Tag Archives: Scarlett Thomas

Oligarchy by Scarlett Thomas: Sharp, funny and very, very dark

Cover imageIt’s been well over four years since Scarlett Thomas’ The Seed Collectors was published. Since then she’s produced three children’s books. I’d been eyeing the schedules hoping for another adult novel, wondering if her writing career had taken a permanent turn when Oligarchy turned up. This short, biting novel should please Thomas fans with its story of a Russian oligarch’s daughter who spends a year in a British boarding school and finds herself turning detective.

Fifteen-year-old Tash has been whisked from her mother’s grungy Moscow flat and installed in a Hertfordshire independent school for girls by the father she’s only just met. She’s been given a black Amex card, told to buy whatever she wants and sent frequent parcels of expensive goodies. She’s mystified by her fellow dormmates, all caught up in their obsessions with social media, boys, and above all, losing weight. They’re a snobby bunch, looking down their noses at the local girls, tormenting their teachers – particularly the few males amongst them – and fantasising about the school’s founder, Princess Augusta, reputedly given a black diamond by the sultan who raped her. Tash spends her holidays in London with Aunt Sonja, her father’s sister and cybersecurity expert/hacker, who seems just as fixated on her weight and her looks as Tash’s school friends. When the most waiflike of the anorexics is found drowned in the school’s lake, the therapists are called in tasked with purging the school’s pupils of their obsession with starving themselves, but Tash is convinced that there’s more to Bianca’s disappearance than meets the eye. Then someone else goes missing and Tash’s sleuthing takes off in earnest.

Somebody in a long-ago government decided that girls should read classic feminist literature and so they are studying Angela Carter and the school can’t do anything about it because it’s the law.

There’s something of the mad fable about Thomas’ whirlwind novella which slings a multitude of well-aimed barbs at all manner of things, from private schools to social media, eating fads to therapists. She saves her sharpest swipes for the obsessive concern with thinness, launching a few digs at gym culture for good measure. As you’d expect from Thomas, it’s very funny – Mr Hendrix’ failure to curb the girls’ sneers at the populace of Stevenage in all their tattooed glory is a treat – but it’s also very, very dark. Sharp observation, smart satire and the hint of a feminist ending for Tash, Oligarchy filled the Thomas gap for me. I’m hoping that we adults won’t have to wait another four years for her next book.

Canongate Books: Edinburgh 2019 9781786897794 212 pages Hardback

Books to Look Out For in November 2019: Part Two

Cover imageBack from Portugal – more of which next week – with part two of November’s preview which has its feet firmly placed in Europe with one novel set in Norway, two in Germany, one in France and two in the UK. Let’s work our way south, starting in a remote small town in northern Norway where a single mother has forgotten her young son’s birthday. Hanne Orstavik’s Love follows the separate journeys of Jon, as he sets off to sell lottery tickets for his sports club, and Vibeke, who heads off to the local library and a fairground, in what the publishers are calling ‘an acknowledged masterpiece of Norwegian literature’, and they’re quite right. Gorgeous jacket, too. Review to follow.

Nana Oforiatta Ayim’s  The God Child takes us to Germany where Taiye Selasi Maya grows up aware of her parents’ difference. One Christmas her cousin arrives, spinning stories about Ghana, colonialism and its fallout, awakening Maya to the reasons why her parents might be the way they are. When, as a young woman, Maya is reunited with her cousin in Ghana, she finds him troubled. ‘Her homecoming will set off an exorcism of their family and country’s strangest, darkest demons. It is in this destruction’s wake that Maya realises her own purpose: to tell the story of her mother, her cousin, their land and their loss, on her own terms, in her own voice’ say the publishers of what they’re calling ‘a brave reinvention of the immigrant narrative’ which sounds right up my alley.

We’re staying in Germany for Amanda Lee Koe’s Delayed Rays of a Star in which a photographer captures Marlene Dietrich, Anna May Wong and Leni Riefenstahl in a single photograph at a Berlin party in 1928. Koe’s novel follows the three women through their careers and private lives. ‘In the murky world these women navigate, their choices will be held up to the test of time. And the real question is, how much has anything changed? This fierce and exquisite debut Cover imageabout womanhood, ambition, and art, played out against the shifting political tides of the twentieth century, introduces a mesmerizing new literary talent for our times’ according to the publishers which sounds very tempting to me.

Heading across the border to France for Marie NDiaye’s The Cheffe about the daughter of a  poor family in Sainte-Bazeille who displays a remarkable talent for cooking when she grows up, even dreaming in recipes. An acknowledged genius in the kitchen, the Cheffe is intensely private, refusing to reveal the name of her daughter’s father when she gives birth.  Despite the sucess of her restaurant, her relationship with her daughter becomes so fraught it threatens to destroy her career, apparently. I have a weakness for novels set in restaurants and about food hence the appeal of this one.

Off to London for Jane Rogers’ Body Tourists set in a small private clinic. The bodies of the teenage poor are being used to rejuvenate the old and rich willing to pay the price. ‘It’s an opportunity for wrongs to be righted, for fathers to meet grandsons, for scientists to see their work completed. Old wine in new bottles’ according to the publishers. Not entirely convinced about this one. I usually avoid dystopian fiction but Jane Rogers is a writer whose work I’ve enjoyed in the past, not least her last novel, Conrad and Eleanor back in 2016.

Cover imageI’m finishing this second part of November’s preview with Scarlett Thomas’ welcome return to adult fiction, Oligarchy, set in an English boarding school where the daughter of a Russian oligarch is finding it hard to fit in. Then her friend disappears plunging her into a dark world. It seems a very long time since The Seed Collectors so hopes are high for what the publishers are calling a ‘fierce new novel about power, privilege and peer pressure’.

That’s it for November’s new titles. A click on any that take your fancy will take you to a more detailed synopsis should you want to know more, and if you’d like to catch up with the first batch, it’s here. Paperbacks soon…

The Hidden Keys by André Alexis: A hugely enjoyable, sophisticated caper

This is the first book I’ve read by André Alexis. His last novel  was narrated in the voices of its titular dogs which brought back memories of Paul Auster’s Timbuktu, and not happy ones. That said Fifteen Dogs went on to win the Scotiabank Giller prize in 2015 so what do I know? This latest novel is entirely different: a funny, clever and intricately plotted piece of storytelling full of puzzles within puzzles involving an honourable thief, a rich beyond imagining junkie and a treasure hunt.

Tancred Palmieri is a complex character brought up by a single mother whose deathbed wish was that he change his thieving ways. He’s known Willow Azarian for a little while. She’s a junkie, drawn to telling Tancred her story, impressing upon him that she’s an heiress and eventually presenting him with an intriguing challenge. Her stupendously rich father has left each of his five children a memento, something which is of particular significance to them. Willow’s is a beautiful facsimile of a Japanese screen, one panel left blank but for an inscription. She’s convinced that her father has set a puzzle which can only be solved by examining all the artefacts together. Tancred is to steal each one, quietly returning the item once Willow has scrutinised them all. He will, of course, be recompensed. Reluctantly, Tancred agrees and has hardly begun his exacting task when Willow dies. Having given his word, Tancred has no choice but to continue only to find that his best friend is the detective investigating the burglaries and his bête noir, Willow’s dealer, has got wind of what he’s up to together with the reward it might bring. As each piece of this elaborate puzzle painstakingly slots into place, another mystery opens up until finally Tancred is left face to face with himself.

This is a hugely enjoyable novel, a good old-fashioned caper which twists and turns in a baroque fashion as its many conundrums are unfolded. It’s very funny at times – Castle Rose whose designer took his inspiration from M. C. Escher is a particular delight. Alexis excels at elaborate yet flawless plotting, smoothly switching perspective from character to character. The book’s premise reminded me of Scarlett Thomas’ The Seed Collectors and its style of Robin Sloan’s Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, both favourites of mine. If there’s any disappointment at the resolution its matched by Tancred’s own and offset by the development of his character. Altogether a delight – packed full with colourful detail and characters, each with a story to tell or be told, and funny with it. I think I should try Fifteen Dogs after all.

Books of the Year 2015: Part 4

Cover imageMy fourth and final selection begins with an award-winning novel. After differing with both the Baileys and the Man Booker judges I’ve finally found a set I can agree with: the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize. Of course, they’d made their minds up in June and I only got around to reading Jo Mazelis’ utterly engrossing Significance in October. There’s a crime but this isn’t a crime novel – it’s a study in human nature and the way we interact and observe each other. Mazelis leads us down a multitude of cul-de-sacs and wrong turnings, filling in the back stories of each of her characters no matter how peripheral they might appear. By showing events from so many points of view, she draws her readers into a rich tapestry of interpretation and misinterpretation. A gripping first novel, thoroughly deserving of its prize.

October’s other treat was Zimbawean author Petina Gappah’s The Book of Memory. Within the first brief paragraph, Gappah manages to hook you with both a grisly death and the announcement that Memory, our narrator, was sold to a strange man by her parents. She’s now on death row for the murder of Lloyd, the white man she went to live with when she was nine years old. Gappah teases out the threads of Memory’s past, slowly revealing her story, warning us that ‘It’s hard for the truth to emerge clearly from a twenty-year fog of distant memory’ then delivering a devastating denouement. A multitude of well-aimed barbs are shot at modern Zimbabwe, all served up with a helping of acerbic humour in the form of prison banter and Memory’s acidic wit.

We’re all over familiar with ‘dazzling debuts’, ‘stunning achievements’ and the like so that when a book comes along that is truly original, absolutely dazzling, those descriptions ring hollow. Sara Baume’s Spill Simmer Falter Wither comes into that category for me and two sets of literary judges agreed: it’s on the Costa First Novel shortlist and it won the Rooney Prize for Irish literature. It’s the story of fifty-seven-year-old Ray who on one of his weekly shopping trips spots a notice in the window of the local junk shop showing a dog as ugly as he thinks himself. Ray claims One Eye from the dog pound and soon the two are inseparable. Over the course of a year Ray tell his sad story to the only friend he’s ever had. As its title suggests, Baume’s novel is told in wonderfully poetic, sometimes musical language. She paints vividly gorgeous word pictures of the natural world, weaving observations of the changing seasons through Ray’s narrative. It’s the saddest of stories but without a hint of sentimentality.Cover image

My final choice is entirely different. Way back in the mid-‘90s, Jonathan Coe published What a Carve Up!, a wickedly funny satire on Thatcherism in which the Winshaw family had their fingers in a multitude of nasty pies. Twenty years later and they’re back. Beginning in 2003, Number 11 follows ten-year-old friends Rachel and Alison over a decade during which many of the roads they travel will lead back to the nefarious shenanigans of the Winshaws. Number 11 bears several familiar Coe trademarks: intricate plotting, comic misunderstanding and arcane film references. It’s a very funny novel but, as with all good satire, its subject is deadly serious: the ever more gaping divide between the haves and the have-nots.

Honourable mentions to Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last,  Jo Bloom’s Ridley Road, Scarlett Thomas’ The Seed Collectors and Laura Barnett’s The Versions of Us.

And if I had to choose one? Impossible as ever – last year it was a three-way between Shotgun Lovesongs, With a Zero at its Heart and The Miniaturist. This year looks like a four-way between Weathering, A God in Ruins, Spill, Simmer, Falter Wither and The Mountain Can Wait.

That’s it for my reading year highlights. What about you? What are your 2015 favourites?

The Seed Collectors by Scarlett Thomas: Bursting with ideas

Cover imageThe Seed Collectors is Scarlett Thomas’s first novel for quite some time. Her idiosyncratic books, several of which flirt with science fiction, seem to attract a passionate following. I’d read only two before this one: The End of Mr Y, about a PhD student’s encounter with a rare edition of a nineteenth-century writer’s book, wandered off into the realms of quantum physics while Our Tragic Universe explored time and immortality through a book reviewer’s struggles to get to grips with an esoteric commission. Apparently Thomas has been studying for an MSc in ethnobotany which would explain why this new novel is all about a family of botanists whose roots are extraordinarily tangled.

When Great-aunt Oleander dies she leaves Nameste House to Fleur who has helped her run it for some time. For decades Oleander has pulled together a mishmash of spirituality offering a programme which has attracted an endless stream of celebrities. As Fleur frets about how many people will come to the funeral it crosses her mind that Paul McCartney might turn up. Oleander has left each of her great-nieces and nephews a seed pod. No one quite knows what they are but it’s been rumoured that they contain within them a shortcut to enlightenment, followed by instant death. Clematis, Bryony, Charlie and Fleur each have reason to fear these pods – all have lost parents who disappeared while collecting them on the fabled Lost Island in the Pacific Ocean. Clem has planted hers and is making a documentary about it, Charlie has asked his colleagues at Kew to identify his and Bryony has hidden hers, terrified at the prospect of her kids getting their hands on it. After she is handed a book at the funeral by an old friend of Oleander’s who tells her that it unlocks the secret, Fleur is puzzled to find that its pages are blank and sets off to find the mysterious woman who gave it to her.

The Seed Collectors is prefaced with one Gardener family tree and ends with another – the rest of Thomas’s discursive, funny, erudite, sometimes exasperating, novel explains the revisions. There’s a little bit of early Kate Atkinson in Thomas’s writing, with the occasional dash of Iain Banks. She has a striking eye for description: ‘cooling towers huddled together like three fat women on an eternal tea break’; ‘Even Soho has a kind of Sunday feeling, as if it has stayed in its pyjamas all day and just can’t be arsed with all this’ give you an idea. Thomas’s characters, whose internal monologues are often shockingly funny, are wonderfully well drawn, from the insatiable Bryony, creative with her calorific accounting, to Beatrix playing the stock market from her Royal Crescent flat in Bath (she must be doing well) while stumbling upon porn sites, again and again. There’s a multitude of ideas stuffed into this ill-disciplined, ragbag of a novel which rambles about all over the place, including into the downright wacky, and Thomas struggles to keep it all under control at times. It’s the antithesis of the beautifully spare, elegantly constructed novels that I admire so much – but I loved it.

Books to Look Out For in July 2015: Part 1

MotherlandLong experience has taught me that a ‘lost’ novel is often best kept that way so I won’t be including Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman here. Surely the entire world and its dog must know about it by now, anyway. Instead I thought I’d take a look at a few less trumpeted titles due in July of which there are enough to spread across two posts, beginning with Jo McMillan’s Motherland set in 1978. Jess’s mother is a communist, a fish out of water in Tamworth which resolutely resists her exhortations to see the light. When she gets the chance to spend the summer teaching in East Germany she and Jess decamp. A new life opens up, or so it seems. It’s billed as ‘a tragic-comic portrait of childhood’ and sounds very appealing.

I’m a little unsure about M. O. Walsh’s debut My Sunshine Away which comes garlanded with praise from an extraordinary range of authors including the likes of Kathryn Stockett, Matthew Thomas and Anne Rice, to name but a few. Set in Louisiana in the ‘80s, it’s narrated by a fourteen-year-old who’s in love with Lindy Simpson, raped on her way home from school one summer day. Worryingly, we may be in The Lovely Bones territory, here, but so many writers have extolled the beauty of Walsh’s writing that I’m willing to give it a try.

Benjamin Markovits’ You Don’t Have to Live Like This sounds entirely different. Greg Marnier is an American academic who has somehow landed up in Aberystwyth. At his college reunion, addled with jet lag and drink, he’s persuaded by a wealthy old friend that the derelict neighbourhoods of Detroit may offer him a way out. Robert’s plan is to buy up swathes of the boarded-up city and build a new America but several of the owners fail to share his vision. Clashes follow in what sounds like an interesting novel.A Hanging at Cinder Bottom

Several years ago I read and thoroughly enjoyed Glenn Taylor’s The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart. His new novel, A Hanging at Cinder Bottomis set during the boom years of the West Virginia coal mining industry. Poker-playing Abe Baach returns to Keystone hoping for a reunion with his lover Goldie Toothman, madam of the local brothel, only to find his brother dead and his father’s saloon a shambles. Trenchmouth was a triumph so I’m looking forward to a rollicking good read.

I’ve had mixed feelings about Scarlett Thomas’ writing in the past – The End of Mr Y left me cold but I enjoyed Our Tragic Universe very much. Her new novel, The Seed Collectors, sees an extended family gathered to remember their Aunt Oleander. Each family member has been bequeathed a seed pod, but with the legacy comes secrets which may divide them irrevocably. It’s described as ‘revealing all that it means to be connected, to be part of a society, to be part of the universe and to be human’. Something of a tall order, then.

The Night StagesSet in the ‘50s, my final choice for this instalment is Jane Urquhart’s The Night Stages which follows Tamara, now a civilian after flying as an auxiliary pilot during the war years and settled in the west of Ireland. Her long affair founders when her lover’s brother disappears after a cycle race, leaving Niall convinced he is to blame in some way. Tamara decides to go to New York, reflecting on what has become of her life and her lover’s as she waits out a fogbound layover in Newfoundland. Both A Map of Glass and Sanctuary Line were quietly beautiful novels – I’m hoping for the same from The Night Stages.

That’s it for the first helping of July’s goodies. As ever a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis at Waterstones website. More to come soon.