Review: Trust Exercise

TW: child sexual abuse; rape.

Trust ExerciseFor something like half a millennium – ever since the rise of Protestantism and with it the doctrine that the way to God is through private study of the Bible – the English-speaking world has been obsessed with the idea that in the written word lies ultimate truth. As readers and as participants in any sort of public discourse, we’re conditioned to seek out an objective, overriding Truth, even when we’re reading novels with self-evidently unreliable narrators. Texts like Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, or Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, or Hanya Yanigihara’s The People in the Trees, whose narrators all conceal key facts from the reader in one way or another, nevertheless ask the reader to reconstruct an objective truth from these unreliable accounts; in fact their effectiveness depends on it. Susan Choi’s National Book Award-winning novel Trust Exercise completely confounds such reconstruction, and with it the comforting notion that there is such a thing as perfect, objective truth.

It begins conventionally enough, at a prestigious performing arts school in a generic American city, where two fourteen-year-olds, Sarah and David, have the hots for each other. Intense as their mutual crush is, it quickly turns sour, partly because they’re both at the age when any slight feels like a mjaor betrayal, and partly because of the emotional manipulation of their acting teacher, the charismatic, creepy and almost certainly paedophilic Mr Kingsley.

Enter the second section, however, and everything we understand about how Choi’s narrative is unfolding comes undone. The second section is narrated by Karen, a peripheral character from the first section, who reveals that the first section is a fiction, a novelisation of what really happened written by Sarah herself. Karen goes on to relate her version of events, which involves another unhappy teenage infatuation featuring another abusive teacher, Martin. The third and final section, which is very brief indeed, is set some decades after the first two sections, and involves a young woman, again subject to unwanted sexual advances, trying to piece together something of her history, which is seemingly linked to the experiences of Sarah and Karen. This third section fails intentionally to provide any form of resolution or closure, either for its young narrator (whose identity remains obscure) or for the reader.

The result is an enormously shifty text, one in which solid facts are all but impossible to pin down. Both Sarah and Karen, we sense, have altered their stories in the face of adolescent trauma, so they can better process what has happened to them; but by the same token neither of them are exactly lying. Their stories are true to them; and since there’s no way for us as observers to access the truth of “what really happened”, that truth effectively does not exist. All we have is a core emotional truth, about power, vulnerability and the shame that survivors of sexual abuse experience – a shame that’s transmitted down through generations and ultimately prevents the abuse from being named for what it is.

Trust Exercise‘s shiftiness made me think of rape trials and their abysmally low conviction rates. The entire apparatus of Western justice is set up to ascertain a single objective truth; to reconcile conflicting accounts and pieces of information in an attempt to find out “what really happened”. But – outside particularly extreme cases – what “objective” evidence is there for rape, beyond the survivor’s account? Everyone knows what rape is, but actually ascertaining, from the outside, whether it happened is a shifty and slippery business. For me, Trust Exercise demonstrates that we as a society need different ways to talk about, and deal with, rape and sexual abuse; ways that acknowledge the emotional trauma these crimes inflict on survivors, and how the demand for objective truth can itself be damaging. Postmodern theatrics such as those Choi deploys in this novel can feel empty and gimmicky, challenging traditional structures of meaning to no apparent purpose; here, Choi puts them to work to examine how conventional modes of reading and truthseeking reinforce abusive and uneven power structures.

Review: Bitterblue

BitterblueThe third novel in Kristin Cashore’s young adult Graceling series, Bitterblue is very like its predecessors in that it deals centrally with issues of abuse and coercive control. The eponymous Bitterblue is the daughter of the late King Leck of Monsea, a man who could control people’s minds and have them do his often megalomaniac bidding. As the new ruler of Monsea, and a victim of Leck’s cruelty in her own right, Bitterblue has to come to terms not only with what her father did to the country’s people, but also with her own power and privilege and the responsibilities they confer upon her. Her attempts to do so are complicated by her advisers, who all also suffered under Leck, and who are more interested in forgetting what he did to them, and made them do to others, than in confronting his crimes and providing restitution to Monsea’s people. Frustrated by their equivocation, Bitterblue decides to explore her capital city alone, dressed as a commoner, and meets a man called Sapphire with whom she strikes up a relationship of sorts. Saf tells her what life in the city is really like: the endemic illiteracy, the poor construction of many of its buildings, the people doing the work her government should be doing by illicitly returning the things Leck stole to their proper owners. How, given Leck’s past abuses, can Bitterblue do best by her people? And how can she repair the wrong she’s done to Saf by concealing her identity for so long?

It’s not necessarily a novel in which a whole lot happens, its concerns being mostly personal and psychological. Like a lot of YA fantasy, it focuses quite narrowly on its protagonist’s emotional state: the world and the characters around Bitterblue exist mainly to facilitate her self-actualisation. Her presentation is realistic in that she is as important in her narrative as we are important to ourselves: we only have access to her interiority in the novel in the same way that we only have access to our own interiority in real life. It’s therefore significant that Cashore manages to avoid the trap of suggesting that Bitterblue is the only important character in the novel: a key part of what Saf teaches her is about recognising the reality of other people, accepting that what is convenient for you may not be convenient for them, and handling power imbalances ethically and fairly.

Power has always been a key concern of the Graceling series, and here Cashore mixes the formula up a bit. Bitterblue is unlike the protagonists of the previous novels, Katsa and Fire, in that she has no magical power; her power comes from her social position. So whereas Katsa and Fire, broadly speaking, use their supernatural gifts to escape the coercive social power of others, Bitterblue has to learn to wield her social power responsibly, and to gain the goodwill and trust of those over who she has power. Both approaches are useful ones, I think, and it’s particularly notable that Katsa and Fire are specifically feminist protagonists whose stories act as correctives to traditional narratives about female characters in generic fantasy settings. But Bitterblue strikes me as the more nuanced and relevant text: Bitterblue’s experience is closer to what real teens experience as they become adults and start to learn that (at the risk of sounding flippant) other people are real too; and it approaches complex social questions that the earlier novels only really glance at. It is, for instance, the first novel in the series that’s interested in working-class concerns in a concrete way (as opposed to the general “think of the poor peasants” sentiment that pervades Graceling and Fire) – and as such I think challenges some of the class assumptions that we make when we’re reading this type of fantasy.

It is, in other words, a thoughtful, timely and interesting novel that addresses contemporary concerns about power, privilege and state reparations. It’s not perfect: in particular, I think its position on democracy as opposed to monarchy is incoherent, a problem that will become worse in the next book, Winterkeep; and the prose is distinctly workaday, lacking polish or charm. (I also found it difficult to reconcile Bitterblue’s fondness for modern-sounding sugary desserts with the sort-of-medieval setting: where are they getting all this chocolate from?) But, despite these flaws, I think it ultimately succeeds in what it’s trying to do, and asks some unusual questions about power structures in high fantasy along the way.

Review: A Guide to Folktales in Fragile Dialects

Catherynne M. Valente has been in the business of reworking and complicating pervasive cultural myths for some time – whether that’s uncovering cycles of abuse at the heart of classic fairytales as she does in Six-Gun Snow White, or criticising the treatment of women in superhero narratives in The Refrigerator Monologues. Her poetry collection A Guide to Folktales in Fragile Dialects is a very early effort, published in 2008, after her breakthrough Orphan’s Tales duology but before most of her better-known novels. As its title suggests, it’s a book that deconstructs, and then reconstructs, well-known fairytales, myths and legends in surprising and revealing ways, often restoring agency to traditionally passive female characters, or inserting new female viewpoints where none previously existed.

Take, for example, the poem “The Descent of the Corn-Queen of the Mid-West”, which begins, “Hades is a place I know in Ohio…” It’s an unsettling update of the Hades and Persephone myth, in which the Persephone figure is a woman from modern-day America; the contrast it draws between bright, mundane modernity and the Greek classicism of Hades (“Ascaphalus talks shop with me/at the Farmer’s Market”) brings her displacement from the land of the living to the world of the dead into sharp focus. The dead’s refrain of “Don’t you know these are your fruits?/Don’t you know these are your flowers?” is a sinister and ever-present reminder of her inevitable fate – and, by extension, of our own mortality.

Scattered throughout the collection are little prose pieces, presented as descriptions of stories by a folklore researcher. What unites these tales is that they are all told by women or feature women prominently, and there are often esoteric traditions around their transmission: one is told only by youngest daughters, for example, and another is told by women to their prospective husbands, their reactions to the story indicating their suitability as partners. The effect is a sense of secrecy and power: these women have control of the narrative in a way that feels somewhat radical in our own patriarchal context.

Of course, the work that Valente is doing here is not particularly unusual: she’s following in the footsteps of authors like Angela Carter and, on the theoretical side, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar. Valente’s command of voice and language, which is so noticeable in novels like Palimpsest and Radiance, has not yet developed fully here, and somehow the flowing poetry of her prose is actually less remarkable – less memorable – in actual poetic form. A Guide to Folktales in Fragile Dialects has some worthwhile things to say, but it’s ultimately, I think, a minor work.

Review: Mossflower

This review contains spoilers.

MossflowerThe Goodreads page for Brian Jacques’ Mossflower, the second novel in his Redwall series (in publication order, that is; chronologically it’s third) for middle grade readers, is full of delighted reviews from adults who’ve revisited a childhood favourite and discovered that it measures up. Of course there are not many 12-year-olds writing Goodreads reviews of any book (in fact it’s against their terms of service); but compare it to something like The Wind Singer, a similarly iconic children’s novel published around the same time, and it’s obvious that the nostalgia is particularly strong with this one.

So what’s going on? I think it’s partly to do with the way Jacques constructs an idyllic English landscape that’s completely free of humans, and thus of the ennui and moral complexity that characterises modernity. The titular Mossflower is a region of woodland inhabited by hardworking mice, hedgehogs, moles and squirrels who are being tyrannised by the wildcat Lord Verdauga and his paranoid daughter Tsarmina. Our story begins when a wandering mouse named Martin is captured by Tsarmina’s troops and imprisoned in the wildcats’ castle, Kotir; there, in the dungeons, Martin meets Gonff, a merry thief who convinces him to join the woodlanders’ resistance. Together with a mole named Dinny, Martin and Gonff head out on a quest to the seashore, many days’ journey away, to find a legendary badger warrior who can help the people of Mossflower defeat Tsarmina.

One of the most notorious things about the series is the way it assigns morality based on species, despite ostensibly extolling the virtues of tolerance and peaceful coexistence. With a couple of exceptions, all rats, foxes, stoats, weasels, ferrets and wildcats are villains, while (with no exceptions) all mice, moles, squirrels, otters, badgers, shrews and hares are good, law-abiding folk. It makes a kind of emotional sense: we do think of rats, foxes and weasels as vermin, while otters, mice and moles are popularly conceived of as fluffy and benevolent. It’s also a comfortingly straightforward way of seeing the world: being able to tell good from bad just by looking makes a lot of things a lot easier. No need to decide which actions are wrong and which ones right; no need to differentiate morally between intent and impact; no need to give the benefit of the doubt to someone who ends up not deserving it. It is, of course, a falsely simplified model, and one that lies behind significant real-world harms (most notably racism, but also the unattainable beauty standards that disproportionately affect women around the world); but that simplicity is also seductive.

Another frequently-remarked-on feature of the Redwall books is their lavish descriptions of food: the woodlanders of Mossflower love a good banquet. A celebratory meal late in the novel features deeper ‘n ever pie, leek and onion broth, fruit pie, nut pudding, quince and apple crumble, plum pudding, October ale, cider and buttermilk – delicious-sounding, hearty and quintessentially British foods all, epitomising abundance and plenty. Again, it’s the stuff of blissful nostalgia, and again that nostalgia obscures something quite reactionary: all of this food has been prepared by housewife hedgehog Goody Stickle. (It’s worth noting here that while there are several prominent female characters, none of them go on the quest with Martin, and most of them are relegated to caring and domestic roles.)

What else? Well, there’s the consolatory plot structure, which sees Martin returning from his quest changed, with the skills and resources to oust Tsarmina and restore order and peace to Mossflower. There’s the squeaky clean romance between Gonff and a young mousemaid, which involves absolutely no drama or angst or awkward relationship conversations. There’s the slight Church of England vibe we get from the woodlanders, who early on welcome refugees from a place called Loamhedge Abbey, and who will go on to found the Mossflower-based Redwall Abbey (as we know from the novel’s frame narrative): their largely unexamined emphasis on inoffensive values like peace and mutual aid is reminiscent of the sort of gentle religiosity one experiences in Church of England schools.

What all of this adds up to, I think, is an overall textual affect that recalls popular constructions of childhood in the West. The moral and romantic simplicity, the importance and abundance of food, the ousting of evil by the forces of good, the unmarked Christianity: these are all hallmarks either of actual childhood or of what we as adults think it was like to be a child. Any adult re-reading a childhood favourite is in some sense attempting to revisit their childhood; but Mossflower, and the other Redwall books, make it much easier than most classic children’s texts to access the idealised, nostalgic version of childhood that we’re attempting to recapture when we do this. Its obvious ideological problems demonstrate the danger inherent in this sort of reading, and in our conceptions of children and childhood.

Review: Lirael

TW: suicidal ideation.

This review contains spoilers.

Like its predecessor Sabriel, Garth Nix’s Lirael is a classic fantasy tale of growing up and finding one’s place in the world. Its eponymous protagonist is, when the novel opens, fourteen, and profoundly miserable because she has not yet gained the gift of the Sight, the ability to see into the future that is the birthright of the mostly-female extended family and community that is the Clayr. She’s discovered contemplating suicide by a couple of senior Clayr, and to take her mind off things is offered a job in the Clayr’s Great Library, an appropriately magical and dangerous locale. Over the next few years, she inadvertently summons, and then befriends, a powerful magical being known as the Disreputable Dog, releases a monster into the Library and learns to bind it, and finally rediscovers a forgotten magical skill that holds the key to her heritage and her destiny. To complete this process of self-discovery, though, she must leave the home she’s known all her life and venture out into the Old Kingdom, in search of a young man from the mundane land of Ancelstierre, where magic doesn’t exist, who is unwittingly digging up something better left buried.

Something that struck me on this, my umpteenth re-read of Lirael, is how much Lirael’s journey to self-actualisation is tied to her heredity. The key discovery she makes in the novel is that she is the daughter of an Abhorsen, the Old Kingdom official who lays the powerful Dead that plague the kingdom to rest, working to foil the plots of necromancers. The post of Abhorsen is a hereditary one, and by a couple of other signs Lirael figures out that she (and not the hapless Prince Sameth, who we’ve seen repeatedly avoiding his studies of the necromancer’s text The Book of the Dead) is the Abhorsen-in-Waiting; and that, therefore, she will probably never have the Sight.

Lirael’s whole backstory is analogous to that of the bookish social outcast, the lonely high-school teen; one of the things the novel is addressing is the sense of inferiority young geeks often feel. You might not fit into the crowd now, Nix is saying, but there are other things you can do, other ways in which you are special. But it’s striking that the purpose Lirael ultimately finds for herself originates not in any particular skill or anything she’s worked to achieve, but in her parentage – in something she has no control over. It is basically an accident that this lonely young woman ultimately becomes one of the most important people in the Old Kingdom. The text works hard to conceal this, showing us her magical skill, her courage, her self-reliance as evidence of her worthiness. But that’s what it boils down to.

This somewhat undermines Nix’s core message about the possibility of finding belonging and purpose as a (former) geek social outcast. You can find self-actualisation even if you’re not popular – but only if you happen to be related to someone important. But it also implies an exceptionalism that plays into some pernicious real-world geek social fallacies: Lirael’s birth, and subsequent Chosen One status, makes her not just different to, but better than, the Sighted Clayr. What geeky teenager, after all, would rather be a Sighted Clayr than Lirael, who gets to explore a huge and mysterious magical library, and ends up becoming part of the royal family? Again, I think this is a tendency that the novel is trying to resist: none of the Sighted Clayr characters are shallow or cruel or gossipy the way they might be in a contemporary teen drama (apart from possibly the brusque and impatient Aunt Kirrith), and Lirael’s discovery of her parentage isn’t a magical panacea for her grief for the life she always thought she’d have. But it’s still there.

This emphasis on hereditary power is of course endemic to the fantasy genre; I suspect that Lirael‘s problems come from its participation in that genre rather than any particular authorial ideology (although opting not to scrutinise the power structures you’re working with as an author is an ideological choice in itself). And it’s handled better here than it is in other high fantasy texts; we can at least believe in Lirael’s personal ability to take on the role her birth has assigned her. Less excusable is the novel’s prose, which, in a marked departure from the accessible and relatively modern voice of Sabriel, has a portentous, overwritten quality which I imagine Nix feels is appropriate for his fantasy setting. (There probably is an argument for the difference in tone between the two novels: Sabriel was raised in Ancelstierre, which is early-to-mid-1900s in vibe, whereas Lireal belongs to the considerably more medieval Old Kingdom. But that’s not an excuse for the writing to get worse.)

Ultimately Lirael is still a novel that’s special to me; one I still enjoy, and one I’d still be moderately happy to press into the hands of another young person in the knowledge that it treats its female protagonist with respect and sensitivity. But it’s interesting – and, I’d argue, pretty important – to consider what kind of ideological considerations underlie beloved texts, and especially beloved children’s texts; if only so we can learn a bit about why we are who we are.

Review: The Once and Future Witches

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Inkheart

This review contains spoilers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes on Paul Auster’s Travels in the Scriptorium

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Nativity!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Ninth House

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

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

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