“A story is like a net: you have to make your own; you have to throw the loops just right; you have to be careful what gets in and what gets out, what you catch and what you keep.”
Ten-year-old Ellie Fleck isn’t like the other children in her North Yorkshire town. The daughter of Pete, a grizzled fisherman, and Kate, an Irish Catholic woman who’s in a mental hospital after a presumed suicide attempt, Ellie was raised on stories of selkies and martyrdoms. Superstition infuses her daily life, making her afraid of pool trips with her classmates – it’s bad luck for fishermen to learn to swim – and leading her to expect her dead grandmother’s soul to waft in through an open window on Halloween night.
What with bullies’ beatings and her teacher Mr. Lockwood’s disapproval, it’s no wonder Ellie misses lots of school, going sea-coaling with her father or running off to the coast alone instead. But with Christmas approaching and Kate due home from the hospital, Ellie’s absences warrant an official visit. Social worker May Fletcher, the mother of Ellie’s new friend Fletch, is also concerned about Ellie’s home life. “How Saints Die,” Ellie and Fletch’s gruesome skit performed as an addendum to the school Nativity play, seems like proof that something is seriously wrong.
This is performance poet Carmen Marcus’s debut novel; from what I can tell it seems partially autobiographical. It powerfully conveys the pull of the sea and the isolation of an unconventional 1980s childhood. The dreamy, hypnotic prose alternates passages from Ellie’s perspective with shorter chapters from the points of view of the adults in her life, including her father, busybody neighbor Mrs. Forster, and May Fletcher. Marcus is equally skilled at the almost stream-of-consciousness passages describing Ellie’s trips to the sea and at humorous one-line descriptions:
Sand and salt in the cut, stinging. Her dad would know what to do. She wants him here, now, to show her. Without him the beach takes her up entirely, the shushshush of the sea and the coarse cackle of the waders at the waters-edge, creakcrackcreakcrackyawyaw; the wind tugging at the shell of her ear. All of it pulling, nipping, cutting at her – snipsnipsnip – and now blood, her edges ragged and wet.
Mrs Forster always smells faintly sweet and acidic like old Christmas cake.
– What are sins?
– They’re like germs but in your thoughts.
It’s easy to get lost in Ellie’s supernatural world of spirits and sea wolves, while the occasional outsider views make it clear just how dangerous some of her notions could be. Like Paula Cocozza’s How to Be Human, this sets up an intriguing contrast between magic realism and madness. The language is full of transformations and fairy tale tropes. I was reminded at times of Amy Sackville’s Orkney and Fiona Melrose’s Midwinter. Although there is perhaps one perilous situation too many at the climax and the resolution is a bit drawn out (and there is also less punctuation than I would like), this is still a strong and absorbing first novel and one I fully expect to see on next year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist.
How Saints Die is published in the UK today, July 13th, by Harvill Secker. My thanks to Louise Court for sending a free copy for review.
Believe it or not, but the year is almost half over already. A look back at the “Best of 2017” shelf I’ve started on Goodreads has revealed the eight releases that have stood out most clearly for me so far. All but one of these I have already featured on the blog in some way; links are provided. I’ve also included short excerpts from my reviews to show what makes each of these books so special.
How to Be Human by Paula Cocozza: There’s something gently magical about the way the perspective occasionally shifts to give a fox’s backstory and impressions as a neologism-rich stream. As much as this is about a summer of enchantment and literal brushes with urban wildlife, it’s also about a woman’s life: loneliness, the patterns we get stuck in, and those unlooked-for experiences that might just liberate us. Cocozza sets up such intriguing contradictions between the domestic and the savage, the humdrum and the unpredictable.
Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller: This isn’t a happy family story. It’s full of betrayals and sadness, of failures to connect and communicate. Yet it’s beautifully written, with all its scenes and dialogue just right, and it’s pulsing with emotion. One theme is how there can be different interpretations of the same events even within a small family. The novel is particularly strong on atmosphere, reminding me of Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea and Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale. Fuller also manages her complex structure very well.
In Every Moment We Are Still Alive by Tom Malmquist: Malmquist does an extraordinary job of depicting his protagonist’s bewilderment at the sudden loss of his partner and his new life as a single father. While it’s being marketed as a novel, this reads more like a stylized memoir. Similar to Karl Ove Knausgaard’s books, it features the author as the central character and narrator, and the story of grief it tells is a highly personal one. This is a book I fully expect to see on next year’s Wellcome Book Prize shortlist.
My Life with Bob by Pamela Paul: I’ve found a new favorite bibliomemoir. 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 new husband took a fundamentally different approach to the works of Thomas Mann, Paul (editor of the New York Times Book Review) always looks beyond the books themselves to ask what they say about her. Just the sort of book I wish I had written.
My Jewish Year by Abigail Pogrebin: This bighearted, open-minded book strikes me as a perfect model for how any person of faith should engage with their tradition: not just offering lip service and grudgingly showing up to a few services a year, but knowing what you believe and practice, and why. From September 2014 to September 2015, Pogrebin celebrated all the holidays in the Jewish calendar. I was consistently impressed by how she draws thematic connections and locates the resonance of religious ritual in her daily life.
The Bright Hour by Nina Riggs: Beautiful prose enhances this literary and philosophical approach to terminal cancer. Riggs was a great-great-great-granddaughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and she quotes from her ancestor’s essays as well as from Michel de Montaigne’s philosophy of life to put things in perspective. She’s an expert at capturing the moments that make life alternately euphoric and unbearable – sometimes both at once. A wonderful book, so wry and honest, with a voice that reminds me of Anne Lamott and Elizabeth McCracken.
Fragile Lives by Stephen Westaby: This is a vivid, compassionate set of stories culled from the author’s long career in heart surgery. Westaby conveys a keen sense of the adrenaline rush a surgeon gets while operating with the Grim Reaper looking on. I am not a little envious of all that he has achieved: not just saving the occasional life despite his high-mortality field – as if that weren’t enough – but also pioneering various artificial heart solutions and a tracheal bypass tube that’s named after him.
The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker: Though it seems lighthearted on the surface, there’s a lot of meat to this story of the long friendship between two female animators. The cartooning world and the Kentucky–New York City dichotomy together feel like a brand new setting for a literary tragicomedy. I appreciated how Whitaker contrasts the women’s public and private personas and imagines their professional legacy. Plus I love a good road trip narrative, and this novel has two.
And here’s five more 4.5- or 5-star books that I read this year but were not published in 2017:
Days Without End by Sebastian Barry
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis
What are some of the best books you’ve read so far this year?
What 2017 releases do I need to catch up on right away?
I’m mostly grouping these two debut novels by women authors together for my scheduling convenience, but they do have things in common. For starters, both center on an encounter with another species that determines much of what follows. For another thing, they pivot on the end of one relationship and the potential beginning of another. And in the end they’re about how we retain our humanity in the face of loss – despite the strong temptation to give into madness. Although they are both notable and surprising books, I felt that one was significantly more successful than the other; read on to discover which I favor.
How to Be Human by Paula Cocozza
Thirty-four-year-old Mary Green is adrift after her long-term fiancé, Mark, moves out of their East London home. She works in university HR but hates her job and can never manage to show up to it on time. Though she and Mark broke up in part because she didn’t feel ready to commit to having children, she’s inordinately fond of the next-door neighbors’ baby, Flora. Most of all, she’s trying to reorient herself to the presence of a fox who slips in from the surrounding edgeland to visit her back garden each evening. He leaves presents: boxers, a glove, an egg, and – one disorienting evening – Flora herself, a live bundle on the back steps.
Whereas the neighbors are horrified at the thought of a fox infestation and ready to go on the attack if necessary, Mary is enraptured by this taste of wildness. Before long the novel is using almost erotic vocabulary to describe her encounters with ‘her’ fox; Mary even allows the neighbors and her ex to get the idea that she’s ‘seeing someone’ new. Yet even as Mary’s grasp on reality grows feebler, it’s easy to empathize with her delight at the unexpectedness of interspecies connection: “At the end of her garden she had found a friend. … His wildness was a gift. … He was an escape artist, she thought admiringly. Maybe he could free her too.”
I love this novel for what it has to say about trespass, ownership and belonging. Whose space is this, really, and where do our loyalties lie? Cocozza sets up such intriguing contradictions between the domestic and the savage, the humdrum and the unpredictable. The encounter with the Other is clarifying, even salvific, and allows Mary to finally make her way back to herself. There’s something gently magical about the way the perspective occasionally shifts to give the fox’s backstory and impressions as a neologism-rich stream (“Come fresh to stalk around the human Female with sly feet and rippety eyes. Spruckling toadsome”). Memorable lines abound, and a chapter set at the neighbors’ barbecue is brilliant, as are the final three chapters, in which Mary – like James Darke – holes up in her house in anticipation of a siege.
As much as this is about a summer of enchantment and literal brushes with urban wildlife, it’s also about women’s lives: loneliness, choices we make and patterns we get stuck in, and those unlooked-for experiences that might just liberate us. The character Mary is my near contemporary, so I could relate to her sense of being stuck personally and professionally, and also of feeling damned if you do, damned if you don’t regarding having children. “Some part of her was made for a bigger, wilder, freer life.” One of my favorite books of 2017 so far.
Paula Cocozza is a feature writer for the Guardian. How to Be Human was published in the UK by Hutchinson on April 6th. My thanks to Najma Finlay for the free copy for review.
If you’re in the London area, you may be interested in this animal-themed Faber Social event, also featuring Lucy Jones, author of Foxes Unearthed. I’ll be in America at the time or else I surely would have gone!
No doubt about it: the cover and title – from W. B. Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan” – can’t be beat. One day in late March this book showed up on my Twitter, Goodreads and Instagram feeds, and the cover lured me into requesting a copy right away. The elevator pitch is a winner, too: Seb’s artist wife, Leda, was killed by a swan. To be precise, she was boating in a London park and got too close to some cygnets; the parent bird upturned the boat and Leda drowned. The novel is narrated by Seb, an art history professor realizing just how little he knew about the woman he loved. When he takes a break from work to travel to Leda’s native Latvia in search of answers, he even learns that she was known by another name, Leila.
It’s as if Seb is running both towards and away from his sorrow:
What can I do to find some way back to Leda? I seek for meaning in every miserable glint and shadow … I felt I was starting to lose myself as well. Grief is the aggressive displacement of the self from a known universe to another … I want to bury myself neck-deep in the quicksand of grief.
When he gets to Latvia he stays at a guesthouse and communicates with the landlady in Russian. For a week running he meets Leda’s cousin Olaf at his clubhouse each night to drink and play cards, and later bags a boar with Olaf and his hunting buddies. While viewing a fresco in a picturesque church he meets Ursula, who is looking to build an eco-friendly resort to boost the country’s tourism industry. She soon emerges as a potential love interest for Seb.
As best I could make out, this is set roughly a decade ago. Interspersed between Seb’s rather aimless travels are passages from Leda’s diary between 1988 and 2005. These reveal her to have been a lonely, bullied youth who took refuge in art and music. If you’re familiar with the myth of Leda and the Swan, you’ll be expecting the trauma in her past. It’s a shame this has to be spelt out in Leda’s final diary entry; it was sufficiently foreshadowed, I think.
Ultimately I felt this book had a promising setup but didn’t particularly go anywhere. It struck me as an excellent short story idea that got expanded and lost a good bit of its power along the way. This is a shame, as I was initially reminded of several excellent debut novels with Eastern European elements, especially in the excellent opening sequence about how Leda’s various female ancestors perished (Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated, Rebecca Dinerstein’s The Sunlit Night, and Jaroslav Kalfař’s Spaceman of Bohemia). There could have been a quirky family saga in there had Goldstone chosen to go in that direction.
By the end we’ve learned next to nothing about Seb despite his first-person narration, and little of interest about Leda either. I can see how this is meant to reinforce a central message about the unknowability of other people, even those we think we know best, but it creates distance between reader and narrator. You could easily read this 194-page paperback in an afternoon. If you do and find yourself, like me, a mite dissatisfied, never fear – Goldstone is so young and writes so well; I’m confident she will only improve in the years to come.
Eli Goldstone has a City University Creative Writing MA. Strange Heart Beating is published in the UK by Granta today, May 4th. My thanks to Natalie Shaw for the free copy for review.
Foxes Unearthed, freelance journalist Lucy Jones’s first book, won a Society of Authors’ Roger Deakin Award for nature writing. If you’re familiar with Patrick Barkham’s Badgerlands, you’ll recognize this as a book with a comparable breadth and a similar aim: clearing the reputation of an often unfairly reviled British mammal. Jones ranges from history to science and from mythology to children’s literature in her search for the truth about foxes. Given the media’s obsession with fox attacks, this is a noble and worthwhile undertaking.
The book proper opens with a visit to Roald Dahl’s house, now a Buckinghamshire museum, where he wrote Fantastic Mr. Fox. Still one of the best-known representations of foxes in British literature, Dahl’s Mr. Fox is a Robin Hood-like hero, outsmarting a trio of mean-spirited farmers to provide a feast for his family. Foxes’ seemingly innate wiliness prompts ambivalent reactions, though; we admire it, but we also view it as a threat or an annoyance. As Jones puts it, the fox of fables and traditional stories is “a villain we cheer for.”
Not everyone cheers, of course. Under Henry VIII, the Vermin Acts of 1532 (not repealed until the 1750s) promised a reward to anyone who killed foxes, then considered a nuisance animal. Fox hunting and the cruel sport of “tossing” have a long history that eventually came up against the movement towards animal welfare, starting with Jeremy Bentham in the 1740s and codified by the 1911 Protection of Animals Act. Meanwhile, Jones notes, children’s books advocating compassion for animals, such as Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty (1877), ensured that the message made it out of the legislative chamber and into everyday life.
The second chapter is a useful survey of fox behavior. Foxes are omnivores, and in recent decades have started to move into Britain’s cities, where they find plenty of food to scavenge. In rural settings, foxes are still the subject of farmers’ loathing even though they rarely take lambs and actually help keep rabbit numbers in check. Still, the stereotype of foxes killing for fun instead of for hunger persists, whereas they in fact cache their surplus food. Chapter 3 asks whether fox numbers have reached pest status and considers various control strategies, from straightforward culling to the non-lethal methods supported by conservationists.
I enjoyed Jones’s meetings with figures from both sides of the debate. She goes along on a fox hunt, but also meets or quotes animal rights activists, academics, and high-profile nature promoters like Chris Packham. All told, though, I felt this book could have been closer to 200 pages than 300. Most chapters are very long, and some could easily be combined and/or shortened. For instance, Chapter 1 relays the amount of information about fox hunting that most readers will be prepared to absorb, yet it’s then the subject of two more chapters.
This is an important book for correcting misconceptions, but your enjoyment of it will likely be in proportion to your personal interest in the subject. In terms of fonts and cover design, though, you’re unlikely to come across a more gorgeous book this year.
Foxes Unearthed was published in paperback by Elliott & Thompson on March 16th. Thanks to Alison Menzies for arranging my free copy for review.