Author Archives: Nina

Gotta read ’em all!

The shortlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction was announced this morning, and what a strong shortlist it is. I’ve already written about Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, which remains potent in the memory as much for what it does with form as for its urgent storyline. Elif Batuman’s The Idiot is the book I most want to read next. I adore Batuman’s essays, and her memoir about Russian literature, The Possessed, is a thing of rapturous beauty. Jessie Greengrass’s Sight is also high on my list, not least because of the contradictory reactions it’s been garnering. The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock and Sing, Unburied, Sing have been outliers for me up till now, but I’m planning to read both before the winner is announced, if I possibly can.

The novel I want to comment on today though is Meena Kandasamy’s When I Hit You: Or, Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife. If I read a more important book this year, I will be surprised. People have been describing this novel as a memoir of domestic abuse, which it is, but such a bald description fails to convey the majesty of all that is in it. If I were forced to use one word to describe When I Hit You it would be triumphant. It is a triumph not just in terms of victory of the spirit, but in terms of the writing art. The very act of writing – the act that most enrages the narrator’s solipsistic, jealous, controlling, abusive and above all selfish, selfish, selfish husband – is celebrated in these pages to the absolute utmost. Indeed, I cannot think of a better riposte, a sweeter revenge for the violence the narrator has suffered than this excoriating, empowering book about womanhood and violence, art, the practice of sanity, language and freedom of expression. I cannot think of a book that would be a more worthy winner of the Women’s Prize than this vital, supremely intelligent text, superbly realised. Angry but never embittered, I would come forward and say that this is a novel every woman – and for fuck’s sake, every man – needs to read as soon as they can.

The thing that strikes me – and pleases me – most forcefully about this year’s Women’s Prize shortlist is its seriousness. These are books that are not afraid to take the personal and make it political. These are books that are not afraid of going in hard on big questions. These are authors that are unapologetic about their love of language, their joy in experimentation, their determination to be heard, their willingness to be difficult. It will be very interesting to see if any of these turn up on the Booker longlist, announced in July. Congratulations to all the writers, and also to the judges on the boldness and brilliance of their choices, on showing us why and how the Women’s Prize continues to be so important.


As I’m still more or less dumbstruck by the news, earlier this evening, that The Rift has been awarded The Kitschies coveted Red Tentacle for Best Novel, I’m just going to post the words read out on my behalf at the ceremony by Cath Trechman, my editor at Titan Books:

“Even in a calendar overflowing with exciting and thought-provoking literary awards, The Kitschies are special. They’re special because of their particular approach to genre fiction, which has from the beginning been innovative and fearless, and also because of the ubiquitously high quality of their shortlists, which year after year have presented readers with books that challenge and broaden their perceptions of what speculative fiction can be and do. It is an honour and a privilege for The Rift to be counted among their number. For it to win is a joy, not to mention an enormous surprise! 

I would like to thank the judges for furthering and cementing The Kitschies’ tradition of radical innovation. I would like to thank the marvellous team at Titan Books for their enthusiasm and professionalism in bringing the book to market and championing its cause. I would like particularly to thank Cath Trechman, who has been such a staunch support throughout. Thank you, Cath, for your insight and determination – none of this would have happened without you. 

I’m so sorry not to be with you all this evening. Hope you’re having a great night!”

I am indeed honoured and thrilled. Because seriously, what could be more beautiful than a tentacle?

Massive, massive thanks to everyone involved, and congratulations to my fellow tentaculans. Do check out the full list of nominees and winners here.

Follycon 2018, Harrogate

As part of a lively and highly enjoyable Eastercon weekend, I’m delighted to report that my second novel The Rift won the British Science Fiction Award for Best Novel, an achievement made all the more memorable for being awarded alongside Anne Charnock’s win for Best Shorter Fiction. We won’t be forgetting Harrogate in a hurry!

Photo by Glyn Morgan

See the full list of winners and nominees here.


You Were Never Really Here

I was in Glasgow yesterday evening for an event that ran as part of the Aye, Write! literary festival and featured an interview with crime writer Nick Triplow about his recent (and excellent) biography of fellow crime writer Ted Lewis, followed by a screening of Mike Hodges’s Get Carter, the film that brought Lewis’s most famous creation to a worldwide audience. I enjoyed the event tremendously, not least for this rare opportunity to see Carter on the big screen. Michael Caine will always be Michael Caine, for good or ill, but the film’s extraordinary sense of place, its grimy textures, its evocation of a certain time remain an extraordinary achievement. Get Carter captures the seventies in a way its creators would not – could not – have been aware of at the time, the surest test of a piece of art that actually appears ageless.

I booked for this event some weeks ago, and when I realised I would also be able to fit in the matinee showing of Lynne Ramsey’s new film, You Were Never Really Here, the trip suddenly became doubly worthwhile. You Were Never Really Here is based on a 2016 novella of the same name by Jonathan Ames, a text that turned out to be short enough for me to read in its entirety during my journey to Glasgow. I was thus able to experience the movie literally within an hour of reading its source text, something I don’t think I’ve ever done before and that made seeing the film almost like a weird kind of flashback. Whether this makes for a good way of looking at and thinking about adaptation I couldn’t say, but it is certainly a powerful and discomfiting one.

The Ames novella tells the story of an ex-Marine named Joe. Beaten and abused as a boy by his violent father, Joe’s trauma is broadened and deepened by his experiences in the military. He thinks constantly of suicide, and it is only his loyalty to his eighty-year-old mother, who was equally abused by Joe’s father, that keeps him going. Joe now works as a hired ‘fixer’ with a special ability in retrieving kidnap victims from their abductors. Violence is Joe’s tool, and he is an expert in its deployment. Returning to New York after a bad experience in Cincinnati, Joe is given a new job by his handler, McCleary: a senator’s thirteen-year-old daughter, Lisa, has been kidnapped. After six months of inconclusive police investigations, Senator Votto has received an anonymous text, informing him that Lisa has been put to work in a brothel frequented by rich businessmen and politicians. Joe is to recapture Lisa and return her to her father. There will be a rich reward. There are also risks, however. Votto’s father was known to be in deep with the Mafia, and there is reason to suspect that Votto may have come under pressure to conduct his political affairs in a similar fashion…

You Were Never Really Here was an almost perfect reading experience for me. Transgressive, sometimes horribly violent but often surprising in its twists and turns, fastidious and economical in its use of language, this is a novella that chews up the rulebook on show not tell (any kind of successful rule-breaking in fiction is a pump-the-air moment for me) and streams through the consciousness in a rush of blazing streetlamps and concussive hammer thwacks. Joe is a broken man, most would argue a bad man, yet as a protagonist he refuses to be categorised in such reductive terms. As a piece of writing You Were Never Really Here is a gem, as a work of noir fiction it should be famous. If you’re not keen on physical violence on the page, I’d advise caution, but otherwise I’d recommend it wholeheartedly.

I love Lynne Ramsey’s films, and her adaptation of Ames’s novella is a great piece of work that has already won prizes and should transport anyone who sees it. For me though, almost certainly because I came to the film feeling an unusually close kinship with the original text, it became a demonstration in how often film fails to reproduce the peculiar and unique intensity of a reading experience, the particular and perhaps irreplaceable intimacy of the printed page. Lynne Ramsey’s sense of place – her film-maker’s understanding of the urban landscape – is sensational, with a darkly alluring streetscene that reminded me somewhat of Steve McQueen’s 2011 film Shame.  I loved the film’s composed soundtrack and its use of incidental music. And yet in spite of some standout scenes – the death of the cop in Joe’s house (a certain eighties ballad will never be the same again), the ‘funeral’ at the lake – Joaquin Phoenix was never quite ‘my’ Joe. Perhaps he just talked too much. More importantly, I found myself mystified by some of Ramsey’s choices with regard to plot changes. In the novella, much of the horror lies in our discovery of Senator Votto’s obscene betrayal of his own daughter – which in its turn mirrors the way Joe was himself betrayed by his father’s abuse. By making Votto a victim, Ramsey has stripped the story of much of its urgency and narrative drive.

I sympathised with Ramsey’s ending – her desire to give Joe a second chance – and for this reason alone I would hesitate to say that we have lost something, exactly. It is more that we have been given something different, in its own way powerful but perhaps – perhaps – less memorable. Even the violence in Ramsey’s version, though we can see it right there on the screen in front of us, feels less impactful than what we are faced with on the page.

I am sure to watch this film again at some point, and when I do, freed from the immediate influence of the text, I will almost certainly admire it more. For the moment though I am still in the world of Ames’s novella, envious and rejoicing in the power of the writer to deliver something special that cannot be replicated.

Now that’s tentacular!

Utterly delighted to hear that my novel The Rift has been shortlisted for The Kitschies Red Tentacle!

The best thing? The shortlist itself, which includes books that are entirely new to me. Michelle’s Tea’s Black Wave I know about and love – I included it on my own preferred shortlist for this year’s Clarke – and Jess Richards is familiar to me from her amazing Cooking with Bones but I didn’t know she had a new novel out. Deon Meyer and William Sutcliffe sound fantastic and go straight on my Kindle.

As always with The Kitschies, the joy lies in being excited, challenged, surprised. This year I’m honoured to be part of that surprise myself.

Do please go and check out the full and marvellous shortlists right here and right now! Hearty congratulations to all my fellow nominees.

The starting gun

[Disclaimer: for the purposes of this essay, I am writing as if my own novel, The Rift, were not on the list.]

The 2018 Clarke Award submissions list is finally here! The number of books is slightly up on last year, with non-genre imprints – I’m delighted to see – making a particularly good showing. As always, there are any number of fascinating shortlists lurking amongst those 108 titles, with each combination highlighting a different and specific approach to genre. What such selections might theoretically reveal about individual critical standpoints – what constitutes science fiction and its current direction of travel – is what makes submissions list time so exciting and intriguing for me. While we must assume that the Clarke jury have already decided upon the six novels that will make up the official Clarke Award shortlist, for the Shadow Clarke jury, today is just the beginning. Even as I write this, they will be scanning the list intently, trying to decide which titles they hope will appear on the official shortlist, which they would most like to see discussed within the context of science fiction now.

I’m strictly an onlooker in the Sharke process this year – but of course that doesn’t stop me from wondering what I would pick! I’ve actually read more of the submitted titles in advance this time around, and there are even more on the list that I want to read. It’s interesting what hindsight will do. Looking at my choices from last year, it is clear to see that I made a conscious decision to go for a personal shortlist made up of titles from genre and mainstream literary imprints in equal proportions – in an attempt to curb my own biases, no doubt. If I had the choice again, and since having read the entire Sharke preference pool and then some, I would pick Don DeLillo’s Zero K, M. Suddain’s Hunters & Collectors, Joanna Kavenna’s A Field Guide to Reality, Martin MacInnes’s Infinite Ground, Catherynne Valente’s Radiance, and Aliya Whiteley’s The Arrival of Missives – all books that live in the memory in spite of any imperfections they may carry. My personal winner would still be Infinite Ground, a novel that even now is influencing my thinking, not just about science fiction but about the project and purpose of fiction in general.

In this revisionist state of mind, I’m going to play devil’s advocate this year and pick the shortlist I most want to see, a shortlist I know doesn’t stand a hope of actually happening – in fact I’d go so far as to say I’d be surprised if even one of these titles ended up on the official shortlist – but that best expresses my own current hopes and desires for science fiction literature. The reader might infer from this list that I have come to not give a damn about genre and they might well be correct, which is not to say that I don’t continue to believe that speculation in literature –  whether that be in the matter of subject, form or language – is its most radical expression.

My personal preferred shortlist is as follows:

H(A)PPY by Nicola Barker. This choice won’t come as any surprise to anyone who reads my blog. I have long believed that Barker is one of Britain’s most interesting and important writers. For me, H(A)PPY was a magical and deeply unsettling reading experience, a book that will last and – most crucially – would deliver an even richer experience on rereading. As science fiction it is provocative and new, making use of established concepts to create a narrative whose originality lies not so much in its synopsis as in its execution.

Sealed by Naomi Booth. I’ve been hearing such great things about this and Booth’s novella, The Lost Art of Sinking, was excellent, beautifully written and tautly imagined. Going by the online preview, Sealed is even better, playing with themes similar to those that appear in Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From but with a harder edge. I liked the Hunter and it has stayed with me but I think I’m going to admire Sealed even more.

Memory and Straw by Angus Peter Campbell. ‘I know now that my ancestors had other means of moving through time and space, and the more I visit them the simpler it becomes. For who would not want to fly across the world on a wisp of straw, and make love to a fairy woman with hair as red as the sunset?’ I will be writing in greater detail about this book in due course. Angus Peter Campbell is a poet as well as a prose writer, as every page of this short novel about time, place and memory amply demonstrates. Campbell’s writing is pure imagination, made word.

Gnomon by Nick Harkaway. The big beast on this list in more ways than one! At more than 700 pages in length, Gnomon requires some commitment, but the reader will find that commitment amply rewarded. Freedom, information, truth – Harkaway paints big themes across a sprawling canvas in what is without doubt his most strongly achieved and important novel to date. The truly odd thing about Gnomon is how much in common it has with H(A)PPY in terms of its subject matter and what it chooses to do with it, though comparing the two might prove as difficult, if I may continue with the art analogy for just a moment, as comparing Vermeer’s The Lacemaker with Delacroix’s The Raft of the Medusa. My outright preferred Clarke winner this year would be either H(A)PPY or Gnomon, and I can see arguments for choosing either. To ignore them both would be a serious failure of nerve and imagination.

Euphoria by Heinz Helle. As far from Gnomon in terms of scope as it is possible to get, Helle’s novel focuses closely on a small group of friends at the dawn of an unexplained apocalypse. The language is terse, fractured, a shattered mirror to what is going on within the narrative. With a distinctly European accent on existential crisis, Euphoria was one of my favourite books of 2017 and one I will definitely be revisiting.

Black Wave by Michelle Tea. Billed as a ‘countercultural apocalypse’, this was on my list of books to read with the Clarke in mind in the immediate aftermath of last year’s award. I have only just got round to it, but I am loving it so far and it seems like exactly the kind of novel – existential, metafictional – the Clarke should be taking notice of, not to mention the Goldsmiths. The language alone – direct, abrasive, provocative – qualifies it for a place on my preferred shortlist in and of itself.

Very narrowly missing my cut are The White City by Roma Tearne – the writing is so wonderful that if I’d actually read the whole of this book at this stage then I might well have found it edging out one of the others – and Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, which is a vitally important text right now and a strong novel. Ask me tomorrow and you might find either or both of these on my list, and I’d be more than delighted to see the jury select them.

In my column for this month’s Interzone, I examined the reasons why science fiction might have found itself considerably better off had Hugo Gernsback never ‘invented’ the science fiction genre. Before Gernsback, speculative conceits floated freely in the mainstream of literature alongside every other kind of idea: political, social, metaphysical, confessional. Now more than ever, the ideas that for decades found themselves confined to the science fiction ghetto have been leaking out into the broader river of world literature, which – now more than ever – is where they belong. For proof of my thesis – that there is no such thing as ‘science fiction’, only books that make use of speculative ideas – look no further than the six (or indeed eight!) very different, challenging and original books above. If science fiction is truly to have a future, then this is it.

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

I remember reading a slightly strange article a couple of years ago about how in times of crisis or political turmoil, the act of reading or writing fiction could begin to seem irrelevant, a sideshow. We should be reaching for deeper truths, more urgent subject matter. This argument would appear to be more persuasive now even than when the essay was written, and there is a part of me that identifies with the sentiment behind it. I examine my motives in writing fiction much more closely now than I did when I started out, interrogate myself constantly about what kind of fiction I want and need to be writing. I believe that these are healthy and valid questions for any writer. But think about it for more than five minutes and you’ll see that questioning the validity of fiction as a means of understanding the world is to ask the wrong question. The greatest fiction has always been more than an escape or a solace – see the hundreds of novelists incarcerated in gaols across the world as political prisoners who stand witness to that fact.  In Home Fire, by Kamila Shamsie, we see how powerful a tool the novel can still be in highlighting the most urgent political questions of our generation, how directly and how boldly fiction can speak. That Shamsie has chosen to use mythic archetypes in telling her story only adds to its strengths, showing how even such a seemingly abstruse concept as literary form can have a pivotal role to play in the construction of a political argument.

In Sophocles’s Antigone, the titular character petitions King Creon of Thebes for permission to bring home the body of her disgraced brother Polyneices for a proper burial. King Creon refuses, and when Antigone carries out funeral rites for Polyneices in direct contravention of his orders, he demands that she be captured and executed. Antigone’s sister Ismene tries to remonstrate with the king, offering to die in her place. Antigone’s fiance Haemon – Creon’s son – though initially shocked by his beloved’s transgression, attempts to placate his father, begging him to spare Antigone and allow her to return home. Creon wavers, eventually acquiescing to his wife’s entreaties, that mercy be shown towards the young people as the gods would wish. In the manner of classical tragedy, his decision comes too late: Antigone has hanged herself, Haemon likewise commits suicide when confronted with her loss. Creon has saved his throne, but lost everything that mattered most to him in the process.

Home Fire begins with a sleight of hand, a deft and understated precis of what is to follow. Isma is at the airport. The eldest of three siblings, she has spent the past six years caring for twins Aneeka and Parvais, following the deaths of their grandmother and mother in quick succession. The twins are now nineteen, on the brink of going their own way in the world. Isma can return to the life she was expecting to live, fulfilling her cherished ambition to take up a research scholarship in the US. Though her paperwork is in order, Isma is detained at passport control, interrogated at such length about her purpose of travel that she misses her flight. On arrival in Boston, she tries to put the incident behind her, but the forces of politics and circumstance are already moving against her. The siblings’ father was a known jihadi who died while being transported to Guantanamo Bay. Their father was never around much – the twins have no real memories of him – but still, his outlaw status has been enough to keep the family on MI5’s radar. More devastatingly still, Aneeka’s twin brother Parvais has fallen under the influence of ISIS supporters and been persuaded that his place is in Raqqa, fighting the fight in honour of the hero father he never knew. Isma is furious – she blames Parvais for putting the whole family’s security at risk through his selfishness. Meanwhile Aneeka, desperate to be reunited with her brother, begins a relationship with Eamonn Lone, the son of ‘Lone Wolf’ Tory Home Secretary Karamat Lone, the one man who has it within his power to grant permission for Parvais to return home.

The airport detainment scenes aside, the opening chapters of Home Fire are deceptively bland. We see a young woman embarking on the next stage of her life, making new friendships, falling in love. It is only gradually, as parallel plot lines draw inexorably together, that the narrative begins to take on the characteristics of Greek tragedy.  Shamsie’s novel makes for an extraordinary reading experience, both at the level of story and in terms of its formal execution. Home Fire‘s relationship with its legendary precursor is subtle, striking, brilliantly clever, the extent of the narrative’s involvement with its source material only becoming fully apparent as the novel nears its conclusion. It could be argued that Shamsie’s characterisation is a little flat, that the characters’ identification with mythic archetypes renders them prisoners of the plot – but this also works in the novel’s favour, strengthening the bond with Antigone and revealing how myths are made. Personally, I found the characters managing to break free of their preordained roles just sufficiently to make them compelling in their own right, Aneeka and Parvais particularly, with Shamsie’s use of language – never less than excellent in terms of its craft – attaining a special resonance and beauty throughout those passages.

For me, this was a heart-pounding, heart-breaking narrative of great power and importance, the kind of novel you want to press into people’s hands. Ideally, Home Fire would be read by everyone in Britain, right now. That’s how relevant it felt to me as fiction.

After finishing Home Fire, I remembered an article Shamsie wrote for the Guardian in 2014, detailing her own experience of applying for British citizenship, Ideally, everyone should read this too, and ask themselves what it means for Britain when even an artist who continues to make an incalculable contribution to the cultural life of both her countries can be made to feel despair and panic in the face of this bureaucracy, a political culture that directly opposes every ideal it is said to espouse. As a writer, Shamsie was deemed ineligible to apply for leave to remain, because that category of application was abolished – writers, artists and composers are no longer of material value to British society, it seems. If she’d been trying to apply now, she would have found the goalposts moved again – she would been deemed ineligible on grounds of not having a big enough bank balance.

Britain is a poor sort of place right now, frankly. Home Fire shows us some of the ways we are being made poorer.

Women’s Prize for Fiction

International Women’s Day, and the announcement of the longlist for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. I’ve been looking forward to this, and I wasn’t disappointed. One of the things I like about longlists is that the perspective they offer on a literary moment is deeper and wider than any six-book shortlist can hope to be. Here we have sixteen books. Those who enjoy such exercises can get stuck into what those books are saying about women writing now, and the societies they find themselves writing in. Aside from that, this is a fascinating selection of novels to read and enjoy,

The thing that stands out about this list for me personally is that it includes a satisfying number of titles I am genuinely excited about! Regular readers of this blog will know I’ve already read and adored Nicola Barker’s H(A)PPY. In her first reaction to the longlist, writer Naomi Frisby, who has shadowed the Women’s Prize five years running, notes that this is Barker’s first ever shortlisting, which seems preposterous when you think about it, but makes Barker’s inclusion here particularly welcome and timely. I am also especially eager to read Meena Kandasamy’s When I Hit You, Jessie Greengrass’s Sight, Elif Batuman’s The Idiot, Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, Sarah Schmidt’s See What I Have Done and Kit de Waal’s The Trick to Time.  I’ll plan to read as many of these longlisted titles as I can before the shortlist is announced on April 23rd, and with any luck I’ll be blogging about some of them here as I go along.  Here’s the full line-up:

H(A)PPY – Nicola Barker (Heinemann)

The Idiot – Elif Batuman (Cape)

Three Things About Elsie – Joanna Cannon (Borough)

Miss Burma – Charmaine Craig (Grove)

Manhattan Beach – Jennifer Egan (Corsair)

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock – Imogen Hermes Gower (Harvill Secker)

Sight – Jessie Greengrass (John Murray)

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman (Harper Collins)

When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife – Meena Kandasamy (Atlantic)

Elmet – Fiona Mozley (John Murray)

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness – Arundhati Roy (Hamish Hamilton)

See What I Have Done – Sarah Schmidt (Tinder)

A Boy in Winter – Rachel Seiffert (Virago)

Home Fire – Kamila Shamsie (Bloomsbury)

The Trick to Time – Kit de Waal (Viking)

Sing, Unburied, Sing – Jesmyn Ward (Bloonsbury)

On a not entirely unrelated note, Anne Charnock and I made the front page of our local paper The Buteman this week, with a story about us both being shortlisted for the BSFA Awards. Great photo by Chris, and especially great to see it making the news on International Women’s Day!

Despite the falling snow

The Isle of Bute doesn’t get much snow usually. This morning it is settled too deep to put the rubbish out. The front steps form a series of steeply undulating curves. The wooded slope to the rear of our house, an enchanted forest.

I last encountered snow like this ten years ago, when I was living in London. Children sledding in Manor Park, the ducks, confined to one small area of an otherwise frozen pond. I remember leaving work early, anxious to reach home before the railway network shut down completely. Pulling out of Shadwell on the DLR, snow gusting against the windows, the stations closing one by one as the train passed through.

I remember when I was small: collecting icicles, storing them in the ice box, they were so huge, so beautiful. I didn’t want them to die. Completing the ‘barefoot challenge’ in a race with my brother: three times around the house, no socks, no shoes.

A fortnight ago, and a drive through the Trossachs: Callander, Loch Katrine, the Duke’s Pass, sere and glorious, a landscape from an epic quest. Snow still lying at the roadside from the last snowfall. A ‘road closed’ sign, which we hesitated over and then ignored, seeing cars running safely through from the opposite side.

The Duke’s Pass this morning would be impassable.

This morning I went barefoot to put the rubbish out, not wanting to drag snow inside the house, or soak my clothes.

Portrait of the Artist: Self & I by Matthew De Abaitua

“My mouth is full of blood but I’m not even angry. This is my true rite of passage: punched in the face I remain eminently reasonable. That is what marks me out as ready for the middle class: that I can defer gratification, stifle fury, for some putative future gain. I may be six foot two, fourteen stone of muscle and one stone of fat, but I will never be good at fighting because I will always have to calculate whether to hit back or not. Because there is no aspect of my life that a brawl improves, no problem that can be solved with violence. And yet, as a young man, you give up that aspect of your persona reluctantly, want to hint that you can put yourself about. Eddie could dish it out. In the riot at Cantril Farm, he fought hand-to-hand against the rioters for hours.”

For Will Self, it was a strange interlude. For Matthew De Abaitua, it was the beginning of everything.

“In the Nineties, everywhere – from a system of sea caves to a transit van looping around the M25, from a ruined abbey on the Yorkshire Moors to a loading bay in Shoreditch – was a great place to have a party. And our social relations were conducted as if we were at a long party, always intoxicated, with nothing taken too seriously, and all unpleasantness put off until tomorrow. 

Andy had stumbled on the vital truth about the Nineties: it may have been a soft-headed, heaving mass of meretricious triangulation but it was also a great place to have a party.”

In 1994 and fresh from a year on Malcolm Bradbury’s famous creative writing program at the University of East Anglia, Matthew De Abaitua is offered the apprenticeship of his dreams: a six-month stint as amanuensis to Will Self, living and working beside his employer in a rented cottage in rural Suffolk. Self is on the Granta List, the newly anointed enfant terrible of English letters. Bogged down in the quagmire of publicity and celebrity journalism’s New Glib, he is anxious to get started on a new fiction project. De Abaitua has not published anything yet. He knows only that he passionately – desperately – wants to be a writer. He hopes the next six months will change his life.

Self & I is a little classic. A unique insight into the mindset and working methods of one of the key writers to have emerged from the post-Thatcher years, it is also a manifesto, in a sense, for beginning writers, a wrestling over some of the questions of what it means to be a writer in today’s Britain. De Abaitua provides stunning chapters on his brief stint as a security guard in Liverpool’s docklands, his complex relationship with his working class background and the inevitable, inexorable decay of adolescent allegiances. Above all, his search for a subject – the ever-present conflict, in young writers, between talent and inexperience – is related in pitiless detail. Will Self emerges from the narrative as a curiously lonely, driven individual, relentlessly in pursuit of his goals and harried by his personal demons – a typical writer, in other words. De Abaitua struggles with doubt, finally coming out on top but bruised from the tussle. For this writer at least there is no such thing as a redemption arc. The war is ongoing.

For anyone who experienced the Nineties in Britain first hand, there will be plenty of laugh-out-loud moments here. De Abaitua captures the ridiculous self-entitlement of the time, the blindness-to-impending disaster, with wit and accuracy. There is also much to interest the science fiction reader. One of De Abaitua’s tasks as Self’s amanuensis was to transcribe hours of taped interviews between Self and J. G. Ballard. Ballard’s pinpoint analysis of the intellectual decline of science fiction through the eighties – and De Abaitua’s ruminations upon it – provide some of the standout moments of the book for me, and anyone interested in current science fiction criticism should read this account.

Self & I is a candid and revealing portrait of a particular artist at a particular time. It is De Abaitua’s book far more than Self’s, and coming from a writer who has already provided us with some of the most original and brilliantly executed science fiction of the past decade, it should be counted as a significant achievement. We await his next project eagerly, and with anticipation.