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.
Brother by David Chariandy
Canadian author David Chariandy’s second novel was longlisted for the Giller Prize and won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. Narrator Michael and his older brother Francis grew up in the early 1980s in The Park, a slightly dodgy area of Toronto. Their single mother, Ruth, is a Trinidadian immigrant who worked long shifts as a cleaner to support the family after their father left early on. From the first pages we know that Francis is an absence, but don’t find out why until nearly the end of the book. The short novel is split between the present, as Michael and Ruth try to proceed with normal life, and vignettes from the past, culminating in the incident that took Francis from them 10 years ago.
The title is literal, of course, but also street slang for friends or comrades. Michael looked up to street-smart Francis, who fell in with a gang of “losers and neighbourhood schemers” and got expelled from school at age 18. Francis tried to teach his little brother how to carry himself: “You’ve got to be cooler about things, and not put everything out on your face all the time.” Yet the more we hear about Francis staying with friends at a barber shop and getting involved with preparations for a local rap DJ competition, the more his ideal of aloof masculinity starts to sound ironic, if not downright false.
I came into the book with pretty much no idea of what it was about. It didn’t fit my narrow expectations of Canadian fiction (sweeping prairie stories or hip city ones); instead, it reminded me of The Corner by David Simon, We, the Animals by Justin Torres, and Another Day in the Death of America by Gary Younge. It undoubtedly gives a powerful picture of immigrant poverty and complicated grief. Yet the measured prose somehow left me cold.
Brother was published in the UK by Bloomsbury on March 8th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
Sharp by Michelle Dean
“People have trouble with women who aren’t ‘nice,’ … who have the courage to sometimes be wrong in public.” In compiling 10 mini-biographies of twentieth-century women writers and cultural critics who weren’t afraid to be unpopular, Dean (herself a literary critic) celebrates their feminist achievements and insists “even now … we still need more women like this.” Her subjects include Rebecca West, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Joan Didion, Nora Ephron and Renata Adler. She draws on the women’s correspondence and published works as well as biographies to craft concise portraits of their personal and professional lives.
You’ll get the most out of this book if a) you know nothing about these women and experience this as a taster session; or b) you’re already interested in at least a few of them and are keen to learn more. I found the Dorothy Parker and Hannah Arendt chapters most interesting because, though I was familiar with their names, I knew very little about their lives or works. Parker’s writing was pulled from a slush pile in 1914 and she soon replaced P.G. Wodehouse as Vanity Fair’s drama critic. Her famous zingers masked her sadness over her dead parents and addict husband. “This was her gift,” Dean writes: “to shave complex emotions down to a witticism that hints at bitterness without wearing it on the surface.”
Unfortunately, such perceptive lines are few and far between, and the book as a whole lacks a thesis. Chance meetings between figures sometimes provide transitions, but the short linking chapters are oddly disruptive. In one, by arguing that Zora Neale Hurston would have done a better job covering a lynching than Rebecca West, Dean only draws attention to the homogeneity of her subjects: all white and middle-class; mostly Jewish New Yorkers. I knew too much about Sontag and Didion to find their chapters interesting, but enjoyed reading more about Ephron. I’ll keep the book to refer back to when I finally get around to reading Mary McCarthy. It has a terrific premise, but I found myself asking what the point was.
Sharp was published in the UK by Fleet on May 3rd. My thanks to the publisher for a proof copy for review.
The Valley at the Centre of the World by Malachy Tallack
I’d previously enjoyed Malachy Tallack’s two nonfiction books, Sixty Degrees North and The Undiscovered Islands. In his debut novel he returns to Shetland, where he spent some of his growing-up and early adult years, to sketch out a small community and the changes it undergoes over about ten months. Sandy has lived in this valley for three years with Emma, but she left him the day before the action opens. Unsure what to do now, he sticks around to help her father, David, butcher the lambs. After their 90-year-old neighbor, Maggie, dies, Sandy takes over her croft. Other valley residents include Ryan and Jo, a troubled young couple; Terry, a single dad; and Alice, who moved here after her husband’s death and is writing a human and natural history of the place, The Valley at the Centre of the World. (This strand reminded me of Annalena McAfee’s Hame.)
The prose is reminiscent of the American plain-speaking style of books set in the South or Appalachia – Richard Ford, Walker Percy, Ron Rash and the like. We dive deep into this tight-knit community and its secrets. It’s an offbeat blend of primitive and modern: the minimalism of the crofting life contrasts with the global reach of Facebook, for instance. When Ryan and Jo host a housewarming party, all the characters are brought together at about the halfway point, and some relationships start to shift. Overall, though, this is a slow and meandering story. Don’t expect any huge happenings, just some touching reunions and terrific scenes of manual labor. David is my favorite character, an almost biblical patriarch who seems “to live in a kind of eternal present, looking neither forward nor backward but always, somehow, towards the land.”
Tallack has taken a risk by writing in phonetic Shetland dialect. David’s speech is particularly impenetrable. The dialect does rather intrude; the expository passages are a relief. I’ve been to Shetland once, in 2006. This quiet story of belonging versus being an outsider is one to reread there some years down the line: I reckon I’d appreciate it more on location.
The Valley at the Centre of the World was published by Canongate on May 3rd. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
Here are 30 books that are on my radar for the months of January through June. This is by no means a full inventory of what’s coming out (or even of what I have available through NetGalley and Edelweiss); instead, think of it as a preview of the books I actually intend to read. This time my list seems strangely skewed towards plants (the covers too), with a couple of bird- and medical-themed reads in there too. Also: two feminist group biographies, plenty of historical fiction, some short stories, a bit of true crime, and a fair few memoirs. I hope you’ll find a book or two here to tempt you.
(The descriptions below are generally adapted from the publisher blurbs on Goodreads, NetGalley or Edelweiss. Some of these I already have access to in print or galley form; others I’m still on the look-out for. The list is in chronological order by first publication date; if multiple books release on the same day they are in alphabetical order by author surname.)
On the Bright Side: The New Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen [Jan. 11, Michael Joseph (Penguin UK)]: I loved the first Hendrik Groen novel back in 2016 (reviewed here); this promises more of the same witty, bittersweet stories about elderly Dutch eccentrics. “Chaos will ensue as 85-year-old Hendrik Groen is determined to grow old with dignity … He dreams of escaping the confines of his care home and practising hairpin turns on his mobility scooter.” (NetGalley download)
Writer’s Luck: A Memoir: 1976–1991 by David Lodge [Jan. 11, Harvill Secker]: I reviewed the first volume of Lodge’s memoirs, Quite a Good Time to Be Born, for Nudge back in 2015, so I’m eager to continue his life story in this second installment. “Readers of Lodge’s novels will be fascinated by the insights this book gives—not only into his professional career but also more personal experience. The main focus, however, is on writing as a vocation.”
Brass: A Novel by Xhenet Aliu (for BookBrowse review) [Jan. 23, Random House]: “A waitress at the Betsy Ross Diner, Elsie hopes her nickel-and-dime tips will add up to a new life. Then she meets Bashkim, … who left Albania to chase his dreams. … Told in equally gripping parallel narratives with biting wit and grace, Brass announces a fearless new voice with a timely, tender, and quintessentially American story.” (NetGalley download)
Heal Me: In Search of a Cure by Julia Buckley [Jan. 25, Weidenfeld & Nicolson]: The “search for a cure [for chronic pain] takes her on a global quest, exploring the boundaries between science, psychology and faith with practitioners on the fringes of conventional, traditional and alternative medicine. Rais[es] vital questions about the modern medical system … and the struggle to retain a sense of self.” (print review copy)
The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar [Jan. 25, Harvill Secker]: “A spellbinding story of curiosity, love and obsession from an astonishing new talent. One September evening in 1785, the merchant Jonah Hancock hears urgent knocking on his front door. One of his captains is waiting eagerly on the step. He has sold Jonah’s ship for what appears to be a mermaid.” Comes recommended by Elle. (NetGalley download)
Owl Sense by Miriam Darlington [Feb. 6, Guardian Faber]: Darlington’s previous nature book, Otter Country, was stunning. Here, “Darlington sets out to tell a new story. Her fieldwork begins with wild encounters in the British Isles and takes her to the frosted borders of the Arctic. In her watching and deep listening to the natural world, she cleaves myth from reality and will change the way you think of this magnificent creature.”
The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place by Alan Bradley [Feb. 8, Orion]: I’ve read all eight Flavia de Luce novels so far, which is worth remarking on because I don’t otherwise read mysteries and I usually find child narrators annoying. There’s just something delicious about this series set in 1950s England. This one will be particularly interesting because a life-changing blow came at the end of the previous book.
A Black Fox Running by Brian Carter [Feb. 8, Bloomsbury UK]: “A beautiful lost classic of nature writing” from 1981 that “sits alongside Tarka the Otter, Watership Down,” et al. “This is the story of Wulfgar, the dark-furred fox of Dartmoor, and of his nemesis, Scoble the trapper, in the seasons leading up to the pitiless winter of 1947. As breathtaking in its descriptions of the natural world as it is perceptive in its portrayal of damaged humanity.” Championed by Melissa Harrison.
White Houses by Amy Bloom [Feb. 13, Random House]: The story of Lorena Hickock’s friendship/affair with Eleanor Roosevelt. “From Washington, D.C. to Hyde Park, from a little white house on Long Island to an apartment on Manhattan’s Washington Square, Amy Bloom’s new novel moves elegantly through fascinating places and times, written in compelling prose and with emotional depth, wit, and acuity.” (Edelweiss download)
The Italian Teacher by Tom Rachman [Feb. 20, Riverrun/Viking]: I’m a huge fan of Rachman’s, especially his previous novel, The Rise & Fall of Great Powers. “1955: The artists are gathering together for a photograph. In one of Rome’s historic villas, a party is bright with near-genius, shaded by the socialite patrons of their art. … Rachman displays a nuanced understanding of twentieth-century art and its demons, vultures and chimeras.” (Edelweiss download)
The Sea Beast Takes a Lover: Stories by Michael Andreasen [Feb. 27, Dutton (Penguin Group)]: “Romping through the fantastic with big-hearted ease, these stories cut to the core of what it means to navigate family, faith, and longing, whether in the form of a lovesick kraken slowly dragging a ship of sailors into the sea [or] a small town euthanizing its grandfathers in a time-honored ritual.” (NetGalley download)
The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist: A True Story of Injustice in the American South by Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington [Feb. 27, PublicAffairs]: “After two three-year-old girls were raped and murdered in rural Mississippi, law enforcement pursued and convicted two innocent men, [who] spent a combined thirty years in prison before finally being exonerated in 2008. Meanwhile, the real killer remained free.”
The Gospel of Trees: A Memoir by Apricot Irving [March 6, Simon & Schuster]: “Apricot Irving grew up as a missionary’s daughter in Haiti—a country easy to sensationalize but difficult to understand. Her father was an agronomist, a man who hiked alone into the hills … to preach the gospel of trees in a deforested but resilient country. Her mother and sisters, meanwhile, spent most of their days in the confines of the hospital compound they called home. As a child, this felt like paradise; as a teenager, the same setting felt like a prison.”
The Little Book of Feminist Saints by Julia Pierpont (illus. by Manjitt Thapp) [March 6, Random House]: This project reminds me a lot of A Glorious Freedom with its focus on women’s achievements and the full-color portraits of the subjects. I’ve just opened the file and the first two pieces give you a sense of the range that will be covered: Artemisia Gentileschi and Michelle Obama! (Edelweiss download)
Orchid Summer: In Search of the Wildest Flowers of the British Isles by Jon Dunn [March 8, Bloomsbury UK]: Dunn’s were my favorite contributions to the Wildlife Trusts’ Seasons anthologies (e.g. Winter). I’ve also enjoyed following his botanical travels on Twitter. “From the chalk downs of the south coast of England to the heathery moorland of the Shetland Isles, and from the holy island of Lindisfarne in the east to the Atlantic frontier of western Ireland, Orchid Summer is a journey into Britain and Ireland’s most beautiful corners.”
Anatomy of a Miracle by Jonathan Miles [March 13, Hogarth]: Miles’s previous novel, Want Not, is one of the books I most wish I’d written. “Rendered paraplegic after a traumatic event, Cameron Harris has been living his new existence alongside his sister, Tanya, in their battered Biloxi, Mississippi neighborhood where only half the houses made it through Katrina. … [A] stunning exploration of faith, science, mystery, and the meaning of life.”
Happiness by Aminatta Forna [March 16, Grove Atlantic]: “London. A fox makes its way across Waterloo Bridge. The distraction causes two pedestrians to collide—Jean, an American studying the habits of urban foxes, and Attila, a Ghanaian psychiatrist there to deliver a keynote speech. … Forna’s unerring powers of observation show how in the midst of the rush of a great city lie numerous moments of connection.” (NetGalley download)
The Long Forgotten by David Whitehouse [March 22, Pan Macmillan/Picador]: “When the black box flight recorder of a plane that went missing 30 years ago is found at the bottom of the sea, a young man named Dove begins to remember a past that isn’t his. The memories belong to a rare flower hunter in 1980s New York, whose search led him around the world and ended in tragedy.” (NetGalley download)
The Parentations by Kate Mayfield (to review for Shiny New Books?) [March 29, Oneworld]: From editor Jenny Parrott: “a stunning speculative historical novel … The story spans 200 years across Iceland and London, as a strange boy who can never die is surrounded by a motley collection of individuals, each with vested interests in his welfare. … [S]ome of the most extraordinary literary prose I’ve read during a thirty-year career.”
Things Bright and Beautiful by Anbara Salam [April 5, Fig Tree]: “1954, the South Pacific islands. When Beatriz Hanlon agreed to accompany her missionary husband Max to a remote island, she knew there would be challenges. But it isn’t just the heat and the damp and the dirt. There are more insects than she could ever have imagined, and the islanders are strangely hostile. [Then] an unexpected … guest arrives, and the couple’s claustrophobic existence is stretched to breaking point.” Sounds like Euphoria by Lily King. (NetGalley download)
Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion by Michelle Dean [April 10, Grove Press]: “Dorothy Parker, Rebecca West, Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Pauline Kael, Joan Didion, Nora Ephron, Renata Adler, and Janet Malcolm—these brilliant women’s lives intertwine as they cut through the cultural and intellectual history of America in the twentieth century, arguing as fervently with each other as they did with the sexist attitudes of the men who often undervalued their work as critics and essayists.”
The Plant Messiah: Adventures in Search of the World’s Rarest Species by Carlos Magdalena [April 10, Doubleday]: “Carlos Magdalena is not your average horticulturist. He’s a man on a mission to save the world’s most endangered plants. … [He] takes readers from the Amazon to the jungles of Mauritius. … Back in the lab, we watch as he develops groundbreaking, left-field techniques for rescuing species from extinction, encouraging them to propagate and thrive once again.” (NetGalley download)
The Man on the Middle Floor by Elizabeth S. Moore (for blog tour) [April 12, RedDoor Publishing]: “Despite living in the same three-flat house in the suburbs of London, the residents are strangers to one another. … They have lived their lives separately, until now, when an unsolved murder and the man on the middle floor connect them. … It questions whether society is meeting the needs of the fast growing autistic section of society.” (print ARC)
Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading by Lucy Mangan [April 24, Random House UK]: “This is a love letter to the joys of childhood reading, full of enthusiasm and wit, telling the colorful story of our best-loved children’s books, the extraordinary people who created them, and the thousand subtle ways they shape our lives.” (NetGalley download)
You Think It, I’ll Say It: Stories by Curtis Sittenfeld [April 24, Random House]: I would read anything Curtis Sittenfeld wrote; American Wife is still one of my absolute favorites. “The theme that unites these stories … is how even the cleverest people tend to misread others, and how much we all deceive ourselves. Sharp and tender, funny and wise, this collection shows [her] knack for creating real, believable characters that spring off the page.”
The Valley at the Centre of the World by Malachy Tallack [May 3, Canongate]: I’ve reviewed and enjoyed both of Tallack’s previous nonfiction works, including The Un-Discovered Islands. “Set against the rugged west coast of Shetland, in a community faced with extinction, [this] is a novel about love and grief, family and inheritance, rapid change and an age-old way of life. … [T]hese islanders must decide: what is left of us when the day’s work is done, the children grown, and all our choices have been made?”
Shapeshifters: A Journey through the Changing Human Body by Gavin Francis [May 8, Basic Books]: “Francis considers the inevitable changes all of our bodies undergo—such as birth, puberty, and death, but also … those that only some of our bodies will: like getting a tattoo, experiencing psychosis, suffering anorexia, being pregnant, or undergoing a gender transition. … [E]ach event becomes an opportunity to explore the meaning of identity.”
The Ensemble by Aja Gabel [May 15, Riverhead]: An “addictive debut novel about four young friends navigating the cutthroat world of music and their complex relationships with each other, as ambition, passion, and love intertwine over the course of their lives.”
Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear? by Lev Parikian (for blog tour) [May 17, Unbound]: “A lapsed and hopeless birdwatcher’s attempt to see 200 birds in a year. But it’s not just about birds. It’s about family, music, nostalgia; hearing the stories of strangers; the nature of obsession and obsession with nature.”
The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai [June 19, Viking]: I loved both of Makkai’s previous novels and have her short story collection on my Kindle. “Fiona is in Paris tracking down her estranged daughter, who disappeared into a cult. While staying with an old friend, a famous photographer …, she finds herself finally grappling with the devastating ways the AIDS crisis affected her life and her relationship with her daughter.” (Edelweiss download)
Other lists of enticing 2018 releases that might give you some ideas:
Guardian (UK, nonfiction)
Halfman, Halfbook (UK, mostly science/nature and history)
Parchment Girl (mostly nonfiction)