explanation spent on them. They just happen to crop up occasionally, and hardly ever cause her any harm, apart from one time when she was seven when something happened while she was in the garden, an experience with no defined contours that ‘wrapped a strangling hand around my life’, a sense of such evil and foreboding that: ‘Grace runs away from me, runs out of my body like liquid from a corpse.’ She refers to it as her ‘mauvaise quart d’heure’, and doesn’t refer to it much at all.

In any case, there is plenty of material trouble to be had with the living. Her parents, along with Hilary and her two young brothers, move into their own house up the road, and then before long so too does Jack, the man who will eventually become her stepfather. ‘You should not judge your parents,’ Mantel writes, on the grounds that they are young and unhappy and don’t know what they’re doing, except hoping for the best. But naturally, such a development caused extreme rifts within her family, and outside of it. When her parents finally split (and Hilary never saw her father again after that), Jack her stepfather evidently feels somewhat saddled with kids he didn’t ask for, a daughter the least useful of all.

But there is a terrific tensile strength in Hilary Mantel, a resolution not to be broken or bowed by the stupid, the pointless and the unwittingly cruel in life, and a determination to stand up to any bully who comes her way. These qualities are tested to the limit when, as a young woman, she transfers her degree course to Sheffield to be with the man she will eventually marry, and starts to experience nausea, sickness and atrocious pains in her legs. She goes to the doctor who, because he doesn’t have any explanation for it, sends her to a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist diagnoses excess ambition (‘If I were honest with myself, he asked, wouldn’t I rather have a job in my mother’s dress shop than study law?’). He puts her on anti-depressants, whose only effect is one of ‘making print slide sideways and fall out of the book.’ Until she tries valium, which makes her fit to be tied – apparently it has the effect of enraging some people. From this point on, Hilary is given stronger and stronger drugs to counter the side-effects of whatever she has previously taken, until she ends up knocked out in a clinic on Largatil. Realising the drugs are now the problem (which no one else does), she stops taking them all and simply claims she is well. Which of course she isn’t at all. It’s not until many years later that she starts researching her illness herself and comes to believe she is suffering from endometriosis, ‘a gynaecological condition with a dazzling variety of systemic effects.’ After some torturous surgery and hormone drugs that make her pile on weight and lose her hair and her hearing, she is out of danger but also a stranger to herself. But that indomitable courage never really goes away: ‘Bald, odd-shaped, deaf but not defeated, I sat down and wrote another book.’

Although the memoir is framed by the act of selling two homes and buying one, the real heart of the book is in these central sections, in which damage is done to Hilary Mantel, inadvertently for the most part, but enough to make her a woman of many lives, in other words, a writer.

I am not writing to solicit any special sympathy. People survive much worse and never put pen to paper… There are other people who, like me, have had the roots of their personality torn up. You need to find yourself, in the maze of social expectation, the thickets of memory: just which bits of you are left intact? I have been so mauled by medical procedures, so sabotaged and made over, so thin and so fat, that sometimes I feel that each morning it is necessary to write myself into being’.

Giving Up the Ghost is a book that takes you by the throat and does not let go, written with consummate stylishness and a clever, teasing wit. I don’t think I’ve read a better account of what it’s like to be a child, the terrible disappointments that come with grasping the essence of growing up as it is sold to the small and helpless. The parts about chronic illness are hypnotic. The ending, a sort of coda in which Hilary Mantel sells her old homes and buys a new one, wasn’t as intriguing or endearing, but who cares? The rest is amazing. A final thought: in the book, she writes that she’d never seen the point of memoir, but writing her own had taught her something new: how to let the story arise, how life eventually revealed its own shape, if you let it, and she hoped this would help with her fiction. And what did she go on to write next? Yup, Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies. I guess it was useful after all.

Balthasar’s Gift

balthasar's giftThere’s a back story to this one. Once upon a time, now many years ago, a group of women writers, all friends online, came together over a feminist blog: What We Said. We were all involved with different kinds of writing; novels, short stories, nonfiction. Now one of our group has published her crime novel, Balthasar’s Gift, which is the first in a series featuring maverick journalist, Maggie Cloete.

The setting is South Africa, post-apartheid but before the turn of the millenium. Maggie is going about her normal business (chasing muggers on her motorcycle, in fact) when the call comes in: a shooting at the local AIDS mission. Maggie arrives to find a young man dying in the arms of the woman who runs the place, and it’s only when a passer-by knows the victim’s name, Balthasar Meiring, that Maggie realises she’s heard of him. A little while back he had called her on the phone, urging her to attend the court hearing of a class action against a doctor selling a fake cure for AIDS. Maggie had decided to pass the information onto her colleague at the paper who works on health issues, mostly because she was resisting the pressure Meiring seemed to want to put on her. And of course now, she regrets it.

While the general assumption is that his death is a robbery gone wrong, Maggie begins to suspect there’s a great deal more behind it. Following up on leads that she hides from her editor at the paper, she begins to believe that the two sides of Balthasar’s life have clashed: his private school friends, some of whom are now operating far too close to the limits of the law, and his work with AIDS sufferers, of whom there are escalating numbers. It’s the mid-90s and the government is reluctant to provide the drugs that could save thousands of lives, while the people react with fear and superstition. It’s a bad situation, ripe with all the urgency and exploitation that leads to murder.

Maggie is a terrific character: determined to be the alpha male in any situation, stubborn and provocative and with the subtlety of a jackhammer, but fundamentally it’s her tender side that gets her into trouble, undermining any professional distance she might try to have. She reminds me a whole lot of V. I. Warshawski.

But perhaps what I admired most in this novel is the setting of Pietermaritzburg. I’ve never been to South Africa and know very little about the country, but this story is so steeped in the atmosphere of place and time, I felt as if I’d been there. The best crime fiction doesn’t just tell a pacy, high-octane story, it also has a profound awareness of the social injustices and loopholes that create the right conditions for crime to flourish. I really admired this in Eva Dolan’s crime novel, Long Way Home, a few weeks back, and was again impressed by that same depth in Charlotte Otter’s.

I should also say that I read an early version of this novel, when Charlotte was first drafting it. It was a great read then, but now it’s amazing. Every scene is crisp, the transitions are smooth, the characterisation sharp and vivid, the story unfolds so neatly and lucidly… All too often I read books that feel a bit ragged still, as if they should have gone through another edit before reaching their readers. But this one is as slick and tough as a turbo engine. And finally, hard-boiled crime fiction has a new edge in the 21st century, led by women writers who marry uncompromising social insight with compassion. The old sisterhood would be justly proud to bits of Charlotte.