Black Girl, White Girl – Joyce Carole Oates

This is a truly brilliant book, a thorough and often uncomfortable character study that highlights differences in race, class, privilege and values.

Genna Meade is the narrator, the wealthy daughter of radical liberals Max and Veronica, who were active in the activism of the 60s and early 70s. Max is a lawyer to the counter culture movement, and Genna saw countless hippies and radicals live in their shambolic house as she grew up. They are are from a rich family of Quakers, the Meades, though what Genna had in terms of financial wealth she lacked in family support.

At the liberal arts college that was paid for by her family, she gets a roommate in Minette Swift, one of the few black girls in the college hall. Minette is from a church family, is devoutly Christian, and despite all of Genna’s attempts to be her friend, is consistently aloof and guarded and self-reliant.

We hear the story through Geneva fifteen years after Minette’s death at the college. Through their time as roommates, Minette is subjected to apparently racist acts that Genna at first doesn’t see but gradually comes to understand. At the same time she tries to befriend Minette, but Minette always keeps her distance, refusing to accept Genna’s overtures of friendship – something that Genna can’t comprehend.

What’s so powerful about this novel is the detail of emotion – the fact that Minette can’t be pigeonholed, that Genna is both privileged and traumatised by her upbringing, that the relationship between the two girls is so tense, that Genna still can’t see what was going on even a decade and a half later.

And what’s here, too, is the impact of racism and racial stereotyping on Minette, how she is tense and awkward, how she has different values and ways of relating to people, when compared to Genna; and Genna can’t or doesn’t comprehend this, always thinking that Minette will

at any moment accept the generous hand of friendship and support she is offering.

We see, as well, the impact of historic forces on individuals’ lives – Minette who is shaped by a history of racism and resistance in America, and Genna who is traumatised by the life her parents forced upon her.

This is an uncomfortable read at times, not least because Minette is often unlikable, and the fact that it’s a white woman, Oates, writing about black experience, makes you wonder whether the portrayal is fair or ought to be more understanding or sympathetic.

Ultimately for me this book is about how, when two people with radically different and difficult histories, values and daily experiences, are thrown together, they can’t easily just get one another, they can’t just connect, there’s too much there holding them apart.

The Ghost Rider – Ismail Kadare

A mysterious and beautiful story that uses a classic Albanian folk tale to talk about the supernatural surrounding love, loss and debt.

The heart of this novella is the story, also known as the ‘Lenore Motif’, of a family – a mother, her daughter Doruntine and her nine brothers, including Doruntine’s favourite brother Konstandin.

Set in a pre-industrial time, Doruntine had married far away from the village of her family, but in the three years she’s been away all but her mother died of the plague. After the mother was overheard cursing Konstandin’s grave for failing to keep his promise to return his sister home, something inexplicable happens – Doruntine returns on the back of a horse she says was ridden by Konstandin.

The story then turns to local lawman, Stres, who is intent on discovering what happened, how this could have been. He considers theory after theory, a person is even arrested. But as his investigation continues, and fear and suspicion are whipped up in the village, he eventually accepts that the only explanation is a supernatural one – that the brother did rise from the dead to return his sister home.

Ultimately, what Stres is accepting, I think, is the limits of the rational and the explainable. He doesn’t want to believe it but in the end he accepts that where love, honour and grief are concerned, sometimes things can only be accounted for by things that are beyond empirical verification. And what Stres accepts, too, is that the norms and conventions of the village, which see the return of the sister as an act by the dead Konstandin, are important their own right, more so than the authority of religion or deduction.

“He now realised that everyone, each in his own way, would take some stand in this affair, and that each person’s attitude would have everything to do with their station in life, their luck in love and marriage, their looks, the measure of good or ill fortune that had been their lot, the events that had marked the course of their life, and their most secret feelings, those that people sometimes hide even from themselves… though they would believe they were passing judgement on someone else’s tragedy, in reality, they would simply be giving expression to their own.”

Ismail Kadare, The Ghost Rider

Annihilation – Jeff Vandermeer

Annihilation is the story of a group of four women investigating an apparently post-apocalyptic part of the world, Area X. It is an expanse of wildness, separated it seems from the rest of world by a man-made border. The area may once have been populated but now the natural and supernatural world is taking it over, it’s history never fully explained.

There have been 11 previous excursions into Area X, to get information we think, although the purpose of the excursions isn’t entirely clear. It’s clear that for at least the last two, if not more, many people died whilst there or made it back but their psyche was shot afterwards.

We experience the 12th expedition through narration by a female biologist who goes into Area X with a psychologist (who has powers of hypnosis), a surveyor and an anthropologist (we never know their names). She signed up for the expedition it transpires, in part because she’s a biologist who’s fascinated by the wildness of nature, and in part because her husband was on the 11th expedition and came back as a shell.

Nature abounds in the abandoned Area X, but beyond the lush wildness it has two significant features – an obscure tower or tunnel, and a lighthouse.

The tunnel is the source of much fascination for the biologist, and they begin exploring it at once. They discover it continues for a long way down and, intriguingly, appears to be an organism – alive, growing, pulsating – with organically growing writing along the walls. In reviews of Annihilation there are frequent references to Lovecraft, Ballard and Poe, and you can see these influences in this mysterious supernatural being.

After things start to go very wrong in the tunnel, the biologist makes her way to the lighthouse where she finds the psychologist and an archive of the previous expeditions’ notes, including her husband’s.

It’s hard to talk about the plot, as the core of Annihilation is less plot and more atmosphere – a disturbing build of tension and uncertainty about the biologist’s co-workers, the secrets behind Area X and most of all the terrifying and uncanny unknown at work in the tunnel and beyond.

And equally interesting, Annihilation is also an excellent character study of the biologist – a woman captivated by nature not people, who longed to sit by a pond and observe, and who struggled in a relationship for years with a man who was extroverted and craved company.