Magnificent Seven

Yes, issue no. 7 of Shiny New Books is now live!

SNB-logoI’ve got a huge BookBuzz section somehow – not entirely sure how! – so do go and check out our latest pick for the Book Club, our lastest Eds Discuss and all the lovely interviews and features from our talented contributors.

As ever, there are lots of reviews of fiction, non-fiction and reprints. I think my personal favourites of the novels I read this time were, in fact, three historical novels (inevitably, after criticising historical fiction here a few months back, that sound you hear is me chomping on my own words): Belonging by Umi Sinha, A Want of Kindness by Joanne Limburg and Rembrandt’s Mirror by Kim Devereux.

Well, you don’t need me to tell you how to navigate the site! Hopefully there will be something there for everyone.


vertigo hitchcockAlfred Hitchcock’s 1958 film, which topped the British Film Institute’s poll in 2012 for best film of all time, is deservedly famous. But how many people have read the book the film was based upon?

Well, Pushkin Press have just released a new crime imprint, Pushkin Vertigo, that features the novel along with other international crime masterworks published originally between the 1920s and 1970s. Vertigo was written by the amazing French crime duo, Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, who I actually became rather interested in about a decade ago. Their books are often outrageous in premise and yet they pull them off brilliantly. Mostly they turn on a seemingly supernatural occurrence which always ends up with a logical explanation as part of a dastardly crime. So they’re both nutty and completely engrossing, a combination that always hovers around the supernatural in any case, something Boileau-Narcejac exploit ruthlessly in the knowledge that the impossible, the numinous and the inexplicable have a hypnotic effect on us.

vertigo boileauVertigo as written by Boileau-Narcejac is essentially a ghost story – or rather a Geist story, the original term from which ghost derives, meaning the spirit or soul. The story begins when ex-police detective, Roger Flavières is employed by his old friend, Paul Gevigny, to keep his wife, Madeleine, under strict surveillance. According to Gevigny, Madeleine has been experiencing periods of blackout, moments of ecstatic absence that have led him to suspect her of being possessed by the spirit of her suicidal grandmother, Pauline Lagerlac. Flavières is initially skeptical: ‘Either your wife’s ill or she’s up to some game or other,’ he tells Gevigny. However, once he has made Madeleine’s acquaintance and begun his mission of surveillance, Flavières undergoes a radical change of heart. Not only does he become convinced of her ghostly possession, but he also falls deeply in love with her. After thwarting her suicide attempt, he exchanges his role of spy for that of protector; rescuing Madeleine from her own internal estrangement becomes his raison d’être.

However, Flavières has one fatal weakness; his vertigo has already made him abandon his job in the police force after an incident in which a colleague, taking his place in a rooftop chase, fell to his death. The logic of inevitable repetition powers this story and so, when Madeleine rushes to the top of a church tower in a moment of otherworldly possession, Flavières finds himself once again unable to intervene, and once again forced to witness a death by falling.

Flavières is a curious mix of frustrated heroism and full-blown neurosis, a prickly, unstable character whose cynicism is a form of romanticism contaminated by despair.Yet his force is bound up in his determination to overcome his own phobias and to find strength and courage inside a mind tortured by its own uncertainties. When he rescues Madeleine from her attempt to drown herself, he rescues himself from his apathy and aimlessness – small wonder then, that when he loses her, he thinks: ‘She was dead. And he was dead with her.’ What a clever, tight thematic grip this narrative exerts; Madeleine is possessed by the spirit of Pauline Lagerlac, and in going to her rescue, Flavières becomes possessed by the spirit of the woman he adores. Round and round in circles we go, but it doesn’t stop there.

Intrinsic to this story is its setting at the very start of World War 2. When Flavières and Madeleine first meet, it’s the period of the phony war, when everyone is thrilled and terrified and waiting in disbelief for something to happen. And when Madeleine falls to her death, it is, of course, the moment when the war begins for real and the Germans invade Paris. Flavières decides to leave the country and he only returns when the war is over; his years in Africa have left him sick and weak, he is a broken man, returning to a broken, hapless France. It’s more than just a pathetic fallacy at work here; instead it’s a radical lack of boundaries, as the spirits of time and place as well as people, reach out contaminatory fingers, infiltrating one another. Aimlessly entering a cinema, Flavières is astonished to witness a face in the newsreel he thinks he recognises. After all, he’s just spent the past five years being obsessed by her memory. Could it be that Madeleine now lives on in someone else?

Well, we’ll leave Flavières rushing off in search of his old love. Even if you’re well acquainted with the ending to Hitchcock’s Vertigo, you’ll find the second part of the story quite different. There is a much darker, harsher, more unnerving vision at work, and Hitchcock’s movie seems quite light and cheery in comparison. The film of Vertigo is understood to be the place where Hitchcock spells out his relationship to his cool blondes most openly – his desire to control and mould them which always ends in disappointment, because his fantasy is only ever that and cannot really be made real. Whereas Boileau-Narcejac suggest that ghosts are both intrinsic and alien to our sense of the human – that our identity is to some extent a haunted house, people live on inside us, just as we inhabit the hearts and imaginations of others. For Flavières, Madeleine really does complete him, and what might seem romantic is actually pretty scary too. Hence our ambivalence over the ghost – what is psychologically real is denied as being too uncomfortable to our sense of self, and instead we play with the idea of the ghost as something that exists in a troubling way outside and beyond us.

Vertigo by Boileau-Narcejac makes a fascinating companion to the Hitchcock film, and is, I think, an amazing book in its own right. I’ve got a couple more of the Pushkin Vertigo series to read and if they’re all up to this standard, it’s going to be a fabulous collection for crime lovers.

My Experience Is Not Your Experience

I walk into the supermarket. I know exactly where I’m going. I head to the shelves of books for sale and start flicking through them, trying to ignore the glare of the neon lights that fills my peripheral vision. And as I flick through I come to a conclusion: they all sound exactly the same. I call it the deadpan first person present. You know what I mean. Short sentences. The occasional long lyrical one thrown in to prove the author can do it. It’s pitifully easy to write. And quick to read. And I absolutely loathe it.

Gah! Yuck! Awful! Where on earth has it come from and why has it taken over mass market fiction so completely? This year I’ve had a lot of this sort of contemporary fiction sent to me and I’ve found myself increasingly unable to read it. It puts my teeth on edge, like vinyl wallpaper and crepe dress fabric. It’s a very particular and personal response, though, as I’ve never come across anyone else expressing the reservations I feel. After a lot of thought, I realise that what I dislike is the lack of musicality in language like this; which essentially means no affect to the words – no deep-rooted emotion. Oh it says a lot of stuff, and often it’s used in thrillers to talk endlessly about the crisis the female protagonist is going through, but it’s language which is dead behind the eyes.

Well, for me it is. As I was thinking about why I disliked it so, I realised that the world has changed enormously when it comes to reader response. When I read up about it in college, it was stuck in the realm of theory, because no one really knew what readers en masse thought. Nowadays, with millions of blogs and sites like Goodreads we’re awash with the opinions of readers of every shape and size. And what becomes clear is how bizarrely picky we are.

Not long ago, I was at an author event where Sophie Hannah was speaking. She told us about a reader who had come up to her and tackled her about a detail of one of her books. In it, the protagonist had driven a car three weeks after a caesarian section. Given that no one could possibly drive for at least six weeks after such an operation, the woman said, it had put her right off the book. Oh, Sophie Hannah had replied, really? I drove two weeks after mine.

If I ever visit Goodreads, it fills me with terror for the human race, for much the same sort of reaction. I remember reading a review of Curtis Sittenfeld’s novel Sisterland on it. The reviewer had had a complete tantrum over the fact that a character engaged in a sexual act fervently wishes her partner would hurry up. Whoever would do such a thing? the reader fumed. How impossibly rude! She had hated the book after that, given up on it and put it aside as a badly written novel. It was an extraordinary response in many ways, not least because the character in the book is committing adultery at the time, and whilst she enters into it willingly, she is assailed by guilt as the scene progresses. All the context for this event had been removed when the reader read the passage; some idiosyncratic trigger had been sprung and irrational but powerful feelings had taken over.

I think to some degree or other, no reader can really escape this sort of reaction. It’s very human – and equally human to blame the book rather than our own crazy emotions. The greatest incidence of such trigger responses seems to be around this issue of likable or sympathetic characters. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve read reviews that bewail ‘horrible’ people in books that haven’t struck me as horrible in the least. And I’ve read enough books myself with characters endlessly justifying their behaviors (which annoys me) or responding in ways I think are odd, to know I do the same thing.

What it boils down to is, I think, that understanding my experience is not your experience remains one of the hardest laws of reality that we ever have to get our heads around, right up there with getting the fact that people can only give love in their own fashion, not in the way we might want to receive it. When characters in books react in ways that are alien to us, or in ways we think are wrong, or in ways that awaken old memories of hurts and slights, or in ways that are simply not borne out by our own experience, we become distanced from them. They are – quite literally – not sympathetic any more.

Margaret Heffernan in her brilliant book Wilful Blindness, goes deep into the psychological research around this desire for the familiar. We marry people who are like us, we are friends with people who are like us, we search out views and opinions that confirm our own. And mostly, we hate to think this might be true. ‘Human beings want to feel good about themselves and to feel safe, and being surrounded by familiarity and similarity satisfies those needs very efficiently,’ she writes. In one experiment, subjects were led to believe that they shared a birthday with Rasputin, and subsequently they ‘were far more lenient in judging the mad monk than those who had nothing in common with him.’ Trivialities matter. Since 1998, over 4.5 million people have taken Implicit Association Tests that measure bias, and especially the sort of bias we aren’t conscious of having, the kind that makes white doctors friendlier towards white patients than black ones. No point in being complacent – more than 80 percent of us are biased against the elderly. Nobody comes out of this particularly well, even if, as Heffernan insists, we all want very earnestly not to feel these ways.

Well, our book reviews are pretty clear that we are all full of foibles and prejudices, and that we are pretty hard on fictional characters who don’t match up to the internal yardstick. It’s an intriguing thought that books give us one representation of human nature, and book reviews give us another, more revealing, one. Reading is a trick way of looking into a mirror, because we read in the most private part of our minds, well away from witnesses and onlookers. Stories tell us as much about ourselves as they do about the lives in their pages. And what does my own irrational dislike of some innocent writing style say? I’m not entirely sure. But I do know I still have residual fear towards people whose emotions I can’t read, or who are saying one thing while feeling another. I love reading because stories do go beneath the surface, on the whole, they do show you the whole picture. I think I’m irritated beyond all proportion by stories that don’t have emotional depth, while this currently fashionable style is a way of depicting women in crisis who don’t make the reader feel like they’re ‘whining’ or ‘moaning’, which gets a very bad press. But that’s only my reading of the situation… and we all know that’s just personal.

Today Is Extra Shiny!

SNB-logo-small-e1393871908245I’m particularly excited by today’s Extra Shiny because my section, BookBuzz, is full of all sorts of new and thrilling things.

There’s the discussion for our book club on Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests

There’s an announcement of a poetry competition we’re holding.

There’s brand new YA special features.

There’s an interview with one of the judges on the Notting Hill Editions Essay Prize panel.

And Annabel has given us a new links page.

I don’t think I’ve ever had so much new stuff happening all at once! I think I’m going to lie down in a darkened room for a while, if you don’t mind…but you go on over and have a look.