Posts Tagged ‘new books’

Period Piece

April 13, 2018

The good news is that Ezra is well again. He is toddling about extremely happily. All test results have come back normal. The horrid blue PICC line, through which the daily drip of antibiotics was given, has been removed. We have one final follow up appointment at Great Ormond Street in a couple of weeks and then, let’s hope, no more hospitals for a while. He’s back at nursery, and I’m back to work (sort of). Thank you so much to the many of you who have been in touch with good wishes. It made a real difference, helping me not feel so alone in the mess of it all.

Of course, life never works out quite as smoothly as planned. Vita, perhaps unsurprisingly after everything that has happened, has become extremely clingy and is utterly distraught when it comes to saying goodbye – to me, the husband, or even to a friend. This morning, the entire street stared while she stood at the front door screaming blue murder after the husband cycling off to work. Dropping her off at nursery involves her fingers being peeled off my coat, while she kicks and screams. Apparently she is very jolly there all day, it is just the parting that is so traumatic. Traumatic for us both! Nights are still broken with one or the other of them (in fact, usually both) waking up at some point – Vita with a nightmare; Ezra with who knows what, while I administer calpol and panic that it is not just a tooth or a tummy ache but some other rare infectious disease. I have actually found myself – an agnostic – praying at bedtime for them both to sleep through.

So it is no real surprise that the dreaded shingles has returned. I got it three times last year, when particularly run down with lack of sleep and the rest of it, and now here it is again, that horrid burning sensation all the time, the feeling grotty and having to remember to take a million anti-viral pills every day, which don’t seem to have any effect at all. How one can hate one’s body for being so weak, when you need it to be strong!

At least reading and writing can be done from bed or sofa, where I have spent as much time as possible (though I fear not enough – life, with its laundry and tidying and feeding and ferrying about etc. continues).

Period Piece

While trying to rest, I have been hugely enjoying Period Piece by Gwen Raverat. The eccentric recollections of a childhood in Cambridge over a hundred years ago has been the perfect comfort reading, and I look forward to discussing it with everyone at Emily’s Walking Book Club on Sunday. Raverat writes about her father’s perpetual ill health with fondness, but I find I dread the children growing up thinking of me being so delicate and bedridden.

There are also lots of Raverat’s neat, witty illustrations:

Gwen-Raverat.-Boating-on-the-Cam-e1489099456715

This one shows how the ladies had to avert their eyes when passing the bathing places on the Cam, where all the boys ran around and swam naked:

These dangerous straits were taken in silence, and at full speed.

Raverat is very good at capturing the determination of childhood and how unbelievably unfair adult rules can seem. She rails against things like stiff impractical clothes, and being made to go to church. To avoid this latter imposition, she used to disappear to the top floor of the granary after Sunday breakfast, pulling up the ladders behind her afterwards:

You were cut off from the world by five ladderless storeys and you could quite reasonably pretend not to hear people calling from the garden below. We took lumps of sugar and hunks of bread with us, and sat on the floor in the top loft, under the roof, till all danger of church was over. The roof was beginning to fall in, and the ivy grew through the latticed window-holes, and pigeons lived up there and cooed deliciously. It was a mysterious, happy place, far from the world and full of new ideas, and it did me a great deal more good than ever church did. I still often dream of it, and then I am always just on the point of making strange and wonderful discoveries.

It is such a brilliant description of those secret places of childhood, where hours are spent daydreaming, far from the world. (Thank god there was no wifi then.) Sometimes I wonder if I ought just to let Vita disappear up into our attic and hide there daydreaming, instead of forcing her to go to nursery. I did try to work with her sitting ‘quietly’ beside me one morning, and we managed about half an hour before the insistent interruptions began.  (On the madness and difficulties of trying to combine work and motherhood, I highly recommend Helen de Witt’s strange and arresting novel The Last Samurai – my tiny review of it is in the Guardian Review here.)

Her Body and Other PartiesI have had a few reviews published recently, including one of some new short story collections in the Spectator. Gosh Jon McGregor is amazing – The Reservoir Tapes is a welcome, and astonishingly skilful return to the territory of Reservoir 13. And Carmen Maria Machado is such a bold new voice – definitely one to watch. You can read ‘The Husband Stitch’ – one of the best in the collection – here. and  you can read my full review of four excellent collections here.

More soon. I hope that next time I write, I might have had a good night’s sleep!

Advertisements

Three true stories

January 11, 2018

‘Why are you directing us around the IKEA car park?’ the husband asked on that day when it was suddenly snowing, just after Christmas.

We were on our way home from Norfolk, where we had spent a few days with my in-laws in a trio of rented cottages strung out in a row on the Broads. The drive up had been at night, the children fast asleep in the back, while the husband and I had a picnic and an actual conversation, alive with the excitement of a night drive away from the busy end of the working year.

FitzcarraldoThe drive down began at 9 a.m., ejected from the cottages to make way for the cleaners readying it for the next round of guests; it took four and half hours rather than the two it took to get up. As we sat in standstill traffic amidst the falling snow, while the children were unimpressed by the beauty of the newly whitened fields and were, instead, vociferously cross and hungry, I suggested we stop for an early lunch at the pretty market town of Saffron Walden, a mere 2.5 miles away. Only Google Maps went on to inform me that it would take 57 minutes to drive there. We were unable to leap off the motorway and forge across the fields, but instead would have to go halfway down the motorway to then turn around and head back north. I thought for a moment of the film Fitzcarraldo, when they carry the massive boat across the hill. Then I proceeded to dripfeed breadsticks to everyone in the car, while engaging Vita in an exhausting mash up game of The Lion King/Rome and Juliet, where I had to ‘be’, variously, Timon (the meercat), Mufasa, Tybalt and Juliet. The husband claimed to be too busy driving to be able to take part. This game was reaching its zenith, an hour later, as we entered London’s outskirts.

‘It says to get off here,’ I told the husband, who was consuming rather more than his allotted share of breadsticks.

‘You’re not being Juliet!’ from Vita in the back.

‘Sorry. I meant, we must turn off here to reach the Capulet’s house for the big party.’

‘Here?’

‘Yes. Then left, and left again.’

‘But where’s the Capulet’s party?’

‘And round the roundabout. Third exit. Here.’

‘Romeo wants to be at the party. Then we can dance together Juliet! Will there be sausages?’

‘Why are you directing us around the IKEA car park?’

The problem with being so into words is that it has left me rather deficient spatially. So I am quite rubbish at driving and even worse at map reading. Now I resort to just repeating to the husband whatever the phone tells me, although it can still be tricky, at times, to get left and right the right way round. I have no idea why we were going around the IKEA car park, but luckily, the phone eventually got us out of there, and we were back on our way to the Capulet’s party.

At the moment, life with Vita is bursting with fiction. We are forever inhabiting warped adaptations of stories and films, roles being dealt out, lines performed, and ending usually in some kind of chase, dance, duel or being put to bed. So, unusually for me – a fiction nut, I ended 2017 reading books looking for a world more real than my own.

No Place to Lay One's HeadFirst of all, I read No Place to Lay One’s Head by Francoise Frenkel. (This was to review it for The Spectator – here.) Frenkel was a Polish Jew, whose love of French literature led her to open Berlin’s first French bookshop in 1921. Life in 1930s Germany became increasingly difficult, and she eventually fled to Paris in August 1939 – just in the nick of. Frenkel describes the trials of a life in hiding, physical and also emotional: How hard not to have word of one’s family, not to know who to trust or whether you will ever be free, and not to lose the will to keep on going. Frenkel did eventually reach Switzerland, where she wrote this memoir in 1943-44, and I think the book owes much of its power to the events described being so recent. I’ve written about it at length in the Spectator review, but, briefly, what I found so intriguing about this book was Frenkel’s attempt to understand the people of France, a country she so obviously loved. She writes of the many who helped shelter her and those who bravely resisted the German Occupation, but also of the police who hunted down defenceless human beings ‘with a peculiar and savage bitterness resembling joy’, and the many individuals who inhabited a darkish grey area – sheltering her but demanding extortionate rent, or suddenly threatening to turn her in unless she paid a vast sum. Of course it makes you wonder how you would act in the situation. For once, I feel that being Jewish almost lets me off the hook: I would be the one asking for shelter rather than having to balance the complicated equation of self-interest versus such high-risk help.

The Reading CureCloser to home, and every bit as brave, is Laura Freeman’s forthcoming memoir The Reading Cure. It’s coming out at the end of February, but Laura kindly sent me a proof, which kept me company over Christmas. (I should mention here that Laura and I are friends, ever since she commissioned me to write an article about my beloved tortoise (RIP).) I hope you have already read some of Laura’s wonderful writing in places like The Spectator and The Times – her journalism features beady-eyed observations, a razor sharp brain, precision of language and a dry sense of humour, that lets her wear her learning lightly.

And then comes this book, which she was so shy about, refusing to tell me anything about it until the deal was signed. And now I can see why. Laura writes bravely, honestly, inspiringly and very movingly about her long long struggle with anorexia, and how books got her through it. At the beginning, she writes that this is not about the ‘anguish’ of anorexia, but ‘about the pouring in of sunlight after more than a decade of darkness and hunger’. But, for all the happy occasions of drinking real milk, inspired by Tess of the D’Urbervilles, or enjoying the homely comfort of a tin of sardines, thanks to Mole and Ratty, a sadness endures. Still, she can’t bring herself to eat chocolate. Still, the battle with that part of her brain which at its worst has brought her to the point of being too weak to be able to walk around the garden, continues. It is only ever in remission, never entirely cured.

I read this book at the end of what has been in some ways a very hard year for me. Post-natal depression is tough, however much counselling and support one has from professionals and friends. It is always helpful to read of someone else’s battles with the voices in their head, and reassuring to know that other people also live with black clouds threatening to break overhead. Laura agrees:

When I came to read Virginia Woolf, it marked the difference between feeling a coward and failure because I let myself be bullied by these voices, and drawing strength from knowing that others have had their demons, their galloping horses, their aches low down in the back of the head. Better to write about these things, then say: it is not a life sentence. It will not always be like this.

Important words to remember.

CharlotteFinally, I had another Holocaust book to review, this time for the Guardian (here). Charlotte by David Foenkinos is an unusual, intense and unbelievably brilliant novel inspired by the life of German Jewish artist Charlotte Salomon. Tragically, this story doesn’t end like Frenkel’s in an escape to Switzerland, but in being gassed in Auschwitz, while pregnant. She did at least manage to leave behind her an extraordinary work: Theatre? A Song-play, a lightly fictionalised family memoir told via hundreds of paintings, drawings, texts and musical annotations, made during the two years she spent in hiding in the South of France. She entrusted it to her doctor with the words: ‘it is my whole life’. Charlotte has been a smash hit in its native France, and deserves to be one here too – it has the same feel as The Hare with Amber Eyes, and certainly left me itching to buy several copies to give to friends.

So three mighty, hardcore books in a row! I think I would have picked up some PG Wodehouse or something similarly daft to begin this year, if it weren’t for a proof of Zadie Smith’s new collection of essays sitting there waiting for its review to be written…

Do you have any reading ambitions or resolutions for 2018? Mine is to harness the combined power of childcare and coffee to read more, write more, and to trust more in the power of good words, well used. Even if that means we reach the Capulets’ party via the IKEA car park.

One last thing to say: Belsize Library have very kindly asked me to give a talk about building communities around books. If you happen to be free and in North London at 7.30pm on Thursday 18th January, please please come along and say hello. Here is the poster they’ve made:

Emily Rhodes Belsize Library 2

Four excellent debut novels

October 25, 2017

Spain! Our holiday in sunny Andalucia seems like a different world now we are back in London and very much ‘back to school’. Ezra has just started going to a nanny share on the two days a week that Vita goes to nursery, and I finally have some proper time to think. Well, I say think, but really I mean sleep. These are probably the most expensive naps I will ever have, given the cost of double childcare, but I try to justify it with the lurking throb of shingles threatening to resurface and, more often than not, one child or the other wakes up screaming in the night, either hungry or with a nightmare.

Life has very much shrunk to a family scale, only every now and then I come up against the bigger reality, such as the other day when our greengrocer wouldn’t take my old pound coin, and only then did I realise we have shiny new ones. The other major event of recent times has been our first trip to A&E. Ezra dived off the climbing frame and I managed to catch him just in time, thereby saving a smashed skull, but dislocating his arm in the process. We were seen straight away, the arm was clicked back and we were back to normal within an hour or so. Thank you NHS.

Usborne shakespeareMeanwhile, Vita has become obsessed with Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet – we have this beautiful Usborne edition of Shakespeare stories – and so we spend most of our time playing at killing each other in various roles. I’m not sure this is especially healthy, but I am certainly enjoying revisiting the stories, and it leads to some funny comments, e.g. this morning when I explained that snoring Dad must be in a very deep sleep, and she said, ‘Just like Juliet.’

I have been reading various debut novels, which I always find so exciting – glimpsing these writers full of promise at the start of their careers. I wrote about four of them for a big review in last week’s Spectator. I was intrigued to see that so many of them engaged with the experience of migration – clearly the big issue of the day. Or, I ought to say, the bigger issue of the day, as opposed to how to launder a load of Ezra’s vomit out of every single piece of bedding in the house in time for bedtime. I am assuming you would rather read more about these novels than Ezra’s sick bug, so just click on the pic below to read the Spectator review – and I’d love to know if you too have recently come across any compelling fresh new voices.

Black Rock, White City

 

Forest Dark

September 1, 2017

I keep on reading books about women who are struggling to manage the jostling demands of children, marriages, and careers. Or perhaps, it is just that this is pretty much all I can see in a book at the moment – a stalwart reminder that one’s reading of a book is so subjective and influenced by one’s current situation. I remember at university, in the midst of writing a thesis on Virginia Woolf, half-watching an episode of Friends with some other students. ‘It’s JUST like The Waves,’ I exclaimed, in a moment of epiphany. The others briefly looked at me, raised a few eyebrows and then returned to watching the telly. This is why I am really looking forward to seeing the gang at Emily’s walking book club on Sunday, to discuss The Group – we will all be coming at it from such different places, and I long to know what you all make of it. Of course, I am mostly fascinated by the bit at the end when Priss and Norine run into each other in the park and struggle to reconcile their entirely different parenting strategies.

Thank you so much for the many kind wishes of recovery from the dreaded shingles and the rest of it. I have been resting a great deal and seem to be on the mend, if still utterly exhausted.

I reviewed Nicole Krauss’s much-anticipated new novel, Forest Dark, in this week’s Spectator. The book is only partly about the struggle of motherhood/marriage/writing, but to my mind this was the best part.  Click on the pic below to read the review.

Forest Dark

Silver and Salt

August 8, 2017

Silver and Salt

A speedy post while Ezra naps and Vita is at nursery, in part to stop me from falling asleep as it seems that if I nap now, then I lie awake at night listening to the rest of the family snoring, panicking that I am wasting this short time when I could be asleep NOT sleeping and worrying about fidgeting in case it wakes Ezra up earlier than the early time which he wakes to feed, while feeling a fierce, very unhelpful jealous rage towards the sleeping bodies which surround me.

I have got shingles, for the third time in the last six months. It’s mother nature’s way of telling you to take better care of yourself, says the doctor. I do try, I say, wanting to ask: Did mother nature ever have to be an actual mother, looking after two small children over and above herself? Are you getting enough sleep? he asks. I’d like a blood test, I say.

It is too easy to fixate on the negatives – the lack of sleep, the shingles, the mess, the milk leaking out of sore boobs, and the laundry, the dementedness of it all. I don’t know how you have time to read anything at all, people say in bewildered admiration. How could I survive otherwise? I ask. I make the time as it is so essential, for me, to have that time thinking about something else.

So here is my review of the novel Silver and Salt by Elanor Dymott (I love that spelling of the name), which was in Country Life this week. I try to smile at the irony that essentially looking after two small children helped send the mother in the book completely mad.

Silver and Salt review

 

 

 

Eureka by Anthony Quinn

July 27, 2017

I know I know … I have been worse than useless at writing my blog and it feels too boring to apologise (again) or list the many reasons why (well, in fact, the many reasons all sprout from just two – Vita and Ezra). So I thought I’d try changing tack here and publishing links to things I’ve written elsewhere, or indeed Emily’s walking book club news. The thing is, I am managing to write a little bit, but all the links are currently somewhat buried on different pages of this website, whereas I thought if I were to try to make this more of a ‘feed’ as they say, it might work a little better. See how you like it? Let me know? Forgive me?!

Ahem, so kicking things off with my review of Anthony Quinn’s dazzling new novel Eureka for this week’s Spectator. Click on the cover pic below for the review.

Eureka

 

 

Ali Smith

November 11, 2015

Last week, I went to see the magnificent, inspiring, funny, genius writer Ali Smith talk at the Hampstead Arts Festival. Her words are pure gold. I especially loved the way she talked about a book being alive because it is an organic object:

Books are spines and they are skins and they are tree, and when we open them up they are wings.

This poetic image hovered in sharp contrast to her description of the ‘flatness’ of reading on screen. She compared books to animals again later, telling us that an author must respect the life and the wildness of their work, and quoting John Berger:

You cannot look at a wild animal, a wild animal has to look at you.

Pure gold, I tell you!

She also talked persuasively about the perilous state of our libraries – the subject of her new book, a collection of short stories entitled Public Library. I wrote this up for Intelligent Life magazine here: Ali Smith’s Call to Arms

Public Library by Ali Smith

The Fishermen

March 9, 2015

I adored the David Attenborough Africa series. There was the ferocious giraffe neck fight, the heartbreaking bit with the mummy and baby elephant (I shed a tear just writing that), and this inspiring moment of baby turtles scrambling down the beach to reach the sea:

This story of the turtles – so many of them hatching in such hostile conditions and only a very few of them, with a near-impossible amount of determination and luck, reaching the sea – strikes me as being remarkably similar to the fate of debut novels. Think of the miracle of a story hatching in someone’s mind. Think of all the thousands of ideas that hatch, and how few manage to make it into print without being picked off by the many hazards faced by aspiring writers. Once the debut novels have made it into the water, so to speak, they ought to be applauded, they at least ought to be read.

The Fishermen by ObiomaThe Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma is one such baby turtle that reached the sea in rather beautiful nick. The bright jacket caught my eye and my interest was piqued when I saw it’s published by Pushkin Press’s ‘One’ Imprint, which produces just one book a year. When a publisher is that selective, you feel the book must be good.

The Fishermen is narrated by nine-year-old Ben, who tells us about his life with his brothers:

My brothers and I became fishermen in January of 1996 after our father moved out of Akure, a town in the west of Nigeria, where we had lived together all our lives.

With their father away, the boys go fishing together in a dangerous, forbidden stretch of river. I settled in to what I thought might be a kind of Nigerian Stand by Me, half-wondering when they would see their first dead body or get covered in leeches.

The oldest brother, Ikenna, soon starts to be tricky and rebellious, perhaps testing his freedom now the father is gone. Yet it soon transpires that Ikenna’s difficult behaviour is not part of the usual trials of adolescence, but goes back to one day at the river, when he was cursed by Abulu the madman. Abulu prophesies that he will ‘die by the hands of a fisherman’. The brothers have called themselves fishermen, so Ikenna is convinced that Boja, the nearest to him in age, will murder him. As the poison sets to work in his mind, Ikenna suffers more and more, driving a wedge between him and his family so that you fear the prophecy, unthinkable as it is at the beginning, might just come true. I shall leave the plot here for risk of spoilers.

Obioma writes beautifully, with an imaginative eye for metaphor that makes the book feel mythical, as though the story is bigger than what it purports to be. So it isn’t just a story about a particular family, it is a powerful novel about ‘family’. When the mother is upset at Ikenna’s behaviour, we get:

It seemed a part of her body, which she had got accustomed to touching, had suddenly sprouted thorns and every effort made to touch that part merely resulted in bleeding.

It’s a brilliant rendering of that close bind between mother and child – after all that child was indeed once a part of her body – and the pain that is felt when the child turns away. It is every bit as affective as Lear’s ‘sharper than a serpent’s tooth’.

I thought of Shakespeare again as Ikenna is increasingly derailed by Abulu’s prophecy. These words destroy him, just as Othello is destroyed by Iago’s plot ‘to ‘abuse Othello’s ear’ with words. Words drive Ikenna and his brothers to terrible actions they would never otherwise so much as consider; words have a terrible agency.

When the brothers first encounter Abulu the madman, Ben says, ‘He is like a lion’:

‘You compare everything to animals, Ben,’ Ikenna said, shaking his head as if the comparison had annoyed him. ‘He is not like anything, you hear? He is just a madman – a madman.’

Alongside their evil power, words are shown here to be a tool for making sense of things. Ben tries to understand what the madman is by comparing him to a lion, renaming him as something with which he is more familiar. Indeed each chapter begins with comparing a character to something, usually an animal:

Father was an eagle … Obembe was a searchdog … Ikenna was a python

When trying to understand the behaviour of his family, Ben uses this metaphorical power of words. In renaming his characters, he exercises the power of the storyteller. So Ikenna’s behaviour is less painful if it is rendered as the behaviour of a python; Abulu is not a terrifying madman if he is in fact a lion. It makes me think of Ursula le Guin’s haunting children’s novel The Wizard of Earthsea, in which she writes of the power of knowing something’s true name. Her young wizard Sparrowhawk must learn the true names of things in order to have power over them. So Ben, in The Fishermen, renames the characters in an attempt to exert power over them.

We see, however, that unlike Ben, Ikenna resists the power of these renamings. He says in response to Ben’s calling Abulua a lion:

He is not like anything, you hear? He is just a madman…

Interesting this ‘you hear?’ inserted in there. In part it is a colloquialism – ‘you hear me?’ – but if it is read more literally as a verb it makes Ben a hearer, someone who receives information, rather than a speaker, who gives information. Ikenna hears the madman, and it is this hearing which undoes him. Luckily Ben doesn’t just hear, he tells: he turns the madman into a lion, his father into an eagle, Ikenna into a python.

A debut novel is a baby turtle. I’m delighted that this baby turtle has made it into the sea.

How to be Both

September 22, 2014

Outside the Piazza dei Diamante post-fountain dunkSome of you might remember my passing through Ferrara a few months ago, at the end of the Italian adventures of Emilybooks. I say passing through because we literally parked the car (rather too far out of the centre thanks to my misunderstanding of the map’s scale), walked up the main street which stretched on and on and on, reached a castle, turned right, saw the Palazzo dei Diamante (thank you architect husband), dunked my head in a fountain, ate two ice creams, and then returned to the car via a prettier windier route, and drove onwards to Vicenza.

I wish we had stayed a little longer, but we had to get to Vicenza in time to meet our Air BnB host. I was so excruciatingly hot that all I can really remember from our couple of hours in Ferrara was the sudden joy of having my head covered in cold fountain water, vastly overriding any embarrassment caused by the amused looks we got from nearby Italians. I wished we had stayed longer as I love the work of Giorgio Bassani, who wrote some very poignant, very brilliant novels (or perhaps technically novellas) set in Ferrara, including The Garden of the Finzi-Continis and The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles, which I’ve written about here and here. And now I wish we had stayed longer because just around the corner from the Palazzo dei Diamante is the Palazzo Schifanoia where I have just learned there are some extraordinary frescos by Francesco del Cossa. Frescos so extraordinary that one of the main characters in Ali Smith’s staggeringly brilliant new novel How to be Both goes all the way to Ferrara with her Mum just to see these paintings, and the other main character is Francesco del Cossa the artist. How could I have missed them?!

How to be Both by Ali SmithAt least I haven’t missed the book. What a book! You must all read it. It must win the Booker. But how on earth to begin to write about it?

Ali Smith does a clever trick with How to be Both. The novel is split into two halves: part one set in the present day about smart, precocious teenager George (short for Georgia) whose mother has died; and part one about the fifteenth-century artist Francesco del Cossa. Half the print run of the novel has the George part one as its first half, and the other half has Francesco del Cossa’s as its first. It is a canny way of dodging Forster’s assertion:

it is never possible for a novelist to deny time inside the fabric of his novel

which Smith rails against in her previous book Artful. Forster points out that prose must be one word after another, but with this trick the words come simultaneously before and after. It just depends on which copy you pick up.

So, let’s pause to reflect for a moment about how clever someone is who can write two halves of a novel, twist them around each other with connections and parallels and then engineer the plot to work both ways you encounter them. Right. And let’s not dismiss it as a gimmick, because really it is a signposting of Smith’s ongoing attempt to push at the very boundaries of what fiction can achieve, how narrative linearity can be bent and played with, made pliant to her demands.

The thing about Ali Smith’s writing is that it’s always very clever, but never at the expense of the work itself. You don’t pick up the book and think Christ what a smart-arse. And, frankly, you might be forgiven for anticipating such a reaction. I mean, what if you just want to read an enjoyable novel but instead find yourself landed with some extraordinarily clever modernist work which grapples with huge questions of form and gender and linearity, striving for a unique and wonderful ‘bothness’ which has never before been achieved. You could be forgiven for feeling somewhat put out by having bitten off more than you’d bargained for.

But Smith’s prose is so alive, vivid, enthusiastic, energetic and engrossing, dancing with possibilities, that within a page or two you forget that you’re reading a great modernist challenge, and are every bit as caught up in the pleasure of the story as you might be in a more straightforward novel. There are moments when the bright ideas leap out at you, but they never pull the fabric of the story too far out of shape.

She has it both ways.

So, back to Forster’s assertion and Smith’s tackling of it. How then can a novelist deny time and its linearity? Aside from publishing two different versions at once.

Memory. In both halves of How to be Both Smith weaves memories through current events so that they occur simultaneously. George, grieving for her mother’s death, is in her bedroom on New Year’s Eve:

She sits down on the floor, leans back against her own bed and eats the toast.

It’s so boring, she says in Italy in the palazzo in the mock-child voice they always use for this game.

Just like that, from one sentence to the next, we are transported back in time to when George and her mother are in Ferrara.

There are photographs – moments captured outside of time. George has stuck photos of her mother above her bed; the photograph on the cover of the book surfaces a few times within it. And, by extension, there are films. George starts obsessively watching a porn film of a drugged girl and an older man. As she explains to her father:

This really happened, George said. To this girl. And anyone can just watch it just, like, happening, any time he or she likes. And it happens for the first time, over and over again, every time someone who hasn’t seen it before clicks on it and watches it. So I want to watch it for a completely different reason. Because my completely different watching of it goes some way to acknowledging all of that to this girl.

And there are works of art, including Francesco del Cossa’s frescos. Surviving through time, beyond death, inspiring people over centuries. And even these paintings have different, troubling, layerings of time. We are with George and her mother in Italy again:

But which came first? her mother says. The chicken or the egg? The picture underneath or the picture on the surface?

The picture below came first, George says. Because it was done first.

But the first thing we see, her mother said, and most times the only thing we see, is the one on the surface. So does that mean it comes first after all? And does that mean that the other picture, if we don’t know about it, may as well not exist?

Again and again, we are asked to question which came first, what keeps coming, looking at the limits of time, and how they might be overcome.

George and her friend have to do a project on empathy for school. They decide to do it about Francesco del Cossa. Trying to imagine what the artist would be like, her friend says:

He’d speak like from another time … He’d say things like ho, or gadzooks, or egad … He’d be like an exchange student, not just from another country but from another time.

Then George:

He’d be all alas I am being made up really badly by a sixteen-year-old girl who knows fuck all about art and nothing at all about me except that I did some paintings and seem to have died of the plague

George thinks:

She thinks how typical it’d be. You’d need your own dead person to come back from the dead. You’d be waiting and waiting for that person to come back. But instead of the person you needed you’d get some dead renaissance painter going on and on about himself and his work and it’d be someone you knew nothing about and that’d be meant to teach you empathy, would it?

It’s exactly the kind of stunt her mother would pull.

For alongside this preoccupation with cheating time and its insistent linearity, comes cheating death – the ending of someone’s time. Perhaps above all How to be Both probes the way that the dead and living exist alongside each other, overcoming their obvious beginnings and endings and times.

In the other part of the novel, Francesco del Cossa comes back from the dead. The artist has a peculiar invisible connection with George, watching over her, involuntarily following her about as though attached by a rope. Looking back at George’s musings above, one wonders, is this indeed the kind of stunt her mother would pull from the dead?

Or perhaps this is George’s empathy project for school writ large. For How to be Both is a startling exercise in empathy – a rendering of this silent strange connection between two people separated by hundreds of years and thousands of miles.

Another George – George Eliot – thought that the function of art was empathy:

to amplify experience and extend our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot.

Well then, How to be Both is a giddy, dizzying, mesmerising piece of art. Read it and I dare you to disagree.

Francesco del Cossa's fresco

Marriage Material

October 21, 2013

Arnold Bennett is one of those authors who has long fallen out of fashion. Up till now, I knew him only for two things.

Mr Bennett and Mrs BrownFirstly, his depiction of character came under attack by Virginia Woolf in her brilliant essay ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’. She responds to Bennett’s statement that there are no first-rate young novelists – this was 1924 – because none of them can create characters that are real, true and convincing. You can read the whole thing here, but for those of you who lack time or inclination, essentially Woolf takes issue with the way Bennett describes all the things surrounding a character rather than the actual character. She describes a woman – who she calls Mrs Brown – in a railway carriage and suggests how Mr Bennett would ‘sidle sedately towards’ her and give precise information about every little detail pertaining to her and yet somehow utterly miss her. She goes on to dissect, quite viciously, one of his novels and suggests that the character gets lost in all the detailed description of everything else:

we can only hear Mr Bennett’s voice telling us facts about rents and freeholds and copyholds and fines.

She compares his writing to a hostess talking about the weather at a party and then says that his novel-writing ‘tools are the wrong ones for us to use’. She says that writers of today, namely Joyce, Forster and Eliot, have to break with this tradition, and this is why there is all ‘the smashing and the crashing’ in Modern Literature. Joyce, she says, is:

a desperate man who feels that in order to breathe he must break the windows.

She concludes by saying that Bennett is to some extent right in that today’s novelists haven’t been able to capture Mrs Brown, but that they are trying and are, in any case, doing rather better than Bennett.

The other thing I know about Arnold Bennett is that I once had a very delicious ‘omelette Arnold Bennett’ at The Wolseley. (Thanks to one of my tremendously spoiling older brothers.) It is a heavenly creamy smoked haddock eggy concoction. Unbelievably rich and indulgent and you can’t quite believe you are eating it for breakfast. The dish was created for Arnold Bennett at the Savoy – where I expect you can still get it – and he loved it so much that he insisted on eating it everywhere. I do hope this nugget is squeezed into a Downton Abbey plotline. Apparently Virginia Woolf is making a cameo in this series, so getting someone to eat omelette Arnold Bennett would be a wonderfully oblique reference to the literary debate above!

I suppose the two stories cancel each other out – after Virginia Woolf’s laying into Arnold Bennett about Mrs Brown, I don’t much fancy reading his novels, but, then again, someone who could be the inspiration for such a delicious omelette does deserve a certain respect.

Marriage Material by Sathnam SangheraWell now I know a third thing. Bennett wrote a novel called The Old Wives’ Tale, which Sathnam Sanghera has reimagined as his wonderful novel Marriage Material. Reading Marriage Material has been a neat side-stepping of the Arnold Bennett dilemma. I have managed to get – more-or-less – the plot and substance of his novel, but by reading something which I suspect is rather better.

Marriage Material is written in two parallel narratives. The main story follows Arjan Banga, who returns to his family’s Wolverhampton corner shop when his father dies. He leaves behind his metropolitan, Guardian-magaziney London life as a graphic designer with white fiancé and smart flat (which features things like a painted blackboard ‘covered in slightly self-conscious messages’) to go back to Sikh provincialism – a run-down high street and local children ‘running into the shop just to shout “Paki” at my mum before running out again, a depressing urban version of Knock Down Ginger’. What initially seems awful, slowly reveals its allure to Arjan, who is caught between worlds – not quite white, not quite Sikh – and his struggle to tread the tightrope between them makes very good, thought-provoking reading. It’s not so very different from Francesca Segal’s The Innocents – another re-imagining of a classic novel, which explores the benefits and drawbacks of a segregated society. (You can read some more thoughts on Segal’s excellent novel here.)

Interspersed with Arjan’s story is our own discovery of his roots: the story of the previous generation who lived in that corner shop. Two Sikh sisters are growing up during the time of Enoch Powell and protests about Wolverhampton bus employees being allowed to wear turbans. One sister, Kamaljit, learns little English and is happy to leave school to settle down and be a good Sikh wife. In contrast, the other sister Surinder does very well at school, is always reading – be that novels or magazines borrowed from the shop – and wants to become a nurse. Needless to say, the two narratives, very satisfyingly, join up.

What’s so clever about the book is that Sanghera embraces all the clichés only to then explode them. Kamaljit doesn’t just marry any old Sikh but one who is from a lower caste, which is almost as outrageous as if she were to marry a white person. This caste issue comes up again and again – with some alarmingly sinister consequences – as Sanghera points out the racism practised between Sikhs as a counterpart to that of Powell’s of the 1960s and to that apparent in Wolverhampton in 2011. Sexism amongst Sikhs is also examined as another form of discrimination, not so different to racism. Perhaps most surprising is when a Sikh woman defends Enoch Powell:

‘His point that many immigrants didn’t want to integrate? Just take a look around.’

Marriage Material is full of subtle and nuanced arguments about racism and integration. It begs the question, just how possible is it to live happily as a mixed-race couple in 1968, or in 2011?

How would Marriage Material stand up to Woolf’s criticism? I suspect rather better than The Old Wives’ Tale, as I certainly felt I got close to Sanghera’s ‘Mrs Brown’. My only problem with the novel was that I felt Surinder was the its real achievement rather than Arjan, and so it was a little frustrating that she was given the backseat in terms of narrative. Surinder was conjured with such skill that I wanted her to walk to centre stage rather than be relegated to the wings – a great measure of success in creating a real and compelling character. I’m sure that even Virginia Woolf would approve.