Innocents and Others, Spiotta – The F-Word Review

Hi Team,

A quick link to my review of Innocents and Others over at the F-Word. It was published in February and I have been dreadfully remiss in posting it here.

My thoughts on the next Bailey’s contender Stay With Me will be up soon – I have just moved onto The Sport of Kings which I am thoroughly enjoying.

Happy reading!

 

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The Baileys Shortlist: The Power, Naomi Alderman

51406888778__FED9AB04-D00F-4046-90AC-A94F31E7BFFA.JPGThis year I have set myself the challenge of reading The Baileys Prize Shortlist before the winner is announced on 7th June. This should be no mean feat except for the fact that, as per previous posts, I am a teacher and term time reading is often a luxury not to be taken for granted. Thus I undertake this task not only because there are some exciting titles on the shortlist but as an exercise in personal wellbeing. I once heard Neil Gaiman say that, “there’s time for everything in you make it”. I have made a sometimes sporadic effort to take these unsurprisingly wise words to heart. It is not always possible but I like the premise: if something matters enough, there will always be time for it in your day. I’m thinking of getting it inked across my forehead before the baby’s born.

It does help that this challenge seems likely to prove a thoroughly enjoyable one. Taking advantage of the Easter break to give myself a head start, I have just raced through Naomi Alderman’s, The PowerWhen I say there are exciting titles on the shortlist, this is exactly the kind of book I am talking about. I heard it reviewed on The Guardian Books Podcast and the premise had me hooked before I even owned it. Alderman’s depicts a world on the brink of global “cataclysm” ostensibly precipitated by a mysterious physiological development in the female anatomy. Women, much like electric eels, are born with a “skein” allowing them to deliver powerful shocks at will.

The consequences of this new twist in evolution are far-reaching. The power dynamics endemic to patriarchy are reversed. Revolution follows in Saudi Arabia. Conventional religions recalibrate with women at the centre. Boys are segregated for their own safety and the world crackles as new orders vie for primacy and what is left of the old resist. As you can imagine, all this is rather exciting. The novel is, among many other things, a fast-paced thriller. The other things though, are what make it such an important and exciting work that is earning deserving plaudits from across the literary world as well as the science fiction corner. A very good friend of mine once said that, “good science fiction is about ideas” and The Power is certainly that. Though it has a great storyline that romps through the intellectual long grass, Alderman’s book is also multifaceted and at times desperately uncomfortable in its resistance of any binary forces for good or evil. She uses her near-future vision to probe and interrogate the injustices and inequalities of our own time and in doing so, complicates notions of victim and perpetrator in ways that will make any reader squirm.

This multiplicity is in part afforded by the unfolding of the story through four parallel narratives. Alderman follows four central characters into this strange new world: Roxy, daughter of London’s organised crime royalty; Allie, abused foster child who reinvents herself as Mother Eve; Tunde a male Nigerian reporter and finally an American politician and opportunist, Margot Cleary, who manipulates the situation to her own advantage with outrageous self-interest.

As the conventional balance of physical power shifts from men to women, so too do the central institutions of power. Alderman uses each of these voices to illustrate the various ways this shift manifests and takes root in society through crime, religion, the press and of course politics. Within these grander societal pillars of narrative, Alderman explores the nuance and complexity of gendered power. Some of the most interesting and disturbing passages in the book deal with sexual violence perpetrated by women, simply “because they can”. This phrase echoes through the text. It takes no note of gender or faith, only strength and power precipitate evil action. There is no inherent tendency towards it but a dangerous cocktail of strength and desire that makes abuse possible and where such abuse is possible, abusers will emerge. In no passage is this more evident than when a refugee camp comes under attack late in the plot and atrocity after atrocity is perpetrated by women. Equally, there are those women for whom the skein does not function properly or who are born without one altogether. The term “pzit” for a woman who cannot shock taps into the current vocabulary of masculinity: “he’s a pussy”, “be a man”, “grow a pair”. Similarly, the creeping distrust of individuals with chromosomal abnormalities that renders their bodies spliced across gender expectations is all too familiar. As is the disempowerment, isolation and shame they are made to feel.

Alderman’s prose is confident and fluid. The dialogue is bold and her characters are drawn in effervescent technicolour. The acknowledgments cite a debt to Margaret Attwood who “believed in this book when it was only a glimmer”. That debt is clear, not only in the subject matter and speculative quality of the fiction but also in the framing academic structure. The story itself is interspersed with academic documents and diagrams put together by a Neil Adam Armon (spot the anagram) some thousands of years in the future. Neil has written to Naomi with deference and gratitude for her opinion on his work. Much as I hate to say it, the humility of his letter and the earnestness of his thanks are deliberately appropriating the propensity to undervalue and undersell themselves that women so often show in the workplace (cheers, thousands of years of patriarchy).

By the same token, Naomi’s voice assumes a confidence bordering on arrogance and in places offers patronising and sceptical responses to suggestions that undermine the status quo of power relations between the genders. The assumed voice manages to capture the worst of masculine academic attitudes and it works brilliantly. The initial confusion at the masculine organising voice only makes the realisation of what Alderman is doing at the end of the book all the more gleeful.

This reading holiday has been a joyful one. Following Attrib. it has been so gratifying to get excited about a totally different kind of book and, as I turn my attention to Stay With Me by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀̀, I have a feeling that this excitement is only going to grow.

As ever, I’d be very interested to hear anyone else’s thoughts. I wonder how different the reading experience is for a male reader? Postcards, carrier pigeons or comments below both welcomed and encouraged.

Attrib. and other stories, Eley Williams

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It has been a very long time since I woke up early to finish reading something. To put this in context, I am a teacher who is six months pregnant in the second week of the school holidays; early should not be in my vocabulary. It is then, testament to this stunning debut collection from Eley Williams that I was propped up in bed just after seven yesterday morning (awoken admittedly by husband, duly departing for his commute), tea in one hand, Attrib. and other stories in the other.

To my mind, this is all the more impressive given that it is a collection of stories rather than a singular page-turning narrative. There is a coherence and a commonality to these tales that make them compelling as a body. It is hard to identify stand-out stories because the texture of the book altogether is so fluent and careful in construction. The stories are patterned with images of colour, wildlife, sounds and an overarching concern with the difficulty and problems of language in communicating meaning and connection. They are at once unified and various.

The stories are in some ways very different, from a beached whale to the tussle of the tube to kissing (or failing to kiss) in an art gallery; Williams shifts time and place with a deftness that seems effortless. The fluidity of the prose makes these movements natural, they ripple into one another like the ebb and flow of the first person that dominates the majority of these stories. The ‘I’ ever-circling back to ‘you’ with unfazed depth of affection and feeling. To say it is a collection suffused with love feels cheap, it is suffused with love yes but with all that word connotes too, everything that goes with it: the joy and difficulty of relationships, the closeness and intimacy as well as the gaps and the near-misses.

There is much that is special about these stories, not least the confidence and clarity of Williams’ own voice. She is playful too, especially in her use and consideration of language. One of my favourite sections is in the opening story, ‘The Alphabet’ in which the narrator offers their own visual interpretation of each letter, as a child’s poster might, and:

U comes as a grin, grossly extended, or an empty jar – if there were forty we would be ready for fairyland thieves, and because you ruin things with beautiful practicality let’s line up an amphora with the lip smashed clean away by vandals: V. Two such amphorae: W. The next letter marks the spot, a kiss or something like the waiter’s brace-suspenders against his fresh white shirt-back: X

The opening story makes her concern with frustrated expression and interpretation explicit in exploring the dissociative effects of aphasia and the diminution of expressive power that such a loss of language leads to. I am not ashamed to say it made me cry (though the hormones may have lent a helping hand). The text is littered with unusual words and definitions that urge close examination of each, often very brief, moment of experience as she holds it up to the light.

All this makes it sound like hard work but it isn’t. It is clear and precise and, in being so, illustrates the limitations and frustrations of communication between people. Her characters are isolated but beautiful in their isolation and their efforts to break from it. Fittingly, to justly describe Williams’ prose is tricky: words like lyrical and poetic don’t seem to apply. They feel outdated. The fluency and rhythm they evoke have been updated to include paint swatches and sound effects; it feels fresh and expansive. It is tempting to use the word raw to convey emotional depth but this would suggest something unpolished where Williams is meticulous.

In the interests of full disclosure, I was at university with Eley briefly and though we have not stayed in touch with any regularity, I have always liked her (yup, she’s lovely and talented). I say this, not in some sad effort to claim paltry connection to a rising star but lest any of you realise this and think it’s just me bigging up an old friend. As such, I feel bound to point out that I am not the only one who thinks she has produced something rather wonderful. Attrib. and other stories was fabulously reviewed in The Guardian and has been shortlisted for Best Short Story Collection at the Saboteur Awards. Joanna Walsh wrote in Granta that, “There’s no one working in the UK quite like her.” As far as I can tell, she is right.

As I sit here, gushing away, I realise that reading this book is making me (well let’s face it, it’s probably a work in progress) a better writer. I do not want to put a word out of place here, nor ever again.

Bravo, Eley. Bravo.

 

An English Teacher’s Little Secret…

We’ve all got them. Dirty little secrets that we secretly enjoy being discovered. Discovery makes us look cool and trendy, bucking the canonical establishment in favour of edgier, more unconventional texts. Everyone has one, a pesky little classic; giant of the canon, permanent fixture on your reading list or at the bottom of your ever-increasing ‘to read’ pile.

In my experience, they tend to be novels of a very specific type: definitely ‘classics’ in the old school sense of the word. There is an unspoken expectation that you will have read them. Most likely, you will have studied them for GCSE, or at least resentfully watched the movie. Think, Lord of the Flies, Of Mice and Men, Pride and Prej.; that sort of thing, novels that you expect the general populous to have a reasonable understanding of in terms of plot and character.

As a teacher of literature, it is these books that those who ran screaming into the hills away from English once their GCSEs were secured, feel able to discuss with you. Often, it seems polite to at least try. These texts, it seems, occupy a literary space akin to the social space of parenting: everyone’s been parented, thus everyone has an opinion on how to parent. Everybody’s read Pride and Prejudice, or, if they haven’t they can make a good enough show of it by having watched the BBC mini-series or Bridget Jones.

The time has come then for me to air my dirty laundry in virtual public: until very, very recently, I had not read To Kill a Mockingbird. Don’t ask me why; I’ve always had a thing for American literature and, as it turns out, I now have a thing for To Kill a Mockingbird.

I decided to bite the Harper Lee bullet early before half term because it seemed like the best choice (by reputation) to teach to my delightful and curious GCSE class. Half term arrived, I embarked on a train travel odyssey to Kent (babysitting an errant Labrador), turned to the first page and, for the first time in years, I read a book in a single day. A masterpiece in escalating tension, the story is compelling from the start. The narrative voice of young Scout Finch frames the central plot through the eyes of children imbuing the injustice of racial hatred and violence with fresh rawness 56 years later.

A few years ago, I started writing in the front of my books the time and place I began reading. Apart from trying to keep some sort of record of my reading life, this habit quite accidentally highlighted the impossibility of dissociating the books you read from the personal and political context in which you read them. A dear friend of mine recently commented that across the western world the values of tolerance and difference upon which mature democracies are founded are being tested like never before. The rhetoric that surrounded the Brexit campaign is testament to this; as is, of course, the outright racism and misogyny that US president-elect (words I can hardly believe I’m writing) Donald Trump has somehow been able to spew without consequence. Again in the UK, the appalling media response to the admission of child refugees is indicative of a society in which fear of the other has crept further and further back into the mainstream consciousness. The well-documented rise in racially motivated hate crimes speaks to the mentality of the mob and if there is an undercurrent of violence to this UK dynamic; in the US, such violence continues to be institutionalised and explicitly raced in the “numbing regularity” of police shootings of unarmed black men.

In the context of all this, To Kill a Mockingbird is importantly uncomfortable reading. The same friend recalled coming to it as a teenager and realising for the first time that “injustice truly existed in the world”. Coming to it as a thirty-year old the realisation is more that this particular brand of injustice still exists. Such a revelation should not come as a shock, but, reading such an acute depiction of an ugliness that remains familiar over half a decade since its publication jolts one’s perspective on human progress. It is important to clarify: I am not equating the state of affairs now with the state of affairs in 1960s America, progress has been made, I think. What hits home at this moment, when it feels like fear and hatred are winning, is how far there is still to go.

Further to this, a contemporary reading renders elements of the novel problematic: this story of racial injustice is fundamentally centred around the heroism and brilliance of a white man. Tom Robinson’s voice feels absent and though the characters of Calpurnia and the Reverend go some way to filling this gap, the story is still focused on white people and their actions. From a different margin, in a current culture where allegations of sexual assault are more often than not greeted with scepticism and suspicion, Mayella’s treatment in the court scene does not make comfortable reading.  A reminder perhaps of the ways in which injustices intersect and complicate each other: Mayella can be seen as a racist young woman living in desperate poverty who is brutally beaten by her father as punishment for an act of sexual independence violating the racial codifications of her world. People are not one thing.

I felt both exhilarated and depressed at the end. There is a special energy that comes from the immersion of reading a novel in such a short time period, especially a novel so wrought with political and social significance. I cannot decide whether to risk reading Go Set a Watchman, the recently published sequel/prequel. There was a good deal of controversy preceding publication surrounding how much agency Harper Lee had in the decision to publish before she died. I’ve been doing some reading around it and I’m not sure, I don’t think I want to read an Atticus who is not steadfast in his principled tolerance. It makes me nervous. It may well take me another fifteen years to get around to it, and perhaps, in that time, we will have come even further in the combat of this particular mode of evil. Perhaps.

Lessons from Literature: What Would King Lear Do?

So, the actual EU Referendum is upon us and the opinion polls reveal nothing but that it is going to be very, very close. In considering all things political, my mind often wanders through powerful figures in literature musing on what angle say, Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell would be working. What would Jay Gatsby make of Boris Johnson’s hair? What might Madame Bovary think? How would the Mad Hatter vote? Would Voldemort have cared?

Unable to answer these questions as I am, there is one character I feel pretty certain would have been for Brexit and that is Shakespeare’s King Lear. King Lear, were he around today may well have rebranded himself King Leave. And no, as anyone who has not seen/read/has any knowledge of any kind of the play will know, that is not a reason to vote Leave. It really, really isn’t.

If you know the play you will be familiar with the plot in which a vain and volatile old King defies all conventional wisdom in choosing to divide his kingdom between his three daughters. He rejects not only wisdom but basic common sense at every turn, most notably of course in his decision to embrace division over unity. Rather than serve out his time as King of a united Albion, he decides he doesn’t really fancy the whole ruler thing anymore and on a whim comes up with the stellar plan to divide his kingdom between his three daughters, awarding the largest portion to the daughter who publicly flatters him the most. The decent daughter, Cordelia is understandably entirely fed up with her father’s nonsense and refuses to play ball. He banishes her, against the advice of just about everyone.

Unsurprisingly, this foolproof plan does not play out well for the idiot King and what follows is a series of escalating confrontations that allow the more unsavoury characters who deal in cruelty and violence a route to power. Lear, disenfranchised and running mad, ends up naked on a Heath shouting at the wind; another character removes another character’s eyes with his bare hands and pretty much everyone, including the decent daughter (who marries France, by the way), ends up dead.

There are some fun parallels to be drawn between King Lear and the Leave campaign, not least a self-interested preoccupation with ‘th’additions’ of Kingship (status, nice clothes, knights to order  around) rahter than actually doing the job itself. There’s also Vladimir Putin who, much like the play’s malcontent and literal bastard Edmund, is lingering in sinister manner praying for discord while lots of sensible people try to calm everyone down and encourage those spouting visceral unpleasantness to ‘see better’. A stable if problematic regime is replaced by chaos and violence.

Let’s learn from Lear and lead not leave. Otherwise, I fear, we too may find ourselves alone, locked out in the cold, stark-bollock naked, shouting at forces beyond our control who will not take a blind bit of notice.

 

 

Post-apocalyptic gender politics: The Oryx and Crake Trilogy, Margaret Atwood

I have a real affection for Margaret Atwood but I have not always found her work easy to get into and, as such, feel relatively poorly read within her oeuvre. I have started The Blind Assassin three times without success but raced through The Handmaid’s Tale with it’s deeply disturbing excavation of sexual politics in a near future world stricken by sterility as plague. I know my reading habits well enough to recognise that science fiction plus a bit of sex/gender equals a novel that is entirely my bag so when The Year of the Flood appeared on my MA reading list as part of the ‘Twenty first century feminist fiction and the world in crisis’ module I cracked into it with gleeful reminiscence of the The Handmaid’s Tale (a text I’ve actually been teaching my Year 13s and of which there is a gut-wrenching film adaptation available here) and much expectation.

I had read Oryx and Crake some years ago and was vaguely aware that this was the sequel, the second novel in a trilogy. I remembered enjoying and being appropriately unnerved by Oryx and Crake (though finding it tricky to start) and struggled to recall salient plot details as it became apparent that The Year of the Flood was covering the same years preceding the devastating man-made plague from different, female perspectives and the final novel in the trilogy MaddAddam operates in a similar way, though it simultaneously continues the narrative from the end of Year. The effect of the trilogy taken together is prismic: it offers a multi-faceted story intricate in its drawings of world and character and the fun of seeing hitherto undiscovered connections between characters and storylines emerge.

In a family of scientists (both brother and father), Atwood’s interest in popular science is well known; she famously keeps a box of newspaper and magazine clippings that have directly informed her futurist fiction, it is perhaps on this basis that she has long rejected the label of science fiction in favour of ‘speculative fiction’. She has said repeatedly that everything in her novels is rooted in potentiality, a ‘what if’ approach to human evolution and this is especially true here. These texts are laced with tangible anxieties around a whole range of issues: genetic engineering, unbridled commercial power and of course the effects of climate change. In 2005 Robert Macfarlane lamented the absence of a literary response to climate change, comparing it in scale and presence to the nuclear menace that haunted the Cold War years. This trilogy must have been exactly the sort of thing that Macfarlane had in mind.

The environmental anxiety underpinning all three texts is, in The Year of the Flood, explicitly connected to female experience. The urban dystopia of the pleeblands that precedes ‘the waterless flood’ of Crake’s manmade plague is a world characterised by sexual violence. The female protagonist Toby is repeatedly raped and brutalised by the figure of Blanco before her rescue by God’s Gardeners and the scars of this trauma sit with her through Crake’s manmade plague and into the post-apocalyptic world it leaves behind. It is significant too, that in MaddAddam it is Toby’s voice who takes on the God-like role in telling stories to the innocent Crakers (genetically modified humans created by Crake to repopulate the earth), stories that are set down with real religious significance to the Crakers. This voice effectively replaces the sermonic voice of Adam One that runs through the narrative of Year, the suggestion being that, with the fall of the pre-apocalyptic patriarchal order in which female function is predominantly performative and sexual (encapsulated in the club scales and tails where women dance and perform sexual acts in elaborate, dehumanising costumes) so has the patriarchal voice fallen to be replaced by a feminine authority.

I happen to disagree with Margaret Atwood in her rejection of the term science fiction but this is only because I agree with the commonly held principal of SF as a ‘literature of ideas’ and the Oryx and Crake trilogy is most certainly that.

 

 

Graphic Grief: Tangles and Fun Home

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I’d like to preface this post by pointing out that I know next to nothing about graphic novels. It’s a form I’ve come to recently, initially through Alan Moore’s Watchmen (my fiancé was reading it on holiday a while ago and I found myself reading over his shoulder) and want to learn more about. These two could not be more different from the school of superhero Watchmen sits in. Both Alison Bechdel and Sarah Leavitt use the graphic form to record memoirs that are structured, each in their own way, around the death of a parent. There are other similarities between these texts too, both explore lesbian experience and both articulate the profound impact of parents on the discovery and formation of personal identity.

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Fun Home excavates the complex relationship between daughter and father in the wake of the father’s suicide. Bechdel weaves her own sexual development around the realisation and acceptance of her father’s own sexual complexity. The plot resists linearity and instead derives from the fluctuating emotional distance between father and daughter. It is variously funny and raw in its interrogation of this central relationship and the dynamic of “butch” and “sissy” with which Bechdel characterises it. It is wonderful in its frankness, not only in laying bare such a complicated and at times painful personal relationship but in the anecdotal material Bechdel shares. These details and rounded images lend warmth to her story and perhaps belie the deep affection between father and daughter that underpins the state of conflict they often appear in.

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Leavitt’s Tangles is starker. It is more intensely focused on illness and a family’s experience of Alzheimer’s. It is unforgiving in its portrayal of the condition and it is hard to read in places as a result. The pictures have less detail, are drawn in clear harsh lines and place the deterioration of Midge, Leavitt’s mother, at the centre of everything. There is less emphasis on the past except to draw harrowing comparisons with the present. Loss is a gradual erosion of person and memory and Leavitt is uncompromising in her portrayal of this most devastating disease. This book has sharp edges. It is extremely difficult to read in places and I found myself having to put it to one side at times while I stopped crying. It’s not just the bastard impact of a brain shutting down that is rendered so painfully here but also the fracturing responses of a family having to deal with it. Leavitt conveys the intensity of pain, confusion, frustration and utter bewilderment that she and her family feel in the outright cruelty of her mother’s death; mind first, body later.

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The graphic memoir is growing as a genre. There is something about a page full of images that replicates human memory and invites autobiography. The power to redraw moments of the personal past and comment on them must offer a sort of catharsis, reading them certainly does. It affords a space for self-analysis and augments the emotional intensity of experience. It lends itself especially to examinations of parental relationships: the images we hold of our parents shift and blur as we grow up and the graphic form affords the flexibility to explore and explain these images in fullness and depth. I am keeping Tangles on my bedside table at the moment and I intend to revisit it; it moved me and; a year after a comparable personal loss in my own life, I’m unwilling to put it back on the shelf just yet.

Burnt Shadows, Kamila Shamsie

First, an apology for the long dearth of posts. It has been something of a busy few months what with Christmas, getting engaged (whoop whoop!), a trip to Iceland and of course the mania that is term time all getting in the way at various points. Apologies made, I’d like to talk about this stunning novel by Kamila Shamsie. Burnt Shadows opens with the devastating words, “The one who survives…”; words all the more haunting because this story’s moment is established as “The world yet unknowing”: Nagasaki hours before the atomic bomb is dropped. Shamsie traces the life of Hiroko, the young Japanese woman whose fiancé is killed, in the aftermath of the bomb and beyond. Her life is intricately woven about political events in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and America through partition and the emergence of a politicised fundamentalist Islam into the aftershocks of 9/11.

It is an incredibly compelling novel. The writing is crystalline: characters are drawn with a deft sharpness carried into the dialogue. Their voices are deep and whole and, whilst the narrative unfolds around Hiroko those she encounters, loves, loses are etched with just as much care and detail. The story, though, skips great chunks of Hiroko’s life, structuring the narrative around moments of political conflict. We see intensely felt segments of Hiroko’s life, patterned with violence and loss focused in her own body, in her own extraordinary scars.

At the moment the bomb drops Hiroko is wearing a dressing gown that belonged to her mother, it is white silk with three swooping black cranes on the back. In the heat and radiation of the explosion the black silk fuses into her flesh, searing the shadows of that day and her own heritage into her skin as one. She sees her father burning, his skin gone crawling towards her, she finds and buries the shadow she believes to be what’s left of the man from Berlin. She will lose more.

The scarring on Hiroko’s back runs through the novel like a thread, connecting each seemingly distinct event, the recurrence of the motif (Hiroko’s hand unconsciously drifts to her back in moments of crisis) not only expose the inherent political interconnectedness of these events. But, more than that, they identify the locus of such violence as the female body. Each of the men Hiroko loses are killed violently and it is she that remains, gathering and bearing these scars but living on nonetheless. Hiroko’s body takes on the quality of a landscape damaged by war but resilient in its continued existence. Without wanting to give anything away, Hiroko’s final loss is, perhaps, not final but it is all the more chilling in its uncertainty. Not least in the context of recent revelations regarding Guantanamo Bay and other US black sites. It seems to mark a departure from the pattern established by the rest of the novel: the male body may survive here but it will not emerge unscathed and will soon bear scars of its own.

It is also refreshing to read an account of the twentieth century that resists and in fact critiques some of the received wisdoms intrinsic to an Anglo-American perspective. Especially in the early pages: Shamsie’s brutal imagining of the moments in the aftermath of the bomb are juxtaposed with the brutal selfishness of the American nurse who claims its necessity “to save American lives.” I’m sure there are plenty of alternative narratives out there (even calling them alternative feels like I’m doing them a disservice) and I feel remiss for not having sought them out proactively but this is now a pressing task on my to do list.

To conclude: thoroughly recommend – in spite of the really quite appalling front cover – get past it and let the story take over.

‘Bliss’, Katherine Mansfield (1920)

Although Berth Young was thirty she still had moments like this when she wanted to run instead of walk, to take dancing steps on and off the pavement, to bowl a hoop, to throw something up in the air and catch it again, or to stand still and laugh at – nothing – at nothing, simply. What can you do if you are thirty and, turning the corner of your own street, you are overcome, suddenly, by a feeling of bliss – absolute bliss!

Bertha Young is childlike from the outset, apart from the obvious connotations of her surname, she is connected with her daughter ‘Little B’ whom she displays a curious “fondness” for (“you’re nice – you’re very nice!… I like you.”) and is even explicitly figured “like the poor little girl in front of the rich little girl with the doll” in her relationship with Nurse. This childlike character is throwing a dinner party for her “thrilling friends” and brimming with, “bliss”. This “perfect” happiness is felt as an almost obliterative, manic, sexual energy, “as though you’d suddenly swallowed a bright piece of the late afternoon sun and it burned in your bosom, sending out a little shower of sparks into every particle, into every finger and toe?…” And the source of this “bliss”? Not the “extravagantly cool” Harry, Bertha’s husband, but the ethereal Pearl Fulton, her latest “find” whom she has “fallen in love with… as she always did fall in love with beautiful young women who had something strange about them.”

The evening progresses and the comically named Norman Knights (or “Mug” and “Face as they refer to each other) become increasingly grotesque; even on arrival Face looks “like a very intelligent monkey – who had even made that yellow silk dress out of scraped banana skins.” The dreadfully affected Eddie Warren who speaks in italics and recites poems about Tomato Soup arrives “(as usual) in a state of acute distress”. Only Miss Fulton whose very touch “could fan – fan – start blazing – blazing – the fire of bliss that Bertha did not know what to do with” remains exempt from the absurdity of the party. Bertha feels sure that they share something, that “Miss Fulton, ‘gave the sign.'” and as the two women look on “slender flowering [pear] tree” in the moonlit garden the narrative reaches a climactic moment of connection between them, orgasmic in the imagining:

Although it was so still it seemed, like the flame of the candle, to stretch up, to point, to quiver in the bright air, to grow taller and taller as they gazed – almost to touch the rim of the round silver moon. How long did they stand there? Both, as it were, caught in the circle of unearthly light, understanding each other perfectly, creatures of another world, and wondering what they were to do in this one with all this blissful treasure that burned in their bosoms and dropped, in silver flowers, from their hair and hands?

Bertha experiences a sexual awakening in her communion with Miss Fulton and with it she feels finally able to transcend the realm of “such good pals” in which her marital relationship has languished as “for the first time, she desired her husband”, only to have her revelations shattered in a moment of supreme bathos which, for fear of spoilers, I won’t reveal here.

The narrative is undulating and elliptical, Mansfield’s use of free indirect discourse creates a space between Bertha’s perceptions and her realities and it’s a space to be identified in the dashes and ellipses of her voice. There are moments of direct expression that jar against the very mannered style of Bertha’s own speech and here, the reader suspects, is a more reliable source only glimpsed as Bertha pauses for breath. This flexibility of perspective and voice renders the final realisation all the more effective. It also elucidates the disparity between Bertha’s perceptions and the truth: the first word of the story, ‘Although’, flags that all is not as it seems. These flags continue to pop with Bertha’s frustration at having “a body shut up like a rare, rare fiddle” and “how idiotic civilisation” is; indeed the change in tone with the arrival of the dinner guests serves to further discomfit the reader, especially as Bertha becomes increasingly assured in her perceived connection with Miss Fulton culminating in their mutual gaze on the “lovely pear tree”.

The same pear tree that earlier Bertha has replicated in her “scheme” of “a white dress, a string of jade beads, green shoes and stockings” and where she saw, “a grey cat , dragging its belly… across the lawn, and a black one, its shadow, trailed after it.” The same sight that elicits “a curious shiver” and causes her to exclaim: “What creepy things cats are!”. Even the pear tree that Bertha identifies both herself and Miss Fulton with as a symbol of perfection is shadowed by an unsettling sexuality Mansfield later recalls using the same image of feline motion. The variety of meanings that have been attributed to the pear tree itself range from the phallocentric hardness of Harry (whose only interest in his daughter appears in the context of sexuality – “I shan’t feel the slightest interest in her until she takes a lover” – and who so relishes dismembering Miss Fulton as if he is almost running his hands over her body, “liver frozen…pure flatulence..kidney disease”); the langorous sexuality of Pearl with her “heavy eyelids” and “moonbeam fingers” or Bertha’s own sexual potentiality. The pear tree, then, is a composite symbol drawing these spectral sexualities together in the same uncertain, enigmatic way that the story itself characterises sexual possibility as fundamentally unknowable and uncertain.