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Maggie Fergusson

Six Good Books

A vampire novel for people who don’t like vampire novels, and the life of a much-loved control-freak

Maggie Fergusson | May/June 2014

FICTION The Quick by Lauren Owen, Cape, hardback, out now. Vampires have never really done it for me, but the “V” word is barely used in this gripping debut, the first quarter of which is devoted to a moving love affair between two young Victorian men. So I was 100 pages in before I twigged, and by then I was bitten. Owen’s “undead” gather in the deeply upholstered gloom of the Aegolius, a gentlemen’s club off Jermyn Street in London—such a perfect backdrop for gothic horror that I’m surprised more novelists haven’t used it. The undead are cruel, mirthless creatures, but just occasionally love permeates the veil that separates them from the “quick”,  and then the consequences are harrowing. Lauren Owen has constructed a fantasy world with clear rules and solid foundations, and from these she flies. There’s a sense of joy in the writing, and it’s infectious.

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill, Granta, hardback, out now. “Memories are microscopic,” writes Jenny Offill, as she threads together shards of impression and reminiscence to show the arc of a marriage. The result is somewhere between a novella and a prose poem, and profoundly moving. Offill nails life to the page. She’s good on falling in love—the delicious squandering of time as a couple exchange stories almost “too small to bother with”. She’s good on the poleaxing exhaustion of early motherhood, the collapse of career dreams, the tyranny of toddlers, the crushing efficiency of super-mums at the school gate, the wearying descent of passionate love into whisper-fights and slamming doors. But she’s at her very best on the grim, “stateless” no-man’s-land between being a wife and becoming a divorcee. And if all this bleakness makes you queasy, don’t be. Offill is also sharply witty, and there’s a happy ending.

Decoded by Mai Jia, translated by Olivia Milburn, Allen Lane, hardback, out now. What does it mean to die for your country? This year especially, the question prompts images of trenches, barbed wire, bloodshed. But Mai Jia’s debut explores psychological, not physical, carnage. Rong Jinzhen is a mathematical prodigy—a kind of Oriental Ruth Lawrence. Kidnapped in childhood, he is effectively imprisoned from 1956 to 1970 in Unit 701, a government compound where his genius is harnessed for code-breaking. Ultimately, the codes break him. We leave him in a care home, eyes blank, hands trembling, wailing “like a Chinese oboe”. Jinzhen is autistic, and the novel mirrors his mind in serpentine digressions and focus on detail. One moment we’re on terra firma, the next in a strange, fabulous world. A bestseller in China, this is as absorbing and unsettling as any conventional Western spy thriller.

BIOGRAPHY Charlie Chaplin by Peter Ackroyd, Chatto, hardback, out now. Before the cult of global celebrity was even a twinkle in fans’ eyes, Charlie Chaplin was a worldwide phenomenon. The “little fellow” was an Everymanflawed, frail and funny, like the human condition itself. But as a workhouse boy he’d been known not by his name but by a number—151—and, off camera, he remained terrified of his “nothingness”. He developed, as a result, into a monstrous control-freak, dictating his actors’ diets, cutting his (four) wives’ hair, insisting his children watch only his own films. He was a genius, certainly, but he was also a depraved, penny-pinching, sadistic despot, who ended up exiled by his own egocentricity. Writing at an energetic lick, Peter Ackroyd examines this glittering but tragic life with the cool detachment of a psychiatrist or judge. In his powers of insight, and agility in making connections, he’s second to none.

MEMOIR The Unexpected Professor by John Carey, Faber, hardback, out now. If the caricature Oxford don inhabits an ivory tower, John Carey is more like the host of a convivial wayside inn. Emeritus professor of English, he longs for all (but especially those, like him, from un-bookish and not especially privileged backgrounds) to find refreshment in literature. A life-long crusader against pomposity and academic obfuscation, he demystifies lit. crit.—and in doing so raises it to the level of art. “Paradise Lost” becomes “a film made out of sounds”; “War and Peace” a pointillist painting “created by thousands of tiny dabs of imagery”. You’ll close this enchanting memoir with a long list of “must-reads”. But don’t be fooled. Carey’s fizzing brilliance is the fruit of ferocious hard work, and beneath his wit and geniality there’s a formidable austerity.

NATURAL HISTORY The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert, Bloomsbury, hardback, out now. In a “Frozen Zoo” in California, the DNA of extinct species is preserved in liquid nitrogen. It sounds like a scene from “Coma”, but it’s in fact a rational response to a pandemic plummeting in biodiversity. Elizabeth Kolbert of the New Yorker travels from Panama to the Barrier Reef, and from Scotland to the Andes, seeking creatures about to pass into oblivion, and some that already have. Her writing is vivid and pacy: her description of the strangling of the last pair of auks in 1844 is as chilling a murder story as I’ve ever read. She’s also humorous and vivacious, aware that guilt and fear are less effective calls to arms than wonder and love of the natural world. Her thesis, nonetheless, is grim. What scientists are euphemistically calling “biotic attrition” is, in fact, apocalypse now.

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