Fairy Tales, Outlaws, Experimental Prose: Three More January Novels
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?
Some Bookish Pet Peeves
Happy Feast of the Inauguration!
This is a feast day we made up simply because 2021 needs as many excuses for celebration as it can get. (Our next one will be in mid-February: Victoriana Fest, to celebrate the birthdays of a few of our Victorian heroes – Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, and Abraham Lincoln. Expect traditional, stodgy foods.) Later tonight we’ll be having an all-American menu of veggie burgers, sweet potato fries, random Californian beers we found at Waitrose, and pecan pie with ice cream. And Vice President Kamala Harris’s autobiography is on hold for me at the library to pick up later this month.
Since I still don’t have any new book reviews ready (though I have now finished seven books in 2021, which is something), here’s some more filler content based on annoying book traits I’ve been reminded of recently.
Some of My Bookish Pet Peeves
Long excerpts from other books, in the text or as epigraphs
I often skip these. I am reading this book to hear from you, the author, not the various philosophers and poets you admire. I want to learn from your expertise and thought processes, not someone else’s.
Exceptions: Tim Dee’s books are good examples since he weaves in copious quotations and allusions while still being eloquent in his own right. Emily Rapp’s The Still Point of the Turning World includes a lot of quotes, especially from poems, but I was okay with that because it was true to her experience of traditional thinking failing her in the face of her son’s impending death. Her two bereavement memoirs are thus almost like commonplace books on grief.
Long passages in italics
I sometimes see these used to indicate flashbacks in historical fiction. They are such a pain to read. I am very likely to skim these sections, or skip them altogether.
An exception: Thus far, the secondary storyline about the mice in The Charmed Wife by Olga Grushin, delivered all in italics, has been more compelling than the main storyline.
Huge jumps forward in time
These generally feel unnatural and sudden. Surely there’s a way to avoid them? And if they are truly necessary, I’d rather they were denoted by a new section with a time/date stamp. I’m not talking about alternating storylines from different time periods, as these are usually well signaled by a change of voice, but, e.g., a chapter picking up 15 years in the future.
Not being upfront about the fact that a book is ghostwritten
I have come to expect ghostwriters for political memoirs (Barack Obama’s being a rare exception), but in the last two years I’ve also come across a botanist’s memoir and a surgeon’s memoir that were ghostwritten but not announced as such – with the former I only found out via the acknowledgments at the end, and with the latter it was hidden away in the copyright information. I’d rather the title page came right out and said “by So and So” with “Ghostwriter Name.” (Anyone know whether Kamala had a ghostwriter?)
Matte covers or dustjackets that show fingerprints
Back in 2017 I wrote a whole post on the physical book features that I love or loathe. It was a good way of eliciting strong opinions from blog readers! (For example, some people hate deckle edge, whereas I love it.)
Something that bothers other readers but doesn’t faze me at all is a lack of speech marks, or the use of alternative indicators like dashes or indented paragraphs. I’m totally used to this in literary fiction. I even kind of like it. I’m also devoted to rarer forms of narration like the second person and the first person plural that might be a turn-off for some.
No, or very few, paragraphs, chapters, or other section breaks
How am I supposed to know where to stop reading and put my bookmark in?!
Whom is dead
Not just in books; in written English in general. And, even if this is inevitable, it still makes me sad.
Any pet peeves making you a grumpy reader these days?
Recent Reviews for Shiny New Books: Poetry, Fiction and Nature Writing
First up was a rundown of my five favorite poetry releases of the year, starting with…
Dearly by Margaret Atwood
Dearly is a treasure trove, twice the length of the average poetry collection and rich with themes of memory, women’s rights, environmental crisis, and bereavement. It is reflective and playful, melancholy and hopeful. I can highly recommend it, even to non-poetry readers, because it is led by its themes; although there are layers to explore, these poems are generally about what they say they’re about, and more material than abstract. Alliteration, repetition, internal and slant rhymes, and neologisms will delight language lovers and make the book one to experience aloud as well as on paper. Atwood’s imagery ranges from the Dutch masters to The Wizard of Oz. Her frame of reference is as wide as the array of fields she’s written in over the course of over half a century.
I’ll let you read the whole article to discover my four runners-up. (They’ll also be appearing in my fiction & poetry best-of post next week.)
Next was one of my most anticipated reads of the second half of 2020. (I was drawn to it by Susan’s review.)
Artifact by Arlene Heyman
Lottie’s story is a case study of the feminist project to reconcile motherhood and career (in this case, scientific research). In the generic more than the scientific meaning of the word, the novel is indeed about artifacts – as in works by Doris Lessing, Penelope Lively and Carol Shields, the goal is to unearth the traces of a woman’s life. The long chapters are almost like discrete short stories. Heyman follows Lottie through years of schooling and menial jobs, through a broken marriage and a period of single parenthood, and into a new relationship. There were aspects of the writing that didn’t work for me and I found the book as a whole more intellectually noteworthy than engaging as a story. A piercing – if not notably subtle – story of women’s choices and limitations in the latter half of the twentieth century. I’d recommend it to fans of Forty Rooms and The Female Persuasion.
Finally, I contributed a dual review of two works of nature writing that would make perfect last-minute Christmas gifts for outdoorsy types and/or would be perfect bedside books for reading along with the English seasons into a new year.
The Stubborn Light of Things by Melissa Harrison
This collects five and a half years’ worth of Harrison’s monthly Nature Notebook columns for The Times. The book falls into two rough halves, “City” and “Country”: initially based in South London, Harrison moved to the Suffolk countryside in late 2017. In the grand tradition of Gilbert White, she records when she sees her firsts of a year. Often, she need look no further than her own home and garden. I appreciated how hands-on and practical she is: She’s always picking up dead animals to clean up and display the skeletons, and she never misses an opportunity to tell readers about ways they can create habitat for wildlife (e.g. bat and bird nest boxes that can be incorporated into buildings) and get involved in citizen science projects like moth recording.
The book’s final two entries were set during the UK’s first COVID-19 lockdown in spring 2020 – a notably fine season. This inspired me to review it alongside…
The Consolation of Nature by Michael McCarthy, Jeremy Mynott and Peter Marren
A tripartite diary of the coronavirus spring kept by three veteran nature writers based in southern England (all of them familiar to me through their involvement with New Networks for Nature and its annual Nature Matters conferences). The entries, of a similar length to Harrison’s, are grouped into chronological chapters from 21 March to 31 May. While the authors focus in these 10 weeks on their wildlife sightings – red kites, kestrels, bluebells, fungal fairy rings and much more – they also log government advice and death tolls. They achieve an ideal balance between current events and the timelessness of nature, enjoyed all the more in 2020’s unprecedented spring because of a dearth of traffic noise.
Classics and Doorstoppers of the Month
April was something of a lackluster case for my two monthly challenges: two slightly disappointing books were partially read (and partially skimmed), and two more that promise to be more enjoyable were not finished in time to review in full.
Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor (1952)
When Hazel Motes, newly released from the Army, arrives back in Tennessee, his priorities are to get a car and to get laid. In contrast to his preacher grandfather, “a waspish old man who had ridden over three counties with Jesus hidden in his head like a stinger,” he founds “The Church Without Christ.” Heaven, hell and sin are meaningless concepts for Haze; “I don’t have to run from anything because I don’t believe in anything,” he declares. But his vociferousness belies his professed indifference. He’s particularly invested in exposing Asa Hawkes, a preacher who vowed to blind himself, but things get complicated when Haze is seduced by Hawkes’s 15-year-old illegitimate daughter, Sabbath – and when his groupie, eighteen-year-old Enoch Emery, steals a shrunken head from the local museum and decides it’s just the new Jesus this anti-religion needs. O’Connor is known for her very violent and very Catholic vision of life. In a preface she refers to this, her debut, as a comic novel, but I found it bizarre and unpleasant and only skimmed the final two-thirds after reading the first 55 pages.
In progress: Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee (1959) – I love to read ‘on location’ when I can, so this was a perfect book to start during a weekend when I visited Stroud, Gloucestershire for the first time.* Lee was born in Stroud and grew up there and in the neighboring village of Slad. I’m on page 65 and it’s been a wonderfully evocative look at a country childhood. The voice reminds me slightly of Gerald Durrell’s in his autobiographical trilogy.
*We spent one night in Stroud on our way home from a short holiday in Devon so that I could see The Bookshop Band and member Beth Porter’s other band, Marshes (formerly Beth Porter and The Availables) live at the Prince Albert pub. It was a terrific night of new songs and old favorites. I also got to pick up my copy of the new Marshes album, When the Lights Are Bright, which I supported via an Indiegogo campaign, directly from Beth.
The Resurrection of Joan Ashby by Cherise Wolas (2017)
Joan Ashby’s short story collection won a National Book Award when she was 21 and was a bestseller for a year; her second book, a linked story collection, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. In contravention of her childhood promise to devote herself to her art, she marries Martin Manning, an eye surgeon, and is soon a mother of two stuck in the Virginia suburbs. Two weeks before Daniel’s birth, she trashes a complete novel. Apart from a series of “Rare Babies” stories that never circulate outside the family, she doesn’t return to writing until both boys are in full-time schooling. When younger son Eric quits school at 13 to start a computer programming business, she shoves an entire novel in a box in the garage and forgets about it.
Queasy feelings of regret over birthing parasitic children – Daniel turns out to be a fellow writer (of sorts) whose decisions sap Joan’s strength – fuel the strong Part I, which reminded me somewhat of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook in that the protagonist is trying, and mostly failing, to reconcile the different parts of her identity. However, this debut novel is indulgently long, and I lost interest by Part III, in which Joan travels to Dharamshala, India to reassess her relationships and career. I skimmed most of the last 200 pages, and also skipped pretty much all of the multi-page excerpts from Joan’s fiction. At a certain point it became hard to sympathize with Joan’s decisions, and the narration grew overblown (“arc of tragedy,” “tortured irony,” etc.) [Read instead: Forty Rooms by Olga Grushin]
Page count: 523
In progress: Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile by Alice Jolly, a 613-page historical novel in verse narrated by a semi-literate servant from Stroud, then a cloth mill town. I’d already committed to read it for a Nudge/New Books magazine review, having had my interest redoubled by its shortlisting for the Rathbones Folio Prize, but it was another perfect choice for a weekend that involved a visit to that part of Gloucestershire. Once you’re in the zone, and so long as you can guarantee no distractions, this is actually a pretty quick read. I easily got through the first 75 pages in a couple of days.
Next month’s plan: As a doorstopper Annabel and I are going to read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon (636 pages, or roughly 20 pages a day for the whole month of May). Join us if you like! I’m undecided about a classic, but might choose between George Eliot, William Faulkner, Robert Louis Stevenson and Emile Zola.
The Best Fiction of 2016: My Top 15
You might be surprised to hear that I received ‘only’ eight books for Christmas. (And a very fetching owl bookmark.) Here they are:
As I did last year, I’ve come up with my top 15 fiction books of the year (the three translated works first appeared in English in 2016) and even attempted to rank them. Many of these books have already featured on the blog in some way over the course of the year. To keep it simple for myself as well as for all of you who are figuring out whether you’re interested in these books or not, I’m limiting myself to two sentences per title: the first is a potted summary; the second tells you why you should read it. I also link to any full reviews.
Without further ado, let the countdown begin!
- Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist by Sunil Yapa: A hard-hitting novel with an unforgettably resonant title, this is set at the 1999 Seattle WTO protest: Yapa explores the motivations and backstories of activists, police officers, and delegates as the day deteriorates into violence. This fine debut is about cultivating the natural compassion in your heart even while under the threat of the fist.
- The Crime Writer by Jill Dawson: Beyond the barest biographical facts, Dawson has imagined the plot based on Patricia Highsmith’s own preoccupations: fear of a stalker, irksome poison-pen letters, imagining what it would be like to commit murder … and snails. You’re never quite sure as you’re reading what is actually happening in the world of the novel and what only occurs in Highsmith’s imagination, making this one of the most gripping, compulsive books I encountered this year.
- Nutshell by Ian McEwan: Within the first few pages, I was captivated and convinced by the voice of this contemporary, in utero Hamlet. His captive state pairs perfectly with Hamlet’s existential despair, but also makes him (and us as readers) part of the conspiracy: even as he wants justice for his father, he has to hope his mother and uncle will get away with their crime; his whole future depends on it.
- The Longest Night by Andria Williams: This absorbing work of historical fiction combines a remote setting, the threat of nuclear fallout, and a marriage strained to the breaking point in a convincing early 1960s atmosphere. A great debut and an author I’d like to hear more from.
- Forty Rooms by Olga Grushin: Each of us is said to occupy 40 rooms in our lives; this novel in 40 vignettes, one per room, tells the life story of a Russian immigrant to America who dreams of becoming a poet but ends up a suburban housewife and mother of six. I feel this book will resonate with women of every age, prompting them to question the path they’ve taken, the passions they’ve left unexplored, and whether it’s too late to change.
- Irmina by Barbara Yelin: After her grandmother’s death Yelin, a Munich-based artist, found a box of diaries and letters that told the story of a budding love affair that was not to be and charted a young woman’s gradual capitulation to Nazi ideology. For the out-of-the-ordinary window onto Third Reich history and the excellent illustrations, I highly recommend this to graphic novel lovers and newbies alike.
- The Wonder by Emma Donoghue: In the 1850s a nurse investigates the case of an Irish girl surviving without food for months: miracle or hoax? Donoghue writes convincing and vivid historical fiction, peppering the text with small details about everything from literature to technology and setting up a particularly effective contrast between medicine and superstition.
- The Summer Guest by Alison Anderson: The kernel of the novel is a true story: for two summers in the late 1880s, Chekhov (known here as Anton Pavlovich) stayed at the Lintvaryovs’ guest house in Luka, Ukraine; one strand of the narration is a journal kept during those years by the family’s eldest daughter, who’s dying of a brain tumor. An elegantly plotted story about writing, translation, illness, and making the most of life.
- Quiet Flows the Una by Faruk Šehić: This autobiographical novel by a Bosnian poet and former soldier is full of poetic language and nature imagery. The lyrical writing about his beloved river provides a perfect counterpoint to the horror and absurdity of war.
- Three-Martini Lunch by Suzanne Rindell: Rindell brings the late 1950s, specifically the bustling, cutthroat New York City publishing world, to life through the connections between three young people who collide over a debated manuscript. It’s an expert evocation of Beat culture and post-war paranoia over communism and homosexuality.
- Golden Hill by Francis Spufford: The novel opens suddenly as twenty-four-year-old Richard Smith arrives from London with a promissory note for £1000; before he can finally get his money, he’ll fall in and out of love, fight a duel, and be arrested twice – all within the space of two months. Bawdy, witty, vivid historical fiction; simply brilliant.
- Why We Came to the City by Kristopher Jansma: Five university friends strive to make their lives count against the indifferent backdrop of recession-era New York City. You’ll see yourself in one or more of the characters, and the rest you’ll greet as if they were your own friends and makeshift family.
- The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry: The Essex Serpent was a real-life legend from the latter half of the seventeenth century, but Perry’s second novel has fear of the sea creature re-infecting Aldwinter, her invented Essex village, in the 1890s. This exquisite work of historical fiction explores the gaps – narrower than one might think – between science and superstition and between friendship and romantic love.
- The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler: Seventeen-year-old Franz Huchel’s life changes for good when in 1937 his mother sends him away from his quiet lakeside village to work for her old friend Otto Trsnyek, a Vienna tobacconist. This novel is so many things: a coming-of-age story, a bittersweet romance, an out-of-the-ordinary World War II/Holocaust precursor, and a perennially relevant reminder of the importance of finding the inner courage to stand up to oppressive systems.
- Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler: The restaurant where twenty-two-year-old Tess works is a claustrophobic world unto itself, like a theatre set where the food is high art and the staff interactions are pure drama. Everything about this novel is utterly assured: the narration, the characterization, the prose style, the plot, the timing; it captures the intensity and idealism of youth yet injects a hint of nostalgia.
& A poetry selection:
Still the Animals Enter by Jane Hilberry: A rich, strange, gently erotic collection featuring diverse styles and blurring the lines between child and adult, human and animal, life and death through the language of metamorphosis. The message is that we are part of a shared life beyond the individual family or even the human species; we are all connected.
What are the best novels you read this year? Any new favorite books or authors?
I’ll be back tomorrow with the best nonfiction books I read this year.