Review: The Proverbs of Middle-Earth

I’m a Tolkien fan. I’ve read The Lord of the Rings every year for at least the last ten years, and probably longer than that. I know the books more or less inside out. For better or worse, they have shaped me as a reader, as a thinker and as a person.

It’s precisely for this reason that I very rarely read criticism of Tolkien’s work*, and I never write it. When you know a text that well, it’s impossible to get any sort of critical distance from it. What efforts I have made to say something meaningful and insightful about the books have turned out shallow and insubstantial; I think there’s a tendency as a reader to mistake personal gnosis about a beloved text for objective critical insight.

I mention this because, in my view, this fannish lack of critical rigour is exactly what afflicts David Rowe’s study The Proverbs of Middle-Earth. Rowe’s stated intention is to interrogate the different cultures of Middle-earth, and the individual members of those cultures that we meet in the texts, through the proverbs that they use. This isn’t inherently an unsound proposition, although I can think of more interesting approaches (for instance, considering how proverbial utterances represent assertions of power in the text – I’m thinking of passages like Gimli and Elrond’s proverbial exchange on the subject of whether the Fellowship should be required to take oaths of loyalty in The Fellowship of the Ring). But it’s one that’s very open to the sort of Watsonian textual interpretation that I see a lot in fandom, and that I personally find very frustrating for the way it elides the role of the author: discussing elements of a secondary world as if they were real, without reference to wider cultural factors or artistic goals that might have influenced how they were written. So, in his chapter on Tom Bombadil and Goldberry, Rowe concludes that “Instead of profound counsel to navigate the vagaries of existence, the subjects with which Bombadil and Goldberry’s wisdom concerns itself are the simple things of their simple lives…Courage, war, justice, death, and the wider world are off the radar.” This isn’t an incorrect assertion (although I’d argue that you don’t need to spend seven pages talking about Bombadil and Goldberry’s use of proverbs to get to it). But any sort of critical development is missing. How is the pair’s simple life important to the text? How does it relate to Tolkien’s conception of the relationship between humanity and nature? Could Thorin’s comment in The Hobbit about valuing “food and cheer and song above hoarded gold” shed any light here? Who knows? Not David Rowe, it seems. This is the case in every chapter: Rowe will come to some fairly obvious conclusion about the culture he’s describing and fail utterly to interrogate the significance of that conclusion within the text and within Tolkien’s corpus as a whole.

There are points, too, when Rowe veers from Watsonian exegesis into wholesale fabrication, as when in his chapter on Hobbits he posits that “three intermingling streams can be identified within the wisdom culture of the Shire-folk”. These three streams, he claims, correspond to the three different classes of Shire society: Rustics, Gentlehobbits and Travellers (the latter a class made up exclusively, apparently, of Frodo, Bilbo, Sam, Pippin and Merry). But the text, I’d argue, doesn’t support these neat divisions; certainly not in so clear-cut a way as Rowe’s confident laying-out of these classes might suggest. They’re presented as divisions that exist unambiguously within the world of the novel, rather than as interpretive tools. This may seem like a semantic difference, but to me it’s symptomatic of the lack of rigour Rowe displays throughout the book.

This lack of rigour is also evident in Rowe’s failure to stick to a useful definition of what counts as a proverb within the texts. Early on, he cites eminent paremiologist Professor Wolfgang Mieder in defining a proverb as “a concise statement of an apparent truth that has had, has, or will have currency among the people.” It’s the “currency among the people” part that Rowe struggles with: while there are a number of sayings in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings that are clearly marked as proverbs, explicitly or implicitly, there are plenty of other aphoristic pieces of dialogue that might be Middle-Earth proverbs, except that we have no textual evidence either way. Sprawling as Tolkien’s worldbuilding was, in many cases we simply don’t have enough access to each Middle-Earth culture to know whether a phrase has “currency among the people” or not. But instead of restricting himself to aphorisms that are obviously proverbial in-universe – which would, I think, actually have made the book more focused and thus more insightful – he broadens his scope to include practically every phrase that sounds even vaguely profound. Is Aragorn’s “It is perilous to cut bough or twig from a living tree in Fangorn” a proverb? Clearly not. It’s just dialogue. It maybe looks like a bit like a proverb from our perspective because of Tolkien’s archaic diction and sentence structure, but there’s nothing to suggest that lots of people actually say this on a regular basis in-universe. Or what about Gandalf’s “There is nothing Sauron cannot turn to evil uses”? Again, not so much a proverb as a statement of fact, a truism. Thus at times The Proverbs of Middle-Earth begins to feel like an investigation not of Tolkien’s proverbs but of his dialogue; and not a very interesting one either.

In David Rowe’s Introduction to his book, he speaks tellingly of the proverbs of Middle-earth as key components of Tolkien’s worldbuilding:

They…constitute one of the most widely-occurring streams of credibility-building detail in Tolkien’s work, meaning that studying them is one of the best ways in which…Tolkien’s convincing, satisfying world [can be] enjoyed.

That Rowe’s key justification for studying Tolkien’s proverbs is in order to enjoy the novels more – rather than to examine Tolkien’s prose style, or the Old English oral storytelling traditions his work often harks back to, for instance – goes right to the heart of the amateur enthusiasm that powers The Proverbs of Middle-Earth. The book is clearly a labour of love in the truest sense – but I can’t see it granting new insights to anyone who already knows The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings inside out.

*I’m not, here, talking about work that exposes Tolkien’s racism and sexism: as with any author, I think it’s vital to acknowledge and grapple with the more problematic aspects of his writing.

Review: The Unreal and the Real Volume 2

“We live in capitalism,” said Ursula le Guin in 2014, accepting the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. “Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings.”

I thought of these words often as I read The Unreal and the Real Volume 2, a collection of le Guin’s short speculative stories (the first volume of the set collects her realist shorts, apparently); of the hard and necessary work of imagining alternatives to capitalism, to the way we live now, in order, hopefully, to construct better ways of being. Spanning forty years of le Guin’s career, the stories here are collectively engaged in that work: imagining alternative societies and models of being-in-the-world.

We begin with le Guin’s most famous, and most obviously polemical, story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”, a parable about complicity, exploitation and moral responsibility. It’s not so much the central dilemma of this piece – is the suffering of a single child too high a price to pay for the happiness of a whole society? – which interests me: although it’s powerfully stated, it’s not a question le Guin explores in much depth; once the point has been made there is not that much more to be said. What makes this story worth rereading is the way le Guin describes the people of Omelas. They are happy without being simple, she says; and then:

“The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the treason of the artist; a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain.”

Along with the imagination of alternative ways of existence, we might consider this an organising principle of the collection. Although the stories in this volume are not all happy – not by a long shot – le Guin is nevertheless unafraid to describe joy where her characters encounter it, as they not-infrequently do. Joy in the specific: there are as many types of fulfilment and contentment here as there are of pain and suffering. There is an optimism and a humanity to le Guin’s work in this volume that engenders, even in these terrible times, a hope that feels substantial and weighty and true.

“The Shobies’ Story” is a case in point. Part of the interconnected set of works known as le Guin’s Hainish Cycle, it’s about a group of people who volunteer to be the first higher-order lifeforms to try out an experimental faster-than-light technology. They must first establish a shared bond through story, in order to operate effectively as a crew; when the new technology perturbs their perception of reality so that each of them experiences a different version of events, they have to navigate back to that cohesion in order to return home. Again, it’s not so much this story’s plot that remains with me, as the quiet joy the characters experience through sharing their own stories with each other; they all come from very different cultural backgrounds and societies, and yet, as a crew, they are able to achieve a comfortable equilibrium that sees them through a fundamental upheaval in how they experience the world. It’s a warm story that speaks to the joy of family and togetherness.

We see a similarly peaceful joy among the female residents of the planet Eleven-Soro in another Hainish story, “Solitude”. Eleven-Soro is a matriarchal society where each woman lives alone, interacting with her neighbours only obliquely, cultivating a life of quietness and inner stillness. (The men, meanwhile, are banished to the wilderness in their teenage years, to form violent and lawless gangs; if they survive, they lead hermit-like existences, visited occasionally by horny women.) For the anthropologist who comes to study Eleven-Soro, this extreme introversion is a barrier to her research; for her young daughter, it is a haven. “Solitude” is not really a warm story. It’s about the splintering of a family and the difficulties of cultural assimilation. But at its heart is the joy of the introvert who’s found a place where she can avoid the pressure of other people’s regard.

“Nine Lives” takes a different view of solitude and self-reliance. A piece that’s less anthropologically focused and more hard SF adventure story, it’s about a group of ten clones who are sent out to relieve two non-cloned humans on a mining planet. The clones have been carefully trained and conditioned to work seamlessly as a team, no outside input needed, but when nine of them are killed in an accident, the one left standing has to work out how to be a person in the world again; a person able to rely on, and support, people who are not versions of himself. Like “The Shobies’ Story”, “Nine Lives” is about the life-saving grace of community and human connection, the importance of participating fully in the world.

This life-saving grace is what gives “Betrayals”, another Hainish story, its gut-wrenching power. Its protagonist Yoss lives what looks at first like a self-sufficient life alone with her two pets. But when she finds a disgraced political leader ill in the mud near her home, she feels compelled to care for him, and out of a sort of mutual cantankerousness comes a relationship built on respect, on regard for each other’s safety (Yoss’ care is later reciprocated when her home burns down), and on an appreciation of each other as people, as humans. Here, again, we see the joy that can be found in connection and community, and the way that that joy can move us past failed politics.

Similarly, “Sur” imagines a group of women who make the first trek to the South Pole – before Amundsen’s successful mission and Scott’s doomed one – and then don’t tell anyone; it’s a corrective and a rebuke to the patriarchal, imperial impulse that demands glory for glory’s sake. “Achievement is smaller than men think”: it’s enough for this close-knit group of women that they reached the South Pole, taking joy in their determination, their camaraderie, in the adventure itself.

As in any short story collection, there are misfires. “The First Contact with the Gorgonids” (1991) has aged extremely poorly: although satirical in intent, its conflation of Aboriginal Australians and actual aliens centres the white gaze uncomfortably, and the overall tone of the piece is, hmm, dated. Similarly, “The Poacher” makes for slightly enraging reading post #MeToo, with its seemingly incorrigibly horny protagonist.

Other stories are inoffensive but one-note: “Mazes”, a piece about a sentient lab animal or alien who is fatally unable to communicate with the human scientist experimenting on them; “The Ascent of the North Face”, another humorous story about a group of people making an epic climb of what turns out to be an ordinary house; “The Wife’s Story”, a “punchline story” that has little to offer once you’ve read it the first time round. There are several stories – “The Fliers of Gy”, “The Silence of the Asonu” and “The Author of the Acacia Seeds” – that describe cultures that are different from our own in fundamental ways, and look at how those differences play out in unexpected ways both within and outside those cultures. These are thought-provoking texts that clearly build on the themes of the collection – particularly in their reimagining of what being a person in the world can look like – but, being essentially descriptions, they lack the dynamism, and thus emotional power, of the more narrative pieces in the collection. (“The Matter of Seggri” is an honourable exception in this category, partly because its imagined society is described through fictional source-texts that are narrative in themselves, and partly because its interrogation of gender roles is so immediately and sharply relevant in our own world.)

“Semley’s Necklace” is more successful at examining competing understandings of what the world is like: its titular heroine initially appears to live in a sort of Old Norse fairytale universe, but the devastating consequences of her quest to retrieve a family heirloom reveals that the underpinnings of her universe are far more Einsteinian. The story has a wonderful doubleness – both fairytale and scientific readings remain viable throughout – which demonstrates the mutability of what we think of as truth, of what we think of as ultimately inescapable. Misfires and minor works notwithstanding, it’s this impression of mutability that the collection leaves us with: the idea that there is more, more to imagine and experience and enjoy than the logics of capitalism or the demands of literary fashion will allow. “Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings,” le Guin’s National Book Foundation speech continued. Absorbing, resonant and wise, the pieces collected in The Unreal and the Real Volume 2 together unlock the imaginative space we so desperately need to do just that.

Review: The Shining Girls

Lauren Beukes first made her name with 2008’s Moxyland and 2010’s Zoo City, highly political novels set in near-future South African cities that are interested in capitalism, social deprivation, the abuse of state and corporate power. Zoo City – the only one of the pair I’ve read – is also suffused with urban energies, the ragged rhythms of the city, and its speculative element lends a note of Gothic excess to the proceedings. It’s an imperfect but dynamic novel, which, it turns out, is my favourite type. So Beukes’ third novel, her breakout The Shining Girls (2013), is…something of a contrast.

Set in Chicago, it revolves around two characters: Kirby Mizrachi, a young woman from the 1990s who survives a horrific murder attempt and dedicates herself to identifying the culprit; and Harper Curtis, her would-be murderer. In the Depression era, Harper finds a seemingly unremarkable House that compels him to travel through the twentieth century, finding and murdering promising women – the titular “shining girls” – and collecting grisly trophies at each of his crime scenes. Can Kirby, working with a world-weary sports journalist, connect seemingly impossible dots to work out what Harper is doing, and stop him?

This is, then, a very different novel to Zoo City: instead of a riotous urban fantasy set in a richly depicted Johannesburg, a meditation of sorts on the nature of guilt and complicity, we have something much more solidly commercial; an SF thriller of the likes of Claire North’s Touch or M.R. Carey’s The Girl with All the Gifts. Which is not to say that there isn’t thematic depth here. Beukes’ key rhetorical move in The Shining Girls is to give each of the women Harper murders a chapter of her own, documenting in tight first-person perspective her hopes, her dreams, her family life (or lack of it), the texture of her existence. Beukes imbues each of these women with life, which of course sharpens our sense of tragedy when each of those lives is snuffed out. But the rude curtailment of each of their stories also makes a wider social point: these women are remarkable, and they could have achieved remarkable things if not for the spectre of male violence. How many other women across the world, across history, have been prevented from leading fulfilling family lives, becoming more fully who they are, making scientific and other breakthroughs, shaping their societies, by men?

It’s striking that, by contrast to the detailed histories of Harper’s victims, Harper himself is relatively underdeveloped. He broke his brother’s legs as a child, sort of but not really by accident; he commits violence casually, to serve his own ends, even before the House draws him into its orbit; he feels entitled to the bodies of women, even when he’s not murdering them. But what drives him, what motivates him, what has turned him into this person? We don’t really know. And that’s the point. Is there not a vast swathe of Western literature – not to mention popular culture – dedicated to examining the psyches of violent men, while their female victims remain unregarded, pitied but never taken seriously as people who once had lives and hopes? And does it ultimately matter why men are violent, when the simple fact of their violence limits the existences of everyone around them? In this novel, it’s the women that matter, that we care about; Harper, by contrast, is a pathetic, petty figure, entirely inglorious.

Beukes’ classic, closed-loop time travel plot underscores this, as the novel’s denouement returns us to scenes we’ve seen before with a satisfying sense of inevitability. Harper murders because he does. There is no real cause, just an endless loop of violence in which he is seemingly trapped – unable to move beyond his compulsion, which fails at every turn to satisfy him. Meanwhile, it’s Kirby who’s able to move on beyond that trap, her implied dynamic future a contrast to Harper’s magically incurred stasis.

If Beukes avoids the temptation to psychoanalyse her serial killer, she also avoids the trap of middle-class white feminism: her shining girls include a Black welder and a transgender showgirl. This is thoughtful work: a well-made, carefully controlled novel that combines a taut thriller plot with thematic and emotional heft. On a personal level, I preferred the messiness of Zoo City; here, it feels like all that resonant messiness has been filed away in favour of technical excellence. Nevertheless, it’s a good book, and a highly readable one.

Review: The Icarus Girl

CW: stillbirth.

Written when the author was just 18, Helen Oyeyemi’s striking debut novel The Icarus Girl draws on Yoruba folklore and Western Gothic imagery to spruce up its treading of what’s ultimately fairly familiar thematic grounds. Its young protagonist, Jessamy, is the eight-year-old daughter of a Nigerian mother and a white British father, who, on a visit to her family in Nigeria, befriends a girl named Titiola, or TillyTilly. No-one else can see TillyTilly, and she can do apparently impossible things – early in the book, she opens a locked fairground gate and entices Jess inside. Is TillyTilly real – perhaps the vengeful spirit of Jess’ stillborn twin – or is she the product of Jess’ imagination, a double she’s hallucinating to deal with the vicissitudes of childhood and her own doubled cultural identity?

This isn’t a question the novel is interested in providing a definitive answer to; indeed, it depends for much of its menace and power on TillyTilly’s uncertain ontological status. Instead, Gothically, it uses TillyTilly as a device for exploring liminal states of being – between childhood and adulthood, between one culture and another, between life and death (as epitomised by stillborn Fern), between imagination and reality. The unknowability of minds that are separate to one’s own is a key theme: like many a YA heroine, Jess is profoundly isolated by her experience of TillyTilly, which her parents cannot access and do not understand. Thus one of the things that’s going on in The Icarus Girl is a look at that point in childhood when the child becomes unknowable to their parents; when, in other words, they start growing up. Jess is stranded between multiple identities, multiple constructions of her self – many of them imposed upon her by others – and those identities manifest in TillyTilly, an engaging and yet ultimately threatening doppelganger who represents Jess’ alienation from these aspects of her selfhood. To put it another way, Jess’ perspective, into which we are locked for the majority of the novel, diverges significantly from what her parents imagine it to be, and TillyTilly with her ambivalent status embodies the gap between expectation and reality.

So there’s plenty of Gothic resonance going on here, and I enjoy very much how Oyeyemi hybridises the Gothic’s historic interest in doubleness and duality with Yoruba folklore about twins: this merging of Western and Nigerian influences is a sort of distorted echo of the difficulty Jess has in reconciling her two cultural heritages. Nevertheless, I can’t help feeling that the novel lacks ambition somewhere along the line: it’s hardly uncommon for writers, especially of fiction for children, to turn to models of duality in dealing with questions of biracial cultural identity; and once Oyeyemi has established the concept of TillyTilly as this ambiguously threatening figure she doesn’t develop it much. Jess and TillyTilly’s behaviour escalates, their relationship becomes increasingly contentious and dangerous, but it’s a difference in kind, not in degree. Just an additional extra wrinkle, an extra layer of complexity, might have brought greater specificity and force to a text whose concerns, as it is, remain somewhat generic. The Icarus Girl is undoubtedly an atmospheric and compelling novel; but it’s very much a first effort, paling as it does in comparison with Oyeyemi’s formally and thematically experimental later work.

Review: Once Broken Faith

This review contains spoilers.

The tenth novel in Seanan McGuire’s Toby Daye series, Once Broken Faith continues the overt political overtones of its predecessor, A Red-Rose Chain. In that novel, half-fae PI Toby found herself at a hostile fae court, attempting to keep the threat of war away from her queen Arden. Her efforts there saw her and her allies discovering a cure for elf-shot, a weapon developed to circumvent the laws against purebloods killing each other by simply sending its victims to sleep for a hundred years. In Once Broken Faith, the monarchs of numerous fae kingdoms gather to decide what should be done about the cure, which risks upsetting the delicate balance of fae society. f

The novel’s shape is slightly more conventional than its predecessor’s: fairly early on a fae noble, Antonio, is murdered, and it’s up to Toby to find out why. Thus we can read it, like many detective stories, as a novel about restoring the status quo: violence breaks out, introducing disorder into an ordered society, and the detective’s job is to make sense of the violence so that justice can be served. The question, of course, is whether that justice is in fact just.

The violence that occurs in Once Broken Faith is motivated by an essentially classist desire to suppress the elf-shot cure: elf-shot sends purebloods to sleep but kills mortals and changelings like Toby, and there’s a significant faction of fae society that doesn’t care enough about the wellbeing of those latter two groups to change the way they’ve done things for hundreds of years. While Toby does of course uncover the murderers, justice proves to be out of reach: the two fae rulers, Verona and Kabos who have arranged Antonio’s murder, as well as attempts on the lives of Toby, her fiance Tybalt, and Queen Arden’s seneschal Madden, coerced a servant of theirs, Minna, to carry out the actual dirty work, leaving them technically innocent. Minna, however, is left carrying the can: as a lower-class fae who’s murdered one of the nobles, she knows she has no future in fae society, and opts to throw herself and Verona out of a high window. Thus the true villains are punished, but Minna, the person with the least power in the situation, receives not even a semblance of justice. The use of the elf-shot cure is approved by the conclave, the overtly classist elements of fae society suppressed, the non-murdery status quo restored, but the lack of a just resolution for Minna leaves us questioning whether that status quo was worth protecting in the first place.

This is one of the stronger Toby Daye novels, I think: it’s got a clear shape, it keeps Toby out of her comfort zone in the midst of pureblood politicking, it gives us a glimpse of what things are like in fae kingdoms beyond Arden’s, and it handles a large cast of characters skilfully and well. The things it’s doing in terms of plot and theme are not groundbreaking, but sometimes you don’t need groundbreaking: just a good story, competently told.

Review: The Incendiaries

This review contains spoilers.

Sparse, elegant and oblique, R.O. Kwon’s debut novel The Incendiaries is a complex, layered exploration of faith, obsession, performance and the unreliability of perception.

The novel centres on three characters: Will Kendall, a poor white student at an elite university who’s recently lost his faith in the Christian God; Phoebe Lin, the daughter of South Korean parents, a former piano prodigy turned party girl who’s attending the same university as Will; and John Leal, the charismatic half-Korean leader of a faith group called Jejah that turns out, perhaps inevitably, to be a cult.

(There’s maybe a post to be written here about how religion is almost always portrayed in mainstream contemporary literature as marginal and contingent, if not non-existent – how often do we see sympathetic depictions of heartfelt, honest belief in any religious tradition? Anyway: not a post for today.)

Will and Phoebe, also inevitably, are drawn together by their shared losses – of faith and of music, respectively – and then apart again as Phoebe is sucked into John’s orbit. The novel ends as it begins, with the fatal bombing of an abortion clinic, and a question mark over Phoebe’s whereabouts.

The Incendiaries is narrated entirely by Will – even the chapters that are purportedly written from Phoebe and John’s viewpoints are reconstructed from diary entries he’s discovered. As such, one of the novel’s key themes is how character in the artistic sense is constructed, and more broadly how our outward identities are constructed and performed. In her characterisation of John and Phoebe Kwon shows her working, so to speak: her presentation of them both bears the hallmarks of having been filtered through Will’s gaze (for instance, Will refuses to believe that Phoebe was responsible for the bombing that opens and closes the novel), just as our perception of all fictional characters is filtered through the gaze of the author. In Phoebe’s case in particular, this technique satirises and ironises the male gaze, which in much literary fiction (and fiction in other genres too) flattens female characters in service to the stories of male protagonists. Will is not really capable of seeing his girlfriend for who she is, as a real person, in the same way that many male authors appear to be incapable of conceiving of female characters as whole and real people.

If Will is engaged in a process, consciously or not, of constructing an identity for Phoebe that serves his own emotional ends – an identity for his own consumption – then all three characters at the heart of the novel are similarly engaged in a process of (re)constructing their own identities for the consumption of those around them. Will is attempting to pass himself off as more wealthy than he actually is for the benefit of his fellow students; Phoebe is concealing a deep grief over the death of her mother behind her party-girl façade; John claims to have helped people defect from North Korea in order to present himself as a heroic, even messianic, figure, but the details of his story shift with every telling.

With all of this dissembling going on, how can we ever really know another person? Everyone in this story ends up doing something terrible that, in Will and Phoebe’s case, is pretty shockingly inconsistent with how they’ve been characterised throughout the novel, and in John’s case is at least at odds with how he likes to present himself. Will, despite having presented himself as kind and well-meaning, ends up assaulting Phoebe when he finds that John has been beating her (it’s not difficult to read into this an assertion of ownership); Phoebe, who Will has idealised for pages and pages, plans a bombing that kills five schoolgirls; John is, well, a cult leader, contra his activist credentials and religious pronouncements. How do respectable men become violent? How do people become radicalised? How do we know when someone we trust is abusing us?

This isn’t a novel that offers answers, only profoundly destabilising questions. Its main strength lies in how it applies age-old concerns about the gap between performance and reality to hot-button issues of gendered violence and radicalisation – and, indeed, its very lack of answers is profoundly postmodern. Nothing is really knowable; everything we think we know is filtered through layers of text and/or interpretation. The signified – to get theoretical for a moment – is irreparably detached from the signifier. That uncrossable breach, maybe, lies at the heart of many of our problems.

Review: Hamnet

In August 1596, William Shakespeare’s only son Hamnet dies of unknown causes at the age of 11, leaving behind him his twin sister Judith. A few years later, the Bard writes a play bearing his son’s name – a tragedy set in far-away Denmark about a young man who is constitutionally incapable of taking concrete political action. What does Hamlet have to do with Hamnet? What unrecorded domestic dramas might lie behind the work of this most famous of playwrights? These are the questions Maggie O’Farrell asks in her 2020 novel Hamnet.

The novel’s emotional centre is not Shakespeare himself – the playwright is in fact never named – but his wife, known in real life as Anne Hathaway and here called Agnes. Looked at objectively, Agnes’ life as portrayed by O’Farrell is, if not precisely a tragic one, at least not one you’d conventionally call happy: brought up by a resentful, abusive stepmother who fears and hates her gift for healing and love for the forest, she marries essentially the first person who is kind to her, who promptly acquires a lucrative career which takes him to London for much of his married life, leaving her to bring up his children. And yet. This isn’t a story about victimhood or the fashionable ennui of middle-class cishet couples; it’s a novel that explicitly valorises domesticity and the textures of ordinary everyday life.

I use the word “textures” advisedly; one of the ways Hamnet prioritises domesticity is by focusing closely on the sensory experience of living in sixteenth-century Stratford. The smell of raw wool in an attic. The vast silence of a pre-industrial forest. Frost by a graveside. This sensory detail is bolstered by the fine attention O’Farrell pays to her characters’ emotional reality; to take a random example:

“Partings are strange. It seems so simple: one minute ago, four, five, he was here, at her side; now, he is gone. She was with him; she is alone. She feels exposed, chill, peeled like an onion.”

This lyrical interest in the interiority of Agnes and her children is, deliberately, a far cry from the dramatic action of Shakespeare’s plays; we are further distanced from Shakespeare-as-famous-playwright by O’Farrell’s refusal to name him, and her use of the name “Agnes” instead of “Ann”. O’Farrell’s essential point is a feminist one: the prevailing cultural narrative about Shakespeare paints him as a genius, a man “not of an age but for all time!” (as Ben Jonson rather breathlessly put it); estranging him from that cultural narrative by placing him back into his historical and material context draws attention to the web of relationships in which he must have existed, the women and children in his life who are now all but forgotten. O’Farrell’s Agnes, with her uncanny gifts, is granted a presence as great as her husband’s – greater, even, within the novel’s world.

This can, of course, be situated within the feminist literary trend of drawing attention to how women are situated in relation to Western cultural touchstones: think, for instance, of Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, or Angela Carter’s feminist fairytales. In that context Hamnet almost feels like a throwback to another age, when such rewritings were truly radical. It’s a lovely novel, and it well deserves the plaudits it’s received (among other things: the Women’s Prize for Fiction). But for genuine innovation, you’ll likely want to look elsewhere.

Review: A Song for a New Day

Sarah Pinsker’s Nebula-award-winning debut novel A Song for a New Day is a perfectly fine book. It’s a fresh, sprightly take on the trope of the triumph of art against authoritarianism, with a dose of anti-capitalist sentiment thrown in. Its ending explicitly resists the easiest answers, while holding out hope of gradual change for Pinsker’s constructed world. And yet – for reasons that aren’t entirely Pinsker’s fault, my primary emotion on thinking back on the novel is tiredness.

Published in 2019, A Song for a New Day imagines a near-future American state that, in response to a deadly pandemic and numerous terrorist attacks, has imposed draconian anti-assembly laws on its citizens. As a result, our protagonist Rosemary has hardly ever left her family’s house, let alone the small town where they live. She spends her days working for the novel’s equivalent of Amazon, troubleshooting drone deliveries from home, until a chance encounter sees her landing a job as a talent scout for a prestigious entertainment company – a job that requires her to infiltrate illegal music scenes to find promising acts. Entwined with the story of her efforts to overcome her fear of crowded spaces, and her gradual realisation that the corporation she works for is in the business of destroying the scenes from which it draws its talent in a bid to reduce competition, is the tale of Luce Cannon, a successful former musician struggling to adjust to a world in which most live music is now banned.

So: this is a pandemic novel written well before Covid-19 came over the horizon. I read it, however, last December, when Omicron was surging in the UK and people were busy cancelling Christmas parties, and my experience of the text is inextricable from those circumstances – and from the circumstances we find ourselves in now, in which weighing up risks has become nigh-on impossible thanks to a precipitous decline in masking and social distancing and a complete lack of reliable data. A Song for a New Day argues, essentially, for the importance of live music, of human connection unmediated by technology, of triumphing over fear and what it portrays as paranoid authoritarian restriction:

“We all felt our world slipping away, in cascades and cataracts, the promises of temporary change becoming less and less temporary. Didn’t we feel so much safer? Weren’t safe and healthy worth more to us than large weddings and overcrowded schools? Hadn’t the pox been spread by people working and attending school when they should have stayed home?”

This slide into ever-greater restriction is positioned explicitly as stagnation, as a surrender to corporate and political control. And, of course, this stance is pretty much entirely unproblematic considered in the context of the novel’s original publication: the tropes Pinsker is drawing on are those of the YA dystopia, in which the triumph of art, of individuality, of communal human action over the restrictive forces of the state and/or predatory capitalism is to be celebrated and valued. But, two years into a real-life pandemic, this rhetoric looks uncomfortably anti-vaccine and Covid-denialist. That is, of course, precisely because such groups have co-opted the language and symbols of dystopian literature to defend their right to be selfish. But, even armed with that knowledge, it’s difficult to engage and empathise fully with Pinsker’s heroines when they’re aligned with that rhetoric.

Over and above that, though…for all that Pinsker’s take on opposing the state is a little more nuanced than what you might find in your typical YA dystopia – it’s more realistic about the scale of what two people can achieve against the machinery of capitalism and government, for one thing – its plot structure is still, in essence, a familiar one. Its protagonist starts as a willing arm of the state, becomes gradually more disaffected, and eventually instigates an act of rebellion that represents the triumph of the human spirit over conformism: we’ve all seen this formula countless times before.

Ultimately, my weariness with A Song for a New Day stems from the fact that Pinsker doesn’t really have anything new to say – coupled with my own impatience for the overriding cultural narrative that prioritises business as usual over the safety of vulnerable people. Again, it’s absolutely not Pinsker’s fault that current events have overtaken her novel, that its meanings have changed so drastically in the face of recent history; but perhaps a more ambitious text might have stood up to that history better.

Review: Shriek: An Afterword

The caprices of the written word – of its infinite potential for misreading, misinterpretation, misrepresentation – have long been a concern of the Gothic mode: think of Frankenstein‘s layered unreliable narrators; of Wuthering Heights’ overheated epistolary format; of the uncertain ontological status of the film The Navidson Record in Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. Texts of all kinds, these novels tell us, are slippery, unstable things, contingent on the perceptions of both their readers and their writers; they both discuss this instability and perform it in the gaps between their constituent parts, in the way that they all, in various ways, use the hyperbolic aesthetics of the mode to reveal and conceal the great indescribable void that lies at the heart of language itself.

Jeff Vandermeer’s Shriek: An Afterword participates similarly in this process. Set in the fictional city of Ambergris, the subject of several of Vandermeer’s works, it is, as the title suggests, a purported afterword to “The Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of Ambergris”, one of the stories in the collection City of Saints and Madmen (which I have not read, but now fully intend to). The fact that, being novel-length, it is substantially longer than the text it is supposedly appended to is one of its many deliberate, and delicious, ironies. It’s the tale of the “Early History”’s author, Duncan Shriek, edited substantially by his sister Janice, and then edited again by Duncan; together, by lurching turns, they tell the story of Duncan’s disgrace at the hands of his ex-lover, the rival historian Mary Sabon, and of Janice’s own rise and fall in the city’s art scene.

Underpinning these domestic dramas, like a constant uneasy pulse in the background, is the awareness of the unknowable realm that lies beneath the city – the realm of the gray caps, inscrutable fungoid creatures who were massacred in their thousands when Ambergris was founded, and who are widely considered to be behind a disastrous and inexplicable historical event called the Silence, when a large part of Ambergris’ citizenry disappeared without a trace. What are the gray caps thinking, what are they planning (they certainly seem to be planning something), what do they want and why? No-one knows. It is perhaps not possible to know.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the novel reminded me strongly of China Mieville’s sublime, messy Bas-Lag series, which is similarly interested in how what we fondly know as civilisation, the social order of the city, coexists with the unknowable and the inhuman. The gray caps and their fungal world are what Mieville would call abcanny: illegible, unspeakable, so utterly outside any human frame of reference as to be incapable of being contained in normal symbolic schema, and yet, perhaps precisely because of that, unignorable.

Set alongside the mystery of the gray caps, which Duncan is unsuccessfully trying to investigate, is the comparatively mundane fact of the novel’s metatextual games: its footnotes, its editorial interpolations, its interest in different methods of historiography and different ways of relating to the past. As we have seen, this kind of textual play troubles our understanding of language, of the written word, as straightforwardly representative; if each of us interprets language, and textual constructs like history, differently, what kind of claim can any of us ever make to objective truth?

Taken together, then, the gray caps and the novel’s textual instability both point up the inadequacy of our models of seeing the world; in Lacanian terms, they represent the Real intruding inescapably into the Symbolic. Duncan and Janice’s interpersonal problems seem almost irrelevant against the threat, the mystery, of the gray caps; their bickering over who gets the last word feels insignificant given their society’s inability to interpret events like the (aptly-named) Silence. And yet. Life goes on. The city remains.

As metaphors for the human condition go, it’s a troubling and perceptive one. The great strength of the novel is that it never does explain what the gray caps’ deal is; that despite all attempts to interact with them they remain simply…there, causing the city to stew in its own genocidal guilt, which it is neither willing to ignore nor to engage with productively. Vandermeer, like the best Gothic novelists, ekes tremendous resonance and power from the work of simultaneously concealing and revealing the unspeakability that lies at the heart of our most fundamental social structures, the senseless, brutal violence underlying much of Western civilisation. Ambergris, embattled and sinful city of saints and madmen, is a place I’ll definitely be returning to.

Review: The Galaxy, and the Ground Within

The last novel in Becky Chambers’ series of loosely-connected novels set in her Wayfarers universe, The Galaxy, and the Ground Within is also, unfortunately, the least accomplished. Structurally, it is what’s known in TV as a bottle episode: six aliens, one of them a minor character from the first Wayfarer novel, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, find themselves trapped by an infrastructure accident at a rest stop on the planet of Gora, a major transport hub. The delay causes tensions within the group for various reasons, but it also gives them a chance to connect and to form unlikely friendships; when the emergency is over, each leaves Gora enriched by their experience.

There’s nothing, I think, intrinsically wrong with the format of the bottle episode: in the context of a TV show it can be a truly excellent thing, giving writers a chance to delve deeply into the psychology of a group and the motivations of each of its characters, as well as slowly ratcheting up tension (the Doctor Who episode Midnight is a masterful example). But it’s a pretty thin plot to hang an entire novel on, and it does require some excellent character work to make up for the relative lack of Things Happening. My main problem with The Galaxy, and the Ground Within is that Chambers seems to mistake cultural exchange for characterisation.

All of the Wayfarers novels have been centrally concerned with issues of representation and inclusion: the galaxy where they’re set is largely a welcoming and diverse place, with many of its public spaces designed to accommodate the very differing access needs of the species that live there. Queerness of all kinds is unremarkable; most characters (with notable exceptions) work comfortably alongside people who are different from them in various respects; the second novel in the series, A Closed and Common Orbit, features some pretty obvious trans themes. How successful the series actually is in tackling issues of social justice is up for debate, but they are undoubtedly there. The Galaxy, and the Ground Within follows up on this conversation by, essentially, having its characters sit around and explain the nuances of their differing cultures to each other.

The chief focus in this exercise is Speaker, a member of a species called the Akaraks whose history is one of colonisation and displacement. None of the other characters know anything substantial about the Akaraks – and what they do know is mostly false and discriminatory – because of that history, which has left them homeless, powerless and without representation in the galactic government. Speaker’s presence on Gora gives her an opportunity to correct the record, at least in a small way, by sharing facts about Akarak culture with the other travellers and pointing out commonplace inaccuracies.

There are two problems with this approach, one of which is a problem of execution and one of which is more foundational. Firstly, and least seriously: this is all very Structural Oppression 101. This is what unconscious bias looks like, this is what casual racism looks like, this is what institutional disenfranchisement looks like…And it’s not done subtly, through character action, through metanarrative, through dialogue; it’s just infodumped into the text, and it…sits there, doing nothing except making the other characters feel good about themselves for having acquired this knowledge.

Secondly, it is…not great to put the marginalised character in the position of having to explain her own marginalisation; to educate those more privileged than she is about her culture. The text does lampshade this, but, again, it doesn’t particularly do anything with the fact that Speaker’s forced to do it at all. We’ve been told over and over again in this series that this is an enlightened and tolerant galaxy: where are the allies in the group on Gora? Why couldn’t Chambers have a more privileged character step in to correct assumptions, to prevent everyone else quizzing Speaker? At one point, Roveg, a wealthy sim designer who’s been exiled from his home planet, does contemplate rescuing her, but instead begins asking his own questions because he is: curious. Oh, great. (I will note here that the Wayfarers universe has a fully-functioning interplanetary Internet analogue which we have seen characters using in previous instalments.)

This all bespeaks a kind of shallowness that characterises the novel as a whole, for me. This is a text about cultural difference and structural oppression that doesn’t have anything coherent to say about those things except “structural oppression is bad and tolerance is good”. It’s a character-focused novel whose characters are largely unremarkable and flat. It’s a novel that means well, but which ultimately fails to grapple with questions about what meaningful allyship looks like. It is, like all of Chambers’ books, a perfectly readable novel: gentle, sweet, unchallenging to Western liberal sensitivities. But it’s a clunky note on which to end a series.