Tag Archives: epistolary

Short Stories in September, Part I: Nam Le, Deesha Philyaw, Dan Rhodes

Part of my annual project to read as many short story collections as possible in September. Here’s the first three.

 

The Boat by Nam Le (2008)

Le, who was born in Vietnam and raised in Australia, won the Dylan Thomas Prize for this collection of seven stories. The opener, “Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice” – the title being William Faulkner’s advice for what authors should write about – knocked my socks off. It’s a crisp slice of autofiction about his father coming to visit him while he is a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Nam (the character) is ambivalent about whether to write about his family’s history of escaping Vietnam by boat, but as a deadline looms he decides to go for it, no matter what his father might think. There’s a coy remark here from one of his friends: “you could just write about Vietnamese boat people all the time. … You could totally exploit the Vietnamese thing. But instead, you choose to write about lesbian vampires [not in this collection!] and Colombian assassins, and Hiroshima orphans—and New York painters with hemorrhoids.”

So there you have four of the story plots in a nutshell. “Cartagena” is an interesting enough inside look at a Colombian gang, but Le’s strategy for revealing that these characters would be operating in a foreign language is to repeatedly use the construction “X has Y years” for giving ages, which I found annoying. “Meeting Elise” is the painter-with-hemorrhoids one (though I would have titled it “A Big Deal”) and has Henry nervously awaiting his reunion with his teenage daughter, a cello prodigy. There’s a Philip Roth air to that one. “Hiroshima” is brief and dreamy, and works because of the dramatic irony between what readers know and the narrator does not. “The Boat,” the final story, is the promised Vietnam adventure, but took forever to get to. I skimmed/skipped two stories of 50+ pages, “Halflead Bay,” set among Australian teens, and “Tehran Calling.”

It’s a shame that the rest of the book didn’t live up to the first story. The settings and styles felt too disparate overall, with no linking theme. I know that authors are supposed to be able to write about whatever they want, rather than just sticking to their own heritage – a provincial attitude the above quote is mocking, surely – but I had to wonder why these stories mattered to the author, and thus why they should matter to me. As far as I can tell, this is all Le has published. He won another five awards for it, and landed on the National Book Foundation’s 5 under 35 list in 2008. What happened after that?? (Public library)

The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw (2020)

I’d heard such good things about this collection after its U.S. release (it was a National Book Award finalist and won a Los Angeles Times Book Prize, PEN/Faulkner Award and more), so was delighted to learn that it was coming to the UK earlier this year. These nine stories, mostly set among Black women in the Southern USA, are bold and sexy. The opening pair is a particularly provocative one-two punch. In “Eula,” two friends with benefits meet up in a hotel on New Year’s Eve 2000, as they do every year; narrator Caroletta is committed to this relationship, while Eula is only killing time until she can marry a man as everyone expects. In “Not-Daniel,” a man and woman have sex in a car parked behind a hospice to try to forget that their mothers are dying inside.

“How to Make Love to a Physicist,” told in the second person, is about an art teacher scared to embark on a relationship with a seemingly perfect man she meets at a conference. “Dear Sister,” in the form of a long, gossipy letter, is about a tangled set of half-siblings. “Jael” alternates a young teen’s diary entries and her great-grandmother’s fretting over what to do with her wild ward. (The biblical title takes on delicious significance later on.) Multiple characters clash with authority figures about church attendance, with the decision to leave the fold coinciding with claiming autonomy or rejecting hypocrisy.

“Peach Cobbler” and “Snowfall” were my two favourites. In the former, reminiscent of Tayari Jones’s Silver Sparrow, Olivia’s mother has been having a long-term affair with the pastor, for whom she bakes a special dessert she denies her own daughter (“I’m not going to raise [my child] to go through life expecting it to be sweet, when for her, it ain’t going to be”). The latter has Arletha and Rhonda suffering through a Midwest winter and dreaming of a Southern crab boil, but fearing they can never go home to mothers who stubbornly refuse to acknowledge their bond as anything other than friendship (“like a beautiful quilt in summertime, my mother’s love was the suffocating kind”).

The insight into familial and romantic relationships, the frank bisexuality, the allusions to scripture and churchgoing traditions, and the folksy foods and metaphors all made this stand out for me. The collection tails off with two unmemorable stories, but the previous seven are more than compelling enough for me to recommend this to your attention.

With thanks to Pushkin Press (the ONE imprint) for the proof copy for review.

Anthropology: and a Hundred Other Stories by Dan Rhodes (2000)

I should have known, after reading When the Professor Got Stuck in the Snow (an obvious satire on Richard Dawkins’s atheism) in 2017, that Dan Rhodes’s humour wasn’t for me. However, I generally love flash fiction so thought I might as well give these 101 stories – all about 100 words, or one paragraph, long – a go when I found a copy in a giveaway box across the street. Each has a one-word title, proceeding alphabetically from A to W, and many begin “My girlfriend…” as an unnamed bloke reflects on a relationship. Most of the setups are absurd; the girlfriends’ names (Foxglove, Miracle, Nightjar) tell you so, if nothing else.

There’s a kind of ‘nothing sacred’ approach here, with death, disability, race and gender the fodder for any number of gags. For example, in the title story the ex-girlfriend “went to Mongolia to study the gays. … It breaks my heart to think of her herding those yaks in the freezing hills, … nothing but a handlebar moustache to keep her top lip warm.” Or “Taxidermy”: “Columbine broke her neck by mistake. I took her to the taxidermist, and they delivered to my house a fortnight later. When I unwrapped the package I found the wrong girl.” I marked out a couple that I liked, “Beauty” and “Eggs,” but 2/101 is a poor return. Flippant, repetitive and ridiculous; best avoided. (Free from a neighbour)

Currently reading: The Dinner Party by Joshua Ferris, Delicate Edible Birds by Lauren Groff, Hearts & Bones by Niamh Mulvey

Up next: The Quarry by Ben Halls, The High Places by Fiona McFarlane, Birds of America by Lorrie Moore

Booker Prize Longlist Reading & Shortlist Predictions

I’ve polished off another four from the Booker Prize longlist (my initial reactions and excerpts from existing reviews are here), with one more coming up for me next month.

 

Trust by Hernan Diaz

“History itself is just a fiction—a fiction with an army. And reality? Reality is a fiction with an unlimited budget.”

My synopsis for Bookmarks magazine:

Set in the 1920s and 1930s, this expansive novel is about the early days of New York City high finance. It is told through four interlocking narratives. The first is Bonds, a novel by Harold Vanner, whose main character is clearly based on tycoon Andrew Bevel. Bevel, outraged at his portrayal as well as the allegation that his late wife, Mildred, was a madwoman, responds by writing a memoir—the book’s second part. Part 3 is an account by Ida Partenza, Bevel’s secretary, who helps him plot revenge on Vanner. In the final section, Mildred finally gets her say. Her journal caps off a sumptuous, kaleidoscopic look at American capitalism.

Ghostwriter Ida’s section was much my favourite, for her voice as well as for how it leads you to go back to the previous part – some of it still in shorthand (“Father. Describe early memories of him. … MATH in great detail. Precocious talent. Anecdotes.”) and reassess its picture of Bevel. His short selling in advance of the Great Depression made him a fortune, but he defends himself: “My actions safeguarded American industry and business.” Mildred’s journal entries, clearly written through a fog of pain as she was dying from cancer, then force another rethink about the role she played in her husband’s decision making. With her genius-level memory, philanthropy and love of literature and music, she’s a much more interesting character than Bevel – that being the point, of course, that he steals the limelight. This is clever, clever stuff. However, as admirable as the pastiche sections might be (though they’re not as convincing as the first section of To Paradise), they’re ever so dull to read.

With thanks to Picador for the free copy for review.

 

Case Study by Graeme Macrae Burnet

That GMB is quite the trickster. From the biographical sections, I definitely assumed that A. Collins Braithwaite was a real psychiatrist in the 1960s. A quick Google when I got to the end revealed that he only exists in this fictional universe. I enjoyed the notebooks recounting an unnamed young woman’s visits to Braithwaite’s office; holding the man responsible for her sister’s suicide, she books her appointments under a false name, Rebecca Smyth, and tries acting just mad (and sensual) enough to warrant her coming back. Her family stories, whether true or embellished, are ripe for psychoanalysis, and the more she inhabits this character she’s created the more she takes on her persona. (“And, perhaps on account of Mrs du Maurier’s novel, Rebecca had always struck me as the most dazzling of names. I liked the way its three short syllables felt in my mouth, ending in that breathy, open-lipped exhalation.” I had to laugh at this passage! I’ve always thought mine a staid name.) But the different documents don’t come together as satisfyingly as I expected, especially compared to His Bloody Project. (Public library)


Those two are both literary show-off stuff (the epistolary found documents strategy, metafiction): the kind of book I would have liked more in my twenties. I’m less impressed with games these days; I prefer the raw heart of this next one.

 

Nightcrawling by Leila Mottley

She may be only 20 years old, but Leila Mottley is the real deal. Her debut novel, laden with praise from her mentor Ruth Ozeki and many others, reminded me of Bryan Washington’s work. The first-person voice is convincing and mature as Mottley spins the (inspired by a true) story of an underage prostitute who testifies against the cops who have kept her in what is virtually sex slavery. At 17, Kiara is the de facto head of her household, with her father dead, her mother in a halfway house, and her older brother pursuing his dream of recording a rap album. When news comes of a rise in the rent and Kia stumbles into being paid for sex, she knows it’s her only way of staying in their Oakland apartment and looking after her neglected nine-year-old neighbour, Trevor.

I loved her relationships with Trevor, her best friend Alé (they crash funerals for the free food), and trans prostitute Camila, and the glimpses into prison life and police corruption. This doesn’t feel like misery for the sake of it, just realistic and compassionate documentation. There were a few places where I felt the joins showed, like a teacher had told her she needed to fill in some emotional backstory, and I noticed an irksome habit of turning adjectives into verbs or nouns (e.g., “full of all her loud,” “the sky is just starting to pastel”); perhaps this is an instinct from her start in poetry, but it struck me as precious. However, this is easily one of the more memorable 2022 releases I’ve read, and I’d love to see it on the shortlist and on other prize lists later this year and next. (Public library)

 

Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout

This was a DNF for me last year, but I tried again. The setup is simple: Lucy Barton’s ex-husband, William, discovers he has a half-sister he never knew about. William and Lucy travel from New York City to Maine in hopes of meeting her. For both of them, the quest sparks a lot of questions about how our origins determine who we are, and what William’s late mother, Catherine, was running from and to in leaving her husband and small child behind to forge a different life. Like Lucy, Catherine came from nothing; to an extent, everything that unfolded afterwards for them was a reaction against poverty and neglect.

The difficulty of ever really knowing another person, or even understanding oneself, is one of Strout’s recurring messages. There are a lot of strong lines and relatable feelings here. What I found maddening, though, is Lucy’s tentative phrasing, e.g. “And I cannot explain it except to say—oh, I don’t know what to say! Truly, it is as if I do not exist, I guess is the closest thing I can say.” She employs hedging statements like that all the time; it struck me as false that someone who makes a living by words would be so lacking in confidence about how to say what she means. So I appreciated the psychological insight but found Lucy’s voice annoying, even in such a short book. (Public library)

 

A Recap

I’ve read 6 of the 13 at this point, have imminent plans to read After Sappho for a Shelf Awareness review, and would still like to read the Mortimer if my library system acquires it. The others? Meh. I might consider catching up if they’re shortlisted.

My book group wasn’t chosen to shadow the Booker Prize this year, which is fair enough since we already officially shadowed the Women’s Prize earlier in the year (here are the six successful book clubs, if you’re interested). However, we have been offered the chance to send in up to five interview questions for the shortlisted authors. The Q&As will then be part of a website feature. And I was pleasantly surprised to see that my non-holiday snap of a Booker Prize nominee turned up in this round-up!

  

Here’s my (not particularly scientific) reasoning for what might make the shortlist:

A literary puzzle novel

Trust by Hernan Diaz or Case Study by Graeme Macrae Burnet

  • Trust feels more impressive, and timely; GMB already had his chance.

 

 

 

 

A contemporary novel

Nightcrawling by Leila Mottley or Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout

  • Oh William! is the weakest Strout novel I’ve read. Mottley’s is a fresh voice that deserves to be broadcast.

 

 

 

 

A satire

The Trees by Percival Everett or Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka

  • Without having read either, I’m going to hazard a guess that the Everett is too Ameri-centric/similar to The Sellout. The Booker tends to reward colourful Commonwealth books. [EDITED to add that I forgot to take into my considerations Glory by NoViolet Bulawayo; while it doesn’t perfectly fit this category, as a political allegory it’s close enough that I’ll include it here. I would not be at all surprised if it made the shortlist, along with the Karunatilaka.]

 

 

 

 

A couple of historical novels

Booth by Karen Joy Fowler or After Sappho by Selby Wynn Schwartz

and/or

A couple of Irish novels

Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan or The Colony by Audrey Magee

  • I’m hearing such buzz about the Magee, and there’s such love out there for the Keegan, that I reckon both of these will make it through.
The odd one out?

Treacle Walker by Alan Garner or Maps of Our Spectacular Bodies by Maddie Mortimer

  • Maybe nostalgia will spur the judges to give Garner a chance in his 80s.

 

 

 

 

 

My predicted shortlist:

On Tuesday evening we’ll find out if I got any of these right!

 

What have you read from the longlist? What do you most want to read, or see on the shortlist?

Review Catch-Up: Herreros, Onyebuchi and Tookey

Quick snapshot reviews as I work through a backlog.

One each today from fiction, nonfiction and poetry: a graphic novel about the life of Georgia O’Keeffe, a personal response to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, and a beautiful collection of place-centric verse.

 

Georgia O’Keeffe by Maria Herreros (2021; 2022)

[Translated from the Spanish by Lawrence Schimel]

This is the latest in  SelfMadeHero’s “Art Masters” series (I’ve also reviewed Gauguin, Munch and Vincent). Madrid-based illustrator Herreros renders O’Keeffe’s life story in an abstract style that feels in keeping with the artist’s own. The book opens in 1915 with O’Keeffe still living in her family home in Virginia and working as an art teacher. Before she ever meets Alfred Stieglitz, she is fascinated by his photography. They fall in love at a distance via a correspondence and later live together in New York City. Their relationship ebbs as she spends more and more time in New Mexico, a desert landscape that inspires many of her most famous paintings. Much of the narrative is provided by O’Keeffe’s own letters (with idiosyncrasies retained); the additional summary text is unfortunately generic, and the urge to cover many years leads to skating over long periods. Still, the erotic attention to detail and the focus on the subject’s dedication to independence made it worthwhile.

With thanks to SelfMadeHero for the free copy for review.

 

(S)kinfolk: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah by Tochi Onyebuchi (2021)

I’ve reviewed six previous releases from Fiction Advocate’s “Afterwords” series (on Blood Meridian, Fun Home, and The Year of Magical Thinking; My Struggle and Wild; and Middlesex). In these short monographs, “acclaimed writers investigate the contemporary classics,” weaving literary criticism into memoir as beloved works reverberate through their lives. Onyebuchi, a Nigerian American author of YA dystopian fiction, chose one of my favourite reads of recent years: Americanah. When he read the novel as a lawyer in training, it was the first time he sensed recognition of his own experiences in literature. He saw his immigrant mother’s situation, the collective triumph of Obama’s election, and his (re)discovery of Black beauty and spaces. Like Ifemelu: he was an outsider to African American identity and had to learn it gradually; and he makes a return trip to Nigeria at the end. I enjoyed this central thread but engaged less with asides about a 2013 visit to the West Bank (for a prisoners’ rights organization) and Frantz Fanon’s work on Algeria.

With thanks to Fiction Advocate for the free e-copy for review.

 

In the Quaker Hotel by Helen Tookey (2022)

Tookey’s third collection brings its variety of settings – an austere hotel, Merseyside beaches and woods, the fields and trees of Southern France (via Van Gogh’s paintings), Nova Scotia (she completed a two-week residency at the Elizabeth Bishop House in 2019) – to life as vibrantly as any novel or film could. In recent weeks I’ve taken to pulling out my e-reader as I walk home along the canal path from library volunteering, and this was a perfect companion read for the sunny waterway stroll, especially the poem “Track.” Whether in stanzas, couplets or prose paragraphs, the verse is populated by meticulous images and crystalline musings.

not a loss

something like a clarifying

becoming something you can’t name

There are evanescent encounters (“Leapfrog”) and deep time (“Natural History”); playing with language (“Concession à Perpetuité”) and erasures (“Pool / Other Body”). You’ll find alliteration and ampersands (a trend in contemporary poetry?), close observation of nature, and no trace of cliché. Below are the opening stanzas of a couple of poems to give a flavour:

With thanks to Carcanet Press for the free e-copy for review.

 

Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?

What Lies Hidden: Secrets of the Sea House & Night Waking

When I read Kay’s review of Sarah Maine’s The House Between Tides, the book seemed so familiar I did a double take. A Scottish island in the Outer Hebrides … dual contemporary and historical story lines … the discovery of a skeleton. It sounded just like Night Waking by Sarah Moss (another Sarah M.!), which I was already planning on rereading on our trip to the Outer Hebrides. Kay then suggested a readalike that ended up being even more similar, Elisabeth Gifford’s The Sea House (U.S. title), one of whose plots was Victorian and the skeleton in which was a baby’s. I passed on the Maine but couldn’t resist finding a copy of the Gifford from the library so I could compare it with the Moss. Both:

 

Secrets of the Sea House by Elisabeth Gifford (2013)

Although nearly 130 years separate the two protagonists, they are linked by the specific setting – a manse on the island of Harris – and a belief that they are descended from selkies. In 1992, Ruth and her husband are converting the Sea House into a B&B and hoping to start a family. When they find the remains of a baby with skeletal deformities reminiscent of a mermaid under the floorboards, Ruth plunges into a search for the truth of what happened in their home. In 1860, Reverend Alexander Ferguson lived here and indulged his amateur naturalist curiosity about cetaceans and the dubious creatures announced as “mermaids” (often poor taxidermy crosses between a monkey and a fish, as in The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock).

Ruth and Alexander trade off as narrators, but we get a more rounded view of mid-19th-century life through additional chapters voiced by the reverend’s feisty maid, Moira, a Gaelic speaker whose backstory reveals the cruelty of the Clearances – she won’t forgive the laird for what happened to her family. Gifford’s rendering of period prose wasn’t altogether convincing and there are some melodramatic moments: this could be categorized under romance, and I was surprised by the focus on Ruth’s traumatic upbringing in a children’s home after her mother’s death by drowning. Still, this was an absorbing novel and I actually learned a lot, including the currently accepted explanation for where selkie myths come from.

I also was relieved that Gifford uses real place names instead of disguising them (as Bella Pollen and Sarah Moss did). We passed through the tiny town of Scarista, where the manse is meant to be, on our drive. If I’d known ahead of time that it was a real place, I would have been sure to stop for a photo op (it must be this B&B!). We also stopped in Tarbert, a frequent point of reference, to visit the Harris Gin distillery. (Public library)

 

Night Waking by Sarah Moss (2011)

This was my first of Moss’s books and I have always felt guilty that I didn’t appreciate it more. I found the voice more enjoyable this time, but was still frustrated by a couple of things. Dr Anna Bennet is a harried mum of two and an Oxford research fellow trying to finish her book (on Romantic visions of childhood versus the reality of residential institutions – a further link to the Gifford) while spending a summer with her family on the remote island of Colsay, which is similar to St. Kilda. Her husband, Giles Cassingham, inherited the island but is also there to monitor the puffin numbers and track the effects of climate change. Anna finds a baby’s skeleton in the garden while trying to plant some fruit trees. From now on, she’ll snatch every spare moment (and trace of Internet connection) away from her sons Raph and Moth – and the builders and the police – to write her book and research what might have happened on Colsay.

Each chapter opens with an epigraph from a classic work on childhood (e.g. by John Bowlby or Anna Freud). Anna also inserts excerpts from her manuscript in progress and fragments of texts she reads online. Adding to the epistolary setup is a series of letters dated 1878: May Moberley reports to her sister Allie and others on the conditions on Colsay, where she arrives to act as a nurse and address the island’s alarming infant mortality statistics. It took me the entire book to realize that Allie and May are the sisters from Moss’s 2014 novel Bodies of Light; I’m glad I didn’t remember, as there was a shock awaiting me.

According to Goodreads, I first read this over just four days in early 2012. (This was back in the days where I read only one book at a time, or at most two, one fiction and one nonfiction.) I remember feeling like I should have enjoyed its combination of topics – puffin fieldwork, a small island, historical research – much more, but I was irked by the constant intrusions of the precocious children. That is, of course, the point: they interrupt Anna’s life, sleep and research, and she longs for a ‘room of her own’ where she can be a person of intellect again instead of wiping bottoms and assembling sometimes disgusting meals. She loves her children, but hates the daily drudgery of motherhood. Thankfully, there’s hope at the end that she’ll get what she desires.

I had completely forgotten the subplot about the first family they rent out the new holiday cottage to (yet another tie-in to the Gifford, in which they’re preparing to open a guest house): a hot mess of alcoholic mother, workaholic father, and university-age daughter with an eating disorder. Zoe’s interactions with the boys, and Anna’s role as makeshift counsellor to her, are sweet, but honestly? I would have cut this story line entirely. Really, I longed for the novella length and precision of a later work like Ghost Wall. Still, I was happy to reread this, with Anna’s wry wit a particular highlight, and to discover for the first time (silly me!) that thread of connection with Bodies of Light / Signs for Lost Children. (Free from a neighbour)

Original rating:

My rating now:

 

I enjoyed the Gifford enough to immediately request the library’s copy of one of her newer novels, The Lost Lights of St. Kilda, so my connection to the Western Isles can at least continue through my reading. I also found a pair of children’s novels plus a mystery novel set on St. Kilda, and I was sent an upcoming novel set on an island off the west coast of Scotland, so I’ll be on this Scotland reading kick for a while!

Six Degrees of Separation: From Sorrow and Bliss to Weather

This month we begin with Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason. (See also Kate’s opening post.) This is my personal favourite from the Women’s Prize shortlist and couldn’t be a better pick for the Six Degrees starter this month because I’ll be skimming back through the novel this weekend in advance of my book club’s discussion of it on Monday. (We’re one of this year’s six book groups shadowing the Women’s Prize through a Reading Agency initiative, so we then have to give semi-official feedback on our experience of the book by Wednesday.)

#1 Sorrow and Bliss is a terrific tragicomedy about sisterhood and mental health – as is All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews, with which it shares a loaded title word as well.

 

#2 Toews grew up in a Canadian Mennonite community, which leads me to my second choice, Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen, a set of droll autobiographical essays that I read on a USA trip in 2017.

 

#3 During the same trip, I read Dear American Airlines by Jonathan Miles, a witty novel about Bennie Ford’s rather miserable life, presented in the form of his longwinded complaint letter to the airline that has treated him to an unexpected overnight layover in Chicago.

 

#4 Another laugh-out-loud book in the form of unlikely letters: Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher, in which Jason Fitger, an irascible middle-aged English professor in the Midwest, writes ambivalent letters of recommendation for students and colleagues.

 

#5 One more “Dear” book of letters – I just can’t get enough of the epistolary form: Dear Fahrenheit 451 by Annie Spence. As the subtitle states, it’s a librarian’s love letters and breakup notes to books she’s adored and loathed. Casual and amusing, with good book recs.

 

#6 I’ll finish with Weather by Jenny Offill, one of my favourites from 2020, which is also voiced by a librarian. Through Lizzie, Offill captures modern anxiety about Trump-era politics, the climate crisis and making meaningful use of time.

 


I have read all the books in this month’s chain (the links above are to my Goodreads reviews), and in a time of relentless bad news have chosen to prioritize humour and keep my descriptions short and light. These are all books that made me laugh, sometimes despite their weighty content, and half of them are built around letters. I’ve also looped from one Women’s Prize-shortlisted title to another.

Where will your chain take you? Join us for #6Degrees of Separation! (Hosted on the first Saturday of each month by Kate W. of Books Are My Favourite and Best.) Next month’s starting point will be Wintering by Katherine May – though it’s summer here, it’s winter where Kate is in Australia!

Have you read any of my selections? Tempted by any you didn’t know before?

To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara (Doorstopper of the Quarter)

When I expressed interest in Hanya Yanagihara’s To Paradise on Twitter, having loved A Little Life and tepidly admired The People in the Trees, I didn’t expect to be chosen to receive one of my most anticipated releases of the year. A proof arrived while I was in the States for Christmas. As soon as I got back, I started it – with a vision of doing little else but reading it for a few days and reviewing it early in January. Instead, I read about 30 pages and set it aside, the 700-page heft mocking me from my coffee table stack for the better part of two months. Finally, I forced myself to set a daily reading goal: first 30 pages, then 40, then 60; and on Friday I read the last 100 pages over a couple sessions in the summerhouse. That regimented approach was what it took for me to get through my first doorstopper of the year.

The novel is in three parts – discrete enough to feel like separate books – set largely in 1893, 1993, and 2093. New York City’s Washington Square, even one particular house, recurs as a setting in all three, with some references to the American West and South and with flashbacks to time in Hawaii linking Books II and III.

The overarching theme is the American project: is freedom, both individual and collective, a worthy and attainable goal? Or are the country’s schisms too deep to be overcome? Class, race, sexuality, and physical and mental illness are some of the differences that Yanagihara explores. Even when equality of treatment has been won in one time and scenario – same-sex marriage is de rigueur in her alternative version of the 1890s, where the USA is divided into several nations – there is always the threat of a taken-for-granted right being retracted.

In Book I, David Bingham, who is to inherit his grandfather’s Washington Square property, considers a family-approved arranged marriage with an older man, Charles, versus eloping with a lower-class male teacher, Edward, with whom he has fallen in love. Edward wants them to light out for California, where new opportunities await but homosexuality is outlawed. Can they live in freedom if they’re repressing an essential part of their identity? The austere, elegant tone is a pitch-perfect pastiche of Henry James or Edith Wharton. Although this section took me the longest to read, it was the one I most appreciated for its flawless evocation of the time period and a rigid class structure. As in The Underground Railroad, though, the alt-history angle wasn’t really the most memorable aspect.

In Book II, David Bingham, also known as Kawika, is a paralegal having a secret affair with Charles, a partner in his law firm. Various friends and former lovers in their circle have AIDS, but Charles’s best friend Peter is dying of cancer. Before Peter flies to Switzerland for an assisted death, Charles throws him one last dinner party. Meanwhile, David receives a long letter from his ill father recounting their descent from Indigenous nobility and his failed attempt to set up a self-sufficient farm on their inherited land in Hawaii. This strand is closest to Yanagihara’s previous novels, the gay friendship circle reminiscent of A Little Life and the primitive back-to-the-land story recalling The People in the Trees. I also thought of Mrs Dalloway – David wanted to get the flowers for the party himself – and of Three Junes.

Book III is set in a dystopian future of extreme heat, rationing and near-constant pandemics. The totalitarian state institutes ever more draconian policies, with censorship, quarantine camps and public execution of insurgents. The narrator, intellectually disabled after a childhood illness, describes the restrictions with the flat affect of the title robot from Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun. When a stranger offers her the chance to escape, she is forced to weigh up freedom against safety. An alternating strand, based around letters sent by a Chinese Hawaiian character, traces how things got this bad, from the 2040s onwards.

While the closing speculative vision is all too plausible, two other literary/science fiction releases I’ve read this year, Sea of Tranquillity by Emily St. John Mandel and How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu, are more powerful and direct. Book III takes up half of the text and could stand alone, but the fact that it appears as a culmination of two other narratives creates false expectations that it can’t meet. The connections between the three are incidental – abandonment by a mother, a child raised by a grandparent, an arranged marriage, isolating illness – with recurring tactics like stories within stories and epistolary sections. The most overt cohesive strategy, the repeating of names across time periods, feels gimmicky and, again, sets readers up for a letdown by promising meaning that isn’t there.

Ultimately, the message seems to be: America’s problems are inherent, and so persist despite apparent progress. It takes a lot of words to build to that somewhat obvious point. I couldn’t suppress my disappointment that none of the storylines are resolved – this does, however, mean that one can choose to believe things will turn out happily for the characters. Their yearning for a more authentic life, even in a rotten state, makes it easy to empathize with their situations. I had high regard for the self-assured cross-genre prose (my interest waning only during the elder Kawika’s improbably long letter), but felt the ambition perhaps outshone the achievement.

As I learned when reviewing a recent book about American utopian projects, Heaven Is a Place on Earth, and interviewing its author, Adrian Shirk, an imagined utopia and a projected dystopia aren’t actually so different. Here was her response to one of my questions:

At one point you say, “utopia is never far from its opposite.” Dystopian novels are as popular as ever. To what extent do you think real-life utopias and fictional dystopias have the same aims?

I think real-life utopian experiments and fictional dystopias both offer warnings about the dangers of relying too much on ideology, and not enough on living, or choosing the person over the belief. So, in that way, real utopian experiments and fictional dystopian narratives are two sides of the same coin: a dystopia is a utopia that lost sight of—or never included—understanding itself as resistance to a violent empire, and thus starts to look like a violent empire itself.

Both start by diagnosing a societal sickness. The question is how we then get to paradise.

 


Page count: 701

Book I:

Book II:

Book III:

 My overall rating:

With thanks to Picador for the proof copy for review.

Review and Q&A: Those Fantastic Lives by Bradley Sides

Bradley Sides and I worked together on Bookkaholic web magazine in 2014–15 and I’ve been following his career ever since. I was delighted to get early access to his debut short story collection, Those Fantastic Lives (out today from Blacklight Press), which was an ideal transition for me from September’s short story focus to October’s R.I.P. challenge for how it blends the genres of dystopia, horror, and magic realism with literary writing.

Many of the protagonists in these 17 stories are orphans or children who have lost one parent. Grief uproots them, leaves them questing; combine their loneliness with dashes of the supernatural and you have perfect situations for strange and wonderful things to happen. So in the title story we have Sam, who at eight longs to follow in his psychic grandmother’s footsteps. In the achingly beautiful “Dolls for the End of the World,” young Patrick’s empathy somehow makes the apocalypse more bearable. In “The Hunt,” 10-year-old Zoey is obsessed with finding a sasquatch, while “In the Hollow” Walt trusts wolf-like creatures to lead him to his dead mother.

“Commencement,” in a first-person plural voice, is the creepiest of the lot, documenting preparations for graduation at a special academy. To be named the class valedictorian is an enduring yet dubious honor… But there are flashes of humor in the book as well. For instance, the lighthearted werewolf story “A Complicated Correspondence” is told via a series of increasingly convoluted e-mails. These two and “Back in Crowville,” in which scarecrows are used to scare off ghosts, too, struck me as perfect Halloween reading. I’d particularly recommend the book to readers of Kelly Link and Lydia Millet.

Brad and I had a chat over e-mail about his inspiration, themes and publication process.

 

Can you remember what the seed was for some of these stories? A particular line, scene, image, or character? Do you start writing a story with a title in mind, or does the title usually suggest itself later on?

Almost all of the stories I write come to me initially as a vision. I don’t mean in a dream or anything that dramatic, but I might be walking and see a stream, and suddenly that stream is placed in another world, and the stakes are much, much higher. Once I see my characters or my setting or my situation, I have to write a story that leads up to the moment I’m seeing. Writing and creating is, for me, a very internalized process.

Titles are so hard for me. I wish this weren’t the case, but I never write with titles in mind. Sometimes I’ll have the story ready, and I might have to wait weeks before I come to the right title. In regards to writing, I think I’m the worst at titling.

 

I think my favorite line in the book might be “Just because something can’t be seen doesn’t mean that it’s gone.” That’s from “The Comet Seekers,” about a pair of brothers in search of their father. A number of the stories feature children who have lost a guardian. How does bereavement alter the course of these coming-of-age narratives?

I’m so interested in loss in general. In life, we lose things. As kids. As adults. It doesn’t stop. I grew up on a farm, and animals died constantly. Chickens were slaughtered by foxes. Ducks were killed on their nests by turtles. Cows were sold and slaughtered. Pets died. Loss was everywhere. I’ve always thought about it. I guess, in many ways, loss haunts me.

I feel like bereavement and orphanhood create tension in many of my stories, but they also serve to add stakes to my characters’ lives. It’s tough to keep losing. Sometimes, you’ll do anything to keep from experiencing that—or to try to keep from experiencing that, at least. There’s power there.

 

I imagine that, like sequencing an album, choosing the order of the stories was a pleasurable challenge. How did you decide on the structure of the book – the opening story, the closing story; the themes running into or contrasting with each other; transitions; and so on?

It was a fun process to start putting all of my work together. I mean, it was also a little stressful once I got near the end and was getting ready to send Those Fantastic Lives out, but it was still fun. I have written a lot of stories, but for my collection, I wanted to only include the stories I love the most. I cut and cut based on just pure writerly love first—and gut instinct, I suppose. Once I had it narrowed, I started looking closely at themes. I removed a handful that felt like they didn’t belong. I really like slim collections (and slim books in general), so I wanted something relatively short—something less than 200 pages. The strangest thing I did was that I read the collection aloud. SEVERAL times, too. If a story didn’t fit the sound, I cut it. I really wanted to put out a cohesive collection, and I think (hope?) I’ve done that with these seventeen stories.

 

I loved how elements recurred in later tales – for instance, in both “Losing Light” and “The Mooneaters” characters consume sources of light and glow from the inside, and “What They Left Behind” connects back to “The Mooneaters” in that a character starts to sprout feathers. How do you account for these pervasive images?

This is probably a terrible response to such a great question, but it’s the truth: I look at the sky a lot. As in, probably way beyond what is normal. When I walk my dog, I look up at the morning sky and think about the clouds and the rising sun. When my wife and I are out on the porch in the evenings, I look up and think about the approaching stars. The coming moon. Whether early or late, the birds are always around, flying to wherever it is they go. I am so amazed by and curious of the sky. It’s such a beautiful, mysterious place that hovers above us, and it’s kind of the perfect space for me to root a lot of the fantastical elements of my stories.

 

In my favorite story, “The Galactic Healers,” Lian makes contact with aliens who offer a therapeutic balm. His suspicious father takes the medicine by force – a plan that quickly backfires. To what extent might this one be read as a parable of colonial exploitation and toxic masculinity?

I’m so glad you liked “The Galactic Healers,” Rebecca. It is one of my favorites, too. I’m naturally drawn, just as a human and not even necessarily speaking as a writer, to the topics you mention. I think about otherness. What it means to be outside or different. In that same way, I think about tender versus toxic behavior. I think the reading you have of the story is definitely a good one. And it probably captures where I was, in my head, at that time.

 

I sensed shades of Karen Russell and George Saunders. Who are some of your favorite writers, and who would you cite as inspirations for the collection?

I love Karen Russell and George Saunders both. I’m honored that my work reminds you of their writing. I think they are both influences on my fiction. I’m also inspired by Ray Bradbury a lot. I’m a very visual creator, so television writers also serve as huge inspirations for me. Mike Flanagan’s work (The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting of Bly Manor) haunts me, and I love it.

Bradley Sides. Photo by Abraham Rowe.

 

Versions of 12 of the stories previously appeared in various publications. What has your experience been of getting your work into literary magazines?

Getting published in literary magazines is an exhausting process. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a necessary one and one that gives me a lot of joy in the long run, but it’s also tough. I write weird stuff. Not every magazine wants a story about glowing monsters or a tiny kid whose home planet was invaded by giants and now lives on an ice cube. Finding the right magazine takes time, and even when I think I’ve found the right place, I’m sometimes wrong. I submit, hope for the best, and keep submitting. Usually, most of my stories wind up finding homes in the first five or so magazines I submit them to, but that’s not always the case. With “What They Left Behind,” for example, I bet I sent that story to twenty or thirty magazines before I found the perfect match at Crow & Cross Keys. Although it took some time to land at its home, it found its PERFECT home.

 

These stories were seven years in the making. What was your road to publication like, and how did you land at Blacklight Press?

Like many yet-to-publish-a-book writers, I was constantly searching for publication information as I was reaching the end of my writing cycle for Those Fantastic Lives, and I kept encountering these articles about how long and tough the publication process can be. I was prepared for it to take years before I found a press willing to take on my collection.

Once it was ready, I sent Those Fantastic Lives out to a handful of publishers—all of which I’d found out about with basic web searches. A couple were interested, but the offer wasn’t what I was looking for. A couple showed interest, but ultimately passed. Blacklight landed, and I knew it was what I was looking for very early on.

The process of when I began to when I found my publisher was probably less than six months.

The whole team at Blacklight has been fantastic, too. It’s really been a dream experience. I feel very grateful.

 

In your day job, you teach English and creative writing to high schoolers. What are some of the most important lessons you hope your students will take away from your classes, and what have you learned from them?

I hope, more than anything, that my students learn that their words—and their stories—matter. If they truly put themselves into their work, it is art, and it is important. I also hope they leave my classroom knowing how important respect is. To other writers. To themselves. To their eventual readers. To people in general. Respect is key.

I’ve learned so much from my creative writing students. They inspire me. They motivate me. Seeing their excitement when they write something they are proud of reminds me why I write in the first place. They are also wonderfully eager readers. I love discussing stories with them and learning how they perceive texts. Creative writing classes are treasured places.

 

What are you working on next?

Earlier this year, I began working on my next set of stories. I’m a slow writer. Maybe a very slow writer. With it being so early in the process, it’s hard to say exactly what the next collection will look like, but I do think I’ll largely stay focused on the same kinds of themes. Loss, loneliness, and transformation are naturally interesting to me. There’ll be more experimentation with form. A story in the shape of a manual. A gameplay story. A transcript. A flash in questions. There’ll be plenty of magical weirdness, too, with, probably, pond monsters, apocalypses, a shark boy, kidnapping ghosts, and who knows what else. I just hope it won’t take me so long to write this second book!

20 Books of Summer, #12–13, BLUE: Johnson & MacMahon

Blue has been the most common colour in my themed summer reading, showing up in six out of the 20 titles. In the two books I’m reviewing today, it’s used somewhat ironically, with a YA memoir subverting its association with conventional masculinity and a Women’s Prize-longlisted novel contrasting idyllic holiday weather with the persistence of grief.

 

All Boys Aren’t Blue: A Memoir-Manifesto by George M. Johnson (2020)

“you sometimes can’t see yourself if you can’t see other people like you existing, thriving”

Growing up in New Jersey in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Johnson knew he was different. He preferred Double-Dutch to football, called his classmates “Honeychild,” and begged for a pair of cowboy boots instead of the sneakers everyone else coveted. His effeminate ways earned the expected epithets. Even though he had plenty of LGBT precedents in his own family – a gay older half-brother, a lesbian aunt, a trans cousin – and his beloved Nanny assured him he was loved for who he was, he didn’t publicly confess his identity until he got to college and felt accepted as part of a fraternity. In fact, there are three instances in the book when, as a teenager, he’s asked directly if he’s gay and he denies it. (Do you hear a rooster?)

Johnson is a warm, earnest storyteller and deftly chooses moments when he became aware of the social disadvantages inherent to his race and sexuality. His memoir is marketed to teens, who should find a lot to relate to here, such as dealing with bullies and realizing that what you’ve been taught is comforting myth. In the “‘Honest Abe’ Lied to Me” chapter, he discovers in middle school that Lincoln didn’t actually support racial equality and questions whether landmark achievements by Black people are just conciliatory tokens – “symbolism is a threat to actual change—it’s a chance for those in power to say, ‘Look how far you have come’ rather than admitting, ‘Look how long we’ve stopped you from getting here.’”

The manifesto element of the book lies in its investigation of the intersection of Blackness and queerness. Johnson is an activist and wants queer Black kids to have positive role models. He knows he was lucky to have family support and middle-class status; many have it harder, getting thrown out and ending up homeless. Multiple chapters are devoted to his family members, some in the form of letters. The structure didn’t always feel intuitive to me, with direct address to his cousin or grandmother coming seemingly out of nowhere. The language is informal, but that doesn’t excuse “me and so-and-so” constructions or referring to “people that” instead of “who”; young adult readers need to have good grammar reinforced.

I also questioned whether the author needed to be so sexually explicit in describing his molestation at the hands of an older male cousin (he has about a zillion cousins) and losing his virginity at age 20. Then again, today’s teens are probably a lot more sexually knowledgeable than I was 20+ years ago. All in all, I wondered if Johnson is more successful as a motivational speaker than a writer. I think his occasional bravado (he closes his introduction with “This is the story of George Matthew Johnson. This is a story for us all.”) would come across better in person than in print. Still, considering I couldn’t be much further from the target audience, I found this a sweet and engaging read. (Public library)

 

Nothing but Blue Sky by Kathleen MacMahon (2020)

“Incongruous, the situations we found ourselves in. To be talking about such sorrow against the backdrop of a Mediterranean summer.”

SPOILERS in the following; otherwise it would be difficult to say anything other than that this novel is a deeply touching look at loss and what comes next. When I read a synopsis, I thought it would be Sue Miller’s Monogamy with the roles reversed, but that’s because the blurb makes it sound like there were secrets in David and Mary Rose’s marriage that only emerge after her death in a plane crash. I was on the alert for something sordid and earth-shattering, but in fact this is a quiet novel about what goes unsaid in any marriage.

David, a foreign correspondent on Dublin’s television news, always put his career first, his sophistication and wicked humour masking the wounds of an emotionally chilly upbringing. Mary Rose, a hospital midwife, was the perfect foil, deflating his pomposity and calling him out on any unfeeling quips. Her loving nature was the soul of their relationship. Now that’s she gone, David regrets that he didn’t take more seriously her desperation to have children, a desire he didn’t share. His voice, even flattened and numbed by grief, is a delight. For instance, here’s how he describes Irish seaside holidays: “Summer to us was freezing your arse off on a windswept beach, with a trip to the ice-cream shop if you were lucky. Of course, they never had the ice-cream you wanted.”

The novel is set in Aiguaclara, a hidden gem on Spain’s Costa Brava where David and Mary Rose holidayed every summer for 20 years. Against his friends’ advice, he’s decided to come back alone this year. Although most of the book remembers their life together and their previous vacations here, there is also a present storyline running underneath. Initially subtle, it offers big surprises later on. These I won’t spoil; I’ll only say that David’s cynical belief that he’ll never experience happiness again is proven wrong. Grief, memory, fate: some of my favourite themes, elegantly treated. This reminded me of Three Junes and also, to a lesser extent, The Heart’s Invisible Furies. (Public library)

 

Coming up next: Pairs of green and red titles.

 

Would you be interested in reading one of these?

First Four in a Row: Márai, Maupin, McEwan, McKay

I announced a few new TBR reading projects back in May 2020, including a Four in a Row Challenge (see the ‘rules’, such as they are, in my opening post). It only took me, um, nearly 11 months to complete a first set! The problem was that I kept changing my mind on which four to include and acquiring more that technically should go into the sequence, e.g. McCracken, McGregor; also, I stalled on the Maupin for ages. But here we are at last. Debbie, meanwhile, took up the challenge and ran with it, completing a set of four novels – also by M authors, clearly a numerous and tempting bunch – back in October. Here’s hers.

I’m on my way to completing a few more sets: I’ve read one G, one and a bit H, and I selected a group of four L. I’ve not chosen a nonfiction quartet yet, but that could be an interesting exercise: I file by author surname even within categories like science/nature and travel, so this could throw up interesting combinations of topics. Do feel free to join in this challenge if, like me, you could use a push to get through more of the books on your shelves.

 

Embers by Sándor Márai (1942)

[Translated from the Hungarian by Carol Brown Janeway]

My first work of Hungarian literature.* This was a random charity shop purchase, simply because I’m always trying to read more international literature and had enjoyed translations by Carol Brown Janeway before. In 1940, two old men are reunited for the first time in 41 years at a gloomy castle, where they will dine by candlelight and, over the course of a long conversation, face up to the secret that nearly destroyed their friendship. This is the residence of 75-year-old Henrik, usually referred to as “the General,” who lives alone apart from Nini, his 91-year-old wet nurse. His wife, Krisztina, died 33 years ago.

Henrik was 10 when he met Konrad at an academy school. They were soon the best of friends, but two things came between them: first was the difference in their backgrounds (“each forgave the other’s original sin: wealth on the one hand and poverty on the other”); second was their love for the same woman.

I appreciated the different setup to this one – a male friendship, just a few very old characters, the probing of the past through memory and dialogue – but it was so languid that I struggled to stay engaged with the plot.

*My next will be Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb, another charity shop find.

Favourite lines:

“My homeland was a feeling, and that feeling was mortally wounded.”

“Life becomes bearable only when one has come to terms with who one is, both in one’s own eyes and in the eyes of the world.”

 

Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin (1978)

I’d picked this up from the free bookshop we used to have in the local mall (the source of my next two as well) and started it during Lockdown #1 because in The Novel Cure it is given as a prescription for Loneliness. Berthoud and Elderkin suggest it can make you feel like part of a gang of old friends, and it’s “as close to watching television as literature gets” due to the episodic format – the first four Tales books were serialized in the San Francisco Chronicle.

How I love a perfect book and bookmark combination!

The titled chapters are each about three pages long, which made it an ideal bedside book – I would read a chapter per night before sleep. The issue with this piecemeal reading strategy, though, was that I never got to know any of the characters; because I’d often only pick up the book once a week or so, I forgot who people were and what was going on. That didn’t stop individual vignettes from being entertaining, but meant it didn’t all come together for me.

Maupin opens on Mary Ann Singleton, a 25-year-old secretary who goes to San Francisco on vacation and impulsively decides to stay. She rooms at Anna Madrigal’s place on Barbary Lane and meets a kooky assortment of folks, many of them gay – including her new best friend, Michael Tolliver, aka “Mouse.” There are parties and affairs, a pregnancy and a death, all told with a light touch and a clear love for the characters; dialogue predominates. While it’s very much of its time, it manages not to feel too dated overall. I can see why many have taken the series to heart, but don’t think I’ll go further with Maupin’s work.

Note: Long before I tried the book, I knew about it through one of my favourite Bookshop Band songs, “Cleveland,” which picks up on Mary Ann’s sense of displacement as she ponders whether she’d be better off back in Ohio after all. Selected lyrics:

Quaaludes and cocktails

A story book lane

A girl with three names

A place, post-Watergate

Freed from its bird cage

Where the unafraid parade

[…]

Perhaps, we should all

Go back to Cleveland

Where we know what’s around the bend

[…]

Citizens of Atlantis

The Madrigal Enchantress cries

And we decide, to stay and bide our time

On this far-out, far-flung peninsula.

 

The Children Act by Ian McEwan (2014)

Although it’s good to see McEwan take on a female perspective – a rarer choice for him, though it has shown up in Atonement and On Chesil Beach – this is a lesser novel from him, only interesting insomuch as it combines elements from two of his previous works, The Child in Time (legislation around child welfare) and Enduring Love (a religious stalker). Fiona Maye, a High Court judge, has to decide whether 17-year-old Adam, a bright and musical young man with acute leukaemia, should be treated with blood transfusions despite his Jehovah’s Witness parents’ objection.


[SPOILERS FOLLOW]

She rules that the doctors should go ahead with the treatment. “He must be protected from his religion and from himself.” Adam, now better but adrift from the religion he was raised in, starts stalking Fiona and sending her letters and poems. Estranged from her husband, who wants her to condone his affair with a young colleague, and fond of Adam, Fiona spontaneously kisses the young man while traveling for work near Newcastle. But thereafter she ignores his communications, and when he doesn’t seek treatment for his recurring cancer and dies, she blames herself.

[END OF SPOILERS]


It’s worth noting that the AI in McEwan’s most recent full-length novel, Machines Like Me, is also named Adam, and in both books there’s uncertainty about whether the Adam character is supposed to be a child substitute.

 

The Birth House by Ami McKay (2006)

Dora is the only daughter to be born into the Rare family of Nova Scotia’s Scots Bay in five generations. At age 17, she becomes an apprentice to Marie Babineau, a Cajun midwife and healer who relies on ancient wisdom and appeals to the Virgin Mary to keep women safe and grant them what they want, whether that’s a baby or a miscarriage. As the 1910s advance and the men of the village start leaving for the war, the old ways represented by Miss B. and Dora come to be seen as a threat. Dr. Thomas wants women to take out motherhood insurance and commit to delivering their babies at the new Canning Maternity Home with the help of chloroform and forceps. “Why should you ladies continue to suffer, most notably the trials of childbirth, when there are safe, modern alternatives available to you?” he asks.

Encouraged into marriage at an early age, Dora has to put her vocation on hold to be a wife to Archer Bigelow, a drunkard with big plans for how he’s going to transform the area with windmills that generate electricity. Dora’s narration is interspersed with journal entries, letters, faux newspaper articles, what look like genuine period advertisements, and a glossary of herbal remedies – creating what McKay, in her Author’s Note, calls a “literary scrapbook.” I love epistolary formats, and there are so many interesting themes and appealing secondary characters here. Early obstetrics is not the only aspect of medicine included; there is also an exploration of “hysteria” and its treatment, and the Spanish flu makes a late appearance. Dora, away in Boston at the time, urges her friends from the Occasional Knitters’ Society to block the road to the Bay, make gauze masks, and wash their hands with hot water and soap.

There are a few places where the narrative is almost overwhelmed by all the (admittedly, fascinating) facts McKay, a debut author, turned up in her research, and where the science versus superstition dichotomy seems too simplistic, but for the most part this was just the sort of absorbing, atmospheric historical fiction that I like best. McKay took inspiration from her own home, an old birthing house in the Bay of Fundy.

The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields (Blog Tour Review)

Is it possible to capture the complete course of a life, whether looking from the outside or telling it from the inside? What is set in stone and what is fleeting? These are questions Carol Shields addresses in her 1995 Pulitzer Prize winner, which plays with perspective and forms of storytelling as it conveys the extra/ordinary life of Daisy Stone Goodwill Flett. What with the family tree and section of black-and-white photographs, you might expect this to be a family saga; with the chronological chapters proceeding from “Birth” in 1905 to “Death” in the 1990s, you might expect an objective faux-biography. But The Stone Diaries is neither.

The facts are these. Daisy’s mother, Mercy, dies giving birth to her in rural Manitoba. Raised by a neighbor, Daisy later moves to Indiana with her stonecutter father, Cuyler. After a disastrously short first marriage, Daisy returns to Canada to marry Barker Flett. Their three children and Ottawa garden become her life. She temporarily finds purpose in her empty-nest years by writing a “Mrs. Green Thumb” column for a local newspaper, but her retirement in Florida is plagued by illness and the feeling that she has missed out on what matters most.

What makes this surprising life story so remarkable is its unpicking of (auto)biographical authenticity: Shields switches between the first and third person, between Daisy’s point of view and a feigned omniscience. Some sections foreground others’ opinions: Chapter 6 is composed entirely of letters Daisy receives, while Chapter 7 collects short first-person narratives from her children and friends as they speculate on why she has fallen into a depression.

As in Shields’s Happenstance and Larry’s Party, which I’ve also reread this year, I was struck by the role that chance plays in any life:

History indeed! As though this paltry slice of time deserves such a name. Accident, not history, has called us together, and what an assembly we make. What confusion, what a clamor of inadequacy and portent.

Talk of bias, gaps and unreliability undermines the narrative:

Well, a childhood is what anyone wants to remember of it. It leaves behind no fossils, except perhaps in fiction. Which is why you want to take Daisy’s representation of events with a grain of salt, a bushel of salt.

Daisy herself almost disappears from the parts of the book where she is voiceless, consumed by her roles – by the end she is universally known as “Grandma Flett.” This meant that other characters stood out as more memorable to me: Cuyler for his obsessive building of stone monuments and streams of words, Barker for his love of plants and long-deferred sexual fulfillment, Daisy’s friend Fraidy Hoyt for her careful chronicling of fast living, and Magnus, Barker’s father, who lives long past his 100th birthday after his return to the Orkney Islands.

As in Moon Tiger, one of my absolute favorites, the author explores how events and memories turn into artifacts. The meta approach also, I suspect, tips the hat to other works of Canadian literature: in her introduction, Margaret Atwood mentions that the poet whose story inspired Shields’s Mary Swann had a collection entitled A Stone Diary, and surely the title’s similarity to Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel (1964) can’t be pure coincidence.

Experiencing the novel again after 14 years, I was impressed by the experimentation but ultimately somewhat detached from the story. It was admiration rather than love; I enjoyed earlier chapters more than the last few. But isn’t that just like life, to keep going past the point where it’s fun? And isn’t that the point, that the meaning you long for may not be there at all?

Marcie (Buried in Print) and I have reread – or, in my case for half of them, read for the first time – six Shields novels together in 2020. I hope I’ll find time to respond to the rest of them in the next few weeks. It has been so rewarding to observe how her themes recur and interlock. How heartening to see that, 17 years after her death, Shields is still being read and remembered, through the World Editions reissues (three more are coming in 2021) and through the Carol Shields Prize for Fiction, a new $100,000 annual award for North American women’s writing.


The Stone Diaries was reissued in the UK by World Editions on December 3rd. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.

 

I was delighted to be invited to help close out the blog tour for The Stone Diaries. See below for details of where other reviews have appeared.