Review: Winterkeep

WinterkeepPublished in January this year, Kristin Cashore’s Winterkeep marks her return to the acclaimed Graceling Realms series, a run of high fantasy YA novels dealing with themes of parental abuse, coercive control and personal agency. This latest outing is a departure in terms of tone, setting and structure, and although on the whole I enjoyed it, that enjoyment was despite its many quirks rather than because of them.

The people of the Graceling Realms have recently discovered a new continent, the land of Torla, and have opened up trade with the nearest nation on that continent, Winterkeep. When a delegation from the Monsean Queen Bitterblue (who we saw struggling with the legacy of her monstrous father Leck in Bitterblue, the previous novel in the series) goes missing, Bitterblue and her retinue go themselves to Winterkeep to find out what’s going on. Their story is interwoven with that of the young woman Lovisa, daughter of two powerful Winterkeep politicians, who is slowly waking up to the emotional harm her parents have done to her and her younger brothers.

It’s hard to summarise beyond that simply because there’s so much going on here. This is the first Graceling Realms novel to feature multiple points of view: whereas previous outings in the series focused narrowly on the emotional journey of a single character, allowing Cashore to explore their coming-of-ages in great depth, Winterkeep takes a broader approach, attempting to draw its conclusions from multiple examples. It also, somewhat jarringly, introduces environmental concerns: Torla, in stark contrast to the other Graceling Realms, is in the middle of an industrial revolution, and the fuel that powers their economy is toxic and dangerous to use and to produce. There are discussions of two-party politics, arms manufacturing, capitalism; there’s boarding school drama, murder, arson, imprisonment, court politicking and romantic intrigue; there are telepathic blue foxes, sentient sea-creatures and a massive gentle tentacled being with POV chapters.

This kitchen-sink approach is a poor fit with Cashore’s strengths as a writer. Generally, what’s enjoyable and valuable about the first three novels is the way they use tropes such as mind control and absolute monarchy to literalise the concerns about agency, privacy and consent that many modern teens face as they grow up, focusing those concerns through a single viewpoint character. In Winterkeep, that close focus is diffused: agency, privacy and consent all remain key themes, but they’re not literalised in the same way (there is telepathy in Winterkeep, but it’s somewhat sidelined in favour of more mundane forms of emotional abuse), and the introduction of a more political dimension to the text detracts from the clarity and depth with which Cashore’s other novels discuss them. And Cashore is not good on the politics. Her takes on two-party systems of government, environmental degradation and capitalism are basic, shallow, uninteresting; and she is unable in this volume to resolve the series’ increasingly inconsistent position on democracy. One of Bitterblue’s contingency plans for Monsea, should she die in Winterkeep, is for the country to transition into a republic; by this we are to understand that she is a just and progressive ruler. And yet by the end of Winterkeep she is discussing future children with her love interest, talking of teaching them to rule justly (instead of, for instance, abdicating her throne in favour of the republic she has already planned for). By this we are to understand that she has achieved a desirable romantic dream. Herein lies the problem: Cashore is fundamentally most interested in her characters’ personal lives, and so introducing an ill-thought-through political dimension creates tensions and fractures that the text is not set up to address.

The pleasures of the earlier novels are, however, not entirely absent from Winterkeep. Their fundamental good-heartedness about what their characters deserve from life remains: Bitterblue and Lovisa come through different kinds of abuse to find understanding, support and love. We care about them. We care about their ability to process and make it past what has happened to them. Ultimately it’s this that kept me reading despite the novel’s messiness, despite my initial scepticism about the telepathic foxes and the move from cod-medieval fantasy into quasi-steampunk: despite everything, Cashore’s love and concern for her characters is what shines through.

Review: Patternmaster

PatternmasterOctavia Butler’s 1976 novel Patternmaster occupies a slightly odd position in her oeuvre. Although it’s Butler’s first novel, chronologically it’s the last in her Patternist quartet, which also includes Mind of My Mind, Wild Seed and Clay’s Ark (as well as the now out-of-print Survivor, which Butler repudiated). The ideal reading order of the series is hotly contested: I haven’t read any of the other novels, but structurally Patternmaster is very strange for a series finale, and is slightly unsatisfactory even as a standalone.

Butler’s far-future North America is inhabited by a society of Patternists – telepaths connected to one another by a sort of mental energy field known as the Pattern. The most powerful Patternist, and the ruler of their society, is the titular Patternmaster, who at the time the novel takes place is an old man named Rayal.

The Patternists’ mortal enemies are the Clayarks, humans mutated almost beyond recognition by the Clayark disease. The Patternists believe that the Clayarks are essentially animals, and the two groups attack each other at every opportunity. Similarly, the Patternists call un-mutated, non-telepathic humans “mutes” and treat them like cattle, setting them to menial tasks in their households.

Our protagonist is Teray, a young and gifted Patternist just out of school who’s forced into servitude by his older, more powerful brother Coransee. Coransee is the strongest of Rayal’s sons, and hopes that by removing Teray from the equation he can secure his succession to the role of Patternmaster when Rayal dies. Teray, of course, has other ideas, and together with a healer named Amber he embarks upon a dangerous journey across the country to seek sanctuary from Coransee’s scheming and the mental control with which Coransee threatens him.

What makes Patternmaster so odd, considered as an SF dystopia, is that nothing really changes in it: it’s fundamentally a novel about how entrenched power structures perpetuate themselves. As Teray journeys across the Patternist world, he experiences its various injustices both in his own person – as when his sister-wife Iray is taken from him by Coransee, thanks to laws and social mores that give Housemasters absolute power over their households – and through observation of how Patternist society treats various groups (the Clayarks, Patternist women, the mutes). As genre-savvy readers, we might expect that Teray will use his burgeoning powers to resist the society in which these injustices are allowed to thrive – especially given his romance with Amber, whose position as a wandering healer is politically tenuous, leaving her as it does at the mercy of various male Housemasters. (She is also bisexual in a world that doesn’t really understand female bisexuality.) Instead, however, Teray continues to seek power within that society – to take the place of the oppressors rather than overthrow them.

It’s a bleak vision of the future, one in which humanity’s descendants continue to tear each other apart and old prejudices still hold; in which those with the power to change things choose simply to maintain the status quo. I don’t think that this is how Butler thinks the future really will look: all dystopias are, after all, reflections of the concerns of the time they’re written in. But it’s striking how relevant Patternmaster‘s concerns still are today, how inescapable our own power structures increasingly feel. I can’t say I precisely enjoyed Patternmaster: it’s too bleak and too stark for my taste. But it’s certainly doing a lot of heavy lifting for such a slight volume, and I’m interested to read the rest of the series.

Review: Ashes of Honor

Ashes of HonorThe sixth instalment in Seanan McGuire’s Toby Daye fae detective series, Ashes of Honor continues to build upon the novels’ interest in family and heredity. It’s at least the third book in the series to deal with disappeared children: this time, a heretofore unknown teenage changeling named Chelsea, the daughter of a knight of Toby’s liege lord Duke Sylvester and a human folklore professor at UC Berkeley, is teleporting uncontrollably, ripping open portals into the deep lands of Faerie and jeopardising the stability of the fae’s homes in the Summerlands. Toby, a changeling herself, is engaged by Chelsea’s father Etienne to find her and bring her home before others try to, more violently.

Something that I feel I’ve sort of been skirting around in my posts about the Toby Daye series is McGuire’s treatment of race and how it maps onto real-world civil rights issues. In one sense, the books are reasonably diverse, and become increasingly so as the series goes on: the fae don’t care about sexual orientation or skin colour, and in Ashes of Honor there’s at least one lesbian couple and two brown characters. (As a side note, though, I haven’t seen any real effort in this series to include global mythological traditions: Raj and Jazz remain embedded in a thoroughly Anglo-Celtic folkloric context, which has the probably unintended effect of subordinating non-Western traditions to the Western paradigm.) Skipping ahead a bit, the ninth book in the series, A Red-Rose Chain, features a transgender character who’s treated fairly well by the narrative.

It’s changelings who face the brunt of discrimination in Faerie: those unlucky enough to be born part-human, part-fae. At a certain age changeling children are offered a choice between their fae and human heritage: those who choose the fae world are taken forever from their human parent to face a lifetime of second-class citizenship in Faerie; those who choose humanity are discreetly murdered in order to preserve Faerie’s secrecy. It’s a rough deal, one that the series explicitly frames as a civil rights issue, talking about changeling rights and equality. And it’s not a huge leap from that to reading McGuire’s changelings as analogues for real-world mixed-race people.

Seen in this light, the solution that Ashes of Honor presents to changeling discrimination is rather unsatisfactory. Just as she did for her daughter Gillian at the end of One Salt Sea, Toby draws on her newfound powers to shift the balance of Chelsea’s blood, making her entirely fae to enable her to control her magic. This gives Chelsea a happy ending, allowing her to evade the oppobrium of changeling-hood while also staying with both her parents (since Sylvester allows Etienne to invite his human wife to live with him in Faerie, something that hasn’t been done for hundreds of years). Later novels in the series indicate that Toby sees this as a permanent structural solution to the loss and ill-treatment that changelings suffer. To me, though, it looks like erasure: instead of actually accepting changelings and treating them as equals, let’s just…make them not changelings any more? I’m reminded of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, which touts the internet as the solution to racism and sexism because everyone can just pretend to be white men. These are “solutions” that put the burden on the oppressed, not the oppressor, which is exactly backwards.

I’m not trying to suggest here that the Toby Daye books are particularly objectionable or deliberately racist: they’re no worse than a lot of Western mainstream fiction, and it’s also clear that McGuire is intentionally working to improve representation in a series whose first instalment was written 12 years ago. I do think the series is a good example of a text in which generic conventions – in this case the detective novel’s focus on individual trauma and the need to restore the status quo – are pulling against its overt concerns and themes: here, the attempt to work towards a structural solution to institutional discrimination. Sometimes that tension can be productive; for this series, though, it’s just limiting. Ashes of Honor is fun, but the novel, and the series as a whole, is not really equipped to deal satisfactorily with the anxieties it’s evoking.

Review: The Paying Guests

The Paying GuestsAh, Sarah Waters. One generally knows where one is with one of her novels: she’s a fantastic writer of queer romantic suspense, using the heteronormative mores of her historical settings to keep her star-crossed lesbian lovers apart and creating labyrinthine Gothic plots that draw the reader inexorably in, under the hypnotic spell of her prose.

Her most recent novel, 2014’s The Paying Guests, fits this mould pretty well. Frances Wray and her mother are middle-class 1920s homeowners who have fallen on hard times since the war, and are forced, to their shame, to take in lower-class lodgers – the vivacious Lilian and her clerk husband Leonard. Frances and Lilian grow close, and eventually, inevitably, become lovers; Waters brilliantly evokes the claustrophobia of their affair, the sneaking, secretive assignations snatched in the moments when there’s no-one else in the house. But things turn sour when Lilian accidentally murders someone and the two women conspire to cover it up: can they evade the hangman’s noose and still preserve their love for each other?

What I found compelling about the novel as a queer reader was the sense of embattlement that these women experience: it’s quite literally them against the world, keeping their secret together in a way that’s analogous to the way they need to keep their relationship secret. The murder that Lilian commits is essentially an act of self-defence, carried out in response to a violent, homophobic attack on Frances; so the novel positions Lilian and Frances as wronged queers facing a hostile society and justice system. (Something else that Waters is very good on is class and social pressure: the gossip, the intrusive media interest, Frances’ mother’s disapproval of her friendship with a woman of a lower class are all just as oppressive as the actual court case.) Even in these times, when LGBT+ rights are becoming increasingly enshrined in law around the world (although not everywhere, and progress can be frustratingly slow), that’s very relatable for queer readers: the intense, heady delight of finding queer community; the costs of holding onto it, preserving it in the face of reckless hate and prejudice.

Ultimately, though, The Paying Guests isn’t that dissimilar in mood or content to the rest of Waters’ oeuvre, and it’s less twistily seductive than my favourite of her novels, Fingersmith and Tipping the Velvet. I enjoyed it – but for her next outing I’d love to see Waters doing something a little different.

Review: Utopia Avenue

Utopia AvenueDavid Mitchell has built a career on writing virtuosic yet accessible novels characterised by strong storytelling, structural fireworks and light speculative elements that just about toe the line of acceptability to the literary establishment. His most famous novel, Cloud Atlas, features six nesting stories arranged in a Russian doll structure, ranging from the diary of a mid-nineteenth century American lawyer witnessing colonial atrocities in the Pacific to an orally narrated tale of the fall of civilisation in the far future; 2014’s The Bone Clocks similarly presents us with six linked stories covering a span of time from the 1980s to the apocalyptic 2040s, this time centring on a single human character with a connection to a fantastical society of immortals.

His latest novel, then, looks to be a bit of a departure. Utopia Avenue is a mostly realist account of the rise and fall of a fictional 1960s folk-rock band of the same name: it’s character- rather than plot-driven, and so how much you enjoy it will depend very much on how much you relish hanging out with Utopia Avenue’s members – gifted guitarist Jasper de Zoet, a public-school boy disowned by his wealthy family on account of his schizophrenia and autism; Dean Moss, a working-class vocalist from Gravesend with an alcoholic father; Elf Holloway, a folk singer struggling with her lesbianism and the way that the music industry treats women; Griff Griffin, the drummer, the glue that holds the band together; and manager Levon Frankland, a gay man in a profoundly homophobic time.

Elf, Dean and Jasper are all songwriters as well as musicians, and each of the novel’s chapters is named after one of Utopia Avenue’s songs, and narrated by the character who wrote that song. As a structural choice that might feel gimmicky, but in fact it ties into Mitchell’s recurring interest in how we use art to process life’s hardships and to withstand them. We see Utopia Avenue using music to deal with bereavement, mental illness and parenthood, transmuting their particular, personal struggles into art that resonates more generally – and in doing so giving other people the tools to deal with the difficulties they face in their own lives. Mitchell renders this particular power that art has – the power to make us feel that we are not alone – effectively and affectingly, with real heart and charm.

One of the reasons this works so well is that Mitchell’s characters are not just dealing with personal turmoil, but with social upheaval too. His choice to set the novel in 1967, at the tail end of the Summer of Love, places the work of Utopia Avenue against a backdrop of growing protest against the Vietnam War, as well as the burgeoning LGBT civil rights movement. There’s a general sense that the carefree early years of the 60s are over, to be replaced by something more complex and more troubled; more cynical, perhaps. There are here echoes of our own embattled present: decades of apparent democratic and liberal progress are becoming undone by increasingly authoritarian governments; environmental apocalypse looms large in our public consciousness just as nuclear apocalypse loomed in the 60s. Mitchell’s portrayal of popular art as a powerful fosterer of togetherness and solidarity thus takes on deeper resonance and weight: we, like Utopia Avenue’s fictional fans, feel ourselves that we are not alone in our unease and unrest; others, too, have lived through tumultuous times in history. It’s a deeply consolatory feeling; but not, I think, a conservative one. These characters go through tragedy, after all, and their road is not entirely smooth. But there is comradeship and joy along the way.

Utopia Avenue is mostly realist, I said above. But, however traditional it looks, it is still a David Mitchell novel. Remember the immortals I mentioned in my description of The Bone Clocks? Turns out that Jasper’s schizophrenia is actually caused by a malign immortal consciousness known only as “the Mongolian” trapped in his brain for complicated reasons linked to the events of Mitchell’s fifth novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. He is helped by another immortal, Marinus, who similarly crops up in many of Mitchell’s other novels, but the drugs Marinus uses to suppress the Mongolian are extremely injurious to Jasper’s health.

If this speculative storyline seems jarring alongside the more literary concerns I’ve been discussing, that’s because, frankly, it is. As fantasy goes it’s pretty schlocky stuff, and it’s very much less than clear what Mitchell’s trying to achieve with it beyond tying Utopia Avenue into his wider mythos – his so-called “ubernovel”. I suppose as an explanation for Jasper’s schizophrenia it could be working as a metaphor for the lack of understanding extended to mental health conditions in the 60s – Jasper might as well have someone else’s mind in his head for all that doctors know about his illness – but if that’s the case it’s very poorly handled: much of Mitchell’s speculative worldbuilding is conveyed baldly, by infodump, leaving little room for metaphoric resonance or ambiguity. The inevitable conclusion to Jasper’s story also has problematic implications for the value Mitchell places on those who are mentally ill: Marinus and his colleagues succeed in banishing the Mongolian, essentially curing Jasper of his disability. (It’s worth mentioning, though, that Jasper’s autism, which is figured throughout the novel as foundational to his musical genius and the psychedelic brilliance of his lyrics, remains uncured.)

Schlocky fantasy aside, though, I have to admit that I fell completely in love with Utopia Avenue. Dean, Elf, Jasper, Griff and Levon felt like family as I read, and their music that I have never heard came alive on the page. I loved their camaraderie in the face of tragedy, the ordinariness of their troubles in contrast with their increasingly stratospheric fame. I loved how the novel reshaped itself in my head once I had finished it. I loved how much I related to Jasper’s “emotional dyslexia” and Elf’s journey to self-acceptance. Utopia Avenue is deeply emotionally satisfying, a complete aesthetic experience; it makes art, purposeful and meaningful, out of the mundane tragedies and joys of the everyday. It’s my favourite novel for a very long time.

Review: Spark Joy

Spark JoyMarie Kondo needs little introduction right now: with two Netflix series (one of them Emmy-nominated) and a bestselling book, titled in English The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, translated into at least 11 languages, the Japanese tidying consultant has become a global phenomenon. Spark Joy is the second of her books to be translated into English; it reportedly covers little new ground, but rather expands on the principles outlined in Life-Changing Magic.

The book’s title, a phrase which has become synonymous with Kondo’s approach to tidying up, refers to the question one must ask of any object in one’s home: does this spark joy? If yes, it can stay; if no, it goes. (There are some fudges to account for mundane but useful objects like screwdrivers: these, Kondo says, can be said to spark joy in their ability to carry out their function effectively, and so can be kept.) Underlying this simple principle is an animistic philosophy which can come across as twee or trite to Western readers: remarks like “Balling your socks and stockings, or tying them into knots, is cruel”, and suggestions that high-value currency notes feel pride, are somewhat eyebrow-raising.

The problem, I think, is to some extent one of positioning: Spark Joy is sold in the West as a self-help book, a practical manual on home organisation, and it’s somewhat jarring in that context to come across these quasi-religious/spiritual statements. (Kondo has said in the past that her approach is based on Shinto principles.) I also think Cathy Hirano’s straightforward, plain-English translation does these ideas no favours: I’ve written before about how easy it is for religious principles to be rendered trite and absurd by authors who fail to capture the sense of the numinous and the profound that lie behind those principles. (It may be that this problem is present in Kondo’s original text, but as a non-Japanese speaker I don’t have access to that; and in any case I suspect Kondo’s principles make more sense in her cultural context.)

In any case there are some useful titbits to be gleaned from Spark Joy: I’ve moved house recently, and while I didn’t follow Kondo’s decluttering advice to the letter, I did find myself thinking of her “spark joy” principle when choosing what to keep and what to recycle or give away. Her folding tips, too, have been useful in storing stuff away in new spaces. And, at root, her philosophy that the sacred resides in every material thing is one I fundamentally share. But Spark Joy ultimately did not spark joy in me.

Review: One Salt Sea

This review contains spoilers.

One Salt SeaFive books in, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that Seanan McGuire’s Toby Daye series is very interested in family – both the nuclear kind and the found kind. It’s an interest that’s been present throughout the series: in its procedural focus on biological parentage and the power carried in the blood; in the fairy lord Sylvester’s complicated relationship with his traumatised daughter Rayseline; in the importance that fae culture places on which of Oberon’s wives everyone is descended from. But it’s brought into sharp focus in One Salt Sea when Toby must investigate the kidnapping of three children – one of them her own estranged daughter Gillian – in order to save the fae kingdom from all-out war.

Toby has a lot to lose by this point: having begun the series in Rosemary and Rue as an outsider, lost to her human family because of Faerie and thus too angry at the fae to associate with them any more, she’s spent five books forming social and familial connections that cement her place in fae society. Many of these bonds are bonds of obligation, the fae being big on promises and formal reciprocal arrangements: Toby has sworn an oath to serve her lord Sylvester; she and the sea-witch the Luidaeg are connected by a somewhat convoluted system of favours and debts; and by the end of One Salt Sea she has officially taken on the young fae noble Quentin as her squire. It’s clear that these essentially legal relationships are founded in real love and respect, although this isn’t always the case: for instance, Toby’s ultimate allegiance technically lies with the unstable Queen of the Mists, for whom she has only contempt.

Her less formalised relationships aren’t any less strong: look at her sister of sorts, May, the Fetch who was supposed to be an omen of her death and ended up moving in when she failed to die. And by One Salt Sea Toby has not one but two possible love interests: Connor, the Selkie whose marriage to Rayseline has been dissolved because of Rayseline’s instability; and Tybalt, the King of Cats, whose relationship with Toby has been shaky in the past but is gradually becoming stronger.

That last thing is key, I think: one of the things that powers this series is this process of Toby settling herself into a new family and society, forming new links over time. These relationships feel lived in, and Toby feels embedded in her world as a result.

This embeddedness ties in to the theme of heroism that I wrote about in my review of the fourth novel in the series, Late Eclipses. It’s clear that Toby’s connections to her community enable her heroism: they give her the emotional resources to protect those she loves at her own expense, and to go on when they’re removed from her life. Towards the end of the novel, Toby saves Gillian’s life by doing something that will mean she’ll never see her again: their estrangement will be permanent. It’s a devastating choice, but it’s a choice that she survives because of the support she gets from her friends and found family. Similarly, when one of her love interests dies at the end of the book, we get the sense that she’ll go on despite her grief because of the people she still has around her – unlike many a romantic heroine.

This is quite a nuanced look at the important role that community plays in allowing individuals to do good, and it’s one of the things that marks the Toby Daye series out from a lot of urban fantasy, which tends to be rather individualistic in focus. I do think the novels continue to suffer from repetitiveness – there’s a lot of running around that doesn’t correspond to actual plot development – and McGuire’s writing isn’t as polished as it could be. But this sense of groundedness in a specific community, a specific world with its own social rules, means it’s a series that I’ll keep returning to when I’m in the mood for a light, fun, satisfying read.

Review: The Overstory

The OverstoryOne of the main criticisms that I’ve seen levelled against Richard Powers’ Booker-shortlisted eco-novel The Overstory is its lack of complex characterisation. In a judgement for the Tournament of Books, for example, Tomi Obaro writes that “Characters increasingly felt more like archetypes than real, lived-in people…[Powers] loses the people for the trees.” Others have pointed out its use of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope and its stereotyping of its Chinese-American and Indian-American characters. These flaws all undoubtedly exist; but they’re interesting to me because I think they’re by-products of an attempt to write a literary novel that is not anthropocentric. That is: if Powers misses the people for the trees, it’s because he means to.

It’s a messy novel, hard to summarise, that weaves together multiple strands and plotlines; but at its heart it brings together nine-ish characters whose lives have been changed or shaped, for better or for worse, by trees. Neelay Mehta falls from a tree as a child and is permanently paralysed; Olivia Vandergriff, having undergone a near-death experience, hears the voices of the USA’s last redwood trees calling on her to protect them; Nicholas Hoel is the inheritor of a remarkable family heirloom, a collection of old-style analogue photographs of a chestnut tree, taken every day from the same angle for close on a century. And so on. Many of these stories eventually become woven around tree-focused activism of some sort: a camp of hippies defending virgin forest against loggers; weeks spent in the branches of a towering redwood slated for felling; amateur arson in the dark.

What makes the novel different from the countless such sprawling social narratives Western literary culture has produced since Dickens (see also: Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru; Jonathan Franzen’s Purity; David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks; and so on) is Powers’ ascribing of intent to the trees: they narrate key passages as a sort of Greek chorus, and may or may not influence events in the narrative. This is well and subtly done: the trees’ narration is used sparingly enough that it never becomes cheap or trite or easy, and similarly their agency in the story is always sufficiently doubtful (is the compulsion Olivia feels just a side-effect of her accident? Did that tree really tip Neelay to the ground, or is that an impression born of a child’s overactive imagination?) that their true purposes remain unknowable, just out of sight. The trees of The Overstory are not wise, kindly Treebeards on the side of all good people; the effect is rather that of a vast, unknowable, alien presence lurking just off-page.

Powers writes with wonder and awe of the things that trees can do: of forests connected to a single underground organism spreading across acres; of the organic chemicals they emit to communicate with each other, chemicals that can even affect humans; of the incredible feats of biology that allow giant redwoods to draw water and nutrients up fifty metres into the air. In the face of their age, majesty and size, and the vast tragedy that is the deforestation of the USA, the actions of individual humans, however well-intentioned, begin to look increasingly irrelevant and futile. The trees, in other words, are the true protagonist of The Understory; individual trees (Mimas the giant redwood, the Hoel chestnut, the evergreen grove that engineer Mimi Ma fails to save) as well as trees in the abstract; and if the human characters are thinly sketched and their motivations questionable, it’s because they are, for Powers, not the focus of the story. Their individual subjectivities are relatively insignificant in the grand scale of the narrative.

It’s a bold approach for a genre like litfic that is generally focused on the individual bourgeois psyche, and not one that’s entirely successful. That the human characters are not ultimately important does not mean that they need to be lazy stereotypes; indeed, using such stereotypes in this way to gesture at humanity in the abstract suggests problematically that Powers thinks such stereotypes are true, or at the very least accurately representative. There are also odd threads of story that Powers fails to weave wholly successfully into his narrative tapestry: Neelay’s plotline, which sees him developing a massively profitable MMORPG based on exploring and developing a virgin world, seems poorly thematically integrated into the rest of the novel; similarly, it’s hard to see where stroke-paralysed Ray and his unfaithful but caring wife Dottie fit in. Ray and Dottie’s imaginary daughter is called Olivia, a detail which, together with the fact that another character’s story has an alternative ending that depends on whether she meets Neelay or not, suggests an underdeveloped mystical/many-worlds angle. It’s as if Powers has gone for a Cloud Atlas-ish “everything is connected” vibe without quite knowing what he intends to do with it.

And yet, for all its flaws, I find myself thinking of The Overstory when I’m out among trees, thinking of that vast and unknowable consciousness and all the things we’re still learning about these remarkable organisms that we share our planet with. The Overstory may be a flawed attempt to grapple with a non-human perspective, but it’s attempt I’ve seen relatively few writers make, especially outside the walled garden of SFF. So many of our narratives about the climate crisis and biodiversity loss centre humanity, even those that cast us as the villains; perhaps, if we are to reverse the damage we are doing to the natural world, radical change and radical approaches are needed. Powers’ is one such approach; I hope others will follow.

Review: Possession

PossessionIn the foreword to her bestselling romantic novel Possession (1990), A.S. Byatt discusses the various meanings of the work’s title: the physical ownership of an item; the state of being taken over, possessed, by a strong emotion or an evil spirit; the sense in which one’s lover belongs to one. The novel addresses all these forms of possession, and a couple of others, in various ways, particularly through the lens of academia and the practice of studying the work and lives of the long dead.

It centres on two British scholars, Roland Michell and Dr Maud Bailey, who specialise in the writings of two fictional Victorian poets – respectively, Randolph Henry Ash, a man with the sort of literary reputation that Tennyson or Wordsworth have in our world; and Christabel LaMotte, a “minor” poet whose work has recently been rediscovered by third-wave feminists. Roland and Maud are brought together when Roland finds and steals a previously unknown letter written by Ash to a woman later discovered to be LaMotte. Together, they investigate the connection, piecing together the story of Ash and LaMotte’s romance, which is complicated in plausibly Victorian ways by the fact that Ash is married and by LaMotte’s proto-feminist, possibly sapphically-underpinned desire for a quiet life of self-reliant sisterhood with her companion Blanche. Meanwhile, in the present day, both Roland and Maud are dealing with their own romantic disappointments (which parallel Ash and LaMotte’s in quite interesting ways), as well as attempting to outrun the investigations of two prominent Ash scholars who they suspect will try and take ownership of the story in their own ways.

One of the things that stands out most to me about Possession is how steeped it is in the culture and practice of academia, and how interested it is in the concerns of career academics. A former academic herself, Byatt understands what a Big Fucking Deal it is when Roland steals an uncatalogued letter instead of reporting it to the librarian, and how much, career-wise, depends for her characters on whether they can get first dibs on the Ash-LaMotte story; and these pressures, these concerns are central to the novel’s narrative engine. This is academia seen not as an ivory tower where intellectuals are empowered to live pure lives of the mind, which is how it tends to be portrayed in mainstream works like Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian or Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, but as a field rife with internecine struggles that largely have nothing to do with the actual research being undertaken.

In particular, it’s fascinating to see Byatt drawing out how apparently administrative concerns like who owns a particular letter, or who has the rights to edit a body of work, can materially affect whole areas of scholarship; in other words, how questions of ownership and possession play out in this supposedly disinterested profession. A pressing issue for Roland and Maud in the novel is who the legal owner of a bundle of previously unknown letters between Ash and LaMotte is, and thus whether they can be sold away to an American collector before anyone gets a chance to study them properly.

These questions appear in guises beyond the material too. Roland, Maud and the Ash scholars on their trail all feel a sense of ownership over the Ash-LaMotte correspondence, and over the lives and work of two once-living people, on the basis that they themselves have dedicated their working lives to analysing those people’s words and material realities. They all feel entitled to claim either Ash’s work or LaMotte’s for their various ideologies – whether feminist, Great Man-patriarchal or psychosexual. Byatt ironises the legitimacy of these feelings of entitlement and ownership by giving the reader a direct, third-person omniscient window into the poets’ romance at several points in the narrative – granting us knowledge that none of the modern-day characters possess, and thereby demonstrating the shakiness of the hold the scholars have on Ash and LaMotte’s lives, which are too messy and fraught for any single ideology to capture.

It’s tempting to see in this a response to the debate over the usefulness of theory in the analysis of literary texts that raged in the 1980s and 90s. Several times Byatt refers to the contemporary vogue for psychosexual readings of historic texts, and draws attention to the ways in which such readings reveal the limitations of the culture in which they’re produced; these readings, for Byatt, close down avenues of interpretation rather than opening them up, acting as ways to classify texts rather than as productive approaches to them. In the same way, no one single ideology is ultimately sufficient to encapsulate the reality of what went on between Ash and LaMotte in Byatt’s novel, and attempting to impose a simple interpretation onto their relationship – to claim ownership of the ability and the right to do so – is to do violence to the complex and contradictory reality of their lives and emotions.

This all might seem rather abstruse for a mainstream novel, but in the social media age it has resonances that Byatt cannot have foreseen. What Roland and Maud do to Ash and LaMotte is not very different to what we do when we follow celebrities and people in the public eye on Twitter and Facebook: we assume that their public personae represent authentically the entirety of who they are as people, we imagine ourselves as their friends, and we assume that we’re entitled to their innermost thoughts and feelings. Possession is a story about the perils of reading, and the impossibility of accessing the fullness of a person through their writing: as Byatt reveals, the reader’s biases are always in play. Formally adventurous (it features over 1000 lines of faux-Victorian poetry), emotionally complex and deeply informed by literary theory, it’s a wonderfully satisfying, layered novel that I can readily see myself returning to.

Review: Goodbye, Vitamin

Goodbye VitaminIt’s remarkable that I can have all but forgotten the details of a novel that deals with so heart-rending a subject as dementia, and yet, six months after reading Rachel Khong’s Goodbye, Vitamin, here we are. Khong’s protagonist is Ruth, a 30-something who returns home for a year when her father develops Alzheimer’s in order to help her mother care for him and adjust to her new reality.

The story of that year is narrated by Ruth in short, diary-like snippets: she relates her mother’s newfound obsession with preparing and serving unprocessed food; her own efforts to help her father keep teaching after he’s fired from the university he once lectured at for his increasingly erratic conduct; and the realisations she comes to about her parents’ marriage, including her father’s alcoholism and infidelity. Ruth’s voice is wry, lightly humorous and frankly not terribly original; you’ll be familiar with the general tone if you’ve ever watched an episode of Call the Midwife.

That sounds perhaps more damning than I mean it to be. I actually quite like Call the Midwife: I wish more television shared its gentleness and its hopefulness in the face of poverty, discrimination and political upheaval. Similarly, the grace and tenderness with which Khong’s characters face the dissolution of memory and the slow disappearance of a loved one is quietly touching and intensely humane; these are ordinary people making ordinary mistakes, and ultimately trying to do their best for each other in their own ways.

But, as with Call the Midwife, I think the humour and the gentleness flattens the intensity of what these characters are facing: it’s a consolatory move, a reassurance that actually everything is all right, when in reality it is not. The thing about dementia is that the person you knew is both gone forever and still there, in front of you, changed; and Khong’s wry tone here smooths over that disconnect, papers over that grief, in a way that is ultimately unsatisfying. I enjoyed the novel – while I was reading it. But nothing about it has stayed with me.