One cannot think with a ten-year-old Kiowa-German captive throwing soap and ceramics.

News of the World, by Paulette Jiles

This is a slightly unusual one for me which I only read to be honest because it was on an end of year list that I can’t now find. It’s a rather filmic western, but a very good one and it’s impressively packed in to a fairly light 229 pages.

The setup is simple, as it tends to be with good Westerns. 71 year old former-printer Jefferson Kyle Kidd, known as Captain Kidd due to his past army service, agrees to take a ten year old girl recovered from the Kiowa back home to her people down south.

Johanna, the girl, was taken by the Kiowa four years ago. They slaughtered her immediate family but took her and raised her as one of theirs. Nobody knows why. There were other children, younger and older, all of whom were killed alongside the parents.

Four years on and the Kiowa are under increasing pressure from US forces. They return their captives, including Johanna who by now considers herself fully Kiowa and has no memory of her earlier life. That’s twice she’s been ripped from a family. She doesn’t even know why Captain Kidd is transporting her.

She had the carriage of every Indian he had ever seen and there was a sort of kinetic stillness about them and yet she was a ten-year-old girl with dark blond hair in streaks and blue eyes and freckles.

The Captain supports himself by reading the news. He carries a pack of newspapers and travels to rural towns where he books a town hall or bar or whatever and reads word of far off places and extraordinary events to the news-starved locals.

When they read his handbills men abandoned the saloon, they slipped out of various unnamed establishments, they ran through the rain from their firelit homes, they left the cattle circled and bedded beside the flooding Red to come and hear the news of the distant world.

The news he reads is sometimes political, sometimes scientific, sometimes of distant countries those present barely know even by name let alone by location. He brings the world to the towns he visits. You pay a dime at the door and for an hour or so you’re transported utterly away from the everyday.

Johanna’s people aren’t really on the Captain’s route, but he’s paid well to take her there. Along the way they’ll face floods, bad weather, bandits and worse. It’s like a negative image of The Searchers.

The Captain is a sympathetic figure, intelligent and honourable but lonelier than he realises. At first he finds Johanna to be a dangerous semi-feral intrusion into his settled life but increasingly he realises how arid that life had become.

Johanna meanwhile is neither of one world nor the other – no longer the German-American she once was, increasingly no longer Kiowa either. As one character comments:

[…] she is like an elf. She is like a fairy person from the glamorie. They are not one thing or another.

Part of what makes News work is its pacing. There is one absolutely stand-out gunfight which is very well realised, but mostly it’s quieter moments shared against the tense backdrop of a journey through thinly settled lands far outside the reach of any helpful law.

Jiles captures the tensions of the time: the fallout of the Civil War; the slow squeezing out of the Kiowa and the Comanche by settlers and soldiers; the melting-pot tensions of Germans and Irish and newly emancipated (but far from accepted) African-Americans. At the same time, she leavens it all with some nicely judged humour, as here when the Captain intervenes to stop Johanna’s intended celebration of an unexpected victory:

No. Absolutely not. No. No scalping. He lifted her up and swung her up over the ledges of stone and then followed. He said, It is considered very impolite.

All journeys have their ending, one way or another, and as the Captain and Johanna near theirs the question of whether he’ll actually hand her over becomes more pressing. Her “people” are relatives of her parents but they’d never actually met her and she’ll never be what they’d consider normal. If the Captain gives her up that’s a third family lost, but does he have any right to try to keep her? And anyway, is an itinerant old man really the right guardian for a deeply troubled child?

It’s easy to imagine News of the World as a film. It would of course be directed by John Ford and I can easily imagine Shootist-era John Wayne as the Captain. I’m not sure who would play Johanna, perhaps Kim Darby though the two look nothing alike. In any event, it’s a tribute to News that those are the sorts of names it brings to mind.

I took some persuading to read this. When I first read a positive review of it (which I’ve since lost details of) I took note, but it sounded a bit formulaic and Westerns aren’t really my genre. Then it came up in the same person’s end of year list (also lost) so I looked again. I’m glad I did so.

For me a good Western is uncluttered. It allows space for the landscape and the characters to breathe, and it keeps the story simple so both can do so. News of the World tells its story cleanly and manages to be sympathetic to its characters without being sentimental. It is charming and persuasive and now that I’ve read it I’m not at all surprised it made somebody’s end of year list.



Filed under Jiles, Paulette, US fiction, Westerns

The brilliant blue of the morning sea, of the cloudless sky,

Collected Poems, C.P. Cavafy, translated by Edmund Keeley and Phillip Sherrard

Back in 2015 I reviewed the Penguin Classics little black book edition of Avi Sharon’s translation of Cavafy poems. It was an excerpt from a longer Penguin Classics edition and whetted my taste for Cavafy.

I talk quite a lot in my 2015 post (here) of the different Cavafy translations currently on offer: the Sharon, the Daniel Mendelsohn and the Keeley/Sherrard. Of the three it was the Keeley/Sherrard I decided to press on with.

Every translation involves choices between accuracy to the text of the original and accuracy to its spirit. There’s no right answer to that dilemma: just sometimes the right translation for a particular reader. I decided that the Keeley/Sherrard translation was the right one for me.

Cavafy’s themes as a poet were typically melancholic reveries of past desire; poems inspired by or drawing upon Greek myth and history; and to an extent certain technical challenges which are difficult to translate and even more difficult for me to understand. Not everything fits those boxes, but they’re a decent guide as to what to expect.

For me, and I think for most readers, it’s the personal meditations on desire that are most effective. I have a decent(ish) grasp of Classical Greek myth and history but not at anything like the level of familiarity Cavafy had. His poems drawing on the lives of classical figures are (I understand) often technically impressive but the resonances are lost to a reader who doesn’t get the references.

Here’s one of the more accessible examples of the classically inspired poems:


I’m Lagides, king – through my power and wealth
complete master of the art of pleasure.
There’s no Macedonian, no barbarian, equal to me
or even approaching me. The son of Selefkos
is really a joke with his cheap lechery.
But if you’re looking for other things, note this too:
My city’s the greatest preceptor, queen of the Greek world,
genius of all knowledge, of every art.

Like many of the poems in this edition this one comes with explanatory notes in an aftersection. Here they read:

First version written August 1896
Rewritten May 1911, and published September 1911
The metrical pattern is 15-14-14-15-14-14-16-12 syllables, rhymed abbaccc.
Cavafy does not specify the identity of the Lagid (i.e., a Ptolemy king of Egypt) and of the Selefkid (i.e.  king of Syria); the period would, however, be between 323 and 221 B.C.

I described that one as more accessible because even without any idea who Lagides and Selefkid are (and even the translator doesn’t know that) it’s pretty clear what kind of people they are. With others the clue as to what they’re like lies in knowing who they are, and if you don’t the poem risks leaving you pretty cold (or did me anyway).

There are notable exceptions. The tremendous “Waiting for the Barbarians” (which is a bit long to reproduce here but can be found at this link) works whether you know the event which inspired it or not and has a killer of a punchline. Others bridge the gap between Cavafy’s two styles, as here where the Classical and the personal intertwine:


That we’ve broken their statues,
that we’ve driven them out of their temples,
doesn’t mean at all that the gods are dead.
O land of Ionia, they’re still in love with you,
their souls still keep your memory.
When an August dawn wakes over you,
your atmosphere is potent with their life,
and sometimes a young ethereal figure
indistinct, in rapid flight,
wings across your hills.

Regret is a key Cavafy theme. In most cases it’s personal regret: a memory of a past love that couldn’t grow because it had to be furtive, hidden (Cavafy was gay). There’s a strong sense of loss in Cavafy’s work, both in the loss of the greatness that was Greece and the loss of the love of young men each met in a café or shop and briefly loved in some rented tenement room.

In some cases Cavafy goes beyond regret and loss, and instead explores a sense of sheer waste as here in one of my favourites:


You said: “I’ll go to another country, go to another shore,
find another city better than this one.
Whatever I try to do is fated to turn out wrong
and my heart – like something dead – lies buried.
How long can I let my mind moulder in this place?
Wherever I turn, wherever I look,
I see the black ruins of my life, here,
where I’ve spent so many years, wasted them, destroyed
them totally.”

You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.
This city will always pursue you.
You’ll walk the same streets, grow old
in the same neighbourhoods, turn grey in these same houses.
You’ll always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things
there’s no ship for you, there’s no road.
Now that you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner,

you’ve destroyed it everywhere in the world.

This is a counterpoint to Cavafy’s possibly most famous poem Ithaca (read here by Sean Connery with a Vangelis soundtrack no less! I’m not actually that fond of the poem but for many it’s a favourite). In Ithaca the journey is the destination. Here the journey is pointless as the “you” will carry their own devastation with them. On reflection, those messages are more connected than I first thought, since in each your destination carries only the meaning you bring to it.

Incidentally, the endnotes reveal that, in the Greek, The City has “elaborate metrical patterns” and “mostly homophonous” rhymes. For those interested in the architecture of poetry my impression is that Cavafy is actually pretty sophisticated, but unfortunately I’m not so it’s hard for me to comment further.

I’ll turn now to Cavafy’s more personal poems and the ones which for me are most effective. Cavafy is a poet of extraordinary sensuality, and his poems of loves lost combine the physicality of desire with the tenuousness of memory.

Here’s two examples:


Something they said beside me
made me look towards the café door
and I saw that lovely body which seemed
as though Eros in his mastery had fashioned it,
joyfully shaping its well-formed limbs,
moulding its tall build,
shaping its face tenderly,
and leaving, with a touch of the fingers,
a particular impression on the brow, the eyes, the lips.


It wouldn’t have lasted long anyway –
years of experience make that clear.
But fate did put an end to it a bit abruptly.
It was soon over, that wonderful life.
Yet how strong the scents were,
what a magnificent bed we lay in,
what pleasures we gave our bodies.
An echo from my days of indulgence,
an echo from those days come back to me,
something from the fire of the young life we shared:
I picked up a letter again,
read it over and over till the light faded.

Then, sad, I went out on the balcony,
went out to change my thoughts at least by seeing
something of this city I love,
a little movement in the streets, in the shops.

At the Café Door is a personal favourite of mine, but In the Evening is strong too with its emphasis on “scents” and playful repetition of the word “echo”. Café of course brings back those Classical Greek themes with a light reference there to Eros.

In Café there isn’t even an affair. The narrator simply sees someone beautiful and for a moment is transported by their sheer presence. It’s a could-have-been, or perhaps not even that but simply an admiration.

In the Evening by contrast is a classic Cavafy reflection in age on a passion of youth. There’s a lot of poems exploring that theme and they’re generally among the strongest. There’s a sense of youth as a fire and the long years after as a sort of wasteland. Relationships are doomed by illegality and desire by time.

Cavafy’s poetry is melancholic and beautiful and this is still I think a definitive collection. It’s far from the only strong choice – as was commented under my last Cavafy piece there’s something of a Cavafy industry – but at a little over 200 pages it’s portable and digestible and the translations are lively and evocative.

One thing that I would recommend with Cavafy is spacing the poems out. I read this collection over perhaps a two year period and it was better for that. Many authors and poets return to the same issues over and over, but when you’re reading a poetry collection the impact is diminished if you’re reading your fourth meditation on lost love or third elegy to past greatness. In this case the poetry is like brandy, you can only take so much at one sitting.

I’ll end with one final poem (I cut so many that I wanted to include here). This one because in the context of Cavafy’s life it’s both heartbreaking and prophetic. For all the problems of our time, and I know they are many, we do at least live now in the “more perfect” society he dreams of here:


For all I did and all I said
let no one try to find out who I was.
An obstacle was there distorting
the actions and the manner of my life.
An obstacle was often there
to stop me when I’d begin to speak.
From my most unnoticed actions,
my most veiled writing –
from these alone will I be understood.
But maybe it isn’t worth so much concern,
so much effort to discover who I really am.
Later, in a more perfect society,
someone else made just like me
is certain to appear and act freely.


Filed under Cavafy, CP, Poetry

Post Christmas round-up

I read a few books over Christmas and in the run-up to New Year that I didn’t get a chance to write a post about. Going into 2018 that gives me a backlog of about six books, which is a little oppressive so while the books deserve better I’m going to cover a few of them off in a single post.

No Dominion, by Louise Welsh

This is the third of Louise Welsh’s plague times trilogy. I wrote about the first and second novels in the series here and here.

No Dominion opens a few years after the events of the first two novels and their protagonists Stevie Flint and Magnus McFall are now part of a community of survivors living in the Orkney islands. Stevie is their mayor and Magnus has become the adoptive father of one of the child survivors, now an adolescent.

The adults have tried to shield the children from the full horrors of what the world became as it fell, and unfortunately have succeeded a little too well. When strangers come to the island they don’t have to work too hard to lure several of the children away with them to the mainland. Stevie and Magnus have to team up and brave the dangers of the post-apocalypse world to attempt a rescue.

As ever there’s lots of good set-pieces here and Welsh’s view of the new societies being thrown up after the loss of our own is persuasive. There’s a feudal set-up; a small community of religious fanatics; and a resurgent Glasgow where a self-styled Provost has set the city partly back on its feet but where his methods have sparked increasing local resistance.

‘Provost Bream is an exceptional man, charismatic, single-minded. He’s determined to get things up and running again and he won’t allow a little squeamishness to get in the way. We might not agree with his methods, but we have to accept that he has a point. The world was always unfair. Since the Sweats, divisions have simply become a little starker.’

The downside is that the plot is heavily coincidence-driven. Stevie and Magnus aren’t particularly well equipped to survive what they encounter and at least twice only do so because they happen to turn up just as the new societies they encounter are facing some kind of internal crisis. One lucky rescue I’ll accept. By the time it gets to two or three it gets a bit stretched for me.

If you’ve enjoyed the first two this is definitely worth reading. It’s good to reconnect with the characters and Welsh’s world-building is as strong as her world-tearing-downing. It’s probably the weakest of the trilogy, but it makes a fitting end to the series.

Kindle titling

By way of an aside, several publishers now put marketing blurb into the title when submitting to Amazon which the kindle software then duly transcribes as the full title of the book. It’s quite annoying and means that if you do get this on kindle it’s not simply called No Dominion, but instead actually shows up on your device with the title “No Dominion: An action-packed post-apocalyptic thriller (Plague Times Trilogy)” which seems somewhat excessive.

Similarly, Andrew Hurley’s Devil’s Day is actually titled on your device “Devil’s Day: From the Costa winning and bestselling author of The Loney”. Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach becomes “Manhattan Beach: 2017’s most anticipated book” at which point I’ll just buy it in hardcopy since seeing that on my kindle each time I open it starts to feel a bit hectoring.

The Shadow Line, by Joseph Conrad

Honestly, I read this because it’s the book that triggers the action in Carlos Maria Dominguez’s The Paper House. Having now read it I don’t think it has any particular meaning in The Paper House and was as good a novel to kick things off there as any other. Still, it’s fun and so worth reading in its own right.

This is one of Conrad’s sea yarns rather than his more psychological pieces (though there’s plenty of psychology in here). A young man takes his first command only to find his ship becalmed and his crew laid low by disease. The first mate becomes convinced they’ve been cursed by the ship’s previous captain who died a madman.

Conrad’s a marvel at describing the sea and I’ve come to really enjoy his adventure stories, even if they do lack the subtlety of the marvellous The Secret Agent. I couldn’t resist including this quote:

It was a terribly lifeless afternoon. For several days in succession low clouds had appeared in the distance, white masses with dark convolutions resting on the water, motionless, almost solid, and yet all the time changing their aspects subtly. Toward evening they vanished as a rule. But this day they awaited the setting sun, which glowed and smouldered sulkily amongst them before it sank down. The punctual and wearisome stars reappeared over our mastheads, but the air remained stagnant and oppressive.

Despite getting off to a rocky start with Conrad I’ve become something of a fan.

The Empress and the Cake, by Linda Stift and translated by Jamie Bulloch

What to say about this one? It’s a dark fairy-tale in which a young woman who’s recovered from an eating disorder meets an old woman in contemporary Vienna who appears to be either the Empress Sissi or to have modelled herself closely upon her.

This is a deeply disturbing novella and if you’ve ever come even near any kind of eating disorder yourself I’d advise caution before reading it. The protagonist finds herself trapped in the old woman’s world and spiralling back into bulimia and anorexia. As she observes: “Everything was all right if I was thin.”

It’s a deeply strange novella with the old woman using her captive to steal objects once belonging to the Empress from Viennese museums and it operates on a sort of terrible dream-logic. I read it while in Vienna which helped hugely in terms of getting some of the references and it’s definitely worth reading the Wikipedia page on Empress Sissi before starting.

Don’t expect this to make real-world sense. It has an internal logic but it’s the logic of madness rather than reality and this is more an exploration of obsession than an attempt to portray a realistic situation. It is very, very good but not for the faint-hearted or the weak of stomach.

[Edit: I had forgotten to link to Tony of Tony’s Reading List’s review here, which is very good and which inspired me to give this a try.]

Epitaph for a Spy, by Eric Ambler

I’ve read two previous Amblers: Uncommon Danger, and The Mask of Dmitrios. This will probably be my last for a while and in truth I chose this particular one in part as I liked the cover.

Here we have the usual hapless Ambler protagonist – Josef Vadassy – a stateless refugee living in 1930s France.  Vadassy finds himself in trouble while on holiday in the French riviera when he sends some photos to be developed only to find that due to some mix-up he’s submitted photos of coastal defences rather than his own pictures.

The nice twist here is Vadassy’s status. The police work out almost immediately that he’s not a spy, but someone is and just having those photos is itself illegal. He is sent to the small hotel at which he’s staying to discover which of his fellow guests is the real spy under threat of deportation if he fails. For Vadassy, deportation could easily mean death.

The curious thing with Ambler is how up to date his novels always seem. Here we have the backdrop of Europe on the eve of war. Vadassy has roots in Yugoslavia and Hungary and the particulars of why he has no country to call his own are of that time and those places. 80 or so years later and we still have stateless people, desperate refugees, and of course spies. Vadassy’s precarious position is one that many people would still recognise today.

In a funny way this is a bit of a classic country house crime novel. It turns out that most of the other guests at the pension have secrets to hide and Vadassy soon finds himself lost in a web of danger and deceit. Honestly it stretches credulity a bit quite how many of these people do have something going on, but the same is true for a great many cosy crime novels so I think it’s forgivable.

The hotel setting works well here and the characters are a lot of fun: a shell-shocked British major and his strangely silent wife; a pair of attractive young Americans whose account of their travels doesn’t quite add up; a hotel manager who enjoys spending time with the guests more than doing his job; an obese German couple having the time of their lives amidst it all and many more.

This is much better than the much more widely praised The Mask of Dmitrios. Vadassy is as dim as most Ambler protagonists but is sympathetic and has a good reason to actually be involved in the story. The 1930s European backdrop is great and while the range of secrets present in the hotel is literally incredible it does allow Ambler to pack a lot into a short space. Overall, recommended.

The Inimitable Jeeves, by P.G. Wodehouse

Chronologically this is the second of the Jeeves’ collections, so far as I know anyway. It’s short stories but loosely tied together to create an overall narrative. Honestly, I’d read them more as short stories and space them out a bit. Wodehouse is brilliant but too many too quickly and you risk the underlying architecture showing which isn’t to their benefit.

Years back I wrote about the first Jeeves’ collection, Carry on Jeeves, which includes the story where he’s hired by Bertie. I wrote quite a bit there about how Wodehouse structures these stories and to be honest I think it’s one of the better pieces I’ve done here.

Anyway, not much else to say save that this is P.G. Wodehouse with his most glorious characters (sorry Empress and Psmith!) and a cast of: terrifying aunts; young men who mostly make up in spirit what they lack in intellect; young women who tend either to the sporty or the serious or to both; and vicars and con-men; dangerously precocious children and much more. It’s wonderful.

Others yet to come

I also read Nicola Pugliese’s Malacqua and a C.P. Cavafy poetry collection but those I do hope to do individual posts for over the coming week.


Filed under Ambler, Eric, Comic fiction, Conrad, Joseph, German, Post-apocalypse, Vienna, Welsh, Louise, Wodehouse, P.G.

My best books read in 2017

I read War and Peace!

It just seems worth shouting about. It did take almost two months. Anyway, with that notice out of the way here’s my end of year round-up, in no particular order until you get to the very end. As with the last couple of years’ round-ups the image is wholly unrelated to the list, but it is a very good film.

Best not to actually describe it novel: let’s start with what’s possibly the most disturbing read of the year in a year where that’s a hotly contested category. Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods is a novel so blackly satirical that just talking about its core concept gets fairly offensive. A biting argument that actually, on reflection, maybe we shouldn’t accept things as they are;

Best novel that’s actually quite hard to describe: that would be Adrian N. Bravi’s The Combover. It’s funny, it’s clever and it’s the only novella about a man retreating from the world after someone flips his combover that you’ll read any time soon;

Best novel that hardly anyone commented on: The Magician of Lublin, by Isaac Bashevis Singer. Somehow I just didn’t enthuse people about this one when I first wrote about it, so here’s another go. This came very close to being my book of the year. It’s exuberant, well written and powerful. Seriously, it’s worth checking out;

(Best disturbing novel with a child protagonist actually proved quite hotly contested this year, so I’ve broken it down into the following two categories.)

Best disturbing and somewhat gothic novel with a child protagonist: Small Hands, by Andres Barba. This has now won the Spanish Herralde prize and it’s easy to see why. It’s marvellously well written and frankly any novel that features the line “Someone had gone to her house and packed her a doubtful suitcase.” just has to be celebrated. I know it’s dark, I know it involves harm to children, but it really is very good and another candidate for book of the year;

Best disturbing and terribly sad novel with a child protagonist: I’m late to the party with this one, but Juan Pablo Villalobos’s Down the Rabbit Hole. I thought this was clever, funny and yet rather heartbreaking and it’s astonishing quite how much Villalobos manages to pack in by way of off-screen implication;

Best classic Russian novel: Novel is stretching it here, but it’s novel length so why not? Anyway, the winner is the Pushkin Press translation by Anthony Briggs of Alexander Pushkin’s Yevgeny Onegin. It’s a delightful and sparkling translation which I utterly recommend;

Best novel set in Vienna: another surprisingly hotly contested category this year, but Arthur Schnitzler just can’t be beat and his Dream Story while far from my favourite by him is nonetheless exceptionally good;

Best stylistically innovative novel about a sex-offender: would of course be Anakana Schofeld’s marvellous Martin John. It’s not an easy read either in terms of subject matter or occasionally in terms of style, but a little perseverance more than pays off in what was rightly one of the most widely praised novels of 2016 (but which I didn’t read until 2017);

Best novel featuring an unnecessary supernatural element: The Bookshop, by Penelope Fitzgerald. I just loved this rather melancholic tale of the opening of a small town bookshop and its various successes and challenges. One of this year’s gems;

Best science fiction novel to show the scope of the genre: The Arrival of Missives, by Aliya Whiteley. Non-SF readers often have odd views on what constitutes SF, assuming it has to involve spaceships or aliens or something. None of that is of course true. Whiteley not only interrogates modern ideas of agency and the right to the future but also speaks to past SF conventions and assumptions. I was also very impressed this year past by Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice and by Dave Hutchinson’s Europe at Midnight, either of which on another day might just as easily have won);

Best novel that speaks to the world today: Street of Thieves, by Mathias Enard. I love Enard’s ambition, his language and unfashionably enough for a literary author his grasp of plot and story. Here he addresses the Arab spring but also a personal coming of age tale and wider issues of the relationship between the developing and developed world. Not Zone, but then what is?


And finally, my book of the year for 2017 is: Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo. Probably not a surprise to anyone who read my review. This is a slim masterpiece. An extraordinary achievement and a book that has nestled away inside me and which I definitely hope to reread at some point.

And that’s it! The list was unusually easy to draw up this year which isn’t actually the best sign. Usually it takes me ages to cut down from the 50-60 books I typically read to a list of ten or twelve. This year it was only really the SF category which caused me any issues – everything else was obvious and it only took me about five minutes to work out what my list was. Not ideal and something for me to think about as I choose my reading over the coming year.

Anyway, I never read other people’s lists until I’ve done my own. Now I have and so now I can. I’m interested to see what others liked and largely hope that I either disagree or have already read their choices since otherwise my groaning TBR pile will grow even larger …

Happy new year!


Filed under Personal posts

Then you won’t absolve me?

Pedro Páramo, by Juan Rulfo and translated by Margaret Sayers Peden (first published 1955)

Pedro Páramo comes in at around 140 or 150 pages, depending on the edition you read. It’s a slim novel that you could easily read in an afternoon. It’s an extraordinary work that I have no hope of doing justice to.

I came to Comala because I had been told that my father, a man named Pedro Páramo, lived there.

The “I” in that quote is Juan Preciado. He promised his mother on her deathbed that he’d seek out his father whom he’s never met. He’s far too late. Comala is deserted. Nothing remains but empty buildings, dust and the voices of its dead.

This is not a naturalistic novel. Juan meets people he believes to be living but discovers to be ghosts. He hears the voices of other less tangible ghosts – the village is filled with them. His narrative starts to be replaced (and by midway is entirely replaced) with the memories still haunting Comala.

Those voices combine to create a history both of Pedro Páramo and Comala. The two can’t be separated. Páramo was Comala’s largest landowner, its most important son and father to many of its children (most of them illegitimate). He was the village’s temporal god and as such was worshipped more by the villagers than by the Catholic god they were supposed to follow.

The language is extraordinary, often beautiful.

Water dripping from the roof tiles was forming a hole in the sand of the patio. Plink! Plink! and then another plink! as drops struck a bobbing, dancing laurel leaf caught in a crack between the adobe bricks. The storm had passed. Now an intermittent breeze shook the branches of the pomegranate tree, loosing showers of heavy rain, spattering the ground with gleaming drops that dulled as they sank into the earth.

Rulfo plays tricks with the reader. At one point I couldn’t quite work out how the narrative fitted Juan’s situation, then suddenly I realised that I wasn’t reading Juan’s thoughts any more but someone else’s – perhaps overheard by Juan as he tried to sleep in this ghost-ridden place. The reader is unsettled, forced to reassess and made to engage with the text in order to understand it.

The need to engage is part of what makes this such a tremendous novel. It’s not actually particularly hard to read, but you have to think about what’s happening and how things fit together. Eventually it all makes sense but you have to trust Rulfo that it will and along the way he creates something which though slim is nonetheless epic. As I write this I can feel the heat and dust of Comala. The book stays with you.

Comala is as much a spiritual desert as a physical one. The dead flock the town because they were denied absolution in life. Being at least nominal Catholics they hoped in life that heaven would be their reward, but they put their faith in Páramo and so what they get instead is an eternity of Comala. They remain as witnesses to Páramo’s tragedy.

Frustrated hope is a running thread here: Juan’s mother sends him to find his father, but Páramo is already dead; Páramo’s tale is in part a love story of his passion for a girl he loved in childhood who years later returned to the village, but she’s mad and he’s perpetually unfaithful to her; Father Renteria dreams of standing up to Páramo but instead takes his gold and becomes so compromised that he can neither grant absolution nor receive it.

As elements of the history swirl together we see murder, rape, land theft, the Mexican revolution, many lives and many deaths. It’s remarkable how much is packed in here and yet somehow Rulfo takes all this quite solid underlying incident and yet makes something mythic from it. You could, and people have, write whole essays about this book but I doubt you’d ever quite capture it.

I consciously don’t use the word masterpiece often on this blog. It’s too easily overplayed and therefore diminished. Here I have no hesitation. Pedro Páramo is a masterpiece. It is a landmark of literature. For all that, it isn’t forbidding and it requires no prior scholarship or knowledge of Mexican history or geography. All you need is the £8.99 price of admission.


Filed under Mexican fiction, Rulfo, Juan, Spanish

“These people suffer from psychosis of the past,” thought Blasi, “you can smell it in here.”

Death Going Down, by María Angélica Bosco and translated by Lucy Greaves

I’m not generally a huge fan of classic crime as a genre. It’s too neat for me with its tendency to throw in a new body every few chapters to ratchet up the tension and its tidy denouements.

All of that applies to this 1955 novel by Argentinian writer María Angélica Bosco and yet I rather enjoyed it. It’s not particularly original, some of the characters are a little too sketchily drawn, but it’s less hermetically self-contained than most of the genre which makes it more interesting.

Pancho Soler comes home drunk late one cold Buenos Aires’ night. The hallway light only stays on for a few minutes so he enters quickly and rushes to the lift which he sees is already occupied. The lift arrives and he steps in, smile at the ready in case the occupant is a pretty woman (a nice detail which already tells us most of what we need to know about him). It is. Unfortunately, she’s dead.

It is, of course, murder. The woman was poisoned. One question is how (though I guessed pretty quickly), but the more pressing question is what she was doing there in the first place since she didn’t live in the building and none of the residents admit knowing who she’d have been calling on.

It’s a genre staple that everyone has something to hide and here it’s no different. The police quickly learn that the dead woman was a refugee from post-war Europe as are a number of the other residents. Argentina in 1955 is full of people trying to make new lives. Some are escaping the horrors that were inflicted upon them. Some are escaping justice for the horrors they inflicted themselves.

Unusually Death Going Down features a team of three detectives rather than the usual single solitary genius. In part I liked that as it did feel more like a real police investigation with tasks being delegated and officers dividing up as needed to chase down leads. The downside was that none of them ever came entirely to life and I often had to remind myself which was which (this seems to be a fairly common complaint with this book).

Happily, the suspects are a much livelier lot.

“On the first floor it’s the Suárez Loza family, who are away in Europe at the moment. On the second floor, señor Iñarra and his family; on the third, señor Czerbó and his sister; on the fourth, señor Soler; on the fifth, Dr Luchter. Everyone here is very peaceful, señor Superintendent.” The same old story. It was just what Superintendent Lahore expected: peaceful buildings and good people, always the same. So how was it possible that so much went on?

Señor Iñarra is an elderly invalid married to a resentful younger wife and an even more resentful young daughter from his first marriage. Señor Czerbó is a brutal figure who lives with his terrorised sister on whom he vents the frustrations of his life. Pancho Soler is a drunken playboy. Dr Luchter is a German exile who certainly has the necessary knowledge to kill by poisoning. Even the superintendent and his wife are bitter and hostile figures. If ever there was a building likely to house a murder this is it. And on top of all that the woman’s husband has motive too …

Naturally there will be more deaths before the truth comes out. There always are.  At minimum there’s always someone who tries to blackmail the murderer. After all, what could possibly go wrong in trying to blackmail someone about whom the main thing you know is that they’re a killer?

There’s some nice comic touches, including one of the policemen briefly having to look after the dead woman’s dog which sometimes helps him open conversations with suspects but at others cuts those conversations a bit shorter than he’d like:

Two or three tugs of the lead let Blasi know that Muck wanted a change of scene. It annoyed him to have to comply. Any interruption of his conversation with Betty could mean a change of tack that might not favour him, but he feared a disaster if he did not obey the pressing appeals reaching him via the leather lead.

What makes this better than formula is the sense that those touched by the crime were already marked – by the war and by the secrets they’ve carried with them to their new lives. Most classic crime novels feel to me like they take place in a bubble (that sense of self-containment I mentioned). Here the memories of a fractured Europe echo through the narrative. There are worse crimes than those presently under investigation.

Other reviews

Guy at His Futile Preoccupations reviewed this here, with views fairly similar to my own. Guy mentions that he’d have liked a bit more sketching out of the characters’ various past connections, which I can certainly see but on the other hand I thought 160 pages was about right for this and while I liked it I wouldn’t have liked it more for being longer.

Guy also mentions the issue with the detectives being too lightly fleshed out. There is a point there about realism versus narrative. I do think three detectives most of whom aren’t actually that interesting is more realistic than the usual single maverick (possibly with an added sidekick to explain things to). On the other hand, that device of having a single detective does make it a lot easier to make them interesting in their own right. I’m left slightly more sympathetic to the device than I was before.


Filed under Argentinian fiction, Bosco, María Angélica, Crime, South-American fiction

We didn’t know sadness until we had a point of comparison.

Such Small Hands, by Andrés Barba and translated by Lisa Dillman

It’s hard to talk about Such Small Hands without using words like dark, sinister, troubling. It’s a one-sitting read which lingers long in the memory, much as you might wish it didn’t. It’s very, very good.

Possibly the creepiest cover of any book I’ve read this year. Here’s how it opens:

Her father died instantly. Her mother in the hospital.

“Your father died instantly, your mother is in a coma” were the exact words, the first ones Marina heard. You could touch those words, rest your hand on each sinuous curve: expectant, incomprehensible words.

Marina is a young girl suddenly orphaned. The accident leaves her numb and alone. Her only friend is a doll the hospital psychologist gives her to help her with her recovery.

The early chapters are all from Marina’s perspective. Overnight her world has become a strange place of clinically concerned adult figures and anonymous hospital spaces. From there she is sent to an orphanage, a thing she can’t even imagine before arriving:

It was too hard to look forward to the orphanage; she didn’t know how to do it. And unable to picture it, random images jumbled together and came gurgling out like a death rattle. She looked at dolly to quiet them. Someone had gone to her house and packed her a doubtful suitcase. Winter clothes and summer clothes all jumbled together.

I love that phrase ‘a doubtful suitcase.’

With Marina’s move to the orphanage the narrative changes and alternates between chapters from Marina’s perspective and chapters from the perspective of one (or possibly several) of the orphanage girls. One or several because the orphanage girls don’t distinguish – they have spent their short lives growing up together and the experience of one of them is still the experience of all of them.

When class was over we liked to play. We’d sign as the jump rope hit the sand with a dull crack. To get in the circle you had to pay attention, had to calculate the jump rope’s arc, its speed, adapt your rhythm to the chorus.

Marina’s traumatic experience leaves her quite unable to adapt her rhythm to the chorus. She is silent and watchful. She doesn’t join in. In the communal showers they notice she has a huge scar from the accident. None of them have anything like that. Marina is different, and by being different she makes the girls aware that each of them is different too. Marina is their apple of knowledge.

We became aware of each other and we felt naked before that body that wasn’t like our bodies. For the first time we felt fat, or ugly; we realized that we had bodies and that those bodies could not be changed. Just as she had materialized, we materialized: these hands, these legs. Now we know that we were inescapably the way we were. It was a discovery you could do nothing with, a discovery that served no purpose. We huddled together when she approached. We were afraid to touch her.

It’s fair to say that the book is already pretty dark by this point, but it gets much darker. Marina’s difference holds a power over the other girls and they revenge themselves on her for it with a campaign of bullying and spite. She is their victim, but at the same time she holds a glamour over them, a fascination.

They’re children. They want to love her. They want her to be one of them. They have no idea how to process the emotions she’s given rise to: fear and desire each unfettered by language because they’re yet to learn the words to bind them with.

Part of what’s so marvellous about Such Small Hands is how well it captures the intensity and magic of childhood. Usually when we talk about magic in that way we mean it as a good thing. Unicorns and rainbows and fairy godmothers. But childhood magic isn’t just lazy summers that seem to last for ever. It’s monsters under the bed, reclusive neighbours rumoured to be serial killers, avoiding stepping on cracks for fear that if you do you’ll break your mother’s back.

Everything here has a logic, but it’s the logic of small children. At times it’s innocent and instinctively affectionate. At other times it’s capricious and cruel. We have to learn how to manage our feelings. We have to learn to be civilised. Barba conjures a dark fable from apparently ordinary ingredients and the result is one of the most shocking and exciting novels I’ve read this year.

Other reviews

Several, including doubtless many I’ve forgotten to keep details of. Trevor of themookseandthegripes loved it here. Tony of Tony’s Reading List was similarly blown away here. And far from lastly, David of David’s Book World was equally impressed here and through his review convinced me to give it a try. Edit: I missed two that I had bookmarked: from Stu at Winston’sDad’sBlog here and from Eric at Lonesome Reader here.

There’s also an interview with translator Lisa Dillman here which is worth taking a look at.


Filed under Barba, Andres, Novellas, Spanish

A wonderful audacity shown to the whole world!

1917, Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution, various translators

The Russian Revolution was a bloody and extraordinary period. Looking back we know what followed: Stalin’s purges, totalitarianism, the subjugation of much of Europe under Soviet military occupation. It’s easy to find supporters of the ideals of the revolution still today, but there’s not so many now who’ll defend the execution of it (possibly as there were so very many executions).

We of course have hindsight, but that lends a certainty to the past which never existed. We’ll never know how Russia would have fared had the “Whites” won, nor how the implementation of the revolution might have differed with a slightly different outcome to the power struggles following the victory of the “Reds”. It’s incredibly complex, made simple by distance and ignorance of the details.

1917 asks a very clever question: instead of looking at the Russian revolution with the benefit of hindsight, why not look to it as it appeared to the artists of the time? Russia’s poets and writers took part in the revolutionary struggle, both for it and against. They wrote their praise, their condemnation, their fears and doubts. They didn’t know what would follow.

That uncertainty gives this collection of poems and prose, all selected by editor and translator Boris Dralyuk, an extraordinary immediacy. Every work in this collection was written between 1917 and 1919.  Here’s the first in the book:

Marina Tsvetaeva, 26 May 1917, translated by Boris Dralyuk

You stepped from a stately cathedral

Onto the blare of the plazas…

-Freedom!-The Beautiful Lady

Of Russian grand dukes and marquises.


A fateful choir’s rehearsing-

the liturgy still lies before us!

-Freedom!-A street-walking floozy

on the foolhardy breast of a soldier

Dralyuk divides the book into sections. That one above is from one titled ‘Stolen Wine’. It’s a neat way of bringing out common themes and concerns, in this case imagery of Bolshevik soldiery careening through the streets drunk on victory and plunder.

It’s an ambiguous poem. Like much of her work too ambiguous for Tsvetaeva’s good. Dralyuk precedes each section with an introduction to the writers featured in it – their history, the artistic movements they were part of or helped inspire, their fate. The fates are often bleak. Tsvetaeva hanged herself in 1941 after charges of espionage resulted in her husband’s execution and her daughter being sentenced to eight years in prison.

This next poem was for me the standout of the collection (and possibly for some of the Pushkin team too given they quoted it on the back of the book). It’s from a section titled Purifying Fire and captures an electrifying vision of the revolution as bloody and brutal but necessary and liberating. It’s powerful stuff.

Alexander Blok, January 1918, translated by Boris Dralyuk and Robert Chandler

The Twelve

A bourgeois’s standing at the crossroads,

nose buried in his collar.

And near him, tail between its legs,

a mangy mongrel cowers.


The bourgeois stands, a hungry cur,

a question mark, a question begged,

behind him crouches the old world –

a mongrel, tail between its legs.

“Get lost, you mangy cur-

or we’ll tickle you with our bayonets.

This is the last of you, old world-

soon we’ll smash you to bits.”

The full poem is several pages long. Blok introduces religious elements into the poem which alienated those he supported, Trotsky observing that “To be sure, Blok is not one of ours, but he reached towards us. And in doing so, he broke down. But the result of his impulse is the most significant work of our epoch. His poem, The Twelve, will remain for ever.”

I agree with Trotsky. The poem is a masterpiece. The religious elements don’t quite work (which Dralyuk notes Blok himself later agreed with though he could never think of an alternative). It does break down in that sense. But nonetheless it’s remarkable. I’ve already read it several times.

In what becomes a theme, the revolution didn’t treat Blok kindly. He found the new bureaucracy stultifying and was arrested in 1919 for ‘suspicion of plotting against the state.’ He died in 1921, just 41 years old.

Other poets here include Mandelstam, Pasternak, Bely, Mayakovsky and many more. The pieces are mostly short, chosen in part I suspect for breadth and context as well as for their quality. If there were nothing here but the roughly 70 pages of poetry this would still be a thrilling collection.

The prose sections can’t have quite the same immediacy of the poetry, but are equally well chosen. Here we have Kuprin, Teffi, Zamyatin, Bulgakov and many others some more significant than those I’ve listed (I’ve quoted the names I recognised rather than the most influential).

Some of the biographical detail is fascinating. I loved the story of Kuprin taking off in a frail biplane piloted by a circus wrestler. The plane crashed from the sky, happily without casualties. Among those watching was a young Kataev who went on to be a writer himself and whose rather good The Drum is also here.

This next quote is from the ‘Of Dragons and Men’ section. It could be read as a satire on bourgeois conformity, or as a critique of totalitarianism, or of course of both. Ambiguity is a common feature here. The context is a city where a revolutionary council has assumed government, led by the popular and wise Ak who is so well respected that no matter what the council proposes there are those who will defend it.

Yefim Zozulya, 1919, translated by Alexander Berkman

The Dictator

The story of Ak and humanity

It seemed a day like any other. The city looked the same as usual. Streets and houses had their ordinary appearance. The sky wore its customary blue. The pavements spread grey and indifferent, as always. Suddenly some men appeared carrying large buckets of paste. They began to put up posters on the walls, doing it quickly, with tears streaming into the buckets. The posters were tense and to the point:


THE COUNCIL OF PUBLIC WELFARE has decided to reorganize life on the basis of justice and progress. For this purpose the COUNCIL will pass on the Right to Life of every inhabitant of our city. Those whose existence is found to be superfluous will cease to exist within 24 hours. Appeals against the decision of the COUNCIL may be filed, in writing, within that time. All appeals will be decided by the COUNCIL before sunset of the same day.

The poster goes on to helpfully explain that friends and neighbours will carry out the sentence of termination where citizens lack the courage to do it themselves when ordered. Failing that a special military detachment is available.

There’s several points in that passage which I love. The self-important use of capitalisation for example. The exploitation of language of rights – the council will pass on the right to life which in fact means the council will decide who’s going to die. Governments and corporations both love that slipperiness of language where something terrible can be clothed in virtue.

The story moves on to the interview process under which it’s decided who lives and who dies, and includes case file excerpts from individuals who didn’t pass and so were found to be “superfluous” (a very meaningful word in the context of Russian literature) and so killed.

One is a mechanic fond of cream in his coffee who beats his children. ‘Daily life grey, prosaic.’ He’s for the chop. Another speaks eight languages but bores his friends in all of them. ‘Sweetly amiable with people, purely out of innate cowardice. … Rarely experiences joy’. He’s killed too.

It’s hard not to read the story and imagine how you’d fare, and the arbitrariness of the decisions makes it impossible to guess. Still, some people defend them, until the Council changes its mind and even then some hearken back to the good old days when the superfluous were terminated rather than indulged.

One final quote, this time from the story which the title to this piece comes from.

Mikhail Zoshchenko (writing as Mikhail Chirkov), 1918, translated by Rose France

The bloody scar on the back of the bourgeois is verily the mark of the strongest power, the mark of a wonderful audacity shown to the whole world.

Doesn’t sound so good now that audacity does it?

It would be hard to praise this collection too highly. Were it not for Pedro Paramo it would be my book of the year. It’s well compiled, well researched, interesting and ever-readable. It’s an introduction not to the past, but to the present as it was. Buy now, while capitalism lasts…

Other reviews

Lots, naturally. Some I bookmarked are from Wuthering Expectations here (different quotes to mine and excellent ones), Guy of His Futile Preoccupations here (including a full list of what’s in the book) and Kaggsy of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings here. It’s a tribute to this collection that we all seem to have our own favourites, between us they comprise most of the book. I’m sure I’ve missed others so please let me know in the comments.

One final note, I received my copy of 1917 from Pushkin Press back in January as a review title. Life, as so often, intervened so that I didn’t get to read it as planned. So it goes and I apologise to Pushkin for the criminal delay (far from my worst). At the same time, it does mean I got to read it in October/November a 100 years after the revolution which does seem somehow fitting. Unusually for me since I tend to take care of books my copy has been battered with the back cover torn and scuffed. That too seems somehow fitting.


Filed under Dralyuk, Boris, Poetry, Pushkin Press, Russian

… neither miracles nor miracle-workers can help us …

The Miracle-Worker, by Carmen Boullosa and translated by Amanda Hopkinson

Every now and then I read something new. Not new in the sense that I haven’t read it before – that happens a couple of times a week. New in the sense that I haven’t read anything like it before.

In a foreword The Miracle-Worker claims to be a collection of papers and a transcribed audio tape all of which were found in the arms of a corpse. It sets up an expectation of a crime and with that the implicit promise that if we read on we will at least understand that crime even if we may not see justice done. Things will not be quite so clear.

The papers are various. They include: the words of the Miracle-Worker, the Milagrosa, herself; examples of petitions made to her; and an account by a private detective named Aurelio Jimenez who was paid to investigate and destroy her and who is probably the dead body found clutching it all.

I say ‘probably’ above because the unnamed person who’s collated these materials doesn’t know for sure whose body it is and compiled the various documents in what seemed ‘to be the most easily comprehensible sequence’. Already, before we’ve even entered the narrative, we’re unsure of the status or outcome of what we’re about to read.

The Milagrosa’s section reveals a woman imprisoned by her own gift. She lives simply dressing only in white and letting no man touch her lest the loss of her virginity should mean the loss of her powers. When she sleeps she can dream miracles which then occur: illnesses cured; limbs restored; lives transformed. Faced with that how can she put her own needs ahead of the want of the world?

Each day two queues form outside the house of the Milagrosa. One for those seeking a miracle; the other for those making vigil. The petitioners explain their particular plea to the Milagrosa and when she goes to sleep that night she dreams of those whose petition will be granted. All she asks in return is that they return to fill out a visitor’s book with their testimonial. Most do, some going further and returning with little tin votive offerings.

That picture is from a church in Naples which I first saw back in 1992. In one of its chapels there were walls covered with small tin images: limbs, heads, torsos. Each is a symbol of an afflicted organ and a healing believed granted; articles of a faith rewarded. I have no faith myself and so found it disturbing rather than inspiring. All that suffering.

Boullosa captures what I felt that day. The petitions here evidence a tidal-wave of desperate want and in doing so render the very concept of miracles somehow ludicrous and offensive. If God can heal the sick why not restore a missing limb? Why not grant the ability to fly, or bring rain to end a drought, or return lost friends back from the dead? (All actual petitions in the text). The Milagrosa can do all that, but her gift doesn’t always respond and it’s unclear why some have their prayers answered and others not. Somehow this just underlines the arbitrariness of the world and the extent of the suffering within it.

‘They raped my daughter.’

‘When she awakes tomorrow, nobody will remember anything about it, there’ll be no trace left on either her body or her mind. Don’t come and give thanks. I absolve you from the responsibility, because you won’t remember having come.

‘My husband has burned himself. Who knows how? He put some lit matches against his clothes, clothes that catch fire as you look at them. You know him well … he’s the man who delivers the eggs.’

‘[…] And another thing, if you could also get rid of my stammer when I speak … If you’d give me my teeth back, I’ve only got two left … And another thing, I don’t like my name, nor my surname. Please make me completely different, because the way I am is a curse. That’s it. I think that’s the best way to ask for what I want. Make me different. Into someone who isn’t as I am.’

The difficulty for Aurelio’s mission is that none of these requests are beyond the Milagrosa’s power. Her gift is real and worse she’s the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen. He falls instantly in love with her (even if she does cure his drinking problem without being asked so leaving him utterly unable to enjoy a whisky anymore).

Aurelio’s section is different in style to the petitions, which were themselves different to the Milagrosa’s words. He is a strike-breaker, an agent of a corrupt union and a man who has much in his past to account for. On first arriving he’s beaten nearly to death by outraged workers for reasons never made clear but which don’t seem to be entirely unjustified. He’s a noir protagonist who’s wandered in from another kind of novel altogether and he and the Milagrosa each have the chance to find in the other an escape from lives neither chose.

With Aurelio’s arrival The Miracle-Worker becomes a kind of political thriller:

‘They’ve been plotting something.’

‘Do you have any idea what?’

‘They’re very nervous over the issue of Northern Textiles. You know, there are ten factories involved and for some reason the Union isn’t getting its way, and the workers are in control. They say it’s down to the Milagrosa. But the problem is that there’s only a year left to the presidential elections and you know how things go.’

Aurelio realises that the Milagrosa has unwittingly aided a presidential candidate who’s now tidying his trail behind him. Bodies are stacking up and it turns out that granting miracles may be a dangerous business both for the miracle-worker and for the wider country. Perhaps some petitions shouldn’t be granted.

So what is this? An exploration of the age-old problem of how we can reconcile the notion of faith in a benevolent deity with the evident existence of evil? Or is it a political satire? The union here hires strike-breakers and colludes with politicians against the workers. Power is gained through deceit, bribery and violence. Only the Milagrosa actually cares about the poor and we learn early on that she doesn’t herself believe in the god her followers attribute her powers to.

Is this instead a snapshot of the state of the nation? A collage-impression of Mexico in all its complexity and confusion? Or is it a post-modernist noir?

I think it’s all of those things and others I’m probably missing from my lack of the cultural and political references that the average Mexican reader would naturally have. It’s a complex book and yet in the edition I have it’s only 137 pages. What better compliment could I pay it than to say I don’t understand it?

Other reviews

Only one that I’m aware of which is by Grant at 1streading’s Blog here. Without Grant I wouldn’t have heard of this and if I had probably wouldn’t have read it. I’m glad that I did.


Filed under Boullosa, Carmen, Mexican fiction, Spanish

Mr Tiller and I will marry, and I will become a schoolmistress to raise the finest generation yet known to England.

The Arrival of Missives, by Aliya Whiteley

I cannot sleep.

Today I overheard Mrs Barbery in the street gossiping with the other mothers. She said, ‘He isn’t a real man, of course, not after that injury.’ I walked past and pretended not to have heard. He limps a little, but it does not constrain his activities. Sometimes I wonder what is under his shirt and waistcoat. I imagine something other than flesh to be found there: fine swan feathers, or a clean white space. No, Mr Tiller is not what passes for a real man in these parts, and all the better for that.

Shirley Fearn is sixteen years old. She’s intelligent, idealistic and relatively well-educated. Her father is one of the better-off farmers in her small village of Westerbridge – an unimportant place where the years and generations unfold each much like the last and which nobody important ever comes from or goes to.

The Victorian era is decidedly dead and Shirley thinks she’s arrived on stage just in time for the world to transform. Her generation is different to those that came before and will be important in ways older generations can barely imagine. Naturally it doesn’t occur to her that teenagers always think that:

This is a different age, a new era, and my feelings are all the finer and brighter for my luck in having the time to explore them. The upward path of humanity, out of the terrible trenches, will come from the cultivation of the mind. And women will have an important role in this, as teachers, as mentors, to the exceptional men who will grow from the smallest boys, with our guidance.

Shirley dreams of more than is offered her, but her dreams are limited by her experience. She is a product of her time and upbringing and her idea of independence is helping to teach great men instead of giving birth to them. The idea of great women is yet to occur to her.

Of course the reader understands perfectly well what Mrs Barbery meant and that Shirley’s dreams of marrying Mr Tiller can’t become real. Mr Tiller doesn’t seem particularly keen himself, insisting on treating Shirley as if she were yet but a child. It’s all quite vexing.

Shirley knows her parents oppose her ambitions to become a teacher. They, like most the village, expect her to marry a young farmer or perhaps the blacksmith’s boy Daniel Redmore. Daniel stirs none of the noble feelings in Shirley that Mr Tiller does, though he definitely does stir feelings of some unfamiliar sort. Still, what bright future could there be with him? The Redmores and the Fearns both date back centuries in the village. Marrying him would be accepting the position she was born to.

Bright as she is Shirley understands nothing. That will change.

So far Arrival probably doesn’t sound like one of the more critically acclaimed SF novels of recent years. However, that’s exactly what it is and the first stirrings of that become apparent when Shirley decides to spy on Mr Tiller in his cottage. What she sees is not the awful wound the reader expects but instead what she interprets as some kind of peculiar rock protruding from his abdomen.

Mr Tiller bears a message. One that descended upon him as he lay dying on barbed wire bayonetted by a German soldier who picked up Mr Tiller’s own dropped rifle to kill him with. The rock saved his life and more than that gave him a purpose.

Shirley dreams of shaping the future by shaping the men who will make it. Mr Tiller aims to shape it more directly, guided by the rock. He wants Shirley to help him. He wants Shirley to abandon her vision of the future to support his.

Mr Tiller is far from alone in wanting Shirley to abandon her ambitions. The science fiction elements of the plot here mirror the prosaic. Shirley realises that her parents oppose her teaching not because they want her to inherit their farm as she always supposed but because they want her to attract the right kind of husband to take it over. Her education is intended to make her more appealing to an intelligent modern man, not to make her an intelligent modern woman.

Shirley starts to become aware of herself as a perceived object. Now she’s sixteen the men of the village, even the older ones, treat her differently. She dreamed of being special, of having some unique gift to give the world, but what she’s finding instead is that what she’s most appreciated for is her value as a commodity:

It is as if, I think as I walk slowly home, a light has been switched on inside of me. It is a light that only men can see, and it attracts them, draws them close. It makes them think that I will be receptive to their glances and comments. I’m not ridiculous enough to think that their interest is all about my beauty or other talents. It is simply that I am now, in their eyes, the right age for such treatment.

The irony of Shirley’s political awakening lies in its youthful selfishness. Daniel Redmore takes her to her teaching interview and speaks to her of how he wishes they could run away together not as man and wife but just as two people living together as best they can. She barely recognises that like her he has dreams of something other than what he’s been offered (after all, she’s the one that’s special and he’s the one that’s ordinary). She looks down on her own mother’s lack of education and ambition, little reflecting on how much more limited her mother’s opportunities were or what kind of inner life she might have.

Arrival becomes a novel of choices and consequences, which makes it in part the story of every teenager even if in this case there’s an incomprehensible rock bearing messages and commands. When Shirley is appointed Mayday Queen she learns how powerful and enjoyable it can be to fit in and be popular. But when she rebels against her parents or speaks sharply to adults whom she’s supposed to respect she learns that too carries power and enjoyment.

Arrival is well written and Shirley is both likable and credible. There’s some lovely paralleling of the deep past in the form of the Mayday celebrations (which the local priest condemns on account of their pagan roots) and the deep future which Mr Tiller is trying to mould and make certain. The characters are vivid and Shirley’s journey persuasive.

The only criticism I really have is that I found the concluding pages a bit on the nose in terms of Shirley becoming a rather empowered modern woman with a mind to social justice. For me it became neat where I’d have preferred a little more compromise and ambiguity. Still, that’s a small price to pay for a novel which so (apparently) effortlessly subverts our ideas of what science fiction is and what a science fiction protagonist should look like.

I’ll end by mentioning that for those who do normally read SF there’s quite a lot of subtext here in terms of criticism of the limits of the genre – the kinds of futures it imagines and who gets to populate them. Unfortunately that’s difficult to discuss without spoilers and honestly it could easily go completely unnoticed without harming the book at all. It’s subtle enough that for those who don’t read SF it might as well not be there.

Arrival is Whiteley’s second novel and I’ve since bought her first. This has every chance of being on my end of year list.


Filed under Historical fiction, SF, UK fiction, Whiteley, Aliya