Book review

Down and Out in Paris and London was Orwell’s first full-length book. It is written in the form of a memoir, describing the time Orwell spent living on or near the breadline in London and Paris. I’ve not been able to ascertain whether this pairing of the two capital cities was a deliberate nod towards Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities, or whether the symmetry is a simple consequence of Orwell’s time spent in both capitals. The book is also about two cities in another sense – that of the prosperous middle and upper classes and that of the working and underclass. So the symmetry works really well, even if it was accidental!

The first part of the book is Orwell’s account of his time working in hotel and restaurant kitchens in Paris. This was the original core of the book, to which the second, London-based half was later added. It covers a period of around ten weeks. You wouldn’t know it from this account, but Orwell lived in Paris for approximately two years, from the time he quit his job in the Imperial police force in Burma. Why Paris? By this point in his life Orwell was completely committed to being a full-time writer, and Paris had the attraction of a) being a cheap place to live, compared to London, and b) the home of a thriving artistic community, including a large Russian émigré community. Basically it was a lot more exciting than London.

At present I do not feel that I have seen more than the fringe of poverty. Still, I can point to one or two things I have definitely learned by being hard up. I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny, nor be surprised if men out of work lack energy, nor subscribe to the Salvation Army, nor pawn my clothes, nor refuse a handbill, nor enjoy a meal at a smart restaurant. That is a beginning.

I can probably guess how Orwell spent most of his time in Paris, but in March 1929 he had most of his money stolen, forcing him into seeking a job. He had the option of reaching out to family or friends – or anyone else in the English community in Paris, (none of whom are even mentioned – taken at face value this book suggests that Orwell was the only Englishman in Paris in the 1920s!) but instead he took a job as a dishwasher in a very posh hotel and then latterly in a small bistro. His experiences in these establishments and his thoughts on the social structures that underpin them form the bulk of the first half of the book, and for some time were the only part of the book – it wasn’t until after several rejections by publishers that Orwell had the idea of welding his English down and out experiences to the text, immeasurably strengthening the overall structure.

Orwell left Paris in December 1929 and returned to his parents’ house in Suffolk. While waiting for a job as a private tutor to begin he went ‘tramping’, not for the first time (as the book implies). That is to say he put on some dirty clothes, left most if not all of his money behind, and set off on the road to live among the down and out. His experiences in ‘spikes’ are vividly recorded. Spikes were temporary hostels for the homeless, often constructed as part of the workhouses which still existed in pre-war England. In 1905 a Royal Commission had recommended that specialised institutions for different classes of the poor and homeless be established, and spikes, where you were only allowed to stay one day per month, were a result. The rules of the spikes were punitive and humiliating, and Orwell captures the misery of them perfectly.

The history of the publication of the book is quite interesting. Following rejections from several publishers Orwell effectively abandoned the typescript at the home of a family friend. Proving the adage that it’s not what you know, but who, this friend showed the text to a literary agent, who in turn offered it to Gollancz, who offered to publish it subject to the excision of some curse words and a few other changes to make them less likely to be sued. The title went through various iterations – Confessions of a Down and Outer, Confessions of a DishwasherThe Lady Poverty, In Praise of Poverty, only settling on Down and Out in Paris and London at the last. This was the first time Orwell used his pseudonym, again having toyed with various alternatives. It seems the pseudonym was used to save his respectable family any potential embarrassment given the slightly sordid subject matter.

It did not occur to me when I first read Down and Out to question how accurate it was. Perhaps I more sceptical nowadays – certainly I wonder to what extent Orwell embroidered his account? He made several differing comments on this question, leaving the issue unclear. I think the honest truth is that he omitted some detail and reordered others, but the essential truth of the memoir is unavoidable – there’s nothing here that is over the top, unbelievable or cause for any doubt. The events of the book are almost bland in their plainness. But somehow this fairly uneventful narrative has had an impact far beyond the sum of its parts. Perhaps this is because we know it is the first major work by an author who was going to go on to write in a few short years 1984, Animal Farm and so much more. You can quite easily see many of the essential principles of Orwell’s writing technique in Down and Out – the lack of over-ornamentation, use of plain English, and a willingness to say the unsayable (the f-bomb is dropped casually in a later chapter about the language of the streets.)

I’ve mentioned this in previous reviews of some of Orwell’s books, but his views on Jewish and gay people haven’t aged well. He is casually anti-Semitic in the way he writes about Jewish people, and expresses similarly dismissive attitudes towards gay people. There are worse examples elsewhere in his journalism, letters and diaries, but I wouldn’t want to dismiss the examples that appear despite this.

Orwell has been in the UK media a lot in recent days because of the dispute between one of the BBC’s presenters and the organisation itself on the question of freedom of speech. Lots of commentators have pointed out the irony of the BBC trying to censor Gary Lineker for his comments on Government immigration policy all the while ignoring this quote from Orwell which is on the wall of its main entrance:

Well said, as always. Apparently the quote comes from a draft preface to Animal farm which was never used. Just one more irony to go alongside the fact that at the time he worked at the BBC in the early 1940’s, Orwell was effectively a propogandist for the UK Government!

Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell, 1933

Book review

The opening sentence to chapter eight of this book explains that ‘the road from Mandalay to Wigan is a long one and the reasons for taking it are not immediately clear. ‘

This would have been a wonderful introduction to The Road to Wigan Pier. Orwell’s decision to go to Burma for a post in the Indian Imperial Police straight from Eton (rather than taking the road more often travelled to university) was obviously a turning point in his life. The next stage of his personal odyssey, from Burma to Wigan in early 1936, would have made a fascinating story, and it is one he obviously wants to tell. He can’t completely remove himself from the narrative –

I was born into what you might describe as the lower-upper-middle class. The upper-middle class, which had its heyday in the eighties and nineties, with Kipling as its poet laureate, was a sort of mound of wreckage left behind when the tide of Victorian prosperity receded

I am a degenerate modern semi-intellectual who would die if I did not get my early morning cup of tea and my New Statesman every Friday”

and he regularly mentions how tall he is in comparison with the people of northern England. But we only get intermittent glimpses of this story. Orwell had been commissioned by the newly established Left Book Club to write about the living conditions of the unemployed in the north of England and from time to time he makes a genuine effort to stick to this brief. So there is a tension throughout the book – at points it is about the subject he was supposed to be writing about and at others autobiographical elements intrude.

I have to wonder whether Orwell delivered what he had been commissioned to write? Certainly he found what he expected to find – widespread poverty, appalling housing conditions, and little sign of organisation within the working class to improve things. A benevolent middle class intervention to help the struggling poor was Orwell’s inevitable diagnosis. But so much of the text is not on the subject Orwell was supposed to be writing about – the standards of living of the unemployed in the North. He wanders off topic for large sections of the book, and then in the second section abandons it altogether.

The opening chapter in part one describes life in a cheap boarding house. We are not told where this house is nor why Orwell is staying there (the book has no real introduction at all, other than the contentious opening by Victor Gollancz, the commissioning editor and promoter of the Left Book Club, which argues with several of Orwell’s conclusions). An un-emptied chamber pot left in the boarding house’s dining room causes Orwell to quit his shared room and get on a train to the North. This chapter includes the famous description of a view from the train:

The train bore me away, through the monstrous scenery of slag-heaps, chimneys, piled scrap-iron, foul canals, paths of cindery mud criss-crossed by the prints of clogs. This was March, but the weather had been horribly cold and everywhere there were mounds of blackened snow. As we moved slowly through the outskirts of the town we passed row after row of little grey slum houses running at right angles to the-embankment. At the back of one of the houses a young woman was kneeling on the stones, poking a stick up the leaden waste-pipe which ran from the sink inside and which I suppose was blocked. I had time to see everything about her – her sacking apron, her clumsy clogs, her arms reddened by the cold. She looked up as the train passed, and I was almost near enough to catch her eye. She had a round pale face, the usual exhausted face of the slum girl who is twenty-five and looks forty, thanks to miscarriages and drudgery; and it wore, for the second in which I saw it, the most desolate, hopeless expression I have ever-seen. It struck me then that we are mistaken when we say that’ It isn’t the same for them as it would be for us,’ and that people bred in the slums can imagine nothing but the slums. For what I saw in her face was not the ignorant suffering of an animal. She knew well enough what was happening to her – understood as well as I did how dreadful a destiny it was to be kneeling there in the bitter cold, on the slimy stones of a slum backyard, poking a stick up a foul drain-pipe.

You will note that in this paragraph Orwell talks about ‘we’ – himself and the implied reader, the Left Book Club subscriber who has someone else to unblock their drains. He does this elsewhere in the text, assuming that his reader will be middle class and Southern like himself, viewing the industrial northern working class as an alien race that needs to be introduced and explained by Orwell, the traveller into a strange land. The second chapter, later printed as a standalone essay in Inside the Whale, describes the lives of miners and their working conditions down a coal mine. This chapter vividly captures the horrors of mine working. I don’t want to over-emphasise this element of the text but it is impossible to avoid the homo-eroticism of Orwell’s descriptions of the miners:

“They really do look like iron hammered iron statues–under the smooth coat of coal dust which clings to them from head to foot. It is only when you see miners down the mine and naked that you realize what splendid men, they are. Most of them are small (big men are at a disadvantage in that job) but nearly all of them have the most noble bodies; wide shoulders tapering to slender supple waists, and small pronounced buttocks and sinewy thighs, with not an ounce of waste flesh anywhere. In the hotter mines they wear only a pair of thin drawers, clogs and knee-pads; in the hottest mines of all, only the clogs and knee-pads.”

(He later writes in similar terms about the attractiveness of Burmese men compared to Englishmen, in particular himself). The following chapters describe the housing and economic position of the average miner. Orwell agonises over the housing shortage in the north without being able to identify the obvious solution of a mass state sponsored house building programme. Eventually in chapter 5 he reaches the issue of unemployment, but this is a cold statistical analysis rather than a personal record of life without paid work. Orwell makes some good points about how hard to is to eat well or sensibly on poverty income levels – an issue that remains pertinent to this day.

The second part of the book is almost entirely comment, sometimes wandering quite some distance from the original point of the commission. He struggles to answer the question of why socialism has not been embraced by the working class in the UK, given the self evident argument that it would address all the problems outlined in the first section of the text. Orwell is honest about his social origins, his class prejudices and his efforts to overcome them. He is quite dismissive of socialists in the UK, finding them largely detached from the working classes whose lives they are planning to improve. This is largely polemic, based upon the stark contrast between his experiences as an intellectual in London and the South East and his weeks in the North. These chapters are characterised by muddled logic, prejudice and contradiction. Often you get the impression Orwell is more interested in crafting a quotable phrase than developing a line of argument. Certainly he is never afraid of hyperbole:

“Looking back upon that period (post-war) I seem to have spent half the time in denouncing the capitalist system and the other half in raging over the insolence of bus conductors”;


There is probably no-one capable of thinking and feeling who has not occasionally looked at a gas-pipe chair and reflected that the machine is the enemy of life.”

He argues that mechanisation is effectively synonymous with socialism, as if that is simply self-evident rather than something contentious that he has to demonstrate (“This, then, is the case against the machine. Whether is is sound or unsound case hardly matters“) then goes on to bemoan at significant length the damage machines have done to the quality of life in the UK and to his life in particular.

“As you can see by looking at any greengrocer’s shop, what the majority of English people mean by an apple is a lump of highly-coloured cotton wool from America or Australia; they will devour these things, apparently with pleasure, and let the English apples rot under the trees. It is the shiny, standardized, machine-made look of the American apple that appeals to them; the superior taste of the English apple is something they simply do not notice. Or look at the factory-made, foil-wrapped cheese and ’blended’ butter in any grocer’s; look at the hideous rows of tins which usurp more and more of the space in any food-shop, even a dairy; look at a sixpenny Swiss roll or a twopenny ice-cream; look at the filthy chemical by-product that people will pour down their throats under the name of beer. Wherever you look you will see some slick machine-made article triumphing over the old-fashioned article that still tastes of something other than sawdust.

Coming up for Air is tainted by the same pervading sense of nostalgia, a dim awareness that things were better when Orwell was a young man. It was this strand of conservatism (even when he was trying to develop an argument for socialism) that led him to being quoted approvingly by John Major. Orwell can recognise that industrialisation and mechanisation have brought benefits in terms of living standards and improvements to the world of work. But his apples have a machine-made look, and it is our fault anyway for preferring American apples to the innately superior English varieties. We’ve all heard similar complaints from old people (Orwell was only in his thirties at this point, but sounds a lot older) about how things were better in the old days, and the claim rings as hollow today as it did then.

And then we come to the difficult passages where Orwell makes the argument that working class people smell. Quite why he felt the need to be so disrespectful to the people who had welcomed him into their homes, shared their food and shown him every hospitality, is beyond me. He was never afraid of being controversial, sometimes actively seeking out controversy, and I am sure he genuinely believed this to be the case, but he could have chosen to point out any number of other aspects of poverty-line daily life – badly made clothes, rotten teeth, untreated medical ailments, shoes with no soles, etc. Instead, as always it seems for Orwell, it is the ‘scent narrative’ (as John Sutherland puts it in his book on this very specific topic, Orwell’s Nose, A Pathological Biography)

The real secret of class distinctions in the West–the real reason why a European of bourgeois upbringing, even when he calls himself a Communist, cannot without a hard effort think of a working man as his equal. It is summed up in four frightful words which people nowadays are chary of uttering, but which were bandied about quite freely in my childhood. The words were: The lower classes smell. That was what we were taught–the lower classes smell. And here, obviously, you are at an impassable barrier. For no feeling of like or dislike is quite so fundamental as a physical feeling.

He tells himself that it is wrong to feel this way, but he can’t ever fully overcome this instinctual sense of repugnance at the working classes.

Class prejudice is accompanied by casual homophobia, anti-Semitism and other prejudices that shouldn’t be brushed away too casually:

It would help enormously if the smell (smell again!) of crankishness which still clings to the Socialist movement could be dispelled. If only the sandals and the pistachio-coloured shorts could be put in a pile and burnt, and every vegetarian, teetotaller and creeping Jesus sent home to Welwyn Garden City to do his yoga exercises”.

“In order that Hitler may march the goose-step, that the Pope may denounce Bolshevism, that the cricket crowds may assemble at lord’s, that the Nancy poets may scratch one another’s backs, coal has got to be forthcoming.

We have reached a stage when the very word ’Socialism’ calls up, on the one hand, a picture of aeroplanes, tractors, and huge glittering factories of glass and concrete; on the other, a picture of vegetarians with wilting beards, of Bolshevik commissars (half gangster, half gramophone), of earnest ladies in sandals, shock-headed Marxists chewing polysyllables, escaped Quakers, birth-control fanatics, and Labour Party backstairscrawlers.

While The Road to Wigan Pier doesn’t cover in any detail the subject it was commissioned to address and exposes a lot of Orwell’s prejudices, at the same time it is an important text. I originally read it over forty years ago, and while books I read last year have already started to fade from my memory, Wigan Pier still resonates, however wrong-headed and muddled it may be. This is in part because of Orwell’s legendary uncomplicated prose, in part because even when completely wrong he is always interesting, and mostly because no-one wrote about the state of pre-war Britain in the way he did. It ends with a slightly forced rallying call for class solidarity between the proletariat and the white collared middle classes and with an awful joke: “We have nothing to lose but our aitches“.

The Road to Wigan Pier, by George Orwell, 1937

Book review

Parable of the Talents is a strange combination of disparate elements that never quite come together. There’s the standard economic collapse/breakdown in social order dystopia theme, which in many ways is the core of the novel. This ground was quite well covered in the first novel in the series, Parable of the Sower. The future is bleak, particularly for the poor, for women and people of colour. More than bleak, it’s nightmarish. There’s also an extended commentary – a parable if you will – on religious extremism in the USA. Despite the violence and anarchy America is still able to hold a presidential election, which sees the arrival of the demi-Trump, President Jarret. The temptation to draw comparisons between any fictional ‘bad’ President and Trump is hard to resist – Sinclair Lewis’s It Cant Happen Here for example, or Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, but here the similarities are overwhelming, even down to the choice of slogan, Make America Great Again. Did Trump or his followers actually read this novel and think ‘that looks great, let’s do that!’? The playbook they use is also very similar – use extremist elements as the stormtroopers of the movement, easy to disown if things go wrong, but pretty useful if some heads need smashing. And the appeal to the working man looks the same: “Even some of the less religious ones support him. They say the country needs a strong hand to bring back order, good jobs, honest cops and free schools’.

The science fiction element of the novel – Butler is best known as a sci-fi writer – is tacked on uncomfortably to the main narrative, and never really integrated, despite the author’s best efforts to bring the elements together. This is a thankless task, because when society is breaking down probably the last thing people are interested in is an attempt to colonise space.

Parable of the Talents is principally narrated by Lauren Oya Olamina, who we met in Parable of the Sower. Each chapter is prefaced by comments written much later by her daughter Larkin, which reveal much of the eventual outcome of Lauren’s story and serve to remove some of the tension from the narrative. Lauren’s husband Bankole also narrates briefly. The novel ostensibly consists of present tense diary entries written by Lauren and recovered (somehow) many years later, on which Larkin provides commentary. When the novel opens five years have passed since the founding of Acorn, the community set up to provide shelter for the group Lauren was travelling with. Acorn has become an Earthseed community, which is based on the non-theistic ideas developed in the previous novel, that God is Change and that humanity’s destiny is to live on other planets. These are dangerous ideas when Christian fundamentalist is on the rise in the form of “Christian America” led by President Andrew Steele Jarret. Slavery has been reintroduced with “shock collars” being used to control the enslaved. 

When Acorn was first established the core members of the group expressed doubt that it would survive in such harsh times. Their doubts are proven correct when the community is attacked by Jarrett’s ‘Crusaders’ and turned into a prison, and the community’s children are taken away for adoption in ‘good’ Christian families. The parallels between this society and the slavery of eighteenth and nineteenth century America is unavoidable. Read as an account of the horrors of slavery with all manner of degradation forced upon the slaves is the most difficult part of the novel, and while we know from Larkin’s comments that Lauren and her group eventually escape their enslavement, there is no conventional happy ending on the horizon.

Is the novel a parable, and if so of what? I find that difficult to answer. The parable of the talents, in which servants are given money (talents) by their master, and achieve very different things with what they are given, is an interesting companion story to the parable of the sower. The moral of the (biblical) story is I believe that we are given the same opportunities in life, and it is up to us to make the most of them. Which is palpably not what happens in this novel, where people are oppressed and suffer despite their very best efforts to carve safe spaces out for themselves. So I found the ‘message’ if there is one, confusing.

On the other hand it is obviously a lot clearer that Butler had little good to say about fundamentalist Christianity, which is a source of evil in the novel. Lauren’s continuing attempts to found her own religion, Earthseed, is ostensibly the novel’s most positive thread, but I found the verses used to introduce Earthseed theology at the opening of each chapter tedious and intrusive. Are we supposed to identify with Lauren’s ideas? Without doubt she suffers for them, but there is another way of looking at the novel, a perspective hinted at by Lauren’s brother Marc, who joins Jarret’s Christian America church. It could be argued that Lauren is as much a monster as Jarrett. She is intolerant of dissent and is entirely comfortable with killing her guards when the opportunity presents itself. All of them. One has his throat bitten out. She pursues her vision of Earthseed with the same fervour as Jarrett proselytises fundamentalist Christianity. It’s not a competition to be the more terrible, and Lauren suffers through most of the novel, but it’s also not as simple as good versus evil. Giving Marc chapters to narrate from a totally different perspective helps emphasise this point.

The novel closes on a positive note, with society returned to normal, Earthseed flourishing, and the first tentative steps being made towards fulfilling mankind’s destiny of interstellar travel. How the world went from barbarism to advanced technology in a few decades isn’t the most convincing aspect of the novel, but it does set up a sequel, which Butler was sadly never to write.

This is not a novel for the younger reader. I have a pretty strong stomach for scenes of violence etc, but even I found points where I had to remind myself that it was only a book and that the extreme violence being inflicted upon the characters wasn’t real. There’s so much suffering inflicted on women and children, relentlessly with no promise of escape or redemption. If you can get through that, and the dull poetry about Earthseed, there is still plenty to be derived from this very different novel.

Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler, 1998

Book review

I don’t enjoy writing negative reviews, I really don’t, and sometimes it’s better to just not review a book that to take it apart. But at the same time I don’t want to self censor. So here goes: The Heart Goes Last is dreadful. It’s a hot mess. I can’t imagine if it had been written by anyone less famous than Atwood it would have been considered for a second by any publisher. That’s not to say it doesn’t have any redeeming features, but you will struggle to find them. It doesn’t make Atwood any less of a writer (well it does a bit) – The Handmaid’s Tale will always be a great book – but The Heart Goes Last is almost from a different author, it’s so casually, carelessly bad.

So what’s wrong with it? It opens promisingly enough. The setting is a very similar world to that described in Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, the USA of the near future in which the economy has collapsed and social order is breaking down. (Towards the end of the novel this economic collapse is forgotten and we are back to a very recognisable consumer economy. By then the idea of disorder has done its job). Charmaine and Stan are a young under-employed couple living in their car, surviving on Charmaine’s wage and tips from her bar job. Both have been recently lost better paying jobs, and both will eventually find their way back to their previous employers in very different circumstances. They are under threat from the dangerous criminal elements that seem to roam unchecked in the streets. Stan’s brother, Conor, is a small-time criminal who helps him out from time to time. It’s clear that Stan and Charmaine’s way of life won’t last for long – they are getting desperate.

One day Charmaine sees an advertisement for Conscilience, a community in which jobs and housing are available. What’s the catch? Something very similar happens in Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, where a family trades their home in their vulnerable walled community for an apartment in a company run town. Butler doesn’t follow this thread of her story through (in the original novel at least – I have yet to read the sequel) but this very similar community becomes the focus for Atwood’s story. In Conscilience (motto – “Do Time Now, Buy Time for Our Future”) everyone spends one month working in the community and alternate months in prison. Yes, I know, that makes no sense at all. Being in prison seems virtually the same as being outside it – in both cases they can’t leave the overall community – and the economic model underpinning the enterprise just doesn’t add up. Of course I understand this is not to be read literally – this is a parable about Americans trading their freedom for economic security, and at the same time a satire on the for-profit prison system in the USA – but even parables need to make some kind of sense don’t they? Inside Conscilience Charmaine and Stan have mundane jobs on their ‘freedom’ months and when they are in prison Stan looks after the chicken farm, and Charmaine dispenses lethal injections to prisoners who have proven troublesome. That’s just one of Conscilience’s dark secrets – it practices widespread murder of the difficult and economically inefficient. The management of the community, a company called Positron, is a Big-Brother-like elite using surveillance cameras across the whole community to monitor the inmates. Other sinister secrets are obviously lurking behind the fake smiles of Positron employees. As someone observes “Once you’ve got a controlled population with a wall around it and no oversight, you can do anything you want.” The wholesale murder of prisoners is not something they are particularly keen on getting out, but it is suggested that Positron has stumbled across a new social order for the USA which is better than all the other alternatives, and that a few dead prisoners here and there might be a price worth paying.

It seemed to me as if Atwood lost interest in the novel at around this point. Having established the pieces on the board she wasn’t sure what to do with them. All the major satirical points have been made. So she took the strange decision to write the rest of the novel as a ‘madcap’ sex comedy (and whose heart doesn’t drop at those words?) Charmaine begins a passionate, sordid and erotically adventurous affair with the husband of the couple who live in their apartment on alternate months. When this relationship is discovered Stan is forced to re-enact the affair – literally and physically, but for reasons that are never really made clear – with the alternate wife, sordid sex on video and all. The wife turns out to be a disaffected senior figure within Positron who is working to expose the company’s excesses and crimes, but can’t simply email the dossier of incriminating data to a journalist because – well, just because – so has to come up with an elaborate scheme to smuggle Stan out of Conscilience with a memory stick hidden in his belt. This overly elaborate scheme, which dominates the latter part of the novel, involves sex robots, Elvis and Marilyn impersonators, and a clumsy reference to the Blue Man Group. There’s also a sub-plot involving pioneering surgery which causes the recipient to fall in love with the first person they see when they come around from the anaesthetic, which I assume is a commentary on free-will but by this point I had long lost interest.

You will either read this element of the novel – the sex comedy – as either a Swiftian romp (as one extremely generous reviewer described it) or find it pretty unbearable. Whatever your thoughts on these chaotic chapters, the clash in tone with the realism of the first half of the novel is jarring. There are lots of other problems with this novel. The subject of paedophilia sex-bots is raised and quickly dropped. At one point it is hinted that Positron is planning to sell the blood of babies. Again, mentioned then quickly dropped. The casual homophobia – the Elvis impersonators all pretend to be gay to avoid having to sleep with their escorts when working in this area – was ugly. All of these elements shouldn’t have survived a careful editing of the novel, but I am not sure what would have been left.

Goodreads is normally relentlessly positive about the novels reviewed on the site – I think this is because the people who take the trouble to write reviews are usually ones who have enjoyed the books. But the Goodreads scores for The Heart Goes Last are awful – 23k three star reviews compared to a generous 8k five star.

All authors have misfires, but this one should have stayed in the draft folder.

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood, 2015

Book review

The Mysterious Case of the Alperton Angels is Hallett’s third (substantial) novel to be published in the last two years, following 2021’s The Appeal, and 2022’s The Twyford Code. A fourth novel is already in the works. She is a busy writer!

The distinctive feature of all three novels is their format – they are modern versions of epistolary novels in which the narrative is told not by a narrator but through texts, WhatsApp messages, diary notes and in the case of Alperton a host of other primary sources, including extracts from a screenplay and two novels. This can make the narrative quite fragmented – there is no guiding consciousness to explain what is going on, the reader has to do a lot more of the work – but it is refreshingly different, and allows multiple voices and perspectives to be heard, as well as telling the story in lots of different ways. Together they tell the contemporary story of the eponymous Alperton Angels, a millennial cult that ended in a bloodbath eighteen years earlier. A baby that survived the killings is due to come of age, and Amanda Bailey, a crime writer, is commissioned to write a book about the case. The book is part of a crime series re-examining previous murders, and there are lots of references to real-life cases (Fred West etc). Her editor impresses on her that the key to making the book a success is finding and interviewing the rescued baby. And so it begins.

It quickly becomes apparent that there is more to the ‘mysterious case’ than originally appears. Some basic information about the three – or is it four? – deaths is missing. What appears to be a very well known and researched case melts away on closer examination, and none of the key witnesses can be found or are willing to talk. Alarmingly people Amanda tries to interview start to die off in unexplained circumstances. A fellow crime writer, Oliver Menzies, is also working on the story, and when their investigations overlap their publishers suggest they work together, trying to find fresh perspectives on the case. The novel’s approach to narration means information is slowly eked out and there’s limited reflection by the characters. Amanda’s transcription assistant, Ellie, provides a useful sounding board for her to bounce ideas off, but her relationship with Oliver is constrained by more than professional competitiveness – they have a history dating back to when they first entered the profession.

I had some reservations about Hallett’s earlier novels – yes, they were satisfyingly easy reads in which the pages kept turning quite briskly, but the mystery elements of the stories simply weren’t strong enough. The outcome of the various puzzles often depended on people behaving irrationally and sometimes just didn’t add up. With this novel at first it looked as if using a crime where irrational behaviour was a fundamental part of the case might have resolved some of these issues – if ever a participant did something unbelievable or bizarre it could be written off as symptomatic of the power of the cult. And Amanda seems very professional in her approach to her investigation – she has a sensible and very systematic working pattern which is set out clearly for the reader. She also has extensive contacts in the crime world (police and social services in particular) and is prepared to bend a few rules in the interests of getting the story. Oliver on the other hand is less impressive and acts as a drag on the investigation.

But suspension of disbelief can only get you so far. And so will being spoiler-free. So from this point in this review expect spoilers and stop reading if you haven’t yet read The Mysterious Case and intend to do so.

Firstly, I wasn’t convinced at all that Oliver would become a believer in the arrival on earth of the antichrist on the basis of a fifteen minute interview with the charismatic cult-leader, who we are told is just a common everyday kidnapper. Amanda impersonates a friendly spiritual adviser who leads Oliver further down the path but it’s still a long way before you decide to kill a minor royal on the off-chance they are the daughter of Satan. This was just one of many comically implausible features of the plot. Amanda’s decision to rush down to try and stop him (rather than say just phoning the police) made no sense at all. And while her investigation is presented as being very thorough there are some sources she ignores – the autopsies of the bodies or the transcripts of the trial proceedings for example, where the number of victims would be easily resolved and original witness evidence would be recorded. We are also invited to believe that not only would the police beat to death a suspect who had been seen walking through the front door of the local police station that evening, but they would then opportunistically add the body to the cult suicide crime scene (which incidentally wasn’t a cult crime scene at all, but the assassination of some underworld kidnappers) as a convenient way of disposing of it. That just makes no sense whatsoever – a beaten body looks very different from someone shot and ritualistically disfigured. And if that wasn’t unbelievable enough we are invited to believe that this was all witnessed by an American crime writer, over in the UK for research, who is allowed to watch the body being dumped and arranged at the crime scene and then just waved on his way back to the USA, never to mention what he saw again, despite it being the kind of thing a crime writer might actually, you know, write about. This is all just plain nonsense. Crime novels can have some improbabilities, granted, the untraceable poisons and so on, but this was way too much to ask.

Which is so disappointing, because the central idea here – revisiting a historic crime investigation, finding a new perspective and working out what has happened to the survivors – is great. And there have been suicide cults in the recent past that were led by charismatic charlatans. So the premise could have worked, and the narrative structure could have papered over some of the cracks and improbabilities. But never to this extent, at least not for me. Such a waste.

The Mysterious Case of the Alperton Angels, Janice Hallett, 2023

Book review

(Apologies – this is not a review.)

£915,334.89. That’s how much is being asked for for a first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone on the book selling website ABE at the moment. Another signed copy is being offered for £719,169.88. These are asking prices of course and the actual prices paid are likely to be less, but you take the point – early editions of Potter are worth a lot of money! There’s a really handy check list of things to look for in first editions here. I almost always casually check editions of Philosopher’s Stone in second-hand book shops on the million in one chance of finding one of the 500 first editions (300 of which went to schools) – they must be out there somewhere! The thing I always look for first is on the back cover, which on early editions features this rather curious looking fellow. There’s an interesting story about this drawing told by the original illustrator, Thomas Taylor:

“when I was commissioned to produce the cover art for a debut middle grade novel by an unknown author called J. K. Rowling — and yes, I did read it — I was asked to provide “a wizard to decorate the back cover”. So I did. The books are full of magical characters and sorcerers, so it wasn’t difficult to conjure up one of my own. It never even crossed my mind to depict Dumbledore….The publishers found themselves repeatedly called on to explain why the wizard on the back didn’t

correspond to the description of Dumbledore in the book. It was clear what readers wanted and expected, so Bloomsbury contacted me for a portrait of the famous head of Hogwarts, and the original wizard disappeared in a puff of smoke. So that’s the answer. The first wizard wasn’t anyone in particular. Except… …except he was, actually. He was based on none other than my own wonderful, magical father. Yes, my somewhat eccentric, embroidered skullcap-wearing dad is the wizard on the back of Harry Potter.

This illustration is a good sign that you have found an early edition. So when I came across a hardback edition of Philosopher’s Stone with this chap on the back at the reasonable price of £1.50 I was interested. It had an intact dust jacket as well, which sometimes helps. It was a fifth printing of the 1998 Ted Smart edition, after the novel had won the 1997 Smarties Gold Award. People are asking thousands for this edition on eBay, and a first printing is being offered for over £2000 on so you never know – but there are others more realistically priced in the tens of pounds. £1.50 was a good value and I always wanted to own an edition with this pre-Dumbledore illustration, so I’m pretty happy. What true book-lover doesn’t enjoy a good second-hand bookshop find?

Collecting Harry Potter

Book review

The New York Times called Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead ‘a close retelling of Charles Dickens’s “David Copperfield,”’, concluding that this was ‘either a baffling choice or an ingenious manoeuvre’. That’s the question I am struggling with: why use Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield as the outline structure for your novel? Was this in some undefined way a form of ‘cheating’, a tribute to Dickens, or simply a case of an author using the well-established technique of borrowing a structure to provided an outline for the events of the novel?

First I need to overcome the vague sense of unease that using someone else’s plot outline is against the ‘rules’ of novel writing. Of course there are no such rules, and while plagiarism is something else entirely, this is nowhere near that level of imitation. Authors have used the plots from other authors from the year dot – Shakespeare’s plots are virtually all borrowed from earlier (or even contemporaneous) texts, and the practice continues to the present day, Ian McEwan’s Nutshell being a very successful adaptation of Hamlet for example. But while borrowing someone’s plot structure and characters may not be against any rules, the author still needs to have a reason for doing this, some original approach that respects the source text but does something new with it – if not that that’s still just copying! There’s a further complication here in that Copperfield is a very personal novel in which Dickens drew upon elements of his own personal life story. David is Charles in some respects, in the way Demon certainly is not Barbara! So does Demon Copperhead does something new with the material of David Copperfield while respecting the original text? I think it does, although I have some reservations, which I will come to.

“You know, sometimes you hear about these miracles, where a car gets completely mangled in a wreck. But then the driver walks out of it alive? I’m saying you are that driver.”

Kingsolver’s hero and endearingly honest narrator is Damon Fields, known as Demon and nicknamed Copperhead for his red hair. Demon is the living definition of trailer-trash, born to a drug-using teenage single mother in a trailer in Virginia. Lee County is in the heart of the Appalachians, a community of largely white folk who are the butt of all American jokes about rednecks and hillbillies. Wikipedia says this of the stereotyping of Appalachian people:

“Appalachian individuals are perceived largely to be impoverished, white, rural, lazy, and rough around the edges. Appalachians are also stereotyped to be hillbillies. NPR describes the stereotypical portrayal of Appalachians as “children in sepia-toned clothes with dirt-smeared faces. Weathered, sunken-eyed women on trailer steps chain-smoking Camels. Teenagers clad in Carhartt and Mossy Oak loitering outside long-shuttered businesses.” Other common Appalachian stereotypes include inbreeding, poor dental hygiene, and wearing no shoes.”

Kingsolver clearly finds this stereotype offensive and empathises with Damon and his community, but she does little to challenge the oversimplified portrait – the novel is full of people who fit this description! Not everyone is an ill-educated redneck, of course, but there are more than enough. Demon is from a sub-category of this community – he identifies as a Melungeon, a dark-skinned ethnic group specific to this region and descended from Europeans, Native American, and sub-Saharan Africans originally brought to America as indentured servants and slaves. His life is blighted by poverty and discrimination. His early childhood follows the template of the source novel quite closely: an ineffectual mother, a long-dead father and a violent stepfather. When his mother dies of an overdose, he is taken into the ‘care’ of the authorities who do an appalling job of looking after him, putting him into foster homes where he suffers neglect and abuse in equal measure. Finally he tracks down his grandmother who helps him find a home with Coach Winfield and his daughter Agnes. He becomes a successful American football player until he suffers a career ending injury. This injury is the catalyst for the next phase in Demon’s life as he struggling with a crippling opioid addiction. Almost all his peers succumb to the same addiction and several of their lives are destroyed by this new plague. Kingsolver writes powerfully about the impact of this drug and the responsibility of the pharmaceutical companies for engineering the crisis, seeing the issue from the perspective of those involved and affected rather than sitting in judgment from outside the issue:

“What’s an oxy, I’d asked. That November it was still a shiny new thing. OxyContin, God’s gift for the laid-off deep-hole man with his back and neck bones grinding like bags of gravel. For the bent-over lady pulling double shifts at Dollar General with her shot knees and ADHD grandkids to raise by herself. For every football player with some of this or that torn up, and the whole world riding on his getting back in the game. This was our deliverance. The tree was shaken and yes, we did eat of the apple.

In most of his novels Dickens championed ideas of social justice and led specific campaigns against child labour, baby farming, money lending and the various other ills that blighted Victorian England. Kingsolver uses the same basic narrative and setting to address more recent social issues in the United States – the appallingly underfunded social care system, the failing education system, racism and of course the opioid epidemic. In this respect the ‘borrowed’ narrative is effective, although it could be argued that a novel about these issues and in this place and time didn’t really needed the overlay of a Dickensian narrative.

I mentioned earlier I had some reservations about the author’s reimagining of the source material. One issue is in the portrait of the modern-day Micawbers, Kingsolver’s McCobbs family. Micawber may be a weak and ineffectual man, but he is also kind-hearted. The McCobbs on the other hand are just plain unpleasant. Steerforth is a much more nuanced character than his Kingsolver equivalent, the sporting bully Fast Forward. There’s also a wider issue with the Dickensian origins of the novel – sometimes it becomes a distraction. I found myself trying to recognise scenes, characters and parallels with the source material rather than focussing on the novel itself. This isn’t a big issue – because I don’t know Copperfield particularly well I was able to just read Copperhead on its own terms, as an American novel about an orphan who struggles to find a safe home in the world.

I am still not sure the Copperfield parallels were entirely necessary. With or without them this is a powerful story about an American underclass that so far as I know has not previously had a champion. The novel ends on a positive note for Demon and his relationship with Agnes, which suggests the author is also positive for the rednecks, hillbillies and trailer trash she vividly humanises, rescuing them from the ignominy of being the butt of the endless incest and poor dental hygiene jokes.

Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver, 2022

Book review

Most dystopian fiction is set after the collapse of civilisation. In some instances it is set a long time in the future, where science has helped rebuild society (see Brave New World, for example). Other works imagine a society where social order has broken down and a new world has yet to emerge. Often the collapse of society is envisaged as happening very quickly – a virus breaks out and before you know it people are killing one another over fresh water and food. John Christopher’s 1950’s novel The Death of Grass is an early example of this genre. But occasionally novelists conclude that the disintegration of society is going to take a little bit longer. Parable of the Sower is one such novel.

Parable of the Sower is told by Lauren Olamina, a fifteen-year-old girl living in the greater Los Angeles area in 2024. (Incidentally that’s a similar time gap – just over thirty years between the date of the novel’s publication and its setting – that Orwell used in 1984 – 1949-1984. This gives the novel a sense of immediacy and recognition that a setting centuries in the future would lose.) Lauren’s father is a pastor and is one of the few remaining people in their society with a paid job – he teaches at a nearby college. Her family live in a walled community and the residents go outside its walls only rarely. Outside public order is breaking down, fuelled by poverty, an indifferent privatised police force, ecological collapse and widespread drug abuse, in particular ‘pyro’, which turns users into pyromaniacs. Lauren concludes that the regular attacks on her community will get worse – while they are armed and willing to defend themselves, the desperation and recklessness of those outside the walls means that sooner or later their community will fall. Lauren studies the skills needed to survive in the outside and prepares resources to take with her. She develops a plan to go north where there are jobs and better social conditions, but doesn’t have time to put this plan in place before the inevitable happens and their compound is destroyed.

A further complication is that Lauren has a condition called hyperempathy, caused by a drug her mother took when she was carrying her. She feels other people’s pain (and pleasure) as if it is her own. She keeps this condition as secret as possible, knowing that it will be seen as a weakness and exploited by others, She keeps a journal – this novel – in which she slowly develops the basis of a new religion she calls ‘Earthseed’. Earthseed is a variation of eastern mysticism that is predicated upon the idea that God is Change. What makes it different from other ‘mother nature’ forms of religion is the idea that the eventual future of humans is to explore the stars. This seems a quite redundant idea given the challenges people face in the present and while the last remaining space exploration programmes are being cancelled by the newly elected President. At least for now the country has a elections and a President.

The torture and murder of Lauren’s brother Keith is a clear warning sign that the end is imminent. Keith had run away from home and joined a gang, but this is a wildly dangerous life and he obviously ran out of luck at some point. Months later Lauren’s father goes missing, another unavoidable sign, but still the community trusts that its walls and guns will protect them. It’s no surprise when the narrative jumps forward to the point when the pyro-addicts attack and almost everyone is killed. Lauren escapes with Harry and Zahra, two community members who she didn’t know very well before but who now become her sole surviving ‘family’. They decide to trek north to find work and safety – although while travelling they are extremely vulnerable to marauders and pyromaniacs, they have a handgun and enough money to survive. On the road others join their group, finding strength in numbers. Lauren tells the group about her nascent new religion and her plans to start a community. They head for a property owned by one of their group and despite several attacks by addicts and the many dangers of the road, they finally reach their new home, which they call Acorn. The novel ends at this point, with key members of the group concluding that they have only a slim chance that their new community will survive.

At some points Parable felt in ‘Young Adult’ territory, particularly the empathetic teenage narrator and the vague eco-religious themes. But the violence (including rape and cannibalism) is pretty graphic, and there’s not much in the novel’s marketing to suggest that it was specifically aimed at a young adult audience. (Having said that the front cover’s quote from John Green (obviously a very popular young adult author) recommending that the novel “pairs well with 1984 or the Handmaid’s Tale” feels like a strong hint to readers looking for companion texts to these standard A level novels.) This is probably a case of the publishers covering all possible market bases.

Butler was primarily a science fiction author, but this isn’t really a science fiction novel, despite the setting. It’s an eminently recognisable portrait of the USA facing ecological and social collapse, with a number of interesting ideas in play. Lauren is the sower in this novel and the parable label encourages the reader to interpret the novel metaphorically – despite the hyper-realism of some scenes. The parable of the sower from which the novel draws its title always interested me, because it is often misunderstood. If you are not familiar with the parable itself the Wikipedia article on it is here. It appears in three of the four gospels and includes a careful explanation from Christ – god’s message is the seed, and we are the ground upon which it falls. Whether the seed prospers or not depends on us. So little possibility of ambiguity? And yet the parable is often understood to be a message of acceptance – whether we prosper or wither away is a matter of chance, depending on whether we (the seed) land on rich or barren soil. You can see why people would be encouraged to read the parable that way – accept your fate in life, the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate etc.

Parable is an entertaining, highly readable version of the very familiar end of the world story. Lauren is an erudite guide to events even if she sometimes makes silly mistakes. Not having a designated meet-up point if everything goes wrong once is daft, but to do it twice is unforgiveable. She convictions about Earthseed are something we just have to accept rather that it being an logical conclusion drawn from her observations about the world. The final third of the novel is rushed – people join the group quickly and there’s little time to introduce them before the next gunfight. Late in the novel Lauren also finds out that her condition is not as rare as she thought it was – it is hinted that it is being deliberately spread to make modern slavery more easily reintroduced. The author doesn’t do much with the concept of hyperempathy – it’s just a condition Lauren has to put up with. There are other interesting ideas within the narrative – corporate takeovers of coastal communities for instance – which also peter out. But despite these qualifications I enjoyed the novel enough to immediately order the sequel as soon as I finished, which is a pretty good sign!

Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler, 1993

Book review

Ian McEwan’s latest novel, Lessons, opens with a disturbing scene in which a young boy’s piano lesson suddenly becomes intimate and distressing. When he repeatedly makes the same mistake with his piece, his (female) teacher responds by first pinching him, then turning the gesture into something more ambiguous:

“her fingers found his inside leg, just at the hem of his grey shorts, and pinched him hard. That night there would be a tiny blue bruise. Her touch was cool as her hand moved up under his shorts to where the elastic of his pants met his skin. he scrambled off the stool and stood, flushed.”

At first he doesn’t properly understand what these touches mean, but he quickly comes to appreciate their sexual intent. This confuses him – he both avoids and seeks out further opportunities for intimacy with his teacher, until eventually three years later their relationship becomes sexual. The narrative is told in flashback by Roland several years after the event. The confusion of his feelings of both shame and at the same time the urgency of his sexual feelings is, in so far as I can possibly tell, conveyed well. This moment is to have a significant and lasting impact on Roland’s life. It haunts him, until many years later he is finally able to confront his abuser and come to terms with what happened to him. Instead of him following the academic path set before him by his parents and his boarding school, his life becomes very disjointed: he doesn’t go to university and never settles to a particular career. He moves from job to job – but this is not necessarily a sign of failure: these jobs are individually rewarding, Amongst other roles he plays the piano professionally, (albeit in a hotel lounge rather than on a concert stage) and teaches tennis. There are worse fates.

Another key moment in Roland’s life occurs when his German-born wife, Alissa, leaves him and their baby son to pursue her ambition of becoming “Germany’s greatest writer”. At first he has no idea where she has gone, and the police are suspicious that his responsible for her being missing, but once he receives postcards from her – simply saying sorry – their suspicions dissipate. It takes a very long time, almost a lifetime, but he finally comes to terms with her decision to leave and recognises her reasons for doing so. It would be going to far to say he supports her decision, but he understands her reasoning, and agrees that the work she produces is very worthwhile. He is puzzled and feels a little rejected when he doesn’t appear in her work in a fictional form, and then when he does feature – as an unsupportive aggressive husband he is equally upset.

Roland’s long and eventful life plays out against the backdrop of “momentous global happenings” from the Cuban missile crisis to the fall of the Berlin Wall, from 9/11 to the Covid lockdowns, events that obviously stand out in McEwan’s own personal memory as landmarks in his life. Even the Blair years and the storming of the Capitol get a mention. There’s a gentleness to the whole thing. We come to care about Roland and want to see him settled and happy, but things never quite pan out the way he hopes, and while some critics have found the lack of resolution to the storylines frustrating, for me their incompleteness gave the novel an authenticity. Roland has a good life, blessed by fortune to be born in England after the war, rather than the many different lives lead by others in twentieth century Europe:

“His accidental fortune was beyond calculation, to have been born in 1948 in placid Hampshire, not Ukraine or Poland in 1928, not to have been dragged from the synagogue steps in 1941 and brought here. His white-tiled cell – a piano lesson, a premature love affair, a missed education, a missing wife – was by comparison a luxury suite. If his life so far was a failure, as he often thought, it was in the face of history’s largesse.”

This isn’t a novel you read to find out what happens but to read about the ‘lessons’ that can be drawn from life’s experiences. At 74 McEwan is obviously in a reflective mood, and while Lessons is not as impactful as some of his other novels it succeeds on its own terms. It’s also, incidentally, beautifully written, which alone was enough to keep the pages turning even when the main plot lines had petered out:

“Wasted time in beautiful places, lingering joyfully just inside the gates of paradise with the world’s colours aflame, always regretting the setting sun and the call home, the Edenic expulsion into the next day and its usual concerns.”

I was fortunate enough to attend an interview with McEwan last year in Norwich. He was being interviewed by Sarah Perry, author of The Essex Serpent. The interview focussed on the process by which Lessons came to be written rather than the wider discussion of his career and novels that to be honest I was hoping for, but I did come away with some signed copies of his works, which made the journey more than worthwhile.

Lessons by Ian McEwan, 2022

Book review

I read Eimear McBride’s extraordinary first novel, “A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing” in summer 2022, but have struggled over several different drafts to do it justice in the form of a review. It is in some respects a traditional family story – of a young Irish woman whose life takes a dark turn when she is raped by her uncle. She is thirteen when this happens, and despite the narrator not describing it as a sexual assault she clearly does not give consent to what happens (appallingly the Guardian’s 2013 review of the novel talks about this as being a sexual ‘encounter’; the New Yorker review uses the term ‘sexual relationship’, seemingly ignoring her age and their family relationship). This response has echoes of the way Lolita is sometimes referred to as a teenage seductress or other, similar terms, when she is simply a child sex abuse survivor. Just because the character doesn’t see herself as a victim it doesn’t mean she isn’t one.

Within this conventional framework, the novel is daringly original. All the characters are unnamed, and the narrative takes place in an Ireland devoid of dates and obvious historical context. But this is a minor issue compared to the narration. The novel is told by the “half-formed” girl of the title, and begins when she is two years old. It is presented in a barely recognisable version of the English language, taking stream of consciousness to a new level. It is intense and fractured, full of invented words and phrases and old words used in new ways. I initially assumed this was the author’s (successful) attempt to mimic the disordered thought patterns of a young child, and that the text would soon (as she grew older) settle down into more familiar patterns and structures. Oh no! If anything the disorder increases as the narrator grows up and experiences the world in more complex ways. It is usually possible, with care, to work out what is happening at any particular point. This example, chosen at random, is fairly easy to follow:

“We were moving off now. From each other. As cannot be. Helped. I didn’t want it from that time on. You know. All that. When you said sit with me on the school bus. I said no. That inside world had caught alight and what I wanted. To be left alone. To look at it. To swing the torch into every corner of what he’d we’d done. Know it and wonder what does it mean. I learned to turn it off, the world that was not my own. Stop up my ears and everything. Who are you? You and me were never this. This boy and girl that do not speak. But somehow I’ve left you behind and you’re just looking on.”

Almost conventional, no? Some complete sentences, and a vague says of who is saying what, to whom. But when the narrator is agitated, drunk or upset, or when her identity is breaking down, the best the reader can hope for is to just derive a general sense of the narrative. Any detailed deconstruction of whose speech is being reported and who is doing what is almost impossible:

“Puk blodd over me frum. In the next but. Let me iar. Soon I’n dead I’m sre. Loose. Ver the aIrWays. Here. mY nose my mOuth I. VOMit. Clear. CleaR. He stopS up gETs. Stands uP. Look. And I breath. ANd I breath my.”

Far too the narrative features episodes of distressing sexual violence, which I won’t quote here but needs a trigger warning for virtually all readers I would have thought. McBride is unflinching in her descriptions of her character’s search for degradation as a form of self-harm. This can make the novel a difficult read especially when combined with the complex narration, and arguably there’s just one too many instance of brutal sex with a random stranger. But experimental literature is by definition transgressive – maybe one day this will seem quite conventional?

A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, by Eimear McBride, 2013