CategoryJensen Liz

Elsewhere: Unsung Female Writers and SF Masterworks

After this year’s male-dominated Booker longlist was announced, Naomi from The Writes of Woman got together a few other female book bloggers, who each suggested five female writers who they felt deserved more recognition (see parts one and two of the Unsung Female Writers series). Now, as a follow-up, Naomi has sought a male perspective: she asked me and Eric of Lonesome Reader for our suggestions. She also asked me to suggest a science fiction writer, as that’s not a field she knows much about. In the end, my entire list is SF-tinged to varying degrees – but you’ll have to read the post at Naomi’s blog to find out who I chose. Eric’s list is also well worth checking out.

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In another place, the SF fanzine Big Sky has marked Loncon 3 by putting together two special issues in celebration of the Gollancz SF Masterworks series. In issue 4, you’ll find reprints of my blog posts on Christopher Priest’s The Affirmation and The Prestige, and Colin Greenland’s Take Back Plenty.

Liz Jensen, The Uninvited (2012)

Liz Jensen’s The Rapture was one of my favourite reads a couple of years back; now she has returned with what could be seen very much as a companion piece. The Uninvited also sees a scientist investigating unusual human phenomena which turn out to herald apocalypse, and also shares a focus on the personal side of events.

Jensen’s protagonist this time around is Hesketh Lock, an anthropologist investigating corporate scandals. Hesketh’s latest assignment takes a bizarre turn when Sunny Chen, the whistle-blower from a Taiwanese timber company, throws himself into a pulping machine. That’s only the first of several similar incidents worldwide; at the same time, children begin to kill their families violently. Hesketh, a pattern-spotter by both profession and inclination, searches for a connection – even when his experiences lead him down a path that goes against all his rational instincts.

Again as with The Rapture, Jensen’s protagonist comes under pressure in the areas of life where he feels it most acutely. Hesketh’s ability to analyse and find patterns was where he felt most secure, and of course now that’s now being undermined by the apparently irrational crisis. However, he’s also feeling tested in the area of relationships: his Asperger’s Syndrome has made them difficult enough already, such that Hesketh has had to leave his partner Kaitlin. But at least he’s always felt that he knows how to communicate with his stepson Freddy – and this area of stability is now also being challenged.

Jensen handles the characterisation of Hesketh well. His personal quirks (such as a fascination with origami, and an instinctive knowledge of the Dulux colour chart) come across not as gimmicks but as anchor-points in his life (symbolically so when he folds origami models from the pages of a medical report that he’d rather not face). Hesketh is not characterised simply as someone who is great with data but inept with people – Jensen is subtler than that. The protagonist does have his difficulties with relating with people, but for the most part, he gets by. There are a couple of conversations where we realise (and Hesketh doesn’t) that he’s saying the wrong thing; but the effect is jarring – they stand out because they’re so infrequent.

The character who, for me, most brings home the emotional impact of The Uninvited’s catastrophe is not Hesketh, but his boss, Ashok Sharma. In some ways, Sharma is the opposite of Hesketh: he comes across as a smooth operator who knows what to say to everyone. But, when the plight affecting the world’s children knocks on Sharma’s door, he can’t stay that way, and becomes a deeper character. That two such different individuals as Hesketh and Sharma are so strongly affected is a way of showing just how far-reaching The Univited’s crisis is.

In its later sections, The Uninvited focuses more strongly on its disaster-novel aspect, and I don’t think it works quite so well – but I must acknowledge that this could just be because find the actual nature of what’s happening in Jensen’s novel is less interesting to me than exploring the characters’ reactions to it. The Uninvited seems to me to be less about human response to catastrophe than response to the threat of catastrophe, and the great emotional challenge that entails. The challenge for Hesketh Lock is to see how – or even if – he can deal with extreme emotional situations. What Jensen does so well in The Uninvited is to explore a global problem through the microcosm of one person’s life.

Elsewhere
Liz Jensen’s website
Arc Quarterly video interview with Jensen
Some other reviews of The Uninvited: Thirteen O’Clock; Curiosity Killed the Bookworm; Pamreader; Justine Jordan for The Guardian.

Liz Jensen, The Rapture (2009)

I read The Rapture in advance of this week’s TV Book Club; I had no particular expectations of it – and it turned out to be the best book I’ve read so far this year. Certainly, if I’d read it last year, it would have been on my list of favourites for 2009.

A few years in the future, the climate has changed for the worse, and the summer heat is unbearable; religious groups have sprung up, proclaiming that the end times are near. In a town on the south coast of England, psychotherapist Gabrielle Fox is treating Bethany Krall, the teenage daughter of a preacher. Bethany savagely murdered her own mother, and is now being held in a secure institution. She’s a difficult patient – Gabrielle being only the latest in a string of therapists who have tried to understand the girl – but it’s in Gabrielle’s interests to succeed in treating Bethany. A car accident left Gabrielle paralysed from the waist down; Bethany is her chance to prove that she’s still up to the job. What’s particularly unusual about Bethany is that she is apparently able to foresee natural disasters – and she has predicted that the end of the world will come in a matter of months.

The Rapture is narrated by Gabrielle in the first person; her voice is descriptive, measured, and rather cold – for example, she describes her father’s demise from Alzheimer’s in terms that betray no feeling of sadness or loss. She is not a protagonist one can warm to easily, yet Jensen makes her a compelling presence for all that. Gabrielle’s sparring with Bethany is fascinating to read; despite the girl’s violent tendencies and physical superiority over Gabrielle, one senses that Bethany’s greatest weapon is her articulacy. Gabrielle’s profession requires her to be alert to the nuances of language, but now she’s up against someone who knows how to play that game, knows what buttons to push. That’s why Gabrielle feels threatened by Bethany – because the girl can attack her in an aspect of life where she still felt secure.

Jensen’s keen observations don’t stop at the relationship between these two characters. Convinced that she’s never going to be in a relationship again, Gabrielle is unprepared for when she meets Frazer Melville, a physicist who falls for her. We see the complex tangle of emotions that Gabrielle is feeling when Frazer first acts romantically towards her: ‘I can’t handle it. It will kill me. It will kill my belief that I am no longer a woman. No, worse, it will revive the hope that I am, and then all that can happen is that it will be shredded. [p. 112]’ Even such a positive development is not without its dangers to Gabrielle’s sense of self.

Nor is Jensen’s acuity limited to relationships. When Gabrielle and Frazer discover that Bethany’s prediction of an earthquake was accurate, they have a crisis of conscience – having withheld their knowledge that this disaster would occur, doesn’t that make them complicit in the resulting deaths? But, if they had alerted someone, who’d have believed them? It’s not just that Jensen is examining here the issue of responsibility when one has privileged knowledge; there’s a sense of deep uncertainty over how to handle new kinds of knowledge – Gabrielle and Frazer now know things that others will find impossible to believe; they don’t know the right thing to do because there is, by definition, no precedent on which to draw.

So, I like very much the way that Jensen observes people in her novel; one of the most impressive things about The Rapture is the way that she highlights the personal, human responses against the background of grand catastrophe. What’s also impressive is that the novel works from so many directions, even when they might seem to be contradictory. As I’ve already described, it works well as a character study; in the second half, when the time comes for The Rapture to be a disaster thriller, it doesn’t disappoint there, either. Jensen ramps up the pace, and provides the necessary spectacle and borderline (im)plausibility, leading to an entirely apposite conclusion.

If there’s a weakness here, it’s exactly that – that the text sets itself free of plausibility in the name of storytelling. But that’s the nature of Jensen’s story: it’s what the novel needs at that point, and it’s done with enormous panache. The Rapture is a novel that appeals to the head and the heart, and doesn’t skimp on either. As I said at the start, it’s my favourite read of the year to date.

Further links
Liz Jensen’s website

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