When should you read ‘The Truth, by Omission’? When you’re ready for some deep introspection about your own history and mankind’s ability to be morally good.
With thanks to NetGalley and Blackstone Publishing for a free e-copy of ‘Truth by Omission’ in exchange for an honest review.
Sunday morning history
It’s Sunday morning; we drink tea, we eat brunch. Mr Shelf asks, ‘what’s that you’re reading there?’
‘Oh, just a casual book about the Rwandan genocide,’ I say, merrily.
‘Truth by Omission’ tells the story of Alfred, a doctor living in the States with his American wife, Anna. Although he has settled into his new life, he has a dark history: he grew up during the Rwandan civil war and subsequent genocide. There is much about his past that even his wife does not know.
However, history has a way with catching up with us and Alfred will need to answer for the actions he committed in the direst of circumstances.
Growing up during genocide
Through flashbacks to his childhood, we grow to understand more about Alfred. Having witnessed extreme brutality at a very early age, he has been influenced not only by what he has seen, but what he has needed to do to survive.
Alfred is a very sympathetic character. We’re always on his side. We have some insight into his thoughts and experience his remorse and, sometimes, self-pity alongside him.
But the novel asks a lot of quite complex questions about morality which are less clear-cut than they first seem.
We know, for example, that Alfred killed while he was a minor. But in one particular section, we read about the brutality he used while killing. How do we feel about that? Did he use unnecessary force? Could a killing like that ever be justified? Can we even judge it at all, independent as we are of its context?
I really enjoyed the quite subtle way that Beamish introduced these moral dilemmas. Through exposing us to really brutal situations and demanding our emotional involvement, he manages to convincingly blur our morals. It’s an impressive feat and one that I only really realised had happened after I finished the novel!
Is it a historical novel?
When I first read the novel, I didn’t know anything at all about the author and deliberately did not look him up until after I had finished. I was surprised to learn that he did not have a personal experience of the Rwandan genocide as he writes about it so confidently and sensitively.
However with the new knowledge that ‘Truth, by Omission’ was not written by a Rwandan author (and also bearing in mind its title), it seems to me in retrospect that it’s less about telling the story of the genocide and more about examining human morality against this backdrop.
Usually, I’m enthusiastic about novels like that and ‘Truth by Omission’ certainly provides lots of moral questions to chew over. These include the age of criminal responsibility, whether violence can be justified, and whether all people are equally capable of it.
It may not be a historical novel in the true sense, as it relies on a majority of fictional events which coincide with the real events of the Rwandan genocide, but it still has a lot to say.
A personal bugbear
It is a huge bugbear of mine to read novels which contain ‘perfect women’. Or, as Gillian Flynn calls them in ‘Gone Girl’, ‘Cool Girls’.
Basically, ‘perfect women’ are not real characters; they don’t have their own thoughts or agendas. They never make mistakes, they never consider their situation pragmatically but above all they never, ever doubt their husbands.
In ‘Truth by Omission’, Alfred’s wife Anna is a ‘perfect woman’. She sticks by Alfred’s side even when it looks like he might have killed a lot of people. Even though he is very sketchy about his history, she never wavers.
She also wants to have sex at inexplicable times, precisely at the moment when most actual women would probably want to punch their husbands in the face. ‘Perfect women’ are a male fantasy that I’m very tired of reading.
However, this is very probably a personal quirk of mine that many readers would not notice or particularly mind.
I also found it really refreshing at the start of the novel that Beamish had – seemingly – flipped a few stereotypes.
From tropes I’d previously read, I had expected that Alfred’s integration into a white American family might be fraught with racial tensions (as this is a favourite trope of lots of novels).
Not so! His wife’s genuinely lovely, ‘woke’ family accept him with open arms. Great! But no – my hopes had disintegrated by the end of the novel.
I really enjoyed reading ‘Truth by Omission’. It was well written, sensitive and morally complex. It also had a majority of interesting, believable characters, despite the few that got on my nerves.
I would recommend this novel as an absorbing and affecting read. It’s perfect if you’re interested in the history of the region and also like your reads to come with some challenging issues to keep your brain occupied.
When should you read ‘Black Leopard, Red Wolf’? When you are looking for a really meaty, challenging escapist novel to occupy your entire mind. This book is not for lazy readers!
Who is the Red Wolf?
‘Black Leopard, Red Wolf’ is the first in a proposed trilogy by Man Booker Prize winning author Marlon James.
It tells the story of a young man named Tracker, whose incredible sense of smell allows him to track down just about anything or anyone. Because of the traditions of his ancestral Ku tribe, his skin is red. He also possesses the eye of a wolf.
He is employed by a slaver to trace a young boy who has gone missing, alongside several other bounty hunters. Among them are an Ogo, or giant-like man, a demi-god and a Moon Witch, each with their own strengths and agendas. They’re less than willing to reveal them to Tracker, however.
As the party tries to find the boy, Tracker starts finding more questions than answers. Who is this boy? Who are the people trying to find him? And why does danger seem to follow him wherever he goes?
Not for the faint-hearted
This novel is not for those who will be easily offended by violence, or for those looking for a nice, gentle, easy fantasy read.
The world-building is really quite spectacular, and so some readers have compared it to the Game of Thrones saga. But having read the first in that series, the styles are wildly different. ‘Black Leopard, Red Wolf’ is vastly more challenging.
The chronology of ‘Black Leopard, Red Wolf’ is complicated and confusing. Often, the narrator will talk about things as if they have already happened, although we have no idea of them yet.
Because the writing style is quite challenging anyway, at the start of the book I kept flicking back to see if I had missed things. But as I became used to the style I started to just go with it.
You do find out everything by the end of the book, but you have to apply yourself while reading it in order to remember and compile all the tidbits of information that combine to form the full story.
My best friend is a shapeshifting leopard
Without doubt the coolest character in the novel is the leopard.
He’s a shapeshifter (so spends some of his time as a human, some of it as a leopard). He’s also a badass, in line with James’s theory that secondary characters can exist purely to be badasses.
With an obvious preference for his leopard side and a disdain for the foibles of humankind, he’s a blunt, hilarious and hugely likeable character. Indeed, during the talk I saw recently, James admitted he was ‘a little bit in love with the leopard’.
As much of the novel is pretty dark, the leopard offers not only some much-needed comic relief but also a bit of a reality check for some of the more philosophical characters. He stops the novel from becoming too self-indulgent and even points out the human flaws in other characters.
He’s a great addition to the story and one of its most enjoyable elements.
African mythology and folklore
With two years of research behind him, Marlon James is ambitious with his inclusion of African folklore and elements from traditional oral storytelling.
We are constantly meeting monsters and creatures who are influenced by this kind of tradition. Take Asanbosam and Sasabonsam, two vampiric creatures Tracker meets in the Darklands, a jungle region. Their roots lie in Ashanti folklore, but they are brilliantly and uniquely characterised by James.
One of the most enjoyable parts of reading ‘Black Leopard, Red Wolf’ is learning about all of these mythological creatures. They are totally integrated into James’s vision of medieval Africa and seem completely real.
Another interesting part of African tradition which is included here is the liberal attitude towards homosexuality. James spoke, in his talk, about feeling that he had ‘come home’ when he discovered that early African societies were often totally open to homosexual relationships.
As a queer man, he obviously wanted to include this in his story, refuting at the same time the idea that African societies are often homophobic. This, as he pointed out at the time, is a European construct that came to them much later with colonisation.
‘Black Leopard, Red Wolf’ is a hard book to read, but a very rewarding one. It took me about three weeks to finish, even though in size it’s comparable to ‘The Overstory’, which only took me about a week.
That’s an indication of quite how dense and challenging the writing often is. You will need to concentrate and really commit to reading the book, but it will be worth it.
I didn’t love it quite as much as I loved ‘The Book of Night Women‘, another one of James’s stories and one of my favourite books of all time. But I would still highly recommend giving it a try!
When should you read ‘Into
the River’? On a dismal, rainy day, when you’re dreaming of warmer weather
(even if it does involve a murder).
‘Into the River’ is a dark story set in what I assumed to be 1980s Australia. It revolves around a young boy, Ben, who spends his days ‘yabbying’ (I looked this up; it apparently means “fishing for a freshwater crustacean” – yabbies look a bit like lobsters) with his best friend Fab and saving up to buy the latest pair of sneaks.
But when a tragedy causes one of his neighbours to move out,
a new arrival on Ben’s street sets his life down a very different path.
Catching up with Fab several years later, we start to understand exactly what effect
this newcomer has had.
A dark, uncomfortable
Mark Brandi has a talent for narrative voice. While the book
is written in third person, we’re clearly inside the young Ben’s head for most
of the time. His internal voice is totally convincing and the reader easily
becomes absorbed in his story.
But Brandi’s real talent lies in creating atmosphere. He manages to create a sense of unease as Ben tries to navigate what is dangerous and what is not. His tale becomes a coming-of-age story where a child is forced to deal with adult concerns for the first time.
The reader, like Ben, is left queasily pondering whether some of the early events in the book are disquieting or whether we are just being paranoid. We’re left unsure and questioning our own judgement. It’s an exceptional show of skill.
Mark Brandi, author of ‘Into the River’
The structure of the book divides roughly two halves. In the
first part, we’re with Ben as he goes about his life. In the second half, we’re
aligned much more closely to Ben’s friend Fab, who is by now a good deal older.
Whereas the first section set in Ben’s childhood read very
easily, I found the second part ever so slightly less fluid. Fab didn’t seem to
have quite such an assured voice and I was less sympathetic to him than I
perhaps should have been. I didn’t feel like I ‘knew’ him as well as I understood
I also felt that the ending was a little rushed, with some
of the major events, dramatically speaking, bundled into the last few pages.
The pacing seemed slightly jerky.
For those who enjoyed
If you are a fan of Jane Harper’s ‘The Dry’, or its follow up ‘Force of Nature’, it’s probably that you will really like ‘Into the River’.
While the stories are quite different, with Harper’s books
being more of a classic crime fiction series where Brandi’s is a standalone
drama, the atmosphere is very similar.
Both draw on the corruption of a quiet Australian town, “where nobody locks their doors”, to create their tension. And both require a local boy to bring it to a resolution.
I was impressed by my first brush with Mark Brandi; he really does have a talent for creating atmosphere. Although the pacing lost me slightly towards the back end of the book, I definitely wanted to know how it ended and found it a pretty satisfying read overall.
‘Into the River’ is worth picking up just for the depiction of the new neighbour and how his relationship with Ben evolves, which is one of the most spectacularly creepy things I have read in a long time.
With thanks to NetGalley and Legend Press for sending me a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
This post is part of Legend Press’s blog tour for the launch of ‘Into the River’. Check out other reviews of this book by some more fantastic bloggers!
Earlier this week, I went to see one of my very favourite authors of all time, Marlon James, talk about his new book.
In a shadowy lecture theatre at the Southbank Centre, broadcaster Ekow Eshun led a discussion on literature, writing, African storytelling heritage and developing characters, facilitated by the launch of James’s new book.
‘Black Leopard, Red Wolf’ is an epic fantasy which forms the first third of ‘The Dark Star Trilogy’.
Here’s an excerpt from the official blurb:
Tracker is a hunter, known throughout the thirteen kingdoms as one who has a nose – and he always works alone. But he breaks his own rule when, hired to find a lost child, he finds himself part of a group of hunters all searching for the same boy. Each of these companions is stranger and more dangerous than the last, from a giant to a witch to a shape-shifting Leopard, and each has secrets of their own.
As the mismatched gang follow the boy’s scent from perfumed citadels to infested rivers to the enchanted darklands and beyond, set upon at every turn by creatures intent on destroying them, Tracker starts to wonder: who really is this mysterious boy? Why do so many people want to stop him being found? And, most important of all, who is telling the truth and who is lying?
You can imagine my IMMENSE EXCITEMENT at the prospect of another Marlon James book. I loved ‘John Crow’s Devil’ and ‘The Book of Night Women’ is one of my all time favourites. Marlon James’s books are always dark, but they’re also illuminating and totally absorbing.
On African mythology
‘Black Leopard, Red Wolf’ is set in medieval central Africa. The following two books of the trilogy promise to tell the same story as the first novel but from different perspectives which James says will force us to change our allegiances.
The book, James tells us in a smooth Jamaican-American accent, was born out of a desire to return to the very origins of storytelling: the oral tradition. But that’s easier said than done.
After researching African history for two years while writing the novel, he came to the conclusion that anything written before 1980 was basically useless, as it was written by European colonisers rather than African people themselves.
When he did eventually find some authentic source material, James said he developed a real interest in old African epics and folklore. Their unique take on morality was especially illuminating, even on a personal level.
As a queer man, he spoke about how discovering that early African cultures were very liberal and open to homosexuality was ‘like coming home’; discovering that the subsequent homophobic reputation that many African countries have gained is actually a colonial construct.
Indeed, some cultures enlisted gay people to teach heterosexual couples about sex; some tribes have not one but up to fifteen different genders. James claims that when writing ‘Black Leopard, Red Wolf’, masculinity was his favourite theme.
Early African myths and stories are also laced with magic. However – similarly to Latin American magical realism – magical events are considered to be within the normal sphere of reality.
So, in ‘Black Leopard, Red Wolf’, James had to create a magical world that the characters themselves didn’t actually consider to be magical.
James spoke about how character development drives novels. Sometimes, he claimed, characters turned up in his mind years or even decades before the book comes to fruition.
James’s second book (my favourite, ‘The Book of Night Women‘) was ‘hijacked’ by a secondary character, Lilith, who became the protagonist against all of James’s intentions!
Indeed, the protagonist of ‘Black Leopard, Red Wolf’, Tracker, began life as a minor character.
He said that it was important to understand what each character’s stakes were and what they could stand to lose. Whereas the main characters need a sense of purpose, secondary characters are great specifically because they can just turn up and be ‘badasses’.
Characters should be flawed and they should progress and learn throughout the story. James likes to ask each character: ‘what’s your damage?’
Violence is a classic trait of Marlon James’s books. They rarely make for easy (or optimistic) reading.
According to James, as a culture we are too accustomed to seeing violence without understanding that it comes with suffering. We watch films, TV and even the evening news without feeling emotionally affected by the scenes of devastation we see.
It’s important to remember that every violent act has consequences. He says, in a characteristically juicy soundbite:
“Violence is suffering, and violence reverberates.”
Just after I fangirled Marlon James
I love to hear authors, especially ones I really admire, talking about their writing processes.
James admits that when he gets to the end of a novel he’s been working on for a long time, he is prone to falling into a period of depression.
He doesn’t really believe in writer’s block. Sometimes just sitting and thinking, or reading someone else’s work, counts as part of his writing process.
If he leaves the office without having written a word that day, it’s not necessarily a loss. Reading other people’s work is the key to getting out of a rut.
He referred to a famous quote by William Faulkner, one of his favourite novelists, which I think is this one:
“Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it.
Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.”
Finally, if anyone is curious, he listened to a lot of Miles Davies while writing ‘Black Leopard, Red Wolf’.
So, there you have it: all the wisdom I managed to feverishly scribble down from one of the greats of modern literature. If you’d like to read more, GoodReads has done a fantastic interview to celebrate the launch of the trilogy.
I’m about midway through ‘Black Leopard, Red Wolf’, so expect a full review in the next few days!
I’m learning, slowly, to embrace my fondness for being
Sometimes, it’s a case of just wanting to stay in the warm while others go out; sometimes, it’s about looking after myself after a tough couple of days. I am the consummate introvert – I gain energy by being by myself. Socialising can be wonderful, but if I’m feeling run down then other people become an enormous source of stress. Mostly because I’m not terribly good at putting a front on.
Even though I’ve been this way my entire life, I’m only now realising that it isn’t a huge deficiency (or doesn’t have to be).
Or perhaps it’s just the case that I’ve accepted that I won’t ever be the gold-medal winning, boardroom-storming, trumpet-blaring extrovert that I always thought I should be.
If you’re also an introvert, you might like to read a bit about Susan Cain’s excellent book ‘Quiet’, which teaches us (the quiet folk) that we are everywhere. Introverts live among us!
There are even people who are introverts but pretend, convincingly, to be extroverts; people who make loud noises and clap each other on the back, but go home early from parties, probably to ‘get up early for training’ or something.
All this is well and good, but occasionally, withdrawal into a cosy nest made of many blankets is a sign of something out of the ordinary, which does need a bit of care and attention.
If you have noticed that someone in your life has been disappearing bit by bit over the last few weeks, perhaps they are drawing into a protective ball, like a stressed-out pangolin.
No thank you I don’t want to come to your party
Perhaps you might consider sending them a care box.
A care box (or care package) is a special box you put together personally which is filled with nice things to help cheer someone up and let them know that they won’t forever be a social outcast simply because they’ve checked out for a few days.
Here are a few ideas for nice things you could include for your nearest and dearest worried pangolin.
A voucher or advance payment for a professional cleaner
Weird and unromantic in every possible way, but if your pangolin lives in a state of perpetual clutter you might consider paying for their flat to be cleaned. (Only recommended if they are aware of their mess and unlikely to be offended.)
The reason is that studies have shown that mess causes you to feel more stressed out. In terms of depression, having a clean house can really boost your mood and help you feel more in control, but actually doing the cleaning is pretty tough if getting out of bed seems like a struggle. If you organise a professional cleaning service, they will come back to a clean house that smells lovely – and perhaps will start to feel more in control.
This is a personal recommendation, but dim lighting and fairy lights always helps me to feel calmer. I think it helps prepare my body for going to sleep. You can get some very affordable fairy lights from this excellent website: https://www.lights4fun.co.uk which gave me excellent service when I bought mine. (These very ones in fact, inspired by Morocco.)
A scented candle
Call it a cliché, but a scented candle (or any kind of lovely aroma) lifts the mood. And they are definitely not just for women. Honestly, I’m absolutely scandalised by the cost of most scented candles but there are a few affordable places you can get very good ones. I love Marks & Spencer (based in the UK) for reasonably priced, lovely scented candles. Or, for more manly fragrances, try Woodwick, which have lovely scents like Honey Tobacco, or Sea Salt.
Write them a note
Writing your pangolin a note, even if it just says ‘thinking of you’, will work wonders.
Sometimes, taking much-needed time out gives pangolins extreme anxiety that they’ll offend you or somehow let you down. If they are a colleague, reassure them that they don’t need to worry about a thing at the office. If they’re a friend, tell them you understand them taking this time out and you can’t wait to see them in a few days’ time.
There isn’t really a product to recommend here, but if aesthetics are your bag (and you quite fancy a little pressie for you), you could jot your thoughts on this epic iridescent dinosaur writing set from Paperchase.
Healthy snacks and drinks
Your pangolin doesn’t have much energy right now, and they’re probably not feeding themselves properly. Encourage them to uncurl by including healthy nibbles in your box.
Often, the nearest things to stuff in your face when you’re spending most of the time in bed are unhealthy foods like chocolate or biscuits. But afterwards, your pangolin will just feel fat and sad.
Put them on a positive course by giving them easy access to foods that will make them feel good. Green tea or infusion bags are great to pop in a box, as are hard or peel covered fruits that won’t go off quickly, like apples or oranges.
A notebook and pen
Sometimes when it’s tricky to articulate how you feel or speak to other people about it, writing things down, or even drawing a diagram, can help one get one’s thoughts in order. Bonus points if it’s a beautiful notebook, like these ones which are book themed.
A puzzle or colouring book
Mindless, repetitive activities are great for low days. They help you stop ruminating on dark thoughts and focus your mind on doing something simple in the present. I love the Puzzler collections you can pick up at WH Smiths, or there are puzzles for mindfulness books like this one.
It’s good, when one’s brain is revolving endlessly around dark thoughts, to be given a bit of manageable responsibility to take you out of yourself.
A little plant, like the ones you can get from Patch, are easily mailable and you can choose from different levels of hardiness (e.g. if it’s likely they’ll kill it, get them a succulent). Remembering to water it and watching it grow are great ways to feel like you’re doing something positive.
We’ve all felt like this sometimes.
Get them a food shop
Doing a supermarket shop, much like cleaning, is simply beyond the abilities of a stressed out Pangolin.
A very practical care package would simply be to do their week’s shopping for them.
This is especially great for family members or people you know very well, where you can pick foods they love and avoid ones they hate. Fill it with healthy things as well as a few treats.
Remember you want to nourish their bodies and souls – cake (unusually) is not the answer this time, but fresh fruit and vegetables are.
A lovely book, obviously
My reading tastes are usually darker than a sleepover at M Night Shamalan’s house, but in times of stress this type of book must be wrestled from my cold, stiff claws in favour of what I would call: ‘a nice book’.
These are witty, cosy, life-affirming pieces of literature which will make you chuckle despite yourself. They are not stressful or challenging reads, but they do contain an absorbing story with likeable characters.
Some such nice books might be: ‘The Elegance of the Hedgehog’ by Muriel Barbery, or an escapist fantasy book like V. E. Swaab’s ‘A Darker Shade of Magic‘, or a comic strip book which will help your Pangolin understand that they’re not alone, like ‘Hyperbole and a half’ by Allie Brosh. I am a huge fan of her website, which talks about mental health in a really funny and affirming way. Examine this post on depression which is simultaneously hilarious and deeply, deeply sad.
But above all this, simply let your pangolin know that you still love them and you’ll still be there when they feel a bit better.
Note: None of the products listed above are sponsored, I just love them!
When should you read ‘The Tattooist of Auschwitz’? Set aside a day. You will want to read this book in one go if you can.
A little light reading
I had embarked upon a different book this week, but was finding it a bit heavy. With a business trip coming up I thought I’d grab a bit of light reading for the plane; you know, something not too heavy that I could dip in and out of on a bleary-eyed early morning flight.
Then I started rifling through my Kindle library, which is shared with Mamma Shelf. And stumbled across ‘The Tattooist of Auschwitz”, which, if ever a book title existed that screamed “not light reading”, was this.
I had been wanting to read it for a while, but much Holocaust literature (although I have read a few excellent books over the years, like Primo Levi’s ‘If This is a Man’), usually proves too depressing for me to commit to buying.
But, since it was just a mere download away, I gave it a try. It tells the story of Lale, a real-life Holocaust survivor, who surrendered himself voluntarily to the Nazis in order to save the rest of his family from what they believed was ‘hard labour’.
He was sent to Auschwitz and spent several years there during the war. He owes his survival to his job as the camp ‘Tatöwierer’, tattooing new arrivals upon entry.
But at its heart, this book is a love story. Its opening pages describe the first meeting between Lale and Gita, a fellow prisoner. Over their years of survival in the camp, they find solace in each other; and Lale’s mission becomes not only to ensure his own survival but hers.
I started it at about 7am on the way to the airport and finished it in the evening. Usually I’m too tired to read all the way there and back but I could not stop reading this book.
Lale survived for several years in Auschwitz, working as the camp tattooist.
Perhaps you feel this way as well, but I think there’s a bit of an ethical dilemma involved in picking up a book about the Holocaust. It can seem a little voyeuristic at times, reading about the worst of humanity without having to experience any of the suffering.
‘The Tattooist of Auschwitz’ surprised me with its lightness of touch. Compared to other accounts of Auschwitz (such as Art Spiegelman’s jaw-dropping and Pulitzer Prize winning graphic novel, ‘Maus’) it seems to shy away from the very worst of Lale’s experience there. Instead, his companions disappear, or he is told that they are ‘gone’.
We recognise the faces of grim historical figures like Josef Mengele or Rudolf Hoess without much interaction with them, but their shadows loom large. One of Lale’s friends is taken by Mengele, but we do not go with him. Heather Morris takes advantage of our existing knowledge of Auschwitz to draw our attention to its worst events by omission.
Life continues for Lale in an environment where the constant disappearance of friends and family members becomes routine.
Part novel, part testimonial
It’s another common feature of Holocaust literature that there is a need to provide testimony for future generations and to capture the story for posterity, so that it is never repeated.
This book is unusual in that it’s a third party telling a true story. Heather Morris interviewed Lale several times over many years to build a picture of his experience, but she has also added her own style and flair to it. Fittingly, the writing style is quite minimalist. Morris has successfully and tastefully navigated the tricky no-man’s-land between biography and novel.
There are also a couple of really lovely sections at the end of the story which explain how Morris conducted her research and talk about revisiting Lale’s hometown in Slovenia.
It’s a tricky thing to talk about a horrific, true-life event without ever having experienced it. The result is nuanced but detached and very deftly handled.
When should you read ‘Quiet’? Read Susan Cain’s thesis on why introverts are valuable to society just after a meeting in which you were spoken over, and quietly plot your boardroom coup.
Sit down and shut up
Starting her book with a reference to Rosa Parks was spectacularly clever, but as a self-confessed introvert, we shouldn’t be surprised at quite how clever Susan Cain is.
The author of ‘Quiet’ is also the presenter of a Ted Talk on the power of introverts which has been viewed over 20 million times.
What we quiet nerdy types have in common with Rosa Parks, she argues, is that our way of living is different from the societal ideal of the bubbly, gregarious type. Yet, as obviously demonstrated by Rosa Parks herself, who ignited the most important conversation in American civil rights for a century, you don’t need to be loud to be important.
So why have introverts been so overlooked by society? Cain postulates that it’s because of ‘The Extrovert Ideal’, a Western cultural notion that louder people are more intelligent and more worthy.
It has been proven that there is no correlation between extroversion and intelligence, but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that extroverts are significantly more likely to have their ideas adopted. This is purely because they have the talent of sledgehammering their view across while we timid mice-people can only look on in horror.
But, says Cain, there is much to be gained by slowing down and actually listening to introverts. Some of the world’s greatest discoveries were made by introverts and, she argues, could only have been made by them.
Listening to quiet people
So why should we bother slowing down and listening to people who don’t even speak up in meetings?
If you are an introvert, you will know that it’s not always that easy. You might have all the skills to solve the problem in question, be able to formulate your thoughts into a coherent and convincing answer, but… be totally unable to elbow your way into a conversation dominated by loud, articulate people.
The result is often that the best ideas are missed, simply because introverts either don’t have the space to express their ideas or can’t copy the habits of their extroverted peers well enough to wedge their ideas in.
There are lots of interesting examples of this phenomenon in practice and Cain links them convincingly to real-life examples, frequently in the world of business. The Enron scandal, she argues, would not have happened in the hands of an introvert.
Your best extrovert impersonation
‘Quiet’ slightly fell down for me, not because I disagree with anything that Susan Cain says (indeed, she is the champion of all introverts), but in the fact that very few extroverts will read this book.
‘Quiet’ doesn’t claim that extroverts will radically change their behaviour upon reading (if, indeed, they ever do read).
So what can we, the timid folk, do about it?
The answer may lie in your ability to impersonate an extrovert, in situations that require it. Again, there are handy examples on how to do this and evidence that it can achieve great things.
But the best thing about ‘Quiet’ is the immense sense of validation that any introvert will feel upon reading it.
It takes a book like this to make you realise just how used to ‘The Extrovert Ideal’ we are. In almost every possible context, “the squeaky wheel gets the grease”. Loud people are heard most. But here is plentiful evidence that the ideas of quiet people are just as valid, useful and insightful as those of any extrovert.
Perhaps it might just be the extra push we need to speak up.
When should you read ‘The Bloody Chamber’? I’d recommend reading it settled cosily by a fire, while you contemplate how much you despise the patriarchy.
Angela Carter’s famous collection of reworked fairytales has fascinated, disgusted and intrigued generations of unenthusiastic A Level students. Indeed, as my kindly local bookseller (who swapped me ‘The Bloody Chamber’ in return for a load of pre-loved paperbacks) said, it can prove a bit ‘ripe’ for some readers.
Set in distant, candle-lit castles and populated by werewolves, vampires, monsters and men, the tales seem familiar yet jarringly different; far from the bedtime story of yore, they are violent, sensual and threatening.
Danger is sexy
How would we feel about Little Red Riding Hood if her Grandmother turned out to be the wolf in sheep’s clothing? Or about Bluebeard’s wife if we learnt about her sexual appetite?
Traditional fairytales are absolutely notorious for patriarchal values, where the dashing young man saves the damsel in exchange for her hand in marriage. As happily married people know, a lifetime of bliss can (and should) be based on one partner lopping off the head of any monster pursuing the other, and this is not the only piece of good advice to be found therein.
Yet, we’ve seen a bit of a fairytale renaissance recently and one could argue that all began with Angela Carter, who completely reframed familiar stories to talk from a female perspective.
With the first, eponymous story of the collection, Carter pays attention to the character of Bluebeard’s wife. I say ‘Bluebeard’, although he is never named as such, but rather is an older gentleman who has remarried a teenaged bride following the very recent death of his previous wife.
Usually, the damsel is overlooked. Her characterisation in many fairytales is to provide the ‘goal’; the potential marriage which justifies the hero’s efforts and the sweet reward of moral righteousness.
Not so for Angela Carter, who sits comfortably inside a seventeen-year-old consciousness to talk about the uncomfortable brew of emotions she experiences on her wedding night, from excitement to revulsion, to arousal.
Sexuality is a theme that runs through all of the stories in the collection, and in the context of fairytales it acquires a particular meaning.
It is seemingly always associated with death and violence. Sensuality is linked to blood: in the first tale, the young wife is given a necklace of rubies which, she notes, looks exactly like a slit throat. The perpetrators of violence are deliberately made attractive and powerful.
It’s a kind of eroticism which would indeed have made my A Level English lit class squirm.
Good beast, bad man
Monsters are men and men are monsters in ‘The Bloody Chamber’. They are also violent, and often sexually violent. They are particularly threatening because of the relish with which they dominate and threaten women.
Female characters, on the other hand, embody a full range of roles but are never passive, marking a striking departure from traditional fairytales.
They drive the story, they rescue one another, or – in the case of Wolf Alice, a young girl raised by wolves – they bring fulfilment to others. Occasionally, they are even monsters themselves.
Carter manages to shine a light on quite a range of female experiences for such a tiny book and it’s refreshing to see them in dynamic roles. It is, however, always seen within the reference points of violence and sensuality, and in the presence of men.
The bloody, yet tastefully furnished, chamber
Angela Carter’s writing is exceptionally dense. To the point that this little, centimetre thick book took me several days to get through. I kept having to go back and reread sections so as to properly appreciate them.
Much like other aesthetes who came long before Angela Carter did (think: Oscar Wilde, even Gabriele D’Annunzio), the joy that comes from reading their work is partly due to the sumptuousness of their writing.
Think of long, tapered candles flickering over red velvet wing-backed chairs or dusty, gilded mirrors, in which Carter’s vampires see only empty space. It’s a beautifully written book, although not a particularly easy read.
It’s also full of lively, challenging writing which does not allow the reader to be a passive observer. In one very short story, ‘The Snow Child’, we see a young girl created out of snow on the whim of a king. Quickly earning the jealousy of his wife, the Queen, the Snow Child lives a very brief life of abuse and unpleasantness. The ending of the tale is sure to outrage.
Yet, in other tales like ‘Puss-in-Boots’, Carter exhibits her talent for humour and playfulness. This story acts as a foil to the other, more depressing works and is my favourite in the whole collection.
In short, do not expect this diminutive book to be an easy ride. However, if you’re up for some emotionally and politically challenging, violently erotic feminist retellings of classic fairy stories (and who isn’t?) you may well enjoy this singular collection.
When should you read ‘The Boy on the Bridge’?: When – as was the case with me – you need a break from highfalutin literature and just want all the thrills.
Set prior to the events of the bestselling ‘The Girl With All the Gifts’, M.R. Carey’s second zombie novel comes with a similarly lurid orange front cover and the promise of much gore and gnashing of teeth.
Yet also, surprisingly, the reviews featured prominently on the cover talk about the novel’s ‘compassion’. In a zombie novel? Curiouser and curiouser, said Alice.
The novel sees a group of scientists and soldiers take a perilous mission north from the relative safety of their settlement, ‘Beacon’, to collect samples left by their predecessors. Their hope is to find some kind of environmental or atmospheric factor which inhibits the growth of the zombie-causing fungus, opening the door to the possibility of a cure.
The Thinking Man’s Zombie
I’ve chomped my way through eight series of ‘The Walking Dead’, admired grisly prosthetics and become worryingly comfortable with footage of humans being gnawed at by their vacant-eyed mirror images, so it’s fair to say that I quite like ‘zombie stories’ as a genre.
The best thing, usually, about these post-apocalyptic tales is the human dramas that exist alongside them. They work because on the one hand you have the blood-spattered, vicarious joy of being simultaneously disgusted and terrified, and on the other, the intrigue and relatability of human relationships being built in hardship.
In Colson Whitehead’s rather surprising ‘literary’ zombie novel ‘Zone One’, the Man Booker-winning author examines the post-zombie era, walking his protagonist through the clean-up operation in New York and posing very good questions about life after civilisation, and what kind of world is worth living in.
‘The Boy on the Bridge’ has no such high aspirations; it’s a genre zombie novel. But, it’s a genre novel done well.
A Compassionate Monster
Read no further if you haven’t finished ‘The Girl With All the Gifts’ yet.
Alright, I warned you.
‘The Girl With All the Gifts’ was brilliant because of its ending, which did something that few other similar novels would dare: it wiped out humanity.
When faced with a choice of a perpetual conflict between ‘Hungries’ (read: zombies) and humans, or the chance for a new hybrid race to win the day, the heroine Melanie effectively betrays her human protectors so that a new world can begin.
It’s the sort of ending that gives you a good rattle and reminds you how much genre fiction is thoroughly predictable, relying on familiar and comfortable tropes (even in genres meant to shock and horrify). I adored it, once I had calmed down.
‘The Boy on the Bridge’ – and I say this conscious of not wanting to give too much away – somewhat reverses this particularly gloomy ending, which seems a shame. Why shake up a genre just to return to form in the sequel/prequel?
A not-compassionate human
It’s a trope of zombie, vampire, werewolf and any other desired monster fiction to make the discovery that the ‘true’ monsters are the human beings left behind. They inevitably turn to primitive tribal violence once the dust from the initial monster invasion starts to settle.
The same is true here. The hybrid ‘hungries’ which form the basis of the novel’s plotline are ‘good’, at least in the sense that they are fulfilling their zombie obligations while being as nice about it as possible.
The human characters, however, are ‘bad’. They are burdened by ego, fear, jealousy and arrogance. They are incapable of making a decision in the best interests of the group, not the individual. They are thoroughly disappointing.
The protagonists are Dr Samrina Khan, a scientist and her ward Stephen Greaves, a Wunderkind on the autistic spectrum whose genius might just be the key to a cure.
Carey makes an interesting choice in giving the final say over humanity’s future to Stephen. The implication is that his ability to think rationally instead of giving into emotional reasoning allows him to make tough decisions that other people, with better empathy, cannot.
It’s a plot device that works, but it would have been nice to see an autistic character included for another reason apart from to fulfil a stereotype.
It’s the sort of predictability that ‘The Girl With All the Gifts’ nimbly avoided.
But ‘The Boy on the Bridge’ isn’t without its moments of genius. What to do if the possibility of a cure involves unimaginable cruelty? Would we be strong enough to hurry the last, struggling dregs of humanity off the mortal coil, to stick to our morals? Good, unusual questions, that make it worth reading.
Hi team – a really quick note today to say I have just discovered a whole load of comments buried deep within my WordPress site going back to November! Thank goodness the switchover to .org revealed them.
So sorry if you sent me a message over the last couple of months and didn’t get a response. Going through them now to try and get back to everybody.