Book review – “The Water Dancer” by Ta-Nehisi Coates

It’s funny how things happen sometimes; in the last week there has been a political controversy in the UK (yes, I know, another one!) about an adviser recruited to the Prime Minister’s office who got into trouble over eugenicist views he had expressed online. The individual concerned seemed a bit cross that he had been held accountable for things he said in his “past”, which he presumably he thinks should be discounted as youthful ramblings, but given that he is only 27 years old, “the past” is a pretty relative concept. I have a new insight into views about eugenics thanks to having listened last week to an excellent serialisation on BBC Radio 4’s Book of the Week programme of Dr Adam Rutherford’s new book How to Argue with a Racist. If you haven’t come across this yet, I would definitely recommend it. Adam Rutherford is a broadcaster, scientist and genetics expert and in this book he sets about exploding some of the myths around concepts of genetic inheritance. Listening to this book has actually saved me money, as I am no longer tempted to do one of those DNA testing kits! I am not a scientist but in other aspects of my professional life I am required to understand what constitutes good research and it is clear, even to a lay person, that there is no place for the broad generalisations about race, class and IQ (itself a deeply flawed concept) in social policy.

Henrietta LacksBy the strangest of coincidences, I have also just read two books which also explore issues of race and class. Rebecca Skloot’s non-fiction work The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Skloot’s book is a detailed and complex account of one woman, Henrietta Lacks, an African-American woman from Virginia who died in 1951 from aggressive cervical cancer. The cancer cells from her body were special and unique because they were the first ever cells that were able to not only survive outside their host, but were able to continue to thrive and reproduce, at a rapid rate. This perhaps accounts for the very aggressive nature of Henrietta’s disease. Scientists used these cells, known universally as HeLa cells, to create trillions and trillions more of them, which have been used ever since, worldwide and have been directly responsible for the development of life-saving drugs and treatments, for example for polio. The key to the story, however, is that Henrietta died without ever having been advised about or consenting to the use of her cells in this way, neither did her family, and none of her surviving relatives have been given any financial compensation. What makes the story all the more shocking, however, is that Henrietta died at a time of segregation, and almost certainly did not receive the same level of care and respect as a white woman would have done. I will write more about this book in a future post because it is a fascinating story.

The Water Dancer imgThe other book I have been reading, The Water Dancer, concerns the story of Hiram, a black slave also in Virginia in the mid-1800s. His mother was also a slave, but his father was a slave-owner, who allowed his son some elementary education after his mother’s death and then, when he was in his teens, gave him the special status of being the personal servant to his white half-brother, Maynard, the heir to their father’s estate. Hiram is also the grandchild of legendary slave Santi-Bess, one of the original transported Africans who is said to have had magical powers (Conduction), although it does not become entirely clear what these are until towards the end of the book. The first significant glimpse of this is when, whilst chaperoning Maynard on a drunken night out, the two young men somehow end up in the river. Maynard drowns but Hiram somehow emerges alive. The events which follow Maynard’s death eventually afford Hiram the opportunity to escape slavery via the Underground and he soon becomes an agent of that cause. It is not a straightforward choice for him, though, as he is forced to confront traumatic memories of his mother, who died when he was very young, and to face the many complex facets of slavery, its consequences, its victims and what it means to be free.

The book is unlike other treatments of slavery I have read (for example Washington Black, The Last Runaway) as it uses magical realism techniques as a way of differentiating between the enslaved and everyone else; Hiram, and some of the others involved in the Underground, still carry within them the songs and the stories of their ancestors, giving them access to a higher power, something which the others (the whites) have lost due to their self-brutalisation. The novel also takes a more nuanced view of the segregated society than I have seen before – within the enslaved group, there are some who are more courageous, more committed, more able and more educated than others, plus there are the ‘tasked’ (slaves) and those who have secured freedom. Within the, let’s call them the ‘whites’ group, there are the ‘quality’ (slave owners) and the ‘low’, the ‘hounds’ (slave hunters) and there are also a number of non-African-Americans involved in the movement to free the slaves. This is a more complex study of American society at the time and a more satisfying one.

The novel builds to a nail-biting denouement. It is at times brutally realistic, neither does it spare the reader’s emotions on the journey it takes us through. There are a range of good and bad endings here and that feels right. There is also a sense of no ending, the struggle to defeat racism goes on. Given the events at Downing Street this week, it is clear this is the case.

I recommend The Water Dancer. I also recommend every other book mentioned in the above review.

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Book review – “The Silence of the Girls” by Pat Barker

I was very excited at the prospect of reading this book. For my sins, I have never read a Pat Barker, not even the Regeneration Trilogy, the third volume of which, The Ghost Road, won the Booker Prize in 1995. I knew about it, of course, and I think I bought it at some point (though I have moved so many times in my life that I cannot lay my hands on it now!) What I also knew about Pat Barker was that she was born and went to school in Stockton on Tees, a much-neglected part of the country, where I also lived for 12 years and where all my three children were born, and where I still have many friends. She was born to a young single mother but was brought up by her grandparents and lived a stereotypically working-class life until her academic ability set her apart and she was selected to attend grammar school. Barker started writing at a young age but her first novel was not published until she was forty. She is the same age as my mother, who died shortly before I started reading this book a few months ago. I love the ‘Pat Barker story’, feel a deep admiration for her (even though I had not hitherto read any of her books) and felt in some ways a connection with her; the working-class girl made good.

The Silence of the Girls imgThe Silence of the Girls has been critically-acclaimed and was shortlisted for last year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. I really, really wanted to love this book, but I’m afraid I didn’t. It could be that the timing was wrong – December for me was mad busy so I read the book in short bursts over a longish period when I was quite stressed. I don’t think I gave it the time and attention it deserved. But then, neither did it really grab me when perhaps it ought to have done.

The book is a retelling of Homer’s Iliad but from the perspective of some of the women involved, primarily that of Briseis, the wife of King Mynes of Lyrnessus, the Trojan city sacked by the Greeks, led by Achilles. As a reward to the victors, the women of the city are given out to them, essentially to live as their sexual slaves. Briseis is given to Achilles and narrates the story, although it is very much her internal reflection as she plays almost no verbal part in the proceedings she observes – the banquets, the post-battle analysis by Achilles and his fellow warriors, the political machinations, primarily between Achilles and Agamemnon, and the mental strife of Achilles – hence the concept of ‘silence’. Her perspective and her account veer between the lofty, primarily Achilles’ self-doubt, his longing for the reassuring presence of his mother, the sea-nymph Thetis, and his conflict with Agamemnon, and the brutal visceral reality of war. At one point, Achilles gives Briseis to Agamemnon, although their relationship is not consummated and because of this Achilles later accepts her back.

Briseis fantasises about escaping, even comes close to achieving it at one point, but she is all too aware of her very precarious position. Even though her life is demeaning and not secure, she will always be an outsider and therefore a threat, she grows strangely close to Achilles, seeing his vulnerability and, eventually, the fragment of care he appears to have for her.

There is something of a fashion for retelling tales from the ancient classics at the moment; Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under, which was shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize, is a modern take on the Oedipus myth (I was not mad about that either), and Madeline Miller’s Circe, which I haven’t read, also takes Homeric mythology as its subject. The ideas are interesting, but somehow, for me, The Silence of the Girls just doesn’t quite work. I loved how ‘down and dirty’ it was, giving us perhaps the real insight into life at the time of the Trojan wars, rather different to the heroic presentation we get from Homer. But that ‘realism’ then jarred with, for example, Achilles’ seeking out his mother in the sea. These were parallel universes that collided in the novel, but there was no bridge between them, nothing to help me imagine that great myth and brutal, visceral reality could co-exist.  Perhaps that was a failure of my imagination! I also just could not get inside the author’s head in some of the scenes she created. The small domestic scenes, in Achilles’ quarters, the bedroom, even the hospital wards and the buildings where the women worked, were well-drawn, but I couldn’t quite see the bigger scenes, the ships at anchor, the battles, the idea of going to war as a daily job of work, from which combatants return, minus a few casualties, just did not quite ring true. And this lack of, for me, authenticity, clashed with the hyper-real scenes of blood, guts, mud and sex (for which read rape, because that’s what it was).

I’m not sure where I’m at with this book. Perhaps it was a grand ambition that just didn’t quite come off for me. I will read Regeneration and Union Street. I will delve deeper into Barker’s work, but as an introduction to her, this one, for me, was a bit disappointing.

Recommended if you’re a fan or a classicist.

What did you think of The Silence of the Girls?

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Book review – “Gone Girl” by Gillian Flynn

I am not a big fan of thrillers – they aren’t usually my reading of choice – which is the only way I can explain how this book passed me by when it was first published eight years ago. I have also, in the past, eschewed big bulky paperbacks in favour of something a little less…popular! When I launched my 2020 Facebook reading challenge a few weeks ago, January’s theme was a major title from the last decade and Gone Girl was undoubtedly that. It spent several weeks at number one on the New York Times bestseller list, and sold over two million copies in its first year of publication alone. If you read any reviews of the book, you will see how difficult it is to write about without spoilers and that is something I too am going to find challenging here. I will simply start by saying – OH MY GOODNESS, WHAT A BOOK!!!

Gone Girl imgThis book grabbed me by the throat right from the outset; I listened to it on audio (fantastic performances from the actors Julia Whelan and Kirby Haborne, by the way) and simply could not ‘put it down’. I got a lot of exercise in January, because going for a walk became an excuse to listen to a few more minutes’ worth!

Our two main protagonists are Nick Dunne, an out of work writer from Missouri, and his wife Amy Elliot Dunne, from New York, the only child of two psychologists who made a fortune from a children’s book series, Amazing Amy, about a perfect little girl navigating her way in the world, making perfect decisions among imperfect other people. Amy, a psychology graduate like her parents, also chose a writing career though hers is more prosaic than Nick’s, she writes personality quizzes. They meet at a party, get together, get married and share an apartment in Brooklyn, bought for them by Amy’s parents. They have a seemingly perfect life until a number of events force them to move back to Nick’s hometown. First Nick and then Amy, lose their jobs, a result of the shake up in the publishing world brought about by the internet. Then, Nick’s mother becomes terminally ill with cancer and his twin sister Go (short for Margo), asks them to return to help take care of their mother and their father who suffers with Alzheimer’s and lives in a care home. Finally, Amy’s parents run into financial difficulty and ask Amy to give them the money from her Trust Fund. It also transpires that the house they had given the couple was heavily mortgaged and they can no longer afford the repayments, so it will have to be sold.

Nick and Amy have nothing to keep them in New York so they move back to Carthage, Missouri, rent a modern house on a ghost estate where most of the properties lie empty, unsold since the economic downturn of 2008. Nick invests most of the remaining money they have (Amy’s money) in a bar with his sister.

Although I have set the scene here, as readers we are not in fact given all this information from the outset; it is drip-fed to us throughout part one. One of the most astonishing elements of this book is its brilliant structure. Amy disappears from their home at the very start of the book, on the morning of their fifth wedding anniversary, in what at first seems to have been a violent bloody struggle. The chapters are narrated by Nick and Amy in turn; his chapters are reflections on the recent weeks, months and years of his life with Amy in the aftermath of her disappearance, and his dealings with the detectives investigating Amy’s disappearance, and her chapters are extracts from her diary, going back to the time the couple met. The police have not yet found the diary. In this first part we learn much about the couple’s history, but also about their respective feelings about their relationship and about each other. As a reader you get drawn into the complex workings of what was a difficult marriage for both of them, but in different ways, their respective efforts to make it better and how these fared. I found myself constantly torn between the two, first on her side, then his. It’s a roller-coaster! Towards the end of part one, the inconsistencies begin to emerge and it becomes clear that not everything is quite what it seems.

I can say little more than that without giving away the plot, and the twist is such a breathtaking thing that you really need to enjoy it! I thought the characters were brilliantly drawn, all the way from Nick and Amy down to the police officers involved in the case. The book is fantastic as a straight-up thriller, but also says a lot about sexual politics, both within relationships and in wider society. The author does not take sides, and no-one comes out of it particularly well.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and highly recommend it, although chances are you’ve already read it! I’m keen to watch the film now, although I’m told, and I’ve read, that it’s not as good. They rarely are!

I would love to know what you thought of Gone Girl, if you have read it.

 

 

Care to join me this month on my Reading Challenge?

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have an annual Facebook Reading Challenge, a little group where I try to push my reading boundaries. Each month I have a different theme; last month, in the spirit of the new decade, the theme was one of the biggest books from the last decade. I chose Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl – I’ll be posting about THAT in the next couple of days. Phew! What a page-turner!

This month the theme is non-fiction and I was planning to take up a suggestion from a fellow Group member, when I happened to be in the bookshop and this title jumped off the shelf at me – Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E Frankl. It is described on the blurb as one of the classics to emerge from the Holocaust, a tribute to the triumph of hope. If, like me, you were deeply moved by the speeches delivered by Holocaust survivors at the 75th anniversary commemoration of the liberation of Auschwitz last week, this does seem like a fitting time to read such a book. 2020-02-06 12.42.07

And at the moment I feel I need some encouragement that hope triumphs, given the problems we are all facing. I’m afraid the departure of the UK from the European Union, and in particular the division it has wrought upon this nation, troubles me. There does not seem to be anyone on the planet at the moment capable of leading the world out of the climate crisis, except Sir David Attenborough, and he is 93 years old. As for politics, well across the world the post-truth era seems to have well and truly embedded itself.

So, I’m hoping that Dr Frankl will help me to see the bigger picture and give me some hope back!

It’s a fairly short book, for a fairly short month, so if you’d care to join me, you would be very welcome!