Review: The Library at Mount Char

A few months ago I was reading a forum thread about underrated books. One commenter mentioned The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins. They said that they couldn’t even begin to describe the plot of this book in a coherent way but that it had made them laugh, cry and rethink their entire existence. Intrigued by this description and being the kind of person who is willing to read anything with ‘library’ in the title, I picked up a copy, started reading and did not surface for 48 hours. It was that good.

I’ll do one better than the initial commenter and attempt to describe what this highly original fantasy novel is about. Carolyn, our protagonist, has been raised in the titular library by an omnipotent, immortal being known as ‘Father’ along with eleven other children. Over the millennia, Father has mastered twelve different skills, ranging from the expected (war and medicine) to the distinctly unexpected (talking to animals and the dead). For reasons unknown, he has committed to teaching each of the twelve children one of his skills and forbids them from learning anything outside of their assigned discipline. Carolyn has been tasked with achieving mastery of all languages and her classes consist of a lot more than tapping her way through Duolingo. But in spite of Father’s cruel teaching methods and her often homicidal siblings, Carolyn manages to grow up into a seemingly normal, semi-functional adult (albeit one who definitely needs a lot of therapy ASAP). The novel opens on the siblings as adults, after they have just been unceremoniously ejected from the library, the only home they’ve ever known, and the Father who has dominated their entire lives has mysteriously disappeared. The siblings initially work together to locate Father but as the novel progresses, their focus soon shifts to competing to see which of them is worthy of replacing him.

I know it sounds complicated and insane (and that’s because it absolutely is) but I need you to trust me and give it a chance. The novel is full of absolutely surreal humour that somehow sits perfectly alongside pertinent questions about the nature of free will, what it means to be human and the impacts of childhood trauma. I’ve seen people compare this book to Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and while I can see similarities I think that what Hawkins accomplishes here is much more original. While Gaiman borrows mythology and gods from cultures around the world and blends them into one narrative, Hawkins has created a mythology all his own and the results are astounding. You literally will never guess what is coming next, it could be anything from a talking tiger to a supernaturally strong killing machine in a tutu. I was completely riveted and by the time I finished the book I felt oddly bereft and wobbly, the way you do when you first get off a rollercoaster.

While I should warn that sections of this novel are very violent and upsetting, Hawkins handles it expertly. At no point does it feel gratuitous or exploitative but as a reader you still feel the full impact of what is happening and your heart breaks for the characters involved. The way that Hawkins flips between Carolyn and her siblings incredibly traumatic upbringing and their present as supernaturally powerful beings adds real emotional heart to a story that otherwise might seem removed from reality. Months later I’m still thinking about David and the transformation he undergoes as Father moulds him into the ultimate warrior. In spite of the terrible acts he commits over the course of the novel, I can’t help but feel a twinge of sorrow thinking about the child he was and the man he could have been had Father not intervened.

The character of Carolyn in particular highlights the contrast and melding of the ordinary and the divine. As our primary narrator, I initially viewed her as a sort of everyman character (albeit one who thinks gold cycling shorts and a Christmas jumper are an inconspicuous outfit choice). But as the story slowly unfolds we see this image start to crack and realise that Carolyn is far from a reliable narrator. Her sense of humanity and reality has been so warped by her upbringing that towards the end of the novel I started to wonder if perhaps Father wasn’t the only villain in this story. The way Hawkins portrays Carolyn’s shift from lovably quirky, vulnerable protagonist to a very dangerous individual indeed is so gradual that the reader almost doesn’t notice until it’s too late.

I honestly couldn’t believe this was Scott Hawkins’ debut novel. It was so supremely confident and well-thought out and original that this felt like the work of someone much further along in their career. I’m already excited to read whatever comes out of his brain next. In the meantime, you may be in the fortunate position of being able to experience this wild ride of a book for the first time and I would strongly advise that you grab this opportunity with both hands.

Review: The Testaments

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood was one of the most hotly anticipated books of 2019 and given it follows on from Atwood’s wildly successful and influential 1985 dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, how could it not be? Indeed, in the last five or so years, The Handmaid’s Tale has seemed more culturally pervasive and relevant than ever, with millions tuning into the excellent Hulu adaption of the novel and protestors throughout the world drawing on the striking imagery of the red cloak and white bonnet worn by Atwood’s handmaids.

When Atwood announced she would be releasing The Testaments in an attempt to answer all of the questions that fans had been asking her about Gilead in the 35 years since The Handmaid’s Tale was first published, I had mixed feelings. On the one hand I’m an enormous fan of both Atwood and The Handmaid’s Tale and was excited to delve further into the world she had created. But on the other hand, I was cautious. Part of what I loved so much about The Handmaid’s Tale was its brutally ambiguous ending. The Handmaid’s Tale depicts a cruel and uncaring society and sometimes cruelty has no rhyme or reason. It felt right to me that the novel reflected this by refusing to offer any comfort or closure to its readers and I was wary of a sequel changing this.

However, there was a huge amount to enjoy about The Testaments. It picks up fifteen years after the end of The Handmaid’s Tale and is told from the perspective of three very different narrators. Agnes is the daughter of a Commander who has no memory of anything before the rise of Gilead, Daisy is a young woman growing up in Canada who witnesses the horrors of Gilead from a relative distance and Aunt Lydia, who you’ll remember as the ruthless tormentor of handmaids from the first book, is continuing to wield her power under a more mature regime. I enjoyed the use of the split perspective and it was fascinating to see Gilead from the perspective of those who might be seen to benefit from it. The truly impressive feat, however, was how Atwood seamlessly brings these three seemingly unrelated streams of plot together to create a tightly woven narrative.

While there are similarities between The Testaments and its predecessor (the disturbing yet precise imagery, the dispassionate and chilling descriptions of Gilead’s atrocities), there are also clear points of divergence. Where The Handmaid’s Tale was introspective and focused building the oppressive society of Gilead, The Testaments is much more plot driven. There are daring escapes, secret adoptions and espionage galore, more than enough to keep even the most removed reader’s hearts pounding. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and the twists should keep you rapidly flipping the pages right up until the end.

However, my issues with the book became apparent as I approached its conclusion. A series of increasingly unlikely coincidences led me to something I’d never before encountered in an Atwood novel: a happy ending. I kept waiting for the rug to be pulled out from under me, but the anticipated twist never came. I was frankly flummoxed and my feelings about the ending are decidedly mixed. On the one hand, while it felt somewhat like fan service, I’m a huge fan of these books and it was nice to be serviced. The ending was everything I wanted for these characters and it was wonderful to see them achieve a measure of peace. But on the other hand it just didn’t feel quite right.

When The Handmaid’s Tale was first published, Atwood made a point of stating that all of the horrific acts that Gilead inflicts on its citizens in the novel had already happened in real life somewhere in the world. This is part of what makes The Handmaid’s Tale so special and so chilling – the sense that this could really happen and that it was important to never grow complacent. However, I don’t feel this commitment to realism carries over to The Testaments. In the real world, children separated from their families are not being reunited with them against all the odds, refugees fleeing by boat are not being rescued when they run into danger and the seemingly evil people in charge have not been secretly working with the resistance all along. The ending of The Testaments reminded me of Jane Austen’s famous assertion that ‘My characters shall have, after a little trouble, all that they desire.‘ But when I pick up a Margaret Atwood book, I’m expecting her style, not Austen’s.

Upon reflection though, I wonder if it is not more radical to write a happy ending rather than a realistic one? In this age of cynicism and disillusionment, where we can watch the realistic ending play out on the nightly news, is Atwood offering an alternative vision of hope as brave a choice as her abrupt, ambiguous ending was in 1985? I’m afraid I don’t have the answer, but what I do know is that while The Testaments does not quite live up to the legacy of its predecessor (and frankly, what book could?), it’s well worth a read and will continue to plague your thoughts long after you’ve put it down.

Review: Catch and Kill + She Said

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past couple of years, you’ve heard about the the #MeToo movement and the horrific abuses perpetrated by Harvey Weinstein that helped to catalyse it. The story of Weinstein’s abuse was broken by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey for The New York Times with Ronan Farrow swiftly following up with further revelations in The New Yorker. For their investigative efforts, all three were jointly awarded the Pulizter Prize.

Catch and Kill by Ronan Farrow and She Said by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey are the insider accounts of their parallel investigations to uncover Weinstein’s abuses. While some might think reading only one of these would be sufficient to get an understanding of the key facts, to get a real sense of the scale and breadth of Weinstein’s wrongdoings and the extent of the corruption that prevented his behaviour from coming to light for so long, I’d recommend reading both. Having said that, a note of caution, reading both back to back (as I did) may permanently damage your faith in humanity.

She Said focuses on Kantor and Twohey’s efforts to engage with victims of Weinstein’s misconduct and highlights the wider predatory practices that women have been putting up with in the workplace for decades, such as incredibly restrictive and punitive non-disclosure agreements. It was fascinating to get an inside view of how journalists go about engaging with sources and persuading them to speak up. In this case, since many of their sources were famous celebrities, it often proved difficult to get in touch with them in the first place and I was heartened by how willing some famous women, such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Lena Dunham, were to use their resources and connections to help Kantor and Twohey break this story. I also appreciated that Kantor and Twohey focused on the wider ramifications of the #MeToo movement, with the later sections of the book focused on the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford before a US Senate Judiciary Committee regarding the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. I thought the final chapter of the book, which was a group interview with various women who have come forward with their stories as part of the #MeToo movement, was a thoughtful way to end the book as it took stock of what had been achieved while being honest about the distance that still needs to be travelled.

Catch and Kill focuses much more on the cover up of Weinstein’s abuses and the means that powerful people have at their disposal to silence people telling stories that they would rather remain private. While Farrow had significantly more evidence of Weinstein’s wrongdoing, including on the record video interviews with women naming Weinstein as a rapist, he was scooped by Kantor and Twohey. The reason he was scooped was because of concerted efforts by powerful executives at NBC (many of whom, it is later revealed, have reason not to want to whip up a public outcry over sexual harassment) to kill the story. Farrow faced spurious legal arguments, insinuations that the story ‘wasn’t that big of a deal’ and eventually, loss of his job at NBC. I was so impressed and inspired by Farrow’s perseverance in the face of so much adversity and his situation highlighted the need for integrity and true commitment to equality in the workplace existing at every level of an organisation in order to effect real change. While Farrow’s relentless investigative efforts (rightly) remain the centre of the narrative, he cannot quite avoid wrestling with his own complex family history of sexual abuse. Farrow is the son of Woody Allen and Mia Farrow and his sister, Dylan, alleges that their father was sexually abusive. I was moved by the fact that Farrow was open about his relationship with his sister, how he initially struggled with her decision to come forward and how much he valued her insight over the course of his investigation.

What disturbed me most about both books was the uncovering of the myriad of ‘good’ people who looked the other way and allowed Harvey Weinstein to continue to bully, harrass and assault the women around him for decades. From Noah Oppenheim, the NBC News President who killed Farrow’s original story while receiving expensive gifts from Weinstein, to the board members of the Weinstein Company, who believed that protecting Weinstein was the best way to protect their profits, to Lisa Bloom, a self-styled feminist lawyer and advocate for women who volunteered to run a smear campaign against Weinstein’s victims, I was shocked (perhaps naively) by the sheer volume of people who were willing to throw victims of abuse under the bus to protect their own self-interest.

What both books also had in common was how brilliantly paced and evocatively written they were. While reading them I felt as though I could see the events unfold in front of my eyes as if they were a film. While they differed in tone (She Said felt like a drama while Catch and Kill felt like a spy thriller) both had me on the edge of my seat and feeling disconcerted by how much stranger than fiction this true story seemed. The revelations about Black Cube, a network of ex-Israeli special forces private investigators hired to manipulate and dig up dirt on Kantor, Twohey, Farrow and actresses Weinstein thought might talk to the press, were particularly surreal.

These books are both incredible works of journalism that I hope will inspire a new generation to pursue truth with dogged determination and integrity.

Welcome

Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing

— Harper Lee.

Hello all,

I’m a voracious reader who recently made a return to the world of fiction after a few years in the academic wilderness. The kind of books I love span genres, languages and millennia and I literally cannot shut up and stop recommending books to friends and family.

To make all of their lives easier and so I can share what I love with the wider world, I have committed to reviewing what I’m reading on this blog. If you’re looking for biting criticisms or thousand word paeans to high brow literature, this ain’t for you. I love basically everything, from bestselling beach reads to treatises on literary theory, and you’ll get bits of all of that here. I’ll also probably share some of my general thoughts on books and pull together some lists of recommendations.

I hope you enjoy.