Olga Ravn, P.D. James, Syliva Townsend Warner, Diana Souhami, Leonora Carrington

Olga Ravn “The Employees” PD James “A Certain Justice” Sylvia Townsend Warner “The Corner that Held Them” Diana Souhami “No Modernism without Lesbians” Leonora Carrington “The Hearing Trumpet”

Five novels about communities: The employees of an interstellar startup. The barristers and employees of a British legal chambers. The nuns of a medieval convent. The lesbian artists and patrons who created modernism. The residents of a nursing home.

The darkest of these novels are the most conventional (A Certain Justice) and the most experimental (The Employees). A Certain Justice is a straightforward murder mystery. The Employees is a collection of HR interview excerpts with no identifiable characters or clear conflicts. Both novels are thick with the kind of evil that PD James writes about so well – an evil that only occasionally manifests itself in acts of violence and cruelty, but always lurks in the shadows, slowly poisoning the environment.

James turns the most innocuous characters into unsettling villains. Almost everyone in A Certain Justice is only one or two bad decisions away from becoming a murderer. The evil in The Employees is more communal – it’s the job the employees are doing, the company that hired them, the spaceship that is their workplace and home. Both novels are suspicious of community in a way that feels unhappily commonplace in 2022.

What A Certain Justice and The Corner that Held Them have in common is murder. Both communities, the first of legal professionals, the second of nuns, are full of jealousy, betrayal, and anger. But unlike the murder that defines the scope and drive of James’ novel, the murder at the convent is almost incidental. James, a devout Christian, describes a fallen world. Warner, whose novel tackles Christian themes more explicitly than James’, writes about a world that continually muddles through, where no single act can condemn or redeem an entire community.

One of The Corner that Held Them‘s central symbols is a river that runs past the convent. Every season, its course changes, as floods fill the region’s marshes and transform the landscape. The four biographies in No Modernism without Lesbians have a similar shape. Each of these women found their own unique way through a society that threw endless obstacles in their path, forcing their way through conventions and making a path for the artists who came after them. It’s very inspiring.

In The Hearing Trumpet, a group of old and eccentric women are at the mercy of a megalomaniac nursing home director. Instead of just overthrowing his regime, they overthrow nature itself – everything is broken, from the order of the seasons to the line separating wolves from men and women.

After destroying all human communities, The Hearing Trumpet‘s protagonist sets off to travel across a frozen world.

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