Collected Toaster Settings, 2015 – 2017

These collected toaster settings are drawn from an occasional Twitter series. They are presented here without comment, not least because I have no idea how to account for them.

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor

An edited version of this review originally appeared in the Irish Times.

‘Ordinary things,’ the novelist Marilynne Robinson once remarked, ‘have always seemed numinous to me.’ Jon McGregor may not share Robinson’s preoccupation with the divine, but there are few writers whose work has more consistently affirmed the luminous dignity of the everyday. His debut novel, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, took as its subject an unnamed city street and the inner lives of its residents. Panoptic and quietly rhapsodic, its very title seemed to announce his intentions as a writer. ‘If you listen, you can hear it,’ it began. ‘The city, it sings.’

And sing it did. There was no shortage of beauty in this early work, though its painterly effects tended at times to eclipse its characters, presenting not so much human interactions as exquisite tableaux vivants. McGregor has long since learned to temper these excesses, honing his lyrical gifts and yielding the foreground to his characters. His growing stature has not gone unrecognised. Longlisted twice for the Booker prize, he won the Impac Dublin Literary Award in 2012 for Even The Dogs. Even by the standards of his mature work, however, McGregor’s latest novel is a remarkable achievement.


Set in an unnamed town in the English midlands, Reservoir 13 seems at first to tread familiar ground. A young girl has gone missing, and in the darkness of a midwinter morning the search is beginning. ‘It was cold and there was little conversation. There were questions that weren’t being asked.’

The missing girl, Rebecca Shaw, had been on a family holiday and had formed only a few tenuous friendships. In the photograph that is circulated her face is ‘half-turned away’. She is remembered variously as ‘Rebecca, or Becky, or Bex’, an elusive and prismatic presence in the town’s collective consciousness. Most people hardly knew her, but rumours are repeated. Stories are told. Spring arrives, and still Rebecca has not been found.

Life goes on. It is a comforting truism, something we tell ourselves in the aftermath of shocking or inexplicable events. Yet to a writer of McGregor’s particular gifts, the banal can present invigorating challenges. Life does go on, undeniably, but how? How do we absorb events like these, and how do they alter us?

To answer these questions, McGregor returns to the broad social canvas of his first novel, but his undertaking here is far more ambitious. The author himself posted a partial dramatis personae on Twitter that ran to eighty-odd entries. Many are recurring characters, not fully developed in the usual sense, but skilfully realised nonetheless. They emerge in glancing encounters, the narrative’s perspective slipping unobtrusively among them. The effect is cumulative and subtle, leaving us with a precisely calibrated sense of familiarity. These are people we might see on the school run, or speak to while queueing at the post office. We can only glimpse their inner lives, guess at their secrets.

McGregor’s prose throughout this novel is as near to faultless as makes no difference.

At times the narrative drifts apart from human company altogether, pausing to observe the foraging of fox cubs or to mark some small increment in the progress of the seasons: ‘The sun cut further into the valley and under the ash trees the first new ferns unfurled from the cold black soil.’ Descriptive writing of this kind is often praised for its ‘arresting’ beauty, yet these passages are remarkable precisely because they do not halt the reader’s momentum. Indeed, McGregor’s prose throughout this novel is as near to faultless as makes no difference. Fluid and fastidious, its sparing loveliness feels deeply true to its subject. There are moments, as in life, of miraculous grace, but no more than that.

There is beauty, likewise, in the moors and in the beech woods that surround the town, but this is no mere idyll. Here too the life that persists is driven by animal necessity. Unfledged blackbirds are taken by crows. Goldcrests feed in the churchyard yews. We see summers end (‘the butterflies rose like ash on the breeze and the ice-cream vans still appeared’) and winters encroach again (‘the sheep were nicotine-yellow against the fresh snow’). The missing girl is spoken of still, as the years pass. There are occasional ‘sightings’, though these are no longer taken seriously. She recedes in the town’s memory, but never quite vanishes. Suspicions arise (as when a school caretaker is found in possession of child abuse images), that may come to nothing.

It is a mark of greatness in a work of art that its effects, though profound, are not easily accounted for. Reservoir 13 is not a crime novel, at least in the traditional sense, and its central mystery is more than just a procedural puzzle. We do not come to know Rebecca Shaw, but we feel in the end that her life has been given a solemn and particular weight, its traces documented until they are too faint to be seen. In her absence, the swallows come and go. People marry or move away. There are moments of sadness, of squalor, of indelible beauty. Look, this humane and tender masterpiece is saying. This is what becomes of us. This is what remains. Life goes on.

Reservoir 13 is published by 4th Estate.

The Countenance Divine by Michael Hughes

This review originally appeared in the Guardian.

Since A.S. Byatt’s Possession, which won the 1990 Booker Prize, we have seen a recurrent vogue for novels in which contemporary and historical narratives are interleaved. It is a device that has been put to many uses, but it has proved especially attractive to writers who, like Byatt, are given to flourishes of erudition and who are drawn to its potential for formal experimentation. One manifestation of this has been a trend towards increasing complexity, leading to the emergence of what might be termed the ‘novel of ingenuity’, whose proliferating timelines (as in the recent fiction of David Mitchell) provide the readiest index of its ambitions.

chmcr9iucaaaituThe Countenance Divine contents itself with four, interweaving a near-contemporary narrative with three distinct historical strands. In 1999, introverted computer programmer Chris Davidson is shoring up rickety software against the ‘Millennium Bug’, a doom that now appears impossibly quaint. It is a humdrum existence, described in an oddly affectless tone: ‘Chris liked his job. It was hard work and the hours were long, but he was very good at it.’

But Chris, we quickly realise, is not quite what he seems. On a whim, he buys a strange wooden puzzle from a market trader. As he tinkers with this ‘Practical Rebus’, he is plagued by strange thoughts: that he has been alive for hundreds of years; that the city is on fire; that he has been chosen for some special purpose.

At the office, Chris keeps up appearances. As the millennium looms and fears of economic and civil chaos grow, he beavers away on lines of neglected computer code. His inner life, however, is in turmoil, and his visions have taken a frankly apocalyptic turn: ‘The world was about to end, and it was all his fault.’

Before it can, though, we find ourselves in the London of 1888, amid the livid horrors of the Whitechapel murders. Taking the infamous ‘From hell’ letter as his starting point, Hughes presents a cache of imagined correspondence by the same hand, in which the putative Ripper gives his account of the remaining murders and alludes, in darkly cryptic terms, to his instructions from a ‘Mr Blake’ (who has, incidentally, made him a gift of a now-familiar ‘puzzle toy’).

Hughes, who has worked for many years as an actor, has an exquisite ear for diction.

This sequence, though disturbing, is a remarkable feat of ventriloquism. Hughes (who has worked for many years as an actor) has an exquisite ear for diction, and for all the dismal savagery of the acts his Ripper recounts, it is the coarse verisimilitude of his verbal tics that makes him truly terrifying. ‘Ile set you down on the ground,’ he writes, ‘nise and gentle.’

The Ripper’s ‘Mr Blake’, it transpires, is none other than William Blake. We encounter him in 1790, as he laboriously engraves his own tiny print run of Songs of Innocence and of Experience (whose formative visions, to preserve his satisfying chronological schema, Hughes locates in 1777). Blake, too, is brought to life with extraordinary assurance. We are shown not only the fervent visionary, but also the playful Dissenter and, less familiarly, the mercurial but tender husband.

Hughes has done his textual scholarship too, though he stitches it into his narrative without undue showiness. Blake’s visions, for instance, are announced by ‘a hot, gnawing chatter in his toe’, a detail that echoes his epic poem, Milton, in which the spirit of that revered poet enters Blake’s body by way of his foot. Similarly, when the remains of Milton are disinterred (and here, again, Hughes hinges his tale on historical events), Blake secures possession of one of his ribs, fashioning from it a homunculus in which Milton is, rather wearily, reanimated. This is every bit as outlandish as it sounds, yet it is, to be fair, a thoroughly Blakean outlandishness (homunculi were apt to appear in his engravings), and such are the verve and conviction of Hughes’ vision that we accept it with hardly a raised eyebrow.

In 1666, meanwhile, a blind and disconsolate Milton is racing against time to see his great epic published. Though he is no longer in immediate danger, the Restoration has left him with few friends. Unlike Blake, the convictions of his youth have deserted him, and his dream of an English New Jerusalem is in ruins. His prophecies have not been forgotten, however, and those who cling to them are now scheming against him. In the ashes of the Great Fire of London, we begin to glimpse the grand design that is unfolding across the centuries.

All of this may sound rather daunting; this is, it must be said, an intricate and densely allusive novel. Yet for all the seriousness of its meditations on literary heritage and millenarian theology, The Countenance Divine is never less than superbly stimulating. It is a debut of high ambition that marks the arrival of a considerable talent.

What the Spellchecker Saw: Amy Liptrot

What the Spellchecker Saw is an occasional series of posts in which I examine the contents of writers’ spellcheckers. Specifically, I look at their custom dictionaries, or the words they’ve added in the course of writing a particular book. This may sound unpromising, but as I tried to explain in my original post, these word lists are fascinating artefacts of the creative process; they offer, I think, a uniquely revealing insight into a writer’s language and ways of thinking.

Following Sarah Perry’s guest appearance in the last post, I’m delighted to have a new word list from another extraordinary writer to pore over. Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun, which was published to great acclaim in January, is both a memoir of addiction and homecoming and an illuminating study of our complex relationships with the natural world.

I reviewed The Outrun for The Irish Times, and praised it for the humaneness and candour of its account of addiction and recovery. What I admired most, though, was not so much its sense of place – a description that seems inadequate in this instance – but rather its primacy of place. Although Amy’s return to Orkney is central to her recovery, it is no mere backdrop. She is concerned with the personal significance of place, but is also deeply preoccupied with its physical constitution, with the substance and topology of her Orkney home and with the forces of all kinds – geological, climatic, economic – that act on it.

The Orkney of The Outrun, then, is both a childhood home (with all the attendant emotional complexity) an immense laboratory of personal discovery. This gives the book both an emotional rootedness and an exhilarating intellectual range. Both are discernible, I think, in Amy’s absorbing word list. In words like rockpools and beachcombing, we glimpse the island home she ranged over as a child, while cartological and the splendidly exotic islomaniacs hint at her later fascination with mapping its shape and extent.


There is evidence, too, in words like moonbows, of Amy’s interest in astronomical and atmospheric phenomena, and of a curiosity that extends to the migratory patterns of birds (geolocators), to plate tectonics (faultline, though it may serve a metaphorical purpose, occurs here in a refreshingly literal sense) and to marine biology (the magnificent hydromedusaeamong my personal favourites from this list, refers to a subclass of aquatic invertebrates).

These are fascinating specimens, and very much in the spirit of the book, but perhaps the richest of this list’s treasures are in its lavish scattering of Orcadian dialect. In previous posts on this subject, I’ve mentioned the intriguing way in which these custom dictionaries seem to capture the essence of a writer’s individual habits of language. In this case, Amy’s idiolect is enriched by the language of Orkney, itself a fascinating confluence of Scots English and Norn, the North Germanic language that was spoken there until the 15th century.

These are words to be savoured for their sounds alone, but for most of us they do necessitate a glossary. One is provided at the beginning of The Outrun, and I’ve reproduced some of those definitions here. If you haven’t read the book already, you may well find (as I did) that these words – the glint and heft of them, their commanding and incantatory beauty – are all the invitation you need.

haar: sea fog

hillyans: mythical hill folk

holm: offshore islet

kye: cattle

lum: chimney

muckle: big

noust: hollow for storing small boats

peedie: small

selkie: seal

spoot: razor clam

teeick: lapwing

tystie: black guillemot





What the Spellchecker Saw: Sarah Perry

I wrote a blog post some time ago in which I revealed the list of words I had added to my spellchecker’s dictionary while writing The Maker of Swans.

I was reminded of it when I saw this tweet from Sarah Perry. In a spirit of fellow feeling, I sent her a link to the piece. She might find it diverting, I suggested. Or distressing. Because these things can go either way.

To my delight (and, if I’m honest, much as I had hoped), Sarah was prompted to produce a list of her own, compiled during the writing of her wonderful novel, The Essex Serpent, which will be published in June. I’m reproducing the list here with Sarah’s permission.

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In my earlier post, I tried to describe what I find peculiarly fascinating about these word lists. What’s crucial, I think, is the peculiar mechanism by which they are created, this quiet salting away of eccentricities. The words we store in this way aren’t a representative sample, exactly, or not in the usual, statistical sense. But they are, like certain kinds of light, obliquely but starkly illuminating. You see things, etched in shadow on certain October evenings, that are all but invisible in the staring brilliance of a summer noon.

They are outliers, these words, much as we may gripe at their omission from Microsoft’s dictionaries. They are cherished oddities, hoarded for their rarity, their special lustre. And they are precious, of course. They are precious in the precise sense of being irreplaceable. Not one of these words could have been exchanged for any other.

But why these words, in particular? Poring over my own list felt furtive and radically unsavoury, like drinking my own wee. But since these are Sarah’s choices, the whole thing is above board. I can sit hunched over the specimen case for hours, sighing in contentment or hissing in envy. I can get my notebook out. I can classify things.

In some cases (like daybright or blueflowered), they are nonce words, neologisms borne of some small semantic or prosodic necessity known only to Sarah. There were (we must imagine) occasions when, discovering some minute fissure in the edifice of the language, she discerned the precise contours of the word that would fill it. Darking. There. Perfect.

Others, like the delightful unciform (an anatomical term meaning ‘hook-like’) and ergotism (poisoning induced by fungus-infected cereals) are truly obscure, words whose meanings we discover with a little throb of glee and carry away, Smaug-like, to deposit atop our glittering piles. All of these words, though, are in some degree out of the ordinary. They are archaic or bookish, fanciful or folkloric, impressionistic or clinical. They are excessive, in the very best sense of the word; they are the traces a writer left as she strained at the boundaries of everyday language.

Of course, the novel isn’t full of words like these; if it were, the effect would be unbearably cloying. In fact, they are stitched into its fabric with such unobtrusive care that I had no recollection of having encountered some of them. Nonetheless, this list is uncannily faithful to the book, a distillation of its essence.

The main character in The Essex Serpent, Cora Seaborne, is a remarkable creation. She is a restless and passionately curious autodidact. She is an amateur naturalist, in the Victorian tradition, and an inveterate collector of fossils. She is a widow, and zealously protective of her new-found autonomy, and yet she falls in love — extravagantly and inconveniently — with a recalcitrant country cleric.

Cora will become, I suspect, a widely beloved character, for these qualities and many others. And perhaps it is Cora, in particular, who is so immediately and vividly summoned by this list, Cora’s impatient and questing nature, her devotion to reason and inquiry, her joyous heterodoxy of spirit.

I was lucky enough to read a proof of The Essex Serpent a few weeks ago. If I hadn’t, though, this list alone would have done it. This list, more than any blurb or review, would have made me long to read it, to inhabit this world of verdigris and oakwoods, of samphire and lapis lazuli.

Now that I have, I can only offer my heartfelt commendation. The Essex Serpent is all of these things and more. It is a treasure, this book. It is daybright and noctilucent. It is starlike.


The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan

This review originally appeared, in edited form, in The Spectator.

It is the fate of the second novel to be measured against the debut that it follows, a fate that becomes inescapable when that debut is met with acclaim (Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon was shortlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize) or is held to exemplify some modish literary subgenre (‘gritty Scottish realism’, in Fagan’s case, a designation that was not only modish but also largely invented).

The Sunlight Pilgrims - CoverFagan was ill-served, in this regard, by reflexive comparisons to Irvine Welsh, which made much of her use of profanity and dialect. But whereas the strenuous transgressiveness of Welsh’s style has long since descended into shtick, Fagan’s coarseness of language, to the extent that it was remarkable at all, was never more than surface detail. It was clearly in the service of authenticity of voice, and never subsumed her intentions in the way that Welsh’s has. Anais Hendricks, the disturbed but resilient protagonist of The Panopticon, is memorable for much more than her readiness with swear words. Far more noteworthy, for instance, was Fagan’s rigorously unsentimental and richly illuminating treatment of vulnerability and mental illness.

When eleven-year-old Stella Fairbairn, the central presence in The Sunlight Pilgrims, lapses into vulgarity, she is half-heartedly discouraged by her mother, Constance, who resorts (in a wry gesture by Fagan) to keeping a swear jar. Unlike The Panopticon, which imagined a contemporary dystopia of dysfunctional care homes and squalid flats, The Sunlight Pilgrims evokes a bracingly plausible near-future (the year is 2020) in which climate change has lurched into a terrifyingly acute phase: there is snow in Jerusalem; an iceberg is looming off the Scottish coast.

If a recurring preoccupation is evident, it is with the inner lives of the marginalised in the shadow of vast and indifferent forces. Stella, we learn, was once a boy named Cael. Her transition, though supported by the valiant and resourceful Constance, has not been entirely untraumatic. She is subjected to horrific bullying and institutional callousness. Denied the hormonal treatments she needs and unwilling to contemplate surgery, she struggles to construct for herself an attainable ideal of femininity. In a deeply touching scene, handled by Fagan with characteristic lightness of touch, Stella watches online porn featuring a trans actor. There is nowhere else, she reflects, where she can see ‘a body like her own having sex’.

Stella and Constance are joined in their caravan park by Dylan, who, until their recent deaths, ran an arthouse cinema in Soho with his resolutely unconventional mother and grandmother. Dylan is cast adrift, both by his grief and by the encroaching crisis. As the cold intensifies and the news is filled with intimations of social collapse, these three are soon entwined in unlikely domesticity, finding in it the nearest thing to salvation that this intimately imagined and chillingly credible apocalypse has to offer.


The Sunlight Pilgrims is published by William Heinemann.

There Are No Rules

An edited version of this article originally appeared in The Irish Times.

When you publish a novel, there are certain questions that come up a lot.

What’s your book about? What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

In my case, at least, these questions have identical answers: there are no rules.

That sounds monstrously adolescent, I realise, but bear with me. I can explain. My book, without giving too much away, is about a young girl for whom there are no rules. As for advice, I don’t have any. In fact, there isn’t any, or none that matters. There are no rules.

I don’t mean that I’m special or exceptional. I’m just speaking from what little experience I have. And I did everything wrong, basically. Everything, right from the beginning.

26It’s not as if I didn’t know any better. When you’re writing a book and trying to get it published, one of the first things you discover is that there’s no shortage of advice on the subject. There are lucid primers by reputable publishing professionals. There are candid and only gently chiding self-help manuals by veteran writers. There are impassioned but violently illiterate online screeds by—well, it can be hard to tell. Plus, I wasn’t really paying attention.

And there is a lot of this stuff. No, really. There is a corpus of received wisdom so gigantic that it would take many lifetimes to traverse it in its entirety. Luckily, you don’t have to. You can ignore it, all of it. There are no rules.

No, honestly. I did everything wrong. You’re not supposed to approach an agent until you’ve finished your novel. That one is practically a commandment. Well, I approached an agent before I’d even started a novel. I asked her to hang on for a bit while I wrote one, and it was fine. Granted, she didn’t like it when it was finished, but if I hadn’t put myself in such a spectacularly awkward predicament, I’m not sure I’d have produced a novel at all. And anyway, the next agent I showed it to did like it, so it all worked out in the end. No one died. There are no rules.

But, but, but. You’ve got to follow the submission guidelines. And your query letter has to be flawless. And it’s vital to format your manuscript correctly. And so on.

Look, here’s thing. The query letter is just an email. You have to send it to the right person. You have to include the right information and write it clearly and so on. You know, like a competent adult. You don’t need rules for that. And yes, you do also have to write it in such a way that you don’t appear deranged or unpleasant, but you don’t need rules for that either. You just need not to be deranged or unpleasant.

The same goes for the manuscript. Are you good at writing? No, I mean, properly good, not ever-since-I-was-little good? And have you read lots of books? Well, you’ll be fine, then. You’ll know the sort of thing that happens in them, and what they’re supposed to look like, with the paragraphs and the dialogue and what-have-you. So, you know, just write one of those.

And by ‘write’, of course, I mean ‘type’. It’s not a Sumerian epic. You type the book like a normal person, you make sure there aren’t any spelling mistakes and you save it in the document format used by literally everyone alive. You don’t need rules for this stuff. Seriously. This is just what people do. There are no rules.

This applies to the writing too. In fact, this applies especially to the writing. Take Elmore Leonard’s oft-cited ‘rules’, for instance, which have now acquired something approaching the force of doctrine. It helps, of course, that these ‘rules’ are themselves unshowy gems of aphorism: ‘Never open a book with weather’; ‘Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip’. Nice. It’s not hard to see the appeal.

For the record, Elmore Leonard is a writer I revere. His ‘rules’, like everything he wrote, are a source of delight. What many people seem to miss, though, is that they aren’t rules at all. Leonard read widely, we may be sure, and in many genres. He knew better than most that any rule you care to formulate has any number of glorious exceptions. He even says as much, in the article in The New York Times which sets out his ‘rules’, but people don’t tend to quote those parts.

The point is, a writer of Leonard’s subtlety, humour and humility doesn’t take it upon himself to make unironic prescriptions for the entire literate world. His ‘rules’ are a wry codification of his own style, nothing more. And that style, for all its miraculous grace and levity, is just that: Leonard’s style. There are no rules.

So, yes, I did things wrong. Sometimes, I admit, I did so on purpose, just to see what I could get away with. At the beginning of my book, a character is woken from a dream. (There’s a rule about that. You can look it up.) There are even gunshots. (They don’t ‘ring out’, though. Having no rules doesn’t mean having no taste.) I don’t know whether I did get away with it, but if I didn’t it was because of my own failings, not because I broke a rule.

I introduced elements of the fantastic in a work of literary fiction. In fact, I hardly left any out. I used alternating points of view (readers hate that), and switched between the past and the present tense (readers really hate that). I set the book in unnamed places, and interleaved two historical periods without identifying either of them. A pattern may be emerging here.

I tried very hard to create a satisfying story, but there were things I refused to explain because explaining them would have killed them. I worked with the utmost care, and with an unremitting consciousness of my duty to the reader. I wrote everything – every single line – over and over again, many hundreds of times, to get it closer, to get it as close I could. I tried.

But I took certain liberties too. I allowed myself certain excesses. I had no choice, not with this story. There is great art that dignifies the ordinary passages of our lives, great art whose workings are quiet and unceremonious, and I have nothing but respect for it. But we live other lives, each of us. There is something else, always, just beneath the skin of daylight. Don’t you feel it? There is a lifelong singing, a secret rhapsody, an elsewhere to which we also belong. We must honour that too, in our art. We must try to be true to it.

This is why I did everything wrong. This is why it was necessary. And I know how it sounds, believe me, but I can only explain it in this way. It was an act of love, this thing. It was a slow convulsion, an episode of rapture. When that comes, you obey it, and you obey nothing else. There are no rules.