The Barbellion Prize 2020 will be awarded tomorrow “to an author whose work has best represented the experience of chronic illness and/or disability.” (See also my reviews of Golem Girl by Riva Lehrer and Sanatorium by Abi Palmer.)
These two memoirs, though very different outwardly, both draw attention to the practical and emotional challenges of life with disability or a mental illness, and call for compassion from individuals and a commitment to help from governing bodies.
The Fragments of My Father: A memoir of madness, love and being a carer by Sam Mills
One in eight people in the UK cares for an ill or disabled relative. Sam Mills has been a carer for a parent – not once, but twice. The first time was for her mother, who had kidney cancer that spread to her lungs and died one Christmas. A few years later, Mills’s father, Edward, who has paranoid schizophrenia, started having catatonic episodes, as with the incident she opens her memoir on. In 2016, on what would have been her mother’s 70th birthday, Edward locked himself in the toilet of the family home in Surrey. Her brother had to break in with a screwdriver and ambulance staff took him away to a hospital. It wasn’t the first time he’d been institutionalized for a mental health crisis, nor would it be the last. It was always excruciating to decide whether he was better off at home or sectioned on a ward.
Mills darts between past and present as she contrasts her father’s recent condition with earlier points in their family life. She only learned about his diagnosis from her mother when, at age 14, she saw him walk down the stairs naked and then cry when he burned the chips. While schizophrenia can have a genetic element, relatives of a schizophrenic are also more likely to be high achievers. So, although Mills went through a time of suicidal depression as a teenager, meditation got her through and she exhibits more of the positive traits: An author of six books and founder of the small press Dodo Ink, she is creative and driven. Still, being her father’s full-time carer with few breaks often leaves her exhausted and overwhelmed.
The book’s two main points of reference are Leonard Woolf and F. Scott Fitzgerald, who cared for mentally ill wives and had to make difficult choices about their treatment and housing. In a nutshell, Mills concludes that Woolf was a good carer while Fitzgerald was a terrible one. Leonard was excused World War I service due to his nervous exhaustion from being a carer, and he gave up on the idea of children when doctors said that motherhood would be disastrous for Virginia. Virginia herself absolved Leonard in her suicide note, reassuring him that no couple could have been happier and that no one could have looked after her better. Scott, on the other hand, couldn’t cope with Zelda’s unpredictable behaviour – not least because of his own alcoholism – so had her locked up in expensive yet neglectful institutions and censored her work when it came too close to overlapping with his own plots.
The Fragments of My Father brings together a lot of my favourite topics to read about: grief, physical and mental illness, and literary biography. It had already been on my wish list since I first heard about it last year, but I’m glad the Barbellion Prize shortlisting gave me a chance to read it. It helps to have an interest in the Fitzgeralds and Woolfs – though in my case I had read a bit too extensively about them for this strand to feel fully fresh. (I also had a ‘TMI’ response to some revelations about the author’s relationships and sex life.)
Ultimately, I most appreciated the information on being a carer, including the mental burden and the financial and social resources available. (Although there is a government allowance for carers, Mills wasn’t eligible because of her freelance earnings, so she had to apply for Society of Authors grants instead.) With caring so common, especially for women, we need a safety net in place for all whose earnings and relationships will be affected by family duties. I read this with an eye to the future, knowing there’s every possibility that one day I’ll be a carer for a parent(-in-law) or spouse.
Readalikes I have also reviewed:
- Labours of Love: The Crisis of Care by Madeleine Bunting
- All the Lives We Ever Lived: Seeking Solace in Virginia Woolf by Katharine Smyth
“had I ever made a conscious choice? Caring felt like something that was happening to me, as though my father’s illness had been an eruption that had flowed like lava over my life. … I can’t think of any other job where someone defines your role by conferring its title on you, as though they are holding out a mould that you must fill.”
“caring is rarely simple because its nature is not static. It creates routines, crafts the days into set shapes, lulls you into states of false security, and then mutates, slaps you with fresh challenges, leaves you lost just when you feel you have gained wisdom.”
With thanks to Fourth Estate for the free copy for review.
Kika & Me: How one extraordinary guide dog changed my world by Dr Amit Patel with Chris Manby
Dr Patel grew up in Guildford, studied medicine at Cambridge, and specialised in trauma medicine as a junior doctor in London. Diagnosed with keratocornus, which changes the shape of the cornea (it affects 1 in 450), he required first special contact lenses and then a series of cornea transplants. By the time of his eighth transplant, he’d remortgaged his house to pay an American specialist. Meeting and marrying Seema was a time of brightness before, in November 2013, he completely lost his vision within 36 hours. Blindness meant that he could no longer do his job, and constant eye pain and inactivity exacerbated his depression. While white cane and Braille training, plus the Royal National Institute of Blind People’s “Living with Sight Loss” course, started to boost his independence, it was being paired with his guide dog, Kika the Labrador, in 2015 that truly gave Patel his life back.
Trying out guide dogs sounds a little bit like speed dating. The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association (founded in the UK in 1931) warned that Kika was a “Marmite dog,” moody and likely to push boundaries; there was no guarantee she and Patel would get along. But from the start Kika was just right for him. More than once, what seemed like her pure stubbornness – lying on his feet and refusing to move – kept him from dangerous situations, like getting trapped between a busy road and a building site on an unfamiliar route. After a 10-day core skills training course, during which man and dog stayed at a hotel together, Kika was ready to join them at home. In the days to come, she would learn all Patel’s usual routes around their neighbourhood and into the City – with the help of smears of mackerel pâté.
If you’re like me, you’ll be most curious to learn about the nitty-gritty of life for a visually impaired person. I loved hearing about how Patel practiced his Braille letters with an egg container and ping pong balls. Since he went blind, he and his wife have had two children, and with Kika’s help manoeuvring a baby buggy is no problem. Guide dogs are trained to be predictable, e.g., doing their business in the same spot at the same times so it’s much easier to find and clean up. Some dog training tricks also worked for children, like putting a bell on a Labrador or a toddler to know when they wandered off!
Patel has had some unfortunate experiences since he went blind, particularly on the London Underground: teenagers picking him up and spinning him around on a train platform, busy commuters barging past him and Kika on an escalator, and an impatient woman hitting Kika with her handbag. While Patel doesn’t like being negative on social media, he finds that posting video clips of these incidents raises awareness of the challenges VIPs face. Every time he hits a setback, he uses it as an opportunity. For instance, one Diwali he was excited to visit Neasden Temple, only to be dismayed that they wouldn’t allow Kika inside. Since then, he has worked with temples around the world to improve disability services. He is also involved in London’s “Transport for All” work, and advises companies on access issues.
More so than the rest of the shortlist, Kika & Me is illuminating about daily life with a disability and has a campaigning focus. It’s an easy read, and not just for animal lovers. Judging the book by the cover, I might not have picked it up otherwise, so I’m grateful that the Barbellion put it on my radar. I’m deeply impressed by what Patel has achieved and the positive attitude he maintains. (Kika has her own Twitter account! @Kika_GuideDog)
With thanks to Pan Macmillan for the free copy for review.
Next year the Barbellion Prize hopes to award more money, including to all nominated authors. They are accepting submissions for 2021, and are grateful for any Paypal donations via their website (see the page footer). I’ve donated to the cause. Can you help, too?
Grief Is the Thing with Feathers meets Girl, Woman, Other would be my marketing shorthand for this one. Poet Salena Godden’s debut novel is a fresh and fizzing work, passionate about exposing injustice but also about celebrating simple joys, and in the end it’s wholly life-affirming despite a narrative stuffed full of deaths real and imagined.
What if Death wasn’t the male Grim Reaper stereotype? What if, instead, she was a poor black woman – a bag lady on a bus, or a hospital cleaner? In this playful and lilting story, we learn of Mrs Death’s work via her unwitting medium, Wolf Willeford, who one Christmas Eve goes walking in London’s Brick Lane area and buys an irresistible desk that reveals flashes of historical deaths. Once Mrs Death’s desk (and resentful at not being a piano), it now transmits her stories to Wolf, giving a whole new meaning to the term ghost writer. Wolf compiles and edits her memoirs, which take the form of diary entries, poems, and songs.
It’s never been more stressful to be Death, what with civil war in Syria, school shootings in the USA, and refugees drowning off the coast of France. But although the book’s frame of reference is up to the minute, wrongful deaths are nothing new, so occasional vignettes dramatize untimely demises – especially of black women – across the centuries: from the days of slavery to Jack the Ripper to police custody a few years ago. There are so many ways to die:
really nearly took that other plane on 9/11
had a coconut fall on your head
saw your village being bombed
slipped taking a selfie by the Grand Canyon
had a fight with an alligator
got stranded in a fierce and fast-moving bushfire
Speaking of fire, and of the title, Wolf (biracial, nonbinary, and possibly bipolar) is here to narrate only because Mrs Death missed one. Their mum died in a house fire. Wolf should have died that day, too, but heard a voice saying “Wake up, Wolf … Can you smell smoke?” Were they spared deliberately, or did Mrs Death make a mistake? (After all, we learn that when a patient briefly wakes up on the operating table before dying for good, it’s because Mrs Death’s printer got jammed.)
Where I think the novel really succeeds is in balancing its two levels: the cosmic, in which Life and Death are sisters and Time is Death’s lover in a sort of creation myth; and the personal, in which Wolf’s family tree, printed at the end, is an appalling litany of accidental deaths and executions. It’s easy to see why Wolf is so traumatized, but Mrs Death, ironically, reminds him that, despite all of the world’s fallen heroes and ongoing crises, there is still such beauty to be found in life.
All the warmth and all the joy is boiled in a soup of memory, we stir the good stuff from the bottom of the pot and hold the ladle up, drink, we say, look at all the good chunks of goodness, take in your share of good times, good music, good books, good food, good laughter, good people, be grateful for the good stuff, life and death, we say, drink.
There were a few spots where I thought the content repetitive and wondered if the miscellany format distracted from the narrative, but overall the book more than lives up to its fantastic cover, title, and premise. And with the pandemic’s global death toll rising daily, it could hardly be more relevant.
Unusual, musical, and a real pleasure to read: this is the first entry on my Best of 2021 shelf.
With thanks to Canongate for the free copy for review.
Tomorrow I’ll review a few more of January’s fiction releases, followed by nonfiction on Saturday.
Stephen Fabes is an emergency room doctor at St Thomas’s Hospital, London. Not exciting enough for you? Well, he also spent six years of the past decade cycling six continents (so, all bar Antarctica). His statistics are beyond impressive: 53,568 miles, 102 international borders, 1000+ nights of free camping, 26 bicycle tires, and 23 journals filled with his experiences. A warm-up was cycling the length of Chile with his brother at age 19. After medical school in Liverpool and starting his career in London, he found himself restless and again longing for adventure. The round-the-world cycle he planned fell into four sections: London to Cape Town, the West Coast of the Americas, Melbourne to Mumbai, and Hong Kong to home.
Signs of Life is a warm-hearted and laugh-out-loud funny account of Fabes’ travels, achieving a spot-on balance between major world events, the everyday discomforts of long-distance cycling and rough camping, and his humanitarian volunteering. He is a witness to the Occupy movement in Hong Kong, the aftermath of drought and tribal conflict in Africa, and the refugee crisis via the “Jungle” migrant camp in Calais. The desperate situations he saw while putting his medical expertise to good use in short bursts – e.g., at a floating clinic on a Cambodian lake, a malaria research center in Thailand, a leper hospital in Nepal, and a mental health rehabilitation clinic in Mumbai – put into perspective more minor annoyances like fire ants in El Salvador, Indonesian traffic, extreme cold in Mongolia, and camel spiders.
Wherever he went, Fabes met with kindness from strangers, even those who started off seeming hostile – having pitched his tent by a derelict cabin in Peru, he was alarmed to awake to a man pointing a gun at him, but the illicit gold miner soon determined he was harmless and offered him some soup. (Police officers and border guards were perhaps a bit less hospitable.) He also had occasional companions along the route, including a former housemate and a one-time girlfriend. Even limited shared language was enough to form common ground with a stranger-turned-fellow cyclist for a week or so. We get surprising glimpses of how Anglo-American culture permeates the developing world: For some reason, in the ‒Stans everyone’s point of reference when he introduced himself was Steven Seagal.
At nearly 400 pages, the memoir is on the long side, though I can see that it must have felt impossible to condense six years of adventures any further. I was less interested in the potted histories of other famous cyclists’ travels and would have appreciated a clearer sense to the passing of time, perhaps in the form of a date stamp at the head of each chapter. One of my favorite aspects of the book, though, was the use of medical metaphors to link geography to his experiences. Most chapters are titled after health vocabulary; for instance, in “Membranes” he ponders whether country borders are more like scars or cell membranes.
Fabes emphasizes, in a final chapter on the state of the West upon his return in early 2016, that, in all the most important ways, people are the same the world over. Whether in the UK or Southeast Asia, he sees poverty as the major factor in illness, perpetuating the inequality of access to adequate healthcare. Curiosity and empathy are his guides as he approaches each patient’s health as a story. Reflecting on the pandemic, which hit just as he was finalizing the manuscript, he prescribes global cooperation and innovation for this time of uncertainty.
We’re all armchair travelers this year, but this book is especially for you if you enjoy Bill Bryson’s sense of humor, think Dervla Murphy was a badass in Full Tilt, and enjoyed War Doctor by David Nott and/or The Crossway by Guy Stagg. It’s one of my top few predictions for next year’s Wellcome Book Prize – fingers crossed it will go ahead after the 2020 hiatus.
With thanks to Dr Fabes and Profile Books for the free copy for review.
This is my third year participating in R.I.P. (Readers Imbibing Peril), now in its 15th year. I read my first novel by Paul Magrs as a buddy read with Liz of Adventures in reading, running and working from home, and coincidentally had Daisy Johnson’s creepy second novel out from the library. Rounding out this first post are a novella by James Hynes and a short story by Joyce Carol Oates, by whom I still haven’t managed to read a whole book. For my planned Part II, I’m working on historical suspense novels by Michelle Paver (a constant on my R.I.P. lists, it seems) and Laura Purcell, and trying my first Henning Mankell.
666 Charing Cross Road by Paul Magrs (2011)
Apart from Dracula, my only previous experience of vampire novels was Deborah Harkness’s books. My first book from Paul Magrs ended up being a great choice because it’s pretty lighthearted and as much about the love of books as it is about supernatural fantasy – think of a cross between Jasper Fforde and Neil Gaiman. The title is a tongue-in-cheek nod to Helene Hanff’s memoir, 84 Charing Cross Road. Like Hanff, Aunt Liza sends letters and money to a London bookstore in exchange for books that suit her tastes. A publisher’s reader in New York City, Liza has to read new stuff for work but not-so-secretly prefers old books, especially about the paranormal – a love she shares with her gay bookseller friend, Jack.
One day the bookstore (actual address: 66b) sends a gruesome treasure, a grimoire soaked in vampire blood. In the wrong hands, it returns the vampiric spirit to life and sets off a chain reaction as each victim bites and infects others. I couldn’t help but think of the pandemic; indeed, Magrs uses the word “disease” at one point. Vampirism always has erotic overtones, though, making it seem more like an STD. As it happens, the vampires’ New York leader is Liza’s niece Shelley’s boyfriend, Daniel. Meanwhile, the star exhibit at the Museum of Outsider Art where Shelley works, a Scottish Bride effigy nicknamed Bessie, has come to life. Bessie leads Liza and Jack to London in the fight against Daniel and his kind.
Set between Halloween and Christmas, this is a pacy and quick-witted story that is easy to follow even as it gets more complicated and adds in ever more secondary characters. Hints about Liza’s past experience of the supernatural and an open ending leave room for a prequel or sequel. There were a few melodramatic moments and I wasn’t always convinced by Liza’s New Yawk accent. (I also wanted to stick up for Liza and another character about her age, Consuela – Magrs often refers to one or both as “the old woman,” when in the context they can’t be far past 60!) But these are minor niggles about a book that was so much fun to read. I’ll try something else by Magrs, probably Exchange and/or one of the Brenda and Effie series – who could resist that premise of the Bride of Frankenstein running a B&B in Whitby? (See also Liz’s review.)
Queen of the Jungle (from Publish and Perish: Three Tales of Tenure and Terror) by James Hynes (1997)
I read the first of this volume’s three suspense novellas and will save the others for future years of R.I.P. or Novellas in November. At 95 pages, it feels like a complete, stand-alone plot with solid character development and a believable arc. Paul and Elizabeth are academics marooned at different colleges: Paul is finishing up his postdoc and teaches menial classes at an English department in Iowa, where they live; Elizabeth commutes long-distance to spend four days a week in Chicago, where she’s on track for early tenure at the university.
The couple’s cat, Charlotte, starts acting up, peeing in random places around the apartment. The animal psychic they hire says it’s because a woman keeps coming and going, disturbing the cat’s routines. Elizabeth assumes it’s her fault, feels terrible, and redoubles her efforts to get her boss to offer Paul a job on the basis of his bizarre literary/pop culture mash-up thesis chapters. But readers soon learn the real reason for the cat’s unease: Paul is carrying on an affair with Kymberly, a graduate student from the communications department. Charlotte is preternaturally determined to terrorize Kym and broadcast Paul’s secret. It’s an amusing battle of wills that comes to have greater stakes. Mentions of computer and telephone technology made this seem slightly dated, but I liked Hynes’s writing.
Sisters by Daisy Johnson (2020)
Teenagers September and July were born just 10 months apart, with July always in thrall to her older sister. September can pressure her into anything, no matter how risky or painful, in games of “September Says.” But one time things went too far. That was the day they went out to the tennis courts to confront the girls at their Oxford school who had bullied July.
For much of this short novel, Johnson keeps readers guessing about what happened that day and why the girls’ mother, Sheela, took them away to Settle House, her late husband’s family home in the North York Moors. Despite the new setting, July finds it impossible to shrug off her sister’s influence. Their psychic connection is such that she feels she’s losing her own virginity as she watches September have sex with a local boy on the beach. September’s is so much the dominant personality that July admits she feels like no more than “an appendage.”
Emotionally used and physically harmed, July starts to doubt her sanity. This was most evident for me in the scene where she goes up to a soggy-looking wall of Settle House and puts a hand through it, hearing “the rustle and gurgle of motion, the shuttering of thousands of wings.” (Presuming that’s a deliberate word choice and not a typo for shuddering.) Ants start pouring out of the wall, followed by a bird. But when she goes back to look at the wall later that day, it’s intact. I was reminded of The Haunting of Hill House, with its picture of a malevolent house preying on its inhabitants’ fears.
Sisters is a book that depends entirely on its late twist, so I shall say no more. About halfway through, I had a vague idea of what the surprise might be, but convinced myself I was wrong. “What if? … Nah, couldn’t be.” I wonder how early you’ll catch on. I adore the U.S. cover, but the UK cover contains more of a hint. I think I liked Everything Under, Johnson’s Booker-shortlisted debut novel, that little bit more, but my bottom line for that one goes for this, too: “As mesmerizing as it is unsettling.” Johnson is such a talented young author, and she also has the best author photo out there at the moment, a black-and-white image of her reflected in a train window.
“The Woman in the Window” (from Night-Gaunts and Other Tales of Suspense) by Joyce Carol Oates (2018)
Oates was inspired by Edward Hopper’s 1926 painting, Eleven A.M. (The striking cover image is from a photographic recreation by Richard Tuschman. Very faithful except for the fact that Hopper’s armchair was blue.) A secretary pushing 40 waits in the New York City morning light for her married lover to arrive. She’s tired of him using her and keeps a sharp pair of sewing shears under her seat cushion. We bounce between the two characters’ perspectives as their encounter nears. He’s tempted to strangle her. Will today be that day, or will she have the courage to plunge those shears into his neck before he gets a chance? In this room, it’s always 11 a.m. The tension is well maintained, but the punctuation kind of drove me crazy. I might try the rest of the book next year.
Have you been reading anything fantastical or spooky this October?
It’s my second time participating in one of Simon and Karen’s reading weeks (after the 1920 Club earlier this year). It was a boon that the two books I chose and borrowed from the library were of novella length. As in April, I managed one very enjoyable read and one slightly less successful skim.
The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon
This title was familiar to me because it was one of the texts the London secondary school students could choose to review for a special supplement of Wasafiri literary magazine when I did a few in-school sessions mentoring them in the basics of book reviewing in early 2014. (An experience that was totally outside my comfort zone and now feels like a lifetime away.)
Selvon, a Trinidadian journalist who settled in London in 1950, became known as the “father of black writing” in Britain. Moses Aloetta, an expert in London life after a few years here, lends a hand to his West Indian brethren who are fresh off the boat. As the book opens, he’s off to meet Henry Oliver, whom he soon dubs “Sir Galahad” for his naïve idealism. Moses warns Galahad that, although racism isn’t as blatant as in America, the British certainly aren’t thrilled about black people coming over and taking their jobs. Galahad reassures him that he’s a “born hustler.” We meet a series of other immigrants, like Cap and Bart, who move flats and change jobs frequently, drink and carouse, and “love woman too bad.”
I read and enjoyed the first 52 pages but skimmed from that point on because the patois, while initially captivating, got to be a bit much – I have a limited tolerance for dialect, and for episodic storytelling. I did love the sequences about Galahad catching pigeons for food and Cap following up with seagulls. There is a strong voice and sense of place here: if you want to experience London in the 1950s and see a rarer immigrant perspective, it would be a great choice. (Also recently reviewed by Liz and Annabel.)
“It have people living in London who don’t know what happening in the room next to them, far more the street, or how other people living. London is a place like that. It divide up in little worlds, and you stay in the world you belong to and you don’t know anything about what happening in the other ones except what you read in the papers.”
the nine-page stream-of-consciousness paragraph that starts “Oh what a time it is when summer come to the city and all them girls throw away heavy winter coat and wearing light summer frocks so you could see the legs and shapes that was hiding away from the cold blasts”
Night by Elie Wiesel
[Translated from the French by Marion Wiesel]
A short, harrowing memoir of concentration camp life. Eliezer Wiesel was a young teenager obsessed with the Kabbalah when his family was moved into a Romanian ghetto for Jews and then herded onto a transport train. Uniquely in my reading of Holocaust memoirs, Wiesel was not alone but had his father by his side for much of the time as they were shuttled between various concentration camps including Auschwitz and Buchenwald, from which he was liberated in April 1945. But if the presence of family started as a blessing in a life of privation and despair, it became more of a liability as his father fell ill with dysentery.
Like Viktor Frankl, Wiesel puts his survival down to luck: not once but several times, he and his father were sent to the left (towards the crematoria), but spared at the last minute. They endured infection, a stampede, a snowstorm and near-starvation. But their faith did not survive intact. “For God’s sake, where is God?” someone watching the hanging of a child burst out. “And from within me, I heard a voice answer: ‘Where He is? This is where—hanging here from this gallows.’” I’d heard that story before, twisted by Christian commentators into a “Hey, that’s like Jesus on the cross! God is right here suffering with us” message when actually it’s more “God is dead. God has abandoned us.”
From the preface to a new translation by his wife, I learned that the original Yiddish manuscript was even bleaker in outlook, with opening and closing passages that voice a cynical loss of trust in God and fellow man. “I am not so naïve as to believe that this slim volume will change the course of history or shake the conscience of the world. Books no longer have the power they once did. Those who kept silent yesterday will remain silent tomorrow” was the chilling final line of his first version. And yet Night has been taught in many high schools, and if it opens even a few students’ eyes – given the recent astonishing statistics about American ignorance of the scope of the Holocaust – it has been of value.
Wiesel won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. His acceptance speech is appended to the text of my 2008 Penguin paperback. In it he declares: “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must—at that moment—become the center of the universe.” Wise words with perennial relevance.
My five new releases for July include historical pandemic fiction, a fun contemporary story about a father-and-daughter burglar team, a new poetry collection from Carcanet Press, a lighthearted nature/travel book, and a poetic bereavement memoir about a violent death.
The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue
Donoghue’s last two novels, The Wonder and Akin, were big hits with me. Less than a year after the contemporary-set Akin, she’s back to a historical setting – and an uncannily pertinent pandemic theme – with her latest. In 1918, Julia Power is a nurse on a Dublin maternity ward. It’s Halloween and she is about to turn 30, making her a spinster for her day; she lives with her mute, shell-shocked veteran brother, Tim, and his pet magpie.
Because she’s already had “the grip” (influenza), she is considered immune and is one of a few staff members dealing with the flu-ridden expectant mothers in quarantine in her overcrowded hospital. Each patient serves as a type, and Donoghue whirls through all the possible complications of historical childbirth: stillbirth, obstructed labor, catheterization, forceps, blood loss, transfusion, maternal death, and so on.
It’s not for the squeamish, and despite my usual love of medical reads, I felt it was something of a box-ticking exercise, with too much telling about medical procedures and recent Irish history. Because of the limited time frame – just three days – the book is far too rushed. We simply don’t have enough time to get to know Julia through and through, despite her first-person narration; the final 20 pages, in particular, are so far-fetched and melodramatic it’s hard to believe in a romance you’d miss if you blinked. And the omission of speech marks just doesn’t work – it’s downright confusing with so many dialogue-driven scenes.
Donoghue must have been writing this well before Covid-19, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the publication was hurried forward to take advantage of the story’s newfound relevance. It shows: what I read in May and June felt like an unpolished draft, with threads prematurely tied up to meet a deadline. This was an extremely promising project that, for me, was let down by the execution, but it’s still a gripping read that I wouldn’t steer you away from if you find the synopsis appealing. (Some more spoiler-y thoughts here.)
Prescient words about pandemics:
“All over the globe … some flu patients are dropping like flies while others recover, and we can’t solve the puzzle, nor do a blasted thing about it. … There’s no rhyme or reason to who’s struck down.”
“Doctor Lynn went on, As for the authorities, I believe the epidemic will have run its course before they’ve agreed to any but the most feeble action. Recommending onions and eucalyptus oil! Like sending beetles to stop a steamroller.”
Why the title?
Flu comes from the phrase “influenza delle stelle” – medieval Italians thought that illness was fated by the stars. There’s also one baby born a “stargazer” (facing up) and some literal looking up at the stars in the book.
My thanks to Picador for the proof copy for review.
Other People’s Pets by R.L. Maizes
This is Maizes’ debut novel, after her 2019 short story collection We Love Anderson Cooper. Louise “La La” Fine and her father, Zev, share an unusual profession: While outwardly they are a veterinary student and a locksmith, respectively, for many years they broke into homes and sold the stolen goods. Despite close shaves, they’ve always gotten away with it – until now. When Zev is arrested, La La decides to return to her criminal ways just long enough to raise the money to post bail for him. But she doesn’t reckon on a few complications, like her father getting fed up with house arrest, her fiancé finding out about her side hustle, and her animal empathy becoming so strong that when she goes into a house she not only pilfers valuables but also cares for the needs of ailing pets inside.
Flashbacks to La La’s growing-up years, especially her hurt over her mother leaving, take this deeper than your average humorous crime caper. The way the plot branches means that for quite a while Zev and La La are separated, and I grew a bit weary of extended time in Zev’s company, but this was a great summer read – especially for animal lovers – that never lost my attention. The magic realism of the human‒pet connection is believable and mild enough not to turn off readers who avoid fantasy. Think The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley meets Hollow Kingdom.
My thanks to the author and Celadon Books for the free e-copy for review.
The Long Beds by Kate Miller
Here and there; now and then: the poems in Miller’s second collection enlarge such dichotomies by showcasing the interplay of the familiar and the foreign. A scientist struggles to transcribe birdsong, and a poppy opens in slow motion. “Flag” evokes the electric blue air and water of a Greek island, while “The Quarters” is set in the middle of the night in a French village. A few commissions, including “Waterloo Sunrise,” stick close to home in London or other southern England locales.
Various poems, including the multi-part “Album Without Photographs,” are about ancestor Muriel Miller’s experiences in India and Britain in the 1910s-20s. “Keepers of the States of Sleep and Wakefulness, fragment from A Masque,” patterned after “The Second Masque” by Ben Jonson, is an up-to-the-minute one written in April that names eight nurses from the night staff at King’s College Hospital (and the short YouTube film based on it is dedicated to all NHS nurses).
My two favorites were “Outside the Mind Shop,” in which urban foxes tear into bags of donations outside a charity shop one night while the speaker lies awake, and “Knapsack of Parting Gifts” a lovely elegy to a lost loved one. I spotted a lot of alliteration and assonance in the former, especially. Thematically, the collection is a bit scattered, but there are a lot of individual high points.
My thanks to Carcanet Press for the free e-copy for review.
Into the Tangled Bank: In Which Our Author Ventures Outdoors to Consider the British in Nature by Lev Parikian
In the same way that kids sometimes write their address by going from the specific to the cosmic (street, city, country, continent, hemisphere, planet, galaxy), this book, a delightfully Bryson-esque tour, moves ever outwards, starting with the author’s own home and garden and proceeding to take in his South London patch and his journeys around the British Isles before closing with the wonders of the night sky. By slowing down to appreciate what is all around us, he proposes, we might enthuse others to engage with nature.
With the zeal of a recent convert, he guides readers through momentous sightings and everyday moments of connection. As they were his gateway, many of these memories involve birds: looking for the year’s first swifts, trying to sketch a heron and realizing he’s never looked at one properly before, avoiding angry terns on the Farne Islands, ringing a storm petrel on Skokholm, and seeing white-tailed eagles on the Isle of Skye. He brings unique places to life, and pays tribute to British naturalists who paved the way for today’s nature-lovers by visiting the homes of Charles Darwin, Gilbert White, Peter Scott, and more.
I was on the blog tour for Parikian’s previous book, Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear?, in 2018. While the books are alike in levity (pun intended!), being full of self-deprecation and witty asides along with the astute observations, I think I enjoyed this one that little bit more for its all-encompassing approach to the experience of nature. I fully expect to see it on next year’s Wainwright Prize longlist (speaking of the Wainwright Prize, in yesterday’s post I correctly predicted four on the UK nature shortlist and two on the global conservation list!).
My thanks to Elliott & Thompson for the free copy for review.
Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir by Natasha Trethewey
Trethewey grew up in 1960s Mississippi with a Black mother and a white Canadian father, at a time when interracial marriage remained illegal in parts of the South. After her parents’ divorce, she and her mother, Gwen, moved to Georgia to start a new life, but her stepfather Joel was physically and psychologically abusive. Gwen’s murder opens and closes the book. Trethewey only returned to that Atlanta apartment on Memorial Drive after 30 years had passed. The blend of the objective (official testimonies and transcripts) and the subjective (interpreting photographs, and rendering dream sequences in poetic language) makes this a striking memoir, as delicate as it is painful. I recommend it highly to readers of Elizabeth Alexander and Dani Shapiro. (Full review forthcoming at Shiny New Books.)
My thanks to Bloomsbury for the proof copy for review.
I’m reading two more July releases, Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett (Corsair, 2 July; for Shiny New Books review), about a family taxidermy business in Florida, and The Liar’s Dictionary by Eley Williams (William Heinemann, 2 July), about an unusual dictionary being compiled in the Victorian period and digitized in the present day.
What July 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.
Even though we aren’t big on Valentine’s Day (we went out to a “Flavours of Africa” supper club last weekend and are calling it our celebration meal), for the past three years I’ve ended up doing themed posts featuring books that have “Love” or a similar word in the title or that consider romantic or familial love in some way. (Here are my 2017, 2018 and 2019 posts.) These seven selections, all of them fiction, sometimes end up being more bittersweet or ironic than straightforwardly romantic, but see what catches your eye anyway.
Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler (2014)
Four childhood friends from Little Wing, Wisconsin; four weddings (no funeral – though there are a couple of close calls along the way). Which bonds will last, and which will be strained to the breaking point? Henry is the family man, a dairy farmer who married his college sweetheart, Beth. Lee* is a musician, the closest thing to a rock star Little Wing will ever produce. He became famous for Shotgun Lovesongs, a bestselling album he recorded by himself in a refurbished chicken coop for $600, and now lives in New York City and hobnobs with celebrities. Kip gave up being a Chicago commodities trader to return to Little Wing and spruce up the old mill into an events venue. Ronny lived for alcohol and rodeos until a drunken accident ended his career and damaged his brain.
The friends have their fair share of petty quarrels and everyday crises, but the big one hits when one guy confesses to another that he’s in love with his wife. Male friendship still feels like a rarer subject for fiction, but you don’t have to fear any macho stylings here. The narration rotates between the four men, but Beth also has a couple of sections, including the longest one in the book. This is full of nostalgia and small-town (especially winter) atmosphere, but also brimming with the sort of emotion that gets a knot started in the top of your throat. All the characters are wondering whether they’ve made the right decisions. There are a lot of bittersweet moments, but also some comic ones. The entire pickled egg sequence, for instance, is a riot even as it skirts the edge of tragedy.
*Apparently based on Bon Iver (Justin Vernon), whose first album was a similarly low-budget phenomenon recorded in Wisconsin. I’d never heard any Bon Iver before and expected something like the more lo-fi guy-with-guitar tracks on the Garden State soundtrack. My husband has a copy of the band’s 2011 self-titled album, so I listened to that and found that it has a very different sound: expansive, trance-like, lots of horns and strings. (But NB, the final track is called “Beth/Rest.”) For something more akin to what Lee might play, try this video.
Mr Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo (2013)
Barry came to London from Antigua and has been married for 50 years to Carmel, the mother of his two adult daughters. For years Carmel has been fed up with his drinking and gallivanting, assuming he has lots of women on the side. Little does she know that Barry’s best friend, Morris, has also been his lover for 60 years. Morris divorced his own wife long ago, and he’s keen for Barry to leave Carmel and set up home with him, maybe even get a civil partnership. When Carmel goes back to Antigua for her father’s funeral, it’s Barry’s last chance to live it up as a bachelor and pluck up his courage to tell his wife the truth.
Barry’s voice is a delight: a funny mixture of patois and formality; slang and Shakespeare quotes. Cleverly, Evaristo avoids turning Carmel into a mute victim by giving her occasional chapters of her own (“Song of…” versus Barry’s “The Art of…” chapters), written in the second person and in the hybrid poetry style readers of Girl, Woman, Other will recognize. From these sections we learn that Carmel has her own secrets and an equal determination to live a more authentic life. Although it’s sad that these two characters have spent so long deceiving each other and themselves, this is an essentially comic novel that pokes fun at traditional mores and includes several glittering portraits.
Mariette in Ecstasy by Ron Hansen (1991)
Set in an upstate New York convent mostly in 1906–7, this is a story of religious fervor, doubt and jealousy. Mariette Baptiste is a 17-year-old postulant; her (literal) sister, 20 years older, is the prioress here. Mariette is given to mystical swoons and, just after the Christmas mass, also develops the stigmata. Her fellow nuns are divided: some think Mariette is a saint who is bringing honor to their organization; others believe she has fabricated her calling and is vain enough to have inflicted the stigmata on herself. A priest and a doctor both examine her, but ultimately it’s for the sisters to decide whether they are housing a miracle or a fraud.
The short sections are headed by the names of feasts or saints’ days, and often open with choppy descriptive phrases that didn’t strike me as quite right for the time period (versus Hansen has also written a Western, in which such language would seem appropriate). Although the novella is slow to take off – the stigmata don’t arrive until after the halfway point – it’s a compelling study of the psychology of a religious body, including fragments from others’ testimonies for or against Mariette. I could imagine it working well as a play.
Bizarre Romance by Audrey Niffenegger and Eddie Campbell (2018)
Most of these pieces originated as text-only stories by Niffenegger and were later adapted into comics by Campbell. By the time they got married, they had been collaborating long-distance for a while. Some of the stories incorporate fairies, monsters, ghosts and other worlds. A young woman on her way to a holiday party travels via a mirror to another land where she is queen; a hapless bar fly trades one fairy mistress for another; Arthur Conan Doyle’s father sketches fairies in an asylum; a middle-aged woman on a cruise decides to donate her remaining years to her aged father.
My favorite of the fantastical ones was “Jakob Wywialowski and the Angels,” a story of a man dealing with an angel infestation in the attic; it first appeared as a holiday story on the Amazon homepage in 2003 and is the oldest piece here, with the newest dating from 2015. I also liked “Thursdays, Six to Eight p.m.,” in which a man goes to great lengths to assure two hours of completely uninterrupted reading per week. Strangely, my two favorite pieces were the nonfiction ones: “Digging up the Cat,” about burying her frozen pet with its deceased sibling; and “The Church of the Funnies,” a secular sermon about her history with Catholicism and art that Niffenegger delivered at Manchester Cathedral as part of the 2014 Manchester Literary Festival.
The Nine-Chambered Heart by Janice Pariat (2017)
I find second-person narration intriguing, and I like the idea of various people’s memories of a character being combined to create a composite portrait (previous books that do this that I have enjoyed are The Life and Death of Sophie Stark and Kitchens of the Great Midwest). The protagonist here, never named, is a young Indian writer who travels widely, everywhere from the Himalayas to Tuscany. She also studies and then works in London, where she meets and marries a fellow foreigner. We get the sense that she is restless, eager for adventure and novelty: “You seem to be a woman to whom something is always about to happen.”
An issue with the book is that most of the nine viewpoints belong to her lovers, which would account for the title but makes their sections seem repetitive. By contrast, I most enjoyed the first chapter, by her art teacher, because it gives us the earliest account of her (at age 12) and so contributes to a more rounded picture of her as opposed to just the impulsive, flirtatious twentysomething hooking up on holidays and at a writers’ residency. I also wish Pariat had further explored the main character’s relationship with her parents. Still, I found this thoroughly absorbing and read it in a few days, steaming through over 100 pages on one.
Kinds of Love by May Sarton (1970)
Christina and Cornelius Chapman have been “summer people,” visiting Willard, New Hampshire each summer for decades, but in the town’s bicentennial year they decide to commit to it full-time. They are seen as incomers by the tough mountain people, but Cornelius’s stroke and their adjustments to his disability and older age have given them the resilience to make it through a hard winter. Sarton lovingly builds up pictures of the townsfolk: Ellen Comstock, Christina’s gruff friend; Nick, Ellen’s mentally troubled son, who’s committed to protecting the local flora and fauna; Jane Tuttle, an ancient botanist; and so on. Willard is clearly a version of Sarton’s beloved Nelson, NH. She’s exploring love for the land as well as love between romantic partners and within families.
It’s a meandering novel pleasant for its atmosphere and its working out of philosophies of life through conversation and rumination, but Part Three, “A Stranger Comes to Willard,” feels like a misstep. A college dropout turns up at Ellen’s door after his car turns over in a blizzard. Before he’s drafted into the Vietnam War, he has time to fall in love with Christina’s 15-year-old granddaughter, Cathy. There may only be a few years between the teens, but this still didn’t sit well with me.
I liked how each third-person omniscient chapter ends with a passage from Christina’s journal, making things personal and echoing the sort of self-reflective writing for which Sarton became most famous. The book could have been closer to 300 pages instead of over 460, though.
The Dearly Beloved by Cara Wall (2019)
An elegant debut novel about two couples thrown together in 1960s New York City when the men are hired as co-pastors of a floundering Presbyterian church. Nearly the first half is devoted to the four main characters’ backstories and how each couple met. It’s a slow, subtle, quiet story (so much so that I only read the first half and skimmed the second), and I kept getting Charles and James, and Lily and Nan confused.
So here’s the shorthand: Charles is the son of an atheist Harvard professor and plans to study history until a lecture gets him thinking seriously about faith. Lily has closed herself off to life since she lost her parents in a car accident; though she eventually accedes to Charles’s romantic advances, she warns him she won’t bend where it comes to religion. James grew up in a poor Chicago household with an alcoholic father, while Nan is a Southern preacher’s daughter who goes up to Illinois to study music at Wheaton.
James doesn’t have a calling per se, but is passionate about social justice. As co-pastor, his focus will be on outreach and community service, while Charles’s will be on traditional teaching and ministry duties. Nan is desperate for a baby but keeps having miscarriages; Lily has twins, one of whom is autistic (early days for that diagnosis; doctors thought the baby should be institutionalized). Although Lily remains prickly, Nan and James’s friendship is a lifeline for them. The “dearly beloved” term thus applies outside of marriage as well, encompassing all the ties that sustain us – in the last line, Lily thinks, “these friends would forever be her stitches, her scaffold, her ballast, her home.”