Review Catch-Up: The Swimmers, Black Butterflies, Bi, and On the Scent

I have a preposterous backlog of review copies to finish and write about (I’m going to go ahead and blame buying a house, moving and DIY for my lack of focus and diminished time, as I have done most of this year), but I’ve decided to get on top of it by pulling a quartet off of my set-aside shelf each week for short responses. I always like to feature a variety, so here I have two fiction and two nonfiction selections: novels about assisted dying and the Bosnian War that are a lot funnier and more life-affirming than you might expect, and books about bisexuality and the sense of smell – and the effect of its loss.

 

The Swimmers by Chloe Lane (2020; 2022)

Erin Moore has returned to her family’s rural home for Queen’s Birthday (now a dated reference, alas!), a long weekend in New Zealand’s winter. Not a time for carefree bank holiday feasting, this; Erin’s mother has advanced motor neurone disease and announces that she intends to die on Tuesday. Aunty Wynn has a plan for obtaining the necessary suicide drug; it’s up to Erin to choreograph the rest. “I was the designated party planner for this morbid final frolic, and the promise of new failures loomed. … The whole thing was looking more and more like the plot of a French farce, except it wasn’t funny.”

Lane renders a potentially maudlin situation merely bittersweet through black comedy. Erin isn’t the most endearing narrator because, Disaster Woman-like, she keeps undertaking weird acts of self-sabotage – at 26, she’s blown her first gallery curation opportunity by sleeping with her boss. Still, the picture of a different sort of dysfunctional family and the contrast between an illustrious past (Erin comes from a line of semi-pro swimmers: Aunty Wynn qualified to compete in the Commonwealth Games) and an iffy future make this fairly memorable, if not so much so as the other 2022 The SwimmersJulie Otsuka’s.

Readalikes: Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason, What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez, The Inland Sea by Madeleine Watts, The Weekend by Charlotte Wood

With thanks to Gallic Books for the proof copy for review.

 

Black Butterflies by Priscilla Morris (2022)

Drawing on her own family history, Morris has crafted an absorbing story set in Sarajevo in 1992, the first year of the Bosnian War. Zora, a middle-aged painter, has sent her husband, Franjo, and elderly mother off to England to stay with her daughter, Dubravka, confident that she’ll see out the fighting in the safety of their flat and welcome them home in no time. But things rapidly get much worse than she is prepared for. Phone lines are cut off, then the water, then the electricity. “We’re all refugees now, Zora writes to Franjo. We spend our days waiting for water, for bread, for humanitarian handouts: beggars in our own city.”

When even the haven of her studio is taken away from her, she’s reduced to the bare bones of existence, with just a few beloved neighbours to keep her spirits up. Her painting, more an obsession than a hobby, keeps her human as she awaits space on a Red Cross convoy. The title has heartrending significance: ‘black butterflies’ are fragments of paper carried on the breeze after the burning of the National Library of Sarajevo, 30 years ago last month. It was especially poignant to be reading this during the war in Ukraine and think about the sorts of daily dangers and deprivation that people face in conflict zones. The pages turned quickly and I was reminded of Girl at War, one of my absolute favourites, as well as The Pianist.

With thanks to Duckworth for the proof copy for review.

 

Bi: The hidden culture, history, and science of bisexuality by Julia Shaw (2022)

I’m tying this in with today’s celebration of Bi Visibility Day. Shaw is a criminal psychologist; her third book is a departure for her thematically, but means a lot to her personally. Bisexuality is the largest minority sexuality group, yet bisexuals are less likely to be out because of misconceptions and stereotypes – there are fewer outward signals and less group identification – which can sometimes result in poor mental health. Shaw realized how tricky bi identity was when a German TV show wanted to base a character on her but didn’t know how to make her sexuality obvious to viewers (lingering glances/flirtations involving both men and women? a backstory about a previous relationship with a woman?), and when trying to figure out what to wear to gay bars.

The book aims to situate bisexuality historically and scientifically. The term “bisexual” has been around since the 1890s, with the Kinsey Scale and the Klein Grid early attempts to add nuance to a binary view. Shaw delights in the fact that the mother of the Pride movement in the 1970s, Brenda Howard, was bisexual. She also learns that “being behaviourally bisexual is commonplace in the animal kingdom,” with many species engaging in “sociosexual” behaviour (i.e., for fun rather than out of reproductive instinct). It’s thought that 83% of bisexuals are closeted, mostly due to restrictive laws or norms in certain parts of the world – those seeking asylum may be forced to “prove” bisexuality, which, as we’ve already seen, is a tough ask. And bisexuals can face “double discrimination” from the queer community.

It felt odd to me that a final chapter on bisexual relationships ended up being mostly about threesomes, such that my main question (as she puts it: “what are the problems with the assumed link between bisexuality and non-monogamy?”) only merited four pages. A valuable book, certainly, but one to read for information rather than entertainment or thoughtful prose.

With thanks to Canongate for the free copy for review.

 

On the Scent: Unlocking the mysteries of smell – and how its loss can change your world by Paola Totaro and Robert Wainwright (2022)

Totaro (co-author Wainwright is her husband) contracted COVID-19 in March 2020 and temporarily lost the ability to smell, prompting her to embark on this investigation into a less-understood sense. One in 10,000 people have congenital anosmia, but many more than that experience it at some point in life (e.g., due to head trauma, or as an early sign of Parkinson’s disease), and awareness has shot up since it’s been acknowledged as a symptom of Covid. For some, it’s parosmia instead – smell distortions – which can almost be worse, with people reporting a constant odour of smoke or garbage, or that some of their favourite aromas, like coffee, were now smelling like faeces instead. Such was the case for Totaro.

She visits fascinating places like the Smell and Taste clinic in Dresden and the University of Reading Flavour Centre. “Sniffin’ sticks” are used to put people’s sense of smell to the test, but it’s notoriously difficult, even for those who haven’t had their senses compromised by illness, to name a smell out of context; people generally don’t score over 50%. That’s one of the major questions the book asks: why it is quite so difficult to identify smells, or describe them in words. Totaro also considers perfume-making, the associations of particular smells (bleach, pine or lemon, depending on your country) with cleanliness, and the potential for multisensory experiences, such as releasing odours during film showings. Lots of interesting topics and stories here, but not as compelling on the whole as The Smell of Fresh Rain.

With thanks to Elliott & Thompson for the proof copy for review.

 

Best of the 4: Black Butterflies

 

Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?
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17 responses

  1. I enjoyed The Swimmers which, rather like Steven Amsterdam’s The Easy Way Out, handled a difficult subject with a light touch.

    I don’t have a strong sense of smell but parosmia sounds grim!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ll have to seek that one out as well.

      I suppose all senses decline to an extent. Finding that favourite foods and drinks now smell like poo would be quite the blow, though!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m a huge coffee fan so that particular reference made me cringe!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I too have a long review backlist but unlike yours, mine is not the result of significant life changing events demanding my attention. So I shall follow your good example and do some short round ups.

    Having just read a novel set in the aftermath of the Bosnian war, I’m attracted by Black Butterflies

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s also my fault for requesting/accepting more than I could sensibly handle! I do review pretty much everything I receive, eventually.

      Black Butterflies was an unexpected gem.

      Like

  3. As I read your reviews, I’d decided that the Priscilla Morris was the one I’d head for first. Good to see you confirmed my hunch.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Right up your street, I should think.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Fascinating titles, all of these, though as you say Black Butterflies is certainly poignant. Hard to credit there are so many active philistines in the world.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Book burning will never not be a tragedy.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I wondered where you had been! Of these four, The Swimmers intrigues me the most, though I’m a bit put off by the disaster woman reference. Bi sounds like it might be useful for my undergrads.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m reading loads, just having trouble finishing things (especially short story collections) to write about them! You would be most welcome to my proof of The Swimmers — I’m getting parcels ready this weekend and will be in touch with you and a few others about what else you might want 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I can’t blame anything but “looking up information about the Queen and various points of etiquette etc. people kept asking me about like I was the most English person they knew and could be of help” for my woeful reading this month! Your review of Black Butterflies made me think of Ukraine, so a timely publication. Not sure I could face reading it, remembering the conflict so well still.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There were some funny examples of organisations trying to outdo each other in being as respectful as possible. Here are two incidents we noted personally, one where the measure was probably appropriate, and the other where it was maybe an overreaction: it was the local beer festival that weekend after her death, and the headlining musical act was going to be a Queen tribute band called … Killer Queen (!!), who in the end did not appear; our friend was staying with us that week while attending a conference in Reading, but because he is a civil servant he was not allowed to give his talk as he was meant to be in public mourning (??).

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Great short reviews! I feel like you gave the gist for all four – and all four sound interesting to some degree. Funny how there are two 2022 books called The Swimmers (I’d only heard of the Julie Otsuka one.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! I try to be pithy and fair 🙂 Chloe Lane’s book came out from a small NZ publisher in 2020, so she did technically get there first with the title…

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Two The Swimmers in the same year! I think it was the other one I was interested in.

    Black Butterflies reminds me of The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway. Have you read that one?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I would recommend Otsuka’s Swimmers. The narration is really interesting.

      I’ve heard of the Galloway but not read it.

      Liked by 1 person

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