Category: Fiction Reviews

Failing at Classics of the Month

I’ve attempted two Dickens novels in the last five years, and left both unfinished. I at least got about 200 pages into Dombey and Son in 2012 before I gave up, but my recent attempts to get past the first couple of chapters in Our Mutual Friend have been utterly unsuccessful. I finally gave myself permission to set it aside at page 41 – and I didn’t even read all of that; I’d started skimming in a last-ditch attempt to get myself hooked by the story. Have I lost my Dickens mojo? Do I not have sufficient patience to read Victorian triple-deckers anymore? I truly hope this is just a phase and I’ll be able to get back into Dickens someday. I certainly intend to read his whole oeuvre eventually, even the obscure ones.

So I don’t have a classic for April, nor a true doorstopper (I’ve classified David France’s How to Survive a Plague as such – a bit of a cheat since I only skimmed it). Instead what I have to offer are a modern classic and a graphic adaptation of another Dickens novel.


On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin, which I mostly read during our trip to Hay-on-Wye earlier in the month, is worthy of being called a modern classic. It has echoes of D.H. Lawrence and especially Thomas Hardy, and it’s a pleasantly offbeat look at the developments of the twentieth century as seen through the lives of Welsh identical twins Benjamin and Lewis Jones. Opening in the 1980s, when the brothers are eccentric old gents sleeping side by side in their late parents’ bed, the book then retreats to the beginning: at the turn of the last century ornery Amos Jones fell for an educated rector’s daughter and their volatile relationship played out at The Vision farm. One son was caught up in the First World War, one had love affairs; neither “ever strayed further than Hereford.” Through sickness, community scandal, and the rise and fall of fortunes, they remain wedded to Welsh village life.

“The Vision” farm is in the background to the right.

I especially loved Chatwin’s descriptions of the natural world (he’d visited Radnorshire as a boy and considered it a kind of spiritual home), and the glimpses he gives into the twins’ preternatural closeness:

Lewis and Benjamin gambolled ahead, put up grouse, played finger-football with rabbit-droppings, peered over the precipice onto the backs of kestrels and ravens and, every now and then, crept off into the bracken, and hid. They liked to pretend they were lost in a forest, like the Twins in Grimms’ fairy-tale, and that each stalk of bracken was the trunk of a forest tree. … They lay on their backs and gazed on the clouds that crossed the fretted patches of sky … they would press their foreheads together, each twin losing himself in the other’s grey eye.

(Clearance book from Blackwell’s in Oxford. )

 

The David Copperfield graphic novel by Jacqueline Morley (illustrated by Penko Gelev) is part of the Graffex series of graphic novel literary retellings issued by Salariya Book Company. It’s remarkably faithful to Dickens’s original, with just a bit of condensing in terms of the plot and a few secondary characters cut out or greatly reduced in importance. Although this is no substitute for reading David Copperfield itself (my favorite book), I could see it being useful for high school or college students who need a quick recap of what happens when preparing for a quiz or essay. The three main young females are amusingly similar and idealized, but all the other characters’ looks are true to the novel’s descriptions (and previous adaptations). The end matter – a brief biography of Dickens, commentary on the novel, a timeline of stage and screen versions – is particularly helpful, though in the chronology of Dickens’s works they forgot Dombey and Son!

(Remainder copy from Addyman Books in Hay-on-Wye. )


Next month: I’ve pulled out a couple of short (~210 pages each) classics from the shelf. I recently read a graphic novel about Gauguin that I’ll be reviewing on Monday, so I fancy following it up with W. Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence, which is said to be based on Gauguin’s life. It’ll be only my second Maugham after Of Human Bondage, which I loved in 2015. Anna of the Five Towns will be my first taste of Arnold Bennett’s fiction (though I’ve read his Literary Taste).

Four Recommended May Releases

Here are four enjoyable books due out next month that I was lucky enough to read early. The first two are memoirs, the third is an audacious poetry book by an author new to me, and the last is the sophomore novel from an author I’ve loved before. I’ve pulled 250-word extracts from my full reviews and hope you’ll be tempted by one or more of these.


Last Things: A Graphic Memoir of Loss and Love by Marissa Moss

(Coming from Conari Press on May 1st [USA]; June 8th in UK)

“You’re not aware of last things,” Moss, a children’s book author/illustrator, writes in this wrenching memoir of losing her husband to ALS. We look forward to and celebrate all of life’s firsts, but we never know until afterwards when we’ve experienced a last. The author’s husband, Harvey Stahl, was a medieval art historian working on a book about Louis IX’s prayer book. ALS is always a devastating diagnosis, but Harvey had the particularly severe bulbar variety, and his lungs were quick to succumb. His battery-powered ventilator led to many scares – one time Moss had to plug him into the wall at a gas station and rush home for a spare battery – and he also underwent an emergency tracheotomy surgery.

This is an emotionally draining read. It’s distressing to see how, instead of drawing closer and relying on each other, Marisa and Harvey drifted apart. Harvey pushed everyone away and focused on finishing his book and returning to his academic duties. He refused to accept his limitations and resisted necessary medical interventions. Meanwhile, Moss struggled with the unwanted role of caregiver while trying not to neglect her children and her own career.

I’ve read several nonfiction books about ALS now. Compared to the other two, Moss gets the tone just right. She’s a reliable witness to a medical and bureaucratic nightmare. At the distance of years, though, she writes about the experience without bitterness. I can see this graphic novel being especially helpful to older teens with a terminally ill parent.

My rating:

 

My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues by Pamela Paul

(Coming from Henry Holt on May 2nd [USA]; June 13th in UK)

I hold books about books to high standards and won’t stand for the slightest hint of plot summary, filler or spoilers. It’s all too easy for an author to concentrate on certain, often obscure books that mean a lot to him/her, dissecting the plots without conveying a sense of the wider appeal. The trick is to find the universal in the particular, and vice versa.

Pamela Paul, editor of the New York Times Book Review, does this absolutely perfectly. In 1988, as a high school junior, she started keeping track of her reading in a simple notebook she dubbed “Bob,” her Book of Books. In this memoir she delves into Bob to explain how her reading both reflected and shaped her character. The focus is unfailingly on books’ interplay with her life, such that each one mentioned more than earns its place.

A page from my 2007 reading diary. Lots of mid-faith-crisis religion titles there. Starting in 2009, I think, I’ve kept this information in an annual computer file instead.

So whether she was hoarding castoffs from her bookstore job, obsessing about ticking off everything in the Norton Anthology, despairing that she’d run out of reading material in a remote yurt in China, or fretting that her husband took a fundamentally different approach to the works of Thomas Mann, Paul always looks beyond the books themselves to interrogate what they say about herself.

This is the sort of book I wish I had written. If you have even the slightest fondness for books about books, you won’t want to miss this one. I’ve found a new favorite bibliomemoir, and an early entry on the Best of 2017 list.

My rating:

 

Nature Poem by Tommy Pico

(Coming on May 9th from Tin House Books)

Tommy “Teebs” Pico is a Native American from the Kumeyaay nation and grew up on the Viejas Indian reservation. This funny, sexy, politically aware multi-part poem was written as a collective rebuttal to the kind of line he often gets in gay bars, something along the lines of ‘oh, you’re an Indian poet, so you must write about nature?’ Au contraire: Pico’s comfort zone is the urban, the pop cultural, and the technologically up-to-date – his poems are full of textspeak (“yr,” “bc” for because, “rn” for right now, “NDN” for Indian), an affectation that would ordinarily bother me but that I tolerated here because of Pico’s irrepressible sass: “I wd give a wedgie to a sacred mountain and gladly piss on the grass of / the park of poetic form / while no one’s lookin.”

Some more favorite lines:

“How do statues become more galvanizing than refugees / is not something I wd include in a nature poem.”

“Knowing the moon is inescapable tonight / and the tuft of yr chest against my shoulder blades— / This is a kind of nature I would write a poem about.”

“I can’t write a nature poem bc English is some Stockholm shit, makes me complicit in my tribe’s erasure”

“It’s hard to unhook the heavy marble Nature from the chain around yr neck / when history is stolen like water. // Reclamation suggests social / capital”

My rating:

 

The Awkward Age by Francesca Segal

(Coming on May 4th from Chatto & Windus [UK] and May 16th from Riverhead Books [USA])

I adored Segal’s first novel, The Innocents, a sophisticated remake of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence set in a contemporary Jewish community in London. I wasn’t as fond of this second book, but in her study of an unusual blended family the characterization is nearly as strong as in her debut. Julia Alden lost her husband to cancer five years ago. A second chance at happiness came when James Fuller, a divorced American obstetrician, came to her for piano lessons. He soon moved into Julia and sixteen-year-old Gwen’s northwest London home, and his seventeen-year-old son, Nathan, away at boarding school, came on weekends.

Julia is as ill at ease with Nathan as James is with Gwen, and the kids seem to hate each other. That is until, on a trip to Boston for Thanksgiving with James’s ex, Gwen and Nathan fall for each other. Awkward is one way of putting it. They’re not technically step-siblings as James and Julia aren’t married, but it doesn’t sit right with the adults, and it will have unexpected consequences.

The first third or so of the book was my favorite, comparable to Jonathan Safran Foer or Jonathan Franzen. Before long the romantic comedy atmosphere tips into YA melodrama, but for me the book was saved by a few things: a balance of generations, with Gwen’s grandparents a delightful background presence; the eye to the past, whether it be Gwen’s late father or the occasional Jewish ritual; the Anglo-American element; and a realistic ending.

My rating:


Have you read any May releases that you would recommend? Which of these do you fancy?

Show Her a Flower, a Bird, a Shadow by Peg Alford Pursell

Northern California’s Peg Alford Pursell is the founder of Why There Are Words, a Bay Area series of public literary readings, and the independent publishing house WTAW Press. Her short fiction has been shortlisted for the Flannery O’Connor Award.

The lovely cover image is from White Dove and Roses by David Kroll.

Her debut work, Show Her a Flower, a Bird, a Shadow, is a collection of flash fictions, ranging in length from a few lines to a few pages, many of which have been previously published in literary journals or anthologies. They often read like poems, with the alliteration, colors and imagery lending more resonance to the prose than you usually find in short stories. First and last lines are especially incisive, like the phrase that opens “Petal, Feather, Particle,” about a single mother on her way to a hotel to calm her daughter down: “Show her a flower, a bird, a shadow, and she will show you what is simultaneously forming and falling apart.”

Plot is incidental and largely secondary to language and emotion here, but many of the pieces share a topic of shaky relationships, and the bonds that last in life versus the ones that fade away. Young female first-person narrators frequently alternate with third-person stories about older women, but a recurring theme throughout is how others view you versus how you see yourself. Especially in the context of long-term relationships, these characters have to keep life from going stagnant by staying in motion and living mindfully:

Just as in marriage. He didn’t believe in stopping, resting, or pausing. Drive was everything. Look at the fat bumblebee busy on the flower stalk: the creature anything but in repose, gathering nectar for all it’s worth before moving on to the next. That was how to be in the world. (from “At the Flower”)

Likewise, “This is what familiarity demands: that I examine every detail again as if new clues will present themselves,” a woman thinks while looking at photographs of her daughter (in “The Girl in the Picture”).

A few of my favorite stories were “Day of the Dead,” which mixes Mexican traditions with the narrator’s own bereavements; “Girl on a Hobby Horse,” in which a woman meditates with her Buddhist daughter after her own 14-year relationship breaks down; and “A Weak Light Shining through the High Small Window,” about a woman visiting her brain-injured husband in the hospital and imagining their future together.

The final piece, “Inscription of Time,” reminded me most of Margaret Drabble’s The Dark Flood Rises with its picture of a woman who has lost many family members and friends yet gains a necessary sense of closure when a former lover, a race car driver who once had an accident that left him in a temporary coma, invites her to his apartment to say a proper goodbye. “It was as if he’d understood what she hadn’t known until that moment. That she needed an ending.”

It may be only 70 pages long, but this book packs a poetic punch. Its images and lines linger, and it deserves to be read slowly and mulled over. I’d recommend it to readers of Tessa Hadley and Desiree Cooper, and fans of flash fiction in general.


Show Her a Flower, a Bird, a Shadow was released by ELJ Editions on March 31st. My thanks to the author for sending a PDF copy for review.

My rating:

A Jest of God by Margaret Laurence

A Jest of God (1966) is the second in Margaret Laurence’s five-novel Manawaka sequence; it followed The Stone Angel (1964), which I reviewed here back in December. Recently reissued as part of the Apollo Classics imprint from Head of Zeus Books, these two books have been a wonderful opportunity for me to further my knowledge of Canadian literature.

Although Rachel Cameron, the narrator of A Jest of God, is a 34-year-old second-grade teacher who still lives with her mother, she has attributes in common with 90-year-old Hagar Shipley, the unforgettable central character of The Stone Angel. Both have a history of sexual hang-ups – Rachel’s in the form of erotic dreams – and experience temporary losses of self-control. The most striking example is when Rachel reluctantly accepts her fellow teacher Calla’s invitation to her Pentecostal church and, though she is mortified at hearing others speaking in tongues, involuntarily enters in herself with hysterical crying.

I loved this sequence. The Tabernacle of the Risen and Reborn provides such a contrast to Rachel’s mother’s staid church tradition, and it’s a perfect introduction to Rachel’s patterns of pride and embarrassment (another link to Hagar). Although Rachel frequently issues stern orders to herself – “Now, then. Enough of this. The main thing is to be sensible, to stop thinking and to go to sleep” – she can’t seem to stop worrying and second-guessing. This applies to her career as well as to her personal relationships. With her principal’s support, she takes surprisingly stern action against her favorite pupil when he starts playing truant.

It’s hard to say much more about the plot without giving too much away. Do I emulate the vagueness of the back cover blurb and simply explain that Rachel unexpectedly “falls in love for the first time, and embarks upon an affair that will change her life in unforeseen ways”? I’d prefer to go into a bit more depth, so if you want to avoid learning what happens I suggest skipping over my next few paragraphs.


To start with it seems Rachel’s best romantic prospect is Calla, who’s certainly interested. But about a third of the way into the novel, as the boredom of the long summer vacation is setting in, Nick Kazlik returns to town. He was the milkman’s son and Rachel’s childhood acquaintance, and is now a high school teacher in another town. They go out to a movie and share a kiss, and from there their relationship progresses rapidly. Rachel loses her virginity to him out in a field, and the more sex they have the more she’s seized with a belated terror of pregnancy. No doubt her anxiety about motherhood is colored by her passive-aggressive relationship with her own mother, whose dodgy heart leaves her utterly dependent on Rachel.

The novel reminded me most of Margaret Drabble’s The Millstone and Carrie Snyder’s Girl Runner. Like the protagonists of those novels, Rachel’s options seem stark: acquiring a secret abortion, or changing her life irrevocably by having a child out of wedlock. As the title phrase suggests, Rachel feels God is laughing at her presumptuousness: first for believing she might be loved in proportion to her own passion, and then for thinking she could become a mother. I wasn’t fond of the way the book backtracked on this main source of tension at the end. A retreat from calamity might seem fitting given Rachel’s usual overthinking, but the resolution felt to me like too much of a deus ex machina reprieve.

Ultimately, I found Nick and Rachel’s affair the least interesting element of this novel. Compared with the friendship with Calla, the startling religious experience, the interactions with pupils and the school principal, the troubled mother–daughter relationship, and an odd late-night encounter with the new owner of her late father’s funeral parlor, what’s a bit of sex? We’re meant to rejoice at Rachel’s chance at romance, I think, but also to recognize it as a fleeting but necessary spur to an altered life.


Two aspects of this reprint edition deserve a mention. There’s a terrific afterword from Margaret Atwood recalling meeting Laurence, her literary idol, at the Governor General’s Awards ceremony in 1967 (Atwood won for poetry and Laurence won for fiction with this novel). Apollo Classics have also chosen an excellent cover image: a 1960 photograph by Rosemary Gilliat Eaton entitled Woman preparing paint for an art class, Frobisher Bay.

The Margaret Laurence House in Neepawa, Manitoba, Canada. By Amqui (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.
Once again, I enjoyed Laurence’s turns of phrase, especially when describing people: Calla is a “wind-dishevelled owl,” while the six-foot-tall Rachel sees herself in the mirror as “this giraffe woman, this lank scamperer.” But the overall story for me was significantly less memorable than The Stone Angel. It sounds like the third book of the Manawaka series will center on Rachel’s older sister Stacey, who lives near Vancouver with her husband and four children. Whether I’ll ever read this and the final two I couldn’t say, but I’m glad to have had a chance to read a couple of fine examples of Laurence’s work. (And I’m keen to read her memoir, Dance on the Earth, which draws on the five years she and her husband lived in Africa.)

With thanks to Blake Brooks at Head of Zeus/Apollo Classics for the free copy for review.

My rating:

The Devil and Webster by Jean Hanff Korelitz

It’s hard to resist a campus novel. The Devil and Webster, the sixth novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz, is unusual in focusing more on the administration than the students of a fictional American college. Webster College, Massachusetts was founded as a Native American training academy in the eighteenth century by missionary Josiah Webster. Now it rivals Harvard and other Ivy League schools, attracting liberal students with its enlightened gender and racial politics. (I had Swarthmore and Oberlin in mind as models.)

Yet Naomi Roth, Webster’s first female president, soon finds that racial and sexual tension still bubble under the surface here. A decade ago, her first major challenge as president was dealing with the uproar when Nell Jones-Givens, who lived in female-only Radclyffe Hall, began transitioning to become Neil. But now she faces an even stickier problem: A group of students have set up an Occupy-style camp in the center of the quad to protest the decision to deny tenure to Nicholas Gall, a popular African-American anthropology professor.

The protest is spearheaded by Omar Khayal, a charismatic Palestinian refugee who wowed Naomi’s closest friend, Dean of Admissions Francine Rigor, with his application essay about growing up in the midst of conflict and surviving the death of his entire family. What Omar and these other outraged students don’t know – and Naomi can’t reveal because of the confidentiality of the process – is that Gall has a negligible publication record and was also found guilty of plagiarism. They instead presume that this is all because he is black.

What starts off as manageable dissent thus morphs into unpleasant, racially motivated retribution. “Webster is not a city on a hill. Webster is still the reactionary place it was before,” Omar declares in a media interview. In this context, Naomi’s upcoming Native American conference, though planned long ago, seems like a pathetic attempt at placation.

Throughout, the third-person narration sticks close to Naomi, a compelling protagonist not least because she’s a single mother and her daughter Hannah is also a protesting Webster student. By documenting Naomi’s thoughts (often in italics) versus what she says, Korelitz emphasizes the difficult position she’s in, always having to hold her tongue and speak diplomatically, as when addressing the protest camp:

“My only interest is in learning more about your concerns and your intentions. We share this community, and I’m sure we all want the best for it. If there are problems to be identified, issues to be discussed, changes to be made…whatever. It won’t happen if you won’t…” Talk, she wanted to say. Open your fucking mouths with their years of orthodontia and use those expensively educated voices to articulate your pathetic complaints about this…this halcyon, evolved, rarified, creative, and intellectual college campus, where you are free to learn and nap and make things and have sex and get high and change your fucking gender even, and clean water comes out of the tap and you wave your school ID under a scanner to help yourself to smorgasbords of food (meat! meat alternative! vegan! lactose-sensitive! nut-free! gluten-free!) and all we expect of you is that you pass your classes and don’t hurt anyone else. But she didn’t say these things. Of course she didn’t say them.

Naomi has her own background in feminist activism, but now, instead of being in a position to ‘speak truth to power,’ she has to realize that, as Francine reminds her, she is the power.

This is an interesting book about appearances and assumptions. Again and again characters make ethical compromises, proving how difficult it is to find and maintain the moral high ground. As the college’s historian points out to Naomi, from its very beginnings Webster has had a tendency towards capitulation. He plans to write up this story in a book called The Devil and Webster – which is also a reference to “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” the 1936 O. Henry Award-winning, Faustian short story by Steven Vincent Benét. I haven’t read the story, but looking at a synopsis I can see that it’s relevant in that it touches on themes of race, patriotism and the treatment of Native Americans.

The story line feels fresh and surprising, if at times melodramatic. My problem was more with the author’s style, which seemed to me old-fashioned and belabored. Korelitz has a habit of minutely describing everything: a house, a room, the food, the hairstyles, and so on. There are four pages on Naomi’s presidential wardrobe, and we get not just a passing reference to her PhD thesis but three pages on it. This means that it feels like it takes forever for the plot to get going. Much of modern fiction is more minimalist, I think, or would more naturally weave in its short bits of backstory. I even wondered if this book would have been better off as a collection of linked short stories from different points in Naomi’s or the college’s past.

This is all a shame, because while I liked the characters, dialogue and setting and enjoyed many of the turns of phrase (e.g. “filling in the spousal synapses” and “Garrison Keillor’s voice had a narcotic vocal element that always made her feel sleepy, each word a nepenthe puff”), I found the book tiresome overall, and can’t imagine myself picking up another one from Korelitz any time soon.


The Devil and Webster was published in the UK by Faber & Faber on April 6th and in the USA by Grand Central Publishing on March 21st. My thanks to Josh Smith for the review copy.

My rating:


What are your favorite campus novels?

Besides Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, I’ve loved Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members, and many of David Lodge’s books. See also my review of Bradstreet Gate by Robin Kirman.

Wellcome Prize Shortlist, Pt. 2: The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss

This is Sarah Moss’s third consecutive appearance on the Wellcome Book Prize shortlist, after Bodies of Light in 2015 and Signs for Lost Children in 2016, a pair of linked novels about a female doctor in the nineteenth century. The Tidal Zone, on the other hand, is a contemporary story of how a sudden, strange illness shakes up one middle-class family.


It’s a clichéd image from television and films: new parents tiptoe into their baby’s room every night to make sure he or she is still breathing. But 15 years later, narrator Adam Goldschmidt starts doing the same thing for his teenage daughter, Miriam, after she collapses on her school’s sports field and stops breathing for a few minutes. Thanks to a teacher’s quick thinking, CPR and paramedics soon see her stable again, but for Adam and his wife Emma, herself a GP, this is like a biblical loss of innocence: for the first time they realize that something calamitous could happen to Miriam or their eight-year-old, Rose, at any moment. Adam feels himself part of a global web of suffering parents, including those whose children are bombed in the Middle East or shot by police in America. All he sees are potential Pietàs.

It comforts me to think that most parents in most of time and most of the world have lived with this fear as a matter of course. It comforts me to think that while I have little fellowship in my fear with the parents at the school gate, the massed ghosts of England and the majority of parents living in the world now are with me. Although it turns out, of course, once people have a reason to tell you, that more of the school-gate parents than you used to imagine live in the overlap between ordinary life and tragedy.

Miriam is a delightfully sarcastic kid, lefty and socially engaged. I love her banter with the rest of the family. She was never going to be a meek angel in a hospital bed. Still, she’s ready to resume regular life long before Adam and Emma are ready to let her out of their sight for more than an hour or two. Meanwhile, Adam has to keep things ticking over at home. A stay-at-home dad in Coventry, he teaches the occasional art history class at the local university and is slowly writing a book about Coventry Cathedral, which was bombed to destruction during World War II and later rebuilt. Occasional chapters about the cathedral’s history make the narrative arc even clearer: this is all about catastrophe and reconstruction. How does a family, or a city, bounce back from what looked like the end?

Eventually a diagnosis and suggested treatment arrive, but the mystery remains of what caused Miriam’s cardiac arrest in the first place. What combination of factors – what she’d eaten, how much she’d exercised, what was in the air – could account for a failure to keep breathing? And could there be a genetic aspect to this condition that could link back to Adam’s mother’s unexpected death when he was nine?

It’s from Adam’s early memories of his mother that the title comes: when he was a boy they explored the tidal zone at the Cornwall coast, looking for creatures in the rock pools. Just as tidal pools mark the boundary between the land and the sea, this novel probes the liminal space between survival and death. But it also recognizes that even in that crucial gap, daily activities continue: hanging up the laundry, emptying the dishwasher, fielding pleas for a cat, and carping about NHS and university bureaucracy. Moss writes so well about normal life – something I also noticed in Night Waking, the other novel of hers that I’ve read, which is narrated by a mother of young children (and a character who’s briefly mentioned here, as Adam’s friend) – she lends correct weight to the everyday without overlooking epiphanies and moments of timelessness.

I love this striking cover: Eliza (2015) by Michael Gaskell. It’s an acrylic portrait on board of his niece and won second prize in that year’s BP Portrait Awards – but it’s so amazingly crisp I would have sworn it was a photograph!

I admired many things about the novel, particularly how easily Moss writes from a male viewpoint and the ways in which she reflects on the storytelling impulse. The extraordinary first chapter opens with “Once upon a time” and narrates the quotidian miracles of conception, pregnancy, birth and child development before making this personal, proceeding from “the girl” to “you” and finally to “I” in the second chapter. On several (perhaps one too many) occasions Moss repeats that fairytale opener to tell about Miriam’s medical journey or explain how Adam’s mother and American-born father met at a commune. This emphasizes the way we construct narratives around everything from our origins to our health.

A plan is a story about the future … a diagnosis is a story, brings a story’s promise of safe conduct through time and place to an anticipated ending.

I felt a bit too much time was spent on Adam’s father, and in the back of my mind was the niggling thought that this First World family is never facing true disaster because they have all kinds of safety nets in place; Moss’s is a very middle-class vision. I also think some readers could struggle with the slight aimlessness of the plot, though by the end you do get the sense that the characters are looking to the future in simple ways.

However, I don’t think those small complaints detract from the novel’s power. It’s a sobering but ultimately reassuring story with a simple message: we are all fragile, and we must appreciate life and health while we can.

You can’t go round not loving things because they’ll die.

May we forget. It is a pity that the things we learn in crisis are all to be found on fridge magnets and greetings cards: seize the day, savour the moment, tell your love—May we live long enough to despise the clichés again, may we heal enough to take for granted sky and water and light, because the state of blind gratitude for breath and blood is not a position of intelligence.

My rating:


My gut feeling: Moss’s fiction shows true commitment to probing issues of health and medicine, and she’s an underrated author in general. Glancing back at the description of the books the Wellcome Prize panel is looking for (“At some point, medicine touches all our lives. … The subjects these books grapple with might include birth and beginnings, illness and loss, pain, memory, and identity”), I think this novel is a very strong contender indeed.

More reviews:

Clare’s at A Little Blog of Books

Eleanor’s at Elle Thinks

Eric’s at Lonesome Reader


Shortlist strategy:

Currently reading: I Contain Multitudes, Ed Yong’s (surprisingly?) enjoyable book about microbial life – I’m nearly halfway through and have taken it with me on our mini-holiday. Also The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee, a daunting 500+-page history of genetics, but I’ve loved this author’s work before (The Emperor of All Maladies).


I’m away in Hay-on-Wye through Thursday the 6th but will be back and responding to comments on Friday the 7th.

Classic of the Month: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

Thank you to those who recommended Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) as my classic for March. I’m glad I read it, not least because, like Narcissism for Beginners, it’s an epistolary within an epistolary – bonus! I imagine most of my readers will already be familiar with the basic plot, but if you’re determined to avoid spoilers you’ll want to look away from my second through fourth paragraphs.


The chronology and structure of the novel struck me as very sophisticated: in 1847, gentleman farmer Gilbert Markham is writing a detailed letter to a friend, describing how he fell in love with the widow Helen Graham – the new tenant at Wildfell Hall, a painter who’s living there in secret – starting in the autumn of 1827. (I even wondered if this could have been one of the earliest instances of a female author writing from a male point-of-view.) Their interrupted and seemingly ill-fated courtship reminded me of Lizzy and Darcy’s in Pride and Prejudice: Gilbert initially thinks Helen stubborn and argumentative, especially in how she refuses to accept neighbors’ advice on how to raise her young son, Arthur. Gradually, though, he comes to be captivated by this intelligent and outspoken young woman on whose “lofty brow … thought and suffering seem equally to have stamped their impress.”

And indeed, at the heart of Gilbert’s narrative is a lengthy journal by Helen herself, starting in 1821, explaining the misfortune that drove her to take refuge in the isolation of Wildfell Hall. For, as in Anne’s sister Charlotte’s Jane Eyre, there’s an impediment to the marriage of true minds in the form of a living spouse. Helen is still tied to Arthur Huntingdon, a dissolute alcoholic she married against her family’s advice and has ever since longed to see reformed. In a phrase I was highly bemused to see in use in the middle of the nineteenth century, she defends him thusly: “if I hate the sins I love the sinner, and would do much for his salvation.” The novel’s religious language may feel outdated in places, but the imagined psyche of a woman who stays with an abusive or at least neglectful partner is spot on.

For the most part I enjoyed the story line, but I must confess that I wearied of Helen’s 260-page account, filled as it is with repetitive instances of her incorrigibly loutish husband’s carousing. I had a bit too much of her melodrama and goody-goody moralizing, such that it felt like a relief to finally get back to Gilbert’s voice. The last 100 pages, though, and particularly the last few chapters, are wonderful and race by. I loved this late metaphor for Helen’s chastened beauty:

This rose is not so fragrant as a summer flower, but it has stood through hardships none of them could bear. The cold rain of winter has sufficed to nourish it, and its faint sun to warm it; the bleak winds have not blanched it or broken its stem, and the keen frost has not blighted it. Look, … it is still fresh and blooming as a flower can be, with the cold snow even now on its petals.


Anne Brontë c. 1834, painted by Patrick Branwell Brontë [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons (restored version).
I moved The Tenant of Wildfell Hall up my to-read pile because it’s on the “Ten Best Novels for Thirtysomethings” list in The Novel Cure. I imagine Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin included it because the main plot and some subplots revolve around the unsuitable relationships people often find themselves trapped in: perhaps after the passion and idealism of one’s twenties, one’s thirties are more likely to be blighted by regret as the consequences of poor choices come to light.

As always, I’m dumbfounded by the Brontës’ profound understanding of human motivation and romantic love given their sheltered upbringing. Theirs were wild hearts. I’ll always be a Charlotte fan first and foremost, but I was delighted with my first experience of Anne’s work and look forward to trying Agnes Grey in the near future.

Lest you think Victorian literature is all po-faced, righteous ruminating, I’ll end with my favorite funny quote from the book. This is from Gilbert’s snide, sporty brother Fergus (I wish he’d had a larger role!), seeming to mock Jane Austen with this joke about needing to know everything about Helen Graham as soon as she arrives in town:

“mind you bring me word how much sugar she puts in her tea, and what sort of caps and aprons she wears, and all about it, for I don’t know how I can live till I know,” said Fergus very gravely. But if he intended the speech to be hailed as a masterstroke of wit, he signally failed, for nobody laughed. However, he was not much disconcerted at that; for when he had taken a mouthful of bread and butter, and was about to swallow a gulp of tea, the humour of the thing burst upon him with such irresistible force that he was obliged to jump up from the table, and rush snorting and choking from the room.

My rating:


Next month: Eleanor of Elle Thinks recommends Our Mutual Friend as the book that will finally get me back into Dickens, so I plan to make it do double duty as my Classic and Doorstopper for April.