bookgazing: (i heart books)
blue book cover with a silhouette of a girl jumping and holding a big red balloon with the title of the book inside

Today I’m talking about ‘Tony Hogan bought me an Ice Cream Float before he Stole my Ma’ by Kerry Hudson, which is one of the books on the Green Carnation Prize 2012 short list; the first UK based award for work by LGBT authors. I gathered together a group of bloggers interested in this prize, which was also created by a blogger (Simon of Savidge Reads) and over the past few days each of them has posted about one book that made the short list this year. Now it’s my turn!

I have been cavalierly promising that my contribution to this project would be a vlog review of Hudson’s novel, where you could see my face and everything (no, wait, that sounds…different than what I meant). Unfortunately I failed to put aside enough time to investigate the wonders of my laptops in-built video camera, which was a mistake as I am generally technically inept (secret - you don’t have to be technically advanced to market IT products). So instead of a vlog my contribution to the Green Carnation Prize reading group is a heap of bullet points about a book that keeps its tone as fun and frothy as the quirky zing of its lengthy title promises, while concentrating on character whose lives are hard.

Let's begin )

All in all ‘Tony Hogan bought me an Ice Cream Float before he Stole my Ma’ is an interesting novel, which contains lots to things to think about. It’s a quick, entertaining read and it has a lot of heart. But is it a winner? Make sure to check the Green Carnation Prize blog on 12th Dec 2012 to find out which title has won.

You can see the full list of the reviews our reading group wrote about the books on the short list in the master post. After all this reviewing and discussion, which do you think will take the glory?
bookgazing: (i heart books)

Today I'm talking a little bit about Karen Lord's debut novel 'Redemption in Indigo' as part of Booklust's A More Diverse Universe' blog tour, which features many bloggers all talking about fantasy and SF novels by chromatic authors.

'A rival of mine once complained that my stories begin awkwardly and end untidily. I am willing to admit to many faults, but I will not burden my conscience with that one. All my tales are true, drawn from life, and a life story is not a tidy thing. It is a halftamed horse that you seize on the run and ride with knees and teeth clenched, and then you regretfully slip off as gently and safely as you can, always wondering if you could have gone a few metres more.
Thus I seize this tale, starting with a hot afternoon in the town of Erria, a dusty side street near the financial quarter. But I will make one concession to tradition.

...Once upon a time—'

Apologies to Ana from thingsmeanalot for using the same quote she opened her review with, but it just provides a line of examination that is too good and bookish to resist. Karen Lord's 'Redemption in Indigo' is, as Ana astutely noted, a story that like China Miéville's 'Railsea' 'comments on the story as it's being told and makes occasional remarks on the nature of storytelling itself' like the one I quoted above. For someone like me, who is interested in how common storytelling conventions work, these self-referential comments are part of the fun of reading the book. It's nice to feel like a text is throwing knowing winks at you across the bar, because it believes that you will understand it. Isn't that part of why self-referential SF remakes are so beloved by fans who know the universe that's being wryly referred to?

I don't think I've been so conflicted about how a book's construction affects my reading in a long time. I am nearly always charmed by the sensibility of self-referential works, especially when they comment on how storytelling works. Deconstructing how narrative functions even as you construct a narrative, that's so tricky and meta, right? How can I resist the work of an author who gambles by pulling apart the very substance of the art they are creating and shows the reader just how traditional narrative gets the bunny into the hat? Even if a novel isn't pulling out many new insights into how storytelling works1 I enjoy seeing novelists embrace the spirit of investigation and illumination that seems to be embodied in novels which deconstruct narrative.

It's important for me to remember though that the transparency of a story that reveals and rejects the limits of traditional narrative, is often a tricksy illusion in itself. Even narratives bent on deconstruction must be built on some kind of alternate structure, as structure (even if it appears like no structure we've ever seen before) is what forms stories into readable pieces of literature, right? Despite the claims of the narrator that 'Once upon a time' is the 'one concession to storytelling tradition' they will make while telling this 'halftamed horse' of a story, 'Redemption in Indigo' contains a story that is often based around a traditional narrative structure; the rule of three episodes used in task or trial portions of fairy tales and myths. A good example of a western fairy tale that use this version of the rule of three is 'The Tinder Box', where a soldier enters three chambers and meets three dogs, each with larger eyes than the last. Each dog guards a hoard of money: the first watches over copper pennies, the second guards silver and the final dog is surrounded by gold. In this fairy tale each new chamber shows the soldier a dog with bigger eyes, keeping watch over more valuable currency, until he reaches the climax of the rule of three's progression, by meeting the dog with the biggest eyes, the size of dinner plates who is in charge of the most precious treasure, the gold. At this point he leaves the chambers and continues on with his story.

'Redemption in Indigo' contains a few examples of the use of rule of three. At the beginning of the book the heroine, Paama, finds that her estranged, gluttonous husband Ansige has followed her to her parent's village. While there Asinge meets with three misadventures, each more ludicrous than the last, which Paama cleverly spins to his advantage. Later in the book when Paama goes on a rather supernatural journey with a character called the Chaos Lord, she is taken to three locations before the conclusion of their journey can be achieved. So, here's a rigid structure in 'Redemption in Indigo', which reinforces the fairy tale origins of this novel2 and which appears contrary to the idea that the narrator's story is 'not a tidy thing'. So, what does this mean?

I'd like to suggest that that Lord's choice of structural elements and words subtly reflects the complicated vision of chaos that Paama discovers operating behind the scenes of her world, but I feel like I'm probably reading too much into a casual inconsistency of form and words. Beyond the charming, funny and sometimes fantastical stories that fill Paama's life this book's main theme has to do with chaos. This force is represented as both the standard messy unravelling of unending possibility, with all the negative connotations that affect the word 'chaos' as opposed to the word 'chance,' and an ordering force which creates a path through all those possibilities, as people make choices. I'd like to say that Lord's switch from a rigid storytelling pattern to, at times, an unfurling of story which appears to lack clear direction, show a narrative structure shaped around this theme of chaos. I'd like to say that when Paama seems to hand back an object called the chaos stick simply because her story has reached the end of the progression of the three rule, rather than that she's made a considered choice, that this is an example of this kind of deliberately chaotic structure. But I fear I am just going all structure-meta because I don't want to be the reader who doesn't 'get it' when the narrator has so clearly shown their disdain for readers who complain about the messiness of their stories, or view stories as 'a riddle to be solved' through the narrative asides which talk about storytelling.

This is the one complaint I have about stories that make deconstructing comments about the nature of traditional narrative — sometimes these comments can keep readers from having an honest reaction to the novel they're reading. Sometimes it's almost like having the authors intentions, which in my opinion, readers have just got to be able to disregard to be able to respond openly to a text, written into the novel as almost rules of response. This can be very inhibiting if you happen to find yourself agreeing with these intentions but feeling as if they have been under executed in the text. It's confusing at best to find yourself agreeing with the text's comments about reading, but finding that your reaction to the way a story is structured makes you want to call the book out for being messy in its execution; exactly the kind of comments it scorns in these comments. Am I mining for meta in this novel's structure because I think it's there, or because I want this narrative to validate me as a 'smart girl'? And similarly is any negative reaction to this book's form genuine, or am I being pissy because I feel like certain of the book's comments can be interpreted as attempts to direct my reading? It's difficult for me to know and I find myself feeling insecure in my ability to form an opinion when I re-read these sections of the book. Is this reaction good as it allows me to see all sides of a particular element, or is it negative because it shows an inability on my part to interpret text confidently without being swayed by author intentions? And is this reaction actually anything to do with the book, or is it entirely to do with the kind of reader I am at the moment? Clear interpretation feels very hard to grasp at the moment.

Having such a strong, confused personal reaction to the book, you might think I'd find any charm about this novel broken, but no 'Redemption in Indigo' still enchanted me. Which is part of the reason I felt like I had to get all my feelings out in this review, in order to give anyone reading a properly balanced picture of how the book affected me. It's a good job you all like words, right?

When I read that Simon from Savidge Reads feels 'Redemption in Indigo' is a 'warm' novel I thought that was the very best word to use to describe it. There's no single reason that I'd attribute that word to Lord's story, there's an accumulation of elements which all give the novel a lovely warm tone. The fun of the trickster schemes, which always stop short of being cruel, coupled with the novel's ability to allow the reader to laugh at some of the absurd characters like Asinge and a little terror of a child who has his skin stolen by the baccou, without encouraging readers to sneer coldly at these characters:

'The baccou rushed out of the room, muttering, 'Kitchen. Better stock up now while I have the chance.'

The boy let out a screech of fury and frustration and ran after him. Paama found herself grinning as she went with the djombi to the third observation point. How many times had she thought that if only Ansige could see how he appeared to others, he would be desperate to change?

The baccou was tearing messily through the larder, throwing food down and smearing his face with flour, molasses, anything that would stick and look ridiculous. When the boy saw him, he sat down on the floor and wept helplessly until the baccou stopped his rampage and squatted down beside him, a sympathetic expression on his face.

'It's not much fun anymore, is it?' he asked the boy softly.

'N-no,' the boy sobbed.

'Well it's not fun for me anymore, either. Call me up again if you want me, but you can have your skin back now.'

The compassion and quiet strength that radiates off Paama without making her a martyr-like character fills the novel with good humour and humanity. Here she is working on a scheme to keep her ridiculous husband, who she has left, happy and fed so that he won't keep transfering the blame for his foolish actions on to her:

'When the song had ended and the grinding was done, Paama's heart felt light at last. She caught sight of Ansige at the far edge of the court, looking at her as if his life depended on the contents of her mortar, and instead of being irritated at him, she felt sorry for him...She wished she could help him - not meerly feed him to take away the hunger for a short while, but cure him, so that food would never rule him again.'

Later, she proves herself to be ingenius when she spins tales to hide his foolishness and capable of even more strength, as she leaves Ansige for good and faces tough challenges with the supernatural Chaos Lord. After all that at the end of the novel she returns to see a dying Ansige out of the world with great feeling for a man who has caused her so much trouble, even though she knows the choice to leave him was the right one:

' 'Hello Asige,' Paama greeted him.

Ansige's head turned slowly until heir eyes met. 'Paama. You've come back to me.'

She couldn't bear to correct him. She simply brought the tray over to the bedside table, set it down and said, 'I heard you weren't well.'

The focus on the ordinary domestic side of life gives the book a great feeling of cosy familiarity, even if readers have never ground millet. And the repetitive rhythm of the rule of three which I just mentioned above, contributes a lulling aspect to the text.

There's probably much more that makes up this novel's cosy (but never saccharine, it hits some dark places once the Chaos Lord is introduced) atmosphere, for example:

'Drenched in rain and miserable, Paama got up from the doorstep, keeping her back turned to the house with its two bodies and its broken mirror. She scrubbed wearily at her ears, feeling as if she would never rid them of the echoes of the woman's screams.

'I didn't think she was strong enough to stand, far less reach for the mirror.' she mumbled, shuddering as her unrelenting memory stopped yet again at the moment when the woman used the shard of mirror glass to slice into her own jugular.'

When I first started writing this post that was the only aspect I planned to talk about. 'Redemption in Indigo' had thoroughly wrapped me up in its spell. I wanted to explain how wonderful it was to read such a delicious story, because it was; I loved this book and I felt…safe, happy, interested and entertained while reading it. I recommend it. But once I started writing, started taking out all my reactions, I realised that any post which only focused on that reaction was going to end up ignoring my alternate personal reaction to the book, which felt equally important. And what are blogs for, but to talk about ourselves, right? ;P


1 These kind of deconstructing stories have been around for a while now. Perhaps we might expect that they would move on from reminding the reader of the tricks traditional narratives can play and begin to examine the tricks of later, more experimental narratives.

2 Lord says that 'Redemption in Indigo' is the continuation of the story of a Senegalese fairy tale heroine. Does anyone know what it's called?


Book Monkey Scribbles
Savidge Reads
The Booksmugglers
The Readers (podcast)
bookgazing: (i heart books)

Annalaura Welles lives above the animals in a barn, sharing one room with her four small children. Her husband John, was a sharecropper; a person hired to work an area of farm land for the owner of an estate in return for a lump sum of cash, dependant on the size and quality of the crop raised, so the whole family live on the McNaughton estate. Last season John raised an outstanding crop, but now John has disappeared, apparently abandoning the family just before the second season’s planting period. He has stolen Annalaura’s money and taken much of the family’s small food store. Annalaura is desperate to hide the fact that John is gone because if Alexander McNaughton, the owner of the estate, finds out there is no man to pull the crop in he will evict her family from the tenancy. As a black women without a husband, she will also become ‘fair game’ for any white man around (this is 1913, after slavery has been abolished but a long way from any kind of legal equality for black Americans). So, Annalaura struggles to project the idea that John is still around, while covertly dealing with the consequences of his departure and theft.

‘Page from a Tennessee Journal’ is written in the third person and relates the separate perspectives of four main characters. The reader is immediately sucked into Annalaura’s desperate attempt to survive in the first chapter, then the narrative follows McNaughton and his wife in the second chapter, before shifting focus again to concentrate on Annalaura’s husband John. The reader learns that he has gone to the city in the hopes of earning enough money to buy his own parcel of land, so that he won’t have to work for a white man any more. At this time, southern, white estate owners blatantly rob their black tenants, under the cover of providing them with essential materials for living and working ‘on tick’. It is understood that the cost of items such as seed to grow the crop and food to eat while they wait for the crop to grow, will come out of the tenants earnings when the crop is sold. By levying this ‘advance’ white estate owners make sure that black tenants never earn enough to invest in their futures and break from a cycle of what is essentially indentured labour. John Welles is an exceptional tenant, who pulled a tobacco crop that made ‘...three thousand dollars, more than twice any other tenant farmer he ever had...’ from an uninspiring mid-forty acreage but after one season working for McNaughton, he understands that he will never earn enough money from share cropping to forge an independent future . So, he robs his wife and leaves his small children to work the land during the crucial planting and harvesting period.

That might seem a harsh judgement. I mean, John Welles has noble aims right? He’s fighting his own battle against oppression. And of course, John himself doesn’t frame leaving his family, quite as I have when he thinks about his actions. John sees leaving his wife behind as a noble endeavour; he will get a city job counting cards at a high rolling establishment in order to put his children through school and return the hero. That is a worthwhile aim and many readers will surely find themselves conflicted as the man (who in Annalaura’s section is described as a reckless, restless, deserting dreamer) is humanised. It is important to note that even though his actions cause his wife serious problems, he is in his turn screwed by an unfair, prejudiced society. Intersectional analysis of history = complicated.

However, the novel is careful to never disregard the first inevitable reading of John’s actions as callous. I feel that it actively endorses the idea that John is both right and wrong by returning to focus on Annalaura’s struggles. Though John’s dreams are portrayed sympathetically in the novel, the way he goes about putting his plan into action is not. I’ve already mentioned that he steals food that Annalaura needs, in order to make his trip. While he is away from his family he takes up with other women. The sacrifices he makes are rarely sacrifices that impact on him, although he has convinced himself that he is as pained by circumstances as Annalaura must be, for example he stays in the city longer than necessary for his own pleasure, which leaves Annalaura open to serious harm but when called on this behaviour he implies that circumstances keep him from his wife and he is suffering by missing his children. If his employer hadn’t physically kept some of his wages back for Annalaura there is every possibility that he’d have kept spending in order to justify why he needed to spend even longer away from home. Meanwhile Annalaura faces starvation and is raped by Alexander McNaughton repeatedly.

Many of these thoughtless actions that readers may find hard to forgive stem from the historical context John exists in, for example he rationalises taking money from the family by claiming sole ownership of it as the man of the house and invoking his grand plans for freeing his family from white control. He also refuses to acknowledge the inevitable realities for a young woman with four children left with little food and no way to earn money, because society tells him that no matter what a woman should always remain faithful. Rape is not a concept he seems to understand in the same way that we would. Howard tries to present John as a balanced character, who has good parts to his character, but is heavily influenced by his times. However, I sometimes felt that the book had perhaps set John Welles up as too unlikeable a character for readers to sympathise with, despite the fact that he has been placed in a tough position by society. Without playing oppression Olympics I’ve got to say it’s hard to feel so sorry for a man whose dreams and aspirations are being denied him by the society he lives in, when he’s a cheating, stealing bastard who does not react as modern readers may hope on coming home to find his wife has been raped, even when we’re aware of how historical context affects his actions.

I feel the same way about how the book portrays Alexander McNaughton, the man who repeatedly rapes Annalaura. Alexander is shown as a man of his time period, claiming the free, black woman that everyone else around him said was his right, but he also has genuine feelings for his child who died and eventually comes to feel he is in love with Annalaura. Again, the bad guys aren’t always one dimensional villains. Alexander McNaughton believes he has a right to Annalaura, because his society reinforced that idea through everyday behaviour and rhetoric, much as John Welles was convinced by society’s rhetoric that it was fine for a married man to sleep around as long as he always came home, but unforgivable for a woman not to ‘fight’ if commanded to sleep with a white man. There are probably tons of things our future generations are going to boggle at that we all find totally acceptable because of our modern rhetorical structures, so we have to try not to judge historical characters in a way that positions our generation as the unquestionable pinnacle of enlightenment.

Still, the wife beating (Welles) and rape (McNaughton) perpetrated by these two men are terrible things, we know that the victims of these actions have been hurt, even if the person doing these things is surrounded by cultural reasoning that allows us to understand they were ordinary human beings rather than exceptional monsters. So, personally I needed to be given more of a reason to empathise with the male characters, in order to circumvent my impulse to judge them as bad people with everything taken on balance. I didn’t get enough sympathetic content, or perhaps the novel didn’t convey the sympathetic content that it did put across quite strongly enough. Either way I found my sympathy and interest in viewing the two men as human beings with their own problems disappeared as the novel progressed. By the end I thought they were both totally off the rails awful and although towards the end of the book both men show positive human qualities (John sets out to kill Alexander, then gives up this quest to keep his children safe from the inevitable lynching that would follow, while Alexander helps Annalaura through a difficult birth when she’s all alone) these events just weren’t enough to counter balance all the time I’d spent watching them be terrible, terrible people towards the female characters. For whatever reason I firmly aligned myself with the women against the men, instead of finding a way to sympathise with everyone. I’m still not ruling out the idea that personal feeling has influenced my reading of a couple of characters who other readers will be able to both sympathise with and hate just a bit, but I have read books that successfully convinced me to feel sympathy and dislike before now, for example ‘The Tiger’s Wife’ contains a character who is abusive, but also seemed separately sympathetic to me.

What I feel the book does really well is to show exactly how hard life could be for women involved with these particular kind of men, by introducing the reader to these two complicated, but ultimately violent male characters, which neither of the two sympathetic female characters can trust. Annalaura is a woman trapped between a rock and a hard place in this book. And McNaughton’s wife Eula Mae lives in a loveless, predictable marriage, which she tolerates by deceiving herself, until her husband begins to fall in love with Annalaura (although, of course he doesn’t fall in love with her, just an idealised version of her that he calls Laura). Both women are given active point of view sections in this book, which allows the reader to really get to know them and understand their lives. I would have liked a lot more from Annalaura after Alexander McNaughton begins to rape her, because I wanted to see her feelings about their relationship revealed. Clearly by the end of the book the time they spend together has become more than rape, but how did she reach that state of mind? I thought that the reader had much more access to Eula Mae’s troubled internal feelings. Hearing her inner thoughts humanised and developing the dull, obedient woman Alexander sees, into a person only the reader knows. Not that Annalaura isn’t taken past the image the men in her life have of her in the sections the reader gets access to their inner thoughts, it’s just that as the character the book begins with and the woman who seems to be the heart of the book, I might have expected the book to give even more space to her perspective.

To finish, just a (longish) note on the book’s writing. I started ‘Page from a Tennessee Journal’ a while ago and was put off by the immediate clunky exposition of the first paragraph:

‘Annalaura Welles stirred out of her fitful sleep to the certainty of two things. Husband John was gone for good this time, and even with the help of her four young children, she would be unable to bring in the tobacco harvest by the end of August. Though this was coming up the second year she’d sharecropped the McNaughton mid-forty, she still wasn’t used to living in the converted upper reaches of a barn.’

Sure, this paragraph serves a purpose. It gets a lot of necessary information across quickly: who the protagonist is (Annalaura Welles); what her circumstances are (a woman with four children living above a barn); information about her past (troubled marriage with a man who has left before and now seems to have left permanently) and what the major conflict in her life is (the inability to harvest enough tobacco). It introduces points of interest, which is supposed to intrigue the reader into wanting to continue with the story, for example the reader might wonder who are the McNaughton’s and where has John Welles gone.

Unfortunately there is a lot of information contained in this three sentence paragraph, which is a relatively cramped portion of writing space considering all the facts and information the reader is supposed to absorb. The paragraph is overburdened with more background context than it is capable of encompassing comfortably. The reader’s rhythm is disrupted by the author’s decision to overstuff this first paragraph with straight forward info dumps and attempts to naturally link two rather dramatic declarations with a sentence about living in a barn. This paragraph has the effect of making the novel sound like it is blurting out information, hurling it at the reader rather desperately, with no regard for elegance, as if the narrative thinks it needs to hand the reader all the information they could possibly need or they will leave. The effect of reading it is kind of like when you meet a stranger on the bus who tells you their whole life story in a loud voice, without pausing for breath. Book, you are making me uncomfortable!

I know how important the first sentence can be to help readers decide whether they’re going to pick up a book and continue reading it, so if this passage sounds as shouty and desperate to you as it did to me, can I just say please, please persevere. The rest of the writing is not like this at all. There are a couple of other awkward moments of exposition, but nothing on the scale of other books I’ve reviewed here before (naming no names, but you probably know which ones I’m talking about). For the most part ‘Page from a Tennessee Journal’ is written in an easy to read, solid and inviting style. It’s a good piece of storytelling and I’ve spent so long going on about my problems with the first paragraph so I can explain that the rest of the book is written with much greater naturalness, because I don’t want people to be put off and miss out on this historical novel.

Of course I could just have kept my mouth shut and only talked about all the bits I liked in the novel instead.

And wow, I just called the book ‘good’, which sounds kind of a pathetic word in this world of ‘awesome’ and ‘fantabulousness’. We should rehabilitate the word good…

Shut up brain, over thinking does not help! : P

So, overall a good historical novel, that makes me want to start reading more historical fiction again, because the world within was conjured so well. It’s a book that erases some of the disappointing experiences I’ve had with historical fiction recently, which have irrationally kept me from returning to the genre. And yet, still, not a book that encouraged me to feel sympathetic towards less than sympathetic characters. Zetta Elliot and the author, Francine Thomas Howard discuss John Welles in an interview at Amazon, but I’m curious to know, how does everyone else feel about the men in this book?

Other Reviews

Brown Girl Speaks
rhapsody in books
bookgazing: (i heart books)

According to the introductory note ‘Gentleman Jigger’ was heavily influenced by Richard Bruce Nugent’s involvement in the emerging Harlem Renaissance. The first section is a fictional account of his time working with Wallace Thurman, with whom he created the journal (insert name). Nugent’s stand in character Stuart and Thurman’s avatar Rusty, spend this section cooking up artistic schemes on the fly. These projects are designed to enhance the artistic reputation of African American artists, but Nugent’s book also heavily frames them as flighty, off the cuff schemes primarily thought up so that Stuart and Rusty can earn more money for booze. They create a journal, open an art exhibition in their rooms when funds are tight and gather a group of artistic followers around them who keep the gin flowing.

The reader emerges from ‘Gentleman Jigger’ with an awareness that artistic revolution often springs from less than idealistic enterprises, this does not negate the readers appreciation of the value of the art that Rusty and Stuart’s group ( but especially Stuart) produce. Rusty is very off hand about the integrity of Stuart and the other contributors art work, asking them to knock something up quickly to fill space in the journal. He is more concerned with the rise in artistic status that producing a provocative journal will confer on himself and by association, African American art. Stuart himself often agrees that while talented, he is much too lazy to produce consistant work of substance and bangs out frenzied work for cash. However, his refusal to take his talent as seriously as those around him would like feels deliberately designed to provoke those who he sees as too serious, as is much of his talk.

Perhaps his resistance to concentrating on his work, as others would like him to, is his way of rebelling against what he sees as peoples wish for him to conform and gain approval from white authorities. Nugent’s novel is a delightfully gossipy, alchol drenched romp set in the 1920s and it contains a lot of dryly written dialogue and funny episodes, but it’s also a rigorously intellectual book. The first section sees Stuart calmly dispute the views that many other people, including his black peers, hold about subjects related to race. At various points he deconstructs the lazy way people label art as having a very ‘African’ style, denys that his disgust at a white mans involvement in a quarrel between two black men is an issue of race and debates the ‘one drop’ theory, often riling those around him with his calm assurance in his own ideas1. One of the recurring intellectual arguments about race that Stuart spends a lot of time disecting is what he sees as other black people’s black hating desire to be approved of by the white establishment; their quest to be validated as serious, worthwhile and civillised. Towards the end of this section Stuart is begining to see his paintings become successful without ever really becoming more serious. Although he often spends time working himself hard, he remains hard drinking, flippant, irresponsible and deliberately provoking, yet receives large commissions from his art. It feels as if Stuart’s own vision of African American liberation is the freedom to be as irresponsible as he likes, the freedom to not have to always respectably represent his race and not have to pay any kind of professional consequence for refusing to conform to a life style people would see as more ‘civillised’.

The second section sees Stuart leave Rusty and his friends. In the first section there is a running question about whether Stuart is primarily gay or straight, even though he is asumed to make love to both men and women. Although no one in the group seems to have a problem with someone who sleeps with both men and women, it does seems to frustrate Rusty’s set that Stuart refuses to confirm which gender he prefers for his romantic partners. Stuart makes a point of furthering his friends frustration and confusion in a memorable chapter where he dates a brother and sister pair, both named Bob.

However, in the second section it becomes clear that Stuart is much more sexually interested in men than women. It is also revealed that he has been playing the experienced, cynical, master of sexuality. He is still young, rather untried and unfortunately constantly open to being hurt. In this part of ‘Gentleman Jigger’ the reader sees a much more vulnerable side of Stuart, as he becomes involved in various relationships with Italian gangsters. He is required to untangle the complex way in which these men profess to hate gay men and yet sleep with him, then adjust himself to exclude anything that would align his behaviour with the gay men they profess to despise2.

I enjoyed ‘Gentleman Jigger’ because it was a witty, sometimes scathing, novel set in the 1920s, feuled by gin, that reminded me a little bit of Dawn Powell’s satires. It featured entertaining, thoughtful, if sometimes snobbish characters and made its most endearing character firmly #teamboyskissing. It was perfectly suited to my tastes. Even though I feel like a lot of the intellectual side of this novel went over my head and I expect that people with a better grasp of race and GLBTQ historical arguments would delight in unpicking the responses of its characters to some big questions. Still, I did enjoy at least trying to come to grapple with the challenge of understanding. The feeling of your mind being stretched is hard to beat.

1 I don’t have enough knowledge about how racial arguments developed to really understand the merits, negatives and depths of many of the discussions about race in the first section of ‘Gentleman Jigger’. If anyone knows where I can any critical analysis of the arguments in this book, please point me to it.

2Again, there are a lot of arguments here that I just don’t have the tools to unravel and I’d love to see someone with more knowledge about the history of rhetorical responses to gay relationships take on reviewing this novel (I know, ‘I am demanding’ redux, right?).

Other Reviews

Times Book Review
bookgazing: (i heart books)

‘Now I sit toying with the idea that maybe life is a game after all, a game we play just once. I am coming round to Sarah’s view, perhaps. But if life is a game then it has no practises; no training; no preliminary rounds. It is a game played on the principle of sudden death. And to play it properly, to play it fairly and well, we need all the strength that self-knowledge, courage, will and discipline can impart. At twenty-two I had not yet learned to take life seriously; to know that it is not like other games; that it matters who wins and who loses; and that how they win and lose matters also. I had no idea that victory could be Pyrrhic; nor did I know that the end seldom justifies the means. I could not have known any of this without experience, and of that I had none. I was innocent; and innocent of my innocence.’

Here is an example of the dark, self- flagellating foreshadowing that makes Richard Mason’s debut novel ‘The Drowning People’ so creepily compelling. Mason’s narrator uses an over blown gothic style of narrative that is appropriate for a story which contains a family plagued by insanity, dark secrets and a castle on a private island that is the cause of much jealousy.

The seventy year old narrator, who tells the story of his life, continually makes much of the guilt he feels now and the terrible secrets that he is privy to, which his younger self did not have the foresight to anticipate:

‘He knows no remorse; no shame; no despair. I resent him. He, who thinks himself so fine, does not move as I question him. He sits by the river in an endless idle dream, as I beg for signs I might have seen, for warnings I might have heeded. But still he sits, moving only to toss a pebble into the fast-flowing waters. He pays no attention to the ramblings of an old man; he does not hear them. And I am left helpless, watching.’

He dwells on the terrible lessons he has learnt from the past without revealing the full substance of these secrets to the reader. His words in this passage convey a sense of extreme foreboding to the reader, heightening the tension of the novel. And trust me, by this point in the novel the reader is already hanging from the window ledge by their finger nails as they peer in fearfully at an old man, in a high castle who at the beginning of the novel admitted quite calmly to having shot his wife.

Now, imagine reading a whole novel of such prose. Imagine the first moment you snag on the overly melodramatic nature of these weary, foreshadowing monologues full of strong urging to heed the lessons of the narrator’s experience. Imagine the moment when the seductive spell of high emotion wears off and the mechanics of the novel become much more visible. All you can hear is that ticking of the clockwork and it starts to drive you to distraction.

Look ‘The Drowning People’ is a lovely, deep novel of self-analysis. The narrator is earnest. He determinedly examines his memories to expose the deepest truths of life. It is full of passages of good, sensible realisations, like ‘I was wrong. No love is worth that. No human being is worth the total abdication of the self.’ which may seem simple and obvious to readers with experience, but still conveys a meaningful truth. He conveys both the rigour of his approach and the unflinching nature of his analysis, by using confident, clear, definite phrases that convey how little he spares himself, for example:

‘The ease with which my ties of friendship with Eric dissolved under Ella’s influence shames me now. Then I’m almost certain that I didn’t. And as I talk I remember why it didn’t. I remember the tricks I used to bypass all considerations that might have weakened my resolution, the cunning by which my possessed mind protected itself and its intentions from all complicating scruple…’

This character analysis is shaped around a thrilling plot, full of twists and secrets which truly are shocking. And even in its quieter moments, during the clear, detailed establishment of the novel’s world and the aftermath of dreadful events where the narrator tries to set his life back into some sort of recognisable form, it’s very compelling. The narrator also shows a keen awareness of the way that the other people around him work. It is an unbelievable conceit to set this novel, with its high level of awareness of meaning, as an obsessive one night reconstruction of memories locked away for years, but I could happily let that go.

However, it is not a book I’d recommend to readers who like subtlety. Perhaps you have gathered from the quotes above that Mason’s narrator really like to bang a lesson, or a feeling home. And there is little room for reader’s imagination to interact with the text, as every single image highly described. There’s never just a ball, it must be ‘a scarlet ball’, never just a scarf only ‘a gauzy scarf’. Let me show you the effect this has on one short phrase, where every object must be accompanied by a descriptor, for example ‘the shadowy staircase bathed in short bursts of inadequate light’. That’s not a huge deal, in fact the description is technically probably very accomplished, and it’s personal taste that leads me to find it distracting and a little bit intrusive. When you’re under the spell of the novel, reading faster and faster to find out what in the hell happens, none of these little tics matter, but once you notice it you notice it all the damn time.

I read this book in two days, started noticing this kind of things about a hundred pages from the end and still managed to hugely enjoy ‘The Drowning People’. It’s a fun book to read, despite a male narrator who as you can probably tell is rather self-obsessed and seems to be rather saved by his author, rising higher and higher professionally while he weeps of suffering, in comparison to his girlfriend whose suffering leads to her break down and incarceration. An interesting novel to read then, but perhaps not written in a style that stands close analysis.
bookgazing: (i heart books)

Literary geek moment: Novels that play around with structure are so much fun! Seriously give me a novel that reorders the traditional linear structure and I am automatically fascinated, like a kitten with tissue paper.

‘The Night Watch’, Sarah Water’s WWII novel is presented in three sections: the first is set in 1947, the second is set earlier in 1944 and the third takes the reader back to 1941. Obviously the reader begins the novel on the first page, which means they read the 1947 section first and then move onto the 1944 section, so as they enter each new section the characters they have been following move backwards in time. The reader knows how the novel ends before they know how each characters story begins.

Telling the reader how a story ends, in the first pages of a novel isn’t unusual. I’ve just finished reading ‘The Drowning People’ by Richard Mason, which begins by telling the reader that the narrator has killed his wife and I’ve read a fair amount of other novels that began by revealing that the narrator has committed a crime. It’s a well established technique that, among other things, increases dramatic tension, as the reader spends the rest of the narrative puzzling over questions of how and why.

Although ‘The Night Watch’ reveals how each character’s narrative strand ends before it allows readers access to the beginning of each character’s story, its structure is re-ordered in a slightly different way from novels, like ‘The Drowning People’. ‘The Night Watch’ has more in common structurally with ‘The White Woman on the Green Bicycle’ by Monique Roffey, which spends a whole section showing the reader where its character’s have ended up and how their story ends, before the beginning is ever written about. This kind of structure creates dramatic tension in a slightly different way.

In the 1947 section the reader is dropped into a world that appears in many respects quite normal (even though the representation of long term gay and lesbian partnerships, as normal during the 1940s makes this novel quite stand out in mainstream publishing). Helen and Julia live together as lovers. Duncan lives a quiet life taking care of an older man called Mr Mundy. Viv takes a day trip with her married lover Reg and visits her brother. Still, there is something quietly jarring about the characters lives. Kay’s life is the one most obviously out of kilter. Her words on the first page, ‘So this, said Kay to herself, is the sort of person you’ve become: a person whose clocks and wrist- watches have stopped...’ suggests her life has been affected by some powerful force and pushed out of the shape she expected it to take. Teasingly obscure allusions that hint at secrets from the past fill this first section, making the reader crave answers to these small mysteries. Everything slightly askew and any engaged reader will want to work out what historical events have caused the sense of oddness that clings to many moments in this section.

Obscuring a mystery is a pretty standard tension building device, just as revealing a plot resolution at the beginning of a novel has become common. The mysteries being hidden in ‘The Night Watch’ are in the past. Again secrets from the past, pretty normal plot drivers. Hang on, here’s the twist. Typically in novels which reveal the end of a story before the beginning, when the characters arrive in the most present moment the reader will be allowed to follow them to all secrets are revealed. By the end of the first section of ‘The Night Watch’ (which, remember, is also the end of the novel’s overall forward progression in time) the top level secrets haven’t been revealed and the reader finds themselves asked to ‘end’ their interaction with the characters with so many questions unanswered. And so the reader turns to the next section, anxious to unearth the origins of so many teasing, potentially tragic, character details.

Instead of sticking with regular structural re-ordering, revealing just one key moment from the end of the novel Waters has placed the entire end of her novel at the beginning. Rather than returning the novel to an entirely linear narrative after that revelation, she sets up three linear sections and each section represents a later time period than the section before it. Flash back scenes in other novels, or more commonly in films, work in the same way to create both shock and anticipation as the reader sees tantalizing glimpses what past events led to the drama of the present. In ‘The Night Watch’ flashback is made use of in an isolated way. Inside each separate section time progresses forward in a straight line for the four main characters and the novel never moves between time periods within one section, which means there is just one flash back at the end of each section and there no corresponding flash forward back to a current narrative.

I’m not saying ‘The Night Watch’ has a structure that draws a reader in by creating dramatic tension in a totally unique way, but I do think her novel pushes hard at the established ways of reordering narrative. Even though above I’ve called each transition into a new, earlier time period a flashback, that label feels inexact. Most flashbacks are written in the past tense, or presented as remembered scenes, but the 1944 and 1941 sections are written in the present tense. The reader is actually moved into those time periods, rather than being allowed to locate themselves in one ‘present’ time period and experience earlier events at a remove. Although the reader should be aware how each characters narrative ends (as they’ve seen them end in the 1947 section) that knowledge fades into the background while reading the 1944 and 1941 sections, due to the use of present tense. All the troubles the characters face in these sections seem serious even if the reader knows they’ll be less important by the end of the novel. All the joys the character’s experience feel sweet and wonderful, even if the reader knows they’ll be undermined by later experiences. It’s an interesting reminder that the significance of feelings and actions can seem to be obliterated by the force of time, but they were always real feelings, important actions. As puzzles are unravelled and points where everything could have turned out quite differently are revealed, it becomes clear that everything is connected. Everything the characters do has significance, even if years later they convince themselves that past events were more important to separate past selves.

That’s a lot of words, just about structure and this feels like a good place to take a break. I’ll hopefully come back later this week with a full on emoting post about the characters, who moved me (Kay, Duncan!).

Other Reviews

things mean a lot
Tales from the Reading Room
bookgazing: (all the cool kids are reading)

Last month I was lucky enough to get to read ‘When God Was a Rabbit’ by Sarah Winman with that most generous of book bloggers, litlove from ‘Tales from the Reading Room’. Based on an ordinary seeming family, the novel follows Elly, her brother Joe and the rest of their family, as they get on with the business of living. Elly gets a pet rabbit and makes a best friend called Jenny Penny. Her brother finds joy in rugby and falls in love with boy named Charlie. Their father and mother are happy together, even though their father is weighed down by some heavy guilt that follows him from the past. They form sturdy familial bonds and at yet spend plenty of time defining themselves as separate people. It all sounds like the normal stuff of novels centred on the important events of a domestic environment.

So, what if I told you that Elly’s rabbit is named God who talks to her? Suddenly we’re in the land of magical realism, something that litlove and I talked a lot about in the e-mails we exchanged as we went along.

I’ve never explored the theory behind magical realism and sometimes feel like it sits in a funny kind of opposition to the ‘rules’ of other fantasy writing. Most fantasy novels contain a set of internally logical rules set up by the author that govern how magic works. If the author wants to overcome limitations imposed by those rules they must find logical ways to do so. Any part of a fantasy novel that amounts to ‘By the way, this thing that I have never mentioned before means that magic works in this convenient, plot facilitating way’ is generally given a suspicious side eye, with good reason, illogical circumvention of the rules undermines reader confidence in the fantasy land they’re being asked to believe in and the emotional reality of a story.

To me, magical realism seems to be made out of the kind of hand wavy supernatural that is unacceptable in the fantasy genre. ‘When God Was a Rabbit’ certainly includes convenient fortuitous events a plenty, along with unexplained magic. One day Elly’s family wins the football pools, which makes them wildly rich and saves her father from a total breakdown. Jenny Penny shows Elly she can pull fifty pence pieces out of her arm. A rabbit appears just when everyone needs a symbol of hope. Still I felt like it would be hugely arrogant to write off magical realism, just because it’s concept of fantasy seemed a little woolly to me. I was pretty sure I just didn’t have the context to understand how it worked and I wanted to understand how litlove was interpreting the nebulous strain of unexplained magic that ran through ‘God Was a Rabbit’, so I asked:

bookgazing: ‘…Are you thinking that we're being presented with a childs eye view of the world and the occasional magical happenings aren't really taking place/take on a different appearance for adults? Or do you think this is a more straight forward piece of magical realism that wants the reader to buy into the reality of the magical stuff? The fifty pence piece moment has me wondering, because as an adult reader I automatically think she's self harming' and the author is obscuring this from us through Eli lack of understanding. But it's a coin from the future...

And are you just going with the flow with the sort of unbelievable bits of the plot like the football pools win? I don't feel inclined to analyse this novel through expectations of realism at all for some reason.’

litlove: ‘The talking rabbit I was inclined to put down as a child's-eye-view. But the 50 pence piece from the arm is on another level altogether (and yukky). I found myself examining my arm and wondering if it were even possible. I completely agree that it tends to send out messages of self-harm, even if it isn't supposed to be literal, the image domain it comes from seems to make that implication. Magic realism used (in the good old days) to be about alternative kinds of power, arising from folklore and magic, that were the preserve of suppressed, indigenous people. It began as a very political tool, rewriting history from the perspective of the oppressed. So in a sense children make good vehicles for magic realism as they have no actual power, but often believe very strongly in animistic powers, or forms of magical thinking.’

At this point in the conversation I was enjoying the book, but unsure how to read much of it, which is why litlove’s explanation of magical realism was so helpful. The idea that Elly, a child who has a lot of her power and voice stripped from her by an adult at the beginning of the book and Jenny Penny, who is a pretty powerless little girl (although we don’t find out the extent of her childhood powerlessness until the end of the book) were both being given power by the author, seemed in theory to fit with the tradition of magical realism.

One thing I like about book blogging – the chance to pick up bits of knowledge from smart people. I was given a glimpse of what magical realism was all about and suddenly it all seemed to make a lot more sense. And yet, as litlove said, and yet... Despite the fact that both Elly and Jenny Penny are children who have had their power taken away from them it’s hard to see how the magical realism in this novel, gives the girls their power back:

litlove: ‘I can't make that sit happily with the narrative, for no real logical reason, other than the 50p thing doesn't feel powerful, it just feels messed up (at least, to me). The rest of the set piece events - like winning the lottery - seem more derived from farce, along the lines of Voltaire's Candide, where all these mad things just happen and the cast of characters struggle along with them as best they can.

And it made me think that the magic realism parts are particularly there to bridge the gaps. I hope I'm not giving away too much if I say that there is a happy ending which resolves a lot of difficulties. Looking back over the story, it seemed to me that when there was too much sorrow or incomprehension for the children to bear, there was something magical to tide them over, or distract them from the everyday.’

As the book progressed I found myself feeling ever more strongly that the magical realism element of the book was working as litlove said and was giving some hope to the characters and reader. At the same time some other things about the book felt kind of forced.

bookgazing: ‘I finished 'God Was a Rabbit' yesterday and have mixed reactions to different bits of the book, much like you. I have to say that although I could feel some connection with the emotions of the characters and a lot more connection during the second part, it felt like a book that relied heavily on the hand wavy method of story telling. The emotion was strong, but the technique was not. Terribly convenient things happened at convenient times…which for me could push the magical realism into tweeness. Yet I was fine with the rabbit reappearing at convenient times and love your idea that 'when there was too much sorrow or incomprehension for the children to bear, there was something magical to tide them over, or distract them from the everyday.' so there must be more to my reaction, but I can't quite fathom it yet.’

I spent time enjoying the relationships between characters. I liked that Winman has included several different types of relationships (ploy amorous emotional love, friendship between old and young) and sexualities (two gay characters and one lesbian, none of whom die) in a way that emphasised how easy growing up with non-traditional people can be. The gaps in Winman’s narrative reasoning allowed me the space and time to interact with the text. However, there was no getting away from the fact that at times ‘When God Was a Rabbit’ confused me.

It seemed to me that as litlove and I talked we kept getting drawn back to some kind of central disconnect that the mixture of magical realism and the accumulation of happy accidents. A family friend who is blind has his sight returned to him when a coconut (the object a psychic predicted would kill him) is thrown at his head. Elly’s brother loses his memory only to have it return just as his sister has stormed off, after giving up hope. Something did not feel emotionally real in these events and I resented it. Ever cynical me said:

bookgazing: ‘I don't want to seem like I'm the kind of reader who thinks a happy ending is a cop out, but I do think some books about some subjects require characters to be put through the wringer. The characters here got off really easily, even though they were involved in some terrible events and for a while seemed to be about to go off the edge. I wasn't so bothered by Charlie coming home safely from his kidnapping and managing to live a normal life, but the point where her brother’s memory came back really rubbed me wrong….the return of memory in this book feels dreadfully perfect. Just when she begins to give up on him forever, he redeems himself under the effect of a good, stern talking to! It felt like Winman pulled back from the brink of the real tragedy of memory loss and the real way people manage to rebuild too soon to conjure something true. She's so close...but, no, it's too scary, so she pulls her novel back.

and litlove followed up by saying that

litlove: ‘I think what feels a bit odd is that we begin with this stream of disasters (with the occasional triumph) that look completely arbitrary and random. Well, okay, if that's the representation of choice of destiny, so be it. But then that seems to be interwoven with another strand of super-convenient events that have the contrived artificiality of the most plotted fictions. I think it makes it hard to know how to read what happens.

The novel is definitely trying to trigger the reader's sense of poignancy (and that may be a problem - it overdoes it a bit, like poking a bruise to see if it still hurts, but not letting up until it's numb), but I think we have to be won over either by the character (which is a possibility here, there are some endearing characters) or by the sense of truth in the unfolding of the plot. I have this huge admiration for novels that make me feel, yes, that is exactly what it would be like, that is just how it would happen. Now that's not the kind of novel we're dealing with I don't think, although all the quotes seem to want to push for the emotional veracity of the story. But add that to magic realism and swirl it around a bit and you've got a funny old cocktail. I think that as I look back on the book now, I feel that it mixed things together that shouldn't really go together. So you had good bits and not so good bits.’

That is pretty much how I ended up feeling about ‘When God Was a Rabbit’. Kind of frustrated happy if that’s a thing. It was lovely to see everything work out so well, but do I ever wish it could have worked out just as well and felt more emotionally real.

It was an absolute treat to get to discuss a book in detail with litlove as she was forming her initial impressions. It was also so much fun to talk about other things. One of the things I like best about the book bloggers I meet is how happy they are to talk about all kinds of things, how books lead on to other subjects and how at the same time that never distracts from the books at hand. We could easily have run away with ourselves and only talked about the Rigsby/ Van Pelt ship in The Mentalist (alright maybe I could have run away with myself and gone on about tv, while she politely replied) or we could have been strict and kept just to bookish questions. Instead we talked about a whole bunch of things including the book and I feel like I got my own private time with the whole of the personality I see appearing every week on her blog. It was such a lovely experience and one I hope we’ll get to repeat again.

You can hear what litlove thought of the book at 'Tales from the Reading Room'.


bookgazing: (Default)

April 2019



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