This article is taken from the June 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
The lot of the model-slash-actor-turned-author is not a happy one. Think of poor Naomi Campbell, who reportedly had not even read “her” ghostwritten novel Swan when it was published in 1994. Comedians generally fare better at the novelling game than straight actors, the putting together of words being their stock-in-trade. But Sophie Ward, best known until recently for Heartbeat, Holby City and Boots No 7, bucked the trend with her original and philosophical debut novel Love and Other Thought Experiments (2020), which was longlisted for the Booker Prize.
Her second novel The Schoolhouse therefore carries expectation, and not just as a curio. It is less surprising than her debut but shows a similar restlessness — as though, having started late in the game, Ward is determined to write as many novels as possible each time.
This one is a coming-of-age story, a trauma narrative, and a crime thriller. The story starts out by cycling through three worlds: the diary of schoolgirl Isobel Williams in 1975; Isobel’s cautious life in 1990, where we discover she is deaf; and, also in 1990, an investigation by DS Sally Carter into a missing child.
The 1990 sections are the strongest, each with a built-in narrative drive, one taking us forward (where is the child?) and one back (what happened to Isobel?). The diary is less engaging but does serve — with teachers behaving carelessly and lines like “we don’t have a library at school because the books got torn” — as a subtle denunciation of progressive schooling. (Surprising, since Ward at the end offers thanks for her time as both pupil and teacher in a Montessori school. Writers, eh! All grist to the mill, innit?)
Stranger to the Moon attracts the label ‘Kafkaesque’ like vermin
There’s too much going on to detail much of the plot, but naturally the elements twine together nicely and turning the pages becomes something of an urgent exercise in the final third. This is not a novel of distinctive literary style — there was barely a sentence I wanted to mark out for quoting — but it does have intelligence and empathy in bundles. And the best thing about having three concurrent plots is that, when one ends dramatically with 50 pages still to go, another one can step in. Now that’s good value: rather like being a novelist, actor and model all in one.
There are not many individual publishers or editors in the UK who attract a cult of personality — alongside the likes of Americans Robert Gottlieb or Gordon Lish — but Christopher MacLehose is one. He remains best known for his stout work with Harvill Press in the 1980s and 90s, where he brought to the UK writers such as Raymond Carver and Richard Ford.
But his speciality was always literature in translation — no MacLehose, no Sebald — and after leaving Harvill, he set up MacLehose Press, which offered a refreshing range of foreign fiction from the sublime to the ridiculous. (He effectively rewrote Stieg-of-the-dumpbin Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo to make it less awful.)
When MacLehose stepped down from his eponymous press in October 2020, at the age of 80, it was assumed to be into retirement; but now he has launched Mountain Leopard Press, thus ensuring continuity of his unique literary vision. Its launch title is Stranger to the Moon by Evelio Rosero (translated by Victor Meadowcroft and Anne McLean), the Colombian author who in 2009 won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (now the International Booker Prize) with The Armies.
It is a work of fantasy, horror and satire, set in an unnamed country at an unspecified time. That is a handy shortcut to universal relevance, as the reader avoids bringing to the story prepackaged expectations around, say, nineteenth-century Japan or 1960s London (see below).
And it’s only at the end that we see the book was written in the late eighties, so any assumptions that this analogy of violence and torture was inspired by current politics can be discounted. (Anyway, as Martin Amis pointed out, such things are ever in fashion. “You don’t need to dim the lights for torture, or play soft music. People will respond. You don’t need to get them in the mood. Everyone’s always in the mood.”)
And for a book that attracts the label “Kafkaesque” like vermin, the opening line is suitably attention-grabbing. “It’s true that this house is enormous, but there are just too many of us. In order for us all to fit, there must always be one, at least, inside the wardrobe.” The narrator is one of the Naked, living in a place dominated by the Clothed; the Naked are distinguished by their two sexes, which the Clothed find repellent and demanding of punishment.
But as with Kafka, it is not a world without comedy, of a certain kind at least. Many of the Naked are frail, lame or blind, but “we know of one old granny who was so stimulated by the tale of persecution she overheard from her neighbours that she recovered the sight she had lost some years before and was able to thoroughly enjoy a torture session she had the good fortune to witness.”
The Bloater is so on-the-nose, it feels retrofitted to the time
The narrative takes us on a slow trip to a devastating climax, via titbits of how life is carried on in this strange world. And unlike The Schoolhouse — where everything is explained — one could report 90 per cent of what is in the book here without spoiling it. Mystery is its mission. In that sense, as a story of power and subjugation, the book it reminded me of most was David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, not by comparison but by contrast. Mitchell built up his story by accretion of detail set across six different worlds — “what is an ocean but a multitude of drops?” — and the result was firmly less than the sum of its parts. Rosero, on the other hand, leaves everything open to interpretation. This reminds us that a skilfully-written book stimulates the reader’s imagination and meets it only halfway. Not knowing keeps us going.
Rosemary Tonks is better known for her poetry (Bedouin of the London Evening et al) than her prose, but best known of all for not being known. It’s how she wanted it: when she died in 2014, she had removed herself from the frame, turning against the literary world that had published her six novels and two collections of poetry in the 1960s and 70s. She pursued instead something between a personal renewal and a spiritual crisis, travelling to the river Jordan to be baptised at the age of 52 and suppressing all her published work.
But her will contained no prohibition on re-publication of her books (her poetry publisher Neil Astley speculates this was because “her books didn’t even exist for her by then”), and following the celebration of her work on the popular Backlisted literary podcast, Vintage has ridden to the rescue by reissuing her 1968 novel The Bloater. (Previously, secondhand copies of her novels changed hands for hundreds of pounds.)
The title — a perfect comic word — gives a fair idea of what to expect from this resurrection from the last century. The narrator, Min, works in the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop (making this book one of a select band of novels set at the corporation, alongside Penelope Fitzgerald’s Human Voices), where she and her colleague spend hours attempting to create a realistic heartbeat.
She’s a listener, too: “I switch on the Third Programme and as usual it’s some working-class play.” The studio where Min works is “so brown”, which is very Sixties, of course: in addition, people use the A-Z, eat jugged hare, suffer from gout, and say “I don’t care a damn”. It’s highly refreshing and so on-the-nose that it feels retrofitted to the time.
And the Sixties model of free love applies, too: it’s on Min’s love-lives and friendships that the story loosely hinges. She is married, but dallying with a man called Billy, and as the book begins, she awaits the arrival of opera singer Carlos, aka The Bloater, with whom she is obsessed. “He’s already started dining off my nerves.” The Bloater is a man mountain with “slabs and slabs of platinum-blond skin”, and Min’s relationship with him is as unpredictable as her others.
Hardly anyone is introduced, so the reader is kept on their toes through the dialogue that drives the story. As one character, Claudi, puts it to Min: “Either you are the most terrible female plotter I’ve ever met, or else you’re just a little schoolgirl chattering away about things she doesn’t understand.”
Chattering away indeed: “Really, what are the use of these random conversations?” Min asks Billy. Well, they may be no use, but they are ornament: they emphasise the tone of the book as predominantly comic, in keeping with Min’s “safety valve” of “rank silliness” (“You cannot listen to electronic sound for seven hours a day, and keep sane without it”). Given Tonks’s sad withdrawal later in life, this gives the comic tone of the book an added frisson. Does it misrepresent how the author ended up, and is this why she suppressed it? Perhaps, but the work stands alone, and a novel, like a photograph, freezes the writer in time.
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