Book review – “Such a Fun Age” by Kiley Reid

This was my book club’s choice for last month. When I first read the blurb it was not what I expected from the title – I thought it would be about teenagers, which tells you a bit about where my head is at right now! But no, the blurb tells us that a young black woman in Philadelphia, twenty-five year old Emira Tucker, is out at a grocery store late one evening with the small girl she looks after when a fellow shopper raises her concerns with the in-store security guard. What is a young black woman, dressed as if she has just come from a party (which in fact she has), doing out at that hour with a fair-skinned white-haired toddler? She must be up to no good, the fellow shopper concludes, and the security guard concurs. The guard challenges her, rudely, and when she resists his challenge, he over-reacts and threatens to call the police. The whole incident is caught on mobile camera by another fellow shopper, thirty-something white male Kelley.

What none of the spectators or the other participants know is the background: Emira is the child’s babysitter (not ‘nanny’ because that would make her employment more formal than the child’s parents have so far allowed) and they have called her for help at this late hour because someone has thrown a brick through their window. The police have been called and Peter and Alix Chamberlain do not want their little girl, three year old Briar, to see the police officers in the house. So they have asked Emira to take Briar out. And the reason that a brick has been thrown through the Chamberlain’s window is that Peter, a television presenter, made a racist comment during a live broadcast. So, you can see where the story is going – layer upon layer of casual racism, the kind where people say “I’m not racist, but…”

The incident I have outlined above is what opens the novel. It ends fairly anti-climactically, actually, whereas from the blurb I half expected our heroine to be thrown into jail for a made-up crime she did not commit (a plot along the lines of Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage). Instead, Emira calls Briar’s father, Peter, he of the on-screen racist remark, who arrives at the store promptly, claims Emira and the child, and the security guard calms down and everyone goes home. The woman who originally alerted the guard apologises, expecting, of course, absolution for her own racist preconceptions. How could she have known? Wasn’t she just being a conscientious good citizen? Kelley, the young man who filmed the whole scene, encourages Emira to alert the networks and sell her story. She doesn’t want to, however, she seems resigned to this level of everyday racism, and prefers a quieter life, claiming that she is quite cool with it all. Kelley emails her the video, just in case she changes her mind, deletes it from his own phone and they part company.

That is the incident over, on one level at least, except that it sets off a chain of events which will lead Emira through a series of dark and challenging times. She bumps into Kelley again, a few weeks later, on a train and the two start dating. Encouraged by Kelley, Emira begins to take a long hard look at her life, comparing herself to her friends, who all seem to be developing their careers, while she barely makes ends meet as an informal babysitter and part-time typist. A major preoccupation is that when she turns twenty-six, she will no longer be eligible for healthcare under her parents’ insurance policy, so she needs to find a way of earning enough money to afford her own cover.

Meanwhile, Emira’s boss, Alix Chamberlain, has decided that Emira is essential to her; Briar adores her and Emira seems to fill in some of the gaps in her own parenting. Plus, having Emira on hand means that she can pursue her own career as a lifestyle blogger and consultant. Alix determines to befriend Emira, to make her a part of their family, using the incentive of a more formal employment contract as the carrot. There is the unmistakeable suggestion that Alix wishes to ‘own’ Emira, and that her own success is on the back of her babysitter. Alix grows increasingly paranoid about losing Emira and takes ever more desperate steps to retain her.

One key aspect of the story is slightly far-fetched (I won’t reveal it) but the whole plot turns on it really, so you have to just suspend disbelief. Doing so is worth it because the author explores deftly and cleverly, a whole series of issues and themes, not just around race, but also the nature of privilege more generally, and autonomy. Who has the power to make the decisions? Which of us really has choice? This could have been a really straightforward novel about racism, but the author makes it about much more than that.

I and my fellow readers in my book club thoroughly enjoyed this book and I recommend it highly.

Audiobook review – “The New Wilderness” by Diane Cook

In my final book review of last year I wrote of my delight that Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain won the 2020 Booker Prize. It was one of only two of the shortlisted books I managed to complete before the prize winner was announced (the other one I read, Burnt Sugar, I liked somewhat less and have also reviewed here). I had another of the shortlisted books ‘in progress’ at the time the winner was announced, The New Wilderness by first-time author Diane Cook, which I listened to on audio. It was utterly compelling and was beautifully read by Stacey Glemboski. It reminded me very much of a previously shortlisted book, The Overstory, by Richard Power, which was nominated in 2018 and remains one of the best books I have read in recent years.

The New Wilderness is set in what seems, frighteningly, a not too distant future in America. Environmental decline has wreaked havoc on ordinary life, such that urban living is barely sustainable, and there are few alternative spaces left for citizens to inhabit. The government has authorised a research project to allow a small group of twenty people to inhabit one of the last remaining wild areas, but there are strict rules that they must observe, including having no contact with the outside world, and leaving no trace of their habitation on the environment, which means not staying in one place too long or building a camp. (The irony is not lost.) The group is closely monitored by Rangers, who enforce the regulations, and the group is required to attend stations every few months to register births, deaths and significant events. The story is told through the eyes of the leading character, Bea, whose partner Glen was one of the academics leading the research. Bea had volunteered for the project in order to remove her daughter Agnes from the city which was killing her slowly. Agnes suffered from a range of unnamed conditions which have been cured by life in the wilderness. Agnes is about ten or eleven when we meet her although no-one has really been keeping track; time is marked by seasonal change not the calendar.

When the book opens the group has already been living in the wilderness for some years. It opens dramatically with the deaths of two members of the group in a hazardous river crossing, in which a valuable rope is also lost. What is immediately striking to the reader is how the loss of the rope is mourned nearly as much as the loss of the companions, indicating how the group has become more focused on survival than finer human emotions. Further death occurs early on when Bea gives birth, alone in the forest, to a dead baby, which she buries quietly and away from the rest of the group. The dead child will be a recurring motif throughout the book; Bea left the city to save her daughter, and lost another because she was in the wilderness.

Life is extremely challenging and there are clearly tensions in the group, which the author takes great care to illustrate in skilful detail, particularly over ‘leadership’ – Glen, as one of the project’s initiators, was once looked to as a kind of informal leader. Glen becomes sick, however, and another of the group members, the strong more dominant alpha male-type, Carl, sees an opportunity to weigh in. Bea has also emerged as a strong leader in the group and Carl, in an attempt to fully oust Glen from his unofficial position, goes about bringing her to his side as well. Here the community is disintegrating; it’s like Lord of the Flies with grown-ups. Further chaos ensues when a small group of newcomers – city refugees who were on a ‘waiting list’ to join the original group in the wilderness – is encountered. To anyone who knows anything about group psychology – forming, storming, norming and all that – this is fascinating. It is also fascinating to see the way the two distinct groups spar with one another, with whom individual members place their loyalties, and how readily the original population integrates with the ‘immigrants’. There are also more young people among the newcomers, teenagers, and Agnes, now a teenager herself, has the opportunity the develop relationships with people her own age for the first time. But the differences between them in terms of their life experiences to date makes it difficult for Agnes to navigate her way among them. With the teenagers a further faction in the group emerges.

Author Diane Cook

What the author creates in The New Wilderness is a microcosm of our problematic human society, where Utopia cannot exist, where the human condition leads to inevitable decline. The wilderness is not the ideal society that the participants hoped it would be; yes, it is ‘natural’ and (mostly) unpolluted, but it is also brutal, and even the most idealistic among them hanker after a shower, some easy food, a haircut. Most strikingly however, is the failure of the community, socially, although the strict policing of the rules by the overweening and power-drunk Rangers (some more than others) does not help.

I have only scratched the surface of the book in this review – it is a highly complex novel and I fear I have not done it justice. It is a dystopian novel, which predicts a bleak future (do not read this if you want something uplifting!) where the opportunity to influence climate change has passed. It is also a novel about motherhood; Bea left the city to save her daughter’s life. In the middle of the novel she also flees the wilderness for a time (abandoning her daughter) when she learns that her own mother has died. The mother who begged her not to go.

All of the Booker-shortlisted novels I have read so far are about mothers or motherhood. Is that a coincidence?

Highly recommended.

Book review – “Shuggie Bain” by Douglas Stuart *Booker Prize Winner*

I was delighted when it was announced in November that Shuggie Bain had won the Booker Prize. I had only read two of the shortlisted books, and this was one of them, which made me feel very ‘on top of literary events’! I had chosen this one to tackle first from the shortlist purely because it was the longest and I planned to listed on audio so I thought I’d have a good chance of getting through it. I have not done well with previous Booker nominees who have written very long books – it took me weeks to finish The Overstory by Richard Powers (shortlisted in 2018), although I absolutely loved that book and slightly preferred it to the winner (which was Milkman); I never finished Paul Auster’s 4 3 2 1 from 2017; and I haven’t yet even got around to buying Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellman, nominated last year. I really want to read it, but I’m not sure I have space in my life for over 1,000 pages of unbroken prose at the moment (45 hours on audio!)!

Anyway, back to Shuggie Bain. It is brilliant. It is conventionally written (which, actually, is quite nice) and it is a cracker of a story with beautifully drawn characters, a wonderful sense of place (the rougher ends of 1980s Glasgow) and the most real, colourful and vivid passages of dialogue I have come across in a long while. The audiobook was read brilliantly by Angus King – the range of voices he conjures is quite exceptional.

Shuggie, short for Hugh, is the third and youngest child of Agnes Bain. She is married to Shug (also Hugh) Bain, a philandering taxi driver, and has two other children, Catherine and Leek, from her earlier marriage to a safe and steady Catholic. Agnes left her first husband because he never excited her enough. Agnes is beautiful and vivacious and her guiding philosophy in life is always to present her best face to the world. This remains true for her even in the darkest of times, of which there are many.

When we first meet the family they are living with Agnes’s parents in a tower block. Shuggie and his mother are extremely close. He adores her. Shuggie himself is something of a misfit in this part of the world. He is delicate, sensitive and effeminate and has inherited his mother’s fastidious attention to outward appearance, her attraction to beautiful things. Agnes loves to dress Shuggie in smart new clothes from the catalogue, which she can ill afford, and, knowing that her boy is ‘different’ to his peers, she encourages him to at all times hold his head high and to rise above the jealousies of others.

It becomes clear from quite an early stage that Shug has become uninterested in a future life with Agnes and the children. He promises to organise a new home for the family, which he does, in a pleasant suburb of the city, which they are all excited about. For Agnes, this will be to live the dream she had always imagined for herself. As they are driving through the streets of the new suburb, however, the car fails to stop at any of the neat little houses with their manicured gardens. Instead, they continue through to a far-off collection of dreary run-down properties around a declining coal pit. The gap between expectation and reality could not be greater and the high-tension scene is brilliantly written. As the family enters their new home, Agnes realises that it does not have enough bedrooms for them all, which is what Shug had promised. Shug also chooses this moment to announce to Agnes that he is leaving her. The realisation that they are on their own, they have been abandoned, dumped in a grimy hell-hole, is shocking.

From here on in we observe Agnes’s ‘drink problem’ develop into full-blown alcoholism. Her ‘man problem’ becomes equally demeaning and self-destructive. Her older children leave her eventually too. Only Shuggie, much younger though he is, stays. Shuggie has his own problems, and we explore this too – in our more diverse and open-minded society (mostly) we forget what it was like for children like Shuggie, children who were a bit different, to be growing up in these brutalised, deprived, closed communities. The violent bullying he endures is shocking, but he somehow learns a kind of resilience to this from his mother. It is the agony of the relationship he has with Agnes that is actually much harder for him to bear.

This novel is at once heartbreaking and uplifting. It is beautifully constructed and written and I cannot think of a better one I have read this year.

Highly recommended.

Booker Prize 2020 – winner announced tonight!

In previous years I have set myself the task of trying to read the Booker Prize shortlist between the time that it is released, usually mid-September, and the announcement of the winner. This is usually a month or so later in mid-October, so it is a tall order – six books in a little over four weeks. I have never succeeded in this endeavour – I’m usually still working my way through the list at Christmas. How do the judges get through so many books in the time that they do? I doubt they are even paid much to do it!

Last year, the Booker Prize was far from the forefront of my mind as my mother died in mid-September and her funeral coincided with the week of the announcement of the winner. I did subsequently read both of the books that won the prize jointly (remember that extremely unusual outcome?) – Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other and Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments – as well as Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World. I still have Salman Rushdie’s Quichotte and Lucy Ellman’s Ducks, Newburyport on my TBR list.

This year the announcement of the winning book is a month later than usual. I assume this is all down to ‘the pandemic’ though I’ve heard of no official reason being given. Perhaps the committee has decided to be a bit kinder to the judges this year. Once again, I decided against trying to get through the shortlist, but have in fact read two of the books, one of which I loved and one of which has left me wondering if I missed something!

The book I loved was Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain, a superb debut novel. Set in early 1980s Glasgow it is a visceral account of a young boy growing up in an atmosphere of poverty and his beloved mother’s alcoholism. The working-class community in which he lives is being ground down by the searing devastation of the Thatcherite era. Shuggie is ‘unusual’ – he is effeminate and naive, but his relationship with his mother is an portrait of love stretched to its very limits by the strain of addiction. I plan to write a longer review of this book so I will say no more at this stage. Let’s see if it wins!

The other book I read, and which I’m afraid I didn’t love, was Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi. It is the story of a strained mother-daughter relationship. The mother, Tara, has dementia and her daughter, Antara, is finds she is forced increasingly to care for the woman who failed to care for her properly as a child. Tara left her husband with her daugher to join an ashram when the child was still very young. Their ‘bohemian’ lifestyle included some time spent begging, and also living with an artist who it is clear did not really care for either Tara or her young child. Antara experienced a degree of neglect as a child, for example receiving very little formal early education, and her mother’s attitude to her has been one largely of indifference.

As a mature woman, Antara struggles with the demands placed upon her by her mother. Tara can be cruel – is that the disease or is that how she has always behaved towards her daughter? She is engaged to be married to Dilip, an Indian-American, who cannot fully empathise with Antara’s dilemma. This book reminded me a little of Everything Under by Daisy Johnson, which has a similar storyline and which I also struggled to enjoy (though I think it was a better book). Everything Under was shortlisted for the Booker in 2018. Burnt Sugar has also been compared to Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk – I cannot concur . I loved that book. I’m afraid that, for me, what Burnt Sugar lacks is a story. Even after reading it, I’m afraid I’m not sure what it is really about, or what it is trying to say, apart from dementia is a horrible disease that throws family relationships into turmoil. Even the ending leaves you hanging. There is no narrative question that is resolved, which, for me, is one of the fundamentals of fiction.

I don’t like giving negative reviews and I have seen so many positive statements about this book; am I missing something? This one just did not do it for me. And my fellow book club members seem to agree – a pretty resounding thumbs-down! Perhaps it is just that Shuggie Bain is such a fabulous story, that this book felt wanting.

I am about to start another book on the shortlist – The New Wilderness by American author Diane Cook, another novel about motherhood, but this time in the shadow of climate change.

We will see what happens at the announcement tonight. One thing is for sure, it will not be the usual black-tie dinner!

Book Review – “The Mirror and the Light” by Hilary Mantel

The big excitement in the literary world recently was, of course, the announcement of this year’s Booker Prize shortlist. In past years I have set myself the task of trying to read the whole shortlist before the award is made, but I have never yet managed it. I think I read five out of the six one year, but last year I think I only managed two or three and abandoned the intention somewhere around Christmas-time. The Booker Prize seems like less of a landmark than it once was, though; one of the criticisms is that it is now dominated by US-published books, since it was opened up to writers in English from outside the Commonwealth in 2014. One of the fears was that it would “homogenise” literary fiction, although it is curious that this year’s prize nominees constitute one of the most diverse I can remember with it having a majority of women and a majority of people of colour. I would like to read all of the novels on this year’s shortlist, they all sound fascinating, but if there is one thing the past twelve months have taught me it is that I should not be too goal-orientated. My world feels like it has been on shifting sands and most of my plans have had to be abandoned, with the consequence that I have often felt like I was failing at every turn. At this point in time I am just trying to be kind to myself, recognise that things change and give myself a pat on the back for things done rather than admonishing myself for things still to do. And keen readers will know that that TBR pile NEVER shrinks!

The brilliant finale to the Wolf Hall trilogy

The big shock of the Booker Prize shortlist was that Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, the third and final part of her Wolf Hall trilogy, was not even nominated. This followed hard on the heels of not winning the Women’s Prize a week earlier (that award went to Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell – my next read!). Hilary Mantel has spoken of these twin ‘failures’ as being something of a relief – there had been so much talk of whether she could ‘do the treble’ (Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies having won in 2009 and 2012, respectively), but remember this is literature not football! I don’t think Hilary will be suffering too much of a crisis of confidence! As an artist, I hope her feeling of achievement is from the work itself. And what a work it is!

Talking of goals, I wrote on here back in March, when we all first went into ‘lockdown’ (I really, really hate that word), that one of the things I was planning to do with all my spare time was to both read The Mirror and the Light and re-read Ulysses (so much endless time), but of course I did not. Both books are enormous. It took a concerted effort during August to finish The Mirror and the Light. One of the reasons it took me so long was because it is so brilliantly written I wanted to savour absolutely every word. Also, with such a huge cast of characters, it was not always easy to follow who was conspiring with whom.

We all know the ending – Cromwell falls out of favour with Henry, following a fairly concerted campaign by his enemies at court, and is eventually executed. Knowing this, rather like re-reading a good book, helps you to track how events are unfolding. This is a really outstanding book, a fine achievement, and one which rewards the hard work, the investment the reader has to put into it. It is much longer than the first two parts of the trilogy, and at times, especially at the beginning, I felt it could have been edited down a bit, but, now I’ve finished it, I’m not so sure. There is no doubt that, as a reader, you get your money’s worth – less than £1 per hour of reading is pretty good value! And the craft, the authorship, the writing skill, and the research, not to mention the years of her life Ms Mantel has put into this book, make it, in my view, a true literary landmark. It seems above prizes.

Hilary Mantel has also given us all a lesson in politics and a lesson in history. It was an interesting time to be reading the book. The name Dominic Cummings (most famous breaker of lockdown rules) will be familiar to most people in the UK. Not just in the UK but in other countries too, there is a culture war going on between an establishment ‘elite’ and ‘upstarts’ perceived not to belong. I do think this is an element in some of the hostility that is expressed towards people perceived to be outsiders. I should add quickly that I do not think this is undeserved (I’m thinking Cummings, but also Trump), but there is undoubtedly self-interest in the hostility coming from some quarters and some people seem to be piggy-backing on legitimate criticisms. Waiting for their moment to strike, perhaps.

Cromwell, as painted by Hans
Holbein the Younger

Thomas Cromwell (according to Mantel) was a schemer, self-interested and a manipulator, but he was also (and I should add that my comparison with the contemporary examples of outsiders mentioned above ends right there!) a brilliant tactician and a man of extraordinary talents with an unmatched intellect. His chief ‘crime’ in the eyes of his enemies at court, though, was being low-born, he son of a blacksmith; he dared to ascend to the very highest roles at court, the chief confidante of the king, but he paid the price, ultimately, for that daring. His enemies eventually succeeding in getting rid of him.

I recommend The Mirror and the Light very very highly.