The Girl with Some of the Gifts

I’ve just finished reading The Girl with All the Gifts by MR Carey and I can 100% recommend it if chilling-yet-also-strangely-heartwarming post-apocalyptic horror sounds like your bag. It’s an interesting take on the zombocalypse concept, in which the zombifying plague is caused by a fungus instead of the usual virus. The story follows an, um, special little girl called Melanie, her teacher Miss Justineau, a crazy scientist, and a couple of soldiers, all on the run together in a zombie-overrun Britain.

There’s a movie adaptation coming out this week, which has had good reviews, but I’m so disappointed in the casting that I’m planning to avoid it. Why?

In the book, the character Miss Justineau is both brainy and beautiful – Melanie has a massive schoolgirl crush on her, and both the soldiers find her attractive too. She’s brave and resourceful too, but saved from Mary Sue-dom by her occasionally reckless behaviour and blind spot towards Melanie. She’s also a 40+ dark-skinned black woman. Now, awesome-but-fully-rounded female characters are sadly rare in films (and not frequent enough in books either for my liking). Awesome-but-fully-rounded older female characters are even rarer, and as for awesome-but-fully-rounded older black female characters… Name one. Go on. Who isn’t Annalise Keating.

This could have been an amazing part for someone. Maybe Marianne Jean-Baptiste. Or Viola Davis, if you don’t mind an American playing a British role.

girl-with-gifts

But who did they cast as Miss Justineau for the film? Not either of those ladies. Not even Gina Torres or Sophie Okonedo or Zoe Saldana or Naomie Harris. Nope, they cast Gemma Arterton.

Huh? Yeah, that’s right, Gemma Arterton. Who is a) only 30 years old; b) white. The character has been totally white-washed, and de-aged to boot, to fit a Hollywood idea of what a leading lady should look like. Not cool, film-makers, not cool.

But, some people are saying, it’s all right, it’s not whitewashing, they’ve just race-swapped the cast! Melanie, who was white in the book, is now black! And so is one of the soldiers, Pte Gallagher, who was also originally white! So that’s two for the price of one! Why are you complaining? Mike Carey himself has said that he was happy with ‘colour-blind’ casting, so long as the overall diversity of the characters was preserved.

[spoilers in this paragraph] The thing is, I don’t think diversity is just a numbers game. It’s also about the kind of characters you have, their role in the story, and how those things interact with pre-existing ideas and media portrayals. No story exists in a vacuum. Melanie being made black instead of Miss Justineau makes me uncomfortable because Melanie is a zombie (or ‘hungry’ in the book’s nomenclature). Sure, she’s a higher functioning zombie, but she does kick into animalistic flesh-eating mode a few times, usually to protect Miss Justineau. And a monster black girl going feral and ripping people’s throats out to protect her pretty white teacher has some unfortunate implications, which the book’s version doesn’t. Oh, and did I mention Melanie spends a lot of the story tied up and muzzled like an animal? Like it or not, a white woman keeping a black girl on a leash has different – and deeply icky – cultural resonances from a black woman keeping a white girl on a leash. And as for Pte Gallagher – he’s the first of the group to be eaten by zombies, so by making him black all you’ve done is given TV Tropes another example for the ‘Black Dude Dies First’ page. So while ‘colour-blind’ casting might be the ideal, I can’t see it really working here.

[no more spoilers] Now I’m just a sheltered white girl who can bleat about racism online but doesn’t have to live it every day, and whether or not I go to see this film isn’t going to make much difference to their box office numbers. At least I can use the questions it raises to inform my own writing, and try and make sure I’m helping, not hindering. And hope that, if one of my books ever gets adapted for the screen, the casting is more sensitive.

Edit 14th Oct: I have now seen the film version of The Girl with All the Gifts and I actually enjoyed it very much – it’s an excellent zombie thriller/post-apocalyptic drama. The cast all acted very well, and it was good to see a woman kicking ass while wearing baggy clothes. The cultural resonances of the race-bent casting weren’t as bad as I feared, but they were still present, so while I would recommend the film, I still stand by my comments above.

 

Reader Problems

Back in January, I described my 2016 Reading Challenge and said my aim was to read at least 50 books this year. Telling people about this challenge has resulted in responses ranging from wide-eyed astonishment and ‘gosh that’s a lot of books’ to a dismissive ‘50 books? That’s nothing. You can manage at least a hundred. A novel only takes me a day to read. Three days if it’s Russian.’ Personally, I figured a book a week was a decent, very achievable rate, considering I read fast and have plenty of free time, but didn’t want to burden myself with so much reading it started to feel like a chore. Nor did I want to put myself off tackling longer or more difficult books.

How’s it going? Well, we’re now 15 weeks into the year, and I’ve just polished off my 30th book (The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared). So, yeah, seems like two books a week is no problem – although I’ve only read one Russian novel thus far (War and Peace). Beyond the satisfaction of seeing the numbers clock up, it’s been great to get properly stuck into reading again, rediscovering the old pleasure of spending hours curled up in an armchair with a hot drink and a good book.

Books are great, and I’ve enjoyed nearly all of what I’ve read, from the lightly comedic to the dark and disturbing. And I’ve been connecting with people via literature more – being lent books by friends, and lending out books myself to share the joy. Of course, it hasn’t all been plain sailing and smooth reading. I’ve had to give up on two books (not counted in the 30): Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, which was just boring, and London by Edward Rutherfurd, which was so rapey and gross it left me feeling nauseated. And then there was Half Lost by Sally Green, the book I’d been most looking forward to reading this year and which I devoured in a single gulp on its day of publication. It was a colossal disappointment which left me feeling extremely angry at how the author chose to end it. But hey, I can treat such experiences as a valuable lesson in How Not to Write.

And to anyone looking for advice in how to read more books, I would say the following:
A) Try something different. Nothing wrong with having a favourite author slash genre (nearly half the books I’ve read this year have been fantasy) but there are good books in every genre, so put away those preconceptions and see if you can surprise yourself. My experience is that people are very willing to give you recommendations (and frequently lend you the actual books).

B) Don’t be afraid to give up on something that just isn’t doing it for you. Life’s too short to spend your time wading your way through hundreds of pages of boredom, when you could be reading something way better.

C) I’ve noticed that online advice often suggests reading in short bursts, fitted around your ‘today’s busy modern lifestyle’. Now if that’s the only time you can find to read, fair enough, but I’ve actually found that I enjoy a book more if I can get properly stuck in. An hour or so of dedicated reading time each afternoon, plus the aforementioned armchair and hot drink… that’s the kind of challenge I can really get behind.

My to-read shelf as of today

My to-read shelf as of today

UPDATE 22nd APRIL: I have now read 32 books, so I’m still on course. Emboldened by my success thus far, I’ve decided to tackle another long Russian novel, this time The Brothers Karamazov. And I can tell you, there’s nothing like reading a nineteenth-century novel with a 21st century attention span to really try your patience. ‘Get on with it, Fyodor! Enough babbling about Orthodox church politics of the 1860s, get to the sex and violence already!’

I should also add that another way I’ve managed to increase my novel consumption is by listening to audiobooks, which means I can be ‘reading’ at the same time as driving, exercising, or doing household chores. It’s a great way to read more if your life is too busy to sit down with a book very often, or if you struggle with the written word because of dyslexia, eyesight issues etc (I myself get sometimes get migraines or eye strain and have to be careful). And certain books – most notably so far Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys as read by Lenny Henry – are actually much better in audio form.

In Search of Lost Remembrance

This blog post contains spoilers for In Search of Lost Time. If that’s a thing.

Back at the very tail end of 2012, I decided that my 2013 reading project would be Marcel Proust’s elephantine seven-volume masterpiece, A la recherche du temps perdu, known in English as either Remembrance of Things Past or In Search of Lost Time – the title, as I would find, not being the only thing about it that’s difficult to get hold of. At the point of embarking on the first volume, Swann’s Way, my knowledge of the work was restricted to ‘something about cakes’ and the Monty Python sketch featuring the All-England Summarise Proust Competition. But I plunged in, intending to finish the whole lot by the end of the year.

Last weekend, I finally finished reading the final volume, Time Regained. So that’s only 7 ½ months behind schedule, which, considering how long it took Proust to write (13 years, and he wasn’t done with it when he died) ain’t bad going. And now, I can officially join the club of People Who Have Read Proust, the literary equivalent of completing the Ironman, but much less sweaty.

What’s the verdict? Well, mixed. Proust has his moments, for sure: his elegiac imagery, his memorable character portraits, his musings on such themes of memory, mortality, and the essential impossibility of truly knowing the mind of another. But boy, could he have used a swingeing edit. The seven-part novel is not only extremely long – over 1.2 million words in the original French – it’s also rambling, repetitive, and hopelessly self-indulgent. Better readers than I have given up in frustration when they realise that, yes, fifty pages later, he’s still going on about his bedroom ceiling. The narrator/main character – who is basically Proust himself – is not terribly sympathetic: whiny, lazy, self-absorbed and extremely jealous, he spends all his time stalking women or young girls, complaining (ironically) about writer’s block, and trying to worm his way into high society. The concept of doing anything actually useful with his life doesn’t occur to him until the final volume, and even then it’s only to capture his flashes of involuntary memory caused by madeleines and uneven paving slabs for the benefit of posterity. I spent much of Books 4 & 5 hoping that his girlfriend, the long-suffering Albertine, would give him a slap round the face and tell him to get over himself. Sadly, she never does.

Much more sympathetic is Charles Swann, father of the narrator’s first love, and hero of his own novella included within the first volume. A wealthy assimilated Jew who has made an unwise marriage, his position is both exalted and insecure, especially once the Dreyfus Affair exposes the tensions and underlying antisemitism in French society. The scene near the end of Book 3 where he, terminally ill and passionate about politics, is contrasted with his friends the Duc and Duchesse de Guermantes, caring only about the party they’re going to, is probably the most affecting in the entire novel. In many ways his is a much more interesting story than the narrator’s, and if you want to read it, I recommend The Hare with the Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal, which is both excellent and quite short.

In Search of Lost Time is easy to make fun of, less easy to read. As a book, it makes no concessions to the reader, expecting you to keep up with the narrator’s endless asides, and remember every detail about a character you last met a thousand pages ago. The plot proceeds at a pace of about one event per volume. It’s not what you’d call a page-turner. But having got to the end, I can say that I’m glad I’ve read it, experienced a unique voice, a key work in world literature and the development of the modern novel. I probably won’t ever read it again, but I think certain images and moments will stay with me forever. So I’ll drink a lime-blossom tea to that, and proceed with the next reading challenge.

In a fortnight’s time, I’ll be at the Fantasy Convention in York, so I’ll be updating this blog on Monday 8th September with my latest thoughts…

Wikipedia on the Dreyfus Affair: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dreyfus_affair

Book Club

I’ve realised lately that, for somebody who professes to love literature, I don’t read nearly enough books. Partly it’s the fault of the myriad other demands on my time, of course, but it’s also partly internet addiction, for which there’s really no excuse. I’m trying to tweet less and read more, both in and out of my chosen genre of fantasy. So here I am, on the, er, internet, to share with you a quick review of some of my recent reads.

1) Within a Budding Grove, by Marcel Proust (Vol. 2 of In Search of Lost Time)

My 2013 reading project is to work my way through this colossus of literature, one of the longest novels ever written. I got through volume 1, Swann’s Way, fairly quickly, but I have to admit to struggling with the second book (different translation, which may not have helped). It’s not a book which makes it easy for the reader. There are many passages of wonderfully evocative description waiting for you – if you can wade through the endless pages of repetition as the procrastinating protagonist agonises over afternoon tea. Meanwhile the plot progresses at a pace best described as geological. Think I may take a break before tackling volume 3.

2) One Day, by David Nicholls

I haven’t finished this one yet but I’m very much enjoying it so far – the first book in a long time I’ve felt compelled to continue reading whilst walking up the stairs. Not perhaps the most original tale, although the structure of showing a snapshot of the main characters’ lives on every 15th July over the course of twenty years is pretty neat. But originality doesn’t matter so much when you’ve got such a well-written and sharply observed story, and it’s one of those rare books that makes you feel you actually know the characters. It’s like I could invite Emma and Dexter out to the pub tomorrow night; I’d get annoyed at some of their foibles but I’d still be happy they were my friends.

Edit: I finished reading it. Devastated.

 

3) World War Z, by Max Brooks

So I could have illustrated World War Z with a picture of a rotting zombie. But, well, you know...

I could have used a picture of a rotting zombie. But, well, you know…

Second time of reading this one: the first time round I devoured it greedily, like the living dead on some glistening entrails. This time I’m reading it more slowly and savouring the saltiness of the satire. I love the way Brooks uses the device of the zombocalypse to poke fun at just about every nation on earth (the Israelis with their huge anti-zombie fence, the South Africans dusting off their dodgy apartheid-era emergency plans) and mercilessly lampoon modern life. There’s a sequence comparing the jobs people did before and after the titular war which is a bit too close to the bone: the man who previously did a meaningless corporate job now gets more satisfaction from sweeping chimneys. Not sure what I’m going to make of the movie but the original book comes highly recommended.