This weekend, I lost what was happening in the rest of my world because I was immersed in the first Historical Fictions Research Network conference, in Cambridge at Anglia Ruskin University. The CFP for the second one, in February 2017 at the National Maritime Museum in London, will be sent out in the next week or so. There are conferences for historical novelists, but until now, there has been nothing for researchers studying how fictions and history work together. Science fiction professor Farah Mendlesohn and the Royal Holloway classicist Nick Lowe set it up with a team of postgraduate students and Anglia Ruskin colleagues, and I did my bit by running out to buy the biscuits. Next year I hope to be working on the new scholarly journal that the network is planning.
Normally at academic research conferences I bail out for one session, conferenced-out by too much earnest density in the papers. Show-off point scoring in the questions is also damned irritating. None of that happened this weekend. High points were:
Nick Lowe’s revelation that far more historical fiction is written about Ancient Rome than Ancient Greece
Abi Hunt’s recovery of the forgotten agricultural work of Lincolnshire women and children, refuting the post-Second World War fiction from local history that they never worked on the land at all
Victoria Whitworth‘s detective work tracing influences from the Book of Kells in an obscure roadside memorial plaque above Loch Ness
Debbie Challis’s unpeeling of Flinders Petrie’s Victorian fictions about ancient Egyptian pharoah Akhenaten
Jerome de Groot’s energetic attack on history, calling it an absence of the past, and a traumatic experience of seeing a void
Rowan Ramsey’s creation of Agincourt, Iowa: the Mid-West town that never was, but whose history and structures are built every year by North Dakota architecture students
There was also my paper, about how Naomi Mitchison and Nicola Griffith both use science and scientific research methods to give women characters agency in their historical novels. Cultural differences caused a minor kerfuffle in the questions afterwards, over the apparent marginalisation of men in these novels (which is not what I had said at all), and so a few people have asked me to post the paper as a pdf. Here it is: K Macdonald on N Mitchison and N Griffith
I’m writing about Nicola Griffith’s Hild for a conference, and realise that I haven’t read her three Aud Torvingen lesbian crime-fighter noir novels, which have only been published in the USA. (WHY, British publishers?) I happily begin reading the first one to arrive from Abebooks – Always (2007) – devouring its muscular prose as if I weren’t a vegetarian. It’s set in Seattle, where freelance investigator and former cop Aud Torvingen is investigating why her property rents are mysteriously low. There are luxe hotels, a film set under sabotage, crooked estate agents (realtors, sorry), and a brilliant stunt artist reduced to cooking for the crew. Interlaced with these episodes are the self-defence classes that Aud teaches back in Atlanta to a mixed group of women who may, or may not, have particular reasons for wanting to know how to defend themselves against attack in their home. Mmm, this is good.
Then Stay (2002) arrives (different bookdealer), and I realise, oh whoops, Always comes after this one, so I put Always down, and begin Stay. More meaty prose, which begins with a catatonically grieving Aud building herself a new cabin in the woods as therapeutic occupation. Her best friend Dornan sends her to find his flighty fiancée Tammy, who’s in the clutches of a New York psychopath. Aud tracks, hunts, and seriously damages the perpetrator, and works to bring Tammy back out of her conditioned terror. In parallel, Aud is searching for a little girl, whom the perpetrator had been grooming for his next slave, and works through the ways in which a rich single woman can protect an unexpectedly smart child, living with a rigidly Christian family who cannot survive without the fostering money. This was also very good. Both novels are powerful, deliberate, impeccably paced with narrative control you respect and rely on. No tone is out of place, no description is too long, no characterisation overdone. They take the breath away, yet I was reading them backwards. Who is, or was, the now lost Julia? Where does Dornan come into it? Why has Aud abandoned her Atlanta apartment?
The Blue Place (1998), the first in the sequence, takes three more weeks to arrive. I read it rapidly with a pretty clear recollection of the characters who will appear in Stay and Always, so I know who’s important, who’ll survive. Aud sees a house burn down, performs impromptu martial arts in a police gym, bodyguards a tiny Spanish daughter of power miserably job-hunting with US banks, and accepts the job of finding out why a faked painting was burnt along with the house. She accepts the job from Julia, who doesn’t know that the house fire was expected to have her in it. These three novels about Aud share a recurring focus on physical power and training the body. The martial arts episodes in The Blue Place and Always are balletic descriptions, delighting the mind’s eye with fluid movement, and building Aud’s character as a person who can do these marvellous physical things, finding peace, tranquillity and joy in their practice. The Blue Place gives the reason Aud left the police, because she was finding ‘the blue place’ of focused, timeless attack too beguiling.
Is Aud a psychopath herself? She’s fully capable of love and passion, so is not psychopathic in its clinical sense, but her narrative voice has an unnerving tendency to note first how she could kill the person she’s just met, rather than thinking about them as people. We learn, too, why she began to think like this. There are fascinating, genre-hopping dichotomies throughout: exploring differences between heat and cold, swamps and fiords, giving and accepting, fighting for pleasure and fighting for her life. The novels were written to be read individually, but are clearly in a linear sequence: the adventures of Aud the rich, lonely, self-sufficient, loving, thorough, lesbian hunter, operating within and without the law. Griffith’s prose carries more than its own weight, flowing smoothly and effortlessly to show the qualities of vigour and physical energy that make Aud a magnificent creature to watch at her work. She performs martial art as an art, she shapes and makes a wooden chair, she digs a garden border as a cure for bad dreams and a muscle relaxant, she plays a game of pool in the bar as a demonstration of sexual predation, and she takes her time.
I’m interested in the choice of Atlanta for Aud’s first appearance. As I write, a new film has come out featuring members of the Atlanta police as criminally flexible, so that was intriguing: not much has changed since The Blue Place came out in 1998. I remember Atalanta, the rich woman of privilege who could run faster than anyone else, but got caught when she stooped for beauty: she seems relevant to the novels, and Aud’s character. There are intriguing echoes in The Blue Place of Hild (isolated remarks about Hilda of Whitby, and Beowulf) which aren’t present in Stay or Always. It’s as if, when Griffith began writing her next novel after Slow River (1995), she was balanced on the point of choices of what she could write next. She went for Aud, but early ideas about Hild stayed in her head. The three Aud novels build up Griffith’s techniques of writing the physicality of combat, with which Hild is filled.
I cannot understand why these novels are not in print in the UK: they are superb. They also haven’t dated. They were written just as the internet became a web, but we don’t notice that the technology is, technically, historical. Aud uses a mobile phone in The Blue Place, but we don’t realise that it is a brick. She researches using computers and digitised records, but we don’t notice that there is no email or messaging. It’s a remarkable skill, to anticipate technical developments of the near future and build their assumed presence into the plot. But, of course, Griffith comes from science fiction: her ways are foresighted.
In this Really Like This Book podcast script catch-up from the King Arthur mini-series, I’m going to pause briefly to remind you that Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte Darthur is the main source for modern retellings of the stories about King Arthur. The best twentieth-century retelling, in my considered opinion, is the tetralogy by T H White called The Once and Future King. White has recently had unexpected publicity for one of his least accessible works, The Goshawk, on which Helen Macdonald draws extensively in her tremendously successful H is For Hawk.
White first Arthurian novel was published in 1939, The Sword in the Stone. It tells the story of the boy Arthur’s childhood and training under the tuition of Merlin. This is the most famous of the novels in the tetralogy, and was made into a musical called Camelot in the 1960s, and a 1970s Disney cartoon that I loved as a child. Its charm is that Merlin turns Arthur into things so that he can learn what a king needs to know: he experiences life as a fish, and as a bird, and lives with Robin Hood, watches a joust, gets captured by a giant, and hunts boar.
Finally, he goes to London with Sir Ector and Kay, pulls the sword out of the stone, and becomes, to his great confusion, king. The basic story comes from the Malorian sources, except for magical twists by White, including all the animal parts. Most imaginatively, in White’s version of the Arthur story, Merlin is living his life backwards, When Merlin meets Arthur as a small boy, that is the last time he will see him, because he has already observed all of Arthur’s life, and knows what will happen in Arthur’s future. This explains, beautifully and neatly, how second sight works. White writes in a gloriously anachronistic style, mixing up Latin, medieval lore, the irritated precision of a Cambridge don, and comments to the reader about what we need to understand about medieval life. When he stops making intellectual jokes, White’s prose is very beautiful, and direct. His style is engaging, and makes the characters as real as you or I, rather than cardboard cut-outs speaking an archaic language. For this he owes a lot to Naomi Mitchison’s experiments in writing historical fiction in purified modern language.
The Sword in the Stone ends at Arthur’s crowning, but White continued to think about Arthur, why this king had become a symbol for knightly perfection, and what power and restraint meant for humanity. This thinking continued all the way through the Second World War (which White spent living in exile in rural southern Ireland, working through powerful feelings about pacifism, which were part of his philosophical crisis about manifestations of power). By the 1950s White had written three more novels about how Arthur grew into kingship, and how the fatal strands of his story evolved. The Sword in the Stone was not so much rewritten as shaken up a bit, with some episodes removed to be used elsewhere, and new ones inserted because they were needed to make The Sword in the Stone part of a larger whole.
So, in the tetralogy proper, The Sword in the Stone was still about the boy Arthur growing up, and was followed by its new sequel, The Queen of Air and Darkness (or, The Witch in the Wood). This was about the childhood and early manhood of the Lothian family, the knights Gawain, Gareth, Agravain and Gaheris. They were the sons of Morgause, the Queen of Orkney and wife of King Lot, and Arthur’s half-sister, though nobody knows this except Merlyn, who has forgotten to tell Arthur, and Morgause herself, who is a witch. This is a very dark novel, where hopeful characters are disappointed, and the weather is usually cold and wet. It begins with an agonising scene of the children’s love for their mother, who ignores them, and a cold vignette of her boiling a cat alive to find the magic bone that will render her invisible when placed in the mouth. None of the bones work. The lives of the Lothians are centred about the draughty heathlands about their cold, primitive and tumbledown tower, until they go south with their father to fight Arthur, after which they will join Arthur’s company. The novel ends with the critical moment in the Aristotelian tragedy that is the story of Arthur: he sleeps with his half-sister without knowing it, and the boy who is born will be his death.
Novel number three is The Ill-Made Knight, which is all about Sir Launcelot, a miserable man who cannot help being the best of Arthur’s knights, and Sir Galahad, who is perfection and cannot help that either. This novel is also very sad, because Arthur’s hopeful plan to stop war and violence and brutality by inventing the Round Table, has been knocked sideways by the simple facts of human nature. The women also begin to gain importance, with Guinevere and Elaine competing for Lancelot’s affections, and end up by being hated by him, even though he loves them hopelessly. As a man suffering compelling psychiatric disorders, poor T H White wrote a lot of himself into the suffering masochist Lancelot. His loathing of his own mother also comes across hot and strong in this novel: women really don’t do well in this story, despite their stronger presence, but they don’t do well in the whole Arthurian saga. The feminist rewriting of Arthur would have to wait until Marion Zimmer Bradley and her ground-breaking but painfully gushing The Mists of Avalon, in the 1980s.
The last novel of the tetralogy is The Candle in the Wind, which brings in Mordred to the story, the betrayal of Arthur, and break-up of the Round Table. We read, painfully, of the fulfilment of many destinies on the field of battle, and of magical foresight as well. The novel ends with a charming invention by White, of the old king Arthur on the eve of his last battle talking to a young and frightened page, who is called young Tom Malory. But this is not the end of the story. After White’s death, a fifth novel was found in his papers, which turns the tetralogy into a pentalogy.
This last, posthumous novel was published in the 1980s as The Book of Merlyn, and is a return to all that White’s admirers loved best about The Sword in the Stone, when Arthur goes to live among the animals to understand better what it is to be human. Arthur is now an old man with much experience behind him, and his encounters with animals are desperately sad. He goes to live with the geese, and falls in love with a female goose, because bird love is pure, eternally loyal, and uncomplicated. (This episode had already appeared in, I think, the revised Sword In The Stone. He did keep moving sections about.) But just as Arthur has realised what love, acceptance and peaceful contentment actually feel like, he is dragged away by Merlyn to return to the badger’s sett.
Here he must sit in council with the animals to understand why homo sapiens (wise man) has turned into homo ferox (ferocious man). Arthur is a king, so he accepts this abrupt and heartbreaking rejection of being in love, but it is a painful transition, saying much about the responsibilities of leadership and sacrifice of personal feelings. His next trip is to an ant-hill, a vision of a totalitarian society, clearly influenced by the fascist dictatorships attempting to take over the world in the war. White wrote a seriously frightening episode of science fiction here, with the ants’ instructions picked up by their pheromones in a horrific vision out of Orwell’s 1984, Just as Arthur rebels against the incessant instructions in his head, and turns to prevent ant war, expecting to be torn apart by his fellow workers, Merlyn picks him out of the ant-hill and brings him back again to the sett.
Arthur’s last visit is to a hedgehog in the woods outside, who represents the common man, ignorant man, or (as we now might see it) man viewed with more than a touch of patrician condescension by White, writing against his times in the rebellious 1960s. He had tremendous difficulties with class and women all his life, and could not stop being a product of Cambridge and a teacher in the public school system in the 1920s. The hedgehog episode ends with a rendition of Jerusalem which breaks me up every time I read it. The Book of Merlyn comes to no conclusions about how man should be reclassified in the animal phylae because it ends with Arthur’s kingly rejection of theory and discussion, believing that with love he can only do his best. The novel ends with the movement of a snake in the grass, as Mordred and Arthur stand staring at each other at the heads of their armies, and someone draws a sword to kill it.
White was an erratic and wayward genius, an eccentric writer but a brilliant one. This evocation of the story of Arthur is the most serious that I know of, since it digs deeper than just jousts and chivalry and the eternal tragic love triangle between Lancelot, Guinevere and Arthur. This is probably because White was not really interested in love between men and women, but was traumatised by the power that (he thought) women employ to control men. He wrote fiction to work out ideas and to teach people, to educate and to show by example. He was a strange and forceful persuader, intemperate and uncontrolled in so many areas of his life, and a violent perfectionist in writing. He applied a unique vision to this most English of myths, producing five powerful, marvellous novels.
Just look at that cover art. I mean, just LOOK at it. There is no information in the English edition of Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s first novel, Tram 83, on who did the graphic design for the cover (I don’t count the bland branding agency who apparently sourced it), but by golly I hope they get a share of the royalties. Raving praise was showered on this novel on its first appearance: it won the English PEN Translates award in 2015, and the French Voices Award and the Grand Prix SGDL de Premier Roman in 2014. Mujila was born in the DR Congo, and now lives in Austria. His English translator is Roland Glasser.
Tearing ourselves away from strong lines and cool colours, let’s consider the words. ‘Underbelly’ occurs often in the reviews so far, but I was most struck by the inherent dignity of the novel’s origin in French, which really matters. The setting is squalid and poetic: a tramshed nightclub and drinking hole in a central African railhead, populated by miners and prostitutes, and swindlers of all kinds. Mujila does not create a linear narrative, because there is no beginning and end to this story, and frankly I soon lost track of who was coming and going. What matters is the immense composting effect of scraps of life and craziness being shrieked and muttered as the two main characters, Requiem the grafter and Lucien the hapless innocent, shove and stumble through their days in and around Tram 83. Each chapter is punctuated with the assured demand of ‘Do you have the time?’, the verbal calling-card of the underage and self-possessed girls who sell themselves as routinely as they would buy bread in a shop.
Their repetitive street cries for their trade retain the elegance of French, giving these largely unnamed women authority and power. They descend on the arriving traveller like birds, because they are simply part of the economic ecosystem, part of the food-chain that sustains the grim and frenetic activities in and around Tram 83. The sex they sell is impersonal, described in vaunting terms learned from pornography. The strangely affecting formality of French idiom forces dignity on whatever they say, as if they are elegant actors repeating lines they’ve learned for an unpalatable but necessary role. Their nightmare existence never ends, no-one seems to leave, and I have no idea where the money comes from to fuel this miniature economy.
I applaud the skill and poetry of the language that realises a vision from hell with an insistent jazz soundtrack. One bookseller beautifully described Tram 83 as ‘Blade Runner in Africa with a John Coltrane soundtrack’, and I’m willing to go along with that. Mujila’s novel is an explosion of talent and poetic vision. I’ll be waiting for the next one.
Fiston Mwanza Mujila, Tram 83 (2014), translated by Roland Glasser (Jacaranda Books, 2015), ISBN 978 1 909762 22 0, £8.99
UPDATE: Tram 83 is now longlisted for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize!
Launching into a new miniseries of podcast scripts from Why I Really Like This Book, the next few weeks will see a long and enjoyable wallow in stories about King Arthur. This will include early British history, fantasies about Merlin, and the utterly compelling theory that when the Romans pulled out of Britain, somehow the Saxon warlord culture that emerged also brought forth the stories about Arthur that were medievalised into the knights of the Round Table. I don’t begin with Sir Thomas Malory, because, entrancing as the Morte Darthur is, it’s rather hard to read, since it isn’t a novel at all, but a collection of repetitious events stuck together. I’m going to start with the American writer Mark Twain’s satire on knight errantry,A Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, first published in 1889, and now more commonly known as A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. (Warning: here be spoilers.)
Mark Twain was irreverent. This work of Arthurness may have come as a shock to the pious late Victorians who were used to swooning over Tennyson’s Arthurian poems from The Idylls of the King, only a few years earlier. Tennyson wrote as though he were a Pre-Raphaelite without a sense of humour. The whole point of the Yankee is that the story juxtaposes the ignorant 6th century against the knowitall, up to the minute, technologically superior 19th century, and the 19th century wins, right until the last chapter. Twain makes no explanation as to how his 19th-century man, one Hank Morgan, travels back in time and place from Hartford,, Connecticut, to 6th-century England; he just wakes up one morning and there he is. He is also dealt with as any 6th-century stranger would be: he is challenged by a knight, refuses to fight, and is taken prisoner as that knight’s personal property, and condemned to die at the stake. Luckily (and this is the most ridiculous coincidence in the novel) Hank just happens to know that in a day’s time there will be an eclipse of the sun, so on the strength of that, he sends out word that he is a wizard, and will cause mighty terrible things to happen unless he is released. He is not, the eclipse happens, the populace are very much impressed and terrified, and Hank Morgan becomes King Arthur’s prime minister.
He can see a lot of scope for his brain and superior knowledge, and the nice thing is, none of it is for his own aggrandisement. The Boss, for that is now his name, is not at all interested in getting rich, or commanding power where he doesn’t need it. He is a reformer, and is determined to reform 6th-century society with judicious applications of 19th-century technology. The first things to make their absence known are the basic necessities of life; no soap, no matches, no mirrors. There were no books, paper, pens or ink, and no glass for windows. There was no sugar, coffee, tea or tobacco: and now I think we get the picture. Twain’s hero is not at all interested in enjoying life in the 6th century; he just wants to return to his own time as fast as he can, or, if that isn’t possible, to make where he is like his own time. It helps that the entire nation thinks that he is a magician, and that Merlin (who in this novel is a doddering and malign old man with no power whatsoever) is not going to get in his way. At least, he won’t get in the Boss’s way once the Boss has blown up Merlin’s tower with homemade dynamite. Now that the Boss really is the boss, King Arthur’s sole advisor, the Boss can get on with a more noble long-term plan, of relieving the oppression of the poor, and removing the tyranny of the knightly class. The rest of the novel is part adventure, part philosophical nature ramble, on how an ignorant and illiterate populace can be persuaded to help turn themselves into a republic. Spot the American influence.
Not that Twain has anything against King Arthur. Arthur remains a noble and honourable figure throughout (I think it would be hard to change his character in any circumstances), but he is a bit dim. Twain does an excellent job of thinking through how 6th-century man might think, speak, and reason, and he sticks to it. There is very little anachronism here, in the way of 6th-century people thinking like 19th-century people, that can’t be explained by sustained exposure to the Boss’s own speech and thought processes. His chief assistant, Clarence, learns fast how to keep up with the Boss and his schemes and planning, but he still speaks in the way he was brought up: he’s just a fast learner with the flexibility of youth. King Arthur, on the other hand, is a great and noble savage, with excellent instincts for truth and justice, but that’s about it. The Boss takes Arthur on a tour of his kingdom in disguise, so that the king may see the common people close up, but Arthur’s inability to act common nearly gets them caught several times, and in the end they are sold as slaves. The Boss, in his turn, has to act like a 6th-century knight, especially when a fair maiden arrives at court with a tale of woe and captured ladies. He is provided with a horse and weapons and armour (complicated to put on and manage), and off he goes on a quest, with the lady sitting behind him chattering unstoppably. Problems begin when the sun gets stronger and the shade gets weaker, and he gets hotter, and has an itch on the back, and a fly inside his helmet. These unbearable conditions force him to dismount, and get Sandy (the lady’s name is Alisande, so naturally he calls her Sandy) to take his helmet off and pour water inside his armour until he is comfortable again. Only now, he can’t get back on the horse, so he walks and Sandy rides. By such means are the impracticalities of knight errantry skewered lengthily and lovingly by Twain.
They run into Morgan Le Fay, a terrifying witch, married to King Uriens, who is a doddering old man with no courage (very much like the Red Queen and Red King from Alice in Wonderland, which had been published a few years earlier). In Morgan’s castle the tone of this novel begins to turn sharp, since real human misery and cruelty are here, in her dungeons. The Boss sets people free, and does what he can to alleviate suffering, but he can’t wipe away years of torture and confinement. This is what I admire about this novel. It is not fantasy wish-fulfilment, in which all ills are easily wiped away by a stroke. Actions have consequences, which can’t be got rid of. People get killed and die of other means: the casual brutality of the 6th century is accepted by the Boss, possibly because in the 1880s there was a lot of casual 19th-century brutality as well. The Boss blows people up, kills people, arranges for things to happen that will inadvertently kill people: it’s all rather shocking but also very real. This is what people are like. He deals with the knightly class once and for all by first defeating his most hated enemy in a joust with a lasso, and then with a revolver. Many knights die, and no-one thinks anything of this, because (we are reminded) jousting was not about the spectacle and the romance, it was about maiming and disabling your opponent with heavy, fast and sharp weapons and then cutting his head off. If death has to happen the Boss’s method is cleaner and faster and more humane. In a passage near the end, when the Boss is describing the advance of newspaper journalism in Arthur’s kingdom, he mentions as an aside that the first novelist to have his book published made a bad joke once too often, and so the Boss suppressed the book and hung the author. That sort of thing comes as a shock when we also read about the Boss’s enlightened practices and useful inventions for the betterment of mankind. He really is not like us at all. He’s like we might have been over 120 years ago.
What does this novel have to say about Arthur, and the Round Table? Arthur is untouchable: a bit gullible, but a hero and a great man. Guenevere is a bored and foolish queen in love with Sir Launcelot, which Arthur knows about, but is more sad that the queen doesn’t seem to love him. Sir Launcelot is the greatest of the knights, and a sportsman as well, we can’t say anything bad about him. This eternal love triangle brings the kingdom to ruin in the end, as it must, because you can’t change the end of this story, even if the middle has been seriously messed around with. And after the death of Arthur, in comes the Church, about whom the Boss has been railing all along, since he is afraid of the Church, and rightly so. He had plans for getting rid of the Catholics and encouraging an early growth of Protestantism, but something else demanded his attention, and so the Reformation had to wait for another thousand years. Most sad of all (spoiler alert), now that the Boss has married Sandy and they have a baby girl, he inadvertently gets killed by a malign knight and is flung forward to his own time, where the reader first met him. Luckily he dies not very long afterwards, because to be missing your wife and child who have been abandoned 1300 years ago is torture we don’t want to hear much about.
But don’t be sad: there is so much humour in this novel. Satire means laughter, and the witty asides and terrific snappy dialogue in the inner thoughts of the Boss make this a novel to treasure.
Squid’s Grief is D K Mok’s third novel (The Other Tree is reviewed here, The Hunt for Valamon is reviewed here). Her defining characteristic so far is that she uses the same plot in different genres, and she has an affinity for fantasy fiction that speaks with a knowing wink. She’s a very good writer, creating wholly satisfactory novels of zipping action and snappy one-liners, grounded with heart and soul, but, after the third iteration, I am now wondering why she is still writing one story.
There is nothing wrong with her plot. The downtrodden loner protagonist is paired with a high-tech specialist professional, and they accidentally fall into a high-velocity chase to locate something valuable or important about which the reader is given limited information. As the chase develops short cuts and unexpected detours, more information is disclosed to revise our first impressions of the protagonists, and when we reach the climactic confrontation between our heroes and their implacable enemies an imposing moral choice is presented. There are feints and defaults, quite a lot of blood from the person least expected, and all ends well. This is very good. I have no problem with how Mok handles this plot, but I am getting restless. She is a fine storyteller, an expert plotter, draws memorable and believable characters, and all her novels pass the Bechdel Test with top marks. But why do they have to be the same story?
The Other Tree was set in a failing university and an outback wilderness, and The Hunt for Valamon in a high fantasy world that almost reaches Piers Anthony levels of knowing punnity. Squid’s Grief is tighter and more controlled, set in a futuristic Blade Runnery noir landscape of high stakes and impossibly vengeful warring crime lords. Squid is an electronics hacker and car thief, and mistakenly rescues a man she finds tied up in the boot (sorry, US readers: trunk) of a car that was about to be shoved into the harbour. His duct-taped mouth prevents him speaking, but it becomes apparent that his total amnesia also prevents him understanding who he is. Squid reluctantly feeds him and shelters him in her ramshackle hovel. She gives him the name of Grief since he can’t remember his own, and somehow they become working partners. She finds the food in the dumpsters, and he covers her back when she’s performing impossible hot-wiring missions against time. She’s trying to pay off a debt to a minor thug who can order her about, until something odd happens and he lets her go without penalty. Grief is being recognised, and he is demonstrating skills in extreme violence and derring-do that appear to be familiar to the fraternities of crime that run this city.
On the correct side of the tracks, Officer Casey is struggling to solve cases in a rising tide of crime. No-one is helping her, except her street partner who ought to know better, but she is doggedly persevering despite routine derision because she idolises Drake the police chief, a shining beacon of probity in a darkening storm of crime. As Casey starts to make headway, she keeps running up against Squid and the mysterious Grief, in a spiralling narrative of discovery and high-tech surveillance that is thoroughly enjoyable, and a tense, tense read. Mok writes noir superbly well: Squid’s Grief is the most successful of the iterations of her plot. It reads rather like a high-speed action film script written for a vehemently visual gaming environment in which characters flicker from one pose to another, futuristic fedoras tipped against the rain. The dual narrative is shared between the struggling officer and the desperate car thief, leaping from one focus to the other. The reader is dragged along, not knowing a thing about this cyberpunk Gibsonian world of crime, but loving the ride.
Unlike her earlier novels, Squid’s Grief is self-published, but do not let that put you off. This is professional and high-quality reading, without tentacles.
D K Mok, Squid’s Grief (2016), dkmok.com, ISBN 9780994431509(paperback), and 9780994431516 (ebook)
This time on the Really Like This Book’s podcast scripts catch-up, I’m in very rural modern America, enjoying Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer, where women are coyotes caring for their young, and a widowed scientist finds a new way to keep the family farm running. This novel is so intensely involving that, the first time I read it, I was up until 3am, sitting in the courtyard of a Spanish holiday cottage, desperately trying to finish the novel before I got eaten alive by night insects. On a more recent rereading, I couldn’t even stop to make lunch until I reached the end. This story engulfs the reader.
It’s about the lives of four people living all quite near each other, in a small Virginia mountain valley and on the mountain itself. We’ll start with Lusa: she lives on a farm where tobacco is the only crop that will grow reliably and store without rotting while waiting for the market’s best prices. Everything else in modern farming is a gamble, and farming is a hand to mouth business. Lusa arrives in this world of long-established families and rigid traditions as the new wife of a young farmer, with her foreign Polish-Jewish-Palestinian background and her fancy scientific knowledge about bugs. Everyone except Lusa knows that bugs are for squashing, so Lusa’s interests don’t seem to work well with farming. She spends the novel learning how to make the best of the family farm, and how to handle the extended family that she inherits with the land and the farmhouse. This family brings a lot of baggage with it, but one or two of them like Lusa, and she likes them. Her journey of learning and integration is a triumphant biology lesson, and is a joy to read.
Then we have Deanna, a local girl turned forest ranger, who lives in a cabin on Zebulon mountainside keeping an eye on the local animal and bird populations, and clearing the trails when the trees fall down. Her passion is coyotes, and the importance of predators in the ecosystem, because without predators, the population explosion of animals lower down the chain will ruin their own ecosystems and cause a lot of trouble for everyone, animal and human. She thinks that a family of coyotes has arrived on the mountain and is breeding, and she can hardly bear to leave their den alone, but she knows that local farmers shoot coyotes, and if she lets anyone know the family’s whereabouts, they’re doomed. Then one day she meets a man on the trail, a hunter from Wyoming who’s after coyotes. Trouble is, he and Deanna can hardly keep their hands off each other, and when they’re not in bed, or in a hollow log, or on her cabin floor, her work is cut out educating him in her view of ecology, as well as the daily work of being a ranger. Deanna is the lone wolf in the novel, because she acts and lives alone, and guards her own territory instinctively. Her physicality defines her character, superbly written to the same pattern as the lives of the coyotes she’s protecting
These two very smart, college-educated women are living in close proximity – Deanna can see Lusa’s farm boundaries from the edge of her mountainside – but they don’t know each other, even though they share the same views about life and animals. This is frustrating, but the novel proceeds onwards inexorably, moving back and forth from Deanna’s storyline to Lusa’s, at the same time weaving in the stories of the third and fourth characters, so we feel that sooner or later they’re going to meet up. We just have to be patient.
Mr Garnett Walker III, and his irritating, maddening know-all neighbour, Miss Nannie Rawley, are the other lead characters. Mr Walker is a widower, nearly 80, has trouble with cataracts and his heart, and suffers from the horrible ear vertigo that cripples him if he moves his head the wrong way. He is a creationist, but also, bizarrely, a retired biology teacher and the local advisor about plant breeding and goats. He has stern and rigid views about the rightness of spraying pesticides, and the wrongness of leaving roadside verges to fill up with weeds. He is a stubborn old man and if it weren’t for the fact that we can see through his muttered thoughts so easily, he’d be very annoying. But he’s not: he’s lovable because he’s so transparent and honest. Nannie Rawley is 75, and a fierce advocate of organic farming. She grows apples and fine vegetables, and sells them in the organic market in town, and to organic apple juice makers. Garnett Walker objects to her because she doesn’t act like his idea of how a 75 yr old woman should act, especially the way she wears cut-off jeans and sleeveless shirts, and chats to men as if she were only thirty. I think we can see what’s up with Mr Walker: a simple case of frustrated jealousy. Her misdemeanours are all tied up with his grumbles about Unitarian women in trousers, and townsfolk who don’t listen to good advice. What an old grump. But what a lonely and failing old grump he is too: he can’t cook for himself, he’s clearly unsafe to drive, and he mistakes a snapping turtle fixed to the end of his boot with having a stroke. Nannie needs to take him in hand.
The women in this novel work so hard. Mostly, they work with the land, with farming and growing and harvesting and nurturing and keeping the land and its creatures safe for the next generations. They also educate: Lusa couldn’t educate her husband Cole before he died, even though he started out as her student. But she finds herself educating Rickie, her nephew-by-marriage, a rather gorgeous 17 year old farmboy with hormones between his ears, but she doesn’t educate him in the way you, and he, might think. Kingsolver is too intelligent a writer, and this novel is too interesting, to let the story run in that direction. Lusa shows Rickie how to work on plants with tools rather than pesticides, and how to invent a new way to farm useless land when even tobacco won’t make money. She takes on another new family member, her niece Crys, whose mother is dying of cancer, and whom nobody understands or cares for at all. But Crys is a natural naturalist, so Lusa and she are a perfect fit. Deanna educates her summer lover, Eddie Bondo, in how mountain habitats work and how the animals coexist. And Nannie educates Mr Walker, and almost persuades him, that her ways of farming might have a point. She does remind him that being a good neighbour is a skill anyone can remember.
The characters are all tangled up in relationships to each other. Deanna’s father and Nannie Rawley had a Downs’ Syndrome baby together, so Nannie is Deanna’s step-mother by any other name. Lusa’s niece Crys and her little brother are the grandchildren of Mr Walker, whom he hasn’t seen since he cut off contact with his useless and feckless son. The novel begins with all four characters lacking children, and by the end, all four have gained children, or adopted children, or grand-children. It’s a nice additional example of nature taking its course.
You do need to like reading about nature to enjoy this book. Kingsolver is and was a scientist, so she has science oozing out of her prose, it’s inescapable. She’s a good science writer: her essay collections, High Tide in Tucson and Small Wonder, contain the best science writing for non-scientists that I’ve ever come across. She knows how to educate painlessly and, she’s patient and unobtrusive. My favourite parts of Prodigal Summer are the different ways human animal give gifts and pay attention to each other as a precursor of mating behaviour: when you see a Fourth of July barbecue through a biologist’s eyes, it all looks different. I also love reading about Lusa’s secret plan to make the farm pay, using a solution that only she, a Jewish-Muslim woman long used to cooking at family feasts, could dream up.
The problem, if there is one, with this novel, is the sheer volume of science education that it contains. When a novel has one protagonist, that character won’t repeat themselves in what they say without good reason from the novelist. But with four protagonists, all determined to teach some other character important or fascinating knowledge about luna moths or phoebe birds or goat breeding or snakes, or apples, we get a cacophony of natural history made easy, again and again and again. The human interactions are also focused on animal rituals and routines: not just mating, but bringing up young, foraging for food, maintaining a home, hunting and protecting: it’s all in this book. If you like being immersed in biology while being entranced by lots of different stories about people all at once, this tremendous novel is for you.
[When researching the photos, I found to my utter delight that Nicole Kassall is developing Prodigal Summer with Kingsolver as a film!]