Guest Review: Revolutionary Mothering: Love On The Front Lines

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for D.A.W. (because we intermothered)

Who will take us in? This is what Glenda Moore was asking when she knocked on strangers’ doors for hours in late October 2012. Caught outside with her young sons in Staten Island, New York during Hurricane Sandy, she asked this when doors were opened, only to be closed in her face. (Later, some of the people who refused to help said they thought she was trying to burglarize their homes.) She asked this until she lost grip of her sons. Until the sea said,  I will take them.  

The bodies of Brandon, 2, and Connor, 4, were discovered nearby a few days later.

***

This is how marginalized mothers are unsheltered every day; this is why an arbor-anthology had to be built, and its name is Revolutionary Mothering: Love On The Front Lines (PM Press, 2016). The aim of this collection of communiqués, poems, essays, and visual art is to center mothers, who, like Moore, are locked out of “angel in the house” iconographies–i.e., primarily “radical mothers of color with a few marginalized (queer, trans, low income, single, and disabled) white mothers,” in the framing words of editors Alexis Pauline Gumbs, China Martens, and Mai’a Williams. And how do the editors define mothering? Panoramically. Enter this anthology knowing that there is a new spelling of the name: “m/other.” Spell it like “investing in each other’s existence,” as Loretta Ross does in the brilliant preface. Spell it like “less as a gendered identity and more a possible action, a technology of transformation,” as Gumbs does in her poetic, incandescent essay, “m/other ourselves: a Black queer feminist genealogy for radical mothering.” Spell it like “a primary front in this struggle {against a colonial, racist, hetero-patriarchal capitalism}, not as a biological function, but as a social practice,” as Cynthia Dewi Oka does in one of the book’s most electrifying entries, “Mothering as Revolutionary Praxis.”

“Revolutionary mothering” may be more redundant than oxymoronic, according to the biome of this book. However, Malkia A. Cyril reminds us in her incisive “Motherhood, Media, and Building a 21st-Century Movement,” the weaponized think-of-the-children has been used to undergird “a conservative vision of family” and the carceral state. Cyril asserts:

…empire is sustained, and mothers become one of the tools of its continuous resurrection.

But

just as mothers can become the ideological vehicles for hierarchy and dominance, they are uniquely positioned to lead both visionary and opposition strategies to it. With the right supports, mothers from underrepresented communities can help lead the way to new forms of governance, new approaches to the economy, and enlightenment of civil society grounded in fundamental human rights. In fact, they always have.

With blazing authority in “Forget Hallmark: Why Mother’s Day Is a Queer Black Left Feminist Thing,” Gumbs dismisses “the assumption that mothering is conservative or that conserving and nurturing the lives of Black children has ever had any validated place in the official American political spectrum.” (If it was so conservative, why have so many forces been arrayed against it?) Gumbs argues convincingly that Black motherHOOD is fundamentally insurgent; Black mothers, past and present, harbor futurity.

***

Witness the diversity of dispatches from the front lines: in Victoria Law’s “Doing It All…and Then Again with Child,” an organizer-mama writes letters to incarcerated women (many of them also mothers) that incorporate her daughter’s drawings–and travels to Chiapas, Mexico to hear Zapatista mothers talk about seamlessly integrating children into revolutionary struggle. Irene Lara invokes “Tlazolteotl, the Nahua sacred energy of birthing and regeneration” in the ceremony-limned “From the Four Directions: The Dreaming, Birthing, Healing Mother on Fire.” Mothers construct a theatre of testimony to resist genocide and extrajudicial killings in Arielle Julia Brown’s “Love Balm for My SpiritChild,” reminding me of the indefatigable Asociación Madres de Plaza de Mayo. In Lindsey Campbell’s “You Look Too Young to Be a Mom,” a chorus of young mas flip scripts that insist teen pregnancy is disaster unalloyed. tk karakashian tunchez megaphones “WE ARE WELFARE QUEENS AND WE AREN’T ASHAMED” in the manifesta, “Telling Our Truths to Live.” In “On My Childhood, El Centro del Raza, and Remembering,” Esteli Juarez re-members being raised by a father and other activists who occupied an abandoned school in Seattle, Washington for months, so that Chicanos, Mexicanos, and Latinos could have a public space to “gather, build community, access resources, [and] organize.”

The etymological root of “anthology” is “many flowers,” and Revolutionary Mothering is truly a fistful of spiky, necessary blooms. You need to be present for stories like these: Norma Angelica Marrun reflects on an undocumented childhood in the U.S. without her mother in “Why Don’t You Love Her?” In “Birthing My Goddess,” H. Bindy K. Kang is subjected to reproductive profiling and surveillance targeting South Asians in British Columbia. Terri Nilliasca reveals that the international adoption machine is built for white Westerners, and not balikbayan coming to the Philippines to adopt (“Night Terrors, Love, Brokenness, Race, Home & the Perils of the Adoption Industry: A Journey in Radical Family Creation”).

This book is riven with border lines–indeed, one of its conceits is lines, from “shorelines” to “between the lines”–and those lines matter. Border and bottom lines often mark what kind of mothering one has access to; Gumbs summons “immigrant nannies like my grandmother who mothered wealthy white kids in order to send money to Jamaica for my mother and her brothers who could not afford the privilege of her presence.” Cynthia Dewi Oka adds that “collectivizing caregiving in our communities is linked to dismantling a capitalist empire that abuses Third World women’s bodies as part of its infrastructure.” The children of marginalized mothers in the U.S., Loretta Ross makes clear, are primed to “become disposable cannon fodder for U.S. imperialism.”

There are some lines in the sand, uncrossable uncrossable. Gumbs calls out “neo-eugenicist” rhetoric and its relationship to “globalized ‘family planning’ agendas that have historically forced women in the Caribbean, Latin America, South Asia, and Africa to undergo sterilization in order to work for multinational corporations”; she also quotes officials who suggest that aborting Black fetuses in the U.S. will reduce crime and sterilizing women in “developing nations” will “prevent economically disruptive revolutions.” Oka punctures the population-bomb bogeyman embodied in “Black, indigenous, and Third World children…as perpetrators of environmental degradation.” In fact, mothering and radical homemaking are the imaginarium our moment needs, Oka insists–as she sketches a vision of the homes and habitats to come: “Perhaps the kind of home we need today is mobile, multiple, and underground.” The home as rhizome. A site of flux and disturbance, in the most generative sense. The home of the warning shot, to shoo away the State (see: Korryn Gaines). As an otherworldly realm of revolutionary eclipse and endarkenment: “Perhaps we need to become unavailable for state scrutiny so that we can experiment,” she muses, leaving us with a deepened “encumbrance upon each other while rejecting the extension of our dependence on state and capital.” Isn’t this kind of reliance and resiliency we will need, considering the demands of climate change? Is this what it means to mother in the Anthropocene?

***

Thankfully, this book doesn’t neglect to hold what is unresolved and difficult about mothering and being mothered. There’s pressure on people of color to craft reactive hagiographies about our mothers; while the impulse is understandable–don’t talk about your mother’s failures since the State is all too prepared to enumerate and criminalize them–stories like Rachel Broadwater’s “Brave Hearts” are refreshing. In it, Broadwater meditates on her disappointment with her own traumatized, imperfect mother. Mai’a Williams eschews the soft-focus sentimentality surrounding “mamahood” when she writes, “It’s a visceral sense that vulnerable, quivering life is breaking you and you have to let it.  It’s not self-sacrifice. It may not even qualify as love. It isn’t sweet. It isn’t romantic.” This is beautifully and painfully illustrated in Vivian Chin’s essay, “Mothering,” which is mysterious, fraught with slippage, and haunted by damage not quite known. This is the anti-lullaby–this is rage-son, ankle bracelet, juvenile court, polliwogs not getting enough nutrients, you don’t help me with shit. Fabielle Georges’ “The Darkness” flickers with the radioactivity of colorism, lookism, and Black self-loathing. Claire Barrera talks about being short-fused due to chronic pain in “Step on a Crack: Parenting with Chronic Pain.”

***

If this anthology’s foremother is This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color–indeed, its initial title was This Bridge Called My Baby–then its sibling might be the zine movement. China Martens traces a brief history of “subculture media” that includes The Future Generation zine she started in 1990. Several zinesters are featured in Revolutionary Mothering, including Noemi Martinez of the zines, Making of a Chicana and Hermana, Resist.  Martens explores how zines oiled her leap to blogs and “online snippets” especially suited to the time-strapped mom. Some of the anthology’s contributions (like Mamas of Color Rising’s “Collective Poem on Mothering”) read like raw, urgent telegraphs from mothers out of time–“time traveling is a necessity,” Martens says–and these seemingly rush-crafted pieces add to the anthology’s sense of welcome and immediacy.

***

Revolutionary Mothering is a dreambook. Place it on your bedstand and when you awaken, scribble your not-quite-daylight visions in the margins so your dreams will be in good company. With its protean take on mothering, expect to pick up a new book each time you open it. And while we’re dreaming, I would have loved more voices from mothers who embody the truth that “mother” is “older and more futuristic than the word ‘woman,’” as Gumbs wrote. Also invoked by Gumbs, I want more stories from the house mothers of ball culture themselves. Next time, then. I have gotten into the habit of collecting radical anthologies, and this one ranks among my favorites: I was rocked and healed and mothered by this open-armed anthology itself, and suspect it will go on to give birth to other anthologies, other worlds. Mothering got next.

If your potential was visible on your body, like a hologram of your future, you’d know what things to just give up on without trying . . . but then you’d never know that you change your hologram potential if you try.

Rio, Katie Kaput’s nine-year-old son in “Three Thousand Words”

Those caregiving collectives? Those “phamilies, chosen and stronger than blood” tk karakashian tunchez speaks of? Yes, those. We have an amphibious city to build now, and Revolutionary Mothering offers so many blueprints, so much holographic potential. Let’s hold each other close, before the rising seas.

Almah LaVon is a poet errant and incogNegr@ who is often based in western Pennsylvania. More of her writing on books can be found in the forthcoming anthology, Solace: Writing, Refuge, and LGBTQ Women of Color.

Shivanee’s postscript: It’s a tasselated, tapestried honour to have Almah’s critical work on Novel Niche! Many thanks to her, and to the editors and contributors of this formidable anthology, purchasable here.

49. The Inugami Mochi by Jessamyn Smyth

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<i>Saddle Road Press, 2016.</i>

Saddle Road Press, 2016.

First, there were beasts. Second, we learned to breathe through them. This is how you imagine any feral transaction was initiated: your ancestress, and the snarling familiar she called to her side. You imagine it took place in sunlight-dappled glens; over the thin sheet of ice trapping the lake vastness beneath; in the full moon of pioneering blood, and the monsoon fever of a final kill.

Surely it wasn’t meant to be this way, you think now as you reluctantly loop your retriever’s leash to a signpost of all the human places he is forbidden access. Surely, there was a way to walk in more truthful wilderness.

Jessamyn Smyth’s new collection of fictions knows wilderness and human ruin. The Inugami Mochi takes its title from a Japanese folkloric family — one part fur, the other flesh. A bond in which the beast — the dog-god, inugami — functions as stalwart spiritual and territorial defender to her human, inugami mochi are frequently ill-perceived by more civilian members of society. So it is with Cecily and Dog, the partnership whose interlacing, overlapping stories together form the spine of the work.

Of spines, the textual alignment of these stories are set, or broken, to let the light of anguish in. Smyth arranges her texts with the anatomical composition of a body uncovering, systematically, its own portrait of ruin. The more Cecily — a strident, opinionated literature teacher who favours Dog’s company above all others, grimacing at the soulless social gatherings she forces herself to attend — and Dog cleave to each other, the more mortal instruments of pain try to vivisect their united landscape. The author’s attention to catastrophe resulting in trauma and the resultant slow crawl of rehabilitation is a scrying bowl into which many of the stories dip for focus, and for revelation.

Sometimes the grievances can be cured by water, as a bath with Dog in the tub cleanses him of a decaying deer carcass’ yellow and green putrefaction, in the collection’s opening story, “A More Perfect Union.” In “Bears”, water is the medium through which carnage flows, as Cecily suffers a brutal bisecting blow, splitting skin as bear and woman wrestle in a swimming pool for supremacy and survival. Whether this happens literally pales in significance to Smyth’s devotion to litmus-testing the body’s dependency on, and terrorized relationship with, its own unexpected strengths.

At the microstructural level, Smyth’s lines are conjured to both devastate beautifully and rout any sickness of complacency from the text. Cecily and Dog cavort, roam and contrive together in natural beauty; far removed from malls and marketplaces, they trade unanimously in the soulful commerce of each other. The author surrounds us in the resplendence of the unbuilt world, never undermining its fragility and propensity for cruel acts. It is nature, empyrean and indifferent, that deals Dog a critical hand in the collection’s titular story. “The Inugami Mochi” draws the reader in totemically, harnessing all the sudden assault of an unexpected torturer’s song, splitting the silence. It rests in the collection with gravid unease, and in the very microstructure of its telling, Smyth eschews ornamentation for the finer poetry of desperation, dragging us and Dog in the throes of

“crying, and crying, and lifting, and holding him shut, and scraping them both up the impossible section, and then they are past it and she gathers him in again and holds his wound shut and again begins to run, close to the road now, a final series of hills, her arms and legs and lungs and spine flaming, his weight somehow more dense now even than it was, and the denseness terrifies her,”

And we, reading, are dismantled on a cellular level, which is as it should be. The stations of devastation in The Inugami Mochi intend no less than this raw, throat-rasping genuflection.

Smyth’s stories are more mirthful than this baleful tussling with nature, water and blood suggests — indeed, some of its bloodiest segments, such as the impishly-named “Copper T”, prance giddily into topics threaded with gore and gristle. An intrauterine device installation sees Cecily “doubled over and hemorrhaging into a pad the size of Manhattan,” and she devises uproarious titles for the misadventures of her vagina in both contraception and canoodling. Leavening wry humour with sharp self-cognizance, Cecily guards her wounds close:

“At no time was she unaware of the metal passenger in her body: its shape and position, its bright, sharp gleam.”

We navigate life strewn on the inside with metal passengers. The Inugami Mochi reminds us that we’ve stranger, even more durable relics buried within us — none so potent, so belly-to-spine embracing, as dog’s tooth and hound hearkening. Dog, in all his devotion, his canny prescience, his love of water and the throwing heat of his love: all this will make you not only adore him, but reach for the wilderness within your breast that you’ve been forsaking.

Necessary, pointillist-studded with grace, ferocity and loss, The Inugami Mochi will bid you rip the metal out, replace it with something that barks and bolts and bleeds.

Jessamyn Smyth’s The Inugami Mochi will be released on February 15th, 2016. For more information and preorder links, visit the official publisher’s page at Saddle Road Press.

48. House of Ashes by Monique Roffey

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Twenty four years have elapsed since the July 1990 attempted coup by the Jamaat al Muslimeen. Those who recollect the events of those six days in Trinidad and Tobago’s history do so with collective unease, channeling repressed fury and a kind of malaise that’s difficult to translate into common speech. This is what Monique Roffey’s fourth novel, House of Ashes (Simon & Schuster, 2014) seeks to do: to transubstantiate 1990’s Red House horror into fiction that grimly vows never to forget.

Roffey, whose third novel, Archipelago, was the winner of the 2013 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature, has in her new book a creative undertaking not dissimilar to a holy ritual, one replete with its own unfair allotment of both bodies and blood.

Narrative takes a three-pronged approach in House of Ashes. In addition to segments told in a mostly plot-propelling omniscient voice, the author employs two speakers to shoulder most of the novel’s heavily symbolic baggage. One of them, Ashes, is a mild-mannered, bespectacled scholar, a gentle academic who follows devoutly in the wake of the coup’s enigmatic Leader. Aspasia Garland, Minister for the Environment, is Roffey’s second principal mouthpiece. Garland is one of the government officials held hostage in the House of Power, by the Leader’s gun-toting lackeys (of whom Ashes is also a firearm-wielding, reluctant member.)

Through Ashes and Aspasia, the author works hard to show how terror may share a mutual cell of confinement, in the hearts of both terrorist and victim. Though he adheres to the faith-prescribed tenets of social justice that his Leader has invoked, in this storming of the island’s House of Power, Ashes struggles with doubt. It is Ashes, who, mid-skirmish during the storming of the House, perceives the absurd levy of so much violence. He describes the bloodied scene unfurling before him with a kind of disjointed helplessness:

“Men firing and men returning fire and a clatter of bullet-hail and it didn’t seem to matter who was shooting at who, just that a storm was going on and the revolution was still taking place.”

Aspasia’s accounts are the only ones conducted in the first-person narrative voice, and her fearful bouts of introspection summon a dreadful immediacy to the novel’s proceedings. Unable to rest easily during the prolonged occupation of the House of Power, Aspasia regards the malevolent forces surrounding her in sinister, allegorical terms. “The darkness activated my deepest fears,” she thinks:

“Would the looters be able to climb through the windows? Would jab jabs now show up in the dead of night? Would the gunmen shed their combat fatigues to reveal themselves as devils underneath?”

Ashes and Aspasia are citizens of Sans Amen, though this fictitious island, relocated to the northern end of the archipelagic chain, is easily and identifiably Trinidad, beneath the patina of a reissued title. Arguably, Roffey is letting herself off the hook here; there are a number of ways in which the novel might have benefitted from bravely claiming this story as Trinidad and Tobago’s, in every appellative act possible.

Still, the examination of Sans Amen’s political climate, and its history of quelled insurgencies, is intricately constructed, then distilled through the dissatisfaction of the island’s people. Sans Amenians are a caustic, confrontational lot, though not immune to their own passive occupations of cowardice, and fleeting moments of grace. The author paints both the principal and unnamed characters who reside here with thoughtfulness, using her considerable boon for human portraiture to render them as real people.

Is this the definitive coup novel that Trinidad and Tobago needs? No, perhaps it is not. House of Ashes is lit from within by an earnest fire, and the quality of Roffey’s vast intentions here is more convincing than the work she’s produced. This is emotionally-charged fictive reportage, a dizzyingly ambitious treatment that inevitably falls short, but has the assiduous and requisite strength to at least fall well.

In sensitive, brave prose (marked by forays into repetitiveness), Roffey shows the reader that human animals all respond in essentially the same ways, when staring down the steel barrel of their own fear. Though House of Ashes cannot be thought of as a 1990 coup primer, what it gets undeniably right is our primordial response to terrorism.

This review first appeared in its entirety in the Trinidad Guardian‘s Sunday Arts Section on August 3rd, 2014, entitled “Converting real horror into fiction.”

47. The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord

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Published by Del Rey in 2013.

Would you care for a bit of inter-species, mixed faction romantic mingling, housed in a travelogue-formatted space odyssey? That’s at least some of what Barbadian writer Karen Lord is getting up to, in her second novel, The Best of All Possible Worlds.

What’s remarkable about Lord’s oeuvre is that it’s near-unmatched: very few Caribbean writers, resident in the Caribbean, commit themselves to speculative fiction. Lord tells stories that are not only fascinating emotionally and anthropologically, but she’s doing it in a singular literary field.

Lord’s first novel, Redemption in Indigo (Small Beer Press, 2010) was longlisted for the 2011 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature. In its unpublished manuscript format, the novel won the 2008 Frank Collymore Literary Award. The Best of All Possible Worlds also received the Frank Collymore award, in 2009.

As with so much speculative fiction, the ambitions of Lord’s second novel are vast – and for the most part, they find confident footing. The story is narrated principally by Grace Delarua, a plucky biotechnician and resident of polycultural planet Cygnus Beta. Delarua is assigned to a social research expedition in service of the Sadiri, a proud, intellectually advanced race whose home territory has been obliterated. Represented by their chief councillor, Dllenahkh, the Sadiri seek out potential mates most similar to their own core temperament and physical appearance, on the many separate homesteads scattered throughout Cygnus Beta’s outposts and provinces.

Perhaps Redemption in Indigo bore more easily recognizable hallmarks of folkloric treatment (unsurprisingly, given that it’s a creative retelling of a Senegalese folk tale.) However, the avoidance of monoculturalism is gratifyingly strong in Lord’s second work. Cygnus Beta is described as “a galactic hinterland for pioneers and refugees,” and is populated with a diverse set of races, each with their own identifiable quirks and passions. Dllenahkh’s Sadirian measured equanimity finds a consistently pleasurable foil in Delarua’s Cygnian matter of factness and emotional volubility. The two give every indication, in the novel’s earliest stages, of being well-suited to the kind of romance that not only links two people, but solidifies tenuous bridges of cultural commingling.

This seems to be one of the central premises Lord works out in the novel. The universe’s various citizenries enact premeditated (and often brutal) acts of separatist violence against each other: witness Ain’s cavalier destruction of Sadiri, and the massive devastation this genocide left in its wake. Despite unfathomable loss and crippling exile, Lord prompts her central characters deeper into an understanding, and appreciation of, mutual dependency. Almost all of the novel’s players express strong attachments to concepts of home, kinship and domestic succor. Delarua says it herself, during an unexpected trip to her sister’s homestead:

“Blood is blood, you know? There’s too much shared history and too many cross-connecting bonds to ever totally extract yourself from that half-smothering, half-supporting, muddled net called family.”

It is perhaps slightly ironic, then, that Lord suggests that the connections we make, rather than those into which we are born, hold greatest sway. This isn’t a novel concept, but it’s engagingly transmitted through the writer’s exploration of psychic bonds, particularly the psionic linkages that Delarua and Dllenahkh test with each other. It’s not an especially groundbreaking way to talk about sensual or sexual intimacy in science fiction, but Lord recycles it well. Through these episodes, it feels like we see the potential couple most clearly, wherein they allow themselves to interface with vulnerability and trust. As Dllenahkh puts it, there can be a certain

“transcendence to bonding… feeling the bones, tendons and nerves of another being – not as a puppet master but like a dancer fitted to a partner, able to suggest a movement with a light press of silent, invisible communication.”

The novel’s greatest flaw is also one of its most affecting charms: it is both episodic in nature (as opposed to tackling one core issue head on in the plot), and it wants to say a great many things about a great many things. If the best of all possible worlds, according to the aphorism, is the one we’re living in now, then reading Lord grants us pathways to other places no greater than this Earth, but no less captivating.

This review first appeared in its entirety in the Trinidad Guardian‘s Sunday Arts Section on April 6th, 2014, entitled “Confident new Caribbean sci-fi novel.”

“The Love of a Good Woman” by Alice Munro

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Inspired by Buried in Print‘s indepth and illuminating story-by-story analysis of Alice Munro’s collections, I’ve decided to read Munro’s The Love of a Good Woman (1998, McClelland & Stewart) in same spirit of individual story appreciation, delight and scrutiny. I’m beginning with the first (and titular) story of the collection, “The Love of a Good Woman”.

This is how my introduction to the world of Alice Munro’s writing begins – with a drowning. A man, an optometrist named D.M. Willens, loses his life to the Peregrine River in 1951. The reader learns this through the object that opens “The Love of a Good Woman”: a red box of optometrist’s tools, which contains, among other things, an ophthalmoscope.

Munro wields this object with dual stylistic purpose – in her deft hands, it is both a promontory and a point of multiple divergences. We are allowed to trace the history of the ophthalmoscope backwards through time, to the quiet, sturdy town of Walley (in whose museum of quaint domesticities the device is housed). We get to breathe Walley in; we’re allowed to take its unremarkable temperature. We peer into the lives of three boys who, while surveying their riverbank domain, happen upon Willens’ car, buried in pond mud like a light blue absurdity. We stay with each lad awhile, privy to the small and considerable distresses and merriments of their lives, until they tell Walley that the optometrist has drowned.

Time passes. The boys grow up, and Willens’ death becomes part of Walley’s remembered history. We meet and spend time with a woman who is admonished by her mother for throwing herself towards sainthood. She’s called Enid, and she is tending to Mrs. Quinn, who is dying of a rare illness whose symptoms are both grotesque and medically fascinating. On her deathbed, trapped in the resentment of her prolonged, focused misery, Mrs. Quinn contains secrets. When she shares one of them with Enid, certain things once held as true begin to fray, threatening to dredge up old drownings with new, sharp interrogations.

Majestic flourishes of language don’t typify how Munro tells this story. It’s more like the language is majestically suited to a series of nimble purposes. She captures the impetuous shock (and its robust aftermath) that goosepimples the skin of the boys, who dive into the Peregrine:

“So they would jump into the water and feel the cold hit them like ice daggers. Ice daggers shooting up behind their eyes and jabbing the tops of their skulls from the inside. Then they would move their arms and legs a few times and haul themselves out, quaking and letting their teeth rattle; they would push their numb limbs into their clothes and feel the painful recapture of their bodies by their startled blood and the relief of making their brag true.”

Alice Munro, it turns out, is like this stealth rogue who shivs you with at least ten difficult-to-name emotions when you weren’t even expecting to feel your heartbeat race. A full repertoire of individual sorrows and contemplations, plus the collective memory of a town that’s no quieter than its ghosts are silent and well-mannered, resides in this telling. There’s the consideration of all these lives from multiple, age-tiered perspectives. Munro feeds us slices of devil-may-care, boyish bravado, and injects us with doses of a nurse’s calm equanimity; she does both while winning our absolute belief that she keenly sees each person we meet in her pages.

The writer shows us that the boys aren’t just brash; they’re also beset by varying degrees of domestic trauma, over which they may or may not feel duly traumatized. She peels away the nurse’s graceful routine by night, summoning up for her a host of sleepless hours, and private agonies over choosing what’s right, what’s useful, what future might be hers based on speaking, or else saying nothing at all.

“The Love of a Good Woman” ends as so much of it is conducted, with quietness blanketing one’s orbit, while the world continues its indifferent geographical circuitry. There is no easy way to know how Enid will fare, at the story’s close – what is clear is that she won’t end. The ambit of her drama will continue to lope, and loop; one feels intensely that her life is happening to her even now, while dinners are being made in the real world, while blog posts are being written. She is the real world, Alice Munro tells us, and her life is just about as unremarkable and miraculous as any of ours, whether we are helping someone breathe, or watching them falter, seeing them sink with other secrets to the lake’s still bed.

Here’s Buried in Print’s incisive analysis of “The Love of a Good Woman”. Next up, I’ll be discussing the collection’s second story, “Jakarta”.

46. Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente

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Published in 2011 by Tor Books.

There are various iterations of his accursed name, but in Slavic folklore, Koschei the Deathless augurs ill, particularly for the beautiful, chaste maidens he lures into his lap. As the ancient stories have it, Marya Morevna is his opposite: a steel-tempered warrior woman who brings the immortal, undying Tsar to heel, with chains and with stratagems. Russian children cut their teeth on these parables, and in their imaginations, such figures are hewn from the stardust of reality, fashioned in the space where our inherited stories possess, in their childhood telling, the greatest strength.

Valente has claimed the tales of Koschei and Marya to enact the fable-ornate, revisionist tableaux of Deathless. Young Marya, her head filled with any number of strange, otherworldly things, lives in a house on Gorokhovaya Street, St. Petersburg, where she peers from her window out onto the street below. A husband, who begins his visitation to her as a bird, waits in her future. His arrival will confirm that she’s meant to step over the veil that shrouds the Other World from easy sight. It is a realm in which she, so unlike her sisters three, belongs. She cannot predict that her husband will be Koschei himself, cloaked in the raiment of a young man’s beauty. Though Marya has not bargained for Koschei’s hungry entreaty — that she follow him into the wide maw of uncertainty, far away from her home — she goes, making the bargain for ill, or good.

Deathless spans the Russian Soviet Union history of the 1920s through to the 1940s. The reader sees St. Petersburg become Petrograd, morphing into the Leningrad that endures the unspeakable grief, and human cost, claimed by the over two-year long Blockade. Marya is present, her consciousness superimposed over the multiply-tiered storylines of this Russia, and another: the undying lands of Buyan, Koschei’s kingdom where everything lives, even walls of responsive skin and fountains ceaselessly spurting arcs of blood. In this realm, the one to which Marya has been stolen away by her immortal lord, the human maiden blossoms into a hard-won womanhood, thrice-tested by the wicked tasks that Baba Yaga, Koschei’s demon sister, the Tsaritsa of Night, commands.

Those unfamiliar with Valente’s writing style will fall headfirst into the thicket of her prose, as adorned and intricate as ever it’s appeared — though perhaps considerably less breathless, less prone to swoops and sky-curlicues than it appears in the dizzyingly lush Palimpsest. The order of the narrative, through the intoxication of the language used to tell it, is stamped with the austerity of Soviet Russia. It’s a bureaucratic severity that seeps even into Koschei’s domain, as Baba Yaga herself reminds Marya, there’s always been a war, in and out of one girl’s reckoning with the war that shapes her, personally and politically.

Though it cleverly considers the landscapes surrounding an origin story (and the ways in which such terrain might be respectfully, usefully subverted), Deathless runs on fable. The structures of fairytale, principally the (re)occurrence of triumvirates, knit one Russia to the other, knit Marya’s one warrioress life with her domestic decisions in another realm. There is a necessary repetition to this that’s worth the occasional strain it puts, on the rate at which the braided stories canter along to their final destination.

Books like these are bold by default, because of the territory they excavate in order to achieve their own world: they cannot escape claims of cultural appropriation, nor should they. Deathless is a pulchritudinous, seductive fable that supplants emotional hierarchies of how Koschei, Marya, Baba Yaga and the Slavic folkloric contingent are perceived. It’s not written by someone to whom this folklore is native, and this will always be problematic for some of the indigenous recipients of the work, and the ways in which they come to bear on it.

I can’t claim to have my own compass points on cultural appropriation finitely fixed. It’s a dangerous thicket in which emotional and spiritual navigations can shift on the reassignation of a scrap of sacred ground. If you are of Russian lineage, if your ancestors lived, or else died, in Communist Leningrad, you may thrill to Valente’s fictive perceptions, or you may despise them. This, I think, remains your right.

Corsair Books, 2012 edition.

Corsair Books, 2012 edition.

Perhaps this makes my own task easier, less fraught with personal demarcations of inheritance, and resultant ownership. In every regard, Deathless is fiercely beautiful. It is assiduously researched, devotedly formatted, with attention lavished upon the stories, rituals and conquests of old.

What I love best — and there is no dearth of it throughout the worlds Valente helms in this moribund mythology — is the constant countermanding of what’s deemed “normal”. Weird love howls for triumphs, too, and in this territory, the surreal is as credible and palatable as the bread & buttered obvious. If you’re a feral adherent to that which is fanged, dark and plasma-patinated, then you’ll adore what passes between Koschei and Marya. Witness the scene in which he declares her unquestionably his, in the lull of a bitter quarrel, conducted in his smoky-pillared Chernosvyat:

“I will tell you why. Because you are a demon, like me. And you do not care very much if other girls have suffered, because you want only what you want. You will kill dogs, and hound old women in the forest, and betray any soul if it means having what you desire, and that makes you wicked, and that makes you a sinner, and that makes you my wife.”

If you’re wondering whether Marya and Koschei have lived out this scene through countless lives, don’t wonder: Valente makes it plain, using Baba Yaga, the novel’s most rollickingly well-managed auxiliary character, as mouthpiece. Auntie Yaga, not-uncruelly, tells Marya in plain terms:

“That’s how you get deathless, volchitsa. Walk the same tale over and over, until you wear a groove in the world, until even if you vanished, the tale would keep turning, keep playing, like a phonograph, and you’d have to get up again, even with a bullet through your eye, to play your part and say your lines.”

Death’s immutability is the novel’s garnet-studded spine, and the writer bestows gnawing, hungry pleasures for the reader who invests herself in unfurling its viscerally satisfying (albeit repetitive) revelations. If you come to the table famished, Deathless will ply you with loaves and wine, asking that you remember this story when you’re through, when you go fur-collared into glacial streets, to kiss your own Death on its grinning, strong mouth.

For a taste-test of Valente’s style: consider her short story “How to Become a Mars Overlord”, one of my Story Sunday posts. One of the principal characters in Valente’s Palimpsest is the answer to a Bookish Question I asked myself: When last did you catch an incontrovertible glance of yourself in fiction, and did you like the way you looked?

K. Jared Hosein’s Top 20 Book Influences – Part Two

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To kickstart Novel Niche’s year in litblogging, I invited emerging Caribbean author K. Jared Hosein to share the top twenty books that have most influenced his writing: here’s part one of that post, featuring his first ten picks. Today, we round up the list in K.’s company, and find out what he’s most recently been up to in the literary world.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Junot Díaz) chronicles the lives of the titular character, Oscar Wao; his sister, Lola; his mother and grandfather. Oscar must deal with being overweight, a virgin and a Dominican still haunted by the ghost of the dictator, Rafael Trujillo. What lands this book here might be a strange one. It’s mainly because of the numerous accolades Díaz has received for it. Normally, I didn’t think people cared for the type of brash and vulgar storytelling employed in Oscar Wao. And honestly, it was right down my alley (writing-wise). When I saw that Díaz’s work could be accepted by the Pulitzer committee, I thought, “Why not mine?” As I said, strange reason. But it’s a damn unique and interesting book, nevertheless.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Jean-Dominique Bauby) is a memoir ‘written’ by a man who has locked-in syndrome. See, Mr. Bauby had been debilitated by a stroke, which rendered all but his left eye motionless. He blinked to the rhythm of a cautiously rearranged alphabet, and with a very, very patient nurse, this book exists. Just being able to read the book is a miracle, if you ask me. Within it contains the musings and memories of a man that thought he would be stuck in the deep, blue sea for the rest of his life. But now, from behind the steel cage of his diving bell, we can hear his voice. If this doesn’t readily reassure your belief in the power of the written word, I don’t know what will.

BoyBoy (Roald Dahl) is the first part of the autobiographical work by Dahl (the second part being Going Solo). It almost reads as an epistolary novel, as Dahl pastes clippings of letters, photographs and other family documents to relate his past in a whimsical manner. The chapters in Boy relate to a prank gone wrong at a candy shop, a grisly car accident and warming the toilet seats for the older boys at a school in Derbyshire. Despite its bursts of humour, it is the most serious book I’ve read from the author. Boy does not overshadow his fictional works, but it made me think: Life is remembered by how you tell it. If that makes sense.

Miguel Street (V.S. Naipaul) is my second favourite Caribbean book (the first being Oscar Wao). My first encounter with the book, if I remember correctly, was a chapter featured in a primary school “Reading Book”. The chapter was about B. Wordsworth, a mysterious man who “felt like a poet but could never be one”. The story was strange and heartbreaking in its feeling of incompleteness. But there was nothing more to be said of B. Wordsworth, and the story was over. I think this was the first time I had read a truly sad ending to a story. The collection of stories in Miguel Street is well worth it, but I won’t forget that experience with B. Wordsworth.

The Sound and the Fury (William Faulkner) is the hardest book I’ve ever read, that I’ve ever finished (the hardest book I’ve never finished is The Scarlet Letter… trust me, fucking ridiculous!) Fury was my introduction to the much-beleaguered writing style known as stream-of-consciousness. In prose, anyway. Does Beat generation poetry count? It centers around the Compson family, sections devoted to various family members. The two that stood out the most to me were Benjy and Quentin. The non-linear narratives that rely on Benjy’s diminished mental capacity and Quentin’s disjointed and emotionally affected recollection of his family and his sister, Caddy, require multiple re-readings. I remember being on campus, busily dissecting the book during Biology lectures. It was my first experience with frustration that somehow felt rewarding simultaneously. Once you are willing to decipher it, it’s worth it.

Disgrace (J.M. Coetzee) was a novel I received for free at a writing workshop when I was twenty. We were given a week to read the book for an upcoming book-club type discussion of character and theme. The story itself concerns David Lurie, a college professor fired for misconduct, who loses most of his reputation and integrity in the process. Yes, it is as depressing as it sounds. But there was one thing that stood out for me as I read this book: the present tense. I had never given it much thought before that. The present tense is quite effective once used properly. Not necessarily to build suspense or (no pun intended) tension or anything, but just to hold the reader in that moment of disarray and imminent disarray. I’ve been trying to re-create that ever since.

Middlesex (Jeffrey Eugenides), to me, is the paragon of a bildungsroman (a coming-of-age tale), especially one that involves identity (most of them do, though, don’t they?) It’s a thick book, but that’s because it goes into so much detail with our protagonist, Cal, and his family’s migration from Asia Minor. The hook? Call is intersexed, afflicted with a genetic condition known as 5-ARD. The males are often mistaken for females all the way up to puberty, and are raised as such. The question isn’t about how this can be fixed, but: should it be fixed? Now, Eugenides’ style is verbose, be warned. But from the two books I’ve by him, it’s fitting and beautiful. When it comes to the dense, thorny theme of identity, I don’t think there could be enough words.

The Virgin Suicides (Jeffrey Eugenides) is a shorter book than Eugenides’ Middlesex, but it’s no less loaded with purple prose. The story is told by a group of men as they recall and muse upon the sudden suicides of the reclusive Lisbon girls in their neighbourhood. Their actual interaction with them was minimal, so they resort to filling in the blanks with theories of domestic horror. However, The Virgin Suicides never wanders into any gruesome vision. It is probably the least angsty book about suicide I’ve read. Instead, the story focuses on teenage whimsy and puppy love in light of what has happened, as if the girls themselves were pixies perched on mushrooms, or some other magical beings. The book feels like magical realism, though entirely grounded in drama and disillusioned romance. Why this book is here is because it holds that intangible quality that separates melancholy from melodrama. It remains my key to written emotion.

The Road (Cormac McCarthy) concerns a father and son’s journey across a wasteland, the near-shell of a once-verdant world. The technique employed by McCarthy to show the stark emptiness of this situation? The abandonment of punctuation. While I had experienced the fiddlings of grammatical structure before, like with ee cummings, I never reckoned any operative utilisation of it with a novel. Like The Call of the Wild, The Road is written with a complex simplicity (you’ve probably figured out that I’ve an inclination for this odd oxymoron). It describes desolation in brief whispers. Hopelessness in dying breaths. No need for abundance of any sort here.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (Mark Haddon) concerns Christopher Boone as he plays detective to discover who stabbed his neighbour’s dog, and ultimately uncovers the dark secrets kept by his family. Christopher, however, lives with an autistic spectrum condition and experiences great difficulty accepting the hard realities of his findings. The book is told from first person and is much easier to read than Benjy’s portion in The Sound and the Fury and is more on par with the emotional journey in Flowers for Algernon, though it does require patience when Christopher’s OCD steps in and prevents the plot from advancing. This is all done for effect, however, and works most of the time. This book lands a place on this list for its ability to integrate Christopher’s medical condition into the narrative, not as a gimmick or technique, but to show how different people process different situations. How I may have reacted to Christopher’s findings might have been much different, but this is his story. And everyone should have a story, shouldn’t they?

Here’s a lagniappe for you: for a limited time, K. Jared’s debut book, Littletown Secrets, is available for free as a Kindle download! The author has also produced a lovely, spooky little trailer to accompany the book’s e-release:

(The download link’s in the description section of that video, so don’t be shy about grabbing your free copy, while you can!) You can also keep up with the author’s updates, via his official Facebook page, Littletown Secrets.

Parts One and Two of this post were originally shared by the author on his Tumblr, under the title “Books, Writing, Ideas, Growing Up.

K. Jared Hosein’s Top 20 Book Influences – Part One

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Happy New Year, Novel Nichers! May it bring you an abundance of good, thought-provoking, stay-up-all-nighting reads. I’m thrilled that my first post of 2014 isn’t actually *mine*: it’s a guest post from K. Jared Hosein, author of Littletown Secrets (Potbake Productions), in which he discusses the top twenty books that’ve influenced the vein, tone and weight of his own writing.

I recently named Littletown Secrets one of the best Caribbean books of 2013 in a Trinidad Guardian article, so it’s safe to say that I’m a fan of Hosein’s writing. I’m so intrigued by his picks that it’s motivating me to make a top 20 list of my own. More of that later — for now, here’s K. Jared!

You can’t write well if you don’t read.

And I would like to say that if there were ever some objective Euclidean list of axioms for literature, this would be at the top. But literature does not deal with absolutes, theorems or laws, but rather codes of conduct. Literature remains subjective and every person gravitates (or falls victim) to their own taste. I have never been the biggest fan of classical literature. There are some I enjoyed, but of my opinions: A Tale of Two Cities is egregiously over-written; The Scarlet Letter is barely readable; The Last of the Mohicans is dreadfully boring; and I’d prefer watch Kenneth Branagh do Shakespearean adaptations on the silver screen than actually read Shakespeare.

I grew up not liking to read, because these were the books presented to me as a child. I finished a book, like I would finish a plate of lentils. I didn’t enjoy it, but I knew it was probably good for me. It was actually the storytelling in 90’s role-playing fantasy videogames that first piqued my interest in the craft. It was from there that I wrote a story, which was published for the local Sunday Guardian. The “payment” I received was a book of my choice from a select store. I wasn’t too thrilled with this.

K short story

But when I went, the lady at the counter recommended what she had probably recommended for every little boy my age: Enid Blyton. I devoured it in one sitting. Pretty soon, I had a stack of Blyton books. As I got older, my preference changed. And it’s still rapidly changing. I think that must be a sign of maturation. Not an evolution of taste, I would say, but the hunger for different styles, tones and grooves marks the moment to further oneself. I stress, literature is anything but absolute, which is what makes it even more exciting to explore.

I’ve snapped a picture of twenty books that I believe have influenced my feelings and ideas about writing. They are not the best books I’ve ever read. But a book doesn’t have to be Pulitzer material for it to affect your belief in some way. I try not to idolize any work too much, as I fear finding myself craving to “live up to something else”. Though ambition and inspiration usually join hands and the craving is, thus, inevitable from time to time.

These books span from my childhood to just one year ago. I’m going to append each title with a mini-rationale for its placing.

The Pleasures of the Damned (Charles Bukowski) is a collection of poems by, well, Charles Bukowski. In my review for this book, I said that Bukowski is overbearingly honest in most of his poetry. He creates dystopia without apocalypse. The ordinary degenerate. There’s nothing else to it, since basically he was a degenerate. The collection, however, made me view poetry in a different light when I first discovered Bukowski at fifteen. Poetry didn’t have to be embellished or written with finely curled letters. It could be simple and ugly. Not even well-articulated hatred, like Sylvia Plath. Just raw, pithy imagery about toughness, like a one-eyed cat, a tough motherfucker, chasing blind mice.

Slaughterhouse-Five (Kurt Vonnegut) concerns Billy Pilgrim, who becomes “unstuck in time”. After being abducted by a strange group of aliens, Billy finds that he can see his entire life (and even past his death, until the end of the universe itself). I read this in university and it changed my perspective on how science fiction could be written. Vonnegut, to me, seems to write with an extraterrestrial readership in mind. There is a certain humour in the simplicity we take for granted. Vonnegut captured that here. It is something I hope to also.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Sherman Alexie) concerns Arnold Spirit, as he grows up in the ‘rez’ (Indian reservation), surrounded by disillusioned, drunk and temperamental Native Americans. This is the quintessential young-adult book, yes, complete with bullying, falling in love and illustrations. And it is quite remarkable. Young-adult authors engineer their books to extract an emotional catharsis, I believe. Finding humour in degradation. And the great fear that settles when one is told of their own home, “This place will kill you.” Living in a crime-ridden country, I can relate. Also, who knew comic strip cartoons could go so well with prose?

CatcherThe Catcher in the Rye (J.D. Salinger) is a book we all know, or should know. It is a polarizing book, not for its content so much, but because it has been read by some of the most irritating people. Holden Caulfield has been kicked out of Pencey Prep and wanders around New York City for a few days before returning home. He also wears a red hunting cap. That’s it. That’s the book. And I’ve read it, no exaggeration, about ten times. I read this when I was fourteen after I borrowed it from my school library. Didn’t know anything about it when I did, but damn, it was hard to do my homework the night I started it. I don’t love Holden. I don’t even like him. But I realise: I don’t have to. It helps, yes, to feel something for a narrator. But I realised that they don’t always have to be affable. Just intriguing, as character is the greatest tool we have to elevating plot.

Johnny Got His Gun (Dalton Trumbo) is similar to another book I have on this list, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, though they are both here for different reasons. Joe Bonham awakens in a hospital and eventually deduces that he is basically a living torso. Yes, his face is gone and his appendages have all been blown off by an artillery shell. He’s a prisoner in his own body. It is a poignant and extremely depressing novel. It is here because of its attention to sensory detail and use of flashback during the recall of Joe’s life and family. It also shows the influence the written word can have against a behemoth such as World War I.

The Gunslinger (Stephen King) is the first book of the Dark Tower series, the magnum opus of King’s career, and I’ve put it here to represent both itself and the series. Though I’ve only read up to its fourth installment, the series is a detailed and expansive work that treads through the wasteland of a world that can only be described as where “the rest of the world has moved on”. Characters from previous novels make appearances, affecting the plot and reinforcing the idea that all King’s work is set in one universe. A haunting western setting along with deliberate anachronisms showed me that there really is no boundary to the worlds you can conjure up. Everything is acceptable, once done calculatingly and professionally.

Everything’s Eventual (Stephen King) is a short story collection, of which I wish to discuss only the titular story. “Everything’s Eventual” concerns Dinky Earnshaw, who has the ability to construct symbols that elicit strong suicidal feelings for those who view them. Dinky doesn’t understand his ability, and doesn’t use it until he is convinced to do it to rid evildoers in his city. I was thirteen when I read this, and I had never even imagined that such a Jedi-like mind trick could be taken seriously out of a Star Wars setting. King made it work, however. From an early age, because of this story, I realised how limitless writing really was. Sorcery could exist in suburbia, and that was fine.

Flowers for Algernon (Daniel Keyes) is an epistolary novel (and I actually didn’t know what that meant until I read it) about Charlie Gordon, a mentally challenged janitor whose rapidly increasing intellect affects his life and those around him. As it is an epistolary novel, the story takes place in entries from Charlie’s journal. The result is quite effective, as it shows both Charlie’s own changes in his thought processes, and clarity of events in hindsight. I came across this in a second hand book kiosk while I was in high school, and I actually had no idea at the time that books could be structured that way successfully.

The Chrysalids (John Wyndham) is a book that most high school students around my time might have done for their O’ Level Literature class. Though I didn’t study Literature, I read the book anyway. I was probably thirteen at the time. The story concerns David, one of a group of telepathic children whom live in Labrador. The people of Labrador believe that any deviation of the human anatomy (or ability) must be banished to the “Fringes”. It’s one of those classical allegory stories that youngsters are told to read, like Animal Farm. And while Animal Farm carried a strong message, it didn’t affect me as much as Chrysalids’. It carries one that is central to literature itself: never stop analysing everything.

The Call of the Wild (Jack London) concerns Buck, a domesticated dog that has been sold to become an Alaskan sled dog. The language is straightforward yet descriptive and the primal themes retain power in their simplicity, so when I read this at a very young age, it hit hard. It’s probably one of the most effective books I’ve read. It doesn’t miss a beat and the theme of “returning to nature” will always be relevant to literature, to society, to any persona one may hold. We all must be animals when the time comes.

Stay tuned — soon, we’ll be visiting the second half of K. Jared’s list — plus catching up on what’s new in his own writing world!

45. Never Mind by Edward St. Aubyn (Patrick Melrose # 1)

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Published in 1992. This edition: Picador, 2012.

I feel compelled to share with you that my hands are shaking, a little, as I write this down. Reading books like these pry at the elusive answer to the unspoken question of how deeply an experience, literary or otherwise, can mark us, until we begin to chafe gracelessly against the semaphore of its instruction.

Never Mind is the first of British author Edward St. Aubyn’s novels centred on his alter ego protagonist, Patrick Melrose. I came to these books because I was curious about Patrick, about what fictional forces have led to the concretization of his status as one of contemporary English literature’s most formidably-hewn characters, and his author as one of the best living English writers producing work in that language.

I stayed out of horror and awe, both infused with the kind of reverence you don’t even realize you’re giving up willingly while you read. Whether you levy your slackjawed, glassy-eyed admiration freely or with begrudging restraint, it takes no more than a very few pages to realize that prose, in St. Aubyn’s hands, is effortlessly sovereign. He writes with the sort of sleight of hand beauty that might make poets weep, and he has the good grace to wipe his plate clean of indulgent treatments in diction, in the assignation of flasks to purses, of wineglasses to fiercely shaking digits, of bespoke canes to corridor umbrella stands,  immutable and indifferent, receptacles cast in porcelain, green glass and untraceable decay.

Though the origins of decrepitude evade certain timelines, the origin points of disease in the novel’s chief players are subject to a much more rigorous scrutiny. St. Aubyn uses fiction like a paring knife, cunningly training the blade on a single day in the lives of five year old Patrick and his parents, David and Eleanor. The Melroses are expecting a small contingent — two other couples — of dinner guests, a pleasant, intellectually undemanding evening at Eleanor’s family house in the South of France.

Cognizant of the frequently baffling starts and stops of adult humours, the self-sufficient Patrick easily ventures into his private world of childhood play, roaming the grounds of a vast garden that extend into the Melrose holdings. In the imaginatively fertile clutches of this verdant terrain, Patrick is the undisputed king. There is an unashamed curiosity, fringing on tenderness, that the young boy conducts with members of the animal family — behaviours notably missing from his interactions with his parents, or the vaguely warm yet mostly distant maid, Yvette.

“…Patrick had only seen the tree frog twice, but he had stood still for ages staring at its sharp skeleton and bulging eyes, like the beads on his mother’s yellow necklace, and at the suckers on its front feet that held it motionless against the trunk and, above all, at the swelling sides which enlivened a body as delicate as jewelry, but greedier for breath. The second time he saw the frog, Patrick stretched out his hand and carefully touched its head with the tip of his index finger, and it did not move and he felt that it trusted him.”

On this day, Patrick doesn’t espy his favourite lucky tree frog. A different sort of visitation awaits him, one that will alter the pattern of his internal weather, not simply for the remainder of the evening’s social pleasantries, but for a time we cannot, with the limitations of our gaze, yet glimpse.

It would be difficult enough to bear if Patrick’s parents were uniformly, homogeneously wicked, but the inverse is true. Eleanor mires herself near-constantly in drink, to escape the cruelty meted out by David, who administers amoral punishments in line with what he considers his judicious purview. During the course of the miserable spectacle of a dinner party, Eleanor’s miseries are relentlessly pursued across the page. The stifling tedium of her emotional subservience to David is measured out as if in stiff fingers of drink, each furtive gulp of liquor entering her gullet an ineffective balm against days and nights laced with peaceable terror.

Reading David is a master class in pain – in the gnarled roots of its provenance, and in the steady, wincing gait of its unsteady yet triumphant time on earth. We learn more, reading David, than is easy or comfortable to hold, and the more we know about him, the less we wish we knew. In the crucible of his motivations, he reads like an aged Briton of a Patrick Bateman, with his bloodlust diverted into a series of grotesque amusements best served over a course of game and unpalatable, expensive wine. During dinner, having perceived himself vaguely slighted by the antics of his subordinate colleague’s comely-but-gormless girlfriend, David plots.

“Never mind, thought David, I can get her later. In the pursuit of knowledge, there was no point in killing the rabbit before one found out whether its eyes were allergic to shampoo, or its skin inflamed by mascara. It was ridiculous to ‘break a butterfly upon a wheel.’ The proper instrument for a butterfly was a pin.”

Immediately following a calculated act of brutality upon which the novel’s scope and shape hinges, I shared this feverish message with a St. Aubyn devotee: “Reading the first of the Patrick Melrose novels is destroying me in the most delicate of increments. I feel like I’m being precisely gutted, every nick and scrape of my emotional defenses perfectly tallied in this… god, this assiduous, bare-but-gleaming prose. It’s beautiful and terrible, and in the full vein and spirit of so many things I want to do with my own writing that I could weep. It’s a treasure. It’s like reading horror stories in the bright sunshine and feeling ghosts slide up and down your spine like inky regrets. I can’t wait to see how Patrick survives, what he survives. What he becomes. I dread it and I long for more.”

It’s true. It’s all still true. What St. Aubyn proves, in Never Mind, is that there be monsters everywhere, verily, in the safest of places, in the most simperingly polite of cloistered alcove repartee. The writer, you feel, is pinning down an entire poisoned institution to the mat, forcing it to rap its perfumed knuckles to bitumen, snarling at it to give.

44. The Shining by Stephen King

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First published in 1977. This edition: 2012, Anchor Books)

Cradled in the majestic, foreboding arms of the Colorado Rockies, the Overlook Hotel seems like nothing so much as a salvation/sanctuary, a real boon for the Torrance trio. Jack Torrance, patriarch, middling writer of possible promise (he once had work published in Esquire, which is saying something) and forcefully-retired preparatory school English teacher, knows that managing the Overlook during its sealed-up winter months is an ace of a job. For reasons that make him sick to his stomach to contemplate, performing commendably here, for six sequestered months, is his last chance in a variety of ways. He’s determined not to muck it up, and with the emotional support of his cheerful wife Wendy and dutiful son Danny, Jack thinks his first tenure at the grand hotel could be just the chance he needs to solidify his autonomy and finish the first draft of his three-act play.

Soon before departing for Floridian warmth, empathetic Overlook cook Dick Hallorann assures Danny, “I don’t think there’s anything here that can hurt you.” Halloran also gives a name to the prescience Danny’s always had, calling it “the shining”. Though Dick shines on a lesser level, Danny’s psychic powers are starkly, eerily majestic, revealing both Jack’s ever-pressing compulsion to drink and Wendy’s crushing anxieties. Danny’s shining is the brightest spark the Overlook has encountered in an age, and the hotel wants him. The spectre-lined chambers know just which desperate, drink-deprived man they can use, to help draw little Danny deeper into their carpeted, chandeliered clutches.

No, this isn’t like the Hotel California, since, in addition to not being able to never leave, you really can’t check out any time you like, either. King situates the glacial furnace of the novel’s primary activity in a place where retreat is nigh-impossible, where the hope of external rescue hangs as precariously as a loose tooth from a bloody thread of gum. Further to this, the storyboard conflicts – Man vs Nature, Man vs Self – are so orderly, so cleanly hewn in their make that they might have popped straight from the pages of a “How to Storytell” primer. Therein lies the ghoulish, fantastic rub, though – this is aching, jealousy-makingly-good storytelling. King’s third novel sees him harness deceptively simple constructs and then stun us between the eyes with the consistent power of worldmaking that fires on all cylinders.

First Edition cover, Doubleday, 1977.

First Edition cover, Doubleday, 1977.

What works well for The Shining is a discernible dearth of heavy turns, though the narrative does occasionally pat itself on the back with unnecessary, sometimes corny insertions. (If I were as tremendous a third book as this one, I’d probably be stroking my own spine with inky compliments, too.) We feel, when we read Jack, that we *are* Jack, from the moment we’re fidgeting in Ullman’s office, hating the officious little prick’s guts, promising vindictive retributions that our new boss might not quite deserve, but by God, it’s the principle of the thing, it’s to do with being humiliated and just how unjustly one can turn the knife back on one’s oppressor matters, it does. When we’re reading Wendy, we’re Wendy, a woman who fiercely adores her son, a woman who’s timed the steady degradation of her marriage against the repetitive clink of scotch and gin bottles, a lady who’s startled by the surges of her own uncommon intelligence. She stifles her own better judgments with hausfrau-esque personal admonitions that resonate with a sickly thud of commingled girlish naiveté and calculated despair, measured out in mental hair twirls through restless, well-manicured fingers.

Perhaps most astonishing and gratifying is the fact that when we read Danny, we are Danny. We’re five, and not too far gone from nights of bedwetting. We regress to thumbsucking states when confronted by the ire-fuelled interactions of the Mummy we cherish and the Daddy we idolize. We want things to be right, knowing from the very beginning that the Overlook is wrong, and we learn far sooner than we should about all the slithering, Room 217-dwelling manifestations of just how wrong wrong can be. King’s embodiment of Danny’s precarious, nuanced mental journeys is stunningly navigated. We’re there with him, fumbling in the labyrinths of his exceptional mind, our hands held up to fend off bogeymen of corporal and ethereal formations. We’re there with him even when we most want not to be.

2006 edition cover, Hodder.

Certainly, this book is scary. It’s more than a scream-by-numbers investigation, though. At its best, The Shining pierces through to the telltale heart of psychological decay, of the most earnest of human intentions lain low by a roque mallet. It’s a portrait of personal devastation as convoluted as anything Dorian Gray could conjure, and then some. Jack’s progressive decline is the novel’s snarling beast, and it’s even more terror-inducing than encounters with topiary creatures in feet of fresh snowfall, because Jack is you, and me. Jack is anyone who’s fought tooth and nail against the siren call of the thing they most love and fear. In his hubris, his clever arrogance, his petulant protestations against situations his own shortcomings have engendered, you know that he’s you on the days you want to erase from the ledger. Jack is proof that we can’t outrun ourselves, and oh, how brutally and systematically this reminder thuds from the pages.

If you’re new to Stephen King, as I was (and still am, since one novel doesn’t an adept make), maybe you might not want to read this one in the dark. Maybe it’ll come for you in the dark regardless, like it did for me, demanding to be read in silence, with a light borne aloft, while the rest of the house slept. Read about how this inhuman place makes human monsters, of how imaginary friends can reveal the truth lingering in a chiaroscuro world running parallel to this one. You might dismiss the horror as not supernatural enough, maybe. Or, like me, you might find your body blistering with wintry fear when you learn that King’s paranormal horror beats (bleats?) with the dogged persistence of a very human heart.

Don’t be surprised if surviving The Shining catapults you into the dimly-lit corridors of King’s considerable oeuvre. At the very least, it’ll make you want to take your medicine.