These hot, hot afternoons create space for reading, when all thought of other work has melted away. Print allows for transports of creation that I don’t think any other medium depicts. When we read, imagination is set loose to recreate its own dimensions, filling in the gaps the words suggest.
Lately, the novels I’ve read are time travelogues and new tellings of ancient story from a feminist perspective, like Madeline Miller’s enchanting Circe. Or Pat Barker’s Silence of the Girls: the Trojan war seen through the eyes of Briseis as captured trophy. And Kate Atkinson’s fabulous companion set of lives relived, Life After Life and A God in Ruins. Brilliant recreations of past eras, written by women of well-deserved renown.
By comparison, men’s novels along the same theme feel like rehearsed tropes on well-trod ground. Kate Atkinson’s novels might parallel Paul Auster’s disappointingly ponderous 4321 in subject matter, but 4321 is no match in execution for this reader’s sheer joy in Atkinson’s vast enterprise. Another contrasting example might be Salmon Rushdie’s latest, Don Quichotte, though I’m judging it, unfairly, by Rushdie’s past writing and his piece in The New Yorker, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/07/29/the-little-king. A book I would recommend is Guy Gavriel Kay’s A Brightness Long Ago. Kay has created his own Renaissance Italy in vibrant detail, with figures and events almost recognizable but askew by several angles. A Brightness Long Ago is also a darkness in no “long ago” we know. Nonetheless, as straight ahistorical fiction, it is a reliably engaging read.
My favourite work in the genre of changing time is the provocatively imaginative and yet realistic novel of dream life, The Heavens, by Sandra Newman. An extraordinary exploration of alternative reality lived in several dimensions, exquisitely depicted. Spoiler alert: Google the dream heroine called Amelia (or Emilia) Bassano, I dare you, just as I chanced to. But be prepared for the shock, the delight, of discovering the first female poet published in English, and perhaps a famous muse. Tantalizing.
Want to pair The Heavens with a Canadian novel? I suggest Lauren B. Davis’s haunting The Grimoire of Kensington Market, set in a fantastical and yet recognizable Toronto. (In another conjunction several years ago, I’d read, by chance, Davis’s Against A Darkening Sky at the same time as Hild by Nicola Griffith. Both novels celebrate extraordinary heroines who find their own path in a dangerous world of changing politics and magic set in seventh century Britain.)
Mark Haddon’s new novel, The Porpoise, delves into the deep well of myth in his own way. The Porpoise too is a feminist fable, but somehow the masculine heroics are more realized in Haddon’s muscular prose than his less vivid dea ex machina, Diana of the hunt. You might read The Porpoise with some reluctance, if you have an aversion to wading through blood and gore— no matter how accurate and appropriate to the era described. It bewilders me that Haddon devotes much more attention to violence than to sex, though sexual acts (both illicit and marital) are at the core of The Porpoise. Is this predilection a male thing? I concede the matter of taste, in preferring less violence in the range of women’s writing above.
Like Sandra Newman’s brilliant The Heavens, Haddon slips back into Shakespearean London, jolting back and forth between mythic time and the present. Once the gruesome details have dissipated by the end of The Porpoise, its structure is clarified: ‘‘Time is repeating or rhyming, the girl arriving in the way she herself arrived, out of nowhere… It is a preposterous fantasy.” And an imaginative world that The Porpoise excels in fully creating. This novel is worth the slog through rough seas.
Why a plethora of books on time travel now, in what might be humanity’s end times? The slippages in time seem parallel to our own period, when daily news present us with radical shifts, “alternate facts” about climate change or politics. Do such books diminish or encourage calls to action? By recreating an imagined past that is gorier and/or more glorious than our present, are these books sheer escapism? How do we accommodate the worlds they describe into our daily life? Does the moment we return to gleam more brightly or does it dim in comparison? What heroics cross the mind barrier into real time, into action? Or do the novels remain a world apart in fantasy?
These books merge myth with wit so that their characters are full-bodied, complicated personalities who can’t be dismissed by a single epithet as Homer would. In this way, the characters relate to us who are living now. While reading, we share their consciousness and experience.
As for novels that travel into the future, I look forward with some trepidation to several dystopias: Margaret Atwood’s forthcoming The Testaments and Hazards of Time Travel by Joyce Carol Oates.
The books that collect at my bedside comment on one another, reflecting motifs and motives that I haven’t consciously chosen. Themes collect like iron filings. Like calls to like on my book shelf. Next up for me is Ali Smith’s Spring, which I’m surprised to read today, is about Pericles, the hero of The Porpoise. I shouldn’t be surprised. Time rhymes.
This poem was published in BARBARIC CULTURAL PRACTICE, Quattro Books.
Fifty Years On: Walking on the Moon in Moulay Ibrahim
We have landed they tell us
in the centre for all Morocco
of magic & the old ways
high in the Atlas mountains
We have heard this.
What we have not heard or seen
happens for the first time
today via the one TV in the one cafe:
Apollo astronauts land on the moon
& high-step in slow motion, gawky
in grey scale.
“Ha!” says Omar. “What a stunt.
Those Americans are so clever.
But we know. Moroccans
are not easily tricked. This
is a fiction to entertain the people.
He pretends to toss
a rock off the dusty floor at the screen.
The crowd in the cafe laugh
at the outlandish gear, the preposterous
instrument & helmet gimmicks
clumsier than any cartoon.
Still scoffing, the moon men jostle outside
& hidden in hooded dun djellabas
melt into the lunar dusk of their grey plateau.
Penn is a poet and playwright, author of 30 books of poems, drama and prose. See pennkemp.weebly.com.