On 1st April, I promised (absolutely no joke) that soon, soon I would be reviewing the rest of the shortlists for the Kitschies’ Red and Golden Tentacles for 2012. I had already begun with my review of Juli Zeh’s The Method back in February but there simply hadn’t been time to read everything else before the deadlines. Consequently, these reviews should not be seen as an exercise in determining after the event who should have won but the novels will be considered in the light of the awards’ rubric, namely that “The Kitschies […] reward the year’s most progressive, intelligent and entertaining works that contain elements of the speculative or fantastic.”
I want to think a little more about that rubric before I get down to critical business because I have to admit that when I was writing the Zeh review I had a certain amount of trouble with the idea. Intelligent – no problem; entertaining – well, The Method is not precisely a barrel of laughs, so I interpreted that as meaning ‘a satisfying read’, and in fact I find the satisfaction grows every time I think about the novel, so I think I got that right.
But “progressive”? It’s a term I associate primarily with US politics but in terms of fiction? The Method is an intensely political novel, and I had no problem reading it in those terms, not least because of its strong advocacy against state interference in matters of individual choice. At the same time, as I read the shortlists I found myself frequently asking ‘how is this progressive?’, only to realise that for some reason I’d automatically assumed that in this context “progressive” must mean “experimental” and refer to the way in which the novel was written rather than the subject matter. Which, given the fact that the novels I’ve read so far are fairly traditional in their construction, i.e. linear, was a little puzzling.
Having said that, “progressive” is a slippery term – to describe something as progressive is to suggest that it advocates change, improvement, reform, enlightened ideas, and so on, or alternatively, that being progressive is to be opposed to wanting to maintain the status quo. All of that could apply to form or content.
So, in part, as I work my way through these shortlisted novels, I’ll be thinking about what “progressive” might mean.
A Face Like Glass (Macmillan, 2012), shortlisted for the Kitschies’ Red Tentacle, is the first of Frances Hardinge’s novels that I’ve read; it was not love at first sight. Indeed, to begin with I was rather afraid it was turning into “Silas Marner, with cheese” or possibly, given the tunnels and the fact that Grandible the cheesemaker reminded me of Badger, “Wind in the Willows, with cheese”, hardly surprising given he uses “Face 41, the badger in Hibernation”, or even “The Waterbabies, with cheese”. None of these possibilities came to pass (mercifully, I have to say) but I was still uncertain as to why this novel was proving so difficult to get through, especially when there was so much about it which ought to delight me: subterranean world (perhaps a little too obviously called Caverna); the faux-Dickensiana (so sue me, but I do like that kind of thing); the urban, if not Gothic, fairytale flavour of the whole thing; a fascination with wordplay, particularly in the construction of cheese names; and of course, Neverfell, the heroine of this story, named for the vat of cheese into which she did indeed fall.
While I enjoyed Grandible’s initial travails, hunting the mysterious presence in the cheese tunnels, it is Neverfell’s first appearance, after being hauled unceremoniously from the vat of curds, which remains with me. “It didn’t answer, but sat quivering like a guilty blancmange and staring from under pale soupy eyelashes” (4). One could pause for a moment to ask oneself what a guilty blancmange might look like, but to pause is to begin to question, and to some extent this novel relies on the reader’s being constantly willing to hurry onto the next fresh wonder, rather like Neverfell herself, once she takes centre stage seven years later.
In a recent interview, Hardinge herself describes Neverfell as being like a “caffeinated squirrel”, rushing ever onwards to the next new thing. At the beginning of the novel Neverfell is described as having “made her mind into a scrapbook, busy filling it with the fragments, stories, rumours and reports she could scavenge from talking to the delivery boys […] and failing that the wild scribblings of her own imagination” (8). But set that alongside her living “in a quiet pragmatic terror of those rare times when her persistence or puppy-clumsiness pushed Master Grandible into true anger” (9). Only a few pages in I already found it difficult to believe that Neverfell was capable of doing anything quietly, and indeed I’d argue that to the end of the novel, the biggest problem she has, insofar as it is a problem, is that she cannot dissemble or conceal her inner thoughts; not just in terms of facial expressions, hence the “face like glass”, but on some deeper level, and nor can she hold back, at least not without a very conscious effort in doing so.
On the one hand, I wonder how it is that Neverfell has preserved her zest for life through seven years of comparative seclusion with a man who seems to be remarkably taciturn but who, unlike Silas Marner, has not been particularly softened by his adopted child’s enthusiasm for everything; on the other, as she clearly has survived intact, one begins to wonder if Neverfell doesn’t in fact fall into the category of child prodigy, despite Hardinge’s dismissal of prophecy as a driver in fiction. Yet it’s hard to get past Neverfell’s arrival in Caverna, or indeed her preservation for so long as anything other than an implicit prophecy of Caverna’s downfall, simply because of her physical presence as an Outsider in a place that has shut itself off from the world. Having said that, there is something almost painfully honest in Neverfall’s continual embracing of unsuitable but suitable family figures: Maxim Childersin, Madam Appeline, Zouelle, even while she has failed to recognise the understated but genuine regard in which the likes of Master Grandible and Erstwhile hold her. Of course that is also a well-known trope but here it seems to work, perhaps because Neverfell is so open, has so little experience with which to compare what she sees around her.
For the reader, at any rate for the older reader, much of what we see is only too familiar. There is a clear divide between the upstairs world of the artisans and the downstairs world of the drudges. Having withdrawn from the world, the artisans have transformed themselves into a craft aristocracy, reminiscent of the medieval guild system, with the peasant drudges firmly at the bottom of the pile, and the servants really not much better. Again the fairytale element comes into play as the servants and drudges finally rise up against their masters, with the cunning twist that their insurrection is the means to a rather different end, not a means in itself.
And yet, for all that the artisans might be considered to be doing a day’s work in creating wines, perfumes, cheeses, there is a sense that much of this work is a matter of vanity rather than genuine endeavour, given that most of it is intended for export to the outside world which they otherwise eschew, and that their withdrawal into Caverna was a purely economic decision to begin with. Indeed, for anyone who may retain a romantic idea of the guild system, preserving the rights of the trained worker, Caverna represents a parody of that idea: William Morris would despair though possibly not actively turn in his grave. One of the strengths of this novel is the way in which Hardinge highlights the insularity of Caverna, and the dangers this brings with it. It needs a Neverfell, blissfully unaware of the effect of her facial honesty, to bring down a world so controlled that everyone must learn facial expressions in order to survive, and where the naked truth is literally intolerable.
A major weakness, though, is that A Face Like Glass seems to be overloaded with plot (and detail as well; I felt they were often fighting with one another for supremacy, and frankly the detail, which I enjoyed more, seemed to be winning. Or maybe I just like novelty). I lost track of the number of times Neverfell was either kidnapped or on trial, or trying to escape. At one point I became briefly but completely lost as to exactly who had got her this time, and occasionally felt that capture was substituting for lack of other possibilities. I wonder too about what could be called Neverfell’s political awakening. It is both splendidly utopian and yet somehow unrealistic, or possibly I am too old, too sceptical, and frankly too cynical to fully buy into it, no matter how much I would like to. I couldn’t help thinking that the Kleptomancer’s subtle takeover of Caverna was rather more realistic, the sort of thing that is all too often concealed behind utopian irruptions.
I also found myself faintly uneasy yet rather taken with the response of the Outsiders who first meet the drudges of Caverna when they emerge. Of all things, I found myself wondering abut the faeryfolk in Hope Mirrlees’ Lud in the Mist: read “cheese” and “wine” for “fruit” and you might almost be seeing the other side of the equation in which the arrival of fruit brings with it chaos, much as its leaving Caverna is a matter of business for a society constrained by an overwhelming desire for conformity.
It’s difficult to sum up my feelings about A Face Like Glass. There were questions I had which were not answered, moments when I felt intensely irritated, other moments when I was barely hanging onto the story’s thread. At times the politics seemed naive. And yet, and I admit to being faintly annoyed by this at times, once I finally got into it, there was something oddly compelling about the story, most likely Neverfell’s very unpredictability. One could make a case for that being mapped into the storytelling itself though I think that would be to excuse the fact that the novel itself is mildly out of control: just because your protagonist is running wild this doesn’t necessarily mean that the narrative should as well. There was also a sense of richness which didn’t always sit well with my own more austere literary digestion. Playfulness sometimes teetered on the brink of tweeness, and sometimes fell over, especially in the choice of names. Having said that, I don’t recall us ever criticising Dickens for this. In the end, I have to settle for a qualified enjoyment of this novel, liking it in spite of myself
To read Tom Pollock’s interview with Frances Hardinge, go here