The Bridal Wreath & The Wife, by Sigrid Undset (1920, 1921) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 9.22.2019, 11.21.2019
Book from: Library

This is a review of the first two books in the Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy: The Bridal Wreath and The Wife. I read the recent translations from the Norwegian by Tiina Nunnally, after giving up on the original translations by Charles Archer and J. S. Scott, which are self-consciously archaic and expurgated significant passages.

In early 1300s Norway, Kristin Lavransdatter is the eldest daughter of a charismatic, gentle, and adoring father, and a distant, melancholy mother. In The Bridal Wreath, Kristin grows from a quiet child into a quietly fiery – and occasionally cruel – young woman, and thwarts her parents’ plans for her future by flinging herself into a romance with the passionate but disastrously irresponsible nobleman Erlend Nikulausson. In The Wife, Kristin struggles to live with the guilt of the sins that she and Erlend committed in the course of clinging to their relationship, while now striving to lead her new household – where she is initially regarded with derision – with grace and strength. Her fervent embrace of Christianity serves sometimes as a comfort, and sometimes as one of several wedges between her and Erlend. Meanwhile, foolhardy Erlend is drawn further and further into the turbulent politics surrounding the fate of the Norwegian throne at the time, with eventually ruinous consequences for their family’s fortunes.

The way I keep on describing these books (which won the 1928 Nobel Prize) to people is a medieval Scandinavian version of Anna Karenina. They concern themselves with a span of decades in the lives of aristocrats in a severe land, but viewed through incredibly intimate, often stream-of-consciousness renditions of women’s experience in particular. The conflict between personal passion and social responsibility, the torment of guilt, the struggle to understand what it is to live a Christian life, hypocrisy, infidelity, the temptation of cruelty, and the closeness of mortality all weigh heavily on the characters. This all plays out against a medieval setting that is rendered so vividly and naturalistically that it seems as if Undset is reporting directly from that century. (It made a lot more sense to me when I read that Undset’s father was an archaeologist and her mother his secretary/illustrator: she grew up immersed in history.)

How to describe the effect of these books – what is so piercingly compelling about them? The experience of Undset’s cool, fluid, and methodical prose – especially with Nunnally’s exactingly clean translation – is immersive, hypnotic, yet, frankly, at times boring. Even though I love nature writing, for example, I was frequently bored during the first quarter or so of The Bridal Wreath, when Kristin is a child, no obvious narrative stakes have been established, and there are lengthy descriptions of their days amid the fields, mountains, seasonal turns, etc.

But as soon as any emotional stakes have been raised – I can’t think of many authors who can equal the way that Undset writes emotional pain and difficult love. Her distinct coolness is an asset: she has this devastating way of leading you directly into a character’s emotional crisis, and then departing just as the scene barely begins to round off, so that the aftermath must simply be imagined. Or, she mentions devastating revelations about previously beloved characters in a mere one or two sentences, slipping by in the relentless onward march of time. (It “helps” that Undset makes no bones about the closeness of death in medieval times: characters die with great frequency, whether through illness, accident, or violence.)

There are so many moments in the books of purely emotional experience that I feel I’ll never forget – the incredibly cold ending of The Bridal Wreath, or the several heart-rending scenes of devotion between Kristin’s aging parents in The Wife, or Kristin’s pained reflections on how little she understood the depths of her parents’ lives, or their love for her.

Again, I’ll be honest that I questioned several times (out of boredom, overwhelming melancholy, or both) whether I really wanted to finish the series. But Undset’s sort of gentle severity is so uniquely compelling and transportative; again and again, I concluded that I had to see it through, and follow her characters to their ends. I’ll be reading the final volume of the trilogy, The Cross, over the next month or two.

Go to:
Laid Waste, by Julia Gfrörer (2016): review by Emera

‘Salem’s Lot, by Stephen King (1975) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 12.7.2019
Book from: Library

‘Salem’s Lot was originally published in 1975. I read the 2005 special edition, which includes the prequel story “Jerusalem’s Lot,” the sequel story “One for the Road,” and deleted scenes.

Jerusalem’s Lot is a small, blue-collar town in Maine, rife with gossip and the petty drama of adultery, alcoholism, greed, and thwarted desires. Widowed young writer Ben Mears returns to the town – briefly his childhood home – to work on a new book triggered by a disturbing childhood memory. As October begins, children begin dying and disappearing, and Ben and a small circle of allies must confront the encroachment of a latter-day Dracula who preys on the residents of ‘Salem’s Lot with increasingly terrifying speed and cruelty.

I pegged ‘Salem’s Lot as my Halloween read this year, but felt sadly lukewarm about the whole thing. The Shining remains the scariest reading experience I can remember, so how could I go wrong with Stephen King + New England vampires?! In short, this is at best highly competent, tends to be hammy rather than spectacular, and lacks compelling characters. (It is impressive considering that King was 23 when he wrote it, though, and I do adore that his ambition was to craft the “Moby Dick of vampire novels.”)

King spends the first third of the book building up the ensemble small-town cast, but the tone is so heavy-handedly, even campily satirical that few of the side characters inspire more than mild amusement or wistfulness. (I admit I was a sucker for the melancholy of the late-in-life almost-romance between boardinghouse-keeper Eva Miller and town drunk Weasel Craig.) The heroic characters, meanwhile, are drawn with a kind of strained virtuousness that comes off as either bland (Ben) or, again, hammy (especially the precociously serious 10-year-old Mark, bleh). The action in the second half is intense and well-paced, but I still felt like I was just following along and waiting to see how things resolved themselves.

A big part of the issue is that I don’t find vampires frightening anymore – though some of the most fun moments of the book are when evil Count Barlow goes off on florid megalomaniacal monologues. (These are more engaging by far than the various ponderous speeches made about the nature of evil, all of which are written in the same voice – for bonus tedium – despite being delivered by different protagonists.) The last chapter is also grimly satisfying, harnessing as it does the hard-bitten mystique of the veteran vampire hunter.

One final point in the book’s favor, as a detailed portrait of small-town darkness: the parallels now to the opiate crisis are chilling.

Predictably, though, I was much more into the Lovecraftian prequel story “Jerusalem’s Lot,” set near the Lot in 1850. Rats in the mansion walls, a profaned church, and an accursed tome If you’re gonna be campy, just give me the Gothic, please.

Worst line in the novel: “He saw that his hands were glowing, as if wreathed in ghost gloves.”

A favorite line from the novel: “Tourists and through-travelers still passed by on Route 12, seeing nothing of the Lot but an Elks billboard and a thirty-five mile-an-hour speed sign. Outside of town they went back up to sixty and perhaps dismissed it with a single thought: Christ, what a dead little place.

Related reading:
Dracula: A Symphony in Moonlight & Nightmares, by Jon J. Muth (1993) – review by Emera
100 Vicious Little Vampire Stories, ed. Robert Weinberg (1995): review by Emera
Vampire Stories by Women: Venus, Outfangthief, So Runs the World… : review by Emera

 


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Tempests & Slaughter, by Tamora Pierce (2018) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 12.24.2018
Book from: Personal collection

Kakaner & I still make the occasional foray back into YA fantasy; last year we achieved the particular landmark of her first introduction to the worlds of Tamora Pierce, author of much-beloved if not critically acclaimed YA fantasy. Pierce’s numerous four-book series, populated with tough heroines and colorful magic, were a staple in both my and my brother’s childhoods. Even at the time I knew this wasn’t great writing, but oh, was it great reading.

Tempests & Slaughter is a prequel to my favorite of her series, The Immortals Quartet. In it, we get to witness the childhood of one of the most powerful “present-day” characters in the land of Tortall: the mage Numair Salmalín, né Arram Draper. The novel follows Arram’s schooling at the University of Carthak as an uncommonly powerful boy mage of 11 to 14.

I love magical apprenticeship narratives, but despite its title (which Pierce admits she generated with every expectation of her editor rejecting it), Tempests & Slaughter is mainly boring in a soothing way. It’s hard not to take away the impression that there’s little plot other than “and then Arram grew older and took different, harder classes and boy did he like learning because he sure liked learning, and being the learning of things, and look how all nice almost all of his masters are.” However, Pierce does work to build the impression of conspiracy manipulating the line of succession to the Carthaki throne, as well as exploring Arram’s discomfort with the Carthaki institution of slavery; both of these threads introduce more darkness and tension.

Continue reading Tempests & Slaughter, by Tamora Pierce (2018) E

His Majesty’s Dragon, by Naomi Novik (2006) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: May 27, 2018
Book from: Personal collection

Capt. Will Laurence is serving with honor in the British Navy when his ship captures a French frigate harboring most a unusual cargo–an incalculably valuable dragon egg. When the egg hatches, Laurence unexpectedly becomes the master of the young dragon Temeraire and finds himself on an extraordinary journey that will shatter his orderly, respectable life and alter the course of his nation’s history.

Thrust into England’s Aerial Corps, Laurence and Temeraire undergo rigorous training while staving off French forces intent on breaching British soil. But the pair has more than France to contend with when China learns that an imperial dragon intended for Napoleon–Temeraire himself– has fallen into British hands. The emperor summons the new pilot and his dragon to the Far East, a long voyage fraught with peril and intrigue. From England’s shores to China’s palaces, from the Silk Road’s outer limits to the embattled borders of Prussia and Poland, Laurence and Temeraire must defend their partnership and their country from powerful adversaries around the globe. But can they succeed against the massed forces of Bonaparte’s implacable army?

I’d been meaning to read Naomi Novik’s Napoleonic dragon (!) series since it came out, couldn’t believe it took me so long, and felt more than well rewarded for finally breaking into the series, especially as a summer read. (Though I admit my interest slowly tapered while reading the second volume, a few weeks after this one.) His Majesty’s Dragon is an utterly delightful read, and one I expect to revisit many times. The methodical, economical precision of the historical detail and characterization is both engrossing and comforting, especially as punctuated by occasional leaps of quiet wit or irreverence. And the “stranger in a strange land” narrative, with staunch, conservative, thoroughly honorable Capt. Lawrence being thrust into the rough company of dragon aviators, is just so well executed. Lawrence is my favorite part of the series: I love his acuity, his brusque yet cultivated style of masculinity, his carefulness of observation, and his unbending sense of duty toward his country and fellow military men and women. On a personal level, I honestly aspire to be as capable and honorable as him; on a craft level, I loved the narrative execution of his uncomfortable yet determined entry into the world of the dragon aviators, and all of their upturnings of British class and gender conventions.

Surprisingly, Temeraire, Lawrence’s unlooked-for dragon, is a bit too charmingly idealized for my taste; I felt my interest played upon in a rather automatic way whenever the book detailed how endlessly graceful, intelligent, ingenious, etc. he is. Yes, his youthful impetuousness is intended to offset his many virtues, but he’s still too perfect to be really interesting. It’s far more amusing and engaging, for example, to watch Lawrence reach the limits of his own intelligence and have throw up his hands in bafflement at having to “parent” a hyperintelligent dragon. (And, more broadly, to watch Lawrence unconsciously adjusting the boundaries of his masculinity to accommodate the deeply solicitous, tender relationship he has with Temeraire.)

Regardless – highly recommended if you love fantasy that’s deeply grounded in a convincing sense of practical reality, if you love alternate history or historical fantasy that plays on gender and class tensions, or if you’ve ever wondered just how the Battle of Trafalgar would have worked out if the European powers had aerial dragon corps.

Related reading:
Sorcery and Cecelia, by Patricia C. Wrede & Caroline Stevermer (1988): review by Emera
Dealing With Dragons, by Patricia C. Wrede (1990): review by Emera
Flight of the Dragon Kyn, by Susan Fletcher (1993): review by Emera

Agents of Dreamland, by Caitlín R. Kiernan (2017) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 4.21.2018 (reread)
Book from: Personal collection (you can read an excerpt online at Tor.com)

The word for this Lovecraftian novella is not exactly luscious, but somehow that’s always what comes to mind when I think about it. Kiernan just does something exceptional with style and tone here: the prose is implacably menacing, cuttingly witty, and both those tones run together with a free-floating, sinuous, sometimes psychedelically inflected quality that is what I want to call luscious. This is also the work that made me realize that while I tend to think of Kiernan as a Gothic writer, she’s also tremendous at noir.

Here’s the scene: It’s Thursday evening, and the Signalman sits smoking and nursing a flat Diet Dr Pepper, allowing himself to breathe a stingy sigh of relief as twilight finally, mercifully comes crashing down on the desert. The heavens above West Second Street are blazing like it’s 1945 all over again and the Manhattan Project has mistakenly triggered the Trinity blast one state over from the White Sands Proving Ground. Or, he thinks, like this is the moment fifty thousand years ago when a huge nickel-iron meteorite vaporized herds of mastodons, horses, and giant ground sloths just sixteen miles southwest of this shitty little diner and its cracked Naugahyde seats and flyblown windows. Either simile works just fine by the Signalman; either way, the sky’s falling. Either way is entirely apropos. He checks his wristwatch again, sees that it’s been only seven minutes since the last time, then goes back to staring out the plate glass as shadows and fire vie for control of the dingy, sunbaked soul of Winslow, Arizona. His unkind face stares at him from the glass, easily ten years older than the date on his birth certificate. He curses, stubs out his cigarette, and lights another.

That’s the first paragraph; it makes me want to read the whole thing all over again. The sense of place throughout Agents of Dreamland is extraordinary: a smoked-out, hard-baked, rusty-blood-stained West, even featuring the Salton Sea, which I’ve been fascinated by for a while. (Inland seas = automatically uncanny?) There’s also a lot of Lovecraftian and UFO-theory allusion that I think pulls together into a compellingly sticky web (this universe of UFO-intercepting spooks feels real, and worn), even if one happens to be foggy on the particular referents. Namely, I had no idea that Dreamland and Paradise Ranch were nicknames for Area 51, and I had forgotten that Lovecraft’s Mi-Go were fungoid in nature – a feature that makes logical the nature of the extraterrestrial pathogen with which the Signalman comes face-to-face.

Darkly lovely also are the jangly, free-associating chapters from the point of view of the wonderfully/sadly named Chloe Stringfellow, a heroin addict turned Lovecraftian cult victim. (If some of her cult leader’s apocalyptic babble sounds a bit silly, callow, I think that that makes sense, in the same way that, say, Beat Poets sound silly once one starts to feel external to the experience of disillusioned adolescence.) I especially appreciated Kiernan’s evocation of Chloe’s longing for belonging – simultaneously diffuse and fire-hot – because right after my first read of Agents of Dreamland, I read John Darnielle‘s Universal Harvester (one of my top three reads of 2017), in which a ragtag Western cult also ends up playing a major role – but we never get to see it from the inside. I always find it strangely moving when accidental echoes run between books I’m reading.

Oddly, even though the future that Agents of Dreamland looks forward to is Grim with a capital G, the novella leaves me in a dreamy, appreciative mood, and one that approaches humorous. There’s a sense that our fates are ruled by a cosmic wink-and-shrug, that we’ve come near to disaster a hundred-hundred times, but chance (or human nature, in Chloe’s case) conspires to deflect us away at the last moment. The Signalman sets the tone here: he tempers fear and resignation with a very hard-bitten humanism, and with a sardonicism that feels beautifully human in direct proportion to the magnitude of horror that he faces.

Related reading:

“Houses Under the Sea,” by Caitlín R. Kiernan (2003)

Alabaster, by Caitlín R. Kiernan (2006)

The Red Tree, by Caitlín R. Kiernan (2009)

The Drowning Girl, by Caitlín R. Kiernan (2012)

 


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An Obedient Father, by Akhil Sharma (2017) K

Reviewer: Kakaner

Date read: 12.31.2017

Book from: Bookstore browse session

An Obedient Father is a harrowing story of a rather run-of-the-mill moneyman Ram, a middle rung manager within a governmental structure, corrupt and unambitious, who repeatedly molested and raped his daughter when she was pre-pubescent, and now finds circumstances forcing her and his granddaughter to live with him again.

Generally, I thought this was a rather successful first novel– the premise and backstory felt kind of contrived and heavy-handed but the emotional exploration was well done. However, I hesitate to ever label any story of sexual wrongdoing as heavy-handed or unrealistic because I only have reason to believe that fiction has happened many times over, and reality is worse than fiction. I feel it is my duty to consider these kinds of stories seriously.

I was immediately overcome with the horror of seeing the emotional journey of a family ripped apart by this kind of tragedy from the perpetrator’s perspective. Ram is very much simply a product of his culture and context, and I think one takeaway from the novel is that it’s very hard to engineer and live by your own moral compass when there is no external impetus for doing so. Of course, a lot of this lack of impetus is entrenched in the darker aspects of Indian culture and the patriarchy. I was struck by the helplessness of both sides of the act– the daughter Anita and the father Ram, but especially how weak Ram was, fixating on his inability to control himself despite hating himself for what he was doing. Sharma manages to immediately elicit sympathy for Ram without ever being apologetic for him, a tricky act to pull off. The whole journey was just this incredibly strange crumbling and dismantling of the health of a family while the distributions of love, privilege, progressiveness, greed, and justice shifted within the family. Finally, it’s a painful, cautionary highlighting of the belief that no one is going to look out for you, that stigma and society can be thicker than blood.

The Young Bride, by Alessandro Baricco (2016) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 7.23.2017
Book from: Personal collection

A scintillating and sensual novel about a young woman’s ingress into a fantastically strange family.

The hand of the young woman in question has been promised to the scion of a noble family. She is to make her preparations for marriage at the family’s villa, whose inhabitants have a fear of the night, books, sadness, and anything that smacks of disorder. There the unnamed young bride will be initiated into the art of seduction and will learn, one by one, each of the family secrets.

In this erotically charged and magical novel, Alessandro Baricco portrays a cast of mysterious characters who exist outside of the rules of causation as he tells a story, an adult fable, about fate, sex, family, love and the difficult job of being together.

This short novel is exquisite but arguably vacuous, depending on your tolerance/appetite for flighty, languid aristocratic types afflicted by mysterious ailments of the heart. Said type, plus dreamy surrealism, plus etc. is normally so much my thiiiing in fiction that Kakaner laughed at me, deservedly, when I picked this up at the bookstore and showed her the cover-flap copy. If you like Anaïs Nin, if you like Rikki Ducornet, this book has a seaside villa near their work. Also, actually, Wes Anderson, in the dwelling on rich people’s [over]subtle troubles and the interest in simultaneously lavish and fussy ritual.

But gawd, this book tried even my patience for featherily virtuosic writing and languorous sorrows. The glowy feeling of mystery is appealing – including that drifting obscuringly around the novel’s metafictional narrator, a nameless writer who is diverting him/herself with the work of writing this novel, while ruminating on the aftermath of some kind of immense (we’re told) sorrow and being snippy at a psychoanalyst. The Young Bride – plucky, down on her luck, a quiet survivor – is a likable-by-default protagonist, sharp and genuine enough to provide ballast for the rest of the cast, about whom one must ask repeatedly, “Are any of your problems even real?”

What ultimately tipped me over from mild skepticism into outright objection was the baffling pose that the book adopts towards women and prostitution. I tried for a while not to judge it purely along that axis, in the hopes that Baricco was going to do something more nuanced with it, but in the end I did find just stupid and piggish his narrative device of delivering nearly all of his female characters into prostitution (or discovering them there to begin with) as a sort of ultimate formative experience. Excuse me, but fuck that.

I would read this again just for the luxuriant sensations of the prose, and for the writing about writing, but the narrative content is a big ??? for me.

On the plus side, here’s my favorite passage from the narrator-writer:

I’ve noticed that, more than in the past, I like letting [my book] glide off the main road, roll down unexpected slopes. Naturally I never lose sight of it, but, whereas working on other stories I prohibited any evasion of this type, because my intention was to construct perfect clocks, and the closer I could get them to an absolute purity the more satisfied I was, now I like to let what I write sag in the current, with an apparent effect of drifting that the Doctor, in his wise ignorance, wouldn’t hesitate to connect to the uncontrolled collapse of my personal life, by means of a deduction whose boundless stupidity would be painful for me to listen to. I could never explain to him that it’s an exquisitely technical matter, or at most aesthetic… It’s a question of mastering a movement similar to that of the tides: if you know them well you can happily let the boat run aground and go barefoot along the beach picking up mollusks or otherwise invisible creatures. You just have to know enough not to be surprised by the return of the tide, to get back on board and simply let the sea gently raise the keel, carrying it out to sea again. With the same ease, I, having lingered collecting all those verses of Baretti’s and other mollusks of that type, feel the return, for example, of an old man and a girl, and I see them become an old man standing stiffly in front of a row of herbs, with a young Bride facing him, while she tries to understand what is so grave about simply knocking on the Mother’s door. I distinctly feel the water raising the keel of my book and I see everything setting sail again in the voice of the old man, who says…

– E

Beauty is a Wound, by Eka Kurniawan (2017) K

Reviewer: Kakaner

Date read: 1.26.2017

Book from: Personal collection, recommended by Marbiru (thanks!)

Weaving back in forth in time, moving from character to character, the author tells the story of Indonesia from its Dutch colonial days, through the Japanese occupation during World War II, and into independence as a modern state. Kurniawan’s characters are broadly drawn, but they aren’t one-dimensional. Dewi Ayu, the most sought-after prostitute in the seaside city of Halimunda, is a shrewd, fearless, and resourceful woman but an ambivalent mother. Her lover, Maman Gendeng, is a romantic thug. The soldier Sodancho is both an illustrious revolutionary and a self-serving racketeer; he’s also a rapist. 

Reading this novel was like eating ice cream, or cake, or your favorite food, and just shoveling every bite in before you finished chewing (much less swallowing) your last bite. Every sentence, every paragraph, every story swelled and crescendoed and flowered and blossomed it seemed until impossible infinity. Just a rich luscious reading experience overall.

Maybe it’s obvious from the title and blurb, but the motifs are women drawing power from their physical beauty and wiles and men drawing power from brute force and violence. The novel is composed of intertwining stories featuring a constant interplay of beauty vs strength, one force always trying to subdue the other and the actors being driven mad trying to achieve dominance. It’s a cautionary and desperate tale of the futility of drawing upon beauty for true strength, especially if for ill-intentioned ends, and that the lust for and reliance on beauty ultimately devastates. At the same time, so many of the characters are unable to comprehend why anyone would love an ugly being, and that confusion and cognitive dissonance becomes a fixation towards the end. Even though this sounds heavy handedly black and white, it works because it is commentary that is delivered in this unabashedly absurd and dreamlike way.

Swing Time, by Zadie Smith (2016) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 6.16.2017
Book from: Personal collection

Two brown girls dream of being dancers—but only one, Tracey, has talent. The other has ideas: about rhythm and time, about black bodies and black music, what constitutes a tribe, or makes a person truly free. It’s a close but complicated childhood friendship that ends abruptly in their early twenties, never to be revisited, but never quite forgotten, either.

Tracey makes it to the chorus line but struggles with adult life, while her friend leaves the old neighborhood behind, traveling the world as an assistant to a famous singer, Aimee, observing close up how the one percent live.

But when Aimee develops grand philanthropic ambitions, the story moves from London to West Africa, where diaspora tourists travel back in time to find their roots, young men risk their lives to escape into a different future, the women dance just like Tracey—the same twists, the same shakes—and the origins of a profound inequality are not a matter of distant history, but a present dance to the music of time.

Swing Time is a dense, simmering novel of ideas, with markedly artful prose: flowing, full of rhythmic momentum, and patterned after the book’s title, swinging smoothly and slyly back and forth in time. The narrator uses these swerves in time in order to conceal or displace acute moments of shame or pain; Smith uses them in order to more thickly layer themes and symmetries. I found the rhythmic flow intoxicating, and it was the main reason I finished the book at all since, two chapters in, I was otherwise so turned off that I considered quitting.

I had two difficulties with the novel. First, the narrator’s voice has a bitter, narrow chippiness to it. Though I’m often keen on unsympathetic protagonists, I object to that particular flavor of bitchiness. This narrator is pretty virtuosically passive-aggressive, a defining flaw that’s pathetic at best.

Second, reading Swing Time made me realize that I find it hard to enjoy narratives about female rivalry. It’s been such a blessedly absent force in my life that I felt acutely uncomfortable, even impatient, being asked to dwell on it at length: “IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE THIS WAY” (This realization resulted in me revising my plans to read the Neapolitan Trilogy.)

Still, the book is so rich that even as some fraction of my reading attention was always squirming impatiently, there was also always something new and prickly-interesting to be considered – an insight of character, an angst-inflected vision of ’80’s or ’90’s London, the surreal juxtapositions of Western influence amid village life in West Africa (young men wearing wristwatches with no batteries…).

Probably the most vivid element of the book to me were the sharp specificities of feeling and observation that the narrator relates as a person of mixed race. When encountering other black women, for example, but especially those with mixed families, she continually notes skin tone, facial features, the race of each parent. All these behaviors are deeply familiar to me as a mostly acculturated first-gen immigrant kid (though not of mixed race), sharing that underlying unease of “where do I fit in” and “am I _____ enough.” The moment that I remember as the book’s most heartbreaking is when the narrator sees her white father’s children from an earlier marriage to a white woman, and realize that they look like they have everything to do with her father; and her – nothing.

The Grotesque, by Patrick McGrath (1989) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 5.10.2017
Book from: Personal collection – grateful thanks to C. for this gift!

Something is rotten at Crook, the decaying English manor house that is the setting for McGrath’s exuberantly spooky novel. Fledge, the butler, is getting intimate with the mistress. Fledge’s wife is getting intimate with the claret. Sidney Giblet, the master’s prospective son-in-law, has disappeared. And the master himself – the one-time gentleman naturalist Sir Hugo Coal – is watching it all in a state of helpless fury, since he is paralyzed in a wheelchair, unable to move or speak.

The Grotesque is simultaneously a whodunnit and pageturner (though from the start it’s insisted that we believe that it was, in fact, the butler), and a thorny psychological thicket of doubles, shape-shifting, adultery, and madness. It made me think of a sniggering, Gothic cousin of Brideshead Revisited, as they share the snarled-up Roman Catholic British aristos, the homoeroticism, the acute class anxiety, and the character of an impish, loyal, dark-haired daughter. “Grand Guignol edition of Wodehouse” also covers it rather well, especially when it comes to names – Sidney Giblet you’ve seen already, and the local village is called “Pock-on-the-Fling.”

The book’s not even 200 pages long, but every page is thick with wordplay (Sir Hugo, for example, puns on his entrapment within the “grottos” of both his own skull and the nook under the stairs where his wheelchair is often left – I had forgotten that “grotesque” comes from “grotto”) and psychological feints. The narrative dodges back and forth across time – a structure that Sir Hugo claims to be a function of his increasingly unreliable wits, but of course also results in the juiciest revelations being put off for last.

I enjoyed the heck out of this elegant mess, and read the first half especially with slightly unhealthy speed. I had to do a bit of thinking about why I didn’t utterly love it, and I think it comes down to the style: I crave continually surprising language, which in Gothics tends to translate to “really florid.” McGrath’s writing is very fine, with physical descriptions of characters being especially sharp and memorable, but for me, the imagery only rarely and the language never hits the heights of the sublime. This might be a constraint of character, as Sir Hugo prides himself on his cold-blooded propriety of thought; I’d have to read more McGrath to see whether his style has broader range.

The freshest and most lastingly troubling element of this book for me was the thematic stuff around ontological confusion. Sir Hugo’s background as a gentleman naturalist, and his morbid embrace of the physical facts of reproduction and decay, provide fertile grounds for elaboration on this sense of “the grotesque.” That is, the grotesque is also “a 16th-century decorative style in which parts of human, animal, and plant forms are distorted and mixed.” Sir Hugo, the paralyzed would-be paleontologist, is neither animal nor vegetable nor mineral. Described as involuntarily grunting like a pig, and “a vegetable,” and “ossified,” he eventually converges with the looming figure of his beloved dinosaur fossil, which by the end of the novel has grown a drapery of lichen due to neglect and damp. Sir Hugo’s neurologist dismisses him as “ontologically dead” – but internally, Sir Hugo shoots back that “I was, I believe, the most ontologically alive person in that room.”

All these uneasy mutations and meltings of category are artistically impressive, but also simply, humanly sad. The most cutting scene of the book for me was the one in which Sir Hugo reflects on how quickly his household writes him off after his accident. Setting aside the fair question of whether Sir Hugo, bastard that he is, might deserve much of what happened to him, this is really sharp, sad writing about the emotional reality of human disability and decline:

“In fact, it was one of the most striking aspects of that first stage of my vegetal existence, the experience of seeing my family’s reactions shift from grief and compassion to acceptance and apparent indifference in a remarkably short period of time. Thus, I notice, are the dead forgotten; thus are persons in my state rendered tolerable… Our kinship with the grotesque is something to be shunned; it requires an act of rejection, of brisk alienation, and here the doctors were most cooperative, for they permitted Harriet and the rest of them to reject my persisting humanity by means of a gobbledygook that carried the imprimatur of – science! … [S]cience proposes, this is how I had lived, but science also disposes, and now I find myself frozen, stuck fast, like a fly in a web, in the grid of a medical taxonomy. My identity was now neuropathological. I was no longer a man, I was an instance of a disease…”

This furious sorrow struck me as some of the only genuine emotion in a narrative otherwise composed mainly of self-absorption and guilty half-truths.