Early on in Curtis Sittenfeld’s sixth novel, a work of alternative history narrated entirely by Hillary Rodham and covering the years between 1970 and the recent past, the character describes the method of decision-making she’s used since the third grade:
I thought of it as the Rule of Two: If I was unsure of a course of action but could think of two reasons for it, I’d do it. If I could think of two reasons against it, I wouldn’t.
Here’s the Rule of Two as applied to Rodham:
- You are likely to enjoy this novel if:
- You (if American) voted for Hillary Clinton or (if not) admire her and think she should have won the 2016 presidential race.
- You are a devoted fan of Curtis Sittenfeld’s writing and, in particular, loved American Wife (her 2008 masterpiece from the perspective of a fictionalized Laura Bush) and/or “The Nominee,” a short story voiced by HRC that appeared in the UK edition of You Think It, I’ll Say It.
- You will probably want to avoid this novel if:
- The idea of spending hours in Hillary’s head – hearing about everything from how Bill Clinton makes her feel in bed to her pre-debate nervous diarrhea – causes you to recoil.
- You’re not particularly interested in “What if?” questions, or would prefer that they were answered in one sentence rather than 400 pages.
Sittenfeld is one of my favorite authors and I’ve read everything she’s published, so I was predisposed to like Rodham and jumped at the chance to read it early. She has a preternatural ability to get inside other minds and experiences, channeling a first-person voice with intense detail and intimacy. It’s almost like she’s a medium instead of a novelist. As in “The Nominee,” the narration here is perfectly authentic based on what I’d read from HRC’s memoirs. However, a problem I had was that the first third of the novel sticks very closely to the plodding account of her early years in Living History, which I’d read in 2018. I liked coming across instances when she was told she was too strong-willed and outspoken for a girl, but felt the need for a layer of fiction as in American Wife.
So I was looking forward to the speculative material, which begins in 1974 when evidence of Bill Clinton’s chronic infidelity and sex addiction comes to light. He warns Hillary that he’ll never get over his issues and will only hold her back in the future, so she’s better off without him. She takes him at his word and leaves Arkansas a single woman. I’m going to leave it there for plot summary. IF you want the juicy specifics and don’t mind spoilers, or you don’t think you’ll read the novel itself but are still curious to learn what Sittenfeld does with her what-if future scenario, you can continue reading in the marked section below. There’s a lot to think about, so I would welcome comments from others who have read the book.
As to my own general reaction, though: I was fully engaged in the blend of historical and fictional material and read the novel in big chunks of 50+ pages at a time. The made-up characters are as convincing as the real-life ones, and there are a few relationships I found particularly touching. To my relief, there’s a satisfying ending and a couple of central figures get a pleasing comeuppance. But the chronology has an abrupt start and stop pattern, going deep into one time period or scene and then rushing forward, and I was left wondering what happened next, even if it would require another 400 pages. This would almost be better suited to some kind of serial format – it’s like the best kind of summer binge reading/watching.
Rodham will be published in the UK on July 9th by Doubleday. I read an advanced e-copy via NetGalley. My thanks to the publisher and publicists for arranging my early access.
I was delighted to be invited to help kick off the blog tour for Rodham. See below for details of where other reviews will be appearing soon.
SPOILERS ENSUE; YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
The alternative history section of the novel picks up in 1991, when Hillary Rodham is on the law faculty at Northwestern University in Illinois, not far from where she grew up. She and James, a married colleague with whom she flirts harmlessly, are glued to the TV as news of Thurgood Marshall’s retirement from the Supreme Court and replacement by conservative African-American judge Clarence Thomas is complicated by a sexual harassment claim brought by Anita Hill. (It’s impossible not to see history repeating itself with Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony at Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing.) In the wake of this scandal, Rodham’s gay friend Greg Rheinfrank, a Democratic strategist and all-round great character, suggests that she run for the U.S. Senate – Washington, D.C. could clearly use more of a progressive female presence. Even though it eventually involves running against a (real-life) Black female, she agrees and wins in 1992, becoming a multi-term senator and running for president three times, starting with the 2004 race and culminating with 2016.
Meanwhile, Bill Clinton has married and divorced twice and is now a tech billionaire living in California and rumored to attend sex parties. A sex scandal quickly derailed his first presidential campaign in 1992, but in 2015 he decides to run again, thereby competing with his own ex-girlfriend for the Democratic nomination (at his rallies, “Shut her up!” becomes a popular chant that he tolerates from the crowd). Rodham makes it clear to her staff that he should not become president because he is a sexual predator.
But here a curious compromise comes into play: Donald Trump has a bone to pick with Clinton, so after some rigorous courting from Rodham and her staffers, he agrees to endorse her. In the novel, then, Clinton and Trump are like villainous twins: wealthy narcissists who devalue women. Trump is only differentiated by his lack of class and intelligence. He still tweets, spouts odious opinions and comes across as a buffoon, but – crucially – doesn’t run on the Republican ticket. Instead, it’s Jeb Bush, and Rodham beats him by 2.9 million votes.
So, whew! – a satisfying ending. At points I feared that Sittenfeld would conclude that, despite all that was different after Rodham rejecting Clinton, she still would have lost to Donald Trump. Instead, the novel envisions defeat for Clinton and comeuppance for Trump when he’s indicted for tax fraud in New York. It’s, of course, a vision of “what should have happened” (versus Hillary’s own account in What Happened). But in the back of my mind was the thought that, really, you could have just printed one sentence, “What if the USA didn’t still use that stupid electoral college system?” and you would have gotten the same outcome, because in 2016 HRC won the popular vote by that same 2.9 million.
Specific scenes and elements that I loved:
- Through her (fictional) childhood best friend, Maureen Gurski, we get an alternative vision of what life could have been like had Rodham married and had children; Maureen’s daughter Meredith becomes like a surrogate daughter for her.
- In 2015 Rodham becomes close to Misty, a supporter who’s battling breast cancer, and has her speak to open a rally for her.
- She goes on a stoned bonehead’s radio show and storms out in protest at his sexism – I totally got vibes of Leslie Knope on Crazy Ira and The Douche’s radio show (that’s a Parks and Recreation reference, in case you’re not familiar with it).
- Rodham gets a late chance at romance: there’s a “First Boyfriend” who seems just right for her.
- This isn’t a hagiography: Sittenfeld includes instances when Rodham is tone-deaf about race and chooses pragmatism over the moral high road (e.g. campaign funding).
- Sittenfeld found ways to incorporate real speech from press conferences, campaign announcements, etc. I also recognized two verbatim lines from the infamous “baking cookies” remarks HRC gave to reporters in 1992 (in the novel this happens in 2004).
Ultimately, I think Rodham doesn’t work as well as American Wife because we already know too much about Hillary, from her three published (ghostwritten) memoirs and from her being so much in the public eye since 1992. Whereas Laura Bush was something of a mystery, and American Wife introduced a comfortable cushion of fiction, Rodham is a little too in-your-face with its contemporary history and its message. But it’s a lot of fun nonetheless.
If you have made it all the way to the end of this extended review, give yourself a pat on the back!
Stanislas Armengol remembers finding his first trilobite at the age of six. His fossils and his dog were his best friends during a lonely childhood dominated by a violent father nicknamed “The Commander.” Now, in the summer of 1954, Stan is a 52-year-old paleontologist embarking on the greatest project of his career. He sold his apartment in Paris to finance this expedition to the French/Italian Alps in search of a “dragon” (perhaps a diplodocus) said to be buried in a glacier between three mountain peaks.
“A scientist does not unquestioningly swallow a tall tale without demanding some proof, some concrete detail,” Stan insists. “Doubt is our religion.” But he’s seen a promising bone fragment from the region, and his excitement soon outweighs his uncertainty. This is his chance to finally make a name for himself. Arriving from Turin to join Stan are his friend and former assistant Umberto, and Umberto’s assistant, Peter. Gio, a local, will be their guide. It’s a tough climb requiring ropes and harnesses. As autumn approaches, and then winter, the hunt for the fossil becomes more frantic. The others are prepared to come back next year if it’s no longer sensible to continue, but Stan has staked everything on the venture and won’t quit.
Stan’s obsession puts him in touch with deep time – he’s “someone whose profession forces him to think in terms of millions of years” – but his thoughts keep returning to moments of joy or distress from his childhood. Although she died when he was nine years old, his beloved mother still looms large in his memory. Even as the realities of cold and hunger intensify, his past comes to seem more vivid than his present.
This French bestseller was shortlisted for the Grand Prix de l’Académie Française last year. Sam Taylor’s translation is flawless, as always (I only noted one tiny phrase that felt wrong for the time period – “honestly, what a brat” – though for all I know it’s off in the original, too). However, I found the novella uncannily similar to Snow, Dog, Foot by Claudio Morandini, which is about a hermit in the Italian Alps whose mental illness is exacerbated by snowy solitude. I found Morandini’s witty, macabre story more memorable. Although A Hundred Million Years and a Day is well constructed, there’s something austere about it that meant my admiration never quite moved into fondness.
A Hundred Million Years and a Day will be published in the UK tomorrow, the 11th. My thanks to Gallic Books for the free copy for review.
I was delighted to be invited to participate in the blog tour. See below for details of where other reviews and features have appeared or will be appearing soon.
I’m delighted to be on the blog tour for The Cabinet of Calm: Soothing Words for Troubled Times by Paul Anthony Jones, which will be published in the UK by Elliott & Thompson on Thursday the 14th. Jones has a Master’s degree in linguistics and writes about etymology and obscure words. This is his seventh book of English-language trivia.
I was also on the blog tour for The Cabinet of Linguistic Curiosities: A Yearbook of Forgotten Words and enjoyed having that as my daily bedside book for a whole year. The short essays in his books are perfect for reading one or two at a time just before bed. (One of my current bedside reads is Jones’s 2016 book The Accidental Dictionary: The remarkable twists and turns of English words. As soon as I finish that, I’ll launch into the new one.)
The book’s publication, and the blog tour, neatly coincide with Mental Health Awareness Week (18–24 May). Here’s a bit more information about the book, from the press release: “For almost a decade, Paul Anthony Jones has written about the oddities and origins of the English language, amassing a vast collection of some of its more unusual words. Last year, doubly bereaved and struggling to regain his spirits, he turned to words – words that could be applied to difficult, challenging times and found solace. The Cabinet of Calm is the result.
“Paul has unearthed fifty-one linguistic remedies to offer reassurance, inspiration and hope in the face of such feelings as grief and despair, homesickness and exhaustion, missing our friends and a loss of hope. Written with a trademark lightness of touch, The Cabinet of Calm shows us that we’re not alone. From MELORISM, when you’re worried about the future of the world[,] and AGATHISM, when you’re feeling disillusionment or struggling to remain positive[,] to … STOUND, for when you’re grieving, someone else has felt like this before, and so there’s a word to help, whatever the challenge.”
I was assigned at random this exclusive extract from The Cabinet of Calm; how delightful to find that it references one of my favourite books!
“Like so many of the English language’s best and most inventive words, growlery is a word we owe to one of our best and most inventive writers. In 1853, Charles Dickens used the word growlery in his novel Bleak House. As the kindly benefactor Mr Jarndyce welcomes one of the novel’s key narrators, Esther Summerson, to his eponymous home, he shows her into ‘a small room next to his bed-chamber’, containing ‘a little library of books and papers, and in part quite a little museum of his boots and shoes and hat-boxes’…
Although the word growlery itself had first appeared in the language somewhat earlier (as a term for the sound of grumbling or complaining) Mr Jarndyce’s growlery is essentially the Dickensian equivalent of what we in our less poetic, twenty-first-century language might call a ‘safe space’. It is a calming, comfortable, solitary room, filled with familiar and enlightening things, in which a bad mood can be privately vented, mused on and assuaged.
We might not all have the luxury of a bespoke room in a rambling country retreat in which to give vent to our problems, but there’s no reason why our own particular growleries have to match Mr Jarndyce’s … Wherever – or, for that matter, whatever – your particular growlery is, it’s undoubtedly a word and a place well worth knowing whenever you need to lighten your spirits.”
If you are in the UK and interested in purchasing a copy, please try to support an independent bookshop nearby. For instance, my local, Hungerford Bookshop, is still delivering. Or have a look for another shop on Twitter using the hashtags #ChooseBookshops and #shopindie.
~This review contains plot spoilers.~
Sue Monk Kidd’s bold fourth novel started as a what-if question: What if Jesus had a wife? Church tradition has always insisted that he remained unmarried, but she felt that, given the cultural norms of the Middle East at that time, it would have been highly unusual for him not to marry. Musing on the motivation for airbrushing a spouse out of the picture, on the last page of the novel Kidd asks, “Did [early Christians] believe making him celibate rendered him more spiritual?” Or “Was it because women were so often invisible?” Although The Book of Longings retells biblical events, it is chiefly an attempt to illuminate women’s lives in the 1st century CE and to chart the female contribution to sacred literature and spirituality.
Fourteen-year-old Ana is a headstrong young woman with a forthright voice and a determination to choose her own life. Privilege and luck are on her side: her father is the head scribe to Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee; and the repulsive widower to whom she’s been betrothed dies, freeing her to marry Jesus, a travelling craftsman who caught her eye at the market. Ana’s aunt, Yaltha from Alexandria, is a major influence in her life. She had a rare chance at education and encourages her niece in her writing. Ana knows several ancient languages and fills every papyrus scroll she can get her hands on with stories of the women in the Bible. Yaltha also gives her an incantation bowl in which to write her deeply held prayers.
If you’re familiar with Kidd’s other work (such as The Secret Life of Bees and Traveling with Pomegranates), you know that she often explores the divine feminine and matriarchal units. Historically, Christianity has a poor record of acknowledging its patriarchal tendencies and redressing the balance. But Kidd imagines that, right at the beginning, Jesus valued women and was open to them having a life beyond domestic chores and childrearing. He involves Ana in his discussions about God and the nature of the Kingdom; they both see and take compassion on people’s suffering; together they are baptized by John the Baptist. And when Ana tells Jesus she doesn’t believe she is meant to be a mother – her mother and aunt took herbal potions and have passed on their contraceptive knowledge to her – he accepts her choice, even though childlessness could bring shame on both of them.
I appreciated this picture of a woman who opts for writing and the spiritual life over motherhood. However, Kidd portrays a whole range of women’s experiences: Jesus’s mother and sister-in-law submit to the drudgery of keeping a household going; Ana’s friend is raped and has her tongue cut out in an attempt to silence her, yet finds new ways to express herself; and another major character is a servant involved in the healing rituals at a temple to Isis. A practicing Jew, Ana finds meaning in other religious traditions rather than dismissing them as idolatry. She also participates in wider intellectual life, such as by reading The Odyssey.
Some descriptions make this novel sound like alternative history. If you’re expecting Ana to save the day and change the course of history, you will be disappointed. Ana is simply an observer of the events documented in the Bible. While she recounts the inspirations for some parables and healing incidents, during two years in exile with her aunt she only hears secondhand accounts of Jesus’s ministry. Her brother, a Zealot, disagrees with Jesus on how to usher in the Kingdom of God. By the time Ana returns to Jerusalem, the events leading to the crucifixion have already been set in motion; she can only bear witness. For her, life will continue after Jesus’s death, in a women-led spiritual community. From avoiding motherhood to choosing a monastic-type life, Ana has a lot of freedom. Some readers may be skeptical about how realistic this life course is, but the key, I think, is to consider Ana as an outlier.
Kidd has made wise decisions here: for the most part she makes her story line parallel or tangential to the biblical record, rather than repeating material many will find overly familiar. She takes Jewish teaching as a starting point but builds a picture of a more all-encompassing spirituality drawn from multiple traditions. Her Jesus is recognizable and deeply human; Ana calls him “a peacemaker and a provocateur in equal measures” and remembers him telling her what it was like growing up with the stigma of his illegitimate birth. The novel is rooted in historical detail but the research into the time and place never takes over. Engrossing and convincing, this is a story of women’s intuition and yearning, and of the parts of history that often get overlooked. It wouldn’t be out of place on next year’s Women’s Prize longlist.
The Book of Longings was released on Tuesday the 21st. My thanks to Tinder Press for the proof copy for review.
I’m the last stop on a small blog tour for the audiobook release: if you’re interested in listening to the first hour of The Book of Longings, visit the blogs below and follow the links. Each one is hosting a 10-minute excerpt. The final one is available here.
It’s my stop on the “Not the Wellcome Prize” blog tour. With two dozen reviews of health-themed 2019 books to choose from, I decided to nominate these two for the longlist because they’re under the radar compared to some other medical releases, plus they showcase the breadth of the books that the Prize recognizes: from a heartfelt memoir of a mother welcoming premature babies to a laugh-out-loud graphic novel about a doctor practicing in a small town in Wales. (The Prize website says “picture-led books are not eligible,” so in fact it is likely that graphic novels have never been considered, but we’ve been flexible with the rules for this unofficial blog tour.)
Mother Ship by Francesca Segal
This first work of nonfiction from the author of the exquisite The Innocents is a visceral diary of the first eight weeks in the lives of her twin daughters, who were born by Caesarean section at 29 weeks in October 2015 and spent the next two months in the NICU, “an extremely well-funded prison or perhaps more accurately a high-tech zoo.” In Mother Ship, she strives to come to terms with this unnatural start to motherhood. “Taking my unready daughters from within me felt not like a birth but an evisceration,” she writes. “My children do not appear to require mothering. Instead they need sophisticated medical intervention.”
Segal describes with tender precision the feeling of being torn: between the second novel she’d been in the middle of writing and the all-consuming nature of early parenthood; and between her two girls (known for much of the book as “A-lette” and “B-lette”), who are at one point separated in different hospitals. Her attitude towards the NHS is pure gratitude.
As well as portraying her own state of mind, she crafts twinkly pen portraits of the others she encountered in the NICU, including the staff but especially her fellow preemie mums, who met in a “milking shed” where they pumped breast milk for the babies they were so afraid of losing that they resisted naming. (Though it was touch and go for a while, A-lette and B-lette finally earned the names Raffaella and Celeste and came home safely.) Female friendship is thus a subsidiary theme in this exploration of desperate love and helplessness.
The Lady Doctor by Ian Williams
This sequel to 2014’s The Bad Doctor returns to a medical practice in small-town Wales. This time, though, the focus is on Iwan James’s colleague, Dr. Lois Pritchard, who also puts in two days a week treating embarrassing ailments at the local hospital’s genitourinary medicine clinic. At nearly 40, Lois is a divorcee with no children; just a dog. She enjoys her nights out drinking with her best friend, Geeta, but her carefree life is soon beset by various complications: she has to decide whether she wants to join the health centre as a full partner, a tryst with her new fella goes horribly wrong, and her estranged mother suddenly reappears in her life, hoping that Lois will give her a liver transplant. And that’s not to mention all the drug addicts and VD-ridden lotharios hanging about.
Williams was a GP in North Wales for 20 years, and no doubt his experiences have inspired his comics. His tone is wonderfully balanced: there are plenty of hilarious, somewhat raunchy scenes, but also touching moments where Lois learns that a doctor is never completely off duty and has no idea what medical or personal challenge will crop up next. The drawing style reminded me most of Alison Bechdel’s or Posy Simmonds’, with single shades from rose to olive alternating as the background. I especially loved the pages where each panel depicts a different patient to show the range of people and complaints a doctor might see in a day. Myriad Editions have a whole “Graphic Medicine” series that I’m keen to explore.
See below for details of the blogs where other reviews have appeared or will be appearing soon.
The shadow panel will choose a shortlist of six titles to be announced on 4 May. We will then vote to choose a winner, with the results of a Twitter poll serving as one additional vote. The Not the Wellcome Prize winner will be announced on 11 May.
Soon after I heard that the Wellcome Book Prize would be on hiatus this year, I had the idea to host a “Not the Wellcome Prize” blog tour to showcase some of the best health-themed literature published in 2019. I was finalizing the participants and schedule just before as well as during the coronavirus crisis, which has reinforced the importance of celebrating books that disseminate crucial information about medicine and/or tell stories about how health affects our daily lives. I got the go-ahead for this unofficial tour from the Wellcome Trust’s Simon Chaplin (Director of Culture & Society) and Jeremy Farrar (overall Director).
Starting on Monday and running for the next two weeks (weekdays only), the tour will be featuring 19 books across 10 blogs. One of the unique things about the Wellcome Prize is that both fiction and nonfiction are eligible, so we’ve tried to represent a real variety here: on the longlist we have everything from autobiographical essays to science fiction, including a graphic novel and a couple of works in translation.
Based on the blog tour reviews and the Prize’s aims*, the shadow panel (Annabel of Annabookbel, Clare of A Little Blog of Books, Laura of Dr. Laura Tisdall, Paul of Halfman, Halfbook and I) will choose a shortlist of six titles, to be announced on the 4th of May. We will then vote to choose a winner, with the results of a Twitter poll serving as one additional vote (be sure to have your say!). The overall winner of the Not the Wellcome Prize will be announced on the 11th of May.
I hope you’ll follow along with the reviews and voting. I would like to express my deep thanks to all the blog tour participants, especially the shadow panel for helping with ideas and planning – plus Annabel designed the graphics.
*Here is how the website describes the Prize’s purpose: “At some point, medicine touches all our lives. Books that find stories in those brushes with medicine are ones that add new meaning to what it means to be human. The subjects these books grapple with might include birth and beginnings, illness and loss, pain, memory, and identity. In keeping with its vision and goals, the Wellcome Book Prize aims to excite public interest and encourage debate around these topics.”
Below I’ve appended our preliminary list of eligible books that were considered but didn’t quite make the cut to be featured on the tour, noting major themes and positive blog review coverage I’ve come across. (The official Prize excludes poetry entries, but we were more flexible.)
- When Death Takes Something from You Give It Back by Naja Marie Aidt (memoir of child’s sudden death)
- The Man in the Red Coat by Julian Barnes (biography of 19th-century gynecologist)
- Let Me Not Be Mad by A.K. Benjamin (neuropsychologist’s memoir)
- The Story of Sex: From Apes to Robots by Philippe Brenot (medical history/graphic novel, in translation)
- The Prison Doctor by Amanda Brown (doctor’s memoir)
- The Undying by Anne Boyer (essays – cancer)
- Breaking & Mending by Joanna Cannon (doctor’s memoir)
- How to Treat People by Molly Case (nurse’s memoir)
- Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? by Caitlin Doughty (popular science – death)
- Happening by Annie Ernaux (memoir, in translation – abortion)
- I Remain in Darkness by Annie Ernaux (memoir, in translation – mother’s dementia)
- Out of Our Minds by Felipe Fernández-Armesto (popular science – evolutionary biology)
- The Heartland by Nathan Filer (medical history/memoir – schizophrenia)
- Childless Voices by Lorna Gibb (cultural history – infertility, etc.)
- Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb (memoir/self-help – therapy)
- Once More We Saw Stars by Jayson Greene (memoir – child’s sudden death)
- A Short History of Falling by Joe Hammond (memoir – disability, dying)
- All Things Consoled by Elizabeth Hay (memoir – geriatrics, dementia)
- Hard Pushed by Leah Hazard (midwife’s memoir)
- Life Lessons from a Brain Surgeon by Rahul Jandial (memoir/self-help)
- Twas the Nightshift before Christmas by Adam Kay (doctor’s memoir)
- Why Can’t We Sleep? by Darian Leader (popular science – insomnia)
- Incandescent: We Need to Talk about Light by Anna Levin (light’s effects on health and body rhythms)
- A Puff of Smoke by Sarah Lippett (memoir – growing up with rare disease)
- Hormonal by Eleanor Morgan (popular science – women’s health)
- Critical by Matt Morgan (ICU doctor’s memoir)
- A Short History of Medicine by Steve Parker (medical history, illustrated)
- Notes to Self by Emilie Pine (essays – infertility, rape, etc.)
- That Good Night by Sunita Puri (doctor’s memoir – palliative care)
- An Elegant Defense: The Extraordinary New Science of the Immune System: A Tale in Four Lives by Matt Richtel (popular science)
- The Gendered Brain by Gina Ripon (popular science – neuroscience, gender)
- The Five by Hallie Rubenhold (alcoholism, sex work)
- When I Had a Little Sister by Catherine Simpson (memoir – mental health, suicide)
- Flash Count Diary: Menopause and the Vindication of Natural Life by Darcey Steinke (memoir, female anatomy)
- Skeleton Keys: The Secret Life of Bone by Brian Switek (popular science – anatomy)
- Out of the Woods by Luke Turner (memoir – masculinity, bisexuality)
- The Making of You by Katharina Vestre (popular science, in translation – embryology)
- Transcendence: How Humans Evolved through Fire, Language, Beauty, and Time by Gaia Vince (popular science – human evolution)
- The Knife’s Edge by Stephen Westaby (surgeon’s memoir)
- Starling Days by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan (literary fiction – mental illness, bisexuality)
- Recursion by Blake Crouch (science fiction – memory)
- Expectation by Anna Hope (women’s fiction – infertility, cancer)
- Stillicide by Cynan Jones (speculative fiction – water crisis)
- Things in Jars by Jess Kidd (historical fiction – Victorian medicine)
- Patience by Toby Litt (disability)
- The Migration by Helen Marshall (speculative fiction – immune disorder)
- The Warlow Experiment by Alix Nathan (historical fiction – medical experimentation)
- Night Theatre by Vikram Paralkar (magic realism – surgeon to the dead)
- The Art of Dying by Ambrose Parry (historical mystery – Victorian medicine)
- The Dutch House by Ann Patchett (doctor narrator, diabetes)
- Body Tourists by Jane Rogers (science fiction – body rental technology)
- Children of Ruin by Adrian Tchaikovsky (science fiction – evolutionary biology)
- Oligarchy by Scarlett Thomas (eating disorders)
- Wanderers by Chuck Wendig (science fiction – sleepwalking disorder)
- O Positive by Joe Dunthorne (death, therapy)
- The Carrying by Ada Limon (ageing parents, infertility)
In the 1950s the Greek island of Hydra became a magnet for artists and writers, including Lawrence Durrell, Patrick Leigh Fermor and Henry Miller. Polly Samson’s fifth work of fiction, set in this makeshift artists’ colony in 1960, zeroes in on the married Australian authors Charmian Clift and George Johnston, Norwegian novelist Axel Jensen, his wife Marianne Ihlen, and an unknown young poet from Canada named Leonard Cohen.
We see all of these real-life characters from the perspective of our starry-eyed narrator, Erica, a seventeen-year-old outsider. In a framing story set c. late 2016, after she hears of Leonard’s death, Erica has returned to Hydra as an old woman. Yet that first gold summer is still intensely alive in her memory. She decided to decamp to Hydra just before Easter in 1960, with her boyfriend Jimmy and her brother Bobby, because Charmian was once their late mother’s closest friend back in London. Erica’s inheritance would go far here: “people like us … can live for a year in the sun on what it’d cost us for a month in a dingy bedsit at home.”
Love triangles abound and emotions run high on Hydra. Gradually Erica learns that just about everyone has slept with, or is currently sneaking around with, someone they aren’t married to. Meanwhile, Bobby and friends sleep late and paint, then party well into the night. While Erica is the responsible mother hen at their villa, seeing that everyone gets fed, she indulges her hedonistic side, too – going to every bash and spending half the day in bed with Jimmy.
Charmian becomes a kind of surrogate mother to Erica, but remains spiky due to her jealousy over George’s greater literary success while she has to care for the children and act as his amanuensis. “They’re the closest thing I have to a family,” Erica writes of Charmian and George and the wider expatriate circle. “I love them all: their banter and moods and tears and wild laughter, all of it, every chaotic bit of it.” But there’s a sense that the idyll can’t last.
This is a novel simply dripping with atmosphere. You can feel the Mediterranean heat soaking up through your sandals; see the piercing sunlight reflecting off white-washed buildings; smell the ripening fruit and herbs and fresh-caught fish. There are dozens of evocative passages I could quote from, but here is part of one of my favourites:
The port throbs with tourists and the street cats grow fat. The cicadas are busy breaking a hundred hearts with their songs. We pull our mattresses out to the terrace and sleep beneath the stars, wake with the sun … We pick over platters of fish at taverna tables, or drift from courtyard to courtyard with our records and poems, or take bottles of beer and eat bread and meatballs beneath the tumbling vines of the outdoor cinema … We have all become leaner, our legs muscled from the steps, Bobby and Jimmy’s shoulders almost amphibian from swimming. Sometimes we take a bag of peaches and a flask of coffee to the cave and grab a dip before the port is fully awake, other times we swim late at night and lie naked between the moon and the tide on the still-warm rocks.
If you’re getting cabin fever and are hankering for some armchair travelling, I can’t recommend a trip to 1960 Hydra enough. There are two prizes that specifically recognize literature with a strong sense of place: The Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaatje Prize is “for a distinguished work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry, evoking the spirit of a place,” as is the Cicerone (fiction) prize, part of the Edward Stanford Travel Writing Awards. I’d be willing to bet that A Theatre for Dreamers will be shortlisted for one or both of those next year.
My thanks to Bloomsbury Circus for the free copy for review.
I’ve been a huge admirer of Maggie O’Farrell’s work ever since I read The Hand that First Held Mine, which won the Costa Novel Award, in 2011. I was intrigued by the premise of her new book, in which she delves further back into history than she has before to imagine the context of the death of William Shakespeare’s son Hamnet and the effect it had on the playwright’s work – including, four years later, Hamlet.
Curiously, O’Farrell has decided never to mention Shakespeare by name in her novel, so he remains a passive, shadowy figure seen only in relation to his wife and children – he’s referred to as “the father,” “the Latin tutor” or “her husband.” Instead, the key characters are his wife Agnes (most will know her as Anne, but Agnes was the name her father, Richard Hathaway, used for her in his will) and Hamnet himself.
As the novel opens, 11-year-old Hamnet is alone in his grandfather’s glove workshop. His twin sister Judith has a fever and lumps at her neck and he is frantically trying to find an adult. But with his father in London, his mother off tending her bees and his grandfather’s indifference all too ready to shade into violence, there is no one to help. Although it’s Judith who appears to be ill with the Plague, readers know from the scant historical record that it is Hamnet who dies. Somehow, even though we see this coming, it’s still a heavy blow. Hamnet is a story of the moments that change everything, of regrets that last forever: Agnes will ever after be afflicted with a sense of having neglected her children just when they needed her.
Short chapters set in that summer of 1596 alternate with longer ones from 15 years before, when WS was engaged as a Latin tutor to the sons of a sheep farmer to pay off his father’s debts. Soon he became captivated by a young woman with a kestrel whom he assumed to be the family’s maid but learned was actually the unconventional daughter of the household, Agnes. She had a reputation as a herbal healer and was known to have second sight – just by holding someone’s hand, she could see into their past or predict their future.
There are some wonderfully vivid scenes in this earlier story line, including a tryst in the apple shed and Agnes going off alone into the forest to give birth to their first child, Susanna. My favourite chapter of all, though, is the central one that traces the journey of the pestilence from a glassmaker’s studio in Italy to the small Warwickshire village. The medical subplot of Hamnet has taken on a new significance that O’Farrell surely never predicted when she was immersing herself in the time period by undertaking falconry and mudlarking.
Although I remain a big fan, Hamnet is the least successful of the six books of O’Farrell’s that I’ve read. Her trademark third person omniscient voice and present tense narration, which elsewhere exude confidence and immediacy, here create detachment and even vagueness (“A boy is coming down a flight of stairs”; “Look. Agnes is pouring water into a pan”). The strategy for evoking the 16th century seems to be to throw in the occasional period prop, but the dialogue and vocabulary can feel anachronistic, as in “Boys! Stop that this instant! Or I’ll come up there and give you something to wail about”.
In comparison with historical fiction I’ve read recently by Geraldine Brooks and Hilary Mantel, this fell short. Overall, I found the prose flat and repetitive, which diluted the portrait of grief. My reaction was lukewarm, but this should not deter readers from trying this wonderful writer – if not this book, then any one of her previous five.
My thanks to Midas PR and Tinder Press for the free copy for review.
For my second spot on the official Dylan Thomas Prize blog tour, I’m featuring the debut poetry collection If All the World and Love Were Young (2019) by Stephen Sexton, which was awarded the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. Sexton lives in Belfast (so this is also an incidental contribution to Reading Ireland Month) and was the winner of the 2016 National Poetry Competition and a 2018 Eric Gregory Award.
The book is a highly original hybrid of video game imagery and a narrative about the final illness of his mother, who died in 2012. As a child the poet was obsessed with Super Mario World. He overlays the game’s landscapes onto his life to create an almost hallucinogenic fairy tale. Into this virtual world, which blends idyll and threat, comes the news of his mother’s cancer:
One summer’s day I’m summoned home to hear of cells which split and glitch
so haphazardly someone is called to intervene with poisons
drawn from strange and peregrine trees flourishing in distant kingdoms.
Her doctors are likened to wizards attempting magic –
In blue scrubs the Merlins apply various elixirs potions
panaceas to her body
– until they give up and acknowledge the limitations of medicine:
So we wait in the private room turn the egg timer of ourselves.
Hippocrates in his white coat brings with him a shake of the head …
where we cannot do some good
at least we must refrain from harm.
Super Mario settings provide the headings: Yoshi’s Island, Donut Plains, Forest of Illusion, Chocolate Island and so on. There are also references to bridges, Venetian canals, mines and labyrinths, as if to give illness the gravity of a mythological hero’s journey. Meanwhile, the title repeats the first line of “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd” by Sir Walter Raleigh, which, as a rebuttal to Christopher Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love,” eschews romanticism in favor of realism about change and mortality. Sexton wanted to include both views. (He discusses his inspirations in detail in this Irish Times article.)
Apart from one rough pantoum (“Choco-Ghost House”), I didn’t notice any other forms being used. This is free verse; internally unpunctuated, it has a run-on feel. While I do think readers are likely to get more out of the poems if they have some familiarity with Super Mario World and/or are gamers themselves, this is a striking book that examines bereavement in a new way.
Note: Be sure to stick around past “The End” for the Credits, which summarize all the book’s bizarrely diverse elements, and a lovely final poem that’s rather like a benediction.
My thanks to Midas PR for the free copy for review.
The Swansea University International Dylan Thomas Prize recognizes the best published work in the English language written by an author aged 39 or under. All literary genres are eligible, so there are poetry collections nominated as well as novels and short stories.
To recap, the 12 books on this year’s longlist are:
- Surge, Jay Bernard
- Flèche, Mary Jean Chan (my review)
- Exquisite Cadavers, Meena Kandasamy
- Things We Say in the Dark by Kirsty Logan (my preview & an excerpt)
- Black Car Burning, Helen Mort
- Virtuoso, Yelena Moskovich
- Inland, Téa Obreht
- Stubborn Archivist, Yara Rodrigues Fowler (my review)
- If All the World and Love Were Young, Stephen Sexton
- The Far Field, Madhuri Vijay
- On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Ocean Vuong
- Lot, Bryan Washington
The shortlist will be announced on Tuesday, April 7th.
It’s an honour to be kicking off the official Swansea University International Dylan Thomas Prize 2020* blog tour with a post introducing and giving an excerpt from one of this year’s longlisted titles, the short story collection Things We Say in the Dark by Kirsty Logan.
Many of these 20 stories twist fairy tale imagery into nightmarish scenarios, enumerating fears of bodies and pregnancies going wrong. Body parts are offered as tokens of love or left behind as the sole evidence of an abduction. Ghosts and corpses are frequent presences. I also recognized some of the same sorts of Celtic sea legends that infuse Logan’s debut novel, The Gracekeepers.
Some stories are divided into multiple parts by headings or point-of-view changes. Others are in unusual formats like footnotes, a questionnaire, bullet-pointed lists, or a couple’s contrasting notes on house viewings. The titles can be like mini-tales in their own right, e.g. “Girls Are Always Hungry when All the Men Are Bite-Size” and “The Only Thing I Can’t Tell You Is Why.”
In between the stories are italicized passages that seem to give context on Logan’s composition process, including her writing retreat in Iceland – but it turns out that this is a story, too, split into pieces and shading from autobiography into fiction.
My favourite story was “Things My Wife and I Found Hidden in Our House,” about a series of objects Rain and her wife Alice find in the derelict house Alice’s granny has left them. Here’s an excerpt from the story to whet your appetite:
- A KNIFE
I wasn’t surprised when Alice and I found the long thin silver knife wrapped in blackened grot beneath the floorboards. It wasn’t easy: to find it we’d had to pull up just about every rotting, stinking board in the house, our hands slick with blood and filth. Alice had told me that a silver knife through the heart is the only way to kill a kelpie, so if Alice’s gran really had killed it, the knife was likely to be there somewhere. Her mistake, her haunting, was in keeping the thing. As proof? A memento? We’d never know. Then again, we knew that her bathtub drowning was due to a stroke. So I guess you can never really know anything.
Alice and I gathered up the ring and the paper and the horse and the pearls and the hair and the glass jar and the knife, and we put them all in a box. We drove for hours until we got to the coast, to the town where Alice’s gran and her grandad and the first wife had all lived, and we climbed to the highest cliff and we threw all the things into the sea.
Together we drove back to the house, holding hands between the front seats. A steady calm grew in our hearts; we knew that it was over, that we had cleansed the house and ourselves, that we had proven women’s love was stronger than women’s hate.
Approaching the front door, key outstretched, hands still held, hearts grown sweet, Alice and I stopped. Our hands unlinked. The doorknob was wrapped all around with layers of long black hair.
My thanks to Midas PR for the free copy for review, and to Harvill Secker for permission to reprint an excerpt.
*The Swansea University International Dylan Thomas Prize recognizes the best published work in the English language written by an author aged 39 or under. All literary genres are eligible, so there are poetry collections nominated as well as novels and short stories. The other 11 books on this year’s longlist are:
- Surge, Jay Bernard
- Flèche, Mary Jean Chan (my review)
- Exquisite Cadavers, Meena Kandasamy
- Black Car Burning, Helen Mort
- Virtuoso, Yelena Moskovich
- Inland, Téa Obreht
- Stubborn Archivist, Yara Rodrigues Fowler (my review)
- If All the World and Love Were Young, Stephen Sexton
- The Far Field, Madhuri Vijay
- On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Ocean Vuong
- Lot, Bryan Washington
The official blog tour runs this month and into April, with multiple bloggers covering each book. At the end of March, I’ll also be reviewing the poetry collection by Stephen Sexton.