May has been the calm before the storm. After what felt like endless weeks of slow time, the clock has suddenly started moving at double-triple-quadruple speed. The object of everyone’s anxiety has shifted from what it means to be alone to what it means to be together, and the world outside of all of our bubbles has been making itself known in the most urgent of ways.
It’s been a good month of reading – three fantastic reads, and lots of hours with my head in books. I’ve turned toward long works more often that short ones – is my attention span returning? Who knows.
Here are some thoughts on the things I read this month.
THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS by MR Carey
I don’t read zombie novels. But I am living through a pandemic, and this zombie novel is different. Is it? Maybe I’ve given zombie novels a bad wrap.
Melanie is living at an army base in the middle of nowhere in England, sheltering from ‘hungries’ – zombies, whose spread has taken over the world to such an extent that humans live in small enclaves, behind protective fences and walls. Melanie’s routine is reliable: each morning music plays, her teachers march past the cell where she sleeps, and the day begins. Two soldiers execute their morning routine: one holds a gun on Melanie while the other straps her into a wheelchair, then she’s taken to the classroom, where things are better. In the classroom she learns about populations and spring flowers and Greek mythology. Her favourite is Pandora. Best of all, the teaching is sometimes done by Miss Justineau, who’s beautiful and clever, and when she speaks to Melanie it seems like everything is good and perfect.
Melanie’s an intelligent kid – she notices when kids go missing from the classroom. She picks up staff members’ first names, what they’re reprimanded for, and the inconsistencies in their stories. When Melanie and a band of grown-ups are forced off the base, she unleashes all the secrets and terrible things, just like Pandora.
I don’t have a lot of zombie stories to compare this to, but the logic of the disease in this one makes sense to me. It’s based on a real fungal disease that spreads among ants in a particularly horrific way; taking over their bodies and eventually shooting like a tree from their head to spread spores. Perhaps it’s the hypervigilant awareness of contagion that we’re living with right now that makes me feel that this is such a convincing conceit, but I was 100% sold on it and the precise level of horror it brought.
The morning after finishing this book I see three kids and two teachers at a nearby school playing ‘Mother May I?’ on the playground.
“Mother may I… walk like a zombie?”
“No, you may not!”
YOUR OWN KIND OF GIRL by Clare Bowditch
I listened to this as an audiobook – it’s the first whole book I’ve listened to with a fancy new Audible subscription. This one was a great place to start – fantastic production, Clare’s voice is wonderful for storytelling. It includes sung passages, and Bowditch impersonates her mum’s Dutch accent surprisingly well, and there’s an utterly delightful section right at the end where they talk about appeltaart (Dutch apple tart). The book itself is about body image, creative life, and mental health. I so appreciate someone with this kind of platform talking about these issues, normalising the struggle. This is both accessible and beautiful, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
FATHOMS by Rebecca Giggs
Did you know that whalebone and whale bone are two different things? Or that in the 18th century whale products were akin to modern plastic in their wide-ranging uses? Not just candles, soap, and corsets – the ones I brought easily to mind before reading FATHOMS – but in spectacle frames, umbrellas and fishing rods. This is just one of the deeply fascinating topics covered in Fathoms. The book’s broken up into discrete essays looking at topics including whale as a source of resources in the human world; whales as metaphors; the sonic landscape of the oceans as whales experience them; and Japanese whaling. These essays revolve around a central experience: on a beach in Perth, author Rebecca Giggs watches the spectacle and tragedy of a stranded whale’s death. Each essay in this collection returns in its own way to that central experience, but isn’t tethered or forced to speak to it. This gentle through-line allows for a wide-ranging meditation on the interplay between whales and humans, but also – and importantly – what whales might experience and face in their own right, completely aside from being a metaphor, an example, or a charismatic exception. Packed full of poetry and flawlessly executed research, this wonderfully balanced deep dive (heh) provided such a perfect distraction from… all this.