“The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.”
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
Piranesi lives in the House. He supposes he always has. Only one other person lives in the House, Piranesi calls him The Other as he has never known anyone else in the house, though he has found evidence of other people in the forms of their skeletons and makes a point of tending the fourteen dead. But one day a stranger comes to the house, and the knowledge she brings will turn Piranesi’s world upside down.
Susanna Clarke writes wickedly clever books. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell was wickedly clever in skewering the style of a 19th century novel, while creating an epic fantasy. Piranesi, by contrast feels far more restrained, a focused, almost academic novel that defies categorisation – part allegory, part travelogue, part personal philosophy.
For me, Piranesi felt a bit like a refraction of Plato’s Cave allegory through the lens of Robinson Crusoe. Instead of watching shadows on the wall, Piranesi sees the statues of the house which represent lost knowledge that have flowed from our real world. In his Crusoe-esque travelogue, he tries to make sense of his world, his lost past repressed by the amnesia inducing powers of the house, believing that he infers the existence of large numbers of people from the existence of the statues, and marvelling that he can makes sense of the idea of a university without the existence of one in his world, The House.
For all it’s relative brevity, Piranesi is one of those books that I could see would stay with you. It leaves you with so many questions, so many things to find an explanation for. What are we intended to take away from Piranesi’s reverence of the house? Are the birds truly augurs, what does the presence of the albatrosses and their chick mean? Is there an environmental/ecological analogy in Piranesi’s rejection of the quest for the Great Knowledge and appreciation of the house itself? While the other sees the house as Piranesi’s prison and a threat, Piranesi sees it as a sanctuary, a protective force; does the inhabitant project their own character onto the house? Is it in that sense a sort of crucible? And who is the skeleton of the little girl with the necklace?
Ana Kelly is in love with Connor Mooney. They met at her legal practice when Connor came in to draw up his will and started an affair. One day, shortly after the couple have argued, Ana receives a phone call from Connor’s wife, Rebecca. Unaware of their affair, Rebecca tells her that her husband has died and she needs to organise the legal affairs relating to his estate. Bereft without the man she loved, and unable to share her grief as a result of the affair, she transfers her obsession to the woman who stood between them.
Here is the Beehive is a short novel written in blank verse, narrated from the perspective of Ana Kelly as she struggles to come to terms with her lover’s death. Crossan makes the most of the narrow focus of her narrator, the story, despite its brevity, becoming increasingly complex as Ana’s focus shifts in increments and we learn more about her own circumstances, and the increasingly complex world of her affair. I did wonder if Connor’s wife was named Rebecca as a nod to the Daphne Du Maurier novel of the same name.
I thought the book was skillfully written, but I struggled to empathise with the main characters, at times feeling incredibly hostile towards them, a testament to the author’s skill but not a recipe for the most relaxing read! In terms of style, despite the blank verse, I’d say it’s a little bit Sally Rooney’s Normal People, twenty years after university and lacking (for me) the emotional hook and goodwill the characters in Normal People engendered.
I had quite a lengthy debate with myself about whether I should buy Robert Galbraith aka JK Rowling’s Troubled Blood. Can you separate an artist from their art, especially in the case of JK Rowling whose art is words, and has written an insidious transphobic article as a dogwhistle to the likeminded as she attempts to justify her overtly transphobic tweets.
Working in publishing, I know that there are a lot more people dependent on the sales of a book than an author. The royalties from book purchases probably make minimal difference to the multimillionaire (some say billionaire) Rowling, but for the editors, designers, typesetters at publishers whose salaries are paid by the sales of such books, a major release tanking in the wake of cancel culture could mean redundancies for people who were not involved, who may have been among the Hachette staff who refused to work on her books because of her totally unacceptable views about transmen and transwomen.
Given the context of this furore around JK Rowling’s controversial statements, it didn’t take long for clickbait headlines seemingly flaunting spoilers to announce that Rowling had doubled down on her transphobic views by writing a “cross dressing villain”, Vanity Fair magazine online going so far as to lead with a headline suggesting that it proved Rowling’s commitment to transphobia.
I realise of course that I’m speaking from a position of cis privilege and am not affected by the issues in the same way as someone who identifies as non-binary or trans, but I don’t think that the novel is transphobic in the way that the numerous clickbait headlines would like to imply. The cross-dressing killer they refer to, Dennis Creed, is a sub plot of the novel, an already incarcerated cis male suspect in a cold case, who rather than being transgender, or even actively cross dressing, is noted to have engaged in fetishist theft of clothing, and has posed as a camp gay man to ensure that he appears unthreatening to his victims, in order to win their trust. The novel seems to anticipate the criticisms of real world readers by providing real world comparisons for serial killers who have behaved in this way when Robin compares Creed to Jerry Brudos. Having said this, the novel did contain sections which betrayed a deep underlying fear of non-traditional gender identities assumptions with a passage that refers to a character being “hoodwinked by a careful performance of femininity” which did make me wince, but all in all, I don’t think that these aspects of the novel would have been unremarked upon had it not been for Rowling’s “series of unfortunate tweets”.
The book in itself was an improvement on Lethal White, but still suffers from Galbraith (or Rowling) being too big to be reined in by her editor. The story itself was well executed, but indulged too many diversions in the name of characterisation which diverted from the plot and added little to the story. Robin’s quest for a new perfume, the dinner party Robin’s flatmate holds for Strike, Ilsa’s miscarriage, and the entire bloody Charlotte Ross subplot would have benefitted from a liberal application of red pen to tighten the novel up.
What really gets me with Rowling’s writing, and I suppose there’s an argument that this is an aspect of most genre fiction, but I think Rowling is particularly guilty of this, is that I find that she devotes an excessive amount of time expanding upon the background and psyche of her favoured main characters (honestly, the word count wasted throughout the novel musing on Robin’s bloody perfume choices…) while writing many of the characters as lazy archetypes- the Bengali doctor, the strong black woman, the bitter spinster, the airheaded mockney receptionist… and that brings me to another of my issues with Rowling’s writing- the insistence upon writing in dialect. I’m sure that this is intended to give colour to her writing, but it seems to me that it implies a level of class judgement, at one point Strike tells a working class character that they do a good middle class accent… what the flip is a middle class accent??? Why does Rowling write a Scots accent, or a cockney accent phonetically, when she writes an RP accent, or Robin’s Yorkshire accent in standard English after describing them as such? It seems to me to come back to this idea of the archetype, the Scottish ex-squaddie is written in some kind of mock Scots to flesh out his archetype, and so is the cockney secretary, whereas the characters who are worthy of her attention are worthy of standard English dialect… Maybe you can get away with it in children’s books, but I think it needs to be better executed in an adult’s book.
My feeling is that the books are becoming too invested in drawing out a relationship between Robin and Strike, and less on solving crimes. As such, I’d say there can only really be one book left in the Strike series, two at most before it becomes a parody of the earlier books in the series.
A lot has been written recently about the way in which serial killers are treated like macabre geniuses, while the victims of their crimes are forgotten.
The most famous of these is undoubtedly Jack the Ripper, who having evaded capture has become something of a modern myth, and the Jack the Ripper folklore has spawned a micro-economy which trades on the death of his victims for profit; tours of the Whitechapel scenes of the murders, numerous films and television adaptations, even souvenirs with t-shirts and mugs displaying his victims corpses as if they were artworks created by a master craftsmen, not women who lived and breathed.
In The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper, Hallie Rubenhold seeks to go some way towards reclaiming the names of his victims, exploring their histories to restore their identities and humanity. It makes it clear that it doesn’t matter who Jack the Ripper was now, what matters were the complex and varied lives that he snatched. One by one she goes explores the lives of the canonical five victims; Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly, from their births to their deaths, revealing far more complex lives than any film or documentary purporting to explore the history of Jack the Ripper has ever revealed.
Rubenhold’s The Five is as fascinating as it is heart-breaking, showing the various factors that brought the women to be living such precarious existences in Whitechapel, and reminding the reader just how precarious life could be in the Victorian era, where an extra mouth to feed could tip a family into poverty, or the loss of a male relative could leave a family of women incredibly vulnerable. Where if you were born into poverty, you had little to no hope of escaping, and even if you were born into the middle classes, one mistake or one small upset would be enough to derail your life.
The Five not only returns a sense of the victims as real people but gives a clear picture of what life was like for women and the poor in the era. I found it a really moving read, and although I enjoy a crime novel as much as anyone else, thought it was an important counter voice to the sensationalism of violence against women for entertainment.
I, like most people, read books partly for the escapism they provide. You suspend your disbelief, and enter the world of the book, outside concerns irrelevant for as long as you can focus.
I’ll be honest, when I bought The Flat Shareby Beth O’Leary, I was expecting to have some problems suspending my disbelief. I know that these arrangements – where two unrelated parties end up sharing a bed, sleeping shifts, because life is so bloody unaffordable – exist, but getting my head around how that would work (how is that working, for so many people post-covid??) in lockdown, I didn’t think I’d be able to go with the flow. But I could, and I did, and I found myself genuinely smiling with enjoyment as I read.
The plot of The Flat Share is pure chick lit, and I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense. The author knows what her readers want – a love story in which you know that the characters will get together, but it’s more about the journey than the destination, and wow, what a journey.
Tiffy has broken up with her boyfriend Justin, who she is very much in love with, but she only realises that this isn’t one of their temporary splits when he brings another woman home. Nice. Being an associate editor at a craft publisher (hello less than London living wage publishers, we see you) she can’t afford anywhere to rent on her own, so is forced into taking a flat share with a palliative care nurse who works nights and spends his weekends at his girlfriend’s place. Leon, said palliative care nurse, needs the extra money because his brother has been sentenced to eight years in prison for armed robbery, a robbery that Leon believes that he didn’t commit, though his girlfriend Kay is less than convinced. She is taking care of the subletting of the flat share so that he and Tiffy never meet. Instead, they communicate through post-it notes, and it isn’t too long until a written friendship springs up between the flatmates….
Looping back to the issue of chick lit being considered a derogatory term, I guess I am using it here as a reference to women’s issues fiction, though I acknowledge that’s very reductive too. This novel, while hugely entertaining is more than a romance, and tackles some pretty serious issues, like emotional abuse, wrongful conviction based on racial profiling, and post-traumatic stress disorder. On the surface it’s less will they, won’t they, more when will they, how will they, marriage plot stuff, but as a novel it has heart and depth, and I thought it was well done.
It would make a fun sitcom/drama, and in the hope that they will adapt it for the big screen, you could have hours of fun fantasy casting The Flat Share.
I will be checking with friends and family as to whether they’ve read it and, if not, will be gifting this as the escapist read lots of us need in 2020.
But if Chick Lit isn’t your genre, I challenge you to write the dark psychological thriller that this book could undoubtedly have been if more sinister characters and lockdown had been thrown into the plot. There’s a writing prompt for you.
People are fundamentally good. It’s a difficult idea to sell at the best of times, let alone in the middle of a global pandemic with the planet teetering on the brink of climate crisis. All the evidence suggests the contrary doesn’t? Humans are the possessors of the selfish gene, acting only out of self-interest, aren’t they? You don’t have to look far to find multiple examples of people being awful. Five minutes on Twitter should do the trick.
Despite this, Rutger Bregman, author of Utopia for Realists, has published a book arguing the contrary, claiming in Human Kind: A Hopeful History that not only are humans fundamentally good, but that our success as a species is a result of our willingness to trust one another and work together to achieve the common good.
Has this description given you an overwhelming attack of Whataboutism yet? Hang back on that, because Bregman has done his research, and the book is a whistlestop tour of history, psychology and philosophy examining cases such as the London Blitz, the Stanford Prisoner Experiment, and the mysterious fate of Easter Island to debunk the myth of man as a purely selfish creature and to reframe them as case studies in his new philosophy of hope. As much as I’d like to believe that all people are fundamentally good at heart, I’m not entirely sold on this, but I don’t think that Bregman is either. Rather, he makes a powerful argument that the relentless negativity of the news that reaches us every day gives us a skewed perception of how bad the majority of humanity are, and this has the opposite of a placebo effect, making us feel worse and expect the worst of out fellow humans, trapping us in a cycle of negativity and cynicism which will make us behave in the spirit of mistrust.
To Bregman, cynicism is just another word for laziness, and a cynical world view is just a self-deceptive trick which gives the cynic an excuse to opt out of working to make the world a better place, and the book is compelling in challenging our cynicism about the average person’s intentions.
It ends with ten rules to live by to readdress the balance and go someway to thinking the best of others to create a positive feedback loop, in which people connect, understand and treat one another better. And maybe it will. What’s to lose in trying?
“Zachary takes out the book. He turns it over in his hands and then puts it down on his desk. It doesn’t look like anything special, like it contains and entire world, though the same could be said of any book.”
The Starless Sea, Erin Morgenstern
There’s nothing hugely new about a novel in which a boy finds a book and it leads to a world of adventure. A story in which a boy finds a book which leads to an unknown enemy hunting them to retrieve the book isn’t hugely new either, Carlos Ruiz Zafon did this with The Shadow of the Wind. But believe me when I say The Starless Sea is far from basic. It’s so extra it’s meta.
A moibus strip of stories, The Starless Sea reads like a love letter to storytelling, video games and fan culture. An adventurous storytelling adventure which spans from myth to modern day and back again, watching entire empires rise and fall in the liminal spaces occupied by our book hangovers. This is the heartsong of the readers.
“A boy at the beginning of a story has no way of knowing that the story has begun.”
It’s rare that I want to start a book straight away after finishing but I could so easily have done that with The Starless Sea, and I would have enjoyed it just as much, appreciating how the puzzle fits together, catching the references that I glossed over chasing the plot, becoming an acolyte to Morgestern’s storytelling.
There must be a more elegant word than book hangover (and my guess would be it exists in German or Japanese because they have the best words for these intangible concepts) to describe the feeling of a book that stays with you, that you want to revisit from scratch and occupy all over again. What Erin Morgenstern has done in this novel is effectively distill that essence and used it to paint a cast of characters who are both slaves to the story and causes of book hangovers in their own right.
Given the book’s fondness for cocktails, I’d love to try a starless sea if anyone mixes one up. Otherwise, I’ll take the bees knees.
Spoilers for The Starless Sea Below
“And there are always those who would watch Alexandria burn.
There always have been. There always will be.”
Yeah, okay, she’s technically the villain of the piece but you can’t really blame Allegra for wanting to protect the harbour and the starless sea can you? She chose the wrong path but I bet many a booklover would have done.
Who else thought Mirabel had gone rogue there? I have to admit that I did and the ice sculpture briefly seemed apt. As an act of penance, I’m going to have to dye my hair pink and dress like Max from Where the Wild Things Are. It’s happening and I’m not sure I can wait until World Book Day.
Eleanor and Simon do find each other at the end! That’s nice, the poor kids had a rough deal. Loose ends have to be tied up but the book doesn’t labour the point and I like that.
But who killed the Owl King this time? Or did he not have to die this time? Was that not the point of the sword after all?
I love Madam Love Rawlins, love, trust and acceptance. Those are mothering goals.
How horrific is the idea of drowning in honey? What kind of mind comes up with that?! It reminded me of one of the Plantagenets asking to be executed by drowning in a barrel of wine. It probably sounded like a good way to go until he actually had to go through with it.
I need a Kat Hawkins in my life and on my WhatsApp. But not as much as I need a kitchen.
What are the cats about?
Is anyone else tempted to make the room with the dolls house and the paper world? It can’t just be me.
Again, I love you Kitchen.
This is morbid perhaps, but I loved the idea of people being mummified shrouded in the stories of who they were. It was a really poignant moment for me.
The bees say that “she” always sends them a key to end the story. And Zachary is the key this time. Is she the Sculptor? How many stories have there been? Is this story, and this puzzle, just one of many? But if the sculptor is a godlike figure telling the story of Zachary, Mirabel, Dorian, The Keeper… what universe is she existing in? And who did she begin sculpting the stories out of raindrops for.
Come to that, how does time work? Who wrote the story of Zachary finding the door down in a book that was published before Mirabel was born so that Eleanor was able to read it?
Is Kat now the sculptor of a new story? She’s the world builder of the piece with avant garde theatre and virtual reality fusions. Is she there to build the new harbour? I get the feeling there will always be a new harbour, the egg cracks and a new story emerges.
Have you read it? I’m desperate to hear what other people think of it all.
Reading Stag’s Leap is an uncomfortable sensation. At times, you feel like you are reading a stranger’s diary, section by section chronicling the breakdown of their marriage and aftermath of their divorce. Minutely observing the aftermath winter, spring, summer, fall… years later. Should you be reading it? This raw heartache?
At times, it’s more than that even. As you come to see slivers of yourself in the minutiae of the poet’s remembrances, there’s a gut punch as you recognise aspects of your own life and relationship and for a moment, despite the specificity, you forget that you are reading about Sharon Old’s heartbreak and begin to own it yourself. You are forced into something somewhere beyond empathy. The hidden chocolate bars of Discandied, the hidden tensions of Attempted Banquet create a hysteric feeling that something might be hiding in your own life, that a relationship so well-observed, so scrutinized by a seer poet, could hide a secret that drives two people apart after a life together.
Stag’s Leapis brilliant, of course, but oh so brave. To expose, surely, your utmost vulnerabilities – at times angry, at times disbelieving- to pin down your heartbreak so clinically, like a butterfly collector, and display those emotions and thoughts for all the world to marvel at.
The whole collection is a must read, but the poems that called out to me were Tiny Siren, for the cinematic melodrama of the moment described; To Our Miscarried One Age 30 Now, for the obvious overidentification that poem provoked; and finally The Healers. There’s a line at the end of The Healers that suggests that the poet’s husband had been uncomfortable with her career, “he did not feel happy when words/ were called for, and I stood”. It would be wrong to judge a relationship or a person based on a sequence of poems, but it did make me wonder what Sharon Old’s ex-husband must have thought of becoming the inspiration and subject of a T.S. Eliot Prize and Pulitzer Prize winning collection of poetry given the implication of The Healers.
Did anyone else see that viral video of Rutger Bregman at the 2019 Davos World Economic Forum meeting? I expect that I’m not the only person who wanted to high-five him after he told a few billionaires that they needed to pay their taxes and quite their bullshit philanthropy schemes. It didn’t go down well apparently…
The Davos elite may not have liked it, but the viral video has made Bregman this week’s folk hero and has raised the public profile of Bregman, who was already a rising star in academia. On the back of the Davos video, and articles I later read, I bought Rutger Bregman’s book Utopia for Realists: And How We Can Get There to see what else he had to say about the state of the world.
If, like me, you find yourself in a constant state of anxiety about the state of the world, Utopia for Realists is in some ways very reassuring. It highlights that (as long as you don’t think about rapidly impending climate catastrophe) the world is better for humans than it’s ever been before. In the West at least, we are effectively living in what your average Medieval peasant would have considered to be a utopia. But, Bregman argues, our progress has stagnated and we need to return to utopian thinking to consider the betterment of all of mankind, with the best minds applying their minds to the problem of how to make life better for all in an increasingly unequal society. He quotes Bertrand Russell saying,
“It is not a finished Utopia that we ought to desire, but a world where imagination and hope are alive and active.”
For Bregman, we’re lacking a mighty dose of imagination, funneling our best minds into sectors like finance where they move money around, contributing very little to the betterment of society in pursuit of growing the GDP- a useful measurement of a nation’s power at wartime, but a poor barometer of social welfare. Social dysfunction improves under GDP, but for Bregman it’s no great coincidence that the US which has the highest GDP has the highest number of social problems. The things that we would see as social progress, such as cheaper life improving technology, causes the GDP to shrink. Nurses, teachers and social workers who actively contribute to the improvement of society don’t rate highly in terms of GDP. The yardstick our politicians use to measure a country’s wellbeing and progress is not fit for purpose.
In Utopia for Realists, Bregman sets out his vision for how we might come closer to a more equal society which would be more like a utopia for everyone: a universal basic income, shorter working week and, radically, open borders. His academic argument for this is strong, but I’d argue that he makes a strong moral argument as well. When the mortality rate for Somalian toddlers is higher than that of frontline US soldiers in the American Civil War, Second World War or the Vietnam War then there’s something seriously wrong with the world and it’s time that lots was done to fix this on a global scale.
This is one of those books that I’m going to insist that everyone should read, and I don’t do that often with non-fiction, so add it to your TBR pile now.
Utopia for Realists and How We Can Get There by Rutger Bregman
There was a time when four books in a month wouldn’t have seemed like very much, but these days I’m happy if I manage to read and review a book a week. With age comes realism I guess, on which, I’ve yet to write a review of Utopia for Realists, but I thought it was brilliant and will link a review here when I get a chance.