I finished five books this month: Want You Gone by Chris Brookmyre, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride, Normal People by Sally Rooney, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, and A Case of Conscience by James Blish.
I loved one of these books, and am going to say mean things about another. But which is which? Also, does Satan make aliens to test our faith? Both of these questions will be answered, and more, in this month’s reading roundup. If I keep this up long enough, maybe publishers will send me stuff for free!
Want You Gone by Chris Brookmyre
Teenager Samantha Morton is having a rough time. With her mother in prison and her Carer’s Allowance revoked, she’s struggling to put food on the table for herself and her little sister. Sam’s only outlet is moonlighting as the notorious hacker Buzzkill, until an anonymous enemy threatens to reveal her identity. Her only chance of survival is taking on a risky corporate espionage job. Realising she can’t handle it on her own, Sam blackmails someone else to help her: shady journalist and series protagonist Jack Parlabane.
This was my third time reading Brookmyre, after A Tale Etched In Blood and Hard Black Pencil and Places in the Darkness, and probably the most generic. Places is a wildly entertaining murder mystery set on a space station. Tale has an incredibly vivid depiction of the characters’ shared childhood to recommend it, although I couldn’t recount the present-day side of the plot if you paid me. Want You Gone‘s London tech scene feels like a dull setting in comparison. Sam’s intelligence and vulnerability make her a likeable and interesting hero, but Parlabane comes off as a fairly stock thriller protagonist, although maybe I’m missing some character development from earlier books in the series.
But Brookmyre is certainly skilled at his craft, and my initial gripes were soon a distant memory. The plot whips along at a pleasurable pace, doling out twists at an appropriate frequency. The centrepiece is a tense heist which takes up a substantial middle chunk of the book and kept me reading until the early hours of the morning.
But how’s the hacking? While the IRC chats did occasionally make me cringe, the tech stuff is decently plausible – no double hacking or cybernukes here. But it’s the social engineering aspect of Sam’s skillset that makes for the most intriguing hook. The result is an eminently readable thriller that left me itching for more.
A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride
Stylistically fascinating, but one of the bleakest things I’ve ever read in my whole damn life.
I went into this book knowing nothing about it, and was immediately met with “For you. You’ll soon. You’ll give her name. In the stitches of her skin she’ll wear your say.” What? My initial reaction to this staccato stream of consciousness was dread and exasperation (quick, flip to a middle page, oh god, it’s all like this). But once I got going, I found McBride’s impressionistic style surprisingly readable. It’s not always entirely clear what’s going on, but it does make for one of the most vivid protagonists I’ve read in a long time. It feels like one long, whispered secret, told not in polite language but in something more primal.
It also helps that the book is only 200 pages, which is good because I don’t think I could take much more of it. The nameless main character grows up in Ireland with the most comprehensive collection of miseries you could imagine. Her older brother has a brain tumour. Her father is gone. Her mother is miserable and abusive. Her uncle is a manipulative predator. McBride’s use of language elevates what could have been an exploitative, miserable slog into something much more, but I was still relieved to finish it. It’s the novel’s content, rather than its form, that makes it gruelling.
Normal People by Sally Rooney
Content warning for eating disorders.
Normal People is one of those books that’s been wildly acclaimed and hyped up, so maybe it was inevitable that I was a little bit disappointed. It’s a pleasant enough read, but there’s a lot here that didn’t land for me.
The book is a love story between Connell and Marianne, two people who meet at school and seem doomed to break each other’s hearts over and over again. My initial notes for this review read “Both of these people need therapy and to work on their damn communication skills. Young people are idiots” which I guess sums it up.
I seem to be on a streak of self-destructive female protagonists – Marianne has some things in common with the titular Girl of A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, as well as the leads of last month’s The Pisces and A Separation. (I picked up Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz after this and then put it down as I felt like I needed a break.) And compared to those three characters, I have to say Marianne is my least favourite. Not because of her personality – I am definitely not one to insist all my female characters are Likeable And Strong – but because of how she’s framed.
The way Rooney depicts Marianne is probably my least favourite part of this book. She seems destined to be a victim, and the novel repeatedly frames Connell as her saviour, a role she seems unable to take on herself. It’s also heavily implied that she has some form of eating disorder, but the novel is filled with fawning descriptions of how delicate and thin she is, and how this makes Connell want to protect her. The way all of this is pitched as romantic made me really uncomfortable.
Connell himself is fine. His mum is probably the best person in the book, but she’s also always right and always full of unbelievable levels of grace and kindness. Rooney has a good line on wealthy, snobby students who are absolutely terrible people, which I admit I enjoyed.
Normal People is very readable, but there is also something very annoying about it. When someone becomes a writer at the end, I wanted to throw the ereader at the wall and yell, “OF COURSE!” Maybe I’m not far enough away from my young idiot years to really like it. Or too far.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
The Underground Railroad is easily one of my favourite books I’ve read this year. I devoured it in just a few days, and it persistently occupied my thoughts during those undesired gaps in reading – walking to the shops, eating lunch, constantly wondering where the book and its heroine were going next.
The novel is the story of Cora’s escape from slavery in the American south, with a magical realist twist – the Underground Railroad is a literal creation, a network of tunnels and trains beneath the cities and plantations. Cora is haunted by the memory of her mother Mabel, who abandoned her as a child to make her own escape. And the slavecatcher who failed to find her mother is now directing the full weight of his grudge and his hatred at her.
The book is frequently shocking – Whitehead does not shy away from showing the absolute brutality of slavery. And his alternative history extends beyond the Railroad itself, allowing the book to show the many ways in which America’s racism continues to inflict violence upon black people, with allusions to more modern atrocities like the Tuskeegee experiment.
Despite its bleak subject matter, a strain of hope and determination runs through The Underground Railroad. The surreal aspect of the subterranean trains highlights the wonder of the Railroad – its existence seems like a miracle to both Cora and the reader. Knowledge about the network is purposely limited, so taking each train into the darkness is a leap of faith. Each tunnel could lead to destruction. But it could also lead to salvation.
This is a fantastic and moving book, with a gripping narrative and characters who have stuck with me. I’m looking forward to Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of it, and to reading anything else by Colson Whitehead that I can get my hands on. Highly recommended.
A Case of Conscience by James Blish
This is an odd book. A Case of Conscience was recommended to me off the back of The Sparrow (which is great), and while the novels do have some things in common – Jesuits in spaaaace! – their tones are very different.
Four scientists – one also a Catholic priest – visit the alien planet of Lithia. Their purpose is to decide whether to open the planet up to trade, or to seal it off from visitors. All four have very different attitudes towards the planet and its inhabitants, a sort of 12-foot-tall, fish-kangaroo people. Are they a resource to be exploited, or a potential good influence on humanity? Or maybe, just maybe, is the entire affair a trap laid by Satan?
The book is a slow starter, but really picks up when the characters debate the fate of the planet. This is just the first in a series of wild tonal shifts – the novel veers between Cold War satire, xenobiology exposition, wacky high society parties and theological intrigue. While the Lithians appear to have a perfect society, humans have lost their way – years of nuclear threat have resulted in most of the population living deep underground in depressing, sunless bunkers – and the fates of both Earth and Lithia hang in the balance.
After finishing A Case of Conscience, I learned it was originally a novella, with the second half a later addition. This explains quite a lot about its thematic inconsistency and sometimes bizarre narrative. But I don’t think that 1959 Hugo win was entirely undeserved. It’s flawed, certainly, but unique and interesting.