Little Deaths by Emma Flint

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Emma Flint’s debut novel is based on the real-life case of Alice Crimmins who, in 1965, was accused of murdering her young son and daughter. The case has inspired several fictional retellings, including Mary Higgins Clark’s Where Are The Children?

In Flint’s hands, Alice Crimmins becomes Ruth Malone and the gender politics of the case come to the fore. Ruth exposes the paradoxical and hypocritical way in which society views women. In a world where “nobody got time for someone else’s sadness”, Ruth recognises the need to present a polished and presentable exterior for risk of being labelled hysterical and/or undesirable: “She had to keep the wrong part of her, the messy part, hidden.”

But, although society demands this performance from Ruth, it also condemns her for it. Her regard for her own appearance, her fondness for male company, the fact that she tired of the constraints of domesticity – not only are these traits seen as incompatible with her role as a mother, they are signs of her guilt:

‘Bitch did it. No doubt.’ That was a guy with the nose of a drinker and a drooping eyelid that looked like a wink. ‘You seen how she looks coming in and out of the station – face all made up and hair done. She’s never cried for ’em. Not once.’

Flint’s examination of this issue is interesting, but once the novel has made its point, it has nothing else to do but to keep on making it. There is something a little hollow about Little Deaths, despite Flint’s atmospheric depiction of 1960s Queens. Large swathes of the book drag terribly. I think part of the problem is that, most of the time, readers are kept an arm’s length from Ruth. There is the odd striking, beautifully written depiction of her grief, but most of the time Ruth is remote and the novel lacks an emotional core.

This is certainly not supplied by Pete Wonicke, the journalist who becomes fixated on discovering the ‘real Ruth’ beyond the tawdry tabloid headlines he is originally charged to write. His obsession with Ruth is never fully explained and his actions towards the end of the novel are far-fetched to say the least. Indeed, the whole finale verges on daftness.

Overall, whilst there is some interesting meditation on gender politics here, there is little else. A bit of a disappointment, then, but there is enough insight and good writing here to draw me to Flint’s future work.

Good Me Bad Me by Ali Land

As I look down at their beautiful faces I remember a story I read. A Native American tale where the Cherokee tells his grandson there’s a battle between two wolves in all of us. One is evil, the other good. The boy asks him, which wolf wins? The Cherokee tells him, the one you feed. (p. 56)

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2017 seems to have brought with it a truckload of astonishingly assured and exciting debut novels. One of the most hyped of the bunch is Ali Land’s thriller, Good Me Bad Me, which I reckon just about lives up to its billing. It is a compulsive read, a true page-turner, even if it does stumble a little bit at the end.

Unlike other examples of the genre, much of Good Me Bad Me‘s horror and darkness lies right on the surface, rather than being buried beneath, a mystery to slowly unravel. This makes the novel more of a vivid and disturbing psychological portrait than a psychological thriller. But it is gripping and compulsive regardless.

The character we get this vivid and disturbing psychological portrait of is 15-year-old Milly Barnes. We know, more or less from the start, that Milly’s mother is a serial killer who abused her for years and is accused of murdering nine children. Milly is awaiting her mother’s trial, having finally reported her to the police. Despite this, and despite her awareness of her mother’s guilt and monstrousness, Milly’s bond with her mother remains:

… the person I want to run from is also the person I want to run to. (p. 45)

Land, with her sparse, direct, almost staccato prose, deftly explores this conflict. Moreover, by placing Milly with a foster family who aren’t exactly the Waltons, Land raises the question: who can truly help a child this damaged?

Milly is a compelling narrator and her voice rings very true. Too often novelists depicting teenagers and their patterns of speech get it badly wrong, but Land has a fine ear. Milly isn’t just damaged; she’s also intelligent, witheringly sarcastic, observant, funny and kind. And every so often … menacing, threatening and terrifying. What is interesting about this novel is that the threat and the tension come not from any external force but from Milly, from her internal conflict: which ‘wolf’ will she feed? Will society, circumstance and her surroundings give her a choice?

I was also fascinated by Land’s examination of the darkness in women. Not only do we have a female serial killer here, but the novel repeatedly highlights that females have the potential not just to be “Sugar and spice” but “all things” (p. 290).

Without giving too much away, I did find the ending of the novel disappointing. Land seems to take the obvious thriller route right at the close and I feel that something a bit more nuanced and ambiguous would have served the novel – and the multi-faceted Milly – far better.

That aside, Good Me Bad Me is a disturbing, real and unputdownable novel that heralds the emergence of a gifted new writer.

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

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The Bear and the Nightingale is Katherine Arden’s debut novel and the first in a planned trilogy. Set in medieval Russia and inspired by traditional folktales, this book has garnered much praise but left me rather cold.

Not that there isn’t much to admire here. The novel begins as a richly atmospheric and captivating tale. Arden skilfully evokes the freezing forests and blazing hearths of her setting. She is also adept at depicting the familial relationships between her characters, particularly those between siblings.

The narrative centres around Vasilisa Petrovna, known as Vasya. Her mother dies in childbirth safe in the knowledge that her daughter will inherit the powers of her mysterious grandmother.

Things started to fall flat for me around 40% into the book when the lack of signposting became apparent. I suddenly realised that I had no idea where the story was heading. Even now, I’m struggling to summarise what it was all about. There seemed to be several conflicts – chief amongst them an antagonism between organised religion and traditional folk beliefs. It isn’t really clear what the central conflict is, however, and the novel feels unfocused and meandering as a result.

I was prevented from giving up on the novel by the emergence of an intriguing theme about half way through – that of unconventional femininity. Arden reflects on the fact that folktales typically punish females who don’t conform to traditional expectations of their gender:

“Frost demons have no interest in mortal girls wed to mortal men. In the stories, the bird-prince and the wicked sorcerer – they only come for the wild maiden.”

Gradually, Vasya comes to realise that the mortal realm holds little for her beyond “walls and cages”.

Arden’s treatment of this theme, coupled with the appealingly spirited Vasya are probably just enough to entice me towards a sequel. But all in all, I was disappointed with The Bear and the Nightingale with its lack of signposting, momentum and focus.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

‘You want to know what weakness is? Weakness is treating someone as though they belong to you. Strength is knowing that everyone belongs to themselves.’

The ‘Must Read Books of 2017’ lists are crammed with incredibly promising debut novels. Few are generating more buzz than Yaa Gyasi’s first novel, Homegoing. This book isn’t perfect by any means, but, on the whole, I’d say that this marks a rare occasion when I think something actually lives up to its hype.

Before I proceed, a note of warning: I realise that this is more a discussion than a review. I seemed to have a lot of thoughts to disentangle and I could only do so by writing. For this reason, I may have been a bit spoilery so proceed with caution!

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Gyasi sets herself the ambitious task of covering the history and legacy of slavery in just 300 pages. The novel begins in the closing decades of the 18th century and ends at the turn of the 21st. She relies on structure to help her frame and manage this narrative. The story originates with Effia and Esi, two sisters who never meet. Effia marries a white slave trader whilst Esi is sold into slavery. Subsequent chapters examine the consequences of the sisters’ contrasting fates by focusing on their descendants.  Effia’s line remains in what will later become Ghana’s Gold Coast; Esi’s descendants find themselves in America.

‘You are not your mother’s first daughter. There was one before you. And in my village we have a saying about separated sisters. They are like a woman and her reflection, doomed to stay on opposite sides of the pond.’

Homegoing thus reads like a collection of interconnected short stories. This device enables Gyasi to demonstrate just how much family history is determined by the fickleness of fate. Or, as she puts it: “How easy it was for a life to go one way instead of another.”

But it is slavery, not fate, that is Gyasi’s main focus. Not much of what she has to say on this topic feels new but her depiction of her characters’ suffering is so visceral it stresses just how much such things bear repeating. One area where I felt Gyasi really stood out here was in her unflinching confrontation of Africans’ complicity in the slave trade, something I’d never really read about or considered before:

The Asante had power from capturing slaves. The Fante had protection from trading them.

At times, Gyasi writes with such direct insight and definitive wisdom that Homegoing has the whiff of modern classic about it. I felt she was at her best when considering the legacy of slavery. She considers the physical impact through characters like Ness, who is beaten regularly by her owner:

Ness’s skin was no longer skin really, more like the ghost of her past made seeable, physical.

Through characters like H, Gyasi explores the psychological impact:

No one forgets that they were once captive, even if they are now free.

What Homegoing ultimately shows is that, no matter how far we move down the matrilineal lines, this impact is felt; it is each generation’s legacy to the next. For Marjorie and Marcus, with whose narrative the novel closes, the legacy is a sense of alienation from both their country of origin and their country of birth:

‘I don’t fit here or there.’

Homegoing demonstrates an awe-inspiring talent but is by no means perfect. As other reviewers have pointed out, the novel’s structure and the scope of its ambition are what mark it out and, at times, bring it down. As we dart through the centuries, Gyasi’s creations become less like flesh and blood characters and more like ciphers. In a similar vein, it sometimes felt like I was being fed information rather than being enveloped in a compelling narrative that would nonetheless still supply me with the relevant facts, just in a more subtle way.

That aside, Homegoing is deserving of its place on those ‘Must Read’ lists and reading it will introduce you to a young writer with remarkable gifts.