Silence Once Begun (2014) – Jesse BALL

I think we all know that I’m a sucker for any book about Japan/set in Japan/written by Japan. And since early reviews for Jesse Ball’s Silence Once Begun were positive, I thought I’d check it out for myself.

Jesse Ball, an investigative journalist, has come to Japan to solve a mystery. He has heard a story, and he wants to solve it. In the 70s, a man named Oda Sotatsu turned himself into the police, confessing to a crime. What is interesting, though, is that he only did this because he lost a card game. And once he confessed, he remained silent until he was executed. As Ball trawls through the evidence presented to him 40 years later, he finds himself trapped in a web of deceit and lies.

Silence Once Begun is dedicated to K. Abe and S. Endo, and it’s easy to see why. Both Abe and Endo are major Japanese writers, dealing with themes of existential isolation in a post-war Japan, and though that’s not quite what’s going on here, you can delineate the through-line that led Ball to this place. Particularly in the first half, there is a vague sense of unease and oppression—even though the events of the crime took place almost thirty years earlier, none of the affected parties are willing to talk to Ball about it, and when they do, they all seem to contradict each other. Nowhere more has the spawn of the marriage of crime fiction and postmodernism—the unreliable narrator—been more present. And yet, when the key player in the events surrounding the Narito Disappearances himself is dead, perhaps that is all that can be done.

When I read The Cuckoo’s Calling earlier this year, I was struck by how formulaic the formal structure—Strike goes to each person, interviews them, takes notes, and thinks. Perhaps this is simply a result of the genre, but while Rowling seems constrained by this, Ball gets around it by actively drawing our attention to the (un)natural structure of his piece—though this is a novel, it is masquerading as a piece of true crime, so it would make sense for it to look like this.

There’s a weird tension in this novel that I am still trying to wrap my head around. So often in Silence Once Begun, the setting seems irrelevant to the story—despite the general Abe-esque tone of the novel, the fact that this is the story of an American journalist coming to find a story in Japan is rarely touched. Which is a shame, because the novel is set in Sakai, a dirty part of Osaka that is beautiful in its ugliness (I’m allowed to say that—I used to live there). This is particularly apt, since much of the action takes place in the 70s, a time when Japan was still moving fast towards becoming the modern behemoth it is today; and like all developing countries, it was leaving lots of people behind, a fact that opens up narrative possibilities like no other.

And yet, so much of the final act twist revolves around some very particular specificities of the Japanese legal system, including the fact that confessions carry an almost disproportionate weight in trials. It’s like Ball wants us, for long tracts, to ignore the fact that this is a white man telling a story of Asian people—until the very end. I’m struggling to think of another novel that ignores its unusual setting with such abandon for so long, only to make it important for the dénouement.

Silence Once Begun is a short, arresting read. Reading certain passages, you could easily believe this is a lost Abe novel, trying to come to terms with an increasingly isolated world in which we live, where each person’s lived experiences are seen to be as valid as every other’s.

(Unrelated to anything—the cover for this novel only reminds me that any novel about Japan is allowed to have no colours on its cover other than white, red and black.)

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Happy Valley (1939) – Patrick WHITE

I’m a little late to the party, but two years ago, Text Publishing managed to wrestle the publishing rights for Patrick White’s first novel, Happy Valley, out of his cold dead hands. For the first time in many decades, all of his oeuvre is in print. But so much secondary work has sprung up around White since then—what does rereading his first novel achieve that reading his later, more famous work, doesn’t?

Happy Valley is a small town nestled in the Snowy Mountains of Australia. There, people go about their daily lives, like millions of others around the world. Like those others, they have hopes and dreams that will take them far away from the tight-knit community that stifles them. But life is not always pleasant for dreamers, and the realities of the harsh life of country living

The opening sequence of the novel—a beautiful piece in which a bird flies over the town—sets the tone for the rest of the novel—as the eagle soars above Happy Valley catching glimpses of its inhabitants, so too do we as readers get taken on a tour of the lives of these people trying to survive. There is a fine line to balance when writing novels constructed around various threads: too similar, and they all blur; too disparate, and the work feels disjointed and unstable. White manages to keep his threads mostly under control, as the camera swings around the town to focus, one at a time, on his cast of characters.

Though there is no one character that stands as a perfect surrogate for White himself, it is clear this his own frustrations with a small-town mentality manifest themselves in the hopes and dreams of almost every character. Each is trapped in their own responsibilities, unable to find any way to escape their own special prison. This feeling of oppression is helped by ensuring the action takes place in the two most oppressive seasons: winter and summer. The Australian summer’s heat is well-documented in art, but the cold and isolation of a winter in the Southern Highlands is perhaps less well known.

It is all too easy to see what you want to see in Happy Valley, particularly if you are aware of the legacy that would eventually make Patrick White famous: the ability to evoke Australia’s landscape (that would set the course for almost all modern Australian literature); the desire to explore what it means to be an outsider in Australian society; as well as a playfulness in structure, which allows him to both confuse and amaze the reader in equal measure. It is also perhaps the least complex White I have read, making it a perfect jumping-on point for anyone wanting to discover one of Australia’s greatest authors.

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The Son (2014) – Philipp MEYER

Better people than me have tackled this book in better pieces, and there is no way I can get through the complexity of this novel in 500 words. As such, I’ve chosen to pull out a few themes that resonated with me, and go from there.

About halfway through The Son, Peter’s Mexican mistress, María, turns to him and says: “You think that talking about this will allow me to forgive you. Telling you changes nothing.” I wonder if Meyer believes this, because this book does an excellent job of talking about it—where it is the history of Texas. Just as The Secret River eviscerated Australian history for all of us here, The Son lays bare the sins of the history of Texas for all to see. Meyer doesn’t do it to seek forgiveness, but to remind us of the sins upon which Texas is built.

Each of the main characters—Eli, Peter and Jeannie—are alive in a time of great change. Eli is alive to see the near-genocide of the Native American tribes that, for so long, managed and controlled the lands; Peter, to see the lengths white Americans will go to in order to maintain their control; and Jeannie, to see the complete modernisation of the Texan economy, from farming to oil.

This is a novel about white privilege, and how that creates power imbalances. Though the three main characters are each, in their own way, outsiders—Eli was brought up by the Comanche; Peter is a pacifist with liberal tendencies; and Jeannie is a woman—again and again, we are reminded that, in the face of true discrimination, this is irrelevant. They are allowed to be in these positions because they are part of a rich, white family. They are part of the movement that obliterated the Native American population first, and then drove out the Mexicans. And I don’t think Meyer sees this changing any time soon—the sting in the tail of this novel is the few chapters from a fourth point-of-view character that reminds us all that Texas, and America, have a long way to go in dismantling that privilege.

That does not mean that Meyer portrays the Native American tribes and Mexicans that populate this book as angelic figures, as victims unable to stop the onslaught of the big scary white men. The Comanche, in particular, are given ample page time to breathe, and as Eli becomes one of their own, it becomes clear that there are, in fact, very few differences between them and the Europeans seeking to destroy them. Both groups commit heinous crimes to ensure their enemies remain subdued, and both have complex honour codes that require men to be men.

In the end, this is a novel about power. It shows us how power beguiles those who crave it, and reminds us how, in the process of taking it, power dehumanises us all. The McCullough family might have ended up one of the richest and most powerful families in all the land, but these stories show that, just under the surface, they have had to sell their souls to get there. None of the three main characters are close to their spouse or children—in the pursuit of power, they have had to sacrifice those closest to them.

Philipp Meyer’s ability to deftly balance the ostensible positives of modernisation with the atrocities committed in order to ensure its progress is a sight to behold. The Son marks him out as one of the most interesting and gifted chroniclers of modern American history.

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The Tribe (2014) – Michael Mohammed AHMAD

More than 25% of the Australian population were born overseas, and many more have at least one parent born overseas. And yet, despite this huge number, so often Australian literature can seem insular and parochial, concerned with mythologising past glories instead of forging a path into the future. It is heartening to see, then, that Giramondo Press, run out of the University of Western Sydney, is dedicated to publishing these stories. Their Giramondo Shorts, of which The Tribe is a part, are the perfect breeding ground for up-and-coming authors from Western Sydney, the heart of immigrant Australia.

The vibrant messiness of an extended family that is so huge it forms its own community is perhaps the strongest feature of this tiny novel. In 150 pages, we meet a huge cast of characters—some important, some backgrounded—but each one is a member of Bani’s family, and therefore, a member of the Tribe. And just like any family, there are the strong ones, there are the weak ones, there are the ones that are pariahed when they make a mistake, and there are ones that hold the family together through tragedy. I don’t know how much value there is in trying to discover how much of this is based on Ahmad’s own experiences, because the argument would take away from the vividness and evocativeness in his writing here. From the first sentence, the reader is completely immersed in this world, and there is never any question that any of this could not be completely real. From the to the, there is a truth to this tale that other writers would kill to achieve, and this is achieved first and foremost through this cast.

There is distinct distance between Bani and the rest of his community. Though he is clearly aware of other cultures and communities around him (particularly the difference between his own family’s band of Islam and that of the other, larger, sects), he does not pine to be different or to escape. Nevertheless, he does find cause to worry in, say, the treatment of women at the hands of some men in the family. Bani seems more self-aware than many other characters, but it is important to remember the first sentence of the novel: “I was only seven when this happened but it always feels like right now”. This novel is Bani attempting to reconcile the raw emotions of childhood with the more self-reflective intellect of an adult looking back at his own community and upbringing.

Perhaps, though, this is not a reflection of unreliable narration, but simply that, as a seven year old, it is almost impossible to understand the history and linage to which one is inextricably linked through the simple act of being born. Culture is only important when we make it so, and for someone who has not yet been taught the ins and outs of what it means to belong to the Tribe, the intricacies of the culture are a mystery, just as they are to us who view it from the outside. Though I wouldn’t argue changing this almost perfect novella in any way, it would be fascinating to revisit Bani ten years down the track, when he is more self-aware, and more mindful of who he is and what his background makes him.

The Tribe marks the arrival of something different on the Australian literary landscape. There are few other authors marking out the immigrant experience in Australia (early Tsiolkas springs to mind, as does de Kretser’s recent Questions of Travel), but Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s lyrical approach to an immigrant community living in harmony with its surroundings is something that needs to be more prominent.

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The Blue Room (1999) – Hanne ØRSTAVIK

The Peirene machine continues, and this time, they’ve chosen a young Norwegian novelist, Hanne Ørstavik. The back flap says that one of her works was voted one of the best Norwegian novels of the past 25 years. The Blue Room isn’t that work, but if Peirene chose to have it translated, I guess it must be good.

Johanne lives a simple life. She studies psychology at university, goes to church every Sunday, and lives with her mother in a house in Oslo. Into this idyllic life, though, comes a boy. And when her mother finds out about Ivar, Johanne’s life will be changed forever. This is a novel about female sexuality, and about what happens when said sexuality blossoms in a young woman not used to being seen as anything other than innocent and pure.

The inherent tension in Johanne’s views on sex and sexuality are gently teased out by Ørstavik. On the one hand, she has spent her life raised as a good Christian, along with her mother and good friend Karin. This upbringing has ensured she has become this good student, unconcerned with boys and other such distractions. She is more concerned with matters of the mind—she studies psychology to better understand those around her.

On the other hand, though, is perhaps a more instinctive sense. She wants desperately to sleep with Ivar, and every now and then, Johanne’s self-control will fall away and she has flashes of a sex life she didn’t think she would ever want. But now that, finally, there is an outlet for them, she finds herself drawn to the act of sex,

As is so often the case with young relationships, boundaries between physical lust and emotional longing are blurred, and when Ivar suggests she comes with him to America for six weeks, she cautiously accepts. Perhaps it is not the most sensible life choice (at this stage, she and Ivar have only been seeing each other for a few weeks), but she is young, and the whole point of youth is to make mistakes. The relationship may not have lasted, but Johanne is never given the chance to find out.

Having recently read Eimear McBride’s excellent debut, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, ideas around the construction and representation of the sexuality of young women were still floating around my head when I got around to reading The Blue Room. By the end, I knew I wanted to see McBride and Ørstavik in the same room (the colour is unimportant).

While McBride celebrates the sexual awakening of her unnamed narrator, she is also acutely aware of the friction this can cause in a fairly conservative, religious society. Ørstavik is perhaps less celebratory in her tone, but she is also acutely aware of the reactions of those around her when young women discover a part of life that is often frowned upon.

Both novels, too, deal with the reactions of mothers to their daughter’s changes. Though McBride’s mother is full of fire and brimstone, in many ways, Ørstavik’s is the more terrifying. Discontent with her daughter’s choice, she simply locks her in a room for 24 hours, preventing her from leaving. It’s psychological warfare on a grand scale, and the final scene is a killer. It seems that Ørstavik wants her protagonist to have a life where she is able to enjoy every part of herself, but she can’t find a way in a culture that is deeply conservative.

It takes some time for The Blue Room to warm up, but once it does, it becomes rapidly clear that Hanne Ørstavik is a novelist not content to bang her readers over the head with metaphors and imagery. This novel is subtle, and deceptively simple, but it is also an excellent interrogation of female sexuality, and the societal constraints placed on the women who dare to escape.

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After Darkness (2014) – Christine PIPER

We have a winner! After last year’s non-starter, the judges of The Australian/Vogel Literary Award deigned to award this year’s prize to Christine Piper’s first novel, After Darkness. And with the recent changes to the way the award is administered, the day after it was announced, the book was available for purchase. And as someone who has a keen interest in the history between Japan and Australia, how could I say no?

Dr Ibaraki has come to Broome to escape his life in Japan, and for the first time in a long time, he feels like he truly belongs. But the Pacific War has arrived on his doorstep, and along with other Japanese residents of the city, he is forced into an internment camp thousands of kilometres away. Meeting up with other displaced Japanese, Ibaraki is forced to finally confront his past.

The narrative itself is split into three timeframes; the first is Ibaraki’s time in Japan, explaining why he moved to Australia; the second is his time in Broome as the doctor at the Japanese hospital; while the final is shows his time in the Loveday camp. The first two strands are fairly solid, though if you are in any way familiar with the history of the atrocities committed by the Japanese Imperial Army during the war, the ‘twist’ of what Ibaraki is really working on in his lab in Tokyo will come as no surprise at all. Both are there, though, to serve a greater purpose: to show us that, time and time again, Ibaraki is wilfully blind to the situation around him.

A quick glance at Piper’s website shows that her PhD project involved researching first-hand stories of Japanese interns in Australian intern camps during the Pacific War. In particular, she looked at one camp in South Australia called Loveday. It is no surprise, then, that the bulk of this novel’s heft comes from that place and time. This section perfectly encapsulates a great many things about history and identity, and it is here that Piper’s skills as a writer come to the fore.

Ibaraki, of course, has no desire to go home. His wife has left him, and he has begun to build a life in Australia that is more than anything he could have imagined. And yet his first instinct is to side with his ‘own’ people—other Japanese nationals living itinerantly in Australia. It’s an interesting decision, particularly since establishment Japanese men have burned him once before, but it is also entirely understandable. His entire life up until this point has been an Ishiguro-esque attempt to ignore everything that goes on around him. Taught to have unblinking belief in his superiors and in the Japanese way, he cannot imagine a life outside the hierarchy. And yet his time in Broome, and in the camp, has forced him to reconsider: as he says, “What else, through my misguided loyalty, had I failed to see?”

Stories like After Darkness remind us that the multicultural history of Australia did not simply begin in the 1970s with the final abolition of the White Australia policy. This country has been engaging with Asia in deep and complex ways for decades, and this novel is a small, but important, reminder of one such episode.

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The Flamethrowers (2013) – Rachel KUSHNER

As I continue my (very selective) quest to check out this year’s Folio Prize shortlist, I find myself up against a wall of Yanks. The Flamethrowers is one of five American books on the eight-strong shortlist—hopefully not a sign of what is to come in this year’s Booker). In any case, I opened it hoping the rave reviews I’d read were reflective of the book itself.

Moving to New York to chase a boy and a dream, Reno finds herself caught up in a life like nothing she has ever seen before. Rapidly swept up by events beyond her control, she finds herself travelling the world in a time when political upheaval means no one is safe.

I wrote last week about another shortlisted novel that managed to balance substance and style in a way that felt compelling and real. Unfortunately, coming to The Flamethrowers was something of a let-down. It feels like it wants to be a big, important novel. Certainly it seems to be doing everything in its power to breakdown the stereotypes of books usually ascribed to female authors—there is no doubting this is big, bold and political in intent.

Ostensibly the largest problem with the novel, though, is a structural one—we jump around from place to place, leaving the reader confused and isolated. Instead of taking the time to engender an emotional connection between the reader and the protagonist, Kushner gets sidetracked by all the historical events and movements she is so clearly fascinated with. There’s no mistaking that many of these events are fascinating in their own right—the 70s was a time of huge political upheaval in both the US and Italy—but by trying to crowbar all of them into one novel has the effect of diluting the potency of each one. Instead of tying them all into one grand narrative, they come off as disparate and monotonous.

These kinds of widescreen novels can be saved if the common thread between narrative strands is strong. Unfortunately, the strand in The Flamethrowers—our protagonist, Reno—is not. She often comes across as nothing more than a tool to allow Kushner to explore the times and places that interest her, rather than a real person. Her seeming inability to react to anything that happens to her (and, to be fair, quite a lot does happen to her) opens a distance between character and writer that so often spells doom for a novel.

The Flamethrowers is not a bad book, but it does feel like a lot of what is wrong with contemporary literary fiction has been shoved into it: sweeping temporal and spatial settings that make it hard to get a grip on anyone or anything; characters that devolve into caricatures; and a tone that comes off as self-important. Check it out if you’re interested in 1970s Italian political history—otherwise, it’s a long, meandering ride.

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A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing (2013) – Eimear McBRIDE

The new Folio Prize is designed to be a Booker killer. Apparently fed up with the fact that one judge said one year she was looking for a book that was readable as well as literary, a group of authors have come together to create ‘real’ literature prize. It’s a big call, and when you put together a shortlist for your first prize, you have to make sure you get it right. So does this debut Irish novel make the cut?

It seems faintly reductive (and truistic) to suggest that I’ve read nothing like A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. Others have compared it to Joyce, but since I am sadly lacking in that area, I couldn’t possibly comment. What I can tell you, though, is every time I offered the first page to a friend, they looked at me like I’d gone nuts. There is no question that that first page is intimidating—short sentences, irregular punctuation, and a collection of words that, at first glance, don’t seem to belong together.

But as you continue to read, and as you become accustomed to McBride’s rhythms, you cannot help but be drawn in by this unique style. It seems almost obscene that a writer this young should be able to so masterfully manipulate the English language. Though there are moments of ambiguity, they are deliberate—designed, perhaps, to confuse the reader and evoke in them the same confusion felt by the main character. It’s the same confusion any adolescent or young adult feels as they become a fully-fledged adult, allowed to make their own decisions, coming up against the wall of societal expectations that prevent them from making those exact same decisions.

This structure and construction, then, feed into what McBride is trying to talk about. The three relationships that make up the backbone of the novel are fully-formed, fleshed-out slices of reality: from the conservative Catholic mum who can’t stand the fact that her daughter enjoys sex, to her older, mentally-ill older brother, to the uncle she sees as more than just an uncle. Each one is confusing and hard to categorise easily, just like all familial relationships, and McBride teases out the intricacies of each one to highlight the fact that no one is always good or always bad. (Though the uncle comes pretty close.)

Of course, what is wrapped up most in growing up and coming to terms with societal restrictions is sexuality, particularly female sexuality. Growing up in conservative Ireland and being a teenager (and later, young woman) who enjoys sex puts the protagonist in a position that sees her judged for her lifestyle, even by those closest to her. Her mother yells and screams at her for not being pure, while her teenage brother, in a fit of rage, does the same thing.

A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is a book you need to read. There can be no question that is not, perhaps, the most ‘readable’ of all novels, but though experimental in its structure construction, McBride does not forget that ‘real’ literature is not about showing off with tricksy, literary fireworks, but about believable people trying to make sense of the world around them.

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Southern Cross the Dog (2013) – Bill CHENG

The recent win by 12 Years a Slave at the Oscars has once again reminded us all that the United States is a great nation built on a terrible past. The complete and utter subjugation of one group of people to do the nation building of another is a scar that has still not healed in the United States. Bill Cheng attempts to unpack just a tiny part of this history in his debut novel, Southern Cross the Dog. (I’m not going to lie—I picked this up almost exclusively for its title. I’m a patriotic sucker like that.)

After the Great Flood of 1927, Robert Chatham is left alone. As he drifts around Mississippi, he finds that being an outsider in the deep south is not easy.

There is no question as to who the villains are in this piece. Off the top of my head, I can think of no white character that is kind to a black character for any extended period of time. And, one supposes, this is historically accurate. Though we might be in the early twentieth century here, we are closer in culture to 12 Years a Slave than we are to speeches about dreams.

And yet, despite the fact that this part of history is ripe for telling stories of injustice and heartbreak, Southern Cross feels somehow soulless. There is no question that the writing is excellent—Cheng’s evocation of a time and place is near flawless—but one can never feel truly close to these characters. Perhaps it is the constant narrative jumps—just as you get close to one person, you have to recalibrate your emotions to prepare for another depressing tale. These kinds of non-chronological narratives can allow authors to play with reader perceptions of events and characters, but the fact that Robert seems never to change in each episode leaves you wondering why bother doing it in the first place.

This is not to say there are not moments when Cheng’s ability to write matches his ability to evoke a human response from his characters. Sketches from Robert’s youth are gorgeous—there is one in particular where the three Chatham men are out hunting, only to be stumbled upon by a duo of white men who have no qualms about beating young black men to remind them of their place. It’s horrific, and the pain of the injustice of this society is keenly felt, unlike in many other places through the novel.

I am curious to see what Cheng does next. If he returns to this Southern Gothic-style tale, I would love to see him try and push the boundaries a little further. Though the politics and argument are there, they are not moulded into a piece of fiction that grabs you by the throat, that makes you feel for these people. Fiction is more than pretty words and big ideas—it’s about making your reader feel something.

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The City & the City (2009) – China MIEVILLE

Two years ago, I was blown away by the brilliance of Embassytown. The ability to take spec fiction tropes and use them to interrogate a whole raft of ideas—ranging from linguistic theory to postcolonial critiques—reminded me why I love spec fiction so much. So here I am again, back to worship at the altar of the big, bald socialist that is China Miéville.

Somewhere in the depths of Eastern Europe, in a small city called Besźel, a girl has been murdered. But when Inspector Tyodor Borlú begins investigating the case, even he cannot imagine where it will lead him— Besźel’s greatest nemesis, and closest neighbour, Ul Qoma.

Though there are glimpses of the brilliance seen in Embassytown—including a gift for imaginative linguistics every other fantasy author on the planet would kill to have—The City & the City does not reach the heights of Miéville’s sci-fi masterpiece. His desire to stick slavishly to the procedural crime novel genre doesn’t give him the chance to move out of a fairly limiting structure and style, though there is no question he pulls of the style perfectly. And the twist ending is a little silly—I get that Miéville is a proper socialist, but the twist (“capitalism is the bad guy!”) undercuts the beautiful work he does in foreshadowing secret societies, rogue nationalists and perhaps even fantasy creatures.

Having said all that, the core concept at the heart of The City & the City is so brilliant, I can almost forgive the other stuff. This is a novel about the ways in which humans throw up arbitrary borders around our groups and the ways in which we exclude people from our lives simply because they are different. At first glance, the idea that two cities could occupy the same space seems inherently ridiculous. How could people possibly be taught to ignore the parts of their surroundings that are considered to be foreign? Remember, it is not just the space they share—they have a common history, a common archaeology, even a common architecture. How do you convince people that these identical things are really unique?

Yet that is exactly what we all do, each and every day we are alive. We teach ourselves to see the things we don’t want to as we walk through town—the charity workers trying to fleece our spare change, those supermarkets with signs written in a script we don’t understand, that homeless man begging for money.

Take, for example, my hometown. Though Sydney is widely held up as a successful model for integrating various ethnic and cultural groups into one city, so often, the real world application of these policies ends up more like these Miévillean (I’m totally making that a word, by the way) parallel cities. We all move through our lives taking in only the parts of the city that directly relate to us—we actively block out the ones that we believe have nothing to do with us. Taking this point to its logical conclusion is this novel’s greatest strength. By exaggerating the human characteristic, Mieville forces us to re-examine how we (literally) view the world around us.

Despite the genre and structure issues in The City & the City, an average Miéville book is still going to make you think about the world in which you live—who else would be able to come up with the cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma? Once again he proves that the best kind of spec fiction focuses on ideas and themes, and not flashy aliens and dragons

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