Agnes Day has been brought by her mother Bea to join in a social experiment - living with a self-sustaining community in the last true wilderness. Bea's partner Glen had designed the program, and as the infant Agnes's health deteriorated in the city, joining up to the program looked like a ray of hope.
The New Wilderness is an exercise in world building. The wilderness, its mountains and forests, its deserts and rivers, the coyotes and bears and deer and rabbits... The world feels real, visceral. The passage of time, the passing of the seasons is done so well. However, it's not a happy world. The program is overseen by Rangers - who enforce rules and impose fines. They require the participants to trek for months from one part of the wilderness to another, ostensibly to collect mail and fill in forms at the various Ranger posts. The participants have a Manual they must follow, with updates handed out at each check-in. The participants cannot settle, cannot build permanent structures, cannot farm, cannot leave any trace of their presence. It's like trying to turn the clock back on evolution, and not allowing any re-evolving. As a study it is scientifically flawed; it is really not much more than some Reality TV concept but without the cameras. It's hilarious until yet another one of the participants/contestants meets a tragic end.
The plot is as much a vehicle for addressing themes - team dynamics, mother/daughter relationships, ethical dilemmas, religion, loyalty, immigration, prostitution - as it is about narrative resolution. There are nods to Lord of the Flies, Zimbardo, the Hunger Games, Exodus. I even almost saw parallels to The Beach. It's very rich; not necessarily very original but it does an excellent job in bringing the ideas together. No resolutions, though. Just the ideas.
If there's an area that could have been stronger it would be the characterisation. Too often, the characters were filling roles/positions rather than having their own complex and conflicting values. Agnes was a bit everyman; Glen was too perfect; Carl was too evil; Bea was too selfish; everyone else felt like extras. Some nuances did come through right at the end, but it seemed to be more in the form of explaining past actions rather than revealing true characterisation.
Overall, though, this was a novel brimming with ideas, with a great sense of place, and a good dose of sinister foreboding. I loved it.
We follow Agnes as she ages from a young child to an almost-adult.
Antara is a middle class Indian woman. Her husband, Dilip, is an American Indian (no, not one of those) who was sent by his company to Pune despite hardly speaking a word of Hindi and breaking his rotis with two hands. What had been a very happy, westernised relationship is now transformed by the arrival of Antara's senile mother and the imminent arrival of a baby. Antara is less than thrilled by her change in circumstances as she explains to readers in sassy, sarcastic tones.
Antara loathes her mother, but she is honour bound to support her. The mother - Tara to her daughter's Un-tara - seems to have made curious decisions in the past. Antara was sent to a strict school run by nuns. Tara separated from her wealthy husband and became a beggar outside the Club - that haven of the middle classes. Tara joined the Ashram and wore white, despite not being in mourning. Antara resents this, and resents the intrusion Tara is making on her now comfortable life as a conceptual artist.
The real strength of the novel is Antara's voice. She is self-entitled, whining, rude, ungrateful and hilarious. She may well have cause for complaint, but her petulance in putting that view across gives the reader a strange sense of schadenfreude. The legitimacy of her complaints is further undermined as the reader gradually discovers the appalling way she has behaved as an adult. There are vignette like chapters - almost like Slumdog Millionaire - with each one offering a different facet of life in India, spanning the social classes. There are real, compassionate characters in the novel. But always, there is Antara's voice.
Burnt Sugar is not a long novel and it is tempting to start all over again to extract every drop of brilliance from this novel that starts so sweetly and becomes so bitter.
How Much of These Hills Is Gold is a technically accomplished novel but I found it somewhat clinical and cold.
Set in the Californian goldrush, the novel follows the fortunes of a Chinese migrant family. Initially, the two young girls. Lucy and Sam, are trying to find a suitable place to bury their father Ba. Ba seems to have been a cruel father led by drink and aggression. Other sections follow, one offering Ba's explanation of what he was trying to achieve; there's Ma's story of first meeting Ba, and there is Lucy in a goldrush town some years after burying Ba.
Each section is packaged into chunks with symbolic names - the significant of which was lost on me - and there was a recurring theme of a tiger. The writing is good, but there is simply no empathy. Sure, there are some universal themes - the migrant experience, racism, possible trans-sexuality, loyalty, honour - but I'm not sure I ever believed the characters were real. It felt like fine clothes hung on tailor's dummies.
There is magical realism too with Ba supposedly writing to the girls from beyond the grave.
Perhaps I was distracted by the disintegration of the world around me (Covid-19 lockdown) which made this a really long slog of a book, but I suspect that even in normal times this would have been quite a hard book to pick up.
Real Life is a fabulously well crafted capture of a moment in the life of Wallace, a black, gay postgrad working in a biochemistry department of a Midwestern university (presumably Madison-Wisconsin). Wallace hails from Alabama - not desperately poor, but very much an outsider whose sexuality did not sit well with his race in the deep south. He hopes that he might fit in Madison, working in a program that has never taken a black student before.
The opening chapter, a party on the lakeside pier, threatens to become The Great Gatsby as Wallace sits in admiration of the sophisticated white students, comfortable in their sexuality and their high status in an equal society. Subsequent chapters, though, reveal that Wallace has a much more ambivalent relationship with this world of privilege. He loves the bodies, make no mistake, but he looks for - and correctly perceives - little slights and signs that he is not completely accepted in this world. Even his friends and closest associates seem to feel that he should be grateful for what he has; that when judged by the yardstick of "his people", he is doing well to have the opportunity of a doctorate and a good job. And those who are less close seem to be more overt in their discrimination, inevitably siding with others as disputes are resolved. This is not a racism founded on verbal abuse and violence, but on small assumptions and prejudices that affect small, transactional matters that add up to a larger whole.
Interestingly, though, Wallace seems to encounter no difficulty in Madison for his homosexuality. How enlightened everyone is.
In contrast, though, Wallace's white lover Miller goes to great lengths to assert his own lack of homosexuality - even as he lies in bed with Wallace.
There are scenes of violence, hidden tensions, infidelity. Secrets are betrayed, feuds fought, possibilities explored. There are ambiguities of bereavement when estranged parents die. This is a novel about young people trying to work out where they fit into the world, running up against the boundaries to see whether they push back. Much of their behaviour is bad, reprehensible. But the world that Brandon Taylor evokes feels real and nuanced. For the most part the tensions remain as undercurrents.
It is also commendable that, for a novel with so many issues, they are used sparingly in support of exploring Wallace's "real life" experiences. He is not a black activist. He is not a sexual warrior. He works diligently and engages with different circles of friends and acquaintances. One of the most memorable scenes finds Wallace engaging with Dana, a highly regarded but inept colleague. And in keeping with the low key, there's no riotous crescendo or dramatic moment of enlightenment.
The strength of Real Life is the humanity, warmth and credibility of the world that is created. In particular, Miller is a comical character: a big doofus with a terrible sense of timing - like a labrador puppy that has not quite grown into a large body. The encounters, the rivalries and jealousies feel real and are described with a forensic precision. Every word, every expression feels right.
This is an accomplished work.
The current lockdown was an ideal opportunity for me to read this very long novel. I had read the first two of the trilogy (Wolf Hall etc) and I knew how good the writing was.
Even when you know the inevitable ending you are so engaged with Thomas Cromwell's multifaceted life. His occasional reminiscences of his young life in Putney and the bad treatment by his thug of a father are sometimes more vivid than the complexities of religion and politics in that era but that is inevitable. It is not a soap opera that Hilary Mantel has written.