This edition contains an eclectic bumper crop of reviews, ranging from the latest fiction to poetry and non-fiction, and looking at yet more books on England and Englishness, both older and more recent. Highlights include an interview with Helen Oyeyemi, the impossibly young author of the mesmeric debut The Icarus Girl, reviews of new books from Julian Barnes and Zadie Smith, Roger McGough's Collected Poems, the erudite and amusing English Companion, a charming introduction to English folk culture, and a meditation on Northernness. There is also a Spotlight feature on an extremely ladylike independent press.
The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi: Review and Author Interview
Whatever else can be said about The Icarus Girl, there is no doubt that it marks the debut of a formidable young talent. Helen Oyeyemi wrote this novel in secret while she was supposed to be studying for her A-levels, and her writing is touched by the excitement and illicit poetry of this experience.
Oyeyemi captures the richness, the oddity, and the strains of growing up in two different cultures in this story of Jess, a quiet and reserved, hyper-aware eight-year-old, half-Nigerian, half-English, who acquires a capricious and increasingly cruel doppelgänger called TillyTilly (a corruption of the Nigerian name Titiola). To begin with, the relationship between the two children is a source of strength and comfort for Jess, who suffers from loneliness and screaming fits and longs for the emotional security of sisterhood: "she couldn't find the words to tell TillyTilly that sisters was something about being held without hands, and the skin-flinch of seeing and simultaneously being seen." As the story progresses, however, Jess's friendship with TillyTilly causes her problems of social adjustment and an identity crisis, forcing her to choose between being Nigerian and being English. Indeed, Tilly seems to become a voracious evil spirit, for very complicated reasons which appear to have their roots in Nigerian mythology. (The reader is apparently expected to be familiar with basic Yoruba and various aspects of Nigerian folklore. It would be nice to have an appendix containing a glossary of Yoruba words and some cultural notes for the benefit of non-Nigerian readers.)
Oyeyemi's style somehow combines lyricism with a shrewd matter-of-factness. Her intensely-focussed prose frequently achieves a photographic immediacy: "she stared at the finely stitched blue-and-white embroidered waves that ran around the bottoms of his trousers. She wanted to touch them to see if they really did stand out all bumpy." The author deals beautifully with the moral ambiguities of a child's life, and with eerie precision evokes the way a creative child thinks: "It was a peering through good and pretty coloured glass, this gladness".
It would, of course, be ridiculous to expect perfection in any novel, let alone a debut. In the second part of the book Oyeyemi loses the beautiful balance that makes the first half such pleasurable reading. The increasing horror of TillyTilly's visits and the chronicling of the breakdown of Jess's family life under her malicious influence become almost too much to bear, and the author's style sometimes veers from her normal mature and delicate poise to a younger-sounding voice, although this may be an intentional effect. There is still some very fine, arresting writing in this part of the book, however: "This was a little house, with a ceiling that kept getting higher and higher, a hot place with no windows. This was anger." The scenes in which the evil Tilly appears to torture Jess become, as the book progresses, occasionally reminiscent of special effects from horror films. (Although this novel has a child as its protagonist, it is emphatically not a book for children). Although many of the characters strike the reader as astoundingly real (Jess's Nigerian grandfather is especially well-drawn), the characterisation seems sometimes inconsistent. This is particularly true in the case of Jess's mother. Gentle, loving, and good-humoured in the first part of the book, she is driven by Tilly's influence to be severe with Jess. Jess herself, although convincingly childlike in many ways, frequently strikes the reader as too precocious for an eight-year-old, no matter how intelligent. There are a few shifts in perspective in the narrative, too, from third person to limited omniscient, and this is also disconcerting. The eerie ending of the book, which takes place on a plane of awareness called by Nigerians "the wilderness of the mind," did not seem to me to resolve the conflict between Jess and TillyTilly and between Jess's different cultures.
Nevertheless, the story as a whole remains strangely compelling, forcing the reader to wade through Jess's maelstrom of loneliness and self-loathing with her until the bitter end. Here is a beautiful and frightening, if sometimes infuriatingly vague, stunner of a debut novel. This reviewer awaits Oyeyemi's next novel with bated breath.
We interviewed Helen Oyeyemi about The Icarus Girl in 2005.
How did you get the idea for The Icarus Girl?
I already had a character called TillyTilly who had appeared in a bunch of short stories I'd been writing since I was thirteen. In each short story, TillyTilly managed to befriend a little girl and then damage that friend in some way, sometimes by revealing a secret or isolating the girl from her other friends, basically in lots of different ways, and I was intrigued by her character and wanted to find out who TillyTilly really was, which is why I started this story The Icarus Girl, as a kind of history of TillyTilly.
To what extent is the book autobiographical? Was your childhood at all like Jess's?
The book's not particularly autobiographical. Jess is a lot more sensitive and precocious and thoughtful than I was at her age. The issues of belonging and not belonging didn't strike me as much as they do Jess, mainly because, having been brought over to England when I was four, my first priority was to get comfortable with England --I knew I was Nigerian. With me at eight years old, my parents had to make sure that I didn't follow people home because I was that curious, whereas with Jess her parents need to urge her to talk to people. What we do share, though, is a love for books and stories, and a tendency to cross out the endings of books that we feel don't end well and writing new endings over them.
Who are your main literary influences?
It's weird right now --I don't consciously feel any influence when I write, mainly because there are lots of writers and lots of stories that I adore but find impossible to access in a creative way. It's all about writing what we can, not what we'd like to write, I suppose. I wish so badly that I could write like Carson McCullers or Edwidge Danticat or Aimee Bender or Jean Rhys or Emily Dickinson or Buchi Emecheta or Jeannette Winterson or Sandor Marai! Oh well...one thing that I seem to have picked up from two other favourite writers, Poe and Borges, is an obsession with Doppelgangers that I find myself exploring in a different way in my second novel.
In Greek mythology, Icarus died because he flew too close to the sun. What is the significance of the novel's title as it relates to Jess's experiences?
When I thought of Jess and her mother, I thought of Icarus and Daedalus, in that Daedalus made wings for both himself and his son to enable them to fly away from King Minos' tyranny, and Daedalus managed to fly away safely, but Icarus died. In a similar way, Jess's mum has an imagination that she can rein in and guide in order to write stories, whereas Jess's uncontrollable imagination, Jess's wings, lead her to a force that she can't handle: TillyTilly. It says something about being a child and not being able to guarantee your own safety.
There are references in the book to masterpieces of Nigerian fiction, such as Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, as well as to English writers such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Do you see yourself as a Nigerian author first and foremost, or is your work a blend of English and Nigerian influences?
Hopefully I'm neither. I think the cool thing about being Nigerian-born and raised in England is that I have even less of a sense of formal place and identity than most people, which means that I end up running around absorbing all kinds of stuff.
The themes of cross-cultural harmony and conflict are sensitively explored in the novel. Do you intend to do this when you began to write it?
I had no intention of talking about cross-cultural harmony and conflict (but thank you for saying so...!) which is why I was the most surprised of all when I noticed that Jess's biggest issue was the choice between being English and being Nigerian, because it's not something I thought about or talked about on a conscious level before The Icarus Girl happened. I had just been trying to tell a story about Jess and TillyTilly, and wouldn't have expected that to be the tension between them.
Nigerian culture is not always represented positively in the book; Jess meets TillyTilly while visiting her family in Nigeria, and Jess's mother is sometimes quite severe. Are you at all worried that readers might find some of the depictions of Nigerian culture in The Icarus Girl disturbing?
I don't think The Icarus Girl fails to say anything either way about Nigerian culture, or if it does, it touches on it very lightly. If we look at culture as a locus that combines family and language and art and custom and religion, the novel doesn't go there. What I noticed later about it is that Jess's viewpoint is so cramped and small and bewildered that English culture doesn't feature either: she lives almost completely in her mind. Jess's mother's severity comes from the fact that she's struggling with identity issues herself, and I think meeting TillyTilly in Nigeria is more to do with Jess beginning to pick up a sense of belonging in Nigeria than anything else. The relationship between them doesn't start off bad; it only gets that way when they return to England.
Jess seems to be experiencing a conflict between the Nigerian and English sides of her, and TillyTilly exploits this. Does Jess ever resolve this conflict for herself?
No, Jess simplifies the issue too much to ever get around it. She feels as if her entire allegiance has to be thrown onto one side, and that's why I think TillyTilly wins the battle.
It's quite extraordinary to have a first novel published at the age of twenty. How are you and those around you, particularly at university, reacting to this?
It's cool, because no-one in my circle of friends at university seems to think it's that much of a big deal - they're really supportive about reviews and things, but usually we're just being students arguing about films and plays and other peoples' books and university stuff. I think it helps that we don't go to books parties. I'm trying to convince my friends to get into torch-dancing (sitting on the floor and creating dance moves with torchlight), which they dismiss as silly. But it should be an Olympic sport! I think the best thing about having had The Icarus Girl published is that I can buy loads of books. Hehehe.
Rumour has it that you are already working on a second novel. Is it similar to The Icarus Girl, or will it represent a new direction for you?
The second novel is about Afro-Cuban mythology, and I think it's definitely a new direction. I'm still trying to find a distinct style to write in, so I'm having fun with that.
--Interview conducted by Isabel Taylor.
Many thanks to Helen Oyeyemi for her time, and to Penguin for helping to arrange the interview.
Zadie Smith's career seems to be attended by more rumour and speculation than that of any other English novelist. This began when she was given a publishing contract for her first novel, White Teeth, on the strength of only the first chapter. That glimpse made the publisher realise Smith's talent, and even before the novel was published (exceeding many expectations), it was being widely discussed. White Teeth turned out to be a remarkable debut novel, one of the most readable portrayals of English society in recent years, with a unique and fascinating perspective on cultural exchange within a community. Smith said at the time in an interview with amazon.co.uk, of the so-called 'multicultural' aspect of the book, that she "just wanted to show that there are communities that function well. There's sadness for the way tradition is fading away, but I wanted to show people making an effort to understand each other, despite their cultural differences".
The critical frenzy produced by the book decreased slightly after the publication of Smith's second novel, The Autograph Man. Although just as perceptive, funny and interesting as the first, it failed to capture readers in the same way. Smith acknowledged that the startling success of White Teeth had left her with a kind of writer's block, which may have caused some of the later inconsistencies.
Since then, however, Smith has been very busy working on her new books. In 2002 she accepted a fellowship from Harvard and moved to America, where she began a collection of literary essays and gathered material for a new novel (involving herself as well in the publication of The Burned Children of America, a collection of short stories by American writers).
The new book, On Beauty, portrays a critical period in the lives of the Belsey family: Howard, an Englishman who is a professor of art history at an American university, Kiki, his wife from Florida, and their three children, Jerome, Zora and Levi. There are similarities between this novel and White Teeth in the dynamics of the family relationships. Like Irie, Millat and Magid, the Belsey children develop according to distinct sets of ideals and beliefs with which Smith critiques contemporary identity politics. Jerome is a Christian, spiritually alienated from everyone in his family except his mother. Zora is an intensely-driven college student who only respects academic status and therefore unfairly belittles her mother for being a housewife. Levi tries to create his own authentic black identity by being down with a group of Haitian immigrants and becoming involved with their political struggle.
Smith contrasts the Belseys with the Kipps family, composed of an English husband, an American wife and their two children. There are so many similarities between the two families that they should probably be friendly, but, significantly, they do not get along. Monty Kipps is a colleague of Howard's and they disagree radically over their artistic beliefs. The Kippses are also more conservative than the Belseys, so that the families clash on various levels. By the end of the book, each character's personality is left open and starkly exposed.
On Beauty is an excellent study of racial and class politics across cultures. Much of the material for the portrayal of college life in America may have come from Smith's experiences at Harvard; the main setting of the novel is the university in which Howard and Monty work and Zora studies. The novel is very intimately written, and the character delineation is believable and sensitive. The similarities with White Teeth will undoubtedly satisfy those who preferred Smith's debut novel to The Autograph Man. Nevertheless, On Beauty also shows a new artistic and intellectual control and maturity, making the story and its insights resonate long after reading. --Alexander Flux
Julian Barnes' Arthur and George is either a conventional story or a novel of ideas, and whichever it is, it is pretending to be the other. The novel begins, in alternating short chapters, with two boys of opposite natures: Arthur is fundamentally imaginative and George is fundamentally logical. They are the boys who will someday sit, a world-famous writer and a capable barrister, and discuss whether argument is more persuasive when based on evidence or intuition. Surely, therefore, this is a novel of ideas; the artist versus the scientist, that most fundamental subject. But it is not as simple as that.
When the paths of the two men finally cross, Arthur has grown into the famous writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and George Edalji, a barrister, has become notorious because of his conviction and incarceration for the mutilating of farm animals in his home district of Great Wryley. George is innocent and he has written a letter to Sir Arthur, imploring him, the creator of the brilliant investigative mind of Sherlock Holmes, to help George prove his innocence and resume his legal practice. Arthur, who receives letters like George's every day, has seized upon this particular case in a desperate effort to seek solace from his guilt and confusion following the death of his long-ailing wife, whom he had stopped loving years prior in favour of the young and vibrant Jean Leckie. For ten years the latter has been his "mystical wife," but he has never made her his mistress because of his fidelity to an ideal of romantic chivalry that his mother had instilled in him from birth.
The meeting of the two men at the Grand Hotel is the event towards which the book has been moving for all of its previous two-hundred and twenty-five pages, but when it arrives it is a result of the miscarriage of ideas. Law, the very system in which George finds satisfaction for his talent and passion for logic, has convicted him of a crime which he did not commit and could never have committed. Arthur, who has struggled for ten years to balance his difficult romantic life with his code of honour, finds himself wondering if he has not unwittingly acted in the least honourable way possible.
Likewise, when Arthur becomes involved in the investigation of George's case he finds that the method he developed for Sherlock Holmes, which has made him rich and famous, does not work as well in the real world. In an imitation of Holmes' interactions with his associate Dr. Watson, Doyle even asks his assistant to tell him the obvious answers to a series of questions, concluding that those answers must not be right, because they are obvious. In reality, however, some of the most obvious answers are the most important ones. Furthermore, Arthur ends up being able to help George not because of his investigative skill, but because of his influence as a famous writer. Practicality triumphs.
No strict set of values survives the events of the book unscathed. Even Jean, when arguing the side of Christianity in a debate with Arthur (who is becoming more and more involved in occult spiritualism), gets her religious doctrine wrong. Arthur remarks that the two of them have their whole lives ahead of them, "And then all of eternity." In response, Jean internally "wonders what [Arthur's first wife] will be doing for all of the eternity that she and Arthur have together," finally deciding that neither Christianity nor Arthur's "spiritualism" has a solution to that question. In fact, the Christian Bible is quite clear on this topic. In the book of Matthew, a man poses a hypothetical situation for Jesus: supposing a woman had a long string of husbands, each of whom predeceased her, which one would live with her in heaven? Jesus' reply is that there are no marriage relationships in heaven, since everyone there exists as an angel. And indeed, by the end of the book, Jean has converted to Arthur's spiritualism, a belief system so new that its doctrines are nebulous and uncertain, and one of its priests calls Arthur its St. Paul.
Perhaps, then, Arthur and George's preoccupation with belief systems is a red herring, that most Doylesque of literary devices. But if it is, from what more important mystery is it trying to distract the reader? Barnes does not seem to be trying to keep the reader off the trail of the actual criminal investigation. Though the book builds suspense at certain moments, the plot is never surprising, not does it seem intended to be. We spend a hundred pages of the book in George's head, as he watches his life go awry, trying desperately to figure out who might hate him enough to frame him, and nearly as many pages in Sir Arthur's head, as he trots through Great Wryley trying to answer the same question. However, the question is never satisfactorily answered, nor does the book give much credence to the various half-hearted theories of guilt that its characters devise. The criminal investigation is such a red herring, in fact, that I don't feel the slightest bit of guilt as I write this, because it is not spoiling the ending: there simply isn't a conventional ending. Barnes seems to be using the very rich concept of a detective writer becoming a detective in a real-life criminal case to illustrate the ways in which fiction is different from life; the obvious answer is never the correct one in Holmes' thrilling investigations, but in life, well, it is.
Barnes is hardly the first writer to discuss such a theme, nor is Arthur and George the first book in which he tackles it; the relationship of reality to representation is a great contemporary subject, perhaps the root of what we call postmodernism. But here's the rub in Arthur and George: this is not a postmodernist novel. It is a conventional historical novel, at its best when describing action with heavily-researched historical detail.
So what is Barnes hoping to achieve by enticing us with conventional story-telling, and then denying it to us? If the novel's ideas and the novel's criminal investigation are both red herrings, perhaps they belong within the gigantic red herring of narrative drive. Barnes denies us complete philosophical satisfaction and complete narrative satisfaction because, although such things may exist in the Sherlock Holmes stories, he says, they do not exist in real life, which is messier, baser and less clear. Real life, essentially, is not as exciting as Sherlock Holmes.
But of course we know that already. It's why we read Sherlock Holmes.--Lucy Teitler
We are very pleased to welcome Lucy Teitler to the Albion team. Lucy is from New York, and brings to the magazine a background in journalism and creative writing.--The Editor
Raymond Briggs' Ethel & Ernest: A True Story
Jonathan Cape, 1998; paperback 2002
Raymond Briggs is best-known for his book The Snowman, a staple of childrens' Christmases (along with the famous film made from it in 1982) ever since it appeared in 1978. However, he has also created books for adults, such as the harrowing anti-nuclear fable When the Wind Blows in which his parents were the models for Jim and Hilda, a bewildered old couple trying to follow the government's advice in coping with a nuclear attack. In this gentle story of Ethel and Ernest Briggs' courtship and life together, done in Briggs' signature comic-strip-like style with drawings rather than cartoons, they get the best memorial that anyone could have.
The book appears to be a simple story, but there is a complex subtext. As Ethel and Ernest potter around their home, raise little Raymond and adapt to changing economic and social circumstances, the cataclysms of the twentieth century unfold on their wireless set, all of them remote except for the Blitz, which is accompanied by Raymond's evacuation to the countryside. The family's (more or less) tranquil contentment contrasts with the insanity outside. Although never patronising, Briggs fondly shows the humorous side of his parents' comments on current affairs. When the wireless announces that "Russia has exploded an atomic bomb", Ernest says "Oh, blimey! That's bin an gorn and dunnit!" and is reprimanded by Ethel, a former lady's maid who knows what's what: "Ernest! Do speak properly!" Briggs uses his Ethel and Ernest's sweet simplicity for both poignant and comic effect; their discussion of by-passes, ring-roads and the green-belt is a particular delight. Baffled by the duplicities of world and domestic politics, they are nevertheless full of a shrewd practical intelligence, even when grappling with technological change. The author does not spare his parents' weaknesses either, viewing his mother's social aspirations with a keen but compassionate gaze.
This is, in fact, the story of every fair-to-middling working-class family during the mid twentieth-century: the house paid off over a period of twenty-five years, the experience of the war and the post-war welfare state, the rise in the standard of living brought by the sixties, and the bright child who gets into grammar school, (in this case, subsequently shocking his parents by plumping for a government-subsidised art college).
Briggs' depiction of what he views as successive governments' impersonal treatment of ordinary folk is usually bitter, and this book is no exception. Raymond and Ernest's grief when they see Ethel's body laid out on an NHS trolley is poignantly portrayed, as is the solitary death of Ernest himself; Briggs seems to believe that his father was let down by the social system in which he trusted so implicitly. Earlier in the book there is a lighthearted but telling moment when Ernest explains to Ethel why there are going to be no more third-class carriages on trains: "SOCIALISM! No-one should be a Third Class citizen." The problem was not the welfare state, Briggs suggests, but the fact that it did not go far enough.
Ethel & Ernest would be sentimental were it not so heart-felt. It movingly giving a voice to a whole class of people of whom the gentle and placid couple are representatives, and of whom it has often been remarked (pace G.K. Chesterton) that they have not spoken yet. Beautifully drawn and believably written, this story of two ordinary Londoners is guaranteed to warm the cockles of the heart, especially for readers with roots in the working-classes. --Isabel Taylor
Roger McGough's Collected Poems, published by Penguin, is a massive 397 pages long, and, as is the case with any large poetry collection, the poems inside range from the average to the absolutely wonderful. Love poems, political poems, playful poems, existentialist poems and weird and macabre poems jostle together in this overview of McGough's career, from the influential anthology of Liverpool 'Beat' poets, The Mersey Sound, to 2002's Everyday Eclipses.
McGough in all his guises is represented within these pages. There is the playful wordsmith, breaking language down and making it do amusing new things, usually to get one of his sparsely-used rhymes (often deployed as the punch-line of a poem, or to add a lilt.) There is the environmentalist, blasting five-car families and Jaguar-owners. There is the social commentator deploring the state of the poor and the harshness of middle-class attitudes towards them. And, of course, there is the tender lyricist of Summer with Monika, writing love poems which, even when downright peculiar (What You Are), are still oddly romantic. McGough poignantly evokes family memories, dwelling on a Catholic boyhood in Liverpool, and meditates on the Second World War, the atomic age, and terrorism.
He is capable of veering from the tragic to the whimsical, and does so often, frequently within the space of one poem. A born mimic, he burlesques poets from Milne (Goodbat Nightman) and Auden (Stop All the Cars) to A. E. Housman (Is My Team Playing?). In fact, one of the highlights of the book is "Sporting Relations", a collection of comical poems about eccentric relatives and other animals. These are poems rich with wordplay and sheer daftness, demanding to be read aloud, and often containing a humorous twist; we are informed that one character raced pigeons, which, sadly, were too fast for him. His haiku renditions of famous English poems had me in stitches.
However, the standout of the collection is Unlucky for Some (13 voices from a woman's hostel in Soho, 1979), which is a masterpiece, heartbreaking and enraging at the same time. It is a poignant sketch of those forced to live on the edge --the addict, the prostitute, the distressed gentlewoman, and the simply unfortunate—and it is one of the saddest things you will ever read. The Way Things Are, a whimsical and moving poem about fatherhood, is similarly brilliant ("Moonbeams sadly, will not survive in a jar, /I am your father and this is the way things are.")
Of course, not all the poems are good. Some are apparently pointless, some are strange, and some are quite frankly disturbing, products of McGough's unique view of the world which also generates delightfully quirky work as well. He occasionally waxes pretentiously about being a Poet with a capital P. The black humour is sometimes too black, and in some cases has not aged well. However, his is a distinctive and extremely Liverpudlian voice, sometimes stumbling on insights into the ineffable, and spinning a highly amusing tall story (in one poem he takes credit for turning Hendrix off banjo and on to electric guitar). This is a very various volume, lurching from deep emotion to playfulness and back again, and no self-respecting lover of modern poetry should be without it. Besides, how could you resist a poet who rhymes Chianti with aunty?--Isabel Taylor
One of the foremost poetic voices of his generation, and one of the most original voices working in contemporary fiction and broadcasting, Simon Armitage has an idiosyncratic alternative world-view, writing home truths that other people miss, taking the obvious and turning it into the extraordinary.
All Points North, first published in 1998, is a delight, his first (and so far, only) collection of prose, essays, non-fiction, and TV projects that he's been involved with. All of them are concerned with the identity and characteristics of the North, from the back-to-backs of Granadaland and Coronation Street, to the rolling Yorkshire dales and craggy Peaks, points of the country where you think you're at the end of the world, only to encounter walkers with GPRS knowing where you are better than you do. Brought up near Huddersfield, Armitage has the Northern love of words, and writes of his landscape and his upbringing with tempered nostalgia, intelligent enough to know that it wasn't all rosy, but ignoring and bypassing the more traditional Grim Up North stereotypes that the London-centric media trot out when they want to talk about anywhere North of Watford Gap.
An observant, witty, poignant observer, Armitage writes in an easy-to-understand, informal style, which mirrors the events and landscape discussed in this book. Concentrating unashamedly on Yorkshire, through an expert's eyes Armitage reconsiders and analyses, in conversational tones, what it means to be Northern at the turn of the century, where mills are now art galleries, call centres have replaced factories, and where, in the heart of the old steel city itself, the shopping centre of Meadowhall sits, its wings extending like a spider's legs, cutting a swathe through the derelict land.
This is a travelogue, a modern history book, part fact and part autobiography. It makes you see the North through new eyes, and it is all held together by Armitage's intelligent and fluid use of the English language. Here is a book that, while six years old, is timeless in its beauty. If you want to understand the nature of the English, then trying to understand the nature of the North is as good a place as any to start, and this book might help you on the way. It's essential for anybody's library.--James Turner