Sorrow and anger: Books I couldn’t finish or wished I hadn’t started

I don’t usually write negative reviews of books, because (1) it’s usually not fair on a writer to pillory them in public, (2) why waste the reader’s time? But sometimes writing a reasoned critical appraisal for the record can be a public service. For those searching online to find out if anyone else hated this book as much as they did, even a negative review can be reassuring, to confirm they they’re not the only ones who gave up. Here are seven of my recent duds that you may wish to avoid.

ingsSimon Ings, Hot Wire (1995, 2014 Gollancz edition) Cyber-punk. I wish I had taken the time to look inside before I wasted £8.99 on this. After a saccharine opening scene set on a beach, this novel moves on to a revolting and lengthy description of how two addicts open up an old man’s skull to extract his hard wiring, while he’s only mildly sedated, and then rape and mutilate his grand-daughter. I can read horror if the story justifies it, but this was gratuitous, and its intention to shock was successful. Also, misogyny seems to be a recurring theme in the novel, since all the women encountered in my half hour of reading were defined as sexualised objects, associated with violence I didn’t want in my head. The cyberpunkishness is wearying, not stimulating. The cover art is gorgeous. I should have known better to judge this book solely by that.

Catherine Carswell, Lying Awake (1950, 1997 Canongate Classics) Memoir of Scottish author known mostly for her championship of D H Lawrence’s writing. I’m not sure that this should ever have been published, since it’s an hommage to a minor literary figure by her uncritical son. It’s in three parts: the first is a patchwork memoir of growing up in Victorian Glasgow, and reads pretty much like all the others I’ve read of that genre. The second part, of scraps and gnomic phrases from Carswell’s papers, carefully assembled by her son after her death, is meaningless without context. The third section, of letters from the author to a friend during the Second World War, has mild interest for ‘women writing in wartime’ historians, but, again, unless you’re interested in Carswell, there is very little here.

Vonda McIntyre, Superluminal (1983). SF space opera. When I realised that I had never actually read Superluminal, McIntyre’s third novel, since I had been confusing its plot with that of her short story ‘Aztecs’, from which she says it was developed, I bought this with huge anticipation for summer reading. I can only think that it might have been a very early novel that she published after the successes of Dreamsnake and The Exile Waiting, which are both superb. There are some very good ideas, but I cannot believe in her star-crossed lovers, nor in her space port or flight protocols, or indeed anything technical and machine-based since this is just dated in a way that her other novels soar past effortlessly. The novel’s plot matches Anne McCaffrey’s The Crystal Singer (1982) too closely, and her intra-dolphinate human subspecies is a great idea abandoned. It is SO disappointing.

woolfVirginia Woolf, The Waves (1931). Major literary landmark. I read this because it’s the second-last Woolf novel I haven’t read, and in my line of work one needs to have read them. I hated it. I could teach it as a text demonstrating significant literary innovation, as a modernist challenge to the realist novel, for close reading of the techniques of the stream of consciousness. But as a novel to enjoy, for pleasure? Nope.

China Miéville, Un Lun Dun (2007). YA fantasy adventure in alternate London. This is advertised as Miéville’s answer to / version of Gaiman’s Neverwhere, and it certainly sticks very closely to the basic concept. Miéville’s trademark inventiveness is fully present, but I got annoyed by the derivative plot and decorative details. He reuses very famous bits from Tolkien, Chris Riddell, C S Lewis and J K Rowling, for instance, without much bothering to twist or recolour them, and for a YA readership, that’s lazy. The Marxist politics underlying the plot are blatant and enjoyable, but overall this novel feels predictable and flabby. Miéville can do YA fantastically well: Railsea was as hard and sharp as Perdido Street Station. Un Lun Dun is too long for its inevitable plot, which is worth reading only for the superlative inventions and the quest plot reworked.

priestleyJ B Priestley, Jenny Villiers (1947). Novel of the theatre that would rather be a play. Priestley had become a successful playwright and a radio broadcaster speaking for the common man by the time this work came out (when he was on a bit of treadmill), and this novel is an uncomfortable mash-up. Its woodcut illustrations in this edition are too good for the pedestrian storytelling, and the plot is transparently inevitable, even though it’s a ghost story. The plot is a little too clichéd, and the mechanics of narration are told us, not shown. It reads like a novel written by a tired man with one idea and no interest in letting it develop. If you feel like reading London theatre fiction read Josephine Tey or Ngaio Marsh, or even David Copperfield, because Priestley stole all his characters from there.

Amber Reeves, A Lady and her Husband (1914, 2016 Persephone Books). Feminist Edwardian melodrama. Full credit to Persephone for reprinting this as a historical landmark, and a novel exposing exploitation in tea-shops and the slippery slope to penury for a working-girl who makes one mistake. But it’s boring. Very, very dull. Full credit also for reprinting a novel in which the lead character is an ‘older’ woman (though she’s only about 40), but why couldn’t Reeves have made her interesting? I get that she’s a fragile, dominated creature who is learning how to negotiate the frightening world outside her open cage, but for a novel, more gumption would have made her a character to root for. I just wanted to slap her. The most interesting character is her sharp secretary Miss Percival, who won’t live with her own husband and strains to pull her dim and conventional employer even only a little way towards emancipation and freedom.

Looking into the gutter: Jean Rhys’ After Leaving Mr Mackenzie

rhys-1I read After Leaving Mr Mackenzie for #ReadingRhys, but, to be truthful, I really don’t think I would have bothered had it not been for that impetus. I tried Wide Sargasso Sea many years ago and didn’t get on with it at all. I don’t even think I finished it. Jacqui suggested this novel as a re-entry to Jean Rhys’ fiction.

It’s a brutal novel, reminding me powerfully of Colette’s writing in its depiction of Julia Martin, but without the gaiety or the affection. Julia is an Englishwoman in 1930s Paris, slipping so far down the social scale that she is staring into the gutter. She is weak, fatalistic, capable of bravery and quixotic moments of self-assertion, but lazily dependent on the man of the moment. Rhys does not flinch at describing Julia’s hopelessness, and she refuses to give her a shining white knight or a crock of gold. Here she is, roosting drearily in shabby hotels, and if she stays at that level, it’ll be a miracle. Prostitution is her life, at present just as a mistress for hire, but the reader is given no hope that Julia won’t soon be on the streets. She’s run out of men to live off, and picks up a stranger without much caring. But he gives her money to go back to England, and she decides to see her sister Norah, who has been looking after their invalid mother for years. Norah is, understandably, unimpressed at the reappearance of her elder sister, and there is a vast amount of ill feeling between them, fuelled by Norah’s quite understandable fear that after all her sacrifices to stay with their mother and be a nurse, Julia will waltz in and take what little money there is.

rhys-3I found this novel grim and riveting, describing an unhappy life and a brave attempt to try to change it. There is so much to take apart and study in its structure and narration, and it makes a bracing comparison with light and fluffy comedies of the same period. It’s most interesting, I think, for presenting the hideous and long-established English social code that a lady may not take a job, and must live off men or marry. Jane Austen pointed out this universal truth centuries ago, and Rhys’ novel (one of hundreds from this period saying the same thing) points out that this terrible necessity is driven by snobbery and deprivation of education or training. Julia has a mind and presence, and could have made something successful of herself, but is instead given no option other than prostitution, in or out of marriage.

rhys-4The very few bright specks of hope in this unrelenting series of miserable vignettes show Julia recovering her pride, and her awareness that she has value and charm, if she could use them for the right reasons. A stranger tries to pick her up on the Tube by giving her his business card and asking her out for dinner, but she lets the card fall into her lap, and when she rises to leave the carriage, the card falls onto the ground unnoticed: a fine example of the rebuff direct in the grandest manner. A lady will not deign to notice that she has been publicly propositioned. Poor Julia. I don’t like her, but I feel for her.