Three novels that range in tone from carnal allegorical excess to quiet, bittersweet reflection via low-key menace; and essays about keeping the faith in the most turbulent of times.
Milk Fed by Melissa Broder
Rachel’s body and mommy issues are major and intertwined: she takes calorie counting and exercise to an extreme, and her therapist has suggested that she take a 90-day break from contact with her overbearing mother. Her workdays at a Hollywood talent management agency are punctuated by carefully regimented meals, one of them a 16-ounce serving of fat-free frozen yogurt from a shop run by Orthodox Jews. One day it’s not the usual teenage boy behind the counter, but his overweight older sister, Miriam. Miriam makes Rachel elaborate sundaes instead of her usual abstemious cups and Rachel lets herself eat them even though it throws her whole diet off. She realizes she’s attracted to Miriam, who comes to fill the bisexual Rachel’s fantasies, and they strike up a tentative relationship over Chinese food and classic film dates as well as Shabbat dinners at Miriam’s family home.
If you’re familiar with The Pisces, Broder’s Women’s Prize-longlisted debut, you should recognize the pattern here: a deep exploration of wish fulfilment and psychological roles, wrapped up in a sarcastic and sexually explicit narrative. Fat becomes not something to fear but a source of comfort; desire for food and for the female body go hand in hand. Rachel says, “It felt like a miracle to be able to eat what I desired, not more or less than that. It was shocking, as though my body somehow knew what to do and what not to do—if only I let it.”
With the help of her therapist, a rabbi that appears in her dreams, and the recurring metaphor of the golem, Rachel starts to grasp the necessity of mothering herself and becoming the shaper of her own life. I was uneasy that Miriam, like Theo in The Pisces, might come to feel more instrumental than real, but overall this was an enjoyable novel that brings together its disparate subjects convincingly. (But is it hot or smutty? You tell me.)
With thanks to Bloomsbury for the proof copy for review.
Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller
At a glance, the cover for Fuller’s fourth novel seems to host a riot of luscious flowers and fruit, but look closer and you’ll see the daisies are withering and the grapes rotting; there’s a worm exiting the apple and flies are overseeing the decomposition. Just as the image slowly reveals signs of decay, Fuller’s novel gradually unveils the drawbacks of its secluded village setting. Jeanie and Julius Seeder, 51-year-old twins, lived with their mother, Dot, until she was felled by a stroke. They’d always been content with a circumscribed, self-sufficient existence, but now their whole way of life is called into question. Their mother’s rent-free arrangement with the landowners, the Rawsons, falls through, and the cash they keep in a biscuit tin in the cottage comes nowhere close to covering her debts, let alone a funeral.
During the Zoom book launch event, Fuller confessed that she’s “incapable of writing a happy novel,” so consider that your warning of how bleak things will get for her protagonists – though by the end there are pinpricks of returning hope. Before then, though, readers navigate an unrelenting spiral of rural poverty and bad luck, exacerbated by illiteracy and the greed and unkindness of others. One of Fuller’s strengths is creating atmosphere, and there are many images and details here that build the picture of isolation and pathos, such as a piano marooned halfway to a derelict caravan along a forest track and Jeanie having to count pennies so carefully that she must choose between toilet paper and dish soap at the shop.
Unsettled Ground is set in a fictional North Wessex Downs village not far from where I live. I loved spotting references to local places and to folk music – Jeanie and Julius might not have book smarts or successful careers, but they inherited Dot’s love of music and when they pick up a fiddle and guitar they tune in to the ancient magic of storytelling. Much of the novel is from Jeanie’s perspective and she makes for an out-of-the-ordinary yet relatable POV character. I found the novel heavy on exposition, which somewhat slowed my progress through it, but it’s comparable to Fuller’s other work in that it focuses on family secrets, unusual states of mind, and threatening situations. She’s rapidly become one of my favourite contemporary novelists, and I’d recommend this to you if you’ve liked her other work or Fiona Mozley’s Elmet.
With thanks to Penguin Fig Tree for the proof copy for review.
Dusk, Night, Dawn: On Revival and Courage by Anne Lamott
These are Lamott’s best new essays (if you don’t count Small Victories, which reprinted some of her greatest hits) in nearly a decade. The book is a fitting follow-up to 2018’s Almost Everything in that it tackles the same central theme: how to have hope in God and in other people even when the news – Trump, Covid, and climate breakdown – only heralds the worst.
One key thing that has changed in Lamott’s life since her last book is getting married for the first time, in her mid-sixties, to a Buddhist. “How’s married life?” people can’t seem to resist asking her. In thinking of marriage she writes about love and friendship, constancy and forgiveness, none of which comes easy. Her neurotic nature flares up every now and again, but Neal helps to talk her down. Fragments of her early family life come back as she considers all her parents were up against and concludes that they did their best (“How paltry and blocked our family love was, how narrow the bandwidth of my parents’ spiritual lives”).
Opportunities for maintaining quiet faith in spite of the circumstances arise all the time for her, whether it’s a variety show that feels like it will never end, a four-day power cut in California, the kitten inexplicably going missing, or young people taking to the streets to protest about the climate crisis they’re inheriting. A short postscript entitled “Covid College” gives thanks for “the blessings of COVID: we became more reflective, more contemplative.”
The prose and anecdotes feel fresher here than in several of the author’s other recent books. I highlighted quote after quote on my Kindle. Some of these essays will be well worth rereading and deserve to become classics in the Lamott canon, especially “Soul Lather,” “Snail Hymn,” “Light Breezes,” and “One Winged Love.”
I read an advanced digital review copy via NetGalley. Available from Riverhead in the USA and SPCK in the UK.
Brood by Jackie Polzin
Polzin’s debut novel is a quietly touching story of a woman in the Midwest raising chickens and coming to terms with the shape of her life. The unnamed narrator is Everywoman and no one at the same time. As in recent autofiction by Rachel Cusk and Sigrid Nunez, readers find observations of other people (and animals), a record of their behaviour and words; facts about the narrator herself are few and far between, though it is possible to gradually piece together a backstory for her. At one point she reveals, with no fanfare, that she miscarried four months into pregnancy in the bathroom of one of the houses she cleans. There is a bittersweet tone to this short work. It’s a low-key, genuine portrait of life in the in-between stages and how it can be affected by fate or by other people’s decisions.
See my full review at BookBrowse. I was also lucky enough to do an interview with the author.
I read an advanced digital review copy via Edelweiss. Available from Doubleday in the USA. To be released in the UK by Picador tomorrow, April 1st.
What recent releases can you recommend?
These 2021 releases I read from the library stood out to me for daring to suggest that sometimes children aren’t little angels and parenthood isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
The Push by Ashley Audrain
“Do you wish you weren’t a mother?”
“Sometimes I wish I were a different kind of person.”
A cracking psychological thriller with an unreliable narrator, this is in the same vein as The Woman in the Window, Gone Girl, and A Good Enough Mother. I hardly ever pick up novels that fit into this genre, but these were all well worth making an exception for. The Push feels closer to literary fiction than to crime. Blythe Connor, living alone with her memories, ponders what went wrong with her seemingly perfect family: a handsome architect husband, Fox, and their daughter Violet and baby son Sam. Now reduced to being a stalker and an impersonator, Blythe vows to write everything down as evidence, taking care to note when she first had cause to question whether Violet was normal. A daddy’s girl from the start, Violet never bonded with Blythe and admitted to deliberately hurting other children in her preschool. But how much of what happened next was because of Violet’s nature, and how much was Blythe’s fault for failing to be the mother the girl needed?
The inkblot design of the cover cleverly evokes classical psychological concepts and experiments. A key topic the novel explores is how trauma is passed down through the generations: Blythe had worried that she wasn’t cut out for motherhood, chiefly because her mother and her grandmother both abandoned their daughters. “Blythe, the women in this family, we’re different. You’ll see,” her mother had warned. The exchange between Blythe and her mother that opens my review reiterates her suspicion: some people just aren’t cut out for parenting. Blythe can’t dismiss her daughter as evil because she knows how much guilt rests on her own shoulders, and because she doubts that she saw what she thought she saw. Moreover, the fact that her experience with Sam was completely different makes her feel ambivalent about motherhood: she’s seen how wonderful it can be, but also how it can turn bad. The nuance sets the book apart from run-of-the-mill thrillers. Yet it’s in short, page-turning chapters, so it reads very quickly and would make a great book club selection.
A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself by Peter Ho Davies
At its best, autofiction is an intriguing blend of memoir and fiction, all of it true and universal in appeal. Davies’ minimalist approach – short sections skating over the months and years, wryly pulling out representative moments here and there, all in a mere 180 pages – could hardly be more different from Karl Ove Knausgaard’s, but both are equally dedicated to the unique alchemy of crystallizing fatherhood by illuminating its daily heartaches and joys.
Years ago, “the writer” and his wife were presented with a choice. When genetic tests indicated mosaicism, they terminated their first pregnancy. Instead of a little girl, they later had a baby boy who presented his own challenges, including delayed development and possible ASD. Years later, the abortion still haunts “the father.” He attempts to exorcise his shame (the title = how Anaïs Nin defined it) by volunteering at an abortion clinic. Escorting patients to and from their cars, ignoring the taunts of protestors, he lives out his conviction that you can never fully know what others are going through and why they make the decisions they do.
Davies gets the tone just right in this novella, showing both sides of parenthood and voicing the things you aren’t allowed to think, or at least not to admit to – starting with abortion, which would-be fathers aren’t expected to have strong feelings about. Soon after the writer’s son is born: “He feels about himself for love, the way he might pat his pockets for his wallet and keys. Do I love him yet? Is this love?” As the boy grows into a figure of pathos: “All the things they’ve imagined him growing up to be: A basketball player, a fireman, a chef. [vs. what he actually seems to be] Allergic, friendless, autistic.” Davies also has a gift for zinging phrases, like “the deification of babies” and “the baby-industrial complex” of Babies R Us.
But what I most loved was the rumination on the role that chance plays in a life. “All the coin flips. All the what ifs. Like the litany of prompts he uses in writing class. Heads and tales.” The writer has a background in physics (as Davies himself does), so often brings up Schrödinger’s cat as a metaphor – in any situation, things might have gone either way. Now that the possibilities have narrowed to one and the path has been started, what will you do? The treatment of luck, in particular, led me to think of this as a cross between Larry’s Party by Carol Shields and What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez. The style is similar to Jenny Offill’s; another similar and nearly contemporaneous release is Brood by Jackie Polzin.
I know I read The Fortunes back in 2016 but I retain virtually no memory of it. Davies’s prose, themes, and voice stood out much more for me here. I’ll try his novel The Welsh Girl, too, maybe even for book club later this year. This is an early entry on my Best of 2021 list.
“this is also what the internet is for, he thinks. If online porn universalizes shame, social media universalizes judgment. Both exercises in self-gratification.”
“An older colleague told him once cats were baby substitutes. ‘They weigh the same, they sleep on you, they roll around on their backs kicking their legs in the air. They mewl.’”
For more on abortion from a male perspective: The Cider House Rules by John Irving and Ars Botanica by Tim Taranto.
I’ve nearly managed to read the whole Rathbones Folio Prize shortlist before the prize is announced on the evening of Wednesday the 24th. (You can sign up to watch the online ceremony here.) I reviewed the Baume and Ní Ghríofa as part of a Reading Ireland Month post on Saturday, and I’d reviewed the Machado last year in a feature on out-of-the-ordinary memoirs. This left another five books. Because they were short, I’ve been able to read and/or review another four over the past couple of weeks. (The only one unread is As You Were by Elaine Feeney, which I made a false start on last year and didn’t get a chance to try again.)
Nominations come from the Folio Academy, an international group of writers and critics, so the shortlisted authors have been chosen by an audience of their peers. Indeed, I kept spotting judges’ or fellow nominees’ names in the books’ acknowledgements or blurbs. I tried to think about the eight as a whole and generalize about what the judges were impressed by. This was difficult for such a varied set of books, but I picked out two unifying factors: A distinctive voice, often with a musicality of language – even the books that don’t include poetry per se are attentive to word choice; and timeliness of theme yet timelessness of experience.
Poor by Caleb Femi
Femi brings his South London housing estate to life through poetry and photographs. This is a place where young Black men get stopped by the police for any reason or none, where new trainers are a status symbol, where boys’ arrogant or seductive posturing hides fear. Everyone has fallen comrades, and things like looting make sense when they’re the only way to protest (“nothing was said about the maddening of grief. Nothing was said about loss & how people take and take to fill the void of who’s no longer there”). The poems range from couplets to prose paragraphs and are full of slang, Caribbean patois, and biblical patterns. I particularly liked Part V, modelled on scripture with its genealogical “begats” and a handful of portraits:
The Story of Ruthless
Anyone smart enough
to study the food chain
of the estate knew exactly
who this warrior girl was;
once she lined eight boys
up against a wall,
emptied their pockets.
Nobody laughed at the boys.
Another that stood out for me was the two-part “A Designer Talks of Home / A Resident Talks of Home,” a found poem partially constructed from dialogue from a Netflix documentary on interior design. It ironically contrasts airy aesthetic notions with survival in a concrete wasteland. If you loved Surge by Jay Bernard, this should be next on your list.
My Darling from the Lions by Rachel Long
I first read this when it was on the Costa Awards shortlist. As in Femi’s collection, race, sex, and religion come into play. The focus is on memories of coming of age, with the voice sometimes a girl’s and sometimes a grown woman’s. Her course veers between innocence and hazard. She must make her way beyond the world’s either/or distinctions and figure out how to be multiple people at once (biracial, bisexual). Her Black mother is a forceful presence; “Red Hoover” is a funny account of trying to date a Nigerian man to please her mother. Much of the rest of the book failed to click with me, but the experience of poetry is so subjective that I find it hard to give any specific reasons why that’s the case.
The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey
After the two poetry entries on the shortlist, it’s on to a book that, like A Ghost in the Throat, incorporates poetry in a playful but often dark narrative. In 1976, two competitive American fishermen, a father-and-son pair down from Florida, catch a mermaid off of the fictional Caribbean island of Black Conch. Like trophy hunters, the men take photos with her; they feel a mixture of repulsion and sexual attraction. Is she a fish, or an object of desire? In the recent past, David Baptiste recalls what happened next through his journal entries. He kept the mermaid, Aycayia, in his bathtub and she gradually shed her tail and turned back into a Taino indigenous woman covered in tattoos and fond of fruit. Her people were murdered and abused, and the curse that was placed on her runs deep, threatening to overtake her even as she falls in love with David. This reminded me of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea and Lydia Millet’s Mermaids in Paradise. I loved that Aycayia’s testimony was delivered in poetry, but this short, magical story came and went without leaving any impression on me.
Indelicacy by Amina Cain
Having heard that this was about a cleaner at an art museum, I expected it to be a readalike of Asunder by Chloe Aridjis, a beautifully understated tale of ghostly perils faced by a guard at London’s National Gallery. Indelicacy is more fable-like. Vitória’s life is in two halves: when she worked at the museum and had to forego meals to buy new things, versus after she met her rich husband and became a writer. Increasingly dissatisfied with her marriage, she then comes up with an escape plot involving her hostile maid. Meanwhile, she makes friends with a younger ballet student and keeps in touch with her fellow cleaner, Antoinette, a pregnant newlywed. Vitória tries sex and drugs to make her feel something. Refusing to eat meat and trying to persuade Antoinette not to baptize her baby become her peculiar twin campaigns.
The novella belongs to no specific time or place; while Cain lives in Los Angeles, this most closely resembles ‘wan husks’ of European autofiction in translation. Vitória issues pretentious statements as flat as the painting style she claims to love. Some are so ridiculous they end up being (perhaps unintentionally) funny: “We weren’t different from the cucumber, the melon, the lettuce, the apple. Not really.” The book’s most extraordinary passage is her husband’s rambling, defensive monologue, which includes the lines “You’re like an old piece of pie I can’t throw away, a very good pie. But I rescued you.”
It seems this has been received as a feminist story, a cheeky parable of what happens when a woman needs a room of her own but is trapped by her social class. When I read in the Acknowledgements that Cain took lines and character names from Octavia E. Butler, Jean Genet, Clarice Lispector, and Jean Rhys, I felt cheated, as if the author had been engaged in a self-indulgent writing exercise. This was the shortlisted book I was most excited to read, yet ended up being the biggest disappointment.
On the whole, the Folio shortlist ended up not being particularly to my taste this year, but I can, at least to an extent, appreciate why these eight books were considered worthy of celebration. The authors are “writers’ writers” for sure, though in some cases that means they may fail to connect with readers. There was, however, some crossover this year with some more populist prizes like the Costa Awards (Roffey won the overall Costa Book of the Year).
The crystal-clear winner for me is In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado, her memoir of an abusive same-sex relationship. Written in the second person and in short sections that examine her memories from different angles, it’s a masterpiece and a real game changer for the genre – which I’m sure is just what the judges are looking for.
The only book on the shortlist that came anywhere close to this one, for me, was A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa, an elegant piece of feminist autofiction that weaves in biography, imagination, and poetry. It would be a fine runner-up choice.
(On the Rathbones Folio Prize Twitter account, you will find lots of additional goodies like links to related articles and interviews, and videos with short readings from each author.)
My thanks to the publishers and FMcM Associates for the free copies for review.
Today I have a book of poems about Covid lockdown and being autistic, a reprint of a vintage cookbook with a difference, the pinnacle of autofiction that I’ve found thus far, and a prize-winning collection of short stories about immigrants’ everyday challenges.
The Oscillations by Kate Fox (2021)
The first section, “After,” responds to the events of 2020; six of its poems were part of a “Twelve Days of Lockdown” commission. Fox remembers how sinister a cougher at a public event felt on 13th March and remarks on how quickly social distancing came to feel like the norm, though hikes and wild swimming helped her to retain a sense of possibility. I especially liked “Pharmacopoeia,” which opens the collection and looks back to the Black Death that hit Amsterdam in 1635 – “suddenly the plagues / are the most interesting parts / of a city’s history.” “Returns” plots her next trip to a bookshop (“The plague books won’t be in yet, / but the dystopia section will be well stocked / … I spend fifty pounds I no longer had last time, will spend another fifty next. / Feeling I’m preserving an ecology, a sort of home”), while “The Funerals” wryly sings the glories of a spring the deceased didn’t get to see.
The second section, “Before,” is more wide-ranging, responding to artworks, historical events, family situations, and more. Fox has been vocal about her ASD, which is the subject of “What Could Be Called Communication,” about some habits of the neurodivergent that you might recognize. I also liked “The Fruits,” which narrates the end of a pregnancy, and the closing poem, “Emergency” (“between us, / sometimes despite us / love spreads like a satellite signal, / like sea foam, / like spilt coffee on a counter top, / like home.”). That was one of the few places in the whole book where the language (alliteration and an end-rhyme) struck me; elsewhere, the themes felt more notable than the poetic techniques.
With thanks to Nine Arches Press for the proof copy for review.
Eating Alone by Kathleen Le Riche (1954)
Recently reprinted as a facsimile edition by Faber, this was Le Riche’s third cookbook. It’s like no other cookbook I’ve read, though: It doesn’t list ingredients or, generally, quantities, and its steps are imprecise, more like suggestions. What it reads like is a set of short stories with incidental recipes. Le Riche had noted that people who live alone some or all of the time, for whatever reason, often can’t be bothered to cook for themselves properly. Through these old ladies, bachelors, career girls, and mothers with children off at school, she voices her ideas on shopping, food storage, simple cooking, and making good use of leftovers, but all through the medium of anecdote.
For instance, “The Grass Widower,” while his wife is away visiting her mother, indulges his love of seafood and learns how to wash up effectively. A convalescent plans the uncomplicated meals she’ll fix, including lots of egg dishes and some pleasingly dated fare like “junket” and cherries in brandy. A brother and sister, students left on their own for a day, try out all the different pancakes and quick breads in their repertoire. The bulk of the actual meal ideas come in a chapter called “The Happy Potterer,” whom Le Riche styles as a friend of hers named Flora who wrote out all her recipes on cards collected in an envelope. I enjoyed some of the little notes to self in this section: appended to a recipe for kidney and mushrooms, “Keep a few back for mushrooms-on-toast next day for a mid-morning snack”; “Forgive yourself if you have to use margarine instead of butter for frying.”
I don’t think there are any recipes here that I would actually try to reproduce, though I may one day attempt the Grass Widower’s silver-polishing method (put a strip of aluminium foil and some “washing soda” (soda crystals?) in the sink and pour over some boiling water from the kettle; dip in the silver items, touching them to the foil, and watch the tarnish disappear like magic!). This was interesting as a cultural artefact, to see the meals and ingredients that were mainstays of the 1950s (evaporated milk, anyone?) and how people coped without guaranteed refrigeration. It’s also a good reminder to eat well no matter your circumstances.
With thanks to Faber for the free copy for review.
A Feather on the Breath of God by Sigrid Nunez (1995)
My third from Nunez, after The Friend and What Are You Going Through, and my most loved of her books thus far, cementing her as one of my favourite authors. Like the other two, it’s narrated by an unnamed woman who defines herself by the people she encounters and the experiences she has in an unforgiving but still somehow beautiful and funny old world. From the little I know of Nunez, this seems the closest to autofiction, especially in terms of her parental origins. The father, Chang, born in Panama and raised in China, immigrated to the USA at age 12. In Germany for war service, he met her mother, Christa, just after VE Day.
Chang and Christa, the subjects of the book’s first two sections – accounting for about half the length – were opposites and had a volatile relationship. Their home in the New York City projects was an argumentative place the narrator was eager to escape. She felt she never knew her father, a humourless man who lost touch with Chinese culture. He worked on the kitchen staff of a hospital and never learned English properly. Christa, by contrast, was fastidious about English grammar but never lost her thick accent. An obstinate and contradictory woman, she resented her lot in life and never truly loved Chang, but was good with her hands and loved baking and sewing for her daughters.
Growing up, the narrator never knew quite what to make of her mixed, “exotic” background. For a time, she escaped into ballet, a tantalizingly female discipline that threw up a lot of issues: class pretensions, the eroticization of young girls and of pain, and eating disorders. When she went without solid food for days at a time, she felt she was approaching the weightlessness Saint Hildegard likened to being “a feather on the breath of God.” The final chapter, “Immigrant Love,” jumps ahead to when the narrator taught English as a foreign language and had an affair with Vadim, a married Russian taxi driver full of charisma but also of flaws. This finale is a brilliant twist on her parents’ situation, and a decision to teach English in China brings things full circle, promising a connection to her late father’s heritage.
The strategy of identifying the self by the key relationships and obsessions of a life struck me as spot on. This short novel punches above its weight, with profound observations on every page. Its specific situations are engaging, yet it speaks to the universals of how we cope with a troublesome past. “One wants a way of looking back without anger or bitterness or shame. One wants to be able to tell everything without blaming or apologizing,” Nunez writes, crystallizing her frank, wry approach. I’m eager to read all the rest of her oeuvre.
First published in the UK in 2021. With thanks to Virago Press for the free copy for review.
How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa (2020)
Thammavongsa pivoted from poetry to short stories and won Canada’s Giller Prize for this debut collection that mostly explores the lives of Laotian immigrants and refugees in a North American city. The 14 stories are split equally between first- and third-person perspectives, many of them narrated by young women remembering how they and their parents adjusted to an utterly foreign culture. The title story and “Chick-A-Chee!” are both built around a misunderstanding of the English language – the latter is a father’s approximation of what his children should say on doorsteps on Halloween. Television soaps and country music on the radio are ways to pick up more of the language. Farm and factory work are de rigueur, but characters nurture dreams of experiences beyond menial labour – at least for their children.
The stories are punchy: perfect snapshots of lives lived on the tightrope between expectation and despair. In “Mani Pedi,” Raymond is a former boxer who starts working at his sister’s nail salon and falls in love with a client. His sister warns him, “Don’t you be dreaming big now, little brother. Keep your dreams small. The size of a grain of rice.” In “Slingshot,” an older woman loses touch with her much younger lover, while in “The Gas Station,” Mary, a prim tax accountant, opens herself to love but ends up disappointed. The great-grandmother in “Ewwrrrkk” warns an eight-year-old that “I love you” pries open one’s legs like nothing else. “Randy Travis” and “Picking Worms” were probably my two overall favourites. Looking back, I have trouble remembering some of the individual stories. It’s not so much that they all blend into one, but that they form a cohesive whole. I’d recommend this even to readers who don’t normally pick up short stories, and will look out for more from this author.
Out in paperback on Thursday the 18th. With thanks to Bloomsbury for the free copy for review.
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?
New this year, the Barbellion Prize will be awarded annually “to an author whose work has best represented the experience of chronic illness and/or disability.” It’s named after W.N.P. Barbellion (the pen name of Bruce Frederick Cummings), the English author of The Journal of a Disappointed Man, which he started writing at 13. A self-taught naturalist, he specialized in lice when he worked for the British Museum’s department of natural history in London. He was rejected for war service in 1915 after a doctor found him to have multiple sclerosis. At that time, the diagnosis was like a death sentence; indeed, Cummings died at age 30 in 1919, though by then he had managed to produce two volumes of memoirs as well as a daughter.
Here’s some more information on the prize criteria from the website: “Eligibility for the prize is predicated on the author’s presentation of life with a long-term chronic illness or disability, whether that be in the form of blindness, MS, cystic fibrosis, dwarfism, or another comparable condition that may substantially define one’s life. Authors – such as those in a carer’s capacity – who themselves are not ill may be considered for the prize if their work is truly exceptional as an articulation of life with illness, but authors who themselves deal personally with illness or disability will take priority in any selection for the prize.”
Especially in the absence of the Wellcome Book Prize, which has been on hiatus since the announcement of the 2019 winner, I’m delighted that there is a new prize with a health slant, particularly one that will lead to greater visibility for disabled writers and their stories. From a longlist of eight, in January the Barbellion Prize judges chose a shortlist of four titles: three memoirs and a work of autofiction. The publishers kindly agreed to send me the shortlist for review. Two have arrived so far (there have been postal delays in the UK, as in many places).
I have already read one of the nominees and will do my best to review the rest before the £1000 prize is awarded on the 12th. The others are:
- Golem Girl by Riva Lehrer – An illustrated memoir by a visual artist born with spina bifida.
- The Fragments of My Father by Sam Mills – A memoir of being a carer for her father, who has paranoid schizophrenia; also includes musings on Leonard Woolf and F. Scott Fitzgerald, who cared for mentally ill wives. I’m currently reading this one.
- Kika & Me by Amit Patel – Patel was a trauma doctor and lost his sight within 36 hours due to a rare condition. He was paired with his guide dog, Kika, in 2015.
Sanatorium by Abi Palmer (2020)
Water is a source of comfort and delight for Abi, the narrator of Sanatorium (whose experiences may or may not be those of the author; always tricky to tell with autofiction). Floating is like dreaming for her – an intermediate state between the solid world where she’s in pain and the prospect of vanishing into the air. In 2017 she spends a few weeks at a sanatorium in Budapest for water therapy; when she returns to London she buys a big inflatable plastic bathtub to keep up the exercises as she tries to wean herself off of opiates.
Abi feels fragile due to a whole host of body issues, some in her past but most continuing into the present: an autoimmune connective tissue disorder, psoriatic arthritis, Crohn’s disease, and sexual assaults. Her knee is most immediately problematic, leading her to use a mobility scooter. As her health waxes and wanes, other people – unable to appreciate any internal or incremental changes – judge her by whether or not she is able to walk well.
The book is in snippets, often of just a paragraph or even one sentence, and cycles through its several strands: Abi’s time in Budapest and how she captures it in an audio diary; ongoing therapy at her London flat, custom-designed for disabled tenants (except “I was the only cripple who could afford it”); the haunted house she grew up in in Surrey; and notes on plus prayers to St. Teresa of Ávila, accompanied by diagrams of a female figure in yoga poses.
Locations are given in small letters in the top corner of the page, apart from for the more dreamlike segments that can’t be pinned down to any one place. For instance, I was reminded of a George Saunders story by the surreal interlude in which Abi imagines Van Gogh’s Starry Night reproduced in the hair on a detached pair of legs mounted on a wall as a work of art.
The different formats and short chunks of prose generally keep the voice from becoming monotonous, though I did wonder if occasional use of the third person (and some more second person) could have been effective, too. Far from a straightforward memoir, the book incorporates passages that are closer to fantasy and poetry, and the visual elements and fertile imagery attest to Palmer’s background as a mixed-media artist.
Sanatorium is a fascinating work – matter-of-fact, playful and sensual – that vividly conveys the reality of life with a chronic illness. It was already on my wish list, but I’m so glad that this shortlisting gave me a chance to read it. Though I haven’t read the other nominees yet, the passages below are proof that this would be a deserving Barbellion Prize winner.
You go through life as a chronically ill person with so many different people who have so many different opinions about how your treatment should be. They’re not always useful or right. You have to build your own narrative and your own sense of what feels appropriate. You have to learn to trust your body to tell you what’s working. But that’s hard too, when your body keeps changing the rules.
I am one of the more privileged ones and still I’m screaming. God, it would be so nice just to dissolve into nothing and wash up onto a lonely beach.
I wonder if what I’ve learned about chronic illness, more than anything, is that it’s a constant cycle. You fall apart, then you try your best to rebuild again. I wonder what would happen if I stopped trying.
Readalikes I have also reviewed:
- Heal Me by Julia Buckley
- Bodies of Water by V. H. Leslie
- My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh
With thanks to Penned in the Margins for the free copy for review.
This month we’re starting with Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret (which I have punctuated appropriately!). See Kate’s opening post. I know I read this as a child, but other Judy Blume novels were more meaningful for me since I was a tomboy and late bloomer. The only line that stays with me is the chant “We must, we must, we must increase our bust!”
#1 Another book with a question in the title (and dominating the cover) is How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti. I found a hardback copy in the unofficial Little Free Library I ran in our neighborhood during the first lockdown before the public library reopened. Heti is a divisive author, but I loved Motherhood for perfectly encapsulating my situation. I think this one, too, is autofiction, and the title question is one I ask myself variations on frequently.
#2 I’ve read quite a few “How to” books, whether straightforward explanatory/self-help texts or not. Lots happened to be from the School of Life series. One I found particularly enjoyable and helpful was How to Age by Anne Karpf. She writes frankly about bodily degeneration, the pursuit of wisdom, and preparation for death. “Growth and psychological development aren’t a property of our earliest years but can continue throughout the life cycle.”
#3 Ageing is a major element in May Sarton’s journals, particularly as she moves from her seventies into her eighties and fights illnesses. I’ve read all but one of her autobiographical works now, and – while my favorite is Journal of a Solitude – the one I’ve chosen as most representative of her usual themes, including inspiration, camaraderie, the pressures of the writing life, and old age, is At Seventy.
#4 Sarton was a keen gardener, as was Derek Jarman. I learned about him in the context of nature helping people come to terms with their mortality. Modern Nature reproduces the journal the gay, HIV-positive filmmaker kept in 1989–90. Prospect Cottage in Dungeness, Kent, and the unusual garden he cultivated there, was his refuge between trips to London and further afield, and a mental sanctuary when he was marooned in the hospital.
#5 One of the first memoirs I ever read and loved was Heaven’s Coast by Mark Doty, about his partner Wally’s death from AIDS. This sparked my continuing interest in illness and bereavement narratives, and it was through following up Doty’s memoirs with his collections of poems that I first got into contemporary poetry, so he’s had a major influence on my taste. I’ve had Heaven’s Coast on my rereading shelf for ages, so really must get to it in 2021.
#6 Thinking of heaven, a nice loop back to Blume’s Margaret and her determination to find God … one of the finest travel books I’ve read is This Cold Heaven, about Gretel Ehrlich’s expeditions to Greenland and historical precursors who explored it. Even more than her intrepid wanderings, I was impressed by her prose, which made the icy scenery new every time. “Part jewel, part eye, part lighthouse, part recumbent monolith, the ice is a bright spot on the upper tier of the globe where the world’s purse strings have been pulled tight.”
A fitting final selection for this week’s properly chilly winter temperatures, too. I’ll be writing up my first snowy and/or holiday-themed reads of the year in a couple of weeks.
Join us for #6Degrees of Separation if you haven’t already! (Hosted on the first Saturday of each month by Kate W. of Books Are My Favourite and Best.)
Have you read any of my selections? Are you tempted by any you didn’t know before?
We’re coming to the close of Literature in Translation week of Novellas in November. Cathy and I have both noted that novellas seem more common in other languages, with the work is more likely to take on experimental forms. We wondered why this is – do foreign languages and cultures somehow lend themselves to concise storytelling that takes more risks? However, a commenter on a post of Cathy’s suggested that economic realities may have something to do with it: translating short works is faster and cheaper. In a recent blog post, Louise Walters, whose indie publishing imprint is preparing to release its shortest book yet (In the Sweep of the Bay by Cath Barton, 22,000 words), confirms that production and shipping costs are lower for novellas, so she has the chance of recouping her investment.
I’ve gotten to five short translated works this month: three fiction and two nonfiction. (Or should that be four fiction and one nonfiction? With autofiction it’s hard to tell.)
Dependency by Tove Ditlevsen (1971; 2019)
[Translated from the Danish by Michael Favala Goldman]
The final volume of the autobiographical Copenhagen Trilogy, after Childhood and Youth. Ditlevsen recalls her upbringing in poverty and her early success as a poet. By the end of the second book, she’s engaged to a much older literary editor. A series of marriages and affairs follows: Viggo, Ebbe, Carl and Victor are the major names, with some others in between. She produces stories and poems as well as a daughter and a son, but also has two abortions. Carl performs one of these and gives her a Demerol shot; ever afterwards, she takes advantage of his obsession with her chronic ear infection to beg for painkiller shots. “Then time ceases to be relevant. An hour could be a year, and a year could be an hour. It all depends on how much is in the syringe.” Addiction interferes with her work and threatens her relationships, but it’s an impulse that never leaves her even when she swaps the harder stuff for alcohol.
I only skimmed this one because from the other volumes I knew how flat and detached the prose is, even when describing desperate circumstances. I can admire this kind of writing – the present-tense scenes, the lack of speech marks, the abrupt jumps between time periods and emotional states, all coldly expressed – but I’m not sure I’ll ever love it. Of the three books, I liked Childhood the best for its universal observations.
La Symphonie Pastorale by André Gide (1919; 1931)
[Translated from the French by Dorothy Bussy]
“Love is blindness / I don’t want to see” (U2)
I had a secondhand French copy when I was in high school, always assuming I’d get to a point of fluency where I could read it in its original language. It hung around for years unread and was a victim of the final cull before my parents sold their house. Oh well! There’s always another chance with books. In this case, a copy of this plus another Gide novella turned up at the free bookshop early this year. A country pastor takes Gertrude, the blind 15-year-old niece of a deceased parishioner, into his household and, over the next two years, oversees her education as she learns Braille and plays the organ at the church. He dissuades his son Jacques from falling in love with her, but realizes that he’s been lying to himself about his own motivations. This reminded me of Ethan Frome as well as of other French classics I’ve read (Madame Bovary and Thérèse Raquin). Melodramatic, maybe, but I loved the religious and medical themes (deaf-blind Laura Bridgman gets a mention; when the preacher and Gertrude attend the title symphony, he encourages her synesthetic thinking).
Stammered Songbook: A Mother’s Book of Hours by Erwin Mortier (2011; 2015)
[Translated from the Dutch by Paul Vincent]
In fragmentary vignettes, some as short as a few lines, Belgian author Mortier chronicles his mother’s Alzheimer’s, which he describes as a “twilight zone between life and death.” His father tries to take care of her at home for as long as possible, but it’s painful for the family to see her walking back and forth between rooms, with no idea of what she’s looking for, and occasionally bursting into tears for no reason. Most distressing for Mortier is her loss of language. As if to compensate, he captures her past and present in elaborate metaphors: “Language has packed its bags and jumped over the railing of the capsizing ship, but there is also another silence … I can no longer hear the music of her soul”. He wishes he could know whether she feels hers is still a life worth living. There are many beautifully meditative passages, some of them laid out almost like poetry, but not much in the way of traditional narrative; it’s a book for reading piecemeal, when you have the fortitude.
Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan (1954; 1955)
[Translated from the French by Irene Ash]
Like The Go-Between and Atonement, this is overlaid with regret about childhood caprice that has unforeseen consequences. That Sagan, like her protagonist, was only a teenager when she wrote it only makes this 98-page story the more impressive. Although her widower father has always enjoyed discreet love affairs, seventeen-year-old Cécile has basked in his undivided attention until, during a holiday on the Riviera, he announces his decision to remarry a friend of her late mother. Over the course of one summer spent discovering the pleasures of the flesh with her boyfriend, Cyril, Cécile also schemes to keep her father to herself. Dripping with sometimes uncomfortable sensuality, this was a sharp and delicious read.
The Order of the Day by Éric Vuillard (2017; 2018)
[Translated from the French by Mark Polizzotti]
February 1933: 24 German captains of industry meet with Hitler to consider the advantages of a Nazi government. I loved the pomp of the opening chapter: “Through doors obsequiously held open, they stepped from their huge black sedans and paraded in single file … they doffed twenty-four felt hats and uncovered twenty-four bald pates or crowns of white hair.” As the invasion of Austria draws nearer, Vuillard recreates pivotal scenes featuring figures who will one day commit suicide or stand trial for war crimes. Reminiscent in tone and contents of HHhH, The Tobacconist, and the film Downfall, this starts off promisingly and ends with clear relevance to the present moment (“a mysterious respect for lies. Political manoeuvring tramples facts”) and a brilliant final paragraph, but in between was dull. You’d have to have more interest in history than I do to love this Prix Goncourt winner.
Publishers that specialize in novellas in translation:
Charco Press – I’ve reviewed:
The Wind that Lays Waste by Selva Almada
Fish Soup by Margarita García Robayo
Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz
Peirene Press – I’ve reviewed:
Mr. Darwin’s Gardener by Kristina Carlson
The Looking-Glass Sisters by Gøhril Gabrielsen
Ankomst by Gøhril Gabrielsen
Dance by the Canal by Kerstin Hensel
The Last Summer by Ricarda Huch
Snow, Dog, Foot by Claudio Morandini
Her Father’s Daughter by Marie Sizun
The Orange Grove by Larry Tremblay
The Man I Became by Peter Verhelst
A few more favorite novellas in translation:
The Plimsoll Line by Juan Gracia Armendáriz
Silk by Alessandro Baricco
Agatha by Anne Cathrine Bomann
Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg
Next week, we’re closing out Novellas in November with a focus on short classics. I’ll introduce the week’s theme with some of my favorite examples on Monday.
Any theories as to why so many novellas are from other languages?
What are some of your favorites?
My five new releases for August include two critical responses to contemporary classics; two poetry books, one a debut collection from Carcanet Press and the other by an author better known for fiction; and a circadian novel by one of my favorite authors.
I start with two of the latest releases from Fiction Advocate’s “Afterwords” series. The tagline is “Essential Readings of the New Canon,” and the idea is that “acclaimed writers investigate the contemporary classics.” (I reviewed the monographs on Blood Meridian, Fun Home, and The Year of Magical Thinking in this post.)
Dear Knausgaard: Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle by Kim Adrian
Karl Ove Knausgaard turned his pretty ordinary life into thousands of pages of autofiction that many readers have found addictive. Adrian valiantly grapples with his six-volume exploration of identity, examining the treatment of time and the dichotomies of intellect versus emotions, self versus other, and life versus fiction. She marvels at the ego that could sustain such a project, and at the seemingly rude decision to use all real names (whereas in her own family memoir she assigned aliases to most major figures). At many points she finds the character of “Karl Ove” insufferable, especially when he’s a teenager in Book 4, and the books’ prose dull. Knausgaard’s focus on male novelists and his stereotypical treatment of feminine qualities, here and in his other work, frequently madden her.
So why is My Struggle compelling nonetheless? It occupies her mind and her conversations for years. Is it something about the way that Knausgaard extracts meaning from seemingly inconsequential details? About how he stretches and compresses time in a Proustian manner to create a personal highlights reel? She frames her ambivalent musings as a series of letters written as if to Knausgaard himself (or “KOK,” as she affectionately dubs him) between February and September 2019. Cleverly, she mimics his style in both the critical enquiry and the glimpses into her own life, including all its minutiae – the weather, daily encounters, what she sees out the window and what she thinks about it all. It’s bold, playful and funny, and, all told, I enjoyed it more than Knausgaard’s own writing.
(I myself have only read Book 1, A Death in the Family, and wasn’t planning on continuing with My Struggle, but I think I will make an exception for Book 3 because of my recent fascination with childhood memoirs. I had better luck with Knausgaard’s Seasons Quartet, of which I’ve read all but Spring. I’ve reviewed Summer and Winter.)
My thanks to Fiction Advocate for the free e-copy for review.
The Wanting Was a Wilderness: Cheryl Strayed’s Wild and the Art of Memoir by Alden Jones
Hiking is boring, yet Cheryl Strayed turned it into a beloved memoir. Jones explores how Wild works: how Strayed the author creates “Cheryl,” likeable despite her drug use and promiscuity; how the fixation on the boots and the backpack that carry her through her quest reflect the obsession over the loss of her mother; how the flashbacks break up the narrative and keep you guessing about whether she’ll reach her literal and emotional destinations.
Jones also considers the precedents of wilderness literature and the 1990s memoir boom that paved the way for Wild. I most enjoyed this middle section, which, like Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir, surveys some of the key publications from a burgeoning genre. Another key point of reference is Vivian Gornick, who draws a distinction between “the situation” (the particulars or context) and “the story” (the message) – sometimes the map or message comes first, and sometimes you only discover it as you go along.
I was a bit less interested in Jones’s reminiscences of her own three-month wilderness experience during college, when, with Outward Bound, she went to North Carolina and Mexico and hiked part of the Appalachian Trail and a volcano. This was the trip on which she faced up to her sexuality and had a short-lived relationship with a fellow camper, Melissa. But working out that she was bisexual and marrying a woman were both, as presented here, false endings. The real ending was her decision to leave her marriage – even though they had three children; even though the relationship was often fine. She attributes her courage to go, believing something better was possible, to Strayed’s work. And that’s the point of this series: rereading a contemporary classic until it becomes part of your own story.
My thanks to Fiction Advocate for the free e-copy for review.
Two poetry releases:
Growlery by Katherine Horrex
As in Red Gloves by Rebecca Watts, released by Carcanet in June, I noted the juxtaposition of natural and industrial scenes. Horrex’s “Four Muses” include a power plant and a steelworks, and she writes about pottery workers and the Manchester area, but she also explores Goat Fell on foot. Two of my favorite poems were nature-based: “Omen,” about corpse flowers, and “Wood Frog.” Alliteration, metaphors and smells are particularly effective in the former. Though I quailed at the sight of an entry called “Brexit,” it’s a subtle offering that depicts mistrust and closed minds – “People personable as tents zipped shut”. By contrast, “House of Other Tongues” revels in the variety of languages and foods in an international student dorm. A few poems circle around fertility and pregnancy. The linking themes aren’t very strong across the book, but there are a few gems.
My thanks to Carcanet Press for the free e-copy for review.
How to Fly (in Ten Thousand Easy Lessons) by Barbara Kingsolver
Kingsolver may not be well known for her poetry, but this is actually her second collection of verse after the bilingual Another America/Otra America (1992). The opening segment, “How to Fly,” is full of folk wisdom from nature and the body’s intuitive knowledge. “Pellegrinaggio” is a set of travel poems about accompanying her Italian mother-in-law back to her homeland. “This Is How They Come Back to Us” is composed of elegies for the family’s dead; four shorter remaining sections are inspired by knitting, literature, daily life, and concern for the environment. As with The Undying by Michel Faber, the book’s themes are stronger than its poetic techniques, but Kingsolver builds striking natural imagery and entrancing rhythms.
Two favorite passages to whet your appetite:
How to drink water when there is wine— / Once I knew all these brick-shaped things, / took them for the currency of survival. / Now I have lived long and I know better.
Tiptoe past the dogs of the apocalypse / asleep in the shade of your future. / Pay at the window. You’ll be surprised: you / can pass off hope like a bad check. You still / have time, that’s the thing. To make it good.
(To be reviewed in full, in conjunction with other recent/upcoming poetry releases, including Dearly by Margaret Atwood, for Shiny New Books.)
I read an advanced e-copy via Edelweiss. (I’m unsure of the line breaks above because of the formatting.)
And finally, a much-anticipated release – bonus points for it having “Summer” in the title!
Summerwater by Sarah Moss
This is nearly as compact as Moss’s previous novella, Ghost Wall, yet contains a riot of voices. Set on one long day at a Scottish holiday park, it moves between the minds of 12 vacationers disappointed by the constant rain – “not that you come to Scotland expecting sun but this is a really a bit much, day after day of it, torrential” – and fed up with the loud music and partying that’s come from the Eastern Europeans’ chalet several nights this week. In the wake of Brexit, the casual xenophobia espoused by several characters is not surprising, but still sobering, and paves the way for a climactic finale that was not what I expected after some heavy foreshadowing involving a teenage girl going off to the pub through the woods.
The day starts at 5 a.m. with Justine going for a run, despite a recent heart health scare, and spends time with retirees, an engaged couple spending most of their time in bed, a 16-year-old kayaker, a woman with dementia, and more. We see different aspects of family dynamics as we revisit a previous character’s child, spouse or sibling. I had to laugh at Milly picturing Don Draper during sex with Josh, and at Claire getting an hour to herself without the kids and having no idea what to do with it beyond clean up and make a cup of tea. Moss gets each stream-of-consciousness internal monologue just right, from a frantic mum to a sarcastic teen.
Yet I had to wonder what it all added up to; this feels like a creative writing student exercise, with the ending not worth waiting for. Cosmic/nature interludes are pretentious à la Reservoir 13. It’s not the first time this year that I’ve been disappointed by the latest from a favorite author (see also Hamnet). But my previous advice stands: If you haven’t read Sarah Moss, do so immediately.
My thanks to Picador for the free copy for review.
What August releases can you recommend?
Lara Feigel’s memoir Free Woman was one of my favourite books of 2018. In it she interrogates conventions of marriage and motherhood while rereading the works of Doris Lessing – The Golden Notebook (1962), in particular, dramatizes women’s struggles to combine their disparate roles into a harmonious identity. Drawing inspiration from Lessing as well as from another early feminist novel, The Group by Mary McCarthy (more on this below), Feigel’s debut novel crafts a kaleidoscopic portrait of five women’s lives in 2018.
Stella, Kay, Helena, Polly and Priss met at a picnic while studying at Oxbridge and decided to rent a house together. Now 40-ish, they live in London and remain close, though their lives have branched in slightly different directions. Kay is an English teacher but has always wanted to be a novelist like her American husband, Harald. Priss is a stay-at-home mother excited to be opening a café. Polly, a gynaecological consultant at St Thomas’s Hospital, is having an affair with a married colleague. Helena, a single documentary presenter, decides she wants to have a baby and pursues insemination via a gay friend.
Narrating her friends’ lives as well as her own is Stella, an editor at a Faber-like publishing house whose director (also Helena’s uncle) is under investigation for sexual misconduct. Stella, a stand-in for the author, has split from her husband and has a new baby via IVF as well as an older child; this hint of autofiction lends the book an intimacy it might have lacked with an omniscient perspective. Although you have to suspend disbelief in a few places – could Stella really know so many details of her friends’ lives? – it feels apt that she can only understand these other women in relation to herself. Her voice can be catty, but is always candid, and Feigel is astute on the performative aspects of femininity.
Fast-forward a Sally Rooney novel by about 20 years and you’ll have an idea of what to expect here. It is a sexually frank and socially engaged narrative that arose from the context of the #MeToo movement and fully acknowledges the privilege and limitations of its setting. The characters express guilt over lamenting middle-class problems while there is such suffering in the wider world – we glimpse this in Polly’s work with African girls who have undergone genital mutilation. The diversity is limited to Black boyfriends, Helena’s bisexuality, and the fact that one group member decides not to have children (that 1 in 5 is statistically accurate).
The advantage of the apparent heterogeneity in the friend group, though, is that it highlights depths of personality and subtleties of experience. Stella even sees herself as an amateur anthropologist:
So here we are then. Five exact contemporaries who once shared a cluttered, thin-walled student house off the Cowley Road, all privileged, white, middle-class, all vestigial hangers-on, left over from an era when we received free educations at our elite university and then emerged into a world where we could still just about find jobs and buy flats, provided with opportunities for selfishness and leisure by our cleaners and our childminders. Nothing very eventful happens to us, but that gives more room for the ethnographer in me to get to work.
Feigel previously wrote two group biographies of cultural figures of the Second World War era, and she applies that precise skill set – capturing the atmosphere of a time period; noting similarities but also clear distinctions between people – to great effect here. You’ll recognize aspects of yourself in all of the characters, and be reminded of how grateful you are for (or how much you wish you had) friends whom you know will always be there for you. It’s an absorbing and relevant novel that ranks among my few favourites of the year so far.
The Group was published by JM Originals (John Murray) on July 2nd. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
See Susan’s review also.
The Group by Mary McCarthy (1963)
As soon as I heard about Lara Feigel’s forthcoming novel, I unearthed the Mary McCarthy paperback I’d plucked from Bookbarn’s shelves in 2017. I decided to read Feigel’s first, lest it feel less than fresh; perhaps inevitably, McCarthy’s felt dated in comparison. I had trouble engaging with it as a whole, but still enjoyed contrasting the two books.
McCarthy focuses on eight girls from the Vassar class of ’33. Kay, the first to marry, has an upper-crust New York City wedding one week after graduation. But after Harald loses his theatre job, his cocktail habit and their luxury apartment soon deplete Kay’s Macy’s salary. Meanwhile, Dottie loses her virginity to Harald’s former neighbour in a surprisingly explicit scene. Contraception is complicated, but not without comic potential – as when Dottie confuses a pessary and a peccary. Career, romance, and motherhood are all fraught matters.
Feigel borrows the names of four of her five group members, plus those of some secondary characters, from McCarthy, with Stella a new character perhaps inspired in part by McCarthy’s Libby, who wants to work with books but, after delivering an earnest report on a 500-page pot-boiler, hears that “we really have no work that you’re uniquely qualified to do. You’re one of thousands of English majors who come pouring out of the colleges every June, stage-struck to go into publishing.” (That sure sounds familiar!)
Narrowing the circle and introducing a first-person narrator were wise choices that made Feigel’s version more accessible. Both, though, are characterized by forthright commentary and a shrewd understanding of human motivations. I’ll try again with McCarthy’s The Group someday, but for now I’m planning to pick up her Memories of a Catholic Girlhood.
Note: Mary McCarthy is one of the authors profiled in Michelle Dean’s Sharp.
Last year I reviewed Tenth of December by George Saunders on its title date; this year I couldn’t resist rereading one of my favorites from 2014 for today’s date (which just so happens to be Bloomsday, made famous by James Joyce’s Ulysses), The Sixteenth of June.
I responded to the novel at length when it first came out. No point in reinventing the wheel, so here are mildly edited paragraphs of synopsis from my review for The Bookbag:
Maya Lang’s playful and exquisitely accomplished debut novel, set on the centenary of the original Bloomsday, transplants many characters and set pieces from Ulysses to near-contemporary Philadelphia. Don’t fret, though – even if, like me, you haven’t read Ulysses, you’ll have no trouble following the thread. In fact, Lang dedicates her book to “all the readers who never made it through Ulysses (or haven’t wanted to try).” (Though if you wish to spot parallels, pull up any online summary of Ulysses; there is also a page on Lang’s website listing her direct quotations from Joyce.)
On June 16, 2004, brothers Leopold and Stephen Portman have two major commitments: their grandmother Hannah’s funeral is happening at the local synagogue in the morning; and their parents’ annual Bloomsday party will take place at their opulent Delancey Street home in the evening. Around those two thematic poles – the genuine emotions of grief and regret on the one hand, and the realm of superficial entertainment on the other – the novel expands outward to provide a nuanced picture of three ambivalent twenty-something lives.
The third side of this atypical love triangle is Nora, Stephen’s best friend from Yale – and Leo’s fiancée. Nora, a trained opera singer, is still reeling from her mother’s death from cancer one year ago. She’s been engaging in self-harming behavior, and Leo – a macho, literal-minded IT consultant – just wants to fix her. Nora and Stephen, by contrast, are sensitive, artistic souls who seem better suited to each other. Stephen, too, is struggling to find a meaning in death, but also to finish his languishing dissertation on Virginia Woolf.
Literature is almost as potent a marker of upper-class status as money here: some of the Portmans might not have even read Joyce’s masterpiece, but that doesn’t stop them name-dropping and maintaining the pretense of being well-read. While Lang might not mimic the extremes of Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness style, she prioritizes interiority over external action by using a close third-person voice that shifts between her main characters’ points of view. Their histories and thoughts are revealed mostly through interior monologues and conversations. Lang’s writing is full of mordant shards of humor; one of my favorite lines was “No one in a eulogy ever said, She watched TV with the volume on too loud.”
During my rereading, I was captivated more by the portraits of grief than by the subtle intellectual and class differences. I appreciated the characterization and the Joycean peekaboo, and the dialogue and shifts between perspectives still felt fresh and effortless. I could relate to Stephen and Nora’s feelings of being stuck and unsure how to move on in life. And the ending, which I’d completely forgotten, was perfect. I didn’t enjoy this quite as much the second time around, but it’s still a treasured signed copy on my shelf.
My original rating (June 2014):
My rating now:
Readalikes: Writers & Lovers by Lily King and The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud (my upcoming Doorstopper of the Month).
(See also my review of Lang’s recent memoir, What We Carry.)
Alas, I’ve also had a couple of failed rereading attempts recently…
Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer (2002)
I remembered this as a zany family history quest turned into fiction. A Jewish-American character named Jonathan Safran Foer travels to (fictional) Trachimbrod, Ukraine to find the traces of his ancestors and, specifically, the woman who hid his grandfather from the Nazis. I had totally forgotten about the comic narration via letters from Jonathan’s translator/tour guide, Alexander, who fancies himself a ladies’ man and whose English is full of comic thesaurus use (e.g. “Do not dub me that,” “Guilelessly yours”). This was amusing, but got to be a bit much. I’d also forgotten about the dense magic realism of the historical sections. As with A Visit from the Goon Squad, what felt dazzlingly clever on a first read (in January 2011) failed to capture me a second time. [35 pages]
Interestingly, Foer’s mother, Esther, released a memoir earlier this year, I Want You to Know We’re Still Here. It’s about the family history her son turned into quirky autofiction: a largely fruitless trip he took to Ukraine to research his maternal grandfather’s life for his Princeton thesis, and a more productive follow-up trip she took with her older son in 2009. Esther Safran Foer was born in Poland and lived in a German displaced persons camp until she and her parents emigrated to Washington, D.C. in 1949. Her father committed suicide in 1954, making him almost a belated victim of the Holocaust. The stories she hears in Ukraine – of the slaughter of entire communities; of moments of good luck that allowed her parents to, separately, survive and find each other – are remarkable, but the book’s prose, while capable, never sings. Plus, she references her son’s novel so often that I wondered why someone would read her book when they could read his instead.
On Beauty by Zadie Smith (2005)
This was an all-time favorite when it first came out. I remembered a sophisticated homage to E.M. Forster’s Howards End, featuring a biracial family in Cambridge, Mass. I remembered no specifics beyond a giant music store and (embarrassingly) an awkward sex scene. Howard Belsey’s long-distance rivalry with a fellow Rembrandt scholar gets personal when the Kipps family relocates from London to the Boston suburbs for Monty to be the new celebrity lecturer at the same college. Howard is in the doghouse with his African-American wife, Kiki, after having an affair. The Belsey boy and Kipps girl have an awkward romantic history. Zora Belsey is smitten with a lower-class spoken word poet she meets after a classical concert in the park when they pick up each other’s Discmans by accident (so dated!). All of the portraits felt like stereotypes to me, and there was so much telling, so much backstory, so many unnecessary secondary characters. Before I would have said this was my obvious Women’s Prize winner of winners, but now I have no idea what I’ll vote for. [107 pages]
Currently rereading: Watership Down by Richard Adams, Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn, Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama
To reread soon: Heaven’s Coast by Mark Doty & Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver