A Table for Friends

This book was sent to me by the publisher, Bloomsbury, at no cost. It’s out now; RRP $49.99.

It feels an age since I reviewed a cookbook! And usually I like to actually cook from one before reviewing, but… well… look at the title. None of that is happening at the moment. And although of course I could cook from it for two, the one time I tried to get the ingredients recently it fell through because of Issues with Shops. So I figured I should just get on with telling people about the book, since it’s out now!

Firstly, this book is gorgeous. It’s hard cover, and it has a ribbon (as all cookbooks ought) and the pictures are lovely. I am indeed one of those people who loves flicking through a cookbook looking at the pretties, and this is one that rewards such actions.

Beyond the appearance, though, I am intrigued by the way it’s arranged – which is slightly different, at least in the naming. McAlpine says in her intro she wanted it to feel ‘intuitive’: so it opens with what she calls Stars – the centrepiece of a meal. But that’s not always a roast; she includes chilled almond soup, and burrata with preserved lemon, mint and chilli (bring on summer) in this section, as well as Pork Wellington and poached cold salmon. For every star, McAlpine suggests what might go alongside from the other sections – Sides and Sweets. Basically, she is doing all of the menu planning for you, if you choose to follow her ideas. She rhapsodises about the joys of throwing together dinner and lunch parties in her introduction, which is something I have never found easy – enjoyable, yes, but for me sometimes quite stressful since I’m not sure what works together and I can get flustered by organisation. McAlpine’s point, then, is to make those like me just chill out a bit.

So the other sections are Sides and Sweets, and Extras – truffle mayonnaise and cocktails and the like. But one of the great triumphs is found at the back. The section called How to Cook by Season sets out suggested meal plans by seasonal availability of produce: a Make-Ahead Weeknight Supper for Spring, Late Summer Lunch Al Fresco, a First Blush of Autumn Supper, Food for Celebration in Winter… and so on. Just the names make me really, really want an end to the Current Situation. And THEN, joy of joys, she has a section called How to Cook by Numbers, which is something that really stresses me out. Starting with Cooking for Four to Six, and going to Cooking for Twenty (or more), she suggests recipes that work most easily at those quantities. Which is just magnificent. I don’t ever want to properly cater for twenty, because that seems like way more trouble than I can face; but she suggests a lot of things that can scale. And finally, because she’s clearly a sensible and canny writer, McAlpine finishes with How to Cook by Timings: the things to do last-minutes, and the things you can prepare days ahead.

I am really, really looking forward to cooking from this book, both just for us when ingredient can be come by easily, and for larger groups of friends. I am also quite greedily happy just to have it on my shelf to look at.

The Space between Worlds

This book was sent to me by the publisher, Hachette Australia, at no cost. It’s due out on August 11; RRP $32.99 (trade paperback).

This is a debut novel – which doesn’t mean Johnson has never written a novel before, of course, just that this is the first one to be published. And it’s pretty great.

It is unclear to me exactly when this is set; some time in the future, but not unimaginably so. It’s also unclear where this is set – I just assume it’s meant to be America because as an Australian, I assume most novels are set in America unless they’re evidently in the UK somewhere. (Realising the setting is Australia, or somewhere other than the US or UK, is often a very surprising moment, unless I’ve gone in knowing the story is deliberately set in, say, Nigeria.)

Anyway. Both the when and the where are basically irrelevant to the story, because the most important where is that most of the action is on Earth Zero. This is a world where not only have parallel universes been discovered to be real, but someone has discovered how a person can travel between them.

These sorts of stories have happened before (says the fan of Fringe) but the particularly clever thing that Johnson does is the caveat that you can only survive traveling to a world where your dop (doppelgänger) is dead.

Barring unfortunate accidents, you know who makes the most valuable traversers, therefore? who are the people able to access the most worlds? It’s the people whose survival to adulthood is unlikely. For wealth, ethnic, gender, location, and other systemic reasons. Those who grow up in areas with a lot of violence. Those from families or suburbs or countries with widespread violence. Those who, in the general course of a capitalist world, are seen to have little real value.

This is a brilliant twist, and I love it. And I also love that Johnson doesn’t present this as meaning that those people suddenly get great lives. Instead, the protagonist – Cara – is always aware of the fact that she could be replaced by robots when that tech works; that the people who were born in the nice town, as opposed to where she grew up (very much not-the-nice town), look down on her or fear her. Her existence is precarious despite her value to the company.

So partly the narrative is about Cara and her navigation of the two worlds – the rich and the poor, in brutal essence – that she straddles. It’s also, of course, about literally moving between worlds, and seeing how different choices have led to different outcomes – on a societal level or an individual one. Unsurprisingly Cara ends up being more involved in one of these other worlds than is appropriate by company standards, and that has knock-on effects for that world as well as her own, which is the bulk of the story.

The novel has little interest in explaining how moving between the worlds works; the science and technology are irrelevant to the story. Instead, Johnson is interested in the people: what secrets are kept and why; how relationships work; why certain decisions are made, and how they change human interactions. I enjoyed this focus a lot.

One aspect didn’t quite work for me; there’s an undercurrent of science v religion, especially in the way that Cara talks about the experience of moving between worlds – as a goddess allowing her to do so. I didn’t feel like this really fit the rest of the story. However, this does not detract from the rest of the story; it just felt undeveloped, like there could have been a bit more discussion of the possible mysticism of moving between worlds; it’s just not there as much as I think I expected.

Overall, this was a very enjoyable book, and I hope that Johnson is able to write many more in a similar vein.

Talkin’ Up to the White Woman

As with Living on Stolen Land, I don’t want to be the white woman talking about and appropriating an Indigenous woman’s words. So if you’ve been thinking about reading this book, do it! This review is intended to prod people into doing so, and in no way is a substitute for Moreton-Robinson’s own words.

I saw Aileen Moreton-Robinson at the Broadside feminist festival last year and she was intriguing. On the panel I saw, about women of colour and how they approach feminism, she was the oldest by perhaps a decade or more, and she seemed to get quite impatient by what some of the panellists were saying – and how they were saying it; she told them (in a poor paraphrase) that feminism is a white woman’s thing and they, not being white, needed to think differently – and maybe white feminism wasn’t actually what they needed. That’s a very poor paraphrase, actually, but I think it gets some of the sense of what she said – and for me, as a white feminist in the audience, it was eye-opening and kind of stunning. I am in a weird halfway place I think between second and third wave feminism; I don’t think I think that all women are sisters and experience oppression in the same way, but I’ve definitely had to work on fully manifesting intersectionality in the way that I think and act. The panellists too were intrigued by how Moreton-Robinson spoke; at one point someone (only half-jokingly) suggested the panel should be the rest of them asking Moreton-Robinson questions.

The other thing that really stuck in my mind was the fact that this book was published in 2000, and Moreton-Robinson had never before been asked to speak at a conference in Australia about it. Never. Nineteen years of a book that was the first Indigenous Australian interrogation of feminism… and conferences have ignored it, and her. That’s a disgrace. There is, at least, a 20th anniversary edition out this year, and Moreton-Robinson seems to have been on some programmes (ABC Radio, The Drum), so that’s a bit of an improvement?

So, the book. It took me quite a long time to read, partly because this year I have been struggling to read new stuff – which I think is the case for many people – and partly because it’s been a while since I read any theory; it’s not every chapter, but several deal with anthropological theory and feminist theory so I knew I needed to read it slowly to actually absorb what was being said. Rushing through would have been a disservice to the book, and I wouldn’t have really appreciated everything being discussed.

Throughout the book Moreton-Robinson talks about “the subject position middle-class white woman” which I found challenging, in some ways – because as she points out, women like that/women like me are indeed accustomed to being the default. And even when I am aware that I am those things, constantly having it pointed out (like Indigenous women, like African-American women, like… etc usually experience) is a novel experience. And an important one. And is one of the core points of the entire book: feminism – especially as it was in the late 1990s, in some corners I think it may have changed a bit in the last two decades – has been developed by white women with themselves at the centre, and while we’re busy interrogating various positions of power etc we forget to think about how, even in our gender oppression we massively benefit from (and help to support) racial oppression.

Moreton-Robinson begins my talking about how Indigenous women have presented themselves in their life-writings, pointing out the differences in those experiences compared to middle-class white women. She then tackles a massive job in looking at how various feminists have theorised ‘difference’ and ‘race’ over time and in different places – mostly white feminists, since they have been the most significant for Australian ways of thinking. And along with a whole bunch of interesting things here the main take-away for me is that white feminists haven’t considered that they are white; that they (we) have race/colour/ethnic position. And then the third chapter was perhaps the most gut-punch, from a historical point of view: she gives an overview of how white feminist anthropologists have talked about “Indigenous women” and all the ways that has been part of the colonising process, which chapter 4 also continues to interrogate.

All of the preceding stuff is incredibly important and could have stood by itself. What Moreton-Robinson then does in chapter 5 is present interviews with white feminist academics (ask me how hard it’s been to remember to put ‘white’ at the start of each nominal group… hello privilege), about how those academics think about race and present it in their courses and interact with people from different ethnic backgrounds. And this was illuminating and also for me challenging: who do I interact with and why, how do I present an anti-racist stance in my teaching and also live it in the world, and so on.

Finally, the last chapter presents a history of how Indigenous women (up to 2000, which I think is important to remember, since more will have been done and said since then) have challenged white women and their intentions and words. Which was its own version of challenging mostly because of how white women have responded to being challenged (often, badly).

This book won’t be for everyone; I know that reading theory isn’t going to be appealing for many. But the ideas and challenges that Moreton-Robinson present are vital for us middle-class white women to hear and acknowledge. If you ever get a chance to hear her, please do so. If you think you can cope with some theory, please get hold of this book and read it.

Bone Silence

The first book was Revenger.

The second book was Shadow Captain.

This is the third book.

I really like Alastair Reynolds’ work. I own all of his novels (except the Dr Who), and most of his chapbooks and collections. I have re-read several of them, and I get excited about new books.

But.

Um. I was bored by this book.

Like, I skimmed through paragraphs of description in the last third or so.

When I got to the end, I just felt a bit… numb. How had it come to this? How could I possibly not have loved this book?

Let me suggest some reasons:

  1. The book is too long. Maybe 1/3 too long. There are long, boring descriptions that add nothing to the sense of place or experience. There’s lots of time where nothing happens – and sometimes that can be fine; I will read Legolas and Aragon and Gimli running across Rohan endlessly – but these periods of waiting were… boring.
  2. The climax didn’t feel like it fit the book itself, or the trilogy overall. Actually I started feeling like this in the second book where all of a sudden we weren’t just off to save someone, but there was something weird going on with the whole civilisation – but that wasn’t something that was even foreshadowed earlier so it came as quite a surprise. And then this book is theoretically all about finding out the answers to those civilisation-wide issues, but there’s a whole lot of waaaaaiting… and then BAM here are (most of) the answers you were waiting for. Which were themselves a bit weird and didn’t feel like they fit the world-building to that point.
  3. Fura and Adrana, the sisters at the heart of the story: I didn’t really care. Maybe if I had re-read the first two books before getting into this one, I would have been more concerned with their welfare and fates. As it was, neither of them were particularly appealing as characters, and I didn’t feel very compelled to cheer for them.
  4. The writing style. It was already a bit grating in the first book, and it really wasn’t working for me by this stage. The trilogy is basically like Hornblower in space; the space ships use (light)sails to get around, and there are pirates and privateers and loot and boarding parties and such. The language reflects that idea of 18th-century nautical-ness, especially in conversation. And it got old.

So there we go. I haven’t always adored every Reynolds; the Poseidon’s Children books weren’t my favourite, but I still enjoyed them. Hopefully this book is a blip – maybe a case of the editor not editing as thoroughly as previously? Who knows. I will still be buying the new Reynolds, whenever that comes out; I’ll just be a bit more cautious in my enthusiasm, I suspect.

Murderbot #5

… whose proper name is Network Effect, but everyone just calls all these stories Murderbot, don’t they?

In case you’re late to this party: in 2017, a novella called All Systems Red came out and a lot of people went a bit nuts about a Security Unit robot who had hacked its governor module and was therefore under no one’s control, who kept doing its job because it didn’t know what alternatives there were – it just knew that sitting in one spot and watching media all day was going to land it in trouble. And thus, Murderbot. All Systems Red introduced Murderbot and its problems with humans (including that they keep trying to get themselves killed; Murderbot’s job is preventing that); its love of an epic drama called Sanctuary Moon; and a particular job that goes sideways because the galaxy it inhabitants is largely run by corporations, and the corps like to try and get away with everything. Security Units are used by other companies to try and prevent the other other companies from destroying or killing their stuff.

Artificial Condition, Rogue Protocol and Exit Strategy all followed, wth Murderbot trying to learn more of its own history, the possibilities for its future, and where it can access more media please and thank you except probably without the pleasantries.

If you haven’t read the four novellas yet, you want to stop reading here – partly because of spoilers and partly because seriously your life will be better for having read Murderbot why are you even still here? Ann Leckie says she loves Murderbot; NPR claimed “We are all a little bit Murderbot” and I have to say, right now: so true.

So that brings us to the novel, Network Effect. This picks up fairly soon after Exit Protocol; Murderbot is on Preservation, working for/with Dr Mensah and her family, and trying to figure out what it’s doing and what should come next. Well, it’s not actually on Preservation at the start of the novel; it’s with a survey team and we all know how well that tends to go. And that’s pretty much how it goes… and then things manage to get worse, right about when it shouldn’t. What a surprise. No wonder Murderbot despairs of humans.

Basically if you like the Murderbot novellas I don’t see any reason for you not to love the novel. It’s just… more. More snark from Murderbot, more hating on having emotions, more existential confusion about what it should be doing. Many, many more explosions and much drastic action and epic failures of plans (sometimes because of unforeseen events; sometimes because humans), opportunities for hating on the corporations, and conflicted feelings about the humans in its care responsibility.

I can only hope that Wells is interested in continuing to explore Murderbot’s developing sense of self, and their conflicted relationship with their risk assessment module. Murderbot isn’t human, has no desire to be human, and hates passing itself off as human even when that’s a security necessity. And there is no better way to explore the concept of humanity than through its interactions, its changes in response to stimuli, and its refusal to accept what’s right in front of its visual inputs.

Catfishing on CatNet

In 2016, Yoon Ha Lee introduced servitors who might have a mind of their own in Ninefox Gambit and then proceeded to develop them as a subplot, eventually introducing one who liked to re-cut its favourite media with better music. In 2017, Vina Jie-Min Prasad gave us Computron and its obsession with Hyperdimension Warp Record, and Martha Wells gave us Murderbot and its love of media.

In 2015, Naomi Kritzer had already given us the AI in “Cat Pictures, Please” who definitely doesn’t want to be evil and knows everything about you because you put your life on the internet and while it mostly likes looking at your cat pictures it also knows about your obsession with hentai, that you should buy this house over here, and that you really need a new job.

IN 2019, Kritzer produced Catfishing on CatNet which I finally got around to reading because it’s nominated for not-a-Hugo, the Lodestar Award for Best YA novel. And I am super pleased that I did finally get a chance to read it, because it was hugely enjoyable.

The novel follows the short story in that there is an AI, who is an occasional narrator; they do love cat pictures. Here, they’ve set up a social networking site that’s meant to be mostly about cat pictures but as always happens has become something more – not least thanks to the social engineering of the AI, who puts people in groups it thinks they will enjoy.

The focus, though, is on Steph. Steph is a teen who has moved around a lot because her mother is paranoid – and not without reason: Steph’s father was abusive, and her mother is determined not to be found by him. Steph has come up with coping mechanisms to deal with changing high schools a couple times a semester, sometimes; mostly it revolves around trying not to make friends. But at the new school, she starts making friends; and, of course, things do not go smoothly. For Steph, or for the cat-picture-loving AI.

There’s a lot to love about this novel. It’s fast-paced, which is unsurprising in a YA novel. It spends what feels like a nice amount of time setting up the school circumstances, as is appropriate for a YA story where that’s really the big deal for the main character; when things go wrong, they really go wrong and events move right along. There’s some excellent diversity – I can’t believe I still feel like this is something I need to say, and maybe it’s reflective of me being old and the target audience for this novel would just roll their eyes at me; whatever: there’s racial and gender and sexual diversity, and it’s an entirely natural part of the social landscape, as it should be. So is the commentary on the fact that there are racists and sexists and homophobes out there, but the kids kinda just… deal with it.

The AI is not the central character but its actions are central – without its interference/ help, events would unfold very differently. In the short story, the AI discusses how it has examined different moral and ethical codes, and frankly found them unhelpful in its own pursuit of correct action. That’s not explicitly in the novel, although there is some discussion of ethics; but the AI definitely does consider the rightness of its actions with regard to its human friends, and this conundrum – how best to act – informs a lot of what happens. And I love it, because of course these are the sorts of discussions we should be having.

The sequel to Catfishing is meant to be out soon. I’m very excited.

Middlegame

Received as part of the Hugo packet for 2020; Middlegame is up for Best Novel.

When a book is written with just enough information that I get a sense of where the plot’s going, and/or when the book is written beautifully, and I trust the author: then I really love a non-linear tale. This is not as non-linear as something like Kameron Hurley’s Light Brigade but it’s not exactly straightforward. I had absolutely no idea what it was about before charging on in, and that was quite a fun way to do it actually.

Alchemy in the 20th century; attempts to make universal forces incarnate in human children; somewhat gruesome violence, because the people doing the former two things are immoral and ruthless. Our central evil alchemist wants particularly to incarnate the ‘Doctrine of Ethos’, in two people – twins: one will be language, and the other will be maths. Which… there’s a lot in that. And the idea is that essentially those people will BE those things… eventually. When they are fully embodied.

Some of the novel is about the alchemists and their dastardly actions and what they want to achieve. Much of the novel, though, is about Roger and Dodger (yes there’s a reason for the names), and them growing up and how they interact with each other – or not. McGuire has said that it’s like a superhero origin story, which I can see; it’s a bildungsroman. How do you cope when you’re solving impossible maths problems at 9? When there’s a voice in your head that you’re pretty sure shouldn’t be there? And that’s on top of everything else about being a kid and being adopted and being a smart kid. Don’t even get me started about being a smart girl-kid whose smarts are in maths.

McGuire has said it took her a decade to get to the point where she felt capable of doing this story justice, and I can appreciate that. I’ve only read her InCryptid and Wayward Children series, which I adore – but they’re not as narratively complex as this, and I don’t get the sense that Toby Daye or the various Mira books are, either. To be able to hold all of what’s happening here in your head and make it actually make sense on paper would have to require a lot of work. And I think the prose is more wonderful, too. This is not to say that the other books are poorly written – not at all. This is more like Wayward Children than InCrytpid because that’s what the story calls for. There’s a… mythic? not-21st-century, perhaps more formal or timeless, feel to this story than the F1-paced InCrytpids.

The thing I really don’t get is why the Hand of Glory was chosen for the cover. Yes they make several appearances, but I wouldn’t have said that they are symbolic of the plot or even that they’re especially central to the narrative. It is, in fact, one reason why I hadn’t read the book before now; the cover really didn’t appeal – and when there are so many other books in the world, covers do actually make a difference sometimes.

I really enjoyed this. However, it’s up against Gideon the Ninth and A Memory Called Empire, and Light Brigade, and that’s just horrific competition.

Living on Stolen Land

This book was sent to me to review by Magabala Books. It comes out in July – so very timely – and will be $22.99.

I am an Anglo Australian. My most recent migrant ancestor is maybe 4 or 5 generations back. I am a history teacher. And I live on stolen land. I benefit every day from the fact that indirectly each of my ancestors (and directly, in a couple of cases) contributed to the displacement of Indigenous Australians.

Ambelin Kwaymullina has produced what the media release calls a “prose-style manifesto”, and what I would describe as a free-verse lesson about the past and the present and the future. She’s also responsible for that gorgeous cover and the internal images that help make this a lovely object as well as a powerful text.

Kwaymullina covers so much stuff that I want everyone to experience that I’m tempted to re-hash everything she says… which would be, as she herself points out, a white woman re-interpreting an Indigenous woman and that’s exactly the sort of thing that really needs not to exist. (I’m also currently reading Aileen Moreton Robinson’s Talkin’ Up to the White Woman, so… yeh.) So let me say that she makes it very clear – in case there was any doubt in the reader’s mind – about the original ownership of this land we call Australia; about the ongoing problems of the way we settlers talk about the land and its original inhabitants; and also points ways forwards as to how all of the people now living here might actually make it work. For everyone. As the blurb says, this is a “beautifully articulated declaration… a must-read for anyone interested in decolonising Australia.”

There are two bits that particularly got to me. Firstly, as a history teacher, Kwaymullina’s discussion of time is breath-taking (pp12-14): her description of linear time, where “Things that happened / a hundred years ago / are further away / than things that happened yesterday” – and is “weaponised against Indigenous peoples” and gives “the illusion of progress / regardless of whether / anything has changed”. And it’s that last bit that took my breath away. Then she speaks of Indigenous systems where “time is not linear” – cycles, instead, and “as susceptible / to action and interaction / as any other life”. And then she points out that cyclical time is a gift and a responsibility because “The change has not been lost / for justice / for change” and I nearly cried. I have never thought of time like that and never realised that it was even possible that life could work like that.

Secondly, Kwaymullina has a very pointed section about “Behaviours” from Settlers, and the four different ways we might act. Those who speak well and do nothing, the Saviours, the ‘discoverers’ (appropriating Indigenous stuff for their own life… and the change-makers. And this section made me really think about the ways that I act, and have acted, and intend to act.

Look. This book is 64 pages of free verse that will gently and pointedly make you think about yourself and and your ways of thinking and your understanding of history and the possibilities of the future. I will read this book again and again, I will read it to my students, I will share it with other people, I will tell other people to read it. Every household should have a copy of this and I don’t use the word ‘should’ lightly.

By Force Alone

I have a long and increasingly cynical relationship with King Arthur, and all the stories around him. I read a fair bit of it as an adolescent – I even did subjects at uni about the mythology and so on. But as sometimes happens, I got cynical and impatient as I got old, and I haven’t read much new Arthur stuff in a long time.

I did re-read Susan Cooper recently, which was an excellent choice and is a bit more left-field than other Arthuriana so doesn’t really count. (Also, not new to me.)

UnknownAnd then a friend started raving about this book and while he’s not prone to hyperbole I was a bit like… really? That good? But I was intrigued and so I bought it and…

By golly.

I’m not sure I can read another Arthur book ever.

This is it. This is everything.

Tidhar knows Arthuriana intimately. He’s referencing medieval romances. I’m pretty sure there are Mists of Avalon references, and Sword in the Stone. There’s the grail, sure, and the Green Knight, which is obscure but not that obscure… but there’s also the Questing Beast, and… and… yeh. So this is in no way someone coming in and thinking they’re reinventing Arthur (which has been done, and oh so badly). This is someone who knows Arthuriana deeply.

The thing I kept thinking of when reading this was A Knight’s Tale, that Heath Ledger break-out film. It used modern(ish) rock music in order to make the point about how people in the 14th century (the time of Chaucer) would have perceived music that 20th century ears hear as weird and ‘old’, and it used utterly modern language. By Force Alone is simultaneously utterly set in the 5th or 6th century – the Romans are gone, Britain is a by-water and non-existent in political terms, the Anglo-Saxons are coming (ignore the historical reality here) – but feels in some ways very 21st century: Arthur screaming ‘Come at me if you’re hard enough!’ Bully boys in London who want to be knighted, talking about being ‘made men’. Picts on the northern border being vicious.

Everyone, actually, being vicious.

This is a vicious book. There is no gallantry. There is no courtly love – which is right because the notion wasn’t really a thing until at least the 12th century and then honestly becomes part of nostalgia basically the next day. There is no honour except for what you can get; kings hold power by force alone; Galahad gets him nickname for quite, um, different reasons from how it’s usually told.

This book left me dazed. It starts with Vortigern and ends where every Arthur story ends. It covers so much at a break-neck speed that honestly it’s all you can do to hold on and see where this beast is going to end up. But it’s all completely controlled and Tidhar knows exactly what he’s doing. And what he’s doing is amazing. He’s setting a monumental myth in context, and exposing some of the nasty underbelly of nationalism and the Matter of Britain, as well as writing intriguing characters out of characters who are just so well known (what he did with Lancelot was… unexpected, and I’m curious to chase up whether it was based on stories I don’t remember or know; the Green Knight was the most amusingly outrageous). And he keeps the fantastical nature of Merlin and Morgan and makes that part of Britain itself… but in such a way it almost feels realistic. Almost.

This book is incredible.

 

Good Morning, Midnight

UnknownThe most enduring result of my first-semester first-year English course, aside from a healthy disdain for both DH Lawrence and James Joyce, was a love of Jean Rhys. I haven’t read Good Morning, Midnight since I was 17… and a lot more callow than I realised at the time.

Reading at this at 40 was, unsurprisingly, a whole other thing.

The first thing that I have to say is that whoever wrote the blurb for the Penguin edition really didn’t understand it. In the first sentence they very bluntly set out two things that are serious revelations in the book; and then the last sentence of the summary is just wrong. I don’t know whether they read the book and didn’t get it, or whether the summary was written from third-hand information, or what. But what I can say is: don’t read this blurb. It’s also deeply unsympathetic, which made me cranky.

Sasha is in Paris. It’s the late 1930s, and she’s been in a bad way, but she’s better now. Honest. As she walks around Paris, much of the novel is taken up with reminiscing – about being in Paris in the heady post-war days when she was a Bright Young Thing, or living like it anyway. The Sasha doing the remembering is a bit older than I am now. She has lived a lot, experienced joy and tragedy, struggled with identity – all the things you would expect for someone in her late 40s.

There’s little action in this novel – and let’s be honest, that makes it a bit unusual for me. It’s a deeply internal novel, although it never gets to self-indulgent navel-gazing. It’s an emotional novel, although it never tried to make the reader experience wild and tumultuous feelings: it balances the line between clinical – here’s what happened – and drawing the portrait of Sasha’s experiences so finely that honestly, at the end, I felt a bit exhausted. It’s short; I read it in a day. And when I finished I had to go dig out the bottle of Pernod from the back of the cupboard and sit and have a quiet drink. (Sasha drinks a lot of Pernod in her time in Paris.) Rhys writes so… matter-of-factly about life, and the difficulties of life. Her genius is in not making it melodramatic and also not detached.

In an odd way I see a connection between this and The City We Became; Paris is an integral part of the novel. The places Sasha goes, and the influence cafes and faubourgs and parks have on her mood – it reminds us that a place isn’t always only, or just, a place; it’s a trigger for emotions and memory, sometimes even a repository of them. As with The City, I don’t know Paris – I’ve visited once but didn’t invest in the place that deeply. I can only imagine what it would be like reading this as someone who knows the area.

I love this book. It’s not likely to be one I re-read every year; I’m not sure I have the emotional resilience for that. But every few years, now that I’m reminded of it? Absolutely.