Tag: fantasy

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: 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: Everfair

It would be interesting to compare Nisi Shawl’s alt-historical novel Everfair with the Broadway musical Hamilton. It’s not a comparison I’m going to go into in great detail here, because I only just thought of it, but: both works are trying to make space in history, and in narratives of nation-building, for people of colour. Two interesting things come out of this comparison: firstly, that Everfair does this less problematically and more honestly than Hamilton does; secondly, I still like Hamilton a whole lot more than I like Everfair. (Given how much I like Hamilton, this isn’t actually as much of an insult as it sounds.)

So. Everfair is a “what-if” novel, set against the horrific backdrop of the Belgian King Leopold II’s exploitation of the Congo Free State in the late 1800s and early 1900s – a period of perhaps twenty years during which, historians estimate, up to ten million people died as a result of Leopold’s insatiable greed for rubber.

Shawl asks: what if a group of British socialists had got together with a group of African-American missionaries to buy a parcel of land in the Congo and set up a new country there – the eponymous Everfair – a haven for refugees from Leopold’s atrocities?

The resulting novel is a series of short chapters told from the points of view of eleven different characters, ranging from the white middle-class English housewife Daisy Albin – who also happens to be Everfair’s national poet – and her mixed-race female lover Lisette, through the African-American Christian missionary Thomas Jefferson Wilson, who gradually becomes assimilated into the local religion, to King Mwenda, ruler of the territory bought by the European founders of Everfair, who enters into an uneasy alliance with them. Each chapter jumps forward in time, by as little as a week or as much as a year. So we are given a series of short vignettes, almost, that together build a picture of the founding of Everfair, from early in Leopold’s reign of terror to the end of the First World War.

It’s exactly this multiplicity of voices, this fragmentation, that makes Everfair, and Everfair, what it is. The Europeans and their African-American allies see a potential utopia in Everfair; but those eleven points of view show us exactly how much of a contested issue utopia is. The missionaries want to spend charitable donations on Bibles and religious material to convert the local people and the refugees. The socialists, broadly speaking, abhor religion, and want to build Everfair along modern socialist lines. King Mwenda wants his traditions to be respected, and for the settlers to remember that Everfair was originally his land, sold out from under him by the Belgian government.

And so on. All of these people are playing politics with each other; all of them have broadly the same goal – a peaceful life under a fair government – even if they have widely differing interests and worldviews. (One of the most interesting things about Everfair is how it treats science and magic – as exactly that, different worldviews, equally valid. The airships that feature so prominently in the economic development of Everfair are built by science; the heaters that keep them aloft run on magic and traditional belief. Doctors in Everfair’s hospitals use modern medicines to keep patients alive; King Mwenda and Thomas Jefferson Wilson are both told things by their gods and ancestors that they could not possibly know rationally.) The novel takes no sides: each character’s point of view is valid. And so we see how messy the work of nation-building is, how ideologically fraught it is from the start, a tangle of compromises and conflicts that means nobody quite gets what they want, but everyone gets as good a result as they can. Everfair is a novel about people working together, productively if not always harmoniously, to build a society that includes everyone. It’s not utopia. It’s not perfect (because the world is not perfect). There are crises and there are moral compromises. But we get the sense that, mostly, it’s the best anyone can do.

Why don’t I like it more, then?

Partly, I think it’s a case of mismatched expectations. The novel calls itself steampunk; from the “Historical Note” at the beginning of the book:

The steampunk genre often works as a form of alternative history, showing us how small changes to what actually happened might have resulted in momentous differences: clockwork Victorian-era computers, commercial transcontinental dirigible lines, and a host of other wonders. This is that kind of book.

See, I think this gets steampunk wrong. For me, a vital part of steampunk is a transgressive sense of playfulness; it knows, fundamentally, that no Victorian was ever a steampunk, that it is impossible except in modernity. It is constantly winking at its audience to let them know that its ahistoricity is deliberate, and fun, and a little bit ridiculous. That’s not to say that steampunk can’t do serious things; just that what it’s doing usually has little to do with history. Steampunk, at heart, is playing meta games with its audience.

Whereas Everfair is anything but playful. I read it fast, travelling home by train after Christmas, and it resisted me every step of the way. It’s a novel that demands to be taken seriously, to be read slowly and with great attention to detail. Look at that “Historical Note”; the three-page list of “Some Notable Characters” at the beginning of the novel (only some); the detailed, serious-looking map, not at all like a fantasy map. From the “Historical Note” again:

Of course steampunk is a form of fiction, a fantasy, and the events within these pages never happened. But they could have.

As I’ve said above, the function of steampunk is precisely not to say “this could have happened”. That’s the function of alt-history. Everfair is really alt-history. Its project is to create a space in Western historical fiction for people of colour as participants in nation-building. Its project is to bring an under-studied and terrible interlude in recent European history to the attention of readers who at best only know it through reading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness at university once – and to do so in a way that casts people of colour as more than victims.

To be clear: this is important work, and I think it’s work that Everfair does very well – I don’t want to diminish that. I also think that the novel is basically all worldbuilding, in M. John Harrison’s sense: despite its multivocalism, it’s not a novel that leaves much space for interpretation or exploration (although, I suspect, every reader will empathise with different characters – I spent a lot of time rooting for Lisette and willing Daisy to realise how racist she was being). As a reader, I prefer baggier, more playful novels; steampunk novels, not alt-history ones. But that’s on me, not the book.

Top Ten Things I Hate in Fictional Romances

I rarely ship fictional characters, because I rarely ever read a fictional romance I find convincing. Not uncoincidentally, pretty much all of these are things I dislike about fictional het romances, because so many of our cultural norms for het romances are warped and coercive and, frankly, really fucking weird.

  1. Where creepy and/or abusive behaviours are “romantic”. This includes: watching strangers sleep, entering their space without permission, and pretty much anything that has to be justified by the phrase “it’s for your own good”. Oh, hello Twilight!
  2. Where the (female) love interest is a prize for the (male) protagonist. As in, for example, the dishearteningly popular Ready Player One. DON’T DO THAT. (If we’re gonna be intellectual about it, this is a layover from 12th-century chivalric ideals of knights fighting each other for the hand of The Most Beautiful Woman Ever. It’s objectification, pure and simple.)
  3. Where a supernatural(ly hot) woman pronounces her love interest The Kindest Man In The World. This is a good sign that the novel (which may or may not be Jim C. Hines’ Libriomancer) is not actually interested in the woman as a person: it’s just male fantasy, of the Nice Guy variety.
  4. Where No Really Means Yes. I fucking hate it when persistence makes a love interest change their mind, because what kind of message does that send? (Remember Mr Collins from Pride and PrejudiceNobody deserves that.)
  5. Where a woman Just Needs A Man to settle down and stop being so uppity and weird and unfeminine. *cough*Eowyn*cough* Ooh! Also Bella in Our Mutual Friend.
  6. Where there is a significant age gap. I mean, this is particularly a problem when there are literal centuries between the couple (Twilight again! But also the elf-human relationships in The Silmarillion). But I also can’t get past May-December romances in things like Parable of the Sower, where a godsdamn fifty-year-old man sleeps with an eighteen-year-old girl (even consensually).
  7. Where a woman stays at home while her love interest has awesome adventures. Enough said.
  8. Where a man makes his love interest shelter behind him even if he has clearly never fought anything ever. Except in some historical or historical fantasy novels, ’cause men were shitty in the past.
  9. Where there is an angel in the house. Basically, all of Dickens’ women. They are saintly, altruistic, good at household chores and, generally, boring. And utterly fictional.
  10. Where the queer couple dies. N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season is as awesome as you have heard; but it does destroy an awesome queer relationship (along with a lot of other things). The wider point is that: queer people almost never get decent fictional relationships, because we all lead Tragic and Unfulfilled lives, obviously.

(The prompt for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Review: The Compleat Discworld Atlas

The Compleat Discworld Atlas is a lovely book. Let’s get that out of the way first. Thick, richly-illustrated pages describing each of the colourful countries and lands that make up Terry Pratchett’s Discworld; one of those elastic loops to keep the book closed; an impressively detailed fold-out map, complete with lines of latitude and longitude (appropriately adjusted for a flat world), magic concentrations and temperature ranges. It’s very geeky. And, for a Discworld fan like me, it’s…fun.

But less fun than it should be. Because there’s a sense in which a book like this (which was, it seems, one of Pratchett’s last creations) misses the point of Discworld. Discworld was built out of a series of jokes. There are consistencies between the books, especially as the series goes on, but we always have the sense that Pratchett’s happy to bend the setting around the story he wants to tell. It’s not a place that was ever meant to be mapped. (I think there’s actually a joke to that effect in the preface to one of the books. It goes something like: “This book does not contain a map. Feel free to draw your own.” Fourteen-year-old me loved that.)

That’s…not a problem per se. The problem is, I think, is that this particular book completely misses the sense of fun and parody and transgression that characterises Discworld as a body of work. (There are fun Discworld maps that exist! I’ve seen an Ankh-Morpork map drawn by Stephen Player which I particularly covet.) It takes itself too seriously, its mock-encyclopaedic objectivity unleavened by the wit and wordplay of the novels. (There are some puns. They are leaden and over-explained.)

And codifying Discworld in an atlas like this makes the novels’ Anglocentrism particularly overt and particularly problematic. Everyone knows that Ankh-Morpork is the heart of the Discworld. It is its vital, beating heart; it feels like a real city even in the early novels. It’s also pretty explicitly a London analogue. That’s sort of fine in the novels, because Pratchett was a British author, and the books’ humour is specifically British, and most of their main characters are recognisably British in some form or another (with a few exceptions): so it makes a certain amount of sense that this vast and teeming world should be filtered through a British point of view.* But the objectivity of an atlas means that equal weight is ostensibly placed on each country. Which makes it very obvious when many of those countries are made up of vaguely racist stereotypes. Seeing “wives” listed alongside “camels” as an export from an African-coded country of nomads was a particular kick in the teeth: a vicious form of sexism thrown off as a careless, racist joke.

There is a vague conceit that the atlas has been partially compiled by Rincewind, the cowardly wizard-hero of some of the earlier Discworld novels, who comes with his own bundle of (partly-unexamined) insecurities and prejudices. But this is mentioned once in the preface and then never again; the text has none of the colour that might otherwise serve to distance narrator from author. (See, by way of contrast, the Discworld companion book Nanny Ogg’s Cookbook, which is a delight throughout, sprinkled with quintessentially Ogg-ish gems like “If you go to other people’s funerals, they’ll be sure to come to yours.”)

I don’t want to say “this is a terrible book”. Pratchett gets a lot of leeway from me, in part because it’s impossible for me to have any kind of critical distance from his novels. But this doesn’t feel like Discworld, this overly fannish work of codification and reification. (It’s perhaps telling that the Discworld Emporium, the company licensed with selling Discworld merchandise, is listed as one of the copyright holders.) Or, rather, it feels like the worst of Discworld. The map itself may turn out to be a lovely reading companion; but I can’t imagine ever really going back to the gazetteer. Which is a shame, given how expensive the whole package actually is.

*Even so, I think Interesting Times and Pyramids might make me uncomfortable if I read them for the first time now.

Review: La Belle Sauvage

La Belle Sauvage is the first novel in The Book of Dust, Philip Pullman’s prequel trilogy to the metaphysical YA juggernaut that is His Dark Materials. Which means, inevitably, that it comes with a whole load of not-necessarily-fair reader-response baggage. (I can’t imagine anyone reading La Belle Sauvage without already having read the original series. But maybe that’s short-sighted of me.)

I found it an odd beast, compared with His Dark Materials. Our Hero is Malcolm Potstead, a precocious eleven-year-old whose parents run the Trout, a country inn a couple of miles from Pullman’s alternative and vaguely steampunk Oxford. (The Trout is a real, and moderately famous, pub; one of the delightful things about reading La Belle Sauvage is tracing its characters through slightly different versions of places that really exist.) When the nuns at Godstow Priory, just opposite the Trout, take in a baby girl called Lyra (who’ll grow into the heroine of the later books), Malcolm gets drawn into the machinations of a secret society called Oakley Street, which works against the oppressive state church which controls the Britain of the novel. He becomes a spy for Oakley Street alethiometrist Hannah Relf, taking her news of Lyra and the church’s incursion into his school and anything else vaguely unusual.

The novel intertwines chapters from Malcolm’s point of view with chapters from Hannah’s. This feels unusual in a novel that’s ostensibly YA/MG (although it’s something that Pullman’s done before, with Mary Malone’s chapters in The Amber Spyglass). What’s more, Hannah’s chapters are (unsurprisingly) markedly different in content and feel than Malcolm’s. They’re filled with worries about academia and Oakley Street politics and her spywork, the complexities of functioning as an adult in a very real, and very hostile, world. Malcolm’s chapters are no less complex, exactly, but they register the world in a different way: to his single-minded and still childish intelligence, the world is a puzzle to be solved, not quite participated in as a full agent. So, when a great and unprecedented flood comes to Oxford, threatening to put Lyra in the way of her father Lord Asriel’s enemies in the church, Malcolm’s solution is one only a child could come up with: ride the flood (in his canoe La Belle Sauvage) to London, to take Lyra to her father there.

The flood chapters are…interesting, and don’t exactly seem to take place in the same world as His Dark Materials. As John Clute points out in Strange Horizons, they are Spenserian rather than Miltonian: they take place in an England (or, an Albion) populated by hidden, allegorical magic beings (Father Thames, for instance, pops out of the flood at one point). As Malcolm, Lyra and their abrasive, accidental companion Alice float down the swollen river, chased by Lord Asriel’s enemies, they encounter strange and mist-bound perils, which they escape through a combination of fairytale logic, ingenuity and childish literalness of thought. I couldn’t help comparing the linearity and narrow focus of this Spenserian quest structure with the much more exploratory bagginess, the dead ends and reversals and multiple plotlines, of His Dark Materials. (If I recall correctly, Hannah Relf’s chapters in La Belle Sauvage end when the flood comes, leaving us with a single narrative thread to follow.) Put more simply: Father Thames doesn’t feel like something that can exist in the wonderful but ultimately scientific-rational world of His Dark Materials. His is a less comprehensible magic, one unencompassed by Hannah Relf’s understanding of the world as a web whose threads, however tangled, can be followed at least in theory.

One of the things I think Pullman is interested in, then, here and in his earlier trilogy, is the difference between childhood and adulthood, and, more precisely, the transition between them. Malcolm’s story may look like Spenserian allegory, but it’s not immediately clear what it might be an allegory for. Certainly not innocence: like His Dark Materials’ Will, and older Lyra to a certain extent, Malcolm and Alice are forceful about getting what they need for Lyra (nappies and bottle feeds are major plot drivers), and about escaping those who hunt them. They break into shops and houses, they are canny about how to elicit people’s sympathies, they don’t hesitate to use violence. Which isn’t to say that they are horrible people, of course (although I remain, frankly, unconvinced about Malcolm); merely that Pullman is pushing back against conventional representations of the child. As I’ve said, the novel’s form suggests that, for Pullman, the difference is one of outlook: a child’s (or teenager’s; Alice is fifteen) view of the world is narrow, specific, and observant, and occupies a position of relative powerlessness, while an adult’s is strategic and participatory, looking for networks and intersections with a view to influencing and inhabiting them. Adults create the waterways that children navigate, to force a metaphor perhaps too far.

So it’s a book about power and powerlessness (and wouldn’t this post have been so much shorter if I’d realised that an hour ago?). It’s very much a first-in-series novel, so it doesn’t come to any conclusions (unlike Northern Lights, the first His Dark Materials novel, which stands by itself very nicely both plot-wise and thematically) – which, to me, makes it feel vaguely unsatisfying. As does the fact that I don’t think Pullman does Spenser nearly so well as he does Milton. Faerie requires a lighter, more ethereal touch which Pullman’s storytelling is too robust to deliver. La Belle Sauvage feels like – well, not exactly a minor work, but nothing equalling anything in His Dark Materials either. In the most clichéd of reviewerly sign-offs: it remains to be seen what he’ll do with its sequels.

Review: A Tale for the Time Being

Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being follows Ruth, a novelist in her forties living with her husband Oliver on an island off British Columbia. Once upon a time, she finds on the beach a Hello Kitty lunchbox containing the diary of a depressed teenager called Nao, who’s struggling to integrate back into the Japanese society her parents come from after her father loses his job at a Silicon Valley company.

The novel braids these narratives together: Nao’s diary, in which she tries to save her suicidal father, rootles around in her family history, and generally descends into the seedier side of Tokyo; and Ruth’s response to Nao’s diary, her attempts to find out more about Nao and her fate.

This is exactly the sort of book I love to curl up in: baggy, expansive, imperfect and, most importantly, full of heart and authenticity. I’ve been thinking quite a lot over the last year or so about postmodernism and irony: how novels using postmodern techniques like author inserts and footnotes and textual bricolage (novels like Mark Z. Danielewski’s 27-volume The Familiar, or, gods bless it, Catherynne Valente’s Radiance) tend to point out the artificiality of text and narrative without actually doing anything about it.

Which can be fun. But it’s 2018, a year into the Trump presidency and a spitting distance from Brexit. We know by now that narratives are unstable and that neither the tale nor the teller can be trusted absolutely.

No, what I like most about A Tale for the Time Being is that it uses the techniques of postmodernism not to ironise narrative but to authenticate it: to point out the ways it connects people in an uncertain world.

I wrote last week about Twice Upon a Time, Stephen Moffat’s last episode for Doctor Who, is concerned with the idea of timeless moments, with existing asynchronously as memory. A Tale for the Time Being does something similar, only, you know, better.* Ruth rations herself to reading a single entry of Nao’s diary per night, so that she reads about Nao’s experiences at roughly the same pace as Nao lives them. In doing so, she forgets, and elides, the time that lies between them. She starts looking for evidence of Nao and her family outside the diary, concerned for Nao’s wellbeing. It’s Oliver who has to point out to her that everything Nao describes must have happened some years before, for the diary to have crossed the Pacific. If anything was going to happen to her, it would have happened already.

And yet. There’s a speculative element to this book, a hint of magical realism, which will probably annoy some lit-fic readers, but which I found quite lovely. Pages of the diary disappear: one minute they’re crowded with handwriting, the next they’re quite blank. It makes literal that elision of time that happens when we read, our sense that the narrative is happening now even though we know rationally that the ending’s already written. Ruth hasn’t read to the ending yet. So, for her, it doesn’t exist. It hasn’t happened.

There’s also a scene near the end of the book (trying to avoid spoilers) when a dream of Ruth’s appears to influence something that happens in the diary; when, in other words, Ruth gives Nao the concrete help she’s been longing to give her throughout the novel. Again, that impossible elision of time, the sense that narrative and life are happening simultaneously. The diary is timeless, a moment to be experienced asynchronously, a constant now (Nao).

That collapse of time benefits both Ruth and (if we’re to read the diary as “true”) Nao. Nao learns something about her past from Ruth’s possibly supernatural help, and she also gains comfort just from writing her diary. She writes it to “you”: “if you’re reading this, then maybe by now you’re wondering about me”. She addresses “you” as a particular friend. Nao’s diary is a cry for help. Ruth reading it, even in the future, makes it an act of connection, a friendship.

And Ruth gets connection from the diary, too: a connection back to her roots in Japan. (Like Nao, Ruth is Japanese American.) A Tale for the Time Being is acutely aware of the artificiality of text and narrative; it’s aware that we cannot really ever know if Nao’s diary is real, if at some point Ruth has taken over writing it, if, as Ruth fears, Nao died in the 2011 tsunami. But it also knows that it doesn’t particularly matter. Stories are our lifeblood. They create miraculous connections across time and space and culture, between a forty-year-old on a quiet Canadian island and a teenager in a teeming Japanese city. They help us help each other – even if it’s only by reimagining each other’s futures.

*It’s interesting that I’m defining A Tale for the Time Being pretty exclusively against other texts. I’m sure there’s a reason for that. I don’t know what it is.