A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
In tune with the spirit of Beach Week, I originally had quite a different kind of article in mind: a review of Louise Bagshawe’s rather silly but entertaining Sparkles. I was quite prepared to put it forward as the ultimate beach read: glossy, completely unrealistic and easy to read in a long lazy sitting, with the only concrete issue – concrete for me anyway – being that the author apparently decided to write in a whole Russian storyline without even going to Google first and typing in “How Russian names work”. (Nobody expects realism about Russia in a novel like this but, come on, that’s just sloppy. At least find out the difference between a surname and a patronymic.)
As for the rest – the daft characters, the unrecognisable rendition of Paris, the fixation on wealth and all things blingy – surely that’s what makes this novel a supreme piece of escapist nonsense,right? I’ve been reading Bagshawe for a long time precisely for the reason that she’s extremely skilled at turning out very high-coloured and entertaining stories that have little or no relation to my or anyone’s reality because they are not supposed to.
Or so I thought, until I happened upon this article concerning Bagshawe’s selection as Conservative candidate for Corby and East Northants. Now, I can’t say Bagshawe’s politics surprised me; not in the least. Her books are essentially about women from more or less humble backgrounds empowering themselves by making a shitload of money and having frightening, power-struggle sex with scary, controlling alpha men who make even more money. The only way this kind of literature could *not* be written by someone with a deep belief in the Tory dream would be if there were, somewhere, some very talented left-wing satirist taking an extremely clever shot at Ayn Rand. So the Conservative part didn’t really come as a shock.
But look at this illuminating little paragraph:
“When I went to the Tories to apply for the list, I didn’t expect them to have heard of me,” she says, speaking from her home in the village of Lowick, Northants. “I said: ‘Look, I’ve sold 2 million books to British women, I know how to speak to women and maybe you need somebody in your party who can relate to women.’”
Now wait just a second.
Were all those fat novels with their implausible storylines, larger than life characters and ridiculous sex scenes actually supposed to be about Louise Bagshawe, the Conservative author, relating to me, the British female reader? And moreover, by reading them (although, thankfully, I think I got all of them from Oxfam) have I somehow fed the illusion that they speak to me as a woman? Because I was under the impression that I read her fiction for fun, as a purely frivolous treat. These novels have got me through my finals, my MPhil, any number of truly shitty job situations and a transcontinental move just by virtue of being well-written and absorbing and, crucially, completely and utterly removed from any situation, however dramatic or stressful, I might be experiencing, have experienced or be likely to experience. (Now, if I did happen to be a beautiful, troublesome woman with fabulous clothing who was fending off a potentially disastrous takeover of her business by some steel-eyed, cruel-mouthed but sexy robber baron, I am sure I’d find Bagshawe struck at the very heart of my dilemma. In fact, perhaps I’d be unable to read her novels out of sheer trauma.)
Regular readers of this site will probably know by now that I am very much of the opinion that escapism is not to be undervalued, and that to write a truly enjoyable story is both a difficult and a valuable thing. Of the authors I read to escape, Bagshawe is an old favourite. Her writing is consistently vivid and involving, and it always seemed to me that she embraced the unreal, soap-opera nature of her stories, being unafraid to write for sheer entertainment. Thus it is only now, with her assertions about her candidacy, that I’ve had a moment’s thought about the social, political and economic implicatons of those stories. And, well, I just want to say: Ms. Bagshawe, if you’re reading, I love your work. But if you intend to use your readership as proof that you understand the situation of British women – and that’s a very diverse group – you can count me out.
Sparkles is available from Headline Review, 536 pp., ISBN: 978-0755304295