Companion Piece by Ali Smith

October 19th, 2022

Companion Piece begins and ends with “hello”, or some variation thereof, and that word, one we use all the time without necessarily thinking about the different ways we use it, comes up a lot in the book, most explicitly in a great section toward the end of the book about its possible etymologies and uses and connotations: “We say it to someone we’ve just met, it’s a friendly and informal ritual gesture of greeting whether it’s someone we know or someone we’ve never met before” and “It can mean someone’s surprised, or attracted, or caught off guard by something or someone, as in, hello, what’s this/who’s this?” and “It can be a polite demand for attention; imagine you’re standing in a shop and the person you want to serve you has gone through the back, say, so you shout it. It can also suggest there might be nobody there at all. For instance, you’ve fallen down a well and are stuck at the bottom of it looking helplessly up at the small circle of light that’s the rest of the world and you’re shouting it in the desperation and hope that somebody will hear” (pp 170-171).

That “hello”, that little word, little gesture, is a moment of connection or potential connection between people, and that’s a big part of what this book, which is set in England in 2021, in the midst of continued pandemic isolation for some and a partial return to normal for others, is interested in/about. At the start of the book we’re alone with the narrator, Sand, or Sandy, and her dad’s dog; she gets an unexpected phone call (which, of course, starts with a “hello”) from someone she went to school with. They weren’t friends, but this woman, Martina, has had a strange experience and somehow, after all the years in which they hadn’t seen each other or spoken, has thought to call Sandy to talk about it, to puzzle it through. The experience involves words—a disembodied voice Martina heard one day while she was confined in a room at the airport with a very old and very beautiful lock (she works at a museum and was bringing it back from a traveling show) that said a phrase Martina can’t make any sense of. Martina had gone to Sandy when they were at school when she couldn’t make sense of words: Sandy remembers talking through an e.e. cummings poem with her, after refusing to let Martina just copy her essay about it. And Sandy works with words: she’s an artist who paints the texts of poems, the words all layered on top of one another, and early in the book she says this: “all my life I’d loved language, it was my main character, me its eternal loyal sidekick” (pp 4-5).

At the moment when Martina calls, Sandy is blue and isolated: her dad’s in the hospital; she’s worried about getting covid and him getting it as well. The unexpected call from Martina ends up bringing Sandy into contact with Martina’s family, too, in a sometimes farcical subplot that has plenty of moments of annoyance, but also some moments of sweetness and connection. And then there’s a whole other subplot to do with the lock and the words Martina heard and a “vision” of (p 107) or imagining of or visitation by that lock’s centuries-ago maker, a girl living through a different plague.

I love Ali Smith’s work, in general, and this book is no exception. I love the wordplay and the lyricism and the heart of it. I love sentences like this: “I was thinking of the turn in an ordinary stairwell in a library and how the window above it let light fall on it” (p 49). Or this: “if words are alive to us then meaning’s alive, and if grammar’s alive then the connection in it, rather than the divisions in us, will be energizing everything, one way or another” (p 95).

The protagonist of Meet Us By the Roaring Sea lives in Queens in the not-too-distant future: far enough from now that a building built in the early 2000s is described as old, but not so far from now as to be unrecognizable. The protagonist works in AI and technology has advanced—people’s consumption patterns are monitored to generate a personal “carbon score” for everyone, and electronic payments happen via iris scans rather than through cell phones—but people are still grappling with the biases and ethics of technology and algorithms and data collection/data use. Meanwhile, the protagonist is translating a manuscript written in Tamil in the late 1990s, a work described as “a collective memoir, not fully fact or fiction, about a group of female medical students.” The narrative jumps between the future and the past, the protagonist and the manuscript. At work, the protagonist is training a new AI that feels different from past projects; at home, she throws herself into the translation because she needs something to do: we learn early in the book of her “mother’s sudden death, two months ago.” The protagonist notices this, about people she talks to at a “protest about data surveillance”: “They all had experienced a loss that they were still trying to shape in to something else.” Of course this applies to her, too, and to her childhood friend Sal, who is back in the neighborhood after a long time away. These plot strands intersect with another about the protagonist’s cousin Ros, who recently moved in with her. Ros is working on a new drug that’s being developed to treat Alzheimer’s, but that might have other uses as well; this plotline also includes a veteran who goes by Cheeze, who ends up living with the protagonist and Ros for a time. In the manuscript, the medical students are treating refugees—there is mention of “the Island” and “civil war” and because the text is in Tamil you know it’s Sri Lanka. The younger students, under the guidance of three older girls, are being tutored in “radical compassion.” The manuscript observes that the girls are “learning two different systems of knowledge, one structured by a clinical understanding of the body and the other ancient, known before knowing.” But it isn’t clear how to achieve radical compassion, or what exactly it might lead to, for the students in the manuscript or for the protagonist.

I like the way Kumarasamy writes, and there were aspects of this book I liked a lot—the protagonist and the manuscript, the protagonist and the AI, the protagonist and Sal. And I see where the pieces of the plot with Ros and Cheeze connect to ideas of memory and trauma and compassion. But I also felt like I wanted the book to have a tighter focus than it did.

Spellmaker by Charlie N. Holmberg

September 19th, 2022

I’m glad I read this right after Spellbreaker because, as previously mentioned, I really wanted to know how things would work out … but alas, I didn’t like this book as much as I liked that one. For me, the balance of magic and intrigue and romance in the first one was just right; this one’s a little heavier on the romance for a lot of the book, and I was just not that into the direction it took. (To say it in a non-spoilery way: I liked the sass and flirtation of the first book much more than I liked the questions and doubts that figured more heavily in this one.) Plotwise: this book picks up shortly after the previous one ends, and in the first chapter our heroine Elsie finds herself “under arrest for the practice of unregistered spellbreaking.” As you might guess, she isn’t sentenced to death or life imprisonment, as that wouldn’t leave us with much of a book—but her arrest has major consequences for her relationship with Bacchus, the aspector from Barbados who played such a big role in the last book. Meanwhile, the villain who was revealed at the end of the last book continues to be a threat, and figuring out how to deal with that threat takes up a lot of Elsie and Bacchus’s time. We also get to meet a few new characters, my favorite of whom is the registered spellbreaker who’s sent to train Elsie after she gets out of jail: watching her dynamic with all the other characters is fun, and a magical fight scene near the end of the book is strengthened, I think, by having two spellbreakers and two aspectors (magicians) fighting on the same side.

(That said: I have issues with the way the villainy in this book ends up going, for reasons that people on Goodreads have already articulated better than I could, as in the three following reviews by others: review 1, review 2, review 3)

Spellbreaker was an excellent vacation read for me, and I liked it enough that I’m planning to read the sequel right away: this is definitely NOT a standalone novel and I want to know how everything works out. The book opens in England in 1885 with a workhouse on fire and a young girl, Elsie, having accidentally erased a rune that was keeping the building safe from the flames. A cloaked figure beckons Elsie, who’s eleven years old at this point, to come with them: “I need your help to make the world a better place,” the person says. Elsie realizes that she’s a “spellbreaker, born with one kind of magic instead of taught a hundred.”

Flash forward to London, ten years later: Elsie has been doing the bidding of that cloaked figure and/or whatever group they’re part of for a decade; she also does non-magical work for an artist/stonemason. In this world people who make spells, known as aspectors, specialize in one of the “four alignments”—magic that is “rational”, “spiritual”, “temporal”, or “physical”. (Rational spells can be illusions, or anything else affecting the mind; spiritual magic consists of “blessings and curses”; temporal magic changes “time’s effects”; physical magic, as you might guess, changes the physical properties of objects: Elsie’s artist employer uses it to change white paint into colored paint, for example.) Meanwhile, spellbreakers, like Elsie, can unravel spells. Both aspectors and spellbreakers are meant to be registered with the government, and Elsie isn’t, which means all her spellbreaking work is renegade, and dangerous. She’s proud of what she does, though: all her assignments are described to her as things that right a wrong, or help keep the poor from being oppressed by the rich.

Next plot strand: Bacchus Kelsey, who’s in his late twenties, has just come back to England from his home in Barbados. He’s a physical aspector hoping to take the test to become a master physical aspector—and hoping to be approved to use a particular spell that will “allow him to move an object—any object—without touching it.” As you might guess, Elsie’s path and Bacchus’s path cross, and keep crossing. And in another plot strand, which affects both of them, it seems that someone might be murdering master aspectors and stealing their “opuses”, which is what their bodies turn into when they die—rather than corpses, master aspectors leave behind “spellbooks of all the enchantments they had learned in life,” which let “anyone”, magical or not, cast one of those spells (but only one time per spell).

This book is heavy on plot and well-plotted; I wanted to keep reading to find out what was going to happen next—and I find both Elsie and Bacchus to be appealing characters. I also like the world-building and how the magic in this world works/is explained, like in passages like this: “Who had penned the first spell was as shrouded in enigma as who had penned the last. None of the authors were known, and spells across all four disciplines were set. Many had studied the language and style of spellmaking enchantments in an effort to expound upon them, or create one anew, and not one had ever been successful.”

The prologue of this novel sets up what’s to come: it’s 1838 in Gundagai, Australia, and we’re with Wagadhaany, who is four years old, as she listens to her father telling a white settler that he shouldn’t build a house on the land by the river: it’s too flat; there’s a risk of floods. The white settler “mumbles something about Blacks not being smart enough to understand”; Wagadhaany soon thereafter hears her uncle say that the settlers “don’t understand the land, they just keep chopping down trees.” And we see Wagadhaany with her extended family by the river, where they camp and prepare food together: we see how connected Wagadhaany is to her uncles and aunts and cousins, not just to her parents and siblings.

Flash forward to 1852: Wagadhaany is working as a servant for that man from the prologue, who has built his house where he wanted to build it, and the rain comes down hard and harder. The river floods; the Bradley family and Wagadhaany move to the attic and then to the roof. Houses are swept away, leaving people clinging to tree branches, and Wagadhaany’s father, Yarri, rescues townspeople with his bark canoe, as do other men from the Wiradyuri camp by the river. The flood changes things for the Bradleys, and for Wagadhaany too. One of the Bradley brothers, James, meets and marries a Quaker woman, Louisa, who lost her husband and her parents in the flood; Louisa wants to befriend Wagadhaany, both because she needs companionship and because of “the desire of the Quaker family to see equality for the Aborigines of Australia.” And when James decides to move himself and his brother David and Louisa to Wagga Wagga, where he thinks the land will be better for cattle, Wagadhaany is taken along too, though she just wants to be with her family at Gundagai.

The book’s narration mostly stays close to Wagadhaany, though there are sections focused on other characters as well. Wagadhaany is smart and full of questions, and through her we see the large and small ways that the Bradleys and other white people mistreat Aboriginal Australians and the land. The Bradleys have always called Wagadhaany “Wilma”; after the flood one of the Bradley brothers starts trying to use her actual name, and Louisa calls her Wagadhaany from the day she meets her, but James keeps calling her Wilma, when he talks to her at all. And even though Louisa talks about equality and wanting to learn from Wagadhaany, her ideals aren’t always reflected in her behavior. At one point she tells Wagadhaany she thinks the town of Wagga Wagga would be better if there were more Quakers there; Wagadhaany wonders silently if things wouldn’t actually be better still if the settlers had the Wiradyuri values of community and respect for the land/living lightly on the land. (Even the children, we learn, know this: we read about them gathering “some small branches of eucalyptus leaves, which they have pulled carefully from low-hanging branches, knowing that they are only ever to take what comes easily to them, what the land wants them to have.”)

This book has a lot of heart and I was totally caught up in the story, with wanting to know how things would turn out for Wagadhaany. And I like how Heiss brings in various aspects of Australian history, and also how she uses words from the Wiradyuri language.

My husband and I moved to a new apartment just over two weeks ago and I feel like there is still so much to do, from updating my address in all the places it needs to be updated to unpacking clothes and books (which we can’t actually do until our new bookcases arrive and storage unit arrive, which will be … who knows when, based on my phone call today with IKEA). All of which is to say, I was in the mood for an “easier” read, by which I mean something plot-driven and engaging. I think in other moods I might have been not so into this novel’s prose style (present-tense first-person narration, very straightforward/not a whole lot of descriptive paragraphs) but in my current mood I was happy to just immerse myself in the story, which is a coming-out/figuring-stuff-out story whose protagonist is Amar, who’s 28 and newly-engaged at the start of the book. We learn a little about Amar’s background—how he used to work in advertising but was fired after he couldn’t cope with his grief after his mom’s death, how he met his fiancé, Joshua, at the bookshop where he started working after that—and then we see him coming out to his family (his older sister, his two older brothers, all of their spouses, and his younger sister) via WhatsApp message. Well—the wife of one of his brothers already knows that Amar is gay, but he’s never talked about it with the rest of his siblings and in-laws, who are all “second-generation Bangladeshi Muslims in East London.” They don’t respond particularly well, and Amar wonders if his relationship with Joshua means he’ll be permanently estranged from his family. Meanwhile, Joshua’s mom is getting perhaps too excited about their wedding, and the bookshop where Amar works might have to close, and Amar finds himself having doubts about whether he and Joshua can even make their relationship work, given their cultural differences. Amar has a lot to deal with, and his history of being partly closeted and scared and therefore not super-communicative doesn’t help. Though I tend to like more lyrical narrative voices, I was rooting for Amar as a character and engrossed in the various subplots. And there were moments I was charmed by his narrative voice, like this moment, after Joshua tells him not to worry about people staring when they’re visiting Joshua’s family in Dorset and Amar is the only non-white person in sight: “I am not worried – but, I mean, I’d be a lot more not-worried if I saw more melanin.” Or this, when Amar is explaining what he likes about working at the bookshop: “I love the quiet in the mornings and just listening to the hum of the lights. I love burly men surprising me by buying Margaret Atwood novels. I love that people like Joshua can walk in here and discover a new favourite book.”

Luster by Raven Leilani

June 13th, 2022

Near the end of Luster the narrator, Edie, is thinking about art and what it does, what it’s for: “A way is always made to document how we manage to survive, or in some cases, how we don’t.” She’s a painter, and how she finds her way back to painting is maybe the most satisfying arc of this story—which isn’t to say the rest of it, in which Edie finds herself unexpectedly living in a guest room in New Jersey for a time, isn’t satisfying too. At the start of the book, we learn about the start of Edie’s relationship with Eric: she’s 23 and Black; he’s twice her age and white and in an open marriage with his wife of 13 years, though the open marriage part seems to be new. He and his wife, Rebecca, have an adopted Black daughter named Akila, though Eric doesn’t mention her/we don’t learn about her for a while. We get date scenes with Edie and Eric, and scenes of Edie’s meh office job in publishing, and then, after Eric brings Edie home one night (though this is not allowed, per the list of rules Rebecca wrote up) and proceeds to ghost her, we get Edie, accidentally crashing Eric and Rebecca’s 14th anniversary party. Further events ensue, and when Eric gets home from a work trip he’s surprised to see Edie, who by now is living in that aforementioned guest room.

I was expecting this book to be more about Eric and Edie’s relationship than it actually is, which isn’t a criticism: the dynamics between Edie and Rebecca and Edie and Akila are really interesting, and each relationship lets Leilani explore issues of race and class and power. And Leilani’s writing is really really good—there are funny moments and dark moments and occasional paragraph-long sentences that are perfect, with phrases like this: “the city rises around me in a bouquet of dust, industrial soot, and overripe squash, insisting upon its own enormity like some big-dick postmodernist fiction and still beautiful despite its knowledge of itself, even as the last merciless days of July leave large swaths of the city wilted and blank.” Or sentences like this: “When Eric was away, the house was filled with sound, Akila’s and Rebecca’s routines textured and discordant, water and glass, sticky sounds of trash and sparring gear and doorjambs swollen with heat, the mailman and the democratic socialist at the door, all the toilets at the mercy of a houseful of women, the sensory meridian of tangled jewelry, of bobby pins and linoleum, of dubbed anime and the neighbor’s dog. Otherwise a soft cosine of electricity and digital noise.” And I like the way we get pieces of Edie’s past and family history amidst the present-tense action: stories about her parents, and about her Seventh-day Adventist upbringing.

Somehow the back cover blurb for this one had me expecting something more concrete and less philosophical, but I nevertheless enjoyed this novella made of linked vignettes that are mostly “about” the narrator’s passion for Artforum magazine but are also about the human condition: about being a person and having quirks and hobbies and routines and worries and desires, about time and passing/filling/wasting it, about superstition and art and how we assign meaning to chance events, and how we shape life into stories. The unnamed narrator lives in Buenos Aires and has been reading Artforum for a long time, and the fact that it’s difficult to get his hands on a copy of it in the city where he lives is maybe part of the appeal: when he does find one, it’s a moment of sheer delight. Eventually, he subscribes—but thanks to the unpredictable nature of international mail, the joy of happening upon an issue of Artforum is replaced by the agony of waiting for the next issue, which surely should have arrived already but somehow is always late, if it comes at all.

Sections I particularly loved: “Subscription” (first line: “When I made the transcendent decision to take out a subscription, I thought that all my problems were over”), “Twenty-four Issues of Artforum” (best lines from this one: “Isn’t it dangerous to be too happy? Wouldn’t it have to be paid back afterwards? Wouldn’t it be a better idea to save something for later? The answer is: No.”), and “My Very Own Artforum” (the narrator’s excellent idea: “I would paint the cover, gallery advertisements, illustrations accompanying the articles”).

I heard about An I-Novel thanks to Rebecca Hussey’s Reading Indie email newsletter, in which Rebecca described this as “an autobiographical, autofictional novel that takes place in one day and is thinky, contemplative, and formally innovative” – which a) is a great description of this book and b) really made me want to read it. Though the novel is narrated over the course of a single day (in which the narrator doesn’t even leave her apartment building), it feels more expansive than that might imply. The book is very interior and introspective while also talking about a whole lot of memories and experiences in a way that feels very natural to the story but is clearly very well-constructed. Early in the book we learn that it’s twenty years to the day since the main character, Minae, came to the US with her sister Nanae and their mom (their dad was already there). That realization, along with the combination of snow falling outside and a sense of stasis and avoidance in her life in general, prompts Minae to reflect on her time in the US and the time she’s spent in Japan—both as a younger child before coming to the US and as a young adult going back to visit. Interspersed with the text are full-page black & white photos of scenes/places relevant to the story—Rockefeller Center at Christmas, say, or Great Neck High School on Long Island.

Minae doesn’t do much over the course of the day, but the book covers a lot of ground: she reflects on her experiences in junior high before she was fluent in English, and on her relationship with her sister, and on their family in general; she thinks about her experiences as a Japanese person in the US (“Where we lived, being Asian never caused us any particular difficulty, but neither could we ever forget that that’s what we were”) and remembers everything from summer camp to junior high art class to a day spent in Manhattan with Nanae in adulthood, having lunch and looking at art. She thinks about wanting to go back to Japan, and about not wanting to go back to Japan, and about realizing (after having long loved Japanese literature) that she wants to write in Japanese, rather than in English or in French (though she’s in grad school in the French department). There’s a lot about identity and memory and family history and family ties and language and loneliness, and I found it all to be a really compelling read.

In the first chapter of The Psychology of Time Travel, we’re introduced to “four young scientists” (Margaret, Lucille, Grace, and Barbara) who have been working in an isolated laboratory and who manage, in 1967, to build a working time machine. The technology can’t take people back to any point prior to its own invention, but time travelers from the future can go back as far as 1967, and time travelers from 1967 can travel into the future (though only 300 years into the future, for reasons that are not fully explained). In the second chapter, which is set in 2017, we meet Ruby, a psychologist who happens to be Barbara’s granddaughter. (Barbara, we learn in the first chapter, had an episode of what was then called “manic depression” after her first forays into the future, and was forced out of the lab as a result.) And then in chapter three we meet Odette, who (in January 2018) discover’s a woman’s body in the basement of the toy museum where she’s just started volunteering. The book takes up the mystery of who the woman is and how she died, with chapters jumping around in time and focus: some chapters are about Margaret and Lucille and Grace and Barbara; others focus on Ruby or Odette; still others focus on other time travelers, or people who are relatives of other time travelers. (Time travel, we learn, is governed by the Time Travel Conclave, an organization that Margaret founded and that she still directs as of 2017—Lucille and Grace still work at the Conclave as well.)

I like how fast-paced the story is, and how the different timelines and plot threads all come together. Early in the book, Barbara (or Bee, as she’s often called) gets a note from the future, which turns out to be a “notice of an inquest” for “the death of a woman in her eighties.” Ruby worries that the dead woman is Bee herself, and wants to figure out the mystery of the death so she can prevent it, if so. Bee, meanwhile, just wants to see if she can time travel again. And Odette, who finds the body, has her own reasons for wanting to solve the mystery. This isn’t just a mystery story, though: it’s a time travel story with a bit of queer romance, and it’s a whole lot of fun. I picked this up for LGBTQ book club at work and am glad I did—and it’s reminded me that I should really also read The Box of Delights (which I first heard mentioned in Fire and Hemlock).