Thoughts: Man Booker 2018 Predictions

I have not read the shortlist; I do not plan on reading the shortlist. That does not mean I am not super interested to see who will win later today. And I also have thoughts.

I read only two of the shortlisted books:

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

356108231I really enjoyed reading this but the longer I keep thinking about it, the more it falls apart. I found Romy a fascinating protagonist, difficult and flawed but also warm and somewhat easy to root for. I liked getting the glimpses into the other inmates’ stories and thought this added a nice, political layer to this book. But, the male perspectives did only peripherally add anything substantial to the book. I do get some parallels and what that says about misogyny but I would have liked this more without these men. I also think that the book is fairly flawed, as much as I enjoyed it. I do think it has a fair chance at winning and I would not be disappointed if it did, but I would not be overjoyed.

Everything Under by Daisy Johnson

36396289I loved this; and unlike The Mars Room, it just keeps on growing on me. I love the non-linear timeline and Johnson’s prose and her wonderful way with characterization. I loved the whole reading experience and I am so very glad that the Man Booker gave me the nudge I needed to read this book. Because I am NOT as enamoured with the cover as everybody seems to be. I would be thrilled if this one won, but I am not really seeing it. But I would be so very pleased!

The four others on the shortlist just all do not sound like my cup of tea, for various reasons.

The Long Take by Robin Robertson

35659255This might be brilliant or it might not be, but I am not interested in Post War books (I read way too many in school) and I am also not the biggest fan of poetry (in English – there is something about English poetry that makes me doubt my language proficiency). I do think that this one is least likely to win, for one because the whole “should poetry be part of the Man Booker”-discussion would get blown up even more, and for another, I just don’t think this is anybody’s favourite to win.

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

39731474This is so far outside my reading taste, it’s quite impressive actually. I don’t like adventure stories and I also don’t like historical novels. This might be brilliant and it might add something new to the slave narrative and I am sure the writing is lovely, but I don’t see myself reading it. I also don’t think this’ll win the Booker, but I wouldn’t be mad if it did. It does seem to be an accomplished book after all.

 

Milkman by Anna Burns

36047860This sounded right up my alley, until I read parts of it. Stream of consciousness does not always work for me and I am not quite sure my English is good enough for me to appreciate this book (I had similar problems with A Brief History of Seven Killings by the way). It does sound like it might be the best book, from a technical standpoint, on this list and I would be weirdly enough pretty pleased if this won.

The Overstory by Richard Powers

35187203People are really divided on this book and while it sounds fascinating, it is also a ridiculously long book about trees. And I just don’t see myself reading this any time soon (which more often than not means never). I do think that the chances this will win are pretty high, even if the Brits will be aghast if another American man won. I am fairly unbothered either way to be honest.

 

So, to recap, I am pulling for Everything Under but I don’t think it’ll win, I do think The Overstory might win and people will be frothing at their mouths. Or Anna Burns wins this and all will be great.

Which one do you think will win? Which one would you like to win?

Review: Everything Under by Daisy Johnson

36396289Verdict: Mesmerizing, heartbreaking, stunningly realized.

My rating: 4,5 out of 5 stars

Genre: Literary Fiction

Published by Vintage/ Jonathan Cape, July 12th 2018

Find it on Goodreads.

Words are important to Gretel, always have been. As a child, she lived on a canal boat with her mother, and together they invented a language that was just their own. She hasn’t seen her mother since the age of sixteen, though – almost a lifetime ago – and those memories have faded. Now Gretel works as a lexicographer, updating dictionary entries, which suits her solitary nature.

A phone call from the hospital interrupts Gretel’s isolation and throws up questions from long ago. She begins to remember the private vocabulary of her childhood. She remembers other things, too: the wild years spent on the river; the strange, lonely boy who came to stay on the boat one winter; and the creature in the water – a canal thief? – swimming upstream, getting ever closer. In the end there will be nothing for Gretel to do but go back.

Daisy Johnson’s debut novel turns classical myth on its head and takes readers to a modern-day England unfamiliar to most. As daring as it is moving, Everything Under is a story of family and identity, of fate, language, love and belonging that leaves you unsettled and unstrung.

I am so glad this book was longlisted for the Man Booker because I don’t think I would have read it otherwise and that would have been such a shame. This is for sure my favourite of the list so far and I really hope it’ll make the shortlist so that more people will read this stunning little book.

The plot is difficult to summarize and I find it even more difficult because I was spoiled in a pretty major way before even starting the book. It did not change my enjoyment of the story per se but I do think I would have liked to have been able to read it with less knowledge. This is loose re-telling of a Greek myth; if you don’t know which one yet I would urge you to go in blind. At its heart this is a book about family, lost and found. We follow different narrative strands that converged and inform each other: we follow Gretel in her cottage with her mother who she has just found again and who is struggling with dementia, we follow Gretel during the fateful winter her mother left her, Gretel also tells Marcus’ story, the boy who spent a few weeks with them before her mother disappeared. The story is told exquisitely in different perspectives, including my personal favourite: a really well-done second person narrative. These different perspectives and the wonderful way Daisy Johnson weaves her story were by far the strongest part of this book. Gretel’s voice is brilliantly done and I love the musings on identity and memory.

Daisy Johnson’s language is just stunning, she creates an atmosphere so mesmerizing it felt like coming up air whenever I needed to stop reading. Her sentences are stunning, both linguistically and with the imagery employed.

Whatever is was that pressed through the calm, cold waters that winter, that wrapped itself around or dreams and left its clawed footprints in our heads. I want to tell you that it might never have been there if we hadn’t thought it up.

Johnson draws on riddles and fairy-tale, of subcultures and gender studies, in a way that felt super satisfying to read. The juxtaposition of the fluidity of both the prose and Gretel’s memories with the rigidity of fate worked incredibly well for me.

While I think this is an absolutely stunning work of fiction which did many new and exciting things while being stylistically brilliant, I do think the last 20% were not quite as strong. Here Johnson makes quite a lot of the subtext text and it did detract from the brilliance a bit. Mind, I still will read whatever else she has written because this was just so exciting.

I received an arc of this book courtesy of NetGalley and Vintage Publishing/ Jonathan Cape in exchange for an honest review.

Review: The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

356108231Verdict: Ambitious, sprawling, infuriating, slightly uneven.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Genre: Fiction

Published by Random House UK/ Vintage (Jonathan Cape), June 7th 2018

Find it on Goodreads.

Romy Hall is at the start of two consecutive life sentences, plus six years, at Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility. Outside is the world from which she has been permanently severed: the San Francisco of her youth, changed almost beyond recognition. The Mars Room strip club where she once gave lap dances for a living. And her seven-year-old son, Jackson, now in the care of Romy’s estranged mother.

Inside is a new reality to adapt to: thousands of women hustling for the bare essentials needed to survive. The deadpan absurdities of institutional living, which Kushner details with humour and precision. Daily acts of violence by guards and prisoners alike. Allegiances formed over liquor brewed in socks, and stories shared through sewage pipes.

Romy sees the future stretch out ahead of her in a long, unwavering line – until news from outside brings a ferocious urgency to her existence, challenging her to escape her own destiny and culminating in a climax of almost unbearable intensity. Through Romy – and through a cast of astonishing characters populating The Mars Room – Rachel Kushner presents not just a bold and unsentimental panorama of life on the margins of contemporary America, but an excoriating attack on the prison-industrial complex.

Rachel Kushner has written a book that is very obviously close to her heart and the result of a whole lot of research. I found her personal stance to be understandable and un-deniable but she did not sacrifice her writing or her plot to make her point.

The anchor of this sprawling story of women in prison is Romy Hall, sentenced to two consecutive life sentences for the killing of her stalker. The book starts heart-wrenchingly with her being driven to the prison where she will be spending the rest of her life. This early scene hooked me completely and made me not only sympathetic to Romy’s story but also highly invested. Her story is told in unchronological flashbacks while we follow her first few years in prison. Additionally Kushner writes a series of vignettes of the other inmates’ stories as well as adding a few outside perspectives. These vignettes work well in humanizing the inmates (if that is at all necessary). In all these stories, Kushner emphasises the role a lack of agency resulting from less than ideal circumstances had in the way people’s lives turns out.

While I often found that these multiple perspectives worked really well, I found Doc’s character superfluous and quite grating to be spending time with. While I can absolutely see the point to the other perspectives, with his I could not get on board. I thought it did not add anything substantial to the overall work and it did distract from other, more interesting characters. My gut reaction upon finishing this book had been that I wished Kushner had concentrated on the female perspectives, on reflection I can actually see the way these male perspectives mirrored the female experiences and went a long way in deepening my understanding of just how stacked against those women the system is. Even the people mostly sympathetic to the women’s causes (such as Gordon) never really saw the women as people in their own rights, with worth not related to how much the men liked them.

This is a super ambitious book that overall impressed me immensely even if I wasn’t always quite in love with it – there were a couple of decisions made towards the end that did not quite work for me. But I guess I do prefer a book to aim to high and fail a little to one that doesn’t challenge me at all. I found it ultimately heart-breaking and infuriating – the way these women are treated made me angry to no end and Rachel Kushner’s impressive attention to detail worked in making this book feel lived in. It absolutely deserves its place on the Man Booker longlist but I would not be dissappointed if it didn’t make the shortlist.

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of NetGalley and Random House UK/ Vintage (Jonathan Cape) in exchange for an honest review.

TBR: ARCs on my shelves part IV (2018)

I was SO proud of myself. I was doing so good. I got my NetGalley ARCs way down (I mean, they were in the single digits for like a hot moment). This is not the case anymore. I, again, have so many ARCs on my digital shelves. And so little time. (You can find my earlier round-ups here, here and here.) But oh, what wonderful books I got.

Still to be read:

356108231The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

Publication Date: June 7th

Publisher: Random House, Vintage (Jonathan Cape)

Blurb (from Goodreads): Romy Hall is at the start of two consecutive life sentences, plus six years, at Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility. Outside is the world from which she has been permanently severed: the San Francisco of her youth, changed almost beyond recognition. The Mars Room strip club where she once gave lap dances for a living. And her seven-year-old son, Jackson, now in the care of Romy’s estranged mother.

Inside is a new reality to adapt to: thousands of women hustling for the bare essentials needed to survive. The deadpan absurdities of institutional living, which Kushner details with humour and precision. Daily acts of violence by guards and prisoners alike. Allegiances formed over liquor brewed in socks, and stories shared through sewage pipes.

Romy sees the future stretch out ahead of her in a long, unwavering line – until news from outside brings a ferocious urgency to her existence, challenging her to escape her own destiny and culminating in a climax of almost unbearable intensity. Through Romy – and through a cast of astonishing characters populating The Mars Room – Rachel Kushner presents not just a bold and unsentimental panorama of life on the margins of contemporary America, but an excoriating attack on the prison-industrial complex.

Why I requested this: I wanted to read this since the beginning of the year but then held off requesting an ARC because I had so many unread ones already – but now it is nominated for the Man Booker and here we are.

36396289Everything Under by Daisy Johnson

Publication Date: July 12th

Publisher: Random House, Vintage (Jonathan Cape)

Blurb (from Goodreads): Words are important to Gretel, always have been. As a child, she lived on a canal boat with her mother, and together they invented a language that was just their own. She hasn’t seen her mother since the age of sixteen, though – almost a lifetime ago – and those memories have faded. Now Gretel works as a lexicographer, updating dictionary entries, which suits her solitary nature.

A phone call from the hospital interrupts Gretel’s isolation and throws up questions from long ago. She begins to remember the private vocabulary of her childhood. She remembers other things, too: the wild years spent on the river; the strange, lonely boy who came to stay on the boat one winter; and the creature in the water – a canal thief? – swimming upstream, getting ever closer. In the end there will be nothing for Gretel to do but go back.

Daisy Johnson’s debut novel turns classical myth on its head and takes readers to a modern-day England unfamiliar to most. As daring as it is moving, Everything Under is a story of family and identity, of fate, language, love and belonging that leaves you unsettled and unstrung.

Why I requested it: Again, it is nominated for the Man Booker – and it sounds absolutely bloody brilliant and I cannot believe this nearly flew under my radar. This sounds SO up my alley, it’s absurd.

40407148Invitation to a Bonfire by Adrienne Celt

Publication Date: July 12th

Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing

Blurb (from Goodreads): A seductive, sensual and sinister love triangle set in 1930s America and inspired by the infamous Nabokov marriage

Zoya Andropova, a young Russian refugee, finds herself in an elite New Jersey boarding school. Having lost her family, her home and her sense of purpose, Zoya struggles to belong, a task made more difficult by her new country’s paranoia about Soviet spies.

When she meets charismatic fellow Russian émigré Leo Orlov – whose books Zoya has obsessed over for years – everything seems to change. But she soon discovers that Leo is bound by the sinister orchestrations of his brilliant wife, Vera, and that their relationship is far more complex than Zoya could ever have imagined.

Why I requested it: I am really enjoying the new Bloomsbury imprint Raven Books and this could be brilliant. But my request was pending for forever and then I was accepted after the release date and now I don’t know when I will get to it.

40206019Can You Tolerate This? by Ashleigh Young

Publication Date: August 9th

Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing

Blurb (from Goodreads): In Can You Tolerate This? – the title comes from the question chiropractors ask to test a patient’s pain threshold – Ashleigh Young ushers us into her early years in the faraway yet familiar landscape of New Zealand: fantasising about Paul McCartney, cheering on her older brother’s fledgling music career, and yearning for a larger and more creative life.

As Young’s perspective expands, a series of historical portraits – a boy with a rare skeletal disease, a French postman who built a stone fortress by hand, a generation of Japanese shut-ins – strike unexpected personal harmonies, as an unselfconscious childhood gives way to painful shyness in adolescence. As we watch Young fall in and out of love, undertake intense physical exercise that masks something deeper, and gradually find herself through her writing, a highly particular psyche comes into view: curious, tender and exacting in her observations of herself and the world around her.

How to bear each moment of experience: the inconsequential as much as the shattering?

In this spirited and singular collection of essays, Ashleigh Young attempts to find some measure of clarity amidst the uncertainty, exploring the uneasy tensions – between safety and risk, love and solitude, the catharsis of grief and the ecstasy of creation – that define our lives.

Why I requested it: I mean, duh, it sounds like such a me-book. Plus, I recently went to New Zealand and an essay collection/ memoir set there feels appropriate.

39780950Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires

Publication Date: August 9th

Publisher: Random House UK, Vintage Publishing

Blurb (from Goodreads): In this crackling debut collection Nafissa Thompson-Spires interrogates our supposedly post-racial era. To wicked and devastating effect she exposes the violence, both external and self-inflicted, that threatens black Americans, no matter their apparent success.

A teenager is insidiously bullied as her YouTube following soars; an assistant professor finds himself losing a subtle war of attrition against his office mate; a nurse is worn down by the demand for her skills as a funeral singer. And across a series of stories, a young woman grows up, negotiating and renegotiating her identity.

Heads of the Colored People shows characters in crisis, both petty and catastrophic. It marks the arrival of a remarkable writer and an essential and urgent new voice.

Why I requested it: I wanted to read this since before its US publication because it sounds brilliant and I am always up for exciting short story collections. Also, the UK cover is STUNNING. (I am currently half-way through and it is as brilliant as I hoped)

39225898Foundryside (Founders #1) by Robert Jackson Bennet

Publication Date: August 23rd

Publisher: Jo Fletcher Books

Blurb (from Goodreads): The city of Tevanne runs on scrivings, industrialised magical inscriptions that make inanimate objects sentient; they power everything, from walls to wheels to weapons. Scrivings have brought enormous progress and enormous wealth – but only to the four merchant Houses who control them. Everyone else is a servant or slave, or they eke a precarious living in the hellhole called the Commons.

There’s not much in the way of work for an escaped slave like Sancia Grado, but she has an unnatural talent that makes her one of the best thieves in the city. When she’s offered a lucrative job to steal an ancient artefact from a heavily guarded warehouse, Sancia agrees, dreaming of leaving the Commons – but instead, she finds herself the target of a murderous conspiracy. Someone powerful in Tevanne wants the artefact, and Sancia dead – and whoever it is already wields power beyond imagining.

Sancia will need every ally, and every ounce of wits at her disposal, if she is to survive – because if her enemy gets the artefact and unlocks its secrets, thousands will die, and, even worse, it will allow ancient evils back into the world and turn their city into a devastated battleground.

Why I requested it: Because it is my most anticipated read of the second half of the year. I adore Bennett’s earlier trilogy and possibly squealed when I was accepted.

39287231City of Lies by Sam Hawke

Publication Date: August 23rd

Publisher: Random House UK, Transworld Publishers

Blurb (from Goodreads): Only a handful of people in Silasta know Jovan’s real purpose in life. To most, he is just another son of the ruling class. The quiet, forgettable friend of the Chancellor’s charming, irresponsible heir. In reality, Jovan has been trained for most of his life to detect, concoct and withstand poisons in order to protect the ruling family.

His sister Kalina is too frail to share in their secret family duty. While other women of the city hold positions of power and responsibility, her path is full of secrets and lies – some hidden even from her own brother.

Up until now, peace has reigned in Silasta for hundreds of years. But when the Chancellor succumbs to an unknown poison and an army storms the gates, the so-called Bright City is completely unprepared. It falls to Jovan and Kalina to protect the heir and save their homeland – but first they must make their way through a new world of unexpected treachery – a world where the ancient spirits are rising . . . and angry.

Why I requested it: I am finding my overwhelming love for fantasy again (in normal years it is by far the genre I read most of) and I loved the way this sounded (it is also written by a woman, which never hurts a book in my case). The early reviews are favourable and the first sentence is just brilliant. I am super excited about this!

39098246The Corset by Laura Purcell

Publication Date: September 20th

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Blurb (from Goodreads): The new Victorian chiller from the author of Radio 2 Book Club pick, The Silent Companions.

Is prisoner Ruth Butterham mad or a murderer? Victim or villain?

Dorothea and Ruth. Prison visitor and prisoner. Powerful and powerless. Dorothea Truelove is young, wealthy and beautiful. Ruth Butterham is young, poor and awaiting trial for murder.

When Dorothea’s charitable work leads her to Oakgate Prison, she is delighted with the chance to explore her fascination with phrenology and test her hypothesis that the shape of a person’s skull can cast a light on their darkest crimes. But when she meets teenage seamstress Ruth, she is faced with another theory: that it is possible to kill with a needle and thread. For Ruth attributes her crimes to a supernatural power inherent in her stitches.

The story Ruth has to tell of her deadly creations – of bitterness and betrayal, of death and dresses – will shake Dorothea’s belief in rationality and the power of redemption.

Can Ruth be trusted? Is she mad, or a murderer?

Why I requested it: Again, I am liking Bloomsbury’s Raven Books imprint and felt like something mystery-ish set in the past (which surprised me more than anybody). Laura Purcell’s debut has been racking up praise, so I cannot wait to see how her follow-up is. (Do you sometimes get retroactive fomo? I did get it with her debut.)

37534857City of Broken Magic by Mirah Bolender

Publication Date: November 20th

Publisher: Macmillan/ Tor-Forge

Blurb (from Goodreads): Five hundred years ago, magi created a weapon they couldn’t control. An infestation that ate magic–and anything else it came into contact with. Enemies and allies were equally filling.

Only an elite team of non-magical humans, known as sweepers, can defuse and dispose of infestations before they spread. Most die before they finish training.

Laura, a new team member, has stayed alive longer than most. Now, she’s the last–and only–sweeper standing between the city and a massive infestation.

Why I requested it: God, this sounds so brilliant. I requested it not thinking I would get it (I don’t think Tor often has the rights for Germany) but here we are and I am SO looking forward to this.

40908694The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker

Publication Date: February 7th, 2019

Publisher: Scribner (UK)

Blurb (from Goodreads): The eagerly awaited new novel from the author of The Age of Miracles.

Imagine a world where sleep could trap you, for days, for weeks, months… A world where you could even die of sleep rather than in your sleep.

Karen Thompson Walker’s second novel is the stunning story of a Californian town’s epidemic of perpetual sleep.

Why I requested it: I don’t remember who it was but somebody online said this was their favourite of the year so far. So, excited is an understatement. It sounds amazing and the cover is stunning and everything about this screams “read me now”.

Read and Reviewed:

40022793Putney by Sofka Zinovieff

Publication Date: July 12th

Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing

Blurb (from Goodreads): It is the 1970s and Ralph, an up-and-coming composer, is visiting Edmund Greenslay at his riverside home in Putney to discuss a collaboration. Through the house’s colourful rooms and unruly garden flits nine-year-old Daphne – dark, teasing, slippery as mercury, more sprite than boy or girl. From the moment their worlds collide, Ralph is consumed by an obsession to make Daphne his.

But Ralph is twenty-five and Daphne is only a child, and even in the bohemian abandon of 1970s London their fast-burgeoning relationship must be kept a secret. It is not until years later that Daphne is forced to confront
the truth of her own childhood – and an act of violence that has lain hidden for decades.

‘Putney’ is a bold, thought-provoking novel about the moral lines we tread, the stories we tell ourselves and the memories that play themselves out again and again, like snatches of song.

Why I requested it: It sounded intriguing and the cover is beautiful. And I enjoyed it but it made me need a shower. (You can find my review here)

Have you read any of these books? Which are you most excited about? Do you have any arcs that you are dying to read?

 

Thoughts: The Man Booker Prize 2018 Longlist

So, here we are again. I do love literary prizes, even if I am abysmal at actually reading the lists. And even though I often don’t agree with the Man Booker Prize, and I don’t really read enough Literary Fiction (with a capital L), I am always super excited when the longlist is announced. So yes, I looked up the longlist first thing this morning, while still in bed. And I have thoughts.

But first, here is the longlist (in case you haven’t seen it a million times today):

Belinda Bauer (UK)                      Snap (Bantam Press)

Anna Burns (UK)                          Milkman (Faber & Faber)

Nick Drnaso (USA)                       Sabrina (Granta Books)

Esi Edugyan (Canada)                 Washington Black (Serpent’s Tail)

Guy Gunaratne (UK)                    In Our Mad And Furious City (Tinder Press)

Daisy Johnson (UK)                     Everything Under (Jonathan Cape)

Rachel Kushner (USA)                The Mars Room (Jonathan Cape)

Sophie Mackintosh (UK)              The Water Cure (Hamish Hamilton)

Michael Ondaatje (Canada)         Warlight (Jonathan Cape)

Richard Powers (USA)                 The Overstory (William Heinemann)

Robin Robertson (UK)                  The Long Take (Picador)

Sally Rooney (Ireland)                  Normal People (Faber & Faber)

Donal Ryan (Ireland)                    From A Low And Quiet Sea (Doubleday Ireland)

Of these books I have read two: The Water Cure which I thought was beautifully written with an excellent use of imagery (my full review is here) and From A Low And Quiet Sea which was so stunningly written that an omission from this list would have baffled me (my full review is here).

Since the announcement I have requested (and received!) two books from NetGalley: The Mars Room which had intrigued me for months but came out at a time where I had way too many unread ARCs to request another one and Everything Under – a book that sounds so brilliant but has a cover where I was just convinced it most be YA (shame on me really for not reading the blurb).

I will not be attempting the longlist (I tried that last year and struggled a whole lot) but those two books do sound wonderful. I might read Sabrina because the first graphic novel to be longlisted must be absolutely brilliant, plus I do love graphic novels when I do read them and if I happen to come across Milkman I will read that as well because I have been considering it for a while now but other than that I think I will pass on the books. I might still change my mind when the excitement of other people reading the list gets to me but until then I am eagerly awaiting everybody’s review.

Overall I am quite excited though and I am curious to see who makes the shortlist.

Let’s chat! What are your thoughts? Have your read any of these books? Which ones are you most excited about? What are your feelings on literary awards?

Review: Autumn (Seasonal #1) – Ali Smith

28446947Verdict: Clever, poignant, probably brilliant but too disjointed for me.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Date read: November 27th, 2017

Published by Hamish Hamilton, 2016

Find it on Goodreads.

A breathtakingly inventive new novel from the Man Booker-shortlisted and Baileys Prize-winning author of How to be both

Fusing Keatsian mists and mellow fruitfulness with the vitality, the immediacy and the colour-hit of Pop Art – via a bit of very contemporary skulduggery and skull-diggery – Autumn is a witty excavation of the present by the past. The novel is a stripped-branches take on popular culture, and a meditation, in a world growing ever more bordered and exclusive, on what richness and worth are, what harvest means.

Autumn is the first installment in Ali Smith’s novel quartet Seasonal: four standalone books, separate yet interconnected and cyclical (as the seasons are), exploring what time is, how we experience it, and the recurring markers in the shapes our lives take and in our ways with narrative.

From the imagination of the peerless Ali Smith comes a shape-shifting series, wide-ranging in timescale and light-footed through histories, and a story about ageing and time and love and stories themselves.

My thoughts are all over the place for this book – maybe fitting because this is what this book is as well: all over the place. There is undeniable brilliance here: sentences so profound they made me stop in my tracks, word plays so wonderful I had to read them twice, musing on a great number of important things. It comes as no surprise that Ali Smith is a genius. But for some reasons these sparks of brilliance never came together for a coherent whole for me – and I guess this was also the point. There is no proper coherence in life and in art and Ali Smith captures this perfectly.

At the core of this book is the friendship between Elisabeth and her older neighbour Daniel and the profound effect on her life he has – opening to her a world of art and cleverness. This book is also filled with musings on art – especially that by women – and how art is both important and prone to being forgotten.

This relationship somehow did not work for me – I think I would have needed it to be more fleshed out. The wonderful glitzy stylistic framework was not enough for me. Somehow I was lacking an emotional core for this book to really resonate with me. This lack was reinforced by the secondary storyline of Pauline Boty. This could have been so interesting but ultimately fell flat for me. Mostly because I did not have the necessary knowledge to contextualize what Ali Smith was telling me. This feeling of lack of knowledge worked against me multiple times during this book.

I think, ultimately, I might have read the book wrong: I think it would have worked better for me if I had read this in one sitting, allowing myself to be swept up in the stylistic whimsy. This way the book would not have felt disjointed but rather a perfect microscopic view of one single moment in time. This moment being the aftermath of Brexit – which is something that is very close to my heart. I have lived in the UK for 5 years, 4 of those in Scotland and as such I have so many feelings about the UK leaving the EU. Especially because the months leading up to the Referendum were filled with xenophobic and racist discourse and because many people voting for leaving the UK voted for exactly those reasons. I am disappointed in the country I felt so welcome in, a country that is so wonderful and has so much to offer, and I am disappointed that people my age just did not go and vote (how idiotic is that?) and I am sorry for my friends who are still there, both those from the UK and those from abroad. Because this Referendum will change the country and there is no stopping this. (That was a tangent.)

First sentence: “It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times.”

Review: The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead

30555488My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Date read: October 14th, 2017

Published by Fleet, 2016.

Verdict: Gutwrenching, important, not without its flaws.

Find it on Goodreads.

Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hellish for all the slaves but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood—where even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Matters do not go as planned and, though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted.

In Whitehead’s ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor—engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven—but the city’s placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens. Even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.

As Whitehead brilliantly re-creates the unique terrors for black people in the pre-Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is at once a kinetic adventure tale of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share.

It took me forever to read this book – it is brilliant, don’t get me wrong, but so exhausting in the terror it depicts. Colson Whitehead uses a very matter-of-fact way to talk about the horrors of slavery (and there were plenty) that makes what happens somehow all the more horrific. It is mesmerising in its cruelty and devastating it its matter-of-factness about the atrocities of slavery.

In this book, the Underground Railroad is just that: a system of railroads underground that help slaves escape. We follow Cora, a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia, on her escape from it and through many different states, each different from the one before but all somehow horrible. Even in the more progressive states you can feel the hatred and the imagined superiority of the white majority. Everything that happens is painfully believable and all the more horrific for it.

Every second chapters deals with a different character; I enjoyed these interludes a lot, as they read like short stories with all the punch that genre can have while also being part of the greater whole of the novel. The chapter focussing on Cora’s mum broke my heart, even more than it had already been broken. I found this device very effective and brilliantly executed.

This is an important book and one that deserves all the accolades it got, but it is also not without its flaws. Cora is a rather flat character even though she is at the core of this novel. I never got a sense for who she is as a person, but then again, this was probably intentional, rendering this girl’s story universal. The importance isn’t that these things happened to her, but that slavery happened to millions of people, many of which have been forgotten.