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White Teeth by Zadie Smith

Penguin, 2017, 552 p. First published 2000.

I almost certainly would not have read this if the good lady had not borrowed it from the nearest public library. (We feel we have to patronise it as otherwise it may suffer the same fate of closure as our local one did a few years ago now.) She is on a project to read as many James Tait Black Memorial Prize winners as she can. White Teeth won it for 2000. I’m glad I did read it though as it’s very well written.

If you were unkind you could describe it as a family saga but at the same time it is more specific and broader than that. In addition it is peppered with living, breathing characters who appear overwhelmingly real to the reader, even in their contradictoriness.

The main relationship in the book is that between Englishman Archie Jones and Bangladeshi Samad Iqbal, who met in the latter stages of World War 2, when they manned a tank in the Balkans. After his immigration to Britain and arranged marriage to Alsana, Samad met up again with Archie and their friendship ensued. The novel starts with Archie, depressed on his divorce, flipping a coin to decide his fate and subsequently meeting Clara Bowden, daughter of the half-Jamaican and very religious Hortense. Archie and Clara soon marry and have a daughter, Irie. Samad and Alsana have twin boys, Magid and Millat, of around the same age as Irie, who in adolescence moons after Millat.

Samad claims descent from Mangal Pande, the man who fired the first shot in the Indian Mutiny (and was hanged for his pains.) Samad says Pande wasn’t the fool that he has been portrayed as, that Pande couldn’t have been drugged up, but instead sacrificed his life in the name of justice for India. Archie remains much more sceptical about the circumstances surrounding Pande’s actions.

Samad berates himself for failing to live up to his Muslim beliefs – in particular for an affair with his children’s music teacher Poppy Burt-Jones – and as a result packs Magid off to Bangladesh to ensure he is brought up in true Muslim correctness. Alsana doesn’t forgive him for this removal of one of her children and thereafter no longer speaks directly to him. This gives the narrative a touch of comedy as does her description of a near relative as Niece-of-Shame.

Samad’s stratagem fails, Millat has an attractive persona, women seem to find him irresistible, yet despite his many conquests, joins a fundamentalist Islam movement called Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation (they are aware of the “unfortunate” acronym, KEVIN,) while in Bangladesh Magid becomes a rationalist and scientist.

The lives of Irie and Millat become entwined with the middle-class Chalfen family, who have a philosophy of questioning everything. Marcus is a genetics engineer and his wife Joyce is one of those people who is convinced she knows better than the people she is talking to what is happening to them and how they feel.

Teeth are mentioned infrequently. A (minor) character says, “When I was in the Congo, the only way I could identify the nigger was by the whiteness of his teeth, if you see what I mean. Horrid business. Dark as buggery it was. And they died because of it, you see?” Irie is ‘bitten’ by her mother’s false teeth one night when she knocks over her glass in the darkness.

The novel of course interrogates the immigrant experience. “‘Who would want to stay?” Samad says to Irie. “Cold, wet, miserable food, dreadful newspapers – who would want to stay? In a place where you are never welcomed, only tolerated. Like you are an animal finally house-trained. Who would want to stay? But you have made a devil’s pact … it drags you in and suddenly you are unsuitable to return, your children are unrecognizable, you belong nowhere.’”

Elsewhere he adds, “There is no one more English than the Indian, no one more Indian than the English. There are still young white men who are angry about that.” However, “The fears of the nationalist, scared of infection, penetration, miscegenation,” are “small fry, peanuts, compared to what the immigrant fears – dissolution, disappearance ….. In Jamaica it is even in the grammar: there is no choice of personal pronoun, no splits between me or you or they, there is only the pure homogenous I.” (Often spoken as ‘I and I.’)

There are also warnings, “When an Englishman wants to be generous, the first thing you ask is why, because there is always a reason,” and explanations, “It is not that he ….. doesn’t love her (oh, he loves her: just as the English loved India and Africa and Ireland; it is the love that is the problem, people treat their lovers badly.)”

The final scene in the book echoes back to the reason why Archie is forever flipping coins to make a decision and brought to my mind Sophie’s Choice, though Archie’s critical one had no potential devastating consequences for his immediate family.

Pedant’s corner:- curb (kerb.) “Wrapped around the room in a panoramic” (a panoramic what? Panoramic is an adjective it requires a noun to describe. ‘A panorama’ would have been okay,) “someone who, to put it simply, fucks their sisters” (either ‘someone who fucks his sisters’ or, ‘people/men who fuck their sisters’.) “‘Show’s how much you know’” (‘Shows how much,) collander (colander.) “’O’Connell’s’ said Samad” (missing comma; ‘O’Connell’s,’ said Samad,) dypsomaniac (dipsomaniac,) bannister (banister,) “the largest community of Earth, the animal kingdom, were oppressed, imprisoned and murdered on a daily basis” (the largest community … was oppressed… .) “Didn’t use to be” (Didn’t used to be.)

Night by Edna O’Brien

Penguin, 1978, 120 p. First published 1972.

Night cover

Mary Hooligan has trouble sleeping. The usual remedies – counting sheep or apples, pills – have no effect. The novel is a rendering of her thoughts during one night of such sleeplessness, involving memories of her upbringing in Coose in Connemara, various odd encounters, sometimes scatological, and a multitude of sexual (mis)adventures.

Though I have read neither and so cannot comment, the narration apparently reflects Molly Bloom’s soliloquy from Ulysses and prefigures Eimear MacBride’s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing. I’ll take their word for it.

With its focus on one person’s life experience, the novel stands in contrast to O’Brien’s “Country Girls” trilogy. There is no doubting, however, the author’s technical skill as a writer nor her proficiency with words; the book is peppered with Latinate derivations, Irishisms and seeming neologisms (gaimbeaux?) but even so is easy enough to read. Fifty years on from first publication what is striking about the book is its brevity. Nevertheless it says what it needs to say. Economy is a welcome attribute in a writer.

Fair enough it’s only 120 pages worth, but also revealing is the cover price of the edition I read. 75p! Those were the days.

Pedant’s corner:- tête-a-têtes (têtes-a-tête?) “doh ray me fa” (doh re mi fa,) frequent omissions of commas before a piece of direct speech, sherbert (seven lines earlier was the correct ‘sherbet’, with sherbert again a further seven lines on,) jelley (of frog spawn; surely usually spelled ‘jelly’,) “the think I couldn’t endure” (the thing,) seemliness’ (seemliness’s,) she’s (‘she’d’ made more sense,) an opening quote mark that was never closed, Leuwenhoech (Leuwenhoek?) caprolites (coprolites.)

Tales of Angria by Charlotte Brontë

Penguin, 2013, 521 p

Angria was the imaginary country where Charlotte Brontë and her brother Branwell set stories they wrote in a tiny script into notebooks. The ones in this book were presumably all penned by Charlotte as she is the named author. Somewhat frustratingly Angria itself is indeterminately fixed, at times seeming to be carved out of the north west of England – people from Ireland are described as western – at others somewhere else entirely. I got no sense as others have that Angria was supposed to be in Africa. There is also an odd mixture of real sounding names (the Sydenham hills, Alnwick, Arundel) and the invented (Verdopolis, Northangerland, Adrianopolis, Zamorna.)

On the evidence here these five tales and an associated set of literary fragments were probably too risqué to be published in Charlotte’s lifetime, containing as they do accounts of mistresses, natural children and illicit passions. They are obviously tyro pieces, most likely never intended for publication, with a tendency to melodrama, and to the modern eye overwritten and prolix, with a propensity to start scenes with a description of the doings of an unnamed man or woman, as if inviting us to guess who it is meant to be, and overall an overdone tendency to address the reader directly. They mainly focus on a small set of aristocratic figures and their interactions and relationships.

Mina Laury is the mistress of the ruler of Angria, the Duke of Zamorna, kept by him in a house run by herself. Her existence is disturbed one day by the Duchess unexpectedly making an appearance. In addition a marriage proposal to her by Lord Hartford angers the Duke.

Stancliffe’s Hotel is the location opposite Angria’s capital’s city hall in front of which occurs an angry gathering of the lower classes, annoyed at Angria’s neighbour Northangerland. The Duke of Zamorna turns up and angrily harangues them to leave.

The Duke of Zamorna is mainly told via letters written by one Henry Townshend and some other characters but reads as being very disconnected.

Henry Hastings is an outlaw and traitor, tracked down to the house where his sister Elizabeth is housekeeper. At his subsequent trial he is offered what in the US is called a plea bargain if he spills the beans about his accomplices. The story is really more about Elizabeth though.

Caroline Vernon is the natural daughter of Lord Northangerland, brought up by her mother and as a ward of the Duke of Zamorna. At the age of sixteen she feels all grown up, but of course isn’t. Sent into seclusion by her father she runs away – to the Duke of Zamorna.

The Roe Head Journal Fragments are notes, aides memoires and drafts for scenes from stories.

These are of historical interest in showing the genesis of the writer Charlotte Brontë would become but cannot be set beside the likes of Jane Eyre or even Shirley. It is noticeable though that as in Shirley Brontë deploys words which nowadays are almost exclusively Scots (eg scunner) but which must have been prevalent further south in her lifetime.

Sensitivity warning: the book contains the word ‘nigger,’ and a character saying, “I’m as rich as a Jew.”

Pedant’s corner:- ancle (several times, ankle,) “it laid in ashes” (lay in ashes,) pourtrayed/pourtray (portrayed/portray,) syren (siren,) “the broad, far-stretching’s” (far-stretchings,) oppositie (opposite,) Londsdale (elsewhere Lonsdale,) “the party were exceedingly merry” (the party was,) “which that corps have so rightly earned” (that corps has so rightly earned,) viznomy (yet elsewhere we have physiognomy spelled correctly,) broach/es (brooch/es,) furor (furore,) Miss Hastings’ (Hastings’s,) “any known principal of government” (principle,) “neither of them were” (neither of them was,) bannisters (banisters,) extacy (ecstasy,) laid (lay,) trowsers (trousers,) bason (basin,) “no bark had ever before cast anchor” (barque,) coulour (colour.)

Shirley by Charlotte Brontë

Oxford World Classics, 2008, 571 p including vi p Introduction by Janet Gezari, vi p Note on the Text, iii Select bibliography, vi p Chronology of Charlotte Brontë and xxx p Explanatory Notes. First published in 1849.

Nineteenth century novels are now to some extent a historical curiosity. Life has changed since then, and so too have expectations of the novel. Books like Shirley were written for a slower paced time, for leisurely afternoon or evening reading, for diversion as well as entertainment and enlightenment. Digression and length were to be welcomed. This is evident in the novels of Sir Walter Scott but in whose work for some reason the longueurs cease to be noticeable after a while. To me though, it seemed Shirley took the tendency to extremes and the longueurs the more irritating. I took longer to read this than I did War and Peace. (Admittedly I was younger then, but arguably I had less time for reading.)

Shirley’s first chapter is an entirely unnecessary depiction of the conversations between three local curates, which has nothing at all to do with the subsequent plot. The second has a bit more purpose, laying out the background of the times (to which Brontë is looking back from forty years later) as a local Mill owner Mr Robert Moore, Caroline’s cousin, is bringing in machines to speed up his factory’s processes. In this he is opposed by the working men whose jobs will be replaced. For many passages nothing much of note seems to happen. A more singular drawback is that the titular Shirley (heiress of the estate of Fieldhead) is not encountered until a full third of the way through the book. Here too is a common trope of the nineteenth century novel, the revelation of the hidden identity of one of the characters. The book understandably also has the attitudes of the middle class of its time. Volume II, Chapter VII has the heading, “WHICH THE GENTEEL READER IS RECOMMENDED TO SKIP, LOW PERSONS BEING HERE INTRODUCED.” I suspect none of these would get past a modern-day writers’ group, agent or editor.

Main viewpoint character Caroline Helstone is living in the house of the local vicar, her uncle Mr Helstone, since her father, not a good man by the accounts she has heard, is dead and her mother had in any case long since left her marriage, whereabouts unknown. Mr Helstone has views on marriage: he takes a very dim view of having to officiate when people are committing what he considers an act of folly, yet he had done so himself. At an early point in the book Caroline asks her uncle, “Why were you so inconsistent as to marry?” and he replies, “Every man is mad once or twice in his life,” chiding Caroline not to confuse the general with the particular.

There are other aperçus. Caroline tells us, “In English country ladies there is this point to be remarked…. All have a certain expression stamped on their features, which seems to say, ‘I know I am the standard of what is proper; let every one therefore whom I approach, or who approaches me, keep a sharp look-out, for wherein they differ from me – be the same in dress, manner, opinion, principle, or practice – therein they are wrong.'” Workman William Farren says, “‘Them that reckons to be friends to a lower class than their own fro’ political motives is never to be trusted: they always try to make their inferiors tools.’”

Shirley has some good lines. Of a suitor, Samuel Fawthrop Wynne, (one of several who ask for her hand) Shirley’s uncle, Mr Stymson. who presumes to be her guide, says, ‘In all respects he is more than worthy of you.” She replies, “‘And I ask in what sense is that man worthy of me?’” and goes on to say that she would refuse a peer of the realm if she could not value him for himself. She says to Caroline, “‘Men, I believe, fancy women’s minds something like those of children. Now, that is a mistake.’” When Caroline demurs and says, “‘authors’ heroines are almost as good as authoresses’ heroes,’” Shirley says, “‘Not at all; women read men more truly than men read women,’” but that a magazine paper asserting that would never be accepted by any publication. This is a subtle feminism, certainly, but it is there to be read.

In both the novel’s time and Brontë’s a single woman was always thought to be conniving to trap a husband and when denied a particular quarry was described as disappointed. As Mrs Yorke says to Caroline, “‘Every sister with an eligible single brother is considered most kind by her spinster friends.’” Caroline denies any such predatory intentions for herself but the overall plot is entirely taken up with the prospects of marriage, both for Caroline and for Shirley, and the obstacles to that end.

Brontë mentions Yorkshire Doric, which some of the characters speak. Most of these words – described as dialect in the Notes on the Text – are still in use in Scots.

While obviously the Brontë sisters’ works are important in the history and development of the novel in English, for the reasons I mentioned above I could not seriously recommend Shirley to the modern reader except in so far as they are interested in that history.

Pedant’s corner:- nineteenth century usages of the chid (chided,) sunk (sank) and rung (rang) kind. An inconsistency in spelling – exstasies but later, ecstacy, – etc, etc. I add plus points for “the three Misses Sykes,” “the Misses Pearson,” “the Misses Wynne.” Otherwise; a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, “the trot of a little nag’s hoofs were, five minutes after, heard in the yard” (the trot … was heard,) Moses’ (Moses’s,) “‘I am tried of it'” (‘tired of it’ makes more sense,) milleniums (millenia, but it was in dialogue,) “knows nought about” (naught,) hoofs (in my youth the plural was always ‘hooves’,) “blue orbs” (up till page 340 Caroline’s eyes are described as brown; from then on they are always blue.) In the explanatory Notes; “the intervention if Minerva” (of Minerva,) Ulysses’ (Ulysses’s.)

The Sorrow of War by Bảo Ninh

Secker & Warburg, 1994, 218 p. Translated from the Vietnamese Thân Phân Cua Tinh Yêu, (originally published by Nhà Xuät Ban Hoi Nha Van [Writers’ Association Publishing House], Hanoi, 1991. English version by Frank Palmos based on the translations from the Vietnamese by Vo Bang Thanh and Phan Thanh Hao, with Katherine Pierce.

The vast majority of writing about the Vietnam War published in the West has been from a US perspective. This book acts as a kind of corrective as, here, the US, along with the South Vietnamese ARVN, is the enemy. The novel’s viewpoint character is a North Vietnamese soldier, Kien, whom we first meet in his post-war duty of collecting for burial the remains of corpses left over from the war. This is in an eerie place the soldiers named the Jungle of Screaming Souls. One corpse is discovered in a colourless plastic bag and the body seems immaculate. Then it discolours, something seems to escape, and it deflates. The platoon takes this apparition to be a soul departing. This scene is emblematic as, while the memories of combat are no doubt authentic, so much of what Binh describes here is surreal. Many descriptions of war are.

The novel is disjointed, fragmented, as if reflecting the uncanny nature of such experiences. Ninh tells us the sorrow of war is like the sorrow of love, “a kind of nostalgia,” a “sadness, a missing, a pain which could send one soaring back into the past.” The novel is a patchwork of such pain, of things unforgettable, surfacing unbidden from memory. “His fighting life was being revived in flashbacks, or in slowly unfolding scenes as heart-rending as a funeral march.” War as an experience is perhaps best encapsulated when Kien remembers trying to dissuade his comrade Can from deserting as it would be shameful. Can replied, “‘In all my time as a soldier I’ve yet to see anything honourable.’”

While combat and its horrors – the blood and entrails carried on the tracks of tanks so that they have to be driven through a river to clean them, Kien’s friend killed when his tank is all-but vapourised by a shell, the dreamlike quality of being on the receiving end of a US air-raid, the self-sacrifice of an inexperienced female guide named Hua who distracted a platoon of US soldiers away from a group of wounded NVA personnel whom she had put in danger of discovery – The Sorrow of War is not merely a story of firefights and military life. The story flits between those and his pre-Army life in Hanoi with Kien’s golden memories of his girlfriend Phuong and of life after the war where it is not only Kien who has been changed utterly but also Phuong, forever scarred by her travails when she accompanied him south to his first posting and her subsequent struggles to subsist in Hanoi.

The end of the war brought to the soldiers no soaring, brilliant happiness such as Kien saw later on film, only memories and nightmares. “Those who had died and those who lived on shared a common fate in this war.” As to the future, “Losses can be made good, damage can be repaired and wounds will heal in time. But the psychological scars of the war will remain forever.” The survivors “had lost not only the capacity to live happily with others but also the capacity to be in love.”

Since Kien later sets out to write about his impressions of the war the novel also contains observations on writing. Binh tells us the author wrote “because he had to write, not because he had to publish.” This is of course the way round the process ought to be.

Despite all its gruesome content and incident, its record of man’s inhumanity to man – and woman – The Sorrow of War is not difficult to read, a testament to both Binh and his translators.

Pedant’s corner:- mosquito repellant (repellent,) “his beard was well shaven and tidy” (if it was shaven it wasn’t a beard, well trimmed perhaps?) “Who’s to know.” (is a question; therefore ‘Who’s to know?’) “All that remained of his mother were some photographs.” (‘All’ is singular, hence ‘was,’) a missing comma at the end of a piece of direct speech, “Sue repeated eagerly” (she repeated eagerly,) curriculum vitae (there was more than one; curriculum vitae means ‘course of life’ so its plural – courses of life – is ‘curricula vitae’ in Latin and English – but in English some might say ‘curriculums vitae’. If interpreted as ‘courses of lives’ the Latin plural would be ‘curricula vitarum’, which is a step too far in English.)

The End of an Old Song by J D Scott

A Romance. Canongate Classics, 1990, 214 p, plus iv p Introduction by Christopher Harvie. First published in 1954.

Things lost. The times they have achanged. It is not for nothing that the lament is the signature example of bagpipe music. Scottish authors have always chronicled disappearance. It’s there in this book’s title and its epigraph – the source of that title – is of course the quote from Lord Chancellor Seafield on the dissolving of the Scottish Parliament in 1707 after the Treaty of Union was signed, “There is the end of an auld sang.” Scots have been struggling with a sense of absence, of incompleteness, ever since.

But there are wider literary echoes here too. This review ought perhaps to have begun with the words, “Last night I dreamed I was at Kingisbyres again,” Kingisbyres being the name of the “big house” where narrator Patrick Shaw had his formative experiences. Indeed, the book could also have been titled “Kingisbyres Revisited”.

Yet this exercise in Scottish nostalgia, displaying the typical Scottish writer’s flair for landscape description, is narrated by one Patrick Shaw who tells us he deliberately cultivated English snobbishness. Indeed, the novel reads as being written with an English sensibility, and people are always described as Scotch, not Scottish. As a result, the Scotticisms, when they occur – “‘Away, man,’” – do so with increased force. Despite his leanings towards Englishness Patrick intuits “the essence of the past of Scotland, its dark, fated, cruel quality and the contrasting strain that ran through it of lightness and grace and gaiety ….. something powerfully charged with love and hate, pride and violence, which, in given circumstances, it might discharge in some tremendous flash of lightning.”

In the 1930s Patrick was a pupil at the nearby fee-paying but far from top drawer school, Nethervale, (his alcoholic father reduced to teaching there) and was invited to Kingisbyres by his friend Alastair Kerr, himself brought up by an aunt in the village and who, local rumour had it, was the natural son of the house’s owner, Captain Keith, who paid for him to attend the school. In Kingisbyres a room once graced by Bonnie Prince Charlie is kept perpetually ready for “the King over the water” to return. One summer, Captain Keith, no longer able to afford the upkeep, lets Kingisbyres to the nouveau riche Harveys (the money was made in biscuits) and Patrick was immediately struck by their daughter Catherine, a presence who is to flicker in and out of Patrick’s and Alastair’s lives for the remainder of the book. Catherine is used to having her own way and even as a young adult knows how to deploy her charms to get it. The establishment of the three’s irregular relationship takes up more than half the novel before the focus shifts to the book’s narrative present after the Second World War.

Captain Keith, like many of the landed gentry, has some very right-wing views and Alastair frequently indulges in casually pejorative mentions of Jews – sometimes not so casually, even after the war. He also has some acerbic comments to make on his countrymen’s attitudes, “being stuck-up is a crime in Scotland. That’s why everybody who makes money leaves it in the end. What’s the good of making money if you can’t be stuck-up?” and the cultural cringe, “like the good wee Scotty I am, I’ve been conditioned to feel that success is genuine only when it’s been registered in London.” He cites those objects of aspiration, “‘That old Kentish manor house,’” along with an English rose for its mistress, two children and a picture in the Tatler but after the war, in its austere aftermath, such longing is obsolete, “‘Now we have to give it up for an apartment on Fifth Avenue.’” When he says, “‘God save us from the romantic outlook,’” Patrick asks him, “‘It’s goodbye to the English dream?’” Alastair replies, “‘Yes,’” and Patrick says ironically, “‘You might call it the end of an old song.’”

The characters in The End of an Old Song are well-drawn, Catherine’s youthful carelessness and flightiness apparent from Patrick’s first encounter with her, Alastair always a hard, uncompromising presence (though Mrs Harvey is a type; a recognisable and all too familiar type, but still a type.) The novel speaks both of its time and to timeless Scottish concerns.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Introduction; a missing end quote mark from an illustrative passage. Otherwise; gulley (gully,) Agnes’ (Agnes’s,) “thee fingers of whisky” (three fingers,) “Mrs Mathers’ voice” (Mathers’s,) “Bonny Prince Charlie” (usually spelled Bonnie, as it is on the next page and elsewhere in the book,) “‘If you boys arenie’ to be working’” (usually spelled arenae – and there’s no need for the apostrophe.) “After Dunkirk time I didn’t see Alastair …. for nearly two years … I went abroad … and until early 1943 I was in the middle East” (Dunkirk was in 1940, 1943 is 3 years later, not 2,) glaiket (usually spelled glaikit, is said to mean wandering in one’s mind; I have always understood it as meaning gormless, or slightly dim.)

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Corsair, 2019, 376 p.

People like stories. That is why the novel as a form exists after all. So I can see why this struck a chord with so many readers. It is the tale of Catherine Danielle Clark (Kya,) growing up living in a shack in a North Carolina marsh. And it is a compelling one. Kya is abandoned first by her elder siblings, then her mother (too many blows from her wastrel drunken sot of a husband, Kya’s father) then her brother nearest in age, Jodie, and finally her father; left to bring herself up alone, with only the marsh wildlife and plants to engage her interest. Subject to prejudice, vilified as dirty and ‘trash’, she has only the local, black, seller of bait, supplies and motor-boat fuel, Jumpin’ Jackson, and his wife Mabel, to look out for her, plus later, of course, Tate Walker, a few years older, a friend of the family in the (mildly) better times when her mother was still around. It is a tale of betrayal, loneliness, love, (a bit of) sex and, since we start with the discovery of a body, death. It has things going for it then.

And yet. Perhaps I’m seeing this from a reviewing perspective or even of that of a novelist myself but as a novel I found it deeply flawed.

The body is that of Chase Andrews, quondam local quarterback and lad about town (or whatever the US equivalent is) but pillar of the establishment. He has fallen – or been pushed – from a deserted building known as the fire tower. The absence of footprints round the body (his included) make the local sheriff suspicious. Revelations of Kya’s involvement with Chase mean she becomes the prime suspect.

Given Kya is the focal character our sympathies naturally lean to her side and if she has committed murder, there is not much in Owens’s portrayal of her to lead us to believe she could have carried out the elaborate deception necessary for that. She certainly has motive, a woman scorned always has motive, but her reclusive nature as the Marsh Girl, out where the crawdads sing (Tate tells her the phrase means “Far in the bush where the critters are wild, still behaving like critters”) and her reticence as regards contact with other humans, act as counterweights.

Despite only one day of schooling – humiliated by being unable to spell ‘dog’ she never went back – she becomes a self-taught expert on the marsh fauna and flora and paints exquisite representations of its wildlife. Her friendship with Tate, the only one who understands her deep connection with the marsh, the person who taught her to read – remarkably quickly it has to be said – and encouraged her to send her paintings to a publisher and so responsible for her later financial security, is her anchor until he too leaves her behind to go to College and her loneliness eventually leads her to succumb to the doomed attraction of Chase.

This tale of early 1960s North Carolina has echoes of To Kill a Mockingbird what with the racial prejudice (there is a Colored [sic] Town separate from Barkley Cove,) the class divisions and the courtroom scenes.However, it is anything but as well written. It relies too often on coincidence and has problems with structure and sequencing along with individual sections morphing from past to present tense for no good reason. Witnesses come forward at convenient times for the narrative rather than organically as they would have done. For two of these Owens lets the reader know their testimony exists and is potentially damning but does not reveal it then and there, instead waiting a few chapters to let us see the scene concerned from Kya’s viewpoint. I suppose you could call it backshadowing (in essence the whole book from the body’s discovery in the prologue till Kya’s arrest is backshadowing) but it is really an artificial creation of tension not fair on the reader. Then there are the frequent passages of poetry, especially that of Amanda Hamilton, which strike an off-note. Owens has her reasons for these but only unfurls them at the end as a deus ex machina.

Some minor characters are less than convincing. Chase’s mother Patti Love Andrews is supposed to have thought she had a strong bond with her son but is said to be shocked to discover he had intimate dealings with Kya. This does not ring at all true. A woman like her would know exactly how a son brought up with his privileges would behave towards those he thought beneath him – especially to women, even more especially to ‘trash’.

Extracts from Kya’s reading on biological topics – for example “one article on reproductive strategies was titled ‘Sneaky Fuckers’” – feel as if they are an interpolation from a different novel entirely but ensure Kya is conversant with the varied tactics of the animal mating game. She tells Jodie, finally returned to see how she is faring, “Most men go from one female to the next. The unworthy ones strut about, pulling you in with falsehoods,” but this comes across as Owens speaking, not Kya. Often in sections relating to Kya’s state of mind, human behaviour is described in terms of biological reductionism – even in the hierarchy of the courtroom.

Some aspects of the contributions to her personality are outlined when Kya says to Jodie, “I never hated people. They hated me. They laughed at me. They left me. They harrassed me. They attacked me.”

As a defendant in her trial Kya is all but a blank to us, though. Yet the narration is from an omniscient third person, we ought to have access to her deepest thoughts. This is not unreliable as such but is profoundly disingenuous (and there are times too when Owens is a bit too eager to tell the reader how to interpret what has been read.)

Perhaps it was with an eye to the film rights (or even thoughts of To Kill a Mockingbird) that Owens chose to make the trial her focus. A trial after all has jeopardy (Owens emphasises the jeopardy,) conflict and drama. But that focus imbalances the novel. The story here is not the trial. Instead it is that of a lonely girl struggling to keep herself alive and make her way in a world to which she is ill-suited and for which she is ill-prepared. And of humans’ capacity for denigrating and despising the other. The murder aspect is incidental to this but is the hook on which Owens hangs the book. And in its dénouement I could not escape the impression that Owens was so determined to have a revelation/tying up of loose ends in her final chapter that it warped all that came before it.

There are things to appreciate in this novel but its central metaphor is laboured, almost trite. Yes, humans are the expressions of their genes. But humans are more than that. And it is the more than that that the novel, at its best, illumines and portrays. Where the Crawdads Sing does that peripherally at best.

It is by no means a bad book. In some respects it is a very good book, though without ever touching the heights. It will probably make a good film though.

Pedant’s corner:- ‘Time interval’ later/within ‘time interval’ count: 17. Otherwise; “Her overalls pockets” (that’s a possessive, hence, ‘her overalls’ pockets’,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, indentions (indentations,) “Kya wondered who started using the word cell instead of cage. There must have been a moment in time when humanity demanded this shift.” (Well, no. The word cell does not necessarily mean a place of incarceration. It is a single, repeatable unit, found among others of its kind, as in prisons, but also in batteries and in living things; a cage is never anything other than a place of confinement,) “the sheriff itn’t so sure” (‘itn’t?’Is that North Carolinan dialect; or a misprint for ‘isn’t?’) “bused to Barkley” (bussed.)

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

Tinder Press, 2020, 384 p.

 Hamnet cover

Is there anyone who reads who does not know that Shakespeare had a son called Hamnet, who died as a boy, a name immortalised a few years later in the play titled Hamlet? This is not a spoiler in any case as in a short preface O’Farrell tells us as much, and that Hamnet and Hamlet were the same name, entirely interchangeable in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.

In its writing this novel has echoes of Wolf Hall, whether that be because of the Tudor setting, or that Hamnet’s grandfather is quick with his fists, or a kind of linguistic obscurantism. In Hilary Mantel’s novel Thomas Cromwell was often denoted cryptically as “he,” Here characters are sometimes described simply as “a boy” or “a woman” and Hamnet’s father is never referred to by name, only as, variously, “the Latin Tutor,” “the husband,” or “the father.”

This distancing is quite deliberate on O’Farrell’s part as the novel’s focus is not on the son, (who dies two thirds of the way in anyway,) nor indeed is it on the husband and father. This is the story of the wife and mother, Agnes, pronounced Ann’yes and so liable to be misheard as Anne. It is a beautiful piece of imagining on O’Farrell’s part, evoking life in Tudor England utterly convincingly, illustrating the fluctuating balances of power within families, rescuing Agnes from the sidelines of history, revealing her as a vibrant, complex character in her own right. In it she also manages to provide a better explanation than the usual one for the playwright’s famous bequest – as an act of love.

In part I the chapters mostly alternate between the goings-on in Henley Street, Stratford, in the run-up to Hamnet contracting his fatal illness (where there is actually a fair degree of attention paid to Hamnet,) and the earlier life of his mother and father, how they met, got together, married and had three children. Despite Agnes having the gift of (second) sight, Hamnet’s twin Judith comes as a surprise, is then given up for dead on arrival after him, but subject to Agnes’s frantic efforts to keep her alive and her constant worry thereafter. Agnes is also a dispenser of herbal remedies. There is a passage written from the point of view of a hooded kestrel in an apple store which is quite beautifully done and also a diversionary chapter on the mechanism of how Hamnet may have caught bubonic plague, beginning with a flea in Alexandria, the plague bacillus eventually transferring to England via a glassmaker in Venice. Though never emphasised as such, interplay between the characters suggest the seeds for what was to come in the plays. Part II by contrast deals with the aftermath of Hamnet’s death and its chapters follow the story linearly. Grief is a difficult sense to communicate in fiction but we see its expression in all of the family and feel it through them.

Use of the present tense can be alienating but O’Farrell’s deployment of the device is superb, keeping the action contingent, reminding us that to the characters the events she shows us were happening in the here and now, there was still the possibility of an alternative outcome. It brilliantly conveys Hamnet’s distracted state of mind as he scurries about the empty house (usually so full of people) seeking help when his twin falls ill. O’Farrell is tremendous too on Agnes’s experience of childbirth. I doubt a man could ever have transmitted the sensations, feelings and worries so effectively. Throughout, the author is totally in control and the final scenes, as Agnes hurries off to London to ask her husband why he dared to use his dead son’s name in a play, are magnificent. The play, after all, has kept that name alive.

Hamnet is a wonderful novel. How it was left off the Booker Prize long- and shortlist last year is beyond me. It did, though, win the Women’s Fiction Prize and the Dalkey Literary Awards and was shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize.

Pedant’s corner:- epicentre (used, wrongly, in the sense of absolute centre,) “the dark maw of the ground” (it was the opening of a grave; not a stomach, then, therefore not a maw,) stoved in (stove in, or, staved in,) “that all is not as it should be” (that not all is as it should be.) “She sits up nights” (she sits up at night,) hoofs (in my youth the plural was always ‘hooves’.)

Summer by Ali Smith

Hamish Hamilton, 2020, 391 p.

This is the fourth in Smith’s Seasons quartet, conceived as a response to the Brexit upheaval, but here set, as the novel is, in 2020, somewhat overtaken by Covid. As in all her books it is rendered with an unjustified right margin which still looks odd to begin with but after a few pages does not intrude. Like Spring this instalment begins with a page or so’s discourse on our times, this one on the indifference with which certain people have greeted the flagrant breaking of societal and political norms in recent years, a metaphorical – and perhaps actual – shrugging of shoulders and saying “So?”

A contrast to that metaphorical shrugging comes later on when Daniel Gluck, a child refugee from the Nazis who featured in Autumn, remembers his internment in Britain early in World War 2 and the support the interned refugees received from MPs and from the wider public. Of the British people at the time he recalls his father saying, “They know about fairness now, and why to go to war, and what happens when you do. They know about newspapers that lie for money. They know you don’t put innocent people in prison. The British are just. They’re practical. They’re calm, they’re civilized, now. They’ll put it right.” It is left to the reader to make any invidious comparison. Gluck’s sister Hannah was meanwhile stuck in France and trusted her child to the care of the French couple with whom she lodged while she engaged in working with the resistance.

The novel unfolds through various viewpoints one of whom is environmentally conscious Sacha Greenlaw, whose father has moved in next door to the family home with his new, younger, Welsh lover, Ashley. Sacha is plagued by her younger brother Robert, who has fallen down the rabbit hole of right-wing websites and once told Ashley to go back to Wales as, after Brexit, she wasn’t wanted here. Their mother Grace just gets on with things but has memories of her own. Robert has two heroes. One is Einstein, the other “looks like he’s acting a bit drunk or acting like a boy not a man” and reflects that for a Prime Minister to appear dishevelled is “a brilliant subterfuge to look like he doesn’t know what he’s doing and to make people like him for it.” A (very unamusing) practical joke Robert plays on Sacha leads to her being befriended by Charlotte and Arthur – see Winter – who run a website with “thoughtful analysis of the shapes things take in art and nature” and have been tasked with returning a fragment of a Barbara Hepworth sculpture to a man Arthur’s mother once knew. They are also activists of a sort. Through them Sacha learns about Hero who has been detained by the immigration authorities after being trafficked and she writes to him. The last section of the book contains his reply – from the safe haven of Arthur’s Aunt’s house to where he has been released due to Covid.

Summer really only incidentally comments on political issues but is all the more effective for that. The characters present as individuals and are dealt with sympathetically. I suspect that when she conceived the sequence Smith planned for this last instalment to be a hopeful one (it is titled Summer after all) but the events she is reflecting may have militated against that. There isn’t really much of a plot though.

Pedant’s corner:- “And from those clouds it isn’t rain that fell” (from those clouds it wasn’t rain that fell,) “as she walked along pavement” (the pavement, or, a pavement,) a spoken sentence not capitalised at its start.

The Ninth Child by Sally Magnusson

Two Roads, 2020, 331 p, including 5 p Author’s Note and 1 p Acknowledgements.

At first this promises to be solely the story of Isabel Aird, married to a doctor, Alexander, who is disgusted by the conditions of the poor working class of 1856 Glasgow and wishes to alleviate them. To this end he is drawn to the position of physician to the construction works of the scheme designed to carry the pure waters of Loch Katrine in the Trossachs to the city in order to combat the ravages of cholera, an arduous project requiring tunnelling through extremely hard rock wth nothing but pickaxes, sweat and gunpowder, “the greatest engineering marvel since the construction of the aqueducts of Rome” – a system still in existence, whose flow is driven by gravity alone. The novel soon broadens out though into a wider account.

Isabel has suffered a multiplicity of miscarriages or still-births (the irony of her being married to a doctor is not lost on her) and at first is not keen on a move to the wilds but on her first visit to Loch Chon she is enchanted by the views and for all its deprivations becomes enthusiastic about living there.

Many of the chapters are related in third person from Isabel’s point of view but there are two first person contributions, one from the viewpoint of Robert Kirke, a kirk minister who disappeared into the world of faery in 1698 but has now returned with a commission from what in Gaelic are known as the sìthichean, and the other from Kirsty McEchern, the wife of a navvy working on the project, written as if it is the verbatim transcript of her memories as told to someone who for a long time remains unidentified. There are also curious interpolations from the life of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, mostly in the form of letters from the Prince. (The Queen was famously entranced by the Trossachs – and Scotland in general – and did open the waterworks in 1859.)

Like many Scottish lochs Loch Chon has a legend of a supernatural denizen, in this case a black Dog who at times will rise from the surface to swallow human victims. This is one of the many tales of the sìthichean known to Kirsty, who, being an islander from Mull, is well versed in Gaelic superstition (or knowledge as she would have called it.) This legend is central to Kirke’s commission from the land of faery and to the novel’s denouement.

It is with this part of the book that I initially had least patience. Then I reflected that dealings with the supernatural – the Devil especially, but also faery – are a staple of Scottish literature. So too, exhibited here by Robert Kirke, is psychological duality. (In her Author’s Note Magnusson calls that a familiar trope. To my mind that enduring concern is something more profound than a trope; it is a deep reflection of the Scottish character – see the third and second last paragraphs in the link.)

A parallel between the lives of Isabel and Queen Victoria is that both had nine children. Well Victoria did, only Isabel’s ninth (the one of the book’s title) survived gestation and birth. The plot and the denouement both of course depend on this.

Magnusson writes really well, she expresses the ups and downs of the Airds’ marriage sensitively, captures superbly the voices, doubts and thoughts of both Kirke and Kirsty and her descriptions of the Trossachs landscape are evocative, while the necessary conveying of information about the construction works is never intrusive.

This is another example of the enduring fascination of the novel with love and death but unlike in Magnusson’s earlier The Sealwoman’s Gift sex is absent from the pages, though its consequences of course are not. The Ninth Child is not quite as accomplished as that previous novel but it is certainly good enough to be going on with.

(At the end of the book are appended eight “Reading Group Questions,” a practice I find patronising. Not reading groups themselves I hasten to add, rather the fact that they are held to need some sort of prompting to ask questions of a text.)

Pedant’s corner:- “‘as soon as another epidemic hoves into view’” (hove is the past tense (and it is in any case ‘hove’ not ‘hoves’,) so here it should be ‘heaves into view’,) “a Yorkshireman with exuberant facial hair by the name of Bateman” (his beard was called Bateman?) “he had sawed a couple of fingers off” (sawn,) Descartes’ (Descartes’s,) “‘the taste of those mean cruelties were back on my tongue’” (either ‘the tastes’, or ‘was back’,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech (x 2,) Athole Highlanders (Atholl) powder your nose, (the phrase was in juse in the nineteenth century but I would have thought it an unlikely expression for a navvie’s wife though it was said many years after the events in the book and she had been in “polite” company in the interim,) maw (it’s not a mouth, it’s a stomach.) In the Reading group questions; “navvie’s wife” (navvy’s wife.)

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