*the title of this post is a tribute to Vassiliki Veros’ Shallowreader’s Blog. Much as I love deep/close reading, I also admire her insistence that people should read whatever they want, however they want. This week I didn’t want to think much about my reading.
I blasted through Hilary Mantel’s new short story collection, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, in a few days. I loved Wolf Hall, but the only contemporary Mantel novel I’ve read, Beyond Black, was too freaking weird for me. This has everything to do with my inveterate taste for literary realism, nothing to do with the novel’s quality. Even when I choose speculative fiction, I prefer a world built through the literary techniques and narrative strategies of realism.
But every once in a while I like to stretch myself, and I found that in short form, Mantel’s weirdness worked for me–or I was up to its challenge. Take the title story. The premise is far-fetched but nothing that couldn’t happen: a woman opens her door for the plumber, and finds instead that she’s admitted a would-be assassin who plans to take aim at the Prime Minister from her bedroom window. While they wait for Thatcher to present herself as a target, they chat and the narrator makes the killer cups of tea. And then suddenly there’s a passage where the story takes off (literally? figuratively? it’s not clear) into another dimension. The narrator shows her guest a door he might use to escape once his task is done (though he’s resigned to being killed by police) and then she imagines him stepping through it into somewhere else–preventing his crime.
There are all kinds of interesting ways to interpret this passage, but I . . . didn’t bother! I just let myself enjoy the stories for the atmosphere they created (this review rightly calls it “menacing”), the unsparing character sketches, and the wonderful turns of phrase (I’d quote some, but I had to return it to the library). If you summarized the plot of these stories, they’d sound like what I see people condemning as “boring, pointless literary fiction.” But I was never bored. Sometimes I think of books with lots of plot as “fun” books and books that emphasize characterization and/or the pleasures of language as “serious” books. But reading Mantel’s stories reminded me that that’s a false dichotomy. I’m sure you can have deep thoughts about Mantel’s fiction (just as you can about genre fiction), but you can also read it just for fun. After this week I’ll be more likely to pick up a “literary” book even when I don’t feel up for a challenge, because they don’t always have to be (read as) challenging. Plus I’m pretty sure there were vampires in one story, if you read just deep enough.
I did start A Bollywood Affair, but I’m finding it slow to get into. I think it’s because Samir is pretty trope-y so far, and I’m not really in the mood for that kind of characterization. But I like Mili, and I think the book will hook me soon. I’m also reading Lesley Thomson’s The Detective’s Daughter. The low-star reviews on Goodreads complain this mystery is too slow and meandering, but I’m enjoying that, and Stella, the title character, is really interesting: in her mid-40s, rather isolated, likes her life orderly (she runs a cleaning service). I can see why she can’t leave a loose end from her dad’s life hanging–her father dies and she solves one of his cold cases. I’m also finding it really creepy.
Some Thoughts on Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley So Far
For those who are listening along (Miss Bates has some comments here), or have read it before, or are just curious.
- Anna Bentinck is a very good narrator. I don’t love her quite as much as Juliet Stephenson, whose voice is richer, with more depth, but Bentinck gives each character his/her own tone, accent, and style of speaking. Shirley usually sounds a bit as if she’s about to laugh.
- I forgot Bronte could be funny. There’s a lot of satire in Shirley.
- I forgot how long it takes for Shirley to show up! Almost a third of the way through the novel. Why is she the title character, then? I think it’s because she challenges conventions. A lot of characters in the novel are at a low point and stuck there when Shirley arrives; she makes things happen (one of the few things I remember from my long-ago read is how much agency she has). Her status as an heiress gives her power, and she’s interested in using it.
- The friendship between Caroline and Shirley is the most interesting element to me (so far–I’m about halfway). They are very different characters, but with “minds in harmony.” Their friendship includes some envy and rivalry (maybe) over Robert Moore. It seems like a very real female friendship in its closeness and tensions. Sisterhood is powerful but also a pain in the ass sometimes.
- A lot of the time the dialogue makes me think Come on, CB, no one ever talked like this! Here Shirley imagines seeing a mermaid:
I see a preternatural lure in its wily glance: it beckons. Were we men, we should spring at the sign, the cold billow would be dared for the sake of the colder enchantress; being women, we stand safe, though not dreadless. She comprehends our unmoved gaze; she feels herself powerless; anger crosses her front; she cannot charm, but she will appal us: she rises high, and glides all revealed, on the dark wave-ridge. Temptress-terror! Monstrous likeness of ourselves!
- Riiiiight. That sounds like the way I talked to my friends in my college years (the age Shirley and Caroline are). And yet, unnatural and high-flown as the dialogue can be, it does remind me of dorm-room conversations. Here are two young women who want to learn, to understand the world, to do good, to make a place for themselves. There’s something very real behind all the bombast. Even in the mermaid passage, there’s the question of what kind of power women have over men, and whether it’s a good kind. Shirley and Caroline talk about poetry and ethics and the guys in the neighborhood. They discuss whether you could actually love the poet Cowper, or Rousseau; they discuss whether men are their superiors (not, Shirley thinks, any man she’s actually met, but she’d like to love a man she can look up to); they long for careers, for something real to do (especially Caroline, who is poor, powerless, unhappy in love, and certain she’ll be an old maid).
- The way the novel examines gender and power is so interesting. Caroline is explicitly dismissive of the importance of sexual power/desirability, at least for old maids: why scorn them for being unlovely, when loveliness in them would serve no purpose? I remembered that Shirley’s name was, at the time, masculine, but I’d forgotten the way she’s described as “like a little cavalier,” and how she calls herself Captain Keeldar sometimes.
- I can’t help comparing this novel to Gaskell’s North and South, both because of some similarities in subject matter (the relationship between rich and poor, the changes wrought by industrialization) and because of the connection between the two novelists. This is a much messier novel. Gaskell neatly runs the theme of “North and South meeting and making a kind of friends” through every plot thread in her novel, including the romance. Her characters are fully realized, but she also deploys them in almost allegorical ways. Shirley seems far less purposeful. Sometimes it’s as if Bronte is just following her characters wherever they decide to take her, and Shirley is pretty whimsical about where the novel is going. I think that might be deliberate and artful, though, the messiness of the form. I haven’t decided yet–it needs getting to the end. It’s certainly less obviously patterned than North and South, perhaps less conventional (that’s not a knock on Gaskell’s novel, which I love and know much better than this one).
- I am so glad I decided to listen to some Victorian novels. I’ve missed them. I have a few more in my Audible stash, but I might–gasp–actually make time to read some dead tree versions soon too. I have a hankering to revisit Our Mutual Friend. . . .