Unapologetically creative: in search of Mary Shelley in Fiona Sampson’s new biography

To mark the 200th anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein, Fiona Sampson sets out to understand the experiences that shaped the mind behind the first science-fiction novel.

The Girl Who Wrote Frankenstein

I was so excited to read a biography of Mary Shelley. I first read Frankenstein and The Last Man while at university, and fell completely in love with Shelley’s exquisite writing, complex ideas, and boundless imagination. And yet I knew next to nothing about the woman herself, beyond how she seemed to be defined by her relationship to those around her: daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, friend to Lord Byron, wife to Percy Bysshe Shelley. So my expectations soared when I read in Sampson’s introduction that she hoped to “hugely enlarge” Mary, and bring her into the foreground, so that she might be understood on her own terms.

I enjoyed the biography immensely, it’s beautifully written, well researched, and tangibly evokes the lives of those it considers. But I’m not quite sure that Sampson achieves what she claims she will in her introduction.

Sampson structures the biography around a series of imaginatively detailed vignettes, such as Mary’s birth, or sitting around the fire telling the ghost story that would become Frankenstein. Sampson is open about this structure, calling her work “a freeze-frame biography” (loc 110). She’s also explicit about its potential drawbacks, acknowledging that the vitality of a person cannot truly be understood through a series of stills. Each of these scenes is atmospheric, often intensely visceral, the details almost tangible. Of the elopement of Mary and Percy, Sampson writes: “In the next scene she lies exhausted by seasickness and fear on board a small wooden sailing vessel. The boat is being dwarfed by storm waves that swell under and around it in the moonlight. The time is just before midnight…” (loc 1132-35). But the evocation almost undermines the reality — we have to consciously remind ourselves that we’re not reading a novel, we’re reading a biography.

This freeze-frame structure also means that Sampson picks and chooses the scenes from Mary’s life that most interest her, or that have been deemed most significant by posterity. Of course, biographies are inevitably an exercise in gap-filling; as Hermione Lee writes, “Biographers try to make a coherent narrative out of missing documents as well as existing ones; a whole figure out of body parts.” (Body Parts, p.8). But as a result of all this picking and choosing, I felt Mary Shelley’s voice was marginalised in favour of Sampson’s.

Sampson chooses to focus predominantly on the beginning of Mary’s life. She is aware, again, of the pitfalls of her approach, talking of the potential of “foreshortening”: “the later years of a life — of anyone’s life — do not build a personality, and they don’t go on to affect a future. They are that future. Frankenstein is not unconnected to what comes after it in Mary’s life. On the contrary, it changed her life just as it has changed our cultural imagination. But that’s the thing: Mary’s first novel informs her future; her last does not inform her past” (loc 118). As such, Sampson’s biography spends one single chapter on Mary’s later life (essentially after the death of Percy Shelley). But if we’re “in search” of “the girl who wrote Frankenstein“, isn’t it also valuable to be in search of the woman whose life was informed by the creation of Frankenstein?

The freeze-frame structure also means that time is telescoped. In the first “scene”, before Mary is even born, we have flashed back to examine her parents’ relationship, and flashed forward through the first 10 years of Mary’s life. Perhaps this lack of chronological integrity helps to explain Sampson’s proleptic tendencies: “In the next fourteen months, shockingly, Mary is going to lose both her surviving children…But that’s in the future. For now the party are making fairly rapid progress through France…” (loc 2592-2598). It is unclear to me if such moments were for dramatic effect. They certainly result in jolting the reader out of their immersion in the story. Perhaps Sampson is acknowledging that the form of biography is inherently proleptic. Even if we do not know the details, we know that in the coming pages, Mary will write Frankenstein, she will be widowed, and will eventually die.

Mary Shelley
Richard Rothwell’s portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, 1840 (National Portrait Gallery)

Playing with time is just one of the creative liberties Sampson takes with the past. The Mary Shelley of In Search of Mary Shelley feels very much like a construction by someone other than Mary herself. In this narrative, Mary is cast as heroine, her father, husband, and step-sister as unsympathetic villains. Sampson asserts that “Claire…will never once express a whisper of guilt or regret” (loc 2678-80). Talking of Mary’s letters to Percy, Sampson writes of Mary’s self-conscious manipulation of her letters, which are designed to “win” “masculine approval” by “not being intelligent” (loc 1555). One can’t help wondering how we can know for sure. How can we know Claire never spoke an apology to Mary? How can we know for sure that Mary’s letters were manipulative rather than genuine? While Sampson’s position as biographer is one of supreme (if unfounded) authority, she does also occasionally invite readers in to hypothesise with her. Of Godwin’s response to Mary’s birth she writes, “Time stretches out. One imagines a clock ticking. It is the wolf hour. Does he feel tired? Or is he wired by adrenalin? Does he long for a coffee?” (loc 274-279). However, these moments of acknowledged uncertainty are anomalous.

I struggle, too, with the difficulty of liberating Mary from being defined by other people. Sampson fails to pay great attention to Mary outside of her relationship with Percy. Life after his death is at once judged and defended by Sampson as a “slip” into “domestic comfort” and “an end to intellectual and creative stamina” (loc 3800). The BBC Radio Four Book of the Week adaptation of In Search of Mary Shelley is perhaps an illustration of this (although it is worth remembering that Sampson was not responsible for the abridgement). Three out of the five episodes are about Mary’s life while she was in a relationship with Percy. The first episode is about her childhood, and the last episode is about life after Percy’s death. This is despite the fact that 45 years out of Mary’s 53 were spent not in a relationship with Percy. Even that final episode is about Mary’s work editing and publishing Percy’s writing. And this is the problem: it’s difficult to “liberate” Mary from Percy because she defined herself by him, perpetually “chained”, as it were, to him, as Percy wrote of monogamy in his poem ‘Epipsychidion’ (which is, of course, addressed to a woman other than Mary). I agree with Sampson when she writes of the portrait we have of Mary, “The black velvet Mary wears to sit for her Rothwell portrait, seventeen years after Percy’s death, is a statement not only of her grief but also of her continuing identity as Percy’s widow” (loc 3424-3425). And let’s not forget after he died she kept his heart for the rest of her life. It seems Mary would rather actively define herself by her relationship to someone else, than passively be subject to our desires to isolate and examine her.

I think the problem is that the portrait feels so curated, with such imaginative painting of scenes, sections of life removed and glossed over, that it does not feel authentic. That’s not to say this is not a valuable exercise, but the result is more evocative than it is informative, and may offer as much insight into Sampson as it does to Mary Shelley. Sampson’s tendency to assert certainty where there is none means that no matter how well researched, In Search of Mary Shelley feels more of a creative exercise than an academic one. This saddens me, because I agreed so whole-heartedly with Sampson’s assessment in her introduction that “Mary does not need fictionalising. She deserves better than imaginative reconstruction: she deserves to be listened to” (loc 86). Perhaps Sampson has listened to Mary Shelley. It’s simply that each of us in listening to the same person will interpret the facts in their own individual way.

Sometimes the expectations you bring to a text define it far more rigidly than the text deserves. Remember James Thurber’s story about the woman who reads Macbeth as a murder mystery? I came to this, quite simply, hoping to learn more about Mary Shelley. I find myself unable to be sure of whether that expectation has been fulfilled. I know a few more facts of her life, and those of the people she encountered. I know a little more about life in the 19th century. But I am reluctant to trust in the character Sampson has created. My ideal biography would probably be extracts from letters and novels with heavily footnoted commentary. It might be quite dry. But I’d at least know what I was reading was attempting authenticity. This isn’t that type of biography, but Sampson doesn’t apologise for that, and while I was frustrated by In Search of Mary Shelley, I can’t help but admire its brilliance.

Favourite quotation:
“If we can think of Mary’s life as a series of portraits, this one is nothing like a painting fixed in oils. It reminds me of the flicker of a video installation: the grainy black-and-white bleached by wilful exposure into near-invisibility, its jerkiness reproducing the apprentice technologies of the very earliest films. We can barely distinguish between the figures themselves and the markings of the wall on to which they’re projected. Nothing is certain; everything keeps changing.” (loc 1509-1515)

Fiona Sampson, In Search of Mary Shelley: The Girl who wrote Frankenstein (Profile Books, 2018)

Thank you to Fiona Sampson and Profile Books via NetGalley for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.


Magic ordinary and extraordinary: The Toy Makers by Robert Dinsdale

Cathy Wray, 15 years old and newly pregnant. Fearful of losing her baby, she runs away from her family, responding to a job advert in the newspaper: “Are you lost? Are you afraid? Are you a child at heart?” This is Cathy’s introduction to Papa Jack’s Emporium, a place where lost souls gather to experience the spectacular magic of Papa Jack’s toys. She meets the intimidating Papa Jack, the charismatic Kaspar, and his long-suffering brother, Emil. We follow their fortunes over the course of 50 years: births, marriages, war, bankruptcy, and magic.

The Toy Makers Robert Dinsdale
Cover by the hugely talented Laura Barrett

Despite the fact the story covers such a long period of time, the plot never stumbles. Hours passed as I was reading without me realising, and even when it reached the small hours of the morning, I could not stop. I wish I could put my finger on what makes this book so brilliant. The writing is gorgeous, vivid, and visual. The narrator often acts as a guide, inviting us in to explore the labyrinth of the emporium, the minds of the characters. It seems redundant to say the characters are well developed. They weren’t characters to me. They were real people, with all the hopes and dreams, fears and foibles of real people. I shared in their pain, their uncertainties, their unexpected joys.

Robert Dinsdale’s story-telling has a peculiar magic. Reading his writing it is as though the words fade away to reveal the scenes he describes, played out in front of you. Inanimate toys are wound up, and they stand to attention. But what is this peculiar magic that makes toys act beyond the expectations of their mechanisms? The magic that makes Dinsdale’s words reach out, take your hand, and drag you along with the story? It feels like his writing, just like his toy soldiers, is alive.

The book succeeds because its foundation is a study of human life, and watching four generations of a family succeed and fail. It’s also a book about nostalgia, sentimental but never mawkish. It’s about how toys can make us feel like children again, and the trials of one family trying to bring some joy into a troubled world. But it’s also about magic. The ordinary magic of love and hope, and the extraordinary magic of what might happen if, just if, a toy were to one day come to life.

Favourite quotation, the wisdom of Papa Jack:
“But can a toy come to life? My dear…it isn’t foolish at all. All of the magic, all of the love we pour into them. I should think the only foolish thing is to wonder why it doesn’t happen all of the time.”

Robert Dinsdale, The Toy Makers (Penguin Random House, 2018)

Thank you to Robert Dinsdale and Penguin Random House via NetGalley for an advance copy in exchange for an honest review.

Gamification of the library experience: Escape from Mr Lemoncello’s Library

“Knowledge not shared remains unknown.” – Luigi L. Lemoncello

Mr Luigi Lemoncello, the world’s most famous gamemaker, has completely redesigned Kyle Keeley’s local library. When Kyle and his friends are invited to an exclusive sleepover before the library opens, they find they have to solve Mr Lemoncello’s ultimate puzzle: how can they escape the library, using only the resources inside it?

Escape from Mr Lemoncello's Library

I was fairly sure I’d like this book just on learning the title. After reading the first few chapters, I was certain I would love it. I am the kind of person who will read a book just because it has “library”, or “bookshop”, or “museum” in the title. So I hadn’t initially realised it was written for children (ages 8-12) until I went hunting for it at my local library (appropriately enough). But it being a children’s book wasn’t going to put me off—I’d just discovered the Artemis Fowl books for the first time, and had read them obsessively. I get rather cross when people talk about being “too old” to read a certain book.

And how glad I am I found it, nestling among the low-hanging books of the children’s bookshelves. This book has everything. A tightly plotted adventure, literary references galore, outrageous puns, and a healthy does of parable-type moralising. It even has a few irresistible puzzles for the reader. Above all it’s a love letter to libraries and the power of stories and knowledge.

For adults, it’s a fun afternoon read to make us fall in love with reading again. For children, it’s a must for encouraging them to read books and visit their library. Although they might be disappointed if it doesn’t contain a holographic tiger—I’m certainly hoping my local library will be installing a Book Nook Café soon.

Favourite quotation: “A library doesn’t need windows, Andrew. We have books, which are windows into worlds we never even dreamed possible.”

Chris Grabenstein, Escape from Mr Lemoncello’s Library (Yearling, 2014)

Quotation of the month – Walter Moers takes us to Bookholm

I cannot recommend Walter Moers highly enough. His books combine fantasy, adventure, mystery, and stupendous writing. Reading his books you feel he has conjured a wild dream just for your enjoyment. Underlying it all is a huge sense of heart. Of love. Of passion for the wonder found in those small joys in life: from the taste of a perfectly ripe apricot to the alluring scent of old books.

Walter Moers The City of Dreaming Books

To Bookholm:
“You can smell the place from a long way off. It reeks of old books. It’s as if you’ve opened the door of a gigantic second-hand bookshop—as if you’ve stirred up a cloud of unadulterated book dust and blown the detritus from millions of mouldering volumes straight into your face. There are folk who dislike that smell and turn on their heel as soon as it assails their nostrils. It isn’t an agreeable odour, granted. Hopelessly antiquated, it is eloquent of decay and dissolution, mildew and mortality. But it also has other associations: a hint of acidity reminiscent of lemon trees in flower; the stimulating scent of old leather; the acrid, intelligent tang of printer’s ink; and overlying all else, a reassuring aroma of wood.
I’m not talking about living wood or resinous forests and fresh pine needles; I mean felled, stripped, pulped, bleached, rolled and guillotined wood—in short, paper. Ah yes, my intellectually inquisitive friends, you too can smell it now, the odour of forgotten knowledge and age-old traditions of craftsmanship. Very well, let us quicken our pace!” – Walter Moers, The City of Dreaming Books (Vintage Books, 2007) p.10.

How to Find Love in a Bookshop by Veronica Henry

Julius runs an independent bookshop in rural Oxfordshire and, listening to his customers’ woes and desires, acts as an informal therapist. When he dies he leaves a hole in the community and in the heart of his daughter, Emilia. She must decide whether to keep the bookshop open or let her father’s dreams die with him.

How to Find Love in a Bookshop Veronica Henry.jpeg

Reading How to Find Love in a Bookshop was much like eating a slice of homemade chocolate cake. It’s sweet and self-indulgent; a slice of comfort-reading that might not be very nutritious but leaves you feeling warm and satisfied.

How to Find Love in a Bookshop consists of multiple romantic storylines which all link in some way to the bookshop. And when I say multiple, I mean multiple: there are at least seven different relationships. Told in the third person from the perspective of several distinct voices, it’s a short book at only 367 pages. Given how many different stories those few pages cover, it’s not surprising that it’s a fairly surface-level read. It’s also relatively sedate – there is little drama or tension other than the question of whether Emilia will keep the bookshop open. Even this is only one of several storylines, so the tension is lost in a sea of other stories. But each character even without much page-time is well-rounded, relatable, and the dialogue is great. It’s impressive we get to know the characters and care about them as much as we do.

It’s also wonderful to read a book that just oozes passion about books.  One character asks another, “Have you got a book about a man who takes ages to realise the person he loves has been right under his nose all along?” “There’s loads of those…” she responds (p.359). It’s a wonderfully self-reflexive moment. “Fine,” Henry seems to be saying, “I may not be doing anything new. But that doesn’t mean I’m not doing it well and I just know how much you’re enjoying it.” Henry herself notes in the suggestions at the back of the book, “For me, the title is more thematic than specific – the idea you will always find something to love in a book shop. It’s about a love of books and reading as much as romance. Books will never let you down: they are there to provide escape, comfort, inspiration…What’s not to love?” (p.373)

Favourite quotation: “So that was why people read. Because books explained things: how you thought, how you behaved, and made you realise you were not alone in doing what you did or feeling what you felt.” (p.297)

How to Find Love in a Book Shop, Veronica Henry (Orion Books, 2016)

The Pursuit of Happiness by Ruth Whippman

A cynical Brit moves to America and finds that everyone seems to be obsessed with the pursuit of happiness. She examines what happiness means, how various people are trying to attain it, and whether the pursuit of happiness is making everyone feel worse than they would otherwise.

The Pursuit of Happiness, Ruth Whippman

Each chapter addresses a different way in which people search for happiness, including religion, family, work, and social media. Whippman’s main goal seems to be dismantle the various ways in which Americans choose to pursue happiness. Each chapter seems to follow a rough trajectory of: Whippman suspicious of latest happiness fad, Whippman tests out fad, Whippman finds potentially interesting grain of truth buried deep within fad, Whippman successfully debunks pseudo-science of fad. It’s more an amusing travelogue than a ‘how to’ guide. The book perhaps didn’t uncover the profound truths I was hoping would revolutionise my own search for happiness, but it was still an engaging and interesting read.

My favourite moments included her assessment of social media, where the emphasis is not on how happy you are, but how happy you look: “we live in the era of the curated life” (p.197). I also enjoyed her investigation of the Landmark Forum, a personal development program in which you pay to have your understanding of yourself torn apart in front of an audience. You’re told that essentially, if you’re not happy, it’s all your fault. Whippman notes, “Buried deep within this unpleasant showpiece is an interesting idea. It is true that all of us are constantly constructing interpretations of the events in our lives, and failing to recognise that these are not facts…But I can’t help thinking that the stories we tell ourselves are built up over years, crafted for complex psychological reasons” (pp.50-1). Having a stranger tear apart those stories in front of an audience then, Whippman concludes, is perhaps not the best way to achieve happiness.

I was also morbidly fascinated by her account of Tony Hsieh, a CEO who attempts to eliminate the boundaries between work and play. After selling his company, Zappos, to Google, he turned his hand to city planning. He purchased the 60-acre site of Downtown Las Vegas, aiming to turn it into a start-up city; a manufactured, utopian community where work and life were not considered separate. He pitched the idea as “playing SimCity in real life” (pp.93-4). People were allowed to join the Downtown Project if they were the kind of person Hsieh would like to have a beer with, not if they had a flawless business plan. Key to the plan was the way people interacted. Hsieh developed a system of measuring “collisions” (i.e. interactions between people). The more collisions, Hsieh and his team thought, the happier and more productive the community. They came up with ways of manufacturing more collisions, by making places hard to get to so people would have to bump into each other, including moving around key shops so that people would constantly have to take new routes (this idea, at least, turned out to be too impractical). They even measured the results by tracking people’s mobile phones, mapping their residents’ movements without their knowledge. The project doesn’t seem to have had the impact Hsieh was hoping for – Whippman writes that Dowtown is now mostly deserted.

There’s so much to like, even love, about this book. The pursuit of happiness, in its myriad forms, is a fascinating topic, and Whippman’s approach to it is rigorous, uncompromising, and wryly funny. I did have a few minor quibbles. Whippman’s book occupies that uneasy boundary between the academic and the popular. Her work is clearly well researched and thoughtful, though perhaps a little biased. It’s also very accessible and easy to read. Sometimes, though, I felt it leaned rather unnecessarily towards the accessible end of things. An example of this was the ends of chapters. Each chapter ends on a little cliffhanger, introducing the topic of the next chapter, for example: “But the deeper I get into middle-class Californian parenting articles, the more I start to notice some rather strange behaviour going on.” (p.118). It’s a little, well, dramatic. It felt like a Dan Brown-style hook to keep the reader turning the pages. It had the reverse effect on me.

My other minor quibble was with the final chapter. Having spent the entire book debunking the search for happiness, and the previous chapter obliterating the positive psychology movement, the book ends on an anti-climax. Whippman almost does an about-turn, essentially saying, ‘but I’m settling into America and it’s all good really and yay, happiness’. It’s an uplifting note to end on, sure, but it doesn’t fit with the cynical tone of the rest of the book. It felt a little jarring.

Whippman’s conclusions, though, were optimistic, if not groundbreaking. Happiness, she finds, “depends on other people” (p.32). The importance of community is a thread which is woven through each chapter. One of her most comforting insights emerges as she debunks the aims of the positive psychology movement: “Happiness is so individualised and complex, so dependent on a myriad of factors – circumstances and life events, upbringing, culture, relationships, preferences and personality quirks – that anything averaged out over a group is unlikely to do much to describe the lived experience of any one person.” (p.221). No one, not the positive psychologists, not the Landmark Forum, our Facebook friends, or Tony Hsieh, can tell us what our own individual brand of happiness should look like. So maybe we should stop worrying about it so much.

The Pursuit of Happiness, Ruth Whippman (Hutchinson, 2016)


Quotation of the Week – Caitlin Moran, again, On Books, again

Yes, Caitlin Moran was the source of my last quotation of the week. And yes, I’m aware that my “quotation of the week” feature happens about once a month, at most. But since my ambition/optimism dwarfs my sense of reality, “quotation of the week” it shall remain. And look, I actually read something by Caitlin Moran this time, instead of just listening to her talk. Ok, I didn’t read the whole book, but sometimes you just need to read a chapter to know that it’s great. And a quotation this brilliant, on such an important topic, had to be added to the collection. Enjoy.

“A library in the middle of a community is a cross between an emergency exit, a life-raft, and a festival. They are cathedrals of the mind; hospitals of the soul; theme parks of the imagination. One a cold, rainy island, they are the only sheltered public spaces where you are not a consumer, but a citizen, instead. A human with a brain and a heart and a desire to be uplifted, rather than a customer with a credit card and an inchoate ‘need’ for ‘stuff’. A mall — the shops — are places where your money makes the wealthy wealthier. But a library is where the wealthy’s taxes pay for you to become a little more extraordinary, instead. A satisfying reversal. A balancing of the power.”

Caitlin Moran, Moranthology (Ebury Press, 2012), p.211.

Books with pink covers – Sushi for Beginners by Marian Keyes

Ever the admirer of Desert Island Discs, I found myself listening to Marian Keyes one day. I’d never read any of her books, but writers talking about life and books and music has to be one of my favourite things, so I gave the episode my full attention. I was captured by how warmly and openly she spoke about mental health and addiction and how this finds its way into her writing. Early on, she talks about being pigeon-holed as a “popular” writer, and Kirsty Young asks her why she thinks she’s put in such categories:

“Because I’m a woman. And because, for good or for ill, lots of women enjoy my books, and they relate to them. And in my own little way I feel that they are quite empowering. And I think that anything that empowers women […] has to be slapped down. And so if we like something, by telling us it’s rubbish, it makes us feel a bit silly for having liked it in the first place. And I know so many men will be listening to this and thinking, ‘that’s not true’. But it absolutely is true. […] I am very proud of the books I write and the reach that they have. I’m prepared to put up with a pink cover if it makes me more accessible. I don’t see anything wrong with being accessible. It would sadden me to write a book that was only read by seven people. It’s that choice. But it means then that I am patronised, and categorised as […] not terribly clever.” (5:40-7:40)

Guiltily, I remembered how doggedly I avoid any book with a pink cover. “My God,” I thought, “I’m part of the problem.” My solution: to immediately go out and acquire a book by Marian Keyes. Lacking the funds necessary for a trip to the bookshop, I set off to my local library. I found three books by Keyes. This Charming Man was just too pink. I baulked. The Woman who Stole my Life seemed an improvement, but didn’t immediately grab me. The final book I found was Sushi for Beginners. Not too pink, and about editing, a topic I love reading about. Perfect! The editing of a women’s magazine, to be sure, but better than nothing. It’s also a decidedly thick book at 564 pages. I took this as a good sign.

Sushi for Beginners Marian Keyes

During the first few pages I was nervous. The women in the book talked a lot about shoes and make-up. Horoscopes were mentioned. I was out of my depth and dangerously close to becoming judgmental. I can spot the precise moment Keyes converted me. It didn’t even take long. 18 pages, in fact. “Trix…had the glittery, luscious-sticky look of a devotee of the more-is-more school of slapplication.” I laughed aloud, disrupting my fellow quiet café-goers with my unrestrained mirth. Soon I found myself abandoning the other book I was reading (The Long War) in favour of Sushi for Beginners. Me! Abandoning science fiction for women’s fiction? What was happening to me?

The short answer is that I had discovered that not all women’s fiction has to have bland, stock characters, or predictable storylines. Keyes’s writing is witty and knowing, accessible but not patronising. And the characters are just so likeable. At numerous stages I found myself wishing I were their friend, or thinking, “other people feel like this? I didn’t know!” Yes, the characters talk about men and handbags and lipstick. But they also talk about depression and homelessness. Even the obsession with horoscopes has a genuine, character-driven reason for being there. It’s about the character’s need for control and order, growing out of her disordered, disrupted childhood. It’s not just, “because she’s a woman. And women who read books with pink covers like horoscopes”. Here’s one of my favourite moments of Keyes putting into words those feelings that don’t get talked about:

“She was surprised to find she was happy to be with a crowd and happy to be on its edges. Such contentment was rare: all Ashling knew was that she almost never felt whole. Even at her most fulfilled, something remained forever absent, right at her very core. Like the tiny, pinprick dot that remained in the wash of black when the telly used to shut down for the night. But tonight she was calm and peaceful, alone but not lonely.” (p.45).

There are so many insightful moments like this. Moments that hold a mirror up to your life, for better and worse, and then tell you it’s all ok.

Not all the characters are likeable. They are real people, bitchy, selfish, and they make mistakes. One of the characters ends the novel learning that not all of those mistakes can be forgiven. It shocked me that one of the main characters didn’t end up with the rose-tinted (pink) ending that I was expecting. It stayed with me for quite some time.

My name’s Anouska. I’m a feminist, and I like books with pink covers.

Favourite quotation: “He didn’t know much about girls’ hair, but he had a feeling that it was usually more elaborate than this one’s. Wasn’t it normal to have a kind of interfered look to it? Surely it shouldn’t just hang there on her shoulders, being brown?” p.20.

Sarah Taylor (producer) and Kirsty Young (presenter), ‘Marian Keyes, Desert Island Discs’, BBC Radio 4, 17 Mar 2017 [accessed 25 April 2017]
Marian Keyes, Sushi for Beginners (Michael Joseph, 2000)

The Magicians by Lev Grossman

The Magicians follows the standard fantasy arc of: boy discovers magic is real, boy goes to magical school, boy and friends visit magical worlds and have magical adventures. But the difference here is that Quentin Coldwater is as angst-ridden a teenager as you’ll ever come across. This is not just a book about magical adventures, but the sex- and alcohol-fuelled adventures of growing up. The concept of a mopey, depressed hero who is constantly dissatisfied with life is one I find rather appealing. Add magic into the mix, and I figured Lev Grossman was onto a winning combination. However, on reading The Magicians I found myself disappointed at every page turn.

TheMagicians by Lev Grossman

Grossman is deeply indebted to various other fantasy franchises, and is hyper-aware of this. His central character, Quentin, constantly compares his own magical experiences with a series of children’s books he never quite grew out of – the “Fillory” books by Christopher Plover (which are modelled on C. S. Lewis’s Narnia). The Magicians felt to me like it lacked really detailed world creation. I feel like I could ask J. K. Rowling any question about how magic functions in her world, and she’d be able to give me a detailed answer, probably with citations of magical academics of her own invention. I’m not sure Grossman would be able to do the same. What lore there is seems to have been borrowed from other sources. Grossman writes in depth about the various allusions in The Magicians:
“I had a rule for myself with The Magicians, which was that everything that exists in our world has to exist in the Magiciansverse. So for example, even though the characters go to a college for magic, I also thought that they all should have read Harry Potter. Inevitably little references to him creep into their conversation. I didn’t go overboard with it, because that would have gotten too cute and meta. I just thought it was realistic. Like Hermione hasn’t read the Narnia books a million times! But she never talks about it.”
I get it, I do, it’s a good rule. But the fact that Grossman has to break his own rule about Narnia, because he’s borrowed so much, just undermines it. To be fair, he admits this himself: “(Though if I’m being honest, I broke my own rule with Narnia. In the Magiciansverse, C.S. Lewis was never born. If he had he and Christopher Plover would have collapsed into each other and formed a space-time singularity. Which would be cool in a different way. But that would have been a whole other novel.)”

Despite his borrowing, Grossman seems to buck the trend by creating a hero/anti-hero who is not ‘chosen’ to contribute to a cause greater than himself. Grossman, then, is attempting to do something really interesting – creating an almost anti-fantasy novel. But his indebtedness to the books he’s attempting to rewrite just undermines his attempts. He invites comparisons with Rowling, C. S. Lewis and others, and does not come out on top. Unfortunately his writing often comes off as heavy-handed fan-fiction.

There was a lot to like about Grossman’s prose style. But I felt it was spoiled by his obsession with being ‘gritty’ (gratuitous arctic fox sex, anyone?). The other problem I had with The Magicians is the narrative itself. It is told in a series of anecdotes, or vignettes – with the first four or so years of Quentin’s magical education crammed into the first half of the novel. Any time you think the story is going somewhere, following a traditional story arc, the incident is abruptly closed off, unresolved. (This is perhaps also because of its ‘anti-fantasy’ leanings – because Quentin hasn’t been ‘chosen’, there is no driving force.) An example of this is in the magical “discipline” each student has a particular aptitude for, determined during the first few years of the student’s magical education. After the standard tests, Quentin’s discipline remains undetermined. It’s intriguing, and one of the occasions I finally thought the novel would have a sense of purpose. But after Quentin is temporarily assigned a discipline for the purposes of teaching, it’s never mentioned again. It creates no further tension or interest. After not being mentioned at all, it’s brought up in the last few pages of the book, as a bizarrely underwhelming cliffhanger.

The lack of direction certainly reflects Quentin’s meandering attitude to his own life, but it makes for uncomfortable reading. Most of these incidences are wrapped up in the final quarter of the novel, but by the time they are, I’d stopped caring, when I could even remember that far back. The loose ends, or most of them, are tied up. The pay-off, when it comes, is nearly worthwhile. But for me it was undermined by Grossman fairly immediately afterwards brutally killing off one of the main characters. Any sense of satisfaction at the resolution is immediately replaced by a sense of futile emptiness. It’s almost like Grossman is aware of the escapism we readers crave, which Quentin craves, and has decided to punish us for it. It’s clever, and I won’t deny it had an emotional impact on me (beyond frustration). But it results in a deeply unsatisfying read.




My Name is Leon by Kit de Waal

My Name is Leon tells the story of Leon, a nine-year-old with a black father and a white mother. His mother is heavily reliant on drugs, and as such, is unable to take care of Leon and his baby brother, Jake. Put into the foster care system, cute white baby Jake is soon adopted, but Leon is sent from one place to another, unable to settle. Leon manages his anger at losing his mum and Jake by stealing from the adults around him, hoping to save up enough money to go and rescue his mum and baby brother.

My Name is Leon.jpg

I probably would never have chosen to read this book. The story of a mixed race boy growing up in 1980s Britain doesn’t immediately fit into the mould of books I normally read. I read this through Penguin’s Bookmarks, and I’m so glad I did. I enjoyed its style and its sensitive handling of some very difficult topics. I also liked its cast of extremely relatable characters, including Maureen, who adopts Leon, Tufty, who teaches him about gardening, and of course Leon himself.

This is a story that deals with incredibly difficult issues – racism, addiction, anger, and loss. But it does so in a very accessible way.  My Name is Leon is primarily a story about a young boy growing up, and it is through his eyes that we experience each of these challenging topics. It’s a story about an individual, not a manifesto, and yet it leaves you with a greater understanding of these issues than I think a manifesto might. The question of race, for example, is a subtle thread woven throughout, which is very effectively brought to the foreground in the climax of the novel.

One of the things that appealed most to me was the style – the way it was written with a slightly naive voice, as though Leon’s thoughts. It’s a wonderful example of “show not tell”, as we learn things through the narrator. We learn how Leon’s mother, Carol, is unable to cope with parenting, we overhear snippets about her relationships, but all without the narrator/Leon ever fully understanding. It’s a way of being able to really relate to Leon and his situation, and to understand his anger and desire to steal. Seeing his unconditional love for his mother through Leon’s eyes was particularly touching. Despite her failings, her inability to cope, Leon never considers giving up on her.

In amidst the naivety are some mature motifs – when Leon is given an allotment, his care for his baby brother transfers to caring for plants. There is also the question of identity – one of the first things Leon says is “My. Name. Is. Leon.” to baby Jake. And yet so many people fail to get his name right throughout the novel, and in the same way they fail to understand his needs and desires. It’s a symbol of how his identity is so difficult to nail down, both because he’s mixed race and because he has to move from one home to another.

Kit de Waal, My Name is Leon (Viking, 2016)