With my PhD in English Literature at Edinburgh University about to begin, I will be reading lots of stuff this year. Do not expect weekly reviews, I do not read quickly. But I will share with you anything interesting I do read, whether it’s a novel that’s in vogue, or something from my course that I think is worth knowing that broadened my horizon. I’ll be reading a lot of things about transgender discourse, but hopefully, a lot of things which aren’t, as well.

Allyson Stack’s Under the Heartless Blue and Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings

Allyson Stack’s Under the Heartless Blue and Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings

Who has time to read fiction? A quick Internet search will tell you that in 2013, 184,000 books were published in the UK, and in the US, 304,912. Where do you start? It's difficult to find the time, especially if it's a novel that stretches beyond the 400-page boundary.

I'll start in this first posting on literature with a disclosure that one of the writers reviewed was my tutor at Edinburgh University, who published only a few months ago and whose launch I attended. Allyson Stack, as well as running the Creative Writing department at Edinburgh University, is an author who hails from Philadelphia but studied in the 'Wild West' state of Arizona. Her novel, Under the Heartless Blue, partly explores that Wild West history. It follows the experiences of Vera, who gets a book-keeping job in a frontier town, in a brothel no less. This narrative comes via flashbacks, from her later life as a nurse in the Great War, in France and Belgium.

The story was a poignant one for me. It's about a character who's facing a middle-age already alone, childless and single and having just 'missed the boat.' She has memories of other places, lost love that could have been, the one that got away, the family life that never blossomed. It's about things that remind us of those past times, the past as something both beautiful and melancholic. It's also a story that will interest anyone fascinated by a frontier existence. If you've seen Leonardo Di Caprio's The Revenant, this might be its female equivalent. Allyson's re-creation of a Wild West brothel is convincing, the story straddling that weird American line between freedom and puritan morality.

So I enjoyed this book, found it manageable (358 pages) and affecting, literary fiction I was touched by and which made me think of my own life. Life - you get on with it, and remember the bits that mattered.

I tried to get on with A Brief History of Seven Killings, the Booker prize winner from 2015. It's a huge book, nearly 700 pages, and the list of characters is immense, approximately 73, with each chapter from the perspective of some of these characters. Why am I giving you these stats? Because the truth is, I became overwhelmed with it. I got to about page 150 and stopped. The switch of point of view began to make things incoherent for me, there were one or two characters I found interesting, but they got swamped – for me – in the epic tide. Somewhere within this is a vivid re-creation of Jamaica, including the street slang and dialect that marks out certain characters. You do get a brutal view of a time and place. But I think any writer who has a big cast of characters is playing a dangerous game with the reader; inevitably some characters seem more fully-formed or simply more interesting. Other characters, you breeze through, skim their pages impatiently, or with glazed eyes, and you realize you've been staring at the same page for an unknown period of time. At a certain point, A Brief History of Seven Killings was having that effect on me, and the plots were passing me by.

I have managed to read the bigger, Booker-winners in the past. I enjoyed Catton's The Luminaries, even if the first 120 pages felt really stiff (after that point, though, magically brilliant). But like I said, who has time to read the epic novels now? It needs to be something special to keep you engaged; clearly some people have been touched by Marlon James's Booker winner, not least the Booker judges. I even feel embarrassed at failing to finish a Booker prize winner, and what it says about me. But nobody's perfect.

Venus as a Boy by Luke Sutherland


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Sunday, 22 May 2022

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