It’s proved to be difficult quieting my thoughts to write this review. Kunzru’s satirical novel about two young, starkly Caucasian music aficionados with a fetish for rare records turned out to be more affecting than I anticipated.
Seth and Carter embody a friendship of expediency reminiscent of the Gatsby Gatsby. The latter has the means to satisfy his every whim, and the former gets to mooch off him it in exchange for his minor talents and his unquestioning loyalty.
Carter is the beleaguered soul who yearns for intensity which he insists can only be found in Black music. His wealthy family- who are strangers to the pain and suffering he touristically seeks- warily fund his expensive appetite for rare pre-war blues records, and the inevitable tirade in glamourous surroundings when he loses out on a rare find.
Kunzru has no patience with the trust-funder’s empty quest for authenticity – a full-time occupation of the hipster generation-and to the reader’s relief lands him in a coma following an incident involving a failed attempt at another acquisition.
Seth attributes Carters tragic misfortune to a curious chain of events stemming from a surreptitious recording of a vagrant singing a mysterious blues tune, which Carter sets to a guitar riff, adds effects and attempts to pass off online as a recently discovered lost recording by a made up ‘Charlie Shaw’.
Prior to the incident the recording draws the attention of an elderly collector who meets with Seth and warns of its sinister power. Unconvinced by Seth’s insistence that Charlie Shaw was a fiction concocted by his friend, the collector attributes his own friend Chester’s demise to the the record’s ominous power.
Now spooked by Carter’s fate, Seth embarks on a road trip to trace the provenance of the record and rid himself of any lingering malevolence. His journey switches between that of Chester’s in 1959 as they both head deep into the south drawn by something to do with Charlie.
The object of fascination throughout the book has been black music, and up until this point it has been offered, withheld, traded and consumed by talentless white men who function as the self-appointed gatekeepers of cool.
The readers discover’s how Chester brutally snatches the sole recording from Charlie’s sister’s home in 1959, manically insisting it was an “act of preservation”- the foundational belief for almost every museum collection in the west. This perennial white privilege is in full effect when Carter withholds “our music” from a musician, having done nothing more than amass a secret stash of hyper rarities from the 70’s, to equate ownership in his mind.
This entitlement is emblematic of the tone deaf nature of gentrification where incidents of disruption to black culture e.g. complains of “noise” by new white homeowners made against old time resident musicians or block parties, have increasingly plagued the original inhabitants.
The claim to non-white culture, disrespect, and indifferent to the conditions of its creation and ultimately the fate of the artist, is what finally awakens the wrath of Charlie Shaw, who bedevils Carter, Chester and finally Seth like a Djinn.
Although we hear of Carter and Chester’s fate, with Seth we witness the relentless torment which leads to his ultimate demise. How Charlie, knowing no bounds, weaves through time and space in hot pursuit of Seth, and how Seth after a number of outer body experiences learns what it means to have ‘skin’ in the game. Seth’s eventual release from this torment comes when he ends his own complicity through a violent and earth-shattering act.
Kunzru’s White Tears is a tour de force. Suspenseful, harrowing and bristling with anger. Some went so far as to call it a revenge fantasy, I, however, could reconcile myself with the horror in the way I would a fairy tale. I was deeply affected by the historic crimes against a community and the undercurrent of racism that fuels the powerful compounding and even institutionalisation of cruelty, but when just deserts are eventually served it helped restore my equilibrium. That I should derive so much joy from this book should give a whole lot of white people pause for thought.
The Girls by Emma Cline deviously bases itself on a set of murders that have defined the genre of true crime. The Manson family have occupied us with morbid fascination for up to five decades; every macabre detail has been combed over and repackaged for our ready consumption. But The Girls is not a story about the gore- although it does intersperse the novel out of necessity- it’s a story about the dichotomies that shook America through the murders. The pure evil that found space to blossom during the summer of love, the pretty young things capable of gruesome executions, the untouchable celebrities decimated at the hands of the ordinary, the young innocent minds willing to do the unthinkable.
The Girls is told from the perspective of young, neglected Evie whose angst ridden relationships with her divorced parents accompanied by a sense of adolescent isolation predisposes her to the young women in the novel’s Manson-esque cult.
Attracted to their sexual confidence, fifteen years old Evie strikes up a bond with Suzanna, and slowly begins to mimic her mannerism and dress. Eager for love, escape, and adventure Evie unquestioningly inhales, snorts and drinks her way to acceptance, willingly oblivious to the impending evil.
The Girls is ultimately a tender story of girlhood, how fragile yet clumsy attempts at adulthood are frustrated by boys, parents and men who fear or wish to possess a girl’s burgeoning sexuality. Evie battles the ennui of a middleclass existence through petty crimes committed against her neighbours, and other small infractions lead by Suzanna. Imbued with a sense of exceptionalism by cult leader Russell, Evie begins to overlook the violations to her being, attributing it to an education and the promise of a higher state.
In recognising the subtle manipulations of Evie and her crippling adolescent insecurity, it’s difficult for the reader to question her choices. Rather you find yourself empathising with her as you’re flooded with memories of your own adolescence. My heart ached as the child’s innocence was cruelly stripped away leaving a deeply troubled adult, incapable of believing in herself. Cline’s greatest achievement is how intricately she captured the human condition, leaving- as the blurbs suggest- many celebrated authors enthralled by her talent.
This is a beautiful, poignant novel that will not just transport you to California during the summer of love, but it will place you very firmly in the shoes of Evie for an exhilarating and intense experience you never thought you would understand.
In 1669 a monstrous serpent slithered about, as content on land as it was in the water, with large wings, a hideous beak, and eyes like sheep, robbing men of reason and scaring children at night.
Or at least, that’s what the people of Aldwinter believe happened. After an earthquake destroys some buildings and a man is found dead near the water on New Year’s Eve in 19th century Victorian England, it would appear that the Essex serpent has finally returned two centuries later to wreak havoc once more.
As this eerie scene is set in the first few chapters, Sarah Perry then takes the reader to posh London, where recently widowed Cora Seaborne is looking for a change. An amateur naturalist, Cora is not an ordinary woman. Having finally found escape from her abusive husband after his death she forgoes London society to wear a man’s coat, sensible boots, and packs up her son Francis and her companion Martha to look for ammonites and once at Aldwinter, the Essex serpent itself, dreaming of a display at the British Museum for her findings.
Once there, Cora encounters the local Reverend, William Ransome, who categorically denies the existence of an actual serpent haunting the Blackwater and instead believes it to be moral panic caused among his parishioners by old wives’ tales and guilty consciences. It seems that the two are destined to never get along, they disagree over everything and while Will firmly believes in God over the Essex serpent, Cora has faith in the opposite. As they argue, each constantly wonders why they’re so drawn to the other and how they could resolve the growing tension between them.
However, what could be a book solely focused on Cora and Will’s relationship never materializes. Instead Perry expertly navigates the grim English landscape and gloomy London streets to present a book that is rich in detail and lyrical in its descriptions. Each character (and there are quite a few) gets their moment in the sun as everyone puzzles over the mystery of the serpent and the havoc it appears to be causing with disappearing little girls and dead men abound.
Despite the attention given to the serpent and its real or imagined existence, the main focus of the book is on love, and the different guises it can take. Whether it is Cora’s awkwardness with her son, Martha’s at times exasperated affection for her friend, or Will’s love for his wife Stella who does not appear to be recovering from a fever, Perry’s unfolding of these diverse characters is what drives the book. Proving that we are nothing without other people to surround ourselves with, The Essex Serpent is at once moving, dark, and intriguing, punctuated by humour and undoubtedly one of the best books I have read in 2016.
*The Essex Serpent is also Waterstones Book of the Year 2016*
During what has been a tumultuous year, The Trouble With Goats And Sheep by Joanna Cannon swooped in to save me from utter despair with its humour, intelligence and compassion. Set in England in the summer of 1976, an arguably more peaceful era, we follow the ten-year-old protagonists Grace and Tilly as they search for a missing neighbour and signs of an elusive God. Told from the perspective of a child, the disarming innocence brings to life a community with the wry tenderness reminiscent of Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mocking Bird”.
As they dig for answers in ‘The Avenue’ where they reside, Grace and Tilly encounter the private disappointments that appear to fuel public prejudices. The neighbours begin responding to the mystery of Mrs Creasy’s disappearance with increasing fear and intolerance toward those who don’t ‘fit it’, a condition which has come to define our times. As the story progresses it become apparent that the denizens of the street are harbouring their own guilty secrets of which they fear discovery. Increasing desperation finds them taking solace in an apparent and rather hilarious miracle.
The Trouble with Goats and Sheep excels at recreating a soon to be forgotten era, where people aren’t driven to distraction by their devices, and are often found to rely on their wits to battle boredom. Those familiar with life in England will revel in the generous helpings of nostalgia that permeate the book. You will be left yearning for a simpler time which can come as a relief in these troubled times.
Joanna Cannon’s background in psychiatry gives this novel a sense of urgency, appealing to us to spare a thought for those living on the fringes of society. The patience and compassion exhibited here sits in stark contrast with the hysteria and tacit demonizing of mental health sufferers we see on the 24-hour news cycle. These are ordinary people dealing with ordinary struggles, and the only condition capable of tipping them into tragedy is the crippling fear of those that don’t fit in.