Recent Reading: Mina and Mantel

In my previous post about summer reading plans I forgot to mention that my daughter and I have committed once again to our local library’s summer reading club. (As an aside, let’s hear it for public libraries, perhaps the greatest public institutions we have!)  This year her pledge (for me to match) is 25 books over July and August. I’ve managed to read four titles since she signed up, but I haven’t blogged about any of them yet, so I have some catching up to do.

First up, I finally read Denise Mina’s Field of Blood, which was highly recommended when I put out my ‘bleg’ for ideas for my seminar on women and detective fiction. Unlike many of the titles I read as I worked on my book list, it’s very good! What makes it stand out from the others? The simplest answer is that it suits my own reading tastes better. It’s rich in context and characterization, but it’s not overwritten, pedantic, or (like the awful Stieg Larsson books) just one damned thing after another with intermittent pornography (I know, I know, Salander is a great character, but…). Paddy Meehan is flawed and conflicted, but not melodramatically so; her family and co-workers are effectively and efficiently specified so that we rapidly get a sense of the community she moves in, which is an interestingly complicated one. It’s not really a detective novel, and in fact one reason I think I couldn’t have fit it into my course very well is that the crime itself is almost peripheral to Paddy’s own story. I thought there were a few missteps: there’s a ‘killing-due-to-mistaken-identity’ episode that I found did cross over into cliche in the writing, for instance. I was most interested in the push-and-pull for Paddy herself between her family’s expectations and her ambitions. Paddy is also a good example of the type I now think of (thanks to Anita Brookner) as the tortoise: she’s plain, underappreciated intellectually, overlooked romantically–in short, she’s every socially awkward, ill-at-ease bookish young girl who can therefore read in her eventual success validation of their own painful experience as misfits. As Brookner points out (in Hotel du Lac), books are written for the tortoise market because in reality the hares are off winning the race (or the guy).

I did read one other mystery, though I finished it in June so I can’t count it towards my summer total: Katherine V. Forrest’s Murder at the Nightwood Bar. If I had read this sooner, I might have included it on the syllabus, though I would have had some misgivings. I had hoped to find a teachable example of lesbian detective fiction, which is a thriving subgenre now. Forrest was one of the earliest writers to establish herself in it: Amateur City, the first in the Kate Delafield series, was published originally in 1984, soon after Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky had launched their female private eyes. Murder at the Nightwood Bar is far more overtly political than the Laurie King and Sandra Scoppetone ones I read earlier, and the crime is set up to resonate with those political interests and to stand as exemplary of a larger social problem, giving the book the kind of unified effect that lends itself to the kind of work we would do in a seminar discussion. On the other hand, it is perhaps a bit too obviously set up in this way: I like a little nuance with my social consciousness raising. Forrest is another competent but unspectacular stylist; nothing in the book seemed as literarily fine as, say, P. D. James’s An Unsuitable Job for a Woman. At any rate, the book didn’t make it on the list for this fall (though Nancy Drew ultimately did–we’ll see how that goes!) but I’ll revisit it next time around.

My other summer book for this post is totally unlike these two: I continued my trip through Hilary Mantel’s back catalogue with The Giant O’Brien. Once again, it was a surprise: like Beyond Black, it gives no sign of being by the same author as Wolf Hall, for instance, except in being strangely conceived but ultimately quite compelling. It follows the experience of a Giant who has travelled from Ireland to London in the 1780s, escaping poverty and famine at the cost, ultimately, of his self-respect, his integrity, his humanity, and even his life, though we realize from early on that all of these aspects have been compromised for him from the start simply by his being a giant, a freak, a spectacle. Juxtaposed against his story is that of the anatomist John Hunter. They are set up to embody a number of oppositions, not just scientist and potential experiment or subject, but also the man of facts, of physicality, and the man of imagination–ironically, in an extraordinary physical frame, but living the life that really matters to him in his mind alone, and through the stories he tells. They are also England and Ireland, I think, and to some extent, also winner and loser. There’s pathos, but Mantel downplays it, going instead for a combination of quirky and grotesque that, inevitably but rightly, one of the critics in the blurbs identifies with Hogarth’s famous prints of 18th-century London. The prose is beautifully styled, moving between short epigrammatic conversations, terse sections of exposition, brutal graphic detail, and passages of great lyricism without any hint of sentimentality:

The poet has his memorial in repetition, and the statesman in stone and bronze. The scholar’s hand lies always on his book, and the thinker’s eyes on canvas travel the room to rest on each human face; the rebel has his ballad and his cross, his bigot’s garland, his wreath of rope. But for the poor man and the giant there is the scrubbed wooden slab and the slop bucket, there is the cauldron and the boiling pot, and the dunghill for his lights; so he is a stench in the nose for a day or a week, so he is a no-name, so he is oblivion. Stories cannot save him. When human memory runs out, there is the memory of animals; behind that, the memory of the plants, and behind that the memory of the rocks. But the wind and the sea wear the rocks away; and the cell-line runs to its limit, where meaning falls away from it, and it loses knowledge of its own nature. Unless we plead on our knees with history, we are done for, we are lost. We must step sideways, into that country where space plaits and knots, where time folds and twists: where the years pass in a day.

Some of the most haunting passages in the novel are those in which the giant pacifies his motley associates with tales told in the resonant tenor voice that belies the monstrosity of his frame. The transcendence of his voice, his ability to take both himself and his listeners outside themselves, outside the ugly and inescapable realities of their literal lives and their physical selves, beautifully captures the promise of story-telling itself.

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