Review: The Once and Future Witches

The Once and Future WitchesIn 1921, an anthropologist named Margaret Murray published The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, in which she hypothesised that the women who were tried and sentenced as witches between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries were all followers of a suppressed pagan cult built around the Satanic figure of a Horned God. Although Murray’s work on this so-called witch cult has been thoroughly discredited, it had a massive influence on the development of Wicca, whose practitioners often claimed to be the inheritors of those long-dead witches’ secret knowledge. “We are the granddaughters of the witches you couldn’t burn” is still a sentiment you see floating around witchy Tumblr – although I think most Wiccans are a little less literal about it nowadays.

Alix E. Harrow channels a very similar sentiment in her latest novel The Once and Future Witches. Her three protagonists are the Eastwood sisters, James Juniper, Agnes Amaranth and Beatrice Belladonna, in an alternative 1893 in which witchcraft, once a real and vital force, has been all but destroyed by the Church and the patriarchy, surviving only as petty household cantrips and nursery rhymes passed down mother to daughter. James, Agnes and Beatrice, survivors of an abusive childhood that has driven a series of wedges between them, are nevertheless reunited when a magical tower appears in the sky above the town of New Salem, promising the return of real power for women in a world where universal suffrage is still a distant dream. The sisters unite to restore witchcraft to the world, but face resistance from the men of New Salem – in particular a slimy, fundamentalist Christian politician named Gideon Hill – as well as the middle- and upper-class suffragettes who see witchcraft as backward and vulgar.

Witchcraft is an immensely potent metaphor for women’s work, female power and the ways that both have been historically devalued and suppressed; that’s undoubtedly why Murray’s theories have lasted in the popular consciousness to this day. It’s not a new metaphor even in fiction: you can see it at work in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, which feature witches who are both feared and respected for their prowess at traditionally female, domestic activities like attending to the sick and caring for animals.

What Harrow adds, conceptually – what makes The Once and Future Witches really sing – is intersectionality. The Eastwood sisters are poor working-class women: Agnes works in a factory; Beatrice is a librarian’s assistant; James is unemployed thanks to her youth. Their allies include a Black gay woman (and the Black women’s association she’s a part of), a trans woman, Eastern European women and even a couple of men who learn magic for the Eastwoods’ sake. It’s a specifically pluralistic definition of what women’s power looks like and who it benefits (everyone), and Harrow has some good points to make about how different communities are differently affected by misogyny, and how different forms of oppression (racism, sexism, classism, transphobia) interact.

What this intersectional approach to the witchcraft metaphor does, against the alt-historical backdrop of the fight for women’s suffrage, is provide a sort of alternative origin story for feminism – a story in which feminism is inclusive and welcoming right off the bat, in which it brings everyone along at once, without losing any of its anger or incisive power. The Once and Future Witches contains much that is bleak: there is torture, abuse, incarceration, death. But its message, ultimately, is a hopeful, joyful one. It’s a lovely book, one of the best of 2020, and I hope there’s plenty more coming from Harrow.

Review: Inkheart

This review contains spoilers.

InkheartCornelia Funke’s Inkheart is, if my childhood experience with it is anything to go by, a very successful novel that achieves exactly what it sets out to. It’s a novel for older children – not quite YA – about the importance and danger of reading, and it’s directly responsible for some of my most basic beliefs about, and approaches to, books and their materiality.

Protagonist Meggie, the daughter of a bookbinder named Mo, has been brought up to love and respect the objects that her father restores so painstakingly. Books are her constant companions and her friends: she sleeps with them under her pillow, and never goes anywhere without one if she can help it. One evening, her father receives a mysterious visit from a man called Dustfinger, who warns him about an equally mysterious figure named Capricorn – a terrifying personage by all accounts. The next morning, Mo and Meggie flee, without explanation, to the house of Meggie’s aunt Elinor, where Meggie eventually learns that Mo has the power to make fictional things and beings manifest in the real world simply by reading aloud. Years ago, he accidentally read Capricorn, and the hapless Dustfinger, out of a fantasy novel called Inkheart – and read Meggie’s absent mother, who Meggie has never met, back into it. Now, Capricorn wants to destroy all extant copies of Inkheart, so that he can never be returned to the world depicted within its pages; but that will leave Meggie’s mother stuck there too.

So this is a novel interested, I think, in authority – a word I use advisedly, given its relationship to the word “author”. The authority of the written word is paramount in Inkheart: Mo’s power only works when he’s reading aloud; simple oral storytelling has no effect. The good characters here treat books with respect and reverence; the villains burn them. (Capricorn’s evil finds its zenith in his destruction of Elinor’s vast library.) The notion of authority comes into sharp relief later in the novel when Inkheart‘s author Fenoglio comes onto the scene: the climax depends on him writing new words for his book, altering it so that Capricorn dies – so that when those new words are read aloud, Capricorn is destroyed in this world too. It’s interesting that only Fenoglio can do this – that only the author can change the story – and that Fenoglio is also considered to have special knowledge of his characters’ motivations, knowledge beyond what’s written on the page. This is an Enlightenment view of authorship, underpinned by the Protestant idea that the Bible, the Word of God, is the single and highest authority on what Christians should believe and how they should live. It’s a view that has no truck with the death of the author: Fenoglio is basically God to his creations, with absolute power over their lives and deaths.

For much of the novel, then, authority lies chiefly with two men, Mo and Fenoglio. But, gradually, and unbeknownst to her father, Meggie begins experimenting with her own reading voice, and discovers that she too can make written things real. Ultimately, it’s Meggie who reads Capricorn into oblivion in Mo’s absence (although her father turns up just in time to finish the passage when she falters). This is partly about Meggie growing up, realising her full potential; taking her place in the Symbolic order, if we want to get Lacanian about it (and, let’s face it, I always want to get Lacanian about it). But there’s also a feminist point here too, I think, in the fact that we’re seeing a girl ascend to traditionally male authority; an especially important point in view of the fact that her mother, who we discover among Capricorn’s retinue at the end of the book, has symbolically lost her voice.

Something that I found striking and unusual about Inkheart as a novel for children is that Mo is a constant presence throughout the story. Most MG and YA novels sideline parental figures as a way of giving their young protagonists greater agency: think of parentless Lyra in Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights, or the way that September is blown off to Fairyland in Catherynne M. Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making. But Funke manages to keep Mo by Meggie’s side, attempting to protect her, while at the same time giving Meggie the space to become her own authority (although it’s notable that it’s when Meggie and Mo are parted temporarily that she’s able to defeat Capricorn). Their relationship is strong, trusting and respectful; I’d argue that in some respects it’s actually a better model for exploring childhood agency in a realistic way than the absent-parent one, as real Western children for the most part gain agency as Meggie does, gradually and in small doses. It also situates Meggie better in her social context: it’s clear that she’s coming of age into a specific community, a family, rather than into a sort of individualistic vacuum.

This is where Meggie’s budding sort-of-a-romance with Farid, a boy who’s been read out of One Thousand and One Nights along with a bunch of gold, comes into play. I mean, I say romance, I think they share a couple of charged glances and blush a bit; it’s very much an undercurrent rather than a major plot point, but then they’re both about twelve. It’s the suggestion that’s important, placing Meggie at the gates of adulthood, starting to take her place in the grown-up social order. And although I wouldn’t say Funke’s portrayal of Farid is entirely unproblematic – she doesn’t really bother to complicate the stereotypes that popular understandings of One Thousand and One Nights have given us – it still feels fairly unusual to read about a possible interracial romance in a mainstream children’s novel from 2005.

At the beginning of this review, I talked about how influential Inkheart has been on how I interact with and think about books. Until a couple of years ago, I slept with a book under my pillow at night (and still do when I’m on my own). I have a book with me pretty much wherever I go. I’m always currently reading something. I don’t dog-ear pages, or throw books away; book art, however intricate and lovely, makes me feel conflicted and sad. Because books are important. Books are sacred.

This is all because of Inkheart. Inkheart taught me about the importance of authority, the importance of the Word; a concept that’s central to a lot of Western thought, particularly pre-modernism. If one of the functions of children’s literature is to help induct young readers into the majority culture, then Inkheart certainly does the job.

Notes on Paul Auster’s Travels in the Scriptorium

Travels in the ScriptoriumThis isn’t really a proper review of Travels in the Scriptorium, because, as per my review of Chigozie Obioma’s An Orchestra of Minorities, I’m no longer interested in engaging substantially with litfic that treats women as second-class citizens. (Of course litfic authors are capable of doing this to marginalised groups of all kinds – I’ve just finished reading Salman Rushdie’s The Golden House, which is a bit yikes on several levels – but I’ve noticed that this kind of misogyny is endemic across the genre.)

The protagonist of Travels in the Scriptorium, referred to as Mr Blank for reasons that will shortly become clear, wakes in a characterless room with no memory of who or where he is. In a desk drawer, he discovers an unfinished manuscript telling a story set in nineteenth-century America – did he write this? We’re not sure, and neither is he. He also receives a succession of visitors who he doesn’t recognise and who will return only cryptic answers to his questions – oh, and have sex with him. Therein lies the problem.

There are two (2) female characters in this book. The first one, Anna, helps him go to the bathroom, cleans him, and then gives him a handjob, which is somewhat disturbing given the fact that he is not at this point sure whether she is his daughter. The second, Sophie, apparently a nurse of some description, gets him to take his pills by allowing him to fondle her breast – at which point I almost flung the book across the room.

These sexual encounters don’t, as far as I can see, contribute anything to the text’s meanings: since Anna and Sophie appear once each, they’re not setting up any kind of relationship; there’s no thematic exploration of sex or of misogyny; there’s literally no meaning to these unequal sexual encounters apart from a distinctively creepy fantasy-wish-fulfilment vibe. It’s just…an elderly man receiving sexual gratification from basically faceless women without needing to do any emotional work in return.

When I started researching this post I found out that many of the characters here are drawn from Auster’s other novels; and there’s some textual evidence to suggest that Mr Blank is Auster himself. Which, uh, explains a lot.

Obviously this is all supposed to lead in twisty metatextual directions that explore the nature of authorship, etc., and the sex stuff probably has a deeper meaning that is not misogynist because this is Literature, but I am just not that interested in giving Auster the benefit of the doubt. The way he handles Anna and Sophie here is creepy and gross. That’s it; I’m out.

Review: Shadowplay

ShadowplayIt’s 1878. A little-regarded Irish writer named Bram Stoker is offered a job by one of the theatrical giants of his age, Henry Irving, the first actor to be awarded a knighthood: Bram is to manage the Lyceum Theatre, a daunting task for which he’s ill-prepared. Joining Irving’s cast at the Lyceum is the other great theatrical light of the late Victorian period, Ellen Terry. Joseph O’Connor’s 2019 novel Shadowplay charts the relationship between these three historical figures, and the formative influence the Lyceum years had on Stoker’s masterpiece Dracula – which, tragically, never saw success in Stoker’s lifetime. It’s a relationship that’s frequently contentious, resentful, fraught with jealousy – but one that endured, historically and in the world of the novel, for two and a half decades.

The novel is very much in conversation with Dracula, and in many ways is engaged in the work of constructing an origin story for it. O’Connor fortunately avoids the trap of thinking too biographically about works of art – Henry Irving isn’t Dracula, he’s just the inspiration for the character; events and characters in Shadowplay also show up in Dracula, but in different contexts and symbolic schema – but, ultimately, Shadowplay is still very interested in where Stoker’s culture-shaping novel came from. And part of the way it’s talking to Dracula is through the tropes and effects of the Gothic. Structurally, it mirrors Dracula‘s epistolary form – and that of many Gothic novels – told as it is through a series of discontiguous texts: transcripts of phonograph recordings, diaries, letters, all stitched together with good old-fashioned third-person narration. Other Gothic conceits include a ghost that haunts the attic of the Lyceum, where Bram likes to write; a febrile, menacing atmosphere occasioned by the spectre of Jack the Ripper, whose brutal attacks prompt Bram and Irving to make special provisions for the safety of the Lyceum’s women; a visit to an asylum, later on in the novel; and overtones of forbidden eroticism – O’Connor having chosen here to interpret Stoker as gay, not without some evidence.

In this way the novel generates the sort of heightened, vaguely menacing atmosphere in which we can believe something like Dracula must have been written. But what truly makes the novel Gothic is the bitter irony that pervades it: the fact that toiling, ambitious Bram Stoker was unknown in his lifetime, but is globally famous today; and that Ellen Terry and Henry Irving, the Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt of their day, are virtually unremembered today save by academics and amateur historians. Put simply, the text is haunted by the afterlives of its characters; and, in true Gothic fashion, the haunting, and the anxieties it provokes about mortality and celebrity, remain unresolved by the text, owing to the basic facts of history: Bram will never know of his fame, and nor will his friends. That knowledge haunts us long after we close the book, past and present layered on top of each other in a way that destabilises both.

It’s this haunting effect that ultimately makes the novel its own thing, a text that can stand independently of Dracula. I think what I like most about the book is that it’s a kind of witnessing of a seemingly small and unregarded life that actually turned out to be massively important to the development of Western culture. Our knowledge of Stoker’s influence on English literature – that haunting irony that stays with us as we read – is tragic, but it’s also, in a way, uplifting; it grants a kind of dignity to his life. Shadowplay is a lovely, layered novel that’s deploying Gothic tropes in knowing, effective ways; a fascinating portrait of a literary figure who missed out on his own success.

Review: The House of Ulloa

The House of Ulloa“Gothic” is a descriptor that’s thrown about a lot in relation to Emilia Pardo Bazan’s The House of Ulloa, but I’m not sure I agree that the novel’s truly Gothic in sensibility. First published in Spain in 1886, the novel follows the young priest Julian Alvarez on the first posting of his career, as chaplain to the debauched marquis of Ulloa, Don Pedro. The narrative focuses on Julian’s attempts to reform Don Pedro’s character and rescue his estate from the disarray Julian’s predecessor left it in – as well as from the control of Don Pedro’s majordomo Primitivo, who seems to have his fingers in a number of pies.

There are unmistakably Gothic elements to the tale: the crumbling family mansion, the debauched and degenerate noble house which recalls Edgar Allen Poe’s House of Usher, the wild, Brontean landscapes; later on, Don Pedro marries a sweet, naive young woman who pines away in the confinement of his house. But Bazan is primarily a realist; there is never any true suggestion of the supernatural or of the Gothic unknowable in her novel. In fact the horrors here are almost too knowable: one of the first things we see of the House of Ulloa is a group of grown men force-feeding wine to a toddler. In a Gothic novel such as, for instance, Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho, or Wuthering Heights, whose landscapes Bazan’s so resemble, this kind of cruelty would remain subtextual, a narrative void generating the atmosphere of mystery, anxiety and suspense that characterises the Gothic as a genre. Here, in Bazan’s novel, there is no mystery: we’re told, right from the beginning, exactly how bad Don Pedro is. The question that the plot asks is not “How evil can a person be?” but “Is it possible for good to triumph over evil?” Can Julian save Don Pedro’s soul, or at least the earthly existence of his wife? Can his good Christian influence help regenerate the House of Ulloa?

Bazan’s conclusion, like those of many realist writers, is rather depressing; and I think on the whole I do prefer Gothic anxiety, Gothic excess, to the plain-spoken straightforwardness on display in The House of Ulloa. Which isn’t the book’s fault, of course; just a quirk of readerly preference.

Review: Doctor Who: Revolution of the Daleks

Penned by showrunner Chris Chibnall, Revolution of the Daleks is 2021’s first – and, so far, only – TV outing for Jodie Whittaker’s Thirteenth Doctor and her fam. What did the Doctor of hope have to offer us after a year which saw multiple religious celebrations cancelled at short notice?

Daleks.

At this point I am actually pretty unconvinced by the Daleks, as a concept and as major antagonists for the Doctor. Their clunky design – those massive pepper-pot machine-bodies, those fragile eyestalks and remarkably un-maneoeuvrable deathrays – makes their origin in a different era of television obvious; in an episode that also contains YouTube and smartphones and sleekly designed modern scientific gadgetry, they stand out like a sore thumb. And attempts to modernise them have only robbed them of their specificity: how many supernatural/alien creatures have we seen that can impersonate humans, even in Doctor Who itself? The Doppelgangers in The Rebel Flesh? The Vashta Nerada? The watery Heather-creature in The Pilot? What do the Daleks stand for any more, apart from “generic Doctor Who villain”?

That said: even though it is clearly a ridiculous proposition, given their shape, the idea of the Daleks being adopted as security drones by power-hungry UK politicians is a great one, both somehow absolutely classic Dalek and absolutely something the Johnson government would do. It turns out that, thanks to the events of 2019’s New Year special Resolution, the UK government has managed to get its hands on a bit of Dalek, which is then intercepted in transit under the aegis of Jack Robertson, the slimy American businessman we first met in Arachnids in the UK. Not only have Robertson’s employees thus been able to recreate the Daleks’ shells, but his too-clever-for-his-own-good pet scientist Leo has also managed to clone an actual Dalek from organic matter found in the original casing. The cloned Dalek overpowers Leo, takes over his body and, as is traditional, embarks on a plot to take over the Earth – a plot which the Doctor and her friends must foil.

Unfortunately, then, Chibnall doesn’t spend a huge amount of time on the Dalek-Tory alliance, moving quickly on to more traditionally Dalek-y machinations involving massive Dalek warehouses, carnage among the civilian population (“EXTERMINATE!”) and different-coloured Daleks shouting at each other about racial purity. It’s all slightly tired – notwithstanding Chris Noth’s star turn as Robertson, who, in another bit of on-point political skewering, attempts to betray the Doctor to the Daleks only to claim credit for her eventual victory over them. Even this feels second-hand, though, recalling Dalek‘s Van Statten, another millionaire unwisely attempting to use the Daleks for his own ends.

None of this would matter as much, perhaps, if this were just a regular, mid-season episode; or even a standard Christmas or New Year episode, something to lift the holiday spirits without actually affecting the course of the show’s overall arc that much. But this is an episode in which we lose two major characters: Ryan and Graham, two-thirds of the Doctor’s much-loved fam, who decide to remain on Earth, to cultivate stable, normal relationships with their friends. The reheated, second-hand nature of much of the episode does their departure a disservice: neither of them have any significant role in defeating the Daleks, and their send-off is muted and unremarkable.

Is it time, then, to retire the Daleks? Perhaps, but they’re iconic enough that I can’t see the BBC ever taking the leap. And perhaps the problem isn’t the Daleks themselves, per se; it’s that showrunners and scriptwriters are leaning on their prestige and the things that everyone knows about them rather than finding new stories to tell and new things to say about them. Revolution of the Daleks isn’t, ultimately, a total write-off, but I don’t think it’s going to be remembered as a Great Episode.

Review: The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr

E.T.A. Hoffman’s The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr is in many ways quite a surprising book. In its subject matter, tone and structure it could almost be mistaken for postmodernism – except that it was written in 1819.

A riposte of sorts to Laurence Sterne’s eighteenth-century novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, Tomcat Murr is the autobiography of the titular Murr, an autodidact feline caught between his animalistic impulses and his literary pretensions. In writing this tract, however, he has inadvertently used as blotting-paper the tale of one Johannes Kreisler, a musician with a taste for the melodramatic; and so the two texts have become mixed up at the printers’, with the result that the text switches between narratives at seemingly arbitrary points, and sometimes mid-sentence. To confound the reader’s understanding even further, there are substantial sections of Kreisler’s tale missing; and the whole novel is truncated by the fact of Hoffman’s death in real life before he got the chance to write the third volume.

It is, then, not a novel that is particularly accessible to the modern reader: its structural tricks and the density of the contemporary archaic references it deploys renders it a text probably best enjoyed by an academic specialist. The prose, translated from the German by Anthea Bell, is dense and archaic, characterised by the run-on sentences so beloved of nineteenth century writers and by a deliberately overheated, hyperbolic style that can become quite wearing.

One reason it’s so difficult, I think, is that the concerns and ideas Hoffman’s working with are peculiarly nineteenth-century ones; the aesthetic context is just very different from our own. In particular, I think he’s examining Romantic conceptions of the self from a couple of different angles. Autobiography was an important genre for the Romantics, with their focus on the importance of the individual and of emotion and feeling; look at Wordsworth’s interminable The Prelude, in which the author describes his growth as a poet. Hoffman uses Murr’s narrative to skewer the Romantic autobiography: Murr is clearly a ridiculous figure, a pompous tomcat who believes he has important Thoughts to share with the world even as he caterwauls upon the rooftops with a raucous feline gang. The novel’s structure, too, undercuts Murr’s authority: there’s something irrepressibly catlike in the idea that his blotting paper made it to the printers as well as his memoir, and it’s something that’s impossible to take seriously. So, here we have a comedic dissection of the Romantic subject.

The Kreisler sections are a little subtler in their interrogation of the Romantic subject. At first glance, Kreisler is the archetypal Romantic hero, a sensitive artistic genius to whom extraordinary and possibly supernatural things happen, a man standing apart from the world because conventional society has no place for him. But here too the novel’s structure has a part to play in deconstructing this figure. The fact that there are pieces of the story missing, and particularly that the novel has no formal end, makes Kreisler an incoherent subject: we don’t know his full history, we don’t get answers to a lot of the mysteries the novel poses; he disappears from his own narrative at random (leaving us with the two noblewomen who may or may not be falling in love with him) and we don’t really ever find out why. As a Tortured Genius (TM) he is relentlessly unknowable in a way that works against the purpose of autobiography as it appears in Murr’s narrative, because he is not storyable; we can’t piece together the narrative of his life.

Hoffman is, then, clearly interested in exploring the knowability and coherence of the psyche that Romanticism was so invested in; we can link this to his use of madness and mental illness as thematic elements in Tomcat Murr, which, unusually for the time period, deploys contemporary psychiatric terminology. Madness was another of Romanticism’s preoccupations: think of their interest in William Blake, believed mad by his contemporaries; of Victor Frankenstein’s multiple mental breakdowns; of the madness and death of Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. Mental illness is figured quite commonly in Romantic texts as a break in continuity, in the storyability of the subject: Frankenstein’s first-person narrative leaves lacunae around his breakdown; Heathcliff’s madness leads to his death. Hoffman takes this trend one step further with Kreisler, who is all lacunae, all discontinuity.

So Hoffman is coming at the Romantic subject from two angles, as it were: the broadly comedic angle provided by Murr’s autobiography, which punctures and undercuts the self-centred pomposity of Romanticism; and the more serious, measured angle embedded in Kreisler’s tale, in which he engages in a sustained fashion with the Romantic figure of the tortured artistic genius. In this way he points up the contradictions inherent in this figure: the coexistence within them of louche debauchery and artistic rigour; the paradox that although their propensity for mental breakdown is one of their most distinguishing features, such breakdowns are never described or examined. It’s thus closely engaged in contemporary artistic debates, which is probably why it’s little known and little read today. An interesting take on Romanticism; better studied than read for pleasure, I think.

Review: Nativity!

Let get this out of the way: Debbie Isitt’s festive family offering Nativity! is schlock of the first order, commercialised, trite, anti-feminist and utterly derivative. It has, naturally, spawned three (three!) sequels.

Teacher Paul Maddens (played by put-upon everyman Martin Freeman), an embittered soul who despises Christmas because, inevitably, his implausibly attractive girlfriend Jennifer left him for Hollywood on Christmas Eve, is tasked with directing the school nativity play, with the help of excitable teaching assistant Mr. Poppy (Marc Wootton). Paul’s tragic flaw is pride, and accordingly he brags to the despised Gordon Shakespeare (Jason Watkins), the headmaster of a nearby private school, that Jennifer, now a big-shot Hollywood producer, is coming to watch the nativity in the hopes of turning it into a film. The local press gets hold of the story and things escalate in a predictable manner, leaving Paul with a problem: because of course Jennifer isn’t actually coming to the nativity, on account of the fact that she lives in America and broke up with him years ago. How, therefore, can Paul save both his career and his love life in one fell swoop?

The film leans heavily on the idea that Christmas is a festival of love, figured here exclusively as romantic love: Paul hates Christmas, and lives in a characterless bachelor pad full of Ikea furniture, because he has no-one to love; Jennifer’s inevitable return is basically the ultimate Christmas present, miraculously restoring his zest for life and for the most commercialised of all holidays. Interestingly, no-one ever suggests that Paul finds a new girlfriend, or gets some friends. Nor is the film particularly interested in Jennifer’s viewpoint: in fact it actively minimises her agency when Paul flies out to America to see her and finds that her high-flying job in Hollywood it is is actually “just” a secretarial position. Although she does eventually convince her film-producer manager to see the nativity, the convincing happens off-screen, and it’s sold to us not as the work of a savvy, confident professional pitching an idea to her manager, but as an indulgent boss graciously condescending to a favoured employee. There’s also absolutely no interrogation of why Jennifer would leave a fairly high-level job where she’s obviously being treated well for a miserable boundary-crosser who she’s already left once. I’m not saying that people don’t move long distances for people they love, but it would be nice to get some sense of why she chooses this relationship beyond “that’s what the narrative logic demands”.

The other capitalist cliché that the film puts a lot of stock in is “you can do anything if you really try”. The children Paul teaches are, ostensibly, disadvantaged kids who’ve been written off as hopeless (in contrast with the privileged children at Gordon Shakespeare’s private school); and so, when their nativity turns out, miraculously, to be the sort of production an am-dram society could be legitimately proud of, it is a testimony to the power of belief, and the power of being believed in. There’s some interesting, if basic, class analysis buried in there: the way in which the British school system disadvantages certain children is not the sort of thing you expect a film like this even to engage with. But the way it’s handled feels basically superficial; the politics are not allowed to trouble the feelgood surface of the narrative too much. For one thing, there’s hardly any indication of the ways in which these children are disadvantaged. No-one is coming to school hungry. No-one has outgrown their uniform or is wearing shoes that are falling apart. No-one is even that disruptive: I think there is one scene in which a boy hits another child, and then has a conversation with Paul in which he is encouraged to mend his ways. We’re told that these children have been given up on, but the evidence just isn’t there. They’re just…quite ordinary middle-class kids who are ordinarily untalented who do ordinary gross-kid things like belch the alphabet (an achievement that the film treats as evidence of serious social dysfunction, for some reason). They’re also all white, apart from one (1) Black child, which, for a film set in Coventry, a city with a sizeable Asian population, is a bit of a surprise.

This all has the effect of minimising the ways in which privilege manifests in the real British school system: the film makes it look like something that a) is not that bad in the first place and b) can be easily overcome by a sufficiently motivated and enthusiastic teacher; neither of which are, of course, true. This representational laziness is symptomatic of the film as a whole: narratively speaking, it consistently takes the easy way out, flattening profound human emotion, hewing slavishly to stereotypes and repeating outdated romantic cliches in contexts that make them seem even more ill-advised than usual (whisking two children away on an unplanned trip to America in order to woo a Hollywood exec? That’s not just a bad idea, it’s practically career suicide if you’re a teacher).

And yet. The songs are quite good. Marc Wootton’s energy as enthusiastic big kid Mr. Poppy is irresistible. And, after all, there is some comfort in cliches at Christmas. I cannot wholeheartedly recommend Nativity! in the same way as I can recommend the masterpiece of adaptation that is The Muppet Christmas Carol. But the part of me that delights in glittery, upbeat, campy things would not be entirely unhappy to watch it again. Ideologically, intellectually, it’s a terrible film. But it does exactly what it sets out to do; it works on the emotions in exactly the way it’s supposed to. There’s something a little pleasing about that.

Review: Christmas Shopaholic

This review contains spoilers.

This Goodreads reviewer, I think, pinpoints what’s wrong with Christmas Shopaholic, the tenth outing in Sophie Kinsella’s Shopaholic series, when she observes that protagonist Becky “trivialize[s] so many important societal and cultural issues.”

When Becky Bloomwood first appeared in The Secret Dreamworld of a Shopaholic, she was a carefree twenty-something singleton in the early stages of her career whose escalating debt problems were mostly played for laughs – an approach that was effective mainly because they didn’t really affect anyone apart from her, and because her substantial social safety net meant she was never in danger of any real consequences. Ten books later, Becky is married with a young daughter and not-insignificant social responsibilities, and her self-absorption and chronic inability to control her spending are beginning to look less like adorable character flaws and more like gross irresponsibility.

As its title indicates, the novel sees Becky hosting her family and friends for Christmas for the first time, with all the planning, panicking and last-minute crises that entails. Her parents have come over all hipster and moved to Shoreditch, and their resentful friends aren’t speaking to them any more; her daughter Minnie is asking for a very specific Christmas present; her half-sister Jess is labouring under some emotional strain that she won’t talk about.

It’s Jess’ storyline that the novel struggles most to handle: she’s a vegan who tries to minimise her consumption of goods, and who along with her husband Tom is in the process of adopting a South Americana child. When she first appeared in Shopaholic & Sister, she was intended basically as a joke, Becky’s complete opposite in every way. She sort of worked as a stock character, a stereotype; but now, as an established member of Becky’s family, we need to read her sympathetically, as a real and (slightly more) complex person. This leaves her anticapitalist, eco-friendly views, which are so thoroughly at odds with the series’ consumerist ethos, in a sort of uneasy limbo: neither Becky nor Kinsella are capable of engaging with them as more than an aestheticised consumer identity (cue scenes of Becky spilling lentils all over the floor of a zero-plastic shop), but they’re still THERE, uncomfortably, pointing up the excessive waste of Becky’s Christmas preparations in a way that doesn’t ever get meaningfully dealt with. Climate change: a massive bummer, amirite?

So, yeah. While I quite enjoyed Christmas Shopaholic, in a guilty-pleasure sort of way, as a getting-ready-for-the-holidays treat, I would not call it a good novel even by the standards of this series: Secret Dreamworld might have been trashy and materialistic, but at least it wasn’t trying to be anything more than it was. I’m not sure there’s much more left to be wrung out of the Shopaholic conceit.

Review: Ninth House

Ninth HousePublished towards the end of 2019, Ninth House is YA author Leigh Bardugo’s first foray into adult fantasy. Much like Hanya Yanigahara’s The People in the Trees (which is on my mind largely because it happens to have been the book I reviewed before this one), it sheds light on the privilege and entitlement at work in America’s cultural institutions. Protagonist Alex Stern, a young woman with a traumatic past who also happens, mysteriously, to be the only survivor of a multiple homicide, is offered a full scholarship to Yale in exchange for her unprecedented ability to see and talk to ghosts (or Grays, as Bardugo terms them). On arrival, she’s drafted into the titular Ninth House – Lethe House – whose members are tasked with policing the occult activities of Yale’s secret societies, which have given their alumni fabulous wealth and power. But when Alex begins investigating a murder that seems to be connected to the societies, she discovers how limited Lethe’s powers are, and how little the university administration cares about those outside the institution.

Like Yanigahara’s novel, Ninth House gains additional force from the realisation that it’s based on real circumstances: the secret societies described in the novel really exist, and are really populated by the rich, the talented and the privileged. Probably they don’t really summon occult forces (although who knows, I guess); Bardugo’s magic stands in for the real-world power these people hold by virtue of having been in the right place at the right time, and her characters’ hoarding of that magic, their use of it to cement their privilege instead of supporting those without it, is a nice reflection of how power sustains itself in the real world.

For all that, though, I don’t think its critique of elitism is as trenchant or as troubling as Yanigahara’s: wealthy, abusive Yale boys are easy targets, after all, and the novel’s villains are all people with the kind of power that most of its readers will never be able to acquire. It’s not a novel, in other words, that really asks us to interrogate how we ourselves might be enabling and excusing these power structures. That doesn’t make it worthless: it’s a solidly written novel that’s not afraid to look unflinchingly at what happens when powerful people are allowed to wield their power unchecked (content warnings apply for rape, drug addiction and emotional abuse); but it’s not particularly memorable.