Hot Little Hands – Review

This review originally appeared on Lip Mag.


Watching Lena Dunham’s Girls for the first time was an edifying experience. A large part of the show’s appeal for me—and perhaps for countless other teenagers and women in their early twenties—was its flawed and often hapless characters, who are relatable precisely because of their faults. Here was Hannah Horvath: podgy, solipsistic beyond help, ambitious but ill-disciplined, the antithesis to Carrie Bradshaw. Here, so rarely seen on screen, was realistic sex (and bad sex) and uncertain relationships, imperfection and insecurity. Here were girls (perhaps not quite mature enough to call themselves ‘women’ yet), who—like so many of us—were ‘almost getting it kind of together’.

If I thought Girls was original, reading Abigail Ulman’s debut collection of short stories, Hot Little Hands, was something of a revelation. Her protagonists are all female, aged thirteen to thirty, and captured at liminal periods in their lives. There is something strikingly familiar about Ulman’s stories, which pulse with vitality and veracity; her characters’ narratives are in part our own. In the three stories that feature Claire Oglind, a cinema studies PhD candidate, we recognise her struggle with the responsibility of incipient adulthood; in ‘Head To Toe’, about two best friends who have racked up notable experience in the hallucinogenic and sexual spheres, we remember our teenage desire for experimentation; and in ‘Plus One’, in 22-year-old blogger Amelia, we understand the lack of motivation causing her struggle to deliver on a significant book deal. 

Ulman’s fiction exhibits such astute perception of mannerism and behaviour that one might easily mistake some of the stories narrated in first-person for personal essays. What is particularly brilliant is her mastery of dialogue, which has all the nuance, irreverence and illogic of reality. Non-sequiturs vivify passages like implicit stage directions. Used most dazzlingly in ‘Head To Toe’, a few subtle lines are enough to reveal a previous sexual tryst between teenagers Zach and Elise, which sets Elise up for some ribbing from her best friend, Jenni:

‘You can chuck your stuff upstairs in my room,’ [Zach] said.

‘Cool,’ said Jenni. ‘Lead the way, Lise.’

‘Shut up,’ said Elise.

‘That was at my mum’s house,’ Zach said.

Many of the stories in Hot Little Hands end with no clear resolution, which for the most part adds to their verisimilitude. Life is messy; ambivalence and uncertainty abound. Neatly tied endings would seem too contrived for Ulman’s characters. For most of them, full-fledged maturity and composure seem just beyond grasp. Claire, the PhD student, describes herself as someone who has technically come of age without emotionally having done so. In the processes of self-discovery, in trying to get it ‘kind of together’, questionable decisions are inevitably made: Amelia, the wunderkind blogger, decides to avoid writing her contracted book by intentionally getting pregnant; in ‘Same Old Same As’, another story, the protagonist Ramona appears to use the trauma of her sexual abuse as a tool for canvassing popularity among school friends.

Several of Ulman’s stories have features of the Bildungsroman, or coming-of-age tale, in which experience is gained and innocence is lost. The haunting ‘Warm-Ups’ most closely observes this form, in which Kira, a 13-year-old Russian gymnast, prepares to travel to San Diego with her teammates and coach. Kira’s grandmother, who has never been to America, laments the girl’s departure, explaining that upon her return Kira will ‘be a woman of the world.’ Claire’s journey is thematically similar: she has left her family and friends behind in London to pursue her PhD at Stanford University. Then there’s Sascha, who spends a day with her high school science teacher in ‘Chagall’s Wife’, who describes that her sexual awakening at age 12 was like ‘being admitted into a new world’.

Ulman’s characters, who are still at stages of their lives when the pressure of others’ perceptions is acutely felt, often act with reckless abandon and studied insouciance that belies their underlying vulnerability. Take Claire: she is newly pregnant when we first meet her, and unintentionally so: it’s ‘for a limited time only’, she declares flippantly to a total stranger; later, she jokingly offers the baby to two ‘grown-up’ friends. Her nonchalance serves as a coping mechanism for a fragility that we are only occasionally privy to. These glimpses are rendered brilliantly, and with muted pathos. For example: ‘“I used to look at your tattoos and think I would still be looking at them when I was old,”’ she tells an ex; or, ‘‘If I was Nicolas Cage I’d be elbowing someone in the jaw right now, but I’m me, so I cry tears onto my feet and watch them sink into my shoes.’

In Lena Dunham’s own debut book, Not That Kind Of Girl, which last year graced the New York Times Best Seller list and the Instagram accounts of veteran non-readers, she decries that ‘there are still so many forces conspiring to tell women that…we lack the gravitas necessary for our stories to matter.’ The significance of Hot Little Hands, which is so enthrallingly and candidly about women, stands counter to such prejudice. It is a debut that demands to be read and discussed. Here is a collection loud with the stories of a generation of young women; Ulman exquisitely gives them their deserved voices.


Hot LIttle Hands

by Abigail Ulman

Hamish Hamilton, 2015


The Strays – Review

This review originally appeared on The Newtown Review of BooksSince then, The Strays has gone on to win the 2015 Stella Prize.


It comes as no surprise that Emily Bitto’s haunting debut, The Strays, is on the shortlist for this year’s Stella Prize. Bitto’s well-constructed novel, primarily set in 1930s Melbourne, conveys vividly the lives of bohemians, the ties of family, sibling rivalry, and female friendship.

The novel is narrated, in 1985, by a middle-aged woman named Lily, who reflects on her childhood spent in the household of Evan Trentham, an avant-garde Modernist painter. Evan is the father of Lily’s childhood best friend, Eva. He and his wife, Helena, live with their three daughters in suburban Melbourne, in a large house on impressive land with a well-tended garden. In the midst of the Depression and against what they perceive to be the stiflingly bourgeois art establishment, the Trenthams give their patronage to budding young Modernists. The household soon turns into a commune of artists, heady with parties, affairs, flowing drink, banned books and, of course, irresponsible parenting. The three Trentham girls are often shushed or told to ‘buzz off’ by their mother, Helena, and dismissed as ‘progeny’ to their faces by Evan, their father.

Inextricably linked to perceptions about talent and genius is the common belief that great creatives are badly suited to domestic felicity, that above all else a true artist is selfishly wedded to his or her work. Tolstoy, in an 1863 diary entry, lamented, ‘Family happiness completely absorbs me, and it’s impossible to do anything.’ Jean Rhys, who only came to know her daughter in adulthood, was described by her editor Diana Athill as being ‘no better at motherhood than she was at filling hot-water bottles’, which is to say, totally inept. Manic and volatile, creatives are supposed to make notoriously bad parents.

This perhaps excuses Evan Trentham’s laissez-faire yet warm attitude towards his daughters, but doesn’t let his wife off the hook so easily. Helena Trentham is no Modernist star herself, but an amateur who paints miniatures and expresses no more than a moderate interest in collaborating with her husband on his work. Her real interests are gardening, drinking, and socialising. It is Helena who primarily draws in other artists, knits their social circle tight. Despite her disingenuousness, Helena has a lasting impact upon Lily, who even in middle age identifies the woman as ‘the mother figure that I have fought against my whole life’. With or without excuses, ultimately both the Trentham parents’ choices and inaction render them largely culpable for the dark misfortunes that befall their daughters. The book’s narrative structure – told retrospectively, with the hindsight of a much older woman – calls into question the adage that time heals all wounds.

Bitto’s commune, termed the Melbourne Modern Art Group, is clearly based on the real-life Heide Circle, which was established by John and Sunday Reed in the mid-1930s. Part II of Bitto’s novel is entitled, in homage, ‘The Circle’. The Reeds, like the Trenthams, lived on a property in suburban Melbourne, where over time pre-eminent artists like Sidney Nolan, Albert Tucker, and Danila Vassilieff would work. In a mid-1940s photograph, Sunday Reed stands by the front door of Heide in a garden that is as lush and wild as Helena Trentham’s. The criticism that the fictional Melbourne Modern Art Group encounters (their art is described as ‘terrible and degenerate’ in one newspaper article) parallels the prevailing anti-Modernist sentiment in Australia during the interwar period.

Despite its specific historical context, The Strays is strikingly imaginative. Bitto examines characters whose lives are usually seen as peripheral to the grand narratives of great artists: the relatives and friends of celebrated individuals; colleagues who never become successful. Her prose is often figurative – effortlessly so, it seems, and never overdone. Many of her sentences are so remarkable they demand rereading, from simple gems like ‘the beams of headlights painted the side of the house’, to the more visceral:

I wonder if Evan and Helena ever thought of themselves as the source from which their own children would run in time, the blood whose welling-up their daughters would try to staunch with the tourniquet of friends, lovers and children.

Much of the novel is told from Lily’s perspective in youth, and astutely describes the minutiae of childhood: burrowing oneself into a mother’s dress, sliding backwards down a staircase banister, the surreptitious pilfering of contraband, the unembarrassed ease of making friends.

One of the goals of the Stella Prize is to celebrate Australian women’s writing. The Strays, a deftly plotted, carefully crafted narrative about art, trauma and female friendship, wouldn’t be badly placed to take home the top gong.


The Strays

by Emily Bitto

Affirm Press, 2014


The Buried Giant – Review

This review originally appeared on Writer’s Edit
Kazuo Ishiguro, one of the most celebrated British writers of the post-war generation, is one of those novelists who inspires a mixture of awe and envy in writerly circles. In 1989 The Remains of the Day won the Booker, a prize for which three of his other novels have also been shortlisted. The book was adapted into a feature film, as was his 2005 dystopian novel, Never Let Me Go. Ishiguro has achieved both popular success and critical acclaim. Rendered in characteristically pared-back prose, his books touch on themes like love, mortality, and the unreliability of memory. Quiet and understated, Ishiguro’s writing often strikes a skilful balance between restraint and emotiveness. His seventh novel, The Buried Giant, is no exception, although stylistically it differs significantly from his previous work.

The novel takes place in the Dark Ages following the Roman withdrawal from England, which marks a bold departure in setting. Variety in geographical location characterises Ishiguro’s oeuvre: his first two novels were set in Japan, The Unconsoled (1995) in an unnamed European city, and When We Were Orphans (2000) in early-20th century Shanghai. The Buried Giant sees Ishiguro return to the English countryside, although in his latest novel it is far from the tranquil idyll that Kathy traverses in Never Let Me Go.

An elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, set out on a journey to find their son, whom they have not seen in many years. They must travel across a land that abounds in ruins, bandits, ogres, dragons and other fantastical creatures. The novel has all the fittings of a quest narrative with recognisable fantasy tropes to boot; yet, it is astoundingly rich, and finely layered with allusion and allegory. We meet an aged Sir Gawain, the nephew of King Arthur, now dressed in ‘rusted chain-mail and mounted on a weary steed’; boatmen ferry passengers and separate couples whose love is deemed impure, evoking Charon’s ferrying souls across the River Styx; and the name Beatrice calls to mind Dante’s ideal woman in the Divine Comedy.

There are several passages in the novel, particularly those involving the loquacious Gawain and his earnest babble, that are wonderfully comical. If Ishiguro draws upon Sir Gawain and the White Knight, so he does too upon Monty Python. While Gawain’s apparent harmlessness belies his true ability, he is certainly no less entertaining than the Holy Grail’s Black Knight.

Ishiguro has admitted that finding a suitable setting for the novel proved difficult, which was partly the reason book took so long to write (although he published Nocturnes, a collection of short stories about love and music, in 2009, The Buried Giant is his first novel in a decade). In a BBC Front Row interview with John Wilson, Ishiguro mentions that he had discussed an early incarnation of the book with an audience in Japan as early as 2001. In writing the novel, Ishiguro’s goal was to examine the collective forgetting that a society must undertake in the wake of profound trauma. He initially entertained setting the novel in post-war Japan or France, or former Yugoslavia, but feared that by tethering the narrative to reality, the book would be perceived as dealing specifically with only one particular historical instance.

In The Remains of the Day, the story is told through the perspective of Stevens the butler, whose recollection of events is unreliable. At its heart, the novel addresses the obfuscation and revisionism that can occur when an individual is confronted with uncomfortable or shameful memories. The role of memory is also central to The Buried Giant, this time on a larger scale. Across England, there is a pervasive mist that causes people to forget things, resulting in a widespread amnesia. Beatrice and Axl can neither remember what their son looks like nor the reason for his departure many years ago. The memory loss is ‘like a sickness come over us all’, Beatrice tells her husband. Occasionally, snippets of memory come back to Axl, and like him we try to piece them together to reconcile his present life with an unfamiliar past. We never quite find out, however, how Axl and Beatrice know with certainty that their son is waiting for them in his own village, or why Axl never fails to remember to address his wife as ‘princess’.

With the shift in focus from individual to collective memory also comes a change in narrative voice. Unlike his previous six novels, The Buried Giant is for the most part narrated in third person. The choice is effective, allowing Ishiguro to examine both societal memory and the function of shared memories of love in a long relationship. Like Kathy and Tommy in Never Let Me Go, who although young are doomed to short lives, as old people Axl and Beatrice must come to terms with the meaning of their love in the face of mortality.

The Buried Giant, rich with allegory and adventure, seems to have all the necessary elements for instant success. Ishiguro’s fantastical, pseudo-historical world is brought to life by vivid—almost cinematic—descriptions of landscape and setting. As his loudest, most fast-paced novel, it will be interesting to see how The Buried Giant translates on-screen: Hollywood heavyweight Scott Rudin has already optioned the film rights.


The Buried Giant

by Kazuo Ishiguro

Faber and Faber, 2015


The First Bad Man – Review

This review originally appeared on The Newtown Review of Books.


Critics of writer, filmmaker and artist Miranda July’s work might swiftly dismiss The First Bad Man, her first novel, as another glib narrative filled with quirky characters who do implausible things. While there is no shortage of eccentricity – this is a world in which psychologists pee in Chinese takeaway containers to avoid convoluted trips to the bathroom and in which sexagenarian board members evangelise about chromotherapists who prescribe the essence of white, whatever that means, as tinea treatment – to scorn the novel as lightweight would be to overlook its exploration of the universal yen for human connection.

The novel’s protagonist is 43-year-old Cheryl Glickman, who, for going on three decades, has been an employee of Open Palm, a Californian self-defence non-profit. She has a mystic connection with a baby she’s named Kubelko Bondy, whose consciousness is ‘hosted’ by other infants, and who is the only person she feels a ‘real and permanent’ bond with. She searches him out in other children and even in pregnant women – not all babies are Kubelko, she informs us – and they mentally converse whenever she finds him.

Cheryl suffers from a psychosomatic throat constriction, lives alone and has a particular ‘system’ of organisation that gives her a ‘smoother living experience’. All of us from time to time put off doing the dishes or the washing: indolence with respect to household chores is by no means uncommon. Which is where Cheryl’s system, energy-saving to the point of absurd hilarity, comes in. To prevent descent into squalor, Cheryl suggests eating directly out of the cooking pan on a hot pad instead of from dinner plates, which just get dirty and pile up. ‘Does the pan need to be washed? Not if you only eat savory things out of it.’ She advocates thinking twice before moving an object from its usual spot; reading a book is best done standing next to the shelf, or better still, not at all. When the system works well, ‘it gets silky to the point where I can’t even feel myself anymore, as if I don’t exist’.

Cheryl’s well-ordered and quiet life is upended when she is pushed into allowing Clee, the 20-year-old daughter of her Open Palm bosses, to move in with her. Clee, who is beautiful if grubby, spends most of her time watching TV, drinking giant bottles of Diet Pepsi, eating frozen meals and bullying Cheryl. Clee’s truculence develops into a Fight Club-esque game of physical confrontations between the two women. Cheryl finds it both painful and therapeutic: after each scuffle, the sensation of the lump in her throat miraculously disappears. These sessions evolve into role-plays of Open Palm self-defence scenarios, which to Cheryl become increasingly erotic. She subsequently experiences out-of-body fantasies in which she inhabits the ‘stiff members’ of numerous men and ravishes Clee.

The First Bad Man’s exploration of desire typifies July’s fascination with sex and what it entails: ‘shame and humiliation and fantasies and longing’, as she said in a 2011 New York Times interview. It is a common theme in her work: in her first feature film, Me and You and Everyone We Know, sexual transgression is perpetrated by two teenage girls who fellate their middle-aged neighbour for practice; ‘Something That Needs Nothing’, a story that appeared in July’s popular 2007 collection No One Belongs Here More Than You, is narrated by a young lesbian who sexually services an older woman and works as a peep-show performer for rent money.

Cheryl’s displacement of her desires into the bodies of other men reflects her own disconnectedness from her sexuality, later resolved by her coming out. Genuine connection proves largely elusive in the novel: July’s characters pursue relationships that too often turn out to be fleeting, unstable and unfulfilling. Adult relations are off-kilter and often sadistic: there is the 65-year-old board member who seeks Cheryl’s permission to consummate a relationship with a teenager via blow-by-blow text message updates (pun intended); or the psychologist who plays a submissive role in ‘an immensely satisfying adult game’ that ultimately leaves her bereft. At one point, Cheryl muses:

What was the lifespan of these improbable loves? An hour. A week. A few months at best. The end was a natural thing, like the seasons, like getting older, fruit turning. That was the saddest part – there was no one to blame and no way to reverse it.

The exception is Cheryl’s bond with Kubelko, the novel’s only stable one, which forms the basis of another maternal connection. The last quarter of the novel focuses sharply on the minutiae of motherhood and seems to have been influenced by July’s own experiences (she submitted the manuscript to her publishers when she was pregnant with her son Hopper, now three). Everything, from the stages of embryonic development to meeting milestones, to breast pumping, is covered. Couched in the prosaic details of Cheryl’s day-to-day role as a single mother is a striking rendering of maternity, an experience both ordinary and indescribably extraordinary. It is here that the novel shines: with the breathlessness and heartbreak relationships can bring, with the promise of growth and the future, and with the tenderness and empowerment of a mother’s love.

An artist in many mediums, July has recently said that what comforts her most about the book is ‘to know that the next thing I’m going to do is completely different’. The First Bad Man, like much of July’s work, feels singular and truly original. Layered beneath character quirks and fighting games and sexual fantasies is an unabashedly honest representation of connection and longing. Here’s hoping for more of the same.


The First Bad Man

by Miranda July

Canongate, 2015


Rosewater – Film Review

A version of this review originally appeared on Right Now.


In mid-February, Jon Stewart hinted at restlessness in announcing that he was leaving the satirical news programme The Daily Show after 16 years as its host. His desire to pursue other projects was perhaps whetted by his screenwriting and directorial debut, Rosewater, which he took time off hosting to make in 2013.

The feature-length film, which was recently screened in Brisbane by the Queensland Committee for Oxfam Australia, is based on the memoir of Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari. Days before Iran’s presidential election in 2009, Bahari did a satirical interview with The Daily Show correspondent Jason Jones, who pretended to be an American spy. Ironically, footage of The Daily Show segment was ludicrously used as proof that Bahari was a spy for the West; he was wrongfully arrested in Tehran four days after the episode aired and would spend the next four months in solitary confinement.

Stewart’s film is a moving exploration of endurance, the value of freedom of expression, and the indomitability of the human spirit in the face of the capricious forces that can so swiftly remove one’s liberties. To whatever extent it was inspired by a sense of culpability for Bahari’s arrest, Rosewater is also driven by Stewart’s interest in what he calls ‘the absurdity of totalitarian regimes’.

The film centres on the events surrounding Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disputed re-election, which triggered nationwide protests that persisted for seven months after his supposed landslide victory in June 2009. Stewart conveys the public furore with a documentarian’s eye; historical footage of demonstrations and international news reports are interspersed between filmed scenes of protestors chanting, ‘We want freedom!’ Scenes in which Twitter hashtags are digitally superimposed and spread over buildings accurately capture the zeitgeist of the protests, in which social media played a crucial role as it later would during the Arab Spring.

Following his arrest, Bahari – played by the excellent Gael García Bernal – who was at the time a reporter for American weekly news magazine Newsweek, is repeatedly questioned, beaten, and made to give false confessions, often while blindfolded. He comes to recognise his interrogator – played by Danish actor Kim Bodnia – by the rosewater fragrance the man wears. The film presents a toned-down version of the torture and violence the real-life Bahari experienced, which is an astute choice on Stewart’s part; screening the true extent of the brutality experienced would take the film into darker and more despondent territory, contravening its largely hopeful tone as well as dissuading viewers of a squeamish nature.

Stewart injects much humour and levity into the film despite the grimness of Bahari’s imprisonment. The cultural ignorance of the interrogator, dubbed ‘Rosewater’, forms the basis for several surprisingly uproarious moments. During one interrogation session, Rosewater demands emphatically, ‘Where is Anton Chekhov?’ Bahari, bemused, tries to ascertain whether he is talking about the Russian playwright. The interrogator’s response exposes equal confusion: ‘‘It is you who have listed him as an interest on Facebook!’ he exclaims.

The accusations leveled against Bahari are often ludicrous to the point of hilarity; he is exhorted to confess that he is a spy for “CIA, MI6, [Jewish intelligence agency] Mossad and Newsweek…the media arm for CIA”. (In another twist of irony that brings the arc full circle, Stewart has been accused on Iranian state television of being aided by the CIA for his work on the film.)

The interrogator’s paranoia, however, is a hangover of justifiable suspicion, which American films often conveniently overlook. Not Stewart’s though; the interrogator brings up the CIA’s role in orchestrating the 1953 Iranian coup d’état that ousted the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh. By its own admission, which only came in 2013, the CIA systematically bribed Iranian politicians and army officials in order to overthrow Mossadegh, and did so ‘as an act of US foreign policy’. In this context, Rosewater’s accusations, though no less ridiculous, are perhaps more understandable. ‘We kicked America out of the door,’ he says, ‘and you will bring them back through the window.’

Given its underlying criticism of previous American foreign policy, it is perhaps too much to expect the film’s main language to be Farsi. The majority of the film’s audience, after all, are likely to be Americans, who — if the history of American-produced foreign shows is anything to go by — balk even at the idea of British-accented English let alone subtitled foreign languages. The Iranians in Rosewater are relegated to uttering occasional Farsi words for greetings or emphasis. Fortunately, authenticity is not a prerequisite for sincerity.

What makes Rosewater so poignant is the countless others who are currently experiencing the unjust and wrongful treatment that Bahari underwent. Upon being released from prison, the character reflects: ‘My joy is tempered by those I left behind. People that did not have the advantage of international attention. Countrymen and women whose only crime against the state is not believing in its perfection.’

It is a sentiment that rings particularly true in the case of the recent release of Australian journalist, Peter Greste, whose two former co-prisoners are currently awaiting retrial in Egypt. While Baher Mohammed, an Al-Jazeera producer, may have benefited from the international spotlight directed toward his fellow journalists, unlike Greste and Egyptian-Canadian Mohamed Fahmy he has no foreign citizenship as recourse to guarantee his freedom and deportation. Although Peter Greste and Maziar Bahari have found freedom, the struggle continues.



Dir. Jon Stewart



The House in Smyrna – Review

A version of this review originally appeared in Lip Mag.


According to Martin Amis, that sharp satirist and white male English literary giant, there are two things that literature can’t do. The first is sex. Amis agrees with his father, Kingsley (that bigoted white male English literary giant), who believed that sex has the effect of de-universalising the reading experience. Good sex, Amis junior opines, is out of the question. Fiascos are acceptable for their comic value, as are novels in which everything revolves around sex—for example, he cites the brilliant Lolita. The second is dreams. ‘Tell a dream, lose a reader,’ Henry James said. Tatiana Salem Levy’s debut novel, The House in Smyrna, tries to do both, with unexpected results.

Translated from its original Portuguese (Levy is Brazilian), The House in Smyrna is narrated by a suffering female who in alternating sections dialogues with her dead mother; addresses an abusive partner; and narrates her grandfather’s immigration from Turkey to Brazil, her parents’ temporary exile in Portugal, and her own journey to back to these countries. The switching between situations—each kept short, with spare prose—creates a dreamlike effect: the novel reads like a sequence of snippets of letters, memories, and indeed, dreams. The narrator has nightmares about being locked in her grandfather’s house in Smyrna, which in ‘real life’ she sets out to Turkey to find. In others sections, she says:

I tell (make up) this story about my ancestors, this story of immigration and its losses, this story about the key to the house in Smyrna, about my hope of returning to the place that my forebears came from,

implying that the writing process is a vehicle for her to resolve the pain caused by her mother’s death and her partner’s abuse. The narrator—as unreliable ones tend to do—blurs the lines between reality and fiction, and we don’t know whether her trip to Turkey is ‘real’ or written. As a result, the woman’s dreams are contiguous, rather than in conflict with the novel’s reality. Levy tells a dream and the reader reads on.

With respect to sex, Amis may have a point. There is plenty of sex in The House in Smyrna, much of it cringe-worthy. Often, the loftiness of the prose verges on comical in its incongruity: ‘I remained standing while you implored something between my legs, in a language understood only by the two of you, my clitoris and your mouth’; ‘Your penis was hard, upright, and I liked seeing it like that, as if it were looking at me too.’ There are also overcooked similes about vulnerability: ‘It was as if you were touching my organs directly, my blood, my flesh, without any protection.’ These scenes are, as Kingsley put it, de-universalising, because they create a rift between writer and reader by causing one to doubt whether people really think such abstract things when having sex, or as Levy puts more loftily, ‘making love’.

Sex, however, is important to the novel insofar as it relates to central ideas about the body. The narrator’s body is both an object of desire and a vessel through which she fulfils her own longings. On the first date with her partner, she recalls: ‘I listened to every word and felt my body quake: with fear, desire, happiness.’ Eventually, when their relationship sours, sex becomes the means by which the body is degraded, which removes agency and causes the paralysis the narrator professes to suffer from in the book’s opening paragraph: ‘I wouldn’t know what to do with this body that has been unable to move ever since it came into the world.’ The scenes in which the sexual assault is described are raw, confronting and genuinely tragic: disturbing reminders of the horrors of domestic violence. On top of her, her partner ‘delighted in my pain, and asked: Isn’t it good?’

Pain and physical suffering are acutely felt by the narrator, partly as an aftereffect of abuse, partly as a result of her mother’s death, and partly due to the weight of the past that she feels burdening her. Decay of the body is frequently alluded to: the narrator tends to her dying mother, ‘covered with sores, riddled with holes, filled with pus, with its acidic smell, its smell of death’; in another section, her own body is ‘Dilacerated, covered in open wounds, purple and yellow spots, boils.’ Death, she says to her mother, ‘had been lying in wait for us the whole time’. Saying goodbye is a major theme of the book. But beyond death, beyond the moving meditation about losing those who are dear to you, the novel is about what it is to love and to live.


The House in Smyrna

by Tatiana Salem Levy

Scribe, 2015


On Immunity – Review

A version of this review originally appeared in edition #477 of The Big Issue.


Much of the antagonism that characterises the debate about vaccination involves stereotyping that pits ‘ignorant mothers’ against ‘educated doctors’, writes Eula Biss. On Immunity narrows the divide: it’s an exploration of the history, effectiveness and safety of vaccines, as well as a personal account of a first-time mother’s anxieties. Given our interdependence on each others’ immune systems, Biss contends that choosing to vaccinate is to fulfill collective responsibility.


The book is both well-researched and interesting. Her explanations of scientific concepts are clear and stripped of medical jargon. Any dryness is averted by the inclusion of informative tidbits: about historical vaccination at gunpoint, chickenpox lollipops, that the term ‘conscientious objector’ originally designated someone refusing vaccination, or that 25% of American adults still incorrectly believe that vaccines cause autism. Beyond medicine, Biss draws on history and literature— everything from Greek mythology to Dracula and pop culture vampires. Both broad and detailed, the book is a compelling case for the undeniable benefits of vaccination.


On Immunity: An Inoculation

by Eula Biss

Text Publishing, 2015


Lolita – Review

As a preface, of sorts, to this essay, I want to begin by admitting that I made the rather demoralising choice of reading Christopher Hitchens’s 2005 The Atlantic piece entitled ‘Hurricane Lolita’ after having already written my own. No prizes for guessing whose pales in comparison (although I would advise desisting from his until after you’ve read the novel). In the introduction to Hitchens’s 2011 book of essays, Arguably (in which his Nabokov piece is included), he writes: ‘It took me decades to dare the attempt, but finally I did write about Vladimir Nabokov…’ I have dared, perhaps rather prematurely, to write about Lolita, and the ersatz result is an essay that cannot possibly do the novel justice, and which I will, in all likelihood, later come to detest. But, alas, one must try to hone their craft, however crude the prototype. In an optimistic mood I might tell myself, quoting from Macbeth, which I seem to do a lot in this essay: ‘My strange and self-abuse / Is the initiate fear that wants hard use.’

In a recent interview with CBC’s fantastic Eleanor Wachtel, Martin Amis expressed his belief that Lolita ‘may be the richest comedy in the language’: he cites the book’s complexity of humour, the fact that it engages with the ‘laughter of disgust, self-disgust.’ That the tale of the sexual abuse of a twelve-year-old girl could be humorous may beggar belief, but Amis’s assertion isn’t far off the mark. The brilliance of Nabokov’s most celebrated novel is indisputable, and it lies in the fact that taboo and troubling subject matter is rendered so beautifully by playful and lyrical prose. Nabokov once declared to his university students that ‘it is no use reading a book at all if you do not read it with your back.’ The shiver of delight he refers to, which he believed to be ‘quite certainly the highest form of emotion that humanity has attained when evolving pure art and science,’ is precisely what one experiences again and again in reading Lolita.

The book is framed as a memoir: it has been written, we are told in the prologue, by self-styled Humbert Humbert during the period of his incarceration. It details the particulars of his ‘humiliating, sordid, taciturn love life’, which may not have eventuated in his affaire du coeur with poor little Dolores ‘Lolita’ Haze had he not had a teenage relationship another ‘girl-child’ in ‘a princedom by the sea.’ Humbert, a Frenchman who moved to the US in 1939 because he felt his ‘life needed a shake-up’, grew up in his father’s hotel on the French Riviera, where at age thirteen (1923) he fell in love with Annabel Leigh, a half-English half-Dutch girl a few months his junior. Humbert’s memories of the attachment echo that of Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘Annabel Lee’:

I was a child and she was a child,

In this kingdom by the sea,

But we loved with a love that was more than love—

I and my Annabel Lee—

With a love that the wingèd seraphs of Heaven

Coveted her and me.

Humbert’s darling Annabel and he ‘were madly, clumsily, shamelessly, agonizingly in love with each other.’ Their trysts – as teenage ones often are – were limited by parental suspicion to surreptitious romps in public places, and unfortunately for Humbert, the consummation of their pubescent passion was prematurely interrupted by two bearded men yelling ‘exclamations of ribald encouragement.’ A few months later, Annabel died of typhus. The probable effect on Humbert was an arrest of his sexual development, preventing him – as he ages – from finding his female coevals attractive. Of that formative relationship he writes:

We loved each other with a premature love, marked by a fierceness that so often destroys adult lives. I was a strong lad and survived; but the poison was in the wound, and the wound remained ever open, and soon I found myself maturing amid a civilization which allows a man of twenty-five to court a girl of sixteen but not a girl of twelve.

In the early stages of the novel, when adult Humbert fantasizes about certain pubescent girls but has not yet acted on his desires, his unhappy adolescent relationship almost – not quite wholly, but almost – justifies his adult state of sexual deviancy. Humbert designates certain girls as ‘nymphets’: they are, he explains rather didactically, roughly aged between nine and fourteen, ‘the little deadly demon among the wholesome children’, which ‘you have to be an artist and a madman, a creature of infinite melancholy’ to discern from the innocent rest. The attraction is relatively harmless and hysterical (Humbert recalls sitting ‘on a hard park bench pretending to be immersed in a trembling book’ while ‘nymphets played freely’ around him; his attempt at procuring a young French prostitute results in ‘a monstrously plump, sallow, repulsively plain girl of at least fifteen’ whom he refuses but is forced to pay the relatives of anyway) until, of course, he meets Lolita in 1947. At twelve, she is ‘changeful, bad-tempered, cheerful, awkward, graceful with the tart grace of her coltish subteens’, the daughter of widowed Charlotte Haze, Humbert’s proprietress. The decisive moment, the fateful first sight of her is described in a passage of stunning prose:

I was still walking behind Mrs. Haze through the dining room when, beyond it, there came a sudden burst of greenery – “the piazza,” sang out my leader, and then, without the least warning, a blue sea-wave swelled under my heart and, from a mat in a pool of sun, half-naked, kneeling, turning about on her knees, there was my Riviera love peering at me over dark glasses. It was the same child – the same frail, honey-hued shoulders, the same silky supple bare back, the same chestnut head of hair. A polka-dotted black kerchief tied around her chest hid from my aging ape eyes, but not from the gaze of young memory, the juvenile breasts I had fondled one immortal day…The twenty-five years I had lived since then, tapered to a palpitating point, and vanished.

Humbert’s fascination with nymphets, and with Lolita in particular, while aberrant, is at this point pitiable rather than reprehensible, because we understand that it results as ‘a fatal consequence of that “princedom by the sea”’. Meeting Lo in the piazza, he conflates the two girls: ‘Annabel Haze, alias Dolores Lee, alias Loleeta’.

The balance tilts towards monstrosity when Humbert succumbs to temptation, realizing his obsessions in an escalating series of reprehensible acts. When phocine ‘Big Haze’ isn’t around, he kisses Lo on the eyes, or grooms her while she sits on his lap on a sofa. That the girl clutches an ‘Eden-red apple’ before the sofa incident isn’t lost on the reader. Then there’s the fact that Humbert marries the adoring Charlotte Haze, whom he finds much too thick-thighed and ‘plain-faced’, in order to be close to her daughter. He fantasizes about ‘administering a powerful sleeping potion to both mother and daughter so as to fondle the latter through the night with perfect impunity.’

Initially, at least, Lolita is not entirely blameless: she, like her mother, nurses a girlish crush on Humbert, who describes himself as an ‘exceptionally handsome man’. In a memorised diary entry from 1947, he recounts:

I have all the characteristics which, according to writers on the sex interests of children, start the responses stirring in a little girl: clean-cut jaw, muscular hand, deep sonorous voice, broad shoulder. Moreover, I am said to resemble some crooner or actor chap on whom Lo has a crush.

After Humbert picks the girl up from summer camp, the following exchange occurs:

“Why do you think I have ceased caring for you, Lo?”

“Well, you haven’t kissed me yet, have you?”‘

Dolores, impetuous and flirtatious, then proceeds to ‘positively flow’ into Humbert’s arms.  Humbert, overwhelmed by the passion of a twenty-five-year long desire on the brink of coming into fruition, is unable to resist. ‘Remember she is only a child, remember she is only—’ To quote Macbeth: things bad begun make themselves strong by ill.

Humbert, in his sexual rapacity, willfully overlooks the inevitable damage of his abuse and control. Lolita’s vulnerability and emotional trauma become subjugated by his sexual appetites. He pries her with money and attempts to manipulate her thinking by quoting sections from apparently reputable books:

I am not a criminal sexual psychopath taking indecent liberties with a child…I quote…: Among Sicilians sexual relations between a father and daughter are accepted as a matter of course, and the girl who participates in such relationship is not looked upon with disapproval by the society of which she is part.

Addressing the reader he similarly draws upon literature, history and religion (well-read Humbert is a scholar of French and English literature) as if other instances can justify his own behavior, which he in the end knows to be monstrous: ‘Dante fell madly in love with his Beatrice when she was nine, a sparkling girleen’; ‘when Petrarch fell madly in love with his Laureen, she was a fair-haired nymphet of twelve running in the wind’; ‘Virginia was not quite fourteen when Harry Edgar possessed her.’

Humbert believes that nymphets lack the ‘purity and vulnerability’ of ordinary children, for whom he proclaims to have ‘the utmost respect’, yet Lolita’s obvious immaturity serves as no deterrent to his appetites. In her interests, poor Lolita is like any other non-nymphet child: ‘Sweet hot jazz, square dancing, gooey fudge sundaes, musicals, movie magazines and so forth – these were the obvious items in her list of beloved things.’ Despite the fact that mentally, he finds ‘her to be a disgustingly conventional little girl’, despite the fact that he listens to ‘her sobs in the night – every night, every night – the moment [he feigns] sleep’, Humbert fears any potential obstacle to having his way with her.

Humbert’s attraction to Lolita, which he describes as ‘pederosis’ (paedophilia), technically constitutes hebephilia, the attraction to pubescent individuals (aged approximately eleven to fourteen), distinguishable from paedophilia, which primarily involves an attraction to prepubescent children. That Humbert is not perceived as insurmountably evil owes to this distinction; the variable legal grounds pertaining to sexual relations with girls of pubescent age shed a slightly less morally dubious light on Humbert and Lolita’s relationship. The legal age of consent – which must consider the consenting party’s maturity, both sexual and emotional, as well as their vulnerability to exploitation – varies from country to country. Had Humbert and Lo travelled to Spain, where the age of consent was 13 until last year, their relationship – technical incest aside – would have been legal, as it would have eventually been in Italy, Germany, Portugal and other countries where the age is 14.

Whether legality necessarily equates with morality is altogether another question. In Lolita’s case it is not so much that her age and immaturity undermine the validity of consent as the fact that she becomes an unwilling participant altogether. As an afterword to Lolita, written a year after its 1955 publication in France, Nabokov details the original ‘shiver of inspiration’ for the novel: a newspaper article about an ape who produced the ‘first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal’ – a sketch of the bars of its cage. Lolita is similarly imprisoned by Humbert, resentful, and so cannot requite the love and passion Humbert so uncontrollably experiences.

In a Guardian article compiling various writers’ advice for others, Geoff Dyer made the following suggestion: ‘Don’t be one of those writers who sentence themselves to a lifetime of sucking up to Nabokov.’ It seems like a pragmatic, timesaving measure considering Nabokov’s trilingualism (he was fluent in Russian, French and English – but also to a lesser degree German and Italian; Lolita is peppered with Humbert’s French and humorous parodies of those poor Americans’ attempts at it), his nonpareil talent and his inimitable, blissful writing style; one might as well quit while they’re ahead. But awe and admiration are reflexive responses to his writing, so perhaps one just can’t help themself. Writing for the, Jay Caspian Kang recounts that Lolita became a treasure trove of inspiration for him in college, a ‘personal literary liquor store – whenever I got stuck in a scene, or whenever my prose felt flat or typical, I’d open Lolita to a random page and steal something.’ Its effect seems to be universal. In The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favourite Books (2007), the novel was voted as the best fiction work of the 20th Century by 125 of ‘modernity’s greatest writers’, which included Joyce Carol Oates, Jonathan Franzen, Peter Carey and Norman Mailer. Perhaps literature since Lolita has benefited all the more for sucking up a little to Nabokov. I suspect that – as uncontrollably as Humbert lusts for his Lo – from Nabokov’s magnus opus I will end up borrowing many gems ‘“– you know, as the Bard said, with that cold in his head, to borrow and to borrow and to borrow.”’



by Vladimir Nabokov

Penguin Books, 1995


Christopher Hitchens’s The Atlantic essay can be found here.


The Road – Review

Cormac McCarthy’s work is known for its detailed focus on the American South-West, its graphic violence, and its pithy, minimally punctuated prose. New Yorker literary critic James Wood has lauded him as ‘one of the greatest observers of landscape.’ He is widely touted as Faulkner’s successor, and both the subject matter and lexicon of his novels are as fixedly male-centric as Hemingway’s. The Road, for which McCarthy won a Pulitzer in 2007, is as bleak, confronting and gory as you’d expect from an author whose previous novels feature a violent necrophile as a protagonist (Lester Ballard in Child of God, 1973), a gang of scalphunters (The Blood Meridian, 1985) and a psychopathic hitman (No Country for Old Men, 2005).

In a dead, bitingly cold America, a man and his young boy walk along the old roads, interstate routes, heading south. As in The Blood Meridian, in which the protagonist is referred to only as ‘the kid’, the father and son are never named. The novel is set several years after a fiery apocalypse has ravaged the land, killing everything, melting the tar roads and covering the country with a pall of ash. The numbers of survivors have dwindled significantly, and any human encounter is potential danger. The boy – who has no living memory of any time before – was born to a woman who has long since died. Their story alternates between hope and despair, spoils and starvation. Between each fortuitous discovery of more food – in a well-stocked hidden bunker, old apples in a dead orchard, unpilfered tins in long-abandoned and well-looted houses – there are interminable days of weakness and desperation. On they trudge, trying to reach with coast with the aid of a rotting, fragmented map, ‘treading the dead world under like rats on a wheel.’

The old world is all but lost to the man – slowly fading from his memory as the years pass – and totally ‘alien’ to his son. McCarthy renders this slow disappearance exquisitely. At recognisable places, the familiar yet irrevocably transformed landscape recalls memories of the life that used to abound. At night, the man has ‘siren dreams’ about birds and flowering woods, but once awake he lies

there in the dark with the uncanny taste of a peach from some phantom orchard fading in his mouth. He thought if he lived long enough the world at least would all be lost. Like the dying world the newly blind inhabit, all of it slowly fading from memory.

The Road is technically simple yet a challenge to read. It presents without flourish bleak images one isn’t likely to encounter in comfortable civilised society. What is gruesome to us is commonplace to the man: ‘He’d seen it all before. Shapes of dried blood in the stubble grass and gray coils of viscera…’ and ‘a frieze of human heads, all faced alike, dried and caved with their taut grins and shrunken eyes.’ All this gore highlights the terrible yet unavoidable truth about what humans are capable of doing to each other, which has been exemplified by real atrocities dating from time immemorial. Thievery, slavery, murder, rape as a weapon of war, cannibalism.

Unlike other post-apocalyptic books of the suspend-your-disbelief/zombie variety, The Road poses realistic questions about morality and forces one to consider how one would act given such difficult extremes. We discover, for example, that the man’s dead partner, the boy’s mother, died by suicide, preferring that to the alternative:

Sooner or later they will catch and kill us…They are going to rape us and kill us and eat us and you wont face it. You’d rather wait for it to happen. But I cant. I cant.

The possibility of being caught weighs heavily on the man, who has taught his son how to act if the event so arises, in a moving and devastating passage:

He took the boy’s hand and pushed the revolver into it…If they find you you are going to have to do it. Do you understand? Shh. No crying. Do you hear me? You know how to do it. You put it in your mouth and point it up. Do it quick and hard.

The central issue The Road addresses is the matter of life and death, of what or who makes a life worth living. McCarthy, in infrequent past interviews, has said that the author’s preoccupation should be with death. Death pervades the thoughts and dialogue of his characters. After each setback, what hope drives the man and child to plod on? Death is a tempting option, and one that was irresistible for the mother:

We used to talk about death, she said. We don’t anymore. Why is that?

I dont know.

It’s because it’s here. There’s nothing left to talk about.

I wouldnt leave you.

I dont care. It’s meaningless. You can think of me as a faithless slut if you like. I’ve taken a new lover. He can give me what you cannot.

Death is not a lover.

Oh yes he is.

As a reader, like the father and son, you go on despite yourself, fuelled by the promise of their redemption, yet all the while plagued by the fear it is impossible.


The Road

by Cormac McCarthy

Alfred A. Knopf, 2006


The Cuckoo’s Calling – Review

Novel writing is a fickle business. The success of a debut book depends more often than not on a precise, unknowable mixture of perseverance, publicity and sheer luck. Literary merit may not even feature: there are rubbish books that sell millions of copies – Fifty Shades of Grey being the most obvious recent example – and fantastic ones that don’t even get picked up – take John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, which went on to win the Pulitzer only after his mother found a publisher for it eleven years after his 1969 suicide. The question then, for some commercially successful writers, is whether or not their books would be nearly as successful if it weren’t for established reputation. This, for example, was one of the reasons Stephen King adopted the nom de plume Richard Bachman for several novels he wrote in the late seventies and early eighties. The Cuckoo’s Calling was an experiment of the same sort: within three months of the book’s publication, Robert Galbraith was revealed to be a pseudonym of J.K. Rowling’s. Sales for the book on Amazon surged by more than 507,000% after she was outed.

The Cuckoo’s Calling is the second novel Rowling has written for adults since the end of the Harry Potter series, the first being The Casual Vacancy, which was published in 2012 to positive reviews and astronomical sales. It is the first in a series of crime novels featuring the private investigator Comoran Strike. A sequel, The Silkworm, was published in June this year. Growing up, I adored the Harry Potter series, but I chose to review this book for pragmatic rather than sentimental reasons: a gratis copy was given to me earlier this year, which I wanted to read and discard prior to moving cities. For full disclosure of bias, I will admit that tend to get bored by the formulaic conventions of crime fiction.

The plot unravels thus: Lula Landry, a supermodel, falls from her third storey apartment balcony. The death is hugely publicized; under widespread media scrutiny, the police investigation concludes it a suicide. But Landry’s brother, John Bristow, convinced otherwise, hires Comoran Strike to review the case. Strike, who formerly worked in the Special Investigation Branch of the Royal Military Police and was injured serving in Afghanistan, has an old connection to Bristow: Bristow’s older brother, Charlie, who died as a child, was one of Strike’s close childhood friends.

Paparazzi photos from Landry’s funeral form a visual catalogue of most of the persons of interest to the investigation. There is Ciara Porter, a pale, blonde supermodel with whom Landry was close; Guy Somé, a fashion designer who proclaimed Lula his muse; the inhabitants of the first floor apartment of Landry’s building – film producer Freddy Bestigui and his mercenary wife, Tansy Chillingham, who looks ‘like a rake with two plastic tangerines tied to it’; and Evan Duffield, a drug-addled musician with whom Landry had a tumultuous relationship and whom many suspect, given the very public knowledge that they rowed on the night of her death. Strike systematically works through the catalogue, also talking to several others: the security guard on duty the night of Landry’s death, Landry’s regular chauffeur, and a homeless woman Landry met in a mental health clinic.

In all respects, Strike conforms to the conventional requirements of the archetypal private eye: he is tall and physically imposing, strapped for work, disenchanted by and maladjusted to his mundane civilian life, and socially isolated. The only person he sees himself as being in regular contact with is his secretary, Robin Ellacott. Robin, for who detective work has been a ‘lifelong, secret, childish ambition’, begins working for Strike as a temp job while she searches for permanent employment. She is a recently engaged, young, ‘tall and curvaceous’ strawberry blonde – how many books will it take for her to meet some trouble and dutifully assume the role of damsel in distress? Naturally, Robin’s fiancé disapproves of Strike, and her continuing employment by him predictably strains the relationship, which is reinforced by clumsy symbolism. Following an argument she and her fiancé have, Robin ominously notices ‘a fragment of frozen pea caught in the setting of her engagement ring’, which disturbs the brilliance of the sapphire and diamonds she so recently couldn’t stop herself gawping in awe at.  One feels acutely the irony of overstatement in a book about deduction.

As his investigations continue, Strike begins to think that the suicide isn’t a suicide after all, even in the absence of any tangible evidence to the contrary –quelle surprise! He imagines a killer ‘lost in rage, half dragging, half pushing her, and finally, with the brute strength of a highly motivated maniac, throwing her’ over the third floor balcony.

The Cuckoo’s Calling is a classic whodunit of the cozier English variety: we are presented with an array of potential suspects, wary of their testimonies and accounts, unsure of which to believe, and kept guessing in the dark until the ‘incurably observant’ protagonist perfectly connects the dots, jumping to conclusions that are inevitably correct, to reveal the truth and restore justice to the blighted world.

The popularity of commercial crime fiction seems to exemplify the fact that there are many people in this world who, like Robin, harbour a secret fantasy about being private investigators. The point of these sorts of novels, of course, is that we are given the opportunity to try and identify the perpetrator as the facts are revealed. Determined not to be caught out by unexpected twists, I read with wariness both the direct testimonies and Strike’s presumably accurate impression of the individuals giving them, the unfortunate result of which was that I found myself not particularly caring who committed the crime at all.

Though formulaic, the novel is intricately plotted and reasonably entertaining. In places, the narrative voice is intrusive (that Strike, an ex-army, knows that Robin’s hair is styled in what is called a chignon, for example, beggars belief). Rowling favours certain words that are used repeatedly and a little too inelegantly to elude notice (perfunctory, evinced, stolid, gaudy and desultory, to name a few). The adverb ‘coolly’ is also characteristically Rowling: when Strike responds ‘coolly’ to a dig about his background (he is an illegitimate child of a famous musician), I couldn’t help but recall the icy exchanges between Harry Potter and Malfoy. And as she did throughout the Harry Potter series, Rowling continues to demonstrate her mastery of humorous writing. By far the most enjoyable passage in The Cuckoo’s Calling is a conversation that takes place in a pub between Robin and a very drunk Strike.

Ultimately, though, The Cuckoo’s Calling lacks oomph – even the final confrontation is slightly lacklustre. I am of the same opinion as Kate Mills, fiction editor at Orion Books, who described the book as ‘well-written but quiet’. She belongs to one of several publishing companies who must be kicking themselves now for rejecting the novel, the manuscript of which Rowling reportedly submitted anonymously. As for the question of talent versus luck, it’s a pity that Galbraith’s cover was blown so soon, because, well, now we’ll never know, will we?


The Cuckoo’s Calling

by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)

Sphere, 2013