New Books, by Claire Messud

Sign in to access Harper’s Magazine

Need to create a login? Want to change your email address or password? Forgot your password?

  1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
  2. Select Email/Password Information.
  3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.

Locked out of your account? Get help here.

Subscribers can find additional help here.

Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!

Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99.
Subscribe for Full Access
Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99.
“Domestic Pig—Sus scrofa domestica,” by Henry Horenstein, from the series Animalia © The artist

“Domestic Pig—Sus scrofa domestica,” by Henry Horenstein, from the series Animalia © The artist

Gustave Flaubert famously wanted to write “a book about nothing,” sustained only by “the internal force of its style.” Are pigs “nothing,” one might wonder? The premise of Ellyn Gaydos’s debut memoir Pig Years (Knopf, $27) may seem unpromising, at least to urbanites. And yet even if you’ve never given farming a thought, Gaydos is a writer of such vigorous eloquence that you’ll find yourself riveted.

To speak of a narrative arc or plot in Pig Years seems beside the point: farming is a cyclical endeavor. The events described take place between 2016 and 2020, when Gaydos worked as a hired hand on various farms in upstate New York and Vermont. Certain characters, both human and animal, recur: Gaydos’s partner Graham is a constant, and she has an enduring friendship with two farmers, Ethan and Sarah, who are initially a couple and subsequently co-workers. But the pigs follow an annual rhythm of birth, fattening, and inevitable slaughter that resists traditional narrative satisfaction. Lovers of Charlotte’s Web will repeatedly wish for salvation. In particular, there appears late in the memoir a scrawny pig named Gudrun, sister to Theresa and Ursula, “preternaturally fast-running and hairy like a calf, a strange and half-starved creature, part of her porcine identity lost to sickness,” for whom this naïve reader held out great hope. It turns out that Gaydos’s friend Sarah does, too, though for Gudrun’s sister: “Can’t we pardon Theresa?” she asks. And yet the pigs’ trajectory is inexorable, and Gaydos describes their deaths and brutal dismantling with dispassionate care:

The whole house is infused with the suffocating smell of ripe fat. Everywhere—under nails, in hair, on walls, in dishes, and on whiskers—there are little flecks of pink flesh.

The memoir imparts an abiding sense of the gravity of these acts—of raising, tending, and killing animals; of planting, nurturing, and harvesting vegetables—that lends an almost sacred quality to Gaydos’s prose. There is a compact between humans and the animals, between humans and the land, an acknowledgment that necessity has always driven, and will always drive, the annual cycle. The year’s last harvest takes place after the frost, on a day of thaw:

Tugged from the cold mud, the leeks are gathered into piles, and the white stringy roots, clotted with earth, severed. We are blue-lipped, crawling through the partially thawed mud and snow, ineptly sawing away at piles of leeks.

Humans and leeks, in the end, are not so very different.

Unplotted, the memoir is, like life, peppered with significant, unforeseeable incidents: animals escape and must be retrieved; a long-troubled co-worker dies by suicide; Gaydos, eager for a child, becomes pregnant, but loses the baby. It is enlivened by the author’s vivid conjuring of the people around her: not just her extended family and fellow farmhands, but also the longtime residents of the disintegrating Sufi commune in New Lebanon, New York, which surrounds Ethan and Sarah’s farm. We come to find familiar, if not to know, the feisty bartender at the Gallup Inn, and the families out for a day’s entertainment at the Lebanon Valley Speedway. Gaydos illuminates a traditional way of life—one of grueling labor, physical exhaustion, and ravenous hunger, filled with challenges yet punctuated by exhilarating joys—that is, in our era of material carelessness, emotional detachment, and spiritual confusion, a reminder of life’s elemental urgency, and, amid the magnified minutiae of each day, its astonishing beauty. She achieves this through the meticulous and enlivened observation simply of what is. We see it even in the book’s opening paragraph, in which a pig named M.J. approaches her lunch:

There is always other life on the sows, fallen elderberries stuck between coarse hairs, their seven-hundred-pound frames animated by the movement of green inchworms and errant piglets. M.J., in heat again, arrives panting before her midday bucket of cream. Her simple pig vulva has become full and dewy, a clean point of expectant flesh.

It would not have occurred to this reader until now that a sow’s vulva might occasion such loveliness: prose style is a kind of magic.

Dark Cake, by Wayne Thiebaud © Wayne Thiebaud Foundation/Christie’s Images/Bridgeman Images/VAGA/Artists Rights Society, New York City

Dark Cake, by Wayne Thiebaud © Wayne Thiebaud Foundation/Christie’s Images/Bridgeman Images/VAGA/Artists Rights Society, New York City

Devotees of Hilary Mantel’s most famous work, the Wolf Hall trilogy, about the life of Thomas Cromwell, might be forgiven for not focusing first on her stylistic mastery—there are, in these novels, many remarkable elements to praise. But those who’ve delighted for decades in Mantel’s fiction revel in her chameleonlike facility with language, her ability effortlessly to evoke wildly diverse characters, settings, and atmospheres—not only the court of Henry VIII, but also the French Revolution, the stifling experience of an expat white woman in late-twentieth-century Saudi Arabia, or, in her new collection, Learning to Talk (Henry Holt, $19.99), the pinched and parochial society of England’s postwar north.

The stories here were mostly published around the turn of the century, and were collected as a book in the United Kingdom almost twenty years ago. They will be new, however, to many American readers; casting in fiction material that emerged with such extraordinary vividness in her 2003 memoir, Giving Up the Ghost (which shares its name with one of the pieces in this collection), they enable us the more fully to appreciate Mantel’s wide-ranging gifts.

In a poignant preface, she lays out the particular strangeness of her upbringing. In hidebound, small-town 1950s Derbyshire, Mantel’s mother brought her lover to live with the family for several years, until they moved away with the children, leaving Mantel’s father behind. In the stories, Mantel explains, “visitors turn into fathers, fathers fade away, run away, are left behind; they exist in a kind of fugue state.” But these fathers recur nevertheless: an amiable but wanly defeated birth father scurrying from sight, and the lodger-turned-stepfather Jack, “choleric” or with “sunburned skin and muscles beneath his shirt . . . your definition of a man, if a man was what caused alarm and shattered the peace.” In “Third Floor Rising,” it is the stepfather’s frightening temper that prompts the narrator to move out of her family home at age eighteen.

The stories overlap, each a differently angled account of childhood trauma. Implied throughout is the pull of social ambition, a recognition that the stepfather, difficult as he was, enabled improvement in the family circumstances. The title story, “Learning to Talk,” takes as its subject the elocution lessons that were to save the narrator from her northern accent. Religion matters also: in “King Billy Is a Gentleman,” the narrator, a Catholic boy named Liam, describes violent exchanges with his Protestant neighbor, Philip. Meanwhile, Philip’s mother Myra rants about the immorality of Liam’s mother having shacked up with their lodger. “It was only later, when I left home, that I understood the blithe carelessness of the average life,” the adult Liam observes. “There are no secrets in their lives, there is no poison at the root.”

In “Destroyed,” the narrator’s agony—superseded by half-siblings, in a new family where she no longer belongs—is explored through the fate of two family dogs, Victor and Mike, the former a birthday gift and the latter its littermate, snatched from the jaws of death. With the arrival of her little brother, “Victor’s character took a turn for the worse,” and though she’s told he’s been sent to live elsewhere, she understands that he has in fact been put down, “destroyed.” When Mike later goes missing, she wants to explain to a stranger that “Mike is only my stepdog,” a victim of the tenuousness of family bonds, and of the secrecy and disavowal everywhere.

The narrator of “Third Floor Rising” recalls her first job, at eighteen, following her mother onto the shop floor of a local department store, where “my colleagues, breathing over me the faint minted aroma of their indigestion remedies, received me with unbounded kindness.” But over the season, she discovers darker complexities beneath the amicable surface, coming ultimately to the conclusion that

When I looked back from, say, the age of twenty-three to the age of eighteen, I realized that, in those years, everything had been far worse than it seemed at the time.

The overall effect of the collection is of a palimpsest, the powerfully atmospheric evocation of an unhappy mid-twentieth-century childhood in northern England. Situation and prospects were determined by the binding nets of social class, bourgeois morality, and religion: to be cast out, lost, was both a terror and, perhaps, the only hope in a world replete with loss and unspeakable silences, simultaneously drab and deeply strange. “Sometimes you come to a thing you can’t write,” says Mantel in “Giving Up the Ghost.” “You’ve written everything you can think of, to stop the story getting here.”

Winter, Cat on a Cushion, by Théophile Alexandre Steinlen. Courtesy the New York Public Library Digital Collections

Winter, Cat on a Cushion, by Théophile Alexandre Steinlen. Courtesy the New York Public Library Digital Collections

Peter C. Baker, in his deft and engaging debut novel, takes as his premise an unwritable thing, and rather like Houdini, wriggles impressively out of the trap he has set himself. Planes (Knopf, $27), set in 2004, unfolds in two distinct and carefully rendered settings. The novel opens with Amira, formerly Maria, an Italian woman in Esquilino, a working-class neighborhood of Rome. Leading a life of circumscribed routine, she waits for the return of her husband, Ayoub, but she has also reestablished a tender (though chaste) friendship with her high school boyfriend Paolo, who has recently moved to the city. We come to understand that Ayoub is incarcerated in Morocco, a victim of extraordinary rendition from Pakistan by the Americans in our infamous war on terror. Alone and tarnished by the accusations against her husband, Amira lives in uncertainty, with a sense of public shame; only her parents, a close friend named Meryem, and, of course, Paolo, offer support.

The second narrative takes place in the fictional town of Springwater, North Carolina, where a married real estate agent named Melanie is having an affair with a man named Bradley, with whom she works on the school board. Bradley is a Republican businessman; Mel and her husband, Art, are liberals in exile from Durham, where they were left-wing activists alongside their close friends Linda and Robert, before Art’s career as a social worker led them to Springwater.

These two women’s lives, apparently impossibly far from each other, prove connected by a powerful thread: Linda and Robert contact Mel and Art to enlist their help in protesting a charter company, Arcadian Airlines, that runs the CIA’s rendition flights—one of which carried Ayoub.* It further transpires that Bradley is, at least on paper, the company’s president.

The plot thickens: Mel and Art’s son Michael, popping home from college for an impromptu visit, discovers his mother with her lover. After several days of silence, he instructs her to divulge her secret to Art, which she cannot bear to do. Meanwhile, Ayoub, miraculously released, returns home to Esquilino, but is inevitably altered by his ordeal. The formerly jubilant and passionate young couple must renegotiate their relationship.

This might easily devolve into a straightforward, issue-based story—we can all imagine the film we might watch on a plane. And to an extent, this is indeed the novel you expect it to be. But Baker, as if tiptoeing through a minefield, manages to circumvent cliché. He knows his characters well, and his interest lies not in manipulating them, but in following their reactions to the circumstances in which they find themselves. Ayoub adopts a cat that reminds him of a cat in the prison, even though Amira is strongly allergic. He wants to eat to please her, but cannot keep down the dishes that he used to love. Meanwhile, when Mel and Art try to persuade the people of Springwater to join their campaign against Arcadian Airlines, they encounter unforeseen resistance: the local pastor and the owner of their beloved coffee shop both fail to see a case for wrongdoing, and Mel and Art must reshape their lives accordingly.

Baker’s prose is clean and vivid, his characters movingly and effectively evoked. His decision to avoid tackling torture directly, and to navigate instead the everyday lives of those peripherally affected, feels, in this moment, both quaint and ultimately wise. Accustomed to seeing explosive footage, we often pay less attention to the quieter internal damage that ensues. Following the repercussions of extraordinary rendition for a young wife in Rome and a middle-aged mother in North Carolina illuminates urgent questions in unexpected ways. As the aphorist and poet Novalis wrote, “Novels arise out of the shortcomings of history.” Baker understands that these are the stories that don’t appear in history books, the uncertain, complex, ordinary lives that must find a way to continue in spite of crisis.


More from