This is George Saunders’ master class on the short story, writing and reading, through the analysis of seven classic Russian short stories. The book is based on a class he teaches at Syracuse University and it offers writers and interested readers alike an unpretentious exploration of that beautiful and fascinating connection between the mind of the writer and the mind of the reader.
There is nothing particularly surprising about what George Saunders writes about the process, but it is delightful to explore these stories alongside an intelligent and attentive mind, encouraging the reader to pay as much attention as he does and showing how essential that meticulous attention really is to the process of writing, reading and generally existing in the world as a human striving to understand others and the world around us.
Aisha is a young Muslim girl living in Kent. She is the only girl in her school who wears a headscarf, against her parents’ wishes. They’re worried wearing a headscarf will hold her back, but Aisha is serious about her faith.
Ronke, Boo and Simi are best friends. All British-Nigerians, they met at university and bonded over their shared mixed heritage. Though they all live in London, they lead very different lives: Ronke is a dentist with her own practice and a habit of picking boyfriends who exploit her; Boo is married to a Frenchman and is struggling with the challenges of parenting her young daughter; Simi is happily married and a fashion marketing exec. whose husband wants to start a family. They have their challenges, but they also have each other.
Then Simi’s old friend from Lagos returns to London. Isobel is beautiful and rich. With her arrival everything changes.
The Gospel According to Cane is the journal of Beverley Cottrell, a woman in her mid-forties who used to have everything until her son was abducted. I don’t want to say too much about it because Beverley holds back. She says she isn’t telling a chronological story but the truth and it is true that the novel is about much more than the pain of losing one child, it is about the loss of generations of children left disaffected by the education system, cast aside by society through racism and stereotyping.
The Silence of Scheherazade is a story narrated by a woman found passed out, burnt, covered in ashes, in the garden of a Turkish colonel in Smyrna. She is beautiful and silent. She brings with her unspoken stories of her past, of her people’s past, of her city’s past. Her saviours call her Scheherazade.
At Scheherazade’s birth, Smyrna, an ancient cosmopolitan city in the Ottoman Empire, filled with people of different heritages, Greek, Levantine, Turkish, Armenian, French, British, American and Indian, is about to undergo huge change as the power of the Ottoman Empire wanes and European forces fight over the spoils. Scheherazade’s story follows the shifts in power, dipping in and out of different families and peoples, exploring her own heritage and that of her city.
Unlocking her personal history gives voice to the silent masses who died in the war for supremacy over Smyrna. Defne Suman quotes J. M. Coetzee at the beginning of the novel: ‘Many stories can be told of Friday’s tongue, but the true story is buried within Friday, who is mute. The true story will not be heard till by art we have found a means of giving voice to Friday.’ The Silence of Scheherazade is her way of giving Friday a voice.
The Giant Dark begins with the particular obsession of devoted music fans. We all know the type. They’re the people who form #freebritney, who feel a personal connection to a world-wide name, who truly are die-hard fans.
The theme of obsession runs deeper of course. Aida, the famous singer and musician, is also obsessed; obsessed with an ex-boyfriend, Ehsan, who provides all the inspiration for her music. And Ehsan too, it seems, is obsessed, but we’re never quite sure what with.
Years after breaking up, these two are brought together at a mutual friend’s dinner party and something new begins.
Just when you think you are getting a handle on this book, it twists into new territory. Neither Aida nor Ehsan feel that they fit in. Ehsan is Pakistani living in London and pursuing poetry and publishing against his father’s wishes. Aida is American, though of North Indian heritage, pushed by her mother into singing lessons and hard-work when her friends are out socialising and dating. Neither seems to feel comfortable in their lives. Both have formidable talent. Aida blooms into a rock star. Ehsan becomes an award winning poet.
Twelfth century France, Marie, a seventeen-year-old royal bastard and recent orphan, travels to the court of the magnificent Queen Eleanor. But Marie de France is tall, energetic, clever, willful and considered to be manly. She does not fit at court and Queen Eleanor soon sends her off to England to become a prioress of a nunnery despite having shown no previous piety, or deep religious interest.
Marie feels abandoned. She loves Queen Eleanor and England is cold, the nunnery on the brink of famine. No one there expects anything of her. They are wrong.
A wonderfully rich novel filled with the female religious fervour and creativity of hagiographies and Marie’s own publication of poems (the real Marie de France published twelve short narrative verses about courtly love), Matrix is also about power and desire.
I’m not really sure how I feel about this book, which is probably something to be said in its favour.
Joan, the protagonist, is a woman fading towards maturity whose obsession with sex and how to manipulate through desire is entirely generated by a patriarchal society that exposed her to sexual trauma as a child and continues to repeatedly expose her to sexual trauma, sometimes at her own behest as a painful and self-harming attempt to take control.
Joan is on a mission. She is going to find the one person left to whom she fully relates, but this picking up and running to a new life is not something new for her. Slowly, we learn what she seeks and why.
She isn’t a nice character – not that she should be, I hasten to add. She is the kind of woman who feels awkward around other women because she imagines they see her in the way that she sees them, as competition.
Gravitating around Reich’s theories, his enclosed prison-like liberation machine, Olivia Laing’s own life and the stories of artists and thinkers from Susan Sontag to Nina Simone, Everybody explores the idea of freedom particularly as it relates to the body; the body that doesn’t fit society’s expectations by being too other in health, gender, sexual desire, belief or race.
It is the kind of book whose corners you turn down to return to. It’s fabulous, exploring the idea that freedom is often defined by its opposite and that true freedom may be something we can’t quite yet imagine.
The only thing I wish it did more of is explore that sense of freedom specifically from a British perspective. Though the book explores the issue across Europe and America, England and its specifically complicated relationship with bodies gets limited exposure. Another book on that would be great please, Olivier.
It has certainly honed my appetite for more of Olivia Laing’s books and Funny Weather is smiling at me from my kitchen counter, waiting to be read.
I’d have liked to have written in more depth about Everybody, but as you’ll know if you follow the blog, I’m rather behind in my reviewing. I’ve read the books and not blogged about them so a few short reviews will follow. These will look at: Animal by Lisa Taddeo, Matrix by Lauren Groff and The Giant Dark by Sarvat Hasin.
This is a fabulous book that tries to step out of the confining and controlling aspects of certain stories.
A young black woman, whose parents are Windrush survivors, describes her upwardly mobile education and career from a working class background into Cambridge, banking and a boyfriend in the political, elite British classes. The ascent is hard work and it has costs, costs that impair her health, freedom and conscience.
The story explores the lead up to a weekend at her boyfriend’s family seat alongside a doctor’s appointment in which she discovers she has cancer. No one will let her escape the blackness she embodies within and without. She longs for freedom, but it will cost her life.