Things I have learned from novels, a short list: enter all cupboards that look maybe magical because they might well be magical; most of everything I know about Canadian history; the geography of PEI; too much about the Blitz; some things about scuba diving. All this to say whenever I read a novel I learn. If nothing else I learn what I like from writing, but usually there’s something in the plot/setting/character/theme that is interesting or new or important that I haven’t come across before. Part of why I like novels (so much) more than non-fiction is that most often this teaching-learning happens by accident, by way of story. Like oops you just learned a whole thing about whaling (but seriously, Moby Dick is a bad example of this kind of learning because of the endless chapters just describing whaling implements).
Digression. R. is really into made-up stories where I tell him a “Golidlocks” story, which is really just any story with the main character named Goldilocks. Usually Goldilocks is a squirrel that lives in a radio tower. ANYWAY. I recently remembered that I could use these made-up stories in a very heavy handed way to reinforce annoying parenting lessons about crossing the street, or being kind, or not-throwing-rocks-at-your-sister.
So not actually a digression. Because it turns out that Torrey Peters’ Detransition, Baby, is a similar sort of story. One interested in teaching the reader some things about trans women and sure that the only way to do so is if The Story is Very Clear. The only problem is the reader is (probably not) a preschooler, and so some more subtly wouldn’t hurt (tbh some more subtly would probably be appreciated by R., too). Which is not the same thing as saying the book shouldn’t offer the reader insight or a perspective on being trans and wanting a baby, more that there’s some kind of difference between a story that invites a reader to empathy and experience with a character and one that explains what a character thinks, feels, and wants in a way that is meant to teach you about it. I fear I’m not explaining the difference well. Ha ha.
Whatever the case if you can get past the explaining this book has merits. Like some of the writing is good. And it was novel for me to read a book exploring queer families and I sometimes think things about maternity and parenting and bodies and so I appreciated the chance to think afresh on these ideas. It also had a decent, if somewhat dissatisfying, ending. Oh and some properly funny scenes.
Sahar Mustafah’s The Beauty of Your Face is excellent. It opens with a school shooter attacking a Muslim school for girls and then whips back in time to follow the childhood of the school’s principal, Palestinian American, Afaf Raman as she grows up with a missing sister and ostracized for her race and religion, and then finds herself a community and purpose through Islam and teaching. [how’s that for a run-on sentence, mom]
Part of what makes the book so good, like Louise Penny, are the descriptions of food. I wanted to eat every time I was reading.
I jest (sort of). No. What made it so compelling for me was the sense of purpose faith brings to Afaf, and the ways the discovery and commitment to this faith changes her relationships with her family, as well as her understanding of herself. As a devote atheist I am genuinely mystified by those who believe in God, even while I recognize, at least in this book, what that belief – at its best – offers. Which is not to say Afaf’s experience of Islam is uncomplicated, or her belief blind and unquestioning. Indeed, in the most obvious way her very life is at stake in her commitment. More, that the novel offers faith as something earned and difficult, but also as security, comfort and community. It was enough to make this heretical Unitarian soul yearn for the days of open churches so I might go and sing with other people the atheist song of a biological life and a radical enjoyment of the present moment and the people in it as all you can count on. Alas. Perhaps next year.
Until then, I commend you to The Beauty of Your Face for its exquisite writing, engrossing plot and nuanced portrait of a family. That sounds like a gross back-cover endorsement. But really – it’s very good.
Today I unintentionally dressed myself and the small human in matching outfits. We’re at that point. Also the point at which I read trashy airport novels unironically and enjoy them enough to finish. Lucy Foley’s The Guest List is extremely silly. Told from the perspectives of the bridal party (and a few guests) at an exclusive wedding held on a remote island, it’s a murder mystery that is as easy to solve as it is hilarious in its dun-dun-dun finish to every. single. chapter. It is not at all good unless your basic criteria is a book that does not require any thought and is magical in its anticipation of its movie adaptation. Which, tbh, is a pretty compelling set of reasons for reading it in These Times. I am likely mere days away from putting flowered bows on the small human’s very bald head. Send help.
I liked the writing the best. Strange that you could have a great book without good writing, but I’m sure it’s possible. In this case the book is great because of the writing. The characters are decent: imaginative, whole, endearing. The plot is steady: a hook of a crime, but much more about character development than solving that crime. The setting relevant: the cusp of the new millennium and wandering cities and costume parties. But what really soars is the writing. Delicate phrases that arrest the reader. Specific images that evoke and deepen. Confidence that means it reads not as showy but as necessary.
Yes, The Boy in the Field is excellent writing. I might even seek out something else by Margot Livesay, as I’ve not read anything by her before, and wouldn’t have if not for the New York Times best of the year list (which I’m sure is flawed in all the ways best of lists are flawed, but nevertheless gives me ideas of what to consider).
All that said I’m not sure it’s the most memorable book. Three children find a boy bleeding in a field. The rest of the book is the slow unfolding of their characters, and that of their parents. Of what they want from life, from one another. Most interesting, maybe, is the way they approach the question of honesty. In one scene they try a week without lying and have to give it up after a few days, concluding that lying is necessary for the preservation of relationships. I suggested the experiment to S. and after expressing interest, he grew wary. What was I reading, anyway? Just a novel, I replied. Still, I’ve taken to springing questions on him out of the blue, reminding him that it is the week without lying, waiting to trip him up or to learn something revelatory. When if I paid attention to the book at all I’d know that for the most part we don’t want our loved ones to be revealed. That we all do best to wear our costumes, to keep some things well out of sight. To be truthful only if we meet the criteria of is it useful, is it necessary, is it kind.
So start 2021 with great writing. Or, you know, a good show on Netflix and a bottle of liquid cheese.