The Humans by Matt Haig

The narrator of The Humans is a Vonnadorian, an alien put into human form in order to eradicate all knowledge of a mathematical break-through that would put the power of interstellar space travel and immortality into the hands of humankind.

Professor Andrew Martin solved the Riemann hypothesis and somehow this mathematical break-through was sensed by the Vonnadorians. They felt this knowledge was not something mankind would bear well – the narrator later quotes Einstein ‘Technological progress is like an axe in the hands of a pathological animal’ – and so killed Professor Martin and sent a replacement to get rid of all evidence that this hypothesis could ever be solved. This would also mean killing Martin’s family.

What follows is the unravelling of the narrator’s unemotional isolation (albeit part of a hive mind, they are physically solitary). You can guess where the plot might travel from there.

There is, of course, always the possibility that the narrator is not really an alien but instead presenting us with the ravings of an unhinged mind. It isn’t compelling to follow that possible angle though and even if it were, it wouldn’t matter.

The narrator’s observations of humans and the way they order their lives are poignant, amusing and painful. The petty barriers that society puts between untamed nature and human civilisation are drawn attention to and mocked: clothes and their order so as to hide nakedness and denote status; parks and carefully mown lawns; redefining animals into meat – cow to beef, pig to pork etc.; deeply programmed rules about which conversations are appropriate in which settings and so on.

I’m not going to outline what happens, even if it isn’t difficult to glean the general direction of the plot, because what happens isn’t really what this book is about. The Humans is a meditation on all the silly and transcendent parts that make up human beings and it is funny, whimsical and clever. It is a wonderfully refreshing read, forcing us to look at ourselves (those in well-off societies at least) from a different perspective.

Next week I’ll be reading The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma, one of the novels on the long list for the 2015 Man Booker Prize.

Kinder than Solitude by Yiyun Li

Kinder than Solitude is an extremely powerful and unsentimental novel.

The book opens with the death of Shaoai, a woman left mentally damaged due to being poisoned in her youth. How she was poisoned and whether she was murdered form the pivot around which the protagonists’ lives unfold.

Around the time of the poisoning, Shaoai lived in the same complex in Beijing as Moran and Boyang. Childhood friends, almost brother and sister in Boyang’s eyes, Moran and Boyang imagine knowing one another always. They look up to their neighbour Shaoai, a subversive university student. Then Ruyu arrives.

Ruyu is an orphan sent by her guardians, her grandaunts, to Beijing to be educated. She is sent to live with Shaoai and her family. She has been taught to see herself as chosen by God, though for what no one seems to have made clear. This believed special status makes Ruyu emotionally distant and judgmental. Totally different to warm-hearted Moran, Ruyu is also attractive and this cool beauty turns boys’ heads. Boyang is no exception.

The poisoning and the events surrounding it create an intimacy of absence in Moran, Boyang, Ruyu and even, in some ways, Shaoai, whose vibrant personality and intelligence have been stripped from her. Though the mystery of the poisoning drives the plot, resolution comes not from fact but from exposure. When we find the answers we realise other questions were really more pertinent. It is through our connections with others that life takes on meaning.

This makes it sound as if the story has a neat, comedic ending. It doesn’t. Moran, Boyang, Ruyu and other characters we meet along the way are left mid-journey, potentially learning from the past or possibly repeating the same mistakes. Though this may seem underwhelming, it feels incredibly brave, naked almost.

Given how much I disliked Ruyu as a child and an adult – and we hear Moran and Boyang’s old and young voices too – Kinder than Solitude is painfully compelling. The agony of choosing to step away rather than confront moves through these characters lives in direct challenge to Shaoai’s outspoken anti-socialist, sexually liberated rebellion and this is where the individual and political link arms and make faces at the poverty of apathy. I leave it up to you to read the novel and decide what is kinder than solitude.

Next week, I’m reading The Humans by Matt Haig followed by Marilyn Robinson’s Lila, which is on the long list for this year’s Booker.

Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

Black Swan Green is a novel of nostalgia about a year in the life of Jason Taylor. Just turning thirteen, it’s England in the 80s with pop music, Thatcher and meetings about gypsy settlements.

If you grew up in the 80s much of the pleasure you might derive from the novel comes through the use of brands and events that trigger the memory. However, this isn’t merely nostalgia, this is a year in which Jason, a stammerer, is vilified and bullied at school, explores his poetry through the medium of a Belgian Belle Dame, has his first kiss, makes a proper friend, overcomes his demons and witnesses the demise of his parents relationship.

The difficulties of all these situations are explored in depth through Jason’s young eyes. We learn about the popularity league table and how politics both local and national are played out in practice within this little town in Worcestershire.

This child’s eye view is beautifully rendered. Some experiences – such as being locked inside an old woman’s house by the lake, his ankle wrapped in an old-fashioned poultice – have a surreal edge pertinent to childhood because the unexpected is a more frequent visitor of people engaged in exploring the world around them.

Though this child’s view is sharp and illuminating, it is sometimes unrealistically so. I found myself wishing that I’d had such a penetrating mind at that age only to then question whether I might indeed have been this insightful. For the beauty of this novel is its depiction of the boundless scope of Jason’s mind, a thirst for comprehension that reinvigorated my own.

I really enjoyed Black Swan Green and I admired the writing. There were painful chinks in the warm nostalgia but perhaps, in the end, the novel felt a little too sweet. As my first Mitchell novel however (I know, he’s been recommended to me many times…) it has whet my appetite and I look forward to reading more of his work.

As this review should have been posted last week – I had it written but was enjoying a mountain holiday remote from the wonders of the internet – I will be posting this week’s review of Kinder than Solitude by Yiyun Li tomorrow. I should also mention that while I was away, some wonderful reviews of my novel Home appeared. Thank you Keri O’Shea for Brutal as Hell and The Eloquent Page.

Gospel Prism by Gerald Weaver

Gospel Prism is a novel whose preface and afterword proclaim the author – in so much as the novel allows for any form of author, the book having been read and rewritten and translated even before the author experiences the events he narrates – to be an educated man named Christian, incarcerated for an undisclosed crime in a low-security prison.

Christian is visited by Christ, a beautiful woman of mixed ethnicity whose identity is made manifest to Christian by the simple fact that she is not a prostitute.

The novel that develops from this visit, not described in full until the second chapter, is a series of twelve revelations that delve into Christian’s experience in prison and beyond.

Gospel Prism is delightful because it plays with language and literature in a way that embraces, respects and gambols with religious texts, the canon, history, philosophy, politics and modern celebrity culture. If you were to gaze out of a window and imagine what kind of book might be written in the wake of modernism (which still looms large to my mind), this is the sort of book you would imagine: even at its most anarchic the tethers of words and narrative cast rye nets of safety that force remembrance of the human experience as learned through the great stories of our past. Think Ovid and Bunyan mixed with Joyce, Carter, Vonnegut and Douglas Coupland.

Funny, at times difficult and confusing, purposefully crack-pot and conflicted, Gospel Prism is a joyful romp through many reflections upon human nature, overtly religious or otherwise. It’s the kind of book you want to read again.

Next week I’m reading Black Swan Green by David Mitchell.

The Emperor Waltz by Philip Hensher

The Emperor Waltz charts the beginning and end of the first gay bookshop in London. However, true to its musical title, there are several other motifs turning through the story: the history of the Bauhaus in Germany and the story of a Roman merchant’s daughter living in the African Roman Empire. Whilst this is all wonderfully clever the novel takes so many different perspectives that a sense of powerful connection often evades me.

The rise of the Nazi movement in Germany and its anti-Semitism (anti-anything not heterosexual and Aryan) is told next to the characters of the Bauhaus in the same way that Thatcher’s Britain, with its homophobia and capitalism, is told next to the characters of the gay bookshop, and, not to forget a brief foray further into the past, the growth of the Roman Empire, with its joy in throwing Christians to the lions, is told next to the story of one roman girl whose slave turns her to Christianity. How we are meant to compare these journeys and whether Hensher is trying to suggest that the exploration of sexuality, perhaps even the free expression of passion, is at the heart of an individual’s ability to stand against social norms, is very hard to say.

I’m impressed by the epic span of the book, but disappointed by some of its execution. Like a piece of music certain threads are left to dwindle and, though picked up again later, often appear in a different form or as a repetition in a different context. Again I feel the art of this but not its heart.

For me the merchant’s daughter is the most compelling character of the novel. I’m interested in Duncan, the man behind the gay bookshop, but interest doesn’t necessarily evoke empathy. In the end, I wonder if there was something in the novel that I wasn’t hearing, some motif that I wasn’t able to comprehend.

This is a grand novel, one with serious ideas and experimental expression, a novel that many will enjoy with characters and themes that will continue to resonate in my mind. However, for me, the gay bookshop story – the main theme of the waltz – remains the least compelling, the most prosaic. Perhaps that was intentional, but I consider it to be a shame.

I accidentally took a book-reviewing holiday last week but should be back on form next week when reading Gospel Prism by Gerald Weaver.