The Best Books of 2011

You know when you don’t think you’ve been keeping up to date, then you make a list? That was 2011. The year at least half a dozen of my favourite authors brought out new books I was desperate to read instantly. After a gap of over 20 years in one case, by the way, so that was a real thrill in itself.
It was, of course, a year when the whole women in SF thing blew up (again) and it seems that some men and even some women editors, bloggers and readers still don’t see a problem. My regular reader knows I’ve tried to point a few things out here and there and reviewed a few books I think you might like to know about here and at Sfmistressworks, but I noticed recently that my ideas for Christmas list was again uneven in its gender balance.
The point is that this year I have been looking back, filling in gaps where I had missed reading some of these women SF writers of the past. (Not just women, I spent chunks of 2011 reading or rereading the excellent but neglected short SF of Bob Shaw.) As a result this list might have omissions that surprise you, maybe I didn’t find time, or interest, to read the latest fan fave. Or maybe I did and it just wasn’t good enough.

So what was good enough?
15 Connemara A Little Gaelic Kingdom – Tim Robinson
Third of Robinson’s Connemara trilogy, a remarkable ‘deep map’ (to appropriate William Least-Heat Moon’s term for a work that delves into the social and historical geography alongside its physical detail.) In this volume Robinson intertwines folk tales, gossip and recorded data, taking from the Irish place names clues and guidance, to reveal for me the interdependence of the magical and the mundane in bringing life to a landscape.

14 The Islanders – Christopher Priest
In a way Priest does something similar to Robinson but with an entirely fictitious landscape. The Islanders is a little too aware of its own cleverness to succeed, but Priest is a writer whose failures entertain and frequently surpass lesser writers’ successes. A book perhaps to come back to.

13 Heart Of Iron – Ekaterina Sedia
Rapidly becoming one of my favourite authors, Sedia’s alternate Russia where the Decembrists succeeded has many basic aspects that lift it above the herd. Not least is a proper awareness of the history she changes, so her steampunk trappings are rational not gimmicks.

12 Don’t Look Back – Laura Lippman
When she was a teen Eliza survived kidnapping by a serial killer, now 20 years later he writes to her from Death Row. A recurring theme in Lippman’s recent novels has been how we recall past trauma. Don’t Look Back examines not only Eliza and Walter’s versions, but also why they believe them, and why others believe them. Murder is rarely central to Lippman’s crime novels, in this case it is the nature of the punishment and the legacy of the crimes that she carefully examines.

11 City of Bohane – Kevin Barry
A debut novel set in a near future, unexplained Irish city, with its gangs and its lovers. SF fans may balk at Barry’s unwillingness to offer a global backstory, but his sketched city is the more real for its gaps.

10 A Visit From The Goon Squad – Jennifer Egan
Another unexplained near future and past, cleverly revealed in a series of linked, overlapping or abutting vignettes, stories, scenes and character sketches.

9 Wind Angels & Other Stories – Leigh Kennedy

A mere 23 years or so after her last book, Kennedy is finally back in print with a varied selection of straight SF, dystopian fictions, fantasy and romance. Mostly understated, deceptively quiet, Kennedy frequently leaves her reader pondering the story, and always wanting more. Personal favourite? ‘Vulture Trucks’ is a fun Texan supernatural tale.

8 Mr. Fox – Helen Oyeyemi
In places Mr.Fox is perhaps the most charmingly romantic novel I read in 2011, the flirtation between Fox and Mary is so softly handled. The vignette structure means these are brief, which would often be frustrating, but between them are other equally effective scenes.
The writer whose fictional muse comes to life is not new, the way Oyeyemi exploits it is very good. Creativity, gender power relationships, and love are explored with wit in a thoughtful novel.

7 Regicide – Nicholas Royle
A slim, dark, brooding menace of true urban fiction reminiscent of M John Harrison’s 80s short fiction. Distorted streetscapes, apparently shifting rules that may actually obey a mysterious other logic and a gripping realist telling of a noir fantasy as his readers have come to expect from Royle. Of the three I’ve read to date his best so far.

6 The Bible Repairman & Other Stories – Tim Powers
Several intriguing, atmospheric tales of mostly Californian Urban Fantasy by the absolute master of that subgenre. And the highlight of this collection, a novella ‘A Time To Cast Away Stones’ which follows Edward Trelawny to Greece after the events of The Stress Of Her Regard. This year I read my fifth Trelawny biography, and as you’d expect, I cast a critical eye on Powers’ version, but his impeccable research won through, and his rich imaginations granted a remarkable man a new light in fantasy.

5 The Beautiful Indifference – Sarah Hall
Reviewed here the third short story collection in this list is a stylistic tour de force and an emotional epic. Geographically varied but often emphatically northern, Hall’s work continues to impress.

4 Dark Tangos – Lewis Shiner

Amongst other things Shiner’s latest novel made me want to dance. In 200 pages he tells us all about Tango, about the death squads in 1970s Argentina, about the reconstruction of recent years and ties in a genuine, moving romance, meditation on the sins of our fathers (a recurrent Shiner theme), and post-breakup reconstruction. Throw in evocative depictions of Tango halls and explicit, brutal torture scenes and you have a powerful, realistic romantic political thriller.

3 God’s War – Kameron Hurley
Strange Horizons’ Niall Harrison made a big thing about this earlier in the year. When I finally got a copy just before Christmas I discovered how right he was.
God’s War hits the ground running and barely pauses from there on in. Fantasy that looks like SF, an immersion into a perpetual war on a curious planet settled by islamic types some of whom have powers, some of whom have weaponry. It’s about gene piracy, bounty hunters, tech magic, and personal history. I’ve read little like it at all.

2 The Uncertain Places – Lisa Goldstein
Reviewed here I make no apology for reasserting my belief that Goldstein deserves as much acclaim as the likes of Crowley, Powers and Gaiman. Re-telling fairytales in fantasy is common, reminding us why we need fairytales less so, and doing that within a clever, charming and joyful story quite rare.

And finally, if you follow me on Twitter or talked to me this year, then no surprise…

1 Redwood and Wildfire – Andrea Hairston

An alternative history of the early twentieth century, of life in the backwoods of Georgia and the growing city of Chicago. Alternative because Hairston’s rich, passionate love story reveals the lives of black Americans in every detail, from the opening scene lynching, to minstrel shows, pioneering black cinema, brothels and exploitative landlords, hoodoo and christianity.
I read Redwood & Wildfire three times in 9 months, each time seeing more in the story to, not bring it more to life so much as enhance the world beyond its pages. The obscure historical references that, once I learned some were true, gave the whole an air of realism on the one hand that supported the gentle, occasionally angry, magic.
On each read I shared the anger, fear, grief, laughter, love and loss that saturates this novel until they were my feelings.
Redwood & Wildfire incorporated so much so easily, in vivid depiction of The World’s Fair (visited by time travel), in powerfully demonstrating the ways black society works and fails alike, in beautifully handled episodes of non-conforming sexuality (not least the eponymous lovers, but also gay and seemingly polygamous characters) and in so much more, that it was unchallenged as the best book of 2011 and perhaps one of the very best of the century so far.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Oh, Whistle…

Two Ghost Stories by M.R.James performed by R.M.Lloyd Parry.
In an essay on ghost stories in 1931 M.R.James stresses that

Setting or environment, then, is to me a principal point, and the more readily appreciable the setting is to the ordinary reader the better.  The other essential is that our ghost should make himself felt by gradual stirrings diffusing an atmosphere of uneasiness before the final flash or stab of horror.

On the stage of Beetham’s cosy intimate Heron Theatre a semblance of a Cambridge don’s room is set.  Bookcase, with bust, stand with topcoat, smoking chair, side-table with candles, papers, a decanter.  Our host, RM Lloyd Parry ambles on, lights his candles and sits, pouring himself a whisky.  His bearing is that avuncular yet detached manner we are accustomed to associate with the professor.  His opening lines are conversational, light, warm as he talks of the old houses of Suffolk and gradually comes around to a tale attached to one such hall.  Thus the audience is drawn in, by James’ prose of course, but also by Parry-as-James’ careful portrayal. A pause here, a slight stammer there, a moment’s thought before continuing, all lead into a feeling of intimacy: this is a fireside tale between acquaintances of places and people known to us, and we are enthralled.
Lit only by his candles Parry nuances his telling, offering laughter, reason and period details until the revelation of ghastly horror that we know is coming but cannot anticipate.
The Ash Tree is a tale of witchcraft, vengeance and history.  The more famous Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come To You, My Lad a cautionary tale of scepticism, meddling and nocturnal visitation.
In each case Parry, with little gestures, moving to accentuate the flickering candle shadows, and modulating his voice accordingly, increased the atmosphere of unease, uncertainty, and finally terror to his dreadful climax.
A solo show is always a great achievement, but Parry in this instance produces a tour de force to match his material.  He tours this, and other James tales, around the country, and DVDs of other shows can be found at his website.  I’ll save watching The Mezzotint for a night when I’m sure the wind won’t rattle the windows.

Posted from WordPress for Android

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The Best Albums of 2011

For a while I had the feeling that 2011 was going to be a poor year for new music, then a late rush made it better all of a sudden.
So, from a longlist of 20+ here’s the top 12.
12 Wild Flag – Wild Flag
A riot grrl supergroup ? Yes please. Girl group psychedelia with half-familiar classic rock riffs? Definitely.
11 Tamikrest – Toumastin
Heirs to Tinariwen they may be but I preferred the younger band’s 2011 album for its driving energy and tone. 
10 St.Vincent – Strange Mercy
Eventually 2011 offered up a string of superficially similar albums by distinctive, eclectic gorgeous-voiced solo females. Kate Bush, Zola Jesus, Lykke Li all came close, but it was St.Vincent’s delicate pop moments amongst indie quirks that won me over.
9 Luke Haines – 9 1/2  Psychedelic Meditations on British Wrestling of the 1970s & Early ’80s
Does exactly what it says on the tin. Haines encompasses the best of Mark E Smith and Jarvis Cocker thus surpassing both.  His ex-bandmate Sarah Nixey also released an album this year but she couldn’t match this gem.
8 PJ Harvey – Let England Shake
PJ’s albums always initially disappoint because I still want that raw rage of Dry and Sheela-na-gig, but though this is subtler, and more emotionally varied, it grows and may at last match her early impact.
7 Jesse Sykes & The Sweet Hereafter -Marble Son
I’ve long been a fan of Sykes voice, on Marble Son she gave it a workout to match Phil Wandscher’s epic psych guitar wigouts.  Loud, layered, nuanced, hypnotic rock.
6 JuJu – In Trance
Justin Adams & Juldeh Camara, one of the tightest, grooviest bands I’ve ever seen live, finally get it on record.  African riffs delta blues-style, haunting layers of melody, extended workouts. Trance is the right word.
5 The Decemberists – The King Is Dead
What I like most about The King Is Dead is not that it sounds like classic REM, as lazy commentators have it, but that it sounds like so much more. The Jayhawks, Neil Young, Dylan, Josh Ritter for a second or two. 
4 Josh T Pearson – Last Of The Country Gentlemen
Long, dark, brooding brutal & romantic.  The most intense, personal, guilt-stained, but beautiful album you’ll hear in a long time.
3 King’s Daughters And Sons – If Not Then When
The best new discovery of 2011 by a mile.  Another alt-rock supergroup, this one based around Rodan, Slint, Rachel’s etc, guaranteeing sweeping post-rock classicism, but stunning with amazing harmonies and vocal leads. It came out on ChemikalUnderground so maybe no surprise?
2 The Walkabouts – Travels in the Dustland
Six years away, Seattle’s finest drifted back into town on cinematic keyboards, spacious drums, warmly peripatetic  guitars, some of the most truly relevant arrangements in americana, and as ever the rich voices of Chris and Carla. Nominally a concept album, the true concept seems to have grown with this band for over 25 years now.
1 The Twilight Singers – Dynamite Steps
“Spread your legs insert your alibi” Greg Dulli came back again with 11 big soul rockers. Never afraid of the darkest corners, Dulli comes clean “a kiss, a curse, the law.” and smoulders throughout, never quite a conflagration, dangerously never quite fading out. 

So there you have it, music to rock to, dance to, cry to, travel to, and fuck to.  2011. 

Honourable mentions not already noted Fatoumata Diawara, Sonny Rollins, Bella Hardy, Mary Hampton, Saint Jude, BCC, The Civil Wars, Mastodon, Fleet Foxes, Wildbirds & Peacedrums, Cats Eyes.
Posted from WordPress for Android

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Beautiful Indifference – Sarah Hall


Many novelists use short fiction as a venue for experimentation in genre, style or voice.  From Sarah Hall whose four novels to date each take a different approach already what can we expect?  Her Romantic-tinged debut Haweswater is very different to the brutal SF of The Carhullan Army, whilst the four strands of How To Paint A Dead Man are notable for the distinctive voices Hall brings to each character through careful choice of style and language.
The seven stories collected in The Beautiful Indifference unsurprisingly follow the trend of the novels in their stylistic variety. 
Be aware however that this is a book you are likely to put down after 40 pages. Not because you are not enjoying it but simply that the opening story ‘Butcher’s Perfume’ will force a pause, a breath taking, a thought collecting, lingering pause.  The narrator of ‘Butcher’s Perfume’ is a teenage girl, discussing mostly her developing friendship with another teenage girl, but Manda Slessor is a hard girl, from a proud, intense traveller family.  There is violence brewing in every line of this story, a taut, visceral description that when it breaks, breaks where you hadn’t expected, though it is entirely logical that was the point. 
At the other end of the book is ‘Vuotjärvi’ with its unsupressed sexuality, and haunting mystery. It is a superbly crafted story, the nearest this collection comes, perhaps, to unspoken Fantastika in the entwining of landscape, lust and inexplicable loss.
If the eroticism of ‘Vuotjärvi’ and the violence of ‘Butcher’s Perfume’ are explicit, each also bears an undercurrent of the other too.  And throughout these stories there is a continual shifting allegiance between concealed violence and concealed eroticism.  The Northern stories in particular are acutely aware and proud of this carnality.
‘The Agency’ positively revels in it, all the way to its delicately bypassed climax.  Housewife Hannah joins the titular Agency for a new experience, and we follow her through the initial interview. 

I took another sip, aware that for all his deference, I was being gently marshalled.  There was something deliberately neutral about the meeting, but the young man standing over me was passively steering things.

That is how Hall operates, whatever her subject, she subtly directs the reader to her point.  Amidst the evocative landscapes of Finland or the rich Cumbrian dialect she weaves a sinuous plotline to draw us as the world she describes holds us.  Cleverly the sequencing of the collection does the same, leading through relationships from the assertive egalitarian Slessors self-confident physicality to the wistful internal sensualisation of the woman watching her lover swim away.  It is perhaps no coincidence that the stories move progressively from solid, unconventional comfortable relationships to formalised casual sex (‘The Beautiful Indifference’) to more normal yet less certain loves, or lost and unreplaced loves (‘Bees’) nor that this is largely countered by the ability to walk away evolving into the need to kill. The gothic ‘She Murdered Mortal He’ seems to address both strands directly until any action by its wounded narrator seems equally transgressive and redemptive.

Within all of this Sarah Hall writes a range of incredible, strong, rich women characters.  In the hills below Penrith Manda trades raw toughness for tempered compassion with Kathleen, but in her mother we see a typical Hall strong woman familiar from her early novels here allowed her full glory.  Hannah gains confidence, ironically, in her recognition and acceptance of manipulation. 
So it goes, the women telling these stories, or being told about, each has a cusp, a point of recognition of their abilities and opportunities.  They all become stronger.  Even the woman of ‘Bees,’ a second-person singular story of a new life post-breakup, develops an affinity with her new environment that marks a renewal.  The exception, perhaps, is my least favourite story here.’The Nightlong River’ tells of a woman making a mink cape for a dying friend.  For all its detail, and poignancy, it remains vague in historical setting, relationship and meaning. 
The Beautiful Indifference is a short, but intense collection.  The 7 stories, though very different, blend well, whilst each showcasing Hall’s remarkable facility with language and her range of means of achieving similar effect: the correlations of landscapes and peoples. 

The Beautiful Indifference is published by Faber & Faber price £12.99

Posted from WordPress for Android

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | 3 Comments

The Sexy Part Of The Bible – Kola Boof



If I am unsure how to assess Kola Boof’s intriguing, flawed novel The Sexy Part Of The Bible that is in part a reflection of the novel’s own lack of certainty.  It is a political novel, feminism and especially racial/cultural issues are the core, enfolded in partial stories of other meanings.  Indeed as I type I realise that partial in both its meanings is the key to Boof’s book.

Politics aside, to begin with, as much as Boof allows, The Sexy Part Of The Bible is fragmentary in plot, subject and storytelling.  The narrator, Eternity Frankenheimer, is a clone.  Her ‘parents’ are scientists at an HIV/AIDS clinic in the West African state of West Cassavaland. They are white, Eternity is black.  Very black.  Her colour is stressed and repeated and obsessed over throughout The Sexy Part Of The Bible, as is that of virtually every other non-white character, in a manner that sometimes distracts. 
Eternity becomes a model, and becomes increasingly involved with Cassavan hip hop superstar Sea Horse Twee in a series of equally erotic and disturbing encounters. 
Examining the plot further quickly reveals the most obvious flaws of this novel, its failure to take a firm hold on any of its ideas.  Too many potential routes are opened up and then ignored.  The idea of unscrupulous white scientists researching on poor black AIDS patients away from the legal constraints of the West is hinted at then dropped. The SF reader anticipating some variant on Bug Jack Barron or Never Let Me Go will be disappointed, Kola Boof shows no inclination to delve this way.
Female Circumcision is mentioned, Eternity was taught the technique in her previous life, but its consequences ignored.  A chapter where Eternity is haunted by her memories of being shown circumcision on dolls ends with her anxiously hoping Sea Horse won’t mind that she isn’t circumcised.  Then when they finally have sex there is no mention of it.  Such half-developed strands are the principal reasons The Sexy Part of The Bible fails as a novel.
Amidst these partial fragmented ideas are multiple poetic, visceral scenes.  Boof can certainly write a non-clichéd sex scene, desire is represented in some of the best passages here.
Anger is probably the other emotion Boof is most concerned with.  Eternity’s source mother Orisha is beaten to death by a crowd angered at her condemnation of their use of chemical means to lighten black skin.  Ironically when a film is made of this episode Hollywood insists on a light brown skinned actress to play ‘coal black’ Orisha to righteous anger amongst Cassavans.
I began by saying politics aside, but really almost all that Boof has written here is political and impossible to separate. It is partial in taking sides. If she hasn’t really explored issues like Circumcision she has put them out there, through her character the reader has been made to think about it, arguably in my case thinking about it much more than Eternity does.  When Sea Horse tries to make Eternity his fourth wife her conversations with his other wives convey much to think about regarding African masculine attitudes to women.
And when, finally, violence reemerges the Western capitalist response is both grossed over and yet made explicit in a few lines.
Ultimately, for me The Sexy Part of The Bible is a novel of contradictions and oppositions.  It is a novel with which to nod in pensive agreement, to bridle at and resent, to be confused by whilst considering it overly simplistic. Scenes of poetic prose dissolve into clumsiness, repetitions reinforce aspects of the colour balance yet the constant description of Oluchi tribeswomen as topless becomes single character stereotype. On the otherhand Eternity’s scientist creater balances the suggestive surname Frankenheimer with ‘Richie Cunningham’ looks to useful early effect.  His wife Juliet we gradually learn was once Julian, but accepted his offer of gender surgery in order to consummate their love.  This resolution of homosexuality and the casual gender change are problematic to say the least.
Even on race, where Boof is clearly more knowledgeable than me, there are glaring issues. The emphasis on Eternity’s intense ‘blue black’ and ‘true’ colour in conjunction with the condemnation of the desire to conform to external colour and beauty standards could be read as arguing for a racial purity that concerns me.  Eternity and Sea Horse both have lovers of various shades, and children with them, miscegenation is not disapproved of explicitly therefore, but Boof muddies the waters, and it is unclear how much is deliberate and how much her unsure handling of vast ideas.
Kola Boof’s overall conceit is of an Africa cloned from the original Africa by the white man, by unscrupulous science and callous commercial interest.  She also suggests African complicity in part of this. Unfortunately too many unresolved sidelines, and a tendency to shallow analysis of certain ‘controversial’ aspects weaken her case.
I’m glad I read The Sexy Part Of The Bible, the personal internal dialogues that ensued from it are a good thing, but I can’t escape the sense that on purely literary terms it is at best a partial failure. As polemic though? Who am I to say that a novel that provoked in me so much thought (regardless of agreement or not) has failed?

Posted from WordPress for Android

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

Shelley’s Ghost

This summer’s major exhibition at The Wordsworth Trust  at Grasmere consists largely of portraits of many of those associated with Percy Bysshe Shelley, and original notebooks and MS pages.

First is the permanent display in the upper room, with its regular Wordsworth portraits  and the haunted, addicted Coleridge portrait by James Northcote that is one of the Trust’s prize pieces.  All the pictures here are dark, obsessive, and intense.  Down the stairs are smaller portraits and some pieces left over from the Ancient mariner exhibition a couple of years ago.  Illustrations of the poem by Hunt Emerson, which are fun, and by Mervyn Peake which are amongst the best I’ve seen (along side Dore.)  That was a significant, meaningful and broad ranging exhibition.

This, for the casual visitor or the would-be expert alike, is a curiously incomplete experience.  There a re portraits and there are cabinets with notebooks, fair copies and correspondence, all of it hard to read under glass this way.  The captions are brief and, to my eyes didn’t really tie in with the supposed theme.

That said, there is something special about being able to gaze at portraits I’m so intensely familiar with from books.  As I walked in I saw Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, in that ubiquitos, severe lookinglate portrait by Richard Rothwell.  Along side her on one wall, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft.  On her other side one of the poorer portraits of Percy Bysshe Shelley by the Rome-based English amateur Amelia Curran.  And oh, the Westall Byron, with the pouting red lips and hair curl giving him elfin ears.  Between those though is the one that thrilled me for entirely personal reasons.  Amelia Curran again, the only known portrait of Claire Caremont, all curls and rosy cheeks and wicked twinkling eyes.  Clare hated it, and seeing it alongside Curran’s overly flushed and chubby Shelley, is it reasonable to suggest Claire’s pretty face has been rounded out by Curran?

Nevertheless it was a delight to see these paintings close up.  I do believe that most of these portraits summoned up an aspect of the sitter’s portrait.  The strikingly attractive Mary Wollstonecraft (by John Opie) and the brooding, gothic Polidori by Gainsford.  But there is someone missing, Ned & Jane Williams are here, a well matched couple in portraits by George Clint, but what of the Corsair?  Where is Edward John Trelawny, the adventurer with the most Romantic spirit of them all?  Here in the corner, a rather small but skilled sketch by Seymour Kirkup is all he gets.

Of course you may say Trelawny was a lesser figure in the group, though he would disagree, but the title of the exhibition is Shelley’s Ghost which implies something of what came after the poet’s death.  A brief display of Sir Percy Florence & Lady Jane Shelley memorabilia tells a part of the story, but the legend of Shelley and of Byron that we are familiar with today is the account laid down by Trelawny and by Leigh Hunt.  There is nothing here that really conveys Shelley’s poetic legacy, nor tells us what happened next for most of these fascinating people.

I know what came next, I have my multiple biographies of all of these, but for the casual visitor to The Wordsworth Trust I’m not sure there is quite enough contextual depth to the exhibition on its own.  There is a lavish book that accompanies it, perhaps that explains more.  There is almost as an aside a vital piece of British history alongside the portraits, the remnants of an original banner from Peterloo, a reflection of society and of the radicalism of Shelley (at times) and his friends.

I loved this exhibition for the opportunity it gave me to gaze at Claire, to be drawn to Mary Wollstonecraft, to fear for doomed Polidori, and to really see what women and men saw in Byron.  I am not really sure what was in it for some of those walking around it with me, clearly unfamiliar with some of the names, and not lingering as I did.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein – Peter Ackroyd

(Of Victor, there’s spoilers.)

The first instances of Lord Byron, the Shelleys and their circle being fictionalised were published during their lifetimes, before Mary Shelley even had time to awake and ‘find myself famous.’  Since Lady Caroline Lamb and Thomas Love Peacock, separately and quite differently, in 1816 many other authors have sought to explore the self-compiled myths of the group.  Many have chosen to conflate their verse and fictions within the group’s complex, tangled relationships, and though the best of these. Tim Powers’ The Stress Of Her Regard takes source from the variations on the mythological Lamia that Keats, Shelley, Byron and even Coleridge evoked, most authors seem drawn to the figure of Frankenstein.  Again this should be no surprise, there were pirated editions and unofficial stage adaptations of Frankenstein within weeks of its publication in 1818, and the vague tale of its supposed origins in a ghost story challenge at Villa Diodati has become legend in itself.

So it is that we find ourselves approaching Peter Ackroyd’s The Casebook Of Victor Frankenstein with mixed feelings, curiosity and apprehension.  Ackroyd is after all, a major chronicler of London, this novel’s setting, of great writers, several of whom feature here, and of the 19th century, wherein these real and fictional events occurred.  Ackroyd’s career, for good and bad, continually works within the ‘spirit of place’ where time, geography and art interact.  This is his reputation, but this is clearly an alternate history/secret history reworking of both Frankenstein and the Shelley Circle myths, so how much knowledge might the reader be expected to bring?  It is hard to conceive of a reader totally unfamiliar with plot or any of the historical figures adapted here.  It may be unfair to expect that most readers know details such as Harriet Westbrook’s background as played out here.  And what of the changes Ackroyd makes, when we notice them are we to assume, given the author’s reputation, that they are significant?

Within the opening pages of The Casebook we are transported from Mary Shelley’s novel to Oxford in 1810, the start of Michaelmas term, when young Victor, rather than study in Ingolstadt, has come to the university and meets, on their mutual first day, Bysshe, an excitable, knowledgeable, passionate fellow traveller it seems.  Victor is inspired at once.  The two immediately fall to discussing Gothic writers, Crookenden, Eisner & Canaris, and alchemy, Paracelsus, Magni, Bacon, and science Galvani & Volta.  Victor also meets Shelley’s friend ‘Thomas Hogg’.  Leaving aside the existence of a fictional character amidst historical figures, the basic premise of the book, this reference is our first subtle clue that something may be amiss.  Thomas Jefferson Hogg, close friend of Percy Bysshe Shelley, and co-conspirator in many of the poet’s Oxford schemes, was known to his friends not as Thomas, but as Jeff.  A minor point on its own.

Stranger is the dramatic reimagining of Harriet Westbrook, whose brother we meet first as early as page 13, within weeks of Shelley’s expulsion from Oxford on 27 March 1811.  This Daniel Westbrook approaches Shelley at a political meeting and takes him to meet his sister Harriet who is working in seatshop conditions packing spices.  In reality Shelley first met Harriet in 1809 when he visited his sister at school and he sent her a copy of his juvenile gothic novel St.Irvyne that year.  Her father was a retired merchant, one of the new middle class, unlike Ackroyd’s shoemaker.  Why?  This change seems to make The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein a political novel of a different kind, and certainly the Shelley of subsequent chapters is radicalised but in keeping with history.  We also meet Harriet’s sister Emily (renamed from Eliza) at this point, though her role is lesser, she serves to highlight the multiple seemingly trivial changes Ackroyd makes throughout the novel.

Another change is chronological and given so much atention that we are clearly intended to reflect on it.  Shelley & Frankenstein attend the Drury Lane Theatre to see “Cunningham’s latest” Melmoth The Wanderer and the scenes described of the lonely mountain top wanderer echo both Shelley’s life and episodes from the novel Frankenstein.  Yet this is 1811 and the author of Melmoth, actually Charles Maturin, did not publish that novel until 1820, his Drury Lane play was Bertram backed by Byron.  Then as they leave the play Shelley is shaken.

“when the girl threw herself into the lake, and lifted her arms above her head.  that seized me with a frightful rush of terror.  I am at a loss to explain why.” p36

The reader with passing knowledge will recognise this as a premonition of Harriet’s suicide by drowning in The Serpentine in November 1816.  Further supposed foreshadowing comes within pages as Victor returns to his studies and meets a young man training as a surgeon.  His name is Jack Keat, who had “given up his trade as an ostler on the City Road to become an apprentice surgeon” and he is immediately characterised by a fit of coughing.  Jack Keat is clearly intended to be John Keats, the son of an ostler on the City Road, though in 1811 he was training as an apothecary, switching to surgeon in 1815.  His tuberculosis implied by that ominous fit of coughing probably arose in 1817 after he nursed his dying brother.  The contraction of chronology to omit Keats’ apothecary training is an understandable simplification, foreshadowing his death makes literary sense despite historical inaccuracy, but what is the relevance of the minor yet glaring name change?  What, indeed is going on here at all? Next Victor’s sister Elizabeth dies, Shelley elopes with Harriet and further historical personages are thrown into the mix.  Victor’s grief and the coincidences of his accidental encounters drive his researches in the familiar direction of Mary Shelley’s original, but the history only muddies things.

The nature of a novel like this, Alternate History or Secret History or literary game, always begs questions of veracity.  When historical characters are dropped in almost as shorthand to create historical context, what are we to make of incongruities and errors that acheive the opposite?  When Ackroyd has Shelley write to Victor from Keswick in 1811 of meeting Southey and Wordsworth it is period detail, but though invited Wordsworth didn’t come up from Grasmere, and the two never met.  The detail is an error.  If we tie the chronology to Shelley then the first third of the book occurs in 1811, which makes Keats and Coleridge’s appearances anachronistic.  Later Polidori, Byron’s much-maligned physician, is around when Victor learns of Shelley’s death, though really he poisoned himself a year earlier.  The account of Shelley’s funeral here told in a letter from Mary to Victor is a complete mess owing more to popular illustrations such as Louis Fournier’s 1889 painting.

Lord Byron formally recognised the body.  I could not do it.  Bysshe was wearing the double-breasted jacket and nankeen trouser he purchased in Geneva.  Do you remember them?  The officials here demanded that he should be buried where he was found, with his grave filled with quicklime, but Byron and I revolted at such a coarse procedure.  For once I felt grateful to Byron for assuming the manner and authority of lordship.  We were given to cremate poor Bysshe on the sea-shore.  two servants of the house, together with Byron, built up a funeral pyre on the beach…

…I could not look, but Byron plunged his hand into the fire and took out Bysshe’s heart still intact. (p286)

For every mention of Byron (or Albee as Mary would more likely have referred to him) in that paragraph read Edward Trelawny and note that Byron himself watched whilst swimming out to sea and Mary stayed away entirely, remaining in Pisa.  Perhaps Ackroyd felt that these details might confuse the less informed reader or be an unnecessary distraction, but it jars badly for the reader with any familiarity with the history (and there have been multiple best-selling works on all of these figures in recent years to make that familiarity commonplace.)

So little of this makes sense, major historical changes in a novel like this have to serve a purpose.  Pace of storytelling might be a valid purpose excusing the excision or conflation of minor persons or events, but it isn’t enough to justify such wholesale game-playing.  which begs the question, what is Ackroyd’s game?  When the unfortunate Jack Keat dies of consumption (a decade early) it is his fresh corpse that Victor re-animates, to what purpose?  What significance is there in any friend of Victor playing the creature, and in particular the poet Keats?  I’ve read and re-read The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein four times now, and despite knowing the twist in the plot, still so much of it makes no sense.  Yes, when Harriet drowns it is at the Creature’s hand, but Daniel is blamed echoing the fate of young William and Justine in Frankenstein.  Yes, Victor’s servant Fred, initially a Cockney caricature, replaces the unfortunate Henri Clerval.  But of other changes I can only surmise their possible intent.

Consequently a major question arises, that of ownership.  Mary Shelley is here removed from participation in the creation of her work.  Percy Bysshe Shelley is absolved from blame in his first wife’s suicide, and is seen as a naive child ‘enlightened’ by her husband (not entirely inaccurately but simplistically) and likewise Byron plays no part in Polidori’s death.  Each of the women here are taken taken from their true context and minimalised in the narrator, Victor’s eyes, yet not fully replaced.  Ackroyd’s changes are neither constructive nor wilfully destructive, simply confusing.

Finally on the very last page Ackroyd starts to explain, or does he?  The creature is within Victor, it is he who kills Fred, who refuses to save Daniel, and when challenged by Polidori he lashes out and ‘destroys’ his accuser too.  And there it ends, bar a coda revealing the preceding has been the confession of Victor Frankenstein to the Superintendent of the Hoxton Asylum on November 15, 1822.  It was all a psychotic delusion?  Or merely a lazy cliche to extract Ackroyd from a sloppy and careless story he lost control of?  The allusions to Prospero and Caliban, to James Hogg’s Confessions of A Justified Sinner, Goethe’s Sorrows Of Young Werther, etc may be clues or red herrings. The only tenuous clue is the title, perhaps this is not the Casebook by Victor Frankenstein, but the Casebook about Victor Frankenstein.  It makes sense of the whole before it, but hanging the entire 296 page novel on a title and the last line really isn’t successful.


1. I have highlighted dates here to demonstrate how Ackroyd rather than developing from creative anachronism has merely produced a confusing mess.  Frankenstein itself is impossible to place in historical context, Captain Walton’s letters home if correctly dated could not have come from the same year.  Although Mary Shelley uses the contemporary convention “17__” Walton’s quoting The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner makes it either 1798 or 9, neither of which allow for the dates he uses.

2. I used the following works as sources to confirm my doubts on many occasions in analysing Ackroyd’s historical verisimilitude or its absence.

  • Foot, Paul : Red Shelley
  • Hay, Daisy: Young Romantics
  • Holmes, Richard: Shelley The Pursuit
  • Rees, Joan: Shelley’s Jane Williams
  • Shelley, Mary: The Annotated Frankenstein ed Leonard K Wolf
  • Sunstein, Emily W: Mary Shelley Romance  & Reality
  • Todd, Janet: Death & The Maidens

3. Arguably the first work of fiction about any of the Byron & Shelley circle was Byron’s own Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage 1812 but otherwise the honour is shared between Caro Lamb’s superbly bitchy roman a clef, Glenarvon and Thomas Love Peacock’s witty Crotchet Castle, both of which are worth reading.  Over the next two centuries there have been many others, succesful and otherwise, in print and on film.  The less said about Ken Russell’s Gothic the better, but works by Brian W Aldiss, Amanda Prantera, Henry James, Emma Tennant, Jim Williams and Anne Edwards are notable.  Best of the lot though are Tim Powers fantasy bringing the lamia of the poets work to life in vivid drama The Stress Of Her Regard  and Theodore Roszak’s Tiptree Award winning The Memoirs Of Elizabeth Frankenstein with its intense reassessment of the sexual politics at play.

4. I currently have around 100 volumes of biography, essays, and criticism on the Shelley Circle (Byron, the Shelleys, Clairmont, Trelawny, Hunt, Williams, Hazlitt, Peacock, Polidori, Keats, Severn, and others,)  but I’m always interested in others.  If you come across any you think I may not have, do get in touch.

Posted in Review | Tagged , , | 1 Comment