Beat in her blood, J.K.Ullrich (Wild Type Press 2022)

Beat in her blood, Heavy metal mysteries Vol.1 (J.K.Ullrich, Wild Type Press 2022) is an astonishing, and prescient novel. Set in Baltimore in the near future, medical science is outrunning regulation and a black market of robotic limbs and implants has developed for HPM – human performance modification – servicing a willing population. So willing, people are ready to chance their luck with shady doctors moonlighting in back-alley operations. Beat in her blood is science fiction but Ullrich reminds us that the medical enhancements it covers exist already. It takes a second on Google to find an array of scholarly articles on HPM. As she says, those chips that monitor our body’s rhythms are just in our smart phone, not under our skin.  

Unfolding within this world is a mystery. From the first page, a brief Prelude, we are introduced to a character who seems to be conducting surgery on herself. It is clearly not a clinical setting, there is blood and self-administered anaesthesia, yet she is assured, in control. Control, and the lack of it, is a theme that drives this action-packed novel. 

Ullrich’s protagonist Petra is a veteran of a recent conflict. She is battle-scarred with titanium bionic hardware throughout her body and a host of traumatic memories. Petra pilots a boat, a ‘screws cruise’ which provides a makeshift theatre outside the territorial regulatory limits. When she finds a surgeon dying in the hold she teams up with a paramedic, Jonathan, to find out what has happened.

Jonathan knows Dr McCormick from the hospital where he works and he acts as a vehicle for the reader as we come to grips with the ethical terrain—his disbelief that his friend, April McCormick, could willingly participate in this medical tourism evolves, as does ours. Jonathan also carries a profound grief about a different medical procedure gone wrong.

Their investigation takes them to the literal cutting edge of biotechnology. Dr McCormick is connected to the development of a new biotech enhancement which uses electrodes inserted under the scalp to redirect a body’s existing currents to target areas of the brain. The Beat, however, is still experimental. It has been developed by research scientsts in a private facility. Jonathan and Petra cross paths with a scientist, Kade, who has his own mysterious connection to the woman in the boat, and who wants to initiate clinical trials for the Beat. 

“What does this Beat cure?” 

“Depends on the brain region you target with the nodes.” Kade indicated a dangling wire for each item as he listed it. “Psychological problems, nervous disorders, endocrine diseases…” 

“…Adrenaline jolts to improve your speed or give you the edge in a fight.” Frost-framed memories clouded Petra’s vision, and she shook her head to melt them away. 

Kade made a face. “Those things are hypothetically possible, but I hadn’t planned to include them in the app.” 

An app. The setup is persuasive enough that it isn’t a stretch to think, Why not? Ullrich’s deft presentation of the context of biomedical research is compelling—a system where research funding and regulation is driven by companies and markets creating artificial scarcity to feed the rapacious desires of powerful lobbies. Ullrich teases out many of the ethical dilemmas—not only who gets treatment, where and how, but why some and not others are legal and what happens when more and more people need or want them in a world where profit reigns supreme.

It is a story familiar to anyone downstream of a tussle between public and private interests. The most vulnerable are left behind. Pertra is one of these vulnerable. She wants more and better treatment for her veteran siblings who are among those forced to buy ‘junk’ through backyard operations. 

Ullrich’s convincing characters are a pleasure to spend time with and she uses dialogue well to carry action. The language is evocative throughout. ‘Humidity’s thick blanket felt almost comforting after the hospital’s sterile chill. Her sneakers pounded across city blocks, puddles splashing her legs.’

In her Afterword, Ullrich describes a condition that afflicts both her and, more seriously, her sister to whom she dedicates this book. After years of unrelated symptoms, its eventual diagnosis was Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. It manifests differently in every patient and can vary from a mostly manageable condition to living with chronic, untreatable pain. 

Understanding this, it is hardly a surprise that Ullrich explores a world where we can exchange one faulty body part for another. And Ullrich also reminds us that even in a future where replacement limbs are infinite, the world our bodies must inhabit is not. The imperative of climate change requires us to either reverse that process or adapt. She asks, ‘Is transhumanism the solution?’

Beat in her blood is a complex thriller, its multiple plot strands meriting more than one read and, as the first in the Heavy Metal series, there is much to look forward to from J.K.Ullrich.

Advertisement

Jane Caro, The Mother

My review of Jane Caro’s new novel, published by the Newtown Review of Books

Tags: Australian fictionAustralian women writerscoercive controldomestic violenceJane Caro

Though I knew the gist of the issues raised by The Mother before I began – I’d read the devastating stories of victims of domestic violence, watched the news, and thought I understood the issues – this novel still shocks.

Read it here: https://newtownreviewofbooks.com.au/jane-caro-the-mother-reviewed-by-jessica-stewart/

The Furies, Mandy Beaumont and On Reckoning, Amy Remkeikis

Two books released in this nascent year recount women’s trauma and silencing by men, and their rage. 

In On Reckoning, an essay in Hachette’s ‘On’ series, Guardian journalist Amy Remeikis documents the rising tide of women’s anger that led to thousands marching in last year’s March4Justice. In The Furies,novelist Mandy Beaumont carries that anger in a compelling story of trauma, both inherited and present.

My review of The Furies, Mandy Beaumont and On Reckoning, Amy Remkeikis was published by the Newtown Review of Books.

Marshmallow, Victoria Hannan

After the success of her debut, Kokomo, in 2020, Victoria Hannan’s second novel is another study of friendship. Its five characters have been friends since university. They are now in their thirties and each is grappling with a pre mid-life but post first-flush weariness. But this weariness is not ennui; through their shifting points of view, Hannan brings us their shared sorrow.

Marshmallow lays out the raw pain of grief and its weight, its pervasiveness, its ‘inconvenience’ and, piercingly, its loneliness. There has been a tragedy that has impacted all five of them, and Hannan brings a rippling tension from the first page. 

Read the full review at Newtown Review of Books.

ELIZABETH STROUT Oh William! 

Oh William! follows the same ensemble of characters as Elizabeth Strout’s finely honed novel My name is Lucy Barton,and the accompanying collection of stories Anything is Possible (reviewed here),  and I did wonder what more she could bring to this new novel. She had plumbed the aches of sadness, estrangement, poverty and mental illness in her earlier work, and her evocation of living with hurt, with isolation, but also love and beauty, was piercing. What more could she wring from the familiar cast in the small town outside Chicago? I need not have doubted. Oh William! is another extraordinary insight into being human.

When the novel opens, Lucy is mourning her second husband, David, a man who was the love of her life and whom she misses deeply. William is her first husband, whom she had married soon after college, and they were married twenty years with two daughters. His affairs, her thwarted ambition, his absence, all led to the end of the marriage, but they have remained friends. When he invites her to accompany him to Maine to explore an explosive piece of family history he has uncovered, she agrees, albeit reluctantly. She, and his subsequent wives, have always taken care of him and always been under-appreciated; the rewards, in the end, not enough for any of them. 

At times in our marriage I loathed him. I saw, with a kind of dull disc of dread in my chest, that with his pleasant distance, his mild expressions, he was unavailable. But worse. Because beneath his height of pleasantness there lurked a juvenile crabbiness, a scowl that flickered across his soul, a pudgy little boy with his lower lip thrust forward who blamed this person and that person—he blamed me, I felt this often. He was blaming me for something that had nothing to do with our present lives…

It is this needling from the past that propels their journey. There is no escape from the past, though the pain is buried deep. The history they explore relates to William’s mother, Catherine, who entered Lucy’s life as her prospective mother-in-law, a woman very different to Lucy’s own withdrawn, sometimes abusive mother. ‘We loved her. Oh, we loved her … She was vibrant; her face was often filled with light.’ Yet Catherine is not all she seems. Early on, a lack of empathy, a controlling presence, jar the reader, and the book turns on the slow reveal about Catherine and her past. Catherine has reimagined her life at a terrible cost. 

Lucy has also recreated herself, more than once. She left her family, who live in desperate poverty, to take up a scholarship, and we understand here that in leaving William she felt she had abandoned her (grown) daughters. 

But William asks her, are we free to choose, or is that an illusion, even an act of egoism? ‘We just do—we just do Lucy …’ Lucy is taken aback: 

It had felt like a choice to me then. But remembering this now, I realised that also during that whole year I made no motion to put myself back inside the marriage. I kept myself separate.

What she understands is that our actions may not be self-indulgent but necessary. Likewise, we see Catherine acting to save herself. The pain she carried and which seeped into William was a consequence, perhaps inevitable.  

Strout’s ability to take us inside a character’s personal journey, to walk with them, is on every page, in everyday banalities—cleaning teeth, filling a car with petrol—and in their memories. Lucy recounts how once she was missing her parents so much she called them from the fancy lobby of the hotel where she and William were staying. Lucy suffered terrible privations in childhood yet the loneliness of new experiences, of feeling out of place, drove her to seek comfort in the familiar, even when it was a source of hurt.  ‘And I said, I just blurted it out, I said, “Daddy, we’re in Puerto Rico with William’s mother and I don’t know what to do! I don’t know what to do in a place like this!”’ And she is comforted.

We are always in Lucy’s frame of reference. She takes us aside, into her private musings:  ‘Please try to understand this …’,  ‘I should have mentioned earlier …’ or ‘I will tell you just one more thing …’ Strout’s deliberation with words and their placement creates space, slowing us down. She uses few contractions. 

The complexity of women and men is infinite and under Strout’s observant eye, the motives and actions of her characters resonate. Her handling of private trauma is as deft as ever.

Published first in the Newtown Review of Books.

Elizabeth Strout Oh William! Penguin HB 256pp $29.99

Detransition, Baby, Torrey Peters

First published in Newtown Review of Books

Torrey Peters has written a complex and deeply moving novel about the ties that bind us – ties that govern our choices about who we love, how we love, and the costs. Detransition, Babyfollows a trio: Reece, a trans woman; her ex, detransitioned Ames (formerly Amy); and Ames’s new partner, a cis heterosexual woman, Katrina, as they each struggle with the idea of parenthood.

The narrative moves between two time periods, chapters named for the years before or weeks after conception

Reece and Amy meet eight years before conception. Reece is trailing a history of (sometimes abusive) relationships with cis men and Amy, a ‘baby trans’, is overwhelmed by her new knowledge that she is ‘a girl in love with a girl’. The conception in question is Katrina’s – Ames has found that his ‘atrophied testicles’ are, after all, capable of impregnation.

The novel is among the first by an openly trans woman to be published by a big-five publishing company. Torrey Peters received some vicious criticism when it was longlisted for the UK’s 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction, but the judges publicly affirmed her right to enter the prize.

The novel interrogates traditional notions of masculinity and femininity. Our world devalues femininity and its identifying behaviours, which are seen as submissive and weak, and are ridiculed when adopted by men. In her influential book, Whipping Girl: A transsexual woman on sexism and the scapegoating of femininity, first published in 2007, biologist and trans activist Julia Serano asserts that defining masculinity and femininity as a ‘non-overlapping set of attributes, aptitudes, abilities, and desires’ harms us all. The reclaiming of femininity makes trans activism a feminist movement. Detransition, Baby is a profoundly feminist book

This familiar story, the introduction of a baby into a relationship, is wrought here in a context that strips away contrivances. The politics of birthing and raising children, a cradle of feminist struggle, is finely rendered by Peters’s three characters. Reece wants a baby, Ames struggles with the idea of ‘fatherhood’, knowing that Amy is still a vital part of his identity, and Katrina is torn. Peters observes motherhood’s myriad contradictions: expanding in love while simultaneously exhausting and impoverishing women; its very private anguish and joy while also being a public service­­ – a duty on which all have an opinion; and its privilege, which is granted and withdrawn by public policy governing access to contraception, abortion, adoption, and reproductive technologies.

Katrina challenges Reece on some of her assumptions about who is considered a ‘deserving’ mother.

Think about black women, poor women, immigrant women. Think about forced sterilization, about the term “welfare queens” or “anchor babies”. All of that happened to enforce the idea that not all motherhoods are legitimate … I’m not criticizing your feelings, Reece … I’m telling you that I feel the same. Because everyone gets criticized about how they should or shouldn’t be mothering.

Motherhood may be presumptive for cis women, but when these women do not adhere to the procreative norms, they are ‘treated like silly whores, obsessed with themselves, lacking some basic capacity to love’. Julia Gillard is a case in point, labelled by her political enemies as unfit for leadership because she was ‘deliberately barren’.

Peters brings us up close to the reality of living outside gender norms. It is to live with exhaustion: constantly alert, ready to defend, or retreat. It is to live with shame. You are not worthy of love, from a partner, or a child; you are not worthy of a job; trans women are tricksters, untrustworthy. Reece applies ‘in stealth’ for a job in childcare. When she and Amy go to an adoption information evening, Reece says, ‘I feel naughty. Like we’re passing ourselves off as just a normal lez couple.’

It is also to live with sorrow, to be hardened by another death, another suicide, another funeral. In Australia, the LGBTIQ Health Alliance 2020 reports that 35 per cent of transgender people aged 18 and over have attempted suicide in their lifetime.

But cis and trans women share much, including a fear of cis men. A violent assault is a trigger for Amy’s detransition and she begins this path with sorrow.

[Amy] had, of course, long come to understand that masculinity dulled her, that it dissociated her from herself. But honestly, that’s all she wanted at that point.

Patriarchy has no time for sentiment, ambivalence or uncertainty. The humouring of the male ego is so internalised in cis women that Reece is floored by a man’s off-colour joke about his penis, and the muted reaction from the audience of cis women who ‘laugh politely’.

Something else shared is class privilege, a theme woven throughout the novel. Wealth is a protection racket buying safety in housing, medical care, influence. Reece is enraged when she sees ‘Tranny’ plastered all over a wall as part of a book promotion.

Those rich trans bitches. These fucking assholes who transition with hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars to protect them from ever hearing someone say ‘tranny’ to them on the street, so that one day they can write tranny on the streets themselves, and congratulate themselves on being so punk. As if, in a climate of political dread, no one has ever written Jew, or faggot, or hung a noose, or painted a swastika where some poor target tried to pass a small life.

Detransition, Baby is all this, and also so funny, poking fun at our rituals, our clothes, our allegiances; it is a glorious journey about friendship and facing our truths. Torrey Peters has written a story about how to live.

Torrey Peters Detransition, Baby Profile Books 2021 HB 320pp $33.75

The Airways, Jennifer Mills

First published in Newtown Review of Books

Someone recently tweeted that if we gave male violence the same attention as Covid, men would have been under curfew for ever. Published in 2021, this prescient novel deals with both themes, taking the sickness inhabiting the world as an extended metaphor. Though the book’s few time-markers place it in separate periods in the millenium’s teens, the before times, both the virus and the impact of male predation are woven throughout as real and malevolent presences.

Adam has moved from Sydney to Beijing where he is working in some ill-defined marketing role helping ‘deliver bespoke global brand solutions’. The office is in a modern building designed with exposed bricks and pipes to lend it that start-up feel. He is brought down by a mystery illness and leaves work to go home, where he sickens rapidly. Mills draws out every sense. He hallucinates, his body sweats, itches, he is weak with nausea, diarrhoea. The symptoms shriek with recognition: he loses his sense of taste, he can’t breathe. He closed his eyes. The virus, infection, whatever is was, was moving around inside him, waiting for him to fall asleep. The passages where he continues to interact with his colleagues, people in the street, in shops, are overlaid with pandemic tension. Stop!

Alternating chapters mark an earlier timeline where Adam is sharing a house in Sydney with some other students, including Yun (who is studying virology). Adam is drawn to Yun but his interest is not reciprocated. These chapters are heavy with tension. A woman, a fellow student, has been murdered in a nearby street, and a vigil is held for her. 

The Airways opens not with this murder, but with a different violent death, a death which releases the anima who narrates half the book: the ‘they’ whom we follow, who journeys through cities, through new bodies, looking for the one it wants to inhabit. It is a slow stalking.

These chapters are named for sensation – Heat, Hunger – and also for emission, or transmission: Smoke, Steam, River. The airways are breath, life, and ‘they’ are seeking a new body, expelled from their own. As they move into new bodies, trying them out for size, making a home for a while, they learn, become more awake.

The transitions are becoming easier, even if control remains beyond them. They flip through bodies like pages, looking for lines they recognise, that leap of meaning.

Again, in Covid-times, it is impossible not to see a parallel with a virus adapting. Mutating. Cells have an intelligence in The Airways, behaving like sentient beings as they watch a division, ask what changes it brings, even argue with each other.

Adam’s girlfriend, Natasha, has left. He tells people she’s visiting her family for the weekend, but we gradually learn of an invasive video he has posted of her. This is not his only transgression. Adam has his own trauma, unexamined, but it is his ordinariness that jars. In a recurring pattern, he comes face to face with different people who try to move around him, but they collide, bump. He is a man who cannot, or will not, read the signs. He is awkward, carrying a clear sense of inadequacy, and entitlement: ‘He should have gone with them’ quickly becomes ‘They should have asked him to come.’

Male entitlement manifests in other scenes. An unnamed man leans over a counter:

… looks plainly at the tops of her breasts. Want in his groin … Sinking lower, trying to escape his skin and enter hers. When she reacts, frowning, sitting back, he gets a shot of pleasure.

This is a hugely original exploration of the banality of violence, its unremarkable perpetrators—and its hold on those violated, both living and dead. ‘So many people are like this,’ says Mills’ narrator, ‘carrying around their private violence, their body’s understanding with the world.’

Reading, rereading, and untangling The Airways’ strange pursuit is a deeply rewarding journey.

Jennifer Mills The Airways Picador 2021 PB 384pp $32.99

Like Mother, Cassandra Austin

On an ordinary summer’s day in 1969, in a small Australian town, a new mother finds her baby missing from her cot. In this gothic novel, Cassandra Austin draws out the isolation and claustrophobia of new motherhood — and the judgement heaped upon ‘bad mothers’.

My review of Cassandra Austin’s novel, Like Mother, is up now at Newtown Review of Books. An intriguing read.

Cassandra Austin Like Mother Hamish Hamilton 2021 PB 304pp $32.99

The Snow Leopard

Travel, exploration, philosophy, religion and science in one luminous work—Peter Matthiesen’s 1978 classic The Snow Leopard is unlike anything I’ve read before.

Matthiesen has joined an expedition to the Himalayas with a zoologist friend, G.S., to study the bharal, a sheep/goat which has proven elusive to classification—somewhat like this book. Meditation on old and new cultures and spirituality are interspersed with field reports on the bharal and his changing observations of his companions. The book’s title comes from the elusive creature he craves to glimpse during his sojourn in the mountains—a symbol of our constant searching.

As a story of exploration into the wilderness, tension is high: the reader does not know whether both men will return home until the closing pages, or whether the scientific research has been rewarded. The expedition’s course is never certain and the author never lets us forget their near-absolute isolation.

The language both soothes and stimulates. I would wander off into introspection only to be drawn up by some abruptly realised danger. When it is time to leave the monastery where they are based, the porters who arrive to escort him back bring letters from home but he puts these away, unopened. He knows he cannot move any faster in the event of bad news. ‘ (Matthiessen, 2010, p214).

Matthiesen’s acute sensitivity towards cultural difference would be one reason to read this book. Or for the science, calibrated to a lay audience, and dryly humorous. In his description of how the male bharal has evolved to protect their heads while ramming other males, he muses: ‘Why nature should devote so many centuries – thousands, probably – to the natural selection of these characteristics that favour head on collisions over brains is a good question….’ (Matthiesen, 2010, p.229).

And humour, often at his own expense, is frequent.

‘October 25 …. Parts of the ledge have fallen away, and the gaps are bridged by flimsy scaffoldings of saplings.  Certain sections are so narrow and precarious that more than once my legs refuse to move, and my heart beats so that I feel sick.  One horrid stretch, lacking the smallest handhold in the wall, round a windy point of cliff that is one hundred feet or more above the rocks at lake edge, and this I navigate on hands and knees…

The sherpas come, and…GS appears, moving as steadily as the rest; I am glad the cliff corner hid my ignominious advance on hands and knees.  Squeezing by, G.S. remarks, “This is first really interesting stretch of trail we’ve had so far.”  How easy it would be to push him over.’ (Matthiessen, 2010, pp141-142).

Matthiesen is an intriguing figure of vulnerability and toughness and left me hungry for more. Writing this piece now, I find myself wanting to read it again.

Matthiessen, Peter 2010, The Snow Leopard, Vintage, London.