Continuing in my recent spate of reading children’s books, I’ve just finished the book that was awarded the Costa Children’s Book Award last year. I bought it on the same Amazon spree that finally saw me grab a copy of Tin and, after it was recommended to me, I couldn’t resist. It sounded like a much less violent version of Lord of the Flies and, despite the fact that the violence is the whole point of William Golding’s book, that did sound quite interesting. I would have finished the book much quicker than I actually did had it not been for a particularly difficult week at work that saw me falling asleep mid-chapter a few nights in a row. Still, it didn’t exactly take months so I can feel okay about it I guess.
This January marked the 200th anniversary of the first publication of Frankenstein. Mary Shelley’s masterpiece of science-fiction and horror has, quite rightly, become something of a classic since she anonymously published the book in 1818. The book went through several different editions over the years but the 1818 is still, in my mind, the definitive version of the story. If only because it so closely resembles the story as it was first ever told. We all know the story of how Mary Shelley came up with Frankenstein and it is, in all probability, part of the reason the story has endured for so long. One Summer in 1816, Percy and Mary Shelley, Byron, and John Polidori all gathered at Byron’s villa Lake Geneva in Switzerland. They propose a writing competition to create horror stories to tell each other the next night. The idea for Frankenstein came to Mary Shelley in a waking dream:
I saw with shut eyes, but acute mental vision – I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life …
After some work and editing, the idea that Mary came up with that Summer in 1816 became one of the most important novels to come out of the Romantic period. After all, it has spurned a monstrous number of film and television adaptations and has inspired many more writers. Shelley is praised for her vivid imagination and modern thinking. She went far beyond the science of her day to imagine something that has withstood the test of time and changed the landscape of gothic horror. It’s a book that I have countless times now and have enjoyed more and more with every read. It featured in my both my Undergraduate coursework and my final Postgraduate dissertation. I bloody love this book and am happy to commemorate it’s 200th anniversary.
I always worry about reading people’s biographies. I find the concept of reading about someone’s life to be an extremely complicated thing. At university I was very interested in the idea of a writer’s individual voice and how it changes. How can any piece of writing be an accurate portrayal of that person when it has been written for a specific purpose/audience? When it’s been edited and reworked before being deemed ready to print? You might be sitting there screaming internally “you’re really overthinking this you pretentious knob” and, to be honest, I am. Though it’s always something at the back of my mind. So I never really read celebrity biographies no matter how much I respect or adore the person writing them. However, last year that all changed when I couldn’t stop buying them. In the space of a few weeks I bought Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen, Believe Me: A Memoir of Love, Death and Jazz Chickens by Eddie Izzard and How Not to Be a Boy by Robert Webb. In an attempt to silence that inner voice telling me ‘it’s not their real voice’, I bought all three books on Audible as well as owning a physical copy. I hoped that hearing the writer speaking his own words would bring the whole experience together for me. Besides, all three of these men have distinctive and delightful voices that I definitely wouldn’t mind streaming into my ear holes.
Anyone paying attention to my weekly reading rundowns of late will know that October and November weren’t exactly stellar reading months. I can’t even remember when I started The Underground Railroad but it was at least the beginning of October. I only finished it last week. Admittedly, I took a quick beak in between so I could read And Then There Were None but still. It took me fucking ages. Not because I didn’t enjoy the book but because I’m such a terrible reader. It’s been a couple of months of work madness and illness. The kind of nights when I’d settle down to read only for my eyes to immediately start to droop. I genuinely never thought I was going to get through it. But I persevered. I mean I had to. This was ‘THE’ book of 2016 and we’re nearing the end of 2017. I couldn’t leave it any longer. Although, having still not read loads of my most anticipated reads of the last 2 years, I could have guessed it was going to be a struggle. One day I’ll learn how real book bloggers do it and get through multiple books a week. Though, I suspect to do that I’d have to give up work. Although, after the day I’ve had, I wouldn’t be dead against that idea.
I’ve not read anything by Colson Whitehead before so I wasn’t really sure what to expect here. I mean I’d heard nothing but amazing things from it and it was near the top of basically every best books list of 2016. Plus, any book that was endorsed by Barack Obama is probably going to be worth checking out, right? It also sounded really amazing; a strange mix of history and fantasy/science fiction that is based on the abolition of slavery. Surely if there was any book that was going to grab someone’s attention then it’s that. Whitehead takes the narrative that we all know and gives it a new spin. The underground railroad was, as we all know, a metaphor for the network of abolitionists who helped slaves escape their captivity. In The Underground Railroad that concept becomes a fully-fledged network of rail tracks that span for miles deep underground. It is both a simple and brilliant idea that manages to bring a sense of wonder and magic to such a harrowing subject.
We are taken on our underground journey along with slave Cora who is encouraged to escape from her vicious owner by a fellow slave, Caesar. The pair find themselves running for their lives and placing their safety in the hands of strangers. After a tense wait, they are quickly ferried away in a rickety old boxcar to start their new lives. The train leaves intermittently so any fleeing slaves are forced to wait and see what their future holds. As they travel between new communities and try to forget the past, the pair are being pursued by a ruthless slave catcher, Ridgeway, who has a personal vendetta with Cora. Or, at least, her mother. Years earlier Cora was abandoned when her mother, Mabel, escaped from the same plantation. Ridgeway was unable to track her down and it is a failure that has haunted him ever since. He vows to make amends by capturing her daughter and returning her to her rightful owner. There is an unending sense of doom throughout this novel even as Cora steams ahead on her journey. It always seems highly unlikely that she will ever be free.
Despite how long it took me, The Underground Railroad was a fantastic read. Whitehead’s prose is beautiful and his descriptions of the railroad itself are spectacular. He has a rare ability to mix fact with fiction without ever ruining the sense of realism. You know there is a lot of artistic license at play here but there is such a strong undercurrent of fact that it always feels possible. The novel isn’t so much of an exploration of slavery and American history as it is a way to recapture the history of slavery. One of the key ideas within the novel is how people remember certain events or, in most cases, remember incorrectly. The topic of black history is so often taken over by white people. It is their description of events that make up the foundation of the past. Whitehead is taking back the history of the black American struggle not by faithfully reconstructing it but by representing it incorrectly. And it is all the more effective and memorable.
My only issue, if I had to admit to one, isn’t actually one to do with the novel itself. I’ve read a lot of reviews praising Colson Whitehead for not holding back. As one review describes he “opens his eyes where the rest of us would look away”. I guess he does but I can’t say that I really found the things he was saying that different to any other slave narratives; I mean aside from the fantastical elements. The novel does a great job of highlighting the plight of the slave and the danger of escaping the clutches of an evil plantation owner. However, it isn’t breaking new ground. Whilst I was studying for my Postgraduate degree I did a module on empire and race in the Romantic period so I had to read a fair few first hand accounts of people who were kidnapped and sold as slaves. The Underground Railroad is, for the most part, just another account like this but, really, less realistic. A lot of people I’ve seen on Instagram have said this was a difficult read because it was so harrowing: I have to disagree. I think, for the most part, the violence is underplayed or glossed over.
I’m not saying it’s a bad novel or not worth reading but I can’t agree with the people who believe it is breaking down boundaries. It’s not the happiest read but it’s also not the most gratuitous. Not that I’d want it to be torture porn or anything. It handles the conditions of slavery with a deft hand and that’s a good thing. However, it is in no way a comparison to the real-life accounts you could read. What Whitehead does it open a dialogue about slavery and the the reaction to race in the modern world. His themes are all very relevant today and throughout history. You can see it in the way he alludes to classic literature and modern events. He uses the backdrop of slavery and one young woman’s situation to show us a deeper truth. But it’s not a truth about slavery. That’s been available to see for years… just not written inside a novel.
I’ve not read any of Gwendoline Riley’s previous four books and, really, only picked up her most recent one because it was shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. It sounded so amazing that I couldn’t resist. I bought this one and The Power as soon as the list was up because I’ll do anything a bunch of literary prize judges tell me to. I’ve been in a bit of reading slump lately so as soon as I finished The Best of Adam Sharp I decided to try and to read Riley’s novel. It’s pretty short and something I’ve been keen to read. Thankfully, this weekend I was in London visiting a friend so I had a train journey to fill with reading. I managed to finish it by the second day. My friend works in publishing so is as obsessed (if not more) with books as I am. So she’s always interested to hear what I’m reading. The trouble with First Love is that I find it so hard to explain what’s going on. I managed to garble out a nonsensical plot summary that really didn’t do the book justice so, when I’d finished it, I decided it was worth another go. Therefore, my Tuesday review this week is either going to be great or just a terrible mistake. We’ll see.
First Love is at it’s simplest a character study. It tells the story of a 30-something female writer, Neve, and her marriage to her older husband, Edwyn. At times the marriage is full of the typically nauseating couple-isms like pet names and affectionate cuddles. However, there is a deep tension waiting just below the surface threatening to bubble over at any second. For every time Edwyn calls Neve “Mrs Pusskins” there will be a cavalcade of insults where she is described as a “fishwife shrew”. It is an uncomfortable marriage that comes out of Neve’s desire to love and need to feel loved. She has spent her life trying to fake independence but is always looking for that relationship to make her feel complete. The steps in her life had lead her to Edwyn who, for all intents and purposes, hates women. Neve knows the relationship is toxic and the novel is her attempt at self-reflection. However, like in real life cases, this self-reflection never quite runs deep enough to self-realisation and an ultimate call to change something.
Instead, the novel spends its time weaving in and out of Neve’s past and present relationships. Her marriage to Edwyn is interspersed with tales of her abusive father and the American musician who would never commit. Her father, who’s death still haunts Neve, found comfort in simultaneously showering his daughter with affection and contempt following her mother’s decision to leave her violent marriage years earlier. Whatever control he delights in taking over the women in his life, Neve’s father has no self control, as evidenced by his death: the man ate himself into an early grave. It is a relationship that has shaped Neve’s adult life and is still holding court over her marriage to Edwyn. It is not exactly difficult to see that her relationship with her husband and her father are linked; it’s something that Edwyn himself is all to keen to remind her of whenever he feels the need.
First Love isn’t the happily-ever-after tale of a young woman who finally finds happiness. Little is written of her first meeting with Edwyn and the growth of their affection for each other. The first snippet we see is her moving her boxes into his pokey flat so it is difficult to understand why she puts up with chaos. This is a narrative that just keeps getting worse and more uncomfortable as it moves on. However, as it descends deeper into a realm of despair most people would be unable to imagine, the novel also gets even more brilliant and engrossing.
There is some light to be found, thankfully, and it mostly comes courtesy of Neve’s self-absorbed mother. There are some fantastic moments in the book where her stream of consciousness monologues take over everything. She’s a fantastic character who, since leaving her abusive husband, has failed to find either herself or a man worthy of her affection. She ties herself to men who don’t have a strong interest in her but she forces her way into their lives one way or another. She lives the kind of happy and solitary existence that is, surely, only served with a side of chronic depression. Whilst the moments the mother and daughter spend together cannot be described as positive, there is something about their sheer absurdity that brings a certain relief to the, otherwise, relentless dim existence of our narrator.
Having not read any of her previous work I’m no expert on her style but if First Love is anything to go by then I’d be a huge fan. It is a bleak work, that cannot be denied, but there Riley is able to pick the perfect words to make everything seem poetic and beautiful in its own right. The prose is, frankly, gorgeous and some of the best writing I’ve read in a really long time. You can’t escape the idea that words have been carefully picked so as to get the exact response that Riley had wanted. There is an effortlessness within the writing that only comes with great care, attention and skill. What is the quote from that Lawrence Ferlinghetti poem? The oxymoronic phrase “so casually coifed”. Riley’s writing can only be described as “so casually coifed” and it’s fantastic. I may only have picked this up because of the Women’s Prize but I’ll never regret having done it.