This Week in Books: The Secret and the Little

“I thought of rivers I had never seen.”

Dear Reader,

I didn’t read books until I was, like, eight years old. Books seemed boring. I think, in retrospect, that’s because my mom and my nana, both big readers, only gave me books about girls, good little old-fashioned girls, and I sort of hated being a girl, at the time; and to be clear I was right to chafe at the narrowness of the selection, because as I got older my mom and nana did in fact lean ever harder into their expectations of me with regard to my gender, seeming to become more disturbed over time that I acted in ways inappropriate for my role, such as talking about politics at the dinner table. I was, you know, a bright student or whatever, and I was informed, at some point when I must have expressed a bare hint of interest — the flicker of which I cannot even recall now either because I didn’t really mean it or because of how swiftly it was snuffed out, though which I’ll never know, and isn’t that the rub — that a woman can’t become a doctor because it would interfere with her motherly duties. So, unlike every other top student at my little all-girls prep school (to which I was being sent mainly because it was Catholic and because there were no boys, not so much because of its scholastic bona fides, such as they were), no one at home was pressuring me to become a doctor. A mixed blessing, I guess. I’ve never been told to become anything whatsoever besides a woman, and so, free of all expectation, I have drifted through life with the low stress of no profession and, the devil’s detail, the high stress of no money. 


“Phidias Showing the Frieze of the Parthenon to Pericles, Aspasia, Alcibiades and Friends.” Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1868, Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery. Via Wikimedia Commons.

But I’ve jumped too far ahead to make my point; that was in high school, the doctor thing, and I’m trying to tell you a story about grade school. So, anyway, Little Women sat unread on my shelf, next to Betsy-Tacy and all sorts of other girl books, because they were girly, I thought, and because I could sense they were part of a project aimed against me — the vanguard troops of a mustering force of which I, in my child’s brain, could only begin to sense the vastness, the global-historical scale.

But then one day, at a garage sale, I discovered a bunch of Goosebumps books with their covers stripped off (a mysterious detail which fascinated me for years, until I got a job at a bookstore and found out that’s how mass market paperbacks and magazines are “returned” to the publisher — the publisher only asks for the cover to prove the store didn’t sell the book), which somehow I got ahold of. (As I was writing this now, I almost said my dad bought them for me, but then I realized I have no memory of that, and I was editorializing, making it symbolic, and I would like to make sure now that you know it was my dad who told me women can’t be doctors.) Then, for what I remember as like a year of my life but was probably only a few months because of how time works when you’re a kid, I only read Goosebumps books. It was, like, all I did. I had discovered that books could make me feel something. (Afraid.)  

And I can’t quite remember this either but the way it feels in my self-narrative, the sense of it I have now, is that it occurred to me as suddenly as getting struck by a thunderbolt that I should make a more thorough appraisal of the books on my shelf, because perhaps I had missed something about books. I realized that some of the girly books were, in fact, secretly (so I thought at the time, though I later came to understand that the adventurousness of girls in canonical books is not so much a secret from a sexist society so much as well-contrived outlet, a way for you to live vicariously, imagining doing things you shouldn’t do — and that the authors themselves, usually women oppressed in their time, are sometimes fighting against this, trying to communicate to you a secret resistance, but sometimes complicit, just trying to get paid — that the secret is often counterbalanced by the little) not really about being good little old-fashioned girls at all, or if they were, there were many other points of interest to read between the lines: strangeness, and magic, and history, and the inner workings of things, and defiance, and death. A Little (little!) Princess, The Secret (secret!) Garden, Little (little!) House on the Prairie, and so on.

Then I read a lot of books, all from the public library or the school library, but they were mainly those contemporary kids books which when you read them, you read them alone, which you don’t realize at the time, but which becomes apparent as you get older and try to reminisce about them and you discover that the odds are no one else you will ever meet will have read them too; and which are never referenced in the popular culture, so you slowly forget what they were even about. (Whereas no one ever really forgets what, say, Alice in Wonderland is about because they’ll periodically see some reference to it, and the memory revivifies itself.)

There are exceptions to this rule I’ve just invented, of course, because it is imaginary. I can remember some of those contemporary books, which I have never in my life discussed with a single other person, surprisingly clearly, like The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm or The Hermit Thrush Sings or the Switchers trilogy, which has one of the biggest twists that I can think of in all of the books I have ever read, paling in comparison to Bertha in the attic.

One of, but not the biggest twist I can recall in all the books I have ever read. That honor would have to be reserved for The Queen of Attolia, the second book in The Queen’s Thief series, a swords-and-sandals epic set in an intricately built world reminiscent of classical Greece, but with anachronistic aspects, like square-rigging and clay tablets, more akin to the European age of exploration or the Mediterranean bronze age. The depth of world-building is lovely, really, it’s hard to do it justice. There is a powerful sense of history, all of it totally invented: myths, poems, plays, sayings, historical accounts, and various pantheons that characters use to understand their present. Plus, the writing (of the first two books especially; as I recall, they have a jewel-like quality, shiny and fun to hold up to the light) is at a higher level than I think I had really been exposed to in any contemporary books at the time when I first read them. Which felt significant; I remember this being imbued with significance for me. Like, a kid can read E.B. White and appreciate that the language is beautiful, but can begin to associate beautiful aesthetics with the past — the canon becomes beautiful, in this fatal equation, because it is old. (Just so is the breeding field of conservatism ever plowed anew by artists long-dead who tore the field up by its roots when they were alive.) And so many young people, I imagine, whose conservative parents expose them to a few classics and otherwise never speak of art, must also know what it’s like, as I do, to feel something burn inside you the first time, the first few times, you read (or view, or hear) something beautiful that is also new — even if it’s just a pleasing little genre novel.  

The exquisiteness and adventurousness of the first book in the series, The Thief, a seemingly simple quest story, was always enough for me to get someone to buy it, back when I was a bookseller. Many a middle schooler has had The Thief slipped into their hands by me, accompanied by just such a pitch. (But, you know, not so lofty, because when I talk I just say things like “This is so cool, there’s cool ancient stuff in it, it’s cool.”) And I would also add to my pitch, as a sweetener, casual-like, “Oh, and there’s a twist.” 

That’s why I brought up this series in the first place, remember. I would never say any more about it, though, to someone who I thought was actually going to read it. To a kid. Or to the few adult friends I’ve convinced to read it over the years. To speak about the twist in any depth is to basically ruin the experience of the book on some level so I mean, if you have any plans to read this, you should stop here. Spoilers, lmao, in my high-falutin literary review round-up. 

But, but, but — I also have this theory that what I’ve just told you is the very reason not more people know about the series. To describe it at all — the entire rest of the series — is to basically spoil the first book. And so it has engendered a kind of code of silence. You don’t say what The Queen’s Thief series is about; more importantly, you don’t explain how it is told. (Which is what I am about to do.)

So, so, so. I can clearly remember the moment I got to the big reveal in The Queen of Attolia. I was in seventh grade. I was sitting in the waiting room at a LensCrafters, waiting for my first pair of glasses to be made. (They made them in under an hour, remember that? Oh wait, I googled it, and they still do that!!) If I looked up, I could see through a glass partition how the lab technician was using a big machine to grind a lens. It was fascinating, but I barely looked at all, which I remember feeling was an unfortunate missed opportunity. But, what was happening on the page was too crazy for me to look away. 

This is why: in the second book in her series, the author Megan Whalen Turner repeats, almost exactly, a technique that she deployed in the first book, which was that the novel outwardly appears to be telling one story but, nearly at the end, reveals that it has been telling a radically different story the entire time. It’s an extensive exercise in anti-dramatic irony — every character in The Queen of Attolia is aware of at least several things that the reader is not. The book can be reread with an entirely different understanding of many things the characters do and say. What made it such an achievement, besides the way it was constructed, was also, like I said, that Whalen Turner was repeating almost exactly a thing she had done in the first book in the series, The Thief, but a) despite the repeat performance, I never noticed it was happening again until the big reveal (maybe just because I was a kid? but still!), and b) she upped the ante by a whole order of magnitude because in the first book, only one character knows something that all the rest and the reader don’t, whereas in the second book, it’s all of them hiding something from the reader. It’s such a skilled deployment of the technique that, had it not been reserved for a kids’ swords-and-sandals adventure novel, it would, without a doubt, have made the author an acclaimed writer of mysteries, or of that marketable kind of literary fiction that we have so much of nowadays that is, in its basics, mystery writing — like, those novels wherein some death or rape happened at a boarding school once, and all the characters are deliberately not talking about it — that kind of thing.

Instead, Whalen Turner is more of a cult figure. Not just because of how spellbinding, as they say, those first two books in the series are, but because she continued to write sequels, but very, very, very slowly, always promising, in sporadic interviews, that she knew how it would all conclude, that it was building toward something massive; it was like a George R.R. Martin situation that only I knew about.

The subsequent books become strained in several ways — to begin with, the publisher had to rebrand them, moving the series from the middle grade to the teen section, because as the characters aged, the themes became more adult, sliding from abstract romance into concrete relationships, a little bit like the books had become fanfiction of themselves. An unsettling penchant for physical violence in relationships, like slapping or throwing things or screaming, established itself in the third book, and was explicitly excused as a normal aspect of relationships by characters throughout the rest of the series, and truly I do not like it.

And there was a new sense of irony overlaid onto every book, which I can only think to describe as anti-anti-dramatic irony, because Whalen Turner continued to use the same exact anti-dramatic irony device in every book — as in, telling a story which withholds the true meaning of things from the reader and some of the characters — but because the reader is now in on the game, it becomes a situation where the reader knows that they don’t know something that some characters also don’t know, and so all along you’re trying to guess what it could be, to read between the lines. In some of the books in the series, it is much easier than others to guess the twist, and perhaps if you’re not already a fan, the twists become tired. But still, every few years, decade upon decade, the books continued to appear and to even win occasional awards, and one imagines that perhaps if one were reading one of the books out of the blue, without having read the previous ones, one would be surprised by the twist. Some of them were even marketed this way, and so if that is the case, perhaps that’s a whole other kind of achievement.

I am not sure how old I was when I read The Thief. I think maybe about 9 or 10? It came out in 1996 (the same year as A Game of Thrones). As I’ve explained, even given how voracious I became after the Goosebumps episode, it was one of the first novels I ever read. And I have always more or less kept tabs on when the next one is coming out. The third one I bought in college, at a Barnes and Noble near my dorm. The fourth and fifth I bought from the bookstores I worked at; two different bookstores in two different cities. Once I grew up, I of course began to expect that the series would never be complete, because so little in life ever is. But, still, maybe once or twice a year, I would google it, just to see, and I would find some sad post on a message board or a despondent goodreads review in which the writer was lamenting that it had been three, or four, or five years since the last book, that the publication date of the next one had been pushed back yet again. And I would think, “Of course, she has moved on to other things.” But still, I would engage in that odd mental game of imagining where I would be, how old I would be, would I still be alive? one could always die!, when I read the last one. 

Well, it’s been 24 years. I just read the final book. I finished it the night before last. Every other book in the series since the first two I read on the day they came out — I was that excited, I would block out some time. But I only remembered that this one, the sixth, was coming two days before its pub date, when my friend Amanda texted me about it (I had realized earlier in the year that it was coming, but then I forgot, as… other things distracted me), and it takes a longer time to order things now, so I didn’t have it in my hands anywhere near its release day. My boyfriend manages a bookstore; when he finally got it in stock, he bought it for me, and brought it to me, and I let it sit for a day, to “decontaminate,” though I’m not sure if that’s really a thing anymore, and then I let it sit for a few more days, and a few more after that. It wasn’t that I didn’t want it to be over; I think I’m mostly not that sentimental anymore. It was that I didn’t want this to be where I was when it ended. I mean, in 2020. As in, asking the question, Where will I be 24 years later, where would I read the end?, and getting the answer, Little girl, little reader, 24 years later you will be in 2020, MMXX, the plague year, which has always been there, exactly where it has always been. The end is written into the beginning. Only the reader doesn’t know. 

Because here’s the unsaid thing: the series The Queen’s Thief is about a coup. A slow moving, utterly glorified coup, for the betterment of the people, for the health of the nation. That’s what the thief is stealing. An empire. Obedience. And I felt uneasy, reading the last book. The end is written into the beginning. Exquisite, beautiful. The aesthetics of something new. The breeding field of conservatism. Not paying attention to how the lens was ground. The covers ripped by capitalism from the first books I read. I don’t know. I feel uneasy. Every day since the networks called the election, I feel more uneasy, not less. 

In the final chapter, told from a separate point of view than the rest of the final book, the king of kings meets with a stranger and asks if his wife really loves him, or if she was forced to by fate. The books are a romance, so this is an salient point on its own, it has its own stakes, but also, it’s important to know, their marriage was the lynchpin of the tyrant’s rise. So, did she have any choice? Or was it written into the story, from the beginning? (was it secret? or was it little?) The answer is not at all clear. The stranger seems confident in her assertion that the lovers were merely given a push in the right direction, but the storyteller, unsettlingly, reveals that the gods have put a knot in the thread of destiny, and that it will bleed. 

Stay safe,

Dana

@danasnitzky @endworldreview ig fb



1. “Of Course They Would” by Gerry Canavan, The Los Angeles Review of Books

Gerry Canavan reviews Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future, which Canavan characterizes as somewhat of a departure for Robinson, whom he calls a “we-can-win-the-argument, marketplace-of-ideas liberal at his core, at least up to now.” According to Canavan, in this latest novel, “Robinson, our culture’s last great utopian, hasn’t lost heart exactly — but he’s definitely getting deep down into the muck of things this time.”

The Ministry for the Future… is not an easy read, with none of the strategies of spatial or temporal distancing that make Mars or the Moon or the New York of 2140 feel like spaces of optimistic historical possibility; it’s a book that calls on us instead to imagine living through a revolution ourselves, as we are, in the here and now… 

… As the novel begins, they are failures, just as our own bureaucrats are failures; the changes that are being made are too piecemeal, too timid, too slow, and too toothless to actually address the real scale of the climate crisis, much less with sufficient speed and efficacy to keep our futures from being miserable. The novel’s first chapter lays out the real scope of this failure in truly visceral horrifying detail, depicting a brutal heat wave in India that kills 20,000,000 people in a single week… 

The Ministry for the Future…  [asks] a question that has typically been forbidden to ask in anything but deeply coded, allegorical, and sublimated terms: What if political violence has a role to play in saving the future? What if you actually can’t beat the bastards playing by their rules in the institutions they buy and sell?

If you truly claim to represent the people of the future, Frank asks [Mary, a representative of the Ministry for the Future, whom he has kidnapped] — people who have the exact same right to a livable planet that we do — doesn’t that mean you should be willing to kill in their defense? Not as a first choice, not as the only choice — but can you really take it off the table? “If your organization represents the people who will be born after us, well, that’s a heavy burden! It’s a real responsibility! You have to think like them! You have to do what they would do if they were here,” Frank argues. “I don’t think they would countenance murder,” retorts Mary, to which Frank replies, “Of course they would!”

2. “We Must Keep the Earth” by N. Scott Momaday, The Paris Review

An excerpt from N. Scott Momaday’s Earth Keeper: Reflections on the American Land.

The night the old man Dragonfly came to my grandfather’s house the moon was full. It rose like a great red planet above the black trees on the crooked creek. Then there came a flood of pewter light on the plain, and I could see the light ebb toward me like water, and I thought of rivers I had never seen, rising like ribbons of rain. And in the morning Dragonfly came from the house, his hair in braids and his face painted. He stood on a little mound of earth and faced east. Then he raised his arms and began to pray. His voice seemed to reach beyond itself, a long way on the land, and he prayed the sun up. The grasses glistened with dew, and a bird sang from the dawn. This happened a long time ago. I was not there. My father was there when he was a boy. He told me of it. And I was there.

3. “Seize and Resist” by Thea Riofrancos, The Baffler

Thea Riofrancos reviews Martín Arboleda’s Planetary Mine: Territories of Extraction under Late Capitalism.

Fragments of the planetary mine are everywhere you look. Given the provenance of materials for plumbing fixtures, electrical wiring, windows, and more, cityscapes are “inverted mines”: skyscrapers are not only built with mined materials; their construction was enabled by the lighting, ventilation, and elevators originally invented for underground extraction. The fragments are also present in the “nearly imperceptible practices and habits that . . . weave together the fabric of everyday life”; rare earths, lithium, cobalt, nickel, and copper are essential ingredients for myriad electronic devices. The planetary mine enables our romantic encounters and exercise routines—and the vastly expanded realms of state surveillance and labor discipline.

…Minerals feed the machines, and the machines extract yet more…. Arboleda’s account renders an industrial sublime, equal parts “frightening and awe-inspiring” that recalls the Victorian bestiary of Frankenstein monsters and vampires—albeit with a cyborg update, such as the robotized “megabulldozers” that can “operate in conditions of high altitude, zero visibility, and inclement weather.”

4. “Inferno” by Catherine Cho, Granta

An excerpt from Catherine Cho’s Inferno, a memoir of her affliction with postpartum psychosis.

According to Korean tradition, after a baby is born, mother and baby do not leave the house for the first twenty-one days. There are long cords of peppers and charcoal hung in the doorway to ward away guests and evil spirits. At the end of the twenty-one days, a prayer is given over white rice cakes. After 100 days, there is a large celebration, a celebration of survival, with pyramids of fruit and lengths of thread for long life.

When my son was born, I was reminded of this tradition daily by my family and by my in-laws, because we were breaking all the rules. I took a shower after birth, ignoring the week-long rule of no water on the mother’s body, and my first meal wasn’t the traditional seaweed soup, it was sushi. We opened our doors, let in guests, bundled my son in layers and took him on walks in the falling snow. And then we did a fateful thing: we left our home… 

We had avoided any evil spirits from California to Virginia, but perhaps we’d just been running away from them, because they found us at last at my in-laws’ house in New Jersey. My son was eight days shy of his 100-day celebration when I started to see devils in his eyes.

5. “Interview With Fanny Howe” by Fiona Alison Duncan, The White Review

Fiona Alison Duncan interviews Fanny Howe, whose most recent book is Night Philosophy. Writes Duncan: 

“Born in 1940 in Buffalo, New York, the poet and author grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, before moving an estimated thirty times in six decades… Howe’s books, all fifty (at least) of them, track these moves: as she suggests in this interview, place informs her writing ‘completely, like being dropped in water. It is the environment.’ With a majority of her books – published by independent and experimental presses – out of print, to be a reader of Fanny Howe is to be a seeker.”

The interview, as Duncan writes, is “at times aphoristic.” Some of Howe’s best lines are: “this world now is made for might and ownership”; “privilege is the guarantee of blindness to your own conformism”; and, an incredible one line answer to an interview question, “I only like to spend about two hours a day with people.” 

6. “Love, Ecgburg” by Mary Wellesley, The New York Review of Books

Mary Wellesley reviews Diane Watt’s Women, Writing and Religion in England and Beyond, 650-1100, which is “an excavation” of early medieval texts that “uncovers evidence of female patrons, sources, and authors by forensically examining” them for clues.

At some point between 776 and 786, an English nun in the Bavarian monastery of Heidenheim wrote four lines in a secret code in the space between the end of one Latin text and the beginning of another. She was the author of both—accounts of the lives of Saints Wynnebald and Willibald—but had left them anonymous, describing herself at the start of one as no more than an “indigna Saxonica” (“unworthy Saxon woman”). The code was deciphered only in 1931, by the scholar Bernard Bischoff. Decoded and translated from the Latin, the line reads, “I, a saxon nun named Hugeburc, composed this.” In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf observed that “Anon…was often a woman.”

7. “What Tecumseh Fought For” by Philip Deloria, The New Yorker

Philip Deloria reviews Peter Cozzens’s Tecumseh and the Prophet: The Shawnee Brothers Who Defied a Nation.

In 1811, the Shawnee leader Tecumseh… departed the Ohio Country and journeyed two thousand miles across the South, seeking to recruit tribes to a Native confederacy able to withstand the land hunger of the United States. The stakes could not have been higher: Tecumseh’s effort marked the last time Native peoples would be able to mobilize in concert with a formidable European military. His British allies—advancing their own geopolitics, to be sure—thought such a confederacy might buttress an Indian state, which, in turn, could serve as a barrier to American expansion. Today, one mountain, a few statues, eight towns, and several streets and schools bear Tecumseh’s name; a small collection of myths and fictions tell some version of his story. What he had hoped would be an Indian state, a consolidation of Native power, is now what Americans call the Midwest.

8. “A Romantic Jigsaw” by Cressida Connolly, Literary Review

I was thinking maybe I should try getting into Literary Review, and this review of Selena Hastings’s Sybille Bedford: An Appetite for Life is the first Literary Review article I ever opened. This is how it begins:

“Within the pages of this biography, I discovered that Sybille Bedford had an affair with the sister of my father’s first wife and another with the stepfather of my mother’s stepsister. You are likely to find the same, for in matters of the heart Bedford did not stint.”

I’m totally amazed, dazzled. What a magazine, that assumes its readers probably know someone who slept with Sybille Bedford. I would like to take on this assumption for The End of the World Review. Reader, I assume you also know someone who has slept with Sybille Bedford. This is now what I assume.

9. “Black-Robed Reactionaries” by Jedediah Purdy, Bookforum

Jedediah Purdy reviews Erwin Chemerinsky’s The Case Against the Supreme Court.

For most of American history, progressives have not loved the Supreme Court. Four years before the Civil War broke out, Chief Justice Roger Taney ruled that white settlers’ slaves were protected “property” under the Constitution—a status that would, in Taney’s view, forever prohibit African Americans from becoming citizens of the United States. In the early twentieth century, the court struck down minimum-wage laws and other protections for workers. The Fourteenth Amendment’s promise of “equal protection of the laws,” adopted in 1868, had no application to women until the 1970s. An interpretation of equal protection gave the country the pernicious “separate but equal” formula that upheld segregation in 1896. From abolitionists to labor reformers, critics have generally seen the court as a friend to those who own the country, not to the rest of us who merely live here.

10. “Four Stories” by Kevin Brockmeier, Bomb

Four wonderfully disturbing micro stories excerpted from Kevin Brockmeier’s The Ghost Variations: One Hundred Stories.

The night it occurred to him he was living inside a corpse—or, to be more precise, inside the bones of a hundred corpses: the trees that constituted the timbers of his house—was the same night he stopped sleeping. His daylight troubles were the same as everyone else’s: the bills that needed paying; the work that needed doing; the sicknesses that needed nursing. But his nighttime troubles emanated from a different place altogether, the far back marshland of his mind, dense with fevers and perseverations, offering up scenarios as fantastic as nightmares, yet conscious, waking. 

11. “I’ll Do What I Want” by Jake Levine and Soeun Seo, Asian American Writers’ Workshop

Jake Levine and Soeun Seo interview Kim Min Jeong, whose volume of poetry Beautiful and Useless they recently translated into English, alongside the poet Park Joon, in a discussion about Korean poetry. Says Kim Min Jeong: 

I didn’t study. I didn’t do something like a Ph.D. I didn’t learn inside the formal system. I gave all that up. So instead of all that, the accolades, the tenure, the academia, I had the freedom to say “Screw that stuff, I’ll do what I want.”

I mean, I didn’t want to educate people, show what I know, I didn’t care about being read. I wanted to express what I liked, things that turn me on. I thought about what makes me the happiest, when I’m having the most fun. I just focus on myself. I never said to readers, “Hey, look at my work!” I mean, who cares if anyone reads this shit.

12. “Don DeLillo’s Echo Chamber” by Leo Robson, New Statesman

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13. “Blank Screen” by Tess McNulty, The Point

Two reviews of Don DeLillo’s Silence, one decidedly con and one, I’m going to say, slightly pro, or perhaps neutral, both of which describe the book in more or less the same way, both referencing Beckett, both talking about the concept of “silence” in all his previous work, and I love that kind of the thing, the paradigm shift or whatever, it’s fun, though if I were Don DeLillo, I’d wonder what it meant that every review of a novel of mine referenced every other book I’d ever written, like they are ghosts in the attic or suckerfish on the flanks, and I would even be a little worried about it, I think. Can one be haunted by oneself? 

14. “How a Great Crime Writer Came to Imitate Himself” by Paul Franz, The Atlantic

We’re deconstructing a few different old white writers this week because this is the big season for publishing, just before the holidays, so they’ve saved up all their designated hitters (power, but not agility: big sales, but ambivalent reviews). DeLillo, Banville, and Robinson’s next. Here, Paul Franz reviews John Banville’s Snow

The danger of a work like Snow is that the copy might degrade the original. What is stunning suffers from being unmasked as a trick. At times, Snow feels like a room in which a harsh, overhead light has been suddenly switched on, revealing gold as gold paint, flaking. In fact, the earlier works are more than secure in themselves, but their—even highly competent—reproduction nonetheless prompts unease. From a writer of Banville’s magnificent talents, one might have hoped for more cunning ways of leaving the reader wanting more.

15. “Sure as Fate” by Sophie Haigney, The Baffler

Sophie Haigney does a really elegant breakdown of Marilynn Robinson’s Jack, the latest tale in her spiritually meandering Gilead collection.

If it is true that the prose in Jack has a more stifled quality than her other novels, it’s because we are inhabiting the mind of someone for whom there has never been very much joy in living in the world. You could read Jack’s despondency through the lens of Protestant penitence, and you would be right. But you could also look at it, as I did, through the lenses of addiction, poverty, and self-destruction. It is not pleasant to be within such a narrator’s mind, necessarily, nor should it be.

16. “Interview With Scholastique Mukasonga” by Julian Lucas, The White Review

Julian Lucas interviews Scholastique Mukasonga, whose most recently translated into English novel is Igifu

Becoming a social worker was without a doubt the only choice of my life. I believed that it would allow me to bring knowledge to those who had been excluded in the villages, to be their spokesperson with local authorities, and to extricate them from their marginalisation. Although I was unable to practise in Rwanda, in Burundi, I worked in rural areas with women who shared the same culture. In France, I fulfilled these same duties in a different context: to assert the rights of those at risk of being neglected, and to assist them in the improvement of their daily lives.

I’ve always said that being a social worker isn’t just about giving. One receives much in return. When I first took on the heavy burden of being a survivor, I found comfort in a profession that always lets me feel useful to others, and in feeling that society expected me to be near those most in need. It gave me the strength to find peace and to write down my painful story. Writing, to me, also means lending my pen to those with no access to literature.


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