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: Interesting Times

TW: transphobia.

Interesting TimesIt’s rarely a good sign when the name of a beloved author begins trending on Twitter, and so it proved over the weekend, when transphobes attempted to suggest that the works of prolific comic fantasy author Sir Terry Pratchett support their so-called “gender critical” ideology. This is…a reach, to put it mildly: Pratchett’s Discworld series features several minor characters, chief among them the dwarf Cheery Littlebottom, who can be read as transgender or genderfluid, and his works generally show a tendency towards opposing all forms of hate and any ideology that refuses to acknowledge the humanity of other people. At the same time, though, those who are defending Pratchett as a sort of ultraprogressive literary hero are, I feel, massively overstating the case: he’s nowhere near as interested in gender as either the transphobes or his liberal supporters would like him to be, and he’s more than capable of being problematic in other areas too. Interesting Times, a middle-period Discworld novel, is a salient example.

The book sees cowardly wizard (or, in his own words, “Wizzard”) Rincewind summoned to the inscrutable, powerful Agatean Empire – a caricatured analogue of China/Japan – for unknown reasons. There, he finds a people’s revolution fomenting against the cruel and oppressive imperial regime, and meets the elderly barbarian Cohen, who, together with his equally elderly Silver Horde, is planning the heist of a lifetime.

Where to start with this? Well, there’s the title, which refers to the well-known “Chinese curse”, “May you live in interesting times!” – which has never been traced back to an actual Chinese-language saying. Nevertheless, Pratchett builds on the ironic understatement of the phrase to imagine a vaguely Oriental society that’s chronically polite and rigidly hierarchical: hampered by etiquette, the revolutionary Red Army uses slogans like “Untimely Demise to the Forces of Oppression!” and “Much Ownership of Means of Production!” Their revolutionary text is What I Did on My Holidays, an account of Agatean citizen Twoflower’s visit to Pratchett’s anarchic Victorian London analogue Ankh-Morpork. (Readers first met Twoflower in The Colour of Magic, the very first Discworld novel, in which he is a caricature of a tourist.)

With all of this Pratchett is making an argument about internalised tyranny:

The Empire’s got something worse than whips all right. It’s got obedience. Whips in the soul. They [the Agatean peasants] obey anyone who tells them what to do. Freedom just means being told what to do by someone different.

While this is an interesting social dynamic to explore, and one that’s of a piece with Pratchett’s other writing on tyranny and power, it’s not one that particularly rings true in the context of historical Asia, and it’s worth considering why Pratchett felt the need to displace this particular breed of oppression into a non-Western context, when there are plenty of historical European societies that would work just as well. (The fictional Discworld country of Uberwald, which is ruled by ancient dynasties of werewolves and vampires, would have been a good place to set such a story.) Notably, Ankh-Morpork, a city ruled over by a literal tyrant, is portrayed here as a bastion of freedom and entrepreneurship, its dangers and oppressions as somehow more honest than the Empire’s. This is literally Orientalism in action, a Western-coded city-state being defined in opposition to the Eastern-coded Other, and coming out the better for the comparison.

Theoretical considerations aside, some – lots – of the jokes are just plain racist. There’s Rincewind addressing a Red Army member in a sort of broken English pidgin (which doesn’t even make sense, given that Rincewind is supposedly speaking Agatean at this point) – “Here’s bigfella keys belong door…” There are Chinese restaurant jokes. There are stereotypical, faux-exotic names that, as far as I can tell, bear no resemblance to actual Chinese nomenclature: Pretty Butterfly, One Big River. (Weirdly this actually feels more Native-coded than Chinese-coded, which just goes to show how lazy Pratchett is being in constructing Agatean culture.)

From a series perspective there is some interesting stuff going on here. Cohen and Rincewind – the ultimate hero and the arch-coward – are always good foils for each other; the fact that both end up triumphing against overwhelming odds despite their opposing worldviews is a nice touch. I like the overt metanarrative about luck and fate; that’s quite fun, despite the fact that it connects poorly to the novel’s grander themes of power and tyranny. And ultimately it’s not a nasty novel. It’s a story about putting people ahead of ideology, a story that cares about individuals in all their variety and idiosyncrasy. All the same, it’s a novel that’s aged extremely badly, and not one that Pratchett fandom should be proud of.

Review: Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper

Shark's Fin and Sichuan PepperOriginally a Cambridge English graduate raised in Oxford, food writer Fuschia Dunlop became interested in China during a stint working for the BBC Monitoring Unit in Caversham. Chasing this interest, she applied for, and won, a British Council scholarship to study at Sichuan University; but quickly lost interest in her official research into Chinese ethnic minorities, and instead enrolled on a course at the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine, the first Westerner, and the first woman, to do so. She’s now recognised as one of the foremost Western experts on Chinese cooking; Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper is the tale of how she got there.

There’s of course something a little awkward about reading a middle-class white woman speak with authority about a culture she hasn’t been raised in, although Dunlop has at least spent a significant amount of time – months, years – actually living in China. In Dunlop’s case, I’d already read her cookbooks The Food of Sichuan and Land of Fish and Rice, which the Bandersnatch has been cooking from, and which, for me, illuminated a number of things that can make Chinese cooking seem unpalatable by Western standards. In particular, texture is key in Chinese cuisine: it’s why you see things like jellyfish and chicken gizzards on the menu at good Chinese restaurants in the West. It’s this kind of context – supplemented by historical material about the origins of particular dishes and particular branches of Chinese cooking – that makes the writing in Dunlop’s cookbooks feel deeply informed, going beyond the exoticism and Orientalism that’s endemic in Western writing about Asian cuisine to become something that’s both accessible to Western readers and at least approaching “authentic”. I mean, it’s still uncomfortable that Dunlop is a leading expert on this subject, and not an actual Chinese person – even if this isn’t precisely Dunlop’s fault. But it does, at least, seem to be actual expertise.

I’d say Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper veers a little more into exoticising territory, though, perhaps simply because of its nature as a personal memoir rather than reference-book writing. Dunlop has a tendency to make rather generalising statements about whole cities and regions:

No one would decide to go and live in Chongqing after such a baptism of fire [Dunlop is referring here to the chilli-heat of Chongqing cuisine]. But Chengdu is a gentle city. Life there is not a battle against the elements and the gradient of hills; it is a sweet, idle dream.

There’s a fair bit of this sort of thing, details that make it clear that Dunlop’s seeing China from the outside, and not as a full-time inhabitant would. As in her cookbooks, however, there’s also real, thought-provoking engagement with the history and context of Chinese cuisine and food culture. Dunlop traces the progression of her deepening love for Chinese food – and especially Sichuan food – and then, in later chapters, reveals her disillusionment with the country: with its rife corruption, the endemic pollution, the thriving trade in meat from endangered species. She visits Xinjiang and describes the discrimination that Uyghur Muslims were facing there even back in 2008, in a foreshadowing of the internment camps that exist across the region today. She describes how the increasing wealth of China’s middle class is pushing up demand for rare delicacies, decimating ecosystems around the world. Dunlop’s research background shines here: it’s all fascinating analysis about one of the world’s largest economic powers, although again her framing of China’s flaws as personal disappointments for her, a Westerner, gives the whole thing a slightly uncomfortable cast.

Even when she isn’t being critical, there are things Dunlop writes about that I would rather not have read, on the whole. The subject of eating puppies comes up several times. More seriously, Dunlop describes methods of animal butchery that are literally inhumane: she describes somebody skinning a rabbit without killing it first, for example, and goes on to praise the “honesty” of such a process, compared to the sanitised industrial meat production that goes on in the West. This, to me, is symptomatic of Dunlop’s romanticising of Chinese food culture: both processes, Chinese and Western, seem equally inhumane in different ways, and neither is particularly excusable.

There are problems with Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper, then; its very nature, as an account of a Westerner’s relationship with China, means it’s never going to be entirely satisfactory as an authority on that country. But, on the whole, I did quite enjoy it. I like that it does engage with criticisms of China; that it illuminates aspects of Chinese food culture for Westerners; that it draws attention to regional differences in Chinese cuisine which are often blurred in the Western cultural consciousness. Fascinating and imperfect, it’s well worth a read if you’re at all interested in Chinese food.

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.

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: The People in the Trees

TW: child sexual abuse.

The People in the TreesOn the first page of Hanya Yanagihara’s debut novel The People in the Trees, we learn that its protagonist, Nobel laureate and scientist Dr. Abraham Norton Perina, has been accused of sexually abusing the 40 or so Micronesian children he’s adopted in the course of his research. It’s a clear warning to readers: here, there be monsters.

The novel’s presented as Norton’s memoir, written from prison, edited by his former research assistant Ronald Kubodera, who peppers the text with hagiographical footnotes extolling Norton’s virtues. In it, Norton recounts the tale of a number of ill-fated expeditions to the Micronesian island nation of U’ivu, where, on the little-trafficked island of Ivu’ivu, he finds an uncontacted tribe living deep in the tropical forest who have discovered that the secret of immortality lies in the flesh of a turtle called the opa’ivu’eke. Those who consume the turtle gain endless physical life, at the cost of a precipitous mental decline. Norton’s discovery gains him the Nobel, but the turtles are driven extinct and the rest of the island pillaged by opportunistic pharmaceutical companies before anyone can do anything about it. There’s an implicit parallel drawn between this metaphorical rape of Ivu’ivu and Norton’s actual rape of his adopted children, which he justifies to himself by comparing it to a sexual initiation ceremony practised by the Ivu’ivuans.

The People in the Trees is, as you may have gathered, not a subtle novel. As many reviewers have observed, it owes a structural debt to Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire; but it is obvious from its first page, as it is not in Nabokov’s novel, that neither Norton nor Kubodera are to be trusted.* There is never really the slightest shred of doubt that Norton is guilty of the crimes he’s accused of. The ideological conclusions that we’re to draw from the text about Western capitalism and cultural appropriation are obvious ones too.

But the obviousness is the point, I think. Norton’s basic character trait is an inability to imagine that he might be in the wrong: he doesn’t bother obfuscating his thoughts – not just his predatory nature but his racism, his profound misogyny, his callous disregard for everyone but himself – because he doesn’t recognise them as problematic; because, even, he believes himself to be morally upright and dutiful. After all, hasn’t he taken in 40 children at considerable cost, fed them, clothed them, housed them, given them access to opportunities they wouldn’t have had on U’ivu? And isn’t he a great scientist advancing the cause of human knowledge? What could possibly be more important than that? Kubodera is more queasily aware of Norton’s crimes as crimes, but he believes the charges against Norton should be dropped because of Norton’s scientific stature: what is the wellbeing of a few Micronesian children compared to the reputation of a Scientist?

What’s chilling about Norton and Kubodera is that their obvious self-delusion is also entirely plausible. We see rationalisations like Kubodera every time a sporty young white man is implicated in a rape case (“but he’s so promising! What a shame to ruin such a young life for a small mistake!”) or a clever white girl at an elite university stabs someone while stoned (“she has her whole career ahead of her!”). This is privilege at work, and it’s so obvious, so ubiquitous, that we’ve stopped seeing it. And, in fact, Norton is based on a real person, Daniel Carleton Gajdusek, who adopted 56 children during his work investigating a rare prion disease in the South Pacific and molested at least seven of them. Gajdusek, too, was defended by the scientific community; he received a prison sentence of just 12 months.

The People in the Trees, then, is the portrait of a man whose self-absorption makes him literally unreachable: nothing, not even a prison sentence, will convince him of his moral culpability. Terrifying in his solipsism, the product of privilege and Western cultural imperialism, he begs the question: how many Nortons are walking the corridors of power, the halls of our universities and learned societies? And in what ways might we be enabling them, like fawning, complicit Kubodera?

*Incidentally, when I reread Pale Fire recently I was delighted to rediscover the annotations that 18-year-old me wrote when I was reading it for the first time, and to be able to chart my younger self’s slow realisation of what’s actually going on with Charles Kinbote.

Review: The Singer’s Gun

The Singer's GunIt’s hard to believe The Singer’s Gun came out twelve years ago. The second novel by Canadian novelist Emily St. John Mandel, its examination of the complex morality of immigration fraud feels like a response to the increasingly xenophobic attitudes we’re seeing across the West right now: the arbitrary detention of EU nationals at UK airports; the illegal pushbacks of refugee boats in the Mediterranean; the rise in hate crimes committed against Asian-American people in the US. It’s a sobering reminder that these problems are years, maybe decades, in the making.

Anton Waker has grown up among criminals: his parents run an antiques warehouse selling stolen goods, and he himself has been involved in supplying forged American passports and green cards to illegal aliens. Now, he’s cleaned up his act somewhat, having got himself a well-paying office job off the back of a forged diploma from Harvard. That all changes, though, when after a routine background check his secretary disappears and he’s moved to a shabby office on an abandoned floor without explanation. The jig, it would seem, is up for Anton. Needing to leave the country in a hurry, he agrees to do one last job for Aria in return for leaving the family business altogether.

Mandel has a talent for writing flawed characters with grace and compassion. Anton has made some bad decisions off his own back, but the text makes clear that pressure from loving parents and a familial culture of mistrust in social institutions like universities and corporate culture have made it extremely difficult for him to leave corruption behind. The sympathy this generates for Anton allows Mandel to open up a conversation about the ethics of his criminal past with Aria. He considers immigration fraud a victimless crime, even a noble one, giving desperate people a chance at a better life in the States. But the government investigator looking into Aria’s activities reminds him – and us – that it’s not just about forging passports: the darker side of immigration crime involves human trafficking, here specifically focalised through the case of a shipping container full of dead girls, abandoned by the criminals who transported them to America to exploit them.

The investigator’s point is that it’s a slippery slope from forging green cards to human trafficking. But, through Anton’s perspective, the text is also questioning the attitude to immigration that makes such crimes possible in the first place. (Anton’s family are, if I’m not misremembering, immigrants themselves; that’s at the root of their distrust for the government, and part of what humanises them.) For all that this is a novel about murder, blackmail and organised crime, it’s a surprisingly compassionate and gentle read, its very gentleness allowing it to ask some probing and startlingly relevant questions. I’ll definitely be seeking out more of Mandel’s work.

Review: The Deep

Rivers Solomon’s Hugo-nominated novella The Deep (their second book, following the publication of The Unkindness of Ghosts in 2017) has a strong interest in, and links with, oral modes of storytelling and history-making. Its most direct influence is a hip-hop song, “The Deep”, by experimental band clipping. (whose members are listed as co-authors of the novella), which was itself inspired by the work of electronic music band Drexciya. Its dreamy, slightly unfocused narration calls to mind the rhythms of oral storytelling, embarking as it often does on digressions that tell parts of a story, snippets of background information that weave together into a rich and impressionistic tapestry. The society the novella depicts has no writing, no way of recording information – it relies on a single Historian to hold its collective memory, sharing it once a year in a process at once traumatic and necessary.

For the history that the wajinru, the merpeople that The Deep centres on, remember is one of slavery: they’re descended from the children of pregnant women flung overboard by slaveship crews sailing the Middle Passage. The novella follows their Historian, Yetu, as she struggles to bear the weight of this history alone, seeking to chart a path between her responsibility to the wajinru, which threatens to overwhelm her, and her need for self-actualisation, which threatens the continued survival of the wajinru’s culture and traditions.

So the novella’s interest in oral storytelling is plainly linked to African-American storytelling traditions – the spoken (or sung) word often being the only method Black slaves had of passing down their history and culture. It’s through this lens that Solomon looks at questions about memorialising generational trauma. The wajinru choose to lay the burden of memory upon one Historian because they feel it’s too traumatic for them to bear as a culture. Through Yetu’s abandonment of the wajinru in the midst of their yearly ceremony of remembrance, when collective grief has them at their most vulnerable, the novella explores the ramifications and ethics of such a decision. When your cultural identity is partly shaped by trauma, how do you balance the need to remember the past, to pass on your history, with the need to move on, to live in the present and not be consumed by grief?

The Deep is also very good on LGBT+ representation: all the wajinru are intersex and choose their genders, and queer relationships are basically non-remarkable. (Solomon themself is non-binary.) In many ways, wajinru society is idyllic – if you don’t happen to be the Historian, that is – in a way that only emphasises the disproportionality of the burden that’s put on Yetu, the dysfunction of the way their culture deals with memory.

Solomon doesn’t present conclusive solutions to that dysfunction, but Yetu’s romance with human woman Oori, as well as the novella’s continuation of a shared universe begun by other artists, suggests that the way forward must be collective, must involve a sharing of responsibility. It’ll be interesting to see what – if anything – happens next in this shared universe; what future artists will choose to build on the foundations Solomon’s erected.

Review: The Ten Thousand Doors of January

This review contains spoilers.

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

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

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

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