The Year in Books – Part Four

[This is the fourth and final part of my review of the books I read this year. This time I’ll be talking about Eleanor Catton’s The Rehearsal, Wendy Lower’s Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields, and Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. You can find the previous parts herehere, and here.]

Eleanor Catton - The RehearsalEleanor Catton – The Rehearsal

After falling in love with The Luminaries at the beginning of the year, I was keen to have a look at Catton’s other novel. It’s a very different beast from The Luminaries: gone is the quasi-preternatural mystery of the Hokitika goldfields, replaced by a high school gripped by a sexual scandal. Gone too is the Victorian-inspired prose, replaced by a a style that takes heavy cues from modern theatre.

The Rehearsal splits itself between two concurrent stories – the lives of several high school students in the wake of an affair between a teacher and a student, and the lives of a group of first years at a prestigious drama school. The former explores the emotional reactions of the students to the scandal, while the latter, at first, is entirely separate – focusing instead on the unusual theatrical education the students receive.  What’s interesting isn’t that the two halves come together later on in the novel, but that, from the very beginning these two separate stories form two parts of a cohesive whole.

The Rehearsal is about performance. Catton uses the explicitly theatrical sections to reflect the ways in which the high school students and teachers engage in their own kinds of performances – both in the wake of the sexual scandal, and in their everyday lives.

It sounds like the thesis of a saccharine young adult novel – “In a way, aren’t we all performing all the time?“. But this isn’t anything as simple as ‘pretending to be someone you’re not to be popular’ – it’s a complex matter of trying on different identities, of blurring the lines between who you are and how you act, of speaking in a certain way to have a certain impact, rather than because that’s the natural way the words come out of your mouth. Instead of the starched-collar, sitting-on-a-chair-backwards guidance councillor The Rehearsal so easily could have been, it’s instead a genuine, nuanced look at the process of growing up, and picking an identity for yourself in the series of disasters – both impossibly large and pathetically small – that make up adolescence.

But while so much of the novel is centred around teenagers trying to define who they are, both internally and externally, the central roles of the saxophone teacher and the drama institute’s heads of departments shine a light on how this behaviour isn’t sloughed off at the end of adolescence. To get a bit guidance-councillor again (The Rehearsal has a tendency to sound glib when summarised because it’s a complex, nuanced work about a complex, nuanced subject; one that, if simplified, is almost inevitably trivialised) –  everyone, regardless of age or position, is acting all the time, and it’s both more and less childish and dramatic than that sounds.

Just as she blurs the line between what’s natural and what is affected, Catton also blurs the lines between what’s explicitly happening and what’s merely subtext. Several of the high school girls are at times described in an explicitly theatrical way – their characters as archetypes being portrayed by an actor; their actions feeling like italicised stage directions. Isolde and Julia’s fraught relationship is described in multiple ways at different times, all of them mutually exclusive if literally true. Lighting and set changes are described within some scenes as if they were played out on a stage even though they’re real events happening to real people. And the girls’ saxophone teacher sometimes says things to people’s faces that are hideously insulting, but that are met with nothing more than a nod or a hmm of agreement.

How much of what The Rehearsal quotes as her speech is actual speech and how much is subtext – the meaning behind what she really says? How much of what is described is fact and how much is a lie, an act, a reflection of how theses characters, consciously or unconsciously want to be seen? To what extent is this acting – this performance of a character – separate from who these people really are, and to what extent is it actually central to who they really are? The Rehearsal doesn’t try to answer these questions, because they’re inherently vague, sticky questions that can’t be answered. But in asking them The Rehearsal explores an often overlooked part of life; one that constantly upends the reader, keeps them feeling vulnerable and unsteady right up until the very end.

Wendy Lower - Hitler's FuriesWendy Lower – Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields

Not exactly what you’d describe as an inviting read, Lower’s exploration of Nazi history is incredibly tough to get through. There’s none of the stultifying denseness of text that’s so common among historical takes on this era, but the subject matter is just so deeply awful that I can’t wholly recommend it to people. I think it’s an important book, but while I’m very glad I read it, at times its depictions of Nazi atrocities were so hauntingly graphic that it tested my limits. So, take that as a warning.

This isn’t a book about the whats and the wheres and the hows of genocide in the Third Reich. Instead, Hitler’s Furies focuses on something more specific: the women who helped power Hitler’s wars, and later Hitler’s genocides. Rather than simply being pitiable bystanders on the periphery of the Third Reich, Lower shows us that many German women actively took part in Nazi atrocities. They did so in various roles: as teachers and housewives and mothers occupying the eastern lebensraum. As nurses voluntarily taking part in a campaign of mass ‘euthanasia’ of the disabled and the genetically undesirable. As clerks and stenographers relaying orders and reports of mass violence. And as wives and mistresses in the east who willingly took part in massacres and random acts of violence.

At times Lower takes a general view – looking at how the Nazi state operated, and how women contributed to its ability to carry out such terrible acts of violence and genocide across Europe. At other times she focuses in on the stories of individual woman fitting in the above categories of teacher, nurse, housewife, clerk. Both parts are necessary for the understanding Lower is aiming for, and both parts are equally harrowing.

Early on in the book Lower writes: ‘The consensus in Holocaust and genocide studies is that the systems that make mass murder possible would not function without the broad participation of society, and yet nearly all histories of the Holocaust leave out half of those who populated that society, as if women’s history happens somewhere else.’ This book, then, is an attempt to rebalance the scales – to address a part of history that we ignored closer to the time, and that we still largely ignore. Countless women took an active role in Nazi war crimes, but when the international prosecutors moved in in the wake of Germany’s defeat almost no women even faced trial, let alone sentencing. And even now we consistently brush over women’s role in such crimes.

By looking at the myriad ways women contributed to the atrocities of the Nazi state – either, in the minority as individual oppressors and killers, or, in the majority as cogs in a vast machine – Lower challenges the naive view of women as somehow incapable of participating in violence and terror. To do so isn’t to attack women; it’s to attack an outdated, patronising view of both genders as inherently distinct, with men as active participants capable of the whole spectrum of humanity, and women helpless victims and bystanders too good or too weak or too motherly to participate.

Hitler’s Furies isn’t just a well-researched, well-written piece of history. It’s an attempt – an incredibly successful one – to address a part of history, and a part of life, that we often neglect. It throws our unconscious views of gender roles back in our faces and argues that even the history we’d like to forget about is important. It won’t let the reader forget that history is fraught with the same issues we see everywhere else: who writes history? What do they write about? What questions do they ask and whom do they ask them to?

We get the history we have not just because of how the past was, but also because of how the present is. This book is an important way of addressing that fact, and taking small steps to improve the way we look at both the present and the past. If nothing else, it does a wonderful job of illustrating that women’s history doesn’t happen somewhere else, even if, in some cases, we may wish that it had.

Ursula K. Le Guin - The Left Hand of DarknessUrsula K. Le Guin – The Left Hand of Darkness

I’d heard about The Left Hand of Darkness quite a few times before I decided to read it, and each time it was sold to me something like this: An envoy from a coalition of space-faring civilisations is sent to a new world to broker an alliance. This world is unique in that its inhabitants are neither male nor female – each individual can assume either male or female sexual attributes during brief reproductive periods, but is otherwise biologically and socially androgynous. Among other things, Le Guin uses the novel to explore issues of feminism and gender, as well as the implications of a society without men or women.

This description is pretty much right: it takes place on Gethen, a world without gender, and through the interaction between the Earth-born envoy and the natives of Gethen the novel explores these kinds of issues, and their implications on individuals, and on society as a whole.

But the description above feels like it misses something. It makes The Left Hand of Darkness sound like classic science fiction; that is, hard science fiction that revolves almost entirely around a central thesis. But it’s not. It’s not like Flowers for Algernon; focusing in on its central issues of neurobiology and personhood to the exclusion of almost everything else (including, as it happens, the ability to include a single woman that feels like actual human beings). The Left Hand of Darkness uses its science fiction to explore ideas surrounding gender, but it’s far too nuanced and multifaceted to be interested in any one single thesis statement. And, unlike so much science fiction, at its heart it’s book that’s interested in people, rather than a book that’s interested in ideas.

The Left Hand of Darkness is an exploration of gender, but it’s not just that. It’s an exploration of an interesting, thoughtfully-considered fictional world, but it’s not just that. It’s an exploration of isolation and belonging. Of clashing cultural norms. Of religion and faith. But it’s not just that. It’s a book about people, and what it’s like to be a person. A person on a planet of near-perpetual winter light-years from Earth, but a person all the same.

One of the aspects of the novel that most resonated with me was the most is the way it explores the protagonist’s position as a visitor to a new world; a stranger in a strange land. As someone who’s spent the last year living in a foreign country on the other side of the planet I found much to recognise. Japan is hardly as different to the United Kingdom as Gethen is to Earth, but it’s pretty bloody different all the same, and I’ve spent a huge proportion of my waking life this year feeling somehow unstuck. Learning a language so vastly different to my own, so wrapped up in history and customs that are completely alien to me. Attempting to navigate an unfamiliar culture that’s different in ways you often can’t see until you know exactly what you’re looking for. It’s been a wonderful experience, but it’s hard not to feel isolated, or alone, or unstuck at times.

The Left Hand of Darkness captures this so incredibly well. It captures the feeling of isolation, and those moments during a conversation where you look down and can almost see the vast gulf of experience and understanding separating you from the other side. It captures the awful, draining coldness that runs through you when you make a mistake – either big or small – because you simply didn’t know. It captures the way two people can come together with the best intentions – with the aim of understanding – but end up wholly alienating each other because of miscommunication borne out of a lifetime of differences.

But even moreso, it captures the feeling of a connection being made; of slowly starting to feel less and less isolated. The Left Hand of Darkness starts with a vague sense of alienation, reaches a terrible point where the protagonist is utterly adrift and alone, and then finds cause for hope. It shows that connection, and even closeness, is possible in the face of such vast distances.

And all the while these ideas are explored through the logical, compelling interaction of beautifully-realised characters. It never shouts “This is the point of the novel” at you; instead it’s driven by the thoughts and the flaws and the cultural makeup of its inhabitants. It’s a science fiction about people, not just ideas, and it feels all the more profound and true because of it.

[So that was my four part review of my year in books. I hope you enjoyed it, and/or got some good recommendations out of it. I’m going to have a rest now.

In case you’re interested, my aim for this year is to read a lot more books by authors from all over the world, but especially Japanese authors. If you have any book recommendations of your own (by Japanese authors, or not), or you just want to chat, don’t hesitate to get in contact – either in the comments below or on Twitter (@nicholaskeirle). ]

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The Year in Books – Part Two

[This is Part Two of my review of the books I read this year, where I actually talk about some books. There is going to be a Part Three and possibly a Part Four. I know, I know. I’m sorry.

If you haven’t read part one yet you can find it here. Note that almost none of the following books were released this year. So, as always, if you’re looking for something timely or relevant you’ve most certainly come to the wrong place.]

Eleanor Catton-The Luminaries

Eleanor Catton – The Luminaries

A mystery story (kind of) set in the New Zealand town of Hokitika during the gold rush of the 1860s, The Luminaries takes much of its inspiration from the writing of that era. Not only are many of the characters wrapped up in typical Victorian issues of stoicism and decorum, but the novel itself has a decidedly Victorian narrator; third-person, omniscient, and as prone to poetic descriptions of the dirty and the commonplace as it is to summing up a person’s temperament and moral character in a few decorous sentences.

The action has much in common with mystery and adventure novels of the time, but it’s also tinged with moments of the haunting and the conceivably preternatural. Structurally speaking, The Luminaries is based around the zodiac, and the movement of the heavens. Each major character represents one of the twelve zodiac signs, and the interaction between characters throughout the novel is determined by the state of the night sky – the movement of the planets through the constellations – over the town of Hokitika in 1864.

Not only this, but the chapters correspond to the waning moon – the first section is nearly four hundred pages long, and the action within is slow, unhurried. The next is around two hundred, and things start to speed up. And so on, getting shorter and more hurried and more urgent, until chapters become nothing more than brief snapshots: five pages, two pages, a page, a paragraph.

The effect is astonishing. Which is to say nothing of Catton’s wonderful use of language, or the novel’s frankly huge cast of incredibly well-drawn characters. It’s around 800 pages long, and while the beginning half is slow, it’s never boring, and it’s never too slow. It’s a slowness that’s delightful to linger in – just to soak up the atmosphere and the characters and the world. I wanted there to be a another 800 pages. The Hokitika Catton draws feels like a place you could spend a lifetime in and still feel like you haven’t seen enough. But The Luminaries doesn’t let you just sit and take it in – the mystery begins to unravel, the action rises, and before long we’re left with nothing but the sting of heart-wrenching tragedy, and the taste of yearning on our tongues.


Margaret Atwood – The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale almost beat me. I crawled through it pages at a time, with long breaks between sessions. Not because it’s dense, or badly written, but because it’s so unremittingly bleak. And I thought I could handle bleak – I remember reading The Road, alongside other, vaguely similar books, and having no trouble whatsoever. But this is a different kind of bleak.

The Road is the bleakness of a broken world where you survive on nothing but your own strength, where a man has to protect his innocent child from a newly indifferent world. The Handmaid’s Tale shows us another crawling nightmare from another perspective – one where the world has always been utterly indifferent to you.

Where McCarthy dwells on a powerful, perhaps centrally masculine fear of losing society and the protection it gives us, Atwood focuses on the ways society can take from us. Instead of the protective walls of society falling down, they move in, suffocating you bit by bit, day by day, until there’s almost nothing left.

It’s the story of a society that takes everything from women, even, in time, the will to resist; the will to even hope for something better, someday. There is no way to survive off your own wits, no innocent child to protect – even that is taken away. All that remains is hopelessness, loneliness, nothing.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a novel that, to me, felt bleak in a wholly unfamiliar way. Where the apocalypse is one of society, rather than the lack of it. Where the question isn’t if you’ll live another day, but whether you’ll be able to force yourself to; whether you’ll have reason to. Like I said, it’s the apocalypse of the walls – walls that were always there – closing in. Not the fear of dying in the night, but rather the suffocation of waking up in the morning.

And after the story ends we’re shown another perspective – another dispassionate, perhaps centrally masculine examination of what you just finished reading. And where before I was broken down, exhausted, here I was furious. The treatment of this story as a text to be picked apart and academically debated, rather than grieved over, believed in a sense that’s impossible to quantify – that was an astoundingly resonant outrage, and one I don’t think I’ve ever felt before.


NoViolet Bulawayo – We Need New Names

We Need New Names is a book of two halves. First, the lived experience of a small child in Zimbabwe, and then the experience of being removed – of being picked up and displaced somewhere else, of only being able to look on as an outsider. Both halves are effective, and could easily have stood alone as two separate novels. But it’s the interaction between these two parts – the light they shine on one another – that makes this book what it is.

The first half starts out as a beautiful, partially broken description of a ten year-old girl’s life in a Zimbabwean shanty town. It describes hardship, and privation, but it’s mostly concerned with painting a picture of what it is to be children. The games, the fights, the child-like perspectives on things like politics and religion, and the strange, half-formed folklore they invent for their town and the people within. But as the political and racial tensions rise ever further, all this is derailed.

Then, into the second half. The protagonist is now living with her aunt in Detroit, Michigan, away from violence and danger back home. She can’t go back home, or shouldn’t, or isn’t allowed to. As she struggles to cope with life in America, a central question begins to take up more and more room in her head – is it her home anymore? She doesn’t feel comfortable in Detroit, but she’s been gone for so long, and when she calls her friends and family back home they’re different, and she’s different. They struggle to communicate as she becomes less and less connected to her past.

I’ve seen some people criticise the novel, and the author (who is herself an expatriate Zimbabwean), for failing to fully understand the reality of the situation in Zimbabwe at the time, or at least for not addressing it with enough nuance. But that’s the entire point of the novel – it’s about the experience of someone who left, and can only look on, or look back. It ends with the protagonist chastised by her childhood friend for failing to understand, for claiming that Zimbabwe is her country, after leaving it so long ago, after picking up new habits and a new accent. The protagonist rages against this, and that guilt is clearly there. It’s a book as much about guilt as anything else.

In We Need New Names the protagonist is left adrift – her past is remote, no longer a home to her, and try as she might she can only look on as an outsider now. She doesn’t understand, not fully, not anymore. It’s a novel about being adrift from your past, and your heritage. About a community keeping that heritage alive in the gaps available to them. About the small things that sometimes make life in a new country almost unbearable, even years down the line.

It’s about looking on and no longer feeling quite right calling home ‘home’. About feeling incredible guilt about that fact, and about how you’ve changed, but not knowing how to do anything else.

[Next time, in Part Three – Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, Alice Munro’s Dear Life, and Ogawa Yoko’s The Diving Pool.]

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The Year in Books – Part Three

[This is part three of my review of the books I read this year. This time I’ll be talking about Alice Munro’s Dear Life, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, and Ogawa Yoko’s The Diving Pool. If you haven’t read part one or two yet you can find them here and here.]

Alice Munro - Dear LifeAlice Munro – Dear Life

Dear Life is a collection of fourteen short stories by the Canadian writer Alice Munro. Her writing throughout is subtle and unshowy, her characters equally so, but she has a way of observing people, of showing some small, flawed aspect of humanity, that makes these stories quietly beautiful things.

The stories in this collection often revolve around a single, unexpected decision – one that is undeniably harmful, but that comes without any kind of explanation or justification. What results is a sudden, jarring shift in the reader’s view of who exactly a character is, in a way that feel both momentous and wonderfully understated.

The affecting moments in these stories are so often just a look; an action hinted at; a brief comment or fleeting thought. And Munro rarely tries to elaborate, or describe the meaning that lies behind them. To do so would be to change them and devalue them. These brief, unshowy moments and actions stand alone – they hint at something honest, deeply personal yet wholly universal, that you can understand in a moment, but can’t ever hope to put into words.

Wolf_Hall_cover_blackHilary Mantel – Wolf Hall

I’ve already written a fair bit about Wolf Hall (here), so this part will be mercifully short. In short, then: Wolf Hall is an unparalleled work of historical fiction. It’s dense and sometimes difficult, partly because, as one of the characters notes, around a third of the population of England in the 16th Century seems to be called ‘Thomas’. But that denseness is to Wolf Hall‘s credit. It introduces us to a complex, ever-changing world of political, religious, and personal conflict in early modern Europe, and never patronises us by explaining more than it needs to.

The act of uncovering the world of Wolf Hall -  settling in your mind who exactly everyone is, what they do, and where their motives lie – sometimes feels like an act of archaeology, and the growing sense of understanding you have throughout the book simply wouldn’t be as satisfying if Mantel saw fit to simplify things, or to hold your hand with constant exposition. It would have made the world feel less like a world and more like a backdrop; its characters less like humans acting in accordance with varied, conflicting motives and more like actors acting in accordance with a script.

Combine that with Thomas Cromwell – possibly the most complex, well-drawn character I’ve ever encountered in fiction – and Mantel’s wonderfully powerful, nuanced prose. The conflicted sadness of Thomas More’s execution, the harrowing descriptions of nightmares real, unreal, and those that blur the lines. It all comes together to form something wholly unique. It’s a book of fascinating characters, haunting moments, glimpses and stories of the magic realist and preternatural, and it’s much, much more than what you might normally think of when you think of historical fiction.

Ogawa Yoko - The Diving Pool Ogawa Yōko – The Diving Pool

The three novellas in this collection – The Diving Pool, Pregnancy Diary, and Dormitory – aren’t linked in any narrative sense, but they’re so similar both thematically and atmospherically that they feel like a single piece of work.

In The Diving Pool a young girl feels an intense desire for the foster child she’s lived with nearly all her life. This desire, at first typically fraught and unhealthy in the way so many teenage romantic feelings are, becomes complicated by the rash of deep, unsettling cruelty that that she secrets away; bubbling just below the surface. In Pregnancy Diary a woman documents her sister’s ongoing pregnancy, and her conflicted feelings about her sister, her brother-in-law, and the pregnancy itself. Just as in The Diving Pool, very little of consequence happens, but the diary becomes a window into a disturbing, unexpressed darkness that bubbles just below the surface – one that expresses itself in a quietly sickening way. In Dormitory a woman helps her young cousin find somewhere to live while at university, eventually settling on an old dormitory building she used to live in in her own university days. The building is still run by the same man, now old and tired, and her interactions with both the dormitory and its manager hint at something strange and uneasy.

In each story Ogawa’s central characters are quiet, emotionally withdrawn, and vaguely discontented women. In each, the pace is slow, and an almost unbearable tension is built up by the gradual introduction of jarring elements into humdrum descriptions of an otherwise normal life. In the case of the first two stories these connections are found in the minds of the central characters, whereas in Dormitory what is jarring is for the first time on the outside – the dormitory and its manager, and the world surrounding it, rather than the protagonist herself. The unsettling nature of Dormitory is therefore less direct, and its action is more symbolic than either The Diving Pool or Pregnancy Diary, but it’s no less effective for that.

Ogawa’s prose is perfectly balanced (the translation itself is exceptional), and the contrast of everyday life with the emotional rot that lies beneath it is never less than entrancing. Though maybe ‘entrancing’ is the wrong word – these stories claw at you; nag you and lurk in your peripheral vision; in the back of your mind. They made me think again and again of a line from Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle: “burning black painful rot that ate away from inside, hurting dreadfully“.

That’s the atmosphere Ogawa so masterfully creates. But these aren’t horror stories, and their characters aren’t psychopaths. What’s so effective about them is that this rot lies within the hearts and minds of normal people. Quiet, withdrawn, and curiously asocial people, sure, but these are stories of what lies inside every one of us, not just in the mad or the dangerous. What you see is unnerving, because you can see it in yourself, in everyone and everything around you. These are stories about human psychology, and the subtle vagaries that can sometimes appear haunting. It’s not the rot of insanity or evil, but something inherently human – some way of looking at the world that sometimes makes it suddenly strange and sickening. And some hidden part of us that processes and reacts, that at times appears to take control, almost without our noticing.

[Next time, in the fourth and final section – Eleanor Catton’s The Rehearsal, Wendy Lower’s Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields, and Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness.]

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