CategoryRogers Jane

“The more you saw of a person the less you knew them”

Jane Rogers, Hitting Trees with Sticks (2012)

It’s no surprise to see “Winner of the 2012 Arthur C. Clarke Award” on the front cover of Jane Rogers’ first story collection – The Testament of Jessie Lamb is probably her best-known novel right now, and no doubt for many (including myself) it was an introduction to her work. So it seems worth asking as a way in, where do the stories of Hitting Trees with Sticks stand in relation to Jessie Lamb? Well, think of that novel as a tale about understanding – about a girl trying to explain herself to the parents who can’t understand the choice she wants to make. Understanding (or failure to understand) is a theme that also runs through this collection, and Rogers approaches it from many angles.

There are some adolescent protagonists in Hitting Trees with Sticks, but they don’t necessarily get Jessie Lamb’s chance to set their thoughts out. In ‘Sports Leader’, a boy who’s missed out on a place at college takes a job as a window cleaner – partly because it lets him nosy into other people’s houses. One senses that he means well at heart, but isn’t too worldly-wise; as a result, others may take advantage of him. The Sports Leadership course for which he still holds out becomes a symbol of the boy’s thwarted hopes and potential.

At least he still has a life ahead of him, though, unlike the title character of ‘Where Are You, Stevie?’ The story begins with a narrator, Amanda, expressing her current frustrations: Christmas is getting earlier, and why have they sent that young lout to work at the theatre, it’s not as if he’ll do anything… But she is brought up short when she learns that Stevie is dead. We then hear from Stevie’s grandmother, his girlfriend, and his neighbour, who each reveal more about him; we come to see how Stevie got into the situation he did, and that there was more to him than Amanda supposed. The presence of Stevie looms large even though he is fundamentally absent; he is understood by the reader as he could not have been by those in his life.

Elsewhere in the collection, Rogers’ characters are finding that they didn’t know as much as they thought, or try to hide knowledge from others. The narrator of ‘Kiss and Tell’ was on a writing retreat with a famous politician whom she at first thought obnoxious, though she eventually had cause to change her mind. ‘The Tale of a Naked Man’ sees a Ugandan man arrive home nude at 4am in a bush taxi and attempt to convince his wife that his story of being waylaid by bandits is true – but there’s no real way of knowing, as story piles upon story. In ‘Conception’, a mother is reluctant to tell her daughter what she and her partner were thinking when the girl was conception. ‘Morphogenesis’ presents Alan Turing as a man who apprehended the workings of the universe as had none before him, but was ultimately destroyed by a human world that refused to understand him.

The title story of Hitting Trees with Sticks is also its closing piece, and for me its most powerful. It is a first-person portrait of Celia Benson, an old woman with dementia. Rogers takes us inside a psyche which continually makes and remakes the world. Celia’s viewpoint makes sense to her, and the details that don’t fit are mistakes or absent-mindedness – the Meals on Wheels must be for some poor old dear, not her; and Celia has obviously just mislaid the shopping. But then the moment passes, and a new present is formed: Celia has lost the sense of continuity that would enable her to engage with the world – though of course, as far as she’s concerned, nothing is wrong. ‘Hitting Trees with Sticks’ is a harrowing piece of fiction, made all the more so by our knowledge that its protagonist cannot step out of the perspective we experience through her narration. As readers, we understand Celia all too well.

This book has been shortlisted for the 2013 Edge Hill Short Story Prize. Click here to read my other posts on the shortlist.

(Read some other reviews of Hitting Trees with Sticks: Shortly Speaking; Carys Bray for The Short Review; Carlotta Eden for Thresholds; Elizabeth Simner for For Books’ Sake.)

Clarke Award 2012: The Winner

The 2012 Arthur C. Clarke Award has been presented to… Jane Rogers for The Testament of Jessie Lamb.

That’s a nice result, I think. For a start, it’s the strongest novel on the shortlist (in my view). It’s good to see the Clarke go to a female author once again (for the second year running – the first time that’s happened since 1999); for it to go to a non-genre title (the first time in at least eight years); and for it to go to a book published by a small press.

Congratulations to Jane Rogers and Sandstone Press, and I look forward to following the Clarke Award again next year.

Clarke Award 2012: in review

The Guardian’s Robert McCrum recently expressed concern that literary awards were becoming more about gossip than about actual books. Whether or not he’s right about that, McCrum is certainly correct to highlight the value of awards in creating focal points for discussion. As I know first-hand, talking about and comparing a given set of books can be a tremendously stimulating and rewarding experience – but it helps if the books are worth discussing in the first place.

And, on that note, let’s turn to the shortlist for this year’s Arthur C. Clarke Award. This is the third year I’ve read the full Clarke list and, I have to say, it’s a dispiritingly bland selection this time around. Anyone looking for the cutting edge of UK science fiction publishing – or even just literary excellence – is not going to find it on this list. It frustrates me when I think of the eligible novels I’ve read which are better than any of the shortlisted titles; and the gems I haven’t read which must be out there.

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There’s usually one obviously weak candidate to be struck off the shortlist first; but this year I’m spoilt for choice, which is not a pleasant situation to be in. After due consideration, I think I’m going to hand the wooden spoon to The End Specialist by Drew Magary. This is a novel which fails on just about every level, right down to being a thriller that doesn’t thrill; it’s pedestrianly written, parochial when it purports not to be, ineffective as both a character study and an exploration of a world without ageing… I could go on, but the book really doesn’t deserve more words.

I could do with two wooden spoons, really, because there’s barely a difference in quality between the Magary and The Waters Rising by Sheri S. Tepper. This is the book which has been most comprehensively disliked by just about everyone I know who’s been reading the shortlist (see Maureen Kincaid Speller’s review, for instance). Leaving aside issues of its genre, the Tepper shares many of The End Specialist’s faults – weak writing, poor plotting, questionable morality – but I think its ideas are marginally more interesting. That’s the only reason The Waters Rising isn’t out of the balloon first.

Now on to Greg Bear’s Hull Zero Three, which, unlike the previous two novels, at least achieves a baseline level of competence. Bear’s mystery-thriller-space-opera is decently written, reasonably diverting – and, as far as I can see, has nothing to distinguish it from the many other competent-but-unremarkable science fiction novels out there. We’re now halfway through the shortlist, and we still haven’t come to a book which, in my eyes, has any claim to be on it.

I don’t really want Embassytown to win the Clarke; it’s nowhere near China Miéville’s best work, and – well, frankly, it’s the closest I have ever come to being bored by a Miéville book. I have to acknowledge that, compared to the three novels I’ve already covered, Embassytown is a much better written, constructed, and more ambitious work – indeed, it’s probably the most conceptually ambitious novel on the shortlist – but I think it’s ultimately too dry and abstract to be successful. Better Miéville than one of the previous three, yes – but, better still, one of the remaining two.

Rule 34 by Charles Stross has its flaws – its exposition is at times overdone; its police-procedural plot doesn’t quite cohere – but, of all the books on the shortlist, it is the one which feels most engaged with the present and the near future. The world it depicts is intriguing and compelling; the issues it raises demand serious consideration; and the prose, at its best, is snappy and sharp. This novel does the sorts of things that good science fiction should be doing.

That leaves The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers, which I think is a very well-realised study of its teenage protagonist and, in its own way, one of the more challenging shortlisted works. This may be the most successfully achieved of the novels on the list, but it’s also rather narrow in its focus. So it’s quite a fine line between this and the Stross, which trades a little polish for a broader scope; I’d be happy enough for either The Testament or Rule 34 to win. But the thing is that books like these two should really be the bread and butter of the Clarke shortlist, not its centrepiece.

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That’s what I’d like to win, but what may actually take the Clarke? Having been through the Fantasy Clarke panel at Eastercon, I have a better idea of the kinds of discussions which might have taken place between the judges, and I’m fairly sure that the Bear and Tepper are too generic to survive the judging process. The Magary may do (though I hope is doesn’t): there’s an energy to its telling that may – along with whatever the judges must perforce have seen in the novel that I don’t – carry it through. The Rogers may not last long in the judging (though I hope it does) – its narrow focus may prove the book’s undoing, depending on how the judges weight that against its craft. The Miéville will almost certainly be a contender, and is enough of an all-rounder that it might even win. The Stross is difficult to call, though I suspect it will survive in the judging process for quite some time, possibly to the very end. We’ll find out when the winner is announced on Wednesday.

Jane Rogers, The Testament of Jessie Lamb (2011)

They called it MDS – Maternal Death Syndrome. No one knew where it originated, but its effects were all too familiar: to lay waste to the brains of any women who became pregnant – with no possible exceptions, because everyone carries the disease. Jessie Lamb is a teenager living near Manchester; though her father is a fertility scientist, she has little care for the state of the world – as far as she’s concerned, this is just the way things are, and any problems are for adults to deal with.

But then, through a friend, Jessie gets involved in Youth For Independence (YOFI), a movement centred on the idea that young people must repair the damage to the world which adults have caused:

[…]maybe, if we could get enough people to join us, trying to create a different way of living on the planet, maybe that in itself would start to produce an answer to MDS. A solution we couldn’t even imagine yet. (p. 29)

There’s a touch of wishful thinking in Jessie’s thought process, here; and she soon leaves YOFI when the reality doesn’t match up to what she’d hoped. But there’s also a strong desire to do something to help; and, though none of the other protest groups which spring up in the wake of MDS is attractive to Jessie, she never loses that desire.

Jessie finally believes she has found the thing she can do when she hears about the Sleeping Beauties: girls who have volunteered to be placed into a coma so they can bring to term frozen embryos which can then receive a new vaccine against MDS (frozen embryos alone can be vaccinated because they don’t carry the disease). Jessie’s father is quite enthusiastic about the prospects of this programme initially, but soon changes his tune when his daughter declares her intention to volunteer – so much so that he holds her captive to stop her; that’s where we first meet Jessie, and where she’s writing the text we hold, which is her attempt to explain herself.

The whole world might be in the grip of an epidemic in The Testament of Jessie Lamb, but the focus is decidedly intimate. Jane Rogers seems to signal this near the near the beginning of the novel, when she has Jessie and her friend Sal imagine what would happen in a world without humans – the implication being that this playful speculation is as far as the book is going to go down that particular avenue. Likewise, though there’s social unrest in The Testament, it all takes place ‘off-stage’ or on TV news reports. This novel is about Jessie, her relationships, and the decision she wants to make.

The Testament of Jessie Lamb is a novel that challenges its readers to see things from its protagonist’s point of view. In the end, I can’t quite do this: I can see where Jessie is coming from – for her, it’s about having the power to do something that makes a difference, even if adults think that difference is too insignificant for the price that must be paid – and Rogers charts the course of Jessie’s thoughts clearly. But I still feel as though I’m viewing Jessie’s thought process as an outside observer, rather than truly inhabiting it. Be that as it may, The Testament is unforgiving in its treatment of hard consequences and decisions; it has the courage of its convictions and, for that, firmly deserves to be read.

This novel has been shortlisted for the 2012 Arthur C. Clarke Award. Click here to read my other posts about the Award.

Elsewhere
Jane Rogers’ website
The publisher, Sandstone Press
Booker Prize interview with Rogers
Some other reviews of The Testament of Jessie Lamb: Niall Harrison for Strange Horizons; Aishwarya Subramanian at Practically Marzipan; Richard Palmer at Solar Bridge; Sophie Playle for MouthLondon.

Arthur C. Clarke Award 2012: The Shortlist

For the second year running, I’ve predicted only a third of the Clarke Award shortlist. Here are this year’s contenders:

Greg Bear, Hull Zero Three (Gollancz)

Drew Magary, The End Specialist (Harper Voyager)

China Miéville, Embassytown (Macmillan)

Jane Rogers, The Testament of Jessie Lamb (Sandstone)

Charles Stross, Rule 34 (Orbit)

Sheri S. Tepper, The Waters Rising (Gollancz)

(The titles above will become review links as I work my way through the shortlist.)

It’s customary, on first seeing a shortlist, to rue the absence of certain titles – I’ll name Christopher Priest’s The Islanders as the big genre name I expected to be there; Naomi Wood’s The Godless Boys as the book I wanted to be shortlisted because I loved it; and Lavie Tidhar’s Osama as the talked-about genre title I was looking forward to reading – but what of the actual shortlisted books?

It’s no surprise to see China Miéville shortlisted for the Clarke when he has an eligible title, and Embassytown is his most unambiguously science-fictional work yet. It wouldn’t be much of a surprise if it won (which would give Miéville his fourth Clarke win), but I found Embassytown rather dry to read, and can’t see it as a sure-fire winner.

There are no other previous winners on this year’s shortlist, but Sheri S. Tepper has been nominated for the Clarke three times previously, in 1997, 1998,and most recently in 2009 for The Margarets. I tried to read that book at the time, but didn’t get along with it; The Waters Rising, though, is sequel to a novel I’ve long wanted to read – 1993’s A Plague of Angels – so we’ll see.

Greg Bear has been shortlisted twice previously, in 1987 and 2004. Like Tepper, I think of him as a writer whose heyday was in the 1980s and ‘90s; but the premise of Hull Zero Three – the voyage of a generation starship goes badly awry, and it falls to the survivors to work out what happened – sounds intriguing enough. I’m less sure that it sounds like the premise of an award-winning science fiction novel, though.

Charles Stross has received one previous Clarke nomination, in 2006. I’ve not read him before, but Rule 34 – a near-future thriller concerning an investigation into the murders of several spammers – has been well-received, and it is probably the book on the shortlist to which I’m looking forward to reading the most.

Jane Rogers’ The Testament of Jessie Lamb is this year’s non-genre contender. It was, of course, longlisted for the Booker last year, and has been rather well-liked in sf circles; however, I don’t know that what I’ve heard about it convinces me that it was the best mainstream-published sf novel of 2011. Still, I have been intending to read this book for ages, and now I will finally be doing so.

Which leaves Drew Magary’s The End Specialist as the least-known quantity on the shortlist for me. From my researches, I can tell you that it’s a debut novel, a thriller set in a future where a treatment has been developed to halt ageing, and there have been a range of reactions to the book. The synopsis wouldn’t move me to read The End Specialist, but if its Clarke nod means I’m introduced to an enjoyable book, that’ll be great.

I must own to being less excited about reading this year’s Clarke shortlist than I have been in the last couple of years. The Miéville is far from being its author’s best work. Bear and Tepper would not spring to my mind as authors who might be producing cutting-edge science fiction in 2012, though Stross probably would. The Magary doesn’t sound like anything special; and the Rogers, good though it may be (and strange though it seems to say about a book from such an obscure publisher), feels like the most obvious choice for a non-genre title.

My main sense at the moment is of wells untapped – I can’t help but wonder about the other debuts that were eligible, the other mainstream-published titles, the other books by established names. But I am always open to having my preconceptions overturned, and I very much hope that will happen with this year’s shortlist; there is a lot of overturning to be done.

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