Monday, 29 August 2016

Booker Longlist: The North Water

Booker Longlist: The North Water: Ian McGuire

My favourite so far of the books I’ve read on the longlist, Ian McGuire’s novel about a doomed C19 whaling expedition is a powerful, poetic and utterly compelling piece of work. McGuire’s undoubtedly extravagant appetite for gore is balanced brilliantly by the precision of his observations. There is nothing in this novel that seems lazy, or skimmed. Each insight is hard fought and worth having.
No-one on board this ‘unlucky’ ship is without flaw. From the corrupt and impotent Captain Brownlee through to the casual savagery of Henry Drax and the disgraced yet somehow decent Patrick Sumner, opium-addicted former surgeon in the British Army in Delhi, the characters are drawn into violence as if it were a climate. Violence is the flux of this novel, the medium in which it operates. And, if it is a climate, then it is aptly reflected in the scouring atmospheric layers of the novel’s environments: the harsh exactitude of being at sea is precisely matched by Arctic’s frozen indifference as the ship is stranded and its crew pitched onto the ice.
McGuire’s prose recalls Conrad, Melville, Hemingway and latterly Cormac McCarthy. This is a novel of masculinity, a novel of relentless action. There is no time for reflection, philosophy, nice consideration. Humanity is perforce as brutal and as harsh as the weather.
Among the many qualities that mark the novel out as original is the fact that the characters do not develop, and this is not perceived by the reader as a shortcoming, but rather an insight. There is no space for these men to develop. They remain resolutely themselves. However much we want to believe in the human capacity for change, for redemption, for forgiveness, in the end McGuire suggests, human beings have very little room for manoeuvre, either because of their character, their background, or their circumstances. And this is, at its heart, a merciful, quite tender observation. It seems Niezschean – indeed the novel begins: Behold the man - even melodramatic, but it emerges as a serious, subtle and even compassionate assessment of humanity. Drax and Sumner are pitched against each other, throughout the novel, but this is not a battle of good against evil, or the survival of the fittest. Their differences are as intransigent as their strangeness, as unique and particular as their histories. They are who they are: original, flawed, human.
The North Water is a book that had it merely been described to me, would have left me cold. But I loved it. It is a dark, sharp, beautiful novel, full of elemental potency. I recommend it to you with all my heart and deeply hope it makes the shortlist.

The copyright of this post belongs to Claire Steele

Sunday, 28 August 2016

The Booker Longlist: Eileen

Booker Longlist: Eileen: Otessa Moshfegh

It’s a dangerously risky strategy to make the eponymous protagonist of your novel someone deeply dislikeable, and in Moshfegh’s novel, Eileen doesn’t even like herself. The novel swivels between her interior and exterior life, daring us to find either of them appealing. Eileen lives with her father, an alcoholic sociopathic, paranoid ex-policeman, who carries a gun with him, even when he goes to the toilet. Externally, she is flat, wears a ‘death-mask’ works in a correction centre for boys, and observes herself and her co-workers with pitiless scrutiny. She constructs pointless yet curiously tender questionnaires for the mothers of these boys, stalks the most handsome of the guards, conducts a furtive sex life based on fantasy and reading her father’s pornography and seeks and finds a route out of her confinement.
The novel is told retrospectively, with Eileen reflecting on how she makes her escape. What does it take to release a woman in the 1960s from the torpor of a life of domesticity and secretarial work? asks Moshfegh. The answers are depressingly bleak: resistance – Eileen refuses to keep house for her father, they live in an antagonistic squalor exchanging only abuse, the possession of the gun and alcohol; violence – the moment for release comes 200 or so pages into this novel of 250 pages; and beauty – of a certain shiny variety that it seems almost impossible to place in this determinedly hostile novel.
Moshfegh creates a world that challenges our willingness to believe in it; a world so resolutely sordid that when glamour enters it in the form of Rebecca a psychologist at the centre, it enters in a form that seems cliched, disappointingly romantic, puzzlingly out of place. We keep expecting that Rebecca will be the catalyst for action, but in the end it is Eileen who navigates her own release, and Rebecca is no more potent than Randy the handsome guard (yes, really, Randy).
So what are its virtues? Whatever they are, I think they are slight and you have to be a very generous reader to find them. It’s a novel that seems, like its protagonist, addicted to its own repugnancy.  It is written with a sort of shimmering disgust similar to that Eileen feels at her own sexuality. Eileen’s relationship with her own body is violent: she fantasises rape (the 'soulful' kind) she starves herself, celebrates her ‘ugliness’ by wearing her dead mother’s clothing and is obsessed by her bowel. The trouble is, it all gets a bit boring, to be in the presence of someone who so consistently dislikes herself.
There is something brave about being so consistently desolate perhaps. And Moshfegh’s voice is distinctly her own. She brings to her writing an occasional lyricism, that lifts the novel from being entirely awful. There are moments of tenderness, and clarity, even moments of stark beauty. But, if I'm honest, they didn’t really do it for me, in the end.

The copyright of this post belongs to Claire Steele

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Booker Longlist: All That Man Is

Booker Longlist: All That Man Is: David Szalay

David Szalay’s collection of short stories that announce themselves as depicting collectively all that man is, centres around the twin obsessions of sex and money, which would be merely tiresome and disappointing, were it not for the fact that Szalay is so bracingly fresh when it comes to social relationship. In each of these nine stories he manages to convey an impressively vivid array of shades of awkwardness. From a disgraced billionaire sharing a microwave TV dinner with his bodyguard to the cheerfully nuanced schadenfreude of the journalist charged with informing an eminent politician that news of his affair with a married woman is about to break, from the academic clumsily pressing his girlfriend to have an abortion, to the old man trying to reverse out of a one way street, Szalay suggests that if the Inuit have fifty words for snow, contemporary man must have at least that number for discomfiture. 
What Szalay’s men all share in common is a certain ennui, a lack of real agency. They are all dislocated, away from home, distanced from their own power, out in the uncertain world utterly exhausted by it. The men in these stories are European men in England, or English men in Europe, timely at this moment when we are trying to work out where we might belong and what masculinity and power look like, stripped back to the basics.
The title, taken from Yeats’s Byzantium, prompts us to look for themes like immortality, ‘death-in-life and life-in-death’, decadence, ambiguity, the artifice of eternity. And they are all here, lodged in the text like a kind of music. Roughed up with gratuitous violence, dulled through the filter of alcohol, but still recognisably here, sweetly offering a counterpoint to the futility of the present situation. They are here in the repeated conceits: the tarot cards, the linking of the first and last stories, stabs at suggesting repetition rather than unity between these lives. And they are here in the moments when the men take themselves out of their own stories and lose themselves, momentarily in insights gleaned from the world, or from beauty.
So in Szalay’s reckoning of all that man is, what are we invited to conclude? That he is lonely, in the sense that he is existentially alone. He cannot connect so he surrounds himself with the trappings of power, which even he sees as chimerical. He is deeply unspiritual, moved by instinct rather than genius. He is vulnerable, as surprised by his mercurial desires as by his misreadings. Here are men defined by the women they can bed, the drink they can take, the pain they can stand, the money they can make and lose. So far, so ho hum.
And yet the characters, for all their unsettling dispiritedness, are entirely believable. We know these men (we have endured their company too many times for it to be entirely pleasurable to meet them again) we recognise them, and yet in spite of their shortcomings, Szalay tactfully, gracefully, encourages in us a curious sympathy for them. They move through the present – the same indefinite days we must all pass through – apparently baffled by the endless possibilities that propose themselves to contemporary man.
We sympathise with them because, in spite of their jaded relationships, they are restless. In some simple, barely formulated way they all trying to understand their condition, and they understand it in distinctly cultural terms. They are variously reading Dante, JK Rowling, Henry James. The Russian oligarch’s bodyguard has a copy of Titian’s Allegory of Prudence upon his wall. Here they seek to supply for themselves what is missing in their lives: spiritual wisdom, a bit of magic, engagement, a past a present and a future.
All That Man Is is a book of scrupulous attention. The texture of experience, of the lives of these men is thoroughly and economically written. There is scarcely a word out of place. Its rhythms belie its energy. It seems lethargic, mired in disappointment, yet it is buoyant with its own sense of observation. Like Yeats’ poem, it looks haphazard, random, certainly not a novel, yet technically it is a feat to be admired. Would I recommend it? I’m not sure I liked it enough. Does it illuminate something larger than itself? It’s certainly clever, but in the end I think it might be more artifice than miracle.

The copyright of this post belongs to Claire Steele

Sunday, 31 July 2016

Booker Longlist 2016: Hot Milk

Booker Longlist 2016: Hot Milk Deborah Levy

It’s that time of the year again, the Booker longlist is announced and bestows upon us a veritable sumptuary of novels to sink into, it’s enough to make one take to one’s bed. And the temptations of Hot Milk, Deborah Levy’s latest novel, are sufficient to keep me there. Sofia and her mother Rose, have come to Spain on a last ditch attempt to understand and relieve Rose’s incomprehensible and intermittent paralysis. Mythic, lyric, thoughtful, Hot Milk is a novel that asks what does it mean to be female? What does it mean to be well? What does it mean to be powerful?
Let’s start with the title, which offers itself initially as perhaps the most off-putting thing about the novel. I dislike the title, and yet, I concede, it’s perfect: even the fact that it makes me feel a bit queasy is perfect. Like her previously Booker listed novel Swimming Home, this is a novel which works like a poem, layering up its meanings in indirect and powerful ways. The novel is certainly hot. Set largely in Spain, on an unshaded beach, bordered by a sea full of medusa jellyfish, it is saturated in sunshine. Its concerns with the body ensure that it is hot in two other senses of that term, both erotically charged, and stolen, as the scenes between Sophia and her two lovers are stolen from the timeline of the central narrative. And Sofia’s life is ‘stolen’ from her by her mother; Sofia must steal a fish; Rose complains that she has been ‘robbed’ (of her illness and her money) by the idiosyncratic and charismatic Doctor Gomez. And then there’s milk – the primary connection between mother and child, and a vigorous nod to the feminist literary critic Cixous (whose work The Laugh of the Medusa explores women’s writing, women’s bodies, women’s sexuality through, among other things, references to white ink or mother’s milk). Who knew Hot Milk could be so sexy? Helen Cixous did, and Deborah Levy does. And by the end of the novel, we are in no doubt that this apparently mild title packs a hypnotic, sweetly seductive charge.
The main themes of the novel are identity, savagery, malady, truth. It is hard for women, Levy suggests, to discern the difference between what is real and what is not. On the one hand this is a novel set in the recognisably real, a political and geographical landscape which is harsh, true and irreducible. On the other, everything has a dreamlike quality. Everything is symbolic. We are in the realm of the psychologically real: true in the sense that myth is true. We are dealing here, Levy proposes, not with the body, but with what the body is made to mean. Things look stable until they shatter: the laptop screen, the reproduction Greek vase, the man in the women’s toilet, who turns out to be a woman, Ingrid, who is a seamstress re-inventing cast-offs, embroidering them with words that seem to say one thing but might just as well be saying another. The fabric of Ingrid’s creations is slippery, sensual, kind to the body. But like the other acts of compassion in this novel, her gifts are shot through with a thread of menace. In order not to be disabled, Levy suggests, women have to be bold, to behave badly, to break the structures that seem to hold them steady.
It’s not a flawless novel. It seems to lose pace in the middle section when Sofia goes to Greece to reconnect with her absent father. Yet it is an important section, which prompts us to reflect on how the figure of the daughter is constructed not just in relation to the mother but also in relation to a stepmother only barely older than herself, and a baby half-sister who might be thought to supplant her, but actually is beloved by her. And in that space – Greece - we have cause to re-examine the word, beloved, and think again about what it means to be an object of affection.
But for all this, Hot Milk is a novel which wears its themes lightly. It is funny, intimate, bright. The relationships are drawn with a sureness of touch that makes even the dislikeable characters likeable. It draws on its mythic and intellectual inheritances with a good deal of grace, wears them well, repurposes them in ways that seem both chic and canny. Do I hope it makes the shortlist? For sure. Do I recommend it to you? absolutely.

The copyright of this post belongs to Claire Steele

Wednesday, 2 March 2016


Untouchable. In your badger-skin vest, I see you moving through a frozen landscape, surviving on roadkill, earthdirt and diesel. Your breath in the cold air still capable of melting my hot-wired heart. The bodies of moles sag from barbed wire. A crow bounces on the snow. Haemon, son of Eurydice, how very like a God you seem in this dark place. Humpty Dumpty, teetering on the brink, desperate for love but too weak to enjoy it. I think of myself kissing the hem of your garments, sucking out the car fumes, the dirty power of you. Illuminations flicker in my mind's eye. Music static mistakes my shaking chest for a heartbeat. Nevertheless, somewhere the truth  flashes on and off inside me.
You move along the edge of the wall like a dog on a carcass, getting to the place where I can meet you. It's high time, you tell me, and a warehouse falls apart in my head. Walls collapse into a slow rain of soot. Parked cars burst into flame. I can fix it, you say. Fix it so subtly no-one will notice. And here you are, singing love songs to me in the dark to the tune of Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall. It is both creepy and erotic. I push my hands into the junction between your own ghost and your flesh, and long for it to be a day again, like any other. Like all the rest. Haemon at the mouth of the cave, my loyal retainer. Made of heart and bone; made of gloss and treebark. Let's make a new history, a new mythology. Just one more time. Take me down.

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Tea with Cordelia

In this seaside conservatory, running with rain, I sit with Cordelia and her sisters, smoking cigarettes and eating fruitcake and wondering what it would be like to be kissed by them.
Cordelia, who dresses like a man with good intentions, winks her one true eye at me. She has her reasons, I am sure. She blows smoke rings at me across the glass room, and beckons me to sit in her lap.
'Come here' she whispers, hoarsely, and hitches up her skirt. Her knees above her men's socks are white and scarred.
'I will feed you chili cup cakes so that your mouth will taste both sweet and hot.'
Awe flips into fear. Or is it the other way around? Cordelia's mouth is old and dry with crumbs sticking to it. She is nasty in the way all tainted things are. Even the breath of her is as sweet as a sucked pastille.
Once I am on her knee, she rocks us, and makes me fish down the front of her bodice for the photo she keeps there of her blind lover. They had, she tells me again and again, but one good eye between them. 'Kissing him' she says pursing her antique lips into the memory, 'was irresistibly bad.'
I look at the creases of him, try to puzzle out what is being erased.
He had begged leave to bring her flowers, roses perhaps or passion flowers. Chinese lanterns or crysanthemums.
'Flowers.' She spits into the fire 'I'd much rather he had pinned me against a rough wall and delivered me a big bunch of shuddering thrills.' And she pinches my leg.
It is an almost belligerent way of being happy. Think what you will, but when Cordelia and her sisters light each other's cigarettes, in this conservatory, overlooking the sea, I close my eyes and breathe it all in, and I think nothing could be sexier, more cheerfully wicked than this.

The copyright of this post belongs to Claire Steele

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Booker Longlist: The Moor's Account

Story and storytelling is at the heart of Laila Lalami's beautiful third novel The Moor's Account. The ability to tell a good story, she urges, is a life-saving skill.
The novel reimagines the first encounters between the Spanish Conquistadores and the Americas, and tells the story from the perspective of a Moroccan slave. It is a work of remarkable seductive persuasion. Lalami presents us with  one of the most compellingly wonderful characters of this year's Booker longlist, the vibrant, flawed, brave and resourceful: Mustafa ibn Muhammad ibn Abdussalam al-Zamori, sold into slavery and renamed as Estebanico. His account is satisfying on so many levels: it is lively  and direct, in the way of folk wisdom. It takes its rhythms from The Arabian Nights; it is laced with insight and compassion. His account is deeply concerned with morality. A slave to greed before he is made a slave, Mustafa's personal story includes him selling slaves for profit before in an act of humility and self sacrifice he sells himself so that his family might have the means of survival.
In Spain he is stripped of his identity and his dignity: 'the first of many erasures' but his ability with language makes him indispensible to Castilian explorers who depend on his skills to negotiate with the various tribes they encounter. Greed and betrayal underpin much of the narrative action, but Lalami suggests that storytelling is itself a moral act,  indeed, it surpasses that: it is act of faith. And as an act of faith it leads us to the truth, and to a life lived under the eye of God. The novel closes with the following:
"Maybe there is no true story, only imagined stories, vague reflections of what we saw and what we heard, what we felt and what we thought. Maybe if our experiences, in all their glorious, magnificent colours, were somehow added up, they would lead us to the blinding light of the truth. To God belong the east and the west: whichever way you turn, there is the face of God. God is great." Without the saving grace of story we are deeply imperilled and spiritually lost.
This is a novel which rings with all the pleasures of the profoundly familiar and the brilliantly imagined. To read it is to rediscover who we are, what shames us, and what redeems us.

The copyright of this post belongs to Claire Steele