Book Lust London

A few weeks ago, I went to London. I love London, among other things because I fucking love London. There are lots of reasons for this, some more personal than others, but high on the list is the fact that London is a book city, so much so that it makes me feel like this:

Animated GIF of Sarah's excited reaction from Sarah and Duck

-Sarah’s excited reaction. From Sarah & Duck.

It’s not that we don’t love books in the States. I was a bookseller for ten years before I became a librarian and I can tell you right now that there are lots and lots of Americans who love their books. We fundraise for libraries and champion literacy like champs. I can’t even walk down the street wearing my Reading Rainbow tee-shirt without someone asking me where I got it. (Here, in case you were wondering). But that’s not quite what I mean.

Picture of a pile of books bought on my most recent trip to London, for Book Lust London post by Malin James

Most of my recent haul.

It’s the difference between a lot of wonderful, book-loving individuals scattered across more 2,600 miles of geography and a country that televises the Man Booker Prize because there are betting pools and it’s serious. It’s the difference between book clubs discussing a summer release and two guys throwing down in a pub over whether you’re a “pretentious, fucking twat” for having read Ulysses or an “ignorant fuck” if you haven’t. (I overheard that debate, and it was awesome – super critical in the most un-bullshit way I’ve ever seen).

But even that can be found in the States (though probably not in a bar). For me, what makes London a book city is that fact that there are bookstores everywhere, from chains to tiny independents, and they are full of books – not sidelines, CD’s, toys, games and books. Just books. I like that you can ask booksellers what they’d recommend and trust that they have an informed opinion. I like that bookshops in London range from hodge-podge collections in stores smaller than my grandmother’s house to polished, muti-floor giants you could spend the whole day in.

Here’s the thing. I come from a city that is famous for its literary heritage thanks to Steinbeck and Burroughs and Kerouac. But bookselling and publishing have changed so much in the States that even a city like San Francisco can’t support more than a handful of scrappy, often struggling independents. And yes, I can order almost anything I want on Amazon and I can download everything else onto my Kindle (though my brain refuses to fully engage digital text). It’s not that I can’t get anything I want because I can. I just can get it in a way that feels real.

I can’t walk a mile and hit a couple of bookshops on my way to somewhere else. I can’t spend ages meandering sections and pulling (way too many) books off the shelves before handing a nice person money so I can take them home with me now. That sort of experience is a luxury like clotted cream and sleeping past 8am. And I’m not sure I’d want to that to change.

I say not sure because if someone told me that I could live in London I’d move. Like, yesterday. But no one is going to give me their flat anytime soon so I like enjoying the specialness of it. Because it is special to me. Books are tactile things – the massively cliched but totally distinct scent of paper and ink is a thing, and so is touching the object you’re going to buy. The real value of brick and mortar bookshops is that they foster a tactile relationship between the book and the person who buys it. And, because I’m a romantic, I want to enjoy that relationship, even if I only get to taste it now and then – especially if only now and then.

Don’t get me wrong. I wish the book business in the States was more boom than bust, that there were more prizes and more interest in shortlists. I wish there were more independents staffed by people who hand-sell titles because they fucking love that book. I wish I could stroll down the street and come home with something random that I can’t wait to read. But I can’t, at least, not living in a suburb of a lovely city that is struggling to hold onto the few bookshops it has left.

That’s one of the reasons I love London so much. I will never get to all of the city’s bookstores let alone all of the shops in the rest of the country, but I love that they’re there, all dreamy and wonderful to think about. Books in London are a treat and I like it that way, even when it means dragging luggage that weighs 9,000 pounds through the tube, and waiting longer than I’d like to be there again.

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Gateway Books

Woman waiting for metro behind a wrought iron gate for Gateway Books by Malin James

Over the Passay Station by Yanidel Street Photography

My daughter was home sick the other day, so I didn’t get much work done. Fevers require snuggling in this house and snuggling isn’t compatible with documents and laptops. Not that I minded – while she snoozed like a sleepy kitten (very well snuggled), I spent most of the day reading, something I love to do but rarely get to indulge in for long stretches.

I pulled Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories off the shelf at random, mostly because I had to get the girl settled so I didn’t have time to mess around choosing. I had tried Life After Life around Christmas because everyone told me I’d love it but, for some reason, I just couldn’t get into it, so I put it down after 100 pages. This is after trying Behind the Scenes at the Museum a few years before with similar results. After two failed Atkinson attempts, I’d pretty much decided that she and I were not meant to be, but I tend to give authors a three book shot. If, after trying three different books, I still don’t want to read them, I figure it’s a miss, no matter how much I should love them. Case Histories was my third and final shot at Kate Atkinson and I’m so glad I didn’t stop after the first two.

Case Histories is a (freaking gorgeous) literary detective novel. I’m still basking in the geeky afterglow so I can’t critically parse out how I feel yet, but suffice it to say that I loved this book. It impressed the hell out of me in pretty much every writerly way. Plus, Atkinson’s use of point of view and voice are amazing. Plus, it made me laugh and almost made me cry (that’s a big deal – I cry all the time at movies, but I’m tougher with books…though The Time Traveler’s Wife made me sob like a baby).

In other words, Case Histories was my gateway into Atkinson – the book that made me click with the author so that I suddenly want to devour everything she’s written, including the books I’d rejected earlier. This sort of thing has happened a lot for me over the years. I couldn’t stand Margaret Atwood until I read The Blind Assassin (oh, my god, so good). Now, she’s one of my favorites. Same thing with Sarah Waters. I tried to read Tipping the Velvet three times before I gave up. Then I read Affinity and couldn’t put it down, so I tried Tipping the Velvet again and binged it in two days.

The gateway thing doesn’t just work with authors either. I’ve had it happen with genre too. Sometimes, the revelatory book is an exception, like my love of Iain Banks’s Use of Weapons defying my general apathy towards science fiction. But in other cases, a gateway book cracks open a whole new world of experiences. I still remember reading a short story by Remittance Girl in my twenties. I’d never liked erotica but I read this by chance, and suddenly got the genre. That story is why I started writing it.

I’m not sure that I have any conclusions to make, outside of the fact that I think gateway reading experiences are kind of fabulous. I’m a really active reader – when a book or an author engages me, they engage me hard. It doesn’t happen all the time, so when it does, when I book opens me up to an author’s back catalog or a whole new genre, it’s exciting. I like being introduced to new things. I like having new obsessions and things to honestly gush about. Adding Kate Atkinson to my list of gushable things was a lovely surprise, and I don’t ever want to be the kind of person to turn lovely surprises down.

The Redemption of Galen Pike by Carys Davies

GalenPikeCoverOn Stories that Undermine Assumptions

Carys Davies’s second collection, The Redemption of Galen Pike, is one of those books that I raced through in one go, and then went back and read more slowly over the course of the week. Granted, this book is short (131 pages) so my all-in-one-go read isn’t that impressive. That said, the fact that it hooked me that hard is.

This collection gave me that weird, awesome, anxious feeling that you sometimes get when there are too many choices on a menu. It’s exciting, and the thing that makes it exciting is really cool and kind of rare – every single story in The Redemption of Galen Pike sets up an expectation and then thoroughly subverts it.

This is a tricky one to keep spoiler-free, so I’m going to focus on just one of the stories and hopefully not spoil too much. “Wicked Fairy” is one of the quieter stories in the collection. While they all defy expectation differently, “The Wicked Fairy” does it with a sort of ironic silliness that carries you through, even though you know how it’s going to end.

We open with the narrator, a guy named Lenny, noticing a girl at a wedding. She’s dark and thin and she’s carrying a pie. Over the course of the next two pages, Davies creates a sort of Atwoodian (I’m totally making that a word) dystopia, wherein this girl with the pie is a silent, unnoticed threat. Except that Lenny notices. He notices but doesn’t say anything, not even when the voice in his head screams “LOOK OUT DON!!! THERE’S A GIRL HERE WITH A PIE!!!!”

When she finally throws the pie, its impact on Don’s face reads like a gunshot, and you’re left with the image of social horror – a horrified crowd and a pie-covered groom and a dazed, empty-handed girl, standing there as if she’s shot him.

I love what Davies does with this. In films, this kind of scene usually unfolds in slow motion and ends in an assassination. So what’s Davies doing when she assigns all of those JFK cues to a jilted girl with a pie? She’s playing two things off each other.

The first is the seriousness of the jilted girl’s feelings. She wants to hurt Don and she’s going to do it…with a lovingly described cream pie. And that pie is the opposite of serious.

In playing those two things off each other, Davies sets up a situational dissonance ie: the is really serious!…but it’s a pie.  The pie itself is the subversion of an expectation – one that involves real violence and tragedy. And yet, the pie is never treated as anything but a very real threat. So, in the world of the story, she might as well have pulled a knife.

So, what’s the point? Here’s how I read it. In subverting the seriosity of a familiar situation, Davies is implying that pie or no pie, the girl’s hurt is a powerful force. The fact that she doesn’t actually hurt him is beside the point. Within the context of the narrative, the social damage she’s caused is equally violent, which makes it a great commentary on the importance people place on big, elaborate weddings, rigid social structures and the power of public humiliation. All that from subverting one assumption – oh, no! She has a gun! with a different, equally threatening (in the story’s context) reality – oh no! She has a pie!

I’ll be honest, I laughed both times I read “The Wicked Fairy” because, for all that geeky analysis, it really is funny. As one of the lightest pieces in the collection, it did a great job of quietly satirizing all sorts of things while giving the reader a bit of a break. Some of the other stories are beautiful, powerful heartbreakers, all of which are so worth reading. In fact, however, you end up reading it, this collection is very much worth reading.

Small Fiction: Cold War

Black and white historical photograph of a woman standing at the Berlin Wall circa 1962 for Flash Fiction: Cold War by Malin James

Berlin Wall, c. 1962

She was prone to overthinking – thinking formed a wall guarded by a process she pretended to control. She deployed distractions and analysis with Soviet subtlety, creating, over time, a Byzantine web of protections. In the end, one department didn’t know what the other one was doing – left hand fooling the right.

She did this cloak and dagger for years – years and years and a lifetime – until the years ran short and programs were cut and a colder, less stable government dismantled the agency tasked with her sanity.

Facades began to crumble and buildings fell and the wreck of a woman lay piled in the corner of a room. Wrapped in wars that were not hers, she was blinded by things hadn’t known to see, invisible threats she’d felt in her splintered bones. She rocked herself apart in that room, in the end, a mouse in a concrete wall. The wall filled her blood and her back and her soft, soft parts as she fell around herself.

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

H is for Hawk

On Narrative Flow

For my first official post on Reading Like a Writer, I want to talk about Helen Macdonald’s memoir, H is for Hawk.

I almost called this post “In Praise of Narrative Flow” because that’s what initially pulled me into H is for Hawk – Helen Macdonald’s crazy-natural use of narrative flow.

But before I get into that, I should say up front that I kind of loved everything about this book. In a very personal way, it was exactly the right read at exactly the right time, so I can honestly say without any reservation that it’ll probably be one of my favorite books of 2016.

Now, to get back to narrative flow. What I mean by narrative flow is how the writer’s use of pacing, rhythm and execution, and how they interact with the reader. Here’s an example from Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”:

The woman brought two glasses of beer and two felt pads. She put the felt pads and the beer glasses on the table and looked at the man and the girl. The girl was looking off at the line of hills. They were white in the sun and the country was brown and dry.

Side Note: If you haven’t read Hemingway, goddamn, check out his short stories. I’m not a huge fan of his novels, but his short stories are a-maze-ing. He really was a master of the form.

So, narrative flow. This quote captures the tone of the story – staccato, disjointed and ambiguous. Things are said in this story through what is not said – the way the woman looks at the girl, the way the girl is looking off, the way the hills seem separate from the land. The flow is a little choppy, a little disorienting and that’s perfect because it mirrors the heat of the day and the girl’s state of mind. In this case, the narrative flow feeds into the story’s overall tone. It’s brilliant.

Helen Macdonald does something equally brilliant in H is for Hawk. Narrative flow is important regardless of what kind of narrative it is – fiction or nonfiction, short or long. Whereas Hemingway used flow to give his short story a visceral impact, Macdonald uses it to a different effect – she weaves a tapestry with it so the reader becomes wrapped in her grieving state of mind. And yet, the hawk remains firm and clear in the middle of her grief. The hawk is always the focal point.

The hawk had filled the house with wildness as a bowl of lilies fills a house with scent.

Macdonald’s imagery is threaded through her prose. It’s sensory and very specific. It also accurately reflects how thoroughly the hawk will come to define her life for a time. There are a million gorgeous quotes I could pull from this book, but they all have this quality – the prose is packed with more than words. Expand that out to the entire book and you get narrative flow.

There are two main threads in H is for Hawk and I’ll admit that, at first, I didn’t quite buy into one of them. In addition to her own autobiography of grief, Macdonald weaves in a mini-biography of T.H. White, the author of The Once and Future King, as well as, (more importantly for this book), The Goshawk, an account of his failed attempt to train a hawk. In the beginning, the White chapters felt a bit strange and intrusive. But slowly, they began to make sense. Slowly, they begin to reflect Macdonald’s fears and isolation as she trains her own goshawk, Mabel. The White chapters become critical to understanding the depth of Macdonald’s grief and how falconry becomes a metaphor for the process of healing.

They also act as a counterpoint to her relationship to her own hawk. White botched his hawk’s training horribly. Macdonald, by comparison, is hyper-aware of the bird, to the point that she begins to over-identify. As she does, the flow becomes leaner, tighter, and narrower, almost reflecting the pinpointed focus of the bird she’s training. Then, as the training progresses and she processes her grief, the focus slowly expands. The flow loosens. Macdonald’s narrative develops a rhythm that underscores her emotional experience. That alone helped me, as the reader, to connect to the book on a basic, instinctive level – it bypassed my brain and hit my emotions, which for me is where it counts.

And that’s the power of narrative flow – it’s a way to by-pass the reader’s logic and burrow under their skin. I’m sure there are other names for it, but that’s essentially how I think of the structural rhythm of a book. Some writers engineer it ahead of time, but that almost never works for me. When I write, the flow kind of just happens in the first draft. Then I hone it through revision and edits. Macdonald’s narrative rhythm feels so natural, so deeply tied to the text, that I wonder how much of it was engineered and how much of it just happened. If I’m ever lucky enough to talk to her someday, I would love to ask.

Reading Like a Writer

Black and white photograph of a woman looking out from a clock tower for Reading Like a Writer post by Malin JamesI’ve been thinking about how I want to approach writing about books. I used to write fairly standard reviews and that was fine but, honestly, there are so many good review blogs at this point that adding my opinion doesn’t feel particularly necessary. I can talk about what I liked or didn’t like about a book, but it doesn’t bring anything new to the table. And who knows, maybe there is nothing new to bring, but I want to try.

The fact of the matter is that my opinions aren’t unique – they’re personal and informed by my experiences – but so are everyone else’s. Generally speaking, my opinion doesn’t carry much weight for a person who isn’t me. That’s why I’m going to avoid the temptation of giving a general opinion and focus on something specific instead, something informed by the way I read.

The way I read has changed a great deal over the years. I used to read purely for entertainment. Then catharsis. Then curiosity. Then entertainment again. At this point, I read all across the board for a lot of reasons and, while I’m attracted to a different kind of book than I used to be (more on that in a post of its own) the fact is that I read widely from all sorts of genres and styles for all kinds of reasons. The only through-line in my reading is that I have an agenda. In addition to reading because I love to read, I read to become a better writer.

Even when a story has completely gobbled me up, part of my brain is whirring away, deconstructing and noticing and trying to figure things out. I love the craft of writing. I love technical elegance and subtle, inventive structures. I love the little mechanisms that make, or fail to make, a piece work. Sort of like a person who disassembles clocks, I love to dissect stories to see how they tick.

I’ve always done this to some degree, but the habit got formalized in college and grad school when I started applying theory to what I read. Later, when I started teaching myself how to write fiction, I applied the same principle. I found writing books that emphasized reading for different aspects of craft, from characterization and structure to pacing and voice. Slowly, I habituated myself to noticing these thing regardless of what I’m reading. That was more than twelve years ago, and that anatomical approach is just how I read now.

That’s why I talked about the structure Sarah Waters used in Night Watch and noticed the different way Muriel Spark manipulates the reader in The Driver’s Seat. It’s why I love Helen Macdonald’s use of a loose narrative style in H is for Hawk (there’s a post coming up on that). It’s not about me being all Miss Fancy Pants – it’s just the way I enjoy books.

So, rather than blog my general opinion, as scintillating as it may be, I’m going to write about the book from a writer’s perspective, hopefully in a way that isn’t totally boring for non-writers too. If nothing else, it’ll give me a chance to talk about two of the things I love most – stories and how they’re made.

Small Fiction: Grounded

Black and white historical photograph of a 19th century chaise lounge for Flash Fiction: Grounded by Malin James

19th c. chaise lounge

She sits on the Victorian comfort of a well-intentioned couch. It had once been roly-poly but not it’s only  flat – like a child’s drawing of the thing it’s supposed to be.

She sits there in this aspirationally comfortable, not-soft thing while her own softness, both physical and emotional, oozes and puddles around her like syrup on a plate.

Her therapist is going over grounding techniques. One must be grounded…ground yourself…. Dr. Salt’s techniques are reasonable, but the idea of grounding strike’s her as curious and somewhat sinister. Beneath its mundanity, she imagines a form of arcane wisdom to do with digging the perfect grave or pinning butterflies for display…. Both are interesting subjects – far more interesting than Dr. Salt of the old-fashioned office and deceptive couch.

How does the couch feel, Dr. Salt drones.

Dr. Salt, she thinks, sounds like white noise. White noise is soothing, at least….

Is it cool? Hard? Smooth?

Dr. Salt, she thinks, is as helpful a marble in a pond.

Tell me, how does the couch feel? 

“Dead”, she replies with her deadpan face. Cool. Smooth. Hard. More like the couch than the couch could ever be.

“It’s dead,” she says, again. “It can’t feel anything. Given the apparent age of it, I’d say it hasn’t for quite some time. Felt anything, that is.”

Dr. Salt is quiet.

She smiles and pulls a thread loose. Therapy is going well.

The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark

Cover image of The Driver's Seat by Muriel Spark for Mean Fiction by Malin James

On Mean Fiction

It took me all of an hour to read Muriel Spark’s novella, The Driver’s Seat. It’s lean and  incredibly mean in the way children can be. There’s something viciously natural in the way adolescent social politics play out, with mutable hierarchies determining social life and death.

That same, subtle viciousness underlies The Driver’s Seat, not in any textually obvious way, but in how it engages the reader’s sympathies, as well as that adolescent sense of assumption and judgment. I’ll be honest – it’s not a comfortable read, but it’s also why I loved the book. That subtle, dark, destabilizing meanness is what makes the story so very wrong, and so very good.

I don’t like doing plot summaries, but in this case, I think a brief one is important. The Driver’s Seat is about a woman named Lise who goes on holiday, ostensibly looking for her “boyfriend”. Lise’s goal for the trip deceptively simple and she executes everything with mad sort of meticulousness. It isn’t until towards the end that the reader fully grasps what her goal actually is.

What makes this book brilliant, is that the entire book hinges not so much on what happens, but on why and how it happens. In fact, Spark reveals Lise’s fate within the first few pages, but it doesn’t actually matter. The narrator drip feeds the reader a string of seemingly random oddities in Lise’s behavior, and she does it so effectively that you almost feel safe in what you’ve been told is going to happen. In fact, there were times when it felt like the narrator wants the reader to pass notes behind Lise’s back. After all, it’s obvious that Lise is unhinged but…not in the way Spark wants you to expect.

So, how does Spark play with the reader? She does it through Lise and how we’re meant to engage her. Lise’s oddness compounds itself in unsettling and somewhat ridiculous ways, from her hysteria at being told that a dress is stain resistant, to her single-minded search for her “boyfriend”. Spark plays on the reader’s empathy (or lack of empathy) in a very personal way, tapping into those early adolescent social experiences and memories – the ones that might prompt the reader to either feel sorry for Lise or laugh at her (or possibly both).

Everything in the way Lise interacts with people is not quite right. She’s a very deliberate portrait of what happens when a normal woman becomes unhinged, and the reader becomes complicit in that portrait. Our reactions to her are, in many ways, the reactions Lise has most likely experienced for a great deal of her life. We become part of the world she navigates, if only for the sliver of her life that we witness.

As a character, Lise feels dangerous and unpredictable, but only because she subverts our expectations of what a lonely spinster should be. Spark gives her a dismissable, almost laughable veneer and then slices it away to reveal an almost terrifying degree of personal agency in Lise. It’s that determined, single-minded agency that is, in fact, the novel’s central threat.

That trick of drawing the reader in and then destroying their expectations it what gives The Driver’s Seat it’s deep, satirical bite. It’s also what makes it such a marmite book – people either love it for its meanness, or they hate it. Becuase it isn’t a comfortable read – I knew that going into it (thanks to this awesome discussion) but I was still shocked at thoroughly I was manipulated, even as I admired Spark’s subtlety in pulling it off.

The triumph of all of the darkness and bite is that the reader becomes complicit in Lise’s fate, and her fate is not nearly as simple or straightforward as Spark implies at the start. It’s what makes this novel an experience as much as it is a story. In the end, it’s a tremendous portrait of a woman’s desperate, single-minded pursuit of autonomy, but whether or not she’s successful is left unclear. I may need to read it again to sort that out.

51FB7KX99ML._SX303_BO1,204,203,200_Side Note: 4/12/16

I just finished Aiding & Abetting, also by Spark, and it’s another example of author manipulation and reader complicity, though in a totally different (completely hilarious) way. Ultimately, in both novels, as different as they are, it’s Spark’s brutal lack of sentimentality that makes the dark, serrated edges work. She has razors in her fingers and I love it.

She once wrote that she “aims to startle as well as please” and, for my money, so manages both like a boss.

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

Woman in a library art nouveau for On Confronting Literature by Malin James

Dig by Sadie Wendall (1909)

On Books that Quietly Confront

I’ve had On Chesil Beach since it released in 2007. It’s a lovely little hardback and I picked it up without even looking at what it’s about because I love Ian McEwan. I remember taking it home and doing the rare thing of sitting down to start it right away (I usually buy books and put them in the long, long, long line of my TBR). But I got two pages in and stopped. I felt vaguely ill and I stopped. I slowly closed the book, set it on the shelf with my other McEwans and moved on without trying to think too much.

In the years since then, On Chesil Beach has sat on my shelf, biding its time. I say “biding its time” because it felt like an active presence in its own quiet way. I’d pull other books off the shelf to read, or to cull or consider, and think – I know you’re there. I’m going to read you, but I’m not ready yet. 

I couldn’t pick the book up, but I still mentally addressed because, in an odd way, it didn’t feel like an object. It felt like an experience I was going to have to have, one that was waiting patiently for me. It’s the most gently confrontational book I’ve ever read because the confrontation was very specific. Two pages in, it was clear that the experience of reading On Chesil Beach was going to be deeply personal. So I set it aside until I could process why. Here’s why:

I recognized too much of myself in those first pages. The situation in that narrow book resonated in a way that drew a personal line for me between literature that confronts by design (think Tampa or American Psycho) and literature that resonates to the point of confrontation. For me, On Chesil Beach is the latter, and it’s a very different thing than the former.

Literature that confronts by design is meant to challenge – you know what you’re getting into before you even start. Whether the challenge is emotional, psychological, moral or social depends on the book, but regardless of how it challenges, its intention (at least in part) is to challenge. I love a great many books that do this – The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark; The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan; Tampa by Alyssa Nutting and loads of others – some that I’ve actively enjoyed and others that were difficult but which I appreciate nonetheless.

That appreciation comes from the distance the intended effect allows me to have. If I pick up A Little LifeI’m going to brace myself for the experience of reading it. Same with An Untamed State. That doesn’t mean I won’t be emotionally affected – far from it. What it does mean is that the effect will very likely be tempered, somewhat, by two things – the fact that I was expecting it and the fact that others have been similarly affected by the book.

Cover of On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan for On Confronting Literature by Malin JamesLiterature that resonates to the point of confrontation is different. For books like this, the confronting element is purely accidental and often deeply personal. On Chesil Beach is a perfect example. Nothing about it is directly confrontational – it’s about a young couple and their disastrous wedding night. No one gets killed, maimed, or traumatized. However, when you scratch the surface, it’s about a young woman’s complicated relationship with sex in the wake of sexual abuse, and the damage it does to her relationship. While it isn’t about trauma, it’s about the effect of trauma and that resonated with me in a deeply personal and challenging way.

Though the situation in the book is very different (and quite a lot simpler) than mine, it reverberated enough to feel dangerous when I first bought it. I’d suppressed a great deal and was, at the time, unprepared to examine large chunks of my childhood, my sexuality, my personality and my sexual / romantic relationships. This subtle, gentle book hit close enough to home that I knew within two pages that it was going to make me confront things I wasn’t prepared to acknowledge, so I set it aside and let it wait for me.

The fact that I was drawn to reading it now signals an important shift. I avoided it for years with the conscious understanding that I would “read it when I’m ready”. That I pulled it down from the shelf last week and read it in two days means that my relationship to those things I was trying to protect – memories of my childhood, my sexuality and my perceptions (of both myself and my relationships) – are strong enough now to bear the acknowledgement reading the book would mean.

Literature intended to confront is an important part of how you might understand experiences beyond your own. It’s a way to engage empathy and understanding and broaden your mind. Literature that resonates to the point of confrontation has the opposite effect. Rather than looking outward, it’s a passage inward to your personal experiences, one that can deepen your understanding of how you move through life.

Sometimes that’s a joyful thing. Sometimes that’s incredibly difficult. Either way, there’s great value in the challenge – so much so, in fact, that there’s nothing wrong with waiting until you’re able to process that value in a healthy productive way. It’s the difference between engaging your history and triggering yourself. When in doubt, opt for the approach that allows you to engage without hurting yourself.

The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

night_watch_318x500
On Structure and Chronology

There aren’t many writers I trust completely, but Sarah Waters is one of them. Regardless of where she takes me, I know she’ll get me there and back safely, whether it’s a Victorian insane asylum or an ambiguously creepy manor house post-WWI. In fact, her writing is pretty much guaranteed to do three things for me:

1. Emotionally affect me, often in very uncomfortable ways.

2. Challenge my expectations.

3. Teach me how to be a better writer.

Her fourth novel, The Night Watch, which has been sitting on my shelf since 2006, (I was saving it for a rainy day), does all three things so well that it may replace Affinity as my favorite of her books.

What surprised me most about The Night Watch was the structure. I know that doesn’t sound super exciting, but everything about it, from plot to characters, feels heightened because of it.

Rather than adhering to a standard, chronological structure, the narrative unfolds in reverse, starting in 1947 and moving backward through to 1941. The effect is amazing – events that would have struck me as suspenseful became massively poignant because of structural hindsight. The reader knows what’s coming, but the characters don’t, and yet, Waters balances that readerly omniscience with a lot of unknowns. She opens the novel with a clear picture of the characters’ fates, but you don’t understand the significance of those fates until the very end (or rather, beginning) in 1941. The tension that created anchored me to the book so hard I couldn’t put it down. (That’s where #3 – Teach me how to be a better writer – came in).

The Night Watch is comprised of the seemingly separate stories of three women and one man, but they are, in reality, tightly interwoven, a fact that Waters reveals slowly as their histories unfold. I don’t want to get too deep into how their stories interweave because spoilers would really ruin it, so instead I’ll talk about the characters who touched me most…which is to say, all of them – even the ones who were awfully flawed.

It’s the trick that Sarah Waters always manages to pull – that of putting difficult things in front of you while compelling you to read on. And I was compelled, just as I always am. The characters in The Night Watch ache with love, jealousy, desperation, fear, shame and the longing for things they can’t have. But while there is a lovely sense of hope for some of them, the future, for others, is left opaque, most affectingly, for me, the ambulance driver, Kay.

Kay may win or Kay may lose, but to see her win, Waters would have to allow us to see past the chronology of the book. The fact that we can’t might drive some people nuts, but it made me love the book even more. It underscores the fact that Waters is only giving us a sliver of their lives, which made their difficulties bear even more weight while casting the good in an even more poignant light.

I’m a glutton for that kind of thing, which is why I’m a fan of Sarah Waters. Though it took me ten years to read The Night Watch, I’m glad I waited for that rainy day. As a reader, I brought much more to the table at 38 than I would’ve at 28. That said, I’m going to try not to make it another ten years before I read The Paying Guests.