Category Archives: books

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.

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.

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!

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.

Shortlisted!

Pleased to announce that The Rift has made the shortlist for the British Science Fiction Awards in the Best Novel category.

With Anne Charnock’s Dreams Before the Start of Time, Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West and Ann Leckie’s Provenance also making the cut, that makes it a fascinating list to be on and hopefully one that will encourage discussion.

I’m especially delighted to report though that the Shadow Clarke project also made the shortlist, in the Non-Fiction category. This means a huge amount to me, not least because the individual Sharkes were so energetically committed to making this project a success and so clearly deserve this nomination, but also for what it means for science fiction criticism generally. This project truly has opened a new round of the conversation – we need only look at the wonderful personal intros from this year’s Sharkes to see how the project is evolving and opening out – and I’m thrilled to have been a part of that. Congratulations, Sharkes!

It should also be noted that, what with Anne Charnock hitting the shortlists again in the Shorter Fiction category for her beautifully crafted novella The Enclave, the west coast of Scotland isn’t making too bad a showing, either. Could the Isle of Bute be the most speculative spot in the UK right now? Voters, it’s over to you.

Many congratulations to everyone who made the shortlists. You can find the full line-ups here.

The Last Policeman

This year, the excellent people who organise the annual Bute Noir crime writing festival set a reading challenge for anyone who wants to join in: 30 crime books, 30 different categories. How many can you complete and which are your favourites? I’ve decided to give it a go, just for fun, and because I’m hoping it’ll lead me into areas of crime writing I’ve not explored before, or not explored for some time. I’m blogging some of my findings here as I go along. I’m also intending to write up the experience as a whole towards the end of the year.

The experiment is proving incredibly enjoyable and worthwhile so far. The category I’ve tackled most recently has been that of crime novel set in the future. I chose to read Ben H. Winters’s The Last Policeman firstly because I happened to have it already on my Kindle (it was going really cheap at one point, so I snapped it up) and secondly because I needed an antidote to the recent (bloody awful) BBC future-crime series Hard Sun, and a friend happened to mention that The Last Policeman utilised some of the same ideas but much better.

The novel takes place in the very near future, An asteroid is on a certain collision course with Earth. It will bring about a worldwide environmental catastrophe of extinction-level proportions. Society hovers on the brink of collapse. With basic infrastructure beginning to crumble, and a wave of suicides reaching epidemic proportions, the police have begun to turn their attention away from solving crimes and towards the more urgent business of enforcing order. In the city of Concord, New Hampshire, police patrolman Henry Palace has just realised the dream of a lifetime: he’s been made detective, early, and he intends to live that dream, asteroid or no asteroid. When the police are called to investigate a death at a local McDonald’s, Hank’s fellow officers are inclined to dismiss it as yet another ‘hanger’. Hank is not so sure. He believes Paul Zell has been murdered, and is determined to prove it.

This book surprised me in all sorts of ways, most of all in Winters’s skilled and original use of science fiction. If I was expecting anything at all, it was a rather clumsy, Armageddon-like action thriller. Instead, I was given a subtle, claustrophobic, believable pre-apocalypse that swapped deliberately ramped-up tension for genuine emotion, a slowly accumulating, all-pervasive dread that infects the reader’s system as the novel progresses. It infected this reader’s system, anyway – maybe it’s just Brexit.

But the true success of Winters’s approach lies in his ability to keep his science fiction at one remove. Palace’s obsessive temperament, his tendency towards isolation, his dogged sense of morality ensure that it is the murder investigation, and not the asteroid strike, that dominates the narrative. What we get is a detailed – detailed to a level that only Hank could provide – account of a crime in progress, a portrait of a town that Henry knows like the back of his hand. That Henry and the murdered man seem so alike is another piece of weirdness – and also fortunate in that it allows Henry privileged access to the mind of the victim. The plot is deftly worked and – unlike so many generic thriller plots – it does not degenerate into senseless melodrama towards the end.

The Last Policeman is a beautifully executed, intellectually satisfying police procedural. It is a novel of craft and assurance, in which a close-focus, personal account is played off against a world-changing political story arc to devastating effect. The writing – like the story itself – is understated and powerfully resonant. As science fiction. Winters’s novel worked better for me than anything I read for last year’s Sharke. As crime fiction, it is equally bold, introducing us to a detective we admire for his persistence rather than his brilliance. We understand his turn of mind – or maybe that’s just me…

In either case, I’ll definitely be reading the rest of the trilogy. The Last Policeman is a treat, albeit a bitter one. Recommended.

Guérillères

“He has enslaved you by trickery, you who were great strong valiant. He has stolen your wisdom from you, he has closed your memory to what you were, he has made of you that which is not, which does not speak, which does not possess, which does not write. He has made you a vile and fallen creature. He has gagged abused and betrayed you by means of stratagems, he has stultified your understanding, he has woven around you a long list of defects that he declared essential to your well being, to your nature.”

(Monique Wittig, Les Guérillères 1969)

This week saw the launch of the Staunch book prize, an award for the best crime novel or thriller ‘in which no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered’. Its founder, the screenwriter Bridget Lawless, has stated that the idea for the prize was born out of her increasing discomfort with the level of violence – and routine violence at that – meted out to women in crime thrillers, be they on TV, in film or in novels. ‘[Books] are a source for so much material,’ Lawless says, ‘and if I can have a tiny bit of influence there, it will help’.

In the kingdom of crime fiction there are many mansions, and plenty worth exploring. Personally, I enjoy crime fiction because I enjoy mysteries, and the description of painstaking forensic work that is frequently involved in solving those mysteries. I enjoy the close focus on particular individuals, their histories and motivations. I enjoy the way such close focus can often be used to reveal wider truths about our society and ways of seeing. All of this and more is the stuff of crime fiction, which is why I read a lot of it. It would be wrong of me not to concede also that crime stories can be thrilling, that the adversarial nature of the set-up, that ancient and timeless conflict between protagonist and antagonist – however you may wish to cast them – provides a story scenario so compelling it is hard to resist, no matter how many times you might have encountered it before.

One subgenre of crime fiction I tend to avoid, however, is the serial killer thriller. There will be notable exceptions of course, but most serial killer thrillers are for me the novelistic equivalent of the slasher film in horror: formulaic and unutterably pointless. these films and books are not so much frightening as tedious, the product of dull imaginations and brain-wearying in the extreme. In recent years, I have started to find these kind of crime novels not just boring but actively offensive. As Lawless suggests in her rationale for the Staunch prize, women in serial killer thrillers are all too often simply cannon fodder, not so much characters as tropes, an excuse for the depiction of, well, more violence against women. Now, whenever I see a book blurb describe ‘a series of brutal murders, all young women’, I know that nine times out of ten the book in question will be a lazy book, a book whose hackneyed plot I have encountered too many times before, a book that will waste my time and test my patience.

Perhaps the worst aspect of such ‘thrillers’ is how often they try and masquerade as paeans to social justice: ‘Gee, we’ve got to catch this monster before he kills again!’

On the other hand, when confronted with something like the Staunch prize, I find myself instinctively reacting against any kind of prescription for what writers should or should not be choosing as their subject matter. For me, Lawless’s contention that ‘how we see women depicted and treated in fiction does spread out to the wider world and how women are treated there’ treads perilously close to Mary Whitehouse territory, the scares about what video nasties were supposedly doing to youth in the 1970s, the City of Westminster banning Cronenberg’s innocuous adaptation of Ballard’s Crash back in 1996.

Fiction is surely a reflection of what is going on in the real world, not the other way around, and the point with subject matter is not what that subject matter is, but how it is used. When asked her opinion of the Staunch prize, the crime writer Val McDermid maintained that it is ‘entirely possible to write about [violence against women] without being exploitative or gratuitous… My take on writing [about this] is that it’s my anger at that very thing that fires much of my work. As long as men commit appalling acts of misogyny and violence against women, I will write about it so that it does not go unnoticed’.

The announcement of the Staunch prize this week happened to coincide with my reading of Cara Hoffman’s astounding 2011 debut So Much Pretty. Someone recommended Hoffman to me a couple of years ago, and now I’ve finally got round to reading her, my main feeling is one of frustration that she’s not better known. Hoffman based So Much Pretty on a real-life abduction case that she investigated while working as a journalist. The resulting novel is one of the most compelling and best executed crime novels I have read in recent years. It is also one of the most chilling. So Much Pretty is essentially the story of three women – a journalist, a gifted high school student, a waitress in a local diner – and the way their histories interweave. The novel is set in upstate New York, in a small and supposedly close-knit farming community that hides bitter social division and personal tensions. As much as anything, So Much Pretty is a characterisation of that community. Hoffman tells her story through a series of interviews, essays and personal accounts that build a detailed and intimate portrait of small town life and politics, the often arbitrary nature of the most horrific crimes, the habits of denial that allow such crimes to be perpetrated, the way such denial continues to shape and to define the social milieu in which we exist.

Although Hoffman chooses to depict very little violence on the page, the violence we glimpse between the lines is devastating. That anyone could come away from this book without sensing Hoffman’s anger at the violence – daily, routinely – done to women would beggar belief. As a polemic, So Much Pretty is excoriating. As a book – as a way of telling a story – it is brilliant. As a crime novel it is important. This is a book that needed to be written, a book people – and I’ll go one further here and say men especially – need to read. I would also say we need more novels of this calibre, that show this level of skill and bravery in tackling their difficult subject matter, not fewer.

I am not ‘against’ the Staunch prize, quite the opposite. As a book prize, it’s not trying to ban anything, but to draw attention to something. If it can draw attention to books that find new ways of telling crime stories – new ways of seeing, as Lawless hopes – then the endeavour will have been worthwhile.

For the writer though, the only duty is to tell the story they are drawn to telling as well as they can. To think about the subject matter they have chosen, and before they take that leap, to perhaps ask themselves why exactly they have chosen it.

Experiments in crime

There was a piece by Tim Lott in the Guardian recently in which he argued that in Britain at least ‘the form of storytelling and literary novel writing has become largely divorced’. How needlessly reductive can you get?  His argument seemed to me like a variation on the often rehearsed and entirely fake battle between genre fiction and so-called litfic, a ridiculous distraction from the job of proper criticism.

Writing is a peculiar business, and one aspect of writing that is rarely acknowledged is the fact that most writers have little control over what kind of writer they are. You are pulled inexorably, often mercilessly, in a certain direction. The writer of ‘literary fiction’ is no more necessarily an Oxbridge snob than the writer of popular spy thrillers is a money-hoovering philistine. The most successful bestsellers are written because the author loves and understands the form and wants to communicate their excitement to readers. Those writers who find themselves more drawn to exploring language are no different from the painters who, in the 1890s, began exploring the possibilities of paint itself – the medium, not the message. The work of Monet and even Cezanne hardly seems revolutionary to us now – we have absorbed it into our iconography, our collective understanding of what representational art can reach for and achieve. Fifty years later Krasner and Pollock, Frankenthaler and Motherwell would stretch the point further, doing away with representation almost entirely. Similarly, the paintings that outraged a generation of critics now adorn our coffee mugs and supper trays. We get it.

Writers write what they can and what they must. To insist that writing – arguably the most malleable of art forms – should universally strive for the ideals upheld by work that was no longer new even a century ago is just so much bunkum, just as it is bunkum to suggest that British literary fiction has ‘lost the plot’. Lott rightly cites Donna Tartt’s The Secret History (American, you see) as one of those works that appeal equally across supposed literary and commercial divides. I would raise him Barbara Vine’s Asta’s Book, Catriona Ward’s Rawblood, Helen Oyeyemi’s The Icarus Girl, Ali Smith’s The Accidental, Christopher Priest’s The Prestige, Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project.  Some of these titles you will recognise from recent Booker shortlists. Many of them use elements of the thriller, detective fiction, horror fiction, science fiction to achieve their effects. All have propulsive plot lines. All reward a second, even a third reading.

Books, books, books. So much to read, so little time to waste arguing over what, exactly, writers should be writing. Lott would surely concede that the most interesting and rewarding works are to be found precisely at the margins of genre, where our expectations can be subverted and yet where – yes – we can continue enjoying the ideas and tropes of those stories and narrative archetypes that resonate with us most strongly. Yes, we are all still campfire dwellers. That does not mean we don’t enjoy it when the bard from another village wanders across to inform us we don’t know jack, that it’s really this story we should be listening to and so sit the hell down…

More interesting by far than Lott’s boringly prescriptive essay is Tony White’s choice of his Top Ten Experimental Thrillers, a piece that delves deep into why it is that we enjoy thrillers (I reckon Gertrude Stein for one would act pretty swiftly in calling out those who accuse crime writers of slumming it), as well as the ways in which detective fiction – perhaps the most enduringly popular of all literary genres – can still surprise us. Of course, any future ‘top ten’ list of postmodern crime fiction would have to include White’s own new novel, The Fountain in the Forest, which exemplifies his thesis pretty much perfectly, as well as killing Lott’s theory about British literary writing’s plotlessness stone dead.

By Lott’s reckoning, White’s interest in and practice of OULIPO techniques would place him firmly in the discredited ‘literary’ camp – read confusingly esoteric non-narrative with a snobbish insistence on obscurity – yet The Fountain in the Forest can be read with all the pleasure you might expect from a knotty police procedural, a knowledgeably detailed, intriguing and compelling police procedural at that. The story drives ever forward, even when it takes you backwards in time to take a look at the roots of the crime in question. Even when it flip-flops between two distinct time-streams and character identities within the space of a single sentence, the sense throughout is of a steady and satisfying accretion of significant information, i.e clues – exactly what you’d hope for from any good thriller.

The OULIPO stuff – elaborated upon in detail by White in his Afterword – is as significant to the narrative as you want to make it. You could read the novel with no knowledge of OULIPO and enjoy it just as well. Yet for those who feel like delving deeper, an examination of White’s methods and motives will reveal new layers, extra nuances and a background atmosphere that lends the novel an added eeriness and potency.

Anyone who enjoyed Keith Ridgway’s Hawthorn & Child or Nicholas Royle’s First Novel will love this book. Anyone who is into Ian Rankin or Denise Mina will love it, too.

For me, The Fountain in the Forest has been made especially enjoyable through a web of strange coincidences that seem none the less prescient for that: my own concerns over the gentrification of London, obscure parts of Exeter that I happen to know well, a string of places in the south of France that mark significant childhood memories, even salt-glazed ceramics – it’s all stuff from my own life, stuff I recognise and might write about. To find it turning up randomly and all together in someone else’s novel is a delightful surprise. And weird.

Above all, there is the joy inherent in a book well made: language expertly deployed, place wonderfully evoked, ideas, characters, memories, theories, political subtext brought vibrantly to life, a good story well told. The Fountain in the Forest would be a worthy contender for the CWA Gold Dagger. It is equally the kind of book that might win the Goldsmiths Prize. Read, and enjoy.

Books of 2017

This year has been a strange one, reading-wise. For me, the first seven months of 2017 were entirely dominated by the Shadow Clarke – thinking about it, reading for it, and of course writing for it, too. In terms of the experience it provided it exceeded every expectation, mainly on account of my fellow Sharkes, whose skills as thinkers, writers and critics cannot be overstated. As a group, I think I can say we enjoyed ourselves throughout, even when we didn’t – it was that kind of project. But while the experience of chairing the Shadow Clarke counts and will remain in the memory as one of the outstanding highlights of 2017, the reading landscape we were travelling through did – towards the end especially – begin to take on some of the characteristics of a blasted heath. Even in this respect, there were pluses: having to read and write detailed criticism of books one might not ordinarily have chosen to spend time with was a fascinating and worthwhile experience in and of itself. But by the end of July my reading brain felt battered and skewed by a ‘science fiction of 2016’ remit I needed to move on from. I was more than ready to take in new perspectives.

Having said all that, 2017 did deliver some outstanding reading experiences. My novel of the year is an easy choice to make. Nicola Barker’s H(A)PPY is a short book, but it made a huge impact on me. I have seen some hardcore SF readers perplexed by it, feeling that as a portrait of dystopia it fails to offer anything substantially new. I think such a reading misses the point. Barker’s novel is not interested in the outward mechanics of dystopia. Rather it seeks, through a layering of narrative strands, conflicting ideas about ‘happiness’ and formal textual experimentation, to offer an inside perspective. How might it feel to be a citizen fundamentally out of step with the grounding principles of one’s own society? How might it feel to doubt one’s identity within a climate of absolute certainty? H(A)PPY was, for me, a fully immersive experience – textual, typographical, musical – of a wholly original stripe. It is a wonderful book. To see Barker win the Goldsmiths Prize for it was a happy moment indeed.

Close behind H(A)PPY comes Katie Kitamura’s A Separation.  This hard little gem of a novel starts out reading like a missing persons thriller but delivers so much more. The formal execution of the prose is nothing short of masterful, while the strange, open-ended story it relates is one that sticks in the memory for a long time and demands a reread (always my test for truly worthwhile fiction). Again, I loved this book. I loved the subtlety of its characterisation, its directness, its formal brilliance. It should have received a lot more attention than it did.

While I was in Paris I finally caught up with Daniel Kehlmann’s 2014 novel F, and what an extraordinary book it turned out to be. Like all the most interesting fiction it is hard to sum up in just a few words what F is ‘about’.  We have three brothers, an absent father, an interweaving of timelines and familial relationships that come together to make a story that is surprising, strange, moving, occasionally uncanny, and always, always brilliant. F turns out to stand for all manner of things: fame, fake, fear, forgery, faith, fraud, fat. If F reminded me of any book at all it was Bernhard’s The Loser, still an unassailable highlight of last year’s reading. I would also highly commend Kehlmann’s work from this year, the novella You Should Have Left. A screenwriter takes his wife and daughter to a mountain retreat so he can concentrate on his work in progress, a script that is proving more than a little intractable. The house they’re staying in has other ideas, though – rather like the Navidson place in House of Leaves. This is a creepy little work, genuinely unnerving, and I only wish Kehlmann had seen fit to expand it to novel length. I would have enjoyed learning more about these characters and their situation. And, of course, about that house…

A similarly unorthodox approach to the haunted house story, J. Robert Lennon’s Broken River was another fabulous book that deserved more attention. Lennon’s fiction is everything you want fiction to be: unarguably of our time but never trendy, satisfyingly, determinedly odd, tight as a drum in terms of its construction and use of language. Broken River contains moments of chill-inducing tension that will keep the most stalwart crime fiction fan happy, whilst providing the kind of narrative ambiguity and strength of characterisation that would make it equally compelling as story on a second or even a third reading.

I would also like to mention two not-so-recent novels, firstly Georgia Blain’s 1998 debut Closed for Winter. I first heard of Georgia Blain when I happened to read a moving memorial of her in The Guardian around this time last year. She sounded like such an interesting writer, her death at the age of 52 a genuine loss to Australian letters. What with the Shadow Clarke to keep me busy, it wasn’t until August that I finally found time to read her first novel, the story of a child that goes missing and the repercussions of the tragedy down the years. A true delight, I found Closed for Winter to be as close to perfect as this kind of short, interior ‘slice of life’ novel could hope to be. A wonderful achievement, and all the more so given that this was Blain’s debut. A wonderful writer, who deserves to be remembered.

Earlier this month and following a run of less-than-satisfying reads that shall remain nameless, I turned at last to Margaret Elphinstone’s 2003 novel Voyageurs, the story of Mark, a Northumberland farmer and Quaker who sets out to find his sister Rachel, missing thousands of miles away in the Canadian wilderness. The experience of reading Voyageurs immediately put me in mind of the experience I had about five years ago reading Margaret Drabble’s The Peppered Moth. Coming in the wake of a similar ‘reading drought’, The Peppered Moth was like a miracle, a novel that in terms of its craft, its depth of field, its richness of perception far outshone anything I’d read all year. Voyageurs is like that: almost literally a transporting experience, the kind of novel that deserves to become a classic.

Away from the world of the novel, 2017 saw the publication of some notable collections of short fiction. First among them is of course M. John Harrison’s You Should Come With Me Now. Harrison’s first collection since 2000’s Travel Arrangements, YSCWMN presents a sequence of longer stories and flash fictions, woven together to form something significantly more substantial than the word ‘collection’ might suggest, yet simultaneously more wayward and less easily definable than a novel. While stories like ‘The Crisis’, ‘In Autotelia’ and the unforgettable ‘Entertaining Angels Unawares’ are standout events in themselves, this book is best appreciated as a continuum. YSCWMN is an extraordinary work, the most recent instalment of an oeuvre that is that rare thing: of lasting importance.

The stories in Camilla Grudova’s debut work The Doll’s Alphabet read like dispatches from a madhouse, or a magical realm. Some are fragmentary, some are longer pieces, all announce the arrival of a major new talent. Reading The Doll’s Alphabet put me in mind of how I felt when I first read Bruno Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles, in which lyrical beauty rubs shoulders with shivery horror in what feels like a series of flashbacks from an unsettling dream. The stories are flawlessly crafted, and – as suggested above – have the feel of lost European fairy tales. I would love to see a novel from Grudova, especially as I can barely imagine what such a work would be like!

Another notable debut collection of 2017 was that of Malcolm Devlin, You Will Grow into Them. Devlin has been publishing short stories in Black Static and Interzone for several years now, and this collection marks a new high point in what he has achieved so far. In its preoccupation with character psychology and the uncanny, there’s a hint of Robert Aickman in Devlin’s fiction, but its political and social astuteness make it something else again and wholly Devlin’s own thing. As with Grudova, I’m looking forward to seeing more from Devlin. I’ve heard he’s currently at work on a novel, which is good news for all of us.

In film, I have loved and admired Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women, Kleber Mendonca Filho’s Aquarius, Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit, Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin, William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth, Sally Potter’s The Party, Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, Trey Edward Shults’s It Comes at Night, Andrei Zvyagintsev’s Loveless, and Paul King’s Paddington 2, which we saw last night and felt like the perfect new year celebration. Joint film honours though have to go to Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden, which must surely count as a masterpiece and possibly Park’s greatest film yet, and Jordan Peele’s Get Out, a horror film of startling originality and importance. The moment where the title words are spoken (or rather screamed) literally made my blood run cold. If you haven’t seen it yet, make sure you do.

If I have any reading goals for 2018, it is not to have ‘reading goals’. I want to read more books like Margaret Elphinstone’s, I want to feel less preoccupied with what’s coming out next month and more involved with the books that might be relevant to me personally. I want to be inspired and challenged, not frustrated and annoyed. I’m looking forward to bringing you news of my next novel, and beginning work on something entirely new.

Thanks to the very many friends, colleagues, readers and thinkers who have shared their time, insights, talent and fellowship throughout 2017. You are needed, and important, now more than ever.

A Happy New Year to everyone reading this, and here’s to turning the tide in 2018. .