Guardian Review | So Happy It Hurts by Anneliese Mackintosh

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Ottila McGregor has a new year resolution. She’s going to make herself happy – “so happy it hurts,” she tells her therapist, “SO FUCKING HAPPY IT REALLY FUCKING KILLS,” she writes to herself. At the moment, she’s just hurting herself, via a destructive relationship (an affair with her boss) and too much drink. That’s not too much drink in a Bridget Jones, fake-horrified, unit-totting sort of way. It’s too much drink in a sexting-your-manager-again, tweeting-that-you-want-to-die, having-your-stomach-pumped way. So Ottila is going to “turn everything around”, confiding the process to the “grief scrapbook” she’s assembling inside a vandalised copy of The Little Book of Happy. Ottila knows about grief scrapbooks: she works in a support centre for people with cancer and their families. What is she grieving for? Booze, of course – and other things, the things her drinking tried to chase away.

The Little Book of Happy doesn’t actually exist, but I assumed it was real until I checked: one of those small, square hardbacks where inspiring quotations nestle against platitudinous advice. So Happy It Hurts, on the other hand, is a pleasingly unfamiliar kind of book. Anneliese Mackintosh’s debut novel (a follow-up to the scabrous short-story sequence Any Other Mouth, many of the themes of which are revisited here) is told through Ottila’s diary entries, transcripts of therapy sessions, emails, Snapchats and receipts. It’s an epistolary novel for a hyperconnected world, and the effect is appropriately chaotic – the reader feels at first a little like a drunk turning out her pockets and trying to reconstruct another night of blackout from the detritus she’s accumulated.

Read the full review at the Guardian

Guardian Review | The Answers by Catherine Lacey

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As the computer Deep Thought pointed out in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, it’s no good spending seven and a half million years working on the answer if you don’t start with a good idea of what the question is. Lacey’s second novel, the follow-up to 2015’s Nobody Is Ever Missing, opens with a full-scale assault on readerly curiosity: a female narrator wakes up in her own bed and then locks eyes, shockingly, with a woman called Ashley who is outside her window, staring in. The who, what and why are a powerful incentive to drive through the pages. But for the characters in The Answers, the thing they are looking for is always being deferred or displaced.

Read the full review at the Guardian

Guardian Review | Death of a She Devil by Fay Weldon

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There are two parts to Fay Weldon’s reputation: first that she is a feminist writer, and second that she is a very funny one. The “funny” is earned, the “feminist” less so, and Death of a She Devil is a credit to neither. When Weldon introduced Ruth Patchett in The Life and Loves of a She Devil, 34 years ago, she created one of literature’s greatest monsters. Deserted by callous husband Bobbo for the simpering romance novelist Mary Fisher, ugly doormat Ruth remakes herself as the She Devil and has her revenge on the adulterers. Her punisher’s progress takes her through every circle of society, from underclass to judiciary, from family to clergy, until finally she is surgically transformed into “an impossible male fantasy made flesh” – even losing six inches of leg to become desirably petite. At the close of the book, with Bobbo broken and Mary dead, Ruth’s triumph is complete.

Read the full review at the Guardian

Guardian Review | The Possessions by Sara Flannery Murphy

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Some opening lines are so good, you worry that what comes after will disappoint. This is how The Possessions starts: “The first time I meet Patrick Braddock, I’m wearing his wife’s lipstick.” It’s a perfect mystery in miniature. Who is Patrick? Who is speaking? Why is she wearing another woman’s lipstick? Is it all as sleazy as it sounds? The answer to that last question is yes, but not in the way you’d expect, as Sara Flannery Murphy unspools a creepingly clever ghost story that encompasses thriller, horror and literary fiction with seductive swagger.

Our narrator is Edie, short for Eurydice. She is an employee of the Elysian Society, which is a kind of bordello for mediums. The Possessions’ universe is, fundamentally, our universe, with one tweak: the spirits of the dead persist and can be channelled, with the help of a pill called “lotus”. The class of professionals who do this work are referred to as “bodies”, and all of them seem to be on the run from their own identities, lending their physical selves to roaming souls at least in part for the temporary relief of vacancy.

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Guardian Review | History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund

The coming-of-age novel can be almost as painful as actually coming of age. It’s a genre that demands a tricky combination of narrative knowingness and character naivety, while recruiting the reader’s sympathies for one of God’s least sympathetic creations: the teenager. Even so, many novelists choose it for their debut, and last year offered two examples that exemplified both the successes and frustrations of the form. Emma Cline’s The Girls was a woozy hormonal fug that found the horror in the thrill of growing up; Tiffany McDaniels’ The Summer that Melted Everything smothered its story’s gothic potential in stentorian hindsight.

Emily Fridlund’s debut falls between the two. Teenage narrator Linda gets called “commie” and “freak” by her schoolmates, and it’s small wonder that she doesn’t fit in when her background has precision-tooled her for oddness. Raised by parents who are the last vestiges of a failed cult, she lives a semi-wilderness life in a cabin at the edge of a lake, on the fringe of a northern Minnesota forest. Uncomfortable in the world, she spreads discomfort about her: “I was flat-chested, plain as a bannister. I made people feel judged.”

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Guardian Review | Private Citizens by Tony Tulathimutte

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The unwanted declaration of love. The friend who decides to honestly reveal what they always thought of your baby’s nose. Sometimes it only takes one line to kill a relationship. For some reason, the publisher of Private Citizens invites us on the flyleaf to “Call it … Middlemarch for millennials”. And what could have been a pleasant encounter between reader and slab of near-contemporary realism is suddenly dead, murdered by incompatible expectations. Every page of this debut is haunted by the unflattering question: “Is this what a Middlemarch for millennials would do?”

In the pro column: it’s on the long side, with liberal use of free indirect discourse, some philosophical digressions, and erudite quotes to head up each chapter (one of which is taken from Middlemarch, suggesting that the comparison has not been imposed unbidden). It’s also set around a critical moment in technology from recent history, with the burgeoning internet of 2007-8 in place of the railways bearing down on Middlemarch. In the con column: this is not a study of life in a provincial town, because it’s set in San Francisco; and it doesn’t have the roaming, rangy sympathies of Eliot. Where Middlemarch achieved understanding for even its most flawed characters, no one in Private Citizens rises above the level of detestable.

Read the full review at the Guardian

Guardian Review | The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan

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Hell is underwater in Kirsty Logan’s debut novel. The most electrifying parts of this damp pilgrimage are when Logan takes us beneath the surface, into the sea, diving back down into the world that was our own. The Gracekeepers is set at an unspecified point in the future, but far enough away for rising waters to have swallowed the soil and for landed life to have taken on the element of myth. I might as well get this comparison out of the way early: yes, it is a little bit like Kevin Costner’s Waterworld, but it is Waterworld via Marina Warner.

Read the rest at the Guardian

A note on a correction

Yesterday the Guardian published a piece I wrote criticising SlutWalk London’s decision to issue a statement opposing the extradition of Julian Assange. It was explicitly not intended to rehash the legal issues; nevertheless, anything mentioning Assange tends to bring out the amateur lawyer in everyone. The piece originally contained this phrase:

rape charges in Sweden

At some point yesterday, this was amended to:

rape allegations in Sweden

A correction note was added, saying that Assange has not been charged. Had I been able to revise the text myself at this stage, my preferred formulation would have been neither of these, but instead this:

rape allegations in Sweden (allegations that the England and Wales High Court has said “there can be no doubt” he would have been charged with already in the UK)

I very much regret not including the quote from the High Court judgement in the piece, because as it stands, it does not accurately reflect the progression of the case.

Through multiple appeals, the allegations against Assange have been found to be serious and substantial enough to support extradition. To say “there are no charges”, as Assange supporters repeatedly do, is a strict translation of Swedish legal terms that misrepresents the nature of the case to anyone whose understanding of the law is based on the England and Wales system.

Those who know what they think about the Assange case are unlikely to be swayed by any commentators at this stage – which is why it’s so extraordinary that SlutWalk London chose to take sides on such a poisonous issue. However, I’m sorry that my piece has now contributed to that misrepresentation.

[The Guardian] Do It Yourself And Save

Look at that! A couple of spiffy little guides to household self-sufficiency that will save you a tidy few pennies. And I’m a contributor, offering some indispensable guidance on the contents of your repairs kit. Go on, treat yourself to a nice crisp Guardian/Observer double at the weekend. They’ll have probably paid for themselves within seven days if you follow all their frugal advice.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2010; image © The Guardian.

Running rings round Carter-Ruck

rusbridger statusDid the Guardian game Trafigura and Carter-Ruck? Because if they did – and did it with the assistance of one MP, a clutch of bloggers, and Twitterers of every political conviction – then they did it brilliantly.

Pretty much all of the information that Carter-Ruck sought to smother is now better known than it ever would have been from a normal below-the-fold Guardian front page story. The injunction on mentioning the parliamentary question on the Minton Report has been lifted, and gagging orders have gone from being a  pernicious journalistic niggle to a lead item. It has given the Guardian a compelling unfolding story, attracted virtually universal positive coverage for the paper, and opened the way for a widely-supported campaign against abuses of the legal system.

Jack of Kent says of the initial report of the case in the Guardian, “I thought it a carefully worded article, almost like a crossword clue.” In other words, anyone who had the interest and the inclination could match the information in the parliamentary record with the information provided by the Guardian, and work out which question they weren’t allowed to report on. Plenty figured it out, and by the time I caught up with the story, Richard Wilson (like several other bloggers) had published the question on his own blog.

The question came from Paul Farrelly – who is, I learnt via Aaronovitch Watch, a former Observer employee. The Legal News column in the most recent Private Eye mentions that “one MP hopes to break the conspiracy of silence, under parliamentary privilege, when the Commons reassembles.” If that “one MP” is Farrelly, then he probably figured beforehand (maybe in concert with his former colleagues, and maybe not) that a gag could be just as productive as a publishable answer in exposing Trafigura and Carter-Ruck.

From the time the Guardian published its first non-coverage of the parliamentary question on its website, the paper played the whole thing perfectly. Editor Alan Rusbridger was active on Twitter, along with most other Guardian hacks, following the hashtag activity and encouraging supporters to tweet and retweet on the names and links that made the story.

Was it the Twitter wot won it? It’s impossible to know how the case would have  been decided without a tweet campaign, and perhaps the original injunction would have been overturned on appeal anyway. Still, it seems likely that the presence of #trafigura and #carter-ruck in Twitter’s trending topics would have been taken as evidence that the injunction was both useless and counter-productive. Print media brought the information and supplied the authority to stand it up; social media ensured that the coverage didn’t freeze in legal chill.

Trafigura and Carter-Ruck are the perfect opposition for a cause like this, because they’re easy to pick out as villains and there’s little collateral damage. If similar activity lead to, say, the widespread revelation of Maxine Carr’s new identity or the naming of defendants in a case of child abuse with living victims, I’d think the outcome much less peachy. But the UK legal system is currently being gamed into submission by organisations who don’t just have something to hide, but also want to hide that they’re hiding anything. This time, the Guardian outplayed them.

** EDIT Updated at 23:41, 13 October to clarify status of injunction on Minton Report. **

** Update 19 October 2009 ** The Guardian’s investigations editor, David Leigh, has tweeted a link to this post, describing it as “interesting” – which I’m hoping can be taken to mean “not hideously wrong”.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009