Today I’m featuring three more works of fiction that were released this month, as a supplement to yesterday’s review of Mrs Death Misses Death. Although the four are hugely different in setting and style, and I liked some better than others (such is the nature of reading and book reviewing), together they’re further proof – as if we needed it – that female authors are pushing the envelope. I wouldn’t be surprised to see any or all of these on the Women’s Prize longlist in March.
The Charmed Wife by Olga Grushin
What happens next for Cinderella?
Grushin’s fourth novel unpicks a classic fairy tale narrative, starting 13.5 years into a marriage when, far from being starry-eyed with love for Prince Roland, the narrator hates her philandering husband and wants him dead. As she retells the Cinderella story to her children one bedtime, it only underscores how awry her own romance has gone: “my once-happy ending has proved to be only another beginning, a prelude to a tale dimmer, grittier, far more ambiguous, and far less suitable for children”. She gathers Roland’s hair and nails and goes to a witch for a spell, but her fairy godmother shows up to interfere. The two embark on a good cop/bad cop act as the princess runs backward through her memories: one defending Roland and the other convinced he’s a scoundrel.
Part One toggles back and forth between flashbacks (in the third person and past tense) and the present-day struggle for the narrator’s soul. She comes to acknowledge her own ignorance and bad behaviour. “All I want is to be free—free of him, free of my past, free of my story. Free of myself, the way I was when I was with him.” In Part Two, as the princess tries out different methods of escape, Grushin coyly inserts allusions to other legends and nursery rhymes: a stepsister lives with her many children in a house shaped like a shoe; the witch tells a variation on the Bluebeard story; the fairy godmother lives in a Hansel and Gretel-like candy cottage; the narrator becomes a maid for 12 slovenly sisters; and so on.
The plot feels fairly aimless in this second half, and the mixture of real-world and fantasy elements is peculiar. I much preferred Grushin’s previous book, Forty Rooms (and Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, one of her chief inspirations). However, her two novels share a concern with how women’s ambitions can take a backseat to their roles, and both weave folktales and dreams into a picture of everyday life. But my favourite part of The Charmed Wife was the subplot: interludes about Brie and Nibbles, the princess’s pet mice; their lives being so much shorter, they run through many generations of a dramatic saga while the narrator (whose name we do finally learn, just a few pages from the end) is stuck in place.
With thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for the free copy for review.
Outlawed by Anna North
I was a huge fan of North’s previous novel, The Life and Death of Sophie Stark, which cobbles together the story of the title character, a bisexual filmmaker, from accounts by the people who knew her best. Outlawed, an alternative history/speculative take on the traditional Western, could hardly be more different. In a subtly different version of the United States, everyone now alive in the 1890s is descended from those who survived a vicious 1830s flu epidemic. The duty to repopulate the nation has led to a cult of fertility and devotion to the Baby Jesus. From her mother, a midwife and herbalist, Ada has learned the basics of medical care, but the causes of barrenness remain a mystery and childlessness is perceived as a curse.
Ada marries at 17 and fails to get pregnant within a year. After an acquaintance miscarries, rumours start to spread about Ada being a witch. Kicked out by her mother-in-law, she takes shelter first at a convent and then with the Hole in the Wall gang. She’ll be the doctor to this band of female outlaws who weren’t cut out for motherhood and shunned marriage – including lesbians, a mixed-race woman, and their leader, the Kid, who is nonbinary. The Kid is a mentally tortured prophet with a vision of making the world safe for people like them (“we were told a lie about God and what He wants from us”), mainly by, Robin Hood-like, redistributing wealth through hold-ups and bank robberies. Ada, who longs to conduct proper research into reproductive health rather than relying on religious propaganda, falls for another gender nonconformist, Lark, and does what she can to make the Kid’s dream a reality.
Reese Witherspoon choosing this for her Hello Sunshine book club was a great chance for North’s work to get more attention. However, I felt that the ideas behind this novel were more noteworthy than the execution. The similarity to The Handmaid’s Tale is undeniable, though I liked this a bit more. I most enjoyed the medical and religious themes, and appreciated the attention to childless and otherwise unconventional women. But the setup is so condensed and the consequences of the gang’s major heist so rushed that I wondered if the novel needed another 100 pages to stretch its wings. I’ll just have to await North’s next book.
With thanks to W&N for the proof copy for review.
little scratch by Rebecca Watson
I love a circadian narrative and had heard interesting things about the experimental style used in this debut novel. I even heard Watson read a passage from it as part of the Faber Live Fiction Showcase and found it very funny and engaging. But I really should have tried an excerpt before requesting this for review; I would have seen at a glance that it wasn’t for me. I don’t have a problem with prose being formatted like poetry (Girl, Woman, Other; Stubborn Archivist; the prologue of Wendy McGrath’s Santa Rosa; parts of Mrs Death Misses Death), but here it seemed to me that it was only done to alleviate the tedium of the contents.
A young woman who, like Watson, works for a newspaper, trudges through a typical day: wake up, get ready, commute to the office, waste time and snack in between doing bits of work, get outraged about inconsequential things, think about her boyfriend (only ever referred to as “my him” – probably my biggest specific pet peeve about the book), and push down memories of a sexual assault. Thus, the only thing that really happens happened before the book even started. Her scratching, to the point of open wounds and scabs, seems like a psychosomatic symptom of unprocessed trauma. By the end, she’s getting ready to tell her boyfriend about the assault, which seems like a step in the right direction.
I might have found Watson’s approach captivating in a short story, or as brief passages studded in a longer narrative. At first it’s a fun puzzle to ponder how these mostly unpunctuated words, dotted around the pages in two to six columns, fit together – should one read down each column, or across each row, or both? – but when all the scattershot words are only there to describe a train carriage filling up or repetitive quotidian actions (sifting through e-mails, pedalling a bicycle), the style soon grates. You may have more patience with it than I did if you loved A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing or books by Emma Glass.
A favourite passage: “got to do this thing again, the waking up thing, the day thing, the work thing, disentangling from my duvet thing, this is something, this is a thing I have to do then,” [appears all as one left-aligned paragraph]
With thanks to Faber & Faber for the free copy for review.
Tomorrow I’ll review three nonfiction works published in January, all on a medical theme.
What recent releases can you recommend?
In this 25th anniversary year of the Women’s (previously Orange/Baileys) Prize, people have been encouraged to read all of the previous winners. I duly attempted to catch up on the 11 winners I hadn’t yet read, starting with Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels; Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne Berne as part of a summer reading post; and When I Lived in Modern Times by Linda Grant, Property by Valerie Martin and Larry’s Party by Carol Shields (a reread) in this post.
This left just four for me to read before voting for my all-time favorite in the web poll. I managed two as recent buddy reads but had to admit defeat on the others, giving them just the barest skim before sending them back to the library.
The Idea of Perfection by Kate Grenville (1999; 2001 prize)
(Buddy read with Laura T.; see her review here)
This is essentially an odd-couple romance, but so awkward I don’t think any of its scenes could accurately be described as a meet-cute. Harley Savage, a thrice-married middle-aged widow, works for the Applied Arts Museum in Sydney. The tall, blunt woman is in Karakarook, New South Wales to help the little town launch a heritage museum. Douglas Cheeseman is a divorced engineer tasked with tearing down a local wooden bridge and building a more suitable structure in its place. Their career trajectories are set to clash, but the novel focuses more on their personal lives. From the moment they literally bump into each other outside Douglas’ hotel, their every meeting is so embarrassing you have to blush – she saves him from some angry cows, while he tends to her after a bout of food poisoning.
Grenville does well to make the two initially unappealing characters sympathetic, primarily by giving flashes of backstory. Douglas is the posthumous child of a war hero, but has never felt he’s a proper (macho) Australian man. In fact, he has a crippling fear of heights, which is pretty inconvenient for someone who works on tall bridges. Harley, meanwhile, is haunted by the scene of her last husband’s suicide and is also recovering from a recent heart attack.
The title is, I think, meant to refer to how the protagonists fail to live up to ideals or gender stereotypes. However, it more obviously applies to the subplot about Felicity Porcelline, a stay-at-home mother who has always sought to be flawless – a perfect pregnancy, an ageless body (“Sometimes she thought she would rather be dead than old”), the perfect marriage – but gets enmired in a dalliance with the town butcher. I was never convinced Felicity’s storyline was necessary. Without it, the book might have been cut from 400 pages to 300.
Still, this was a pleasant narrative of second chances and life’s surprises. The small-town setting reminded Laura of Olive Kitteridge in particular, and I also thought frequently of Anne Tyler and her cheerfully useless males (“There was a lot to be said for being boring, and it was something [Douglas] was good at”). But I suspect the book won’t remain vivid in my memory, especially with its vague title that doesn’t suggest the contents. I enjoyed Grenville’s writing, though, so will try her again. In my mind she’s more known for historical fiction. I have a copy of The Secret River, so will see if she lives up to that reputation.
How to Be Both by Ali Smith (2014)
(Buddy read with Marcie of Buried in Print.)
A book of two halves, one of which I thoroughly enjoyed; the other I struggled to engage with. I remembered vaguely as I was reading it that this was published in two different versions. As it happened, my library paperback opened with the contemporary storyline.
New Year’s Day marks the start of George’s first full year without her mother, a journalist who died at age 50. Her mother’s major project was “Subvert,” which used Internet pop-ups to have art to comment on politics and vice versa. George remembers conversations with her mother about the nature of history and art, and a trip to Italy. She’s now in therapy, and has a flirty relationship with Helena (“H”), a mixed-race school friend.
Smith’s typical wordplay comes through in the book’s banter, especially in George and H’s texts. George is a whip-smart grammar pedant. Her story was, all in all, a joy to read. There is even a hint of mystery here – is it possible that her mother was being monitored by MI5? When George skips school to gaze at her mother’s favorite Francesco del Cossa painting in the National Gallery, she thinks she sees Lisa Goliard, her mother’s intense acquaintance, who said she was a bookbinder but acted more like a spy…
The second half imagines a history for Francesco del Cossa, who rises from a brick-making family to become a respected portrait and fresco painter. The artist shares outward similarities with George, such as a dead mother and homoerotic leanings. There are numerous tiny connections, too, some of which I will have missed as my attention waned. The voice felt all wrong for the time period; I sensed that Smith wasn’t fully invested in the past, so I wasn’t either. (In dual-timeline novels, I pretty much always prefer the contemporary one and am impatient to get back to it; at least in books like Unsheltered and The Liar’s Dictionary there are alternate chapters to look forward to if the historical material gets tedious.)
An intriguing idea, a very promising first half, then a drift into pretension. Or was that my failure to observe and appreciate? Smith impishly mocks: “If you notice, it changes everything about the picture.” With her format and themes, she questions accepted binaries. There are interesting points about art, grief and gender, even without the clever links across time. But had the story opened with the other Part 1, I may never have gotten anywhere.
I made the mistake of leaving the three winners that daunted me the most stylistically – McBride, McInerney and Smith – for last. I eventually made it through the Smith, though the second half was quite the slog, but quickly realized these two were a lost cause for me.
A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride: I’d glanced at the first few pages in a shop before and found the style immediately off-putting. When I committed to this #ReadingWomen project, I diligently requested a copy from the university library even though I seriously doubted I’d have the motivation to read it. It turns out my first impression was correct: I would have to be paid much more than I’ve ever been paid for writing about a book just to get through this one. From the first paragraph on, it’s deliberately impenetrable in a sub-Joycean way. Ron Charles, the Washington Post book critic and one of my literary heroes/gurus, found the subject matter relentlessly depressing and the obfuscating style elitist. (Might it work as an audiobook? I can’t say; I’ve never listened to one.)
The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney: Not as stylistically difficult as expected, though there is mild dialect and long passages in italics (one of my reading pet peeves). But I’m not drawn to gangster stories, and after a couple of chapters didn’t feel like pushing myself through the book. I did enjoy the setup of Maureen killing an intruder with a holy stone, eliciting this confession: “I crept up behind him and hit him in the head with a religious ornament. So first I suppose God would have to forgive me for killing one of his creatures and then he’d have to forgive me for defiling one of his keepsakes.” For Anna Burns and Donal Ryan fans, perhaps?
It’s been many years since I’ve read some of these novels, such that all I have to go on is my vague memories and Goodreads ratings, and there are a handful there towards the bottom that I couldn’t get through at all, but I still couldn’t resist having a go at ranking the 25 winners, from best to least. My completely* objective list:
(*not at all)
Larry’s Party by Carol Shields
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
We Need to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht
On Beauty by Zadie Smith
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne Berne
The Road Home by Rose Tremain
When I Lived in Modern Times by Linda Grant
The Idea of Perfection by Kate Grenville
Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels
The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes
Property by Valerie Martin
Small World by Andrea Levy
Home by Marilynne Robinson
How to Be Both by Ali Smith
The Power by Naomi Alderman
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore
The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride
You can see the arbitrary nature of prizes at work here: some authors I love have won for books I don’t consider their best (Adichie, Kingsolver, O’Farrell, Patchett), while some exceptional female authors have been nominated but never won (Toni Morrison, Elizabeth Strout, Anne Tyler). Each year the judges are different, and there are no detailed criteria for choosing the winner, so it will only ever be the book that five people happen to like the best.
As she came out top of the heap with what is, coincidentally, the only one of the winning novels that I have managed to reread, my vote goes to Carol Shields for Larry’s Party. (People’s memory for prize winners is notoriously short, so I predict that one of the last two years’ winners, Tayari Jones or Maggie O’Farrell, will win the public’s best of the best vote.)
You have until midnight GMT on Sunday November 1st to vote for your favorite winner at this link. That’s less than a week away now, so get voting!
Note: If you’re interested in tracking your Women’s Prize reading over the years, check out Rachel’s extremely helpful list of all the nominees. It comes in spreadsheet form for you to download and fill out. I have read 138 nominees (out of 477) and DNFed another 19 so far.
Who gets your vote?
Thanks to the Lauras (Reading in Bed and Dr Laura Tisdall) for making me aware of this tag that is also going around on BookTube. Laura F. specifically tagged me. If you haven’t already taken part and think this looks like fun, why not give it a try? For my examples I’ve chosen books I read this year or last year.
- How do you define literary fiction?
My inclination is to adapt one of Italo Calvino’s definitions of a classic (recapped here): a book that will never finish saying all it has to say. In other words, a perennially relevant work that speaks to the human condition. Obviously, not all literary fiction can live up to that standard; some will inevitably feel dated due to its setting, slang, technology, and so on. But at its best, literary fiction voices, and makes an attempt at answering, one or more of life’s biggest questions. As Laura F. says, this generally means that it lends itself to discussion and (re)interpretation. I know I can be an awful snob about genre fiction, but I avoid crime, science fiction, etc. because I find these genres less ‘serious’ and thus less worthwhile than literary fiction.
- Name a literary fiction novel with a superb character study.
The first novel that comes to mind here is The Poisonwood Bible, which would be a suitable answer for several of these categories but on rereading struck me most for how well developed its five main characters are. Barbara Kingsolver does an impressive job of distinguishing these multiple narrators from each other based on how they speak/write.
- Name a literary fiction novel that has experimental or unique writing.
One of the fiction highlights of 2019 so far for me is Stubborn Archivist by Yara Rodrigues Fowler. It stands out from the autofiction field due to its placement of words. Some pages contain just a few lines, or a single short paragraph that reads like a prose poem. Even in the more conventional sections, a lack of punctuation creates a breathless, run-on pace.
- Name a literary fiction novel with an interesting structure.
In The Monsters of Templeton, Lauren Groff’s debut novel, Willie Upton is back in her hometown in upstate New York, partway through a PhD and pregnant by her married professor. We hear from various leading lights in the town’s history and/or Willie’s family tree through a series of first-person narratives, letters and other documents.
- Name a literary fiction novel that explores social themes.
Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile by Alice Jolly, which I reviewed for Nudge, is written entirely in verse and narrated in dialect by an unlearned servant from a cloth mill town in Gloucestershire. With unemployment rising amid the clamor for universal male suffrage, the scene is set for a climactic clash between the common people and the landowning class.
- Name a literary fiction novel that explores the human condition.
John Steinbeck’s East of Eden has an overarching theme of good and evil as it plays out in families and in individual souls. This weighty material – openly addressed in theological and philosophical terms in the course of the novel – is couched in something of a family saga that follows several generations of the Trasks and the Hamiltons.
- Name a brilliant literary-hybrid genre novel.
The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell is a rare sci-fi novel that I loved wholeheartedly. Set on a near-future Jesuit mission to the two alien species on a distant planet, it is about the possibility of believing in God, and doing good works in His name, when suffering seems to be the only result. (See also: The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber.)
- What genre do you wish was mixed with literary fiction more?
I’ve always felt that Maggie O’Farrell expertly straddles the line between literary and women’s fiction; her books are addictively readable but also hold up to critical scrutiny. Her best is The Hand that First Held Mine, but everything I’ve read by her is wonderful. I’d happily read more books like hers. (Expectation by Anna Hope was slightly less successful.)
“This is the death of one viewpoint, and its rebirth, like land rising above the waves, or sea foam running off a crowded deck: the odd totality of persons each of whom says ‘me’.”
When I first tried reading Murmur, I enjoyed the first-person “Part One: Journal,” which was originally a stand-alone story (shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award 2017) but got stuck on “Part Two: Letters and Dreams” and ended up just giving the rest of the book a brief skim. I’m glad that the book’s shortlisting prompted me to return to it and give it proper consideration because, although it was a challenge to read, it was well worth it.
Eaves’s protagonist, Alec Pryor, sometimes just “the scientist,” is clearly a stand-in for Alan Turing, quotes from whom appear as epigraphs heading most chapters. Turing was a code-breaker and early researcher in artificial intelligence at around the time of the Second World War, but was arrested for homosexuality and subjected to chemical castration. Perhaps due to his distress at his fall from grace and the bodily changes that his ‘treatment’ entailed, he committed suicide at age 41 – although there are theories that it was an accident or an assassination. If you’ve read about the manner of his death, you’ll find eerie hints in Murmur.
Every other week, Alec meets with Dr Anthony Stallbrook, a psychoanalyst who encourages him to record his dreams and feelings. This gives rise to the book’s long central section. As is common in dreams, people and settings whirl in and out in unpredictable ways, so we get these kinds of flashes: sneaking out from the boathouse at night with his schoolboy friend, Chris Molyneux, who died young; anti-war protests at Cambridge; having sex with men; going to a fun fair; confrontations with his mother and brother; and so on. Alec and his interlocutors discuss the nature of time, logic, morality, and the threat of war.
There are repeated metaphors of mirrors, gold and machines, and the novel’s language is full of riddles and advanced vocabulary (volutes, manumitted, pseudopodium) that sometimes require as much deciphering as Turing’s codes. The point of view keeps switching, too, as in the quote I opened with: most of the time the “I” is Alec, but sometimes it’s another voice/self observing from the outside, as in Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater. There are also fragments of second- and third-person narration, as well as imagined letters to and from June Wilson, Alec’s former Bletchley Park colleague and fiancée. All of these modes of expression are ways of coming to terms with the past and present.
I am usually allergic to any book that could be described as “experimental,” but I found Murmur’s mosaic of narrative forms an effective and affecting way of reflecting its protagonist’s identity crisis. There were certainly moments where I wished this book came with footnotes, or at least an Author’s Note that would explain the basics of Turing’s situation. (Is Eaves assuming too much about readers’ prior knowledge?) For more background I recommend The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing.
To my surprise, given my initial failure to engage with Murmur, it is now my favorite to win the Wellcome Book Prize. For one thing, it’s a perfect follow-on from last year’s winner, To Be a Machine. (“It is my fate to make machines that think,” Alec writes.) For another, it connects the main themes of this year’s long- and shortlists: mental health and sexuality. In particular, Alec’s fear that in developing breasts he’s becoming a sexual hybrid echoes the three books from the longlist that feature trans issues. Almost all of the longlisted books could be said to explore the mutability of identity to some extent, but Murmur is the very best articulation of that. A playful, intricate account of being in a compromised mind and body, it’s written in arresting prose. Going purely on literary merit, this is my winner by a mile.
With thanks to Midas PR for the free copy for review.
Will Eaves is an associate professor in the Writing Programme at the University of Warwick and a former arts editor of the Times Literary Supplement. Murmur, his fourth novel, was also shortlisted for the 2018 Goldsmiths Prize and was the joint winner of the 2019 Republic of Consciousness Prize. He has also published poetry and a hybrid memoir.
Opinions on this book vary within our shadow panel; our final votes aren’t in yet, so it remains to be seen who we will announce as our winner on the 29th.
If you are within striking distance of London, please consider coming to the “5×15” shortlist event being held next Tuesday evening the 30th.
I was delighted to be asked to participate in the Wellcome Book Prize blog tour. See below for details of where other reviews have appeared or will be appearing soon.