What We Mean By Genre

Mary Hamer, Kipling & Trix

Aurora Metro, 256pp, £9.99, ISBN 9781906582340

reviewed by Thomas Stewart

As a child, Mary Hamer was always fascinated by Rudyard Kipling. From a young age, reading everything from his Just So Stories to his magnum opus The Jungle Book, Hamer knew that she wanted to write about the man behind the stories. And when she made her way through libraries and archives to find every detail about the writer, she found a much more compelling story in the form of his sister, Trix. Thus began her debut novel, Kipling & Trix

The novel begins with the two children living happily in India, but when they're sent to live with a foster family in England their childhood becomes anything but happy. As they become adults they're equally determined to be writers. While Rudyard enjoys growing success through his short stories and poetry, Alice, aka Trix, is pressured to find a husband. Despite the fact that woman at this time were only expected to find a husband, Trix believes she can do more, she can write and channel her creativity.

The writing is decorated with moments of pure beauty: ‘Before he slept that night Ruddy had drafted the paragraphs which brought back to life the old man who had held his hand and taught him about the sea,’ or ‘back in her own bedroom, swathed in the becoming folds of her morning wrapped, Alice Kipling gazed across at herself in the blotched looking-glass and saw she was old. This was not what she had wanted. Rud, with his absurd moustache and his station slang, was her boy, her own.’

Kipling & Trix is a complex puzzle of dates and names but Hamer's control of the material sets the tone for what might otherwise be a daunting volume. Her passion for her characters, however, seems to stand in the way of the novel: she wants to include everything that she found interesting, and the excessive detail can make the book rather clouded and muffled. This emphasis on research causes novel to read more like non-fiction than fiction, at times. Hamer tries her hardest to get close to her characters, but the fact that they are real people seems to stop her. With fiction we are ready to be pushed into a world of emotion and to get under the skin of the characters. In Kipling & Trix we never get that close, mostly because the book is constantly battling with itself. One minute we are with Rudyard, walking around the lake, thinking, and the next we are introduced to a character without any introduction. In fiction, characters are of the utmost importance but in non-fiction they can afford to remain a simple name on the page, because it is the event that stands out.

Hamer’s work falls prey to the prejudices of genre, to the implications and checklists that cause a reader to expect one thing or another when picking up a book that is classified as fiction rather than non-fiction. Kipling & Trix is not clearly either. In non-fiction we might be prepared to read long tracts of information, names, dates and events; in fiction, though, emotion should be the principle currency. These scenes in Hamer’s novel do not do enough — she has missed the opportunity that historical fiction should provide. By making history fiction, the author has the opportunity to fully interrogate her subject, to challenge the reader’s preconceptions, to force her to think and discuss. But to do this, it must resist bombarding the reader with unnecessary information; it should ease us into a world that we didn’t know of before being introduced to it by the author.

Nonetheless, Hamer does, very subtly, expand on the character of Trix. Trix has always remained in the shadows of history, and Hamer brings her out. The novel reveals a beautifully complex woman, a woman that could stand amongst the strongest of characters and writers – Charlotte Brontë, Virgina Woolf or Mary Wollstonecraft, to name only a few. Early on in the book she confronts her husband, saying, ‘I cannot chose to keep apart from the world, it’s part of me.’ The novel challenges social expectations, giving us a woman that knows she has more to offer than society permits — Hamer demands we see this and explores the issue with skill. Hamer has related to Trix far more than any other character and, in a way, the book may have succeeded better if it had been solely about Trix rather than the relationship between the two siblings. Rudyard towers over his sister — as he did in real life — and this detracts from the depiction of a woman struggling against social constraints to establish herself as a writer. Still, Kipling & Trix explores many complex issues, unveiling the nuances of the Kipling family feuds and offering readers a compelling meditation on female identity. In spite of its flaws the novel is still very much worth reading — if only for its ability to pull Alice Kipling out of her brother’s shadow.
Thomas Stewart is an English graduate from the University of Glamorgan. He enjoys suburban fiction, horror films, folk music and has an obsession with the human psyche.