Category Archives: British literature

Two Books to Close Out 2019: For *sigh* 36 Total (The Perfect Nanny & Marriage Material)

Folks. Leila Slimani’s The Perfect Nanny is not good. Why are people continuing to suggest other people read this book? Why does my normally very reliable best of the year from the New York Times include this title? I can only imagine it’s because people like the macabre and they like admiring people with nice things? Or they like the never-ending question of whether women who work and have children are to blame for everything bad that ever happens to their children (spoiler the answer is almost always ‘yes’).

The book opens with the death of two children (yeah, so if that’s not going to be your plot comfort cozy, best to avoid) at the hands of their Perfect Nanny. What unfolds then is the slow unfurling of how the nanny is not-so-perfect, and the cues that were very clear to the parents, but how the parents, too tired and too selfish, continue to overlook these Warning Signs so that their lives can continue to unfold with late night dinners and No Worries Because Nanny.

The nanny herself gets rendered as utterly pathetic (which is probably fitting someone who murders two children? except for character nuance?) because of her loneliness, poverty, utter lack of self-worth, ugliness, desperation. Her redeeming moments are those where she loves and plays with the children, and so I suppose we are meant – as the parents do – to overlook the rest because she is so good with kids.

I don’t know. I guess I just wasn’t in the mood for child murder? Or the unnuanced portrait of the nanny as Monster. Or the slippery line of blaming the mother for her ambition and desire to do things other than parent. But other people have liked this one A Lot, so you’ve probably read it already and have other opinions. Do tell.

For something completely different and delightful, I offer you Sathnam Sanghera’s Marriage Material  (not to be confused with the super creepy looking 2018 movie). No this 2013 gem is funny, smart, generous and playful. It follows Arjan Banga, an Indo-British twenty-something as he grapples with the death of his father and having to take over the family business of running a corner store. In alternating chapters we also follow two sisters, Kamaljit and Surinder, as they grow up in (we later learn the same) corner store: both trying to sort out what it means to be British and Indian and Sikh in a political and cultural moment (and small town) where everyone around them wants them to be one thing and not the other.

The novel traces themes of family, belonging and racial and cultural identity with a truly impressive balance of sensitivity and humour. It’s a delightful book where you never feel like you’re reading a book about Identity, but instead that you’ve slipped into something like a romantic comedy, except all the characters are interesting, the writing is fresh and sharp, and the themes are complex enough to not feel overplayed. I hope you missed this novel in 2013 so that you can discover it now and begin your 2020 with a hopeful and kind novel and not with Twitter or Facebook. Do yourself a favour. Read a book. Ideally this one.

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Filed under Bestseller, British literature, Fiction, New York Times Notable, Prize Winner

Transcription: Spies in Every Day Life; or, Is Alexa Always Listening (yes)

Lady spies! Double agents! Domestic espionage! Kate Atkinson’s Transcription is a little burst of historical fiction delight. Principally set in the opening months of the Second World War (with some delightful temporal jumps to the 1950s and 1980s to add layers of complexity and trickiness), it follows Juliette Armstrong as she enters MI5 as a secretary-turned-undercover-agent and then follows her journey through the early years of the war and her first (only? no spoilers) mission for M15.

The novel refuses the reader’s desire for espionage to be all-glamorous or all-action, and instead gives refinement to the role of the spy by spending time with the slow details of waiting, watching, listening, and the necessarily ‘domestic’ tasks of caring relationships among and between members of the service. In this space Atkinson does particularly well, as the writing of each character is rich and full, as well as peppered with humour and sensitivity. Readers expecting explosions or middle-of-the-night hostage-taking would best look elsewhere though, as the plot unfolds here at a much gentler pace, and the ‘climactic’ moment in Juliette’s mission is somewhat… anti-climactic.

What it does especially well is revel in the genre of historical fiction. Freely inventing, while staying true to the spirit of the historical moment. There’s much to be admired in the way Atkinson balances what we do know about Armstrong’s particular mission (or ones like it) and what is likely to be true, as well as what makes sense for exploring the complexities of gender and sexuality in that moment (as in ours).

I was a big fan of Atkinson’s other major WWII novel, Life After Life, and like that one, Transcription takes a bit of time to feel fully committed. That said, if you’re partial to the slower burn, the witty, and the brilliantly historical, then off you go. Read!

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Filed under British literature, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Prize Winner

The Picture of Dorian Gray: I lost count of the ‘terrible,’ ‘horrible,’ and ‘frightful.’ And loved it.

Your probably know something of the premise of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray from pop culture (I’m pretty sure there’s a Simpsons Halloween episode that recounts it): handsome young man sells his soul to remain ever-young while having the portrait painted of him grow old in his stead. Liberated from the physical evidence of sin (the theory being that sin shows up in the eyes and face), Dorian descends the vice ladder into gambling, ruining female reputations by being seen with unmarried women, whoring, opium and eventually murder. Along the way he is urged on by the devilish, morally questionable, and aphorism spouting Henry Wotton (honestly, I can’t think of a single thing Wotton says that hasn’t been transcribed onto a ‘literary tote bag’ or ‘literary magnet’ at some point or another. Even while he’s viciously sexist and excessively proud).

It is a delicious and delightful novel that plays at once at the thought experiment would-you-rather questions of youth or goodness, beauty or morality, while also asking the reader to question the assumptions we make about other based on what we see in their visage (oh how 19th century writing meddles with the diction of my thought). All the while written with a sort of playful Horror and Terror and Fright at the ‘scandals’ Dorian embroils himself in. (No surprise the book was banned and caused Outrage – to think that the assumptions of a 19th century morality might be something you intentionally and explicitly question…).

Mostly it is a book about art, and the possibility of art creating the eternal for the artist. And in the case of this book, it’s hard not to be persuaded that Wilde the man – for all his complexity – is most certainly dead, while the artist lives on in the work. In that way it’s a hair on the side of self-indulgence, but done so with knowledge and humour. That is to say, the writing is all too conscious of the hubris of wishing art into eternity.

The only part I found tedious was in a long section just after Dorian discovers the painting holds the evidence of his sins. It’s a near endless accounting for the way he burns through his wealth on gems and art and music and how he spreads the influence of his epicurean philosophy among his peers. It was… exhausting. Probably the point.

I listened to this one as an audio book and highly recommend it in this form. Free from my library and brilliantly narrated. Though I wonder what Wilde might think about the mutilation of the form from immersive reading to listening-whilst-driving/cooking/cleaning/being-a-fucking-do-everything-for-everyone-all-the-time-woman. Probably he wouldn’t care, because for the most part women are decorative. Ha. But seriously. Good.

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The Essex Serpent: Exceptional – minus descriptions of fog that are overly damp.

So while I was reading Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent I was loving it: fog-filled Essex streets where 19th-century characters fall in love and chase after a mythical-perhaps-actual serpent haunting the people of the seaside town. Continue reading

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Filed under British literature, Fiction