Reading Ireland Month is hosted each March by Cathy of 746 Books. This year I read works by four Irish women: a meditation on birds and craft, hard-hitting poems about body issues, autofiction that incorporates biography and translation to consider the shape of women’s lives across the centuries, and a novel that jets between Hong Kong and Scotland. Two of these were sent to me as part of the Rathbones Folio Prize shortlist. I have some Irish music lined up to listen to (Hallow by Duke Special, At Swim by Lisa Hannigan, Chop Chop by Bell X1, Magnetic North by Iain Archer) and I’m ready to tell you all about these four books.
handiwork by Sara Baume (2020)
Back in February 2016, I reviewed Baume’s debut novel, Spill Simmer Falter Wither, for Third Way magazine. A dark story of a middle-aged loner and his adopted dog setting off on a peculiar road trip, it was full of careful nature imagery. “I’ve always noticed the smallest, quietest things,” the narrator, Ray, states. The same might be said of Baume, who is a visual artist as well as an author and put together this gently illuminating book over the course of 2018, at the same time as she was working on several sculptural installations. In short sections of a paragraph or two, or sometimes no more than a line, she describes her daily routines in her home workspaces: in the morning she listens to barely audible talk radio as she writes, while the afternoons are for carving and painting.
Working with her hands is a family tradition passed down from her grandfather and father, who died in the recent past – of lung cancer from particles he was exposed to at the sandstone quarry where he worked. Baume has a sense of responsibility for how she spends her time and materials. Concern about waste is at odds with a drive for perfection: she discarded her first 100 plaster birds before she was happy with the series used to illustrate this volume. Snippets of craft theory, family memories, and trivia about bird migration and behaviour are interspersed with musings on what she makes. The joy of holding a physical object in the hand somehow outweighs that of having committed virtual words to a hard drive.
Despite the occasional lovely line, this scattered set of reflections doesn’t hang together. The bird facts, in particular, feel shoehorned in for symbolism, as in Colum McCann’s Apeirogon. It’s a shame, as from the blurb I thought this book couldn’t be better suited to my tastes. Ultimately, as with Spill, Baume’s prose doesn’t spark much for me.
“Most of the time spent making is spent, in fact, in the approach.”
“I must stop once the boredom becomes intolerable, knowing that if I plunge on past this point I will risk arriving at resentment”
“What we all shared – me, my dad, his dad – was a suspicion of modern life, a loathing of fashion, a disappointment with the new technologies and a preference for the ad hoc contraptions of the past”
“The glorious, crushing, ridiculous repetition of life.”
With thanks to Tramp Press and FMcM Associates for the free copy for review. handiwork is on the Rathbones Folio Prize shortlist.
Eat or We Both Starve by Victoria Kennefick (2021)
This audacious debut collection of fleshly poems is the best I’ve come across so far this year. The body is presented as a battleground: for the brain cancer that takes the poet’s father; for disordered eating that entwines with mummy issues; for the restructuring of pregnancy. Families break apart and fuse into new formations. Cannibalism and famine metaphors dredge up emotional states and religious doctrines.
Where did I start?
Yes, with the heart, enlarged,
its chambers stretched through caring.
Oh is it in defiance or defeat, I don’t know,
I eat it anyway, raw, still warm.
The size of my fist, I love it.
(from the opening poem, “Learning to Eat My Mother, where My Mother Is the Teacher”)
Meat avoidance goes beyond principled vegetarianism to become a phobia. Like the female saints, the speaker will deny herself until she achieves spiritual enlightenment.
The therapist taps my shoulders, my head, my knees,
tells me I was a nun once, very strict.
This makes sense; I know how cleanly I like
to punish myself.
(from “Alternative Medicine”)
The title phrase comes from “Open Your Mouth,” in which the god Krishna, as a toddler, nourishes his mother with clay. A child feeding its mother reverses the expected situation, which is described in one of the book’s most striking poems, “Researching the Irish Famine.” The site of an old workhouse divulges buried horrors: “Mothers exhausted their own bodies / to produce milk. […] The starving / human / literally / consumes / itself.”
Corpses and meals; body odour and graves. There’s a pleasingly morbid cast to this collection, but it also has its lighter moments: the sexy “Paris Syndrome,” the low-stakes anxiety over pleasing one’s mother in “Guest Room,” and the playful closer, “Prayer to Audrey Hepburn” (“O Blessed Audrey of the feline eye-flick, jutting / bones, slim-hipped androgyny of war-time rationing”). Rich with imagery and alliteration, this is just my kind of poetry. Verse readalikes would include The Air Year by Caroline Bird, Flèche by Mary Jean Chan, and Tongues of Fire by Seán Hewitt, while in prose I was also reminded of Milk Fed by Melissa Broder (review coming soon) and Sanatorium by Abi Palmer.
With thanks to Carcanet Press for the free copy for review. This comes out on the 25th.
A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa (2020)
“This is a female text.” In an elegant loop, Ní Ghríofa begins and ends with this line, and uses it as a refrain throughout. What is the text? It is this book, yes, as well as the 18th-century Irish-language poem that becomes an obsession for the author/narrator, “The Keen for Art Ó Laoghaire” by Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill; however, it is also the female body, its milk and blood just as significant for storytelling as any ink.
Because the protagonist’s name is the same as the author’s, I took her experiences at face value. As the narrative opens in 2012, Ní Ghríofa and her husband have three young sons and life for her is a list of repetitive household tasks that must be completed each day. She donates pumped breast milk for premature babies as a karmic contribution to the universe: something she can control when so much around her she feels she can’t, like frequent evictions and another pregnancy. Reading Eibhlín Dubh’s lament for her murdered husband, contemplating a new translation of it, and recreating her life from paltry archival fragments: these tasks broaden her life and give an intellectual component to complement the bodily one.
My weeks are decanted between the twin forces of milk and text, weeks that soon pour into months, and then into years. I make myself a life in which whenever I let myself sit, it is to emit pale syllables of milk, while sipping my own dark sustenance from ink. […] I skitter through chaotic mornings of laundry and lunchboxes and immunisations, always anticipating my next session at the breast-pump, because this is as close as I get to a rest. To sit and read while bound to my insatiable machine is to leave my lists behind and stroll instead through doors opened by Eibhlín Dubh.
Ní Ghríofa remembers other times in her life in an impressionistic stream: starting a premed course at university, bad behaviour that culminated in suicidal ideation, a near-collision on a highway, her daughter’s birth by emergency C-section, finally buying a house and making it a home by adopting a stray kitten and planting a bee-friendly garden. You can tell from the precision of her words that Ní Ghríofa started off as a poet, and I loved how she writes about her own life. I had little interest in Eibhlín Dubh’s story, but maybe it’s enough for her to be an example of women “cast once more in the periphery of men’s lives.” It’s a book about women’s labour – physical and emotional – and the traces of it that remain. I recommend it alongside I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell and Mother Ship by Francesca Segal.
With thanks to Tramp Press and FMcM Associates for the free copy for review. A Ghost in the Throat is on the Rathbones Folio Prize shortlist.
The Distance Between Us by Maggie O’Farrell (2004)
This is the earliest work of O’Farrell’s that I’ve read – it was her third novel, following After You’d Gone and My Lover’s Lover (I finally found those two at a charity shop last year and I’m saving them for a rainy day). It took me a long time to get into this one. It’s delivered in bitty sections that race between characters and situations, not generally in chronological order. It’s not until nearly the halfway point that you get a sense of how it all fits together.
Although there are many secondary characters, the two main strands belong to Jake, a young white filmmaker raised in Hong Kong by a bohemian mother, and Stella, a Scottish-Italian radio broadcaster. When a Chinese New Year celebration turns into a stampede, Jake and his girlfriend narrowly escape disaster and rush into a commitment he’s not ready for. In the meantime, Stella gets spooked by a traumatic flash from her childhood and flees London for a remote Scottish hotel. She’s very close to her older sister, Nina, who was deathly ill as a child (O’Farrell inserts a scene I was familiar with from I Am, I Am, I Am, when she heard a nurse outside her room chiding a noisy visitor, “There’s a little girl dying in there”), but now it’s Nina who will have to convince Stella to take the chance at happiness that life is offering.
In the end, this felt like a rehearsal for This Must Be the Place; it has the myriad settings (e.g., here, Italy, Wales and New Zealand are also mentioned) but not the emotional heft. With a setup like this, you sort of know where things are going, don’t you? Despite Stella’s awful secret, she is as flat a character as Jake. Simple boy-meets-girl story lines don’t hold a lot of appeal for me now, if they ever did. Still, the second half was a great ride.
Also, I’ve tried twice over the past year, but couldn’t get further than page 80 in The Wild Laughter by Caoilinn Hughes (2020), a black comedy about two brothers whose farmer father goes bankrupt and gets a terminal diagnosis. It’s a strangely masculine book (though in some particulars very similar to Scenes of a Graphic Nature) and I found little to latch on to. This was a disappointment as I’d very much enjoyed Hughes’s debut, Orchid & the Wasp, and this second novel is now on the Dylan Thomas Prize longlist.
What have you been picking up for Reading Ireland Month?
The Rathbones Folio Prize is unique in that nominations come from the Folio Academy, an international group of writers and critics, and any book written in English is eligible, so nonfiction and poetry share space with fiction on the varied shortlist of eight titles:
- handiwork by Sara Baume (Tramp Press)
- Indelicacy by Amina Cain (Daunt Books)
- As You Were by Elaine Feeney (Harvill Secker)
- Poor by Caleb Femi (Penguin)
- My Darling from the Lions by Rachel Long (Picador)
- In the Dream House: A Memoir by Carmen Maria Machado (Serpent’s Tail)
- A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa (Tramp Press)
- The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey (Peepal Tree Press)
I was delighted to be sent the whole shortlist to feature. I’d already read Rachel Long’s poetry collection and Carmen Maria Machado’s memoir (reviewed here), but I’m keen to start on the rest and will read and review as many as possible before the online prize announcement on Wednesday the 24th. I’m starting with the Baume, Cain, Femi and Roffey.
For more information on the prize, these eight authors, and the longlist, see the website.
(The remainder of the text in this post comes from the official press release.)
The Rathbones Folio Prize — known as the “writers’ prize” — rewards the best work of literature of the year, regardless of form. It is the only award governed by an international academy of distinguished writers and critics, ensuring a unique quality and consistency in the nomination and judging process.
The judges (Roger Robinson, Sinéad Gleeson, and Jon McGregor) have chosen books by seven women and one man to be in contention for the £30,000 prize which looks for the best fiction, non-fiction and poetry in English from around the world. Six out of the eight titles are by British and Irish writers, with three out of Ireland alone (two of which are published by the same publisher, Tramp Press). The spirit of experimentation is also reflected in the strong showing of independent publishers and small presses (five out of eight).
Chair of judges Roger Robinson says: “It was such a joy to spend detailed and intimate time with the books nominated for the Rathbones Folio Prize and travel deep into their worlds. The judges chose the eight books on the shortlist because they are pushing at the edges of their forms in interesting ways, without sacrificing narrative or execution. The conversations between the judges may have been as edifying as the books themselves. From a judges’ vantage point, the future of book publishing looks incredibly healthy – and reading a book is still one of the most revolutionary things that one can do.”
The 2021 shortlist ranges from Amina Cain’s Indelicacy – a feminist fable about class and desire – and the exploration of the estates of South London through poetry and photography in Caleb Femi’s Poor, to a formally innovative, genre-bending memoir about domestic abuse in Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House, and a feminist revision of Caribbean mermaid myths, in Monique Roffey’s The Mermaid of Black Conch.
In the darkly comic novel As You Were, poet Elaine Feeney tackles the intimate histories, institutional failures, and the darkly present past of modern Ireland, while Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s A Ghost in the Throat finds the eighteenth-century poet Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill haunting the life of a contemporary young mother, prompting her to turn detective. Doireann Ní Ghríofa is published by Dublin’s Tramp Press, also publishers of Sara Baume’s handiwork – which charts the author’s daily process of making and writing, and explores what it is to create and to live as an artist – while poet Rachel Long’s acclaimed debut collection My Darling from the Lions skewers sexual politics, religious awakenings and family quirks with wit, warmth and precision.
My thanks to the publishers and FMcM Associates for the free copies for review.
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?
For this third annual Margaret Atwood Reading Month (#MARM), hosted by Canadian bloggers extraordinaires Marcie of Buried in Print and Naomi of Consumed by Ink, I picked up Wilderness Tips, a short story collection I’m not sure I’d even heard of before I liberated this battered paperback from the Hay-on-Wye Airbnb where we stayed in September (shhhhhh!).
I also listened in to one of the papers given at the Contemporary Women’s Writing Association’s mini online symposium held to mark her 81st birthday yesterday.
Wilderness Tips (1991)
If pressed to give a one-line summary, I would say the overall theme of this collection is the power that women have (or do not have) in relationships – this is often a question of sex, but not always. Much of the collection falls neatly into pairs: “True Trash” and “Death by Landscape” are about summer camp and the effects that experiences had there still have decades later; “The Bog Man” and “The Age of Lead” both use the discovery of a preserved corpse (one a bog body, the other a member of the Franklin Expedition) as a metaphor for a frozen relationship; and “Hairball” and “Weight” are about a mistress’s power plays. I actually made myself a key on the table of contents page, assigning A, B, and C to those topics. The title story I labeled [A/C] because it’s set at a family’s lake house but the foreign spouse of one of the sisters has history with or designs on all three.
“Uncles,” a standout, didn’t fit into my framework. Susanna’s three uncles played a major role in her life, so when she got a job with a Toronto newspaper she welcomed her colleague Percy’s avuncular attentions. To her surprise, though, his tell-all autobiography reveals he wasn’t so happy about his protégée’s success after all. Two overall favorites were “Hairball,” about a mistress’s superbly executed act of revenge, and the final story, “Hack Wednesday,” in which Marcia takes stock of her life as she prepares for her children coming home for Christmas. Swap the Berlin Wall and Noriega for, I don’t know, Syria and Trump or suchlike, and it would be absolutely current, what with her partner Eric’s eco-warrior escapades (and hypocrisy) and her wish to situate herself in the context of history but also transcend it. I marked out the most passages in this one, and so many made me laugh:
Time is going faster and faster; the days of the week whisk by like panties. The panties she’s thinking about are the kind she had when was a little girl, in pastels, with ‘Monday,’ ‘Tuesday,’ ‘Wednesday’ embroidered on them. Ever since then the days of the week have had colours for her: Monday is blue, Tuesday is cream, Wednesday is lilac. You counted your way through each week by panty, fresh on each day, then dirtied and thrown into the bin. Marcia’s mother used to tell her that she should always wear clean panties in case a bus ran over her, because other people might see them as her corpse was being toted off to the morgue. It wasn’t Marcia’s potential death that loomed uppermost in her mind, it was the state of her panties.
“One of these days I’m going to kill that beast,” says Eric. … “You poor baby!” says Marcia, scooping up the cat, which is overweight. It’s on a diet, but mooches in secret from the neighbours. Marcia sympathizes. “I just let the damn thing out. In, out, in, out. It can’t make up its mind,” says Eric. “It’s confused,” says Marcia.
Marcia will get a little drunk on the eggnog, and later, after the dishes are done, she will cry silently to herself, shut into the bathroom and hugging in her festive arms the grumbling cat, which she will have dragged out from under a bed for this purpose. She will cry because the children are no longer children, or because she herself is not a child any more, or because there are children who have never been children, or because she can’t have a child any more, ever gone. Her body has gone past too quickly for her.
To open the afternoon program, Dr. Fiona Tolan of Liverpool John Moores University spoke on “21st-century Gileads: Feminist Dystopian Fiction after Atwood.” She noted that The Handmaid’s Tale casts a long shadow; it’s entered into our cultural lexicon and isn’t going anywhere. She showed covers of three fairly recent books that take up the Handmaid’s red: The Power, Vox, and Red Clocks. However, the two novels she chose to focus on do not have comparable covers: The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh (my review) and The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood. I was unfamiliar with the premise of the Wood. Ten young women who have been involved in public sex scandals (e.g. with politicians) are kidnapped and imprisoned in a compound in the Outback; their heads are shaven and they are forced to undertake hard labor. Although it’s a female-dominated space, the patriarchy is perpetuated. Is sisterhood a possibility here?
Atwood has said, “Some books haunt the reader and some haunt the writer.” Tolan argued that Handmaid’s clearly does both, since Atwood chose to return to Gilead with The Testaments. While Tolan believes Atwood’s overall emphasis has always been on liberty, she notes that the author has been reluctant to be associated with feminism as a movement.
I feel like my #MARM participation has been somewhat half-hearted this year – I won’t be getting a Bingo on this chart! – but I always enjoy engaging with Atwood’s writing and thinking. With any luck, I’ll still get to read her new poetry collection, Dearly, for review in 2020, and before long I can start planning what I’ll read for this challenge next November.
Short nonfiction turns up in every genre. Today I have a feminist manifesto, some miniature travel essays, a memoir of the writing life, and a book of environmentalist speeches.
Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2017)
My fourth book this year by Adichie, who is also making a repeat appearance on one of my nonfiction novellas lists; I reviewed “We Should All Be Feminists” in 2017. While this builds on the TED talk that fueled that essay, it is more successful for me because of the frame: a long letter to a childhood friend who had just had a baby girl and wanted advice about how to raise her as a feminist. Adichie’s premises are that women matter equally and that if you can’t reverse the genders in a scenario and get acceptable results (e.g. ‘women should leave men who cheat,’ but we don’t necessarily demand the opposite), an argument is sexist.
Even when her points seem obvious – gender roles are nonsense, don’t hold up marriage as the pinnacle of achievement, downplay appearance – they are beautifully expressed, and there are lots of tactics that wouldn’t have occurred to me in the context of feminism: Normalize differences between people. Teach a girl to love reading – “Books will help her understand and question the world, help her express herself”. And beware of how language is used: if people deride a woman for ambition where they wouldn’t criticize a man, their problem is not with ambition but with women. Hillary Clinton and Kamala Harris come to mind…
Go ahead and buy a stack of this book to have on hand the next time a friend has a baby (boy or girl). Adichie wasn’t a mother when she wrote it, but in her Introduction she says that, looking back after the birth of her daughter, it still rang true and gave her plenty to live up to.
[By the way, did you hear that Adichie is the Women’s Prize’s Winner of Winners for Half of a Yellow Sun? Her novel came out at #2 in my ranking of all 25 winners, so I’m pleased!]
A Time to Keep Silence by Patrick Leigh Fermor (1957)
Three brief essays about visits to monasteries: The Abbey of St. Wandrille de Fontanelle (Benedictine) and La Grande Trappe (Cistercian) in France, and the rock monasteries of Cappadocia in Turkey. I’ve read a fair bit about the monastic life, so I found little that was new in Fermor’s accounts of austere daily routines and religious history. I had more interest in the rock monasteries where some Church Fathers were based, simply because Turkey is a relatively unfamiliar setting for me, but despite Fermor’s rich descriptive gifts, this piece was, at nine pages, little more than a sketch. Alas, this was a disappointment.
The Cost of a Best Seller by Frances Parkinson Keyes (1953)
I picked up a £1 dustjacketless copy on a whim from the outdoor clearance area at the Hay Cinema Bookshop in September and started reading it immediately, off and on as a bedside book. Keyes is a twentieth-century author whose dozens of potboilers sold in their millions, but she has been largely forgotten since. Imagine my surprise, then, when her best-known novel, Dinner at Antoine’s (1948), turned up on a recent Book Riot list of New Orleans-themed literature – though mostly for the reference to the still-popular title restaurant.
When Keyes began writing, a mother of three young children in an attic room, it was to supplement her husband’s income, but the work soon became an obsession and allowed her to maintain her independence after her husband, a U.S. senator, died. Not until 17 years after the publication of her first novel did she have her first bestseller. She depicts fame as a double-edged sword: It allowed her to travel in Europe and to Louisiana, where she later made her home, but also made heavy demands on her time, requiring responses to annoying letters, hours spent signing books, and attendance at literary lunches. For someone with back problems, these commitments could be literally as well as figuratively painful.
Keyes has the popular fiction writer’s bitterness about never getting critical recognition. This memoir was pleasant enough, but hasn’t induced me to read any more by her. Readers fond of her work might get something more out of it. For the most part, it doesn’t feel dated, but one detail really got to me: Whenever she needed to ensure that she wouldn’t be disturbed, she would go work in the old slave quarters of her New Orleans mansion. Yipes!
No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference by Greta Thunberg (2019)
“Our house is on fire. … I want you to panic.” Starting with a speech she gave on a climate march in Stockholm in September 2018 and ending with her address to the UK parliament in April 2019, this punchy pamphlet of rhetoric makes it clear why the teenage Thunberg has rapidly become such an important public figure. She attributes her bluntness to her Asperger’s: the way her mind works, she sees climate breakdown as a simple, black and white issue – either we care or we don’t; either we stop emitting carbon or we don’t; either we find new ways of doing things now, or we stand by and watch it all go to ruin. She calls governments and international bodies to account for their inaction and lack of commitment, and for subsidizing fossil fuels and encouraging consumerism as usual.
Peppering in key statistics and accepted scientific guidelines but staying at a lay level, she calls on the world’s decision-makers to create hope for young people and others who will be most affected by global warming but don’t have a seat at the table. I admire Thunberg’s bravery as well as her words. The only issue with a wee book like this one is that the same points and language recur in multiple speeches, so there is inevitable repetition.
It’s been Nonfiction week here on Novellas in November. #NovNov meets #NonficNov!
Starting Monday: Literature in Translation week, which Cathy is hosting.
The Bell in the Lake by Lars Mytting
A legend from Mytting’s hometown tells of two centuries-old church bells that, like conjoined twins, were never meant to be separated. Inspired by that story and by the real-life move of a stave church from Norway to what is now Poland, he embarked on a trilogy in which history and myth mingle to determine the future of the isolated village of Butangen. The novel is constructed around compelling dichotomies. Astrid Hekne, a feminist ahead of her time, is in contrast with the local pastor’s conventional views on gender roles. She also represents the village’s unlearned folk; Deborah Dawkin successfully captures Mytting’s use of dialect in her translation, making Astrid sound like one of Thomas Hardy’s rustic characters.
- See my full review at BookBrowse.
- See also my related article on stave churches.
- One of the coolest things I did during the first pandemic lockdown in the UK was attend an online book club meeting on The Bell in the Lake, run by MacLehose Press, Mytting’s UK publisher. It was so neat to see the author and translator speak “in person” via a Zoom meeting and to ask him a couple of questions in the chat window.
- A readalike (and one of my all-time favorite novels) is Carsten Jensen’s We, the Drowned.
Memorial by Bryan Washington
In Washington’s debut novel, set in Houston and Osaka, two young men reassess their commitments to their families and to each other. The narration is split between Benson and Mike, behind whose apparent lack of affect is a quiet seam of emotion. Both young men are still shaken by their parents’ separations, and haunted by patterns of abuse and addiction. Flashbacks to how they met create a tender backstory for a limping romance. Although the title (like most of the story titles in Lot) refers to a Houston neighborhood, it has broader significance, inviting readers to think about the place our loved ones have in our memories. Despite the tough issues the characters face, their story is warm-hearted rather than grim. Memorial is a candid, bittersweet work from a talented young writer whose career I will follow with interest.
- See my full review at BookBrowse.
- See also my related article on the use of quotation marks (or not!) to designate speech.
- I enjoyed this so much that I immediately ordered Lot with my birthday money. I’d particularly recommend it if you want an earthier version of Brandon Taylor’s Booker-shortlisted Real Life (which I’m halfway through and enjoying, though I can see the criticisms about its dry, slightly effete prose).
- This came out in the USA from Riverhead in late October, but UK readers have to wait until January 7th (Atlantic Books).
A calmer month for new releases after September’s bumper crop. I read a sophisticated mystery set at a theological college, a subtle novel about empathy and being a good friend, and a memoir of raising one of Britain’s first llamas.
The Gospel of Eve by Rachel Mann
Last year I dipped into Mann’s poetry (A Kingdom of Love) and literary criticism/devotional writing (In the Bleak Midwinter); this year I was delighted to be offered an early copy of her debut novel. The press materials are full of comparisons to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History; it’s certainly an apt point of reference for this mystery focusing on clever, Medieval-obsessed students training for the priesthood at a theological college outside Oxford.
It’s 1997 and Catherine Bolton is part of the first female intake at Littlemore College. She has striven to rid herself of a working-class accent and recently completed her PhD on Chaucer, but feels daunted by her new friends’ intelligence and old-money backgrounds: Ivo went to Eton, Charlie is an heiress, and so on. But Kitty’s most fascinated with Evie, who is bright, privileged and quick with a comeback – everything Kitty wishes she could be.
If you think of ordinands as pious and prudish, you’ll be scandalized by these six. They drink, smoke, curse and make crude jokes. In seminars with Professor Albertus Loewe, they make provocative mention of feminist theory and are tempted by his collection of rare books. Soon sex, death and literature get all mixed up as Kitty realizes that her friends’ devotion to the Medieval period goes as far as replicating dangerous rituals. We know from the first line that one of them ends up dead. But what might it have to do with the apocryphal text of the title?
I didn’t always feel the psychological groundwork was there to understand characters’ motivations, but I still found this to be a beguiling story, well plotted and drenched in elitism and lust. Mann explores a theology that is more about practice, about the body, than belief. Kitty’s retrospective blends regret and nostalgia: “We were the special ones, the shining ones,” and despite how wrong everything went, part of her wouldn’t change it for the world.
My thanks to publicist Hannah Hargrave for the proof copy for review. Published today by Darton, Longman & Todd Ltd.
What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez
A perfect follow-up to The Friend and very similar in some ways: again we have the disparate first-person musings of an unnamed narrator compelled to help a friend. In Nunez’s previous novel, the protagonist has to care for the dog of a man who recently killed himself; here she is called upon to help a terminally ill friend commit suicide. The novel opens in September 2017 in the unfamiliar town she’s come to for her friend’s cancer treatments. While there she goes to a talk by an older male author who believes human civilization is finished and people shouldn’t have children anymore. This prophet of doom is her ex.
His pessimism is echoed by the dying friend when she relapses. The narrator agrees to accompany her to a rental house where she will take a drug to die at a time of her choosing. “Lucy and Ethel Do Euthanasia,” the ex jokes. And there is a sort of slapstick joy early in this morbid adventure, with mishaps like forgetting the pills and flooding the bathroom.
As in Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy, the voice is not solely or even primarily the narrator’s but Other: her friend speaking about her happy childhood and her estrangement from her daughter; a woman met at the gym; a paranoid neighbor; a recent short story; a documentary film. I felt there was too much recounting of a thriller plot, but in general this approach, paired with the absence of speech marks, reflects how the art we consume and the people we encounter become part of our own story. Curiosity about other lives fuels empathy.
With the wry energy of Jenny Offill’s Weather, this is a quiet novel that sneaks up to seize you by the heartstrings. “Women’s stories are often sad stories,” Nunez writes, but “no matter how sad, a beautifully told story lifts you up.” Like The Friend, which also ends just before The End, this presents love and literature as ways to bear “witness to the human condition.”
With thanks to Virago for the proof copy for review.
Along Came a Llama: Tales from a Welsh Hill Farm by Ruth Janette Ruck
Originally published in 1978 (now reissued with a foreword by John Lewis-Stempel), this is an enjoyably animal-stuffed memoir reminiscent of Gerald Durrell and especially Doreen Tovey. Ruck (d. 2006) and her family – which at times included her ill sister, her elderly mother and/or her sister-in-law – lived on a remote farm in the hills of North Wales. On a visit to Knaresborough Zoo, Ruck was taken with the llamas and fancied buying one to add to their menagerie of farm animals. It was as simple as asking the zoo director and then taking the young female back to Wales in a pony box. At that time, hardly anyone in the UK knew anything about llamas or the other camelids. No insurance company would cover their llama in transit; no one had specialist knowledge on feeding or breeding. Ruck had to do things the old-fashioned way, finding books and specialist scientific papers.
But they mostly learned about Ñusta (the Quechua word for princess) by spending time with her. At holidays they discovered her love of chocolate Easter eggs and cherry brandy. The cud-chewing creature sometimes gave clues to what else she’d been eating, as when she regurgitated plum stones. She didn’t particularly like being touched or trailed by an orphaned lamb, but followed Ruck around dutifully and would sit sociably in the living room. Life with animals often involves mild disasters: Ñusta jumps in a pool and locks Ruck’s husband in the loo, and the truck breaks down on the way to mate her with the male at Chester Zoo.
From spitting to shearing, there was a lot to get used to, but this account of the first three years of llama ownership emphasizes the delights of animal companionship. There were hardships in Ruck’s life, including multiple sclerosis and her sister’s death, but into the “austere but soul-rewarding life of a hill firm … like a catalyst or a touch of magic, the llama came along.” I was into llamas and alpacas well before the rest of the world – in high school I often visited a local llama farm, and I led a llama in a parade and an alpaca in a nativity play – so that was my primary reason for requesting this, but it’s just right for any animal lover.
With thanks to Faber & Faber for the free copy for review.
What recent 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 week was one of the biggest weeks in the UK’s publishing year. Even though I’ve cut down drastically on the number of review books I’m receiving in 2020, I still had six on my shelf with release dates last week. Of course, THE biggest title out on the 5th was The Mirror and the Light, the final volume in Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy, which I’m eagerly awaiting from the library – I’m #3 in a holds queue of 34 people, but there are three copies, all showing as “Received at HQ,” so mine should come in any day now.
But for those who are immune to Mantel fever, or just seeking other material, there’s plenty to keep you busy. I give short reviews of five books today: a couple of dysfunctional family stories, two very different graphic novels and some feminist nonfiction.
All This Could Be Yours by Jami Attenberg
(Published by Serpent’s Tail on the 5th; came out in the USA from Houghton Mifflin in October)
Most of the action in Attenberg’s seventh book takes place on one day, as 73-year-old Victor Tuchman, struck down by a heart attack, lies on his deathbed in a New Orleans hospital. There’s more than a whiff of Trump about Victor, who has a shadowy mobster past and was recently hit with 11 sexual harassment charges. Forced to face the music for the first time, he fled Connecticut with his wife Barbra, citing the excuse of wanting to live closer to their son Gary in Louisiana. Victor had been abusive to Barbra throughout their marriage, and was just as violent in his speech: he could crush their daughter Alex with one remark on her weight.
So no one is particularly sad to see Victor dying. Alex goes through the motions of saying goodbye and telling her father she forgives him, knowing she doesn’t mean a word. Meanwhile, Gary is AWOL on a work trip to California, leaving his wife Twyla to take his place at Victor’s bedside. Twyla’s newfound piety is her penance for a dark secret that puts her at the heart of the family’s breakdown.
Attenberg spends time with each family member on this long day supplemented by flashbacks, following Alex from bar to bar in downtown New Orleans as she tries to drown her sorrows and exploring other forms of addiction through Barbra (redecorating; not eating or ageing) and Twyla – in a particularly memorable scene, she heaps a shopping cart full of makeup at CVS and makes it all the way to the checkout before she snaps out of it. There’s also an interesting pattern of giving brief glimpses into the lives of the incidental characters whose paths cross with the family’s, including the EMT who took Victor to the hospital.
This is a timely tragicomedy, realistic and compassionate but also marked by a sardonic tone. Although readers only ever see Victor through other characters’ eyes, any smug sense of triumph they may feel about seeing the misbehaving, entitled male brought low is tempered by the extreme sadness of what happens to him after his death. I didn’t love this quite as much as The Middlesteins, but for me it’s a close second out of the four Attenberg novels I’ve read. She’s a real master of the dysfunctional family novel.
My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones (2011)
(Published for the first time in the UK by Oneworld on the 5th)
Speaking of messed-up families … Growing up in 1980s Atlanta, Dana and Chaurisse both call James Witherspoon their father – but Chaurisse’s mother doesn’t even know that Dana exists. Dana’s mother, however, has always been aware of her husband’s other family. That didn’t stop her from agreeing to a quick marriage over the state line. Jones establishes James’s bigamy in the first line; the rest of the novel is mostly in two long sections, the first narrated by Dana and the second by Chaurisse. Both girls recount how their parents met, as well as giving a tour through their everyday life of high school and boyfriends.
I was eager to read this after enjoying Jones’s Women’s Prize winner, An American Marriage, so much. Initially I liked Dana’s narration as she elaborates on her hurt at being in a secret family. The scene where she unexpectedly runs into Chaurisse at a science fair and discovers their father bought them matching fur coats is a highlight. But by the midpoint the book starts to drag, and Chaurisse’s voice isn’t distinct enough for her narration to add much to the picture. A subtle, character-driven novel about jealousy and class differences, this failed to hold my interest. Alternating chapters from the two girls might have worked better?
My thanks to the publisher for the proof copy for review.
New graphic novels from SelfMadeHero:
The Mystic Lamb: Admired and Stolen by Harry De Paepe and Jan Van Der Veken
[Translated by Albert Gomperts]
I’ve been to Ghent, Belgium twice. Any visitor will know that one of the city’s not-to-be-missed sights is the 15th-century altarpiece in St Bavo’s Cathedral, Jan van Eyck’s Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. On our first trip we bought timed tickets to see this imposing and vibrantly colored multi-paneled artwork, which depicts various figures and events from the Bible as transplanted into a typically Dutch landscape. De Paepe gives a comprehensive account of the work’s nearly six-century history.
It’s been hidden during times of conflict or taken away as military spoils; it’s been split into parts and sold or stolen; it narrowly escaped a devastating fire. Overall, there was much more detail here than I needed, and far fewer illustrations than I expected. If you have a special interest in art history, you may well enjoy this. Just bear in mind that, although marketed as a graphic novel, it is mostly text.
Thoreau and Me by Cédric Taling
[Translated by Edward Gauvin]
I can’t seem to get away from Henry David Thoreau in my recent reading. Last year I reviewed for the TLS two memoirs that consciously appropriated the 19th-century environmentalist’s philosophy and language; the other night I found mentions of Thoreau in a Wallace Stegner novel, a new nature book by Lucy Jones, and travel books by Nancy Campbell and Charlie English. So I knew I had to read this debut graphic novel (but is it a memoir or autofiction?) about a Paris painter who is plagued by eco-anxiety and plans to build his own off-grid home in the woods.
Cédric and his middle-class friends are assailed by “white hipster guilt.” A brilliant sequence has a dinner party discussion descend into a cacophony of voices as they list the ethical minefields they face. Though Cédric wishes he were a prepared alpha male with advanced survival skills that could save his family, his main strategy seems to be panic buying cold-weather gear. Thoreau, depicted sometimes as a wolf or faun and always with a thin, tubular mosquito’s nose (like a Socratic gadfly?), comes to him as an invisible friend and guru, with quotes from Walden and his journal appearing in jagged speech bubbles. This was a good follow-up to Jenny Offill’s Weather with its themes of climate-related angst and perceived helplessness. I enjoyed the story even though I found the drawing style slightly grotesque.
My thanks to the publisher for the free copies for review.
And one extra:
The Home Stretch: Why It’s Time to Come Clean about Who Does the Dishes by Sally Howard
(Published by Atlantic Books on the 5th)
I only gave this feminist book about the domestic labor gap a quick skim as, unfortunately, it repeats a lot of the examples and statistics that were familiar to me from works like Invisible Women by Caroline Criado-Pérez (e.g. the Iceland women’s strike in the 1970s) and Fair Play by Eve Rodsky. The only chapter that stood out for me somewhat was about the “yummy mummy” stereotype perpetuated by the likes of Jools Oliver and Gwyneth Paltrow.
My thanks to the publisher for the proof copy for review.