Being on the shadow panel for the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award was a bookish highlight of 2017 for me. I’m pleased for this year’s panelists, especially blogging friend Marina Sofia, to have had the same opportunity, and I look forward to hearing who they choose as their shadow panel winner on December 3rd and then attending the virtual prize ceremony on December 10th.
At the time of the shortlisting, I happened to have already read Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan and was halfway through Catherine Cho’s memoir Inferno. I got the poetry collection Surge by Jay Bernard out from the library to have another go (after DNFing it last year), and the kind folk of FMcM Associates sent me the other two shortlisted books, a poetry collection and a novel, so that I could follow along with the shadow panel’s deliberations. Here are my brief thoughts on all five nominees.
Surge by Jay Bernard (2019)
As a writer-in-residence at the George Padmore Institute, a research centre for radical Black history, in 2016, Bernard investigated the New Cross Massacre, a fire that killed 13 young people in 1981. In 2017, the tragedy found a horrific echo in the Grenfell Tower fire, which left 72 dead. This debut poetry collection bridges that quarter-century through protest poems from various perspectives, giving voice to victims and their family members and exploring the interplay between race, sexuality and violence. Patois comes in at several points, most notably in “Songbook.” I especially liked “Peg” and “Pride,” and the indictment of government indifference in “Blank”: “It-has-nothing-to-do-with-us today issued this statement: / those involved have defended their actions and been … acquitted / retired with full pay”. On the whole, I found it difficult to fully engage with this collection, but I am reliably informed that Bernard’s protest poems have more impact when performed aloud.
Readalikes: In Nearby Bushes by Kei Miller, A Portable Paradise by Roger Robinson and Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith
Inferno by Catherine Cho (2020)
Cho, a Korean American literary agent based in London, experienced stress-induced postpartum psychosis after the birth of her son. She and her husband had returned to the USA when Cato was two months old to introduce him to friends and family, ending with a big Korean 100-day celebration at her in-laws’ home. Almost as soon as they got to her in-laws’, though, she started acting strangely: she was convinced cameras were watching their every move, and Cato’s eyes were replaced with “devil’s eyes.” She insisted they leave for a hotel, but soon she would be in a hospital emergency room, followed by a mental health ward. Cho alternates between her time in the mental hospital and a rundown of the rest of her life before the breakdown, weaving in her family history and Korean sayings and legends. Twelve days: That was the length of her hospitalization in early 2018, but Cho so painstakingly depicts her mindset that readers are fully immersed in an open-ended purgatory. She captures extremes of suffering and joy in this vivid account. (Reviewed in full here.)
Readalikes: An Angel at My Table by Janet Frame and Dear Scarlet by Teresa Wong
Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan (2020)
At 22, Ava leaves Dublin to teach English as a foreign language to wealthy preteens in Hong Kong and soon comes to a convenient arrangement with her aloof banker friend, Julian, who lets her live with him without paying rent and buys her whatever she wants. They have sex, yes, but he’s not her boyfriend per se, so when he’s transferred to London for six months, there’s no worry about hard feelings when her new friendship with Edith Zhang turns romantic. It gets a little more complicated, though, when Julian returns and she has to explain these relationships to her two partners and to herself. On the face of it, this doesn’t sound like it would be an interesting plot, and the hook-up culture couldn’t be more foreign to me. But with Ava Dolan has created a funny, deadpan voice that carries the entire novel. I loved the psychological insight, the playfulness with language, and the zingy one-liners (“I wondered if Victoria was a real person or three Mitford sisters in a long coat”). (Reviewed in full here.)
Tongues of Fire by Seán Hewitt (2020)
In the title poem, the arboreal fungus from the cover serves as “a bright, ancestral messenger // bursting through from one realm to another” like “the cones of God, the Pentecostal flame”. This debut collection is alive with striking imagery that draws links between the natural and the supernatural. Sex and grief, two major themes, are silhouetted against the backdrop of nature. Fields and forests are loci of meditation and epiphany, but also of clandestine encounters between men: “I came back often, // year on year, kneeling and being knelt for / in acts of secret worship, and now / each woodland smells quietly of sex”. Hewitt recalls travels to Berlin and Sweden, and charts his father’s rapid decline and death from an advanced cancer. A central section of translations of the middle-Irish legend “Buile Suibhne” is less memorable than the gorgeous portraits of flora and fauna and the moving words dedicated to the poet’s father: “You are not leaving, I know, // but shifting into image – my head / already is haunted with you” and “In this world, I believe, / there is nothing lost, only translated”.
Readalikes: Physical by Andrew McMillan and If All the World and Love Were Young by Stephen Sexton
Nightingale by Marina Kemp (2020)
Marguerite Demers, a 24-year-old nurse, has escaped Paris to be a live-in carer for elderly Jérôme Lanvier in southern France. From the start, she senses she’s out of place here – “She felt, as always in this village, that she was being observed”. She strikes up a friendship with a fellow outsider, an Iranian émigrée named Suki, who, in this story set in 2002, stands out for wearing a hijab. Everyone knows everyone here, and everyone has history with everyone else – flirtations, feuds, affairs, and more. Brigitte Brochon, unhappily married to a local farmer, predicts Marguerite will be just like the previous nurses who failed to hack it in service to the curmudgeonly Monsieur Lanvier. But Marguerite sticks up for herself and, though plagued by traumatic memories, makes her own bid for happiness. The novel deals sensitively with topics like bisexuality, euthanasia, and family estrangement, but the French provincial setting and fairly melodramatic plot struck me as old-fashioned. Still, the writing is strong enough to keep an eye out for what Kemp writes next. (U.S. title: Marguerite.)
Readalikes: French-set novels by Joanne Harris and Rose Tremain; The Hoarder by Jess Kidd
After last year’s unexpected winner – Raymond Antrobus for his poetry collection The Perseverance – I would have said that it’s time for a novel by a woman to win. However, I feel like a Dolan win would be too much of a repeat of 2017’s win (for Sally Rooney), and Kemp’s debut novel isn’t quite up to scratch. Much as I enjoyed Inferno, I can’t see it winning over these judges (three of whom are novelists: Kit de Waal, Sebastian Faulks and Tessa Hadley), though it would be suited to the Wellcome Book Prize if that comes back in 2021. So, to my surprise, I think it’s going to be another year for poetry.
I’ve been following the shadow panel’s thoughts via Marina’s blog and the others’ Instagram accounts and it looks like they are united in their admiration for the poetry collections, particularly the Hewitt. That would be my preference, too: I respond better to theme and style in poetry (Hewitt) than to voice and message (Bernard). However, I think that in 2020 the Times may try to trade its rather fusty image for something more woke, bearing in mind the Black Lives Matter significance and the unprecedented presence of a nonbinary author.
Shadow panel winner: Tongues of Fire by Seán Hewitt
Official winner: Surge by Jay Bernard
Have you read anything from this year’s shortlist?
Novellas in November will be coming to a close on Monday and has been a great success in terms of blogger engagement. I’ve been adding review links to the master post nearly every day of the month, and I’m sure there are some I have missed. Although I still have a couple of novellas on the go, I don’t see myself finishing them this month, so I’m going to end with this set: three short classics to continue the week’s theme, two graphic novels, and a pair of nature/art/music/poetry books.
Something Special by Iris Murdoch (1957)
A Murdoch rarity, this appeared in a 1950s anthology and in an English-language textbook in Japan, but was not otherwise published in the author’s lifetime. I think it’s her only short story. I’m counting it as a novella because it was published as a stand-alone volume by Vintage Classics in 2000. Twenty-four-year-old Yvonne Geary doesn’t know precisely what she wants from life, but hopes there might be more for her than a conventional marriage to Sam, her beau. “Can’t I live my life as I please since it’s the only thing I have?” she asks her hen-pecking mother. “I can’t see him as something special and I won’t marry him if I can’t.” Maybe she’ll escape to England. But for now she’s off for a night on the town in Dublin with Sam, going from a rowdy pub to the quiet of a locked-up park. Sam may be dull, but he seems sensitive, solicitous and well-meaning. Yvonne’s feelings for him flip-flop over the course of the evening. I’ve noticed before that Murdoch is a bit funny about Jewishness, but this is still a brisk, bittersweet story in the direct lineage of Sally Rooney’s Normal People. (With striking black-and-white woodcut-style illustrations by Michael McCurdy.)
The Fairacre Festival by ‘Miss Read’ (1968)
I’m not sure why I’d never tried anything by ‘Miss Read’ (the pseudonym of Dora Jessie Saint, a teacher turned author who was based not far from me in Berkshire) until now. She wrote two series of quaint novels set in the fictional villages of Fairacre and Thrush Green; this is #7 in the Fairacre series. Miss Read, her narrator, is a schoolteacher who records her wry observations of all the local happenings. After an autumn storm damages the church roof, the parishioners are dismayed to learn the renovations could cost £2000. No amount of jumble sales, concerts and tea dances will raise that much. So they set their sights higher, to an Edinburgh-style festival with a light show and an appearance from a famous opera singer. But it’s not going to be smooth sailing now, is it? This was cozy, quaint fun, and if I wished it had been a full-length book, that means I’ll just have to begin at the beginning with 1955’s Village School.
The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark (1970)
Lise has her “glad rags” on – bright new clothes in clashing patterns that strangers can’t help commenting on. The 34-year-old single woman has worked in an accounting office for the last 16 years and is now off to the South (Italy?) for a long-awaited vacation. This will be no blissful holiday, though. Just 11 pages in, we get our first hint that things are going to go wrong, and in the opening line of Chapter 3 Spark gives the game away. Clearly, her intention is to subordinate what happens to why it happens, so the foreshadowing of the early chapters is twisted to ironic effect later on. Lise is an unappealing character, haughty and deceitful, and the strangers she meets on the flight and at the hotel, including a man obsessed with the macrobiotic diet, are little better. I felt I didn’t have enough time to change my mind about Lise before we’re asked to have pity. Of course, this is meant to be a black comedy, but it was a little abrasive for my taste. This was my third and probably last from Spark, as I haven’t particularly enjoyed any of her work; I do love this pithy description of The Ballad of Peckham Rye, though: “An entertaining tale of satanism in South London.”
Why Don’t You Write My Eulogy Now So I Can Correct It? A Mother’s Suggestions by Patricia Marx, illus. Roz Chast (2019)
I loved Chast’s graphic memoir Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant? and figured this would have the same witty approach to an elderly parent’s decline. Apart from a brief introduction to her mother (from Philadelphia, outspoken, worked as a guidance counselor and for her husband’s office supplies company), there is hardly any text; the rest is just illustrated one-liners, sayings her mother had or opinions she espoused. Many of these have to do with fashion no-nos, dinner party etiquette, grammar pedantry, avoiding the outdoors and exercise, and childrearing. “My mother never hesitates to say what other mothers would not even think to think. She calls it constructive criticism.” She reminds me of Bess Kalb’s grandmother in Nobody Will Tell You This but Me, an overall much funnier and more complete picture of an entertaining figure.
The Exciting World of Churchgoing by Dave Walker (2010)
A third set of Church Times comics, not as memorable as the original Dave Walker Guide to the Church. Once again, Walker pokes fun at bureaucracy, silly traditions, closed-mindedness, and the oddities of church buildings and parishioners’ habits. You really need to be familiar with the UK churchgoing scene, and specifically with Anglican churches, to get much out of the cartoons. I loved “According to legend, there is a lady who changes the teatowels in the church kitchen from time to time” and the “Infestations” spread that starts with bats and wasps and moves on to Charismatics. Most striking are two pages on church proceedings during swine flu – what was meant to be a joke doesn’t seem so funny now that it literally describes in-person services during COVID-19: “Shaking hands during the peace should be replaced by a friendly wave,” “Administration of anti-bacterial gel should take place,” etc.
The Lost Words: A Spell Book by Robert Macfarlane, illus. Jackie Morris (2017)
Macfarlane’s work has been hit or miss for me and I was suspicious of this project in general, thinking it would be twee or juvenile, but the beauty of the artwork and playful energy of the poems won me over. It’s common knowledge that this book arose as a response to news that many words to do with nature had been removed from the latest version of a junior dictionary published in the UK, to be replaced by technology vocabulary. Macfarlane spotlights these omitted words through acrostic poems alive with alliteration (“Fern’s first form is furled, / Each frond fast as a fiddle-head”), wordplay and internal rhymes. He peppers in questions, both rhetorical and literal-minded, and exclamations. Conker, Dandelion, Lark and Otter are highlights. Morris’s wildlife paintings are superb, with a Giotto-like gilt portrait facing each poem and two-page in situ tableaux in between.
The Lost Words Spell Songs (2019)
I followed up immediately with this companion book to the 14-track album a group of eight folk musicians made in response to The Lost Words. We were already fans of Kris Drever (mostly via Lau), Karine Polwart and Beth Porter (via the Bookshop Band), and became familiar with a few more of the artists (Kerry Andrew, Julie Fowlis and Rachel Newton) earlier this year through the online Folk on Foot festivals. This volume includes six additional poems, four of which directly inspired songs on the album, plus brief bios and words on the project from each artist (each portrayed by Morris as a relevant bird, with the musician serving as the “spirit human” for the bird) the complete lyrics with notes from whoever took the lead on a particular song, and short essays by Macfarlane, Morris (also an interview) and Polwart.
It was interesting to compare the different approaches to the project: five songs directly set Macfarlane’s poetry to music, two of them primarily in spoken word form; five are based on Macfarlane “extras,” like the new spells and the “charm against harm” he wrote during anti-tree felling campaigns like the one in Sheffield; a few are essentially pop songs based around major lines from Dandelion, Goldfinch and Lark (these plus “Selkie-Boy,” based on Grey Seal, ended up being my favorites); one is a traditional song from Seckou Keita’s native Senegal that also incorporates the bilingual Fowlis’s Gaelic to mourn the words that are lost with the past; and one is a final blessing song that weaves in bits from multiple spells. The artists all bring their individual styles, but the collaborations are strong, too.
Are you squeezing in any more novellas this month?
Do you like the sound of any of the ones I’ve read?
Reading with the seasons, I’ve picked up a few books with “summer” or sunshine in their titles. I’ll have more to write up later in August, including novels set during the summer months.
A Summer Bird-Cage by Margaret Drabble (1963)
Sarah Bennett, who went straight from university in Oxford to Paris for want of a better idea of what to do with her life, is called home to Warwickshire to be a bridesmaid in the wedding of her older sister, Louise, to Stephen Halifax, a wealthy novelist. Afterwards, Sarah decides to move to London and share a flat with a friend whose marriage has recently ended. As the months pass, she figures out life as a single girl in a big city and attends parties hosted by Louise – back from an extended European honeymoon – and others. Sarah eventually works out, from gossip and from confronting Louise herself, that her sister’s marriage isn’t as idyllic as it appeared. Both sisters find themselves at a loss as for what to do next.
Although Drabble’s debut novel is low on action, its characters are sharply drawn and she delights in placing them in situations and conversations where their true values will emerge. I could relate to Sarah for her bookishness, her observant nature, and her feeling that her best days of being a student are behind her. Drabble was only 24 when this was published; though she was already married and a mother, her distinguished university career (a double first from Cambridge) wasn’t long behind her. Given that Drabble’s sister is novelist A.S. Byatt, it’s impossible not to speculate about the autobiographical inspiration for this picture of sisters who are subconscious rivals and don’t even seem to enjoy spending casual time together.
What with the sisters sharing the maiden name Bennett, you also can’t help but think of one of the classic sister novels, Pride and Prejudice. Drabble makes her debt obvious when Sarah goes over to Louise’s for dinner and comments on the “charming convention of the scene – sisters idling away an odd evening in happy companionship. It was like something out of Middlemarch or even Jane Austen.” I was also reminded of the sister pair in Deerbrook: one got all the beauty, but the other seems much more interesting.
The title comes from a John Webster quotation: “’Tis just like a summer bird-cage in a garden: / the birds that are without are desperate to get / in, and the birds that are within despair and / are in a consumption for fear that they will never / get out.” In other words, it’s easy to miss, and idealize, what you don’t have. Sarah still thinks she can have it all; Louise has realized the choices life forces on you. In modern parlance, this is about adulting and FOMO. It still feels relevant, in a way that seems to anticipate the work of Sally Rooney.
Rise and Shine by Anna Quindlen (2006)
Another sisters novel, and the first book in my Journey through the Day with Books challenge. Meghan Fitzmaurice is a household name as the host of America’s most popular morning talk show, Rise and Shine, but her star fades rapidly when, her microphone still on after she thinks they’ve gone to a commercial break, she murmurs “f***ing a**hole” about a guest who is, admittedly, a creep. It turns out her outburst didn’t come out of nowhere: the night before, her husband, Evan, had announced he was leaving her. Meghan goes to Jamaica to regroup, leaving her younger sister, Bridget, a social worker in the Bronx, to figure out what happened and create a semblance of normalcy for her beloved nephew, Meghan’s college-age son Leo, who’s just back from an exchange program at a farm outside Barcelona.
I liked the New York City setting and the central sister relationship – “Sisters tend to get stuck in their roles and they don’t always know how to get out of them. The pretty one. The practical one,” their aunt Maureen, who raised them after their parents’ deaths, says – but the plot hereafter veers between thin and melodramatic. I didn’t warm to Bridget’s boyfriend Irving, a hardboiled older cop, and I get a little nervous about white ladies creating stereotypical African American characters and giving them names like Tequila (Bridget’s receptionist at the women’s shelter) and Princess Margaret (Tequila’s daughter).
In a nice bit of symmetry, though, the book’s end finds a subdued Meghan hosting a late-night show called Day’s End. I didn’t like this nearly as much as her nonfiction (I loved Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake), but I would read more by Quindlen: I also have a copy of One True Thing, and I have heard that her recent fiction is good.
And a skim from the library that ties in nicely with the cover image above:
The Butterfly Isles: A Summer in Search of Our Emperors and Admirals by Patrick Barkham (2010)
In 2009, Barkham set out to revive the childhood butterfly-watching hobby he’d shared with his father. The UK is home to 59 species, a manageable number to attempt to see in a season, although it does require a fair bit of travel and insider knowledge. I’ve read too much general history about the human relationship with butterflies (via Rainbow Dust by Peter Marren, which came out a few years later, and An Obsession with Butterflies by Sharman Apt Russell, which Barkham mentions in a Recommended Reading section at the end of the book) to engage with all the context he includes; I focused on the nitty-gritty of the quest running from mid-March to August. I’ll leave it to readers to discover whether he succeeds or not. Nice additions here are the color plates of all the species in question, and the line drawings by Helen Macdonald, yet to come to prominence in her own right – with H Is for Hawk in 2014.
A favorite passage: “Butterflies are symbols of freedom and happiness, sunshine and summer days. They are tokens of romance”
Have you been reading anything particularly fitting for summer this year?
On one of my periodic trips back to the States, I saw Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speak at a large Maryland library soon after Americanah (2013) was published. I didn’t retain much from her talk, except that her main character, Ifemelu, was a blogger about race issues and that Black hair also played a role. I was hugely impressed with Adichie in person: stylish and well-spoken, she has calm confidence and a mellifluous voice. In the “question” (comment) time I remember many young African and African American women saying how much her book meant to them, capturing the complexities of what it’s like to be Black in America.
Ironically, I have hoarded Adichie’s work over the years since then but not read it. I did read We Should All Be Feminists from the library for Novellas in November one year, but had accumulated copies of her other five books as gifts or from neighbors or the free bookshop. (Is there a tsundoku-type term for author-specific stockpiling?) Luckily, my first taste of her fiction exceeded my high expectations and whetted my appetite to read the rest.
“You can’t write an honest novel about race in this country,” a secondary African American character declares at an evening salon Ifemelu attends. Adichie puts the lie to that statement: her slight outsider status allows her to cut through stereotypes and pretenses and get right to the heart of the issue. The novel may be seven years old (and hearkens back to the optimism of Barack Obama’s first election), but it feels utterly fresh and relevant at a time when we are newly aware of the insidiousness of racism. Again and again, I nodded in wry acknowledgment of the truth of Ifemelu’s cutting observations:
Job Vacancy in America—National Arbiter in Chief of ‘Who Is Racist’: In America, racism exists but racists are all gone. Racists belong to the past. Racists are the thin-lipped mean white people in the movies about the civil rights era. Here’s the thing: the manifestation of racism has changed but the language has not. So if you haven’t lynched somebody then you can’t be called a racist.
Through Ifemelu’s years of studying, working and blogging her way around the Eastern seaboard of the United States, Adichie explores the ways in which the experience of an African abroad differs from that of African Americans. These subtleties become especially clear through her relationships with Curt (white) and Blaine (African American), which involve a performative aspect and a slight tension that were absent with Obinze, her teenage sweetheart. Obinze, too, tries life in another country, moving to the UK illegally. Although they eventually earn financial success and good reputations – with Obinze a married property developer back in Nigeria – both characters initially have to do debasing work to get by.
Americanah is so wise about identity and perceptions, with many passages that resonated for me as an expat. When Ifemelu returns to Nigeria after 13 years, she doesn’t know if she or her country has changed: “She was no longer sure what was new in Lagos and what was new in herself … home was now a blurred place between here and there … there was something wrong with her. A hunger, a restlessness. An incomplete knowledge of herself.”
I loved Ifemelu’s close bond with her cousin, Dike, who is more like a little brother to her, and the way the narrative keeps revisiting a New Jersey hair salon where she is getting her hair braided. These scenes reminded me of Barber Shop Chronicles, a terrific play I saw with my book club last year. The prose is precise, insightful and evocative (“she would not unwrap from herself the pashmina of the wounded,” “There was something in him, lighter than ego but darker than insecurity, that needed constant buffing”).
On a sentence level as well as at a macro plot level, this was engrossing and rewarding – just what I want from a doorstopper. The question of whether Ifemelu and Obinze will get back together is one that will appeal to fans of Normal People – can these sustaining teenage relationships ever last? – but Ifemelu is such a strong, independent character that it’s merely icing on the cake. I’m moving on to her Women’s Prize winner, Half of a Yellow Sun, next.
Page count: 477 (but tiny type)
Source: Free bookshop
Deerbrook by Harriet Martineau (1839)
This was meant to be a buddy read with Buried in Print, but I fell at the first hurdle and started skimming after 35 pages. I haven’t made it through a Victorian triple-decker in well over a decade; just since 2012, I’ve failed to get through three novels by Charles Dickens, whom I used to call my favorite author. I’m mildly disappointed in myself, but may have to accept the change in my reading tastes. In my early 20s, I loved chunky nineteenth-century novels and got my MA in Victorian Literature, but nowadays I look at one of these 500+-page classics and think, why wade through something so tortuously verbose over a matter of weeks when I could read three or more contemporary novels that will have more bearing on my life, for the same word count and time?
In any case, Deerbrook is interesting from a cultural history point of view, sitting between Austen and the Brontës or George Eliot in terms of timeline, style and themes. In the fictional Midlands village of Deerbrook, the Greys and Rowlands are neighbors engaged in a polite feud while sharing a summer house and a governess. Orphaned sisters Hester and Margaret Ibbotson, 21 and 20, come to live with the Greys, their distant cousins and known dissenters. Hester got “all the beauty,” so it’s no surprise that, after a visit from a local doctor, Edward Hope, everyone is pairing him with her in their minds. I liked an early passage voicing the thoughts of Maria Young, the crippled governess (“How I love to overlook people,—to watch them acting unconsciously, and speculate for them!”), but soon tired of the matchmaking and moralizing. A world in which everyone does their duty is boring indeed.
Martineau, though, seems like a fascinating figure I’d like to read more about. She wrote a two-volume Autobiography, which I would also skim if I could find it from a library. Just her one-page bio at the front of my Virago paperback contained many astonishing sentences: “her education was interrupted by advancing deafness, requiring her to use an ear trumpet in later life”; “Her fiancé, John Hugh Worthington, having gone insane also died”; [after writing Deerbrook] “She then collapsed into bed where she was to remain for the next five years. In 1845 Harriet Martineau was dramatically cured by mesmerism,” etc.
Page count: 523 (again, tiny type)
Source: A UK secondhand bookshop 15+ years ago
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.
I’m a #6Degrees regular now: this is my fifth time participating. This month (see Kate’s introductory post) we start with Sally Rooney’s Normal People (2018). I loved Conversations with Friends but wasn’t so enamored with Rooney’s second novel (see my review), so I haven’t been tempted to watch the television adaptation; I don’t have a TV anyway.
#1 Picking out one of the words from the book title, and echoing the question that Rooney’s characters seem to be asking themselves, I’ll hop over to a memoir I enjoyed a lot in late 2011, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson. Adopted into a strict religious household, Winterson had to hide her sexuality. Here you get the full story behind her autobiographical debut novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit.
#2 Adoption is my link to The Leavers by Lisa Ko. When he’s abandoned by his mother, an undocumented Chinese immigrant in the USA, Daniel is adopted by a pair of white professors. This is an achingly beautiful story of searching for a mother and a sense of belonging. It won the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction.
#3 Barbara Kingsolver created and funds the biennial Bellwether Prize for unpublished fiction that addresses issues of social justice. I have vague ambitions to read as many Bellwether and Women’s Prize winners as I can. While it’s not one of my favorites by Kingsolver, The Lacuna (2009) won her the (then) Orange Prize. A historical novel, it’s largely set in the household of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo.
#4 Frida Kahlo is my link to Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson, autobiographical essays about the female body in pain. Kahlo is one of Gleeson’s gurus in that she turned her chronic pain and pregnancy loss into art – “making wounds the source of inspiration.” Constellations was our Not the Wellcome Prize winner during this hiatus year for the official prize.
#5 The first winner of the Wellcome Book Prize, in 2009, was Keeper by Andrea Gillies, a memoir of her mother-in-law Nancy’s struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. I also intend to read as many WBP winners and nominees as possible, so I recently ordered a secondhand copy of this and read the introduction before setting it aside for another time. Already I can tell it will be an engaging if harrowing book; Gillies pulls no punches in her depiction of the misery of the years when Nancy lived with her family and then in an institution.
[#5.5 Another book called Keeper, this one by Jessica Moor, provides my cheaty half-step. I found this debut novel to be a gripping and grimly fascinating story of why women stay with their abusers and what finally drives them to leave.]
#6 Violence against women is also the theme of The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld, my novel of 2020 so far. While it ranges across the centuries, it always sticks close to the title location, an uninhabited island off the east coast of Scotland. It cycles through its three strands in an ebb and flow pattern that is appropriate to the coastal setting and creates a sense of time’s fluidity. This is not a puzzle book where everything fits together. Instead, it is a haunting echo chamber where elements keep coming back, stinging a little more each time. A must-read, especially for fans of Claire Fuller, Sarah Moss and Lucy Wood. (See my full Shiny New Books review.)
I’ve featured only books by women this month, and there have been quite a number of prize winners in here, too.
Join us for Six Degrees of Separation if you haven’t already!
Have you read any of my selections? Are you tempted by any you didn’t know before?
I’m certainly not the first to notice these rather similar titles – both of which appear on this year’s Folio Prize and Women’s Prize longlists. I preferred Diana Evans’s Ordinary People (), which I just finished earlier this week, to Sally Rooney’s Normal People (). The two novels look at fairly average situations – two Black couples with children in South London and the Surrey suburbs; a pair of university students in Ireland – and probe the emotional intricacies.
Michelle Obama’s Becoming is now set to become the bestselling memoir of all time. I enjoyed it as much as any memoir-loving fan of the Obamas would (), but after I found out that it was ghostwritten I couldn’t get that little fact out of my mind. By contrast, Anuradha Bhagwati’s Unbecoming is the memoir of a bisexual U.S. Marine captain and tells of the racism and sexism she experienced. It came out last week and has only six ratings on Goodreads, so it’s as under-the-radar as Becoming is overexposed.
Just one letter separates the titles of these two books. I’ve been slowly making my way through All the Lives We Ever Lived, Katharine Smyth’s elegant bibliomemoir about her father’s death and the comfort she found in rereading To the Lighthouse. I don’t know much about All the Lives We Never Lived by Anuradha Roy, just that it’s set in 1930s India and Bali and has been longlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction. Her previous novel, Sleeping on Jupiter (2015), was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
Which of the books from these pairs would tempt you?
I would have loved to see this debut novel on the Women’s Prize longlist the other week. It’s such a hip, fresh approach to fiction – the last book to have struck me as truly ‘novel’ in the same way was Lincoln in the Bardo.
Broadly speaking, this is autofiction: like the author, the protagonist was born in London to a Brazilian mother and an English father. In the tradition of Karl Ove Knausgaard, Yara Rodrigues Fowler audaciously includes the mundane details of everyday life – things like a friend coming for Sunday roast, struggling with IBS, packing for a trip to Brazil, and trying to be grateful for having half-decent work and a place to live with her parents in Tooting. She also recounts lots of conversations, some momentous – as when she confronts an ex about a non-consensual sexual encounter – but most pretty inane; all conveyed with no speech marks.
The book opens with fragmentary, titled pieces that look almost like poems in stanzas. That experimentation with how the words are set out on the page continues throughout the book. Some pages contain just a few lines, or a single short paragraph that reads like a prose poem. Even where there are more conventional sections of a few pages, Fowler deliberately eschews commas and hyphens to create a sort of breathless, run-on pace. This makes the text feel artless, like a pure stream of memory and experience has been channeled directly onto the page, and yet you can be sure that a lot of hard work was involved.
The perspective moves smoothly between the third and the second person, referring to the protagonist by turns as “she” and “you.” Sometimes she’s “the baby,” going grocery shopping with Vovó (Grandmother) Cecília in Brazil and asking for bedtime stories, or observing Aunt Ana Paula’s relationship with a classmate when she comes to live with them in London for a time. This stubborn archivist is equally convinced of the value of her family history and of her twentysomething life of relationships, parties, and a good-enough job.
Navigating two cultures (and languages), being young and adrift, and sometimes seeing her mother in herself: there’s a lot to sympathize with in the main character. If you’re a fan of Sally Rooney’s work (especially Conversations with Friends), you’ll want to pick this up as soon as you can, even if you don’t expect to relate to someone of Fowler’s generation. Stubborn Archivist impressed me enough to earn the first entry on my “Best of 2019” shelf.
Stubborn Archivist was published in the UK by Fleet on February 21st. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review. It will be published in the USA by Mariner Books on July 16th.
My Best Discoveries of the Year: Neil Ansell, James Baldwin, Janet Frame, Rohinton Mistry, Blake Morrison, Dani Shapiro, Sarah Vowell; Roald Dahl’s work for adults
The Author I Read the Most By: Anne Tyler (four novels)
My Proudest Reading Achievement: Getting through a whole Rachel Cusk book (it was my third attempt to read her).
The 2018 Books Everybody Else Loved but I Didn’t: Melmoth by Sarah Perry and Normal People by Sally Rooney
The Year’s Biggest Disappointments: The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa and Sabrina by Nick Drnaso
The Funniest Books I Read This Year: Fox 8 by George Saunders and Calypso by David Sedaris
Books that Made Me Cry: Leaving Before the Rains Come by Alexandra Fuller and The Long Goodbye by Meghan O’Rourke
The Downright Strangest Books I Read This Year: The Bus on Thursday by Sheila Barrett, The Pisces by Melissa Broder and I Love Dick by Chris Kraus
The Debut Authors Whose Next Work I’m Most Looking Forward To: Julie Buntin, Lisa Ko and R.O. Kwon
The Best First Line of the Year: “Dust and ashes though I am, I sleep the sleep of angels.” (from The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey)
Some Early 2019 Recommendations
(in release date order)
Book Love by Debbie Tung: Bookworms will get a real kick out of these cartoons, which capture everyday moments in the life of a book-obsessed young woman (perpetually in hoodie and ponytail). She reads anything, anytime, anywhere. Even though she has piles of books staring her in the face everywhere she looks, she can never resist a trip to the bookstore or library. The very idea of culling her books or finding herself short of reading material makes her panic, and she makes a friend sign a written agreement before he can borrow one of her books. Her partner and friends think she’s batty, but she doesn’t care. I found the content a little bit repetitive and the drawing style not particularly distinguished, but Tung gets the bibliophile’s psyche just right. (Out January 1.)
When Death Becomes Life: Notes from a Transplant Surgeon by Joshua D. Mezrich: In this debut memoir a surgeon surveys the history of organ transplantation, recalling his own medical education and the special patients he’s met along the way. In the 1940s and 1950s patient after patient was lost to rejection of the transplanted organ, post-surgery infection, or hemorrhaging. Mezrich marvels at how few decades passed between transplantation seeming like something out of a science-fiction future and becoming a commonplace procedure. His aim is to never lose his sense of wonder at the life-saving possibilities of organ donation, and he conveys that awe to readers through his descriptions of a typical procedure. One day I will likely need a donated kidney to save my life. How grateful I am to live at a time when this is a possibility. (Out January 15.)
Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love by Dani Shapiro: Shapiro was used to strangers’ comments about her blond hair and blue eyes. How could it be that she was an Orthodox Jew? people wondered. It never occurred to her that there was any truth to these hurtful jokes. On a whim, in her fifties, she joined her husband in sending off a DNA test kit. It came back with alarming results. Within 36 hours of starting research into her origins, Shapiro had found her biological father, a sperm donor whom she calls Dr. Ben Walden, and in the year that followed, their families carefully built up a relationship. The whole experience was memoirist’s gold, for sure. This is a moving account of her emotional state as she pondered her identity and what her sense of family would be in the future. (Out January 15.)
Constellations: Reflections from Life by Sinéad Gleeson: Perfect for fans of I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell, this is a set of trenchant autobiographical essays about being in a female body, especially one wracked by pain. As a child Gleeson had arthritis that weakened her hip bones, and eventually she had to have a total hip replacement. She ranges from the seemingly trivial to life-and-death matters as she writes about hairstyles, blood types, pregnancy, the abortion debate in Ireland and having a rare type of leukemia. In the tradition of Virginia Woolf, Frida Kahlo and Susan Sontag, Gleeson turns pain into art, particularly in a set of 20 poems based on the McGill Pain Index. The book feels timely and is inventive in how it brings together disparate topics to explore the possibilities and limitations of women’s bodies. (Out April 4.)
The Hot Young Widows Club: Lessons on Survival from the Front Lines of Grief by Nora McInerny: In June 2016 I read It’s Okay to Laugh (Crying Is Cool Too), McInerny’s memoir about losing her father and her husband to cancer and her second child to a miscarriage – all within a few weeks – when she was 31. In this short book, an expansion of her TED talk, she argues that we are all incompetent when it comes to grief. There’s no rule book for how to do it well or how to help other people who are experiencing a bereavement, and comparing one loss to another doesn’t help anyone. I especially appreciated her rundown of the difference between pity and true empathy. “Pity keeps our hearts closed up, locked away. Empathy opens our heart up to the possibility that the pain of others could one day be our own pain.” (Out April 30.)
Coming tomorrow: Library Checkout & Final statistics for the year