Why I Am Not Sally Rooney
May feels like a quiet time for books, although my reading continues at the same throughout the year. According to a GQ survey, men only account for a fifth of literary fiction readers. In 2000 men wrote 61% of the top-selling hardbacks. Now it’s lower than 43%. Changing demographics, cultural diversity and female readers’ preferences for emotional stories over tales of POW camp escapes have altered the landscape.
Although I am less interested in reading about sisterhood, emotional healing and trans Gen Z problems, it doesn’t make me Jeremy Clarkson.
And the authors should demographically sign to the readership. A shrinking market is fine by me. I prefer to swim in a smaller pond anyway, and there are too many other good stories to be told.
Here’s what I’ve been reading this week.
John Brunner’s ‘The Society of Time’ is a reissue of his classic time travel tales. Best are a trilogy of connected stories set in a Spanish London after the Armada’s victory resulted in a Catholic Britain. The Society polices time travel to stop its abuse by miscreants, not always with success. There are two other stories in the volume, pleasant but negligible.
Brunner’s book brought me to ‘The Kingdoms’ from Natasha Pulley, all of whose innovative, baroque novels I’ve loved. She’s a time traveller too, believable in ‘The Watchmaker of Filigree Street’, fantastical in ‘The Bedlam Stacks’, and although her storytelling ability is as acute as ever, this time she lost me a little. I was fine with two time frames set around the Battle (won or lost) of Trafalgar, cool with being time-catapulted repeatedly via a Scottish lighthouse (new or ruined).
I was less enamoured of Joe, the amnesiac lead, who didn’t involve me as a character, especially as he’s dormant for the first half of the book. Shooting Galapagos tortoises to prove a tenet of time travel was a shark-jumper for me, but the keenness of Pulley’s prose will keep me returning. And the difficulties were probably all mine – I tend to overthink time travel and get horribly confused.
‘The Battle Of London: 1939-45’ is in expert hands with historian Jerry White, whose previous volumes have illuminated so much London’s past. The Blitz story is a familiar one, of course, but White’s deep dive into the details of Germany’s bombing campaign against the city pays dividends.
London’s front line services were prepared for intensive bombing attacks because they had trained during the ‘Phoney War’. Wardens were also able to react with celerity to bombings was because they were all born locally. They had all been to the same schools at different times and knew the family histories of everyone in the neighbourhood. Knowing who needed help and where they were likely to be saved many lives.
But the work was gruesome. They located one old friend under rubble who had been turned into a doormat by the bombardment. It calls to mind ‘The Quartermaster’s Stores’, with its lyric, ‘they scraped him off the tarmac like a dab of strawberry jam’. A general lack of hysteria and determination to get on helped enormously, although everyone agreed that the shelters were a scandal, along with the treatment of the newly homeless. As ever, the real problems came from red tape and council intransigence, not from those on the street.