The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead‘s novel The Underground Railroad (review copy from Little, Brown) has achieved an interesting double: winning the Pulitzer and the Arthur C Clarke Award in 2017.  It’s also shortlisted for the Booker Prize.  The Pulitzer, the Clarke and the Booker are unlikely bedfellows, but they show the impact this book has had.  Whitehead has written a magical realism novel about slavery in America, following escaped slave Cora on her journey to freedom.

Whitehead literalises the underground railroad of the book’s title, using it as the engine that drives Cora from state to state on her escape, experiencing different aspects of the slave experience.  Whitehead moves Cora through time as well as space, enabling him to fictionalise real events that took place over American history.  This is an analogue of Pilgrim’s Progress, or the copy of Gulliver’s Travels Cora finds in the library: a journey that is enabled and hindered by people she encounters, and tempting her to end her travelling and settle at various points on her way.

Cora’s journey is one from a closeted, pastoral existence to increasing social and political awareness, and growing personal agency.  Each step on her journey broadens her understanding of the world and increases her dissatisfaction, showing a different aspect of the discrimination and exploitation suffered by black people, both enslaved and free.  Some of that is obvious: the cruel plantation owners or the weekly lynchings of escaped slaves.  But some of it is much more subtle and insidious, including the benevolent white people seeking to instil their own values and practices, a thin veneer of tolerance concealing medical experimentation and other forms of control.

Most of all, The Underground Railroad shows how people are active and complicit in perpetuating systems of oppression.  The system sets people against each other, even those that might appear at first blush to be natural allies.  Poor Irish immigrants like the maid Rose are keen to separate themselves from those at the bottom of the heap; others find it an outlet for their saviour complexes; still others live in fear of setting themselves against their neighbours by standing up against poor treatment.

Ultimately, Cora’s choice is one to pursue and shape her own destiny, rather than to fall into the choices and structures of others.  Freedom comes in many forms, but that is the only one that truly counts.

Goodreads rating: 4*

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Bury the Living – Jodi McIsaac

I approached Jodi McIsaac’s novel Bury the Living (review copy from 47 North through NetGalley) with a high degree of trepidation. Anyone that knows my academic and professional background will know why a time travel novel set during the Irish Civil War would be a risky proposition. And, at risk of damning it with faint praise, the book was nowhere near as bad as I had been fearing  
The story follows Nora O’Reilly, an aid worker from Belfast, who is also a former member of the IRA. She returns home for the funeral of a former IRA colleague, before following a mysterious dream summons to Kildare, where she is told to seek out Brigid. She meets a woman from a mysterious sect called the Brigidine sisters and finds herself sent back in time to help the man she saw in her dreams. She finds him, but he refuses her help, and with no clear sense of what her purpose is, Nora sets out to avert the Partition of Ireland in an attempt to prevent the death of her brother during the Troubles.  While the details of Nora’s childhood explain how she would become a member of the IRA, I wasn’t convinced that an aid worker who had subsequently experienced the human impact and aftermath of violence and civil war would remain so fanatically and unquestioningly wedded to the republican cause. The guilt she clearly feels at the death of her brother was not enough of a motivation for me. I would have hoped, at least, for a little more inner conflict within Nora on the issue. The Civil War setting, itself one of the most difficult and contested parts of Irish history would have presented the perfect opportunity to interrogate ideas of nationalism and their human impact. But apart from a few stray references to differences of opinion, there is no real effort to examine issues of ideology. For example, when Nora’s friend chooses to go on hunger strike for the cause, Nora’s main concern seems to be founded on her knowledge from the future that such strikes make no difference to the success of the cause.  

The novel’s use of mythology feels like a slightly clunky overlay to the story. It falls into the trap of being Oirish at times and no explanation was given as to how or why Nora should be the one to get mixed up in the events of the book.  

This is the first in a series of books, which will no doubt see Nora visit other key points of Irish history. But I won’t be seeking out the sequels.

Goodreads rating: 2*

The Difference Engine – William Gibson and Bruce Sterling

I have a problem with steampunk.  And I say this as someone who grew up reading great Victorian stories of adventure and exploration, like the work of H Rider Haggard.  Steampunk far too often romanticises privilege and Empire.  Anxiety about the direction of contemporary society and its technology manifests as a wistful nostalgia for an alternative future branching out from the Industrial Revolution.  One based on brass and steam rather than the microchip, and where everyone knows their place in society.  It is a sub-genre that very rarely interrogates issues of class, colonialism and gender, instead perpetuating very problematic attitudes under the fiction that this “is just how things were”.  (No, it wasn’t, as any half-way decent scholar of Victorian society would tell you.)  It’s all corsets, tea, gin and brass goggles, not child labour, poverty, disease and worker exploitation.

I had high hopes for The Difference Engine.  It promises conspiracy at the highest levels of government and adventure.  Both William Gibson (famously the inventor of cyberpunk) and Bruce Sterling have great credibility as writers looking at the disruptive impact of technology.  But ultimately, the novel just didn’t deliver for me.

The plot of the novel is a bit of a mess.  It starts well, with a murder that sends a prostitute named Sybil on the run to France with some stolen diamonds and a set of Engine punch cards that are highly sought after.  But we then don’t hear of Sybil again until the end of the book.  The flabby middle section follows Mallory tracking down a rebel called Captain Swing who is threatening to ruin his reputation.  Characters drift in and out, and there is no clear resolution of any of the plotlines.  The promised high-level conspiracy does not materialise in any meaningful way.

The characters are also extremely disappointing.  Female characters are few and far between, and generally prostitutes or identified as sexually promiscuous.  Mallory’s sister is a mere plot device that we never get to meet.  Lady Ada Byron, based on Ada Lovelace, is venerated as the Queen of Engines, but there is no sense of her transformative and visionary genius in the novel.  She is a faded figure with a gambling habit who barely makes an appearance.

As well as being sexist, it’s also crashingly racist.  I winced in particular at the portrayal of some Japanese gentlemen who do little more than be ninjas for hire, while extolling the virtues of Victorian industrial progress and asserting that the Japanese should aspire to replace their culture and language with their English equivalents.  All delivered in a deeply offensively stereotyped set of speech patterns.  There is no examination of colonialism or Empire at all.  Johnny Foreigner is just there to benefit from the wisdom, progress and knowledge of the English.

Goodreads rating: 1*

The Lions of Al-Rassan – Guy Gavriel Kay

I view things through a narrative lens.  I construct my life as story, with myself as chief protagonist.  I make my way through life looking for narrative threads, foreshadowing, inciting incidents and dramatic denouement that I can edit into a compelling narrative.  Those stories of my life are a mash-up of genres: screwball comedy, action-adventure, kitchen sink drama, or tense political thriller.  They are stories of love, friendship and achievement, often in challenging circumstances.

In times of crisis I reach for story as a way of processing my thoughts and feelings about something.  Story written by others (whether on the page or on screen) is both my chief comfort and my main source of inspiration.  Four years ago I binged on books and drama as a way of finding my way out of a difficult time.

So, last night, in the midst of an emotional storm about the outcome of the UK’s referendum on the EU, I found myself reaching for Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Lions of Al-Rassan: a fictionalised retelling of the last days of Moorish Spain.  It’s one of my favourite books, and each time I read it I find new layers of meaning and relevance.

Kay’s Al-Rassan is a place of beauty, art and culture.  It is not a paradise.  It suffers from political instability and is ruled by a powerful elite who are quick to resort to violence and persecution.  But in comparison to its neighbours it is a place of religious tolerance that has permitted a diverse culture and civilisation to blossom.  It is bordered to the north by three states where the prevailing religion is an increasingly fundamentalist strain of the Jaddite faith.  To the south and across the sea are Al-Rassan’s Asharite co-religionists, whose harsh life in the desert breeds an extremist interpretation of faith.

Al-Rassan exists in a fragile bubble between these two cultures.  The temperate climate of the peninsula makes life for the Asharites easier, and a civilisation flourishes.  That civilisation is enriched by the diverse flows of people through the region, through interchange with the Jaddite kingdoms of the former Esperana to the north, and through its (albeit limited) tolerance for those of the often-persecuted Kindath faith.  The tension between the desert to the south and the Jaddites to the north has enabled that place of palaces, poetry and fountains to thrive, but Kay’s Al-Rassan is also a place on the brink of decline and collapse.  After the assassination of the last khalif, Al-Rassan has become a place of warring minor kings, increasingly beholden to desert tribes wanting to advance a more extremist agenda.  There are threats from the north too: the Jaddite kings of Esperana are pressured to put aside their differences and unite in conquest and crusade.  The tragedy of the novel comes from the inevitability of the collapse of the fragile, but beautiful, Al-Rassan as a result of these competing pressures.

The Lions of Al-Rassan examines the geo-politics of the Iberian peninsula at that moment through the lens of a love triangle between Jehane bet Ishak, a Kindath physician and two men: Rodrigo Belmonte, a fictionalised El Cid, and Ammar ibn Khairan, a courtier, soldier, poet, assassin and spy.  Both represent the pinnacle of their respective cultures and civilisations.  Although both are ultimately thrown into conflict against one another as the peninsula descends into war, for a brief, shining moment they find themselves on the same side.  Both are sent into exile by the rulers they serve, and find themselves working as mercenaries for King Badir of Ragosa, where Jehane has also found shelter.  Belmonte and ibn Khairan form a friendship and partnership of great creativity and ingenuity, which makes their ultimate opposition all the more painful.

One of the strengths of the novel is the way it depicts the choices and actions that ultimately lead to war, conflict and the collapse of Al-Rassan.  Good people are forced into making decisions in difficult circumstances.  Those choices are often pragmatic, political ones, where the hands of the powerful are tied or forced.  In many cases those choices are underpinned by some toxic religious and nationalist ideologies that the powerful ironically find themselves unable to challenge.

Kay explores the fate of nations through a single set of relationships, but manages to also represent that story in microcosm during one single night.  Ragosa’s Carnival is a night of wine and revelry, but it is also a night of masks that both conceal and reveal, as people use them to make statements about themselves.  This Carnival is particularly febrile as Al-Rassan moves on its trajectory towards war.  Jehane wanders through the city, considering and discarding options about how to spend her evening.  Finally, she is approached by a man in the mask of a lion (Ammar ibn Khairan).

“It is late now, Jehane,” said this man who seemed to have found her in the night after all.  “It may even be too late, but shall we walk together a while, you and I?”

That single piece of dialogue encapsulates the whole novel for me, freighted as it is with layers of meaning and significance.  It is indeed late in Carnival night when this exchange takes place.  But Ammar’s hesitancy also comes from the depth of personal history between him and Jehane.  His actions have contributed to the personal tragedy of her family, including the maiming of her beloved father.  That may be too much for her to get past, despite their attraction to one another.  But Ammar ibn Khairan is also the man who killed the last khalif of Al-Rassan, and in no small part has contributed to the chain of events that is sending the peninsula towards war.  With conflict on the horizon there may be no space for love at all.

The choices Jehane makes in The Lions of Al-Rassan are ultimately ones of pragmatic self-interest.  As a relatively powerless member of a persecuted minority she chooses the way that offers the potential for greatest safety for herself and her family within some terrifying circumstances.  There are no perfect options.  Jehane’s choices are made in the full knowledge of the flaws and challenges of the options before her.

Right now, we must all be like Jehane.

Goodreads rating: 5*

 

The English Girl – Katherine Webb

They say that travel broadens the mind, and in The English Girl (review copy from Orion), Katherine Webb shows us what it takes to be a pioneering explorer, the human impact of that and the cost of hidden secrets.

The novel follows Joan Seabrook, a young woman who travels to Oman with her fiance, Rory, in the early 1950s.  Joan had grown up fascinated with the Arabian peninsula and takes advantage of a small inheritance following the death of her father to travel to Oman, where her brother is serving in the military.  One of the aims of her trip is to meet her heroine, the pioneering explorer Maude Vickery.  But while she is there, Joan gets enmeshed in a local rebel insurgency.

Much of The English Girl focuses on Joan.  Her trip to Oman forces her to confront family secrets about her much-loved father, her brother and her fiance.  She comes to question her planned direction in life: a job at a local museum, marriage and motherhood.  But most of all, Joan explores her appetite for adventure, and learns the cost as well as the glamour.  She faces life-threatening danger when she becomes involved in a local insurgency.

Far and away the strongest and most interesting part of The English Girl is the character of Maude Vickery.  Loosely based on Gertrude Bell, but entirely a fictional character, Maude is introduced to us as a notable Victorian explorer, and the first woman to have crossed the Rub’ al Khali (the Empty Quarter), narrowly beaten only by her friend Nathanial Elliott.  Large parts of the novel are flashbacks to Maude’s childhood, her exploits as an explorer and her relationship with Elliott.  The novel shows the romance of exploration, while painting an uncompromising picture of the challenges and deprivations Maude faced, and her own personal resilience in overcoming them.  We see Maude’s toughness and pioneering spirit turn to bitterness in later life, soured by the social attitudes of the time that make it near-impossible for her to obtain justice for the betrayal she has suffered.

The English Girl is a bit by-the-numbers at times, but it is a great story about adventure, secrets and having the courage to break away from expected paths.

Goodreads rating: 3*

The Silvered Heart – Katherine Clements

The Silvered Heart by Katherine Clements (published by Headline, who provided a review copy via NetGalley) is a good-old fashioned, swashbuckling bodice-ripper.  It is loosely based on the real life story of Lady Katherine Ferrers, the infamous Wicked Lady: a 17th Century highwayman.

Katherine Clements has based her novel around what we know about Lady Katherine from the historical record.  A wealthy heiress, she was married at a very young age to a relative, but her fortune was spent keeping her husband’s family’s estates afloat during the punitive taxes imposed on Royalists after the Civil War.  She is widely believed to have turned to highway robbery during her husband’s lengthy absences from home, and to have died from a gunshot wound sustained during a robbery.

Lady Katherine’s story contains two key mysteries: records of a child who died in infancy but who must have been conceived while her husband was imprisoned, and rumours of an accomplice – Ralph Chaplin – who was caught and hanged shortly before her death.

Clements extrapolates on what we know with great skill to deliver a page-turning piece of historical fiction.  Her Lady Katherine is an abused and neglected wife.  Her husband leaves her to mind his estate, which was left devastated during the Civil War, while he spends most of his time in London.  A staunch Royalist, he becomes heavily involved in plots to restore Charles II to the throne.  With little to live on, Lady Katherine turns to highway robbery to alleviate the poverty she finds herself in.  She teams up with Rafe Chaplin, the brother of her companion.

The Lady Katherine Clements gives us is arrogant and self-centred, in part as a result of the treatment she has received from her husband, but she has to be admired for her resourcefulness and tenacity. The other characters are sketched out well enough, but with little depth: all charismatic villains, saintly friends and loyal servants.  Hilary Mantel this isn’t: it’s more Philippa Gregory crossed with chick-lit, but The Silvered Heart is a highly enjoyable, light read.

Goodreads rating: 3*

Landfalls – Naomi J Williams

Landfalls is the debut novel by Naomi J Williams.  It was published by Little, Brown (who kindly gave me a review copy through NetGalley) on 22 October 2015.  Landfalls unfolds for us a fictionalised version of a true story: the doomed French voyage of exploration led by the Comte de Laperouse in the 1780s.  Both ships mysteriously disappeared in the Pacific Ocean in 1788.

Structurally, Landfalls is a very interesting novel.  Williams chooses to write each chapter from the perspective of a different character, writing only about those times where the expedition’s ships make landfall as part of their voyage of exploration.  That allows her to explore the different members of the crew, their relationships with one another and their thoughts and feelings about the voyage.

Some of those chapters are intensely moving, in particular those dealing with the loss of life of some crew members at various points during the voyage.  We see the grief of those left behind, struggling to make sense of their loss and find ways of explaining it to distant family members.  In others, Williams shows the narrow and limited lives of those living in far-flung colonies.  The arrival of the expedition ships provides a welcome dose of excitement and fresh company that can have profound effects on those visited by the expedition.

Only two chapters are told from the perspective of female characters.  One of the chapters shows the disastrous loss of two of the ships longboats in a freak accident while surveying a harbour in Alaska.  The woman is one of the indigenous people from the tribe living in the area.  Towards the end of the novel, we see the end of the Laperouse expedition from the perspective of another indigenous woman, this time form the Solomon Islands.  Both women are left baffled by the strange Europeans visiting where they live, whether in a brief visit, or the survivors of the doomed expedition.

Overall, Landfalls is a fascinating and accomplished novel that allows Williams to showcase her skills as a writer.  Its braided narrative structure reminded me slightly of Ian Pears’s An Instance of the Fingerpost, albeit with less close weaving between the individual storylines.

Goodreads rating: 3*