Sunday, 28 August 2011

Racist Yarns

On a glamorous, living-in-London whim I booked tickets to see The 39 Steps a few days ago. Only after the fact did it occur to me that I may have never actually read the novel the play is based on. (It is difficult to be entirely sure because every single jolly adventure yarn written between 1850 and 1920 is in fact the same book. The settings change, as do the hats and moustaches of the characters, but the fight for good old Crown and Empire is everlastingly recycled).

So there I was, reading The Thirty-Nine Steps (it is a sliver of a thing, it took me all of a day to get through), and on page 16 one character turns to another and starts casually slandering Jewish people, and I realised with heaviness in my heart that The Thirty-Nine Steps (first published in 1915) suffers from the same knotty issue as do most other ripping yarns I have read. It is deeply and horribly racist.

And this, of course, is a problem for a reader in 2011. It's not only that it's academically unpopular, at the moment, to read this sort of book. Postcolonialism is (in scholarly circles) where it is at, and ripping yarns tend to be full of sunburned men in topis taking wild potshots at elephants and black people (these being held in roughly the same estimation in the mind of the shooter). But, of course, it's much more than a matter of academic taste. The views in these books are seriously offensive to huge sections of society - and so if you do read things like King Solomon's Mines and The Thirty-Nine Steps and end up enjoying them despite their moral content, are you essentially colluding in racism? Does it make you a bad person?

I'm not sure I have the answer to this, but it is something I wonder about a lot, because the ripping yarn genre has always completely fascinated me. Do not get me wrong, I am so glad that I live in a world where saying things like "Those bally insolent darkies ruin everything! Where is my boy, so that I may beat him?" will get you glared at and then swiftly arrested, but I can't help but be amazed by, and curious about, by the attitudes that show through in books like The Lost World and Journey to the Centre of the Earth.

Chinua Achebe famously decided that Heart of Darkness is irredeemably racist because (among other things) it uses the word 'nigger', but while that may be true if you read it by the standards of today, it sort of misses the point. Heart of Darkness comes from a world that can't really be judged by the morals of the 21st Century. You can't even be racist in the way a 21st Century person would understand racism. Truly good people by the standards of the story, characters who you are meant to totally believe in, beat up their black bearers as much as anyone else, or turn around and cheerfully spew the most astonishing racial invectives, and there's no sense that this might be even the slightest bit morally dubious.

I think part of what interests me so much is trying to get my head around the thought that, less than 100 years ago, a large majority of white Europeans genuinely believed that most of the rest of humanity were just about as important as tigers, maybe, or camels (and definitely less worth bothering about than horses or dogs). Not that white supremacy doesn't still exist today, of course it does, but today's white supremacists are generally angry at or frightened of people who do not happen to look like them. The characters in most ripping yarns just don't care enough about the other races they come across to be angry at them. In their view of the universe, black people truly don't matter.

Better to be black, though, than Jewish. In The Thirty-Nine Steps, one white character turns to another white character and says that he has decided to trust him because (and I am quoting here) "you're a white man". I had to read that sentence about three times before I properly realised that he's not just stating the bleeding obvious. What he means is, "you're a good man". White, you see, is right, but you have to be the right sort of white. The Enemy are the wrong sort of white, because they are foreign, but even The Enemy are preferable to The Jews, who have committed the crime not only of being foreign but also of being in disguise - they are essentially black people, but ones who are nefariously pretending to be white men in order to get all the money in the world into a big pile and sit on it.

The Jew in action
If the anti-black rhetoric in adventure yarns tends to be alarmingly casual and disgustingly condescending, but not particularly hate-filled, the stuff levelled against Jewish people more than makes up for it. The anti-Semitic sentiment in not only adventure stories but almost all genres of novel, pre-World War Two, is astonishingly violent, and moreover seems to come from a really heartfelt place. A very long list of writers seemed to genuinely believe that if white people relaxed their vigilance, even for a second, The Jews would come sneaking up behind them and STEAL ALL THEIR GOLD AND WOMEN. And out of that came passages like this little gem in The Thirty-Nine Steps, the description of
a little white-faced Jew in a bath chair with an eye like a rattlesnake. Yes, sir, he is the man who is ruling the world just now, and he has his knife in the Empire of the Tzar, because his aunt was outraged and his father flogged in some one-horse location on the Volga.
That's vicious, horrible stuff - and the sort of thing, of course, that got Hitler into power fifteen years later. I bet John Buchan would have hated the idea that he had anything in common with a Rascally German, and there's a mean part of me that hopes he had some sleepless nights over it. But of course, he didn't - anti-Semitism was A Thing in Britain in the 1920s and 30s (and eugenics, too, which they tend to gloss over in GCSE History lessons).

So when you read those sentences, vile though they are, you're looking at a product of a certain time - most definitely a worse time, if you happened to be anything other than a (white) white man - but one with a completely different moral landscape. Even though you may instinctively want to, you can't judge an outburst like that the way you would if someone you knew turned round to you tomorrow and started expressing the same sympathies.

And that brings me to something else I've also read recently, Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee. It's a novel that is, incidentally, quite sensitive about racial issues, but its protagonist, college professor David Lurie, begins the action by having what is not only a disturbing but also a borderline illegal relationship with his student, a girl thirty years younger than him. At one point he coerces her into his bed and engages in a sexual act that is described as
Not rape, not quite that, but undesired nevertheless, undesired to the core.
Ah yes. Not quite rape. My favourite.

David loses his academic post over it, but decides, infuriatingly, that he has done nothing truly morally wrong - on the contrary, he has been 'enriched' by the experience. Of course, this could be the views of one character, and nothing to do with the author, but there's such a fuss made about love in old age (he did it for love! For love!) that I have a nasty feeling that this isn't the case. In fact, there's a very dodgy attitude to women in general running through the novel - about half way through it I was brought up short by this interesting aside:
Sapphic love: an excuse for putting on weight.
Now, compared to dangerously insane Jewish conspiracy theories, all of this isn't so bad. But all the same I found it incredibly bothersome, almost more so than that passage from The Thirty-Nine Steps, and I think that's because of when it was written. Disgrace won the Booker in 1999, which means it's recent enough that it ought to have known better. I'm fairly sure that by 1999 the concept of not being an asshole towards women was fairly widely understood, so the fact that Coetzee goes ahead and does it anyway says quite a lot about him as a person.

Offense, of course, is purely personal, and each person has the absolute right to be upset by anything they come across. But I do think that there are some things that you have to let writers from certain time periods get away with, purely to prevent yourself going insane with helpless rage. I also think it's important to read books from different periods that are offensive to us today, if only to remind ourselves how comparitively recently their kind of poisonous beliefs were the norm.

And finally I think that J. M. Coetzee may not be a racist, but all the same I wouldn't want to be in the same room with him. He's sad, annoying proof that society's morals may have come a long way since 1915, but they've still got a long way to go.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Belated Holiday Reviews - The Glass Bead Game and A Handful of Dust

Shopping for the new flat has made me realise that I have well and truly reached the stage in life where I covet home furnishings. Yesterday I spent five minutes standing in front of a saucepan and reminding myself why I did not need it. In that moment, I loved that saucepan like my own firstborn. Walking away from it was agony. But then I found duck's down pillows on sale for £8 and everything was all right again.

You may have guessed from all this that I am no longer on holiday, and indeed that is true. But I still do have two late late reviews from the last of my holiday reading. For some reason, when you're on holiday, magic tigers sound more appealing than a book where everyone dies awfully or is a monk. So The Glass Bead Game and A Handful of Dust languished in the bottom of my bag for most of the trip, and I felt bad (but not that bad). I did finally read them, though, and I liked them both, although in a different and more subdued way than I did the magic tigers. I really loved those magic tigers.

First, the Hesse. This turned out to not really be sci fi, or sci fi as imagined by a very erudite, scholarly person who has never seen Star Trek (I mean, not that Herman Hesse could, since he was writing in 1943, but you get my point).

In 23rd Century Germany (one that sounds very much like Germany in the beginning of the 20th Century), learning has become a sort of religion, and the cleverest boys are siphoned off at an early age to live in monastic solitude and spend their lives thinking scholarly thoughts. I sort of approve of this, actually, because in the world of The Glass Bead Game the whole point of learning is to have fun with it (serious fun, of course, but all the same you are supposed to enjoy yourself).

The Glass Bead Game itself is all about playing around with what you know, making cosmic connections between musical notes and maths equations and astronomy and botany and art, and then writing them down and meditating about them. There is a lot of meditation in The Glass Bead Game, in fact, and it turns out that reading it also requires a sort of meditative trance state. It's a very calm, extremely adagio book, with lots of peaceful, beautiful thoughts, but to properly appreciate them you have to use all your brain, and also be somewhere where you are not likely to be disturbed by family members walking by and loudly considering sun cream, or the 2012 Republican nomination, or what's for dinner. For this book, you need to hide, and hide well.

The Glass Bead Game is trying to pose several philosophical questions, most importantly: is it better to live for the mind or the body; and is it better to be an individual or a member of the collective? Of course, like most deep philosophical questions, these have fairly easy answers, handily provided by the book: have fun with learning, but also remember to get out there among the other human beings and talk about things like the 2012 Republican nomination and what's for dinner; and also if you try to totally subsume yourself within the collective your life will suck. To illustrate these points, we are told the life of monastic intellectual Joseph Knecht, as he rises to become Master of the Glass Bead Game and also realises that becoming Master of the Glass Bead Game doesn't actually make you very happy. Poor Joseph. He may just be an illustration of an allegorical point, but all the same I found myself liking him very much.  

The Glass Bead Game is told so peacefully that it took me a while to realise what a sad story it really is. No matter how successful Joseph is, you know (and so does he) that he'd be much happier living another life entirely. The life he does have to live (basically, the book itself) is creepily narrated from some undisclosed time in the future, by a group of people who refer to themselves only in the first person plural - just to show that nothing Joseph learns about being an individual gets passed on to the next generation. This book may be beautiful and calming, but it certainly is not a happy read.

3.5 stars

Cheer up, though, because nothing that happens to Joseph could possibly be as bad as the things the characters get subjected to in A Handful of Dust. I am coming to the conclusion that the inside of Evelyn Waugh's head must have looked like a series of illustrations from Struwwelpeter - it's not just that terrible things happen to his characters (which they do), but that the things that happen are astonishingly awful, with a sort of creative flair for nastiness that leaves you stunned. In one of his books (which shall remain nameless, so that you can still be surprised), a character actually and unironically is cooked and eaten by a cannibal tribe. In another, someone's head is sawn off to the accompaniment of loud song.

Somehow, this never gets into descriptions of Waugh's writing. Everyone pretends that he's all serious and sad and full of meditations on death and Catholicism, when ACTUALLY he's behaving like the Lord High Executioner, lopping off heads all over the place and then feeding them to people (note: I haven't come across this one yet, but I bet it happens somewhere).

One of the things I like about Evelyn Waugh is that he bothered to write about his contemporary culture. Sure, in his view, contemporary society has a great big hole in the middle of it, which everyone tries to fill in by having lots of nervous, meaningless conversations, but all the same I think Waugh understands that meaninglessness may be awful, but it can also be (secretly) quite a lot of fun. Anyway, I'm glad he included it, because I love hearing about the way a group of people lived, how they wasted time and got drunk and went to parties and so on. About halfway through A Handful of Dust it occured to me how very much these poor souls needed mobile phones. All of the characters in it seem to spend their entire lives crouching next to their home phones, ringing each other obsessively for lunch invitations and random relationship news. It's the ultimate proof that the invention of texting did not make anyone more inane than they were already. If these people knew the word lol, they would have used it extensively.

A Handful of Dust, apart from being about people talking on the phone a lot, is the story of the break-up of a marriage. Although I'm not going to spoil any of the gory details, suffice it to say that in Waugh's world, if you split up with your spouse things will not end well for you. I suspect it's the Catholicism coming out in, but oh my god, though, the things that happen to these poor people. They may be upper class twits, but no character outside of a war novel ought to be suffering quite as much as they do. Evelyn Waugh may very well have been an actual sadist.

And yet, like all his other books, A Handful of Dust really is funny - in a laughing-inside sort of way, that is. My dad gave me Decline and Fall when I was thirteen, with the promise that it was HILARIOUS. I think he might have got him confused with someone else. I read twenty pages, was horrified rather than amused and then gave up, because Evelyn Waugh is definitely not HILARIOUS. He's nasty. He's got a grim, dastardly sense of humour that you appreciate rather than chuckle at. You should seriously not give his books to thirteen year olds unless you want them put off The Classics for life, but reading him now I've come to like him.

I think.

In a disturbed sort of way.

3.5 stars

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Review - 1222

As of Friday I will be the proud renter of the WORLD'S SMALLEST KITCHEN. There is a flat that goes with it, which is also exciting but not as worthy of note as the WORLD'S SMALLEST KITCHEN. I shall be making tiny insect meals and eating off children's plates, like the slow-eating-tiny-bite-taking child from that Mrs Piggle-Wiggle story. Perhaps I shall invest in some miniature cupcake moulds.

Anyway. I read another book! 1222 by Anne Holt was the perfect antidote to the painfully meaningful, sloshily dull Marriage Plot - it quite cheerfully meant nothing at all, and enjoyed itself while doing so. Perfect. If I ever get onto the Booker prize committee I shall repeatedly nominate crime novels until everyone else's head explodes from thwarted snobbery.

1222 (before you ask, that's the altitude, not the date - we don't have another medieval mystery on our hands) reads like a smartly updated, delightfully sour Miss Marple mystery, if Miss Marple was a wheelchair-bound Norwegian lesbian with a Muslim girlfriend. And if that last description seems wearily right-on, don't worry. Anne Holt is a sharply ironic writer (and probably quite a fun person to be around), and not only that, but she manages to make Hanne (our heroine) seem like a believable person instead of just the perfect storm of positive-discrimination ticky boxes that she ought to be.

My favourite Anne Holt fact (actually my only Anne Holt fact, but it's a good one) is that she used to be Norwegian Justice Minister. Of course, her publishers are most interested in the fact that she's Norwegian, because this allows them to plaster her front covers with things like THIS IS EXACTLY LIKE JO NESBO AND THEREFORE STIEG LARSSON! and SAME REGION? BASICALLY THE SAME AUTHOR! A snow storm plays a fairly central role in 1222, so I suppose it is literally Norwegian, but if I had to compare styles I'd say that this reminds me much more of Fred Vargas (side note: read Fred Vargas. She's genius). Norwegian crime, to me, is full of dour, fatalistic people who bleed a lot, and this is funny and delightfully off-beat. It also pays a lot of tribute to Agatha Christie: it's pretty much a country-house mystery (with added cabin-fever thrills since all the characters are trapped inside their hotel by a blizzard), with a slow drip of puzzly clues and people being bumped off in the night.

The central mystery - who's killing off the survivors of a train crash while they're trapped in a mountain hotel by the snow storm of the century - is a lovely balance of Hans Christian Andersen grim (oh, the bit with the dog. You will squirm) and tongue-in-cheek fun. I'm not sure Anne Holt lays her clue trail quite right - the ending wasn't quite the oh! of course! moment that makes a really successful crime novel for me, and there's a rather odd sub-mystery, too, which is both distracting and annoyingly Relevant To Today's Culture. However, 1222 is still a great read, a fun novel and a hell of a lot better than most of its Scandinavian competition. I think I've become an Anne Holt fan.

3.5 stars.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Holiday Review - The Marriage Plot

Preamble first. This review is of a proof edition of The Marriage Plot (and many thanks to the kind colleague who managed to bag me a copy of it), and so anything I write about here may not resemble what makes it into the finished work, may be totally off base, etc, etc. Don't sue me.

With that said, on to the review.

What I am about to say makes me very sad. Believe me, no one wanted Jeffrey Eugenides' new book to succeed more than I did. Middlesex was a big delicious chocolate cake of a novel and The Virgin Suicides was a perfectly creepy little masterclass in how to create an atmosphere. My assumption was, therefore, that his third book would be as awesome as the first two. I certainly thought so. Man was I excited about reading this book. But - oh readers, I am filled with sorrow - this book was not very good.

Middlesex and The Virgin Suicides both had such clear, clever ideas behind them, but it's a bit difficult to understand why Jeffrey Eugenides thought he needed to write The Marriage Plot. The story of three college graduates, who consider critical opinions about love while falling unsuitably in love with each other, it is very much lacking in a central point.

Jeffrey Eugenides seems to have based the entire book in reaction to a school of thought (mentioned early on in the text) that says that the marriage plot as a novel genre (think Jane Austen and Mr Darcy's acres) died with the introduction of divorce and women's rights - marriage stopped mattering in the way it used to, That's all very well, except it's also completely and utterly not true. Recent lyrical masterpiece Single Ladies is essentially a paean to great big white dresses; the entire world went absolutely potty when Prince William decided to get hitched; and I don't know what Twilight is if it isn't a marriage plot. You could argue that Twilight isn't high literature, and of course it isn't, but I don't think when visitors came to Jane Austen's door she ever responded with "I'LL BE OUT IN A MINUTE, I'M JUST WRITING SOME HIGH LITERATURE!" What I'm trying to say is, there's no point being arrogant and thinking that just because no really good people are doing something, it isn't being done. Of course it bloody is. Three people, all in love, wanting to get married to each other? You might as well write a book where the Pope is Catholic and bears shit in the woods.

Jeffrey Eugenides is also reacting to novels where there are no solid, real-world characters, only people drifting in and out of a room mournfully talking about Sartre. Fair enough. Except the problem with this is that his solid characters aren't people that I'd willingly spend any time with at all. Madeleine, the heroine, is a attractive young WASP with a debilitating personality disorder: half the time she is a vapid sexpot, and the other half she is a serious-minded English student specialising in Victorian literature. To let us know when she is about to do something serious-minded, Jeffrey Eugenides has her put on a pair of nonsensically beat-up nerd glasses (we are told about a thousand times that her family is obnoxiously rich, so why can she not afford new ones? I suspect it is meant to be endearing. It is not endearing). Madeleine's 'unsuitable' love interest, Leonard, actually does have a debilitating personality disorder, depression, and I find it more than mildly disturbing that this is put forward as pretty much the only reason why he is so unsuitable. He's an asshole, sure, but that seems to be presented as just another of his symptoms (I think the people I know with depression would be rather offended at this). The other suitor, Mitchell, is unoffensive but also not particularly interesting or much involved in the plot. He spends most of the novel in India, reading scholarly works about religion. These are quoted in large, painful chunks throughout the novel. Because in case you hadn't noticed, this is HIGH LITERATURE.

That's another of The Marriage Plot's major flaws. Whereas most novels with pretensions to Great Thoughts are happy enough to namecheck a critic or thinker, and then get on with it, The Marriage Plot rams each mentioned critic down your throat. READ THIS! CONNECT WITH IT! HAVE YOU CONNECTED WITH IT YET? IF NOT, YOU ARE PROBABLY STUPID. I began to feel frightened and confused, as though in not recognising and comprehending Derrida's theory of love I had failed as an English student and also as a person. What if (I thought) I go into my first MA seminar next month and I don't understand any of that either? What if I am stupid? What if everyone else realises that I am only pretending to be an English scholar? WHAT THEN?

And if that's the way I felt, as a person who has quite recently completed an English BA and thus exactly the target audience of most of The Marriage Plot's frame of reference, then I can't imagine who else might be able to truly get this book in the way it wants to be understood. Who is it for? Who does Jeffrey Eugenides imagine will read it? This is one of the most unashamedly elitist novels I've come across in quite a while, and there's not even a reason for it. It's about getting married, for heavens' sake. It ought to at least be engaging.

The front cover of my proof copy tells me sternly that it is NOT FOR RESALE OR QUOTATION, and since I am bad at arguing, and especially bad at arguing with lawyers, I am going to obey the big black text. This is a pity, though, because I would very much like to share some of The Marriage Plot's choicer quotes with you all. At one bewildering point, around page 350, it takes a sharp right turn, abandons narrative completely and goes barrelling down Bad Porn Lane (this is adjascent to Awful Literary Sex Avenue, which is where most of The Blue Book takes place). It is all very horrible and intricately described.

This was the moment that I finally gave up trying to love The Marriage Plot. I had been trying so much, really giving it the benefit of the doubt, following it faithfully as it wallowed along like our oversize American rental car trying to turn a corner, but then page 350 happened and I hit the wall. Things did not get any better after that. The ending was not only randomly and stupidly postmodern but completely inefficient: it left about thirty loose ends waving in the breeze, entirely ignored. Poor things. They had to be in this silly novel and then they didn't even get to be resolved.

And poor Jeffrey Eugenides, too. I feel so bad for hating this. I love his books! I'm sure he is a very nice person! And yet. This book is a failure. With all the will in the world, I can only give it

2 stars.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Holday Review - Cat's Eye

Yesterday I ordered a 'mini shake' and was given a terrifying column of ice cream the size of a hefty six-month-old baby. The cause of America's obesity epidemic is no longer a mystery to me.

Review again, this time of Cat's Eye, which is about Canada and feminism and marbles as repositories of memory. Or maybe it's just about little girls bullying each other like tiny sadists.

I really like Margaret Atwood, and I thought I was going to really like this book, so I was a bit surprised how up-and-down I felt about it in the end. Its premise, especially, pleased me – it’s all about a girl who finds other girls deeply strange and unsettling, which is something I can definitely relate to. Like Elaine, the main character, I suspect that somewhere along the way I missed a crucial lesson called ‘How To Be Female: Giggling, Squealing and Applying Makeup’. Because of this lack, whenever I go into a room with a large concentration of women I am at an instant disadvantage. Not only do I not have any idea how to proceed, but I am filled with a deep and constant suspicion that I may be wearing The Wrong Thing. It’s very upsetting, and the reason why many of my friends are men. 

While boys tend to say what they think (and generally don’t think very much, which is soothing), girls have schemes, and poor Elaine is unlucky enough, aged nine, to fall into the clutches of a group of three horrible little schemers. They make her life so much of a living hell that she blanks it out for years afterwards, and then spends the rest of her life going through a long and incomplete process of recovery. Cat's Eye, as a consequence, is rather oddly set out - all of the events that matter take place in the first few chapters, and then the rest of the story is taken up with characters reacting to them, over and over again. 

I do (as I’ve said already) like Margaret Atwood’s writing style and what's going on here is entertaining enough. However, I can’t get away from the fact that I have read this book before. Last time, it was called The Robber Bride. The time before that, it was Lady Oracle. I perfectly understand a bit of thematic recycling, from time to time, but this is just wholesale. Margaret Atwood’s books are populated by legions of little girls in snowsuits, who all go wallowing over ravines on the way to school looking for lurking rapists. Years later they have failed marriages and callous daughters, and this causes them to wander through Toronto (or Vancouver) alone, thinking about times past, tragedies unsolved and the large droopy bags under their eyes. It’s a miracle they don’t all run into each other.

It’s not only their experiences that are the same, either. Every single one of Margaret Atwood’s main characters seem to have the same bizarre, overblown reaction to adult female bodies. They imagine them as rather like very large and unmanageable Adipose, only bloodier and full of grimly leaking fluids. This is very alarming, and not at all like what goes on inside my own brain. I very much suspect, therefore, that it’s what goes on inside Margaret Atwood’s. I suppose everyone has to be allowed to use their own experiences in their writing, but all the same this much rehashing is patently cheating and I will not have it. 

Another thing that I had a problem with was far more to do with personal taste, but bothersome nonetheless. I’ve said before that I have difficulty reading about characters getting maimed, because I tend to imagine it happening to me, but I didn’t explain that this also extends to much smaller injuries and illnesses. I had to stop reading Midnight’s Children because Salman Rushdie spent pages and pages describing Saleem’s permanent nasal drip (which is probably meant to be an allegory for India’s weakened, ill state after Partition, but is unfortunately also non-allegorically DISGUSTING). After a while all I could see was this revolting child and his revolting nose, dripping all over me, and I felt sick and had to put down the book. 

I very nearly went the same way with Cat’s Eye. Elaine, driven quietly dotty by all the bullying, relieves her feelings every night by methodically peeling the skin off her feet, ‘down to the blood’. I don’t think I even took in the next few chapters, because all I could think was FEET FEET FEET YOUR POOR FEET THEY HAVE NO SKIN OH GOD YOUR POOR FEET. Thank god, Elaine finally got over her habit, and I got to finish reading in a state of comparative mental peace, but all the same I was distressed.

In the end, I did definitely enjoy Cat's Eye. I think I would have liked it a lot more, though, if it had felt like a new book, rather than something I've read several times before. I approve of what Margaret Atwood has to say, but I can't help feeling that she needs to learn some new words.

3.5 stars.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Holiday Review - The Tiger's Wife

Yesterday I told my nephew I was the Great White Whale and got him to chase me round the pool for an hour or so. I try to give him a proper grounding in the classics.

Anyway, here is another review! This time, it's The Tiger's Wife, by girl genius Tea Obreht. I know I have been bitter about her youthful success before, but now I have to say that, as far as this blog is concerned, Tea Obreht is hereby allowed to keep her Orange Prize. 

If she’d like, I’ll even re-award it to her (or a mocked-up printout version of it, anyway) in person, because after reading The Tiger’s Wife I’ve decided that Tea Obreht and I ought to be friends. We could go hang out in a pub together telling rude jokes and talking about how great we think Angela Carter is, and then we’d walk down the road and tell every dog we pass that they’re a dog! They’re a dog! What are they? They’re a dog! (The ‘You’re a dog!’ thing actually happens in the book, which delights me. This is a woman who has her priorities right.)

Animals, in The Tiger’s Wife, are a huge deal. Everyone gets described in relation to them – someone looks like a penguin, someone else like an owl – and there’s an entire village that spends its leisure hours drawing pictures of the same dog, over and over again. In the slightly off-kilter fairy-tale world of The Tiger’s Wife (it’s set in some never-named country in the Balkans, where there’s always a war on) animals are more than worth bothering about. When enemy planes begin to bomb the City’s zoo, its citizens turn out in force, wearing home-made animal costumes, and protect it by standing there all night holding up silly signs. 

There’s a brilliant, fun, rude sense of humour that runs all the way through The Tiger’s Wife, in the matter-of-fact way that superstitions are described (if you are ill, it’s because an unburied member of your family is cursing you, of course) as well as the sort of gleeful interest in people having bits chopped off that you find in all the best fairy tales. It’s a world of endless fascinating possibilities (a boy can walk into a barn at night and find a tiger there, a man can be shot in the head twice and then sit up and ask for water), a Chinese box of stories within stories, each one sharper and more beautiful than the last. 

There are three main strands to The Tiger’s Wife, all of them connected to the narrator Natalia’s grandfather – the story of his meeting with the Tiger’s Wife, the story of his friendship with the Deathless Man and the story of his own life and death, as told by Natalia herself. There’s not a tremendous amount of forward-moving plot, but the point is to be carried away by the stories themselves and the way they’re told. Although I'm pretty much always going to approve of anything which has animals, magic and fairy tales in it, I still think this is a stand-out both for the genre (if 'magic, fairy tales and animals' is a genre, which it should be) and for books in general. For me, The Tiger's Wife more than worked – in terms of sheer delight, I don’t think I’ve enjoyed anything this much for quite a while.

Tea Obreht obviously had a tremendous amount of fun writing The Tiger’s Wife, and huge fondness for her characters, and that shows through. And it helps, of course, that she can write disgustingly well. She’s created an extraordinarily vivid, weird and funny world and she absolutely deserves that Orange Prize of hers. And she’s only 25. What a cow. (Which I hope she would take as a compliment. Cows are actually rather nice).

4.5 stars.