The Book of Dust, Philip Pullman – *standing ovation*

lyra's oxford.jpgSo in spite of the very special new kind of pandemonium that Little Miss has introduced to our lives, I managed to read this latest adventure in the world of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials in just three days. This is not a brag about my reading speed but a measure of just how readable La Belle Sauvage is. If a book is so exciting that you, sleep-deprived and exhausted new Mum, are prepared to stay awake AFTER your three month old has gone to sleep in order to read it, I think it’s fair to say you’re onto something pretty special.

I was nervous about this read. I loved the original trilogy (so much so that Little Miss was very nearly Little Miss Lyra) and I couldn’t quite conceive of how Pullman was going to introduce new characters to Lyra’s Oxford capable of commanding the same affection (or indeed fear) as those we met in Northern Lights (The Golden Compass in the States). This nervousness was perhaps a mark of not having read any Pullman for an awfully long time. The opening pages slip you gently back into this world of daemons and Dust that you never realised you had forgotten. It’s not quite like putting on a pair of comfortable slippers – it’s a darn sight more exciting for a start – but it is reassuringly familiar.

The heroes of this tale Malcolm Polstead and Alice Parslow, residents and employees of The Trout Inn, offer gentle foreshadowings of Lyra (introduced as a baby in this book) and Will. There are guest appearances from other characters we already know too: Lord Asriel, Mrs Coulter and Father Coram pop up without any hint of that slavishness that can afflict fictional worlds revisited. Pullman draws new detail onto these characters rather than just thickening their outline. Similarly, we learn more about that mystical instrument, the alethiometer and are given insight into the conflicts and politics concerning Dust.

alethiometer.png

The tone of the book is definitely more adult than the previous trilogy (see here for much predictable bleating over the swearing) and whilst that certainly helps it to appeal to his original child’s audience now in their twenties and thirties it also adds depth and seriousness to what could otherwise have been an entertaining kids’ caper. And that, of course, is what Pullman is so good at, telling stories that are accessible, exciting and adventurous against a backdrop of complex and provocative ideas. The original His Dark Materials trilogy was rich in philosophy and it is a point of great admiration for me that Pullman refuses to patronise his younger readers.

Religion, as you would expect, is a central concern and we encounter both its kindness and abominable cruelty in two very different sets of nuns as well as the sinister reach and power of the religious authority, The Magisterium and its enforcement arm, the Consistorial Court of Discipline. The action is driven by a flood of Biblical scale and consequence sweeping our heroes away from Oxford and through various other-worlds. The pages preceding the flood are saturated with dread as they are with rain and the climactic moment that the river bursts its banks is devastating.

It isn’t just the swearing that makes La Belle Sauvage a more adult read than its forebears. Its villain, Bonneville, is genuinely scary and his Hyena daemon an exercise in the grotesque. The coming of age aspect of His Dark Materials is revisited and disturbingly played out in this character’s pursuit of Malcolm, Alice and of course the baby Lyra. Sexual assault and abuse are explicitly touched upon and the supposed moral authority of those who oppose the Magisterium called into question in their willingness to exploit children in pursuit of their agenda.

The movement of the story does lose urgency towards the end and, as one might expect, we are left with an armful of questions and very few answers. Among other things, I can’t help but wonder how Pullman will square the notable absence of Malcolm and Alice from Lyra’s life in the originals with the fierceness of protection they showed her here. That said, if there is one thing I should have learnt from La Belle Sauvage it is to trust Philip Pullman and look forward to the next instalment with new confidence that it is likely to be just as magical and mysterious.

Brief side note: I have actually leant my copy to my sister and so can’t offer any pictures at the moment (will update soon!) but beneath the dustcover, the book itself is absolutely beautiful, embossed with copper flecks of dust itself.

 

5 Reasons to Get Excited About Alias Grace on Netflix

A very fabulous Friday to one and all. As I feverishly try to finish reading the book, the adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace arrives on Netflix. It’s been on my TBR pile for yonks and was moved up the list when the release date was announced but alas, the awesome tiny person with whom I am spending most of my time at the moment is not entirely sympathetic to such ‘deadlines’ and so I am battling the temptation to binge watch before I have read the final pages. However, from where I’ve got to, I can see way more than five reasons to be excited about another Atwood adaptation but in the interests of brevity (as demanded by afore mentioned tiny person) I have exercised some self-restraint!

  1. Atwood translates brilliantly onto screen.

I have finally plucked up the emotional courage to finish watching the new and much lauded version of The Handmaid’s Tale. It strikes me that there is a reason it has become an icon for our times beyond the eerie prescience of the subject matter. Atwood has a knack for conveying the states of her characters visually: the clothes and costumes they wear are powerfully reflective not only of social position but of the political oppressions they are subject to in that position. Obviously the red habits of the Handmaids are the standout example of this but it pops up in lots of Atwood I’ve read; the MaddAddam Trilogy (currently in development by Darren Aronofsky and seeking a home) does it very well too, as does, Alias Grace.

2. Alias Grace is just as relevant as THMT. 

Without wanting to give anything away, Alias Grace is another study in the violence and oppression of patriarchy. Although it is a historical novel based on the story of a real woman who purportedly murdered her employers, it deals with many of the same themes as THMT. The disempowered female figure worked on by a brutalising patriarchal order might in this instance be set in the grime of the Victorian era but it’s a book that seethes with anger and outrage in the same way as the Handmaid’s dystopian future. The Weinstein revelations and continuing fallout in the era of “grab ’em by the pussy”, layers both books (and hopefully both adaptations) with more, very real urgency.

3. Atwood is consulting producer on the production

And we all trust Margaret, do we not?

I love the freedom she afforded the makers of THMT adaptation. She allowed it the capacity to be as pertinent as possible without compromising her world creation in any way. Indeed, as it has been confirmed that season two of THMT will move beyond the scope of the original book and an audiobook has been released with a new ending, there are rumours afoot that a fully fledged sequel may be in the offing. What is most exciting about this is the way in which Atwood sees the fluidity between media: just as her stories usually highlight ambiguity and subjectivity so she reflects this in the flexibility of her narrative modes. There is, of course, more than one way to tell a story and Atwood’s enthusiasm for this multiplicity only expands the reach and depth of her writing. Indeed, she’s been branching into another more visual medium with her graphic work Angel Catbird.

4. It’s a bloody good story. 

I have a bit of a weird thing with Atwood: I absolutely love her but I always struggle to get into her books to start with. This was no exception but, as is usually the way, once embroiled it’s a brilliant and clever thrill of a read. It won the Booker in 2000 so evidently I am not alone in thinking it rather good. And, once I’ve finished it, I will be very interested to have it retold from someone else’s imagination.

5. Well, would you check out this trailer? 

Should we ‘decolonise the canon’? What a ridiculous question: of course we should.

This is a subject that I feel very, very strongly about – as anyone I’ve ever taught will be able to attest. And, whilst I have often come at it from a feminist angle, purely because that is my ‘margin’ as it were (though it feels bonkers to refer to 50% of the world’s population as a margin of any kind) and it is the area about which I feel most knowledgeable. As it happens, I am on a deliberate mission to broaden my scope and to read more BAME authors, though again, this has been in some respects limited to contemporary work. The ‘row’ that has erupted/wasentirelymanufacturedbysomeappallingjournalismfromTheDailyTelegraph over an open letter from the English students at Cambridge is frankly a nonsense.

The dominant forces in the Western world have for time immemorial been patriarchal and white. It is therefore unsurprising that the educational traditions of said world reflect this exclusivity. The power systems of a society shape the imprint it leaves but that does not render such an imprint accurate. Just because the canon that we have come to accept culturally is overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly male does not make this a true reflection of the breadth and quality of writing the world has to offer. Oh and by the way, anyone who dares to proffer the argument that there just aren’t as many women or BAME writers of the same quality is either stupendously arrogant, stupendously ignorant or some unholy combination of the two.

Whilst it may be true to point out that educational opportunity may have produced more work from white, male authors and indeed have denied the voices of many who fall outside that category (see Virginia Woolf on Shakespeare’s imaginary sister); this fact makes it incumbent on those who write the narrative, who shape the modern canon, to expand and recalibrate it. If you are a true lover of literature I can think of nothing more exciting! The more I read, the less well-read I feel because each book, play, poem leads to some other possibility. The joy of reading is in being humbled by how little you know and enthralled by how much there is to learn.

This of course all ties in to broader issues about representation and why it matters that we are exposed to diversity as well as  the white dudes we meet so routinely (NOTE: not necessarily instead of – calm down guys, we aren’t trying to eradicate you as so many of you seem to believe). There are plenty of people far better qualified than I to comment on this so I’ve linked to just a few bits on the topic below that have stuck with me – happy reading and please do link to other recommended reading on the topic in the comments…

Reading into Motherhood – Stay With Me, Ayòbàmi Adébàyò

As promised, this post will set out some thoughts on Ayòbámi Adébàyò’s startling novel of motherhood, marriage and masculinity. Also shortlisted for the Bailey’s prize, on the face of it, Stay With Me could not be more different from Naomi Alderman’s The Power which eventually won. Alderman’s novel is an audacious story of speculative fiction using key players to narrate large scale calamity; Adébàyò by contrast is intensely focused on the intimacy of the family. That said, both novels present clear challenges to societal assumptions about gender; one of the most interesting aspects of Stay With Me is the toxicity of expectation, not just of women and motherhood but of masculinity and what it is to be a son, a father, husband.

Set against the turbulent politics of 1980s Nigeria (about which I know precisely nothing and now wish to learn), Stay With Me unspools the story of Yejide and Akin who, after four years of marriage, are unable to conceive a child. Despite Yejide’s protestations, a second wife is provided for Akin by his family in the hope that children will follow. Aspects of the story are familiar: it is assumed that the “problem” is Yejide’s. It is she who seeks treatment, is subject to interrogations and humiliations at the hands of the family and she who feels the childlessness they share most acutely as hers. Adébàyò, though, offers dual first person narratives that work to reveal the complexity of familial pressure, not only on a childless woman, but on a man in this position. The desire to fulfil a powerful and oppressive version of masculinity leads Akin into terrible and unforgiveable manipulation of his wife. There is throughout a pervasive sense of entitlement to the female body and to its reproductive power which, in the context of the #metoo campaign just this week and the Harvey Weinstein revelations, feels especially pertinent.

There is great beauty in the writing too. The language is lyrical in its bell-like clarity. Adébàyó’s skill is not only in the creation of voice and character but in the distillation of emotion at its most complex. And in what context is feeling more complicated than within the family?

“If the burden is too much and stays too long, even love bends, cracks, comes close to breaking and sometimes does break. But when it’s in a thousand pieces around your feet, that doesn’t mean it’s no longer love.”

It is strange and unnerving to read a novel so focused on children and their absence at six and a half months pregnant. It is not too much of a spoiler to share that Yejide experiences a phantom pregnancy soon after wife number 2 appears. Sections of the novel left me holding my bump, a tightness in my chest when the little one hadn’t kicked for a while.

I came to the book completely blind and wonder if my emotional response would have been substantially different had I read the novel before I was pregnant or indeed after the little miss was born. I suspect it would have been. Adébàyò’s subject and her rendering of it are devastating in equal measure. Reading this book into motherhood with all the anxiety that entails I realise now that the title is a sort of mantra. During those first anxious weeks through the long nine (and a half in our case) months to the tiny little person currently asleep on my chest, the mother in me unconsciously whispers to her: stay with me.

Shall we dance? – Zadie Smith’s Swing Time

swing time

So, the length of time between posts will have already demonstrated to you that I failed spectacularly at my own challenge to read and review the Bailey’s shortlist before the winner was announced. For what it’s worth, I did in fact read and make copious notes on Stay With Me which was a deserving nominee and I promise I will upload my thoughts in more detail soon (I can partially compensate for this half-baked effort by providing a link to the author, Ayobami Adebayo’s thoughts on the integral themes of infertility and marriage here). I did though, fall at the first fence (pun absolutely intended) in reading the rather hefty The Sport of Kings. I hauled my copy to France (and now back again) and promise to revisit and indeed to finish soon. In my paltry defence, I have in the interim produced a rather awesome brand new tiny person who has taken up rather a lot of time and energy and so I hope to be forgiven.

Failing as I was to get into The Sport of Kings, I was quite easily tempted away by Zadie Smith’s latest novel, Swing Time. It received rave reviews on publication last year with many declaring it to be her “masterpiece” or “finest novel yet” and it has earned Smith her second Booker nomination (the first being for On Beauty which I thoroughly enjoyed). What then, is all the fuss about?

The novel traces the diverging paths of two childhood friends from the same Willesden estate. Both girls have parents of different races: Tracy’s indulgent mother is white, her primarily absent and sinister father, black (the right “way round”, we are told); where the unnamed narrator’s mother, fierce in intelligence and opinion, is black and her father, hapless postman, is white. The girls share a love of dance and though Tracy is the one with the talent that seemingly offers a route off the estate, our narrator is the one who leaves for a life as personal assistant to Aimée a pop superstar.

To describe this novel as a coming of age story or about race or female relationships is to reduce it to its component parts. It is extraordinary in terms of its scope and construction: yes, it is absolutely about coming of age and race and female relationships but it is so multifarious, so carefully and thoroughly layered that it, fittingly, resists those labels. Identity is shown to be relative and unstable, absolutes are undermined and selfhood shown in perpetual fragility. Smith’s writing is intricate in its exploration of identity and its distillation of intersecting influences like race, class, gender. Dance, the central motif, is portrayed throughout as a leveller of these (and many other) factors symbolising possibility and connection.

 “a great dancer has no time, no generation, he moves eternally through the world, so that any dancer in any  age may recognize him”

It is though a strange read. I spent the first two thirds in appreciating how incredibly skilled Smith is and simultaneously feeling rather disappointed and let down by the story and a sense that this was perhaps stylish construction over substantial emotional depth. I had loved the outrageous audacity of the narrative voice in White Teeth and felt short-changed by the quieter, more controlled tenor of the narrator here, unsure how much I really cared about her. By the time I had finished though, I am pleased to say that I was, quite literally, moved to tears.

Post-pregnancy hormones? Sure. Also, the focus on maternal relationships in the closing pages – I lost my own mother three and a half years ago and had just given birth to our first child, a daughter of my own, when I read it. But, it is also Smith’s unerringly precise and incisive observation that hits those nerves so brilliantly. Swing Time is indeed, disciplined, mature and elaborately plotted but it is also rich and raw in its excavation of what it means to be human and how we truly relate to those arounds us.

A note on contemporary literary fiction

Contemporary literary fiction is a problematic term. It is extremely difficult to define and as a result, any discussion risks devolving into either an exercise in exclusion and inflexibility, or, an augmentation of the nebulous that becomes so vague as to be entirely diffuse. These issues have been well-documented and well-bemoaned in recent years, as have countless debates on the quality of writing that is being produced in the name of contemporary literary fiction; or rather more frequently, the lack thereof. I wouldn’t pretend to have any answers (should such things exist…) to these central problems and I certainly would not dare to make any such sweeping judgments about ‘the state of literature today’; rather, I thought I’d lay out a few points, which to me, feel most pertinent to the discussion.

As I have said already, literary fiction is incredibly tricky to define; I suspect though, that most would agree it is a label implying a sense of seriousness and technical ambition. It is certainly distinct from ‘genre fiction’ (crime, fantasy, romance) and is by and large perceived as superior, perhaps wielding a bit more intellectual clout than its genre siblings. The ‘contemporary’ element is an interesting one: whilst in this context, we may safely assume ‘contemporary’ to mean current, the majority of academic courses that cover ‘contemporary’ literature reach back into the late seventies or early eighties, further complicating any judgments or statements we may wish to make about contemporary literary fiction.

Putting aside these complexities of definition for a moment, it may be more helpful to consider the ways in which both reading and writing have changed since the early eighties. To my mind there have been two significant influences on the mechanics of writing and publishing, the first being the proliferation of creative writing courses at academic institutions; the second being, of course, the internet.

In The Salon article I linked to above, creative writing courses were being held responsible for raising some terrible writers to a level of competence and thus further abetting the corruption of contemporary literary fiction. Whilst I am sure that this is to some extent true, I think these courses have also had a wonderfully clarifying effect for writers. They offer a real sense of a craft, of an apprenticeship and encourage a critical, self-appraising approach to writing, formalising aspects of the creative process and helping writers to hone a style. There are the inevitable arguments that these courses are factory-like and become criteria-centric, churning out little replica Raymond Carvers whilst stifling originality. That is to say, graduates of these courses come out able to write in a very disciplined, carefully constructed but totally unimaginative way. To this, I am inclined to say: rubbish. I’m sure that it can be and is true of some writers but what does a truly creative mind respond to more fervently than an establishment, or ‘old school’ to react against?

Further to this, I cannot see how learning the basics in a formal context can do any writer any harm. Art is a useful point of reference here, consider Picasso’s early work: he learnt to draw under his father and mastered academic classicism, a far more realistic (is that fair to say?) mode of representation before developing the Cubism of his masterpieces (NB massive over-simplification for sake of brevity). Surely, it is far easier to break and reinvent the rules if you have developed a proficient, working knowledge of them?

It is impossible to overestimate the impact of the internet on literally anything, let alone the way we write and the way we read. Apart from anything else, the sheer volume of material available through the internet is staggering and this in itself requires a more discerning approach to both reading and writing; the reader must filter through the rubbish and make judgments on quality that we were previously not empowered to make. The writer must decide where and how their work should be distributed; they in turn have to filter through the extraordinary levels of chatter to find their audience and speak to it. We are exposed to an awful lot of stuff and some of it is, of course, dreadful, the dreadful has outlets that it did not have before and so more is required of us. We have to work out what we don’t like and why we don’t like it, which is – as both writer and reader – a really useful exercise; and just as YouTube gives a stage to some terrible singing, it has also brought to prominence some very talented musicians (and cats). New voices have any number of ways to speak, the difficulty of course is making yourself heard above the noise.

Writers, as we all do, now have far greater access to information than ever before. This sounds incredibly obvious but just as information is now available second hand so is experience. This has real implications for both the scope and authenticity of contemporary writing: if I want to write about the war in Afghanistan there are plenty of first hand accounts, videos, news-reports, blogs, poems, photos all available to click on and immerse myself in. On the one hand, research has never been easier and the experience of others more accessible; on the other, exposure becomes increasingly removed from experience. I can expose myself to all number of materials and build a narrative around them without feeling the heat of the desert. Now this is not to suggest that first-hand experience is a prerequisite for effective storytelling but it is to say that as our knowledge of the world and its affairs is increasing, our experiential understanding of it is shrinking.

This evaluative obsession with quality does appear though to be a very contemporary preoccupation and I do wonder whether it is in itself indicative of our culture of self-reflection and introspection. It seems to me that the ongoing dissection of literary fiction might be considered as much a symptom of this culture as that infamous emblem of social media, the selfie.