Reading Ireland Month is hosted each March by Cathy of 746 Books. This year I read works by four Irish women: a meditation on birds and craft, hard-hitting poems about body issues, autofiction that incorporates biography and translation to consider the shape of women’s lives across the centuries, and a novel that jets between Hong Kong and Scotland. Two of these were sent to me as part of the Rathbones Folio Prize shortlist. I have some Irish music lined up to listen to (Hallow by Duke Special, At Swim by Lisa Hannigan, Chop Chop by Bell X1, Magnetic North by Iain Archer) and I’m ready to tell you all about these four books.
handiwork by Sara Baume (2020)
Back in February 2016, I reviewed Baume’s debut novel, Spill Simmer Falter Wither, for Third Way magazine. A dark story of a middle-aged loner and his adopted dog setting off on a peculiar road trip, it was full of careful nature imagery. “I’ve always noticed the smallest, quietest things,” the narrator, Ray, states. The same might be said of Baume, who is a visual artist as well as an author and put together this gently illuminating book over the course of 2018, at the same time as she was working on several sculptural installations. In short sections of a paragraph or two, or sometimes no more than a line, she describes her daily routines in her home workspaces: in the morning she listens to barely audible talk radio as she writes, while the afternoons are for carving and painting.
Working with her hands is a family tradition passed down from her grandfather and father, who died in the recent past – of lung cancer from particles he was exposed to at the sandstone quarry where he worked. Baume has a sense of responsibility for how she spends her time and materials. Concern about waste is at odds with a drive for perfection: she discarded her first 100 plaster birds before she was happy with the series used to illustrate this volume. Snippets of craft theory, family memories, and trivia about bird migration and behaviour are interspersed with musings on what she makes. The joy of holding a physical object in the hand somehow outweighs that of having committed virtual words to a hard drive.
Despite the occasional lovely line, this scattered set of reflections doesn’t hang together. The bird facts, in particular, feel shoehorned in for symbolism, as in Colum McCann’s Apeirogon. It’s a shame, as from the blurb I thought this book couldn’t be better suited to my tastes. Ultimately, as with Spill, Baume’s prose doesn’t spark much for me.
“Most of the time spent making is spent, in fact, in the approach.”
“I must stop once the boredom becomes intolerable, knowing that if I plunge on past this point I will risk arriving at resentment”
“What we all shared – me, my dad, his dad – was a suspicion of modern life, a loathing of fashion, a disappointment with the new technologies and a preference for the ad hoc contraptions of the past”
“The glorious, crushing, ridiculous repetition of life.”
With thanks to Tramp Press and FMcM Associates for the free copy for review. handiwork is on the Rathbones Folio Prize shortlist.
Eat or We Both Starve by Victoria Kennefick (2021)
This audacious debut collection of fleshly poems is the best I’ve come across so far this year. The body is presented as a battleground: for the brain cancer that takes the poet’s father; for disordered eating that entwines with mummy issues; for the restructuring of pregnancy. Families break apart and fuse into new formations. Cannibalism and famine metaphors dredge up emotional states and religious doctrines.
Where did I start?
Yes, with the heart, enlarged,
its chambers stretched through caring.
Oh is it in defiance or defeat, I don’t know,
I eat it anyway, raw, still warm.
The size of my fist, I love it.
(from the opening poem, “Learning to Eat My Mother, where My Mother Is the Teacher”)
Meat avoidance goes beyond principled vegetarianism to become a phobia. Like the female saints, the speaker will deny herself until she achieves spiritual enlightenment.
The therapist taps my shoulders, my head, my knees,
tells me I was a nun once, very strict.
This makes sense; I know how cleanly I like
to punish myself.
(from “Alternative Medicine”)
The title phrase comes from “Open Your Mouth,” in which the god Krishna, as a toddler, nourishes his mother with clay. A child feeding its mother reverses the expected situation, which is described in one of the book’s most striking poems, “Researching the Irish Famine.” The site of an old workhouse divulges buried horrors: “Mothers exhausted their own bodies / to produce milk. […] The starving / human / literally / consumes / itself.”
Corpses and meals; body odour and graves. There’s a pleasingly morbid cast to this collection, but it also has its lighter moments: the sexy “Paris Syndrome,” the low-stakes anxiety over pleasing one’s mother in “Guest Room,” and the playful closer, “Prayer to Audrey Hepburn” (“O Blessed Audrey of the feline eye-flick, jutting / bones, slim-hipped androgyny of war-time rationing”). Rich with imagery and alliteration, this is just my kind of poetry. Verse readalikes would include The Air Year by Caroline Bird, Flèche by Mary Jean Chan, and Tongues of Fire by Seán Hewitt, while in prose I was also reminded of Milk Fed by Melissa Broder (review coming soon) and Sanatorium by Abi Palmer.
With thanks to Carcanet Press for the free copy for review. This comes out on the 25th.
A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa (2020)
“This is a female text.” In an elegant loop, Ní Ghríofa begins and ends with this line, and uses it as a refrain throughout. What is the text? It is this book, yes, as well as the 18th-century Irish-language poem that becomes an obsession for the author/narrator, “The Keen for Art Ó Laoghaire” by Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill; however, it is also the female body, its milk and blood just as significant for storytelling as any ink.
Because the protagonist’s name is the same as the author’s, I took her experiences at face value. As the narrative opens in 2012, Ní Ghríofa and her husband have three young sons and life for her is a list of repetitive household tasks that must be completed each day. She donates pumped breast milk for premature babies as a karmic contribution to the universe: something she can control when so much around her she feels she can’t, like frequent evictions and another pregnancy. Reading Eibhlín Dubh’s lament for her murdered husband, contemplating a new translation of it, and recreating her life from paltry archival fragments: these tasks broaden her life and give an intellectual component to complement the bodily one.
My weeks are decanted between the twin forces of milk and text, weeks that soon pour into months, and then into years. I make myself a life in which whenever I let myself sit, it is to emit pale syllables of milk, while sipping my own dark sustenance from ink. […] I skitter through chaotic mornings of laundry and lunchboxes and immunisations, always anticipating my next session at the breast-pump, because this is as close as I get to a rest. To sit and read while bound to my insatiable machine is to leave my lists behind and stroll instead through doors opened by Eibhlín Dubh.
Ní Ghríofa remembers other times in her life in an impressionistic stream: starting a premed course at university, bad behaviour that culminated in suicidal ideation, a near-collision on a highway, her daughter’s birth by emergency C-section, finally buying a house and making it a home by adopting a stray kitten and planting a bee-friendly garden. You can tell from the precision of her words that Ní Ghríofa started off as a poet, and I loved how she writes about her own life. I had little interest in Eibhlín Dubh’s story, but maybe it’s enough for her to be an example of women “cast once more in the periphery of men’s lives.” It’s a book about women’s labour – physical and emotional – and the traces of it that remain. I recommend it alongside I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell and Mother Ship by Francesca Segal.
With thanks to Tramp Press and FMcM Associates for the free copy for review. A Ghost in the Throat is on the Rathbones Folio Prize shortlist.
The Distance Between Us by Maggie O’Farrell (2004)
This is the earliest work of O’Farrell’s that I’ve read – it was her third novel, following After You’d Gone and My Lover’s Lover (I finally found those two at a charity shop last year and I’m saving them for a rainy day). It took me a long time to get into this one. It’s delivered in bitty sections that race between characters and situations, not generally in chronological order. It’s not until nearly the halfway point that you get a sense of how it all fits together.
Although there are many secondary characters, the two main strands belong to Jake, a young white filmmaker raised in Hong Kong by a bohemian mother, and Stella, a Scottish-Italian radio broadcaster. When a Chinese New Year celebration turns into a stampede, Jake and his girlfriend narrowly escape disaster and rush into a commitment he’s not ready for. In the meantime, Stella gets spooked by a traumatic flash from her childhood and flees London for a remote Scottish hotel. She’s very close to her older sister, Nina, who was deathly ill as a child (O’Farrell inserts a scene I was familiar with from I Am, I Am, I Am, when she heard a nurse outside her room chiding a noisy visitor, “There’s a little girl dying in there”), but now it’s Nina who will have to convince Stella to take the chance at happiness that life is offering.
In the end, this felt like a rehearsal for This Must Be the Place; it has the myriad settings (e.g., here, Italy, Wales and New Zealand are also mentioned) but not the emotional heft. With a setup like this, you sort of know where things are going, don’t you? Despite Stella’s awful secret, she is as flat a character as Jake. Simple boy-meets-girl story lines don’t hold a lot of appeal for me now, if they ever did. Still, the second half was a great ride.
Also, I’ve tried twice over the past year, but couldn’t get further than page 80 in The Wild Laughter by Caoilinn Hughes (2020), a black comedy about two brothers whose farmer father goes bankrupt and gets a terminal diagnosis. It’s a strangely masculine book (though in some particulars very similar to Scenes of a Graphic Nature) and I found little to latch on to. This was a disappointment as I’d very much enjoyed Hughes’s debut, Orchid & the Wasp, and this second novel is now on the Dylan Thomas Prize longlist.
What have you been picking up for Reading Ireland Month?
It’s coming up on the one-year anniversary of the first UK lockdown and here we are still living our lives online. The first hint I had of how serious things were going to get was when a London event with Anne Tyler I was due to attend in March 2020 with Eric and Laura T. was cancelled, followed by … everything else. Oh well.
This February was a bountiful month for online literary conversations. I’m catching up now by writing up my notes from a few more events (after Saunders and Ishiguro) that helped to brighten my evenings and weekends.
Melanie Finn in Conversation with Claire Fuller
(Exile in Bookville American online bookstore event on Facebook, February 2nd)
I was a big fan of Melanie Finn’s 2015 novel Shame (retitled The Gloaming), which I reviewed for Third Way magazine. Her new book, The Hare, sounds appealing but isn’t yet available in the UK. Rosie and Bennett, a 20-years-older man, meet in New York City. Readers soon enough know that he is a scoundrel, but Rosie doesn’t, and they settle together in Vermont. A contemporary storyline looking back at how they met contrasts the romantic potential of their relationship with its current reality.
Fuller said The Hare is her favorite kind of novel: literary but also a page-turner. (Indeed, the same could be said of Fuller’s books.) She noted that Finn’s previous three novels are all partly set in Africa and have a seam of violence – perhaps justified – running through. Finn acknowledged that everyday life in a postcolonial country has been a recurring element in her fiction, arising from her own experience growing up in Kenya, but the new book marked a change of heart: there is so much coming out of Africa by Black writers that she feels she doesn’t have anything to add. The authors agreed you have to be cruel to your characters.
Finn believes descriptive writing is one of her strengths, perhaps due to her time as a journalist. She still takes inspiration from headlines. Now that she and her family (a wildlife filmmaker husband and twin daughters born in her forties) are rooted in Vermont, she sees more nature writing in her work. They recovered a clear-cut plot and grow their own food; they also forage in the woods, and a hunter shoots surplus deer and gives them the venison. Appropriately, she read a tense deer-hunting passage from The Hare. Finn also teaches skiing and offers much the same advice as about writing: repetition eventually leads to elegance.
I was especially interested to hear the two novelists compare their composition process. Finn races through a draft in two months, but rewriting takes her a year, and she always knows the ending in advance. Fuller’s work, on the other hand, is largely unplanned; she starts with a character and a place and then just writes, finding out what she’s created much later on. (If you’ve read her Women’s Prize-longlisted upcoming novel, Unsettled Ground, you, too, would have noted her mention of a derelict caravan in the woods that her son took her to see.) Both said they don’t really like writing! Finn said she likes the idea of being a writer, while Fuller that she likes having written – a direct echo of Dorothy Parker’s quip: “I hate writing. I love having written.” Their fiction makes a good pairing and the conversation flowed freely.
Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature, “Light in Darkness,” Part I
I’d attended once in person, in 2016 (see my write-up of Sarah Perry and more), when this was still known as Bloxham Festival and was held at Bloxham School in Oxfordshire. Starting next year, it will take place in central Oxford instead. I attended the three morning events of Part I; there’s another virtual program taking place on Saturday the 17th of April.
Rachel Mann on The Gospel of Eve
Mann opened with a long reading from Chapter 1 of her debut novel (I reviewed it here) and said it is about her “three favorite things: sex, death, and religion,” all of which involve a sort of self-emptying. Mark Oakley, dean of St John’s College, Cambridge, interviewed her. He noted that her book has been likened to “Dan Brown on steroids.” Mann laughed but recognizes that, though she’s a ‘serious poet’, her gift as a novelist is for pace. She’s a lover of thrillers and, like Brown, gets obsessed with secrets. Although she and her protagonist, Kitty, are outwardly similar (a rural, working-class background and theological training), she quoted Evelyn Waugh’s dictum that all characters should be based on at least three people. Mann argued that the Church has not dealt as well with desire as it has with friendship. She thinks the best priests, like novelists, are genuine and engage with other people’s stories.
Francis Spufford on Light Perpetual
Mann then interviewed Spufford about his second novel, which arose from his frequent walks to his teaching job at Goldsmiths College in London. A plaque on an Iceland commemorates a World War II bombing that killed 15 children in what was then a Woolworths. He decided to commit an act of “literary resurrection” – but through imaginary people in a made-up, working-class South London location. The idea was to mediate between time and eternity. “All lives are remarkable and exceptional if you look at them up close,” he said. The opening bombing scene is delivered in extreme slow motion and then the book jumps on in 15-year intervals, in a reminder of scale. He read a passage from the end of the book when Ben, a bus conductor who fell in love with a Nigerian woman who took him to her Pentecostal Church, is lying in a hospice bed. It was a beautiful litany of “Praise him” statements, a panorama of everyday life: “Praise him at food banks,” etc. It made for a very moving moment.
Mark Oakley on the books that got him through the pandemic
Oakley, in turn, was interviewed by Spufford – everyone did double duty as speaker and questioner! He mentioned six books that meant a lot to him during lockdown. Three of them I’d read myself and can also recommend: Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald (my nonfiction book of 2020), Tongues of Fire by Seán Hewitt (one of my top five poetry picks from 2020), and Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious by David Dark. His top read of all, though, is a book I haven’t read but would like to: Featherhood by Charlie Gilmour (see Susan’s review). Rounding out his six were The Act of Living by Frank Tallis, about the psychology of finding fulfillment, and The Hunted by Gabriel Bergmoser, a bleak thriller set in the Outback. He read a prepared sermon-like piece on the books rather than just having a chat about them, which made it a bit more difficult to engage.
Spufford asked him if his reading had been about catharsis. Perhaps for some of those choices, he conceded. Oakley spoke of two lessons learned from lockdown. One is “I am an incarnational Christian” in opposition to the way we’ve all now been reduced to screens, abstract and nonmobile. And secondly, “Don’t be prosaic.” He called literalism a curse and decried the thinness of binary views of the world. “Literature is always challenging your answers, asking who you are when you get beyond what you’re good at.” I thought that was an excellent point, as was his bottom line about books: “It’s not how many you get through, but how many get through to you.”
Gavin Francis in Conversation with Louise Welsh
(Wellcome Collection event, February 25th)
Francis, a medical doctor, wrote Intensive Care (I reviewed it here) month by month and sent chapters to his editor as he went along. Its narrative begins barely a year ago and yet it was published in January – a real feat given the usual time scale of book publishing. It was always meant to have the urgent feel of journalism, to be a “hot take,” as he put it, about COVID-19. He finds writing therapeutic; it helps him make sense of and process things as he looks back to the ‘before time’. He remembers first discussing this virus out of China with friends at a Burns Night supper in January 2020. Francis sees so many people using their “retrospecto-scopes” this year and asking what we might have done differently, if only we’d known.
He shook his head over the unnatural situations that Covid has forced us all into: “we’re gregarious mammals” and yet the virus is spread by voice and touch, so those are the very things we have to avoid. GP practices have had to fundamentally change how they operate, and he foresees telephone triage continuing even after the worst of this is over. He’s noted a rise in antidepressant use over the last year. So the vaccine, to him, is like “liquid hope”; even if not 100% protective, it does seem to prevent deaths and ventilation. Vaccination is like paying for the fire service, he said: it’s not a personal medical intervention but a community thing. This talk didn’t add a lot for me as I’d read the book, but for those who hadn’t, I’m sure it would have been an ideal introduction – and I enjoyed hearing the Scottish accents.
Bookish online events coming up soon: The Rathbones Folio Prize announcement on the 24th and Claire Fuller’s book launch for Unsettled Ground on the 25th.
Have you attended any online literary events recently?
I’ve managed to whittle down my favorite releases of 2020 to 17 in total: six each from nonfiction (that’s for tomorrow) and fiction, plus five poetry volumes. Plenty more books from all genres will turn up on my runners-up list, due Tuesday.
Let the countdown begin!
- The Group by Lara Feigel: A kaleidoscopic portrait of five women’s lives in 2018. Stella, Kay, Helena, Polly, and Priss met as Oxbridge students. Now 40-ish, they live in London and remain close, though their lives have diverged. Fast-forward a Sally Rooney novel by 20 years and you have an idea of what to expect. This sexually frank and socially engaged story arose from the context of the #MeToo movement and fully acknowledges the privilege and limitations of its setting. The advantage of the apparent heterogeneity in the friend group is that it highlights depths of personality and subtleties of experience. Absorbing and relevant.
- Real Life by Brandon Taylor: Over the course of one late summer weekend, Wallace questions everything about the life he has built. As a gay African American, he has always been an outsider at the Midwestern university where he’s a graduate student in biochemistry. Tacit prejudice comes out into the open in ugly ways; sex and violence are uneasily linked. I so admired how the novel is constructed: the condensed timeframe, the first and last chapters in the past tense (versus the rest in the present tense), the contrast between the cerebral and the bodily, and the thematic and linguistic nods to Virginia Woolf. A very fine debut indeed.
- Monogamy by Sue Miller: After 30 years, Annie and Graham are forced to scrutinize their marriage anew. Annie is a photographer; Graham owns a Cambridge, Massachusetts bookstore. Around them swirl a circle of family, friends, acquaintances, and former and would-be lovers. Miller knows her characters and how they interact intimately, and each viewpoint is thoroughly believable. Even in what seems a conventional story, she managed several proper made-me-gasp surprises. A beautifully observant novel about ambition, ageing and grief, reminiscent of Julia Glass, Sigrid Nunez, Maggie O’Farrell, and Carol Shields.
- Writers & Lovers by Lily King: Following a breakup and her mother’s sudden death, Casey Peabody is drowning in grief and debt. Between waitressing shifts, she chips away at the novel she’s been writing for six years. Life gets complicated, especially when two love interests appear. We see this character at rock bottom but also when things start to go well at long last. Thanks to the confiding first-person, present-tense narration, I felt I knew Casey through and through, and I cheered for her. I came to think of this as an older, sadder Sweetbitter, perhaps as written by Elizabeth Strout. It gives you all the feels, as they say.
- The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel: Mandel’s characters are rootless people stuck in literal or figurative states they don’t fully understand. Addiction is its own country for Paul, as is money for his half-sister, Vincent, who unexpectedly takes on the role of trophy wife to an older New York financier named Jonathan Alkaitis. Shuttling between the concrete (the shipping industry) and the abstract (even imaginary money can pay for luxuries), and laced with music and visual art, the novel explores liminal spaces, finding the fairy tales and nightmares that nip at the heels of real life. A satisfyingly layered story.
- The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld: There’s no avoiding violence for the women and children of this fictional world. It’s a sobering theme, certainly, but Wyld convinced me hers is an accurate vision and a necessary mission. The novel cycles through its three strands in an ebb and flow pattern appropriate to the coastal setting, creating a sense of time’s fluidity. Themes and elements keep coming back, stinging a little more each time. An elegant, time-blending structure and an unrelenting course – that indifferent monolith off the coast of Scotland is the perfect symbol. Looking back, this is the novel that has most haunted my imagination.
- How to Fly: In Ten Thousand Easy Lessons by Barbara Kingsolver: The opening segment, “How to Fly,” is full of folk wisdom from nature and the body’s intuitive knowledge. “Pellegrinaggio” is a set of poems about accompanying her Italian mother-in-law back to her homeland. “This Is How They Come Back to Us” is composed of elegies for the family’s dead; four short remaining sections are inspired by knitting, literature, daily life, and concern for the environment. The book gives equal weight to personal and collective losses, and Kingsolver builds momentum with her salient natural imagery and entrancing rhythms.
- Moving House by Theophilus Kwek: This is the Chinese Singaporean poet’s first collection to be published in the UK. Infused with Asian history, his elegant verse ranges from elegiac to romantic. Many poems are inspired by historical figures and real headlines; others are about the language and experience of love. I also enjoyed the touches of art and legend: “Monologues for Noh Masks” is about the Pitt-Rivers Museum collection, while “Notes on a Landscape” is about Iceland’s geology and folk tales. Highly recommended to readers of Mary Jean Chan and Ocean Vuong.
- Tongues of Fire by Seán Hewitt: 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. Hewitt recalls travels to Berlin and Sweden, and charts his father’s rapid decline and death from an advanced cancer. The whole is capped off with the moving words addressed to the poet’s father: “You are not leaving, I know, // but shifting into image – my head / already is haunted with you”.
- Passport to Here and There by Grace Nichols: Nichols’s ninth collection is split, like her identity, between the Guyana where she grew up and the England which she has made her home. Creole and the imagery of ghosts conjure up her coming of age in South America. She often draws on the natural world for her metaphors, and her style is characterized by alliteration and assonance. Nichols brings her adopted country to life with poems on everything from tea and the Thames to the London Underground and the Grenfell Tower fire. (My full review will appear in Issue 106 of Wasafiri literary magazine.)
- Dearly by Margaret Atwood: A treasure trove, rich with themes of memory, women’s rights, environmental crisis and bereavement and by turns 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, the poems are generally about what they say they’re about, and more material than abstract. Alliteration, internal and slant rhymes, and neologisms will delight language lovers. Atwood’s imagery ranges from the Dutch masters to The Wizard of Oz; her frame of reference is as wide as the range of fields she’s written in.
(Books not pictured were read digitally, or have already gone back to the library.)
What were some of your top fiction and poetry reads of the year?
Tomorrow I’ll be naming my favorite nonfiction books from the year.
This year I correctly predicted Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart and Surge by Jay Bernard as the winners of the Booker Prize and the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, respectively. Patting myself on the back!
(Earlier in the year, I had a feeling Maggie O’Farrell would win the Women’s Prize, but wasn’t confident enough to single her out; and I got the Wainwright Prizes all wrong.)
I watched both the Booker Prize (live) and Young Writer of the Year Award (pre-recorded) ceremonies online; not having to secure an invitation or pay £30 for the train into London has been an ongoing bonus of pandemic arrangements.
The Booker ceremony was nicely tailored to viewers at home, incorporating brief, informal pre-recorded interviews with each nominated author and a video chat between last year’s winners, Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo. When Evaristo asked Atwood about the difference between winning the Booker in 2019 versus in 2000, she replied, deadpan, “I was older.” I especially liked the short monologues that well-known UK actors performed from each shortlisted book. Only a few people – the presenter, Evaristo, chair of judges and publisher Margaret Busby, and a string quartet – appeared in the studio, while all the other participants beamed in from other times and places. Stuart is only the second Scottish winner of the Booker, and seemed genuinely touched for this recognition of his tribute to his mother.
I’ve attended the Young Writer ceremony at the London Library twice: in 2017, when I was on the shadow panel, and again last year. It was a shame not to be able to meet up with fellow bloggers and the shortlisted authors, but I appreciated hearing the judges’ thoughts on each nominee. Tessa Hadley said the whole shortlist was “so full of young energy.” Kit de Waal called Catherine Cho’s Inferno “an absolute page-turner.” All the judges remarked at how funny, cutting and original Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Times is. Critic Houman Barekat referred to Seán Hewitt’s Tongues of Fire as “unabashedly earnest.” Hadley said Marina Kemp’s Nightingale is just the kind of novel she loves, a “delicate, full notation,” and Barekat observed that it is a timely reminder of the value of care work.
It was clear that, for the judges, all five books were terrifically accomplished and would be worthy winners. Still, the unanimous decision was in favor of Surge, which Sunday Times literary editor Andrew Holgate said is “remarkable for its passionate engagement and diversity of voices.” Bernard read “Hiss” (also up on the Granta website) and said that “poems can take on another life” through performance and short films, so the poet can’t predict whether they will stay in poetry or branch out into other genres.
Back on 18 November, I attended another online event to which I’d gotten a last-minute invitation: a “book club” featuring Tracy Chevalier in conversation with her literary agent, Jonny Geller, on Girl with a Pearl Earring at 20 and her new novel, A Single Thread. In 1996 she sent Geller a letter asking if he’d read Virgin Blue, which she’d written for the MA at the University of East Anglia – the only UK Creative Writing course out there at the time. After VB, she started a contemporary novel set at Highgate Cemetery, where she was a tour guide. It was to be called Live a Little (since a Howard Jacobson title). But shortly thereafter, she was lying in bed one day, looking at a Vermeer print on the wall, and asked herself what the look on the girl’s face meant and who she was. She sent Geller one page of thoughts and he immediately told her to stick Live a Little in a drawer and focus on the Vermeer idea.
Intriguingly, Chevalier stated that the deadline of her pregnancy determined the form of Girl with a Pearl Earring: she knew she had to keep things simple, with a linear narrative, one point of view, and spare prose. While the novel had a quiet publication in August 1999, a good review from Deborah Moggach helped, and it became a “word of mouth success,” never hitting #1 but selling continuously. Chevalier believes this was due to a rare coming together of story and writing; sometimes good stories are hampered by mediocre writing, or vice versa. She and Geller discussed the strange coincidence of two other Vermeer novels coming out at the same time (e.g. Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland); she had the good luck of being the victor. The film version is “lovely,” she said. Geller has never forgotten Scarlett Johansson, who turned 18 on set, leaving her gum in during a cast supper of spaghetti.
Chevalier’s actual Highgate novel, Falling Angels, didn’t borrow at all from her contemporary-set draft as it was set in 1900. Incorporating suffragette history, it felt like an untold story ripe for the plucking. Falling Angels has long been the one I consider my favorite Chevalier – as of last month, when we did The Last Runaway in book club, I’ve read all her work – but after this event I’m eager to reread it and GwaPE to see what I think.
Lastly, Chevalier and Geller talked about her new novel, A Single Thread, which was conceived before Trump and Brexit but had its central themes reinforced by the constant references back to 1930s fascism during the Trump presidency. She showed off the needlepoint spectacles case she’d embroidered for the novel. This wasn’t the first time she’d taken up a craft featured in her fiction: for The Last Runaway she learned to quilt, and indeed still quilts today. Geller likened her to a “method actor,” and jokingly fretted that they’ll lose her to one of these hobbies one day. Chevalier’s work in progress features Venetian glass. I’m already looking forward to it.
Like me, she moved to England from the Washington, D.C. area and has never lost the ‘accent’, so I feel like she’s a kindred spirit.
Bookish online events coming up soon: Penguin book quiz, followed by book club holiday social (a Zoom meeting with glasses of wine in hand!), on the 15th
Have you taken advantage of any online literary events recently?
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