Sorry about the brief absence in posts – I had some technical difficulties coupled with a super-heavy schedule. Things should be back on track now!
“Word spread because word will spread. Stories and secrets fight, stories win, shed new secrets, which new stories fight, and on.”
I can remember the specific moment, when I was a child (which is really saying, before I was the me that I am now), that I realised that reading was more than just saying the words off the page in order without making mistakes. I had this book of Greek myths with the most gorgeous pictures elucidating something so magical, so fantastic, that I desperately wanted to be inside the book (despite the horrible things that happened to all sorts of people in the stories). I had been able to read for a while, but I hadn’t really read anything much except for the usual kids’ stuff and I don’t think anyone thought I had an unusually strong ability in that area. So it was much to my parents’s surprise when I recited, word-for-word, the foreword to the book, with clear comprehension of what I was reading, in my politest (non-Weegie) voice. They were excited. They were surprised. They knew, then, what I know now – that the love of the written word is a fine thing, the chief joy of my life in terms of culture. But at that moment – the moment that the spark lit behind their eyes that maybe, just maybe, I would be good at this thing – I knew that there was a difference, between reading and understanding, between seeing and knowing – between knowing and loving.
This relates to another odd facet of my childhood. I was brought up by non-religious parents and am an only child. My primary schooling – from ages five to eleven – was vaguely Christian in a sort-of non-specific Protestant way, and we learned a lot about other religions, chiefly Judaism and Islam. My parents in no way discouraged discussion of religion, and, both coming from Catholic families, I attended quite a few first communions and confirmations. However – perhaps owing to the introduction to the Greek myths at such a tender age – I somehow fundamentally lacked understanding in a rather crucial way. I didn’t actually realise that anyone really believed any of this. I thought the biblical stories – the exodus, all the things that Jesus “did” – were just that. Stories. It was not until late on in my primary education – probably around the same time that my parents made the decision that I was attend the local Catholic high school (for educational reasons as opposed to moral or ethical ones) – that I realised that these belief systems were not equivalent to the Greek myths. That they weren’t just things that people used to believe in order to make sense of the world. That they were very prevalent, and that people were very serious about them. Needless to say, I was flabbergasted.
This is my round about way of showing what I brought to the table when I read Embassytown: a sense of wonder at the power of the written word, an attachment to fairytales, and a mild bemusement at organised religion. Perhaps it partially explains why I like it so much. China Mieville’s command of the written word is awe-inspiring, that much I had known for a long time. But this book is more than that – it’s all about the way we communicate, how language can make us who we are, how it’s a fundamental part of who we are and our culture. It’s also a story about stories, about the stories we tell ourselves in order to rationalise our place in the world. About the structures and cultures and traditions that we build for ourselves, and how the removal of one pillar can cause the whole thing to collapse. The scope is so vast, and yet, in some ways, it feels intimate, touching. I think most of this is to do with Avice.
Avice is a wonderful main character. She is strong, without being a caricature. Too often do writers create binary women: either stereotypical damsels in distress or improbably Action-Man-like. A third category is, I suppose, characters who are trying to be the latter but have much more in common with the former (Katniss Everdeen, I’m looking at you). Mieville’s female characters are among the best I’ve ever seen because they just make sense. They are well-rounded, real-sounding people, who speak in a voice that resonates with my experiences.
Of course, his world-building is unparalleled. In place of New Crobuzon, here we have Embassytown, and what a weird and claustrophobic place it is. Throughout the book I felt oppressed by the buildings, by the furtive gossip, by those in power and their relationship with the native beings of that world. Everything was haunting and desperately… desperate.
Embassytown is a poem and a metaphor and a novel rolled into one. It’s the story of a women and of a nation. It’s the story of language and communication between those who are fundamentally alien to one another. It’s a story about the nature of morality. It’s a story told by probably the most talented contemporary author that I can think of. I can’t really say any more without spoiling it. But I can tell you that you should read it. I can tell you that, without exception, this is the best book I read last year.
(I hope I didn’t offend anyone with the religious discussion above – if anyone wants to ask me about the development of my beliefs or lack thereof, you’re more than welcome.)