Friday, April 12, 2024

Reading group: The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

Only four of us to discuss this book suggested by Doug (who couldn't be present), and all four of us found it a worthwhile, if not gripping read.

It begins with a Prologue relating the uncovering by university archeology students of a secret cemetery in the grounds of a Florida former boys' reformatory school, in which are buried the bodies of clearly mutilated boys. Not that the cemetery was secret to the boys once attending the school, nor the fact that behind the school's public profile as a place of education and rehabilitation, it was in fact a hell of cruelty, abuse and racism. The Prologue ends with a former back 'student', or more appropriately inmate, who 'goes by the name of Elwood Curtis', deciding to return from New York for the public inquiry.

The narrative now switches to 1962, when Elwood, a conscientious and studious boy being brought up by his grandmother, receives for Christmas a record album of speeches by Martin Luther King, which deeply affects him and colours his view of the world as he matures. We follow his maturing as he works in the local newsagents' (persuading the newsagent to stock anti-racist journals), studies hard (encouraged in his both his education and his idealism by his activist teacher) and dares to attend a protest. Until one day, on the way to attend the college in which he has enrolled for night-school, through no fault of his own he is picked up by the police and ends up in Nickel.

We then follow the horrors of life at Nickel through Elwood's perspective, a nightmare for all, but especially for the black boys who are segregated from the white boys in the school and treated even more harshly. Our member Ann said that a most remarkable thing about the book is the way in which Whitehead manages to lay completely bare the horror in an almost matter-of-fact way, never once being melodramatic or vying for the emotion strings of the reader - which keeps you reading, never needing to turn away from the horror, yet which somehow in the end makes it all the more horrifying. (It's also horrifying to read in the Author's Acknowledgements that the book is inspired by the story of a real Florida school.)

Whether or not the idealistic Elwood and the more cynical Turner, a fellow inmate who befriends him, will escape Nickel becomes a major plot point, and I think it would be wrong of me, for those who haven't read the book, to reveal what happens, and to discuss in specific detail what we made of it, since the outcome turns on a major (and quite stunning) revelation, knowing which would I think adversely affect how you read the whole book. Mark said he thought it was amazingly cleverly done. Ann and I both said that we had had inklings of it now and then throughout the book, but I simply wondered at those moments if these were narrative mistakes. My initial reaction when I came to the revelation was that it had been tricksy, though Ann and Mark argued for it convincingly on thematic grounds. I also commented that there was little psychological exploration of the fallout of this revelation for characters, but Ann and Mark felt that psychological exploration wasn't the purpose of this book, its purpose being more that of journalistic exposure. I always argue that the main political strength of novels is psychological and emotional, but I had to agree that this novel was compelling. However, John, who strongly agrees with me on this point about novels and psychology, said that he'd found it less compelling than did the rest of us, which may be because the material was very familiar to him from his work as an child psychologist, so that the exposure project didn't work so well on him. Mark did agree that the twist/revelation did actually smack of airport-type novels, but he thought that that was in fact another political strength, Ann corroborating this by saying that she felt far more people would read this novel than would read the more obviously literary Toni Morrison (books of whom we have discussed here, and here where we discuss Morrison's own view that novel readers need to be 'moved' rather than simply 'touched'). And the Nickel Boys is indeed beautifully written, in tough, clean prose.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here 

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Reading group: A Room with a View by E M Forster

Ann suggested this 1908 novel in which Lucy Honeychurch, travelling in Italy with her cousin and chaperone Charlotte Bartlett, struggles to accommodate Edwardian expectations of her as a young woman, but, due to an unsettling encounter in Florence, after her return home and an unsatisfactory engagement learns to thwart those expectations, to finally acknowledge her own feelings and think for herself. 

Ann said that, having had little time to read this month, she had that day listened to an audio version of the book, and - to her surprise, I think - had found that she hadn't enjoyed it - in fact she seemed to think it was pretty awful. She acknowledged the comic episodes, and did enjoy those, but didn't at all like what she called the philosophical and purple passages. Mark - who instantly said he had loved the book - said with surprise, and to the agreement of others, that he hadn't noticed those, and Doug said he had skimmed them, passages in which the author comments on human nature in general, though often wryly and always in relation to the action and characters. We mused briefly then on the different experiences that listening to a book and reading it present - the possibility of skipping or skimming when you read a book for yourself, and the different emphases and indeed tone that an audiobook reader and producer can impose on a text. Ann's experience had made her dissatisfied with the book more generally: she felt she didn't know what it was, or what it was about. Was it a comedy or not? Was it a comedy of social manners, was it about class, or was it meant as a love story? I said that I thought it was all of those things, though chiefly, as I have indicated above, it was about the awakening of Lucy's consciousness, taking place in the context of class at a time of social change and challenges to the conventional role of women.

At the beginning of the book Lucy and Charlotte are newly arrived at the Pension Bertolini in Florence, and encounter the other exclusively English residents. At the dinner table the snobbery of the middle-class guests is directed at a father and son, the Emersons, who have no such pretensions and hold with none of their conventions: they are clearly 'lower class', and are suspected of being 'socialists'. Lucy has complained of her room not having the promised view, and the Emersons offer to change rooms with Lucy and Charlotte - a hugely indelicate intrusion in the middle-class codes of the day:

The better class of tourists was shocked at this, and sympathised with the newcomers. Miss Bartlett, in reply, opened her mouth as little as possible, and said:

'Thank you very much indeed: that is out of the question.'

'Why?' said the old man, with both fists on the table.

He insists heatedly, and:

Miss Bartlett, though skilled in the delicacies of conversation, was powerless in the presence of brutality. It was impossible to snub anyone so gross... she looked around as if to say, 'Are you all like this?'. And two little old ladies [...] looked back, clearly indicating, 'We are not; we are genteel.'

I had read this book many years ago at university and loved it. I said now, though, that this time around I had found these episodes much funnier than I did then. As the daughter of an engineer who at the time would probably have been termed lower middle class, I had had similar snobberies directed at me by more upper-class acquaintances, and I felt uncomfortable reading it and less able to appreciate the humour. We discussed the changing impact that books can have at different times. Ann said she appreciated how challenging this book must have been at the time of its publication, but felt that since the things it was pushing at - class snobbery, the subordination of women - have since been largely addressed (if not solved), its impact was inevitably much less now. Everyone present except John and me had seen the film, and I got the impression from what they said that the film, presumably because of this, very much pushes the love story element. With reference to Ann's comment about purple passages,  I did have to say that on this reading I found one or two moments in the narration sentimental: describing the English village in which Lucy lives, the author comments on the 'tinkle' of church bells, which seemed utterly inaccurate - church bells don't 'tinkle' - so that however wry he is being about the tweeness of the environs, he ends up sound twee himself. Doug, who was nodding, said he didn't even think that there was any irony in the passage. It was interesting to me to note that none of this ever struck me when I read the book all those years ago, and it seemed like a mark of how the tenor of life has changed.

There was some talk about the characters. Ann said that none of the characters were likeable, not even Lucy, to, I think, general agreement - although I don't feel it's necessary to like characters to be interested in them, and unlikeable characters are of course a staple of satire. John commented, to more agreement, that the Emerson son George, the main love interest, is a mere cypher: we hardly get to know him at all. I said, to strong agreement from Clare, that the clergyman Mr Beebe had seemed the most sympathetic character, as he seems to see through Lucy and to have her interests at heart, especially in not wanting her to marry the dreadful Cecil who is compared by the author to a stiff medieval knight (Lucy's escape from him, along with her growing proto-feminist consciousness, is described as leaving the medieval world behind). But that when the elder Mr Emerson opens Lucy's eyes to her own truth, and she makes the choice of George, Mr Beebe is displeased. It turns out that he would rather Lucy didn't marry at all than follow her heart, which seems in the context mean-spirited. Some people in the group thought that Beebe was closest to the author, E M Forster, who was homosexual - necessarily closeted in that time - and that this explained it. However, it seems that the author is very much on the side of Lucy and George's union at the end: Mr Emerson, he says, had shown Lucy 'the holiness of direct desire' (which, as someone said, could be the author's veiled plea for homosexual love). The most obviously unlikeable character is the chaperone Charlotte, who is so restrictive with Lucy, so determined to make her conform to social expectations - and so falsely set-deprecating - and who quickly whisks her away from George when the spark first kindles between them. Some thought it seemed odd that right at the end it turns out that she had the chance to stop Lucy talking to Mr Emerson and changing her mind, yet didn't do so. Clare pointed out that this was in fact a significant change: Charlotte too had been repressing her true impulses in the need to conform to Edwardian society, and she too had rebelled, or been persuaded, in the end.

John particularly liked the ironic chapter headings - as did I - but he was perhaps the most dubious about the book beside Ann, unsure about the way that the tone becomes less comic as the book progresses and it concentrates more on Lucy's awakening - which perhaps links with Ann's feeling of not being able to work out what kind of book it was. This didn't trouble the rest of us, however, and I think most were pleased to have read it. 

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here

Sunday, February 04, 2024

Reading group: Assembly by Natasha Brown

Mark suggested this book enthusiastically, having previously read it and loved it, a debut that has been shortlisted for several prestigious political prizes.

A short book written in a spare, consciously fragmented style, it is the thoughts and experience of a young black woman, a high-flying financier, as she prepares to travel to a celebration at the home of the parents of her upper-class white boyfriend. It begins with a kind of prologue of short sections depicting the ways in which she has been subtly and not-so-subtly objectified and abused by the chiefly male colleagues who feel she has no right to her success, and which she has had to accept and even internalise in order to survive and advance in her career:

...when that mouth opened up and coughed its vitriol at her ... she understood the source of its anger... She waited for the buzz of her phone to excuse her and - in the meantime - quietly, politely, she understood him.

It was nothing. She thought this now, as she thought it each morning. She buttoned up her shirt and thought it ... She thought it as she pulled her hair back into a neat bun, smoothed down her stiff, grey pencil skirt.

Thus she assembles both her appearance and her psychology to fit into the world in which she is moving. 

The third person in which this section is told serves the function of formulating her objectification - 'There was no we. There was he the subject and her the object'. After this section the narrative switches to the first person, 'I', as the narrator unpicks her situation and examines the ways in which she has been forced to assemble a persona in order to fit into a racist society, indeed to objectify herself, 'the person she has constructed'. The shift in narrative voice thus enacts the protagonist's psychological shift as she moves on from her adopted persona, comes to reject it and to want to disassemble it. The catalyst for this is her recent diagnosis of breast cancer, treatment for which she has rejected, weary of conforming and moulding herself to expectations.

Everyone in our group really admired the first part of this book - the spare, fragmented style acutely encapsulating the tortured psychology of the protagonist, and the searing and true depiction of the micro aggression with which she daily struggles. It's hard to pick out quotes to illustrate the depiction of the resentment of her colleagues - who are well aware of the unacceptability of racism yet believe her promotion is due only to the company's policy of 'diversity' - as it's so suitably subtley done.

Most people in our group were however less enamoured of the latter part of the novel in which she arrives at her boyfriend's family's country estate. Doug said he didn't believe for a moment in the relationship between the protagonist and her entitled, somewhat oblivious boyfriend, and I had to agree that I didn't find it entirely psychologically convincing. Someone suggested that this was because the upper-class characters of the boyfriend and his parents were stereotypes. Ann said there have been so many novels about the snobbery of the upper classes, set in such stately houses, that this didn't feel at all original, indeed it felt second-hand. Mark pointed out that it had not been done before from the viewpoint of a black protagonist, and Ann had to agree. Nevertheless, there was a feeling that there was something artificial about the depiction that left us unconvinced.

My view in retrospect is that the problem lies in the language of the book, which I did say in the meeting had rather troubled me. Towards the end of the book there is a section in which the narrator counterpoints English dictionary definitions of the words black and white, exposing the negative connotations of the first, and the positive connotations of the latter. She then asks: 'How can I use such language to examine the society it reinforces?' Which had prompted me to acknowledge that increasingly, as I read, I had felt a little uncomfortable with the language the narrator herself uses: at times it is highly abstract and Latinate, which indeed failed to convey to me her situation on an experiential level. While I found the beginning of the book so emotionally affecting, as it progressed the language became increasingly formal and distanced me from her experience, indeed objectified it. In the meeting, Clare strongly disagreed that there was any distancing of the narrator's experience, feeling, like many reviewers, that the fragmented form of the novel conveyed it beautifully. However, there was general agreement when I said that overall this is quite a cool, objective and distanced book, in spite of its fragmented mode and searing subject matter. 

The beginning vividly conveys the attitudes of the male workplace colleagues via (remembered) direct speech:

No, but, originally. Like your parents, where they're from. Africa, right?

I mean it's - well, you know. Of course you do, you understand. You can understand it in a way the English don't.

Yet when the narrator later tells us that her mother gives her reports on the phone about old friends in their community, and that this bothers her, we do not share her experience any of these conversations, she merely sums them up briefly, as I have here, and then muses on her own reaction in this formal language:

I decided my complaint was primarily formal, the set-up and punchline she employed; making me remember knowing, invoking memories of a person, of a life, and then revealing the death.

When she comes to introduce into the narrative her friend and colleague Julie, her boyfriend, and her boyfriend's parents, she simply tells us about them, summing them up in that formal language - with little or no direct action or dialogue to illustrate or prove, or indeed make us experience what she tells us about them. Of her boyfriend's parents, she says:

It was a purity of lineage, of history: shared cultural mores and sensibilities. The preservation of a way of life, a class, the necessary higher echelon of society.

It could be argued that this formality of language is an aspect of the protagonist's need to assimilate, and of her colonisation by patriarchal culture, but it does seem therefore a mistake that as her disassembling progresses, the formality of the language should increase, and it seems to me now that it is this that made the later sections of the book less emotionally convincing for us than the early part. 

Towards the end especially there are polemical sections outlining the black history that led to this moment (conveyed indeed in essay-like formal language), and everyone in the group felt that these marred it. Mark (the book's biggest champion) said he felt that it was perhaps the mark of a debut author who didn't trust the reader to grasp the subtext and message of her narrative, and others agreed.

I said that I also felt a bit troubled by the narrator's rejection of treatment for cancer. It seemed to me less of a rebellion, or 'Transendence', as the last section of the book is titled, than a capitulation. I couldn't help agreeing with the reviewer I read who asked 'Why not drop out rather than drop dead?' She questioned the implication that the only way to be is to be a high financier (otherwise you may as well drop dead). This chimes somewhat with what John said to me outside of the meeting, which is that he wondered how far a criticism of racism a book can be when the protagonist is so highly successful and rich, and when the crucial social problem is that society militates against such a trajectory for black people, though he felt uncomfortable wondering it. I said, but isn't the point that, however outwardly comfortable a black person may seem to be, however much they have managed to overcome the obstacles, they still suffer from racism (even a more insidious and thus poisonous racism), they still live their life seared by discomfort. This is a main point, made explicitly in the book: that it's just not possible to assimilate, however hard the protagonist has tried, and the conclusion of course is, why, in the final analysis, should she? Nevertheless, while I can see that, as Clare said, the protagonist's succumbing to death is an aesthetic choice that makes the point, I felt strongly disappointed by the suggestion that, psychologically, there was no other way. 

However, in spite of our quibbles, everyone felt this was an impressive debut, and all had read it in a sitting.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here

Tuesday, January 02, 2024

Reading group: O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker

When John suggested this, Elspeth Barker's only novel, the members of our group who glanced at the beginning imagined it was going to be something of a grim read - typical Scottish Gothic, as Doug put it. In fact, the novel is a subversion of that genre, and is full of black humour and anything but a grim read. Everyone enjoyed it very much, and most of us were unable to put it down, and read it in a sitting.

It begins with the description of the stairs of a gaunt Scottish castle, on which, it will be revealed by the end of the first page, lies the body of Janet, a sixteen-year-old girl 'oddly attired' in her mother's black lace evening dress. The first chapter goes on to tell that she was mourned by none, even her parents, apart from her pet jackdaw who 'searched for her unceasingly' in the woods and glen, eventually killing himself by flying into a wall.

After the first chapter the novel switches immediately to an account of Janet's life, beginning with her birth during the Second World War. The tone becomes immediately wry, the rhythm of the prose lively, and the whole effect satirical as the author paints a picture of a girl growing up with distanced aristocratic parents and disappointing them with her lack of femininity and a passionate character expressed in a love of poetry and identification with the wildness of nature. There are moments that made us laugh out loud. Here are two ancient sisters at the village hall party, one of whom has been at the first sitting of the party tea, the other of whom has yet to eat:

Very old Miss Pettigrew came trembling up, leaning on her stick. 'Here you are then, Annie,' she said to her sister. Her jaw dropped loose, her mouth hung limp and open; in went her black-veined claw, out came a set of pinkly glistening false teeth. Her sister grabbed them; with no ado she popped them into her own mouth. She paused for a moment, sucking noisily. 'Macaroons!' she cried, 'Och, that's braw!'

The novel is full of this combination of grotesquery and hilarity, though, as Ann and Clare said, as Janet grows, the mood grows darker. Janet is indeed treated cruelly, by her distant, preoccupied mother (who only really likes babies, and keeps having them - children who turn out to be much prettier and more amenable), and by the boys of the boarding school her father establishes in his inherited castle. The feisty Janet is quite capable of taking revenge on the son of visitors after he tries to trap her and exposes himself to her, by pushing him into the poisonous giant hogweed in the unkempt garden at which he has sneered. But once she is forced to accept her own burgeoning sexuality and has to experience the horrors of boarding school, her feelings become more complex and difficult to deal with, and the mood becomes bleak. (Anne and Clare noted that there is no mention of menstruation which one would expect to be central to this crisis of identity for Janet. This book was first published in 1991. While some feminist authors had then been tackling such matters head-on for some time, they were still considered by many a subject unfit or too delicate for literature.)

Finally it will be revealed how Janet died on those stairs (which I won't give away here). The book is however no whodunnit, more of a whydunnit, though none of the four of us present were convinced by that ending. My main, and John's, doubt about the book was that there is no real story arc or thematic development propelling it - it's really basically a simple, linear account of a childhood - extraordinary and curious to most readers in its setting and milieu (the gothic castle and the eccentric aristocratic ways of the family), though in fact fairly typical of that social milieu, with the same point, Janet's role as a sore thumb in her family, illustrated repeatedly if entertainingly. We did in fact get a little frustrated, even wearied, by this, and it was the brilliant prose and sensibility that kept us reading. Ann made an interesting point. She said that when she was at boarding school herself she and her schoolfriends read scores of books beginning with this kind of setup, an ugly duckling made unhappy in a family. Jane Eyre, she pointed out, is a literary version of the same thing. (She imagined that this was what influenced O Caledonia, although in fact it is known to be strongly autobiographical.) However, in these books this setup was always the prelude to a story of escape from the situation and the transformation of the ugly duckling into a beautiful, successful swan (in fact Elspeth Barker herself did escape to London to become a successful journalist and member of the literary set). Here, however, no such transformation takes place, and this is what makes the book a subversion of the tradition, and its radicalism was why, no doubt, it was originally published by a feminist press. However, the fact that Janet remains in that establishing (and establishment) situation (which leads to her death), while making an interesting political point, did give the book for us a certain stasis, fortunately compensated for by the dynamic prose and the compelling insight into Janet and the family dynamics.

John did say afterwards that, in spite of the book's publication by a radical press, he felt uncomfortable with what seem some politically incorrect notes: the child Janet's attitude to the maimed soldiers living nearby (before the family move to the isolation of the castle) is one of horror. I said, Isn't it actually more complicated than that, more Janet's reaction to the horror of maiming (rather than just to the men themselves), which goes along with her empathy towards the animals that most people ill treat or kill? Also, it is Janet who befriends the grieving and mentally unstable aunt, Lila, who lives with them in the castle, while Janet's mother cruelly packs her off, committing her finally to a 'lunatic asylum', where Janet visits her during her Christmas holiday from boarding school. But John felt that the grotesque descriptions of the other patients in the mental hospital were lacking in empathy. And I didn't really have much argument against the fact that the hunchback gardener at the castle turns out to be evil, in true disablist tradition.

We discussed other, more minor points. Some people felt that, though most of the novel takes Janet's viewpoint via the close third person, there was the odd strange change of viewpoint that seemed to have no useful purpose, such as to that of Janet's mother in a somewhat prolonged and seemingly levered-in section about a Teasmaid that causes tension between the parents. 

Overall, though, everyone very much enjoyed this book in spite of our early lack of expectation.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here