Four June Releases (Fiction & Poetry): Bennett, Gabrielsen, Kwek and Watts

(A rare second post in a day from me, to make way for tomorrow’s list of the best books of the first half of the year.) My four new releases for June are a novel about the complications of race and sexuality in 1950s–80s America, a novella in translation about a seabird researcher struggling through a time of isolation, and two new poetry books from Carcanet Press. As a bonus just in time for Pride Month, I finish with a mini write-up of The Book of Queer Prophets, an anthology of autobiographical essays that was published late last month.

 

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

Like some lost mid-career gem from Toni Morrison, this novel is meaty with questions of racial and sexual identity and seems sure to follow in the footsteps of Ruby and An American Marriage with a spot in Oprah’s book club and on Barack Obama’s summer reading list.

It’s the story of light-skinned African American twins Stella and Desiree Vignes, and how their paths divide in 1954. Both are desperate to escape from Mallard, Louisiana, where their father was lynched and their mother cleans white people’s houses. Desiree works in fingerprinting for the FBI in Washington, D.C., but in 1968 leaves an abusive marriage to return to Mallard with her dark-skinned daughter, Jude Winston. Stella, on the other hand, has been passing as white for over a decade. She was a secretary for the man who became her husband, Blake Sanders, and now lives a life of comfort in a Los Angeles subdivision.

The twins’ decisions affect the next generation, too. Both have one daughter. Jude goes to college in L.A., where she meets and falls in love with photographer Reese (born Therese), who is, in a different sense, “passing” until he can afford the surgery that will align his body with his gender. In a coincidence that slightly strains belief, Jude runs into Stella’s daughter, Kennedy, and over the next seven years the cousins – one a medical student; the other an actress – continue to meet occasionally, marvelling at how two family lines that started in Mallard, a tiny town that doesn’t even exist anymore, could have diverged so dramatically.

This is Bennett’s second novel, after The Mothers, which I’m keen to read. It’s perceptive and beautifully written, with characters whose struggles feel genuine and pertinent. Though its story line ends in the late 1980s, it doesn’t feel passé at all. The themes of self-reinvention and running from one’s past resonate. I expected certain characters to be forced into moments of reckoning, but the plot is a little messier than that – and that’s more like real life. A shoo-in for next year’s Women’s Prize list.

My rating:

My thanks to Dialogue Books for the free copy for review.

 

Ankomst by Gøhril Gabrielsen (2017)

[Translated from the Norwegian by Deborah Dawkin]

The unnamed narrator of Gabrielsen’s fifth novel is a 36-year-old researcher working towards a PhD on the climate’s effects on populations of seabirds, especially guillemots. During this seven-week winter spell in the far north of Norway, she’s left her three-year-old daughter behind with her ex, S, and hopes to receive a visit from her lover, Jo, even if it involves him leaving his daughter temporarily. In the meantime, they connect via Skype when signal allows. Apart from that and a sea captain bringing her supplies, she has no human contact.

Daily weather measurements and bird observations still leave too much time alone in a cramped cabin, and this starts to tell in the protagonist’s mental state: she’s tormented by sexual fantasies, by memories of her life with S, and by the thought of a local family, the Berthelsens, who experienced a disastrous house fire in 1870. More and more frequently, she finds herself imagining what happened to Olaf and Borghild Berthelsen. Solitude and this growing obsession with ghosts of the past make her start to lose her grip on reality.

I’d encountered an unreliable narrator and claustrophobic setting before from Gabrielsen with her second novel, The Looking-Glass Sisters. Extreme weather and isolation account for this being paired with Snow, Dog, Foot by Claudio Morandini as the first two books in Peirene’s 2020 “Closed Universe” trilogy. I was also reminded of Sarah Moss’s Night Waking. However, I found this novella’s metaphorical links – how seabirds and humans care for their young; physical and emotional threats; lowering weather and existential doom – too obvious.

My rating:

My thanks to Peirene Press for the free copy for review.

 

Moving House by Theophilus Kwek

This is the first collection of the Chinese Singaporean poet’s work to be published in the UK. Infused with Asian history, his elegant verse ranges from elegiac to romantic in tone. Many of the poems are inspired by historical figures and real headlines. There are tributes to soldiers killed in peacetime training and accounts of high-profile car accidents; “The Passenger” is about the ghosts left behind after a tsunami. But there are also poems about the language and experience of love. I also enjoyed the touches of art and legend: “Monologues for Noh Masks” is about the Pitt-Rivers Museum collection, while “Notes on a Landscape” is about Iceland’s geology and folk tales. In most places alliteration and enjambment produce the sonic effects, but there are also a handful of rhymes and half-rhymes, some internal.

My individual favorite poems included “Prognosis,” “Sophia” (made up of two letters Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles writes home to his wife while surveying in Singapore), and “Operation Thunderstorm.” As an expat and something of a nomad, I especially loved the title poem, which comes last and explains the cover image: “every house has a skeleton – / while the body learns it must carry less / from place to place, a kind of tidiness / that builds, hardens. Some call it fear, // of change, or losing what we cannot keep. / Others, experience.” Recommended to fans of Mary Jean Chan, Nausheen Eusuf, Kei Miller and Ocean Vuong.

 My rating:

 My thanks to Carcanet Press for the PDF copy for review.

  

Red Gloves by Rebecca Watts

I noted the recurring comparison of natural and manmade spaces; outdoors (flowers, blackbirds, birds of prey, the sea) versus indoors (corridors, office life, even Emily Dickinson’s house in Massachusetts). The style shifts from page to page, ranging from prose paragraphs to fragments strewn across the layout. Most of the poems are in recognizable stanzas, though these vary in terms of length and punctuation. Alliteration and repetition (see, as an example of the latter, her poem “The Studio” on the TLS website) take priority over rhymes. I was reminded of Elizabeth Bishop in places, while “Whereas” had me thinking of Stephen Dunn’s collection of that name (Layli Long Soldier also has a poetry book of the same title). A few of my individual favorite poems were “Surveillance,” “Building” and “Admission” (on a medical theme: “What am I afraid of? / The breaching of skin. / Violation of laws that / separate outside from in. / Liquidation of the thing / I call me.”).

 My rating:

 My thanks to Carcanet Press for the PDF copy for review.

  

And a bonus for Pride Month:

The Book of Queer Prophets: 24 Writers on Sexuality and Religion, edited by Ruth Hunt

There isn’t, or needn’t be, a contradiction between faith and queerness, as the authors included in this anthology would agree. Many of them are stalwarts at Greenbelt, a progressive Christian summer festival – Church of Scotland minister John L. Bell even came out there, in his late sixties, in 2017. I’m a lapsed regular attendee, so a lot of the names were familiar to me, including those of poets Rachel Mann and Padraig O’Tuama.

Most of the contributors are Christian, then, including ordained priests like Desmond Tutu’s daughter, Mpho, and LGBT ally Kate Bottley, but we also hear from Michael Segalov, a gay Jewish man in London, and from Amrou Al-Kahdi (author of Unicorn: The Memoir of a Muslim Drag Queen), who describes the affirmation they found in the Sufi tradition. Dustin Lance Black tells of the exclusion LGBT Mormons still encounter.

Jarel Robinson-Brown addresses his lament on mistreatment to his nephew, as James Baldwin did in “My Dungeon Shook” (in The Fire Next Time). Tamsin Omond recounts getting married to Melissa on a London bridge in the middle of an Extinction Rebellion protest. Erin Clark, though bisexual, knows she can pass as straight because she’s marrying a man – so is she ‘gay enough?’ Two trans poets write of the way cathedrals drew them into faith. The only weaker pieces are by Jeanette Winterson (there’s nothing new if you’ve read her memoir) and Juno Dawson (entirely throwaway; ‘I’m an atheist, but it’s okay to be religious, too’).

Again and again, these writers voice the certainty that they are who God means them to be. A few of them engage with particular passages from the Bible, offering contextual critiques or new interpretations, but most turn to scripture for its overall message of love and justice. Self-knowledge is a key component of their search for truth. And the truth sets people free.

 My rating:

 I read an e-copy via NetGalley.

  

What recent releases can you recommend?

20 responses

  1. I’m glad you enjoyed The Vanishing Half, too, although I think I swallowed the coincidences more than you or Heaven-Ali did! And I have The Book of Queer Prophets on my NetGalley shelf, too – I am trying to get through some older books at the moment on there but will hopefully get to that soon. I was drawn by the names I knew from it in the blurb.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Of course, to an extent one has to suspend disbelief when reading any fiction. The two halves of the family had to be brought back together SOMEhow, and I can’t say specifically how she could have done it better. Never fear: it’s still one of my top novels of the year so far 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Oooh, I loved Watts’ first poetry book – didn’t know she had another pending. Thanks for the heads-up!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It just came out on the 26th, I believe. I’ve had her first book on my TBR for ages, if just for the amazing title! (For those not familiar, it’s The Met Office Advises Caution.)

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I am “falling over“ The Vanishing Half Whenever I turn these days and it does sound intriguing. It also puts me in mind of one of the novels in Mildred D Taylor’s sequence about the Logan family where there is a cousin who arrives from New York who can pass as white, and given that the book is set in the southern states in the 1930s, there is not a happy ending.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Indeed, you can’t seem to escape it these days! When I first requested it on NetGalley (I was later sent a print copy) I felt like I was the only one who was going to review it, but it has quickly spread all through the blogging community.

      What an interesting comparison — I read one of Taylor’s books (Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry) in elementary school.

      Like

      1. You should read the rest, particularly the most recent one which came out only two or three months ago, All the Days Past All the Days to Come, which takes the story up to the Second World War and then beyond to the disputes about buses and education in the 1960s. It’s a sobering read!

        Like

    2. I only learned a year or so ago that it was part of a series. I just presumed the one I read in school was a standalone novel. Good to know that she’s still writing!

      Like

  4. I’ve just bought The Vanishing Half – really looking forward to it now!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re in for a treat!

      Like

  5. I agree that The Vanishing Half is definitely going to be on the Woman’s Prize longlist, and I think it deserves to be there, although it’s had so much coverage I’m struggling to summon up much enthusiasm for it now…

    I also read Roll of Thunder… and some of its sequels as a kid, but I can’t remember anything about them now apart from how poor the schooling was for our black protagonists compared to their white counterparts.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I could see it as shortlist material, but of course who knows what it’ll be up against.

      I have no specific memories of Roll of Thunder.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. […] The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett: Like some lost mid-career gem from Toni Morrison, this novel is meaty with questions of racial and sexual identity. Light-skinned African American twins Stella and Desiree Vignes’ paths divide in 1954, with Stella passing as white. Both are desperate to escape from Mallard, Louisiana. The twins’ decisions affect the next generation, too. It’s perceptive and beautifully written, with characters whose struggles feel genuine and pertinent. The themes of self-reinvention and running from one’s past resonate. […]

    Like

  7. I’m going to read The Vanishing Half one way or the other, but I truly cannot wait to read The Book of Queer Prophets; thank you for putting me on to its availability on Netgalley!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Like any anthology, it’s a mixed bag, but I enjoyed most of the pieces and they’ve done a good job at highlighting diversity of sexuality, race and religion.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. buriedinprint | Reply

    A recent release that I am full-on enjoying is Tyler Enfield’s Rum-Drunk Angels, published by the Atlantic Canadian Press called Goose Lane Editions (come on, great name, right?). It’s one that could be shelves with the literary westerns, like Patrick de Witt’s The Sisters Brothers: such fun! Now I’m off to see your mid-year post…how time flies when you’re reading good books.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That sounds like good fun! And I do love the publisher name. Alas, these are the sorts of great books that are never likely to cross the Pond so have to be saved for secondhand bonanzas several years down the line.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. […] in Red Gloves by Rebecca Watts, released by Carcanet in June, I noted the juxtaposition of natural and industrial […]

    Like

  10. […] This story of love, betrayal, and the obsession with land is told through rotating first-person narration from six key players, three McAllans and three Jacksons. Each voice is distinct and perfectly captures the character’s personality and level of education. Jordan uses this kaleidoscope view to explore how fateful decisions bind the two families together. I particularly loved the two female voices: Laura, Henry’s wife; and Florence, Ronsel’s mother. Though they’re often stuck inside cooking and delivering babies, they still play their roles in the farm’s drama. The novel opens with a burial scene, but readers get faked out not once but twice about how the character died. I raced through the last three-quarters, and the final 50–100 pages are a real doozy. This feels like a modern classic of the segregated South and I’d recommend it for those looking for a follow-up to The Vanishing Half. […]

    Like

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