There is something deliciously subversive about Noami Novik’s Uprooted, an epic fantasy novel that seems to promise something sweetly benign in the first few chapters, before giddily defying expectations every step of its uniformly excellent way.
The book starts out innocently enough with the protagonist and narrator Agnieszka, a 17 year old girl from a village called Dvernik, wondering who will be chosen by the local wizard and lord, the Dragon, to be his sole companion in his immense tower over the next 10 years.
Agnieszka, along with her entire village, is certain that she won’t be chosen, with the dubious honour of being the chosen one falling to her best friend and soulmate Kasia, who has been groomed from a young age to appeal to everything the Dragon seems to look for in his, supposedly platonic, companion.
Much to her surprise, she is chosen, largely because of her latent magical ability which she doesn’t recognise she possesses, but which the aged wizard, who looks far younger than his century plus years thanks to some measure of immortality conferred by his gifts, knows she possesses in spades.
He is compelled by the King’s law to choose her to train in the magical arts, a pressing concern in the kingdom of Polnya, and its neighbour Rosya with whom it has a fractious, often warlike, relationship, where an evil malignant entity known as the Wood, which can corrupt and despoil people and is hellbent on humanity’s destruction, constantly seeks to wipe out all life in its path.
What first reads as a bucolic story of peasant girl discovering her gifts, and winning over her gruff mentor in the process – the Wizard is nothing if not cantankerous, unwilling to get close to anyone in any form – soon transforms into a lushly-told, epic beyond words battle between flawed good and horrific evil, with a resolution that rewards the muscular storytelling that precedes it.
And muscular the narrative most certainly is.
An unflinching look at the darkness that hides in the hearts of men and women, even those with the best of intentions and purity of belief, and the way this can take physical form, Uprooted manages to pack a series’ worth of narrative into perfectly-told length.
Rather than feeling like you’re desperately trying to cram in all the various plot points at breakneck, half-done speed, Novik provides a book that flows profoundly beautifully and well, offering up an exquisitely-well poised narrative, vivid characters who leap to life with minimal introduction, dark undercurrents and an imperfect protagonist whose heart is most certainly in the right place.
While her skills do rise to meet her aspirations, it’s not a smooth trajectory with Agnieszka getting it wrong as much as she gets it right; this adds a delightful and reassuring element of grounded humanity to the story which has magic at its core but never forgets that these are fallible people wielding it.
It’s this balance between rugged, flawed humanity and the mysteries and poetry of magic – it’s not kiddy time stuff either with many of the spells playing ferociously well and without apology on deeply elemental, world-changing levels – that makes Uprooted such a pleasure to read.
Yes, much of the narrative is driven by Agnieszka and the Dragon’s attempts to thwart the great evils afoot in their land, but it never loses sight of who they are or why they are fighting, with their motivations, their successes and failures integral to the telling of this magnificently well told, expansive tale.
Novik has succeeded in ways that will leave you gasping with pleasure, awe and more than a little trepidation, in crafting a dense but accessible story for the ages, a novel that pulses with dark and light, hope and despair and some fantastically well-choreographed back-and-forth between Agnieszka and the Dragon who grow closer but not in any of the cutesy Beauty and the Beast ways you might expect.
Uprooted is grandly told, muscular fantasy storytelling, a masterwork that is as dense as they come, filled with fastidious world building and intricate relationships and portents of doom, and get gorgeously accessible and real, thanks largely to a protagonist who, though magical to the core, is as human and thus fallible as they come, and yet possessed of the kind of chutzpah and willingness to fight on for what she loves and believes that will have you cheering her on as you frantically turn every page, eager to see where it all ends up.
Facing up to grief and the many ways it ripples into your life is never an easy thing.
The challenge to move on from a tragic event though grows exponentially more difficult when you’re a new dad left alone to raise your unexpected six week old daughter who, like all children, grows ever more inquisitive as she grows older about the mother she never knew but who looms, inevitably, large over her life.
Quite how you deal with this almost impossible situation forms the backbone of Carys Bray’s delightfully warm, complex and humourous novel The Museum of You, which examines with richness of personal experience and profound insight what it is like when grief, and the life that follows whether you’re ready for it or not, fills in all the unsaid moments.
Darren, a bus driver who lives in Southpoint, Merseyside (close to Liverpool) with his irrepressible daughter Clover, lost his wife Becky just six weeks after their daughter was born in circumstances that have never really been explained or dealt with fully.
“As he’s got older the world has shrunk. It sometimes feels as if everything is moving around him and he is stuck, feet in concrete.” (P. 23)
Part of that is due to Darren’s desire to protect his daughter from painful emotional associations but much of it derives from his inability to completely process what happened to him, the life he had planned and all the hopes and dreams he had for the future when Becky walked off into oncoming traffic.
While her death is explained somewhat, it’s only to illuminate how it is has affected Darren (and Clover who constantly wonders what her unseen mum was like) who has left everything associated with Becky in a second bedroom, piled up on the floor, the bed and in the wardrobe.
It’s to this room that Clover turns, following a trip to the Merseyside Maritime Museum to see a Titanic exhibition, in a bid to understand who her mother was and how she is like her, if at all.
Like any archaeologist, for that is effectively in the vacuum left by Darren’s reticence to talk about his wife’s death, is what Clover most assuredly is, she has to make educated guesses based on the available evidence, which she painstakingly sorts through and catalogues as if she is assembling a museum dedicated to her mother’s memory.
Naturally without the context for many of the items, she leaps to all sorts of conclusions that don’t bear when the truth finally emerges, but with a whole summer to fill in, sorting through all the detritus of her mother’s life is something that feels compelled to do, if only to make some sort of tenuous connection with the mother she never knew.
With a style that is richly lyrical, accessible and neatly balanced between a great many moments of broad and subtle humour, and some deeply moving moments of emotional authenticity, Carys Bray delivers up a profoundly affecting meditation on the way people handle traumatic events in their lives.
If you have ever lost anyone at all, and struggled to move on even as life drags you kicking and screaming away from moment of loss, you’ll identify with the way Darren, almost fossilised in place by those long ago events which nevertheless remain emotionally as present as the day they happened – so much so that Clover, rather endearingly, calls the face her father makes when becky is raised, his “everything face” since it contains so much pain and anger and a whole lot else besides – struggles to move forward.
While he is surrounded by a metaphorical village of people eager to leap in and help in such as his hilarious elderly neighbour Edna Mackerel (who has a fascinating ability to mispronounce every saying going), childhood friends and brother & sister Colin and Kelly, and even Becky’s brother Jim whose addictions make him unable to help but still present in his brother-in-law and niece’s life, Darren hasn’t used them, pushing everyone but Mrs Mackerel to the margins.
The net effect is that Darren, and by extension, Clover, have had their lives frozen in time, something that serves neither of them well, with Darren a dead man walking and Clover chafing, as she enters her teenage years, who she is in every facet of her being.
“By the time Clover was old enough to ask whether there were any pictures besides the one on the mantelpiece in the lounge and the one in her room, he could only remember the two of Clover and Becky together, which are awful. The pictures in the packet should be up somewhere, he decided. He’d give them to Clover so she could make a proper display, one they’d put up in the lounge – something real and genuine, so much better than her dead-end clues and half-baked assumptions.” (P. 317)
The Museum of You is a joy to read because it doesn’t just recognise how grief warps, distorts and entraps but how, if you can just let it, and by book’s end, Darren is awakening to long-neglected possibilities, it can eventually give birth to a whole new series of rich life experiences.
At no point is Darren judged for freezing up and concentrating simply on being a dad, with deep empathy extended to him, and also to Clover who can’t possibly relate or underneath the kind of grief that has entombed Darren for so long.
Her grief may be more remote from the event itself but it’s still palpable and it’s beautiful watching how Clover does her best to fill a void exacerbated by her father’s still elephant-in-the-room grief; you feel for her and it’s touching to see the naive but knowing ways that she attempts to bridge the chasm between who she is and who she thinks she will be if she can just create the perfect museum for her mother.
There is a great truth and emotional resonance to this book which speaks to almost every aspect of the human condition from loss to gains, from deep sadness to incipient sadness, a richly-wrought meditation on how grief can destroy and wreck but how, given time and aptitude, it can be turned into something beautiful again.
It hasn’t been easy being a romantic comedy fan of late.
Ever since Meg Ryan, and later Sandra Bullock shuffled off their mortal rom-com coil, and to be honest not always even then, has this genre ever matched the giddy heights of the golden age of Hollywood when Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn (Roman Holiday) or Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn (The Philadelphia Story, Bringing Up Baby) delighted up with their zingy dialogue and sparklingly romantic chemistry.
So when I saw that the rom-com was now a literary thing – granted it has been that for a while but when you title your book The Hot Guy, as film reviewers and fast friends Mel Campbell and Anthony Morris have done, it’s kind of hard to miss – imagine my delight and hopeful expectation.
Even more so, when I was promised a surfeit of witty pop culture references to add bulk to the much-loved tropes of the genre such as the Meet Cute (who can see a relationship coming from x or y incident? No, not us!), the Falling in Love Unexpectedly sequence, or the Inevitable Falling Out followed by the Dash to the Airport/Suddenly-Called Wedding/Weirdly Inappropriate Work Function.
“Adam sighed and let the others rabbit on without him. He never wanted to discuss his love life with this coworkers; he suspected they would even mock him for using the term ‘love life’. But because they insisted on dragging him ton the bar across from the cinema for Friday and Saturday night knock-off drinks, they always noticed when Adam took a girl home, and then insisted on prodding him for the kind of gory details Adam didn’t really feel like sharing.” (P. 21)
Hopes were high, and alas very quickly dashed.
While the premise is promising – a hot guy, Adam, who has no idea he is a hot guy meets a woman, Cate, on the rebound who simply wants someone real and caring rather the idiots she dated in the past – and some of the pop culture satire is sublimely very silly (the fake film titles and plots that litter the book are hilarious and a knowing skewering of one too many been-there-done-that film properties), The Hot Guy overall doesn’t really gain very much traction.
That’s not to say it doesn’t have its charms such as some very snappy dialogue and over the top Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt surrealist satire (there is a Facebook group devoted to keeping Adam single for all the single women in town and they are seriously loopy), but it never really hits its stride, getting close but never quite living up to its premise.
For starters, while Adam and Cate are undeniably totes adorbs together – sorry to use out of town cloyingly social media jargon but honestly that is the only way to describe them – their friends are a massive turnoff.
Seriously, why would you even be friends with these people? The fact that Steve and Renton, Adam’s shallow coworkers at the cinema where he works to fund his filmmaking ambitions, and Vanessa and Kristy, Cate’s kite and alcohol-obsessed pals, are friends with their the protagonist couple casts down on whether we’re being the full story of the two lovebirds.
Which brings us to Adam and Cate themselves.
Yes they are sweet together, and Campbell and Morris execute the idea of two people subverting expectations and disregarding ill-thought out advice with aplomb, but their attempt to be light and frothy, and to observe all the rom-com tropes even as they’re obviously trying to subvert them, doesn’t really pan out.
It feels like you’re reading a 20 minute sitcom plot stretched out over a full book, and while it was entertaining in fits and starts, and yes of course, as a sucker for happy endings, I wanted to see them get back together again after they split two thirds of the way through of the book – if you think that is a spoiler, then clearly this genre is not for you – it never really made made the case for being over 300 pages long.
“Cate was lying in bed thinking of Adam when the doorbell rang. Actually, she was thinking of Adam in a way that probably would have led to something more than thinking, so to say she was annoyed at the interruption would have been something of an understatement.” (P. 167)
It could have been the fact that Campbell and Morris, steeped in movie lore as they are, did their best to pay homage to an undeservedly much-maligned genre, but while The Hot Guy is chock-full of deliciously on point cinema references, they’re not enough to keep a wafer-thin plot or haphazard characterisation from sinking this attempt to keep the genre alive and kicking.
In fact, there were times when the action was so incredibly unbelievable – I would run to the police if I was kidnaped not wail ineffectively to my hopelessly unsupportive friends and how on earth does Adam not pick up on his hotness? Really? – that I found my eyes rolling in my head.
The Hot Guy is not an atrociously bad book, and has some genuine fun with its genre, pop culture and the way we approach love and romance in the modern age, but sadly, and my lord I wanted to LOVE this book, not enough to make me fall in love with it, especially when the ending is so rushed you wonder why you bother to stick around for it.
Let’s face it – Death does not have the best reputation around.
It is seen, at least in much of Western secular thought, as the end of things, the loss of everything we know and love and hold dear, a terrifying journey into a dark unknown from which there is no return.
Not everyone sees it that way, of course with many religions and non-Western forms of thought advancing the idea that death is less the end of things than another stage of life, a transition to a state of being that transcends anything we known while we’re alive.
Wherever you land on that particular belief curve, Claire North’s At the End of the Day is an interesting excursion into what Death, and the capital D is deliberate since we are talking the Being themselves and not simply the cessation of life, represents and whether there is far more than the grim finality that many of us dread and recoil from.
In North’s unstintingly poetic hands, this beautiful, ruminative book ponders the nature of humanity, and way the endless push-and-pull of time and the many changes it inevitably generates affect our lives, and in the end, our deaths.
Not always, as you soon realise, for the better.
In fact, in chapters that act as literary connective issue for their most narrative-based counterparts – it has to be noted at this point that the book does not follow a conventional narrative path, being more of a series of interconnected episodes centred on Charlie, Death’s Harbinger aka Executive Assistant and his worldwide travels in advance of his boss’s arrival – we are given what first appear as series of disconnected utterances by myriad people on an eclectic range of topics.
But as the book goes on in its lilting, deeply thoughtful and insightful way, you begin to understand that these are snippets of conversations between Charlie and the people he visits, some of whom are close to death, others of whom are simply representative of a particular way of life or a language group or style of thought.
The lesson through this original and quirky though never less than utterly immersive novel, is that Death comes not simply to usher people through to the Other Side – whatever that is; at no point is this ever firmly established with death only ever referred to in the most oblique of terms – but to honour particular moments in human experience and civilisation.
In that respect, Death is given possibly one of the PR jobs of his/her/their immortal existence, being painted as a kind, benevolent being, who appears to each person through their own filter, and who stands in stark contrast to their fellow Riders of the Apocalypse, War, Pestilence and Famine who extract altogether too much enjoyment from their respective domains.
Death goes to great trouble to honour those whom he or she is ushering from life, even going so far as to travel as they would travel, live as they live as a way of communicating to them that they matter and their lives matter.
It’s touching and beautiful, and you can well understand why many people greet Death at the end of their lives, not as a thief and spectre but as a friend, a confidant who has come to give them a priceless gift.
Death’s beneficence extends to Charlie who, through the course of the book has to juggle kidnapping, death threats and the emotional toll of being with many people as death nears – many of these experiences are profoundly moving and enriching but nonetheless take their toll on the young Englishman who is very much mortal (everyone assumes he isn’t) – with a life back home including a budding relationship with Emmi, who comes to embrace her boyfriend’s very odd occupation even as she has legitimate concerns about its effect on him.
At the End of the Day is a supreme joy, a quietly powerful book written by a superlative writer with real insight, poetry and a quiet celebration of the human spirit and willingness to portray the best and worst of humanity (humanhumanratrat is a constant refrain) that never rises to any great narrative crescendo but nevertheless is endlessly, brilliantly engaging from start to finish.
Rather than being diminished by its less than conventional narrative structure, the novel is actually all the richer for it, its small and sometimes extended tales encompassing a rich cross section of the human experience that never fail to move, educate or set you thinking.
Taking the position that death is not a negative but rather an affirmation of life, a rejoinder to pursue life in all its myriad forms with vigour and passion, truth and honesty, At the End of the Day is a meditative evocation of the many permutations of humanity, and that the way to cheat death is not to bargain and cajole and brutally coerce but to live your very best life (Oprah will be pleased!) and to go boldly into its end with head held high, heart singing and embracing what you have been and where you will go.
And to the living such as Charlie who rises and falls and rises again in the course of his most gratifying and yet emotionally exhausting of jobs, the book is a poignant reminder that we should grab hold of life and celebrate it at every turn, taking chances, opening our hearts and never being less than entirely open to what it may bring you.
These may sound like the product of Hallmark cards run amok but the reality is that At the End of the Day is heartfelt, grim, real, joyful and whimsically substantial, written by a powerhouse voice who conveys with grace, passion and quiet observation both the horror and joy of life and the inextricable link between life and death and the many points inbetween that define us as people, no matter who or where we may be.
It would be hard to argue with the fact that humanity has, over the countless eons of its existence, provided a plethora of reasons why its future shouldn’t be every bit as fractious and be devilled as its past.
And yet, for all the evidence stacked high to the rafters to the contrary, there are still a great many people who believe that Homo Sapiens can pull an unexpected idealistic rabbit out of the hat and advance somewhere admirably humanistic, the sort of place that people like Gene Roddenberry, who gave us the wonders of Star Trek and its far less blighted world, would happily recognise.
One of those people is Becky Chambers, a writer who grew up in a family steeped in space science, an upbringing that seems to have predisposed her to the idea that we are not only capable of greatness but that it can emerge despite ourselves.
“That was the thing that had hammered home just how far from Sol she was – the menagerie of sapients standing alongside her in the ticket line. Her homeworld was fairly cosmopolitan, but aside from the occasional diplomat or corporate representative, Mars didn’t see much in the way of non-Human travellers.” (PP. 12-13)
In the universe in which the events of her debut novel, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, take place, humanity has managed, through sheer luck and happenstance mainly, to survive the near-extinction of life on Earth.
The planet itself remains intact, populated by Gaiaists, far right environmental extremists who believe it’s humanity’s once and only future home, no alien assistance needed thank you very much, but most of its inhabitants have scattered to the stars; the rich to Mars and other inner Sol system planets and moons, and the less well-off to systems well beyond that, courtesy of refugee fleets that took off into the galactic unknown in search of a viable future.
This desperate roll of the dice, which consigned the rest of our self-destructive species to die an ignominious, self-perpetrated death on a dying world, found success, thanks in part to the ingenuity of the Exodans, as they are known, but mainly, think many, to the intervention of the Aeluons, a highly-advanced, highly-cultured race of learned silver beings, who championed humanity’s right to a second chance, largely by way of membership of the Galactic Commons (GC), Chambers brilliantly-grounded take on Roddenberry’s Federation.
In this community of aliens, in which the Aeluons, the lizard-like Aandrisk (thought don’t use that Earth animal-allusion to their face as its considered quite speciesist) and the onetime hardline rulers of the galaxy, the blob-like Hamagians are the top three races, humanity has found a happy, though not always perfect niche, one in which Captain Ashby and the crew of the Wayfarer, have carved a successful career as subspace tunnelers, responsible for linking the GC via a series of stable, civilisation-sustaining wormholes.
While the amazingly-detailed future world that Chambers has created for The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is a delight in every way, presented with a kind of matter-of-factness that invests a galaxy of multi-species mingling and mostly harmonious politicking with an admirable authenticity and truthfulness, it’s the characters who populate the Wayfarer that are the true joy of the highly-readable, joyously optimistic book.
Unlike other authors who may see perpetual acrimony and infighting as the way to engaging, intensely-readable drama (and yes, let’s face it, that does work a treat, even if it does get a little exhausting), Chambers has taken a leaf out of Firefly’s book, though not at all derivatively, and given us a crew who actually, for the most part, like each other.
More than that, with the exception of grumpy algae-fuel chemist Corbin, who dislikes pretty much everyone, they are a family, a do-anything-anytime grouping of people including techs Jenks and Kizzy (who’s a firebrand of delightfulness), Aandrisk pilot Sissix, Sianat Pair Ohan (this race deliberately infects itself with a virus that heightens its mathematical and scientific skills, thought at great physical and social cost) and Dr Chef, one of the few remnants of a near-extinct race, into which troubled Martian exile Rosemary steps as an admin officer.
“Ashby sat at his desk, staring out the window, trying to get it into his head that it wasn’t his fault. He’d thought the words over and over, but they refused to stick. What did stick were all the things he couldn’t done instead. He could’ve asked more questions. He could’ve called one of the carriers the minute that Toremi ship showed up. He could’ve turned down the job.” (P. 372)
While there is drama aplenty at times, ranging from piracy through to inter-species conflict, the focus is firmly on the crew, and much of the novel’s endlessly readable time – trust me you will fly through this accessible but emotionally substantial book almost as fast as the Wayfarer digs wormhole tunnels – is devoted to getting to know them, to understanding what brought them together as a family (in Sissix’s case, quite literally) and to celebrating how a disparate group of people can come to mean so much to each other.
This is The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet‘s real joy.
It doesn’t pretend the galaxy is perfect, and in fact, much of the narrative is driven by the fact that a tenuous peace in the galactic core between the GC and the tribal Toremi, but it acknowledges that like our present day, that this doesn’t preclude real, deep connections between people, selfless, unbounding relationship that go far beyond doing the least bit necessary, and a palpable, transcendent sense of belonging.
Lest you think it’s some giddy hurtle through an overly optimistic universe, the book is firmly rooted in the reality and ways of a pragmatic galaxy, but rather than throw its existential hands up in despair and declare all is lost without hope of reprieve, Chambers dares to argue, through characters you will come to love and adore in a way few manage, that being hopeful about our hapless species is not such a silly idea after all, and we might just make it after all.
If you like your literary gods multiple and varied, from cultures galore, in a controlled riot of power, fear, wit, and wisdom, then American Gods is for you.
Its premise is one of the book’s many appeals: the United States contains all sorts of ancient gods from abroad, surviving in the myths and stories and imaginations of the immigrants who brought them there. It’s a novel that investigates the American condition through its beliefs, and its contradictions, and offers the idea that gods walk among us (if we only know where to look for them).
‘All the tradition we can get’
In American Gods, a man named Shadow is released from prison when his wife dies in a car accident. As he travels home, he falls in with Mr Wednesday, a mysterious grifter, who offers him a job as a bodyguard. When he accepts the offer, they seal the deal by drinking mead, the honey-wine that is the drink of Norse gods and warriors. “We need all the tradition we can get,” says Wednesday, referring to the seriousness of their deal, but also to the key concept of the novel.
It emerges that Wednesday is really the Norse god, Odin, drawn to the US by Viking voyagers. “Tradition,” in the form of old gods like Odin, is under threat, he tells Shadow. People don’t believe in old gods any more; they’re too busy worshipping new gods, or concepts, like cities and towns, roads and rails, high finance, media, and digital technology. As an “old” god, Wednesday is preparing to do battle with the new ones. A god who is not believed in suffers a particularly final form of death.
With Shadow in tow, Wednesday traverses the US, calling the old gods to action, convincing them to gather and fight enemies like Mr Town and Media.
They call on Czernobog, the Bulgarian god of darkness, who lives in Chicago with the Zorya star sisters of Morning, Evening and Night. And Easter, the German goddess of fertility and rebirth, in whose footsteps flowers bloom, who is living in San Francisco. Mr Jacquel, the Egyptian god Anubis, runs a funeral parlour with his partner Ibis (the god Thoth), in Cairo, Illinois. Mr Nancy, Anansi the African spider-trickster god, and Mad Sweeney, an original Irish leprechaun, appear from time to time, as do many others.
From Haitian Voodoo figures to Hungarian Kobbolds this America is inhabited by a panoply of old gods. It’s symbolic of the elaborate tapestry of heritage that makes up a nation that prides itself on its newness, but is uneasily aware of its traditions. As Shadow crosses America, he reflects on these ironies, as well as the local quirks he observes, slotting them into an increasing sense of the nation’s variety and commonalities.
Interspersed throughout American Gods are extracts from a history, ostensibly written by Mr Ibis (the Old Egyptian God, Thoth). These extracts tell how other gods and mythical beings make their way to the US, in the beliefs and stories of different culture. There’s Essie Tregowan, a Cornish con-artist who is transported to America, and who brings with her the piskies of her youth, or Salim, a taxi-driver from Oman who becomes a jinn. Postmodern novels often use approaches like this to broaden the range of reference; these inset stories provide a neat way of exploring different gods and myths as they connect to Gaiman’s America.
While American Gods is a serious reflection on the nature of American culture, its most appealing aspect is the concept that the gods live among Americans, hiding in plain sight.
This is the key to American Gods’ continued popularity, I think: it offers the fantasy, the hope, (or the fear) that our reality is merely one plane of existence, that just out of sight, or in plain sight if we choose to look, is something bigger, something mythical, something more powerful.
And if you know how to find them, you have the opportunity to collect them, as Wednesday and Shadow do, to gather them together for a final battle, much as one might in an epic game of Dungeons and Dragons, or a supernatural round of Pokemon Go.
I do believe in fairies
Gaiman is not alone in exploring the power of belief and fantasy to keep the gods alive. It’s a theme that never quite goes away: witness JM Barrie’s comment in Peter and Wendy (1908):
Every time a child says, ‘I don’t believe in fairies,’ there is a fairy somewhere that falls down dead.
In Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story (1979), eroding belief in fiction is killing an imaginary kingdom called Fantasia, until an ideal child reader can bring it back to life. In contrast are Terry Pratchett’s piling of myth upon myth in the hugely popular Discworld series, or Rick Riordan’s recasting of the Perseus myth in the Percy Jackson series. All play in different ways with ideas about mythology, the role of belief, and the endurance of ancient ideas about power and creation.
In American Gods, Gaiman contrasts belief in the old gods with the flattening, meaningless forms of new media and digital technologies. But a lot has changed since June 2001 – not least the continuing evolution of the internet – which has turned into the ideal tool for reinvigorating and investigating them.
We like observing the gods, exploring their powers, telling their stories in different ways, collecting them, arranging them, playing with them. We seem to like all the tradition we can get, even on the most cutting edge of technological advancement.
‘Right angles to reality’
American Gods is a response to the perceived flat soullessness of a tech-heavy, media-heavy, corporatised, citified, sophisticated world. Divorced from the old gods, which symbolise the meaningful association with life and the land, Wednesday wonders what hope is there for society.
And yet, it emerges that Mr Wednesday is as much of a soulless con-artist as any of the new gods he despises, manipulating the battle for his own power. It takes an act of real, primal sacrifice on Shadow’s part to let him to see through the con, and understand that, when it comes down to it, as a human, all you have is yourself:
You know, I think I would rather be a man than a god. We don’t need anyone to believe in us. We just keep going anyhow. It’s what we do.
Though the advertisements for the upcoming television series exhort viewers to “Believe,” the response might well be: “Believe in what?”
In the novel, it is the land that eclipses gods and men, as Whiskey Jack, the Native American trickster spirit, tells Shadow after the battle is over:
Listen, gods die when they are forgotten. People too. But the land’s still here. The good places, and the bad. The land isn’t going anywhere.
Believe in the land, then. Gaiman’s novel finds its power in the land, in the people’s relation to the land, in the quirky, carnivalesque, homespun totems and places of power he nominates as places to overlay his web of mythicalism. This is the ultimate appeal of American Gods: the idea that all you have to do is find the places of power.
In this novel they are out-of-the-way carnivalesque sites carved into rock-faces, such as Tennessee’s Rock City and Illinois’ House on the Rock (both real-life American tourist attractions).
To access the mythical plane, go to places like these, and turn at “right angles to reality” (easier said than done, but at least Gaiman gives us the clue). That’s the ultimate point of novels like this, which invest reality with mythology, magic or fantasy: the promise of finding out the true story lying beneath the surface, the secret to the universe.
This book, beyond collecting, analysing, and arranging American gods, is an examination of power – what is real power, and what is not. “Mythologies,” Gaiman said, round about the time he must have been mulling over American Gods, “have always fascinated me. Why we have them. Why we need them. Whether they need us.”
It will be interesting to see what the TV adaptation does with American Gods, whether it takes on this questioning. But the questioning may also have changed. The novel was published in June 2001, and the Western world turned sharply at right angles to itself not long after.
One new element of the adaptation, preview writers have noticed already, is the addition of Vulcan, the Roman God of metallurgy and weaponry. It’s a highly appropriate comment on an America now more than ever in the grip of gun-ownership, and intriguingly it adds a figure from the classical Roman pantheon, missing from the original. Adaptations always move the conversation on a little. Perhaps the gods, too, move with the times.
It’s often not until something traumatic or highly unusual happens in a family that you discover how well you do or don’t know these people with whom you have spent all or much of your life.
And that many of the assumptions you have made about them come unravelling with perplexing speed and ferocity, in ways you never saw coming and cannot account for.
It’s a well-worn pattern that plays out with poetic elegance in Marina Lewycka’s debut novel (2005),A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, which sees a Ukrainian family who have lived in the UK for decades thrown out of their customary patterns of behaviour when the 84 year old widowed father, the one with the eccentrically-obsessed in tractors, not just Ukrainian but worldwide, finds ad marries a new bride, the sexually-charged and materially-avaricious 36 year old blonde bombshell Valentina.
“Two years after my mother died, my father fell in love with a glamorous blonde Ukrainian divorcée. He was eighty-four and she was thirty-six. She exploded into our lives like a fluffy pink grenade, churning up the murky water, bringing to the surface a sludge of sloughed-off memories, giving the family ghosts a kick up the backside.” (P. 1)
Perplexed by the speed at which Valentina not only ingratiates herself into her father Nikolai’s life but begins making demands for extravagantly-expensive cars, stoves and clothes, thinking he is a rich man like all Western Europeans, daughter Nadezhda (Nadia) enlists the help of estranged older sister Vera in an effort to save her father from a clearly invidious fate.
It’s not so much about the money involved – though there are ructions between the two sisters over a modest amount left by her deceased mother to her three grandchildren – but the welfare of their father, who though he has always been remote and the far less involved of the two parents, nonetheless summons a fierce protective instinct in both woman, most particularly Nadia.
It’s a premise that resonates with dramatic and comedic possibilities and Lewycka, herself the child of Ukrainian immigrants to Britain, makes the most of both, presenting us with scenes both amusing and cruel, balancing Valentina’s vitriolic self-obsessed outbursts – she is cruel at times but also possessed of a creative way with insults and much to Nadia’s reluctance, a vulnerable side too – with truly hilarious moments.
While the narrative is a little plodding at times, essentially taking us from A to B in a reasonable conventional way, there is something delightfully engaging, and when Valentina is in full speed ahead mode and dredging up all these hitherto unspoken feelings and issues between the sisters at their father, uncomfortably confronting about the way Valentina’s arrival royally upsets the apple cart of their family’s almost set-in-stone dynamics.
What is this familial chaos does demonstrate, and it turns out to be for the family’s benefit overall, especially for Nadia and Vera who find a rapprochement that, though not snug and cosy, is closer than before, is how little Nadia, who is 10 years younger than her sister and was born in a peaceful UK rather than a war-torn Ukraine, really knows about her family’s experiences before they emigrated.
There is much that has been hidden from her because it’s simply too painful or confronting to talk about, and having known only the stable delight of a Western liberal democracy, a far cry from the experiences of her mother and father and Vera, who takes great delight in pillorying her sister’s life with loving husband Mike at every turn, Nadia realises she is separated from them by more than distance or outlook.
They have lived an entire life it seems far removed from the political stability and social safety of Britain, scarred by experiences during World War Two – the book is set in the ’80s though this is never actually noted nor emphasised – that have shaped not just them but the family as a whole.
“What does it matter? It’s only a photograph. But that photograph! But is it worth losing a new-found sister over? These thoughts race through my mind as I sit on the last train home, watching my reflection in the window as it fleets over the darkening fields and woods. The face in the window, colours washed out in the dusky light, has the same shape and contours as the face in the sepia photograph. When she smiles, the smile is the same.” (P. 213)
As these secret histories are finally revealed, albeit quite reluctantly by Vera, Nadia comes to realise how much that past has shaped her life but also the way in which she relates to her fractious sister and oddball father, an intelligent father more at home writing about tractors – excerpts of his book appear throughout the book and are actually informatively entertaining – than he is being a parent.
Spun with good humour, rare insight and a willingness to employ tropes aplenty when needed – Valentina, for instance, is the very brassy epitome of a greedy Eastern European goldigger in all her amusing gold-digger though Lewycka does goes to some lengths to humanise her enough that she emerges from cartoon villain territory – A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian is a fun, thoughtful and engaging read that will likely prompt you to ask yourself what it is about your family that is unknown and how it made you and your fellow family members the people they are today.
A curious thing has happened in the realm of apocalyptic fiction of late – the arrival of hope.
Previously hope was nowhere to be seen, an unimaginable luxury in a darkly dystopian world where civilisation had collapsed, humanity had surrendered to its basest instincts and Darwinism was having an absolute field day.
It was all over, including even the shouting and the Fat Lady’s singing, and so there seemed to be little point in wondering what might come next.
But lately, authors have begun to wonder what it might look like if humanity held fast (ish) to its hope springs eternal mentality and dared, even in the face of cataclysmic collapse to start building something, anything again.
It’s a daring gambit when things are so bleak, but it’s paying off in spades as M. R. Carey’s latest novel, The Boy on the Bridge, brilliantly illustrates.
A companion novel to The Girl With All the Gifts, and set in the same universe – it is not, except in the most tenuous of ways, a sequel of any kind which is a relief (the main connection is the vehicle that transports everyone the Rosalind Franklin and one key character) – Carey’s new work is hopeful though not, it must be stressed, a zip-a-dee-doo-dah Disneyesque romp through the tulips of future horror.
The world it inhabits is far too broken down and almost irretrievably lost for that; but that doesn’t mean that there is no hope, however far off and desperately uncertain it may be and Carey does a fine job throughout the book of balancing the darkness, of which is much, and the light, glimmers here and there, in ways that feel authentic to the human experience in just about every respect.
To be fair, there isn’t much evidence of any kind of light through much of The Boy on the Bridge which not only includes the traditional human vs zombies – called “Hungries” in this imaginative, highly original and thoughtful take on the zombie apocalypse – but meditations on democracy vs. dictatorship, the capacity of humanity to self destruct even when its back is against the wall, and the cruelty and prejudice by people against people, things and events they don’t understand fully.
They’re not all as fully explored as they could be, but M. R. Carey does an impressive job of presenting us with a titanic struggle between what came before and what is now, while making it abundantly and painfully clear that there are threads that run through both scenarios.
You know, of course, going on, that the twelve people on the Rosalind Franklin, a mighty science lab come terrifying military machine on wheels that is sent off from Beacon, the last redoubt of British humanity in the UK’s south to the desolate surrounds of a post-human Scottish north where Invercrae is a creepy ghost town, won’t all make it home alive.
In fact, as the crew, split between scientists, led by the snivelling, cowardly Dr Fournier, and military personnel, commanded by the remarkable Colonel Carlisle, a man of greta ability with a reasonably sturdy moral compass, grows ever more morass-like, a yawning chasm that no one seems able to adequately fill save for Samrina “Rina” Khan.
She is a forthright, thoughtful young woman who finds herself pregnant to another member of the team – a devastatingly unenviable position in a time and place more suited to ghastly horrific death than incipient, hopeful birth – who is the sole shepherd of Stephen Greaves, a 15 year old scientific prodigy, who may be autistic or socially tramautised even as he teeters between being humanity’s great last hope or the one who sends a dagger through its barely beating heart.
Along with a mixed group of others, each of whom is given enough character development to make us care enough for them – the only real failing of The Boy on the Bridge is that the central anchoring relationship between Rina and Stephen isn’t as powerful as that between Miss Justineau and Melanie in The Girl With All the Gifts – they are the possible architects of a cure, the last great hope for a species fast being eclipsed by their immediate zombie forms and by the unique hybrid between the fungus Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, which zombifies its hosts in mere minutes, and humanity, best represented by Melanie.
Properly taught and if you recall, Melanie and her friends were being before Miss Justineau succumbed to the now airborne pathogen, this new form of humanity might be the last best hope for humanity to reach an accommodation with a virulent parasite that is, on the surface at least, inimically opposed to their continued existence as self-aware creatures.
For much of this almost poetically at times-expressed book – there are some exquisitely-rendered lines that take your breath away, beautiful and yet emotionally dark all at once – the rare moments of hope are damn near extinguished by the sheer enormity of the odds standing in their way.
And honestly as you enter the final act, it’s hard to see how this is going to turn out remotely well for anyone; that it does, is miraculous, and that any sort of happy ending, compromised though it may be, happens at all, and happens mind you without sounding cheesy and all too convenient, is testament to M. R. Carey’s remarkable ability to forge an apocalyptic tale like no other.
The Boy on the Bridge is less a cautionary tale than an authentic, deeply immersive take on humanity, now and in the future and the capacity it holds to either be the architect of its own doom or the source of its own salvation, if only it can decide which it wants to be, and in enough time to make any kind of difference,
It’s only after you’ve had an extraordinary pet in your life, an animal that was far more than just a companion and came to define your life in ways you never expected, that you can understand why a book like Gizelle’s Bucket List is so immensely affecting.
It’s a resounding rejoinder to anyone who has ever scoffed at the idea that a dog or a cat or any other living creature with personality and heart, and they are out there, sceptics be damned, can truly be more than a furry friend to while away the hours.
In fact, to read this remarkably touching, funny and meaningful memoir by Lauren Fern Watt, which recounts the six years she spent with an English mastiff who thought she was a human and could fit into the tiniest of places, is to come to understand just how much our pets come to mean in our lives.
The truly outstanding dogs and cats, and let’s face it that’s all of them isn’t it, make a huge, indelible impression in our lives, playing an instrumental role in defining key points in our lives, and in many ways helping us to become better people in the process.
I can still remember with poignant intensity how much I love having my cat Fred study with me during my final year in high school in 1983 when the pressure was immense, and there was little to no downtime.
“The puppy felt so right in my lap. I looked down at her and couldn’t believe this was real. Years later, I’d recognise this look as the way my friends gazed at their shiny engagement rings, like they are about to start their lives, like their adventures are about to begin. That’s how I’d felt with the dog in my lap, looking into her marble eyes traced by tiny eyelashes.” (P. 16)
As I sat at my desk most nights and weekends toiling away on essays and prepping for the exams that would determine which university I went to and hence where I’d go in life – that was the spiel; in the end it wasn’t that dramatic but it felt like it at the time – Fred was the one who was always there, curled up in my lap, happy to spend countless hours just being with me.
I was his world, and in a lot of ways, he was mine, the most loving and close of companions and the one who spent more time with me in that cocoon of study and learning that anyone else.
His death halfway through that year was like a knife to the heart and I often wonder how I made through the rest of that tumultuous high pressure year.
Gizelle’s Bucket List, beautifully written and with disarming honesty and truthfulness to spare, underscores how universal experience my time with Fred was, and how the loss of the special furry friend, wounds in ways we know are coming but still feel far more exhaustingly painful than we could ever have anticipated.
Lauren is clear from the start that she is going to be deeply honesty about her life, and how pivotal a role Gizelle played in it.
Given to her as a present one day by her alcohol and drug dependent mother in one of her more lucid, free-spirited moments, Gizelle was initially a shock to the system, a dog that was acquired on a whim, a spur of the moment decision that came to be defined by first guilt and lies (Lauren wasn’t entirely forthcoming about the fact that Gizelle had cost a lot of money and was a permanent part of the family, not a temporary foster dog) and then by extravagant love and belonging.
Gizelle followed Lauren from her family home in Tennessee to university then to New York City and finally Maine, a constant, affectionate, enlivening presence through family dislocation, multiple moves, endless New York Marathon-preparing runs along the city’s sidewalks and through its parks, career lows and highs, relationship troubles, and a whole of other big and small life moments.
She was far more than just a pet; she came to be Lauren’s best friend, her comforter and confidante, her exercise companion, holiday buddy and in the end, the one who awakened her to the myriad possibilities life offers.
“Our adventure continued. We spent the next week discovering Maine. Gizelle and I found the best lobster rolls (Clam Shack in Kennebunk), the best doughnuts in the world (Congdon’s Doughnuts in Wells), twisted through roads with views of the sea, explored antique stores trying to not knock things over (Gizelle) and not to get taken in by “collector’s items” (me) … I kept busy by coming up with bucket list things for Gizelle to do …” (P. 166)
Told with tenderness and joy and wry good humour, Gizelle’s Bucket List is all about what happens when a trip or series of trips to say goodbye to a beloved companion, ends up enriching your life in ways that help you realise anew how much of life there is to experience.
There’s a heartbreaking irony to this since the one thing Lauren regrets deeply about her mother’s ferocious addictions, apart from the way they force mother and daughter cruelly apart, is the way it wastes so much of her mother’s life.
All those wonderful special moments such as watching snow fall on a beach, eating ice cream on a wharf behind a very old general sore or driving through picturesque countryside, have been lost to the mother; which is why Lauren, and she only realises this later, decides that what Gizelle needs one long bucket-list swan song to life.
Granted, it is more for Lauren’s benefit than Gizelle’s but given how close these experiencers and celebrators of life are, it’s the perfect way to farewell what Lauren admits is the most important relationship of her life to date.
With a fearless commitment to unveiling her life, no matter how hard or painful that may be, Lauren has invested Gizelle’s Bucket List with a fearless celebration of life with your special furry companion, and the passion for life and living that comes with it, a force so emotionally-resonant and strong that it can survive pretty much anything, and live to tell the tale, long after life itself has ceased.
It’s often not until someone dies that you truly come to understand how deeply connected they were to a whole host of people, all of whom deal with the grief of their loss in their own unique ways.
It happened to me last year when my dad died from a longstanding illness – even as I type those words, in common with anyone who has lost someone close to them, I can’t believe he’s actually dead and I’d give anything for him to be alive outside me as well as inside me (read the book and that will make sense) and as I read Heather Taylor Johnson’s extraordinarily insightful, poignantly well-written book, Jean Harley Was Here, everything I felt when he died came rushing back to me.
That may sound like a bad thing but when you’re in the afterwash of grief, which never really leaves you, just diminishes in daily intensity (somewhat), having someone articulate grief and loss so beautifully and profoundly is actually quite therapeutic.
It gives you the sense that here is someone who understands, who gets it, but even more than that, is able to articulate what that feels like in a way that is immediately accessible and meaningful, and in many ways, groundedly poetic.
“Instead, he [Stan] listened for noise, heard a muffled voice in his son’s room. As he stood in the doorway, he watched his mother read to Orion and tried to remember her reading to him as a boy. He couldn’t. He couldn’t remember so he closed his eyes and imagined it was Jean reading – Jean with her singsong words, shifting from high to low tones as she told stories to their son. Later, Orion would tell he story to Stan that he, his father. who had taught him the riffs of his guitar but it was his mother, Jean, who had taught him rhythm. (P. 19)
Of course, in the case of Jean Harley Was Here, the person most affected by her death is someone who is almost too young at the time of her untimely passing to fully understand what he has lost.
Young Orion, only four when his American-born mother Jean is killed after being knocked from her bike by a thoughtlessly-opened car door into the path of a van in the wrong place at the wrong time, has memories of her playing the animal game with him, and some other snippets here and there, but by and large his memories exist in the letters sent to him by his mother’s friends, and by his Aussie dad Stan, who does his best to keep the memory of the love of his life alive for their son.
As the book opens up and the people close to her have their stories told in flashback, during the period when Jean is lying in hospital in a coma, and in the days, months and years after her death, you come to appreciate how deeply interconnected we all are, and how that comes to matter a great deal to those left behind, especially someone like Orion who largely only has the memories of other to hold on to.
Taylor Johnson does a magnificent of weaving the stories of Stan, Orion, Jean’s best friends Neddy and Viv, and the man in the van, Charley, together in ways that make you appreciate once again how profoundly we are all intertwined, even if we are not immediately aware of it.
It’s the discovery of these emotional entanglements, some of which survive the death of the person in question, and some of which do not, that helps give a sense of proportion to how great a loss their death is.
I mean, we all know that their death is a massive, incalculable loss – that is, of course, never in dispute and we are reminder every single day in ways large and small – but sometimes it all feels amorphous and sad, too big and abstract and overwhelming to even begin grappling with.
You could argue that maybe we don’t need to struggle with quantifying how much of a loss someone is since something like grief exists and affects you ceaselessly, irregardless of the size of it (for those doing the grieving it feels enormous anyway) but somehow we need to, are driven to, striving in some way to make the immeasurable, the unfathomable into something we can possibly see all around and understand.
It may be a fool’s errand and ultimately impossible to fulfill, but as Jean Harley Was Here, illustrates with the power of shared stories and experience, we have to do in some way, hoping we can move on in life and properly honour the person in everything we do.
“He (Charley) was confused. He didn’t know how he was supposed to feel so he just let sadness wash over him. It was so sad that he only had his mum on the inside because he wanted her on the outside too, and it was so sad that Charley didn’t have his mum on the outside either, and not only that but he didn’t even have a dad.” (P. 238)
Ultimately, a person’s death isn’t knowable or able to be fully processed, and pretty much everyone in the book knows it, including most touchingly and eloquently Charley himself who struggles to comprehend how he can live with what he has done, even if it was a tragic accident, but that doesn’t stop them trying.
There is one chapter towards the end of the book when three unlikely people, all affected in tremendously life altering ways by Jean’s death end up in a pub, first awkwardly, then united by shared grief and loss and then by a temporary friendship which doesn’t survive the night but which means the world to them while it exists in their bubble of connectedness and remembrance.
It beautifully demonstrates how a person’s death ripples from those in the immediate family – Stan and Orion must live with Jean’s loss every single day, an inescapable fact of living – right through their network of friends and acquaintances, eventually touching the most unlikely of people.
Because of that great, inescapable truth and the way those connections help you deal with someone’s death (and yet not, all at the same time), Jean Harley Was Here, is a vitally important book and a wonderful, immensely affecting read that will have you crying, smiling and reminded once again of how the death of someone you love is a shared grief and the only way to properly understand and deal with it, and to remember their indelible presence in your life, is in those networks of interconnectedness that, life willing, persist long after the tragic moment of loss.