Seriously Underrated Books #1: John Wyndham’s Stowaway to Mars

After reviewing George Lamming’s The Emigrants last week, which I believe is massively underrated, I was inspired to talk more about awesome books that have been unfairly ignored. So in this series I’m going to share my thoughts on books which I think aren’t getting the attention they deserve. Keep reading to discover some hidden gems!

The first book I want to talk about is a relatively unknown short novel called Stowaway to Mars by the famous science fiction author John Wyndham. Best known for writing the sci-fi classic The Day of the Triffids, Wyndham published his early novels under the pen name John Beynon. This is probably why, despite considering myself a fan of John Wyndham’s work – particularly his short stories – I had not previously heard of Stowaway. In fact, I doubt I would have ever read the book if I hadn’t received it as part of a giveaway on Goodreads. I am so glad I did!



Last year, Penguin republished
Stowaway to Mars under Wyndham’s name and with this gorgeous new cover

Stowaway to Mars tells the story of five men who attempt to make the first return flight to Mars. Their discovery of Joan, a stowaway snuck on board by a rogue journalist, causes conflict not because of the air and food rations she will inevitably deplete, but because the other passengers cannot deal with the fact of her gender. Even in the vacuum of space gender roles and expectations persist amongst humans. As Joan herself puts it, “I’m prepared to forget for twelve weeks that I’m a woman; why can’t they do the same?” I have seen many reviewers argue that that this book is sexist, but I do not agree with this judgement – though it is true that its characters are undeniably so. The astronauts carry to Mars the threat of more than just foreign bacteria: they bring their misogyny and imperialism too.

Stowaway‘s analysis (and, I think, criticism) of these concepts is paired with a fascinating discussion of the relationship between humans and machines and the blurring of boundaries between the two. Though the male characters spout a lot of nonsense on this subject, Wyndham manages to tease out some interesting ideas about the relationship between machinery and gender. Plus any irritation caused by the ludicrousness of the men’s arguments is diffused by Wyndham’s playful treatment of them. At the end of their discussion, one of the men turns to Joan:

‘Speaking as a woman, what did you think of that mouthful?’ he asked.

She smiled. ‘Not much.’

This playfulness is evident in other parts of the book, with Wyndham frequently poking fun at his fantastic plot (at one point, a character claims “If I read of this, I should throw the book away.”)

But, as is often the case with Wyndham, the ending lets the book down. Once the rocket finally lands on Mars, the narrative loses much of its focus. A love affair appears out of nowhere and Joan’s character changes dramatically and incomprehensibly. The story’s attempts in these final chapters to explore the nature of sentience are less successful than might have been hoped.

Despite these shortcomings, Stowaway to Mars remains a fantastic read and far exceeded my expectations (surely Wyndham could have come up with a more inventive name for this book? It deserves better). This is excellent science fiction – both thought-provoking and entertaining.

9/10

What are your favourite underrated books? Let me know in the comments!

George Lammings’s The Emigrants: An unsettling exploration of identity

George Lamming is better known for his first novel, In the Castle of My Skin (1953), but in my opinion his book The Emigrants, published only a year later, is massively underrated. At the time of writing, the novel has an average rating of just 2.98 on Goodreads, which comes from only 46 ratings. This surprises me, because I found the book both intellectually and emotionally stimulating.

The Emigrants describes the voyage to and arrival in England undertaken by a group of people from the West Indies in the 1950s. Perhaps part of what many people dislike about the book is that it doesn’t fit their expectations of what a book about the so-called “immigrant experience” should be like. The Emigrants is abstract and disorientating, featuring passages which read like poetry or a play, and switching perspective, location, and time without warning. Though some readers might find this off-putting, these techniques successfully recreate the confusion of travelling to a foreign country and finding your feet in a different culture.

The book defies expectations in other ways, and its entire first half is taken up with the boat journey to England, describing the different characters, their relationships, and their hopes and fears. Some characters, like the assertive Tornado who originally hails from Trinidad, are returning to England for a second time, but most are making their first trans-Atlantic voyage. There is little naivety about the future amongst those on board; the passengers realise that they will face extreme difficulties on arrival even if they don’t know the exact nature of the obstacles in their way.

During their voyage, the passengers argue over the idea of national or regional identity as a unifying force, a topic which is a source of division amongst them. The characters move from playfully arguing over which Caribbean island has the best beach to an awareness of the links of solidarity which tie them together as immigrants and as West Indians:

Each, he said, must fend for himself, but he meant also that each must fend for himself in the name of the group.

Though the group disperses upon the passengers’ arrival in England, in some cases these ties remain. But it remains uncertain whether a shared identity or even a shared experience of racial discrimination is enough to forge links of solidarity between people. The native English are shown to consistently homogenise the West Indians, frequently grouping them together with immigrants from Africa, and the characters themselves begin to fall back on their identity as West Indians rather than as Trinidadian or Jamaican or Barbadian or Grenadian or Guadeloupean. This issue remains pertinent to the very end of the novel, and is recalled in the final pages when Dickson, a schoolteacher from Barbados who suffers extreme degradation in England, is handed a political pamphlet about ‘The Need to Unite’.

The culture shock experienced by the characters is huge. While some of the differences they encounter are humorous, such as Lilian’s discovery that some of the English take their tea without milk, much of what they experience is deeply troubling. In many cases, the characters’ experiences of alienation and discrimination lead them to make desperate choices.

The Emigrants also has a great deal to say on the topic of gender. The majority of the characters central to the book’s narrative are male, and for the most part Lamming depicts how women are viewed through the eyes of men. But the book does depict the complex and shifting relationships between the female characters which take place beyond the male gaze, and there are hints towards the end of the novel that two women, Peggy and Una, develop a relationship which is both romantic and sexual. Sexual differences between characters are emphasised, tying into the book’s fascinating presentation of the body. Lamming depicts how the body is racialised and objectified through the eyes of the white colonialist and explores how the body exists when unobserved.

Lamming also ponders the importance of naming, which in The Emigrants functions not as a form of elucidation but rather of obscuration. The character originally known as Ursula Bis changes her name to Una Solomon, leading the reader to question the the power of naming in ascribing meaning to an object or a person. Perhaps, as the narrator states earlier on in the book:

To give the thing a name could not have changed what it was.

The Emigrants takes its discussion of identity to new levels, exploring the significance of language, politics, and the body in defining both national and personal identity.

Overall I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would strongly urge you to pick up a copy and have a read. You might be pleasantly surprised by the exceptional quality of this relatively unknown book.

Rating: 9/10

New books! Death of a Salesman, The Glass Menagerie, and Stag’s Leap

I recently began volunteering at an Oxfam Bookshop, and couldn’t help picking up some books I came across while sorting through the stock in the poetry and plays section. I’m hoping this doesn’t become a weekly habit or it could end up being quite expensive!

One of my goals this year is to read more 20th century drama, which is why I bought these copies of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. My expectations for the latter are high, having loved Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire when I read it for IB three years ago.


But I’m most excited about the volume of poetry – Sharon Olds is a superb poet and her debut collection Satan Says is one of my favourites. Here’s a short review I gave it on Goodreads:

This is a mesmerising collection of poems.

The book is separated into four sections: Daughter, Woman, Mother, and Journey. I personally felt that the Daughter and Mother poems were the strongest. Yet each poem is intelligent and tender, and I was surprised by the consistently high quality.

Olds has clearly spent a great deal of time on the editing process, as her poems are concise and purposeful. It is therefore slightly disappointing that one of the best poems of the collection – the eponymous “Satan Says” – suffers from insufficient editing.

Yet overall this is a fantastic debut – I will definitely be reading more of Olds’s work.

So excited to finally be able to fulfil that promise!

Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park: Principles, Satire, and ‘the odious Mrs Norris’

Over the Christmas break, I went to Singapore to visit my Dad with the rest of my family. I’d only brought a limited number of books with me (in order to save space in my suitcase and encourage myself to do some exam revision – neither was successful) and so by the end of my stay I found myself without a book to read on the plane home. Fortunately, on the last day of my trip I stumbled across this copy of Mansfield Park in a flea market on Larut Road.

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I was immediately attracted by the warmth of the cover, which, as you might be able to see from the signature in the bottom-right hand corner,  was illustrated by Dodie Masterman. I really love how the image conjures up a sense of both intimacy and distance.

Mansfield Park is a book I’ve been meaning to read for years, and was a welcome distraction from the deluge of uni work I was faced with on my return home. But the fact that I often found myself lingering at the table long after having finished my meal in order to continue reading cannot solely be attributed to a desire to procrastinate working on my essay.

Mansfield has all the usual humour and intelligence you’d expect in an Austen novel, but is in many ways very different from her other books. The most obvious example of this is the protagonist, Fanny Price, who is passive to the point of being frustrating. Fanny could not be more different to the controlling Emma (Emma) or the passionate and wilful Marianne (Sense and Sensibility); she never stands up for herself even in the face of frequent mistreatment from the other characters. Fanny’s harshest critic is her vindictive aunt, ‘the odious Mrs Norris’ (as the blurb so fittingly puts it). Here is an example of Mrs Norris’s behaviour towards her niece, who is here reprimanding Fanny for being invited to dinner by a lady called Mrs Grant:

Upon my word, Fanny, you are in high luck to meet with such attention and indulgence! You ought to be very much obliged to Mrs Grant for thinking of you, and to your aunt for letting you go, and you ought to look upon it as something extraordinary: for I hope you are aware that there is no real occasion for your going into company in this sort of way, or ever dining out at all; and it is what you must not depend upon ever being repeated. Nor must you be fancying, that the invitation is meant as any particular compliment to you; the compliment is intended to your uncle and aunt, and me.

Fanny doesn’t so much as roll her eyes at this aggressive outburst, and in fact I frequently found myself getting more angry on Fanny’s behalf than she herself did. But Fanny’s outward passivity masks a forceful determination to stick to her principles. Despite disagreeing with her on many things, I couldn’t help but admire her principled nature and selflessness. Although she appears superficially to be very different to the lively and courageous protagonists of Austen’s other books, Fanny in fact has a great deal in common with the sensible and principled Elizabeth (Pride and Prejudice) and Elinor (Sense and Sensibility).

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As ever, Austen’s strengths lie in her social satire and she does this particulately well in Mansfield. She creates characters that we all love to hate – yet Fanny’s enemy is not just ‘the odious Mrs Norris’ but nearly every character in the book. Aside from her brother William, no one treats her with the respect she deserves, and Fanny’s refusal to criticise those around her only sharpens the reader’s sense of injustice.

Yet there are hints of further injustice which Austen does not fully explore. For instance, Fanny’s uncle, Sir Thomas, is absent during much of the novel due to being occupied by the management of plantations in the West Indies. Fanny does not seem to extend her compassion to the people working as slaves to support her lifestyle. As well as this, the only servant in the book who is named or even described in any detail is Rebecca, who is  characterised simply as rude and unhelpful despite the fact that her life is evidently extremely difficult. It is hard to feel too sorry for Fanny when you remember that she has never had to cook a meal or even wash a plate.

Despite the criticisms, I did enjoy the book, and would recommend it to anyone who likes Austen. On a related note, I recently watched the film Love and Friendship, which is based on an unpublished Austen novel titled Lady Susan. It was hilarious, and reminded me that I should explore some of her less known work. I have a copy of Persuasion at home so that might be next on the list!

Rating: 8/10

P.S. The Guardian recently wrote an article about the 23 finalists in the running to illustrate The Folio Society’s new edition of Mansfield Park and their artwork is fantastic – check it out here!