Carnegie Medal 2016 – Valentine,Lake, Sedgewick

2016 Carnegie shortlist roundup part 2. In which I continue underwhelmed.

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Continuing on from yesterday’s round-up of the 2016 Carnegie shortlist. This post covers the other three titles from the shortlist which didn’t get an award.

Fire Colour One - jacket imageJenny Valentine – Fire Colour One

Iris is a pyromaniac, deeply disconnected from her fame- and money-obsessed mother and stepfather, and has just met her long-estranged father, Ernest, who is dying of cancer. The book opens with Iris lighting a fire at Ernest’s funeral, and then spools back to tell the story of how she got to that point. While Iris’s mother jockeys to gain control of Ernest’s fortune, Iris gets to know her father and discovers they share a love of art, finds out about her own history, and tells the story of her friendship with the mysterious Thurston. These three plotlines come together at the end of the book to give Iris (or, really, Ernest) a final triumph over her mother.

This is really a fairytale of sorts: a wish fulfilment fantasy in which the long lost father turns out to be both rich and adoring, and the horrible parents get their come-uppance. And of course, the girl gets to marry the prince, or in this case gets to be reunited with the cool perfomance artist boy who is the first person ever to tell her that she is valued. Thurston is additionally mysterious because he eschews mobile phones and other usual ways of communicating: part of the drama of this subplot arises from the fact Iris had a fight with him immediately before leaving America, and has no way to contact him to let him know where she’s gone or that she’s sorry.  I found the Thurston parts of the narrative a bit tiresome: he’s an enigmatic character who shows up unpredictably, and his performance art is on the line between cool and a bit creepy or annoying (like all performance art?). Iris’s argument with him arises from one of these acts of performance art: he creates a roadside shrine for her, along the lines of those put up for victims of road traffic accidents, and sets things up so that she unwittingly arrives at the shrine amidst a crowd of people who are leaving flowers – a dead girl at her own memorial. I think we’re supposed to take Thurston’ argument that this is all about demonstrating that Iris is not invisible at face value, but actually her shocked and angry reaction seems much more valid to me, and it grated with me that she spends most of the book regretting the fact that she didn’t apologise to Thurston for rejecting this gesture. I think this is a genuine young adult novel, in the sense that I think this scenario might be more intriguing and appealing if you are a teenager – though I like to think teenage readers also have a healthy scepticism.

It’s interesting to compare this book with The Lie Tree, because whereas Faith starts by idoloising her father and gradually realises there is much to admire in her mother, Iris moves from believing her father abandoned her to essentially idolising him. I was uncomfortable with the way this relationship is set up against Iris’s relationship with her mother. Ernest turns out to be the perfect parent: the rich, loving father who ‘gets’ Iris and her love of art (land thus becoming the second man to tell Iris that she is after all special). By contrast, her mother, Hannah, is vapid and self-centred, doesn’t believe Iris when she is almost raped by the son of a family acquaintance, and cares only for money. Ernest’s stories about his relationship with Hannah don’t do much to add nuance: there’s a hint of something interesting when we learn that he met her when she was homeless and penniless, and that she has erased all references to her life before Ernest, but we’re never allowed to find out any more. Even the story of Iris’s conception paints Hannah in a bad light: it’s Ernest who ‘forces’ her to stop drinking during her pregnancy, and according to him she shows no interest in Iris up until the day she essentially abducts her. This left me wondering why on earth Hannah would take Iris at all: there must be more to her story, but the book isn’t interested in telling us about it. The Lie Tree was a little clunky in showing that the role of socialite might be a way of negotiating gender constraints, but I definitely prefer that to the slightly misogynistic (and classist) implication that Hannah is simply a gold digger.

Once again, I am being quite critical here of a book that I mostly enjoyed. It’s a fairly good read and I think teenage readers would definitely enjoy it, but this is another one that just wasn’t outstanding to me.

 

Nick Lake – There Will Be LiesThere Will Be Lies - jacket image

Lies were a theme this year. There Will Be Lies features two lies, and a truth; or so a coyote tells Shelby as she lies by the side of the road after a car accident. The accident precipitates the disintegration of her whole life, as her mother takes Shelby on the run and Shelby uncovers a series of explanations. They’re in hiding from Shelby’s violent father; no – they’re in hiding because Shelby’s mother murdered her abusive husband; no – Shelby’s mother isn’t her mother at all, but her abductor. Interwoven with this narrative is the story of Shelby’s adventures in the Dreaming, where she is the Maiden, charged by Coyote with the task of killing the Crone and saving the Child in order to save the world. Of course, resolving this part of the story is also linked to resolving Shelby’s real life issues as she comes to realise that her mother is not really her mother, and meets her new family.

I’m sorry to say that the Carnegie has form when it comes to culturally appropriative Native American narratives (Susan Cooper, I’m looking at you) and this book is no exception. I don’t know a huge amount about Native American myth and culture (as always, Debbie Reese has useful thoughts on this aspect of the book), but you don’t really need to know a lot to feel that this is a rather lazy mish mash. It’s unclear, for a start, why Coyote is concerning himself with the fate of one random white girl (at the end of the book he reveals that it’s not the whole world at stake, only Shelby’s world). Lake handwaves this by implying at one point that the Dreaming is simply a part of Shelby’s ill-informed subconscious, but this is rather unsatisfying. I’ll confess, though, that I’m personally able to swallow a lot of cherrypicking from various myths (even while being aware this can be very problematic) if it’s in service of a good story. The problem is that the Dreaming narrative simply isn’t that strong: the revelations about Shelby’s real life are much more interesting, but they are delivered in a rather flat, infodump manner. Clearly the Dreaming is supposed to provide the emotional reaction to these revelations, but it’s so paint-by-numbers that it doesn’t really work.

It’s a shame that Lake went down this route, because there are glimmers of an interesting book in here. When Shelby finally meets the parents she was stolen from, there’s a little bit of exploration of how it might be to adjust to such a reunion after 15 years, but it’s too quickly curtailed. I also liked the way that Shelby doesn’t simply abandon her ‘fake’ mother: unlike Jenny Valentine’s Iris, who seems to have no emotional attachment to her mother despite having been raised by her, Shelby struggles to reconcile her memories of being loved and cared for by this women with the new knowledge that she had also been stolen by her (although she’s totally able to maintain her fatphobia towards her mother throughout the book, ugh). Had Lake abandoned the mythic element and instead pursued the emotional ramifications of his realist narrative, this might have been a good book. Alas.

 

Ghosts of Heaven - jacket imageMarcus Sedgwick – Ghosts of Heaven

This is a series of four interconnected novellas which can – according to Sedgwick – be read in any order. The first is a verse narrative about a girl in prehistoric times who yearns to take on a shamanic role and witnesses the massacre of her entire tribe by another group; the second is the story of Anna, daughter of a cunning woman,  who is hanged as a witch; centuries later a doctor in a mental asylum encounters a poet with a strange mania; and finally a space pioneer wakes from his long sleep to realise that all is not as it should be on board his ship. The stories are linked by the repeating image of a spiral, encountered in the dark of prehistoric caves, painted on the millwheel and on a toy given to Anna’s brother, built in the heart of the asylum in the form of a giant staircase, and mapped by the journey of the ship through space. Each character struggles with the vastness of the universe and the desire to know more of its mysteries. Notwithstanding Sedgwick’s author’s note, I read the four stories in order (largely because I was reading this one in a hurry), and each one does build on the other. Perhaps they do work in any of the 24 possible orders, as he suggests, but I think this would work against any sense of cohesion to the novel.

I am not really sure what I thought of this book. It was, I think, the best written of all the books on the shortlist this year, but I was left feeling it was less than the sum of its parts. It’s indebted to a number of other works, not all of which I got: my fellow shadowers pointed out an overt reference to 2001: A Space Odyssey (I’ve never seen or read this)  and both structurally and thematically I was reminded of Alan Garner (the coded message at the end surely owes something to Red Shift). And the prehistoric section of the book reminded me inexorably of Jean Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear series, although I strongly suspect this was not what Sedgewick was going for. I liked the idea of the spirals linking all these four narratives, but in the end I was left feeling they didn’t really hold much meaning. Being lazy, I did not decode the message at the end myself, but of course the internet delivers in such matters. The message suggests that (spoiler text) ‘The best people possess a feeling for beauty, the courage to take risks, the discipline to tell the truth, the capacity for sacrifice. Ironically, their virtues make them vulnerable[…]’. I assume that this message is also supposed to be the underlying message of the book, but actually I found the stories significantly less hopeful than this implies. Each of the stories ends in death, and I largely felt that these deaths were pretty meaningless. I’d prefer the life well-lived to the noble sacrifice.

There was some debate in my shadowing group about whether this was really a children’s book. Lots of people felt quite passionately that there was nothing in it that particularly oriented it towards children or young adults – some of the characters are teenagers, but they are clearly adults within the contexts in which they live. I’d agree that this could equally have been published on a general science fiction list, but I do think this is a young adult book in terms of appeal. The sense that there is some mystery out there to be solved, that the universe is full of unknown wonders and horrors, and that there are patterns linking everything – all this is catnip to a certain kind of teenage reader. It can appeal to adults too, of course, but speaking as someone who was exactly that kind of reader I think it does hold a special appeal for young people, who are more excited by the sense of possibility in the universe and perhaps less engaged with the question of how to find meaning in the quotidian. These sorts of generational generalisations are exactly the sort of thing that I chastise my students for, of course – but I’m struck by the fact that this is exactly the shift that happens across Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series. Speaking as someone who was bitterly disappointed by Tehanu as a teenage reader, and who now adores it, I can at least say this shift in mentality was true for this reader.

I think on the whole Sedgwick’s book is a flawed one, but I’m glad to see it on the Carnegie list. There’s an ambition here and a respect for the reader which I value.