Three months of books and audiobooks. Ulysses casts a bloody massive shadow – I finished it at my fourth attempt – but the Gorbachev biography is also very highly recommended. On the audiobook front, Lincoln in the Bardo is like nothing I’ve ever heard before – multiple voices weave in and out, it could be confusing, but it is not. It’s magnificent.
Naomi Alderman’s The Power has had momentum since it was published in 2016. It won the Baileys Women’s Prize For Fiction in 2017. It’s been acquired for television adaptation. And, most enticingly of all for impenitent liberals like me, it was one of Barack Obama’s best books of the year.
The premise is disarmingly simple: what would happen if women were to develop, almost overnight, the capacity to seriously injure others – and by others I mean, in the main, men? How would the world shift if the fundamental determinant of sexual relations – that a man is physically stronger than a woman – was turned on its head?
Out of that, Alderman develops a novel that is one part dystopian thriller and one part sly deliberation on gender politics. The book works perfectly well as a thriller. As a satire, it’s bravely magnificent, although it is occasionally really hard to read. It contains scenes which some readers will find distort their impressions of the whole book – one good friend of mine found herself disliking the book because of some of these scenes. I guess this post is a kind of argument with her, even though she doesn’t know I’m writing it.
You have to say this about The Power: man, it’s cold. I mean really, really cold. The logic of the inversion of gender power that she has invented leads Alderman to treat of sexual assault, and she follows that logic down into depths which some readers won’t want to descend – it is these scenes which my friend objected to. Those scenes are some of the most chilling things I’ve ever seen or read or heard (and I consumed The Power as an audiobook, more of which in a second). One particular episode in a refugee camp towards the end of the book is so extreme that it might lead you to push the whole book to one side, in some disgust.
But the political logic of what Alderman is doing in The Power demands that scene. Nothing she describes in it hasn’t happened the other way around. There are places in the world where it is probably happening right now. It happened in Europe within living memory. It will happen, and it will go on happening. That’s cold, woman. And it’s true.
I think these almost satirical aspects of the book are more powerful than the story itself. Just before I started scribbling these words, I read a fantastic profile of Jordan Peele in the New York Times, and it got me thinking about the resonances between The Power and Peele’s magnificent Get Out. Both are works wearing the trappings of popular entertainment that make potent remarks about political injustice. Peele uses horror movies as his framework, Alderman apocalyptic thrillers.
But because Peele’s story is so focussed on individuals, on a single sequence of events that could happen over a weekend, the narrative is more concentrated and, I think, more powerful. I’m talking here, as I always talk about these things on this blog, as a writer who’s trying to understand how other, better, writers do things. I think Get Out is a work of narrative genius because of its compression, and because of its humour. The Power is more sprawling, more epic in its scope – and I know (from bitter personal experience) how hard it is to maintain narrative tension on a broad canvas.
A quick word on the audiobook. The main narrator is Adjoa Andoh, with whom I’ve been a little bit in love for most of my adult life, and it’s a hell of a thing she pulls off here, because there are so many voices to encompass: an American politician and her daughter, a British gangster, a Nigerian journalist, a Moldovan maniac. I’ve only come round to audiobooks recently, and I’ve come to the realisation that the performance of them is as much to do with their success as the words being performed, and Andoh’s performance is prodigious.
And there’s another thing. Alderman very cleverly frames her story with fragments from a correspondence between a man and a woman of the future, discussing the events of the story from the ‘other side’ of the gender shift. This man and woman are historians and writers, and they are debating the book itself. The final exchange – the epilogue, I suppose – rounds off the book magnificently. The last line is an absolute dream and punches as hard as anything that goes before it.
Adjoa Andoh doesn’t read these sections. There are four other voices on the credits: Thomas Judd and Phil Nightingale are the two male voices, but there are two other female voices. One is Emma Fenney, and the other – the one who might be reading the words of the female historian and writer which close the book – is Naomi Alderman. You’ll have to read the book – or listen to the audio – to discover just how delicious that is.
I first heard Manda Scott talk about her book Into the Fire at a dinner in Windsor some three years ago. The premise that she described that night was two parts thrilling to one part bonkers – it had to do with Joan of Arc – and I admit to wondering how anyone could spin a story out of the elements she was describing.
Three years down the line, and I have just finished the book Manda was describing. It’s still two parts thrilling to one part bonkers. But in a very, very good way. Into the Fire is also a blood-drenched, vivid, imaginative and exciting novel, the best word for which is probably ‘lusty’.
‘Lusty’ is a laughably word to describe to a dual-timeline narrative that tells the story of Joan of Arc through the eyes of an English spy, interweaved with a contemporary police procedural set in Orléans about a brilliant female detective investigating a series of fires. But ‘lusty’ is what it is, not least because this is a book just dripping in lust. I have an unprovable belief that women are better at writing than sexual desire than men are, because women are better at writing about the sensations of the body, and the scenes in which one character fancies another in this book are heart-pumpingly phwoaarr.
The other thing I loved about the book is how it framed the historical world inside the modern one. The dual-timeline narrative means we are constantly being tugged from the 15th to the 21st centuries. One key aspect of this is loyalty, the perception of loyalty, and the way those things have shifted. In the confused mess of loyalties that was France in the Hundred Years War, alliances could shift and change as frequently as the clouds above the Loire, but in the modern world our loyalties are more fixed. The evil of the modern world is the acquisition of power at any costs, against the constraints of loyalty; in the world of the 15th century, a character has to be tugged out of the everyday shifts in loyalties by a new kind of allegiance to something strong and powerful and almost otherworldly, in the form of the Maid of Orléans. The Maid is a symbol, of a new and powerful kind, and the other link between the worlds of the past and present is our continuing need for symbols, and the way this need opens us up to manipulation.
But I’m overthinking this. Into the Fire is above all else massively entertaining. Its intellectual framework is solid, but Manda Scott wears her research lightly. This isn’t a book that lectures or strokes its chin. It has a unique and daring conceit at its heart, one that Manda has talked about publicly on more than one occasion but not one that I will mention here. But she lands it – oh my word, she lands it.
About halfway through Kate Mayfield’s beautiful memoir The Undertaker’s Daughter I asked myself: have I ever read a memoir before? I’ve read autobiographies, of course, and although there’s no ISO definition to delineate memoir from autobiography it would surely have to distinguish between the celebrity that makes us want to buy an autobiography from the voice that makes us want to read a memoir. Reading this lovely book, I came to the conclusion that I have read memoirs, only they’ve been fictional ones. To Kill a Mockingbird is a memoir. So is Catch 22. So are several of Dickens’s novels. It’s just that, to a greater or lesser extent, their stories are made-up ones.
And it helped, in many ways, to think of The Undertaker’s Daughter as a novel, because for this experience of a genuine memoir I was in the decidedly odd position of knowing the author. I met Kate on a trip to Hogarth’s House in Chiswick some years ago, and she is (I hope she won’t mind me saying) a very striking person to meet, particularly in that odd little residence by the side of the A4. She is always exquisitely turned out, she is always smiling, and she speaks with a soft Southern accent as warm as hot chocolate. And she has always been generous and kind to me. So take what I am about to say here as you will, but it is honestly meant.
Kate Mayfield grew up in a funeral home in Jubilee, Kentucky, and The Undertaker’s Daughter tells the tale of that growing up. It also, in its way, tells the tale of America’s civil rights movement, but those words are never used, because it is the experience of a white child becoming a white woman in a still-segregated community that is the tale here. Kate’s father, the undertaker, was a complicated man and also a fantastically hard-working and focussed one, and his alignment with one of the grandes dames of Kentucky is one of the narratives that drives the book along. The stories are full of hairdressing and gowns and big cars and card games and gossip, and like a very good period novel, The Undertaker’s Daughter drops us into 1960s Kentucky until we can smell the gardenias in the air and feel the hairspray on our faces.
But that isn’t what makes this book exceptional. What makes it exceptional are its secrets, which unfurl with terrible deliberation – Kate’s secrets, her father’s secrets, the secrets of any family but particularly a family such as this, one with access to the darkest moments in people’s lives, and one which lives in such an oddly heightened position in the community. This is where my experience of the book may differ from yours because, as I said, I know Kate. So some of the revelations in this book hit me in a different way to how they would hit a stranger. I found myself admiring Kate’s bravery and her insistence on being truthful.
And more than anything, I admired the writing, which is exquisite. The pacing of the book (those unfolding secrets, again), but also the poetry of the words. And in between each chapter, Kate has inserted a little story, collectively called In Memoriam, of a single death in Kentucky. Over the course of the book, the dead and the ones they left behind fill the pages, until Kentucky is paradoxically alive with these people and their stories. I still feel, weeks after finishing the book by the banks of the Loire, that I could step out of my front door and out onto the streets of Kentucky, and watch Frank Mayfield drive past in his Henney-Packard ambulance, old lady Miss Agnes sitting in the seat beside him dressed entirely in red, and everyone looking up as they go by.
Sometimes, you swallow a book down whole, like a cold beer on a hot beach. It’s sharp and immediate and it goes straight to your brain, freezing it and stimulating it at the same time.
Other times, the book swallows you. You open it at the first page and then, some days or weeks later, you find yourself climbing back out of it again, wondering how you got on with other things – eating, working, sleeping, existing – while this book held your head in its mouth and wouldn’t let go.
The Country of Ice Cream Star is one of those latter books. It’s big (such books tend to be big, which is why I like big books) and it’s brave and it’s fearless and it’s extraordinary. It’s set in a future of unspecified distance, where an unspecified outbreak of a half-named disease has wiped out all of white America, leaving only blacks and Hispanics – and killing even them when they approach the age of 20. The whites that are left are called ‘roos’ and are seemingly invaders who are impervious to the disease.
So far, so dystopian. We’ve seen this movie before. But yet, we haven’t. Because this story is narrated by a 15-year-old girl who calls herself Ice Cream Star. She’s a Sengle. We don’t know why her group are called Sengles, or why she’s called Ice Cream Star. She isn’t going to tell us that. She is going to tell us what happens to her, though, and she’s going to use her own language to do it, a new kind of pidgin English which is part street slang and part something else, something fashioned by children who are having to govern themselves in the face of inbuilt and imminent obsolescence. They have no cultural markers, no books to read or songs to quote. They have only their own stories and their own voices.
And Ice Cream Star’s voice is so unique, so powerful, so poetic that the dystopian vision becomes secondary to her own incendiary genius. The journey she takes is long (600 pages long) and extraordinary and at times we flounder in the face of this strange dialect. At other times it takes us over, until Ice Cream Star’s voice is clear in our heads. As a feat of creative control and stamina, it’s nothing less than breathtaking. Holden Caulfield has a powerful voice, and his own hip vernacular, but Holden Caulfield is no Ice Cream Star. If you don’t finish the book more than a little in love with her, there’s something missing from your humanity.
I only know Sandra Newman, the woman who wrote this amazing book, via Twitter. But by God, she was touched by something miraculous when she wrote The Country of Ice Cream Star. It’s the most extraordinary thing I’ve read since, I think, Infinite Jest, and that’s not a bad comparison in some ways. Both books can infuriate. Both books could knock down a horse if thrown at its head. And both books contain gigantic worlds and unforgettable poetry.
If you want a big book to swallow you up, and if you want to meet an extraordinary young woman whom you won’t ever forget, read The Country of Ice Cream Star. Gratty for reading; these words is bone.
When I was in my twenties, I spent a considerable amount of time jumping up and down in fairly mindless fashion to the excitable rock-and-roll stylings of a beat combo with the tireless moniker Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine (or, for the purposes of the BBC censor, Carter USM).
There was no other band quite like Carter. There were only two of them, for a start: a fellow in shorts and a baseball cap who played the guitar and was called Fruitbat, and another fellow called Jim-Bob who also played the guitar and sang.
They were backed by a fearsome wall of synths and drums, and came along at the same time (at least, in my memory) as a bunch of other bands who seemed to make one want to jump up and down a lot in old baseball boots, with one’s hat on backwards and cheap lager sloshing around in one’s belly. They were huge, massive, relentless FUN.
What made them different to those other bands, though, was the content of their songs. E.M.F sang in abstract terms about someone being unbelievable, Jesus Jones had some hand-wavy hippy nonsense about how great it was to be alive right now. Carter (lyricist: Jim-Bob) sang about an altogether more down-to-earth bunch of gypsies, travellers, thieves, grebes, crusties and goths – a list which I have mercilessly stolen from Carter’s own song, The Only Living Boy In New Cross.
Jim-Bob’s lyrics were filled with pop-culture references – The Only Living Boy In New Cross features, among others, David Frost, Evita, Simon and Garfunkel, Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones. There were puns – the Evita reference is ‘fill another suitcase with another haul’, which in a song about life at the bottom end of the heap is fabulously on it – and there was a good deal of anger about the state of post-Thatcherite Britain and its dreary selfishness. Perhaps their most famous song, Sheriff Fatman, is an early one from 1989, which rails at slum landlords, including Rachman and, in Jim-Bob’s own deathless adaptation, ‘Nicholas van Whatsisface’.
Oh, and they headlined Glastonbury.
But I come here not to praise Carter USM, but to bury them. Their last ever gig will be this November (and I can’t go, chizz chizz chizz), and these days Jim-Bob is a solo recording artist. His last album, What I Think About When I Think Of You, is fantastic and I commend it to you.
So Jim-Bob hasn’t gone. But he has begun to change, like Seth Brundle in The Fly, into an altogether more disturbing creature: a novelist.
There have been two novels under Jim-Bob’s name already: Storage Stories and Driving Jarvis Ham. I commend them both to you. His third, though, is under a new name: J.B. Morrison. I don’t know why he changed it. Perhaps it’s considered more grown-up. But I’m delighted to say the novel, The Extra Ordinary Life of Frank Derrick Age 81, is full of everything that I loved about Carter and everything I love about Jim-Bob, but without the wall of synths and the beer in the belly. It’s a charming story, beautifully told, about an 81-year-old man living on his own and the relationship he develops with the woman who comes to care for him for an hour a week.
I couldn’t help feeling some sadness reading this; my dad died in 2008, and he’d be touching on the same age as Frank Derrick by now. And Frank’s story does have its sad moments and its tiny tragedies. But Frank’s brain is as sharp as those old Carter lyrics – as sardonic and bitter but also as witty and affectionate. His hair is too long, and his best mate is an ex-punk called Smelly John. He loves films and had once planned to build a cinema in his shed. His wife Sheila died years ago, lost to dementia – and Jim-Bob/Morrison’s use of sea-swimming as a metaphor for the loss of Sheila’s mind is as fine and terrible a piece of writing as I’ve read this year.
The novel rescues the elderly for us, paints them as just older versions of ourselves, with the same anchors in shared popular culture and the same wish to be interested, involved, inspired. There are no easy answers in Frank’s life, and the novel doesn’t pretend there are. At one point, I thought the novel was going to settle for a bleakly obvious ending, and it does toy with us as if it might. But it doesn’t. It carries on – Frank carries on – with warmth and acceptance and, ultimately, love. It made me realise, actually, that love was what Carter were on about, a lot of the time, too.
I put it down, and I phoned my Mum.
My good friend Jon introduced me to this book, via my wife – in as much as she swiped it off me when I first bought it, read the first 50 pages and discarded it, saying it wasn’t her thing at all.
This surprised me, because I think it’s a wonderful book – a very, deeply French Raymond Chandler, with jazz and pastis instead of big bands and hooch.
It’s set in Marseilles in the 90s (I think), a racial melting pot filled with resentment, racism and rancour. A local detective investigates the deaths of two of his oldest friends, 20 years apart, and finds himself elbow-deep in conspiracy, gangs and organised crime.
Izzo writes beautifully, and his main guy, Fabio Montale, is a fabulous creation, a recognisably tragic figure who loves women and honour and booze and food and is doomed to destroy himself with his appetite for life. Montale very much reminded me of James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux , and I can think of no higher praise than that.
There’s two more books in the series, and I’m definitely going to read them both.
Look, I’m going to name-drop now. Deal with it.
I bought Joanne Harris’s latest book, The Gospel of Loki, at its launch. Joanne signed it for me (look, Joanne signed my book!). Joanne also gave me some blurb for my second book, and was one of the judges when I won Literary Death Match.
Yes, look at me, I am awesome. I know Joanne Harris, and I’m hugely grateful to her as a new author who’s received her prestigious support.
So take what comes next with as much salt as you want, but The Gospel of Loki is magnificent. Take the darkly rich Norse mythology of Odin and Asgard, and transmit it through the amoral, witty and restless voice of Loki, birthed in and birther of chaos. What you get is a series of Tales and Trickery, by the end of which you are at home with some of the weirdest and imaginative beings which ever sprang from human hearts trying to explain what was outside in the Dark.
The book it reminded me of most was Robert Graves’ The Greek Myths, not because of any essential similarity in the telling, but because in both a writer with a singular voice and attitude brings alive a world with such energy and assurance that you wonder how these myths were ever told without that voice. It took the endless Northern nights of telling and drinking to give birth to Loki; it took Joanne Harris to rescue the trickster from Marvel Comics and make him speak again. First class stuff.
Imagine that you could live inside another person’s mind for a week or two. See the world through their eyes, experience their sensations, their fears and their ecstasies.
Imagine that the person whose head you were temporarily residing in was a person of exquisite and detailed responses to the world, whose mind combined erudite knowledge with a refined sense of beauty and craft, such that the world’s surfaces were livid and constantly interesting.
Imagine that this mind was also fractured somehow, traumatised, living with the experience of a horror so deep, just because the mind that experienced the horror is so capable of perception.
Imagine that the dreams and nightmares of this person became, over the weeks of living in their head, so much a part of you that some nights you weren’t sure if you were being kept awake by your own cares, or theirs.
Imagine that you could see the point at which this experience would end, that it was manifest in a thinning number of pages in your right hand, and then one night it just…. stopped.
To try to make some meaning out of all this seems unbelievably quaint. Maybe I’ve only seen a pattern because I’ve been staring too long. But then again, to paraphrase Boris, maybe I see a pattern because it’s there.
I’ve written before about the gaping holes in my reading, which I’m slowly trying to fill. But there are equally vast holes in my historical knowledge. Embarrassingly large, to be honest. And perhaps the largest of them was this one: how did modern Europe evolve from the ruins of the Roman Empire? What happened in those years between the sacking of Rome and the Renaissance? I’m old enough to have been taught that these were the ‘Dark Ages’, a time of ignorance and fear, when the light of knowledge was kept aflame by a handful of dutiful monks on windswept rocks while the rest of Europe ate itself.
Essentially bollocks, of course, and I have thankfully found the book which vividly describes the pulsating, crazy, untidy and brilliant truth. That book is Millennium by Tom Holland.
It came out in 2008 and was widely lauded for attempting something insane – a description of Europe from the Mediterranean to the Arctic Circle, from Ireland to Kiev and Byzantium, in the two centuries either side of the first Millennium. The ambition is, I repeat, insane. The fact that he’s pulled it off is somehow miraculous (and miracles, and visions, play a significant part in Holland’s story – one of his great achievements, I think, is to combine the visionary with the real in a way that pays respect to the ‘reality’ of miracles to the people of the 10th century).
I won’t try and describe it here. I’ll just say this: Tom Holland’s prose is remorselessly energetic. It rockets around the time and the continent with an almost demonic intensity. The bibliography is enough to make you weep, and to wonder how he did it. But did it he did.
Find out how the Holy Roman Empire was founded, hope popes and emperors reached accommodations, how Cluny became a vision of Paradise on Earth, how Muslim Spain declined and how the Vikings got bloody everywhere. The chapter on the first knights, and their status as no more than than well-armed thugs with a taste for land and gold, is worth the price of the book alone. For lovers of history written on a massive canvas, this is an essential read. Brilliant.