25. American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

This review is affectionately and irreverently dedicated to Joshua X. Thank you for introducing me to Patrick Bateman, and thank you even more for not doing so in person.

Published in 1991 by Vintage Books, New York.

You’ve met Patrick Bateman. He’s the guy you had Waldorf salad/ apéritifs/ a candid sauna conversation/ a three course dinner/ a tray of Bellinis with, last Friday/ weekend/ fortnight/ financial quarter, at Indochine/ Dorsia/ 21/ Tunnel/ Pastels/ the Hamptons, with… oh who remembers, really? He’s a member of your yacht club/ exclusive gym/ Harvard graduating class, and you get your ties/ pocket squares/ tans/ dry cleaning from the same places. If you’re an attractive, elegantly dressed woman of a certain social set, you’ve probably shared his bed. If you’re an unsure yet comely prostitute, or an ecstasy-addled socialite, you’ll probably die in it.

But do you know Patrick Bateman?

He is handsome; there can be no denying this. He is superbly educated, outstandingly networked, exquisitely attired. His apartment, housed in the same building in which Tom Cruise owns the penthouse suite, is an interior designer’s wet dream. He has friends. He has money. He is… he is… a damned unreliable narrator, and why? Patrick Bateman is insane. You have, in all likelihood, never encountered a principal narrator whose word you could trust less, and this is, at once, outstandingly written and utterly bemusing—a twinned pleasure/migraine to parse. The novel’s plot, which in terms of thickness could be described as bareboned at best, is delivered to us entirely through Bateman, a Manhattanite yuppie businessman, as he navigates the breakneck-paced, agenda-laden, hyperactive worlds of commerce and pleasure that dictate the speed and settings at which he consumes, makes love, arbitrates, teases vagrants, and contemplates murder. As the novel progresses, Bateman’s brutal inner monologues morph into equally misanthropic slayings, several of which are highlighted and lovingly recounted to the reader in high-definition detail. Ultimately, our urbane protagonist becomes less and less capable of neatly compartmentalizing his serial killer and business savant personas, and as the body count grimly rises, so too does his paranoia, despair, desolation and impeccable cruelty.

One of the most striking facets of Bateman’s world is that it is inundated with a never-ceasing stream of conversation, a steady, witty, charming flow of dazzling one-liners and emphatic recommendations. It is a world in which no one listens to anyone else. Indeed, Bateman might be one of the few people who does any real listening. He might be the only person he knows who listens. It isn’t that he never shares the worrying compulsions within him, either. He quite frequently bares his… er, soul… on the subject of his insatiable blood-lust, but on the incredibly rare occasions that his words penetrate his audience’s mire of self-indulgence, his confessions are met with distracted humour and prompt dismissal. In one interchange, when his romantic partner for much of the novel, Evelyn, gushes enthusiastically about her visions of wedding splendour for them, Patrick effusively responds with a description of the ideal firearms he’d bring to their nuptials, with which to slaughter Evelyn’s immediate family. He receives no response to this other than his girlfriend’s continued pre-bridal salivations. In another, particularly mirthful scenario, when asked by a vapid model he is vaguely interested in bedding about his occupation, he shares that he is “into, oh, murders and executions, mostly”, after which, predictably, his companion asks him if he enjoys the work. The establishment of this savage, smirking landscape, in which no one practices human interaction without artifice, provides the perfect canvas against which Bateman lets the blood of so many flow. Perhaps our protagonist might be less deranged than he is, if he existed in a convivial, earnest setting, perhaps not… but there is no denying that it is infinitely easier to committ atrocities against someone if they have never, despite their honeyed insistence, truly given a damn about who you are.

Easton Ellis is arguably at his finest when he allows us to peer into the ragged veil of Bateman’s flinching, badly bruised humanity. Any passable horror story will be strewn with as many depictions of smouldering carnage as can be forced between its dripping pages; few are capable of drawing out our sympathy and begrudging acceptance of the similarities between ourselves and the monster that crawls across the chapters with smoking entrails for his necklace. Bateman works as well as he does because he is crafted with multilayered complexity, with unerring attention to detail, with as much brittle amusement as raw terror. In one of his final executions of the novel, in the midst of a failing attempt to wrangle a culinary delight from a section of corpse, our murderer slips into plummeting despair.

“And later my macabre joy sours and I’m weeping for myself, unable to find solace in any of this, crying out, sobbing “I just want to be loved,” cursing the earth and everything I have been taught: principles, distinctions, choices, morals, compromises, knowledge, unity, prayer — all of it was wrong, without any final purpose. All of it came down to was: die or adapt. I imagine my own vacant face, the disembodied voice coming from its mouth: These are terrible times.

This is a remarkable work of fiction. It might be most remarkable for how much your conflicted, uneasily mottled reactions to the depiction of its protagonist will render your introspective ruminations, your late-night diary scribblings, your smoothly hip but really self-conscious Facebook posts, not just of the book, not just of this genre of literature, but of and on yourself. Patrick might well become your antihero nonpareil, your reverse answer to the question, “What Would Jesus Do?”. You will not only be disgusted and sickened by him, startlingly enough. You will be touched by his overtures of gentility, by his saccharine daydreamings of ambling through the park with his secretary Jean, buying and releasing balloons into the air. You will laugh uproariously at his expense. (I challenge you to go into a Chinese drycleaners’ and not dissolve into hysterics after softly whispering “Bleach-ee”, with just a hint of threat in your voice). You’ll laugh at Bateman because of every one of his thousand nervous tics, his ridiculously overblown reactions to perfectly common occurences, his manic stops and starts, his revolting yet astoundingly funny pranks (coating a much-pissed-upon urinal cake in cheap chocolate, then proffering it to Evelyn over dinner). Then, when it dawns on you that you’re laughing at a man whose mind is the wasteland of serious dementia, a man desperately in need of a cornucopia of corrective drugs, you’ll ask yourself about your own sickness.

While reading American Psycho, it was easy enough for me to commiserate, in the abstract, with popular opinion surrounding its release at the end of the 1980s. Reviled, condemned, near-categorically panned, it was described as being too vulgar, too misogynistically self-serving to be worthy of the worst pornography. It would be unfair to wipe some of the mud from these allegations by theorizing that the novel was written before its time. When, one wonders, would be ‘the right time’ for a work of fiction concerned with the graphic satirical exploration of a young  lunatic, simultaneously trapped and liberated by the consumerist, capitalistic framework of fiscal success and personal nihilism that is his life? Perhaps there is no time in which such a book could have been written which would have ensured it a stellar reception—perhaps, when you’ve read the book, you will think this is more of a coup de grâce than a criticism. You might not be happy living in a society where the only thing a publication such as this merits is rousing applause. It would mean, one supposes, that either no one got the point, or, worse, everyone did, and endorsed it unflaggingly for the wrong reasons.

Almost every awful thing you have heard about American Psycho is true. It is nauseatingly graphic about murder, rape, torture, cannibalism, necrophilia, animal assault, and the perverse, detached delight that the perpetrator of these crimes takes in committing them. It will not comfort you. It is not a comforting book, but, as Patrick himself is always reminding us, these are not times for the innocent—and if they weren’t, on the cusp of the 1990s, they are indubitably not so, now.

I maintain, however, that Patrick Bateman should not terrify you.

Somewhere, even as you read this, even as you gingerly contemplate adding this book to your “must-read” (or “never-read”) list, there is an improbably beautiful man in an Ermenegildo Zegna suit, wearing A. Testoni loafers, crossing the street to go to work, where he will be greeted by a receptionist he believes, despite an overwhelming lack of evidence, to be madly in love with him. His body is a wonderland. He grows weak in the knees at the sight of expensively manufactured business cards, and the thought of not being able to secure a dinner reservation at the town’s most exclusive restaurant could, quite likely, bring tears to his eyes. He is frequently, ruthlessly cruel to homeless people, and demands abortions of the girls he’s gotten pregnant without so much as batting a well-rested eyelid. Last Hallowe’en, he wore one of his suits, covered in a plastic overcoat, and carried a chainsaw, to go to an upscale party as Patrick Bateman, because Patrick Bateman is his non-ironic hero. He has no natural sympathy, proclivity for kindness, no moral compass, no scruples, and no criminal record.

That should terrify you.

24. Anatomy of a Disappearance by Hisham Matar

Published in 2011 by The Dial Press.

Nuri’s childhood is well-heeled, sensitively moulded; he does not lack for parental affection, though it is frequently distilled with eccentricity. The recipient of uncommon, and uncommonly shown, affection from his parents, he finds himself, at a tender age, thrown into a bemusedly altered state when his mother succumbs to a mysterious illness. In an attempt to restitch the tenuous fabric of their familial comfort, Nuri and his father, former political dissident of international reknown, Pasha, vacation at the Magda Marina Hotel, a sweltering beachside resort dotting Alexandria’s coastline. It is there that father and son encounter the entrancingly beautiful, yellow bikini-clad Mona. Their interactions with her form the basis of a complicated, acutely felt triangular relationship that spans erotic awakenings, unspoken betrayals, and the passage of many years, indelibly altering each participant in its perfumed wake. When Nuri and Mona are left reeling in the aftermath of Pasha’s abduction, the mire of bureaucratic red tape and festering resentments through which they must navigate leave them sceptical as to just how precise their lifelong impressions have been, of the man they love most.

Something about reading Matar’s prose puts one in mind of wandering through the dense foliage of a half-sentient dream, wherein the author delineates, blurs and casts colours of sound and light over our keenest emotive reactions, wearing the robes of a master chiaroscurist. Seemingly ordinary expositions are transmogrified so that we drink his imagery beneath a sea that is mapped somewhere between our own imagination meeting his. Rarely do we doubt this authenticity of voice, which renders the work as easy to absorb (for the reader who appreciates fineness of form) as the purest air. Lexically, stylistically, Matar barely makes a misstep, and in this regard, each page is a pleasure.

Threads of the disturbingly and entrancingly erotic hem each page of Anatomy of a Disappearance, and they don’t strictly apply to the characters one might pair by default, either, which is what makes the implementation of this ragged desire all the better. Insofar as the tri-pointed bond among stoic Pasha, mercurial Mona and frequently discomfited Nuri himself can be said to be its own personage, that unnamed fourth character that embodies their inharmonic disunion feels eros across the board. Some of the best passages of the novel thickly hint at never-to-be-resolved shards of sexual tension between father and son; the foundations of this are even more intriguing to parse than every sweaty boudoired flirtation that Nuri and Mona trade, predictably. Those open to the multivalence of burgeoning sexuality will find this aspect of the reading richly, thoughtfully cast.

Emotional complexity could be said to be the feeling cornerstone of the novel; this marries seamlessly with the thematic exploration of the survivor’s impasse: of what remains to be done once a loved one’s enforced absence drags itself past the point of rational hope. The novel is also constructed as much on the skeletal considerations of a bildungsroman, making the aching peregrinations of Nuri all the more valid. We both feel for him, and feel that his suffering, his sense of displacement at his typecastedly stolid British boarding school, his fumblings through the onsault of sexual prerogative, are necessary and credible. If Matar has Nuri flounder and regret for the sake of sustaining depth, then it is skilfully done, not without compassion, not without (more importantly), reminding us of how easily replaceable his childhood and teenage difficulties are, with any of our own, barring (or including) the shadow of a father one fears may never return, or be returned.

At times, Nuri grapples for an identity outside of the distant cloak of his father’s presence, and the complexity of his reaction to feeling this is vividly imparted—his reluctance, guilt, shame, bravado, swirl all together, blotting onto the page our impressions of him as a meticulously drawn protagonist, worthy of our attention, sympathy and solicitude. In one of the most perspicaciously hopeful scenes of the novel, an adult Nuri pauses in the midst of a solitary walk, to consider the apartment block before him.

“The stone buildings stood dimly in the night, and, looking at them, I felt a deep longing to inhabit their rooms. To make love and eat and bathe and sleep in there, to quarrel and make promises, to sit with friends and talk into the night, to listen to music, read a book, write a letter, consider the position of a new object, watch flowers in a low vase, watch them at different times of the day, clip their stems and replace their water daily, move them away from a harsh light, a drafty passage, draw out their time.”

Occasionally, the contemplation over whether Pasha will ever reenter Nuri’s life becomes subtly secondary to the question of whether or not Nuri will ever successfully navigate a personhood with which the latter can be content, away from Pasha’s all-encompassing orbit. Truly, Nuri works against the threat of his own inevitable disappearance, specifically in how he can make his life count, before the decline, in how he can etch himself visibly into a world where he, not Pasha, can own the starring role.

Some books seem so quietly, inexorably suffused with the idea of the best they could be that they never quite, to phrase it with seeming, but unintentioned unkindness, get over themselves. Anatomy of a Disappearance is one of the most thoughtful, thinking person’s reads I’ve had the pleasure to know this year, but perhaps much of its internal grey space is never externally worked out across the page. The result is a study of the intricately plotted map of minefielded human interaction, which may yield more casualties of clarity than clearly charted coordinates… which, when you’re reminded of Tolstoy’s oft-quoted opening liner on family, seems to be less disingenuous than damned honest.

A free electronic copy of this novel was provided by the Random House Publishing Group (The Dial Press imprint) for review, through NetGalley. The opinions expressed in this review are entirely my own, and are not influenced by their generous gift of gratuitous literature.

23. After the Fire, A Still Small Voice by Evie Wyld

Published in 2009. This Edition: Random House Australia, 2010.

Winner of the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, 2009.

Shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, 2011.

“He was still whole, there were still things that one man alone was worth.” 

Frank Collard turns to the wild, and his grandparents’ rustic outpost in the swamplands, when an abusively disastrous relationship shatters his heart. Lonely, he gradually inches away from being corralled by the teeming landscape that surrounds his shack, to becoming a part of it, blending gracelessly and gruffly into the local milieu. Though he adapts the semblance of a normal life, rooted in work and earnest, albeit thorny, social interaction, he shares little of the past he’s fled. His reluctance to unburden himself of old hurts mirrors the journey of his father Leon, an extraordinary maker of cakes who found himself hard-pressed into military service, feeling it change him perhaps irreparably, as it did his own father, who volunteered eagerly, yet found vital parts of himself effaced by the reality of war.

There is the distinct impression one sometimes receives, when reading of something grand, or sweeping, or otherwise elaborately contrived, that a character has just done in the book one’s reading. The feeling is akin to furrowing the brow and exclaiming, “Well, that’s just not how real people behave, is it?” It is worth noting right here that Evie Wyld’s book is built on the structure of something unflinchingly honest—even the way it flinches is honest. While reading, one gains the impression of absorbing something stripped to barebones and left in the sun to roast, of prose subjected to a rigorous, flinty syntax, studded through with alarming pinpricks of raw beauty.

Wyld is at her best, here, when discussing grief, and the book could be considered a generationally unfolding sorrow-documentary, of a kind that dampens our eyes and makes us suck in our breath, with the laughter we laugh when things are good and proper miserable, so that to laugh about it is the only sane recourse. What is particularly laudable is the manner in which Wyld inserts gut-spasming woe into the most domestic and non-extraordinary of settings. Witness, for instance, Frank’s messy navigation of girlfriend-withdrawal, in the aftermath of a nasty confrontation that effectively seals their rupture:

“The toast pinged up, and, crying, he buttered it and daubed it with jam, inhaling deeply and letting out long shaky breaths. He ate it breathlessly between hiccups. His mouth, which at that moment had nothing to do with him, would not stop making the sound ‘Aaaaaaaa’ like a stiff door opening. He lay on the floor, a smear of jam on his cheek, and mashed the last of the bread into a wet pap with an open bawling mouth. The crusts sat on the floor. He swallowed and breathed in sharply, then cooled his crying to a whimper, then to sniffling and then just to staring. The sun moved across the kitchen floor, regardless.”

The author writes this so convincingly that we accept a grief so cavernous as to unman Frank, a relentless sadness that chokes, rendering useless the elegant protestations of studied melancholy. There are no fainting couches here, no dainty snifflings into handkerchiefs. I especially love the way in which Frank’s mouth “…at that moment had nothing to with him…”, reminding us that when we are this transported outside ourselves with a surfeit of intense emotion, even our anatomy feels remote, conducted by another, out of our sight, outside the realm of interest.

Though Frank and his father lead separate, near-diametrically opposed lives on the page, the ways in which Wyld unites their divergent stories with lashings of past trepidation, of an unquantifiable sense of void, are skilful and subtle. Both men feel themselves hunted and haunted by the nigh-unassailable sensation of being pursued into unknowns. Nothing in their resentment-riddled, mysteriously ill-articulated communion, or lack thereof, allows for the sharing of this unified phobia; neither of them knows the other suffers in a language so well suited to his unique understanding. The reader wonders, for the duration of the reading, whether or not it would make a difference to their relationship if, for instance, Frank were ever told of the dreadful doubts Leon nursed while at war:

“Tears on his face, he felt the teeth of a terrible thing on the back of his neck, breathing through its nose on him, in, out, hot, pant.”

Some may find it unrewarding that the exact cause of the father-son malaise remains largely unearthed. It can be galling to consider that Frank and Leon might have fallen out over some poorly edited snafu, a minor discrepancy that wounded both their masculine prides; perhaps Frank’s girlfriend wonders at this, as she tries to sift through the rubble that nourishes a long-term vow of silence. Personally, the ambiguity marshalling the quietness between these men works admirably; it leaves it to the reader to devise reasons, grand or minute, and it prompts speculation over how much of the events of the last chapter of the novel coloured Frank’s perception of Leon, and Leon’s musings over Frank. This is good writing, the skilfully underscored balance of omitting just enough, of never bludgeoning the reader over the head with detail; those of a discerning, thoughtful bent will notice appreciatively (while those inclined to fast-food in their literature will probably have put the book down by now).

Grief and terror couple and uncouple against a background of settings one would initially think too bland (save for the backdrop of Leon’s outpost and battlefield, which Wyld blesses with no war paint, just irksome bush scratching the legs and loosing the bowels of boys pretending at soldiers) to support their movement through the chapters. Yet none of the settings read as anything less than exquisitely suited to the unfolding of each private, stunted drama. The dirt and insect-framed jungle wilderness that surrounds Frank’s shack, the family bakery in Parramatta to which Frank returns, despite himself, in search of his father (the same bakery in which his father once turned out elaborate baked goods in a thorough, calm manner; the very bakery in which he courted Frank’s future mother), the home of Frank’s sole friendly family unit, in the unkempt northlands: all these locations in the novel are implacable, inviting themselves near-perfectly for Frank’s fumbling self-discovery. The author infuses as much detail (without rendering her landscapes in a saturated style) to these places, making them represent geographic markers as well as placeholders for the full range of human emotional discord and desire, as if to suggest that cartography remains immune, for the most part, to the petty dramas with which we map our time on earth. This makes Frank’s sadness and stubbly conflicts simultaneously relevant to him, and gloriously, disturbingly irrelevant, given the sweeping dismissal of Enough Time: a fact of which Frank himself seems all too cognizant for much of the novel.

Yet the mission statement of Wyld’s book, if there can be said to be but one, is not as reductive as “Life causes despair to run roughshod all over you; therefore, despair.” The gnarled, honest interactions he shares with Sal, the precocious child of the aforementioned family unit, are some of the best passages of the book, and attest to the contrary of prevailing desolation. Their unlikely bond speaks instead to the surprising friendships that can be worked at when embarrassment and artifice are cast aside. Beset at every dirty, suspicious corner with the long arm of the past, Wyld’s grittily redemptive novel seems to whisper, “This is the way you come back to yourself; this is how to banish spells of unremitting dark: gracelessly, naturally, with pain—the only way possible.”

This is the third book I’ve read and reviewed on my personal reading list (which you can see here) for The Bookette’s British Book Challenge 2011.

22. On Dark Shores 1: The Lady by J.A. Clement

Published in 2011 by Weasel Green Press.

“For a time, a countless time, there had been nothing more than ceaseless water, stinging bone-sand, and the wind, keening; but suddenly the wind died and the grinding waves smoothed down to uneasy swells. Sounds whispered over the unquiet waters like a chanting of spells; at first they held no more meaning than the mourning wind or the hissing sea-spume, but then came a sound that caught and held, like the anchor of a ship.”

Nereia is a resourceful thief, quite likely the best pickpocket that the small, salt-sprayed fishing town of Scarlock has seen. Though bitterly weary of her trade, she perseveres for the welfare of her sweetly trusting younger sister, Mary. Orphaned since Mary’s infancy, both girls live uneasily in thrall to Copeland, a small-time shady businessman with big-time aspirations, in the acquisition of which he intends to involve Nereia, whether she willingly consents or no. Bolstered by his stoic bodyguard heavy, Blakey, Copeland proves himself distressingly capable of meting out punishment to those who would liberate themselves from his iron grip of control. Despite her prior knowledge of this, Nereia cannot help but make a desperate bid for freedom. In so doing, she pits her gritty resilience against Copeland’s well-crafted cruelty. The quietly slumbering village that witnesses their struggle, and the startling events wrought of its consequences, may well hold more time-brined secrets than its shuttered windows and sea-slick walkways suggest.

Reading the expository opening paragraphs of On Dark Shores 1: The Lady prompted my best hopes for a gracefully constructed and fertilely imagined creative landscape. In these lines, we are introduced to the cast’s main players not by name, but through their dreams, all of which are uneasy, tempest-tossed. Tidings are being washed ashore which will bode ill, we are given to understand, and this hinting at future upheaval is admirably conveyed through Clement’s subtle associations of geographical tumult with individual distress. It is evident that we are reading the work of someone who enjoys implementing literary ornamentation, someone who is mindful of the importance of strongly crafted situations, and equally worthy characters to populate them.

That being established, however, the novel lacks a certain evenness of successful storytelling. There are beautiful, glowing passages, to be sure, but there are also areas which appear to have missed a similar application of consistent, dedicated layering. Much of the novel’s narration is dependent on third-person accounts of events, which provides the writer with a broad canvas for perspectives. Given the number of personages to whose inner thoughts we are privy, the potential richness available from multiple non-omniscient narrative seems only hinted at in promising glimpses, without ever truly being deeply sustained.

Reading Clement’s depictions of the natural terrain of her novel offers the surest marker of appreciation for her descriptive prowess. The polish and gleam in her lines often shines most brightly when she writes about the sea (which, given the title of the series, might be intentionally done, or not.) For instance, it would be difficult to savour the following:

“The drizzle had stopped, but the light was failing across the restless sea; the smoothed steel swells were growing wind-tipped and wild with hissing spray.”

and then declaim Clement as talentless; quite the contrary. If she were a consistently uninspiring, yawn-soliciting producer of paltry prose, that would render this review short and dismissive. The difficulty lies in aligning her bountiful caverns of gorgeous writing with her other fictive terrain that is decidedly less lush. Much of the dramatically-infused dialogue featured in character altercations is less riveting than it could be; this is not to suggest that the author ought to puppeteer her players into uttering phrases only as she would say them. The beauty of dialogue (and third-person limited narration alike) lies in allowing an imperfect, biased, disjointed accounting of things; yet without authorial polish and poise, neither scenario nor character appears in their intentional (and thus convincing) lack of lustre. Instead, the writing suffers; the writing appears unmade, neglected, merely patched up with good intentions and talented flourishes, not soundly caulked through in an expert’s hand.

I do not suggest that there aren’t gems to be unearthed in this first installment of the On Dark Shores series; there are. Previously mentioned is Clement’s proficient sculpting of the geographical vistas of her story; the land and sea speak to us as convincingly as Scarlock’s residents and visitors, at times, perhaps more so. Among the highlights of narrative lie expository snippets from townsfolk who aren’t crucial to the machinations of the main plotline (or are they?) such as Niccolo, the fisherman who, early on, provides a piece of fateful information, and spends the rest of the story accounting to himself for its unintended results. Another minor character who prompts intrigued speculation is the proprietress of the local brothel, referred to enigmatically as Madam. Her past is storied, checkered with less than savoury happenings, and if she becomes a central figure in the events of the series’ next installment, I sense that it will be all for the good. Do not be surprised if you find yourself yearning for more revelations concerning the mystical mother of the Shantari and her monumental upcoming journey. Hungering for elucidation on the second novel’s skeletal premises, beckoning beyond our reach, is an excellent effect engendered by a first-part installment, but not if it comes at the risk of souring or, worse, sapping our interest in the events of the book currently in our hands.

Clement does a formidable job of constructing a world outside of the primary events of the novel; this holds its own drawbacks as well as delights. Often, the concerns and preoccupations of the fringe characters are more compelling than the principal ones. Nereia herself is the most glaring disappointment. She possesses all the requisite building blocks for Clement to create a rollickingly outstanding heroine. Instead, she wanders through the plot’s progression (which is less haphazard and more sketchily dubious, reading as though telling segments of it had been left on the cutting floor) with spirited gumption, certainly, but without the visible progress necessary to substantiate her full self. By this I mean that she owns enough moxy and fortitude to establish her as a warrioress worth our time, without sufficient context-crafting, without the heady, darkly glowing internal monologues and stream of consciousness narration that would have furnaced her fighter’s tale so convincingly.

On Dark Shores 1: The Lady tips itself out of favour by anchoring its plotline with a forcibly forward slant towards the remaining two books in the series, not allowing for the bountiful breathing space to truly come into its own. Its gracious writing style, dedication to fleshing out particular characters and literarily-cast foundation recommend it; its incoherency, implausibility of certain situations and disjointedness make one hope for a far more spectacular sequel. I do hope for it. There is brilliance in this authoress’ dusky world of wailing wind and water…muted, perhaps, but visibly gleaming all the same.

J.A. Clement’s engaging website, Wandering on Dark Shores, features comprehensive updates on her writing process and plans for the full series, as well as a host of purchase links for the first novel. You can also follow her on Twitter, here.

A free electronic copy of this novel was provided by J.A. Clement for review. The opinions expressed in this review are entirely my own, and are not influenced by her generous gift of gratuitous literature.

21. A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

Published in 1996. This Edition: Bantam Dell Random House, 2011.

Winner of the Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel, 1997.

Shortlisted for the Nebula Award for Best Novel, 1997.

Shortlisted for the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel, 1997.

“Wind and words. We are only human, and the gods have fashioned us for love. That is our great glory, and our great tragedy.”

We’re not in Middle Earth any more, baby.

Don’t get me wrong — you’d be hard-pressed to find a more earnest Tolkenian stalwart than your humble reviewer. I begin with Tolkien, not to disparage or dignify Martin by comparison, but to posit that both men have crafted worlds beyond measurable value in the genre of adult fantasy.  A Game of Thrones, first in the A Song of Ice and Fire saga (and here is a series that deserves such a title, not other current pretenders that feature incandescent undead and perpetually blue-jeaned werelings), is worthy of a place on the loftiest pedestal you polish for your high fantasy, for reasons both dirty and divine.

Winter is coming. These are the the watchwords of House Stark, proud and patrician defenders of the North of Westeros and rulers of Winterfell, its ancient castle fortress. Presided over by principled Eddard Stark, his loyal wife Catelyn and their five children, Winterfell enjoys a lull of peace before the arrival of Eddard’s best friend, the King of Westeros’s Seven Kingdoms, Robert, who presses the former into becoming his ‘hand’, his second in command and principal advisor, to rule at his side in King’s Landing, many leagues south of Winterfell. Eddard’s beloved bastard son, Jon Snow, seeks his own livelihood elsewhere, denied the companionship and security of a permanent place in the Stark familiarity he’s known his entire fifteen years. He rides even further north, to fringes of civilization and the Wall, a massive ice bulwark spanning 300 feet long and towering 700 feet tall, hewn by Brandon the Builder to defend Westeros against the threat of wild creatures both known and beyond human imagination. Jon “takes the black”, swearing his fealty to the Night’s Watch, a band of ebony-clad soldiers charged with the protection of the Wall against every possible threat. Meanwhile, across the narrow sea from Westeros, wily, dispossesed Viserys Targaryen, last male survivor of the royal line King Robert slew, dreams of nothing but regaining the crown he deems his birthright. He sells his young sister Daenerys in marriage to fierce Dothraki warlord, Khal Drogo, in hopes of attaining a vast legion of horsemen to recapture the kingship at his command. These concerns involve the three-pronged storyline of A Game of Thrones, but they are a mere glimmer behind the bedezined curtain of plots, subplots, and tributaries of storylines stemming from even these.

Two major criticisms I’ve read of A Game of Thrones is that it’s appallingly overconcerned with the sociopolitical intrigues of the monied elite, as well as guilty of favouring a decidedly misogynistic slant. Given that the titular game refers to an ongoing series of intellectual manipulations and sleight of hand coercions for ruling power, I cannot see how the selfsame intrigues would not come to the fore. It is worth noting that it is not always the monied elite players of the game who yearn for power, however. All have aspirations, and the aspirations of all are keenly documented, not merely those of royal bloodlines. The concerns of the peasantry, the commonfolk, the ‘little people’, are admittedly less prevalent, but they do occur. They oil the machinery of the grand conquests; they litter the battlefields of bad decisions. The fact that they do not speak as much surely says a great deal about them, the position they hold in society, and the stratification of society itself. When they do speak, which is not, it ought be noted, a rare occurrence, merely a less frequent one, it is always believably, and in service of plot strengthening, theme reinforcement and general expository goodness.

As for the lack of strong female characters in the novel, yes, there are several less of them than their male counterparts. George R. R. Martin’s prerogative in writing of more men in positions of power than women can hardly be called a misogynist’s work, if this is the sort of creative world he wishes to establish. Refusal to read the book on these grounds seems like lazy feminist pointscoring that owns no basis in logical assertion: would a novel densely populated with women warriors and leaders offend the rights of men? I’m all for reading about the ascent of gorgeously-sculpted women in literature and life, and the stories of Daenerys Targaryen and Arya Stark are well worth the stories of ten less lovingly-limned leading ladies.

A densely worded world needs vibrant, achingly alive characters to populate it, else all its lavish description has been for naught. Martin moulds such figures in abundance, and charges them with the telling of the thousand and one tales within these pages. The narration of the novel is entrusted to eight principal players (excluding the hair-raising prologue, delivered to us by minor figure, Will). They are:

  • Eddard Stark, Lord of Winterfell, Hand of the King of the Seven Kingdoms, a man burdened beneath the bastion of being almost entirely too good;
  • Catelyn Stark, Eddard’s loving wife, supportive of his every decision, save his emotional proximity to his bastard son;
  • Jon Snow, newly-appointed man of the Night’s Watch, who chose to serve for honour but finds the reality decidedly more grim;
  • Sansa Stark, Eddard and Catelyn’s eldest daughter, exceedingly fair of face and soft of courage, the polar opposite of her sister;
  • Arya Stark, as steel-tempered as any aspiring knight, and more than many, no less resolute than her brother;
  • Bran Stark, whose dreams hold far more than the fodder of mere daylight imaginings;
  • Cersei Lannister, radiant wife of King Robert, who is more than passing attached to her equally lovely twin brother, Jaime;
  • Tyrion Lannister, also called The Imp, younger brother of Cersei and Jaime, and, as he himself would be quick to point out to you, a dwarf.

The utter lack of authorial omniscience in the narration makes each account from each character sing all the livelier. One becomes so engrossed in the tale told, for instance, in Tyrion’s chapters, which are brimful of well-executed wit, wordplay and self-deprecating humour, that to see them come to a close often elicits a frown of annoyance. Switching from Tyrion’s narration to Arya’s, especially after being left on the crest of a dramatic, jaw-dropping development, or a particularly arch comment from The Imp, seems frustrating for the first page, until Arya’s pugilistic perseverance entirely wins us over. We part ways with her at the end of each of her chapters, musing ‘ah, if I only had a daughter/sister like that… why can’t I be more like Arya, anyway?’

It is in this respect that Martin’s cast reminds me of Tolkien’s: for the archetypal luminescence by which readers best enjoy identifying themselves. There is no underdog who can read Tyrion’s half-bitter, half-humoured introspectives without at least a tinge of knowingness, just as no mother, made frantic with desperate love for her children, can deny that they, like Catelyn Stark, would not cut their hands to the quick, to save a slumbering son. The personages within A Game of Thrones could be used to construct a tarot deck of emblematic figures, each character occupying a central or minor slot. What tempers this universal accessibility, however, is that none are drawn with too thick a brush in one overarching quality. Tyrion, for instance, may distinguish himself from the ruthless egoism of House Lannister and his siblings, but his penchant for exquisite enactments of cruelty makes for spectacular reading. Viserys Targaryen rules over his half-crazed compulsions and his little sister with a mercilessly iron fist, but Daenerys remembers him for his passing peaceful jaunts as well, for his quietly hungry boyhood dreams of a better life for them both, in a kingdom across perilous waters. The impression is sustained in nearly everyone we meet in these pages, of a life preceding their appearance in the narration, a life with all its innumerable associations, foibles and moral complexities. Reading characters who are less richly envisioned, less convincingly wrought, will be all the more telling for having read Martin’s, here.

Neither is the folkloric beating heart of the world of Westeros, and all that lies beyond it, treated with any less attention to detail. A Game of Thrones is prefaced by an exquisitely rendered map, pure cartographic delight in the tradition of Tolkien’s own storytelling legacy. There is history in every fireside account, in every mug of ale passed between hands in each tavern of ill repute. There are gods, both old and new, the ancient weirwood deities of the Godswood, beneath whose heart tree Eddard muses for guidance and polishes his greatsword of executioner’s blood; the pristine new gods of the septons and septas, the star spirits that the Dothraki believe to be the fallen dead. The novel is tapestry, a liberal and forceful commingling of belief systems as rich and dense as freshly shed blood, as deep as the darkest magic.

One could do much worse than to wander from Middle Earth into Westeros.

20. And Then Her Mouth by Portia Klee Jordan

[This is a review of an erotica collection. It should not be read by anyone who is too young to read erotica.]

Published in 2010 by Xynobooks.

I’ve long been of the opinion that there ought to be some measure of subtlety in the writing of sex. A panting slather of erogenous zone names, rubbed together on the page, leaves me distinctly… dry. A preponderance of “bulging, turgid members” meeting “quiveringly helpless mounds” leads to a laziness of craft—just because the parts fit together doesn’t mean a writer need mash them in textually ’til they’re sore, and we’re bored. Portia Klee Jordan’s audacious, poetic and elegantly perverse collection, And Then Her Mouth, works toe-curlingly well for me because it doesn’t aim to evade the subtle artistry of good writing. It dives into it, gaping-mawed, and sucks us in—and we go; willingly, we go.

A principal selling point of this gathering of dirty divulgences is that they’re not a precocious tween’s teeth-cutting panty twisters (though you might stumble across at least one ingenue ripe for the picking among these pages). These are eighteen investigations of a persistently purple desire. The word ‘purple’ comes at us at many a turn in these tales – lurking ’round one too many a corner, for my liking. Still, if it best expresses, for Jordan, a particular aura, a no holds barred zone of throbbing openness, then a few too many purples are a miserly toll, spare change you won’t miss as you speed along this open highway of well-weathered pleasure-seekers. One gets the impression, while reading, of lives dipped deeply in lust and self-examination alike, which flavours each vignette with intensity, fire and fever, meriting belief and arousal.  Whether these dirty stories are drawn from the velvet of the author’s own beaded bag of tricks, or not, she is owed a nod of approval for sparing us staid contrivances and sophomoric storylines.

Moral ambiguity makes the sensory ravaging you’re offered from each tale all the sweeter. You’re liable to find a kink for each sexual bent in Jordan’s repertoire, delivered sans ethical interference. In “Pretty Me”, following a nerve-humming exchange with Marcel the drag queen, formerly staid Patricia wrangles a cross-dressing, gender-torquing fetish out of her husband Gerald, with the aid of electrical tape, fishnets and theatrically imposed cruelty. The entirety of “III. Onomatopeter” is a single wicked sentence in celestially sordid punning. “II. Statutory Grape” plies us with the stream of consciousness hunger of a thirty year old observer for a girl whose “breasts are so new they’re surprised to be there”. Far less is on the menu than one might imagine, in “Eat Me”, the concluding piece of the collection, in which Melanie and the narrator have earned their absent gag reflexes for reasons culinary and otherwise. The author keeps scales of reckoning, blind or otherwise, out of her telling. The result: we get to decide how we feel about each scenario, and the freedom of this safe, sultry space is in itself back-archingly good.

My favourite of the eighteen (eighteen being such a primed number for this collection, in quietly declarative ways: the ‘official’ threshold for sexual release, versus the organic compulsion to explore the body/bodies of others much, much earlier than that) is unabashedly, hands-down, skirts-up, “Summer is Cold Here, Linnea”. Beautiful lesbian Dianna finds ways to thaw the nights of her work-imposed Alaskan chill, and intersperses her anatomical explorations with thoughtful missives to her lover Linnea, who (we assume) languishes for her, back home. The narrative cleaves cleanly down a line of epistolary versus confessional styles, rethreading the chasm between the couple, while emphasizing how much grey space there is between what they know about each other, and what they imagine to be true. As Jordan serves this wryly reflective tale that twists into us by turns both tender and intemperate, we marvel at the supple flow of her prose, the authority of her character construction. The introduction of Dianna establishes a plausible portrait of a flesh and blood Sapphist, not a cardboard and estrogen The L Word placeholder.

“Dianna loved women. She loved them. Her personal attachments, the emotional depth requisite for any long-term, soul-serving relationship, these were always with people of her own gender. She knelt down at the altar of worship and buried her mouth overflowing with the physical manifestation of love and awe in the tufted, fleshy crevices of the sex of the Goddess, the Mother of Us All, with whole-hearted, unshaken devotion. And sometimes she had sex with men.”

In the length of time it takes to share a clove cigarette with a dark-eyed stranger, “Summer is Cold Here, Linnea” breathes potent draughts of queer identity interrogation into us, and sweetens their consideration with two artfully lubricated sexual forays. A tour de force in miniature, it’ll leave you just as reflective as ravaged, and solicit many a damp-fingered reread. If you deem the last line of the story to be anything other than the epitome of tongue in cheek wordcrafting, plotwrangling excellence, then let me know—we’re ripe for a debate.

The poetics of Jordan’s pornography establish her as a sensual raconteuse well worth the consideration of the refined reader, the one who’s bookmarked special tracts in his sexual textbooks, the one who’d wager that she knows a thing or three thousand about fiction that enlivens, thickens the breathing, alerts the pulse. These lines from ‘Manipulation, Retribution’ display evidence of how beauteously the author connects our excursions into eros with her deft mappings of human emotion.

“The sounds coming out of my mouth aren’t conscious, aren’t really my own; they are from some other place, some Lovecraftian pit of tentacled grief. I give voice to a sorrow so great it has no name, to a feeling of loss so yawning and empty that from the first it sent us back shaking and looking over our shoulders to the warm cave fire, to rub shoulders with the others of our kind and turn our backs on our understanding of mortality.”

We glean these grief-soaked revelations from the story’s protagonist as he lies across his homemade sawhorse, abandoning his body to a brutal cropping from two courtesans, in the dungeon he and his late lover Martika made, together. ‘Manipulation, Retribution’ is as much a submissive’s playground of utter delight as it is a wise, emotionally spent man’s retrospective on all the things he’s hewn, and all the losses he’s incurred, through living and loving, and the well-stretched canvas he’s made of his life, in the name of non-conventional lust.

If And Then Her Mouth swiftly becomes your 2011 Bible for all things decidedly non-chaste, do let me know. If you’ve been reading those colour-by-numbers guides to literary kinkiness, consider this study in sex and the human psyche your graduation certificate… but please, try not to smear it. Unless, of course, that’s your thing. Portia Klee Jordan wouldn’t judge, I daresay, and neither will I.

You can purchase And Then Her Mouth directly from Portia Klee Jordan’s publisher, Xynobooks, as well as peruse their collection of archived and forthcoming titles.

A free electronic copy of this novel was provided by Nick Maloich at Xynobooks for review. The opinions expressed in this review are entirely my own, and are not influenced by his generous gift of gratuitous literature.

19. Thalo Blue by Jason McIntyre

Published in 2011 by Jason McIntyre.

“The wash turned from yellow to a concentrated orange, one that screamed inside his head. He screamed too, at least he tried to. It came out of the base of his throat more like a stifled call in a windstorm with gravel and dust kicking at the words. It was the staggered, helpless plea of a man who did not know what was going to happen to him, and it ended in a gagging, choking sound as pressure from the stranger’s hands intensified.”

Sebastion Redfield is terrified. If you were embroiled in the precarious circumstances that surround him at the novel’s inception, you would be, too. Ensconced in the quiet lull of a neighbourhood defined by its lack of fanfare, at rest in his parents’ house (in which neither of his parents reside, any longer, for reasons both distinct and conjoined), Sebastion’s equanimity is shattered by the intrusion of a stranger who wants to steal something far more precious than the good china. In the aftermath of the attack, Sebastion aligns himself with the unlikely company of the psychiatrist assigned to his case, Malin Holmsund, in an effort to piece together the shreds of what they know about his assailant. While struggling to connect the identity dots of his mystery marauder, our protagonist learns in startling increments of just how much he stands to lose…and of just how little he can afford to stay still.

I’d wager that Sebastion, or Zeb, which he prefers, isn’t quite like any other leading literary man I’ve read, which I count as a reinforcing strength of this work. Even (or especially) among his peers, he both suffers and benefits from perceiving the world through a synaesthete’s eyes. His sensory and colour-coded interpretation of his natural environment makes for illuminating, oft-revealing reading. As we consider shapes and scenarios in shades and hues through Zeb’s visage, we are often called on to realign our paradigms for basic sight. A man on the cusp of maturity, we witness Zeb’s formation as he grows, through the author’s use of well-placed flashbacks.  Nothing Zeb does or says in his journey towards self-preservation and self-discovery feels off-kilter, perhaps because we have been allowed to take the mark of him at every significant stage of his being. The impression of a life fully formed is what remains, once the last page of the novel has been turned. We feel that we have lived with our leading man, observing the peculiar palette that has been his life up until that very moment, and our reading is all the richer for the sense of this credible roundedness.

McIntyre’s other characters, those who are both pivotal and secondary to the successful engineering of the novel, are laudably represented. Not one of them is delivered gracelessly; not one is packaged without attention to detail. If you find yourself feeling tender stirrings of sympathy for someone in these pages who ought, logically, to defy them, be not alarmed. Villainous hearts are susceptible to tenderness and contrition. Quietly submissive souls spark forth in episodes of rage. Reading Thalo Blue is a timely reminder of the complexity of even those dramatis personae whom we’d like to easily slot into pre-ordered roles.

Good writing does not necessarily a good novel make, but Jason McIntyre is a good writer. When we read, we allow the author an unshakeable level of dominion over our senses—if the writer does his work well, we won’t want to be shaken. It took me no more than a handful of chapters to feel confident that I was in no danger of decrying foul fiction, and knowing this holds its own kind of quiet reassurance. What I loved best about McIntyre’s prose were moments when it lent itself to a sage series of omniscient narrative contemplations, such as this one, in which Zeb has an illuminating early conversation with his lover, Caeli.

“They talked about bigger things mostly, things beyond themselves but instead within the scope of the world at large. And amongst those monstrous topics, they talked about the little things, like the skin on the tops of their coffees, and the sound the soles of their shoes made on gravel as they walked. The hours were consumed.”

Anyone who’s traded silence for the earnestly raging river of this brand of discussion will instantly nod with acknowledgement, and appreciation of the skill with which it’s transcribed. I paused the longest to think of the following offering, which, in the interest of maintaining intrigue, may or may not be about Caeli, too.

“Friends and lovers speak in tongues. They use a language that no one else knows, one that they have invented for themselves only. It’s a secret handshake that either lives forever–or dies, carried off when one of its creators leaves for good.”

In the margins of my notebook, there’s a scribbled thought about this, written moments after I read those lines for the first time. “I know this,” it says. “I’ve lived it. I’ve been the one to take the language away, and I’ve had it taken from me, too.”

I do not suggest that all of McIntyre’s prose moved me equally, but it would be injurious to a writer, I think, if you demanded that each of their lines made you weep at its beauty. Some of the expository paragraphs hold a certain staid predictability, and some of the dialogue, particularly the interchanges surrounding criminal investigations, gave me, I confess, less pleasurable pause. Nonetheless, the overall effect is one of respectable, considered writing, and there is nothing to lament, stylistically speaking.

Opponents of a non-linear plot construction will find Thalo Blue nauseating. As a proponent of experimentation in all areas of literary craft, I was pleased to entangle myself in the meandering, converging threads of Zeb’s life. The reader will find herself thrust a decade backwards, sitting with Zeb and his father on the latter’s sickbed, yanked to the cosily clandestine scene of quite a different boudoir that Zeb shares with Caeli, pushed through the swinging doors on an ice-slicked collision. If the deciphering of which events fit where, and how, makes one tetchy, then I propose more careful reading. The ways in which the novel proceeds will reward a sensitive reader, and stymie one accustomed to a ‘colour by numbers’ approach to their fiction.

This novel earns its chops based on a neat list of accomplishments. Principal among these is its sophisticated residence in a genre of writing about which I am typically leery. Its discernible nicks in an otherwise glowing patina are happily worth the price of admission. A suspense thriller edged with nuances of psychological investigation, Thalo Blue is as much an examination of human behaviour beneath pressure as it is a bildungsroman with bite. If reading it prompts you to search out more of McIntyre’s work, then we’re in the same synaesthete’s landscape of brightly-hued anticipation.

Details on Jason McIntyre’s publications, including Thalo Blue, as well as direct purchase links are accessible from his Amazon.com author page, here. You can also peruse his personal website, The Farthest Reaches, here, where there are links to his Twitter and Facebook pages.

A free electronic copy of this novel was provided by Jason McIntyre for review. The opinions expressed in this review are entirely my own, and are not influenced by his generous gift of gratuitous literature.

18. The End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas

Published in 2006 by Mariner Books.

Longlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2008.

“So if we’re all quarks and electrons …” he begins.


We could make love and it would be nothing more than quarks and electrons rubbing together.”

Better than that,” I say. “Nothing really ‘rubs together’ in the microscopic world. Matter never really touches other matter, so we could make love without any of our atoms touching at all. Remember that electrons sit on the outside of atoms, repelling other electrons. So we could make love and actually repel each other at the same time.”

Many a bibliophile has been quoted as saying, ‘Give me books before bread!’, but Ariel Manto’s acquisition of an ultra-rare 19th century tome literally lands her near to poverty. Yet, for a copy of The End of Mr. Y, a literary work with which Ariel is obsessed, the decision is effortless. The fact that everyone who has read the book seems to have disappeared (including Ariel’s Ph.D. advisor, who once gave an academic talk on this ‘curse’) does not dissuade her. Once she reads The End of Mr. Y, she is left with more questions than answers, and a burning desire to follow the journey of Mr. Y himself. Her own journey, replicated on the steps that he—and Ariel believes, her absent advisor—took, sends her spiralling into an alternative realm of reality, called the Troposphere, in which she is able to spatially manoeuvre by piggybacking on the thoughts of others. However, Ariel soon realizes that (a) not all in the Troposphere is as it seems, and (b) she is not alone in her mindsurfing odyssey.

It is hard to figure out whether or not Ariel Manto deserves the reader’s respect. At several points in The End of Mr. Y, attempting to love Ariel can feel like an effort in loving the most (under)doggedly dismal parts of ourselves, the ones we feed with cheap alcohol, too many cigarettes and a lifetime’s dingy disappointments. This doesn’t mean that the novel’s protagonist is poorly-drawn; quite the contrary—she shines by her very lack of lustre. Insofar as a character’s convincingly-rendered moments of unlikeability make her eminently more likeable, Ariel Manto’s a gem.

Emblazoned across the cover of the book is Jonathan Coe‘s assertion that you’ll finish The End of Mr. Y “a cleverer person than when you started.” Unless you are well-versed in quantum physics (and are, in fact, formidably read across the sciences), then this is likely to be true. The novel strikes a deft balance between those things that scientific research has already established to be beyond contention, and those things over which it still debates and troubleshoots.

This is no obvious science textbook distilled into fiction, however, for which we may be glad. Thomas is just as concerned about portraying the ways in which faith coalesces or collides with rational data and quantifiable proof. For example, the concept of multiverses, and the validity of time travel in and among these, is crucial to the novel’s structure. Attention is also paid to communication, to language and speech, to literature and expression, the conduits that determine how we interface with the world, and the reasons why what we perceive to be real may or may not be so.

We wrestle with the grey space between absolute conviction and staggering disbelief, as Ariel does. We watch her mind absorb new ideas, new frameworks for comprehension, and while observing those expand, alter, shift dramatically or incrementally as the novel progresses, we realize we’re hooked. At her lowest ebb, Ariel asks herself whether or not she would do it all again: to have forsaken so much, including a tangible future with a mysteriously familiar man, in search of knowledge, and she knows that she would. Fellow learning junkies will admire the eminently accessible, academic chops of The End of Mr. Y. It’s like summer reading for the unabashedly nerdy logophile and bookish scientist, both.

Reading The End of Mr. Y led me to contemplate the successful sell of gimmick-harnessed literature, which I mean in the most innocuous way possible. The ‘go-thou-no-further’ approach has worked admirably in this novel, as both strategy and context. Thomas prompts us to peer beyond each tarnished veil, which we do, each time, without hesitation. (I’d like to challenge at least one person who tells me that they weren’t tempted to conduct the exact experiment that Ariel does, since I’m reasonably certain they’d be lying.) Telling people not to do something, in the hope that they will proceed to do it, may seem like the easiest sell in literature, as in life. On the contrary, this technique has been so often and so ill-employed, that when it functions in the hands of a talented writer, we tend to take notice. Some of the success of books like these, and this, surely hinge on the adroit manipulation of that very concept.

The author engineers Ariel’s dalliances in the Troposphere (i.e. the parallel realm of thought in which she must mindsurf to progress) in fine and credible style. These passages of the novel often feel to be the most poised and crisply detailed. Whether Ariel is trespassing on the mind of a fundamentally insecure teenager, or that of her unlucky, morose neighbour, or the shadowy agents who’re tracking her down, each windowed interlude is a miniature showcasing of the author’s talent for capturing unique voices.

The end of The End of Mr. Y is unambiguous and indefinite, all at once. Odds are you’ll loathe it, or beam in satisfaction as you close the back cover. Either way, few contemporary novels astutely define “conversation piece” so well as this one. Be they silly talks, long-reaching rambles or heated dialogues, if you don’t have much to discuss, then consider that you just might have left your critical mind in another plane of existence.

This is the second book I’ve read and reviewed on my personal reading list (which you can see here) for The Bookette’s British Book Challenge 2011.

17. Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier

Published in 2009. This Edition: HarperCollins, 2010.

Good first sentences can be utterly damning. They allude to the possibility of reading something that will spellbind us, something that, if it is grotesque, is so sublimely grotesque that we are rather glad we lost our lunch over it. (I can only imagine the Marquis de Sade grinning in glee at a well-heeled dowager’s protestation that The 120 Days of Sodom sent her scampering to church for shrift.) If the best part of a book, however, is its opening sentence, that seems to be a cowardly act—to sculpt nothing fine, save one or two arresting lines. When I opened Remarkable Creatures, therefore, and read

“Lightning has struck me all my life. Just once was it real.”

I was wary.

Civilly banished from their London home to the seaside town of Lyme, the unwed and not-particularly attractive Philpot sisters gradually learn to sift out what happiness they can, in their considerably reduced circumstances. Of the three, it is stoic Elizabeth who is drawn to beachcombing for fossils, an exercise she initially selects to occupy her days, free of the male attention she only occasionally craves. As she swiftly becomes enamoured of her fossil collection, particularly of the ancient fish skeletons she hoards, Elizabeth encounters young Mary Anning, the working-class daughter of Lyme’s debt-swamped cabinetmaker. A talented ‘hunter’ (in this context, fossil locator, gatherer and preserver) Mary allows Elizabeth into her own life, in its frequently impoverished yet deeply resilient reality. The two women grow up both alongside and apart from each other, and as their friendship is tested, severely, by bitter jealousy, by the arbitrary hand that assigns social class and station, and by one irresistible man, Elizabeth and Mary learn how much they can both withstand, and what causes them to shatter under pressure.

I’ve not read any other of Chevalier’s books, but after finishing Remarkable Creatures, I acquainted myself with the plot and concerns of each. I feel reasonably justified in remarking that the writer’s forté seems to be in her marriage of engrossing historical situations with finely considered characters. Though I had not heard of them before this reading, Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot were real women. It is fascinating to contemplate how much of their lives, as presented to us on Chevalier’s pages, are directly sown from the long hand of history, and how much is invented, conjured out of the ether, to add pathos, verve, humour. Both Mary and Elizabeth are deeply likeable, frustrating and varied characters—no less than human renditions, in short, and we find ourselves caring for their everyday struggles, as well as their protracted longings, sooner than we might have expected. Much historical fiction too often relies on the richness of the situation it attempts to reanimate with prose—The Great Depression, the rise and fall of the Roman empire, the history entire of a small island—that it falters in its investment in people, in breathing life into the past through the vessels that are best suited to carry it—the inhabitants of the work, be they living or purely ghostlike.

It is maddening to read of the circumstances of women in this early 19th century British society, and worse yet to contemplate that the injustices endured by Mary, Elizabeth and others of their sex are still endured, oft-unrecognized, not given the illumination in art or sound policy-making, nearly as much as they warrant. Mary’s loneliness, denied a life of comfortable indulgence, with the financial prospects it affords, is starkly illustrated, in a conversation with the person who has captured and bewildered her heart.

“My life led up to that moment, then led away again, like the tide making its highest mark on the beach and then retreating.

‘Everything is so big and old and far away,’ I said, sitting up with the force of it. ‘God help me, for it does scare me.’

‘There is no need to fear,’ he said, ‘for you are here with me.’

‘Only now,’ I said. ‘Just for this moment, and then I will be alone again in the world. It is hard when there’s no one to hold on to.’

He had no answer to that, and I knew he never would.”

Chevalier’s depiction of the life and times in which the novel is set strikes one as being infused with accuracy, from the recollections of past-times, superstitions, customs and everyday minutiae. We feel as though we’ve wandered onto the set, perhaps, of a BBC production of  a period drama, replete with narrow, cobblestoned streets, home-brewed bottles of elderflower champagne, petticoats and workhouse-penury alike. Natural landscape is no less vividly portrayed than the man-made structures of the novel. The beach, for example, is its own character, in every right—it’s unforgiving nature, its mystery, secrecy, the pleasure of its unexpected treasures, and the peril of its capricious cruelties. Anyone who loves the sea deeply cannot help but be moved by Chevalier’s design of it, as well as appreciate the relevance of all that the ocean offers to Mary and Elizabeth, both tangibly and soulfully.

What I loved best about reading Remarkable Creatures is that it did not challenge me. Surely, this sounds like an extraordinary contradiction, but I think one might catch one’s death of illumination-depression, sipping from an eternal literary font of Kafkas, and Joyces. The read was absorbing without being daunting, entertaining without meriting a single furrow of my brow, and if not particularly earthshattering, then distinctly eye-opening. Otherwise, I would not be purposing to read more on the life of Mary Anning, and other women of the 19th century who have been overlooked (until now) in science, engineering and other heretofore-considered ‘masculine’ fields. This, to my mind, is the premier advantage of well-done historical fiction. It transports us, not simply during the hours in which we read it, but when we have turned the last page, then seek knowledge, context and more reading on that era, that set of unique circumstances, elsewhere. Remarkable Creatures has done this, and therefore, perhaps it is unfair to say that it has not challenged me. It has, after all, challenged me to learn more—and is this not one of the best pursuits?

Finally, it is worth noting that the last line of Remarkable Creatures is as good as its first – maybe it’s a little better. I’m looking forward to hearing whether or not you concur.

16. Sections of an Orange by Anton Nimblett

Published in 2009 by Peepal Tree Press.

“God, that’s sexy as hell.”

This is what I thought as I sat in the audience of the Paper Based bookshop at the Hotel Normandie, a fortnight shy of one year ago, listening to Anton Nimblett read from the titular offering of his short story collection, in which the narrator shares a highly unusual post-haircut pleasure at his stand-in barber’s basement. I know the oft-deceptive spell that a writer who reads his work well can cast, though, so I purposed to find out whether or not, frankly, the sex was sustained as convincingly on paper as it was in person. I was not disappointed.

There are eleven stories in Sections of an Orange, some of which are connected by the same characters, telling different sides of the same, or different, tales.  In “Visiting Soldiers”, we confront the peculiarities of a quietly devastating loss, as we learn exactly what one bereaved mother carries in her purse. We nod in agreement at the description of the busybody neighbour in “Into My Parlour”, who feeds on gossip and forces doubt, with one well-timed suggestion. “On the Side” swerves between dual expositions: a gory car accident and the bonds of food and familiarity that link the two men entangled in it. “Time and Tide” traces the retreat of one of those men to Trinidad, where he allows himself to trade past hurt for the present of easy talk on Maracas beach, and the very definition of one pleasant surprise. In “Just Now”, we learn that there’s more to that pleasant surprise than a body that blesses a crisp white shirt with a bit extra beauty—we meet his wife, and the everyday voodoo love that anchors him happily to her side. We attempt not to cry at the miracle that dwells in the simple gift of “Marjory’s Meal”. “How Far, How Long” has us shake hands with Ray, and his man… and his other man, and how they’re all simultaneously incredible, but not quite enough. “Sections of an Orange” juxtaposes snippets of a hit-and-run news brief with one of the most tantalizing trips to the barber ever recorded. That barber, a misunderstood creative close to implosion, seals his fate with a trip to Van Cleef and Arpels, in “Ring Games”. In case we’d forgotten, we’re reminded  of the soothing balm avoidance can bestow, when we read what one good woman does for love in “Mr. Parker’s Behaviour”. The collection closes with the heart-thudding narrative of a man who’s best recognized for everyone, and everything, he isn’t, in “One, Two, Three – Push”.

A familiarity of place, persona and situation abounds in these tales of Trinidad and New York, but I have found that it takes more than mere recognition in fiction to make the writing sizzle. Thankfully, the familiarity in Sections of an Orange is partnered with both subtle and audacious (but never mawkish) wit and whimsy. I could not imagine saying to Nimblett, “You, sir, are out of touch.” Nimblett knows. He writes with the voice of a writer who sees, who spends a lot of time, maybe all the time, looking. Listening. Feeding off the vibe of strangers and best-beloveds alike—and if that sounds malicious, then it ought to be asserted that eavesdropping, observation and a good old Trini maco are the polished trade-tools with which the hottest literature is churned out.

I like the unpredictability of this collection, the way that the oeuvre defies pigeonholing with no mean spirit. You might watch the cover of the novel and instantly formulate your best-intentioned prejudices, but the writing will smack you on the cheek, whisper archly, “So yuh thought I was a book of gay stories, eh? Well, yuh damn wrong…”, but even this revelation is not cruel in the way it caresses your senses. Yes, within these pages are the travails and the merriments, the hassle and hustle and delight of men who love men, but to say that this encapsulates the work Nimblett has done is poor praise, if it can be called that. Yes, the work provides a fresh, relevant point of access to disenfranchised gay Trinidadian and Caribbean men. It also treats with grieving mothers, with the weight of suspicion surrounding non-heteronormative behaviour both home and away. It peers into the isolation experience, the journeys of Trinidadians to the United States, the sense of community away from the island hearth, and the voices of remarkable people as they plot their place in a society that does not share their several secret languages. There would be no shame, I think, if Sections of an Orange were a book devoted solely to the queer masculine perspective of the Trinidadian-American citizen, but the wealth of its multivalent concerns pre-empts that, soundly.

Readers, I am hunting for a quote from these pages, from any of these eleven productions in loss, longing, hunger, and the cry of the fettered Self, and yet… I find that I want to present entire pages of prose, instead. The passage that describes the magicked yet terrestrially gritty encounter between barber Glen and our unnamed narrator, who is given the honorific of “Chocolate Man” by the former, is lip-bitingly potent.

The two men succumb to the allure of fresh fruit in their pageantry of lovemaking:

“This time he grabs a section of the orange, holds it six inches in front of my face, and steadying himself with one hand right next to me, he squeezes with the other hand. Juice falls through the air, hitting my chest, pooling at the centre and trickling down my belly. He waves his hand around, still squeezing, so that juice hits my face and shoulders, collecting in the hollow at my collarbone and forming a liquid necklace at my throat. His eyes follow the movement of his hand, a hand that seems to follow the orange, tracing some deliberate pattern that only he knows. His fingers, smooth dark peninsulas that end in crowns of perfect pink nail, are wet now, and I want him to touch me.”

(from “Sections of an Orange”)

Landscape is just as vividly rendered—we feel that we are walking with the tormented Push as he struggles towards claiming his identity, as he paces the city streets.

“A thin breeze greets Push in the Brooklyn night — cooler than earlier. Red Hook buildings carve skeletons against an indigo sky, like dinosaur exhibits in a museum after hours. Telephone wires sag from wood poles, recalling yesterdays. Uneven cobblestone patches poke history through asphalt streets.”

(from “One, Two, Three – Push”)

When landscape and character meld so seamlessly, finessed with the talent of subtle strokes, we can read lines like these, wherein a man surrenders himself to the grief of an inevitable loss, in the midst of preparing a tribute that rivals coffers of precious metals.

“The tears came drop by drop, pooling until they flowed, and flowing more and more until they bloomed into sound — one low, deep sob and then another and another, until his body was shaking. Then he had to set the knife down as he crumbled from his middle, folding at the gut and catching his head in his hands. There, with the breeze still gently stirring the leaves, with the birds still singing sweetly and the waves still lapping on the shore, he cried alone.”

(from “Marjory’s Meal”)

You could shelve this book with your queer literature anthologies, sure, but I daresay your hand would hesitate. You’d look across at your trove of Caribbean lit., of course, and glance meaningfully at your American contemporary fiction, almost as if in reflex motion. Let’s not even think about that cross-section of diaspora writing you’ve accumulated over the years, or your favourite social commentary-related writing… or, in fact, let’s. Perhaps, in the end, you’ll  file Sections of an Orange with the books that best remind you of home, the books by which, if you have allowed yourself to live, you can shake your head at your own damn foolishness, swallow a lump of pride at your better intentions, smile and remember all the inventions of mind and heart you pioneered, for love.

The author discusses his work, influences and his indebtedness to a sense of community in the article Anton Nimblett Responds, at The Signifyin’ Woman’s review site, here.

This book, and 11 more, are part of my official reading list (which can be found in my sign-up post here) for the 2011 Caribbean Writers Challenge.