Book review: Companion piece

Companion Piece, Ali Smith’s novel published earlier this year, does exactly what it says on the tin: it is, in one sense, a companion piece to her 2016-2020 seasonal quartet (all reviewed at various points below) dealing, as it did, with themes of aspects of the appearance of modern Britain (though this is much shorter); it looks and feels similar to that series, with a paper fold around the hardback version conveying a Hockney painting, this time featuring a wood rather than a single tree; and there is a long-lost artist embedded within its pages, too (here: Frances Holmes Boothby – I did indeed do exactly as suggested and googled it, dear reader (p. 13), of course I did – an artist who was ‘part of a small group of artisan jewellers… during the mid-20th century… [whose] designs were characterised by natural forms such as… eccentric-looking birds with long, spindly wire legs‘. On top of all that, with a theme centred on humanity living with Covid-19, which just about crept into Summer as ‘the sickness’, it is about our search to re-learn the tools and techniques of companionability, following isolation and the associated closure of the places in which we socialise and make a ‘happy noise’ (p. 117) together; and the need of many of us to learn how to be together again.

Other than sharing those themes – and like the individual volumes in the seasonal quartet, too – this is otherwise a self-contained novel with a reasonably linear narrative told predominantly from a single voice: Sandy, an artist and seeker after solitude whose oeuvre includes the painting of the lyrics to poems, one on top of another, and sometimes back to front, receives a call from Martina, an old, and barely remembered, college ‘less than acquaintance’ who has a story to tell about her recent trip abroad with the Boothby Lock, a historical artefact and museum piece; with the circumstances of her return leading to her hearing a whispered injunction which appears to be ‘curlew or curfew: you choose’, the mysticism of which has driven her so wild with being unable to find meaning in it that she contacts Sandy – whose skill at deconstructing meaning in poems lay behind what little contact they had in college – for an interpretation, which Sandy provides. Sandy, in return, both grateful for the distraction that the out of the blue call provides as well as intrigued by the possibilities it presented, goes on to spin Martina a story about a recent, and mystical, visitor to her house: a waif, apparently a time traveller, carrying a long-beaked bird, of some type, and who also tells her a story revealing herself in the process to be no stranger to modern vernacular.

Martina’s personal reaction to Sandy’s story, which largely occurs off the page, then involves her 20-something grown-up children, Covid-19 denialists and also both still looking for meaning and their place, as well as being potential carriers of Covid-19, descending regardless on Sandy’s house and privacy, invading both with the language and customs, and the knowledge and expectations, and demands, of youth. Sandy, whose elderly father had been rushed to hospital with heart problems, reacts with patience, wry humour and no little engagement, but also physical distance, seeking to preserve her ability to visit her father, once visiting restrictions are lifted, so as not to bring an illness of another type to him.

A curlew, now much endangered and facing their own curfew (p. 118), but a frequent visitor to the bay, pictured here last month with some small waders for competition companionability

Around this narrative, Smith works her normal magic which will, according to the reader’s tastes, enthrall, frustrate or plainly annoy. There are excursions a-plenty; there are word plays (which Smith sees as both having a ceremonial history as well as being hereditary); there are observations on the way we live our lives and which act as social (and political) commentary; there is meaning that shifts the ground from under the readers’ feet; there is impossibility and imagination and the supernatural rendered real; and there is mischief, with the hand of the author visibly intervening to resolve aspects of the tale which bring the stories together. There are ends left untied – for, as Sandy observes, in the motto which has become that of Companion piece itself, ‘…a story is never an answer. A story is always a question’ (p. 155). Above all, it is endlessly inventive, whether this be in conjuring a history for Frances Holmes Boothby’s designs or in its joy of language and of story-telling. The beauty of Smith’s work is that the reader, journeying through the book, is never quite sure where they are and, on finishing it, not quite sure whether what they’ve read is truly real and, indeed, precisely where they’ve been other than that the journey has been engaging and fantastical and one which, ultimately, may well have revealed to them a truth or two about their own lives.

Sometimes, that truth may be one of the circularity of things: the park where Sandy walks her father’s dog in his absence has been grown over the top of a medieval plague pit; the parents and then the guardians of the waif who visits Sandy had all died of the Black Death, coughing themselves to death. Thus does time collapse (in one place in the novel quite literally), revealing the issues that we are preoccupied with today – such as the health effects of pandemics, women in the workplace and in society – as concerns with which humanity has been confronted before, whether it be several centuries ago or just a few decades. At the same time, however dark the times and however dark the individual circumstances of the artist in question, human creativity still manages to bring us something beautiful: a sign of the hope which is manifest in Smith’s work. Indeed, for her, hope is a ‘tightrope across a ravine’; and one that is, indeed, ‘as sharp as a knife blade’.

The structure of the work is extremely interesting: divided into three parts entitled ‘you choose’, ‘curlew’ and ‘curfew’, Companion piece resembles one of Sandy’s paintings in its layering of meaning out of words, although I wouldn’t agree with some reviewers that it could be read, section by section, back to front (I did so, as a second reading): the linear nature of the core narrative, and Sandy’s father’s illness, makes it a different book when the sections are read in reverse order. At the same time, we owe it to the artist writer to address the book in the order in which she has also chosen to present it.

This might not be, as the reviewer in The Guardian also comments, a work of auto-fiction, with Smith appearing in the novel as Sandy, but there is an early, apparent self-reference (‘I didn’t care what season it was… I even despised myself for that bit of wordplay, though this was uncharacteristic, since all my life I’d loved language, it was my main character, me its eternal sidekick.’) (p. 4/5). There is also a reference to Sandy being intrigued by Martina’s story on the grounds that tick many of the political themes explored in Smith’s seasonal quartet (p. 24); although it is not as though Sandy would be alone in despising the ‘inept and callous’ (p. 30) actions of this government. This might be just about as close as we might get to Smith appearing as herself in her own book – she has said in one interview (from 2021) that ‘very little’ of her fiction is autobiographical, that ‘very rarely’ had she tried to write autobiographically, statements that we should probably take at face value. Apart from this appearance of writer-as-character, if Smith is in here at all, however, I would insist that it is in the abstract personage of the waif – herself a smith – who may well have been the creator and the maker of the Boothby Lock.

Smith’s choice of Hockney paintings for her cover serves her well: the wood in the painting, through which she walks both with her father and in which she gets lost while out taking exercise and thinking about how to react to Martina’s story, serves as metaphor both for the disorientation of ageing as well as providing the verbal context of the progress of her father’s recovery. Like him, we as a nation may not yet be out of the woods but the ending – a gloriously, exquisitely painful one full of bright positivity, suggests Smith’s belief that our essential, enduring character (and the simple word ‘hello’, which echoes through the novel) is one that will, some day, take us there. That there can, and will, indeed be ‘better days, and possibilities of positive change’.

Once, it seems, we ourselves have chosen to remove a government in which we have ceased to trust and the sheer malicious presence of which might well make us wonder whether we had hallucinated it.

Book review: Harlem Shuffle

‘You move it to the left, yeah / Then you go for yourself / You move it to the right, yeah / If it takes all night’

Bob and Earl’s classic, and still influential, song is contemporary with the latter third of Colston Whitehead’s 2021 novel; and its opening lines stand as something of a watchword for the central figure in the story, Ray Carney, Harlem furniture store owner and upwardly mobile son of Big Mike, a successful crook in his day (and whose no doubt ill-gotten stash of cash is the foundation of Ray’s business). Carney is not only a furniture store owner, but he’s also not averse to shifting on stolen gear which contacts in his network – chiefly Freddie, his hapless cousin – happen to bring his way.

Here in one, we have Colston’s set-up for his story, i.e. that there are three basic lessons in life. Number one: getting on means that engaging in a little hustle is unavoidable (in the words of Hard-Fi’s Cash Machine: ‘I live an honest life / It seems like sometimes / You don’t cross the line, you don’t get / By’ – not as fanciful a link as it seems since Whitehead’s interest in post-punk may indeed have led him to Staines’s finest). Number two: that escaping family traditions can be a little hard. And number three: that, while you can’t escape your skin colour, getting on in life means different things to people and that, sometimes, the games are played out on a whole different level, regardless of how similar the rules may look.

This is my first book review for some time – since 1 February, in fact. I read Colston’s The Underground Railroad and enjoyed it – most of my reviews are of books that I’ve bought or had gifted as presents so not only are they handpicked, there’s also an investment in them being judged to be good. I also like to finish a book before starting a new one – I haven’t failed to finish a book in the last 40 years and I believe that authors take a lot of time to craft an atmosphere and the characters in their story, so it seems to me that taking the time to immerse yourself properly in their milieu and to invest in what they are doing is the reader’s part of the bargain. I found it difficult to get into this one, though ultimately I’m glad I stuck with it.

Akin to The Underground Railroad, Harlem Shuffle features objects that take on a characterisation of their own: in Railroad, this was the railroad itself, which takes on a physical form; here, it is Harlem – the cafes, the stores, the hotels, the trains, the townhouses, the clubs and the flophouses. The blurb even describes the book as ‘ultimately a love letter to Harlem’ so the centrality of the role played by Harlem itself is clear from the outset.

Unlike Railroad, however, which featured stand-out characters (and scenes), the characterisation in Harlem Shuffle seems substantially suppressed. There are dozens, even hundreds, of people that pass through the pages of this novel – and, at 320 pages, it is not so long – but it is only Carney himself, who is centre stage in just about every scene, that is well-drawn. Carney – somewhat naive, rather over-trusting, generous to a fault and as fundamentally honest a man as a criminal can get – is superbly drawn and the duality of his life, as family man and player, is fundamentally believable. The rest of the novel’s humanity are not made of cardboard, but neither are they particularly fleshed out, remaining substantially two-dimensional. What we are left with is a mass of humanity going about their different lives and the sense of everyone being small cogs in a wheel moved frequently by the actions of others – nothing unusual in that, of course – but, because the places that make up Harlem gain their life from the humans that move through them, Harlem itself appears to suffer from that lack of depth of character development.

The second major difficulty is that a lot of the action takes place off the page, being recounted by one or other character either in hindsight or, on occasion, with that reflection even located ahead of the action. A timeline that is volatile and where both the action and the characterisation are under-played is taking quite some risks with reader attention and focus. In particular, advertising what is going to happen, or making the reader wonder what they’ve missed, isn’t a tool with which authors are typically able to keep you wanting to keep turning the page. Frequently I found myself re-reading sections in case I’d missed something and this, when allied to a dialogue that – while sharp, laconic and well-observed and situated for the Harlem of 60 years ago – frequently uses unusual phrasing and wording, is going to leave more than a few floundering by the roadside.

The third difficulty is the deployment of some lengthy digressions as well as some long drawn-out scenes which appear to have little to do with the plot but which carry out a role of marking time either for Carney or for the reader. These are somewhat tiresome and may lead the reader to wonder where the novel is going while, in the case of Elizabeth, Carney’s wife, they raise substantial plot-based question marks over how she knows absolutely nothing of his hustling sideline; or, indeed, why she never seems to ask the important questions that need putting. Partly, this is reflects the failure to sustain any sort of character development other than Carney himself, but it is also a reflection of the book’s structure: three parts – or three acts – taking place with an interval of some years but each essentially the story of a particular heist but which draws Ray on as it draws him further in. That needs to be understood but, clearly, is only apparent in hindsight.

And yet, what rescues the book (and Harlem itself as a character) is Whitehead’s themes and there is plenty here to sustain analysis even if a lot of it only becomes apparent towards the end of the book or only on subsequent reflection. The themes of family relationships, of unswerving loyalty, of struggling to break free from the ties that bind and the long, long impact of turbulent childhoods pose major, time-honoured, questions to which we have not yet found answers; while the issues of the gentrification of poor communities – frequently influenced by the razing of structures by people with money whose source is no less criminal than the actions of people like Ray, but which are far less likely to be seen as such – are likewise not yet bottomed-out. Pepper – one of Ray’s contacts and one of the better-drawn secondary characters – remarks, crucially, ‘Nothing solid in the city but the bedrock’ but, when that is being dug into, broken and removed in the name of (property) development which pays little attention to the protests of people living within the community and making their lives in it, the unmistakeable impression is that nothing at all is solid when it meets a developer’s ambition. Harlem is, literally, groundless and, thereby, its people rootless.

Colston doesn’t shy away from the difficult questions – Carney is the subject of racism within his community, too, as well as of that of white furniture manufacturers’ sales reps – but it is in posing questions as to the circularity of the questions of human existence (here: racism) where the novelist’s role as an artist lies. In Harlem Shuffle, riots (based on the real-life murder of James Powell by a white cop) feature but, equally, ‘… if you choose to write about institutionalised racism and our capacity for evil… you could write about 1850 or 1963 or 2020 and it all applies’ (source: interview with the author in The Guardian). Whitehead’s website mentions that Harlem Shuffle is the first instalment of a trilogy the second part of which – Crook Manifesto – has been finished and is due out in 2023.

Weighty themes, indeed. But the novel is not without good humour and recurring jokes, even in desperate situations. And I know probably more about the furniture of the late 1950s – the product of clear research – than perhaps I thought I would ever need!

Midway through Harlem Shuffle, and unaware of the novel’s place, I wasn’t sure I had the appetite for more but now, having finally finished it, I think I do. I hope it features Carney again – a rich character whose awareness of the several dualities of his existence makes him a true hero for the (recurring) ages. A tribute, it seems, not only to the author as an artist but to the importance of cutting the author some slack, backing your own judgment, or those of others close to you, and sticking with novels until the very end.

Book review: Surfacing

Kathleen Jamie needs few introductions. Since last year Scotland’s Makar, and now a freelance poet, writer and indeed editor, her non-fiction writing, which combines deep observations about nature and the environment with reflections on her own place in it, relates clarity and perceptiveness and also captures fundamental meaning within, and from, moments of time. Her writing ‘at the confluence of nature, travel and culture’ is powerful in its simplicity and Surfacing, her 2019 collection, made a happy – and entirely serendipitous – accompaniment to my own recent (and ongoing) archaeological studies.

The cover (mine is 2020’s paperback edition) features several archaeological artefacts alongside relics of the natural world and its publication leans on two archaeological digs on which Jamie spent some time – on a native Alaskan (Yup’ik) dig, inspired by a visit to the Aberdeen University museum (oh! the power of curators!); and also at the Neolithic/Bronze Age settlement at Links of Noltland, on Orkney (where one of the team, mentioned at several places in the book, was our own Dr. Emily Gal). It’s a well-chosen illustration which emphasises the impact of humans on the environment (and which, perhaps, is suggestive of that impact not being kind) and, at the same time, that nature has – at least up to now – been able to regard and deal with that impact within the circularity of the life cycle (the distinct lack of which, with its non-degradable plastics, is the signature mark of our own Anthropocene) and with humans and nature in a degree of harmony.

The title is also clever, repeating Jamie’s predilection for single-word titles and, at the same time, strongly suggesting a theme of growing consciousness and the coming to light of things – both artefacts and knowledge – that were once lost.

Comparatively lengthy accounts of her time at the digs are book-ended with shorter (more typically Jamie-like) feature writing (blog posts, even) reflecting on climate change, our own lack of care for the environment and others (increasing as technology advances), family and ageing, and listening to nature’s voice. There is also an extended account of time spent in China (close to Tibet) during a tumultuous time in the mid-1990s, written as a promise to herself, and in part exorcism of a dream, made during a recent cancer diagnosis. But it is the digs that take centre stage, in terms both of the content and the theme of the work, and both feature different aspects of climate change: global warming (a lack of snow and compacted ice in Alaska); and coastal erosion (a result of rising sea levels and increasing rain on Orkney). More prosaically, both also illustrate the uncertainties arising from the short-term, piecemeal funding common to archaeological digs; as well as their seasonal nature, with daylight, and the weather, having an impact on what can be done and what can be realised in terms of bringing things to light.

The Links of Noltland dig features Jamie at her best; but I think the Alaskan section works rather less well. Here she is curiously detached and her observations, while conveying insight, seem as a result a little more forced and certainly occur a little less naturally. Frequently, she is factual rather than poetic; prosaic rather than elevated. The reasons why can only be speculative and are likely to be several: language and culture are surely among them (politically, the Chinese section, the third piece of extended writing in the book and appearing at the opposite end to the Alaskan, provides some particularly interesting contrasts and its selection here in this volume might provide a contribution in this area). The same is also true of archaeological dig experience, perhaps gained for the first time in Alaska. At Links of Noltland, such barriers are not present (or not as present) and Jamie features much more on the dig itself – accurately conveying, as a novice, some of the techniques involved in constructing and cleaning a site, for example. The result is a much more cohesive piece of writing which allows Jamie’s observational ability to come fully to the fore and to present the material exploring and combining her themes in a way which is more rounded and which emphasises the links she wants to make between humans and nature. In Alaska, these are known, but less clear and differently perceived; while the issues raised appear more contended not least since they are also tied up with identity and a shared understanding which is native and not Jamie’s own.

The lack of cohesiveness to the first part of the work perhaps renders this a lesser achievement than her earlier work – but then, such a criticism is also a misstatement of the role of non-fiction writers who change with time and age, learning and understanding, and growth and development. Just as Sightlines was ten years ago now, and Findings a further seven, Surfacing is a product of who Jamie is now and we should cherish her: her ability to synthesise different aspects of the human existence and improve our understanding of our world as a result represents a talent of hugely important significance. I have Antlers of Water – her first edited collection concerning ‘our relationship with the more-than-human world’ on my shelf: this was originally going to be a joint review until archaeology took over. It’s greatly anticipated.

Book review: Downsizing

The title here is not so much comment on his career subsequent to his resignation as an MP just prior to the 2019 general election (and when his seat went to the Tories) as a reference to the conscious battle against weight gain which Tom ‘Two Dinners’ Watson engaged in subsequent to a diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes in 2015. It’s an engaging and easy-read account of a typically resolute and determined (though not without a recent setback) fight to cut down on the intake of sugars and processed foods which contributed in a major way to his obesity and to real fears for his health.

His chosen vehicle for this – despite the pull quote on the cover from Michael Mosley, who is more associated with a (very) low calorie intake and a balanced, Mediterranean-style diet – was the ‘keto’ diet, a controversial way to weight loss via replacing all carbohydrates with fats and proteins, allied to ‘bulletproof coffee’ (whose origins Watson is careful to attribute correctly) and an exercise regime. Watson correctly asserts that everyone is different and that he can only report on what worked for him – and it clearly did: losing eight out of nearly 23 stones does indeed leave him a shadow of his former self and on this Watson should be congratulated, alongside his account of the resulting improvements which he has experienced in terms of his concentration, fatigue and responsiveness.

For all the easy-to-consume nature of the writing style, the tone is evangelical, proselytising even, in connection with the benefits of the keto diet (and, let’s not forget, the associated exercise regime which has him doing workouts in a park, attending a gym and, eventually, cycling, hill walking, kayaking and running) which can, at times, read a little like the script of a committed, and now enthusiastically clean, convert. Well, he is one such, of course. But a keto diet clearly works for others, too; and Watson is no doubt right that doctors need better guidance (and training) in recommending weight loss programmes which focus on individual needs and which puts ‘one size fits all’ programmes completely to one side. Personally I’m not convinced that a ‘hit list’ of ‘banned’ foods is a healthy way of improving our relationship with food and, as a committed beer drinker (and bread maker), neither do I think that carbs are ‘the enemy’. I also worry that a diet high in fats – for all the admirable desire to save the NHS from vast amounts of spending on the health problems which are related to obesity – is building up future health problems (and therefore spending) of its own. But then, I’m not really the core audience for Downsizing; I’ve always been blessed with a fast-acting metabolism and I’ve never been a fan of sugary fizzy drinks, takeaways and convenience food. Neither, it seems, do I have a particularly addictive personality. But, it seems, diet is one of those areas which absolutely commends itself to subjectivism and there is, therefore, little point in me substituting my views for those of others. If it works, it works (and we need to take the long-term into account in judging that) – and fair play, too.

This is not a political memoir – Watson provides little comment on any of the developments in UK politics since 2015 other than in how they form the general background to his desire to lose weight and in his achievements in doing so; and he throws few bones to those searching for political comment about his relationship with the Labour Party and specifically with Jeremy Corbyn. For the truly committed he does, however, contribute an amusing anecdote about a remark thrown his way by a member of the public who spies him engaged in early morning boxing sessions in a public park; while Len McCluskey, now retired as leader of Unison, is on the end of a laugh-out-loud line which references his negotiating style.

For all that the book focuses on Watson’s weight loss, this is not a diet book and it does, for the whole of its final one-third, address some of the core related policy issues to obesity and public health spending. As you might imagine, Watson – and his (uncredited, though not unacknowledged) co-writer – is very good on the policy stuff around the food lobbying industry and in his attempts to get particularly the manufacturers of high-sugar foods (‘Big Sugar’) – Kellogg’s, Coca-Cola, Pepsico and Unilever come in for special mentions here – to pay a share via a ‘sugar tax’ of the costs of the addictions that their foods and beverages have created in people; and to prevent high-budget branding and marketing programmes from such companies not least when they are targeted at children. There are some powerful vested interests here and Watson deserves credit for taking them on, not least in a ‘naming and shaming’ style in a book of this type. He is also very good at seeking to ally trade union principles to the cause of giving the millions of people in the UK with Type 2 diabetes a voice in his desire to achieve his earnest goal of ‘remission for all’.

And yet, for all the desire for a policy-related outcome to the problems of diet and sugar addiction in particular, and for all the desire to give leadership to people who do absolutely need a voice when faced with the necessarily isolating circumstances to which shame (of weakness, of body image and of fault) is a major contributor, Watson’s decision to step down from parliament in 2019 necessarily reduced his influence over policy and his potential to provide people with that voice. Downsizing, indeed.

There are few clues here as to what led Watson – still not yet 55 – to resign his seat and, apparently, his political career. It’s not as though as he has given up interest in policy development: he currently chairs UK Music which is engaged with the righteous battle to #FixStreaming; and, while his website might currently suggest he is short of a role or two other than in podcasting, a lot of that might well be explained by the arrival of Covid-19 which has had a lot of us on hiatus for much of the intervening time since the back end of 2019. Scrutinising Downsizing for a few between-the-lines clues, I suspect the decision to retire from being an MP has much to do with a quite literal desire to ‘spend more time with his family’ – that curse of politicians – as well as the more evident fearful, personal recognition that a stressful role in frontline representative politics is likely to have played a major role in robbing him of his health as it did with his friend, Labour leader John Smith, before him; and, perhaps, of robbing him of his relationships.

Who knows what the future holds for Watson – and that no doubt includes Watson himself. But I ‘wouldn’t rule out a return’ to party politics once he has satisfied himself that his weight is fully under his own control and once his children, quite naturally, are happy to be spending a little less time with their Dad. ‘Big Sugar’ still needs controlling – and that may well need to be driven by someone whose considerable energies are no longer fuelled, as they once were, by its products.

Book Review: Case Study

Published by Saraband only at the start of October – precisely on the anniversary of the birth of the Scottish countercultural psychiatrist, RD Laing, no less – Case Study jumped (for a number of reasons) straight to the left hand side of my to-read shelf. Remarkably therefore, I find myself in the position of delivering a review of a book not only in the month of its publication but while the author himself is still out and about in promotional activity for it. Probably I need to decide whether being this far ahead of my usual self – even if not quite ahead of the curve – is a comfortable place to be.

A word first of all, however, for the cover. Dan Gray has done a mesmerising job, hitting the spot with a design which summarises the core of the novel’s content: the 1960s and swinging London; psychiatry; and handwritten notes dividing the otherwise steady gaze of a woman who is, therefore, very much at the centre of the novel.

Rebecca Smyth is the name of this woman, from a well-to-do background and with a role as a ‘Girl Friday’ at a theatrical agency in Soho, who consults a radical, charismatic anti-psychiatrist, Collins Braithwaite. Or, rather this is the name she uses since she sets up her consultations with him having come to the belief – on finding a book of his case studies – that therapy sessions with him had driven her sister, Veronica, to death by suicide; we never actually find out her real name. Written in the belief that she may be putting herself in danger as a result of her interactions with Braithwaite, the notebooks are her own handwritten records of her series of consultations, alongside other notes she also makes about her life. These notebooks – five in all – form the bulk of the book and these are interspersed with chronologically-ordered biographical details of Collins Braithwaite’s immensely controversial and volatile life and work as drawn by the author – ‘GMB’ – whose initials will be familiar, being those of the writer researching his grandfather in His Bloody Project and who comes across the materials presented there about Roddy Macrae, as well as the translator of Burnet’s Inspector Gorski novels. The notebooks are sent to ‘GMB’ by Martin Grey, who found them when clearing out the house of his uncle (the father of Veronica and her sister) and who did so in response to a blog post ‘GMB’ had written about psychiatry.

Burnet’s interest in psychiatry, and the extent to which the material presented in case studies is objective or scientific, is genuine. Furthermore, that blog post (dating from 2019) does exist and is also given added impetus by a comment at the start of this year which draws a response from Burnet that his next book ‘very much inhabits this terrain’. And there we have the set up – or, of course, the question is whether it us that is being set up. Fans of Burnet can already see from this post what to expect – Alphonse Maeder is real; Braithwaite a work of Burnet’s own fiction – and Case Study absolutely doesn’t disappoint. Mixing fact and fiction, real people with walk-on parts (including RD Laing himself) and author-drawn characters, reality and fantasy, truths and alternative truths, the reader is thus invited to participate in the novel and in the world created by Burnet not least by cross-checking the existence of people and places; or, in my case, electronically wandering up and down the roads around Primrose Hill in London and Darlington and the North Yorkshire Moors in the steps of those who populate the novel. The blurred lines that are created between fiction and true life extend the form of the modern novel – did it happen or was it made up? – and openly encourage the reader, by joining the dots between the material in the notebooks and the results of ‘GMB’s own research about Braithwaite, into self-reflection about the nature of identity and sanity.

Burnet says that he doesn’t set out to manipulate readers and that his books don’t start with the intention of writing about a theme; both emerge as a consequence of the novel’s natural development and the life it comes to take on during the process of being written, giving space to the reader to come to a thus unchained, or unanchored, text in their own, equally valid way; and that themes emerge and characters develop in ways that sometimes surprise the writer. Nevertheless, being played is part of the experience the reader has in reading Burnet’s work, and this is true once more of Case Study whose narration features a range of story-telling devices with Burnet firmly locating his work in line with Barthes’s essay on the ‘death of the author’.

The core theme that emerges in the sessions between ‘Rebecca’ and Braithwaite is not so much that the reader is unsure of who is therapist and who is patient – though how much of ‘Rebecca’s testimonies are real and how much they are developed because that’s either what she wants Braithwaite to hear, or thinks he wants to hear, is a moot point. Either way, putting her at the centre of how the sessions are related to the reader serves a dual purpose: the book becomes about her but it also, at the same time, puts her in control of what the reader sees and of how the dynamics of the encounters with Braithwaite appear. This increases the power of Burnet’s text and is fully in line with ‘GMB’s realisation in his blog post that the presentation of the core material of key psychiatric studies – sometimes as fabricated by the therapist – is likely to say as much about the therapist as about the patient. Or, as Braithwaite himself puts it:

The crimes of psychiatry are legion, but they can mostly be attributed to a single cause: the idea that the therapist knows more than the patient.

Other themes will be familiar to Burnet’s readers: people struggling with themselves in some way and feeling that they don’t fit in may well be an established element of most literature, but the twist, repeated here from His Bloody Project, is of characters who narrate their own stories via written testimonies: a re-assertion of the power of the written word in contradiction of Braithwaite’s (humorous) condemnation of it late in the text. Also featuring here, as in other of his novels, is teenage sexual fumblings told unstintingly and in a fair amount of detail; while alcohol, and heavy drinking, again also play key parts in the novel and in the development of the plot.

In my review of The Accident on the A35, I wondered, somewhat implicitly, whether Burnet had the confidence in his own abilities to ‘write female characters that have as much depth as his male ones’; and that Case Study was likely to prove something of a landmark in this respect. Here indeed we have a woman at the centre of the text and, within the confines of the plot, she is reasonably well-drawn as a woman with 1950s attitudes and clearly unable to participate in the swinging London of the 1960s – which helpfully makes the point that not everyone was able – or wanted – to join in with that. She also has the lion’s share of the book’s many cracking lines and her account is written strongly and assertively, in spite of the domesticity that lies at her core, and with a droll sense of humour. Burnet also deserves credit for taking on the development of a character of a woman of some (family) means rather than the working class characters which have largely inhabited his work so far. On the other hand, she is rather repressed and the lack of her real name (other than ‘Rebecca’) is, not least in this context, problematic. Braithwaite fulfils the role of bluff northerner/angry young man, fitting in well with the iconoclastic breaking of the class divides of the time and the rejection of the old guard. Here we point directly to Colin Wilson (The Outsider) and John Osborne (Look Back in Anger), while I’d also throw Alan Sillitoe’s northern working class males into the mix there, too. While fulfilling a clearly secondary role to that of the main protagonist, his character is the better drawn, being more rounded. There are clear plot reasons for this but it is somewhat unfortunate. Nevertheless, Burnet brilliantly brings off the challenges of voice presented by the manner of his story-telling: in writing, as a woman, a set of notebooks detailing her character; and, at the same time, conveying the details of ‘GMB’s own incipient biography of the character of Braithwaite. These two aspects of the tale – plus ‘GMB’s own in the novel’s essential Preface and Postscript – never overlap in terms of their voice and the reader is never confused as to where they are in the text.

‘Rebecca’ and Collins Braithwaite present themselves as rather different individuals – ‘Rebecca’ naive, concealing and somewhat other-worldly, and Braithwaite lewd, direct and very worldly – but, ultimately, they share a number of things in common with regard to life experiences that, however unlikely it might seem, do interlink their lives. The outcome is an inventive, entertaining, tautly plotted (here, uniquely, loose ends are few in number) and wryly observed meditation of the gaps in identity, self and sanity and the nature of the lines between how people present to others in different contexts and the different personas they take on and inhabit as a result, and who therefore they truly are. Stripping out the controversy which otherwise surrounded its own author, the novel highlights that there is much to be said for RD Laing’s theories of the Divided Self, which Burnet has spoken of as a ‘stunning and electrifying piece of work’; with such a reference in view, Burnet has produced a rather fine homage to the value that lies in exploring, and accepting, our own contradictions and the varying authenticities of our reality.

Book Review: Do Not Say We Have Nothing

Madeleine Thien’s sweeping inter-generational novel about the upheavals in the creation of modern China was the fourth book I picked up from the 2016 Man Booker Prize shortlist (the others being Paul Sellers’s The Sellout, which won that year; Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk; and Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project). Although I’ve read one or two shortlisted works in most years of the Prize, this is a total never reached before or, especially, since – the result, I suspect, from living in a place (Perth, at the time) with a bookshop offering the opportunities to browse; buying books off the ‘net is not the same when you can’t pick something up, feel its heft and read some of its prose (I’m a firm believer in the power if not always of the opening line then certainly of the opening paragraph or two).

Thien’s book – a family saga set against the background of actual historical events – certainly has heft: it weighs in at nearly 500 closely-typed pages; and its subject matter (China after the civil war which ended in 1949 with the triumph of Mao Zedong’s Communist-led army) has serious weight. Her title – and indeed her text – is well chosen: it’s drawn from the closing line of the first stanza of the Chinese version of The Internationale, identifying the need for people to rise up together in revolt. The Internationale became the anthem of the Chinese Soviet Republic established in 1931 and was also a rallying cry of the students at Tiananmen Square in 1989, whose events form the climax of this work. The forty years of history from 1949 to 1989 were tumultuous, with China experiencing famine, labour camps, repression and brutality, re-assignment of people to remote areas and unfamiliar work and a continuous state of struggle as the leaders sought to defend and entrench the revolution; although the 30 years since (25 at the time of the book’s publication) have seen much less of all five with leaders opting for a controlled bread and circuses approach, essentially subverting the words of the anthem. Neither, it must be said, did the experience of keeping people in a state of perpetual revolution contribute to the development of an improved society.

The changing nature of words and their subjective duality, forming a continuing quest for meaning in a context in which messages can be either apparent or buried in text, or can change given the different tones used in Chinese language, as well as be manipulated in the service of a powerful regime’s politics, forms much of Thien’s material. The early part of the work sees Li-ling, a young Chinese girl living in Vancouver who also goes by her English language name Marie and who is the novel’s narrator, striving to come to terms with the loss of her father, who died by suicide in Hong Kong in the months after the events at Tiananmen Square. She is simultaneously also dealing with the development of meaning in the Chinese characters of a letter sent to her mother and then in a series of notebook manuscripts. Later, this duality is given space in terms of music – the two families which form the core of the novel are connected by musicianship through study at the Shanghai Conservatory prior to the Cultural Revolution – and the extent to which artists performing another’s material are copying, or reproducing, that work or adding new meaning to it by nature of their own performance; or, for instance, by transcribing musical scores into jianpu, a numbered (mathematical) musical notation system. Given the artistic flair with which the characters forming Chinese language are drawn, the same can be said for writing words and slogans, or copying texts – one of the means by which one of the family branches communicates within and down the generations.

The development of the novel’s plot is triggered by Ai-ming, a girl in her late teenage years, coming as a refugee to stay with Li-ling and her mother subsequent to her involvement in the student movement in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Ai-ming is the daughter of Sparrow, a composer and teacher at the Shanghai Conservatory whose work and parts of whose family history made him, at the time, suspicious in counter-revolutionary terms; while Li-ling’s father, Jiang Kai, was a skilled pianist and accompanist, and one of Sparrow’s students. Thien captures well the repression which Sparrow, whose life is at the centre of the novel, first experiences and then consciously develops as a means of survival in the face of the fear, grief and guilt sparked by the Cultural Revolution; and both him and Kai, who develops a different approach to the very same needs, are drawn hugely sympathetically. Both live for, as well as by, music and the impact of being denied this is different for each, driven by their own familial history and personal motivations while silence is explored not only as a way of dealing with grief but also in the context of the music of which it also forms a whole. The coming together of the daughters is the spark of the plot, leading Li-ling to uncover the layers of mystery in the backgrounds of the two families, but it is the fathers who are at the core of its development; while the fear of the sins of the fathers again being visited on the daughters, in a repetition of family history, tragedy and memory, lies at the core of Thien’s theme.

This is a hugely resonant work of immense depth, perception and feeling. It’s not by any means an easy read: there is a large cast of characters; you need a broad awareness of Chinese history (Thien, born in Vancouver to Malaysian-Chinese immigrants to Canada, makes few concessions here); and the savagery of the post-War years, during the period of land reform in the 1950s as well as the Cultural Revolution and the ‘re-education’ programme of intellectuals in the 1960s and 1970s, is described unstintingly as mobs are encouraged in acts of physical violence and humiliation during ‘struggle sessions’ against those pinned as class enemies. Lest we think this is the product of another time and another country, these days the violence is as likely to be mental as physical and we now call such sessions, when they occur on social media, ‘pile-ons’: Red Guards still exist and they are indeed cross-cultural, even if they don’t these days wear armbands. As the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina also shows, people can all too easily be whipped up into hatred and the oppression of others. And, as regards the Uighur Muslims, China itself continues to run re-education camps and to commit human rights abuses.

It must have been an emotionally harrowing novel to write and Thien, who had previously written about the Cambodian genocide under Pol Pot, has, by the look of her own rather quaint website (tumblr??), produced nothing coherent in the five years since: a period in which she has, no doubt, been spending time listening, having spoken of the reconfigurative powers of music – in particular, Bach’s Goldberg Variations, which appears as a motif throughout ‘Do Not Say We Have Nothing’ – as a way of dealing with the overwhelming sadness of the events about which she writes. Her word choices and metaphors sometimes require thinking and don’t always appear to work at first sight – occasionally, the book takes on the appearance of a translated text which, interestingly, is a theme shared with the work of fellow nominee that year, Graeme Macrae Burnet) – which, for a person born in Canada, is surely deliberate by way of reminding the reader of the gaps which exist in culture and in interpretation of meaning as well as in the fluidity with which the latter can (be) change(d). Thien demonstrates great skill in contrasting the greys of the historical sections of her non-linear narrative with the colours of Li-ling’s childhood in Vancouver and in contemporary China on her visit towards the end of the novel; and in the use of colour to emphasise the different approach and thinking embodied by a student movement concerned not to follow the mistakes of their parents. The historical detail of the work seems not only accurate but also told without embellishment.

The level of input required of the reader in understanding Thien’s apparently abstract expressions does sometimes act as an inhibitor while the rhetorical dialogue between characters (or the author) and the reader, and the figurative language of the text, sometimes palls: this is a problem which authors engaged in historical fiction frequently encounter. If something was real and there is testimony to it, a novel’s value lies in encouraging the reader to step into the shoes of the characters and to debate their actions and their own responses. ‘Saying too much’ might be as much of a problem as saying too little since it can prevent the taking of those steps, but Thien mostly stays on the right side and, while we know of the clear and established links between mathematics and music – Li-ling in her later life is a mathematics professor, complementing the musical skills of her father – her skill as an author lies in emphasising, in contrast to cold mathematics, the poetry of language that music, and musicianship, possesses.

Nevertheless, concentration is required: I was afforded the space to give the novel the attention it both needs and deserves by virtue of a trip to the mainland involving long journeys by train. If you can give it that space, then it will repay you: this is indeed a ‘magisterial’, in the words of Isabel Hilton’s insightful, but rather rushed, review in The Guardian, as well as an interestingly-structured work; and, if the Booker Prize really is about pushing books on to family and friends, as beautifully described by Charlotte Higgins in this morning’s wonderful long read about the Booker in The Guardian, then consider this review as me doing precisely this. ‘A heady tangle of arguments, controversy and speculation’ the Booker may be – in other words, it’s all about opinions – but, from the four of the six choices on that year’s shortlist that I did get round to, this really ought to have been the victor.

Book Review: The Accident on the A35

This, the third novel by Graeme Macrae Burnet, shows the author setting himself up as a unique and original voice in Scottish crime writing. I’ve read and reviewed both the earlier novels (The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau and His Bloody Project) and this addition, published in 2017, adds further layer and texture to his career ahead of a new publication (Case Study) this coming autumn.

Here, we have middle-aged forty something Saint-Louis Chief of Police Georges Gorski, who becomes one of the two main characters in Adele Bedeau about one-third of the way through, again featuring as one of the two central characters alongside 17-year-old Raymond Barthelme, the Sartre-reading son of a leading lawyer in the provincial town of Saint-Louis and whose father is the subject of the eponymous accident. Both are, in line with the novel’s Sartre epigraph, ‘seekers after truth’: Gorski, aware and worldly-wise as well as world-weary, pursuing a line of police enquiry following the accident; Raymond, inquiring but vulnerable, after discovering a mysterious address written in a female hand on a scrap of paper in the foreign territory of a drawer of his father’s desk.

Burnet’s plot – as with Adele Bedeau – is slight and the novel is brief enough, at less than 260 pages: the accident itself, right there on p. 1, seems on the face of it to be just that but there are disquieting elements including some unexplained scratches on the car; while there is also doubt, expressed by Barthelme’s widow, the unfulfilled Lucette, as to why the car should have been on the A35 at all: her husband had long dined every Tuesday at the best restaurant in the town with his ‘club’ of friends. As both Gorski and Raymond pursue their own interests in the accident, each taking successive chapters, the voice changes while the issues that they are each grappling with (separation, bereavement, attraction, sexual fumblings, drinking and bars, relations with parents, existentialism and what being free truly means) become entwined as the novel builds towards its conclusion and as Burnet continues to evolve his two main characters.

The plot is slight, and largely very slow burning, although – in a slight criticism of the author’s judge of pace – the closing chapters explode into fire-crackers in which the characters (and the writing) evoke, in turn, emotional cruelty, sadness, humour, acute self-awareness, forgiveness and genuine pathos.

In a novel such as this, the emphasis falls very much on characterisation – something which Burnet has spoken about in a podcast for Scots Whay Hae! – and on the author’s ability to evoke people and their actions and the times and places in which they live – here, Saint-Louis, a real French town, at some point in its recent past. Despite being young in his writing career, Burnet is accomplished at this (at least, and this is a criticism, he is so (up to now) as far as the male characters of his novels are concerned): partly this is a question of having lived enough life to draw such characters with depth and maturity; and partly it’s a question of research: of reading – Burnet is a fan of Georges Simenon’s detective Inspector Maigret (though there are important differences as well as evident similarities between Maigret and Gorski), having been writing a blog on Simenon’s books; and of knowing enough about the places you’re writing about to ensure the characters can properly inhabit where they live (here, the product of a research grant to re-visit Saint-Louis). As Burnet’s afterword concludes – in what may partly be an attempt to deflect criticism about the slightness of his plot:

The real measure of ‘truth’ in any novel is not whether the characters, places and events portrayed exist beyond the pages of the book, but, rather, whether they seem authentic to us as readers… A novel is, in Sartre’s phrase, ‘neither true nor false’; but it must feel real.

p. 255 Saraband hardback edition

This is not a contemporary crime novel, nor a police procedural, in which the plot twists and turns as evidence comes to light or which leaves the reader struggling to catch up with the mental gymnastics as the plots thicken; and fans of crime fiction may end up disappointed with the plot’s lack of complexity. The book does, however, encompass elements of both those things although it is, largely, a novel of mystery and the core of its undoubted appeal is its evocation of people and places, and their intertwining in a difficult interaction in which the character of the town and of its inhabitants come to reflect each other. Saint-Louis may not be as unfortunate (at least, in relative terms) as described (as Burnet writes in his afterword), although it appears he has done so authentically (that Scots Whay Hae! podcast), but the author’s capturing of its essential spirit reflects well the disappointment, snide cynicism and indeed anger with which those who choose to inhabit left-behind, somewhat historical backwaters frequently experience what life has to offer them.

Burnet’s other demonstration of his authorial skills lies in the extraordinary devices on which each of his novels hinges – here, that Accident purports to be Macrae’s translation (from the French) of a cult novel drawn from the pen of Raymond Brunet (‘author’ also of Adele Bedeau), whose work appears at least partly autobiographical. Here, some odd word choices and slightly awkward phrasing echoes well the linguistic framing of a novel that has gone through translation – posing an interesting conundrum for the French translators (Adele Bedeau already having been translated into French and this being surely destined to follow). The book’s foreword and afterword – in which Burnet sets out the novel’s influences in an unconventional, but appealing, way – are very much required reading.

This device hints at a further novel in this series and Macrae spoke – that SWH! podcast again – of this set of homages to Georges Simenon being a trilogy (but no more). It seems, from Case Study‘s page on Macrae’s website, that the forthcoming novel (which also features his familiar structural device) is not the closing part of this trilogy and this, which features a female central character, is likely to be a clear landmark in Macrae’s confidence in his ability to write female characters that have as much depth as his male ones. At the close of Accident, there are enough loose ends in the lives of the characters who so successfully bring its pages to life, and in Saint-Louis itself, that Macrae is surely far from being done with them when the third part of his French trilogy (eventually) appears. Both are keenly awaited.

Book Review: Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race

It’s never a bad time to read a book- and it’s never a bad time to read this book. Arising out of Reni Eddo-Lodge’s 2014 blog post of the same title, and published originally in 2017 (this (expanded) edition in 2018), it received a second life rising to the top of best-selling book charts this time in 2020 after the murder of George Floyd. In 2021, it was certainly interesting to be reading it in the aftermath of the backdrop of the government’s Sewell Report, and when England footballers continue (with official support) to take the knee in solidarity with those experiencing racism; and to be writing it when an England cricketer is – rightly, pace today’s political pronunciations – suspended pending an investigation into racist (and sexist) tweets written a while ago, when he might well have been in a different place but while an adult and certainly old enough to vote, and when the dance group Diversity have just picked up a BAFTA for a routine inspired by #BlackLivesMatter.

In 2021 as in each of those earlier years in this book’s life. And in the many decades and centuries before it, too. This is a recurring theme.

Make no mistake: Eddo-Lodge’s title is not an attempt to shut down conversation or to be racist in itself and neither is it an attempt at justifying isolation. As Eddo-Lodge herself points out early on, she has actually done little else but talk to white people about race since the publication of her book while ‘Aftermath’, a brief addendum added to cover events around the time of publication, and since, is not without hope that the conversation can be – and indeed is being – changed. The entire purpose of the book is to have that conversation about race.

It’s particularly interesting to be reviewing the book in the prism of current events in sport. Sportsmen and women are predominantly young people, some better placed than others to be at the forefront of a national debate but all blameless, albeit highly visible, players in it. Eddo-Lodge’s approach and style of writing is very much to see things in ‘black and white’; there are some grey areas in this debate but very few and none of them at the forefront of it. You are either booing the players (from your own team) or generally feeling uncomfortable about their actions in taking the knee; or else you are applauding them in solidarity with their own efforts to show solidarity with others. We are all on one side or the other in this and, I suspect, a lot can be understood about where we stand on the issues raised generally by race identity by where we stand on the players’ actions on the football field (and also their suspension from the cricket field).

Eddo-Lodge’s essential starting point is that (at least in the Global North, and there may be some caveats which need to be inserted in that respect), there is a link between skin colour and privilege and that, where you are white, you start off with an in-built advantage which few white people ever actually recognise or are forced to confront. For people of colour, in contrast, doing so is a regular, daily occurrence. Setting out the facts about the disadvantage and the prejudice leads Eddo-Lodge to her preferred theory of structural racism in which such disadvantage is a part of the system; and this is of course the issue which is the dividing point. For too many people, racism is in the face, and in the fists and boots, of hard core far-right fascist sympathisers without recognising that this is the easy bit – that the more uncomfortable truths lie in the systemic issues which disadvantage people and which moderates are less likely to see as actionable. A lengthy quote from Dr. Martin Luther King – no militant, he – proves the point (p. 101). Objects like bananas and darts, as reported by Mark Walters after signing for Rangers in 1987, being thrown is something that will not have been experienced by white footballers in this country on the grounds solely of their skin colour. That they are no longer experienced by black players represents progress (of sorts) – but it is not a sign that equality has been reached: not the least, as Walters’s insightful, well-put together, touching and educational programme underlines, because black people were being written out of histories long before the abuse started (and because that abuse is still being levelled, now verbally, at black players). Particularly in one interview towards the end (and with full credit to Graeme Souness), Walters’s film (for BBC Scotland) brilliantly makes Eddo-Lodge’s case about white privilege. Furthermore the desire not to see racism other than in the identity of a shaven-haired street-fighting thug spewing abusive language means refusing to see the wider battles which are having to be fought and which are occasioned by a white-dominant world view in which toleration and ‘colour blindness’ imply no presence of disadvantage as long as people passively ‘know their place’ and do not challenge too strongly.

In elaborating her theme, she moves through the modern histories of black people in Britain and their experiences at the hands of organisations meant to serve the community through to privilege, the ‘fear of a black planet’ and which touches on ‘Great Replacement Theory’, conservatism within the white feminist movement and the links between race and class which also feature in the Sewell Report and which led those authors to a disappointingly different analysis and set of conclusions. Institutional – or structural – racism does exist. In so doing she makes some particularly interesting points around the need for better education on British history (not, for example, seeing civil rights uniquely through an American lens), since the history of black people in the UK did not start with the Windrush but stems from colonialism, and she raises the fundamental question of why white people don’t recognise that they have a racial identity – a ground which the usual suspects from the commentariat are now, inevitably, trying to dominate.

Sometimes Eddo-Lodge’s examples are episodic, even anecdotal, in character which lends a rather personal, blog-style atmosphere to the work, and the interview with Nick Griffin is shallow and rather poorly-judged – but the facts are always on her side. Ultimately, this is an approachable and highly readable account which hits its targets, uncovering as it does not only the extent of the prejudice which exists against people of colour, which may be evident to people who have been paying any sort of attention, but, more importantly, to the unifying force which lies behind them. It may be light on action, but that is not the purpose of the book which is to change the conversation and that is a difficult enough thing to do when, as other footballers have also recently pointed out, there are many competing things in our lives which distract us from having the hard conversations that we need to have. The goal of equality is, it seems, a long-term one and it will not be won as a result of winning a single game and certainly not from scoring a single goal within a single game. The issues remain complex – Diversity’s award was won on the strength of a public vote, while the sound of booing of players taking the knee has, this last week, been drowned out by applause. Here, there are some good signs and more of the applause, please, at Euro2020. Nevertheless that goal does come a little closer each time an open, respectful conversation, which proceeds honestly from the inequality that one side experiences by virtue of their skin colour, is had. If you haven’t yet had that conversation – Eddo-Lodge is a good person with whom to start, even vicariously.

Book Review: Black Moses

Black Moses is the sixth novel by Congolese man of letters and literary award winner Alain Mabanckou. Published in an English translation (from 2015’s original French Petit Piment) in 2017, this has sat on my to-read shelf for a while and the work is already no longer Mabanckou’s most recent novel, having been surpassed (in English translation) in 2020.

Black Moses was long-listed for the 2017 International Booker Prize and tells the story of Moses – nicknamed occasionally ‘Little Pepper’ (hence the French title) – and his life growing up in an orphanage in Loango, a small way north on Congo’s Côte Sauvage from the major coastal town of Pointe-Noire, and then afterwards on the streets of Pointe-Noire itself, during Congo’s Marxist-Leninist revolution from 1969. Life in the orphanage is brutish and marked by casual violence both between the residents (mostly boys; there are girls too although they feature little in the story) and as administered by the director and his warden acolytes. Corruption is rife and shortages are plenty and Moses learns quickly of the need for allies as well as friends if he is to survive; and, as he grows older, those lessons serve him well as he swaps life in the orphanage firstly for the streets of Pointe-Noire, followed by a degree of comfort among a group of immigrant sex workers and work on the docks before, in a situation of rapidly deteriorating mental health in which neither a French-trained psychiatrist nor a traditional healer can help him, he is confronted with an opportunity to try and make a difference.

Reading through this brief summary of the plot, this all looks rather bleak and, while the themes and the conclusions are so, Mabanckou’s skill is to tell his story in a characterful way and with the use of as much colour as is encapsulated by the book’s cover (which, we should note, symbolically embodies the colours of the flag of Congo). Whether it is in the orphanage or on the streets, the sights and the sounds and the colours are vividly real and this ensures that the tale leaps off the page in a vibrant way, despite the tough subject matter and the toughness of Moses’s own life in each of its different stages. Mabanckou is also able to deploy a mischievous humour in the same direction albeit that the use of humour in a novel with these sorts of dark themes requires fine judgment both in getting the reader to the point of realising the urgency of the scenes presented and to accept the reality of the toughness of street life and the choices being exercised. Picaresque it may be but these are also serious themes which humour risks under-playing.

The shift in the title from the French to the English is interesting since it shifts the focus of the book from a potential reminiscence – the book is dedicated to a ‘Little Pepper’ whose stories helped inspire it – and more towards allegory. Here, a little biblical knowledge might be required although, for those without, whether Moses grows up to fulfil his destiny is also covered off in the opening chapter. Regardless, this subtle shift in emphasis occasioned by the title change heightens attention on the novel’s key theme which is that of the impossibility of escaping the life situation into which we are born, particularly in the book’s context of the circumstances of the poverty and oppression in the Congo of the time but, as is likely, given our shared human experience, more widely in other contexts (and country locations) as well. Despite the biblical theme, this is not just a question of the inescapability of destiny, or more correctly the destiny that we feel is imposed upon us, but more particularly the endless circle into which our social situation traps us.

Given the ready availability of an English translation of the original title, changing it thus seems to have been an editorial decision. Mabanckou, a full professor at UCLA, where he teaches literature and creative writing in the Department of French & Francophone Studies and African Studies Center, was surely at least au fait with the decision.

There are clear difficulties in any situation of translating local context into a different language, not least given the colonial aspects. Mabanckou comments – in relation to a previous novel – that he writes in French ‘but with an African accent’; as well as that there are more difficult languages into which to translate than English where anything missing as regards the sense is likely to be no more than ten per cent although there are always cultural aspects which differ. My own instincts tell me here that the shared exploitation of the African continent by the major western European powers may in some respects lessen those cultural aspects while evidently heightening them in others. The translator of Black Moses – Helen Stevenson – has translated Mabanckou before (in respect of a more technically difficult piece of work than this) and comments that the key is giving people a voice, which is not the same as aiming for linguistic equivalence, something which Mabanckou also echoes in his interview linked above.

The second thematic aspect to the novel is the extent to which people growing up in institutions can become institutionalised. Moses – the name is given to him by a priest – is left at the orphanage as a baby and never manages to leave institutional settings for very long. Meanwhile his relationships, few of which are lasting, highlight the abandonment issues which people in such a position frequently experience, along with difficulties in forming attachments, while the few attachments he does manage to form are quite closely linked to the desire for a mother – and, very occasionally, a father – figure in his life. The difficulty with what is quite a short novel (of 200 pages) is that there is not a lot of room for detailed characterisation and, with Mabanckou choosing to focus on the street smarts which Moses learns in the orphanage in the novel’s lengthy opening section (and which were probably critical to his later survival, given his choices), this is under-explored and both Moses’s sensitive, vulnerable side and the later mental health issues come not only as something of a surprise to the reader but appear thus as the rather too visible hand of the author. Either way, they don’t really convince in a context which requires the reader to connect with the main character.

Nevertheless, we have here a well-rounded tale, complete and entire in itself and where all ends are wrapped up (and with substantial pathos at the end) and which has an interesting tale to tell of the difficulties that social and political revolutions face in and, as here, of themselves in making life better for people; as well as of the difficulties people face in escaping their status and, indeed, their destiny. If orphanages were indeed the ‘laboratories of the revolution’ in Congo, Mabanckou is specific that they failed. Regardless, societies of all types need to do more to ensure that people are not trapped by either status or destiny as well as to ensure that all who need it get the help they deserve.

Book Review: Summer

Ali Smith’s Summer – the last in her quartet of seasonal novels – was published in August 2020. Autumn, the first, emerged in October 2016 which means that, within the life of this blog, whose first post was also October 2016, she has published four bestselling, critically-acclaimed novels. I have read – and reviewed – them all (Autumn, Winter and Spring). Smith’s is a phenomenal achievement whose origins might owe something to a long-rooted desire to produce a series of connected novels about the seasons but more so to a piece of personal misfortune – she was a year late with her manuscript for 2014’s How To Be Both, but the publisher still managed, somewhat heroically, to get the book out more or less on time. Among other things, this demonstrates something very interesting about Smith’s own writing process, of which more in a bit.

Summer, recently shortlisted for the 2020 Highland Book Prize, ties up some though by no means all the loose ends established in the earlier novels. For those with an interest in these things, others have exhaustively and painstakingly drawn the myriad links which Smith has made, connecting characters, motifs and figures in the art world, in the course of these four novels.

This one starts, however, with new characters Grace Greenlaw, recently divorced from a husband who now lives next door (interesting, but entirely coincidental, thematic echoes here of Our House which I read just previously), together with her daughter and son, Sacha (16) and Robert (13). In terms of the narrative arc, there is an entirely chance meeting with Art and Charlotte, who we met in 2017’s Winter (though this time it’s the real Charlotte), who are on a mission to reunite Daniel, the old man we met in Autumn, with something which Sophie, Art’s mother, wanted returned to him after her death. This they do. In the course of the journey, Grace and Daniel both revisit their youths, summer being a time for warm, even dreamy, recollection, her at the end of the 1980s, him in the 1940s, while the tale is spiced with latter-day notes prompted by the activism of Sacha, who is concerned not only with environmental issues but also with the fate of refugees in immigration removal centres whose story was central to 2019’s Spring. The item is returned and the tale reaches a surprisingly romantic (and, perhaps, a rather cliched) conclusion as a vehicle for Smith to relate her significant optimism and hopefulness for our future on this planet, born from the warmth of our essential humanity and the timeless things that endure about the human spirit.

The narrative arc is thus slight but, as in all the novels in this series, the point is indeed the journey not the culmination of the tale, just as summer is neither the end of the chronological year nor, indeed, is the end of the year ‘the end’ as the seasons continue rhythmically to roll around. The book, and thus the series, does have a conventional end – it would have detracted from the work had it not – but, in pointing us back towards autumn, we are reminded both of those seasonal rhythms, that eternal regeneration and the continuing evolution of the human story.

This evolution is naturally picked up via Smith’s literary reference points throughout the quartet to Shakespeare (in Summer, overtly, to The Winter’s Tale); and to Dickens (in terms of narrative genius as well as Dickens’s own writing of some of his stories, including Oliver Twist, serially for regularly published journals). Both would recognise Smith’s characters in their own times and their own tales feature recurrent human tragedies and heroism (and with a strong eye on the singular rather than the grandiose).

Smith started writing Summer at the end of January, when the Australian wildfires which wrought such devastating environmental effects were much in the news, and just as stories were coming to the attention of the western media about Covid-19, with the narrative mostly taking place in March – Summer is not set in summer, but in late spring – handing in the final manuscript as Black Lives Matters protests took to the streets (there is an understandably brief reference to the murder of George Floyd, which took place at the end of May 2020). Thus it was written entirely during the early phases of Covid-19 and there are references to the ‘sickness’ – which is unnamed – in the novel both thematically as well as in terms of the events described, both Daniel and Charlotte experiencing their own lockdown imprisonments, both physical and mental. Six weeks from manuscript to finished product, in the middle of a pandemic, is indeed another heroic achievement by Smith’s publishing team.

Writing in this highly contemporary fashion allows Smith to use literature to shine a light on our own times as well as to draw illuminating connections with events in our shared history. This not only allows her to explore the circularity of events within the human condition, but also lends a considerable topicality to her work – Daniel’s (very real) recollection of the 1940s is as the son of an unnaturalised German living in the UK, and thus interned for a period on the Isle of Man (while his beloved sister Hannah is fighting the Nazis in occupied France): events called to mind later in 2020, and which have re-surfaced recently, as the Tories have openly considered sending asylum seekers to places such as Gibraltar and, indeed, the Isle of Man for the processing of their asylum applications (an idea immediately rejected by both). Lorenza Mazetti, related to Einstein and the artist whose spirit informs this part of the quartet, and who died only as Smith was getting underway with Summer, was herself an ‘undesirable alien’ in 1950s London. More humourously, the disagreement about sourcing a Hannah Arendt quote from the internet, the subject of a debate at the start of the novel between Sacha and her mother, crossed my Twitter feed on only Wednesday this week as Deutsche Welle wondered why so many famous quotes – many of them from Einstein – are fake.

As with the rest of her novels, Smith glories in language, both verbal and non-verbal, and in playing around with words and Summer is no different – I love, for example, the fun she has here with Einstein and ein stein; while here, the opening monologue takes on, and challenges, the simple word ‘so’, in the first place as an expression of jaded, shoulder-shrugging, care-free indifference and in the second as a word as resolute, determined, programmatic and as focused on action as any verb. This love of language dominates her work and its expression here – never forced, never apparently hard work – seems to come entirely naturally to her. The revelation that she suffered during the writing of Spring from a loss of faith in what she calls ‘dialogue with the form’ – the conversation between author and novel in progress – is thus a surprising one, Spring representing for me a return to form from what I saw as an over-hasty realisation of Winter.

All artists suffer at some times from a form of “writers’ block” – that crisis of confidence in which you read, or hear, or see only the weaknesses in your work accompanied by a stymieing inability to recognise that what makes something great can also be its weakness, whether you’re a late-20s New Jerseyan taking months to get right not just the sound but the opening sound on what will turn out to be your most famous record; or a member of a production crew walking around Los Angeles at more or less the same time wearing T-shirts carrying the legend ‘Stevie’s nearly ready’. It is therefore a sign of great confidence in her own abilities that Smith took on the task of producing such a masterwork in this timeframe, as well as in bringing it to its conclusion. Artists of all kinds have to have the confidence, but also the courage, to ‘let it go’ – to let things out in the wild despite what may be imperfections and such that they stand or fall as products of their time. Smith makes such a connection between art and literature in this series; I draw a similar connection between literature and music in the same way – not that literature needs to be the rock’n’roll more than anything else does (rock’n’roll being some way from falling on its back). But, a novel is much like an album: you let it go and it may turn out to be ‘long grass by the wayside’ in ten years’ time (as Smith herself self-deprecatingly thinks likely about these volumes) or your songs may still be being sung 120 years in the future (see Nanci Griffiths’s introduction before playing track ten).

It’s partly confidence but it’s also about process. Smith is able to get novels out in this short timeframe because she re-drafts and edits as she goes. Consequently, there is no lengthy period of to-and-fro between writer and production house: what the production house gets as a final manuscript is – give or take a bit of subsequent judicious editorial intervention – what the reader holds in their hand. This ‘dialogue with the form’ is the key: books don’t ‘write themselves’, but they do go down their own roads in the process of being written, sometimes in ways that surprise their authors the most successful of whom have that confidence in the natural evolution of what they are writing. Writing is, ultimately, about your own reading.

Summer starts out as a book about forgiveness, perhaps as befits a novel whose purpose, at least in part, is to bring about some form of closure to the series. But with the pandemic raging against the background of a government whose multiple failures, weak preparation and incompetent handling, alongside PPE debacles and cronyism, allied to its catastrophic trust in a murderous herd immunity strategy, this was clearly no time for a message of ‘forgiveness’. In lesser hands, this turn of events might have implied disaster to a novel written for the here and now but Smith has skilfully turned the book into an extended consideration of the collective implications of the occurrence of a national sickness.

Far, therefore, from Summer being ‘derailed’ by the pandemic, as some readers have alleged, it is in fact made by it. This is the case not only in that the pandemic forms the essential background to the novel – which would have been written to the same timeframe whether it had happened or not – but which also provides the key hook for the key message which she allows to evolve from it – that, given Smith’s ability to juxtapose opposites and enjoy doing so: a Winter’s Tale toured in summer; lightness in the middle of darkness; happiness in the midst of sadness; protests in the face of implacable opposition; hope for the possibility of another world when this one seems to be at its worst; health (and healing) coming after sickness – we may still, despite all the signs of loss of the times in which we live, find the hope of a healing which will resolve the fractures and the fractiousness of the years in which this series of novels has been set. That we cannot truly experience joy unless we have always seen despair – that, in terms of the theatre, we carry two masks: one for comedy and one for tragedy. There is, at least, hope and, indeed, times pass as time passes. Til then, our pandemic-influenced position is, as it is for Leontes in The Winter’s Tale which Grace interprets for her colleagues in the repertory company as follows:

A blight comes down on him, on his country, from nowhere. It’s irrational, It has no source. It just happens. Like things do. They suddenly change, and it’s to teach us that everything is fragile and that what happiness we think we’ve got and imagine will be forever ours can be taken away from us in the blink of an eye. (pp. 282-3)

Smith is not for everyone – those who prefer a more linear narrative arc will find the novel’s extended flashbacks and playing around with the time sequence confusing and disorienting. Others of a less liberal mindset will find much that they will despise. Purists will hate the lack of quotation marks when characters are in dialogue. But, if you love words and enjoy the thought of watching a master writer at work, able to tell a story about the way we live in our times and, in doing so, relate much about the creative process that authors and editors experience, do engage with this: Summer, both in its own right as well as the summation and realisation of an immense literary ambition, deserves all the awards that ought to be coming its way.