Friday, November 1, 2019

October Reads Part Three

Night of the Claw by Ramsey Campbell
The Laws of the Skies by Grégoire Courtois
Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively
A Separation by Katie Kitamura
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Night of the Claw is a straight up horror masterpiece. It's a common tack in reviewing Campbell's fiction to make mention of that Stephen King quote about how reading Campbell is like doing a hit of acid and it's hard to avoid such an observation. Everything is telescoped, distorted, off-kilter. I always feel like characters are lurching, stumbling, their sense of balance affected. Night of the Claw has copious scenes of characters struggling with telescoping reality, their vision tunneled, their palms sweaty, everything on a Dutch tilt. Simple bits like ascending a hill to ascertain if a vision was real or not take up multiple pages of vivid description. In terms of pure aesthetics, this was a joy to read. In terms of its subject, it's a bit of a mixed bag (which sums up my experience with all the Campbell books I've read so far). The novel's MacGuffin, or engine of horror, is a relic from Nigeria, and Campbell manages the tricky act of balancing the colonialist gaze with a more nuanced portrayal of Nigeria. Firstly, that the claw doesn't come from "Africa" is a good sign. Campbell has the protagonist in Nigeria twice, once at the beginning to receive the eponymous claw, and later at the halfway point when he must undergo a journey into darkness, as it were, heading deep into the jungle to face the Leopard Men of Africa, an assassin's guild from the colonial-era. It's hard not to Orientalize Africa as this dangerous, lawless place of darkness when you're writing about a supernatural artefact in the shape of a razor-sharp claw so kudos to Campbell for attempting a more nuanced portrayal of Nigeria in the late 70s-early 80s. He writes about the traffic, about scholars, middle class people; it feels authentic, as if he visited Nigeria himself. But what do I know, I've never left the continent. This is just to say that the novel doesn't feel egregiously or purposefully racist.

Courtois' The Laws of the Skies sounded like my cup of tea: extreme survival horror but starring children, and it started off quite well, with a graphic shocking death within twenty pages. But quickly my patience was exhausted as the novel is cartoonish and goofy in all the wrong ways. Three teachers take an entire kindergarten class camping in the woods (would never happen) and one kid kills a teacher, setting the class in a panic, allowing them to run to their doom in various ways—the funniest being poisoned to death by berries. The problem is the novel's Frenchness; its incessant insistence that this is not pulp but rather serious literature. The French have written terrific pulp! There's nothing to be ashamed about if you're writing pulp! So why is Courtois so afraid of having a laugh? He spends so much time philsophizing, putting words in the children's mouths, words they'd never speak, and the odd direct address to the audience. I couldn't help but roll my eyes. 

Moon Tiger is obviously a re-read and it's as good as I remember it, though not nearly as adventurous as I recall. I had the notion in my head the timeline was a lot more scrambled, but the protagonist's memories unspool quite linearly. Not that this is much of a nitpick; I still adored this novel and I can't think of another Booker winner I rate this highly. 

Kitamura's A Separation was a revelation. One of my favourite books of the year. Reminded me a lot of Levy's Hot Milk, but this was far more controlled, far more modulated, to the point where you can and should begin to question the first person narrator. Her thoughts colour everything and I couldn't help but question if the assumptions and conclusions she would leap to were correct. A stunning work of observation, with beautifully drawn moments of looking. Can't wait to read something new from this writer.

Girl, Woman, Other is the 2019 co-winner of the Booker and I had assumed from its reputation that this would be a slightly difficult book in the way that Milkman is touted to be. But alas, the prose in GWO is fairly rote in execution. The cover copy promises hybridized prose with poetry and sure, there's unconventional paragraph shapes but that's not that uncommon in the Year of Our Lord 2019. The novel is readable, very much so (took me two days to read it) and the characters were very lively, very believable. I couldn't quite shake the feeling that Evaristo was ticking boxes with all her characters. Maybe a sustained portrait of less characters would have been more impactful.

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