Saturday 1 April 2023

Alan Garner, The Owl Service

 I wonder if I would've loved The Owl Service the way I just have, if I hadn't (a) only just read it now, as a 43 year-old and (b) it wasn't only my second Garner, after reading Treacle Walker over the summer break?

The Owl Service is one of those childrens' books I've always had a shadowy, but baseless, perception of. Whenever I've seen the book mentioned, I've had a mental plot picture of a group of plucky children (pre-teen), out in the night in the English country-side (shading into the wilds of the forest) and a flight of owls streaming through the dim sky, back to their hollow oak (do owls hang out in groups? also that hollow oak is totally sourced from the owl in Mrs Frisbee and the Rats of N.I.M.H.). 

Naturally, it's not anything like that. Nor is it anything like the rather bitter Guardian reader-contributed review that pops up when you google "Owl Service reviews" which opens "The Owl Service tells the story of Alison, Roger and Huw who discover a mysterious dinner service in the loft" and concludes "Not one of the best reads ever, but take a look anyway. Preferably get it from a library not a bookshop, as you probably won't read it again."

Instead, it's an elliptical collision of ancient Welsh legend and 1960s youth culture and class war, set in an isolated Welsh valley, played out largely through dialogue and potentially deeply frustrating if you're not content to pass by all the things Garner leaves unsaid, and instead hone in on what is given to you.

What I loved about Treacle Walker was the timelessness of it: not in the sense of being a story for all time (The Owl Service is pointedly more than) and more in the sense of it being very hard to allocate a time period for it. The Owl Service is thoroughly located in the 1969s however, and Garner makes no attempt to disguise technology (phone booths, portable record players) or slang.

It is the story of Alison, Gwyn and Roger (though arguably just as much so of Roger's father Clive, who has married up by virtue of his bank account to Alison's mother ("her people were surprised"), and Gwyn's mother Nancy, hired on to return to the valley as cook and housekeeper for the family's summer holiday, and Huw Halfbacon, the mysterious man of all jobs who maintains the property). And it is the story of how they are drawn without volition - by the power of the valley - into playing out an ancient legend of love and jealously, of Lleu Llaw Gyffes and Blodeuwedd, the wife made for him out of flowers, who fell in love with his friend Gronw Pebr. The lovers murdered Lleu, who was brought back to life by magic, and then slew Gronw by casting a spear through him and the boulder behind which he was sheltering, at which point Blodeuwedd is turned into an owl to punish her. 

Garner doesn't go into anything as crass as a time-loop or time-travel (although time is allowed to loosen in the narrative); instead, we watch as the three lead characters both detect the lines of the story and are compelled to play it out. At the same time they are detecting the traces of the story as it has played out before in the generations before them.

The aspect of the book I loved though - which I doubt every much I would've appreciated if I had read it as a young teen - was the class battle that plays out through it. Nancy, with direct spite, and Huw with more humble misgivings resent and dislike Clive and his wife, who play lord and lady of the manor - at the same time, Clive talks Nancy down, pays her off, and belittles Huw. And Nancy's son Gwyn is that class-breaking striver, the smart kid sent to the grammar school, who secretly buys elocution records to help pull himself up through the social classes and out of Welsh rural life. The battles between Nancy and Gwyn over his aspirations, the code-switching and anger played out between Gwyn, Roger and Alison, are in some ways the truly timeless aspect of the book, the time capsule you pull out to understand other people's lives.

In his postscript, Garner repeats his career adage: that he does not devise stories, but unearths them "the sensation of finding, not inventing". While the story may have been gifted to him through years' of experience, acquaintance and chance, Garner's spare language, incredible ability to create a tautly compelling environment out of air and rocks, his comfort with leaving chunks of the story unexplained (what is going on with Alison's invisible mother??) bring the book into being. I don't think kids today would like it at all. I absolutely loved it. 


For a recent riff on similar subject matter but with a more lush, 1980s-inflected delivery, I love and continually recommend Garth Nix's The Left-handed Booksellers of London

Thursday 19 January 2023

Alan Garner, Treacle Walker

In her extended essay Why You Should Read Children's Books, Even Though You Are So Old and Wise, Katherine Rundell writes:

When you read children's books, you are given space to read again as a child: to find your way back, back to the time when new discoveries came daily and when the world was colossal, before your imagination was trimmed and neatened, as if it were an optional extra.

Rundell also cites W.H. Auden: "There are good books that are only for adults, because their comprehension presupposes adult experiences, but there are no good books which are only for children."

The first time I read Alan Garner's Treacle Walker (to my shame, my first Garner ever), I read it not as a children's book, but as a child - placing my trust entirely in the author and the world they had created. Under this kind of reading the book was full of wonder, its world self-contained yet depthless, and the journey of the child Joe mythic and magical.

In my second reading, I came armed with recordings of book festival talks and online reviews, details about archaeology, particle physics and the philosophy of time. The mythic resonances of the first reading faded into crossword puzzle solving. It was like those moments in children's literature where one character outgrows the pluripotent world of childhood, and trades off imagination and make-believe for membership of the adult world, as if they'd sacrificed one of their senses in order to access the privileges of being grown-up. 

The first reading was eminently preferable to the second. It was a return to the reading of my childhood - Puck of Pook's Hill, The Sword in the Stone, the Narnia series (before my evangelical uncle ruined them) - when I read with the hope that one day, maybe, just maybe, something magical would happen to me. And even at that age I absorbed the lesson that magic comes with a price, that this is the justice of magic: you will have to choose between your old life and the new life you are offered, between safety and adventure, between being part of the story, or living out your little life ignorant that a story is even happening. A child's life does not usually feature many meaningful decisions: children's literature empowers children to practice decision making that might affect the whole universe.

Treacle Walker is the story of Joe, who has an improbable existence: he appears to live alone in his ancient-sounding home (his bed is on top of the chimney cupboard, the windows are mullioned, when his head aches he reclines on the settle - I still don't know exactly what a "settle" is and in honour of my childhood reading I'm not going to google it, but instead wait for another book to tell me one day), with little to occupy his time aside from marbles and archaic comic books ('Stonehenge Kit the Ancient Brit' being his favourite). He tells the time by the daily passing of a single train at midday. He is something of an invalid - he's not meant to be out in the sun, distances tire him, and he has a lazy eye, and must keep a patch over his strong eye to make his weak eye work harder.

The story is set in motion by the arrival of a rag and bone man, the eponymous Treacle Walker, in Joe's yard, who trades Joe his choice of pot and a stone for a pair of worn pyjamas and a lamb's scapula from his museum of natural history oddments:

The chest was full. Bedded in layers of silk, there were cups, saucers, platters, jugs, big and small: coloured, plain, simple, silvered, gilded, twisted; scenes of dancing, scenes of killing; ships, oceans, seas; beasts, birds, fishes, whales, monsters, houses, castles, mansions, halls; cherubs, satyrs, nymphs; mountains, rivers forests, lakes, fields and clouds and skies.

'Choose,' said the man. 'One.'

Joe chooses a plain china pot, adorned with blue writing: the least, the smallest, the cheapest of the wares on offer. It was previously home to some kind of ointment called 'Poor Man's Friend'. In exchange for his clothes and bone, Treacle Walker gives him the pot and a stone - a donkey stone, palm-sized, incised on one side with a simplifed figure of a horse, used to polish a doorstep. Two talismans thus enter Joe's story, and from here the adventure - not physical, but in place and time and knowledge - unfolds.


For those who have read the book. Treacle Walker left me tingling on my first reading, all my deep-housed childhood reading synapses firing. I was thinking about Kipling, and children being educated by ancient English beings; about T.H. White's Wart, who is taught about the world by the ancient and elemental Merlin, for whom confusion and not-knowing is simply part of the learning process; about Ursula Le Guin and children's introductions to the mysteries of time, space, and emotional justice. About Susan Cooper, who I came to late, and those writers, like Garth Nix in The Left-handed Booksellers of London, who pull on the elemental magic of the British Isles. 

I read Treacle Walker as the story of a child coming into his fate: of being prepared by two guides to take up his role in an ancient system of caring for time, place and the old stories. It touched a fundamental romanticism I didn't even quite realise I still held so deeply from my childhood. The book is filled with motifs - the sickly child, the magic ointment, the bewildering guide, the dewy grass and silvery moon - that are less tropes and more the ingredients for a magical spell, and powerful, magical storytelling. There are touches that feel utterly Garner: the bone flute is one (and the subject of a very beautiful lyrical passage), the battle between contemporary science and magic in a visit to the optometrist (workaday science loses) another, and the comic book sequences which are my least favourite part of the book, which feel like they're there to clunkily manifest a thesis about the nature of time and space.

I read the story first as a legend where a child must sacrifice their innocence and their small comfortable place in the surface world, in order to become part of the deeper world beyond, which holds that unseeing surface world together. My second reading came cluttered with experts' insights about Garner's interest in particle physics, his restoration of a centuries-old medicine house, theories about time. Maybe that reading comes with more admiration for the book and Garner's work, but it sucked out all the wonder. I'm going to discard that second reading, and hold instead on to that first.

Monday 16 January 2023

Catherine Chidgey, The Axeman's Carnival

Is The Axeman's Carnival the great New Zealand novel? I know it's not a question we ask but for me - Pākehā New Zealand, child and grandchild and great-grandchild of farmers - maybe it is.

One review I read located The Axeman's Carnival in the canon of literature written from an animal's perspective, which had me puzzled. Watership Down, White Fang, Charlotte's Web, Dick King-Smith's The Sheep-Pig (all books I adored as a kid / teen) and Ernest Thompson Seton's The Biography of a Grizzly (the very first book I remember having an emotional reaction to) are all told in the third person. Try as I might, I cannot think of any other adult novel with an animal first-person narrator apart from Anna Sewell's Black Beauty:

The first place that I can well remember was a large pleasant meadow with a pond of clear water in it. Some shady trees leaned over it, and rushes and water-lilies grew at the deep end. Over the hedge on one side we looked into a plowed field, and on the other we looked over a gate at our master's house, which stood by the roadside; at the top of the meadow was a grove of fir trees, and at the bottom a running brook overhung by a steep bank.  
While I was young I lived upon my mother's milk, as I could not eat grass. In the daytime I ran by her side, and at night I lay down close by her. When it was hot we used to stand by the pond in the shade of the trees, and when it was cold we had a nice warm shed near the grove.

The Axeman's Carnival also opens from first memories, first sensations, with Chidgey's incantatory tone sucking you straight into the not-human world:

A long long time ago, when I was  little chick, not even a chick but a pink and naked thing, a scar a scrap a scrape fallen on roots, and wriggling, when I was catching my death and all I knew of sky was the feel of feathers above me, the belly of black as warm as a cloud above me, when I was blind, my eyes unsprouted seeds, my eyes dots of gravel stuck under skin, when I was a beak opening for nothing nothing nothing she lifted me into her pillowed palm.

The pillowed palm belongs to Marnie, wife of Rob, the young farming couple trying to force a living from the ungiving landscape of a Central Otago sheep station. On the block of land next to them is the cherry orchard owned by Marnie's sister Ange, her husband Nick, with their new baby and the sisters' acid-tongued mother Barbara. 

Marnie raises the fallen chick, who she names Tamagotchi (Tama for short). From a box pierced with airholes in the laundry, Tama graduates to Marnie and Rob's own empty nest, the vacant nursery that sits potently in the centre of the foundering old villa, of their marriage, and of the story that Chidgey unwinds. 

Tama lives in both world, absorbing all the language of his human household (song lyrics, Marnie's endearments, farm talk, talkback radio callers, the dialogue from the crime shows Rob watches on the telly to unwind) and listening to his original family too:

From the windowsill I could see my flock in the distance, and hear them, and I tried to tell which birds were my mother and father: little bits of black and white, dark and light, too far away. One day I thought I heard them singing for their lost chick, but every family lost half their chicks, and all parents sang for them, and the voices might have been the voices of of someone else's parents.

While Marnie falls for Tama, for Rob he becomes another target for the seething resentment that lies under his skin at all times. Pressured, Marnie releases Tama back to his family, and his father swoops in to reclaim him - There is my son. My son has come back from the dead. He fell from the nest and he did not die. My son is alive. Come to me. Come come come.

So Tama is brought back into the nest: the emptier nest now, his brothers and his mother both gone - death by car, death by cold. His father raises him and his sister, the surviving nestlings, teaches them to stab grubs in the ground, to wipe the sting from a wasp, to smash snails from their shells. 

I learned how the wild worked: where to take shelter, and what voice the adults used when another flock tried to invade. I learned to behave. I learned my place. I learned to leap octaves and to sing two notes at once.

But Tama "belonged and did not belong, and I was bird and not-bird". He gazes down on the yolk-yellow house he had been raised in. And he feels the pull of Marnie, his mother, his only mother: he choses to return to her. And from his bird throat he brings forth the first of his human words: her name.

Changeling, foundling, child-narrator, jester: Tama is our eyes and ears and voice throughout The Axeman's Carnival. Two storylines intertwine: Tama's rapidly growing grasp of English and eventual social media stardom (from a few casual posts on Twitter of Tama's cute outfits and catch-phrases springs a cottage industry of merch and sponsorship opportunities), alongside Rob's pursuit of his tenth golden axe at that year's woodchopping competition. These stories are played out across a fraying marriage, the harsh life of farmers, the intensity of at once living too close to your family and being surrounded by empty space but - for Marnie - having little space or safety of your own. Through this Chidgey weaves the drama of Tama's original family: his dominating and cold-hearted father, his curious and selfish sister, his father's next set of nestlings, better than those who preceded them.

Although the story is often troubled (Rob is jealous, suspicious, and free with his hands when he's had too much to drink) Chidgey is also frequently hilarious. Tama as narrator reports to us what he sees and hears, without judgement or interpretation, whether that's Barbara's sniping or the adulation of the foreign tourists who start searching out the farm to meet their Twitter crush. It's a truly rollicking story, both High Country gothic and pop-culture parody. 

But what I found myself appreciating most about The Axeman's Carnival - perhaps enhanced by reading the book whilst staying in rural Hawkes Bay, in a house on dry hillside under a stand of pines occupied by its own magpie families - was the portrait of farming life, so familiar to my ear even though I've not lived on the farm since I was 18.

The book is a striking and evocative portrait of the pressures and isolation of farming life, and I found myself following Rob in the book with a welling of empathy for all those farming men I've ever known. Victim to the weather, to the regulators, to those buggers in the city. Falling meat prices, falling wool prices, threat of drought: Rob is watching his own life play out in the same worn tracks as those of his parents, farming the same resistant land, searching for rain, searching for a break on the global markets, the sheer unfairness of busting a gut from before dawn to after dark every day of the year and still living on a knife's edge of liquid cash. The hardness this breeds, the inarticulate resentment of a life that feels so out of your control, the shackling responsibility for this bloody piece of land, and yes: the love and the fierce pride also. 

There are a couple of set pieces which are pitch perfect to my ear. There's the description of docking season, when lambs' tails are severed with a cauterising iron, rubber bands are applied to testicles to  strangulate the blood supply until they drop off (we used bands on the lambs' tails too, and the image of lambs bucking on the ground then scrambling to their feet, spronking off in uneven leaps and bounds, bawling for their mothers, is still so vivid in my mind). Not just the work, but the latent anger at townies and their privileged obliviousness:

"And now the overseas supermarkets are complaining about the meat." 

"What's wrong with it?" said Ange.

"Nothing," said Rob. "Nothing's wrong with it. But their customers have decided they're a bit upset about tailing."

"They don't want to buy meat from docked animals," said Marnie.

"Why on earth not?" said Barbara.

"Apparently it's cruel," said Rob. "Apparently we're monsters. They'd prefer to eat lambs slaughtered with their tails still attached."

Barbara laughed. "Ludicrous!"

"There's a lot of pressure," said Marnie.

"well," said Nick, "it's important to listen to the voice of the consumer."

"You know what's cruel?" said Rob. "Leaving a lamb with a tail so long it gets caked in shit, and then the blowflies come and lay their eggs, and then the maggots hatch and eat the animal alive."

Barbara shuddered, pushed away her bread roll.

"Sorry," he said. "It gets me worked up."

And also the descriptions of the work and care of lambing season, where paddocks are patrolled, small hot bodies fished slithering and steaming from their mother's vulvas, prolapsed uteruses pushed back in and secured with plastic anchors, motherless lambs brought home, warmed in front of the fire, fed by hand. In my house they were kept in cardboard boxes or the wood basket, until they were big enough to be moved to the crate in the basement (once home also to a litter of piglets whose murderous mother kept squashing them). Or the creation of more changelings - dead lambs skinned, then the crinkled yellow jackets of their hides tied around the bodies of orphaned lambs, to fool the bereaved ewe through smell and taste to mother them on. (Who wouldn't take a second chance, if they could make themselves believe in it?)

Another set piece comes late in the book, a crowd of men yelling as Ange and Marnie take to the stage to perform in a kind of talent show during the woodchopping competition:

But the men were in full voice now, calling, carolling. 'I like your dresses - they'd look awesome on my bedroom floor. Wanna see my baby elephant? Wanna see my hairy canary? I've got some wood for you, girls. Hey! I said I've got some wood for you! My name's Justin - remember that so you can scream it later. How do you like your meat? Hey girls! Girls! What's your favourite - standing or underhand? Nice legs, what time do they open? Are you free tonight, or will it cost me?

"Show us where the axe hit ya" was a favoured catch-phrase of my teenage years. And yet still, "Nice legs, what time do they open?" made me giggle.

As other reviewers have noted, the Axeman's Carnival sits within New Zealand's tradition of the cinema of unease, that gothic haunting of the settler imagination. It's full of symbol and threat and tension. But the utterly unique voice of Tama, his two-spirit storytelling: this is brilliantly developed and delivered, with a depth of reality that a film could never give you. One of the greatest works of storytelling I've read in such a long time, effortless and memorable. 

Wednesday 11 January 2023

Elizabeth Strout, Oh William!

I would like to say a few things about my first husband, William. 
William has lately been through some very sad events - many of us have - but I would like to mention them, it feels almost like a compulsion; he is seventy-one years old now. 
My second husband, David, died last year, and in my grief for him I have found grief for William as well. Grief is such a - oh, it is such a solitary thing; this is the terror of it, I think. It is like sliding down the outside of a really long glass building while nobody sees you. 
But it is William I want to speak of here.
I'm not surprised people described themselves as "obsessed" with Strout's writing. Plain spoken and determinedly anti-atmospheric, Strout's writing has an obsessive tone, like a person who can't stop scratching their sores. The "compulsion" mentioned in these opening lines of Oh William! crops up over and over again: I need to say this though. I wrote about it in an earlier book, but I need to explain it more....

The voice is that of Lucy Barton, the title character of Strout's earlier book My Name is Lucy Barton, who also features in several stories in the collection Anything is Possible

My Name is Lucy Barton is set in a New York hospital where Lucy, the narrator, recovers slowly from a routine operation that has somehow become complicated. She is married, with some difficulty, to William, has two young daughters, and is visited for five days by her estranged mother, leading her to reflect on her painful, isolated and abusive upbringing in rural Illinois. Oh William! picks up several decades later. Lucy is now mourning her second husband, David; she is a successful author, still living in New York City; her daughters are grown and comfortably married; her mother and William's mother, Catherine, have both died and her first husband William is now married to his third wife, Estelle, and has a 10 year-old daughter, Bridget. Lucy and William remain companionably close, and lean upon each other.

Oh William! is narrated by Lucy, but the book's plot and her movements in the story are driven by her ex-husband William. Indeed, the question of whether we really make any decisions about our lives, or more  slide almost imperceptibly from the mental imagining of a path of action into its physical enactment is a core theme of the book:
I was thinking about the year before I left William how almost every night when he was asleep I would go out and stand in our tiny back garden and I would think: What do I do? Do I leave or do I stay? It had felt like a choice to me then. But remembering this now, I realised that also during that whole year I made no motion to put myself back inside the marriage; I kept myself separate is what I mean. Even as I thought I was deciding.
Oh William! centres on two things that happen to William: his third wife first gives him a gift that accidentally cracks open his family narrative, and then she leaves him. These events draw him and Lucy even more closely together, as she and their daughters support him through the grief of yet another marriage ending, and then a trip to research his mother's early life. While the action may not be determined by Lucy, it is her flow of consciousness we follow, as she weaves together the present moment and memories of her life, and her life with William and her mother-in-law. 

Lucy as narrator explicitly addresses us as reader, or witness, throughout the book - "I have already mentioned this ...", "What you need to know is ...", "What I mean by this is ...", "I have told you this before ...". Lucy's career and success are central to the unsteady sense of self-worth she has developed in her adult life, yet Strout keeps her career resolutely off-stage: while Lucy gives us details about the public life of an author - an unsuccessful event, being stranded on a book tour - at no point does she engage in the writing life in the book, say sit down to write something, talk to her agent. This contributes to the dislocated, or obscuring, or even wilful tone of the book:  
There is this about my own mother. I have written about her and I really do not care to write anything else about her. But I understand one might need to know a few things for this story.
Perhaps Lucy here is a writer off duty, able to tell stories not with the cleanliness and consistency needed for publication, but with the uncertainty and gropingness of real life communication:
Throughout my marriage to William, I had had the image - and this was true even when Catherine was alive, and more so after she died - so often I had the private image of William and me as Hansel and Gretel, two small kids lost in the woods looking for the breadcrumbs that could lead us home.

This might sound like it contradicts my saying that the only home I ever had was with William, but in my mind they are both true and oddly do not go against each other. I am not sure why that is true, but it is.
I find Lucy's voice to be deeply discomforting. "This is a delightful novel," one review I read concluded, "It rattles along so easily and agreeably in Lucy’s voice ...". There is no ease or agreeableness in Lucy's voice for me, but rather a combined relentlessness and panic. Lucy exists in a web of unearned pain from her childhood, and carefully nurtured hurts from her adult life. Every situation is picked over for the possible harm or slight embedded in it - only her daughters are spared. The massive shift in her life, from rural poverty to urban affluence, destabilises Lucy, and even in success and happiness she is plagued by a deep sense of her own invisibility:
Please try to understand this: 
I have always thought that if there was a big corkboard and on that board was a pin for every person who ever lived, there would be no pin for me. 
I feel invisible, is what I mean. But I mean it in the deepest way. It is hard to explain. And I cannot explain it except to say  - oh, I don't know what to say! Truly, it is as if I do not exist, I guess is the closest thing I can say. I mean I do not exist in the world. It could be as simple as the fact that we had no mirrors in my house when we were growing up except for a very small one high above the bathroom sink. I do not really know what I mean, except say that on some very fundamental level, I feel invisible in the world.
It is deep-set trauma and insecurity, to be sure, but traumatised people are hard to be around. Like a gimbal holding a moving camera, Lucy is constantly adjusting her viewpoint and her statements with almost a paranoid energy: as a result, there is no relaxation for the reader. The strength of the first person narrative is almost suffocating - Lucy expresses little curiosity and little joy: most characters are assessed according to her likes and dislikes, trust and distrust, and they disappear from the story once they exit her view. 

Oh William! is a short book, about many things - grief and loneliness, secrets and family life, social mobility and poverty, marriage and aging. It is at times almost brutally insightful. It suggests that deep love and great resentment are quietly normal states of any close relationship, neither remarkable nor contradictory. It is told in one of the most distinctive and accomplished tones I have read recently. It is not a book that gave me easy enjoyment, but it has lodged under my skin and got me thinking harder than anything else I've read this summer.

Tuesday 3 January 2023

Zana Fraillon and Bren MacDibble, The Raven's Song

We started up, all the ordinary evening songs for putting babies to sleep, for farewelling, for soothing broke-hearted people - all the ones everyone knew so well that they’d long ago made ruder versions and joke-songs of them. We sang them plain, following Mumma’s lead; we sang them straight, into Ikky’s glistening eyes, as the tar climbed her chin. We stood tall, so as to see her, and she us, as her face became the sunken centre of that giant flower, the wreath. Dash’s little drum held us together and kept us singing, as Ik’s eyes rolled and she struggled for breath against the pressing tar, as the chief and the husband’s family came and stood across from us, shifting from foot to foot, with torches raised to watch her sink away.

Margo Lanagan, "Singing My Sister Down", 2004, from Black Juice (pirated copy available online here)

They turn her to face the crowd, they display her to her neighbours and her family, to the people who held her hands as she learned to walk, taught her to dip her bread in the pot and wipe her lips, to weave a basket and gut a fish. She has played with the children who now peep at her from behind their mothers, has murmured prayers for them as they were being born. She has been one of them, ordinary. Her brother and sisters watch her flinch as the men take the blade, lift the pale hair on the left side of her head and cut it away. They scrape the skin bare. She doesn't look like one of them now. She shakes. They tuck the hair into the rope around her wrists.

Sarah Moss, The Ghost Wall, 2018

The bog skin is becoming her skin, the heavy-earthed water cool against the burning tight of the rope. The cold bog blood surges and flows in her, around her as her own seeps and blends. Voices are whispering in her ears now, on her tongue now, filling the night sky with warbled callings and seeings, with the knowings and tellings of those gone before. The stick twisting the collar tight around her neck loosens, just enough to keep the veil between the worlds open for a little more ...

Zana Fraillon and Bren MacDibble, The Raven's Song, 2022

In her truly excellent review of The Raven's Song, Rachael King observes that she came of age in an era when cultural production was dominated by the threat of nuclear war: Z for Zacariah, Children of the Dust, even Raymond Briggs’ When the Wind Blows. With today's children facing an arguably even more terrifying future of climate catastrophe, King asks: "How do you write about this stuff for children without subjecting them to the nightmares we experienced as kids?".

King then recaps the thinking of several leading children's writers (honestly, this essay is a reading list, a writing treatise and book review all wrapped into one, Rachael's Newsroom reviews last year were just killer and I sincerely hope 2023 brings more of them): Patrick Ness's observations about the dark emotional worlds teenagers already live in themselves - 

darkness is where teenagers dwell, and if you ignore that “you’re leaving a teenager to face that by themselves,” says Ness. “I think that’s immoral.”

- Joan Aitken's advice that if characters in a children's book must dwell on some lesson, make it snappy; Katherine Rundell -

"children’s fiction necessitates distillation: at its best, it renders in their purest, most archetypal forms hope, hunger, joy, fear. Think of children’s books as literary vodka."

Or as Margo Lanagan said in an interview about her tender and brutal book Tender Morsels, which centres on incest and rape:

When it comes down to it, an explicit sex scene takes as much calculation and care as a restrained one. With either story [the interviewer had asked her about Tender Morsels vs a short story written for adult readers], I’m thinking more of the demands of the story than those of the audience. It wasn’t so much the YA audience that made Tender Morsels take the form it did. If I’d made all the rape and incest explicit, it would have become a rape-and-incest book; those events would have overwhelmed the story that I wanted to tell, which was about Liga hiding from the world in her personal heaven, and the effect that had on herself and her daughters. Suggesting that she had been through hell was enough; I didn’t need to put the audience through hell with her, whatever age they were.

The Raven's Song, then, as King concludes, "a masterclass in writing dark, difficult material for a child reader" and "a complex middle grade novel about terrible things, at once sad and joyful, foreboding and hopeful, and a lot less devastating than some dystopian books for older readers".

The book weaves together three timelines; an ancient moment, in which a girl is sacrificed in a bog, setting the chain of events into Long Time motion; an around-now, when a boy named Phoenix and his siblings are mourning their mother on the brink of a pandemic outbreak; and a near-term-ish future, where Shelby Jones and her best friend Davey are two of exactly 350 people living on exactly 700 hectares of fenced-off land: in reverse of our contemporary conservation moment, to allow the earth to regenerate human populations have (following a massive pandemic-related culling) been placed into closed communities, living 'kindly and ethical" low-tech lives, in zero-pollution conditions, so that the "honoured and natural world" can recover.

A hole in the perimeter fence leads Shelby and Davey out of their cloistered environment (and cloistered world view) and exposes them to their society's history, a massively expanded reality, and danger. In the tradition of the best child heroes, they are brave and curious, straining at the limits of what they know and what adults have told them is necessary for their own - and the communities' - good.

You could class The Raven's Song as an eco-thriller, I guess: it also has moments that have enough horror to reach my (admittedly, very low) tolerance. Phoenix has hallucinations that cross over into the real world ("Emotional reactivity to trauma," the doctor calls it. ... "Your sixth sense!" Gran calls it, and she talks about the great gift passed down through generations of their family.) and there is one recurrent motif that frankly gave me the shits:

Phoenix looked but there weren't any angels at all. Just a bunch of small, raggedy people with floppy, torn cardboard wings tied on with string, and little toy trumpets in their hands, all lined up with their snotty noses pressed at the windows waiting to get in. That was the first time Phoenix had seen something so strange that he knew it couldn't possibly be there. They aren't real, he told himself over and over as the angels banged on the window, louder and louder. They aren't real, and he ran around the house locking every window and pulling every curtain closed and when he got back to the kitchen his mum had just ... just stopped.

The Raven's Song is complexly plotted and the co-authors land the ending in a way that has all the satisfaction of nailing a tricky beam dismount. There's a rewarding set of detective-like clues that are resolved in the final pages, which I imagine would give attentive young readers that righteous sense of pay-off. Genuinely scary, transporting and empathetic. 

The book is also causing me to depart from my summer reading stack. Last night I re-read Lanagan's Singing My Sister Down which is just a perfect piece of writing, and I've returned today to Ghost Wall (it's almost impossible not to). I've added Mal Peet's Life: An Exploded Diagram as a re-read to my sub-stack of books to take on the road at the end of the week - not because it bears any resemblance to  The Raven's Song but because of King's discussion of those Cold War era children's books, which it so masterfully riffs off. It's a joy to have the time to let reading spool out like this, opening up the exploratory areas of my brain again after a working year of solving problems.

Friday 30 December 2022

Ted Chiang, Exhalation

He’s not necessarily interested in how human beings interact with one another (a few of his stories contain romantic subplots, and they are noticeably less compelling than anything else he writes). Instead, he focuses on how human beings interact with and are shaped by their technologies ...

Constance Grady, Vox

I remember being thunderstruck by the two major stories in Ted Chiang's first collection, Tower of Babylon and Story of Your Life (later made into the film Arrival). Looking back on my review from the time, I noted that I found the rest of the stories in the book 'interesting as exercises' but that they didn't seize my imagination or leave my brain more open, as the top two did.

Reading through Exhalation, I really wanted to love it as much as I did that first book. I kept embarking on each story, hoping it would be "that one" - the Story of Your Life of this collection. None of these stories however come near its level of intricacy of content and form.

The strongest story in the book, for me, is the longest - like Story of Your Life, The Lifecycle of Software Objects is a novella-length story, given plenty of room to develop. It centres on Ana and Derek, two employees at Blue Gamma, a software start-up making "digients" (digital organisms) for people to take into virtual worlds. Derek is an animator; Ana is a very new coder, but she's actually brought onboard at Blue Gamma for her earlier job experience, as a zoo-keeper. Blue Gamma's digients take the form of baby animals - pandas, tigers, chimpanzees - and the company is trying to tune them perfectly for the market. The older-tech equivalent would be Tamagotchis, those needy little devices that required the owner's regular attention or they "died". The digients however are AI and therefore can build a different kind of relationship:
[Derek] subscribes to Blue Gamma's philosophy of AI design: experience is the best teacher, so rather than trying to program an AI with what you want it to know, sell ones capable of learning and have your customers teach them. To get customers, to put in that kind of effort, everything about the digient has to be appealing: their personalities need to be charming, which the developers were working on, and their avatars need to be cute, which is where Derek comes in. But he can't simply give the digients enormous eyes and short noses. if they look like cartoons, no one will take them seriously. Conversely, if they look too much like real animals, their facial expressions and ability to speak become disconcerting. It's a delicate balancing act, and he has spent countless hours watching reference footage of baby animals, but he's managed to design hybrid faces that are endearing but not exaggeratedly so.
The digients are created then "hothoused" - run 24 hours in simulators to see how they develop and to winnow out the best products - then Ana's role is to work with them, teaching them and learning alongside them, so that Blue Gamma understands thoroughly the product they're taking to market, and future customers can be supported:
... this is not what she envisioned for herself when she went to college, and for a moment she wonders how it has come to this. As a girl she dreamed of following Fossey and Goodall to Africa; by the time she got out of grad school, there were so few apes her best option was to work in a zoo; now she's looking at a job as a trainer of virtual pets. In her career trajectory you can see  the diminution of the natural world, writ large.
Blue Gamma does well for a time, and establishes a steady business model (a razors & blades model: the purchase of the digient isn't the big outlay, it's through the regular purchase of food treats where the company make their money). Customers are entranced, and user forums spring up with owners comparing notes and sorting issues. But after a couple of years, people start to lose interest. The pets become too demanding, or other life matters take over. Accounts (and digients) are suspended, or digients are dropped off at "shelters" for re-adoption. Competitors spring up. Eventually, Blue Gamma winds up:
Many of the other employees have been through company collapses before, so while they're unhappy, for them this is just another episode of life in the software industry. For Ana, however, Blue Gamma's folding reminds her of the closure of the zoo, which was one of the most heartbreaking experiences of her life. Her eyes still tear up when she thinks about the last time she saw her apes, wishing she could explain to them why they wouldn't see her again, hoping they could adapt to their new homes. When she decided to retrain for the software industry, she was glad he'd never have to face another such farewell in her new line of work. Now here she is, against all expectation, confronted with a strangely reminiscent situation.
However, Blue Gamma makes an offer: the dozen "mascots" (first-generation digients) are available for the outgoing employees to take with them, and both Ana and Derek take up this offer.

The rest of the story plays out as an examination of both what it takes to keep aging software alive, and what it takes to keep relationships alive: the answer seems to be constant maintenance. While The Lifecycle of Software Objects is ostensibly about the parameters of the rights of AI entities (and is the most interesting examination of that question I've encountered) its also a very, very good story about software products and companies: how they work, how they fail, how users are left behind.

Chiang feels like a tech optimist, or maybe a humanist. The stories in Exhalation examine some of the long-standing tropes of "technology" and the human mind: the possibility of time travel and our  ability to influence our past or future; the relationship between intrinsic human memory and technological aids that let us externalise memories; the Sliding Doors paradox of what it would be like to see the branching multiverses that roll out from our life decisions. Some are duds, IMHO (the steampunk story, the parrot story). One - Omphalos, the story of a women's faith being fundamentally challenged - is surprisingly tender and affirming. 

Overall, I leave Exhalation wanting to move back into the world of action, not contemplation. Reading this book in one sitting is probably not advisable. If you pick it up, I suggest you spool it out, take your time, mix it up with other things, and let Chiang work his skills on you more slowly and perhaps more effectively than I did.

Thursday 29 December 2022

Tamsyn Muir, Gideon the Ninth

In the myriadic year of our lord — the ten thousandth year of the King Undying, the kindly Prince of Death! — Gideon Nav packed her sword, her shoes and her dirty magazines, and she escaped from the House of the Ninth.

As a fast but often forgetful reader ('Read a lot, forget most of what you read', as Montaigne said*) a good fantasy series can quite easily earn a place on my bookshelves. Over the past 20 years I've amassed a core collection that I return to regularly to sink back into the world-building, reacquaint myself with the characters and appreciate the plot-twists anew: Megan Whalen-Turner's The Queen's Thief series, N.K. Jemisin's Inheritance and Broken Earth trilogies, Melina Marchetta's The Lumatere Chronicles, Patrick Ness's Chaos Walking trilogy, Lev Grossman's The Magicians, Paulo Bacigalupi's Shipbreaker trilogy, Laini Taylor's Daughter of Smoke and Bone and Strange the Dreamer books, Maggie Stievater's myriad series (though her best book is undoubtedly the stand-alone The Scorpio Races). 

Gideon the Ninth - the first in Tamsyn Muir's Locked Tomb trilogy - wasn't on my official summer book stack*. I'd actually been picking the book up & putting it down for a while - it was Charles Stross's blurb on the cover that put me off: 'Lesbian necromancers explore a haunted gothic palace in space!'. Not the lesbian bit, not the necromancy bit, and not that gothic palace bit - the in space! bit. My husband dislikes "fantasy" because wave-your-hands-around-magic can constitute a plot solution: I dislike "science-fiction" because I find generally find the science tedious, anything with robots and AI generally boring and space opera specifically is one of my least favourite genres (see also Star Wars and Star Trek).

However. I kept seeing Gideon the Ninth popping up in people's recommendations and then Muir took out a couple of places on the Unity Book's sci-fi & fantasy best-sellers for 2022. I asked Twitter what I should do, and Twitter said buy it (which is, basically, why I am still on Twitter). And while the book is not perfect it's still a hell of a lot of fun. 

The book opens with a ornate cast of characters, divided into the Nine Houses of the Emperor: it reminded me of Alexandra Bracken's Lore which I read last year, which also opens with nine houses, based on Greek mythology. We are dropped straight into the story and the narrative  point of view of the lead character, as 18-year-old Gideon Nav embarks upon her latest attempt to escape her position as an indentured servant of the Ninth House and leave the planet to sign up for the Emperor's troops. We get a bit of context via her interactions with two retainers of the House, and then in glides the teenage heir to the House, "wearing black and sneering":

Reverend Daughter Harrowhark Nonagesimus had pretty much cornered the market on wearing black and sneering. It comprised 100 percent of her personality. Gideon marvelled that someone could live in the universe only seventeen years and yet wear black and sneer with such ancient self-assurance.

To describe the plot is to give the book away, so I won't do that. Three things I did notice though.

One is the number of genre tropes Muir pulls upon, and weaves together successfully. There is the central adversarial co-dependent relationship that provides much grist for colourful jibes, familiar from a legion of teenage rom-coms. There's a solid training montage with a grizzled and grudgingly respectful older mentor. There's a group of disparate characters thrown together in a mysterious environment and a subsequent contest of arms and wits, with the accompanying alliances, betrayals and crushes. There's a murder mystery, of the isolated country house full of guests/suspects variety. And there's a series of reveals at the end which are both satisfying and affecting (even if the horror / fight scenes surrounding them go on a bit - they'd translate well to screen but feel almost as if written for that). 

The second is that while it's kind of set in space, that's also not really a factor, and while there are zombies, they're not really presented as such. Two things of great relief to me.

The third is how often I thought of Taika Waititi's screenwriting tone while reading the book. Muir is also a New Zealander, and there are throw-away phrases (douche-bag, old as balls) that feel very New Zealand to me. There's a dead-pan tone throughout that could be described as sass, but to me feels more like the self-deprecating Kiwi humour we like to see in our cultural products:

As they pulled themselves into the shuttle, the door mechanism sliding down with a pleasingly final whunk, she leaned into Harrow: Harrow, who was dabbing her eyes with enormous gravity. The necromancer flinched outright.

"Do you want," Gideon whispered huskily, "my hanky."

"I want to watch you die"

Muir does a good job of showing rather than telling: the different kinds of necromancy, for example, are demonstrated through action rather than through loads of exposition. If you need to understand the backstory in order to enjoy the action, this probably isn't the book for you - having read all 475 pages, I still don't know exactly how the Houses emerged or what's really going on in the Emperor's affairs that he needs armies and champion for. And sometimes the story-telling is a bit too clever. Because of the show-don't-tell approach we meet the characters through their interactions with Gideon rather than in an orderly way (there's no run-down of the pairs from each House, in the style of, for example, The Hunger Games). Characters are often referred to by appearance rather than name (the terrible teens, the mayonnaise uncle) and even half-way through the book I was still repeatedly getting lost trying to reference them back to their correct Houses. In some ways this was appealing (contrast it to the pages and pages of heraldry in G.R.R. Martin, say) but it also got in the way of the reading a bit.

Having said this, I'm sufficiently intrigued to move on to the second book, and be glad I invested my summer time here.

*The quote ends "and be slow-witted" and I'm not so keen on that bit, unless you frame it as a kind of slowly percolating thought, in which case ka pai.

Wednesday 28 December 2022

Noel Streatfeild, Ballet Shoes

"It's to do with happiness. It means hard work."

I came back to Ballet Shoes yesterday after listening to the Christmas episode of the Backlisted podcast. I went into the podcast worrying that a feature of my childhood was about to be ripped apart - I came out of it curious about the author, and wanting to go back into that world.

Streatfeild trained at RADA as an actor after working in munitions factories and army canteens in First World War. After the death of her father she decided to become a novelist - in an interview played on the podcast she says she made the switch because she needed a more secure career option, then scoffs at her own naivety. She began writing for adults, and then in 1931 for children. Her publisher asked her to write a children's book, capitalising on the craze at the time for ballet. "The story poured off my pen, more or less telling itself ... I distrusted what came easily and so despised the book," Streatfeild later recalled: published in 1936, Ballet Shoes has never been out of print and has sold millions upon millions of copies. Streatfeild must have felt both gratified and trapped by its success: it led to a litany of follow-up books - Theater Shoes, Skating Shoes, Party Shoes ...* 

I inhaled Ballet Shoes, and many other Streatfeild titles, as a child; while I recall the beat-up Puffin editions with their 1970s orange-yellow-green covers, I cannot remember how I came upon them - the library, hand-me-downs or acquisitions from the secondhand book store in New Plymouth. Her books were wholesome, the language sparkled, the tone was often appealingly knowing, the child characters had flaws that were treated as natural and normal, but still to be reined in. But I think the thing that appealed to me most (as with so many great books aimed at pre-teen readers) was that Streatfeild showed the tough realities of her child characters' lives, but also gave them the tools and abilities to pull through them and create their own destinies.

For the uninitiated: Ballet Shoes is the story of the three Fossil sisters, set in London between the wars. The three girls - Pauline (pink and white and platinum-blonde), Petrova (dark-haired and sallow) and Posy (the red-head) - have been "collected" by Great-Uncle Matthew (known as 'Gum'). A 'legendary figure' to the girls, he had been a 'very important person' collecting outstanding fossil specimens around the world. Having collected them, he needed somewhere to put them, and hence secured a large six-storyed house on London's Brompton Road:
Naturally, a house like that needed somebody to look after it, and he found just the right person. Gum had one nephew, who died leaving a widow and a little girl. What was more suitable than to invite the widow and her child Sylvia, and Nana her nurse, to live in the house and take care of it for him? Ten years later the widowed niece died, but by then his great-niece Sylvia was sixteen, so she, helped by Nana, took her mother's place and saw that the house and the fossils were all right.**
Gum then loses a leg in spectacular fashion: undismayed, he and his new wooden leg give up fossil expeditions in favour of exploration by sea. One night, the ship he is travelling on is struck by an iceberg and sinks (this is 1936, remember, the Titanic sunk in 1912)***:
... all the passengers had to take to boats. In the night one of the boats filled with water and the passengers were thrown into the sea. Gum's boat went to the rescue, but by the time it got there everyone had drowned except a baby who was lying cooing happily on a lifebelt.
Gum takes charge of the baby, and when she cannot be traced to anyone on board, returns with her to London, 'fusses and fumes' as the adoption papers are made out,  presents her to Sylvia, then promptly fucks off on another journey. This time he winds up in hospital next to a Russian, "a shabby, depressed fellow who yet somehow conveyed he hadn't always been shabby and depressed, but had once worn gay uniforms and had swung laughing through the snow in his jingling sleigh amidst rows of bowing peasants." The Russian and his wife fled during the revolution; they 'tried to train themselves to earn a living' but failed; the wife died, then the husband dies, and their little girl gets scooped up from the children's ward and taken back home to Sylvia.

"The last baby Gum did not deliver himself". She turns up in a basket, with a letter and a pair of ballet shoes: 
... yet another Fossil to add to my nursery. The father has just died, and the poor mother has no time for babies, so I said I would have her. ... I regret not to bring the child myself, but today I ran into a friend with a yacht who is visiting some strange islands. I am joining him, and expect to be away for some years. I have arranged for the bank to see after money for you for the next five years, but before then I shall be home.
Thus, Pauline, Petrova and Posy Fossil ("P.S. Her name is Posy. Unfortunate, but true."). To begin with, the girls had "a very ordinary nursery life". There are few toys, because they have no relations to give them any, and clothes are handed down (clothes are a SIGNIFICANT feature of Ballet Shoes), but the two older girls are sent off to a nice school and all is well. But then Gum shows no sign of returning, the girls are pulled out of school, and Sylvia resorts to taking in boarders to help pay the bills.**** The boarders are all lovely, however, and effectively form a team to assist Sylvia in the children's upbringing. Two retired lady doctors, used to coaching children for exams, take over the older girls' education (with Dr Jakes introducing Pauline to the beauties of speaking blank verse). Mr and Mrs Simpson arrive with their Citroen, much to the delight of car-mad Petrova. And Theo James is a dancing instructor at Madame Fidolia's famed stage and dancing academy, and it is her idea to have the three girls taken on as fee-free students, on the basis that when they are twelve they can get their stage licences and start performing, paying back a fee to the Academy and supporting the household.

None of this is a secret from the children. They are full participants. They create a vow - to make something of themselves, to put the Fossil name into the history books (as self-made sisters, 'nobody can say it's because of their grandfather') and to make the money to alleviate Sylvia's concerns. 

And from there we launch into the story, of the household's continuously precarious financial position, and the children' training and entry into working life. There are pages and pages of financial calculations (how to scrounge together the money to make the audition dresses, in order to get the parts, in order to pay back the borrowed money). There are pages and pages of clothes - the lovingly detailed list of required items for the Academy, the "whipped frills" of organdy frocks, the shame of aged velvet and straining seams. And there are pages and pages of stagecraft - while commissioned to write a book about ballet, it is her own background Streatfeild evidently draws upon:
Pauline would be fourteen in December, and not only had the sense to see how much she was able to pick up from watching other people, but she had sufficient technique to follow the producer's reasoning. She understood 'timing', she was still apt to time wrong herself, but she was learning to hear when somebody else timed a line wrong. She was beginning, too, to grasp the meaning of 'pace' The producer of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' was a great believer in 'pace', especially for Shakespeare. Pauline, listening to the rehearsals, could feel the pace of the production and going home on the tube she and Doctor Jakes would have discussions about it - how this actor was slow, and that one had good 'pace'.
So, Pauline is beautiful, and a natural actress; Posy is a great mimic, and born to be a dancer; Petrova is "technically proficient" but hates the whole thing - however, she sticks at it, because that's what the sisters do. Petrova was always my favourite, as the odd one out - she is the Jo of this set of sisters. Petrova's saving comes in the form of one of only two real male characters in the book. Gum is the catalyst but he creates the action by disappearing. Mr Simpson, the garage owner / boarder, exists to keep Petrova's hopes up by enabling her to explore the world of mechanics and engines that she is drawn to. Mr Simpson is an intelligent, kindly, noticing sort of man, engaging in the Fossil's world of frills and nervous anxiety without demeaning it. There is one beautiful passing observation about his and Petrova's friendship that summarises Streatfeild's knack for describing the kind of adults that kids want to be around:
'Hullo, Petrova!' he would call up the stairs sometimes on Sunday afternoons, 'having a bit of trouble with the car. Come and give me a hand.'
The most gorgeous afternoons followed; he was not the sort of man who did everything himself and expected you to watch, but took turns fairly, passing over the spanner, saying 'Here, you take those nuts off'.
It all works out well in the end, because - and this is one of the great lessons of Ballet Shoes - hard work and a good attitude almost always pay off. After the glorious detail and many moments of honesty in the book, one is somewhat jolted by how quickly it is wrapped up in the closing pages. 

I went into the book with trepidation - it's hard going back to the classics and measuring them up against today. Aside from Gum's "what's the point of keeping a pack of women about the house if they're never there when you want them" (a statement that bookends the novel and which I think on re-reading might be Streatfeild being mocking about self-important men?), the thing that knocks you back about the book is the focus on appearances. Prettiness is both desirable, and unfairly distributed, and this is personified in the character of Winifred, a peer (and thus competitor) with Pauline:
There was one other child waiting, who had her mother with her. Her name was Winifred, and she was very clever. She was the child who would have played Mytyl if she had not had measles. She had acted really well, she was a brilliant dancer, she had an unusually good singing voice, but she was not pretty. She had a clever, interesting face, and long, but rather colourless, brown hair. She was wearing an ugly brown velvet frock; not a good choice of colour, as it made her look the same all over. 
... All the time Winifred was talking people who walked by called out, 'Good luck Winifred, good luck Pauline'. Pauline could see from the way that they looked at her that they thought she looked nice, and from the way they looked at Winifred, that they thought she did not. She wished that she had some money and could buy Winifred a new frock; she was so nice and she looked so all-wrong.
You have to wonder what the character of Winifred is there to do in the book, if not simply to teach the Fossil sisters some relativity. At 12, Winifred is the oldest of 6, her father is an invalid, and her mother needs her to get work to support the family. Pauline reflects "Of course she needed the money too, but somehow, although there was not any for new clothes, and the food was getting plainer and plainer, nobody had ever said what a help it would be when she could earn some, and certainly she had never been as worried about it as Winifred." But Pauline beats Winifred for the role of Alice, and then Petrova beats her for a role because Winifred is late to an audition, and Winifred exits the story without any relief beyond a nice cup of tea in their nursery. The lesson I took out of this as  child was that smart, plain, hardworking girls have to work that much harder - and perhaps that's just what Streatfeild intended. Her short biography at the front of the book, written for the child audience, includes the phrase "Noel was born in Sussex in 1895 and was one of three sisters. Although Noel was considered the plain one, she ended up leading the most glamorous and exciting life!"

The other thing that struck me on this re-read was that Streatfeild gives her child readers considerable insight into adult lives. Mr and Mrs Simpson cannot return to Kuala Lumpur because the markets have slumped and their rubber-tree plantations have been outstripped by other means of producing rubber.  Nana often speaks crossly, but it is because she cannot see solutions to the pressing problems that confront them. Sylvia is worried and thin and explains to the children that she feels guilty and embarrassed to be taking money from them, but can't see an alternative. One passage particularly stood out, for teaching me to see layers of emotion when I was young:
Nana never could remember that though she had been Sylvia's nurse, her child was now a grown-up woman, and the sound of the sort of crack in the voice people get when they are miserable brought all her nurse instincts to the top.
And the final thing I learned about myself in this re-read was how much Streatfeild's writing conditioned me. I used words like "amidst" in my primary school journals because of her; I knew what a 'game leg' was, had the phrase 'Satan finds tasks for idle hands' stuck in my head forever, knew way too many names for different fabrics because of her. And I retain a deep fondness, a kind of comfort, for 1930s writers because, I think, I grew up on this diet. Streafeild was my entry drug for Mitford, Waugh and Taylor and for that - as well as some of the dubious life lessons - I will always be grateful.

*I quite vividly remember Skating Shoes, better known as White Boots, because of the morbidness of the plotline: the story revolves around two girls, Harriet and Lalla, one rich, one poor, who meet at the ice-rink. Harriet has been set to skating to build up her strength (building up one's strength and putting on weight are two strong Streatfeild themes) whereas Lalla is training because both her parents died in a skating accident and her Aunt Claudia has decided therefore she too should become a world-renowned figure-skater. WTF.

**This paragraph comes on the second page of the book, in the romping set-up to the story. Reading that Sylvia took over domestic responsibilities at the age of 16, after the death of her remaining parent, sat me back as an adult. It is a lot like my experience reading I Capture the Castle repeatedly over the past 25 years, where in my 30s the character of Topaz, the young stepmother, came into focus after years of ignoring her in favour of teenage Cassandra.

***When I was at primary school in the 1980s we regularly sung a song about the Titanic in assemblies: the chorus went "It was sad (it was sad) / Mighty sad (mighty sad) / It was sad when that great ship went down ( the bottom of the ocean). / Husbands and wives, little children lost their lives, it was sad when that great ship went down". It is so weird how these nuggets of culture get passed down from generation to generation. 

****As noted in the podcast, Ballet Shoes has tinges of the boarding house novels of the 1930s; people thrown together in reduced circumstances and their lives subsequently intertwining. Effectively, Ballet Shoes is the story of a household of women abandoned by the male figure who was meant to provide for them, having to make their own way in the world - for pre-teen girl readers.

Monday 26 December 2022

Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne, by Katherine Rundell

"It's traditional", writes Katherine Rundell at the outset of her biography of English Renaissance writer John Donne, "to imagine two Donnes - Jack Donne, the youthful rake, and Dr Donne, the older, wiser priest, a split Donne himself imagined in a letter to a friend". In Super-Infinite, Rundell describes a man "infinitely more various and unpredictable", who "reimagined and reinvented himself, over and over: he was a poet, lover, essayist, lawyer, pirate, recusant, preacher, satirist, politician, courtier, chaplain to the King, dean of the finest cathedral in London". She introduces a writer "whose work, if allowed under your skin, can offer joy so violent it kicks the metal out of your knees, and sorrow large enough to eat you". And she sets herself a high task: "This is both a biography of Donne and an act of evangelism."

I came to  Rundell's life of John Donne straight off my memorial re-read of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall trilogy, finishing The Mirror and the Light (which I still find  grueling and upsetting, despite the fact the ending can come as no surprise, not only because it is well known that Cromwell is dead, but because I've read the book three times now). Within one page of Super-Infinite the two timelines unite. Sir Thomas More, Cromwell's great antagonist during his rise to power and his ghost as Mantel tracks his downfall, is Donne's maternal great-great uncle: Donne's life is shaped by his family's adherence to the Catholic faith and subsequent loss of fortune and precarious present. 

The transition from  Cromwell's Henrican era to Donne's Elizabethan period was very smooth, with the residual tastes and smells and textures of Mantel's writing fleshing out Rundell's book, which does not linger on world-building detail. Donne left behind no diaries, no household account books, no treasure trove of poetry drafts: his poetry was written for a limited audience, and little was published during his lifetime. Letters he wrote remain, collected and published posthumously by his son (who removed dates and changed names to burnish his father's reputation, attempting to make his social circle seem higher than it was and thus epically frustrating later researchers), but the letters he received he would burn after the writer's death ("a letter was, for him, akin to an extension of a living person, and should not exist without its parent"). Some of his surviving work Rundell admits to being unreadable even for his greatest fans - one religious treatise Rundell describes as "so dense it would be swifter to eat it than to read it". There is a sizable body of sermons, again largely published after his lifetime. During an extreme illness Donne smashed out and hurriedly published a collection of  23 essays on the human condition, part of the fashion for deathbed meditations - he lived another eight years. 

About 200 poems are today attributed to Donne. Again, very few were published during his lifetime, or even remain in his own handwriting. They have been pieced together from collections and manuscripts, painstakingly compared line by line, word by word, for variations. Few can be accurately dated, so close cross-referencing between his poems and his life events can be tricky; one tends more to illuminate the other than to pinpoint. Donne's poems were written to celebrate marriages and mourn deaths; there are "satires, religious verses, and about forty verse letters, a tradition he loved: poems of anything from twelve to 130 lines, carrying news, musings on virtue and God, and declarations of how richly he treasures the friends to whom he is writing."

And then there are the love poems and erotic verses - the ones many English readers have come across one way or another - even without the scaffolding of an education in literary history. "To call anyone the best of anything is a brittle kind of game", writes Rundell, "but if you wanted to play it, Donne was the greatest writer of desire in t he English language. He wrote about sex in a way nobody ever has, before or since: he wrote sex as the great insistence on life, the salute, the bodily semaphore for the human living infinite. The word most used across his poetry, apart from 'and' and 'the', is 'love'."

I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I
Did, till we loved?Were we not weaned till then?
But sucked on country pleasures, childishly?
Or snorted we in the Seven Sleepers’ den?
’Twas so; but this, all pleasures fancies be.
If ever any beauty I did see,
Which I desired, and got, ’twas but a dream of thee. 

 And now good-morrow to our waking souls,
Which watch not one another out of fear;
For love, all love of other sights controls,
And makes one little room an everywhere.
Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone,
Let maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown,
Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one. 

My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,
And true plain hearts do in the faces rest;
Where can we find two better hemispheres,
Without sharp north, without declining west?
Whatever dies, was not mixed equally;
If our two loves be one, or, thou and I
Love so alike, that none do slacken, none can die. 

The Good Morrow

Good poetry and bad poetry are matters frequently debated in Mantel's Wolf Hall trilogy. The courtier poet Thomas Wyatt plays a significant role in Cromwell's life and times, and the books illustrate the power poetry held at court and in political life. Wyatt's poems eddy around the court, passed swiftly from hand to hand, copied into commonplace books; verses that say sotto voce that which cannot be explicitly pronounced. Wyatt's lyrical powers are contrasted to those of "Tom Truth", the nom de plume of Lord Thomas Howard, whom Cromwell exposes in his illicit marriage to the King's niece Margaret Douglas through the revelations of his execrable love poems. Poems can be a matter of life and death - Howard died while imprisoned in the Tower of London, but at least was not beheaded or hung drawn and quartered; a very real threat in the machinations surrounding the crown. I remember the first time I walked through London's National Portrait Gallery, and the astonishing portraits of this era: men with their finely-turned stockinged legs and lustrous pearls, men executed at the age of 26 or 32 or 45 because they threw the wrong dice in the game of courtly life.

In an era when the stakes were so high and the politics so personal, writing was used to gain favour or redress fortunes. Donne had to dig himself out of one colossal hole earlier in his life, when he secretly married Anne More without the knowledge of her father Sir George More. Love matches were verboten: marriages were social and financial contracts and Donne had broken this violently. He wound up jobless and in prison and had to dig himself (and his young wife) out through a combination of groveling letters and an ecclesiastical court case. Later in life Donne undertook one of his most important transformations - a turn towards the Anglican church, not only personal but also professional, and for this he had to earn the King's trust and lay to rest both his Catholic origins and the lingering gossipy recklessness of his marriage. In a chapter titled "The Flatterer" Rundell lays out how Donne worked his way towards the security of a well-paid religious position, a route that was "byzantine, labyrinthine, often unpredictable", one that required talent, luck, strategy, and above all contacts. Ritual flattery, through letters and dedications, was oil that greased the social wheels, and Donne could be outrageously oily - although as Rundell points out, he blandished his compliments both upon those in positions to enable his rise, and recipients without any power whatsoever, suggesting he simply enjoyed making language work in this way.

The greatest courtship was that of the King. Donne's Pseudo-Martyr ("swifter to eat than to read") was dedicated to King James and distanced Donne far from the Catholic rebels who had recently attempted the  Gunpowder Plot, by arguing in favour of James's newly instituted Oath of Allegiance. Donne's book is dedicated to the King, a text of "white-hot ingratiation" but, writes Rundell, this was not "purposeless fawning"; rather, "it was a way Donne could signal unambiguously his allegiance to James's religious policies, and flag his devotion to serving the King." James loved the book, and had Donne made an honorary MA at Oxford. Donne's next book, Ignatius his Conclave, came hard on the heels of Pseudo-Martyr, and directly tackles political flattery. Ignatius of Loyola (founder of the Jesuits) is in hell and in conversation with the devil, whom he quickly proceeds to abase himself before, larding him with compliments. 

Donne runs this parable two ways: 

whomsoever flatters any man, and presents him those praises which in his own opinion are not due to him, thinks him inferior to himself and makes account that he he hath taken him prisoner, and triumphs over him

but also, the flatterer

(at the best) instructs. For there may be, even in flattery, an honest kind of teaching, if Princes, by being told that they are already endued with all virtues necessary for their functions, be thereby taught what those virtues are, and by facile exhortation excited to endeavour to gain them.

This statement tingled in my mind, and the bell it rang was Cromwell's Book of Henry, the guide Mantel has him writing for the instruction of his favoured young employees, of how to move and influence in the dangerous radius of the King. Flattering those attributes you wish your prince to exercise is, if I remember correctly, a tactic Cromwell learns from his beloved patron Cardinal Wolsey in the books: when you hold a mirror of words up to the King, you show him a picture of his grace, his mercy and his temperateness as well as of his strength and god-given right to power. And hopefully you will hold on to your head for another day. 

The other book that Super-Infinite made me think of is Sarah Bakewell's How to Live, or, A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts At An AnswerBoth books, I think, are brilliant: both are literary biographies of Renaissance men, and bring a twist to their structuring. Bakewell organises her book roughly chronologically, but uses the themes of Montaigne's essays as the jumping off point for each chapter (Question everything, Guard your humanity); Rundell hews closer to the chronological path, using the stages or transformations of Donne's life - The Hungry Scholar, The Anticlimatically Married Man, The Suicidal Man - as her organising principle. The scope of Bakewell's book is  wider, and she spends  more time on the philosophy and writing that influenced Montaigne, and how in turn he has been interpreted throughout history: Rundell's in contrast is focused and moves at a quick clip, but with sufficient diversions to not make you feel rushed as a reader. While not given to extraneous detail, Rundell's scholarship occasionally colours in the narrative in delightful ways:

The physical world was made up of symbolic meaning, and could, through relentless attention, be decoded. Your own body, stretched out in the water, could become a reminder of the crucifixion. He wrote:

Who can deny me the power and liberty 

To stretch mine arms, and mine own cross to be?

Swim, and at every stroke, thou art thy cross 

(It's hard to picture exactly what stroke he's doing here, to mimic the cross. The first English treatise on swimming, in 1587 by Everard Digby, describes something akin to breaststroke with intervals of doggy-paddle: presumably not that.)

Donne, like Shakespeare, is known for inventing or embellishing words ("I knew that to have given any intimation of it [his wooing of Anne More], had been to impossibilitate the whole matter", he wrote to his unwilling father-in-law; "I have cribrated [sifted / reviewed], and re-cribrated, and post-recribrated the sermon" he wrote in a panic to a friend after the new King Charles took amiss at something in the first sermon Donne delivered to him). In Super-Infinite Rundell likewise jinks with language: "A grim truth", she observes of one of Donne's own observations about the nearness with which we live with death at all times, "and one which makes our modern attempts to avoid the topic of death look malarially unhinged"; the useful little prefix "un" gets coupled to unusual words - "uncharming", "unshining". While I've not read any of Rundell's writing for children I wonder if those books too share this playful use of language; I can remember as a child myself relishing  the ways bits of words can click together and transform each others' meanings, the plasticity of English that makes it both infuriating and delightful. One small quibble - as wonderful a word as "waspishly" is, I think it is such a strong spice that it can only really be used once in a book.

My one true regret with this book however is that it felt about 25% too short. Rundell doesn't hustle us through the story, and her scholarly asides (about fashions for moustaches, or the appalling conditions of a besieged Spanish city) add texture as well as enhancing our understanding of the many layers of Donne's writing. It's not necessarily even Donne who I want to spend more time with - it's Rundell's own company, her thoughts and observations that I want more of. Highly recommended.