Review: Grace & Style: The Art of Pretending You Have It

I’m pretty comfortable with my style (low-key steampunk/medieval, on a good day) nowadays, but I do always find it fun reading other people’s takes on theirs. Grace Helbig’s Grace & Style, though, has very little serious fashion content: Helbig is, as I discovered only after taking her book out from the library, a YouTube comedian, and Grace & Style is about 230 pages of light, vaguely self-deprecating humour.

I had a hard time with it. I didn’t find the jokes especially funny and I couldn’t really see what the book was doing apart from building on Helbig’s personal brand: it’s not like it has a recognisable schtick like, say, the Darwin Awards books, or Richard Ayoade’s Ayoade On Top. There’s an extended bit about a pair of jeans going to college but because they’re jeans the college is a shopping mall, which is all very ??? what is the point here, exactly? Is there a point?

It’s eminently possible that people who are already fans of Helbig will enjoy this, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone coming in cold.

Review: The Ten Thousand Doors of January

This review contains spoilers.

A 2020 nominee for the Hugo Award for Best Novel, Alix E. Harrow’s debut The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a work that’s distinctively of the moment, part of a wider movement in SFF to reckon with the forces of colonialism and structural racism that are at work in the genre and in the world at large. Set in the early years of the twentieth century, when “the world was tasting the word modern on its tongue”, its protagonist is the titular January, a young brown woman living in the care of a wealthy white man, Mr Locke. Mr Locke employs January’s father to travel the world collecting rare artefacts for the New England Archaeological Society. When, early in the novel, January learns that her father is missing, presumed dead, she escapes from her grief into a book called The Ten Thousand Doors – a book that posits the existence of Doors between worlds and reveals that her own parents met on the other side of one of these Doors. Managing eventually to escape Mr Locke’s control, she goes off in search of of her father – but, unbeknownst to her, the New England Archaeological Society is closing all the doors it can find, potentially cutting her off forever from a family she’s only just learned about.

The link between books and doors that lead to other worlds, and the idea that books themselves act as doorways through which we can escape, is not a new one in fantasy literature: indeed, Erin Morgenstern deals with strikingly similar themes in a novel published the very same year as this one, The Starless Sea. It’s Harrow’s attention to racial power dynamics that marks The Ten Thousand Doors of January out, bringing a freshness and a modernity to the trope that differentiates it from Morgenstern’s effort. Throughout the novel, we’re told that the Doors bring change to the worlds they open onto, as ideas and objects pass through them. Mr Locke and his racist white friends are closing the Doors because they want to hang onto the status quo that gives them and their ilk uncontested power over the rest of the world. It’s a metaphor that’s perhaps more informed by the political situation of today, when increasing civil rights for minorities are being contested by those who fear the erosion of their own cultural dominance, than by the mood of the period Harrow’s writing in, which is as Harrow herself observes throughout the narrative characterised by ideas of progress, of marching forward into modernity. It would be valid, I think, to ask just what that progress means; but Harrow rather sidesteps the question by having Mr Locke act in bad faith. That is, we know by the end of the novel that Mr Locke’s is avowedly against progress; his talk of the march of modernity is essentially a smokescreen concealing his true nature. (As other reviewers, as well as the Bandersnatch, have observed, the reveal of Mr Locke’s true identity as a malevolent and otherworldly being is also disappointing because it undermines what’s been presented up until then as a highly conflicted but possibly still loving relationship with January.) And yet Harrow’s portrayal of Black and brown folks (January is aided in her search for her father by an older Black woman named Jane) triumphing against the forces of oppression by dint of their love for each other is so powerfully hopeful that it’s hard to begrudge her these imperfections.

This optimism is important in a genre that’s historically failed to imagine kind futures for Black and brown people. Like Marie Brennan in her Memoirs of Lady Trent, or Naomi Novik in her Temeraire series, what Harrow is doing here is reinscribing Black and brown folks into a whitewashed historical imagination (how many turn-of-the-century historical adventures do you know of that feature protagonists who aren’t white?), replicating the racist power structures her characters are embedded in without robbing them of agency or hope. Locating January’s ancestry in a literal other world which lacks those power structures is key to that: it identifies turn-of-the-century racism (and, by extension, modern racism) as historically contingent and thus eminently escapable.

I ranked The Ten Thousand Doors of January fifth on my Hugo ballot last year, just above the truly baffling City in the Middle of the Night, simply because the publishers made the decision to include only the first hundred pages of the novel in the voters’ packet. I’m sure that if I’d had the opportunity read the whole thing I’d have ranked it much higher, and I wonder how many other voters could say the same. I’m still not sure it would have beaten out 2020’s winner, Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire; but it’s certainly doing some similarly heavy lifting to Martine’s novel when it comes to critically examining colonialism and globalisation, and is a beautifully heartwarming tale to boot.

Review: Costume Since 1945: Historical Dress from Street Style to Couture

Deirdre Clancy’s Costume Since 1945 is pretty much what it says on the tin: an illustrated history of the key fashions and modes of dress that were prominent throughout the second half of the 20th century. Clancy is a costume designer, and the book’s illustrated not with photographs but with Clancy’s own drawings, miniature people modelling the looks she’s talking about in the text.

It’s an interesting idea – interesting enough to enough people, apparently, that the book is now in its second edition – but I think I wanted clearer images pointing out key silhouettes (silhouettes, as I’ve recently learned, being more important to recreating the feel of historical dress than the actual garments).

I also seem to remember that the text is very iffy when it comes to identities that aren’t white, cishet and abled. There is some treatment of non-Western fashions but it’s not in any way systematic, and Clancy in many cases doesn’t provide the context to make their inclusion meaningful or helpful. There aren’t I think any disabled people represented, and the book also features outdated terminology for trans people (the second edition came out in 2015). I guess it might be useful as a general reference text, but it wasn’t quite as comprehensive or informative as I expected and it wouldn’t be my first choice.

Review: Voyage of the Basilisk

It strikes me that Marie Brennan’s Memoirs of Lady Trent is doing something very similar to Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series. Both series, of course, centre on dragons; but that’s almost an incidental similarity, as the dragons in Brennan’s work function quite differently to those in Novik’s novels. What’s more important is that both Brennan and Novik are reworking pulpy narratives that generally centre on empire (the Victorian explorer’s memoir, the Napoleonic military fantasy) to include the perspectives of those who are traditionally left out of or marginalised by such narratives – the occupants of colonised countries or countries threatened by colonisation, women and gender non-conforming people, queer folk – and thereby construct a critique of empire.

Brennan’s novels are not I think as incisive on this as Novik’s: her fantasy world, unlike Novik’s, remains relatively unshaken by her protagonist’s encounters with new social paradigms, partly because Isabella Trent’s motives for getting along with the people she meets are basically self-interested: she conforms with unfamiliar customs in order to get access to dragons. She is simply more self-absorbed than Novik’s Captain Laurence, which means that the novels she appears in are less good at stepping outside the norms of empire.

Nevertheless, there is some interesting work going on in the series, and Voyage of the Basilisk is no exception. In this instalment, set like its predecessors in the alt-Victorian country of Scirling, Isabella and her young son Jacob embark on a two-year research trip aboard the titular vessel, looking as always for rare and fabled dragon species (dragons here being mundane if rather spectacular predators). Things of course do not go quite to plan, and the expedition’s members stumble into all sorts of exciting political trouble which inevitably turns out to be intimately bound up with Scirling interests in the island region they find themselves in.

Voyage of the Basilisk builds on the series’ interest in gender in particular. Scirling society is a little different to that of Victorian England, but its patriarchal norms remain the same, and Isabella is constantly butting up against the limits of what she can do and how she is perceived as a single woman attempting to make a name as a scientist. A hastily-published research paper that turns out to be based on erroneous assumptions is damaging to her reputation in a way that it wouldn’t be for a man; her close friendship with Suhail, a fellow researcher who happens to be male, is scandalous because she’s an unmarried woman. She’s constrained at every turn by the rigid gender norms her culture enforces.

This fact is thrown into sharp focus when the Basilisk runs aground on the island of Keonga. Forced to stay on the island while the ship is repaired, Isabella is directed by the islanders to a woman named Heali’i, a seeming outcast from village life who nevertheless attracts some measure of respect. It turns out that Heali’i is something close to transgender, although the Western concept doesn’t quite map: non-binary is perhaps more accurate, as she’s seen as being in-between genders, although her presentation is emphatically feminine. She is known as “dragon-spirited”, and seen as not quite human. In the Keongan worldview, Isabella, with her refusal to conform to standard gender norms, sits similarly in between the genders, and is similarly dragon-spirited; to tie her into human society, to neutralise the instability she represents, the villagers demand that she marry a Keongan woman for the duration of her time on the island. (The woman in question, Liluakame, is set to benefit from this arrangement: it’ll allow her to marry her true sweetheart, Kapo’ono, who’s off on a trading expedition, without being betrothed to someone else in the meantime.)

When Suhail asks Isabella if she herself believes that she is neither male or female, she gives quite an interesting answer:

So long as my society refuses to admit of a concept of femininity that allows for such things [i.e., a serious interest in dragons] …then one could indeed say that I stand between.

It’s interesting because I don’t think I’ve ever seen a straight cisgender protagonist of this sort of historical fantasy start to think about the restrictiveness of gender norms in this way, to view them as forces that affect everyone, cis or trans, straight or queer. It may not quite match up to Captain Laurence’s quest to overhaul England’s treatment of dragons, but I’m interested to see what Brennan does with it in future novels.

Review: The Folded World

Seven months on from finishing The Folded World, the second novel in Catherynne M. Valente’s as-yet-unfinished Dirge for Prester John, I’m struggling to find anything to say about it that I haven’t already said in my review of the first novel, The Habitation of the Blessed.

It is some years after Valente’s version of the mythical Christian king Prester John seized control of the deathless land of Pentexore by rigging the Abir, the lottery which grants to each Pentexoran a new role in society every three hundred years to stave off the boredom of immortality. A daughter he did not know he had comes to him, bearing a letter from Constantinople asking for help in the Crusades. John’s wife Hagia narrates how he leads the Pentexorans, for whom war is a grand game with no casualties and death is simply the beginning of a new phase of life, into a bloody and treacherous conflict from which many of them will not return. Behind them John and Hagia leave their daughter Sefalet, who has a mouth on each hand – one that speaks with the sweet voice of a child, and another whose voice is cynical, bitter and adult; her tale is narrated by her guardian Vyala. Finally, another human, John Mandeville, stumbles into the land behind the diamond wall that supposedly contains the dread giants Gog and Magog, and records the adventures that happen to him there.

The novel’s structure, then, with its three braided voices framed by the tale of the monk who’s recording them centuries later, is pretty much identical to its predecessor’s. Thematically, too, it covers much of the same ground: Christianity as colonisation; the loss of innocence; the senselessness of religious conflict. And despite the fact that The Folded World features two new narrators, the voice is the same too, lush and rich with complex imagery and allusion.

None of which is to say that The Folded World is a bad novel: on the contrary, it’s a genuinely unusual take on medieval history and intellectual attitudes, deeply informed by Old Testament imagery and yet not explicitly Christian. It’s certainly light-years ahead of the vast majority of medieval fantasy; simply utterly different in its approach to the world and to this period in history. And perhaps it’s churlish to complain that it’s too similar to its predecessor when that predecessor is so original. And yet, there it is. I wish I had got more out of it.

Review: 2001: A Space Odyssey

This review contains spoilers.

Like that of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which I reviewed here a few weeks ago, the legacy of Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey precedes it. Like Androids, it’s associated with a classic SF film that’s gone down in the annals of cinematographic history. From it we have cultural touchstones you’re probably aware of even if you’ve never seen the film or read the book: cavemen clustering around a monolith; the homicidal computer Hal, possibly the best-known AI in genre history. It’s always a weird experience encountering such cultural touchstones in their native habitat, as it were: they’re never quite what you expect. If you’re lucky, their context amplifies their resonance, confirms why they’re as enduring as they are. But the much likelier outcome, at least when we’re talking vintage SF, is a vague sense of disappointment. The genre’s developed so far in the last 50 years that these classic texts appear quaint, underdeveloped and often wildly demographically problematic.

Clarke’s novel – which actually post-dates Stanley Kubrick’s film; the two works were developed in parallel and their plots are very similar – is a novel of ideas; there are no real characters, just puppets being moved around in service to the story. I suppose you could say that humanity is the real central character: the novel is fundamentally interested in evolution, proceeding episodically through various stages of human progress. The aforementioned cavemen are tipped into sentience by the aforementioned monolith, a mysterious alien artefact sending out mysterious alien signals. Thousands of years later, a scientist visits the Moon to investigate a similar monolith that’s been excavated there, an object that gives off an enormous burst of radio waves the moment that sunlight falls upon it for the first time. Next, a spaceship carrying the aforementioned Hal plus a five-strong human crew follows that signal to Saturn’s moon Japetus (Hal attempting to slaughter the crew along the way thanks to an irreconcilable conflict in his programming); and, finally, Bowman, the last member of that ship’s crew, becomes a Star Child like the monolith-makers, a transcendent and immortal being.

Caveman, human, AI, Star Child: for Clarke, evolution is a process that is not yet finished, and moreover it is an inherently progressive process, a process that inevitably leads humanity to higher things. (Even Hal, who’s been left psychologically unbalanced by competing mission objectives, is, with his complete control over the spaceship, a step on the way to the near-omniscience of the Star Children.) On display here is the novel’s fundamental optimism about the possibilities of space, which we can see further in its sensawunda approach to the monoliths, especially the one on the moon. There is something almost sublime, in the Romantic sense, about these monoliths: their unbelievable age and yet apparent sophistication renders them both terrifying (what is waiting out there for us, in the deep dark of space?) and thrilling, and gives us a dizzying, yawning sense of deep time.

Bowman’s ascension, as the closing event of the novel, amounts to a promise that we, even we, can become the inheritors of those vast stretches of time and space, masters of the universe, if you will. It’s a promise that harks back to the colonialist origins of science fiction, those fantasies of exploration and subjugation exemplified by the novels of Jules Verne and H. Rider Haggard. (Is it a surprise that every character who appears on-page in 2001: A Space Odyssey is a straight white man? It is not.) These unacknowledged colonialist predilections are one reason why the novel feels out-of-date today (in a way that Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, a novel published in the same year as 2001, does not); another is its untempered optimism about the state of humanity as a whole, which, in an age grappling with climate change and the rise of the far right, feels naïve at best. I would, I think, still quite like to see the film, which, from what I’ve read, sounds like it could be more suggestive, more subtle than Clarke’s novel, with its rather utilitarian prose and largely non-existent approach to character development. As it is, I don’t know that I’ve really gained anything from my encounter with the text which I could not have gained from reading the relevant Wikipedia article.

Review: Circe

Madeline Miller’s 2018 novel Circe comes from a long line of feminist retellings of myth and legend. Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad (2005), a retelling of the Odyssey from Penelope’s point of view, is perhaps its most obvious antecedent, but we can look too to Angela Carter’s blood-drenched fairytales, Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird and Mr. Fox – which play with “Snow White” and “Bluebeard”, respectively – even, stepping sideways genre-wise for a moment, Catherynne M. Valente’s searing Six-Gun Snow White. The themes Miller is playing with here – the limits placed on female power under patriarchy; the portrayal of the witch as an essentially feminist figure, transgressing oppressive social norms – are none of them new ones; nor are they arranged in any particularly unusual way. And yet Circe was one of my top ten novels of 2020.

The novel follows its eponymous heroine from a miserable childhood in the house of her father Helios, among amoral, power-drunk gods and chilly, vain nymphs whose only purpose is to be seduced, to the lonely isle of Aiaia, whence she is banished by Zeus for turning queen bee nymph Scylla into the snake-headed monster we’re familiar with from the Odyssey. Facing a long, lonely immortality in exile, and lacking the power of the greater gods, she turns to her pharmakos, her witchcraft, for purpose, solace and protection, carving out a space for herself that is free of their toxic influence and their tyranny. She creates, one might say, a room of her own.

Miller’s achievement in Circe is to bring a deep psychological interiority to characters who are classically very flat (because the writers of Greek epic are doing different things to modern novelists), while still retaining a sense of historical authenticity: these characters don’t, crucially, feel like twenty-first century people in Greek costumes. Instead, they’re deeply embedded in the textures and rhythms of ancient life, shaped by the wide oceans and the rocky isles of Greece. the elemental pleasures of eating and drinking and craft. It’s interesting that the gods of Olympus don’t feel anywhere near as real: their power enables them to remain static and unchanging, inflicting their shallow wills on the world. It’s only those without that absolute power – mortals, but also the disinherited Circe and her rebellious siblings – who, forced to wrest survival from the world, are able to change with it, to learn and grow. It’s very satisfying seeing Circe do just that, maturing over centuries into someone who’s capable of loving, helping and having meaningful relationships with others.

I’m not usually a character reader – it’s ideas that tend to interest me – so it comes as a surprise to realise that her arc is the chief pleasure of the novel for me. Miller may not, strictly speaking, be doing anything very new or surprising here; but her points about patriarchal power aren’t any less relevant for being unoriginal, and what she does do she does very well. Circe is, quite simply, a well-crafted novel, doing what the novel as a form is uniquely suited to doing: a deep dive into a mind that is not our own, working out how to be in the world.

Review: The Travelling Cat Chronicles

The Google search page for Hiro Arikawa’s The Travelling Cat Chronicles claims that “93% liked this book”. Notwithstanding the vagueness of this statistic (93% of whom, exactly?), it sounds about right: this is a very likable novel. Likability is, I’d say, its chief characteristic.

Japanese bachelor Satoru befriends a stray cat who he calls Nana; when Nana is hit by a car, Satoru takes Nana in permanently, much to the cat’s surprise. After a period of happy coexistence, Satoru and Nana embark on a mysterious road trip, visiting a number of Satoru’s friends and acquaintances. It quickly becomes apparent that Satoru is looking for a new home for Nana; why he wants to do this remains opaque for some time, although any moderately savvy reader will figure it out fairly early on.

The novel’s partly narrated by Nana, whose voice is world-weary and yet also somehow naïve. It is of course his and Satoru’s devotion to each other that forms the core of the novel: the mismatch between their perspectives generates a sense almost of tragedy, as Nana bumbles happily through life while we intuit from Satoru that something is seriously wrong. It’s an effective tactic, but not a subtle one; and in fact the entire novel feels like that, a text carefully tuned to tug on the reader’s heartstrings. It’s all a little…mechanical.

A big part of what made the novel feel so artificial to me is Nana’s narration and behaviour, which are both fundamentally un-catlike. His frame of reference is too human: he does not experience the world moment to moment as animals do, living in the here and now, but as a series of events moving from past to future, as humans do. The concepts he thinks with are fundamentally human ones:

The least they could do would be to stuff those [cat] toys with white meat. But could I take this complaint to the pet-toymakers? Stop worrying about what the owners think and pay some attention to your real clients. Your real clients are folk like me.

In this passage Nana is demonstrating that he understands how business (a uniquely human concept) works, and also that he thinks of Satoru as specifically his owner; that’s not how real cats relate to the humans they live with. I feel like the novel would be a more honest and more emotionally devastating experience if it had had the courage not to anthropomorphise Nana.

And yet I’m pretty sure I cried at the end of it; which I suppose is a decent indication that Arikawa achieved what she was aiming to achieve with it. It’s a novel perfectly calculated to please: one to like, but not one to love.

Review: Building Stories

CW: suicidal ideation.

building-stories-1Here is reviewer Steve Almond in The New Republic on Chris Ware’s deconstructed graphic novel Building Stories:

I have now spent a week in sloppy communion with Building Stories and am ready to declare it one of the most important pieces of art I have ever experienced. I also sort of want to kill myself.

I’m not sure I’d go quite as far as Almond in declaring it “one of the most important pieces of art I have ever experienced”. It is, when you get right down to it, yet another story about white middle-class ennui; and goodness knows there are more urgent tales we could be telling. And yet this is as accurate as description of how it feels to read Building Stories as I’ve seen. Ware’s novel is unexpectedly devastating, unflinching in its depiction of the narrowness of its characters’ lives. I don’t really want to read it again.

The book’s protagonist is an art student turned florist with a prosthetic leg, living a lonely and largely unfulfilled life in Chicago. In the course of reading fourteen differently-sized pamphlets, books and comic strips, all housed in a box the size of a board game’s, we learn about the major events of that life: a woeful first relationship with a man twice her age; a job as a live-in nanny for a wealthy family with issues of their own; her increasingly disappointing marriage; her experience of motherhood, at once joyful, heartbreaking and dull. (Content warnings also for abortion and pet death: this is not a happy book.) We also get the viewpoints of various supporting characters: the apartment building the protagonist lives in as a young adult and the old lady who owns it; her neighbours, a deeply unhappy failed musician and the partner he abuses; a lovelorn bee from a nearby hive.

There’s no prescribed reading order for the various components of the book: as its title suggests, the reader builds the story themselves, making their own sense of the patterns of imagery and event that recur throughout the text. It’s tempting to read into this a commentary on the formlessness of life, an observation that the only narrative shape a life can have is the one we give it ourselves. This reading is borne out, I think, by the different physical forms each component takes; the use of these different forms – reflects how we narrate our own lives to ourselves. Sometimes we see ourselves as the subjects of art photography, perfectly framed and wordless; sometimes we have so many thoughts they spiral around and around in our heads while we lie exhausted on the sofa.

But the Building Stories experience is not a random one: Ware is not asking us to impose an arbitrary order on a series of random events. Each individual textual component is in fact highly structured, centring on a climactic (or simply representative) event or events; each one is its own short story in and of itself. And they clearly relate to each other on a macro level: themes and images do recur between components, connections become apparent as we make our way through the work as a whole. Whatever order we read Building Stories in, it is a carefully structured experience: “formlessness” doesn’t really come into it.

I think Ware is doing something, though, with precarity. These fourteen artefacts – most of them just paper folded or stapled together, not even properly bound, eminently losable, stainable, burnable – make up, collectively, the story of a life. How achingly tenuous the importance of that life, to be reduced to these few fragments! (The back of Building Stories‘ box features tongue-in-cheek suggestions for losing these items among the clutter that makes up the average “well-appointed home”.) This is a text about the futility of imposing not structure but meaning on our lives. The themes that emerge from the connections between its multiple components are ones of entrapment, regret, old age; of the gradual shrinking of our lives from the infinite possibilities of childhood. Characters are constrained and overshadowed by the buildings they live in, just as they are constrained by Ware’s panels; there’s a recurring motif in which upper- and middle-class property owners feel anxious about the prospect of undesirables (represented for them by Black and poor people; it’s very telling – and intentionally so, I think – that the one recurring Black character in the novel is the old lady’s carer) invading their homes. They are trapped by their middle-class accoutrements; an entrapment to which they themselves contribute.

It’s interesting that the main way characters in Building Stories relate to each other is romantically: there are a few friendships, a few parent-child conversations, but pretty much the key interpersonal dynamic here is that of the heterosexual romantic couple. And these relationships are invariably disappointing: because of infidelity or abuse or simply because of missed connections. (The old lady in her apartment block, sitting alone, her romantic prospects gone because she never did anything to encourage them.) Again the impression is one of entrapment: these characters are so constrained by Western cultural narratives of romantic love that they cannot act to form more fulfilling relationships.

In fact, I want to say that the problem that faces the characters in Building Stories is not a lack of structure but an overabundance of it. They are trapped by the structures of middle-class life, of Western narrative, both of which foreclose the possibilities open to them, emptying their lives of significance and meaning. This is why, I think, the novel is so devastating to the middle-class reader: because we recognise ourselves in it, complicit in our own entrapment. Ware leaves it to us to imagine ways out of this entrapment.

Review: The Underground Railroad

Colson Whitehead’s much-lauded sixth novel The Underground Railroad is a tale about the hideous legacy of slavery in America, a work that combines the conventions of literary realism with a plot that collapses real history and a literalised central metaphor. It’s a meticulously crafted text: everything on the page is there for a reason, serves Whitehead’s specific aesthetic goals. And yet while I can appreciate its craft, I don’t feel I really got it on an emotional level.

The story’s central figure is Cora, a runaway slave who takes the underground railroad – here figured as a real railway, complete with tunnels, trains and stationmasters – north, visiting a new state and experiencing new forms of racism at each stop. In South Carolina, for instance, her first stop after the horrors of the plantation she grew up on, she’s employed and comfortably housed by a seemingly benevolent state government which is, nevertheless, conducting medical experiments on Black people without their consent, in an echo of the real-life Tuskegee study that took place for 40 years between 1932 and 1972; in North Carolina, meanwhile, she finds a state that has recently banned Black people from existing within its borders, and spends several months in the attic of a terrified white abolitionist.

In the latter episode, I think, lies the key to one of the reasons why the novel didn’t have the same sledgehammer impact on me that it had on much of the literary establishment: I didn’t realise as I was reading it just how counterfactual it was. North Carolina never did ban Black people, which in hindsight seems like an obvious statement, except that American anti-Black sentiment was and is so incredibly vehement, and the real tortures inflicted on Black slaves so horrific, that at this point I’m prepared to believe nearly anything. And, anyway: North Carolina did pass a law in 1741 that, incredibly, forced slaves who were freed for service to the state to leave within six months, as well as a slew of laws later on that were clearly aimed at limiting the influx of Black slaves into the state. This is symptomatic of how the book works: it tells nearly-truths to clarify the various forms American racism has taken in the past and still takes today. The unmooring of the structural inequalities facing Cora from time and from actual history is supposed to force us fully to appreciate the effects of those inequalities, to shock us into new understanding.

It’s a tactic familiar from many SFF novels; but because (unlike in many “purer” SFF texts) Whitehead combines these nearly-truths with full historical truths such as his depiction of life as a slave on a plantation, it relies for its full effectiveness, to a much greater extent than most SFF, on the reader having a good enough feel for the actual history to tell the counterfactual from the factual. For whatever reason – I suspect a combination of my being British, not American, and the paucity of teaching about Black history in British schools – I didn’t have that knowledge; so The Underground Railroad fell rather flat for me.

I don’t think this is precisely the book’s fault; rather, it’s a peculiarity of that mysterious intersection between book and reader. I failed, in other words, to meet the book in the middle. Which is a shame, because Whitehead looks to be doing some really interesting things with speculative fiction and racism – he certainly handles the speculative material in The Underground Railroad with a much surer hand than I’m used to seeing from primarily litfic authors. And, as I wrote here, I also found his most recent, and thoroughly non-speculative, novel The Nickel Boys a beautifully crafted gut-punch of a read, short and perfectly formed for what it was doing. The Underground Railroad may not quite have succeeded for me, but I’d still really like to get my hands on Whitehead’s other work.