My book review ended up talking about something else, so is it literary criticism now?
I have been attempting to read more current books, the ones that one hears about in person and via the ether. I am publishing now and want to see what else is out there. Otherwise, I would not have attempted to read a book with ‘killer’ in the title.
I am assuming you have already heard about My Sister the Serial Killer and like someone who has latterly found out that Bangs means Fringe you have decided you might fancy a change. I would recommend reading it, and if you click on the title or the image you will be taken to Amazon and I will get a commission as an Amazon Associate. I don’t usually follow reading, or any other, fashions. Just because the sides of buses and billboards are full of ‘umber’ clothes doesn’t make me suddenly like orange. When brogues were in the shops I bought eight pairs so I could keep wearing them when they lost favour. I haven’t worn all of them yet, just like I am saving reading The Bloody Chamber for this weekend. Angela Carter is dead now, so I have to eek her out. I was very pleasantly surprised by My Sister the Serial Killer. It is well written, arcs effortlessly and concludes as well as a story about a woman whose sister repeatedly murders men can end. Braithwaite describes the experiences of her narrator and lead character, Korede, with clarity and precision. No-one could accuse it of being sloppy. We all have at least one friend who is so self-absorbed and shallow that they betray our trust every so often. We don’t ditch them because they apologise regularly, are good in other ways, can be persuaded to change or out of loyalty. So this story is kind of ‘relatable’. It is as if the author has taken a song about a shitty girl/friend, sampled and varied it into one about a serial killer, and left the moral dial alone. The loss of one star might therefore be more because of an issue I have with a few other writers at the moment. No, not the writers, I like quite a lot of them, it’s their writing style I can’t get on with.
This is partly down to having been trained in attempting to make objective observations on children as part of being an Early Years teacher. We are drilled in writing just what we see, not to interpret the child’s actions in any way. We don’t write ‘ Nasty Freddy has found another butterfly this morning, he hides behind the strawberry planter and chuckles gleefully at its attempts at fluttering away as he deftly plucks off its wings’ but ‘Outside, 10 am: Freddy crouches down and laughs quietly as he uses a practiced thumb and forefinger pincer grip to pull an insect apart’. Early Years Professionals are not writing to make value judgements but to work out a child’s next learning steps, in Freddy’s case moral ones. I am therefore experienced in appearing objective when a bit of subjectivity, like enjoying torture and death is not good, is called for. My frustration with modern writers may also be because I am quite old now and have read through some of the long narrator journey. From the author taking on the lead character’s persona in Treasure Island say, or being taken along for the ride by the omnipresent and apparently utterly objective narrator of not quite that old Austin style, through to lots of kinds of unreliable narrator, which can add spotting delusion to the illusion. All the way up to now; where the flawed narration is stripped almost to its bare bones. This comes with short, crisp sentences, which, while I may not be able to do them, I have always loved. The purplish flowery ramblings of the old British or Russian novelists are gone for the time being. Now it’s ‘Just the facts Jack’ all the way. Different narration styles are all writers’ tricks; ways of attempting to manipulate, more politely; guide, the reader in different ways. All of them can succeed in persuading the reader to think in different ways for a while. Narration goes through fashions but we do all, or nearly all, know that behind the narrator is a writer, who has made up a story, with their own views on people and how they should behave. So why is the style that My Sister the Serial Killer employs so popular now? The sparse unreliable narrator can be useful in a society where almost everything, including morals, is relative. You have your truth and I have mine apparently. I went to a talk by Salmon Rushdie at the end of August, he is worried about that the days of contesting the reality have been overtaken by a questioning of a reality at all. We do live in a world where we can agree that child abuse and rape are bad, but that’s about it. Who thinks those things are good? Pretty much anything else is up for contest. Terrorism or drone strikes, blowing up men, women and children at a market was brought on by blowing up men, women and children at a wedding; understandable under the circumstances. Democracy; a word used by democrats and anti-democrats to justify their opinions, no more. That’s a pretty low base line for the global culture to which Braithwaite belongs. No wonder modern writers are afraid of taking a moral position. Readers have never liked being lectured or over manipulated into thinking a particular way. When I found out that Oscar Wilde had said that one would have to heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing I was relieved, I think for just this reason. Dickens, and Thomas Mann for that matter (trust me, you’ll be chuckling well before the end of The Holy Sinner), had a habit of moralising. But I am pretty sure that they did not inspire too many people who weren’t already in the mood to take up philanthropy or Catholicism. Writers need to be a little braver and give us readers some credit here please. We know, most of us, that we are reading made up stories and we will take or leave any morals we find there, according to our judgement. I am not put off by Tolstoy because his idea of the Russian soul can be likened to modern thoughts on ‘Race Memory’. Tolstoy tells a great story. A few contemporary writers’ work reminds me more of a teacher’s long observation than a novel. Characters are supposed to be like real people and real people, unless they are serial killers, have morals. Korede is a non-serial killer, who despite being pretty well off gets up at 5am to tend the sick and then spends her nights clearing up dead bodies with no exposition, except to say that she’s a very loyal sister now and again. This narration style means I don’t get as involved with the characters as I like to. And that distance helped me forget that killing people is usually a bad thing. The flawed narrators of the past were there to allow the reader to do the moralising. It saved the writer a job that is very difficult to get right. Nowadays, the narration and the culture it reflects can keep us from making any judgement at all. Mention abuse of some kind in childhood and, ta-dah; murdering innocent men; meh. The ‘show don’t tell' writing mantra apparently taken deeply to heart by quite a few contemporary novelists can go too far. There were times in My Sister the Serial Killer when I would have appreciated just a little more telling. Yes, the reason why a person has taken to killing men is explained by past experiences. But I have a sister, and if she was carrying on in that way, I think I would put a little more effort into trying to help her stop. Luckily, I am the one who, once, pulled the wings off a butterfly, my sister is lovely and kind, My Sister the Serial Killer is only a story, even if it’s not clear what it is there still is a reality and a weekend with Angela Carter is not that far away.
My book, Changing the Subject, whose narrator simply takes on the viewpoint and morals of the main character, out now.