Books to be Scene: Anna Richards' LITTLE GODS

Contributor; Derby, England
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Books to be Scene: Anna Richards' LITTLE GODS
"All right then, die!" Gloria shouted, and Jean dropped to the floor with a satisfying thud.
"Hurrah!" Gloria whooped and ran over to the felled giant. "That was very good. I had a friend before who was quite good, but she didn't like doing the man parts and she was as small as I am, so I was never very convinced."
"I don't mind," Jean quickly answered. "I'm very tall. And big like a boy. I can do all those parts, if you tell me how."
"You can be Samson tomorrow," Gloria offered. "He dies too."
Jean laughed. "I can do that. I can do anything you like."
It was a matter of luck that Gloria never came across anyone she wanted killed.

Before we get started, some backstory: I've always believed (well, for a number of years now) that print can be a visual medium. I don't mean as in, say, House of Leaves,
whenever a character descends a flight of stairs or whatever, but that some authors can - by dint of their use of language - paint a picture so vivid you end up carried off in a waking dream, you can see what they're talking about that clearly.

So some writers know all the twenty-dollar words. Big frick.

Ah, but it's not simply a matter of technical skill. There are amazing writers who just haven't got the knack, where in their hands the experience of (for example) walking through a crowded city street is reduced to little more than labels on everything - pedestrian, parked car, shop window, cyclist - where you get the general idea of what you're supposed to be imagining but that's it. The appeal lies in the wordplay, maybe, or whatever this passage means to the overall arc the story's going through. And yet other writers can pick a combination of words so evocative you know what the pedestrian would be wearing; where the dings would be on the car's fender; the way the light would fall through the shop window, or the cyclist's fingers open and close around the handlebars on his bike.

Okay, backing away slowly -

You don't hallucinate this stuff, obviously. It's just given the right words, you feel utterly convinced that if you saw the person, place or thing the author's describing in real life you'd be nodding sagely; that's them all right, that's the spot, that's the one. And this, to me, is about as close to sketching something out on paper as print can get. It's like a compulsion, the way this trick gets to me - I stop reading briefly and hold an image in my mind's eye as if I'm taking a quick snapshot, because I know what fills in the blanks. Some novels I'm not just collecting stills, I'm putting together the production design, I'm choosing the right medium (should this scene be animated, maybe?) - I'm working a god-damned camera.

Any novels in particular...?

Anna Richards' brilliant Little Gods, for one. Now, much as I love it, the story doesn't make for much of a pitch - two friends grow up in wartime England, from the onset of World War II to the point they leave dear old Blighty behind to try and make it in America and beyond. Obviously all my rhapsodising up there doesn't mean the book is automatically going to have the same effect on every reader - you can see the Amazon reviews from people who just didn't click with the thing complaining it's, like, about one girl who's very tall, and another who's very small, and then war breaks out and stuff happens and is this story going somewhere? But me, the damn thing all but sets off fireworks in the back of my skull every time I open it up. (Well, load it up on my Kindle, but hey. Visuals.)

So if it's not twenty dollar words, what is it?

Anna Richards elects to use a really strange voice for her writing; never quite overblown, or overly verbose or otherwise purple, but the vocabulary she chooses always seems so lush and seething with pent-up energy it's a wonder the words don't crawl right off the page. Her characters sit at extremes, for starters, as much archetypes as human beings, but consider the early stretch of the book where we follow Jean (the tall girl) and her upbringing at the hands of her monstrous mother. Born when every girl had to have some kind of botanical name (Rose, Lily, Violet) Wisteria is named after

"a tough, twining climber. Only she never flowered. Gums of lemon rind and teeth of pure alum couldn't produce anything to rival the malevolent arsehole of a mouth Wisteria sported. [...] Her eyes were pale and watery, her hair clung to her scalp in ashy licks [...] She looked as though she needed to hang upside down for a while."

I think I just threw up a little in my mouth.

The product of a loveless, forced marriage, Jean seems destined to a nightmare of indentured servitude to her harridan of a ma, until she meets Gloria - petite, vivacious and headstrong where Jean is freakishly tall, shy and confused. But the two girls are painted more as unwitting martyr and tireless sainted romantic than simply little and large; Richards wants to make myths out of them as much as she wants to smile gently at their unending litany of mistakes and bad decisions. The reality of war turns out to be very different to anything they expected; both for Jean, who realises there's a life for her beyond nightmarish physical and psychological abuse, and Gloria, who has to come to terms with the idea she won't be able to swan through the conflict like a matinee idol.

You know there's been God knows how many takes on "Oh, what a lovely war," right?

Yes, but with the constant, often gut-wrenching physical and mental obstacle course it poses, and the sheer scope of the narrative - across continents and generations - Little Gods is less comfort food a la The Land Girls and its ilk and more like something Tetsuya Nakashima (Paco and the Magical Book, Memories of Matsuko) might come up with. Like Nakashima, Richards does occasionally flirt with outright misery-porn; hearing "If her daughter had been prettier [Wisteria] would probably have prostituted her outright" feels like one punch to the face too many, say. But it's never bleak for the sake of it; there's always a moment of gallows humour come the low points, and characters adapt believably to even the worst of circumstances with a mixture of credible despair and a sense of resolve you know stands a chance of getting something done.

So it's Ken Follett with the angst ramped up?

Oh hell no. There's something about Richards' writing that simply begs to be visualised, in great flourishes of light and sound, the bigger the better. Everything is a bold, vivid gesture, whether it's something as mundane as a party to wave enlisted men goodbye or as cataclysmic as the bomb that opens the book - you can see it as some expensive three-minute slow motion CG sequence, not because it'd be, like, so cool but because the imagery demands to be savoured at length, considered moment by moment from every angle. There's a widescreen sprawl to Little Gods that's bewildering, a little frightening and flat-out epic long before Richards gets the action to America; this is a story made for painstaking, lengthy takes and slow pans across open space.

Still not sure why it would stand out -

It doesn't have to stop there. Look at the cover (try this link rather than my terrible five-minute hack job up there), and tell me you couldn't see whole set-pieces playing out as animation; when did we last have a mainstream wartime movie that really drew on the astonishing breadth of propaganda artwork artists across the world put out? Little Gods might come across like a Lifetime period drama, but in my head I see it as anything but; Richards' language shimmers, sparks and explodes like a carnival parade, one astonishing marvel after another. You've got the dark underbelly of wartime English suburbia, vibrant nationalist myth-making, Rockwell Americana, sex, death, madness, even kaiju movies (so not making that one up). Little Gods could be so, so much more than another round of oh, what a lovely war - a few pages of Richards' prose and you can see it. You just know.

Little Gods, by Anna Richards, is available in paperback, hardback and Kindle editions, published by Picador.

Image crudely edited from the UK cover - apologies to the original artist, but I couldn't find a clean version.

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More about Books to be Scene

mightyjoeyoungNovember 6, 2012 5:05 PM

"Richards does occasionally flirt with outright misery-porn"

Sounds perfect for Mike Leigh or maybe Ken Loach.

"and tell me you couldn't see whole set-pieces playing out as animation"

Maybe Richard Linklater could do it...would have been interesting to see.
Thanks Mr Lee, I havenĀ“t read it but it sounds like a good book.