Washington Black – 4/5 Stars
This novel just recently was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and by all rights, it should win. It also is possibly the front runner given that a Canadian author has not won in some time…possibly since Margaret Atwood for The Blind Assassin, but I’d have to check.
It’s also quite simply the best book on the list that I’ve read and while I was worried it was going to be a little whimsical or odd, it’s actually nearly perfect.
It’s Haiti in the 1830s on a sugar plantation owned by a British businessman. He also has a scientist brother and an explorer father. But we are focused instead on our narrator George Washington Black–whose overly apt name is a constant slight. The scientist brother of the master is designing an airship (as in hot air balloon, not as in a steampunk kind of thing, and this was absolutely my fear going in). And he asks to use Wash as an assistant because he’d be the perfect size for ballast. This calculation becomes a persistent metaphor throughout the novel as Wash goes from assistant to possible friend to castaway.
The novel is beautifully written and absolutely devastating in its outright humanism. It’s luckily not nearly as devastating as novels about slavery can and have been before — this is not grief porn — but it’s crushing at times as Washington is given glimpses and light of his own humanity and then reminded over and over how limited or false those glimpses can be.
In a lot of ways this novel feels like a rewriting of Huck Finn, where Wash is Huck and the brother is Jim, and while both are on the run the stakes are shifted and where Huck is often an unwitting critic of American culture, Wash is dead on with his.
Transcription – 4/5 Stars
While this novel is luckily more lighthearted (though hardly lighthearted at all) than Life After Life and A God in Ruins–both of which are brilliant and absolutely devastating novels–one should never forget how truly excellent a writer Kate Atkinson is. I’ve said a few times already on this site that if anyone who’s writing British “genre” fiction should ever be nominated or win the Booker Prize it’s definitely Kate Atkinson. Her writing is always challenging, full of life, keen about language and dialogue, and subtle and rich at the same times. She’s just an absolute master at narration and craft.
This novel’s situation and plot, however, are definitely slightly less heavy, and the result is a very good, interesting, often frightening, lighter novel. I was completely terrified during the bombing scenes of Life After Life and A God in Ruins, and in this one I was not, I think because we’ve been given an out early on that the narrator survives into the 1970s at the very least.
The plot is Juliet, an employee of BBC, is recruited to be a typist and then a spy for MI5 on the homefront rooting out Nazi spies. We learn about her exploits during the war, which are relatively small in scope, but then we are transported to a few years after, now in her career, as she finds herself potentially threatened by those she “harmed” during the war. Over all, especially since I like the writer and the genre, I had fun with this one, and it’s more on the level of the Jackson Brodie novels than the more recent ones.
Almanac for the Dead – 4/5 Stars
I read Ceremony last year and found it a quietly brilliant book about pain and violence and coping in a world that seeks to destroy you and forget you at the same time.
This book is almost the direct inverse of that one. While many of the themes remain present here about oppression, loss, erasure of identity, violence, and other similar ideas, this book is written in an epic and epic tone.
The book itself is a sprawling contemporary crime novel centering about the US Mexico border and the 1980s and 1990s drug wars, organized crime, and conflicts. The major players include a woman on the run who settles into a desert community, a drug lord, and various other figures connected to these worlds. It’s a book about underground economies, whether that expressly means crime or being off the grid. It’s a book about death and spirituality, and it’s a book about American history written through the eyes of those who could never trust in institutions, so the appeals of the world of drugs and crime are read as opportunities, not risks.
And the book itself is about the creation of the Almanac for the Dead, a book cataloging the conflicts and sites of resistances between native peoples and their American and European colonizers.
The book is necessarily less personal and intimate than Ceremony, and that’s ok, because it would too much to carry the pain of that book through 750 pages of this one. It’s also harder to directly connect to so many stories, but you also get a lot of stories in this book.
This book is a kind of predecessor to movies like Traffik (but more personal and refusing to give voice to those oppressors) and books like Roberto Bolano’s 2666, without the direct European influence. I think what it draws most directly from, at least from my limited reading is Russell Means’s manifesto “For the World to Live, Europe must die”…this is like the sounding horn of that book in narrative form.
Infinite Blacktop – 4/5 Stars
I love Sara Gran books and I was always going to read this one, but when I found out that despite the title not mentioning it that this is a continuation of the Claire Dewitt series I became really exciting.
It’s hard to express what is going on those books, and instead you should definitely just read them all and eventually this one. But in a nutshell, Claire Dewitt is the world’s best detective and easily and handily solves whatever mysteries lie in front of her. At least she solves her cases; she’s been unable to solve the central mystery of her life. Like a small number of other detectives in the world, she is an indirect protege of the famous French detective Silette, who wrote his tiny masterpiece, Detection, a book that finds you when you most need it. And despite the dubiousness of the rest of the detective world, the Silettians remaining on the outside looking in, but shine through their own competence. This is like a less bullshit version of True Detective in that way, and one in which the world unfolds and comes to life through hoodoo or i ching or other forms of mysticism, through the use of drugs and definitely alcohol, not to close off the darkness endemic to the job, but to open the perceptions of those within it.
Whatver, just read it.
Whose Body? 3/5 Stars
I have a fascination for the first of a series of detective novels, and in grad school I took a class on the Inklings, that literary group that kind of works opposite from the Bloomsbury…more tied to the grand narratives of the world, tied to cosmologies about the worlds, to Christianity and Christian art. And Dorothy Sayers is an interesting figure in that group. For one, she’s primarily known as a mystery writer now, but in her day she was most famous and respected for being the translator of an often used version of Inferno. And in addition, she also wrote extensively about Christianity and cosmology, and likely only CS Lewis, of her colleagues, had more to say on the issue.
Her mystery novels are interesting as well. I had the fortune and misfortune to read Gaudy Night for that class, what strikes me as most likely the bunch of the bunch for her. And what makes it so good is that her detective figure doesn’t show up for the bulk of the novel, so like The Hound of the Baskervilles, we get to see the mettle of the assistant, Harriet Vane. Also it’s a book about women and writing and education. Dorothy Sayers went to Somerville with Vera Brittain and was famous in those circles as well.
As this novel? Well the mystery is ok, but Lord Peter Whimsey is a real twerp. And he’s pretty classist and mean as well.
Hope in the Darkness – 4/5
I guess I needed this one. The tone of this book is very hopeful, and even though this was republished and updated before Trump was elected, the instructive elements are still on point. Trump, to me, is a cancer on this country, but he’s only the outward and most malignant lump of what is obviously a completely corrupted and sick body. He’s alarming and opportunistic and evil, but he’s not the cause. He’s the symptom.
So this book takes a step back from the politics of despair that the Left, who generally champion the causes of the vulnerable, often feel and profess. The thesis, then, of this book would be: yes, it’s very bad, but without the efforts and work of conscientious actors trying to do the right thing, it would be worse. And luckily, we don’t know how much worse.
Like many Americans, I am stuck in a headspace that knows in a cerebral way that that late stage Capitalism is a culminating force in a lot of ways, but represents a very small fraction of human time. And it’s false European-style enlightenment thinking to assume that the path we’ve taken is the narrowing focus of history, and we’ve arrived at the static (but growing and evolving) forms of capital and democracy.
We often forget how much the world is constantly in flux. It’s a particular American and European disease.
This book offers, not hope, but perspective.