I don’t often get a chance to read the wonderful-sounding Australian books I see on prize shortlists or on Kate’s blog, so I was delighted when Extinctions, which won the 2017 Miles Franklin Literary Award, was published in the UK last year. It may just be my mind making easy associations, but Josephine Wilson’s second novel indeed reminded me of other Australian fiction I’ve enjoyed, including The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt by Tracy Farr, Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar, and The Singing Ship by Rebecca Winterer. I can’t quite put my finger on what these novels have in common despite their disparate time settings. A hot and forbidding landscape? An enduring sense of pioneer spirit, of survival against the odds? All four, to an extent, pit an explorer’s impetus against family trauma and/or racial difference.
The antihero of Extinctions is widower Frederick Lothian, who at age 69 is a reluctant resident of St Sylvan’s Estate retirement village. It’s January 2006, the middle of a blistering Australian summer, and amid his usual morbid activities of reading the newspaper obituaries and watching his elderly co-residents fall over outside his air-conditioned unit, he has plenty of time to drift back over his life. A retired engineer, he’s an expert on concrete construction as well as a noted collector of modernist furniture. But he’s been much less successful in his personal life. His son is in a care home after a devastating accident, and his adopted daughter Caroline, who is part Aborigine, blames and avoids Fred. A run-in with a nosy neighbor, Jan, forces him to face the world – and his past – again.
Meanwhile, Caroline is traveling in the UK to secure specimens for a museum exhibit on extinct species, and the idea of feeling utterly lonesome, like the last of one’s kind, recurs: Frederick sits stubbornly on his own at St Sylvan’s, pondering the inevitability of death; Caroline and Jan, both adopted, don’t have the comfort of a family lineage; and the museum specimens whose photographs are dotted through the novel (including the last passenger pigeon, Martha, which also – not coincidentally, I’m sure – was Fred’s wife’s name) represent the end of the line.
I loved pretty much everything about this book: the thematic connections, the gentle sense of humor (especially during Fred and Jan’s expensive restaurant dégustation), the chance for a curmudgeonly protagonist to redeem himself, and the spot-on writing. Highly recommended.
A favorite passage:
“Like many educated people, Frederick had his opinions, most of which were set in concrete so as to render them more akin to truths, but in reality politics and modern history were his weak points – along with poetry. Where poetry and politics were concerned he feared a lack of foundation, which left him vulnerable to challenge. Deep down he knew that opinion – like concrete – was most resilient when well founded and reinforced.”
These two memoirs may be very different in terms of the setting (Texas and Yale versus rural Lancashire) and particulars, but I’m reviewing them together because they are both about dysfunctional families and the extent to which external circumstances determine how others see us – and how we view ourselves.
There Will Be No Miracles Here: A Memoir from the Dark Side of the American Dream by Casey Gerald (2018)
The title comes from a seventeenth-century sign in a French village that was intended to get the God-dazzled peasants back to work. For Gerald it’s a somewhat tongue-in-cheek reminder that his life, even if he has made good after an unpromising beginning, is not some American dream or fairytale. It’s more complicated than that. Still, there’s no sugar-coating his family issues. His father missed his tenth birthday party because he was next door with dope fiends; his bipolar mother was in the psych ward while his father was in jail, and then disappeared for several years. Gerald and his older sister, a college dropout, got an apartment and set their own lax rules. In the meantime, he was coming to terms with the fact that he was gay and trying to reconcile his newfound sexual identity with his Christian faith.
In spite of it all, Gerald shone academically and athletically. He was his Texas high school’s valedictorian and followed his father into a thriving college football career – at Yale, where he accidentally fell into leadership via a Men of Color council across the Ivy League schools. It wasn’t until he got to Yale that it even occurred to him that he was poor. (I was reminded of the moment in Michelle Obama’s memoir when she got to Princeton and experienced being a minority for the first time.) As he neared graduation, he decided to go into investment banking “simply because I did not have any money and none of my people had any money.” Back in Texas after a year in a Washington, D.C. think tank, he even considered a run for Congress under the slogan “We can dream again.”
I loved the prologue, which has the 12-year-old Gerald cowering with his church congregation on the last night of 1999, in fear of being left behind at the end of the world. I think I expected religion to continue as a stronger theme throughout the book. The style wasn’t really what I imagined either: it’s a coy combination of reader address, stream-of-consciousness memories, and remembered speech in italics that often set me skimming. Whereas landmark events like his mother’s departure are left impressionistic, football games and the inner workings of Yale’s societies are described in great detail. Scenes in the classroom and with boyfriends, though still occasionally tedious, at least feel more relevant.
Gerald proudly calls himself a “faggot” and is going for a kind of sassy, folksy charm here. For me the tone only landed sometimes. Mostly I appreciated his alertness to how others (often wrongly) perceived him – a great instance of this is when he meets George W. Bush in 2007 and tells him the bare bones of his story, only for Dubya to later twist it into an example in a speech. The memoir tails off into a rather odd and sudden ending, and overall I wasn’t sure it had enough to say to fill close to 400 pages. Perhaps Gerald could have waited another 10 years? As a more successful take on similar themes, I’d recommend the memoir-in-essays Live Through This: Surviving the Intersections of Sexuality, God, and Race by Clay Cane.
There Will Be No Miracles Here was hand-picked by Colm Tóibín for publication by Tuskar Rock Press, a new imprint of Serpent’s Tail, on January 10th. It was published in the USA by Riverhead Books in October 2018. My thanks to the UK publisher for the free copy for review.
When I Had a Little Sister: The Story of a Farming Family that Never Spoke by Catherine Simpson (2019)
On December 7, 2013, Simpson’s younger sister, Tricia, was found dead by their 87-year-old father at the family farmhouse where she lived in Lancashire. She was 46 and had been receiving daily mental health visits for her bipolar disorder, but the family had never been notified about a previous suicide attempt just three weeks before. Simpson excavates her family history to ask how things could have gotten so bad that they didn’t realize that Tricia’s depression had reached suicidal levels.
Simpson’s grandparents – her grandfather a World War I veteran – moved into the property in 1925, so by this time there was literally generations’ worth of stuff to clear out. “I ask myself now: is it possible to dispose of a person’s effects with dignity?” Simpson frets. As she and her father sifted through antique furniture, gadgets and craft supplies, she recalls the previous death in the family: her mother’s from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma seven years before. Growing up on a cattle farm in the 1970s, the three daughters were expected to be practical and unsentimental; there was never any discussion of emotions, and they got the sense that their overworked, unfulfilled mother would rather they weren’t around at all. In this context, it was hard for Tricia to cope with everyday challenges like struggling with schoolwork and the death of a beloved cousin. She started smoking at 12 and went on antidepressants at 19.
Simpson started writing this family memoir on a fellowship at Hawthornden Castle in February 2016. The first step of her project was to read all of Tricia’s diaries, from age 14 on. There were happy experiences, like six months as a nanny in Vienna and a travel grant to a kibbutz in Israel. There were also unwelcome surprises, like a 1981 suicide note – from when Tricia was just 15. Simpson had never realized just how prone her little sister was to all-or-nothing thinking. She dove headlong into short-lived relationships and, when they failed, feared she would never find love again. Over the years Tricia grew increasingly paranoid, believing she was being watched on the farm and her sisters were plotting to sell the property and leave her with nothing. One time she even locked her parents in to keep them safe.
Although the subtitle is melodramatic, it conveys all that went unsaid in this family: not just sadness, but also love and tenderness. The cover image shows Simpson crying over a dead duckling; Tricia is at the left, her look of consternation startlingly intense for a three-year-old. “It’s only a duck. There’s plenty more where that came from” was their father’s hardhearted response. There are many other family photographs printed in black and white throughout the text; Tricia loved fashion, and is stunning in her glamour shots. While the book is probably overlong, I was absorbed in the family’s story, keen to see how Simpson would reconstruct events through objects, photographs and journals. (My sister is a Tricia, too.) Recommended to readers of Jill Bialosky’s History of a Suicide and Clover Stroud’s The Wild Other.
When I Had a Little Sister will be published by Fourth Estate on February 7th. My thanks to the publisher for an early proof copy for review.
Cat Poems: An enjoyable selection of verse about our feline friends, nicely varied in terms of the time period, original language of composition, and outlook on cats’ contradictory qualities. I was unaware that Angela Carter and Muriel Spark had ever written poetry. There are perhaps too many poems by Stevie Smith – six in total! – though I did enjoy their jokey rhymes.
Some favorite lines:
“Cat sentimentality is a human thing. Cats / are indifferent, their minds can’t comprehend / the concept ‘I shall die’, they just go on living.” (from “Sonnet: Cat Logic” by Gavin Ewart)
“For every house is incomplete without him and a blessing is lacking in the spirit.” (from “Jubilate Agno” by Christopher Smart)
“These adorable things. When my life gives out, they’d eat me up in a second.” (from “I’ll Call Those Things My Cats” by Kim Hyesoon)
Cat Poems was published in the UK on October 4th. My thanks to Serpent’s Tail for the free copy for review.
Even when it’s not a book specifically about cats, cats often turn up in my reading. Maybe it’s simply that I look out for them more since I became a cat owner several years ago. Here are some of the quotes, scenes or whole books featuring cats that I’ve come across this year.
Cats real and imaginary
Stranger on a Train by Jenni Diski: “I find myself astonished that a creature of another species, utterly different to me, honours me with its presence and trust by sitting on me and allowing me to stroke it. This mundane domestic moment is as enormous, I feel at such moments, as making contact across a universe with another intelligence. This creature with its own and other consciousness and I with mine can sit in silence and enjoy each other’s presence. … This is a perfectly everyday scene but sometimes it takes my breath away that another living thing has allowed me into its life.”
Certain American States by Catherine Lacey: “This cat wants to destroy beauty—I can tell. He is more than animal, he is evil, a plain enemy of the world. I wish him ill. I do. Almost daily I find a mess of feathers in the dirt. Some mornings there are whole bird carcasses left on my porch—eyes shocked open, brilliant blue wings, ripped and bloody. I have thought often of what it would take to kill a cat, quietly and quickly, with my bare hands. I have thought of this often. In fact I am thinking of it right now.” (from the story “Because You Have To”)
The Nice and the Good by Iris Murdoch: “Montrose was a large cocoa-coloured tabby animal with golden eyes, a square body, rectangular legs and an obstinate self-absorbed disposition, concerning whose intelligence fierce arguments raged among the children. Tests of Montrose’s sagacity were constantly being devised, but there was some uncertainty about the interpretation of the resultant data since the twins were always ready to return to first principles and discuss whether cooperation with the human race was a sign of intelligence at all. Montrose had one undoubted talent, which was that he could at will make his sleek hair stand up on end, and transform himself from a smooth stripey cube into a fluffy sphere. This was called ‘Montrose’s bird look’.”
Four Bare Legs in a Bed and Other Stories by Helen Simpson: “They found it significant that I called my cat Felony. I argued that I had chosen her name for its euphonious qualities. She used to sink her incisors into the hell of my hand and pause a fraction of a millimeter from breaking the skin, staring at me until her eyes were reduced to sadistic yellow semibreves. She murdered without a qualm. She toyed with her victims, smiling broadly at their squeaks and death throes.
‘Why isn’t she a criminal?’ I asked. …
‘The difference is,’ said Mr Pringle, that we must assume your cat commits her crimes without mischievous discretion.’” (from the story “Escape Clauses”)
In Delia Owens’s Where the Crawdads Sing, Sunday Justice is the name of the courthouse cat. He sits grooming on the courtroom windowsill during the trial and comes in and curls up to sleep in the cell of a particular prisoner we’ve come to care about.
A recommended picture book
My Cat Looks Like My Dad by Thao Lam: I absolutely loved the papercut collage style of this kids’ book. The narrator explains all the ways in which the nerdy-cool 1970s-styled dad resembles the family cat, who is more like a sibling than a pet. “Family is what you make it.” There’s something of a twist ending, too. (Out on April 15, 2019.)
Later today I’m off to America for two weeks, but I’ll be scheduling plenty of posts, including the usual multi-part year-end run-down of my best reads, to go up while I’m away. Forgive me if I’m less responsive than usual to comments and to your own blogs!
For the first time I’m joining in with the R.I.P. challenge (that’s “Readers Imbibing Peril,” if you’re unfamiliar) – a spur to read the dark fantasy, mystery, thriller, horror and suspense books I own during the month of October. None of these are go-to genres for me, but I do have some books that fit the bill. To start me off, I set aside this pile early in September. I’m not sure how many I’ll get through, so I’m not committing to a particular number.
Several of my review books for the month also happen to be appropriate, beginning with one of my current reads, Little by Edward Carey, a delightfully macabre historical novel about the real-life girl who became Madame Tussaud of waxworks fame. I hope to review it here soon. I also have Deborah Harkness’s latest and an upcoming fable by A.L. Kennedy. Continuing last month’s focus on short stories, I’m going to start on Aimee Bender’s 2013 volume soon; it might just be fantastical enough to count towards the challenge.
I’ve never read anything by the late Ursula K. Le Guin, so Annabel, Laura and I are embarking on a buddy read of The Left Hand of Darkness this month, too.
And then I may cheat and add in these two ‘blood-y’ nonfiction books since I’m going to be reading them soon anyway.
My other goal is to read more of the print books I’ve acquired over the past year, including some of 2017’s birthday and Christmas hauls and the books I bought at Bookbarn and in Wigtown. My birthday is coming up in the middle of the month, so it would be good to start chipping away at these stacks before the new acquisitions pile up much more!
I got a head start on a month of spooky reading with Sarah Perry’s new Gothic tale, Melmoth. It seems to have been equally inspired by Charles Robert Maturin’s 1820 novel Melmoththe Wanderer and by Perry’s time in Prague as a UNESCO World City of Literature Writer in Residence. The action opens in Prague in 2016 as Helen Franklin, a translator, runs into her distressed friend Dr. Karel Pražan one December night. An aged fellow scholar, Josef Hoffman, has been found dead in the National Library, where Helen and Karel first met. Karel is now in possession of the man’s leather document file, which contains accounts of his Holocaust-era family history and of his investigations into the Melmoth legend. She was one of the women at Jesus’s empty tomb but denied the resurrection and so was cursed to wander the Earth ever after. As Hoffman explains, “she is lonely, with an eternal loneliness” and “she comes to those at the lowest ebb of life.”
Is this just a tale used to scare children? In any case, it resonates with Helen, who exiled herself to Prague 20 years ago to escape guilt over a terrible decision. For most of the book we get only brief glimpses into Helen’s private life, like when she peeks into the under-the-bed shoebox where she keeps relics of the life she left behind. We do eventually learn what she ran away from, but by then I was so weary of dull found documents, irritating direct reader address (“Look! It is evening now … Reader, witness, here is what you see”), and toothless Gothic tropes that the reveal was barely worth hanging around for. Alas, I found the whole thing pretty melodramatic and silly, and not in the least bit frightening.
I truly loved The Essex Serpent(), but I think Perry is one of those authors where I will need to skip every other release and just read the even numbers; After Me Comes the Flood, her first, was one of my lowest-rated books ever (). I recall that when I saw her speak at Bloxham Festival of Faith and Literature in 2016 Perry revealed that Novel #4 will be a contemporary courtroom drama. I’ll try again with that one.
Melmoth is released in the UK today, October 2nd. My thanks to Serpent’s Tail for a proof copy for review. It comes out in the USA from Custom House on the 16th. Sarah Perry has written an interesting article about being on strong pain medication while writing Melmoth.
Will you be reading anything scary in the month ahead? Can you recommend any of the books I have coming up?
Bloxham Festival of Faith and Literature, “a literary festival with a theological slant,” has been running since 2011, but this past weekend marked the first time I managed to attend a few Saturday sessions. It was held at Oxfordshire’s very posh Bloxham School (sample course schedule: Mandarin, riding, and Shakespeare on Film). The theme for this year being “All the World’s a Stage,” all the events were given Shakespeare lines as titles. Hey, even the free chocolate bars from the Meaningful Chocolate Company were tailored to the Shakespeare theme!
The morning began with an interview with Sarah Perry. Now, I have to admit that I didn’t really get on with her first novel, After Me Comes the Flood. Still, I was intrigued by how she incorporates biblical themes and her religious background in her fiction, so I thought I’d give it a go. Perry herself wasn’t at all as I expected her to be. I’d only ever seen one tiny press photo, in which she had a somewhat tomboyish haircut and had a demurely downcast gaze. So I was pleasantly surprised to find she was voluble, learned, and confident; in a black lacey dress and with loosely pinned hair, she resembled a modern Gibson Girl with a Gothic twist.
Interviewed by the editor of the Church Times newspaper, Perry spoke a bit about her upcoming novel, The Essex Serpent (to be published in the UK by Serpent’s Tail on June 18th), set in 1890s London and an invented village on the Essex marshes. In keeping with the talk’s title, “I would not wish any companion in the world but you,” the book is about friendship, specifically that between a vicar and a widowed amateur naturalist. Inspired by her own relationship with her (male) best friend and by intimate ‘love letters’ she found that passed between friends (like St. Paul to the Philippians and D.H. Lawrence to Jack Murray, or Montaigne writing about his best friend), the novel seeks the goodness in its characters.
The two readings Perry gave were lush, Dickensian descriptions of the City under rain and a drunken man going for a dip in the marsh and seeing what appears to be a sea creature. Perry was surprised when her debut novel was described as Gothic, but she’s embraced the label now: her third book, currently in progress, is full-on Gothic horror. What links all of her work, she thinks, is the Gothic notion of the thing lurking over the shoulder. For Perry, that ever-present threat is Reformation theology: the idea that man is born in sin and deserves damnation. During her Strict Baptist upbringing (which she, not coincidentally, describes as being like living in the 1890s), she was cut off from contemporary culture and influenced primarily by the King James Bible and Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.
Perry spent a short time as a missionary in the Philippines and was a biblical fundamentalist until age 25, when she and her husband (whom she met at 13 and married at 20) left the church. Stepping outside of that limiting community was the impetus she needed to start writing; although she had had stories looping around her head since the age of four, she had rarely written anything down. She completed a creative writing MA and PhD, all while working full time at the Inns of Court.
After Me Comes the Flood was rejected by 14 publishers; even her viva examiners, who passed her without corrections, were “ungracious,” she remarked. What it comes down to, she thinks, is simply that no one liked the book or knew what to make of it. It seemed unmarketable because it didn’t fit into a particular genre. At this point I was sheepishly keeping my head down, glad that Perry couldn’t possibly know about my largely unfavorable review in Third Way magazine. I confess that my reaction was roughly similar to the general consensus: “Not quite an allegory, [the book] still suffers from that genre’s pitfalls, such as one-dimensional characters,” I wrote.
A glowing Guardian reviewfrom poet John Burnside was enough to give Perry confidence to keep going as a novelist, and – having taken forever over writing her first book, an experience she likens to like pulling teeth because she had no idea what she was doing and could rarely overcome her natural laziness – she went on to write The Essex Serpent within just 10 months. And I’m glad she did, because this new book sounds right up my alley.
It will be interesting to see how she imagines a platonic friendship between the sexes in a historical setting, and the Dickensian and Gothic touches, even from the little taster I got, were delicious. I was especially intrigued to learn about her research into the friendship ‘triangle’ (betrayal! early death! forgiveness!) between William Ewart Gladstone, Alfred Tennyson, and Arthur Henry Hallam. Perry said she thinks the tide may be turning, that friendships rather than romantic love could be starting to dominate fiction; perhaps Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life from last year would be a good example.
In the other sessions I attended, a group of clergy revealed the shortlist for the £10,000 Michael Ramsey Prize for theology (to my surprise, I’d read one of the nominees, Unapologetic by Francis Spufford) and panelists introduced a forthcoming anthology of essays on Anglican women novelists from Charlotte Brontë onwards (to be published by Bloomsbury in January 2018). Jane Williams, wife of former archbishop Rowan Williams, will contribute a chapter on Barbara Pym, who obviously loved the Church but also sits at an anthropological distance to poke gentle fun at it. Her novels sound like great fun. Judith Maltby, one of the editors, convinced me that I need to read Rose Macauley’s TheTowers of Trebizond (1956), while co-editor Alison Shell made the case for P.D. James’s late inclusion.
Chaired by contemporary Anglican novelist Catherine Fox, the panel noted two common threads in many of the featured novelists: detective fiction and humor. The striking number of crime novelists (including Dorothy L. Sayers and Ellis Peters), Shell suggested, one might attribute to an Anglican license to moralize or a preoccupation with ‘last things’. Humor, meanwhile, seems to arise from the little hypocrisies inherent to religious life and to the fact that liturgical seriousness can often tilt into comedy. Other repeated themes include the sacraments, the role of the spinster, and class – the clergy are often educated but poor. I came away with a list of authors to try; many of their works are available through Virago reprints.
All in all, it was a terrific, thought-provoking experience for me – a perfect mixture of literature and theology, and a great way to spend a blustery February Saturday.