Tag Archives: debut novels

Under the Skin – Michel Faber


For this book, I had one of those movie-poster covers. You know the ones. When a book has a famous adaptation, the film poster is repackaged as the book cover, aiming to entice fans of the film (presumably?) into picking up the book – for rather snobby reasons, carrying around one of these made me worry I looked a bit illiterate, as if I had no other motive to pick up a book beyond the fact I saw and liked a film. All right, I confess: that’s true, in this case. I doubt I would have heard of this book were it not for Jonathan Glazer’s 2013 adaptation, showered in critical acclaim and starring Scarlett Johannson. Ssh. Keep that on the downlow.

Still, in this case, I think a movie-cover-copy was a particularly weird move, as – from what I know about the film – the book is NOTHING like it. Throughout the book I was constantly thinking, ‘how the hell did they put this to screen?’ and, it turns out – after a bit of research – they didn’t. Instead, from the sounds of it, they created an original film that simply shares the name of this novel. This is quite a spoiler-y review, though I wouldn’t worry if you’re interested in checking out the film, as I’m doing my best to avoid spoilers, too – trust me, you won’t get much from this.

I read this on holiday in Rome. It’s not an ideal holiday read. It’s the kind of book you could blast through on a train or during a long car journey – for some reason I’d expect it to be accompanied by a gloomy sky, maybe rain, probably autumnal or winter showers, which might be because it’s set in Scotland – but a city-break read it is not. It’s short, mind, and very readable, following a protagonist named Isserley, a female alien who spends her time picking up lone, male (and generally hunky) hitchhikers in Scotland. After kidnapping them, she takes them back to a farm she and some others from her species live on, where they are processed while alive (taking about a month) and sent back to Isserley’s home planet as meat. In this context the earthlings (human beings to you and me) are called ‘vodsels’. Confusingly, Isserley and her species (weird, giant, feline things) refer to themselves as human beings; a deliberate move by the author, I suppose, as if we are reading the novel in a translation from its original alien language, though it’s never really explained. Isserley looks quite like a ‘vodsel’ because she has been surgically altered, much to her distaste, by the alien corporation who farms and sells the meat (her employer). Much of the plot focuses on Isserley’s numerous attempts to pick up the men: most are successful, but there are some failures that are traumatic at best, fatal at worst.

Alongside that, we have a plot on the farm where the owner of the corporation’s son, Amlis Vess, briefly visits and pities the ‘vodsels’ processed alive, going so far as to publicly protest by setting them free (vegetarianism in alien form). Vess is as exasperated by the process as Isserley is, though more in that he fears the social impact and cruelty involved in the process, whilst Isserley herself is traumatised by her own ‘transformation’ process and by some of her failed attempts (the vodsels can be cruel). Amlis leaves quite quickly, but Isserley falls in love with him before he goes, not that I’m sure why – they don’t spend a lot of time together. Isserley constantly fears the vodsels discovering the ‘human beings’ and the farm, and the book ends with this reality very much in sight, and an ambiguous decision from Isserley.

Does all this sound a bit nuts? Well, yeah. It is. It’s been described as an ambitious debut by Michel Faber, and throughout, as I said, I was wondering how the hell director Jonathan Glazer had been motivated to put it to film, particularly given the downright bizarre appearance of the ‘human beings’ and the grotesque and disturbing process the vodsels go through to be prepared for meat. It’s truly horrifying, in fact; our first encounter with that as readers is when four of them escape for captivity (Amlis Vess’s doing) and Isserley and her colleague have to deal with what’s on the loose. The extent to which the vodsels are surgically and chemically altered is pretty nausea-inducing and, I’ll admit, I was considerably worried about seeing that on screen. But more on the film later.

Overall, Under the Skin had a lot of potential, but it felt like half a book. It wasn’t until 100 pages or so when you felt like you had a good idea what was going on – to prolong the mystery for that long was frustrating. It probably didn’t help that at time of reading I had just finished Oryx and Crake, where Atwood seemed to balance information and mystery perfectly. Once I finally did have a good sense of what was going on in Under the Skin, the book was almost over, which was a shame. I would have liked to have seen more of it. Where did Isserley and her colleagues come from, exactly? What was going to happen with Amlis Vess? Will Isserley fulfil her order to bring a female vodsel back to the planet (presumably so her eggs could be harvested and they could breed the meat on their own planet)? What about Isserley’s backstory? How had she ended up doing a job that required so much sacrifice on her part – which she repeatedly mourned as her only choice? There were hints, too, at a dystopian, government-controlled world back on her home planet – what was going on there?

Some books flourish without sufficient backstory, but I would have liked to have seen more from this – a sequel, a prequel, something. Maybe such a book exists and I’m moaning about nothing, but I haven’t heard of it, yet. It didn’t help that Isserley herself wasn’t convincing – she was an interesting character up to a point, but her rushed and confusing relationship with Amlis Vess didn’t suit her or the story; she went from hating him, to so in love with him she was prepared to kill herself in the space of about half a night. It didn’t feel authentic.

Never mind – time to check out that much-adored film. Scarlett, show me what you’ve got.


The film Under the Skin – I really do hesitate to call it an adaptation – feels more like an art project than a clear narrative. If I had thought the book was nuts, I hadn’t seen anything before I’d seen the movie. Johansson plays Isserley, although she isn’t given a name in the film (and is credited ‘the Female’). Similarly to the book, Johansson drives around Scotland in a van talking to and picking up men – real, secretly filmed encounters, I learned in advance – but instead of paralysing them in her car, she seduces them into walking into some sort of underwater chasm where they are suspended until they are gruesomely processed (not quite as gruesomely as in the book, but nauseating in its own way). The change from enticement-and-drugging in the book to full-blown, naked seduction in the movie felt a bit cliche, but those hyper-surreal scenes must have been incredible to edit.

Had I not read the book, the film might have frustrated me. Where is ‘the Female’ from? What is she doing with the men she captures? Does she regret her work, even resent it? But the film doesn’t dwell on this sort of detail and that probably makes it more powerful as a result. Like I said, it’s something of an art project, and can be merited for that. It’s beautifully edited and gives the bleak Scottish highlands a dark beauty (maybe not so much the Scottish cities and nightclubs). I’m not sure I’d recommend it, mind. It’s for a particular kind of viewing, and can be (whisper it) a tad boring.

So, the book? Only three stars on Goodreads from me, I’m afraid. Not a bad read, but with the incredible sci-fi selection out there, I’m just not sure it holds a candle.

[Coming next: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov]

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The Rachel Papers – Martin Amis


God, I’m a sucker for Martin Amis’s writing. I’ve only read three of his books, admittedly, but each one is packed full of a humour and easy wit that seems utterly effortless; The Rachel Papers immediately brought back memories of Money, though with a much more likeable protagonist this time around (well, in the sense that it’s easy to admire his youthful naivety – he’s a bit less tragic than Money‘s John Self). I bought this book for my sister initially as it looked like a good, tight read, and it went down well (naturally, she read it in about a day – if you can find a quicker reader than my sister Lou I’ll eat my hat). Spoilers below!

The Rachel Papers is the junior Amis’s debut, published when he was 24. It’s a young age to begin a literary career, but I’m sure his surname helped to open a few doors. I don’t want to imply that nepotism had too much of a hand, mind – Amis Jr. is an extremely talented writer in his own right. It’s interesting that the older Martin now deplores the style of his debut, though he admires the writing, and it’s easy to see why.

The plot follows 19-year-old Charles Highway, a man who is cultured, intelligent, and a bit of a prick, obsessed with women and sex. As the title might suggest, he is rereading his diary as the book progresses – a diary that documents the time in his life when he was about to turn 20 and pursuing a woman named Rachel. It’s supposedly autobiographical, which is an interesting way of reading it, as I couldn’t help reading Charles’s description of his relationship with his dad as Martin’s relationship with Kingsley (not that it was particularly descriptive). It seemed typical of one of those ‘privileged white boy’ autobiographical plots you see in a lot of modern literature, following the trials and tribulations of how a bright but lazy man can get into Oxford. Oh, first world problems…

It’s not really told in a chronological order but rather by way of the diary entries, with Charles commenting and reflecting on the particular excerpts he’s reading. There isn’t a lot of plot, either, with the story choosing to focus on the way Charles’s and Rachel’s relationship begins, then ends. Charles very naturally loses interest in Rachel, not for any particular reason – my sister Lou was fond of this realism, but I found it almost painful to read (in that it’s all too characteristic of how young, flaky men behave, I suppose). The compact nature of the novel suits the lack of plot – you don’t leave it wanting, nor does it feel dragged out, so it’s commendable for that alone (and maybe has a one-up on Money for that).

The blurb was obviously written by someone who’s never read it. Take a look:

Charles Highway, a precociously intelligent and highly sexed teenager, is determined to sleep with an older woman before he turns twenty. Rachel fits the bill perfectly and Charles plans his seduction meticulously, sets the scene with infinite care – but it doesn’t come off quite as Charles expects…

Let’s break it down, shall we?

Charles Highway, a precociously intelligent and highly sexed teenager, is determined to sleep with an older woman before he turns twenty.

Well, no. He’s not particularly interested in sleeping with someone older. He does mention it in passing to a friend, at one point, and is quickly discouraged.

Rachel fits the bill perfectly

Eh? Does she? Even if he DID have particular interest in sleeping with someone older, Rachel has only got one month on him, and his reasons for pursuing her are far from how old she is – though again, once she turns 20, he does note, internally, very casually, that he got his older conquest after all. But again, this is hardly a plot point – you might as well put on the blurb that he looked at a blue teapot once, for all the narrative attention it gets.

Charles plans his seduction meticulously, sets the scene with infinite care – but it doesn’t come off quite as Charles expects…

What scene is carefully planned and doesn’t come off as he expects? He manages to sleep with her successfully time and time again; indeed she pretty much falls in love with him and HE ditches HER well before he turns 20. I feel like this blurb is suggesting there’s some kind of comedy scenario in the pipeline, but pushing aside any bullshitty metaphorical ‘scene’ you could argue for, this blurb is total nonsense. It reminds me a little bit of clickbait. What’s the literary version? Litbait? I can see the headline now: ‘Charles wants to seduce Rachel – you won’t BELIEVE what happened next!’

So – a respectable four stars on the old Goodreads. Disregard the blurb and check it out for what it is – it doesn’t disappoint.

[Coming next – Us by David Nicholls]

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The Miniaturist – Jessie Burton

the miniaturist

Jessie Burton had a good year in 2014. I mean, she’s probably still having a good time, sure, but to publish your debut and have it shoot to Waterstones’ Book of the Year in the same twelve-month period must be pretty exciting. I got hold of the book after seeing it in pride of place in Waterstones, and what a treat it was; be warned, spoilers ahead.

The novel is set in Amsterdam in the 1600s and follows 18-year-old protagonist Nella Brandt (née Oortman) as she prepares for a new life as the wife of illustrious merchant trader Johannes Brandt. At the start of the book she moves into his home, but, much to her displeasure, joins his cutting sister Marin and two uninterested servants, Corneila and Otto. Poor Nella’s having a bad time. She doesn’t know her husband ahead of their marriage – it was arranged for his wealth, and he’s much older – and, understandably, she is fairly miserable at first, in a house she feels unwelcome in. Johannes pays her little to no attention, with the exception giving her a grand wedding gift: an enormous miniature (or dollhouse) of their house. Nella comforts herself by ordering figurines and furniture from a miniaturist, who, as you may have worked out already, turns out to be pretty important.

As Nella makes her first order she soon discovers that the creations that arrive are not only spookily accurate – supernaturally so – but also, in some cases, prophetic. From time to time she sees a blonde woman watching her before disappearing into crowds, or often thin air, and Nella comes to the conclusion that this must be the miniaturist, with an insight on Nella’s life that is entirely unprecedented.

What holds the novel together is the writing. It’s beautiful and original, with Burton creating imagery in an effortless way. The novel is full of surprises and keeps you on your toes, though the biggest twist is rather obvious from the get-go: Johannes, despite being a fairly kind and affectionate man, won’t touch his arranged wife or consummate their marriage, which is pretty mystifying for Nella – until she walks in on him with another man. With sodomy being illegal and punishable by death at the time, she has to conceal his secret along with the others in the household, three people she warms to in spite of the setbacks they endure (something the miniaturist is constantly hinting at, if not directly causing).

A lot of the book circulates around the miniaturist; she herself is spooky, gothic and downright compelling – at least at first. Unfortunately, the pay off is poor. I had expected her to be paranormal or perhaps non-existent, but her backstory is simple and, in a word, underwhelming. I would also have liked to have seen more of her as a prophetess. There’s an eerie section of the book where a figurine of Johannes’ spurned male lover is cast out of the window and Nella retrieves it, preceding a dramatic showdown where the man himself breaks into their home and torments them. I wanted this to be a taste of what was to come; I wanted to see more of the figurines as voodoo dolls, not just bits of wood to spook Nella.

The small, well-developed cast of characters and swift plot meant I was guaranteed a pleasurable read whenever I picked it up. Still, I was disappointed it didn’t develop into something more. There was a lot of untapped potential there, but perhaps it could have easily turned into something cheesy and altogether predictable had Burton gone down that route. I’ve noticed there are a few criticisms of the novel that say Nella grew in maturity a little too easily and become much more clever (and business-savvy) than her situation would rightly allow. I can’t speak for the business side, but I didn’t find her rapid maturity unrealistic. Nella is chucked in at the deep as soon as the book opens, and that kind of thing can make or break a person. I relate to that, so while Nella’s quick ascension from miserable young bride to head of the household (protecting the family’s political and financial interests) is not as believable as it might have been, it’s not the worst flaw I’ve spotted in a novel.

A small treat for me: my sister invited me to a talk in London where two authors, two publishers and an agent were speaking about the fiction industry on the whole – with Burton on the panel. It was similar to a Hay talk, in that the authors spoke about the creations of their books respectively and how they found the overall experience. It was pretty special to greet Burton during the drinks and nibbles after the talk and to tell her how much I liked the book – plus, her advice was inspiring. Give it a few years and I hope to be on a panel like that – hopefully not there to discuss the worst ever plummet in book sales.

Goodreads review: four stars. One knocked off the full five for the way it rapidly fizzled out, but otherwise, a pretty perfect book.

[Coming next: The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan]


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We Need New Names – NoViolet Bulawayo


I first heard of this book at Hay Festival in 2013. As you might remember from my other Hay blog posts, the festival puts on regular talks called ‘Fictions’, where one or two authors are probed about the latest novels they are promoting. NoViolet Bulawayo was in front of a tiny audience (with Meike Ziervogel promoting Magda) talking about We Need New Names; the book sounded vaguely interesting at the time, but I didn’t really consider picking it up. Then, a few months later, the book – her debut novel – was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Up against the mammoth contender The Luminaries it’s not overly surprising she didn’t scrape the top spot, but to be shortlisted is a pretty respectable start to a literary career, it’s got to be said. It wasn’t until last year that I had a chance to read it – no spoilers below.

The book follows 10-year-old Darling, a young girl growing up in Zimbabwe before being taken to the USA and spending her teenage years stateside. There’s no doubt an autobiographical element to that; Bulawayo also grew up in Zimbabwe, though she didn’t move to Michigan until she was a litte bit older. The novel is told in the voice of Darling, written in a simplistic style that’s easy to read – I raced through it in a matter of days – which is something particularly characteristic of African fiction written in English. In fact, certain sections reminded me of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (and the phrase ‘things fall apart’ was often used to describe the deteriorating state of Zimbabwe in WNNN).

At their Hay talk, Bulawayo and Ziervogel talked about writing about history from a fictional standpoint. In literature, you have to forget about facts and statistics, and instead submerge yourself into the story. Bulawayo said that writing about a crumbling society through the eyes of a child is powerful, as often children are the most vulnerable due to their ignorance and lack of control over what is happening around them. A child’s eye depoliticises a situation, meaning that the writer (and reader) must suspend their disbelief and look at the scenario through innocent eyes (even if they themselves have a lot of knowledge about it). It’s an effective technique but, personally, I’m not totally in love with it. It’s all right when you’re already familiar with a situation, but as an outsider with little or no knowledge it’s tricky to follow current affairs through the perspective of a child, considering children often have a warped understanding of what is happening or are simply uninterested in it. If I had done more research, maybe I wouldn’t feel that way about We Need New Names.

But then does that take away the point? There’s a poignant part in WNNN when the children take a local tragedy and turn it into a game, re-enacting it like a play. Darling’s voice becomes very adult at that point and we are subject to an astute description of the attackers, the victim, and the stoic faces watching the violence unfold with the knowledge that they are powerless to prevent it. When a BBC crew asks the children what game they are playing, one of her friends replies with (paraphrasing): ‘a game? No, this is real life.’ Seeing innocent children accept horrific violence as part of their normality is disturbing, to say the least.

My only criticism of the book is that it feels slightly rushed. It’s not very long, and if each character, very vivid in their own right, was given their due attention, it might feel a little more fleshed out. By the time the book ends we have only seen a brief glimpse into Darling’s life in America – I would have liked to have seen more of it, more of the trials and tribulations she faced there, as well as the generally confusing experience of growing up and going through puberty. Another thing that misled me was the timescale. When Darling was 10 and living a poverty-stricken life in Zimbabwe, her friends were talking about singing Lady Gaga, indicating that at that point in time, Gaga must have been fairly famous (to reach impoverished children in Zimbabwe, at least). However, a fair few years later (maybe 4 years?) when Darling is in America, she mentions a very recent scandal – when Rihanna was beaten up by her boyfriend Chris Brown. Lady Gaga released Just Dance (and began her climb to fame) in 2008, yet Rihanna was attacked by Chris Brown in 2009. Sure, it’s pedantic of me to point out, but given that there were very limited hints as to when the book was set, I relied on these cultural references to give it a framework. It felt a little jumbled.

Bulawayo mentioned at Hay that she was working on a collection of AIDS stories, again addressing a silence and taboo with a creative voice, on another subject that is personal to her. AIDS is touched on in WNNN, with it being described as ‘the sickness’ and presented as a real epidemic. I’m looking forward to seeing her approach to building stories around it, whenever it may appear.

Goodreads, then: four stars. It was written so well but the abruptness of the ending took it down a notch. I should be on the Booker committee at this rate.

[Coming next: The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel]

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The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks

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Cripes – it’s been a while! Things have been nuts over the last couple of months, and only now am I getting a chance to catch up with this blog – which is bad, because I’ve done a LOT of reading since my last post. You’ll notice that in my schedule I had Catch-22 and The Road down to blog about before this one, but I’ve shifted those back a bit. They both have famous films I’m dying to watch and analyse in their respective blog posts, but I haven’t had a chance or the means to watch either (yet) so for now, we’ll look at The Wasp Factory.

Ah, Iain Banks. Or Iain M. Banks, as you might know him, depending on your preference of fiction. Banks went by two pen-names to differentiate between his styles of fiction – mainstream literature as Iain Banks (which includes The Wasp Factory) and science-fiction as Iain M. Banks. Handy for when you spot his name on a dust jacket in a bookshop and are wondering what type of book it is. My dad in particular is a big fan of Iain M. Banks (not so much Iain Banks) and was disheartened to learn of his passing last year, at the relatively young age of 59. Let this review be written as something of a tribute, then, as we turn to the very start of Banks’ literary career.

The Wasp Factory was the first novel he wrote, published in 1984 (Banks was 30 at the time). One of the things that drew me to the book was the mention of an anti-hero – a particular love of mine, which I’ll go into later – but also the bizarre mix of reviews that featured in the paperback copy I found on my dad’s shelf. Alongside the usual glowing praise, there were reviews from critics that told readers to stay away from the book at all costs. Clever move from the marketing team: sell controversy and the novel is likely to fly off the shelves. If you bear in mind that my favourite book is A Clockwork Orange, you can see why this might have appealed to me. Spoilers ahead.

The story follows Frank, a dysfunctional teenager living on a tiny Scottish island. He’s a 16-year-old with an obsessive personality, someone who murdered for recreation in the past and has a habit of mutilating animals for what he believes are supernatural reasons. It’s a short novel and there isn’t a lot of plot, per se, but much of the story revolves around the return of Eric, Frank’s older brother who is completely mad and has escaped from a psychiatric hospital. Every now and then Eric will phone Frank, who lives with his father, to taunt him with this whereabouts and imply he is getting closer to home while Frank desperately tries to keep his father from suspecting anything. Frank kills time by killing animals, getting drunk with his friend Jamie, or catching wasps for his ‘Wasp Factory’, a strange death-trap he has set up for the insects that he believes will predict the future, depending on the wasps’ manner of death. As the book progresses, Eric draws closer, culminating in his (rather anti-climactic) arrival.

Eric is perhaps the most intriguing character in the novel. The highlights of the book are when he phones Frank, and Banks gets to demonstrate his witty dialogue and convey the overall disastrous experience of trying to talk to someone who is teasing you, is completely mad, and who you are afraid of aggravating, all at the same time. Eric’s backstory and descent into madness is explained and you get a sense that this character is quite tragic, particularly with the breakdown of the relationship between the two brothers. It’s a shame that his arrival isn’t quite the tense showdown you expect, mainly because a lot of Eric’s character revolves around his wordplay, and instead all we see of him at the end is a failed attempt to burn the house down with almost no dialogue whatsoever. There’s also another event that happens that detracts from the Eric storyline entirely – but I’ll explain that in a bit.

Why do I love an anti-hero? Part of what drew me to this book was the mention of a character who murders for fun, and I worry that makes me come across as pretty disturbed. I like to think this attraction is because I’m so far removed from that kind of character that I find them fascinating in fiction, and you get to see all sides of their personalities. Murderers and criminals are presented as classic villains in the media, men and women you expect were simply born out of the devil himself who are incapable of love, remorse, and affection for anything; in contrast, it’s interesting to see them in literature with outside interests and a level of emotion we simply don’t find elsewhere. Alex in A Clockwork Orange has his love of Beethoven. Pinkie in Brighton Rock has a confusing time with his love life. Frank here at least has some friends and some interests. It builds a slightly bigger picture of people who we expect to be completely one-dimensional, and I like that. But continuing with The Wasp Factory… it gets weird from here.

I intended for this review to be spoiler-free but there is such a big, bizarre twist at the end that I have to discuss it. Throughout the novel we learn that early in Frank’s life, he was mutilated by a dog who, er, bit off his genitals. I thought this seemed like a very odd character trait to be given, and indeed Frank seemed to live a remarkably normal life despite this rather severe setback, although he does lament how much he dislikes having to sit down to use the toilet, ‘like a woman’. Frank despises women and female traits, which makes his discovery at the end of the book all the more shocking. Right at the end, he inadvertently stumbles across male hormones, a pack of tampons, and his own minuscule genitals in his dad’s study – which end up to be made of plasticine. Frank was attacked by a dog when he was young, or rather FRANCES was – for Frank is in fact a girl, who has been tricked and secretly fed male hormones for his entire life as an ‘experiment’. Frank reflects that this might be why he murdered family members in the past and the cause of his fixation on destruction, but this isn’t delved into too much. Instead you, the reader, are left with a blank page and the overwhelming desire to shout ‘what the FU – ??’

I’m not sure how I feel about this novel on the whole. On the one hand, it feels slightly underdeveloped, almost what I think of as a Creative Writing project, which is when we (at university, myself and the fellow Creative Writing undergrads) would stumble around writing the kind of fiction that could evolve into some very good stuff, but we hadn’t yet learned how to structure a plot and create a satisfying experience for the reader. True, this was often because we’d written our class projects horribly hungover ten minutes before the seminar began (er, just me?) but you do get that kind of impression with The Wasp Factory, which seems quite self-aware, as if Banks was more focused on writing powerful description and proving himself as a talented writer than actually thinking about the emotional reactions of his readers. I think of that as an amateur quality.

On the other hand, the novel is rich with symbolism and a very good depiction of an obsessive, murderous personality. I could easily envision writing an essay about this book, going through and examining Frank’s character and how he has been nurtured to become the rather violent man (or woman?) he has become. It could even be a very good study for a feminist essay. Banks is undoubtedly a phenomenal writer and indeed, became very famous after (although not necessarily as a result of) this debut. The dialogue is sharp and the writing is witty, and some of the imagery is the most powerful I’ve ever read. On my search for a good book cover to include in this post, I stumbled across this one, and I can’t help thinking this is an inspired bit of symbolism:

wasp factory 2

There’s no adaptation as far as I’m aware, and I cannot imagine one ever being made. The descriptions are so gruesome in places that it would not be very enjoyable on screen, and I don’t know how the camera would be able to capture Frank’s internal conflict from an external viewpoint. But then, that’s why I’m not a filmmaker. Perhaps one day someone will take it on and do a very good job of it, but I won’t put any bets on it happening.

Goodreads, then: I gave this novel three stars. I think if it was slightly longer and we had a chance really explore the mentality of each character, it might get bumped up a notch, but as a short novel it’s a solid three. Still, as a debut, it’s not bad at all – and it certainly didn’t dent the career of a great writer.

[Coming next: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller]

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White Teeth – Zadie Smith

White Teeth 1

[Note: spoilers ahead! I do mention the ending in this blog post, but I provide warning before discussing it specifically.]

White Teeth was on my to-read list for a long time. The book was published back in 2000, and I always had a vague awareness of Zadie Smith being this amazing young British novelist who was on everyone’s radars, but I didn’t actually pick up her debut novel until quite recently. I actually read her latest, NW, before I read this – NW is one of those books that constantly challenges conventional style and narrative structure, so reading it by the pool as a casual holiday read was pretty interesting, to say the least. White Teeth, however, is a much simpler (but no less rewarding) read that follows two families across two generations (and occasionally three or four, if we’re counting flashbacks).

I always remember my Aunty Janet talking about White Teeth and saying: ‘it’s amazing that she [Smith] was so young when she wrote it, yet so wise.’ I’ve always both admired and envied that idea, considering I’m writing a book now in my early twenties – which will probably turn out to be the least wise thing you could ever read. After reading White Teeth, I’m full of more admiration and envy than ever before. Smith supposedly finished the novel during her last year at university (Cambridge, which partly explains the wisdom, I suppose) and would have been 24 or 25 when it was published in its complete form, but the book definitely has a much more mature feel to it. That seems to be a bit of a theme for me at the moment – I’m currently reading Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, which won the Man Booker prize last year and made her the youngest Booker winner ever at 28 – again, it’s astonishing to read it and think that a 28-year-old wrote such a profound plot with such historical accuracy. But more on that another time! Back to White Teeth.

It’s difficult to pinpoint one protagonist – at the start, the novel follows Archibald ‘Archie’ Jones and his friend Samad Miah Iqbal in the early seventies, old friends who marry their wives in North West London, Clara and Alsana respectively. As the novel progresses, we learn about their early lives in the war together and their future lives with their children: Archie and Clara with a daughter, Irie, who becomes the novel’s later protagonist, and Samad and Alsana with identical twin sons, Magid and Millat. If you look at Smith’s early life, you can see that Irie was perhaps a semi-autobiographical character: both were born in 1975 in North London to a Jamaican mother and English father; both struggled with weight and the pressures of appearance. I don’t know how much of Irie’s academic struggles and love life are true to Smith’s, but she certainly manages to capture the insecurities of a mixed-race teenage girl in the nineties the way only someone who experienced it first-hand could.

I love books that span years and generations (one of my favourites is Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, which I’m sure I’ll blog about at some point) so this was right up my street. There’s something quite leisurely about these kind of books, like you can take your time reading them and they don’t wear thin. I definitely took my time reading White Teeth, and it’s not a short novel by any standards (500 pages or so) so it felt that by the time I reached the end, a lot of the earlier events felt like distant memories. I also liked the way different characters took the hotseat when it came to narration; although it’s not narrated in first person, we look at different events through different perspectives and it paints a very colourful picture. The writing is smart and witty, although I’ve spotted some readers mention on the internet that it often feels like Smith dislikes her readers. I didn’t get that impression when I read the book but I can recall parts that became slightly preachy, perhaps, or tell instead of the show the readers certain incidents (a common writing no-no, and one I am always painfully aware of when writing fiction, although it can be acceptable in certain circumstances). Still, no book is perfect, and you can’t expect glowing reviews all around.

But for all its simple and accurate depiction of life in North West London, White Teeth had some strange and occasionally disturbing moments. What freaked me out the most? The ending. And it is here I say look away now if you have any intention of reading the novel (which I do recommend). So close your eyes and skip to the next paragraph! Spoilers below…

What happens when you have sex with identical twins on the same night (not together! Bleurgh) and fall pregnant? Whose baby is it? Irie faces this very conundrum and laments that no DNA test in the world would be able to tell her who the father is, given that both boys have identical genes. This idea horrified me, even though it is presented as a real emotional freedom for Irie; she gets to choose who the father is and doesn’t feel any underlying guilt about telling the wrong one, simply because she isn’t sure who the wrong one is. It did throw up some stranger complex issues that I tried to get my head around – does this mean all identical twins are somehow also the parents of their sibling’s offspring, if we see genetic inheritance as a big part of biological parenthood? Does Irie’s baby, in a sense, belong to both Magid and Millat? Plus, given that she is infatuated with one twin (who doesn’t reciprocate her love and would probably make a terrible dad) yet the other twin is smart and mature, you’re genuinely unsure who she will pick. In the end, a confusing flash-forward tells us that she doesn’t actually choose but prefers to keep her daughter’s father anonymous, although we are not given much time to dwell on this before the novel ends.

White Teeth doesn’t have a film adaptation as far as I can tell, but Channel 4 did adapt it into a four-part TV drama starring Naomie Harris and an unexpected early performance from James McAvoy (this is pre-Shameless, even). It aired back in 2002 but it’s still in 4OD’s archive and available to watch online. I haven’t had a chance to catch it yet but I’ve heard it’s very good, although I think they gloss up some of the characters for TV viewing purposes. I also notice from the poster, which you can see below, that the focus might be slightly different – Josh, the character James McAvoy played, was very minor compared to the twins Magid and Millat (both played by Jacob Scipio), yet it is McAvoy who’s on the poster, which makes me wonder if he has much more to do with the television plot than the one from the book. It’s interesting that 4OD considers it a comedy – while it was funny in places and maybe had some very stereotypically comedic characters, I didn’t read it as a comedy, more of a drama. I’ll be interested to find out if the adaptation did turn it more into a comedy, or if it kept its dramatic roots.

White Teeth 2

There’s an app called Goodreads where you can log every book you’ve read and give it a star rating (and a review, if you fancy), so I thought it would be a cool idea to end all of these blog posts with the star rating I’ve given the book on Goodreads. I’m quite fussy with my five stars but White Teeth was one I planted all five on. When a book can cover an Englishman’s experience in the war with the same emotional depth and detail as a young mixed-race girl’s experience in North London in the nineties, it feels pretty deserving. I’ve heard Smith’s writing a sci-fi novel soon, which excites me beyond belief – I can’t wait to see her turn her hand and her beautiful prose style to the more fantastical and unpredictable plots that often occupy sci-fi books. No doubt I’ll be discussing it here, so watch this space!

[Coming next: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey]

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