Reading Girls: Jubilee, by Shelley Harris

It’s sadly true to say that I read a lot more books by men than books by women. This is probably the case for a lot of men, and it’s an interesting and to my mind relatively unexplored phenomenon. I don’t know what my personal ratio is, but it’s probably something like eight books by men to two books by women.

Which is sort of interesting, because according to the oft-asserted wisdom, 80 per cent of fiction readers are female (see this related post for more thoughts on this possibly fictional statistic).

I’ve read three very fine novels by female authors in the last few months. Two I’ve already written about on this site: Girl Reading by Katie Ward (whose title I plundered for this post), and The Somnambulist by Essie Fox. The third, which I finished last night, was Jubilee by Shelley Harris.

Full disclosure: I met Shelley at a literary dinner in Windsor earlier this year and liked her very much, and she bought my book and asked me to sign it, so I felt I should buy her book and ask her to sign it, which is probably a bit naff, but there you are. Then my wife read Jubilee before me, liked it, and then I got my hands on it.

And I liked it. A lot.

Brief synopsis: Jubilee tells the story of a group of people whose photograph was taken at a Silver Jubilee street party in 1977. The novel describes the events which precede the taking of the photo and the ripples they create through to the present day. The central character, Satish, is a Ugandan Asian whose family escaped Idi Amin and moved to England, and who in the present day is a successful doctor. Back in 1977, he’s a a gawky pre-teen living in a family trying to carve out an identity for itself in a country, England, which has yet to come to think of itself as “multicultural”.

The book’s full of delightful nostalgia for the period, which directly appealed to me because I reckon Satish and I are exactly the same age. But it’s also got horrors in it, and here’s where we come to “reading girls”, because the horrors Shelley puts in her book are of a kind which I think a man would struggle to write. One character in particular is, not to put too fine a point on it, a bitch. But Shelley draws her bitchiness in a way which doesn’t judge it, and I think a man would struggle not to judge a character who behaves so badly.

Shelley is deft and skilful in suggesting a world of fierce emotions bubbling beneath the surface of a dinner table. A bowl of coronation chicken can become astonishingly significant. She describes the world of cooking, of kitchen conversation, of families coming together with a warmth and a depth of realism which I’d struggle with myself and which, I think, would be unusual in a book by a male author.

Not all male authors, of course. I think Ian McEwan is particularly good at this kind of stuff, which is perhaps why he’s so successful in a market now allegedly dominated by female readers (and why Martin Amis, perhaps, has gone off the boil a bit). The book I’ve read most recently by a male author which comes closest to what Shelley has pulled off here is Care of Wooden Floors by Will Wiles, which is equally brilliant and also successfully conveys deep horrors dancing beneath the surfaces of domestic life (although, in Will’s case, it’s a particularly male, obsessive-compulsive sort of domesticity).

But even those books by male authors have less of the warmth of Shelley’s book, and maybe that’s where the difference lies. I detected a similar warmth and appealing sensibility in Girl Reading by Katie Ward, whose title I garbled for this blog post. Like Shelley’s book, Katie has enormous sympathy for her characters, such that one’s judgement is always suspended and one is forced to listen to them and try to understand them. Be more like a woman and less like a man. Katie’s book spans historical, literary and science fiction and is fiercely ambitious, but the female characters at the heart of the book are all drawn from enormous wells of compassion and sympathy. To repeat: I’m not sure many male authors have access to those wells.

The third book I wanted to add in here is The Somnambulist by Essie Fox. Again, bad things happen and there are bad people doing them, and Essie’s story has extremities that are pretty Gothic in their intensity (in a good way, mind). When I wrote about it, I said this:

More than that, this was the most intensely feminine story I’ve read in a long time. Essie describes the physical sense of being a woman really, really well. She describes clothing, washing, eating, sleeping and other more intimate stuff in ways which I think a man could never manage, and it left me with a real sense that Phoebe was living and breathing.

That’s another aspect of Reading Girls, I think. Female characters in books by male authors are often totems rather than individuals. My favourite character in any book is Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James, and Isabel is the totemic totem, the character who is mysterious and downright infuriating even to her own creator. So to read a book by a woman is to have women described without that pervasive air of mystery, and Essie’s book in particular is very good at that.

I don’t really have a conclusion, or a point to make, other than this: if it is an effort for men to pick up and read books by women, it’s an effort that’s almost always worth the candle. It’s a patronising truism to say men don’t understand women, but it’s also at least partly true. Reading a good book by a skilled female writer at least makes our ignorance a little less wilful.


Girl Reading, by Katie Ward

I follow a lot of novelists online these days, via Twitter and RSS, and one of the novelists I started digitally stalking this year was Katie Ward. I don’t know how I discovered her, but I followed her, she followed me back, she did a few #FFs with me in them, which was nice, particularly because I don’t do #FF and couldn’t really reciprocate. We got on so well that I put her on the list of people to receive the proofs of The English Monster, and at that point Katie became not just “someone I know online”, she became “the first person on Planet Earth to review my book.” Which is, as you can imagine, rather amazing for someone I’ve never actually met in person.

Of course, the reason I started stalking Katie in the first place was that she’d written a book of her own, Girl Reading. When we started conversing online, I downloaded it onto my Kindle and, as is the way of these things, I downloaded a lot of other things that week and it sort of fell down the list. With the unpardonable result that Katie read my book (which isn’t even out yet) before I read hers.

Well, I finally started reading it last Friday. I finished it last night. And I bloody well loved it.

How to describe it? There’s a certain amount of dogmatic debate in the Amazon reviews about whether it’s a “novel” at all, the reason being it’s structured as seven individual stories which echo each other, the first six of which resonate through the seventh, not in a tying-up-loose-ends sort of way, more as a thematic denouement which is satisfying and enthralling. Each story is built around a picture of a woman reading a book, beginning in 14th century Siena and ending, with the seventh tale, in a near-future world where people live both in the real world and in the “mesh”, which is Katie’s own take on cyberspace.

That’s essentially the structure, but that doesn’t tell you anything about the book. Those people arguing about whether it’s a novel or not are entitled to their debate, but it seems sterile and pointless. This is a book with a purpose and an engine; you don’t dip in and out of it like you would with a collection of short stories. Katie writes with frankly sickening (to another writer) skill – she has that rare ability to within a line or two put personalities into your head where they stand up and start walking about under their own power. Every character in the book is alive, even those who appear in passing, and I can picture each and every one of the core female characters from each story as if they were sitting in among the photos on my living room shelves.

As for what it’s about – well, I wouldn’t presume. All I’ll say is it seemed to strike a real chord with me after something I wrote a few weeks ago about our modern experience of culture, how it is changing and (in some respects) thinning out as technology takes more and more of a central role. The central device of the book – that of the reader watching a picture being created of a woman who is reading – is an ingenious device for examining our Ways of Seeing, to quote John Berger. As I read the book, I found myself hoping the images being used for the stories would be displayed at the end, but they’re not; instead, there’s an Author’s Note, with only the names of pictures and artists and their dates and locations available to us to investigate further. Which, the more I think about it, is correct. If the book has a message, for me it is to go and experience these pictures in as real a way as you can manage, because that is how you dig out your own humanity. As Katie says on her own website:

I truly understand why many people will feel moved to lookup these pictures online, but, I promise you, the art in real life is much better.

A luminous, beautiful, fascinating book. Buy it and read it.

Thoughts on The Portrait of a Lady

I was surprised and very honoured to be asked by the esteemed Norman Geras to contribute to his Writer’s Choice series, in which writers share some thoughts on a book which means something to them. Coincidentally, when Norman asked me I was approaching the end of a rereading of Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady, which I’ve always described as my favourite book even though I read it over two decades ago. You can see what I said about it here.

Suffice to say, here, that my second reading didn’t knock the book from its perch. The Portrait of a Lady is still my favourite novel. I did describe it in an essay once as “the greatest novel ever written,” which memorably drew the response from my teacher that I should be congratulated on having read all the novels ever written, and at such a young age. But to read it again after so long, and after so many other novels, and to have been as delighted by it as much as before – I mean, it’s got to be up there, hasn’t it?


Goodbye Thomas Pynchon. Hello Henry James.

I tried. I really tried. For the fourth time in my life, this week I gave up on Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon’s gigantic novel about – well, what, exactly? I’m not at all sure I could tell you. I got to almost page 200 in the Viking/Penguin edition this time, accompanied by a reader’s guide which itself used words I had never encountered before and seemed to detect wordplay across dozens of pages and names which, if it existed, could have been little more than a joke against the poor reader on the part of the clever novelist.

And that was the problem, I think. I just felt that there was humour being perpetrated, and I was the perpetratee. I am glad I am part of a species that includes someone with the intelligence, the reading and the sheer bloody stamina to have written Gravity’s Rainbow. But when you get to the end of a nine-page chapter and you realise you have no idea what just happened, it’s time to call it a day.

So, after this spicy dish with overwhelming flavours which inspire you and give you stomach ache at the same time, what is needed is something light, delicious and palate-cleansing. So, after a gap of twenty years, I picked up what I’ve always claimed to be my favourite book, Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady. I read it three times between the ages of 17 and 24, and haven’t read it since. I’ve got the Folio edition, a present from my father, and it includes a preface by James which isn’t dated but was obviously written years if not decades after The Portrait of a Lady, at a time when James’s prose had become almost as impenetrable, mannered and infuriating as Pynchon’s. So the Preface is somewhat harder than the novel itself, but it did contain this beautiful phrase which I wrote down and which is the excuse for this rambling screed:

The living wage is the reader’s grant of the least possible quantity of attention required for consciousness of a ‘spell’.

Isn’t that wonderful? And can there be a more succinct way of describing the different grounds Pynchon and James inhabit? Pynchon demands every part of you: your intellect, your sympathy, your full, undisrupted attention. And yet you can still fail, and feel a failure. James, on the other hand, demands some of your time and a soupçon of your wit and, perhaps most of all, the bulk of your sympathy. As an antidote to Pynchon (if one is needed), he’s perfect.

The Somnambulist by Essie Fox

Confession time – I don’t read a lot of historical fiction (so why did you write a book set in 1811? Because it was there.). A couple of Patrick O’Brians and Neal Stephenson’s Baroque trilogy are the only ones I can most distinctly remember, and more recently The Quickening Maze. But these are all books that are “set in the past” rather than being “historical fiction” per se, and I suppose when I say “historical fiction” I mean a kind of fiction whose historical setting is an element in and of itself – books that luxuriate over long-forgotten details, like tourists walking around Rome.

Anyway, this is all a rambling prologue to some thoughts on The Somnambulist, the debut novel from Essie Fox, who’s a well-established “historical blogger” with her site, The Virtual Victorian. I only know Essie virtually, but she’s always struck me as someone deeply interested in history, yes – but perhaps more deeply interested in people who lived in the past. Which might be a fine distinction, but it’s a distinction nonetheless.

I finished her novel last night, and it was a peach (this morning I described it as a “great Gothic fruit cake” on Twitter, which Essie liked, and I sort of know what I meant). Now, come to think of it, I’m not sure I’ve read many “Gothic” novels other than The Mysteries of Udolpho (and that was over 20 years ago), but you kind of know what the ingredients need to be, just like you can probably knock together a decent apple crumble without knowing precisely what goes into it. You’ll need a strong central narrator, ideally first person. You’ll need extraordinary things happening to them. You’ll need larger-than-life, near-grotesque characters. You’ll need an otherworldly setting. And you’ll need dark secrets in closets which tumble out in a steaming mess.

And The Somnambulist has all these things, to be sure. But the reason I particularly liked it is that it didn’t mock its medium. It took its story – and its central character, Phoebe – seriously, and it took its mode seriously and did it well. It was breathless when it needed to be breathless, weird when it needed to be weird, overwrought when it needed to be overwrought.

More than that, this was the most intensely feminine story I’ve read in a long time. Essie describes the physical sense of being a woman really, really well. She describes clothing, washing, eating, sleeping and other more intimate stuff in ways which I think a man could never manage, and it left me with a real sense that Phoebe was living and breathing.

And to go back to my opening – this history is not overdone. It’s there, it adds detail and a strangeness of context which makes the Gothic narrative possible, but it doesn’t get in the way as it can do with other stories. A good story, well told. Recommended.

The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds

This was one of those books that came out of nowhere. I am by no means a “literary” person – I don’t take the LRB, I only skim the Saturday Review in the Guardian, there’s no real rhyme or reason to why I choose to read a particular book at a particular time. I can’t even remember why this one came across my radar, but I’m very glad it did.

Foulds tells the odd little story of a madhouse in Epping Forest which in the early-mid nineteenth century was home to both doomed John Clare and the brother of Alfred Tennyson. Out of that neat little set-up, Foulds creates a fiercely-imagined world of forest gypsies, religious madness, financial fear and teenage obsession, using compressed, rich language with an earthy naturalness which owes a debt to both Clare and to his establishment counterpart Wordsworth.

It’s not a long book, but it’ll take you a good while to finish, because the intensity of the language is such that you find yourself reading it like a poem (Foulds is, indeed, a poet), lingering over oblique but beautiful sentences, sometimes going back over a whole paragraph or page to dig out little truffles of meaning. It’s a beautiful thing, but not a fragile thing – there’s a sturdy imagination at work here, and although the portrayal of Clare is tragic and sad, it’s Tennyson who’s really stayed with me. A big, clumsy, elephant-headed genius with only fragmentary connections to the real world, it made me want to go back and read more of his work. Ditto for Foulds. Highly recommended.

Case Histories, by Kate Atkinson

Louise, myself and our two best friends go on holiday together pretty much every year, and for a long time these holidays involved elaborate, dancing book swaps. Perhaps ten books would travel with us, and we’d pass them from one to the other, and it was almost an unwritten law that these books had to be read by everyone, even if you didn’t like them at the start.

And then I gradually dropped off this little book swap, I think mainly because the other three are worryingly excited by pretty gruesome murder thrillers. Patricia Cornwell started the slide, but it turned into a fully fledged fall when they all were reading Stieg Larsson and I…. wasn’t. More of which another time, perhaps (but read Tim Parks on Larsson, which says pretty much what I think, only it says it well).

Long story short, this departure of mine from the book swap field meant I missed Kate Atkinson. So I’m very late to this party. I’d been meaning to check her out for ages, because I remember seeing Stephen King being effusive about her, and I remember thinking that was a bit odd, a legendary horrormeister being effusive about an English woman with a nice line in funny, middle-class mysteries.

Well, I read Case Histories last week, and I can see why King raved about her. It’s actually not quite like anything I’ve read before. It leaves you occasionally confused in the most profound way, and there’s a point two-thirds in when I became actually angry at how random everything was seeming, and then it all starts slotting together with an easy sense of style and timing, and before you know it you’re completely locked in and pulling another Atkinson off the shelf. As a tyro writer, it was a masterclass in suspense, timing and comic relief, and a lesson that a skilful author can rather knowingly exploit a reader’s trust that something must be about to happen to keep said reader hanging on for a little bit longer, just until it starts to hurt.

And her last novel has got the best title of anything I’ve seen in years: Started Early, Took My Dog. Louise and our two friends have already read it, needless to say.

The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak

Sometimes you love books because of what’s in them. Sometimes you love books because of stuff entirely unrelated to them – a memory, a place or, most particularly, the thought of a loved one. For me, The Book Thief is both, because it’s the first book my daughter read and then recommended to me. That feels like a rite of passage for both of us.

I missed it completely when it first came out; or rather, I bought it, but because she asked me to so she could read it. Then she didn’t read it for months on end. Then she did. “Read this,” she said. “I cried at the end.”

What could be more beautiful than being recommended a book by your daughter or your son? And what a beautiful book to be recommended; a fragile, lovely thing written with precision, ambition and an emotional intensity which sometimes threatens to spill over into pathos but never, ever does. It’s narrated by Death. It’s set in Germany during the Second World War. It concerns a girl called Liesel who is taught to read by her foster father and becomes a book thief. It’s amazing.

Billy Bragg at Queen Elizabeth Hall

Celebrated International Workers Day with a crowd of other well-meaning white middle-class couples worried about their pensions. We came together to watch the sainted Billy Bragg and to remember when there was fire in our bellies instead of a worrying amount of fat.

Billy himself, bless ‘im, continues to blend relentless positivity with a clearsighted view of the world and the bad guys. It was at once energising and poignant to hear spluttering rage directed onto the heads of the Tories again, and as for Nick Clegg – well, Bragg voted LibDem at the last election, tactically, to keep the Tories out. You can probably imagine what he thinks of them now.

Highlight, musically and politically, was Billy’s cover of Woody Guthrie’s Ain’t Got No Home. Here’s the original:

Here’s Billy doing it in 2009:

And here, somewhat surprisingly and quite importantly, is a quote from last week’s edition of The Economist:

Youth unemployment is especially high, and joblessness among the young leaves lasting scars. Strong productivity growth has been achieved partly through the elimination of many mid-skilled jobs. And what makes this all the more worrying is that, below the radar screen, America had employment problems long before the recession, particularly for lesser-skilled men. These were caused not only by sweeping changes from technology and globalisation, which affect all countries, but also by America’s habit of locking up large numbers of young black men, which drastically diminishes their future employment prospects. America has a smaller fraction of prime-age men in work and in the labour force than any other G7 economy. Some 25% of men aged 25-54 with no college degree, 35% of high-school dropouts and almost 70% of black high-school dropouts are not working.

As Woody (and Billy sang), those men ain’t got no home. When The Economist, Billy Bragg and Woody Guthrie find themselves in agreement, we should all take notice.

And no-one in the world sings the Internationale like Billy Bragg. If there’d been a barricade outside the Festival Hall, I would have manned it.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by David Mitchell

I finished this a week ago, and since then it’s been bedding down in my head. I’ve thought about it every day since. The oddest manifestation of this book’s grip on me has been the way I see “EDO” every time I play Words With Friends.

This is one of those books which is at once a gift and a miracle. It’s so good that it’s hard getting your head around the fact that somebody with the same biological apparatus between their ears as you went and produced something as startling as this is.

(When I was an undergraduate, I used to write snarky theatre reviews for the university newspaper. They were quite good, some of them. I only raise this because it’s much, much easier to write a snarky review than an enthusiastic one. So apologies for the breathlessness of this).

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is set in Japan in 1799. Well, sort of. It’s also set on Dejima, the Dutch trading post which was in fact an artificial island just off Nagasaki, whose gate was almost literally the only contact Japan had with the rest of the world at that time. The dizzying oddness of that fact is not a bad place to start a book, and David Mitchell does extraordinary justice to the set-up he has chosen, showing how two distinct – and distinctly unusual – cultures like the Dutch and the Japanese clash, embrace and then separate.

This is the finest book I’ve read since Wolf Hall. Wolf Hall was the finest book I’d read since Cryptonomicon. And Cryptonomicon was the finest book I’d read since Portrait of  a Lady. Which is another way of saying this is one of the best five books I’ve read in the last 25 years.

Sometimes, you put a book down, and all you can say is “Thanks.” So, Mr Mitchell. Thanks.