The Emperor’s Riddle

Last night I raced through the final chapters of THE EMPEROR’S RIDDLE by Kat Zhang, a rollicking treasure hunt and rescue mission in which eleven-year-old Mia, reluctantly dragged on a summer holiday from the US to her family’s hometown of Fuzhou, goes in search of lost riches said to be hidden by Ming dynasty emperor Zhu Yunwen–a search which she believes will also save her missing aunt.

The book has a slow start but really takes off after the first few chapters. There is a wonderful interweaving of riddle-solving with real historical and cultural sites around Fuzhou, and a clever interdependence between the treasure hunt and Mia’s family dynamics. The adventure is launched because of Mia’s singular trust in her aunt (who co-parents with her mother); the enterprise tests the endurance of her sometimes troubled bonds with her cooler older brother and her harried, practical mother; and success is only possible in part because Mia overcomes her natural reticence to build bridges with her “stranger-uncle” in China.

Somewhat irritatingly, I had to order it online (an indie bookstore in Cardiff said they couldn’t even order it in–and it’s hardly an old book, published in 2017). Obviously I’m far from the first to observe that Anglosphere children’s publishing and bookselling is far more eager to promote books about non-humans than it is about non-white/non-western characters and settings; and that the exceptions are often Books About Issues. Those very much have their place, but one does wince at the idea of implicitly teaching children that there are Fun Whites (boy wizards! girl pirates!) and Worthy Others. Given that, part of what is refreshing about this book is its both gentle and informed use of elements such as a diasporic family’s homecoming and the Chinese Cultural Revolution (which has a major impact on Mia’s aunt’s past) in what is first and foremost a very enjoyable adventure story.

If I had one criticism: the gloomy villain is a bit of a flat plot device. That said, the book already has so much on its plate that to give him more psychological depth might have needlessly complicated matters. It was fun. I think kids would like it.

You were all right

Despite some earlier ambivalence toward Elena Ferrante, I finally took the billion and a half recommendations to read the Neapolitan novels, and have just stumbled, reeling, off the exhilarating ride that is MY BRILLIANT FRIEND. I will need to get onto the other three books pronto, and I’m sure I will have many more thoughts when I’m done. But I wanted to pause for a remark occasioned by the comparison by John Freeman included among the praise quotes in my copy: “Imagine if Jane Austen got angry.” In fact the parallel that struck me more forcefully, if one really must insist on grounding everything in analogies to works by Anglo authors (note: one need not), is “Imagine if A.S. Byatt weren’t so snobby.” I couldn’t help recalling, as I ate this book up, that other gorgeous, labyrinthine quartet on gender, literature, domesticity, sexuality, tradition and violence–the Frederica Potter books.

Both first volumes begin in the 1950s (with the first appearance of television in the neighbourhood an event of some interest); both trace in sumptuous detail and with great psychological penetration the divergent lives of young people in a close-knit neighbourhood; both centre on young women’s intellectual ambitions and the threats that thwart them; both are rigorously critical but humanistic at heart; and both climax in weddings with varying elements of farce, and, in Ferrante’s case, horror. From what I’ve read so far, Ferrante is a more consistent and disciplined writer–sticking to comparisons between the first volumes for now (avoiding the painful subject of A WHISTLING WOMAN), though I love Byatt in an almost foundational way, I have to admit that the Marcus Potter subplot in THE VIRGIN IN THE GARDEN is not always entirely readable. Ferrante is also, and powerfully, much more attuned to matters of class. While Byatt sometimes gestures in this direction, it’s not really a matter of interest in the Potter books for her as much as it is in THE CHILDREN’S BOOK.

It is hard to overstate the significance of this comparison for me. The Frederica Potter books are, not to put too fine a point on it, like some kind of personal religion. It was on closing the pages of STILL LIFE that I knew I would write A CERTAIN EXPOSURE. I am enormously excited about what the rest of this series is going to do to my head.

Growing Up in an Unequal Society

So you’ve read Teo You Yenn’s book, but have you seen the movie? I’m so excited to have drawn and animated this–an illustrated version of “Growing Up In An Unequal Society”, the talk she gave for the Singapore Children’s Society lecture in September. It was an absolute delight and honour to work on such rich and important material. Please watch and share.

Small Worlds: Northern Lights

I’m in the middle of revisiting His Dark Materials, which I absolutely adored when I first read it. This time around, having just finished NORTHERN LIGHTS, I continue to be awed by its imaginative grandeur and its daring, as well as its willingness to inject a kind of wildness and philosophy which is striking to find in a series of children’s books.

But it is impossible for me now not to notice how little time Pullman has for women.

For sure, there are key female characters, notably, of course Lyra. And they are compelling, though still half in the clutches of stereotype: it is rather wearying how Mrs Coulter’s villainy, contemptibility and femininity are all represented as pretty much the same thing. Ma Costa is a powerful presence but—as you might guess from her name—her main role is simply to be maternal. Even Serafina Pekkala can’t quite escape lavish attention to her physical beauty and how much witches love men.

My main complaint, though, isn’t about how the women and girls in the book are portrayed, so much as how needlessly all-male settings recur with dismaying regularity. Why does Jordan College have to be so wholly uncritically portrayed as excluding women? Why (except in the sex-segregated Bolvangar) must all of Lyra’s child friends be boys? Why, among the armoured bears, does “bear” mean male bear, with “she-bear” marking the (silent, passive) exception?

This dynamic undermines the portrayal even the important female characters, whose male daemons get approximately a billion times more airtime than any of the female daemons of the male humans. Contrast the enormous attention given to Mrs Coulter’s golden monkey, the vast amount of dialogue and acts of significance given to Serafina Pekkala’s grey goose, compared to the dumb animal presence of Lord Asriel’s snow leopard or Lee Scoresby’s hare.

The most frustrating example of all, for me, is when the gyptians discuss their rescue mission to the North. A woman in the meeting actually raises an objection to the intention to exclude women, and offers suggestions of how women might be useful (even assuming a firmly gendered division of labour). John Faa says he’ll consider it, and in the next chapter we learn merely that he has decided against, with no real justification. One can’t help but think this represents Pullman’s own approach: noticing that his own book was sexist, giving it about two seconds’ thought, and then shrugging and getting on with (male) things. It lends a strange and arbitrary smallness to a work which is otherwise so vast in its ambitions and achievements.

Patrick Melrose on TV

I hadn’t been sure if I’d wanted to see the Patrick Melrose TV adaptation. There is a permanent place in my heart for the Edward St Aubyn novels, but the marketing around the series suggested a kind of glitzy “Crazy Rich Britons”, playing up Benedict Cumberbatch as a kind of hard-partying squirearchy playboy. Certainly something must be very wrong with anyone who can read these books – which are first and foremost profound studies of cruelty and kindness – and see primarily glamour. But I ended up watching the show on a flight anyway.

I suppose the whole “playboy” tack must have been a bait-and-switch marketing ploy, as was, I imagine, the decision to swap the order of ‘Bad News’ and ‘Never Mind’, thereby maximising Cumberbatch (and drug use) screen time in the first episode. But it turned out overall a competent and faithful retelling, with for me some surprising (in a good way) portrayals of David and Eleanor Melrose, as well as a delightfully horrible Nicholas Pratt, played to utter perfection, particularly in ‘At Last’. And – okay, yes, it’s true – Cumberbatch does Patrick Melrose well.

Ultimately I don’t know that it adds anything to put it on screen rather than on the page, where some of the startling beauty of St Aubyn’s language is naturally lost; and no doubt the impact of some of the best lines of dialogue were lost on me from having pored over the books (especially the ‘Some Hope’ three) far too many times. The nature of the cruelties inflicted by the Melroses senior was also, perhaps unavoidably, slightly flattened by the need for television-friendly storytelling. But the fundamentals of this series are of such power that I have to be glad it exists in another format, to reach a wider audience.

AHIMSA by Supriya Kelkar

Over the course of several weeks, I read AHIMSA by Supriya Kelkar to the kiddo. It follows the adventures of Anjali, a ten-year-old girl in 1940s India. When Anjali’s mother joins Gandhi’s freedom movement, her entire family’s lives are changed.

The plot is enormously satisfying, and roams over complex social territory – not just colonialism, but class and caste injustice, and Hindu-Muslim communal tensions – in a very accessible, organic and humane way, through the ordinary interactions between family members, neighbours, classmates and other members of the community. It is idealistic but not (I think) pat.

The characters are immediate and alive. Even the least sympathetic figures, whom one might be tempted to caricature – the racist British colonial officer, the crotchety and prejudiced old uncle, the Pretty Mean Girl rival – have the opportunity to surprise the reader. I particularly enjoyed Mohan, the Dalit boy who combines hard-bitten cynicism with a sort of impossible romantic streak; who is both (justly) exasperated and yet not unmoved by Anjali’s sometimes-clueless upper-caste idealism.

Kelkar, a screenwriter by background, produces fine dialogue and often has very vivid and lively visual staging for each scene (though this occasionally expresses itself in what feels to me like a slightly workmanlike excess of long gerund phrases).

Would especially recommend for kids, but it’s a pretty good read for adults too.