Review: Hot Milk by Deborah Levy

hot-milkLook, I’m just going to come straight out and say it: why is Hot Milk shortlisted for the Booker? Deborah Levy’s slight story of a mother and daughter having a rubbish holiday in southern Spain starts off reasonably sensibly, with the reader’s sympathies for narrator Sofia firmly established as she details her life with a hypochondriac mother, who may or may not suffer from a debilitating condition that renders her unable to walk. Except that sometimes she does walk. Which is confusing.

It seemed pretty clear to me that Rose, the mother from hell, was pretending not to be able to walk just to torment Sofia, who suffers from a paralysis of her own: a metaphorical one which means she talks about anthropology a lot but never actually does any. Sofia blames her mother for the fact that she ha to abandon her PhD but if her thesis was going to be anywhere near as meandering as her narrative, I can’t see her attaining a serious career in academia anyway.

Here’s the main problem; although nothing particularly unbelievable happens in Hot Milk (insofar as anything happens at all), the dialogue is so clunky and unrealistic that I ended up squinting at it to see it the words on the page were really as bad as the words I seemed to be processing. Having embarked on a lesbian love affair that seems to come out of nowhere, Sofia enjoys such lyrical conversations as this:

“You should make something with your hands.”
“Like what?”
“A bridge.”

In case you’re wondering, no: this doesn’t make any more sense in the context of the novel. The only speech that really makes sense comes on the three thousand occasions when Rose says, “get me some water, Sofia,” but then that’s so rude it made me want to smack myself round the head with this book in case that got me out of reading it.

All in all, I was not impressed with Hot Milk. Clearly this means it will probably win the Booker. If you’re after a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship, I’d steer you in the direction of Elizabeth McKenzie’s The Portable Veblen, which is far more entertaining and manages to make more sense despite the frequency with which the main character talks to squirrels.

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Review: A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallaro

a study in charlotte.jpgI remember seeing a lot of chat about this book when it came out earlier in the year, which seems to have died down a little; I’d like to give it a little bump because it is very entertaining indeed.

Aside from having a cleverly punnish title, A Study in Charlotte is really smart. Cavallaro creates a world in which Sherlock Holmes and Watson were actual, real people, and Watson’s accounts of their escapades were published (rather than written) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Holmes’ descendants are, like him, legendary both as detectives and drug users, while the Watsons are a more sensible and less attention-seeking group. The Charlotte of the title is a Holmes, Sherlock’s great-great-great-granddaughter, and the story comes courtesy of Jamie Watson, her counterpart in the other famous family. They find themselves at the same Connecticut private school but have little time to forge a functional friendship before they both find themselves implicated in a murder investigation.

I really liked the way Cavallaro worked with the Holmes/Watson relationship here; Charlotte has a lot of the destructive instincts shared by her famous predecessor, while Jamie is somewhat more balanced but still in possession of an unpredictable streak. The chemistry between the two characters is spiky and often confrontational, as well as funny. Charlotte is difficult and sometimes rude, all of which made me really love her quite a lot.

The story is clever too, with plenty of nods towards Conan Doyle’s works; the mysterious killer’s use of aspects of the stories creates a fun, if occasionally sick, guessing game for the reader, and I enjoyed playing detective myself to work out which of the Sherlock Holmes adventures were being referenced. The mystery is executed really well, keeping the reader guessing till the end. I liked how Cavallaro manages to pay affectionate tribute to Conan Doyle’s stories without descending into parody. Somehow the outlandish premise of teenagers assisting Scotland Yard with the solving of crimes doesn’t actually seem that crazy when you’re immersed in the book, which is pretty impressive.

I’m already looking forward to the next in the series, The Last of August, which is due for publication in February 2017. Obviously, I am less pleased that I have to wait so long. But if you haven’t read A Study in Charlotte already, I really recommend it; it’s fresh and fun, and pays a really loving tribute to a great set of classics.

Review: The Sellout by Paul Beatty

the-selloutFourth on my reading list of Booker-shortlisted novels was Paul Beatty’s The Sellout. By pure coincidence, it’s the first from the list I’ve read which was written by a man; for once, not a feminist decision but one dictated by how soon the library fulfilled my eager requests. Of the three I’d read already, Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing was slightly edging it. Let’s see how The Sellout compares.

Beatty’s novel centres on a man called Me, presumably chosen in order to add humour to his Supreme Court case, which is consequently named Me Vs The United States of America. Elsewhere, Me is called BonBon, a childhood nickname that stuck; we never find out his real first name. Which makes writing about the book a little more complicated. So, what has this mysteriously unnamed character been up to? Well, after his suburb of Los Angeles is removed from the map, he takes it upon himself to reinstate it. Initially, this means redrawing the city limits. Then a clearly deranged former child star decides he wants to be the narrator’s slave. Then he decides that resegregation is a good idea.

My first thought on The Sellout was that it was ten thousand times better than Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters, which has a slightly linked premise involving slavery. The idea of privilege is one that wraps my brain up in knots sometimes, but reading Underground Airlines made me feel slightly uncomfortable, like I was reading something that maybe shouldn’t have been written in the first place. The Sellout‘s approach to race is far more compelling, with a more authentic-sounding voice, which makes sense given that Beatty is black and Winters is not. The Sellout is deeply satirical, and sometimes I wasn’t exactly sure what it was meant to be satirising; the character of Hominy, who seems to long for a return to a pre-civil rights movement way of life, is the driving force behind much of the shocking race-related content, and I felt his obvious delusion made this quite confusing. The local bus is resegregated because he is desperate to give up his seat for a white person, and then frustrated because no white people actually get on the bus. The sign dictating the giving up of a seat stays on, however, and this leads to better social conduct on the bus, supposedly because the passengers (who are all black or Mexican) feel reminded of how far they’ve come in terms of their rights. I presume, then, that Beatty is satirising the attitude that oppressed people should just feel grateful for the progress that’s been made rather than fighting for true equality. This is an excellent point, and it’s cleverly made: maybe a little too cleverly.

Of the Booker shortlist novels I’ve read so far, The Sellout is easily the best written. I’ve never read Beatty before and I was in awe of the dizzying nature of the early chapters; it’s not always easy to work out what’s happening (and, sometimes, nothing is) but the humour and skewering of attitudes and cultures are on point. In its precision, The Sellout is the polar opposite of the meandering Hot Milk, also nominated for the big prize.

Although I’m not entirely sure that I grasped The Sellout completely (for example, I have found since reading that the Little Rascals, the show Hominy was part of, was a real thing, which I had no idea of when I was reading), I was really impressed by it. If the point of satire is to shock the reader and inspire action, I think it’s definitely effective in that respect. I might just need to read it again to fully appreciate it. It’s a very strong contender for the Booker, in this reader’s opinion.

Review: Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

do not say we have nothing.jpgMy second venture into the 2016 Man Booker shortlist was Do Not Say We Have Nothing, Madeleine Thien’s historical epic which takes the Chinese Cultural Revolution as its main backdrop. I don’t really know anything about Chinese history so I was looking forward to this novel as an educational experience as well as a fascinating family saga.

Initially, I found this really difficult to get into; the novel begins in the 1990s, with the ostensible narrator Marie as a ten-year-old, welcoming a surprise guest into the Toronto home she has shared with just her mother since her father left them, returned to China and died. So there’s something of a mystery at the heart of Do Not Say We Have Nothing, as Marie gradually finds out more about her father, his life and his disappearance. Ai-Ming, the sudden visitor, is fleeing China after the protests at Tiananmen Square, and has some information to share about their shared background.

All this intrigued me. The problem was that, very quickly, the narrative shifts to the historical, beginning with past generations of Ai-Ming’s family and their struggles in 1960s China. Perhaps my ignorance regarding this era was the problem, but it took me a very long time to build any interest in this increasingly lengthy part of the book; I eventually did, but then found the sections set in the modern era dull and irrelevant, so basically there’s just no pleasing me. During the larger chunk of the novel, I found that there was too much of a disconnect between the two eras being described, with the more modern one not really offering very much in the way of narrative interest. As events, both historical and fictional, come to their climax, however, the book becomes far more coherent and engaging.

What really struck me about Do Not Say We Have Nothing was its depiction of a country in which people had no real choice in their trajectory of their lives, and for long periods lived in fear that they would be deemed dangerous and sent to a labour camp. Even as this danger alleviates, characters are still separated from their loved ones by arbitrary government decisions, which affected me deeply. The last 100 pages of the novel were really compelling and made me want to read more about this period in Chinese history. I was struck by the extent to which the treatment of the students at Tiananmen Square, as well as the dictatorial activities of the government, seemed to belong in a dystopian novel rather than a historical one.

I’ve now read two of the six books on the Booker shortlist and, although both are very good in their own right, I’ve not found either of them particularly outstanding. I’m holding all serious contemporary fiction up to the standard of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Here I Am at the moment, given that it is one of the best books I’ve read this year and, shockingly, wasn’t even longlisted for the Booker (if my understanding of the rules is correct, it would have been eligible). Neither Eileen nor Do Not Say We Have Nothing is at the level of Here I Am, in my opinion, although Thien’s novel, in terms of sheer scope, is edging it so far in my consideration of the shortlist. I think this may change with my next foray into the list: Paul Beatty’s The Sellout.