What We're Reading 

Hidden gems, hot favourites, slow burners and the odd guest columnist.

James Bradley and Debra Oswald

 - Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Clade: a group of organisms believed to comprise all the evolutionary descendants of a common ancestor.
I haven’t read James Bradley’s earlier bestselling  novels, Wrack or The Resurrectionist for reasons that escape me, but I am a huge fan of his award-winning literary criticism. We seem to have the same taste in fiction so I very much wanted to like his new novel, Clade, but approached it with trepidation because its apocalyptic nature is not usually my bag. I needn’t have worried.
Clade takes what we know now about climate change, and what scientists predict may happen to the planet, then extrapolates to create a not-too-distant future in which the ice caps have completely melted; in which cities like London, Venice and Shanghai have been  submerged; in which millions of people have died in floods or pandemics and millions more have been displaced and live in camps; in which the dead can be recreated virtually as ‘sims’ for the comfort of the bereaved; in which there are no longer birds, bees or coffee; in which plants genetically engineered to store carbon have instead destroyed natural habitats; in which there is still war in the Middle East and terrorism everywhere—and in which people still love each other and leave each other, in which families matter and children are still born, in which art is still made and beauty still exists.
The story begins around about now with Adam, a climate scientist, watching the Antarctic break up and shift before his eyes as his partner Ellie waits in Sydney for results of their latest IVF attempt. Moving through this century in leaps and bounds, the narrative incorporates all of the above, seen through the eyes of characters related in one way or another to Adam and Ellie (the common ancestors?).  Bradley resists the urge to include long sequences of the many catastrophes which beset the planet, alluding to them sometimes in an aside or a phrase, instead settling for just one beautifully written description of a devastating flood in England. There Adam escapes the oncoming torrents with his errant daughter and newly discovered grandson, Noah—perhaps the most moving of all his characters.
Most of what  Bradley posits has the seeds of fact in the here and now  and is entirely believable (unless you’re a climate sceptic in which case the book will read as pure fantasy). Advances in technology such as lenses, virches (virtual worlds) and layovers are not that far-fetched. This from Dylan, who creates  ‘sims’: And so I put my lenses on, went walking in one of the virches…I fetched up on a moon around a gas giant in a system on the edge of the Rift, a place where gardens grew on gleaming towers and the great sphere of the planet and its rings filled the sky. Bradley's writing is superb—spare but lyrical, especially his descriptions of the natural world.
What gives this astonishing novel its heart and humanity, is the way in which these frightening scenarios are seen through the prism of his characters, people who struggle and despair, but who also continue to live day-to-day through the thick smog and uncertainty of it all. Yes, the world has gone to hell in a hand-basket (to put it mildly), but the world and the planet is always changing and people manage to live with new realities. In the end, Bradley's greatest achievement in a novel of so many incredible moments, is his transcendent ending which suggests that we are all part of a clade, the human clade—and we will survive. Morgan Smith

 Women in Clothes edited by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits and Leanne Shapton is a wide and diverse, endlessly interesting exploration of what clothes mean to women, what their personal style is, how they came to it and how it may have changed over the years. (I love Shapton’s work but am unfamiliar with the other two writers) The editors sent  a questionnaire to over 600 women and have put the responses together, along with illustrations, stories and interviews to create a fascinating sociological survey. In one sequence a group of women in an office photocopy their hands and then talk about the rings they wear—where they came from and the meaning they have. Includes well-known women like ‘It’ girl, Lena Dunham as well as hundreds of women just like you and me. A book you can dip into, though I read it cover to cover. Morgan Smith

A copy of Useful by Debra Oswald was placed in my hand, with the instruction to read & report. Well, I am happy to say I loved it. I was very taken by the main character & his struggles with life. Sullivan Moss is a man not well liked by his friends—which would explain why he doesn't have any, & his life is a shambles. He is a drunken, overweight desperate man who thinks life is no longer worth living and decides to end it all. Of course, being Sullivan Moss, this like everything in his life, doesn't go to plan and Sullivan wakes up in hospital with a badly bruised head and terrible concussion. While lying there contemplating his failure of a life, Sully decides to stop being useless and to become useful instead. Through meeting a seriously ill man in the hospital café, he decides he will become a living donor and donate a kidney to a stranger. What follows is funny, sad but also kind of poignant as Sully tries to change and become the person that someone might like to receive a kidney from. He loses weight, stops drinking, starts a fitness regime—all to look after that precious gift, his kidney. From being someone no one wanted to know, suddenly he is wanted by everyone. Women who would not look at the old Sully are now are very keen to get to know the new one. This of course, leads to complications, and Sully's determination to stay clean and pure are put to the test. There are many lovely scenes in the book, but one of my favourites is when Sully meets Natalie, who turns out to be a great friend to Sully. The scene involves moving a dead body, which is wrapped in a sheet, from one flat to another. Shades of my most loved episode of Faulty Towers. As a result of all these happenings, Sully very quickly realises that it is not easy to be altruistic, and the struggle to remain a good person turns out to be harder than he thought it would be. Janice Wilder