Elly McDonald

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Review: The Silence of the Girls (2018) by Pat Barker – “I heard him before I saw him”

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“You know how European literature begins?” he’d ask, after having taken the roll at the first class meeting. “With a quarrel. All of European literature springs from a fight.” And then he picked up his copy of The Iliad and read to the class the opening lines. “ ‘Divine Muse, sing of the ruinous wrath of Achilles… Beginning where they first quarreled, Agamemnon the King of men, and great Achilles.’ And what are they quarreling about, these two violent, mighty souls? It’s as basic as a barroom brawl. They are quarreling over a woman. A girl, really. A girl stolen from her father. A girl abducted in a war.”

The Human Stain, Philip Roth – as quoted in the frontpiece of The Silence of The Girls

Why did Pat Barker not title her intelligent, engaging and troubling novel The Silence of the Women? Because she tells a tale of girls, mostly, young girls taken as war trophies and held in sexual servitude by the killers of their families.

I’d heard [the enemy commanders’] plans for Troy […]. Every man and boy killed […] pregnant women to be speared in the belly on the off chance their child would be a boy, and for the other women, gang rape, beatings, mutilation, slavery. A few women – or rather a very few girls, mainly royal or of aristocratic birth – would be shared out among the kings […] I might easily end up living the life of the common women, dodging blows by day and sleeping under the huts at night […]

Briseis

Pat Barker, Man Booker-winning author of the Regeneration Trilogy, which tells of the human damage wrought by WW1, is not the first author to retell Homer’s Iliad in the imagined voice of Briseis, the young girl at the centre of the rift between Agamemnon, commander-in-chief of the Achaeans (Bronze Age Greeks) and the armies’ most feared warrior, Achilles. Daughter of Troy, by Sarah B Franklin, precedes The Silence of The Girls, but I haven’t been able to find information about that book.

Other authors have deployed Briseis as a character in their fictions: Christa Wolf, in her novel Kassandra; Judith Starkston, in Hand of Fire (2014); Madeline Miller, in The Song of Achilles (2011).

The Song of Achilles – which missed the mark for me so completely I couldn’t read far enough in to meet Briseis – represents Briseis as being in love with Achilles’ loved companion, Patroclus. Best-selling author Marion Bradley Zimmer had a stab at Achilles’ story in Fire Brand (1987), where she presents Briseis as in love with Achilles.

Possibly the most widely recognized representation of Briseis in contemporary English-speaking culture is actress Rose Byrne’s film portrayal of the character in the Brad Pitt vehicle Troy (2004), where, again, Briseis is shown as being in love with Brad-Achilles. The 2018 BBC TV series Troy: Fall of a City features a Rose Byrne look-alike playing Briseis (I don’t who Briseis loves in this one).

In The Silence of The Girls, Pat Barker’s Briseis wonders “What will they make of us, those people of [the far future]? One thing I do know: they won’t want the brutal reality of conquest and slavery. They won’t want to be told about the massacres of men and boys; the enslavement of women and girls; they won’t want to know we were living in a rape camp. No, they’ll go for something altogether softer. A love story, perhaps?”

Pat Barker tells the story of living in a rape camp.

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I’m impressed by this novel on multiple levels, although it took a while to grab me. The language is plain. So much literary writing at present is ambitious in its use of language and form, but Barker, speaking as Briseis, keeps it straight. Sometimes that can read flat. It also serves to make the occasional excursions into the supernatural – the appearance of gods, the workings of gods – startling, at first seeming incongruous. But Homer’s language is stark, and incursions by the gods are a fact of life in The Iliad, so: so be it.

I’ll say only that I’m unused to magical realism where the realism so lacks in magic and the magic is so matter of fact.

Another thing that startles is Barker’s occasional references to northern European physical attributes: Achilles’ silver hair, his cousin Ajax’s blondness, a doctor’s green eyes, a king’s grey eyes. Ethnicity in the ancient world is a contested area, but the Achaeans as described by Homer are not the dark-eyed, olive-skinned peoples of the later Mediterranean worlds. That said, it’s curious Barker chooses to introduce this element, particularly since the language her characters use is neither archaic nor contemporary but instead, faintly anachronistic, as if the writer is still immersed in the world of the Great War 1914-18 and British Imperialism, or perhaps is suggesting analogies.

Barker doesn’t describe Briseis’s appearance directly. From the comments of others, its plain she’s very beautiful: elegant but with (sorry) huge knockers. Her breasts announce her. (Really. It’s in the text.)

Homeric legend is more explicit: Homer’s Briseis is lauded for her golden hair, blue eyes and fair skin.

I found, when I did some research after reading, that the name “Briseis” simply means “daughter of Brisis”, just as the name of Agamemnon’s girl, Chryseis, means “daughter of Chrysis”. To borrow from Margaret Atwood, and The Handmaid’s Tale, it’s like calling a character “Offred” (‘Of Fred’), except with reference to the father as patriarch rather than the sexual master. Briseis could equally be “Ofachilles”, Chryseis “Ofagamemnon”.

Briseis’s actual given name, according to legend, was Hippodameia. My Greek is rudimentary, but I believe that might translate as “Horsegoddess”, which casts a wholly different light on Briseis’s symbolic role in The Iliad. (I see, too, that the Trojan hero Hector’s wife Andromache might translate as “man killer”, which likewise positions her differently, as a kind of Amazon – the Amazons came to Troy’s aid as allies. It could also translate as “manly fighting spirit”. After Achilles killed her husband, and her infant son was flung from the walls of Troy, Andromache was given as a sex slave to Achilles’s adolescent son.)

This is such an interesting book, and I do not want any comment of mine to denigrate it, but I think what I took away that troubled me most is this:

Briseis is attempting to author her own story. She is represented as telling the tale of her captivity many years later, having turned her back on the sand dunes of the Greek camp as a 19 year old, boarded a ship to a new life, and made that a full and fascinating life (by her own account): “Once, not so long ago, I tried to walk out of Achilles’ story – and failed. Now, my own story can begin.”

Good for her.

My problem is this.

Pat Barker tells most of The Silence of The Girls in Briseis’s voice. But there are things Briseis cannot know and cannot tell. So in the second half of the book, there are sequences told in the third person from the point of view of Achilles. These sequences are for me the most compelling and effective parts of the novel. These sequences – not least the visit by King Priam of Troy to Achilles to ransom his son Hector’s body – have an emotional charge that leaves much of Briseis’s narrative pallid by comparison. (Briseis’s voice does share the telling the Priam episode. But it’s Achilles’ perspectives that carry the charge.)

Is it the age old problem that the Devil has all the best tunes? That sociopaths are more compelling than victims? That the sins and sufferings of violent men are stories we are acculturated to attend to, that we can’t look away from violent men, though we turn away, time and again, from beaten women?

After an entire novel that purports to be a platform for Briseis to speak for herself, and her sisters, is this, in the end, what’s meant by The Silence of The Girls?

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Last word:

My favourite paragraphs from The Silence of The Girls:

There’s a story he once chased the god Apollo all over the plains of Troy. Cornered at last, Apollo is supposed to have said: “You can’t kill me, I’m immortal.” “Ah, yes,” Achilles replied. “But we both know if you weren’t immortal, you’d be dead.”

Nobody was ever allowed the last word; not even a god.


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All The Light We Cannot See (2014) by Anthony Doerr – how I learned to stop worrying and love the War (Doctor Strangelove moves in mysterious ways)

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This is not the review I prepared to write when I sat down a short while ago.

I have a friend, a novelist, who is skeptical about Reader Response theory: a literary criticism theory that focuses on how readers’ individual life experiences and beliefs shape their understandings of a text, as opposed to literary criticism that focuses on the author’s intentions, or the formal qualities of a text – crudely summarized, every novel a Rorschach Test, capable of being read in multiple ways.

My novelist friend is clear his intentions are paramount. His novels mean what he means them to mean. If readers take from them understandings that he did not intend, it’s a misreading.

I tend to differ. (Perhaps that’s obvious – I blog my individualistic responses. I gravitate to themes and issues that reflect my own concerns.)

I believe we will read the same book differently at age 60 than we did at age 16, or 30. We will read books differently depending on our emotional environment at the time of reading – what we’re dealing outside the covers of the book. Mostly I think of this in terms of life stages, but today I had an acute lesson in how what we take from a book can depend even on what’s happening within a given 48 hour period.

Lots of people deeply love All The Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr. It won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It was a National Book Award in the author’s native United States, a New York Times #1 bestseller (as the cover proudly proclaims).

I liked this novel. I liked it quite a lot. Some aspects of it I liked very much indeed. But as the final 50 pages counted down, I grew less and less enamoured. By the time I closed its cover, I was nonplussed. That night, cynical. This morning, irritated.

There was no question All The Light We Cannot See is beautifully written. For me, it was just that bit too beautiful, that bit too soulful, too sensitive. It made me long for a punk or grunge riposte.

Here’s my draft review, written at that time:

There are two types of novel, it seems, at present. In one type, the author is a ruthless god, killing characters who logic dictates must die, or killing just because s/he can. The other type is humanist, somewhat sentimental; hopeful refractions of humankind. This type tends to be American.

All The Light We Cannot See is a novel about WW2 written by an author from Idaho. It is indeed “Sublime” (The Times) and “Magnificent” (The Guardian). Oprah magazine likes it too. At this point, 100 pages from the end, its dual narratives are both peaking, its dual protagonists both in extreme peril.

I am confident the author plans to rescue them, or at least let their deaths have meaning.

[If you detect snark, you’d be right. I was saying the narrative line struck me as predictable – and implausible. I was suggesting there is a cosy fairy-tale at the heart of the handkerchief wrenching.]

I wish writers in this genre [the humanistic war epic] knew when to STOP, or when to strip it back: there were important points Doerr wanted to make in those last 53 pages [the post-War ‘Whatever happened to…” section], but for me they were 52 pages too many. [Man-Booker 2014 winner] The Narrow Road to the Deep North [by Australian author Richard Flanagan] had similar problems, in a somewhat similar project [in Flanagan’s case, addressing POW experiences in Changi and on the Burma Death Railway, then continuing to examine at great length what happened to his fictional characters afterwards]. To me it reads self-indulgent.

[This is a hard call. I’m certain both Doerr and Flanagan would say that the sections of their novels that deal with how their characters’ lives unfolded in the decades after the War is where it lives. They intend to examine the lasting impacts of war. In Doerr’s case, especially, his whole point is what lives on.

Me, I frankly wish the characters were left at a point of unpredictability. I wish we were left not knowing, required to use our imaginations to fill in the future – left, like the characters, displaced, facing an uncertain world. The ‘arguments against’ of course include the educative function of novels of this type (later generations don’t necessarily have the knowledge to imaginatively inhabit those spaces); the authors’ own preferences, their planned projects; and the outrage most readers would feel if these characters were sent out adrift – the t’s uncrossed, the i’s not dotted.]

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I see in American writing a tendency to look back to WW2 as “the last heroic age”. There’s a valid desire to ensure what happened is remembered, and to cast the events as fables, as warnings. A book like All The Light You Cannot See is actually extremely effective in presenting aspects of wartime human experience and historic episodes, obscure [in the Doerr book, the Allied assault on St-Malo in France, and the Schulpforta Hitler Youth schools in the Reich] and better known (The Narrow Road to the Deep North).

The turn-off for me is the tone: all that effortful profundity; the wise, sorrowful voice, the self-conscious delicacy. Yes, it’s elegant, but IMO it’s overworked and kind of smug, the literary equivalent of an “Oscar bait” movie, a Manchester By The Sea. As if we read it or watch it to remind ourselves of how sensitive we are that we are so moved by the tragedies of others.

Also, embedded in the noble soulful remembrance of times past stuff there’s a wartime romp involving a sinister German sergeant-major and a cursed diamond, and frankly I came to be more involved in that narrative than in the cosmic significance.

[That’s not entirely true. I enjoyed The Adventure of the Cursed Diamond, as I enjoy a Tin-Tin comic, or a Madeline adventure – the Ludwig Bemelmans children’s classics, not Proust – and I was amused. But the sequences in the book I found most affecting were those that traced the life of the young German, Werner Pfennig.]

The author IMO over-egged the “What you could have been!” waste of human potential till the novel came to read, for me, like a shaggy dog tale culminating in a one-liner: all that lost humanity transposed into a metaphor about radio and cyberspace communications – we/they as infinite ghosts in the ether. Violins played.

Indeed.

That was my draft review. What changed?

Here I was being a Grinch. The background was the lingering death of my sister and her husband’s nephew, who 48 hours ago was about to be taken off life support .

I did not believe in fairies. I did not believe in Doerr’s elfin blind heroine, Marie-Laure. I did not believe in her loving papa, her endearing (and miraculously healed!) great-uncle, her Mary Poppins housekeeper, her gently jovial mentor, her Man In The Iron Mask mysterious Resistance friend. I absolutely did not believe in her miniature intricately crafted plywood model of a town of 865 mostly medieval buildings (I could not for the life of me figure out scale). Not even as Magical Realism, I did not believe.

Then today, one hour ago, my sister texted. Wills is to be removed from his ventilator today, but not to die. He’s to be removed because now, it seems he will live.

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I don’t know if there’s an author who planned to rescue Will (refer above). I do know that for his family and carers, Will’s death would have had meanings; as does his life.


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Review: Now We Shall Be Entirely Free (2018) by Andrew Miller

English-hussar_Elly_McDonald-WriterOn March 16 1968 Lieutenant William Calley ordered the men of 1st Platoon, Company C, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry of the 23rd Infantry Division of the United States Army to kill every person in the Viet Cong village My Lai.

At his court martial nearly three years later he claimed he acted on orders from his superior officer, Captain Ernest Medina.

Now We Shall Be Entirely Free is set in 1809 and centres on a massacre in the Spanish village Los Morales by British troops retreating from Napoleon’s forces. One key character is called Corporal Calley. Another is named Ernesto Medina.

The My Lai massacre trial caused a sensation in the United States, with some senior military personnel vehemently condemning Calley and Medina as rogue elements bringing the U.S. Army into disrepute; others, including conservative politicians, insisting Calley and his unit were justified in their actions; and yet others arguing Calley was symptomatic of American policy and was scapegoated as an individual.

Now We Shall Be Entirely Free is a meditation on the morality of war, the circumstances in which such a massacre might happen, who might perpetrate war crimes, and who should be held accountable.

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It is also a poetic and mystical travelogue. The Hebrides, the islands off western Scotland, were in ancient times reputed to be a place of sorcery and magics; a tradition presenting the islands and the Highlands, the Gaelic realms, as supernatural lives on in popular culture from Brigadoon to Local Hero to the contemporary hit TV series Outlander. The Scottish west coast is a portal, the Hebrides another world, its islands akin to the island in The Tempest, where strange music is heard: this is the dreamworld of Now We Shall Be Entirely Free.

In this novel, the British cavalry officer who is held responsible for the Los Morales massacre is Captain John Lacroix. John Lacroix barely survives the retreat and evacuation to England. He suffers what we’d now call PTSD. Long before he has any inkling retribution is pursuing him (“I am the War”, says Corporal Calley), Lacroix flees further, to Scotland, to the islands. In the islands, he encounters forms of healing magic: music, friendship, love.

Can John Lacroix be redeemed? Does he deserve to be? Did he deserve to be condemned? Is justice, what’s ‘deserved’, even relevant? Is fate random? Or supernaturally determined?

This is a tale where I genuinely could not predict the ending. I don’t normally spend a lot of energy predicting how narratives will resolve, but with this novel, I fretted. And I got it wrong.

“[H]e saw things etched on the sea. A woman in a white dress, turning like a star”, a woman who is a seer, a prophetess, a blindfolded goddess of judgement, who “dreamed her bed was on the sea and that she had looked back at the island and seen the house”.

I was taken by the leitmotifs the author embraces. The sound of the sea. The sound of singing. The constant references to singing, to the sea, to music, to language as song. Lacroix reflects that all Gaelic is one long conversation with the sea. He reflects that “these people, the Gaels, were a curious mix, rooted and practical, but living easily among dreams and stories and superstition, one ear always pressed against the night-world, or whatever it was, the correct name for that part of life people were forgetting how to address.”

The spiritual, the fantastical, death. The new gods – technologies, surgery, populism, the cults that spring up as conventional religion fails – and the old gods, the gods who ride sea cows, walk across waters, speak through waves and await in currents.

Now We Shall Be Entirely Free looks towards the modern, but does not forget the old forms of address.

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The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton (2018) – moral decisions

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A murder will occur tonight in a crumbling stately heap named Blackheath, at 11pm. You know who the victim is.* Your mission – and you have no choice but to accept – is to identify the killer. You have eight days to do this: the same day will repeat, Groundhog Day-like, eight times; each day you will inhabit the body (and assimilate some mental traits) of a different witness. Make good use of each window to investigate.

Each day you will co-exist alongside – interact with – your other iterations. You may discover who they are as the days repeat. You may offer to collaborate. They may – or may not – do so.

You are in competition with two other souls tasked with the same mission. The first correct answer wins. The winner will be returned to his/her initial identity, have his/her memory restored, and will be permitted to leave this place. The two laggards will not.

Oh. Watch out for the sociopathic sadist footman. Footman, as in attendant on a hunting shoot. Btw: almost every guest invited to Blackheath’s masque ball and hunt has brought a footman. Which is the one?

And who is Anna?

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This is the premise for The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, which its author describes as a “time-travel, body-hopping murder-mystery novel”. The cover blurbs refer to it as “unique” and “original”, as if this territory isn’t worked repeatedly by David Mitchell (The Body Clocks, Slade House), and as if the plot construction doesn’t owe a debt to games design. But I’ll grant it’s “darkly comic, mind-blowingly twisty”, “energising and clever”, and given his vision of grafting time travel, body-hopping onto an Agatha Christie-style English Country House Weekend murder mystery, I’ll grant Stuart Turton the title “the Mad Hatter of crime”.

Turton himself refers to the genesis of his novel as “Lynchian”, referring to filmmaker David Lynch.

Allowing the narrator’s consciousness to live in the present tense through the vehicles of eight other individuals permits multiple perspectives on solving the murder. The narrator, who we learn has voluntarily submitted himself to this bizarre “puzzle box house”, Blackheath, is, we are given to understand, one Aiden Bishop.

Bishop is a moral character, a character who believes in justice and subscribes to judgement. His musings invite the reader to engage in multiple moral perspectives. Which loyalties carry most weight? Is redemption possible? Can an evil person work good? Can seemingly inevitable futures be averted?

A masked man in a black-feathered coat, known as the Plague Doctor, tells him

“Nothing that’s happening here is inevitable, much as it may appear otherwise. Events keep happening the same way day after day, because your fellow guests keep making the same decisions day after day. […] They cannot see another way, so they never change. You are different, Mr Bishop. […] You make different decisions, and yet repeat the same mistakes at crucial junctures. It’s as if some part of you is perpetually pulled towards the pit.”

The Plague Doctor speculates this is Bishop’s nature. To break out of Blackheath, Bishop will need to change his decisions so markedly that he has in effect changed his nature – become a different man.

“[E]very man is in a cage of his own making,” proclaims the Plague Doctor.

This is a version of Hell.

The very name “Blackheath” summons a kind of hell: Blackheath south of the Thames in London, where thousands of plague dead lie buried (and where Blackheath Village is now a genteel suburb peopled by the kinds of upper-middleclass folk who enjoy Agatha Christie and will read this novel. I lived there myself for eight years). A “plague doctor” was a person who in the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries attended to plague victims, wearing “a beak-like mask which was filled with aromatic items. The masks were designed to protect them from putrid air, which (according to the miasmatic theory of disease) was seen as the cause of infection. […] These doctors rarely cured their patients; rather, they served to record a count of the number of people contaminated for demographic purposes.” [Wiki]

 

 

Blackheath has resonances of Limbo, from the Latin ‘Limbus’, meaning “edge’ or “boundary”, referring to the “edge” of Hell (ref Wiki). But the Roman Catholic religious concept ‘Limbo’ condemns those consigned there to eternity. Blackheath is more like a Purgatory, from which those destined to be saved will eventually be delivered.

More closely, Blackheath draws on the Hindu concept Samskara:

Sanskara (IASTsaṃskāra, sometimes spelled samskara)

In the context of karma theory, Sanskara are dispositions, character or behavioral traits, that exist as default from birth or prepared and perfected by a person over one’s lifetime, that exist as imprints on the subconscious according to various schools of Hindu philosophy such as the Yoga school.[3][5] These perfected or default imprints of karma within a person, influences that person’s nature, response and states of mind. – Wikipedia

Samskara is the repetition of behaviours that results in deeply entrenched behavioural patterns, in ruts, that effectively constrain our choices, determine our actions, and hence our outcomes: our karma.

To break Samskara, a concerted moral effort, an effort of courage, is required, and consistency.

The hell that is Blackheath is the hell of the addict, and more than one of Bishop’s host entities are addicted to drugs, alcohol, food, criminal, immoral or self-defeating behaviours.

The other guests at the masque ball at Blackheath are a Hieronymus Bosch representation of Hell, an evil cornucopia of vice. They are trapped in Samskara, doomed to repeat the same vile behaviours ad infinitum.

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Yet the Plague Doctor tells Bishop he is different, “Each time you fail, we strip your memories and start the loop again, but you always find a way to hold onto something important, a clue if you will.”

The nature of the clue he wakes up to each new loop determines the tone, the nature, of that loop.

This loop, Bishop’s clue is “Anna”.

Bishop finds that with each successive host entity, the residual memories and traits of each host grow stronger. He first wakes as a man who is a blank slate, a man who can recall only the name “Anna”, and a vague sense that who he is, is a coward. His earliest hosts’ vices merely niggle at Bishop; his later hosts’ vices threaten to overwhelm him.

Each of Bishop’s hosts has different strengths and weaknesses, and he’s challenged to learn how to best use each one’s strengths, and best manage each one’s weaknesses.

He learns that masks, and being in different guises, only serve to reveal underlying character. Embodied in different entities, oftentimes he is only recognised by allies and prospective allies as Bishop because his behaviour contrasts with the way his host would have behaved.

At one point he tells a man with a differing philosophy, “We’re never more ourselves than when we think people aren’t watching, don’t you realise that?”

The other man argues back that Blackheath is a “puzzle, with disposable pieces”.

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He argues that “Avoiding unpleasant acts doesn’t make a man good.”

The person killed today will reappear in endless tomorrows, to be killed again. Are they “never anything more than a trick of the light […]. Shadows cast on a wall”?

Are the characters that people Blackheath anything other than two-dimensional? Are they imbued with any real humanity? If not, does their fate matter? What is actually at stake?

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The recurring time-loop that is the prison Blackheath is clearly a moral project, but what is its purpose?

The Plague Doctor provides a clue: “Do you know how you can tell if a monster’s fit to walk the earth again, Mr Bishop? […] You give them a day without consequences, and you watch what they do with it.”

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Samskara

[MAJOR SPOILERS FROM HERE ON]

As well as being a moralist, Aiden Bishop is a romantic.

When the Blackheath puzzle ends, he believes in a future he must know is impossible:

“It seems like a dream, too much to hope for […]. The luxury of waking up in the same bed two days in a row, or being able to reach the next village should I choose. The luxury of sunshine. The luxury of honesty. The luxury of living a life without a murder at the end of it.”

This, despite the Plague Doctor warning him, “Once you’re released, start running and don’t stop. That’s your only chance.”

Despite that he has no knowledge of the life he’ll be returned to – to what point in Bishop’s timeline, into what practical reality. What paperwork do citizens require? How is ID established? Will irises be read, faces mapped, fingerprints scanned? How is food and shelter obtained? Income acquired? Transport accessed?

Don’t get out of the carriage.

Seems to me there is death at the end of this road. In effect, the footman still awaits.

Aiden Bishop, who was finally able to combine the multiple perspectives and talents of eight different hosts to make sense of what happened in Blackheath, appears, in his haste to shed everything he learned at Blackheath, to have fallen once again into the pit dug by the dominant trait of his nature: that is, the rut of his obstinate tunnel vision.

Whatever happens next is karma.

Yet Bishop is a delirious optimist:

“Tomorrow can be whatever I want it to be […]. Instead of being something to fear, it can be a promise I make myself. A chance to be braver or kinder, to make what was wrong right. To be better than I am today.”

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*Or maybe you only think you know.


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Losing my religion – two short TV reviews

Transfer (Transferts, French TV series 2017) and Counterpart (USA TV series 2017)

Transferts (Transfer): this French TV series is brilliant.

Identity, mind-body, religion, politics, love, loyalty, corruption, bioscience, the future. French philosophy. And one very creepy – but strangely endearing – ‘little girl’ with a gun.

Am I entertained? Ooh yeah.

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Alexis Loret and Arieh Wortholter in Transferts

In the not so distant future, kind family man Florian wakes from a 5-year coma to find his consciousness has been transferred into the muscly body of special forces cop Sylvain – illegally.

While Florian’s consciousness slept, consciousness transfer technology has been medically developed “for therapeutic purposes,” to enable individuals with terminal illness or incapacitating disability to transfer their beings into the bodies of donors on life-support. The technology is frighteningly simple – some gel goop, some basic equipment – and perhaps inevitably, a black market has emerged, where individuals are choosing to transfer into other bodies for reasons narcissistic, frivolous and criminal, and black marketeers are none too scrupulous about how those other bodies are sourced.

Within two years the technology is outlawed, not least due to pressure from the Catholic Church and its French offshoot, a C21st technology-led mega-cult led by the politically ambitious Père Luc. “Transfers”, people who have undergone the procedure, must present themselves to the authorities to be branded and confined for life in a medical facility with amenities some compare to a holiday resort.

The transfer process has been banned not simply on ethical grounds but because some ‘transfers’ experience reversion – an unstable and potentially dangerous state where their consciousness starts to split and psychosis occurs.

‘Transfers’ who do not hand themselves in are hunted down by a paramilitary squad called the BATI. Florian’s misfortune (among several) is that Sylvain, his host body, was/is a brutal “hero” of the BATI. Woops.

Meanwhile, a sociopathic rogue transfer has commandeered the body of a small girl, and has a malevolent interest in Florian/Sylvain. Sometimes it might be easier to simply, um, die.

Transferts has been compared, frequently, to the Netflix series Altered States, which I’m given to understand is overtly futuristic and heavy on special effects and technological references. Transferts is not like that.

Instead, it’s concerned with the implications of consciousness transfer for human relationships, personal relationships. If my spouse changes body, will I still have sexual chemistry with that person? If another consciousness commandeers my child, can I love that entity? Within my sphere of intimate relationships, what is my hierarchy of priorities, in terms of who matters most to me, in extremis? (The philosophical dilemma of the rescuer with the boat.) If I change physicality radically, into a wholly different body, do I remain me?

If I no longer remain who I was, what am I? Am I a threat?

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Pili Groyne in Transferts

In fact the previous TV series Transferts reminds me of most is the UK series Ultraviolet (1998), memorable for introducing me to the work of actors Idris Elba, Stephen Moyer and Jack Davenport, but even more notable for rescuing the vampire genre from George Hamilton and ‘Love At First Bite’ and making soul-suckers really REALLY terrifying again. As they have remained since.

Ultraviolet had only the most basic special effects. Its impact relied on that ice in the soul the viewer experienced witnessing human and inhuman betrayals. Transferts has hardly any special effects; but it has that vampiric ice. Set in a city that in most respects seems like any contemporary European city, in Transferts it’s only occasional moments – ‘conferencing’ by hologram, the transfer technology – that remind us this is a future.

Like Ultraviolet, it touches on current, contemporary issues that raise ethical debate. In Ultraviolet, these issues included child abuse under cover of the Church, church-state collaboration, the status of ‘the Human’ and the status of the Other, and sustainability. In Transferts, issues raised include relations between State, Church and cult (again), the ‘rights’ and integrity (or otherwise) of the human mind-body-spirit, and also gender identity, and life extension technologies.

I’ve watched the six episodes of Tranferts Season 1. Now I’m hoping, hard, a Season 2 will be announced.

Not quite as OMG as Transfer but still intriguing: Counterpart, featuring a virtuoso turn – or virtuoso turns – by J.K. Simmons, a swarmy Harry Lloyd, and the bitterly beautiful Olivia Williams, a 50 y.o. actress willing to play ageing but devastating.

Sci-fi meets Cold War meets noir.

In Counterpart, Howard (J.K. Simmons) is shocked to learn the workplace where he’s held a low-level desk-bound paper-shuffler’s job for 30 years is a portal to a parallel world, a world which split from Our Side in 1997.

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Harry Lloyd and J.K. Simmons in Counterpart

For the first five years the two worlds developed along closely similar lines. Then, a pandemic hit the Other Side, killing millions. The Other Side believes Our Side developed and released the pandemic deliberately, to destroy them. Secret diplomatic relations uneasily contain the parallel stasis, but extremists have no patience with diplomacy and the balance is about to be seriously unsettled.

The entertaining conceit of Counterpart is that for each of us alive on Our Side, there is, or was, a counterpart on their side. Until Howard meets his counterpart, no counterparts have ever – officially – met. But what happens if counterparts substitute for their Other? What happens when counterparts collide?

This is another series with some interesting philosophical questions at its heart about identity. It’s played for entertainment, and thank god for that, but yeah: it’s smarter than the average Other Worlds.

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Olivia Williams in Counterpart


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Review: Stone Mattress (2014) – nine tales by Margaret Atwood

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Growing old is a sorcery, a transformation.

It’s liminal: the gateway to other worlds, other mysteries.

To grow old is to learn what Merlin knew, what Prospero discovered.

There are powers that come with age: powers of far-seeing; powers to forgive, powers to avenge; powers of release, powers to persist.

Margaret Atwood’s Stone Mattress (2014), a collection of nine tales, builds on Hag-Seed (2007), her re-working of Shakespeare’s tale The Tempest, to explore aging through the tropes of fantasy, myth and folklore.

She’s particularly concerned with sexual karma (aging people reconnecting with past lovers); entrapment; with how we ‘write’ our personal mythologies; with how the act of writing exerts its magic, its power; and with contemporary ‘folklore’ – genre writing in popular culture, whether fantasy, horror, or crime.

The last tale, ‘Torching the Dusties’, is to my mind the crowning glory: who are “the aged,” in contemporary culture? What do they represent, for us? What do they embody?

The weakest tale, on the face of it, is ‘Lusus Naturae’ (Latin for “freak of nature”), which at first seems rote – I wrote a similar tale myself, aged 22. But this is a collection, where each tale is a facet of every other, casting light and shadow, and with its Frankenstein references, fire-fuelled mob rampages, ‘Torching the Dusties’ is the obvious counterpoint to ‘Lusus Naturae’:

“When demons are required someone will always be found to supply the part, and whether you step forward or are pushed is all the same in the end”.

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These tales are so rich in mythic reference a tale by tale deconstruction would overflow a mere blog’s confines. But, as befits a collection titled Stone Mattress, the most obvious references are to Sleeping Beauty and its kin: the lover preserved, or preserved in fantasy; the lover’s kiss; the awakening. Atwood introduces ambiguities. The murderess who needs her “beauty sleep”. Who are the innocents, who the monsters? Who casts the spell, and when are spells benign?

Related, the trope of imprisonment: the lover spellbound, or cursed – the lover contained. A “stone mattress”, after all, is a stromatolite:

The word comes from the Greek stroma, a mattress, coupled with the root word for stone. Stone mattress: a fossilized cushion, formed by layer upon layer of blue-green algae building up into a mound or dome. It was the very same blue-algae that created the oxygen they are now breathing. Isn’t that astonishing?

A stromatolite, a stone mattress, is analogous to the archetypal experiences men and women have enjoyed and endured since the dawn of time. It is the very air we breathe. It is our hearts, pumping, hardening. In the tale ‘Stone Mattress,’ the old folks on a cruise ship dance to Hearts of Stone.

Stromatolite

The first three tales – ‘Alphinland’, ‘Revenant’, ‘Dark Lady’ – are a trilogy, concerning what at first presents as a dyad (Constance and Ewan) but transforms into the archetypal triangle (Constance/Gavin/Jorrie). Constance, who as “C.W. Starr” is the author of a massively successfully decades-long fantasy series set in her imagined world, Alphinland, is now a widow but was once the muse and lover of the poet Gavin, the Gawain of her youth.

Gavin has aged into a vain and cantankerous mediocrity, but Constance’s myth of Gavin lives on in Alphinland, asleep, a Sleeping Beauty, in a hidden cask – much as her husband Ewan lives on in a chest in her attic, embodied by his old clothes. (By the way – Gavin is contained within a wine cask, evoking the Duke of Clarence’s death as depicted in Shakespeare’s Richard III – drowned in a vat of Malmsey sweet wine. I don’t think it’s far-fetched to suggest a Shakespeare reference here, given Atwood referred to Shakespeare’s Richard III in Hag-Seed, and given Hag-Seed explored containment, fantasy and the deep sleeps of enchantment in its retelling of The Tempest.)

Constance conjures a number of devices for metaphorical imprisonment: in her mind are filing cabinets; her mind is a memory palace.

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Jorrie is the Dark Lady who came between Constance and Gavin, transformed in Alphinland into the Scarlet Sorceress of Ruptous (rupture, rapturous), “walled up in a stone beehive”, where “every day at twelve noon sharp, [she] is stung by a hundred emerald and indigo bees. Their stings are like white-hot needles combined with red-hot chili sauce, and the pain is beyond excruciating” – ‘Alphinland’.

Another standout is the title tale, ‘Stone Mattress’: an enchantress enacts a primordial (literally, primal) revenge on the male mortal who wronged her.

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I’m a long time, life-long, aficionado of the fantasy genre. As I keep bleating, my attempted MA thesis was on Transformation and Shapeshifting in Early Medieval Literature. I’m also a carer for an octogenarian mother, a daughter who held her father across his last hours through till his death. For me, a big part of the pleasure in reading Stone Mattress is how Atwood shifts her representation of various characters between their archetypes, their counterparts in myth – Nimue, Vivian, Bluebeard, Jessica Rabbit – and their actuality; between their spirit, as undying archetypes, and their material reality, as bodies experiencing decay.

A raven flies, overhead. Can it tell? Is it waiting? She looks down through its eyes, sees an old woman – because, face it, she is an old woman now – on the verge of murdering an even older man because of an anger already fading into the distance of used-up time. It’s paltry. It’s vicious. It’s normal. It’s what happens in life.

– ‘Stone Mattress’

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Andrew Lloyd-Greensmith, The Inner Stillness of Eileen Kramer (2017)

Sometimes the trajectory is from youth straight to decay, as in the tale within the tale in ‘The Dead Hand Loves You’ (where a female Sleeping Beauty is wakened by a monster), and ‘The Freeze-Dried Groom’ (another Sleeping Beauty – but who is the beauty, who the witch or monster?). Other times it ‘magically’ reverses: in ‘Torching the Dusties,’ a slightly ridiculous older man turns into a dignified, honorable Sir Lancelot; a cynical male pulp fiction writer is awakened by the touch of his princess (‘The Dead Hand Loves You’).

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In the tale ‘Stone Mattress’, a ‘prince’ is ‘awakened’ in the rudest terms by a girl he turned into a monster, and a male Sleeping Beauty awakened by a touch fails to recognize the princess, or even the girl, seeing only the monster:

They say dead people can’t see their own reflections, and it was true; I could not see myself. I saw something, but that was not myself: it looked nothing like the kind and pretty girl I knew myself to be, at heart.

– ‘Lusus Naturae’

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Underlying Stone Mattress is the problem of recognition: seeing through the spells, the glamours, recognizing people for who, for what, they are.

In ‘Revenant’ (which means, ‘The Dreamer’)

[…] Maria’s just a nice, ordinary high school girl making a few bucks, dime a dozen, nothing special. Hardly a nymphet, hardly the beckoning sapsucker from “Death In Venice.” […] Still, he likes the idea of Maria as the Angel of Death. He’s about due for one of those. He’d rather see an angel in his dying moment than nothing at all.

In ‘Stone Mattress’

Verna’s heart is beating more rapidly. If he recognizes me spontaneously, I won’t kill him, she thinks. If I tell him who I am and he recognizes me and then apologizes, I still won’t kill him. That’s two more escape chances than he gave her.

In ‘Dark Lady’

“She doesn’t recognize me!” Jorrie whispers. […] Who would recognize you, thinks Tin, with that layer of stucco and dragon scales on your face? […]

She [Constance] knows exactly who Jorrie is: despite the gold flakes and the bronze powder, she must have known from the first minute.

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When Constance recognizes the truth of Jorrie, the two sorceresses experience a shared moment of truth. They have the opportunity to release each other.

“We live in two places,” says Constance. “There isn’t any past in Alphinland. There isn’t any time. But there’s time here, where we are now. We still have a little time left.”

There always was “an alternate vision stashed in Constance’s inner filing cabinet, in which Constance and [Jorrie] recognized each other […] with cries of delight, and went for a coffee, and had a big bray over Gavin and his poems and his yen for blow jobs. But that never happened. ” – ‘Alphinland’.

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Even as Constance and Jorrie in ‘Dark Lady’ work through their karma, the spells that have bound them, a younger writer watches, recognizing this as her moment of power:

She’s embedding us in amber, thinks Tin. Like ancient insects. Preserving us forever. In amber beads, in amber words. Right before our eyes.

Because that’s what happens to old people. They either turn to dust, or they turn into myth.

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Margaret Atwood as Prospero


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Reviews: Gillespie and I (2011) and Sugar Money (2018) by Jane Harris

Jane Harris is a British author and screenwriter who is the same age as I am and if I were the envious kind I suppose I should hate her. Her writing is brilliant.

Her first novel, The Observations (2006) was a finalist in Britain’s Orange Prize for Fiction 2007. Her second novel, Gillespie and I (2011), is similarly set in Glasgow, where Belfast-born Harris grew up and attended university.

Harris takes obvious delight in setting herself the task of researching a time and place so thoroughly that she feels able to inhabit the first-person voices of people whose fictional lives are, on the face of it, far removed from her own lived experience: a 15 year old ladies’ maid in 1863, a deranged English spinster in 1888 and 1933, a pubescent male black slave on Grenada and Martinique in 1765.

Wait up, you say (or at least, the reviewer in The Guardian says). A pubescent male black slave in 1765? But how can a white female British author presume to take the voice of a black male slave?

We’ll get there.

First, Gillespie and I, a fictional narrative in the form of a memoir: purportedly written by one Harriet Brown, at the age of 80, in 1933, about events that occurred when she was in her 30s – well and truly on the shelf, in the marriage market of her times. Harriet starts out asserting she is writing a biography of the (fictional) Scottish artist Ned Gillespie, but it’s evident almost at once she is writing about herself, in the most self-serving terms.

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I doubt too many are clamoring to protect the authentic voice of privileged middleaged white female spinster stalkers, let alone white female stalkers who deploy the memoir form to write about the victims of their stalking. Those who have read blogs in the ‘Memoir’ category of this blogsite might be aware I am myself a middleaged, verging on elderly, white female spinster with a history as a stalker, who does write memoir pieces claiming relationships with people she has stalked.

Given the parallels between what Harriet Brown is doing and what I’ve done in blogs, Gillespie and I made for uncomfortable reading for me. But it sets out to be uncomfortable – if also, often, hilarious – reading. When I discussed it last night with friends I expressed the sanctimonious opinion it make all of us – not merely the SWF stalkers – question where in our lives we promote delusional stories about who we are and how others perceive us.

Gillespie and I is long, 501 pages. The first half is relatively restrained and sometimes feels unduly detailed and protracted (which makes sense, once you realise it’s the case for the defence). The first-person narrative voice is highly stylized, alternately prim and vitriolic, and initially I found it off-putting. In the very early stages, only a mischievous sentence in the Preface persuaded me to sign on for the duration:

“I never suspected that we were moving towards such a rapid unraveling, not only of our relationship (what with that silly white slavery business and the trial) but also of his [the artist Gillespie’s] entire fate.”

The unravelling, which commences at the halfway point, is rapid indeed. The second half of the book is faultless, a wild savage scamper to a vicious end.

Harris seeds her text with other teasers to make us persist in the early parts of the tale, and by about page 135 I was hooked by the malevolent humour and originality. And the cleverness. Such a very clever text!

I read a review that described Gillespie and I as a “masterpiece of misdirection”. That phrase prompted me to seek out this title, but I suspect that critic misunderstands the term “misdirection”. It has a legal sense, not pertinent to this novel (although it becomes a courtroom drama); it also has a meaning specific to magic tricks. Misdirection, as neatly summarized on Wiki, is “a form of deception in which the attention of the audience is focused on one thing in order to distract its attention from another” – a technique to facilitate sleight of hand.

Gillespie and I does not do that. What Gillespie and I does is create what I’ll call a double narrative, a shadow narrative that reads counter to the narrator’s intentions. Quickly we recognize that this narrator is not merely unreliable: she is so far divorced from ‘truth’ that she’s lost its address. She is either completely self-serving, without conscience, or she is delusional. She’s attempting to reclaim a narrative she’s long since lost control over: she writes untruths that the truth glares through.

Reading ‘Harriet Brown’ made me seriously consider deleting every memoir blog post I’ve written.

My friends asked whether Gillespie and I has a point, as in a moral. I suppose I could take as its moral something like “Be careful how you speak (or write) about other people; what you say about others speaks more loudly of who you are’. But I don’t believe Jane Harris set out to write a fable. Instead, I read Gillespie and I as a strikingly wicked gothic fairytale about the havoc evil forces can wreak on the unsuspecting. Harriet Brown, with her hooked nose, her tall hats, her garb of grey and purple and black, is a witch, a nightmare witch.

She calls to mind the Scottish bedtime prayer; “From ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggity beasties and things that go bump in the night, good Lord deliver us.”

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Like Gillespie and I, Sugar Money is told by a first person narrator, in an act of ventriloquism requiring huge amounts of research. As with Gillespie and I, the first person voice is highly stylized, in this case employing dialect: Creole phrases and sentences, a mélange of French, English and African linguistic elements.

Again, I found the first person voice initially so offputting I almost gave up. I’m glad I didn’t.

The Guardian’s reviewer disliked this book absolutely: she objected to a white writer speaking as a black slave; she argued the stories of black slavery are not the white writer’s to tell; she believed the use of the classic adventure genre (think Treasure Island) was inappropriate to such a serious subject; she felt the way the tale unfolded was initially way too soft in its depiction of the conditions of slavery, and that by the time Harris laid it out in explicit ugliness it was too little, too late; she proposed that black writers have addressed the issues raised in Sugar Money more powerfully, more authentically, such that the white writer added nothing of value.

Also, specifically, that reviewer felt the romance is “underdone” (is it proper to write about slavery with reference to the romance genre?); and that issues are touched on in mere sentences where Toni Morrison would take pages, whole books.

As a SWF – a SWSF, Single White Spinster Female, a SSWFS (Spinster Single White Female Stalker, no less – I can’t argue with those perspectives. Except I will, to say (1) Jane Harris did not set out to write books already written by Toni Morrison – if she alludes to abuses such as black slave couples being forcibly split up without making it her novel’s central issue, it’s because it is not her novel’s central issue; and (2) there will be those of us who, having read Toni Morrison, and others, still find value in Sugar Money, who will learn much we did not know previously, and are stimulated by the particulars of this time and place – the Caribbean, late C18th – to learn more.

I found Sugar Money affecting and educative. It was also entertaining, though perhaps it is not appropriate for a novel about black slavery to entertain?

I’m out of step with the current orthodoxies here. If a novel is properly researched and sensitively written, I don’t myself have a problem with the author’s demographic or ethnicity. But that’s easy for me to say: I’m speaking from a culturally dominant position.

From that culturally dominant position, my own perspective is: What is the novel, if not the creative exercise of empathy? From that perspective, the questions for me become: did the author succeed in engaging me, entertaining me, moving me, enlightening me, encouraging me to find out more? For me, the answer here is YES.

On the other hand: is the choice to use the first person voice of a fictional character so radically different (in race, gender, historical location) from the author primarily a showy literary move, a bravura performance?

It seems to me to come down to: Is a tale about black slaves in the Caribbean off limits altogether for a white author? If not, can it be told another way, without foregrounding the colonial experience, without making white characters central?

Attempting to write from ‘within’ any historical experience is fraught, even with the most thorough research. Historical subjectivity is immeasurably different from contemporary worldviews.

The cultural appropriation debate will continue. For me, I’m grateful writers with the immense talents of Jane Harris are attempting to re-present historical mores. Even if she is a WF.

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Jane Harris – portrait of the artist as a White Female?