(A rare second post in a day from me, to make way for tomorrow’s list of the best books of the first half of the year.) My four new releases for June are a novel about the complications of race and sexuality in 1950s–80s America, a novella in translation about a seabird researcher struggling through a time of isolation, and two new poetry books from Carcanet Press. As a bonus just in time for Pride Month, I finish with a mini write-up of The Book of Queer Prophets, an anthology of autobiographical essays that was published late last month.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
Like some lost mid-career gem from Toni Morrison, this novel is meaty with questions of racial and sexual identity and seems sure to follow in the footsteps of Ruby and An American Marriage with a spot in Oprah’s book club and on Barack Obama’s summer reading list.
It’s the story of light-skinned African American twins Stella and Desiree Vignes, and how their paths divide in 1954. Both are desperate to escape from Mallard, Louisiana, where their father was lynched and their mother cleans white people’s houses. Desiree works in fingerprinting for the FBI in Washington, D.C., but in 1968 leaves an abusive marriage to return to Mallard with her dark-skinned daughter, Jude Winston. Stella, on the other hand, has been passing as white for over a decade. She was a secretary for the man who became her husband, Blake Sanders, and now lives a life of comfort in a Los Angeles subdivision.
The twins’ decisions affect the next generation, too. Both have one daughter. Jude goes to college in L.A., where she meets and falls in love with photographer Reese (born Therese), who is, in a different sense, “passing” until he can afford the surgery that will align his body with his gender. In a coincidence that slightly strains belief, Jude runs into Stella’s daughter, Kennedy, and over the next seven years the cousins – one a medical student; the other an actress – continue to meet occasionally, marvelling at how two family lines that started in Mallard, a tiny town that doesn’t even exist anymore, could have diverged so dramatically.
This is Bennett’s second novel, after The Mothers, which I’m keen to read. It’s perceptive and beautifully written, with characters whose struggles feel genuine and pertinent. Though its story line ends in the late 1980s, it doesn’t feel passé at all. The themes of self-reinvention and running from one’s past resonate. I expected certain characters to be forced into moments of reckoning, but the plot is a little messier than that – and that’s more like real life. A shoo-in for next year’s Women’s Prize list.
My thanks to Dialogue Books for the free copy for review.
Ankomst by Gøhril Gabrielsen (2017)
[Translated from the Norwegian by Deborah Dawkin]
The unnamed narrator of Gabrielsen’s fifth novel is a 36-year-old researcher working towards a PhD on the climate’s effects on populations of seabirds, especially guillemots. During this seven-week winter spell in the far north of Norway, she’s left her three-year-old daughter behind with her ex, S, and hopes to receive a visit from her lover, Jo, even if it involves him leaving his daughter temporarily. In the meantime, they connect via Skype when signal allows. Apart from that and a sea captain bringing her supplies, she has no human contact.
Daily weather measurements and bird observations still leave too much time alone in a cramped cabin, and this starts to tell in the protagonist’s mental state: she’s tormented by sexual fantasies, by memories of her life with S, and by the thought of a local family, the Berthelsens, who experienced a disastrous house fire in 1870. More and more frequently, she finds herself imagining what happened to Olaf and Borghild Berthelsen. Solitude and this growing obsession with ghosts of the past make her start to lose her grip on reality.
I’d encountered an unreliable narrator and claustrophobic setting before from Gabrielsen with her second novel, The Looking-Glass Sisters. Extreme weather and isolation account for this being paired with Snow, Dog, Foot by Claudio Morandini as the first two books in Peirene’s 2020 “Closed Universe” trilogy. I was also reminded of Sarah Moss’s Night Waking. However, I found this novella’s metaphorical links – how seabirds and humans care for their young; physical and emotional threats; lowering weather and existential doom – too obvious.
My thanks to Peirene Press for the free copy for review.
Moving House by Theophilus Kwek
This is the first collection of the Chinese Singaporean poet’s work to be published in the UK. Infused with Asian history, his elegant verse ranges from elegiac to romantic in tone. Many of the poems are inspired by historical figures and real headlines. There are tributes to soldiers killed in peacetime training and accounts of high-profile car accidents; “The Passenger” is about the ghosts left behind after a tsunami. But there are also poems 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. In most places alliteration and enjambment produce the sonic effects, but there are also a handful of rhymes and half-rhymes, some internal.
My individual favorite poems included “Prognosis,” “Sophia” (made up of two letters Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles writes home to his wife while surveying in Singapore), and “Operation Thunderstorm.” As an expat and something of a nomad, I especially loved the title poem, which comes last and explains the cover image: “every house has a skeleton – / while the body learns it must carry less / from place to place, a kind of tidiness / that builds, hardens. Some call it fear, // of change, or losing what we cannot keep. / Others, experience.” Recommended to fans of Mary Jean Chan, Nausheen Eusuf, Kei Miller and Ocean Vuong.
My thanks to Carcanet Press for the PDF copy for review.
Red Gloves by Rebecca Watts
I noted the recurring comparison of natural and manmade spaces; outdoors (flowers, blackbirds, birds of prey, the sea) versus indoors (corridors, office life, even Emily Dickinson’s house in Massachusetts). The style shifts from page to page, ranging from prose paragraphs to fragments strewn across the layout. Most of the poems are in recognizable stanzas, though these vary in terms of length and punctuation. Alliteration and repetition (see, as an example of the latter, her poem “The Studio” on the TLS website) take priority over rhymes. I was reminded of Elizabeth Bishop in places, while “Whereas” had me thinking of Stephen Dunn’s collection of that name (Layli Long Soldier also has a poetry book of the same title). A few of my individual favorite poems were “Surveillance,” “Building” and “Admission” (on a medical theme: “What am I afraid of? / The breaching of skin. / Violation of laws that / separate outside from in. / Liquidation of the thing / I call me.”).
My thanks to Carcanet Press for the PDF copy for review.
And a bonus for Pride Month:
The Book of Queer Prophets: 24 Writers on Sexuality and Religion, edited by Ruth Hunt
There isn’t, or needn’t be, a contradiction between faith and queerness, as the authors included in this anthology would agree. Many of them are stalwarts at Greenbelt, a progressive Christian summer festival – Church of Scotland minister John L. Bell even came out there, in his late sixties, in 2017. I’m a lapsed regular attendee, so a lot of the names were familiar to me, including those of poets Rachel Mann and Padraig O’Tuama.
Most of the contributors are Christian, then, including ordained priests like Desmond Tutu’s daughter, Mpho, and LGBT ally Kate Bottley, but we also hear from Michael Segalov, a gay Jewish man in London, and from Amrou Al-Kahdi (author of Unicorn: The Memoir of a Muslim Drag Queen), who describes the affirmation they found in the Sufi tradition. Dustin Lance Black tells of the exclusion LGBT Mormons still encounter.
Jarel Robinson-Brown addresses his lament on mistreatment to his nephew, as James Baldwin did in “My Dungeon Shook” (in The Fire Next Time). Tamsin Omond recounts getting married to Melissa on a London bridge in the middle of an Extinction Rebellion protest. Erin Clark, though bisexual, knows she can pass as straight because she’s marrying a man – so is she ‘gay enough?’ Two trans poets write of the way cathedrals drew them into faith. The only weaker pieces are by Jeanette Winterson (there’s nothing new if you’ve read her memoir) and Juno Dawson (entirely throwaway; ‘I’m an atheist, but it’s okay to be religious, too’).
Again and again, these writers voice the certainty that they are who God means them to be. A few of them engage with particular passages from the Bible, offering contextual critiques or new interpretations, but most turn to scripture for its overall message of love and justice. Self-knowledge is a key component of their search for truth. And the truth sets people free.
I read an e-copy via NetGalley.
What recent releases can you recommend?
I haven’t had much chance to explore 2017’s offerings yet. Although I technically have access to loads of pre-release titles through NetGalley and Edelweiss, the books in front of me and, of course, the ones I’m reading on assignment tend to take priority. Much as I’d like to be ahead of the trend, I’ve only read five 2017 titles, three of which I can recommend. Two of these happen to be poetry books; the third is a wonderful bereavement-themed memoir.
Whereas by Stephen Dunn
“A Card from Me to Me,” the prefatory poem, sets the tone, as the poet wishes himself a happy 75th birthday and marvels at “the strangeness, the immensity, of what I have / and have had and every small thing that against the odds continues to be.” Much of what follows is about life and death, success and failure, and what we learn from it all. For example, writing about a funeral: “at such moments / everyone is an amateur of feelings.”
I especially liked “Unnatural,” with its meditation on nature vs. artifice, “Let’s Say,” and “Nothing Personal,” about an author killing off a character (or is that God killing off the narrator?). These are very lucid poems, reading like complete sentences and thorough trains of thought, with memorable alliteration and vocabulary. I’d read more from Dunn.
Releases February 21st.
The Analyst by Molly Peacock
Peacock wrote this in tribute to her longtime psychoanalyst, Joan Workman Stein, who practiced in New York City until she suffered a stroke in 2012. This collection contains a rich mixture of autobiographical reflection and translations. The form and style vary from poem to poem, but I was always struck by the imagery, often drawn from the culinary and art worlds – everything from marinara sauce and a skinned rabbit to paper dolls and methods of expressing gratitude in French. I presumed the entire book would be about Stein, but instead the poems about her pre- and post-stroke life share space with ones about Peacock’s own life, from childhood onward. Having enjoyed The Paper Garden, the author’s biography of eighteenth-century artist Mary Delany, I was especially tickled to see several poems that mention collage and other paper arts, such as “Authors.”
“Mandala in the Making,” the final poem, meditates on the contrast between the drive to make art and the essential impermanence of life: “When they’re done, // they’ll brush it all away. You can’t believe it. / Nothing stays (including the memory you’ve lost). / What lasts?”
I was really impressed with this collection and will be searching out Peacock’s previous poetry books as well.
Releases January 3rd.
Traveling with Ghosts: A Memoir by Shannon Leone Fowler
“This is a story about finding love and learning to live with loss. But mostly, it’s a story about all the places in between.” In August 2002, Fowler was traveling in Thailand with her fiancé Sean. They were embracing in shallow water outside their cabana when Fowler felt something brush past her thigh. The highly toxic box jellyfish stung Sean on his leg, and by the time she brought help he was already dead, though clinic staff went through the motions of trying to resuscitate him.
This memoir concentrates on the four and a half months that followed Sean’s death, a time that Fowler filled with constant travel through Eastern Europe – “a place where the endings [in folk tales as well as in real life] were rarely happy, but the stories were told just the same.” She had a compulsion to keep moving, as if Sean’s death was something she could outrun; she sought out risky places, going to Bosnia and then to Tel Aviv to visit the Israeli girls who helped her deal with the practicalities of Sean’s death.
Fowler toggles between her blithe trips with Sean in the few years they had together, her somber travels after his death, and the immediate aftermath of his death. Each short section is headed by the date and place, but the constant time shifts are meant to be disorienting and reflect how traumatic memories linger. Your average memoir might have brought things up to the present day by showing how the author learned and grew from the experience. This is not your average memoir. It delves into the thick of the grief and stays there. It doesn’t give easy answers about how to get over things or suggest life will later be perfect, just in a different way. It’s honest and unusual and has stayed with me. Highly recommended.
(Note: The author is the daughter of novelist Karen Joy Fowler.)
Releases February 21st.
Two more 2017 books are on my reading stack:
- I’m halfway through Bleaker House by Nell Stevens, a memoir about her failed attempt to write her debut novel during several months of isolation on Bleaker Island in the Falklands. It’s weird but funny, and I think any writer will relate to the feelings of loneliness and a lack of confidence. I’ll be reviewing it for Nudge. (Releases March 14th.)
- I’ll be reviewing The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti for The Bookbag sometime before its March 28th release.