Helen Oyeyemi is becoming one of our most adept demythologizers, constantly teasing out the loose ends of old stories to see what room there may be for new interpretations. Her previous novel, Mr Fox, concerns an author who is persuaded by his imaginary muse to invent variations on the Bluebeard tales that are his stock in trade. The muse hopes they can reach a deeper understanding of the violence in his work, thereby altering its deadly dynamic. Before Mr Fox, Oyeyemi published contemporary treatments of the ghost story, in The Icarus Girl, and the haunted house story, in White is for Witching. As her career progresses, she is developing into the kind of writer A.S. Byatt described in Possession, one whose strong readings of stories seem “wholly new”, while appearing to have been “always there”. In her latest book this is even more strikingly apparent. Boy, Snow, Bird reimagines ‘Snow White’, that tale of mothers and mirrors, and sets it in America at the birth of the civil rights movement. As old as the story is, and as often as it has been reworked, Oyeyemi finds meanings that we have failed to notice, even when they were staring us in the face.
Many of the characters in Boy, Snow, Bird show what is often called inhuman cruelty to one another, but Oyeyemi assigns the traditional evil of the Grimm Brothers’ story to the mirror, and not, finally, to any of them. The mirror’s insidious question, “Who is the fairest of them all?”, lies behind everything that happens in this novel where people are obsessed with surface appearance and no one looks the way they feel. As in Angela Carter’s refashioned tales in which monsters are, as the critic Lorna Sage saw, “marinated in being” (that wolf-man eating a young girl is also an image of famine), so here the mirror retains its shaman power, while being unmistakably, a product of poisonous human relations. Oyeyemi reinvigorates her narratives – the fairy tale, and the ugliness of racism in postwar America – by concentrating on those elements that have the potential to change our view of the story, particularly the enigma of origins. As it transpires in two shocking revelations, no one in Boy, Snow, Bird is who or what they seem.
The book is structured in three parts and begins with Boy – a girl of whitest hair and blackest eyes, but also just a “jumpy kid” with a hardboiled attitude – describing her wretched, motherless, life with her father in New York. He is a rat catcher, as terrifying as any Hamelin piper or demon to come out of the ancient German forests, but whose sinister cast is more suggestive of the mean streets of twentieth century America. After he ties Boy up in the basement and assaults her with his rats, she flees, taking a bus to the end of the line in Flax Hill, Massachusetts, where she finds lodging in an all-women boarding house (a nod to Little Women, the first story Oyeyemi rewrote as an adolescent). She starts dating a widower, Arturo Whitman, who, like many of the townspeople, is a craftsman. One night on a back street, outside a brambled house wreathed in the “the smell of baking chocolate-chip cookies”, she catches a glimpse of his beautiful daughter, Snow. Something about the child and this set-up seems staged, a falseness all the more disturbing for being oddly familiar.
Oyeyemi – a reader of Jack Zipes and Marina Warner – manages expertly to insert her fairy tale into a modern landscape. Flax Hill has some of Hitchcock’s small town uneasiness and its craftsmen, a medieval quality that is part worker drone, part wizard (Arturo makes Boy strange jewelry in the shape of snakes and chains); one woman is described as “corpselike” until a man comes along to awaken her “vivacity”. There are dissident elements, too, people not slumbering in the past but living ahead of their time, and seeming oddball because of it. Boy forms friendships with the independent woman running the bookshop who allows black kids to bunk off school and read her books without paying for them. And there is Mia, a journalist, writing an idiosyncratic article (“wacky”, Boy calls it) about the secret life of blondes.
Boy’s sympathies are with these outliers and “imposters”, but she marries Arturo because of the stability he offers, becoming step-mother to Snow. Arturo’s mother, Olivia, is enchanted by the strangely alluring child, but Boy remains distrustful, finding her words empty, her daintiness menacing. When Boy’s own child, Bird, is born “coloured”, these suspicions are confirmed: the Whitmans are exposed as liars, passing for white, and the fair Snow, a product of their “calculated breeding”. Boy’s reaction is cruel and to type: she rejects her stepdaughter, sending her to live with Arturo’s darker sister, who, as a child, was herself sent away from home in order to preserve the family myth of whiteness.
During a recent talk at a London bookshop, Oyeyemi said she revised Boy, Snow, Bird after watching Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino’s film set in the run-up to the American Civil War. She did not say what prompted the alterations, but in the film, the man who buys Django out of slavery tells him the legend of Siegfried, and hails him as just such a hero. The story helps Django to see himself in a new light and encourages him in his quest for freedom. In the same way, in Boy, Snow, Bird old stories are constantly shared, tested and reinvented in an effort to shape the present: Boy collaborates with Mia on her blondes article, adding a fable about a serpentine woman who will not yield to any man’s image of her – the baleful snake from her bracelet becoming now a sign of strength; while Snow doubts the probability of Cinderella’s subservience to her step-mother.
Yet this is also a novel about stories that should not be disseminated. In this, it shares ground with Carter’s novel Shadow Dance (1965), in which she introduces another manipulative, vacuous girl, worshipped by all for her white beauty. In an act of sheer authorial rage, Carter crucifies her, attempting to kill off this undying nightmare of the feminine ideal. The fate Oyeyemi deals to Snow is not lethal, but she is sent away to her aunt for re-education, and held at bay in the story – her white heat too incinerating for those she comes into contact with. Boy’s daughter Bird takes over the narration after Snow leaves Flax Hill, and the sisters exchange letters, although the younger girl remains uncertain if Snow is “phony”. Unlike Carter’s blonde, who is clueless about her meaning, Snow senses the poison within her and is spooked by it. Her dawning understanding of what she represents is one of the few signs of progress that we have made in the fifty years that separates the two novels – though Oyeyemi still makes a point of not allowing Snow her turn to narrate, leaving Boy to play out the story.
In the final section Mia tracks down Boy’s mother, whose life turns out to have been the cruellest of all, and the women are brought together in a bid to rescue her. In the last sentence Boy says of her mother-in-law Olivia, “I told her to wait there, and that we’d be back for her”, demonstrating her control over Olivia’s deforming story, but also making a narrative promise that there can be a way out of the myth she has constructed, that no one need be left behind in its rotten plot. Except, perhaps, for the troubling Snow. The ending is ambiguous and doubt remains over whether she will be released from her quarantine – as if Oyeyemi were acknowledging that some characters cannot be made over and there are, after all, limits to the power of demythologizing.
This review appeared in the TLS on 21.3.2014 as ‘Whitest Hair and Blackest Eyes’.
Here’s a link to my Al Jazeera article: “As awards near, Oscar refusenik Luise Rainer stands out for her defiance“.
The new VIDA count of gender parity in book reviewing revealed today that the while the situation at many small literary magazines and journals – and at the prestigious Paris Review – has improved, nothing much has changed at the New York Review of Books or the London Review of Books. In both magazines in 2013, female reviewers comprised roughly a quarter of male, and books by women were reviewed only a third as often as books by men. This, despite the fact that the latest report on the subject confirms women read more.
Radio 4’s Open Book recently featured a segment on women’s writing and reviewing, discussing the outcry - lead by Kathryn Heyman - at the LRB’s poor showing in the VIDA index, and looking at the Twitter campaign, #ReadWomen2014, begun by Joanna Walsh (@Badaude), which draws attention to the continued neglect of women writers. The LRB were unable to appear on Open Book but sent a letter to the programme to explain their position. Although their letter has not been published (despite many requests), thanks to Viv Groskop, who transcribed it, we know what the LRB thinks the problem is: “Women find it difficult to do their jobs, look after their children, cook dinner and write pieces.” “Men”, on the other hand: “are not so frightened of asserting themselves. And they’re not so anxious to please.”
How else to read this other than as provocation? Rather than taking the opportunity to reflect upon why in the twenty first century, a magazine like the LRB – devoted to literature and politics – features so few women, they react as if they are under attack and come out fighting: “Counting is a feminist weapon”, they assert. But the implication is that it’s a blunt one, which those incapable of literary nuance resort to in order to make their argument. While women may be weapon-wielding in the eyes of the LRB, they are, at the same time, poorly armed when it comes to the job of criticism: “They often prefer not to write critically about other women.” Finally the LRB insist that there are more pressing matters for women to worry about: “the pay gap… rape conviction rates and a thousand things that are more important than the proportion of women who write book reviews.”
What’s perhaps most galling about the LRB response, though, is that it makes no reference to women’s writing itself, and appears to be speaking into a critical void – arguing that few women are good enough for the LRB pages because women are still so “newly arrived in the country”. It is this remark that concerns me the most. At a stroke, it denies the history of women’s literary criticism, which, above all else, has concerned itself with the problem of creating tradition in a hostile “country”, one that continually insists women writers are orphaned outsiders, without precedence. Despite this, and against those who try to ignore, traduce or patronize women as biologically unsuitable to write (mistaking a pen for a penis), a women’s canon has been built. Neglected authors from across the centuries have been brought back into the light and entered into conversation, helping young women writers to see that others before them have battled with feelings of outlandishness and isolation, and in the process to understand why these are at the core of so much writing by women.
Perhaps the best response to this latest dismissal is to remind ourselves of some of the most important works in this tradition. As #ReadWomen2014 suggests, we all need to extend our familiarity with women writers, but we should ensure that there is among our reading those works of criticism and theory that have sought to contextualize, illuminate, reflect upon and celebrate the history of women’s writing.
When an interviewer at the Paris Review suggested to Jonathan Lethem that compared to other writers they both knew he didn’t “seem to care much about politics”, the author responded with admirable forbearance: “Can you possibly understand? It’s personal. It’s there in my work”. Politics, after all, runs in Lethem’s blood. His formative years were spent accompanying his parents on demonstrations, and he was sent by them, as a matter of principle, to schools in poor neighbourhoods: “My life was a demonstration”. Some of what he felt about this upbringing is reflected in his loosely autobiographical novel, The Fortress of Solitude (2003). Set initially in the 1970s in pre-gentrified Brooklyn, it is the story of a child of white bohemian parents, whose mother absconds, leaving him a rather defenceless oddity among the area’s black and Puerto Rican kids, the target of relentless bullying. But as he grows up the boy develops intense friendships, and there are cross-cultural alliances to negotiate, puzzling questions of authenticity to unravel. By adulthood, he has indeed learnt some of the hard lessons of class and race in America – the kind of understanding his privately educated university friends are signally deprived of – but these are gained at a cost, and there is a vague but animating resentment in the novel towards the people and politics that required his emblematic suffering.
In Lethem’s new novel, Dissident Gardens, this theme of political instrumentalism is developed in a critique of the American Left, exploring the path from the New Deal to the Occupy movement through the lives of two intertwined families. In the past his fiction (eight novels, one novella and three collections of stories) has often been presented from the view of the outsider or freak, living in the shadow of giants, and in Dissident Gardens this rather paranoid perspective prevails once again, as successive generations try to survive and make sense of their stronger predecessors. (Lethem was prompted to write this novel by his curiosity about his grandmother’s mid-century radicalism and the legacy of her formidable personality on those who followed in her wake.) This double view allows Lethem to have fun with the drama of revolutionary politics while remaining wary of its self-intoxications, to argue for the Left’s sometimes overlooked role in the American story while considering its many illusions and failures. In this, the novel is reminiscent of the fiction of Christina Stead – a writer Lethem admires, and one of the few to have understood the charisma of the communist movement, while treating it unromantically. Lethem’s suspicion of power also expresses something of the uncertain moment out of which Dissident Gardens is written, when many are trying once again to find a way of connecting to a movement defaced by authoritarianism, whose idealism, as he writes memorably here, “floated free of history, like smoke”.
The novel opens with a scene of high drama, introducing the domineering figure of Rose Zimmer, “the Red Queen” and a “hammer of a personality” – a second generation Russian Jew now stirring up the residents of Sunnyside Gardens, Queens. One evening in the autumn of 1955, a grotesque “living room trial” at her home (a scene surely modelled on the dinner party trial in Stead’s I’m Dying Laughing) leads to Rose’s expulsion from the Communist Party: her crime: “fucking black cops”, or at least one in particular. The night ends with her head in the oven – an equally monstrous piece of theatre designed to mortify her daughter, Miriam, whom she has just discovered trying to lose her virginity. Rose’s fall from grace with an organization that has long since abandoned dialectic for dictatorship abounds with irony, for its tyranny so perfectly embodies her own: “She wanted to free the world but she enslaved any motherfucker she got in her clutches”, is the scathing verdict of her lover’s son, Cicero Lookins, whom Rose helps to educate. The knowledge Cicero acquires at her side is bitter-tasting: seeing the indignation and disgust their companionship arouses, and Rose’s revelling in it, he gains an inkling of his involuntary “brazenness”. Like the boy in The Fortress of Solitude, he is enlightened as he is exploited as a symbol.
Rose’s desire to emancipate people is genuine but it also gratifies her need for power. She patrols the streets as a community activist, “spying, gossiping, interrogating”, and after her husband (a German Jew) is dispatched by the Party to the GDR, her controversial choice of lover is a man in uniform, a married, Eisenhower-voting black cop. Though ironic and intelligent, Rose treats those around her with “punitive ferocity” – testimony to the “European chains [that] could never be shrugged off”; she remains contemptuous of America’s sunny fable, of its citizens’ endless attempts to build utopia and levitate out of history. The Party’s own need to exercise control is shown in its outraged response to Rose’s adultery. Her expulsion reflects hypocritical sexual and social attitudes – a horror of non-conformity quite at odds with the lives of its more free-thinking members and fellow travellers. This is just the first of many failures to see the world as it is that Lethem identifies: it is not communism that is the future, but the dreaded bohemianism. Rose’s fall presages the Party’s own, “the night communism died”, after Khrushchev made public the crimes of Stalin. Cut adrift, she lingers on in increasing isolation, incapable of the sociability her daughter, Miriam, now a commune-inhabiting hippie, excels at. However, traces of the mother’s presumption also infect the child: when Miriam, a veteran of innumerable causes, applies to join the Freedom Riders, thinking, “Who better to go and transform Mississippi?”, she is astonished to find herself turned down for the part. A black assessor coolly informs her that though he doesn’t doubt her “nerves of steel”, what’s wanted from white people now is the ability to listen and be led, to understand that it is their turn to sit at the back of the bus.
In his second collection of essays, The Ecstasy of Influence (2011), Lethem wrote something of a manifesto for twenty-first-century writers: forged in the broad spectrum of culture, understanding as much from Coltrane as from Calvino that art is promiscuous, and seeing influence not as evidence of weakness but a source of ecstatic communion. It is precisely because he is at home in the vast “Ocean of Story” (Stead) – borrowing here, quoting there, learning everywhere – that Lethem has thought so hard about authenticity and appropriation, about who has the right to tell a story. Most of his fiction alights on this question. In Dissident Gardens, it is played out notably in a discussion of folk music, or rather of the “Pseudo-Folk” that James Agee railed against. Miriam marries an Irish singer, Tommy Goghan, and encourages him to set to music the stories of New York’s Bowery bums. But his efforts coincide with Dylan’s electrification – so dismaying to many on the Left who revered folk and blues as the music of the people (poor, rural, black). The new sound takes hold and Tommy’s acoustic album ends up in the remainder bins.
Lethem once said in interview that “the people I come from . . . name who they are and how they feel” through books, music and art; as a writer, he has a very modern sense of the power of cultural identification and the misery of cultural awkwardness. Tommy’s failure to transform himself from a phoney crooner into a defining American voice, capable of speaking about the times in the way that Dylan did; to become viable and hip in the way that Norman Mailer (to whom Lethem tips his hat in Dissident Gardens) describes in “The White Negro” – is partly bad luck, but also a result of the Left making a fetish of authenticity and, once again, misreading the moment. A decade later, Miriam and he, having deposited their young son, Sergius, in a Quaker school, end up in Nicaragua, still singing the old tunes, still failing to understand what is going on around them: this time with fatal consequences.
So it is the adult Sergius who comes in search of the story, driving to Maine to find Cicero, now a Professor of Critical Theory, in the hope that he cane supply information about the family that abandoned him. One of the novel’s inspired set pieces sees the 300-pound Cicero take the feeble Sergius for a dip in the Atlantic. They bob among the waves, a part of the same story but oceans apart: Sergius, the very symbol of the Quaker lamb, the son sacrificed to his family’s beliefs; and Cicero, the brilliant, satanic outcast, now wielding his “brazenness” against an audience of flinching students. Sergius, of course, cannot understand the older man’s cruelty, nor is he capable of deciphering his name, Lookins: black and gay, doomed to minstrelsy, from the side of the story that never really got a look-in. Between Cicero’s dry academic theorizing and Sergius’s incomprehension they represent what remains of a once-vital movement.
There are other ways of viewing this story of course, but Lethem’s suggestion that the Left was fatally drawn to the structures of power it sought to dismantle is hard to refute. In her dotage Rose engages in a fantasy affair with the notoriously reactionary TV character, Archie Bunker, finding an odd solace in his company – her dream seeming now no more fantastic than the ideology by which she and so many others lived. But this is not to say that Lethem’s is a work of apostasy. Rather, it is a reckoning that pays the compliment of taking these defiant people as seriously as they took themselves – believers, yes, but in all their haphazard human contingency. It is a novel long overdue.
Finally, unable to discover in the past a consoling or usable solidarity, Sergius drifts into the arms of a young woman from an Occupy camp. Her sloppy talk is the opposite of Cicero’s devastating oratory or Miriam’s precocious erudition, but she grasps innately the defining new idea in politics: it is not something organized on high and done to others, but what you do yourself – “you big dummy . . . it’s whatever you are right now”. The book ends in a manner Lethem is fond of, with a character taken to some “crucial indefinite space” – a blank page where there’s room for new ideas. This time a minor airport brings the isolated, unsuspecting Sergius up against the power of the state. A confusion of meaning over the words “fellow traveller” fires up the story once again. The defiant heart beats on.
This review appeared as ‘It’s all politics’, in Times Literary Supplement, 15.1.2014.
There’s a moment in Alex Keshishian’s documentary, Madonna: Truth or Dare (1991), when Madonna’s lover, Warren Beatty, asks why she’s allowing herself to be filmed in conversation with her doctor. “Why stop here?”, she replies. “Yes,” Beatty laughs, aghast, “why would you say anything off camera? She doesn’t want to live off camera!” The exchange was funny because it revealed a generational gulf between the stars: Beatty wanted to live his ‘real’ life away from the lights, while Madonna was conducting an experiment to see how much of hers she could live in the open. At the heart of their disagreement were differing attitudes to privacy and shame, which twenty years ago seemed relevant only to those in the public eye. Today they are of concern to us all. Dave Eggers’s explores this shift in his new novel, The Circle, set in a near-future America, divided between “openness” evangelicals living online in a state of permanent transmission and exhibition, and a minority of appalled refuseniks, clinging to their reticence and anonymity.
Eggers’s thirteenth book, which begins as a satire on social networking but develops into something more like a full-blown dystopia, tells again that familiar story of an American nobody, Mae, who claws her way to the heart of power. That power now reside in The Circle, a monolithic internet company which has control of 90% of the world’s information searches. The company’s rapid success has come from unifying all the net’s business and social functions into one account, and adding an application called SeaChange: tiny cameras allowing users access to even the most far-flung or secret parts of the world and, in turn, for them to share with everyone in it, all that they are seeing and doing. The effect is to dissolve the barriers between the user, the net and the world into one seamless experience, TruYou – a new self that, as Eggers’s alarm bell of a novel suggests, is easy to harness and manipulate.
This is the second recent critique of the internet from a leader of America’s current literary scene, arriving shortly after Jonathan Franzen’s The Karl Kraus Project, in which the author laments our addiction to the “new infernal machine”. Both writers are just old enough to have a sense of how this technology is changing us and what we’re losing as a result. Theirs are rearguard actions, inescapably nostalgic and resistant to the net’s possibility for expanding the humanity they fear is being eroded. Such a conservative impulse does not mean, however, that The Circle is anything less than compelling, full of psychological insight and, above all, important.
When Mae arrives at the campus where The Circle is based, she thinks she has landed in heaven. It seems the opposite of her last job at a utilities company in a brutalist, functional building. Here among the glassy cathedrals and rolling lawns work has become a creative activity, with the best minds of her generation sharing ideas among the amphitheatres, gymnasiums and dormitories. By night, there are firework parties, during the day “musicians, comedians, writers” stroll through halls named Renaissance or Old West: nothing is bound by history and everyone’s voice can be heard. The Circle is so inclusive it precludes the need for opposition: even “alternative comedians” have been co-opted and, glad of the exposure, they – like all the artists and entertainers – work for free: “Oh god, we don’t pay them”.
The openness is illusory, however: behind the unified operating system lie unchallenged dogma and Orwellian slogans; and behind this, a shadowy elite controlling a commercial machine. As Milan Kundera saw, totalitarian systems begin with “the dream of paradise, the age-old dream of a world where everybody would live in harmony, united by a single common will and faith, without secrets from one another”, but they move quickly into compulsion, because to make them work everyone has to get on board. Whenever Mae is less than fully cooperative, falling prey to shame, obfuscation and lying, she is subject to corrective lessons that are both upbeat and coercive – “Sound good?”, “Incredible, right?”. Made to feel guilty, she consents to becoming fully “transparent” and is filmed even during a doctor’s examination in adherence with the company line that all human experience produces “teachable moments”, that exposure increases civility (in the dark, people will do bad things).
When Mae introduces SeeChange into her parent’s home, though, they sabotage the filming, unwilling to turn her father’s illness into an object of study. An old lover is equally resistant, and his desperate attempt to elude The Circle’s net results in an increasingly bizarre and frantic episode in which Mae chases him down with drone cameras. At the end of the novel, the creator of The Circle (an obvious avatar for Eggers), horrified at what has transpired from his playful ideas, diagnoses the problem: “infocommunism…paired with ruthless capitalistic ambition”, the anxiety of uncertainty turned into an absolute insistence on seeing and knowing all. In the face of this, he proposes “The Rights of Humans in a Digital Age” – primarily the right to anonymity, and the assertion that “Not every human activity can be measured”. And it is in this manifesto spirit that the novel can best be read.
What’s interesting about The Circle, is that it comes from a writer who understands the value of the “infernal machine”, having established a successful literary website. His skepticism, then, has deeper roots. These concern the easy gratification of networking, and the neediness it instills, eroding what’s left of America’s rugged individualism. More important, is the fear that the enlightened “solvable future” insisted upon at The Circle, endangers fiction. Eggers makes a competing demand: the right to turn out the lights. Because it is here in the dark, he thinks, confronting what is unknown in the world and in ourselves, that we are impelled to do what The Circle persuades Mae is wrong: “to make up all kinds of stories”.
This review appeared as ‘Infernal Desiring Machines’ in the TLS on 29.11.2013. Shortly after its publication, 500 writers from 82 countries – including Dave Eggers – published a petition calling for an International Bill of Digital Rights.
Reading Anakana Schofield’s anarchic debut novel, Malarky, I was reminded of the underrated mid-century writer, Jane Bowles. Her comedies are full of people whose ideas of propriety are at odds with one another, having flummoxing, cross-purpose conversations. Much of her unsettling humour is born of female paradox: women may be the conservative bearers of culture passing on standards between generations, but they are also “natural outlaws”, disrupting patriarchal rule with their non-sense and malarkey. In the hands of skilled writers, like Bowles and Schofield, the tension between these two positions can lead to a good deal of hilarity, with characters who appear to conform to acceptable norms also pursuing undercover lives of heroic eccentricity and dubious, self-invented meaning.
Malarky’s central character, is just such an unlikely rebel, a band of one whose mundane existence and “foolproof predictability” give her the perfect cover. Known to her family and friends as “Our Woman”, she is an Everywoman of sorts, a farmer’s widow in her sixties who has spent her life looking after her husband and son while trying to keep the peace between them. But her commonplace character is not of the kind that novelists have tended to heroize or universalize, as a person who can stand for us all. Rather, her ordinariness is so obscuring that on the rare occasion someone like Our Woman makes it into fiction, she is relegated to the background – a familiar piece of furniture, there just to help us get our bearings.
Much of Malarky’s subversiveness follows from giving pride of place to such an overlooked figure, and the discovery that her meanings are not as ready-made as we might expect, so we must struggle to make sense of them. Schofield’s writing reflects this difficulty: perspectives shift, sentences fragment, time slips back and forth. But rather than aestheticizing Our Woman’s experience and distancing the reader, there is a companionability in this that is perhaps the novel’s finest achievement. Schofield’s humane intelligence and her attunement to Ireland’s demotic shine through every page of Malarky, bringing Our Woman vividly to life and rendering her apparently demented pursuit intelligible: as she flounders, so do we; her search for meaning becomes our own.
As with many women, it is not until a rather late stage in the game that Our Woman comes to understand that the house she lives in is a fiction, that her husband and son have conducted affairs she is not party to and cannot fathom – the older with a pop-sock wearing floozy, “Red the Twit”, the younger with a succession of dull men. But on making this discovery, rather than abandoning herself to “weeping and wailing”, she decides to try for herself a little of their game. Fittingly enough, for a novel set in rural Ireland, she embarks upon her quest in a spirit of perverse religiosity. With Eveish determination, Our Woman sets out to reunite herself with the men who have excluded her, to become their equal in understanding and experience.
Her first attempt at acquiring their carnal knowledge takes place in a hotel with a rather crumpled travelling salesman (“this fella needed attention the way birds need nests”) – a masculine correlative for her husband’s bit on the side. Then, following the death of her son in Iraq, she picks up a Syrian man whose youth and background, in some incalculable manner, edge her closer to the boy she is grieving for. What she wants from this man is to see how it feels – the pushing and shoving, the interlocked hips, all “the malarky” she “cannot name”, but has seen her son get up to with other lads, down among the farm’s bramble and briar.
They are a mismatched couple, she and the Syrian, but their love-making is erotic precisely because of the awkwardness with which they grope towards one another. Schofield is funny about the translation of desire into mechanical movement – about who wants to put what bit where and why, and the tact required to negotiate these transactions. He, naturally enough, has his own interests to pursue, involving “strange questions” about the nature of the cervix and the difficulties of conception. But like much else in the story, the reason for his inquiries remains comically elusive.
Some reviewers have suggested that such gaps and obliquities weaken the novel, but Schofield is a brave and purposeful writer. She trusts the reader to understand, as Our Woman does, that meaning is often tantalizingly reticent, the most important things are variously conceived of, and we have to fumble our way to common ground. In Malarky’s final, summarizing words: “It’s beautiful when it all make sense, so it is. Occasionally, it makes sense, just for a moment.”
This review first appeared in the Camden New Journal on 07.11.13.
“I came because of the rushes . . . . Everyone says there’s more gold in a camp than there is in the ground. I thought I’d be a camp follower.” With these words, Anna Wetherell, standing alone on a dock in New Zealand, explains herself to an approaching stranger. “I’ve just come to start over.” She has made her crossing on the Fortunate Wind and met a boy also hoping to make his fortune by prospecting in the glittering ground around Hokitika. The two of them watch as an albatross circles overhead: a lucky omen, the boy tells her. This is the beginning of Anna’s story, but we are more than three-quarters of the way through Eleanor Catton’s new novel,The Luminaries, when we learn of these events, seeing afresh a woman who has until now been known as “the whore”, and a boy who has indeed become the town’s richest man before disappearing without trace.