[From the archives: 2013] Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth – Xiaolu Guo

While carrying out a recent laptop ‘spring clean’, I stumbled on a file containing a load of book reviews that I never posted. Not sure how I managed that. Although I’m genuinely intrigued as to what else I might find languishing on my hard drive – perhaps I DID write that novel and just don’t remember doing it… Anyway, I thought I’d post a forgotten review up every once in a while; a kind of ‘from the archives’. Today, we’re going back to November 2013.

The ravenous youth in Guo’s affecting episodic novel is 21-year-old Fenfang, a bright young woman who travels 1,800 miles from a rural sweet potato farm to Beijing to pursue her dream of becoming an actress. The book presents 20 chapters or fragments in Fenfang’s life. Frequently there are significant gaps between the events of each chapter, making them seem like snapshots and perhaps highlighting the absurdity of summarising any one person’s complex existence in the space of 200 pages.

Building on that idea of snapshots, each chapter begins with a black and white photograph of seemingly mundane things from the everyday lives of people in Communist China. Their very ordinariness and the fact that they’re forever frozen in time makes them take on a significance that I was left puzzling over. Apparently Guo took the pictures herself and I’d love to know more about them. They have a bleak, sad quality to them that’s a little haunting.

Which is a lot like the story itself.

For Fenfang, the big city represents glittering opportunities and a life of independence. The reality is quite different. In Beijing, being too much of an individual is still a crime.

Fenfang is a compelling, complex character that I was instantly drawn to despite her prickly, brusque, almost clinical approach to life. At once a product of the world she grew up in, Fenfang also rebels in her own stubborn way. Her matter of factness helps make her so likeable. Economical with her emotions, her self-pity and her rage, she rarely rails against her lot, understanding that expending energy in this way will change nothing. When arrested for having an American boyfriend in her apartment, the only pity she shows is directed at a man in the police station who is refusing to give up his unlicensed dog.

Underneath her resilient exterior, it’s clear that Fenfang is profoundly depressed. However, unlike the deeply personal depression of many Western novels, Fenfang’s depression seems to represent the state of her nation and the many people oppressed by poverty or cultural restrictions. Despite her decisive move to Beijing, she frequently bemoans her lethargy and lack of action.

Throughout the book, there’s a powerful impression of claustrophobia. In her village, surrounded by yawning acres of sweet potato fields, Fenfang is driven mad by the rituals of daily life and her desire for change. Yet Beijing brings its own imprisonments, from the violent ex-boyfriend, the ‘old cocks and old hens’ in her apartment block who monitor her every move and report her misdemeanours to the police, to the succession of non-speaking acting roles that trap her in a vortex of silence.

Fenfang is ravenous because she is starved of the life she wants to be living, the possibilities that should be open to her. The book has an unfinished quality, refusing to offer neat answers or resolutions. I’d definitely recommend it as a way of getting closer to an understanding of what it must mean to live under that kind of regime.

As a side note to end on, it might interest you to know that the English translation of Guo’s book came ten years after it was written. It’s actually her first novel. Guo had this to say about the arduous process of beginning the translation:

‘[I was]…no longer happy with the original Chinese text…I didn’t agree with the young woman who had written it. Her vision of the world had changed, along with Beijing and the whole of China. I wanted to rework each sentence…and fight with its young author who knew so little about the world…I wanted to convince her to become an adult.’

I wonder how many authors feel like their earlier creations are no longer a reflection of the story they wanted to tell?

If you enjoy 20 Fragments, do read Guo’s A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, which I personally loved even more. It has the same haunting sadness and poses really interesting questions about cultural divides and the nature of love.

A False Report: A True Story – Miller & Armstrong

After some lighter reading (see A Charmed Life), the books I’ve picked up recently have taken me to some pretty challenging places. It’s not enough that I read A False Report; a few days ago I also started on Anna Bikont’s The Crime and the Silence, which is horrifying and I’ll need to read it in short bursts with other things in between.

A False Report is a really fantastic example of extended journalism. There’s a gripping central story, a history lesson, plenty of light shining into deeply murky corners and enough uncomfortable facts to light a fire directly under your chair. God this book made me mad. Which of course it’s designed to do, and rightly so. I don’t think it told me anything I didn’t know in a general sense because I know that there are many marathons to run before rape victims are universally treated with dignity and sensitivity, and I know that rape is one of the most complex of crimes to investigate, and I also know that in no other sphere are victims of trauma critiqued as to whether they respond appropriately or not, and not treated like, I don’t know, victims. of. trauma.

However, even if you know all those things too, you should definitely definitely still read this book. I always find, no matter how well-versed I think I am in a particular subject, or how well-established my views are, that I will learn something I didn’t know before or be given a different perspective from which to approach a familiar topic.

A False Report focuses on the case of a serial rapist who attacked women across at least two states in America. One of his victims, Marie, reported that she had been raped in her home in Lynnwood, a suburb of Seattle. Following a few tip-offs, police became suspicious of Marie’s story and eventually, unbelievably – given that this was based purely on the word of a few people she knew and not actual evidence that she was lying – charged her with making a false report. Her reputation was ruined, her friends deserted her and life as she knew it was over.

Over two years later, in Denver, detectives Stacy Galbraith and Edna Hendershot joined forces when two cases of sexual assault occurring within months of each other proved to have disturbing similarities. Their investigation linked officers, crime analysts and investigative tools across the state of Colorado, and took them on a trail that led all the way back to Lynnwood.

The book began as an extended article for Pro Publica, an American non-profit investigative journalism organisation. It largely still reads like an article but I liked that approach. With a clean writing style and plenty of short, snappy, to-the-point sentences, it feels a bit like the way that police officers brief on a crime scene. As if the facts are powerful enough to speak for themselves. Structurally, it jumps around in time so that I did have to look back a few times to get myself oriented. But the text is carefully constructed for the reveal and, unlike some other reviews, I didn’t mind the occasional segue into the wider context of why so many rape victims have to work harder to be believed. As well as following the progress of the case, the authors also build up a comprehensive picture of the failings in Lynnwood, the successes in Denver and lessons we can learn from both.

Armstrong and Miller delve into the backgrounds of all of the key players: investigators, victims and – to prepare you – the rapist. This has the effect of humanising (but not absolving) everyone. The victims aren’t defined solely by the crime perpetrated against them, the officers become more than just representatives of the ‘law’, and we are forced to understand the rapist as an abhorrent but human being, so that we can’t make the mistake of writing him off as an anomaly or a monster. Again, I’ve seen criticism of the fact that the authors don’t delve deeper into the psychology of the rapist – to them, I’d say that this book ultimately isn’t about him. He gets just enough attention for me. The focus is and should be on the women affected by his actions, and what their experiences tell us about the many problems we still have to address in our society and justice system.

For a tough read, there are things to be uplifted by. The story of Martha Goddard, the creation of the rape kit and a most unlikely financial backer probably deserves a book in itself. And contrary to the many Netflix* docs out there highlighting police corruption and incompetence, Galbraith and Hendershot are the kind of police detectives that make you feel genuine hope. Plus, their joined-up investigation was an excellent example of policing done well. Even the Lynnwood miscarriage of justice is handled with a degree of grace by most of the officers involved, although it’s impossible to undo the harm done. [*Apparently this book has been optioned for Netflix…]

I also really liked the way the authors explored in detail how the law has been coloured by the ‘fear of the false accuser’. At one point, this takes us back as far as 1671, when Sir Matthew Hale, Lord Chief Justice (in England), author of the phrase about rape being ‘an accusation easy to make and hard to be proved, and harder to be defended by the party accused…’, enshrined an idea about the possibility of women using accusations of rape for revenge/attention that persists today. This, despite the fact that crime statistics on unreported rape indicate that it is far from an easy accusation to make.

Ultimately, this isn’t one of those topics where there are easy answers. But the central message of the book – the idea that more police officers should be listening to victims of sexual assault, rather than passing judgement on their lives, actions and reactions – is extremely important.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl

If, like me, you’re fascinated by the lives of writers, this little oldie is a gem. John Quinn, author and former broadcaster for Irish radio station RTÉ, ran a series of radio programmes in 1985, each featuring an interview with a female writer whose childhood had been spent in Ireland.

Following the broadcasting, he collected the interviews into an edited collection of essays for this book, some featuring extracts from the writers’ works.

There are entries from well-known writers such as Maeve Binchy, Molly Keane and Edna O’Brien, as well as Clare Boylan, travel writer Dervla Murphy and gifted short story writer Mary Lavin, amongst others.

It’s such a lovely way to get an insight into the formative experiences and influences of people who went on to write. Childhood is also a fascinating subject to explore and, naturally, these women are excellent storytellers, with a great eye for the revealing detail. While there’s considerable diversity of experience, it was so interesting to see how similar themes recurred between the essays, such as a love for books and reading, the escapism of literature, the solitary nature of the writer, and the way in which childhood memories are often revisited over and over in adult works.

Out of print now, it’s not impossible to pick up a copy if you were interested enough to track it down. I picked mine up for about £1.50 via a secondhand bookseller.

Charmed Life – Diana Wynne Jones

I read some Diana Wynne Jones! Finally!

I’m ashamed to say that I can’t 100% remember which lovely blogger pointed me in the direction of the Chrestomanci books as a place to start (Lory @ The Emerald City Book Review – I feel like it might have been you??) . But someone did, and I’m very grateful.

While there are probably tons of people who think I’m really late to this particular party, I’m sure there are a few who’ve also (somehow) overlooked this series, despite being a huge fan of magical, otherworldly children’s stories. For those people, what is Chrestomanci? Well, Chrestomanci is more than one thing – it could be a person (a powerful magician or enchanter, with nine lives, who works within the British Government to supervise the use of magic and enforce magical law), a place (Chrestomanci Castle in the South of England, the headquarters) or even a world (referring to the parallel world, in an unspecified time, in which the stories take place).

Little did I know when I first dipped a toe into Chrestomanci waters how complex a world it is. [Disclaimer: everything from this point on is likely riddled with inaccuracies and drawn together from various sources ranging from Wikipedia and goodreads, to fan sites and this awesome website that I discovered called ‘How to Read Me’. If I’m wrong, feel free to tell me at great length in the comments! I’m desperate for feedback…]

I think there are six books. Then there are also some short stories. The simplest route in is via the first published book (Charmed Life). Then you could proceed via publication order, or you could juggle the books into chronological order. OR, as if this wasn’t challenging enough, you could attempt them in Diana Wynne Jones’ suggested reading order, which it appears people can’t entirely agree on (some put Charmed Life first, others do not). *Breathe*

I suspect it probably doesn’t really matter, particularly if you read them all relatively close together like some kind of Chrestomanci immersion therapy, but I do feel drawn to Wynne Jones’ reading order, if I could just figure out what she actually recommended.

Anyway, all that aside, I’d not be interested in reading any further if Charmed Life hadn’t been so great. To sum up the plot, Gwendolen and Eric (Cat) Chant are orphaned when their parents die in a steamboat accident. Gwendolen, who shows great potential in witchcraft, is currently being tutored by the clearly dubious Mr William Nostrum, but she’s chafing at the bit and believes herself worthy of a greater teacher. Following the discovery of some letters amongst their parents things, Gwendolen petitions the mysterious Chrestomanci for help and she and Cat end up being taken in at Chrestomanci Castle, to live and learn alongside Chrestomanci’s own children, Julia and Roger.

I just loved the middle section of the story set in the castle. It’s a brilliant exploration of what would happen if you put some squabbling children together and added powerful magical abilities into the mix. Really funny and somehow wholly believable. Gwendolen and Julia clash in a big way, culminating in Chrestomanci taking away Gwendolen’s magical abilities as punishment. And in so doing, her true colours are revealed. Plus we, of course, find out that Cat isn’t the magical dolt he thought himself to be. Nor is he the sidekick in the story…

I won’t say anything more plot-wise, but it twists and turns in pleasing ways. Books that add magic into otherwise ‘normal’ scenarios are just my absolute favourites and this didn’t disappoint. Despite having The Magicians of Caprona from the library already, I think I want to read The Lives of Christopher Chant next, which focuses on the story of Chrestomanci himself, and how he came to lose so many of his nine lives presumably.

The best kind of escapist read.

Bed – David Whitehouse

Look at that cover – isn’t it fabulous?

I hadn’t read any Whitehouse before this review. Truth be told, I hadn’t even heard of David Whitehouse until I saw a note about his latest book The Long Forgotten and thought it sounded really intriguing. My local library doesn’t have a copy of that yet, but while poking around I found Bed and couldn’t pass it up.

Bed is a story about Malcolm Ede. Mal starts out as a remarkable kid, full of eccentricity, charisma, conviction and a convoluted type of courage that makes him entirely his own unique person; inspirational and also maddening to live with. Mal looks like he is destined for greatness until one day, in his early 20s, he goes to bed and stays there for 20 years. So his life continues to be remarkable, but not at all in the way his family might have expected.

Bed is also about Mal’s younger brother, who narrates the story. Fighting to get out from under Mal’s shadow, the book opens with the revelation that after a brief escape, he is back in his childhood home, disabled in a mysterious accident and once again sleeping in the bed next to Mal. This time, a Mal who has become a grotesque, 100 stone immobile figure.

The real question of course is why. Why has Mal retreated from life? What is he escaping from? What point is he making? The book goes someway towards answering those questions but it ends up being bigger than that; it’s an exploration of what it means to love someone, the line between love and dependency, and how powerful a force it is to be needed. Looking back at the story, it’s interesting to note that I didn’t really like any of the characters. Mal is a force of nature but he is infuriating. In fact, most of the people in the book are frustrating, largely as a result of their seeming inability to break out of their habits. Mal’s brother, mother and father are all stuck to some degree. Even Lou, Mal’s girlfriend at the point at which he takes to his bed, and the girl which Mal’s brother loves from afar, is infuriatingly passive, and at times appears nothing more than a vessel through which we see the motivations of the Ede brothers and Lou’s own father, who is repeatedly unlucky in love and life.

If I’m honest, I suspect they’re all so frustrating because they tell uncomfortable truths about how difficult it is to change the patterns in the way we live and the way we react in any given situation. It’s hard to break the mould. It’s harder to live than to exist.

While it’s not a perfect book, it is blackly funny, challenging and original. Definitely worth a read.

In which I join the Classics Club

A big shout-out to Lory of The Emerald City Book Review for this one, because I’ve loved reading her Classics Club posts and it’s through her that I originally discovered the Classics Club.

In short, the Classics Club was created to ‘to inspire people to read and blog about classic books’. Which is a great goal and I’m totally on board. There are plenty of books that I feel are gaps in my reading. In fact, there are some on my list I’m downright embarrassed about.

You’ll note that there’s nothing terribly groundbreaking about much that I’ve included. I think that’s part of the problem. Many of these books are considered such classics, that it’s almost assumed everyone must have read them and you start forgetting that you haven’t yet got round to it. But I also have no intention of reading for the sake of it or because I feel I should. In front of witnesses, I declare my intention never to read Ulysses or Finnegan’s Wake, and I’m going to be honest about my plan never to read Dostoevsky again because The Brothers Karamazov pretty much did for me. The books below are there because I think (hope) I’ll love them.

So here’s my accountability. Five years. Fifty books. Some ‘classic’ blogging. [I’ll update the list below with links as and when I review a book. So you can click through to read my verdict.]

Angelou, Maya I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Barrett-Browning, Elizabeth Aurora Leigh
Barrie, JM Peter Pan
Bates, HE Fair Stood the Wind for France
Blackmore, RD Lorna Doone
Carter, Angela Wise Children
Cather, Willa O Pioneers!
Defore, Daniel Moll Flanders
Dickens, Charles David Copperfield
Dickens, Charles Bleak House
Didion, Joan Slouching Towards Bethlehem
Du Maurier, Daphne My Cousin Rachel
Du Maurier, Daphne Jamaica Inn
Eliot, George The Mill on the Floss
Eliot, George Daniel Deronda
Ellison, Ralph The Invisible Man
Emerson, Ralph Waldo The Essential Writings
Faulkner, William As I Lay Dying
Fenimore Cooper, James The Last of the Mohicans
Fitgerald, F Scott The Great Gatsby
Ford, Madox Ford Parade’s End / The Good Soldier
Forster, E.M Howards End / A Room with a View
Gibbons, Stella Cold Comfort Farm
Heaney, Seamus Beowulf
Hemingway, Ernest For Whom the Bell Tolls / East of Eden
Jackson, Shirley The Haunting of Hill House
Jerome, K Jerome Three Men in a Boat
Lee, Harper To Kill A Mockingbird
Lessing, Doris The Golden Notebook
Mann, Thomas The Magic Mountain
Maugham, Somerset The Painted Veil
McCullers, Carson The Ballad of the Sad Cafe
Panter-Downes, Mollie One Fine Day
Perkins-Gilmore, Charlotte Herland
Remarque, Erich Maria All Quiet on the western front
Rhys, Jean Wide Sargasso Sea
Robinson, Marilynne Housekeeping
Salinger, JD The Catcher in the Rye
Spark, Muriel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
Steinbeck, John The Grapes of Wrath
Taylor, Mildred Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry
Thackeray, WM Vanity Fair
Voltaire Candide
Walker, Alice The Colour Purple
West, Rebecca The Fountain Overflows
White, EB Charlotte’s Web
Whitman, Walt Leaves of Grass
Wiesel, Elie Night
Wolf, Naomi The Beauty Myth
Woolf, Virginia A Room of One’s Own

Is anyone else taking part already? What are your favourite classics?

The Patience Stone – Atiq Rahimi

The Patience Stone was an impulsive read for me – I was browsing in the Hive in Worcester, spotted a shelf of books by writers from Islamic countries and had a brief moment of thinking that I really don’t read diversely enough and should take a look. I’m glad I did, because this is a thought-provoking read for just 130 pages.

Set in just one room, in a war-torn village somewhere in Afghanistan, at an indeterminate time, the story follows the thoughts and confessions of a woman tending her wounded husband. He has been shot in the neck and is comatose; the only sign of life the regular breaths he takes. She cleans him, replaces his drip, puts drops in his open eyes to prevent them drying out. And in the silences between the sound of tanks, the rippling of gunfire and the unwanted interruptions from the local mullah, she begins to talk to him. Slowly, and painfully, she confesses to some of the darkest secrets of her life.

The setting is so powerful. The action never moves outside of the four walls in which the woman’s husband lies. She moves freely in and out but we have no choice but to stay behind. When she leaves, we wait for her to come back, watching her husband take one breath after another or a fly buzzing around the prone body. It’s such a clever way to make a statement about war. It’s just outside, and occasionally has the power to penetrate into the room itself. This approach reflects the majority of people’s experience of conflict – noise, uncertainty, fear, cowering indoors. The war intrudes into the homes of people who are trying to maintain some degree of normality despite the horror outside.

The Patience Stone, or sang-e sabur, is a magic stone to which you tell ‘…your struggles, all your pain, all your woes’. The stone absorbs everything over time, until eventually, one day, it explodes and sets you free from the burdens you’ve carried. As the woman’s catatonic husband becomes her sang-e sabur, her stories become more shocking and raw. His role in the exchange is not passive, however, given that he is the source of much of her intense anger. I thought Rahimi presented the woman in a brave and unflinching way. She’s as capable of cruelty and deceit as she is duty, honour and love. She’s so powerfully human and very much a sexual being, in stark contrast to the way that women are presented and expected to be in many cultures. Most of all, she is desperate, driven to say the sort of things one says to a confessor when they’ve given up on absolution and just want some kind of peace for and within ourselves.

The story feels like an anti-parable. No one is named. There is the woman, her man, her two children, her aunt, her father-in-law. Rahimi appears to use the woman as a mouthpiece for the suffering of so many. In the introduction by Khaled Hosseini, he speaks to this aspect of the book, saying ‘…far too many women continue to languish under the unquestioned, absolute domination of tribal customs that deprive them of meaningful participation in societal life. For far too long, Afghan women have been faceless and voiceless. Until now […] In The Patience Stone, they have their say at last.’

While the former statement is indisputably true, I’m uncomfortable with the implications of the second. I’ve always been uncomfortable about the idea of ‘one’ speaking for ‘many’. It’s hard to distil down such widespread misery and pain into one story after all. But this is just an interpretation of the book, and you’re free to make your own. I prefer the idea that the woman’s experience opens a door into a hidden world and, in so doing, encourages an understanding of the hundreds of other stories that are yet to be told, and the millions of other women who live lives of unimaginable hardship in silence and behind closed doors.