Tag: book reviews

Review: Welcome to Lagos

TW: rape.

Welcome to Lagos, by Nigerian author Chibundu Onuzo, is the story of five unlikely companions who, for one reason or another, all find themselves seeking out a new life in Lagos. So we have Chike, a military officer, and Yemi, his junior, both deserters from a campaign against civilians; Fineboy, a rebel who’s lost his revolutionary fervour and now wants to become a radio DJ; Isoken, a young woman rescued by Chike and Yemi from rape at the hands of a group of rebels, including Fineboy; and Oma, who’s fleeing her wealthy, abusive husband.

This little found family rocks up in Lagos, a city where there’s no work or housing. They sleep under a bridge for a while, before moving to squat in what seems like a miraculously abandoned apartment. Of course, because this is a story, the apartment isn’t abandoned at all, and one night a disgraced education minister turns up with a huge amount of stolen cash. What should the group do with the politician – turn him in and get the reward, or let him flee the country? And what should they do with the cash, which would set them all up for life if they so chose?

It’s very much a novel about doing, or trying to do, the right thing, in a world where “the right thing” is always compromised, contingent. For instance, when the group decide to donate the money to the schools it should have gone to in the first place, the headteachers of the schools are arrested on suspicion of helping embezzle the money in the first place. So: was that decision right or wrong? What about when Oma falls in love with a man who isn’t her husband? She never expects to see her husband again, and she’s never loved him, but, in her system of values, they’re still married. Can she, should she sleep with someone else?

And so on. Each of the characters has a moral centre, a system of values that gets tested in some way by the corruption rife in Nigerian politics, by the inherent unfairness of life in Lagos, and the economic exploitation of the West. There’s a strong religious thread running through the text: Chike reads the Bible every evening to the group, but its guidance, however inspiring, is of limited use in the real world.

In fact, maybe we can say that the novel’s looking at the inherent instability of all moral systems in the real world. Like all cities, Lagos is a place where a myriad such systems collide and clash and merge, as they do in microcosm in the found family at the novel’s heart. One of the novel’s sub-plots also concerns Ahmed Bakare, the editor of a small independent newspaper, the Nigerian Journal; he’s investigating corruption in the Nigerian government, potentially putting his life in danger as he does so. Each chapter begins with an epigraph from that (fictional) newspaper, snippets of opinion, news or propaganda that get borne out or belied by the chapter that follows: journalism is cast as itself a system of meaning, variously unreliable amid the vicissitudes of the world.

Well: what did I think of Welcome to Lagos?

It was fine. I didn’t hate it. It’s a strictly realist novel, tidy, sparse: I prefer my books baggier, messier, alive to the possibilities of ambiguity at a textual level, not just a thematic one. I wanted Lagos to leap off the page with all the chaotic energy of a young city, as it does in (for example) Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon. It didn’t; Onuzo’s more interested in the emotional lives of her characters than in her setting.

Which is fine, of course, and saying “I wanted this book to be a different book” is not quite valid criticism. So, to be clear, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Welcome to Lagos. It’s just Not My Thing. Your mileage may vary.


Review: Inherent Vice

Inherent Vice is a Thomas Pynchon novel. That…pretty much sums up what I have to say about it.

In what the publisher is billing as a sort of hard left on Pynchon’s part, it’s a murder mystery. It’s also set in 1970s California, among permanently stoned hippies. So, you know, we’re right back in Pynchon territory again.

Our Hero is Doc, a private investigator who also happens to be one of those permanently stoned hippies. (Think Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, only with prettier sentences.) He’s asked by his ex-girlfriend Shasta to find her new lover, Mickey, a real-estate mogul who’s gone missing. Then someone frames Doc for the murder of one of Mickey’s bodyguards, and, oh, the plot from there on out is best described as “labyrinthine”. Or, indeed, “Pynchonian”, which is much the same thing.

I liked it. There are things that threw me out momentarily – the male gaze is strong with this one – but, overall, I liked it. That’s, I think, because I’m a sucker for gnarly books, books with long winding sentences like this one:

Uphill and invisible, traffic out on the boulevard to and from the freeway uttered tuneful exhaust phrases which went echoing out to sea, where the crews of oil tankers sliding along, hearing them, could have figured it for wildlife taking care of nighttime business on some exotic coast.

Dreamy, elegiac, cluttered, full of stuff that never quite comes into focus, Pynchon’s prose is a microcosm of the world his novels evoke – a world teetering on the edge of comprehensibility. Murder mysteries are supposed to bring order out of chaos; what Inherent Vice does is bring something that could be order, in a certain light, just to the point where it’s not quiiite in focus yet. It’s like listening to someone with a heavy accent: true clarity remains tantalisingly unachievable.

Anyway. That’s what I liked about Inherent Vice. It’s not Pynchon’s best novel. It’s not particularly memorable as Pynchon goes. But…it was pretty cool to live in for a little while.

Review: The Mabinogion

TW: rape.

Oh, do we have to talk about The Mabinogion?

Even though it’s 8pm and I’m going on holiday in the wee hours of Friday morning and there’s still a million things I haven’t done?

Well, fine. If you insist.

Probably the first thing I should say here is that the sum total of what I know about the original Mabinogion – the Welsh story cycle whose closest analogue is probably Arthurian mythology – comes from reading Alan Garner’s The Owl Service and not enjoying it much. So I can say pretty much nothing about what Evangeline Walton has done to the tales – what she’s removed or added or emphasised. Which is a pity, really, because looking at an author’s sources is the quickest way of discovering what they’re trying to do.

Anyway. Walton’s The Mabinogion is actually an omnibus containing four novels: Prince of Annwn, in which a prince called Pwyll ventures into Death’s land to vanquish a terrible enemy of humanity and of the world; The Children of Llyr, in which a malcontent stirs up a devastating war between Britain and Ireland; The Song of Rhiannon, which sees a king trying to break a curse that’s fallen on his land; and The Island of the Mighty, which like The Owl Service retells the tale of Blodeuwedd, a woman made out of flowers and given to a British prince to be his wife, with predictably awful results.

So there’s a lot going on: it’s 700 pages long, after all, and it has politics and war and grief, and trickster figures who live by their wits and bards and riddles and rash promises, and heartbreak and treachery and fear and humour and joy and hope.

But it’s also not an exaggeration, I think, to say that the whole thing is in part a discussion of gender. Throughout their various high-jinks, their magic tricks and their battles and their quests, the novels dramatise a clash between the Old Tribes, whose people, male and female, sleep with whoever they like (well, they’re all straight, but you can’t expect everything from novels written in the 1930s) and leave when they’ve had enough, and the New Tribes, who have discovered how babies are made (I’m serious) and have therefore invented marriage as a way of controlling women and consequently male lineage, and virginity is a concept, and therefore so is rape, and basically the New Tribes are shit.

(It’s pretty clear, too, that Walton thought much of this was true: the idea of a sexually promiscuous Celtic society giving way to a patriarchal one was fashionable in the 18th and 19th centuries, according to Wikipedia the Fount of All Knowledge, and she footnotes her sources several times throughout the book.)

I spent a lot of energy trying to “solve” The Mabinogion. Is it “good” because it’s sex-positive for both male and female characters and because it sees consent as essential (which is not a given in early twentieth century literature, sadly)? Or is it “bad” because none of its female characters have the kind of reality its male characters have, and because it has a rape scene whose repercussions are more about the perpetrators than the victim, and because it sees all women as mothers at heart?

The answer, of course, is “both” (there’s a brilliant essay here by China Mieville about how culture is oppressive precisely because it’s flexible enough to accommodate both sides of a binary) and “neither” (from a critical standpoint, it’s a product of its culture with no intrinsic moral value). What’s interesting – or, rather, troubling – is why I put all that effort into coming up with a value judgement. I think there’s a lot of pressure – fuelled, undoubtedly, by the blessing and curse that is Twitter – in progressive pop culture to “solve” a text, to be able to label it objectively problematic, in which case everyone who ever reads it and enjoys it is a terrible person, or objectively progressive, in which case you are allowed to read it and express your love for it. I’m guilty of this myself: everyone who expresses admiration for Stephen Moffat’s work on Doctor Who is instantly suspect in my book, for instance, and I’m not even joking about that. There are good reasons why this is so: we’re all anxious about being aware of our cultural biases and making sure that what we recommend to others isn’t going to harm them and listening to minorities when they say their representation isn’t good enough. And those are all good things to hold in our heads. But, sometimes (just sometimes), I think we close down discussion and dialogue in favour of easy answers. That’s a problem because we live in a problematic culture, and so every product of that culture is going to be itself problematic, and labelling just some texts as problematic erases the wider context that created them.

(By the way, that Mieville article says everything I’m trying to say, only much, much better.)

This is a rather wide digression from The Mabinogion itself, which just goes to show how (not) engrossed I was in that text during the interminable three weeks I was stuck in it. (By way of comparison, I can usually read a book in 4-5 days.) I bounced hard off the representation of women here, and that stopped me from enjoying pretty much anything else in the book. That’s an un-nuanced reaction, and one which, yes, stems from the labelling impulse I’ve just talked about, and maybe if I read it again I’d find other things to value about it (as Kari Sperring does at Strange Horizons). For instance: I think there’s probably something interesting to be said about how Walton repurposes these Welsh legends to talk to wider Anglophone culture (Walton was American). In The Mabinogion, she takes up the function of myth, which is to tell us something about our place in the world, in a profoundly feminist cause; her thesis is that we came to be here, inhabitants of a misogynist culture heading rapidly towards ecological collapse, because of patriarchy. Which I agree with, partially, and it’s something I want to admire (especially given when these novels were first written, which I cannot emphasise enough), but…and here we are again.

And – well, I’m not at university any more. I don’t have to spend three weeks of my precious reading time trying to suck meaning from a text that’s actively annoying me.

I hope, though, that if I find myself talking to someone who’s read it as well (which seems vastly unlikely, but you never know) I’ll actually have a discussion, with listening instead of labelling.

Review: Provenance

While Ann Leckie’s Provenance is technically a standalone novel, it’s set in the same universe as Leckie’s Ancillary series, which obviously invites comparisons – and not necessarily favourable ones.

More about that in a minute. The planet on which Provenance is set, Hwae, lies far away from Radch space, where the Ancillary trilogy is set; it’s a human culture that recognises three genders, and which lies very close to the planet of the Geck, one of the three sentient alien races in Leckie’s universe, incomprehensible and thus terrifying. Our Heroine is Ingray Aughskold, a young woman adopted into a high-ranking family, who frees a high-security prisoner convicted of forging valuable historical artefacts as part of a plan to outmanoeuvre her brother in a bid to be named her mother’s heir.

(Yes. It’s one of those novels.)

Of course, things go horribly wrong, and instead of playing an admittedly fairly high-stakes game of family power politics, Ingray finds herself at the centre of a murder case: an ambassador from a nearby planet with an interest in controlling trade access to Hwae is found stabbed in a public park, killed while Ingray was feet away.

And, for a good half of the novel, it feels like that’s what Leckie’s serving us: a murder mystery wreathed in complex alien politics. But Provenance has an odd double structure: the murder mystery winds itself up sooner than we think it will, and we find once more that there’s something a lot more serious going on, something that threatens the delicate treaty that prevents the Geck and, more importantly, the infinitely violent and infinitely alien race the Presger, from waging war on humanity, and vice versa.

That double structure is key to what the novel’s doing, I think. Provenance pares away almost all of the action and adventure of the Ancillary trilogy, to leave only Leckie’s interest in politics and etiquette and how people navigate the power structures they find themselves enmeshed in. In other words, to me Provenance is essentially concerned with identity politics: how people construct and perform themselves. There is a focus on things that SFF readers might be used to thinking of as trivial: on clothes, on interior space (parts of the novel take place on a spaceship, and Leckie is meticulous in describing how the characters move around each other in the narrow corridors), on food. Hwae society places great stock in “vestiges”, historical artefacts related to family history – the authenticity or otherwise of these drives the plot at several key moments. There’s a moment when a character calls out the press for refusing to use the name ey’ve chosen for emself:

you all flew here from the capital this morning so you could shout questions at me in person, but you can’t bring yourself to use the name I want to go by

There’s a whole storyline about a character identifying himself as Geck (though he looks human, the Geck do have hangers-on who are genetically altered humans) and what that means legally. And so on. Identity politics: not just how we create identities for ourselves, but specifically how we perform and negotiate them with others, and how the choices we make when we’re with other people are always loaded, always political. Provenance dramatises that slogan of second-wave feminism, “the personal is political”.

And so, that double structure is asking us to look twice at everything we see. A murder that looks personal is deeply political. Choices that look personal – how we dress, how we name ourselves, what we eat – are deeply political.

It’s always worth asking: why this genre? In this instance, why does Provenance need to be SF? What would it lose by not being SF?

It’s important, I think, that the culture(s?) we encounter in Provenance is (are?) an alien one; not alien in the SFnal sense but in the sense that it runs on different rules, and that, crucially, those are rules we have to figure out as we go along. That work of, essentially, reverse engineering the rules of a culture from how people act within it is work that estranges our own culture from us; like the novel’s double structure, Provenance teaches us to re-read the world, to pay attention to the myriad lines of power and influence that underlie even our most mundane interactions.

This is all brilliant and fascinating and (that overused word) timely, of course, and I really enjoyed Provenance (although I can’t honestly say I grasped all the intricacies of the interplanetary politics). But: it does just feel a little less urgent than the Ancillary trilogy, which dealt with issues like slavery and bodily autonomy and imperialism – grappling with the idea of power in a much more direct way. Provenance feels like a step back into provincialism. It’s very far from bad. But neither is it mind-blowing.

Review: The Seed Collectors

Scarlett Thomas’ The Seed Collectors is sprawling, like the roots of a tree. That’s appropriate, since it begins with a family tree: that of the Gardeners, many of whom are named after plants – Bryony, Clematis, Ash, Holly. Some years ago, the previous generation of Gardeners disappeared into the rainforest, in search of a plant whose seed pods, it’s said, are the source of true enlightenment – at the cost of an excruciatingly painful death.

The novel opens with the death of Oleander, great aunt to the current generation of Gardeners. She’s left all her surviving descendants a seed pod each, as well as leaving behind a mansion, Namaste House, which has been converted into a retreat for celebrities and very rich people, and a large fortune.

And it wanders forward from there, dipping into the lives of various Gardeners, Namaste House staff, starlets, and at one point a robin, these diverging perspectives bound loosely together by the mystery of the seed pods and the question of what will happen to Namaste House.

At heart, I think, The Seed Collectors is a novel about enlightenment, which Thomas sees as interchangeable with transcendence: according to Oleander, the novel’s wellspring of spiritual wisdom, the seed pods have the power to free souls from the cycle of reincarnation and individuality to become, er, one with the universe, the World Soul. (Yes, this is cheesy; more on that later.) So many of the Gardeners lead variously self-destructive and ultimately selfish lives: Bryony, the ultimate consumer, drinks and eats and shops to excess, to distract herself from her marital problems; the odious botanist Charlie insists on a paleo diet and has a shopping list of attributes he wants in his girlfriends; creepy academic Oliver bumps up the grades of a pretty girl in his class and utterly fails to understand the point of a team-building exercise that requires people to be unselfish so everyone can win. Interspersed with these stories we have bits of Oleander’s wisdom, as the characters begin to unravel the mysteries of the seed pods, and thought experiments that ask us to reframe the world (“If you discovered that you were the only person in the world, and everything you see around you was in fact a part of you, dramatised, how would that change what you are doing right now, right this very instant?”), and intertwined through all of this are the roots and leaves and seeds of plants, familiar as breathing and yet also unfathomably alien.

Like the two other Thomas novels I’ve read, The End of Mr Y and Our Tragic Universe, The Seed Collectors looks at how we codify and curdle reality – in Lacanian terms, how we freeze the terrifying incomprehensibility of the Real into the safety of the Symbolic – and at how, despite everything, reality still leaks out, calling all our cultural values, and so our very subjectivities, into question. In the earlier novels, that codification takes place mainly through narrative: we kill reality into art, limiting the shapes our lives can take as we do so. In The Seed Collectors, individual identity itself is what obstructs and conceals the Real: the things we use to mark ourselves as different from other people, whether that’s a special diet, nice clothes, tennis prowess, being the best at team-building, or sitting in first class on a train. To Thomas, these are all artificial (Symbolic) constructs. And the seed pods, symbols (perhaps ironically) of an alien Nature which can’t be codified into the Symbolic (though botanists like Charlie try), are how the Real erupts into the world – by taking souls out of the cycle of reincarnation, they take them back into the Real, back into nature, and planthood.

I should stress that The Seed Collectors is a good deal less hokey than all this is making it sound. Thomas’ voice throughout the novel is chatty and relaxed, and she has great empathy for most of her characters (well, apart from bloody Charlie). It’s a novel you want to spend time in.

But. (You know there’s a but, don’t you.) There’s a catch with representing the Real in fiction, which is that it’s very hard to do – because fiction is part of the Symbolic, so it can’t actually represent the Real, not directly. I bounced hard off Oleander’s wisdom, her explanations about reincarnation and transcendence – to me, these sections of the book felt trite and too easy. Because, when you get down to it, reincarnation is just another schema in which to confine the Real. It’s just another human way of looking at the world; another order of the Symbolic.

Incidentally, this is where I think speculative fiction has the edge over realistic fiction. When we read SFF, we know it’s not meant to be taken literally; it’s always working metaphorically, or ironically. So it’s much better placed to think about the Real, and about elements of human experience that we can’t put properly into words without diminishing them. SFF can gesture at things realistic fiction can’t say, because SFF is always already gesturing indirectly at the world. That’s how it works.

So my issue with The Seed Collectors is that it isn’t quite SFnal enough. It doesn’t work symbolically enough: it wants us to take reincarnation as literally, as matter-of-factly, as we take the realist sections of the novel. Which, of course, we can’t: it’s a different order of thing. It can only ever be taken metaphorically; but Thomas doesn’t give us the right protocols to read it that way.

The Seed Collectors was a disappointment after Our Tragic Universe (but then, almost anything would be). I get what Thomas was trying to do (well, sort of), and shifting our fundamental notions of reality is not work that every novelist is having a go at, so props for that. It just – didn’t work for me. Sometimes that’s how it goes.

Review: They Do It With Mirrors

They Do it With Mirrors is an Agatha Christie novel. You know what to expect.

Miss Jane Marple, little old lady and amateur sleuth extraordinaire, is sent by an old school friend, Ruth, to Stonygates, a dilapidated mansion belonging to Ruth’s sister Carrie Louise. Ruth is worried about her sister, but can’t put her finger on why. Is it because Stonygates now plays host to a home for delinquent boys? Because of Carrie Louise’s adopted granddaughter Gina’s sulky American husband, newly come to a country he doesn’t like? Because of Carrie Louise’s husband’s unstable secretary Edgar Lawson?

Before Miss Marple can work it all out – but still probably quite a bit later than we were all expecting – the inevitable corpse turns up: that of Christian Gulbrandsen, Carrie Louise’s stepson and a trustee of the home for delinquent boys. What’s more, someone’s been slowly poisoning Carrie Louise. Who is the murderer?

I do like the occasional Agatha Christie: there’s something inexpressibly cosy about her novels, a combined function of their being set in a time more polite, more formal than the present day and their core pretence that something as inexplicable and excessive as murder is rational and solvable. They posit a world that is essentially logical, one where everything makes sense and everything can be worked out and where there are only ever a limited number of variables. They posit a world that runs on rules: there is a deviation from the rule of law, but by the end of the novel justice has been served, the offender has been punished, and order is restored.

This is a lie, of course, and not a particularly elegant one. They Do it With Mirrors is not a particularly renowned Christie, probably because it is both underbaked and overworked: I couldn’t help thinking, when the solution of the murder was revealed, that it all seemed like a lot of effort to go to, when there were probably a host of better and less obvious ways of going about it.

Of course, those ways wouldn’t make half so good a story. Or, at least, they’d make a different kind of story. As the title suggests, They Do it With Mirrors is slightly aware of its own artifice: its plot hinges on stagecraft and on misdirection, after all. It knows itself to be a magic trick, a way of telling us that the world looks one way when actually it’s something quite different.

Only, you know, this is an Agatha Christie novel. If you’re looking for profound meditations on the nature of murder and the ineffability of the world, you’re in the wrong place. It’s a tiny pocket universe where everything runs like clockwork, like a magic trick, and everyone has reasons for doing what they do, and poetic justice and rational thinking come neatly to package up the messiness of the real hermetically and hygienically. It’s cosy. It’s an escape. Some days, that’s enough.

(Really, though: not my favourite Christie. Try The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side instead.)

Review: A Universal History of Iniquity

I suspect A Universal History of Iniquity was the wrong place to start with Borges, which is what happens when you pick up books on a random whim at the library. It was shelved under “Short Stories”; this was a lie. It’s actually a collection of short, pulpy biographical pieces about renowned criminals and con artists from history, including such colourful and varied individuals as Billy the Kid, Arthur Orton (the claimant in the Tichborne case) and female Chinese pirate captain Ching Shih.

They were first published in a newspaper called Critica, which seems to have been the 1930s Argentinian equivalent of The Sun. Which gives you a good idea of what these pieces are like, tonally.

Probably the most interesting thing about them is their truth-value, which, as you’d expect from a writer of Borges’ reputation, is very dubious. As translator Andrew Hurley helpfully explains, Borges plays merry hell with his sources, quoting them extensively in some passages without mentioning it, while fabricating direct quotes elsewhere. (Which is, come to think of it, not unlike the kind of journalism employed in The Sun. YES, I WENT THERE.)

I’m not sure, though, exactly what the point of this is. The pieces themselves feel slight, unstriking, forgettable, if reasonably nicely written; Borges describes them in an introduction as “baroque”,

that style that deliberately exhausts (or tries to exhaust) its own possibilities, and that borders on self-caricature…the final stage in all art, when art flaunts and squanders its resources.

I’d be interested in thinking with this quotation about Gothic texts like Gormenghast or House of Leaves, but I have no idea how to engage with it in the context of A Universal History of Iniquity. The pieces are too insubstantial to claim that they exhaust their own possibilities.

It’s possible that this is all an elaborate joke about the ephemerality of authorship, the flimsiness of authority, but I can’t shake the feeling that I’d enjoy that joke more if I’d actually read any of Borges’ major works. Which I will! A Universal History of Iniquity hasn’t put me off, but it hasn’t exactly whetted my curiosity either.