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Girl, Woman, Other is an unconventional novel in the sense that it doesn’t have a plot, doesn’t have a particularly linear timeline, and doesn’t have a single focal character. What it is, essentially, is a collection of twelve different, loosely linked character studies that combine to create a sort of picture of black heritage in Britain. The twelve narratives are grouped into four sets of three, each set has relatively tight connections with the others in that set, but the four sets are connected sometimes in tangential ways. Each narrative is fully and beautifully told, centring on a black woman but with a lively and diverse cast of supporting characters - sometimes generations of that character’s family, sometimes friends, sometimes employers or offspring. Each of the twelve characters is sufficiently different to maintain interest and avoid any blurring between them. They range, for example, from a lesbian theatre dramatist, to a city banker, to a Northumbrian farmer, to a narcissistic schoolteacher. Some of the characters are more likeable than others, some of them are happier than others. Taken together, though, they challenge a number of pre-conceptions: e.g. that black skin was not seen in Britain before the Windrush; that the black community is somehow homogenous; that black kids have lower expectations than their white counterparts. We see in great detail the complexity of the backgrounds of many Black Britons; the systematic stifling of ambition and opportunity that Black kids experience; and the power of familial expectations and the perils of wanting something different from life. Girl, Woman, Other does have a couple of codas. The first is an after party following the opening of a play by Amma, the star of the first narrative. This brings together some of the characters and offers an opportunity for some set-piece politicking. If the novel has a weak spot, this is it. The second coda is much more powerful, as one of the characters discovers her true heritage. The reader will already have worked this out, but the salient feature is more the character’s reaction than the actual fact of it. This remarkable collection of narratives is dauntingly long to start with, but after the first two or three stories it is very hard to put down. It is written in a compelling, immediate style (almost verse like with line spacing and lack of capital letters), and gives a very convincing insight into lives that the reader might never have previously noticed. This is an important work that gives a better understanding of our country, and an appreciation that the story is still being written. *****
I have been a fan of John Lanchester for a number of years and The Wall is every bit as good as his previous works. Ostensibly set in a future world where sea levels have risen to catastrophic levels, the Wall is in fact a wry commentary on present days right wing politics around the world and fear of immigration. Kavanagh is a young man embarking on his two years of national service patrolling the Wall - a high concrete structure built around the British coastline to keep the sea - and The Others - away. Kavanagh is a typical late teen in dreaming of completing his service and working his way up into the elite. Just so long as he can complete his national service without mishap, either being killed in action against invading parties of Others or, even worse, being put to sea to balance out an Other who might have made it across the Wall. We see, through Kavanagh’s uncritical eyes, that not only does there seem to be plenty of space and resource in Britain, but there is even a problem with low birth rates. Despite this, the drawbridge has well and truly been pulled up because “Britain is Full”. Those Others who do make it in are only allowed to work as Help (essentially servants) in a Gastarbeiter role. Despite their apparently necessary work, they will never become full citizens. As the novel develops, Kavanagh has an opportunity to travel and see different perspectives; he is able to see the adulation given to the Defenders by ordinary citizens who imagine some kind of noble selflessness among the conscripted men and women; he sees the life of comfort of the older generation who created the system; and ultimately he sees the other side of the Wall. As a novel, the Wall is pacy and readable - if perhaps the non-Kavanagh characters are a little under-developed. But as a satire, it is powerful. It exposes the economic and moral lack of justification for the current fashion for isolationism. Yes, that means Brexit, it means Stop The Boats, it means Love it or Leave, it means the current predilection with finding the enemies within and stripping them of their citizenship. The Wall is a very necessary novel for our times that will pose (and leave unanswered) many questions about loyalty, identity, patriotism and xenophobia. And it is absolutely not about climate change. *****
My Sister The Serial Killer is a lively novel set in modern, middle class Nigeria. Korede narrates the story, explaining how she has to clear up the mess left by her sister Ayoola as her relationships end in ever more gory circumstances. At first, the killings might seem plausible; Ayoola might have ended up in difficult situations that went wrong. But as the novel proceeds, the justifications become ever-more sketchy and the situations look ever-more avoidable. In between the killings, we get a picture of Korede as an over-protective, jealous sister who pretends to have reconciled herself to being the less attractive of the sisters. There are all sorts of catty, cutting comments about Ayoola and the advantages that her good looks bring her. Meanwhile, Korede is keen that we should know that anything she herself might lack in looks, she more than makes up for in guile. This is all presented against a vivid depiction of modern Lagos where education is the key to a bright future but where witchcraft bubbles along not far beneath the surface. There is a humour (much of it pretty black) running through the narrative. The key point of intrigue, though, is trying to work out whether Korede is a reliable narrator, trying to extricate Ayoola from her various misdeeds, or whether Korede is an unreliable narrator with a much more sinister gameplan. These two alternative readings seem equally valid and are never resolved... My Sister is a short, quick read that should leave most readers pretty satisfied. ****0
Lanny is a young boy, growing up in an ordinary village with ordinary people - underneath which Dead Papa Toothwort, an ancient burry man, lies listening to the inane conversation above. The novel is narrated from various viewpoints: Lanny’s Mum, Lanny’s Dad, and Pete, an elderly and accomplished artist. The narratives all centre around the relationship between the narrator and Lanny, leading the reader to imagine this some kind of reminiscence about the formative years of a now great man. And interspersed, we have the bored interjections of Dead Papa Toothwort who presents individual lines of conversations one might hear down the pub (somewhat irritatingly presented in word-art form that is mightily difficult to read on a Kindle). So, for the first half of then novel, we see an emerging friendship between Lanny and Pete as the old painter tries to help Lanny to develop his own artistic skills. Lanny’s parents are happy with this as it provides free childcare, allowing them to pursue their own interests (Lanny’s Mum is a crime writer and Lanny’s Dad works long hours in London). Then, half way through, Dead Papa Toothwort decides to roll the dice and make something interesting happen in the village. This, apparently, is something he is wont to do every century or so. And Lanny disappears. Fingers point, gossip spreads. People question Pete’s motives; they question Lanny’s Mum and Dad’s parenting techniques. Kids at school who ostracised Lanny start to get remorseful... There is something bucolic about the novel. It blends folk tradition with very current withering about house prices and commuting. It bears more than a passing resemblance to Reservoir 13/The Reservoir Tapes in that although Lanny is the glue that binds the story together, it is more of an observational drama about village life and personal interests. Lanny is stunningly well told; the lines drip from the page and the reader is left wanting more. The ending is almost satisfying. Booker longlisted. Surely a shoo in for the shortlist (or more?) *****