I needed to step away from sff reading at least briefly, mix it up. I got a blast of something beautiful.
William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow is a marvellous novella. I was reminded of Ian McEwan’s prose, still my favourite, for its transparency and depth of perception. Maxwell’s book presents the act of one Illinois farmer’s murder through the eyes of a narrator struggling with his own childhood grief, a boy who’s also friends with the son of the murderer. Similar to Ian McEwan’s modus operandi, Maxwell’s narrator fixates on a moment years later that he is ashamed of, and it haunts him through his life as he recounts, actually speculates, on the events that would have led to the murderer’s act. The speculation is a convenient vehicle for the story that the narrator couldn’t have witnessed, but irrespective, this story is told with such aplomb, such simple, resonant and profound insights, that it left me invigorated, desperate to improve.
Going back to sff for a strong awards contender for next year, Tade Thompson’s Rosewater is the breakout phenomenon he deserves.
The protagonist, Kaaro, reminds us repeatedly that he’s not a hero. He makes bad decisions. He’s the perfect guide for Rosewater, a town near Lagos in Nigeria, that’s grown up around an alien entity, one of a few that have landed on earth and are changing the biosphere. Kaaro is a ‘sensitive’, one of many suspected to have been in some way affected by these impenetrable, village sized domes, such that he is, effectively, telepathic. In this near future, we learn that these sensitives can perceive people’s mental lives in a kind of Jungian collective consciousness called the xenosphere. The narrative jumps back and forwards in time to fill in the story of his discovery of his abilities, his misuse of them as a young man and how he was then made to work for a special division of the Nigerian government. The present and past timelines do an effective job of giving us cliffhangers in the jigsaw that fills out the backstory to the present day and how it shapes the ongoing narrative, as Kaaro, effectively a man just trying to survive, carries the guilt of both his former criminal past and his present life as an interrogator. Then he falls in love.
I find protagonists like Kaaro wonderful to read and was reminded of Deji Bryce Olukotun’s abalone farmer in Nigerians in Space. Both feel like they’re just trying to stay alive in very dangerous circumstances. Kaaro here is lustful, capable of dreadful vengeance, a touch sexist. A real human being, not a bland vessel to please the reader.
As we learn more about Kaaro and the aliens, we’re learning more about how fantastic Thompson’s worldbuilding is. The nature of the aliens’ influence on the world is realised in detail, it’s solid, its ramifications feel right. There’s some lovely asides to the evolution of the internet and civilisation in the face of this ‘invasion’, but Thompson sensibly keeps things focused around Kaaro, following his arc, how this world affects him. It’s an unputdownable novel, told at a great clip; a vividly imagined but efficiently delivered world with a flawed man at its heart. It’s the first of a trilogy and given how it ends I’m quite intrigued to find out how it continues!